AT four o’clock the moon had set, and the night was very dark. Everything was still asleep at Deneulin’s; the old brick house stood mute and gloomy, with closed doors and windows, at the end of the large ill-kept garden which separated it from the Jean-Bart mine. The other frontage faced the deserted road to Vandame, a large country town, about three kilometres off, hidden behind the forest.
Deneulin, tired after a day spent in part below, was snoring with his face toward the wall, when he dreamt that he had been called. At last he awoke, and really hearing a voice, got out and opened the window. One of his captains was in the garden.
“What is it, then?” he asked.
“There’s a rebellion, sir; half the men will not work, and are preventing the others from going down.”
He scarcely understood, with head heavy and dazed with sleep, and the great cold struck him like an icy douche.
“Then make them go down, by George!” he stammered.
“It’s been going on an hour,” said the captain. “Then we thought it best to come for you. Perhaps you will be able to persuade them.”
“Very good; I’ll go.”
He quickly dressed himself, his mind quite clear now, and very anxious. The house might have been pillaged; neither the cook nor the man-servant had stirred. But from the other side of the staircase alarmed voices were whispering; and when he came out he saw his daughters’ door open, and they both appeared in white dressing-gowns, slipped on in haste.
“Father, what is it?”
Lucie, the elder, was already twenty-two, a tall dark girl, with a haughty air; while Jeanne, the younger, as yet scarcely nineteen years old, was small, with golden hair and a certain caressing grace.
“Nothing serious,” he replied, to reassure them. “It seems that some blusterers are making a disturbance down there. I am going to see.”
But they exclaimed that they would not let him go before he had taken something warm. If not, he would come back ill, with his stomach out of order, as he always did. He struggled, gave his word of honour that he was too much in a hurry.
“Listen!” said Jeanne, at last, hanging to his neck, “you must drink a little glass of rum and eat two biscuits, or I shall remain like this, and you’ll have to take me with you.”
He resigned himself, declaring that the biscuits would choke him. They had already gone down before him, each with her candlestick. In the dining-room below they hastened to serve him, one pouring out the rum, the other running to the pantry for the biscuits. Having lost their mother when very young, they had been rather badly brought up alone, spoilt by their father, the elder haunted by the dream of singing on the stage, the younger mad over painting in which she showed a singular boldness of taste. But when they had to retrench after the embarrassment in their affairs, these apparently extravagant girls had suddenly developed into very sensible and shrewd managers, with an eye for errors of centimes in accounts. Today, with their boyish and artistic demeanour, they kept the purse, were careful over sous, haggled with the tradesmen, renovated their dresses unceasingly, and in fact, succeeded in rendering decent the growing embarrassment of the house.
“Eat, papa,” repeated Lucie.
Then, remarking his silent gloomy preoccupation, she was again frightened.
“Is it serious, then, that you look at us like this? Tell us; we will stay with you, and they can do without us at that lunch.”
She was speaking of a party which had been planned for the morning, Madame Hennebeau was to go in her carriage, first for Cécile, at the Grégoires’, then to call for them, so that they could all go to Marchiennes to lunch at the Forges, where the manager’s wife had invited them. It was an opportunity to visit the workshops, the blast furnaces, and the coke ovens.
“We will certainly remain,” declared Jeanne, in her turn.
But he grew angry.
“A fine idea! I tell you that it is nothing. Just be so good as to get back into your beds again, and dress yourselves for nine o’clock, as was arranged.”
He kissed them and hastened to leave. They heard the noise of his boots vanishing over the frozen earth in the garden.
Jeanne carefully placed the stopper in the rum bottle, while Lucie locked up the biscuits. The room had the cold neatness of dining-rooms where the table is but meagrely supplied. And both of them took advantage of this early descent to see if anything had been left uncared for the evening before. A serviette lay about, the servant should be scolded. At last they were upstairs again.
