ON the next day, and the days that followed, Étienne continued his work at the pit. He grew accustomed to it; his existence became regulated by this labour and to these new habits which had seemed so hard to him at first. Only one episode interrupted the monotony of the first fortnight: a slight fever which kept him in bed for forty-eight hours with aching limbs and throbbing head, dreaming in a state of semi-delirium that he was pushing his tram in a passage that was so narrow that his body would not pass through. It was simply the exhaustion of his apprenticeship, an excess of fatigue from which he quickly recovered.
And days followed days, until weeks and months had slipped by. Now, like his mates, he got up at three o’clock, drank his coffee, and carried off the double slice of bread and butter which Madame Rasseneur had prepared for him the evening before. Regularly as he went every morning to the pit, he met old Bonnemort who was going home to sleep, and on leaving in the afternoon he crossed Bouteloup who was going to his task. He had his cap, his breeches and canvas jacket, and he shivered and warmed his back in the shed before the large fire. Then came the waiting with naked feet in the receiving-room, swept by furious currents of air. But the engine, with its great steel limbs starred with copper shining up above in the shade, no longer attracted his attention, nor the cables which flew by with the black and silent motion of a nocturnal bird, nor the cages rising and plunging unceasingly in the midst of the noise of signals, of shouted orders, of trains shaking the metal floor. His lamp burnt badly, that confounded lamp-man could not have cleaned it; and he only woke up when Mouquet bundled them all off, roguishly smacking the girls’ flanks. The cage was unfastened, and fell like a stone to the bottom of a hole without causing him even to lift his head to see the daylight vanish. He never thought of a possible fall; he felt himself at home as he sank into the darkness beneath the falling rain. Below at the pit-eye, when Pierron had unloaded them with his air of hypocritical mildness, there was always the same tramping as of a flock, the yard-men each going away to his cutting with trailing steps. He now knew the mine galleries better than the streets of Montsou; he knew where he had to turn, where he had to stoop, and where he had to avoid a puddle. He had grown so accustomed to these two kilometres beneath the earth, that he could have traversed them without a lamp, with his hands in his pockets. And every time the same meetings took place: a captain lighting up the faces of the passing workmen, Father Mouque leading a horse, Bébert conducting the snorting Bataille, Jeanlin running behind the train to close the ventilation doors, and big Mouquette and lean Lydie pushing their trams.
After a time, also, Étienne suffered much less from the damp and closeness of the cutting. The chimney or ascending passage seemed to him more convenient for climbing up, as if he had melted and could pass through cracks where before he would not have risked a hand. He breathed the coal-dust without difficulty, saw clearly in the obscurity, and sweated tranquilly, having grown accustomed to the sensation of wet garments on his body from morning to night. Besides, he no longer spent his energy recklessly; he had gained skill so rapidly that he astonished the whole stall. In three weeks he was named among the best putters in the pit; no one pushed a tram more rapidly to the upbrow, nor loaded it afterwards so correctly. His small figure allowed him to slip about everywhere, and though his arms were as delicate and white as a woman’s, they seemed to be made of iron beneath the smooth skin, so vigorously did they perform their task. He never complained, out of pride no doubt, even when he was panting with fatigue. The only thing they had against him was that he could not take a joke, and grew angry as soon as any one trod on his toes. In all other respects he was accepted and looked upon as a real miner, reduced beneath this pressure of habit, little by little, to a machine.
Maheu regarded Étienne with special friendship, for he respected work that was well done. Then, like the others, he felt that this lad had more education than himself; he saw him read, write, and draw little plans; he heard him talking of things of which he himself did not know even the existence. This caused him no astonishment, for miners are rough fellows who have thicker heads than engine-men; but he was surprised at the courage of this little chap, and at the cheerful way he had bitten into the coal to avoid dying of hunger. He had never met a workman who grew accustomed to it so quickly. So when hewing was urgent, and he did not wish to disturb a pikeman, he gave the timbering over to the young man, being sure of the neatness and solidity of his work. The bosses were always bothering him about the damned planking question; he feared every hour the appearance of the engineer Négrel, followed by Dansaert, shouting, discussing, ordering everything to be done over again, and he remarked that his putter’s timbering gave greater satisfaction to these gentlemen, in spite of their air of never being pleased with anything, and their repeated assertions that the Company would one day or another take radical measures. Things dragged on; a deep discontent was fomenting in the pit, and Maheu himself, in spite of his calmness, was beginning to clench his fists.
