IT was the Plan-des-Dames, that vast glade just opened up by the felling of trees. It spread out in a gentle slope, surrounded by tall thickets and superb beeches with straight regular trunks, which formed a white colonnade patched with green lichens; fallen giants were also lying in the grass, while on the left a mass of logs formed a geometrical cube. The cold was sharpening with the twilight and the frozen moss crackled beneath the feet. There was black darkness on the earth while the tall branches showed against the pale sky, where a full moon coming above the horizon would soon extinguish the stars.
Nearly three thousand colliers had come to the rendezvous, a swarming crowd of men, women, and children, gradually filling the glade and spreading out afar beneath the trees. Late arrivals were still coming up, a flood of heads drowned in shadow and stretching as far as the neighbouring copses. A rumbling arose from them, like that of a storm, in this motionless and frozen forest.
At the top, dominating the slope, Étienne stood with Rasseneur and Maheu. A quarrel had broken out, one could hear their voices in sudden bursts. Near them some men were listening: Levaque, with clenched fists; Pierron, turning his back and much annoyed that he had no longer been able to feign a fever. There were also Father Bonnemort and old Mouque, seated side by side on a stump, lost in deep meditation. Then behind were the chaffers, Zacharie, Mouquet, and others who had come to make fun of the thing; while gathered together in a very different spirit the women in a group were as serious as if at church. Maheude silently shook her head at the Levaque woman’s muttered oaths. Philoméne was coughing, her bronchitis having come back with the winter. Only Mouquette was showing her teeth with laughter, amused at the way in which Mother Brulé was abusing her daughter, an unnatural creature who had sent her away that she might gorge herself with rabbit, a creature who had sold herself and who fattened on her man’s baseness. And Jeanlin had planted himself on the pile of wood, hoisting up Lydie and making Bébert follow him, all three higher up in the air than any one else.
The quarrel was raised by Rasseneur, who wished to proceed formally to the election of officers. He was enraged by his defeat at the Bon-Joyeux, and had sworn to have his revenge, for he flattered himself that he could regain his old authority when he was once face to face, not with the delegates, but with the miners themselves. Étienne was disgusted, and thought the idea of officers was ridiculous in this forest. They ought to act in a revolutionary fashion, like savages, since they were tracked like wolves.
As the dispute threatened to drag on, he took possession of the crowd at once by jumping on to the trunk of a tree and shouting:
The confused roar of the crowd died down into a long sigh, while Maheu stifled Rasseneur’s protestations. Étienne went on in a loud voice.
“Comrades, since they forbid us to speak, since they send the police after us as if we were robbers, we have come to talk here! Here we are free, we are at home. No one can silence us any more than they can silence the birds and beasts!”
A thunder of cries and exclamations responded to him. “Yes, yes! the forest is ours, we can talk here. Go on.” Then Étienne stood for a moment motionless on the tree-trunk. The moon, still beneath the horizon, only lit up the topmost branches, and the crowd, remaining in the darkness, stood above it at the top of the slope like a bar of shadow.
He raised his arm with a slow movement and began. But his voice was not fierce; he spoke in the cold tones of a simple envoy of the people, who was rendering his account. He was delivering the discourse which the commissioner of police had cut short at the Bon-Joyeux; and he began by a rapid history of the strike, affecting a certain scientific eloquence — facts, nothing but facts. At first he spoke of his dislike to the strike; the miners had not desired it, it was the management which had provoked it with the new timbering tariff. Then he recalled the first step taken by the delegates in going to the manager, the bad faith of the directors; and, later on, the second step, the tardy concession, the ten centimes given up, after the attempt to rob them. Now he showed by figures the exhaustion of the provident fund, and pointed out the use that had been made of the help sent, briefly excusing the International, Pluchart and the others, for not being able to do more for them in the midst of the cares of their conquest of the world. So the situation was getting worse every day; the Company was giving back certificates and threatening to hire men from Belgium; besides, it was intimidating the weak, and had forced a certain number of miners to go down again. He preserved his monotonous voice, as if to insist on the bad news; he said that hunger was victorious, that hope was dead, and that the struggle had reached the last feverish efforts of courage. And then he suddenly concluded, without raising his voice:
“It is in these circumstances, mates, that you have to take a decision to-night. Do you want the strike to go on? and if so, what do you expect to do to beat the Company?”
