THE shots fired at Montsou had reached as far as Paris with a formidable echo. For four days all the opposition journals had been indignant, displaying atrocious narratives on their front pages: twenty-five wounded, fourteen dead, including three women and two children. And there were prisoners taken as well; Levaque had become a sort of hero, and was credited with a reply of antique sublimity to the examining magistrate. The empire, hit in mid career by these few balls, affected the calm of omnipotence, without itself realizing the gravity of its wound. It was simply an unfortunate collision, something lost over there in the black country, very far from the Parisian boulevards which formed public opinion; it would soon be forgotten. The Company had received official intimation to hush up the affair, and to put an end to a strike which from its irritating duration was becoming a social danger.
So on Wednesday morning three of the directors appeared at Montsou. The little town, sick at heart, which had not dared hitherto to rejoice over the massacre, now breathed again, and tasted the joy of being saved. The weather, too, had become fine; there was a bright sun — one of those first February days which, with their moist warmth, tip the lilac shoots with green. All the shutters had been flung back at the administration building, the vast structure seemed alive again. And cheering rumours were circulating; it was said that the directors, deeply affected by the catastrophe, had rushed down to open their paternal arms to the wanderers from the settlements. Now that the blow had fallen — a more vigorous one doubtless than they had wished for — they were prodigal in their task of relief, and decreed measures that were excellent though tardy. First of all they sent away the Borains, and made much of this extreme concession to their workmen. Then they put an end to the military occupation of the pits, which were no longer threatened by the crushed strikers. They also obtained silence regarding the sentinel who had disappeared from the Voreux; the district had been searched without finding either the gun or the corpse, and although there was a suspicion of crime, it was decided to consider the soldier a deserter. In every way they thus tried to attenuate matters, trembling with fear for the morrow, judging it dangerous to acknowledge the irresistible savagery of a crowd set free amid the falling structure of the old world. And besides, this work of conciliation did not prevent them from bringing purely administrative affairs to a satisfactory conclusion; for Deneulin had been seen to return to the administration buildings, where he met M. Hennebeau. The negotiations for the purchase of Vandame continued, and it was considered certain that Deneulin would accept the Company’s offers.
But what particularly stirred the country were the great yellow posters which the directors had stuck up in profusion on the walls. On them were to be read these few lines, in very large letters: “Workers of Montsou! We do not wish that the errors of which you have lately seen the sad effects should deprive sensible and willing workmen of their livelihood. We shall therefore reopen all the pits on Monday morning, and when work is resumed we shall examine with care and consideration those cases in which there may be room for improvement. We shall, in fact, do all that is just or possible to do.” In one morning the ten thousand colliers passed before these placards. Not one of them spoke, many shook their heads, others went away with trailing steps, without changing one line in their motionless faces.
Up till now the settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante had persisted in its fierce resistance. It seemed that the blood of their mates, which had reddened the mud of the pit, was barricading the road against the others. Scarcely a dozen had gone down, merely Pierron and some sneaks of his sort, whose departure and arrival were gloomily watched without a gesture or a threat. Therefore a deep suspicion greeted the placard stuck on to the church. Nothing was said about the returned certificates in that. Would the Company refuse to take them on again? and the fear of retaliations, the fraternal idea of protesting against the dismissal of the more compromised men, made them all obstinate still. It was dubious; they would see. They would return to the pit when these gentlemen were good enough to put things plainly. Silence crushed the low houses. Hunger itself seemed nothing; all might die now that violent death had passed over their roofs.
But one house, that of the Maheus, remained especially black and mute in its overwhelming grief. Since she had followed her man to the cemetery, Maheude kept her teeth clenched. After the battle, she had allowed Étienne to bring back Catherine muddy and half dead; and as she was undressing her, before the young man, in order to put her to bed, she thought for a moment that her daughter also had received a ball in the belly, for the chemise was marked with large patches of blood. But she soon understood that it was the flood of puberty, which was at last breaking out in the shock of this abominable day. Ah! another piece of luck, that wound! A fine present, to be able to make children for the gendarmes to kill; and she never spoke to Catherine, nor did she, indeed, talk to Étienne. The latter slept with Jeanlin, at the risk of being arrested, seized by such horror at the idea of going back to the darkness of Réquillart that he would have preferred a prison. A shudder shook him, the horror of the night after all those deaths, an unacknowledged fear of the little soldier who slept down there underneath the rocks. Besides, he dreamed of a prison as of a refuge in the midst of the torment of his defeat; but they did not trouble him, and he dragged on his wretched hours, not knowing how to weary out his body. Only at times Maheude looked at both of them, at him and her daughter, with a spiteful air, as though she were asking them what they were doing in her house.
