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ANOTHER fortnight had passed by. It was the beginning of January and cold mists benumbed the immense plain. The misery had grown still greater, and the settlements were in agony from hour to hour beneath the increasing famine. Four thousand francs sent by the International from London had scarcely supplied bread for three days, and then nothing had come. This great dead hope was beating down their courage. On what were they to count now since even their brothers had abandoned them? They felt themselves separated from the world and lost in the midst of this deep winter.
On Tuesday no resources were left in the Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement. Étienne and the delegates had multiplied their energies. New subscriptions were opened in the neighbouring towns, and even in Paris; collections were made and lectures organized. These efforts came to nothing. Public opinion, which had at first been moved, grew indifferent now that the strike dragged on for ever, and so quietly, without any dramatic incidents. Small charities scarcely sufficed to maintain the poorer families. The others lived by pawning their clothes and selling up the household piece by piece. Everything went to the brokers, the wool of the mattresses, the kitchen utensils, even the furniture. For a moment they thought themselves saved, for the small retail shopkeepers of Montsou, killed out by Maigrat, had offered credit to try and get back their custom; and for a week Verdonck, the grocer, and the two bakers, Carouble and Smelten, kept open shop, but when their advances were exhausted all three stopped. The bailiffs were rejoicing; there only resulted a piling up of debts which would for a long time weigh upon the miners. There was no more credit to be had anywhere and not an old saucepan to sell; they might lie down in a corner to die like mangy dogs.
Étienne would have sold his flesh. He had given up his salary and had gone to Marchiennes to pawn his trousers and cloth coat, happy to set the Maheus' pot boiling once more. His boots alone remained, and he retained these to keep a firm foothold, he said. His grief was that the strike had come on too early, before the provident fund had had time to swell. He regarded this as the only cause of the disaster, for the workers would surely triumph over the masters on the day when they had saved enough money to resist. And he recalled Souvarine's words accusing the Company of pushing forward the strike to destroy the fund at the beginning.
The sight of the settlement and of these poor people without bread or fire overcame him. He preferred to go out and to weary himself with distant walks. One evening, as he was coming back and passing near Réquillart, he perceived an old woman who had fainted by the roadside. No doubt she was dying of hunger; and having raised her he began to shout to a girl whom he saw on the other side of the paling.
"Why! is it you?" he said, recognizing Mouquette. "Come and help me then, we must give her something to drink."
Mouquette, moved to tears, quickly went into the shaky hovel which her father had set up in the midst of the ruins. She came back at once with gin and a loaf. The gin revived the old woman, who without speaking bit greedily into the bread. She was the mother of a miner who lived at a settlement on the Cougny side, and she had fallen there on returning from Joiselle, where she had in vain attempted to borrow half a franc from a sister. When she had eaten she went away dazed.
Étienne stood in the open field of Réquillart, where the crumbling sheds were disappearing beneath the brambles.
"Well, won't you come in and drink a little glass?" asked Mouquette merrily.
And as he hesitated:
"Then you're still afraid of me?"
He followed her, won by her laughter. This bread, which she had given so willingly, moved him. She would not take him into her father's room, but led him into her own room, where she at once poured out two little glasses of gin. The room was very neat and he complimented her on it. Besides, the family seemed to want for nothing; the father continued his duties as a groom at the Voreux while she, saying that she could not live with folded arms, had become a laundress, which brought her in thirty sous a day. One may amuse oneself with men but one isn't lazy for all that.
"I say," she murmured, all at once coming and putting her arms round him prettily, "why don't you like me?"
He could not help laughing, she had done this in so charming a way.
"But I like you very much," he replied.
"No, no, not like I mean. You know that I am dying of longing. Come, it would give me so much pleasure."
It was true, she had desired him for six months. He still looked at her as she clung to him, pressing him with her two tremulous arms, her face raised with such supplicating love that he was deeply moved. There was nothing beautiful in her large round face, with its yellow complexion eaten by the coal; but her eyes shone with flame, a charm rose from her skin, a trembling of desire which made her rosy and young. In face of this gift which was so humble and so ardent he no longer dared to refuse.
"Oh! you are willing," she stammered, delighted. "Oh! you are willing!"
