AS he ascended in the cage heaped up with four
others, Étienne resolved to continue his
famished course along the roads. One might as
well die at once as go down to the bottom of that
hell, where it was not even possible to earn one's
bread. Catherine, in the tram above him, was no
longer at his side with her pleasant enervating
warmth; and he preferred to avoid foolish thoughts
and to go away, for with his wider education he
felt nothing of the resignation of this flock; he
would end by strangling one of the masters.
Suddenly he was blinded. The ascent had been so
rapid that he was stunned by the daylight, and his
eyelids quivered in the brightness to which he had
already grown unaccustomed. It was none the less
a relief to him to feel the cage settle on to the
bars. A lander opened the door, and a flood of
workmen leapt out of the trams.
"I say, Mouquet," whispered Zacharie in
the lander's ear, "are we off to the Volcan
The Volcan was a café-concert at Montsou.
Mouquet winked his left eye with a silent laugh
which made his jaws gape. Short and stout like
his father, he had the impudent face of a fellow
who devours everything without care for the
morrow. Just then Mouquette came out in her turn,
and he gave her a formidable smack on the flank by
way of fraternal tenderness.
Étienne hardly recognized the lofty nave of
the receiving-hall, which had before looked
imposing in the ambiguous light of the lanterns.
It was simply bare and dirty; a dull light entered
through the dusty windows. The engine alone shone
at the end with its copper; the well-greased steel
cables moved like ribbons soaked in ink, and the
pulleys above, the enormous scaffold which
supported them, the cages, the trams, all this
prodigality of metal made the hall look sombre
with their hard grey tones of old iron. Without
ceasing, the rumbling of the wheels shook the
metal floor; while from the coal thus put in
motion there arose a fine charcoal powder which
powdered black the soil, the walls, even the
joists of the steeple.
But Chaval, after glancing at the table of
counters in the receiver's little glass office,
came back furious. He had discovered that two of
their trains had been rejected, one because it did
not contain the regulation amount, the other
because the coal was not clean.
"This finishes the day," he cried.
"Twenty sous less again! This is because we
take on lazy rascals who use their arms as a pig
does his tail!"
And his sidelong look at Étienne completed
The latter was tempted to reply by a blow. Then
he asked himself what would be the use since he
was going away. This decided him absolutely.
"It's not possible to do it right the first
day," said Maheu, to restore peace;
"he'll do better to-morrow."
They were all none the less soured, and disturbed
by the need to quarrel. As they passed to the
lamp cabin to give up their lamps, Levaque began
to abuse the lamp-man, whom he accused of not
properly cleaning his lamp. They only slackened
down a little in the shed where the fire was still
burning. It had even been too heavily piled up,
for the stove was red and the vast room, without a
window, seemed to be in flames, to such a degree
did the reflection make bloody the walls. And
there were grunts of joy, all the backs were
roasted at a distance till they smoked like soup.
When their flanks were burning they cooked their
bellies. Mouquette had tranquilly let down her
breeches to dry her chemise. Some lads were
making fun of her; they burst out laughing because
she suddenly showed them her posterior, a gesture
which in her was the extreme expression of
"I'm off," said Chaval, who had shut up
his tools in his box.
No one moved. Only Mouquette hastened, and went
out behind him on the pretext that they were both
going back to Montsou. But the others went on
joking; they knew that he would have no more to do
Catherine, however, who seemed preoccupied, was
speaking in a low voice to her father. The latter
was surprised; then he agreed with a nod; and
calling Étienne to give him back his
"Listen," he said: "you haven't a
sou; you will have time to starve before the
fortnight's out. Shall I try and get you credit
The young man stood for a moment confused. He had
been just about to claim his thirty sous and go.
But shame restrained him before the young girl.
She looked at him fixedly; perhaps she would think
he was shirking the work.
"You know I can promise you nothing,"
Maheu went on. "They can but refuse
Then Étienne consented. They would refuse.
Besides, it would bind him to nothing, he could
still go away after having eaten something. Then
he was dissatisfied at not having refused, seeing
Catherine's joy, a pretty laugh, a look of
friendship, happy at having been useful to him.
What was the good of it all?
