Germinal, by Émile Zola

Chapter 3

ÉTIENNE had at last descended from the platform and entered the Voreux; he spoke to men whom he met, asking if there was work to be had, but all shook their heads, telling him to wait for the captain. They left him free to roam through the ill-lighted buildings, full of black holes, confusing with their complicated stories and rooms. After having mounted a dark and half-destroyed staircase, he found himself on a shaky footbridge; then he crossed the screening shed, which was plunged in such profound darkness that he walked with his hands before him for protection. Suddenly two enormous yellow eyes pierced the darkness in front of him. He was beneath the pit-frame in the receiving room, at the very mouth of the shaft.

A captain, Father Richomme, a big man with the face of a good-natured gendarme, and with a straight grey moustache, was at that moment going towards the receiver’s office.

“Do they want a hand here for any kind of work?” asked Étienne again.

Richomme was about to say no, but he changed his mind and replied like the others, as he went away:

“Wait for Monsieur Dansaert, the head captain.”

Four lanterns were placed there, and the reflectors which threw all the light on to the shaft vividly illuminated the iron rail, the levers of the signals and bars, the joists of the guides along which slid the two cages. The rest of the vast room, like the nave of a church, was obscure, and peopled by great floating shadows. Only the lamp-cabin shone at the far end, while in the receiver’s office a small lamp looked like a fading star. Work was about to be resumed, and on the iron pavement there was a continual thunder, trains of coal being wheeled without ceasing, while the landers, with their long, bent backs, could be distinguished amid the movement of all these black and noisy things, in perpetual agitation.

For a moment Étienne stood motionless, deafened and blinded. He felt frozen by the currents of air which entered from every side. Then he moved on a few paces, attracted by the winding engine, of which he could now see the glistening steel and copper. It was twenty-five metres beyond the shaft, in a loftier chamber, and placed so solidly on its brick foundation that though it worked at full speed, with all its four hundred horsepower, the movement of its enormous crank, emerging and plunging with oily softness, imparted no quiver to the walls. The engine-man, standing at his post, listened to the ringing of the signals, and his eye never moved from the indicator where the shaft was figured, with its different levels, by a vertical groove traversed by shot hanging to strings, which represented the cages; and at each departure, when the machine was put in motion, the drums — two immense wheels, five metres in radius, by means of which the two steel cables were rolled and unrolled — turned with such rapidity that they became like grey powder.

“Look out, there!” cried three landers, who were dragging an immense ladder.

Étienne just escaped being crushed; his eyes were soon more at home, and he watched the cables moving in the air, more than thirty metres of steel ribbon, which flew up into the pit-frame where they passed over pulleys to descend perpendicularly into the shaft, where they were attached to the cages. An iron frame, like the high scaffolding of a belfry, supported the pulleys. It was like the gliding of a bird, noiseless, without a jar, this rapid flight, the continual come and go of a thread of enormous weight, capable of lifting twelve thousand kilograms at the rate of ten metres a second.

“Attention there, for God’s sake!” cried again the landers, pushing the ladder to the other side in order to climb to the left-hand pulley. Slowly Étienne returned to the receiving room. This giant flight over his head took away his breath. Shivering in the currents of air, he watched the movement of the cages, his ears deafened by the rumblings of the trams. Near the shaft the signal was working, a heavy-levered hammer drawn by a cord from below and allowed to strike against a block. One blow to stop, two to go down, three to go up; it was unceasing, like blows of a club dominating the tumult, accompanied by the clear sound of the bell; while the lander, directing the work, increased the noise still more by shouting orders to the engine-man through a trumpet. The cages in the middle of the clear space appeared and disappeared, were filled and emptied, without Étienne being at all able to understand the complicated proceeding.

He only understood one thing well: the shaft swallowed men by mouthfuls of twenty or thirty, and with so easy a gulp that it seemed to feel nothing go down. Since four o’clock the descent of the workmen had been going on. They came to the shed with naked feet and their lamps in their hands, waiting in little groups until a sufficient number had arrived. Without a sound, with the soft bound of a nocturnal beast, the iron cage arose from the night, wedged itself on the bolts with its four decks, each containing two trains full of coal. Landers on different platforms took out the trains and replaced them by others, either empty or already laden with trimmed wooden props; and it was into the empty trains that the workmen crowded, five at a time, up to forty. When they filled all the compartments, an order came from the trumpet — a hollow indistinct roar — while the signal cord was pulled four times from below, “ringing meat,” to give warning of this burden of human flesh. Then, after a slight leap, the cage plunged silently, falling like a stone, only leaving behind it the vibrating flight of a cable.

