FROM early morning, before daylight, a tremor had agitated the settlements, and that tremor was now swelling through the roads and over the whole country. But the departure had not taken place as arranged, for the news had spread that cavalry and police were scouring the plain. It was said that they had arrived from Douai during the night, and Rasseneur was accused of having betrayed his mates by warning M. Hennebeau; a putter even swore that she had seen the servant taking a dispatch to the telegraph office. The miners clenched their fists and watched the soldiers from behind their shutters by the pale light of the early morning.
Towards half-past seven, as the sun was rising, another rumour circulated, reassuring the impatient. It was a false alarm, a simple military promenade, such as the general occasionally ordered since the strike had broken out, at the desire of the prefect of Lille. The strikers detested this official; they reproached him with deceiving them by the promise of a conciliatory intervention, which was limited to a march of troops into Montsou every week, to overawe them. So when the cavalry and police quietly took the road back to Marchiennes, after contenting themselves with deafening the settlements by the stamping of their horses over the hard earth, the miners jeered at this innocent prefect and his soldiers who turned on their heels when things were beginning to get hot. Up till nine o’clock they stood peacefully about, in good humour, before their houses, following with their eyes up the streets the meek backs of the last gendarmes. In the depths of their large beds the good people of Montsou were still sleeping, with their heads among the feathers. At the manager’s house, Madame Hennebeau had just been seen setting out in the carriage, leaving M. Hennebeau at work, no doubt, for the closed and silent villa seemed dead. Not one of the pits had any military guard; it was a fatal lack of foresight in the hour of danger, the natural stupidity which accompanies catastrophes, the fault which a government commits whenever there is need of precise knowledge of the facts. And nine o’clock was striking when the colliers at last took the Vandame road, to repair to the rendezvous decided on the day before in the forest.
Étienne had very quickly perceived that he would certainly not find over at Jean-Bart the three thousand comrades on whom he was counting. Many believed that the demonstration was put off, and the worst was that two or three bands, already on the way, would compromise the cause if he did not at all costs put himself at their head. Almost a hundred, who had set out before daylight, were taking refuge beneath the forest beeches, waiting for the others. Souvarine, whom the young man went up to consult, shrugged his shoulders; ten resolute fellows could do more work than a crowd; and he turned back to the open book before him, refusing to join in. The thing threatened to turn into sentiment when it would have been enough to adopt the simple method of burning Montsou. As Étienne left the house he saw Rasseneur, seated before the metal stove and looking very pale, while his wife, in her everlasting black dress, was abusing him in polite and cutting terms.
Maheu was of opinion that they ought to keep their promise. A rendezvous like this was sacred. However, the night had calmed their fever; he was now fearing misfortune, and he explained that it was their duty to go over there to maintain their mates in the right path. Maheude approved with a nod. Étienne repeated complacently that it was necessary to adopt revolutionary methods, without attempting any person’s life. Before setting out he refused his share of a loaf that had been given him the evening before, together with a bottle of gin; but he drank three little glasses, one after the other, saying that he wanted to keep out the cold; he even carried away a tinful. Alzire would look after the children. Old Bonnemort, whose legs were suffering from yesterday’s walk, remained in bed.
They did not go away together, from motives of prudence. Jeanlin had disappeared long ago. Maheu and Maheude went off on the side sloping towards Montsou; while Étienne turned towards the forest, where he proposed to join his mates. On the way he caught up a band of women among whom he recognized Mother Brulé and the Levaque woman; as they walked they were eating chestnuts which Mouquette had brought; they swallowed the skins so as to feel more in their stomachs. But in the forest he found no one; the men were already at Jean-Bart. He took the same course, and arrived at the pit at the moment when Levaque and some hundreds others were penetrating into the square. Miners were coming up from every direction — the men by the main road, the women by the fields, all at random, without leaders, without weapons, flowing naturally thither like water which runs down a slope. Étienne perceived Jeanlin, who had climbed up on a footbridge, installed as though at a theatre. He ran faster, and entered among the first. There were scarcely three hundred of them.
