The next day Gervaise received ten francs from her son Etienne, who had steady work. He occasionally sent her a little money, knowing that there was none too much of that commodity in his poor mother’s pocket.
She cooked her dinner and ate it alone, for Coupeau did not appear, nor did she hear a word of his whereabouts for nearly a week. Finally a printed paper was given her which frightened her at first, but she was soon relieved to find that it simply conveyed to her the information that her husband was at Sainte-Anne’s again.
Gervaise was in no way disturbed. Coupeau knew the way back well enough; he would return in due season. She soon heard that he and Mes-Bottes had spent the whole week in dissipation, and she even felt a little angry that they had not seen fit to offer her a glass of wine with all their feasting and carousing.
On Sunday, as Gervaise had a nice little repast ready for the evening, she decided that an excursion would give her an appetite. The letter from the asylum stared her in the face and worried her. The snow had melted; the sky was gray and soft, and the air was fresh. She started at noon, as the days were now short and Sainte-Anne’s was a long distance off, but as there were a great many people in the street, she was amused.
When she reached the hospital she heard a strange story. It seems that Coupeau–how, no one could say–had escaped from the hospital and had been found under the bridge. He had thrown himself over the parapet, declaring that armed men were driving him with the point of their bayonets.
One of the nurses took Gervaise up the stairs. At the head she heard terrific howls which froze the marrow in her bones.
“It is he!” said the nurse.
“He? Whom do you mean?”
“I mean your husband. He has gone on like that ever since day before yesterday, and he dances all the time too. You will see!”
Ah, what a sight it was! The cell was cushioned from the floor to the ceiling, and on the floor were mattresses on which Coupeau danced and howled in his ragged blouse. The sight was terrific. He threw himself wildly against the window and then to the other side of the cell, shaking hands as if he wished to break them off and fling them in defiance at the whole world. These wild motions are sometimes imitated, but no one who has not seen the real and terrible sight can imagine its horror.
“What is it? What is it?” gasped Gervaise.
A house surgeon, a fair and rosy youth, was sitting, calmly taking notes. The case was a peculiar one and had excited a great deal of attention among the physicians attached to the hospital.
“You can stay awhile,” he said, “but keep very quiet. He will not recognize you, however.”
Coupeau, in fact, did not seem to notice his wife, who had not yet seen his face. She went nearer. Was that really he? She never would have known him with his bloodshot eyes and distorted features. His skin was so hot that the air was heated around him and was as if it were varnished–shining and damp with perspiration. He was dancing, it is true, but as if on burning plowshares; not a motion seemed to be voluntary.
Gervaise went to the young surgeon, who was beating a tune on the back of his chair.
“Will he get well, sir?” she said.
The surgeon shook his head.
“What is he saying? Hark! He is talking now.”
“Just be quiet, will you?” said the young man. “I wish to listen.”
Coupeau was speaking fast and looking all about, as if he were examining the underbrush in the Bois de Vincennes.
“Where is it now?” he exclaimed and then, straightening himself, he looked off into the distance.
“It is a fair,” he exclaimed, “and lanterns in the trees, and the water is running everywhere: fountains, cascades and all sorts of things.”
He drew a long breath, as if enjoying the delicious freshness of the air.
By degrees, however, his features contracted again with pain, and he ran quickly around the wall of his cell.
“More trickery,” he howled. “I knew it!”
He started back with a hoarse cry; his teeth chattered with terror.
“No, I will not throw myself over! All that water would drown me! No, I will not!”
“I am going,” said Gervaise to the surgeon. “I cannot stay another moment.”
She was very pale. Coupeau kept up his infernal dance while she tottered down the stairs, followed by his hoarse voice.
How good it was to breathe the fresh air outside!
That evening everyone in the huge house in which Coupeau had lived talked of his strange disease. The concierge, crazy to hear the details, condescended to invite Gervaise to take a glass of cordial, forgetting that he had turned a cold shoulder upon her for many weeks.
Mme Lorilleux and Mme Poisson were both there also. Boche had heard of a cabinetmaker who had danced the polka until he died. He had drunk absinthe.
