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IT was at the Bon-Joyeux, Widow Désir's, that the private meeting was organized for Thursday at two o'clock. The widow, incensed at the miseries inflicted on her children the colliers, was in a constant state of anger, especially as her inn was emptying. Never had there been a less thirsty strike; the drunkards had shut themselves up at home for fear of disobeying the sober word of command. Thus Montsou, which swarmed with people on feast-days, now exhibited its wide street in mute and melancholy desolation. No beer flowed from counters or bellies, the gutters were dry. On the pavement at the Casimir Bar and the Estaminet du Progrés one only saw the pale faces of the landladies, looking inquiringly into the street; then in Montsou itself the deserted doors extended from the Estaminet Lenfant to the Estaminet Tison. passing by the Estaminet Piquette and the Tete-Coupée Bar; only the Estaminet Saint-Éloi, which was frequented by captains, still drew occasional glasses; the solitude even extended to the Volcan, where the ladies were resting for lack of admirers, although they had lowered their price from ten sous to five in view of the hard times. A deep mourning was breaking the heart of the entire country.
"By God!" exclaimed Widow Désir, slapping her thighs with both hands, "it's the fault of the gendarmes! Let them run me in, devil take them, if they like, but I must plague them."
For her, all authorities and masters were gendarmes; it was a term of general contempt in which she enveloped all the enemies of the people. She had greeted Étienne's request with transport; her whole house belonged to the miners, she would lend her ball-room gratuitously, and would herself issue the invitations since the law required it. Besides, if the law was not pleased, so much the better! She would give them a bit of her mind. Since yesterday the young man had brought her some fifty letters to sign; he had them copied by neighbours in the settlement who knew how to write, and these letters were sent around among the pits to delegates and to men of whom they were sure. The avowed order of the day was a discussion regarding the continuation of the strike; but in reality they were expecting Pluchart, and reckoning on a discourse from him which would cause a general adhesion to the International.
On Thursday morning Étienne was disquieted by the non-appearance of his old foreman, who had promised by letter to arrive on Wednesday evening. What, then, was happening? He was annoyed that he would not be able to come to an understanding with him before the meeting. At nine o'clock he went to Montsou, with the idea that the mechanic had, perhaps, gone there direct without stopping at the Voreux.
"No, I've not seen your friend," replied Widow Désir. "But everything is ready. Come and see."
She led him into the ball-room. The decorations were the same, the garlands which supported at the ceiling a crown of painted paper flowers, and the gilt cardboard shields in a line along the wall with the names of saints, male and female. Only the musicians' platform had been replaced by a table and three chairs in one corner; and the room was furnished with forms ranged along the floor.
"It's perfect," Étienne declared.
"And you know," said the widow, "that you're at home here. Yell as much as you like. The gendarmes will have to pass over my body if they do come!"
In spite of his anxiety, he could not help smiling when he looked at her, so vast did she appear, with a pair of breasts so huge that one alone would require a man to embrace it, which now led to the saying that of her six weekday lovers she had to take two every evening on account of the work.
But Étienne was astonished to see Rasseneur and Souvarine enter; and as the widow left them all three in the large empty hall he exclaimed:
"What! you here already!"
Souvarine, who had worked all night at the Voreux, the engine-men not being on strike, had merely come out of curiosity. As to Rasseneur, he had seemed constrained during the last two days, and his fat round face had lost its good-natured laugh.
"Pluchart has not arrived, and I am very anxious," added Étienne.
The innkeeper turned away his eyes, and replied between his teeth:
"I'm not surprised; I don't expect him."
Then he made up his mind, and looking the other man in the face bravely:
"I, too, have sent him a letter, if you want me to tell you; and in that letter I have begged him not to come. Yes, I think we ought to manage our own affairs ourselves, without turning to strangers."
Étienne, losing his self-possession and trembling with anger, turned his eyes on his mate's and stammered:
"You've done that, you've done that?"
"I have done that, certainly! and you know that I trust Pluchart; he's a knowing fellow and reliable, one can get on with him. But you see I don't care a damn for your ideas, I don't! Politics, Government, and all that, I don't care a damn for it! What I want is for the miner to be better treated. I have worked down below for twenty years, I've sweated down there with fatigue and misery, and I've sworn to make it easier for the poor beggars who are there still; and I know well enough you'll never get anything with all your ideas, you'll only make the men's fate more miserable still. When they are forced by hunger to go down again, they will be more crushed than ever; the Company will pay them with strokes of the stick, like a runaway dog who is brought back to his kennel. That's what I want to prevent, do you see!"