There was some hesitation when Deneulin showed himself at the top of the staircase which led to the receiving-room.
“What do you want?” he asked in a loud voice.
After having watched the disappearance of the carriage, from which his daughters were still laughing towards him, he had returned to the pit overtaken by a strange anxiety. Everything, however, was found in good order. The men had gone down; the cage was working, and he became reassured again, and was talking to the head captain when the approach of the strikers was announced to him. He had placed himself at a window of the screening-shed; and in the face of this increasing flood which filled the square, he at once felt his impotence. How could he defend these buildings, open on every side? he could scarcely group some twenty of his workmen round himself. He was lost.
“What do you want?” he repeated, pale with repressed anger, making an effort to accept his disaster courageously.
There were pushes and growls amid the crowd. Étienne at last came forward, saying:
“We do not come to injure you, sir, but work must cease everywhere.”
Deneulin frankly treated him as an idiot.
“Do you think you will benefit me if you stop work at my place? You might just as well fire a gun off into my back. Yes, my men are below, and they shall not come up, unless you mean to murder me first!”
These rough words raised a clamour. Maheu had to hold back Levaque, who was pushing forward in a threatening manner, while Étienne went on discussing, and tried to convince Deneulin of the lawfulness of their revolutionary conduct. But the latter replied by the right to work. Besides, he refused to discuss such folly; he meant to be master in his own place. His only regret was that he had not four gendarmes here to sweep away this mob.
“To be sure, it is my fault; I deserve what has happened to me. With fellows of your sort force is the only argument. The Government thinks to buy you by concessions. You will throw it down, that’s all, when it has given you weapons.”
Étienne was quivering, but still held himself in. He lowered his voice.
“I beg you, sir, give the order for your men to come up. I cannot answer for my mates. You may avoid a disaster.”
“No! be good enough to let me alone! Do I know you? You do not belong to my works, you have no quarrel with me. It is only brigands who thus scour the country to pillage houses.”
Loud vociferations now drowned his voice, the women especially abused him. But he continued to hold his own, experiencing a certain relief in this frankness with which he expressed his disciplinarian nature. Since he was ruined in any case, he thought platitudes a useless cowardice. But their numbers went on increasing; nearly five hundred were pushing towards the door, and he might have been torn to pieces if his head captain had not pulled him violently back.
“For mercy’s sake, sir! There will be a massacre. What is the good of letting men be killed for nothing?”
He struggled and protested in one last cry thrown at the crowd:
“You set of brigands, you will know what, when we are strongest again!”
They led him away; the hustling of the crowd had thrown the first ranks against the staircase so that the rail was twisted. It was the women who pushed and screamed and urged on the men. The door yielded at once; it was a door without a lock, simply closed by a latch. But the staircase was too narrow for the pushing crowd, which would have taken long to get in if the rear of the besiegers had not gone off to enter by other openings. Then they poured in on all sides — by the shed, the screening-place, the boiler buildings. In less than five minutes the whole pit belonged to them; they swarmed at every storey in the midst of furious gestures and cries, carried away by their victory over this master who resisted.
Maheu, in terror, had rushed forward among the first, saying to Étienne:
“They must not kill him!”
The latter was already running; then, when Étienne understood that Deneulin had barricaded himself in the captains’ room, he replied:
“Well, would it be our fault? such a madman!” He was feeling anxious, however, being still too calm to yield to this outburst of anger. His pride of leadership also suffered on seeing the band escape from his authority and become enraged, going beyond the cold execution of the will of the people, such as he had anticipated. In vain he called for coolness, shouting that they must not put right on their enemies’ side by acts of useless destruction.
“To the boilers!” shouted Mother Brulé. “Put out the fires!”
Levaque, who had found a file, was brandishing it like a dagger, dominating the tumult with a terrible cry:
“Cut the cables! cut the cables!”
Soon they all repeated this; only Étienne and Maheu continued to protest, dazed, and talking in the tumult without obtaining silence. At last the former was able to say:
“But there are men below, mates!”
