Nana was growing up and becoming wayward. At fifteen years old she had expanded like a calf, white-skinned and very fat; so plump, indeed, you might have called her a pincushion. Yes, such she was—fifteen years old, full of figure and no stays. A saucy magpie face, dipped in milk, a skin as soft as a peach skin, a funny nose, pink lips and eyes sparkling like tapers, which men would have liked to light their pipes at. Her pile of fair hair, the color of fresh oats, seemed to have scattered gold dust over her temples, freckle-like as it were, giving her brow a sunny crown. Ah! a pretty doll, as the Lorilleuxs say, a dirty nose that needed wiping, with fat shoulders, which were as fully rounded and as powerful as those of a full-grown woman. Nana no longer needed to stuff wads of paper into her bodice, her breasts were grown. She wished they were larger though, and dreamed of having breasts like a wet-nurse.
What made her particularly tempting was a nasty habit she had of protruding the tip of her tongue between her white teeth. No doubt on seeing herself in the looking-glasses she had thought she was pretty like this; and so, all day long, she poked her tongue out of her mouth, in view of improving her appearance.
"Hide your lying tongue!" cried her mother.
Coupeau would often get involved, pounding his fist, swearing and shouting:
"Make haste and draw that red rag inside again!"
Nana showed herself very coquettish. She did not always wash her feet, but she bought such tight boots that she suffered martyrdom in St. Crispin's prison; and if folks questioned her when she turned purple with pain, she answered that she had the stomach ache, so as to avoid confessing her coquetry. When bread was lacking at home it was difficult for her to trick herself out. But she accomplished miracles, brought ribbons back from the workshop and concocted toilettes—dirty dresses set off with bows and puffs. The summer was the season of her greatest triumphs. With a cambric dress which had cost her six francs she filled the whole neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or with her fair beauty. Yes, she was known from the outer Boulevards to the Fortifications, and from the Chaussee de Clignancourt to the Grand Rue of La Chapelle. Folks called her "chickie," for she was really as tender and as fresh-looking as a chicken.
There was one dress which suited her perfectly, a white one with pink dots. It was very simple and without a frill. The skirt was rather short and revealed her ankles. The sleeves were deeply slashed and loose, showing her arms to the elbow. She pinned the neck back into a wide V as soon as she reached a dark corner of the staircase to avoid getting her ears boxed by her father for exposing the snowy whiteness of her throat and the golden shadow between her breasts. She also tied a pink ribbon round her blond hair.
Sundays she spent the entire day out with the crowds and loved it when the men eyed her hungrily as they passed. She waited all week long for these glances. She would get up early to dress herself and spend hours before the fragment of mirror that was hung over the bureau. Her mother would scold her because the entire building could see her through the window in her chemise as she mended her dress.
Ah! she looked cute like that said father Coupeau, sneering and jeering at her, a real Magdalene in despair! She might have turned "savage woman" at a fair, and have shown herself for a penny. Hide your meat, he used to say, and let me eat my bread! In fact, she was adorable, white and dainty under her overhanging golden fleece, losing temper to the point that her skin turned pink, not daring to answer her father, but cutting her thread with her teeth with a hasty, furious jerk, which shook her plump but youthful form.
Then immediately after breakfast she tripped down the stairs into the courtyard. The entire tenement seemed to be resting sleepily in the peacefulness of a Sunday afternoon. The workshops on the ground floor were closed. Gaping windows revealed tables in some apartments that were already set for dinner, awaiting families out working up an appetite by strolling along the fortifications.
Then, in the midst of the empty, echoing courtyard, Nana, Pauline and other big girls engaged in games of battledore and shuttlecock. They had grown up together and were now becoming queens of their building. Whenever a man crossed the court, flutelike laugher would arise, and then starched skirts would rustle like the passing of a gust of wind.
The games were only an excuse for them to make their escape. Suddenly stillness fell upon the tenement. The girls had glided out into the street and made for the outer Boulevards. Then, linked arm-in-arm across the full breadth of the pavement, they went off, the whole six of them, clad in light colors, with ribbons tied around their bare heads. With bright eyes darting stealthy glances through their partially closed eyelids, they took note of everything, and constantly threw back their necks to laugh, displaying the fleshy part of their chins. They would swing their hips, or group together tightly, or flaunt along with awkward grace, all for the purpose of calling attention to the fact that their forms were filling out.
Nana was in the centre with her pink dress all aglow in the sunlight. She gave her arm to Pauline, whose costume, yellow flowers on a white ground, glared in similar fashion, dotted as it were with little flames. As they were the tallest of the band, the most woman-like and most unblushing, they led the troop and drew themselves up with breasts well forward whenever they detected glances or heard complimentary remarks. The others extended right and left, puffing themselves out in order to attract attention. Nana and Pauline resorted to the complicated devices of experienced coquettes. If they ran till they were out of breath, it was in view of showing their white stockings and making the ribbons of their chignons wave in the breeze. When they stopped, pretending complete breathlessness, you would certainly spot someone they knew quite near, one of the young fellows of the neighborhood. This would make them dawdle along languidly, whispering and laughing among themselves, but keeping a sharp watch through their downcast eyelids.
They went on these strolls of a Sunday mainly for the sake of these chance meetings. Tall lads, wearing their Sunday best, would stop them, joking and trying to catch them round their waists. Pauline was forever running into one of Madame Gaudron's sons, a seventeen-year-old carpenter, who would treat her to fried potatoes. Nana could spot Victor Fauconnier, the laundress's son and they would exchange kisses in dark corners. It never went farther than that, but they told each other some tall tales.
Then when the sun set, the great delight of these young hussies was to stop and look at the mountebanks. Conjurors and strong men turned up and spread threadbare carpets on the soil of the avenue. Loungers collected and a circle formed whilst the mountebank in the centre tried his muscles under his faded tights. Nana and Pauline would stand for hours in the thickest part of the crowd. Their pretty, fresh frocks would get crushed between great-coats and dirty work smocks. In this atmosphere of wine and sweat they would laugh gaily, finding amusement in everything, blooming naturally like roses growing out of a dunghill. The only thing that vexed them was to meet their fathers, especially when the hatter had been drinking. So they watched and warned one another.
"Look, Nana," Pauline would suddenly cry out, "here comes father Coupeau!"
"Well, he's drunk too. Oh, dear," said Nana, greatly bothered. "I'm going to beat it, you know. I don't want him to give me a wallop. Hullo! How he stumbles! Good Lord, if he could only break his neck!"
At other times, when Coupeau came straight up to her without giving her time to run off, she crouched down, made herself small and muttered: "Just you hide me, you others. He's looking for me, and he promised he'd knock my head off if he caught me hanging about."
Then when the drunkard had passed them she drew herself up again, and all the others followed her with bursts of laughter. He'll find her—he will—he won't! It was a true game of hide and seek. One day, however, Boche had come after Pauline and caught her by both ears, and Coupeau had driven Nana home with kicks.
Nana was now a flower-maker and earned forty sous a day at Titreville's place in the Rue du Caire, where she had served as apprentice. The Coupeaus had kept her there so that she might remain under the eye of Madame Lerat, who had been forewoman in the workroom for ten years. Of a morning, when her mother looked at the cuckoo clock, off she went by herself, looking very pretty with her shoulders tightly confined in her old black dress, which was both too narrow and too short; and Madame Lerat had to note the hour of her arrival and tell it to Gervaise. She was allowed twenty minutes to go from the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or to the Rue du Caire, and it was enough, for these young hussies have the legs of racehorses. Sometimes she arrived exactly on time but so breathless and flushed that she must have covered most of the distance at a run after dawdling along the way. More often she was a few minutes late. Then she would fawn on her aunt all day, hoping to soften her and keep her from telling. Madame Lerat understood what it was to be young and would lie to the Coupeaus, but she also lectured Nana, stressing the dangers a young girl runs on the streets of Paris. Mon Dieu! she herself was followed often enough!
