ON that Monday the Hennebeaus had invited the Grégoires and their daughter Cécile to lunch. They had formed their plans: on rising from table, Paul Négrel was to take the ladies to a mine, Saint-Thomas, which had been luxuriously reinstalled. But this was only an amiable pretext; this party was an invention of Madame Hennebeau’s to hasten the marriage of Cécile and Paul.
Suddenly, on this very Monday, at four o’clock in the morning, the strike broke out. When, on the 1st of December, the Company had adopted the new wage system, the miners remained calm. At the end of the fortnight not one made the least protest on pay-day. Everybody, from the manager down to the last overseer, considered the tariff as accepted; and great was their surprise in the morning at this declaration of war, made with a tactical unity which seemed to indicate energetic leadership.
At five o’clock Dansaert woke M. Hennebeau to inform him that not a single man had gone down at the Voreux. The settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante, which he had passed through, was sleeping deeply, with closed windows and doors. And as soon as the manager had jumped out of bed, his eyes still swollen with sleep, he was overwhelmed. Every quarter of an hour messengers came in, and dispatches fell on his desk as thick as hail. At first he hoped that the revolt was limited to the Voreux; but the news became more serious every minute. There was the Mirou, the Crévacoeur, the Madeleine, where only the grooms had appeared; the Victoire and Feutry-Cantel, the two best disciplined pits, where the men had been reduced by a third; Saint-Thomas alone numbered all its people, and seemed to be outside the movement. Up to nine o’clock he dictated dispatches, telegraphing in all directions, to the prefect of Lille, to the directors of the Company, warning the authorities and asking for orders. He had sent Négrel to go round the neighbouring pits to obtain precise information.
Suddenly M. Hennebeau recollected the lunch; and he was about to send the coachman to tell the Grégoires that the party had been put off, when a certain hesitation and lack of will stopped him — the man who in a few brief phrases had just made military preparations for a field of battle. He went up to Madame Hennebeau, whose hair had just been done by her lady’s maid, in her dressing-room.
“Ah! they are on strike,” she said quietly, when he had told her. “Well, what has that to do with us? We are not going to leave off eating, I suppose?”
And she was obstinate; it was vain to tell her that the lunch would be disturbed, and that the visit to Saint-Thomas could not take place. She found an answer to everything. Why lose a lunch that was already cooking? And as to visiting the pit, they could give that up afterwards if the walk was really imprudent.
“Besides,” she added, when the maid had gone out, “you know that I am anxious to receive these good people. This marriage ought to affect you more than the follies of your men. I want to have it, don’t contradict me.”
He looked at her, agitated by a slight trembling, and the hard firm face of the man of discipline expressed the secret grief of a wounded heart. She had remained with naked shoulders, already over-mature, but still imposing and desirable, with the broad bust of a Ceres gilded by the autumn. For a moment he felt a brutal desire to seize her, and to roll his head between the breasts she was exposing in this warm room, which exhibited the private luxury of a sensual woman and had about it an irritating perfume of musk, but he recoiled; for ten years they had occupied separate rooms.
“Good!” he said, leaving her. “Do not make any alterations.”
M. Hennebeau had been born in the Ardennes. In his early life he had undergone the hardships of a poor boy thrown as an orphan on the Paris streets. After having painfully followed the courses of the École des Mines, at the age of twenty-four he had gone to the Grand’Combe as engineer to the Sainte-Barbe mine. Three years later he became divisional engineer in the Pas-de-Calais, at the Marles mines. It was there that he married, wedding, by one of those strokes of fortune which are the rule among the Corps des Mines, the daughter of the rich owner of a spinning factory at Arras. For fifteen years they lived in the same small provincial town, and no event broke the monotony of existence, not even the birth of a child. An increasing irritation detached Madame Hennebeau, who had been brought up to respect money, and was disdainful of this husband who gained a small salary with such difficulty, and who enabled her to gratify none of the satisfactions of vanity which she had dreamed of at school. He was a man of strict honesty, who never speculated, but stood at his post like a soldier. The lack of harmony had only increased, aggravated by one of those curious misunderstandings of the flesh which freeze the most ardent; he adored his wife, she had the sensuality of a greedy blonde, and already they slept apart, ill at ease and wounded. From that time she had a lover of whom he was ignorant. At last he left the Pas-de-Calais to occupy a situation in an office at Paris, with the idea that she would be grateful to him. But Paris only completed their separation, that Paris which she had desired since her first doll, and where she washed away her provincialism in a week, becoming a woman of fashion at once, and throwing herself into all the luxurious follies of the period. The ten years which she spent there were filled by a great passion, a public intrigue with a man whose desertion nearly killed her. This time the husband had not been able to keep his ignorance, and after some abominable scenes he resigned himself, disarmed by the quiet unconsciousness of this woman who took her happiness where she found it. It was after the rupture, and when he saw that she was ill with grief, that he had accepted the management of the Montsou mines, still hoping also that she would reform down there in that desolate black country.
