IT was Montsou feast-day, the last Sunday in July. Since Saturday evening the good housekeepers of the settlement had deluged their parlours with water, throwing bucketfuls over the flags and against the walls; and the floor was not yet dry, in spite of the white sand which had been strewn over it, an expensive luxury for the purses of the poor. But the day promised to be very warm; it was one of those heavy skies threatening storm, which in summer stifle this flat bare country of the Nord.
Sunday upset the hours for rising, even among the Maheus. While the father, after five o’clock, grew weary of his bed and dressed himself, the children lay in bed until nine. On this day Maheu went to smoke a pipe in the garden, and then came back to eat his bread and butter alone, while waiting. He thus passed the morning in a random manner; he mended the tub, which leaked; stuck up beneath the clock a portrait of the prince imperial which had been given to the little ones. However, the others came down one by one. Father Bonnemort had taken a chair outside, to sit in the sun, while the mother and Alzire had at once set about cooking. Catherine appeared, pushing before her Lénore and Henri, whom she had just dressed. Eleven o’clock struck, and the odour of the rabbit, which was boiling with potatoes, was already filling the house when Zacharie and Jeanlin. came down last, still yawning and with their eyes swollen.
The settlement was now in a flutter, excited by the feast-day, and in expectation of dinner, which was being hastened for the departure in bands to Montsou. Troops of children were rushing about. Men in their shirt-sleeves were trailing their old shoes with the lazy gait of days of rest. Windows and doors, opened wide in the fine weather, gave glimpses of rows of parlours which were filled with movement and shouts and the chatter of families. And from one end to the other of the frontages, there was a smell of rabbit, a rich kitchen smell which on this day struggled with the inveterate odour of fried onion.
The Maheus dined at midday. They made little noise in the midst of the chatter from door to door, in the coming and going of women in a constant uproar of calls and replies, of objects borrowed, of youngsters hunted away or brought back with a slap. Besides, they had not been on good terms during the last three weeks with their neighbours, the Levaques, on the subject of the marriage of Zacharie and Philoméne. The men passed the time of day, but the women pretended not to know each other. This quarrel had strengthened the relations with Pierronne, only Pierronne had left Pierron and Lydie with her mother, and set out early in the morning to spend the day with a cousin at Marchiennes; and they joked, for they knew this cousin; she had a moustache, and was head captain at the Voreux. Maheude declared that it was not proper to leave one’s family on a feast-day Sunday.
Beside the rabbit with potatoes, a rabbit which had been fattening in the shed for a month, the Maheus had meat soup and beef. The fortnight’s wages had just fallen due the day before. They could not recollect such a spread. Even at the last St. Barbara’s Day, the fete of the miners when they do nothing for three days, the rabbit had not been so fat nor so tender. So the ten pairs of jaws, from little Estelle, whose teeth were beginning to appear, to old Bonnemort, who was losing his, worked so heartily that the bones themselves disappeared. The meat was good, but they could not digest it well; they saw it too seldom. Everything disappeared; there only remained a piece of boiled beef for the evening. They could add bread and butter if they were hungry.
Jeanlin went out first. Bébert was waiting for him behind the school, and they prowled about for a long time before they were able to entice away Lydie, whom Brulé, who had decided not to go out, was trying to keep with her. When she perceived that the child had fled, she shouted and brandished her lean arms, while Pierron, annoyed at the disturbance, strolled quietly away with the air of a husband who can amuse himself with a good conscience, knowing that his wife also has her little amusements.
Old Bonnemort set out at last, and Maheu decided to have a little fresh air after asking Maheude if she would come and join him down below. No, she couldn’t at all, it was nothing but drudgery with the little ones; but perhaps she would, all the same; she would think about it: they could easily find each other. When he got outside he hesitated, then he went into the neighbours’ to see if Levaque was ready. There he found Zacharie, who was waiting for Philoméne. and the Levaque woman started again on that everlasting subject of marriage, saying that she was being made fun of and that she would have an explanation with Maheude once and for all. Was life worth living when one had to keep one’s daughter’s fatherless children while she went off with her lover? Philoméne quietly finished putting on her bonnet, and Zacharie took her off, saying that he was quite willing if his mother was willing. As Levaque had already gone, Maheu referred his angry neighbour to his wife and hastened to depart. Bouteloup, who was finishing a fragment of cheese with both elbows on the table, obstinately refused the friendly offer of a glass. He would stay in the house like a good husband.