"Oh! I watch, you needn't fear," said the widow to the Coupeaus. "I will answer to you for her as I would for myself. And rather than let a blackguard squeeze her, why I'd step between them."
The workroom at Titreville's was a large apartment on the first floor, with a broad work-table standing on trestles in the centre. Round the four walls, the plaster of which was visible in parts where the dirty yellowish-grey paper was torn away, there were several stands covered with old cardboard boxes, parcels and discarded patterns under a thick coating of dust. The gas had left what appeared to be like a daub of soot on the ceiling. The two windows opened so wide that without leaving the work-table the girls could see the people walking past on the pavement over the way.
Madame Lerat arrived the first, in view of setting an example. Then for a quarter of an hour the door swayed to and fro, and all the workgirls scrambled in, perspiring with tumbled hair. One July morning Nana arrived the last, as very often happened. "Ah, me!" she said, "it won't be a pity when I have a carriage of my own." And without even taking off her hat, one which she was weary of patching up, she approached the window and leant out, looking to the right and the left to see what was going on in the street.
"What are you looking at?" asked Madame Lerat, suspiciously. "Did your father come with you?"
"No, you may be sure of that," answered Nana coolly. "I'm looking at nothing—I'm seeing how hot it is. It's enough to make anyone, having to run like that."
It was a stifling hot morning. The workgirls had drawn down the Venetian blinds, between which they could spy out into the street; and they had at last begun working on either side of the table, at the upper end of which sat Madame Lerat. They were eight in number, each with her pot of glue, pincers, tools and curling stand in front of her. On the work-table lay a mass of wire, reels, cotton wool, green and brown paper, leaves and petals cut out of silk, satin or velvet. In the centre, in the neck of a large decanter, one flower-girl had thrust a little penny nosegay which had been fading on her breast since the day before.
"Oh, I have some news," said a pretty brunette named Leonie as she leaned over her cushion to crimp some rose petals. "Poor Caroline is very unhappy about that fellow who used to wait for her every evening."
"Ah!" said Nana, who was cutting thin strips of green paper. "A man who cheats on her every day!"
Madame Lerat had to display severity over the muffled laughter. Then Leonie whispered suddenly:
"Quiet. The boss!"
It was indeed Madame Titreville who entered. The tall thin woman usually stayed down in the shop. The girls were quite in awe of her because she never joked with them. All the heads were now bent over the work in diligent silence. Madame Titreville slowly circled the work-table. She told one girl her work was sloppy and made her do the flower over. Then she stalked out as stiffly as she had come in.
The complaining and low laughter began again.
"Really, young ladies!" said Madame Lerat, trying to look more severe than ever. "You will force me to take measures."
The workgirls paid no attention to her. They were not afraid of her. She was too easy-going because she enjoyed being surrounded by these young girls whose zest for life sparkled in their eyes. She enjoyed taking them aside to hear their confidences about their lovers. She even told their fortunes with cards whenever a corner of the work-table was free. She was only offended by coarse expressions. As long as you avoided those you could say what you pleased.
To tell the truth, Nana perfected her education in nice style in the workroom! No doubt she was already inclined to go wrong. But this was the finishing stroke—associating with a lot of girls who were already worn out with misery and vice. They all hobnobbed and rotted together, just the story of the baskets of apples when there are rotten ones among them. They maintained a certain propriety in public, but the smut flowed freely when they got to whispering together in a corner.
For inexperienced girls like Nana, there was an undesirable atmosphere around the workshop, an air of cheap dance halls and unorthodox evenings brought in by some of the girls. The laziness of mornings after a gay night, the shadows under the eyes, the lounging, the hoarse voices, all spread an odor of dark perversion over the work-table which contrasted sharply with the brilliant fragility of the artificial flowers. Nana eagerly drank it all in and was dizzy with joy when she found herself beside a girl who had been around. She always wanted to sit next to big Lisa, who was said to be pregnant, and she kept glancing curiously at her neighbor as though expecting her to swell up suddenly.
"It's hot enough to make one stifle," Nana said, approaching a window as if to draw the blind farther down; but she leant forward and again looked out both to the right and left.
At the same moment Leonie, who was watching a man stationed at the foot of the pavement over the way, exclaimed, "What's that old fellow about? He's been spying here for the last quarter of an hour."
"Some tom cat," said Madame Lerat. "Nana, just come and sit down! I told you not to stand at the window."
Nana took up the stems of some violets she was rolling, and the whole workroom turned its attention to the man in question. He was a well-dressed individual wearing a frock coat and he looked about fifty years old. He had a pale face, very serous and dignified in expression, framed round with a well trimmed grey beard. He remained for an hour in front of a herbalist's shop with his eyes fixed on the Venetian blinds of the workroom. The flower-girls indulged in little bursts of laughter which died away amid the noise of the street, and while leaning forward, to all appearance busy with their work, they glanced askance so as not to lose sight of the gentleman.
"Ah!" remarked Leonie, "he wears glasses. He's a swell. He's waiting for Augustine, no doubt."
But Augustine, a tall, ugly, fair-haired girl, sourly answered that she did not like old men; whereupon Madame Lerat, jerking her head, answered with a smile full of underhand meaning:
"That is a great mistake on your part, my dear; the old ones are more affectionate."
At this moment Leonie's neighbor, a plump little body, whispered something in her ear and Leonie suddenly threw herself back on her chair, seized with a fit of noisy laughter, wriggling, looking at the gentleman and then laughing all the louder. "That's it. Oh! that's it," she stammered. "How dirty that Sophie is!"
"What did she say? What did she say?" asked the whole workroom, aglow with curiosity.
Leonie wiped the tears from her eyes without answering. When she became somewhat calmer, she began curling her flowers again and declared, "It can't be repeated."
The others insisted, but she shook her head, seized again with a gust of gaiety. Thereupon Augustine, her left-hand neighbor, besought her to whisper it to her; and finally Leonie consented to do so with her lips close to Augustine's ear. Augustine threw herself back and wriggled with convulsive laughter in her turn. Then she repeated the phrase to a girl next to her, and from ear to ear it traveled round the room amid exclamations and stifled laughter. When they were all of them acquainted with Sophie's disgusting remark they looked at one another and burst out laughing together although a little flushed and confused. Madame Lerat alone was not in the secret and she felt extremely vexed.
"That's very impolite behavior on your part, young ladies," said she. "It is not right to whisper when other people are present. Something indecent no doubt! Ah! that's becoming!"
She did not dare go so far as to ask them to pass Sophie's remark on to her although she burned to hear it. So she kept her eyes on her work, amusing herself by listening to the conversation. Now no one could make even an innocent remark without the others twisting it around and connecting it with the gentleman on the sidewalk. Madame Lerat herself once sent them into convulsions of laughter when she said, "Mademoiselle Lisa, my fire's gone out. Pass me yours."
"Oh! Madame Lerat's fire's out!" laughed the whole shop.
They refused to listen to any explanation, but maintained they were going to call in the gentleman outside to rekindle Madame Lerat's fire.
However, the gentleman over the way had gone off. The room grew calmer and the work was carried on in the sultry heat. When twelve o'clock struck—meal-time—they all shook themselves. Nana, who had hastened to the window again, volunteered to do the errands if they liked. And Leonie ordered two sous worth of shrimps, Augustine a screw of fried potatoes, Lisa a bunch of radishes, Sophie a sausage. Then as Nana was doing down the stairs, Madame Lerat, who found her partiality for the window that morning rather curious, overtook her with her long legs.
"Wait a bit," said she. "I'll go with you. I want to buy something too."
