Ambitious Dreams

The Boche couple, on the first of April, moved also and took the loge of the great house in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. Things had turned out very nicely for Gervaise who, having always got on very comfortably with the concierge in the house in Rue Neuve, dreaded lest she should fall into the power of some tyrant who would quarrel over every drop of water that was spilled and a thousand other trifles like that. But with Mme Boche all would go smoothly.

The day the lease was to be signed and Gervaise stood in her new home her heart swelled with joy. She was finally to live in that house like a small town, with its intersecting corridors instead of streets.

She felt a strange timidity–a dread of failure–when she found herself face to face with her enterprise. The struggle for bread was a terrible and an increasing one, and it seemed to her for a moment that she had been guilty of a wild, foolhardy act, like throwing herself into the jaws of a machine, for the planes in the cabinetmaker’s shop and the hammers in the locksmith’s were dimly grasped by her as a part of a great whole.

The water that ran past the door that day from the dyer’s was pale green. She smiled as she stepped over it, accepting this color as a happy augury. She, with her husband, entered the loge, where Mme Boche and the owner of the building, M. Marescot, were talking on business.

Gervaise, with a thrill of pain, heard Boche advise the landlord to turn out the dressmaker on the third floor who was behindhand with her rent. She wondered if she would ever be turned out and then wondered again at the attitude assumed by these Boche people, who did not seem to have ever seen her before. They had eyes and ears only for the landlord, who shook hands with his new tenants but, when they spoke of repairs, professed to be in such haste that morning that it would be necessary to postpone the discussion. They reminded him of certain verbal promises he had made, and finally he consented to examine the premises.

The shop stood with its four bare walls and blackened ceiling. The tenant who had been there had taken away his own counters and cases. A furious discussion took place. M. Marescot said it was for them to embellish the shop.

“That may be,” said Gervaise gently, “but surely you cannot call putting on a fresh paper, instead of this that hangs in strips, an embellishment. Whitening the curbing, too, comes under, the head of necessary repairs.” She only required these two things.

Finally Marescot, with a desperate air, plunged his hands deep in his pockets, shrugged his shoulders and gave his consent to the repairs on the ceiling and to the paper, on condition that she would pay for half the paper, and then he hurried away.

When he had departed Boche clapped Coupeau on the shoulder. “You may thank me for that!” he cried and then went on to say that he was the real master of the house, that he settled the whole business of the establishment, and it was a nod and look from him that had influenced M. Marescot. That evening Gervaise, considering themselves in debt to Boche, sent him some wine.

In four days the shop should have been ready for them, but the repairs hung on for three weeks. At first they intended simply to have the paint scrubbed, but it was so shabby and worn that Gervaise repainted at her own expense. Coupeau went every morning, not to work, but to inspect operations, and Boche dropped the vest or pantaloons on which he was working and gave the benefit of his advice, and the two men spent the whole day smoking and spitting and arguing over each stroke of the brush. Some days the painters did not appear at all; on others they came and walked off in an hour’s time, not to return again.

Poor Gervaise wrung her hands in despair. But finally, after two days of energetic labor, the whole thing was done, and the men walked off with their ladders, singing lustily.

Then came the moving, and finally Gervaise called herself settled in her new home and was pleased as a child. As she came up the street she could see her sign afar off:



The first word was painted in large yellow letters on a pale blue ground.

In the recessed window shut in at the back by muslin curtains lay men’s shirts, delicate handkerchiefs and cuffs; all these were on blue paper, and Gervaise was charmed. When she entered the door all was blue there; the paper represented a golden trellis and blue morning-glories. In the center was a huge table draped with blue-bordered cretonne to hide the trestles.

Gervaise seated herself and looked round, happy in the cleanliness of all about her. Her first glance, however, was directed to her stove, a sort of furnace whereon ten irons could be heated at once. It was a source of constant anxiety lest her little apprentice should fill it too full of coal and so injure it.

Behind the shop was her bedroom and her kitchen, from which a door opened into the court. Nana’s bed stood in a little room at the right, and Etienne was compelled to share his with the baskets of soiled clothes. It was all very well, except that the place was very damp and that it was dark by three o’clock in the afternoon in winter.

The new shop created a great excitement in the neighborhood. Some people declared that the Coupeaus were on the road to ruin; they had, in fact, spent the whole five hundred francs and were penniless, contrary to their intentions. The morning that Gervaise first took down her shutters she had only six francs in the world, but she was not troubled, and at the end of a week she told her husband after two hours of abstruse calculations that they had taken in enough to cover their expenses.

