Germinal, by Émile Zola

Chapter 5

M. HENNEBEAU had placed himself in front of his study window to watch the departure of the carriage which was taking away his wife to lunch at Marchiennes. His eyes followed Négrel for a moment, as he trotted beside the carriage door. Then he quietly returned and seated himself at his desk. When neither his wife nor his nephew animated the place with their presence the house seemed empty. On this day the coachman was driving his wife; Rose, the new housemaid, had leave to go out till five o’clock; there only remained Hippolyte, the valet de chambre, trailing about the rooms in slippers, and the cook, who had been occupied since dawn in struggling with her saucepans, entirely absorbed in the dinner which was to be given in the evening. So M. Hennebeau promised himself a day of serious work in this deep calm of the deserted house.

Towards nine o’clock, although he had received orders to send every one away, Hippolyte took the liberty of announcing Dansaert, who was bringing news. The manager then heard, for the first time, of the meeting in the forest the evening before; the details were very precise, and he listened while thinking of the intrigue with Pierronne, so well known that two or three anonymous letters every week denounced the licentiousness of the head captain. Evidently the husband had talked, and no doubt the wife had, too. He even took advantage of the occasion; he let the head captain know that he was aware of everything, contenting himself with recommending prudence for fear of a scandal. Startled by these reproaches in the midst of his report, Dansaert denied, stammered excuses, while his great nose confessed the crime by its sudden redness. He did not insist, however, glad to get off so easily; for, as a rule, the manager displayed the implacable severity of the virtuous man whenever an employee allowed himself the indulgence of a pretty girl in the pit. The conversation continued concerning the strike; that meeting in the forest was only the swagger of blusterers; nothing serious threatened. In any case, the settlements would surely not stir for some days, beneath the impression of respectful fear which must have been produced by the military promenade of the morning.

When M. Hennebeau was alone again he was, however, on the point of sending a telegram to the prefect. Only the fear of uselessly showing a sign of anxiety held him back. Already he could not forgive himself his lack of insight in saying everywhere, and even writing to the directors, that the strike would last at most a fortnight. It had been going on and on for nearly two months, to his great surprise, and he was in despair over it; he felt himself every day lowered and compromised, and was forced to imagine some brilliant achievement which would bring him back into favour with the directors. He had just asked them for orders in the case of a skirmish. There was delay over the reply, and he was expecting it by the afternoon post. He said to himself that there would be time then to send out telegrams, and to obtain the military occupation of the pits, if such was the desire of those gentlemen. In his own opinion there would certainly be a battle and an expenditure of blood. This responsibility troubled him in spite of his habitual energy.

Up to eleven o’clock he worked peacefully; there was no sound in the dead house except Hippolyte’s waxingstick, which was rubbing a floor far away on the first floor. Then, one after the other, he received two messages, the first announcing the attack on Jean-Bart by the Montsou band, the second telling of the cut cables, the overturned fires, and all the destruction. He could not understand. Why had the strikers gone to Deneulin instead of attacking one of the Company’s pits? Besides, they were quite welcome to sack Vandame; that would merely ripen the plan of conquest which he was meditating. And at midday he lunched alone in the large dining-room, served so quietly by the servant that he could not even hear his slippers. This solitude rendered his preoccupations more gloomy; he was feeling cold at the heart when a captain, who had arrived running, was shown in, and told him of the mob’s march on Mirou. Almost immediately, as he was finishing his coffee, a telegram informed him that Madeleine and Crévecoeur were in their turn threatened. Then his perplexity became extreme. He was expecting the postman at two o’clock; ought he at once to ask for troops? or would it be better to wait patiently, and not to act until he had received the directors’ orders? He went back into his study; he wished to read a report which he had asked Négrel to prepare the day before for the prefect. But he could not put his hand on it; he reflected that perhaps the young man had left it in his room, where he often wrote at night, and without taking any decision, pursued by the idea of this report, he went upstairs to look for it in the room.

