Germinal, by Émile Zola

Chapter 3

A FORTNIGHT had passed, and on the Monday of the third week the lists sent up to the managers showed a fresh decrease in the number of the miners who had gone down. It was expected that on that morning work would be resumed, but the obstinacy of the directors in not yielding exasperated the miners. The Voreux, Crévecoeur, Mirou, and Madeleine were not the only pits resting; at the Victoire and at Feutry-Cantel only about a quarter of the men had gone down; even Saint-Thomas was affected. The strike was gradually becoming general.

At the Voreux a heavy silence hung over the pit-mouth. It was a dead workshop, these great empty abandoned Yards where work was sleeping. In the grey December sky, along the high footbridges three or four empty trains bore witness to the mute sadness of things. Underneath, between the slender posts of the platforms, the stock of coal was diminishing, leaving the earth bare and black; while the supplies of wood were mouldering beneath the rain. At the quay on the canal a barge was moored, half-laden, lying drowsily in the murky water; and on the deserted pit-bank, in which the decomposed sulphates smoked in spite of the rain, a melancholy cart showed its shafts erect. But the buildings especially were growing torpid, the screening-shed with closed shutters, the steeple in which the rumbling of the receiving-room no more arose, and the machine-room grown cold, and the giant chimney too large for the occasional smoke. The winding-engine was only heated in the morning. The grooms sent down fodder for the horses, and the captains worked alone at the bottom, having become labourers again, watching over the damages that took place in the passages as soon as they ceased to be repaired; then, after nine o’clock the rest of the service was carried on by the ladders. And above these dead buildings, buried in their garment of black dust, there was only heard the escapement of the pumping-engine, breathing with its thick, long breath all that was left of the life of the pit, which the water would destroy if that breathing should cease.

On the plain opposite, the settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante seemed also to be dead. The prefect of Lille had come in haste and the police had tramped all the roads; but in face of the calmness of the strikers, prefect and police had decided to go home again. Never had the settlement given so splendid an example in the vast plain. The men, to avoid going to the public-house, slept all day long; the women while dividing the coffee became reasonable, less anxious to gossip and quarrel; and even the troops of children seemed to understand it all, and were so good that they ran about with naked feet, smacking each other silently. The word of command had been repeated and circulated from mouth to mouth; they wished to be sensible.

There was, however, a continuous coming and going of people in the Maheus’ house. Étienne, as secretary, had divided the three thousand francs of the provident fund among the needy families; afterwards from various sides several hundred francs had arrived, yielded by subscriptions and collections. But now all their resources were exhausted; the miners had no more money to keep up the strike, and hunger was there, threatening them.

Maigrat, after having promised credit for a fortnight, had suddenly altered his mind at the end of a week and cut off provisions. He usually took his orders from the Company; perhaps the latter wished to bring the matter to an end by starving the settlements. He acted besides like a capricious tyrant, giving or refusing bread according to the look of the girl who was sent by her parents for provisions; and he especially closed his door spitefully to Maheude, wishing to punish her because he had not been able to get Catherine. To complete their misery it was freezing very hard, and the women watched their piles of coal diminish, thinking anxiously that they could no longer renew them at the pits now that the men were not going down. It was not enough to die of hunger, they must also die of cold.

Among the Maheus everything was already running short. The Levaques could still eat on the strength of a twenty-franc piece lent by Bouteloup. As to the Pierrons, they always had money; but in order to appear as needy as the others, for fear of loans, they got their supplies on credit from Maigrat, who would have thrown his shop at Pierronne if she had held out her petticoat to him. Since Saturday many families had gone to bed without supper, and in face of the terrible days that were beginning not a complaint was heard, all obeyed the word of command with quiet courage. There was an absolute confidence in spite of everything, a religious faith, the blind gift of a population of believers. Since an era of justice had been promised to them they were willing to suffer for the conquest of universal happiness. Hunger exalted their heads; never had the low horizon opened a larger beyond to these people in the hallucination of their misery. They saw again over there, when their eyes were dimmed by weakness, the ideal city of their dream, but now growing near and seeming to be real, with its population of brothers, its golden age of labour and meals in common. Nothing overcame their conviction that they were at last entering it. The fund was exhausted; the Company would not yield; every day must aggravate the situation; and they preserved their hope and showed a smiling contempt for facts. If the earth opened beneath them a miracle would save them. This faith replaced bread and warmed their stomachs. When the Maheus and the others had too quickly digested their soup, made with clear water, they thus rose into a state of semi-vertigo, that ecstasy of a better life which has flung martyrs to the wild beasts.

