Germinal, by Émile Zola

Chapter 6

AS he ascended in the cage heaped up with four others, Étienne resolved to continue his famished course along the roads. One might as well die at once as go down to the bottom of that hell, where it was not even possible to earn one’s bread. Catherine, in the tram above him, was no longer at his side with her pleasant enervating warmth; and he preferred to avoid foolish thoughts and to go away, for with his wider education he felt nothing of the resignation of this flock; he would end by strangling one of the masters.

Suddenly he was blinded. The ascent had been so rapid that he was stunned by the daylight, and his eyelids quivered in the brightness to which he had already grown unaccustomed. It was none the less a relief to him to feel the cage settle on to the bars. A lander opened the door, and a flood of workmen leapt out of the trams.

“I say, Mouquet,” whispered Zacharie in the lander’s ear, “are we off to the Volcan to-night?”

The Volcan was a café-concert at Montsou. Mouquet winked his left eye with a silent laugh which made his jaws gape. Short and stout like his father, he had the impudent face of a fellow who devours everything without care for the morrow. Just then Mouquette came out in her turn, and he gave her a formidable smack on the flank by way of fraternal tenderness.

Étienne hardly recognized the lofty nave of the receiving-hall, which had before looked imposing in the ambiguous light of the lanterns. It was simply bare and dirty; a dull light entered through the dusty windows. The engine alone shone at the end with its copper; the well-greased steel cables moved like ribbons soaked in ink, and the pulleys above, the enormous scaffold which supported them, the cages, the trams, all this prodigality of metal made the hall look sombre with their hard grey tones of old iron. Without ceasing, the rumbling of the wheels shook the metal floor; while from the coal thus put in motion there arose a fine charcoal powder which powdered black the soil, the walls, even the joists of the steeple.

But Chaval, after glancing at the table of counters in the receiver’s little glass office, came back furious. He had discovered that two of their trains had been rejected, one because it did not contain the regulation amount, the other because the coal was not clean.

“This finishes the day,” he cried. “Twenty sous less again! This is because we take on lazy rascals who use their arms as a pig does his tail!”

And his sidelong look at Étienne completed his thought.

The latter was tempted to reply by a blow. Then he asked himself what would be the use since he was going away. This decided him absolutely.

“It’s not possible to do it right the first day,” said Maheu, to restore peace; “he’ll do better to-morrow.”

They were all none the less soured, and disturbed by the need to quarrel. As they passed to the lamp cabin to give up their lamps, Levaque began to abuse the lamp-man, whom he accused of not properly cleaning his lamp. They only slackened down a little in the shed where the fire was still burning. It had even been too heavily piled up, for the stove was red and the vast room, without a window, seemed to be in flames, to such a degree did the reflection make bloody the walls. And there were grunts of joy, all the backs were roasted at a distance till they smoked like soup. When their flanks were burning they cooked their bellies. Mouquette had tranquilly let down her breeches to dry her chemise. Some lads were making fun of her; they burst out laughing because she suddenly showed them her posterior, a gesture which in her was the extreme expression of contempt.

“I’m off,” said Chaval, who had shut up his tools in his box.

No one moved. Only Mouquette hastened, and went out behind him on the pretext that they were both going back to Montsou. But the others went on joking; they knew that he would have no more to do with her.

Catherine, however, who seemed preoccupied, was speaking in a low voice to her father. The latter was surprised; then he agreed with a nod; and calling Étienne to give him back his bundle:

“Listen,” he said: “you haven’t a sou; you will have time to starve before the fortnight’s out. Shall I try and get you credit somewhere?”

The young man stood for a moment confused. He had been just about to claim his thirty sous and go. But shame restrained him before the young girl. She looked at him fixedly; perhaps she would think he was shirking the work.

“You know I can promise you nothing,” Maheu went on. “They can but refuse us.”

Then Étienne consented. They would refuse. Besides, it would bind him to nothing, he could still go away after having eaten something. Then he was dissatisfied at not having refused, seeing Catherine’s joy, a pretty laugh, a look of friendship, happy at having been useful to him. What was the good of it all?

