An Old Acquaintance
The following Saturday Coupeau, who had not been home to dinner, came in with Lantier about ten o’clock. They had been eating pigs’ feet at a restaurant at Montmarte.
“Don’t scold, wife,” said Coupeau; “we have not been drinking, you see; we can walk perfectly straight.” And he went on to say how they had met each other quite by accident in the street and how Lantier had refused to drink with him, saying that when a man had married a nice little woman he had no business to throw away his money in that way. Gervaise listened with a faint smile; she had no idea of scolding. Oh no, it was not worth the trouble, but she was much agitated at seeing the two men together so soon again, and with trembling hands she knotted up her loosened hair.
Her workwomen had been gone some time. Nana and Mamma Coupeau were in bed, and Gervaise, who was just closing her shutters when her husband appeared, brought out some glasses and the remains of a bottle of brandy. Lantier did not sit down and avoided addressing her directly.
When she served him, however, he exclaimed:
“A drop, madame; a mere drop!”
Coupeau looked at them for a moment and then expressed his mind fully. They were no fools, he said, nor were they children. The past was the past. If people kept up their enmities for nine or ten years no one would have a soul to speak to soon. As for himself, he was made differently. He knew they were honest people, and he was sure he could trust them.
“Of course,” murmured Gervaise, hardly knowing what she said, “of course.”
“I regard her as a sister,” said Lantier, “only as a sister.”
“Give us your hand on that,” cried Coupeau, “and let us be good friends in the future. After all, a good heart is better than gold, and I estimate friendship as above all price.”
And he gave himself a little tap on his breast and looked about for applause, as if he had uttered rather a noble sentiment.
Then the three silently drank their brandy. Gervaise looked at Lantier and saw him for the first time, for on the night of the fete she had seen him, as it were, through a glass, darkly.
He had grown very stout, and his arms and legs very heavy. But his face was still handsome, although somewhat bloated by liquor and good living. He was dressed with care and did not look any older than his years. He was thirty-five. He wore gray pantaloons and a dark blue frock coat, like any gentleman, and had a watch and a chain on which hung a ring–a souvenir, apparently.
“I must go,” he said presently.
He was at the door when Coupeau recalled him to say that he must never pass without coming in to say, “How do you do?”
Meanwhile Gervaise, who had disappeared, returned, pushing Etienne before her. The boy was half asleep but smiled as he rubbed his eyes. When he saw Lantier he stared and looked uneasily from him to Coupeau.
“Do you know this gentleman?” said his mother.
The child looked away and did not answer, but when his mother repeated the question he made a little sign that he remembered him. Lantier, grave and silent, stood still. When Etienne went toward him he stooped and kissed the child, who did not look at him but burst into tears, and when he was violently reproached by Coupeau he rushed away.
“It is excitement,” said his mother, who was herself very pale.
“He is usually very good and very obedient,” said Coupeau. “I have brought him up well, as you will find out. He will soon get used to you. He must learn something of life, you see, and will understand one of these days that people must forget and forgive, and I would cut off my head sooner than prevent a father from seeing his child!”
He then proposed to finish the bottle of brandy. They all three drank together again. Lantier was quite undisturbed, and before he left he insisted on aiding Coupeau to shut up the shop. Then as he dusted his hands with his handkerchief he wished them a careless good night.
“Sleep well. I am going to try and catch the omnibus. I will see you soon again.”
Lantier kept his word and was seen from that time very often in the shop. He came only when Coupeau was home and asked for him before he crossed the threshold. Then seated near the window, always wearing a frock coat, fresh linen and carefully shaved, he kept up a conversation like a man who had seen something of the world. By degrees Coupeau learned something of his life. For the last eight years he had been at the head of a hat manufactory, and when he was asked why he had given it up he said vaguely that he was not satisfied with his partner; he was a rascal, and so on.
But his former position still imparted to him a certain air of importance. He said, also, that he was on the point of concluding an important matter–that certain business houses were in process of establishing themselves, the management of which would be virtually in his hands. In the meantime he had absolutely not one thing to do but to walk about with his hands in his pockets.
Any day he pleased, however, he could start again. He had only to decide on some house. Coupeau did not altogether believe this tale and insisted that he must be doing something which he did not choose to tell; otherwise how did he live?
The truth was that Lantier, excessively talkative in regard to other people’s affairs, was very reticent about his own. He lied quite as often as he spoke the truth and would never tell where he resided. He said he was never at home, so it was of no use for anyone to come and see him.
“I am very careful,” he said, “in making an engagement. I do not choose to bind myself to a man and find, when it is too late, that he intends to make a slave of me. I went one Monday to Champion at Monrouge. That evening Champion began a political discussion. He and I differed entirely, and on Tuesday I threw up the situation. You can’t blame me, I am sure, for not being willing to sell my soul and my convictions for seven francs per day!”
It was now November. Lantier occasionally brought a bunch of violets to Gervaise. By degrees his visits became more frequent. He seemed determined to fascinate the whole house, even the _Quartier_, and he began by ingratiating himself with Clemence and Mme Putois, showing them both the greatest possible attention.
These two women adored him at the end of a month. Mme Boche, whom he flattered by calling on her in her loge, had all sorts of pleasant things to say about him.
