ELEVEN o’clock struck at the little church in the Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement, a brick chapel to which Abbé Joire came to say mass on Sundays. In the school beside it, also of brick, one heard the faltering voices of the children, in spite of windows closed against the outside cold. The wide passages, divided into little gardens, back to back, between the four large blocks of uniform houses, were deserted; and these gardens, devastated by the winter, exhibited the destitution of their marly soil, lumped and spotted by the last vegetables. They were making soup, chimneys were smoking, a woman appeared at distant intervals along the fronts, opened a door and disappeared. From one end to the other, on the pavement, the pipes dripped into tubs, although it was no longer raining, so charged was this grey sky with moistness. And the village, built altogether in the midst of the vast plain, and edged by its black roads as by a mourning border, had no touch of joyousness about it save the regular bands of its red tiles, constantly washed by showers.
When Maheude returned, she went out of her way to buy potatoes from an overseer’s wife whose crop was not yet exhausted. Behind a curtain of sickly poplars, the only trees in these flat regions, was a group of isolated buildings, houses placed four together, and surrounded by their gardens. As the Company reserved this new experiment for the captains, the workpeople called this corner of the hamlet the settlement of the Bas-de-Soie, just as they called their own settlement Paie-tes-Dettes, in good-humoured irony of their wretchedness.
“Eh! Here we are,” said Maheude, laden with parcels, pushing in Lénore and Henri, covered with mud and quite tired out.
In front of the fire Estelle was screaming, cradled in Alzire’s arms. The latter, having no more sugar and not knowing how to soothe her, had decided to pretend to give her the breast. This ruse often succeeded. But this time it was in vain for her to open her dress, and to press the mouth against the lean breast of an eight-year-old invalid; the child was enraged at biting the skin and drawing nothing.
“Pass her to me,” cried the mother as soon as she found herself free; “she won’t let us say a word.”
When she had taken from her bodice a breast as heavy as a leather bottle, to the neck of which the brawler hung, suddenly silent, they were at last able to talk. Otherwise everything was going on well; the little housekeeper had kept up the fire and had swept and arranged the room. And in the silence they heard upstairs the grandfather’s snoring, the same rhythmic snoring which had not stopped for a moment.
“What a lot of things!” murmured Alzire, smiling at the provisions. “If you like, mother, I’ll make the soup.”
The table was encumbered: a parcel of clothes, two loaves, potatoes, butter, coffee, chicory, and half a pound of brawn.
“Oh! the soup!” said Maheude with an air of fatigue. “We must gather some sorrel and pull up some leeks. No! I will make some for the men afterwards. Put some potatoes on to boil; we’ll eat them with a little butter and some coffee, eh? Don’t forget the coffee!”
But suddenly she thought of the brioche. She looked at the empty hands of Lénore and Henri who were fighting on the floor, already rested and lively. These gluttons had slyly eaten the brioche on the road. She boxed their ears, while Alzire, who was putting the saucepan on the fire, tried to appease her.
“Let them be, mother. If the brioche was for me, you know I don’t mind a bit. They were hungry, walking so far.”
Midday struck; they heard the clogs of the children coming out of school. The potatoes were cooked, and the coffee, thickened by a good half of chicory, was passing through the percolator with a singing noise of large drops. One corner of the table was free; but the mother only was eating there. The three children were satisfied with their knees; and all the time the little boy with silent voracity looked, without saying anything, at the brawn, excited by the greasy paper.
Maheude was drinking her coffee in little sips, with her hands round the glass to warm them, when Father Bonnemort came down. Usually he rose late, and his breakfast waited for him on the fire. But to-day he began to grumble because there was no soup. Then, when his daughter-in-law said to him that one cannot always do what one likes, he ate his potatoes in silence. From time to time he got up to spit in the ashes for cleanliness, and, settled in his chair, he rolled his food round in his mouth, with lowered head and dull eyes.
“Ah! I forgot, mother,” said Alzire. “The neighbour came ——”
Her mother interrupted her.
“She bothers me!”
She felt a deep rancour against the Levaque woman, who had pleaded poverty the day before to avoid lending her anything; while she knew that she was just then in comfort, since her lodger, Bouteloup, had paid his fortnight in advance. In the settlement they did not usually lend from household to household.
