AND the troop went off over the flat plain, white with frost beneath the pale winter sun, and overflowed the path as they passed through the beetroot fields.
From the Fourche-aux-Boeufs, Étienne had assumed command. He cried his orders while the crowd moved on, and organized the march. Jeanlin galloped at the head, performing barbarous music on his horn. Then the women came in the first ranks, some of them armed with sticks: Maheude, with wild eyes seemed to be seeking afar for the promised city of justice, Mother Brulé, the Levaque woman, Mouquette, striding along beneath their rags, like soldiers setting out for the seat of war. If they had any encounters, we should see if the police dared to strike women. And the men followed in a confused flock, a stream that grew larger and larger, bristling with iron bars and dominated by Levaque’s single axe, with its blade glistening in the sun. Étienne, in the middle, kept Chaval in sight, forcing him to walk before him; while Maheu, behind, gloomily kept an eye on Catherine, the only woman among these men, obstinately trotting near her lover for fear that he would be hurt. Bare heads were dishevelled in the air; only the clank of sabots could be heard, like the movement of released cattle, carried away by Jeanlin’s wild trumpeting.
But suddenly a new cry arose:
“Bread! bread! bread!”
It was midday; the hunger of six weeks on strike was awaking in these empty stomachs, whipped up by this race across the fields. The few crusts of the morning and Mouquette’s chestnuts had long been forgotten; their stomachs were crying out, and this suffering was added to their fury against the traitors.
“To the pits! No more work! Bread!”
Étienne, who had refused to eat his share at the settlement, felt an unbearable tearing sensation in his chest. He made no complaint, but mechanically took his tin from time to time and swallowed a gulp of gin, shaking so much that he thought he needed it to carry him to the end. His cheeks were heated and his eyes inflamed. He kept his head, however, and still wished to avoid needless destruction.
As they arrived at the Joiselle road a Vandame pike-man, who had joined the band for revenge on his master, impelled the men towards the right, shouting:
“To Gaston-Marie! Must stop the pump! Let the water ruin Jean-Bart!”
The mob was already turning, in spite of the protests of Étienne, who begged them to let the pumping continue. What was the good of destroying the galleries? It offended his workman’s heart, in spite of his resentment. Maheu also thought it unjust to take revenge on a machine. But the pikeman still shouted his cry of vengeance, and Étienne had to cry still louder:
“To Mirou! There are traitors down there! To Mirou! to Mirou!”
With a gesture, he had turned the crowd towards the left road; while Jeanlin, going ahead, was blowing louder than ever. An eddy was produced in the crowd; this time Gaston-Marie was saved.
And the four kilometres which separated them from Mirou were traversed in half an hour, almost at running pace, across the interminable plain. The canal on this side cut it with a long icy ribbon. The leafless trees on the banks, changed by the frost into giant candelabra, alone broke this pale uniformity, prolonged and lost in the sky at the horizon as in a sea. An undulation of the ground hid Montsou and Marchiennes; there was nothing but bare immensity.
They reached the pit, and found a captain standing on a footbridge at the screening-shed to receive them. They all well knew Father Quandieu, the doyen of the Montsou captains, an old man whose skin and hair were quite white, and who was in his seventies, a miracle of fine health in the mines.
“What have you come after here, you pack of meddlers?” he shouted.
The band stopped. It was no longer a master, it was a mate; and a certain respect held them back before this old workman.
“There are men down below,” said Étienne. “Make them come up.”
“Yes, there are men there,” said Father Quandieu, “some six dozen; the others were afraid of you evil beggars! But I warn you that not one comes up, or you will have to deal with me!”
Exclamations arose, the men pushed, the women advanced. Quickly coming down from the footbridge, the captain now barred the door.
Then Maheu tried to interfere.
“It is our right, old man. How can we make the strike general if we don’t force all the mates to be on our side?”
The old man was silent a moment. Evidently his ignorance on the subject of coalition equalled the pike-man’s. At last he replied:
“It may be your right, I don’t say. But I only know my orders. I am alone here; the men are down till three, and they shall stay there till three.”
The last words were lost in hooting. Fists were threateningly advanced, the women deafened him, and their hot breath blew in his face. But he still held out, his head erect, and his beard and hair white as snow; his courage had so swollen his voice that he could be heard distinctly over the tumult.
“By God! you shall not pass! As true as the sun shines, I would rather die than let you touch the cables. Don’t push any more, or I’m damned if I don’t fling myself down the shaft before you!”
The crowd drew back shuddering and impressed. He went on:
“Where is the beast who does not understand that? I am only a workman like you others. I have been told to guard here, and I’m guarding.”
