Goujet at his Forge
One autumnal afternoon Gervaise, who had been to carry a basket of clothes home to a customer who lived a good way off, found herself in La Rue des Poissonniers just as it was growing dark. It had rained in the morning, and the air was close and warm. She was tired with her walk and felt a great desire for something good to eat. Just then she lifted her eyes and, seeing the name of the street, she took it into her head that she would call on Goujet at his forge. But she would ask for Etienne, she said to herself. She did not know the number, but she could find it, she thought. She wandered along and stood bewildered, looking toward Montmartre; all at once she heard the measured click of hammers and concluded that she had stumbled on the place at last. She did not know where the entrance to the building was, but she caught a gleam of a red light in the distance; she walked toward it and was met by a workman.
“Is it here, sir,” she said timidly, “that my child–a little boy, that is to say–works? A little boy by the name of Etienne?”
“Etienne! Etienne!” repeated the man, swaying from side to side. The wind brought from him to her an intolerable smell of brandy, which caused Gervaise to draw back and say timidly:
“Is it here that Monsieur Goujet works?”
“Ah, Goujet, yes. If it is Goujet you wish to see go to the left.”
Gervaise obeyed his instructions and found herself in a large room with the forge at the farther end. She spoke to the first man she saw, when suddenly the whole room was one blaze of light. The bellows had sent up leaping flames which lit every crevice and corner of the dusty old building, and Gervaise recognized Goujet before the forge with two other men. She went toward him.
“Madame Gervaise!” he exclaimed in surprise, his face radiant with joy, and then seeing his companions laugh and wink, he pushed Etienne toward his mother. “You came to see your boy,” he said; “he does his duty like a hero.
“I am glad of it,” she answered, “but what an awful place this is to get at!”
And she described her journey, as she called it, and then asked why no one seemed to know Etienne there.
“Because,” said the blacksmith, “he is called Zou Zou here, as his hair is cut short as a Zouave’s.”
This visit paid by Gervaise to the forge was only the first of many others. She often went on Saturdays when she carried the clean linen to Mme Goujet, who still resided in the same house as before. The first year Gervaise had paid them twenty francs each month, or rather the difference between the amount of their washing, seven or eight francs, and the twenty which she agreed upon. In this way she had paid half the money she had borrowed, when one quarter day, not knowing to whom to turn, as she had not been able to collect her bills punctually, she ran to the Goujets’ and borrowed the amount of her rent from them. Twice since she had asked a similar favor, so that the amount of her indebtedness now stood at four hundred and twenty-five francs.
Now she no longer paid any cash but did their washing. It was not that she worked less hard or that her business was falling off. Quite the contrary; but money had a way of melting away in her hands, and she was content nowadays if she could only make both ends meet. What was the use of fussing, she thought? If she could manage to live that was all that was necessary. She was growing quite stout withal.
Mme Goujet was always kind to Gervaise, not because of any fear of losing her money, but because she really loved her and was afraid of her going wrong in some way.
The Saturday after the first visit paid by Gervaise to the forge was also the first of the month. When she reached Mme Goujet’s her basket was so heavy that she panted for two good minutes before she could speak. Every one knows how heavy shirts and such things are.
“Have you brought everything?” asked Mme Goujet, who was very exacting on this point. She insisted on every piece being returned each week. Another thing she exacted was that the clothes should be brought back always on the same day and hour.
“Everything is here,” answered Gervaise with a smile. “You know I never leave anything behind.”
“That is true,” replied the elder woman. “You have many faults, my dear, but not that one yet.”
And while the laundress emptied her basket, laying the linen on the bed, Mme Goujet paid her many compliments. She never burned her clothes or ironed off the buttons or tore them, but she did use a trifle too much bluing and made her shirts too stiff.
“Feel,” she said; “it is like pasteboard. My son never complains, but I know he does not like them so.”
“And they shall not be so again,” said Gervaise. “No one ever touches any of your things but myself, and I would do them over ten times rather than see you dissatisfied.”
She colored as she spoke.
