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AT Jean-Bart, Catherine had already been at work for an hour, pushing trains as far as the relays; and she was soaked in such a bath of perspiration that she stopped a moment to wipe her face.
At the bottom of the cutting, where he was hammering at the seam with his mates, Chaval was astonished when he no longer heard the rumble of the wheels. The lamps burnt badly, and the coal dust made it impossible to see.
"What's up?" he shouted.
When she answered that she was sure she would melt, and that her heart was going to stop, he replied furiously:
"Do like us, stupid! Take off your shift."
They were seven hundred and eight metres to the north in the first passage of the Désirée seam, which was at a distance of three kilometres from the pit-eye. When they spoke of this part of the pit, the miners of the region grew pale, and lowered their voices, as if they had spoken of hell; and most often they were content to shake their heads as men who would rather not speak of these depths of fiery furnace. As the galleries sank towards the north, they approached Tartaret, penetrating to that interior fire which calcined the rocks above. The cuttings at the point at which they had arrived had an average temperature of forty-five degrees. They were there in the accursed city, in the midst of the flames which the passers-by on the plain could see through the fissures, spitting out sulphur and poisonous vapours.
Catherine, who had already taken off her jacket, hesitated, then took off her trousers also; and with naked arms and naked thighs, her chemise tied round her hips by a cord like a blouse, she began to push again.
"Anyhow, that's better," she said aloud.
In the stifling heat she still felt a vague fear. Ever since they began working here, five days ago, she had thought of the stories told her in childhood, of those putter-girls of the days of old who were burning beneath Tartaret, as a punishment for things which no one dared to repeat. No doubt she was too big now to believe such silly stories; but still, what would she do if she were suddenly to see coming out of the wall a girl as red as a stove, with eyes like live coals? The idea made her perspire still more.
At the relay, eighty metres from the cutting, another putter took the tram and pushed it eighty metres farther to the upbrow, so that the receiver could forward it with the others which came down from the upper galleries.
"Gracious! you're making yourself comfortable!" said this woman, a lean widow of thirty, when she saw Catherine in her chemise. "I can't do it, the trammers at the brow bother me with their dirty tricks."
"Ah, well!" replied the young girl. "I don't care about the men! I feel too bad."
She went off again, pushing an empty tram. The worst was that in this bottom passage another cause joined with the neighbourhood of Tartaret to make the heat unbearable. They were by the side of old workings, a very deep abandoned gallery of Gaston-Marie, where, ten years earlier, an explosion of fire-damp had set the seam alight; and it was still burning behind the clay wall which had been built there and was kept constantly repaired, in order to limit the disaster. Deprived of air, the fire ought to have become extinct, but no doubt unknown currents kept it alive; it had gone on for ten years, and heated the clay wall like the bricks of an oven, so that those who passed felt half-roasted. It was along this wall, for a length of more than a hundred metres, that the haulage was carried on, in a temperature of sixty degrees.
After two journeys, Catherine again felt stifled. Fortunately, the passage was large and convenient in this Désirée seam, one of the thickest in the district. The bed was one metre ninety in height, and the men could work standing. But they would rather have worked with twisted necks and a little fresh air.
"Hallo, there! are you asleep?" said Chaval again, roughly, as soon as he no longer heard Catherine moving. "How the devil did I come to get such a jade? Will you just fill your tram and push?"
She was at the bottom of the cutting, leaning on her shovel; she was feeling ill, and she looked at them all with a foolish air without obeying. She scarcely saw them by the reddish gleam of the lamps, entirely naked like animals, so black, so encrusted in sweat and coal, that their nakedness did not frighten her. It was a confused task, the bending of ape-like backs, an infernal vision of scorched limbs, spending their strength amid dull blows and groans. But they could see her better, no doubt, for the picks left off hammering, and they joked her about taking off her trousers.
"Eh! you'll catch cold; look out!"
"It's because she's got such fine legs! I say, Chaval, there's enough there for two."
"Oh! we must see. Lift up! Higher! higher!"