And she gave herself up with the fainting awkwardness of a virgin, as if it was for the first time, and she had never before known a man. Then when he left her, it was she who was overcome with gratitude; she thanked him and kissed his hands.
Étienne remained rather ashamed of this good fortune. Nobody boasted of having had Mouquette. As he went away he swore that it should not occur again, but he preserved a friendly remembrance of her; she was a capital girl.
When he got back to the settlement, he found serious news which made him forget the adventure. The rumour was circulating that the Company would, perhaps, agree to make a concession if the delegates made a fresh attempt with the manager. At all events some captains had spread this rumour. The truth was, that in this struggle the mine was suffering even more than the miners. On both sides obstinacy was piling up ruin: while labour was dying of hunger, capital was being destroyed. Every day of rest carried away hundreds of thousands of francs. Every machine which stops is a dead machine. Tools and material are impaired, the money that is sunk melts away like water drunk by the sand. Since the small stock of coal at the surface of the pits was exhausted, customers talked of going to Belgium, so that in future they would be threatened from that quarter. But what especially frightened the Company, although the matter was carefully concealed, was the increasing damage to the galleries. and workings. The captains could not cope with the repairs, the timber was falling everywhere, and landslips were constantly taking place. Soon the disasters became so serious that long months would be needed for repairs before hewing could be resumed. Already stories were going about the country: at Crévecoeur three hundred metres of road had subsided in a mass, stopping up access to the Cinq-Paumes; at Madeleine the Maugrétout seam was crumbling away and filling with water. The management refused to admit this, but suddenly two accidents, one after the other, had forced them to avow it. One morning, near Piolaine, the ground was found cracked above the north gallery of Mirou which had fallen in the day before; and on the following day the ground subsided within the Voreux, shaking a corner of a suburb to such an extent that two houses nearly disappeared.
Étienne and the delegates hesitated to risk any steps without knowing the directors' intentions. Dansaert, whom they questioned, avoided replying: certainly, the misunderstanding was deplored, and everything would be done to bring about an agreement; but he could say nothing definitely. At last, they decided that they would go to M. Hennebeau in order to have reason on their side; for they did not wish to be accused, later on, of having refused the Company an opportunity of acknowledging that it had been in the wrong. Only they vowed to yield nothing and to maintain, in spite of everything, their terms, which were alone just.
The interview took place on Tuesday morning, when the settlement was sinking into desperate wretchedness. It was less cordial than the first interview. Maheu was still the speaker, and he explained that their mates had sent them to ask if these gentlemen had anything new to say. At first M. Hennebeau affected surprise: no order had reached him, nothing could be changed so long as the miners persisted in their detestable rebellion; and this official stiffness produced the worst effects, so that if the delegates had gone out of their way to offer conciliation, the way in which they were received would only have served to make them more obstinate. Afterwards the manager tried to seek a basis of mutual concession; thus, if the men would accept the separate payment for timbering, the Company would raise that payment by the two centimes which they were accused of profiting by. Besides, he added that he would take the offer on himself, that nothing was settled, but that he flattered himself he could obtain this concession from Paris. But the delegates refused, and repeated their demands: the retention of the old system, with a rise of five centimes a tram. Then he acknowledged that he could treat with them at once, and urged them to accept in the name of their wives and little ones dying of hunger. And with eyes on the ground and stiff heads they said no, always no, with fierce vigour. They separated curtly. M. Hennebeau banged the doors. Étienne, Maheu, and the others went off stamping with their great heels on the pavement in the mute rage of the vanquished pushed to extremes.
