By Emile Zola
Public Domain Books
Chapter I. Gervaise
Gervaise had waited and watched for Lantier until two in the morning. Then chilled and shivering, she turned from the window and threw herself across the bed, where she fell into a feverish doze with her cheeks wet with tears. For the last week when they came out of the Veau a Deux Tetes, where they ate, he had sent her off to bed with the children and had not appeared until late into the night and always with a story that he had been looking for work.
This very night, while she was watching for his return, she fancied she saw him enter the ballroom of the Grand-Balcon, whose ten windows blazing with lights illuminated, as with a sheet of fire, the black lines of the outer boulevards. She caught a glimpse of Adele, a pretty brunette who dined at their restaurant and who was walking a few steps behind him, with her hands swinging as if she had just dropped his arm, rather than pass before the bright light of the globes over the door in his company.
When Gervaise awoke about five o’clock, stiff and sore, she burst into wild sobs, for Lantier had not come in. For the first time he had slept out. She sat on the edge of the bed, half shrouded in the canopy of faded chintz that hung from the arrow fastened to the ceiling by a string. Slowly, with her eyes suffused with tears, she looked around this miserable _chambre garnie_, whose furniture consisted of a chestnut bureau of which one drawer was absent, three straw chairs and a greasy table on which was a broken-handled pitcher.
Another bedstead–an iron one–had been brought in for the children. This stood in front of the bureau and filled up two thirds of the room.
A trunk belonging to Gervaise and Lantier stood in the corner wide open, showing its empty sides, while at the bottom a man’s old hat lay among soiled shirts and hose. Along the walls and on the backs of the chairs hung a ragged shawl, a pair of muddy pantaloons and a dress or two–all too bad for the old-clothes man to buy. In the middle of the mantel between two mismated tin candlesticks was a bundle of pawn tickets from the Mont-de-Piete. These tickets were of a delicate shade of rose.
The room was the best in the hotel–the first floor looking out on the boulevard.
Meanwhile side by side on the same pillow the two children lay calmly sleeping. Claude, who was eight years old, was breathing calmly and regularly with his little hands outside of the coverings, while Etienne, only four, smiled with one arm under his brother’s neck.
When their mother’s eyes fell on them she had a new paroxysm of sobs and pressed her handkerchief to her mouth to stifle them. Then with bare feet, not stopping to put on her slippers which had fallen off, she ran to the window out of which she leaned as she had done half the night and inspected the sidewalks as far as she could see.
The hotel was on the Boulevard de la Chapelle, at the left of the Barriere Poissonniers. It was a two-story building, painted a deep red up to the first floor, and had disjointed weather-stained blinds.
Above a lantern with glass sides was a sign between the two windows:
in large yellow letters, partially obliterated by the dampness. Gervaise, who was prevented by the lantern from seeing as she desired, leaned out still farther, with her handkerchief on her lips. She looked to the right toward the Boulevard de Rochechoumart, where groups of butchers stood with their bloody frocks before their establishments, and the fresh breeze brought in whiffs, a strong animal smell–the smell of slaughtered cattle.
She looked to the left, following the ribbonlike avenue, past the Hospital de Lariboisiere, then building. Slowly, from one end to the other of the horizon, did she follow the wall, from behind which in the nightime she had heard strange groans and cries, as if some fell murder were being perpetrated. She looked at it with horror, as if in some dark corner–dark with dampness and filth–she should distinguish Lantier–Lantier lying dead with his throat cut.
When she gazed beyond this gray and interminable wall she saw a great light, a golden mist waving and shimmering with the dawn of a new Parisian day. But it was to the Barriere Poissonniers that her eyes persistently returned, watching dully the uninterrupted flow of men and cattle, wagons and sheep, which came down from Montmartre and from La Chapelle. There were scattered flocks dashed like waves on the sidewalk by some sudden detention and an endless succession of laborers going to their work with their tools over their shoulders and their loaves of bread under their arms.
Suddenly Gervaise thought she distinguished Lantier amid this crowd, and she leaned eagerly forward at the risk of falling from the window. With a fresh pang of disappointment she pressed her handkerchief to her lips to restrain her sobs.
A fresh, youthful voice caused her to turn around.
“Lantier has not come in then?”
“No, Monsieur Coupeau,” she answered, trying to smile.
The speaker was a tinsmith who occupied a tiny room at the top of the house. His bag of tools was over his shoulder; he had seen the key in the door and entered with the familiarity of a friend.
“You know,” he continued, “that I am working nowadays at the hospital. What a May this is! The air positively stings one this morning.”
As he spoke he looked closely at Gervaise; he saw her eyes were red with tears and then, glancing at the bed, discovered that it had not been disturbed. He shook his head and, going toward the couch where the children lay with their rosy cherub faces, he said in a lower voice:
“You think your husband ought to have been with you, madame. But don’t be troubled; he is busy with politics. He went on like a mad man the other day when they were voting for Eugene Sue. Perhaps he passed the night with his friends abusing that reprobate Bonaparte.”
“No, no,” she murmured with an effort. “You think nothing of that kind. I know where Lantier is only too well. We have our sorrows like the rest of the world!”
Coupeau gave a knowing wink and departed, having offered to bring her some milk if she did not care to go out; she was a good woman, he told her and might count on him any time when she was in trouble.
As soon as Gervaise was alone she returned to the window.