He raised his voice, protruding his belly and squarely planted on his big legs. The man's whole patient, reasonable nature was revealed in clear phrases, which flowed abundantly without an effort. Was it not absurd to believe that with one stroke one could change the world, putting the workers in the place of the masters and dividing gold as one divides an apple? It would, perhaps, take thousands and thousands of years for that to be realized. There, hold your tongue, with your miracles! The most sensible plan was, if one did not wish to break one's nose, to go straight forward, to demand possible reforms, in short, to improve the lot of the workers on every occasion. He did his best, so far as he occupied himself with it, to bring the Company to better terms; if not, damn it all! they would only starve by being obstinate.
Étienne had let him speak, his own speech cut short by indignation. Then he cried:
"Haven't you got any blood in your veins, by God?" At one moment he would have struck him, and to resist the temptation he rushed about the hall with long strides, venting his fury on the benches through which he made a passage.
"Shut the door, at all events," Souvarine remarked. "There is no need to be heard."
Having himself gone to shut it, he quietly sat down in one of the office chairs. He had rolled a cigarette, and was looking at the other two men with his mild subtle eye, his lips drawn by a slight smile.
"You won't get any farther by being angry," said Rasseneur judiciously. "I believed at first that you had good sense. It was sensible to recommend calmness to the mates, to force them to keep indoors, and to use your power to maintain order. And now you want to get them into a mess!"
At each turn in his walks among the benches, Étienne returned towards the innkeeper, seizing him by the shoulders, shaking him, and shouting out his replies in his face.
"But, blast it all! I mean to be calm. Yes, I have imposed order on them! Yes, I do advise them still not to stir! only it doesn't do to be made a joke of after all! You are lucky to remain cool. Now there are hours when I feel that I am losing my head."
This was a confession on his part. He railed at his illusions of a novice, his religious dream of a city in which justice would soon reign among the men who had become brothers. A fine method truly! to fold one's arms and wait, if one wished to see men eating each other to the end of the world like wolves. No! one must interfere, or injustice would be eternal, and the rich would for ever suck the blood of the poor. Therefore he could not forgive himself the stupidity of having said formerly that politics ought to be banished from the social question. He knew nothing then; now he had read and studied, his ideas were ripe, and he boasted that he had a system. He explained it badly, however, in confused phrases which contained a little of all the theories he had successively passed through and abandoned. At the summit Karl Marx's idea remained standing: capital was the result of spoliation, it was the duty and the privilege of labour to reconquer that stolen wealth. In practice he had at first, with Proudhon, been captured by the chimera of a mutual credit, a vast bank of exchange which suppressed middlemen; then Lassalle's cooperative societies, endowed by the State, gradually transforming the earth into a single industrial town, had aroused his enthusiasm until he grew disgusted in face of the difficulty of controlling them; and he had arrived recently at collectivism, demanding that all the instruments of production should be restored to the community. But this remained vague; he knew not how to realize this new dream, still hindered by scruples of reason and good sense, not daring to risk the secretary's absolute affirmations. He simply said that it was a question of getting possession of the government first of all. Afterwards they would see.
"But what has taken you? Why are you going over to the bourgeois?" he continued violently, again planting himself before the innkeeper. "You said yourself it would have to burst up!"
Rasseneur blushed slightly.
"Yes, I said so. And if it does burst up, you will see that I am no more of a coward than any one else. Only I refuse to be among those who increase the mess in order to fish out a position for themselves."
Étienne blushed in his turn. The two men no longer shouted, having become bitter and spiteful, conquered by the coldness of their rivalry. It was at bottom that which always strains systems, making one man revolutionary in the extreme, pushing the other to an affectation of prudence, carrying them, in spite of themselves, beyond their true ideas into those fatal parts which men do not choose for themselves. And Souvarine, who was listening, exhibited on his pale, girlish face a silent contempt--the crushing contempt of the man who was willing to yield his life in obscurity without even gaining the splendour of martyrdom.