Gradually the settlement was emptied; all the men went off one behind the other, while the girls, watching at the doors, set out in the opposite direction on the arms of their lovers. As her father turned the corner of the church, Catherine perceived Chaval, and, hastening to join him, they took together the Montsou road. And the mother remained alone, in the midst of her scattered children, without strength to leave her chair, where she was pouring out a second glass of boiling coffee, which she drank in little sips. In the settlement there were only the women left, inviting each other to finish the dregs of the coffee-pots, around tables that were still warm and greasy with the dinner.
Maheu had guessed that Levaque was at the Avantage, and he slowly went down to Rasseneur’s. In fact, behind the bar, in the little garden shut in by a hedge, Levaque was having a game of skittles with some mates. Standing by, and not playing, Father Bonnemort and old Mouque were following the ball, so absorbed that they even forgot to nudge each other with their elbows. A burning sun struck down on them perpendicularly; there was only one streak of shade by the side of the inn; and Étienne was there drinking his glass before a table, annoyed because Souvarine had just left him to go up to his room. Nearly every Sunday the engine-man shut himself up to write or to read.
“Will you have a game?” asked Levaque of Maheu.
But he refused: it was too hot, he was already dying of thirst.
“Rasseneur,” called Étienne, “bring a glass, will you?”
And turning towards Maheu:
“I’ll stand it, you know.”
They now all treated each other familiarly. Rasseneur did not hurry himself, he had to be called three times; and Madame Rasseneur at last brought some lukewarm beer. The young man had lowered his voice to complain about the house: they were worthy people, certainly, people with good ideas, but the beer was worthless and the soup abominable! He would have changed his lodgings ten times over, only the thought of the walk from Montsou held him back. One day or another he would go and live with some family at the settlement.
“Sure enough!” said Maheu in his slow voice, “sure enough, you would be better in a family.”
But shouts now broke out. Levaque had overthrown all the skittles at one stroke. Mouque and Bonnemort, with their faces towards the ground, in the midst of the tumult preserved a silence of profound approbation. And the joy at this stroke found vent in jokes, especially when the players perceived Mouquette’s radiant face behind the hedge. She had been prowling about there for an hour, and at last ventured to come near on hearing the laughter.
“What! are you alone?” shouted Levaque. “Where are your sweethearts?”
“My sweethearts! I’ve stabled them,” she replied, with a fine impudent gaiety. “I’m looking for one.”
They all offered themselves, throwing coarse chaff at her. She refused with a gesture and laughed louder, playing the fine lady. Besides, her father was watching the game without even taking his eyes from the fallen skittles.
“Ah!” Levaque went on, throwing a look towards Étienne: “one can tell where you’re casting sheep’s eyes, my girl! You’ll have to take him by force.”
Then Étienne brightened up. It was in fact around him that the putter was revolving. And he refused, amused indeed, but without having the least desire for her. She remained planted behind the hedge for some minutes longer, looking at him with large fixed eyes; then she slowly went away, and her face suddenly became serious as if she were overcome by the powerful sun.
In a low voice Étienne was again giving long explanations to Maheu regarding the necessity for the Montsou miners to establish a provident fund. “Since the Company professes to leave us free,” he repeated, “what is there to fear? We only have their pensions and they distribute them according to their own idea, since they don’t hold back any of our pay. Well, it will be prudent to form, outside their good pleasure, an association of mutual help on which we can count at least in cases of immediate need.”
And he gave details, and discussed the organization, promising to undertake the labour of it.
“I am willing enough,” said Maheu, at last convinced. “But there are the others; get them to make up their minds.”
Levaque had won, and they left the skittles to empty their glasses. But Maheu refused to drink a second glass; he would see later on, the day was not yet done. He was thinking about Pierron. Where could he be? No doubt at the Estimainet Lenfant. And, having persuaded Étienne and Levaque, the three set out for Montsou, at the same moment that a new band took possession of the skittles at the Avantage.
