IN the middle of the fields of wheat and beetroot, the Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement slept beneath the black night. One could vaguely distinguish four immense blocks of small houses, back to back, barracks or hospital blocks, geometric and parallel, separated by three large avenues which were divided into gardens of equal size. And over the desert plain one heard only the moan of squalls through the broken trellises of the enclosures.
In the Maheus’ house, No. 16 in the second block, nothing was stirring. The single room that occupied the first floor was drowned in a thick darkness which seemed to overwhelm with its weight the sleep of the beings whom one felt to be there in a mass, with open mouths, overcome by weariness. In spite of the keen cold outside, there was a living heat in the heavy air, that hot stuffiness of even the best kept bedrooms, the smell of human cattle.
Four o’clock had struck from the clock in the room on the ground floor, but nothing yet stirred; one heard the piping of slender respirations, accompanied by two series of sonorous snores. And suddenly Catherine got up. In her weariness she had, as usual, counted the four strokes through the floor without the strength to arouse herself completely. Then, throwing her legs from under the bedclothes, she felt about, at last struck a match and lighted the candle. But she remained seated, her head so heavy that it fell back between her shoulders, seeking to return to the bolster.
Now the candle lighted up the room, a square room with two windows, and filled with three beds. There could be seen a cupboard, a table, and two old walnut chairs, whose smoky tone made hard, dark patches against the walls, which were painted a light yellow. And nothing else, only clothes hung to nails, a jug placed on the floor, and a red pan which served as a basin. In the bed on the left, Zacharie, the eldest, a youth of one-and-twenty, was asleep with his brother Jeanlin, who had completed his eleventh year; in the right-hand bed two urchins, Lénore and Henri, the first six years old, the second four, slept in each other’s arms, while Catherine shared the third bed with her sister Alzire, so small for her nine years that Catherine would not have felt her near her if it were not for the little invalid’s humpback, which pressed into her side. The glass door was open; one could perceive the lobby of a landing, a sort of recess in which the father and the mother occupied a fourth bed, against which they had been obliged to install the cradle of the latest coiner, Estelle, aged scarcely three months.
However, Catherine made a desperate effort. She stretched herself, she fidgeted her two hands in the red hair which covered her forehead and neck. Slender for her fifteen years, all that showed of her limbs outside the narrow sheath of her chemise were her bluish feet, as it were tattooed with coal, and her slight arms, the milky whiteness of which contrasted with the sallow tint of her face, already spoilt by constant washing with black soap. A final yawn opened her rather large mouth with splendid teeth against the chlorotic pallor of her gums; while her grey eyes were crying in her fight with sleep, with a look of painful distress and weariness which seemed to spread over the whole of her naked body.
But a growl came from the landing, and Maheu’s thick voice stammered;
“Devil take it! It’s time. Is it you lighting up, Catherine?”
“Yes, father; it has just struck downstairs.”
“Quick then, lazy. If you had danced less on Sunday you would have woke us earlier. A fine lazy life!”
And he went on grumbling, but sleep returned to him also. His reproaches became confused, and were extinguished in fresh snoring.
The young girl, in her chemise, with her naked feet on the floor, moved about in the room. As she passed by the bed of Henri and Lénore, she replaced the coverlet which had slipped down. They did not wake, lost in the strong sleep of childhood. Alzire, with open eyes, had turned to take the warm place of her big sister without speaking.
“I say, now, Zacharie — and you, Jeanlin; I say, now!” repeated Catherine, standing before her two brothers, who were still wallowing with their noses in the bolster.
She had to seize the elder by the shoulder and shake him; then, while he was muttering abuse, it came into her head to uncover them by snatching away the sheet. That seemed funny to her, and she began to laugh when she saw the two boys struggling with naked legs.
“Stupid, leave me alone,” growled Zacharie in ill-temper, sitting up. “I don’t like tricks. Good Lord! Say it’s time to get up?”
He was lean and ill-made, with a long face and a chin which showed signs of a sprouting beard, yellow hair, and the anaemic pallor which belonged to his whole family.