Gervaise finally, not being able to make them understand her description, asked for the table to be moved and there, in the center of the loge, imitated her husband, making frightful leaps and horrible contortions.
“Yes, that was what he did!”
And then everybody said it was not possible that man could keep up such violent exercise for even three hours.
Gervaise told them to go and see if they did not believe her. But Mme Lorilleux declared that nothing would induce her to set foot within Sainte-Anne’s, and Virginie, whose face had grown longer and longer with each successive week that the shop got deeper into debt, contented herself with murmuring that life was not always gay–in fact, in her opinion, it was a pretty dismal thing. As the wine was finished, Gervaise bade them all good night. When she was not speaking she had sat with fixed, distended eyes. Coupeau was before them all the time.
The next day she said to herself when she rose that she would never go to the hospital again; she could do no good. But as midday arrived she could stay away no longer and started forth, without a thought of the length of the walk, so great were her mingled curiosity and anxiety.
She was not obliged to ask a question; she heard the frightful sounds at the very foot of the stairs. The keeper, who was carrying a cup of tisane across the corridor, stopped when he saw her.
“He keeps it up well!” he said.
She went in but stood at the door, as she saw there were people there. The young surgeon had surrendered his chair to an elderly gentleman wearing several decorations. He was the chief physician of the hospital, and his eyes were like gimlets.
Gervaise tried to see Coupeau over the bald head of that gentleman. Her husband was leaping and dancing with undiminished strength. The perspiration poured more constantly from his brow now; that was all. His feet had worn holes in the mattress with his steady tramp from window to wall.
Gervaise asked herself why she had come back. She had been accused the evening before of exaggerating the picture, but she had not made it strong enough. The next time she imitated him she could do it better. She listened to what the physicians were saying: the house surgeon was giving the details of the night with many words which she did not understand, but she gathered that Coupeau had gone on in the same way all night. Finally he said this was the wife of the patient. Wherefore the surgeon in chief turned and interrogated her with the air of a police judge.
“Did this man’s father drink?”
“A little, sir. Just as everybody does. He fell from a roof when he had been drinking and was killed.”
“Did his mother drink?”
“Yes sir–that is, a little now and then. He had a brother who died in convulsions, but the others are very healthy.”
The surgeon looked at her and said coldly:
“You drink too?”
Gervaise attempted to defend herself and deny the accusation.
“You drink,” he repeated, “and see to what it leads. Someday you will be here, and like this.”
She leaned against the wall, utterly overcome. The physician turned away. He knelt on the mattress and carefully watched Coupeau; he wished to see if his feet trembled as much as his hands. His extremities vibrated as if on wires. The disease was creeping on, and the peculiar shivering seemed to be under the skin–it would ease for a minute or two and then begin again. The belly and the shoulders trembled like water just on the point of boiling.
Coupeau seemed to suffer more than the evening before. His complaints were curious and contradictory. A million pins were pricking him. There was a weight under the skin; a cold, wet animal was crawling over him. Then there were other creatures on his shoulder.
“I am thirsty,” he groaned; “so thirsty.”
The house surgeon took a glass of lemonade from a tray and gave it to him. He seized the glass in both hands, drank one swallow, spilling the whole of it at the same time. He at once spat it out in disgust.
“It is brandy!” he exclaimed.
Then the surgeon, on a sign from his chief, gave him some water, and Coupeau did the same thing.
“It is brandy!” he cried. “Brandy! Oh, my God!”
For twenty-four hours he had declared that everything he touched to his lips was brandy, and with tears begged for something else, for it burned his throat, he said. Beef tea was brought to him; he refused it, saying it smelled of alcohol. He seemed to suffer intense and constant agony from the poison which he vowed was in the air. He asked why people were allowed to rub matches all the time under his nose, to choke him with their vile fumes.
The physicians watched Coupeau with care and interest. The phantoms which had hitherto haunted him by night now appeared before him at midday. He saw spiders’ webs hanging from the wall as large as the sails of a man-of-war. Then these webs changed to nets, whose meshes were constantly contracting only to enlarge again. These nets held black balls, and they, too, swelled and shrank. Suddenly he cried out:
“The rats! Oh, the rats!”