As he entered, M. Hennebeau was surprised: the room had not been done, no doubt through Hippolyte’s forgetfulness or laziness. There was a moist heat there, the close heat of the past night, made heavier from the mouth of the hot-air stove being left open; and he was suffocated, too, with a penetrating perfume, which he thought must be the odour of the toilet waters with which the basin was full. There was great disorder in the room — garments scattered about, damp towels thrown on the backs of chairs, the bed yawning, with a sheet drawn back and draggling on the carpet. But at first he only glanced round with an abstracted look as he went towards a table covered with papers to look for the missing report. Twice he examined the papers one by one, but it was certainly not there. Where the devil could that madcap Paul have stuffed it?

And as M. Hennebeau went back into the middle of the room, giving a glance at each article of furniture, he noticed in the open bed a bright point which shone like a star. He approached mechanically and put out his hand. It was a little gold scent-bottle lying between two folds of the sheet. He at once recognized a scent-bottle belonging to Madame Hennebeau, the little ether bottle which was always with her. But he could not understand its presence here: how could it have got into Paul’s bed? And suddenly he grew terribly pale. His wife had slept there.

“Beg your pardon, sir,” murmured Hippolyte’s voice through the door. “I saw you going up.”

The servant entered and was thrown into consternation by the disorder.

“Lord! Why, the room is not done! So Rose has gone out, leaving all the house on my shoulders!”

M. Hennebeau had hidden the bottle in his hand and was pressing it almost to breaking.

“What do you want?”

“It’s another man, sir; he has come from Crévecoeur with a letter.”

“Good! Leave me alone; tell him to wait.”

His wife had slept there! When he had bolted the door he opened his hand again and looked at the little bottle which had left its image in red on his flesh. Suddenly he saw and understood; this filthiness had been going on in his house for months. He recalled his old suspicion, the rustling against the doors, the naked feet at night through the silent house. Yes, it was his wife who went up to sleep there!

Falling into a chair opposite the bed, which he gazed at fixedly, he remained some minutes as though crushed. A noise aroused him; someone was knocking at the door, trying to open it. He recognized the servant’s voice.

“Sir — Ah! you are shut in, sir.”

“What is it now?”

“There seems to be a hurry; the men are breaking everything. There are two more messengers below. There are also some telegrams.”

“You just leave me alone! I am coming directly.”

The idea that Hippolyte would himself have discovered the scent-bottle, had he done the room in the morning, had just frozen him. And besides, this man must know; he must have found the bed still hot with adultery twenty times over, with madame’s hairs trailing on the pillow, and abominable traces staining the linen. The man kept interrupting him, and it could only be out of inquisitiveness. Perhaps he had stayed with his ear stuck to the door, excited by the debauchery of his masters.

M. Hennebeau did not move. He still gazed at the bed. His long past of suffering unrolled before him: his marriage with this woman, their immediate misunderstanding of the heart and of the flesh, the lovers whom she had had unknown to him, and the lover whom he had tolerated for ten years, as one tolerates an impure taste in a sick woman. Then came their arrival at Montsou, the mad hope of curing her, months of languor, of sleepy exile, the approach of old age which would, perhaps, at last give her back to him. Then their nephew arrived, this Paul to whom she became a mother, and to whom she spoke of her dead heart buried for ever beneath the ashes. And he, the imbecile husband, foresaw nothing; he adored this woman who was his wife, whom other men had possessed, but whom he alone could not possess! He adored her with shameful passion, so that he would have fallen on his knees if she would but have given him the leavings of other men! The leavings of the others she gave to this child.

The sound of a distant gong at this moment made M. Hennebeau start. He recognized it; it was struck, by his orders, when the postman arrived. He rose and spoke aloud, breaking into the flood of coarseness with which his parched throat was bursting in spite of himself.

“Ah! I don’t care a bloody hang for their telegrams and their letters! not a bloody hang!”

Now he was carried away by rage, the need of some sewer in which to stamp down all this filthiness with his heels. This woman was a vulgar drab; he sought for crude words and buffeted her image with them. The sudden idea of the marriage between Cécile and Paul, which she was arranging with so quiet a smile, completed his exasperation. There was, then, not even passion, not even jealousy at the bottom of this persistent sensuality? It was now a perverse plaything, the habit of the woman, a recreation taken like an accustomed dessert. And he put all the responsibility on her, he regarded as almost innocent the lad at whom she had bitten in this reawakening of appetite, just as one bites at an early green fruit, stolen by the wayside. Whom would she devour, on whom would she fall, when she no longer had complaisant nephews, sufficiently practical to accept in their own family the table, the bed, and the wife?

