ALL the entrances to the Voreux had been closed, and the sixty soldiers, with grounded arms, were barring the only door left free, that leading to the receiving-room by a narrow staircase into which opened the captains’ room and the shed. The men had been drawn up in two lines against the brick wall, so that they could not be attacked from behind.
At first the band of miners from the settlement kept at a distance. They were some thirty at most, and talked together in a violent and confused way.
Maheude, who had arrived first with dishevelled hair beneath a handkerchief knotted on in haste, and having Estelle asleep in her arms, repeated in feverish tones:
“Don’t let any one in or any one out! Shut them all in there!”
Maheu approved, and just then Father Mouque arrived from Réquillart. They wanted to prevent him from passing. But he protested; he said that his horses ate their hay all the same, and cared precious little about a revolution. Besides, there was a horse dead, and they were waiting for him to draw it up. Étienne freed the old groom, and the soldiers allowed him to go to the shaft. A quarter of an hour later, as the band of strikers, which had gradually enlarged, was becoming threatening, a large door opened on the ground floor and some men appeared drawing out the dead beast, a miserable mass of flesh still fastened in the rope net; they left it in the midst of the puddles of melting snow. The surprise was so great that no one prevented the men from returning and barricading the door afresh. They all recognized the horse, with his head bent back and stiff against the plank. Whispers ran around:
“It’s Trompette, isn’t it? it’s Trompette.”
It was, in fact, Trompette. Since his descent he had never become acclimatized. He remained melancholy, with no taste for his task, as though tortured by regret for the light. In vain Bataille, the doyen of the mine, would rub him with his ribs in his friendly way, softly biting his neck to impart to him a little of the resignation gained in his ten years beneath the earth. These caresses increased his melancholy, his skin quivered beneath the confidences of the comrade who had grown old in darkness; and both of them, whenever they met and snorted together, seemed to be grieving, the old one that he could no longer remember, the young one that he could not forget. At the stable they were neighbours at the manger, and lived with lowered heads, breathing in each other’s nostrils, exchanging a constant dream of daylight, visions of green grass, of white roads, of infinite yellow light. Then, when Trompette, bathed in sweat, lay in agony in his litter, Bataille had smelled at him despairingly with short sniffs like sobs. He felt that he was growing cold, the mine was taking from him his last joy, that friend fallen from above, fresh with good odours, who recalled to him his youth in the open air. And he had broken his tether, neighing with fear, when he perceived that the other no longer stirred.
Mouque had indeed warned the head captain a week ago. But much they troubled about a sick horse at such time as this! These gentlemen did not at all like moving the horses. Now, however, they had to make up their minds to take him out. The evening before the groom had spent an hour with two men tying up Trompette. They harnessed Bataille to bring him to the shaft. The old horse slowly pulled, dragging his dead comrade through so narrow a gallery that he could only shake himself at the risk of taking the skin off. And he tossed his head, listening to the grazing sound of the carcass as it went to the knacker’s yard. At the pit-eye, when he was unharnessed, he followed with his melancholy eye the preparations for the ascent — the body pushed on to the cross-bars over the sump, the net fastened beneath a cage. At last the porters rang meat; he lifted his neck to see it go up, at first softly, then at once lost in the darkness, flown up for ever to the top of that black hole. And he remained with neck stretched out, his vague beast’s memory perhaps recalling the things of the earth. But it was all over; he would never see his comrade again, and he himself would thus be tied up in a pitiful bundle on the day when he would ascend up there. His legs began to tremble, the fresh air which came from the distant country choked him, and he seemed intoxicated when he went heavily back to the stable.
At the surface the colliers stood gloomily before Trompette’s carcass. A woman said in a low voice:
“Another man; that may go down if it likes!”
But a new flood arrived from the settlement, and Levaque, who was at the head followed by his wife and Bouteloup, shouted:
“Kill them, those Borains! No blacklegs here! Kill them! Kill them!”
All rushed forward, and Étienne had to stop them. He went up to the captain, a tall thin young man of scarcely twenty-eight years, with a despairing, resolute face. He explained things to him; he tried to win him over, watching the effect of his words. What was the good of risking a useless massacre? Was not justice on the side of the miners? They were all brothers, and they ought to understand one another. When he came to use the world “republic” the captain made a nervous movement; but he preserved his military stiffness, and said suddenly:
“Keep off! Do not force me to do my duty.”