Étienne was henceforth the unquestioned leader. In the evening conversations he gave forth oracles, in the degree to which study had refined him and made him able to enter into difficult matters. He spent the nights reading, and received a large number of letters; he even subscribed to the Vengeur, a Belgian Socialist paper, and this journal, the first to enter the settlement, gained for him extraordinary consideration among his mates. His growing popularity excited him more every day. To carry on an extensive correspondence, to discuss the fate of the workers in the four corners of the province, to give advice to the Voreux miners, especially to become a centre and to feel the world rolling round him — continually swelled the vanity of the former engineman, the pike-man with greasy black hands. He was climbing a ladder, he was entering this execrated middle class, with a satisfaction to his intelligence and comfort which he did not confess to himself. He had only one trouble, the consciousness of his lack of education, which made him embarrassed and timid as soon as he was in the presence of a gentleman in a frock-coat. If he went on instructing himself, devouring everything, the lack of method would render assimilation very slow, and would produce such confusion that at last he would know much more than he could understand. So at certain hours of good sense he experienced a restlessness with regard to his mission — a fear that he was not the man for the task. Perhaps it required a lawyer, a learned man, able to speak and act without compromising the mates? But an outcry soon restored his assurance. No, no; no lawyers! They are all rascals; they profit by their knowledge to fatten on the people. Let things turn out how they will, the workers must manage their own affairs. And his dream of popular leadership again soothed him: Montsou at his feet, Paris in the misty distance, who knows? The elections some day, the tribune in a gorgeous hall, where he could thunder against the middle class in the first speech pronounced by a workman in a parliament.

During the last few days Étienne had been perplexed. Pluchart wrote letter after letter, offering to come to Montsou to quicken the zeal of the strikers. It was a question of organizing a private meeting over which the mechanic would preside; and beneath this plan lay the idea of exploiting the strike, to gain over to the International these miners who so far had shown themselves suspicious. Étienne feared a disturbance, but he would, however, have allowed Pluchart to come if Rasseneur had not violently blamed this proceeding. In spite of his power, the young man had to reckon with the innkeeper, whose services were of older date, and who had faithful followers among his clients. So he still hesitated, not knowing what to reply.

On this very Monday, towards four o’clock, a new letter came from Lille as Étienne was alone with Maheude in the lower room. Maheu, weary of idleness, had gone fishing; if he had the luck to catch a fine fish under the sluice of the canal, they could sell it to buy bread. Old Bonnemort and little Jeanlin had just gone off to try their legs, which were now restored; while the children had departed with Alzire, who spent hours on the pit-bank collecting cinders. Seated near the miserable fire, which they no longer dared to keep up, Maheude, with her dress unbuttoned and one breast hanging out of her dress and falling to her belly, was suckling Estelle.

When the young man had folded the letter, she questioned him:

“Is the news good? Are they going to send us any money?”

He shook his head, and she went on:

“I don’t know what we shall do this week. However, we’ll hold on all the same. When one has right on one’s side, don’t you think, it gives you heart, and one ends always by being the strongest?”

At the present time she was, to a reasonable extent, in favour of the strike. It would have been better to force the Company to be just without leaving off work. But since they had left it they ought not to go back to it without obtaining justice. On this point she was relentless. Better to die than to show oneself in the wrong when one was right!

“Ah!” exclaimed Étienne, “if a fine old cholera was to break out, that would free us of all these Company exploiters.”

“No, no,” she replied, “we must not wish any one dead. That wouldn’t help us at all; plenty more would spring up. Now I only ask that they should get sensible ideas, and I expect they will, for there are worthy people everywhere. You know I’m not at all for your politics.”

In fact she always blamed his violent language, and thought him aggressive. It was good that they should want their work paid for at what it was worth, but why occupy oneself with such things as the bourgeois and Government? Why mix oneself up with other people’s affairs, when one would get nothing out of it but hard knocks? And she kept her esteem for him because he did not get drunk, and regularly paid his forty-five francs for board and lodging. When a man behaves well one can forgive him the rest.

Étienne then talked about the Republic, which would give bread to everybody. But Maheude shook her head, for she remembered 1848, an awful year, which had left them as bare as worms, her and her man, in their early housekeeping years. She forgot herself in describing its horrors, in a mournful voice, her eyes lost in space, her breast open; while her infant, Estelle, without letting it go, had fallen asleep on her knees. And Étienne, also absorbed in thought, had his eyes fixed on this enormous breast, of which the soft whiteness contrasted with the muddy yellowish complexion of her face.

