OVER the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometres in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields. He could not even see the black soil before him, and only felt the immense flat horizon by the gusts of March wind, squalls as strong as on the sea, and frozen from sweeping leagues of marsh and naked earth. No tree could be seen against the sky, and the road unrolled as straight as a pier in the midst of the blinding spray of darkness.
The man had set out from Marchiennes about two o’clock. He walked with long strides, shivering beneath his worn cotton jacket and corduroy breeches. A small parcel tied in a check handkerchief troubled him much, and he pressed it against his side, sometimes with one elbow, sometimes with the other, so that he could slip to the bottom of his pockets both the benumbed hands that bled beneath the lashes of the wind. A single idea occupied his head — the empty head of a workman without work and without lodging — the hope that the cold would be less keen after sunrise. For an hour he went on thus, when on the left, two kilometres from Montsou, he saw red flames, three fires burning in the open air and apparently suspended. At first he hesitated, half afraid. Then he could not resist the painful need to warm his hands for a moment.
The steep road led downwards, and everything disappeared. The man saw on his right a paling, a wall of coarse planks shutting in a line of rails, while a grassy slope rose on the left surmounted by confused gables, a vision of a village with low uniform roofs. He went on some two hundred paces. Suddenly, at a bend in the road, the fires reappeared close to him, though he could not understand how they burnt so high in the dead sky, like smoky moons. But on the level soil another sight had struck him. It was a heavy mass, a low pile of buildings from which rose the silhouette of a factory chimney; occasional gleams appeared from dirty windows, five or six melancholy lanterns were hung outside to frames of blackened wood, which vaguely outlined the profiles of gigantic stages; and from this fantastic apparition, drowned in night and smoke, a single voice arose, the thick, long breathing of a steam escapement that could not be seen.
Then the man recognized a pit. His despair returned. What was the good? There would be no work. Instead of turning towards the buildings he decided at last to ascend the pit bank, on which burnt in iron baskets the three coal fires which gave light and warmth for work. The labourers in the cutting must have been working late; they were still throwing out the useless rubbish. Now he heard the landers push the wagons on the stages. He could distinguish living shadows tipping over the trains or tubs near each fire.
“Good day,” he said, approaching one of the baskets. Turning his back to the fire, the carman stood upright. He was an old man, dressed in knitted violet wool with a rabbit-skin cap on his head; while his horse, a great yellow horse, waited with the immobility of stone while they emptied the six trains he drew. The workman employed at the tipping-cradle, a red-haired lean fellow, did not hurry himself; he pressed on the lever with a sleepy hand. And above, the wind grew stronger — an icy north wind — and its great, regular breaths passed by like the strokes of a scythe.
“Good day,” replied the old man. There was silence. The man, who felt that he was being looked at suspiciously, at once told his name.
“I am called Étienne Lantier. I am an engine-man. Any work here?”
The flames lit him up. He might be about twenty-one years of age, a very dark, handsome man, who looked strong in spite of his thin limbs.
The carman, thus reassured, shook his head.
“Work for an engine-man? No, no! There were two came yesterday. There’s nothing.”
A gust cut short their speech. Then Étienne asked, pointing to the sombre pile of buildings at the foot of the platform:
“A pit, isn’t it?”
The old man this time could not reply: he was strangled by a violent cough. At last he expectorated, and his expectoration left a black patch on the purple soil.
“Yes, a pit. The Voreux. There! The settlement is quite near.”
In his turn, and with extended arm, he pointed out in the night the village of which the young man had vaguely seen the roofs. But the six trams were empty, and he followed them without cracking his whip, his legs stiffened by rheumatism; while the great yellow horse went on of itself, pulling heavily between the rails beneath a new gust which bristled its coat.
