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SOBERED by Catherine's blows, Étienne had remained at the head of his mates. But while he was hoarsely urging them on to Montsou, he heard another voice within him, the voice of reason, asking, in astonishment, the meaning of all this. He had not intended any of these things; how had it happened that, having set out for Jean-Bart with the object of acting calmly and preventing disaster, he had finished this day of increasing violence by besieging the manager's villa?
He it certainly was, however, who had just cried, "Halt!" Only at first his sole idea had been to protect the Company's Yards, which there had been talk of sacking. And now that stones were already grazing the facade of the villa, he sought in vain for some lawful prey on which to throw the band, so as to avoid greater misfortunes. As he thus stood alone, powerless, in the middle of the road, he was called by a man standing on the threshold of the Estaminet Tison, where the landlady had just put up the shutters in haste, leaving only the door free.
"Yes, it's me. Will you listen?"
It was Rasseneur. Some thirty men and women, nearly all belonging to the settlement of the Deux-Cent-Quarante, who had remained at home in the morning and had come in the evening for news, had invaded this estaminet on the approach of the strikers. Zacharie occupied a table with his wife, Philoméne. Farther on, Pierron and Pierronne, with their backs turned, were hiding their faces. No one was drinking, they had simply taken shelter.
Étienne recognized Rasseneur and was turning away, when the latter added:
"You don't want to see me, eh? I warned you, things are getting awkward. Now you may ask for bread, they'll give you lead."
Then Étienne came back and replied:
"What troubles me is, the cowards who fold their arms and watch us risking our skins."
"Your notion, then, is to pillage over there?" asked Rasseneur.
"My notion is to remain to the last with our friends, quit by dying together."
In despair, Étienne went back into the crowd, ready to die. On the road, three children were throwing stones, and he gave them a good kick, shouting out to his comrades that it was no good breaking windows.
Bébert and Lydie, who had rejoined Jeanlin, were learning from him how to work the sling. They each sent a flint, playing at who could do the most damage. Lydie had awkwardly cracked the head of a woman in the crowd, and the two boys were loudly laughing. Bonnemort and Mouque, seated on a bench, were gazing at them behind. Bonnemort's swollen legs bore him so badly, that he had great difficulty in dragging himself so far; no one knew what curiosity impelled him, for his face had the earthy look of those days when he never spoke a word.
Nobody, however, any longer obeyed Étienne. The stones, in spite of his orders, went on hailing, and he was astonished and terrified by these brutes he had unmuzzled, who were so slow to move and then so terrible, so ferociously tenacious in their rage. All the old Flemish blood was there, heavy and placid, taking months to get heated, and then giving itself up to abominable savagery, listening to nothing until the beast was glutted by atrocities. In his southern land crowds flamed up more quickly, but they did not effect so much. He had to struggle with Levaque to obtain possession of his axe, and he knew not how to keep back the Maheus, who were throwing flints with both hands. The women, especially, terrified him--the Levaque, Mouquette, and the others-- who were agitated by murderous fury, with teeth and nails out, barking like bitches, and driven on by Mother Brulé, whose lean figure dominated them.
But there was a sudden stop; a moment's surprise brought a little of that calmness which Étienne's supplications could not obtain. It was simply the Grégoires, who had decided to bid farewell to the lawyer, and to cross the road to the manager's house; and they seemed so peaceful, they so clearly had the air of believing that the whole thing was a joke on the part of their worthy miners, whose resignation had nourished them for a century, that the latter, in fact, left off throwing stones, for fear of hitting this old gentleman and old lady who had fallen from the sky. They allowed them to enter the garden, mount the steps, and ring at the barricaded door, which was by no means opened in a hurry. Just then, Rose, the housemaid, was returning, laughing at the furious workmen, all of whom she knew, for she belonged to Montsou. And it was she who, by striking her fists against the door, at last forced Hippolyte to set it ajar. It was time, for as the Grégoires disappeared, the hail of stones began again. Recovering from its astonishment, the crowd was shouting louder than ever:
"Death to the bourgeois! Hurrah for the people!"
Rose went on laughing, in the hall of the villa, as though amused by the adventure, and repeated to the terrified man-servant:
"They're not bad-hearted; I know them."
