Gervaise and Coupeau
Three weeks later, about half-past eleven one fine sunny morning, Gervaise and Coupeau, the tinworker, were eating some brandied fruit at the Assommoir.
Coupeau, who was smoking outside, had seen her as she crossed the street with her linen and compelled her to enter. Her huge basket was on the floor, back of the little table where they sat.
Father Colombe’s Tavern, known as the Assommoir, was on the corners of the Rue des Poissonniers and of the Boulevard de Rochechouart. The sign bore the one single word in long, blue letters:
And this word stretched from one end to the other. On either side of the door stood tall oleanders in small casks, their leaves covered thick with dust. The enormous counter with its rows of glasses, its fountain and its pewter measures was on the left of the door, and the huge room was ornamented by gigantic casks painted bright yellow and highly varnished, hooped with shining copper. On high shelves were bottles of liquors and jars of fruits; all sorts of flasks standing in order concealed the wall and repeated their pale green or deep crimson tints in the great mirror behind the counter.
The great feature of the house, however, was the distilling apparatus which stood at the back of the room behind an oak railing on which the tipsy workmen leaned as they stupidly watched the still with its long neck and serpentine tubes descending to subterranean regions–a very devil’s kitchen.
At this early hour the Assommoir was nearly empty. A stout man in his shirt sleeves–Father Colombe himself–was serving a little girl not more than twelve years old with four cents’ worth of liquor in a cup.
The sun streamed in at the door and lay on the floor, which was black where the men had spat as they smoked. And from the counter, from the casks, from all the room, rose an alcoholic emanation which seemed to intoxicate the very particles of dust floating in the sunshine.
In the meantime Coupeau rolled a new cigarette. He was very neat and clean, wearing a blouse and a little blue cloth cap and showing his white teeth as he smiled.
The lower jaw was somewhat prominent and the nose slightly flat; he had fine brown eyes and the face of a happy child and good-natured animal. His hair was thick and curly. His complexion was delicate still, for he was only twenty-six. Opposite him sat Gervaise in a black gown, leaning slightly forward, finishing her fruit, which she held by the stem.
They were near the street, at the first of the four tables arranged in front of the counter. When Coupeau had lighted his cigar he placed both elbows on the table and looked at the woman without speaking. Her pretty face had that day something of the delicate transparency of fine porcelain.
Then continuing something which they apparently had been previously discussing, he said in a low voice:
“Then you say no, do you? Absolutely no?”
“Of course. No it must be, Monsieur Coupeau,” answered Gervaise with a smile. “Surely you do not intend to begin that again here! You promised to be reasonable too. Had I known, I should certainly have refused your treat.”
He did not speak but gazed at her more intently than before with tender boldness. He looked at her soft eyes and dewy lips, pale at the corners but half parted, allowing one to see the rich crimson within.
She returned his look with a kind and affectionate smile. Finally she said:
“You should not think of such a thing. It is folly! I am an old woman. I have a boy eight years old. What should we do together?”
“Much as other people do, I suppose!” answered Coupeau with a wink.
She shrugged her shoulders.
“You know nothing about it, Monsieur Coupeau, but I have had some experience. I have two mouths in the house, and they have excellent appetites. How am I to bring up my children if I trifle away my time? Then, too, my misfortune has taught me one great lesson, which is that the less I have to do with men, the better!”
She then proceeded to explain all her reasons, calmly and without anger. It was easy to see that her words were the result of grave consideration.
Coupeau listened quietly, saying only at intervals:
“You are hurting my feelings. Yes, hurting my feelings.”
“Yes, I see that,” she answered, “and I am really very sorry for you. If I had any idea of leading a different life from that which I follow today it might as well be with you as with another. You have the look of a good-natured man. But what is the use? I have now been with Madame Fauconnier for a fortnight. The children are going to school, and I am very happy, for I have plenty to do. Don’t you see, therefore, that it is best for us to remain as we are?”
And she stooped to pick up her basket.
“You are keeping me here to talk,” she said, “and they are waiting for me at my employer’s. You will find some other woman, Monsieur Coupeau, far prettier than I, who will not have two children to bring up!”
He looked at the clock and made her sit down again.
“Wait!” he cried. “It is still thirty-five minutes of eleven. I have twenty-five minutes still, and don’t be afraid of my familiarity, for the table is between us! Do you dislike me so very much that you can’t stay and talk with me for five minutes?”
She put down her basket, unwilling to seem disobliging, and they talked for some time in a friendly sort of way. She had breakfasted before she left home, and he had swallowed his soup in the greatest haste and laid in wait for her as she came out. Gervaise, as she listened to him, watched from the windows–between the bottles of brandied fruit–the movement of the crowd in the street, which at this hour–that of the Parisian breakfast–was unusually lively. Workmen hurried into the baker’s and, coming out with a loaf under their arms, they went into the Veau a Deux Tetes, three doors higher up, to breakfast at six sous. Next the baker’s was a shop where fried potatoes and mussels with parsley were sold. A constant succession of shopgirls carried off paper parcels of fried potatoes and cups filled with mussels, and others bought bunches of radishes. When Gervaise leaned a little more toward the window she saw still another shop, also crowded, from which issued a steady stream of children holding in their hands, wrapped in paper, a breaded cutlet or a sausage, still warm.
