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THE previous day, at a meeting held at Rasseneur's, Étienne and some comrades had chosen the delegates who were to proceed on the following day to the manager's house. When, in the evening, Maheude learnt that her man was one of them, she was in despair, and asked him if he wanted them to be thrown on the street. Maheu himself had agreed with reluctance. Both of them, when the moment of action came, in spite of the injustice of their wretchedness fell back on the resignation of their race, trembling before the morrow, preferring still to bend their backs to the yoke. In the management of affairs he usually gave way to his wife, whose advice was sound. This time, however, he grew angry at last, all the more so since he secretly shared her fears.
"Just leave me alone, will you?" he said, going to bed and turning his back. "A fine thing to leave the mates now! I'm doing my duty."
She went to bed in her turn. Neither of them spoke. Then, after a long silence, she replied:
"You're right; go. Only, poor old man, we are done for."
Midday struck while they were at lunch, for the rendezvous was at one o'clock at the Avantage, from which they were to go together to M. Hennebeau's. They were eating potatoes. As there was only a small morsel of butter left, no one touched it. They would have bread and butter in the evening.
"You know that we reckon on you to speak," said Étienne suddenly to Maheu.
The latter was so overcome that he was silent from emotion.
"No, no! that's too much," cried Maheude. "I'm quite willing he should go there, but I don't allow him to go at the head. Why him, more than any one else?"
Then Étienne, with his fiery eloquence, began to explain. Maheu was the best worker in the pit, the most liked, and the most respected; whose good sense was always spoken of. In his mouth the miners' claims would carry decisive weight. At first Étienne had arranged to speak, but he had been at Montsou for too short a time. One who belonged to the country would be better listened to. In fact, the comrades were confiding their interests to the most worthy; he could not refuse, it would be cowardly.
Maheude made a gesture of despair.
"Go, go, my man; go and be killed for the others. I'm willing, after all!"
"But I could never do it," stammered Maheu. "I should say something stupid."
Étienne, glad to have persuaded him, struck him on the shoulder.
"Say what you feel, and you won't go wrong."
Father Bonnemort, whose legs were now less swollen, was listening with his mouth full, shaking his head. There was silence. When potatoes were being eaten, the children were subdued and behaved well. Then, having swallowed his mouthful, the old man muttered slowly:
"You can say what you like, and it will be all the same as if you said nothing. Ah! I've seen these affairs, I've seen them! Forty years ago they drove us out of the manager's house, and with sabres too! Now they may receive you, perhaps, but they won't answer you any more than that wall. Lord! they have money, why should they care?"
There was silence again; Maheu and Étienne rose, and left the family in gloom before the empty plates. On going out they called for Pierron and Levaque, and then all four went to Rasseneur's, where the delegates from the neighbouring settlements were arriving in little groups. When the twenty members of the deputation had assembled there, they settled on the terms to be opposed to the Company's, and then set out for Montsou. The keen north-east wind was sweeping the street. As they arrived, it struck two.
At first the servant told them to wait, and shut the door on them; then, when he came back, he introduced them into the drawing-room, and opened the curtains. A soft daylight entered, sifted through the lace. And the miners, when left alone, in their embarrassment did not dare to sit; all of them very clean, dressed in cloth, shaven that morning, with their yellow hair and moustaches. They twisted their caps between their fingers, and looked sideways at the furniture, which was in every variety of style, as a result of the taste for the old-fashioned: Henry II easy-chairs, Louis XV chairs, an Italian cabinet of the seventeenth century, a Spanish contador of the fifteenth century, with an altar-front serving as a chimney-piece, and ancient chasuble trimming reapplied to the curtains. This old gold and these old silks, with their tawny tones, all this luxurious church furniture, had overwhelmed them with respectful discomfort. The eastern carpets with their long wool seemed to bind their feet. But what especially suffocated them was the heat, heat like that of a hot-air stove, which surprised them as they felt it with cheeks frozen from the wind of the road. Five minutes passed by and their awkwardness increased in the comfort of this rich room, so pleasantly warm. At last M. Hennebeau entered, buttoned up in a military manner and wearing on his frock-coat the correct little bow of his decoration. He spoke first.
"Ah! here you are! You are in rebellion, it seems."
He interrupted himself to add with polite stiffness:
"Sit down, I desire nothing better than to talk things over."
The miners turned round looking for seats. A few of them ventured to place themselves on chairs, while the others, disturbed by the embroidered silks, preferred to remain standing.
There was a period of silence. M. Hennebeau, who had drawn his easy-chair up to the fire-place, was rapidly looking them over and endeavouring to recall their faces. He had recognized Pierron, who was hidden in the last row, and his eyes rested on Étienne who was seated in front of him.
"Well," he asked, "what have you to say to me?"
He had expected to hear the young man speak and he was so surprised to see Maheu come forward that he could not avoid adding:
"What! you, a good workman who have always been so sensible, one of the old Montsou people whose family has worked in the mine since the first stroke of the axe! Ah! it's a pity, I'm sorry that you are at the head of the discontented."