Once more they were all snoring in a heap. Father Bonnemort occupied the former bed of the two youngsters, who slept with Catherine now that poor Alzire no longer dug her hump into her big sister’s ribs. It was when going to bed that the mother felt the emptiness of the house by the coldness of her bed, which was now too large. In vain she took Estelle to fill the vacancy; that did not replace her man, and she wept quietly for hours. Then the days began to pass by as before, always without bread, but without the luck to die outright; things picked up here and there rendered to the wretches the poor service of keeping them alive. Nothing had changed in their existence, only her man was gone.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, Étienne, made miserable by the sight of this silent woman, left the room, and walked slowly along the paved street of the settlement. The inaction which weighed on him impelled him to take constant walks, with arms swinging idly and lowered head, always tortured by the same thought. He tramped thus for half an hour, when he felt, by an increase in his discomfort, that his mates were coming to their doors to look at him. His little remaining popularity had been driven to the winds by that fusillade, and he never passed now without meeting fiery looks which pursued him. When he raised his head there were threatening men there, women drawing aside the curtains from their windows; and beneath this still silent accusation and the restrained anger of these eyes, enlarged by hunger and tears, he became awkward and could scarcely walk straight. These dumb reproaches seemed to be always increasing behind him. He became so terrified, lest he should hear the entire settlement come out to shout its wretchedness at him, that he returned shuddering. But at the Maheus’ the scene which met him still further agitated him. Old Bonnemort was near the cold fireplace, nailed to his chair ever since two neighbours, on the day of the slaughter, had found him on the ground, with his stick broken, struck down like an old thunder-stricken tree. And while Lénore and Henri, to beguile their hunger, were scraping, with deafening noise, an old saucepan in which cabbages had been boiled the day before, Maheude, after having placed Estelle on the table, was standing up threatening Catherine with her fist.
“Say that again, by God! Just dare to say that again!” Catherine had declared her intention to go back to the Voreux. The idea of not gaining her bread, of being thus tolerated in her mother’s house, like a useless animal that is in the way, was becoming every day more unbearable; and if it had not been for the fear of Chaval she would have gone down on Tuesday.
She said again, stammering:
“What would you have? We can’t go on doing nothing. We should get bread, anyhow.”
Maheude interrupted her.
“Listen to me: the first one of you who goes to work, I’ll do for you. No, that would be too much, to kill the father and go on taking it out of the children! I’ve had enough of it; I’d rather see you all put in your coffins, like him that’s gone already.”
And her long silence broke out into a furious flood of words. A fine sum Catherine would bring her! hardly thirty sous, to which they might add twenty sous if the bosses were good enough to find work for that brigand Jeanlin. Fifty sous, and seven mouths to feed! The brats were only good to swallow soup. As to the grandfather, he must have broken something in his brain when he fell, for he seemed imbecile; unless it had turned his blood to see the soldiers firing at his mates.
“That’s it, old man, isn’t it? They’ve quite done for you. It’s no good having your hands still strong; you’re done for.”
Bonnemort looked at her with his dim eyes without understanding. He remained for hours with fixed gaze, having no intelligence now except to spit into a plate filled with ashes, which was put beside him for cleanliness.
“And they’ve not settled his pension, either,” she went on. “And I’m sure they won’t give it, because of our ideas. No! I tell you that we’ve too much to do with those people who bring ill luck.”
“But,” Catherine ventured to say, “they promise on the placard ——”
“Just let me alone with your damned placard! More bird-lime for catching us and eating us. They can be mighty kind now that they have ripped us open.”
“But where shall we go, mother? They won’t keep us at the settlement, sure enough.”