The Lorilleuxs were in a state of rage, and one morning when the apprentice was emptying, on the sly, a bowl of starch which she had burned in making, just as Mme Lorilleux was passing, she rushed in and accused her sister-in-law of insulting her. After this all friendly relations were at an end.

“It all looks very strange to me,” sniffed Mme Lorilleux. “I can’t tell where the money comes from, but I have my suspicions.” And she went on to intimate that Gervaise and Goujet were altogether too intimate. This was the groundwork of many fables; she said Wooden Legs was so mild and sweet that she had deceived her to the extent that she had consented to become Nana’s godmother, which had been no small expense, but now things were very different. If Gervaise were dying and asked her for a glass of water she would not give it. She could not stand such people. As to Nana, it was different; they would always receive her. The child, of course, was not responsible for her mother’s crimes. Coupeau should take a more decided stand and not put up with his wife’s vile conduct.

Boche and his wife sat in judgment on the quarrel and gave as their opinion that the Lorilleuxs were much to blame. They were good tenants, of course. They paid regularly. “But,” added Mme Boche, “I never could abide jealousy. They are mean people and were never known to offer a glass of wine to a friend.”

Mother Coupeau visited her son and daughter successive days, listened to the tales of each and said never a word in reply.

Gervaise lived a busy life and took no notice of all this foolish gossip and strife. She greeted her friends with a smile from the door of her shop, where she went for a breath of fresh air. All the people in the neighborhood liked her and would have called her a great beauty but for her lameness. She was twenty-eight and had grown plump. She moved more slowly, and when she took a chair to wait for her irons to heat she rose with reluctance. She was growing fond of good living–that she herself admitted–but she did not regard it as a fault. She worked hard and had a right to good food. Why should she live on potato parings? Sometimes she worked all night when she had a great deal of work on hand.

She did the washing for the whole house and for some Parisian ladies and had several apprentices, besides two laundresses. She was making money hand over fist, and her good luck would have turned a wiser head than her own. But hers was not turned; she was gentle and sweet and hated no one except her sister-in-law. She judged everybody kindly, particularly after she had eaten a good breakfast. When people called her good she laughed. Why should she not be good? She had seen all her dreams realized. She remembered what she once said–that she wanted to work hard, have plenty to eat, a home to herself, where she could bring up her children, not be beaten and die in her bed! As to dying in her bed, she added she wanted that still, but she would put it off as long as possible, “if you please!” It was to Coupeau himself that Gervaise was especially sweet. Never a cross or an impatient word had he heard from her lips, and no one had ever known her complain of him behind his back. He had finally resumed his trade, and as the shop where he worked was at the other end of Paris, she gave him every morning forty sous for his breakfast, his wine and tobacco. Two days out of six, however, Coupeau would meet a friend, drink up his forty sous and return to breakfast. Once, indeed, he sent a note, saying that his account at the cabaret exceeded his forty sous. He was in pledge, as it were; would his wife send the money? She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Where was the harm in her husband’s amusing himself a little? A woman must give a man a long rope if she wished to live in peace and comfort. It was not far from words to blows–she knew that very well.

The hot weather had come. One afternoon in June the ten irons were heating on the stove; the door was open into the street, but not a breath of air came in.

“What a melting day!” said Gervaise, who was stooping over a great bowl of starch. She had rolled up her sleeves and taken off her sack and stood in her chemise and white skirt; the soft hair in her neck was curling on her white throat. She dipped each cuff in the starch, the fronts of the shirts and the whole of the skirts. Then she rolled up the pieces tightly and placed them neatly in a square basket after having sprinkled with clear water all those portions which were not starched.

“This basket is for you, Madame Putois,” she said, “and you will have to hurry, for they dry so fast in this weather.”

Mine Putois was a thin little woman who looked cool and comfortable in her tightly buttoned dress. She had not taken her cap off but stood at the table, moving her irons to and fro with the regularity of an automaton. Suddenly she exclaimed:

“Put on your sack, Clemence; there are three men looking in, and I don’t like such things.”

Clemence grumbled and growled. What did she care what she liked? She could not and would not roast to suit anybody.

“Clemence, put on your sack,” said Gervaise. “Madame Putois is right–it is not proper.”

Clemence muttered but obeyed and consoled herself by giving the apprentice, who was ironing hose and towels by her side, a little push. Gervaise had a cap belonging to Mme Boche in her hand and was ironing the crown with a round ball, when a tall, bony woman came in. She was a laundress.