M. Grégoire methodically hung up his hat. Then, when he had assisted Madame Grégoire to draw off her thick cloth mantle, he said, in his turn:
"Certainly, they have no malice at bottom. When they have shouted well they will go home to supper with more appetite."
At this moment M. Hennebeau came down from the second floor. He had seen the scene, and came to receive his guests in his usual cold and polite manner. The pallor of his face alone revealed the grief which had shaken him. The man was tamed; there only remained in him the correct administrator resolved to do his duty.
"You know," he said, "the ladies have not yet come back."
For the first time some anxiety disturbed the Grégoires. Cécile not come back! How could she come back now if the miners were to prolong their joking?
"I thought of having the place cleared," added M. Hennebeau. "But the misfortune is that I'm alone here, and, besides, I do not know where to send my servant to bring me four men and a corporal to clear away this mob."
Rose, who had remained there, ventured to murmur anew:
"Oh, sir! they are not bad-hearted!"
The manager shook his head, while the tumult increased outside, and they could hear the dull crash of the stones against the house.
"I don't wish to be hard on them, I can even excuse them; one must be as foolish as they are to believe that we are anxious to injure them. But it is my duty to prevent disturbance. To think that there are police all along the roads, as I am told, and that I have not been able to see a single man since the morning!"
He interrupted himself, and drew back before Madame Grégoire, saying:
"Let me beg you, madame, do not stay here, come into the drawing-room."
But the cook, coming up from below in exasperation, kept them in the hall a few minutes longer. She declared that she could no longer accept any responsibility for the dinner, for she was expecting from the Marchiennes pastrycook some vol-au-vent crusts which she had ordered for four o'clock. The pastrycook had evidently turned aside on the road for fear of these bandits. Perhaps they had even pillaged his hampers. She saw the vol-au-vent blockaded behind a bush, besieged, going to swell the bellies of the three thousand wretches who were asking for bread. In any case, monsieur was warned; she would rather pitch her dinner into the fire if it was to be spoilt because of the revolt.
"Patience, patience," said M. Hennebeau. "All is not lost, the pastrycook may come."
And as he turned toward Madame Grégoire, opening the drawing-room door himself, he was much surprised to observe, seated on the hall bench, a man whom he had not distinguished before in the deepening shade.
"What! you, Maigrat! what is it, then?"
Maigrat arose; his fat, pale face was changed by terror. He no longer possessed his usual calm stolidity; he humbly explained that he had slipped into the manager's house to ask for aid and protection should the brigands attack his shop.
"You see that I am threatened myself, and that I have no one," replied M. Hennebeau. "You would have done better to stay at home and guard your property."
"Oh! I have put up iron bars and left my wife there." The manager showed impatience, and did not conceal his contempt. A fine guard, that poor creature worn out by blows!
"Well, I can do nothing; you must try to defend yourself. I advise you to go back at once, for there they are again demanding bread. Listen!"
In fact, the tumult began again, and Maigrat thought he heard his own name in the midst of the cries. To go back was no longer possible, they would have torn him to pieces. Besides, the idea of his ruin overcame him. He pressed his face to the glass panel of the door, perspiring and trembling in anticipation of disaster, while the Grégoires decided to go into the drawing-room.
