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MAHEU, without looking at his watch which he had left in his jacket, stopped and said:
"One o'clock directly. Zacharie, is it done?"
The young man had just been at the planking. In the midst of his labour he had been lying on his back, with dreamy eyes, thinking over a game of hockey of the night before. He woke up and replied:
"Yes, it will do; we shall see to-morrow."
And he came back to take his place at the cutting. Levaque and Chaval had also dropped their picks. They were all resting. They wiped their faces on their naked arms and looked at the roof, in which slaty masses were cracking. They only spoke about their work.
"Another chance," murmured Chaval, "of getting into loose earth. They didn't take account of that in the bargain."
"Rascals!" growled Levaque. "They only want to bury us in it."
Zacharie began to laugh. He cared little for the work and the rest, but it amused him to hear the Company abused. In his placid way Maheu explained that the nature of the soil changed every twenty metres. One must be just; they could not foresee everything. Then, when the two others went on talking against the masters, he became restless, and looked around him.
"Hush! that's enough."
"You're right," said Levaque, also lowering his voice; "it isn't wholesome."
A morbid dread of spies haunted them, even at this depth, as if the shareholders' coal, while still in the seam, might have ears.
"That won't prevent me," added Chaval loudly, in a defiant manner, "from lodging a brick in the belly of that damned Dansaert, if he talks to me as he did the other day. I won't prevent him, I won't, from buying pretty girls with white skins."
This time Zacharie burst out laughing. The head captain's love for Pierronne was a constant joke in the pit. Even Catherine rested on her shovel at the bottom of the cutting, holding her sides, and in a few words told Étienne the joke; while Maheu became angry, seized by a fear which he could not conceal.
"Will you hold your tongue, eh? Wait till you're alone if you want to get into trouble."
He was still speaking when the sound of steps was heard in the upper gallery. Almost immediately the engineer of the mine, little Négrel, as the workmen called him among themselves, appeared at the top of the cutting, accompanied by Dansaert, the head captain.
"Didn't I say so?" muttered Maheu. "There's always someone there, rising out of the ground."
Paul Négrel, M. Hennebeau's nephew, was a young man of twenty-six, refined and handsome, with curly hair and brown moustache. His pointed nose and sparkling eyes gave him the air of an amiable ferret of sceptical intelligence, which changed into an abrupt authoritative manner in his relations with the workmen. He was dressed like them, and like them smeared with coal; to make them respect him he exhibited a dare-devil courage, passing through the most difficult spots and always first when landslips or fire-damp explosions occurred.
"Here we are, are we not, Dansaert?" he asked.
The head captain, a coarse-faced Belgian, with a large sensual nose, replied with exaggerated politeness:
"Yes, Monsieur Négrel. Here is the man who was taken on this morning."
Both of them had slid down into the middle of the cutting. They made Étienne come up. The engineer raised his lamp and looked at him without asking any questions.
"Good," he said at last. "But I don't like unknown men to be picked up from the road. Don't do it again."
He did not listen to the explanations given to him, the necessities of work, the desire to replace women by men for the haulage. He had begun to examine the roof while the pikemen had taken up their picks again. Suddenly he called out:
"I say there, Maheu; have you no care for life? By heavens! you will all be buried here!"
"Oh! it's solid," replied the workman tranquilly.
"What! solid! but the rock is giving already, and you are planting props at more than two metres, as if you grudged it! Ah! you are all alike. You will let your skull be flattened rather than leave the seam to give the necessary time to the timbering! I must ask you to prop that immediately. Double the timbering--do you understand?"
And in face of the unwillingness of the miners who disputed the point, saying that they were good judges of their safety, he became angry.
"Go along! when your heads are smashed, is it you who will have to bear the consequences? Not at all! it will be the Company which will have to pay you pensions, you or your wives. I tell you again that we know you; in order to get two extra trains by evening you would sell your skins."
Maheu, in spite of the anger which was gradually mastering him, still answered steadily:
"If they paid us enough we should prop it better." The engineer shrugged his shoulders without replying. He had descended the cutting, and only said in conclusion, from below:
"You have an hour. Set to work, all of you; and I give you notice that the stall is fined three francs."
