TOWARDS the middle of August, Étienne settled with the Maheus, Zacharie having married and obtained from the Company a vacant house in the settlement for Philoméne and the two children. During the first days, the young man experienced some constraint in the presence of Catherine. There was a constant intimacy, as he everywhere replaced the elder brother, sharing Jeanlin’s bed over against the big sister’s. Going to bed and getting up he had to dress and undress near her, and see her take off and put on her garments. When the last skirt fell from her, she appeared of pallid whiteness, that transparent snow of anaemic blondes; and he experienced a constant emotion in finding her, with hands and face already spoilt, as white as if dipped in milk from her heels to her neck, where the line of tan stood out sharply like a necklace of amber. He pretended to turn away; but little by little he knew her: the feet at first which his lowered eyes met; then a glimpse of a knee when she slid beneath the coverlet; then her bosom with little rigid breasts as she leant over the bowl in the morning. She would hasten without looking at him, and in ten seconds was undressed and stretched beside Alzire, with so supple and snake-like a movement that he had scarcely taken off his shoes when she disappeared, turning her back and only showing her heavy knot of hair.
She never had any reason to be angry with him. If a sort of obsession made him watch her in spite of himself at the moment when she lay down, he avoided all practical jokes or dangerous pastimes. The parents were there, and besides he still had for her a feeling, half of friendship and half of spite, which prevented him from treating her as a girl to be desired, in the midst of the abandonment of their now common life in dressing, at meals, during work, where nothing of them remained secret, not even their most intimate needs. All the modesty of the family had taken refuge in the daily bath, for which the young girl now went upstairs alone, while the men bathed below one after the other.
At the end of the first month, Étienne and Catherine seemed no longer to see each other when in the evening, before extinguishing the candle, they moved about the room, undressed. She had ceased to hasten, and resumed her old custom of doing up her hair at the edge of her bed, while her arms, raised in the air, lifted her chemise to her thighs, and he, without his trousers, sometimes helped her, looking for the hairpins that she had lost. Custom killed the shame of being naked; they found it natural to be like this, for they were doing no harm, and it was not their fault if there was only one room for so many people. Sometimes, however, a trouble came over them suddenly, at moments when they had no guilty thought. After some nights when he had not seen her pale body, he suddenly saw her white all over, with a whiteness which shook him with a shiver, which obliged him to turn away for fear of yielding to the desire to take her. On other evenings, without any apparent reason, she would be overcome by a panic of modesty and hasten to slip between the sheets as if she felt the hands of this lad seizing her. Then, when the candle was out, they both knew that they were not sleeping but were thinking of each other in spite of their weariness. This made them restless and sulky all the following day; they liked best the tranquil evenings when they could behave together like comrades.
Étienne only complained of Jeanlin, who slept curled up. Alzire slept lightly, and Lénore and Henri were found in the morning, in each other’s arms, exactly as they had gone to sleep. In the dark house there was no other sound than the snoring of Maheu and Maheude, rolling out at regular intervals like a forge bellows. On the whole, Étienne was better off than at Rasseneur’s; the bed was tolerable and the sheets were changed every month. He had better soup, too, and only suffered from the rarity of meat. But they were all in the same condition, and for forty-five francs he could not demand rabbit to every meal. These forty-five francs helped the family and enabled them to make both ends meet, though always leaving some small debts and arrears; so the Maheus were grateful to their lodger; his linen was washed and mended, his buttons sewn on, and his affairs kept in order; in fact he felt all around him a woman’s neatness and care.
It was at this time that Étienne began to understand the ideas that were buzzing in his brain. Up till then he had only felt an instinctive revolt in the midst of the inarticulate fermentation among his mates. All sorts of confused questions came before him: Why are some miserable? why are others rich? why are the former beneath the heel of the latter without hope of ever taking their place? And his first stage was to understand his ignorance. A secret shame, a hidden annoyance, gnawed him from that time; he knew nothing, he dared not talk about these things which were working in him like a passion — the equality of all men, and the equity which demanded a fair division of the earth’s wealth. He thus took to the methodless study of those who in ignorance feel the fascination of knowledge. He now kept up a regular correspondence with Pluchart, who was better educated than himself and more advanced in the Socialist movement. He had books sent to him, and his ill-digested reading still further excited his brain, especially a medical book entitled L’Hygiéne du mineur, in which a Belgian doctor had summed up the evils of which the people in coal mines were dying; without counting treatises on political economy, incomprehensible in their technical dryness, Anarchist pamphlets which upset his ideas, and old numbers of newspapers which he preserved as irrefutable arguments for possible discussions. Souvarine also lent him books, and the work on Co-operative Societies had made him dream for a month of a universal exchange association abolishing money and basing the whole social life on work. The shame of his ignorance left him, and a certain pride came to him now that he felt himself thinking.
