ON the night that followed the collapse of the Voreux M. Hennebeau started for Paris, wishing to inform the directors in person before the newspapers published the news. And when he returned on the following day he appeared to be quite calm, with his usual correct administrative air. He had evidently freed himself from responsibility; he did not appear to have decreased in favour. On the contrary, the decree appointing him officer of the Legion of Honour was signed twenty-four hours afterwards.
But if the manager remained safe, the Company was tottering beneath the terrible blow. It was not the few million francs that had been lost, it was the wound in the flank, the deep incessant fear of the morrow in face of this massacre of one of their mines. The Company was so impressed that once more it felt the need of silence. What was the good of stirring up this abomination? If the villain were discovered, why make a martyr of him in order that his awful heroism might turn other heads, and give birth to a long line of incendiaries and murderers? Besides, the real culprit was not suspected. The Company came to think that there was an army of accomplices, not being able to believe that a single man could have had courage and strength for such a task; and it was precisely this thought which weighed on them, this thought of an ever-increasing threat to the existence of their mines. The manager had received orders to organize a vast system of espionage, and then to dismiss quietly, one by one, the dangerous men who were suspected of having had a hand in the crime. They contented themselves with this method of purification — a prudent and politic method.
There was only one immediate dismissal, that of Dansaert, the head captain. Ever since the scandal at Pierronne’s house he had become impossible. A pretext was made of his attitude in danger, the cowardice of a captain abandoning his men. This was also a prudent sop thrown to the miners, who hated him.
Among the public, however, many rumours had circulated, and the directors had to send a letter of correction to one newspaper, contradicting a story in which mention was made of a barrel of powder lighted by the strikers. After a rapid inquiry the Government inspector had concluded that there had been a natural rupture of the tubbing, occasioned by the piling up of the soil; and the Company had preferred to be silent, and to accept the blame of a lack of superintendence. In the Paris press, after the third day, the catastrophe had served to increase the stock of general news; nothing was talked of but the men perishing at the bottom of the mine, and the telegrams published every morning were eagerly read. At Montsou people grew pale and speechless at the very name of the Voreux, and a legend had formed which made the boldest tremble as they whispered it. The whole country showed great pity for the victims; visits were organized to the destroyed pit, and whole families hastened up to shudder at the ruins which lay so heavily over the heads of the buried wretches.
Deneulin, who had been appointed divisional engineer, came into the midst of the disaster on beginning his duties; and his first care was to turn the canal back into its bed, for this torrent increased the damage every hour. Extensive works were necessary, and he at once set a hundred men to construct a dyke. Twice over the impetuosity of the stream carried away the first dams. Now pumps were set up and a furious struggle was going on; step by step the vanished soil was being violently reconquered.
But the rescue of the engulfed miners was a still more absorbing work. Négrel was appointed to attempt a supreme effort, and arms were not lacking to help him; all the colliers rushed to offer themselves in an outburst of brotherhood. They forgot the strike, they did not trouble themselves at all about payment; they might get nothing, they only asked to risk their lives as soon as there were mates in danger of death. They were all there with their tools, quivering as they waited to know where they ought to strike. Many of them, sick with fright after the accident, shaken by nervous tremors, soaked in cold sweats, and the prey of continual nightmares, got up in spite of everything, and were as eager as any in their desire to fight against the earth, as though they had a revenge to take on it. Unfortunately, the difficulty began when the question arose, What could be done? how could they go down? from what side could they attack the rocks?
Négrel’s opinion was that not one of the unfortunate people was alive; the fifteen had surely perished, drowned or suffocated. But in these mine catastrophes the rule is always to assume that buried men are alive, and he acted on this supposition. The first problem which he proposed to himself was to decide where they could have taken refuge. The captains and old miners whom he consulted were agreed on one point: in the face of the rising water the men had certainly come up from gallery to gallery to the highest cuttings, so that they were, without doubt, driven to the end of some upper passages. This agreed with Father Mouque’s information, and his confused narrative even gave reason to suppose that in the wild flight the band had separated into smaller groups, leaving fugitives on the road at every level. But the captains were not unanimous when the discussion of possible attempts at rescue arose. As the passages nearest to the surface were a hundred and fifty metres down, there could be no question of sinking a shaft. Réquillart remained the one means of access, the only point by which they could approach. The worst was that the old pit, now also inundated, no longer communicated with the Voreux; and above the level of the water only a few ends of galleries belonging to the first level were left free. The pumping process would require years, and the best plan would be to visit these galleries and ascertain if any of them approached the submerged passages at the end of which the distressed miners were suspected to be. Before logically arriving at this point, much discussion had been necessary to dispose of a crowd of impracticable plans.