Towards two o'clock the women of the settlement, on their side, made an application to Maigrat. There was only this hope left, to bend this man and to wrench from him another week's credit. The idea originated with Maheude, who often counted too much on people's good-nature. She persuaded the Brulé and the Levaque to accompany her; as to Pierronne, she excused herself, saying that she could not leave Pierron, whose illness still continued. Other women joined the band till they numbered quite twenty. When the inhabitants of Montsou saw them arrive, gloomy and wretched, occupying the whole width of the road, they shook their heads anxiously. Doors were closed, and one lady hid her plate. It was the first time they had been seen thus, and there could not be a worse sign: usually everything was going to ruin when the women thus took to the roads. At Maigrat's there was a violent scene. At first, he had made them go in, jeering and pretending to believe that they had come to pay their debts: that was nice of them to have agreed to come and bring the money all at once. Then, as soon as Maheude began to speak he pretended to be enraged. Were they making fun of people? More credit! Then they wanted to turn him into the street? No, not a single potato, not a single crumb of bread! And he told them to be off to the grocer Verdonck, and to the bakers Carouble and Smelten, since they now dealt with them. The women listened with timid humility, apologizing, and watching his eyes to see if he would relent. He began to joke, offering his shop to the Brulé if she would have him as a lover. They were all so cowardly that they laughed at this; and the Levaque improved on it, declaring that she was willing, she was. But he at once became abusive, and pushed them towards the door. As they insisted, suppliantly, he treated one brutally. The others on the pavement shouted that he had sold himself to the Company, while Maheude, with her arms in the air, in a burst of avenging indignation, cried out for his death, exclaiming that such a man did not deserve to eat.
The return to the settlement was melancholy. When the women came back with empty hands, the men looked at them and then lowered their heads. There was nothing more to be done, the day would end without a spoonful of soup; and the other days extended in an icy shadow, without a ray of hope. They had made up their minds to it, and no one spoke of surrender. This excess of misery made them still more obstinate, mute as tracked beasts, resolved to die at the bottom of their hole rather than come out. Who would dare to be first to speak of submission? They had sworn with their mates to hold together, and hold together they would, as they held together at the pit when one of them was beneath a landslip. It was as it ought to be; it was a good school for resignation down there. They might well tighten their belts for a week, when they had been swallowing fire and water ever since they were twelve years of age; and their devotion was thus augmented by the pride of soldiers, of men proud of their profession, who in their daily struggle with death had gained a pride in sacrifice.
With the Maheus it was a terrible evening. They were all silent, seated before the dying fire in which the last cinders were smoking. After having emptied the mattresses, handful by handful, they had decided the day before to sell the clock for three francs and the room seemed bare and dead now that the familiar tick-tack no longer filled it with sound. The only object of luxury now, in the middle of the sideboard, was the rose cardboard box, an old present from Maheu, which Maheude treasured like a jewel. The two good chairs had gone; Father Bonnemort and the children were squeezed together on an old mossy bench brought in from the garden. And the livid twilight now coming on seemed to increase the cold.
"What's to be done?" repeated Maheude, crouching down in the corner by the oven.
Étienne stood up, looking at the portraits of the emperor and empress stuck against the wall. He would have torn them down long since if the family had not preserved them for ornament. So he murmured, with clenched teeth:
"And to think that we can't get two sous out of these damned idiots, who are watching us starve!"
"If I were to take the box?" said the woman, very pale, after some hesitation.
Maheu, seated on the edge of the table, with his legs dangling and his head on his chest, sat up.
"No! I won't have it!"
Maheude painfully rose and walked round the room. Good God! was it possible that they were reduced to such misery? The cupboard without a crumb, nothing more to sell, no notion where to get a loaf! And the fire, which was nearly out! She became angry with Alzire, whom she had sent in the morning to glean on the pit-bank, and who had come back with empty hands, saying that the Company would not allow gleaning. Did it matter a hang what the Company wanted? As if they were robbing any one by picking up the bits of lost coal! The little girl, in despair, told how a man had threatened to hit her; then she promised to go back next day, even if she was beaten.
"And that imp, Jeanlin," cried the mother; "where is he now, I should like to know? He ought to have brought the salad; we can browse on that like beasts, at all events! You will see, he won't come back. Yesterday, too, he slept out. I don't know what he's up to; the rascal always looks as though his belly were full."
"Perhaps," said Étienne, "he picks up sous on the road."
She suddenly lifted both fists furiously.
"If I knew that! My children beg! I'd rather kill them and myself too."
Maheu had again sunk down on the edge of the table. Lénore and Henri, astonished that they had nothing to eat, began to moan; while old Bonnemort, in silence, philosophically rolled his tongue in his mouth to deceive his hunger. No one spoke any more; all were becoming benumbed beneath this aggravation of their evils; the grandfather, coughing and spitting out the black phlegm, taken again by rheumatism which was turning to dropsy; the father asthmatic, and with knees swollen with water; the mother and the little ones scarred by scrofula and hereditary anaemia. No doubt their work made this inevitable; they only complained when the lack of food killed them off; and already they were falling like flies in the settlement. But something must be found for supper. My God! where was it to be found, what was to be done?
