IN the middle of the fields of wheat and beetroot,
the Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement slept beneath
the black night. One could vaguely distinguish
four immense blocks of small houses, back to back,
barracks or hospital blocks, geometric and
parallel, separated by three large avenues which
were divided into gardens of equal size. And over
the desert plain one heard only the moan of
squalls through the broken trellises of the
In the Maheus' house, No. 16 in the second block,
nothing was stirring. The single room that
occupied the first floor was drowned in a thick
darkness which seemed to overwhelm with its weight
the sleep of the beings whom one felt to be there
in a mass, with open mouths, overcome by
weariness. In spite of the keen cold outside,
there was a living heat in the heavy air, that hot
stuffiness of even the best kept bedrooms, the
smell of human cattle.
Four o'clock had struck from the clock in the room
on the ground floor, but nothing yet stirred; one
heard the piping of slender respirations,
accompanied by two series of sonorous snores. And
suddenly Catherine got up. In her weariness she
had, as usual, counted the four strokes through
the floor without the strength to arouse herself
completely. Then, throwing her legs from under
the bedclothes, she felt about, at last struck a
match and lighted the candle. But she remained
seated, her head so heavy that it fell back
between her shoulders, seeking to return to the
Now the candle lighted up the room, a square room
with two windows, and filled with three beds.
There could be seen a cupboard, a table, and two
old walnut chairs, whose smoky tone made hard,
dark patches against the walls, which were painted
a light yellow. And nothing else, only clothes
hung to nails, a jug placed on the floor, and a
red pan which served as a basin. In the bed on
the left, Zacharie, the eldest, a youth of
one-and-twenty, was asleep with his brother
Jeanlin, who had completed his eleventh year; in
the right-hand bed two urchins, Lénore and
Henri, the first six years old, the second four,
slept in each other's arms, while Catherine shared
the third bed with her sister Alzire, so small for
her nine years that Catherine would not have felt
her near her if it were not for the little
invalid's humpback, which pressed into her side.
The glass door was open; one could perceive the
lobby of a landing, a sort of recess in which the
father and the mother occupied a fourth bed,
against which they had been obliged to install the
cradle of the latest coiner, Estelle, aged
scarcely three months.
However, Catherine made a desperate effort. She
stretched herself, she fidgeted her two hands in
the red hair which covered her forehead and neck.
Slender for her fifteen years, all that showed of
her limbs outside the narrow sheath of her chemise
were her bluish feet, as it were tattooed with
coal, and her slight arms, the milky whiteness of
which contrasted with the sallow tint of her face,
already spoilt by constant washing with black
soap. A final yawn opened her rather large mouth
with splendid teeth against the chlorotic pallor
of her gums; while her grey eyes were crying in
her fight with sleep, with a look of painful
distress and weariness which seemed to spread over
the whole of her naked body.
But a growl came from the landing, and Maheu's
thick voice stammered;
"Devil take it! It's time. Is it you
lighting up, Catherine?"
"Yes, father; it has just struck
"Quick then, lazy. If you had danced less on
Sunday you would have woke us earlier. A fine
And he went on grumbling, but sleep returned to
him also. His reproaches became confused, and
were extinguished in fresh snoring.
The young girl, in her chemise, with her naked
feet on the floor, moved about in the room. As
she passed by the bed of Henri and Lénore,
she replaced the coverlet which had slipped down.
They did not wake, lost in the strong sleep of
childhood. Alzire, with open eyes, had turned to
take the warm place of her big sister without
"I say, now, Zacharie--and you, Jeanlin; I
say, now!" repeated Catherine, standing
before her two brothers, who were still wallowing
with their noses in the bolster.
She had to seize the elder by the shoulder and
shake him; then, while he was muttering abuse, it
came into her head to uncover them by snatching
away the sheet. That seemed funny to her, and she
began to laugh when she saw the two boys
struggling with naked legs.
"Stupid, leave me alone," growled
Zacharie in ill-temper, sitting up. "I don't
like tricks. Good Lord! Say it's time to get
He was lean and ill-made, with a long face and a
chin which showed signs of a sprouting beard,
yellow hair, and the anaemic pallor which belonged
to his whole family.