Négrel now began to stir up the dust of the archives; he discovered the old plans of the two pits, studied them, and decided on the points at which their investigations ought to be carried on. Gradually this hunt excited him; he was, in his turn, seized by a fever of devotion, in spite of his ironical indifference to men and things. The first difficulty was in going down at Réquillart; it was necessary to clear out the rubbish from the mouth of the shaft, to cut down the mountain ash, and raze the sloes and the hawthorns; they had also repair the ladders. Then they began to feel around. The engineer, having gone down with ten workmen, made them strike the iron of their tools against certain parts of the seam which he pointed out to them; and in deep silence they each placed an ear to the coal, listening for any distant blows to reply. But they went in vain through every practicable gallery; no echo returned to them. Their embarrassment increased. At what spot should they cut into the bed?
Towards whom should they go, since no once appeared to be there? They persisted in seeking, however, notwithstanding the exhaustion produced by their growing anxiety.
From the first day, Maheude came in the morning to Réquillart. She sat down on a beam in front of the shaft, and did not stir from it till evening. When a man came up, she rose and questioned him with her eyes:
Nothing? No, nothing! And she sat down again, and waited still, without a word, with hard, fixed face. Jeanlin also, seeing that his den was invaded, prowled around with the frightened air of a beast of prey whose burrow will betray his booty. He thought of the little soldier lying beneath the rocks, fearing lest they should trouble his sound sleep; but that side of the mine was beneath the water, and, besides, their investigations were directed more to the left, in the west gallery. At first, Philoméne had also come, accompanying Zacharie, who was one of the gang; then she became wearied at catching cold, without need or result, and went back to the settlement, dragging through her days, a limp, indifferent woman, occupied from morning to night in coughing. Zacharie on the contrary, lived for nothing else; he would have devoured the soil to get back his sister. At night he shouted out that he saw, her, he heard her, very lean from hunger, her chest sore with calling for help. Twice he had tried to dig without orders, saying that it was there, that he was sure of it. The engineer would not let him go down any more, and he would not go away from the pit, from which he was driven off; he could not even sit down and wait near his mother, he was so deeply stirred by the need to act, which drove him constantly on.
It was the third day. Négrel, in despair, had resolved to abandon the attempt in the evening. At midday, after lunch, when he came back with his men to make one last effort, he was surprised to see Zacharie, red and gesticulating, come out of the mine shouting:
“She’s there! She’s replied to me! Come along, quickly!”
He had slid down the ladders, in spite of the watchman, and was declaring that he had heard hammering over there, in the first passage of the Guillaume seam.
“But we have already been twice in that direction,” Négrel observed, sceptically. “Anyhow, we’ll go and see.”
Maheude had risen, and had to be prevented from going down. She waited, standing at the edge of the shaft, gazing down into the darkness of the hole.
Négrel, down below, himself struck three blows, at long intervals. He then applied his ear to the coal, cautioning the workers to be very silent. Not a sound reached him, and he shook his head; evidently the poor lad was dreaming. In a fury, Zacharie struck in his turn, and listened anew with bright eyes, and limbs trembling with joy. Then the other workmen tried the experiment, one after the other, and all grew animated, hearing the distant reply quite clearly. The engineer was astonished; he again applied his ear, and was at last able to catch a sound of aerial softness, a rhythmical roll scarcely to be distinguished, the well-known cadence beaten by the miners when they are fighting against the coal in the midst of danger. The coal transmits the sound with crystalline limpidity for a very great distance. A captain who was there estimated that the thickness of the block which separated them from their mates could not be less than fifty metres. But it seemed as if they could already stretch out a hand to them, and general gladness broke out. Négrel decided to begin at once the work of approach.
When Zacharie, up above, saw Maheude again, they embraced each other.
“It won’t do to get excited,” Pierronne, who had come for a visit of inquisitiveness, was cruel enough to say. “If Catherine isn’t there, it would be such a grief afterwards!”