When they had put on their sabots and shut their boxes, the Maheus left the shed, following their comrades, who were leaving one by one after they had warmed themselves. Étienne went behind. Levaque and his urchin joined the band. But as they crossed the screening place a scene of violence stopped them.

It was in a vast shed, with beams blackened by the powder, and large shutters, through which blew a constant current of air. The coal trains arrived straight from the receiving-room, and were then overturned by the tipping-cradles on to hoppers, long iron slides; and to right and to left of these the screeners, mounted on steps and armed with shovels and rakes, separated the stone and swept together the clean coal, which afterwards fell through funnels into the railway wagons beneath the shed.

Philoméne Levaque was there, thin and pale, with the sheep-like face of a girl who spat blood. With head protected by a fragment of blue wool, and hands and arms black to the elbows, she was screening beneath an old witch, the mother of Pierronne, the Brulé, as she was called, with terrible owl’s eyes, and a mouth drawn in like a miser’s purse. They were abusing each other, the young one accusing the elder of raking her stones so that she could not get a basketful in ten minutes. They were paid by the basket, and these quarrels were constantly arising. Hair was flying, and hands were making black marks on red faces.

“Give it her bloody well!” cried Zacharie, from above, to his mistress.

All the screeners laughed. But the Brulé turned snappishly on the young man.

“Now, then, dirty beast! You’d better to own the two kids you have filled her with. Fancy that, a slip of eighteen, who can’t stand straight!”

Maheu had to prevent his son from descending to see, as he said, the colour of this carcass’s skin.

A foreman came up and the rakes again began to move the coal. One could only see, all along the hoppers, the round backs of women squabbling incessantly over the stones.

Outside, the wind had suddenly quieted; a moist cold was falling from a grey sky. The colliers thrust out their shoulders, folded their arms, and set forth irregularly, with a rolling gait which made their large bones stand out beneath their thin garments. In the daylight they looked like a band of Negroes thrown into the mud. Some of them had not finished their briquets; and the remains of the bread carried between the shirt and the jacket made them humpbacked.

“Hallo! there’s Bouteloup.” said Zacharie, grinning.

Levaque without stopping exchanged two sentences with his lodger, a big dark fellow of thirty-five with a placid, honest air:

“Is the soup ready, Louis?”

“I believe it is.”

“Then the wife is good-humoured to-day.”

“Yes, I believe she is.”

Other miners bound for the earth-cutting came up, new bands which one by one were engulfed in the pit. It was the three o’clock descent, more men for the pit to devour, the gangs who would replace the sets of the pike. men at the bottom of the passages. The mine never rested; day and night human insects were digging out the rock six hundred metres below the beetroot fields.

However, the youngsters went ahead. Jeanlin confided to Bébert a complicated plan for getting four sous’ worth of tobacco on credit, while Lydie followed respectfully at a distance. Catherine came with Zacharie and Étienne. None of them spoke. And it was only in front of the Avantage Inn that Maheu and Levaque rejoined them.

“Here we are,” said the former to Étienne; “will you come in?”

They separated. Catherine had stood a moment motionless, gazing once more at the young man with her large eyes full of greenish limpidity like spring water, the crystal deepened the more by her black face. She smiled and disappeared with the others on the road that led up to the settlement.

The inn was situated between the village and the mine, at the crossing of two roads. It was a two-storied brick house, whitewashed from top to bottom, enlivened around the windows by a broad pale-blue border. On a square sign-board nailed above the door, one read in yellow letters: A l’Avantage, licensed to Rasseneur. Behind stretched a skittle-ground enclosed by a hedge. The Company, who had done everything to buy up the property placed within its vast territory, was in despair over this inn in the open fields, at the very entrance of the Voreux.

“Go in,” said Maheu to Étienne.

The little parlour was quite bare with its white walls, its three tables and its dozen chairs, its deal counter about the size of a kitchen dresser. There were a dozen glasses at most, three bottles of liqueur, a decanter, a small zinc tank with a pewter tap to hold the beer; and nothing else — not a figure, not a little table, not a game. In the metal fireplace, which was bright and polished, a coal fire was burning quietly. On the flags a thin layer of white sand drank up the constant moisture of this water-soaked land.