From the Barriere the lowing of the cattle and the bleating of the sheep still came on the keen, fresh morning air. Among the crowd she recognized the locksmiths by their blue frocks, the masons by their white overalls, the painters by their coats, from under which hung their blouses. This crowd was cheerless. All of neutral tints–grays and blues predominating, with never a dash of color. Occasionally a workman stopped and lighted his pipe, while his companions passed on. There was no laughing, no talking, but they strode on steadily with cadaverous faces toward that Paris which quickly swallowed them up.
At the two corners of La Rue des Poissonniers were two wineshops, where the shutters had just been taken down. Here some of the workmen lingered, crowding into the shop, spitting, coughing and drinking glasses of brandy and water. Gervaise was watching the place on the left of the street, where she thought she had seen Lantier go in, when a stout woman, bareheaded and wearing a large apron, called to her from the pavement,
“You are up early, Madame Lantier!”
Gervaise leaned out.
“Ah, is it you, Madame Boche! Yes, I am up early, for I have much to do today.”
“Is that so? Well, things don’t get done by themselves, that’s sure!”
And a conversation ensued between the window and the sidewalk. Mme Boche was the concierge of the house wherein the restaurant Veau a Deux Tetes occupied the _rez-de-chaussee_.
Many times Gervaise had waited for Lantier in the room of this woman rather than face the men who were eating. The concierge said she had just been round the corner to arouse a lazy fellow who had promised to do some work and then went on to speak of one of her lodgers who had come in the night before with some woman and had made such a noise that every one was disturbed until after three o’clock.
As she gabbled, however, she examined Gervaise with considerable curiosity and seemed, in fact, to have come out under the window for that express purpose.
“Is Monsieur Lantier still asleep?” she asked suddenly.
“Yes, he is asleep,” answered Gervaise with flushing cheeks.
Madame saw the tears come to her eyes and, satisfied with her discovery, was turning away when she suddenly stopped and called out:
“You are going to the lavatory this morning, are you not? All right then, I have some things to wash, and I will keep a place for you next to me, and we can have a little talk!”
Then as if moved by sudden compassion, she added:
“Poor child, don’t stay at that window any longer. You are purple with cold and will surely make yourself sick!”
But Gervaise did not move. She remained in the same spot for two mortal hours, until the clock struck eight. The shops were now all open. The procession in blouses had long ceased, and only an occasional one hurried along. At the wineshops, however, there was the same crowd of men drinking, spitting and coughing. The workmen in the street had given place to the workwomen. Milliners’ apprentices, florists, burnishers, who with thin shawls drawn closely around them came in bands of three or four, talking eagerly, with gay laughs and quick glances. Occasionally one solitary figure was seen, a pale-faced, serious woman, who walked rapidly, neither looking to the right nor to the left.
Then came the clerks, blowing on their fingers to warm them, eating a roll as they walked; young men, lean and tall, with clothing they had outgrown and with eyes heavy with sleep; old men, who moved along with measured steps, occasionally pulling out their watches, but able, from many years’ practice, to time their movements almost to a second.
The boulevards at last were comparatively quiet. The inhabitants were sunning themselves. Women with untidy hair and soiled petticoats were nursing their babies in the open air, and an occasional dirty-faced brat fell into the gutter or rolled over with shrieks of pain or joy.
Gervaise felt faint and ill; all hope was gone. It seemed to her that all was over and that Lantier would come no more. She looked from the dingy slaughterhouses, black with their dirt and loathsome odor, on to the new and staring hospital and into the rooms consecrated to disease and death. As yet the windows were not in, and there was nothing to impede her view of the large, empty wards. The sun shone directly in her face and blinded her.
She was sitting on a chair with her arms dropping drearily at her side but not weeping, when Lantier quietly opened the door and walked in.
“You have come!” she cried, ready to throw herself on his neck.
“Yes, I have come,” he answered, “and what of it? Don’t begin any of your nonsense now!” And he pushed her aside. Then with an angry gesture he tossed his felt hat on the bureau.
He was a small, dark fellow, handsome and well made, with a delicate mustache which he twisted in his fingers mechanically as he spoke. He wore an old coat, buttoned tightly at the waist, and spoke with a strongly marked Provencal accent.
Gervaise had dropped upon her chair again and uttered disjointed phrases of lamentation.
“I have not closed my eyes–I thought you were killed! Where have you been all night? I feel as if I were going mad! Tell me, Auguste, where have you been?”
“Oh, I had business,” he answered with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. “At eight o’clock I had an engagement with that friend, you know, who is thinking of starting a manufactory of hats. I was detained, and I preferred stopping there. But you know I don’t like to be watched and catechized. Just let me alone, will you?”
His wife began to sob. Their voices and Lantier’s noisy movements as he pushed the chairs about woke the children. They started up, half naked with tumbled hair, and hearing their mother cry, they followed her example, rending the air with their shrieks.
“Well, this is lovely music!” cried Lantier furiously. “I warn you, if you don’t all stop, that out of this door I go, and you won’t see me again in a hurry! Will you hold your tongue? Good-by then; I’ll go back where I came from.”
He snatched up his hat, but Gervaise rushed toward him, crying:
And she soothed the children and stifled their cries with kisses and laid them tenderly back in their bed, and they were soon happy and merrily playing together. Meanwhile the father, not even taking off his boots, threw himself on the bed with a weary air. His face was white from exhaustion and a sleepless night; he did not close his eyes but looked around the room.
“A nice-looking place, this!” he muttered.