That was true; Catherine might be somewhere else. “Just leave me alone, will you? Damn it!” cried Zacharie in a rage. “She’s there; I know it!”
Maheude sat down again in silence, with motionless face, continuing to wait.
As soon as the story was spread at Montsou, a new crowd arrived. Nothing was to be seen; but they remained there all the same, and had to be kept at a distance. Down below, the work went on day and night. For fear of meeting an obstacle, the engineer had had three descending galleries opened in the seam, converging to the point where the enclosed miners were supposed to be. Only one pikeman could hew at the coal on the narrow face of the tube; he was relieved every two hours, and the coal piled in baskets was passed up, from hand to hand, by a chain of men, increased as the hole was hollowed out. The work at first proceeded very quickly; they did six metres a day.
Zacharie had secured a place among the workers chosen for the hewing. It was a post of honour which was disputed over, and he became furious when they wished to relieve him after his regulation two hours of labour. He robbed his mates of their turn, and refused to let go the pick. His gallery was soon in advance of the others. He fought against the coal so fiercely that his breath could be heard coming from the tube like the roar of a forge within his breast. When he came out, black and muddy, dizzy with fatigue, he fell to the ground and had to be wrapped up in a covering. Then, still tottering, he plunged back again, and the struggle began anew — the low, deep blows, the stifled groans, the victorious fury of massacre. The worst was that the coal now became hard; he twice broke his tool, and was exasperated that he could not get on so fast. He suffered also from the heat, which increased with every metre of advance, and was unbearable at the end of this narrow hole where the air could not circulate. A hand ventilator worked well, but aeration was so inadequate that on three occasions it was necessary to take out fainting hewers who were being asphyxiated.
Négrel lived below with his men. His meals were sent down to him, and he sometimes slept for a couple of hours on a truss of straw, rolled in a cloak. The one thing that kept them up was the supplication of the wretches beyond, the call which was sounded ever more distinctly to hasten on the rescue. It now rang very clearly with a musical sonority, as though struck on the plates of a harmonica. It led them on; they advanced to this crystalline sound as men advance to the sound of cannon in battle. Every time that a pikeman was relieved, Négrel went down and struck, then applied his ear; and every time, so far, the reply had come, rapid and urgent. He had no doubt remaining; they were advancing in the right direction, but with what fatal slowness! They would never arrive soon enough. On the first two days they had indeed hewn through thirteen metres; but on the third day they fell to five, and then on the fourth to three. The coal was becoming closer and harder, to such an extent that they now with difficulty struck through two metres. On the ninth day, after superhuman efforts, they had advanced thirty-two metres, and calculated that some twenty must still be left before them. For the prisoners it was the beginning of the twelfth day; twelve times over had they passed twenty-four hours without bread, without fire, in that icy darkness! This awful idea moistened the eyelids and stiffened the arm of the workers. It seemed impossible that Christians could live longer. The distant blows had become weaker since the previous day, and every moment they trembled lest they should stop.
Maheude came regularly every morning to sit at the mouth of the shaft. In her arms she brought Estelle, who could not remain alone from morning to night. Hour by hour she followed the workers, sharing their hopes and fears. There was feverish expectation among the groups standing around, and even as far as Montsou, with endless discussion. Every heart in the district was beating down there beneath the earth.
On the ninth day, at the breakfast hour, no reply came from Zacharie when he was called for the relay. He was like a madman, working on furiously with oaths. Négrel, who had come up for a moment, was not there to make him obey, and only a captain and three miners were below. No doubt Zacharie, infuriate with the feeble vacillating light, which delayed his work, committed the imprudence of opening his lamp, although severe orders had been given for leakages of fire-damp had taken place, and the gas remained in enormous masses in these narrow, unventilated passages. Suddenly, a roar of thunder was heard, and a spout of fire darted out of the tube as from the mouth of a cannon charged with grapeshot. Everything flamed up and the air caught fire like powder, from one end of the galleries to the other. This torrent of flame carried away the captain and three workers, ascended the pit, and leapt up to the daylight in an eruption which split the rocks and the ruins around. The inquisitive fled, and Maheude arose, pressing the frightened Estelle to her breast.