There was a timid scratch at the door, and Hippolyte allowed himself to whisper through the keyhole:

“The postman, sir. And Monsieur Dansaert, too, has come back, saying that they are killing one another.”

“I’m coming down, good God!”

What should he do to them? Chase them away on their return from Marchiennes, like stinking animals whom he would no longer have beneath his roof? He would take a cudgel, and would tell them to carry elsewhere their poisonous coupling. It was with their sighs, with their mixed breaths, that the damp warmth of this room had grown heavy; the penetrating odour which had suffocated him was the odour of musk which his wife’s skin exhaled, another perverse taste, a fleshly need of violent perfumes; and he seemed to feel also the heat and odour of fornication, of living adultery, in the pots which lay about, in the basins still full, in the disorder of the linen, of the furniture, of the entire room tainted with vice. The fury of impotence threw him on to the bed, which he struck with his fists, belabouring the places where he saw the imprint of their two bodies, enraged with the disordered coverlets and the crumpled sheets, soft and inert beneath his blows, as though exhausted themselves by the embraces of the whole night.

But suddenly he thought he heard Hippolyte coming up again. He was arrested by shame. For a moment he stood panting, wiping his forehead, calming the bounds of his heart. Standing before a mirror he looked at his face, so changed that he did not recognize himself. Then, when he had watched it gradually grow calmer by an effort of supreme will, he went downstairs.

Five messengers were standing below, not counting Dansaert. All brought him news of increasing gravity concerning the march of the strikers among the pits: and the chief captain told him at length what had gone on at Mirou and the fine behaviour of Father Quandieu. He listened, nodding his head, but he did not hear; his thoughts were in the room upstairs. At last he sent them away, saying that he would take due measures. When he was alone again, seated before his desk, he seemed to grow drowsy, with his head between his hands, covering his eyes. His mail was there, and he decided to look for the expected letter, the directors’ reply. The lines at first danced before him, but he understood at last that these gentlemen desired a skirmish; certainly they did not order him to make things worse, but they allowed it to be seen that disturbances would hasten the conclusion of the strike by provoking energetic repression. After this, he no longer hesitated, but sent off telegrams on all sides — to the prefect of Lille, to the corps of soldiery at Douai, to the police at Marchiennes. It was a relief; he had nothing to do but shut himself in; he even spread the report that he was suffering from gout. And all the afternoon he hid himself in his study, receiving no one, contenting himself with reading the telegrams and letters which continued to rain in. He thus followed the mob from afar, from Madeleine to Crévecoeur, from Crévecoeur to the Victoire, from the Victoire to Gaston-Marie. Information also reached him of the bewilderment of the police and the troops, wandering along the roads, and always with their backs to the pit attacked. They might kill one another, and destroy everything! He put his head between his hands again, with his fingers over his eyes, and buried himself in the deep silence of the empty house, where he only heard now and then the noise of the cook’s saucepans as she bustled about preparing the evening’s dinner.

The twilight was already darkening the room; it was five o’clock when a disturbance made M. Hennebeau jump, as he sat dazed and inert with his elbows in his papers. He thought that it was the two wretches coming back. But the tumult increased, and a terrible cry broke out just as he was going to the window:

“Bread! bread! bread!”

It was the strikers, now invading Montsou, while the police, expecting an attack on the Voreux, were galloping off in the opposite direction to occupy that pit.

Just then, two kilometres away from the first houses, a little beyond the crossways where the main road cut the Vandame road, Madame Hennebeau and the young ladies had witnessed the passing of the mob. The day had been spent pleasantly at Marchiennes; there had been a delightful lunch with the manager of the Forges, then an interesting visit to the workshops and to the neighbouring glass works to occupy the afternoon; and as they were now going home in the limpid decline of the beautiful winter day, Cécile had had the whim to drink a glass of milk, as she noticed a little farm near the edge of the road. They all then got down from the carriage, and Négrel gallantly leapt off his horse; while the peasant-woman, alarmed by all these fine people, rushed about, and spoke of laying a cloth before serving the milk. But Lucie and Jeanne wanted to see the cow milked, and they went into the cattle-shed with their cups, making a little rural party, and laughing greatly at the litter in which one sank.

