THE room remained shut up and the shutters had allowed gradual streaks of daylight to form a fan on the ceiling. The confined air stupefied them so that they continued their night’s slumber: Lénore and Henri in each other’s arms, Alzire with her head back, lying on her hump; while Father Bonnemort, having the bed of Zacharie and Jeanlin to himself, snored with open mouth. No sound came from the closet where Maheude had gone to sleep again while suckling Estelle, her breast hanging to one side, the child lying across her belly, stuffed with milk, overcome also and stifling in the soft flesh of the bosom.
The clock below struck six. Along the front of the settlement one heard the sound of doors, then the clatter of sabots along the pavements; the screening women were going to the pit. And silence again fell until seven o’clock. Then shutters were drawn back, yawns and coughs were heard through the walls. For a long time a coffee-mill scraped, but no one awoke in the room.
Suddenly a sound of blows and shouts, far away, made Alzire sit up. She was conscious of the time, and ran barefooted to shake her mother.
“Mother, mother, it is late! you have to go out. Take care, you are crushing Estelle.”
And she saved the child, half-stifled beneath the enormous mass of the breasts.
“Good gracious!” stammered Maheude, rubbing her eyes, “I’m so knocked up I could sleep all day. Dress Lénore and Henri, I’ll take them with me; and you can take care of Estelle; I don’t want to drag her along for fear of hurting her, this dog’s weather.”
She hastily washed herself and put on an old blue skirt, her cleanest, and a loose jacket of grey wool in which she had made two patches the evening before.
“And the soup! Good gracious!” she muttered again.
When her mother had gone down, upsetting everything, Alzire went back into the room taking with her Estelle, who had begun screaming. But she was used to the little one’s rages; at eight she had all a woman’s tender cunning in soothing and amusing her. She gently placed her in her still warm bed, and put her to sleep again, giving her a finger to suck. It was time, for now another disturbance broke out, and she had to make peace between Lénore and Henri, who at last awoke. These children could never get on together; it was only when they were asleep that they put their arms round one another’s necks. The girl, who was six years old, as soon as she was awake set on the boy, her junior by two years, who received her blows without returning them. Both of them had the same kind of head, which was too large for them, as if blown out, with disorderly yellow hair. Alzire had to pull her sister by the legs, threatening to take the skin off her bottom. Then there was stamping over the washing, and over every garment that she put on to them. The shutters remained closed so as not to disturb Father Bonnemort’s sleep. He went on snoring amid the children’s frightful clatter.
“It’s ready. Are you coming, up there?” shouted Maheude.
She had put back the blinds, and stirred up the fire, adding some coal to it. Her hope was that the old man had not swallowed all the soup. But she found the saucepan dry, and cooked a handful of vermicelli which she had been keeping for three days in reserve. They could swallow it with water, without butter, as there could not be any remaining from the day before, and she was surprised to find that Catherine in preparing the briquets had performed the miracle of leaving a piece as large as a nut. But this time the cupboard was indeed empty: nothing, not a crust, not an odd fragment, not a bone to gnaw. What was to become of them if Maigrat persisted in cutting short their credit, and if the Piolaine people would not give them the five francs? When the men and the girl returned from the pit they would want to eat, for unfortunately it had not yet been found out how to live without eating.
“Come down, will you?” she cried out, getting angry. “I ought to be gone by this!”
When Alzire and the children were there she divided the vermicelli in three small portions. She herself was not hungry, she said. Although Catherine had already poured water on the coffee-dregs of the day before, she did so over again, and swallowed two large glasses of coffee so weak that it looked like rusty water. That would keep her up all the same.
“Listen!” she repeated to Alzire. “You must let your grandfather sleep; you must watch that Estelle does not knock her head; and if she wakes, or if she howls too much, here! take this bit of sugar and melt it and give it her in spoonfuls. I know that you are sensible and won’t eat it yourself.”
“And school, mother?”
“School! well, that must be left for another day: I want you.”
“And the soup? would you like me to make it if you come back late?”
“Soup, soup: no, wait till I come.”
Alzire, with the precocious intelligence of a little invalid girl, could make soup very well. She must have understood, for she did not insist. Now the whole settlement was awake, bands of children were going to school, and one heard the trailing noise of their clogs. Eight o’clock struck, and a growing murmur of chatter arose on the left, among the Levaque people. The women were commencing their day around the coffee-pots, with their fists on their hips, their tongues turning without ceasing, like millstones. A faded head, with thick lips and flattened nose, was pressed against a window-pane, calling out:
“Got some news. Stop a bit.”
“No, no! later on,” replied Maheude. “I have to go out.”
