THE four pikemen had spread themselves one above the other over the whole face of the cutting. Separated by planks, hooked on to retain the fallen coal, they each occupied about four metres of the seam, and this seam was so thin, scarcely more than fifty centimetres thick at this spot, that they seemed to be flattened between the roof and the wall, dragging themselves along by their knees and elbows, and unable to turn without crushing their shoulders. In order to attack the coal, they had to lie on their sides with their necks twisted and arms raised, brandishing, in a sloping direction, their short-handled picks.
Below there was, first, Zacharie; Levaque and Chaval were on the stages above, and at the very top was Maheu. Each worked at the slaty bed, which he dug out with blows of the pick; then he made two vertical cuttings in the bed and detached the block by burying an iron wedge in its upper part. The coal was rich; the block broke and rolled in fragments along their bellies and thighs. When these fragments, retained by the plank, had collected round them, the pikemen disappeared, buried in the narrow cleft.
Maheu suffered most. At the top the temperature rose to thirty-five degrees, and the air was stagnant, so that in the long run it became lethal. In order to see, he had been obliged to fix his lamp to a nail near his head, and this lamp, close to his skull, still further heated his blood. But his torment was especially aggravated by the moisture. The rock above him, a few centimetres from his face, streamed with water, which fell in large continuous rapid drops with a sort of obstinate rhythm, always at the same spot. It was vain for him to twist his head or bend back his neck. They fell on his face, dropping unceasingly. In a quarter of an hour he was soaked, and at the same time covered with sweat, smoking as with the hot steam of a laundry. This morning a drop beating upon his eye made him swear. He would not leave his picking, he dealt great strokes which shook him violently between the two rocks, like a fly caught between two leaves of a book and in danger of being completely flattened.
Not a word was exchanged. They all hammered; one only heard these irregular blows, which seemed veiled and remote. The sounds had a sonorous hoarseness, without any echo in the dead air. And it seemed that the darkness was an unknown blackness, thickened by the floating coal dust, made heavy by the gas which weighed on the eyes. The wicks of the lamps beneath their caps of metallic tissue only showed as reddish points. One could distinguish nothing. The cutting opened out above like a large chimney, flat and oblique, in which the soot of ten years had amassed a profound night. Spectral figures were moving in it, the gleams of light enabled one to catch a glimpse of a rounded hip, a knotty arm, a vigorous head, besmeared as if for a crime. Sometimes, blocks of coal shone suddenly as they became detached, illuminated by a crystalline reflection. Then everything fell back into darkness, pickaxes struck great hollow blows; one only heard panting chests, the grunting of discomfort and weariness beneath the weight of the air and the rain of the springs.
Zacharie, with arms weakened by a spree of the night before, soon left his work on the pretence that more timbering was necessary. This allowed him to forget himself in quiet whistling, his eyes vaguely resting in the shade. Behind the pikemen nearly three metres of the seam were clear, and they had not yet taken the precaution of supporting the rock, having grown careless of danger and miserly of their time.
“Here, you swell,” cried the young man to Étienne, “hand up some wood.”
Étienne, who was learning from Catherine how to manage his shovel, had to raise the wood in the cutting. A small supply had remained over from yesterday. It was usually sent down every morning ready cut to fit the bed.
“Hurry up there, damn it!” shouted Zacharie, seeing the new putter hoist himself up awkwardly in the midst of the coal, his arms embarrassed by four pieces of oak.
He made a hole in the roof with his pickaxe, and then another in the wall, and wedged in the two ends of the wood, which thus supported the rock. In the afternoon the workers in the earth cutting took the rubbish left at the bottom of the gallery by the pikemen, and cleared out the exhausted section of the seam, in which they destroyed the wood, being only careful about the lower and upper roads for the haulage.
Maheu ceased to groan. At last he had detached his block, and he wiped his streaming face on his sleeve. He was worried about what Zacharie was doing behind him.
“Let it be,” he said, “we will see after breakfast. Better go on hewing, if we want to make up our share of trams.”
“It’s because it’s sinking,” replied the young man. “Look, there’s a crack. It may slip.”
But the father shrugged his shoulders. Ah! nonsense! Slip! And if it did, it would not be the first time; they would get out of it all right. He grew angry at last, and sent his son to the front of the cutting.
All of them, however, were now stretching themselves. Levaque, resting on his back, was swearing as he examined his left thumb which had been grazed by the fall of a piece of sandstone. Chaval had taken off his shirt in a fury, and was working with bare chest and back for the sake of coolness. They were already black with coal, soaked in a fine dust diluted with sweat which ran down in streams and pools. Maheu first began again to hammer, lower down, with his head level with the rock. Now the drop struck his forehead so obstinately that he seemed to feel it piercing a hole in the bone of his skull.
“You mustn’t mind,” explained Catherine to Étienne, “they are always howling.”