The Voreux was now emerging from the gloom. Étienne, who forgot himself before the stove, warming his poor bleeding hands, looked round and could see each part of the pit: the shed tarred with siftings, the pit-frame, the vast chamber of the winding machine, the square turret of the exhaustion pump. This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow, with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth. While examining it, he thought of himself, of his vagabond existence these eight days he had been seeking work. He saw himself again at his workshop at the railway, delivering a blow at his foreman, driven from Lille, driven from everywhere. On Saturday he had arrived at Marchinnes, where they said that work was to be had at the Forges, and there was nothing, neither at the Forges nor at Sonneville’s. He had been obliged to pass the Sunday hidden beneath the wood of a cartwright’s yard, from which the watchman had just turned him out at two o’clock in the morning. He had nothing, not a penny, not even a crust; what should he do, wandering along the roads without aim, not knowing where to shelter himself from the wind? Yes, it was certainly a pit; the occasional lanterns lighted up the square; a door, suddenly opened, had enabled him to catch sight of the furnaces in a clear light. He could explain even the escapement of the pump, that thick, long breathing that went on without ceasing, and which seemed to be the monster’s congested respiration.
The workman, expanding his back at the tipping-cradle, had not even lifted his eyes on Étienne, and the latter was about to pick up his little bundle, which had fallen to the earth, when a spasm of coughing announced the carman’s return. Slowly he emerged from the darkness, followed by the yellow horse drawing six more laden trams.
“Are there factories at Montsou?” asked the young man.
The old man expectorated, then replied in the wind:
“Oh, it isn’t factories that are lacking. Should have seen it three or four years ago. Everything was roaring then. There were not men enough; there never were such wages. And now they are tightening their bellies again. Nothing but misery in the country; every one is being sent away; workshops closing one after the other. It is not the emperor’s fault, perhaps; but why should he go and fight in America? without counting that the beasts are dying from cholera, like the people.”
Then, in short sentences and with broken breath, the two continued to complain. Étienne narrated his vain wanderings of the past week: must one, then, die of hunger? Soon the roads would be full of beggars.
“Yes,” said the old man, “this will turn out badly, for God does not allow so many Christians to be thrown on the street.”
“We don’t have meat every day.”
“But if one had bread!”
“True, if one only had bread.”
Their voices were lost, gusts of wind carrying away the words in a melancholy howl.
“Here!” began the carman again very loudly, turning towards the south. “Montsou is over there.”
And stretching out his hand again he pointed out invisible spots in the darkness as he named them. Below, at Montsou, the Fauvelle sugar works were still going, but the Hoton sugar works had just been dismissing hands; there were only the Dutilleul flour mill and the Bleuze rope walk for mine-cables which kept up. Then, with a large gesture he indicated the north half of the horizon: the Sonneville workshops had not received two-thirds of their usual orders; only two of the three blast furnaces of the Marchiennes Forges were alight; finally, at the Gagebois glass works a strike was threatening, for there was talk of a reduction of wages.
“I know, I know,” replied the young man at each indication. “I have been there.”
“With us here things are going on at present,” added the carman; “but the pits have lowered their output. And see opposite, at the Victoire, there are also only two batteries of coke furnaces alight.”
He expectorated, and set out behind his sleepy horse, after harnessing it to the empty trams.
Now Étienne could oversee the entire country. The darkness remained profound, but the old man’s hand had, as it were, filled it with great miseries, which the young man unconsciously felt at this moment around him everywhere in the limitless tract. Was it not a cry of famine that the March wind rolled up across this naked plain? The squalls were furious: they seemed to bring the death of labour, a famine which would kill many men. And with wandering eyes he tried to pierce shades, tormented at once by the desire and by the fear of seeing. Everything was hidden in the unknown depths of the gloomy night. He only perceived, very far off, the blast furnaces and the coke ovens. The latter, with their hundreds of chimneys, planted obliquely, made lines of red flame; while the two towers, more to the left, burnt blue against the blank sky, like giant torches. It resembled a melancholy conflagration. No other stars rose on the threatening horizon except these nocturnal fires in a land of coal and iron.
“You belong to Belgium, perhaps?” began again the carman, who had returned behind Étienne.
This time he only brought three trams. Those at least could be tipped over; an accident which had happened to the cage, a broken screw nut, would stop work for a good quarter of an hour. At the bottom of the pit bank there was silence; the landers no longer shook the stages with a prolonged vibration. One only heard from the pit the distant sound of a hammer tapping on an iron plate.