The Hennebeaus, since they had lived at Montsou, returned to the irritated boredom of their early married days. At first she seemed consoled by the great quiet, soothed by the flat monotony of the immense plain; she buried herself in it as a woman who has done with the world; she affected a dead heart, so detached from life that she did not even mind growing stout. Then, beneath this indifference a final fever declared itself, the need to live once more, and she deluded herself for six months by organizing and furnishing to her taste the little villa belonging to the management. She said it was frightful, and filled it with upholstery, bric-a-brac, and all sorts of artistic luxuries which were talked of as far as Lille. Now the country exasperated her, those stupid fields spread out to infinity, those eternal black roads without a tree, swarming with a horrid population which disgusted and frightened her. Complaints of exile began; she accused her husband of having sacrificed her to a salary of forty thousand francs, a trifle which hardly sufficed to keep the house up. Why could he not imitate others, demand a part for himself, obtain shares, succeed in something at last? And she insisted with the cruelty of an heiress who had brought her own fortune. He, always restrained, and taking refuge in the deceptive coldness of a man of business, was torn by desire for this creature, one of those late desires which are so violent and which increase with age. He had never possessed her as a lover; he was haunted by a continual image, to have her once to himself as she had given herself to another. Every morning he dreamed of winning her in the evening; then, when she looked at him with her cold eyes, and when he felt that everything within her denied itself to him, he even avoided touching her hand. It was a suffering without possible cure, hidden beneath the stiffness of his attitude, the suffering of a tender nature in secret anguish at the lack of domestic happiness. At the end of six months, when the house, being definitely furnished, no longer occupied Madame Hennebeau, she fell into the languor of boredom, a victim who was being killed by exile, and who said that she was glad to die of it.
Just then Paul Négrel arrived at Montsou. His mother, the widow of a Provencal captain, living at Avignon on a slender income, had had to content herself with bread and water to enable him to reach the École Polytechnique. He had come out low in rank, and his uncle, M. Hennebeau, had enabled him to leave by offering to take him as engineer at the Voreux. From that time he was treated as one of the family; he even had his room there, his meals there, lived there, and was thus enabled to send to his mother half his salary of three thousand francs. To disguise this kindness M. Hennebeau spoke of the embarrassment to a young man of setting up a household in one of those little villas reserved for the mine engineers, Madame Hennebeau had at once taken the part of a good aunt, treating her nephew with familiarity and watching over his comfort. During the first months, especially, she exhibited an overwhelming maternity with her advice regarding the smallest subjects. But she remained a woman, however, and slid into personal confidences. This lad, so young and so practical, with his unscrupulous intelligence, professing a philosopher’s theory of love, amused her with the vivacity of the pessimism which had sharpened his thin face and pointed nose. One evening he naturally found himself in her arms, and she seemed to give herself up out of kindness, while saying to him that she had no heart left, and wished only to be his friend. In fact, she was not jealous; she joked him about the putters, whom he declared to be abominable, and she almost sulked because he had no young man’s pranks to narrate to her. Then she was carried away by the idea of getting him married; she dreamed of sacrificing herself and of finding a rich girl for him. Their relations continued a plaything, a recreation, in which she felt the last tenderness of a lazy woman who had done with the world.