A group formed around the door of the Assommoir.
“Say, Bibi-la-Grillade,” asked a voice, “will you stand a drink all around?”
Five workmen went in, and the same voice said:
“Father Colombe, be honest now. Give us honest glasses, and no nutshells, if you please.”
Presently three more workmen entered together, and finally a crowd of blouses passed in between the dusty oleanders.
“You have no business to ask such questions,” said Gervaise to Coupeau; “of course I loved him. But after the manner in which he deserted me–”
They were speaking of Lantier. Gervaise had never seen him again; she supposed him to be living with Virginie’s sister, with a friend who was about to start a manufactory for hats.
At first she thought of committing suicide, of drowning herself, but she had grown more reasonable and had really begun to trust that things were all for the best. With Lantier she felt sure she never could have done justice to the children, so extravagant were his habits.
He might come, of course, and see Claude and Etienne. She would not show him the door; only so far as she herself was concerned, he had best not lay his finger on her. And she uttered these words in a tone of determination, like a woman whose plan of life is clearly defined, while Coupeau, who was by no means inclined to give her up lightly, teased and questioned her in regard to Lantier with none too much delicacy, it is true, but his teeth were so white and his face so merry that the woman could not take offense. “Did you beat him?" he asked finally. “Oh, you are none too amiable. You beat people sometimes, I have heard.”
She laughed gaily.
Yes, it was true she had whipped that great Virginie. That day she could have strangled someone with a glad heart. And she laughed again, because Coupeau told her that Virginie, in her humiliation, had left the _Quartier_.
Gervaise’s face, as she laughed, however, had a certain childish sweetness. She extended her slender, dimpled hands, declaring she would not hurt a fly. All she knew of blows was that she had received a good many in her life. Then she began to talk of Plassans and of her youth. She had never been indiscreet, nor was she fond of men. When she had fallen in with Lantier she was only fourteen, and she regarded him as her husband. Her only fault, she declared, was that she was too amiable and allowed people to impose on her and that she got fond of people too easily; were she to love another man, she should wish and expect to live quietly and comfortably with him always, without any nonsense.
And when Coupeau slyly asked her if she called her dear children nonsense she gave him a little slap and said that she, of course, was much like other women. But women were not like men, after all; they had their homes to take care of and keep clean; she was like her mother, who had been a slave to her brutal father for more than twenty years!
“My very lameness–” she continued.
“Your lameness?” interrupted Coupeau gallantly. “Why, it is almost nothing. No one would ever notice it!”
She shook her head. She knew very well that it was very evident, and at forty it would be far worse, but she said softly, with a faint smile, “You have a strange taste, to fall in love with a lame woman!”
He, with his elbows on the table, still coaxed and entreated, but she continued to shake her head in the negative. She listened with her eyes fixed on the street, seemingly fascinated by the surging crowd.
The shops were being swept; the last frying pan of potatoes was taken from the stove; the pork merchant washed the plates his customers had used and put his place in order. Groups of mechanics were hurrying out from all the workshops, laughing and pushing each other like so many schoolboys, making a great scuffling on the sidewalk with their hobnailed shoes; while some, with their hands in their pockets, smoked in a meditative fashion, looking up at the sun and winking prodigiously. The sidewalks were crowded and the crowd constantly added to by men who poured from the open door–men in blouses and frocks, old jackets and coats, which showed all their defects in the clear morning light.
The bells of the various manufactories were ringing loudly, but the workmen did not hurry. They deliberately lighted their pipes and then with rounded shoulders slouched along, dragging their feet after them.
Gervaise mechanically watched a group of three, one man much taller than the other two, who seemed to be hesitating as to what they should do next. Finally they came directly to the Assommoir.
“I know them,” said Coupeau, “or rather I know the tall one. It is Mes-Bottes, a comrade of mine.”
The Assommoir was now crowded with boisterous men. Two glasses rang with the energy with which they brought down their fists on the counter. They stood in rows, with their hands crossed over their stomachs or folded behind their backs, waiting their turn to be served by Father Colombe.
“Hallo!” cried Mes-Bottes, giving Coupeau a rough slap on the shoulders. “How fine you have got to be with your cigarettes and your linen shirt bosom! Who is your friend that pays for all this? I should like to make her acquaintance.”
“Don’t be so silly!” returned Coupeau angrily.
But the other gave a knowing wink.
“Ah, I understand. ’A word to the wise–’” And he turned round with a fearful lurch to look at Gervaise, who shuddered and recoiled. The tobacco smoke, the odor of humanity added to this air heavy with alcohol, was oppressive, and she choked a little and coughed.
“Ah, what an awful thing it is to drink!” she said in a whisper to her friend, to whom she then went on to say how years before she had drunk anisette with her mother at Plassans and how it had made her so very sick that ever since that day she had never been able to endure even the smell of liquors.
“You see,” she added as she held up her glass, “I have eaten, the fruit, but I left the brandy, for it would make me ill.”
Coupeau also failed to understand how a man could swallow glasses of brandy and water, one after the other. Brandied fruit, now and again, was not bad. As to absinthe and similar abominations, he never touched them–not he, indeed. His comrades might laugh at him as much as they pleased; he always remained on the other side of the door when they came in to swallow perdition like that.