Then examining Gervaise, he said half aloud and half to himself:
“So! You have given up washing yourself, it seems!”
Gervaise was only twenty-two. She was tall and slender with delicate features, already worn by hardships and anxieties. With her hair uncombed and shoes down at the heel, shivering in her white sack, on which was much dust and many stains from the furniture and wall where it had hung, she looked at least ten years older from the hours of suspense and tears she had passed.
Lantier’s word startled her from her resignation and timidity.
“Are you not ashamed?” she said with considerable animation. “You know very well that I do all I can. It is not my fault that we came here. I should like to see you with two children in a place where you can’t get a drop of hot water. We ought as soon as we reached Paris to have settled ourselves at once in a home; that was what you promised.”
“Pshaw,” he muttered; “You had as much good as I had out of our savings. You ate the fatted calf with me–and it is not worth while to make a row about it now!”
She did not heed his word but continued:
“There is no need of giving up either. I saw Madame Fauconnier, the laundress in La Rue Neuve. She will take me Monday. If you go in with your friend we shall be afloat again in six months. We must find some kind of a hole where we can live cheaply while we work. That is the thing to do now. Work! Work!”
Lantier turned his face to the wall with a shrug of disgust which enraged his wife, who resumed:
“Yes, I know very well that you don’t like to work. You would like to wear fine clothes and walk about the streets all day. You don’t like my looks since you took all my dresses to the pawnbrokers. No, no, Auguste, I did not intend to speak to you about it, but I know very well where you spent the night. I saw you go into the Grand-Balcon with that streetwalker Adele. You have made a charming choice. She wears fine clothes and is clean. Yes, and she has reason to be, certainly; there is not a man in that restaurant who does not know her far better than an honest girl should be known!”
Lantier leaped from the bed. His eyes were as black as night and his face deadly pale.
“Yes,” repeated his wife, “I mean what I say. Madame Boche will not keep her or her sister in the house any longer, because there are always a crowd of men hanging on the staircase.”
Lantier lifted both fists, and then conquering a violent desire to beat her, he seized her in his arms, shook her violently and threw her on the bed where the children were. They at once began to cry again while he stood for a moment, and then, with the air of a man who finally takes a resolution in regard to which he has hesitated, he said:
“You do not know what you have done, Gervaise. You are wrong–as you will soon discover.”
For a moment the voices of the children filled the room. Their mother, lying on their narrow couch, held them both in her arms and said over and over again in a monotonous voice:
“If you were not here, my poor darlings! If you were not here! If you were not here!”
Lantier was lying flat on his back with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He was not listening; his attention was concentrated on some fixed idea. He remained in this way for an hour and more, not sleeping, in spite of his evident and intense fatigue. When he turned and, leaning on his elbow, looked about the room again, he found that Gervaise had arranged the chamber and made the children’s bed. They were washed and dressed. He watched her as she swept the room and dusted the furniture.
The room was very dreary still, however, with its smoke-stained ceiling and paper discolored by dampness and three chairs and dilapidated bureau, whose greasy surface no dusting could clean. Then while she washed herself and arranged her hair before the small mirror, he seemed to examine her arms and shoulders, as if instituting a comparison between herself and someone else. And he smiled a disdainful little smile.
Gervaise was slightly, very slightly, lame, but her lameness was perceptible, only on such days as she was very tired. This morning, so weary was she from the watches of the night, that she could hardly walk without support.
A profound silence reigned in the room; they did not speak to each other. He seemed to be waiting for something. She, adopting an unconcerned air, seemed to be in haste.
She made up a bundle of soiled linen that had been thrown into a corner behind the trunk, and then he spoke:
“What are you doing? Are you going out?”
At first she did not reply. Then when he angrily repeated the question she answered:
“Certainly I am. I am going to wash all these things. The children cannot live in dirt.”
He threw two or three handkerchiefs toward her, and after another long silence he said:
“Have you any money?”
She quickly rose to her feet and turned toward him; in her hand she held some of the soiled clothes.
“Money! Where should I get money unless I had stolen it? You know very well that day before yesterday you got three francs on my black skirt. We have breakfasted twice on that, and money goes fast. No, I have no money. I have four sous for the lavatory. I cannot make money like other women we know.”
He did not reply to this allusion but rose from the bed and passed in review the ragged garments hung around the room. He ended by taking down the pantaloons and the shawl and, opening the bureau, took out a sack and two chemises. All these he made into a bundle, which he threw at Gervaise.
“Take them,” he said, “and make haste back from the pawnbroker’s.”
“Would you not like me to take the children?” she asked. “Heavens! If pawnbrokers would only make loans on children, what a good thing it would be!”
She went to the Mont-de-Piete, and when she returned a half-hour later she laid a silver five-franc piece on the mantelshelf and placed the ticket with the others between the two candlesticks.
“This is what they gave me,” she said coldly. “I wanted six francs, but they would not give them. They always keep on the safe side there, and yet there is always a crowd.”
Lantier did not at once take up the money. He had sent her to the Mont-de-Piete that he might not leave her without food or money, but when he caught sight of part of a ham wrapped in paper on the table with half a loaf of bread he slipped the silver piece into his vest pocket.
“I did not dare go to the milk woman,” explained Gervaise, “because we owe her for eight days. But I shall be back early. You can get some bread and some chops and have them ready. Don’t forget the wine too.”