There was at first some rivalry between Zacharie and Étienne. One evening they were even coming to blows. But the former, a good lad though careless of everything but his own pleasure, was quickly appeased by the friendly offer of a glass, and soon yielded to the superiority of the new-comer. Levaque was also on good terms with him, talking politics with the putter, who, as he said, had his own ideas. The only one of the men in whom he felt a deep hostility was lanky Chaval: not that they were cool towards each other, for, on the contrary, they had become companions; only when they joked their eyes seemed to devour each other. Catherine continued to move among them as a tired, resigned girl, bending her back, pushing her tram, always good-natured with her companion in the putting, who aided her in his turn, and submissive to the wishes of her lover, whose caresses she now received openly. It was an accepted situation, a recognized domestic arrangement to which the family itself closed its eyes to such a degree that Chaval every evening led away the putter behind the pit-bank, then brought her back to her parents’ door, where he finally embraced her before the whole settlement. Étienne, who believed that he had reconciled himself to the situation, often teased her about these walks, making crude remarks by way of joke, as lads and girls will at the bottom of the cuttings; and she replied in the same tone, telling in a swaggering way what her lover had done to her, yet disturbed and growing pale when the young man’s eyes chanced to meet hers. Then both would turn away their heads, not speaking again, perhaps, for an hour, looking as if they hated each other because of something buried within them and which they could never explain to each other.
The spring had come. On emerging from the pit one day Étienne had received in his face a warm April breeze, a good odour of young earth, of tender greenness, of large open air; and now, every time he came up the spring smelt sweeter, warmed him more, after his ten hours of labour in the eternal winter at the bottom, in the midst of that damp darkness which no summer had ever dissipated. The days grew longer and longer; at last, in May, he went down at sunrise when a vermilion sky lit up the Voreux with a mist of dawn in which the white vapour of the pumping-engine became rose-coloured. There was no more shivering, a warm breath blew across the plain, while the larks sang far above. Then at three o’clock he was dazzled by the now burning sun which set fire to the horizon, and reddened the bricks beneath the filth of the coal. In June the wheat was already high, of a blue green, which contrasted with the black green of the beetroots. It was an endless vista undulating beneath the slightest breeze; and he saw it spread and grow from day to day, and was sometimes surprised, as if he had found it in the evening more swollen with verdure than it had been in the morning. The poplars along the canal were putting on their plumes of leaves. Grass was invading the pit-bank, flowers were covering the meadows, a whole life was germinating and pushing up from this earth beneath which he was groaning in misery and fatigue.
When Étienne now went for a walk in the evening he no longer startled lovers behind the pit-bank. He could follow their track in the wheat and divine their wanton birds’ nests by eddies among the yellowing blades and the great red poppies. Zacharie and Philoméne came back to it out of old domestic habit; Mother Brulé, always on Lydie’s heels, was constantly hunting her out with Jeanlin, buried so deeply together that one had to tread on them before they made up their minds to get up; and as to Mouquette, she lay about everywhere — one could not cross a field without seeing her head plunge down while only her feet emerged as she lay at full length. But all these were quite free; the young man found nothing guilty there except on the evenings when he met Catherine and Chaval. Twice he saw them on his approach tumble down in the midst of a field, where the motionless stalks afterwards remained dead. Another time, as he was going along a narrow path, Catherine’s clear eyes appeared before him, level with the wheat, and immediately sank. Then the immense plain seemed to him too small, and he preferred to pass the evening at Rasseneur’s, in the Avantage.
“Give me a glass, Madame Rasseneur. No, I’m not going out to-night; my legs are too stiff.”
And he turned towards a comrade, who always sat at the bottom table with his head against the wall.
“Souvarine, won’t you have one?”