That was as far as Father Quandieu’s intelligence went, stiffened by his obstinacy of military duty, his narrow skull, and eyes dimmed by the black melancholy of half a century spent underground. The men looked at him moved, feeling within them an echo of what he said, this military obedience, the sense of fraternity and resignation in danger. He saw that they were hesitating still, and repeated:
“I’m damned if I don’t fling myself down the shaft before you!”
A great recoil carried away the mob. They all turned, and in the rush took the right-hand road, which stretched far away through the fields. Again cries arose:
“To Madelaine! To Crévecoeur! no more work! Bread! bread!”
But in the centre, as they went on, there was hustling. It was Chaval, they said, who was trying to take advantage of an opportunity to escape. Étienne had seized him by the arm, threatening to do for him if he was planning some treachery. And the other struggled and protested furiously:
“What’s all this for? Isn’t a man free? I’ve been freezing the last hour. I want to clean myself. Let me go!”
He was, in fact, suffering from the coal glued to his skin by sweat, and his woollen garment was no protection.
“On you go, or we’ll clean you,” replied Étienne. “Don’t expect to get your life at a bargain.”
They were still running, and he turned towards Catherine, who was keeping up well. It annoyed him to feel her so near him, so miserable, shivering beneath her man’s old jacket and her muddy trousers. She must be nearly dead of fatigue, she was running all the same.
“You can go off, you can,” he said at last.
Catherine seemed not to hear. Her eyes, on meeting Étienne’s, only flamed with reproach for a moment. She did not stop. Why did he want her to leave her man? Chaval was not at all kind, it was true; he would even beat her sometimes. But he was her man, the one who had had her first; and it enraged her that they should throw themselves on him — more than a thousand of them. She would have defended him without any tenderness at all, out of pride.
“Off you go!” repeated Maheu, violently.
Her father’s order slackened her course for a moment. She trembled, and her eyelids swelled with tears. Then, in spite of her fear, she came back to the same place again, still running. Then they let her be.
The mob crossed the Joiselle road, went a short distance up the Cron road and then mounted towards Cougny. On this side, factory chimneys striped the flat horizon; wooden sheds, brick workshops with large dusty windows, appeared along the street. They passed one after another the low buildings of two settlements — that of the Cent-Quatre-Vingts, then that of the Soixante-Seize; and from each of them, at the sound of the horn and the clamour arising from every mouth, whole families came out — men, women, and children — running to join their mates in the rear. When they came up to Madeleine there were at least fifteen hundred. The road descended in a gentle slope; the rumbling flood of strikers had to turn round the pit-bank before they could spread over the mine square.
It was now not more than two o’clock. But the captains had been warned and were hastening the ascent as the band arrived. The men were all up, only some twenty remained and were now disembarking from the cage. They fled and were pursued with stones. Two were struck, another left the sleeve of his jacket behind. This man-hunt saved the material, and neither the cables nor the boilers were touched. The flood was already moving away, rolling on towards the next pit.
This one, Crévecoeur, was only five hundred metres away from Madeleine. There, also, the mob arrived in the midst of the ascent. A putter-girl was taken and whipped by the women with her breeches split open and her buttocks exposed before the laughing men. The trammer-boys had their ears boxed, the pikemen got away, their sides blue from blows and their noses bleeding. And in this growing ferocity, in this old need of revenge which was turning every head with madness, the choked cries went on, death to traitors, hatred against ill-paid work, the roaring of bellies after bread. They began to cut the cables, but the file would not bite, and the task was too long now that the fever was on them for moving onward, for ever onward. At the boilers a tap was broken; while the water, thrown by bucketsful into the stoves, made the metal gratings burst.
Outside they were talking of marching on Saint-Thomas. This was the best disciplined pit. The strike had not touched it, nearly seven hundred men must have gone down there. This exasperated them; they would wait for these men with sticks, ranged for battle, just to see who would get the best of it. But the rumour ran along that there were gendarmes at Saint-Thomas, the gendarmes of the morning whom they had made fun of. How was this known? nobody could say. No matter! they were seized by fear and decided on Feutry-Cantel. Their giddiness carried them on, all were on the road, clanking their sabots, rushing forward. To Feutry-Cantel! to Feutry-Cantel! The cowards there were certainly four hundred in number and there would be fun! Situated three kilometres away, this pit lay in a fold of the ground near the Scarpe. They were already climbing the slope of the Platriéres, beyond the road to Beaugnies, when a voice, no one knew from whom, threw out the idea that the soldiers were, perhaps, down there at Feutry-Cantel. Then from one to the other of the column it was repeated that the soldiers were down there. They slackened their march, panic gradually spread in the country, idle without work, which they had been scouring for hours. Why had they not come across any soldiers? This impunity troubled them, at the thought of the repression which they felt to be coming.
Without any one knowing where it came from, a new word of command turned them towards another pit.
“To the Victoire! to the Victoire!”