During these first months Étienne retained the ecstasy of a novice; his heart was bursting with generous indignation against the oppressors, and looking forward to the approaching triumph of the oppressed. He had not yet manufactured a system, his reading had been too vague. Rasseneur’s practical demands were mixed up in his mind with Souvarine’s violent and destructive methods, and when he came out of the Avantage, where he was to be found nearly every day railing with them against the Company, he walked as if in a dream, assisting at a radical regeneration of nations to be effected without one broken window or a single drop of blood. The methods of execution remained obscure; he preferred to think that things would go very well, for he lost his head as soon as he tried to formulate a programme of reconstruction. He even showed himself full of illogical moderation; he often said that we must banish politics from the social question, a phrase which he had read and which seemed a useful one to repeat among the phlegmatic colliers with whom he lived.
Every evening now, at the Maheus’, they delayed half an hour before going up to bed. Étienne always introduced the same subject. As his nature became more refined he found himself wounded by the promiscuity of the settlement. Were they beasts to be thus penned together in the midst of the fields, so tightly packed that one could not change one’s shirt without exhibiting one’s backside to the neighbours? And how bad it was for health; and boys and girls were forced to grow corrupt together.
“Lord!” replied Maheu, “if there were more money there would be more comfort. All the same it’s true enough that it’s good for no one to live piled up like that. It always ends with making the men drunk and the girls big-bellied.”
And the family began to talk, each having his say, while the petroleum lamp vitiated the air of the room, already stinking of fried onion. No, life was certainly not a joke. One had to work like a brute at labour which was once a punishment for convicts; one left one’s skin there oftener than was one’s turn, all that without even getting meat on the table in the evening. No doubt one had one’s feed; one ate, indeed, but so little, just enough to suffer without dying, overcome with debts and pursued as if one had stolen the bread. When Sunday came one slept from weariness. The only pleasures were to get drunk and to get a child with one’s wife; then the beer swelled the belly, and the child, later on, left you to go to the dogs. No, it was certainly not a joke.
Then Maheude joined in.
“The bother is, you see, when you have to say to yourself that it won’t change. When you’re young you think that happiness will come some time, you hope for things; and then the wretchedness begins always over again, and you get shut up in it. Now, I don’t wish harm to any one, but there are times when this injustice makes me mad.”
There was silence; they were all breathing with the vague discomfort of this closed-in horizon. Father Bonnemort only, if he was there, opened his eyes with surprise, for in his time people used not to worry about things; they were born in the coal and they hammered at the seam, without asking for more; while now there was an air stirring which made the colliers ambitious.
“It don’t do to spit at anything,” he murmured. “A good glass is a good glass. As to the masters, they’re often rascals; but there always will be masters, won’t there? What’s the use of racking your brains over those things?”
Étienne at once became animated. What! The worker was to be forbidden to think! Why! that was just it; things would change now because the worker had begun to think. In the old man’s time the miner lived in the mine like a brute, like a machine for extracting coal, always under the earth, with ears and eyes stopped to outward events. So the rich, who governed, found it easy to sell him and buy him, and to devour his flesh; he did not even know what was going on. But now the miner was waking up down there, germinating in the earth just as a grain germinates; and some fine day he would spring up in the midst of the fields: yes, men would spring up, an army of men who would re-establish justice. Is it not true that all citizens are equal since the Revolution, because they vote together? Why should the worker remain the slave of the master who pays him? The big companies with their machines were crushing everything, and one no longer had against them the ancient guarantees when people of the same trade, united in a body, were able to defend themselves. It was for that, by God, and for no other reason, that all would burst up one day, thanks to education. One had only to look into the settlement itself: the grandfathers could not sign their names, the fathers could do so, and as for the sons, they read and wrote like schoolmasters. Ah! it was springing up, it was springing up, little by little, a rough harvest of men who would ripen in the sun! From the moment when they were no longer each of them stuck to his place for his whole existence, and when they had the ambition to take a neighbour’s place, why should they not hit out with their fists and try for the mastery?
