WHEN Maheu came in after having left Étienne at Rasseneur’s, he found Catherine, Zacharie, and Jeanlin seated at the table finishing their soup. On returning from the pit they were always so hungry that they ate in their damp clothes, without even cleaning themselves; and no one was waited for, the table was laid from morning to night; there was always someone there swallowing his portion, according to the chances of work.
As he entered the door Maheu saw the provisions. He said nothing, but his uneasy face lighted up. All the morning the emptiness of the cupboard, the thought of the house without coffee and without butter, had been troubling him; the recollection came to him painfully while he was hammering at the seam, stifled at the bottom of the cutting. What would his wife do, and what would become of them if she were to return with empty hands? And now, here was everything! She would tell him about it later on. He laughed with satisfaction.
Catherine and Jeanlin had risen, and were taking their coffee standing; while Zacharie, not filled with the soup, cut himself a large slice of bread and covered it with butter. Although he saw the brawn on a plate he did not touch it, for meat was for the father, when there was only enough for one. All of them had washed down their soup with a big bumper of fresh water, the good, clear drink of the fortnight’s end.
“I have no beer,” said Maheude, when the father had seated himself in his turn. “I wanted to keep a little money. But if you would like some the little one can go and fetch a pint.”
He looked at her in astonishment. What! she had money, too!
“No, no,” he said, “I’ve had a glass, it’s all right.”
And Maheu began to swallow by slow spoonfuls the mixture of bread, potatoes, leeks, and sorrel piled up in the bowl which served him as a plate. Maheude, without putting Estelle down, helped Alzire to give him all that he required, pushed near him the butter and the meat, and put his coffee on the fire to keep it quite hot.
In the meanwhile, beside the fire, they began to wash themselves in the half of a barrel transformed into a tub. Catherine, whose turn came first, had filled it with warm water; and she undressed herself tranquilly, took off her cap, her jacket, her breeches, and even her chemise, habituated to this since the age of eight, having grown up without seeing any harm in it. She only turned with her stomach to the fire, then rubbed herself vigorously with black soap. No one looked at her, even Lénore and Henri were no longer inquisitive to see how she was made. When she was clean she went up the stairs quite naked, leaving her damp chemise and other garments in a heap on the floor. But a quarrel broke out between the two brothers: Jeanlin had hastened to jump into the tub under the pretence that Zacharie was still eating; and the latter hustled him, claiming his turn, and calling out that he was polite enough to allow Catherine to wash herself first, but he did not wish to have the rinsings of the young urchins, all the less since, when Jeanlin had been in, it would do to fill the school ink-pots. They ended by washing themselves together, also turning towards the fire, and they even helped each other, rubbing one another’s backs. Then, like their sister, they disappeared up the staircase naked.
“What a slop they do make!” murmured Maheude, taking up their garments from the floor to put them to dry. “Alzire, just sponge up a bit.”
But a disturbance on the other side of the wall cut short her speech. One heard a man’s oaths, a woman’s crying, a whole stampede of battle, with hollow blows that sounded like thumps of an empty gourd.
“Levaque’s wife is catching it,” Maheu peacefully stated as he scraped the bottom of his bowl with the spoon. “It’s queer; Bouteloup made out that the soup was ready.”
“Ah, yes! ready,” said Maheude. “I saw the vegetables on the table, not even cleaned.”
The cries redoubled, and there was a terrible push which shook the wall, followed by complete silence. Then the miner, swallowing the last spoonful, concluded, with an air of calm justice:
“If the soup is not ready, one can understand.”
And after having drunk a glassful of water, he attacked the brawn. He cut square pieces, stuck the point of his knife into them and ate them on his bread without a fork. There was no talking when the father was eating. He himself was hungry in silence; he did not recognize the usual taste of Maigrat’s provisions; this must come from somewhere else; however, he put no question to his wife. He only asked if the old man was still sleeping upstairs. No, the grandfather had gone out for his usual walk. And there was silence again.
But the odour of the meat made Lénore and Henri lift up their heads from the floor, where they were amusing themselves with making rivulets with the spilt water. Both of them came and planted themselves near their father, the little one in front. Their eyes followed each morsel, full of hope when it set out from the plate and with an air of consternation when it was engulfed in the mouth. At last the father noticed the gluttonous desire which made their faces pale and their lips moist.
“Have the children had any of it?” he asked.
And as his wife hesitated:
“You know I don’t like injustice. It takes away my appetite when I see them there, begging for bits.”
“But they’ve had some of it,” she exclaimed, angrily. “If you were to listen to them you might give them your share and the others’, too; they would fill themselves till they burst. Isn’t it true, Alzire, that we have all had some?”
“Sure enough, mother,” replied the little humpback, who under such circumstances could tell lies with the self-possession of a grown-up person.
Lénore and Henri stood motionless, shocked and rebellious at such lying, when they themselves were whipped if they did not tell the truth. Their little hearts began to swell, and they longed to protest, and to say that they, at all events, were not there when the others had some.