Then Chaval, without growing angry at these jokes, turned on her.
"That's it, by God! Ah! she likes dirty jokes. She'd stay there to listen till to-morrow."
Catherine had painfully decided to fill her tram, then she pushed it. The gallery was too wide for her to get a purchase on the timber on both sides; her naked feet were twisted in the rails where they sought a point of support, while she slowly moved on, her arms stiffened in front, and her back breaking. As soon as she came up to the clay wall, the fiery torture again began, and the sweat fell from her whole body in enormous drops as from a storm-cloud. She had scarcely got a third of the way before she streamed, blinded, soiled also by the black mud. Her narrow chemise, black as though dipped in ink, was sticking to her skin, and rising up to her waist with the movement of her thighs; it hurt her so that she had once more to stop her task.
What was the matter with her, then, today? Never before had she felt as if there were wool in her bones. It must be the bad air. The ventilation did not reach to the bottom of this distant passage. One breathed there all sorts of vapours, which came out of the coal with the low bubbling sound of a spring, so abundantly sometimes that the lamps would not burn; to say nothing of fire-damp, which nobody noticed, for from one week's end to the other the men were always breathing it into their noses throughout the seam. She knew that bad air well; dead air the miners called it; the heavy asphyxiating gases below, above them the light gases which catch fire and blow up all the stalls of a pit, with hundreds of men, in a single burst of thunder. From her childhood she had swallowed so much that she was surprised she bore it so badly, with buzzing ears and burning throat.
Unable to go farther, she felt the need of taking off her chemise. It was beginning to torture her, this garment of which the least folds cut and burnt her. She resisted the longing, and tried to push again, but was forced to stand upright. Then quickly, saying to herself that she would cover herself at the relay, she took off everything, the cord and the chemise, so feverishly that she would have torn off her skin if she could. And now, naked and pitiful, brought down to the level of the female animal seeking its living in the mire of the streets, covered with soot and mud up to the belly, she laboured on like a cab-hack. On all fours she pushed onwards.
But despair came; it gave her no relief to be naked. What more could she take off? The buzzing in her ears deafened her, she seemed to feel a vice gripping her temples. She fell on her knees. The lamp, wedged into the coal in the tram, seemed to her to be going out. The intention to turn up the wick alone survived in the midst of her confused ideas. Twice she tried to examine it, and both times when she placed it before her on the earth she saw it turn pale, as though it also lacked breath. Suddenly the lamp went out. Then everything whirled around her in the darkness; a millstone turned in her head, her heart grew weak and left off beating, numbed in its turn by the immense weariness which was putting her limbs to sleep. She had fallen back in anguish amid the asphyxiating air close to the ground.
"By God! I believe she's lazing again," growled Chaval's voice.
He listened from the top of the cutting, and could hear no sound of wheels.
"Eh, Catherine! you damned worm!"
His voice was lost afar in the black gallery, and not a breath replied.
"I'll come and make you move, I will!"
Nothing stirred, there was only the same silence, as of death. He came down furiously, rushing along with his lamp so violently that he nearly fell over the putter's body which barred the way. He looked at her in stupefaction. What was the matter, then? was it humbug, a pretence of going to sleep? But the lamp which he had lowered to light up her face threatened to go out. He lifted it and lowered it afresh, and at last understood; it must be a gust of bad air. His violence disappeared; the devotion of the miner in face of a comrade's peril was awaking within him. He shouted for her chemise to be brought, and seized the naked and unconscious girl in his arms, holding her as high as possible. When their garments had been thrown over her shoulders he set out running, supporting his burden with one hand, and carrying the two lamps with the other. The deep galleries unrolled before him as he rushed along, turning to the right, then to the left, seeking life in the frozen air of the plain which blew down the air-shaft. At last the sound of a spring stopped him, the trickle of water flowing from the rock. He was at a square in the great haulage gallery which formerly led to Gaston-Marie. The air here blew in like a tempest, and was so fresh that a shudder went through him as he seated himself on the earth against the props; his mistress was still unconscious, with closed eyes.