"Then it's to me that you're saying that?" asked Étienne; "you're jealous!"
"Jealous of what?" replied Rasseneur. "I don't pose as a big man; I'm not trying to create a section at Montsou for the sake of being made secretary."
The other man wanted to interrupt him, but he added:
"Why don't you be frank? You don't care a damn for the International; you're only burning to be at our head, the gentleman who corresponds with the famous Federal Council of the Nord!"
There was silence. Étienne replied, quivering:
"Good! I don't think I have anything to reproach myself with. I always asked your advice, for I knew that you had fought here long before me. But since you can't endure any one by your side, I'll act alone in future. And first I warn you that the meeting will take place even if Pluchart does not come, and the mates will join in spite of you."
"Oh! join!" muttered the innkeeper; "that's not enough. You'll have to get them to pay their subscriptions."
"Not at all. The International grants time to workers on strike. It will at once come to our help, and we shall pay later on."
Rasseneur was carried beyond himself.
"Well, we shall see. I belong to this meeting of yours, and I shall speak. I shall not let you turn our friends' heads, I shall let them know where their real interests lie. We shall see whom they mean to follow--me, whom they have known for thirty years, or you, who have turned everything upside down among us in less than a year. No, no! damn it all! We shall see which of us is going to crush the other."
And he went out, banging the door. The garlands of flowers swayed from the ceiling, and the gilt shields jumped against the walls. Then the great room fell back into its heavy calm.
Souvarine was smoking in his quiet way, seated before the table. After having paced for a moment in silence, Étienne began to relieve his feelings at length. Was it his fault if they had left that fat lazy fellow to come to him? And he defended himself from having sought popularity. He knew not even how it had happened, this friendliness of the settlement, the confidence of the miners, the power which he now had over them. He was indignant at being accused of wishing to bring everything to confusion out of ambition; he struck his chest, protesting his brotherly feelings.
Suddenly he stopped before Souvarine and exclaimed. "Do you know, if I thought I should cost a drop of blood to a friend, I would go off at once to America!"
The engine-man shrugged his shoulders, and a smile again came on his lips.
"Oh! blood!" he murmured. "What does that matter? The earth has need of it."
Étienne, growing calm, took a chair, and put his elbows on the other side of the table. This fair face, with the dreamy eyes, which sometimes grew savage with a red light, disturbed him, and exercised a singular power over his will. In spite of his comrade's silence, conquered even by that silence, he felt himself gradually absorbed.
"Well," he asked, "what would you do in my place? Am I not right to act as I do? Isn't it best for us to join this association?"
Souvarine, after having slowly ejected a jet of smoke, replied by his favourite word:
"Oh, foolery! but meanwhile it's always so. Besides, their International will soon begin to move. He has taken it up."
He had pronounced this word in a whisper, with religious fervour, casting a glance towards the east. He was speaking of the master, Bakunin the destroyer.
"He alone can give the knock-out blow," he went on, "while your learned men, with their evolution, are mere cowards. Before three years are past, the International, under his orders, will crush the old world."
Étienne pricked up his ears in attention. He was burning to gain knowledge, to understand this worship of destruction, regarding which the engine-man only uttered occasional obscure words, as though he kept certain mysteries to himself.
"Well, but explain to me. What is your aim?"
"To destroy everything. No more nations, no more governments, no more property, no more God nor worship."
"I quite understand. Only what will that lead you to?"
"To the primitive formless commune, to a new world, to the renewal of everything."
"And the means of execution? How do you reckon to set about it?"
"By fire, by poison, by the dagger. The brigand is the true hero, the popular avenger, the revolutionary in action, with no phrases drawn out of books. We need a series of tremendous outrages to frighten the powerful and to arouse the people."
As he talked, Souvarine grew terrible. An ecstasy raised him on his chair, a mystic flame darted from his pale eyes, and his delicate hands gripped the edge of the table almost to breaking. The other man looked at him in fear, and thought of the stories of which he had received vague intimation, of charged mines beneath the tsar's palace, of chiefs of police struck down by knives like wild boars, of his mistress, the only woman he had loved, hanged at Moscow one rainy morning, while in the crowd he kissed her with his eyes for the last time.
"No! no!" murmured Étienne, as with a gesture he pushed away these abominable visions, "we haven't got to that yet over here. Murder and fire, never! It is monstrous, unjust, all the mates would rise and strangle the guilty one!"
