AT the bottom of the shaft the abandoned wretches were yelling with terror. The water now came up to their hips. The noise of the torrent dazed them, the final falling in of the tubbing sounded like the last crack of doom; and their bewilderment was completed by the neighing of the horses shut up in the stable, the terrible, unforgettable death-cry of an animal that is being slaughtered.
Mouque had let go Bataille. The old horse was there, trembling, with its dilated eye fixed on this water which was constantly rising. The pit-eye was rapidly filling; the greenish flood slowly enlarged under the red gleam of the three lamps which were still burning under the roof. And suddenly, when he felt this ice soaking his coat, he set out in a furious gallop, and was engulfed and lost at the end of one of the haulage galleries.
Then there was a general rush, the men following the beast.
“Nothing more to be done in this damned hole!” shouted Mouque. “We must try at Réquillart.”
The idea that they might get out by the old neighbouring pit if they arrived before the passage was cut off, now carried them away. The twenty hustled one another as they went in single file, holding their lamps in the air so that the water should not extinguish them. Fortunately, the gallery rose with an imperceptible slope, and they proceeded for two hundred metres, struggling against the flood, which was not now gaining on them. Sleeping beliefs reawakened in these distracted souls; they invoked the earth, for it was the earth that was avenging herself, discharging the blood from the vein because they had cut one of her arteries. An old man stammered forgotten prayers, bending his thumbs backwards to appease the evil spirits of the mine.
But at the first turning disagreement broke out; the groom proposed turning to the left, others declared that they could make a short cut by going to the right. A minute was lost.
“Well, die there! what the devil does it matter to me?” Chaval brutally exclaimed. “I go this way.”
He turned to the right, and two mates followed him. The others continued to rush behind Father Mouque, who had grown up at the bottom of Réquillart. He himself hesitated, however, not knowing where to turn. They lost their heads; even the old men could no longer recognize the passages, which lay like a tangled skein before them. At every bifurcation they were pulled up short by uncertainty, and yet they had to decide.
Étienne was running last, delayed by Catherine, who was paralysed by fatigue and fear. He would have gone to the right with Chaval, for he thought that the better road; but he had not, preferring to part from Chaval. The rush continued, however; some of the mates had gone from their side, and only seven were left behind old Mouque.
“Hang on to my neck and I will carry you,” said Étienne to the young girl, seeing her grow weak.
“No, let me be,” she murmured. “I can’t do more; I would rather die at once.”
They delayed and were left fifty metres behind; he was lifting her, in spite of her resistance, when the gallery was suddenly stopped up; an enormous block fell in and separated them from the others. The inundation was already soaking the soil, which was shifting on every side. They had to retrace their steps; then they no longer knew in what direction they were going. There was an end of all hope of escaping by Réquillart. Their only remaining hope was to gain the upper workings, from which they might perhaps be delivered if the water sank.
Étienne at last recognized the Guillaume seam.
“Good!” he exclaimed. “Now I know where we are. By God! we were in the right road; but we may go to the devil now! Here, let us go straight on; we will climb up the passage.”
The flood was beating against their breasts, and they walked very slowly. As long as they had light they did not despair, and they blew out one of the lamps to economize the oil, meaning to empty it into the other lamp. They had reached the chimney passage, when a noise behind made them turn. Was it some mates, then, who had also found the road barred and were returning? A roaring sound came from afar; they could not understand this tempest which approached them, spattering foam. And they cried out when they saw a gigantic whitish mass coming out of the shadow and trying to rejoin them between the narrow timbering in which it was being crushed.
It was Bataille. On leaving the pit-eye he had wildly galloped along the dark galleries. He seemed to know his road in this subterranean town which he had inhabited for eleven years, and his eyes saw clearly in the depths of the eternal night in which he had lived. He galloped on and on, bending his head, drawing up his feet, passing through these narrow tubes in the earth, filled by his great body. Road succeeded to road,. and the forked turnings were passed without any hesitation. Where was he going? Over there, perhaps, towards that vision of his youth, to the mill where he had been born on the bank of the Scarpe, to the confused recollection of the sun burning in the air like a great lamp. He desired to live, his beast’s memory awoke; the longing to breathe once more the air of the plains drove him straight onwards to the discovery of that hole, the exit beneath the warm sun into light. Rebellion carried away his ancient resignation; this pit was murdering him after having blinded him. The water which pursued him was lashing him on the flanks and biting him on the crupper. But as he went deeper in, the galleries became narrower, the roofs lower, and the walls protruded. He galloped on in spite of everything, grazing himself, leaving shreds of his limbs on the timber. From every side the mine seemed to be pressing on to him to take him and to stifle him.
