Everything is buried in a sheet of frozen snow. Not a wisp of smoke can be seen in Village Two Hundred and Forty and the villagers are beyond cold. At the Maheus’, little Alzire is dying and her mother waits for the Company doctor. Several of the Maheu children are out begging for change and old Bonnemort appears to be asleep. Only Maheu is moving, bumping blindly around the house as if he is in a daze.
Anger and gossip are always part of the miners’ lives, but hunger has “sharpened everyone’s grudges” and arguments between two women might end in fights to the death between two men. The Levaques and the Maheus are furious at one another because of disgusting lies La Pierronne has told each woman about the other, and now the two men and La Levaque are off to the Pierronnes’ to settle the matter.
When they get there, Lydie is pacing outside in the snow. The house is dark but there is a chink of light from inside. Lydie finally confesses that her mother locked her out so she could talk to Dansaert; the overman had been scouring the village for workers all day, threatening them to go back to work at Le Voreux by Monday or the Company would bring in Belgian workers.
The adults each look through the chink at the fornication taking place in front of the fireplace inside; they are interrupted by the return of Pierronne. Alarmed by the noise, La Pierronne opens the door and it is clear to her husband that she has been having sex with Dansaert. The overman immediately runs off, afraid the manager will hear of this. Regaining her composure, La Pierronne is disdainful of their disgusting insults, assuming they are jealous of her beauty and money. When Pierronne begins to defend his wife, the three adults turn on him and the altercation ends when the two miners bloody Pierronne’s nose.
The village is still deserted when they get home and the doctor has not arrived. The Maheus have “reached their final hour.” Everything that could be burned or sold in that penniless household is gone, and tears were shed at the loss of each valued item. The priest, Father Ranvier, is canvassing the village trying to get the miners and their families to come to church. He assures the Maheus the Church is on the side of the poor and will one day call God’s wrath down on the rich.
La Maheude listens to the priest talk about a better future and is reminded of Lantier; however, she distrusts men of God and says so. Ranvier sounds like a “Gospel revolutionary” trying to enlist an army; the Maheus understand little of what he says and suggest he would have won them over if he had brought them bread. The priest tells them to come to Mass on Sunday and “God will provide.”
It is dark and Alzire is worse now; when the door opens her mother hopes it is the doctor but it is Lantier. Since his disappearance, the man has become a mythic figure, though people are...
(The entire section contains 805 words.)
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