Were there,, then, neither soldiers nor police at the Victoire? Nobody knew. All seemed reassured. And turning round they descended from the Beaumont side and cut across the fields to reach the Joiselle road. The railway line barred their passage, and they crossed it, pulling down the palings. Now they were approaching Montsou, the gradual undulation of the landscape grew less, the sea of beetroot fields enlarged, reaching far away to the black houses at Marchiennes.
This time it was a march of five good kilometres. So strong an impulse pushed them on that they had no feeling of their terrible fatigue, or of their bruised and wounded feet. The rear continued to lengthen, increased by mates enlisted on the roads and in the settlements. When they had passed the canal at the Magache bridge, and appeared before the Victoire, there were two thousand of them. But three o’clock had struck, the ascent was completed, not a man remained below. Their disappointment was spent in vain threats; they could only heave broken bricks at the workmen who had arrived to take their duty at the earth-cutting. There was a rush, and the deserted pit belonged to them. And in their rage at not finding a traitor’s face to strike, they attacked things. A rankling abscess was bursting within them, a poisoned boil of slow growth. Years and years of hunger tortured them with a thirst for massacre and destruction. Behind a shed Étienne saw some porters filling a wagon with coal.
“Will you just clear out of the bloody place!” he shouted. “Not a bit of coal goes out!”
At his orders some hundred strikers ran up, and the porters only had time to escape. Men unharnessed the horses, which were frightened and set off, struck in the haunches; while others, overturning the wagon, broke the shafts.
Levaque, with violent blows of his axe, had thrown himself on the platforms to break down the footbridges. They resisted, and it occurred to him to tear up the rails, destroying the line from one end of the square to the other. Soon the whole band set to this task. Maheu made the metal chairs leap up, armed with his iron bar which he used as a lever. During this time Mother Brulé led away the women and invaded the lamp cabin, where their sticks covered the soil with a carnage of lamps. Maheude, carried out of herself, was laying about her as vigorously as the Levaque woman. All were soaked in oil, and Mouquette dried her hands on her skirt, laughing to find herself so dirty. Jeanlin for a joke, had emptied a lamp down her neck. But all this revenge produced nothing to eat. Stomachs were crying out louder than ever. And the great lamentation dominated still:
“Bread! bread! bread!”
A former captain at the Victoire kept a stall near by. No doubt he had fled in fear, for his shed was abandoned. When the women came back, and the men had finished destroying the railway, they besieged the stall, the shutters of which yielded at once. They found no bread there; there were only two pieces of raw flesh and a sack of potatoes. But in the pillage they discovered some fifty bottles of gin, which disappeared like a drop of water drunk up by the sand.
Étienne, having emptied his tin, was able to refill it. Little by little a terrible drunkenness, the drunkenness of the starved, was inflaming his eyes and baring his teeth like a wolf’s between his pallid lips. Suddenly he perceived that Chaval had gone off in the midst of the tumult. He swore, and men ran to seize the fugitive, who was hiding with Catherine behind the timber supply.
“Ah! you dirty swine; you are afraid of getting into trouble!” shouted Étienne. “It was you in the forest who called for a strike of the engine-men, to stop the pumps, and now you want to play us a filthy trick! Very well! By God! we will go back to Gaston-Marie. I will have you smash the pump; yes, by God! you shall smash it!”
He was drunk; he was urging his men against this pump which he had saved a few hours earlier.
“To Gaston-Marie! to Gaston-Marie!”
They all cheered, and rushed on, while Chaval, seized by the shoulders, was drawn and pushed violently along, while he constantly asked to be allowed to wash.
“Will you take yourself off, then?” cried Maheu to Catherine who had also begun to run again.
This time she did not even draw back, but turned her burning eyes on her father, and went on running.
Once more the mob ploughed through the flat-plain. They were retracing their steps over the long straight paths, by the fields endlessly spread out. It was four o’clock; the sun which approached the horizon, lengthened the shadows of this horde with their furious gestures over the frozen soil.
They avoided Montsou, and farther on rejoined the Joiselle road; to spare the journey round Fourche-aux-Boeufs, they passed beneath the walls of Piolaine. The Grégoires had just gone out, having to visit a lawyer before going to dine with the Hennebeaus, where they would find Cécile. The estate seemed asleep, with its avenue of deserted limes, its kitchen garden and its orchard bared by the winter. Nothing was stirring in the house, and the closed windows were dulled by the warm steam within. Out of the profound silence an impression of good-natured comfort arose, the patriarchal sensation of good beds and a good table, the wise happiness of the proprietor’s existence.
Without stopping, the band cast gloomy looks through the grating and at the length of protecting walls, bristling with broken bottles. The cry arose again:
“Bread! bread! bread!”
