ANOTHER fortnight had passed by. It was the
beginning of January and cold mists benumbed the
immense plain. The misery had grown still
greater, and the settlements were in agony from
hour to hour beneath the increasing famine. Four
thousand francs sent by the International from
London had scarcely supplied bread for three days,
and then nothing had come. This great dead hope
was beating down their courage. On what were they
to count now since even their brothers had
abandoned them? They felt themselves separated
from the world and lost in the midst of this deep
On Tuesday no resources were left in the
Deux-Cent-Quarante settlement. Étienne and
the delegates had multiplied their energies. New
subscriptions were opened in the neighbouring
towns, and even in Paris; collections were made
and lectures organized. These efforts came to
nothing. Public opinion, which had at first been
moved, grew indifferent now that the strike
dragged on for ever, and so quietly, without any
dramatic incidents. Small charities scarcely
sufficed to maintain the poorer families. The
others lived by pawning their clothes and selling
up the household piece by piece. Everything went
to the brokers, the wool of the mattresses, the
kitchen utensils, even the furniture. For a
moment they thought themselves saved, for the
small retail shopkeepers of Montsou, killed out by
Maigrat, had offered credit to try and get back
their custom; and for a week Verdonck, the grocer,
and the two bakers, Carouble and Smelten, kept
open shop, but when their advances were exhausted
all three stopped. The bailiffs were rejoicing;
there only resulted a piling up of debts which
would for a long time weigh upon the miners.
There was no more credit to be had anywhere and
not an old saucepan to sell; they might lie down
in a corner to die like mangy dogs.
Étienne would have sold his flesh. He had
given up his salary and had gone to Marchiennes to
pawn his trousers and cloth coat, happy to set the
Maheus' pot boiling once more. His boots alone
remained, and he retained these to keep a firm
foothold, he said. His grief was that the strike
had come on too early, before the provident fund
had had time to swell. He regarded this as the
only cause of the disaster, for the workers would
surely triumph over the masters on the day when
they had saved enough money to resist. And he
recalled Souvarine's words accusing the Company of
pushing forward the strike to destroy the fund at
The sight of the settlement and of these poor
people without bread or fire overcame him. He
preferred to go out and to weary himself with
distant walks. One evening, as he was coming back
and passing near Réquillart, he perceived
an old woman who had fainted by the roadside. No
doubt she was dying of hunger; and having raised
her he began to shout to a girl whom he saw on the
other side of the paling.
"Why! is it you?" he said, recognizing
Mouquette. "Come and help me then, we must
give her something to drink."
Mouquette, moved to tears, quickly went into the
shaky hovel which her father had set up in the
midst of the ruins. She came back at once with
gin and a loaf. The gin revived the old woman,
who without speaking bit greedily into the bread.
She was the mother of a miner who lived at a
settlement on the Cougny side, and she had fallen
there on returning from Joiselle, where she had in
vain attempted to borrow half a franc from a
sister. When she had eaten she went away dazed.
Étienne stood in the open field of
Réquillart, where the crumbling sheds were
disappearing beneath the brambles.
"Well, won't you come in and drink a little
glass?" asked Mouquette merrily.
And as he hesitated:
"Then you're still afraid of me?"
He followed her, won by her laughter. This bread,
which she had given so willingly, moved him. She
would not take him into her father's room, but led
him into her own room, where she at once poured
out two little glasses of gin. The room was very
neat and he complimented her on it. Besides, the
family seemed to want for nothing; the father
continued his duties as a groom at the Voreux
while she, saying that she could not live with
folded arms, had become a laundress, which brought
her in thirty sous a day. One may amuse oneself
with men but one isn't lazy for all that.
"I say," she murmured, all at once
coming and putting her arms round him prettily,
"why don't you like me?"
He could not help laughing, she had done this in
so charming a way.
"But I like you very much," he replied.
"No, no, not like I mean. You know that I am
dying of longing. Come, it would give me so much
It was true, she had desired him for six months.
He still looked at her as she clung to him,
pressing him with her two tremulous arms, her face
raised with such supplicating love that he was
deeply moved. There was nothing beautiful in her
large round face, with its yellow complexion eaten
by the coal; but her eyes shone with flame, a
charm rose from her skin, a trembling of desire
which made her rosy and young. In face of this
gift which was so humble and so ardent he no
longer dared to refuse.
"Oh! you are willing," she stammered,
delighted. "Oh! you are willing!"