And besides, he could not understand; the instincts of his race refused to accept this sombre dream of the extermination of the world, mown level like a rye-field. Then what would they do afterwards? How would the nations spring up again? He demanded a reply.
"Tell me your programme. We like to know where we are going to."
Then Souvarine concluded peacefully, with his gaze fixed on space:
"All reasoning about the future is criminal, because it prevents pure destruction, and interferes with the progress of revolution."
This made Étienne laugh, in spite of the cold shiver which passed over his flesh. Besides, he willingly acknowledged that there was something in these ideas, which attracted him by their fearful simplicity. Only it would be playing into Rasseneur's hands if he were to repeat such things to his comrades. It was necessary to be practical.
Widow Désir proposed that they should have lunch. They agreed, and went into the inn parlour, which was separated from the ball-room on weekdays by a movable partition. When they had finished their omelette and cheese, the engineman proposed to depart, and as the other tried to detain him:
"What for? To listen to you talking useless foolery? I've seen enough of it. Good day."
He went off in his gentle, obstinate way, with a cigarette between his lips.
Étienne's anxiety increased. It was one o'clock, and Pluchart was decidedly breaking his promise. Towards half-past one the delegates began to appear, and he had to receive them, for he wished to see who entered, for fear that the Company might send its usual spies. He examined every letter of invitation, and took note of those who entered; many came in without a letter, as they were admitted provided he knew them. As two o'clock struck Rasseneur entered, finishing his pipe at the counter, and chatting without haste. This provoking calmness still further disturbed Étienne, all the more as many had come merely for fun--Zacharie, Mouquet, and others. These cared little about the strike, and found it a great joke to do nothing. Seated at tables, and spending their last two sous on drink, they grinned and bantered their mates, the serious ones, who had come to make fools of themselves.
Another quarter of an hour passed; there was impatience in the hall. Then Étienne, in despair, made a gesture of resolution. And he decided to enter, when Widow Désir, who was putting her head outside, exclaimed:
"But here he is, your gentleman!"
It was, in fact, Pluchart. He came in a cab drawn by a broken-winded horse. He jumped at once on to the pavement, a thin, insipidly handsome man, with a large square head--in his black cloth frock-coat he had the Sunday air of a well-to-do workman. For five years he had not done a stroke with the file, and he took care of his appearance, especially combing his hair in a correct manner, vain of his successes on the platform; but his limbs were still stiff, and the nails of his large hands, eaten by the iron, had not grown again. Very active, he worked out his ambitions, scouring the province unceasingly in order to place his ideas.
"Ah! don't be angry with me," he said, anticipating questions and reproaches. "Yesterday, lecture at Preuilly in the morning, meeting in the evening at Valencay. Today, lunch at Marchiennes with Sauvagnat. At last I was able to take a cab. I'm worn out; you can tell by my voice. But that's nothing; I shall speak all the same."
He was on the threshold of the Bon-Joyeux. when he bethought himself.
"By jingo! I'm forgetting the tickets. We should have been in a fine fix!"
He went back to the cab, which the cabman drew up again, and he pulled out a little black wooden box, which he carried off under his arm.
Étienne walked radiantly in his shadow, while Rasseneur, in consternation, did not dare to offer his hand. But the other was already pressing it, and saying a rapid word or two about the letter. What a rum idea! Why not hold this meeting? One should always hold a meeting when possible. Widow Désir asked if he would take anything, but he refused. No need; he spoke without drinking. Only he was in a hurry, because in the evening he reckoned on pushing as far as Joiselle, where he wished to come to an understanding with Legoujeux. Then they all entered the ball-room together. Maheu and Levaque, who had arrived late, followed them. The door was then locked, in order to be in privacy. This made the jokers laugh even more, Zacharie shouting to Mouquet that perhaps they were going to get them all with child in there.
About a hundred miners were waiting on the benches in the close air of the room, with the warm odours of the last ball rising from the floor. Whispers ran round and all heads turned, while the new-comers sat down in the empty places. They gazed at the Lille gentleman, and the black frock-coat caused a certain surprise and discomfort.
