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.