“I have no intention of disparaging your work,” answered Mme Goujet. "I never saw anyone who did up laces and embroideries as you do, and the fluting is simply perfect; the only trouble is a little too much starch, my dear. Goujet does not care to look like a fine gentleman.”
She took up her book and drew a pen through the pieces as she spoke. Everything was there. She brought out the bundle of soiled clothes. Gervaise put them in her basket and hesitated.
“Madame Goujet,” she said at last, “if you do not mind I should like to have the money for this week’s wash.”
The account this month was larger than usual, ten francs and over. Mme Goujet looked at her gravely.
“My child,” she said slowly, “it shall be as you wish. I do not refuse to give you the money if you desire it; only this is not the way to get out of debt. I say this with no unkindness, you understand. Only you must take care.”
Gervaise, with downcast eyes, received the lesson meekly. She needed the ten francs to complete the amount due the coal merchant, she said.
But her friend heard this with a stern countenance and told her she should reduce her expenses, but she did not add that she, too, intended to do the same and that in future she should do her washing herself, as she had formerly done, if she were to be out of pocket thus.
When Gervaise was on the staircase her heart was light, for she cared little for the reproof now that she had the ten francs in her hand; she was becoming accustomed to paying one debt by contracting another.
Midway on the stairs she met a tall woman coming up with a fresh mackerel in her hand, and behold! it was Virginie, the girl whom she had whipped in the lavatory. The two looked each other full in the face. Gervaise instinctively closed her eyes, for she thought the girl would slap her in the face with the mackerel. But, no; Virginie gave a constrained smile. Then the laundress, whose huge basket filled up the stairway and who did not choose to be outdone in politeness, said:
“I beg your pardon–”
“Pray don’t apologize,” answered Virginie in a stately fashion.
And they stood and talked for a few minutes with not the smallest allusion, however, to the past.
Virginie, then about twenty-nine, was really a magnificent-looking woman, head well set on her shoulders and a long, oval face crowned by bands of glossy black hair. She told her history in a few brief words. She was married. Had married the previous spring a cabinetmaker who had given up his trade and was hoping to obtain a position on the police force. She had just been out to buy this mackerel for him.
“He adores them,” she said, “and we women spoil our husbands, I think. But come up. We are standing in a draft here.”
When Gervaise had, in her turn, told her story and added that Virginie was living in the very rooms where she had lived and where her child was born, Virginie became still more urgent that she should go up. “It is always pleasant to see a place where one has been happy,” she said. She herself had been living on the other side of the water but had got tired of it and had moved into these rooms only two weeks ago. She was not settled yet. Her name was Mme Poisson.
“And mine,” said Gervaise, “is Coupeau.”
Gervaise was a little suspicious of all this courtesy. Might not some terrible revenge be hidden under it all? And she determined to be well on her guard. But as Virginie was so polite just now she must be polite in her turn.
Poisson, the husband, was a man of thirty-five with a mustache and imperial; he was seated at a table near the window, making little boxes. His only tools were a penknife, a tiny saw and a gluepot; he was executing the most wonderful and delicate carving, however. He never sold his work but made presents of it to his friends. It amused him while he was awaiting his appointment.
Poisson rose and bowed politely to Gervaise, whom his wife called an old friend. But he did not speak, his conversational powers not being his strong point. He cast a plaintive glance at the mackerel, however, from time to time. Gervaise looked around the room and described her furniture and where it had stood. How strange it was, after losing sight of each other so long, that they should occupy the same apartment! Virginie entered into new details. He had a small inheritance from his aunt, and she herself sewed a little, made a dress now and then. At the end of a half-hour Gervaise rose to depart; Virginie went to the head of the stairs with her, and there both hesitated. Gervaise fancied that Virginie wished to say something about Lantier and Adele, but they separated without touching on these disagreeable topics.
This was the beginning of a great friendship. In another week Virginie could not pass the shop without going in, and sometimes she remained for two or three hours. At first Gervaise was very uncomfortable; she thought every time Virginie opened her lips that she would hear Lantier’s name. Lantier was in her mind all the time she was with Mme Poisson. It was a stupid thing to do, after all, for what on earth did she care what had become of Lantier or of Adele? But she was, nonetheless, curious to know something about them.