A deep silence fell from the starry sky. The crowd, which could not be seen, was silent in the night beneath these words which choked every heart, and a sigh of despair could be heard through the trees.
But Étienne was already continuing, with a change in his voice. It was no longer the secretary of the association who was speaking; it was the chief of a band, the apostle who was bringing truth. Could it be that any were cowardly enough to go back on their word? What! They were to suffer in vain for a month, and then to go back to the pits, with lowered heads, so that the everlasting wretchedness might begin over again! Would it not be better to die at once in the effort to destroy this tyranny of capital, which was starving the worker? Always to submit to hunger up to the moment when hunger will again throw the calmest into revolt, was it not a foolish game which could not go on for ever? And he pointed to the exploited miners, bearing alone the disasters of every crisis, reduced to go without food as soon as the necessities of competition lowered net prices. No, the timbering tariff could not be accepted; it was only a disguised effort to economize on the Company’s part; they wanted to rob every man of an hour’s work a day. It was too much this time; the day was coming when the miserable, pushed to extremity, would deal justice.
He stood with his arms in the air. At the word “justice” the crowd, shaken by a long shudder, broke out into applause which rolled along with the sound of dry leaves. Voices cried:
“Justice! it is time! Justice!”
Gradually Étienne grew heated. He had not Rasseneur’s easy flowing abundance. Words often failed him, he had to force his phrases, bringing them out with an effort which he emphasized by a movement of his shoulders. Only in these continual shocks he came upon familiar images which seized on his audience by their energy; while his workman’s gestures, his elbows in and then extended, with his fists thrust out, his jaw suddenly advanced as if to bite, had also an extraordinary effect on his mates. They all said that if he was not big he made himself heard.
“The wage system is a new form of slavery,” he began again, in a more sonorous voice. “The mine ought to belong to the miner, as the sea belongs to the fisherman, and the earth to the peasant. Do you see? The mine belongs to you, to all of you who, for a century, have paid for it with so much blood and misery!”
He boldly entered on obscure question of law, and lost himself in the difficulties of the special regulations concerning mines. The subsoil, like the soil, belonged to the nation: only an odious privilege gave the monopoly of it to the Companies; all the more since, at Montsou, the pretended legality of the concession was complicated by treaties formerly made with the owners of the old fiefs, according to the ancient custom of Hainault. The miners, then, had only to reconquer their property; and with extended hands he indicated the whole country beyond the forest. At this moment the moon, which had risen above the horizon, lit him up as it glided from behind the high branches. When the crowd, which was still in shadow, saw him thus, white with light, distributing fortune with his open hands, they applauded anew by prolonged clapping.
“Yes, yes, he’s right. Bravo!”
Then Étienne trotted out his favourite subject, the assumption of the instruments of production by the collectivity, as he kept on saying in a phrase the pedantry of which greatly pleased him. At the present time his evolution was completed. Having set out with the sentimental fraternity of the novice and the need for reforming the wage system, he had reached the political idea of its suppression. Since the meeting at the Bon-Joyeux his collectivism, still humanitarian and without a formula, had stiffened into a complicated programme which he discussed scientifically, article by article. First, he affirmed that freedom could only be obtained by the destruction of the State. Then, when the people had obtained possession of the government, reforms would begin: return to the primitive commune, substitution of an equal and free family for the moral and oppressive family; absolute equality, civil, political, and economic; individual independence guaranteed, thanks to the possession of the integral product of the instruments of work; finally, free vocational education, paid for by the collectivity. This led to the total reconstruction of the old rotten society; he attacked marriage, the right of bequest, he regulated every one’s fortune, he threw down the iniquitous monument of the dead centuries with a great movement of his arm, always the same movement, the movement of the reaper who is cutting down a ripe harvest. And then with the other hand he reconstructed; he built up the future humanity, the edifice of truth and justice rising in the dawn of the twentieth century. In this state of mental tension reason trembled, and only the sectarian’s fixed idea was left. The scruples of sensibility and of good sense were lost; nothing seemed easier than the realization of this new world. He had foreseen everything; he spoke of it as of a machine which he could put together in two hours, and he stuck at neither fire nor blood.