“Here! you remind me,” said Maheude. “Wrap up a millful of coffee. I will take it to Pierronne; I owe it her from the day before yesterday.”
And when her daughter had prepared the packet she added that she would come back immediately to put the men’s soup on the fire. Then she went out with Estelle in her arms, leaving old Bonnemort to chew his potatoes leisurely, while Lénore and Henri fought for the fallen parings.
Instead of going round, Maheude went straight across through the gardens, for fear lest Levaque’s wife should call her. Her garden was just next to that of the Pierrons, and in the dilapidated trellis-work which separated them there was a hole through which they fraternized. The common well was there, serving four households. Beside it, behind a clump of feeble lilacs, was situated the shed, a low building full of old tools, in which were brought up the rabbits which were eaten on feast days. One o’clock struck; it was the hour for coffee, and not a soul was to be seen at the doors or windows. Only a workman belonging to the earth-cutting, waiting the hour for descent, was digging up his patch of vegetable ground without raising his head. But as Maheude arrived opposite the other block of buildings, she was surprised to see a gentleman and two ladies in front of the church. She stopped a moment and recognized them; it was Madame Hennebeau bringing her guests, the decorated gentleman and the lady in the fur mantle, to see the settlement.
“Oh! why did you take this trouble?” exclaimed Pierronne, when Maheude had returned the coffee. “There was no hurry.”
She was twenty-eight, and was considered the beauty of the settlement, dark, with a low forehead, large eyes, straight mouth, and coquettish as well; with the neatness of a cat, and with a good figure, for she had had no children. Her mother, Brulé, the widow of a pikeman who died in the mine, after having sent her daughter to work in a factory, swearing that she should never marry a collier, had never ceased to be angry since she had married, somewhat late, Pierron, a widower with a girl of eight. However, the household lived very happily, in the midst of chatter, of scandals which circulated concerning the husband’s complaisance and the wife’s lovers. No debts, meat twice a week, a house kept so clean that one could see oneself in the saucepans. As an additional piece of luck, thanks to favours, the Company had authorized her to sell bon-bons and biscuits, jars of which she exhibited, on two boards, behind the windowpanes. This was six or seven sous profit a day, and sometimes twelve on Sundays. The only drawback to all this happiness was Mother Brulé, who screamed with all the rage of an old revolutionary, having to avenge the death of her man on the masters, and little Lydie, who pocketed, in the shape of frequent blows, the passions of the family.
“How big she is already!” said Pierronne, simpering at Estelle.
“Oh! the trouble that it gives! Don’t talk of it!” said Maheude. “You are lucky not to have any. At least you can keep clean.”
Although everything was in order in her house, and she scrubbed every Saturday, she glanced with a jealous housekeeper’s eye over this clean room, in which there was even a certain coquetry, gilt vases on the sideboard, a mirror, three framed prints.
Pierronne was about to drink her coffee alone, all her people being at the pit.
“You’ll have a glass with me?” she said.
“No, thanks; I’ve just swallowed mine.”
“What does that matter?”
In fact, it mattered nothing. And both began drinking slowly. Between the jars of biscuits and bon-bons their eyes rested on the opposite houses, of which the little curtains in the windows formed a row, revealing by their greater or less whiteness the virtues of the housekeepers. Those of the Levaques were very dirty, veritable kitchen clouts, which seemed to have wiped the bottoms of the saucepans.
“How can they live in such dirt?” murmured Pierronne.
Then Maheude began and did not stop. Ah! if she had had a lodger like that Bouteloup she would have made the household go. When one knew how to do it, a lodger was an excellent thing. Only one ought not to sleep with him. And then the husband had taken to drink, beat his wife, and ran after the singers at the Montsou caféconcerts.
Pierronne assumed an air of profound disgust. These singers gave all sort of diseases. There was one at Joiselle who had infected a whole pit.
“What surprises me is that you let your son go with their girl.”
“Ah, yes! but just stop it then! Their garden is next to ours. Zacharie was always there in summer with Philoméne behind the lilacs, and they didn’t put themselves out on the shed; one couldn’t draw water at the well without surprising them.”
It was the usual history of the promiscuities of the settlement; boys and girls became corrupted together, throwing themselves on their backsides, as they said, on the low, sloping roof of the shed when twilight came on. All the putters got their first child there when they did not take the trouble to go to Réquillart or into the cornfields. It was of no consequence; they married afterwards, only the mothers were angry when their lads began too soon, for a lad who married no longer brought anything into the family.
