ON that Sunday, ever since eight o’clock, Souvarine had been sitting alone in the parlour of the Avantage, at his accustomed place, with his head against the wall. Not a single collier knew where to get two sous for a drink, and never had the bars had fewer customers. So Madame Rasseneur, motionless at the counter, preserved an irritated silence; while Rasseneur, standing before the iron fireplace, seemed to be gazing with a reflective air at the brown smoke from the coal.
Suddenly, in this heavy silence of an over-heated room, three light quick blows struck against one of the windowpanes made Souvarine turn his head. He rose, for he recognized the signal which Étienne had already used several times before, in order to call him, when he saw him from without, smoking his cigarette at an empty table. But before the engine-man could reach the door, Rasseneur had opened it, and, recognizing the man who stood there in the light from the window, he said to him:
“Are you afraid that I shall sell you? You can talk better here than on the road.”
Étienne entered. Madame Rasseneur politely offered him a glass, which he refused, with a gesture. The innkeeper added:
“I guessed long ago where you hide yourself. If I was a spy, as your friends say, I should have sent the police after you a week ago.”
“There is no need for you to defend yourself,” replied the young man. “I know that you have never eaten that sort of bread. People may have different ideas and esteem each other all the same.”
And there was silence once more. Souvarine had gone back to his chair, with his back to the wall and his eyes fixed on the smoke from his cigarette, but his feverish fingers were moving restlessly, and he ran them over his knees, seeking the warm fur of Poland, who was absent this evening; it was an unconscious discomfort, something that was lacking, he could not exactly say what.
Seated on the other side of the table, Étienne at last said:
“To-morrow work begins again at the Voreux. The Belgians have come with little Négrel.”
“Yes, they landed them at nightfall,” muttered Rasseneur, who remained standing. “As long as they don’t kill each other after all!”
Then raising his voice:
“No, you know, I don’t want to begin our disputes over again, but this will end badly if you hold out any longer. Why, your story is just like that of your International. I met Pluchart the day before yesterday, at Lille, where I went on business. It’s going wrong, that machine of his.”
He gave details. The association, after having conquered the workers of the whole world, in an outburst of propaganda which had left the middle class still shuddering, was now being devoured and slowly destroyed by an internal struggle between vanities and ambitions. Since the anarchists had triumphed in it, chasing out the earlier evolutionists, everything was breaking up; the original aim, the reform of the wage-system, was lost in the midst of the squabbling of sects; the scientific framework was disorganized by the hatred of discipline. And already it was possible to foresee the final miscarriage of this general revolt which for a moment had threatened to carry away in a breath the old rotten society.
“Pluchart is ill over it,” Rasseneur went on. “And he has no voice at all now. All the same, he talks on in spite of everything and wants to go to Paris. And he told me three times over that our strike was done for.”
Étienne with his eyes on the ground let him talk on without interruption. The evening before he had chatted with some mates, and he felt that breaths of spite and suspicion were passing over him, those first breaths of unpopularity which forerun defeat. And he remained gloomy, he would not confess dejection in the presence of a man who had foretold to him that the crowd would hoot him in his turn on the day when they had to avenge themselves for a miscalculation.
“No doubt the strike is done for, I know that as well as Pluchart,” he said. “But we foresaw that. We accepted this strike against our wishes, we didn’t count on finishing up with the Company. Only one gets carried away, one begins to expect things, and when it turns out badly one forgets that one ought to have expected that, instead of lamenting and quarrelling as if it were a catastrophe tumbled down from heaven.”
“Then if you think the game’s lost,” asked Rasseneur, “why don’t you make the mates listen to reason?”
The young man looked at him fixedly.
“Listen! enough of this. You have your ideas, I have mine. I came in here to show you that I feel esteem for you in spite of everything. But I still think that if we come to grief over this trouble, our starved carcasses will do more for the people’s cause than all your common-sense politics. Ah! if one of those bloody soldiers would just put a bullet in my heart, that would be a fine way of ending!”
His eyes were moist, as in this cry there broke out the secret desire of the vanquished, the refuge in which he desired to lose his torment for ever.
“Well said!” declared Madame Rasseneur, casting on her husband a look which was full of all the contempt of her radical opinions.
