It must have been the Saturday after quarter day, something like the 12th or 13th of January—Gervaise didn't quite know. She was losing her wits, for it was centuries since she had had anything warm in her stomach. Ah! what an infernal week! A complete clear out. Two loaves of four pounds each on Tuesday, which had lasted till Thursday; then a dry crust found the night before, and finally not a crumb for thirty-six hours, a real dance before the cupboard! What did she know, by the way, what she felt on her back, was the frightful cold, a black cold, the sky as grimy as a frying-pan, thick with snow which obstinately refused to fall. When winter and hunger are both together in your guts, you may tighten your belt as much as you like, it hardly feeds you.
Perhaps Coupeau would bring back some money in the evening. He said that he was working. Anything is possible, isn't it? And Gervaise, although she had been caught many and many a time, had ended by relying on this coin. After all sorts of incidents, she herself couldn't find as much as a duster to wash in the whole neighborhood; and even an old lady, whose rooms she did, had just given her the sack, charging her with swilling her liqueurs. No one would engage her, she was washed up everywhere; and this secretly suited her, for she had fallen to that state of indifference when one prefers to croak rather than move one's fingers. At all events, if Coupeau brought his pay home they would have something warm to eat. And meanwhile, as it wasn't yet noon, she remained stretched on the mattress, for one doesn't feel so cold or so hungry when one is lying down.
The bed was nothing but a pile of straw in a corner. Bed and bedding had gone, piece by piece, to the second-hand dealers of the neighborhood. First she had ripped open the mattress to sell handfuls of wool at ten sous a pound. When the mattress was empty she got thirty sous for the sack so as to be able to have coffee. Everything else had followed. Well, wasn't the straw good enough for them?
Gervaise bent herself like a gun-trigger on the heap of straw, with her clothes on and her feet drawn up under her rag of a skirt, so as to keep them warm. And huddled up, with her eyes wide open, she turned some scarcely amusing ideas over in her mind that morning. Ah! no, they couldn't continue living without food. She no longer felt her hunger, only she had a leaden weight on her chest and her brain seemed empty. Certainly there was nothing gay to look at in the four corners of the hovel. A perfect kennel now, where greyhounds, who wear wrappers in the streets, would not even have lived in effigy. Her pale eyes stared at the bare walls. Everything had long since gone to "uncle's." All that remained were the chest of drawers, the table and a chair. Even the marble top of the chest of drawers and the drawers themselves, had evaporated in the same direction as the bedstead. A fire could not have cleaned them out more completely; the little knick-knacks had melted, beginning with the ticker, a twelve franc watch, down to the family photos, the frames of which had been bought by a woman keeping a second-hand store; a very obliging woman, by the way, to whom Gervaise carried a saucepan, an iron, a comb and who gave her five, three or two sous in exchange, according to the article; enough, at all events to go upstairs again with a bit of bread. But now there only remained a broken pair of candle snuffers, which the woman refused to give her even a sou for.
Oh! if she could only have sold the rubbish and refuse, the dust and the dirt, how speedily she would have opened shop, for the room was filthy to behold! She only saw cobwebs in the corners and although cobwebs are good for cuts, there are, so far, no merchants who buy them. Then turning her head, abandoning the idea of doing a bit of trade, Gervaise gathered herself together more closely on her straw, preferring to stare through the window at the snow-laden sky, at the dreary daylight, which froze the marrow in her bones.
What a lot of worry! Though, after all, what was the use of putting herself in such a state and puzzling her brains? If she had only been able to have a snooze. But her hole of a home wouldn't go out of her mind. Monsieur Marescot, the landlord had come in person the day before to tell them that he would turn them out into the street if the two quarters' rent now overdue were not paid during the ensuing week. Well, so he might, they certainly couldn't be worse off on the pavement! Fancy this ape, in his overcoat and his woolen gloves, coming upstairs to talk to them about rent, as if they had had a treasure hidden somewhere!
Just the same with that brute of a Coupeau, who couldn't come home now without beating her; she wished him in the same place as the landlord. She sent them all there, wishing to rid herself of everyone, and of life too. She was becoming a real storehouse for blows. Coupeau had a cudgel, which he called his ass's fan, and he fanned his old woman. You should just have seen him giving her abominable thrashings, which made her perspire all over. She was no better herself, for she bit and scratched him. Then they stamped about in the empty room and gave each other such drubbings as were likely to ease them of all taste for bread for good. But Gervaise ended by not caring a fig for these thwacks, not more than she did for anything else. Coupeau might celebrate Saint Monday for weeks altogether, go off on the spree for months at a time, come home mad with liquor, and seek to sharpen her as he said, she had grown accustomed to it, she thought him tiresome, but nothing more. It was on these occasions that she wished him somewhere else. Yes, somewhere, her beast of a man and the Lorilleuxs, the Boches, and the Poissons too; in fact, the whole neighborhood, which she had such contempt for. She sent all Paris there with a gesture of supreme carelessness, and was pleased to be able to revenge herself in this style.
One could get used to almost anything, but still, it is hard to break the habit of eating. That was the one thing that really annoyed Gervaise, the hunger that kept gnawing at her insides. Oh, those pleasant little snacks she used to have. Now she had fallen low enough to gobble anything she could find.
On special occasions, she would get waste scraps of meat from the butcher for four sous a pound. Blacked and dried out meat that couldn't find a purchaser. She would mix this with potatoes for a stew. On other occasions, when she had some wine, she treated herself to a sop, a true parrot's pottage. Two sous' worth of Italian cheese, bushels of white potatoes, quarts of dry beans, cooked in their own juice, these also were dainties she was not often able to indulge in now. She came down to leavings from low eating dens, where for a sou she had a pile of fish-bones, mixed with the parings of moldy roast meat. She fell even lower—she begged a charitable eating-house keeper to give her his customers' dry crusts, and she made herself a bread soup, letting the crusts simmer as long as possible on a neighbor's fire. On the days when she was really hungry, she searched about with the dogs, to see what might be lying outside the tradespeople's doors before the dustmen went by; and thus at times she came across rich men's food, rotten melons, stinking mackerel and chops, which she carefully inspected for fear of maggots.
Yes, she had come to this. The idea may be a repugnant one to delicate-minded folks, but if they hadn't chewed anything for three days running, we should hardly see them quarreling with their stomachs; they would go down on all fours and eat filth like other people. Ah! the death of the poor, the empty entrails, howling hunger, the animal appetite that leads one with chattering teeth to fill one's stomach with beastly refuse in this great Paris, so bright and golden! And to think that Gervaise used to fill her belly with fat goose! Now the thought of it brought tears to her eyes. One day, when Coupeau bagged two bread tickets from her to go and sell them and get some liquor, she nearly killed him with the blow of a shovel, so hungered and so enraged was she by this theft of a bit of bread.