But in the passage below she perceived the gentleman, stuck there like a candle and exchanging glances with Nana. The girl flushed very red, whereupon her aunt at once caught her by the arm and made her trot over the pavement, whilst the individual followed behind. Ah! so the tom cat had come for Nana. Well, that was nice! At fifteen years and a half to have men trailing after her! Then Madame Lerat hastily began to question her. Mon Dieu! Nana didn't know; he had only been following her for five days, but she could not poke her nose out of doors without stumbling on men. She believed he was in business; yes, a manufacturer of bone buttons. Madame Lerat was greatly impressed. She turned round and glanced at the gentleman out of the corner of her eye.
"One can see he's got a deep purse," she muttered. "Listen to me, kitten; you must tell me everything. You have nothing more to fear now."
Whilst speaking they hastened from shop to shop—to the pork butcher's, the fruiterer's, the cook-shop; and the errands in greasy paper were piled up in their hands. Still they remained amiable, flouncing along and casting bright glances behind them with gusts of gay laughter. Madame Lerat herself was acting the young girl, on account of the button manufacturer who was still following them.
"He is very distinguished looking," she declared as they returned into the passage. "If he only has honorable views—"
Then, as they were going up the stairs she suddenly seemed to remember something. "By the way, tell me what the girls were whispering to each other—you know, what Sophie said?"
Nana did not make any ceremony. Only she caught Madame Lerat by the hand, and caused her to descend a couple of steps, for, really, it wouldn't do to say it aloud, not even on the stairs. When she whispered it to her, it was so obscene that Madame Lerat could only shake her head, opening her eyes wide, and pursing her lips. Well, at least her curiosity wasn't troubling her any longer.
From that day forth Madame Lerat regaled herself with her niece's first love adventure. She no longer left her, but accompanied her morning and evening, bringing her responsibility well to the fore. This somewhat annoyed Nana, but all the same she expanded with pride at seeing herself guarded like a treasure; and the talk she and her aunt indulged in in the street with the button manufacturer behind them flattered her, and rather quickened her desire for new flirtations. Oh! her aunt understood the feelings of the heart; she even compassionated the button manufacturer, this elderly gentleman, who looked so respectable, for, after all, sentimental feelings are more deeply rooted among people of a certain age. Still she watched. And, yes, he would have to pass over her body before stealing her niece.
One evening she approached the gentleman, and told him, as straight as a bullet, that his conduct was most improper. He bowed to her politely without answering, like an old satyr who was accustomed to hear parents tell him to go about his business. She really could not be cross with him, he was too well mannered.
Then came lectures on love, allusions to dirty blackguards of men, and all sorts of stories about hussies who had repented of flirtations, which left Nana in a state of pouting, with eyes gleaming brightly in her pale face.
One day, however, in the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere the button manufacturer ventured to poke his nose between the aunt and the niece to whisper some things which ought not to have been said. Thereupon Madame Lerat was so frightened that she declared she no longer felt able to handle the matter and she told the whole business to her brother. Then came another row. There were some pretty rumpuses in the Coupeaus' room. To begin with, the zinc-worker gave Nana a hiding. What was that he learnt? The hussy was flirting with old men. All right. Only let her be caught philandering out of doors again, she'd be done for; he, her father, would cut off her head in a jiffy. Had the like ever been seen before! A dirty nose who thought of beggaring her family! Thereupon he shook her, declaring in God's name that she'd have to walk straight, for he'd watch her himself in future. He now looked her over every night when she came in, even going so far as to sniff at her and make her turn round before him.
One evening she got another hiding because he discovered a mark on her neck that he maintained was the mark of a kiss. Nana insisted it was a bruise that Leonie had given her when they were having a bit of a rough-house. Yet at other times her father would tease her, saying she was certainly a choice morsel for men. Nana began to display the sullen submissiveness of a trapped animal. She was raging inside.
"Why don't you leave her alone?" repeated Gervaise, who was more reasonable. "You will end by making her wish to do it by talking to her about it so much."
Ah! yes, indeed, she did wish to do it. She itched all over, longing to break loose and gad all the time, as father Coupeau said. He insisted so much on the subject that even an honest girl would have fired up. Even when he was abusing her, he taught her a few things she did not know as yet, which, to say the least was astonishing. Then, little by little she acquired some singular habits. One morning he noticed her rummaging in a paper bag and rubbing something on her face. It was rice powder, which she plastered on her delicate satin-like skin with perverse taste. He caught up the paper bag and rubbed it over her face violently enough to graze her skin and called her a miller's daughter. On another occasion she brought some ribbon home, to do up her old black hat which she was so ashamed of. He asked her in a furious voice where she had got those ribbons from. Had she earned them by lying on her back or had she bagged them somewhere? A hussy or a thief, and perhaps both by now?
More than once he found her with some pretty little doodad. She had found a little interlaced heart in the street on Rue d'Aboukir. Her father crushed the heart under his foot, driving her to the verge of throwing herself at him to ruin something of his. For two years she had been longing for one of those hearts, and now he had smashed it! This was too much, she was reaching the end of the line with him.
Coupeau was often in the wrong in the manner in which he tried to rule Nana. His injustice exasperated her. She at last left off attending the workshop and when the zinc-worker gave her a hiding, she declared she would not return to Titreville's again, for she was always placed next to Augustine, who must have swallowed her feet to have such a foul breath. Then Coupeau took her himself to the Rue du Caire and requested the mistress of the establishment to place her always next to Augustine, by way of punishment. Every morning for a fortnight he took the trouble to come down from the Barriere Poissonniere to escort Nana to the door of the flower shop. And he remained for five minutes on the footway, to make sure that she had gone in. But one morning while he was drinking a glass with a friend in a wineshop in the Rue Saint-Denis, he perceived the hussy darting down the street. For a fortnight she had been deceiving him; instead of going into the workroom, she climbed a story higher, and sat down on the stairs, waiting till he had gone off. When Coupeau began casting the blame on Madame Lerat, the latter flatly replied that she would not accept it. She had told her niece all she ought to tell her, to keep her on her guard against men, and it was not her fault if the girl still had a liking for the nasty beasts. Now, she washed her hands of the whole business; she swore she would not mix up in it, for she knew what she knew about scandalmongers in her own family, yes, certain persons who had the nerve to accuse her of going astray with Nana and finding an indecent pleasure in watching her take her first misstep. Then Coupeau found out from the proprietress that Nana was being corrupted by that little floozie Leonie, who had given up flower-making to go on the street. Nana was being tempted by the jingle of cash and the lure of adventure on the streets.
In the tenement in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, Nana's old fellow was talked about as a gentleman everyone was acquainted with. Oh! he remained very polite, even a little timid, but awfully obstinate and patient, following her ten paces behind like an obedient poodle. Sometimes, indeed, he ventured into the courtyard. One evening, Madame Gaudron met him on the second floor landing, and he glided down alongside the balusters with his nose lowered and looking as if on fire, but frightened. The Lorilleuxs threatened to move out if that wayward niece of theirs brought men trailing in after her. It was disgusting. The staircase was full of them. The Boches said that they felt sympathy for the old gentleman because he had fallen for a tramp. He was really a respectable businessman, they had seen his button factory on the Boulevard de la Villette. He would be an excellent catch for a decent girl.
For the first month Nana was greatly amused with her old flirt. You should have seen him always dogging her—a perfect great nuisance, who followed far behind, in the crowd, without seeming to do so. And his legs! Regular lucifers. No more moss on his pate, only four straight hairs falling on his neck, so that she was always tempted to ask him where his hairdresser lived. Ah! what an old gaffer, he was comical and no mistake, nothing to get excited over.
Then, on finding him always behind her, she no longer thought him so funny. She became afraid of him and would have called out if he had approached her. Often, when she stopped in front of a jeweler's shop, she heard him stammering something behind her. And what he said was true; she would have liked to have had a cross with a velvet neck-band, or a pair of coral earrings, so small you would have thought they were drops of blood.