And she gave herself up with the fainting
awkwardness of a virgin, as if it was for the
first time, and she had never before known a man.
Then when he left her, it was she who was overcome
with gratitude; she thanked him and kissed his
Étienne remained rather ashamed of this
good fortune. Nobody boasted of having had
Mouquette. As he went away he swore that it
should not occur again, but he preserved a
friendly remembrance of her; she was a capital
When he got back to the settlement, he found
serious news which made him forget the adventure.
The rumour was circulating that the Company would,
perhaps, agree to make a concession if the
delegates made a fresh attempt with the manager.
At all events some captains had spread this
rumour. The truth was, that in this struggle the
mine was suffering even more than the miners. On
both sides obstinacy was piling up ruin: while
labour was dying of hunger, capital was being
destroyed. Every day of rest carried away
hundreds of thousands of francs. Every machine
which stops is a dead machine. Tools and material
are impaired, the money that is sunk melts away
like water drunk by the sand. Since the small
stock of coal at the surface of the pits was
exhausted, customers talked of going to Belgium,
so that in future they would be threatened from
that quarter. But what especially frightened the
Company, although the matter was carefully
concealed, was the increasing damage to the
galleries. and workings. The captains could not
cope with the repairs, the timber was falling
everywhere, and landslips were constantly taking
place. Soon the disasters became so serious that
long months would be needed for repairs before
hewing could be resumed. Already stories were
going about the country: at Crévecoeur
three hundred metres of road had subsided in a
mass, stopping up access to the Cinq-Paumes; at
Madeleine the Maugrétout seam was crumbling
away and filling with water. The management
refused to admit this, but suddenly two accidents,
one after the other, had forced them to avow it.
One morning, near Piolaine, the ground was found
cracked above the north gallery of Mirou which had
fallen in the day before; and on the following day
the ground subsided within the Voreux, shaking a
corner of a suburb to such an extent that two
houses nearly disappeared.
Étienne and the delegates hesitated to risk
any steps without knowing the directors'
intentions. Dansaert, whom they questioned,
avoided replying: certainly, the misunderstanding
was deplored, and everything would be done to
bring about an agreement; but he could say nothing
definitely. At last, they decided that they would
go to M. Hennebeau in order to have reason on
their side; for they did not wish to be accused,
later on, of having refused the Company an
opportunity of acknowledging that it had been in
the wrong. Only they vowed to yield nothing and
to maintain, in spite of everything, their terms,
which were alone just.
The interview took place on Tuesday morning, when
the settlement was sinking into desperate
wretchedness. It was less cordial than the first
interview. Maheu was still the speaker, and he
explained that their mates had sent them to ask if
these gentlemen had anything new to say. At first
M. Hennebeau affected surprise: no order had
reached him, nothing could be changed so long as
the miners persisted in their detestable
rebellion; and this official stiffness produced
the worst effects, so that if the delegates had
gone out of their way to offer conciliation, the
way in which they were received would only have
served to make them more obstinate. Afterwards
the manager tried to seek a basis of mutual
concession; thus, if the men would accept the
separate payment for timbering, the Company would
raise that payment by the two centimes which they
were accused of profiting by. Besides, he added
that he would take the offer on himself, that
nothing was settled, but that he flattered himself
he could obtain this concession from Paris. But
the delegates refused, and repeated their demands:
the retention of the old system, with a rise of
five centimes a tram. Then he acknowledged that
he could treat with them at once, and urged them
to accept in the name of their wives and little
ones dying of hunger. And with eyes on the ground
and stiff heads they said no, always no, with
fierce vigour. They separated curtly. M.
Hennebeau banged the doors. Étienne,
Maheu, and the others went off stamping with their
great heels on the pavement in the mute rage of
the vanquished pushed to extremes.
Towards two o'clock the women of the settlement,
on their side, made an application to Maigrat.