However, after a long contemplation of the pale sky, she had fallen into a painful doze. She dreamt that the snow-laden sky was falling on her, so cruelly did the cold pinch. Suddenly she sprang to her feet, awakened with a start by a shudder of anguish. Mon Dieu! was she going to die? Shivering and haggard she perceived that it was still daylight. Wouldn't the night ever come? How long the time seems when the stomach is empty! Hers was waking up in its turn and beginning to torture her. Sinking down on the chair, with her head bent and her hands between her legs to warm them, she began to think what they would have for dinner as soon as Coupeau brought the money home: a loaf, a quart of wine and two platefuls of tripe in the Lyonnaise fashion. Three o'clock struck by father Bazouge's clock. Yes, it was only three o'clock. Then she began to cry. She would never have strength enough to wait until seven. Her body swayed backwards and forwards, she oscillated like a child nursing some sharp pain, bending herself double and crushing her stomach so as not to feel it. Ah! an accouchement is less painful than hunger! And unable to ease herself, seized with rage, she rose and stamped about, hoping to send her hunger to sleep by walking it to and fro like an infant. For half an hour or so, she knocked against the four corners of the empty room. Then, suddenly, she paused with a fixed stare. So much the worse! They might say what they liked; she would lick their feet if needs be, but she would go and ask the Lorilleuxs to lend her ten sous.
At winter time, up these stairs of the house, the paupers' stairs, there was a constant borrowing of ten sous and twenty sous, petty services which these hungry beggars rendered each other. Only they would rather have died than have applied to the Lorilleuxs, for they knew they were too tight-fisted. Thus Gervaise displayed remarkable courage in going to knock at their door. She felt so frightened in the passage that she experienced the sudden relief of people who ring a dentist's bell.
"Come in!" cried the chainmaker in a sour voice.
How warm and nice it was inside. The forge was blazing, its white flame lighting up the narrow workroom, whilst Madame Lorilleux set a coil of gold wire to heat. Lorilleux, in front of his worktable, was perspiring with the warmth as he soldered the links of a chain together. And it smelt nice. Some cabbage soup was simmering on the stove, exhaling a steam which turned Gervaise's heart topsy-turvy, and almost made her faint.
"Ah! it's you," growled Madame Lorilleux, without even asking her to sit down. "What do you want?"
Gervaise did not answer for a moment. She had recently been on fairly good terms with the Lorilleuxs, but she saw Boche sitting by the stove. He seemed very much at home, telling funny stories.
"What do you want?" repeated Lorilleux.
"You haven't seen Coupeau?" Gervaise finally stammered at last. "I thought he was here."
The chainmakers and the concierge sneered. No, for certain, they hadn't seen Coupeau. They didn't stand treat often enough to interest Coupeau. Gervaise made an effort and resumed, stuttering:
"It's because he promised to come home. Yes, he's to bring me some money. And as I have absolute need of something—"
Silence followed. Madame Lorilleux was roughly fanning the fire of the stove; Lorilleux had lowered his nose over the bit of chain between his fingers, while Boche continued laughing, puffing out his face till it looked like the full moon.
"If I only had ten sous," muttered Gervaise, in a low voice.
The silence persisted.
"Couldn't you lend me ten sous? Oh! I would return them to you this evening!"
Madame Lorilleux turned round and stared at her. Here was a wheedler trying to get round them. To-day she asked them for ten sous, to-morrow it would be for twenty, and there would be no reason to stop. No, indeed; it would be a warm day in winter if they lent her anything.
"But, my dear," cried Madame Lorilleux. "You know very well that we haven't any money! Look! There's the lining of my pocket. You can search us. If we could, it would be with a willing heart, of course."
"The heart's always there," growled Lorilleux. "Only when one can't, one can't."
Gervaise looked very humble and nodded her head approvingly. However, she did not take herself off. She squinted at the gold, at the gold tied together hanging on the walls, at the gold wire the wife was drawing out with all the strength of her little arms, at the gold links lying in a heap under the husband's knotty fingers. And she thought that the least bit of this ugly black metal would suffice to buy her a good dinner. The workroom was as dirty as ever, full of old iron, coal dust and sticky oil stains, half wiped away; but now, as Gervaise saw it, it seemed resplendent with treasure, like a money changer's shop. And so she ventured to repeat softly: "I would return them to you, return them without fail. Ten sous wouldn't inconvenience you."
Her heart was swelling with the effort she made not to own that she had had nothing to eat since the day before. Then she felt her legs give way. She was frightened that she might burst into tears, and she still stammered:
"It would be kind of you! You don't know. Yes, I'm reduced to that, good Lord—reduced to that!"
Thereupon the Lorilleuxs pursed their lips and exchanged covert glances. So Clump-clump was begging now! Well, the fall was complete. But they did not care for that kind of thing by any means. If they had known, they would have barricaded the door, for people should always be on their guard against beggars—folks who make their way into apartments under a pretext and carry precious objects away with them; and especially so in this place, as there was something worth while stealing. One might lay one's fingers no matter where, and carry off thirty or forty francs by merely closing the hands. They had felt suspicious several times already on noticing how strange Gervaise looked when she stuck herself in front of the gold. This time, however, they meant to watch her. And as she approached nearer, with her feet on the board, the chainmaker roughly called out, without giving any further answer to her question: "Look out, pest—take care; you'll be carrying some scraps of gold away on the soles of your shoes. One would think you had greased them on purpose to make the gold stick to them."
Gervaise slowly drew back. For a moment she leant against a rack, and seeing that Madame Lorilleux was looking at her hands, she opened them and showed them, saying softly, without the least anger, like a fallen women who accepts anything:
"I have taken nothing; you can look."
And then she went off, because the strong smell of the cabbage soup and the warmth of the workroom made her feel too ill.
Ah! the Lorilleuxs did not detain her. Good riddance; just see if they opened the door to her again. They had seen enough of her face. They didn't want other people's misery in their rooms, especially when that misery was so well deserved. They reveled in their selfish delight at being seated so cozily in a warm room, with a dainty soup cooking. Boche also stretched himself, puffing with his cheeks still more and more, so much, indeed, that his laugh really became indecent. They were all nicely revenged on Clump-clump, for her former manners, her blue shop, her spreads, and all the rest. It had all worked out just as it should, proving where a love of showing-off would get you.
"So that is the style now? Begging for ten sous," cried Madame Lorilleux as soon as Gervaise had gone. "Wait a bit; I'll lend her ten sous, and no mistake, to go and get drunk with."
Gervaise shuffled along the passage in her slippers, bending her back and feeling heavy. On reaching her door she did not open it—her room frightened her. It would be better to walk about, she would learn patience. As she passed by she stretched out her neck, peering into Pere Bru's kennel under the stairs. There, for instance, was another one who must have a fine appetite, for he had breakfasted and dined by heart during the last three days. However, he wasn't at home, there was only his hole, and Gervaise felt somewhat jealous, thinking that perhaps he had been invited somewhere. Then, as she reached the Bijards' she heard Lalie moaning, and, as the key was in the lock as usual, she opened the door and went in.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
The room was very clean. One could see that Lalie had carefully swept it, and arranged everything during the morning. Misery might blow into the room as much as it liked, carry off the chattels and spread all the dirt and refuse about. Lalie, however, came behind and tidied everything, imparting, at least, some appearance of comfort within. She might not be rich, but you realized that there was a housewife in the place. That afternoon her two little ones, Henriette and Jules, had found some old pictures which they were cutting out in a corner. But Gervaise was greatly surprised to see Lalie herself in bed, looking very pale, with the sheet drawn up to her chin. In bed, indeed, then she must be seriously ill!