The noise redoubled and voices arose from all sides:
“So much the worse! — Ought not to go down! — Serve the traitors right! — Yes, yes, let them stay there! — And then, they have the ladders!”
Then, when this idea of the ladders had made them still more obstinate, Étienne saw that he would have to yield. For fear of a greater disaster he hastened towards the engine, wishing at all events to bring the cages up, so that the cables, being cut above the shaft, should not smash them by falling down with their enormous weight. The engine-man had disappeared as well as the few daylight workers; and he took hold of the starting lever, manipulating it while Levaque and two other climbed up the metal scaffold which supported the pulleys. The cages were hardly fixed on the keeps when the strident sound was heard of the file biting into the steel. There was deep silence, and this noise seemed to fill the whole pit; all raised their heads, looking and listening, seized by emotion. In the first rank Maheu felt a fierce joy possess him, as if the teeth of the file would deliver them from misfortune by eating into the cable of one of these dens of wretchedness, into which they would never descend again.
But Mother Brulé had disappeared by the shed stairs still shouting:
“The fires must be put out! To the boilers! to the boilers!”
Some women followed her. Maheude hastened to prevent them from smashing everything, just as her husband had tried to reason with the men. She was the calmest of them; one could demand one’s rights without making a mess in people’s places. When she entered the boiler building the women were already chasing away the two stokers, and the Brulé, armed with a large shovel, and crouching down before one of the stoves, was violently emptying it, throwing the red-hot coke on to the brick floor, where it continued to burn with black smoke. There were ten stoves for the five boilers. Soon the women warmed to the work, the Levaque manipulating her shovel with both hands, Mouquette raising her clothes up to her thighs so as not to catch fire, all looking red in the reflection of the flames, sweating and dishevelled in this witch’s kitchen. The piles of coal increased, and the burning heat cracked the ceiling of the vast hall.
“Enough, now!” cried Maheude; “the store-room is afire.”
“So much the better,” replied Mother Brulé. “That will do the work. Ah, by God! haven’t I said that I would pay them out for the death of my man!”
At this moment Jeanlin’s shrill voice was heard:
“Look out! I’ll put it out, I will! I’ll let it all off!”
He had come in among the first, and had kicked his legs about among the crowd, delighted at the fray and seeking out what mischief he could do; the idea had occurred to him to turn on the discharge taps and let off the steam.
The jets came out with the violence of volleys; the five boilers were emptied with the sound of a tempest, whistling in such a roar of thunder that one’s ears seemed to bleed. Everything had disappeared in the midst of the vapour, the hot coal grew pale, and the women were nothing more than shadows with broken gestures. The child alone appeared mounted on the gallery, behind the whirlwinds of white steam, filled with delight and grinning broadly in the joy of unchaining this hurricane.
This lasted nearly a quarter of an hour. A few buckets of water had been thrown over the heaps to complete their extinction; all danger of a fire had gone by, but the anger of the crowd had not subsided; on the contrary, it had been whipped up. Men went down with hammers, even the women armed themselves with iron bars; and they talked of smashing boilers, of breaking engines, and of demolishing the mine.
Étienne, forewarned, hastened to come up with Maheu. He himself was becoming intoxicated and carried away by this hot fever of revenge. He struggled, however, and entreated them to be calm, now that, with cut cables, extinguished fires, and empty boilers, work was impossible. He was not always listened to; and was again about to be carried away by the crowd, when hoots arose outside at a little low door where the ladder passage emerged.
“Down with the traitors! — Oh! the dirty chops of the cowards! — Down with them! down with them!”
The men were beginning to come up from below. The first arrivals, blinded by the daylight, stood there with quivering eyelids. Then they moved away, trying to gain the road and flee.
“Down with the cowards! down with the traitors!”