“In your place I would have done with it,” said Pierronne, sensibly. “Your Zacharie has already filled her twice, and they will go on and get spliced. Anyhow, the money is gone.”
Maheude was furious and raised her hands.
“Listen to this: I will curse them if they get spliced. Doesn’t Zacharie owe us any respect? He has cost us something, hasn’t he? Very well. He must return it before getting a wife to hang on him. What will become of us, eh, if our children begin at once to work for others? Might as well die!”
However, she grew calm.
“I’m speaking in a general way; we shall see later. It is fine and strong, your coffee; you make it proper.”
And after a quarter of an hour spent over other stories, she ran off, exclaiming that the men’s soup was not yet made. Outside, the children were going back to school; a few women were showing themselves at their doors, looking at Madame Hennebeau, who, with lifted finger, was explaining the settlement to her guests. This visit began to stir up the village. The earth-cutting man stopped digging for a moment, and two disturbed fowls took fright in the gardens.
As Maheude returned, she ran against the Levaque woman who had come out to stop Dr. Vanderhaghen, a doctor of the Company, a small hurried man, overwhelmed by work, who gave his advice as he walked.
“Sir,” she said, “I can’t sleep; I feel ill everywhere. I must tell you about it.”
He spoke to them all familiarly, and replied without stopping:
“Just leave me alone; you drink too much coffee.”
“And my husband, sir,” said Maheude in her turn, “you must come and see him. He always has those pains in his legs.”
“It is you who take too much out of him. Just leave me alone!”
The two women were left to gaze at the doctor’s retreating back.
“Come in, then,” said the Levaque woman, when she had exchanged a despairing shrug with her neighbour. “You know, there is something new. And you will take a little coffee. It is quite fresh.”
Maheude refused, but without energy. Well! a drop, at all events, not to disoblige. And she entered.
The room was black with dirt, the floor and the walls spotted with grease, the sideboard and the table sticky with filth; and the stink of a badly kept house took you by the throat. Near the fire, with his elbows on the table and his nose in his plate, Bouteloup, a broad stout placid man, still young for thirty-five, was finishing the remains of his boiled beef, while standing in front of him, little Achille, Philoméne’s first-born, who was already in his third year, was looking at him in the silent, supplicating way of a gluttonous animal. The lodger, very kind behind his big brown beard, from time to time stuffed a piece of meat into his mouth.
“Wait till I sugar it,” said the Levaque woman, putting some brown sugar beforehand into the coffee-pot.
Six years older than he was, she was hideous and worn out, with her bosom hanging on her belly, and her belly on her thighs, with a flattened muzzle, and greyish hair always uncombed. He had taken her naturally, without choosing, the same as he did his soup in which he found hairs, or his bed of which the sheets lasted for three months. She was part of the lodging; the husband liked repeating that good reckonings make good friends.
“I was going to tell you,” she went on, “that Pierrone was seen yesterday prowling about on the Bas-de-Soie side. The gentleman you know of was waiting for her behind Rasseneur’s, and they went off together along the canal. Eh! that’s nice, isn’t it? A married woman!”
“Gracious!” said Maheude; “Pierron, before marrying her, used to give the captain rabbits; now it costs him less to lend his wife.”
Bouteloup began to laugh enormously, and threw a fragment of sauced bread into Achille’s mouth. The two women went on relieving themselves with regard to Pierronne — a flirt, no prettier than any one else, but always occupied in looking after every freckle of her skin, in washing herself, and putting on pomade. Anyhow, it was the husband’s affair, if he liked that sort of thing. There were men so ambitious that they would wipe the masters’ behinds to hear them say thank you. And they were only interrupted by the arrival of a neighbour bringing in a little urchin of nine months, Désirée, Philoméne’s youngest; Philoméne, taking her breakfast at the screening-shed, had arranged that they should bring her little one down there, where she suckled it, seated for a moment in the coal.
“I can’t leave mine for a moment, she screams directly,” said Maheude, looking at Estelle, who was asleep in her arms.
But she did not succeed in avoiding the domestic affair which she had read in the other’s eyes.
“I say, now we ought to get that settled.”