Winter had come, the fourth winter that the Coupeaus had spent in La Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. This year December and January were especially severe, and after New Year’s the snow lay three weeks in the street without melting. There was plenty of work for Gervaise, and her shop was delightfully warm and singularly quiet, for the carriages made no noise in the snow-covered streets. The laughs and shouts of the children were almost the only sounds; they had made a long slide and enjoyed themselves hugely.
Gervaise took especial pleasure in her coffee at noon. Her apprentices had no reason to complain, for it was hot and strong and unadulterated by chicory. On the morning of Twelfth-day the clock had struck twelve and then half past, and the coffee was not ready. Gervaise was ironing some muslin curtains. Clemence, with a frightful cold, was, as usual, at work on a man’s shirt. Mme Putois was ironing a skirt on a board, with a cloth laid on the floor to prevent the skirt from being soiled. Mamma Coupeau brought in the coffee, and as each one of the women took a cup with a sigh of enjoyment the street door opened and Virginie came in with a rush of cold air.
“Heavens!” she cried. “It is awful! My ears are cut off!”
“You have come just in time for a cup of hot coffee,” said Gervaise cordially.
“And I shall be only too glad to have it!” answered Virginie with a shiver. She had been waiting at the grocer’s, she said, until she was chilled through and through. The heat of that room was delicious, and then she stirred her coffee and said she liked the damp, sweet smell of the freshly ironed linen. She and Mamma Coupeau were the only ones who had chairs; the others sat on wooden footstools, so low that they seemed to be on the floor. Virginie suddenly stooped down to her hostess and said with a smile:
“Do you remember that day at the lavatory?”
Gervaise colored; she could not answer. This was just what she had been dreading. In a moment she felt sure she would hear Lantier’s name. She knew it was coming. Virginie drew nearer to her. The apprentices lingered over their coffee and told each other as they looked stupidly into the street what they would do if they had an income of ten thousand francs. Virginie changed her seat and took a footstool by the side of Gervaise, who felt weak and cowardly and helpless to change the conversation or to stave off what was coming. She breathlessly awaited the next words, her heart big with an emotion which she would not acknowledge to herself.
“I do not wish to give you any pain,” said Virginie blandly. “Twenty times the words have been on my lips, but I hesitated. Pray don’t think I bear you any malice.”
She tipped up her cup and drank the last drop of her coffee. Gervaise, with her heart in her mouth, waited in a dull agony of suspense, asking herself if Virginie could have forgiven the insult in the lavatory. There was a glitter in the woman’s eyes she did not like.
“You had an excuse,” Virginie added as she placed her cup on the table. “You had been abominably treated. I should have killed someone.” And then, dropping her little-affected tone, she continued more rapidly:
“They were not happy, I assure you, not at all happy. They lived in a dirty street, where the mud was up to their knees. I went to breakfast with them two days after he left you and found them in the height of a quarrel. You know that Adele is a wretch. She is my sister, to be sure, but she is a wretch all the same. As to Lantier–well, you know him, so I need not describe him. But for a yes or a no he would not hesitate to thresh any woman that lives. Oh, they had a beautiful time! Their quarrels were heard all over the neighborhood. One day the police were sent for, they made such a hubbub.”
She talked on and on, telling things that were enough to make the hair stand up on one’s head. Gervaise listened, as pale as death, with a nervous trembling of her lips which might have been taken for a smile. For seven years she had never heard Lantier’s name, and she would not have believed that she could have felt any such overwhelming agitation. She could no longer be jealous of Adele, but she smiled grimly as she thought of the blows she had received in her turn from Lantier, and she would have listened for hours to all that Virginia had to tell, but she did not ask a question for some time. Finally she said:
“And do they still live in that same place?”
“No indeed! But I have not told you all yet. They separated a week ago.”
“Separated!” exclaimed the clearstarcher.
“Who is separated?” asked Clemence, interrupting her conversation with Mamma Coupeau.
“No one,” said Virginie, “or at least no one whom you know.”