Three times over Étienne tried again. Behind him his mates were growling. The report ran that M. Hennebeau was at the pit, and they talked of letting him down by the neck, to see if he would hew his coal himself. But it was a false report; only Négrel and Dansaert were there. They both showed themselves for a moment at a window of the receiving-room; the head captain stood in the background, rather out of countenance since his adventure with Pierronne, while the engineer bravely looked round on the crowd with his bright little eyes, smiling with that sneering contempt in which he enveloped men and things generally. Hooting arose, and they disappeared. And in their place only Souvarine’s pale face was seen. He was just then on duty; he had not left his engine for a single day since the strike began, no longer talking, more and more absorbed by a fixed idea, which seemed to be shining like steel in the depths of his pale eyes.
“Keep off!” repeated the captain loudly. “I wish to hear nothing. My orders are to guard the pit, and I shall guard it. And do not press on to my men, or I shall know how to drive you back.”
In spite of his firm voice, he was growing pale with increasing anxiety, as the flood of miners continued to swell. He would be relieved at midday; but fearing that he would not be able to hold out until then, he had sent a trammer from the pit to Montsou to ask for reinforcements.
Shouts had replied to him:
“Kill the blacklegs! Kill the Borains! We mean to be masters in our own place!”
Étienne drew back in despair. The end had come; there was nothing more except to fight and to die. And he ceased to hold back his mates. The mob moved up to the little troop. There were nearly four hundred of them, and the people from the neighbouring settlements were all running up. They all shouted the same cry. Maheu and Levaque said furiously to the soldiers:
“Get off with you! We have nothing against you! Get off with you!”
“This doesn’t concern you,” said Maheude. “Let us attend to our own affairs.”
And from behind, the Levaque woman added, more violently:
“Must we eat you to get through? Just clear out of the bloody place!”
Even Lydie’s shrill voice was heard. She had crammed herself in more closely, with Bébert, and was saying, in a high voice:
“Oh, the white-livered pigs!”
Catherine, a few paces off, was gazing and listening, stupefied by new scenes of violence, into the midst of which ill luck seemed to be always throwing her. Had she not suffered too much already? What fault had she committed, then, that misfortune would never give her any rest? The day before she had understood nothing of the fury of the strike; she thought that when one has one’s share of blows it is useless to go and seek for more. And now her heart was swelling with hatred; she remembered what Étienne had often told her when they used to sit up; she tried to hear what he was now saying to the soldiers. He was treating them as mates; he reminded them that they also belonged to the people, and that they ought to be on the side of the people against those who took advantage of their wretchedness.
But a tremor ran through the crowd, and an old woman rushed up. It was Mother Brulé, terrible in her leanness, with her neck and arms in the air, coming up at such a pace that the wisps of her grey hair blinded her.
“Ah! by God! here I am,” she stammered, out of breath; “that traitor Pierron, who shut me up in the cellar!”
And without waiting she fell on the soldiers, her black mouth belching abuse.
“Pack of scoundrels! dirty scum! ready to lick their masters’ boots, and only brave against poor people!”
Then the others joined her, and there were volleys of insults. A few, indeed, cried: “Hurrah for the soldiers! to the shaft with the officer!” but soon there was only one clamour: “Down with the red-breeches!” These men, who had listened quietly, with motionless mute faces, to the fraternal appeals and the friendly attempts to win them over, preserved the same stiff passivity beneath this hail of abuse. Behind them the captain had drawn his sword, and as the crowd pressed in on them more and more, threatening to crush them against the wall, he ordered them to present bayonets. They obeyed, and a double row of steel points was placed in front of the strikers’ breasts.
“Ah! the bloody swine!” yelled Mother Brulé, drawing back.
But already they were coming on again, in excited contempt of death. The women were throwing themselves forward, Maheude and the Levaque shouting:
“Kill us! Kill us, then! We want our rights!”
Levaque, at the risk of getting cut, had seized three bayonets in his hands, shaking and pulling them in the effort to snatch them away. He twisted them in the strength of his fury; while Bouteloup, standing aside, and annoyed at having followed his mate, quietly watched him.
“Just come and look here,” said Maheu; “just look a bit if you are good chaps!”
And he opened his jacket and drew aside his shirt, showing his naked breast, with his hairy skin tattooed by coal. He pressed on the bayonets, compelling the soldiers to draw back, terrible in his insolence and bravado. One of them had pricked him in the chest, and he became like a madman, trying to make it enter deeper and to hear his ribs crack.
“Cowards, you don’t dare! There are ten thousand behind us. Yes, you can kill us; there are ten thousand more of us to kill yet.”