His shirt had rolled up to his belly, and he lowered it, not from modesty but because he was not warm.
“It has struck downstairs,” repeated Catherine; ““come! up! father’s angry.”
Jeanlin, who had rolled himself up, closed his eyes, saying: “Go and hang yourself; I’m going to sleep.”
She laughed again, the laugh of a good-natured girl. He was so small, his limbs so thin, with enormous joints, enlarged by scrofula, that she took him up in her arms. But he kicked about, his apish face, pale and wrinkled, with its green eyes and great ears, grew pale with the rage of weakness. He said nothing, he bit her right breast.
“Beastly fellow!” she murmured, keeping back a cry and putting him on the floor.
Alzire was silent, with the sheet tucked under her chin, but she had not gone to sleep again. With her intelligent invalid’s eyes she followed her sister and her two brothers, who were now dressing. Another quarrel broke out around the pan, the boys hustled the young girl because she was so long washing herself. Shirts flew about: and, while still half-asleep, they eased themselves without shame, with the tranquil satisfaction of a litter of puppies that have grown up together. Catherine was ready first. She put on her miner s breeches, then her canvas jacket, and fastened the blue cap on her knotted hair; in these clean Monday clothes she had the appearance of a little man; nothing remained to indicate her sex except the slight roll of her hips.
“When the old man comes back,” said Zacharie, mischievously, “he’ll like to find the bed unmade. You know I shall tell him it’s you.”
The old man was the grandfather, Bonneinort, who, as he worked during the night, slept by day, so that the bed was never cold; there was always someone snoring there. Without replying, Catherine set herself to arrange the bed-clothes and tuck them in. But during the last moments sounds had been heard behind the wall in the next house. These brick buildings, economically put up by the Company, were so thin that the least breath could be heard through them. The inmates lived there, elbow to elbow, from one end to the other; and no fact of family life remained hidden, even from the youngsters. A heavy step had tramped up the staircase; then there was a kind of soft fall, followed by a sigh of satisfaction.
“Good!” said Catherine. “Levaque has gone down, and here is Bouteloup come to join the Levaque woman.”
Jeanlin grinned; even Alzire’s eyes shone. Every morning they made fun of the household of three next door, a pikeman who lodged a worker in the cutting, an arrangement which gave the woman two men, one by night, the other by day.
“Philoméne is coughing,” began Catherine again, after listening.
She was speaking of the eldest Levaque, a big girl of nineteen, and the mistress of Zacharie, by whom she had already had two children; her chest was so delicate that she was only a sifter at the pit, never having been able to work below.
“Pooh! Philoméne!” replied Zacharie, “she cares a lot, she’s asleep. It’s hoggish to sleep till six.”
He was putting on his breeches when an idea occurred to him, and he opened the window. Outside in the darkness the settlement was awaking, lights were dawning one by one between the laths of the shutters. And there was another dispute: he leant out to watch if he could not see, coming out of Pierron’s opposite, the captain of the Voreux, who was accused of sleeping with the Pierron woman, while his sister called to him that since the day before the husband had taken day duty at the pit-eye, and that certainly Dansaert could not have slept there that night. Whilst the air entered in icy whiffs, both of them, becoming angry, maintained the truth of their own information, until cries and tears broke out. It was Éstelle, in her cradle, vexed by the cold.
Maheu woke up suddenly. What had he got in his bones, then? Here he was going to sleep again like a good-for-nothing. And he swore so vigorously that the children became still. Zacharie and Jeanlin finished washing with slow weariness. Alzire, with her large, open eyes, continually stared. The two youngsters, Lénore and Henri, in each other’s arms, had not stirred, breathing in the same quiet way in spite of the noise.
“Catherine, give me the candle,” called out Maheu.
She finished buttoning her jacket, and carried the candle into the closet, leaving her brothers to look for their clothes by what light came through the door. Her father jumped out of bed. She did not stop, but went downstairs in her coarse woollen stockings, feeling her way, and lighted another candle in the parlour, to prepare the coffee. All the sabots of the family were beneath the sideboard.