More and more, as she plodded through the mire of the streets, getting splashed by passing vehicles and being dazzled by the magnificence of the window displays, she felt longings that tortured her like hunger pangs, yearnings for better clothes, for eating in restaurants, for going to the theatre, for a room of her own with nice furniture. Right at those moments, it never failed that her old gentleman would come up to whisper something in her ear. Oh, if only she wasn't afraid of him, how readily she would have taken up with him.
When the winter arrived, life became impossible at home. Nana had her hiding every night. When her father was tired of beating her, her mother smacked her to teach her how to behave. And there were free-for-alls; as soon as one of them began to beat her, the other took her part, so that all three of them ended by rolling on the floor in the midst of the broken crockery. And with all this, there were short rations and they shivered with cold. Whenever the girl bought anything pretty, a bow or a pair of buttons, her parents confiscated the purchase and drank what they could get for it. She had nothing of her own, excepting her allowance of blows, before coiling herself up between the rags of a sheet, where she shivered under her little black skirt, which she stretched out by way of a blanket. No, that cursed life could not continue; she was not going to leave her skin in it. Her father had long since ceased to count for her; when a father gets drunk like hers did, he isn't a father, but a dirty beast one longs to be rid of. And now, too, her mother was doing down the hill in her esteem. She drank as well. She liked to go and fetch her husband at Pere Colombe's, so as to be treated; and she willingly sat down, with none of the air of disgust that she had assumed on the first occasion, draining glasses indeed at one gulp, dragging her elbows over the table for hours and leaving the place with her eyes starting out of her head.
When Nana passed in front of l'Assommoir and saw her mother inside, with her nose in her glass, fuddled in the midst of the disputing men, she was seized with anger; for youth which has other dainty thoughts uppermost does not understand drink. On these evenings it was a pretty sight. Father drunk, mother drunk, a hell of a home that stunk with liquor, and where there was no bread. To tell the truth, a saint would not have stayed in the place. So much the worse if she flew the coop one of these days; her parents would have to say their mea culpa, and own that they had driven her out themselves.
One Saturday when Nana came home she found her father and her mother in a lamentable condition. Coupeau, who had fallen across the bed was snoring. Gervaise, crouching on a chair was swaying her head, with her eyes vaguely and threateningly staring into vacancy. She had forgotten to warm the dinner, the remains of a stew. A tallow dip which she neglected to snuff revealed the shameful misery of their hovel.
"It's you, shrimp?" stammered Gervaise. "Ah, well, your father will take care of you."
Nana did not answer, but remained pale, looking at the cold stove, the table on which no plates were laid, the lugubrious hovel which this pair of drunkards invested with the pale horror of their callousness. She did not take off her hat but walked round the room; then with her teeth tightly set, she opened the door and went out.
"You are doing down again?" asked her mother, who was unable even to turn her head.
"Yes; I've forgotten something. I shall come up again. Good evening."
And she did not return. On the morrow when the Coupeaus were sobered they fought together, reproaching each other with being the cause of Nana's flight. Ah! she was far away if she were running still! As children are told of sparrows, her parents might set a pinch of salt on her tail, and then perhaps they would catch her. It was a great blow, and crushed Gervaise, for despite the impairment of her faculties, she realized perfectly well that her daughter's misconduct lowered her still more; she was alone now, with no child to think about, able to let herself sink as low as she could fall. She drank steadily for three days. Coupeau prowled along the exterior Boulevards without seeing Nana and then came home to smoke his pipe peacefully. He was always back in time for his soup.
In this tenement, where girls flew off every month like canaries whose cages are left open, no one was astonished to hear of the Coupeaus' mishap. But the Lorilleuxs were triumphant. Ah! they had predicted that the girl would reward her parents in this fashion. It was deserved; all artificial flower-girls went that way. The Boches and the Poissons also sneered with an extraordinary display and outlay of grief. Lantier alone covertly defended Nana. Mon Dieu! said he, with his puritanical air, no doubt a girl who so left her home did offend her parents; but, with a gleam in the corner of his eyes, he added that, dash it! the girl was, after all, too pretty to lead such a life of misery at her age.
"Do you know," cried Madame Lorilleux, one day in the Boches' room, where the party were taking coffee; "well, as sure as daylight, Clump-clump sold her daughter. Yes she sold her, and I have proof of it! That old fellow, who was always on the stairs morning and night, went up to pay something on account. It stares one in the face. They were seen together at the Ambigu Theatre—the young wench and her old tom cat. Upon my word of honor, they're living together, it's quite plain."
They discussed the scandal thoroughly while finishing their coffee. Yes, it was quite possible. Soon most of the neighborhood accepted the conclusion that Gervaise had actually sold her daughter.
Gervaise now shuffled along in her slippers, without caring a rap for anyone. You might have called her a thief in the street, she wouldn't have turned round. For a month past she hadn't looked at Madame Fauconnier's; the latter had had to turn her out of the place to avoid disputes. In a few weeks' time she had successively entered the service of eight washerwomen; she only lasted two or three days in each place before she got the sack, so badly did she iron the things entrusted to her, careless and dirty, her mind failing to such a point that she quite forgot her own craft. At last realizing her own incapacity she abandoned ironing; and went out washing by the day at the wash-house in the Rue Neuve, where she still jogged on, floundering about in the water, fighting with filth, reduced to the roughest but simplest work, a bit lower on the down-hill slopes. The wash-house scarcely beautified her. A real mud-splashed dog when she came out of it, soaked and showing her blue skin. At the same time she grew stouter and stouter, despite her frequent dances before the empty sideboard, and her leg became so crooked that she could no longer walk beside anyone without the risk of knocking him over, so great indeed was her limp.
Naturally enough when a woman falls to this point all her pride leaves her. Gervaise had divested herself of all her old self-respect, coquetry and need of sentiment, propriety and politeness. You might have kicked her, no matter where, she did not feel kicks for she had become too fat and flabby. Lantier had altogether neglected her; he no longer escorted her or even bothered to give her a pinch now and again. She did not seem to notice this finish of a long liaison slowly spun out, and ending in mutual insolence. It was a chore the less for her. Even Lantier's intimacy with Virginie left her quite calm, so great was her indifference now for all that she had been so upset about in the past. She would even have held a candle for them now.
Everyone was aware that Virginie and Lantier were carrying on. It was much too convenient, especially with Poisson on duty every other night. Lantier had thought of himself when he advised Virginie to deal in dainties. He was too much of a Provincial not to adore sugared things; and in fact he would have lived off sugar candy, lozenges, pastilles, sugar plums and chocolate. Sugared almonds especially left a little froth on his lips so keenly did they tickle his palate. For a year he had been living only on sweetmeats. He opened the drawers and stuffed himself whenever Virginie asked him to mind the shop. Often, when he was talking in the presence of five or six other people, he would take the lid off a jar on the counter, dip his hand into it and begin to nibble at something sweet; the glass jar remained open and its contents diminished. People ceased paying attention to it, it was a mania of his so he had declared. Besides, he had devised a perpetual cold, an irritation of the throat, which he always talked of calming.
He still did not work, for he had more and more important schemes than ever in view. He was contriving a superb invention—the umbrella hat, a hat which transformed itself into an umbrella on your head as soon as a shower commenced to fall; and he promised Poisson half shares in the profit of it, and even borrowed twenty franc pieces of him to defray the cost of experiments. Meanwhile the shop melted away on his tongue. All the stock-in-trade followed suit down to the chocolate cigars and pipes in pink caramel. Whenever he was stuffed with sweetmeats and seized with a fit of tenderness, he paid himself with a last lick on the groceress in a corner, who found him all sugar with lips which tasted like burnt almonds. Such a delightful man to kiss! He was positively becoming all honey. The Boches said he merely had to dip a finger into his coffee to sweeten it.