“Our turn is come,” he broke out for the last time. “Now it is for us to have power and wealth!”
The cheering rolled up to him from the depths of the forest. The moon now whitened the whole of the glade, and cut into living waves the sea of heads, as far as the dimly visible copses in the distance between the great grey trunks. And in the icy air there was a fury of faces, of gleaming eyes, of open mouths, a rut of famishing men, women, and children, let loose on the just pillage of the ancient wealth they had been deprived of. They no longer felt the cold, these burning words had warmed them to the bone. Religious exaltation raised them from the earth, a fever of hope like that of the Christians of the early Church awaiting the near coming of justice. Many obscure phrases had escaped them, they could not properly understand this technical and abstract reasoning; but the very obscurity and abstraction still further enlarged the field of promises and lifted them into a dazzling region. What a dream! to be masters, to suffer no more, to enjoy at last!
“That’s it, by God! it’s our turn now! Down with the exploiters.”
The women were delirious; Maheude, losing her calmness, was seized with the vertigo of hunger, the Levaque woman shouted, old Brulé, carried out of herself, was brandishing her witch-like arms, Philoméne was shaken by a spasm of coughing, and Mouquette was so excited that she cried out words of tenderness to the orator. Among the men, Maheu was won over and shouted with anger, between Pierron who was trembling and Levaque who was talking too much; while the chaffers, Zacharie and Mouquet, though trying to make fun of things, were feeling uncomfortable and were surprised that their mate could talk on so long without having a drink. But on top of the pile of wood, Jeanlin was making more noise than any one, egging on Bébert and Lydie and shaking the basket in which Poland lay.
The clamour began again. Étienne was enjoying the intoxication of his popularity. He held power, as it were, materialized in these three thousand breasts, whose hearts he could move with a word. Souvarine, if he had cared to come, would have applauded his ideas so far as he recognized them, pleased with his pupil’s progress in anarchism and satisfied with the programme, except the article on education, a relic of silly sentimentality, for men needed to be dipped in a bath of holy and salutary ignorance. As to Rasseneur, he shrugged his shoulders with contempt and anger.
“You shall let me speak,” he shouted to Étienne.
The latter jumped from the tree-trunk.
“Speak, we shall see if they’ll hear you.”
Already Rasseneur had replaced him, and with a gesture demanded silence. But the noise did not cease; his name went round from the first ranks, who had recognized him, to the last, lost beneath the beeches, and they refused to hear him; he was an overturned idol, the mere sight of him angered his old disciples. His facile elocution, his flowing, good-natured speech, which had so long charmed them, was now treated like warm gruel made to put cowards to sleep. In vain he talked through the noise, trying to take up again his discourse of conciliation, the impossibility of changing the world by a stroke of law, the necessity of allowing the social evolution time to accomplish itself; they joked him, they hissed him; his defeat at the Bon-Joyeux was now beyond repair. At last they threw handfuls of frozen moss at him, and a woman cried in a shrill voice:
“Down with the traitor!”
He explained that the miner could not be the proprietor of the mine, as the weaver is of his loom, and he said that he preferred sharing in the benefits, the interested worker becoming the child of the house.
“Down with the traitor!” repeated a thousand voices, while stones began to whistle by.
Then he turned pale, and despair filled his eyes with tears. His whole existence was crumbling down; twenty years of ambitious comradeship were breaking down beneath the ingratitude of the crowd. He came down from the tree-trunk, with no strength to go on, struck to the heart.
“That makes you laugh,” he stammered, addressing the triumphant Étienne. “Good! I hope your turn will come. It will come, I tell you!”
And as if to reject all responsibility for the evils which he foresaw, he made a large gesture, and went away alone across the country, pale and silent.