"What is the matter with you?" inquired Gervaise, feeling anxious.
Lalie no longer groaned. She slowly raised her white eyelids, and tried to compel her lips to smile, although they were convulsed by a shudder.
"There's nothing the matter with me," she whispered very softly. "Really nothing at all."
Then, closing her eyes again, she added with an effort:
"I made myself too tired during the last few days, and so I'm doing the idle; I'm nursing myself, as you see."
But her childish face, streaked with livid stains, assumed such an expression of anguish that Gervaise, forgetting her own agony, joined her hands and fell on her knees near the bed. For the last month she had seen the girl clinging to the walls for support when she went about, bent double indeed, by a cough which seemed to presage a coffin. Now the poor child could not even cough. She had a hiccough and drops of blood oozed from the corners of her mouth.
"It's not my fault if I hardly feel strong," she murmured, as if relieved. "I've tired myself to-day, trying to put things to rights. It's pretty tidy, isn't it? And I wanted to clean the windows as well, but my legs failed me. How stupid! However, when one has finished one can go to bed."
She paused, then said, "Pray, see if my little ones are not cutting themselves with the scissors."
And then she relapsed into silence, trembling and listening to a heavy footfall which was approaching up the stairs. Suddenly father Bijard brutally opened the door. As usual he was far gone, and his eyes shone with the furious madness imparted by the vitriol he had swallowed. When he perceived Lalie in bed, he tapped on his thighs with a sneer, and took the whip from where it hung.
"Ah! by blazes, that's too much," he growled, "we'll soon have a laugh. So the cows lie down on their straw at noon now! Are you poking fun at me, you lazy beggar? Come, quick now, up you get!"
And he cracked the whip over the bed. But the child beggingly replied:
"Pray, papa, don't—don't strike me. I swear to you you will regret it. Don't strike!"
"Will you jump up?" he roared still louder, "or else I'll tickle your ribs! Jump up, you little hound!"
Then she softly said, "I can't—do you understand? I'm going to die."
Gervaise had sprung upon Bijard and torn the whip away from him. He stood bewildered in front of the bed. What was the dirty brat talking about? Do girls die so young without even having been ill? Some excuse to get sugar out of him no doubt. Ah! he'd make inquiries, and if she lied, let her look out!
"You will see, it's the truth," she continued. "As long as I could I avoided worrying you; but be kind now, and bid me good-bye, papa."
Bijard wriggled his nose as if he fancied she was deceiving him. And yet it was true she had a singular look, the serious mien of a grown up person. The breath of death which passed through the room in some measure sobered him. He gazed around like a man awakened from a long sleep, saw the room so tidy, the two children clean, playing and laughing. And then he sank on to a chair stammering, "Our little mother, our little mother."
Those were the only words he could find to say, and yet they were very tender ones to Lalie, who had never been much spoiled. She consoled her father. What especially worried her was to go off like this without having completely brought up the little ones. He would take care of them, would he not? With her dying breath she told him how they ought to be cared for and kept clean. But stultified, with the fumes of drink seizing hold of him again, he wagged his head, watching her with an uncertain stare as she was dying. All kind of things were touched in him, but he could find no more to say and he was too utterly burnt with liquor to shed a tear.
"Listen," resumed Lalie, after a pause. "We owe four francs and seven sous to the baker; you must pay that. Madame Gaudron borrowed an iron of ours, which you must get from her. I wasn't able to make any soup this evening, but there's some bread left and you can warm up the potatoes."
Till her last rattle, the poor kitten still remained the little mother. Surely she could never be replaced! She was dying because she had had, at her age, a true mother's reason, because her breast was too small and weak for so much maternity. And if her ferocious beast of a father lost his treasure, it was his own fault. After kicking the mother to death, hadn't he murdered the daughter as well? The two good angels would lie in the pauper's grave and all that could be in store for him was to kick the bucket like a dog in the gutter.
Gervaise restrained herself not to burst out sobbing. She extended her hands, desirous of easing the child, and as the shred of a sheet was falling, she wished to tack it up and arrange the bed. Then the dying girl's poor little body was seen. Ah! Mon Dieu! what misery! What woe! Stones would have wept. Lalie was bare, with only the remnants of a camisole on her shoulders by way of chemise; yes, bare, with the grievous, bleeding nudity of a martyr. She had no flesh left; her bones seemed to protrude through the skin. From her ribs to her thighs there extended a number of violet stripes—the marks of the whip forcibly imprinted on her. A livid bruise, moreover, encircled her left arm, as if the tender limb, scarcely larger than a lucifer, had been crushed in a vise. There was also an imperfectly closed wound on her right leg, left there by some ugly blow and which opened again and again of a morning, when she went about doing her errands. From head to foot, indeed, she was but one bruise! Oh! this murdering of childhood; those heavy hands crushing this lovely girl; how abominable that such weakness should have such a weighty cross to bear! Again did Gervaise crouch down, no longer thinking of tucking in the sheet, but overwhelmed by the pitiful sight of this martyrdom; and her trembling lips seemed to be seeking for words of prayer.
"Madame Coupeau," murmured the child, "I beg you—"
With her little arms she tried to draw up the sheet again, ashamed as it were for her father. Bijard, as stultified as ever, with his eyes on the corpse which was his own work, still wagged his head, but more slowly, like a worried animal might do.
When she had covered Lalie up again, Gervaise felt she could not remain there any longer. The dying girl was growing weaker and ceased speaking; all that was left to her was her gaze—the dark look she had had as a resigned and thoughtful child and which she now fixed on her two little ones who were still cutting out their pictures. The room was growing gloomy and Bijard was working off his liquor while the poor girl was in her death agonies. No, no, life was too abominable! How frightful it was! How frightful! And Gervaise took herself off, and went down the stairs, not knowing what she was doing, her head wandering and so full of disgust that she would willingly have thrown herself under the wheels of an omnibus to have finished with her own existence.
As she hastened on, growling against cursed fate, she suddenly found herself in front of the place where Coupeau pretended that he worked. Her legs had taken her there, and now her stomach began singing its song again, the complaint of hunger in ninety verses—a complaint she knew by heart. However, if she caught Coupeau as he left, she would be able to pounce upon the coin at once and buy some grub. A short hour's waiting at the utmost; she could surely stay that out, though she had sucked her thumbs since the day before.
She was at the corner of Rue de la Charbonniere and Rue de Chartres. A chill wind was blowing and the sky was an ugly leaden grey. The impending snow hung over the city but not a flake had fallen as yet. She tried stamping her feet to keep warm, but soon stopped as there was no use working up an appetite.