As she spoke she looked at Gervaise and seemed to take a positive delight in disturbing her still more. She suddenly asked her what she would do or say if Lantier should suddenly make his appearance, for men were so strange; no one could ever tell what they would do. Lantier was quite capable of returning to his old love. Then Gervaise interrupted her and rose to the occasion. She answered with grave dignity that she was married now and that if Lantier should appear she would ask him to leave. There could never be anything more between them, not even the most distant acquaintance.
“I know very well,” she said, “that Etienne belongs to him, and if Lantier desires to see his son I shall place no obstacle in his way. But as to myself, Madame Poisson, he shall never touch my little finger again! It is finished.”
As she uttered these last words she traced a cross in the air to seal her oath, and as if desirous to put an end to the conversation, she called out to her women:
“Do you think the ironing will be done today if you sit still? To work! To work!”
The women did not move; they were lulled to apathy by the heat, and Gervaise herself found it very difficult to resume her labors. Her curtains had dried in all this time, and some coffee had been spilled on them, and she must wash out the spots.
“Au revoir!” said Virginie. “I came out to buy a half pound of cheese. Poisson will think I am frozen to death!”
The better part of the day was now gone, and it was this way every day, for the shop was the refuge and haunt of all the chilly people in the neighborhood. Gervaise liked the reputation of having the most comfortable room in the _Quartier_, and she held her receptions, as the Lorilleux and Boche clique said, with a sniff of disdain. She would, in fact, have liked to bring in the very poor whom she saw shivering outside. She became very friendly toward a journeyman painter, an old man of seventy, who lived in a loft of the house, where he shivered with cold and hunger. He had lost his three sons in the Crimea, and for two years his hand had been so cramped by rheumatism that he could not hold a brush.
Whenever Gervaise saw Father Bru she called him in, made a place for him near the stove and gave him some bread and cheese. Father Bru, with his white beard and his face wrinkled like an old apple, sat in silent content for hours at a time, enjoying the warmth and the crackling of the coke.
“What are you thinking about?” Gervaise would say gaily.
“Of nothing–of all sorts of things,” he would reply with a dazed air.
The workwomen laughed and thought it a good joke to ask if he were in love. He paid little heed to them but relapsed into silent thought.
From this time Virginie often spoke to Gervaise of Lantier, and one day she said she had just met him. But as the clearstarcher made no reply Virginie then said no more. But on the next day she returned to the subject and told her that he had talked long and tenderly of her. Gervaise was much troubled by these whispered conversations in the corner of her shop. The name of Lantier made her faint and sick at heart. She believed herself to be an honest woman. She meant, in every way, to do right and to shun the wrong, because she felt that only in doing so could she be happy. She did not think much of Coupeau because she was conscious of no shortcomings toward him. But she thought of her friend at the forge, and it seemed to her that this return of her interest in Lantier, faint and undecided as it was, was an infidelity to Goujet and to that tender friendship which had become so very precious to her. Her heart was much troubled in these days. She dwelt on that time when her first lover left her. She imagined another day when, quitting Adele, he might return to her–with that old familiar trunk.
When she went into the street it was with a spasm of terror. She fancied that every step behind her was Lantier’s. She dared not look around lest his hand should glide about her waist. He might be watching for her at any time. He might come to her door in the afternoon, and this idea brought a cold sweat to her forehead, because he would certainly kiss her on her ear as he had often teased her by doing in the years gone by. It was this kiss she dreaded. Its dull reverberation deafened her to all outside sounds, and she could hear only the beatings of her own heart. When these terrors assailed her the forge was her only asylum, from whence she returned smiling and serene, feeling that Goujet, whose sonorous hammer had put all her bad dreams to flight, would protect her always.
What a happy season this was after all! The clearstarcher always carried a certain basket of clothes to her customer each week, because it gave her a pretext for going into the forge, as it was on her way. As soon as she turned the corner of the street in which it was situated she felt as lighthearted as if she were going to the country. The black charcoal dust in the road, the black smoke rising slowly from the chimneys, interested and pleased her as much as a mossy path through the woods. Afar off the forge was red even at midday, and her heart danced in time with the hammers. Goujet was expecting her and making more noise than usual, that she might hear him at a great distance. She gave Etienne a light tap on his cheek and sat quietly watching these two–this man and boy, who were so dear to her–for an hour without speaking. When the sparks touched her tender skin she rather enjoyed the sensation. He, in his turn, was fully aware of the happiness she felt in being there, and he reserved the work which required skill for the time when she could look on in wonder and admiration. It was an idyl that they were unconsciously enacting all that spring, and when Gervaise returned to her home it was in a spirit of sweet content.