Madame Hennebeau, with her complacent maternal air, was drinking with the edge of her lips, when a strange roaring noise from without disturbed her.

“What is that, then?”

The cattle-shed, built at the edge of the road, had a large door for carts, for it was also used as a barn for hay. The young girls, who had put out their heads, were astonished to see on the left a black flood, a shouting band which was moving along the Vandame road.

“The deuce!” muttered Négrel, who had also gone out. “Are our brawlers getting angry at last?”

“It is perhaps the colliers again,” said the peasant woman. “This is twice they’ve passed. Seems things are not going well; they’re masters of the country.”

She uttered every word prudently, watching the effect on their faces; and when she noticed the fright of all of them, and their deep anxiety at this encounter, she hastened to conclude:

“Oh, the rascals! the rascals!”

Négrel, seeing that it was too late to get into their carriage and reach Montsou, ordered the coachman to bring the vehicle into the farmyard, where it would remain hidden behind a shed. He himself fastened his horse, which a lad had been holding, beneath the shed. When he came back he found his aunt and the young girls distracted, and ready to follow the peasant-woman, who proposed that they should take refuge in her house. But he was of opinion that they would be safer where they were, for certainly no one would come and look for them in the hay. The door, however, shut very badly, and had such large chinks in it, that the road could be seen between the worm-eaten planks.

“Come, courage!” he said. “We will sell our lives dearly.”

This joke increased their fear. The noise grew louder, but nothing could yet be seen; along the vacant road the wind of a tempest seemed to be blowing, like those sudden gusts which precede great storms.

“No, no! I don’t want to look,” said Cécile, going to hide herself in the hay.

Madame Hennebeau, who was very pale and felt angry with these people who had spoilt her pleasure, stood in the background with a sidelong look of repugnance; while Lucie and Jeanne, though trembling, had placed their eyes at a crack, anxious to lose nothing of the spectacle.

A sound of thunder came near, the earth was shaken, and Jeanlin galloped up first, blowing into his horn.

“Take out your scent-bottles, the sweat of the people is passing by!” murmured Négrel, who, in spite of his republican convictions, liked to make fun of the populace when he was with ladies.

But this witticism was carried away in the hurricane of gestures and cries. The women had appeared, nearly a thousand of them, with outspread hair dishevelled by running, the naked skin appearing through their rags, the nakedness of females weary with giving birth to starvelings. A few held their little ones in their arms, raising them and shaking them like banners of mourning and vengeance. Others, who were younger with the swollen breasts of amazons, brandished sticks; while frightful old women were yelling so loudly that the cords of their fleshless necks seemed to be breaking. And then the men came up, two thousand madmen — trammers, pikemen, menders — a compact mass which rolled along like a single block in confused serried rank so that it was impossible to distinguish their faded trousers or ragged woollen jackets, all effaced in the same earthy uniformity. Their eyes were burning, and one only distinguished the holes of black mouths singing the Marseillaise; the stanzas were lost in a confused roar, accompanied by the clang of sabots over the hard earth. Above their heads, amid the bristling iron bars, an axe passed by, carried erect; and this single axe, which seemed to be the standard of the band, showed in the clear air the sharp profile of a guillotine-blade.

“What atrocious faces!” stammered Madame Hennebeau.

Négrel said between his teeth:

“Devil take me if I can recognize one of them! Where do the bandits spring from?”

And in fact anger, hunger, these two months of suffering and this enraged helter-skelter through the pits had lengthened the placid faces of the Montsou colliers into the muzzles of wild beasts. At this moment the sun was setting; its last rays of sombre purple cast a gleam of blood over the plain. The road seemed to be full of blood; men and women continued to rush by, bloody as butchers in the midst of slaughter.

“Oh! superb!” whispered Lucie and Jeanne, stirred in their artistic tastes by the beautiful horror of it.