"Catherine, come now, by God! no humbug. Hold yourself up a bit while I dip this in the water."
He was frightened to find her so limp. However, he was able to dip her chemise in the spring, and to bathe her face with it. She was like a corpse, already buried in the depth of the earth, with her slender girlish body which seemed to be still hesitating before swelling to the form of puberty. Then a shudder ran over her childish breast, over the belly and thighs of the poor little creature deflowered before her time. She opened her eyes and stammered:
"Ah! that's better now!" cried Chaval, relieved.
He dressed her, slipped on the chemise easily, but swore over the difficulty he had in getting on the trousers, for she could not help much. She remained dazed, not understanding where she was, nor why she was naked. When she remembered she was ashamed. How had she dared to take everything off! And she questioned him; had she been seen so, without even a handkerchief around her waist to cover her? He joked, and made up stories, saying that he had just brought her there in the midst of all the mates standing in a row. What an idea, to have taken his advice and exhibited her bum! Afterwards he declared that the mates could not even know whether it was round or square, he had rushed along so swiftly.
"The deuce! but I'm dying of cold," he said, dressing himself in turn.
Never had she seen him so kind. Usually, for one good word that he said to her she received at once two bullying ones. It would have been so pleasant to live in agreement; a feeling of tenderness went through her in the languor of her fatigue. She smiled at him, and murmured:
He embraced her, and lay down beside her, waiting till she was able to walk.
"You know," she said again, "you were wrong to shout at me over there, for I couldn't do more, really! Even in the cutting you're not so hot; if you only knew how it roasts you at the bottom of the passage!"
"Sure enough," he replied, "it would be better under the trees. You feel bad in that stall, I'm afraid, my poor girl."
She was so touched at hearing him agree with her that she tried to be brave.
"Oh! it's a bad place. Then, to-day the air is poisoned. But you shall see soon if I'm a worm. When one has to work, one works; isn't it true? I'd die rather than stop." There was silence. He held her with one arm round her waist, pressing her against his breast to keep her from harm. Although she already felt strong enough to go back to the stall, she forgot everything in her delight.
"Only," she went on in a very low voice, "I should like it so much if you were kinder. Yes, it is so good when we love each other a little."
And she began to cry softly.
"But I do love you," he cried, "for I've taken you with me."
She only replied by shaking her head. There are often men who take women just in order to have them, caring mighty little about their happiness. Her tears flowed more hotly; it made her despair now to think of the happy life she would have led if she had chanced to fall to another lad, whose arm she would always have felt thus round her waist. Another? and the vague image of that other arose from the depth of her emotion. But it was done with; she only desired now to live to the end with this one, if he would not hustle her about too much.
"Then," she said, "try to be like this sometimes."
Sobs cut short her words, and he embraced her again. "You're a stupid! There, I swear to be kind. I'm not worse than any one else, go on!"
She looked at him, and began to smile through her tears. Perhaps he was right; one never met women who were happy. Then, although she distrusted his oath, she gave herself up to the joy of seeing him affectionate. Good God! if only that could last! They had both embraced again, and as they were pressing each other in a long clasp they heard steps, which made them get up. Three mates who had seen them pass had come up to know how she was.
They set out together. It was nearly ten o'clock, and they took their lunch into a cool corner before going back to sweat at the bottom of the cutting. They were finishing the double slice of bread-and-butter, their briquet, and were about to drink the coffee from their tin, when they were disturbed by a noise coming from stalls in the distance. What then? was it another accident? They got up and ran. Pikemen, putters, trammers crossed them at every step; no one knew anything; all were shouting; it must be some great misfortune. Gradually the whole mine was in terror, frightened shadows emerged from the galleries, lanterns danced and flew away in the darkness. Where was it? Why could no one say?
All at once a captain passed, shouting:
"They are cutting the cables! they are cutting the cables!"
Then the panic increased. It was a furious gallop through the gloomy passages. Their heads were confused. Why cut the cables? And who was cutting them, when the men were below? It seemed monstrous.
