Germinal, by Émile Zola

Part 6

Chapter 1

THE first fortnight of February passed and a black cold prolonged the hard winter without pity for the poor. Once more the authorities had scoured the roads; the prefect of Lille, an attorney, a general, and the police were not sufficient, the military had come to occupy Montsou; a whole regiment of men were camped between Beaugnies and Marchiennes. Armed pickets guarded the pits, and there were soldiers before every engine. The manager’s villa, the Company’s Yards, even the houses of certain residents, were bristling with bayonets. Nothing was heard along the streets but the slow movement of patrols. On the pit-bank of the Voreux a sentinel was always placed in the frozen wind that blew up there, like a look-out man above the flat plain; and every two hours, as though in an enemy’s country, were heard the sentry’s cries:

“Qui vive? —Advance and give the password!”

Nowhere had work been resumed. On the contrary, the strike had spread; Crévecoeur, Mirou, Madeleine, like the Voreux, were producing nothing; at Feutry-Cantel and the Victoire there were fewer men every morning; even at Saint-Thomas, which had been hitherto exempt, men were wanting. There was now a silent persistence in the face of this exhibition of force which exasperated the miners’ pride. The settlements looked deserted in the midst of the beetroot fields. Not a workman stirred, only at rare intervals was one to be met by chance, isolated, with sidelong look, lowering his head before the red trousers. And in this deep melancholy calm, in this passive opposition to the guns, there was a deceptive gentleness, a forced and patient obedience of wild beasts in a cage, with their eyes on the tamer, ready to spring on his neck if he turned his back. The Company, who were being ruined by this death of work, talked of hiring miners from the Borinage, on the Belgian frontier, but did not dare; so that the battle continued as before between the colliers, who were shut up at home, and the dead pits guarded by soldiery.

On the morrow of that terrible day this calm had come about at once, hiding such a panic that the greatest silence possible was kept concerning the damage and the atrocities. The inquiry which had been opened showed that Maigrat had died from his fall, and the frightful mutilation of the corpse remained uncertain, already surrounded by a legend. On its side, the Company did not acknowledge the disasters it had suffered, any more than the Grégoires cared to compromise their daughter in the scandal of a trial in which she would have to give evidence. However, some arrests took place, mere supernumeraries as usual, silly and frightened, knowing nothing. By mistake, Pierron was taken off with handcuffs on his wrists as far as Marchiennes, to the great amusement of his mates. Rasseneur, also, was nearly arrested by two gendarmes. The management was content with preparing lists of names and giving back certificates in large numbers. Maheu had received his, Levaque also, as well as thirty-four of their mates in the settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante alone. And all the severity was directed against Étienne, who had disappeared on the evening of the fray, and who was being sought, although no trace of him could be found. Chaval, in his hatred, had denounced him, refusing to name the others at Catherine’s appeal, for she wished to save her parents. The days passed, every one felt that nothing was yet concluded; and with oppressed hearts every one was awaiting the end.

At Montsou, during this period, the inhabitants awoke with a start every night, their ears buzzing with an imaginary alarmbell and their nostrils haunted by the smell of powder. But what completed their discomfiture was a sermon by the new curé, Abbé Ranvier, that lean priest with eyes like red-hot coals who had succeeded Abbé Joire. He was indeed unlike the smiling discreet man, so fat and gentle, whose only anxiety was to live at peace with everybody. Abbé Ranvier went so far as to defend these abominable brigands who had dishonoured the district. He found excuses for the atrocities of the strikers; he violently attacked the middle class, throwing on them the whole of the responsibility. It was the middle class which, by dispossessing the Church of its ancient liberties in order to misuse them itself, had turned this world into a cursed place of injustice and suffering; it was the middle class which prolonged misunderstandings, which was pushing on towards a terrible catastrophe by its atheism, by its refusal to return to the old beliefs, to the fraternity of the early Christians. And he dared to threaten the rich. He warned them that if they obstinately persisted in refusing to listen to the voice of God, God would surely put Himself on the side of the poor. He would take back their fortunes from those who faithlessly enjoyed them, and would distribute them to the humble of the earth for the triumph of His glory. The devout trembled at this; the lawyer declared that it was Socialism of the worst kind; all saw the cur at the head of a band, brandishing a cross, and with vigorous blows demolishing the bourgeois society of ‘89.