On the road they had to pause at the Casimir Bar, and then at the Estaminet du Progrés. Comrades called them through the open doors, and there was no way of refusing. Each time it was a glass, two if they were polite enough to return the invitation. They remained there ten minutes, exchanging a few words, and then began again, a little farther on, knowing the beer, with which they could fill themselves without any other discomfort than having to piss it out again in the same measure, as clear as rock water. At the Estaminet Lenfant they came right upon Pierron, who was finishing his second glass, and who, in order not to refuse to touch glasses, swallowed a third. They naturally drank theirs also. Now there were four of them, and they set out to see if Zacharie was not at the Estaminet Tison. It was empty, and they called for a glass, in order to wait for him a moment. Then they thought of the Estaminet Saint-Éloi and accepted there a round from Captain Richomme. Then they rambled from bar to bar, without any pretext, simply saying that they were having a stroll.
“We must go to the Volcan!” suddenly said Levaque, who was getting excited.
The others began to laugh, and hesitated. Then they accompanied their comrade in the midst of the growing crowd. In the long narrow room of the Volcan, on a platform raised at the end, five singers, the scum of the Lille prostitutes, were walking about, low-necked and with monstrous gestures, and the customers gave ten sous when they desired to have one behind the stage. There was especially a number of putters and landers, even trammers of fourteen, all the youth of the pit, drinking more gin than beer. A few old miners also ventured there, and the worst husbands of the settlements, those whose households were falling into ruin.
As soon as the band was seated round a little table, Étienne took possession of Levaque to explain to him his idea of the Provident Fund. Like all new converts who have found a mission, he had become an obstinate propagandist.
“Every member,” he repeated, “could easily pay in twenty sous a month. As these twenty sous accumulated they would form a nice little sum in four or five years, and when one has money one is ready, eh, for anything that turns up? Eh, what do you say to it?”
“I’ve nothing to say against it,” replied Levaque, with an abstracted air. “We will talk about it.”
He was excited by an enormous blonde, and determined to remain behind when Maheu and Pierron, after drinking their glasses, set out without waiting for a second song.
Outside, Étienne who had gone with them found Mouquette, who seemed to be following them. She was always there, looking at him with her large fixed eyes, laughing her good-natured laugh, as if to say: “Are you willing?” The young man joked and shrugged his shoulders. Then, with a gesture of anger, she was lost in the crowd.
“Where, then, is Chaval?” asked Pieron.
“True!” said Maheu. “He must surely be at Piquette’s. Let us go to Piquette’s.”
But as they all three arrived at the Estaminet Piquette, sounds of a quarrel arrested them at the door; Zacharie with his fist was threatening a thick-set phlegmatic Walloon nail-maker, while Chaval, with his hands in his pockets, was looking on.
“Hallo! there’s Chaval,” said Maheu quietly; “he is with Catherine.”
For five long hours the putter and her lover had been walking about the fair. All along the Montsou road, that wide road with low bedaubed houses winding downhill, a crowd of people wandered up and down in the sun, like a trail of ants, lost in the flat, bare plain. The eternal black mud had dried, a black dust was rising and floating about like a storm-cloud.
On both sides the public-houses were crowded; there were rows of tables to the street, where stood a double rank of hucksters at stalls in the open air, selling neck-handkerchiefs and looking-glasses for the girls, knives and caps for the lads; to say nothing of sweetmeats, sugar-plums, and biscuits. In front of the church archery was going on. Opposite the Yards they were playing at bowls. At the corner of the Joiselle road, beside the Administration buildings, in a spot enclosed by fences, crowds were watching a cock-fight, two large red cocks, armed with steel spurs, their breasts torn and bleeding. Farther on, at Maigrat’s, aprons and trousers were being won at billiards. And there were long silences; the crowd drank and stuffed itself without a sound; a mute indigestion of beer and fried potatoes was expanding in the great heat, still further increased by the frying-pans bubbling in the open air.