Two years had passed by. One night M. Hennebeau had a suspicion when he heard naked feet passing his door. But this new adventure revolted him, in his own house, between this mother and this son! And besides, on the following day his wife spoke to him about the choice of Cécile Grégoire which she had made for her nephew. She occupied herself over this marriage with such ardour that he blushed at his own monstrous imagination. He only felt gratitude towards the young man who, since his arrival, had made the house less melancholy.
As he came down from the dressing-room, M. Hennebeau found that Paul, who had just returned, was in the vestibule. He seemed to be quite amused by the story of this strike.
“Well?” asked his uncle.
“Well, I’ve been round the settlements. They seem to be quite sensible in there. I think they will first send you a deputation.”
But at that moment Madame Hennebeau’s voice called from the first story:
“Is that you, Paul? Come up, then, and tell me the news. How queer they are to make such a fuss, these people who are so happy!”
And the manager had to renounce further information, since his wife had taken his messenger. He returned and sat before his desk, on which a new packet of dispatches was placed.
At eleven o’clock the Grégoires arrived, and were astonished when Hippolyte, the footman, who was placed as sentinel, hustled them in after an anxious glance at the two ends of the road. The drawing-room curtains were drawn, and they were taken at once into the study, where M. Hennebeau apologized for their reception; but the drawing-room looked over the street and it was undesirable to seem to offer provocations.
“What! you don’t know?” he went on, seeing their surprise.
M. Grégoire, when he heard that the strike had at last broken out, shrugged his shoulders in his placid way. Bah! it would be nothing, the people were honest. With a movement of her chin, Madame Grégoire approved his confidence in the everlasting resignation of the colliers; while Cécile, who was very cheerful that day, feeling that she looked well in her capuchin cloth costume, smiled at the word “strike,” which reminded her of visits to the settlements and the distribution of charities.
Madame Hennebeau now appeared in black silk, followed by Négrel.
“Ah! isn’t it annoying!” she said, at the door. “As if they couldn’t wait, those men! You know that Paul refuses to take us to Saint-Thomas.”
“We can stay here,” said M. Grégoire, obligingly. “We shall be quite pleased.”
Paul had contented himself with formally saluting Cécile and her mother. Angry at this lack of demonstrativeness, his aunt sent him with a look to the young girl; and when she heard them laughing together she enveloped them in a maternal glance.
Meanwhile, M. Hennebeau finished reading his dispatches and prepared a few replies. They talked near him; his wife explained that she had not done anything to this study, which, in fact, retained its faded old red paper, its heavy mahogany furniture, its cardboard files, scratched by use. Three-quarters of an hour passed and they were about to seat themselves at table when the footman announced M. Deneulin. He entered in an excited way and bowed to Madame Hennebeau.
“Ah! you here!” he said, seeing the Grégoires.
And he quickly spoke to the manager:
“It has come, then? I’ve just heard of it through my engineer. With me, all the men went down this morning. But the thing may spread. I’m not at all at ease. How is it with you?”
He had arrived on horseback, and his anxiety betrayed itself in his loud speech and abrupt gestures, which made him resemble a retired cavalry officer.
M. Hennebeau was beginning to inform him regarding the precise situation, when Hippolyte opened the dining-room door. Then he interrupted himself to say:
“Lunch with us. I will tell you more at dessert.”
“Yes, as you please,” replied Deneulin, so full of his thoughts that he accepted without ceremony.
He was, however, conscious of his impoliteness and turned towards Madame Hennebeau with apologies. She was very charming, however. When she had had a seventh plate laid she placed her guests: Madame Grégoire and Cécile by her husband, then M. Grégoire and Deneulin at her own right and left; then Paul, whom she put between the young girl and her father. As they attacked the hors-d’oeuvre she said, with a smile:
“You must excuse me; I wanted to give you oysters. On Monday, you know, there was an arrival of Ostend oysters at Marchiennes, and I meant to send the cook with the carriage. But she was afraid of being stoned ——”
They all interrupted her with a great burst of gaiety. They thought the story very funny.