Then Étienne and Catherine, as he came near them, perceived that he was strangling between the rocks. He had stumbled and broken his two front legs. With a last effort, he dragged himself a few metres, but his flanks could not pass; he remained hemmed in and garrotted by the earth. With his bleeding head stretched out, he still sought for some crack with his great troubled eyes.
The water was rapidly covering him; he began to neigh with that terrible prolonged death-rattle with which the other horses had already died in the stable. It was a sight of fearful agony, this old beast shattered and motionless, struggling at this depth, far from the daylight. The flood was drowning his mane, and his cry of distress never ceased; he uttered it more hoarsely, with his large open mouth stretched out. There was a last rumble, the hollow sound of a cask which is being filled; then deep silence fell.
“Oh, my God! take me away!” Catherine sobbed. “Ah, my God! I’m afraid; I don’t want to die. Take me away! take me away!”
She had seen death. The fallen shaft, the inundated mine, nothing had seized her with such terror as this clamour of Bataille in agony. And she constantly heard it; her ears were ringing with it; all her flesh was shuddering with it.
“Take me away! take me away!”
Étienne had seized her and lifted her; it was, indeed, time. They ascended the chimney passage, soaked to the shoulders. He was obliged to help her, for she had no strength to cling to the timber. Three times over he thought that she was slipping from him and falling back into that deep sea of which the tide was roaring beneath them. However, they were able to breathe for a few minutes when they reached the first gallery, which was still free. The water reappeared, and they had to hoist themselves up again. And for hours this ascent continued, the flood chasing them from passage to passage, and constantly forcing them to ascend. At the sixth level a respite rendered them feverish with hope, and it seemed that the waters were becoming stationary. But a more rapid rise took place, and they had to climb to the seventh and then to the eighth level. Only one remained, and when they had reached it they anxiously watched each centimetre by which the water gained on them. If it did not stop they would then die like the old horse, crushed against the roof, and their chests filled by the flood.
Landslips echoed every moment. The whole mine was shaken, and its distended bowels burst with the enormous flood which gorged them. At the end of the galleries the air, driven back, pressed together and crushed, exploding terribly amid split rocks and overthrown soil. It was a terrifying uproar of interior cataclysms, a remnant of the ancient battle when deluges overthrew the earth, burying the mountains beneath the plains.
And Catherine, shaken and dazed by this continuous downfall, joined her hands, stammering the same words without cessation:
“I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”
To reassure her, Étienne declared that the water was not now moving. Their flight had lasted for fully six hours, and they would soon be rescued. He said six hours without knowing, for they had lost all count of time. In reality, a whole day had already passed in their climb up through the Guillaume seam.
Drenched and shivering, they settled themselves down. She undressed herself without shame and wrung out her clothes, then she put on again the jacket and breeches, and let them finish drying on her. As her feet were bare, he made her take his own sabots. They could wait patiently now; they had lowered the wick of the lamp, leaving only the feeble gleam of a night-light. But their stomachs were torn by cramp, and they both realized that they were dying of hunger. Up till now they had not felt that they were living. The catastrophe had occurred before breakfast, and now they found their bread-and-butter swollen by the water and changed into sop. She had to become angry before he would accept his share. As soon as she had eaten she fell asleep from weariness, on the cold earth. He was devoured by insomnia, and watched over her with fixed eyes and forehead between his hands.