Chaval bought a looking-glass for nineteen sous and a handkerchief for three francs, to give to Catherine. At every turn they met Mouque and Bonnemort, who had come to the fair and, in meditative mood, were plodding heavily through it side by side. Another meeting made them angry; they caught sight of Jeanlin inciting Bébert and Lydie to steal bottles of gin from an extemporized bar installed at the edge of an open piece of ground. Catherine succeeded in boxing her brother’s ears; the little girl had already run away with a bottle. These imps of Satan would certainly end in a prison. Then, as they arrived before another bar, the Tete-Coupée, it occurred to Chaval to take his sweetheart in to a competition of chaffinches which had been announced on the door for the past week. Fifteen nail-makers from the Marchiennes nail works had responded to the appeal, each with a dozen cages; and the gloomy little cages in which the blinded finches sat motionless were already hung upon a paling in the inn yard. It was a question as to which, in the course of an hour, should repeat the phrase of its song the greatest number of times. Each nail-maker with a slate stood near his cages to mark, watching his neighbours and watched by them. And the chaffinches had begun, the chichouïeux with the deeper note, the batisecouics with their shriller note, all at first timid, and only risking a rare phrase, then, excited by each other’s songs, increasing the pace; then at last carried away by such a rage of rivalry that they would even fall dead. The nail-makers violently whipped them on with their voices, shouting out to them in Walloon to sing more, still more, yet a little more, while the spectators, about a hundred people, stood by in mute fascination in the midst of this infernal music of a hundred and eighty chaffinches all repeating the same cadence out of time. It was a batisecouic which gained the first prize, a metal coffee-pot.
Catherine and Chaval were there when Zacharie and Philoméne entered. They shook hands, and all stayed together. But suddenly Zacharie became angry, for he discovered that a nail-maker, who had come in with his mates out of curiosity, was pinching his sister’s thigh. She blushed and tried to make him be silent, trembling at the idea that all these nail-makers would throw themselves on Chaval and kill him if he objected to her being pinched. She had felt the pinch, but said nothing out of prudence. Her lover, however, merely made a grimace, and as they all four now went out the affair seemed to be finished. But hardly had they entered Piquette’s to drink a glass, when the nail-maker reappeared, making fun of them and coming close up to them with an air of provocation. Zacharie, insulted in his good family feelings, threw himself on the insolent intruder.
“That’s my sister, you swine! Just wait a bit, and I’m damned if I don’t make you respect her.”
The two men were separated, while Chaval, who was quite calm, only repeated:
“Let be! it’s my concern. I tell you I don’t care a damn for him.”
Maheu now arrived with his party, and quieted Catherine and Philoméne who were in tears. The nail-maker had disappeared, and there was laughter in the crowd. To bring the episode to an end, Chaval, who was at home at the Estaminet Piquette, called for drinks. Étienne had touched glasses with Catherine, and all drank together — the father, the daughter and her lover, the son and his mistress — saying politely: “To your good health!” Pierron afterwards persisted in paying for more drinks. And they were all in good humour, when Zacharie grew wild again at the sight of his comrade Mouquet, and called him, as he said, to go and finish his affair with the nail-maker.
“I shall have to go and do for him! Here, Chaval, keep Philoméne with Catherine. I’m coming back.”
Maheu offered drinks in his turn. After all, if the lad wished to avenge his sister it was not a bad example. But as soon as she had seen Mouquet, Philoméne felt at rest, and nodded her head. Sure enough the two chaps would be off to the Volcan!
On the evenings of feast-days the fair was terminated in the ball-room of the Bon-Joyeux. It was a widow, Madame Désir, who kept this ball-room, a fat matron of fifty, as round as a tub, but so fresh that she still had six lovers, one for every day of the week, she said, and the six together for Sunday. She called all the miners her children; and grew tender at the thought of the flood of beer which she had poured out for them during the last thirty years; and she boasted also that a putter never became pregnant without having first stretched her legs at her establishment. There were two rooms in the BonJoyeux: the bar which contained the counter and tables; then, communicating with it on the same floor by a large arch, was the ball-room, a large hall only planked in the middle, being paved with bricks round the sides. It was decorated with two garlands of paper flowers which crossed one another, and were united in the middle by a crown of the same flowers; while along the walls were rows of gilt shields bearing the names of saints — St. Éloi, patron of the iron-workers; St. Crispin, patron of the shoemakers; St. Barbara, patron of the miners; the whole calendar of corporations. The ceiling was so low that the three musicians on their platform, which was about the size of a pulpit, knocked their heads against it. When it became dark four petroleum lamps were fastened to the four corners of the room.