When Négrel and the men came back they were seized by a terrible rage. They struck their heels on the earth as on a stepmother who was killing her children at random in the imbecile whims of her cruelty. They were devoting themselves, they were coming to the help of their mates, and still they must lose some of their men! After three long hours of effort and danger they reached the galleries once more, and the melancholy ascent of the victims took place. Neither the captain nor the workers were dead, but they were covered by awful wounds which gave out an odour of grilled flesh; they had drunk of fire, the burns had got into their throats, and they constantly moaned and prayed to be finished off. One of the three miners was the man who had smashed the pump at Gaston-Marie with a final blow of the shovel during the strike; the two others still had scars on their hands, and grazed, torn fingers from the energy with which they had thrown bricks at the soldiers. The pale and shuddering crowd took off their hats when they were carried by.
Maheude stood waiting. Zacharie’s body at last appeared. The clothes were burnt, the body was nothing but black charcoal, calcined and unrecognizable. The head had been smashed by the explosion and no longer existed. And when these awful remains were placed on a stretcher, Maheude followed them mechanically, her burning eyelids without a tear. With Estelle drowsily lying in her arms, she went along, a tragic figure, her hair lashed by the wind. At the settlement Philoméne seemed stupid; her eyes were turned into fountains and she was quickly relieved. But the mother had already returned with the same step to Réquillart; she had accompanied her son, she was returning to wait for her daughter.
Three more days passed by. The rescue work had been resumed amid incredible difficulties. The galleries of approach had fortunately not fallen after the fire-damp explosion; but the air was so heavy and so vitiated that more ventilators had to be installed. Every twenty minutes the pikemen relieved one another. They were advancing; scarcely two metres separated them from their mates. But now they worked feeling cold at their hearts, striking hard only out of vengeance; for the noises had ceased, and the low, clear cadence of the call no longer sounded. It was the twelfth day of their labours, the fifteenth since the catastrophe; and since the morning there had been a death-like silence.
The new accident increased the curiosity at Montsou, and the inhabitants organized excursions with such spirit that the Grégoires decided to follow the fashion. They arranged a party, and it was agreed that they should go to the Voreux in their carriage, while Madame Hennebeau took Lucie and Jeanne there in hers. Deneulin would show them over his yards and then they would return by Réquillart, where Négrel would tell them the exact state of things in the galleries, and if there was still hope. Finally, they would dine together in the evening.
When the Grégoires and their daughter Cécile arrived at the ruined mine, toward three o’clock, they found Madame Hennebeau already there, in a sea-blue dress, protecting herself under her parasol from the pale February sun. The warmth of spring was in the clear sky. M. Hennebeau was there with Deneulin, and she was listening, with listless ear, to the account which the latter gave her of the efforts which had been made to dam up the canal. Jeanne, who always carried a sketch-book with her, began to draw, carried away by the horror of the subject; while Lucie, seated beside her on the remains of a wagon, was crying out with pleasure, and finding it awfully jolly. The incomplete dam allowed numerous leaks, and frothy streams fell in a cascade down the enormous hole of the engulfed mine. The crater was being emptied, however, and the water, drunk by the earth, was sinking, and revealing the fearful ruin at the bottom. Beneath the tender azure of this beautiful day there lay a sewer, the ruins of a town drowned and melted in mud.
“And people come out of their way to see that!” exclaimed M. Grégoire, disillusioned.
Cécile, rosy with health and glad to breathe so pure an air, was cheerfully joking, while Madame Hennebeau made a little grimace of repugnance as she murmured:
“The fact is, this is not pretty at all.”
The two engineers laughed. They tried to interest the visitors, taking them round and explaining to them the working of the pumps and the manipulation of the stamper which drove in the piles. But the ladies became anxious. They shuddered when they knew that the pumps would have to work for six or seven years before the shaft was reconstructed and all the water exhausted from the mine. No, they would rather think of something else; this destruction was only good to give bad dreams.
“Let us go,” said Madame Hennebeau, turning towards her carriage.
Lucie and Jeanne protested. What! so soon! and the drawing which was not finished. They wanted to remain; their father would bring them to dinner in the evening.
M. Hennebeau alone took his place with his wife in the carriage, for he wished to question Négrel.
“Very well! go on before,” said M. Grégoire. “We will follow you; we have a little visit of five minutes to make over there at the settlement. Go on, go on! we shall be at Réquillart as soon as you.”