As to the Lorilleuxs, they were furious when they found out who he was and declared that it was a sin and a disgrace for Gervaise to bring him into her house. But one fine day Lantier bearded them in their den and ordered a chain made for a lady of his acquaintance and made himself so agreeable that they begged him to sit down and kept him an hour. After this visit they expressed their astonishment that a man so distinguished could ever have seen anything in Wooden Legs to admire. By degrees, therefore, people had become accustomed to seeing him and no longer expressed their horror or amazement. Goujet was the only one who was disturbed. If Lantier came in while he was there he at once departed and avoided all intercourse with him.
Gervaise was very unhappy. She was conscious of a returning inclination for Lantier, and she was afraid of herself and of him. She thought of him constantly; he had taken entire possession of her imagination. But she grew calmer as days passed on, finding that he never tried to see her alone and that he rarely looked at her and never laid the tip of his finger on her.
Virginie, who seemed to read her through and through, asked her what she feared. Was there ever a man more respectful?
But out of mischief or worse, the woman contrived to get the two into a corner one day and then led the conversation into a most dangerous direction. Lantier, in reply to some question, said in measured tones that his heart was dead, that he lived now only for his son. He never thought of Claude, who was away. He embraced Etienne every night but soon forgot he was in the room and amused himself with Clemence.
Then Gervaise began to realize that the past was dead. Lantier had brought back to her the memory of Plassans and the Hotel Boncoeur. But this faded away again, and, seeing him constantly, the past was absorbed in the present. She shook off these memories almost with disgust. Yes, it was all over, and should he ever dare to allude to former years she would complain to her husband.
She began again to think of Goujet almost unconsciously.
One morning Clemence said that the night before she had seen Lantier walking with a woman who had his arm. Yes, he was coming up La Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette; the woman was a blonde and no better than she should be. Clemence added that she had followed them until the woman reached a house where she went in. Lantier waited in the street until there was a window opened, which was evidently a signal, for he went into the house at once.
Gervaise was ironing a white dress; she smiled slightly and said that she believed a Provencal was always crazy after women, and at night when Lantier appeared she was quite amused at Clemence, who at once attacked him. He seemed to be, on the whole, rather pleased that he had been seen. The person was an old friend, he said, one whom he had not seen for some time–a very stylish woman, in fact–and he told Clemence to smell of his handkerchief on which his friend had put some of the perfume she used. Just then Etienne came in, and his father became very grave and said that he was in jest–that his heart was dead.
Gervaise nodded approval of this sentiment, but she did not speak.
When spring came Lantier began to talk of moving into that neighborhood. He wanted a furnished, clean room. Mme Boche and Gervaise tried to find one for him. But they did not meet with any success. He was altogether too fastidious in his requirements. Every evening at the Coupeaus’ he wished he could find people like themselves who would take a lodger.
“You are very comfortable here, I am sure,” he would say regularly.
Finally one night when he had uttered this phrase, as usual, Coupeau cried out:
“If you like this place so much why don’t you stay here? We can make room for you.”
And he explained that the linen room could be so arranged that it would be very comfortable, and Etienne could sleep on a mattress in the corner.
“No, no,” said Lantier; “it would trouble you too much. I know that you have the most generous heart in the world, but I cannot impose upon you. Your room would be a passageway to mine, and that would not be agreeable to any of us.”
“Nonsense,” said Coupeau. “Have we no invention? There are two windows; can’t one be cut down to the floor and used as a door? In that case you would enter from the court and not through the shop. You would be by yourself, and we by ourselves.”
There was a long silence, broken finally by Lantier.
“If this could be done,” he said, “I should like it, but I am afraid you would find yourselves too crowded.”
He did not look at Gervaise as he spoke, but it was clear that he was only waiting for a word from her. She did not like the plan at all; not that the thought of Lantier living under their roof disturbed her, but she had no idea where she could put the linen as it came in to be washed and again when it was rough-dry.
But Coupeau was enchanted with the plan. The rent, he said, had always been heavy to carry, and now they would gain twenty francs per month. It was not dear for him, and it would help them decidedly. He told his wife that she could have two great boxes made in which all the linen of the _Quartier_ could be piled.
Gervaise still hesitated, questioning Mamma Coupeau with her eyes. Lantier had long since propitiated the old lady by bringing her gumdrops for her cough.
“If we could arrange it I am sure–” said Gervaise hesitatingly.
“You are too kind,” remonstrated Lantier. “I really feel that it would be an intrusion.”
Coupeau flamed out. Why did she not speak up, he should like to know? Instead of stammering and behaving like a fool?
“Etienne! Etienne!” he shouted.
The boy was asleep with his head on the table. He started up.
“Listen to me. Say to this gentleman, ’I wish it.’ Say just those words and nothing more.”
“I wish it!” stammered Etienne, half asleep.
Everybody laughed. But Lantier almost instantly resumed his solemn air. He pressed Coupeau’s hand cordially.
“I accept your proposition,” he said. “It is a most friendly one, and I thank you in my name and in that of my child.”
The next morning Marescot, the owner of the house, happening to call, Gervaise spoke to him of the matter. At first he absolutely refused and was as disturbed and angry as if she had asked him to build on a wing for her especial accommodation. Then after a minute examination of the premises he ended by giving his consent, only on condition, however, that he should not be required to pay any portion of the expense, and the Coupeaus signed a paper, agreeing to put everything into its original condition at the expiration of their lease.
That same evening Coupeau brought in a mason, a painter and a carpenter, all friends and boon companions of his, who would do this little job at night, after their day’s work was over.
The cutting of the door, the painting and the cleaning would come to about one hundred francs, and Coupeau agreed to pay them as fast as his tenant paid him.
