By Emile Zola

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Chapter X. Disasters and Changes

The new lodging of the Coupeaus was next that of the Bijards. Almost opposite their door was a closet under the stairs which went up to the roof–a mere hole without light or ventilation, where Father Bru slept.

A chamber and a small room, about as large as one’s hand, were all the Coupeaus had now. Nana’s little bed stood in the small room, the door of which had to be left open at night, lest the child should stifle.

When it came to the final move Gervaise felt that she could not separate from the commode which she had spent so much time in polishing when first married and insisted on its going to their new quarters, where it was much in the way and stopped up half the window, and when Gervaise wished to look out into the court she had not room for her elbows.

The first few days she spent in tears. She felt smothered and cramped; after having had so much room to move about in it seemed to her that she was smothering. It was only at the window she could breathe. The courtyard was not a place calculated to inspire cheerful thoughts. Opposite her was the window which years before had elicited her admiration, where every successive summer scarlet beans had grown to a fabulous height on slender strings. Her room was on the shady side, and a pot of mignonette would die in a week on her sill.

No, life had not been what she hoped, and it was all very hard to bear.

Instead of flowers to solace her declining years she would have but thorns. One day as she was looking down into the court she had the strangest feeling imaginable. She seemed to see herself standing just near the loge of the concierge, looking up at the house and examining it for the first time.

This glimpse of the past made her feel faint. It was at least thirteen years since she had first seen this huge building–this world within a world. The court had not changed. The facade was simply more dingy. The same clothes seemed to be hanging at the windows to dry. Below there were the shavings from the cabinetmaker’s shop, and the gutter glittered with blue water, as blue and soft in tone as the water she remembered.

But she–alas, how changed was she! She no longer looked up to the sky. She was no longer hopeful, courageous and ambitious. She was living under the very roof in crowded discomfort, where never a ray of sunshine could reach her, and her tears fell fast in utter discouragement.

Nevertheless, when Gervaise became accustomed to her new surroundings she grew more content. The pieces of furniture she had sold to Virginie had facilitated her installation. When the fine weather came Coupeau had an opportunity of going into the country to work. He went and lived three months without drinking–cured for the time being by the fresh, pure air. It does a man sometimes an infinite deal of good to be taken away from all his old haunts and from Parisian streets, which always seem to exhale a smell of brandy and of wine.

He came back as fresh as a rose, and he brought four hundred francs with which he paid the Poissons the amount for which they had become security as well as several other small but pressing debts. Gervaise had now two or three streets open to her again, which for some time she had not dared to enter.

She now went out to iron by the day and had gone back to her old mistress, Mme Fauconnier, who was a kindhearted creature and ready to do anything for anyone who flattered her adroitly.

With diligence and economy Gervaise could have managed to live comfortably and pay all her debts, but this prospect did not charm her particularly. She suffered acutely in seeing the Poissons in her old shop. She was by no means of a jealous or envious disposition, but it was not agreeable to her to hear the admiration expressed for her successors by her husband’s sisters. To hear them one would suppose that never had so beautiful a shop been seen before. They spoke of the filthy condition of the place when Virginie moved in–who had paid, they declared, thirty francs for cleaning it.

Virginie, after some hesitation, had decided on a small stock of groceries–sugar, tea and coffee, also bonbons and chocolate. Lantier had advised these because he said the profit on them was immense. The shop was repainted, and shelves and cases were put in, and a counter with scales such as are seen at confectioners’. The little inheritance that Poisson held in reserve was seriously encroached upon. But Virginie was triumphant, for she had her way, and the Lorilleuxs did not spare Gervaise the description of a case or a jar.

It was said in the street that Lantier had deserted Gervaise, that she gave him no peace running after him, but this was not true, for he went and came to her apartment as he pleased. Scandal was connecting his name and Virginie’s. They said Virginie had taken the clearstarcher’s lover as well as her shop! The Lorilleuxs talked of nothing when Gervaise was present but Lantier, Virginie and the shop. Fortunately Gervaise was not inclined to jealousy, and Lantier’s infidelities had hitherto left her undisturbed, but she did not accept this new affair with equal tranquillity. She colored or turned pale as she heard these allusions, but she would not allow a word to pass her lips, as she was fully determined never to gratify her enemies by allowing them to see her discomfiture; but a dispute was heard by the neighbors about this time between herself and Lantier, who went angrily away and was not seen by anyone in the Coupeau quarters for more than a fortnight.

