THE Grégoires’ property, Piolaine, was situated two kilometres to the east of Montsou, on the Joiselle road. The house was a large square building, without style, dating from the beginning of the last century. Of all the land that once belonged to it there only remained some thirty hectares, enclosed by walls, and easy to keep up. The orchard and kitchen garden especially were everywhere spoken of, being famous for the finest fruit and vegetables in the country. For the rest, there was no park, only a small wood. The avenue of old limes, a vault of foliage three hundred metres long, reaching from the gate to the porch, was one of the curiosities of this bare plain, on which one could count the large trees between Marchiennes and Beaugnies.
On that morning the Grégoires got up at eight o’clock. Usually they never stirred until an hour later, being heavy sleepers; but last night’s tempest had disturbed them. And while her husband had gone at once to see if the wind had made any havoc, Madame Grégoire went down to the kitchen in her slippers and flannel dressing-gown. She was short and stout, about fifty-eight years of age, and retained a broad, surprised, dollish face beneath the dazzling whiteness of her hair.
“Mélanie,” she said to the cook, “suppose you were to make the brioche this morning, since the dough is ready. Mademoiselle will not get up for half an hour yet, and she can eat it with her chocolate. Eh? It will be a surprise.”
The cook, a lean old woman who had served them for thirty years, laughed. “That’s true! it will be a famous surprise. My stove is alight, and the oven must be hot; and then Honorine can help me a bit.”
Honorine, a girl of some twenty years, who had been taken in as a child and brought up in the house, now acted as housemaid. Besides these two women, the only other servant was the coachman, Francis, who undertook the heavy work. A gardener and his wife were occupied with the vegetables, the fruit, the flowers, and the poultry-yard. And as service here was patriarchal, this little world lived together, like one large family, on very good terms.
Madame Grégoire, who had planned this surprise of the brioche in bed, waited to see the dough put in the oven. The kitchen was very large, and one guessed it was the most important room in the house by its extreme cleanliness and by the arsenal of saucepans, utensils, and pots which filled it. It gave an impression of good feeding. Provisions abounded, hanging from hooks or in cupboards.
“And let it be well glazed, won’t you?” Madame Grégoire said as she passed into the dining-room.
In spite of the hot-air stove which warmed the whole house, a coal fire enlivened this room. In other respects it exhibited no luxury; a large table, chairs, a mahogany sideboard; only two deep easy-chairs betrayed a love of comfort, long happy hours of digestion. They never went into the drawing-room, they remained here in a family circle.
Just then M. Grégoire came back dressed in a thick fustian jacket; he also was ruddy for his sixty years, with large, good-natured, honest features beneath the snow of his curly hair. He had seen the coachman and the gardener; there had been no damage of importance, nothing but a fallen chimney-pot. Every morning he liked to give a glance round Piolaine, which was not large enough to cause him anxiety, and from which he derived all the happiness of ownership.
“And Cécile?” he asked, “isn’t she up yet then?”
“I can’t make it out,” replied his wife. “I thought I heard her moving.”
The table was set; there were three cups on the white cloth. They sent Honorine to see what had become of mademoiselle. But she came back immediately, restraining her laughter, stifling her voice, as if she were still upstairs in the bedroom.
“Oh! if monsieur and madame could see mademoiselle! She sleeps; oh! she sleeps like an angel. One can’t imagine it! It’s a pleasure to look at her.”
The father and mother exchanged tender looks. He said, smiling:
“Will you come and see?”
“The poor little darling!” she murmured. “I’ll come.” And they went up together. The room was the only luxurious one in the house. It was draped in blue silk, and the furniture was lacquered white, with blue tracery — a spoilt child’s whim, which her parents had gratified. In the vague whiteness of the bed, beneath the half-light which came through a curtain that was drawn back, the young girl was sleeping with her cheek resting on her naked arm. She was not pretty, too healthy, in too vigorous condition, fully developed at eighteen; but she had superb flesh, the freshness of milk, with her chestnut hair, her round face, and little wilful nose lost between her cheeks. The coverlet had slipped down, and she was breathing so softly that her respiration did not even lift her already well-developed bosom.
“That horrible wind must have prevented her from closing her eyes,” said the mother softly.