The next question was how to furnish the room? Gervaise left Mamma Coupeau’s wardrobe in it. She added a table and two chairs from her own room. She was compelled to buy a bed and dressing table and divers other things, which amounted to one hundred and thirty francs. This she must pay for ten francs each month. So that for nearly a year they could derive no benefit from their new lodger.
It was early in June that Lantier took possession of his new quarters. Coupeau had offered the night before to help him with his trunk in order to avoid the thirty sous for a fiacre. But the other seemed embarrassed and said his trunk was heavy, and it seemed as if he preferred to keep it a secret even now where he resided.
He came about three o’clock. Coupeau was not there, and Gervaise, standing at her shop door, turned white as she recognized the trunk on the fiacre. It was their old one with which they had traveled from Plassans. Now it was banged and battered and strapped with cords.
She saw it brought in as she had often seen it in her dreams, and she vaguely wondered if it were the same fiacre which had taken him and Adele away. Boche welcomed Lantier cordially. Gervaise stood by in silent bewilderment, watching them place the trunk in her lodger’s room. Then hardly knowing what she said, she murmured:
“We must take a glass of wine together––”
Lantier, who was busy untying the cords on his trunk, did not look up, and she added:
“You will join us, Monsieur Boche!”
And she went for some wine and glasses. At that moment she caught sight of Poisson passing the door. She gave him a nod and a wink which he perfectly understood: it meant, when he was on duty, that he was offered a glass of wine. He went round by the courtyard in order not to be seen. Lantier never saw him without some joke in regard to his political convictions, which, however, had not prevented the men from becoming excellent friends.
To one of these jests Boche now replied:
“Did you know,” he said, “that when the emperor was in London he was a policeman, and his special duty was to carry all the intoxicated women to the station house?”
Gervaise had filled three glasses on the table. She did not care for any wine; she was sick at heart as she stood looking at Lantier kneeling on the floor by the side of the trunk. She was wild to know what it contained. She remembered that in one corner was a pile of stockings, a shirt or two and an old hat. Were those things still there? Was she to be confronted with those tattered relics of the past?
Lantier did not lift the lid, however; he rose and, going to the table, held his glass high in his hands.
“To your health, madame!” he said.
And Poisson and Boche drank with him.
Gervaise filled their glasses again. The three men wiped their lips with the backs of their hands.
Then Lantier opened his trunk. It was filled with a hodgepodge of papers, books, old clothes and bundles of linen. He pulled out a saucepan, then a pair of boots, followed by a bust of Ledru Rollin with a broken nose, then an embroidered shirt and a pair of ragged pantaloons, and Gervaise perceived a mingled and odious smell of tobacco, leather and dust.
No, the old hat was not in the left corner; in its place was a pin cushion, the gift of some woman. All at once the strange anxiety with which she had watched the opening of this trunk disappeared, and in its place came an intense sadness as she followed each article with her eyes as Lantier took them out and wondered which belonged to her time and which to the days when another woman filled his life.
“Look here, Poisson,” cried Lantier, pulling out a small book. It was a scurrilous attack on the emperor, printed at Brussels, entitled _The Amours of Napoleon III_.
Poisson was aghast. He found no words with which to defend the emperor. It was in a book–of course, therefore, it was true. Lantier, with a laugh of triumph, turned away and began to pile up his books and papers, grumbling a little that there were no shelves on which to put them. Gervaise promised to buy some for him. He owned Louis Blanc’s _Histoire de Dix Ans_, all but the first volume, which he had never had, Lamartine’s _Les Girondins_, _The Mysteries of Paris_ and _The Wandering Jew_, by Eugene Sue, without counting a pile of incendiary volumes which he had picked up at bookstalls. His old newspapers he regarded with especial respect. He had collected them with care for years: whenever he had read an article at a cafe of which he approved, he bought the journal and preserved it. He consequently had an enormous quantity, of all dates and names, tied together without order or sequence.
He laid them all in a corner of the room, saying as he did so:
“If people would study those sheets and adopt the ideas therein, society would be far better organized than it now is. Your emperor and all his minions would come down a bit on the ladder–”
Here he was interrupted by Poisson, whose red imperial and mustache irradiated his pale face.
“And the army,” he said, “what would you do with that?”
Lantier became very much excited.
“The army!” he cried. “I would scatter it to the four winds of heaven! I want the military system of the country abolished! I want the abolition of titles and monopolies! I want salaries equalized! I want liberty for everyone. Divorces, too–”
“Yes; divorces, of course,” interposed Boche. “That is needed in the cause of morality.”
Poisson threw back his head, ready for an argument, but Gervaise, who did not like discussions, interfered. She had recovered from the torpor into which she had been plunged by the sight of this trunk, and she asked the men to take another glass. Lantier was suddenly subdued and drank his wine, but Boche looked at Poisson uneasily.
“All this talk is between ourselves, is it not?” he said to the policeman.
Poisson did not allow him to finish: he laid his hand on his heart and declared that he was no spy. Their words went in at one ear and out at another. He had forgotten them already.
Coupeau by this time appeared, and more wine was sent for. But Poisson dared linger no longer, and, stiff and haughty, he departed through the courtyard.
From the very first Lantier was made thoroughly at home. Lantier had his separate room, private entrance and key. But he went through the shop almost always. The accumulation of linen disturbed Gervaise, for her husband never arranged the boxes he had promised, and she was obliged to stow it away in all sorts of places, under the bed and in the corner. She did not like making up Etienne’s mattress late at night either.