“Is it deep?” asked Étienne of a miner, who waited near him with a sleepy air.

“Five hundred and fifty-four metres,” replied the man. “But there are four levels, the first at three hundred and twenty.” Both were silent, with their eyes on the returning cable. Étienne said again:

“And if it breaks?”

“Ah! if it breaks —”

The miner ended with a gesture. His turn had arrived; the cage had reappeared with its easy, unfatigued movement. He squatted in it with some comrades; it plunged down, then flew up again in less then four minutes to swallow down another load of men. For half an hour the shaft went on devouring in this fashion, with more or less greedy gulps, according to the depth of the level to which the men went down, but without stopping, always hungry, with its giant intestines capable of digesting a nation. It went on filling and still filling, and the darkness remained dead. The cage mounted from the void with the same voracious silence.

Étienne was at last seized again by the same depression which he had experienced on the pit bank. What was the good of persisting? This head captain would send him off like the others. A vague fear suddenly decided him: he went away, only stopping before the building of the engine room. The wide-open door showed seven boilers with two furnaces. In the midst of the white steam and the whistling of the escapes a stoker was occupied in piling up one of the furnaces, the heat of which could be felt as far as the threshold; and the young man was approaching glad of the warmth, when he met a new band of colliers who had just arrived at the pit. It was the Maheu and Levaque set. When he saw Catherine at the head, with her gentle boyish air, a superstitious idea caused him to risk another question.

“I say there, mate! do they want a hand here for any kind of work?”

She looked at him surprised, rather frightened at this sudden voice coming out of the shadow. But Maheu, behind her, had heard and replied, talking with Étienne for a moment. No, no one was wanted. This poor devil of a man who had lost his way here interested him. When he left him he said to the others:

“Eh! one might easily be like that. Mustn’t complain: every one hasn’t the chance to work himself to death.”

The band entered and went straight to the shed, a vast hall roughly boarded and surrounded by cupboards shut by padlocks. In the centre an iron fireplace, a sort of closed stove without a door, glowed red and was so stuffed with burning coal that fragments flew out and rolled on to the trodden soil. The hall was only lighted by this stove, from which sanguine reflections danced along the greasy woodwork up to the ceiling, stained with black dust. As the Maheus went into the heat there was a sound of laughter. Some thirty workmen were standing upright with their backs to the fire, roasting themselves with an air of enjoyment. Before going down, they all came here to get a little warmth in their skins, so that they could face the dampness of the pit. But this morning there was much amusement: they were joking Mouquette, a putter girl of eighteen, whose enormous breasts and flanks were bursting through her old jacket and breeches. She lived at Réquillart with her father old Mouque, a groom, and Mouquet, her brother, a lander; but their hours of work were not the same; she went to the pit by herself, and in the middle of the wheat-fields in summer, or against a wall in winter, she took her pleasure with her lover of the week. All in the mine had their turn; it was a perpetual round of comrades without further consequences. One day, when reproached about a Marchiennes nail-maker, she was furiously angry, exclaiming that she respected herself far too much, that she would cut her arm off if any one could boast that he had seen her with any one but a collier.

“It isn’t that big Chaval now?” said a miner grinning; “did that little fellow have you? He must have needed a ladder. I saw you behind Réquillart; more by token he’d perched himself on a boundary-stone.”

“Well,” replied Mouquette, good-humouredly, “what’s that to do with you? You were not asked to push.”

And this gross good-natured joke increased the laughter of the men, who expanded their shoulders, half cooked by the stove, while she herself, shaken by laughter, was displaying in the midst of them the indecency of her costume, embarrasingly comical, with her masses of flesh exaggerated almost to disease.

But the gaiety ceased; Mouquette told Maheu that Fleurance, big Fleurance, would never come again; she had been found the night before stiff in her bed; some said it was her heart, others that it was a pint of gin she had drunk too quickly. And Maheu was in despair; another piece of ill-luck; one of the best of his putters gone without any chance of replacing her at once. He was working in a set; there were four pikemen associated in his cutting, himself, Zacharie, Levaque, and Chaval. If they had Catherine alone to wheel, the work would suffer.

Suddenly he called out:

“I have it! there was that man looking for work!” At that moment Dansaert passed before the shed. Maheu told him the story, and asked for his authority to engage the man; he emphasized the desire of the Company to substitute men for women, as at Anzin. The head captain smiled at first; for the scheme of excluding women from the pit was not usually well received by the miners, who were troubled about placing their daughters, and not much affected by questions of morality and health. But after some hesitation he gave his permission, reserving its ratification for Monsieur Négrel, the engineer.

