"LISTEN," said Maheude to her man,
"when you go to Montsou for the pay, just
bring me back a pound of coffee and a kilo of
He was sewing one of his shoes, in order to spare
"Good!" he murmured, without leaving his
"I should like you to go to the butcher's
too. A bit of veal, eh? It's so long since we
This time he raised his head.
"Do you think, then, that I've got thousands
coming in? The fortnight's pay is too little as
it is, with their confounded idea of always
They were both silent. It was after breakfast,
one Saturday, at the end of October. The Company,
under the pretext of the derangement caused by
payment, had on this day once more suspended
output in all their pits. Seized by panic at the
growing industrial crisis, and not wishing to
augment their already considerable stock, they
profited by the smallest pretexts to force their
ten thousand workers to rest.
"You know that Étienne is waiting for
you at Rasseneur's," began Maheude again.
"Take him with you; he'll be more clever than
you are in clearing up matters if they haven't
counted all your hours."
Maheu nodded approval.
"And just talk to those gentlemen about your
father's affair. The doctor's on good terms with
the directors. It's true, isn't it, old un, that
the doctor's mistaken, and that you can still
For ten days Father Bonnemort, with benumbed paws,
as he said, had remained nailed to his chair. She
had to repeat her question, and he growled:
"Sure enough, I can work. One isn't done for
because one's legs are bad. All that is just
stories they make up, so as not to give the
Maheude thought of the old man's forty sous, which
he would, perhaps, never bring in any more. and
she uttered a cry of anguish:
"My God! we shall soon be all dead if this
"When one is dead," said Maheu,
"'one doesn't get hungry."
He put some nails into his shoes, and decided to
set out. The Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement would
not be paid till towards four o'clock. The men
did not hurry, therefore, but waited about, going
off one by one, beset by the women, who implored
them to come back at once. Many gave them
commissions, to prevent them forgetting themselves
At Rasseneur's Étienne had received news.
Disquieting rumours were flying about; it was said
that the Company were more and more discontented
over the timbering. They were overwhelming the
workmen with fines, and a conflict appeared
inevitable. That was, however, only the avowed
dispute; beneath it there were grave and secret
causes of complication.
Just as Étienne arrived, a comrade, who was
drinking a glass on his return from Montsou, was
telling that an announcement had been stuck up at
the cashier's; but he did not quite know what was
on the announcement. A second entered, then a
third, and each brought a different story. It
seemed certain, however, that the Company had
taken a resolution.
"What do you say about it, eh?" asked
Étienne, sitting down near Souvarine at a
table where nothing was to be seen but a packet of
The engine-man did not hurry, but finished rolling
"I say that it was easy to foresee. They
want to push you to extremes."
He alone had a sufficiently keen intelligence to
analyse the situation. He explained it in his
quiet way. The Company, suffering from the
crisis, had been forced to reduce their expenses
if they were not to succumb, and it was naturally
the workers who would have to tighten their
bellies; under some pretext or another the Company
would nibble at their wages. For two months the
coal had been remaining at the surface of their
pits, and nearly all the workshops were resting.
As the Company did not dare to rest in this way,
terrified at the ruinous inaction, they were
meditating a middle course, perhaps a strike, from
which the miners would come out crushed and worse
paid. Then the new provident fund was disturbing
them, as it was a threat for the future, while a
strike would relieve them of it, by exhausting it
when it was still small.
Rasseneur had seated himself beside
Étienne, and both of them were listening in
consternation. They could talk aloud, because
there was no one there but Madame Rasseneur,
seated at the counter.
"What an idea!" murmured the innkeeper;
"what's the good of it? The Company has no
interest in a strike, nor the men either. It
would be best to come to an understanding."
This was very sensible. He was always on the side
of reasonable demands. Since the rapid popularity
of his old lodger, he had even exaggerated this
system of possible progress, saying they would
obtain nothing if they wished to have everything
at once. In his fat, good-humoured nature,
nourished on beer, a secret jealousy was forming,
increased by the desertion of his bar, into which
the workmen from the Voreux now came more rarely
to drink and to listen; and he thus sometimes even
began to defend the Company, forgetting the
rancour of an old miner who had been turned off.
"Then you are against the strike?" cried
Madame Rasseneur, without leaving the counter.
And as he energetically replied, "Yes!"
she made him hold his tongue.
"Bah! you have no courage; let these
Étienne was meditating, with his eyes fixed
on the glass which she had served to him. At last
he raised his head.
