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A WEEK passed, and work went on suspiciously and mournfully in expectation of the conflict.
Among the Maheus the fortnight threatened to be more meagre than ever. Maheude grew bitter, in spite of her moderation and good sense. Her daughter Catherine, too, had taken it into her head to stay out one night. On the following morning she came back so weary and ill after this adventure that she was not able to go to the pit; and she told with tears how it was not her fault, for Chaval had kept her, threatening to beat her if she ran away. He was becoming mad with jealousy, and wished to prevent her from returning to Étienne's bed, where he well knew, he said, that the family made her sleep. Maheude was furious, and, after forbidding her daughter ever to see such a brute again, talked of going to Montsou to box his ears. But, all the same, it was a day lost, and the girl, now that she had this lover, preferred not to change him.
Two days after there was another incident. On Monday and Tuesday Jeanlin, who was supposed to be quietly engaged on his task at the Voreux, had escaped, to run away into the marshes and the forest of Vandame with Bébert and Lydie. He had seduced them; no one knew to what plunder or to what games of precocious children they had all three given themselves up. He received a vigorous punishment, a whipping which his mother applied to him on the pavement outside before the terrified children of the settlement. Who could have thought such a thing of children belonging to her, who had cost so much since their birth, and who ought now to be bringing something in? And in this cry there was the remembrance of her own hard youth, of the hereditary misery which made of each little one in the brood a bread-winner later on.
That morning, when the men and the girl set out for the pit, Maheude sat up in her bed to say to Jeanlin:
"You know that if you begin that game again, you little beast, I'll take the skin off your bottom!"
In Maheu's new stall the work was hard. This part of the Filonniére seam was so thin that the pikemen, squeezed between the wall and the roof, grazed their elbows at their work. It was, too, becoming very damp; from hour to hour they feared a rush of water, one of those sudden torrents which burst through rocks and carry away men. The day before, as Étienne was violently driving in his pick and drawing it out, he had received a jet of water in his face; but this was only an alarm; the cutting simply became damper and more unwholesome. Besides, he now thought nothing of possible accidents; he forgot himself there with his mates, careless of peril. They lived in fire-damp without even feeling its weight on their eyelids, the spider's-web veil which it left on the eyelashes. Sometimes when the flame of the lamps grew paler and bluer than usual it attracted attention, and a miner would put his head against the seam to listen to the low noise of the gas, a noise of air-bubbles escaping from each crack. But the constant threat was of landslips; for, besides the insufficiency of the timbering, always patched up too quickly, the soil, soaked with water, would not hold.
Three times during the day Maheu had been obliged to add to the planking. It was half-past two, and the men would soon have to ascend. Lying on his side, Étienne was finishing the cutting of a block, when a distant growl of thunder shook the whole mine.
"What's that, then?" he cried, putting down his axe to listen.
He had at first thought that the gallery was falling in behind his back.
But Maheu had already glided along the slope of the cutting, saying:
"It's a fall! Quick, quick!"
All tumbled down and hastened, carried away by an impulse of anxious fraternity. Their lamps danced at their wrists in the deathly silence which had fallen; they rushed in single file along the passages with bent backs, as though they were galloping on all fours; and without slowing this gallop they asked each other questions and threw brief replies. Where was it, then? In the cuttings, perhaps. No, it came from below; no, from the haulage. When they arrived at the chimney passage, they threw themselves into it, tumbling one over the other without troubling about bruises.
Jeanlin, with skin still red from the whipping of the day before, had not run away from the pit on this day. He was trotting with naked feet behind his train, closing the ventilation doors one by one; when he was not afraid of meeting a captain he jumped on to the last tram, which he was not allowed to do for fear he should go to sleep. But his great amusement was, whenever the train was shunted to let another one pass, to go and join Bébert, who was holding the reins in front. He would come up slyly without his lamp and vigorously pinch his companion, inventing mischievous monkey tricks, with his yellow hair, his large ears, his lean muzzle, lit up by little green eyes shining in the darkness. With morbid precocity, he seemed to have the obscure intelligence and the quick skill of a human abortion which had returned to its animal ways.
In the afternoon, Mouque brought Bataille, whose turn it was, to the trammers; and as the horse was snuffing in the shunting, Jeanlin, who had glided up to Bébert, asked him:
"What's the matter with the old crock to stop short like that? He'll break my legs."