“Not a farthing,” she murmured, “nothing to put between one’s teeth, and all the pits stopped. Just the same destruction of poor people as to-day.”

But at that moment the door opened, and they remained mute with surprise before Catherine, who then came in. Since her flight with Chaval she had not reappeared at the settlement. Her emotion was so great that, trembling and silent, she forgot to shut the door. She expected to find her mother alone, and the sight of the young man put out of her head the phrases she had prepared on the way.

“What on earth have you come here for?” cried Maheude, without even moving from her chair. “I don’t want to have anything more to do with you; get along.”

Then Catherine tried to find words:

“Mother, it’s some coffee and sugar; yes, for the children. I’ve been thinking of them and done overtime.”

She drew out of her pockets a pound of coffee and a pound of sugar, and took courage to place them on the table. The strike at the Voreux troubled her while she was working at Jean-Bart, and she had only been able to think of this way of helping her parents a little, under the pretext of caring for the little ones. But her good nature did not disarm her mother, who replied:

“Instead of bringing us sweets, you would have done better to stay and earn bread for us.”

She overwhelmed her with abuse, relieving herself by throwing in her daughter’s face all that she had been saying against her for the past month. To go off with a man, to hang on to him at sixteen, when the family was in want! Only the most degraded of unnatural children could do it. One could forgive a folly, but a mother never forgot a trick like that. There might have been some excuse if they had been strict with her. Not at all; she was as free as air, and they only asked her to come in to sleep.

“Tell me, what have you got in your skin, at your age?”

Catherine, standing beside the table, listened with lowered head. A quiver shook her thin under-developed girlish body, and she tried to reply in broken words:

“Oh! if it was only me, and the amusement that I get! It’s him. What he wants I’m obliged to want too, aren’t I? because, you see, he’s the strongest. How can one tell how things are going to turn out? Anyhow it’s done and can’t be undone; it may as well be him as another now. He’ll have to marry me.”

She defended herself without a struggle, with the passive resignation of a girl who has submitted to the male at an early age. Was it not the common lot? She had never dreamed of anything else; violence behind the pit-bank, a child at sixteen, and then a wretched household if her lover married her. And she did not blush with shame; she only quivered like this at being treated like a slut before this lad, whose presence oppressed her to despair.

Étienne had risen, however, and was pretending to stir up the nearly extinct fire in order not to interrupt the explanation. But their looks met; he found her pale and exhausted; pretty, indeed, with her clear eyes in the face which had grown tanned, and he experienced a singular feeling; his spite had vanished; he simply desired that she should be happy with this man whom she had preferred to him. He felt the need to occupy himself with her still, a longing to go to Montsou and force the other man to his duty. But she only saw pity in his constant tenderness; he must feel contempt for her to gaze at her like that. Then her heart contracted so that she choked, without being able to stammer any more words of excuse.

“That’s it, you’d best hold your tongue,” began the implacable Maheude. “If you come back to stay, come in; else get along with you at once, and think yourself lucky that I’m not free just now, or I should have put my foot into you somewhere before now.”

As if this threat had suddenly been realized, Catherine received a vigorous kick right behind, so violent that she was stupefied with surprise and pain. It was Chaval who had leapt in through the open door to give her this lunge of a vicious beast. For a moment he had watched her from outside.

“Ah! slut,” he yelled, “I’ve followed you. I knew well enough you were coming back here to get him to fill you. And it’s you that pay him, eh? You pour coffee down him with my money!”

Maheude and Étienne were stupefied, and did not stir. With a furious movement Chaval chased Catherine towards the door.

“Out you go, by God!”

And as she took refuge in a corner he turned on her mother.

“A nice business, keeping watch while your whore of a daughter is kicking her legs upstairs!”

At last he caught Catherine’s wrist, shaking her and dragging her out. At the door he again turned towards Maheude, who was nailed to her chair. She had forgotten to fasten up her breast. Estelle had gone to sleep, and her face had slipped down into the woollen petticoat; the enormous breast was hanging free and naked like the udder of a great cow.

“When the daughter is not at it, it’s the mother who gets herself plugged,” cried Chaval. “Go on, show him your meat! He isn’t disgusted — your dirty lodger!”

At this Étienne was about to strike his mate. The fear of arousing the settlement by a fight had kept him back from snatching Catherine from Chaval’s hands. But rage was now carrying him away, and the two men were face to face with inflamed eyes. It was an old hatred, a jealousy long unacknowledged, which was breaking out. One of them now must do for the other.

“Take care!” stammered Étienne, with clenched teeth. “I’ll do for you.”

“Try!” replied Chaval.