“All very well!” exclaimed Zacharie; “the man must be away by this time.”

“No,” said Catherine. “I saw him stop at the boilers.”

“After him, then, lazy,” cried Maheu.

The young girl ran forward; while a crowd of miners proceeded to the shaft, yielding the fire to others.

Jeanlin, without waiting for his father, went also to take his lamp, together with Bébert, a big, stupid boy, and Lydie, a small child of ten. Mouquette, who was in front of them, called out in the black passage they were dirty brats, and threatened to box their ears if they pinched her.

Étienne was, in fact, in the boiler building, talking with a stoker, who was charging the furnaces with coal. He felt very cold at the thought of the night into which he must return. But he was deciding to set out, when he felt a hand placed on his shoulder.

“Come,” said Catherine; “there’s something for you.” At first he could not understand. Then he felt a spasm of joy, and vigorously squeezed the young girl’s hands.

“Thanks, mate. Ah! you’re a good chap, you are!”

She began to laugh, looking at him in the red light of the furnaces, which lit them up. It amused her that he should take her for a boy, still slender, with her knot of hair hidden beneath the cap. He also was laughing, with satisfaction, and they remained, for a moment, both laughing in each other’s faces with radiant cheeks.

Maheu, squatting down before his box in the shed, was taking off his sabots and his coarse woollen stockings. When Étienne arrived everything was settled in three or four words: thirty sous a day, hard work, but work that he would easily learn. The pikeman advised him to keep his shoes, and lent him an old cap, a leather hat for the protection of his skull, a precaution which the father and his children disdained. The tools were taken out of the chest, where also was found Fleurance’s shovel. Then, when Maheu had shut up their sabots, their stockings, as well as Étienne’s bundle, he suddenly became impatient.

“What is that lazy Chaval up to? Another girl given a tumble on a pile of stones? We are half an hour late to-day.”

Zacharie and Levaque were quietly roasting their shoulders. The former said at last:

“Is it Chaval you’re waiting for? He came before us, and went down at once.”

“What! you knew that, and said nothing? Come, come, look sharp!”

Catherine, who was warming her hands, had to follow the band. Étienne allowed her to pass, and went behind her. Again he journeyed through a maze of staircases and obscure corridors in which their naked feet produced the soft sound of old slippers. But the lamp-cabin was glittering — a glass house, full of hooks in rows, holding hundreds of Davy lamps, examined and washed the night before, and lighted like candles in chapel. At the barrier each workman took his own, stamped with his number; then he examined it and shut it himself, while the marker, seated at a table, inscribed on the registers the hour of descent. Maheu had to intervene to obtain a lamp for his new putter, and there was still another precaution: the workers defiled before an examiner, who assured himself that all the lamps were properly closed.

“Golly! It’s not warm here,” murmured Catherine, shivering.

Étienne contented himself with nodding his head. He was in front of the shaft, in the midst of a vast hall swept by currents of air. He certainly considered himself brave, but he felt a disagreeable emotion at his chest amid this thunder of trains, the hollow blows of the signals, the stifled howling of the trumpet, the continual flight of those cables, unrolled and rolled at full speed by the drums of the engine. The cages rose and sank with the gliding movement of a nocturnal beast, always engulfing men, whom the throat of the hole seemed to drink. It was his turn now. He felt very cold, and preserved a nervous silence which made Zacharie and Levaque grin; for both of them disapproved of the hiring of this unknown man, especially Levaque, who was offended that he had not been consulted. So Catherine was glad to hear her father explain things to the young man.

“Look! above the cage there is a parachute with iron grapnels to catch into the guides in case of breakage. Does it work? Oh, not always. Yes, the shaft is divided into three compartments, closed by planking from top to bottom; in the middle the cages, on the left the passage for the ladders ——”

But he interrupted himself to grumble, though taking care not to raise his voice much.

“What are we stuck here for, blast it? What right have they to freeze us in this way?”

The captain, Richomme, who was going down himself, with his naked lamp fixed by a nail into the leather of his cap, heard him.

“Careful! Look out for ears,” he murmured paternally, as an old miner with a affectionate feeling for comrades. “Workmen must do what they can. Hold on! here we are; get in with your fellows.”

