Clouds into the Horizon
That winter Mamma Coupeau was very ill with an asthmatic attack, which she always expected in the month of December.
The poor woman suffered much, and the depression of her spirits was naturally very great. It must be confessed that there was nothing very gay in the aspect of the room where she slept. Between her bed and that of the little girl there was just room for a chair. The paper hung in strips from the wall. Through a round window near the ceiling came a dreary gray light. There was little ventilation in the room, which made it especially unfit for the old woman, who at night, when Nana was there and she could hear her breathe, did not complain, but when left alone during the day, moaned incessantly, rolling her head about on her pillow.
“Ah,” she said, “how unhappy I am! It is the same as a prison. I wish I were dead!”
And as soon as a visitor came in–Virginie or Mme Boche–she poured out her grievances. “I should not suffer so much among strangers. I should like sometimes a cup of tisane, but I can’t get it; and Nana–that child whom I have raised from the cradle–disappears in the morning and never shows her face until night, when she sleeps right through and never once asks me how I am or if she can do anything for me. It will soon be over, and I really believe this clearstarcher would smother me herself–if she were not afraid of the law!”
Gervaise, it is true, was not as gentle and sweet as she had been. Everything seemed to be going wrong with her, and she had lost heart and patience together. Mamma Coupeau had overheard her saying that she was really a great burden. This naturally cut her to the heart, and when she saw her eldest daughter, Mme Lerat, she wept piteously and declared that she was being starved to death, and when these complaints drew from her daughter’s pocket a little silver, she expended it in dainties.
She told the most preposterous tales to Mme Lerat about Gervaise–of her new finery and of cakes and delicacies eaten in the corner and many other things of infinitely more consequence. Then in a little while she turned against the Lorilleuxs and talked of them in the most bitter manner. At the height of her illness it so happened that her two daughters met one afternoon at her bedside. Their mother made a motion to them to come closer. Then she went on to tell them, between paroxysms of coughing, that her son came home dead drunk the night before and that she was absolutely certain that Gervaise spent the night in Lantier’s room. “It is all the more disgusting,” she added, "because I am certain that Nana heard what was going on quite as well as I did.”
The two women did not appear either shocked or surprised.
“It is none of our business,” said Mme Lorilleux. “If Coupeau does not choose to take any notice of her conduct it is not for us to do so.”
All the neighborhood were soon informed of the condition of things by her two sisters-in-law, who declared they entered her doors only on their mother’s account, who, poor thing, was compelled to live amid these abominations.
Everyone accused Gervaise now of having perverted poor Lantier. “Men will be men,” they said; “surely you can’t expect them to turn a cold shoulder to women who throw themselves at their heads. She has no possible excuse; she is a disgrace to the whole street!”
The Lorilleuxs invited Nana to dinner that they might question her, but as soon as they began the child looked absolutely stupid, and they could extort nothing from her.
Amid this sudden and fierce indignation Gervaise lived–indifferent, dull and stupid. At first she loathed herself, and if Coupeau laid his hand on her she shivered and ran away from him. But by degrees she became accustomed to it. Her indolence had become excessive, and she only wished to be quiet and comfortable.
After all, she asked herself, why should she care? If her lover and her husband were satisfied, why should she not be too? So the household went on much as usual to all appearance. In reality, whenever Coupeau came in tipsy, she left and went to Lantier’s room to sleep. She was not led there by passion or affection; it was simply that it was more comfortable. She was very like a cat in her choice of soft, clean places.
Mamma Coupeau never dared to speak out openly to the clearstarcher, but after a dispute she was unsparing in her hints and allusions. The first time Gervaise fixed her eyes on her and heard all she had to say in profound silence. Then without seeming to speak of herself, she took occasion to say not long afterward that when a woman was married to a man who was drinking himself to death a woman was very much to be pitied and by no means to blame if she looked for consolation elsewhere.
Another time, when taunted by the old woman, she went still further and declared that Lantier was as much her husband as was Coupeau–that he was the father of two of her children. She talked a little twaddle about the laws of nature, and a shrewd observer would have seen that she–parrotlike–was repeating the words that some other person had put into her mouth. Besides, what were her neighbors doing all about her? They were not so extremely respectable that they had the right to attack her. And then she took house after house and showed her mother-in-law that while apparently so deaf to gossip she yet knew all that was going on about her. Yes, she knew–and now seemed to gloat over that which once had shocked and revolted her.
“It is none of my business, I admit,” she cried; “let each person live as he pleases, according to his own light, and let everybody else alone.”