The position of the soldiers was becoming critical, for they had received strict orders not to make use of their weapons until the last extremity. And how were they to prevent these furious people from impaling themselves? Besides, the space was getting less; they were now pushed back against the wall, and it was impossible to draw further back. Their little troop — a mere handful of men — opposed to the rising flood of miners, still held its own, however, and calmly executed the brief orders given by the captain. The latter, with keen eyes and nervously compressed lips, only feared lest they should be carried away by this abuse. Already a young sergeant, a tall lean fellow whose thin moustache was bristling up, was blinking his eyes in a disquieting manner. Near him an old soldier, with tanned skin and stripes won in twenty campaigns, had grown pale when he saw his bayonet twisted like a straw. Another, doubtless a recruit still smelling the fields, became very red every time he heard himself called “scum” and “riff-raff.” And the violence did not cease, the outstretched fists, the abominable words, the shovelfuls of accusations and threats which buffeted their faces. It required all the force of order to keep them thus, with mute faces, in the proud, gloomy silence of military discipline.
A collision seemed inevitable, when Captain Richomme appeared from behind the troop with his benevolent white head, overwhelmed by emotion. He spoke out loudly:
“By God! this is idiotic! such tomfoolery can’t go on!” And he threw himself between the bayonets and the miners.
“Mates, listen to me. You know that I am an old workman, and that I have always been one of you. Well, by God! I promise you, that if they’re not just with you, I’m the man to go and say to the bosses how things lie. But this is too much, it does no good at all to howl bad names at these good fellows, and try and get your bellies ripped up.”
They listened, hesitating. But up above, unfortunately, little Négrel’s short profile reappeared. He feared, no doubt, that he would be accused of sending a captain in place of venturing out himself; and he tried to speak. But his voice was lost in the midst of so frightful a tumult that he had to leave the window again, simply shrugging his shoulders. Richomme then found it vain to entreat them in his own name, and to repeat that the thing must be arranged between mates; they repelled him, suspecting him. But he was obstinate and remained amongst them.
“By God! let them break my head as well as yours, for I don’t leave you while you are so foolish!”
Étienne, whom he begged to help him in making them hear reason, made a gesture of powerlessness. It was too late, there were now more than five hundred of them. And besides the madmen who were rushing up to chase away the Borains, some came out of inquisitiveness, or to joke and amuse themselves over the battle. In the midst of one group, at some distance, Zacharie and Philoméne were looking on as at a theatre so peacefully that they had brought their two children, Achille and Désirée. Another stream was arriving from Réquillart, including Mouquet and Mouquette. The former at once went on, grinning, to slap his friend Zacharie on the back; while Mouquette, in a very excited condition, rushed to the first rank of the evil-disposed.
Meanwhile, every minute, the captain looked down the Montsou road. The desired reinforcements had not arrived, and his sixty men could hold out no longer. At last it occurred to him to strike the imagination of the crowd, and he ordered his men to load. The soldiers executed the order, but the disturbance increased, the blustering, and the mockery.
“Ah! these shammers, they’re going off to the target!” jeered the women, the Brulé, the Levaque, and the others.
Maheude, with her breast covered by the little body of Estelle, who was awake and crying, came so near that the sergeant asked her what she was going to do with that poor little brat.
“What the devil’s that to do with you?” she replied. “Fire at it if you dare!”
The men shook their heads with contempt. None believed that they would fire on them.
“There are no balls in their cartridges,” said Levaque. “Are we Cossacks?” cried Maheu. “You don’t fire against Frenchmen, by God!”
Others said that when people had been through the Crimean campaign they were not afraid of lead. And all continued to thrust themselves on to the rifles. If firing had begun at this moment the crowd would have been mown down.
In the front rank Mouquette was choking with fury, thinking that the soldiers were going to gash the women’s skins. She had spat out all her coarse words at them, and could find no vulgarity low enough, when suddenly, having nothing left but that mortal offence with which to bombard the faces of the troop, she exhibited her backside. With both hands she raised her skirts, bent her back, and expanded the enormous rotundity.
“Here, that’s for you! and it’s a lot too clean, you dirty blackguards!”
She ducked and butted so that each might have his share, repeating after each thrust:
“There’s for the officer! there’s for the sergeant! there’s for the soldiers!”
A tempest of laughter arose; Bébert and Lydie were in convulsions; Étienne himself, in spite of his sombre expectation, applauded this insulting nudity. All of them, the banterers as well as the infuriated, were now hooting the soldiers as though they had seen them stained by a splash of filth; Catherine only, standing aside on some old timber, remained silent with the blood at her heart, slowly carried away by the hatred that was rising within her.