His father, who was a tinworker like himself, had fallen one day from the roof of No. 25, in La Rue Coquenaud, and this recollection had made him very prudent ever since. As for himself, when he passed through that street and saw the place he would sooner drink the water in the gutter than swallow a drop at the wineshop. He concluded with the sentence:
“You see, in my trade a man needs a clear head and steady legs.”
Gervaise had taken up her basket; she had not risen from her chair, however, but held it on her knees with a dreary look in her eyes, as if the words of the young mechanic had awakened in her mind strange thoughts of a possible future.
She answered in a low, hesitating tone, without any apparent connection:
“Heaven knows I am not ambitious. I do not ask for much in this world. My idea would be to live a quiet life and always have enough to eat–a clean place to live in–with a comfortable bed, a table and a chair or two. Yes, I would like to bring my children up in that way and see them good and industrious. I should not like to run the risk of being beaten–no, that would not please me at all!”
She hesitated, as if to find something else to say, and then resumed:
“Yes, and at the end I should wish to die in my bed in my own home!”
She pushed back her chair and rose. Coupeau argued with her vehemently and then gave an uneasy glance at the clock. They did not, however, depart at once. She wished to look at the still and stood for some minutes gazing with curiosity at the great copper machine. The tinworker, who had followed her, explained to her how the thing worked, pointing out with his finger the various parts of the machine, and showed the enormous retort whence fell the clear stream of alcohol. The still, with its intricate and endless coils of wire and pipes, had a dreary aspect. Not a breath escaped from it, and hardly a sound was heard. It was like some night task performed in daylight by a melancholy, silent workman.
In the meantime Mes-Bottes, accompanied by his two comrades, had lounged to the oak railing and leaned there until there was a corner of the counter free. He laughed a tipsy laugh as he stood with his eyes fixed on the machine.
“By thunder!” he muttered. “That is a jolly little thing!”
He went on to say that it held enough to keep their throats fresh for a week. As for himself, he would like to hold the end of that pipe between his teeth, and he would like to feel that liquor run down his throat in a steady stream until it reached his heels.
The still did its work slowly but surely. There was not a glimmer on its surface–no firelight reflected in its clean-colored sides. The liquor dropped steadily and suggested a persevering stream which would gradually invade the room, spread over the streets and boulevard and finally deluge and inundate Paris itself.
Gervaise shuddered and drew back. She tried to smile, but her lips quivered as she murmured:
“It frightens me–that machine! It makes me feel cold to see that constant drip.”
Then returning to the idea which had struck her as the acme of human happiness, she said:
“Say, do you not think that would be very nice? To work and have plenty to eat, to have a little home all to oneself, to bring up children and then die in one’s bed?”
“And not be beaten,” added Coupeau gaily. “But I will promise never to beat you, Madame Gervaise, if you will agree to what I ask. I will promise also never to drink, because I love you too much! Come now, say yes.”
He lowered his voice and spoke with his lips close to her throat, while she, holding her basket in front of her, was making a path through the crowd of men.
But she did not say no or shake her head as she had done. She glanced up at him with a half-tender smile and seemed to rejoice in the assurance he gave that he did not drink.
It was clear that she would have said yes if she had not sworn never to have anything more to do with men.
Finally they reached the door and went out of the place, leaving it crowded to overflowing. The fumes of alcohol and the tipsy voices of the men carousing went out into the street with them.
Mes-Bottes was heard accusing Father Colombe of cheating by not filling his glasses more than half full, and he proposed to his comrades to go in future to another place, where they could do much better and get more for their money.
“Ah,” said Gervaise, drawing a long breath when they stood on the sidewalk, “here one can breathe again. Good-by, Monsieur Coupeau, and many thanks for your politeness. I must hasten now!”
She moved on, but he took her hand and held it fast.
“Go a little way with me. It will not be much farther for you. I must stop at my sister’s before I go back to the shop.”
She yielded to his entreaties, and they walked slowly on together. He told her about his family. His mother, a tailoress, was the housekeeper. Twice she had been obliged to give up her work on account of trouble with her eyes. She was sixty-two on the third of the last month. He was the youngest child. One of his sisters, Mme Lerat, a widow, thirty-six years old, was a flower maker and lived at Batignolles, in La Rue Des Moines. The other, who was thirty, had married a chainmaker–a man by the name of Lorilleux. It was to their rooms that he was now going. They lived in that great house on the left. He ate his dinner every night with them; it was an economy for them all. But he wanted to tell them now not to expect him that night, as he was invited to dine with a friend.
Gervaise interrupted him suddenly:
“Did I hear your friend call you Cadet-Cassis?”
“Yes. That is a name they have given me, because when they drag me into a wineshop it is cassis I always take. I had as lief be called Cadet-Cassis as Mes-Bottes, any time.”
“I do not think Cadet-Cassis so very bad,” answered Gervaise, and she asked him about his work. How long should he be employed on the new hospital?
“Oh,” he answered, “there was never any lack of work.” He had always more than he could do. He should remain in that shop at least a year, for he had yards and yards of gutters to make.
