IT was four o’clock in the morning, and the fresh April night was growing warm at the approach of day. In the limpid sky the stars were twinkling out, while the east grew purple with dawn. And a slight shudder passed over the drowsy black country, the vague rumour which precedes awakening.
Étienne, with long strides, was following the Vandame road. He had just passed six weeks at Montsou, in bed at the hospital. Though very thin and yellow, he felt strength to go, and he went. The Company, still trembling for its pits, was constantly sending men away, and had given him notice that he could not be kept on. He was offered the sum of one hundred francs, with the paternal advice to leave off working in mines, as it would now be too severe for him. But he refused the hundred francs. He had already received a letter from Pluchart, calling him to Paris, and enclosing money for the journey. His old dream would be realized. The night before, on leaving the hospital, he had slept at the Bon-Joyeux, Widow Désir’s. And he rose early; only one desire was left, to bid his mates farewell before taking the eight o’clock train at Marchiennes.
For a moment Étienne stopped on the road, which was now becoming rose-coloured. It was good to breathe that pure air of the precocious spring. It would turn out a superb day. The sun was slowly rising, and the life of the earth was rising with it. And he set out walking again, vigorously striking with his dogwood stick, watching the plain afar, as it rose from the vapours of the night. He had seen no one; Maheude had come once to the hospital, and, probably, had not been able to come again. But he knew that the whole settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante was now going down at Jean-Bart, and that she too had taken work there. Little by little the deserted roads were peopled, and colliers constantly passed Étienne with pallid, silent faces. The Company, people said, was abusing its victory. After two and a half months of strike, when they had returned to the pits, conquered by hunger, they had been obliged to accept the timbering tariff, that disguised decrease in wages, now the more hateful because stained with the blood of their mates. They were being robbed of an hour’s work, they were being made false to their oath never to submit; and this imposed perjury stuck in their throats like gall. Work was beginning again everywhere, at Mirou, at Madeleine, at Crévecoeur, at the Victoire. Everywhere, in the morning haze, along the roads lost in darkness, the flock was tramping on, rows of men trotting with faces bent towards the earth, like cattle led to the slaughter-house. They shivered beneath their thin garments, folding their arms, rolling their hips, expanding their backs with the humps formed by the brick between the shirt and the jacket. And in this wholesale return to work, in these mute shadows, all black, without a laugh, without a look aside, one felt the teeth clenched with rage, the hearts swollen with hatred, a simple resignation to the necessity of the belly.
The nearer Étienne approached the pit the more their number increased. They nearly all walked alone; those who came in groups were in single file, already exhausted, tired of one another and of themselves. He noticed one who was very old, with eyes that shone like hot coals beneath his livid forehead. Another, a young man, was panting with the restrained fury of a storm. Many had their sabots in their hands; one could scarcely hear the soft sound of their coarse woollen stockings on the ground. It was an endless rustling, a general downfall, the forced march of a beaten army, moving on with lowered heads, sullenly absorbed in the desire to renew the struggle and achieve revenge.
When Étienne arrived, Jean-Bart was emerging from the shade; the lanterns, hooked on to the platform, were still burning in the growing dawn. Above the obscure buildings a trail of steam arose like a white plume delicately tinted with carmine. He passed up the sifting-staircase to go to the receiving-room.
The descent was beginning, and the men were coming from the shed. For a moment he stood by, motionless amid the noise and movement. The rolling of the trams shook the metal floor, the drums were turning, unrolling the cables in the midst of cries from the trumpet, the ringing of bells, blows of the mallet on the signal block; he found the monster again swallowing his daily ration of human flesh, the cages rising and plunging, engulfing their burden of men, without ceasing, with the facile gulp of a voracious giant. Since his accident he had a nervous horror of the mine. The cages, as they sank down, tore his bowels. He had to turn away his head; the pit exasperated him.
