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AT Rasseneur's, after having eaten his soup, Étienne went back into the small chamber beneath the roof and facing the Voreux, which he was to occupy, and fell on to his bed dressed as he was, overcome with fatigue. In two days he had not slept four hours. When he awoke in the twilight he was dazed for a moment, not recognizing his surroundings; and he felt such uneasiness and his head was so heavy that he rose, painfully, with the idea of getting some fresh air before having his dinner and going to bed for the night.
Outside, the weather was becoming milder: the sooty sky was growing copper-coloured, laden with one of those warm rains of the Nord, the approach of which one feels by the moist warmth of the air, and the night was coming on in great mists which drowned the distant landscape of the plain. Over this immense sea of reddish earth the low sky seemed to melt into black dust, without a breath of wind now to animate the darkness. It was the wan and deathly melancholy of a funeral.
Étienne walked straight ahead at random, with no other aim but to shake off his fever. When he passed before the Voreux, already growing gloomy at the bottom of its hole and with no lantern yet shining from it, he stopped a moment to watch the departure of the day-workers. No doubt six o'clock had struck; landers, porters from the pit-eye, and grooms were going away in bands, mixed with the vague and laughing figures of the screening girls in the shade.
At first it was Brulé and her son-in-law, Pierron. She was abusing him because he had not supported her in a quarrel with an overseer over her reckoning of stones.
"Get along! damned good-for-nothing! Do you call yourself a man to lower yourself like that before one of these beasts who devour us?"
Pierron followed her peacefully, without replying. At last he said:
"I suppose I ought to jump on the boss? Thanks for showing me how to get into a mess!"
"Bend your backside to him, then," she shouted. "By God! if my daughter had listened to me! It's not enough for them to kill the father. Perhaps you'd like me to say 'thank you.' No, I'll have their skins first!"
Their voices were lost. Étienne saw her disappear, with her eagle nose, her flying white hair, her long, lean arms that gesticulated furiously. But the conversation of two young people behind caused him to listen. He had recognized Zacharie, who was waiting there, and who had just been addressed by his friend Mouquet.
"Are you here?" said the latter. "We will have something to eat, and then off to the Volcan."
"Directly. I've something to attend to."
The lander turned and saw Philoméne coming out of the screening shed. He thought he understood.
"Very well, if it's that. Then I go ahead."
"Yes, I'll catch you up."
As he went away, Mouquet met his father, old Mouque, who was also coming out of the Voreux. The two men simply wished each other good evening, the son taking the main road while the father went along by the canal.
Zacharie was already pushing Philoméne in spite of her resistance into the same solitary path. She was in a hurry another time; and the two wrangled like old housemates. There was no fun in only seeing one another out of doors, especially in winter, when the earth is moist and there are no wheatfields to lie in.
"No, no, it's not that," he whispered impatiently. "I've something to say to you." He led her gently with his arm round her waist. Then, when they were in the shadow of the pit-bank, he asked if she had any money.
"What for?" she demanded.
Then he became confused, spoke of a debt of two francs which had reduced his family to despair.
"Hold your tongue! I've seen Mouquet; you're going again to the Volcan with him, where those dirty singer-women are."
He defended himself, struck his chest, gave his word of honour. Then, as she shrugged her shoulders, he said suddenly:
"Come with us if it will amuse you. You see that you don't put me out. What do I want to do with the singers? Will you come?"
"And the little one?" she replied. "How can one stir with a child that's always screaming? Let me go back, I guess they're not getting on at the house."
But he held her and entreated. See! it was only not to look foolish before Mouquet to whom he had promised. A man could not go to bed every evening like the fowls. She was overcome, and pulled up the skirt of her gown; with her nail she cut the thread and drew out some half-franc pieces from a corner of the hem. For fear of being robbed by her mother she hid there the profit of the overtime work she did at the pit.
"I've got five, you see," she said, "I'll give you three. Only you must swear that you'll make your mother decide to let us marry. We've had enough of this life in the open air. And mother reproaches me for every mouthful I eat. Swear first."
She spoke with the soft voice of a big, delicate girl, without passion, simply tired of her life. He swore, exclaimed that it was a sacred promise; then, when he had got the three pieces, he kissed her, tickled her, made her laugh, and would have pushed things to an extreme in this corner of the pit-bank, which was the winter chamber of their household, if she had not again refused, saying that it would not give her any pleasure. She went back to the settlement alone, while he cut across the fields to rejoin his companion.