And like a good-natured girl she went on with her lesson. Every laden tram arrived at the top in the same condition as it left the cutting, marked with a special metal token so that the receiver might put it to the reckoning of the stall. It was necessary, therefore, to be very careful to fill it, and only to take clean coal, otherwise it was refused at the receiving office.
The young man, whose eyes were now becoming accustomed to the darkness, looked at her, still white with her chlorotic complexion, and he could not have told her age; he thought she must be twelve, she seemed to him so slight. However, he felt she must be older, with her boyish freedom, a simple audacity which confused him a little; she did not please him: he thought her too roguish with her pale Pierrot head, framed at the temples by the cap. But what astonished him was the strength of this child, a nervous strength which was blended with a good deal of skill. She filled her train faster than he could, with quick small regular strokes of the shovel; she afterwards pushed it to the inclined way with a single slow push, without a hitch, easily passing under the low rocks. He tore himself to pieces, got off the rails, and was reduced to despair.
It was certainly not a convenient road. It was sixty metres from the cutting to the upbrow, and the passage, which the miners in the earth cutting had not yet enlarged, was a mere tube with a very irregular roof swollen by innumerable bosses; at certain spots the laden tram could only just pass; the putter had to flatten himself, to push on his knees, in order not to break his head, and besides this the wood was already bending and yielding. One could see it broken in the middle in long pale rents like an over-weak crutch. One had to be careful not to graze oneself in these fractures; and beneath the slow crushing, which caused the splitting of billets of oak as large as the thigh, one had to glide almost on one’s belly with a secret fear of suddenly hearing one’s back break.
“Again!” said Catherine, laughing.
Étienne’s tram had gone off the rails at the most difficult spot. He could not roll straight on these rails which sank in the damp earth, and he swore, became angry, and fought furiously with the wheels, which he could not get back into place in spite of exaggerated efforts.
“Wait a bit,” said the young girl. “If you get angry it will never go.” Skilfully she had glided down and thrust her buttocks beneath the tram, and by putting the weight on her loins she raised it and replaced it. The weight was seven hundred kilograms. Surprised and ashamed, he stammered excuses.
She was obliged to show him how to straddle his legs and brace his feet against the planking on both sides of the gallery, in order to give himself a more solid fulcrum. The body had to be bent, the arms made stiff so as to push with all the muscles of the shoulders and hips. During the journey he followed her and watched her proceed with tense back, her fists so low that she seemed trotting on all fours, like one of those dwarf beasts that perform at circuses. She sweated, panted, her joints cracked, but without a complaint, with the indifference of custom, as if it were the common wretchedness of all to live thus bent double. But he could not succeed in doing as much; his shoes troubled him, his body seemed broken by walking in this way with lowered head. At the end of a few minutes the position became a torture, an intolerable anguish, so painful that he got on his knees for a moment to straighten himself and breathe.
Then at the upbrow there was more labour. She taught him to fill his tram quickly. At the top and bottom of this inclined plane, which served all the cuttings from one level to the other, there was a trammer — the brakesman above, the receiver below. These scamps of twelve to fifteen years shouted abominable words to each other, and to warn them it was necessary to yell still more violently. Then, as soon as there was an empty tram to send back, the receiver gave the signal and the putter embarked her full tram, the weight of which made the other ascend when the brakesman loosened his brake. Below, in the bottom gallery, were formed the trains which the horses drew to the shaft.
“Here, you confounded rascals,” cried Catherine in the inclined way, which was wood-lined, about a hundred metres long, and resounded like a gigantic trumpet.
The trainmers must have been resting, for neither of them replied. On all the levels haulage had stopped. A shrill girl’s voice said at last:
“One of them must be on Mouquette, sure enough!” There was a roar of laughter, and the putters of the whole seam held their sides.
“Who is that?” asked Étienne of Catherine.
The latter named little Lydie, a scamp who knew more than she ought, and who pushed her tram as stoutly as a woman in spite of her doll’s arms. As to Mouquette, she was quite capable of being with both the trammers at once.
But the voice of the receiver arose, shouting out to load. Doubtless a captain was passing beneath. Haulage began again on the nine levels, and one only heard the regular calls of the trammers, and the snorting of the putters arriving at the upbrow and steaming like over-laden mares. It was the element of bestiality which breathed in the pit, the sudden desire of the male, when a miner met one of these girls on all fours, with her flanks in the air and her hips bursting through her boy’s breeches.
And on each journey Étienne found again at the bottom the stuffiness of the cutting, the hollow and broken cadence of the axes, the deep painful sighs of the pikemen persisting in their work. All four were naked, mixed up with the coal, soaked with black mud up to the cap. At one moment it had been necessary to free Maheu, who was gasping, and to remove the planks so that the coal could fall into the passage. Zacharie and Levaque became enraged with the seam, which was now hard, they said, and which would make the condition of their account disastrous. Chaval turned, lying for a moment on his back, abusing Étienne, whose presence decidedly exasperated him.