“No, I come from the South,” replied the young man.
The workman, after having emptied the trains, had seated himself on the earth, glad of the accident, maintaining his savage silence; he had simply lifted his large, dim eyes to the carman, as if annoyed by so many words. The latter, indeed, did not usually talk at such length. The unknown man’s face must have pleased him that he should have been taken by one of these itchings for confidence which sometimes make old people talk aloud even when alone.
“I belong to Montsou,” he said, “I am called Bonnemort.”
“Is it a nickname?” asked Étienne, astonished.
The old man made a grimace of satisfaction and pointed to the Voreux:
“Yes, yes; they have pulled me three times out of that, torn to pieces, once with all my hair scorched, once with my gizzard full of earth, and another time with my belly swollen with water, like a frog. And then, when they saw that nothing would kill me, they called me Bonnemort for a joke.”
His cheerfulness increased, like the creaking of an ill-greased pulley, and ended by degenerating into a terrible spasm of coughing. The fire basket now clearly lit up his large head, with its scanty white hair and flat, livid face, spotted with bluish patches. He was short, with an enormous neck, projecting calves and heels, and long arms, with massive hands falling to his knees. For the rest, like his horse, which stood immovable, without suffering from the wind, he seemed to be made of stone; he had no appearance of feeling either the cold or the gusts that whistled at his ears. When he coughed his throat was torn by a deep rasping; he spat at the foot of the basket and the earth was blackened.
Étienne looked at him and at the ground which he had thus stained.
“Have you been working long at the mine?”
Bonnemort flung open both arms.
“Long? I should think so. I was not eight when I went down into the Voreux and I am now fifty-eight. Reckon that up! I have been everything down there; at first trammer, then putter, when I had the strength to wheel, then pikeman for eighteen years. Then, because of my cursed legs, they put me into the earth cutting, to bank up and patch, until they had to bring me up, because the doctor said I should stay there for good. Then, after five years of that, they made me carman. Eh? that’s fine — fifty years at the mine, forty-five down below.”
While he was speaking, fragments of burning coal, which now and then fell from the basket, lit up his pale face with their red reflection.
“They tell me to rest,” he went on, “but I’m not going to; I’m not such a fool. I can get on for two years longer, to my sixtieth, so as to get the pension of one hundred and eighty francs. If I wished them good evening to-day they would give me a hundred and fifty at once. They are cunning, the beggars. Besides, I am sound, except my legs. You see, it’s the water which has got under my skin through being always wet in the cuttings. There are days when I can’t move a paw without screaming.”
A spasm of coughing interrupted him again.
“And that makes you cough so,” said Étienne.
But he vigorously shook his head. Then, when he could speak:
“No, no! I caught cold a month ago. I never used to cough; now I can’t get rid of it. And the queer thing is that I spit, that I spit ——”
The rasping was again heard in his throat, followed by the black expectoration.
“Is it blood?” asked Étienne, at last venturing to question him.
Bonnemort slowly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“It’s coal. I’ve got enough in my carcass to warm me till I die. And it’s five years since I put a foot down below. I stored it up, it seems, without knowing it; it keeps you alive!”
There was silence. The distant hammer struck regular blows in the pit, and the wind passed by with its moan, like a cry of hunger and weariness coming out of the depths of the night. Before the flames which grew low, the old man went on in lower tones, chewing over again his old recollections. Ah, certainly: it was not yesterday that he and his began hammering at the seam. The family had worked for the Montsou Mining Company since it started, and that was long ago, a hundred and six years already. His grandfather, Guillaume Maheu, an urchin of fifteen then, had found the rich coal at Réquillart, the Company’s first pit, an old abandoned pit to-day down below near the Fauvelle sugar works. All the country knew it, and as a proof, the discovered seam was called the Guillaume, after his grandfather. He had not known him — a big fellow, it was said, very strong, who died of old age at sixty. Then his father, Nicolas Maheu, called Le Rouge, when hardly forty years of age had died in the pit, which was being excavated at that time: a land-slip, a complete slide, and the rock drank his blood and swallowed his bones. Two of his uncles and his three brothers, later on, also left their skins there. He, Vincent Maheu, who had come out almost whole, except that his legs were rather shaky, was looked upon as a knowing fellow. But what could one do? One must work; one worked here from father to son, as one would work at anything else. His son, Toussaint Maheu, was being worked to death there now, and his grandsons, and all his people, who lived opposite in the settlement. A hundred and six years of mining, the youngsters after the old ones, for the same master. Eh? there were many bourgeois that could not give their history so well!