Goujet had spoken of sending the child to Lille to his own old master, who wanted apprentices. The plan pleased her, particularly as the boy, who was not very happy at home, was impatient to become his own master. But she dared not ask Lantier, who had come there to live ostensibly to be near his son. She felt, therefore, that it was hardly a good plan to send the boy away within a couple of weeks after his father’s arrival.
When, however, she did make up her mind to approach the subject he expressed warm approval of the idea, saying that youths were far better in the country than in Paris.
Finally it was decided that Etienne should go, and when the morning of his departure arrived Lantier read his son a long lecture and then sent him off, and the house settled down into new habits.
Gervaise became accustomed to seeing the dirty linen lying about and to seeing Lantier coming in and going out. He still talked with an important air of his business operations. He went out daily, dressed with the utmost care and came home, declaring that he was worn out with the discussions in which he had been engaged and which involved the gravest and most important interests.
He rose about ten o’clock, took a walk if the day pleased him, and if it rained he sat in the shop and read his paper. He liked to be there. It was his delight to live surrounded by a circle of worshiping women, and he basked indolently in the warmth and atmosphere of ease and comfort, which characterized the place.
At first Lantier took his meals at the restaurant at the corner, but after a while he dined three or four times a week with the Coupeaus and finally requested permission to board with them and agreed to pay them fifteen francs each Saturday. Thus he was regularly installed and was one of the family. He was seen in his shirt sleeves in the shop every morning, attending to any little matters or receiving orders from the customers. He induced Gervaise to leave her own wine merchant and go to a friend of his own. Then he found fault with the bread and sent Augustine to the Vienna bakery in a distant _faubourg_. He changed the grocer but kept the butcher on account of his political opinions.
At the end of a month he had instituted a change in the cuisine. Everything was cooked in oil: being a Provencal, that was what he adored. He made the omelets himself, which were as tough as leather. He superintended Mamma Coupeau and insisted that the beefsteaks should be thoroughly cooked, until they were like the soles of an old shoe. He watched the salad to see that nothing went in which he did not like. His favorite dish was vermicelli, into which he poured half a bottle of oil. This he and Gervaise ate together, for the others, being Parisians, could not be induced to taste it.
By degrees Lantier attended to all those affairs which fall to the share of the master of the house and to various details of their business, in addition. He insisted that if the five francs which the Lorilleux people had agreed to pay toward the support of Mamma Coupeau was not forthcoming they should go to law about it. In fact, ten francs was what they ought to pay. He himself would go and see if he could not make them agree to that. He went up at once and asked them in such a way that he returned in triumph with the ten francs. And Mme Lerat, too, did the same at his representation. Mamma Coupeau could have kissed Lantier’s hands, who played the part, besides, of an arbiter in the quarrels between the old woman and Gervaise.
The latter, as was natural, sometimes lost patience with the old woman, who retreated to her bed to weep. He would bluster about and ask if they were simpletons, to amuse people with their disagreements, and finally induced them to kiss and be friends once more.
He expressed his mind freely in regard to Nana also. In his opinion she was brought up very badly, and here he was quite right, for when her father cuffed her her mother upheld her, and when, in her turn, the mother reproved, the father made a scene.
Nana was delighted at this and felt herself free to do much as she pleased.
She had started a new game at the farriery opposite. She spent entire days swinging on the shafts of the wagons. She concealed herself, with her troop of followers, at the back of the dark court, redly lit by the forge, and then would make sudden rushes with screams and whoops, followed by every child in the neighborhood, reminding one of a flock of martins or sparrows.
Lantier was the only one whose scoldings had any effect. She listened to him graciously. This child of ten years of age, precocious and vicious, coquetted with him as if she had been a grown woman. He finally assumed the care of her education. He taught her to dance and to talk slang!
Thus a year passed away. The whole neighborhood supposed Lantier to be a man of means–otherwise how did the Coupeaus live as they did? Gervaise, to be sure, still made money, but she supported two men who did nothing, and the shop, of course, did not make enough for that. The truth was that Lantier had never paid one sou, either for board or lodging. He said he would let it run on, and when it amounted to a good sum he would pay it all at once.
After that Gervaise never dared to ask him for a centime. She got bread, wine and meat on credit; bills were running up everywhere, for their expenditures amounted to three and four francs every day. She had never paid anything, even a trifle on account, to the man from whom she had bought her furniture or to Coupeau’s three friends who had done the work in Lantier’s room. The tradespeople were beginning to grumble and treated her with less politeness.
But she seemed to be insensible to this; she chose the most expensive things, having thrown economy to the winds, since she had given up paying for things at once. She always intended, however, to pay eventually and had a vague notion of earning hundreds of francs daily in some extraordinary way by which she could pay all these people.
About the middle of summer Clemence departed, for there was not enough work for two women; she had waited for her money for some weeks. Lantier and Coupeau were quite undisturbed, however. They were in the best of spirits and seemed to be growing fat over the ruined business.
In the _Quartier_ there was a vast deal of gossip. Everybody wondered as to the terms on which Lantier and Gervaise now stood. The Lorilleuxs viciously declared that Gervaise would be glad enough to resume her old relations with Lantier but that he would have nothing to do with her, for she had grown old and ugly. The Boche people took a different view, but while everyone declared that the whole arrangement was a most improper one, they finally accepted it as quite a matter of course and altogether natural.
It is quite possible there were other homes which were quite as open to invidious remarks within a stone’s throw, but these Coupeaus, as their neighbors said, were good, kind people. Lantier was especially ingratiating. It was decided, therefore, to let things go their own way undisturbed.