Maheu was shaken but remained full of doubts.
“As soon as you move they give you back your certificate,” he said. “The old man is right; it will always be the miner who gets all the trouble, without a chance of a leg of mutton now and then as a reward.”
Maheude, who had been silent for a while, awoke as from a dream.
“But if what the priests tell is true, if the poor people in this world become the rich ones in the next!”
A burst of laughter interrupted her; even the children shrugged their shoulders, being incredulous in the open air, keeping a secret fear of ghosts in the pit, but glad of the empty sky.
“Ah! bosh! the priests!” exclaimed Maheu. “If they believed that, they’d eat less and work more, so as to reserve a better place for themselves up there. No, when one’s dead, one’s dead.”
Maheude sighed deeply.
“Oh, Lord, Lord!”
Then her hands fell on to her knees with a gesture of immense dejection:
“Then if that’s true, we are done for, we are.”
They all looked at one another. Father Bonnemort spat into his handkerchief, while Maheu sat with his extinguished pipe, which he had forgotten, in his mouth. Alzire listened between Lénore and Henri, who were sleeping on the edge of the table. But Catherine, with her chin in her hand, never took her large clear eyes off Étienne while he was protesting, declaring his faith, and opening out the enchanting future of his social dream. Around them the settlement was asleep; one only heard the stray cries of a child or the complaints of a belated drunkard. In the parlour the clock ticked slowly, and a damp freshness arose from the sanded floor in spite of the stuffy air.
“Fine ideas!” said the young man; “why do you need a good God and his paradise to make you happy? Haven’t you got it in your own power to make yourselves happy on earth?”
With his enthusiastic voice he spoke on and on. The closed horizon was bursting out; a gap of light was opening in the sombre lives of these poor people. The eternal wretchedness, beginning over and over again, the brutalizing labour, the fate of a beast who gives his wool and has his throat cut, all the misfortune disappeared, as though swept away by a great flood of sunlight; and beneath the dazzling gleam of fairyland justice descended from heaven. Since the good God was dead, justice would assure the happiness of men, and equality and brotherhood would reign. A new society would spring up in a day just as in dreams, an immense town with the splendour of a mirage, in which each citizen lived by his work, and took his share in the common joys. The old rotten world had fallen to dust; a young humanity purged from its crimes formed but a single nation of workers, having for their motto: “To each according to his deserts, and to each desert according to its performance.” And this dream grew continually larger and more beautiful and more seductive as it mounted higher in the impossible.
At first Maheude refused to listen, possessed by a deep dread. No, no, it was too beautiful; it would not do to embark upon these ideas, for they made life seem abominable afterwards, and one would have destroyed everything in the effort to be happy. When she saw Maheu’s eyes shine, and that he was troubled and won over, she became restless, and exclaimed, interrupting Étienne:
“Don’t listen, my man! You can see he’s only telling us fairy-tales. Do you think the bourgeois would ever consent to work as we do?”
But little by little the charm worked on her also. Her imagination was aroused and she smiled at last, entering his marvellous world of hope. It was so sweet to forget for a while the sad reality! When one lives like the beasts with face bent towards the earth, one needs a corner of falsehood where one can amuse oneself by regaling on the things one will never possess. And what made her enthusiastic and brought her into agreement with the young man was the idea of justice.
“Now, there you’re right!” she exclaimed. “When a thing’s just I don’t mind being cut to pieces for it. And it’s true enough! it would be just for us to have a turn.”
Then Maheu ventured to become excited.
“Blast it all! I am not rich, but I would give five francs to keep alive to see that. What a hustling, eh? Will it be soon? And how can we set about it?”
Étienne began talking again. The old social system was cracking; it could not last more than a few months, he affirmed roundly. As to the methods of execution, he spoke more vaguely, mixing up his reading, and fearing before ignorant hearers to enter on explanations where he might lose himself. All the systems had their share in it, softened by the certainty of easy triumph, a universal kiss which would bring to an end all class misunderstandings; without taking count, however, of the thick-heads among the masters and bourgeois whom it would perhaps be necessary to bring to reason by force. And the Maheus looked as if they understood, approving and accepting miraculous solutions with the blind faith of new believers, like those Christians of the early days of the Church, who awaited the coming of a perfect society on the dunghill of the ancient world. Little Alzire picked up a few words, and imagined happiness under the form of a very warm house, where children could play and eat as long as they liked. Catherine, without moving, her chin always resting in her hand, kept her eyes fixed on Étienne, and when he stopped a slight shudder passed over her, and she was quite pale as if she felt the cold.
