WHEN they came out of Rasseneur’s, Étienne and Catherine walked on in silence. The thaw was beginning, a slow cold thaw which stained the snow without melting it. In the livid sky a full moon could be faintly seen behind great clouds, black rags driven furiously by a tempestuous wind far above; and on the earth no breath was stirring, nothing could be heard but drippings from the roofs, the falling of white lumps with a soft thud.
Étienne was embarrassed by this woman who had been given to him, and in his disquiet he could find nothing to say. The idea of taking her with him to hide at Réquillart seemed absurd. He had proposed to lead her back to the settlement, to her parents’ house, but she had refused in terror. No, no! anything rather than be a burden on them once more after having behaved so badly to them! And neither of them spoke any more; they tramped on at random through the roads which were becoming rivers of mud. At first they went down towards the Voreux; then they turned to the right and passed between the pit-bank and the canal.
“But you’ll have to sleep somewhere,” he said at last. “Now, if I only had a room, I could easily take you ——”
But a curious spasm of timidity interrupted him. The past came back to him, their old longings for each other, and the delicacies and the shames which had prevented them from coming together. Did he still desire her, that he felt so troubled, gradually warmed at the heart by a fresh longing? The recollection of the blows she had dealt him at Gaston-Marie now attracted him instead of filling him with spite. And he was surprised; the idea of taking her to Réquillart was becoming quite natural and easy to execute.
“Now, come, decide; where would you like me to take you? You must hate me very much to refuse to come with me!”
She was following him slowly, delayed by the painful slipping of her sabots into the ruts; and without raising her head she murmured:
“I have enough trouble, good God! don’t give me any more. What good would it do us, what you ask, now that I have a lover and you have a woman yourself?”
She meant Mouquette. She believed that he still went with this girl, as the rumour ran for the last fortnight; and when he swore to her that it was not so she shook her head, for she remembered the evening when she had seen them eagerly kissing each other.
“Isn’t it a pity, all this nonsense?” he whispered, stopping. “We might understand each other so well.”
She shuddered slightly and replied:
“Never mind, you’ve nothing to be sorry for; you don’t lose much. If you knew what a trumpery thing I am — no bigger than two ha’porth of butter, so ill made that I shall never become a woman, sure enough!”
And she went on freely accusing herself, as though the long delay of her puberty had been her own fault. In spite of the man whom she had had, this lessened her, placed her among the urchins. One has some excuse, at any rate, when one can produce a child.
“My poor little one!” said Étienne, with deep pity, in a very low voice.
They were at the foot of the pit-bank, hidden in the shadow of the enormous pile. An inky cloud was just then passing over the moon; they could no longer even distinguish their faces, their breaths were mingled, their lips were seeking each other for that kiss which had tormented them with desire for months. But suddenly the moon reappeared, and they saw the sentinel above them, at the top of the rocks white with light, standing out erect on the Voreux. And before they had kissed an emotion of modesty separated them, that old modesty in which there was something of anger, a vague repugnance, and much friendship. They set out again heavily, up to their ankles in mud.
“Then it’s settled. You don’t want to have anything to do with me?” asked Étienne.
“No,” she said. “You after Chaval; and after you another, eh? No, that disgusts me; it doesn’t give me any pleasure. What’s the use of doing it?”
They were silent, and walked some hundred paces without exchanging a word.
“But, anyhow, do you know where to go to?” he said again. “I can’t leave you out in a night like this.”
She replied, simply:
“I’m going back. Chaval is my man. I have nowhere else to sleep but with him.”
“But he will beat you to death.”
There was silence again. She had shrugged her shoulders in resignation. He would beat her, and when he was tired of beating her he would stop. Was not that better than to roam the streets like a vagabond? Then she was used to blows; she said, to console herself, that eight out of ten girls were no better off than she was. If her lover married her some day it would, all the same, be very nice of him.