While he was taking the shortest cut through the narrow paths of his kitchen garden, Deneulin was thinking of his compromised fortune, this Montsou denier, this million which he had realized, dreaming to multiply it tentold, and which was to-day running such great risks. It was an uninterrupted course of ill-luck, enormous and unforeseen repairs, ruinous conditions of exploitation, then the disaster of this industrial crisis, just when the profits were beginning to come in. If the strike broke out here, he would be overthrown. He pushed a little door: the buildings of the pit could be divined in the black night, by the deepening of the shadow, starred by a few lanterns.
Jean-Bart was not so important as the Voreux, but its renewed installation made it a pretty pit, as the engineers say. They had not been contented by enlarging the shaft one metre and a half, and deepening it to seven hundred and eight metres, they had equipped it afresh with a new engine, new cages, entirely new material, all set up according to the latest scientific improvements; and even a certain seeking for elegance was visible in the constructions, a screening-shed with carved frieze, a steeple adorned with a clock, a receiving-room and an engine-room both rounded into an apse like a Renaissance chapel, and surmounted by a chimney with a mosaic spiral made of black bricks and red bricks. The pump was placed on the other shaft of the concession, the old Gaston-Marie pit, reserved solely for this purpose. Jean-Bart, to right and left of the winding-shaft, only had two conduits, that for the steam ventilator and that for the ladders.
In the morning, ever since three o’clock, Chaval, who had arrived first, had been seducing his comrades, convincing them that they ought to imitate those at Montsou, and demand an increase of five centimes a tram. Soon four hundred workmen had passed from the shed into the receiving-room, in the midst of a tumult of gesticulation and shouting. Those who wished to work stood with their lamps, barefooted, with shovel or pick beneath their arms; while the others, still in their sabots, with their overcoats on their shoulders because of the great cold, were barring the shaft; and the captains were growing hoarse in the effort to restore order, begging them to be reasonable and not to prevent those who wanted from going down.
But Chaval was furious when he saw Catherine in her trousers and jacket, her head tied up in the blue cap. On getting up, he had roughly told her to stay in bed. In despair at this arrest of work she had followed him all the same, for he never gave her any money; she often had to pay both for herself and him; and what was to become of her if she earned nothing? She was overcome by fear, the fear of a brothel at Marchiennes, which was the end of putter-girls without bread and without lodging.
“By God!” cried Chaval, “what the devil have you come here for?”
She stammered that she had no income to live on and that she wanted to work.
“Then you put yourself against me, wench? Back you go at once, or I’ll go back with you and kick my sabots into your backside.”
She recoiled timidly but she did not leave, resolved to see how things would turn out. Deneulin had arrived by the screening-stairs. In spite of the weak light of the lanterns, with a quick look he took in the scene, with this rabble wrapt in shadow; he knew every face — the pike-men, the porters, the landers, the putters, even the trammers. In the nave, still new and clean, the arrested task was waiting; the steam in the engine, under pressure, made slight whistling sounds; the cages were hanging motionless to the cables; the trains, abandoned on the way, were encumbering the metal floors. Scarcely eighty lamps had been taken; the others were flaming in the lamp cabin. But no doubt a word from him would suffice, and the whole life of labour would begin again.
“Well, what’s going on then, my lads?” he asked in a loud voice. “What are you angry about? Just explain to me and we will see if we can agree.”
He usually behaved in a paternal way towards his men, while at the same time demanding hard work. With an authoritative, rough manner, he had tried to conquer them by a good nature which had its outbursts of passion, and he often gained their love; the men especially respected in him his courage, always in the cuttings with them, the first in danger whenever an accident terrified the pit. Twice, after fire-damp explosions, he had been let down, fastened by a rope under his armpits, when the bravest drew back.
“Now,” he began again, “you are not going to make me repent of having trusted you. You know that I have refused police protection. Talk quietly and I will hear you.”
All were now silent and awkward, moving away from him; and it was Chaval who at last said:
“Well, Monsieur Deneulin, we can’t go on working; we must have five centimes more the tram.”
He seemed surprised.
“What! five centimes! and why this demand? I don’t complain about your timbering, I don’t want to impose a new tariff on you like the Montsou directors.”
“Maybe! but the Montsou mates are right, all the same. They won’t have the tariff, and they want a rise of five centimes because it is not possible to work properly at the present rates. We want five centimes more, don’t we, you others?”