M. Hennebeau, when informed, contented himself with saying, as he shrugged his shoulders:

“If he troubles us too much the bishop will free us from him.”

And while the breath of panic was thus blowing from one end of the plain to the other, Étienne was dwelling beneath the earth, in Jeanlin’s burrow at the bottom of Réquillart. It was there that he was in hiding; no one believed him so near; the quiet audacity of that refuge, in the very mine, in that abandoned passage of the old pit, had baffled search. Above, the sloes and hawthorns growing among the fallen scaffolding of the belfry filled up the mouth of the hole. No one ventured down; it was necessary to know the trick — how to hang on to the roots of the mountain ash and to let go fearlessly, to catch hold of the rungs that were still solid. Other obstacles also protected him, the suffocating heat of the passage, a hundred and twenty metres of dangerous descent, then the painful gliding on all fours for a quarter of a league between the narrowed walls of the gallery before discovering the brigand’s cave full of plunder. He lived there in the midst of abundance, finding gin there, the rest of the dried cod, and provisions of all sorts. The large hay bed was excellent, and not a current of air could be felt in this equal temperature, as warm as a bath. Light, however, threatened to fail. Jeanlin, who had made himself purveyor, with the prudence and discretion of a savage and delighted to make fun of the police, had even brought him pomatum, but could not succeed in putting his hands on a packet of candles.

After the fifth day Étienne never lighted up except to eat. He could not swallow in the dark. This complete and interminable night, always of the same blackness, was his chief torment. It was in vain that he was able to sleep in safety, that he was warm and provided with bread, the night had never weighed so heavily on his brain. It seemed to him even to crush his thoughts. Now he was living on thefts. In spite of his communistic theories, old scruples of education arose, and he contented himself with gnawing his share of dry bread. But what was to be done? One must live, and his task was not yet accomplished. Another shame overcame him: remorse for that savage drunkenness from the gin, drunk in the great cold on an empty stomach, which had thrown him, armed with a knife, on Chaval. This stirred in him the whole of that unknown terror, the hereditary ill, the long ancestry of drunkenness, no longer tolerating a drop of alcohol without falling into homicidal mania. Would he then end as a murderer? When he found himself in shelter, in this profound calm of the earth, seized by satiety of violence, he had slept for two days the sleep of a brute, gorged and overcome; and the depression continued, he lived in a bruised state with bitter mouth and aching head, as after some tremendous spree. A week passed by; the Maheus, who had been warned, were not able to send a candle; he had to give up the enjoyment of light, even when eating.

Now Étienne remained for hours stretched out on his hay. Vague ideas were working within him for the first time: a feeling of superiority, which placed him apart from his mates, an exaltation of his person as he grew more instructed. Never had he reflected so much; he asked himself the why of his disgust on the morrow of that furious course among the pits; and he did not dare to reply to himself, his recollections were repulsive to him, the ignoble desires, the coarse instincts, the odour of all that wretchedness shaken out to the wind. In spite of the torment of the darkness, he would come to hate the hour for returning to the settlement. How nauseous were all these wretches in a heap, living at the common bucket! There was not one with whom he could seriously talk politics; it was a bestial existence, always the same air tainted by onion, in which one choked! He wished to enlarge their horizon, to raise them to the comfort and good manners of the middle class, by making them masters; but how long it would take! and he no longer felt the courage to await victory, in this prison of hunger. By slow degrees his vanity of leadership, his constant preoccupation of thinking in their place, left him free, breathing into him the soul of one of those bourgeois whom he execrated.