"I dare say it's all true what our mate tells
us, and we must get resigned to this strike if
they force it on us. Pluchart has just written me
some very sensible things on this matter. He's
against the strike too, for the men would suffer
as much as the masters, and it wouldn't come to
anything decisive. Only it seems to him a capital
chance to get our men to make up their minds to go
into his big machine. Here's his letter."
In fact, Pluchart, in despair at the suspicion
which the International aroused among the miners
at Montsou, was hoping to see them enter in a mass
if they were forced to fight against the Company.
In spite of his efforts, Étienne had not
been able to place a single member's card, and he
had given his best efforts to his provident fund,
which was much better received. But this fund was
still so small that it would be quickly exhausted,
as Souvarine said, and the strikers would then
inevitably throw themselves into the Working Men's
Association so that their brothers in every
country could come to their aid.
"How much have you in the fund?" asked
Rasseneur. "Hardly three thousand
francs," replied Étienne, "and
you know that the directors sent for me yesterday.
Oh! they were very polite; they repeated that
they wouldn't prevent their men from forming a
reserve fund. But I quite understood that they
wanted to control it. We are bound to have a
struggle over that."
The innkeeper was walking up and down, whistling
contemptuously. "Three thousand francs!
what can you do with that! It wouldn't yield six
days' bread; and if we counted on foreigners, such
as the people in England, one might go to bed at
once and turn up one's toes. No, it was too
foolish, this strike!"
Then for the first time bitter words passed
between these two men who usually agreed together
at last, in their common hatred of capital.
"We shall see! and you, what do you say
about it?" repeated Étienne, turning
The latter replied with his usual phrase of
"A strike? Foolery!"
Then, in the midst of the angry silence, he added
"On the whole, I shouldn't say no if it
amuses you; it ruins the one side and kills the
other, and that is always so much cleared away.
Only in that way it will take quite a thousand
years to renew the world. Just begin by blowing
up this prison in which you are all being done to
With his delicate hand he pointed out the Voreux,
the buildings of which could be seen through the
open door. But an unforeseen drama interrupted
him: Poland, the big tame rabbit, which had
ventured outside, came bounding back, fleeing from
the stones of a band of trammers; and in her
terror, with fallen ears and raised tail, she took
refuge against his legs, scratching and imploring
him to take her up. When he had placed her on his
knees, he sheltered her with both hands, and fell
into that kind of dreamy somnolence into which the
caress of this soft warm fur always plunged him.
Almost at the same time Maheu came in. He would
drink nothing, in spite of the polite insistence
of Madame Rasseneur, who sold her beer as though
she made a present of it. Étienne had
risen, and both of them set out for Montsou.
On pay-day at the Company's Yards, Montsou seemed
to be in the midst of a fete as on fine Sunday
feast-days. Bands of miners arrived from all the
settlements. The cashier's office being very
small, they preferred to wait at the door,
stationed in groups on the pavement, barring the
way in a crowd that was constantly renewed.
Hucksters profited by the occasion and installed
themselves with their movable stalls that sold
even pottery and cooked meats. But it was
especially the estaminets and the bars which did a
good trade, for the miners before being paid went
to the counters to get patience, and returned to
them to wet their pay as soon as they had it in
their pockets. But they were very sensible,
except when they finished it at the Volcan. As
Maheu and Étienne advanced among the groups
they felt that on that day a deep exasperation was
rising up. It was not the ordinary indifference
with which the money was taken and spent at the
publics. Fists were clenched and violent words
were passing from mouth to mouth.
"Is it true, then," asked Maheu of
Chaval, whom he met before the Estaminet Piquette,
"That they've played the dirty trick?"
But Chaval contented himself by replying with a
furious growl, throwing a sidelong look on
Étienne. Since the working had been
renewed he had hired himself on with others, more
and more bitten by envy against this comrade, the
new-comer who posed as a boss and whose boots, as
he said, were licked by the whole settlement.
This was complicated by a lover's jealousy. He
never took Catherine to Réquillart now or
behind the pit-bank without accusing her in
abominable language of sleeping with her mother's
lodger; then, seized by savage desire, he would
stifle her with caresses.
Maheu asked him another question:
"Is it the Voreux's turn now?"
And when he turned his back after nodding
affirmatively, both men decided to enter the
The counting-house was a small rectangular room,
divided in two by a grating. On the forms along
the wall five or six miners were waiting; while
the cashier assisted by a clerk was paying another
who stood before the wicket with his cap in his
hand. Above the form on the left, a yellow
placard was stuck up, quite fresh against the
smoky grey of the plaster, and it was in front of
this that the men had been constantly passing all
the morning. They entered two or three at a time,
stood in front of it, and then went away without a
word, shrugging their shoulders as if their backs
Two colliers were just then standing in front of
the announcement, a young one with a square
brutish head and a very thin old one, his face
dull with age. Neither of them could read; the
young one spelt, moving his lips, the old one
contented himself with gazing stupidly. Many came
in thus to look, without understanding.
