“LISTEN,” said Maheude to her man, “when you go to Montsou for the pay, just bring me back a pound of coffee and a kilo of sugar.”
He was sewing one of his shoes, in order to spare the cobbling.
“Good!” he murmured, without leaving his task.
“I should like you to go to the butcher’s too. A bit of veal, eh? It’s so long since we saw it.”
This time he raised his head.
“Do you think, then, that I’ve got thousands coming in? The fortnight’s pay is too little as it is, with their confounded idea of always stopping work.”
They were both silent. It was after breakfast, one Saturday, at the end of October. The Company, under the pretext of the derangement caused by payment, had on this day once more suspended output in all their pits. Seized by panic at the growing industrial crisis, and not wishing to augment their already considerable stock, they profited by the smallest pretexts to force their ten thousand workers to rest.
“You know that Étienne is waiting for you at Rasseneur’s,” began Maheude again. “Take him with you; he’ll be more clever than you are in clearing up matters if they haven’t counted all your hours.”
Maheu nodded approval.
“And just talk to those gentlemen about your father’s affair. The doctor’s on good terms with the directors. It’s true, isn’t it, old un, that the doctor’s mistaken, and that you can still work?”
For ten days Father Bonnemort, with benumbed paws, as he said, had remained nailed to his chair. She had to repeat her question, and he growled:
“Sure enough, I can work. One isn’t done for because one’s legs are bad. All that is just stories they make up, so as not to give the hundred-and-eighty-franc pension.”
Maheude thought of the old man’s forty sous, which he would, perhaps, never bring in any more. and she uttered a cry of anguish:
“My God! we shall soon be all dead if this goes on.”
“When one is dead,” said Maheu, “‘one doesn’t get hungry.”
He put some nails into his shoes, and decided to set out. The Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement would not be paid till towards four o’clock. The men did not hurry, therefore, but waited about, going off one by one, beset by the women, who implored them to come back at once. Many gave them commissions, to prevent them forgetting themselves in public-houses.
At Rasseneur’s Étienne had received news. Disquieting rumours were flying about; it was said that the Company were more and more discontented over the timbering. They were overwhelming the workmen with fines, and a conflict appeared inevitable. That was, however, only the avowed dispute; beneath it there were grave and secret causes of complication.
Just as Étienne arrived, a comrade, who was drinking a glass on his return from Montsou, was telling that an announcement had been stuck up at the cashier’s; but he did not quite know what was on the announcement. A second entered, then a third, and each brought a different story. It seemed certain, however, that the Company had taken a resolution.
“What do you say about it, eh?” asked Étienne, sitting down near Souvarine at a table where nothing was to be seen but a packet of tobacco.
The engine-man did not hurry, but finished rolling his cigarette.
“I say that it was easy to foresee. They want to push you to extremes.”
He alone had a sufficiently keen intelligence to analyse the situation. He explained it in his quiet way. The Company, suffering from the crisis, had been forced to reduce their expenses if they were not to succumb, and it was naturally the workers who would have to tighten their bellies; under some pretext or another the Company would nibble at their wages. For two months the coal had been remaining at the surface of their pits, and nearly all the workshops were resting. As the Company did not dare to rest in this way, terrified at the ruinous inaction, they were meditating a middle course, perhaps a strike, from which the miners would come out crushed and worse paid. Then the new provident fund was disturbing them, as it was a threat for the future, while a strike would relieve them of it, by exhausting it when it was still small.
Rasseneur had seated himself beside Étienne, and both of them were listening in consternation. They could talk aloud, because there was no one there but Madame Rasseneur, seated at the counter.
“What an idea!” murmured the innkeeper; “what’s the good of it? The Company has no interest in a strike, nor the men either. It would be best to come to an understanding.”
This was very sensible. He was always on the side of reasonable demands. Since the rapid popularity of his old lodger, he had even exaggerated this system of possible progress, saying they would obtain nothing if they wished to have everything at once. In his fat, good-humoured nature, nourished on beer, a secret jealousy was forming, increased by the desertion of his bar, into which the workmen from the Voreux now came more rarely to drink and to listen; and he thus sometimes even began to defend the Company, forgetting the rancour of an old miner who had been turned off.
“Then you are against the strike?” cried Madame Rasseneur, without leaving the counter.
And as he energetically replied, “Yes!” she made him hold his tongue.
“Bah! you have no courage; let these gentlemen speak.”
Étienne was meditating, with his eyes fixed on the glass which she had served to him. At last he raised his head.
