ON Sunday Étienne escaped from the settlement at nightfall. A very clear sky, sprinkled with stars, lit up the earth with the blue haze of twilight. He went down towards the canal, and followed the bank slowly, in the direction of Marchiennes. It was his favourite walk, a grass-covered path two leagues long, passing straight beside this geometrical water-way, which unrolled itself like an endless ingot of molten silver. He never met any one there. But on this day he was vexed to see a man come up to him. Beneath the pale starlight, the two solitary walkers only recognized each other when they were face to face.
“What! is it you?” said Étienne.
Souvarine nodded his head without replying. For a moment they remained motionless, then side by side they set out towards Marchiennes. Each of them seemed to be continuing his own reflections, as though they were far away from each other.
“Have you seen in the paper about Pluchart’s success at Paris?” asked Étienne, at length. “After that meeting at Belleville, they waited for him on the pavement, and gave him an ovation. Oh! he’s afloat now, in spite of his sore throat. He can do what he likes in the future.”
The engine-man shrugged his shoulders. He felt contempt for fine talkers, fellows who go into politics as one goes to the bar, to get an income out of phrases.
Étienne was now studying Darwin. He had read fragments, summarized and popularized in a five-sou volume; and out of this ill-understood reading he had gained for himself a revolutionary idea of the struggle for existence, the lean eating the fat, the strong people devouring the pallid middle class. But Souvarine furiously attacked the stupidity of the Socialists who accept Darwin, that apostle of scientific inequality, whose famous selection was only good for aristocratic philosophers. His mate persisted, however, wishing to reason out the matter, and expressing his doubts by an hypothesis: supposing the old society were no longer to exist, swept away to the crumbs; well, was it not to be feared that the new world would grow up again, slowly spoilt by the same injustices, some sick and others flourishing, some more skilful and intelligent, fattening on everything, and others imbecile and lazy. becoming slaves again? But before this vision of eternal wretchedness, the engine-man shouted out fiercely that if justice was not possible with man, then man must disappear. For every rotten society there must be a massacre, until the last creature was exterminated. And there was silence again.
For a long time, with sunken head, Souvarine walked over the short grass, so absorbed that he kept to the extreme edge, by the water, with the quiet certainty of a sleep-walker on a roof. Then he shuddered causelessly, as though he had stumbled against a shadow. His eyes lifted and his face was very pale; he said softly to his companion:
“Did I ever tell you how she died?”
“Whom do you mean?”
“My woman, over there, in Russia.”
Étienne made a vague gesture, astonished at the tremor in his voice and at the sudden desire for confidence in this lad, who was usually so impassive in his stoical detachment from others and from himself. He only knew that the woman was his mistress, and that she had been hanged at Moscow.
“The affair hadn’t gone off,” Souvarine said, with eyes still vacantly following the white stream of the canal between the bluish colonnades of tall trees. “We had been a fortnight at the bottom of a hole undermining the railway, and it was not the imperial train that was blown up, it was a passenger train. Then they arrested Annutchka. She brought us bread every evening, disguised as a peasant woman. She lit the fuse, too, because a man might have attracted attention. I followed the trial, hidden in the crowd, for six days.”
His voice became thick, and he coughed as though he were choking.
“Twice I wanted to cry out, and to rush over the people’s heads to join her. But what was the good? One man less would be one soldier less; and I could see that she was telling me not to come, when her large eyes met mine.”
He coughed again.
“On the last day in the square I was there. It was raining; they stupidly lost their heads, put out by the falling rain. It took twenty minutes to hang the other four; the cord broke, they could not finish the fourth. Annutchka was standing up waiting. She could not see me, she was looking for me in the crowd. I got on to a post and she saw me, and our eyes never turned from each other. When she was dead she was still looking at me. I waved my hat; I came away.”
There was silence again. The white road of the canal unrolled to the far distance, and they both walked with the same quiet step as though each had fallen back into his isolation. At the horizon, the pale water seemed to open the sky with a little hole of light.
“It was our punishment,” Souvarine went on roughly. “We were guilty to love each other. Yes, it is well that she is dead; heroes will be born from her blood, and I no longer have any cowardice at my heart. Ah! nothing, neither parents, nor wife, nor friend! Nothing to make my hand tremble on the day when I must take others’ lives or give up my own.”
Étienne had stopped, shuddering in the cool night. He discussed no more, he simply said:
“We have gone far; shall we go back?”