How many hours passed by thus? He would have been unable to say. All that he knew was that before him, through the hole they had ascended, he had seen the flood reappear, black and moving, the beast whose back was ceaselessly swelling out to reach them. At first it was only a thin line, a supple serpent stretching itself out; then it enlarged into a crawling, crouching flank; and soon it reached them, and the sleeping girl’s feet were touched by it. In his anxiety he yet hesitated to wake her. Was it not cruel to snatch her from this repose of unconscious ignorance, which was, perhaps, lulling her with a dream of the open air and of life beneath the sun? Besides, where could they fly? And he thought and remembered that the upbrow established at this part of the seam communicated end to end with that which served the upper level. That would be a way out. He let her sleep as long as possible, watching the flood gain on them, waiting for it to chase them away. At last he lifted her gently, and a great shudder passed over her.
“Ah, my God! it’s true! it’s beginning again, my God!” She remembered, she cried out, again finding death so near.
“No! calm yourself,” he whispered. “We can pass, upon my word!”
To reach the upbrow they had to walk doubled up, again wetted to the shoulders. And the climbing began anew, now more dangerous, through this hole entirely of timber, a hundred metres long. At first they wished to pull the cable so as to fix one of the carts at the bottom, for if the other should come down during their ascent, they would be crushed. But nothing moved, some obstacle interfered with the mechanism. They ventured in, not daring to make use of the cable which was in their way, and tearing their nails against the smooth framework. He came behind, supporting her by his head when she slipped with torn hands. Suddenly they came across the splinters of a beam which barred the way. A portion of the soil had fallen down and prevented them form going any higher. Fortunately a door opened here and they passed into a passage. They were stupefied to see the flicker of a lamp in front of them. A man cried wildly to them:
“More clever people as big fools as I am!”
They recognized Chaval, who had found himself blocked by the landslip which filled the upbrow; his two mates who had set out with him had been left on the way with fractured skulls. He was wounded in the elbow, but had had the courage to go back on his knees, take their lamps, and search them to steal their bread-and-butter. As he escaped, a final downfall behind his back had closed the gallery.
He immediately swore that he would not share his victuals with these people who came up out of the earth. He would sooner knock their brains out. Then he, too, recognized them; his anger fell, and he began to laugh with a laugh of evil joy.
“Ah! it’s you, Catherine! you’ve come a cropper, and you want to join your man again. Well, well! we’ll play out the game together.”
He pretended not to see Étienne. The latter, overwhelmed by this encounter, made a gesture as though to protect the putter, who was pressing herself against him. He must, however, accept the situation. Speaking as though they had left each other good friends an hour before, he simply asked:
“Have you looked down below? We can’t pass through the cuttings, then?”
Chaval still grinned.
“Ah. bosh! the cuttings! They’ve fallen in too; we are between two walls, a real mousetrap. But you can go back by the brow if you are a good diver.”
The water, in fact, was rising; they could hear it rippling. Their retreat was already cut off. And he was right; it was a mousetrap, a gallery-end obstructed before and behind by considerable falls of earth. There was not one issue; all three were walled up.
“Then you’ll stay?” Chaval added, jeeringly. “Well, it’s the best you can do, and if you’ll just leave me alone, I shan’t even speak to you. There’s still room here for two men. We shall soon see which will die first, provided they don’t come to us, which seems a tough job.”
The young man said:
“If we were to hammer, they would hear us, perhaps.” “I’m tired of hammering. Here, try yourself with this stone.”
Étienne picked up the fragment of sandstone which the other had already broken off, and against the seam at the end he struck the miner’s call, the prolonged roll by which workmen in peril signal their presence. Then he placed his ear to listen. Twenty times over he persisted; no sound replied.
During this time Chaval affected to be coolly attending to his little household. First he arranged the three lamps against the wall; only one was burning, the others could be used later on. Afterwards, he placed on a piece of timber the two slices of bread-and-butter which were still left. That was the sideboard; he could last quite two days with that, if he were careful. He turned round saying:
“You know, Catherine, there will be half for you when you are famished.”
The young girl was silent. It completed her unhappiness to find herself again between these two men.
