A Birthday Fete
The nineteenth of June was the clearstarcher’s birthday. There was always an excuse for a fete in the Coupeau mansion; saints were invented to serve as a pretext for idleness and festivities. Virginie highly commended Gervaise for living luxuriously. What was the use of her husband drinking up everything? Why should she save for her husband to spend at all the wineshops in the neighborhood? And Gervaise accepted this excuse. She was growing very indolent and much stouter, while her lameness had perceptibly increased.
For a whole month they discussed the preparation for this fete; they talked over dishes and licked their lips. They must have something out of the common way. Gervaise was much troubled as to whom she should invite. She wanted exactly twelve at table, not one more or one less. She, her husband, her mother-in-law and Mme Lerat were four. The Goujets and Poissons were four more. At first she thought she would not ask her two women, Mme Putois and Clemence, lest it should make them too familiar, but as the entertainment was constantly under discussion before them she ended by inviting them too. Thus there were ten; she must have two more. She decided on a reconciliation with the Lorilleuxs, who had extended the olive branch several times lately. Family quarrels were bad things, she said. When the Boche people heard of this they showed several little courtesies to Gervaise, who felt obliged to urge them to come also. This made fourteen without counting the children. She had never had a dinner like this, and she was both triumphant and terrified.
The nineteenth fell on a Monday, and Gervaise thought it very fortunate, as she could begin her cooking on Sunday afternoon. On Saturday, while the women hurried through their work, there was an endless discussion as to what the dishes should be. In the last three weeks only one thing had been definitely decided upon–a roast goose stuffed with onions. The goose had been purchased, and Mme Coupeau brought it in that Mme Putois might guess its weight. The thing looked enormous, and the fat seemed to burst from its yellow skin.
“Soup before that, of course,” said Gervaise, “and we must have another dish.”
Clemence proposed rabbits, but Gervaise wanted something more distinguished. Mme Putois suggested a _blanquette du veau_.
That was a new idea. Veal was always good too. Then Mme Coupeau made an allusion to fish, which no one seconded. Evidently fish was not in favor. Gervaise proposed a sparerib of pork and potatoes, which brightened all their faces, just as Virginie came in like a whirlwind.
“You are just in season. Mamma Coupeau, show her the goose,” cried Gervaise.
Virginie admired it, guessed the weight and laid it down on the ironing table between an embroidered skirt and a pile of shirts. She was evidently thinking of something else. She soon led Gervaise into the back shop.
“I have come to warn you,” she said quickly. “I just met Lantier at the very end of this street, and I am sure he followed me, and I naturally felt alarmed on your account, my dear.”
Gervaise turned very pale. What did he want of her? And why on earth should he worry her now amid all the busy preparations for the fete? It seemed as if she never in her life had set her heart on anything that she was not disappointed. Why was it that she could never have a minute’s peace?
But Virginie declared that she would look out for her. If Lantier followed her she would certainly give him over to the police. Her husband had been in office now for a month, and Virginie was very dictatorial and aggressive and talked of arresting everyone who displeased her. She raised her voice as she spoke, but Gervaise implored her to be cautious, because her women could hear every word. They went back to the front shop, and she was the first to speak.
“We have said nothing of vegetables,” she said quietly.
“Peas, with a bit of pork,” said Virginie authoritatively.
This was agreed upon with enthusiasm.
The next day at three Mamma Coupeau lighted the two furnaces belonging to the house and a third one borrowed from Mme Boche, and at half-past three the soup was gently simmering in a large pot lent by the restaurant at the corner. They had decided to cook the veal and the pork the day previous, as those two dishes could be warmed up so well, and would leave for Monday only the goose to roast and the vegetables. The back shop was ruddy with the glow from the three furnaces–sauces were bubbling with a strong smell of browned flour. Mamma Coupeau and Gervaise, each with large white aprons, were washing celery and running hither and thither with pepper and salt or hurriedly turning the veal with flat wooden sticks made for the purpose. They had told Coupeau pleasantly that his room was better than his company, but they had plenty of people there that afternoon. The smell of the cooking found its way out into the street and up through the house, and the neighbors, impelled by curiosity, came down on all sorts of pretexts, merely to discover what was going on.