The balls had been transformed to rats. The vile beasts found their way through the meshes of the nets and swarmed over the mattress and then disappeared as suddenly as they came.
The rats were followed by a monkey, who went in and came out from the wall, each time so near his face that Coupeau started back in disgust. All this vanished in the twinkling of an eye. He apparently thought the walls were unsteady and about to fall, for he uttered shriek after shriek of agony.
“Fire! Fire!” he screamed. “They can’t stand long. They are shaking! Fire! Fire! The whole heavens are bright with the light! Help! Help!”
His shrieks ended in a convulsed murmur. He foamed at the mouth. The surgeon in chief turned to the assistant.
“You keep the temperature at forty degrees?” he asked.
A dead silence ensued. Then the surgeon shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, continue the same treatment–beef tea, milk, lemonade and quinine as directed. Do not leave him, and send for me if there is any change.”
And he left the room, Gervaise following close at his heels, seeking an opportunity of asking him if there was no hope. But he stalked down the corridor with so much dignity that she dared not approach him.
She stood for a moment, undecided whether she should go back to Coupeau or not, but hearing him begin again the lamentable cry for water:
“Water, not brandy!”
She hurried on, feeling that she could endure no more that day. In the streets the galloping horses made her start with a strange fear that all the inmates of Sainte-Anne’s were at her heels. She remembered what the physician had said, with what terrors he had threatened her, and she wondered if she already had the disease.
When she reached the house the concierge and all the others were waiting and called her into the loge.
Was Coupeau still alive? they asked.
Boche seemed quite disturbed at her answer, as he had made a bet that he would not live twenty-four hours. Everyone was astonished. Mme Lorilleux made a mental calculation:
“Sixty hours,” she said. “His strength is extraordinary.”
Then Boche begged Gervaise to show them once more what Coupeau did.
The demand became general, and it was pointed out to her that she ought not to refuse, for there were two neighbors there who had not seen her representation the night previous and who had come in expressly to witness it.
They made a space in the center of the room, and a shiver of expectation ran through the little crowd.
Gervaise was very reluctant. She was really afraid–afraid of making herself ill. She finally made the attempt but drew back again hastily.
No, she could not; it was quite impossible. Everyone was disappointed, and Virginie went away.
Then everyone began to talk of the Poissons. A warrant had been served on them the night before. Poisson was to lose his place. As to Lantier, he was hovering around a woman who thought of taking the shop and meant to sell hot tripe. Lantier was in luck, as usual.
As they talked someone caught sight of Gervaise and pointed her out to the others. She was at the very back of the loge, her feet and hands trembling, imitating Coupeau, in fact. They spoke to her. She stared wildly about, as if awaking from a dream, and then left the room.
The next day she left the house at noon, as she had done before. And as she entered Sainte-Anne’s she heard the same terrific sounds.
When she reached the cell she found Coupeau raving mad! He was fighting in the middle of the cell with invisible enemies. He tried to hide himself; he talked and he answered, as if there were twenty persons. Gervaise watched him with distended eyes. He fancied himself on a roof, laying down the sheets of zinc. He blew the furnace with his mouth, and he went down on his knees and made a motion as if he had soldering irons in his hand. He was troubled by his shoes: it seemed as if he thought they were dangerous. On the next roofs stood persons who insulted him by letting quantities of rats loose. He stamped here and there in his desire to kill them and the spiders too! He pulled away his clothing to catch the creatures who, he said, intended to burrow under his skin. In another minute he believed himself to be a locomotive and puffed and panted. He darted toward the window and looked down into the street as if he were on a roof.
“Look!” he said. “There is a traveling circus. I see the lions and the panthers making faces at me. And there is Clemence. Good God, man, don’t fire!”
And he gesticulated to the men who, he said, were pointing their guns at him.
He talked incessantly, his voice growing louder and louder, higher and higher.
“Ah, it is you, is it? But please keep your hair out of my mouth.”
And he passed his hand over his face as if to take away the hair.
“Who is it?” said the keeper.
“My wife, of course.”
He looked at the wall, turning his back to Gervaise, who felt very strange, and looked at the wall to see if she were there! He talked on.
“You look very fine. Where did you get that dress? Come here and let me arrange it for you a little. You devil! There he is again!”