Gervaise lived quietly indifferent to, and possibly entirely unsuspicious of, all these scandals. By and by it came to pass that her husband’s own people looked on her as utterly heartless. Mme Lerat made her appearance every evening, and she treated Lantier as if he were utterly irresistible, into whose arms any and every woman would be only too glad to fall. An actual league seemed to be forming against Gervaise: all the women insisted on giving her a lover.
But she saw none of these fascinations in him. He had changed, unquestionably, and the external changes were all in his favor. He wore a frock coat and had acquired a certain polish. But she who knew him so well looked down into his soul through his eyes and shuddered at much she saw there. She could not understand what others saw in him to admire. And she said so one day to Virginie. Then Mme Lerat and Virginie vied with each other in the stories they told of Clemence and himself–what they did and said whenever her back was turned–and now they were sure, since she had left the establishment, that he went regularly to see her.
“Well, what of it?” asked Gervaise, her voice trembling. “What have I to do with that?”
But she looked into Virginie’s dark brown eyes, which were specked with gold and emitted sparks as do those of cats. But the woman put on a stupid look as she answered:
“Why, nothing, of course; only I should think you would advise him not to have anything to do with such a person.”
Lantier was gradually changing his manner to Gervaise. Now when he shook hands with her he held her fingers longer than was necessary. He watched her incessantly and fixed his bold eyes upon her. He leaned over her so closely that she felt his breath on her cheek. But one evening, being alone with her, he caught her in both arms. At that moment Goujet entered. Gervaise wrenched herself free, and the three exchanged a few words as if nothing had happened. Goujet was very pale and seemed embarrassed, supposing that he had intruded upon them and that she had pushed Lantier aside only because she did not choose to be embraced in public.
The next day Gervaise was miserable, unhappy and restless. She could not iron a handkerchief. She wanted to see Goujet and tell him just what had happened, but ever since Etienne had gone to Lille she had given up going to the forge, as she was quite unable to face the knowing winks with which his comrades received her. But this day she determined to go, and, taking an empty basket on her arms, she started off, pretending that she was going with skirts to some customers in La Rue des Portes-Blanches.
Goujet seemed to be expecting her, for she met him loitering on the corner.
“Ah,” he said with a wan smile, “you are going home, I presume?”
He hardly knew what he was saying, and they both turned toward Montmartre without another word. They merely wished to go away from the forge. They passed several manufactories and soon found themselves with an open field before them. A goat was tethered near by and bleating as it browsed, and a dead tree was crumbling away in the hot sun.
“One might almost think oneself in the country,” murmured Gervaise.
They took a seat under the dead tree. The clearstarcher set the basket down at her feet. Before them stretched the heights of Montmartre, with its rows of yellow and gray houses amid clumps of trees, and when they threw back their heads a little they saw the whole sky above, clear and cloudless, but the sunlight dazzled them, and they looked over to the misty outlines of the _faubourg_ and watched the smoke rising from tall chimneys in regular puffs, indicating the machinery which impelled it. These great sighs seemed to relieve their own oppressed breasts.
“Yes,” said Gervaise after a long silence. “I have been on a long walk, and I came out–”
She stopped. After having been so eager for an explanation she found herself unable to speak and overwhelmed with shame. She knew that he as well as herself had come to that place with the wish and intention of speaking on one especial subject, and yet neither of them dared to allude to it. The occurrence of the previous evening weighed on both their souls.
Then with a heart torn with anguish and with tears in her eyes, she told him of the death of Mme Bijard, who had breathed her last that morning after suffering unheard-of agonies.
“It was caused by a kick of Bijard’s,” she said in her low, soft voice; “some internal injury. For three days she has suffered frightfully. Why are not such men punished? I suppose, though, if the law undertook to punish all the wretches who kill their wives that it would have too much to do. After all, one kick more or less: what does it matter in the end? And this poor creature, in her desire to save her husband from the scaffold, declared she had fallen over a tub.”
Goujet did not speak. He sat pulling up the tufts of grass.
“It is not a fortnight,” continued Gervaise, “since she weaned her last baby, and here is that child Lalie left to take care of two mites. She is not eight years old but as quiet and sensible as if she were a grown woman, and her father kicks and strikes her too. Poor little soul! There are some persons in this world who seem born to suffer.”
Goujet looked at her and then said suddenly, with trembling lips:
“You made me suffer yesterday.”
Gervaise clasped her hands imploringly, and he continued:
“I knew of course how it must end; only you should not have allowed me to think–”
He could not finish. She started up, seeing what his convictions were. She cried out:
“You are wrong! I swear to you that you are wrong! He was going to kiss me, but his lips did not touch me, and it is the very first time that he made the attempt. Believe me, for I swear–on all that I hold most sacred–that I am telling you the truth.”
But the blacksmith shook his head. He knew that women did not always tell the truth on such points. Gervaise then became very grave.
“You know me well,” she said; “you know that I am no liar. I again repeat that Lantier and I are friends. We shall never be anything more, for if that should ever come to pass I should regard myself as the vilest of the vile and should be unworthy of the friendship of a man like yourself.” Her face was so honest, her eyes were so clear and frank, that he could do no less than believe her. Once more he breathed freely. He held her hand for the first time. Both were silent. White clouds sailed slowly above their heads with the majesty of swans. The goat looked at them and bleated piteously, eager to be released, and they stood hand in hand on that bleak slope with tears in their eyes.