And their awful life began. Neither Chaval nor Étienne opened their mouths, seated on the earth a few paces from each other. At a hint from the former the latter extinguished his lamp, a piece of useless luxury; then they sank back into silence. Catherine was lying down near Étienne, restless under the glances of her former lover. The hours passed by; they heard the low murmur of the water for ever rising; while from time to time deep shocks and distant echoes announced the final settling down of the mine. When the lamp was empty and they had to open another to light it, they were, for a moment, disturbed by the fear of fire-damp; but they would rather have been blown up at once than live on in darkness. Nothing exploded, however; there was no fire-damp. They stretched themselves out again, and the hours continued to pass by.
A noise aroused Étienne and Catherine, and they raised their heads. Chaval had decided to eat; he had cut off half a slice of bread-and-butter, and was chewing it slowly, to avoid the temptation of swallowing it all. They gazed at him, tortured by hunger.
“Well, do you refuse?” he said to the putter, in his provoking way. “You’re wrong.”
She had lowered her eyes, fearing to yield; her stomach was torn by such cramps that tears were swelling beneath her eyelids. But she understood what he was asking; in the morning he had breathed over her neck; he was seized again by one of his old furies of desire on seeing her near the other man. The glances with which he called her had a flame in them which she knew well, the flame of his crises of jealousy when he would fall on her with his fists, accusing her of committing abominations with her mother’s lodger. And she was not willing; she trembled lest, by returning to him, she should throw these two men on to each other in this narrow cave, where they were all in agony together. Good God! why could they not end together in comradeship!
Étienne would have died of inanition rather than beg a mouthful of bread from Chaval. The silence became heavy; an eternity seemed to be prolonging itself with the slowness of monotonous minutes which passed by, one by one, without hope. They had now been shut up together for a day. The second lamp was growing pale, and they lighted the third.
Chaval started on his second slice of bread-and-butter, and growled:
“Come then, stupid!”
Catherine shivered. Étienne had turned away in order to leave her free. Then, as she did not stir, he said to her in a low voice:
“Go, my child.”
The tears which she was stifling then rushed forth. She wept for a long time, without even strength to rise, no longer knowing if she was hungry, suffering with pain which she felt all over her body. He was standing up, going backward and forwards, vainly beating the miners call, enraged at this remainder of life which he was obliged to live here tied to a rival whom he detested. Not even enough space to die away from each other! As soon as he had gone ten paces he must come back and knock up against this man. And she, this sorrowful girl whom they were disputing over even in the earth! She would belong to the one who lived longest; that man would steal her from him should he go first. There was no end to it; the hours followed the hours; the revolting promiscuity became worse, with the poison of their breaths and the ordure of their necessities satisfied in common. Twice he rushed against the rocks as though to open them with his fists.
Another day was done, and Chaval had seated himself near Catherine, sharing with her his last half-slice. She was chewing the mouthfuls painfully; he made her pay for each with a caress, in his jealous obstinacy not willing to die until he had had her again in the other man’s presence. She abandoned herself in exhaustion. But when he tried to take her she complained.
“Oh, let me be! you’re breaking my bones.”
Étienne, with a shudder, had placed his forehead against the timber so as not to see. He came back with a wild leap
“Let her be, by God!”
“Does it concern you?” said Chaval. “She’s my woman; I suppose she belongs to me!”
And he took her again and pressed her, out of bravado, crushing his red moustache against her mouth, and continuing:
“Will you leave us alone, eh? Will you be good enough to look over there if we are at it?”
But Étienne, with white lips, shouted:
“If you don’t let her go, I’ll do for you!”
The other quickly stood up, for he had understood by the hiss of the voice that his mate was in earnest. Death seemed to them too slow; it was necessary that one of them should immediately yield his place. It was the old battle beginning over again, down in the earth where they would soon sleep side by side; and they had so little room that they could not swing their fists without grazing them.
“Look out!” growled Chaval. “This time I’ll have you.”
From that moment Étienne became mad. His eyes seemed drowned in red vapour, his chest was congested by the flow of blood. The need to kill seized him irresistibly, a physical need, like the irritation of mucus which causes a violent spasm of coughing. It rose and broke out beyond his will, beneath the pressure of the hereditary disease. He had seized a sheet of slate in the wall and he shook it and tore it out, a very large, heavy piece. Then with both hands and with tenfold strength he brought it down on Chaval’s skull.