The whole band of strikers had run up. In less than three minutes there was not a man left in the buildings; the five hundred Montsou men were ranged in two rows, and the Vandame men, who had had the treachery to go down, were forced to pass between this double hedge. And as every fresh miner appeared at the door of the passage, covered with the black mud of work and with garments in rags, the hooting redoubled, and ferocious jokes arose. Oh! look at that one! — three inches of legs and then his arse! and this one with his nose eaten by those Volcan girls! and this other, with eyes pissing out enough wax to furnish ten cathedrals! and this other, the tall fellow without a rump and as long as Lent! An enormous putter-woman, who rolled out with her breast to her belly and her belly to her backside, raised a furious laugh. They wanted to handle them, the joking increased and was turning to cruelty, blows would soon have rained; while the row of poor devils came out shivering and silent beneath the abuse, with sidelong looks in expectation of blows, glad when they could at last rush away out of the mine.
“Hallo! how many are there in there?” asked Étienne. He was astonished to see them still coming out, and irritated at the idea that it was not a mere handful of workers, urged by hunger, terrorized by the captains. They had lied to him, then, in the forest; nearly all Jean-Bart had gone down. But a cry escaped from him and he rushed forward when he saw Chaval standing on the threshold. “By God! is this the rendezvous you called us to?”
Imprecations broke out and there was a movement of the crowd towards the traitor. What! he had sworn with them the day before, and now they found him down below with the others! Was he, then, making fools of people?
“Off with him! To the shaft! to the shaft!”
Chaval, white with fear, stammered and tried to explain. But Étienne cut him short, carried out of himself and sharing the fury of the bank.
“You wanted to be in it, and you shall be in it. Come on! take your damned snout along!”
Another clamour covered his voice. Catherine, in her turn, had just appeared, dazzled by the bright sunlight, and frightened at falling into the midst of these savages. She was panting, with legs aching from the hundred and two ladders, and with bleeding palms, when Maheude, seeing her, rushed forward with her hand up.
“Ah! slut! you, too! When your mother is dying of hunger you betray her for your bully!”
Maheu held back her arm, and stopped the blow. But he shook his daughter; he was enraged, like his wife; he threw her conduct in her face, and both lost their heads, shouting louder than their mates.
The sight of Catherine had completed Étienne’s exasperation. He repeated:
“On we go to the other pits, and you come with us, you dirty devil!”
Chaval had scarcely time to get his sabots from the shed and to throw his woollen jacket over his frozen shoulders. They all dragged him on, forcing him to run in the midst of them. Catherine, bewildered, also put on her sabots, buttoning at her neck her man’s old jacket, with which she kept off the cold; and she ran behind her lover, she would not leave him, for surely they were going to murder him.
Then in two minutes Jean-Bart was emptied. Jeanlin had found a horn and was blowing it, producing hoarse sounds, as though he were gathering oxen together. The women — Mother Brulé, the Levaque, and Mouquette — raised their skirts to run, while Levaque, with an axe in his hand, manipulated it like a drum-major’s stick. Other men continued to arrive; they were nearly a thousand, without order, again flowing on to the road like a torrent let loose. The gates were too narrow, and the palings were broken down.
“To the pits! — Down with the traitors! — No more work!”
And Jean-Bart fell suddenly into a great silence. Not a man was left, not a breath was heard. Deneulin came out of the captains’ room, and quite alone, with a gesture forbidding any one to follow him, he went over the pit. He was pale and very calm.
At first he stopped before the shaft, lifting his eyes to look at the cut cables; the steel ends hung useless, the bite of the file had left a living scar, a fresh wound which gleamed in the black grease. Afterwards he went up to the engine, and looked at the crank, which was motionless, like the joint of a colossal limb struck by paralysis. He touched the metal, which had already cooled, and the cold made him shudder as though he had touched a corpse. Then he went down to the boiler-room, walked slowly before the extinguished stoves, yawning and inundated, and struck his foot against the boilers, which sounded hollow. Well! it was quite finished; his ruin was complete. Even if he mended the cables and lit the fires, where would he find men? Another fortnight’s strike and he would be bankrupt. And in this certainty of disaster he no longer felt any hatred of the Montsou brigands; he felt that all had a complicity in it, that it was a general agelong fault. They were brutes, no doubt, but brutes who could not read, and who were dying of hunger.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02