But on Étienne's proposition the meeting was at once constituted. He gave out the names, while the others approved by lifting their hands. Pluchart was nominated chairman, and Maheu and Étienne himself were voted stewards. There was a movement of chairs and the officers were installed; for a moment they watched the chairman disappear beneath the table under which he slid the box, which he had not let go. When he reappeared he struck lightly with his fist to call for attention; then he began in a hoarse voice:
A little door opened and he had to stop. It was Widow Désir who, coming round by the kitchen, brought in six glasses on a tray.
"Don't put yourselves out," she said. "When one talks one gets thirsty."
Maheu relieved her of the tray and Pluchart was able to go on. He said how very touched he was at his reception by the Montsou workers, he excused himself for his delay, mentioning his fatigue and his sore throat, then he gave place to Citizen Rasseneur, who wished to speak.
Rasseneur had already planted himself beside the table near the glasses. The back of a chair served him as a rostrum. He seemed very moved, and coughed before starting in a loud voice:
What gave him his influence over the workers at the pit was the facility of his speech, the good-natured way in which he could go on talking to them by the hour without ever growing weary. He never ventured to gesticulate, but stood stolid and smiling, drowning them and dazing them, until they all shouted: "Yes, yes, that's true enough, you're right!" However, on this day, from the first word, he felt that there was a sullen opposition. This made him advance prudently. He only discussed the continuation of the strike, and waited for applause before attacking the International. Certainly honour prevented them from yielding to the Company's demands; but how much misery! what a terrible future if it was necessary to persist much longer! and without declaring for submission he damped their courage, he showed them the settlements dying of hunger, he asked on what resources the partisans of resistance were counting. Three or four friends tried to applaud him, but this accentuated the cold silence of the majority, and the gradually rising disapprobation which greeted his phrases. Then, despairing of winning them over, he was carried away by anger, he foretold misfortune if they allowed their heads to be turned at the instigation of strangers. Two-thirds of the audience had risen indignantly, trying to silence him, since he insulted them by treating them like children unable to act for themselves. But he went on speaking in spite of the tumult, taking repeated gulps of beer, and shouting violently that the man was not born who would prevent him from doing his duty.
Pluchart had risen. As he had no bell he struck his fist on the table, repeating in his hoarse voice:
At last he obtained a little quiet and the meeting, when consulted, brought Rasseneur's speech to an end. The delegates who had represented the pits in the interview with the manager led the others, all enraged by starvation and agitated by new ideas. The voting was decided in advance.
"You don't care a damn, you don't! you can eat!" yelled Levaque, thrusting out his fist at Rasseneur.
Étienne leaned over behind the chairman's back to appease Maheu, who was very red, and carried out of himself by this hypocritical discourse.
"Citizens!" said Pluchart, "allow me to speak!"
There was deep silence. He spoke. His voice sounded painful and hoarse; but he was used to it on his journeys, and took his laryngitis about with him like his programme. Gradually his voice expanded and he produced pathetic effects with it. With open arms and accompanying his periods with a swaying of his shoulders, he had an eloquence which recalled the pulpit, a religious fashion of sinking the ends of his sentences whose monotonous roll at last carried conviction.
His discourse centred on the greatness and the advantages of the International; it was that with which he always started in every new locality. He explained its aim, the emancipation of the workers; he showed its imposing structure--below the commune, higher the province, still higher the nation, and at the summit humanity. His arms moved slowly, piling up the stages, preparing the immense cathedral of the future world. Then there was the internal administration: he read the statutes, spoke of the congresses, pointed out the growing importance of the work, the enlargement of the programme, which, starting from the discussion of wages, was now working towards a social liquidation, to have done with the wage system. No more nationalities. The workers of the whole world would be united by a common need for justice, sweeping away the middle-class corruption, founding, at last, a free society, in which he who did not work should not reap! He roared; his breath startled the flowers of painted paper beneath the low smoky ceiling which sent back the sound of his voice.
A wave passed through the audience. Some of them cried:
"That's it! We're with you."
He went on. The world would be conquered before three years. And he enumerated the nations already conquered. From all sides adhesions were raining in. Never had a young religion counted so many disciples. Then, when they had the upper hand they would dictate terms to the masters, who, in their turn, would have a fist at their throats.
"Yes, yes! they'll have to go down!"
