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JEANLIN was now well and able to walk; but his legs had united so badly that he limped on both the right and left sides, and moved with the gait of a duck, though running as fast as formerly with the skill of a mischievous and thieving animal.
On this evening, in the dusk on the Réquillart road, Jeanlin, accompanied by his inseparable friends, Bébert and Lydie, was on the watch. He had taken ambush in a vacant space, behind a paling opposite an obscure grocery shop, situated at the corner of a lane. An old woman who was nearly blind displayed there three or four sacks of lentil sand beans, black with dust; and it was an ancient dried codfish, hanging by the door and stained with fly-blows, to which his eyes were directed. Twice already he had sent Bébert to unhook it. But each time someone had appeared at the bend in the road. Always intruders in the way, one could not attend to one's affairs.
A gentleman went by on horseback, and the children flattened themselves at the bottom of the paling, for they recognized M. Hennebeau. Since the strike he was often thus seen along the roads, riding alone amid the rebellious settlements, ascertaining, with quiet courage, the condition of the country. And never had a stone whistled by his ears; he only met men who were silent and slow to salute him; most often he came upon lovers, who cared nothing for politics and took their fill of pleasure in holes and corners. He passed by on his trotting mare with head directed straight forward, so as to disturb nobody, while his heart was swelling with an unappeased desire amid this gormandizing of free love. He distinctly saw these small rascals, the little boys on the little girl in a heap. Even the youngsters were already amusing themselves in their misery! His eyes grew moist, and he disappeared, sitting stiffly on his saddle, with his frock-coat buttoned up in a military manner.
"Damned luck!" said Jeanlin. "This will never finish. Go on, Bébert! Hang on to its tail!"
But once more two men appeared, and the child again stifled an oath when he heard the voice of his brother Zacharie narrating to Mouquet how he had discovered a two-franc piece sewn into one of his wife's petticoats. They both grinned with satisfaction, slapping each other on the shoulder. Mouquet proposed a game of crosse for the next day; they would leave the Avantage at two o'clock, and go to the Montoire side, near Marchiennes. Zacharie agreed. What was the good of bothering over the strike? as well amuse oneself, since there's nothing to do. And they turned the corner of the road, when Étienne, who was coming along the canal, stopped them and began to talk.
"Are they going to bed here?" said Jeanlin, in exasperation. "Nearly night; the old woman will be taking in her sacks."
Another miner came down towards Réquillart. Étienne went off with him, and as they passed the paling the child heard them speak of the forest; they had been obliged to put off the rendezvous to the following day, for fear of not being able to announce it in one day to all the settlements.
"I say, there," he whispered to his two mates, "the big affair is for to-morrow. We'll go, eh? We can get off in the afternoon."
And the road being at last free, he sent Bébert off.
"Courage! hang on to its tail. And look out! the old woman's got her broom."
Fortunately the night had grown dark. Bébert, with a leap, hung on to the cod so that the string broke. He ran away, waving it like a kite, followed by the two others, all three galloping. The woman came out of her shop in astonishment, without understanding or being able to distinguish this band now lost in the darkness.
These young rascals had become the terror of the country. They gradually spread themselves over it like a horde of savages. At first they had been satisfied with the yard at the Voreux, tumbling into the stock of coal, from which they would emerge looking like negroes, playing at hide-and-seek amid the supply of wood, in which they lost themselves as in the depths of a virgin forest. Then they had taken the pit-bank by assault; they would seat themselves on it and slide down the bare portions still boiling with interior fires; they glided among the briers in the older parts, hiding for the whole day, occupied in the quiet little games of mischievous mice. And they were constantly enlarging their conquests, scuffling among the piles of bricks until blood came, running about the fields and eating without bread all sorts of milky herbs, searching the banks of the canals to take fish from the mud and swallow them raw and pushing still farther, they travelled for kilometres as far as the thickets of Vandame, under which they gorged themselves with strawberries in the spring, with nuts and bilberries in summer. Soon the immense plain belonged to them.
