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SNOW had been falling for two days; since the morning it had ceased, and an intense frost had frozen the immense sheet. This black country, with its inky roads and walls and trees powdered with coal dust, was now white, a single whiteness stretching out without end. The Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement lay beneath the snow as though it had disappeared. No smoke came out of the chimneys; the houses, without fire and as cold as the stones in the street, did not melt the thick layer on the tiles. It was nothing more than a quarry of white slabs in the white plain, a vision of a dead village wound in its shroud. Along the roads the passing patrols alone made a muddy mess with their stamping.
Among the Maheus the last shovelful of cinders had been burnt the evening before, and it was no use any longer to think of gleaning on the pit-bank in this terrible weather, when the sparrows themselves could not find a blade of grass. Alzire, from the obstinacy with which her poor hands had dug in the snow, was dying. Maheude had to wrap her up in the fragment of a coverlet while waiting for Dr. Vanderhaghen, for whom she had twice gone out without being able to find him. The servant had, however, promised that he would come to the settlement before night, and the mother was standing at the window watching, while the little invalid, who had wished to be downstairs, was shivering on a chair, having the illusion that it was better there near the cold grate. Old Bonnemort opposite, his legs bad once more, seemed to be sleeping; neither Lénore nor Henri had come back from scouring the roads, in company with Jeanlin, to ask for sous. Maheu alone was walking heavily up and down the bare room, stumbling against the wall at every turn, with the stupid air of an animal which can no longer see its cage. The petroleum also was finished; but the reflection of the snow from outside was so bright that it vaguely lit up the room, in spite of the deepening night.
There was a noise of sabots, and the Levaque woman pushed open the door like a gale of wind, beside herself, shouting furiously from the threshold at Maheude:
"Then it's you who have said that I forced my lodger to give me twenty sous when he sleeps with me?"
The other shrugged her shoulders.
"Don't bother me. I said nothing; and who told you so?"
"They tell me you said so; it doesn't concern you who it was. You even said you could hear us at our dirty tricks behind the wall, and that the filth gets into our house because I'm always on my back. Just tell me you didn't say so, eh?"
Every day quarrels broke out as a result of the constant gossiping of the women. Especially between those households which lived door to door, squabbles and reconciliations took place every day. But never before had such bitterness thrown them one against the other. Since the strike hunger exasperated their rancour, so that they felt the need of blows; an altercation between two gossiping women finished by a murderous onset between their two men.
Just then Levaque arrived in his turn, dragging Bouteloup.
"Here's our mate; let him just say if he has given twenty sous to my wife to sleep with her."
The lodger, hiding his timid gentleness in his great beard, protested and stammered:
"Oh, that? No! Never anything! never!"
At once Levaque became threatening, and thrust his fist beneath Maheu's nose.
"You know that won't do for me. If a man's got a wife like that, he ought to knock her ribs in. If not, then you believe what she says."
"By God!" exclaimed Maheu, furious at being dragged out of his dejection, "what is all this clatter again? Haven't we got enough to do with our misery? Just leave me alone, damn you! or I'll let you know it! And first, who says that my wife said so?"
"Who says so? Pierronne said so."
Maheude broke into a sharp laugh, and turning towards the Levaque woman:
"An! Pierronne, is it? Well! I can tell you what she told me. Yes, she told me that you sleep with both your men--the one underneath and the other on top!"
After that it was no longer possible to come to an understanding. They all grew angry, and the Levaques, as a reply to the Maheus, asserted that Pierronne had said a good many other things on their account; that they had sold Catherine, that they were all rotten together, even to the little ones, with a dirty disease caught by Étienne at the Volcan.
"She said that! She said that!" yelled Maheu. "Good! I'll go to her, I will, and if she says that she said that, she shall feel my hand on her chops!"
He was carried out of himself, and the Levaques followed him to see what would happen, while Bouteloup, having a horror of disputes, furtively returned home. Excited by the altercation, Maheude was also going out, when a complaint from Alzire held her back. She crossed the ends of the coverlet over the little one's quivering body, and placed herself before the window, looking out vaguely. And that doctor, who still delayed!