Softened by this perpetual dessert, Lantier showed himself paternal towards Gervaise. He gave her advice and scolded her because she no longer liked to work. Indeed! A woman of her age ought to know how to turn herself round. And he accused her of having always been a glutton. Nevertheless, as one ought to hold out a helping hand, even to folks who don't deserve it, he tried to find her a little work. Thus he had prevailed upon Virginie to let Gervaise come once a week to scrub the shop and the rooms. That was the sort of thing she understood and on each occasion she earned her thirty sous. Gervaise arrived on the Saturday morning with a pail and a scrubbing brush, without seeming to suffer in the least at having to perform a dirty, humble duty, a charwoman's work in the dwelling-place where she had reigned as the beautiful fair-haired mistress. It was a last humiliation, the end of her pride.
One Saturday she had a hard job of it. It had rained for three days and the customers seemed to have brought all the mud of the neighborhood into the shop on the soles of their boots. Virginie was at the counter doing the grand, with her hair well combed, and wearing a little white collar and a pair of lace cuffs. Beside her, on the narrow seat covered with red oil-cloth, Lantier did the dandy, looking for the world as if he were at home, as if he were the real master of the place, and from time to time he carelessly dipped his hand into a jar of peppermint drops, just to nibble something sweet according to his habit.
"Look here, Madame Coupeau!" cried Virginie, who was watching the scrubbing with compressed lips, "you have left some dirt over there in the corner. Scrub that rather better please."
Gervaise obeyed. She returned to the corner and began to scrub again. She bent double on her knees in the midst of the dirty water, with her shoulders protruding, her arms stiff and purple with cold. Her old skirt, fairly soaked, stuck to her figure. And there on the floor she looked a dirty, ill-combed drab, the rents in her jacket showing her puffy form, her fat, flabby flesh which heaved, swayed and floundered about as she went about her work; and all the while she perspired to such a point that from her moist face big drops of sweat fell on to the floor.
"The more elbow grease one uses, the more it shines," said Lantier, sententiously, with his mouth full of peppermint drops.
Virginie, who sat back with the demeanor of a princess, her eyes partly open, was still watching the scrubbing, and indulging in remarks. "A little more on the right there. Take care of the wainscot. You know I was not very well pleased last Saturday. There were some stains left."
And both together, the hatter and the groceress assumed a more important air, as if they had been on a throne whilst Gervaise dragged herself through the black mud at their feet. Virginie must have enjoyed herself, for a yellowish flame darted from her cat's eyes, and she looked at Lantier with an insidious smile. At last she was revenged for that hiding she had received at the wash-house, and which she had never forgotten.
Whenever Gervaise ceased scrubbing, a sound of sawing could be heard from the back room. Through the open doorway, Poisson's profile stood out against the pale light of the courtyard. He was off duty that day and was profiting by his leisure time to indulge in his mania for making little boxes. He was seated at a table and was cutting out arabesques in a cigar box with extraordinary care.
"Say, Badingue!" cried Lantier, who had given him this surname again, out of friendship. "I shall want that box of yours as a present for a young lady."
Virginie gave him a pinch and he reached under the counter to run his fingers like a creeping mouse up her leg.
"Quite so," said the policeman. "I was working for you, Auguste, in view of presenting you with a token of friendship."
"Ah, if that's the case, I'll keep your little memento!" rejoined Lantier with a laugh. "I'll hang it round my neck with a ribbon."
Then suddenly, as if this thought brought another one to his memory, "By the way," he cried, "I met Nana last night."
This news caused Gervaise such emotion that she sunk down in the dirty water which covered the floor of the shop.
"Ah!" she muttered speechlessly.
"Yes; as I was going down the Rue des Martyrs, I caught sight of a girl who was on the arm of an old fellow in front of me, and I said to myself: I know that shape. I stepped faster and sure enough found myself face to face with Nana. There's no need to pity her, she looked very happy, with her pretty woolen dress on her back, a gold cross and an awfully pert expression."
"Ah!" repeated Gervaise in a husky voice.
Lantier, who had finished the pastilles, took some barley-sugar out of another jar.
"She's sneaky," he resumed. "She made a sign to me to follow her, with wonderful composure. Then she left her old fellow somewhere in a cafe—oh a wonderful chap, the old bloke, quite used up!—and she came and joined me under the doorway. A pretty little serpent, pretty, and doing the grand, and fawning on you like a little dog. Yes, she kissed me, and wanted to have news of everyone—I was very pleased to meet her."
"Ah!" said Gervaise for the third time. She drew herself together, and still waited. Hadn't her daughter had a word for her then? In the silence Poisson's saw could be heard again. Lantier, who felt gay, was sucking his barley-sugar, and smacking his lips.
"Well, if I saw her, I should go over to the other side of the street," interposed Virginie, who had just pinched the hatter again most ferociously. "It isn't because you are there, Madame Coupeau, but your daughter is rotten to the core. Why, every day Poisson arrests girls who are better than she is."
Gervaise said nothing, nor did she move; her eyes staring into space. She ended by jerking her head to and fro, as if in answer to her thoughts, whilst the hatter, with a gluttonous mien, muttered:
"Ah, a man wouldn't mind getting a bit of indigestion from that sort of rottenness. It's as tender as chicken."
But the grocer gave him such a terrible look that he had to pause and quiet her with some delicate attention. He watched the policeman, and perceiving that he had his nose lowered over his little box again, he profited of the opportunity to shove some barley-sugar into Virginie's mouth. Thereupon she laughed at him good-naturedly and turned all her anger against Gervaise.
"Just make haste, eh? The work doesn't do itself while you remain stuck there like a street post. Come, look alive, I don't want to flounder about in the water till night time."
And she added hatefully in a lower tone: "It isn't my fault if her daughter's gone and left her."
No doubt Gervaise did not hear. She had begun to scrub the floor again, with her back bent and dragging herself along with a frog-like motion. She still had to sweep the dirty water out into the gutter, and then do the final rinsing.
After a pause, Lantier, who felt bored, raised his voice again: "Do you know, Badingue," he cried, "I met your boss yesterday in the Rue de Rivoli. He looked awfully down in the mouth. He hasn't six months' life left in his body. Ah! after all, with the life he leads—"
He was talking about the Emperor. The policeman did not raise his eyes, but curtly answered: "If you were the Government you wouldn't be so fat."
"Oh, my dear fellow, if I were the Government," rejoined the hatter, suddenly affecting an air of gravity, "things would go on rather better, I give you my word for it. Thus, their foreign policy—why, for some time past it has been enough to make a fellow sweat. If I—I who speak to you—only knew a journalist to inspire him with my ideas."
He was growing animated, and as he had finished crunching his barley-sugar, he opened a drawer from which he took a number of jujubes, which he swallowed while gesticulating.
"It's quite simple. Before anything else, I should give Poland her independence again, and I should establish a great Scandinavian state to keep the Giant of the North at bay. Then I should make a republic out of all the little German states. As for England, she's scarcely to be feared; if she budged ever so little I should send a hundred thousand men to India. Add to that I should send the Sultan back to Mecca and the Pope to Jerusalem, belaboring their backs with the butt end of a rifle. Eh? Europe would soon be clean. Come, Badingue, just look here."
He paused to take five or six jujubes in his hand. "Why, it wouldn't take longer than to swallow these."
And he threw one jujube after another into his open mouth.
"The Emperor has another plan," said the policeman, after reflecting for a couple of minutes.
"Oh, forget it," rejoined the hatter. "We know what his plan is. All Europe is laughing at us. Every day the Tuileries footmen find your boss under the table between a couple of high society floozies."