One day when Mamma Coupeau spoke out more clearly she said with compressed lips:
“Now look here, you are flat on your back and you take advantage of that fact. I have never said a word to you about your own life, but I know it all the same–and it was atrocious! That is all! I am not going into particulars, but remember, you had best not sit in judgment on me!”
The old woman was nearly suffocated with rage and her cough.
The next day Goujet came for his mother’s wash while Gervaise was out. Mamma Coupeau called him into her room and kept him for an hour. She read the young man’s heart; she knew that his suspicions made him miserable. And in revenge for something that had displeased her she told him the truth with many sighs and tears, as if her daughter-in-law’s infamous conduct was a bitter blow to her.
When Goujet left her room he was deadly pale and looked ten years older than when he went in. The old woman had, too, the additional pleasure of telling Gervaise on her return that Mme Goujet had sent word that her linen must be returned to her at once, ironed or unironed. And she was so animated and comparatively amiable that Gervaise scented the truth and knew instinctively what she had done and what she was to expect with Goujet. Pale and trembling, she piled the linen neatly in a basket and set forth to see Mme Goujet. Years had passed since she had paid her friends one penny. The debt still stood at four hundred and twenty-five francs. Each time she took the money for her washing she spoke of being pressed just at that time. It was a great mortification for her.
Coupeau was, however, less scrupulous and said with a laugh that if she kissed her friend occasionally in the corner it would keep things straight and pay him well. Then Gervaise, with eyes blazing with indignation, would ask if he really meant that. Had he fallen so low? Nor should he speak of Goujet in that way in her presence.
Every time she took home the linen of these former friends she ascended the stairs with a sick heart.
“Ah, it is you, is it?” said Mme Goujet coldly as she opened the door. Gervaise entered with some hesitation; she did not dare attempt to excuse herself. She was no longer punctual to the hour or the day–everything about her was becoming perfectly disorderly.
“For one whole week,” resumed the lace mender, “you have kept me waiting. You have told me falsehood after falsehood. You have sent your apprentice to tell me that there was an accident–something had been spilled on the shirts, they would come the next day, and so on. I have been unnecessarily annoyed and worried, besides losing much time. There is no sense in it! Now what have you brought home? Are the shirts here which you have had for a month and the skirt which was missing last week?”
“Yes,” said Gervaise, almost inaudibly; “yes, the skirt is here. Look at it!”
But Mme Goujet cried out in indignation.
That skirt did not belong to her, and she would not have it. This was the crowning touch, if her things were to be changed in this way. She did not like other people’s things.
“And the shirts? Where are they? Lost, I suppose. Very well, settle it as you please, but these shirts I must have tomorrow morning!”
There was a long silence. Gervaise was much disturbed by seeing that the door of Goujet’s room was wide open. He was there, she was sure, and listening to all these reproaches which she knew to be deserved and to which she could not reply. She was very quiet and submissive and laid the linen on the bed as quickly as possible.
Mme Goujet began to examine the pieces.
“Well! Well!” she said. “No one can praise your washing nowadays. There is not a piece here that is not dirtied by the iron. Look at this shirt: it is scorched, and the buttons are fairly torn off by the root. Everything comes back–that comes at all, I should say–with the buttons off. Look at that sack: the dirt is all in it. No, no, I can’t pay for such washing as this!”
She stopped talking–while she counted the pieces. Then she exclaimed:
“Two pairs of stockings, six towels and one napkin are missing from this week. You are laughing at me, it seems. Now, just understand, I tell you to bring back all you have, ironed or not ironed. If in an hour your woman is not here with the rest I have done with you, Madame Coupeau!”
At this moment Goujet coughed. Gervaise started. How could she bear being treated in this way before him? And she stood confused and silent, waiting for the soiled clothes.
Mme Goujet had taken her place and her work by the window.
“And the linen?” said Gervaise timidly.
“Many thanks,” said the old woman. “There is nothing this week.”
Gervaise turned pale; it was clear that Mme Goujet meant to take away her custom from her. She sank into a chair. She made no attempt at excuses; she only asked a question.
“Is Monsieur Goujet ill?”
“He is not well; at least he has just come in and is lying down to rest a little.”
Mme Goujet spoke very slowly, almost solemnly, her pale face encircled by her white cap, and wearing, as usual, her plain black dress.
And she explained that they were obliged to economize very closely. In future she herself would do their washing. Of course Gervaise must know that this would not be necessary had she and her husband paid their debt to her son. But of course they would submit; they would never think of going to law about it. While she spoke of the debt her needle moved rapidly to and fro in the delicate meshes of her work.