“Get along with you,” said the mother, driving them to the other end of the room. “You ought to be ashamed of being always in your father’s plate; and even if he was the only one to have any, doesn’t he work, while all you, a lot of good-for-nothings, can’t do anything but spend! Yes, and the more the bigger you are.”
Maheu called them back. He seated Lénore on his left thigh, Henri on the right; then he finished the brawn by playing at dinner with them. He cut small pieces, and each had his share. The children devoured with delight.
When he had finished, he said to his wife:
“No, don’t give me my coffee. I’m going to wash first; and just give me a hand to throw away this dirty water.”
They took hold of the handles of the tub and emptied it into the gutter before the door, when Jeanlin came down in dry garments, breeches and a woollen blouse, too large for him, which were weary of fading on his brother’s back. Seeing him slinking out through the open door, his mother stopped him.
“Where are you off to?”
“Over where? Listen to me. You go and gather a dandelion salad for this evening. Eh, do you hear? If you don’t bring a salad back you’ll have to deal with me.”
Jeanlin set out with hands in his pockets, trailing his sabots and slouching along, with his slender loins of a ten-year-old urchin, like an old miner. In his turn, Zacharie came down, more carefully dressed, his body covered by a black woollen knitted jacket with blue stripes. His father called out to him not to return late; and he left, nodding his head with his pipe between his teeth, without replying. Again the tub was filled with warm water. Maheu was already slowly taking off his jacket. At a look, Alzire led Lénore and Henri outside to play. The father did not like washing en famille, as was practised in many houses in the settlement. He blamed no one, however; he simply said that it was good for the children to dabble together.
“What are you doing up there?” cried Maheude, up the staircase.
“I’m mending my dress that I tore yesterday,” replied Catherine.
“All right. Don’t come down, your father is washing.”
Then Maheu and Maheude were left alone. The latter decided to place Estelle on a chair, and by a miracle, finding herself near the fire the child did not scream, but turned towards her parents the vague eyes of a little creature without intelligence. He was crouching before the tub quite naked, having first plunged his head into it, well rubbed with that black soap the constant use of which discoloured and made yellow the hair of the race.
Afterwards he got into the water, lathered his chest, belly, arms, and thighs, scraping them energetically with both fists. His wife, standing by, watched him.
“Well, then,” she began, “I saw your eyes when you came in. You were bothered, eh? and it eased you, those provisions. Fancy! those Piolaine people didn’t give me a sou! Oh! they are kind enough; they have dressed the little ones and I was ashamed to ask them, for it crosses me to ask for things.”
She interrupted herself a moment to wedge Estelle into the chair lest she should tip over. The father continued to work away at his skin, without hastening by a question this story which interested him, patiently waiting for light.
“I must tell you that Maigrat had refused me, oh! straight! like one kicks a dog out of doors. Guess if I was on a spree! They keep you warm, woollen garments, but they don’t put anything into your stomach, eh!”
He lifted his head, still silent. Nothing at Piolaine, nothing at Maigrat’s: then where? But, as usual, she was pulling up her sleeves to wash his back and those parts which he could not himself easily reach. Besides, he liked her to soap him, to rub him everywhere till she almost broke her wrists. She took soap and worked away at his shoulders while he held himself stiff so as to resist the shock.
“Then I returned to Maigrat’s, and said to him, ah, I said something to him! And that it didn’t do to have no heart, and that evil would happen to him if there were any justice. That bothered him; he turned his eyes and would like to have got away.”
From the back she had got down to the buttocks and was pushing into the folds, not leaving any part of the body without passing over it, making him shine like her three saucepans on Saturdays after a big clean. Only she began to sweat with this tremendous exertion of her arms, so exhausted and out of breath that her words were choked.
“At last he called me an old nuisance. We shall have bread until Saturday, and the best is that he has lent me five francs. I have got butter, coffee, and chicory from him. I was even going to get the meat and potatoes there, only I saw that he was grumbling. Seven sous for the chitterlings, eighteen for the potatoes, and I’ve got three francs seventy-five left for a ragout and a meat soup. Eh, I don’t think I’ve wasted my morning!”
Now she began to wipe him, plugging with a towel the parts that would not dry. Feeling happy and without thinking of the future debt, he burst out laughing and took her in his arms.
“Leave me alone, stupid! You are damp, and wetting me. Only I’m afraid Maigrat has ideas ——”
She was about to speak of Catherine, but she stopped. What was the good of disturbing him? It would only lead to endless discussion.
“What ideas?” he asked.
“Why, ideas of robbing us. Catherine will have to examine the bill carefully.”
He took her in his arms again, and this time did not let her go. The bath always finished in this way: she enlivened him by the hard rubbing, and then by the towels which tickled the hairs of his arms and chest. Besides, among all his mates of the settlement it was the hour for stupidities, when more children were planted than were wanted. At night all the family were about. He pushed her towards the table, jesting like a worthy man who was enjoying the only good moment of the day, calling that taking his dessert, and a dessert which cost him nothing. She, with her loose figure and breast, struggled a little for fun.