Hoots arose, and then they were surprised to see Father Bonnemort standing on the trunk and about to speak in the midst of the tumult. Up till now Mouque and he had remained absorbed, with that air that they always had of reflecting on former things. No doubt he was yielding to one of those sudden crises of garrulity which sometimes made the past stir in him so violently that recollections rose and flowed from his lips for hours at a time. There was deep silence, and they listened to this old man, who was like a pale spectre beneath the moon, and as he narrated things without any immediate relation with the discussion — long histories which no one could understand — the impression was increased. He was talking of his youth; he described the death of his two uncles who were crushed at the Voreux; then he turned to the inflammation of the lungs which had carried off his wife. He kept to his main idea, however: things had never gone well and never would go well. Thus in the forest five hundred of them had come together because the king would not lessen the hours of work; but he stopped short, and began to tell of another strike — he had seen so many! They all broke out under these trees, here at the Plan-des-Dames, lower down at the Charbonnerie, still farther towards the Saut-du-Loup. Sometimes it froze, sometimes it was hot. One evening it had rained so much that they had gone back again without being able to say anything, and the king’s soldiers came up and it finished with volleys of musketry.
“We raised our hands like this, and we swore not to go back again. Ah! I have sworn; yes, I have sworn!”
The crowd listened gapingly, feeling disturbed, when Étienne, who had watched the scene, jumped on to the fallen tree, keeping the old man at his side. He had just recognized Chaval among their friends in the first row. The idea that Catherine must be there had roused a new ardour within him, the desire to be applauded in her presence.
“Mates, you have heard; this is one of our old men, and this is what he has suffered, and what our children will suffer if we don’t have done with the robbers and butchers.”
He was terrible; never had he spoken so violently. With one arm he supported old Bonnemort, exhibiting him as a banner of misery and mourning, and crying for vengeance. In a few rapid phrases he went back to the first Maheu. He showed the whole family used up at the mine, devoured by the Company, hungrier than ever after a hundred years of work; and contrasting with the Maheus he pointed to the big bellies of the directors sweating gold, a whole band of shareholders, going on for a century like kept women, doing nothing but enjoy with their bodies. Was it not fearful? a race of men dying down below, from father to son, so that bribes of wine could be given to ministers, and generations of great lords and bourgeois could give feasts or fatten by their firesides! He had studied the diseases of the miners. He made them all march past with their awful details: anaemia, scrofula, black bronchitis, the asthma which chokes, and the rheumatism which paralyses. These wretches were thrown as food to the engines and penned up like beasts in the settlements. The great companies absorbed them, regulating their slavery, threatening to enrol all the workers of the nation, millions of hands, to bring fortune to a thousand idlers. But the miner was no longer an ignorant brute, crushed within the bowels of the earth. An army was springing up from the depths of the pits, a harvest of citizens whose seed would germinate and burst through the earth some sunny day. And they would see then if, after forty years of service, any one would dare to offer a pension of a hundred and fifty francs to an old man of sixty who spat out coal and whose legs were swollen with the water from the cuttings. Yes! labour would demand an account from capital: that impersonal god, unknown to the worker, crouching down somewhere in his mysterious sanctuary, where he sucked the life out of the starvelings who nourished him! They would go down there; they would at last succeed in seeing his face by the gleam of incendiary fires, they would drown him in blood, that filthy swine, that monstrous idol, gorged with human flesh!
He was silent, but his arm, still extended in space, indicated the enemy, down there, he knew not where, from one end of the earth to the other. This time the clamour of the crowd was so great that people at Montsou heard it, and looked towards Vandame, seized with anxiety at the thought that some terrible landslip had occurred. Night-birds rose above the trees in the clear open sky.
He now concluded his speech.
“Mates, what is your decision? Do you vote for the strike to go on?”
Their voices yelled, “Yes! yes!”
“And what steps do you decide on? We are sure of defeat if cowards go down to-morrow.”
Their voices rose again with the sound of a tempest:
“Kill the cowards!”