“But,” continued Mme Goujet, “if you were to deny yourself a little and be careful and prudent, you could soon discharge your debt to us; you live too well; you spend too freely. Were you to give us only ten francs each month–”
She was interrupted by her son, who called impatiently, “Mother! Come here, will you?”
When she returned she changed the conversation. Her son had undoubtedly begged her to say no more about this money to Gervaise. In spite of her evident determination to avoid this subject, she returned to it again in about ten minutes. She knew from the beginning just what would happen. She had said so at the time, and all had turned out precisely as she had prophesied. The tinworker had drunk up the shop and had left his wife to bear the load by herself. If her son had taken her advice he would never have lent the money. His marriage had fallen through, and he had lost his spirits. She grew very angry as she spoke and finally accused Gervaise openly of having, with her husband, deliberately conspired to cheat her simplehearted son.
“Many women,” she exclaimed, “played the parts of hypocrites and prudes for years and were found out at the last!”
“Mother! Mother!” called Goujet peremptorily.
She rose and when she returned said:
“Go in; he wants to see you.”
Gervaise obeyed, leaving the door open behind her. She found the room sweet and fresh looking, like that of a young girl, with its simple pictures and white curtains.
Goujet, crushed by what he had heard from Mamma Coupeau, lay at full length on the bed with pale face and haggard eyes.
“Listen!” he said. “You must not mind my mother’s words; she does not understand. You do not owe me anything.”
He staggered to his feet and stood leaning against the bed and looking at her.
“Are you ill?” she said nervously.
“No, not ill,” he answered, “but sick at heart. Sick when I remember what you said and see the truth. Leave me. I cannot bear to look at you.”
And he waved her away, not angrily, but with great decision. She went out without a word, for she had nothing to say. In the next room she took up her basket and stood still a moment; Mme Goujet did not look up, but she said:
“Remember, I want my linen at once, and when that is all sent back to me we will settle the account.”
“Yes,” answered Gervaise. And she closed the door, leaving behind her all that sweet odor and cleanliness on which she had once placed so high a value. She returned to the shop with her head bowed down and looking neither to the right nor the left.
Mother Coupeau was sitting by the fire, having left her bed for the first time. Gervaise said nothing to her–not a word of reproach or congratulation. She felt deadly tired; all her bones ached, as if she had been beaten. She thought life very hard and wished that it were over for her.
Gervaise soon grew to care for nothing but her three meals per day. The shop ran itself; one by one her customers left her. Gervaise shrugged her shoulders half indifferently, half insolently; everybody could leave her, she said: she could always get work. But she was mistaken, and soon it became necessary for her to dismiss Mme Putois, keeping no assistant except Augustine, who seemed to grow more and more stupid as time went on. Ruin was fast approaching. Naturally, as indolence and poverty increased, so did lack of cleanliness. No one would ever have known that pretty blue shop in which Gervaise had formerly taken such pride. The windows were unwashed and covered with the mud scattered by the passing carriages. Within it was still more forlorn: the dampness of the steaming linen had ruined the paper; everything was covered with dust; the stove, which once had been kept so bright, was broken and battered. The long ironing table was covered with wine stains and grease, looking as if it had served a whole garrison. The atmosphere was loaded with a smell of cooking and of sour starch. But Gervaise was unconscious of it. She did not notice the torn and untidy paper and, having ceased to pay any attention to personal cleanliness, was hardly likely to spend her time in scrubbing the greasy floors. She allowed the dust to accumulate over everything and never lifted a finger to remove it. Her own comfort and tranquillity were now her first considerations.
Her debts were increasing, but they had ceased to give her any uneasiness. She was no longer honest or straightforward. She did not care whether she ever paid or not, so long as she got what she wanted. When one shop refused her more credit she opened an account next door. She owed something in every shop in the whole _Quartier_. She dared not pass the grocer or the baker in her own street and was compelled to make a lengthy circuit each time she went out. The tradespeople muttered and grumbled, and some went so far as to call her a thief and a swindler.
One evening the man who had sold her the furniture for Lantier’s room came in with ugly threats.
Such scenes were unquestionably disagreeable. She trembled for an hour after them, but they never took away her appetite.
It was very stupid of these people, after all, she said to Lantier. How could she pay them if she had no money? And where could she get money? She closed her eyes to the inevitable and would not think of the future. Mamma Coupeau was well again, but the household had been disorganized for more than a year. In summer there was more work brought to the shop–white skirts and cambric dresses. There were ups and downs, therefore: days when there was nothing in the house for supper and others when the table was loaded.
Mamma Coupeau was seen almost daily, going out with a bundle under her apron and returning without it and with a radiant face, for the old woman liked the excitement of going to the Mont-de-Piete.