They went back towards the Voreux slowly, and he added, after a few paces:
“Have you seen the new placards?”
The Company had that morning put up some more large yellow posters. They were clearer and more conciliatory, and the Company undertook to take back the certificates of those miners who went down on the following day. Everything would be forgotten, and pardon was offered even to those who were most implicated.
“Yes, I’ve seen,” replied the engine-man.
“Well, what do you think of it?”
“I think that it’s all up. The flock will go down again. You are all too cowardly.”
Étienne feverishly excused his mates: a man may be brave, a mob which is dying of hunger has no strength. Step by step they were returning to the Voreux; and before the black mass of the pit he continued swearing that he, at least, would never go down; but he could forgive those who did. Then, as the rumour ran that the carpenters had not had time to repair the tubbing, he asked for information. Was it true? Had the weight of the soil against the timber which formed the internal skirt of scaffolding to the shaft so pushed it in that the winding-cages rubbed as they went down for a length of over fifty metres?
Souvarine, who once more became uncommunicative, replied briefly. He had been working the day before, and the cage did, in fact, jar; the engine-men had even had to double the speed to pass that spot. But all the bosses received any observations with the same irritating remark: it was coal they wanted; that could be repaired later on.
“You see that is smashing up!” Étienne murmured. “It will be a fine time!”
With eyes vaguely fixed on the pit in the shadow, Souvarine quietly concluded:
“If it does smash up, the mates will know it, since you advise them to go down again.”
Nine o’clock struck at the Montsou steeple; and his companion having said that he was going to bed, he added, without putting out his hand:
“Well, good-bye. I’m going away.”
“What! you’re going away?”
“Yes, I’ve asked for my certificate back. I’m going elsewhere.”
Étienne, stupefied and affected, looked at him. After walking for two hours he said that to him! And in so calm a voice, while the mere announcement of this sudden separation made his own heart ache. They had got to know each other, they had toiled together; that always makes one sad, the idea of not seeing a person again.
“You’re going away! And where do you go?”
“Over there — I don’t know at all.”
“But I shall see you again?”
“No, I think not.”
They were silent and remained for a moment facing each other without finding anything to say.
While Étienne ascended toward the settlement, Souvarine turned and again went along the canal bank; and there, now alone, he continued to walk, with sunken head, so lost in the darkness that he seemed merely a moving shadow of the night. Now and then he stopped, he counted the hours that struck afar. When he heard midnight strike he left the bank and turned towards the Voreux.
At that time the pit was empty, and he only met a sleepy-eyed captain. It was not until two o’clock that they would begin to get up steam to resume work. First he went to take from a cupboard a jacket which he pretended to have forgotten. Various tools — a drill armed with its screw, a small but very strong saw, a hammer, and a chisel — were rolled up in this jacket. Then he left. But instead of going out through the shed he passed through the narrow corridor which led to the ladder passage. With his jacket under his arm he quietly went down without a lamp, measuring the depth by counting the ladders. He knew that the cage jarred at three hundred and seventy-four metres against the fifth row of the lower tubbing. When he had counted fifty-four ladders he put out his hand and was able to feel the swelling of the planking. It was there. Then, with the skill and coolness of a good workman who has been reflecting over his task for a long time, he set to work. He began by sawing a panel in the brattice so as to communicate with the winding-shaft. With the help of matches, quickly lighted and blown out, he was then able to ascertain the condition of the tubbing and of the recent repairs.
Between Calais and Valenciennes the sinking of mine shafts was surrounded by immense difficulties on account of the masses of subterranean water in great sheets at the level of the lowest valleys. Only the construction of tubbings, frameworks jointed like the stays of a barrel, could keep Out the springs which flow in and isolate the shafts in the midst of the lakes, which with deep obscure waves beat against the walls. It had been necessary in sinking the Voreux to establish two tubbings: that of the upper level, in the shifting sands and white clays bordering the chalky stratum, and fissured in every part, swollen with water like a sponge; then that of the lower level, immediately above the coal stratum, in a yellow sand as fine as flour, flowing with liquid fluidity; it was here that the Torrent was to be found, that subterranean sea so dreaded in the coal pits of the Nord, a sea with its storms and its shipwrecks, an unknown and unfathomable sea, rolling its dark floods more than three hundred metres beneath the daylight. Usually the tubbings resisted the enormous pressure; the only thing to be dreaded was the piling up of the neighbouring soil, shaken by the constant movement of the old galleries which were filling up. In this descent of the rocks lines of fracture were sometimes produced which slowly extended as far as the scaffolding, at last perforating it and pushing it into the shaft; and there was the great danger of a landslip and a flood filling the pit with an avalanche of earth and a deluge of springs.