There was nothing amusing about. The few passers-by strode rapidly along, wrapped up in comforters; naturally enough one does not care to tarry when the cold is nipping at your heels. However, Gervaise perceived four or five women who were mounting guard like herself outside the door of the zinc-works; unfortunate creatures of course—wives watching for the pay to prevent it going to the dram-shop. There was a tall creature as bulky as a gendarme leaning against the wall, ready to spring on her husband as soon as he showed himself. A dark little woman with a delicate humble air was walking about on the other side of the way. Another one, a fat creature, had brought her two brats with her and was dragging them along, one on either hand, and both of them shivering and sobbing. And all these women, Gervaise like the others, passed and repassed, exchanging glances, but without speaking to one another. A pleasant meeting and no mistake. They didn't need to make friends to learn what number they lived at. They could all hang out the same sideboard, "Misery & Co." It seemed to make one feel even colder to see them walk about in silence, passing each other in this terrible January weather.
However, nobody as yet left the zinc-works. But presently one workman appeared, then two, and then three, but these were no doubt decent fellows who took their pay home regularly, for they jerked their heads significantly as they saw the shadows wandering up and down. The tall creature stuck closer than ever to the side of the door, and suddenly fell upon a pale little man who was prudently poking his head out. Oh! it was soon settled! She searched him and collared his coin. Caught, no more money, not even enough to pay for a dram! Then the little man, looking very vexed and cast down, followed his gendarme, weeping like a child. The workmen were still coming out; and as the fat mother with the two brats approached the door, a tall fellow, with a cunning look, who noticed her, went hastily inside again to warn her husband; and when the latter arrived he had stuffed a couple of cart wheels away, two beautiful new five franc pieces, one in each of his shoes. He took one of the brats on his arm, and went off telling a variety of lies to his old woman who was complaining. There were other workmen also, mournful-looking fellows, who carried in their clinched fists the pay for the three or five days' work they had done during a fortnight, who reproached themselves with their own laziness, and took drunkards' oaths. But the saddest thing of all was the grief of the dark little woman, with the humble, delicate look; her husband, a handsome fellow, took himself off under her very nose, and so brutally indeed that he almost knocked her down, and she went home alone, stumbling past the shops and weeping all the tears in her body.
At last the defile finished. Gervaise, who stood erect in the middle of the street, was still watching the door. The look-out seemed a bad one. A couple of workmen who were late appeared on the threshold, but there were still no signs of Coupeau. And when she asked the workmen if Coupeau wasn't coming, they answered her, being up to snuff, that he had gone off by the back-door with Lantimeche. Gervaise understood what this meant. Another of Coupeau's lies; she could whistle for him if she liked. Then shuffling along in her worn-out shoes, she went slowly down the Rue de la Charbonniere. Her dinner was going off in front of her, and she shuddered as she saw it running away in the yellow twilight. This time it was all over. Not a copper, not a hope, nothing but night and hunger. Ah! a fine night to kick the bucket, this dirty night which was falling over her shoulders!
She was walking heavily up the Rue des Poissonniers when she suddenly heard Coupeau's voice. Yes, he was there in the Little Civet, letting My-Boots treat him. That comical chap, My-Boots, had been cunning enough at the end of last summer to espouse in authentic fashion a lady who, although rather advanced in years, had still preserved considerable traces of beauty. She was a lady-of-the-evening of the Rue des Martyrs, none of your common street hussies. And you should have seen this fortunate mortal, living like a man of means, with his hands in his pockets, well clad and well fed. He could hardly be recognised, so fat had he grown. His comrades said that his wife had as much work as she liked among the gentlemen of her acquaintance. A wife like that and a country-house is all one can wish for to embellish one's life. And so Coupeau squinted admiringly at My-Boots. Why, the lucky dog even had a gold ring on his little finger!
Gervaise touched Coupeau on the shoulder just as he was coming out of the little Civet.
"Say, I'm waiting; I'm hungry! I've got an empty stomach which is all I ever get from you."
But he silenced her in a capital style, "You're hungry, eh? Well, eat your fist, and keep the other for to-morrow."
He considered it highly improper to do the dramatic in other people's presence. What, he hadn't worked, and yet the bakers kneaded bread all the same. Did she take him for a fool, to come and try to frighten him with her stories?
"Do you want me to turn thief?" she muttered, in a dull voice.
My-Boots stroked his chin in conciliatory fashion. "No, that's forbidden," said he. "But when a woman knows how to handle herself—"
And Coupeau interrupted him to call out "Bravo!" Yes, a woman always ought to know how to handle herself, but his wife had always been a helpless thing. It would be her fault if they died on the straw. Then he relapsed into his admiration for My-Boots. How awfully fine he looked! A regular landlord; with clean linen and swell shoes! They were no common stuff! His wife, at all events, knew how to keep the pot boiling!
The two men walked towards the outer Boulevard, and Gervaise followed them. After a pause, she resumed, talking behind Coupeau's back: "I'm hungry; you know, I relied on you. You must find me something to nibble."
He did not answer, and she repeated, in a tone of despairing agony: "Is that all I get from you?"
"Mon Dieu! I've no coin," he roared, turning round in a fury. "Just leave me alone, eh? Or else I'll hit you."
He was already raising his fist. She drew back, and seemed to make up her mind. "All right, I'll leave you. I guess I can find a man."
The zinc-worker laughed at this. He pretended to make a joke of the matter, and strengthened her purpose without seeming to do so. That was a fine idea of hers, and no mistake! In the evening, by gaslight, she might still hook a man. He recommended her to try the Capuchin restaurant where one could dine very pleasantly in a small private room. And, as she went off along the Boulevard, looking pale and furious he called out to her: "Listen, bring me back some dessert. I like cakes! And if your gentleman is well dressed, ask him for an old overcoat. I could use one."
With these words ringing in her ears, Gervaise walked softly away. But when she found herself alone in the midst of the crowd, she slackened her pace. She was quite resolute. Between thieving and the other, well she preferred the other; for at all events she wouldn't harm any one. No doubt it wasn't proper. But what was proper and what was improper was sorely muddled together in her brain. When you are dying of hunger, you don't philosophize, you eat whatever bread turns up. She had gone along as far as the Chaussee-Clignancourt. It seemed as if the night would never come. However, she followed the Boulevards like a lady who is taking a stroll before dinner. The neighborhood in which she felt so ashamed, so greatly was it being embellished, was now full of fresh air.