M. Hennebeau quietly endeavoured to do the honours of his house. But in vain he begged his guests to sit down; the close, barricaded room, lighted by two lamps in the daytime, was filled with terror at each new clamour from without. Amid the stuffy hangings the fury of the mob rolled more disturbingly, with vague and terrible menace. They talked, however, constantly brought back to this inconceivable revolt. He was astonished at having foreseen nothing; and his information was so defective that he specially talked against Rasseneur, whose detestable influence, he said, he was able to recognize. Besides, the gendarmes would come; it was impossible that he should be thus abandoned. As to the Grégoires, they only thought about their daughter, the poor darling who was so quickly frightened! Perhaps, in face of the peril, the carriage had returned to Marchiennes. They waited on for another quarter of an hour, worn out by the noise in the street, and by the sound of the stones from time to time striking the closed shutters which rang out like gongs. The situation was no longer bearable. M. Hennebeau spoke of going out to chase away the brawlers by himself, and to meet the carriage, when Hippolyte appeared, exclaiming:
"Sir! sir, here is madame! They are killing madame!" The carriage had not been able to pass through the threatening groups in the Réquillart lane. Négrel had carried out his idea, walking the hundred metres which separated them from the house, and knocking at the little door which led to the garden, near the common. The gardener would hear them, for there was always someone there to open. And, at first, things had gone perfectly;
Madame Hennebeau and the young ladies were already knocking when some women, who had been warned, rushed into the lane. Then everything was spoilt. The door was not opened, and Négrel in vain sought to burst it open with his shoulder. The rush of women increased, and fearing they would be carried away, he adopted the desperate method of pushing his aunt and the girls before him, in order to reach the front steps, by passing through the besiegers. But this manoeuvre led to a hustling. They were not left free, a shouting band followed them, while the crowd floated up to right and to left, without understanding, simply astonished at these dressed-up ladies lost in the midst of the battle. At this moment the confusion was so great that it led to one of those curious mistakes which can never be explained. Lucie and Jeanne reached the steps, and slipped in through the door, which the housemaid opened; Madame Hennebeau had succeeded in following them, and behind them Négrel at last came in, and then bolted the door, feeling sure that he had seen Cécile go in first. She was no longer there, having disappeared on the way, so carried away by fear, that she had turned her back to the house, and had moved of her own accord into the thick of danger.
At once the cry arose:
"Hurrah for the people! Death to the bourgeois! To death with them!"
A few of those in the distance, beneath the veil which hid her face, mistook her for Madame Hennebeau; others said she was a friend of the manager's wife, the young wife of a neighbouring manufacturer who was execrated by his men. And besides it mattered little, it was her silk dress, her fur mantle, even the white feather in her hat, which exasperated them. She smelled of perfume, she wore a watch, she had the delicate skin of a lazy woman who had never touched coal.
"Stop!" shouted Mother Brulé, "we'll put it on your arse, that lace!"
"The lazy sluts steal it from us," said the Levaque. "They stick fur on to their skins while we are dying of cold. Just strip her naked, to show her how to live!"
At once Mouquette rushed forward.
"Yes, yes! whip her!"
And the women, in this savage rivalry, struggled and stretched out their rags, as though each were trying to get a morsel of this rich girl. No doubt her backside was not better made than any one else's. More than one of them were rotten beneath their gewgaws. This injustice had lasted quite long enough; they should be forced to dress themselves like workwomen, these harlots who dared to spend fifty sous on the washing of a single petticoat.
In the midst of these furies Cécile was shaking with paralysed legs, stammering over and over again the same phrase:
"Ladies! please! please! Ladies, please don't hurt me!" But she suddenly uttered a shrill cry; cold hands had seized her by the neck. The rush had brought her near old Bonnemort, who had taken hold of her. He seemed drunk from hunger, stupefied by his long misery, suddenly arousing himself from the resignation of half a century, under the influence of no one knew what malicious impulse. After having in the course of his life saved a dozen mates from death, risking his bones in fire-damps and landslips, he was yielding to things which he would not have been able to express, compelled to do thus, fascinated by this young girl's white neck. And as on this day he had lost his tongue, he clenched his fingers, with his air of an old infirm animal ruminating over his recollections.
"No! no!" yelled the women. "Uncover her arse! out with her arse!"
In the villa, as soon as they had realized the mishap, Négrel and M. Hennebeau bravely reopened the door to run to Cécile's help. But the crowd was now pressing against the garden railings, and it was not easy to go out. A struggle took place here, while the Grégoires in terror stood on the steps.
"Let her be then, old man! It's the Piolaine young lady," cried Maheude to the grandfather, recognizing Cécile, whose veil had been torn off by one of the women.
On his side, Étienne, overwhelmed at this retaliation on a child, was trying to force the band to let go their prey. An inspiration came to him; he brandished the axe, which he had snatched from Levaque's hands.
"To Maigrat's house, by God! there's bread in there! Down to the earth with Maigrat's damned shed!"
And at random he gave the first blow of the axe against the shop door. Some comrades had followed him--Levaque, Maheu, and a few others. But the women were furious, and Cécile had fallen from Bonnemort's fingers into Mother Brulé's hands. Lydie and Bébert, led by Jeanlin, had slipped on all fours between her petticoats to see the lady's bottom. Already the women were pulling her about; her clothes were beginning to split, when a man on horseback appeared, pushing on his animal, and using his riding-whip on those who would not stand back quick enough.
