Nobody's Boy/Chapter XXII

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Nobody's Boy by Hector Malot, translated by Florence Crewe-Jones
Chapter XXII - Imprisoned in a Mine

A few days later, while pushing my car along the rails, I heard a terrible roaring. The noise came from all sides. My first feeling was one of terror and I thought only of saving myself, but I had so often been laughed at for my fears that shame made me stay. I wondered if it could be an explosion. Suddenly, hundreds of rats raced past me, fleeing like a regiment of cavalry. Then I heard a strange sound against the earth and the walls of the gallery, and the noise of running water. I raced back to Uncle Gaspard.

"Water's coming into the mine!" I cried.

"Don't be silly."

"Oh, listen!"

There was something in my manner that forced Uncle Gaspard to stop his work and listen. The noise was now louder and more sinister.

"Race for your life. The mine's flooded!" he shouted.

"Professor! Professor!" I screamed.

We rushed down the gallery. The old man joined us. The water was rising rapidly.

"You go first," said the old man when we reached the ladder.

We were not in a position to show politeness. Uncle Gaspard went first, I followed, then came the professor. Before we had reached the top of the ladder a rush of water fell, extinguishing our lamps.

"Hold on," cried Uncle Gaspard.

We clung to the rungs. But some men who were below us were thrown off. The fall of water had turned into a veritable avalanche.

We were on the first landing. Water was here also. We had no lights, for our lamps had been put out.

"I'm afraid we are lost," said the professor quietly; "say your prayers, my boy."

At this moment seven or eight miners with lamps came running in our direction, trying to reach the ladder. The water was now rushing through the mine in a regular torrent, dragging in its mad course pieces of wood, whirling them round like feathers.

"We must make for an airshaft, boys," said the professor. "That is the only place where we might find refuge. Give me a lamp."

Usually no one took any notice of the old man when he spoke, unless it was to make fun of him, but the strongest man there had lost his nerve and it was the voice of the old man, whom they had mocked so often, that they were now ready to obey. A lamp was handed to him. He seized it and dragged me along with him, taking the lead. He, more than any man, knew every nook and corner of the mine. The water was up to my waist. The professor led us to the nearest airshaft. Two miners refused to enter, saying that we were throwing ourselves into a blind alley. They continued along the gallery and we never saw them again.

Then came a deafening noise. A rush of water, a splintering of wood, explosions of compressed air, a dreadful roaring which terrified us.

"It's the deluge," shrieked one.

"The end of the world!"

"Oh, God, have mercy on us."

Hearing the men shrieking their cries of despair, the professor said calmly, but in a voice to which all listened.

"Courage, boys, now as we are going to stay here for a while we must get to work. We can't stay long, huddled together like this. Let us scoop out a hollow in the shale so as to have a place to rest upon."

His words calmed the men. With hands and lamphooks they began to dig into the soil. The task was difficult, for the airshaft in which we had taken refuge was on a considerable slope and very slippery. And we knew that it meant death if we made a false step. A resting place was made, and we were able to stop and take note of each other. We were seven: the professor, Uncle Gaspard, three miners, Pages, Comperou and Bergounhoux, and a car pusher named Carrory, and myself.

The noise in the mine continued with the same violence; there are no words with which to describe the horrible uproar. It seemed to us that our last hour had come. Mad with fear, we gazed at one another, questioningly.

"The evil genius of the mine's taking his revenge," cried one.

"It's a hole broke through from the river above," I ventured to say.

The professor said nothing. He merely shrugged his shoulder, as though he could have argued out the matter in full day, under the shade of a mulberry tree, eating an onion.

"It's all folly about the genius of the mine," he said at last, "The mine is flooded, that's a sure thing. But what has caused the flood, we down here can't tell...."

"Well, if you don't know what it is, shut up," cried the men.

Now that we were dry and the water was not touching us, no one wanted to listen to the old man. The authority which his coolness in danger had gained for him was already lost.

"We shan't die from drowning," he said at last, quietly; "look at the flame in your lamps, how short it is now."

"Don't be a wizard, what do you mean? Speak out."

"I am not trying to be a wizard, but we shan't be drowned. We are in a bell of air, and it is this compressed air which stops the water from rising. This airshaft, without an outlet, is doing for us what the diving bell does for the diver. The air has accumulated in the shaft and now resists the water, which ebbs back."

"It is the foul air that we have to fear.... The water is not rising a foot now; the mine must be full...."

"Where's Marius?" cried Pages, thinking of his only son, who worked on the third level.

"Oh, Marius! Marius," he shrieked.

There was no reply, not even an echo. His voice did not go beyond our "bell."

Was Marius saved? One hundred and fifty men drowned! That would be too horrible. One hundred and fifty men, at least, had gone down into the mine, how many had been able to get out by the shafts, or had found a refuge like ourselves?

There was now utter silence in the mine. At our feet the water was quite still, not a ripple, not a gurgle. The mine was full. This heavy silence, impenetrable and deathly, was more stupefying than the frightful uproar that we had heard when the water first rushed in. We were in a tomb, buried alive, more than a hundred feet under ground. We all seemed to feel the awfulness of our situation. Even the professor seemed crushed down. Suddenly, I felt some warm drops fall on my hand. It was Carrory.... He was crying, silently. Then came a voice, shrieking:

"Marius! my boy, Marius!"