When they had put on their sabots and shut their
boxes, the Maheus left the shed, following their
comrades, who were leaving one by one after they
had warmed themselves. Étienne went
behind. Levaque and his urchin joined the band.
But as they crossed the screening place a scene of
violence stopped them.
It was in a vast shed, with beams blackened by the
powder, and large shutters, through which blew a
constant current of air. The coal trains arrived
straight from the receiving-room, and were then
overturned by the tipping-cradles on to hoppers,
long iron slides; and to right and to left of
these the screeners, mounted on steps and armed
with shovels and rakes, separated the stone and
swept together the clean coal, which afterwards
fell through funnels into the railway wagons
beneath the shed.
Philoméne Levaque was there, thin and pale,
with the sheep-like face of a girl who spat blood.
With head protected by a fragment of blue wool,
and hands and arms black to the elbows, she was
screening beneath an old witch, the mother of
Pierronne, the Brulé, as she was called,
with terrible owl's eyes, and a mouth drawn in
like a miser's purse. They were abusing each
other, the young one accusing the elder of raking
her stones so that she could not get a basketful
in ten minutes. They were paid by the basket, and
these quarrels were constantly arising. Hair was
flying, and hands were making black marks on red
"Give it her bloody well!" cried
Zacharie, from above, to his mistress.
All the screeners laughed. But the Brulé
turned snappishly on the young man.
"Now, then, dirty beast! You'd better to own
the two kids you have filled her with. Fancy
that, a slip of eighteen, who can't stand
Maheu had to prevent his son from descending to
see, as he said, the colour of this carcass's
A foreman came up and the rakes again began to
move the coal. One could only see, all along the
hoppers, the round backs of women squabbling
incessantly over the stones.
Outside, the wind had suddenly quieted; a moist
cold was falling from a grey sky. The colliers
thrust out their shoulders, folded their arms, and
set forth irregularly, with a rolling gait which
made their large bones stand out beneath their
thin garments. In the daylight they looked like a
band of Negroes thrown into the mud. Some of them
had not finished their briquets; and the remains
of the bread carried between the shirt and the
jacket made them humpbacked.
"Hallo! there's Bouteloup." said
Levaque without stopping exchanged two sentences
with his lodger, a big dark fellow of thirty-five
with a placid, honest air:
"Is the soup ready, Louis?"
"I believe it is."
"Then the wife is good-humoured to-day."
"Yes, I believe she is."
Other miners bound for the earth-cutting came up,
new bands which one by one were engulfed in the
pit. It was the three o'clock descent, more men
for the pit to devour, the gangs who would replace
the sets of the pike. men at the bottom of the
passages. The mine never rested; day and night
human insects were digging out the rock six
hundred metres below the beetroot fields.
However, the youngsters went ahead. Jeanlin
confided to Bébert a complicated plan for
getting four sous' worth of tobacco on credit,
while Lydie followed respectfully at a distance.
Catherine came with Zacharie and Étienne.
None of them spoke. And it was only in front of
the Avantage Inn that Maheu and Levaque rejoined
"Here we are," said the former to
Étienne; "will you come in?"
They separated. Catherine had stood a moment
motionless, gazing once more at the young man with
her large eyes full of greenish limpidity like
spring water, the crystal deepened the more by her
black face. She smiled and disappeared with the
others on the road that led up to the settlement.
The inn was situated between the village and the
mine, at the crossing of two roads. It was a
two-storied brick house, whitewashed from top to
bottom, enlivened around the windows by a broad
pale-blue border. On a square sign-board nailed
above the door, one read in yellow letters: A
l'Avantage, licensed to Rasseneur. Behind
stretched a skittle-ground enclosed by a hedge.
The Company, who had done everything to buy up the
property placed within its vast territory, was in
despair over this inn in the open fields, at the
very entrance of the Voreux.
"Go in," said Maheu to Étienne.
The little parlour was quite bare with its white
walls, its three tables and its dozen chairs, its
deal counter about the size of a kitchen dresser.
There were a dozen glasses at most, three bottles
of liqueur, a decanter, a small zinc tank with a
pewter tap to hold the beer; and nothing else--not
a figure, not a little table, not a game. In the
metal fireplace, which was bright and polished, a
coal fire was burning quietly. On the flags a
thin layer of white sand drank up the constant
moisture of this water-soaked land.