He got up behind Madame Grégoire and Cécile, and while the other carriage went along by the canal, theirs gently ascended the slope.
Their excursion was to be completed by a visit of charity. Zacharie’s death had filled them with pity for this tragical Maheu family, about whom the whole country was talking. They had no pity for the father, that brigand, that slayer of soldiers, who had to be struck down like a wolf. But the mother touched them, that poor woman who had just lost her son after having lost her husband, and whose daughter was perhaps a corpse beneath the earth; to say nothing of an invalid grandfather, a child who was lame as the result of a landslip, and a little girl who died of starvation during the strike. So that, though this family had in part deserved its misfortunes by the detestable spirit it had shown, they had resolved to assert the breadth of their charity, their desire for forgetfulness and conciliation, by themselves bringing an alms. Two parcels, carefully wrapped up, had been placed beneath a seat of the carriage.
An old woman pointed out to the coachman Maheude’s house, No. 16 in the second block. But when the Grégoires alighted with the parcels, they knocked in vain; at last they struck their fists against the door, still without reply; the house echoed mournfully, like a house emptied by grief, frozen and dark, long since abandoned.
“There’s no one there,” said Cécile, disappointed. “What a nuisance! What shall we do with all this?”
Suddenly the door of the next house opened, and that Levaque woman appeared.
“Oh, sir! I beg pardon, ma’am. Excuse me, miss. It’s the neighbour that you want? She’s not there; she’s at Réquillart.”
With a flow of words she told them the story, repeating to them that people must help one another, and that she was keeping Lénore and Henri in her house to allow the mother to go and wait over there. Her eyes had fallen on the parcels, and she began to talk about her poor daughter, who had become a widow, displaying her own wretchedness, while her eyes shone with covetousness. Then, in a hesitating way, she muttered:
“I’ve got the key. If the lady and gentleman would really like — The grandfather is there.”
The Grégoires looked at her in stupefaction. What! The grandfather was there! But no one had replied. He was sleeping, then? And when the Levaque made up her mind to open the door, what they saw stopped them on the threshold. Bonnemort was there alone, with large fixed eyes, nailed to his chair in front of the cold fireplace. Around him the room appeared larger without the clock or the polished deal furniture which formerly animated it; there only remained against the green crudity of the walls the portraits of the emperor and empress, whose rosy lips were smiling with official benevolence. The old man did not stir nor wink his eyelids beneath the sudden light from the door; he seemed imbecile, as though he had not seen all these people come in. At his feet lay his plate, garnished with ashes, such as is placed for cats for ordure.
“Don’t mind if he’s not very polite,” said the Levaque woman, obligingly. “Seems he’s broken something in his brain. It’s a fortnight since he left off speaking.”
But Bonnemort was shaken by some agitation, a deep scraping which seemed to arise from his belly, and he expectorated into the plate a thick black expectoration. The ashes were soaked into a coaly mud, all the coal of the mine which he drew from his chest. He had already resumed his immobility. He stirred no more, except at intervals, to spit.
Uneasy, and with stomachs turned, the Grégoires endeavoured to utter a few friendly and encouraging words.
“Well, my good man,” said the father, “you have a cold, then?”
The old man, with his eyes to the wall, did not turn his head. And a heavy silence fell once more.
“They ought to make you a little gruel,” added the mother.
He preserved his mute stiffness.
“I say, papa,” murmured Cécile, “they certainly told us he was an invalid; only we did not think of it afterwards ——”
She interrupted herself, much embarrassed. After having placed on the table a pot-au-feu and two bottles of wine, she undid the second parcel and drew from it a pair of enormous boots. It was the present intended for the grandfather, and she held one boot in each hand, in confusion, contemplating the poor man’s swollen feet, which would never walk more.
“Eh! they come a little late, don’t they, my worthy fellow?” said M. Grégoire again, to enliven the situation. “It doesn’t matter, they’re always useful.”
Bonnemort neither heard nor replied, with his terrible face as cold and as hard as a stone.
Then Cécile furtively placed the boots against the wall. But in spite of her precautions the nails clanked; and those enormous boots stood oppressively in the room.
“He won’t say thank you,” said the Levaque woman, who had cast a look of deep envy on the boots. “Might as well give a pair of spectacles to a duck, asking your pardon.”