At first the two mothers, without need for talking about it, had agreed not to conclude the marriage. If Zacharie’s mother wished to get her son’s wages as long as possible, Philoméne’s mother was enraged at the idea of abandoning her daughter’s wages. There was no hurry; the second mother had even preferred to keep the little one, as long as there was only one; but when it began to grow and eat and another one came, she found that she was losing, and furiously pushed on the marriage, like a woman who does not care to throw away her money.
“Zacharie has drawn his lot,” she went on, “and there’s nothing in the way. When shall it be?”
“Wait till the fine weather,” replied Maheude, constrainedly. “They are a nuisance, these affairs! As if they couldn’t wait to be married before going together! My word! I would strangle Catherine if I knew that she had done that.”
The other woman shrugged her shoulders.
“Let be! she’ll do like the others.”
Bouteloup, with the tranquillity of a man who is at home, searched about on the dresser for bread. Vegetables for Levaque’s soup, potatoes and leeks, lay about on a corner of the table, half-peeled, taken up and dropped a dozen times in the midst of continual gossiping. The woman was about to go on with them again when she dropped them anew and planted herself before the window.
“What’s that there? Why, there’s Madame Hennebeau with some people. They are going into Pierronne’s.”
At once both of them started again on the subject of Pierronne. Oh! whenever the Company brought any visitors to the settlement they never failed to go straight to her place, because it was clean. No doubt they never told them stories about the head captain. One can afford to be clean when one has lovers who earn three thousand francs, and are lodged and warmed, without counting presents. If it was clean above it was not clean underneath. And all the time that the visitors remained opposite, they went on chattering.
“There, they are coming out,” said the Levaque woman at last. “They are going all around. Why, look, my dear — I believe they are going into your place.”
Maheude was seized with fear. Who knows whether Alzire had sponged over the table? And her soup, also, which was not yet ready! She stammered a good-day, and ran off home without a single glance aside.
But everything was bright. Alzire, very seriously, with a cloth in front of her, had set about making the soup, seeing that her mother did not return. She had pulled up the last leeks from the garden, gathered the sorrel, and was just then cleaning the vegetables, while a large kettle on the fire was heating the water for the men’s baths when they should return. Henri and Lénore were good for once, being absorbed in tearing up an old almanac. Father Bonnemort was smoking his pipe in silence. As Maheude was getting her breath Madame Hennebeau knocked.
“You will allow me, will you not, my good woman?” Tall and fair, a little heavy in her superb maturity of forty years, she smiled with an effort of affability, without showing too prominently her fear of soiling her bronze silk dress and black velvet mantle.
“Come in, come in,” she said to her guests. “We are not disturbing any one. Now, isn’t this clean again! And this good woman has seven children! All our households are like this. I ought to explain to you that the Company rents them the house at six francs a month. A large room on the ground floor, two rooms above, a cellar, and a garden.”
The decorated gentleman and the lady in the fur cloak, arrived that morning by train from Paris, opened their eyes vaguely, exhibiting on their faces their astonishment at all these new things which took them out of their element.
“And a garden!” repeated the lady. “One could live here! It is charming!”
“We give them more coal than they can burn,” went on Madame Hennebeau. “A doctor visits them twice a week; and when they are old they receive pensions, although nothing is held back from their wages.”
“A Thebaid! a real land of milk and honey!” murmured the gentleman in delight.
Maheude had hastened to offer chairs. The ladies refused. Madame Hennebeau was already getting tired, happy for a moment to amuse herself in the weariness of her exile by playing the part of exhibiting the beasts, but immediately disgusted by the sickly odour of wretchedness, in spite of the special cleanliness of the houses into which she ventured. Besides, she was only repeating odd phrases which she had overheard, without ever troubling herself further about this race of work-people who were labouring and suffering beside her.
“What beautiful children!” murmured the lady, who thought them hideous, with their large heads beneath their bushy, straw-coloured hair.
And Maheude had to tell their ages; they also asked her questions about Estelle, out of politeness. Father Bonnemort respectfully took his pipe out of his mouth; but he was not the less a subject of uneasiness, so worn out by his forty years underground, with his stiff limbs, deformed body, and earthy face; and as a violent spasm of coughing took him he preferred to go and spit outside, with the idea that his black expectoration would make people uncomfortable.