Coupeau behaved very oddly. This blind and complacent husband, who had closed his eyes to all that was going on at home, was filled with virtuous indignation at Lantier’s indifference. Then Coupeau went so far as to tease Gervaise in regard to this desertion of her lovers. She had had bad luck, he said, with hatters and blacksmiths–why did she not try a mason?

He said this as if it were a joke, but Gervaise had a firm conviction that he was in deadly earnest. A man who is tipsy from one year’s end to the next is not apt to be fastidious, and there are husbands who at twenty are very jealous and at thirty have grown very complacent under the influence of constant tippling.

Lantier preserved an attitude of calm indifference. He kept the peace between the Poissons and the Coupeaus. Thanks to him, Virginie and Gervaise affected for each other the most tender regard. He ruled the brunette as he had ruled the blonde, and he would swallow her shop as he had that of Gervaise.

It was in June of this year that Nana partook of her first Communion. She was about thirteen, slender and tall as an asparagus plant, and her air and manner were the height of impertinence and audacity.

She had been sent away from the catechism class the year before on account of her bad conduct. And if the cure did not make a similar objection this year it was because he feared she would never come again and that his refusal would launch on the Parisian _pave_ another castaway.

Nana danced with joy at the mere thought of what the Lorilleuxs–as her godparents–had promised, while Mme Lerat gave the veil and cup, Virginie the purse and Lantier a prayer book, so that the Coupeaus looked forward to the day without anxiety.

The Poissons–probably through Lantier’s advice–selected this occasion for their housewarming. They invited the Coupeaus and the Boche family, as Pauline made her first Communion on that day, as well as Nana.

The evening before, while Nana stood in an ecstasy of delight before her presents, her father came in in an abominable condition. His virtuous resolutions had yielded to the air of Paris; he had fallen into evil ways again, and he now assailed his wife and child with the vilest epithets, which did not seem to shock Nana, for they could fall from her tongue on occasion with facile glibness.

“I want my soup,” cried Coupeau, “and you two fools are chattering over those fal-lals! I tell you, I will sit on them if I am not waited upon, and quickly too.”

Gervaise answered impatiently, but Nana, who thought it better taste just then–all things considered–to receive with meekness all her father’s abuse, dropped her eyes and did not reply.

“Take that rubbish away!” he cried with growing impatience. “Put it out of my sight or I will tear it to bits.”

Nana did not seem to hear him. She took up the tulle cap and asked her mother what it cost, and when Coupeau tried to snatch the cap Gervaise pushed him away.

“Let the child alone!” she said. “She is doing no harm!”

Then her husband went into a perfect rage:

“Mother and daughter,” he cried, “a nice pair they make. I understand very well what all this row is for: it is merely to show yourself in a new gown. I will put you in a bag and tie it close round your throat, and you will see if the cure likes that!”

Nana turned like lightning to protect her treasures. She looked her father full in the face, and, forgetting the lessons taught her by her priest, she said in a low, concentrated voice:

“Beast!” That was all.

After Coupeau had eaten his soup he fell asleep and in the morning woke quite amiable. He admired his daughter and said she looked quite like a young lady in her white robe. Then he added with a sentimental air that a father on such days was naturally proud of his child. When they were ready to go to the church and Nana met Pauline in the corridor, she examined the latter from head to foot and smiled condescendingly on seeing that Pauline had not a particle of chic.

The two families started off together, Nana and Pauline in front, each with her prayer book in one hand and with the other holding down her veil, which swelled in the wind like a sail. They did not speak to each other but keenly enjoyed seeing the shopkeepers run to their doors to see them, keeping their eyes cast down devoutly but their ears wide open to any compliment they might hear.

Nana’s two aunts walked side by side, exchanging their opinions in regard to Gervaise, whom they stigmatized as an irreligious ne’er-do-well whose child would never have gone to the Holy Communion if it had depended on her.

At the church Coupeau wept all the time. It was very silly, he knew, but he could not help it. The voice of the cure was pathetic; the little girls looked like white-robed angels; the organ thrilled him, and the incense gratified his senses. There was one especial anthem which touched him deeply. He was not the only person who wept, he was glad to see, and when the ceremony was over he left the church feeling that it was the happiest day of his life. But an hour later he quarreled with Lorilleux in a wineshop because the latter was so hardhearted.

The housewarming at the Poissons’ that night was very gay. Lantier sat between Gervaise and Virginie and was equally civil and attentive to both. Opposite was Poisson with his calm, impassive face, a look he had cultivated since he began his career as a police officer.

