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
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
Maheude, who had arrived first with dishevelled
hair beneath a handkerchief knotted on in haste,
and having Estelle asleep in her arms, repeated in
"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
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
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
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
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
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
And from behind, the Levaque woman added, more
"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
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
"Kill us! Kill us, then! We want our
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"Eh! old man, get up. It's nothing, is
Her hands were engaged with Estelle, whom she had
to put under one arm in order to turn her man's
"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.