Alzire received all the compliments. What an excellent little housekeeper, with her cloth! They congratulated the mother on having a little daughter so sensible for her age. And none spoke of the hump, though looks of uneasy compassion were constantly turned towards the poor little invalid.
“Now!” concluded Madame Hennebeau, “if they ask you about our settlements at Paris you will know what to reply. Never more noise than this, patriarchal manners, all happy and well off as you see, a place where you might come to recruit a little, on account of the good air and the tranquillity.”
“It is marvellous, marvellous!” exclaimed the gentleman, in a final outburst of enthusiasm.
They left with that enchanted air with which people leave a booth in a fair, and Maheude, who accompanied them, remained on the threshold while they went away slowly, talking very loudly. The streets were full of people, and they had to pass through several groups of women, attracted by the news of their visit, which was hawked from house to house.
Just then, Levaque, in front of her door, had stopped Pierronne, who was drawn by curiosity. Both of them affected a painful surprise. What now? Were these people going to bed at the Maheus’? But it was not so very delightful a place.
“Always without a sou, with all that they earn! Lord! when people have vices!”
“I have just heard that she went this morning to beg at Piolaine, and Maigrat, who had refused them bread, has given them something. We know how Maigrat pays himself!”
“On her? Oh, no! that would need some courage. It’s Catherine that he’s after.”
“Why, didn’t she have the cheek to say just now that she would strangle Catherine if she were to come to that? As if big Chaval for ever so long had not put her backside on the shed!”
“Hush! here they are!”
Then Levaque and Pierronne, with a peaceful air and without impolite curiosity, contented themselves with watching the visitors out of the corners of their eyes. Then by a gesture they quickly called Maheude, who was still carrying Estelle in her arms. And all three, motionless, watched the well-clad backs of Madame Hennebeau and her guests slowly disappear. When they were some thirty paces off, the gossiping recommenced with redoubled vigour.
“They carry plenty of money on their skins; worth more than themselves, perhaps.”
“Ah, sure! I don’t know the other, but the one that belongs here, I wouldn’t give four sous for her, big as she is. They do tell stories ——”
“Eh? What stories?”
“Why, she has men! First, the engineer.”
“That lean, little creature! Oh, he’s too small! She would lose him in the sheets.”
“What does that matter, if it amuses her? I don’t trust a woman who puts on such proud airs and never seems to be pleased where she is. Just look how she wags her rump, as if she felt contempt for us all. Is that nice?”
The visitors went along at the same slow pace, still talking, when a carriage stopped in the road, before the church. A gentleman of about forty-eight got out of it, dressed in a black frock-coat, and with a very dark complexion and an authoritative correct expression.
“The husband,” murmured Levaque, lowering her voice, as if he could hear her, seized by that hierarchical fear which the manager inspired in his ten thousand workpeople. “It’s true, though, that he has a cuckold’s head, that man.”
Now the whole settlement was out of doors. The curiosity of the women increased. The groups approached each other, and were melted into one crowd; while bands of urchins, with unwiped noses and gaping mouths, dawdled along the pavements. For a moment the schoolmaster’s pale head was also seen behind the school-house hedge. Among the gardens, the man who was digging stood with one foot on his spade, and with rounded eyes. And the murmur of gossiping gradually increased, with a sound of rattles, like a gust of wind among dry leaves.
It was especially before the Levaques’ door that the crowd was thickest. Two women had come forward, then ten, then twenty. Pierronne was prudently silent now that there were too many ears about. Maheude, one of the more reasonable, also contented herself with looking on; and to calm Estelle, who was awake and screaming, she had tranquilly drawn out her suckling animal’s breast, which hung swaying as if pulled down by the continual running of its milk. When M. Hennebeau had seated the ladies in the carriage, which went off in the direction of Marchiennes, there was a final explosion of clattering voices, all the women gesticulating and talking in each other’s faces in the midst of a tumult as of an ant-hill in revolution.
But three o’clock struck. The workers of the earth-cutting, Bouteloup and the others, had set out. Suddenly around the church appeared the first colliers returning from the pit with black faces and damp garments, folding their arms and expanding their backs. Then there was confusion among the women: they all began to run home with the terror of housekeepers who had been led astray by too much coffee and too much tattle, and one heard nothing more than this restless cry, pregnant with the quarrels:
“Good Lord, and my soup! and my soup which isn’t ready!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02