“No, thanks; nothing.”
Étienne had become acquainted with Souvarine through living there side by side. He was an engine-man at the Voreux, and occupied the furnished room upstairs next to his own. He must have been about thirty years old, fair and slender, with a delicate face framed by thick hair and a slight beard. His white pointed teeth, his thin mouth and nose, with his rosy complexion, gave him a girlish appearance, an air of obstinate gentleness, across which the grey reflection of his steely eyes threw savage gleams. In his poor workman’s room there was nothing but a box of papers and books. He was a Russian, and never spoke of himself, so that many stories were afloat concerning him. The colliers, who are very suspicious with strangers, guessing from his small middle-class hands that he belonged to another caste, had at first imagined a romance, some assassination, and that he was escaping punishment. But then he had behaved in such a fraternal way with them, without any pride, distributing to the youngsters of the settlement all the sous in his pockets, that they now accepted him, reassured by the term “political refugee” which circulated about him — a vague term, in which they saw an excuse even for crime, and, as it were, a companionship in suffering.
During the first weeks, Étienne had found him timid and reserved, so that he only discovered his history later on. Souvarine was the latest born of a noble family in the Government of Tula. At St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine, the socialistic enthusiasm which then carried away all the youth in Russia had decided him to learn a manual trade, that of a mechanic, so that he could mix with the people, in order to know them and help them as a brother. And it was by this trade that he was now living after having fled, in consequence of an unsuccessful attempt against the tsar’s life: for a month he had lived in a fruiterer’s cellar, hollowing out a mine underneath the road, and charging bombs, with the constant risk of being blown up with the house. Renounced by his family, without money, expelled from the French workshops as a foreigner who was regarded as a spy, he was dying of starvation when the Montsou Company had at last taken him on at a moment of pressure. For a year he had laboured there as a good, sober, silent workman, doing day-work one week and night-work the next week, so regularly that the masters referred to him as an example to the others.
“Are you never thirsty?” said Étienne to him, laughing.
And he replied with his gentle voice, almost without an accent:
“I am thirsty when I eat.”
His companion also joked him about the girls, declaring that he had seen him with a putter in the wheat on the Bas-de-Soie side. Then he shrugged his shoulders with tranquil indifference, What should he do with a putter? Woman was for him a boy, a comrade, when she had the fraternal feeling and the courage of a man. What was the good of having a possible act of cowardice on one’s conscience? He desired no bond, either woman or friend; he would be master of his own life and those of others.
Every evening towards nine o’clock, when the inn was emptying, Étienne remained thus talking with Souvarine. He drank his beer in small sips, while the engine-man smoked constant cigarettes, of which the tobacco had at last stained his slender fingers. His vague mystic’s eyes followed the smoke in the midst of a dream; his left hand sought occupation in nervous gropings; and he usually ended by installing a tame rabbit on his knees, a large doe with young, who lived at liberty in the house. This rabbit, which he had named Poland, had grown to worship him; she would come and smell his trousers, fawn on him and scratch him with her paws until he took her up like a child. Then, lying in a heap against him, her ears laid back, she would close her eyes; and without growing tired, with an unconscious caressing gesture, he would pass his hand over her grey silky fur, calmed by that warm living softness.
“You know I have had a letter from Pluchart,” said Étienne one evening.
Only Rasseneur was there. The last client had departed for the settlement, which was now going to bed.
“Ah!” exclaimed the innkeeper, standing up before his two lodgers. “How are things going with Pluchart?”
During the last two months, Étienne had kept up a constant correspondence with the Lille mechanician, whom he had told of his Montsou engagement, and who was now indoctrinating him, having been struck by the propaganda which he might carry on among the miners.
“The association is getting on very well. It seems that they are coming in from all sides.”
“What have you got to say, eh, about their society?” asked Rasseneur of Souvarine.