The latter had not time to jump backwards. He fell, his face crushed, his skull broken. The brains had be-spattered the roof of the gallery, and a purple jet flowed from the wound, like the continuous jet of a spring. Immediately there was a pool, which reflected the smoky star of the lamp. Darkness was invading the walled-up cave, and this body, lying on the earth, looked like the black boss of a mass of rough coal.
Leaning over, with wide eyes, Étienne looked at him. It was done, then; he had killed. All his struggles came back to his memory confusedly, that useless fight against the poison which slept in his muscles, the slowly accumulated alcohol of his race. He was, however, only intoxicated by hunger; the remote intoxication of his parents had been enough. His hair stood up before the horror of this murder; and yet, in spite of the revolt which came from his education, a certain gladness made his heart beat, the animal joy of an appetite at length satisfied. He felt pride, too, the pride of the stronger man. The little soldier appeared before him, with his throat opened by a knife, killed by a child. Now he, too, had killed.
But Catherine, standing erect, uttered a loud cry:
“My God! he is dead!”
“Are you sorry?” asked Étienne, fiercely.
She was choking, she stammered. Then, tottering. she threw herself into his arms.
“Ah, kill me too! Ah, let us both die!”
She clasped him, hanging to his shoulders, and he clasped her; and they hoped that they would die. But death was in no hurry, and they unlocked their arms. Then, while she hid her eyes, he dragged away the wretch, and threw him down the upbrow, to remove him from the narrow space in which they still had to live. Life would no longer have been possible with that corpse beneath their feet. And they were terrified when they heard it plunge into the midst of the foam which leapt up. The water had already filled that hole, then? They saw it; it was entering the gallery.
Then there was a new struggle. They had lighted the last lamp; it was becoming exhausted in illuminating this flood, with its regular, obstinate rise which never ceased. At first the water came up to their ankles; then it wetted their knees. The passage sloped up, and they took refuge at the end. This gave them a respite for some hours. But the flood caught them up, and bathed them to the waist. Standing up, brought to bay, with their spines close against the rock, they watched it ever and ever increasing. When it reached their mouths, all would be over. The lamp, which they had fastened up, threw a yellow light on the rapid surge of the little waves. It was becoming pale; they could distinguish no more than a constantly diminishing semicircle, as though eaten away by the darkness which seemed to grow with the flood; and suddenly the darkness enveloped them. The lamp had gone out, after having spat forth its last drop of oil. There was now complete and absolute night, that night of the earth which they would have to sleep through without ever again opening their eyes to the brightness of the sun.
“By God!” Étienne swore, in a low voice.
Catherine, as though she had felt the darkness seize her, sheltered herself against him. She repeated, in a whisper, the miner’s saying:
“Death is blowing out the lamp.”
Yet in the face of this threat their instincts struggled, the fever for life animated them. He violently set himself to hollow out the slate with the hook of the lamp, while she helped him with her nails. They formed a sort of elevated bench, and when they had both hoisted themselves up to it, they found themselves seated with hanging legs and bent backs, for the vault forced them to lower their heads. They now only felt the icy water at their heels; but before long the cold was at their ankles, their calves, their knees, with its invincible, truceless movement. The bench, not properly smoothed, was soaked in moisture, and so slippery that they had to hold themselves on vigorously to avoid slipping off. It was the end; what could they expect, reduced to this niche where they dared not move, exhausted, starving, having neither bread nor light? and they suffered especially from the darkness, which would not allow them to see the coming of death. There was deep silence; the mine, being gorged with water, no longer stirred. They had nothing beneath them now but the sensation of that sea, swelling out its silent tide from the depths of the galleries.
The hours succeeded one another, all equally black; but they were not able to measure their exact duration, becoming more and more vague in their calculation of time. Their tortures, which might have been expected to lengthen the minutes, rapidly bore them away. They thought that they had only been shut up for two days and a night, when in reality the third day had already come to an end. All hope of help had gone; no one knew they were there, no one could come down to them. And hunger would finish them off if the inundation spared them. For one last time it occurred to them to beat the call, but the stone was lying beneath the water. Besides, who would hear them?