"Ah! rascals! You are going to flog our daughters, are you?"
It was Deneulin who had come to the rendezvous for dinner. He quickly jumped on to the road, took Cécile by the waist, and, with the other hand manipulating his horse with remarkable skill and strength, he used it as a living wedge to split the crowd, which drew back before the onset. At the railing the battle continued. He passed through, however, with some bruises. This unforeseen assistance delivered Négrel and M. Hennebeau, who were in great danger amid the oaths and blows. And while the young man at last led in the fainting Cécile, Deneulin protected the manager with his tall body, and at the top of the steps received a stone which nearly put his shoulder out.
"That's it," he cried; "break my bones now you've broken my engines!"
He promptly pushed the door to, and a volley of flints fell against it.
"What madmen!" he exclaimed. "Two seconds more, and they would have broken my skull like an empty gourd. There is nothing to say to them; what could you do? They know nothing, you can only knock them down."
In the drawing-room, the Grégoires were weeping as they watched Cécile recover. She was not hurt, there was not even a scratch to be seen, only her veil was lost. But their fright increased when they saw before them their cook, Mélanie, who described how the mob had demolished Piolaine. Mad with fear she had run to warn her masters. She had come in when the door was ajar at the moment of the fray, without any one noticing her; and in her endless narrative the single stone with which Jeanlin had broken one window-pane became a regular cannonade which had crushed through the walls. Then M. Grégoire's ideas were altogether upset: they were murdering his daughter, they were razing his house to the ground; it was, then, true that these miners could bear him ill will, because he lived like a worthy man on their labour?
The housemaid, who had brought in a towel and some eau-de-Cologne, repeated:
"All the same it's queer, they're not bad-hearted."
Madame Hennebeau, seated and very pale, had not recovered from the shock to her feelings; and she was only able to find a smile when Négrel was complimented. Cécile's parents especially thanked the young man, and the marriage might now be regarded as settled. M. Hennebeau looked on in silence, turning from his wife to this lover whom in the morning he had been swearing to kill, then to this young girl by whom he would, no doubt, soon be freed from him. There was no haste, only the fear remained with him of seeing his wife fall lower, perhaps to some lackey.
"And you, my little darlings," asked Deneulin of his daughters; "have they broken any of your bones?"
Lucie and Jeanne had been much afraid, but they were pleased to have seen it all. They were now laughing.
"By George!" the father went on, "we've had a fine day! If you want a dowry, you would do well to earn it yourselves, and you may also expect to have to support me."
He was joking, but his voice trembled. His eyes swelled with tears as his two daughters threw themselves into his arms.
M. Hennebeau had heard this confession of ruin. A quick thought lit up his face. Vandame would now belong to Montsou; this was the hoped-for compensation, the stroke of fortune which would bring him back to favour with the gentlemen on the directorate. At every crisis of his existence, he took refuge in the strict execution of the orders he had received; in the military discipline in which he lived he found his small share of happiness.
But they grew calm; the drawing-room fell back into a weary peacefulness, with the quiet light of its two lamps, and the warm stuffiness of the hangings. What, then, was going on outside? The brawlers were silent, and stones no longer struck the house; one only heard deep, full blows, those blows of the hatchet which one hears in distant woods. They wished to find out, and went back into the hall to venture a glance through the glass panel of the door. Even the ladies went upstairs to post themselves behind the blinds on the first floor.
"Do you see that scoundrel, Rasseneur, over there on the threshold of the public-house?" said M. Hennebeau to Deneulin. "I had guessed as much; he must be in it."
It was not Rasseneur, however, it was Étienne, who was dealing blows from his axe at Maigrat's shop. And he went on calling to the men; did not the goods in there belong to the colliers? Had they not the right to take back their property from this thief who had exploited them so long, who was starving them at a hint from the Company? Gradually they all left the manager's house, and ran up to pillage the neighbouring shop. The cry, "Bread! bread! bread!" broke out anew. They would find bread behind that door. The rage of hunger carried them away, as if they suddenly felt that they could wait no longer without expiring on the road. Such furious thrusts were made at the door that at every stroke of the axe Étienne feared to wound someone.