What drove them thus from Montsou to Marchiennes, constantly on the roads with the eyes of young wolves, was the growing love of plunder. Jeanlin remained the captain of these expeditions, leading the troop on to all sorts of prey, ravaging the onion fields, pillaging the orchards, attacking shop windows. In the country, people accused the miners on strike, and talked of a vast organized band. One day, even, he had forced Lydie to steal from her mother, and made her bring him two dozen sticks of barley-sugar, which Pierronne kept in a bottle on one of the boards in her window; and the little girl, who was well beaten, had not betrayed him because she trembled so before his authority. The worst was that he always gave himself the lion's share. Bébert also had to bring him the booty, happy if the captain did not hit him and keep it all.
For some time Jeanlin had abused his authority. He would beat Lydie as one beats one's lawful wife, and he profited by Bébert's credulity to send him on unpleasant adventures, amused at making a fool of this big boy, who was stronger than himself, and could have knocked him over with a blow of his fist. He felt contempt for both of them and treated them as slaves, telling them that he had a princess for his mistress and that they were unworthy to appear before her. And, in fact, during the past week he would suddenly disappear at the end of a road or a turning in a path, no matter where it might be, after having ordered them with a terrible air to go back to the settlement. But first he would pocket the booty.
This was what happened on the present occasion.
"Give it up," he said, snatching the cod from his mate's hands when they stopped, all three, at a bend in the road near Réquillart.
"I want some, you know. I took it."
"Eh! what!" he cried. "You'll have some if I give you some. Not tonight, sure enough; tomorrow, if there's any left."
He pushed Lydie, and placed both of them in line like soldiers shouldering arms. Then, passing behind them:
"Now, you must stay there five minutes without turning. By God! if you do turn, there will be beasts that will eat you up. And then you will go straight back, and if Bébert touches Lydie on the way, I shall know it and I shall hit you."
Then he disappeared in the shadow, so lightly that the sound of his naked feet could not be heard. The two children remained motionless for the five minutes without looking round, for fear of receiving a blow from the invisible. Slowly a great affection had grown up between them in their common terror. He was always thinking of taking her and pressing her very tight between his arms, as he had seen others do and she, too, would have liked it, for it would have been a change for her to be so nicely caressed. But neither of them would have allowed themselves to disobey. When they went away, although the night was very dark, they did not even kiss each other; they walked side by side, tender and despairing, certain that if they touched one another the captain would strike them from behind.
Étienne, at the same hour, had entered Réquillart. The evening before Mouquette had begged him to return, and he returned, ashamed, feeling an inclination which he refused to acknowledge, for this girl who adored him like a Christ. It was, besides, with the intention of breaking it off. He would see her, he would explain to her that she ought no longer to pursue him, on account of the mates. It was not a time for pleasure; it was dishonest to amuse oneself thus when people were dying of hunger. And not having found her at home, he had decided to wait and watch the shadows of the passers-by.
Beneath the ruined steeple the old shaft opened, half blocked up. Above the black hole a beam stood erect, and with a fragment of roof at the top it had the profile of a gallows; in the broken walling of the curbs stood two trees--a mountain ash and a plane--which seemed to grow from the depths of the earth. It was a corner of abandoned wildness, the grassy and fibrous entry of a gulf, embarrassed with old wood, planted with hawthorns and sloe-trees, which were peopled in the spring by warblers in their nests. Wishing to avoid the great expense of keeping it up, the Company, for the last ten years, had proposed to fill up this dead pit; but they were waiting to install an air-shaft in the Voreux, for the ventilation furnace of the two pits, which communicated, was placed at the foot of Réquillart, of which the former winding-shaft served as a conduit. They were content to consolidate the tubbing by beams placed across, preventing extraction, and they had neglected the upper galleries to watch only over the lower gallery, in which blazed the furnace, the enormous coal fire, with so powerful a draught that the rush of air produced the wind of a tempest from one end to the other of the neighbouring mine. As a precaution, in order that they could still go up and down, the order had been given to furnish the shaft with ladders; only, as no one took charge of them, the ladders were rotting with dampness, and in some places had already given way. Above, a large brier stopped the entry of the passage, and, as the first ladder had lost some rungs, it was necessary, in order to reach it, to hang on to a root of the mountain ash, and then to take one's chance and drop into the blackness.