With a gesture he enforced silence. Now he was entering on the strike question. In principle he disapproved of strikes; it was a slow method, which aggravated the sufferings of the worker. But before better things arrived, and when they were inevitable, one must make up one's mind to them, for they had the advantage of disorganizing capital. And in this case he showed the International as providence for strikers, and quoted examples: in Paris, during the strike of the bronze-workers, the masters had granted everything at once, terrified at the news that the International was sending help; in London it had saved the miners at a colliery, by sending back, at its own expense, a ship-load of Belgians who had been brought over by the coal-owner. It was sufficient to join and the companies trembled, for the men entered the great army of workers who were resolved to die for one another rather than to remain the slaves of a capitalistic society.
Applause interrupted him. He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, at the same time refusing a glass which Maheu passed to him. When he was about to continue fresh applause cut short his speech.
"It's all right," he said rapidly to Étienne. "They've had enough. Quick! the cards!"
He had plunged beneath the table, and reappeared with the little black wooden box.
"Citizens!" he shouted, dominating the disturbance, "here are the cards of membership. Let your delegates come up, and I will give them to them to be distributed. Later on we can arrange everything."
Rasseneur rushed forward and again protested. Étienne was also agitated; having to make a speech. Extreme confusion followed. Levaque jumped up with his fists out, as if to fight. Maheu was up and speaking, but nobody could distinguish a single word. In the growing tumult the dust rose from the floor, a floating dust of former balls, poisoning the air with a strong odour of putters and trammers.
Suddenly the little door opened, and Widow Désir filled it with her belly and breast, shouting in a thundering voice:
"For God's sake, silence! The gendarmes!"
It was the commissioner of the district, who had arrived rather late to prepare a report and to break up the meeting. Four gendarmes accompanied him. For five minutes the widow had delayed them at the door, replying that she was at home, and that she had a perfect right to entertain her friends. But they had hustled her away, and she had rushed in to warn her children.
"Must clear out through here," she said again. "There's a dirty gendarme guarding the court. It doesn't matter; my little wood-house opens into the alley. Quick, then!" The commissioner was already knocking with his fist, and as the door was not opened, he threatened to force it. A spy must have talked, for he cried that the meeting was illegal, a large number of miners being there without any letter of invitation.
In the hall the trouble was growing. They could not escape thus; they had not even voted either for adhesion or for the continuation of the strike. All persisted in talking at the same time. At last the chairman suggested a vote by acclamation. Arms were raised, and the delegates declared hastily that they would join in the name of their absent mates. And it was thus that the ten thousand colliers of Montsou became members of the International. Meanwhile, the retreat began. In order to cover it, Widow Désir had propped herself up against the door, which the butt-ends of the gendarmes' muskets were forcing at her back. The miners jumped over the benches, and escaped, one by one, through the kitchen and the wood-yard. Rasseneur disappeared among the first, and Levaque followed him, forgetful of his abuse, and planning how he could get an offer of a glass to pull himself together. Étienne, after having seized the little box, waited with Pluchart and Maheu, who considered it a point of honour to emerge last. As they disappeared the lock gave, and the commissioner found himself in the presence of the widow, whose breast and belly still formed a barricade.
"It doesn't help you much to smash everything in my house," she said. "You can see there's nobody here."
The commissioner, a slow man who did not care for scenes, simply threatened to take her off to prison. And he then went away with his four gendarmes to prepare a report, beneath the jeers of Zacharie and Mouquet, who were full of admiration for the way in which their mates had humbugged this armed force, for which they themselves did not care a hang.
In the alley outside, Étienne, embarrassed by the box, was rushing along, followed by the others. He suddenly thought of Pierron, and asked why he had not turned up. Maheu, also running, replied that he was ill--a convenient illness, the fear of compromising himself. They wished to retain Pluchart, but, without stopping, he declared that he must set out at once for Joiselle, where Legoujeux was awaiting orders. Then, as they ran, they shouted out to him their wishes for a pleasant journey, and rushed through Montsou with their heels in the air. A few words were exchanged, broken by the panting of their chests. Étienne and Maheu were laughing confidently, henceforth certain of victory. When the International had sent help, it would be the Company that would beg them to resume work. And in this burst of hope, in this gallop of big boots sounding over the pavement of the streets, there was something else also, something sombre and fierce, a gust of violence which would inflame the settlements in the four corners of the country.