But in the vast and still sombre hall, feebly lighted up by the exhausted lanterns, he could perceive no friendly face. The miners, who were waiting there with bare feet and their lamps in their hands, looked at him with large restless eyes, and then lowered their faces, drawing back with an air of shame. No doubt they knew him and no longer had any spite against him; they seemed, on the contrary, to fear him, blushing at the thought that he would reproach them with cowardice. This attitude made his heart swell; he forgot that these wretches had stoned him, he again began to dream or changing them into heroes, of directing a whole people, this force of nature which was devouring itself. A cage was embarking its men, and the batch disappeared; as others arrived he saw at last one of his lieutenants in the strike, a worthy fellow who had sworn to die.
“You too!” he murmured, with aching heart.
The other turned pale and his lips trembled; then, with a movement of excuse:
“What would you have? I’ve got a wife.”
Now in the new crowd coming from the shed he recognized them all.
“You too! — you too! — you too!”
And all shrank back, stammering in choked voices:
“I have a mother."—“I have children."—“One must get bread.”
The cage did not reappear; they waited for it mournfully, with such sorrow at their defeat that they avoided meeting each other’s eyes, obstinately gazing at the shaft.
“And Maheude?” Étienne asked.
They made no reply. One made a sign that she was coming. Others raised their arms, trembling with pity. Ah, poor woman! what wretchedness! The silence continued, and when Étienne stretched out his hand to bid them farewell, they all pressed it vigorously, putting into that mute squeeze their rage at having yielded, their feverish hope of revenge. The cage was there; they got into it and sank, devoured by the gulf.
Pierron had appeared with his naked captain’s lamp fixed into the leather of his cap. For the past week he had been chief of the gang at the pit-eye, and the men moved away, for promotion had rendered him bossy. The sight of Étienne annoyed him; he came up, however, and was at last reassured when the young man announced his departure. They talked. His wife now kept the Estaminet du Progrés, thanks to the support of all those gentlemen, who had been so good to her. But he interrupted himself and turned furiously on to Father Mouque, whom he accused of not sending up the dung-heap from his stable at the regulation hour. The old man listened with bent shoulders. Then, before going down, suffering from this reprimand, he, too, gave his hand to Étienne, with the same long pressure as the others, warm with restrained anger and quivering with future rebellion. And this old hand which trembled in his, this old man who was forgiving him for the loss of his dead children, affected Étienne to such a degree that he watched him disappear without saying a word.
“Then Maheude is not coming this morning?” he asked Pierron after a time.
At first the latter pretended not to understand, for there was ill luck even in speaking of her. Then, as he moved away, under the pretext of giving an order, he said at last:
“Eh! Maheude? There she is.”
In fact, Maheude had reached the shed with her lamp in her hand, dressed in trousers and jacket, with her head confined in the cap. It was by a charitable exception that the Company, pitying the fate of this unhappy woman, so cruelly afflicted, had allowed her to go down again at the age of forty; and as it seemed difficult to set her again at haulage work, she was employed to manipulate a small ventilator which had been installed in the north gallery, in those infernal regions beneath Tartaret, where there was no movement of air. For ten hours, with aching back, she turned her wheel at the bottom of a burning tube, baked by forty degrees of heat. She earned thirty sous.
When Étienne saw her, a pitiful sight in her male garments — her breast and belly seeming to be swollen by the dampness of the cuttings — he stammered with surprise, trying to find words to explain that he was going away and that he wished to say good-bye to her.
She looked at him without listening, and said at last, speaking familiarly:
“Eh? it surprises you to see me. It’s true enough that I threatened to wring the neck of the first of my children who went down again; and now that I’m going down I ought to wring my own, ought I not? Ah, well! I should have done it by now if it hadn’t been for the old man and the little ones at the house.”
And she went on in her low, fatigued voice. She did not excuse herself, she simply narrated things — that they. had been nearly starved, and that she had made up her mind to it, so that they might not be sent away from the settlement.
“How is the old man?” asked Étienne.