“You are stupid! My Lord! you are stupid! And there’s Estelle looking at us. Wait till I turn her head.”
“Oh, bosh! at three months; as if she understood!”
When he got up Maheu simply put on a dry pair of breeches. He liked, when he was clean and had taken his pleasure with his wife, to remain naked for a while. On his white skin, the whiteness of an anaemic girl, the scratches and gashes of the coal left tattoo-marks, grafts as the miners called them; and he was proud of them, and exhibited his big arms and broad chest shining like veined marble. In summer all the miners could be seen in this condition at their doors. He even went there for a moment now, in spite of the wet weather, and shouted out a rough joke to a comrade, whose breast was also naked, on the other side of the gardens. Others also appeared. And the children, trailing along the pathways, raised their heads and also laughed with delight at all this weary flesh of workers displayed in the open air.
While drinking his coffee, without yet putting on a shirt, Maheu told his wife about the engineer’s anger over the planking. He was calm and unbent, and listened with a nod of approval to the sensible advice of Maheude, who showed much common sense in such affairs. She always repeated to him that nothing was gained by struggling against the Company. She afterwards told him about Madame Hennebeau’s visit. Without saying so, both of them were proud of this.
“Can I come down yet?” asked Catherine, from the top of the staircase.
“Yes, yes; your father is drying himself.”
The young girl had put on her Sunday dress, an old frock of rough blue poplin, already faded and worn in the folds. She had on a very simple bonnet of black tulle.
“Hallo! you’re dressed. Where are you going to?”
“I’m going to Montsou to buy a ribbon for my bonnet. I’ve taken off the old one; it was too dirty.”
“Have you got money, then?”
“No! but Mouquette promised to lend me half a franc.”
The mother let her go. But at the door she called her back.
“Here! don’t go and buy that ribbon at Maigrat’s. He will rob you, and he will think that we are rolling in wealth.”
The father, who was crouching down before the fire to dry his neck and shoulders more quickly, contented himself with adding:
“Try not to dawdle about at night on the road.” In the afternoon, Maheu worked in his garden. Already he had sown there potatoes, beans, and peas; and he now set about replanting cabbage and lettuce plants, which he had kept fresh from the night before. This bit of garden furnished them with vegetables, except potatoes of which they never had enough. He understood gardening very well, and could even grow artichokes, which was treated as sheer display by the neighbours. As he was preparing the bed, Levaque just then came out to smoke a pipe in his own square, looking at the cos lettuces which Bouteloup had planted in the morning; for without the lodger’s energy in digging nothing would have grown there but nettles. And a conversation arose over the trellis. Levaque, refreshed and excited by thrashing his wife, vainly tried to take Maheu off to Rasseneur’s. Why, was he afraid of a glass? They could have a game at skittles, lounge about for a while with the mates, and then come back to dinner. That was the way of life after leaving the pit. No doubt there was no harm in that, but Maheu was obstinate; if he did not replant his lettuces they would be faded by to-morrow. In reality he refused out of good sense, not wishing to ask a farthing from his wife out of the change of the five-franc piece.
Five o’clock was striking when Pierrone came to know if it was with Jeanlin that her Lydie had gone off. Levaque replied that it must be something of that sort, for Bébert had also disappeared, and those rascals always went prowling about together. When Maheu had quieted them by speaking of the dandelion salad, he and his comrade set about joking the young woman with the coarseness of good-natured devils. She was angry, but did not go away, in reality tickled by the strong words which made her scream with her hands to her sides. A lean woman came to her aid, stammering with anger like a clucking hen. Others in the distance on their doorsteps confided their alarms. Now the school was closed; and all the children were running about, there was a swarm of little creatures shouting and tumbling and fighting; while those fathers who were not at the public-house were resting in groups of three or four, crouching on their heels as they did in the mine, smoking their pipes with an occasional word in the shelter of a wall. Pierronne went off in a fury when Levaque wanted to feel if her thighs were firm; and he himself decided to go alone to Rasseneur’s, since Maheu was still planting.
Twilight suddenly came on; Maheude lit the lamp, irritated because neither her daughter nor the boys had come back. She could have guessed as much; they never succeeded in taking together the only meal of the day at which it was possible for them to be all round the table. Then she was waiting for the dandelion salad. What could he be gathering at this hour, in this blackness of an oven, that nuisance of a child! A salad would go so well with the stew which was simmering on the fire — potatoes, leeks, sorrel, fricasseed with fried onion. The whole house smelt of that fried onion, that good odour which gets rank so soon, and which penetrates the bricks of the settlements with such infection that one perceives it far off in the country, the violent flavour of the poor man’s kitchen.
Maheu, when he left the garden at nightfall, at once fell into a chair with his head against the wall. As soon as he sat down in the evening he went to sleep. The clock struck seven; Henri and Lénore had just broken a plate in persisting in helping Alzire, who was laying the table, when Father Bonnemort came in first, in a hurry to dine and go back to the pit. Then Maheude woke up Maheu.
“Come and eat! So much the worse! They are big enough to find the house. The nuisance is the salad!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02