“You have come too soon, Madame Bijard!” cried Gervaise. “I said tonight. It is very inconvenient for me to attend to you at this hour.” At the same time, however, Gervaise amiably laid down her work and went for the dirty clothes, which she piled up in the back shop. It took the two women nearly an hour to sort them and mark them with a stitch of colored cotton.

At this moment Coupeau entered.

“By Jove!” he said. “The sun beats down on one’s head like a hammer." He caught at the table to sustain himself; he had been drinking; a spider web had caught in his dark hair, where many a white thread was apparent. His under jaw dropped a little, and his smile was good natured but silly.

Gervaise asked her husband if he had seen the Lorilleuxs in rather a severe tone; when he said no she smiled at him without a word of reproach.

“You had best go and lie down,” she said pleasantly. “We are very busy, and you are in our way. Did I say thirty-two handkerchiefs, Madame Bijard? Here are two more; that makes thirty-four.”

But Coupeau was not sleepy, and he preferred to remain where he was. Gervaise called Clemence and bade her to count the linen while she made out the list. She glanced at each piece as she wrote. She knew many of them by the color. That pillow slip belonged to Mme Boche because it was stained with the pomade she always used, and so on through the whole. Gervaise was seated with these piles of soiled linen about her. Augustine, whose great delight was to fill up the stove, had done so now, and it was red hot. Coupeau leaned toward Gervaise.

“Kiss me,” he said. “You are a good woman.”

As he spoke he gave a sudden lurch and fell among the skirts.

“Do take care,” said Gervaise impatiently. “You will get them all mixed again.” And she gave him a little push with her foot, whereat all the other women cried out.

“He is not like most men,” said Mme Putois; “they generally wish to beat you when they come in like this.”

Gervaise already regretted her momentary vexation and assisted her husband to his feet and then turned her cheek to him with a smile, but he put his arm round her and kissed her neck. She pushed him aside with a laugh.

“You ought to be ashamed!” she said but yielded to his embrace, and the long kiss they exchanged before these people, amid the sickening odor of the soiled linen and the alcoholic fumes of his breath, was the first downward step in the slow descent of their degradation.

Mme Bijard tied up the linen and staggered off under their weight while Gervaise turned back to finish her cap. Alas! The stove and the irons were alike red hot; she must wait a quarter of an hour before she could touch the irons, and Gervaise covered the fire with a couple of shovelfuls of cinders. She then hung a sheet before the window to keep out the sun. Coupeau took a place in the corner, refusing to budge an inch, and his wife and all her assistants went to work on each side of the square table. Each woman had at her right a flat brick on which to set her iron. In the center of the table a dish of water with a rag and a brush in it and also a bunch of tall lilies in a broken jar.

Mme Putois had attacked the basket of linen prepared by Gervaise, and Augustine was ironing her towels, with her nose in the air, deeply interested in a fly that was buzzing about. As to Clemence, she was polishing off her thirty-fifth shirt; as she boasted of this great feat Coupeau staggered toward her.

“Madame,” she called, “please keep him away; he will bother me, and I shall scorch my shirt.”

“Let her be,” said Gervaise without any especial energy. “We are in a great hurry today!”

Well, that was not his fault; he did not mean to touch the girl; he only wanted to see what she was about.

“Really,” said his wife, looking up from her fluting iron, “I think you had best go to bed.”

He began to talk again.

“You need not make such a fuss, Clemence; it is only because these women are here, and–”

But he could say no more; Gervaise quietly laid one hand on his mouth and the other on his shoulder and pushed him toward his room. He struggled a little and with a silly laugh asked if Clemence was not coming too.

Gervaise undressed her husband and tucked him up in bed as if he had been a child and then returned to her fluting irons in time to still a grand dispute that was going on about an iron that had not been properly cleaned.

In the profound silence that followed her appearance she could hear her husband’s thick voice:

“What a silly wife I’ve got! The idea of putting me to bed in broad daylight!”

Suddenly he began to snore, and Gervaise uttered a sigh of relief. She used her fluting iron for a minute and then said quietly:

“There is no need of being offended by anything a man does when he is in this state. He is not an accountable being. He did not intend to insult you. Clemence, you know what a tipsy man is–he respects neither father nor mother.”

She uttered these words in an indifferent, matter-of-fact way, not in the least disturbed that he had forgotten the respect due to her and to her roof and really seeing no harm in his conduct.