Lost in the crowd on the broad footway, walking past the little plane trees, Gervaise felt alone and abandoned. The vistas of the avenues seemed to empty her stomach all the more. And to think that among this flood of people there were many in easy circumstances, and yet not a Christian who could guess her position, and slip a ten sous piece into her hand! Yes, it was too great and too beautiful; her head swam and her legs tottered under this broad expanse of grey sky stretched over so vast a space. The twilight had the dirty-yellowish tinge of Parisian evenings, a tint that gives you a longing to die at once, so ugly does street life seem. The horizon was growing indistinct, assuming a mud-colored tinge as it were. Gervaise, who was already weary, met all the workpeople returning home. At this hour of the day the ladies in bonnets and the well-dressed gentlemen living in the new houses mingled with the people, with the files of men and women still pale from inhaling the tainted atmosphere of workshops and workrooms. From the Boulevard Magenta and the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere, came bands of people, rendered breathless by their uphill walk. As the omnivans and the cabs rolled by less noiselessly among the vans and trucks returning home empty at a gallop, an ever-increasing swarm of blouses and blue vests covered the pavement. Commissionaires returned with their crotchets on their backs. Two workmen took long strides side by side, talking to each other in loud voices, with any amount of gesticulation, but without looking at one another; others who were alone in overcoats and caps walked along the curbstones with lowered noses; others again came in parties of five or six, following each other, with pale eyes and their hands in their pockets and not exchanging a word. Some still had their pipes, which had gone out between their teeth. Four masons poked their white faces out of the windows of a cab which they had hired between them, and on the roof of which their mortar-troughs rocked to and fro. House-painters were swinging their pots; a zinc-worker was returning laden with a long ladder, with which he almost poked people's eyes out; whilst a belated plumber, with his box on his back, played the tune of "The Good King Dagobert" on his little trumpet. Ah! the sad music, a fitting accompaniment to the tread of the flock, the tread of the weary beasts of burden.
Suddenly on raising her eyes she noticed the old Hotel Boncoeur in front of her. After being an all-night cafe, which the police had closed down, the little house was now abandoned; the shutters were covered with posters, the lantern was broken, and the whole building was rotting and crumbling away from top to bottom, with its smudgy claret-colored paint, quite moldy. The stationer's and the tobacconist's were still there. In the rear, over some low buildings, you could see the leprous facades of several five-storied houses rearing their tumble-down outlines against the sky. The "Grand Balcony" dancing hall no longer existed; some sugar-cutting works, which hissed continually, had been installed in the hall with the ten flaming windows. And yet it was here, in this dirty den—the Hotel Boncoeur—that the whole cursed life had commenced. Gervaise remained looking at the window of the first floor, from which hung a broken shutter, and recalled to mind her youth with Lantier, their first rows and the ignoble way in which he had abandoned her. Never mind, she was young then, and it all seemed gay to her, seen from a distance. Only twenty years. Mon Dieu! and yet she had fallen to street-walking. Then the sight of the lodging house oppressed her and she walked up the Boulevard in the direction of Montmartre.
The night was gathering, but children were still playing on the heaps of sand between the benches. The march past continued, the workgirls went by, trotting along and hurrying to make up for the time they had lost in looking in at the shop windows; one tall girl, who had stopped, left her hand in that of a big fellow, who accompanied her to within three doors of her home; others as they parted from each other, made appointments for the night at the "Great Hall of Folly" or the "Black Ball." In the midst of the groups, piece-workmen went by, carrying their clothes folded under their arms. A chimney sweep, harnessed with leather braces, was drawing a cart along, and nearly got himself crushed by an omnibus. Among the crowd which was now growing scantier, there were several women running with bare heads; after lighting the fire, they had come downstairs again and were hastily making their purchases for dinner; they jostled the people they met, darted into the bakers' and the pork butchers', and went off again with all despatch, their provisions in their hands. There were little girls of eight years old, who had been sent out on errands, and who went along past the shops, pressing long loaves of four pounds' weight, as tall as they were themselves, against their chests, as if these loaves had been beautiful yellow dolls; at times these little ones forgot themselves for five minutes or so, in front of some pictures in a shop window, and rested their cheeks against the bread. Then the flow subsided, the groups became fewer and farther between, the working classes had gone home; and as the gas blazed now that the day's toil was over, idleness and amusement seemed to wake up.
Ah! yes; Gervaise had finished her day! She was wearier even than all this mob of toilers who had jostled her as they went by. She might lie down there and croak, for work would have nothing more to do with her, and she had toiled enough during her life to say: "Whose turn now? I've had enough." At present everyone was eating. It was really the end, the sun had blown out its candle, the night would be a long one. Mon Dieu! To stretch one's self at one's ease and never get up again; to think one had put one's tools by for good and that one could ruminate like a cow forever! That's what is good, after tiring one's self out for twenty years! And Gervaise, as hunger twisted her stomach, thought in spite of herself of the fete days, the spreads and the revelry of her life. Of one occasion especially, an awfully cold day, a mid-Lent Thursday. She had enjoyed herself wonderfully well. She was very pretty, fair-haired and fresh looking at that time. Her wash-house in the Rue Neuve had chosen her as queen in spite of her leg. And then they had had an outing on the boulevards in carts decked with greenery, in the midst of stylish people who ogled her. Real gentlemen put up their glasses as if she had been a true queen. In the evening there was a wonderful spread, and then they had danced till daylight. Queen; yes Queen! With a crown and a sash for twenty-four hours—twice round the clock! And now oppressed by hunger, she looked on the ground, as if she were seeking for the gutter in which she had let her fallen majesty tumble.
She raised her eyes again. She was in front of the slaughter-houses which were being pulled down; through the gaps in the facade one could see the dark, stinking courtyards, still damp with blood. And when she had gone down the Boulevard again, she also saw the Lariboisiere Hospital, with its long grey wall, above which she could distinguish the mournful, fan-like wings, pierced with windows at even distances. A door in the wall filled the neighborhood with dread; it was the door of the dead in solid oak, and without a crack, as stern and as silent as a tombstone. Then to escape her thoughts, she hurried further down till she reached the railway bridge. The high parapets of riveted sheet-iron hid the line from view; she could only distinguish a corner of the station standing out against the luminous horizon of Paris, with a vast roof black with coal-dust. Through the clear space she could hear the engines whistling and the cars being shunted, in token of colossal hidden activity. Then a train passed by, leaving Paris, with puffing breath and a growing rumble. And all she perceived of this train was a white plume, a sudden gust of steam which rose above the parapet and then evaporated. But the bridge had shaken, and she herself seemed impressed by this departure at full speed. She turned round as if to follow the invisible engine, the noise of which was dying away.
She caught a glimpse of open country through a gap between tall buildings. Oh, if only she could have taken a train and gone away, far away from this poverty and suffering. She might have started an entirely new life! Then she turned to look at the posters on the bridge sidings. One was on pretty blue paper and offered a fifty-franc reward for a lost dog. Someone must have really loved that dog!