About five Virginie made her appearance. She had seen Lantier twice. Indeed, it was impossible nowadays to enter the street and not see him. Mme Boche, too, had spoken to him on the corner below. Then Gervaise, who was on the point of going for a sou’s worth of fried onions to season her soup, shuddered from head to foot and said she would not go out ever again. The concierge and Virginie added to her terror by a succession of stories of men who lay in wait for women, with knives and pistols hidden in their coats.
Such things were read every day in the papers! When such a scamp as Lantier found a woman happy and comfortable, he was always wretched until he had made her so too. Virginie said she would go for the onions. “Women,” she observed sententiously, “should protect each other, as well as serve each other, in such matters.” When she returned she reported that Lantier was no longer there. The conversation around the stove that evening never once drifted from that subject. Mme Boche said that she, under similar circumstances, should tell her husband, but Gervaise was horror-struck at this and begged her never to breathe one single word about it. Besides, she fancied her husband had caught a glimpse of Lantier from something he had muttered amid a volley of oaths two or three nights before. She was filled with dread lest these two men should meet. She knew Coupeau so well that she had long since discovered that he was still jealous of Lantier, and while the four women discussed the imminent danger of a terrible tragedy the sauces and the meats hissed and simmered on the furnaces, and they ended by each taking a cup of soup to discover what improvement was desirable.
Monday arrived. Now that Gervaise had invited fourteen to dine, she began to be afraid there would not be room and finally decided to lay the table in the shop. She was uncertain how to place the table, which was the ironing table on trestles. In the midst of the hubbub and confusion a customer arrived and made a scene because her linen had not come home on the Friday previous. She insisted on having every piece that moment–clean or dirty, ironed or rough-dry.
Then Gervaise, to excuse herself, told a lie with wonderful _sang-froid_. It was not her fault. She was cleaning her rooms. Her women would be at work again the next day, and she got rid of her customer, who went away soothed by the promise that her wash would be sent to her early the following morning.
But Gervaise lost her temper, which was not a common thing with her, and as soon as the woman’s back was turned called her by an opprobrious name and declared that if she did as people wished she could not take time to eat and vowed she would not have an iron heated that day or the next in her establishment. No! Not if the Grand Turk himself should come and entreat her on his knees to do up a collar for him. She meant to enjoy herself a little occasionally!
The entire morning was consumed in making purchases. Three times did Gervaise go out and come in, laden with bundles. But when she went the fourth time for the wine she discovered that she had not money enough. She could have got the wine on credit, but she could not be without money in the house, for a thousand little unexpected expenses arise at such times, and she and her mother-in-law racked their brains to know what they should do to get the twenty francs they considered necessary. Mme Coupeau, who had once been housekeeper for an actress, was the first to speak of the Mont-de-Piete. Gervaise laughed gaily.
“To be sure! Why had she not thought of it before?”
She folded her black silk dress and pinned it in a napkin; then she hid the bundle under her mother-in-law’s apron and bade her keep it very flat, lest the neighbors, who were so terribly inquisitive, should find it out, and then she watched the old woman from the door to see that no one followed her.
But when Mamma Coupeau had gone a few steps Gervaise called her back into the shop and, taking her wedding ring from her finger, said:
“Take this, too, for we shall need all the money we can get today.”
And when the old woman came back with twenty-five francs she clapped her hands with joy. She ordered six bottles of wine with seals to drink with the roast. The Lorilleuxs would be green with envy. For a fortnight this had been her idea, to crush the Lorilleuxs, who were never known to ask a friend to their table; who, on the contrary, locked their doors when they had anything special to eat. Gervaise wanted to give her a lesson and would have liked to offer the strangers who passed her door a seat at her table. Money was a very good thing and mighty pretty to look at, but it was good for nothing but to spend.