Étienne had followed them mechanically, from afar, without understanding, regarding it as a simple rendezvous. The girls were precocious in the pits; and he recalled the Lille work-girls whom he had waited for behind the factories, those bands of girls, corrupted at fourteen, in the abandonment of their wretchedness. But another meeting surprised him more. He stopped.
At the bottom of the pit-bank, in a hollow into which some large stones had slipped, little Jeanlin was violently snubbing Lydie and Bébert, seated one at his right, the other at his left.
"What do you say? Eh? I'll slap each of you if you want more. Who thought of it first, eh?"
In fact, Jeanlin had had an idea. After having roamed about in the meadows, along the canal, for an hour, gathering dandelions with the two others, it had occurred to him, before this pile of salad, that they would never eat all that at home; and instead of going back to the settlement he had gone to Montsou, keeping Bébert to watch, and making Lydie ring at the houses and offer the dandelions. He was experienced enough to know that, as he said, girls could sell what they liked. In the ardour of business, the entire pile had disappeared; but the girl had gained eleven sous. And now, with empty hands, the three were dividing the profits.
"That's not fair!" Bébert declared. "Must divide into three. If you keep seven sous we shall only have two each."
"What? not fair!" replied Jeanlin furiously. "I gathered more first of all."
The other usually submitted with timid admiration and a credulity which always made him the dupe. Though older and stronger, he even allowed himself to be struck. But this time the sight of all that money excited him to rebellion.
"He's robbing us, Lydie, isn't he? If he doesn't share, we'll tell his mother."
Jeanlin at once thrust his fist beneath the other's nose. "Say that again! I'll go and say at your house that you sold my mother's salad. And then, you silly beast, how can I divide eleven sous into three? Just try and see, if you're so clever. Here are your two sous each. Just look sharp and take them, or I'll put them in my pocket."
Bébert was vanquished ,and accepted the two sous. Lydie, who was trembling, had said nothing, for with Jeanlin she experienced the fear and the tenderness of a little beaten woman. When he held out the two sous to her she advanced her hand with a submissive laugh. But he suddenly changed his mind.
"Eh! what will you do with all that? Your mother will nab them, sure enough, if you don't know how to hide them from her. I'd better keep them for you. When you want money you can ask me for it."
And the nine sous disappeared. To shut her mouth he had put his arms around her laughingly and was rolling with her over the pit-bank. She was his little wife, and in the dark corners they used to try together the love which they heard and saw in their homes behind partitions, through the cracks of doors. They knew everything, but they were able to do nothing, being too young, fumbling and playing for hours at the games of vicious puppies. He called that playing at papa and mama; and when he chased her she ran away and let herself be caught with the delicious trembling of instinct, often angry, but always yielding, in the expectation of something which never came.
As Bébert was not admitted to these games and received a cuffing whenever he wanted to touch Lydie, he was always constrained, agitated by anger and uneasiness when the other two were amusing themselves, which they did not hesitate to do in his presence. His one idea, therefore, was to frighten them and disturb them, calling out that someone could see them.
"It's all up! There's a man looking."
This time he told the truth; it was Étienne, who had decided to continue his walk. The children jumped up and ran away, and he passed by round the bank, following the canal, amused at the terror of these little rascals. No doubt it was too early at their age, but they saw and heard so much that one would have to tie them up to restrain them. Yet Étienne became sad.
A hundred paces farther on he came across more couples. He had arrived at Réquillart, and there, around the old ruined mine, all the girls of Montsou prowled about with their lovers. It was the common rendezvous, the remote and deserted spot to which the putters came to get their first child when they dared not risk the shed. The broken palings opened to every one the old yard, now become a nondescript piece of ground, obstructed by the ruins of the two sheds which had fallen in, and by the skeletons of the large buttresses which were still standing. Derelict trains were lying about, and piles of old rotting wood, while a dense vegetation was reconquering this corner of ground, displaying itself in thick grass, and springing up in young trees that were already vigorous. Every girl found herself at home here; there were concealed holes for all; their lovers placed them over beams, behind the timber, in the trains; they even lay elbow to elbow without troubling about their neighbours. And it seemed that around this extinguished engine, near this shaft weary of disgorging coal, there was a revenge of creation in the free love which, beneath the lash of instinct, planted children in the bellies of these girls who were yet hardly women.