“Will you be still, vermin?” began Maheu, again, exasperated by Éstelle’s cries which still went on.
He was short, like old Bonnemort, and resembled him, with his strong head, his flat, livid face, beneath yellow hair cut very short. The child screamed more than ever, frightened by those great knotted arms which were held above her.
“Leave her alone; you know that she won’t be still,” said his wife, stretching herself in the middle of the bed.
She also had just awakened and was complaining how disgusting it was never to be able to finish the night. Could they not go away quietly? Buried in the clothes she only showed her long face with large features of a heavy beauty, already disfigured at thirty-nine by her life of wretchedness and the seven children she had borne. With her eyes on the ceiling she spoke slowly, while her man dressed himself. They both ceased to hear the little one, who was strangling herself with screaming.
“Eh? You know I haven’t a penny and this is only Monday: still six days before the fortnight’s out. This can’t go on. You, all of you, only bring in nine francs. How do you expect me to go on? We are ten in the house.”
“Oh! nine francs!” exclaimed Maheu. “I and Zacharie three: that makes six, Catherine and the father, two: that makes four: four and six, ten, and Jeanlin one, that makes eleven.”
“Yes, eleven, but there are Sundays and the off-days. Never more than nine, you know.”
He did not reply, being occupied in looking on the ground for his leather belt. Then he said, on getting up:
“Mustn’t complain. I am sound all the same. There’s more than one at forty-two who are put to the patching.”
“Maybe, old man, but that does not give us bread. Where am I to get it from, eh? Have you got nothing?”
“I’ve got two coppers.”
“Keep them for a half-pint. Good Lord! where am I to get it from? Six days! it will never end. We owe sixty francs to Maigrat, who turned me out of doors day before yesterday. That won’t prevent me from going to see him again. But if he goes on refusing ——”
And Maheude continued in her melancholy voice, without moving her head, only closing her eyes now and then beneath the dim light of the candle. She said the cupboard was empty, the little ones asking for bread and butter, even the coffee was done, and the water caused colic, and the long days passed in deceiving hunger with boiled cabbage leaves. Little by little she had been obliged to raise her voice, for Estelle’s screams drowned her words. These cries became unbearable. Maheu seemed all at once to hear them, and, in a fury, snatched the little one up from the cradle and threw it on the mother’s bed, stammering with rage:
“Here, take her; I’ll do for her! Damn the child! It wants for nothing: it sucks, and it complains louder than all the rest!”
Estelle began, in fact, to suck. Hidden beneath the clothes and soothed by the warmth of the bed, her cries subsided into the greedy little sound of her lips.
“Haven’t the Piolaine people told you to go and see them?” asked the father, after a period of silence.
The mother bit her lip with an air of discouraged doubt.
“Yes, they met me; they were carrying clothes for poor children. Yes, I’ll take Lénore and Henri to them this morning. If they only give me a few pence!”
There was silence again.
Maheu was ready. He remained a moment motionless, then added, in his hollow voice:
“What is it that you want? Let things be, and see about the soup. It’s no good talking, better be at work down below.”
“True enough,” replied Maheude. “Blow out the candle: I don’t need to see the colour of my thoughts.”
He blew out the candle. Zacharie and Jeanlin were already going down; he followed them, and the wooden staircase creaked beneath their heavy feet, clad in wool. Behind them the closet and the room were again dark. The children slept; even Alzire’s eyelids were closed; but the mother now remained with her eyes open in the darkness, while, pulling at her breast, the pendent breast of an exhausted woman, Estelle was purring like a kitten.
Down below, Catherine had at first occupied herself with the fire, which was burning in the iron grate, flanked by two ovens. The Company distributed every month, to each family, eight hectolitres of a hard slaty coal, gathered in the passages. It burnt slowly, and the young girl, who piled up the fire every night, only had to stir it in the morning, adding a few fragments of soft coal, carefully picked out. Then, after having placed a kettle on the grate, she sat down before the sideboard.