Étienne and Catherine were moving mechanically towards Montsou, and as they came nearer their silences grew longer. It was as though they had never before been together. He could find no argument to convince her, in spite of the deep vexation which he felt at seeing her go back to Chaval. His heart was breaking, he had nothing better to offer than an existence of wretchedness and flight, a night with no tomorrow should a soldier’s bullet go through his head. Perhaps, after all, it was wiser to suffer what he was suffering rather than risk a fresh suffering. So he led her back to her lover’s, with sunken head, and made no protest when she stopped him on the main road, at the corner of the Yards, twenty metres from the Estaminet Piquette, saying:
“Don’t come any farther. If he sees you it will only make things worse.”
Eleven o’clock struck at the church. The estaminet was closed, but gleams came through the cracks.
“Good-bye,” she murmured.
She had given him her hand; he kept it, and she had to draw it away painfully, with a slow effort, to leave him. Without turning her head, she went in through the little latched door. But he did not turn away, standing at the same place with his eyes on the house, anxious as to what was passing within. He listened, trembling lest he should hear the cries of a beaten woman. The house remained black and silent; he only saw a light appear at a first-floor window, and as this window opened, and he recognized the thin shadow that was leaning over the road, he came near.
Catherine then whispered very low:
“He’s not come back. I’m going to bed. Please go away.”
Étienne went off. The thaw was increasing; a regular shower was falling from the roofs, a moist sweat flowed down the walls, the palings, the whole confused mass of this industrial district lost in night. At first he turned towards Réquillart, sick with fatigue and sadness, having no other desire except to disappear under the earth and to be annihilated there. Then the idea of the Voreux occurred to him again. He thought of the Belgian workmen who were going down, of his mates at the settlement, exasperated against the soldiers and resolved not to tolerate strangers in their pit. And he passed again along the canal through the puddles of melted snow.
As he stood once more near the pit-bank the moon was shining brightly. He raised his eyes and gazed at the sky. The clouds were galloping by, whipped on by the strong wind which was blowing up there; but they were growing white, and ravelling out thinly with the misty transparency of troubled water over the moon’s face. They succeeded each other so rapidly that the moon, veiled at moments, constantly reappeared in limpid clearness.
With gaze full of this pure brightness, Étienne was lowering his head, when a spectacle on the summit of the pit-bank attracted his attention. The sentinel, stiffened by cold, was walking up and down, taking twenty-five paces towards Marchiennes, and then returning towards Montsou. The white glitter of his bayonet could be seen above his black silhouette, which stood out clearly against the pale sky. But what interested the young man, behind the cabin where Bonnemort used to take shelter on tempestuous nights, was a moving shadow — a crouching beast in ambush — which he immediately recognized as Jeanlin, with his long flexible spine like a marten’s. The sentinel could not see him. That brigand of a child was certainly preparing some practical joke, for he was still furious against the soldiers, and asking when they were going to be freed from these murderers who had been sent here with guns to kill people.
For a moment Étienne thought of calling him to prevent the execution of some stupid trick. The moon was hidden. He had seen him draw himself up ready to spring; but the moon reappeared, and the child remained crouching. At every turn the sentinel came as far as the cabin, then turned his back and walked in the opposite direction. And suddenly, as a cloud threw its shadow, Jeanlin leapt on to the soldier’s shoulders with the great bound of a wild cat, and gripping him with his claws buried his large open knife in his throat. The horse-hair collar resisted; he had to apply both hands to the handle and hang on with all the weight of his body. He had often bled fowls which he had found behind farms. It was so rapid that there was only a stifled cry in the night, while the musket fell with the sound of old iron. Already the moon was shining again.
Motionless with stupor, Étienne was still gazing. A shout had been choked in his chest. Above, the pit-bank was vacant; no shadow was any longer visible against the wild flight of clouds. He ran up and found Jeanlin on all fours before the corpse, which was lying back with extended arms. Beneath the limpid light the red trousers and grey overcoat contrasted harshly with the snow. Not a drop of blood had flowed, the knife was still in the throat up to the handle. With a furious, unreasoning blow of the fist he knocked the child down beside the body.
