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
"Do like us, stupid! Take off your
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
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!
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
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
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
"Ah! that's better now!" cried Chaval,
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
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
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
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
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
But the voice of another captain was heard and
"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
The captain's voice echoed anew, now approaching
"Let every one go up! To the ladders! to
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
"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
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
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.