His shirt had rolled up to his belly, and he
lowered it, not from modesty but because he was
"It has struck downstairs," repeated
Catherine; ""come! up! father's
Jeanlin, who had rolled himself up, closed his
eyes, saying: "Go and hang yourself; I'm
going to sleep."
She laughed again, the laugh of a good-natured
girl. He was so small, his limbs so thin, with
enormous joints, enlarged by scrofula, that she
took him up in her arms. But he kicked about, his
apish face, pale and wrinkled, with its green eyes
and great ears, grew pale with the rage of
weakness. He said nothing, he bit her right
"Beastly fellow!" she murmured, keeping
back a cry and putting him on the floor.
Alzire was silent, with the sheet tucked under her
chin, but she had not gone to sleep again. With
her intelligent invalid's eyes she followed her
sister and her two brothers, who were now
dressing. Another quarrel broke out around the
pan, the boys hustled the young girl because she
was so long washing herself. Shirts flew about:
and, while still half-asleep, they eased
themselves without shame, with the tranquil
satisfaction of a litter of puppies that have
grown up together. Catherine was ready first.
She put on her miner s breeches, then her canvas
jacket, and fastened the blue cap on her knotted
hair; in these clean Monday clothes she had the
appearance of a little man; nothing remained to
indicate her sex except the slight roll of her
"When the old man comes back," said
Zacharie, mischievously, "he'll like to find
the bed unmade. You know I shall tell him it's
The old man was the grandfather, Bonneinort, who,
as he worked during the night, slept by day, so
that the bed was never cold; there was always
someone snoring there. Without replying,
Catherine set herself to arrange the bed-clothes
and tuck them in. But during the last moments
sounds had been heard behind the wall in the next
house. These brick buildings, economically put up
by the Company, were so thin that the least breath
could be heard through them. The inmates lived
there, elbow to elbow, from one end to the other;
and no fact of family life remained hidden, even
from the youngsters. A heavy step had tramped up
the staircase; then there was a kind of soft fall,
followed by a sigh of satisfaction.
"Good!" said Catherine. "Levaque
has gone down, and here is Bouteloup come to join
the Levaque woman."
Jeanlin grinned; even Alzire's eyes shone. Every
morning they made fun of the household of three
next door, a pikeman who lodged a worker in the
cutting, an arrangement which gave the woman two
men, one by night, the other by day.
"Philoméne is coughing," began
Catherine again, after listening.
She was speaking of the eldest Levaque, a big girl
of nineteen, and the mistress of Zacharie, by whom
she had already had two children; her chest was so
delicate that she was only a sifter at the pit,
never having been able to work below.
"Pooh! Philoméne!" replied
Zacharie, "she cares a lot, she's asleep.
It's hoggish to sleep till six."
He was putting on his breeches when an idea
occurred to him, and he opened the window.
Outside in the darkness the settlement was
awaking, lights were dawning one by one between
the laths of the shutters. And there was another
dispute: he leant out to watch if he could not
see, coming out of Pierron's opposite, the captain
of the Voreux, who was accused of sleeping with
the Pierron woman, while his sister called to him
that since the day before the husband had taken
day duty at the pit-eye, and that certainly
Dansaert could not have slept there that night.
Whilst the air entered in icy whiffs, both of
them, becoming angry, maintained the truth of
their own information, until cries and tears broke
out. It was Éstelle, in her cradle, vexed
by the cold.
Maheu woke up suddenly. What had he got in his
bones, then? Here he was going to sleep again
like a good-for-nothing. And he swore so
vigorously that the children became still.
Zacharie and Jeanlin finished washing with slow
weariness. Alzire, with her large, open eyes,
continually stared. The two youngsters,
Lénore and Henri, in each other's arms, had
not stirred, breathing in the same quiet way in
spite of the noise.