By degrees her unreasonable fears of Lantier were conquered. Coupeau was behaving very badly at this time, and one evening as she passed the Assommoir she was certain she saw him drinking with Mes-Bottes. She hurried on lest she should seem to be watching him. But as she hastened she looked over her shoulder. Yes, it was Coupeau who was tossing down a glass of liquor with an air as if it were no new thing. He had lied to her then; he did drink brandy. She was in utter despair, and all her old horror of brandy returned. Wine she could have forgiven–wine was good for a working man–liquor, on the contrary, was his ruin and took from him all desire for the food that nourished and gave him strength for his daily toil. Why did not the government interfere and prevent the manufacture of such pernicious things?
When she reached her home she found the whole house in confusion. Her employees had left their work and were in the courtyard. She asked what the matter was.
“It is Father Bijard beating his wife; he is as drunk as a fool, and he drove her up the stairs to her room, where he is murdering her. Just listen!”
Gervaise flew up the stairs. She was very fond of Mme Bijard, who was her laundress and whose courage and industry she greatly admired. On the sixth floor a little crowd was assembled. Mme Boche stood at an open door.
“Have done!” she cried. “Have done, or the police will be summoned.”
No one dared enter the room, because Bijard was well known to be like a madman when he was tipsy. He was rarely thoroughly sober, and on the occasional days when he condescended to work he always had a bottle of brandy at his side. He rarely ate anything, and if a match had been touched to his mouth he would have taken fire like a torch.
“Would you let her be killed?” exclaimed Gervaise, trembling from head to foot, and she entered the attic room, which was very clean and very bare, for the man had sold the very sheets off the bed to satisfy his mad passion for drink. In this terrible struggle for life the table had been thrown over, and the two chairs also. On the floor lay the poor woman with her skirts drenched as she had come from the washtub, her hair streaming over her bloody face, uttering low groans at each kick the brute gave her.
The neighbors whispered to each other that she had refused to give him the money she had earned that day. Boche called up the staircase to his wife:
“Come down, I say; let him kill her if he will. It will only make one fool the less in the world!”
Father Bru followed Gervaise into the room, and the two expostulated with the madman. But he turned toward them, pale and threatening; a white foam glistened on his lips, and in his faded eyes there was a murderous expression. He grasped Father Bru by the shoulder and threw him over the table and shook Gervaise until her teeth chattered and then returned to his wife, who lay motionless, with her mouth wide open and her eyes closed; and during this frightful scene little Lalie, four years old, was in the corner, looking on at the murder of her mother. The child’s arms were round her sister Henriette, a baby who had just been weaned. She stood with a sad, solemn face and serious, melancholy eyes but shed no tears.
When Bijard slipped and fell Gervaise and Father Bru helped the poor creature to her feet, who then burst into sobs. Lalie went to her side, but she did not cry, for the child was already habituated to such scenes. And as Gervaise went down the stairs she was haunted by the strange look of resignation and courage in Lalie’s eyes; it was an expression belonging to maturity and experience rather than to childhood.
“Your husband is on the other side of the street,” said Clemence as soon as she saw Gervaise; “he is as tipsy as possible!”
Coupeau reeled in, breaking a square of glass with his shoulder as he missed the doorway. He was not tipsy but drunk, with his teeth set firmly together and a pinched expression about the nose. And Gervaise instantly knew that it was the liquor of the Assommoir which had vitiated his blood. She tried to smile and coaxed him to go to bed. But he shook her off and as he passed her gave her a blow.
He was just like the other–the beast upstairs who was now snoring, tired out by beating his wife. She was chilled to the heart and desperate. Were all men alike? She thought of Lantier and of her husband and wondered if there was no happiness in the world.