And for fear of giving way to the offer of a glass of hot coffee she pushed Lénore and Henri, and set out with them. Up above, Father Bonnemort was still snoring with a rhythmic snore which rocked the house.
Outside, Maheude was surprised to find that the wind was no longer blowing. There had been a sudden thaw; the sky was earth-coloured, the walls were sticky with greenish moisture, and the roads were covered with pitch-like mud, a special kind of mud peculiar to the coal country, as black as diluted soot, thick and tenacious enough to pull off her sabots. Suddenly she boxed Lénore’s ears, because the little one amused herself by piling the mud on her clogs as on the end of a shovel. On leaving the settlement she had gone along by the pit-bank and followed the road of the canal, making a short cut through broken-up paths, across rough country shut in by mossy palings. Sheds succeeded one another, long workshop buildings, tall chimneys spitting out soot, and soiling this ravaged suburb of an industrial district. Behind a clump of poplars the old Réquillart pit exhibited its crumbling steeple, of which the large skeleton alone stood upright. And turning to the right, Maheude found herself on the high road.
“Stop, stop, dirty pig! I’ll teach you to make rissoles.” Now it was Henri, who had taken a handful of mud and was moulding it. The two children had their ears impartially boxed, and resumed their orderly progress, squinting down at the tracks they were making in the mud-heaps. They draggled along, already exhausted by their efforts to unstick their shoes at every step.
On the Marchiennes side the road unrolled its two leagues of pavement, which stretched straight as a ribbon soaked in cart grease between the reddish fields. But on the other side it went winding down through Montsou, which was built on the slope of a large undulation in the plain. These roads in the Nord, drawn like a string between manufacturing towns, with their slight curves, their slow ascents, gradually get lined with houses and tend to make the department one laborious city. The little brick houses, daubed over to enliven the climate, some yellow, others blue, others black — the last, no doubt, in order to reach at once their final shade — went serpentining down to right and to left to the bottom of the slope. A few large two-storied villas, the dwellings of the heads of the workshops, made gaps in the serried line of narrow facades. A church, also of brick, looked like a new model of a large furnace, with its square tower already stained by the floating coal dust. And amid the sugar works, the rope works, and the flour mills, there stood out ballrooms, restaurants, and beer-shops, which were so numerous that to every thousand houses there were more than five hundred inns.
As she approached the Company’s Yards, a vast series of storehouses and workshops, Maheude decided to take Henri and Lénore by the hand, one on the right, the other on the left. Beyond was situated the house of the director, M. Hennebeau, a sort of vast chalet, separated from the road by a grating, and then a garden in which some lean trees vegetated. Just then, a carriage had stopped before the door and a gentleman with decorations and a lady in a fur cloak alighted: visitors just arrived from Paris at the Marchiennes station, for Madame Hennebeau, who appeared in the shadow of the porch, was uttering exclamations of surprise and joy.
“Come along, then, dawdlers!” growled Maheude, pulling the two little ones, who were standing in the mud.
When she arrived at Maigrat’s, she was quite excited. Maigrat lived close to the manager; only a wall separated the latter’s ground from his own small house, and he had there a warehouse, a long building which opened on to the road as a shop without a front. He kept everything there, grocery, cooked meats, fruit, and sold bread, beer, and saucepans. Formerly an overseer at the Voreux, he had started with a small canteen; then, thanks to the protection of his superiors, his business had enlarged, gradually killing the Montsou retail trade. He centralized merchandise, and the considerable custom of the settlements enabled him to sell more cheaply and to give longer credit. Besides, he had remained in the Company’s hands, and they had built his small house and his shop.
“Here I am again, Monsieur Maigrat,” said Maheude humbly, finding him standing in front of his door.
He looked at her without replying. He was a stout, cold, polite man, and he prided himself on never changing his mind.
“Now you won’t send me away again, like yesterday. We must have bread from now to Saturday. Sure enough, we owe you sixty francs these two years.”
She explained in short, painful phrases. It was an old debt contracted during the last strike. Twenty times over they had promised to settle it, but they had not been able; they could not even give him forty sous a fortnight. And then a misfortune had happened two days before; she had been obliged to pay twenty francs to a shoemaker who threatened to seize their things. And that was why they were without a sou. Otherwise they would have been able to go on until Saturday, like the others.
Maigrat, with protruded belly and folded arms, shook his head at every supplication.
“Only two loaves, Monsieur Maigrat. I am reasonable, I don’t ask for coffee. Only two three-pound loaves a day.”
“No,” he shouted at last, at the top of his voice.