The work now went steadily on, and Gervaise calculated they would be finished by eleven o’clock. The heat was intense; the smell of charcoal deadened the air, while the branch of white lilies slowly faded and filled the room with their sweetness.

The day after all this Coupeau had a frightful headache and did not rise until late, too late to go to his work. About noon he began to feel better, and toward evening was quite himself. His wife gave him some silver and told him to go out and take the air, which meant with him taking some wine.

One glass washed down another, but he came home as gay as a lark and quite disgusted with the men he had seen who were drinking themselves to death.

“Where is your lover?” he said to his wife as he entered the shop. This was his favorite joke. “I never see him nowadays and must hunt him up.”

He meant Goujet, who came but rarely, lest the gossips in the neighborhood should take it upon themselves to gabble. Once in about ten days he made his appearance in the evening and installed himself in a corner in the back shop with his pipe. He rarely spoke but laughed at all Gervaise said.

On Saturday evenings the establishment was kept open half the night. A lamp hung from the ceiling with the light thrown down by a shade. The shutters were put up at the usual time, but as the nights were very warm the door was left open, and as the hours wore on the women pulled their jackets open a little more at the throat, and he sat in his corner and looked on as if he were at a theater.

The silence of the street was broken by a passing carriage. Two o’clock struck–no longer a sound from outside. At half-past two a man hurried past the door, carrying with him a vision of flying arms, piles of white linen and a glow of yellow light.

Goujet, wishing to save Etienne from Coupeau’s rough treatment, had taken him to the place where he was employed to blow the bellows, with the prospect of becoming an apprentice as soon as he was old enough, and Etienne thus became another tie between the clearstarcher and the blacksmith.

All their little world laughed and told Gervaise that her friend worshiped the very ground she trod upon. She colored and looked like a girl of sixteen.

“Dear boy,” she said to herself, “I know he loves me, but never has he said or will he say a word of the kind to me!” And she was proud of being loved in this way. When she was disturbed about anything her first thought was to go to him. When by chance they were left alone together they were never disturbed by wondering if their friendship verged on love. There was no harm in such affection.

Nana was now six years old and a most troublesome little sprite. Her mother took her every morning to a school in the Rue Polonceau, to a certain Mlle Josse. Here she did all manner of mischief. She put ashes into the teacher’s snuffbox, pinned the skirts of her companions together. Twice the young lady was sent home in disgrace and then taken back again for the sake of the six francs each month. As soon as school hours were over Nana revenged herself for the hours of enforced quiet she had passed by making the most frightful din in the courtyard and the shop.

She found able allies in Pauline and Victor Boche. The whole great house resounded with the most extraordinary noises–the thumps of children falling downstairs, little feet tearing up one staircase and down another and bursting out on the sidewalk like a band of pilfering, impudent sparrows.

Mme Gaudron alone had nine–dirty, unwashed and unkempt, their stockings hanging over their shoes and the slits in their garments showing the white skin beneath. Another woman on the fifth floor had seven, and they came out in twos and threes from all the rooms. Nana reigned over this band, among which there were some half grown and others mere infants. Her prime ministers were Pauline and Victor; to them she delegated a little of her authority while she played mamma, undressed the youngest only to dress them again, cuffed them and punished them at her own sweet will and with the most fantastic disposition. The band pranced and waded through the gutter that ran from the dyehouse and emerged with blue or green legs. Nana decorated herself and the others with shavings from the cabinetmaker’s, which they stole from under the very noses of the workmen.

The courtyard belonged to all of these children, apparently, and resounded with the clatter of their heels. Sometimes this courtyard, however, was not enough for them, and they spread in every direction to the infinite disgust of Mme Boche, who grumbled all in vain. Boche declared that the children of the poor were as plentiful as mushrooms on a dung heap, and his wife threatened them with her broom.

One day there was a terrible scene. Nana had invented a beautiful game. She had stolen a wooden shoe belonging to Mme Boche; she bored a hole in it and put in a string, by which she could draw it like a cart. Victor filled it with apple parings, and they started forth in a procession, Nana drawing the shoe in front, followed by the whole flock, little and big, an imp about the height of a cigar box at the end. They all sang a melancholy ditty full of “ahs” and “ohs.” Nana declared this to be always the custom at funerals.

“What on earth are they doing now?” murmured Mme Boche suspiciously, and then she came to the door and peered out.

“Good heavens!” she cried. “It is my shoe they have got.”

She slapped Nana, cuffed Pauline and shook Victor. Gervaise was filling a bucket at the fountain, and when she saw Nana with her nose bleeding she rushed toward the concierge and asked how she dared strike her child.