The father imposed silence with a gesture. Both of them leant down and gazed with adoration on this girl, in her virgin nakedness, whom they had desired so long, and who had come so late, when they had no longer hoped for her. They found her perfect, not at all too fat, and could never feed her sufficiently. And she went on sleeping, without feeling them near her, with their faces against hers. However, a slight movement disturbed her motionless face. They feared that they would wake her, and went out on tiptoe.
“Hush!” said M. Grégoire, at the door. “If she has not slept we must leave her sleeping.”
“As long as she likes, the darling!” agreed Madame Grégoire. “We will wait.”
They went down and seated themselves in the easy-chairs in the dining-room; while the servants, laughing at mademoiselle’s sound sleep, kept the chocolate on the stove without grumbling. He took up a newspaper; she knitted at a large woollen quilt. It was very hot, and not a sound was heard in the silent house.
The Grégoires’ fortune, about forty thousand francs a year, was entirely invested in a share of the Montsou mines. They would complacently narrate its origin, which dated from the very formation of the Company.
Towards the beginning of the last century, there had been a mad search for coal between Lille and Valenciennes. The success of those who held the concession, which was afterwards to become the Anzin Company, had turned all heads. In every commune the ground was tested; and societies were formed and concessions grew up in a night. But among all the obstinate seekers of that epoch, Baron Desruinaux had certainly left the reputation for the most heroic intelligence. For forty years he had struggled without yielding, in the midst of continual obstacles: early searches unsuccessful, new pits abandoned at the end of long months of work, landslips which filled up borings, sudden inundations which drowned the workmen, hundreds of thousands of francs thrown into the earth; then the squabbles of the management, the panics of the shareholders, the struggle with the lords of the soil, who were resolved not to recognize royal concessions if no treaty was first made with themselves. He had at last founded the association of Desruinaux, Fauquenoix Co. to exploit the Montsou concession, and the pits began to yield a small profit when two neighbouring concessions, that of Cougny, belonging to the Comte de Cougny, and that of Joiselle, belonging to the Cornille and Jenard Company, had nearly overwhelmed him beneath the terrible assault of their competition. Happily, on the 25th. August 1760, a treaty was made between the three concessions, uniting them into a single one. The Montsou Mining Company was created, such as it still exists to-day. In the distribution they had divided the total property, according to the standard of the money of the time, into twenty-four sous, of which each was subdivided into twelve deniers, which made two hundred and eighty-eight deniers; and as the denier was worth ten thousand francs the capital represented a sum of nearly three millions. Desruinaux, dying but triumphant, received in this division six sous’ and three deniers.
In those days the baron possessed Piolaine, which had three hundred hectares belonging to it, and he had in his service as steward Honoré Grégoire, a Picardy lad, the great-grandfather of Léon Grégoire, Cécile’s father. When the Montsou treaty was made, Honor, who had laid up savings to the amount of some fifty thousand francs, yielded tremblingly to his master’s unshakable faith. He took out ten thousand francs in fine crowns, and took a denier, though with the fear of robbing his children of that sum. His son Eugéne, in fact, received very small dividends; and as he had become a bourgeois and had been foolish enough to throw away the other forty thousand francs of the paternal inheritance in a company that came to grief, he lived meanly enough. But the interest of the denier gradually increased. The fortune began with Félicien, who was able to realize a dream with which his grandfather, the old steward, had nursed his childhood — the purchase of dismembered Piolaine, which he acquired as national property for a ludicrous sum. However, bad years followed. It was necessary to await the conclusion of the revolutionary catastrophes, and afterwards Napoleon’s bloody fall; and it was Léon Grégoire who profited at a stupefying rate of progress by the timid and uneasy investment of his great-grandfather. Those poor ten thousand francs grew and multiplied with the Company’s prosperity. From 1820 they had brought in one hundred per cent, ten thousand francs. In 1844 they had produced twenty thousand; in 1850, forty. During two years the dividend had reached the prodigious figure of fifty thousand francs; the value of the denier, quoted at the Lille bourse at a million, had centupled in a century.
M. Grégoire, who had been advised to sell out when this figure of a million was reached, had refused with his smiling paternal air. Six months later an industrial crisis broke out; the denier fell to six hundred thousand francs. But he still smiled; he regretted nothing, for the Grégoires had maintained an obstinate faith in their mine. It would rise again: God Himself was not so solid. Then with his religious faith was mixed profound gratitude towards an investment which for a century had supported the family in doing nothing. It was like a divinity of their own, whom their egoism surrounded with a kind of worship, the benefactor of the hearth, lulling them in their great bed of idleness, fattening them at their gluttonous table. From father to son it had gone on. Why risk displeasing fate by doubting it? And at the bottom of their fidelity there was a superstitious terror, a fear lest the million of the denier might suddenly melt away if they were to realize it and to put it in a drawer. It seemed to them more sheltered in the earth, from which a race of miners, generations of starving people, extracted it for them, a little every day, as they needed it.