Meanwhile Maigrat, who had left the hall of the manager's house, had at first taken refuge in the kitchen; but, hearing nothing there, he imagined some abominable attempt against his shop, and came up again to hide behind the pump outside, when he distinctly heard the cracking of the door and shouts of pillage in which his own name was mixed. It was not a nightmare, then. If he could not see, he could now hear, and he followed the attack with ringing ears; every blow struck him in the heart. A hinge must have given way; five minutes more and the shop would be taken. The thing was stamped on his brain in real and terrible images--the brigands rushing forward, then the drawers broken open, the sacks emptied, everything eaten, everything drunk, the house itself carried away, nothing left, not even a stick with which he might go and beg through the villages. No, he would never allow them to complete his ruin; he would rather leave his life there. Since he had been here he noticed at a window of his house his wife's thin silhouette, pale and confused, behind the panes; no doubt she was watching the blows with her usual silent air of a poor beaten creature. Beneath there was a shed, so placed that from the villa garden one could climb it from the palings; then it was easy to get on to the tiles up to the window. And the idea of thus returning home now pursued him in his remorse at having left. Perhaps he would have time to barricade the shop with furniture; he even invented other and more heroic defences--boiling oil, lighted petroleum, poured out from above. But this love of his property struggled against his fear, and he groaned in the battle with cowardice. Suddenly, on hearing a deeper blow of the axe, he made up his mind. Avarice conquered; he and his wife would cover the sacks with their bodies rather than abandon a single loaf.
Almost immediately hooting broke out:
"Look! look!--The tom-cat's up there! After the cat! after the cat!"
The mob had just seen Maigrat on the roof of the shed. In his fever of anxiety he had climbed the palings with agility in spite of his weight, and without troubling over the breaking wood; and now he was flattening himself along the tiles, and endeavouring to reach the window. But the slope was very steep; he was incommoded by his stoutness, and his nails were torn. He would have dragged himself up, however, if he had not begun to tremble with the fear of stones; for the crowd, which he could not see, continued to cry beneath him:
"After the cat! after the cat!--Do for him!"
And suddenly both his hands let go at once, and he rolled down like a ball, leapt at the gutter, and fell across the middle wall in such a way that, by ill chance, he rebounded on the side of the road, where his skull was broken open on the corner of a stone pillar. His brain had spurted out. He was dead. His wife up above, pale and confused behind the window-panes, still looked out.
They were stupefied at first. Étienne stopped short, and the axe slipped from his hands. Maheu, Levaque, and the others forgot the shop, with their eyes fixed on the wall along which a thin red streak was slowly flowing down. And the cries ceased, and silence spread over the growing darkness.
All at once the hooting began again. It was the women, who rushed forward overcome by the drunkenness of blood.
"Then there is a good God, after all! Ah! the bloody beast, he's done for!"
They surrounded the still warm body. They insulted it with laughter, abusing his shattered head, the dirty-chops, vociferating in the face of death the long-stored rancour of their starved lives.
"I owed you sixty francs, now you're paid, thief!" said Maheude, enraged like the others. "You won't refuse me credit any more. Wait! wait! I must fatten you once more!"
With her fingers she scratched up some earth, took two handfuls and stuffed it violently into his mouth.
"There! eat that! There! eat! eat! you used to eat us"! The abuse increased, while the dead man, stretched on his back, gazed motionless with his large fixed eyes at the immense sky from which the night was falling. This earth heaped in his mouth was the bread he had refused to give. And henceforth he would eat of no other bread. It had not brought him luck to starve poor people.
But the women had another revenge to wreak on him. They moved round, smelling him like she-wolves. They were all seeking for some outrage, some savagery that would relieve them.
Mother Brulé's shrill voice was heard: "Cut him like a tomcat!"
"Yes, yes, after the cat! after the cat! He's done too much, the dirty beast!"
Mouquette was already unfastening and drawing off the trousers, while the Levaque woman raised the legs. And Mother Brulé with her dry old hands separated the naked thighs and seized this dead virility. She took hold of everything, tearing with an effort which bent her lean spine and made her long arms crack. The soft skin resisted; she had to try again, and at last carried away the fragment, a lump of hairy and bleeding flesh, which she brandished with a laugh of triumph.
"I've got it! I've got it!"
Shrill voices saluted with curses the abominable trophy.
