MAHEU, without looking at his watch which he had
left in his jacket, stopped and said:
"One o'clock directly. Zacharie, is it
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
"Yes, it will do; we shall see
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
"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
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
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
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
"Here we are, are we not, Dansaert?" he
The head captain, a coarse-faced Belgian, with a
large sensual nose, replied with exaggerated
"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
"I say there, Maheu; have you no care for
life? By heavens! you will all be buried
"Oh! it's solid," replied the workman
"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
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
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
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
"But I do--I do," stammered the head
captain. "One gets tired of repeating
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
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.
Then, when he had gone, Maheu broke out in his
"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
"Will you just fetch me some wood! What does
it matter to you? I'll put my foot into you
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
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
"Impossible: ask the captain. They would
Fresh growls were stifled. Catherine bent forward
and said in Étienne's ear:
"Come and see the stable, then. That's a
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
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,
"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
"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