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One afternoon in the autumn Gervaise, who had been taking some washing home to a
customer in the Rue des Portes-Blanches, found herself at the bottom of the Rue des
Poissonniers just as the day was declining. It had rained in the morning, the weather
was very mild and an odor rose from the greasy pavement; and the laundress,
burdened with her big basket, was rather out of breath, slow of step, and inclined to take
her ease as she ascended the street with the vague preoccupation of a longing
increased by her weariness. She would have liked to have had something to eat. Then,
on raising her eyes she beheld the name of the Rue Marcadet, and she suddenly had
the idea of going to see Goujet at his forge. He had no end of times told her to look in
any day she was curious to see how iron was wrought. Besides in the presence of other
workmen she would ask for Etienne, and make believe that she had merely called for
the youngster.
The factory was somewhere on this end of the Rue Marcadet, but she didn't know
exactly where and street numbers were often lacking on those ramshackle buildings
separated by vacant lots. She wouldn't have lived on this street for all the gold in the
world. It was a wide street, but dirty, black with soot from factories, with holes in the
pavement and deep ruts filled with stagnant water. On both sides were rows of sheds,
workshops with beams and brickwork exposed so that they seemed unfinished, a
messy collection of masonry. Beside them were dubious lodging houses and even more
dubious taverns. All she could recall was that the bolt factory was next to a yard full of
scrap iron and rags, a sort of open sewer spread over the ground, storing merchandise
worth hundreds of thousands of francs, according to Goujet.
The street was filled with a noisy racket. Exhaust pipes on roofs puffed out violent jets of
steam; an automatic sawmill added a rhythmic screeching; a button factory shook the
ground with the rumbling of its machines. She was looking up toward the Montmartre
height, hesitant, uncertain whether to continue, when a gust of wind blew down a mass
of sooty smoke that covered the entire street. She closed her eyes and held her breath.
At that moment she heard the sound of hammers in cadence. Without realizing it, she
had arrived directly in front of the bolt factory which she now recognized by the vacant
lot beside it full of piles of scrap iron and old rags.
She still hesitated, not knowing where to enter. A broken fence opened a passage
which seemed to lead through the heaps of rubbish from some buildings recently pulled
down. Two planks had been thrown across a large puddle of muddy water that barred
the way. She ended by venturing along them, turned to the left and found herself lost in
the depths of a strange forest of old carts, standing on end with their shafts in the air,
and of hovels in ruins, the wood-work of which was still standing. Toward the back,
stabbing through the half-light of sundown, a flame gleamed red. The clamor of the
hammers had ceased. She was advancing carefully when a workman, his face
blackened with coal-dust and wearing a goatee passed near her, casting a side-glance
with his pale eyes.