“What have you done that for?” he stammered wildly. Jeanlin picked himself up and rested on his hands, with a feline movement of his thin spine; his large ears, his green eyes, his prominent jaws were quivering and aflame with the shock of his deadly blow.
“By God! why have you done this?”
“I don’t know; I wanted to.”
He persisted in this reply. For three days he had wanted to. It tormented him, it made his head ache behind his ears, because he thought about it so much. Need one be so particular with these damned soldiers who were worrying the colliers in their own homes? Of the violent speeches he had heard in the forest, the cries of destruction and death shouted among the pits, five or six words had remained with him, and these he repeated like a street urchin playing at revolution. And he knew no more; no one had urged him on, it had come to him of itself, just as the desire to steal onions from a field came to him.
Startled at this obscure growth of crime in the recesses of this childish brain, Étienne again pushed him away with a kick, like an unconscious animal. He trembled lest the guard at the Voreux had heard the sentinel’s stifled cry, and looked towards the pit every time the moon was uncovered. But nothing stirred, and he bent down, felt the hands that were gradually becoming icy, and listened to the heart, which had stopped beneath the overcoat. Only the bone handle of the knife could be seen with the motto on it, the simple word “Amour,” engraved in black letters.
His eyes went from the throat to the face. Suddenly he recognized the little soldier; it was Jules, the recruit with whom he had talked one morning. And deep pity came over him in front of this fair gentle face, marked with freckles. The blue eyes, wide open, were gazing at the sky with that fixed gaze with which he had before seen him searching the horizon for the country of his birth. Where was it, that Plogof which had appeared to him beneath the dazzling sun? Over there, over there! The sea was moaning afar on this tempestuous night. That wind passing above had perhaps swept over the moors. Two women perhaps were standing there, the mother and the sister, clutching their wind-blown coifs, gazing as if they could see what was now happening to the little fellow through the leagues which separated them. They would always wait for him now. What an abominable thing it is for poor devils to kill each other for the sake of the rich!
But this corpse had to be disposed of. Étienne at first thought of throwing it into the canal, but was deterred from this by the certainty that it would be found there. His anxiety became extreme, every minute was of importance; what decision should he take? He had a sudden inspiration: if he could carry the body as far as Réquillart, he would be able to bury it there for ever.
“Come here,” he said to Jeanlin.
The child was suspicious.
“No, you want to beat me. And then I have business. Good night.”
In fact, he had given a rendezvous to Bébert and Lydie in a hiding-place, a hole arranged under the wood supply at the Voreux. It had been arranged to sleep out, so as to be there if the Belgians’ bones were to be broken by stoning when they went down the pit.
“Listen!” repeated Étienne. “Come here, or I shall call the soldiers, who will cut your head off.”
And as Jeanlin was making up his mind, he rolled his handkerchief, and bound the soldier’s neck tightly, without drawing out the knife, so as to prevent the blood from flowing. The snow was melting; on the soil there was neither a red patch nor the footmarks of a struggle.
“Take the legs!”
Jeanlin took the legs, while Étienne seized the shoulders, after having fastened the gun behind his back, and then they both slowly descended the pit-bank, trying to avoid rolling any rocks down. Fortunately the moon was hidden. But as they passed along the canal it reappeared brightly, and it was a miracle that the guard did not see them. Silently they hastened on, hindered by the swinging of the corpse, and obliged to place it on the ground every hundred metres. At the corner of the Réquillart lane they heard a sound which froze them with terror, and they only had time to hide behind a wall to avoid a patrol. Farther on, a man came across them, but he was drunk, and moved away abusing them. At last they reached the old pit, bathed in perspiration, and so exhausted that their teeth were chattering.