"Catherine, give me the candle," called
She finished buttoning her jacket, and carried the
candle into the closet, leaving her brothers to
look for their clothes by what light came through
the door. Her father jumped out of bed. She did
not stop, but went downstairs in her coarse
woollen stockings, feeling her way, and lighted
another candle in the parlour, to prepare the
coffee. All the sabots of the family were beneath
"Will you be still, vermin?" began
Maheu, again, exasperated by Éstelle's
cries which still went on.
He was short, like old Bonnemort, and resembled
him, with his strong head, his flat, livid face,
beneath yellow hair cut very short. The child
screamed more than ever, frightened by those great
knotted arms which were held above her.
"Leave her alone; you know that she won't be
still," said his wife, stretching herself in
the middle of the bed.
She also had just awakened and was complaining how
disgusting it was never to be able to finish the
night. Could they not go away quietly? Buried in
the clothes she only showed her long face with
large features of a heavy beauty, already
disfigured at thirty-nine by her life of
wretchedness and the seven children she had borne.
With her eyes on the ceiling she spoke slowly,
while her man dressed himself. They both ceased
to hear the little one, who was strangling herself
"Eh? You know I haven't a penny and this is
only Monday: still six days before the fortnight's
out. This can't go on. You, all of you, only
bring in nine francs. How do you expect me to go
on? We are ten in the house."
"Oh! nine francs!" exclaimed Maheu.
"I and Zacharie three: that makes six,
Catherine and the father, two: that makes four:
four and six, ten, and Jeanlin one, that makes
"Yes, eleven, but there are Sundays and the
off-days. Never more than nine, you know."
He did not reply, being occupied in looking on the
ground for his leather belt. Then he said, on
"Mustn't complain. I am sound all the same.
There's more than one at forty-two who are put to
"Maybe, old man, but that does not give us
bread. Where am I to get it from, eh? Have you
"I've got two coppers."
"Keep them for a half-pint. Good Lord!
where am I to get it from? Six days! it will
never end. We owe sixty francs to Maigrat, who
turned me out of doors day before yesterday. That
won't prevent me from going to see him again. But
if he goes on refusing----"
And Maheude continued in her melancholy voice,
without moving her head, only closing her eyes now
and then beneath the dim light of the candle. She
said the cupboard was empty, the little ones
asking for bread and butter, even the coffee was
done, and the water caused colic, and the long
days passed in deceiving hunger with boiled
cabbage leaves. Little by little she had been
obliged to raise her voice, for Estelle's screams
drowned her words. These cries became unbearable.
Maheu seemed all at once to hear them, and, in a
fury, snatched the little one up from the cradle
and threw it on the mother's bed, stammering with
"Here, take her; I'll do for her! Damn the
child! It wants for nothing: it sucks, and it
complains louder than all the rest!"
Estelle began, in fact, to suck. Hidden beneath
the clothes and soothed by the warmth of the bed,
her cries subsided into the greedy little sound of
"Haven't the Piolaine people told you to go
and see them?" asked the father, after a
period of silence.
The mother bit her lip with an air of discouraged
"Yes, they met me; they were carrying clothes
for poor children. Yes, I'll take Lénore
and Henri to them this morning. If they only give
me a few pence!"
There was silence again.
Maheu was ready. He remained a moment motionless,
then added, in his hollow voice:
"What is it that you want? Let things be,
and see about the soup. It's no good talking,
better be at work down below."
"True enough," replied Maheude.
"Blow out the candle: I don't need to see
the colour of my thoughts."
He blew out the candle. Zacharie and Jeanlin were
already going down; he followed them, and the
wooden staircase creaked beneath their heavy feet,
clad in wool. Behind them the closet and the room
were again dark. The children slept; even
Alzire's eyelids were closed; but the mother now
remained with her eyes open in the darkness,
while, pulling at her breast, the pendent breast
of an exhausted woman, Estelle was purring like a
Down below, Catherine had at first occupied
herself with the fire, which was burning in the
iron grate, flanked by two ovens. The Company
distributed every month, to each family, eight
hectolitres of a hard slaty coal, gathered in the
passages. It burnt slowly, and the young girl,
who piled up the fire every night, only had to
stir it in the morning, adding a few fragments of
soft coal, carefully picked out. Then, after
having placed a kettle on the grate, she sat down
before the sideboard.