But the voice of another captain was heard and then lost:
"The Montsou men are cutting the cables! Let every one go up!"
When he had understood, Chaval stopped Catherine short. The idea that he would meet the Montsou men up above, should he get out, paralysed his legs. It had come, then, that band which he thought had got into the hands of the police. For a moment he thought of retracing his path and ascending through Gaston-Marie, but that was no longer possible. He swore, hesitating, hiding his fear, repeating that it was stupid to run like that. They would not, surely, leave them at the bottom.
The captain's voice echoed anew, now approaching them:
"Let every one go up! To the ladders! to the ladders!"
And Chaval was carried away with his mates. He pushed Catherine and accused her of not running fast enough. Did she want, then, to remain in the pit to die of hunger? For those Montsou brigands were capable of breaking the ladders without waiting for people to come up. This abominable suggestion ended by driving them wild. Along the galleries there was only a furious rush, helter-skelter; a race of madmen, each striving to arrive first and mount before the others. Some men shouted that the ladders were broken and that no one could get out. And then in frightened groups they began to reach the pit-eye, where they were all engulfed. They threw themselves toward the shaft, they crushed through the narrow door to the ladder passage; while an old groom who had prudently led back the horses to the stable, looked at them with an air of contemptuous indifference, accustomed to spend nights in the pit and certain that he could eventually be drawn out of it.
"By God! will you climb up in front of me?" said Chaval to Catherine. "At least I can hold you if you fall."
Out of breath, and suffocated by this race of three kilometres which had once more bathed her in sweat, she gave herself up, without understanding, to the eddies of the crowd. Then he pulled her by the arm, almost breaking it; and she cried with pain, her tears bursting out. Already he was forgetting his oath, never would she be happy.
"Go on, then!" he roared.
But he frightened her too much. If she went first he would bully her the whole time. So she resisted, while the wild flood of their comrades pushed them to one side. The water that filtered from the shaft was falling in great drops, and the floor of the pit-eye, shaken by this tramping, was trembling over the sump, the muddy cesspool ten metres deep. At Jean-Bart, two years earlier, a terrible accident had happened just here; the breaking of a cable had precipitated the cage to the bottom of the sump, in which two men had been drowned. And they all thought of this; every one would be left down there if they all crowded on to the planks.
"Confounded dunderhead!" shouted Chaval. "Die then; I shall be rid of you!"
He climbed up and she followed.
From the bottom to daylight there were a hundred and two ladders, about seven metres in length, each placed on a narrow landing which occupied the breadth of the passage and in which a square hole scarcely allowed the shoulders to pass. It was like a flat chimney, seven hundred metres in height, between the wall of the shaft and the brattice of the winding-cage, a damp pipe, black and endless, in which the ladders were placed one above the other, almost straight, in regular stages. It took a strong man twenty-five minutes to climb up this giant column. The passage, however, was no longer used except in cases of accident.
Catherine at first climbed bravely. Her naked feet were used to the hard coal on the floors of the passages, and did not suffer from the square rungs, covered with iron rods to prevent them from wearing away. Her hands, hardened by the haulage, grasped without fatigue the uprights that were too big for her. And it even interested her and took her out of her grief, this unforeseen ascent, this long serpent of men flowing on and hoisting themselves up three on a ladder, so that even when the head should emerge in daylight the tail would still be trailing over the sump. They were not there yet, the first could hardly have ascended a third of the shaft. No one spoke now, only their feet moved with a low sound; while the lamps, like travelling stars, spaced out from below upward, formed a continually increasing line.
Catherine heard a trammer behind her counting the ladders. It gave her the idea of counting them also. They had already mounted fifteen, and were arriving at a landing-place. But at that moment she collided with Chaval's legs. He swore, shouting to her to look out. Gradually the whole column stopped and became motionless. What then? had something happened? and every one recovered his voice to ask questions and to express fear. Their anxiety had increased since leaving the bottom; their ignorance as to what was going on above oppressed them more as they approached daylight. Someone announced that they would have to go down again, that the ladders were broken. That was the thought that preoccupied them all, the fear of finding themselves face to face with space. Another explanation came down from mouth to mouth; there had been an accident, a pike-man slipped from a rung. No one knew exactly, the shouts made it impossible to hear; were they going to bed there? At last, without any precise information being obtained, the ascent began again, with the same slow, painful movement, in the midst of the tread of feet and the dancing of lamps. It must certainly be higher up that the ladders were broken.