Mamma Coupeau and Gervaise began to lay their table at three o’clock. They had hung curtains before the windows, but as the day was warm the door into the street was open. The two women did not put on a plate or salt spoon without the avowed intention of worrying the Lorilleuxs. They had given them seats where the table could be seen to the best advantage, and they placed before them the real china plates.
“No, no, Mamma,” cried Gervaise, “not those napkins. I have two which are real damask.”
“Well! Well! I declare!” murmured the old woman. “What will they say to all this?”
And they smiled as they stood at opposite sides of this long table with its glossy white cloth and its places for fourteen carefully laid. They worshiped there as if it had been a chapel erected in the middle of the shop.
“How false they are!” said Gervaise. “Do you remember how she declared she had lost a piece of one of the chains when she was carrying them home? That was only to get out of giving you your five francs.”
“Which I have never had from them but just twice,” muttered the old woman.
“I will wager that next month they will invent another tale. That is one reason why they lock their doors when they have a rabbit. They think people might say, ’If you can eat rabbits you can give five francs to your mother!’ How mean they are! What do they think would have become of you if I had not asked you to come and live here?”
Her mother-in-law shook her head. She was rather severe in her judgment of the Lorilleuxs that day, inasmuch as she was influenced by the gorgeous entertainment given by the Coupeaus. She liked the excitement; she liked to cook. She generally lived pretty well with Gervaise, but on those days which occur in all households, when the dinner was scanty and unsatisfactory, she called herself a most unhappy woman, left to the mercy of a daughter-in-law. In the depths of her heart she still loved Mme Lorilleux; she was her eldest child.
“You certainly would have weighed some pounds less with her," continued Gervaise. “No coffee, no tobacco, no sweets. And do you imagine that they would have put two mattresses on your bed?”
“No indeed,” answered the old woman, “but I wish to see them when they first come in–just to see how they look!”
At four o’clock the goose was roasted, and Augustine, seated on a little footstool, was given a long-handled spoon and bidden to watch and baste it every few minutes. Gervaise was busy with the peas, and Mamma Coupeau, with her head a little confused, was waiting until it was time to heat the veal and the pork. At five the guests began to arrive. Clemence and Mme Putois, gorgeous to behold in their Sunday rig, were the first.
Clemence wore a blue dress and had some geraniums in her hand; Madame was in black, with a bunch of heliotrope. Gervaise, whose hands were covered with flour, put them behind her back, came forward and kissed them cordially.
After them came Virginie in scarf and hat, though she had only to cross the street; she wore a printed muslin and was as imposing as any lady in the land. She brought a pot of red carnations and put both her arms around her friend and kissed her.
The offering brought by Boche was a pot of pansies, and his wife’s was mignonette; Mme Lerat’s, a lemon verbena. The three furnaces filled the room with an overpowering heat, and the frying potatoes drowned their voices. Gervaise was very sweet and smiling, thanking everyone for the flowers, at the same time making the dressing for the salad. The perfume of the flowers was perceived above all the smell of cooking.
“Can’t I help you?” said Virginie. “It is a shame to have you work so hard for three days on all these things that we shall gobble up in no time.”
“No indeed,” answered Gervaise; “I am nearly through.”
The ladies covered the bed with their shawls and bonnets and then went into the shop that they might be out of the way and talked through the open door with much noise and loud laughing.
At this moment Goujet appeared and stood timidly on the threshold with a tall white rosebush in his arms whose flowers brushed against his yellow beard. Gervaise ran toward him with her cheeks reddened by her furnaces. She took the plant, crying:
He dared not kiss her, and she was compelled to offer her cheek to him, and both were embarrassed. He told her in a confused way that his mother was ill with sciatica and could not come. Gervaise was greatly disappointed, but she had no time to say much just then: she was beginning to be anxious about Coupeau–he ought to be in–then, too, where were the Lorilleuxs? She called Mme Lerat, who had arranged the reconciliation, and bade her go and see.