"Read us that there!" said Maheu, who
was not very strong either in reading, to his
Then Étienne began to read him the
announcement. It was a notice from the Company to
the miners of all the pits, informing them that in
consequence of the lack of care bestowed on the
timbering, and being weary of inflicting useless
fines, the Company had resolved to apply a new
method of payment for the extraction of coal.
Henceforward they would pay for the timbering
separately, by the cubic metre of wood taken down
and used, based on the quantity necessary for good
work. The price of the tub of coal extracted
would naturally be lowered, in the proportion of
fifty centimes to forty, according to the nature
and distance of the cuttings, and a somewhat
obscure calculation endeavoured to show that this
diminution of ten centimes would be exactly
compensated by the price of the timbering. The
Company added also that, wishing to leave every
one time to convince himself of the advantages
presented by this new scheme, they did not propose
to apply it till Monday, the 1st of December.
"Don't read so loud over there," shouted
the cashier. "We can't hear what we are
Étienne finished reading without paying
attention to this observation. His voice
trembled, and when he had reached the end they all
continued to gaze steadily at the placard. The
old miner and the young one looked as though they
expected something more; then they went away with
"Good God!" muttered Maheu.
He and his companions sat down absorbed, with
lowered heads, and while files of men continued to
pass before the yellow paper they made
calculations. Were they being made fun of? They
could never make up with the timbering for the ten
centimes taken off the tram. At most they could
only get to eight centimes, so the Company would
be robbing them of two centimes, without counting
the time taken by careful work. This, then, was
what this disguised lowering of wages really came
to. The Company was economizing out of the
"Good Lord! Good Lord!" repeated Maheu,
raising his head. '"We should be bloody
fools if we took that."
But the wicket being free he went up to be paid.
The heads only of the workings presented
themselves at the desk and then divided the money
between their men to save time.
"Maheu and associates," said the clerk,
"Filonniére seam, cutting No.
He searched through the lists which were prepared
from the inspection of the tickets on which the
captains stated every day for each stall the
number of trains extracted. Then he repeated:
"Maheu and associates, Filonniére
seam, cutting No. 7. One hundred and thirty-five
The cashier paid.
"Beg pardon, sir," stammered the pikeman
in surprise. "Are you sure you have not made
He looked at this small sum of money without
picking it up, frozen by a shudder which went to
his heart. It was true he was expecting bad
payment, but it could not come to so little or he
must have calculated wrong. When he had given
their shares to Zacharie, Étienne, and the
other mate who replaced Chaval, there would remain
at most fifty francs for himself, his father,
Catherine, and Jeanlin.
"No, no, I've made no mistake," replied
the clerk. "There are two Sundays and four
rest days to be taken off; that makes nine days of
work." Maheu followed this calculation in a
low voice: nine days gave him about thirty francs,
eighteen to Catherine, nine to Jeanlin. As to
Father Bonnemort, he only had three days. No
matter, by adding the ninety francs of Zacharie
and the two mates, that would surely make more.
"And don't forget the fines," added the
clerk. "Twenty francs for fines for
The pikeman made a gesture of despair. Twenty
francs of fines, four days of rest! That made out
the account. To think that he had once brought
back a fortnight's pay of full a hundred and fifty
francs when Father Bonnemort was working and
Zacharie had not yet set up house for himself!
"Well, are you going to take it?" cried
the cashier impatiently. "You can see
there's someone else waiting. If you don't want
it, say so."
As Maheu decided to pick up the money with his
large trembling hand the clerk stopped him.
"Wait: I have your name here. Toussaint
Maheu, is it not? The general secretary wishes to
speak to you. Go in, he is alone."
The dazed workman found himself in an office
furnished with old mahogany, upholstered with
faded green rep. And he listened for five minutes
to the general secretary, a tall sallow gentleman,
who spoke to him over the papers of his bureau
without rising. But the buzzing in his ears
prevented him from hearing. He understood vaguely
that the question of his father's retirement would
be taken into consideration with the pension of a
hundred and fifty francs, fifty years of age and
forty years' service. Then it seemed to him that
the secretary's voice became harder. There was a
reprimand; he was accused of occupying himself
with politics; an allusion was made to his lodger
and the provident fund; finally he was advised not
to compromise himself with these follies, he, who
was one of the best workmen in the mine. He
wished to protest, but could only pronounce words
at random, twisting his cap between his feverish
fingers, and he retired, stuttering:
"Certainly, sir--I can assure you,
Outside, when he had found Étienne who
waiting for him, he broke out:
"Well, I am a bloody fool, I ought to have
replied! Not enough money to get bread, and
insults as well! Yes, he has been talking against
you; he told me the settlement was being poisoned.