“Your mother likes me no longer,” said Gervaise in a low voice. “Do not say no; how can it be otherwise? We owe you so much money.”
He roughly shook her arm in his eagerness to check the words on her lips; he would not hear her. He tried to speak, but his throat was too dry; he choked a little and then he burst out:
“Listen to me,” he cried; “I have long wished to say something to you. You are not happy. My mother says things are all going wrong with you, and,” he hesitated, “we must go away together and at once.”
She looked at him, not understanding him but impressed by this abrupt declaration of a love from him, who had never before opened his lips in regard to it.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“I mean,” he answered without looking in her face, “that we two can go away and live in Belgium. It is almost the same to me as home, and both of us could get work and live comfortably.”
The color came to her face, which she would have hidden on his shoulder to hide her shame and confusion. He was a strange fellow to propose an elopement. It was like a book and like the things she heard of in high society. She had often seen and known of the workmen about her making love to married women, but they did not think of running away with them.
“Ah, Monsieur Goujet!” she murmured, but she could say no more.
“Yes,” he said, “we two would live all by ourselves.”
But as her self-possession returned she refused with firmness.
“It is impossible,” she said, “and it would be very wrong. I am married and I have children. I know that you are fond of me, and I love you too much to allow you to commit any such folly as you are talking of, and this would be an enormous folly. No; we must live on as we are. We respect each other now. Let us continue to do so. That is a great deal and will help us over many a roughness in our paths. And when we try to do right we are sure of a reward.”
He shook his head as he listened to her, but he felt she was right. Suddenly he snatched her in his arms and kissed her furiously once and then dropped her and turned abruptly away. She was not angry, but the locksmith trembled from head to foot. He began to gather some of the wild daisies, not knowing what to do with his hands, and tossed them into her empty basket. This occupation amused him and tranquillized him. He broke off the head of the flowers and, when he missed his mark and they fell short of the basket, laughed aloud.
Gervaise sat with her back against the tree, happy and calm. And when she set forth on her walk home her basket was full of daisies, and she was talking of Etienne.
In reality Gervaise was more afraid of Lantier than she was willing to admit even to herself. She was fully determined never to allow the smallest familiarity, but she was afraid that she might yield to his persuasions, for she well knew the weakness and amiability of her nature and how hard it was for her to persist in any opposition to anyone.
Lantier, however, did not put this determination on her part to the test. He was often alone with her now and was always quiet and respectful. Coupeau declared to everyone that Lantier was a true friend. There was no nonsense about him; he could be relied upon always and in all emergencies. And he trusted him thoroughly, he declared. When they went out together–the three–on Sundays he bade his wife and Lantier walk arm in arm, while he mounted guard behind, ready to cuff the ears of anyone who ventured on a disrespectful glance, a sneer or a wink.
He laughed good-naturedly before Lantier’s face, told him he put on a great many airs with his coats and his books, but he liked him in spite of them. They understood each other, he said, and a man’s liking for another man is more solid and enduring than his love for a woman.
Coupeau and Lantier made the money fly. Lantier was continually borrowing money from Gervaise–ten francs, twenty francs–whenever he knew there was money in the house. It was always because he was in pressing need for some business matter. But still on those same days he took Coupeau off with him and at some distant restaurant ordered and devoured such dishes as they could not obtain at home, and these dishes were washed down by bottle after bottle of wine.
Coupeau would have preferred to get tipsy without the food, but he was impressed by the elegance and experience of his friend, who found on the carte so many extraordinary sauces. He had never seen a man like him, he declared, so dainty and so difficult. He wondered if all southerners were the same as he watched him discussing the dishes with the waiter and sending away a dish that was too salty or had too much pepper.
Neither could he endure a draft: his skin was all blue if a door was left open, and he made no end of a row until it was closed again.
Lantier was not wasteful in certain ways, for he never gave a _garcon_ more than two sous after he had served a meal that cost some seven or eight francs.
They never alluded to these dinners the next morning at their simple breakfast with Gervaise. Naturally people cannot frolic and work, too, and since Lantier had become a member of his household Coupeau had never lifted a tool. He knew every drinking shop for miles around and would sit and guzzle deep into the night, not always pleased to find himself deserted by Lantier, who never was known to be overcome by liquor.
About the first of November Coupeau turned over a new leaf; he declared he was going to work the next day, and Lantier thereupon preached a little sermon, declaring that labor ennobled man, and in the morning arose before it was light to accompany his friend to the shop, as a mark of the respect he felt. But when they reached a wineshop on the corner they entered to take a glass merely to cement good resolutions.
Near the counter they beheld Bibi-la-Grillade smoking his pipe with a sulky air.
“What is the matter, Bibi?” cried Coupeau.
“Nothing,” answered his comrade, “except that I got my walking ticket yesterday. Perdition seize all masters!” he added fiercely.
And Bibi accepted a glass of liquor. Lantier defended the masters. They were not so bad after all; then, too, how were the men to get along without them? “To be sure,” continued Lantier, “I manage pretty well, for I don’t have much to do with them myself!”
“Come, my boy,” he added, turning to Coupeau; “we shall be late if we don’t look out.”
Bibi went out with them. Day was just breaking, gray and cloudy. It had rained the night before and was damp and warm. The street lamps had just been extinguished. There was one continued tramp of men going to their work.
Coupeau, with his bag of tools on his shoulder, shuffled along; his footsteps had long since lost their ring.
“Bibi,” he said, “come with me; the master told me to bring a comrade if I pleased.”