A low growl from the pikemen greeted these words. The force of the system alone restrained them, that military system which, from the trammer to the head captain, ground one beneath the other. Chaval and Levaque, however, made a furious gesture, while Maheu restrained them by a glance, and Zacharie shrugged his shoulders chaffingly. But Étienne was, perhaps, most affected. Since he had found himself at the bottom of this hell a slow rebellion was rising within him. He looked at the resigned Catherine, with her lowered back. Was it possible to kill oneself at this hard toil, in this deadly darkness, and not even to gain the few pence to buy one's daily bread?
However, Négrel went off with Dansaert, who was content to approve by a continual movement of his head. And their voices again rose; they had just stopped once more, and were examining the timbering in the gallery, which the pikemen were obliged to look after for a length of ten metres behind the cutting.
"Didn't I tell you that they care nothing?" cried the engineer. "And you! why, in the devil's name, don't you watch them?"
"But I do--I do," stammered the head captain. "One gets tired of repeating things."
Négrel called loudly:
They all came down. He went on:
"Do you see that? Will that hold? It's a twopenny-half penny construction! Here is a beam which the posts don't carry already, it was done so hastily. By Jove! I understand how it is that the mending costs us so much. It'll do, won't it? if it lasts as long as you have the care of it; and then it may go smash, and the Company is obliged to have an army of repairers. Look at it down there; it is mere botching!"
Chaval wished to speak, but he silenced him.
"No! I know what you are going to say. Let them pay you more, eh? Very well! I warn you that you will force the managers to do something: they will pay you the planking separately, and proportionately reduce the price of the trams. We shall see if you will gain that way! Meanwhile, prop that over again, at once; I shall pass to-morrow."
Amid the dismay caused by this threat he went away. Dansaert, who had been so humble, remained behind a few moments, to say brutally to the men:
"You get me into a row, you here. I'll give you something more than three francs fine, I will. Look out!"
Then, when he had gone, Maheu broke out in his turn:
"By God! what's fair is fair! I like people to be calm, because that's the only way of getting along, but at last they make you mad. Did you hear? The tram lowered, and the planking separately! Another way of paying us less. By God it is!"
He looked for someone upon whom to vent his anger, and saw Catherine and Étienne swinging their arms.
"Will you just fetch me some wood! What does it matter to you? I'll put my foot into you somewhere!"
Étienne went to carry it without rancour for this rough speech, so furious himself against the masters that he thought the miners too good-natured. As for the others, Levaque and Chaval had found relief in strong language. All of them, even Zacharie, were timbering furiously. For nearly half an hour one only heard the creaking of wood wedged in by blows of the hammer.
They no longer spoke, they snorted, became enraged with the rock, which they would have hustled and driven back by the force of their shoulders if they had been able.
"That's enough," said Maheu at last, worn out with anger and fatigue. "An hour and a half! A fine day's work! We shan't get fifty sous! I'm off. This disgusts me."
Though there was still half an hour of work left he dressed himself. The others imitated him. The mere sight of the cutting enraged them. As the putter had gone back to the haulage they called her, irritated at her zeal: let the coal take care of itself. And the six, their tools under their arms, set out to walk the two kilometres back, returning to the shaft by the road of the morning.
At the chimney Catherine and Étienne were delayed while the pikemen slid down. They met little Lydie, who stopped in a gallery to let them pass, and told them of the disappearance of Mouquette, whose nose had been bleeding so much that she had been away an hour, bathing her face somewhere, no one knew where. Then, when they left her, the child began again to push her tram, weary and muddy, stiffening her insect-like arms and legs like a lean black ant struggling with a load that was too heavy for it. They let themselves down on their backs, flattening their shoulders for fear of taking the skin off their foreheads, and they slipped so fast down the rocky slope, polished by all the rumps of the workers, that they were obliged from time to time to hold on to the woodwork, so that their backsides should not catch fire, as they said jokingly.
Below they found themselves alone. Red stars disappeared afar at a bend in the passage. Their cheerfulness fell, they began to walk with the heavy step of fatigue, she in front, he behind. Their lamps were blackened. He could scarcely see her, drowned in a sort of smoky mist; and the idea that she was a girl disturbed him because he felt that it was stupid not to embrace her, and yet the recollection of the other man prevented him. Certainly she had lied to him: the other was her lover, they lay together on all those heaps of slaty coal, for she had a loose woman's gait. He sulked without reason, as if she had deceived him. She, however, every moment turned round, warned him of obstacles, and seemed to invite him to be affectionate. They were so lost here, it would have been so easy to laugh together like good friends! At last they entered the large haulage gallery; it was a relief to the indecision from which he was suffering; while she once more had a saddened look, the regret for a happiness which they would not find again.