Étienne had guessed that it would not be easy to get the soldier down the ladder shaft. It was an awful task. First of all Jeanlin, standing above, had to let the body slide down, while Étienne, hanging on to the bushes, had to accompany it to enable it to pass the first two ladders where the rungs were broken. Afterwards, at every ladder, he had to perform the same manoeuvre over again, going down first, then receiving the body in his arms; and he had thus, down thirty ladders, two hundred and ten metres, to feel it constantly falling over him. The gun scraped his spine; he had not allowed the child to go for the candle-end, which he preserved avariciously. What was the use? The light would only embarrass them in this narrow tube. When they arrived at the pit-eye, however, out of breath, he sent the youngster for the candle. He then sat down and waited for him in the darkness, near the body, with heart beating violently. As soon as Jeanlin reappeared with the light, Étienne consulted with him, for the child had explored these old workings, even to the cracks through which men could not pass. They set out again, dragging the dead body for nearly a kilometre, through a maze of ruinous galleries. At last the roof became low, and they found themselves kneeling beneath a sandy rock supported by half-broken planks. It was a sort of long chest in which they laid the little soldier as in a coffin; they placed his gun by his side; then with vigorous blows of their heels they broke the timber at the risk of being buried themselves. Immediately the rock gave way, and they scarcely had time to crawl back on their elbows and knees. When Étienne returned, seized by the desire to look once more, the roof was still falling in, slowly crushing the body beneath its enormous weight. And then there was nothing more left, nothing but the vast mass of the earth.
Jeanlin, having returned to his own corner, his little cavern of villainy, was stretching himself out on the hay, overcome by weariness, and murmuring:
“Heighho! the brats must wait for me; I’m going to have an hour’s sleep.”
Étienne had blown out the candle, of which there was only a small end left. He also was worn out, but he was not sleepy; painful nightmare thoughts were beating like hammers in his skull. Only one at last remained, torturing him and fatiguing him with a question to which he could not reply: Why had he not struck Chaval when he held him beneath the knife? and why had this child just killed a soldier whose very name he did not know? It shook his revolutionary beliefs, the courage to kill, the right to kill. Was he, then, a coward? In the hay the child had begun snoring, the snoring of a drunken man, as if he were sleeping off the intoxication of his murder. Étienne was disgusted and irritated; it hurt him to know that the boy was there and to hear him. Suddenly he started, a breath of fear passed over his face. A light rustling, a sob, seemed to him to have come out of the depths of the earth. The image of the little soldier, lying over there with his gun beneath the rocks, froze his back and made his hair stand up. It was idiotic, the whole mine seemed to be filled with voices; he had to light the candle again, and only grew calm on seeing the emptiness of the galleries by this pale light.
For another quarter of an hour he reflected, still absorbed in the same struggle, his eyes fixed on the burning wick. But there was a spluttering, the wick was going out, and everything fell back into darkness. He shuddered again; he could have boxed Jeanlin’s ears, to keep him from snoring so loudly. The neighbourhood of the child became so unbearable that he escaped, tormented by the need for fresh air, hastening through the galleries and up the passage, as though he could hear a shadow, panting, at his heels.
Up above, in the midst of the ruins of Réquillart, Étienne was at last able to breathe freely. Since he dared not kill, it was for him to die; and this idea of death, which had already touched him, came again and fixed itself in his head, as a last hope. To die bravely, to die for the revolution, that would end everything, would settle his account, good or bad, and prevent him from thinking more. If the men attacked the Borains, he would be in the first rank, and would have a good chance of getting a bad blow. It was with firmer step that he returned to prowl around the Voreux. Two o’clock struck, and the loud noise of voices was coming from the captains’ room, where the guards who watched over the pit were posted. The disappearance of the sentinel had overcome the guards with surprise; they had gone to arouse the captain, and after a careful examination of the place, they concluded that it must be a case of desertion. Hiding in the shade, Étienne recollected this republican captain of whom the little soldier had spoken. Who knows if he might not be persuaded to pass over to the people’s side! The troop would raise their rifles, and that would be the signal for a massacre of the bourgeois. A new dream took possession of him; he thought no more of dying, but remained for hours with his feet in the mud, and a drizzle from the thaw falling on his shoulders, filled by the feverish hope that victory was still possible.