The concierge replied that anyone who had a child like that had best keep her under lock and key. The end of this was, of course, a complete break between the old friends.

But, in fact, the quarrel had been growing for a month. Gervaise, generous by nature and knowing the tastes of the Boche people, was in the habit of making them constant presents–oranges, a little hot soup, a cake or something of the kind. One evening, knowing that the concierge would sell her soul for a good salad, she took her the remains of a dish of beets and chicory. The next day she was dumfounded at hearing from Mlle Remanjon how Mme Boche had thrown the salad away, saying that she was not yet reduced to eating the leavings of other people! From that day forth Gervaise sent her nothing more. The Boches had learned to look on her little offerings as their right, and they now felt themselves to be robbed by the Coupeaus.

It was not long before Gervaise realized she had made a mistake, for when she was one day late with her October rent Mme Boche complained to the proprietor, who came blustering to her shop with his hat on. Of course, too, the Lorilleuxs extended the right hand of fellowship at once to the Boche people.

There came a day, however, when Gervaise found it necessary to call on the Lorilleuxs. It was on Mamma Coupeau’s account, who was sixty-seven years old, nearly blind and helpless. They must all unite in doing something for her now. Gervaise thought it a burning shame that a woman of her age, with three well-to-do children, should be allowed for a moment to regard herself as friendless and forsaken. And as her husband refused to speak to his sister, Gervaise said she would.

She entered the room like a whirlwind, without knocking. Everything was just as it was on that night when she had been received by them in a fashion which she had never forgotten or forgiven. “I have come," cried Gervaise, “and I dare say you wish to know why, particularly as we are at daggers drawn. Well then, I have come on Mamma Coupeau’s account. I have come to ask if we are to allow her to beg her bread from door to door––”

“Indeed!” said Mme Lorilleux with a sneer, and she turned away.

But Lorilleux lifted his pale face.

“What do you mean?” he asked, and as he had understood perfectly, he went on:

“What is this cry of poverty about? The old lady ate her dinner with us yesterday. We do all we can for her, I am sure. We have not the mines of Peru within our reach, but if she thinks she is to run to and fro between our houses she is much mistaken. I, for one, have no liking for spies.” He then added as he took up his microscope, “When the rest of you agree to give five francs per month toward her support we will do the same.” Gervaise was calmer now; these people always chilled the very marrow in her bones, and she went on to explain her views. Five francs were not enough for each of the old lady’s children to pay. She could not live on fifteen francs per month.

“And why not?” cried Lorilleux. “She ought to do so. She can see well enough to find the best bits in a dish before her, and she can do something toward her own maintenance.” If he had the means to indulge such laziness he should not consider it his duty to do so, he added.

Then Gervaise grew angry again. She looked at her sister-in-law and saw her face set in vindictive firmness.

“Keep your money,” she cried. “I will take care of your mother. I found a starving cat in the street the other night and took it in. I can take in your mother too. She shall want for nothing. Good heavens, what people!”

Mme Lorilleux snatched up a saucepan.

“Clear out,” she said hoarsely. “I will never give one sou–no, not one sou–toward her keep. I understand you! You will make my mother work for you like a slave and put my five francs in your pocket! Not if I know it, madame! And if she goes to live under your roof I will never see her again. Be off with you, I say!”

“What a monster!” cried Gervaise as she shut the door with a bang. On the very next day Mme Coupeau came to her. A large bed was put in the room where Nana slept. The moving did not take long, for the old lady had only this bed, a wardrobe, table and two chairs. The table was sold and the chairs new-seated, and the old lady the evening of her arrival washed the dishes and swept up the room, glad to make herself useful. Mme Lerat had amused herself by quarreling with her sister, to whom she had expressed her admiration of the generosity evinced by Gervaise, and when she saw that Mme Lorilleux was intensely exasperated she declared she had never seen such eyes in anybody’s head as those of the clearstarcher. She really believed one might light paper at them. This declaration naturally led to bitter words, and the sisters parted, swearing they would never see each other again, and since then Mme Lerat had spent most of her evenings at her brother’s.

Three years passed away. There were reconciliations and new quarrels. Gervaise continued to be liked by her neighbors; she paid her bills regularly and was a good customer. When she went out she received cordial greetings on all sides, and she was more fond of going out in these days than of yore. She liked to stand at the corners and chat. She liked to loiter with her arms full of bundles at a neighbor’s window and hear a little gossip.

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