Maheude made a vague, terrified gesture. Where should they go to? She did not know at all; she avoided thinking, it made her mad. They would go elsewhere — somewhere. And as the noise of the saucepan was becoming unbearable, she turned round on Lénore and Henri and boxed their ears. The fall of Estelle, who had been crawling on all fours, increased the disturbance. The mother quieted her with a push — a good thing if it had killed her! She spoke of Alzire; she wished the others might have that child’s luck. Then suddenly she burst out into loud sobs, with her head against the wall.
Étienne, who was standing by, did not dare to interfere. He no longer counted for anything in the house, and even the children drew back from him suspiciously. But the unfortunate woman’s tears went to his heart, and he murmured:
“Come, come! courage! we must try to get out of it.” She did not seem to hear him, and was bemoaning herself now in a low continuous complaint.
“Ah! the wretchedness! is it possible? Things did go on before these horrors. We ate our bread dry, but we were all together; and what has happened, good God! What have we done, then, that we should have such troubles — some under the earth, and the others with nothing left but to long to get there too? It’s true enough that they harnessed us like horses to work, and it’s not at all a just sharing of things to be always getting the stick and making rich people’s fortunes bigger without hope of ever tasting the good things. There’s no pleasure in life when hope goes. Yes, that couldn’t have gone on longer; we had to breathe a bit. If we had only known! Is it possible to make oneself so wretched through wanting justice?”
Sighs swelled her breast, and her voice choked with immense sadness.
“Then there are always some clever people there who promise you that everything can be arranged by just taking a little trouble. Then one loses one’s head, and one suffers so much from things as they are that one asks for things that can’t be. Now, I was dreaming like a fool; I seemed to see a life of good friendship with everybody; I went off into the air, my faith! into the clouds. And then one breaks one’s back when one tumbles down into the mud again. It’s not true; there’s nothing over there of the things that people tell of. What there is, is only wretchedness, ah! wretchedness, as much as you like of it, and bullets into the bargain.”
Étienne listened to this lamentation, and every tear struck him with remorse. He knew not what to say to calm Maheude, broken by her terrible fall from the heights of the ideal. She had come back to the middle of the room, and was now looking at him; she addressed him with contemptuous familiarity in a last cry of rage:
“And you, do you talk of going back to the pit, too, after driving us out of the bloody place! I’ve nothing to reproach you with; but if I were in your shoes I should be dead of grief by now after causing such harm to the mates.”
He was about to reply, but then shrugged his shoulders in despair. What was the good of explaining, for she would not understand in her grief? And he went away, for he was suffering too much, and resumed his wild walk outside.
There again he found the settlement apparently waiting for him, the men at the doors, the women at the windows. As soon as he appeared growls were heard, and the crowd increased. The breath of gossip, which had been swelling for four days, was breaking out in a universal malediction. Fists were stretched towards him, mothers spitefully pointed him out to their boys, old men spat as they looked at him. It was the change which follows on the morrow of defeat, the fatal reverse of popularity, an execration exasperated by all the suffering endured without result. He had to pay for famine and death.
Zacharie, who came up with Philoméne, hustled Étienne as he went out, grinning maliciously.
“Well, he gets fat. It’s filling, then, to live on other people’s deaths?”
The Levaque woman had already come to her door with Bouteloup. She spoke of Bébert, her youngster, killed by a bullet, and cried:
“Yes, there are cowards who get children murdered! Let him go and look for mine in the earth if he wants to give it me back!”
She was forgetting her man in prison, for the household was going on since Bouteloup remained; but she thought of him, however, and went on in a shrill voice:
“Get along! rascals may walk about while good people are put away!”
In avoiding her, Étienne tumbled on to Pierrone, who was running up across the gardens. She had regarded her mother’s death as a deliverance, for the old woman’s violence threatened to get them hanged; nor did she weep over Pierron’s little girl, that street-walker Lydie — a good riddance. But she joined in with her neighbours with the idea of getting reconciled with them.
“And my mother, eh, and the little girl? You were seen; you were hiding yourself behind them when they caught the lead instead of you!”