The latter, who was softly scratching Poland’s head, blew out a puff of smoke and muttered, with his tranquil air:
But Étienne grew enthusiastic. A predisposition for revolt was throwing him, in the first illusions of his ignorance, into the struggle of labour against capital. It was the International Working Men’s Association that they were concerned with, that famous International which had just been founded in London. Was not that a superb effort, a campaign in which justice would at last triumph? No more frontiers; the workers of the whole world rising and uniting to assure to the labourer the bread that he has earned. And what a simple and great organization! Below, the section which represents the commune; then the federation which groups the sections of the same province; then the nation; and then, at last, humanity incarnated in a general council in which each nation was represented by a corresponding secretary. In six months it would conquer the world, and would be able to dictate laws to the masters should they prove obstinate.
“Foolery!” repeated Souvarine. “Your Karl Marx is still only thinking about letting natural forces act. No politics, no conspiracies, is it not so? Everything in the light of day, and simply to raise wages. Don’t bother me with your evolution! Set fire to the four corners of the town, mow down the people, level everything, and when there is nothing more of this rotten world left standing, perhaps a better one will grow up in its place.”
Étienne began to laugh. He did not always take in his comrade’s sayings; this theory of destruction seemed to him an affectation. Rasseneur, who was still more practical, like a man of solid common sense did not condescend to get angry. He only wanted to have things clear.
“Then, what? Are you going to try and create a section at Montsou?”
This was what was desired by Pluchart, who was secretary to the Federation of the Nord. He insisted especially on the services which the association would render to the miners should they go out on strike. Étienne believed that a strike was imminent: this timbering business would turn out badly; any further demands on the part of the Company would cause rebellion in all the pits.
“It’s the subscriptions that are the nuisance,” Rasseneur declared, in a judicial tone. “Half a franc a year for the general fund, two francs for the section; it looks like nothing, but I bet that many will refuse to give it.”
“All the more,” added Étienne, “because we must first have here a provident fund, which we can use if need be as an emergency fund. No matter, it is time to think about these things. I am ready if the others are.”
There was silence. The petroleum lamp smoked on the counter. Through the large open door they could distinctly hear the shovel of a stoker at the Voreux stoking the engine.
“Everything is so dear!” began Madame Rasseneur, who had entered and was listening with a gloomy air as if she had grown up in her everlasting black dress. “When I tell you that I’ve paid twenty-two sous for eggs! It will have to burst up.”
All three men this time were of the same opinion. They spoke one after the other in a despairing voice, giving expression to their complaints. The workers could not hold out; the Revolution had only aggravated their wretchedness; only the bourgeois had grown fat since ‘89, so greedily that they had not even left the bottom of the plates to lick. Who could say that the workers had had their reasonable share in the extraordinary increase of wealth and comfort during the last hundred years? They had made fun of them by declaring them free. Yes, free to starve, a freedom of which they fully availed themselves. It put no bread into your cupboard to go and vote for fine fellows who went away and enjoyed themselves, thinking no more of the wretched voters than of their old boots. No! one way or another it would have to come to an end, either quietly by laws, by an understanding in good fellowship, or like savages by burning everything and devouring one another. Even if they never saw it, their children would certainly see it, for the century could not come to an end without another revolution, that of the workers this time, a general hustling which would cleanse society from top to bottom, and rebuild it with more cleanliness and justice.
“It will have to burst up,” Madame Rasseneur repeated energetically.
“Yes, yes,” they all three cried. “It will have to burst up.” Souvarine was now tickling Poland’s ears, and her nose was curling with pleasure. He said in a low voice, with abstracted gaze, as if to himself:
“Raise wages — how can you? They’re fixed by an iron law to the smallest possible sum, just the sum necessary to allow the workers to eat dry bread and get children. If they fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new men makes them rise. If they rise too high, more men come, and they fall. It is the balance of empty bellies, a sentence to a perpetual prison of hunger.”
When he thus forgot himself, entering into the questions that stir an educated socialist, Étienne and Rasseneur became restless, disturbed by his despairing statements which they were unable to answer.
“Do you understand?” he said again, gazing at them with his habitual calmness; “we must destroy everything, or hunger will reappear. Yes, anarchy and nothing more; the earth washed in blood and purified by fire! Then we shall see!”