Then, in the twilight, which made the room more and more gloomy with its dark melancholy, Étienne, who had been hesitating for a moment, at last decided with aching heart.
"Wait for me," he said. "I'll go and see somewhere." And he went out. The idea of Mouquette had occurred to him. She would certainly have a loaf, and would give it willingly. It annoyed him to be thus forced to return to Réquillart; this girl would kiss his hands with her air of an amorous servant; but one did not leave one's friends in trouble; he would still be kind with her if need be.
"I will go and look round, too," said Maheude, in her turn. "It's too stupid."
She reopened the door after the young man and closed it violently, leaving the others motionless and mute in the faint light of a candle-end which Alzire had just lighted. Outside she stopped and thought for a moment. Then she entered the Levaque's house.
"Tell me: I lent you a loaf the other day. Could you give it me back?"
But she stopped herself. What she saw was far from encouraging; the house spoke of misery even more than her own.
The Levaque woman, with fixed eyes, was gazing into her burnt-out fire, while Levaque, made drunk on his empty stomach by some nail-makers, was sleeping on the table. With his back to the wall, Bouteloup was mechanically rubbing his shoulders with the amazement of a good-natured fellow who has eaten up his savings, and is astonished at having to tighten his belt.
"A loaf! ah! my dear," replied the Levaque woman, "I wanted to borrow another from you!"
Then, as her husband groaned with pain in his sleep, she pushed his face against the table.
"Hold your row, bloody beast! So much the better if it burns your guts! Instead of getting people to pay for your drinks, you ought to have asked twenty sous from a friend."
She went on relieving herself by swearing, in the midst of this dirty household, already abandoned so long that an unbearable smell was exhaling from the floor. Everything might smash up, she didn't care a hang! Her son, that rascal Bébert, had also disappeared since morning, and she shouted that it would be a good riddance if he never came back. Then she said that she would go to bed. At least she could get warm. She hustled Bouteloup.
"Come along, up we go. The fire's out. No need to light the candle to see the empty plates. Well, are you coming, Louis? tell you that we must go to bed. We can cuddle up together there, that's a comfort. And let this damned drunkard die here of cold by himself!"
When she found herself outside again, Maheude struck resolutely across the gardens towards Pierron's house. She heard laughter. As she knocked there was sudden silence. It was a full minute before the door was opened.
"What! is it you?" exclaimed Pierronne with affected surprise. "I thought it was the doctor."
Without allowing her to speak, she went on, pointing to Pierron, who was seated before a large coal fire:
"Ah! he makes no progress, he makes no progress at all. His face looks all right; it's in his belly that it takes him. Then he must have warmth. We burn all that we've got."
Pierron, in fact, looked very well; his complexion was good and his flesh fat. It was in vain that he breathed hard in order to play the sick man. Besides, as Maheude came in she perceived a strong smell of rabbit; they had certainly put the dish out of the way. There were crumbs strewed over the table, and in the very midst she saw a forgotten bottle of wine.
"Mother has gone to Montsou to try and get a loaf," said Pierronne again. "We are cooling our heels waiting for her."
But her voice choked; she had followed her neighbour's glance, and her eyes also fell on the bottle. Immediately she began again, and narrated the story. Yes, it was wine; the Piolaine people had brought her that bottle for her man, who had been ordered by the doctor to take claret. And her thankfulness poured forth in a stream. What good people they were! The young lady especially; she was not proud, going into work-people's houses and distributing her charities herself.
"I see," said Maheude; "I know them."
Her heart ached at the idea that the good things always go to the least poor. It was always so, and these Piolaine people had carried water to the river. Why had she not seen them in the settlement? Perhaps, all the same, she might have got something out of them.
"I came," she confessed at last, "to know if there was more going with you than with us. Have you just a little vermicelli by way of loan?"
Pierronne expressed her grief noisily.
"Nothing at all, my dear. Not what you can call a grain of semolina. If mother hasn't come back, it's because she hasn't succeeded. We must go to bed supperless."