Now the subterranean life rumbled around them with a continual passing of captains, the come and go of the trains drawn by trotting horses. Lamps starred the night everywhere. They had to efface themselves against the rock to leave the path free to shadowy men and beasts, whose breath came against their faces. Jeanlin, running barefooted behind his train, cried out some naughtiness to them which they could not hear amid the thunder of the wheels. They still went on, she now silent, he not recognizing the turnings and roads of the morning, and fancying that she was leading him deeper and deeper into the earth; and what specially troubled him was the cold, an increasing cold which he had felt on emerging from the cutting, and which caused him to shiver the more the nearer they approached the shaft. Between the narrow walls the column of air now blew like a tempest. He despaired of ever coming to the end, when suddenly they found themselves in the pit-eye hall.
Chaval cast a sidelong glance at them, his mouth drawn with suspicion. The others were there, covered with sweat in the icy current, silent like himself, swallowing their grunts of rage. They had arrived too soon and could not be taken to the top for half an hour, more especially since some complicated manoeuvres were going on for lowering a horse. The porters were still rolling the trams with the deafening sound of old iron in movement, and the cages were flying up, disappearing in the rain which fell from the black hole. Below, the sump, a cesspool ten metres deep, filled with this streaming water, also exhaled its muddy moisture. Men were constantly moving around the shaft, pulling the signal cords, pressing on the arms of levers, in the midst of this spray in which their garments were soaked. The reddish light of three open lamps cut out great moving shadows and gave to this subterranean hall the air of a villainous cavern, some bandits' forge near a torrent.
Maheu made one last effort. He approached Pierron, who had gone on duty at six o'clock.
"Here! you might as well let us go up."
But the porter, a handsome fellow with strong limbs and a gentle face, refused with a frightened gesture.
"Impossible: ask the captain. They would fine me."
Fresh growls were stifled. Catherine bent forward and said in Étienne's ear:
"Come and see the stable, then. That's a comfortable place!"
And they had to escape without being seen, for it was forbidden to go there. It was on the left, at the end of a short gallery. Twenty-five metres in length and nearly four high, cut in the rock and vaulted with bricks, it could contain twenty horses. It was, in fact, comfortable there. There was a pleasant warmth of living beasts, the good odour of fresh and well-kept litter. The only lamp threw out the calm rays of a night-light. There were horses there, at rest, who turned their heads, with their large infantine eyes, then went back to their hay, without haste, like fat well-kept workers, loved by everybody.
But as Catherine was reading aloud their names, written on zinc plates over the mangers, she uttered a slight cry, seeing something suddenly rise before her. It was Mouquette, who emerged in fright from a pile of straw in which she was sleeping. On Monday, when she was overtired with her Sunday's spree, she gave herself a violent blow on the nose, and left her cutting under the pretence of seeking water, to bury herself here with the horses in the warm litter. Her father, being weak with her, allowed it, at the risk of getting into trouble.
Just then, Mouque, the father, entered, a short, bald, worn-out looking man, but still stout, which is rare in an old miner of fifty. Since he had been made a groom, he chewed to such a degree that his gums bled in his black mouth. On seeing the two with his daughter, he became angry.
"What are you up to there, all of you? Come! up! The jades, bringing a man here! It's a fine thing to come and do your dirty tricks in my straw."
Mouquette thought it funny, and held her sides. But Étienne, feeling awkward, moved away, while Catherine smiled at him. As all three returned to the pit-eye, Bébert and Jeanlin arrived there also with a train of tubs. There was a stoppage for the manoeuvring of the cages, and the young girl approached their horse, caressed it with her hand, and talked about it to her companion. It was Bataille, the doyen of the mine, a white horse who had lived below for ten years. These ten years he had lived in this hole, occupying the same corner of the stable, doing the same task along the black galleries without every seeing daylight. Very fat, with shining coat and a good-natured air, he seemed to lead the existence of a sage, sheltered from the evils of the world above. In this darkness, too, he had become very cunning. The passage in which he worked had grown so familiar to him that he could open the ventilation doors with his head, and he lowered himself to avoid knocks at the narrow spots. Without doubt, also, he counted his turns, for when he had made the regulation number of journeys he refused to do any more, and had to be led back to his manger. Now that old age was coming on, his cat's eyes were sometimes dimmed with melancholy. Perhaps he vaguely saw again, in the depths of his obscure dreams, the mill at which he was born, near Marchiennes, a mill placed on the edge of the Scarpe, surrounded by large fields over which the wind always blew. Something burnt in the air--an enormous lamp, the exact appearance of which escaped his beast's memory--and he stood with lowered head, trembling on his old feet, making useless efforts to recall the sun.