He made no reply. Peace seemed to be made, but when Gervaise went to the trunk to take out some of Lantier’s clothing he called out:
“No–let that alone.”
“What do you mean?” she said, turning round in surprise. “You can’t wear these things again until they are washed! Why shall I not take them?”
And she looked at him with some anxiety. He angrily tore the things from her hands and threw them back into the trunk.
“Confound you!” he muttered. “Will you never learn to obey? When I say a thing I mean it–”
“But why?” she repeated, turning very pale and seized with a terrible suspicion. “You do not need these shirts; you are not going away. Why should I not take them?”
He hesitated a moment, uneasy under the earnest gaze she fixed upon him. “Why? Why? Because,” he said, “I am sick of hearing you say that you wash and mend for me. Attend to your own affairs, and I will attend to mine.”
She entreated him, defended herself from the charge of ever having complained, but he shut the trunk with a loud bang and then sat down upon it, repeating that he was master at least of his own clothing. Then to escape from her eyes, he threw himself again on the bed, saying he was sleepy and that she made his head ache, and finally slept or pretended to do so.
Gervaise hesitated; she was tempted to give up her plan of going to the lavatory and thought she would sit down to her sewing. But at last she was reassured by Lantier’s regular breathing; she took her soap and her ball of bluing and, going to the children, who were playing on the floor with some old corks, she said in a low voice:
“Be very good and keep quiet. Papa is sleeping.”
When she left the room there was not a sound except the stifled laughter of the little ones. It was then after ten, and the sun was shining brightly in at the window.
Gervaise, on reaching the boulevard, turned to the left and followed the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. As she passed Mme Fauconnier’s shop she nodded to the woman. The lavatory, whither she went, was in the middle of this street, just where it begins to ascend. Over a large low building towered three enormous reservoirs for water, huge cylinders of zinc strongly made, and in the rear was the drying room, an apartment with a very high ceiling and surrounded by blinds through which the air passed. On the right of the reservoirs a steam engine let off regular puffs of white smoke. Gervaise, habituated apparently to puddles, did not lift her skirts but threaded her way through the part of _eau de Javelle_ which encumbered the doorway. She knew the mistress of the establishment, a delicate woman who sat in a cabinet with glass doors, surrounded by soap and bluing and packages of bicarbonate of soda.
As Gervaise passed the desk she asked for her brush and beater, which she had left to be taken care of after her last wash. Then having taken her number, she went in. It was an immense shed, as it were, with a low ceiling–the beams and rafters unconcealed–and lighted by large windows, through which the daylight streamed. A light gray mist or steam pervaded the room, which was filled with a smell of soapsuds and _eau de Javelle_ combined. Along the central aisle were tubs on either side, and two rows of women with their arms bare to the shoulders and their skirts tucked up stood showing their colored stockings and stout laced shoes.
They rubbed and pounded furiously, straightening themselves occasionally to utter a sentence and then applying themselves again to their task, with the steam and perspiration pouring down their red faces. There was a constant rush of water from the faucets, a great splashing as the clothes were rinsed and pounding and banging of the beaters, while amid all this noise the steam engine in the corner kept up its regular puffing.
Gervaise went slowly up the aisle, looking to the right and the left. She carried her bundle under her arm and limped more than usual, as she was pushed and jarred by the energy of the women about her.
“Here! This way, my dear,” cried Mme Boche, and when the young woman had joined her at the very end where she stood, the concierge, without stopping her furious rubbing, began to talk in a steady fashion.
“Yes, this is your place. I have kept it for you. I have not much to do. Boche is never hard on his linen, and you, too, do not seem to have much. Your package is quite small. We shall finish by noon, and then we can get something to eat. I used to give my clothes to a woman in La Rue Pelat, but bless my heart, she washed and pounded them all away, and I made up my mind to wash myself. It is clear gain, you see, and costs only the soap.”
Gervaise opened her bundle and sorted the clothes, laying aside all the colored pieces, and when Mme Boche advised her to try a little soda she shook her head.
“No, no!” she said. “I know all about it!”
“You know?” answered Boche curiously. “You have washed then in your own place before you came here?”
Gervaise, with her sleeves rolled up, showing her pretty, fair arms, was soaping a child’s shirt. She rubbed it and turned it, soaped and rubbed it again. Before she answered she took up her beater and began to use it, accenting each phrase or rather punctuating them with her regular blows.
“Yes, yes, washed–I should think I had! Ever since I was ten years old. We went to the riverside, where I came from. It was much nicer than here. I wish you could see it–a pretty corner under the trees by the running water. Do you know Plassans? Near Marseilles?”
“You are a strong one, anyhow!” cried Mme Boche, astonished at the rapidity and strength of the woman. “Your arms are slender, but they are like iron.”
The conversation continued until all the linen was well beaten and yet whole! Gervaise then took each piece separately, rinsed it, then rubbed it with soap and brushed it. That is to say, she held the cloth firmly with one hand and with the other moved the short brush from her, pushing along a dirty foam which fell off into the water below.
As she brushed they talked.
“No, we are not married,” said Gervaise. “I do not intend to lie about it. Lantier is not so nice that a woman need be very anxious to be his wife. If it were not for the children! I was fourteen and he was eighteen when the first one was born. The other child did not come for four years. I was not happy at home. Papa Macquart, for the merest trifle, would beat me. I might have married, I suppose.”
She dried her hands, which were red under the white soapsuds.
“The water is very hard in Paris,” she said.