Souvarine, with a vague gaze, feeling about with his nervous hands, did not appear to hear. His fair girlish face, with the thin nose and small pointed teeth, seemed to be growing savage in some mystic dream full of bloody visions. And he began to dream aloud, replying to a remark of Rasseneur’s about the International which had been let fall in the course of the conversation.
“They are all cowards; there is only one man who can make their machine into a terrible instrument of destruction. It requires will, and none of them have will; and that’s why the revolution will miscarry once more.”
He went on in a voice of disgust, lamenting the imbecility of men, while the other two were disturbed by these somnambulistic confidences made in the darkness. In Russia there was nothing going on well, and he was in despair over the news he had received. His old companions were all turning to the politicians; the famous Nihilists who made Europe tremble — sons of village priests, of the lower middle class, of tradesmen — could not rise above the idea of national liberation, and seemed to believe that the world would be delivered — when they had killed their despot. As soon as he spoke to them of razing society to the ground like a ripe harvest — as soon as he even pronounced the infantile word “republic”— he felt that he was misunderstood and a disturber, henceforth unclassed, enrolled among the lost leaders of cosmopolitan revolution. His patriotic heart struggled, however, and it was with painful bitterness that he repeated his favourite expression:
“Foolery! They’ll never get out of it with their foolery.”
Then, lowering his voice still more, in a few bitter words he described his old dream of fraternity. He had renounced his rank and his fortune; he had gone among workmen, only in the hope of seeing at last the foundation of a new society of labour in common. All the sous in his pockets had long gone to the urchins of the settlement; he had been as tender as a brother with the colliers, smiling at their suspicion, winning them over by his quiet workmanlike ways and his dislike of chattering. But decidedly the fusion had not taken place; he remained a stranger, with his contempt of all bonds, his desire to keep himself free of all petty vanities and enjoyments. And since this morning he had been especially exasperated by reading an incident in the newspapers.
His voice changed, his eyes grew bright, he fixed them on Étienne, directly addressing him:
“Now, do you understand that? These hatworkers at Marseilles who have won the great lottery prize of a hundred thousand francs have gone off at once and invested it, declaring that they are going to live without doing anything! Yes, that is your idea, all of you French workmen; you want to unearth a treasure in order to devour it alone afterwards in some lazy, selfish corner. You may cry out as much as you like against the rich, you haven’t got courage enough to give back to the poor the money that luck brings you. You will never be worthy of happiness as long as you own anything, and your hatred of the bourgeois proceeds solely from an angry desire to be bourgeois yourselves in their place.”
Rasseneur burst out laughing. The idea that the two Marseilles workmen ought to renounce the big prize seemed to him absurd. But Souvarine grew pale; his face changed and became terrible in one of those religious rages which exterminate nations. He cried:
“You will all be mown down, overthrown, cast on the dung-heap. Someone will be born who will annihilate your race of cowards and pleasure-seekers. And look here! you see my hands; if my hands were able they would take up the earth, like that, and shake it until it was smashed to fragments, and you were all buried beneath the rubbish.”
“Well said,” declared Madame Rasseneur, with her polite and convinced air.
There was silence again. Then Étienne spoke once more of the Borinage men. He questioned Souvarine concerning the steps that had been taken at the Voreux. But the engine-man was still preoccupied, and scarcely replied. He only knew that cartridges would be distributed to the soldiers who were guarding the pit; and the nervous restlessness of his fingers over his knees increased to such an extent that, at last, he became conscious of what was lacking — the soft and soothing fur of the tame rabbit.
“Where is Poland, then?” he asked.
The innkeeper laughed again as he looked at his wife. After an awkward silence he made up his mind:
“Poland? She is in the pot.”
Since her adventure with Jeanlin, the pregnant rabbit, no doubt wounded, had only brought forth dead young ones; and to avoid feeding a useless mouth they had resigned themselves that very day to serve her up with potatoes.
“Yes, you ate one of her legs this evening. Eh! You licked your fingers after it!”
Souvarine had not understood at first. Then he became very pale, and his face contracted with nausea; while, in spite of his stoicism, two large tears were swelling beneath his eyelids.
But no one had time to notice this emotion, for the door had opened roughly and Chaval had appeared, pushing Catherine before him. After having made himself drunk with beer and bluster in all the public-houses of Montsou, the idea had occurred to him to go to the Avantage to show his old friends that he was not afraid. As he came in, he said to his mistress:
“By God! I tell you you shall drink a glass in here; I’ll break the jaws of the first man who looks askance at me!”