But a hustling took place. To calm the excitement of his men, the captain decided to make prisoners. With a leap Mouquette escaped, saving herself between the legs of her comrades. Three miners, Levaque and two others, were seized among the more violent, and kept in sight at the other end of the captains’ room. Négrel and Dansaert, above, were shouting to the captain to come in and take refuge with them. He refused; he felt that these buildings with their doors without locks would be carried by assault, and that he would undergo the shame of being disarmed. His little troop was already growling with impatience; it was impossible to flee before these wretches in sabots. The sixty, with their backs to the wall and their rifles loaded, again faced the mob.
At first there was a recoil, followed by deep silence; the strikers were astonished at this energetic stroke. Then a cry arose calling for the prisoners, demanding their immediate release. Some voices said that they were being murdered in there. And without any attempt at concerted action, carried away by the same impulse, by the same desire for revenge, they all ran to the piles of bricks which stood near, those bricks for which the marly soil supplied the clay, and which were baked on the spot. The children brought them one by one, and the women filled their skirts with them. Every one soon had her ammunition at her feet, and the battle of stones began.
It was Mother Brulé who set to first. She broke the bricks on the sharp edge of her knee, and with both hands she discharged the two fragments. The Levaque woman was almost putting her shoulders out, being so large and soft that she had to come near to get her aim, in spite of Bouteloup’s entreaties, and he dragged her back in the hope of being able to lead her away now that her husband had been taken off. They all grew excited, and Mouquette, tired of making herself bleed by breaking the bricks on her over fat thighs, preferred to throw them whole. Even the youngsters came into line, and Bébert showed Lydie how the brick ought to be sent from under the elbow. It was a shower of enormous hail-stones, producing low thuds. And suddenly, in the midst of these furies, Catherine was observed with her fists in the air also brandishing half-bricks and throwing them with all the force of her little arms. She could not have said why, she was suffocating, she was dying of the desire to kill everybody. Would it not soon be done with, this cursed life of misfortune? She had had enough of it, beaten and driven away by her man, wandering about like a lost dog in the mud of the roads, without being able to ask a crust from her father, who was starving like herself. Things never seemed to get better; they were getting worse ever since she could remember. And she broke the bricks and threw them before her with the one idea of sweeping everything away, her eyes so blinded that she could not even see whose jaws she might be crushing.
Étienne, who had remained in front of the soldiers, nearly had his skull broken. His ear was grazed, and turning round he started when he realized that the brick had come from Catherine’s feverish hands; but at the risk of being killed he remained where he was, gazing at her. Many others also forgot themselves there, absorbed in the battle, with empty hands. Mouquet criticized the blows as though he were looking on at a game of bouchon. Oh, that was well struck! and that other, no luck! He joked, and with his elbow pushed Zacharie, who was squabbling with Philoméne because he had boxed Achille’s and Désirée’s ears, refusing to put them on his back so that they could see. There were spectators crowded all along the road. And at the top of the slope near the entrance to the settlement, old Bonnemort appeared, resting on his stick, motionless against the rust-coloured sky.
As soon as the first bricks were thrown, Captain Richomme had again placed himself between the soldiers and the miners. He was entreating the one party, exhorting the other party, careless of danger, in such despair that large tears were flowing from his eyes. It was impossible to hear his words in the midst of the tumult; only his large grey moustache could be seen moving.
But the hail of bricks came faster; the men were joining in, following the example of the women.
Then Maheude noticed that Maheu was standing behind with empty hands and sombre air.
“What’s up with you?” she shouted. “Are you a coward? Are you going to let your mates be carried off to prison? Ah! if only I hadn’t got this child, you should see!”
Estelle, who was clinging to her neck, screaming, prevented her from joining Mother Brulé and the others. And as her man did not seem to hear, she kicked some bricks against his legs.
“By God! will you take that? Must I spit in your face before people to get your spirits up?”
Becoming very red, he broke some bricks and threw them. She lashed him on, dazing him, shouting behind him cries of death, stifling her daughter against her breast with the spasm of her arms; and he still moved forward until he was opposite the guns.