Gervaise slowly resumed her walk. In the smoky fog which was falling, the gas lamps were being lighted up; and the long avenues, which had grown bleak and indistinct, suddenly showed themselves plainly again, sparkling to their full length and piercing through the night, even to the vague darkness of the horizon. A great gust swept by; the widened spaces were lighted up with girdles of little flames, shining under the far-stretching moonless sky. It was the hour when, from one end of the Boulevard to the other, the dram-shops and the dancing-halls flamed gayly as the first glasses were merrily drunk and the first dance began. It was the great fortnightly pay-day, and the pavement was crowded with jostling revelers on the spree. There was a breath of merrymaking in the air—deuced fine revelry, but not objectionable so far. Fellows were filling themselves in the eating-houses; through the lighted windows you could see people feeding, with their mouths full and laughing without taking the trouble to swallow first. Drunkards were already installed in the wineshops, squabbling and gesticulating. And there was a cursed noise on all sides, voices shouting amid the constant clatter of feet on the pavement.
"Say, are you coming to sip?" "Make haste, old man; I'll pay for a glass of bottled wine." "Here's Pauline! Shan't we just laugh!" The doors swung to and fro, letting a smell of wine and a sound of cornet playing escape into the open air. There was a gathering in front of Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir, which was lighted up like a cathedral for high mass. Mon Dieu! you would have said a real ceremony was going on, for several capital fellows, with rounded paunches and swollen cheeks, looking for all the world like professional choristers, were singing inside. They were celebrating Saint-Pay, of course—a very amiable saint, who no doubt keeps the cash box in Paradise. Only, on seeing how gaily the evening began, the retired petty tradesmen who had taken their wives out for a stroll wagged their heads, and repeated that there would be any number of drunken men in Paris that night. And the night stretched very dark, dead-like and icy, above this revelry, perforated only with lines of gas lamps extending to the four corners of heaven.
Gervaise stood in front of l'Assommoir, thinking that if she had had a couple of sous she could have gone inside and drunk a dram. No doubt a dram would have quieted her hunger. Ah! what a number of drams she had drunk in her time! Liquor seemed good stuff to her after all. And from outside she watched the drunk-making machine, realizing that her misfortune was due to it, and yet dreaming of finishing herself off with brandy on the day she had some coin. But a shudder passed through her hair as she saw it was now almost dark. Well, the night time was approaching. She must have some pluck and sell herself coaxingly if she didn't wish to kick the bucket in the midst of the general revelry. Looking at other people gorging themselves didn't precisely fill her own stomach. She slackened her pace again and looked around her. There was a darker shade under the trees. Few people passed along, only folks in a hurry, who swiftly crossed the Boulevards. And on the broad, dark, deserted footway, where the sound of the revelry died away, women were standing and waiting. They remained for long intervals motionless, patient and as stiff-looking as the scrubby little plane trees; then they slowly began to move, dragging their slippers over the frozen soil, taking ten steps or so and then waiting again, rooted as it were to the ground. There was one of them with a huge body and insect-like arms and legs, wearing a black silk rag, with a yellow scarf over her head; there was another one, tall and bony, who was bareheaded and wore a servant's apron; and others, too—old ones plastered up and young ones so dirty that a ragpicker would not have picked them up. However, Gervaise tried to learn what to do by imitating them; girlish-like emotion tightened her throat; she was hardly aware whether she felt ashamed or not; she seemed to be living in a horrible dream. For a quarter of an hour she remained standing erect. Men hurried by without even turning their heads. Then she moved about in her turn, and venturing to accost a man who was whistling with his hands in his pockets, she murmured, in a strangled voice:
"Sir, listen a moment—"
The man gave her a side glance and then went off, whistling all the louder.
Gervaise grew bolder, and, with her stomach empty, she became absorbed in this chase, fiercely rushing after her dinner, which was still running away. She walked about for a long while, without thinking of the flight of time or of the direction she took. Around her the dark, mute women went to and fro under the trees like wild beasts in a cage. They stepped out of the shade like apparitions, and passed under the light of a gas lamp with their pale masks fully apparent; then they grew vague again as they went off into the darkness, with a white strip of petticoat swinging to and fro. Men let themselves be stopped at times, talked jokingly, and then started off again laughing. Others would quietly follow a woman to her room, discreetly, ten paces behind. There was a deal of muttering, quarreling in an undertone and furious bargaining, which suddenly subsided into profound silence. And as far as Gervaise went she saw these women standing like sentinels in the night. They seemed to be placed along the whole length of the Boulevard. As soon as she met one she saw another twenty paces further on, and the file stretched out unceasingly. Entire Paris was guarded. She grew enraged on finding herself disdained, and changing her place, she now perambulated between the Chaussee de Clignancourt and the Grand Rue of La Chapelle. All were beggars.
"Sir, just listen."
But the men passed by. She started from the slaughter-houses, which stank of blood. She glanced on her way at the old Hotel Boncoeur, now closed. She passed in front of the Lariboisiere Hospital, and mechanically counted the number of windows that were illuminated with a pale quiet glimmer, like that of night-lights at the bedside of some agonizing sufferers. She crossed the railway bridge as the trains rushed by with a noisy rumble, rending the air in twain with their shrill whistling! Ah! how sad everything seemed at night-time! Then she turned on her heels again and filled her eyes with the sight of the same houses, doing this ten and twenty times without pausing, without resting for a minute on a bench. No; no one wanted her. Her shame seemed to be increased by this contempt. She went down towards the hospital again, and then returned towards the slaughter-houses. It was her last promenade—from the blood-stained courtyards, where animals were slaughtered, down to the pale hospital wards, where death stiffened the patients stretched between the sheets. It was between these two establishments that she had passed her life.
"Sir, just listen."
But suddenly she perceived her shadow on the ground. When she approached a gas-lamp it gradually became less vague, till it stood out at last in full force—an enormous shadow it was, positively grotesque, so portly had she become. Her stomach, breast and hips, all equally flabby jostled together as it were. She walked with such a limp that the shadow bobbed almost topsy-turvy at every step she took; it looked like a real Punch! Then as she left the street lamp behind her, the Punch grew taller, becoming in fact gigantic, filling the whole Boulevard, bobbing to and fro in such style that it seemed fated to smash its nose against the trees or the houses. Mon Dieu! how frightful she was! She had never realised her disfigurement so thoroughly. And she could not help looking at her shadow; indeed, she waited for the gas-lamps, still watching the Punch as it bobbed about. Ah! she had a pretty companion beside her! What a figure! It ought to attract the men at once! And at the thought of her unsightliness, she lowered her voice, and only just dared to stammer behind the passers-by:
"Sir, just listen."
It was now getting quite late. Matters were growing bad in the neighborhood. The eating-houses had closed and voices, gruff with drink, could be heard disputing in the wineshops. Revelry was turning to quarreling and fisticuffs. A big ragged chap roared out, "I'll knock yer to bits; just count yer bones." A large woman had quarreled with a fellow outside a dancing place, and was calling him "dirty blackguard" and "lousy bum," whilst he on his side just muttered under his breath. Drink seemed to have imparted a fierce desire to indulge in blows, and the passers-by, who were now less numerous, had pale contracted faces. There was a battle at last; one drunken fellow came down on his back with all four limbs raised in the air, whilst his comrade, thinking he had done for him, ran off with his heavy shoes clattering over the pavement. Groups of men sang dirty songs and then there would be long silences broken only by hiccoughs or the thud of a drunk falling down.