His wife had appeared, a pitiful creature who passed all her days over a ledger, without even daring to lift her head. She moved away, frightened at seeing this unfortunate woman turning her ardent, beseeching eyes towards her. It was said that she yielded the conjugal bed to the putters among the customers. It was a known fact that when a miner wished to prolong his credit, he had only to send his daughter or his wife, plain or pretty, it mattered not, provided they were complaisant.
Maheude, still imploring Maigrat with her look, felt herself uncomfortable under the pale keenness of his small eyes, which seemed to undress her. It made her angry; she would have understood before she had had seven children, when she was young. And she went off, violently dragging Lénore and Henri who were occupied in picking up nut-shells from the gutter and examining them.
“This won’t bring you luck, Monsieur Maigrat, remember!”
Now there only remained the Piolaine people. If these would not throw her a five-franc piece she might as well lie down and die. She had taken the Joiselle road on the left. The administration building was there at the corner of the road, a veritable brick palace, where the great people from Paris, princes and generals and members of the Government, came every autumn to give large dinners. As she walked she was already spending the five francs, first bread, then coffee, afterwards a quarter of butter, a bushel of potatoes for the morning soup and the evening stew; finally, perhaps, a bit of brawn, for the father needed meat.
The curé of Montsou, Abbé Joire, was passing, holding up his cassock, with the delicate air of a fat, well-nourished cat afraid of wetting its fur. He was a mild man who pretended not to interest himself in anything, so as not to vex either the workers or the masters.
“Good day, monsieur le curé.”
Without stopping he smiled at the children, and left her planted in the middle of the road. She was not religious, but she had suddenly imagined that this priest would give her something.
And the journey began again through the black, sticky mud. There were still two kilometres to walk, and the little ones dragged behind more than ever, for they were frightened, and no longer amused themselves. To right and to left of the path the same vague landscape unrolled, enclosed within mossy palings, the same factory buildings, dirty with smoke, bristling with tall chimneys. Then the flat land was spread out in immense open fields, like an ocean of brown clods, without a tree-trunk, as far as the purplish line of the forest of Vandame.
“Carry me, mother.”
She carried them one after the other. Puddles made holes in the pathway, and she pulled up her clothes, fearful of arriving too dirty. Three times she nearly fell, so sticky was that confounded pavement. And as they at last arrived before the porch, two enormous dogs threw themselves upon them, barking so loudly that the little ones yelled with terror. The coachman was obliged to take a whip to them.
“Leave your sabots, and come in,” repeated Honorine. In the dining-room the mother and children stood motionless, dazed by the sudden heat, and very constrained beneath the gaze of this old lady and gentleman, who were stretched out in their easy-chairs.
“Cécile,” said the old lady, “fulfil your little duties.”
The Grégoires charged Cécile with their charities. It was part of their idea of a good education. One must be charitable. They said themselves that their house was the house of God. Besides, they flattered themselves that they performed their charity with intelligence, and they were exercised by a constant fear lest they should be deceived, and so encourage vice. So they never gave money, never! Not ten sous, not two sous, for it is a well-known fact that as soon as a poor man gets two sous he drinks them. Their alms were, therefore, always in kind, especially in warm clothing, distributed during the winter to needy children.
“Oh! the poor dears!” exclaimed Cécile, ‘“how pale they are from the cold! Honorine, go and look for the parcel in the cupboard.”
The servants were also gazing at these miserable creatures with the pity and vague uneasiness of girls who are in no difficulty about their own dinners. While the housemaid went upstairs, the cook forgot her duties, leaving the rest of the brioche on the table, and stood there swinging her empty hands.
“I still have two woollen dresses and some comforters,” Cécile went on; “you will see how warm they will be, the poor dears!”
Then Maheude found her tongue, and stammered:
“Thank you so much, mademoiselle. You are all too good.”
Tears had filled her eyes, she thought herself sure of the five francs, and was only preoccupied by the way in which she would ask for them if they were not offered to her. The housemaid did not reappear, and there was a moment of embarrassed silence. From their mother’s skirts the little ones opened their eyes wide and gazed at the brioche.
“You only have these two?” asked Madame Grégoire, in order to break the silence.
“Oh, madame! I have seven. ”
M. Grégoire, who had gone back to his newspaper. sat up indignantly.
“Seven children! But why? good God!”
“It is imprudent,” murmured the old lady.
Maheude made a vague gesture of apology. What would you have? One doesn’t think about it at all, they come quite naturally. And then, when they grow up they bring something in, and that makes the household go. Take their case, they could get on, if it was not for the grandfather who was getting quite stiff, and if it was not that among the lot only two of her sons and her eldest daughter were old enough to go down into the pit. It was necessary, all the same, to feed the little ones who brought nothing in.
“Then,” said Madame Grégoire, “you have worked for a long time at the mines?”