Étienne was waiting patiently, hidden behind a bush, when he heard a long rustling among the branches. He thought at first that it was the scared flight of a snake. But the sudden gleam of a match astonished him, and he was stupefied on recognizing Jeanlin, who was lighting a candle and burying himself in the earth. He was seized with curiosity, and approached the hole; the child had disappeared, and a faint gleam came from the second adder. Étienne hesitated a moment, and then let himself go, holding on to the roots. He thought for a moment that he was about to fall down the whole five hundred and eighty metres of the mine, but at last he felt a rung, and descended gently. Jeanlin had evidently heard nothing. Étienne constantly saw the light sinking beneath him, while the little one's shadow, colossal and disturbing, danced with the deformed gait of his distorted limbs. He kicked his legs about with the skill of a monkey, catching on with hands, feet, or chin where he rungs were wanting. Ladders, seven metres in length, followed one another, some still firm, others shaky, yielding and almost broken; the steps were narrow and green, so rotten that one seemed to walk in moss; and as one went down the heat grew suffocating, :he heat of an oven proceeding from the air-shaft which was, fortunately, not very active now the strike was on, or when the furnace devoured its five thousand kilograms of coal a day, one could not have risked oneself here without scorching one's hair.
"What a dammed little toad!" exclaimed Étienne in a stifled voice; "where the devil is he going to?"
Twice he had nearly fallen. His feet slid on the damp wood. If he had only had a candle like the child! but he truck himself every minute; he was only guided by the vague gleam that fled beneath him. He had already reached the twentieth ladder, and the descent still continued. Then he counted them: twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, and he still went down and down. His head seemed to be swelling with the heat, and he thought that he was falling into a furnace. At last he reached a landing-place, and he saw the candle going off along a gallery. Thirty ladders, that made about two hundred and ten metres.
"Is he going to drag me about long?" he thought. "He must be going to bury himself in the stable."
But on the left, the path which led to the stable was closed by a landslip. The journey began again, now more painful and more dangerous. Frightened bats flew about and clung to the roof of the gallery. He had to hasten so as not to lose sight of the light; only where the child passed with ease, with the suppleness of a serpent, he could not glide through without bruising his limbs. This gallery, like all the older passages, was narrow, and grew narrower every day from the constant fall of soil; at certain places it was a mere tube which would eventually be effaced. In this strangling labour the torn and broken wood became a peril, threatening to saw into his flesh, or to run him through with the points of splinters, sharp as swords. He could only advance with precaution, on his knees or belly, feeling in the darkness before him. Suddenly a band of rats stamped over him, running from his neck to his feet in their galloping flight.
"Blast it all! haven't we got to the end yet?" he grumbled, with aching back and out of breath.
They were there. At the end of a kilometre the tube enlarged, they reached a part of the gallery which was admirably preserved. It was the end of the old haulage passage cut across the bed like a natural grotto. He was obliged to stop, he saw the child afar, placing his candle between two stones, and putting himself at ease with the quiet and relieved air of a man who is glad to be at home again. This gallery-end was completely changed into a comfortable dwelling. In a corner on the ground a pile of hay made a soft couch; on some old planks, placed like a table, there were bread, potatoes, and bottles of gin already opened; it was a real brigand's cavern, with booty piled up for weeks, even useless booty like soap and blacking, stolen for the pleasure of stealing. And the child, quite alone in the midst of this plunder, was enjoying it like a selfish brigand.
"I say, then, is this how you make fun of people?" cried Étienne, when he had breathed for a moment. "You come and gorge yourself here, when we are dying of hunger up above?"
Jeanlin, astounded, was trembling. But recognizing the young man, he quickly grew calm.
"Will you come and dine with me?" he said at last. "Eh? a bit of grilled cod? You shall see."