Gervaise was gradually emptying the house–linen and clothes, tools and furniture. In the beginning she took advantage of a good week to take out what she had pawned the week before, but after a while she ceased to do that and sold her tickets. There was only one thing which cost her a pang, and that was selling her clock. She had sworn she would not touch it, not unless she was dying of hunger, and when at last she saw her mother-in-law carry it away she dropped into a chair and wept like a baby. But when the old woman came back with twenty-five francs and she found she had five francs more than was demanded by the pressing debt which had caused her to make the sacrifice, she was consoled and sent out at once for four sous’ worth of brandy. When these two women were on good terms they often drank a glass together, sitting at the corner of the ironing table.
Mamma Coupeau had a wonderful talent for bringing a glass in the pocket of her apron without spilling a drop. She did not care to have the neighbors know, but, in good truth, the neighbors knew very well and laughed and sneered as the old woman went in and out.
This, as was natural and right, increased the prejudice against Gervaise. Everyone said that things could not go on much longer; the end was near.
Amid all this ruin Coupeau thrived surprisingly. Bad liquor seemed to affect him agreeably. His appetite was good in spite of the amount he drank, and he was growing stout. Lantier, however, shook his head, declaring that it was not honest flesh and that he was bloated. But Coupeau drank all the more after this statement and was rarely or ever sober. There began to be a strange bluish tone in his complexion. His spirits never flagged. He laughed at his wife when she told him of her embarrassments. What did he care, so long as she provided him with food to eat? And the longer he was idle, the more exacting he became in regard to this food.
He was ignorant of his wife’s infidelity, at least, so all his friends declared. They believed, moreover, that were he to discover it there would be great trouble. But Mme Lerat, his own sister, shook her head doubtfully, averring that she was not so sure of his ignorance.
Lantier was also in good health and spirits, neither too stout nor too thin. He wished to remain just where he was, for he was thoroughly well satisfied with himself, and this made him critical in regard to his food, as he had made a study of the things he should eat and those he should avoid for the preservation of his figure. Even when there was not a cent he asked for eggs and cutlets: nourishing and light things were what he required, he said. He ruled Gervaise with a rod of iron, grumbled and found fault far more than Coupeau ever did. It was a house with two masters, one of whom, cleverer by far than the other, took the best of everything. He skimmed the Coupeaus, as it were, and kept all the cream for himself. He was fond of Nana because he liked girls better than boys. He troubled himself little about Etienne.
When people came and asked for Coupeau it was Lantier who appeared in his shirt sleeves with the air of the man of the house who is needlessly disturbed. He answered for Coupeau, said it was one and the same thing.
Gervaise did not find this life always smooth and agreeable. She had no reason to complain of her health. She had become very stout. But it was hard work to provide for and please these two men. When they came in, furious and out of temper, it was on her that they wreaked their rage. Coupeau abused her frightfully and called her by the coarsest epithets. Lantier, on the contrary, was more select in his phraseology, but his words cut her quite as deeply. Fortunately people become accustomed to almost everything in this world, and Gervaise soon ceased to care for the reproaches and injustice of these two men. She even preferred to have them out of temper with her, for then they let her alone in some degree; but when they were in a good humor they were all the time at her heels, and she could not find a leisure moment even to iron a cap, so constant were the demands they made upon her. They wanted her to do this and do that, to cook little dishes for them and wait upon them by inches.
One night she dreamed she was at the bottom of a well. Coupeau was pushing her down with his fists, and Lantier was tickling her to make her jump out quicker. And this, she thought, was a very fair picture of her life! She said that the people of the _Quartier_ were very unjust, after all, when they reproached her for the way of life into which she had fallen. It was not her fault. It was not she who had done it, and a little shiver ran over her as she reflected that perhaps the worst was not yet.
The utter deterioration of her nature was shown by the fact that she detested neither her husband nor Lantier. In a play at the Gaite she had seen a woman hate her husband and poison him for the sake of her lover. This she thought very strange and unnatural. Why could the three not have lived together peaceably? It would have been much more reasonable!
In spite of her debts, in spite of the shifts to which her increasing poverty condemned her, Gervaise would have considered herself quite well off, but for the exacting selfishness of Lantier and Coupeau.
Toward autumn Lantier became more and more disgusted, declared he had nothing to live on but potato parings and that his health was suffering. He was enraged at seeing the house so thoroughly cleared out, and he felt that the day was not far off when he must take his hat and depart. He had become accustomed to his den, and he hated to leave it. He was thoroughly provoked that the extravagant habits of Gervaise necessitated this sacrifice on his part. Why could she not have shown more sense? He was sure he didn’t know what would become of them. Could they have struggled on six months longer, he could have concluded an affair which would have enabled him to support the whole family in comfort.