“He is always very gentle and very clean. But he is quite off his nut. He was not brought up for that affair, you know. There was talk of shutting him up with the madmen, but I was not willing; they would have done for him in his soup. His story has, all the same, been very bad for us, for he’ll never get his pension; one of those gentlemen told me that it would be immoral to give him one.”
“Is Jeanlin working?”
“Yes, those gentlemen found something for him to do at the top. He gets twenty sous. Oh! I don’t complain; the bosses have been very good, as they told me themselves. The brat’s twenty sous and my thirty, that makes fifty. If there were not six of us we should get enough to eat. Estelle devours now, and the worst is that it will be four or five years before Lénore and Henri are old enough to come to the pit.”
Étienne could not restrain a movement of pain.
Maheude’s pale cheeks turned red, and her eyes flamed. But her shoulders sank as if beneath the weight of destiny.
“What would you have? They after the others. They have all been done for there; now it’s their turn.”
She was silent; some landers, who were rolling trains, disturbed them. Through the large dusty windows the early sun was entering, drowning the lanterns in grey light; and the engine moved every three minutes, the cables unrolled, the cages continued to swallow down men.
“Come along, you loungers, look sharp!” shouted Pierron. “Get in; we shall never have done with it today.” Maheude, whom he was looking at, did not stir. She had already allowed three cages to pass, and she said, as though arousing herself and remembering Étienne’s first words:
“Then you’re going away?”
“Yes, this morning.”
“You’re right; better be somewhere else if one can. And I’m glad to have seen you, because you can know now, anyhow, that I’ve nothing on my mind against you. For a moment I could have killed you, after all that slaughter. But one thinks, doesn’t one? One sees that when all’s reckoned up it’s nobody’s fault. No, no! it’s not your fault; it’s the fault of everybody.”
Now she talked with tranquillity of her dead, of her man, of Zacharie, of Catherine; and tears only came into her eyes when she uttered Alzire’s name. She had resumed her calm reasonableness, and judged things sensibly. It would bring no luck to the middle class to have killed so many poor people. Sure enough, they would be punished for it one day, for everything has to be paid for. There would even be no need to interfere; the whole thing would explode by itself. The soldiers would fire on the masters just as they had fired on the men. And in her everlasting resignation, in that hereditary discipline under which she was again bowing, a conviction had established itself, the certainty that injustice could not last longer, and that, if there were no good God left, another would spring up to avenge the wretched.
She spoke in a low voice, with suspicious glances round. Then, as Pierron was coming up, she added, aloud:
“Well, if you’re going, you must take your things from our house. There are still two shirts, three handkerchiefs, and an old pair of trousers.”
Étienne, with a gesture, refused these few things saved from the dealers.
“No, it’s not worth while; they can be for the children. At Paris I can arrange for myself.”
Two more cages had gone down, and Pierron decided to speak straight to Maheude.
“I say now, over there, they are waiting for you! Is that little chat nearly done?”
But she turned her back. Why should he be so zealous, this man who had sold himself? The descent didn’t concern him. His men hated him enough already on his level. And she persisted, with her lamp in her hand, frozen amid the draughts in spite of the mildness of the season. Neither Étienne nor she found anything more to say. They remained facing each other with hearts so full that they would have liked to speak once more.
At last she spoke for the sake of speaking.
“The Levaque is in the family way. Levaque is still in prison; Bouteloup is taking his place meanwhile.”
“Ah, yes! Bouteloup.”
“And, listen! did I tell you? Philoméne has gone away.”
“What! gone away?”
“Yes, gone away with a Pas-de-Calais miner. I was afraid she would leave the two brats on me. But no, she took them with her. Eh? A woman who spits blood and always looks as if she were on the point of death!”
She mused for a moment, and then went on in a slow voice:
“There’s been talk on my account. You remember they said I slept with you. Lord! After my man’s death that might very well have happened if I had been younger. But now I’m glad it wasn’t so, for we should have regretted it, sure enough.”
“Yes, we should have regretted it,” Étienne repeated, simply.