Mme Boche had finished her work long before, but she continued to dabble in the water merely as an excuse to hear this story, which for two weeks had excited her curiosity. Her mouth was open, and her eyes were shining with satisfaction at having guessed so well.
“Oh yes, just as I knew,” she said to herself, “but the little woman talks too much! I was sure, though, there had been a quarrel.”
“He is not good to you then?”
“He was very good to me once,” answered Gervaise, “but since we came to Paris he has changed. His mother died last year and left him about seventeen hundred francs. He wished to come to Paris, and as Father Macquart was in the habit of hitting me in the face without any warning, I said I would come, too, which we did, with the two children. I meant to be a fine laundress, and he was to continue with his trade as a hatter. We might have been very happy. But, you see, Lantier is extravagant; he likes expensive things and thinks of his amusement before anything else. He is not good for much, anyhow!
“We arrived at the Hotel Montmartre. We had dinners and carriages, suppers and theaters, a watch for him, a silk dress for me–for he is not selfish when he has money. You can easily imagine, therefore, at the end of two months we were cleaned out. Then it was that we came to Hotel Boncoeur and that this life began.” She checked herself with a strange choking in the throat. Tears gathered in her eyes. She finished brushing her linen.
“I must get my scalding water,” she murmured.
But Mme Boche, much annoyed at this sudden interruption to the long-desired confidence, called the boy.
“Charles,” she said, “it would be very good of you if you would bring a pail of hot water to Madame Lantier, as she is in a great hurry." The boy brought a bucketful, and Gervaise paid him a sou. It was a sou for each bucket. She turned the hot water into her tub and soaked her linen once more and rubbed it with her hands while the steam hovered round her blonde head like a cloud.
“Here, take some of this,” said the concierge as she emptied into the water that Gervaise was using the remains of a package of bicarbonate of soda. She offered her also some _eau de Javelle_, but the young woman refused. It was only good, she said, for grease spots and wine stains.
“I thought him somewhat dissipated,” said Mme Boche, referring to Lantier without naming him.
Gervaise, leaning over her tub and her arms up to the elbows in the soapsuds, nodded in acquiescence.
“Yes,” continued the concierge, “I have seen many little things." But she started back as Gervaise turned round with a pale face and quivering lips.
“Oh, I know nothing,” she continued. “He likes to laugh–that is all–and those two girls who are with us, you know, Adele and Virginie, like to laugh too, so they have their little jokes together, but that is all there is of it, I am sure.”
The young woman, with the perspiration standing on her brow and her arms still dripping, looked her full in the face with earnest, inquiring eyes.
Then the concierge became excited and struck her breast, exclaiming:
“I tell you I know nothing whatever, nothing more than I tell you!”
Then she added in a gentle voice, “But he has honest eyes, my dear. He will marry you, child; I promise that he will marry you!”
Gervaise dried her forehead with her damp hand and shook her head. The two women were silent for a moment; around them, too, it was very quiet. The clock struck eleven. Many of the women were seated swinging their feet, drinking their wine and eating their sausages, sandwiched between slices of bread. An occasional economical housewife hurried in with a small bundle under her arm, and a few sounds of the pounder were still heard at intervals; sentences were smothered in the full mouths, or a laugh was uttered, ending in a gurgling sound as the wine was swallowed, while the great machine puffed steadily on. Not one of the women, however, heard it; it was like the very respiration of the lavatory–the eager breath that drove up among the rafters the floating vapor that filled the room.
The heat gradually became intolerable. The sun shone in on the left through the high windows, imparting to the vapor opaline tints–the palest rose and tender blue, fading into soft grays. When the women began to grumble the boy Charles went from one window to the other, drawing down the heavy linen shades. Then he crossed to the other side, the shady side, and opened the blinds. There was a general exclamation of joy–a formidable explosion of gaiety.
All this time Gervaise was going on with her task and had just completed the washing of her colored pieces, which she threw over a trestle to drip; soon small pools of blue water stood on the floor. Then she began to rinse the garments in cold water which ran from a spigot near by.
“You have nearly finished,” said Mme Boche. “I am waiting to help you wring them.”
“Oh, you are very good! It is not necessary though!” answered the young woman as she swashed the garments through the clear water. “If I had sheets I would not refuse your offer, however.”
Nevertheless, she accepted the aid of the concierge. They took up a brown woolen skirt, badly faded, from which poured out a yellow stream as the two women wrung it together.
Suddenly Mme Boche cried out:
“Look! There comes big Virginie! She is actually coming here to wash her rags tied up in a handkerchief.”
Gervaise looked up quickly. Virginie was a woman about her own age, larger and taller than herself, a brunette and pretty in spite of the elongated oval of her face. She wore an old black dress with flounces and a red ribbon at her throat. Her hair was carefully arranged and massed in a blue chenille net.
She hesitated a moment in the center aisle and half shut her eyes, as if looking for something or somebody, but when she distinguished Gervaise she went toward her with a haughty, insolent air and supercilious smile and finally established herself only a short distance from her.
“That is a new notion!” muttered Mme Boche in a low voice. “She was never known before to rub out even a pair of cuffs. She is a lazy creature, I do assure you. She never sews the buttons on her boots. She is just like her sister, that minx of an Adele, who stays away from the shop two days out of three. What is she rubbing now? A skirt, is it? It is dirty enough, I am sure!”