“Monsieur is quite right,” said Madame Rasseneur, who, in her revolutionary violence, was always very polite.
Étienne, in despair at his ignorance, would argue no longer. He rose, remarking:
“Let’s go to bed. All this won’t save one from getting up at three o’clock.”
Souvarine, having blown away the cigarette-end which was sticking to his lips, was already gently lifting the big rabbit beneath the belly to place it on the ground. Rasseneur was shutting up the house. They separated in silence with buzzing ears, as if their heads had swollen with the grave questions they had been discussing.
And every evening there were similar conversations in the bare room around the single glass which Étienne took an hour to empty. A crowd of obscure ideas, asleep within him, were stirring and expanding. Especially consumed by the need of knowledge, he had long hesitated to borrow books from his neighbour, who unfortunately had hardly any but German and Russian works. At last he had borrowed a French book on Co-operative Societies — mere foolery, said Souvarine; and he also regularly read a newspaper which the latter received, the Combat, an Anarchist journal published at Geneva. In other respects, notwithstanding their daily relations, he found him as reserved as ever, with his air of camping in life, without interests or feelings or possessions of any kind.
Towards the first days of July, Étienne’s situation began to improve. In the midst of this monotonous life, always beginning over again, an accident had occurred. The stalls in the Guillaume seam had come across a shifting of. the strata, a general disturbance in the layers, which certainly announced that they were approaching a fault; and, in fact, they soon came across this fault which the engineers, in spite of considerable knowledge of the soil, were still ignorant of. This upset the pit; nothing was talked of but the lost seam, which was to be found, no doubt, lower down on the other side of the fault. The old miners were already expanding their nostrils, like good dogs, in a chase for coal. But, meanwhile, the hewers could not stand with folded arms, and placards announced that the Company would put up new workings to auction.
Maheu, on coming out one day, accompanied Étienne and offered to take him on as a pikeman in his working, in place of Levaque who had gone to another yard. The matter had already been arranged with the head captain and the engineer, who were very pleased with the young man. So Étienne merely had to accept this rapid promotion, glad of the growing esteem in which Maheu held him.
In the evening they returned together to the pit to take note of the placards. The cuttings put up to auction were in the Filonnire seam in the north gallery of the Voreux. They did not seem very advantageous, and the miner shook his head when the young man read out the conditions. On the following day when they had gone down, he took him to see the seam, and showed him how far away it was from the pit-eye, the crumbly nature of the earth, the thinness and hardness of the coal. But if they were to eat they would have to work. So on the following Sunday they went to the auction, which took place in the shed and was presided over by the engineer of the pit, assisted by the head captain, in the absence of the divisional engineer. From five to six hundred miners were there in front of the little platform, which was placed in the corner, and the bidding went on so rapidly that one only heard a deep tumult of voices, of shouted figures drowned by other figures.
For a moment Maheu feared that he would not be able to obtain one of the forty workings offered by the Company. All the rivals went lower, disquieted by the rumours of a crisis and the panic of a lock-out. Négrel, the engineer, did not hurry in the face of this panic, and allowed the offers to fall to the lowest possible figures, while Dansaert, anxious to push matters still further, lied with regard to the quality of the workings. In order to get his fifty metres, Maheu struggled with a comrade who was also obstinate; in turn they each took off a centime from the tram; and if he conquered in the end it was only by lowering the wage to such an extent, that the captain Richomme, who was standing behind him, muttered between his teeth, and nudged him with his elbow, growling angrily that he could never do it at that price.
When they came out Étienne was swearing. And he broke out before Chaval. who was returning from the wheatfields in company with Catherine, amusing himself while his father-in-law was absorbed in serious business.
“By God!” he exclaimed, “it’s simply slaughter! Today it is the worker who is forced to devour the worker!”
Chaval was furious. He would never have lowered it, he wouldn’t. And Zacharie, who had come out of curiosity, declared that it was disgusting. But Étienne with a violent gesture silenced them.
“It will end some day, we shall be the masters!”
Maheu, who had been mute since the auction, appeared to wake up. He repeated:
“Masters! ah! bad luck! it can’t be too soon!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02