Beneath this shower of stones the little troop was disappearing. Fortunately they struck too high, and the wall was riddled. What was to be done? The idea of going in, of turning their backs for a moment turned the captain’s pale face purple; but it was no longer possible, they would be torn to pieces at the least movement. A brick had just broken the peak of his cap, drops of blood were running down his forehead. Several of his men were wounded; and he felt that they were losing self-control in that unbridled instinct of self-defence when obedience to leaders ceases. The sergeant had uttered a “By God!” for his left shoulder had nearly been put out, and his flesh bruised by a shock like the blow of a washer-woman’s beetle against linen. Grazed twice over, the recruit had his thumb smashed, while his right knee was grazed. Were they to let themselves be worried much longer? A stone having bounded back and struck the old soldier with the stripes beneath the belly, his cheeks turned green, and his weapon trembled as he stretched it out at the end of his lean arms. Three times the captain was on the point of ordering them to fire. He was choked by anguish; an endless struggle for several seconds set at odds in his mind all ideas and duties, all his beliefs as a man and as a soldier. The rain of bricks increased, and he opened his mouth and was about to shout “Fire!” when the guns went off of themselves three shots at first, then five, then the roll of a volley, then one by itself, some time afterwards, in the deep silence.
There was stupefaction on all sides. They had fired, and the gaping crowd stood motionless, as yet unable to believe it. But heart-rending cries arose while the bugle was sounding to cease firing. And here was a mad panic, the rush of cattle filled with grapeshot, a wild flight through the mud. Bébert and Lydie had fallen one on top of the other at the first three shots, the little girl struck in the face, the boy wounded beneath the left shoulder. She was crushed, and never stirred again. But he moved, seized her with both arms in the convulsion of his agony, as if he wanted to take her again, as he had taken her at the bottom of the black hiding-place where they had spent the past night. And Jeanlin, who just then ran up from Réquillart still half asleep, kicking about in the midst of the smoke, saw him embrace his little wife and die.
The five other shots had brought down Mother Brulé and Captain Richomme. Struck in the back as he was entreating his mates, he had fallen on to his knees, and slipping on to one hip he was groaning on the ground with eyes still full of tears. The old woman, whose breast had been opened, had fallen back stiff and crackling, like a bundle of dry faggots, stammering one last oath in the gurgling of blood.
But then the volley swept the field, mowing down the inquisitive groups who were laughing at the battle a hundred paces off. A ball entered Mouquet’s mouth and threw him down with fractured skull at the feet of Zacharie and Philoméne, whose two youngsters were splashed with red drops. At the same moment Mouquette received two balls in the belly. She had seen the soldiers take aim, and in an instinctive movement of her good nature she had thrown herself in front of Catherine, shouting out to her to take care; she uttered a loud cry and fell on to her back overturned by the shock. Étienne ran up, wishing to raise her and take her away; but with a gesture she said it was all over. Then she groaned, but without ceasing to smile at both of them, as though she were glad to see them together now that she was going away.
All seemed to be over, and the hurricane of balls was lost in the distance as far as the frontages of the settlement, when the last shot, isolated and delayed, was fired. Maheu, struck in the heart, turned round and fell with his face down into a puddle black with coal. Maheude leant down in stupefaction.
“Eh! old man, get up. It’s nothing, is it?”
Her hands were engaged with Estelle, whom she had to put under one arm in order to turn her man’s head.
“Say something! where are you hurt?”
His eyes were vacant, and his mouth was slavered with bloody foam. She understood: he was dead. Then she remained seated in the mud with her daughter under her arm like a bundle, gazing at her old man with a besotted air.
The pit was free. With a nervous movement the captain had taken off and then put on his cap, struck by a stone; he preserved his pallid stiffness in face of the disaster of his life, while his men with mute faces were reloading. The frightened faces of Négrel and Dansaert could be seen at the window of the receiving-room. Souvarine was behind them with a deep wrinkle on his forehead, as though the nail of his fixed idea had printed itself there threateningly. On the other side of the horizon, at the edge of the plain, Bonnemort had not moved, supported by one hand on his stick, the other hand up to his brows to see better the murder of his people below. The wounded were howling, the dead were growing cold. in twisted postures, muddy with the liquid mud of the thaw, here and there forming puddles among the inky patches of coal which reappeared beneath the tattered snow. And in the midst of these human corpses, all small, poor and lean in their wretchedness, lay Trompette’s carcass, a monstrous and pitiful mass of dead flesh.
Étienne had not been killed. He was still waiting beside Catherine, who had fallen from fatigue and anguish, when a sonorous voice made him start. It was Abbé Ranvier, who was coming back after saying mass, and who, with both arms in the air, with the inspired fury of a prophet, was calling the wrath of God down on the murderers. He foretold the era of justice, the approaching extermination of the middle class by fire from heaven, since it was bringing its crimes to a climax by massacring the workers and the disinherited of the world.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02