But the queens of the fete were the two little girls, Nana and Pauline, who sat very erect lest they should crush and deface their pretty white dresses. At dessert there was a serious discussion in regard to the future of the children. Mme Boche said that Pauline would at once enter a certain manufactory, where she would receive five or six francs per week. Gervaise had not decided yet, for Nana had shown no especial leaning in any direction. She had a good deal of taste, but she was butter-fingered and careless.

“I should make a florist of her,” said Mme Lerat. “It is clean work and pretty work too.”

Whereupon ensued a warm discussion. The men were especially careful of their language out of deference to the little girls, but Mme Lerat would not accept the lesson: she flattered herself she could say what she pleased in such a way that it could not offend the most fastidious ears.

Women, she declared, who followed her trade were more virtuous than others. They rarely made a slip.

“I have no objection to your trade,” interrupted Gervaise. “If Nana likes to make flowers let her do so. Say, Nana, would you like it?”

The little girl did not look up from her plate, into which she was dipping a crust of bread. She smiled faintly as she replied:

“Yes, Mamma; if you desire it I have no objection.”

The decision was instantly made, and Coupeau wished his sister to take her the very next day to the place where she herself worked, Rue du Caire, and the circle talked gravely of the duties of life. Boche said that Pauline and Nana were now women, since they had been to Communion, and they ought to be serious and learn to cook and to mend. They alluded to their future marriages, their homes and their children, and the girls touched each other under the table, giggled and grew very red. Lantier asked them if they did not have little husbands already, and Nana blushingly confessed that she loved Victor Fauconnier and never meant to marry anyone else.

Mme Lorilleux said to Mme Boche on their way home:

“Nana is our goddaughter now, but if she goes into that flower business, in six months she will be on the _pave_, and we will have nothing to do with her.”

Gervaise told Boche that she thought the shop admirably arranged. She had looked forward to an evening of torture and was surprised that she had not experienced a pang.

Nana, as she undressed, asked her mother if the girl on the next floor, who had been married the week before, wore a dress of muslin like hers.

But this was the last bright day in that household. Two years passed away, and their prospects grew darker and their demoralization and degradation more evident. They went without food and without fire, but never without brandy.

They found it almost impossible to meet their rent, and a certain January came when they had not a penny, and Father Boche ordered them to leave.

It was frightfully cold, with a sharp wind blowing from the north.

M. Marescot appeared in a warm overcoat and his hands encased in warm woolen gloves and told them they must go, even if they slept in the gutter. The whole house was oppressed with woe, and a dreary sound of lamentation arose from most of the rooms, for half the tenants were behindhand. Gervaise sold her bed and paid the rent. Nana made nothing as yet, and Gervaise had so fallen off in her work that Mme Fauconnier had reduced her wages. She was irregular in her hours and often absented herself from the shop for several days together but was none the less vexed to discover that her old employee, Mme Putois, had been placed above her. Naturally at the end of the week Gervaise had little money coming to her.

As to Coupeau, if he worked he brought no money home, and his wife had ceased to count upon it. Sometimes he declared he had lost it through a hole in his pocket or it had been stolen, but after a while he ceased to make any excuses.

But if he had no cash in his pockets it was because he had spent it all in drink. Mme Boche advised Gervaise to watch for him at the door of the place where he was employed and get his wages from him before he had spent them all, but this did no good, as Coupeau was warned by his friends and escaped by a rear door.

The Coupeaus were entirely to blame for their misfortunes, but this is just what people will never admit. It is always ill luck or the cruelty of God or anything, in short, save the legitimate result of their own vices.

Gervaise now quarreled with her husband incessantly. The warmth of affection of husband and wife, of parents for their children and children for their parents had fled and left them all shivering, each apart from the other.

All three, Coupeau, Gervaise and Nana, watched each other with eyes of baleful hate. It seemed as if some spring had broken–the great mainspring that binds families together.

Gervaise did not shudder when she saw her husband lying drunk in the gutter. She would not have pushed him in, to be sure, but if he were out of the way it would be a good thing for everybody. She even went so far as to say one day in a fit of rage that she would be glad to see him brought home on a shutter. Of what good was he to any human being? He ate and he drank and he slept. His child learned to hate him, and she read the accidents in the papers with the feelings of an unnatural daughter. What a pity it was that her father had not been the man who was killed when that omnibus tipped over!

In addition to her own sorrows and privations, Gervaise, whose heart was not yet altogether hard, was condemned to hear now of the sufferings of others. The corner of the house in which she lived seemed to be consecrated to those who were as poor as herself. No smell of cooking filled the air, which, on the contrary, was laden with the shrill cries of hungry children, heavy with the sighs of weary, heartbroken mothers and with the oaths of drunken husbands and fathers.