Voices approved, and the noise began again in the midst of violent gesticulation. Gradually they drew near, forming a small circle.
A flame came into Deneulin’s eyes, and his fist, that of a man who liked strong government, was clenched, for fear of yielding to the temptation of seizing one of them by the neck. He preferred to discuss on the basis of reason.
“You want five centimes, and I agree that the work is worth it. Only I can’t give it. If I gave it I should simply be done for. You must understand that I have to live first in order for you to live, and I’ve got to the end, the least rise in net prices will upset me. Two years ago, you remember, at the time of the last strike, I yielded, I was able to then. But that rise of wages was not the less ruinous, for these two years have been a struggle. To-day I would rather let the whole thing go than not be able to tell next month where to get the money to pay you.”
Chaval laughed roughly in the face of this master who told them his affairs so frankly. The others lowered their faces, obstinate and incredulous, refusing to take into their heads the idea that a master did not gain millions out of his men.
Then Deneulin, persisting, explained his struggle with Montsou, always on the watch and ready to devour him if, some day, he had the stupidity to come to grief. It was a savage competition which forced him to economize, the more so since the great depth of Jean-Bart increased the price of extraction, an unfavourable condition hardly compensated by the great thickness of the coal-beds. He would never have raised wages after the last strike if it had not been necessary for him to imitate Montsou, for fear of seeing his men leave him. And he threatened them with the morrow; a fine result it would be for them, if they obliged him to sell, to pass beneath the terrible yoke of the directors! He did not sit on a throne far away in an unknown sanctuary; he was not one of those shareholders who pay agents to skin the miner who has never seen them; he was a master, he risked something besides his money, he risked his intelligence, his health, his life. Stoppage of work would simply mean death, for he had no stock, and he must fulfil orders. Besides, his standing capital could not sleep. How could he keep his engagements? Who would pay the interest on the sums his friends had confided to him? It would mean bankruptcy.
“That’s where we are, my good fellows,” he said, in conclusion. “I want to convince you. We don’t ask a man to cut his own throat, do we? and if I give you your five centimes, or if I let you go out on strike, it’s the same as if I cut my throat.”
He was silent. Grunts went round. A party among the miners seemed to hesitate. Several went back towards the shaft.
“At least,” said a captain, “let every one be free. Who are those who want to work?”
Catherine had advanced among the first. But Chaval fiercely pushed her back, shouting:
“We are all agreed; it’s only bloody rogues who’ll leave their mates!”
After that, conciliation appeared impossible. The cries began again, and men were hustled away from the shaft, at the risk of being crushed against the walls. For a moment the manager, in despair, tried to struggle alone, to reduce the crowd by violence; but it was useless madness, and he retired. For a few minutes he rested, out of breath, on a chair in the receiver’s office, so overcome by his powerlessness that no ideas came to him. At last he grew calm, and told an inspector to go and bring Chaval; then, when the latter had agreed to the interview, he motioned the others away.
Deneulin’s idea was to see what this fellow was after. At the first words he felt that he was vain, and was devoured by passionate jealousy. Then he attacked him by flattery, affecting surprise that a workman of his merit should so compromise his future. It seemed as though he had long had his eyes on him for rapid advancement; and he ended by squarely offering to make him captain later on. Chaval listened in silence, with his fists at first clenched, but then gradually unbent. Something was working in the depths of his skull; if he persisted in the strike he would be nothing more than Étienne’s lieutenant, while now another ambition opened, that of passing into the ranks of the bosses. The heat of pride rose to his face and intoxicated him. Besides, the band of strikers whom he had expected since the morning had not arrived; some obstacle must have stopped them, perhaps the police; it was time to submit. But all the same he shook his head; he acted the incorruptible man, striking his breast indignantly. Then, without mentioning to the master the rendezvous he had given to the Montsou men, he promised to calm his mates, and to persuade them to go down.