“A sort of worm; hasn’t the strength of a girl! Are you going to fill your tub? It’s to spare your arms, eh? Damned if I don’t keep back the ten sous if you get us one refused!”
The young man avoided replying, too happy at present to have found this convict’s labour and accepting the brutal rule of the worker by master worker. But he could no longer walk, his feet were bleeding, his limbs torn by horrible cramps, his body confined in an iron girdle. Fortunately it was ten o’clock, and the stall decided to have breakfast.
Maheu had a watch, but he did not even look at it. At the bottom of this starless night he was never five minutes out. All put on their shirts and jackets. Then, descending from the cutting they squatted down, their elbows to their sides, their buttocks on their heels, in that posture so habitual with miners that they keep it even when out of the mine, without feeling the need of a stone or a beam to sit on. And each, having taken out his briquet, bit seriously at the thick slice, uttering occasional words on the morning’s work. Catherine, who remained standing, at last joined Étienne, who had stretched himself out farther along, across the rails, with his back against the planking. There was a place there almost dry.
“You don’t eat?” she said to him, with her mouth full and her brick in her hand.
Then she remembered that this youth, wandering about at night without a sou, perhaps had not a bit of bread.
“Will you share with me?”
And as he refused, declaring that he was not hungry, while his voice trembled with the gnawing in his stomach, she went on cheerfully:
“Ah! if you are fastidious! But here, I’ve only bitten on that side. I’ll give you this.”
She had already broken the bread and butter into two pieces. The young man, taking his half, restrained himself from devouring it all at once, and placed his arms on his thighs, so that she should not see how he trembled. With her quiet air of good comradeship she lay beside him, at full length on her stomach, with her chin in one hand, slowly eating with the other. Their lamps, placed between them, lit up their faces.
Catherine looked at him a moment in silence. She must have found him handsome, with his delicate face and black moustache. She vaguely smiled with pleasure.
“Then you are an engine-man, and they sent you away from your railway. Why?”
“Because I struck my chief.”
She remained stupefied, overwhelmed, with her hereditary ideas of subordination and passive obedience.
“I ought to say that I had been drinking,” he went on, and when I drink I get mad — I could devour myself, and I could devour other people. Yes; I can’t swallow two small glasses without wanting to kill someone. Then I am ill for two days.”
“You mustn’t drink,” she said, seriously.
“Ah, don’t be afraid. I know myself.”
And he shook his head. He hated brandy with the hatred of the last child of a race of drunkards, who suffered in his flesh from all those ancestors, soaked and driven mad by alcohol to such a point that the least drop had become poison to him.
“It is because of mother that I didn’t like being turned into the street,” he said, after having swallowed a mouthful. “Mother is not happy, and I used to send her a five-franc piece now and then.”
“Where is she, then, your mother?”
“At Paris. Laundress, Rue de la Goutte-d’or.”
There was silence. When he thought of these things a tremor dimmed his dark eyes, the sudden anguish of the injury he brooded over in his fine youthful strength. For a moment he remained with his looks buried in the darkness of the mine; and at that depth, beneath the weight and suffocation of the earth, he saw his childhood again, his mother still beautiful and strong, forsaken by his father, then taken up again after having married another man, living with the two men who ruined her, rolling with them in the gutter in drink and ordure. It was down there, he recalled the street, the details came back to him; the dirty linen in the middle of the shop, the drunken carousals that made the house stink, and the jaw-breaking blows.
“Now,” he began again, in a slow voice, “I haven’t even thirty sous to make her presents with. She will die of misery, sure enough.”
He shrugged his shoulders with despair, and again bit at his bread and butter.
“Will you drink?” asked Catherine, uncorking her tin. “Oh, it’s coffee, it won’t hurt you. One gets dry when one eats like that.”
But he refused; it was quite enough to have taken half her bread. However, she insisted good-naturedly, and said at last:
“Well, I will drink before you since you are so polite. Only you can’t refuse now, it would be rude.”
She held out her tin to him. She had got on to her knees and he saw her quite close to him, lit up by the two lamps. Why had he found her ugly? Now that she was black, her face powdered with fine charcoal, she seemed to him singularly charming. In this face surrounded by shadow, the teeth in the broad mouth shone with whiteness, while the eyes looked large and gleamed with a greenish reflection, like a cat’s eyes. A lock of red hair which had escaped from her cap tickled her ear and made her laugh. She no longer seemed so young, she might be quite fourteen.
“To please you,” he said, drinking and giving her back the tin.