They looked at one another for some seconds longer, so close that their hot breaths burnt each other’s faces. And it was Catherine who suppliantly took her lover’s hand again to lead him away. She dragged him out of the settlement, fleeing without turning her head.

“What a brute!” muttered Étienne, banging the door, and so shaken by anger that he was obliged to sit down.

Maheude, in front of him, had not stirred. She made a vague gesture, and there was silence, a silence which was painful and heavy with unspoken things. In spite of an effort his gaze again returned to her breast, that expanse of white flesh, the brilliance of which now made him uncomfortable. No doubt she was forty, and had lost her shape, like a good female who had produced too much; but many would still desire her, strong and solid, with the large long face of a woman who had once been beautiful. Slowly and quietly she was putting back her breast with both hands. A rosy corner was still obstinate, and she pushed it back with her finger, and then buttoned herself up, and was now quite black and shapeless in her old gown.

“He’s a filthy beast,” she said at last. “Only a filthy beast could have such nasty ideas. I don’t care a hang what he says; it isn’t worth notice.”

Then in a frank voice she added, fixing her eyes on the young man:

“I have my faults, sure enough, but not that one. Only two men have touched me — a putter, long ago, when I was fifteen, and then Maheu. If he had left me like the other, Lord! I don’t quite know what would have happened; and I don’t pride myself either on my good conduct with him since our marriage, because, when one hasn’t gone wrong, it’s often because one hasn’t the chance. Only I say things as they are, and I know neighbours who couldn’t say as much, don’t you think?”

“That’s true enough,” replied Étienne.

And he rose and went out, while she decided to light the fire again, after having placed the sleeping Éstelle on two chairs. If the father caught and sold a fish they could manage to have some soup.

Outside, night was already coming on, a frosty night; and with lowered head Étienne walked along, sunk in dark melancholy. It was no longer anger against the man, or pity for the poor ill-treated girl. The brutal scene was effaced and lost, and he was thrown back on to the sufferings of all, the abominations of wretchedness. He thought of the settlement without bread, these women and little ones who would not eat that evening, all this struggling race with empty bellies. And the doubt which sometimes touched him awoke again in the frightful melancholy of the twilight, and tortured him with a discomfort which he had never felt so strongly before. With what a terrible responsibility he had burdened himself! Must he still push them on in obstinate resistance, now that there was neither money nor credit? And what would be the end of it all if no help arrived, and starvation came to beat down their courage? He had a sudden vision of disaster; of dying children and sobbing mothers, while the men, lean and pale, went down once more into the pits. He went on walking, his feet stumbling against the stones, and the thought that the Company would be found strongest, and that he would have brought misfortune on his comrades, filled him with insupportable anguish.

When he raised his head he saw that he was in front of the Voreux. The gloomy mass of buildings looked sombre beneath the growing darkness. The deserted square, obstructed by great motionless shadows, seemed like the corner of an abandoned fortress. As soon as the winding-engine stopped, the soul left the place. At this hour of the night nothing was alive, not a lantern, not a voice; and the sound of the pump itself was only a distant moan, coming one could not say whence, in this annihilation of the whole pit.

As Étienne gazed the blood flowed back to his heart. If the workers were suffering hunger, the Company was encroaching on its millions. Why should it prove the stronger in this war of labour against gold? In any case, the victory would cost it dear. They would have their corpses to count. He felt the fury of battle again, the fierce desire to have done with misery, even at the price of death. It would be as well for the settlement to die at one stroke as to go on dying in detail of famine and injustice. His ill-digested reading came back to him, examples of nations who had burnt their towns to arrest the enemy, vague histories of mothers who had saved their children from slavery by crushing their heads against the pavement, of men who had died of want rather than eat the bread of tyrants. His head became exalted, a red gaiety arose out of his crisis of black sadness, chasing away doubt, and making him ashamed of this passing cowardice of an hour. And in this revival of his faith, gusts of pride reappeared and carried him still higher; the joy of being leader, of seeing himself obeyed, even to sacrifice, the enlarged dream of his power, the evening of triumph. Already he imagined a scene of simple grandeur, his refusal of power, authority placed in the hands of the people, when it would be master.

But he awoke and started at the voice of Maheu, who was narrating his luck, a superb trout which he had fished up and sold for three francs.

They would have their soup. Then he left his mate to return alone to the settlement, saying that he would follow him; and he entered and sat down in the Avantage, awaiting the departure of a client to tell Rasseneur decisively that he should write to Pluchart to come at once. His resolution was taken; he would organize a private meeting, for victory seemed to him certain if the Montsou colliers adhered in a mass to the International.

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