“It won’t be me then,” answered Bibi. “I wash my hands of them all. No more masters for me, I tell you! But I dare say Mes-Bottes would be glad of the offer.”
And as they reached the Assommoir they saw Mes-Bottes within. Notwithstanding the fact that it was daylight, the gas was blazing in the Assommoir. Lantier remained outside and told Coupeau to make haste, as they had only ten minutes.
“Do you think I will work for your master?” cried Mes-Bottes. “He is the greatest tyrant in the kingdom. No, I should rather suck my thumbs for a year. You won’t stay there, old man! No, you won’t stay there three days, now I tell you!”
“Are you in earnest?” asked Coupeau uneasily.
“Yes, I am in earnest. You can’t speak–you can’t move. Your nose is held close to the grindstone all the time. He watches you every moment. If you drink a drop he says you are tipsy and makes no end of a row!”
“Thanks for the warning. I will try this one day, and if the master bothers me I will just tell him what I think of him and turn on my heel and walk out.”
Coupeau shook his comrade’s hand and turned to depart, much to the disgust of Mes-Bottes, who angrily asked if the master could not wait five minutes. He could not go until he had taken a drink. Lantier entered to join in, and Mes-Bottes stood there with his hat on the back of his head, shabby, dirty and staggering, ordering Father Colombe to pour out the glasses and not to cheat.
At that moment Goujet and Lorilleux were seen going by. Mes-Bottes shouted to them to come in, but they both refused–Goujet saying he wanted nothing, and the other, as he hugged a little box of gold chains close to his heart, that he was in a hurry.
“Milksops!” muttered Mes-Bottes. “They had best pass their lives in the corner by the fire!”
Returning to the counter, he renewed his attack on Father Colombe, whom he accused of adulterating his liquors.
It was now bright daylight, and the proprietor of the Assommoir began to extinguish the lights. Coupeau made excuses for his brother-in-law, who, he said, could never drink; it was not his fault, poor fellow! He approved, too, of Goujet, declaring that it was a good thing never to be thirsty. Again he made a move to depart and go to his work when Lantier, with his dictatorial air, reminded him that he had not paid his score and that he could not go off in that way, even if it were to his duty.
“I am sick of the words ’work’ and ’duty,’” muttered Mes-Bottes.
They all paid for their drinks with the exception of Bibi-la-Grillade, who stooped toward the ear of Father Colombe and whispered a few words. The latter shook his head, whereupon Mes-Bottes burst into a torrent of invectives, but Colombe stood in impassive silence, and when there was a lull in the storm he said:
“Let your friends pay for you then–that is a very simple thing to do.”
By this time Mes-Bottes was what is properly called howling drunk, and as he staggered away from the counter he struck the bag of tools which Coupeau had over his shoulder.
“You look like a peddler with his pack or a humpback. Put it down!”
Coupeau hesitated a moment, and then slowly and deliberately, as if he had arrived at a decision after mature deliberation, he laid his bag on the ground.
“It is too late to go this morning. I will wait until after breakfast now. I will tell him my wife was sick. Listen, Father Colombe, I will leave my bag of tools under this bench and come for them this afternoon.”
Lantier assented to this arrangement. Of course work was a good thing, but friends and good company were better; and the four men stood, first on one foot and then on the other, for more than an hour, and then they had another drink all round. After that a game of billiards was proposed, and they went noisily down the street to the nearest billiard room, which did not happen to please the fastidious Lantier, who, however, soon recovered his good humor under the effect of the admiration excited in the minds of his friends by his play, which was really very extraordinary.
When the hour arrived for breakfast Coupeau had an idea.
“Let us go and find Bec Sali. I know where he works. We will make him breakfast with us.”
The idea was received with applause. The party started forth. A fine drizzling rain was now falling, but they were too warm within to mind this light sprinkling on their shoulders.
Coupeau took them to a factory where his friend worked and at the door gave two sous to a small boy to go up and find Bec Sali and to tell him that his wife was very sick and had sent for him.
Bec Sali quickly appeared, not in the least disturbed, as he suspected a joke.
“Aha!” he said as he saw his friend. “I knew it!” They went to a restaurant and ordered a famous repast of pigs’ feet, and they sat and sucked the bones and talked about their various employers.
“Will you believe,” said Bec Sali, “that mine has had the brass to hang up a bell? Does he think we are slaves to run when he rings it? Never was he so mistaken–”
“I am obliged to leave you!” said Coupeau, rising at last with an important air. “I promised my wife to go to work today, and I leave you with the greatest reluctance.”
The others protested and entreated, but he seemed so decided that they all accompanied him to the Assommoir to get his tools. He pulled out the bag from under the bench and laid it at his feet while they all took another drink. The clock struck one, and Coupeau kicked his bag under the bench again. He would go tomorrow to the factory; one day really did not make much difference.
The rain had ceased, and one of the men proposed a little walk on the boulevards to stretch their legs. The air seemed to stupefy them, and they loitered along with their arms swinging at their sides, without exchanging a word. When they reached the wineshop on the corner of La Rue des Poissonniers they turned in mechanically. Lantier led the way into a small room divided from the public one by windows only. This room was much affected by Lantier, who thought it more stylish by far than the public one. He called for a newspaper, spread it out and examined it with a heavy frown. Coupeau and Mes-Bottes played a game of cards, while wine and glasses occupied the center of the table.
“What is the news?” asked Bibi.