“Do you know,” he said, “when I am up there I can see the Hotel Boncoeur. Yesterday you were at the window, and I waved my hand, but you did not see me.”
They by this time had turned into La Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. He stopped and looked up.
“There is the house,” he said, “and I was born only a few doors farther off. It is an enormous place.”
Gervaise looked up and down the fašade. It was indeed enormous. The house was of five stories, with fifteen windows on each floor. The blinds were black and with many of the slats broken, which gave an indescribable air of ruin and desolation to the place. Four shops occupied the _rez-de-chaussee_. On the right of the door was a large room, occupied as a cookshop. On the left was a charcoal vender, a thread-and-needle shop and an establishment for the manufacture of umbrellas.
The house appeared all the higher for the reason that on either side were two low buildings, squeezed close to it, and stood square, like a block of granite roughly hewn, against the blue sky. Totally without ornament, the house grimly suggested a prison.
Gervaise looked at the entrance, an immense doorway which rose to the height of the second story and made a deep passage, at the end of which was a large courtyard. In the center of this doorway, which was paved like the street, ran a gutter full of pale rose-colored water.
“Come up,” said Coupeau; “they won’t eat you.”
Gervaise preferred to wait for him in the street, but she consented to go as far as the room of the concierge, which was within the porch, on the left.
When she had reached this place she again looked up.
Within there were six floors, instead of five, and four regular facades surrounded the vast square of the courtyard. The walls were gray, covered with patches of leprous yellow, stained by the dripping from the slate-covered roof. The wall had not even a molding to break its dull uniformity–only the gutters ran across it. The windows had neither shutters nor blinds but showed the panes of glass which were greenish and full of bubbles. Some were open, and from them hung checked mattresses and sheets to air. Lines were stretched in front of others, on which the family wash was hung to dry–men’s shirts, women’s chemises and children’s breeches! There was a look as if the dwellers under that roof found their quarters too small and were oozing out at every crack and aperture.
For the convenience of each facade there was a narrow, high doorway, from which a damp passage led to the rear, where were four staircases with iron railings. These each had one of the first four letters of the alphabet painted at the side.
The _rez-de-chaussee_ was divided into enormous workshops and lit by windows black with dust. The forge of a locksmith blazed in one; from another came the sound of a carpenter’s plane, while near the doorway a pink stream from a dyeing establishment poured into the gutter. Pools of stagnant water stood in the courtyard, all littered with shavings and fragments of charcoal. A few pale tufts of grass struggled up between the flat stones, and the whole courtyard was lit but dimly.
In the shade near the water faucet three small hens were pecking with the vain hope of finding a worm, and Gervaise looked about her, amazed at the enormous place which seemed like a little world and as interested in the house as if it were a living creature.
“Are you looking for anyone?” asked the concierge, coming to her door considerably puzzled.
But the young woman explained that she was waiting for a friend and then turned back toward the street. As Coupeau still delayed, she returned to the courtyard, finding in it a strange fascination.
The house did not strike her as especially ugly. At some of the windows were plants–a wallflower blooming in a pot–a caged canary, who uttered an occasional warble, and several shaving mirrors caught the light and shone like stars.
A cabinetmaker sang, accompanied by the regular whistling sounds of his plane, while from the locksmith’s quarters came a clatter of hammers struck in cadence.
At almost all the open windows the laughing, dirty faces of merry children were seen, and women sat with their calm faces in profile, bending over their work. It was the quiet time–after the morning labors were over and the men were gone to their work and the house was comparatively quiet, disturbed only by the sounds of the various trades. The same refrain repeated hour after hour has a soothing effect, Gervaise thought.
To be sure, the courtyard was a little damp. Were she to live there, she should certainly prefer a room on the sunny side.
She went in several steps and breathed that heavy odor of the homes of the poor–an odor of old dust, of rancid dirt and grease–but as the acridity of the smells from the dyehouse predominated, she decided it to be far better than the Hotel Boncoeur.
She selected a window–a window in the corner on the left, where there was a small box planted with scarlet beans, whose slender tendrils were beginning to wind round a little arbor of strings.
“I have made you wait too long, I am afraid,” said Coupeau, whom she suddenly heard at her side. “They make a great fuss when I do not dine there, and she did not like it today, especially as my sister had bought veal. You are looking at this house,” he continued. “Think of it–it is always lit from top to bottom. There are a hundred lodgers in it. If I had any furniture I would have had a room in it long ago. It would be very nice here, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” murmured Gervaise, “very nice indeed. At Plassans there were not so many people in one whole street. Look up at that window on the fifth floor–the window, I mean, where those beans are growing. See how pretty that is!”
He, with his usual recklessness, declared he would hire that room for her, and they would live there together.
She turned away with a laugh and begged him not to talk any more nonsense. The house might stand or fall–they would never have a room in it together.
But Coupeau, all the same, was not reproved when he held her hand longer than was necessary in bidding her farewell when they reached Mme Fauconnier’s laundry.
For another month the kindly intercourse between Gervaise and Coupeau continued on much the same footing. He thought her wonderfully courageous, declared she was killing herself with hard work all day and sitting up half the night to sew for the children. She was not like the women he had known; she took life too seriously, by far!