It was clear that Mme Boche wished to please Gervaise. The truth was she often took coffee with Adele and Virginie when the two sisters were in funds. Gervaise did not reply but worked faster than before. She was now preparing her bluing water in a small tub standing on three legs. She dipped in her pieces, shook them about in the colored water, which was almost a lake in hue, and then, wringing them, she shook them out and threw them lightly over the high wooden bars.
While she did this she kept her back well turned on big Virginie. But she felt that the girl was looking at her, and she heard an occasional derisive sniff. Virginie, in fact, seemed to have come there to provoke her, and when Gervaise turned around the two women fixed their eyes on each other.
“Let her be,” murmured Mme Boche. “She is not the one, now I tell you!”
At this moment, as Gervaise was shaking her last piece of linen, she heard laughing and talking at the door of the lavatory.
“Two children are here asking for their mother!” cried Charles.
All the women looked around, and Gervaise recognized Claude and Etienne. As soon as they saw her they ran toward her, splashing through the puddle’s, their untied shoes half off and Claude, the eldest, dragging his little brother by the hand.
The women as they passed uttered kindly exclamations of pity, for the children were evidently frightened. They clutched their mother’s skirts and buried their pretty blond heads.
“Did Papa send you?” asked Gervaise.
But as she stooped to tie Etienne’s shoes she saw on Claude’s finger the key of her room with its copper tag and number.
“Did you bring the key?” she exclaimed in great surprise. “And why, pray?”
The child looked down on the key hanging on his finger, which he had apparently forgotten. This seemed to remind him of something, and he said in a clear, shrill voice:
“Papa is gone!”
“He went to buy your breakfast, did he not? And he told you to come and look for me here, I suppose?”
Claude looked at his brother and hesitated. Then he exclaimed:
“Papa has gone, I say. He jumped from the bed, put his things in his trunk, and then he carried his trunk downstairs and put it on a carriage. We saw him–he has gone!”
Gervaise was kneeling, tying the boy’s shoe. She rose slowly with a very white face and with her hands pressed to either temple, as if she were afraid of her head cracking open. She could say nothing but the same words over and over again:
“Great God! Great God! Great God!”
Mme Boche, in her turn, interrogated the child eagerly, for she was charmed at finding herself an actor, as it were, in this drama.
“Tell us all about it, my dear. He locked the door, did he? And then he told you to bring the key here?” And then, lowering her voice, she whispered in the child’s ear:
“Was there a lady in the carriage?” she asked.
The child looked troubled for a moment but speedily began his story again with a triumphant air.
“He jumped off the bed, put his things in the trunk, and he went away.”
Then as Mme Boche made no attempt to detain him, he drew his brother to the faucet, where the two amused themselves in making the water run.
Gervaise could not weep. She felt as if she were stifling. She covered her face with her hands and turned toward the wall. A sharp, nervous trembling shook her from head to foot. An occasional sobbing sigh or, rather, gasp escaped from her lips, while she pressed her clenched hands more tightly on her eyes, as if to increase the darkness of the abyss in which she felt herself to have fallen.
“Come! Come, my child!” muttered Mme Boche.
“If you knew! If you only knew all!” answered Gervaise. “Only this very morning he made me carry my shawl and my chemises to the Mont-de-Piete, and that was the money he had for the carriage.”
And the tears rushed to her eyes. The recollection of her visit to the pawnbroker’s, of her hasty return with the money in her hand, seemed to let loose the sobs that strangled her and was the one drop too much. Tears streamed from her eyes and poured down her face. She did not think of wiping them away.
“Be reasonable, child! Be quiet,” whispered Mme Boche. “They are all looking at you. Is it possible you can care so much for any man? You love him still, although such a little while ago you pretended you did not care for him, and you cry as if your heart would break! Oh lord, what fools we women are!”
Then in a maternal tone she added:
“And such a pretty little woman as you are too. But now I may as well tell you the whole, I suppose? Well then, you remember when I was talking to you from the sidewalk and you were at your window? I knew then that it was Lantier who came in with Adele. I did not see his face, but I knew his coat, and Boche watched and saw him come downstairs this morning. But he was with Adele, you understand. There is another person who comes to see Virginie twice a week.”
She stopped for a moment to take breath and then went on in a lower tone still.
“Take care! She is laughing at you–the heartless little cat! I bet all her washing is a sham. She has seen her sister and Lantier well off and then came here to find out how you would take it.”
Gervaise took her hands down from her face and looked around. When she saw Virginie talking and laughing with two or three women a wild tempest of rage shook her from head to foot. She stooped with her arms extended, as if feeling for something, and moved along slowly for a step or two, then snatched up a bucket of soapsuds and threw it at Virginie.
“You devil! Be off with you!” cried Virginie, starting back. Only her feet were wet.
All the women in the lavatory hurried to the scene of action. They jumped up on the benches, some with a piece of bread in their hands, others with a bit of soap, and a circle of spectators was soon formed.
“Yes, she is a devil!” repeated Virginie. “What has got into the fool?” Gervaise stood motionless, her face convulsed and lips apart. The other continued:
“She got tired of the country, it seems, but she left one leg behind her, at all events.”
The women laughed, and big Virginie, elated at her success, went on in a louder and more triumphant tone:
“Come a little nearer, and I will soon settle you. You had better have remained in the country. It is lucky for you that your dirty soapsuds only went on my feet, for I would have taken you over my knees and given you a good spanking if one drop had gone in my face. What is the matter with her, anyway?” And big Virginie addressed her audience: “Make her tell what I have done to her! Say! Fool, what harm have I ever done to you?”