Mme Lerat put on her hat and shawl with excessive care and departed. A solemn hush of expectation pervaded the room.
Mme Lerat presently reappeared. She had come round by the street to give a more ceremonious aspect to the affair. She held the door open while Mme Lorilleux, in a silk dress, stood on the threshold. All the guests rose, and Gervaise went forward to meet her sister and kissed her, as had been agreed upon.
“Come in! Come in!” she said. “We are friends again.”
“And I hope for always,” answered her sister-in-law severely.
After she was ushered in the same program had to be followed out with her husband. Neither of the two brought any flowers. They had refused to do so, saying that it would look as if they were bowing down to Wooden Legs. Gervaise summoned Augustine and bade her bring some wine and then filled glasses for all the party, and each drank the health of the family.
“It is a good thing before soup,” muttered Boche.
Mamma Coupeau drew Gervaise into the next room.
“Did you see her?” she said eagerly. “I was watching her, and when she saw the table her face was as long as my arm, and now she is gnawing her lips; she is so mad!”
It was true the Lorilleuxs could not stand that table with its white linen, its shining glass and square piece of bread at each place. It was like a restaurant on the boulevard, and Mme Lorilleux felt of the cloth stealthily to ascertain if it were new.
“We are all ready,” cried Gervaise, reappearing and pulling down her sleeves over her white arms.
“Where can Coupeau be?” she continued.
“He is always late! He always forgets!” muttered his sister. Gervaise was in despair. Everything would be spoiled. She proposed that someone should go out and look for him. Goujet offered to go, and she said she would accompany him. Virginie followed, all three bareheaded. Everyone looked at them, so gay and fresh on a week-day. Virginie in her pink muslin and Gervaise in a white cambric with blue spots and a gray silk handkerchief knotted round her throat. They went to one wineshop after another, but no Coupeau. Suddenly, as they went toward the boulevard, his wife uttered an exclamation.
“What is the matter?” asked Goujet.
The clearstarcher was very pale and so much agitated that she could hardly stand. Virginie knew at once and, leaning over her, looked in at the restaurant and saw Lantier quietly dining.
“I turned my foot,” said Gervaise when she could speak. Finally at the Assommoir they found Coupeau and Poisson. They were standing in the center of an excited crowd. Coupeau, in a gray blouse, was quarreling with someone, and Poisson, who was not on duty that day, was listening quietly, his red mustache and imperial giving him, however, quite a formidable aspect.
Goujet left the women outside and, going in, placed his hand on Coupeau’s shoulder, who, when he saw his wife and Virginie, fell into a great rage.
No, he would not move! He would not stand being followed about by women in this way! They might go home and eat their rubbishy dinner themselves! He did not want any of it!
To appease him Goujet was compelled to drink with him, and finally he persuaded him to go with him. But when he was outside he said to Gervaise:
“I am not going home; you need not think it!”
She did not reply. She was trembling from head to foot. She had been speaking of Lantier to Virginie and begged the other to go on in front, while the two women walked on either side of Coupeau to prevent him from seeing Lantier as they passed the open window where he sat eating his dinner.
But Coupeau knew that Lantier was there, for he said:
“There’s a fellow I know, and you know him too!”
He then went on to accuse her, with many a coarse word, of coming out to look, not for him, but for her old lover, and then all at once he poured out a torrent of abuse upon Lantier, who, however, never looked up or appeared to hear it.
Virginie at last coaxed Coupeau on, whose rage disappeared when they turned the corner of the street. They returned to the shop, however, in a very different mood from the one in which they had left it and found the guests, with very long faces, awaiting them.
Coupeau shook hands with the ladies in succession, with difficulty keeping his feet as he did so, and Gervaise, in a choked voice, begged them to take their seats. But suddenly she perceived that Mme Goujet not having come, there was an empty seat next to Mme Lorilleux.
“We are thirteen,” she said, much disturbed, as she fancied this to be an additional proof of the misfortune which for some time she had felt to be hanging over them.