Gervaise pitied Father Bru from the bottom of her heart; he lay the greater part of the time rolled up in the straw in his den under the staircase leading to the roof. When two or three days elapsed without his showing himself someone opened the door and looked in to see if he were still alive.

Yes, he was living; that is, he was not dead. When Gervaise had bread she always remembered him. If she had learned to hate men because of her husband her heart was still tender toward animals, and Father Bru seemed like one to her. She regarded him as a faithful old dog. Her heart was heavy within her whenever she thought of him, alone, abandoned by God and man, dying by inches or drying, rather, as an orange dries on the chimney piece.

Gervaise was also troubled by the vicinity of the undertaker Bazonge–a wooden partition alone separated their rooms. When he came in at night she could hear him throw down his glazed hat, which fell with a dull thud, like a shovelful of clay, on the table. The black cloak hung against the wall rustled like the wings of some huge bird of prey. She could hear his every movement, and she spent most of her time listening to him with morbid horror, while he–all unconscious–hummed his vulgar songs and tipsily staggered to his bed, under which the poor woman’s sick fancy pictured a dead body concealed.

She had read in some paper a dismal tale of some undertaker who took home with him coffin after coffin–children’s coffins–in order to make one trip to the cemetery suffice. When she heard his step the whole corridor was pervaded to her senses with the odor of dead humanity.

She would as lief have resided at Pere-Lachaise and watched the moles at their work. The man terrified her; his incessant laughter dismayed her. She talked of moving but at the same time was reluctant to do so, for there was a strange fascination about Bazonge after all. Had he not told her once that he would come for her and lay her down to sleep in the shadow of waving branches, where she would know neither hunger nor toil?

She wished she could try it for a month. And she thought how delicious it would be in midwinter, just at the time her quarter’s rent was due. But, alas, this was not possible! The rest and the sleep must be eternal; this thought chilled her, and her longing for death faded away before the unrelenting severity of the bonds exacted by Mother Earth.

One night she was sick and feverish, and instead of throwing herself out of the window as she was tempted to do, she rapped on the partition and called loudly:

“Father Bazonge! Father Bazonge!”

The undertaker was kicking off his slippers, singing a vulgar song as he did so.

“What is the matter?” he answered.

But at his voice Gervaise awoke as from a nightmare. What had she done? Had she really tapped? she asked herself, and she recoiled from his side of the wall in chill horror. It seemed to her that she felt the undertaker’s hands on her head. No! No! She was not ready. She told herself that she had not intended to call him. It was her elbow that had knocked the wall accidentally, and she shivered from head to foot at the idea of being carried away in this man’s arms.

“What is the matter?” repeated Bazonge. “Can I serve you in any way, madame?”

“No! No! It is nothing!” answered the laundress in a choked voice. “I am very much obliged.”

While the undertaker slept she lay wide awake, holding her breath and not daring to move, lest he should think she called him again.

She said to herself that under no circumstances would she ever appeal to him for assistance, and she said this over and over again with the vain hope of reassuring herself, for she was by no means at ease in her mind.

Gervaise had before her a noble example of courage and fortitude in the Bijard family. Little Lalie, that tiny child–about as big as a pinch of salt–swept and kept her room like wax; she watched over the two younger children with all the care and patience of a mother. This she had done since her father had kicked her mother to death. She had entirely assumed that mother’s place, even to receiving the blows which had fallen formerly on that poor woman. It seemed to be a necessity of his nature that when he came home drunk he must have some woman to abuse. Lalie was too small, he grumbled; one blow of his fist covered her whole face, and her skin was so delicate that the marks of his five fingers would remain on her cheek for days!

He would fly at her like a wolf at a poor little kitten for the merest trifle. Lalie never answered, never rebelled and never complained. She merely tried to shield her face and suppressed all shrieks, lest the neighbors should come; her pride could not endure that. When her father was tired kicking her about the room she lay where he left her until she had strength to rise, and then she went steadily about her work, washing the children and making her soup, sweeping and dusting until everything was clean. It was a part of her plan of life to be beaten every day.

Gervaise had conceived a strong affection for this little neighbor. She treated her like a woman who knew something of life. It must be admitted that Lalie was large for her years. She was fair and pale, with solemn eyes for her years and had a delicate mouth. To have heard her talk one would have thought her thirty. She could make and mend, and she talked of the children as if she had herself brought them into the world. She made people laugh sometimes when she talked, but more often she brought tears to their eyes.