He had not let go his cod, and he began to scrape off the fly-blows properly with a fine new knife, one of those little dagger knives, with bone handles, on which mottoes are inscribed. This one simply bore the word "Amour."
"You have a fine knife," remarked Étienne.
"It's a present from Lydie," replied Jeanlin, who neglected to add that Lydie had stolen it, by his orders, from a huckster at Montsou, stationed before the Tete-Coupée Bar.
Then, as he still scraped, he added proudly:
"Isn't it comfortable in my house? It's a bit warmer than up above, and it feels a lot better!"
Étienne had seated himself, and was amused in making him talk. He was no longer angry, he felt interested in this debauched child, who was so brave and so industrious in his vices. And, in fact, he tasted a certain comfort in the bottom of this hole; the heat was not too great, an equal temperature reigned here at all seasons, the warmth of a bath, while the rough December wind was chapping the skins of the miserable people on the earth. As they grew old, the galleries became purified from noxious gases, all the fire-damp had gone, and one only smelled now the odour of old fermented wood, a subtle ethereal odour, as if sharpened with a dash of cloves. This wood, besides, had become curious to look at, with a yellowish pallor of marble, fringed with whitish thread lace, flaky vegetations which seemed to drape it with an embroidery of silk and pearls. In other places the timber was bristling with toadstools. And there were flights of white moths, snowy flies and spiders, a decolorized population for ever ignorant of the sun.
"Then you're not afraid?" asked Étienne.
Jeanlin looked at him in astonishment.
"Afraid of what? I am quite alone."
But the cod was at last scraped. He lighted a little fire of wood, brought out the pan and grilled it. Then he cut a loaf into two. It was a terribly salt feast, but exquisite all the same for strong stomachs.
Étienne had accepted his share.
"I am not astonished you get fat, while we are all growing lean. Do you know that it is beastly to stuff yourself like this? And the others? you don't think of them!"
"Oh! why are the others such fools?"
"Well, you're right to hide yourself, for if your father knew you stole he would settle you."
"What! when the bourgeois are stealing from us! It's you who are always saying so. If I nabbed this loaf at Maigrat's you may be pretty sure it's a loaf he owed us."
The young man was silent, with his mouth full, and felt troubled. He looked at him, with his muzzle, his green eyes, his large ears, a degenerate abortion, with an obscure intelligence and savage cunning, slowly slipping back into the animality of old. The mine which had made him had just finished him by breaking his legs.
"And Lydie?" asked Étienne again; "do you bring her here sometimes?"
Jeanlin laughed contemptuously.
"The little one? Ah, no, not I; women blab."
And he went on laughing, filled with immense disdain for Lydie and Bébert. Who had ever seen such boobies? To think that they swallowed all his humbug, and went away with empty hands while he ate the cod in this warm place, tickled his sides with amusement. Then he concluded, with the gravity of a little philosopher:
"Much better be alone, then there's no falling out." Étienne had finished his bread. He drank a gulp of the gin. For a moment he asked himself if he ought not to make a bad return for Jeanlin's hospitality by bringing him up to daylight by the ear, and forbidding him to plunder any more by the threat of telling everything to his father. But as he examined this deep retreat, an idea occurred to him. Who knows if there might not be need for it, either for mates or for himself, in case things should come to the worst up above! He made the child swear not to sleep out, as had sometimes happened when he forgot himself in his hay, and taking a candle-end, he went away first, leaving him to pursue quietly his domestic affairs.
Mouquette, seated on a beam in spite of the great cold, had grown desperate in waiting for him. When she saw him she leapt on to his neck; and it was as though he had plunged a knife into her heart when he said that he wished to see her no more. Good God! why? Did she not love him enough? Fearing to yield to the desire to enter with her, he drew her towards the road, and explained to her as gently as possible that she was compromising him in the eyes of his mates, that she was compromising the political cause. She was astonished; what had that got to do with politics? At last the thought occurred to her that he blushed at being seen with her. She was not wounded, however; it was quite natural; and she proposed that he should rebuff her before people, so as to seem to have broken with her. But he would see her just once sometimes. In distraction she implored him; she swore to keep out of sight; she would not keep him five minutes. He was touched, but still refused. It was necessary. Then, as he left her, he wished at least to kiss her. They had gradually reached the first houses of Montsou, and were standing with their arms round one another beneath a large round moon, when a woman passed near them with a sudden start, as though she had knocked against a stone.