They were frightened, however, and drew back close to Madame Hennebeau, who was leaning on a trough. She was frozen at the thought that a glance between the planks of that disjointed door might suffice to murder them. Négrel also, who was usually very brave, felt himself grow pale, seized by a terror that was superior to his will, the terror which comes from the unknown. Cécile, in the hay, no longer stirred; and the others, in spite of the wish to turn away their eyes, could not do so: they were compelled to gaze.

It was the red vision of the revolution, which would one day inevitably carry them all away, on some bloody evening at the end of the century. Yes, some evening the people, unbridled at last, would thus gallop along the roads, making the blood of the middle class flow, parading severed heads and sprinkling gold from disembowelled coffers. The women would yell, the men would have those wolf-like jaws open to bite. Yes, the same rags, the same thunder of great sabots, the same terrible troop, with dirty skins and tainted breath, sweeping away the old world beneath an overflowing flood of barbarians. Fires would flame; they would not leave standing one stone of the towns; they would return to the savage life of the woods, after the great rut, the great feast-day, when the poor in one night would emaciate the wives and empty the cellars of the rich. There would be nothing left, not a sou of the great fortunes, not a title-deed of properties acquired; until the day dawned when a new earth would perhaps spring up once more. Yes, it was these things which were passing along the road; it was the force of nature herself, and they were receiving the terrible wind of it in their faces.

A great cry arose, dominating the Marseillaise:

“Bread! bread! bread!”

Lucie and Jeanne pressed themselves against Madame Hennebeau, who was almost fainting; while Négrel placed himself before them as though to protect them by his body. Was the old social order cracking this very evening? And what they saw immediately after completed their stupefaction. The band had nearly passed by, there were only a few stragglers left, when Mouquette came up. She was delaying, watching the bourgeois at their garden gates or the windows of their houses; and whenever she saw them, as she was not able to spit in their faces, she showed them what for her was the climax of contempt. Doubtless she perceived someone now, for suddenly she raised her skirts, bent her back, and showed her enormous buttocks, naked beneath the last rays of the sun. There was nothing obscene in those fierce buttocks, and nobody laughed.

Everything disappeared: the flood rolled on to Montsou along the turns of the road, between the low houses streaked with bright colours. The carriage was drawn out of the yard, but the coachman would not take it upon him to convey back madame and the young ladies without delay; the strikers occupied the street. And the worst was, there was no other road.

“We must go back, however, for dinner will be ready,” said Madame Hennebeau, exasperated by annoyance and fear. “These dirty workpeople have again chosen a day when I have visitors. How can you do good to such creatures?”

Lucie and Jeanne were occupied in pulling Cécile out of the hay. She was struggling, believing that those savages were still passing by, and repeating that she did not want to see them. At last they all took their places in the carriage again. It then occurred to Négrel, who had remounted, that they might go through the Réquillart lanes.

“Go gently,” he said to the coachman, “for the road is atrocious. If any groups prevent you from returning to the road over there, you can stop behind the old pit, and we will return on foot through the little garden door, while you can put up the carriage and horses anywhere, in some inn outhouse.”

They set out. The band, far away, was streaming into Montsou. As they had twice seen police and military, the inhabitants were agitated and seized by panic. Abominable stories were circulating; it was said that written placards had been set up threatening to rip open the bellies of the bourgeois. Nobody had read them, but all the same they were able to quote the exact words. At the lawyer’s especially the terror was at its height, for he had just received by post an anonymous letter warning him that a barrel of powder was buried in his cellar, and that it would be blown up if he did not declare himself on the side of the people. Just then the Grégoires, prolonging their visit on the arrival of this letter, were discussing it, and decided that it must be the work of a joker, when the invasion of the mob completed the terror of the house. They, however, smiled, drawing back a corner of the curtain to look out, and refused to admit that there was any danger, certain, they said, that all would finish up well. Five o’clock struck, and they had time to wait until the street was free for them to cross the road to dine with the Hennebeaus, where Cécile, who had surely returned, must be waiting for them. But no one in Montsou seemed to share their confidence. People were wildly running about; doors and windows were banged to. They saw Maigrat, on the other side of the road, barricading his shop with a large supply of iron bars, and looking so pale and trembling that his feeble little wife was obliged to fasten the screws. The band had come to a halt before the manager’s villa, and the cry echoed:

“Bread! bread! bread!”