Jeanlin one evening brought a candle-end, stolen from a carter’s lantern, and this was a great relief for Étienne. When the darkness began to stupefy him, weighing on his skull almost to madness, he would light up for a moment; then, as soon as he had chased away the nightmare, he extinguished the candle, miserly of this brightness which was as necessary to his life as bread. The silence buzzed in his ears, he only heard the flight of a band of rats, the cracking of the old timber, the tiny sound of a spider weaving her web. And with eyes open, in this warm nothingness, he returned to his fixed idea — the thought of what his mates were doing above. Desertion on his part would have seemed to him the worst cowardice. If he thus hid himself, it was to remain free, to give counsel or to act. His long meditations had fixed his ambition. While awaiting something better he would like to be Pluchart, leaving manual work in order to work only at politics, but alone, in a clean room, under the pretext that brain labour absorbs the entire life and needs quiet.

At the beginning of the second week, the child having told him that the police supposed he had gone over to Belgium, Étienne ventured out of his hole at nightfall. He wished to ascertain the situation, and to decide if it was still well to persist. He himself considered the game doubtful. Before the strike he felt uncertain of the result, and had simply yielded to facts; and now, after having been intoxicated with rebellion, he came back to this first doubt, despairing of making the Company yield. But he would not yet confess this to himself; he was tortured when he thought of the miseries of defeat, and the heavy responsibility of suffering which would weigh upon him. The end of the strike: was it not the end of his part, the overthrow of his ambition, his life falling back into the brutishness of the mine and the horrors of the settlement? And honestly, without any base calculation or falsehood, he endeavoured to find his faith again, to prove to himself that resistance was still possible, that Capital was about to destroy itself in face of the heroic suicide of Labour.

Throughout the entire country, in fact, there was nothing but a long echo of ruin. At night, when he wandered through the black country, like a wolf who has come out of his forest, he seemed to hear the crash of bankruptcies from one end of the plain to the other. He now passed by the roadside nothing but closed dead workshops, becoming rotten beneath the dull sky. The sugar works had especially suffered: the Hoton sugar works, the Fauvelle works, after having reduced the number of their hands, had come to grief one after the other. At the Dutilleul flour works the last mill had stopped on the second Saturday of the month, and the Bleuze rope works, for mine cables, had been quite ruined by the strike. On the Marchiennes side the situation was growing worse every day. All the fires were out the Gagebois glass works, men were continually being sent away from the Sonneville workshops, only one of the three blast furnaces of the Forges was alight, and not one battery of coke ovens was burning on the horizon. The strike of the Montsou colliers, born of the industrial crisis which had been growing worse for two years, had increased it and precipitated the downfall. To the other causes of suffering — the stoppage of orders from America, and the engorgement of invested capital in excessive production — was now added the unforeseen lack of coal for the few furnaces which were still kept up; and that was the supreme agony, this engine bread which the pits no longer furnished. Frightened by the general anxiety, the Company, by diminishing its output and starving its miners, inevitably found itself at the end of December without a fragment of coal at the surface of its pits. Everything held together, the plague blew from afar, one fall led to another; the industries tumbled each other over as they fell, in so rapid a series of catastrophes that the shocks echoed in the midst of the neighbouring cities, Lille, Douai, Valenciennes, where absconding bankers were bringing ruin on whole families.

At the turn of a road Étienne often stopped in the frozen night to hear the rubbish raining down. He breathed deeply in the darkness, the joy of annihilation seized him, the hope that day would dawn on the extermination of the old world, with not a single fortune left standing, the scythe of equality levelling everything to the ground. But in this massacre it was the Company’s pits that especially interested him. He would continue his walk, blinded by the darkness, visiting them one after the other, glad to discover some new disaster. Landslips of increasing gravity continued to occur on account of the prolonged abandonment of the passages. Above the north gallery of Mirou the ground sank in to such an extent, that the Joiselle road, for the distance of a hundred metres, had been swallowed up as though by the shock of an earthquake; and the Company, disturbed at the rumours raised by these accidents, paid the owners for their vanished fields without bargaining. Crévecoeur and Madeleine, which lay in very shifting rock, were becoming stopped up more and more. It was said that two captains had been buried at the Victoire; there was an inundation at Feutry-Cantel, it had been necessary to wall up a gallery for the length of a kilometre at Saint-Thomas, where the ill-kept timbering was breaking down everywhere. Thus every hour enormous sums were spent, making great breaches in the shareholders’ dividends; a rapid destruction of the pits was going on, which must end at last by eating up the famous Montsou deniers which had been centupled in a century.