On this Sunday there was dancing from five o’clock with the full daylight through the windows, but it was not until towards seven that the rooms began to fill. Outside, a gale was rising, blowing great black showers of dust which blinded people and sleeted into the fryingpans. Maheu, Étienne, and Pierron, having come in to sit down, had found Chaval at the Bon-Joyeux dancing with Catherine, while Philoméne by herself was looking on. Neither Levaque nor Zacharie had reappeared. As there were no benches around the ball-room, Catherine came after each dance to rest at her father’s table. They called Philoméne, but she preferred to stand up. The twilight was coming on; the three musicians played furiously; one could only see in the hall the movement of hips and breasts in the midst of a confusion of arms. The appearance of the four lamps was greeted noisily, and suddenly everything was lit up — the red faces, the dishevelled hair sticking to the skin, the flying skirts spreading abroad the strong odour of perspiring couples. Maheu pointed out Mouquette to Étienne: she was as round and greasy as a bladder of lard, revolving violently in the arms of a tall, lean lander. She had been obliged to console herself and take a man.
At last, at eight o’clock, Maheude appeared with Estelle at her breast, followed by Alzire, Henri, and Lénore. She had come there straight to her husband without fear of missing him. They could sup later on; as yet nobody was hungry, with their stomachs soaked in coffee and thickened with beer. Other women came in, and they whispered together when they saw, behind Maheude, the Levaque woman enter with Bouteloup, who led in by the hand Achille and Désirée, Philoméne’s little ones. The two neighbours seemed to be getting on well together, one turning round to chat with the other. On the way there had been a great explanation, and Maheude had resigned herself to Zacharie’s marriage, in despair at the loss of her eldest son’s wages, but overcome by the thought that she could not hold it back any longer without injustice. She was trying, therefore, to put a good face on it, though with an anxious heart, as a housekeeper who was asking herself how she could make both ends meet now that the best part of her purse was going.
“Place yourself there, neighbour,” she said, pointing to a table near that where Maheu was drinking with Étienne and Pierron.
“Is not my husband with you?” asked the Levaque woman.
The others told her that he would soon come. They were all seated together in a heap, Bouteloup and the youngsters so tightly squeezed among the drinkers that the two tables only formed one. There was a call for drinks. Seeing her mother and her children Philoméne had decided to come near. She accepted a chair, and seemed pleased to hear that she was at last to be married; then, as they were looking for Zacharie, she replied in her soft voice:
“I am waiting for him; he is over there.”
Maheu had exchanged a look with his wife. She had then consented? He became serious and smoked in silence. He also felt anxiety for the morrow in face of the ingratitude of these children, who got married one by one leaving their parents in wretchedness.
The dancing still went on, and the end of a quadrille drowned the ball-room in red dust; the walls cracked, a cornet produced shrill whistling sounds like a locomotive in distress; and when the dancers stopped they were smoking like horses.
“Do you remember?” said the Levaque woman, bending towards Maheude’s ear; “you talked of strangling Catherine if she did anything foolish!”
Chaval brought Catherine back to the family table, and both of them standing behind the father finished their glasses.
“Bah!” murmured Maheude, with an air of resignation, “one says things like that — But what quiets me is that she will not have a child; I feel sure of that. You see if she is confined, and obliged to marry, what shall we do for a living then?”
Now the cornet was whistling a polka, and as the deafening noise began again, Maheu, in a low voice, communicated an idea to his wife. Why should they not take a lodger? Étienne, for example, who was looking out for quarters? They would have room since Zacharie was going to leave them, and the money that they would lose in that direction would be in part regained in the other. Maheude’s face brightened; certainly it was a good idea, it must be arranged. She seemed to be saved from starvation once more, and her good humour returned so quickly that she ordered a new round of drinks.