Yet a caretaker lived there, old Mouque, to whom the Company had given up, almost beneath the destroyed tower, two rooms which were constantly threatened by destruction from the expected fall of the last walls. He had even been obliged to shore up a part of the roof, and he lived there very comfortably with his family, he and Mouquet in one room, Mouquette in the other. As the windows no longer possessed a single pane, he had decided to close them by nailing up boards; one could not see well, but it was warm. For the rest, this caretaker cared for nothing: he went to look after his horses at the Voreux, and never troubled himself about the ruins of Réquillart, of which the shaft only was preserved, in order to serve as a chimney for a fire which ventilated the neighbouring pit.
It was thus that Father Mouque was ending his old age in the midst of love. Ever since she was ten Mouquette had been lying about in all the corners of the ruins, not as a timid and still green little urchin like Lydie, but as a girl who was already big, and a mate for bearded lads. The father had nothing to say, for she was considerate, and never introduced a lover into the house. Then he was used to this sort of accident. When he went to the Voreux, when he came back, whenever he came out of his hole, he could scarcely put a foot down without treading on a couple in the grass; and it was worse if he wanted to gather wood to heat his soup or look for burdocks for his rabbit at the other end of the enclosure. Then he saw one by one the voluptuous noses of all the girls of Montsou rising up around him, while he had to be careful not to knock against the limbs stretched out level with the paths. Besides, these meetings had gradually ceased to disturb either him who was simply taking care not to stumble, or the girls whom he allowed to finish their affairs, going away with discreet little steps like a worthy man who was at peace with the ways of nature. Only just as they now knew him he at last also knew them, as one knows the rascally magpies who become corrupted in the pear-trees in the garden. Ah! youth! youth! how it goes on, how wild it is! Sometimes he wagged his chin with silent regret, turning away from the noisy wantons who were breathing too loudly in the darkness. Only one thing put him out of temper: two lovers had acquired the bad habit of embracing outside his wall. It was not that it prevented him from sleeping, but they leaned against the wall so heavily that at last they damaged it.
Every evening old Mouque received a visit from his friend, Father Bonnemort, who regularly before dinner took the same walk. The two old men spoke little, scarcely exchanging ten words during the half-hour that they spent together. But it cheered them thus to think over the days of old, to chew their recollections over again without need to talk of them. At Réquillart they sat on a beam side by side, saying a word and then sinking into their dreams, with faces bent towards the earth. No doubt they were becoming young again. Around them lovers were turning over their sweethearts; there was a murmur of kisses and laughter; the warm odour of the girls arose in the freshness of the trodden grass. It was now forty-three years since Father Bonnemort had taken his wife behind the pit; she was a putter, so slight that he had placed her on a tram to embrace her at ease. Ah! those were fine days. And the two old men, shaking their heads, at last left each other, often without saying good night.
That evening, however, as Étienne arrived, Father Bonnemort, who was getting up from the beam to return to the settlement, said to Mouque:
"Good night, old man. I say, you knew Roussie?"
Mouque was silent for a moment, rocked his shoulders; then, returning to the house:
"Good night, good night, old man."
Étienne came and sat on the beam, in his turn. His sadness was increasing, though he could not tell why. The old man, whose disappearing back he watched, recalled his arrival in the morning, and the flood of words which the piercing wind had dragged from his silence. What wretchedness! And all these girls, worn out with fatigue, who were still stupid enough in the evening to fabricate little ones, to yield flesh for labour and suffering! It would never come to an end if they were always filling themselves with starvelings. Would it not be better if they were to shut up their bellies, and press their thighs together, as at the approach of misfortune? Perhaps these gloomy ideas only stirred confusedly in him because he was alone, while all the others at this hour were going about taking their pleasure in couples. The mild weather stifled him a little, occasional drops of rain fell on his feverish hands. Yes, they all came to it; it was something stronger than reason.
Just then, as Étienne remained seated motionless in the shadow, a couple who came down from Montsou rustled against him without seeing him as they entered the uneven Réquillart ground. The girl, certainly a virgin, was struggling and resisting with low whispered supplications, while the lad in silence was pushing her towards the darkness of a corner of the shed, still upright, under which there were piles of old mouldy rope. It was Catherine and big Chaval. But Étienne had not recognized them in passing, and his eyes followed them; he was watching for the end of the story, touched by a sensuality which changed the course of his thoughts. Why should he interfere? When girls refuse it is because they like first to be forced.