The cage, provided with iron bands and a small-meshed lattice work, was in fact awaiting them on the bars. Maheu, Zacharie, and Catherine slid into a tram below, and as all five had to enter, Étienne in his turn went in, but the good places were taken; he had to squeeze himself near the young girl, whose elbow pressed into his belly. His lamp embarrassed him; they advised him to fasten it to the button-hole of his jacket. Not hearing, he awkwardly kept it in his hand. The embarkation continued, above and below, a confused packing of cattle. They did not, however, set out. What, then, was happening? It seemed to him that his impatience lasted for many minutes. At last he felt a shock, and the light grew dim, everything around him seemed to fly, while he experienced the dizzy anxiety of a fall contracting his bowels. This lasted as long as he could see light, through the two reception stories, in the midst of the whirling by of the scaffolding. Then, having fallen into the blackness of the pit, he became stunned, no longer having any clear perception of his sensations.

“Now we are off,” said Maheu quietly.

They were all at their ease. He asked himself at times if he was going up or down. Now and then, when the cage went straight without touching the guides, there seemed to be no motion, but rough shocks were afterwards produced, a sort of dancing amid the joists, which made him fear a catastrophe. For the rest he could not distinguish the walls of the shaft behind the lattice work, to which he pressed his face. The lamps feebly lighted the mass of bodies at his feet. Only the captain’s naked light, in the neighbouring tram, shone like a lighthouse.

“This is four metres in diameter,” continued Maheu, to instruct him. “The tubbing wants doing over again, for the water comes in everywhere. Stop! we are reaching the bottom: do you hear?”

Étienne was, in fact, now asking himself the meaning of this noise of falling rain. A few large drops had at first sounded on the roof of the cage, like the beginning of a shower, and now the rain increased, streaming down, becoming at last a deluge. The roof must be full of holes, for a thread of water was flowing on to his shoulder and wetting him to the skin. The cold became icy. and they were buried in black humidity, when they passed through a sudden flash of light, the vision of a cavern in which men were moving. But already they had fallen back into darkness.

Maheu said:

“That is the first main level. We are at three hundred and twenty metres. See the speed.”

Raising his lamp he lighted up a joist of the guides which fled by like a rail beneath a train going at full speed; and beyond, as before, nothing could be seen. They passed three other levels in flashes of light. The deafening rain continued to strike through the darkness.

“How deep it is!” murmured Étienne.

This fall seemed to last for hours. He was suffering for the cramped position he had taken, not daring to move, and especially tortured by Catherine’s elbow. She did not speak a word; he only felt her against him and it warmed him. When the cage at last stopped at the bottom, at five hundred and fifty-four metres, he was astonished to learn that the descent had lasted exactly one minute. But the noise of the bolts fixing themselves, the sensation of solidity beneath, suddenly cheered him; and he was joking when he said to Catherine:

“What have you got under your skin to be so warm? I’ve got your elbow in my belly, sure enough.”

Then she also burst out laughing. Stupid of him, still to take her for a boy! Were his eyes out?

“It’s in your eye that you’ve got my elbow!” she replied, in the midst of a storm of laughter which the astonished young man could not account for.

The cage voided its burden of workers, who crossed the pit-eye hall, a chamber cut in the rock, vaulted with masonry, and lighted up by three large lamps. Over the iron flooring the porters were violently rolling laden trams. A cavernous odour exhaled from the walls, a freshness of saltpetre in which mingled hot breaths from the neighbouring stable. The openings of four galleries yawned here.

“This way,” said Maheu to Étienne. “You’re not there yet. It is still two kilometres.”

The workmen separated, and were lost in groups in the depths of these black holes.. Some fifteen went off into that on the left, and Étienne walked last, behind Maheu, who was preceded by Catherine, Zacharie, and Levaque. It was a large gallery for wagons, through a bed of solid rock, which had only needed walling here and there. In single file they still went on without a word, by the tiny flame of the lamps. The young man stumbled at every step, and entangled his feet in the rails. For a moment a hollow sound disturbed him, the sound of a distant storm, the violence of which seemed to increase and to come from the bowels of the earth. Was it the thunder of a landslip bringing on to their heads the enormous mass which separated them from the light? A gleam pierced the night, he felt the rock tremble, and when he had placed himself close to the wall, like his comrades, he saw a large white horse close to his face, harnessed to a train of wagons. On the first, and holding the reins, was seated Bébert, while Jeanlin, with his hands leaning on the edge of the last, was running barefooted behind.

They again began their walk. Farther on they reached crossways, where two new galleries opened, and the band divided again, the workers gradually entering all the stalls of the mine.