Lantier did not reply instantly, but presently, as the others emptied their glasses, he began to read aloud an account of a frightful murder, to which they listened with eager interest. Then ensued a hot discussion and argument as to the probable motives for the murder.
By this time the wine was exhausted, and they called for more. About five all except Lantier were in a state of beastly intoxication, and he found them so disgusting that, as usual, he made his escape without his comrades noticing his defection.
Lantier walked about a little and then, when he felt all right, went home and told Gervaise that her husband was with his friends. Coupeau did not make his appearance for two days. Rumors were brought in that he had been seen in one place and then in another, and always alone. His comrades had apparently deserted him. Gervaise shrugged her shoulders with a resigned air.
“Good heavens!” she said. “What a way to live!” She never thought of hunting him up. Indeed, on the afternoon of the third day, when she saw him through the window of a wineshop, she turned back and would not pass the door. She sat up for him, however, and listened for his step or the sound of his hand fumbling at the lock.
The next morning he came in, only to begin the same thing at night again. This went on for a week, and at last Gervaise went to the Assommoir to make inquiries. Yes, he had been there a number of times, but no one knew where he was just then. Gervaise picked up the bag of tools and carried them home.
Lantier, seeing that Gervaise was out of spirits, proposed that she should go with him to a cafe concert. She refused at first, being in no mood for laughing; otherwise she would have consented, for Lantier’s proposal seemed to be prompted by the purest friendliness. He seemed really sorry for her trouble and, indeed, assumed an absolutely paternal air.
Coupeau had never stayed away like this before, and she continually found herself going to the door and looking up and down the street. She could not keep to her work but wandered restlessly from place to place. Had Coupeau broken a limb? Had he fallen into the water? She did not think she could care so very much if he were killed, if this uncertainty were over, if she only knew what she had to expect. But it was very trying to live in this suspense.
Finally when the gas was lit and Lantier renewed his proposition of the cafe she consented. After all, why should she not go? Why should she refuse all pleasures because her husband chose to behave in this disgraceful way? If he would not come in she would go out.
They hurried through their dinner, and as she went out with Lantier at eight o’clock Gervaise begged Nana and Mamma Coupeau to go to bed early. The shop was closed, and she gave the key to Mme Boche, telling her that if Coupeau came in it would be as well to look out for the lights.
Lantier stood whistling while she gave these directions. Gervaise wore her silk dress, and she smiled as they walked down the street in alternate shadow and light from the shopwindows.
The cafe concert was on the Boulevard de Rochechoumart. It had once been a cafe and had had a concert room built on of rough planks.
Over the door was a row of glass globes brilliantly illuminated. Long placards, nailed on wood, were standing quite out in the street by the side of the gutter.
“Here we are!” said Lantier. “Mademoiselle Amanda makes her debut tonight.”
Bibi-la-Grillade was reading the placard. Bibi had a black eye, as if he had been fighting.
“Hallo!” cried Lantier. “How are you? Where is Coupeau? Have you lost him?”
“Yes, since yesterday. We had a little fight with a waiter at Baquets. He wanted us to pay twice for what we had, and somehow Coupeau and I got separated, and I have not seen him since.”
And Bibi gave a great yawn. He was in a disgraceful state of intoxication. He looked as if he had been rolling in the gutter.
“And you know nothing of my husband?” asked Gervaise.
“No, nothing. I think, though, he went off with a coachman.”
Lantier and Gervaise passed a very agreeable evening at the cafe concert, and when the doors were closed at eleven they went home in a sauntering sort of fashion. They were in no hurry, and the night was fair, though a little cool. Lantier hummed the air which Amanda had sung, and Gervaise added the chorus. The room had been excessively warm, and she had drunk several glasses of wine.
She expressed a great deal of indignation at Mlle Amanda’s costume. How did she dare face all those men, dressed like that? But her skin was beautiful, certainly, and she listened with considerable curiosity to all that Lantier could tell her about the woman.
“Everybody is asleep,” said Gervaise after she had rung the bell three times.
The door was finally opened, but there was no light. She knocked at the door of the Boche quarters and asked for her key.
The sleepy concierge muttered some unintelligible words, from which Gervaise finally gathered that Coupeau had been brought in by Poisson and that the key was in the door.
Gervaise stood aghast at the disgusting sight that met her eyes as she entered the room where Coupeau lay wallowing on the floor.
She shuddered and turned away. This sight annihilated every ray of sentiment remaining in her heart.
“What am I to do?” she said piteously. “I can’t stay here!”
Lantier snatched her hand.
“Gervaise,” he said, “listen to me.”
But she understood him and drew hastily back.
“No, no! Leave me, Auguste. I can manage.”
But Lantier would not obey her. He put his arm around her waist and pointed to her husband as he lay snoring, with his mouth wide open.
“Leave me!” said Gervaise, imploringly, and she pointed to the room where her mother-in-law and Nana slept.
“You will wake them!” she said. “You would not shame me before my child? Pray go!”
He said no more but slowly and softly kissed her on her ear, as he had so often teased her by doing in those old days. Gervaise shivered, and her blood was stirred to madness in her veins.
“What does that beast care?” she thought. “It is his fault,” she murmured; “all his fault. He sends me from his room!”
And as Lantier drew her toward his door Nana’s face appeared for a moment at the window which lit her little cabinet.
The mother did not see the child, who stood in her nightdress, pale with sleep. She looked at her father as he lay and then watched her mother disappear in Lantier’s room. She was perfectly grave, but in her eyes burned the sensual curiosity of premature vice.