"A glass," ordered Maheu of a big fair
girl, a neighbour's daughter who sometimes took
charge of the place. "Is Rasseneur in?"
The girl turned the tap, replying that the master
would soon return. In a long, slow gulp, the
miner emptied half his glass to sweep away the
dust which filled his throat. He offered nothing
to his companion. One other customer, a damp and
besmeared miner, was seated before the table,
drinking his beer in silence, with an air of deep
meditation. A third entered, was served in
response to a gesture, paid and went away without
uttering a word.
But a stout man of thirty-eight, with a round
shaven face and a good-natured smile, now
appeared. It was Rasseneur, a former pikeman whom
the Company had dismissed three years ago, after a
strike. A very good workman, he could speak well,
put himself at the head of every opposition, and
had at last become the chief of the discontented.
His wife already held a licence, like many miners'
wives; and when he was thrown on to the street he
became an innkeeper himself; having found the
money, he placed his inn in front of the Voreux as
a provocation to the Company. Now his house had
prospered; it had become a centre, and he was
enriched by the animosity he had gradually
fostered in the hearts of his old comrades.
"This is a lad I hired this morning,"
said Maheu at once. "Have you got one of
your two rooms free, and will you give him credit
for a fortnight?"
Rasseneur's broad face suddenly expressed great
suspicion. He examined Étienne with a
glance, and replied, without giving himself the
trouble to express any regret:
"My two rooms are taken. Can't do it."
The young man expected this refusal; but it hurt
him nevertheless, and he was surprised at the
sudden grief he experienced in going. No matter;
he would go when he had received his thirty sous.
The miner who was drinking at a table had left.
Others, one by one, continued to come in to clear
their throats, then went on their road with the
same slouching gait. It was a simple swilling
without joy or passion, the silent satisfaction of
"Then, there's no news?" Rasseneur asked
in a peculiar tone of Maheu, who was finishing his
beer in small gulps.
The latter turned his head, and saw that only
Étienne was near.
"There's been more squabbling. Yes, about
the timbering." He told the story. The
innkeeper's face reddened, swelling with emotion,
which flamed in his skin and eyes. At last he
"Well, well! if they decide to lower the
price they are done for."
Étienne constrained him. However he went
on, throwing sidelong glances in his direction.
And there were reticences, and implications; he
was talking of the manager, M. Hennebeau, of his
wife, of his nephew, the little Négrel,
without naming them, repeating that this could not
go on, that things were bound to smash up one of
these fine days. The misery was too great; and he
spoke of the workshops that were closing, the
workers who were going away. During the last
month he had given more than six pounds of bread a
day. He had heard the day before, that M.
Deneulin, the owner of a neighbouring pit, could
scarcely keep going. He had also received a
letter from Lille full of disturbing details.
"You know," he whispered, "it comes
from that person you saw here one evening."
But he was interrupted. His wife entered in her
turn, a tall woman, lean and keen, with a long
nose and violet cheeks. She was a much more
radical politician than her husband.
"Pluchart's letter," she said.
"Ah! if that fellow was master things would
soon go better."
Étienne had been listening for a moment; he
understood and became excited over these ideas of
misery and revenge. This name, suddenly uttered,
caused him to start. He said aloud, as if in
spite of himself:
"I know him--Pluchart."
They looked at him. He had to add:
"Yes, I am an engine-man: he was my foreman
at Lille. A capable man. I have often talked
Rasseneur examined him afresh; and there was a
rapid change on his face, a sudden sympathy. At
last he said to his wife:
"It's Maheu who brings me this gentleman, one
of his putters, to see if there is a room for him
upstairs, and if we can give him credit for a
Then the matter was settled in four words. There
was a room; the lodger had left that morning. And
the innkeeper, who was very excited, talked more
freely, repeating that he only asked possibilities
from the masters, without demanding, like so many
others, things that were too hard to get. His
wife shrugged her shoulders and demanded justice,
"Good evening," interrupted Maheu.