At this moment crying was heard from the cellar, and she grew angry and struck her fist against the door. It was that gadabout Lydie, whom she had shut up, she said, to punish her for not having returned until five o'clock, after having been roaming about the whole day. One could no longer keep her in order; she was constantly disappearing.
Maheude, however, remained standing; she could not make up her mind to leave. This large fire filled her with a painful sensation of comfort; the thought that they were eating there enlarged the void in her stomach. Evidently they had sent away the old woman and shut up the child, to blow themselves out with their rabbit. Ah! whatever people might say, when a woman behaved ill, that brought luck to her house.
"Good night," she said, suddenly.
Outside night had come on, and the moon behind the clouds was lighting up the earth with a dubious glow. Instead of traversing the gardens again, Maheude went round, despairing, afraid to go home again. But along the dead frontages all the doors smelled of famine and sounded hollow. What was the good of knocking? There was wretchedness everywhere. For weeks since they had had nothing to eat. Even the odour of onion had gone, that strong odour which revealed the settlement from afar across the country; now there was nothing but the smell of old vaults, the dampness of holes in which nothing lives. Vague sounds were dying out, stifled tears, lost oaths; and in the silence which slowly grew heavier one could hear the sleep of hunger coming on, the collapse of bodies thrown across beds in the nightmares of empty bellies.
As she passed before the church she saw a shadow slip rapidly by. A gleam of hope made her hasten, for she had recognized the Montsou priest, Abbé Joire, who said mass on Sundays at the settlement chapel. No doubt he had just come out of the sacristy, where he had been called to settle some affair. With rounded back he moved quickly on, a fat meek man, anxious to live at peace with everybody. If he had come at night it must have been in order not to compromise himself among the miners. It was said, too, that he had just obtained promotion. He had even been seen walking about with his successor, a lean man, with eyes like live coals.
"Sir, sir!" stammered Maheude.
But he would not stop.
"Good night, good night, my good woman."
She found herself before her own door. Her legs would no longer carry her, and she went in.
No one had stirred. Maheu still sat dejected on the edge of the table. Old Bonnemort and the little ones were huddled together on the bench for the sake of warmth. And they had not said a word, and the candle had burnt so low that even light would soon fail them. At the sound of the door the children turned their heads; but seeing that their mother brought nothing back, they looked down on the ground again, repressing the longing to cry, for fear of being scolded. Maheude fell back into her place near the dying fire. They asked her no questions, and the silence continued. All had understood, and they thought it useless to weary themselves more by talking; they were now waiting, despairing and without courage, in the last expectation that perhaps Étienne would unearth help somewhere. The minutes went by, and at last they no longer reckoned on this.
When Étienne reappeared, he held a cloth containing a dozen potatoes, cooked but cold.
"That's all that I've found," he said.
With Mouquette also bread was wanting; it was her dinner which she had forced him to take in this cloth, kissing him with all her heart.
"Thanks," he said to Maheude, who offered him his share; "I've eaten over there."
It was not true, and he gloomily watched the children throw themselves on the food. The father and mother also restrained themselves, in order to leave more; but the old man greedily swallowed everything. They had to take a potato away from him for Alzire.
Then Étienne said that he had heard news. The Company, irritated by the obstinacy of the strikers, talked of giving back their certificates to the compromised miners. Certainly, the Company was for war. And a more serious rumour circulated: they boasted of having persuaded a large number of men to go down again. On the next day the Victoire and Feutry-Cantel would be complete; even at Madeleine and Mirou there would be a third of the men. The Maheus were furious.
"By God!" shouted the father, "if there are traitors, we must settle their account."
And standing up, yielding to the fury of his suffering:
"Tomorrow evening, to the forest! Since they won't let us come to an understanding at the Bon-Joyeux. we can be at home in the forest!"
This cry had aroused old Bonnemort, who had grown drowsy after his gluttony. It was the old rallying-cry, the rendezvous where the miners of old days used to plot their resistance to the king's soldiers.
"Yes, yes, to Vandame! I'm with you if you go there!"
Maheude made an energetic gesture.
"We will all go. That will finish these injustices and treacheries."
Étienne decided that the rendezvous should be announced to all the settlements for the following evening. But the fire was dead, as with the Levaques, and the candle suddenly went out. There was no more coal and no more oil; they had to feel their way to bed in the intense cold which contracted the skin. The little ones were crying.