She laughed and defended herself modestly. Unfortunately, she said, she had not always been discreet. She alluded to her first confinement when she was not more than fourteen and to the bottles of anisette she had emptied with her mother, but she had learned much from experience, she said. He was mistaken, however, in thinking she was persevering and strong. She was, on the contrary, very weak and too easily influenced, as she had discovered to her cost. Her dream had always been to live in a respectable way among respectable people, because bad company knocks the life out of a woman. She trembled when she thought of the future and said she was like a sou thrown up in the air, falling, heads up or down, according to chance, on the muddy pavement. All she had seen, the bad example spread before her childish eyes, had given her valuable lessons. But Coupeau laughed at these gloomy notions and brought back her courage by attempting to put his arm around her waist. She slapped his hands, and he cried out that "for a weak woman, she managed to hurt a fellow considerably!”
As for himself, he was always as merry as a grig, and no fool, either. He parted his hair carefully on one side, wore pretty cravats and patent-leather shoes on Sunday and was as saucy as only a fine Parisian workman can be.
They were of mutual use to each other at the Hotel Boncoeur. Coupeau went for her milk, did many little errands for her and carried home her linen to her customers and often took the children out to walk. Gervaise, to return these courtesies, went up to the tiny room where he slept and in his absence looked over his clothes, sewed on buttons and mended his garments. They grew to be very good and cordial friends. He was to her a constant source of amusement. She listened to the songs he sang and to their slang and nonsense, which as yet had for her much of the charm of novelty. But he began to grow uneasy, and his smiles were less frequent. He asked her whenever they met the same question, “When shall it be?”
She answered invariably with a jest but passed her days in a fire of indelicate allusions, however, which did not bring a flush to her cheek. So long as he was not rough and brutal, she objected to nothing, but one day she was very angry when he, in trying to steal a kiss, tore out a lock of her hair.
About the last of June Coupeau became absolutely morose, and Gervaise was so much disturbed by certain glances he gave her that she fairly barricaded her door at night. Finally one Tuesday evening, when he had sulked from the previous Sunday, he came to her door at eleven in the evening. At first she refused to open it, but his voice was so gentle, so sad even, that she pulled away the barrier she had pushed against the door for her better protection. When he came in she was startled and thought him ill; he was so deadly pale and his eyes were so bright. No, he was not ill, he said, but things could not go on like this; he could not sleep.
“Listen, Madame Gervaise,” he exclaimed with tears in his eyes and a strange choking sensation in his throat. “We must be married at once. That is all there is to be said about it.”
Gervaise was astonished and very grave.
“Oh, Monsieur Coupeau, I never dreamed of this, as you know very well, and you must not take such a step lightly.”
But he continued to insist; he was certainly fully determined. He had come down to her then, without waiting until morning, merely because he needed a good sleep. As soon as she said yes he would leave her. But he would not go until he heard that word.
“I cannot say yes in such a hurry,” remonstrated Gervaise. “I do not choose to run the risk of your telling me at some future day that I led you into this. You are making a great mistake, I assure you. Suppose you should not see me for a week–you would forget me entirely. Men sometimes marry for a fancy and in twenty-four hours would gladly take it all back. Sit down here and let us talk a little.”
They sat in that dingy room lit only by one candle, which they forgot to snuff, and discussed the expediency of their marriage until after midnight, speaking very low, lest they should disturb the children, who were asleep with weir heads on the same pillow.
And Gervaise pointed them out to Coupeau. That was an odd sort of dowry to carry a man, surely! How could she venture to go to him with such encumbrances? Then, too, she was troubled about another thing. People would laugh at him. Her story was known; her lover had been seen, and there would be no end of talk if she should marry now.
To all these good and excellent reasons Coupeau answered with a shrug of his shoulders. What did he care for talk and gossip? He never meddled with the affairs of others; why should they meddle with his?
Yes, she had children, to be sure, and he would look out for them with her. He had never seen a woman in his life who was so good and so courageous and patient. Besides, that had nothing to do with it! Had she been ugly and lazy, with a dozen dirty children, he would have wanted her and only her.
“Yes,” he continued, tapping her on the knee, “you are the woman I want, and none other. You have nothing to say against that, I suppose?”
Gervaise melted by degrees. Her resolution forsook her, and a weakness of her heart and her senses overwhelmed her in the face of this brutal passion. She ventured only a timid objection or two. Her hands lay loosely folded on her knees, while her face was very gentle and sweet.
Through the open window came the soft air of a fair June night; the candle flickered in the wind; from the street came the sobs of a child, the child of a drunken man who was lying just in front of the door in the street. From a long distance the breeze brought the notes of a violin playing at a restaurant for some late marriage festival–a delicate strain it was, too, clear and sweet as musical glasses.
Coupeau, seeing that the young woman had exhausted all her arguments, snatched her hands and drew her toward him. She was in one of those moods which she so much distrusted, when she could refuse no one anything. But the young man did not understand this, and he contented himself with simply holding her hands closely in his.
“You say yes, do you not?” he asked.
“How you tease,” she replied. “You wish it–well then, yes. Heaven grant that the day will not come when you will be sorry for it.”
He started up, lifting her from her feet, and kissed her loudly. He glanced at the children.