"All that won't prevent men from going down,
and as long as they go there will be people
working themselves to death. Look how fresh you
are, these three years that you've been out of
"Yes, I'm very much better," declared
Étienne went as far as the door, thanking
the miner, who was leaving; but the latter nodded
his head without adding a word, and the young man
watched him painfully climb up the road to the
settlement. Madame Rasseneur, occupied with
serving customers, asked him to wait a minute,
when she would show him his room, where he could
clean himself. Should he remain? He again felt
hesitation, a discomfort which made him regret the
freedom of the open road, the hunger beneath the
sun, endured with the joy of being one's own
master. It seemed to him that he had lived years
from his arrival on the pit-bank, in the midst of
squalls, to those hours passed under the earth on
his belly in the black passages. And he shrank
from beginning again; it was unjust and too hard.
His man's pride revolted at the idea of becoming a
crushed and blinded beast.
While Étienne was thus debating with
himself, his eyes, wandering over the immense
plain, gradually began to see it clearly. He was
surprised; he had not imagined the horizon was
like this, when old Bonnemort had pointed it out
to him in the darkness. Before him he plainly saw
the Voreux in a fold of the earth, with its wood
and brick buildings, the tarred screening shed,
the slate-covered steeple, the engine-room and the
tall, pale red chimney, all massed together with
that evil air. But around these buildings the
space extended, and he had not imagined it so
large, changed into an inky sea by the ascending
waves of coal soot, bristling with high trestles
which carried the rails of the foot-bridges,
encumbered in one corner with the timber supply,
which looked like the harvest of a mown forest.
Towards the right the pit-bank hid the view,
colossal as a barricade of giants, already covered
with grass in its older part, consumed at the
other end by an interior fire which had been
burning for a year with a thick smoke, leaving at
the surface in the midst of the pale grey of the
slates and sandstones long trails of bleeding
rust. Then the fields unrolled, the endless
fields of wheat and beetroot, naked at this season
of the year, marshes with scanty vegetation, cut
by a few stunted willows, distant meadows
separated by slender rows of poplars. Very far
away little pale patches indicated towns,
Marchiennes to the north, Montsou to the south;
while the forest of Vandame to the east boardered
the horizon with the violet line of its leafless
trees. And beneath the livid sky, in the faint
daylight of this winter afternoon, it seemed as if
all the blackness of the Voreux, and all its
flying coal dust, had fallen upon the plain,
powdering the trees, sanding the roads, sowing the
Étienne looked, and what especially
surprised him was a canal, the canalized stream of
the Scarpe, which he had not seen in the night.
From the Voreux to Marchiennes this canal ran
straight, like a dull silver ribbon two leagues
long, an avenue lined by large trees, raised above
the low earth, threading into space with the
perspective of its green banks, its pale water
into which glided the vermilion of the boats.
Near one pit there was a wharf with moored vessels
which were laden directly from the trains at the
foot-bridges. Afterwards the canal made a curve,
sloping by the marshes; and the whole soul of that
smooth plain appeared to lie in this geometrical
stream, which traversed it like a great road,
carting coal and iron.
Étienne's glance went up from the canal to
the settlement built on the height, of which he
could only distinguish the red tiles. Then his
eyes rested again at the bottom of the clay slope,
towards the Voreux, on two enormous masses of
bricks made and burnt on the spot. A branch of
the Company's railroad passed behind a paling, for
the use of the pit. They must be sending down the
last miners to the earth-cutting. Only one shrill
note came from a truck pushed by men. One felt no
longer the unknown darkness, the inexplicable
thunder, the flaming of mysterious stars. Afar,
the blast furnaces and the coke kilns had paled
with the dawn. There only remained, unceasingly,
the escapement of the pump, always breathing with
the same thick, long breath, the ogre's breath of
which he could now see the grey steam, and which
nothing could satiate.
Then Étienne suddenly made up his mind.
Perhaps he seemed to see again Catherine's clear
eyes, up there, at the entrance to the settlement.
Perhaps, rather, it was the wind of revolt which
came from the Voreux. He did not know, but he
wished to go down again to the mine, to suffer and
to fight. And he thought fiercely of those people
Bonnemort had talked of, the crouching and sated
god, to whom ten thousand starving men gave their
flesh without knowing it.