“You had best not talk so much,” answered Gervaise almost inaudibly; “you know very well where my husband was seen yesterday. Now be quiet or harm will come to you. I will strangle you–quick as a wink.”
“Her husband, she says! Her husband! The lady’s husband! As if a looking thing like that had a husband! Is it my fault if he has deserted her? Does she think I have stolen him? Anyway, he was much too good for her. But tell me, some of you, was his name on his collar? Madame has lost her husband! She will pay a good reward, I am sure, to anyone who will carry him back!”
The women all laughed. Gervaise, in a low, concentrated voice, repeated:
“You know very well–you know very well! Your sister–yes, I will strangle your sister!”
“Oh yes, I understand,” answered Virginie. “Strangle her if you choose. What do I care? And what are you staring at me for? Can’t I wash my clothes in peace? Come, I am sick of this stuff. Let me alone!”
Big Virginie turned away, and after five or six angry blows with her beater she began again:
“Yes, it is my sister, and the two adore each other. You should see them bill and coo together. He has left you with these dirty-faced imps, and you left three others behind you with three fathers! It was your dear Lantier who told us all that. Ah, he had had quite enough of you–he said so!”
“Miserable fool!” cried Gervaise, white with anger.
She turned and mechanically looked around on the floor; seeing nothing, however, but the small tub of bluing water, she threw that in Virginie’s face.
“She has spoiled my dress!” cried Virginie, whose shoulder and one hand were dyed a deep blue. “You just wait a moment!” she added as she, in her turn, snatched up a tub and dashed its contents at Gervaise. Then ensued a most formidable battle. The two women ran up and down the room in eager haste, looking for full tubs, which they quickly flung in the faces of each other, and each deluge was heralded and accompanied by a shout.
“Is that enough? Will that cool you off?” cried Gervaise.
And from Virginie:
“Take that! It is good to have a bath once in your life!”
Finally the tubs and pails were all empty, and the two women began to draw water from the faucets. They continued their mutual abuse while the water was running, and presently it was Virginie who received a bucketful in her face. The water ran down her back and over her skirts. She was stunned and bewildered, when suddenly there came another in her left ear, knocking her head nearly off her shoulders; her comb fell and with it her abundant hair.
Gervaise was attacked about her legs. Her shoes were filled with water, and she was drenched above her knees. Presently the two women were deluged from head to foot; their garments stuck to them, and they dripped like umbrellas which had been out in a heavy shower.
“What fun!” said one of the laundresses as she looked on at a safe distance.
The whole lavatory were immensely amused, and the women applauded as if at a theater. The floor was covered an inch deep with water, through which the termagants splashed. Suddenly Virginie discovered a bucket of scalding water standing a little apart; she caught it and threw it upon Gervaise. There was an exclamation of horror from the lookers-on. Gervaise escaped with only one foot slightly burned, but exasperated by the pain, she threw a tub with all her strength at the legs of her opponent. Virginie fell to the ground.
“She has broken her leg!” cried one of the spectators.
“She deserved it,” answered another, “for the tall one tried to scald her!”
“She was right, after all, if the blonde had taken away her man!”
Mme Boche rent the air with her exclamations, waving her arms frantically high above her head. She had taken the precaution to place herself behind a rampart of tubs, with Claude and Etienne clinging to her skirts, weeping and sobbing in a paroxysm of terror and keeping up a cry of “Mamma! Mamma!” When she saw Virginie prostrate on the ground she rushed to Gervaise and tried to pull her away.
“Come with me!” she urged. “Do be sensible. You are growing so angry that the Lord only knows what the end of all this will be!”
But Gervaise pushed her aside, and the old woman again took refuge behind the tubs with the children. Virginie made a spring at the throat of her adversary and actually tried to strangle her. Gervaise shook her off and snatched at the long braid hanging from the girl’s head and pulled it as if she hoped to wrench it off, and the head with it.
The battle began again, this time silent and wordless and literally tooth and nail. Their extended hands with fingers stiffly crooked, caught wildly at all in their way, scratching and tearing. The red ribbon and the chenille net worn by the brunette were torn off; the waist of her dress was ripped from throat to belt and showed the white skin on the shoulder.
Gervaise had lost a sleeve, and her chemise was torn to her waist. Strips of clothing lay in every direction. It was Gervaise who was first wounded. Three long scratches from her mouth to her throat bled profusely, and she fought with her eyes shut lest she should be blinded. As yet Virginia showed no wound. Suddenly Gervaise seized one of her earrings–pear-shaped, of yellow glass–she tore it out and brought blood.
“They will kill each other! Separate them,” cried several voices.
The women gathered around the combatants; the spectators were divided into two parties–some exciting and encouraging Gervaise and Virginie as if they had been dogs fighting, while others, more timid, trembled, turned away their heads and said they were faint and sick. A general battle threatened to take place, such was the excitement.
Mme Boche called to the boy in charge:
“Charles! Charles! Where on earth can he be?”
Finally she discovered him, calmly looking on with his arms folded. He was a tall youth with a big neck. He was laughing and hugely enjoying the scene. It would be a capital joke, he thought, if the women tore each other’s clothes to rags and if they should be compelled to finish their fight in a state of nudity.
“Are you there then?” cried Mme Boche when she saw him. “Come and help us separate them, or you can do it yourself.”