The ladies, who were seated, started up. Mme Putois offered to leave because, she said, no one should fly in the face of Destiny; besides, she was not hungry. As to Boche, he laughed, and said it was all nonsense.
“Wait!” cried Gervaise. “I will arrange it.”
And rushing out on the sidewalk, she called to Father Bru, who was crossing the street, and the old man followed her into the room.
“Sit there,” said the clearstarcher. “You are willing to dine with us, are you not?”
He nodded acquiescence.
“He will do as well as another,” she continued in a low voice. “He rarely, if ever, had as much as he wanted to eat, and it will be a pleasure to us to see him enjoy his dinner.”
Goujet’s eyes were damp, so much was he touched by the kind way in which Gervaise spoke, and the others felt that it would bring them good luck. Mme Lorilleux was the only one who seemed displeased. She drew her skirts away and looked down with disgusted mien upon the patched blouse at her side.
Gervaise served the soup, and the guests were just lifting their spoons to their mouths when Virginie noticed that Coupeau had disappeared. He had probably returned to the more congenial society at the Assommoir, and someone said he might stay in the street; certainly no one would go after him, but just as they had swallowed the soup Coupeau appeared bearing two pots, one under each arm–a balsam and a wallflower. All the guests clapped their hands. He placed them on either side of Gervaise and, kissing her, he said:
“I forgot you, my dear, but all the same I loved you very much.”
“Monsieur Coupeau is very amiable tonight; he has taken just enough to make him good natured,” whispered one of the guests.
This little act on the part of the host brought back the smiles to the faces around the table. The wine began to circulate, and the voices of the children were heard in the next room. Etienne, Nana, Pauline and little Victor Fauconnier were installed at a small table and were told to be very good.
When the _blanquette du veau_ was served the guests were moved to enthusiasm. It was now half-past seven. The door of the shop was shut to keep out inquisitive eyes, and curtains hung before the windows. The veal was a great success; the sauce was delicious and the mushrooms extraordinarily good. Then came the sparerib of pork. Of course all these good things demanded a large amount of wine.
In the next room at the children’s table Nana was playing the mistress of the household. She was seated at the head of the table and for a while was quite dignified, but her natural gluttony made her forget her good manners when she saw Augustine stealing the peas from the plate, and she slapped the girl vehemently.
“Take care, mademoiselle,” said Augustine sulkily, “or I will tell your mother that I heard you ask Victor to kiss you.”
Now was the time for the goose. Two lamps were placed on the table, one at each end, and the disorder was very apparent: the cloth was stained and spotted. Gervaise left the table to reappear presently, bearing the goose in triumph. Lorilleux and his wife exchanged a look of dismay.
“Who will cut it?” said the clearstarcher. “No, not I. It is too big for me to manage!”
Coupeau said he could do it. After all, it was a simple thing enough–he should just tear it to pieces.
There was a cry of dismay.
Mme Lerat had an inspiration.
“Monsieur Poisson is the man,” she said; “of course he understands the use of arms.” And she handed the sergeant the carving knife. Poisson made a stiff inclination of his whole body and drew the dish toward him and went to work in a slow, methodical fashion. As he thrust his knife into the breast Lorilleux was seized with momentary patriotism, and he exclaimed:
“If it were only a Cossack!”
At last the goose was carved and distributed, and the whole party ate as if they were just beginning their dinner. Presently there was a grand outcry about the heat, and Coupeau opened the door into the street. Gervaise devoured large slices of the breast, hardly speaking, but a little ashamed of her own gluttony in the presence of Goujet. She never forgot old Bru, however, and gave him the choicest morsels, which he swallowed unconsciously, his palate having long since lost the power of distinguishing flavors. Mamma Coupeau picked a bone with her two remaining teeth.
And the wine! Good heavens, how much they drank! A pile of empty bottles stood in the corner. When Mme Putois asked for water Coupeau himself removed the carafes from the table. No one should drink water, he declared, in his house–did she want to swallow frogs and live things?–and he filled up all the glasses. Hypocrites might talk as much as they pleased; the juice of the grape was a mighty good thing and a famous invention!