“Then you decide to call them back to duty and to their sworn word. This is what we could do: present ourselves at the pits, bring back the traitors by our presence, show the Company that we are all agreed, and that we are going to die rather than yield.”
“That’s it. To the pits! to the pits!”
While he was speaking Étienne had looked for Catherine among the pale shouting heads before him. She was certainly not there, but he still saw Chaval, affecting to jeer, shrugging his shoulders, but devoured by jealousy and ready to sell himself for a little of this popularity.
“And if there are any spies among us, mates,” Étienne went on, “let them look out; they’re known. Yes, I can see Vandame colliers here who have not left their pit.”
“Is that meant for me?” asked Chaval, with an air of bravado.
“For you, or for any one else. But, since you speak, you ought to understand that those who eat have nothing to do with those who are starving. You work at Jean-Bart.”
A chaffing voice interrupted:
“Oh! he work! he’s got a woman who works for him.”
Chaval swore, while the blood rose to his face.
“By God! is it forbidden to work, then?”
“Yes!” said Étienne, “when your mates are enduring misery for the good of all, it is forbidden to go over, like a selfish sneaking coward, to the masters’ side. If the strike had been general we should have got the best of it long ago. Not a single man at Vandame ought to have gone down when Montsou is resting. To accomplish the great stroke, work should be stopped in the entire country, at Monsieur Deneulin’s as well as here. Do you understand? there are only traitors in the Jean Bart cuttings; you’re all traitors!”
The crowd around Chaval grew threatening, and fists were raised and cries of “Kill him! kill him!” began to be uttered. He had grown pale. But, in his infuriated desire to triumph over Étienne, an idea restored him.
“Listen to me, then! come to-morrow to Jean-Bart, and you shall see if I’m working! We’re on your side; they’ve sent me to tell you so. The fires must be extinguished, and the engine-men, too, must go on strike. All the better if the pumps do stop! the water will destroy the pits and everything will be done for!”
He was furiously applauded in his turn, and now Étienne himself was outflanked. Other orators succeeded each other from the tree-trunk, gesticulating amid the tumult, and throwing out wild propositions. It was a mad outburst of faith, the impatience of a religious sect which, tired of hoping for the expected miracle, had at last decided to provoke it. These heads, emptied by famine, saw everything red, and dreamed of fire and blood in the midst of a glorious apotheosis from which would arise universal happiness. And the tranquil moon bathed this surging sea, the deep forest encircled with its vast silence this cry of massacre. The frozen moss crackled beneath the heels of the crowd, while the beeches, erect in their strength, with the delicate tracery of their black branches against the white sky, neither saw nor heard the miserable beings who writhed at their feet.
There was some pushing, and Maheude found herself near Maheu. Both of them, driven out of their ordinary good sense, and carried away by the slow exasperation which had been working within them for months, approved Levaque, who went to extremes by demanding the heads of the engineers. Pierron had disappeared. Bonnemort and Mouque were both talking together, saying vague violent things which nobody heard. For a joke Zacharie demanded the demolition of the churches, while Mouquet, with his crosse in his hand, was beating it against the ground for the sake of increasing the row. The women were furious. The Levaque, with her fists to her hips, was setting to with Philoméne, whom she accused of having laughed; Mouquette talked of attacking the gendarmes by kicking them somewhere; Mother Brulé, who had just slapped Lydie on finding her without either basket or salad, went on launching blows into space against all the masters whom she would like to have got at. For a moment Jeanlin was in terror, Bébert having learned through a trammer that Madame Rasseneur had seen them steal Poland; but when he had decided to go back and quietly release the beast at the door of the Avantage, he shouted louder than ever, and opened his new knife, brandishing the blade and proud of its glitter.
“Mates! mates!” repeated the exhausted Étienne, hoarse with the effort to obtain a moment’s silence for a definite understanding.
At last they listened.
“Mates! to-morrow morning at Jean-Bart, is it agreed?”
“Yes! yes! at Jean-Bart! death to the traitors!”
The tempest of these three thousand voices filled the sky, and died away in the pure brightness of the moon.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02