"Who is that?" asked Étienne, anxiously.
"It's Catherine," replied Mouquette. "She's coming back from Jean-Bart."
The woman now was going away, with lowered head and feeble limbs, looking very tired. And the young man gazed at her, in despair at having been seen by her, his heart aching with an unreasonable remorse. Had she not been with a man? Had she not made him suffer with the same suffering here, on this Réquillart road, when she had given herself to that man? But, all the same, he was grieved to have done the like to her.
"Shall I tell you what it is?" whispered Mouquette, in tears, as she left him. "If you don't want me it's because you want someone else."
On the next day the weather was superb; it was one of those clear frosty days, the beautiful winter days when the hard earth rings like crystal beneath the feet. Jeanlin had gone off at one o'clock, but he had to wait for Bébert behind the church, and they nearly set out without Lydie, whose mother had again shut her up in the cellar, and only now liberated her to put a basket on her arm, telling her that if she did not bring it back full of dandelions she should be shut up with the rats all night long. She was frightened, therefore, and wished to go at once for salad. Jeanlin dissuaded her; they would see later on. For a long time Poland, Rasseneur's big rabbit, had attracted his attention. He was passing before the Avantage when, just then, the rabbit came out on to the road. With a leap he seized her by the ears, stuffed her into the little girl's basket, and all three rushed away. They would amuse themselves finely by making her run like a dog as far as the forest.
But they stopped to gaze at Zacharie and Mouquet, who, after having drunk a glass with two other mates, had begun their big game of crosse. The stake was a new cap and a red handkerchief, deposited with Rasseneur. The four players, two against two, were bidding for the first turn from the Voreux to the Paillot farm, nearly three kilometres; and it was Zacharie who won, with seven strokes, while Mouquet required eight. They had placed the ball, the little boxwood egg, on the pavement with one end up. Each was holding his crosse, the mallet with its bent iron, long handle, and tight-strung network. Two o'clock struck as they set out. Zacharie, in a masterly manner, at his first stroke, composed of a series of three, sent the ball more than four hundred yards across the beetroot fields; for it was forbidden to play in the villages and on the streets, where people might be killed. Mouquet, who was also a good player, sent off the ball with so vigorous arm that his single stroke brought the ball a hundred and fifty metres behind. And the game went on, backwards and forwards, always running, their feet bruised by the frozen ridges of the ploughed fields.
At first Jeanlin, Bébert, and Lydie had trotted behind the players, delighted with their vigorous strokes. Then they remembered Poland, whom they were shaking up in the basket; and, leaving the game in the open country, they took out the rabbit, inquisitive to see how fast she could run. She went off, and they fled after her; it was a chase lasting an hour at full speed, with constant turns, with shouts to frighten her, and arms opened and closed on emptiness. If she had not been at the beginning of pregnancy they would never have caught her again.
As they were panting the sound of oaths made them turn their heads. They had just come upon the crosse party again, and Zacharie had nearly split open his brother's skull. The players were now at their fourth turn. From the Paillot farm they had gone off to the Quatre-Chemins, then from the Quatre-Chemins to Montoire; and now they were going in six strokes from Montoire to Pré-des-Vaches. That made two leagues and a half in an hour; and, besides, they had had drinks at the Estaminet Vincent and at the Trois-Sages Bar. Mouquet this time was ahead. He had two more strokes to play, and his victory was certain, when Zacharie, grinning as he availed himself of his privilege, played with so much skill that the ball rolled into a deep pit. Mouquet's partner could not get it out; it was a disaster. All four shouted; the party was excited, for they were neck to neck; it was necessary to begin again. From the Pré-des-Vaches it was not two kilometres to the point of Herbes-Rousses, in five strokes. There they would refresh themselves at Lerenard's.