“Hush!” said M. Hennebeau, vexed, looking at the window, through which the road could be seen. “We need not tell the whole country that we have company this morning.”
“Well, here is a slice of sausage which they shan’t have,” M. Grégoire declared.
The laughter began again, but with greater restraint. Each guest made himself comfortable, in this room upholstered with Flemish tapestry and furnished with old oak chests. The silver shone behind the panes of the sideboards; and there was a large hanging lamp of red copper, whose polished rotundities reflected a palm and an aspidistra growing in majolica pots. Outside, the December day was frozen by a keen north-east wind. But not a breath of it entered; a greenhouse warmth developed the delicate odour of the pineapple, sliced in a crystal bowl.
“Suppose we were to draw the curtains,” proposed Négrel, who was amused at the idea of frightening the Grégoires.
The housemaid, who was helping the footman, treated this as an order and went and closed one of the curtains. This led to interminable jokes: not a glass or a plate could be put down without precaution; every dish was hailed as a waif escaped from the pillage in a conquered town; and behind this forced gaiety there was a certain fear which betrayed itself in involuntary glances towards the road, as though a band of starvelings were watching the table from outside.
After the scrambled eggs with truffles, trout came on. The conversation then turned to the industrial crisis, which had become aggravated during the last eighteen months.
“It was inevitable,” said Deneulin, “the excessive prosperity of recent years was bound to bring us to it. Think of the enormous capital which has been sunk, the railways, harbours, and canals, all the money buried in the maddest speculations. Among us alone sugar works have been set up as if the department could furnish three beetroot harvests. Good heavens! and to-day money is scarce, and we have to wait to catch up the interest of the expended millions; so there is a mortal congestion and a final stagnation of business.”
M. Hennebeau disputed this theory, but he agreed that the fortunate years had spoilt the men.
“When I think,” he exclaimed, “that these chaps in our pits used to gain six francs a day, double what they gain now! And they lived well, too, and acquired luxurious tastes. To-day, naturally, it seems hard to them to go back to their old frugality.”
“Monsieur Grégoire,” interrupted Madame Hennebeau, “let me persuade you, a little more trout. They are delicious, are they not?”
The manager went on:
“But, as a matter of fact, is it our fault? We, too, are cruelly struck. Since the factories have closed, one by one, we have had a deuce of a difficulty in getting rid of our stock; and in face of the growing reduction in demand we have been forced to lower our net prices. It is just this that the men won’t understand.”
There was silence. The footman presented roast partridge, while the housemaid began to pour out Chambertin for the guests.
“There has been a famine in India,” said Deneulin in a low voice, as though he were speaking to himself. “America, by ceasing to order iron, has struck a heavy blow at our furnaces. Everything holds together; a distant shock is enough to disturb the world. And the empire, which was so proud of this hot fever of industry!”
He attacked his partridge wing. Then, raising his voice:
“The worst is that to lower the net prices we ought logically to produce more; otherwise the reduction bears on wages, and the worker is right in saying that he has to pay the damage.”
This confession, the outcome of his frankness, raised a discussion. The ladies were not at all interested. Besides, all were occupied with their plates, in the first zest of appetite. When the footman came back, he seemed about to speak, then he hesitated.
“What is it?” asked M. Hennebeau. “If there are letters, give them to me. I am expecting replies.”
“No, sir. It is Monsieur Dansaert, who is in the hall. But he doesn’t wish to disturb you.”
The manager excused himself, and had the head captain brought in. The latter stood upright, a few paces from the table, while all turned to look at him, huge, out of breath with the news he was bringing. The settlements were quiet; only it had now been decided to send a deputation. It would, perhaps, be there in a few minutes.
“Very well; thank you,” said M. Hennebeau. “I want a report morning and evening, you understand.”
And as soon as Dansaert had gone, they began to joke again, and hastened to attack the Russian salad, declaring that not a moment was to be lost if they wished to finish it. The mirth was unbounded when Négrel, having asked the housemaid for bread, she replied, “Yes, sir,” in a voice as low and terrified as if she had behind her a troop ready for murder and rape.