One day it came to pass that there was not a mouthful in the house, not even a radish. Lantier sat by the stove in somber discontent. Finally he started up and went to call on the Poissons, to whom he suddenly became friendly to a degree. He no longer taunted the police officer but condescended to admit that the emperor was a good fellow after all. He showed himself especially civil to Virginie, whom he considered a clever woman and well able to steer her bark through stormy seas.
Virginie one day happened to say in his presence that she should like to establish herself in some business. He approved the plan and paid her a succession of adroit compliments on her capabilities and cited the example of several women he knew who had made or were making their fortunes in this way.
Virginie had the money, an inheritance from an aunt, but she hesitated, for she did not wish to leave the _Quartier_ and she did not know of any shop she could have. Then Lantier led her into a corner and whispered to her for ten minutes; he seemed to be persuading her to something. They continued to talk together in this way at intervals for several days, seeming to have some secret understanding.
Lantier all this time was fretting and scolding at the Coupeaus, asking Gervaise what on earth she intended to do, begging her to look things fairly in the face. She owed five or six hundred francs to the tradespeople about her. She was behindhand with her rent, and Marescot, the landlord, threatened to turn her out if they did not pay before the first of January.
The Mont-de-Piete had taken everything; there was literally nothing but the nails in the walls left. What did she mean to do?
Gervaise listened to all this at first listlessly, but she grew angry at last and cried out:
“Look here! I will go away tomorrow and leave the key in the door. I had rather sleep in the gutter than live in this way!”
“And I can’t say that it would not be a wise thing for you to do!" answered Lantier insidiously. “I might possibly assist you to find someone to take the lease off your hands whenever you really conclude to leave the shop.”
“I am ready to leave it at once!” cried Gervaise violently. “I am sick and tired of it.”
Then Lantier became serious and businesslike. He spoke openly of Virginie, who, he said, was looking for a shop; in fact, he now remembered having heard her say that she would like just such a one as this.
But Gervaise shrank back and grew strangely calm at this name of Virginie.
She would see, she said; on the whole, she must have time to think. People said a great many things when they were angry, which on reflection were found not to be advisable.
Lantier rang the changes on this subject for a week, but Gervaise said she had decided to employ some woman and go to work again, and if she were not able to get back her old customers she could try for new ones. She said this merely to show Lantier that she was not so utterly downcast and crushed as he had seemed to take for granted was the case.
He was reckless enough to drop the name of Virginie once more, and she turned upon him in a rage.
“No, no, never!” She had always distrusted Virginie, and if she wanted the shop it was only to humiliate her. Any other woman might have it, but not this hypocrite, who had been waiting for years to gloat over her downfall. No, she understood now only too well the meaning of the yellow sparks in her cat’s eyes. It was clear to her that Virginie had never forgotten the scene in the lavatory, and if she did not look out there would be a repetition of it.
Lantier stood aghast at this anger and this torrent of words, but presently he plucked up courage and bade her hold her tongue and told her she should not talk of his friends in that way. As for himself, he was sick and tired of other people’s affairs; in future he would let them all take care of themselves, without a word of counsel from him.
January arrived, cold and damp. Mamma Coupeau took to her bed with a violent cold which she expected each year at this time. But those about her said she would never leave the house again, except feet first.
Her children had learned to look forward to her death as a happy deliverance for all. The physician who came once was not sent for again. A little tisane was given her from time to time that she might not feel herself utterly neglected. She was just alive; that was all. It now became a mere question of time with her, but her brain was clear still, and in the expression of her eyes there were many things to be read–sorrow at seeing no sorrow in those she left behind her and anger against Nana, who was utterly indifferent to her.
One Monday evening Coupeau came in as tipsy as usual and threw himself on the bed, all dressed. Gervaise intended to remain with her mother-in-law part of the night, but Nana was very brave and said she would hear if her grandmother moved and wanted anything.
About half-past three Gervaise woke with a start; it seemed to her that a cold blast had swept through the room. Her candle had burned down, and she nastily wrapped a shawl around her with trembling hands and hurried into the next room. Nana was sleeping quietly, and her grandmother was dead in the bed at her side.
Gervaise went to Lantier and waked him.
“She is dead,” she said.
“Well, what of it?” he muttered, half asleep. “Why don’t you go to sleep?”
She turned away in silence while he grumbled at her coming to disturb him by the intelligence of a death in the house.
Gervaise dressed herself, not without tears, for she really loved the cross old woman whose son lay in the heavy slumbers of intoxication.