That was all; they spoke no more. A cage was waiting for her; she was being called angrily, threatened with a fine. Then she made up her mind, and pressed his hand. Deeply moved, he still looked at her, so worn and worked out, with her livid face, her discoloured hair escaping from the blue cap, her body as of a good over-fruitful beast, deformed beneath the jacket and trousers. And in this last pressure of the hands he felt again the long, silent pressure of his mates, giving him a rendezvous for the day when they would begin again. He understood perfectly. There was a tranquil faith in the depths of her eyes. It would be soon, and this time it would be the final blow.
“What a damned shammer!” exclaimed Pierron.
Pushed and hustled, Maheude squeezed into a tram with four others. The signal-cord was drawn to strike for meat, the cage was unhooked and fell into the night, and there was nothing more but the rapid flight of the cable.
Then Étienne left the pit. Below, beneath the screening-shed, he noticed a creature seated on the earth, with legs stretched out, in the midst of a thick pile of coal. It was Jeanlin, who was employed there to clean the large coal. He held a block of coal between his thighs, and freed it with a hammer from the fragments of slate. A fine powder drowned him in such a flood of soot that the young man would never have recognized him if the child had not lifted his ape-like face, with the protruding ears and small greenish eyes. He laughed, with a joking air, and, giving a final blow to the block, disappeared in the black dust which arose.
Outside, Étienne followed the road for a while, absorbed in his thoughts. All sorts of ideas were buzzing in his head. But he felt the open air, the free sky, and he breathed deeply. The sun was appearing in glory at the horizon, there was a reawakening of gladness over the whole country. A flood of gold rolled from the east to the west on the immense plain. This heat of life was expanding and extending in a tremor of youth, in which vibrated the sighs of the earth, the song of birds, all the murmuring sounds of the waters and the woods. It was good to live, and the old world wanted to live through one more spring.
And penetrated by that hope, Étienne slackened his walk, his eyes wandering to right and to left amid the gaiety of the new season. He thought about himself, he felt himself strong, seasoned by his hard experiences at the bottom of the mine. His education was complete, he was going away armed, a rational soldier of the revolution, having declared war against society as he saw it and as he condemned it. The joy of rejoining Pluchart and of being, like Pluchart, a leader who was listened to, inspired him with speeches, and he began to arrange the phrases. He was meditating an enlarged programme; that middle-class refinement, which had raised him above his class, had deepened his hatred of the middle class. He felt the need of glorifying these workers, whose odour of wretchedness was now unpleasant to him; he would show that they alone were great and stainless, the only nobility and the only strength in which humanity could be dipped afresh. He already saw himself in the tribune, triumphing with the people, if the people did not devour him.
The loud song of a lark made him look up towards the sky. Little red clouds, the last vapours of the night, were melting in the limpid blue; and the vague faces of Souvarine and Rasseneur came to his memory. Decidedly, all was spoilt when each man tried to get power for himself. Thus that famous International which was to have renewed the world had impotently miscarried, and its formidable army had been cut up and crumbled away from internal dissensions. Was Darwin right, then, and the world only a battlefield, where the strong ate the weak for the sake of the beauty and continuance of the race? This question troubled him, although he settled it like a man who is satisfied with his knowledge. But one idea dissipated his doubts and enchanted him — that of taking up his old explanation of the theory the first time that he should speak. If any class must be devoured, would not the people, still new and full of life, devour the middle class, exhausted by enjoyment? The new society would arise from new blood. And in this expectation of an invasion of barbarians, regenerating the old decayed nations, reappeared his absolute faith in an approaching revolution, the real one — that of the workers — the fire of which would inflame this century’s end with that purple of the rising sun which he saw like blood on the sky. He still walked, dreaming, striking his dog-wood stick against the flints on the road, and when he glanced around him he recognized the various places. Just there, at the Fourche-aux-Boeufs, he remembered that he had taken command of the band that morning when the pits were sacked. Today the brutish, deathly, ill-paid work