Deneulin remained hidden, and the captains themselves stood aside. For an hour they heard Chaval orating and discussing, standing on a tram in the receiving-room. Some of the men hooted him; a hundred and twenty went off exasperated, persisting in the resolution which he had made them take. It was already past seven. The sun was rising brilliantly; it was a bright day of hard frost; and all at once movement began in the pit, and the arrested labour went on. First the crank of the engine plunged, rolling and unrolling the cables on the drums. Then, in the midst of the tumult of the signals, the descent took place. The cages filled and were engulfed, and rose again, the shaft swallowing its ration of trammers and putters and pikemen; while on the metal floors the landers pushed the trains with a sound of thunder.
“By God! What the devil are you doing there?” cried Chaval to Catherine, who was awaiting her turn. “Will you just go down and not laze about!”
At nine o’clock, when Madame Hennebeau arrived in her carriage with Cécile, she found Lucie and Jeanne quite ready and very elegant, in spite of their dresses having been renovated for the twentieth time. But Deneulin was surprised to see Négrel accompanying the carriage on horseback. What! were the men also in the party? Then Madame Hennebeau explained in her maternal way that they had frightened her by saying that the streets were full of evil faces, and so she preferred to bring a defender. Négrel laughed and reassured them: nothing to cause anxiety, threats of brawlers as usual, but not one of them would dare to throw a stone at a window-pane. Still pleased with his success, Deneulin related the checked rebellion at Jean-Bart. He said that he was now quite at rest. And on the Vandame road, while the young ladies got into the carriage, all congratulated themselves on the superb day, oblivious of the long swelling shudder of the marching people afar off in the country, though they might have heard the sound of it if they had pressed their ears against the earth.
“Well! it is agreed,” repeated Madame Hennebeau. “This evening you will call for the young ladies and dine with us. Madame Grégoire has also promised to come for Cécile.”
“You may reckon on me,” replied Deneulin.
The carriage went off towards Vandame, Jeanne and Lucie leaning down to laugh once more to their father, who was standing by the roadside; while Négrel gallantly trotted behind the fleeing wheels.
They crossed the forest, taking the road from Vandame to Marchiennes. As they approached Tartaret, Jeanne asked Madame Hennebeau if she knew CôteVerte, and the latter, in spite of her stay of five years in the country, acknowledged that she had never been on that side. Then they made a detour. Tartaret, on the outskirts of the forest, was an uncultivated moor, of volcanic sterility, under which for ages a coal mine had been burning. Its history was lost in legend. The miners of the place said that fire from heaven had fallen on this Sodom in the bowels of the earth, where the putter-girls had committed abominations together, so that they had not even had the time to come to the surface, and today were still burning at the bottom of this hell. The calcined rocks, of a sombre red, were covered by an efflorescence of alum as by a leprosy. Sulphur grew like a yellow flower at the edge of the fissures. At night, those who were brave enough to venture to look into these holes declared that they saw flames there, sinful souls shrivelling in the furnace within. Wandering lights moved over the soil, and hot vapours, the poisons from the devil’s ordure and his dirty kitchen, were constantly smoking. And like a miracle of eternal spring, in the midst of this accursed moor of Tartaret, Côte-Verte appeared, with its meadows for ever green, its beeches with leaves unceasingly renewed, its fields where three harvests ripened. It was a natural hot-house, warmed by the fire in the deep strata beneath. The snow never lay on it. The enormous bouquet of verdure, beside the leafless forest trees, blossomed on this December day, and the frost had not even scorched the edge of it.
Soon the carriage was passing over the plain. Négrel joked over the legend, and explained that a fire often occurred at the bottom of a mine from the fermentation of the coal dust; if not mastered it would burn on for ever, and he mentioned a Belgian pit which had been flooded by diverting a river and running it into the pit. But he became silent. For the last few minutes groups of miners had been constantly passing the carriage; they went by in silence, with sidelong looks at the luxurious equipage which forced them to stand aside. Their number went on increasing. The horses were obliged to cross the little bridge over the Scarpe at walking pace. What was going on, then, to bring all these people into the roads? The young ladies became frightened, and Négrel began to smell out some fray in the excited country; it was a relief when they at last arrived at Marchiennes. The batteries of coke ovens and the chimneys of the blast furnaces, beneath a sun which seemed to extinguish them, were belching out smoke and raining their everlasting soot through the air.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02