“I dare say it’s all true what our mate tells us, and we must get resigned to this strike if they force it on us. Pluchart has just written me some very sensible things on this matter. He’s against the strike too, for the men would suffer as much as the masters, and it wouldn’t come to anything decisive. Only it seems to him a capital chance to get our men to make up their minds to go into his big machine. Here’s his letter.”
In fact, Pluchart, in despair at the suspicion which the International aroused among the miners at Montsou, was hoping to see them enter in a mass if they were forced to fight against the Company. In spite of his efforts, Étienne had not been able to place a single member’s card, and he had given his best efforts to his provident fund, which was much better received. But this fund was still so small that it would be quickly exhausted, as Souvarine said, and the strikers would then inevitably throw themselves into the Working Men’s Association so that their brothers in every country could come to their aid.
“How much have you in the fund?” asked Rasseneur. “Hardly three thousand francs,” replied Étienne, “and you know that the directors sent for me yesterday. Oh! they were very polite; they repeated that they wouldn’t prevent their men from forming a reserve fund. But I quite understood that they wanted to control it. We are bound to have a struggle over that.”
The innkeeper was walking up and down, whistling contemptuously. “Three thousand francs! what can you do with that! It wouldn’t yield six days’ bread; and if we counted on foreigners, such as the people in England, one might go to bed at once and turn up one’s toes. No, it was too foolish, this strike!”
Then for the first time bitter words passed between these two men who usually agreed together at last, in their common hatred of capital.
“We shall see! and you, what do you say about it?” repeated Étienne, turning towards Souvarine.
The latter replied with his usual phrase of habitual contempt.
“A strike? Foolery!”
Then, in the midst of the angry silence, he added gently:
“On the whole, I shouldn’t say no if it amuses you; it ruins the one side and kills the other, and that is always so much cleared away. Only in that way it will take quite a thousand years to renew the world. Just begin by blowing up this prison in which you are all being done to death!”
With his delicate hand he pointed out the Voreux, the buildings of which could be seen through the open door. But an unforeseen drama interrupted him: Poland, the big tame rabbit, which had ventured outside, came bounding back, fleeing from the stones of a band of trammers; and in her terror, with fallen ears and raised tail, she took refuge against his legs, scratching and imploring him to take her up. When he had placed her on his knees, he sheltered her with both hands, and fell into that kind of dreamy somnolence into which the caress of this soft warm fur always plunged him.
Almost at the same time Maheu came in. He would drink nothing, in spite of the polite insistence of Madame Rasseneur, who sold her beer as though she made a present of it. Étienne had risen, and both of them set out for Montsou.
On pay-day at the Company’s Yards, Montsou seemed to be in the midst of a fete as on fine Sunday feast-days. Bands of miners arrived from all the settlements. The cashier’s office being very small, they preferred to wait at the door, stationed in groups on the pavement, barring the way in a crowd that was constantly renewed. Hucksters profited by the occasion and installed themselves with their movable stalls that sold even pottery and cooked meats. But it was especially the estaminets and the bars which did a good trade, for the miners before being paid went to the counters to get patience, and returned to them to wet their pay as soon as they had it in their pockets. But they were very sensible, except when they finished it at the Volcan. As Maheu and Étienne advanced among the groups they felt that on that day a deep exasperation was rising up. It was not the ordinary indifference with which the money was taken and spent at the publics. Fists were clenched and violent words were passing from mouth to mouth.
“Is it true, then,” asked Maheu of Chaval, whom he met before the Estaminet Piquette, “That they’ve played the dirty trick?”
But Chaval contented himself by replying with a furious growl, throwing a sidelong look on Étienne. Since the working had been renewed he had hired himself on with others, more and more bitten by envy against this comrade, the new-comer who posed as a boss and whose boots, as he said, were licked by the whole settlement. This was complicated by a lover’s jealousy. He never took Catherine to Réquillart now or behind the pit-bank without accusing her in abominable language of sleeping with her mother’s lodger; then, seized by savage desire, he would stifle her with caresses.
Maheu asked him another question:
“Is it the Voreux’s turn now?”
And when he turned his back after nodding affirmatively, both men decided to enter the Yards.
The counting-house was a small rectangular room, divided in two by a grating. On the forms along the wall five or six miners were waiting; while the cashier assisted by a clerk was paying another who stood before the wicket with his cap in his hand. Above the form on the left, a yellow placard was stuck up, quite fresh against the smoky grey of the plaster, and it was in front of this that the men had been constantly passing all the morning. They entered two or three at a time, stood in front of it, and then went away without a word, shrugging their shoulders as if their backs were crushed.