At the Pierrons' door Maheu and the Levaques met Lydie, who was stamping in the snow. The house was closed, and a thread of light came though a crack in a shutter. The child replied at first to their questions with constraint: no, her father was not there, he had gone to the wash-house to join Mother Brulé and bring back the bundle of linen. Then she was confused, and would not say what her mother was doing. At last she let out everything with a sly, spiteful laugh: her mother had pushed her out of the door because M. Dansaert was there, and she prevented them from talking. Since the morning he had been going about the settlement with two policemen, trying to pick up workmen, imposing on the weak, and announcing everywhere that if the descent did not take place on Monday at the Voreux, the Company had decided to hire men from the Borinage. And as the night came on he sent away the policemen, finding Pierronne alone; then he had remained with her to drink a glass of gin before a good fire.
"Hush! hold your tongue! We must see them," said Levaque, with a lewd laugh. "We'll explain everything directly. Get off with you, youngster."
Lydie drew back a few steps while he put his eye to a crack in the shutter. He stifled a low cry and his back bent with a quiver. In her turn his wife looked through, but she said, as though taken by the colic, that it was disgusting. Maheu, who had pushed her, wishing also to see, then declared that he had had enough for his money. And they began again, in a row, each taking his glance as at a peep-show. The parlour, glittering with cleanliness, was inlivened by a large fire; there were cakes on the table with a bottle and glasses, in fact quite a feast. What they saw going on in there at last exasperated the two men, who under other circumstances would have laughed over it for six months. That she should let herself be stuffed up to the neck, with her skirts in the air, was funny. But, good God! was it not disgusting to do that in front of a great fire, and to get up one's strength with biscuits, when the mates had neither a slice of bread nor a fragment of coal?
"Here's father!" cried Lydie, running away.
Pierron was quietly coming back from the wash-house with the bundle of linen on his shoulder. Maheu immediately addressed him:
"Here! they tell me that your wife says that I sold Catherine, and that we are all rotten at home. And what do they pay you in your house, your wife and the gentleman who is this minute wearing out her skin?"
The astonished Pierron could not understand, and Pierronne, seized with fear on hearing the tumult of voices, lost her head and set the door ajar to see what was the matter. They could see her, looking very red, with her dress open and her skirt tucked up at her waist; while Dansaert, in the background, was wildly buttoning himself up. The head captain rushed away and disappeared trembling with fear that this story would reach the manager's ears. Then there would be an awful scandal, laughter, and hooting and abuse.
"You, who are always saying that other people are dirty!" shouted the Levaque woman to Pierronne; "it's not surprising that you're clean when you get the bosses to scour you."
"Ah! it's fine for her to talk!" said Levaque again. "Here's a trollop who says that my wife sleeps with me and the lodger, one below and the other above! Yes! yes! that's what they tell me you say."
But Pierronne, grown calm, held her own against this abuse, very contemptuous in the assurance that she was the best looking and the richest.
"I've said what I've said; just leave me alone, will you! What have my affairs got to do with you, a pack of jealous creatures who want to get over us because we are able to save up money! Get along! get along! You can say what you like; my husband knows well enough why Monsieur Dansaert was here."
Pierron, in fact, was furiously defending his wife. The quarrel turned. They accused him of having sold himself, of being a spy, the Company's dog; they charged him with shutting himself up, to gorge himself with the good things with which the bosses paid him for his treachery. In defence, he pretended that Maheu had slipped beneath his door a threatening paper with two cross-bones and a dagger above. And this necessarily ended in a struggle between the men, as the quarrels of the women always did now that famine was enraging the mildest. Maheu and Levaque rushed on Pierron with their fists, and had to be pulled off.
Blood was flowing from her son-in-law's nose, when Mother Brulé, in her turn, arrived from the wash-house. When informed of what had been going on, she merely said:
"The damned beast dishonours me!"
The road was becoming deserted, not a shadow spotted the naked whiteness of the snow, and the settlement, falling back into its death-like immobility, went on starving beneath the intense cold.
"And the doctor?" asked Maheu, as he shut the door. "Not come," replied Maheude, still standing before the window.