In the face of these repeated blows, hope was again born in Étienne; he came to believe that a third month of resistance would crush the monster — the weary, sated beast, crouching down there like an idol in his unknown tabernacle. He knew that after the Montsou troubles there had been great excitement in the Paris journals, quite a violent controversy between the official newspapers and the opposition newspapers, terrible narratives, which were especially directed against the International, of which the empire was becoming afraid after having first encouraged it; and the directors not daring to turn a deaf ear any longer, two of them had condescended to come and hold an inquiry, but with an air of regret, not appearing to care about the upshot; so disinterested, that in three days they went away again, declaring that everything was going on as well as possible. He was told, however, from other quarters that during their stay these gentlemen sat permanently, displaying feverish activity, and absorbed in transactions of which no one about them uttered a word. And he charged them with affecting confidence they did not feel, and came to look upon their departure as a nervous flight, feeling now certain of triumph since these terrible men were letting everything go.

But on the following night Étienne despaired again. The Company’s back was too robust to be so easily broken; they might lose millions, but later on they would get them back again by gnawing at their men’s bread. On that night, having pushed as far as Jean-Bart, he guessed the truth when an overseer told him that there was talk of yielding Vandame to Montsou. At Deneulin’s house, it was said, the wretchedness was pitiful, the wretchedness of the rich; the father ill in his powerlessness, aged by his anxiety over money, the daughters struggling in the midst of tradesmen, trying to save their shifts. There was less suffering in the famished settlements than in this middle-class house where they shut themselves up to drink water. Work had not been resumed at Jean-Bart, and it had been necessary to replace the pump at Gaston-Marie; while, in spite of all haste, an inundation had already begun which made great expenses necessary. Deneulin had at last risked his request for a loan of one hundred thousand francs from the Grégoires. and the refusal, though he had expected it, completed his ejection: if they refused, it was for his sake, in order to save him from an impossible struggle; and they advised him to sell. He, as usual, violently refused. It enraged him to have to pay the expenses of the strike; he hoped at first to die of it, with the blood at his head, strangled by apoplexy. Then what was to be done? He had listened to the directors’ offers. They wrangled with him, they depreciated this superb prey, this repaired pit, equipped anew, where the lack of capital alone paralysed the output. He would be lucky if he got enough out of it to satisfy his creditors. For two days he had struggled against the directors at Montsou, furious at the quiet way with which they took advantage of his embarrassment and shouting his refusals at them in his loud voice. And there the affairs remained, and they had returned to Paris to await patiently his last groans. Étienne smelled out this compensation for the disasters, and was again seized by discouragement before the invincible power of the great capitalists, so strong in battle that they fattened in defeat by eating the corpses of the small capitalists who fell at their side.

The next day, fortunately, Jeanlin brought him a piece of good news. At the Voreux the tubbing of the shaft was threatening to break, and the water was filtering in from all the joints; in great haste a gang of carpenters had been set on to repair it.

Up to now Étienne had avoided the Voreux, warned by the everlasting black silhouette of the sentinel stationed on the pit-bank above the plain. He could not be avoided, he dominated in the air, like the flag of the regiment. Towards three o’clock in the morning the sky became overcast, and he went to the pit, where some mates explained to him the bad condition of the tubbing; they even thought that it would have to be done entirely over again, which would stop the output of coal for three months. For a long time he prowled round, listening to the carpenters’ mallets hammering in the shaft. That wound which had to be dressed rejoiced his heart.

As he went back in the early daylight, he saw the sentinel still on the pit-bank. This time he would certainly be seen. As he walked he thought about those soldiers who were taken from the people, to be armed against the people. How easy the triumph of the revolution would be if the army were suddenly to declare for it! It would be enough if the workman and the peasant in the barracks were to remember their origin. That was the supreme peril, the great terror, which made the teeth of the middle class chatter when they thought of a possible defection of the troops. In two hours they would be swept away and exterminated with all the delights and abominations of their iniquitous life. It was already said that whole regiments were tainted with Socialism. Was it true? When justice came, would it be thanks to the cartridges distributed by the middle class? And snatching at another hope, the young man dreamed that the regiment, with its posts, now guarding the pits, would come over to the side of the strikers, shoot down the Company to a man, and at last give the mine to the miners.