Bébert could not reply; he had to hold in Bataille, who was growing lively at the approach of the other train. The horse had smelled from afar his comrade, Trompette, for whom he had felt great tenderness ever since the day when he had seen him disembarked in the pit. One might say that it was the affectionate pity of an old philosopher anxious to console a young friend by imparting to him his own resignation and patience; for Trompette did not become reconciled, drawing his trains without any taste for the work, standing with lowered head blinded by the darkness, and for ever regretting the sun. So every time that Bataille met him he put out his head snorting, and moistened him with an encouraging caress.
"By God!" swore Bébert, "there they are, licking each other's skins again!"
Then, when Trompette had passed, he replied, on the subject of Bataille:
"Oh, he's a cunning old beast! When he stops like that it's because he guesses there's something in the way, a stone or a hole, and he takes care of himself; he doesn't want to break his bones. To-day I don't know what was the matter with him down there after the door. He pushed it, and stood stock-still. Did you see anything?"
"No, said Jeanlin. "There's water, I've got it up to my knees."
The train set out again. And, on the following journey, when he had opened the ventilation door with a blow from his head, Bataille again refused to advance, neighing and trembling. At last he made up his mind, and set off with a bound.
Jeanlin, who closed the door, had remained behind. He bent down and looked at the mud through which he was paddling, then, raising his lamp, he saw that the wood had given way beneath the continual bleeding of a spring. Just then a pikeman, one Berloque, who was called Chicot, had arrived from his cutting, in a hurry to go to his wife who had just been confined. He also stopped and examined the planking. And suddenly, as the boy was starting to rejoin his train, a tremendous cracking sound was heard, and a landslip engulfed the man and the child.
There was deep silence. A thick dust raised by the wind of the fall passed through the passages. Blinded and choked, the miners came from every part, even from the farthest stalls, with their dancing lamps which feebly lighted up this gallop of black men at the bottom of these molehills. When the first men tumbled against the landslip, they shouted out and called their mates. A second band, come from the cutting below, found themselves on the other side of the mass of earth which stopped up the gallery. It was at once seen that the roof had fallen in for a dozen metres at most. The damage was not serious. But all hearts were contracted when a death-rattle was heard from the ruins.
Bébert, leaving his train, ran up, repeating:
"Jeanlin is underneath! Jeanlin is underneath!"
Maheu, at this very moment, had come out of the passage with Zacharie and Étienne. He was seized with the fury of despair, and could only utter oaths:
"My God! my God! my God!"
Catherine, Lydie, and Mouquette, who had also rushed up, began to sob and shriek with terror in the midst of the fearful disorder, which was increased by the darkness. The men tried to make them be silent, but they shrieked louder as each groan was heard.
The captain, Richomme, had come up running, in despair that neither Négrel, the engineer, nor Dansaert was at the pit. With his ear pressed against the rocks he listened; and, at last, said those sounds could not come from a child. A man must certainly be there. Maheu had already called Jeanlin twenty times over. Not a breath was heard. The little one must have been smashed up.
And still the groans continued monotonously. They spoke to the agonized man, asking him his name. The groaning alone replied.
"Look sharp!" repeated Richomme, who had already organized a rescue, "we can talk afterwards."
From each end the miners attacked the landslip with pick and shovel. Chaval worked without a word beside Maheu and Étienne, while Zacharie superintended the removal of the earth. The hour for ascent had come, and no one had touched food; but they could not go up for their soup while their mates were in peril. They realized, however, that the settlement would be disturbed if no one came back, and it was proposed to send off the women. But neither Catherine nor Mouquette, nor even Lydie, would move, nailed to the spot with a desire to know what had happened, and to help. Levaque then accepted the commission of announcing the landslip up above--a simple accident, which was being repaired. It was nearly four o'clock; in less than an hour the men had done a day's work; half the earth would have already been removed if more rocks had not slid from the roof. Maheu persisted with such energy that he refused, with a furious gesture, when another man approached to relieve him for a moment.
"Gently! said Richomme at last, "we are getting near. We must not finish them off."
In fact the groaning was becoming more and more distinct. It was a continuous rattling which guided the workers; and now it seemed to be beneath their very picks. Suddenly it stopped.
In silence they all looked at one another, and shuddered as they felt the coldness of death pass in the darkness. They dug on, soaked in sweat, their muscles tense to breaking. They came upon a foot, and then began to remove the earth with their hands, freeing the limbs one by one. The head was not hurt. They turned their lamps on it, and Chicot's name went round. He was quite warm, with his spinal column broken by a rock.
"Wrap him up in a covering, and put him in a tram," ordered the captain. "Now for the lad; look sharp."