Up to five o’clock he watched for the Borains. Then he perceived that the Company had cunningly arranged that they should sleep at the Voreux. The descent had begun, and the few strikers from the Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement who had been posted as scouts had not yet warned their mates. It was he who told them of the trick, and they set out running, while he waited behind the pit-bank, on the towing-path. Six o’clock struck, and the earthy sky was growing pale and lighting up with a reddish dawn, when the Abbé Ranvier came along a path, holding up his cassock above his thin legs. Every Monday he went to say an early mass at a convent chapel on the other side of the pit.
“Good morning, my friend,” he shouted in a loud voice, after staring at the young man with his flaming eyes.
But Étienne did not reply. Far away between the Voreux platforms he had just seen a woman pass, and he rushed forward anxiously, for he thought he recognized Catherine. Since midnight, Catherine had been walking about the thawing roads. Chaval, on coming back and finding her in bed, had knocked her out with a blow. He shouted to her to go at once by the door if she did not wish to go by the window; and scarcely dressed, in tears, and bruised by kicks in her legs, she had been obliged to go down, pushed outside by a final thrust. This sudden separation dazed her, and she sat down on a stone, looking up at the house, still expecting that he would call her back. It was not possible; he would surely look for her and tell her to come back when he saw her thus shivering and abandoned, with no one to take her in.
At the end of two hours she made up her mind, dying of cold and as motionless as a dog thrown into the street. She left Montsou, then retraced her steps, but dared neither to call from the pathway nor to knock at the door. At last she went off by the main road to the right with the idea of going to the settlement, to her parents’ house. But when she reached it she was seized by such shame that she rushed away along the gardens for fear of being recognized by someone, in spite of the heavy sleep which weighed on all eyes behind the closed shutters. And after that she wandered about, frightened at the slightest noise, trembling lest she should be seized and led away as a strumpet to that house at Marchiennes, the threat of which had haunted her like nightmare for months. Twice she stumbled against the Voreux, but terrified at the loud voices of the guard, she ran away out of breath, looking behind her to see if she was being pursued. The Réquillart lane was always full of drunken men; she went back to it, however, with the vague hope of meeting there him she had repelled a few hours earlier.
Chaval had to go down that morning, and this thought brought Catherine again towards the pit, though she felt that it would be useless to speak to him: all was over between them. There was no work going on at Jean-Bart, and he had sworn to kill her if she worked again at the Voreux, where he feared that she would compromise him, So what was to be done? — to go elsewhere, to die of hunger, to yield beneath the blows of every man who might pass? She dragged herself along, tottering amid the ruts, with aching legs and mud up to her spine. The thaw had now filled the streets with a flood of mire. She waded through it, still walking, not daring to look for a stone to sit on.
Day appeared. Catherine had just recognized the back of Chaval, who was cautiously going round the pit-bank, when she noticed Lydie and Bébert putting their noses out of their hiding-place beneath the wood supply. They had passed the night there in ambush, without going home, since Jeanlin’s order was to await him; and while this latter was sleeping off the drunkenness of his murder at Réquillart, the two children were lying in each other’s arms to keep warm. The wind blew between the planks of chestnut and oak, and they rolled themselves up as in some wood-cutter’s abandoned hut. Lydie did not dare to speak aloud the sufferings of a small beaten woman, any more than Bébert found courage to complain of the captain’s blows which made his cheeks swell; but the captain was really abusing his power, risking their bones in mad marauding expeditions while refusing to share the booty. Their hearts rose in revolt, and they had at last embraced each other in spite of his orders, careless of that box of the ears from the invisible with which he had threatened them. It never came, so they went on kissing each other softly, with no idea of anything else, putting into that caress the passion they had long struggled against — the whole of their martyred and tender natures. All night through they had thus kept each other warm, so happy, at the bottom of this secret hole, that they could not remember that they had ever been so happy before — not even on St. Barbara’s day, when they had eaten fritters and drunk wine.
The sudden sound of a bugle made Catherine start. She raised herself, and saw the Voreux guards taking up their arms. Étienne arrived running; Bébert and Lydie jumped out of their hiding-place with a. leap. And over there, beneath the growing daylight, a band of men and women were coming from the settlement, gesticulating wildly with anger.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02