"Are the little ones back?"
"No, not back."
Maheu again began his heavy walk from one wall to the other, looking like a stricken ox. Father Bonnemort, seated stiffly on his chair, had not even lifted his head. Alzire also had said nothing, and was trying not to shiver, so as to avoid giving them pain; but in spite of her courage in suffering, she sometimes trembled so much that one could hear against the coverlet the quivering of the little invalid girl's lean body, while with her large open eyes she stared at the ceiling, from which the pale reflection of the white gardens lit up the room like moonshine.
The emptied house was now in its last agony, having reached a final stage of nakedness. The mattress ticks had followed the wool to the dealers; then the sheets had gone, the linen, everything that could be sold. One evening they had sold a handkerchief of the grandfather's for two sous. Tears fell over each object of the poor household which had to go, and the mother was still lamenting that one day she had carried away in her skirt the pink cardboard box, her man's old present, as one would carry away a child to get rid of it on some doorstep. They were bare; they had only their skins left to sell, so worn-out and injured that no one would have given a farthing for them. They no longer even took the trouble to search, they knew that there was nothing left, that they had come to the end of everything, that they must not hope even for a candle, or a fragment of coal, or a potato, and they were waiting to die, only grieved about the children, and revolted by the useless cruelty that gave the little one a disease before starving it.
"At last! here he is!" said Maheude.
A black figure passed before the window. The door opened. But it was not Dr. Vanderhaghen; they recognized the new curé, Abbé Ranvier, who did not seem surprised at coming on this dead house, without light, without fire, without bread. He had already been to three neighbouring houses, going from family to family, seeking willing listeners, like Dansaert with his two policemen; and at once he exclaimed, in his feverish fanatic's voice:
"Why were you not at mass on Sunday, my children? You are wrong, the Church alone can save you. Now promise me to come next Sunday."
Maheu, after staring at him, went on pacing heavily, without a word. It was Maheude who replied:
"To mass, sir? What for? Isn't the good God making fun of us? Look here! what has my little girl there done to Him, to be shaking with fever? Hadn't we enough misery, that He had to make her ill too, just when I can't even give her a cup of warm gruel."
Then the priest stood and talked at length. He spoke of the strike, this terrible wretchedness, this exasperated rancour of famine, with the ardour of a missionary who is preaching to savages for the glory of religion. He said that the Church was with the poor, that she would one day cause justice to triumph by calling down the anger of God on the iniquities of the rich. And that day would come soon, for the rich had taken the place of God, and were governing without God, in their impious theft of power. But if the workers desired the fair division of the goods of the earth, they ought at once to put themselves in the hands of the priests, just as on the death of Jesus the poor and the humble grouped themselves around the apostles. What strength the pope would have, what an army the clergy would have under them, when they were able to command the numberless crowd of workers! In one week they would purge the world of the wicked, they would chase away the unworthy masters. Then, indeed, there would be a real kingdom of God, every one recompensed according to his merits, and the law of labour as the foundation for universal happiness.
Maheude, who was listening to him, seemed to hear Étienne, in those autumn evenings when he announced to them the end of their evils. Only she had always distrusted the cloth.
"That's very well, what you say there, sir," she replied, "but that's because you no longer agree with the bourgeois. All our other curés dined at the manager's, and threatened us with the devil as soon as we asked for bread."
He began again, and spoke of the deplorable misunderstanding between the Church and the people. Now, in veiled phrases, he hit at the town curés, at the bishops, at the highly placed clergy, sated with enjoyment, gorged with domination, making pacts with the liberal middle class, in the imbecility of their blindness, not seeing that it was this middle class which had dispossessed them of the empire of the world. Deliverance would come from the country priests, who would all rise to re-establish the kingdom of Christ, with the help of the poor; and already he seemed to be at their head; he raised his bony form like the chief of a band, a revolutionary of the gospel, his eyes so filled with light that they illuminated the gloomy room. This enthusiastic sermon lifted him to mystic heights, and the poor people had long ceased to understand him.
"No need for so many words," growled Maheu suddenly. "You'd best begin by bringing us a loaf."