Étienne, meanwhile, was seeking to indoctrinate Pierron, to whom he was explaining his plan of a provident fund. He had made him promise to subscribe, when he was imprudent enough to reveal his real aim.
“And if we go out on strike you can see how useful that fund will be. We can snap our fingers at the Company, we shall have there a fund to fight against them. Eh? don’t you think so?”
Pierron lowered his eyes and grew pale; he stammered:
“I’ll think over it. Good conduct, that’s the best provident fund.”
Then Maheu took possession of Étienne, and squarely, like a good man, proposed to take him as a lodger. The young man accepted at once, anxious to live in the settlement with the idea of being nearer to his mates. The matter was settled in three words, Maheude declaring that they would wait for the marriage of the children.
Just then, Zacharie at last came back, with Mouquet and Levaque. The three brought in the odours of the Volcan, a breath of gin, a musky acidity of ill-kept girls. They were very tipsy and seemed well pleased with themselves, digging their elbows into each other and grinning. When he knew that he was at last to be married Zacharie began to laugh so loudly that he choked. Philoméne peacefully declared that she would rather see him laugh than cry. As there were no more chairs, Bouteloup had moved so as to give up half of his to Levaque. And the latter, suddenly much affected by realizing that the whole family party was there, once more had beer served out.
“By the Lord! we don’t amuse ourselves so often!” he roared.
They remained there till ten o’clock. Women continued to arrive, either to join or to take away their men; bands of children followed in rows, and the mothers no longer troubled themselves, pulling out their long pale breasts, like sacks of oats, and smearing their chubby babies with milk; while the little ones who were already able to walk, gorged with beer and on all fours beneath the table, relieved themselves without shame. It was a rising sea of beer, from Madame Désir’s disembowelled barrels, the beer enlarged every belly, flowing from noses, eyes, and everywhere. So puffed out was the crowd that every one had a shoulder or knee poking into his neighbour; all were cheerful and merry in thus feeling each other’s elbows. A continuous laugh kept their mouths open from ear to ear. The heat was like an oven; they were roasting and felt themselves at ease with glistening skin, gilded in a thick smoke from the pipes; the only discomfort was when one had to move away; from time to time a girl rose, went to the other end, near the pump, lifted her clothes, and then came back. Beneath the garlands of painted paper the dancers could no longer see each other, they perspired so much; this encouraged the trammers to tumble the putters over, catching them at random by the hips. But where a girl tumbled with a man over her, the cornet covered their fall with its furious music; the swirl of feet wrapped them round as if the ball had collapsed upon them.
Someone who was passing warned Pierron that his daughter Lydie was sleeping at the door, across the pavement. She had drunk her share of the stolen bottle and was tipsy. He had to carry her away in his arms while Jeanlin and Bébert, who were more sober, followed him behind, thinking it a great joke. This was the signal for departure, and several families came out of the Bon-Joyeux, the Maheus and the Levaques deciding to return to the settlement. At the same moment Father Bonnemort and old Mouque also left Montsou, walking in the same somnambulistic manner, preserving the obstinate silence of their recollections. And they all went back together, passing for the last time through the fair, where the frying-pans were coagulating, and by the estaminets, from which the last glasses were flowing in a stream towards the middle of the road. The storm was still threatening, and sounds of laughter arose as they left the lighted houses to lose themselves in the dark country around. Panting breaths arose from the ripe wheat; many children must have been made on that night. They arrived in confusion at the settlement. Neither the Levaques nor the Maheus supped with appetite, and the latter kept on dropping off to sleep while finishing their morning’s boiled beef.
Étienne had led away Chaval for one more drink at Rasseneur’s.
“I am with you!” said Chaval, when his mate had explained the matter of the provident fund. “Put it there! you’re a fine fellow!”
The beginning of drunkenness was flaming in Étienne’s eyes. He exclaimed:
“Yes, let’s join hands. As for me, you know I would give up everything for the sake of justice, both drink and girls. There’s only one thing that warms my heart, and that is the thought that we are going to sweep away these bourgeois.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02