Maheu listened with his eyes down. Then he began, at first in a low and hesitating voice.
"It is just because I am a quiet man, sir, whom no one has anything against, that my mates have chosen me. That ought to show you that it isn't just a rebellion of blusterers, badly disposed men who want to create disorder. We only want justice, we are tired of starving, and it seems to us that the time has come when things ought to be arranged so that we can at least have bread every day."
His voice grew stronger. He lifted his eyes and went on, while looking at the manager.
"You know quite well that we cannot agree to your new system. They accuse us of bad timbering. It's true we don't give the necessary time to the work. But if we gave it, our day's work would be still smaller, and as it doesn't give us enough food at present, that would mean the end of everything, the sweep of the clout that would wipe off all your men. Pay us more and we will timber better, we will give the necessary hours to the timbering instead of putting all our strength into the picking, which is the only work that pays. There's no other arrangement possible; if the work is to be done it must be paid for. And what have you invented instead? A thing which we can't get into our heads, don't you see? You lower the price of the tram and then you pretend to make up for it by paying for all timbering separately. If that was true we should be robbed all the same, for the timbering would still take us more time. But what makes us mad is that it isn't even true; the Company compensates for nothing at all, it simply puts two centimes a tram into its pocket, that's all."
"Yes, yes, that's it," murmured the other deputies, noticing M. Hennebeau make a violent movement as if to interrupt.
But Maheu cut the manager short. Now that he had set out his words came by themselves. At times he listened to himself with surprise as though a stranger were speaking within him. It was the things amassed within his breast, things he did not even know were there, and which came out in an expansion of his heart. He described the wretchedness that was common to all of them, the hard toil, the brutal life, the wife and little ones crying from hunger in the house. He quoted the recent disastrous payments, the absurd fortnightly wages, eaten up by fines and rest days and brought back to their families in tears. Was it resolved to destroy them?
"Then, sir," he concluded, "we have come to tell you that if we've got to starve we would rather starve doing nothing. It will be a little less trouble. We have left the pits and we don't go down again unless the Company agrees to our terms. The Company wants to lower the price of the tram and to pay for the timbering separately. We ask for things to be left as they were, and we also ask for five centimes more the tram. Now it is for you to see if you are on the side of justice and work."
Voices rose among the miners.
"That's it--he has said what we all feel--we only ask what's reason."
Others, without speaking, showed their approval by nodding their heads. The luxurious room had disappeared, with its gold and its embroideries, its mysterious piling up of ancient things; and they no longer even felt the carpet which they crushed beneath their heavy boots.
"Let me reply, then," at last exclaimed M. Hennebeau, who was growing angry. "First of all, it is not true that the Company gains two centimes the tram. Let us look at the figures."
A confused discussion followed. The manager, trying to divide them, appealed to Pierron, who hid himself, stammering. Levaque, on the contrary, was at the head of the more aggressive, muddling up things and affirming facts of which he was ignorant. The loud murmurs of their voices were stifled beneath the hangings in the hothouse atmosphere.
"If you all talk at the same time," said M. Hennebeau, "we shall never come to an understanding."
He had regained his calmness, the rough politeness, without bitterness, of an agent who has received his instructions, and means that they shall be respected. From the first word he never took his eye off Étienne, and manoeuvred to draw the young man out of his obstinate silence. Leaving the discussion about the two centimes, he suddenly enlarged the question.
"No, acknowledge the truth: you are yielding to abominable incitations. It is a plague which is now blowing over the workers everywhere, and corrupting the best. Oh! I have no need for any one to confess. I can see well that you have been changed, you who used to be so quiet. Is it not so? You have been promised more butter than bread, and you have been told that now your turn has come to be masters. In fact, you have been enrolled in that famous International, that army of brigands who dream of destroying society."
Then Étienne interrupted him.
"You are mistaken, sir. Not a single Montsou collier has yet enrolled. But if they are driven to it, all the pits will enroll themselves. That depends on the Company."
From that moment the struggle went on between M. Hennebeau and Étienne as though the other miners were no longer there.
"The Company is a providence for the men, and you are wrong to threaten it. This year it has spent three hundred thousand francs in building settlements which only return two per cent, and I say nothing of the pensions which it pays, nor of the coals and medicines which it gives. You who seem to be intelligent, and who have become in a few months one of our most skilful workmen, would it not be better if you were to spread these truths, rather than ruin yourself by associating with people of bad reputation? Yes, I mean Rasseneur, whom we had to turn off in order to save our pits from socialistic corruption. You are constantly seen with him, and it is certainly he who has induced you to form this provident fund, which we would willingly tolerate if it were merely a means of saving, but which we feel to be a weapon turned against us, a reserve fund to pay the expenses of the war. And in this connection I ought to add that the Company means to control that fund."