The guests all laughed and approved; working people must have their wine, they said, and Father Noah had planted the vine for them especially. Wine gave courage and strength for work; and if it chanced that a man sometimes took a drop too much, in the end it did him no harm, and life looked brighter to him for a time. Goujet himself, who was usually so prudent and abstemious, was becoming a little excited. Boche was growing red, and the Lorilleux pair very pale, while Poisson assumed a solemn and severe aspect. The men were all more or less tipsy, and the ladies–well, the less we say of the ladies, the better.
Suddenly Gervaise remembered the six bottles of sealed wine she had omitted to serve with the goose as she had intended. She produced them amid much applause. The glasses were filled anew, and Poisson rose and proposed the health of their hostess.
“And fifty more birthdays!” cried Virginie.
“No, no,” answered Gervaise with a smile that had a touch of sadness in it. “I do not care to live to be very old. There comes a time when one is glad to go!”
A little crowd had collected outside and smiled at the scene, and the smell of the goose pervaded the whole street. The clerks in the grocery opposite licked their lips and said it was good and curiously estimated the amount of wine that had been consumed.
None of the guests were annoyed by being the subjects of observation, although they were fully aware of it and, in fact, rather enjoyed it. Coupeau, catching sight of a familiar face, held up a bottle, which, being accepted with a nod, he sent it out with a glass. This established a sort of fraternity with the street.
In the next room the children were unmanageable. They had taken possession of a saucepan and were drumming on it with spoons. Mamma Coupeau and Father Bru were talking earnestly. The old man was speaking of his two sons who had died in the Crimea. Ah, had they but lived, he would have had bread to eat in his old age!
Mme Coupeau, whose tongue was a little thick, said:
“Yes, but one has a good deal of unhappiness with children. Many an hour have I wept on account of mine.”
Father Bru hardly heard what she said but talked on, half to himself.
“I can’t get any work to do. I am too old. When I ask for any people laugh and ask if it was I who blacked Henri Quatre’s boots. Last year I earned thirty sous by painting a bridge. I had to lie on my back all the time, close to the water, and since then I have coughed incessantly.” He looked down at his poor stiff hands and added, "I know I am good for nothing. I wish I was by the side of my boys. It is a great pity that one can’t kill one’s self when one begins to grow old.”
“Really,” said Lorilleux, “I cannot see why the government does not do something for people in your condition. Men who are disabled–”
“But workmen are not soldiers,” interrupted Poisson, who considered it his duty to espouse the cause of the government. “It is foolish to expect them to do impossibilities.”
The dessert was served. In the center was a pyramid of spongecake in the form of a temple with melonlike sides, and on the top was an artificial rose with a butterfly of silver paper hovering over it, held by a gilt wire. Two drops of gum in the heart of the rose stood for dew. On the left was a deep plate with a bit of cheese, and on the other side of the pyramid was a dish of strawberries, which had been sugared and carefully crushed.
In the salad dish there were a few leaves of lettuce left.
“Madame Boche,” said Gervaise courteously, “pray eat these. I know how fond you are of salad.”
The concierge shook her head. There were limits even to her capacities, and she looked at the lettuce with regret. Clemence told how she had once eaten three quarts of water cresses at her breakfast. Mme Putois declared that she enjoyed lettuce with a pinch of salt and no dressing, and as they talked the ladies emptied the salad bowl.
None of the guests were dismayed at the dessert, although they had eaten so enormously. They had the night before them too; there was no need of haste. The men lit their pipes and drank more wine while they watched Gervaise cut the cake. Poisson, who prided himself on his knowledge of the habits of good society, rose and took the rose from the top and presented it to the hostess amid the loud applause of the whole party. She fastened it just over her heart, and the butterfly fluttered at every movement. A song was proposed–comic songs were a specialty with Boche–and the whole party joined in the chorus. The men kept time with their heels and the women with their knives on their glasses. The windows of the shop jarred with the noise. Virginie had disappeared twice, and the third time, when she came back, she said to Gervaise:
“My dear, he is still at the restaurant and pretends to be reading his paper. I fear he is meditating some mischief.”