"Come on Sunday to mass," cried the priest. "God will provide for everything."
And he went off to catechize the Levaques in their turn, so carried away by his dream of the final triumph of the Church, and so contemptuous of facts, that he would thus go through the settlements without charities, with empty hands amid this army dying of hunger, being a poor devil himself who looked upon suffering as the spur to salvation.
Maheu continued his pacing, and nothing was heard but his regular tramp which made the floor tremble. There was the sound of a rust-eaten pulley; old Bonnemort was spitting into the cold grate. Then the rhythm of the feet began again. Alzire, weakened by fever, was rambling in a low voice, laughing, thinking that it was warm and that she was playing in the sun.
"Good gracious!" muttered Maheude, after having touched her cheeks, "how she burns! I don't expect that damned beast now, the brigands must have stopped him from coming."
She meant the doctor and the Company. She uttered a joyous exclamation, however, when the door once more opened. But her arms fell back and she remained standing still with gloomy face.
"Good evening," whispered Étienne, when he had carefully closed the door.
He often came thus at night-time. The Maheus learnt his retreat after the second day. But they kept the secret and no one in the settlement knew exactly what had become of the young man. A legend had grown up around him. People still believed in him and mysterious rumours circulated: he would reappear with an army and chests full of gold; and there was always the religious expectation of a miracle, the realized ideal, a sudden entry into that city of justice which he had promised them. Some said they had seen him lying back in a carriage, with three other gentlemen, on the Marchiennes road; others affirmed that he was in England for a few days. At length, however, suspicions began to arise and jokers accused him of hiding in a cellar, where Mouquette kept him warm; for this relationship, when known, had done him harm. There was a growing disaffection in the midst of his popularity, a gradual increase of the despairing among the faithful, and their number was certain, little by little, to grow.
"What brutal weather!" he added. "And you--nothing new, always from bad to worse? They tell me that little Négrel has been to Belgium to get Borains. Good God! we are done for if that is true!"
He shuddered as he entered this dark icy room, where it was some time before his eyes were able to see the unfortunate people whose presence he guessed by the deepening of the shade. He was experiencing the repugnance and discomfort of the workman who has risen above his class, refined by study and stimulated by ambition. What wretchedness! and odours! and the bodies in a heap! And a terrible pity caught him by the throat. The spectacle of this agony so overcame him that he tried to find words to advise submission.
But Maheu came violently up to him, shouting:
"Borains! They won't dare, the bloody fools! Let the Borains go down, then, if they want us to destroy the pits!"
With an air of constraint, Étienne explained that it was not possible to move, that the soldiers who guarded the pits would protect the descent of the Belgian workmen. And Maheu clenched his fists, irritated especially, as he said, by having bayonets in his back. Then the colliers were no longer masters in their own place? They were treated, then, like convicts, forced to work by a loaded musket! He loved his pit, it was a great grief to him not to have been down for two months. He was driven wild, therefore, at the idea of this insult, these strangers whom they threatened to introduce. Then the recollection that his certificate had been given back to him struck him to the heart.
"I don't know why I'm angry," he muttered. "I don't belong to their shop any longer. When they have hunted me away from here, I may as well die on the road."
"As to that," said Étienne, "if you like, they'll take your certificate back to-morrow. People don't send away good workmen."
He interrupted himself, surprised to hear Alzire, who was laughing softly in the delirium of her fever. So far he had only made out Father Bonnemort's stiff shadow, and this gaiety of the sick child frightened him. It was indeed too much if the little ones were going to die of it. With trembling voice he made up his mind.
"Look here! this can't go on, we are done for. We must give it up."
Maheude, who had been motionless and silent up to now, suddenly broke out, and treating him familiarly and swearing like a man, she shouted in his face:
"What's that you say? It's you who say that, by God!" He was about to give reasons, but she would not let him speak.
"Don't repeat that, by God! or, woman as I am, I'll put my fist into your face. Then we have been dying for two months, and I have sold my household, and my little ones have fallen ill of it, and there is to be nothing done, and the injustice is to begin again! Ah! do you know! when I think of that my blood stands still. No, no, I would burn everything, I would kill everything, rather than give up."