Gervaise did everything she could for her, gave her what she could and helped the energetic little soul with her work. One day she was altering a dress of Nana’s for her, and when the child tried it on Gervaise was chilled with horror at seeing her whole back purple and bruised, the tiny arm bleeding–all the innocent flesh of childhood martyrized by the brute–her father.

Bazonge might get the coffin ready, she thought, for the little girl could not bear this long. But Lalie entreated her friend to say nothing, telling her that her father did not know what he was doing, that he had been drinking. She forgave him with her whole heart, for madmen must not be held accountable for their deeds. After that Gervaise was on the watch whenever she heard Bijard coming up the stairs. But she never caught him in any act of absolute brutality. Several times she had found Lalie tied to the foot of the bedstead–an idea that had entered her father’s brain, no one knew why, a whim of his disordered brain, disordered by liquor, which probably arose from his wish to tyrannize over the child, even when he was no longer there.

Lalie sometimes was left there all day and once all night. When Gervaise insisted on untying her the child entreated her not to touch the knots, saying that her father would be furious if he found the knots had been tampered with.

And really, she said with an angelic smile, she needed rest, and the only thing that troubled her was not to be able to put the room in order. She could watch the children just as well, and she could think, so that her time was not entirely lost. When her father let her free, her sufferings were not over, for it was sometimes more than an hour before she could stand–before the blood circulated freely in her stiffened limbs.

Her father had invented another cheerful game. He heated some sous red hot on the stove and laid them on the chimney piece. He then summoned Lalie and bade her go buy some bread. The child unsuspiciously took up the sous, uttered a little shriek and dropped them, shaking her poor burned fingers.

Then he would go off in a rage. What did she mean by such nonsense? She had thrown away the money and lost it, and he threatened her with a hiding if she did not find the money instantly. The poor child hesitated; he gave her a cuff on the side of the head. With silent tears streaming down her cheeks she would pick up the sous and toss them from hand to hand to cool them as she went down the long flights of stairs.

There was no limit to the strange ingenuity of the man. One afternoon, for example, Lalie had completed playing with the children. The window was open, and the air shook the door so that it sounded like gentle raps.

“It is Mr Wind,” said Lalie; “come in, Mr Wind. How are you today?”

And she made a low curtsy to Mr Wind. The children did the same in high glee, and she was quite radiant with happiness, which was not often the case.

“Come in, Mr Wind!” she repeated, but the door was pushed open by a rough hand and Bijard entered. Then a sudden change came over the scene. The two children crouched in a corner, while Lalie stood in the center of the floor, frozen stiff with terror, for Bijard held in his hand a new whip with a long and wicked-looking lash. He laid this whip on the bed and did not kick either one of the children but smiled in the most vicious way, showing his two lines of blackened, irregular teeth. He was very drunk and very noisy.

“What is the matter with you fools? Have you been struck dumb? I heard you all talking and laughing merrily enough before I came in. Where are your tongues now? Here! Take off my shoes!”

Lalie, considerably disheartened at not having received her customary kick, turned very pale as she obeyed. He was sitting on the side of the bed. He lay down without undressing and watched the child as she moved about the room. Troubled by this strange conduct, the child ended by breaking a cup. Then without disturbing himself he took up the whip and showed it to her.

“Look here, fool,” he said grimly: “I bought this for you, and it cost me fifty sous, but I expect to get a good deal more than fifty sous’ worth of good out of it. With this long lash I need not run about after you, for I can reach you in every corner of the room. You will break the cups, will you? Come, now, jump about a little and say good morning to Mr Wind again!”

He did not even sit up in the bed but, with his head buried in the pillow, snapped the whip with a noise like that made by a postilion. The lash curled round Lalie’s slender body; she fell to the floor, but he lashed her again and compelled her to rise.

“This is a very good thing,” he said coolly, “and saves my getting chilled on cold mornings. Yes, I can reach you in that corner–and in that! Skip now! Skip!”

A light foam was on his lips, and his suffused eyes were starting from their sockets. Poor little Lalie darted about the room like a terrified bird, but the lash tingled over her shoulders, coiled around her slender legs and stung like a viper. She was like an India-rubber ball bounding from the floor, while her beast of a father laughed aloud and asked her if she had had enough.

The door opened and Gervaise entered. She had heard the noise. She stood aghast at the scene and then was seized with noble rage.

“Let her be!” she cried. “I will go myself and summon the police.”

Bijard growled like an animal who is disturbed over his prey.

“Why do you meddle?” he exclaimed. “What business is it of yours?”