She spoke of Lantier. She had been out to see if he were anywhere in the vicinity. Gervaise became very grave.
“Is he tipsy?” she asked.
“No indeed, and that is what troubled me. Why on earth should he stay there so long if he is not drinking? My heart is in my mouth; I am so afraid something will happen.”
The clearstarcher begged her to say no more. Mme Putois started up and began a fierce piratical song, standing stiff and erect in her black dress, her pale face surrounded by her black lace cap, and gesticulating violently. Poisson nodded approval. He had been to sea, and he knew all about it.
Gervaise, assisted by her mother-in-law, now poured out the coffee. Her guests insisted on a song from her, declaring that it was her turn. She refused. Her face was disturbed and pale, so much so that she was asked if the goose disagreed with her.
Finally she began to sing a plaintive melody all about dreams and rest. Her eyelids half closed as she ended, and she peered out into the darkness. Then followed a barcarole from Mme Boche and a romance from Lorilleux, in which figured perfumes of Araby, ivory throats, ebony hair, kisses, moonlight and guitars! Clemence followed with a song which recalled the country with its descriptions of birds and flowers. Virginie brought down the house with her imitation of a vivandiere, standing with her hand on her hip and a wineglass in her hand, which she emptied down her throat as she finished.
But the grand success of the evening was Goujet, who sang in his rich bass the _"Adieux d’Abd-et-Kader."_ The words issued from his yellow beard like the call of a trumpet and thrilled everyone around the table.
Virginie whispered to Gervaise:
“I have just seen Lantier pass the door. Good heavens! There he is again, standing still and looking in.”
Gervaise caught her breath and timidly turned around. The crowd had increased, attracted by the songs. There were soldiers and shopkeepers and three little girls, five or six years old, holding each other by the hand, grave and silent, struck with wonder and admiration.
Lantier was directly in front of the door. Gervaise met his eyes and felt the very marrow of her bones chilled; she could not move hand or foot.
Coupeau called for more wine, and Clemence helped herself to more strawberries. The singing ceased, and the conversation turned upon a woman who had hanged herself the day before in the next street.
It was now Mme Lerat’s turn to amuse the company, but she needed to make certain preparations.
She dipped the corner of her napkin into a glass of water and applied it to her temples because she was too warm. Then she asked for a teaspoonful of brandy and wiped her lips.
“I will sing _’L’Enfant du Bon Dieu,’_” she said pompously.
She stood up, with her square shoulders like those of a man, and began:
_"L’Enfant perdu que sa mere abandonne, Troue toujours un asile au Saint lieu, Dieu qui le voit, le defend de son trone, L’Enfant perdu, c’est L’Enfant du bon Dieu."_
She raised her eyes to heaven and placed one hand on her heart; her voice was not without a certain sympathetic quality, and Gervaise, already quivering with emotion caused by the knowledge of Lantier’s presence, could no longer restrain her tears. It seemed to her that she was the deserted child whom _le bon Dieu_ had taken under His care. Clemence, who was quite tipsy, burst into loud sobs. The ladies took out their handkerchiefs and pressed them to their eyes, rather proud of their tenderness of heart.
The men felt it their duty to respect the feeling shown by the women and were, in fact, somewhat touched themselves. The wine had softened their hearts apparently.
Gervaise and Virginie watched the shadows outside. Mme Boche, in her turn, now caught a glimpse of Lantier and uttered an exclamation as she wiped away her fast-falling tears. The three women exchanged terrified, anxious glances.
“Good heavens!” muttered Virginie. “Suppose Coupeau should turn around. There would be a murder, I am convinced.” And the earnestness of their fixed eyes became so apparent that finally he said:
“What are you staring at?”
And leaning forward, he, too, saw Lantier.