Gervaise still hobbled about, going up and down, with the idea of walking forever. At times, she felt drowsy and almost went to sleep, rocked, as it were, by her lame leg; then she looked round her with a start, and noticed she had walked a hundred yards unconsciously. Her feet were swelling in her ragged shoes. The last clear thought that occupied her mind was that her hussy of a daughter was perhaps eating oysters at that very moment. Then everything became cloudy; and, albeit, she remained with open eyes, it required too great an effort for her to think. The only sensation that remained to her, in her utter annihilation, was that it was frightfully cold, so sharply, mortally cold, she had never known the like before. Why, even dead people could not feel so cold in their graves. With an effort she raised her head, and something seemed to lash her face. It was the snow, which had at last decided to fall from the smoky sky—fine thick snow, which the breeze swept round and round. For three days it had been expected and what a splendid moment it chose to appear.
Woken up by the first gusts, Gervaise began to walk faster. Eager to get home, men were running along, with their shoulders already white. And as she suddenly saw one who, on the contrary, was coming slowly towards her under the trees, she approached him and again said: "Sir, just listen—"
The man has stopped. But he did not seem to have heard her. He held out his hand, and muttered in a low voice: "Charity, if you please!"
They looked at one another. Ah! Mon Dieu! They were reduced to this—Pere Bru begging, Madame Coupeau walking the streets! They remained stupefied in front of each other. They could join hands as equals now. The old workman had prowled about the whole evening, not daring to stop anyone, and the first person he accosted was as hungry as himself. Lord, was it not pitiful! To have toiled for fifty years and be obliged to beg! To have been one of the most prosperous laundresses in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or and to end beside the gutter! They still looked at one another. Then, without saying a word, they went off in different directions under the lashing snow.
It was a perfect tempest. On these heights, in the midst of this open space, the fine snow revolved round and round as if the wind came from the four corners of heaven. You could not see ten paces off, everything was confused in the midst of this flying dust. The surroundings had disappeared, the Boulevard seemed to be dead, as if the storm had stretched the silence of its white sheet over the hiccoughs of the last drunkards. Gervaise still went on, blinded, lost. She felt her way by touching the trees. As she advanced the gas-lamps shone out amidst the whiteness like torches. Then, suddenly, whenever she crossed an open space, these lights failed her; she was enveloped in the whirling snow, unable to distinguish anything to guide her. Below stretched the ground, vaguely white; grey walls surrounded her, and when she paused, hesitating and turning her head, she divined that behind this icy veil extended the immense avenue with interminable vistas of gas-lamps—the black and deserted Infinite of Paris asleep.
She was standing where the outer Boulevard meets the Boulevards Magenta and Ornano, thinking of lying down on the ground, when suddenly she heard a footfall. She began to run, but the snow blinded her, and the footsteps went off without her being able to tell whether it was to the right or to the left. At last, however, she perceived a man's broad shoulders, a dark form which was disappearing amid the snow. Oh! she wouldn't let this man get away. And she ran on all the faster, reached him, and caught him by the blouse: "Sir, sir, just listen."
The man turned round. It was Goujet.
So now she had accosted Golden-Beard. But what had she done on earth to be tortured like this by Providence? It was the crowning blow—to stumble against Goujet, and be seen by her blacksmith friend, pale and begging, like a common street walker. And it happened just under a gas-lamp; she could see her deformed shadow swaying on the snow like a real caricature. You would have said she was drunk. Mon Dieu! not to have a crust of bread, or a drop of wine in her body, and to be taken for a drunken women! It was her own fault, why did she booze? Goujet no doubt thought she had been drinking, and that she was up to some nasty pranks.
He looked at her while the snow scattered daisies over his beautiful yellow beard. Then as she lowered her head and stepped back he detained her.
"Come," said he.
And he walked on first. She followed him. They both crossed the silent district, gliding noiselessly along the walls. Poor Madame Goujet had died of rheumatism in the month of October. Goujet still resided in the little house in the Rue Neuve, living gloomily alone. On this occasion he was belated because he had sat up nursing a wounded comrade. When he had opened the door and lighted a lamp, he turned towards Gervaise, who had remained humbly on the threshold. Then, in a low voice, as if he were afraid his mother could still hear him, he exclaimed, "Come in."
The first room, Madame Goujet's, was piously preserved in the state she had left it. On a chair near the window lay the tambour by the side of the large arm-chair, which seemed to be waiting for the old lace-worker. The bed was made, and she could have stretched herself beneath the sheets if she had left the cemetery to come and spend the evening with her child. There was something solemn, a perfume of honesty and goodness about the room.
"Come in," repeated the blacksmith in a louder tone.
She went in, half frightened, like a disreputable woman gliding into a respectable place. He was quite pale, and trembled at the thought of ushering a woman like this into his dead mother's home. They crossed the room on tip-toe, as if they were ashamed to be heard. Then when he had pushed Gervaise into his own room he closed the door. Here he was at home. It was the narrow closet she was acquainted with; a schoolgirl's room, with the little iron bedstead hung with white curtains. On the walls the engravings cut out of illustrated newspapers had gathered and spread, and they now reached to the ceiling. The room looked so pure that Gervaise did not dare to advance, but retreated as far as she could from the lamp. Then without a word, in a transport as it were, he tried to seize hold of her and press her in his arms. But she felt faint and murmured: "Oh! Mon Dieu! Oh, mon Dieu!"
The fire in the stove, having been covered with coke-dust, was still alight, and the remains of a stew which Goujet had put to warm, thinking he should return to dinner, was smoking in front of the cinders. Gervaise, who felt her numbness leave her in the warmth of this room, would have gone down on all fours to eat out of the saucepan. Her hunger was stronger than her will; her stomach seemed rent in two; and she stooped down with a sigh. Goujet had realized the truth. He placed the stew on the table, cut some bread, and poured her out a glass of wine.
"Thank you! Thank you!" said she. "Oh, how kind you are! Thank you!"
She stammered; she could hardly articulate. When she caught hold of her fork she began to tremble so acutely that she let it fall again. The hunger that possessed her made her wag her head as if senile. She carried the food to her mouth with her fingers. As she stuffed the first potato into her mouth, she burst out sobbing. Big tears coursed down her cheeks and fell onto her bread. She still ate, gluttonously devouring this bread thus moistened by her tears, and breathing very hard all the while. Goujet compelled her to drink to prevent her from stifling, and her glass chinked, as it were, against her teeth.
"Will you have some more bread?" he asked in an undertone.
She cried, she said "no," she said "yes," she didn't know. Ah! how nice and yet how painful it is to eat when one is starving.