Two colliers were just then standing in front of the announcement, a young one with a square brutish head and a very thin old one, his face dull with age. Neither of them could read; the young one spelt, moving his lips, the old one contented himself with gazing stupidly. Many came in thus to look, without understanding.
“Read us that there!” said Maheu, who was not very strong either in reading, to his companion.
Then Étienne began to read him the announcement. It was a notice from the Company to the miners of all the pits, informing them that in consequence of the lack of care bestowed on the timbering, and being weary of inflicting useless fines, the Company had resolved to apply a new method of payment for the extraction of coal. Henceforward they would pay for the timbering separately, by the cubic metre of wood taken down and used, based on the quantity necessary for good work. The price of the tub of coal extracted would naturally be lowered, in the proportion of fifty centimes to forty, according to the nature and distance of the cuttings, and a somewhat obscure calculation endeavoured to show that this diminution of ten centimes would be exactly compensated by the price of the timbering. The Company added also that, wishing to leave every one time to convince himself of the advantages presented by this new scheme, they did not propose to apply it till Monday, the 1st of December.
“Don’t read so loud over there,” shouted the cashier. “We can’t hear what we are saying.”
Étienne finished reading without paying attention to this observation. His voice trembled, and when he had reached the end they all continued to gaze steadily at the placard. The old miner and the young one looked as though they expected something more; then they went away with depressed shoulders.
“Good God!” muttered Maheu.
He and his companions sat down absorbed, with lowered heads, and while files of men continued to pass before the yellow paper they made calculations. Were they being made fun of? They could never make up with the timbering for the ten centimes taken off the tram. At most they could only get to eight centimes, so the Company would be robbing them of two centimes, without counting the time taken by careful work. This, then, was what this disguised lowering of wages really came to. The Company was economizing out of the miners’ pockets.
“Good Lord! Good Lord!” repeated Maheu, raising his head. ‘“We should be bloody fools if we took that.”
But the wicket being free he went up to be paid. The heads only of the workings presented themselves at the desk and then divided the money between their men to save time.
“Maheu and associates,” said the clerk, “Filonniére seam, cutting No. 7.”
He searched through the lists which were prepared from the inspection of the tickets on which the captains stated every day for each stall the number of trains extracted. Then he repeated:
“Maheu and associates, Filonniére seam, cutting No. 7. One hundred and thirty-five francs.”
The cashier paid.
“Beg pardon, sir,” stammered the pikeman in surprise. “Are you sure you have not made a mistake?”
He looked at this small sum of money without picking it up, frozen by a shudder which went to his heart. It was true he was expecting bad payment, but it could not come to so little or he must have calculated wrong. When he had given their shares to Zacharie, Étienne, and the other mate who replaced Chaval, there would remain at most fifty francs for himself, his father, Catherine, and Jeanlin.
“No, no, I’ve made no mistake,” replied the clerk. “There are two Sundays and four rest days to be taken off; that makes nine days of work.” Maheu followed this calculation in a low voice: nine days gave him about thirty francs, eighteen to Catherine, nine to Jeanlin. As to Father Bonnemort, he only had three days. No matter, by adding the ninety francs of Zacharie and the two mates, that would surely make more.
“And don’t forget the fines,” added the clerk. “Twenty francs for fines for defective timbering.”
The pikeman made a gesture of despair. Twenty francs of fines, four days of rest! That made out the account. To think that he had once brought back a fortnight’s pay of full a hundred and fifty francs when Father Bonnemort was working and Zacharie had not yet set up house for himself!
“Well, are you going to take it?” cried the cashier impatiently. “You can see there’s someone else waiting. If you don’t want it, say so.”
As Maheu decided to pick up the money with his large trembling hand the clerk stopped him.
“Wait: I have your name here. Toussaint Maheu, is it not? The general secretary wishes to speak to you. Go in, he is alone.”