The dogs alone replied, by barking ferociously, a pair of Great Danes, with rough coats, who stood with open jaws. And behind the closed blind there were only the servants. Mélanie the cook and Honorine the housemaid, attracted by this cry, pale and perspiring with fear at seeing these savages go by. They fell on their knees, and thought themselves killed on hearing a single stone breaking a pane of a neighbouring window. It was a joke of Jeanlin’s; he had manufactured a sling with a piece of cord, and had just sent a little passing greeting to the Grégoires. Already he was again blowing his horn, the band was lost in the distance, and the cry grew fainter:
“Bread! bread! bread!”
They arrived at Gaston-Marie in still greater numbers, more than two thousand five hundred madmen, breaking everything, sweeping away everything, with the force of a torrent which gains strength as it moves. The police had passed here an hour earlier, and had gone off towards Saint-Thomas, led astray by some peasants; in their haste they had not even taken the precaution of leaving a few men behind to guard the pit. In less than a quarter of an hour the fires were overturned, the boilers emptied, the buildings torn down and devastated. But it was the pump which they specially threatened. It was not enough to stop it in the last expiring breath of its steam; they threw themselves on it as on a living person whose life they required.
“The first blow is yours!” repeated Étienne, putting a hammer into Chaval’s hand. “Come! you have sworn with the others!”
Chaval drew back trembling, and in the hustling the hammer fell; while other men, without waiting, battered the pump with blows from iron bars, blows from bricks, blows from anything they could lay their hands on. Some even broke sticks over it. The nuts leapt off, the pieces of steel and copper were dislocated like torn limbs. The blow of a shovel, delivered with full force, fractured the metal body; the water escaped and emptied itself, and there was a supreme gurgle like an agonizing death-rattle.
That was the end, and the mob found themselves outside again, madly pushing on behind Étienne, who would not let Chaval go.
“Kill him! the traitor! To the shaft! to the shaft!”
The livid wretch, clinging with imbecile obstinacy to his fixed idea, continued to stammer his need of cleaning himself.
“Wait, if that bothers you, said the Levaque woman. “Here! here’s a bucket?”
There was a pond there, an infiltration of the water from the pump. It was white with a thick layer of ice; and they struck it and broke the ice, forcing him to dip his head in this cold water.
“Duck then,” repeated Mother Brulé. “By God! if you don’t duck we’ll shove you in. And now you shall have a drink of it; yes, yes, like a beast, with your jaws in the trough!”
He had to drink on all fours. They all laughed, with cruel laughter. One woman pulled his ears, another woman threw in his face a handful of dung found fresh on the road. His old woollen jacket in tatters no longer held together. He was haggard, stumbling, and with struggling movements of his hips he tried to flee.
Maheu had pushed him, and Maheude was among those who grew furious, both of them satisfying their old spite; even Mouquette, who generally remained such good friends with her old lovers, was wild with this one, treating him as a good-for-nothing, and talking of taking his breeches down to see if he was still a man.
Étienne made her hold her tongue.
“That’s enough. There’s no need for all to set to it. If you like, you, we will just settle it together.”
His fists closed and his eyes were lit up with homicidal fury; his intoxication was turning into the desire to kill.
“Are you ready? One of us must stay here. Give him a knife; I’ve got mine.”
Catherine, exhausted and terrified, gazed at him. She remembered his confidences, his desire to devour a man when he had drunk, poisoned after the third glass, to such an extent had his drunkards of parents put this beastliness into his body. Suddenly she leapt forward, struck him with both her woman’s hands, and choking with indignation shouted into his face:
“Coward! coward! coward! Isn’t it enough, then, all these abominations? You want to kill him now that he can’t stand upright any longer!”
She turned towards her father and her mother; she turned towards the others.
“You are cowards! cowards! Kill me, then, with him! I will tear your eyes out, I will, if you touch him again. Oh! the cowards!”
And she planted herself before her man to defend him, forgetting the blows, forgetting the life of misery, lifted up by the idea that she belonged to him since he had taken her, and that it was a shame for her when they so crushed him.
Étienne had grown pale beneath this girl’s blows. At first he had been about to knock her down; then, after having wiped his face with the movement of a man who is recovering from intoxication, he said to Chaval, in the midst of deep silence:
“She is right; that’s enough. Off you go.”
Immediately Chaval was away, and Catherine galloped behind him. The crowd gazed at them as they disappeared round a corner of the road; but Maheude muttered:
“You were wrong; ought to have kept him. He is sure to be after some treachery.”
But the mob began to march on again. Five o’clock was about to strike. The sun, as red as a furnace on the edge of the horizon, seemed to set fire to the whole plain. A pedlar who was passing informed them that the military were descending from the Crévecoeur side. Then they turned. An order ran:
“To Montsou! To the manager! — Bread! bread! bread!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02