For the rest, happiness rained on this house. M. Grégoire, when very young, had married the daughter of a Marchiennes druggist, a plain, penniless girl, whom he adored, and who repaid him with happiness. She shut herself up in her household, and worshipped her husband, having no other will but his. No difference of tastes separated them, their desires were mingled in one idea of comfort; and they had thus lived for forty years, in affection and little mutual services. It was a well-regulated existence; the forty thousand francs were spent quietly, and the savings expended on Cécile, whose tardy birth had for a moment disturbed the budget. They still satisfied all her whims — a second horse, two more carriages, toilets sent from Paris. But they tasted in this one more joy; they thought nothing too good for their daughter, although they had such a horror of display that they had preserved the fashions of their youth. Every unprofitable expense seemed foolish to them.
Suddenly the door opened, and a loud voice called out:
“Hallo! What now? Having breakfast without me!”
It was Cécile, just come from her bed, her eyes heavy with sleep. She had simply put up her hair and flung on a white woollen dressing-gown.
“No, no!” said the mother; “you see we are all waiting. Eh? has the wind prevented you from sleeping, poor darling?”
The young girl looked at her in great surprise.
“Has it been windy? I didn’t know anything about it. I haven’t moved all night.”
Then they thought this funny, and all three began to laugh; the servants who were bringing in the breakfast also broke out laughing, so amused was the household at the idea that mademoiselle had been sleeping for twelve hours right off. The sight of the brioche completed the expansion of their faces.
“What! Is it cooked, then?” said Cécile; ‘“that must be a surprise for me! That’ll be good now, hot, with the chocolate!”
They sat down to table at last with the smoking chocolate in their cups, and for a long time talked of nothing but the brioche. Mélanie and Honorine remained to give details about the cooking and watched them stuffing themselves with greasy lips, saying that it was a pleasure to make a cake when one saw the masters enjoying it so much.
But the dogs began to bark loudly; perhaps they announced the music mistress, who came from Marchiennes on Mondays and Fridays. A professor of literature also came. All the young girl’s education was thus carried on at Piolaine in happy ignorance, with her childish whims, throwing the book out of the window as soon as anything wearied her.
“It is M. Deneulin,” said Honorine, returning.
Behind her, Deneulin, a cousin of M. Grégoire’s, appeared without ceremony; with his loud voice, his quick gestures, he had the appearance of an old cavalry officer. Although over fifty, his short hair and thick moustache were as black as ink.
“Yes! It is I. Good day! Don’t disturb yourselves.”
He had sat down amid the family’s exclamations. They turned back at last to their chocolate.
“Have you anything to tell me?” asked M. Grégoire. “No! nothing at all,” Deneulin hastened to reply. “I came out on horseback to rub off the rust a bit, and as I passed your door I thought I would just look in.”
Cécile questioned him about Jeanne and Lucie, his daughters. They were perfectly well, the first was always at her painting, while the other, the elder, was training her voice at the piano from morning till night. And there was a slight quiver in his voice, a disquiet which he concealed beneath bursts of gaiety.
M. Grégoire began again:
“And everything goes well at the pit?”
“Well, I am upset over this dirty crisis. Ah! we are paying for the prosperous years! They have built too many workshops, put down too many railways, invested too much capital with a view to a large return, and today the money is asleep. They can’t get any more to make the whole thing work. Luckily things are not desperate; I shall get out of it somehow.”
Like his cousin he had inherited a denier in the Montsou mines. But being an enterprising engineer, tormented by the desire for a royal fortune, he had hastened to sell out when the denier had reached a million. For some months he had been maturing a scheme. His wife possessed, through an uncle, the little concession of Vandame, where only two pits were open — Jean-Bart and Gaston-Marie — in an abandoned state, and with such defective material that the output hardly covered the cost. Now he was meditating the repair of Jean-Bart, the renewal of the engine, and the enlargement of the shaft so as to facilitate the descent, keeping Gaston-Marie only for exhaustion purposes. They ought to be able to shovel up gold there, he said. The idea was sound. Only the million had been spent over it, and this damnable industrial crisis broke out at the moment when large profits would have shown that he was right. Besides, he was a bad manager, with a rough kindness towards his workmen, and since his wife’s death he allowed himself to be pillaged, and also gave the rein to his daughters, the elder of whom talked of going on the stage, while the younger had already had three landscapes refused at the Salon, both of them joyous amid the downfall, and exhibiting in poverty their capacity for good household management.