On leaving the settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante Catherine had gone to Montsou along the road. From the age of ten, since she had earned her living at the pit, she went about the country alone in the complete liberty of the colliers' families; and if no man had possessed her at fifteen it was owing to the tardy awakening of her puberty, the crisis of which had not yet arrived. When she was in front of the Company's Yards she crossed the road and entered a laundress's where she was certain to find Mouquette; for the latter stayed there from morning till night, among women who treated each other with coffee all round. But she was disappointed; Mouquette had just then been regaling them in her turn so thoroughly that she was not able to lend the half-franc she had promised. To console her they vainly offered a glass of hot coffee. She was not even willing that her companion should borrow from another woman. An idea of economy had come to her, a sort of superstitious fear, the certainty that that ribbon would bring her bad luck if she were to buy it now.
She hastened to regain the road to the settlement, and had reached the last houses of Montsou when a man at the door of the Estaminet Piquette called her:
"Eh! Catherine! where are you off to so quick?"
It was lanky Chaval. She was vexed, not because he displeased her, but because she was not inclined to joke.
"Come in and have a drink. A little glass of sweet, won't you?"
She refused politely; the night was coming on, they were expecting her at home. He had advanced, and was entreating her in a low voice in the middle of the road. It had been his idea for a long time to persuade her to come up to the room which he occupied on the first story of the Estaminet Piquette, a fine room for a household, with a large bed. Did he frighten her, that she always refused? She laughed good-naturedly, and said that she would come up some day when children didn't grow. Then, one thing leading to another, she told him, without knowing how, about the blue ribbon which she had not been able to buy.
"But I'll pay for it," he exclaimed.
She blushed, feeling that it would be best to refuse again, but possessed by a strong desire to have the ribbon. The idea of a loan came back to her, and at last she accepted on condition that she should return to him what he spent on her. They began to joke again: it was agreed that if she did not sleep with him she should return him the money. But there was another difficulty when he talked of going to Maigrat's.
"No, not Maigrat's; mother won't let me."
"Why? is there any need to say where one goes? He has the best ribbons in Montsou."
When Maigrat saw lanky Chaval and Catherine coming to his shop like two lovers who are buying their engagement gifts, he became very red, and exhibited his pieces of blue ribbon with the rage of a man who is being made fun of. Then, when he had served the young people, he planted himself at the door to watch them disappear in the twilight; and when his wife came to ask him a question in a timid voice, he fell on her, abusing her, and exclaiming that he would make them repent some day, the filthy creatures, who had no gratitude, when they ought all to be on the ground licking his feet.
Lanky Chaval accompanied Catherine along the road. He walked beside her, swinging his arms; only he pushed her by the hip, conducting her without seeming to do so. She suddenly perceived that he had made her leave the pavement and that they were taking the narrow Réquillart road. But she had no time to be angry; his arm was already round her waist, and he was dazing her with a constant caress of words. How stupid she was to be afraid! Did he want to hurt such a little darling, who was as soft as silk, so tender that he could have devoured her? And he breathed behind her ear, in her neck, so that a shudder passed over the skin of her whole body. She felt stifled, and had nothing to reply. It was true that he seemed to love her. On Saturday evenings, after having blown out the candle, she had asked herself what would happen if he were to take her in this way; then, on going to sleep, she had dreamed that she would no longer refuse, quite overcome by pleasure. Why, then, at the same idea to-day did she feel repugnance and something like regret? While he was tickling her neck with his moustache so softly that she closed her eyes, the shadow of another man, of the lad she had seen that morning, passed over the darkness of her closed eyelids.
Catherine suddenly looked around her. Chaval had conducted her into the ruins of Réquillart and she recoiled, shuddering, from the darkness of the fallen shed.
"Oh! no! oh, no!" she murmured, "please let me go!" The fear of the male had taken hold of her, that fear which stiffens the muscles in an impulse of defence, even when girls are willing, and feel the conquering approach of man. Her virginity which had nothing to learn took fright as at a threatening blow, a wound of which she feared the unknown pain.
"No, no! I don't want to! I tell you that I am too young. lt's true! Another time, when I am quite grown up."
He growled in a low voice:
"Stupid! There's nothing to fear. What does that matter?"