And he leaped at the wall, but the soft cushions threw him back.
“Whom do you see?” asked the young doctor.
Gervaise could not endure the eyes of the young man, for the scene brought back to her so much of her former life.
Coupeau fancied, as he had been thrown back from the wall in front, that he was now attacked in the rear, and he leaped over the mattress with the agility of a cat. His respiration grew shorter and shorter, his eyes starting from their sockets.
“He is killing her!” he shrieked. “Killing her! Just see the blood!”
He fell back against the wall with his hands wide open before him, as if he were repelling the approach of some frightful object. He uttered two long, low groans and then fell flat on the mattress.
“He is dead! He is dead!” moaned Gervaise.
The keeper lifted Coupeau. No, he was not dead; his bare feet quivered with a regular motion. The surgeon in chief came in, bringing two colleagues. The three men stood in grave silence, watching the man for some time. They uncovered him, and Gervaise saw his shoulders and back.
The tremulous motion had now taken complete possession of the body as well as the limbs, and a strange ripple ran just under the skin.
“He is asleep,” said the surgeon in chief, turning to his colleagues.
Coupeau’s eyes were closed, and his face twitched convulsively. Coupeau might sleep, but his feet did nothing of the kind.
Gervaise, seeing the doctors lay their hands on Coupeau’s body, wished to do the same. She approached softly and placed her hand on his shoulder and left it there for a minute.
What was going on there? A river seemed hurrying on under that skin. It was the liquor of the Assommoir, working like a mole through muscle, nerves, bone and marrow.
The doctors went away, and Gervaise, at the end of another hour, said to the young surgeon:
“He is dead, sir.”
But the surgeon, looking at the feet, said: “No,” for those poor feet were still dancing.
Another hour, and yet another passed. Suddenly the feet were stiff and motionless, and the young surgeon turned to Gervaise.
“He is dead,” he said.
Death alone had stopped those feet.
When Gervaise went back she was met at the door by a crowd of people who wished to ask her questions, she thought.
“He is dead,” she said quietly as she moved on.
But no one heard her. They had their own tale to tell then. How Poisson had nearly murdered Lantier. Poisson was a tiger, and he ought to have seen what was going on long before. And Boche said the woman had taken the shop and that Lantier was, as usual, in luck again, for he adored tripe.
In the meantime Gervaise went directly to Mme Lerat and Mme Lorilleux and said faintly:
“He is dead–after four days of horror.”
Then the two sisters were in duty bound to pull out their handkerchiefs. Their brother had lived a most dissolute life, but then he was their brother.
Boche shrugged his shoulders and said in an audible voice:
“Pshaw! It is only one drunkard the less!”
After this day Gervaise was not always quite right in her mind, and it was one of the attractions of the house to see her act Coupeau.
But her representations were often involuntary. She trembled at times from head to foot and uttered little spasmodic cries. She had taken the disease in a modified form at Sainte-Anne’s from looking so long at her husband. But she never became altogether like him in the few remaining months of her existence.
She sank lower day by day. As soon as she got a little money from any source whatever she drank it away at once. Her landlord decided to turn her out of the room she occupied, and as Father Bru was discovered dead one day in his den under the stairs, M. Marescot allowed her to take possession of his quarters. It was there, therefore, on the old straw bed, that she lay waiting for death to come. Apparently even Mother Earth would have none of her. She tried several times to throw herself out of the window, but death took her by bits, as it were. In fact, no one knew exactly when she died or exactly what she died of. They spoke of cold and hunger.
But the truth was she died of utter weariness of life, and Father Bazonge came the day she was found dead in her den.
Under his arm he carried a coffin, and he was very tipsy and as gay as a lark.
“It is foolish to be in a hurry, because one always gets what one wants finally. I am ready to give you all your good pleasure when your time comes. Some want to go, and some want to stay. And here is one who wanted to go and was kept waiting.”
And when he lifted Gervaise in his great, coarse hands he did it tenderly. And as he laid her gently in her coffin he murmured between two hiccups:
“It is I–my dear, it is I,” said this rough consoler of women. “It is I. Be happy now and sleep quietly, my dear!”