Catherine was leaning her aching head against the seam, when she sat up with a start.
“Listen!” she said.
At first Étienne thought she was speaking of the low noise of the ever-rising water. He lied in order to quiet her.
“It’s me you hear; I’m moving my legs.”
“No, no; not that! Over there, listen!”
And she placed her ear to the coal. He understood, and did likewise. They waited for some seconds, with stifled breath. Then, very far away and very weak, they heard three blows at long intervals. But they still doubted; their ears were ringing; perhaps it was the cracking of the soil. And they knew not what to strike with in answer.
Étienne had an idea.
“You have the sabots. Take them off and strike with the heels.”
She struck, beating the miner’s call; and they listened and again distinguished the three blows far off. Twenty times over they did it, and twenty times the blows replied. They wept and embraced each other, at the risk of losing their balance. At last the mates were there, they were coming. An overflowing joy and love carried away the torments of expectation and the rage of their vain appeals, as though their rescuers had only to split the rock with a finger to deliver them.
“Eh!” she cried merrily; “wasn’t it lucky that I leant my head?”
“Oh, you’ve got an ear!” he said in his turn. “Now, I heard nothing.”
From that moment they relieved each other, one of them always listening, ready to answer at the least signal. They soon caught the sounds of the pick; the work of approaching them was beginning, a gallery was being opened. Not a sound escaped them. But their joy sank. In vain they laughed to deceive each other; despair was gradually seizing them. At first they entered into long explanations; evidently they were being approached from Réquillart. The gallery descended in the bed; perhaps several were being opened, for there were always three men hewing. Then they talked less, and were at last silent when they came to calculate the enormous mass which separated them from their mates. They continued their reflections in silence, counting the days and days that a workman would take to penetrate such a block. They would never be reached soon enough; they would have time to die twenty times over. And no longer venturing to exchange a word in this redoubled anguish, they gloomily replied to the appeals by a roll of the sabots, without hope, only retaining the mechanical need to tell the others that they were still alive.
Thus passed a day, two days. They had been at the bottom six days. The water had stopped at their knees, neither rising nor falling, and their legs seemed to be melting away in this icy bath. They could certainly keep them out for an hour or so, but their position then became so uncomfortable that they were twisted by horrible cramps, and were obliged to let their feet fall in again. Every ten minutes they hoisted themselves back by a jerk on the slippery rock. The fractures of the coal struck into their spines, and they felt at the back of their necks a fixed intense pain, through having to keep constantly bent in order to avoid striking their heads. And their suffocation increased; the air, driven back by the water, was compressed into a sort of bell in which they were shut up. Their voices were muffled, and seemed to come from afar. Their ears began to buzz, they heard the peals of a furious tocsin, the tramp of a flock beneath a storm of hail, going on unceasingly.
At first Catherine suffered horribly from hunger. She pressed her poor shrivelled hands against her breasts, her breathing was deep and hollow, a continuous tearing moan, as though tongs were tearing her stomach.
Étienne, choked by the same torture, was feeling feverishly round him in the darkness, when his fingers came upon a half-rotten piece of timber, which his nails could crumble. He gave a handful of it to the putter, who swallowed it greedily. For two days they lived on this worm-eaten wood, devouring it all, in despair when it was finished, grazing their hands in the effort to crush the other planks which were still solid with resisting fibres. Their torture increased, and they were enraged that they could not chew the cloth of their clothes. A leather belt, which he wore round the waist, relieved them a little. He bit small pieces from it with his teeth, and she chewed them, and endeavoured to swallow them. This occupied their jaws, and gave them the illusion of eating. Then, when the belt was finished, they went back to their clothes, sucking them for hours.
But soon these violent crises subsided; hunger became only a low deep ache with the slow progressive languor of their strength. No doubt they would have succumbed if they had not had as much water as they desired. They merely bent down and drank from the hollow of the hand, and that very frequently, parched by a thirst which all this water could not quench.
On the seventh day Catherine was bending down to drink, when her hand struck some floating body before her.
“I say, look! What’s this?”
Étienne felt in the darkness.
“I can’t make out; it seems like the cover of a ventilation door.”