And with another adroit movement he cut Lalie across the face. The blood gushed from her lip. Gervaise snatched a chair and flew at the brute, but the little girl held her skirts and said it did not hurt much; it would be over soon, and she washed the blood away, speaking gently to the frightened children.

When Gervaise thought of Lalie she was ashamed to complain. She wished she had the courage of this child. She knew that she had lived on dry bread for weeks and that she was so weak she could hardly stand, and the tears came to the woman’s eyes as she saw the precocious mite who had known nothing of the innocent happiness of her years. And Gervaise took this slender creature for example, whose eyes alone told the story of her misery and hardships, for in the Coupeau family the vitriol of the Assommoir was doing its work of destruction. Gervaise had seen a whip. Gervaise had learned to dread it, and this dread inspired her with tenderest pity for Lalie. Coupeau had lost the flesh and the bloated look which had been his, and he was thin and emaciated. His complexion was gradually acquiring a leaden hue. His appetite was utterly gone. It was with difficulty that he swallowed a mouthful of bread. His stomach turned against all solid food, but he took his brandy every day. This was his meat as well as his drink, and he touched nothing else.

When he crawled out of his bed in the morning he stood for a good fifteen minutes, coughing and spitting out a bitter liquid that rose in his throat and choked him.

He did not feel any better until he had taken what he called “a good drink,” and later in the day his strength returned. He felt strange prickings in the skin of his hands and feet. But lately his limbs had grown heavy. This pricking sensation gave place to the most excruciating cramps, which he did not find very amusing. He rarely laughed now but often stopped short and stood still on the sidewalk, troubled by a strange buzzing in his ears and by flashes of light before his eyes. Everything looked yellow to him; the houses seemed to be moving away from him. At other times, when the sun was full on his back, he shivered as if a stream of ice water had been poured down between his shoulders. But the thing he liked the least about himself was a nervous trembling in his hands, the right hand especially.

Had he become an old woman then? he asked himself with sudden fury. He tried with all his strength to lift his glass and command his nerves enough to hold it steady. But the glass had a regular tremulous movement from right to left and left to right again, in spite of all his efforts.

Then he emptied it down his throat, saying that when he had swallowed a dozen more he would be all right and as steady as a monument. Gervaise told him, on the contrary, that he must leave off drinking if he wished to leave off trembling.

He grew very angry and drank quarts in his eagerness to test the question, finally declaring that it was the passing omnibusses that jarred the house and shook his hand.

In March Coupeau came in one night drenched to the skin. He had been caught out in a shower. That night he could not sleep for coughing. In the morning he had a high fever, and the physician who was sent for advised Gervaise to send him at once to the hospital.

And Gervaise made no objection; once she had refused to trust her husband to these people, but now she consigned him to their tender mercies without a regret; in fact, she regarded it as a mercy.

Nevertheless, when the litter came she turned very pale and, if she had had even ten francs in her pocket, would have kept him at home. She walked to the hospital by the side of the litter and went into the ward where he was placed. The room looked to her like a miniature Pere-Lachaise, with its rows of beds on either side and its path down the middle. She went slowly away, and in the street she turned and looked up. How well she remembered when Coupeau was at work on those gutters, cheerily singing in the morning air! He did not drink in those days, and she, at her window in the Hotel Boncoeur, had watched his athletic form against the sky, and both had waved their handkerchiefs. Yes, Coupeau had worked more than a year on this hospital, little thinking that he was preparing a place for himself. Now he was no longer on the roof–he had built a dismal nest within. Good God, was she and the once-happy wife and mother one and the same? How long ago those days seemed!

The next day when Gervaise went to make inquiries she found the bed empty. A sister explained that her husband had been taken to the asylum of Sainte-Anne, because the night before he had suddenly become unmanageable from delirium and had uttered such terrible howls that it disturbed the inmates of all the beds in that ward. It was the alcohol in his system, she said, which attacked his nerves now, when he was so reduced by the inflammation on his lungs that he could not resist it.

The clearstarcher went home, but how or by what route she never knew. Her husband was mad–she heard these words reverberating through her brain. Life was growing very strange. Nana simply said that he must, of course, be left at the asylum, for he might murder them both.

On Sunday only could Gervaise go to Sainte-Anne. It was a long distance off. Fortunately there was an omnibus which went very near. She got out at La Rue Sante and bought two oranges that she might not go quite empty-handed.

But when she went in, to her astonishment she found Coupeau sitting up. He welcomed her gaily.

“You are better!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, nearly well,” he replied, and they talked together awhile, and she gave him the oranges, which pleased and touched him, for he was a different man now that he drank tisane instead of liquor. She did not dare allude to his delirium, but he spoke of it himself.