Souvarine, sitting astride in the opening he had made, discovered a very serious defect in the fifth row of tubbing. The wood was bellied out from the framework; several planks had even come out of their shoulder-pieces. Abundant filtrations, pichoux the miners call them, were jetting out of the joints through the tarred oakum with which they were caulked. The carpenters, pressed for time, had been content to place iron squares at the angles, so carelessly that not all the screws were put in. A considerable movement was evidently going on behind in the sand of the Torrent.
Then with his wimble he unscrewed the squares so that another push would tear them all off. It was a foolhardy task, during which he frequently only just escaped from falling headlong down the hundred and eighty metres which separated him from the bottom. He had been obliged to seize the oak guides, the joists along which the cages slid; and suspended over the void he traversed the length of the cross-beams with which they were joined from point to point, slipping along, sitting down, turning over, simply buttressing himself on an elbow or a knee, with tranquil contempt of death. A breath would have sent him over, and three times he caught himself up without a shudder. First he felt with his hand and then worked, only lighting a match when he lost himself in the midst of these slimy beams. After loosening the screws he attacked the wood itself, and the peril became still greater. He had sought for the key, the piece which held the others; he attacked it furiously, making holes in it, sawing it, thinning it so that it lost its resistance; while through the holes and the cracks the water which escaped in small jets blinded him and soaked him in icy rain. Two matches were extinguished. They all be-came damp and then there was night, the bottomless depth of darkness.
From this moment he was seized by rage. The breath of the invisible intoxicated him, the black horror of this rain-beaten hole urged him to mad destruction. He wreaked his fury at random against the tubbing, striking where he could with his wimble, with his saw, seized by the desire to bring the whole thing at once down on his head. He brought as much ferocity to the task as though he had been digging a knife into the skin of some execrated living creature. He would kill the Voreux at last, that evil beast with ever-open jaws which had swallowed so much human flesh! The bite of his tools could be heard, his spine lengthened, he crawled, climbed down, then up again, holding on by a miracle, in continual movement, the flight of a nocturnal bird amid the scaffolding of a belfry.
But he grew calm, dissatisfied with himself. Why could not things be done coolly? Without haste he took breath, and then went back into the ladder passage, stopping up the hole by replacing the panel which he had sawn. That was enough; he did not wish to raise the alarm by excessive damage which would have been repaired immediately. The beast was wounded in the belly; we should see if it was still alive at night. And he had left his mark; the frightened world would know that the beast had not died a natural death. He took his time in methodically rolling up his tools in his jacket, and slowly climbed up the ladders. Then, when he had emerged from the pit without being seen, it did not even occur to him to go and change his clothes. Three o’clock struck. He remained standing on the road waiting.
At the same hour Étienne, who was not asleep, was disturbed by a slight sound in the thick night of the room. He distinguished the low breath of the children, and the snoring of Bonnemort and Maheude; while Jeanlin near him was breathing with a prolonged flute-like whistle. No doubt he had dreamed, and he was turning back when the noise began again. It was the creaking of a palliasse, the stifled effort of someone who is getting up. Then he imagined that Catherine must be ill.
“I say, is it you? What is the matter?” he asked in a low voice.
No one replied, and the snoring of the others continued. For five minutes nothing stirred. Then there was fresh creaking. Feeling certain this time that he was not mistaken, he crossed the room, putting his hands out into the darkness to feel the opposite bed. He was surprised to find the young girl sitting up, holding in her breath, awake and on the watch.
“Well! why don’t you reply? What are you doing, then?”
At last she said:
“I’m getting up.”
“Getting up at this hour?”
“Yes, I’m going back to work at the pit.”
Étienne felt deeply moved, and sat down on the edge of the palliasse, while Catherine explained her reasons to him. She suffered too much by living thus in idleness, feeling continual looks of reproach weighing on her; she would rather run the risk of being knocked about down there by Chaval. And if her mother refused to take her money when she brought it, well! she was big enough to act for herself and make her own soup.
“Go away; I want to dress. And don’t say anything, will you, if you want to be kind?”