Poisson rose to his feet. He came forward and placed his hand on his heart, saying: "You hurt me, Auguste. Discuss, but don't involve personalities."
Thereupon Virginie intervened, bidding them stop their row. She didn't care a fig for Europe. How could two men, who shared everything else, always be disputing about politics? For a minute they mumbled some indistinct words. Then the policeman, in view of showing that he harbored no spite, produced the cover of his little box, which he had just finished; it bore the inscription in marquetry: "To Auguste, a token of friendship." Lantier, feeling exceedingly flattered, lounged back and spread himself out so that he almost sat upon Virginie. And the husband viewed the scene with his face the color of an old wall and his bleared eyes fairly expressionless; but all the same, at moments the red hairs of his moustaches stood up on end of their own accord in a very singular fashion, which would have alarmed any man who was less sure of his business than the hatter.
This beast of a Lantier had the quiet cheek which pleases ladies. As Poisson turned his back he was seized with the idea of printing a kiss on Madame Poisson's left eye. As a rule he was stealthily prudent, but when he had been disputing about politics he risked everything, so as to show the wife his superiority. These gloating caresses, cheekily stolen behind the policeman's back, revenged him on the Empire which had turned France into a house of quarrels. Only on this occasion he had forgotten Gervaise's presence. She had just finished rinsing and wiping the shop, and she stood near the counter waiting for her thirty sous. However, the kiss on Virginie's eye left her perfectly calm, as being quite natural, and as part of a business she had no right to mix herself up in. Virginie seemed rather vexed. She threw the thirty sous on to the counter in front of Gervaise. The latter did not budge but stood there waiting, still palpitating with the effort she had made in scrubbing, and looking as soaked and as ugly as a dog fished out of the sewer.
"Then she didn't tell you anything?" she asked the hatter at last.
"Who?" he cried. "Ah, yes; you mean Nana. No, nothing else. What a tempting mouth she has, the little hussy! Real strawberry jam!"
Gervaise went off with her thirty sous in her hand. The holes in her shoes spat water forth like pumps; they were real musical shoes, and played a tune as they left moist traces of their broad soles along the pavement.
In the neighborhood the feminine tipplers of her own class now related that she drank to console herself for her daughter's misconduct. She herself, when she gulped down her dram of spirits on the counter, assumed a dramatic air, and tossed the liquor into her mouth, wishing it would "do" for her. And on the days when she came home boozed she stammered that it was all through grief. But honest folks shrugged their shoulders. They knew what that meant: ascribing the effects of the peppery fire of l'Assommoir to grief, indeed! At all events, she ought to have called it bottled grief. No doubt at the beginning she couldn't digest Nana's flight. All the honest feelings remaining in her revolted at the thought, and besides, as a rule a mother doesn't like to have to think that her daughter, at that very moment, perhaps, is being familiarly addressed by the first chance comer. But Gervaise was already too stultified with a sick head and a crushed heart, to think of the shame for long. With her it came and went. She remained sometimes for a week together without thinking of her daughter, and then suddenly a tender or an angry feeling seized hold of her, sometimes when she had her stomach empty, at others when it was full, a furious longing to catch Nana in some corner, where she would perhaps have kissed her or perhaps have beaten her, according to the fancy of the moment.
Whenever these thoughts came over her, Gervaise looked on all sides in the streets with the eyes of a detective. Ah! if she had only seen her little sinner, how quickly she would have brought her home again! The neighborhood was being turned topsy-turvy that year. The Boulevard Magenta and the Boulevard Ornano were being pierced; they were doing away with the old Barriere Poissonniere and cutting right through the outer Boulevard. The district could not be recognized. The whole of one side of the Rue des Poissonniers had been pulled down. From the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or a large clearing could now be seen, a dash of sunlight and open air; and in place of the gloomy buildings which had hidden the view in this direction there rose up on the Boulevard Ornano a perfect monument, a six-storied house, carved all over like a church, with clear windows, which, with their embroidered curtains, seemed symbolical of wealth. This white house, standing just in front of the street, illuminated it with a jet of light, as it were, and every day it caused discussions between Lantier and Poisson.
Gervaise had several times had tidings of Nana. There are always ready tongues anxious to pay you a sorry compliment. Yes, she had been told that the hussy had left her old gentleman, just like the inexperienced girl she was. She had gotten along famously with him, petted, adored, and free, too, if she had only known how to manage the situation. But youth is foolish, and she had no doubt gone off with some young rake, no one knew exactly where. What seemed certain was that one afternoon she had left her old fellow on the Place de la Bastille, just for half a minute, and he was still waiting for her to return. Other persons swore they had seen her since, dancing on her heels at the "Grand Hall of Folly," in the Rue de la Chapelle. Then it was that Gervaise took it into her head to frequent all the dancing places of the neighborhood. She did not pass in front of a public ball-room without going in. Coupeau accompanied her. At first they merely made the round of the room, looking at the drabs who were jumping about. But one evening, as they had some coin, they sat down and ordered a large bowl of hot wine in view of regaling themselves and waiting to see if Nana would turn up. At the end of a month or so they had practically forgotten her, but they frequented the halls for their own pleasure, liking to look at the dancers. They would remain for hours without exchanging a word, resting their elbows on the table, stultified amidst the quaking of the floor, and yet no doubt amusing themselves as they stared with pale eyes at the Barriere women in the stifling atmosphere and ruddy glow of the hall.
It happened one November evening that they went into the "Grand Hall of Folly" to warm themselves. Out of doors a sharp wind cut you across the face. But the hall was crammed. There was a thundering big swarm inside; people at all the tables, people in the middle, people up above, quite an amount of flesh. Yes, those who cared for tripes could enjoy themselves. When they had made the round twice without finding a vacant table, they decided to remain standing and wait till somebody went off. Coupeau was teetering on his legs, in a dirty blouse, with an old cloth cap which had lost its peak flattened down on his head. And as he blocked the way, he saw a scraggy young fellow who was wiping his coat-sleeve after elbowing him.
"Say!" cried Coupeau in a fury, as he took his pipe out of his black mouth. "Can't you apologize? And you play the disgusted one? Just because a fellow wears a blouse!"
The young man turned round and looked at the zinc-worker from head to foot.
"I'll just teach you, you scraggy young scamp," continued Coupeau, "that the blouse is the finest garment out; yes! the garment of work. I'll wipe you if you like with my fists. Did one ever hear of such a thing—a ne'er-do-well insulting a workman!"
Gervaise tried to calm him, but in vain. He drew himself up in his rags, in full view, and struck his blouse, roaring: "There's a man's chest under that!"
Thereupon the young man dived into the midst of the crowd, muttering: "What a dirty blackguard!"
Coupeau wanted to follow and catch him. He wasn't going to let himself be insulted by a fellow with a coat on. Probably it wasn't even paid for! Some second-hand toggery to impress a girl with, without having to fork out a centime. If he caught the chap again, he'd bring him down on his knees and make him bow to the blouse. But the crush was too great; there was no means of walking. He and Gervaise turned slowly round the dancers; there were three rows of sightseers packed close together, whose faces lighted up whenever any of the dancers showed off. As Coupeau and Gervaise were both short, they raised themselves up on tiptoe, trying to see something besides the chignons and hats that were bobbing about. The cracked brass instruments of the orchestra were furiously thundering a quadrille, a perfect tempest which made the hall shake; while the dancers, striking the floor with their feet, raised a cloud of dust which dimmed the brightness of the gas. The heat was unbearable.
"Look there," said Gervaise suddenly.
"Look at what?"
"Why, at that velvet hat over there."
They raised themselves up on tiptoe. On the left hand there was an old black velvet hat trimmed with ragged feathers bobbing about—regular hearse's plumes. It was dancing a devil of a dance, this hat—bouncing and whirling round, diving down and then springing up again. Coupeau and Gervaise lost sight of it as the people round about moved their heads, but then suddenly they saw it again, swaying farther off with such droll effrontery that folks laughed merely at the sight of this dancing hat, without knowing what was underneath it.