And what's to be done? Good God! bend one's back
and say thank you. He's right, that's the wisest
Maheu fell silent, overcome at once by rage and
fear. Étienne was gloomily thinking. Once
more they traversed the groups who blocked the
road. The exasperation was growing, the
exasperation of a calm race, the muttered warning
of a storm, without violent gestures, terrible to
see above this solid mass. A few men
understanding accounts had made calculations, and
the two centimes gained by the Company over the
wood were rumoured about, and excited the hardest
heads. But it was especially the rage over this
disastrous pay, the rebellion of hunger against
the rest days and the fines. Already there was
not enough to eat, and what would happen if wages
were still further lowered? In the estaminets the
anger grew loud, and fury so dried their throats
that the little money taken went over the
From Montsou to the settlement Étienne and
Maheu never exchanged a word. When the latter
entered, Maheude, who was alone with the children,
noticed immediately that his hands were empty.
"Well, you're a nice one!" she said.
"Where's my coffee and my sugar and the
meat? A bit of veal wouldn't have ruined
He made no reply, stifled by the emotion he had
been keeping back. Then the coarse face of this
man hardened to work in the mines became swollen
with despair, and large tears broke from his eyes
and fell in a warm rain. He had thrown himself
into a chair, weeping like a child, and throwing
fifty francs on the table:
"Here," he stammered. "That's what
I've brought you back. That's our work for all of
Maheude looked at Étienne, and saw that he
was silent and overwhelmed. Then she also wept.
How were nine people to live for a fortnight on
fifty francs? Her eldest son had left them, the
old man could no longer move his legs: it would
soon mean death. Alzire threw herself round her
mother's neck, overcome on hearing her weep.
Estelle was howling, Lénore and Henri were
And from the entire settlement there soon arose
the same cry of wretchedness. The men had come
back, and each household was lamenting the
disaster of this bad pay. The doors opened, women
appeared, crying aloud outside, as if their
complaints could not be held beneath the ceilings
of these small houses. A fine rain was falling,
but they did not feel it, they called one another
from the pavements, they showed one another in the
hollow of their hands the money they had received.
"Look! they've given him this. Do they want
to make fools of people?"
"As for me, see, I haven't got enough to pay
for the fortnight's bread with."
"And just count mine! I should have to sell
my shifts!" Maheude had come out like the
others. A group had formed around the Levaque
woman, who was shouting loudest of all, for her
drunkard of a husband had not even turned up, and
she knew that, large or small, the pay would melt
away at the Volcan. Philoméne watched
Maheu so that Zacharie should not get hold of the
money. Pierronne was the only one who seemed
fairly calm, for that sneak of a Pierron always
arranged things, no one knew how, so as to have
more hours on the captain's ticket than his mates.
But Mother Brulé thought this cowardly of
her son-in-law; she was among the enraged, lean
and erect in the midst of the group, with her
fists stretched towards Montsou.
"To think," she cried, without naming
the Hennebeaus, "that this morning I saw
their servant go by in a carriage! Yes, the cook
in a carriage with two horses, going to
Marchiennes to get fish, sure enough!"
A clamour arose, and the abuse began again. That
servant in a white apron taken to the market of
the neighbouring town in her master's carriage
aroused indignation. While the workers were dying
of hunger they must have their fish, at all costs!
Perhaps they would not always be able to eat their
fish: the turn of the poor people would come. And
the ideas sown by Étienne sprang up and
expanded in this cry of revolt. It was impatience
before the promised age of gold, a haste to get a
share of the happiness beyond this horizon of
misery, closed in like the grave. The injustice
was becoming too great; at last they would demand
their rights, since the bread was being taken out
of their mouths. The women especially would have
liked at once to take by assault this ideal city
of progress, in which there was to be no more
wretchedness. It was almost night, and the rain
increased while they were still filling the
settlement with their tears in the midst of the
screaming helter-skelter of the children.
That evening at the Avantage the strike was
decided on. Rasseneur no longer struggled against
it, and Souvarine accepted it as a first step.
Étienne summed up the situation in a word:
if the Company really wanted a strike then the
Company should have a strike.