At the thirty-second ladder, as they passed a third landing-stage, Catherine felt her legs and arms grow stiff. At first she had felt a slight tingling in her skin. Now she lost the sensation of the iron and the wood beneath her feet and in her hands. A vague pain, which gradually became burning, heated her muscles. And in the dizziness which came over her, she recalled her grandfather Bonnemort's stories of the days when there was no passage, and little girls of ten used to take out the coal on their shoulders up bare ladders; so that if one of them slipped, or a fragment of coal simply rolled out of a basket, three or four children would fall down head first from the blow. The cramp in her limbs became unbearable, she would never reach the end.
Fresh stoppages allowed her to breathe. But the terror which was communicated every time from above dazed her still more. Above and below her, respiration became more difficult. This interminable ascent was causing giddiness, and the nausea affected her with the others. She was suffocating, intoxicated with the darkness, exasperated with the walls which crushed against her flesh, and shuddering also with the dampness, her body perspiring beneath the great drops which fell on her. They were approaching a level where so thick a rain fell that it threatened to extinguish their lamps.
Chaval twice spoke to Catherine without obtaining any reply. What the devil was she doing down there? Had she let her tongue fall? She might just tell him if she was all right. They had been climbing for half an hour, but so heavily that he had only reached the fifty-ninth ladder; there were still forty-three. Catherine at last stammered that she was getting on all right. He would have treated her as a worm if she had acknowledged her weariness. The iron of the rungs must have cut her feet; it seemed to her that it was sawing in up to the bone. After every grip she expected to see her hands leave the uprights; they were so peeled and stiff she could not close her fingers, and she feared she would fall backward with torn shoulders and dislocated thighs in this continual effort. It was especially the defective slope of the ladders from which she suffered, the almost perpendicular position which obliged her to hoist herself up by the strength of her wrists, with her belly against the wood. The panting of many breaths now drowned the sound of the feet, forming an enormous moan, multiplied tenfold by the partition of the passage, arising from the depths and expiring towards the light. There was a groan; word ran along that a trammer had just cut his head open against the edge of a stair.
And Catherine went on climbing. They had passed the level. The rain had ceased; a mist made heavy the cellar-like air, poisoned with the odour of old iron and damp wood. Mechanically she continued to count in a low voice--eighty-one, eighty-two, eighty-three; still nineteen. The repetition of these figures supported her merely by their rhythmic balance; she had no further consciousness of her movements. When she lifted her eyes the lamps turned in a spiral. Her blood was flowing; she felt that she was dying; the least breath would have knocked her over. The worst was that those below were now pushing, and that the entire column was stampeding, yielding to the growing anger of its fatigue, the furious need to see the sun again. The first mates had emerged; there were, then, no broken ladders; but the idea that they might yet be broken to prevent the last from coming up, when others were already breathing up above, nearly drove them mad. And when a new stoppage occurred oaths broke out, and all went on climbing, hustling each other, passing over each other's bodies to arrive at all costs.
Then Catherine fell. She had cried Chaval's name in despairing appeal. He did not hear; he was struggling, digging his heels into a comrade's ribs to get before him. And she was rolled down and trampled over. As she fainted she dreamed. It seemed to her that she was one of the little putter-girls of old days, and that a fragment of coal, fallen from the basket above her, had thrown her to the bottom of the shaft, like a sparrow struck by a flint. Five ladders only remained to climb. It had taken nearly an hour. She never knew how she reached daylight, carried up on people's shoulders, supported by the throttling narrowness of the passage. Suddenly she found herself in the dazzling sunlight, in the midst of a yelling crowd who were hooting her.