It was a fairly large room, occupying all the
ground floor, painted an apple green, and of
Flemish cleanliness, with its flags well washed
and covered with white sand. Besides the
sideboard of varnished deal the furniture
consisted of a table and chairs of the same wood.
Stuck on to the walls were some violently-coloured
prints, portraits of the emperor and the empress,
given by the Company, of soldiers and of saints
speckled with gold, contrasting crudely with the
simple nudity of the room; and there was no other
ornament except a box of rose-coloured pasteboard
on the sideboard, and the clock with its daubed
face and loud tick-tack, which seemed to fill the
emptiness of the place. Near the staircase door
another door led to the cellar. In spite of the
cleanliness, an odour of cooked onion, shut up
since the night before, poisoned the hot, heavy
air, always laden with an acrid flavour of coal.
Catherine, in front of the sideboard, was
reflecting. There only remained the end of a
loaf, cheese in fair abundance, but hardly a
morsel of butter; and she had to provide bread and
butter for four. At last she decided, cut the
slices, took one and covered it with cheese,
spread another with butter, and stuck them
together; that was the "briquet," the
bread-and-butter sandwich taken to the pit every
morning. The four briquets were soon on the
table, in a row, cut with severe justice, from the
big one for the father down to the little one for
Catherine, who appeared absorbed in her household
duties, must, however, have been thinking of the
stories told by Zacharie about the head captain
and the Pierron woman, for she half opened the
front door and glanced outside. The wind was
still whistling. There were numerous spots of
light on the low fronts of the settlement, from
which arose a vague tremor of awakening. Already
doors were being closed, and black files of
workers passed into the night. It was stupid of
her to get cold, since the porter at the pit-eye
was certainly asleep, waiting to take his duties
at six. Yet she remained and looked at the house
on the other side of the gardens. The door
opened, and her curiosity was aroused. But it
could only be one of the little Pierrons, Lydie,
setting out for the pit.
The hissing sound of steam made her turn. She
shut the door, and hastened back; the water was
boiling over, and putting out the fire. There was
no more coffee. She had to be content to add the
water to last night's dregs; then she sugared the
coffee-pot with brown sugar. At that moment her
father and two brothers came downstairs.
"Faith!" exclaimed Zacharie, when he had
put his nose into his bowl, "here's something
that won't get into our heads."
Maheu shrugged his shoulders with an air of
"Bah! It's hot! It's good all the
Jeanlin had gathered up the fragments of bread and
made a sop of them. After having drunk, Catherine
finished by emptying the coffee-pot into the tin
jacks. All four, standing up in the smoky light
of the candle, swallowed their meals hastily.
"Are we at the end?" said the father;
"one would say we were people of
But a voice came from the staircase, of which they
had left the door open. It was Maheude, who
"Take all the bread: I have some vermicelli
for the children."
"Yes, yes," replied Catherine.
She had piled up the fire, wedging the pot that
held the remains of the soup into a corner of the
grate, so that the grandfather might find it warm
when he came in at six. Each took his sabots from
under the sideboard, passed the strings of his tin
over his shoulder and placed his brick at his
back, between shirt and jacket. And they went
out, the men first, the girl, who came last,
blowing out the candle and turning the key. The
house became dark again.
"Ah! we're off together," said a man
who was closing the door of the next house.
It was Levaque, with his son Bébert, an
urchin of twelve, a great friend of Jeanlin's.
Catherine, in surprise, stifled a laugh in
"Why! Bouteloup didn't even wait until the
husband had gone!"
Now the lights in the settlement were
extinguished, and the last door banged. All again
fell asleep; the women and the little ones
resuming their slumber in the midst of wider beds.
And from the extinguished village to the roaring
Voreux a slow filing of shadows took place beneath
the squalls, the departure of the colliers to
their work, bending their shoulders and incommoded
by their arms folded on their breasts, while the
brick behind formed a hump on each back. Clothed
in their thin jackets they shivered with cold, but
without hastening, straggling along the road with
the tramp of a flock.