Catherine, moved at the sight of Étienne, had become very pale. When Chaval in his turn perceived him, he grinned in his evil fashion.
“Two glasses, Madame Rasseneur! We’re wetting the new start of work.”
Without a word she poured out, as a woman who never refused her beer to any one. There was silence, and neither the landlord nor the two others stirred from their places.
“I know people who’ve said that I was a spy,” Chaval went on swaggeringly, “and I’m waiting for them just to say it again to my face, so that we can have a bit of explanation.”
No one replied, and the men turned their heads and gazed vaguely at the walls.
“There are some who sham, and there are some who don’t sham,” he went on louder. “I’ve nothing to hide. I’ve left Deneulin’s dirty shop, and to-morrow I’m going down to the Voreux with a dozen Belgians, who have been given me to lead because I’m held in esteem; and if any one doesn’t like that, he can just say so, and we’ll talk it over.”
Then, as the same contemptuous silence greeted his provocations, he turned furiously on Catherine.
“Will you drink, by God? Drink with me to the confusion of all the dirty beasts who refuse to work.”
She drank, but with so trembling a hand that the two glasses struck together with a tinkling sound. He had now pulled out of his pocket a handful of silver, which he exhibited with drunken ostentation, saying that he had earned that with his sweat, and that he defied the shammers to show ten sous. The attitude of his mates exasperated him, and he began to come to direct insults.
“Then it is at night that the moles come out? The police have to go to sleep before we meet the brigands.”
Étienne had risen, very calm and resolute.
“Listen! You annoy me. Yes, you are a spy; your money still stinks of some treachery. You’ve sold yourself, and it disgusts me to touch your skin. No matter; I’m your man. It is quite time that one of us did for the other.”
Chaval clenched his fists.
“Come along, then, cowardly dog! I must call you so to warm you up. You all alone — I’m quite willing; and you shall pay for all the bloody tricks that have been played on me.”
With suppliant arms Catherine advanced between them. But they had no need to repel her; she felt the necessity of the battle, and slowly drew back of her own accord. Standing against the wall, she remained silent, so paralysed with anguish that she no longer shivered, her large eyes gazing at these two men who were going to kill each other over her.
Madame Rasseneur simply removed the glasses from the counter for fear that they might be broken. Then she sat down again on the bench, without showing any improper curiosity. But two old mates could not be left to murder each other like this. Rasseneur persisted in interfering, and Souvarine had to take him by the shoulder and lead him back to the table, saying:
“It doesn’t concern you. There is one of them too many, and the strongest must live.”
Without waiting for the attack, Chaval’s fists were already dealing blows at space. He was the taller of the two, and his blows swung about aiming at the face, with furious cutting movements of both arms one after the other, as though he were handling a couple of sabres. And he went on talking, playing to the gallery with volleys of abuse, which served to excite him.
“Ah! you damned devil, I’ll have your nose! I’ll do for your bloody nose! Just let me get at your chops, you whores’ looking-glass; I’ll make a hash of it for the pigs and then we shall see if the strumpets will run after you!”
In silence, and with clenched teeth, Étienne gathered up his small figure, according to the rules of the game, protecting his chest and face by both fists; and he watched and let them fly like springs released, with terrible straight blows.
At first they did each other little damage. The whirling and blustering blows of the one, the cool watchfulness of the other, prolonged the struggle. A chair was overthrown; their heavy boots crushed the white sand scattered on the floor. But at last they were out of breath, their panting respiration was heard, while their faces became red and swollen as from an interior fire which flamed out from the clear holes of their eyes.
“Played!” yelled Chaval; “trumps on your carcass!”
In fact his fist, working like a flail, had struck his adversary’s shoulder. Étienne restrained a groan of pain and the only sound that was heard was the dull bruising of the muscles. Étienne replied with a straight blow to Chaval’s chest, which would have knocked him out, had he had not saved himself by one of his constant goat-like leaps. The blow, however, caught him on the left flank with such effect that he tottered, momentarily winded. He became furious on feeling his arm grow limp with pain, and kicked out like a wild beast, aiming at his adversary’s belly with his heel.
“Have at your guts!” he stammered in a choked voice. “I’ll pull them out and unwind them for you!”