She went on; she was trying to draw the Grégoires into her own house, where she hoped to gain their pity. At last she thought of a pretext; she praised Henri and Lénore, who were so good, so gentle, and so intelligent, answering like angels the questions that they were asked. They would tell the lady and gentleman all that they wished to know.
“Will you come for a moment, my child?” asked the father, glad to get away.
“Yes, I’ll follow you,” she replied.
Cécile remained alone with Bonnemort. What kept her there trembling and fascinated, was the thought that she seemed to recognize this old man: where then had she met this square livid face, tattoed with coal? Suddenly she remembered; she saw again a mob of shouting people who surrounded her, and she felt cold hands pressing her neck. It was he; she saw the man again; she looked at his hands placed on his knees, the hands of an invalid workman whose whole strength is in his wrists, still firm in spite of age. Gradually Bonnemort seemed to awake, he perceived her and examined her in his turn. A flame mounted to his cheeks, a nervous spasm drew his mouth, from which flowed a thin streak of black saliva. Fascinated, they remained opposite each other — she flourishing, plump, and fresh from the long idleness and sated comfort of her race; he swollen with water, with the pitiful ugliness of a foundered beast, destroyed from father to son by a century of work and hunger.
At the end of ten minutes, when the Grégoires, surprised at not seeing Cécile, came back into the Maheus’ house, they uttered a terrible cry. Their daughter was lying on the ground, with livid face, strangled. At her neck fingers had left the red imprint of a giant’s hand. Bonnemort, tottering on his dead legs, had fallen beside her without power to rise. His hands were still hooked, and he looked round with his imbecile air and large open eyes. In his fall he had broken his plate, the ashes were spread round, the mud of the black expectoration had stained the floor; while the great pair of boots, safe and sound, stood side by side against the wall.
It was never possible to establish the exact facts. Why had Cécile come near? How could Bonnemort, nailed to his chair, have been able to seize her throat? Evidently, when he held her, he must have become furious, constantly pressing, overthrown with her, and stifling her cries to the last groan. Not a sound, not a moan had traversed the thin partition to the neighbouring house. It seemed to be an outbreak of sudden madness, a longing to murder before this white young neck. Such savagery was stupefying in an old invalid, who had lived like a worthy man, an obedient brute, opposed to new ideas. What rancour, unknown to himself, by some slow process of poisoning, had risen from his bowels to his brain? The horror of it led to the conclusion that he was unconscious, that it was the crime of an idiot.
The Grégoires, meanwhile, on their knees, were sobbing, choked with grief. Their idolized daughter, that daughter desired so long, on whom they had lavished all their goods, whom they used to watch sleeping, on tiptoe, whom they never thought sufficiently well nourished, never sufficiently plump! It was the downfall of their very life; what was the good of living, now that they would have to live without her?
The Levaque woman in distraction cried:
“Ah, the old beggar! what’s he done there? Who would have expected such a thing? And Maheude, who won’t come back till evening! Shall I go and fetch her?”
The father and mother were crushed, and did not reply.
“Eh? It will be better. I’ll go.”
But, before going, the Levaque woman looked at the boots. The whole settlement was excited, and a crowd was already hustling around. Perhaps they would get stolen. And then the Maheus had no man, now, to put them on. She quietly carried them away. They would just fit Bouteloup’s feet.
At Réquillart the Hennebeaus, with Négrel, waited a long time for the Grégoires. Négrel, who had come up from the pit, gave details. They hoped to communicate that very evening with the prisoners, but they-would certainly find nothing but corpses, for the death-like silence continued. Behind the engineer, Maheude, seated on the beam, was listening with white face, when the Levaque woman came up and told her the old man’s strange deed. And she only made a sweeping gesture of impatience and irritation. She followed her, however.
Madame Hennebeau was much affected. What an abomination! That poor Cécile, so merry that very day, so full of life an hour before! M. Hennebeau had to lead his wife for a moment into old Mouque’s hovel. With his awkward hands he unfastened her dress, troubled by the odour of musk which her open bodice exhaled. And as with streaming tears she clasped Négrel, terrified at this death which cut short the marriage, the husband watched them lamenting together, and was delivered from one anxiety. This misfortune would arrange everything; he preferred to keep his nephew for fear of his coachman.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02