“Anyhow, when one has got enough to eat!” murmered Étienne again.
“That is what I say. As long as one has bread to eat one can live.”
Bonnemort was silent; and his eyes turned towards the settlement, where lights were appearing one by one. Four o’clock struck in the Montsou tower and the cold became keener.
“And is your company rich?” asked Étienne.
The old man shrugged his shoulders, and then let them fall as if overwhelmed beneath an avalanche of gold.
“Ah, yes! Ah, yes! Not perhaps so rich as its neighbour, the Anzin Company. But millions and millions all the same. They can’t count it. Nineteen pits, thirteen at work, the Voreux, the Victoire, Crévecoeur, Mirou, St. Thomas, Madeleine, Feutry-Cantel, and still more, and six for pumping or ventilation, like Réquillart. Ten thousand workers, concessions reaching over sixty-seven communes, an output of five thousand tons a day, a railway joining all the pits, and workshops, and factories! Ah, yes! ah, yes! there’s money there!”
The rolling of trains on the stages made the big yellow horse prick his ears. The cage was evidently repaired below, and the landers had got to work again. While he was harnessing his beast to re-descend, the carman added gently, addressing himself to the horse:
“Won’t do to chatter, lazy good-for-nothing! If Monsieur Hennebeau knew how you waste your time!”
Étienne looked thoughtfully into the night. He asked:
“Then Monsieur Hennebeau owns the mine?”
“No,” explained the old man, “Monsieur Hennebeau is only the general manager; he is paid just the same as us.”
With a gesture the young man pointed into the darkness.
“Who does it all belong to, then?”
But Bonnemort was for a moment so suffocated by a new and violent spasm that he could not get his breath. Then, when he had expectorated and wiped the black froth from his lips, he replied in the rising wind:
“Eh? all that belongs to? Nobody knows. To people.” And with his hand he pointed in the darkness to a vague spot, an unknown and remote place, inhabited by those people for whom the Maheus had been hammering at the seam for more than a century. His voice assumed a tone of religious awe; it was as if he were speaking of an inaccessible tabernacle containing a sated and crouching god to whom they had given all their flesh and whom they had never seen.
“At all events, if one can get enough bread to eat,” repeated Étienne, for the third time, without any apparent transition.
“Indeed, yes; if we could always get bread, it would be too good.”
The horse had started; the carman, in his turn, disappeared, with the trailing step of an invalid. Near the tipping-cradle the workman had not stirred, gathered up in a ball, burying his chin between his knees, with his great dim eyes fixed on emptiness.
When he had picked up his bundle, Étienne still remained at the same spot. He felt the gusts freezing his back, while his chest was burning before the large fire. Perhaps, all the same, it would be as well to inquire at the pit, the old man might not know. Then he resigned himself; he would accept any work. Where should he go, and what was to become of him in this country famished for lack of work? Must he leave his carcass behind a wall, like a strayed dog? But one doubt troubled him, a fear of the Voreux in the middle of this flat plain, drowned in so thick a night. At every gust the wind seemed to rise as if it blew from an ever-broadening horizon. No dawn whitened the dead sky. The blast furnaces alone flamed, and the coke ovens, making the darkness redder without illuminating the unknown. And the Voreux, at the bottom of its hole, with its posture as of an evil beast, continued to crunch, breathing with a heavier and slower respiration, troubled by its painful digestion of human flesh.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15