Étienne allowed him to continue, fixing his eyes on him, while a slight nervous quiver moved his lips. He smiled at the last remark, and simply replied:
"Then that is a new demand, for until now, sir, you have neglected to claim that control. Unfortunately, we wish the Company to occupy itself less with us, and instead of playing the part of providence to be merely just with us, giving us our due, the profits which it appropriates. Is it honest, whenever a crisis comes, to leave the workers to die with hunger in order to save the shareholders' dividends? Whatever you may say, sir, the new system is a disguised reduction of wages, and that is what we are rebelling against, for if the Company wants to economize it acts very badly by only economizing on the men."
"Ah! there we are!" cried M. Hennebeau. "I was expecting that--the accusation of starving the people and living by their sweat. How can you talk such folly, you who ought to know the enormous risks which capital runs in industry--in the mines, for example? A well-equipped pit today costs from fifteen hundred thousand francs to two millions; and it is difficult enough to get a moderate interest on the vast sum that is thus swallowed. Nearly half the mining companies in France are bankrupt. Besides, it is stupid to accuse those who succeed of cruelty. When their workers suffer, they suffer themselves. Can you believe that the Company has not as much to lose as you have in the present crisis? It does not govern wages; it obeys competition under pain of ruin. Blame the facts, not the Company. But you don't wish to hear, you don't wish to understand."
"Yes," said the young man, "we understand very well that our lot will never be bettered as long as things go on as they are going; and that is the reason why some day or another the workers will end by arranging that things shall go differently."
This sentence, so moderate in form, was pronounced in a low voice, but with such conviction, tremulous in its menace, that a deep silence followed. A certain constraint, a breath of fear passed through the polite drawing-room. The other delegates, though scarcely understanding, felt that their comrade had been demanding their share of this comfort; and they began to cast sidelong looks over the warm hangings, the comfortable seats, all this luxury of which the least knick-knack would have bought them soup for a month.
At last M. Hennebeau, who had remained thoughtful. rose as a sign for them to depart. All imitated him. Étienne had lightly pushed Maheu's elbow, and the latter, his tongue once more thick and awkward, again spoke.
"Then, sir, that is all that you reply? We must tell the others that you reject our terms."
"I, my good fellow!" exclaimed the manager, "I reject nothing. I am paid just as you are. I have no more power in the matter than the smallest of your trammers. I receive my orders, and my only duty is to see that they are executed. I have told you what I thought I ought to tell you, but it is not for me to decide. You have brought me your demands. I will make them known to the directors, then I will tell you their reply."
He spoke with the correct air of a high official avoiding any passionate interest in the matter, with the courteous dryness of a simple instrument of authority. And the miners now looked at him with distrust, asking themselves what interest he might have in lying, and what he would get by thus putting himself between them and the real masters. A schemer, perhaps, this man who was paid like a worker, and who lived so well!
Étienne ventured to intervene again.
"You see, sir, how unfortunate it is that we cannot plead our cause in person. We could explain many things, and bring forward many reasons of which you could know nothing, if we only knew where we ought to go."
M. Hennebeau was not at all angry. He even smiled. "Ah! it gets complicated as soon as you have no confidence in me; you will have to go over there."
The delegates had followed the vague gesture of his hand toward one of the windows. Where was it, over there? Paris, no doubt. But they did not know exactly; it seemed to fall back into a terrible distance, in an inaccessible religious country, where an unknown god sat on his throne, crouching down at the far end of his tabernacle. They would never see him; they only felt him as a force far off, which weighed on the ten thousand colliers of Montsou. And when the director spoke he had that hidden force behind him delivering oracles.
They were overwhelmed with discouragement; Étienne himself signified by a shrug of the shoulders that it would be best to go; while M. Hennebeau touched Maheu's arm in a friendly way and asked after Jeanlin.
"That is a severe lesson now, and it is you who defend bad timbering. You must reflect, my friends; you must realize that a strike would be a disaster for everybody. Before a week you would die of hunger. What would you do? I count on your good sense, anyhow; and I am convinced that you will go down on Monday, at the latest."
They all left, going out of the drawing-room with the tramping of a flock and rounded backs, without replying a word to this hope of submission. The manager, who accompanied them, was obliged to continue the conversation. The Company, on the one side, had its new tariff; the workers, on the other, their demand for an increase of five centimes the tram. In order that they might have no illusions, he felt he ought to warn them that their terms would certainly be rejected by the directors.
"Reflect before committing any follies," he repeated, disturbed at their silence.
In the porch Pierron bowed very low, while Levaque pretended to adjust his cap. Maheu was trying to find something to say before leaving, when Étienne again touched his elbow. And they all left in the midst of this threatening silence. The door closed with a loud bang.
When M. Hennebeau re-entered the dining-room he found his guests motionless and silent before the liqueurs. In two words he told his story to Deneulin, whose face grew still more gloomy. Then, as he drank his cold coffee, they tried to speak of other things. But the Grégoires themselves returned to the subject of the strike, expressing their astonishment that no laws existed to prevent workmen from leaving their work. Paul reassured Cécile, stating that they were expecting the police.
At last Madame Hennebeau called the servant:
"Hippolyte, before we go into the drawing-room just open the windows and let in a little air."