“You may speak,” said Madame Hennebeau complacently. “They are not here yet.”
The manager, who now received a packet of letters and dispatches, wished to read one of his letters aloud. It was from Pierron, who, in respectful phrases, gave notice that he was obliged to go out on strike with his comrades, in order to avoid ill-treatment; and he added that he had not even been able to avoid taking part in the deputation, although he blamed that step.
“So much for liberty of work!” exclaimed M. Hennebeau.
Then they returned to the strike, and asked him his opinion.
“Oh!” he replied, “we have had them before. It will be a week, or, at most, a fortnight, of idleness, as it was last time. They will go and wallow in the public-houses, and then, when they are hungry, they will go back to the pits.”
Deneulin shook his head:
“I’m not so satisfied; this time they appear to be better organized. Have they not a provident fund?”
“Yes, scarcely three thousand francs. What do you think they can do with that? I suspect a man called Étienne Lantier of being their leader. He is a good workman; it would vex me to have to give him his certificate back, as we did of old to the famous Rasseneur, who still poisons the Voreux with his ideas and his beer. No matter, in a week half the men will have gone down, and in a fortnight the ten thousand will be below.”
He was convinced. His only anxiety was concerning his own possible disgrace should the directors put the responsibility of the strike on him. For some time he had felt that he was diminishing in favour. So leaving the spoonful of Russian salad which he had taken, he read over again the dispatches received from Paris, endeavouring to penetrate every word. His guests excused him; the meal was becoming a military lunch, eaten on the field of battle before the first shots were fired.
The ladies then joined in the conversation. Madame Grégoire expressed pity for the poor people who would suffer from hunger; and Cécile was already making plans for distributing gifts of bread and meat. But Madame Hennebeau was astonished at hearing of the wretchedness of the Montsou colliers. Were they not very fortunate? People who were lodged and warmed and cared for at the expense of the Company! In her indifference for the herd, she only knew the lessons she had learnt, and with which she had surprised the Parisians who came on a visit. She believed them at last, and was indignant at the ingratitude of the people.
Négrel, meanwhile, continued to frighten M. Grégoire. Cécile did not displease him, and he was quite willing to marry her to be agreeable to his aunt, but he showed no amorous fever; like a youth of experience, who, he said, was not easily carried away now. He professed to be a Republican, which did not prevent him from treating his men with extreme severity, or from making fun of them in the company of the ladies.
“Nor have I my uncle’s optimism, either,” he continued. “I fear there will be serious disturbances. So I should advise you, Monsieur Grégoire, to lock up Piolame. They may pillage you.”
Just then, still retaining the smile which illuminated his good-natured face, M. Grégoire was going beyond his wife in paternal sentiments with regard to the miners.
“Pillage me!” he cried, stupefied. “And why pillage me?”
“Are you not a shareholder in Montsou! You do nothing; you live on the work of others. In fact you are an infamous capitalist, and that is enough. You may be sure that if the revolution triumphs, it will force you to restore your fortune as stolen money.”
At once he lost his childlike tranquillity, his serene unconsciousness. He stammered:
“Stolen money, my fortune! Did not my great-grandfather gain, and hardly, too, the sum originally invested? Have we not run all the risks of the enterprise, and do I today make a bad use of my income?” Madame Hennebeau, alarmed at seeing the mother and daughter also white with fear, hastened to intervene, saying:
“Paul is joking, my dear sir.”
But M. Grégoire was carried out of himself. As the servant was passing round the crayfish he took three of them without knowing what he was doing and began to break their claws with his teeth.
“Ah! I don’t say but what there are shareholders who abuse their position. For instance, I have been told that ministers have received shares in Montsou for services rendered to the Company. It is like a nobleman whom I will not name, a duke, the biggest of our shareholders, whose life is a scandal of prodigality, millions thrown into the street on women, feasting, and useless luxury. But we who live quietly, like good citizens as we are, who do not speculate, who are content to live wholesomely on what we have, giving a part to the poor: Come, now! your men must be mere brigands if they came and stole a pin from us!”