“Hush!” he said. “We must not wake the boys. Good night.”
And he went out of the room. Gervaise, trembling from head to foot, sat for a full hour on the side of her bed without undressing. She was profoundly touched and thought Coupeau very honest and very kind. The tipsy man in the street uttered a groan like that of a wild beast, and the notes of the violin had ceased.
The next evening Coupeau urged Gervaise to go with him to call on his sister. But the young woman shrank with ardent fear from this visit to the Lorilleuxs’. She saw perfectly well that her lover stood in dread of these people.
He was in no way dependent on this sister, who was not the eldest either. Mother Coupeau would gladly give her consent, for she had never been known to contradict her son. In the family, however, the Lorilleuxs were supposed to earn ten francs per day, and this gave them great weight. Coupeau would never venture to marry unless they agreed to accept his wife.
“I have told them about you,” he said. “Gervaise–good heavens, what a baby you are! Come there tonight with me; you will find my sister a little stiff, and Lorilleux is none too amiable. The truth is they are much vexed, because, you see, if I marry I shall no longer dine with them–and that is their great economy. But that makes no odds; they won’t put you out of doors. Do what I ask, for it is absolutely necessary.”
These words frightened Gervaise nearly out of her wits. One Saturday evening, however, she consented. Coupeau came for her at half-past eight. She was all ready, wearing a black dress, a shawl with printed palm leaves in yellow and a white cap with fluted ruffles. She had saved seven francs for the shawl and two francs fifty centimes for the cap; the dress was an old one, cleaned and made over.
“They expect you,” said Coupeau as they walked along the street, “and they have become accustomed to the idea of seeing me married. They are really quite amiable tonight. Then, too, if you have never seen a gold chain made you will be much amused in watching it. They have an order for Monday.”
“And have they gold in these rooms?” asked Gervaise.
“I should say so! It is on the walls, on the floors–everywhere!”
By this time they had reached the door and had entered the courtyard. The Lorilleuxs lived on the sixth floor–staircase B. Coupeau told her with a laugh to keep tight hold of the iron railing and not let it go.
She looked up, half shutting her eyes, and gasped as she saw the height to which the staircase wound. The last gas burner, higher up, looked like a star trembling in a black sky, while two others on alternate floors cast long, slanting rays down the interminable stairs.
“Aha!” cried the young man as they stopped a moment on the second landing. “I smell onion soup; somebody has evidently been eating onion soup about here, and it smells good too.”
It is true. Staircase B, dirty and greasy, both steps and railing with plastering knocked off and showing the laths beneath, was permeated with the smell of cooking. From each landing ran narrow corridors, and on either side were half-open doors painted yellow and black, with finger marks about the lock and handles, and through the open window came the damp, disgusting smell of sinks and sewers mingling with the odor of onions.
Up to the sixth floor came the noises from the _rez-de-chaussee_–the rattling of dishes being washed, the scraping of saucepans, and all that sort of thing. On one floor Gervaise saw through an open door on which were the words DESIGNER AND DRAUGHTSMAN in large letters two men seated at a table covered with a varnished cloth; they were disputing violently amid thick clouds of smoke from their pipes. The second and third floors were the quietest. Here through the open doors came the sound of a cradle rocking, the wail of a baby, a woman’s voice, the rattle of a spoon against a cup. On one door she read a placard, MME GAUDRON, CARDER; on the next, M. MADINIER, MANUFACTURER OF BOXES.
On the fourth there was a great quarrel going on–blows and oaths–which did not prevent the neighbors opposite from playing cards with their door wide open for the benefit of the air. When Gervaise reached the fifth floor she was out of breath. Such innumerable stairs were a novelty to her. These winding railings made her dizzy. One family had taken possession of the landing; the father was washing plates in a small earthen pan near the sink, while the mother was scrubbing the baby before putting it to sleep. Coupeau laughingly bade Gervaise keep up her courage, and at last they reached the top, and she looked around to see whence came the clear, shrill voice which she had heard above all other sounds ever since her foot touched the first stair. It was a little old woman who sang as she worked, and her work was dressing dolls at three cents apiece. Gervaise clung to the railing, all out of breath, and looked down into the depths below–the gas burner now looked like a star at the bottom of a deep well. The smells, the turbulent life of this great house, seemed to rush over her in one tremendous gust. She gasped and turned pale.
“We have not got there yet,” said Coupeau; “we have much farther to go.” And he turned to the left and then to the right again. The corridor stretched out before them, faintly lit by an occasional gas burner; a succession of doors, like those of a prison or a convent, continued to appear, nearly all wide open, showing the sordid interiors. Finally they reached a corridor that was entirely dark.
“Here we are,” said the tinworker. “Isn’t it a journey? Look out for three steps. Hold onto the wall.”
And Gervaise moved cautiously for ten paces or more. She counted the three steps, and then Coupeau pushed open a door without knocking. A bright light streamed forth. They went in.
It was a long, narrow apartment, almost like a prolongation of the corridor; a woolen curtain, faded and spotted, drawn on one side, divided the room in two.