But Maheude looked at the clock.
“Past nine! Can it be possible? We shall never get up to-morrow.”
And the Maheus left the table with hearts ill at ease and in despair. It seemed to them that they had just been rich and that they had now suddenly fallen back into the mud. Father Bonnemort, who was setting out for the pit, growled that those sort of stories wouldn’t make the soup better; while the others went upstairs in single file, noticing the dampness of the walls and the pestiferous stuffiness of the air. Upstairs, amid the heavy slumber of the settlement when Catherine had got into bed last and blown out the candle, Étienne heard her tossing feverishly before getting to sleep.
Often at these conversations the neighbours came in: Levaque, who grew excited at the idea of a general sharing; Pierron, who prudently went to bed as soon as they attacked the Company. At long intervals Zacharie came in for a moment; but politics bored him, he preferred to go off and drink a glass at the Avantage. As to Chaval, he would go to extremes and wanted to draw blood. Nearly every evening he passed an hour with the Maheus; in this assiduity there was a certain unconfessed jealousy, the fear that he would be robbed of Catherine. This girl, of whom he was already growing tired, had become precious to him now that a man slept near her and could take her at night.
Étienne’s influence increased; he gradually revolutionized the settlement. His propaganda was unseen, and all the more sure since he was growing in the estimation of all. Maheude, notwithstanding the caution of a prudent housekeeper, treated him with consideration, as a young man who paid regularly and neither drank nor gambled, with his nose always in a book; she spread abroad his reputation among the neighbours as an educated lad, a reputation which they abused by asking him to write their letters. He was a sort of business man, charged with correspondence and consulted by households in affairs of difficulty. Since September he had thus at last been able to establish his famous provident fund, which was still very precarious, only including the inhabitants of the settlement; but he hoped to be able to obtain the adhesion of the miners at all the pits, especially if the Company, which had remained passive, continued not to interfere. He had been made secretary of the association and he even received a small salary for the clerking. This made him almost rich. If a married miner can with difficulty make both ends meet, a sober lad who has no burdens can even manage to save.
From this time a slow transformation took place in Étienne. Certain instincts of refinement and comfort which had slept during his poverty were now revealed. He began to buy cloth garments; he also bought a pair of elegant boots; he became a big man. The whole settlement grouped round him. The satisfaction of his self-love was delicious; he became intoxicated with this first enjoyment of popularity; to be at the head of others, to command, he who was so young, and but the day before had been a mere labourer, this filled him with pride, and enlarged his dream of an approaching revolution in which he was to play a part. His face changed: he became serious and put on airs, while his growing ambition inflamed his theories and pushed him to ideas of violence.
But autumn was advancing, and the October cold had blighted the little gardens of the settlement. Behind the thin lilacs the trammers no longer tumbled the putters over on the shed, and only the winter vegetables remained, the cabbages pearled with white frost, the leeks and the salads. Once more the rains were beating down on the red tiles and flowing down into the tubs beneath the gutters with the sound of a torrent. In every house the stove piled up with coal was never cold, and poisoned the close parlours. It was the season of wretchedness beginning once more.
In October, on one of the first frosty nights, Étienne, feverish after his conversation below, could not sleep. He had seen Catherine glide beneath the coverlet and then blow out the candle. She also appeared to be quite overcome, and tormented by one of those fits of modesty which still made her hasten sometimes, and so awkwardly that she only uncovered herself more. In the darkness she lay as though dead; but he knew that she also was awake, and he felt that she was thinking of him just as he was thinking of her: this mute exchange of their beings had never before filled them with such trouble. The minutes went by and neither he nor she moved, only their breathing was embarrassed in spite of their efforts to retain it. Twice over he was on the point of rising and taking her. It was idiotic to have such a strong desire for each other and never to satisfy it. Why should they thus sulk against what they desired? The children were asleep, she was quite willing; he was certain that she was waiting for him, stifling, and that she would close her arms round him in silence with clenched teeth. Nearly an hour passed. He did not go to take her, and she did not turn round for fear of calling him. The more they lived side by side, the more a barrier was raised of shames, repugnancies, delicacies of friendship, which they could not explain even to themselves.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02