Étienne avoided the blow, so indignant at this infraction of the laws of fair fighting that he broke silence.
“Hold your tongue, brute! And no feet, by God! or I take a chair and bash you with it!”
Then the struggle became serious. Rasseneur was disgusted, and would again have interfered, but a severe look from his wife held him back: had not two customers a right to settle an affair in the house? He simply placed himself before the fireplace, for fear lest they should tumble over into it. Souvarine, in his quiet way, had rolled a cigarette, but he forgot to light it. Catherine was motionless against the wall; only her hands had unconsciously risen to her waist, and with constant fidgeting movements were twisting and tearing at the stuff of her dress. She was striving as hard as possible not to cry out, and so, perhaps, kill one of them by declaring her preference; but she was, too, so distracted that she did not even know which she preferred.
Chaval, who was bathed in sweat and striking at random, soon became exhausted. In spite of his anger, Étienne continued to cover himself, parrying nearly all the blows, a few of which grazed him. His ear was split, a finger nail had torn away a piece of his neck, and this so smarted that he swore in his turn as he drove out one of his terrible straight blows. Once more Chaval saved his chest by a leap, but he had lowered himself, and the fist reached his face, smashing his nose and crushing one eye. Immediately a jet of blood came from his nostrils, and his eye became swollen and bluish. Blinded by this red flood, and dazed by the shock to his skull, the wretch was beating the air with his arms at random, when another blow, striking him at last full in the chest, finished him. There was a crunching sound; he fell on his back with a heavy thud, as when a sack of plaster is emptied.
“Get up! if you want some more, we’ll begin again.” Without replying, Chaval, after a few minutes’ stupefaction, moved on the ground and stretched his limbs. He picked himself up with difficulty, resting for a moment curled up on his knees, doing something with his hand in the bottom of his pocket which could not be observed. Then, when he was up, he rushed forward again, his throat swelling with a savage yell.
But Catherine had seen; and in spite of herself a loud cry came from her heart, astonishing her like the avowal of a preference she had herself been ignorant of:
“Take care! he’s got his knife!”
Étienne had only time to parry the first blow with his arm. His woollen jacket was cut by the thick blade, one of those blades fastened by a copper ferrule into a boxwood handle. He had already seized Chaval’s wrist, and a terrible struggle began; for he felt that he would be lost if he let go, while the other shook his arm in the effort to free it and strike. The weapon was gradually lowered as their stiffened limbs grew fatigued. Étienne twice felt the cold sensation of the steel against his skin; and he had to make a supreme effort, so crushing the other’s wrist that the knife slipped from his hand. Both of them had fallen to the earth, and it was Étienne who snatched it up, brandishing it in his turn. He held Chaval down beneath his knee and threatened to slit his throat open.
“Ah, traitor! by God! you’ve got it coming to you now!”
He felt an awful voice within, deafening him. It arose from his bowels and was beating in his head like a hammer, a sudden mania of murder, a need to taste blood. Never before had the crisis so shaken him. He was not drunk, however, and he struggled against the hereditary disease with the despairing shudder of a man who is mad with lust and struggles on the verge of rape. At last he conquered himself; he threw the knife behind him, stammering in a hoarse voice:
“Get up — off you go!”
This time Rasseneur had rushed forward, but without quite daring to venture between them, for fear of catching a nasty blow. He did not want any one to be murdered in his house, and was so angry that his wife, sitting erect at the counter, remarked to him that he always cried out too soon. Souvarine. who had nearly caught the knife in his legs, decided to light his cigarette. Was it, then, all over? Catherine was looking on stupidly at the two men, who were unexpectedly both living.
“Off you go!” repeated Étienne. “Off you go, or I’ll do for you!”
Chaval arose, and with the back of his hand wiped away the blood which continued to flow from his nose; with jaw smeared red and bruised eye, he went away trailing his feet, furious at his defeat. Catherine mechanically followed him. Then he turned round, and his hatred broke out in a flood of filth.
“No, no! since you want him, sleep with him, dirty jade! and don’t put your bloody feet in my place again if you value your skin!”
He violently banged the door. There was deep silence in the warm room, the low crackling of the coal was alone heard. On the ground there only remained the overturned chair and a rain of blood which the sand on the floor was drinking up.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02