Now the wagon-gallery was constructed of wood; props of timber supported the roof, and made for the crumbly rock a screen of scaffolding, behind which one could see the plates of schist glimmering with mica, and the coarse masses of dull, rough sandstone. Trains of tubs, full or empty, continually passed, crossing each other with their thunder, borne into the shadow by vague beasts trotting by like phantoms. On the double way of a shunting line a long, black serpent slept, a train at standstill, with a snorting horse, whose crupper looked like a block fallen from the roof. Doors for ventilation were slowly opening and shutting. And as they advanced the gallery became more narrow and lower, and the roof irregular, forcing them to bend their backs constantly.

Étienne struck his head hard; without his leather cap he would have broken his skull. However, he attentively followed the slightest gestures of Maheu, whose sombre profile was seen against the glimmer of the lamps. None of the workmen knocked themselves; they evidently knew each boss, each knot of wood or swelling in the rock. The young man also suffered from the slippery soil, which became damper and damper. At times he went through actual puddles, only revealed by the muddy splash of his feet. But what especially astonished him were the sudden changes of temperature. At the bottom of the shaft it was very chilly, and in the wagon-gallery, through which all the air of the mine passed, an icy breeze was blowing, with the violence of a tempest, between the narrow walls. Afterwards, as they penetrated more deeply along other passages which only received a meagre share of air, the wind fell and the heat increased, a suffocating heat as heavy as lead.

Maheu had not again opened his mouth. He turned down another gallery to the right, simply saying to Étienne, without looking round:

“The Guillaume seam.”

It was the seam which contained their cutting. At the first step, Étienne hurt his head and elbows. The sloping roof descended so low that, for twenty or thirty metres at a time, he had to walk bent double. The water came up to his ankles. After two hundred metres of this, he saw Levaque, Zacharie, and Catherine disappear, as though they had flown through a narrow fissure which was open in front of him.

“We must climb,” said Maheu. “Fasten your lamp to a button-hole and hang on to the wood.” He himself disappeared, and Étienne had to follow him. This chimney-passage left in the seam was reserved for miners, and led to all the secondary passages. It was about the thickness of the coal-bed, hardly sixty centimetres. Fortunately the young man was thin, for, as he was still awkward, he hoisted himself up with a useless expense of muscle, flattening his shoulders and hips, advancing by the strength of his wrists, clinging to the planks. Fifteen metres higher they came on the first secondary passage, but they had to continue, as the cutting of Maheu and his mates was in the sixth passage, in hell, as they said; every fifteen metres the passages were placed over each other in never-ending succession through this cleft, which scraped back and chest. Étienne groaned as if the weight of the rocks had pounded his limbs; with torn hands and bruised legs, he also suffered from lack of air, so that he seemed to feel the blood bursting through his skin. He vaguely saw in one passage two squatting beasts, a big one and a little one, pushing trains: they were Lydie and Mouquette already at work. And he had still to climb the height of two cuttings! He was blinded by sweat, and he despaired of catching up the others, whose agile limbs he heard brushing against the rock with a long gliding movement.

“Cheer up! here we are!” said Catherine’s voice.

He had, in fact, arrived, and another voice cried from the bottom of the cutting:

“Well, is this the way to treat people? I have two kilometres to walk from Montsou and I am here first.” It was Chaval, a tall, lean, bony fellow of twenty-five, with strongly marked features, who was in a bad humour at having to wait. When he saw Étienne he asked, with contemptuous surprise:

“What’s that?”

And when Maheu had told him the story he added between his teeth:

“These men are eating the bread of girls.”

The two men exchanged, a look, lighted up by one of those instinctive hatreds which suddenly flame up. Étienne had felt the insult without yet understanding it. There was silence, and they got to work. At last all the seams were gradually filled, and the cuttings were in movement at every level and at the end of every passage. The devouring shaft had swallowed its daily ration of men: nearly seven hundred hands, who were now at work in this giant ant-hill, everywhere making holes in the earth, drilling it like an old worm-eaten piece of wood. And in the middle of the heavy silence and crushing weight of the strata one could hear, by placing one’s ear to the rock, the movement of these human insects at work, from the flight of the cable which moved the cage up and down, to the biting of the tools cutting out the coal at the end of the stalls. Étienne, on turning round, found himself again pressed close to Catherine. But this time he caught a glimpse of the developing curves of her breast: he suddenly understood the warmth which had penetrated him.

“You are a girl, then!” he exclaimed, stupefied.

She replied in her cheerful way, without blushing:

“Of course. You’ve taken your time to find out!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06