There was only this hope left, to bend this man
and to wrench from him another week's credit. The
idea originated with Maheude, who often counted
too much on people's good-nature. She persuaded
the Brulé and the Levaque to accompany her;
as to Pierronne, she excused herself, saying that
she could not leave Pierron, whose illness still
continued. Other women joined the band till they
numbered quite twenty. When the inhabitants of
Montsou saw them arrive, gloomy and wretched,
occupying the whole width of the road, they shook
their heads anxiously. Doors were closed, and one
lady hid her plate. It was the first time they
had been seen thus, and there could not be a worse
sign: usually everything was going to ruin when
the women thus took to the roads. At Maigrat's
there was a violent scene. At first, he had made
them go in, jeering and pretending to believe that
they had come to pay their debts: that was nice of
them to have agreed to come and bring the money
all at once. Then, as soon as Maheude began to
speak he pretended to be enraged. Were they
making fun of people? More credit! Then they
wanted to turn him into the street? No, not a
single potato, not a single crumb of bread! And
he told them to be off to the grocer Verdonck, and
to the bakers Carouble and Smelten, since they now
dealt with them. The women listened with timid
humility, apologizing, and watching his eyes to
see if he would relent. He began to joke,
offering his shop to the Brulé if she would
have him as a lover. They were all so cowardly
that they laughed at this; and the Levaque
improved on it, declaring that she was willing,
she was. But he at once became abusive, and
pushed them towards the door. As they insisted,
suppliantly, he treated one brutally. The others
on the pavement shouted that he had sold himself
to the Company, while Maheude, with her arms in
the air, in a burst of avenging indignation, cried
out for his death, exclaiming that such a man did
not deserve to eat.
The return to the settlement was melancholy. When
the women came back with empty hands, the men
looked at them and then lowered their heads.
There was nothing more to be done, the day would
end without a spoonful of soup; and the other days
extended in an icy shadow, without a ray of hope.
They had made up their minds to it, and no one
spoke of surrender. This excess of misery made
them still more obstinate, mute as tracked beasts,
resolved to die at the bottom of their hole rather
than come out. Who would dare to be first to
speak of submission? They had sworn with their
mates to hold together, and hold together they
would, as they held together at the pit when one
of them was beneath a landslip. It was as it
ought to be; it was a good school for resignation
down there. They might well tighten their belts
for a week, when they had been swallowing fire and
water ever since they were twelve years of age;
and their devotion was thus augmented by the pride
of soldiers, of men proud of their profession, who
in their daily struggle with death had gained a
pride in sacrifice.
With the Maheus it was a terrible evening. They
were all silent, seated before the dying fire in
which the last cinders were smoking. After having
emptied the mattresses, handful by handful, they
had decided the day before to sell the clock for
three francs and the room seemed bare and dead now
that the familiar tick-tack no longer filled it
with sound. The only object of luxury now, in the
middle of the sideboard, was the rose cardboard
box, an old present from Maheu, which Maheude
treasured like a jewel. The two good chairs had
gone; Father Bonnemort and the children were
squeezed together on an old mossy bench brought in
from the garden. And the livid twilight now
coming on seemed to increase the cold.
"What's to be done?" repeated Maheude,
crouching down in the corner by the oven.
Étienne stood up, looking at the portraits
of the emperor and empress stuck against the wall.
He would have torn them down long since if the
family had not preserved them for ornament. So he
murmured, with clenched teeth:
"And to think that we can't get two sous out
of these damned idiots, who are watching us
"If I were to take the box?" said the
woman, very pale, after some hesitation.
Maheu, seated on the edge of the table, with his
legs dangling and his head on his chest, sat up.
"No! I won't have it!"
Maheude painfully rose and walked round the room.
Good God! was it possible that they were reduced
to such misery? The cupboard without a crumb,
nothing more to sell, no notion where to get a
loaf! And the fire, which was nearly out! She
became angry with Alzire, whom she had sent in the
morning to glean on the pit-bank, and who had come
back with empty hands, saying that the Company
would not allow gleaning. Did it matter a hang
what the Company wanted? As if they were robbing
any one by picking up the bits of lost coal! The
little girl, in despair, told how a man had
threatened to hit her; then she promised to go
back next day, even if she was beaten.
"And that imp, Jeanlin," cried the
mother; "where is he now, I should like to
know? He ought to have brought the salad; we can
browse on that like beasts, at all events! You
will see, he won't come back. Yesterday, too, he
slept out. I don't know what he's up to; the
rascal always looks as though his belly were
"Perhaps," said Étienne, "he
picks up sous on the road."
She suddenly lifted both fists furiously.
"If I knew that! My children beg! I'd
rather kill them and myself too."
Maheu had again sunk down on the edge of the
table. Lénore and Henri, astonished that
they had nothing to eat, began to moan; while old
Bonnemort, in silence, philosophically rolled his
tongue in his mouth to deceive his hunger. No one
spoke any more; all were becoming benumbed beneath
this aggravation of their evils; the grandfather,
coughing and spitting out the black phlegm, taken
again by rheumatism which was turning to dropsy;
the father asthmatic, and with knees swollen with
water; the mother and the little ones scarred by
scrofula and hereditary anaemia. No doubt their
work made this inevitable; they only complained
when the lack of food killed them off; and already
they were falling like flies in the settlement.