What was to be done? Strangle Pierronne and the others, and fight the whole settlement? Étienne wanted to do so for a moment. The blood was throbbing in his head, he now looked upon his mates as brutes, he was irritated to see them so unintelligent and barbarous that they wanted to revenge themselves on him for the logic of facts. How stupid it all was! and he felt disgust at his powerlessness to tame them again; and satisfied himself with hastening his steps as though he were deaf to abuse. Soon it became a flight; every house hooted him as he passed, they hastened on his heels, it was a whole nation cursing him with a voice that was becoming like thunder in its overwhelming hatred. It was he, the exploiter, the murderer, who was the sole cause of their misfortune. He rushed out of the settlement, pale and terrified, with this yelling crowd behind his back. When he at last reached the main road most of them left him; but a few persisted, until at the bottom of the slope before the Avantage he met another group coming from the Voreux.
Old Mouque and Chaval were there. Since the death of his daughter Mouquette, and of his son Mouquet, the old man had continued to act as groom without a word of regret or complaint. Suddenly, when he saw Étienne, he was shaken by fury, tears broke out from his eyes, and a flood of coarse words burst from his mouth, black and bleeding from his habit of chewing tobacco.
“You devil! you bloody swine! you filthy snout! Wait, you’ve got to pay me for my poor children; you’ll have to come to it!”
He picked up a brick, broke it, and threw both pieces. “Yes! yes! clear him off!” shouted Chaval, who was grinning in excitement, delighted at this vengeance. “Every one gets his turn; now you’re up against the wall, you dirty hound!”
And he also attacked Étienne with stones. A savage clamour arose; they all took up bricks, broke them, and threw them, to rip him open, as they would like to have done to the soldiers. He was dazed and could not flee; he faced them, trying to calm them with phrases. His old speeches, once so warmly received, came back to his lips. He repeated the words with which he had intoxicated them at the time when he could keep them in hand like a faithful flock; but his power was dead, and only stones replied to him. He had just been struck on the left arm, and was drawing back, in great peril, when he found himself hemmed in against the front of the Avantage.
For the last few moments Rasseneur had been at his door.
“Come in,” he said simply.
Étienne hesitated; it choked him to take refuge there.
“Come in; then I’ll speak to them.”
He resigned himself, and took refuge at the other end of the parlour, while the innkeeper filled up the doorway with his broad shoulders.
“Look here, my friends, just be reasonable. You know very well that I’ve never deceived you. I’ve always been in favour of quietness, and if you had listened to me, you certainly wouldn’t be where you are now.”
Rolling his shoulders and belly, he went on at length, allowing his facile eloquence to flow with the lulling gentleness of warm water. And all his old success came back; he regained his popularity, naturally and without an effort, as if he had never been hooted and called a coward a month before. Voices arose in approval: “Very good! we are with you! that is the way to put it!” Thundering applause broke out.
Étienne, in the background, grew faint, and there was bitterness at his heart. He recalled Rasseneur’s prediction in the forest, threatening him with the ingratitude of the mob. What imbecile brutality! What an abominable forgetfulness of old services! It was a blind force which constantly devoured itself. And beneath his anger at seeing these brutes spoil their own cause, there was despair at his own fall and the tragic end of his ambition. What! was it already done for! He remembered hearing beneath the beeches three thousand hearts beating to the echo of his own. On that day he had held his popularity in both hands. Those people belonged to him; he felt that he was their master. Mad dreams had then intoxicated him. Montsou at his feet, Paris beyond, becoming a deputy perhaps, crushing the middle class in a speech, the first speech ever pronounced by a workman in a parliament. And it was all over! He awakened, miserable and detested; his people were dismissing him by flinging bricks.
Rasseneur’s voice rose higher:
“Never will violence succeed; the world can’t be re-made in a day. Those who have promised you to change it all at one stroke are either making fun of you or they are rascals!”
“Bravo! bravo!” shouted the crowd.