One compartment, the first, contained a bed pushed under the corner of the mansard roof; a stove, still warm from the cooking of the dinner; two chairs, a table and a wardrobe. To place this last piece of furniture where it stood, between the bed and the door, had necessitated sawing away a portion of the ceiling.
The second compartment was the workshop. At the back, a tiny forge with bellows; on the right, a vice screwed against the wall under an _etagere_, where were iron tools piled up; on the left, in front of the window, was a small table covered with pincers, magnifying glasses, tiny scales and shears–all dirty and greasy.
“We have come!” cried Coupeau, going as far as the woolen curtain.
But he was not answered immediately.
Gervaise, much agitated by the idea that she was entering a place filled with gold, stood behind her friend and did not know whether to speak or retreat.
The bright light which came from a lamp and also from a brazier of charcoal in the forge added to her trouble. She saw Mme Lorilleux, a small, dark woman, agile and strong, drawing with all the vigor of her arms–assisted by a pair of pincers–a thread of black metal, which she passed through the holes of a drawplate held by the vice. Before the desk or table in front of the window sat Lorilleux, as short as his wife, but with broader shoulders. He was managing a tiny pair of pincers and doing some work so delicate that it was almost imperceptible. It was he who first looked up and lifted his head with its scanty yellow hair. His face was the color of old wax, was long and had an expression of physical suffering.
“Ah, it is you, is it? Well! Well! But we are in a hurry, you understand. We have an order to fill. Don’t come into the workroom. Remain in the chamber.” And he returned to his work; his face was reflected in a ball filled with water, through which the lamp sent on his work a circle of the brightest possible light.
“Find chairs for yourselves,” cried Mme Lorilleux. “This is the lady, I suppose. Very well! Very well!”
She rolled up her wire and carried it to the forge, and then she fanned the coals a little to quicken the heat.
Coupeau found two chairs and made Gervaise seat herself near the curtain. The room was so narrow that he could not sit beside her, so he placed his chair a little behind and leaned over her to give her the information he deemed desirable.
Gervaise, astonished by the strange reception given her by these people and uncomfortable under their sidelong glances, had a buzzing in her ears which prevented her from hearing what was said.
She thought the woman very old looking for her thirty years and also extremely untidy, with her hair tumbling over her shoulders and her dirty camisole.
The husband, not more than a year older, seemed to Gervaise really an old man with thin, compressed lips and bowed figure. He was in his shirt sleeves, and his naked feet were thrust into slippers down at the heel.
She was infinitely astonished at the smallness of the atelier, at the blackened walls and at the terrible heat.
Tiny drops bedewed the waxed forehead of Lorilleux himself, while Mme Lorilleux threw off her sack and stood in bare arms and chemise half slipped off.
“And the gold?” asked Gervaise softly.
Her eager eyes searched the corners, hoping to discover amid all the dirt something of the splendor of which she had dreamed.
But Coupeau laughed.
“Gold?” he said. “Look! Here it is–and here–and here again, at your feet.”
He pointed in succession to the fine thread with which his sister was busy and at another package of wire hung against the wall near the vice; then falling down on his hands and knees, he gathered up from the floor, on the tip of his moistened finger, several tiny specks which looked like needle points.
Gervaise cried out, “That surely is not gold! That black metal which looks precisely like iron!”
Her lover laughed and explained to her the details of the manufacture in which his brother-in-law was engaged. The wire was furnished them in coils, just as it hung against the wall, and then they were obliged to heat and reheat it half a dozen times during their manipulations, lest it should break. Considerable strength and a vast deal of skill were needed, and his sister had both. He had seen her draw out the gold until it was like a hair. She would never let her husband do it because he always had a cough.
All this time Lorilleux was watching Gervaise stealthily, and after a violent fit of coughing he said with an air as if he were speaking to himself:
“I make columns.”
“Yes,” said Coupeau in an explanatory voice, “there are four different kinds of chains, and his style is called a column.”
Lorilleux uttered a little grunt of satisfaction, all the time at work, with the tiny pincers held between very dirty nails.
“Look here, Cadet-Cassis,” he said. “This very morning I made a little calculation. I began my work when I was only twelve years old. How many yards do you think I have made up to this day?”
He lifted his pale face.
“Eight thousand! Do you understand? Eight thousand! Enough to twist around the necks of all the women in this _Quartier_.”
Gervaise returned to her chair, entirely disenchanted. She thought it was all very ugly and uninteresting. She smiled in order to gratify the Lorilleuxs, but she was annoyed and troubled at the profound silence they preserved in regard to her marriage, on account of which she had called there that evening. These people treated her as if she were simply a spectator whose curiosity had induced Coupeau to bring her to see their work.
They began to talk; it was about the lodgers in the house. Mme Lorilleux asked her brother if he had not heard those Benard people quarreling as he came upstairs. She said the husband always came home tipsy. Then she spoke of the designer, who was overwhelmed with debts, always smoking and always quarreling. The landlord was going to turn out the Coquets, who owed three quarters now and who would put their furnace out on the landing, which was very dangerous. Mlle Remanjon, as she was going downstairs with a bundle of dolls, was just in time to rescue one of the children from being burned alive.
Gervaise was beginning to find the place unendurable. The heat was suffocating; the door could not be opened, because the slightest draft gave Lorilleux a cold. As they ignored the marriage question utterly, she pulled her lover’s sleeve to signify her wish to depart. He understood and was himself annoyed at this affectation of silence.