And standing in front of her, Goujet looked at her all the while; under the bright light cast by the lamp-shade he could see her well. How aged and altered she seemed! The heat was melting the snow on her hair and clothes, and she was dripping. Her poor wagging head was quite grey; there were any number of grey locks which the wind had disarranged. Her neck sank into her shoulders and she had become so fat and ugly you might have cried on noticing the change. He recollected their love, when she was quite rosy, working with her irons, and showing the child-like crease which set such a charming necklace round her throat. In those times he had watched her for hours, glad just to look at her. Later on she had come to the forge, and there they had enjoyed themselves whilst he beat the iron, and she stood by watching his hammer dance. How often at night, with his head buried in his pillow, had he dreamed of holding her in his arms.
Gervaise rose; she had finished. She remained for a moment with her head lowered, and ill at ease. Then, thinking she detected a gleam in his eyes, she raised her hand to her jacket and began to unfasten the first button. But Goujet had fallen on his knees, and taking hold of her hands, he exclaimed softly:
"I love you, Madame Gervaise; oh! I love you still, and in spite of everything, I swear it to you!"
"Don't say that, Monsieur Goujet!" she cried, maddened to see him like this at her feet. "No, don't say that; you grieve me too much."
And as he repeated that he could never love twice in his life, she became yet more despairing.
"No, no, I am too ashamed. For the love of God get up. It is my place to be on the ground."
He rose, he trembled all over and stammered: "Will you allow me to kiss you?"
Overcome with surprise and emotion she could not speak, but she assented with a nod of the head. After all she was his; he could do what he chose with her. But he merely kissed her.
"That suffices between us, Madame Gervaise," he muttered. "It sums up all our friendship, does it not?"
He had kissed her on the forehead, on a lock of her grey hair. He had not kissed anyone since his mother's death. His sweetheart Gervaise alone remained to him in life. And then, when he had kissed her with so much respect, he fell back across his bed with sobs rising in his throat. And Gervaise could not remain there any longer. It was too sad and too abominable to meet again under such circumstances when one loved. "I love you, Monsieur Goujet," she exclaimed. "I love you dearly, also. Oh! it isn't possible you still love me. Good-bye, good-bye; it would smother us both; it would be more than we could stand."
And she darted through Madame Goujet's room and found herself outside on the pavement again. When she recovered her senses she had rung at the door in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or and Boche was pulling the string. The house was quite dark, and in the black night the yawning, dilapidated porch looked like an open mouth. To think that she had been ambitious of having a corner in this barracks! Had her ears been stopped up then, that she had not heard the cursed music of despair which sounded behind the walls? Since she had set foot in the place she had begun to go down hill. Yes, it must bring bad luck to shut oneself up in these big workmen's houses; the cholera of misery was contagious there. That night everyone seemed to have kicked the bucket. She only heard the Boches snoring on the right-hand side, while Lantier and Virginie on the left were purring like a couple of cats who were not asleep, but have their eyes closed and feel warm. In the courtyard she fancied she was in a perfect cemetery; the snow paved the ground with white; the high frontages, livid grey in tint, rose up unlighted like ruined walls, and not a sigh could be heard. It seemed as if a whole village, stiffened with cold and hunger, were buried here. She had to step over a black gutter—water from the dye-works—which smoked and streaked the whiteness of the snow with its muddy course. It was the color of her thoughts. The beautiful light blue and light pink waters had long since flowed away.
Then, whilst ascending the six flights of stairs in the dark, she could not prevent herself from laughing; an ugly laugh which hurt her. She recalled her ideal of former days: to work quietly, always have bread to eat and a tidy house to sleep in, to bring up her children, not to be beaten and to die in her bed. No, really, it was comical how all that was becoming realized! She no longer worked, she no longer ate, she slept on filth, her husband frequented all sorts of wineshops, and her husband drubbed her at all hours of the day; all that was left for her to do was to die on the pavement, and it would not take long if on getting into her room, she could only pluck up courage to fling herself out of the window. Was it not enough to make one think that she had hoped to earn thirty thousand francs a year, and no end of respect? Ah! really, in this life it is no use being modest; one only gets sat upon. Not even pap and a nest, that is the common lot.
What increased her ugly laugh was the recollection of her grand hope of retiring into the country after twenty years passed in ironing. Well! she was on her way to the country. She was going to have her green corner in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery.
When she entered the passage she was like a mad-woman. Her poor head was whirling round. At heart her great grief was at having bid the blacksmith an eternal farewell. All was ended between them; they would never see each other more. Then, besides that, all her other thoughts of misfortune pressed upon her, and almost caused her head to split. As she passed she poked her nose in at the Bijards' and beheld Lalie dead, with a look of contentment on her face at having at last been laid out and slumbering forever. Ah, well! children were luckier than grown-up people. And, as a glimmer of light passed under old Bazouge's door, she walked boldly in, seized with a mania for going off on the same journey as the little one.
That old joker, Bazouge, had come home that night in an extraordinary state of gaiety. He had had such a booze that he was snoring on the ground in spite of the temperature, and that no doubt did not prevent him from dreaming something pleasant, for he seemed to be laughing from his stomach as he slept. The candle, which he had not put out, lighted up his old garments, his black cloak, which he had drawn over his knees as though it had been a blanket.
On beholding him Gervaise uttered such a deep wailing that he awoke.
"Mon Dieu! shut the door! It's so cold! Ah! it's you! What's the matter? What do you want?"
Then, Gervaise, stretching out her arms, no longer knowing what she stuttered, began passionately to implore him:
"Oh! take me away! I've had enough; I want to go off. You mustn't bear me any grudge. I didn't know. One never knows until one's ready. Oh, yes; one's glad to go one day! Take me away! Take me away and I shall thank you!"
She fell on her knees, all shaken with a desire which caused her to turn ghastly pale. Never before had she thus dragged herself at a man's feet. Old Bazouge's ugly mug, with his mouth all on one side and his hide begrimed with the dust of funerals, seemed to her as beautiful and resplendent as a sun. The old fellow, who was scarcely awake thought, however, that it was some sort of bad joke.
"Look here," murmured he, "no jokes!"
"Take me away," repeated Gervaise more ardently still. "You remember, I knocked one evening against the partition; then I said that it wasn't true, because I was still a fool. But see! Give me your hands. I'm no longer frightened. Take me away to by-by; you'll see how still I'll be. Oh! sleep, that's all I care for. Oh! I'll love you so much!"
Bazouge, ever gallant, thought that he ought not to be hasty with a lady who appeared to have taken such a fancy to him. She was falling to pieces, but all the same, what remained was very fine, especially when she was excited.
"What you say is very true," said he in a convinced manner. "I packed up three more to-day who would only have been too glad to have given me something for myself, could they but have got their hands to their pockets. But, little woman, it's not so easily settled as all that—"
"Take me away, take me away," continued Gervaise, "I want to die."
"Ah! but there's a little operation to be gone through beforehand—you know, glug!"
And he made a noise in his throat, as though swallowing his tongue. Then, thinking it a good joke, he chuckled.
Gervaise slowly rose to her feet. So he too could do nothing for her. She went to her room and threw herself on her straw, feeling stupid, and regretting she had eaten. Ah! no indeed, misery did not kill quickly enough.