But Jeanlin had an idea. He let them go on, and pulled out of his pocket a piece of string which he tied to one of Poland's legs, the left hind leg. And it was very amusing. The rabbit ran before the three young rascals, waddling along in such an extraordinary manner that they had never laughed so much before. Afterwards they fastened it round her neck, and let her run off; and, as she grew tired, they dragged her on her belly or on her back, just like a little carriage. That lasted for more than an hour. She was moaning when they quickly put her back into the basket, near the wood at Cruchot, on hearing the players whose game they had once more came across.
Zacharie, Mouquet, and the two others were getting over the kilometres, with no other rest than the time for a drink at all the inns which they had fixed on as their goals. From the Herbes-Rousses they had gone on to Buchy, then to Croix-de-Pierre, then to Chamblay. The earth rang beneath the helter-skelter of their feet, rushing untiringly after the ball, which bounded over the ice; the weather was good, they did not fall in, they only ran the risk of breaking their legs. In the dry air the great crosse blows exploded like firearms. Their muscular hands grasped the strung handle; their entire bodies were bent forward, as though to slay an ox. And this went on for hours, from one end of the plain to the other, over ditches and hedges and the slopes of the road, the low walls of the enclosures. One needed to have good bellows in one's chest and iron hinges in one's knees. The pike-men thus rubbed off the rust of the mine with impassioned zeal. There were some so enthusiastic at twenty-five that they could do ten leagues. At forty they played no more; they were too heavy.
Five o'clock struck; the twilight was already coming on. One more turn to the Forest of Vandame, to decide who had gained the cap and the handkerchief. And Zacharie joked, with his chaffing indifference for politics; it would be fine to tumble down over there in the midst of the mates. As to Jeanlin, ever since leaving the settlement he had been aiming at the forest, though apparently only scouring the fields. With an indignant gesture he threatened Lydie, who was full of remorse and fear, and talked of going back to the Voreux to gather dandelions. Were they going to abandon the meeting? he wanted to know what the old people would say. He pushed Bébert, and proposed to enliven the end of the journey as far as the trees by detaching Poland and pursuing her with stones. His real idea was to kill her; he wanted to take her off and eat her at the bottom of his hole at Réquillart. The rabbit ran ahead, with nose in the air and ears back; a stone grazed her back, another cut her tail, and, in spite of the growing darkness, she would have been done for if the young rogues had not noticed Étienne and Maheu standing in the middle of a glade. They threw themselves on the animal in desperation, and put her back in the basket. Almost at the same minute Zacharie, Mouquet, and the two others, with their last blow at crosse, drove the ball within a few metres of the glade. They all came into the midst of the rendezvous.
Through the whole country, by the roads and pathways of the flat plain, ever since twilight, there had been a long procession, a rustling of silent shadows, moving separately or in groups towards the violet thickets of the forest. Every settlement was emptied, the women and children themselves set out as if for a walk beneath the great clear sky. Now the roads were growing dark; this walking crowd, all gliding towards the same goal, could no longer be distinguished. But one felt it, the confused tramping moved by one soul. Between the hedges, among the bushes, there was only a light rustling, a vague rumour of the voices of the night.
M. Hennebeau, who was at this hour returning home mounted on his mare, listened to these vague sounds. He had met couples, long rows of strollers, on this beautiful winter night. More lovers, who were going to take their pleasure, mouth to mouth, behind the walls. Was it not what he always met, girls tumbled over at the bottom of every ditch, beggars who crammed themselves with the only joy that cost nothing? And these fools complained of life, when they could take their supreme fill of this happiness of love! Willingly would he have starved as they did if he could begin life again with a woman who would give herself to him on a heap of stones, with all her strength and all her heart. His misfortune .was without consolation, and he envied these wretches. With lowered head he went back, riding his horse at a slackened pace, rendered desperate by these long sounds, lost in the depth of the black country, in which he heard only kisses.