“We are going,” he said coldly, “We do not care to interrupt your work any longer.”
He lingered a moment, hoping for a word or an allusion. Suddenly he decided to begin the subject himself.
“We rely on you, Lorilleux. You will be my wife’s witness,” he said.
The man lifted his head in affected surprise, while his wife stood still in the center of the workshop.
“Are you in earnest?” he murmured, and then continued as if soliloquizing, “It is hard to know when this confounded Cadet-Cassis is in earnest.”
“We have no advice to give,” interrupted his wife. “It is a foolish notion, this marrying, and it never succeeds. Never–no–never.”
She drawled out these last words, examining Gervaise from head to foot as she spoke.
“My brother is free to do as he pleases, of course,” she continued. "Of course his family would have liked–But then people always plan, and things turn out so different. Of course it is none of my business. Had he brought me the lowest of the low, I should have said, ’Marry her and let us live in peace!’ He was very comfortable with us, nevertheless. He has considerable flesh on his bones and does not look as if he had been starved. His soup was always ready to the minute. Tell me, Lorilleux, don’t you think that my brother’s friend looks like Therese–you know whom I mean–that woman opposite, who died of consumption?”
“She certainly does,” answered the chainmaker contemplatively.
“And you have two children, madame? I said to my brother I could not understand how he could marry a woman with two children. You must not be angry if I think of his interests; it is only natural. You do not look very strong. Say, Lorilleux, don’t you think that Madame looks delicate?”
This courteous pair made no allusion to her lameness, but Gervaise felt it to be in their minds. She sat stiff and still before them, her thin shawl with its yellow palm leaves wrapped closely about her, and answered in monosyllables, as if before her judges. Coupeau, realizing her sufferings, cried out:
“This is all nonsense you are talking! What I want to know is if the day will suit you, July twenty-ninth.”
“One day is the same as another to us,” answered his sister severely. "Lorilleux can do as he pleases in regard to being your witness. I only ask for peace.”
Gervaise, in her embarrassment, had been pushing about with her feet some of the rubbish on the floor; then fearing she had done some harm, she stooped to ascertain. Lorilleux hastily approached her with a lamp and looked at her fingers with evident suspicion.
“Take care,” he said. “Those small bits of gold stick to the shoes sometimes and are carried off without your knowing it.”
This was a matter of some importance, of course, for his employers weighed what they entrusted to him. He showed the hare’s-foot with which he brushed the particles of gold from the table and the skin spread on his knees to receive them. Twice each week the shop was carefully brushed; all the rubbish was kept and burned, and the ashes were examined, where were found each month twenty-five or thirty francs of gold.
Mme Lorilleux did not take her eyes from the shoes of her guest.
“If Mademoiselle would be so kind,” she murmured with an amiable smile, “and would just look at her soles herself. There is no cause for offense, I am sure!”
Gervaise, indignant and scarlet, reseated herself and held up her shoes for examination. Coupeau opened the door with a gay good night, and she followed him into the corridor after a word or two of polite farewell.
The Lorilleuxs turned to their work at the end of their room where the tiny forge still glittered. The woman with her chemise slipped off her shoulder which was red with the reflection from the brazier, was drawing out another wire, the muscles in her throat swelling with her exertions.
The husband, stooping under the green light of the ball of water, was again busy with his pincers, not stopping even to wipe the sweat from his brow.
When Gervaise emerged from the narrow corridors on the sixth landing she said with tears in her eyes:
“This certainly does not promise very well!”
Coupeau shook his head angrily. Lorilleux should pay for this evening! Was there ever such a miser? To care if one carried off three grains of gold in the dust on one’s shoes. All the stories his sister told were pure fictions and malice. His sister never meant him to marry; his eating with them saved her at least four sous daily. But he did not care whether they appeared on the twenty-ninth of July or not; he could get along without them perfectly well.
But Gervaise, as she descended the staircase, felt her heart swell with pain and fear. She did not like the strange shadows on the dimly lit stairs. From behind the doors, now closed, came the heavy breathing of sleepers who had gone to their beds on rising from the table. A faint laugh was heard from one room, while a slender thread of light filtered through the keyhole of the old lady who was still busy with her dolls, cutting out the gauze dresses with squeaking scissors. A child was crying on the next floor, and the smell from the sinks was worse than ever and seemed something tangible amid this silent darkness. Then in the courtyard, while Coupeau pulled the cord, Gervaise turned and examined the house once more. It seemed enormous as it stood black against the moonless sky. The gray facades rose tall and spectral; the windows were all shut. No clothes fluttered in the breeze; there was literally not the smallest look of life, except in the few windows that were still lighted. From the damp corner of the courtyard came the drip-drip of the fountain. Suddenly it seemed to Gervaise as if the house were striding toward her and would crush her to the earth. A moment later she smiled at her foolish fancy.
“Take care!” cried Coupeau.
And as she passed out of the courtyard she was compelled to jump over a little sea which had run from the dyer’s. This time the water was blue, as blue as the summer sky, and the reflection of the lamps carried by the concierge was like the stars themselves.