When she went back to the room she found Nana sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The child realized what had come to pass and trembled nervously in the face of this death of which she had thought much in the last two days, as of something which was hidden from children.
“Get up!” said her mother in a low voice. “I do not wish you to stay here.”
The child slipped from her bed slowly and regretfully, with her eyes fixed on the dead body of her grandmother.
Gervaise did not know what to do with her or where to send her. At this moment Lantier appeared at the door. He had dressed himself, impelled by a little shame at his own conduct.
“Let the child go into my room,” he said, “and I will help you.”
Nana looked first at her mother and then at Lantier and then trotted with her little bare feet into the next room and slipped into the bed that was still warm.
She lay there wide awake with blazing cheeks and eyes and seemed to be absorbed in thought.
While Lantier and Gervaise were silently occupied with the dead Coupeau lay and snored.
Gervaise hunted in a bureau to find a little crucifix which she had brought from Plassans, when she suddenly remembered that Mamma Coupeau had sold it. They each took a glass of wine and sat by the stove until daybreak.
About seven o’clock Coupeau woke. When he heard what had happened he declared they were jesting. But when he saw the body he fell on his knees and wept like a baby. Gervaise was touched by these tears and found her heart softer toward her husband than it had been for many a long year.
“Courage, old friend!” said Lantier, pouring out a glass of wine as he spoke.
Coupeau took some wine, but he continued to weep, and Lantier went off under pretext of informing the family, but he did not hurry. He walked along slowly, smoking a cigar, and after he had been to Mme Lerat’s he stopped in at a _cremerie_ to take a cup of coffee, and there he sat for an hour or more in deep thought.
By nine o’clock the family were assembled in the shop, whose shutters had not been taken down. Lorilleux only remained for a few moments and then went back to his shop. Mme Lorilleux shed a few tears and then sent Nana to buy a pound of candles.
“How like Gervaise!” she murmured. “She can do nothing in a proper way!”
Mme Lerat went about among the neighbors to borrow a crucifix. She brought one so large that when it was laid on the breast of Mamma Coupeau the weight seemed to crush her.
Then someone said something about holy water, so Nana was sent to the church with a bottle. The room assumed a new aspect. On a small table burned a candle, near it a glass of holy water in which was a branch of box.
“Everything is in order,” murmured the sisters; “people can come now as soon as they please.”
Lantier made his appearance about eleven. He had been to make inquiries in regard to funeral expenses.
“The coffin,” he said, “is twelve francs, and if you want a Mass, ten francs more. A hearse is paid for according to its ornaments.”
“You must remember,” said Mme Lorilleux with compressed lips, “that Mamma must be buried according to her purse.”
“Precisely!” answered Lantier. “I only tell you this as your guide. Decide what you want, and after breakfast I will go and attend to it all.”
He spoke in a low voice, oppressed by the presence of the dead. The children were laughing in the courtyard and Nana singing loudly.
Gervaise said gently:
“We are not rich, to be sure, but we wish to do what she would have liked. If Mamma Coupeau has left us nothing it was not her fault and no reason why we should bury her as if she were a dog. No, there must be a Mass and a hearse.”
“And who will pay for it?” asked Mme Lorilleux. “We can’t, for we lost much money last week, and I am quite sure you would find it hard work!”
Coupeau, when he was consulted, shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of profound indifference. Mme Lerat said she would pay her share.
“There are three of us,” said Gervaise after a long calculation; “if we each pay thirty francs we can do it with decency.”
But Mme Lorilleux burst out furiously:
“I will never consent to such folly. It is not that I care for the money, but I disapprove of the ostentation. You can do as you please.”
“Very well,” replied Gervaise, “I will. I have taken care of your mother while she was living; I can bury her now that she is dead.”
Then Mme Lorilleux fell to crying, and Lantier had great trouble in preventing her from going away at once, and the quarrel grew so violent that Mme Lerat hastily closed the door of the room where the dead woman lay, as if she feared the noise would waken her. The children’s voices rose shrill in the air with Nana’s perpetual "Tra-la-la” above all the rest.
“Heavens, how wearisome those children are with their songs,” said Lantier. “Tell them to be quiet, and make Nana come in and sit down.”
Gervaise obeyed these dictatorial orders while her sisters-in-law went home to breakfast, while the Coupeaus tried to eat, but they were made uncomfortable by the presence of death in their crowded quarters. The details of their daily life were disarranged.
Gervaise went to Goujet and borrowed sixty francs, which, added to thirty from Mme Lerat, would pay the expenses of the funeral. In the afternoon several persons came in and looked at the dead woman, crossing themselves as they did so and shaking holy water over the body with the branch of box. They then took their seats in the shop and talked of the poor thing and of her many virtues. One said she had talked with her only three days before, and another asked if it were not possible it was a trance.