Who then was the guilty one? And this question which Étienne put to himself overwhelmed him more than ever. Was it in fact his fault, this misfortune which was making him bleed, the wretchedness of some, the murder of others, these women, these children, lean, and without bread? He had had that lamentable vision one evening before the catastrophe. But then a force was lifting him, he was carried away with his mates. Besides, he had never led them, it was they who led him, who obliged him to do things which he would never have done if it were not for the shock of that crowd pushing behind him. At each new violence he had been stupefied by the course of events, for he had neither foreseen nor desired any of them. Could he anticipate, for instance, that his followers in the settlement would one day stone him? These infuriated people lied when they accused him of having promised them an existence all fodder and laziness. And in this justification, in this reasoning, in which he tried to fight against his remorse, was hidden the anxiety that he had not risen to the height of his task; it was the doubt of the half-cultured man still perplexing him. But he felt himself at the end of his courage, he was no longer at heart with his mates; he feared this enormous mass of the people, blind and irresistible, moving like a force of nature, sweeping away everything, outside rules and theories. A certain repugnance was detaching him from them — the discomfort of his new tastes, the slow movement of all his being towards a superior class.
At this moment Rasseneur’s voice was lost in the midst of enthusiastic shouts:
“Hurrah for Rasseneur! he’s the fellow! Bravo, bravo!”
The innkeeper shut the door, while the band dispersed; and the two men looked at each other in silence. They both shrugged their shoulders. They finished up by having a drink together.
On the same day there was a great dinner at Piolaine; they were celebrating the betrothal of Négrel and Cécile. Since the previous evening the Grégoires had had the dining-room waxed and the drawing-room dusted. Mélanie reigned in the kitchen, watching over the roasts and stirring the sauces, the odour of which ascended to the attics. It had been decided that Francis, the coachman, should help Honorine to wait. The gardener’s wife would wash up, and the gardener would open the gate. Never had the substantial, patriarchal old house been in such a state of gaiety.
Everything went off beautifully, Madame Hennebeau was charming with Cécile, and she smiled at Négrel when the Montsou lawyer gallantly proposed the health of the future household. M. Hennebeau was also very amiable. His smiling face struck the guests. The report circulated that he was rising in favour with the directors, and that he would soon be made an officer of the Legion of Honour, on account of the energetic manner in which he had put down the strike. Nothing was said about recent events; but there was an air of triumph in the general joy, and the dinner became the official celebration of a victory. At last, then, they were saved, and once more they could begin to eat and sleep in peace. A discreet allusion was made to those dead whose blood the Voreux mud had yet scarcely drunk up. It was a necessary lesson: and they were all affected when the Grégoires added that it was now the duty of all to go and heal the wounds in the settlements. They had regained their benevolent placidity, excusing their brave miners, whom they could already see again at the bottom of the mines, giving a good example of everlasting resignation. The Montsou notables, who had now left off trembling, agreed that this question of the wage system ought to be studied, cautiously. The roasts came on; and the victory became complete when M. Hennebeau read a letter from the bishop announcing Abbé Ranvier’s removal. The middle class throughout the province had been roused to anger by the story of this priest who treated the soldiers as murderers. And when the dessert appeared the lawyer resolutely declared that he was a free-thinker. Deneulin was there with his two daughters. In the midst of the joy, he forced himself to hide the melancholy of his ruin. That very morning he had signed the sale of his Vandame concession to the Montsou Company. With the knife at his throat he had submitted to the directors’ demands, at last giving up to them that prey they had been on the watch for so long, scarcely obtaining from them the money necessary to pay off his creditors. He had even accepted, as a lucky chance, at the last moment, their offer to keep him as divisional engineer, thus resigning himself to watch, as a simple salaried servant, over that pit which had swallowed up his fortune. It was the knell of small personal enterprises, the approaching disappearance of the masters, eaten up, one by one, by the ever-hungry ogre of capital, drowned in the rising flood of great companies. He alone paid the expenses of the strike; he understood that they were drinking to his disaster when they drank to M. Hennebeau’s rosette. And he only consoled himself a little when he saw the fine courage of Lucie and Jeanne, who looked charming in their done-up toilettes, laughing at the downfall, like happy tomboys disdainful of money.
When they passed into the drawing-room for coffee, M. Grégoire drew his cousin aside and congratulated him on the courage of his decision.
“What would you have? Your real mistake was to risk the million of your Montsou denier over Vandame. You gave yourself a terrible wound, and it has melted away in that dog’s labour, while mine, which has not stirred from my drawer, still keeps me comfortably doing nothing, as it will keep my grandchildren’s children.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02