She pointed at Maheu in the darkness, with a vague, threatening gesture.
"Listen to this! If any man goes back to the pit, he'll find me waiting for him on the road to spit in his face and cry coward!
Étienne could not see her, but he felt a heat like the breath of a barking animal. He had drawn back, astonished at this fury which was his work. She was so changed that he could no longer recognize the woman who was once so sensible, reproving his violent schemes, saying that we ought not to wish any one dead, and who was now refusing to listen to reason and talking of killing people. It was not he now, it was she, who talked politics, who dreamed of sweeping away the bourgeois at a stroke, who demanded the republic and the guillotine to free the earth of these rich robbers who fattened on the labour of starvelings.
"Yes, I could flay them with my fingers. We've had enough of them! Our turn is come now; you used to say so yourself. When I think of the father, the grandfather, the grandfather's father, what all of them who went before have suffered, what we are suffering, and that our sons and our sons' sons will suffer it over again, it makes me mad--I could take a knife. The other day we didn't do enough at Montsou; we ought to have pulled the bloody place to the ground, down to the last brick. And do you know I've only one regret, that we didn't let the old man strangle the Piolaine girl. Hunger may strangle my little ones for all they care!"
Her words fell like the blows of an axe in the night. The closed horizon would not open, and the impossible ideal was turning to poison in the depths of this skull which had been crushed by grief.
"You have misunderstood," Étienne was able to say at last, beating a retreat. "We ought to come to an understanding with the Company. I know that the pits are suffering much, so that it would probably consent to an arrangement."
"No, never!" she shouted.
Just then Lénore and Henri came back with their hands empty. A gentleman had certainly given them two sous, but the girl kept kicking her little brother, and the two sous fell into the snow, and as Jeanlin had joined in the search they had not been able to find them.
"Where is Jeanlin?"
"He's gone away, mother; he said he had business."
Étienne was listening with an aching heart. Once she had threatened to kill them if they ever held out their hands to beg. Now she sent them herself on to the roads, and proposed that all of them--the ten thousand colliers of Montsou--should take stick and wallet, like beggars of old, and scour the terrified country.
The anguish continued to increase in the black room. The little urchins came back hungry, they wanted to eat; why could they not have something to eat? And they grumbled, flung themselves about, and at last trod on the feet of their dying sister, who groaned. The mother furiously boxed their ears in the darkness at random. Then, as they cried still louder, asking for bread, she burst into tears, and dropped on to the floor, seizing them in one embrace with the little invalid; then, for a long time, her tears fell in a nervous outbreak which left her limp and worn out, stammering over and over again the same phrase, calling for death:
"O God! why do You not take us? O God! in pity take us, to have done with it!"
The grandfather preserved his immobility, like an old tree twisted by the rain and wind; while the father continued walking between the fireplace and the cupboard, without turning his head.
But the door opened, and this time it was Doctor Vanderhaghen.
"The devil!" he said. "This light won't spoil your eyes. Look sharp! I'm in a hurry."
As usual, he scolded, knocked up by work. Fortunately, he had matches with him, and the father had to strike six, one by one, and to hold them while he examined the invalid. Unwound from her coverlet, she shivered beneath this flickering light, as lean as a bird dying in the snow, so small that one only saw her hump. But she smiled with the wandering smile of the dying, and her eyes were very large; while her poor hands contracted over her hollow breast. And as the half-choked mother asked if it was right to take away from her the only child who helped in the household, so intelligent and gentle, the doctor grew vexed.
"Ah! she is going. Dead of hunger, your blessed child. And not the only one, either; I've just seen another one over there. You all send for me, but I can't do anything; it's meat that you want to cure you."
Maheu, with burnt fingers, had dropped the match, and the darkness closed over the little corpse, which was still warm. The doctor had gone away in a hurry. Étienne heard nothing more in the black room but Maheude's sobs, repeating her cry for death, that melancholy and endless lamentation:
"O God! it is my turn, take me! O God! take my man, take the others, out of pity, to have done with it!"