By evening the Coupeaus felt it was more than they could bear. It was a mistake to keep a body so long. One has, after all, only so many tears to shed, and that done, grief turns to worry. Mamma Coupeau–stiff and cold–was a terrible weight on them all. They gradually lost the sense of oppression, however, and spoke louder.
After a while M. Marescot appeared. He went to the inner room and knelt at the side of the corpse. He was very religious, they saw. He made a sign of the cross in the air and dipped the branch into the holy water and sprinkled the body. M. Marescot, having finished his devotions, passed out into the shop and said to Coupeau:
“I came for the two quarters that are due. Have you got the money for me?”
“No sir, not entirely,” said Gervaise, coming forward, excessively annoyed at this scene taking place in the presence of her sisters-in-law. “You see, this trouble came upon us–”
“Undoubtedly,” answered her landlord; “but we all of us have our troubles. I cannot wait any longer. I really must have the money. If I am not paid by tomorrow I shall most assuredly take immediate measures to turn you out.”
Gervaise clasped her hands imploringly, but he shook his head, saying that discussion was useless; besides, just then it would be a disrespect to the dead.
“A thousand pardons!” he said as he went out. “But remember that I must have the money tomorrow.”
And as he passed the open door of the lighted room he saluted the corpse with another genuflection.
After he had gone the ladies gathered around the stove, where a great pot of coffee stood, enough to keep them all awake for the whole night. The Poissons arrived about eight o’clock; then Lantier, carefully watching Gervaise, began to speak of the disgraceful act committed by the landlord in coming to a house to collect money at such a time.
“He is a thorough hypocrite,” continued Lantier, “and were I in Madame Coupeau’s place, I would walk off and leave his house on his hands.”
Gervaise heard but did not seem to heed.
The Lorilleuxs, delighted at the idea that she would lose her shop, declared that Lantier’s idea was an excellent one. They gave Coupeau a push and repeated it to him.
Gervaise seemed to be disposed to yield, and then Virginie spoke in the blandest of tones.
“I will take the lease off your hands,” she said, “and will arrange the back rent with your landlord.”
“No, no! Thank you,” cried Gervaise, shaking off the lethargy in which she had been wrapped. “I can manage this matter and I can work. No, no, I say.”
Lantier interposed and said soothingly:
“Never mind! We will talk of it another time–tomorrow, possibly.”
The family were to sit up all night. Nana cried vociferously when she was sent into the Boche quarters to sleep; the Poissons remained until midnight. Virginia began to talk of the country: she would like to be buried under a tree with flowers and grass on her grave. Mme Lerat said that in her wardrobe–folded up in lavender–was the linen sheet in which her body was to be wrapped.
When the Poissons went away Lantier accompanied them in order, he said, to leave his bed for the ladies, who could take turns in sleeping there. But the ladies preferred to remain together about the stove.
Mme Lorilleux said she had no black dress, and it was too bad that she must buy one, for they were sadly pinched just at this time. And she asked Gervaise if she was sure that her mother had not a black skirt which would do, one that had been given her on her birthday. Gervaise went for the skirt. Yes, it would do if it were taken in at the waist.
Then Mme Lorilleux looked at the bed and the wardrobe and asked if there was nothing else belonging to her mother.
Here Mme Lerat interfered. The Coupeaus, she said, had taken care of her mother, and they were entitled to all the trifles she had left. The night seemed endless. They drank coffee and went by turns to look at the body, lying silent and calm under the flickering light of the candle.
The interment was to take place at half-past ten, but Gervaise would gladly have given a hundred francs, if she had had them, to anyone who would have taken Mamma Coupeau away three hours before the time fixed.
“Ah,” she said to herself, “it is no use to disguise the fact: people are very much in the way after they are dead, no matter how much you have loved them!”
Father Bazonge, who was never known to be sober, appeared with the coffin and the pall. When he saw Gervaise he stood with his eyes starting from his head.
“I beg you pardon,” he said, “but I thought it was for you,” and he was turning to go away.
“Leave the coffin!” cried Gervaise, growing very pale. Bazonge began to apologize:
“I heard them talking yesterday, but I did not pay much attention. I congratulate you that you are still alive. Though why I do, I do not know, for life is not such a very agreeable thing.”
Gervaise listened with a shiver of horror and a morbid dread that he would take her away and shut her up in his box and bury her. She had once heard him say that he knew a woman who would be only too thankful if he would do exactly that.
“He is horribly drunk,” she murmured in a tone of mingled disgust and terror.