But he remained near her; he had put his arms round her waist in a caress of grief and pity. Pressed one against the other in their shirts, they could feel the warmth of each other’s naked flesh, at the edge of this bed, still moist with the night’s sleep. She had at first tried to free herself; then she began to cry quietly, in her turn taking him by the neck to press him against her in a despairing clasp. And they remained, without any further desires, with the past of their unfortunate love, which they had not been able to satisfy. Was it, then, done with for ever? Would they never dare to love each other some day, now that they were free? It only needed a little happiness to dissipate their shame — that awkwardness which prevented them from coming together because of all sorts of ideas which they themselves could not read clearly.
“Go to bed again,” she whispered. “I don’t want to light up, it would wake mother. It is time; leave me.”
He could not hear; he was pressing her wildly, with a heart drowned in immense sadness. The need for peace, an irresistible need for happiness, was carrying him away; and he saw himself married, in a neat little house, with no other ambition than to live and to die there, both of them together. He would be satisfied with bread; and if there were only enough for one, she should have it. What was the good of anything else? Was there anything in life worth more?
But she was unfolding her naked arms.
“Please, leave me.”
Then, in a sudden impulse, he said in her ear:
“Wait, I’m coming with you.”
And he was himself surprised at what he had said. He had sworn never to go down again; whence then came this sudden decision, arising from his lips without thought of his, without even a moment’s discussion? There was now such calm within him, so complete a cure of his doubts, that he persisted like a man saved by chance, who has at last found the only harbour from his torment. So he refused to listen to her when she became alarmed, understanding that he was devoting himself for her and fearing the ill words which would greet him at the pit. He laughed at everything; the placards promised pardon and that was enough.
“I want to work; that’s my idea. Let us dress and make no noise.”
They dressed themselves in the darkness, with a thousand precautions. She had secretly prepared her miner’s clothes the evening before; he took a jacket and breeches from the cupboard; and they did not wash themselves for fear of knocking the bowl. All were asleep, but they had to cross the narrow passage where the mother slept. When they started, as ill luck would have it, they stumbled against a chair. She woke and asked drowsily:
“Eh! what is it?”
Catherine had stopped, trembling, and violently pressing Étienne’s hand.
“It’s me; don’t trouble yourself,” he said. “I feel stifled and am going outside to breathe a bit.”
And Maheude fell asleep again. Catherine dared not stir. At last she went down into the parlour and divided a slice of bread-and-butter which she had reserved from a loaf given by a Montsou lady. Then they softly closed the door and went away.
Souvarine had remained standing near the Avantage, at the corner of the road. For half an hour he had been looking at the colliers who were returning to work in the darkness, passing by with the dull tramp of a herd. He was counting them, as a butcher counts his beasts at the entrance to the slaughter-house, and he was surprised at their number; even his pessimism had not foreseen that the number of cowards would have been so great. The stream continued to pass by, and he grew stiff, very cold, with clenched teeth and bright eyes.
But he started. Among the men passing by, whose faces he could not distinguish, he had just recognized one by his walk. He came forward and stopped him.
“Where are you going to?”
Étienne, in surprise, instead of replying, stammered:
“What! you’ve not set out yet!”
Then he confessed he was going back to the pit. No doubt he had sworn; only it could not be called life to wait with folded arms for things which would perhaps happen in a hundred years; and, besides, reasons of his own had decided him.
Souvarine had listened to him, shuddering. He seized him by the shoulder, and pushed him towards the settlement.
“Go home again; I want you to. Do you understand?” But Catherine having approached, he recognized her also. Étienne protested, declaring that he allowed no one to judge his conduct. And the engine-man’s eyes went from the young girl to her companion, while he stepped back with a sudden, relinquishing movement. When there was a woman in a man’s heart, that man was done for; he might die. Perhaps he saw again in a rapid vision his mistress hanging over there at Moscow that last link cut from his flesh, which had rendered him free of the lives of others and of his own life. He said simply:
Étienne, feeling awkward, was delaying, and trying to find some friendly word, so as not to separate in this manner.
“Then you’re still going?”
“Well, give me your hand, old chap. A pleasant journey, and no ill feeling.”
The other stretched out an icy hand. Neither friend nor wife.
“Good-bye for good this time.”
And Souvarine, standing motionless in the darkness, watched Étienne and Catherine entering the Voreux.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02