Maheu gave a last blow, and an opening was made, communicating with the men who were clearing away the soil from the other side. They shouted out that they had just found Jeanlin, unconscious, with both legs broken, still breathing. It was the father who took up the little one in his arms, with clenched jaws constantly uttering "My God!" to express his grief, while Catherine and the other women again began to shriek.
A procession was quickly formed. Bébert had brought back Bataille, who was harnessed to the trams. In the first lay Chicot's corpse, supported by Étienne; in the second, Maheu was seated with Jeanlin, still unconscious, on his knees, covered by a strip of wool torn from the ventilation door. They started at a walking pace. On each tram was a lamp like a red star. Then behind followed the row of miners, some fifty shadows in single file. Now that they were overcome by fatigue, they trailed their feet, slipping in the mud, with the mournful melancholy of a flock stricken by an epidemic. It took them nearly half an hour to reach the pit-eye. This procession beneath the earth, in the midst of deep darkness, seemed never to end through galleries which bifurcated and turned and unrolled.
At the pit-eye Richomme, who had gone on before, had ordered an empty cage to be reserved. Pierron immediately loaded the two trams. In the first Maheu remained with his wounded little one on his knees, while in the other Étienne kept Chicot's corpse between his arms to hold it up. When the men had piled themselves up in the other decks the cage rose. It took two minutes. The rain from the tubbing fell very cold, and the men looked up towards the air impatient to see daylight.
Fortunately a trammer sent to Dr. Vanderhaghen's had found him and brought him back. Jeanlin and the dead man were placed in the captains' room, where, from year's end to year's end, a large fire burnt. A row of buckets with warm water was ready for washing feet; and, two mattresses having been spread on the floor, the man and the child were placed on them. Maheu and Étienne alone entered. Outside, putters, miners, and boys were running about, forming groups and talking in a low voice.
As soon as the doctor had glanced at Chicot:
"Done for! You can wash him."
Two overseers undressed and then washed with a sponge this corpse blackened with coal and still dirty with the sweat of work.
"Nothing wrong with the head," said the doctor again, kneeling on Jeanlin's mattress. "Nor the chest either. Ah! it's the legs which have given."
He himself undressed the child, unfastening the cap, taking off the jacket, drawing off the breeches and shirt with the skill of a nurse. And the poor little body appeared, as lean as an insect, stained with black dust and yellow earth, marbled by bloody patches. Nothing could be made out, and they had to wash him also. He seemed to grow leaner beneath the sponge, the flesh so pallid and transparent that one could see the bones. It was a pity to look on this last degeneration of a wretched race, this mere nothing that was suffering and half crushed by the falling of the rocks. When he was clean they perceived the bruises on the thighs, two red patches on the white skin.
Jeanlin, awaking from his faint, moaned. Standing up at the foot of the mattress with hands hanging down, Maheu was looking at him and large tears rolled from his eyes.
"Eh, are you the father?" said the doctor, raising his eyes; "no need to cry then, you can see he is not dead. Help me instead."
He found two simple fractures. But the right leg gave him some anxiety, it would probably have to be cut off.
At this moment the engineer, Négrel, and Dansaert, who had been informed, came up with Richomme. The first listened to the captain's narrative with an exasperated air. He broke out: Always this cursed timbering! Had he not repeated a hundred times that they would leave their men down there! and those brutes who talked about going out on strike if they were forced to timber more solidly. The worst was that now the Company would have to pay for the broken pots. M. Hennebeau would be pleased!
"Who is it?" he asked of Dansaert, who was standing in silence before the corpse which was being wrapped up in a sheet.
"Chicot! one of our good workers," replied the chief captain. "He has three children. Poor chap!"
Dr. Vanderhaghen ordered Jeanlin's immediate removal to his parents'. Six o'clock struck, twilight was already coming on, and they would do well to remove the corpse also; the engineer gave orders to harness the van and to bring a stretcher. The wounded child was placed on the stretcher while the mattress and the dead body were put into the van.
Some putters were still standing at the door talking with some miners who were waiting about to look on. When the door reopened there was silence in the group. A new procession was then formed, the van in front, then the stretcher, and then the train of people. They left the mine square and went slowly up the road to the settlement. The first November cold had denuded the immense plain; the night was now slowly burying it like a shroud fallen from the livid sky.
Étienne then in a low voice advised Maheu to send Catherine on to warn Maheude so as to soften the blow. The overwhelmed father, who was following the stretcher, agreed with a nod; and the young girl set out running, for they were now near. But the van, that gloomy well-known box, was already signalled. Women ran out wildly on to the paths; three or four rushed about in anguish, without their bonnets. Soon there were thirty of them, then fifty, all choking with the same terror. Then someone was dead? Who was it? The story told by Levaque after first reassuring them, now exaggerated their nightmare: it was not one man, it was ten who had perished, and who were now being brought back in the van one by one.