“This is too much,” he muttered, “the dirty ruffian! It is too much, and I won’t have it!”
As he started to his feet with an oath, Gervaise put her hand on his arm imploringly.
“Put down that knife,” she said, “and do not go out, I entreat of you.”
Virginie took away the knife that Coupeau had snatched from the table, but she could not prevent him from going into the street. The other guests saw nothing, so entirely absorbed were they in the touching words which Mme Lerat was still singing.
Gervaise sat with her hands clasped convulsively, breathless with fear, expecting to hear a cry of rage from the street and see one of the two men fall to the ground. Virginie and Mme Boche had something of the same feeling. Coupeau had been so overcome by the fresh air that when he rushed forward to take Lantier by the collar he missed his footing and found himself seated quietly in the gutter.
Lantier moved aside a little without taking his hands from his pockets.
Coupeau staggered to his feet again, and a violent quarrel commenced. Gervaise pressed her hands over her eyes; suddenly all was quiet, and she opened her eyes again and looked out.
To her intense astonishment she saw Lantier and her husband talking in a quiet, friendly manner.
Gervaise exchanged a look with Mme Boche and Virginie. What did this mean?
As the women watched them the two men began to walk up and down in front of the shop. They were talking earnestly. Coupeau seemed to be urging something, and Lantier refusing. Finally Coupeau took Lantier’s arm and almost dragged him toward the shop.
“I tell you, you must!” he cried. “You shall drink a glass of wine with us. Men will be men all the world over. My wife and I know that perfectly well.”
Mme Lerat had finished her song and seated herself with the air of being utterly exhausted. She asked for a glass of wine. When she sang that song, she said, she was always torn to pieces, and it left her nerves in a terrible state.
Lantier had been placed at the table by Coupeau and was eating a piece of cake, leisurely dipping it into his glass of wine. With the exception of Mme Boche and Virginie, no one knew him.
The Lorilleuxs looked at him with some suspicion, which, however, was very far from the mark. An awkward silence followed, broken by Coupeau, who said simply:
“He is a friend of ours!”
And turning to his wife, he added:
“Can’t you move round a little? Perhaps there is a cup of hot coffee!”
Gervaise looked from one to the other. She was literally dazed. When her husband first appeared with her former lover she had clasped her hands over her forehead with that instinctive gesture with which in a great storm one waits for the approach of the thunderclap.
It did not seem possible that the walls would not fall and crush them all. Then seeing the two men calmly seated together, it all at once seemed perfectly natural to her. She was tired of thinking about it and preferred to accept it. Why, after all, should she worry? No one else did. Everyone seemed to be satisfied; why should not she be also?
The children had fallen asleep in the back room, Pauline with her head on Etienne’s shoulder. Gervaise started as her eyes fell on her boy. She was shocked at the thought of his father sitting there eating cake without showing the least desire to see his child. She longed to awaken him and show him to Lantier. And then again she had a feeling of passing wonder at the manner in which things settled themselves in this world.
She would not disturb the serenity of matters now, so she brought in the coffeepot and poured out a cup for Lantier, who received it without even looking up at her as he murmured his thanks.
“Now it is my turn to sing!” shouted Coupeau.
His song was one familiar to them all and even to the street, for the little crowd at the door joined in the chorus. The guests within were all more or less tipsy, and there was so much noise that the policemen ran to quell a riot, but when they saw Poisson they bowed respectfully and passed on.
No one of the party ever knew how or at what hour the festivities terminated. It must have been very late, for there was not a human being in the street when they departed. They vaguely remembered having joined hands and danced around the table. Gervaise remembered that Lantier was the last to leave, that he passed her as she stood in the doorway. She felt a breath on her cheek, but whether it was his or the night air she could not tell.
Mme Lerat had refused to return to Batignolles so late, and a mattress was laid on the floor in the shop near the table. She slept there amid the debris of the feast, and a neighbor’s cat profited by an open window to establish herself by her side, where she crunched the bones of the goose all night between her fine, sharp teeth.