But something must be found for supper. My God!
where was it to be found, what was to be done?
Then, in the twilight, which made the room more
and more gloomy with its dark melancholy,
Étienne, who had been hesitating for a
moment, at last decided with aching heart.
"Wait for me," he said. "I'll go
and see somewhere." And he went out. The
idea of Mouquette had occurred to him. She would
certainly have a loaf, and would give it
willingly. It annoyed him to be thus forced to
return to Réquillart; this girl would kiss
his hands with her air of an amorous servant; but
one did not leave one's friends in trouble; he
would still be kind with her if need be.
"I will go and look round, too," said
Maheude, in her turn. "It's too
She reopened the door after the young man and
closed it violently, leaving the others motionless
and mute in the faint light of a candle-end which
Alzire had just lighted. Outside she stopped and
thought for a moment. Then she entered the
"Tell me: I lent you a loaf the other day.
Could you give it me back?"
But she stopped herself. What she saw was far
from encouraging; the house spoke of misery even
more than her own.
The Levaque woman, with fixed eyes, was gazing
into her burnt-out fire, while Levaque, made drunk
on his empty stomach by some nail-makers, was
sleeping on the table. With his back to the wall,
Bouteloup was mechanically rubbing his shoulders
with the amazement of a good-natured fellow who
has eaten up his savings, and is astonished at
having to tighten his belt.
"A loaf! ah! my dear," replied the
Levaque woman, "I wanted to borrow another
Then, as her husband groaned with pain in his
sleep, she pushed his face against the table.
"Hold your row, bloody beast! So much the
better if it burns your guts! Instead of getting
people to pay for your drinks, you ought to have
asked twenty sous from a friend."
She went on relieving herself by swearing, in the
midst of this dirty household, already abandoned
so long that an unbearable smell was exhaling from
the floor. Everything might smash up, she didn't
care a hang! Her son, that rascal Bébert,
had also disappeared since morning, and she
shouted that it would be a good riddance if he
never came back. Then she said that she would go
to bed. At least she could get warm. She hustled
"Come along, up we go. The fire's out. No
need to light the candle to see the empty plates.
Well, are you coming, Louis? tell you that we
must go to bed. We can cuddle up together there,
that's a comfort. And let this damned drunkard
die here of cold by himself!"
When she found herself outside again, Maheude
struck resolutely across the gardens towards
Pierron's house. She heard laughter. As she
knocked there was sudden silence. It was a full
minute before the door was opened.
"What! is it you?" exclaimed Pierronne
with affected surprise. "I thought it was
Without allowing her to speak, she went on,
pointing to Pierron, who was seated before a large
"Ah! he makes no progress, he makes no
progress at all. His face looks all right; it's
in his belly that it takes him. Then he must have
warmth. We burn all that we've got."
Pierron, in fact, looked very well; his complexion
was good and his flesh fat. It was in vain that
he breathed hard in order to play the sick man.
Besides, as Maheude came in she perceived a strong
smell of rabbit; they had certainly put the dish
out of the way. There were crumbs strewed over
the table, and in the very midst she saw a
forgotten bottle of wine.
"Mother has gone to Montsou to try and get a
loaf," said Pierronne again. "We are
cooling our heels waiting for her."
But her voice choked; she had followed her
neighbour's glance, and her eyes also fell on the
bottle. Immediately she began again, and narrated
the story. Yes, it was wine; the Piolaine people
had brought her that bottle for her man, who had
been ordered by the doctor to take claret. And
her thankfulness poured forth in a stream. What
good people they were! The young lady especially;
she was not proud, going into work-people's houses
and distributing her charities herself.
"I see," said Maheude; "I know
Her heart ached at the idea that the good things
always go to the least poor. It was always so,
and these Piolaine people had carried water to the
river. Why had she not seen them in the
settlement? Perhaps, all the same, she might have
got something out of them.
"I came," she confessed at last,
"to know if there was more going with you
than with us. Have you just a little vermicelli
by way of loan?"
Pierronne expressed her grief noisily.
"Nothing at all, my dear. Not what you can
call a grain of semolina. If mother hasn't come
back, it's because she hasn't succeeded. We must
go to bed supperless."