She drank, but as she was drawing up a second mouthful the body came back, striking her hand. And she uttered a terrible cry.
“My God! it’s he!”
“Whom do you mean?”
“Him! You know well enough. I felt his moustache.” It was Chaval’s corpse, risen from the upbrow and pushed on to them by the flow. Étienne stretched out his arm; he, too, felt the moustache and the crushed nose, and shuddered with disgust and fear. Seized by horrible nausea, Catherine had spat out the water which was still in her mouth. It seemed to her that she had been drinking blood, and that all the deep water before her was now that man’s blood.
“Wait!” stammered Étienne. “I’ll push him off!”
He kicked the corpse, which moved off. But soon they felt it again striking against their legs.
“By God! Get off!”
And the third time Étienne had to leave it. Some current always brought it back. Chaval would not go; he desired to be with them, against them. It was an awful companion, at last poisoning the air. All that day they never drank, struggling, preferring to die. It was not until the next day that their suffering decided them: they pushed away the body at each mouthful and drank in spite of it. It had not been worth while to knock his brains out, for he came back between him and her, obstinate in his jealousy. To the very end he would be there, even though he was dead, preventing them from coming together.
A day passed, and again another day. At every shiver of the water Étienne perceived a slight blow from the man he had killed, the simple elbowing of a neighbour who is reminding you of his presence. And every time it came he shuddered. He continually saw it there, swollen, greenish, with the red moustache and the crushed face. Then he no longer remembered; he had not killed him; the other man was swimming and trying to bite him.
Catherine was now shaken by long endless fits of crying, after which she was completely prostrated. She fell at last into a condition of irresistible drowsiness. He would arouse her, but she stammered a few words and at once fell asleep again without even raising her eyelids; and fearing lest she should be drowned, he put his arm round her waist. It was he now who replied to the mates. The blows of the pick were now approaching, he could hear them behind his back. But his strength, too, was diminishing; he had lost all courage to strike. They were known to be there; why weary oneself more? It no longer interested him whether they came or not. In the stupefaction of waiting he would forget for hours at a time what he was waiting for.
One relief comforted them a little: the water sank, and Chaval’s body moved off. For nine days the work of their deliverance had been going on, and they were for the first time taking a few steps in the gallery when a fearful commotion threw them to the ground. They felt for each other and remained in each other’s arms like mad people, not understanding, thinking the catastrophe was beginning over again. Nothing more stirred, the sound of the picks had ceased.
In the corner where they were seated holding each other, side by side, a low laugh came from Catherine.
“It must be good outside. Come, let’s go out of here.” Étienne at first struggled against this madness. But the contagion was shaking his stronger head, and he lost the exact sensation of reality. All their senses seemed to go astray, especially Catherine’s. She was shaken by fever, tormented now by the need to talk and move. The ringing in her ears had become the murmur of flowing water, the song of birds; she smelled the strong odour of crushed grass, and could see clearly great yellow patches floating before her eyes, so large that she thought she was out of doors, near the canal, in the meadows on a fine summer day.
“Eh? how warm it is! Take me, then; let us keep together. Oh, always, always!”
He pressed her, and she rubbed herself against him for a long time, continuing to chatter like a happy girl:
“How silly we have been to wait so long! I would have liked you at once, and you did not understand; you sulked. Then, do you remember, at our house at night, when we could not sleep, with our faces out listening to each other’s breathing, with such a longing to come together?”
He was won by her gaiety, and joked over the recollection of their silent tenderness.
“You struck me once. Yes, yes, blows on both cheeks!”
“It was because I loved you,” she murmured. “You see, I prevented myself from thinking of you. I said to myself that it was quite done with, and all the time I knew that one day or another we should get together. It only wanted an opportunity — some lucky chance. Wasn’t it so?”
A shudder froze him. He tried to shake off this dream; then he repeated slowly:
“Nothing is ever done with; a little happiness is enough to make everything begin again.”
“Then you’ll keep me, and it will be all right this time?”
And she slipped down fainting. She was so weak that her low voice died out. In terror he kept her against his heart.
“Are you in pain?”
She sat up surprised.
“No, not at all. Why?”