was beginning over again. Beneath the earth, down there at seven hundred metres, it seemed to him he heard low, regular, continuous blows; it was the men he had just seen go down, the black workers, who were hammering in their silent rage. No doubt they were beaten. They had left their dead and their money on the field; but Paris would not forget the volleys fired at the Voreux, and the blood of the empire, too, would flow from that incurable wound. And if the industrial crisis was drawing to an end, if the workshops were opening again one by one, a state of war was no less declared, and peace was henceforth impossible. The colliers had reckoned up their men; they had tried their strength, with their cry for justice arousing the workers all over France. Their defeat, therefore, reassured no one. The Montsou bourgeois, in their victory, felt the vague uneasiness that arses on the morrow of a strike, looking behind them to see if their end did not lie inevitably over there, in spite of all beyond that great silence. They understood that the revolution would be born again unceasingly, perhaps tomorrow, with a general strike — the common understanding of all workers having general funds, and so able to hold out for months, eating their own bread. This time push only had been given to a ruinous society, but they had heard the rumbling beneath their feet, and they felt more shocks arising, and still more, until the old edifice would be crushed, fallen in and swallowed, going down like the Voreux to the abyss.
Étienne took the Joiselle road, to the left. He remembered that he had prevented the band from rushing on to Gaston-Marie. Afar, in the clear sky he saw the steeples of several pits — Mirou to the right, Madeleine and Crévecoeur side by side. Work was going on everywhere; he seemed to be able to catch the blows of the pick at the bottom of the earth, striking now from one end of the plain to the other, one blow, and another blow, and yet more blows, beneath the fields and roads and villages which were laughing in the light, all the obscure labour of the underground prison, so crushed by the enormous mass of the rocks that one had to know it was underneath there to distinguish its great painful sigh. And he now thought that, perhaps, violence would not hasten things. Cutting cables, tearing up rails, breaking lamps. what a useless task it was! It was not worth while for three thousand men to rush about in a devastating band doing that. He vaguely divined that lawful methods might one day be more terrible. His reason was ripening, he had sown the wild oats of his spite. Yes, Maheude had well said, with her good sense, that that would be the great blow — to organize quietly, to know one another, to unite in associations when the laws would permit it; then, on the morning when they felt their strength, and millions of workers would be face to face with a few thousand idlers, to take the power into their own hands and become the masters. Ah! what a reawakening of truth and justice! The sated and crouching god would at once get his death-blow, the monstrous idol hidden in the depths of his sanctuary, in that unknown distance where poor wretches fed him with their flesh without ever having seen him.
But Étienne, leaving the Vandame road, now came on to the paved street. On the right he saw Montsou, which was lost in the valley. Opposite were the ruins of the Voreux, the accursed hole where three pumps worked unceasingly. Then there were the other pits at the horizon, the Victoire, Saint-Thomas, Feutry-Cantel; while, towards the north, the tall chimneys of the blast furnaces, and the batteries of coke ovens, were smoking in the transparent morning air. If he was not to lose the eight o’clock train he must hasten, for he had still six kilometres before him.
And beneath his feet, the deep blows, those obstinate blows of the pick, continued. The mates were all there; he heard them following him at every stride. Was not that Maheude beneath the beetroots. with bent back and hoarse respiration accompanying the rumble of the ventilator? To left, to right, farther on, he seemed to recognize others beneath the wheatfields, the hedges, the young trees. Now the April sun, in the open sky, was shining in his glory, and warming the pregnant earth. From its fertile flanks life was leaping out, buds were bursting into green leaves, and the fields were quivering with the growth of the grass. On every side seeds were swelling, stretching out, cracking the plain, filled by the need of heat and light. An overflow of sap was mixed with whispering voices, the sound of the germs expanding in a great kiss. Again and again, more and more distinctly, as though they were approaching the soil, the mates were hammering. In the fiery rays of the sun on this youthful morning the country seemed full of that sound. Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02