M. Hennebeau was standing at the window when Hippolyte came in to close the shutters, for fear the windows should be broken by stones. He closed all on the ground floor, and then went up to the first floor; the creak of the window-fasteners was heard and the clack of the shutters one by one. Unfortunately, it was not possible to shut the kitchen window in the area in the same way, a window made disquietingly ruddy by the gleams from the saucepans and the spit.

Mechanically, M. Hennebeau, who wished to look out, went up to Paul’s room on the second floor: it was on the left, the best situated, for it commanded the road as far as the Company’s Yards. And he stood behind the blinds overlooking the crowd. But this room had again overcome him, the toilet table sponged and in order, the cold bed with neat and well-drawn sheets. All his rage of the afternoon, that furious battle in the depths of his silent solitude, had now turned to an immense fatigue. His whole being was now like this room, grown cold, swept of the filth of the morning, returned to its habitual correctness. What was the good of a scandal? had anything really changed in his house? His wife had simply taken another lover; that she had chosen him in the family scarcely aggravated the fact; perhaps even it was an advantage, for she thus preserved appearances. He pitied himself when he thought of his mad jealousy. How ridiculous to have struck that bed with his fists! Since he had tolerated another man, he could certainly tolerate this one. It was only a matter of a little more contempt. A terrible bitterness was poisoning his mouth, the uselessness of everything, the eternal pain of existence, shame for himself who always adored and desired this woman in the dirt in which he had abandoned her.

Beneath the window the yells broke out with increased violence:

“Bread! bread! bread!”

“Idiots!” said M. Hennebeau between his clenched teeth.

He heard them abusing him for his large salary, calling him a bloated idler, a bloody beast who stuffed himself to indigestion with good things, while the worker was dying of hunger. The women had noticed the kitchen, and there was a tempest of imprecations against the pheasant roasting there, against the sauces that with fat odours irritated their empty stomachs. Ah! the stinking bourgeois, they should be stuffed with champagne and truffles till their guts burst.

“Bread! bread! bread!”

“Idiots!” repeated M. Hennebeau; “am I happy?”

Anger arose in him against these people who could not understand. He would willingly have made them a present of his large salary to possess their hard skin and their facility of coupling without regret. Why could he not seat them at his table and stuff them with his pheasant, while he went to fornicate behind the hedges, to tumble the girls over, making fun of those who had tumbled them over before him! He would have given everything his education, his comfort, his luxury, his power as manager, if he could be for one day the vilest of the wretches who obeyed him, free of his flesh, enough of a blackguard to beat his wife and to take his pleasure with his neighbours’ wives. And he longed also to be dying of hunger, to have an empty belly, a stomach twisted by cramps that would make his head turn with giddiness: perhaps that would have killed the eternal pain. Ah! to live like a brute, to possess nothing, to scour the fields with the ugliest and dirtiest putter, and to be able to be happy!

“Bread! bread! bread!”

Then he grew angry and shouted furiously in the tumult:

“Bread! is that enough, idiots!”

He could eat, and all the same he was groaning with torment. His desolate household, his whole wounded life, choked him at the throat like a death agony. Things were not all for the best because one had bread. Who was the fool who placed earthly happiness in the partition of wealth? These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and rebuilt another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain, by cutting bread-and-butter for everybody. They would even enlarge the unhappiness of the earth; they would one day make the very dogs howl with despair when they had taken them out of the tranquil satisfaction of instinct, to raise them to the unappeasable suffering of passion. No, the one good thing was not to exist, and if one existed, to be a tree, a stone, less still, a grain of sand, which cannot bleed beneath the heels of the passer-by.

And in this exasperation of his torment, tears swelled in M. Hennebeau’s eyes, and broke in burning drops on his cheeks. The twilight was drowning the road when stones began to riddle the front of the villa. With no anger now against these starving people, only enraged by the burning wound at his heart he continued to stammer in the midst of his tears:

“Idiots! idiots!”

But the cry of the belly dominated, and a roar blew like a tempest, sweeping everything before it:

“Bread! bread! bread!”

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