"Well?" asked Coupeau.
"Don't you recognize that head of hair?" muttered Gervaise in a stifled voice. "May my head be cut off if it isn't her."
With one shove the zinc-worker made his way through the crowd. Mon Dieu! yes, it was Nana! And in a nice pickle too! She had nothing on her back but an old silk dress, all stained and sticky from having wiped the tables of boozing dens, and with its flounces so torn that they fell in tatters round about. Not even a bit of a shawl over her shoulders. And to think that the hussy had had such an attentive, loving gentleman, and had yet fallen to this condition, merely for the sake of following some rascal who had beaten her, no doubt! Nevertheless she had remained fresh and insolent, with her hair as frizzy as a poodle's, and her mouth bright pink under that rascally hat of hers.
"Just wait a bit, I'll make her dance!" resumed Coupeau.
Naturally enough, Nana was not on her guard. You should have seen how she wriggled about! She twisted to the right and to the left, bending double as if she were going to break herself in two, and kicking her feet as high as her partner's face. A circle had formed about her and this excited her even more. She raised her skirts to her knees and really let herself go in a wild dance, whirling and turning, dropping to the floor in splits, and then jigging and bouncing.
Coupeau was trying to force his way through the dancers and was disrupting the quadrille.
"I tell you, it's my daughter!" he cried; "let me pass."
Nana was now dancing backwards, sweeping the floor with her flounces, rounding her figure and wriggling it, so as to look all the more tempting. She suddenly received a masterly blow just on the right cheek. She raised herself up and turned quite pale on recognizing her father and mother. Bad luck and no mistake.
"Turn him out!" howled the dancers.
But Coupeau, who had just recognized his daughter's cavalier as the scraggy young man in the coat, did not care a fig for what the people said.
"Yes, it's us," he roared. "Eh? You didn't expect it. So we catch you here, and with a whipper-snapper, too, who insulted me a little while ago!"
Gervaise, whose teeth were tight set, pushed him aside, exclaiming, "Shut up. There's no need of so much explanation."
And, stepping forward, she dealt Nana a couple of hearty cuffs. The first knocked the feathered hat on one side, and the second left a red mark on the girl's white cheek. Nana was too stupefied either to cry or resist. The orchestra continued playing, the crowd grew angry and repeated savagely, "Turn them out! Turn them out!"
"Come, make haste!" resumed Gervaise. "Just walk in front, and don't try to run off. You shall sleep in prison if you do."
The scraggy young man had prudently disappeared. Nana walked ahead, very stiff and still stupefied by her bad luck. Whenever she showed the lest unwillingness, a cuff from behind brought her back to the direction of the door. And thus they went out, all three of them, amid the jeers and banter of the spectators, whilst the orchestra finished playing the finale with such thunder that the trombones seemed to be spitting bullets.
The old life began again. After sleeping for twelve hours in her closet, Nana behaved very well for a week or so. She had patched herself a modest little dress, and wore a cap with the strings tied under her chignon. Seized indeed with remarkable fervor, she declared she would work at home, where one could earn what one liked without hearing any nasty work-room talk; and she procured some work and installed herself at a table, getting up at five o'clock in the morning on the first few days to roll her sprigs of violets. But when she had delivered a few gross, she stretched her arms and yawned over her work, with her hands cramped, for she had lost her knack of stem-rolling, and suffocated, shut up like this at home after allowing herself so much open air freedom during the last six months. Then the glue dried, the petals and the green paper got stained with grease, and the flower-dealer came three times in person to make a row and claim his spoiled materials.
Nana idled along, constantly getting a hiding from her father, and wrangling with her mother morning and night—quarrels in which the two women flung horrible words at each other's head. It couldn't last; the twelfth day she took herself off, with no more luggage than her modest dress on her back and her cap perched over one ear. The Lorilleuxs, who had pursed their lips on hearing of her return and repentance, nearly died of laughter now. Second performance, eclipse number two, all aboard for the train for Saint-Lazare, the prison-hospital for streetwalkers! No, it was really too comical. Nana took herself off in such an amusing style. Well, if the Coupeaus wanted to keep her in the future, they must shut her up in a cage.
In the presence of other people the Coupeaus pretended they were very glad to be rid of the girl, though in reality they were enraged. However, rage can't last forever, and soon they heard without even blinking that Nana was seen in the neighborhood. Gervaise, who accused her of doing it to enrage them, set herself above the scandal; she might meet her daughter on the street, she said; she wouldn't even dirty her hand to cuff her; yes, it was all over; she might have seen her lying in the gutter, dying on the pavement, and she would have passed by without even admitting that such a hussy was her own child.
Nana meanwhile was enlivening the dancing halls of the neighborhood. She was known from the "Ball of Queen Blanche" to the "Great Hall of Folly." When she entered the "Elysee-Montmartre," folks climbed onto the tables to see her do the "sniffling crawfish" during the pastourelle. As she had twice been turned out of the "Chateau Rouge" hall, she walked outside the door waiting for someone she knew to escort her inside. The "Black Ball" on the outer Boulevard and the "Grand Turk" in the Rue des Poissonniers, were respectable places where she only went when she had some fine dress on. Of all the jumping places of the neighborhood, however, those she most preferred were the "Hermitage Ball" in a damp courtyard and "Robert's Ball" in the Impasse du Cadran, two dirty little halls, lighted up with a half dozen oil lamps, and kept very informally, everyone pleased and everyone free, so much so that the men and their girls kissed each other at their ease, in the dances, without being disturbed. Nana had ups and downs, perfect transformations, now tricked out like a stylish woman and now all dirt. Ah! she had a fine life.
On several occasions the Coupeaus fancied they saw her in some shady dive. They turned their backs and decamped in another direction so as not to be obliged to recognize her. They didn't care to be laughed at by a whole dancing hall again for the sake of bringing such a dolt home. One night as they were going to bed, however, someone knocked at the door. It was Nana who matter-of-factly came to ask for a bed; and in what a state. Mon Dieu! her head was bare, her dress in tatters, and her boots full of holes—such a toilet as might have led the police to run her in, and take her off to the Depot. Naturally enough she received a hiding, and then she gluttonously fell on a crust of stale bread and went to sleep, worn out, with the last mouthful between her teeth.
Then this sort of life continued. As soon as she was somewhat recovered she would go off and not a sight or sound of her. Weeks or months would pass and she would suddenly appear with no explanation. The Coupeaus got used to these comings and goings. Well, as long as she didn't leave the door open. What could you expect?
There was only one thing that really bothered Gervaise. This was to see her daughter come home in a dress with a train and a hat covered with feathers. No, she couldn't stomach this display. Nana might indulge in riotous living if she chose, but when she came home to her mother's she ought to dress like a workgirl. The dresses with trains caused quite a sensation in the house; the Lorilleuxs sneered; Lantier, whose mouth sneered, turned the girl round to sniff at her delicious aroma; the Boches had forbidden Pauline to associate with this baggage in her frippery. And Gervaise was also angered by Nana's exhausted slumber, when after one of her adventures, she slept till noon, with her chignon undone and still full of hair pins, looking so white and breathing so feebly that she seemed to be dead. Her mother shook her five or six times in the course of the morning, threatening to throw a jugful of water over her. The sight of this handsome lazy girl, half naked and besotted with wine, exasperated her, as she saw her lying there. Sometimes Nana opened an eye, closed it again, and then stretched herself out all the more.
One day after reproaching her with the life she led and asking her if she had taken on an entire battalion of soldiers, Gervaise put her threat into execution to the extent of shaking her dripping hand over Nana's body. Quite infuriated, the girl pulled herself up in the sheet, and cried out:
"That's enough, mamma. It would be better not to talk of men. You did as you liked, and now I do the same!"