It was a fairly large room, occupying all the ground floor, painted an apple green, and of Flemish cleanliness, with its flags well washed and covered with white sand. Besides the sideboard of varnished deal the furniture consisted of a table and chairs of the same wood. Stuck on to the walls were some violently-coloured prints, portraits of the emperor and the empress, given by the Company, of soldiers and of saints speckled with gold, contrasting crudely with the simple nudity of the room; and there was no other ornament except a box of rose-coloured pasteboard on the sideboard, and the clock with its daubed face and loud tick-tack, which seemed to fill the emptiness of the place. Near the staircase door another door led to the cellar. In spite of the cleanliness, an odour of cooked onion, shut up since the night before, poisoned the hot, heavy air, always laden with an acrid flavour of coal.
Catherine, in front of the sideboard, was reflecting. There only remained the end of a loaf, cheese in fair abundance, but hardly a morsel of butter; and she had to provide bread and butter for four. At last she decided, cut the slices, took one and covered it with cheese, spread another with butter, and stuck them together; that was the “briquet,” the bread-and-butter sandwich taken to the pit every morning. The four briquets were soon on the table, in a row, cut with severe justice, from the big one for the father down to the little one for Jeanlin.
Catherine, who appeared absorbed in her household duties, must, however, have been thinking of the stories told by Zacharie about the head captain and the Pierron woman, for she half opened the front door and glanced outside. The wind was still whistling. There were numerous spots of light on the low fronts of the settlement, from which arose a vague tremor of awakening. Already doors were being closed, and black files of workers passed into the night. It was stupid of her to get cold, since the porter at the pit-eye was certainly asleep, waiting to take his duties at six. Yet she remained and looked at the house on the other side of the gardens. The door opened, and her curiosity was aroused. But it could only be one of the little Pierrons, Lydie, setting out for the pit.
The hissing sound of steam made her turn. She shut the door, and hastened back; the water was boiling over, and putting out the fire. There was no more coffee. She had to be content to add the water to last night’s dregs; then she sugared the coffee-pot with brown sugar. At that moment her father and two brothers came downstairs.
“Faith!” exclaimed Zacharie, when he had put his nose into his bowl, “here’s something that won’t get into our heads.”
Maheu shrugged his shoulders with an air of resignation.
“Bah! It’s hot! It’s good all the same.”
Jeanlin had gathered up the fragments of bread and made a sop of them. After having drunk, Catherine finished by emptying the coffee-pot into the tin jacks. All four, standing up in the smoky light of the candle, swallowed their meals hastily.
“Are we at the end?” said the father; “one would say we were people of property.”
But a voice came from the staircase, of which they had left the door open. It was Maheude, who called out:
“Take all the bread: I have some vermicelli for the children.”
“Yes, yes,” replied Catherine.
She had piled up the fire, wedging the pot that held the remains of the soup into a corner of the grate, so that the grandfather might find it warm when he came in at six. Each took his sabots from under the sideboard, passed the strings of his tin over his shoulder and placed his brick at his back, between shirt and jacket. And they went out, the men first, the girl, who came last, blowing out the candle and turning the key. The house became dark again.
“Ah! we’re off together,” said a man who was closing the door of the next house.
It was Levaque, with his son Bébert, an urchin of twelve, a great friend of Jeanlin’s. Catherine, in surprise, stifled a laugh in Zacharie’s ear:
“Why! Bouteloup didn’t even wait until the husband had gone!”
Now the lights in the settlement were extinguished, and the last door banged. All again fell asleep; the women and the little ones resuming their slumber in the midst of wider beds. And from the extinguished village to the roaring Voreux a slow filing of shadows took place beneath the squalls, the departure of the colliers to their work, bending their shoulders and incommoded by their arms folded on their breasts, while the brick behind formed a hump on each back. Clothed in their thin jackets they shivered with cold, but without hastening, straggling along the road with the tramp of a flock.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15