“No, thank you,” he answered quietly. “I don’t propose to have my own eyes scratched out! I am not here for that. Let them alone! It will do them no harm to let a little of their hot blood out!”
Mme Boche declared she would summon the police, but to this the mistress of the lavatory, the delicate-looking woman with weak eyes, strenuously objected.
“No, no, I will not. It would injure my house!” she said over and over again.
Both women lay on the ground. Suddenly Virginie struggled up to her knees. She had got possession of one of the beaters, which she brandished. Her voice was hoarse and low as she muttered:
“This will be as good for you as for your dirty linen!”
Gervaise, in her turn, snatched another beater, which she held like a club. Her voice also was hoarse and low.
“I will beat your skin,” she muttered, “as I would my coarse towels.”
They knelt in front of each other in utter silence for at least a minute, with hair streaming, eyes glaring and distended nostrils. They each drew a long breath.
Gervaise struck the first blow with her beater full on the shoulders of her adversary and then threw herself over on the side to escape Virginie’s weapon, which touched her on the hip.
Thus started, they struck each other as laundresses strike their linen, in measured cadence.
The women about them ceased to laugh; many went away, saying they were faint. Those who remained watched the scene with a cruel light in their eyes. Mme Boche had taken Claude and Etienne to the other end of the room, whence came the dreary sound of their sobs which were heard through the dull blows of the beaters.
Suddenly Gervaise uttered a shriek. Virginie had struck her just above the elbow on her bare arm, and the flesh began to swell at once. She rushed at Virginie; her face was so terrible that the spectators thought she meant to kill her.
“Enough! Enough!” they cried.
With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.
Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.
“Oh! Oh!” murmured Charles with his eyes nearly starting from his head.
The women were laughing again by this time, but soon the cry began again of “Enough! Enough!”
Gervaise did not even hear. She seemed entirely absorbed, as if she were fulfilling an appointed task, and she talked with strange, wild gaiety, recalling one of the rhymes of her childhood:
_"Pan! Pan! Margot au lavoir, Pan! Pan! a coups de battoir; Pan! Pan! va laver son coeur, Pan! Pan! tout noir de douleur_
“Take that for yourself and that for your sister and this for Lantier. And now I shall begin all over again. That is for Lantier–that for your sister–and this for yourself!
_"Pan! Pan! Margot au lavoir! Pan! Pan! a coups de battoir."_
They tore Virginie from her hands. The tall brunette, weeping and sobbing, scarlet with shame, rushed out of the room, leaving Gervaise mistress of the field, who calmly arranged her dress somewhat and, as her arm was stiff, begged Mme Boche to lift her bundle of linen on her shoulder.
While the old woman obeyed she dilated on her emotions during the scene that had just taken place.
“You ought to go to a doctor and see if something is not broken. I heard a queer sound,” she said.
But Gervaise did not seem to hear her and paid no attention either to the women who crowded around her with congratulations. She hastened to the door where her children awaited her.
“Two hours!” said the mistress of the establishment, already installed in her glass cabinet. “Two hours and two sous!”
Gervaise mechanically laid down the two sous, and then, limping painfully under the weight of the wet linen which was slung over her shoulder and dripped as she moved, with her injured arm and bleeding cheek, she went away, dragging after her with her naked arm the still-sobbing and tear-stained Etienne and Claude.
Behind her the lavatory resumed its wonted busy air, a little gayer than usual from the excitement of the morning. The women had eaten their bread and drunk their wine, and they splashed the water and used their beaters with more energy than usual as they recalled the blows dealt by Gervaise. They talked from alley to alley, leaning over their tubs. Words and laughs were lost in the sound of running water. The steam and mist were golden in the sun that came in through holes in the curtain. The odor of soapsuds grew stronger and stronger.
When Gervaise entered the alley which led to the Hotel Boncoeur her tears choked her. It was a long, dark, narrow alley, with a gutter on one side close to the wall, and the loathsome smell brought to her mind the recollection of having passed through there with Lantier a fortnight previous.
And what had that fortnight been? A succession of quarrels and dissensions, the remembrance of which would be forevermore a regret and bitterness.
Her room was empty, filled with the glowing sunlight from the open window. This golden light rendered more apparent the blackened ceiling and the walls with the shabby, dilapidated paper. There was not an article beyond the furniture left in the room, except a woman’s fichu that seemed to have caught on a nail near the chimney. The children’s bed was pulled out into the center of the room; the bureau drawers were wide open, displaying their emptiness. Lantier had washed and had used the last of the pomade–two cents’ worth on the back of a playing card–the dirty water in which he had washed still stood in the basin. He had forgotten nothing; the corner hitherto occupied by his trunk now seemed to Gervaise a vast desert. Even the small mirror was gone. With a presentiment of evil she turned hastily to the chimney. Yes, she was right, Lantier had carried away the tickets. The pink papers were no longer between the candlesticks!
She threw her bundle of linen into a chair and stood looking first at one thing and then at another in a dull agony that no tears came to relieve.
She had but one sou in the world. She heard a merry laugh from her boys who, already consoled, were at the window. She went toward them and, laying a hand on each of their heads, looked out on that scene on which her weary eyes had dwelt so long that same morning.
Yes, it was on that street that she and her children would soon be thrown, and she turned her hopeless, despairing eyes toward the outer boulevards–looking from right to left, lingering at the two extremities, seized by a feeling of terror, as if her life thenceforward was to be spent between a slaughterhouse and a hospital.