But this question aroused her from her dream. She gazed at the darkness with distraction, wringing her hands in another fit of sobbing.
“My God, my God, how black it is!”
It was no longer the meadows, the odour of the grass, the song of larks, the great yellow sun; it was the fallen, inundated mine, the stinking gloom, the melancholy dripping of this cellar where they had been groaning for so many days. Her perverted senses now increased the horror of it; her childish superstitions came back to her; she saw the Black Man, the old dead miner who returns to the pit to twist naughty girls’ necks.
“Listen! did you hear?”
“No, nothing; I heard nothing.”
“Yes, the Man — you know? Look! he is there. The earth has let all the blood out of the vein to revenge itself for being cut into; and he is there — you can see him — look! blacker than night. Oh, I’m so afraid, I’m so afraid!”
She became silent, shivering. Then in a very low voice she whispered:
“No, it’s always the other one.”
“What other one?”
“Him who is with us; who is not alive.”
The image of Chaval haunted her, she talked of him confusedly, she described the dog’s life she led with him, the only day when he had been kind to her at Jean-Bart, the other days of follies and blows, when he would kill her with caresses after having covered her with kicks.
“I tell you that he’s coming, that he will still keep us from being together! His jealousy is coming on him again. Oh, push him off! Oh, keep me close!”
With a sudden impulse she hung on to him, seeking his mouth and pressing her own passionately to it. The darkness lighted up, she saw the sun again, and she laughed a quiet laugh of love. He shuddered to feel her thus against his flesh, half naked beneath the tattered jacket and trousers, and he seized her with a reawakening of his virility. It was at length their wedding night, at the bottom of this tomb, on this bed of mud, the longing not to die before they had had their happiness, the obstinate longing to live and make life one last time. They loved each other in despair of everything, in death.
After that there was nothing more. Étienne was seated on the ground, always in the same corner, and Catherine was lying motionless on his knees. Hours and hours passed by. For a long time he thought she was sleeping; then he touched her; she was very cold, she was dead. He did not move, however, for fear of arousing her. The idea that he was the first who had possessed her as a woman, and that she might be pregnant, filled him with tenderness. Other ideas, the desire to go away with her, joy at what they would both do later on, came to him at moments, but so vaguely that it seemed only as though his forehead had been touched by a breath of sleep. He grew weaker, he only had strength to make a little gesture, a slow movement of the hand, to assure himself that she was certainly there, like a sleeping child in her frozen stiffness. Everything was being annihilated; the night itself had disappeared, and he was nowhere, out of space, out of time. Something was certainly striking beside his head, violent blows were approaching him; but he had been too lazy to reply, benumbed by immense fatigue; and now he knew nothing, he only dreamed that she was walking before him, and that he heard the slight clank of her sabots. Two days passed; she had not stirred; he touched her with his mechanical gesture, reassured to find her so quiet.
Étienne felt a shock. Voices were sounding, rocks were rolling to his feet. When he perceived a lamp he wept. His blinking eyes followed the light, he was never tired of looking at it, enraptured by this reddish point which scarcely stained the darkness. But some mates carried him away, and he allowed them to introduce some spoonfuls of soup between his clenched teeth. It was only in the Réquillart gallery that he recognized someone standing before him, the engineer, Négrel; and these two men, with their contempt for each other — the rebellious workman and the sceptical master — threw themselves on each other’s necks, sobbing loudly in the deep upheaval of all the humanity within them. It was an immense sadness, the misery of generations, the extremity of grief into which life can fall.
At the surface, Maheude, stricken down near dead Catherine, uttered a cry, then another, then another — very long, deep, incessant moans. Several corpses had already been brought up, and placed in a row on the ground: Chaval, who was thought to have been crushed beneath a landslip. a trammer, and two hewers, also crushed, with brainless skulls and bellies swollen with water. Women in the crowd went out of their minds, tearing their skirts and scratching their faces. When Étienne was at last taken out, after having been accustomed to the lamps and fed a little, he appeared fleshless, and his hair was quite white. People turned away and shuddered at this old man. Maheude left off crying to stare at him stupidly with her large fixed eyes.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15