But without speaking more he had seized her firmly and pushed her beneath the shed. And she fell on her back on the old ropes; she ceased to protest, yielding to the male before her time, with that hereditary submission which from childhood had thrown down in the open air all the girls of her race. Her frightened stammering grew faint, and only the ardent breath of the man was heard.
Étienne, however, had listened without moving. Another who was taking the leap! And now that he had seen the comedy he got up, overcome by uneasiness, by a kind of jealous excitement in which there was a touch of anger. He no longer restrained himself; he stepped over the beams, for those two were too much occupied now to be disturbed. He was surprised, therefore, when he had gone a hundred paces along the path, to find that they were already standing up, and that they appeared, like himself, to be returning to the settlement. The man again had his arm round the girl's waist, and was squeezing her, with an air of gratitude, still speaking in her neck; and it was she who seemed in a hurry, anxious to return quickly, and annoyed at the delay.
Then Étienne was tormented by the desire to see their faces. It was foolish, and he hastened his steps, so as not to yield to it; but his feet slackened of their own accord, and at the first lamppost he concealed himself in the shade. He was petrified by horror when he recognized Catherine and lanky Chaval. He hesitated at first: was it indeed she, that young girl in the coarse blue dress, with that bonnet? Was that the urchin whom he had seen in breeches, with her head in the canvas cap? That was why she could pass so near him without his recognizing her. But he no longer doubted; he had seen her eyes again, with their greenish limpidity of spring water, so clear and so deep. What a wench! And he experienced a furious desire to avenge himself on her with contempt, without any motive. Besides, he did not like her as a girl: she was frightful.
Catherine and Chaval had passed him slowly. They did not know that they were watched. He held her to kiss her behind the ear, and she began to slacken her steps beneath his caresses, which made her laugh. Left behind, Étienne was obliged to follow them, irritated because they barred the road and because in spite of himself he had to witness these things which exasperated him. It was true, then, what she had sworn to him in the morning: she was not any one's mistress; and he, who had not believed her, who had deprived himself of her in order not to act like the other! and who had let her be taken beneath his nose, pushing his stupidity so far as to be dirtily amused at seeing them! It made him mad! he clenched his hands, he could have devoured that man in one of those impulses to kill in which he saw everything red.
The walk lasted for half an hour. When Chaval and Catherine approached the Voreux they slackened their pace still more; they stopped twice beside the canal, three times along the pit-bank, very cheerful now and occupied with little tender games. Étienne was obliged to stop also when they stopped, for fear of being perceived. He endeavoured to feel nothing but a brutal regret: that would teach him to treat girls with consideration through being well brought up! Then, after passing the Voreux, and at last free to go and dine at Rasseneur's, he continued to follow them, accompanying them to the settlement, where he remained standing in the shade for a quarter of an hour, waiting until Chaval left Catherine to enter her home. And when he was quite sure that they were no longer together, he set off walking afresh, going very far along the Marchiennes road, stamping, and thinking of nothing, too stifled and too sad to shut himself up in a room.
It was not until an hour later, towards nine o'clock, that Étienne again passed the settlement, saying to himself that he must eat and sleep, if he was to be up again at four o'clock in the morning. The village was already asleep, and looked quite black in the night. Not a gleam shone from the closed shutters, the house fronts slept, with the heavy sleep of snoring barracks. Only a cat escaped through the empty gardens. It was the end of the day, the collapse of workers falling from the table to the bed, overcome with weariness and food.
At Rasseneur's, in the lighted room, an engine-man and two day-workers were drinking. But before going in Étienne stopped to throw one last glance into the darkness. He saw again the same black immensity as in the morning when he had arrived in the wind. Before him the Voreux was crouching, with its air of an evil beast, its dimness pricked with a few lantern lights. The three fires of the bank were burning in the air, like bloody moons, now and then showing the vast silhouettes of Father Bonnemort and his yellow horse. And beyond, in the flat plain, shade had submerged everything, Montsou, Marchiennes, the forest of Vandame, the immense sea of beetroot and of wheat, in which there only shone, like distant lighthouses, the blue fires of the blast furnaces, and the red fires of the coke ovens. Gradually the night came on, the rain was now falling slowly, continuously, burying this void in its monotonous streaming. Only one voice was still heard, the thick, slow respiration of the pumping engine, breathing both by day and by night.