A silent laugh lit up Maheude’s pale face.
“Ah, yes! ah, yes! I went down till I was twenty. The doctor said that I should stay above for good after I had been confined the second time, because it seems that made something go wrong in my inside. Besides, then I got married, and I had enough to do in the house. But on my husband’s side, you see, they have been down there for ages. It goes up from grandfather to grandfather, one doesn’t know how far back, quite to the beginning when they first took the pick down there at Réquillart.”
M. Grégoire thoughtfully contemplated this woman and these pitiful children, with their waxy flesh, their discoloured hair, the degeneration which stunted them, gnawed by anaemia, and with the melancholy ugliness of starvelings. There was silence again, and one only heard the burning coal as it gave out a jet of gas. The moist room had that heavy air of comfort in which our middle-class nooks of happiness slumber.
“What is she doing, then?” exclaimed Cécile impatiently. “Mélanie, go up and tell her that the parcel is at the bottom of the cupboard, on the left.”
In the meanwhile, M. Grégoire repeated aloud the reflections inspired by the sight of these starving ones.
“There is evil in this world, it is quite true; but, my good woman, it must also be said that workpeople are never prudent. Thus, instead of putting aside a few sous like our peasants, miners drink, get into debt, and end by not having enough to support their families.”
“Monsieur is right,” replied Maheude sturdily. “They don’t always keep to the right path. That’s what I’m always saying to the ne’er-do-wells when they complain. Now, I have been lucky; my husband doesn’t drink. All the same, on feast Sundays he sometimes takes a drop too much; but it never goes farther. It is all the nicer of him, since before our marriage he drank like a hog, begging your pardon. And yet, you know, it doesn’t help us much that he is so sensible. There are days like to-day when you might turn out all the drawers in the house and not find a farthing.”
She wished to suggest to them the idea of the five-franc piece, and went on in her low voice, explaining the fatal debt, small at first, then large and overwhelming. They paid regularly for many fortnights. But one day they got behind, and then it was all up. They could never catch up again. The gulf widened, and the men became disgusted with work which did not even allow them to pay their way. Do what they could, there was nothing but difficulties until death. Besides, it must be understood that a collier needed a glass to wash away the dust. It began there, and then he was always in the inn when worries came. Without complaining of any one it might be that the workmen did not earn as much as they ought to.
“I thought,” said Madame Gérgoire, “that the Company gave you lodging and firing?”
Maheude glanced sideways at the flaming coal in the fire-place.
“Yes, yes, they give us coal, not very grand, but it burns. As to lodging, it only costs six francs a month; that sounds like nothing, but it is often pretty hard to pay. To-day they might cut me up into bits without getting two sous out of me. Where there’s nothing, there’s nothing.”
The lady and gentleman were silent, softly stretched out, and gradually wearied and disquieted by the exhibition of this wretchedness. She feared she had wounded them, and added, with the stolid and just air of a practical woman:
“Oh! I didn’t want to complain. Things are like this, and one has to put up with them; all the more that it’s no good struggling, perhaps we shouldn’t change anything. The best is, is it not, to try and live honestly in the place in which the good God has put us?”
M. Grégoire approved this emphatically.
“With such sentiments, my good woman, one is above misfortune.”
Honorine and Mélanie at last brought the parcel.
Cécile unfastened it and took out the two dresses. She added comforters, even stockings and mittens. They would all fit beautifully; she hastened and made the servants wrap up the chosen garments; for her music mistress had just arrived; and she pushed the mother and children towards the door.
“We are very short,” stammered Maheude; “if we only had a five-franc piece ——”
The phrase was stifled, for the Maheus were proud and never begged. Cécile looked uneasily at her father; but the latter refused decisively, with an air of duty.
“No, it is not our custom. We cannot do it.”
Then the young girl, moved by the mother’s overwhelmed face, wished to do all she could for the children. They were still looking fixedly at the brioche; she cut it in two and gave it to them.
“Here! this is for you.”
Then, taking the pieces back, she asked for an old newspaper:
“Wait, you must share with your brothers and sisters.” And beneath the tender gaze of her parents she finally pushed them out of the room. The poor starving urchins went off, holding the brioche respectfully in their benumbed little hands.
Maheude dragged her children along the road, seeing neither the desert fields, nor the black mud, nor the great livid sky. As she passed through Montsou she resolutely entered Maigrat’s shop, and begged so persistently that at last she carried away two loaves, coffee, butter, and even her five-franc piece, for the man also lent money by the week. It was not her that he wanted, it was Catherine; she understood that when he advised her to send her daughter for provisions. They would see about that. Catherine would box his ears if he came too close under her nose.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02