The dazed workman found himself in an office furnished with old mahogany, upholstered with faded green rep. And he listened for five minutes to the general secretary, a tall sallow gentleman, who spoke to him over the papers of his bureau without rising. But the buzzing in his ears prevented him from hearing. He understood vaguely that the question of his father’s retirement would be taken into consideration with the pension of a hundred and fifty francs, fifty years of age and forty years’ service. Then it seemed to him that the secretary’s voice became harder. There was a reprimand; he was accused of occupying himself with politics; an allusion was made to his lodger and the provident fund; finally he was advised not to compromise himself with these follies, he, who was one of the best workmen in the mine. He wished to protest, but could only pronounce words at random, twisting his cap between his feverish fingers, and he retired, stuttering:
“Certainly, sir — I can assure you, sir ——”
Outside, when he had found Étienne who waiting for him, he broke out:
“Well, I am a bloody fool, I ought to have replied! Not enough money to get bread, and insults as well! Yes, he has been talking against you; he told me the settlement was being poisoned. And what’s to be done? Good God! bend one’s back and say thank you. He’s right, that’s the wisest plan.”
Maheu fell silent, overcome at once by rage and fear. Étienne was gloomily thinking. Once more they traversed the groups who blocked the road. The exasperation was growing, the exasperation of a calm race, the muttered warning of a storm, without violent gestures, terrible to see above this solid mass. A few men understanding accounts had made calculations, and the two centimes gained by the Company over the wood were rumoured about, and excited the hardest heads. But it was especially the rage over this disastrous pay, the rebellion of hunger against the rest days and the fines. Already there was not enough to eat, and what would happen if wages were still further lowered? In the estaminets the anger grew loud, and fury so dried their throats that the little money taken went over the counters.
From Montsou to the settlement Étienne and Maheu never exchanged a word. When the latter entered, Maheude, who was alone with the children, noticed immediately that his hands were empty.
“Well, you’re a nice one!” she said. “Where’s my coffee and my sugar and the meat? A bit of veal wouldn’t have ruined you.”
He made no reply, stifled by the emotion he had been keeping back. Then the coarse face of this man hardened to work in the mines became swollen with despair, and large tears broke from his eyes and fell in a warm rain. He had thrown himself into a chair, weeping like a child, and throwing fifty francs on the table:
“Here,” he stammered. “That’s what I’ve brought you back. That’s our work for all of us.”
Maheude looked at Étienne, and saw that he was silent and overwhelmed. Then she also wept. How were nine people to live for a fortnight on fifty francs? Her eldest son had left them, the old man could no longer move his legs: it would soon mean death. Alzire threw herself round her mother’s neck, overcome on hearing her weep. Estelle was howling, Lénore and Henri were sobbing.
And from the entire settlement there soon arose the same cry of wretchedness. The men had come back, and each household was lamenting the disaster of this bad pay. The doors opened, women appeared, crying aloud outside, as if their complaints could not be held beneath the ceilings of these small houses. A fine rain was falling, but they did not feel it, they called one another from the pavements, they showed one another in the hollow of their hands the money they had received.
“Look! they’ve given him this. Do they want to make fools of people?”
“As for me, see, I haven’t got enough to pay for the fortnight’s bread with.”
“And just count mine! I should have to sell my shifts!” Maheude had come out like the others. A group had formed around the Levaque woman, who was shouting loudest of all, for her drunkard of a husband had not even turned up, and she knew that, large or small, the pay would melt away at the Volcan. Philoméne watched Maheu so that Zacharie should not get hold of the money. Pierronne was the only one who seemed fairly calm, for that sneak of a Pierron always arranged things, no one knew how, so as to have more hours on the captain’s ticket than his mates. But Mother Brulé thought this cowardly of her son-in-law; she was among the enraged, lean and erect in the midst of the group, with her fists stretched towards Montsou.
“To think,” she cried, without naming the Hennebeaus, “that this morning I saw their servant go by in a carriage! Yes, the cook in a carriage with two horses, going to Marchiennes to get fish, sure enough!”
A clamour arose, and the abuse began again. That servant in a white apron taken to the market of the neighbouring town in her master’s carriage aroused indignation. While the workers were dying of hunger they must have their fish, at all costs! Perhaps they would not always be able to eat their fish: the turn of the poor people would come. And the ideas sown by Étienne sprang up and expanded in this cry of revolt. It was impatience before the promised age of gold, a haste to get a share of the happiness beyond this horizon of misery, closed in like the grave. The injustice was becoming too great; at last they would demand their rights, since the bread was being taken out of their mouths. The women especially would have liked at once to take by assault this ideal city of progress, in which there was to be no more wretchedness. It was almost night, and the rain increased while they were still filling the settlement with their tears in the midst of the screaming helter-skelter of the children.
That evening at the Avantage the strike was decided on. Rasseneur no longer struggled against it, and Souvarine accepted it as a first step. Étienne summed up the situation in a word: if the Company really wanted a strike then the Company should have a strike.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15