“It will come for you another time,” he said with a laugh; “you have only to make me a little sign. I am a great consolation to women sometimes, and you need not sneer at poor Father Bazonge, for he has held many a fine lady in his arms, and they made no complaint when he laid them down to sleep in the shade of the evergreens.”
“Do hold your tongue,” said Lorilleux; “this is no time for such talk. Be off with you!”
The clock struck ten. The friends and neighbors had assembled in the shop while the family were in the back room, nervous and feverish with suspense.
Four men appeared–the undertaker, Bazonge and his three assistants placed the body in the coffin. Bazonge held the screws in his mouth and waited for the family to take their last farewell.
Then Coupeau, his two sisters and Gervaise kissed their mother, and their tears fell fast on her cold face. The lid was put on and fastened down.
The hearse was at the door to the great edification of the tradespeople of the neighborhood, who said under their breath that the Coupeaus had best pay their debts.
“It is shameful,” Gervaise was saying at the same moment, speaking of the Lorilleuxs. “These people have not even brought a bouquet of violets for their mother.”
It was true they had come empty-handed, while Mme Lerat had brought a wreath of artificial flowers which was laid on the bier.
Coupeau and Lorilleux, with their hats in their hands, walked at the head of the procession of men. After them followed the ladies, headed by Mme Lorilleux in her black skirt, wrenched from the dead, her sister trying to cover a purple dress with a large black shawl.
Gervaise had lingered behind to close the shop and give Nana into the charge of Mme Boche and then ran to overtake the procession, while the little girl stood with the concierge, profoundly interested in seeing her grandmother carried in that beautiful carriage.
Just as Gervaise joined the procession Goujet came up a side street and saluted her with a slight bow and with a faint sweet smile. The tears rushed to her eyes. She did not weep for Mamma Coupeau but rather for herself, but her sisters-in-law looked at her as if she were the greatest hypocrite in the world.
At the church the ceremony was of short duration. The Mass dragged a little because the priest was very old.
The cemetery was not far off, and the cortege soon reached it. A priest came out of a house near by and shivered as he saw his breath rise with each _De Profundis_ he uttered.
The coffin was lowered, and as the frozen earth fell upon it more tears were shed, accompanied, however, by sigh of relief.
The procession dispersed outside the gates of the cemetery, and at the very first cabaret Coupeau turned in, leaving Gervaise alone on the sidewalk. She beckoned to Goujet, who was turning the corner.
“I want to speak to you,” she said timidly. “I want to tell you how ashamed I am for coming to you again to borrow money, but I was at my wit’s end.”
“I am always glad to be of use to you,” answered the blacksmith. “But pray never allude to the matter before my mother, for I do not wish to trouble her. She and I think differently on many subjects.”
She looked at him sadly and earnestly. Through her mind flitted a vague regret that she had not done as he desired, that she had not gone away with him somewhere. Then a vile temptation assailed her. She trembled.
“You are not angry now?” she said entreatingly.
“No, not angry, but still heartsick. All is over between us now and forever.” And he walked off with long strides, leaving Gervaise stunned by his words.
“All is over between us!” she kept saying to herself. “And what more is there for me then in life?”
She sat down in her empty, desolate room and drank a large tumbler of wine. When the others came in she looked up suddenly and said to Virginie gently:
“If you want the shop, take it!”
Virginie and her husband jumped at this and sent for the concierge, who consented to the arrangement on condition that the new tenants would become security for the two quarters then due.
This was agreed upon. The Coupeaus would take a room on the sixth floor near the Lorilleuxs. Lantier said politely that if it would not be disagreeable to the Poissons he should like much to retain his present quarters.
The policeman bowed stiffly but with every intention of being cordial and said he decidedly approved of the idea.
Then Lantier withdrew from the discussion entirely, watching Gervaise and Virginie out of the corners of his eyes.
That evening when Gervaise was alone again she felt utterly exhausted. The place looked twice its usual size. It seemed to her that in leaving Mamma Coupeau in the quiet cemetery she had also left much that was precious to her, a portion of her own life, her pride in her shop, her hopes and her energy. These were not all, either, that she had buried that day. Her heart was as bare and empty as her walls and her home. She was too weary to try and analyze her sensations but moved about as if in a dream.
At ten o’clock, when Nana was undressed, she wept, begging that she might be allowed to sleep in her grandmother’s bed. Her mother vaguely wondered that the child was not afraid and allowed her to do as she pleased.
Nana was not timid by nature, and only her curiosity, not her fears, had been excited by the events of the last three days, and she curled herself up with delight in the soft, warm feather bed.