Catherine found her mother agitated by a presentiment; and after hearing the first stammered words Maheude cried:
"The father's dead!"
The young girl protested in vain, speaking of Jeanlin. Without hearing her, Maheude had rushed forward. And on seeing the van, which was passing before the church, she grew faint and pale. The women at their doors, mute with terror, were stretching out their necks, while others followed, trembling as they wondered before whose house the procession would stop.
The vehicle passed; and behind it Maheude saw Maheu, who was accompanying the stretcher. Then, when they had placed the stretcher at her door and when she saw Jeanlin alive with his legs broken, there was so sudden a reaction in her that she choked with anger, stammering, without tears:
"Is this it? They cripple our little ones now! Both legs! My God! What do they want me to do with him?"
"Be still, then," said Dr. Vanderhaghen, who had followed to attend to Jeanlin. "Would you rather he had remained below?"
But Maheude grew more furious, while Alzire, Lénore, and Henri were crying around her. As she helped to carry up the wounded boy and to give the doctor what he needed, she cursed fate, and asked where she was to find money to feed invalids. The old man was not then enough, now this rascal too had lost his legs! And she never ceased; while other cries, more heart-breaking lamentations, were heard from a neighbouring house: Chicot's wife and children were weeping over the body. It was now quite night, the exhausted miners were at last eating their soup, and the settlement had fallen into a melancholy silence, only disturbed by these loud outcries.
Three weeks passed. It was found possible to avoid amputation; Jeanlin kept both his legs, but he remained lame. On investigation the Company had resigned itself to giving a donation of fifty francs. It had also promised to find employment for the little cripple at the surface as soon as he was well. All the same their misery was aggravated, for the father had received such a shock that he was seriously ill with fever.
Since Thursday Maheu had been back at the pit and it was now Sunday. In the evening Étienne talked of the approaching date of the 1st of December, preoccupied in wondering if the Company would execute its threat. They sat up till ten o'clock waiting for Catherine, who must have been delaying with Chaval. But she did not return. Maheude furiously bolted the door without a word. Étienne was long in going to sleep, restless at the thought of that empty bed in which Alzire occupied so little room.
Next morning she was still absent; and it was only in the afternoon, on returning from the pit, that the Maheus learnt that Chaval was keeping Catherine. He created such abominable scenes with her that she had decided to stay with him. To avoid reproaches he had suddenly left the Voreux and had been taken on at Jean-Bart, M. Deneulin's mine, and she had followed him as a putter. The new household still lived at Montsou, at Piquette's.
Maheu at first talked of going to fight the man and of bringing his daughter back with a kick in the backside. Then he made a gesture of resignation: what was the good? It always turned out like that; one could not prevent a girl from sticking to a man when she wanted to.
It was much better to wait quietly for the marriage. But Maheude did not take things so easily.
"Did I beat her when she took this Chaval?" she cried to Étienne, who listened in silence, very pale. "See now, tell me! you, who are a sensible man. We have left her free, haven't we? because, my God! they all come to it. Now, I was in the family way when the father married me. But I didn't run away from my parents, and I should never have done so dirty a trick as to carry the money I earned to a man who had no want of it before the proper age. Ah! it's disgusting, you know. People will leave off getting children!"
And as Étienne still replied only by nodding his head, she insisted:
"A girl who went out every evening where she wanted to! What has she got in her skin, then, not to be able to wait till I married her after she had helped to get us out of difficulties? Eh? it's natural, one has a daughter to work. But there! we have been too good, we ought not to let her go and amuse herself with a man. Give them an inch and they take an ell."
Alzire nodded approvingly. Lénore and Henri, overcome by this storm, cried quietly, while the mother now enumerated their misfortunes: first Zacharie who had had to get married; then old Bonnemort who was there on his chair with his twisted feet; then Jeanlin who could not leave the room for ten days with his badly united bones; and now, as a last blow, this jade Catherine, who had gone away with a man! The whole family was breaking up. There was only the father left at the pit. How were they to live, seven persons without counting Estelle, on his three francs? They might as well jump into the canal in a band.
"It won't do any good to worry yourself," said Maheu in a low voice, "perhaps we have not got to the end."
Étienne, who was looking fixedly at the flags on the floor, raised his head, and murmured with eyes lost in a vision of the future:
"Ah! it is time! it is time!"