"Ah! swine! you won't fill our daughters any more!"
"Yes! we've done with paying on your beastly body; we shan't any more have to offer a backside in return for a loaf."
"Here, I owe you six francs; would you like to settle it? I'm quite willing, if you can do it still!"
This joke shook them all with terrible gaiety. They showed each other the bleeding fragment as an evil beast from which each of them had suffered, and which they had at last crushed, and saw before them there, inert, in their power. They spat on it, they thrust out their jaws, saying over and over again, with furious bursts of contempt:
"He can do no more! he can do no more!--It's no longer a man that they'll put away in the earth. Go and rot then, good-for-nothing!"
Mother Brulé then planted the whole lump on the end of her stick, and holding it in the air, bore it about like a banner, rushing along the road, followed, helter-skelter, by the yelling troop of women. Drops of blood rained down, and that pitiful flesh hung like a waste piece of meat on a butcher's stall. Up above, at the window, Madame Maigrat still stood motionless; but beneath the last gleams of the setting sun, the confused flaws of the window-panes distorted her white face which looked as though it were laughing. Beaten and deceived at every hour, with shoulders bent from morning to night over a ledger, perhaps she was laughing, while the band of women rushed along with that evil beast, that crushed beast, at the end of the stick.
This frightful mutilation was accomplished in frozen horror. Neither Étienne nor Maheu nor the others had had time to interfere; they stood motionless before this gallop of furies. At the door of the Estaminet Tison a few heads were grouped--Rasseneur pale with disgust, Zacharie and Philoméne stupefied at what they had seen. The two old men, Bonnemort and Mouqe, were gravely shaking their heads. Only Jeanlin was making fun, pushing Bébert with his elbow, and forcing Lydie to look up. But the women were already coming back, turning round and passing beneath the manager's windows. Behind the blinds the ladies were stretching out their necks. They had not been able to observe the scene, which was hidden from them by the wall, and they could not distinguish well in the growing darkness.
"What is it they have at the end of that stick?" asked Cécile, who had grown bold enough to look out.
Lucie and Jeanne declared that it must be a rabbitskin.
"No, no," murmured Madame Hennebeau, "they must have been pillaging a pork butcher's, it seems to be a remnant of a pig."
At this moment she shuddered and was silent. Madame Grégoire had nudged her with her knee. They both remained stupefied. The young ladies, who were very pale, asked no more questions, but with large eyes followed this red vision through the darkness.
Étienne once more brandished the axe. But the feeling of anxiety did not disappear; this corpse now barred the road and protected the shop. Many had drawn back. Satiety seemed to have appeased them all. Maheu was standing by gloomily, when he heard a voice whisper in his ear to escape. He turned round and recognized Catherine, still in her old overcoat, black and panting. With a movement he repelled her. He would not listen to her, he threatened to strike her. With a gesture of despair she hesitated, and then ran towards Étienne.
"Save yourself! save yourself! the gendarmes are coming!"
He also pushed her away and abused her, feeling the blood of the blows she had given him mounting to his cheeks. But she would not be repelled; she forced him to throw down the axe, and drew him away by both arms, with irresistible strength.
"Don't I tell you the gendarmes are coming! Listen to me. It's Chaval who has gone for them and is bringing them, if you want to know. It's too much for me, and I've come. Save yourself, I don't want them to take you."
And Catherine drew him away, while, at the same instant, a heavy gallop shook the street from afar. Immediately a voice arose: "The gendarmes! the gendarmes!" There was a general breaking up, so mad a rush for life that in two minutes the road was free, absolutely clear, as though swept by a hurricane. Maigrat's corpse alone made a patch of shadow on the white earth. Before the Estaminet Tison, Rasseneur only remained, feeling relieved, and with open face applauding the easy victory of the sabres; while in dim and deserted Montsou, in the silence of the closed houses, the bourgeois remained with perspiring skins and chattering teeth, not daring to look out. The plain was drowned beneath the thick night, only the blast furnaces and the coke furnaces were burning against the tragic sky. The gallop of the gendarmes heavily approached; they came up in an indistinguishable sombre mass. And behind them the Marchiennes pastrycook's vehicle, a little covered cart which had been confided to their care, at last arrived, and a small drudge of a boy jumped down and quietly unpacked the crusts for the vol-au-vent.