“A glass,” ordered Maheu of a big fair girl, a neighbour’s daughter who sometimes took charge of the place. “Is Rasseneur in?”

The girl turned the tap, replying that the master would soon return. In a long, slow gulp, the miner emptied half his glass to sweep away the dust which filled his throat. He offered nothing to his companion. One other customer, a damp and besmeared miner, was seated before the table, drinking his beer in silence, with an air of deep meditation. A third entered, was served in response to a gesture, paid and went away without uttering a word.

But a stout man of thirty-eight, with a round shaven face and a good-natured smile, now appeared. It was Rasseneur, a former pikeman whom the Company had dismissed three years ago, after a strike. A very good workman, he could speak well, put himself at the head of every opposition, and had at last become the chief of the discontented. His wife already held a licence, like many miners’ wives; and when he was thrown on to the street he became an innkeeper himself; having found the money, he placed his inn in front of the Voreux as a provocation to the Company. Now his house had prospered; it had become a centre, and he was enriched by the animosity he had gradually fostered in the hearts of his old comrades.

“This is a lad I hired this morning,” said Maheu at once. “Have you got one of your two rooms free, and will you give him credit for a fortnight?”

Rasseneur’s broad face suddenly expressed great suspicion. He examined Étienne with a glance, and replied, without giving himself the trouble to express any regret:

“My two rooms are taken. Can’t do it.”

The young man expected this refusal; but it hurt him nevertheless, and he was surprised at the sudden grief he experienced in going. No matter; he would go when he had received his thirty sous. The miner who was drinking at a table had left. Others, one by one, continued to come in to clear their throats, then went on their road with the same slouching gait. It was a simple swilling without joy or passion, the silent satisfaction of a need.

“Then, there’s no news?” Rasseneur asked in a peculiar tone of Maheu, who was finishing his beer in small gulps.

The latter turned his head, and saw that only Étienne was near.

“There’s been more squabbling. Yes, about the timbering.” He told the story. The innkeeper’s face reddened, swelling with emotion, which flamed in his skin and eyes. At last he broke out:

“Well, well! if they decide to lower the price they are done for.”

Étienne constrained him. However he went on, throwing sidelong glances in his direction. And there were reticences, and implications; he was talking of the manager, M. Hennebeau, of his wife, of his nephew, the little Négrel, without naming them, repeating that this could not go on, that things were bound to smash up one of these fine days. The misery was too great; and he spoke of the workshops that were closing, the workers who were going away. During the last month he had given more than six pounds of bread a day. He had heard the day before, that M. Deneulin, the owner of a neighbouring pit, could scarcely keep going. He had also received a letter from Lille full of disturbing details.

“You know,” he whispered, “it comes from that person you saw here one evening.”

But he was interrupted. His wife entered in her turn, a tall woman, lean and keen, with a long nose and violet cheeks. She was a much more radical politician than her husband.

“Pluchart’s letter,” she said. “Ah! if that fellow was master things would soon go better.”

Étienne had been listening for a moment; he understood and became excited over these ideas of misery and revenge. This name, suddenly uttered, caused him to start. He said aloud, as if in spite of himself:

“I know him — Pluchart.”

They looked at him. He had to add:

“Yes, I am an engine-man: he was my foreman at Lille. A capable man. I have often talked with him.”

Rasseneur examined him afresh; and there was a rapid change on his face, a sudden sympathy. At last he said to his wife:

“It’s Maheu who brings me this gentleman, one of his putters, to see if there is a room for him upstairs, and if we can give him credit for a fortnight.”

Then the matter was settled in four words. There was a room; the lodger had left that morning. And the innkeeper, who was very excited, talked more freely, repeating that he only asked possibilities from the masters, without demanding, like so many others, things that were too hard to get. His wife shrugged her shoulders and demanded justice, absolutely.