“Yes,” he said, “I was in a pretty state! I saw rats running all over the floor and the walls, and you were calling me, and I saw all sorts of horrible things! But I am all right now. Once in a while I have a bad dream, but everybody does, I suppose.”

Gervaise remained with him until night. When the house surgeon made his rounds at six o’clock he told him to hold out his hands. They scarcely trembled–an almost imperceptible motion of the tips of his fingers was all. But as the room grew darker Coupeau became restless. Two or three times he sat up and peered into the remote corners.

Suddenly he stretched out his arms and seemed to crush some creature on the wall.

“What is it?” asked Gervaise, terribly frightened.

“Rats!” he said quietly. “Only rats!”

After a long silence he seemed to be dropping off to sleep, with disconnected sentences falling from his lips.

“Dirty beasts! Look out, one is under your skirts!” He pulled the covering hastily over his head, as if to protect himself against the creature he saw.

Then starting up in mad terror, he screamed aloud. A nurse ran to the bed, and Gervaise was sent away, mute with horror at this scene.

But when on the following Sunday she went again to the hospital, Coupeau was really well. All his dreams had vanished. He slept like a child, ten hours without lifting a finger. His wife, therefore, was allowed to take him away. The house surgeon gave him a few words of advice before he left, assuring him if he continued to drink he would be a dead man in three months. All depended on himself. He could live at home just as he had lived at Sainte-Anne’s and must forget that such things as wine and brandy existed.

“He is right,” said Gervaise as they took their seats in the omnibus.

“Of course he is right,” answered her husband. But after a moment’s silence he added:

“But then, you know, a drop of brandy now and then never hurts a man: it aids digestion.”

That very evening he took a tiny drop and for a week was very moderate; he had no desire, he said, to end his days at Bicetre. But he was soon off his guard, and one day his little drop ended in a full glass, to be followed by a second, and so on. At the end of a fortnight he had fallen back in the old rut.

Gervaise did her best, but, after all, what can a wife do in such circumstances?

She had been so startled by the scene at the asylum that she had fully determined to begin a regular life again and hoped that he would assist her and do the same himself. But now she saw that there was no hope, that even the knowledge of the inevitable results could not restrain her husband now.

Then the hell on earth began again; hopeless and intolerant, Nana asked indignantly why he had not remained in the asylum. All the money she made, she said, should be spent in brandy for her father, for the sooner it was ended, the better for them all.

Gervaise blazed out one day when he lamented his marriage and told him that it was for her to curse the day when she first saw him. He must remember that she had refused him over and over again. The scene was a frightful one and one unexampled in the Coupeau annals.

Gervaise, now utterly discouraged, grew more indolent every day. Her room was rarely swept. The Lorilleuxs said they could not enter it, it was so dirty. They talked all day long over their work of the downfall of Wooden Legs. They gloated over her poverty and her rags.

“Well! Well!” they murmured. “A great change has indeed come to that beautiful blonde who was so fine in her blue shop.”

Gervaise suspected their comments on her and her acts to be most unkind, but she determined to have no open quarrel. It was for her interest to speak to them when they met, but that was all the intercourse between them.

On Saturday Coupeau had told his wife he would take her to the circus; he had earned a little money and insisted on indulging himself. Nana was obliged to stay late at the place where she worked and would sleep with her aunt Mme Lerat.

Seven o’clock came, but no Coupeau. Her husband was drinking with his comrades probably. She had washed a cap and mended an old gown with the hope of being presentable. About nine o’clock, in a towering rage, she sallied forth on an empty stomach to find Coupeau.

“Are you looking for your husband?” said Mme Boche. “He is at the Assommoir. Boche has just seen him there.”

Gervaise muttered her thanks and went with rapid steps to the Assommoir.

A fine rain was falling. The gas in the tavern was blazing brightly, lighting up the mirrors, the bottles and glasses. She stood at the window and looked in. He was sitting at a table with his comrades. The atmosphere was thick with smoke, and he looked stupefied and half asleep.

She shivered and wondered why she should stay there and, so thinking, turned away, only to come back twice to look again.

The water lay on the uneven sidewalk in pools, reflecting all the lights from the Assommoir. Finally she determined on a bold step: she opened the door and deliberately walked up to her husband. After all, why should she not ask him why he had not kept his promise of taking her to the circus? At any rate, she would not stay out there in the rain and melt away like a cake of soap.

“She is crazy!” said Coupeau when he saw her. “I tell you, she is crazy!”