He then noticed that he was ascending the pit-bank, his head filled with these reflections. Why should he not talk with this soldier? He would get to know what his ideas were. With an air of indifference, he continued to come nearer, as though he were gleaning old wood among the rubbish. The sentinel remained motionless.

“Eh, mate! damned weather,” said Étienne, at last. “I think we shall have snow.”

He was a small soldier, very fair, with a pale, gentle face covered with red freckles. He wore his military greatcoat with the awkwardness of a recruit,

“Yes, perhaps we shall, I think,” he murmured.

And with his blue eyes he gazed at the livid sky, the smoky dawn, with soot weighing like lead afar over the plain.

“What idiots they are to put you here to freeze!” Étienne went on. “One would think the Cossacks were coming! And then there’s always wind here.”

The little soldier shivered without complaining. There was certainly a little cabin of dry stones there, where old Bonnemort used to take shelter when it blew a hurricane, but the order being not to leave the summit of the pit-bank, the soldier did not stir from it, his hands so stiffened by cold that he could no longer feel his weapon. He belonged to the guard of sixty men who were protecting the Voreux, and as this cruel sentry-duty frequently came round, he had before nearly stayed there for good with his dead feet. His work demanded it; a passive obedience finished the benumbing process, and he replied to these questions with the stammered words of a sleepy child.

Étienne in vain endeavoured during a quarter of an hour to make him talk about politics. He replied “yes” or “no” without seeming to understand. Some of his comrades said that the captain was a republican; as to him, he had no idea — it was all the same to him. If he was ordered to fire, he would fire, so as not to be punished. The workman listened, seized with the popular hatred against the army — against these brothers whose hearts were changed by sticking a pair of red pantaloons on to their buttocks.

“What’s your name?”

“Jules.”

“And where do you come from?”

“From Plogof, over there.”

He stretched out his arm at random. It was in Brittany, he knew no more. His small pale face grew animated. He began to laugh, and felt warmer.

“I have a mother and a sister. They are waiting for me, sure enough. Ah! it won’t be for tomorrow. When I left, they came with me as far as Pont-l’Abbé. We had to take the horse to Lepalmec: it nearly broke its legs at the bottom of the Audierne Hill. Cousin Charles was waiting for us with sausages, but the women were crying too much, and it stuck in our throats. Good Lord! what a long way off our home is!”

His eyes grew moist, though he was still laughing. The desert moorland of Plogof, that wild storm-beaten point of the Raz, appeared to him beneath a dazzling sun in the rosy season of heather.

“Do you think,” he asked, “if I’m not punished, that they’ll give me a month’s leave in two years?”

Then Étienne talked about Provence, which he had left when he was quite small. The daylight was growing, and flakes of snow began to fly in the earthy sky. And at last he felt anxious on noticing Jeanlin, who was prowling about in the midst of the bushes, stupefied to see him up there. The child was beckoning to him. What was the good of this dream of fraternizing with the soldiers? It would take years and years, and his useless attempt cast him down as though he had expected to succeed. But suddenly he understood Jeanlin’s gesture. The sentinel was about to be relieved, and he went away, running off to bury himself at Réquillart, his heart crushed once more by the certainty of defeat; while the little scamp who ran beside him was accusing that dirty beast of a trooper of having called out the guard to fire at them.

On the summit of the pit-bank Jules stood motionless, with eyes vacantly gazing at the falling snow. The sergeant was approaching with his men, and the regulation cries were exchanged.

“Qui vive? —Advance and give the password!”

And they heard the heavy steps begin again, ringing as though on a conquered country. In spite of the growing daylight, nothing stirred in the settlements; the colliers remained in silent rage beneath the military boot.

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