She swallowed a second mouthful and forced him to take one too, wishing to share, she said; and that little tin that went from one mouth to the other amused them. He suddenly asked himself if he should not take her in his arms and kiss her lips. She had large lips of a pale rose colour, made vivid by the coal, which tormented him with increasing desire. But he did not dare, intimidated before her, only having known girls on the streets at Lille of the lowest order, and not realizing how one ought to behave with a work-girl still living with her family.
“You must be about fourteen then?” he asked, after having gone back to his bread. She was astonished, almost angry.
“What? fourteen! But I am fifteen! It’s true I’m not big. Girls don’t grow quick with us.”
He went on questioning her and she told everything without boldness or shame. For the rest she was not ignorant concerning man and woman, although he felt that her body was virginal, with the virginity of a child delayed in her sexual maturity by the environment of bad air and weariness in which she lived. When he spoke of Mouquette, in order to embarrass her, she told some horrible stories in a quiet voice, with much amusement. Ah! she did some fine things! And as he asked if she herself had no lovers, she replied jokingly that she did not wish to vex her mother, but that it must happen some day. Her shoulders were bent. She shivered a little from the coldness of her garments soaked in sweat, with a gentle resigned air, ready to submit to things and men.
“People can find lovers when they all live together, can’t they?”
“And then it doesn’t hurt any one. One doesn’t tell the priest.”
“Oh! the priest! I don’t care for him! But there is the Black Man?”
“What do you mean, the Black Man?”
“The old miner who comes back into the pit and wrings naughty girls’ necks.”
He looked at her, afraid that she was making fun of him.
“You believe in those stupid things? Then you don’t know anything.”
“Yes, I do. I can read and write. That is useful among us; in father and mother’s time they learnt nothing.”
She was certainly very charming. When she had finished her bread and butter, he would take her and kiss her on her large rosy lips. It was the resolution of timidity, a thought of violence which choked his voice. These boy’s clothes — this jacket and these breeches — on the girl’s flesh excited and troubled him. He had swallowed his last mouthful. He drank from the tin and gave it back for her to empty. Now the moment for action had come, and he cast a restless glance at the miners farther on. But a shadow blocked the gallery.
For a moment Chaval stood and looked at them from afar. He came forward, having assured himself that Maheu could not see him; and as Catherine was seated on the earth he seized her by the shoulders, drew her head back, and tranquilly crushed her mouth beneath a brutal kiss, affecting not to notice Étienne. There was in that kiss an act of possession, a sort of jealous resolution.
However, the young girl was offended.
“Let me go, do you hear?”
He kept hold of her head and looked into her eyes. His moustache and small red beard flamed in his black face with its large eagle nose. He let her go at last, and went away without speaking a word.
A shudder had frozen Étienne. It was stupid to have waited. He could certainly not kiss her now, for she would, perhaps, think that he wished to behave like the other. In his wounded vanity he experienced real despair.
“Why did you lie?” he said, in a low voice. “He’s your lover.”
“But no, I swear,” she cried. “There is not that between us. Sometimes he likes a joke; he doesn’t even belong here; it’s six months since he came from the Pas-de-Calais.”
Both rose; work was about to be resumed. When she saw him so cold she seemed annoyed. Doubtless she found him handsomer than the other; she would have preferred him perhaps. The idea of some amiable, consoling relationship disturbed her; and when the young man saw with surprise that his lamp was burning blue with a large pale ring, she tried at least to amuse him.
“Come, I will show you something,” she said, in a friendly way.
When she had led him to the bottom of the cutting, she pointed out to him a crevice in the coal. A slight bubbling escaped from it, a little noise like the warbling of a bird.
“Put your hand there; you’ll feel the wind. It’s fire-damp.”
He was surprised. Was that all? Was that the terrible thing which blew everything up? She laughed, she said there was a good deal of it to-day to make the flame of the lamps so blue.
“Now, if you’ve done chattering, lazy louts!” cried Maheu’s rough voice.
Catherine and Étienne hastened to fill their trams, and pushed them to the upbrow with stiffened back, crawling beneath the bossy roof of the passage. Even after the second journey, the sweat ran off them and their joints began to crack.
The pikemen had resumed work in the cutting. The men often shortened their breakfast to avoid getting cold; and their bricks, eaten in this way, far from the sun, with silent voracity, loaded their stomachs with lead. Stretched on their sides they hammered more loudly, with the one fixed idea of filling a large number of trams. Every thought disappeared in this rage for gain which was so hard to earn. They no longer felt the water which streamed on them and swelled their limbs, the cramps of forced attitudes, the suffocation of the darkness in which they grew pale, like plants put in a cellar. Yet, as the day advanced, the air became more poisoned and heated with the smoke of the lamps, with the pestilence of their breaths, with the asphyxia of the fire-damp — blinding to the eyes like spiders’ webs — which only the aeration of the night could sweep away. At the bottom of their mole-hill, beneath the weight of the earth, with no more breath in their inflamed lungs, they went on hammering.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15