At this moment crying was heard from the cellar,
and she grew angry and struck her fist against the
door. It was that gadabout Lydie, whom she had
shut up, she said, to punish her for not having
returned until five o'clock, after having been
roaming about the whole day. One could no longer
keep her in order; she was constantly
Maheude, however, remained standing; she could not
make up her mind to leave. This large fire filled
her with a painful sensation of comfort; the
thought that they were eating there enlarged the
void in her stomach. Evidently they had sent away
the old woman and shut up the child, to blow
themselves out with their rabbit. Ah! whatever
people might say, when a woman behaved ill, that
brought luck to her house.
"Good night," she said, suddenly.
Outside night had come on, and the moon behind the
clouds was lighting up the earth with a dubious
glow. Instead of traversing the gardens again,
Maheude went round, despairing, afraid to go home
again. But along the dead frontages all the doors
smelled of famine and sounded hollow. What was
the good of knocking? There was wretchedness
everywhere. For weeks since they had had nothing
to eat. Even the odour of onion had gone, that
strong odour which revealed the settlement from
afar across the country; now there was nothing but
the smell of old vaults, the dampness of holes in
which nothing lives. Vague sounds were dying out,
stifled tears, lost oaths; and in the silence
which slowly grew heavier one could hear the sleep
of hunger coming on, the collapse of bodies thrown
across beds in the nightmares of empty bellies.
As she passed before the church she saw a shadow
slip rapidly by. A gleam of hope made her hasten,
for she had recognized the Montsou priest,
Abbé Joire, who said mass on Sundays at the
settlement chapel. No doubt he had just come out
of the sacristy, where he had been called to
settle some affair. With rounded back he moved
quickly on, a fat meek man, anxious to live at
peace with everybody. If he had come at night it
must have been in order not to compromise himself
among the miners. It was said, too, that he had
just obtained promotion. He had even been seen
walking about with his successor, a lean man, with
eyes like live coals.
"Sir, sir!" stammered Maheude.
But he would not stop.
"Good night, good night, my good woman."
She found herself before her own door. Her legs
would no longer carry her, and she went in.
No one had stirred. Maheu still sat dejected on
the edge of the table. Old Bonnemort and the
little ones were huddled together on the bench for
the sake of warmth. And they had not said a word,
and the candle had burnt so low that even light
would soon fail them. At the sound of the door
the children turned their heads; but seeing that
their mother brought nothing back, they looked
down on the ground again, repressing the longing
to cry, for fear of being scolded. Maheude fell
back into her place near the dying fire. They
asked her no questions, and the silence continued.
All had understood, and they thought it useless to
weary themselves more by talking; they were now
waiting, despairing and without courage, in the
last expectation that perhaps Étienne would
unearth help somewhere. The minutes went by, and
at last they no longer reckoned on this.
When Étienne reappeared, he held a cloth
containing a dozen potatoes, cooked but cold.
"That's all that I've found," he said.
With Mouquette also bread was wanting; it was her
dinner which she had forced him to take in this
cloth, kissing him with all her heart.
"Thanks," he said to Maheude, who
offered him his share; "I've eaten over
It was not true, and he gloomily watched the
children throw themselves on the food. The father
and mother also restrained themselves, in order to
leave more; but the old man greedily swallowed
everything. They had to take a potato away from
him for Alzire.
Then Étienne said that he had heard news.
The Company, irritated by the obstinacy of the
strikers, talked of giving back their certificates
to the compromised miners. Certainly, the Company
was for war. And a more serious rumour
circulated: they boasted of having persuaded a
large number of men to go down again. On the next
day the Victoire and Feutry-Cantel would be
complete; even at Madeleine and Mirou there would
be a third of the men. The Maheus were furious.
"By God!" shouted the father, "if
there are traitors, we must settle their
And standing up, yielding to the fury of his
"Tomorrow evening, to the forest! Since they
won't let us come to an understanding at the
Bon-Joyeux. we can be at home in the
This cry had aroused old Bonnemort, who had grown
drowsy after his gluttony. It was the old
rallying-cry, the rendezvous where the miners of
old days used to plot their resistance to the
"Yes, yes, to Vandame! I'm with you if you
Maheude made an energetic gesture.
"We will all go. That will finish these
injustices and treacheries."
Étienne decided that the rendezvous should
be announced to all the settlements for the
following evening. But the fire was dead, as with
the Levaques, and the candle suddenly went out.
There was no more coal and no more oil; they had
to feel their way to bed in the intense cold which
contracted the skin. The little ones were crying.