Négrel himself had to calm him, though amused at his anger. The crayfish were still going round; the little crackling sound of their carapaces could be heard, while the conversation turned to politics, M. Grégoire, in spite of everything and though still trembling, called himself a Liberal and regretted Louis Philippe. As for Deneulin, he was for a strong Government; he declared that the emperor was gliding down the slope of dangerous concessions.
“Remember ‘89,” he said. “It was the nobility who made the Revolution possible, by their complicity and taste for philosophic novelties. Very well! the middle class to-day are playing the same silly game with their furious Liberalism, their rage for destruction, their flattery of the people. Yes, yes, you are sharpening the teeth of the monster that will devour us. It will devour us, rest assured!”
The ladies bade him be silent, and tried to change the conversation by asking him news of his daughters. Lucie was at Marchiennes, where she was singing with a friend; Jeanne was painting an old beggar’s head. But he said these things in a distracted way; he constantly looked at the manager, who was absorbed in the reading of his dispatches and forgetful of his guests. Behind those thin leaves he felt Paris and the directors’ orders, which would decide the strike. At last he could not help yielding to his preoccupation.
“Well, what are you going to do?” he asked suddenly.
M. Hennebeau startled; then turned off the question with a vague phrase.
“We shall see.”
“No doubt you are solidly placed, you can wait,” Deneulin began to think aloud. “But as for me, I shall be done for if the strike reaches Vandame. I shall have reinstalled Jean-Bart in vain; with a single pit, I can only get along by constant production. Ah! I am not in a very pleasant situation, I can assure you!”
This involuntary confession seemed to strike M. Hennebeau. He listened and a plan formed within him: in case the strike turned out badly, why not utilize it by letting things run down until his neighbour was ruined, and then buy up his concession at a low price? That would be the surest way of regaining the good graces of the directors, who for years had dreamed of possessing Vandame.
“If Jean-Bart bothers you as much as that,” said he, laughing, “why don’t you give it up to us?”
But Deneulin was already regretting his complaints. He exclaimed:
They were amused at his vigour and had already forgotten the strike by the time the dessert appeared. An apple-charlotte meringue was overwhelmed with praise. Afterwards the ladies discussed a recipe with respect to the pineapple which was declared equally exquisite. The grapes and pears completed their happy abandonment at the end of this copious lunch. All talked excitedly at the same time, while the servant poured out Rhine wine in place of champagne which was looked upon as commonplace.
And the marriage of Paul and Cécile certainly made a forward step in the sympathy produced by the dessert. His aunt had thrown such urgent looks in his direction, that the young man showed himself very amiable, and in his wheedling way reconquered the Grégoires, who had been cast down by his stories of pillage. For a moment M. Hennebeau, seeing the close understanding between his wife and his nephew, felt that abominable suspicion again revive, as if in this exchange of looks he had surprised a physical contact. But again the idea of the marriage, made here before his face, reassured him.
Hippolyte was serving the coffee when the housemaid entered in a fright.
“Sir, sir, they are here!”
It was the delegates. Doors banged; a breath of terror was passing through the neighbouring rooms.
Around the table the guests were looking at one another with uneasy indecision. There was silence. Then they tried to resume their jokes: they pretended to put the rest of the sugar in their pockets, and talked of hiding the plate. But the manager remained grave; and the laughter fell and their voices sank to a whisper, while the heavy feet of the delegates who were being shown in tramped over the carpet of the next room.
Madame Hennebeau said to her husband, lowering her voice:
“I hope you will drink your coffee.”
“Certainly,” he replied. “Let them wait.”
He was nervous, listening to every sound, though apparently occupied with his cup.
Paul and Cécile got up, and he made her venture an eye to the keyhole. They were stifling their laughter and talking in a low voice.
“Do you see them?”
“Yes, I see a big man and two small ones behind.”
“Haven’t they ugly faces?”
“Not at all; they are very nice.”
Suddenly M. Hennebeau left his chair, saying the coffee was too hot and he would drink it afterwards. As he went out he put a finger to his lips to recommend prudence. They all sat down again and remained at table in silence, no longer daring to move, listening from afar with intent ears jarred by these coarse male voices.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02