“Good evening,” interrupted Maheu. “All that won’t prevent men from going down, and as long as they go there will be people working themselves to death. Look how fresh you are, these three years that you’ve been out of it.”

“Yes, I’m very much better,” declared Rasseneur, complacently.

Étienne went as far as the door, thanking the miner, who was leaving; but the latter nodded his head without adding a word, and the young man watched him painfully climb up the road to the settlement. Madame Rasseneur, occupied with serving customers, asked him to wait a minute, when she would show him his room, where he could clean himself. Should he remain? He again felt hesitation, a discomfort which made him regret the freedom of the open road, the hunger beneath the sun, endured with the joy of being one’s own master. It seemed to him that he had lived years from his arrival on the pit-bank, in the midst of squalls, to those hours passed under the earth on his belly in the black passages. And he shrank from beginning again; it was unjust and too hard. His man’s pride revolted at the idea of becoming a crushed and blinded beast.

While Étienne was thus debating with himself, his eyes, wandering over the immense plain, gradually began to see it clearly. He was surprised; he had not imagined the horizon was like this, when old Bonnemort had pointed it out to him in the darkness. Before him he plainly saw the Voreux in a fold of the earth, with its wood and brick buildings, the tarred screening shed, the slate-covered steeple, the engine-room and the tall, pale red chimney, all massed together with that evil air. But around these buildings the space extended, and he had not imagined it so large, changed into an inky sea by the ascending waves of coal soot, bristling with high trestles which carried the rails of the foot-bridges, encumbered in one corner with the timber supply, which looked like the harvest of a mown forest. Towards the right the pit-bank hid the view, colossal as a barricade of giants, already covered with grass in its older part, consumed at the other end by an interior fire which had been burning for a year with a thick smoke, leaving at the surface in the midst of the pale grey of the slates and sandstones long trails of bleeding rust. Then the fields unrolled, the endless fields of wheat and beetroot, naked at this season of the year, marshes with scanty vegetation, cut by a few stunted willows, distant meadows separated by slender rows of poplars. Very far away little pale patches indicated towns, Marchiennes to the north, Montsou to the south; while the forest of Vandame to the east boardered the horizon with the violet line of its leafless trees. And beneath the livid sky, in the faint daylight of this winter afternoon, it seemed as if all the blackness of the Voreux, and all its flying coal dust, had fallen upon the plain, powdering the trees, sanding the roads, sowing the earth.

Étienne looked, and what especially surprised him was a canal, the canalized stream of the Scarpe, which he had not seen in the night. From the Voreux to Marchiennes this canal ran straight, like a dull silver ribbon two leagues long, an avenue lined by large trees, raised above the low earth, threading into space with the perspective of its green banks, its pale water into which glided the vermilion of the boats. Near one pit there was a wharf with moored vessels which were laden directly from the trains at the foot-bridges. Afterwards the canal made a curve, sloping by the marshes; and the whole soul of that smooth plain appeared to lie in this geometrical stream, which traversed it like a great road, carting coal and iron.

Étienne’s glance went up from the canal to the settlement built on the height, of which he could only distinguish the red tiles. Then his eyes rested again at the bottom of the clay slope, towards the Voreux, on two enormous masses of bricks made and burnt on the spot. A branch of the Company’s railroad passed behind a paling, for the use of the pit. They must be sending down the last miners to the earth-cutting. Only one shrill note came from a truck pushed by men. One felt no longer the unknown darkness, the inexplicable thunder, the flaming of mysterious stars. Afar, the blast furnaces and the coke kilns had paled with the dawn. There only remained, unceasingly, the escapement of the pump, always breathing with the same thick, long breath, the ogre’s breath of which he could now see the grey steam, and which nothing could satiate.

Then Étienne suddenly made up his mind. Perhaps he seemed to see again Catherine’s clear eyes, up there, at the entrance to the settlement. Perhaps, rather, it was the wind of revolt which came from the Voreux. He did not know, but he wished to go down again to the mine, to suffer and to fight. And he thought fiercely of those people Bonnemort had talked of, the crouching and sated god, to whom ten thousand starving men gave their flesh without knowing it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06