"What! What!" stammered the mother.
"Yes, I never spoke to you about it, for it didn't concern me; but you didn't used to be very fussy. I often saw you when we lived at the shop sneaking off as soon as papa started snoring. So just shut up; you shouldn't have set me the example."
Gervaise remained pale, with trembling hands, turning round without knowing what she was about, whilst Nana, flattened on her breast, embraced her pillow with both arms and subsided into the torpor of her leaden slumber.
Coupeau growled, no longer sane enough to think of launching out a whack. He was altogether losing his mind. And really there was no need to call him an unprincipled father, for liquor had deprived him of all consciousness of good and evil.
Now it was a settled thing. He wasn't sober once in six months; then he was laid up and had to go into the Sainte-Anne hospital; a pleasure trip for him. The Lorilleuxs said that the Duke of Bowel-Twister had gone to visit his estates. At the end of a few weeks he left the asylum, repaired and set together again, and then he began to pull himself to bits once more, till he was down on his back and needed another mending. In three years he went seven times to Sainte-Anne in this fashion. The neighborhood said that his cell was kept ready for him. But the worst of the matter was that this obstinate tippler demolished himself more and more each time so that from relapse to relapse one could foresee the final tumble, the last cracking of this shaky cask, all the hoops of which were breaking away, one after the other.
At the same time, he forgot to improve in appearance; a perfect ghost to look at! The poison was having terrible effects. By dint of imbibing alcohol, his body shrunk up like the embryos displayed in glass jars in chemical laboratories. When he approached a window you could see through his ribs, so skinny had he become. Those who knew his age, only forty years just gone, shuddered when he passed by, bent and unsteady, looking as old as the streets themselves. And the trembling of his hands increased, the right one danced to such an extent, that sometimes he had to take his glass between both fists to carry it to his lips. Oh! that cursed trembling! It was the only thing that worried his addled brains. You could hear him growling ferocious insults against those hands of his.
This last summer, during which Nana usually came home to spend her nights, after she had finished knocking about, was especially bad for Coupeau. His voice changed entirely as if liquor had set a new music in his throat. He became deaf in one ear. Then in a few days his sight grew dim, and he had to clutch hold of the stair railings to prevent himself from falling. As for his health, he had abominable headaches and dizziness. All on a sudden he was seized with acute pains in his arms and legs; he turned pale; was obliged to sit down, and remained on a chair witless for hours; indeed, after one such attack, his arm remained paralyzed for the whole day. He took to his bed several times; he rolled himself up and hid himself under the sheet, breathing hard and continuously like a suffering animal. Then the strange scenes of Sainte-Anne began again. Suspicious and nervous, worried with a burning fever, he rolled about in a mad rage, tearing his blouse and biting the furniture with his convulsed jaws; or else he sank into a great state of emotion, complaining like a child, sobbing and lamenting because nobody loved him. One night when Gervaise and Nana returned home together they were surprised not to find him in his bed. He had laid the bolster in his place. And when they discovered him, hiding between the bed and the wall, his teeth were chattering, and he related that some men had come to murder him. The two women were obliged to put him to bed again and quiet him like a child.
Coupeau knew only one remedy, to toss down a pint of spirits; a whack in his stomach, which set him on his feet again. This was how he doctored his gripes of a morning. His memory had left him long ago, his brain was empty; and he no sooner found himself on his feet than he poked fun at illness. He had never been ill. Yes, he had got to the point when a fellow kicks the bucket declaring that he's quite well. And his wits were going a-wool-gathering in other respects too. When Nana came home after gadding about for six weeks or so he seemed to fancy she had returned from doing some errand in the neighborhood. Often when she was hanging on an acquaintance's arm she met him and laughed at him without his recognizing her. In short, he no longer counted for anything; she might have sat down on him if she had been at a loss for a chair.
When the first frosts came Nana took herself off once more under the pretence of going to the fruiterer's to see if there were any baked pears. She scented winter and didn't care to let her teeth chatter in front of the fireless stove. The Coupeaus had called her no good because they had waited for the pears. No doubt she would come back again. The other winter she had stayed away three weeks to fetch her father two sous' worth of tobacco. But the months went by and the girl did not show herself. This time she must have indulged in a hard gallop. When June arrived she did not even turn up with the sunshine. Evidently it was all over, she had found a new meal ticket somewhere or other. One day when the Coupeaus were totally broke they sold Nana's iron bedstead for six francs, which they drank together at Saint-Ouen. The bedstead had been in their way.
One morning in July Virginie called to Gervaise, who was passing by, and asked her to lend a hand in washing up, for Lantier had entertained a couple of friends on the day before. And while Gervaise was cleaning up the plates and dishes, greasy with the traces of the spread, the hatter, who was still digesting in the shop, suddenly called out:
"Say, I saw Nana the other day."
Virginie, who was seated at the counter looking very careworn in front of the jars and drawers which were already three parts emptied, jerked her head furiously. She restrained herself so as not to say too much, but really it was angering her. Lantier was seeing Nana often. Oh! she was by no means sure of him; he was a man to do much worse than that, when a fancy for a woman came into his head. Madame Lerat, very intimate just then with Virginie, who confided in her, had that moment entered the shop, and hearing Lantier's remark, she pouted ridiculously, and asked:
"What do you mean, you saw her?"
"Oh, in the street here," answered the hatter, who felt highly flattered, and began to laugh and twirl his moustaches. "She was in a carriage and I was floundering on the pavement. Really it was so, I swear it! There's no use denying it, the young fellows of position who are on friendly terms with her are terribly lucky!"
His eyes had brightened and he turned towards Gervaise who was standing in the rear of the shop wiping a dish.
"Yes, she was in a carriage, and wore such a stylish dress! I didn't recognise her, she looked so much like a lady of the upper set, with her white teeth and her face as fresh as a flower. It was she who waved her glove to me. She has caught a count, I believe. Oh! she's launched for good. She can afford to do without any of us; she's head over heels in happiness, the little beggar! What a love of a little kitten! No, you've no idea what a little kitten she is!"
Gervaise was still wiping the same plate, although it had long since been clean and shiny. Virginie was reflecting, anxious about a couple of bills which fell due on the morrow and which she didn't know how to pay; whilst Lantier, stout and fat, perspiring the sugar he fed off, ventured his enthusiasm for well-dressed little hussies. The shop, which was already three parts eaten up, smelt of ruin. Yes, there were only a few more burnt almonds to nibble, a little more barley-sugar to suck, to clean the Poissons' business out. Suddenly, on the pavement over the way, he perceived the policeman, who was on duty, pass by all buttoned up with his sword dangling by his side. And this made him all the gayer. He compelled Virginie to look at her husband.
"Dear me," he muttered, "Badingue looks fine this morning! Just look, see how stiff he walks. He must have stuck a glass eye in his back to surprise people."
When Gervaise went back upstairs, she found Coupeau seated on the bed, in the torpid state induced by one of his attacks. He was looking at the window-panes with his dim expressionless eyes. She sat herself down on a chair, tired out, her hands hanging beside her dirty skirt; and for a quarter of an hour she remained in front of him without saying a word.
"I've had some news," she muttered at last. "Your daughter's been seen. Yes, your daughter's precious stylish and hasn't any more need of you. She's awfully happy, she is! Ah! Mon Dieu! I'd give a great deal to be in her place."
Coupeau was still staring at the window-pane. But suddenly he raised his ravaged face, and stammered with an idiotic laugh:
"Well, my little lamb, I'm not stopping you. You're not yet so bad looking when you wash yourself. As folks say, however old a pot may be, it ends by finding its lid. And, after all, I wouldn't care if it only buttered our bread."