Meanwhile, the manoeuvres went on in the shaft, the signal hammer had struck four blows, and the horse was being lowered; there was always excitement at such a time, for it sometimes happened that the beast was seized by such terror that it was landed dead. When put into a net at the top it struggled fiercely; then, when it felt the ground no longer beneath it, it remained as if petrified and disappeared without a quiver of the skin, with enlarged and fixed eyes. This animal being too big to pass between the guides, it had been necessary, when hooking it beneath the cage, to pull down the head and attach it to the flanks. The descent lasted nearly three minutes, the engine being slowed as a precaution. Below, the excitement was increasing. What then? Was he going to be left on the road, hanging in the blackness? At last he appeared in his stony immobility, his eye fixed and dilated with terror. It was a bay horse hardly three years of age, called Trompette.
"Attention!" cried Father Mouque, whose duty it was to receive it. "Bring him here, don't undo him yet."
Trompette was soon placed on the metal floor in a mass. Still he did not move: he seemed in a nightmare in this obscure infinite hole, this deep hall echoing with tumult. They were beginning to unfasten him when Bataille, who had just been unharnessed, approached and stretched out his neck to smell this companion who lay on the earth. The workmen jokingly enlarged the circle. Well! what pleasant odour did he find in him? But Bataille, deaf to mockery, became animated. He probably found in him the good odour of the open air, the forgotten odour of the sun on the grass. And he suddenly broke out into a sonorous neigh, full of musical gladness, in which there seemed to be the emotion of a sob. It was a greeting, the joy of those ancient things of which a gust had reached him, the melancholy of one more prisoner who would not ascend again until death.
"Ah! that animal Bataille!" shouted the workmen, amused at the antics of their favourite, "he's talking with his mate."
Trompette was unbound, but still did not move. He remained on his flank, as if he still felt the net restraining him, garrotted by fear. At last they got him up with a lash of the whip, dazed and his limbs quivering. And Father Mouque led away the two beasts, fraternizing together.
"Here! Is it ready yet?" asked Maheu.
It was necessary to clear the cages, and besides it was yet ten minutes before the hour for ascending. Little by little the stalls emptied, and the miners returned from all the galleries. There were already some fifty men there, damp and shivering, their inflamed chests panting on every side. Pierron, in spite of his mawkish face, struck his daughter Lydie, because she had left the cutting before time. Zacharie slyly pinched Mouquette, with a joke about warming himself. But the discontent increased; Chaval and Levaque narrated the engineer's threat, the tram to be lowered in price, and the planking paid separately. And exclamations greeted this scheme, a rebellion was germinating in this little corner, nearly six hundred metres beneath the earth. Soon they could not restrain their voices; these men, soiled by coal, and frozen by the delay, accused the Company of killing half their workers at the bottom, and starving the other half to death. Étienne listened, trembling.
"Quick, quick!" repeated the captain, Richomme, to the porters.
He hastened the preparations for the ascent, not wishing to be hard, pretending not to hear. However, the murmurs became so loud that he was obliged to notice them. They were calling out behind him that this would not last always, and that one fine day the whole affair would be smashed up.
"You're sensible," he said to Maheu; "make them hold their tongues. When one hasn't got power one must have sense."
But Maheu, who was getting calm, and had at last become anxious, did not interfere. Suddenly the voices fell; Négrel and Dansaert, returning from their inspection, entered from a gallery, both of them sweating. The habit of discipline made the men stand in rows while the engineer passed through the group without a word. He got into one tram, and the head captain into another, the signal was sounded five times, ringing for the butcher s meat, as they said for the masters; and the cage flew up in the air in the midst of a gloomy silence.