He and all his friends shrieked with laughter, but no one condescended to say what it was that was so very droll. Gervaise stood still, a little bewildered by this unexpected reception. Coupeau was so amiable that she said:

“Come, you know it is not too late to see something.”

“Sit down a minute,” said her husband, not moving from his seat.

Gervaise saw she could not stand there among all those men, so she accepted the offered chair. She looked at the glasses, whose contents glittered like gold. She looked at these dirty, shabby men and at the others crowding around the counter. It was very warm, and the pipe smoke thickened the air.

Gervaise felt as if she were choking; her eyes smarted, and her head was heavy with the fumes of alcohol. She turned around and saw the still, the machine that created drunkards. That evening the copper was dull and glittered only in one round spot. The shadows of the apparatus on the wall behind were strange and weird–creatures with tails, monsters opening gigantic jaws as if to swallow the whole world.

“What will you take to drink?” said Coupeau.

“Nothing,” answered his wife. “You know I have had no dinner!”

“You need it all the more then! Have a drop of something!”

As she hesitated Mes-Bottes said gallantly:

“The lady would like something sweet like herself.”

“I like men,” she answered angrily, “who do not get tipsy and talk like fools! I like men who keep their promises!”

Her husband laughed.

“You had better drink your share,” he said, “for the devil a bit of a circus will you see tonight.”

She looked at him fixedly. A heavy frown contracted her eyebrows. She answered slowly:

“You are right; it is a good idea. We can drink up the money together.”

Bibi brought her a glass of anisette. As she sipped it she remembered all at once the brandied fruit she had eaten in the same place with Coupeau when he was courting her. That day she had left the brandy and took only the fruit, and now she was sitting there drinking liqueur.

But the anisette was good. When her glass was empty she refused another, and yet she was not satisfied.

She looked around at the infernal machine behind her–a machine that should have been buried ten fathoms deep in the sea. Nevertheless, it had for her a strange fascination, and she longed to quench her thirst with that liquid fire.

“What is that you have in your glasses?” she asked.

“That, my dear,” answered her husband, “is Father Colombe’s own especial brew. Taste it.”

And when a glass of the vitriol was brought to her Coupeau bade her swallow it down, saying it was good for her.

After she had drunk this glass Gervaise was no longer conscious of the hunger that had tormented her. Coupeau told her they could go to the circus another time, and she felt she had best stay where she was. It did not rain in the Assommoir, and she had come to look upon the scene as rather amusing. She was comfortable and sleepy. She took a third glass and then put her head on her folded arms, supporting them on the table, and listened to her husband and his friends as they talked.

Behind her the still was at work with constant drip-drip, and she felt a mad desire to grapple with it as with some dangerous beast and tear out its heart. She seemed to feel herself caught in those copper fangs and fancied that those coils of pipe were wound around her own body, slowly but surely crushing out her life.

The whole room danced before her eyes, for Gervaise was now in the condition which had so often excited her pity and indignation with others. She vaguely heard a quarrel arise and a crash of chairs and tables, and then Father Colombe promptly turned everyone into the street.

It was still raining and a cold, sharp wind blowing. Gervaise lost Coupeau, found him and then lost him again. She wanted to go home, but she could not find her way. At the corner of the street she took her seat by the side of the gutter, thinking herself at her washtub. Finally she got home and endeavored to walk straight past the door of the concierge, within whose room she was vaguely conscious of the Poissons and Lorilleuxs holding up their hands in disgust at her condition.

She never knew how she got up those six flights of stairs. But when she turned into her own corridor little Lalie ran toward her with loving, extended arms.

“Dear Madame Gervaise,” she cried, “Papa has not come in; please come and see my children. They are sleeping so sweetly!”

But when she looked up in the face of the clearstarcher she recoiled, trembling from head to foot. She knew only too well that alcoholic smell, those wandering eyes and convulsed lips.

Then as Gervaise staggered past her without speaking the child’s arms fell at her side, and she looked after her friend with sad and solemn eyes.


Chapter I. Gervaise  •  Chapter II. Gervaise and Coupeau  •  Chapter III. A Marriage to the People  •  Chapter IV. A Happy Home  •  Chapter V. Ambitious Dreams  •  Chapter VI. Goujet at his Forge  •  Chapter VII. A Birthday Fete  •  Chapter VIII. An Old Acquaintance  •  Chapter IX. Clouds in the Horizon  •  Chapter X. Disasters and Changes  •  Chapter XI. Little Nana  •  Chapter XII. Poverty and Degradation  •  Chapter XIII. The Hospital