“You see, Léon,” he went on, in a hesitating voice, “you were wrong not to sell out at the same time as I did; now everything is going down. You run risk, and if you had confided your money to me and you would have seen what we should have done at Vandame in our mine!”
M. Grégoire finished his chocolate without haste. He replied peacefully:
“Never! You know that I don’t want to speculate. I live quietly, and it would be too foolish to worry my head over business affairs. And as for Montsou, it may continue to go down, we shall always get our living out of it. It doesn’t do to be so diabolically greedy! Then, listen, it is you who will bite your fingers one day, for Montsou will rise again and Cécile’s grandchildren will still get their white bread out of it.”
Deneulin listened with a constrained smile.
“Then,” he murmured, “if I were to ask you to put a hundred thousand francs in my affair you would refuse?”
But seeing the Grégoires’ disturbed faces he regretted having gone so far; he put off his idea of a loan, reserving it until the case was desperate.
“Oh! I have not got to that! it is a joke. Good heavens! perhaps you are right; the money that other people earn for you is the best to fatten on.”
They changed the conversation. Cécile spoke again of her cousins, whose tastes interested, while at the same time they shocked her. Madame Grégoire promised to take her daughter to see those dear little ones on the first fine day. M. Grégoire, however, with a distracted air, did not follow the conversation. He added aloud:
“If I were in your place I wouldn’t persist any more; I would treat with Montsou. They want it, and you will get your money back.”
He alluded to an old hatred which existed between the concession of Montsou and that of Vandame. In spite of the latter’s slight importance, its powerful neighbour was enraged at seeing, enclosed within its own sixty-seven communes, this square league which did not belong to it, and after having vainly tried to kill it had plotted to buy it at a low price when in a failing condition. The war continued without truce. Each party stopped its galleries at two hundred metres from the other; it was a duel to the last drop of blood, although the managers and engineers maintained polite relations with each other.
Deneulin’s eyes had flamed up.
“Never!” he cried, in his turn. “Montsou shall never have Vandame as long as I am alive. I dined on Thursday at Hennebeau’s, and I saw him fluttering around me. Last autumn, when the big men came to the administration building, they made me all sorts of advances. Yes, yes, I know them — those marquises, and dukes, and generals, and ministers! Brigands who would take away even your shirt at the corner of a wood.”
He could not cease. Besides, M. Grégoire did not defend the administration of Montsou — the six stewards established by the treaty of 1760, who governed the Company despotically, and the five survivors of whom on every death chose the new member among the powerful and rich shareholders. The opinion of the owner of Piolaine, with his reasonable ideas, was that these gentlemen were sometimes rather immoderate in their exaggerated love of money.
Mélanie had come to clear away the table. Outside the dogs were again barking, and Honorine was going to the door, when Cécile, who was stifled by heat and food, left the table.
“No, never mind! it must be for my lesson.”
Deneulin had also risen. He watched the young girl go out, and asked, smiling:
“Well! and the marriage with little Négrel?”
“Nothing has been settled,” said Madame Grégroire; “it is only an idea. We must reflect.”
“No doubt!” he went on, with a gay laugh. “I believe that the nephew and the aunt — What baffles me is that Madame Hennebeau should throw herself so on Cécile’s neck.”
But M. Grégoire was indignant. So distinguished a lady, and fourteen years older than the young man! It was monstrous; he did not like joking on such subjects. Deneulin, still laughing, shook hands with him and left.
“Not yet,” said Cécile, coming back. “It is that woman with the two children. You know, mamma, the miner’s wife whom we met. Are they to come in here?”
They hesitated. Were they very dirty? No, not very; and they would leave their sabots in the porch. Already the father and mother had stretched themselves out in the depths of their large easy-chairs. They were digesting there. The fear of change of air decided them.
“Let them come in, Honorine.”
Then Maheude and her little ones entered, frozen and hungry, seized by fright on finding themselves in this room, which was so warm and smelled so nicely of the brioche.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02