The air was heavy to breathe; I felt suffocated; there was a buzzing in my ears. I was afraid, afraid of the water, the darkness, and death. The silence oppressed me, the uneven, jagged walls of our place of refuge seemed as though they would fall and crush me beneath their weight. Should I never see Lise again, and Arthur, and Mrs. Milligan, and dear old Mattia. Would they be able to make little Lise understand that I was dead, and that I could not bring her news from her brothers and sister! And Mother Barberin, poor Mother Barberin!...

"In my opinion, they are not trying to rescue us," said Uncle Gaspard, breaking the silence at last. "We can't hear a sound."

"How can you think that of your comrades?" cried the professor hotly. "You know well enough that in every mine accident the miners have never deserted one another, and that twenty men, one hundred men, would sooner be killed than leave a comrade without assistance. You know that well enough."

"That is true," murmured Uncle Gaspard.

"Make no error, they are trying their hardest to reach us. They have two ways, ... one is to bore a tunnel to us down here, the other is to drain off the water."

The men began a vague discussion as to how long it would take to accomplish this task. All realized that we should have to remain at least eight days in our tomb. Eight days! I had heard of miners being imprisoned for twenty-four days, but that was in a story and this was reality. When I was able to fully grasp what this meant, I paid no heed to the talk around me. I was stunned.

Again there was silence. All were plunged in thought. How long we remained so I cannot tell, but suddenly there was a cry;

"The pumps are at work!"

This was said with one voice, for the sounds that had just reached our ears had seemed to touch us by an electric current and we all rose up. We should be saved!

Carrory took my hand and squeezed it.

"You're a good boy," he said.

"No, you are," I replied.

But he insisted energetically that I was a good boy. His manner was as though he were intoxicated. And so he was; he was intoxicated with hope. But before we were to see the beautiful sun again and hear the birds in the trees, we were to pass through long, cruel days of agony, and wonder in anguish if we should ever see the light of day again.

We were all very thirsty. Pages wanted to go down and get some water, but the professor advised him to stay where he was. He feared that the débris which we had piled up would give way beneath his weight and that he would fall into the water.

"Remi is lighter, give him a boot, and he can go down and get water for us all," he said.

Carrory's boot was handed to me, and I prepared to slip down the bank.

"Wait a minute," said the professor; "let me give you a hand."

"Oh, but it's all right, professor," I replied; "if I fall in I can swim."

"Do as I tell you," he insisted; "take my hand."

In his effort to help me he either miscalculated his step, or the coal gave way beneath him, for he slid over the inclined plane and fell head first into the black waters. The lamp, which he held to light me, rolled after him and disappeared also. Instantly we were plunged in darkness, for we were burning only one light,—there was a simultaneous cry from every man. Fortunately, I was already in position to get to the water. Letting myself slide down on my back, I slipped into the water after the old man.

In my wanderings with Vitalis I had learned to swim and to dive. I was as much at ease in the water as on land, but how could I direct my course in this black hole? I had not thought of that when I let myself slip; I only thought that the old man would be drowned. Where should I look? On which side should I swim? I was wondering, when I felt a firm hand seize my shoulder. I was dragged beneath the water. Kicking out my foot sharply, I rose to the surface. The hand was still grasping my shoulder.

"Hold on, professor," I cried; "keep your head up and we're saved!"

Saved! neither one nor the other was saved. For I did not know which way to swim.

"Speak out, you fellows!" I cried.

"Remi, where are you?"

It was Uncle Gaspard's voice; it came from the left.

"Light the lamp!"

There was instantly a light. I had only to stretch out my hand to touch the bank. With one hand I clutched at a block of coal and drew up the old man. It was high time, for he had already swallowed a great deal of water and was partly unconscious. I kept his head well above water and he soon came round. Our companions took hold of him and pulled him up while I hoisted him from behind. I clambered up in my turn.

After this disagreeable accident which, for the moment, had caused us some distraction, we again fell into fits of depression and despair, and with them came thoughts of approaching death. I became very drowsy; the place was not favorable for sleep; I could easily have rolled into the water. Then the professor, seeing the danger I ran, took my head upon his chest and put his arm around my body. He did not hold me very tight, but enough to keep me from falling, and I laid there like a child on his mother's knee. When I moved, half awake, he merely changed the position of his arm that had grown stiff, then sat motionless again.

"Sleep, little chap," he whispered, leaning over me; "don't be afraid. I've got you, Remi."

And I slept without fear, for I knew very well he would not let go of me.

We had no idea of time. We did not know if we had been there two days or six days. Opinions differed. We spoke no more of our deliverance. Death was in our hearts.

"Say what you like, professor," cried Bergounhoux; "you have calculated how long it will take them to pump out the water, but they'll never be in time to save us. We shall die of hunger or suffocation...."

"Have patience," answered the professor. "I know how long we can live without food and I have made my calculations. They will do it in time."

At this moment big Comperou burnt into sobs.

"The good Lord is punishing me," he cried, "and I repent! I repent! If I get out of here I swear to atone for the wrong I have done, and if I don't get out you boys will make amends for me. You know Rouquette, who was sentenced for five years for stealing a watch from Mother Vidal?... I was the thief! I took it! Its under my bed now.... Oh...."

"Throw him in the water," cried both Pages and Bergounhoux.

"Do you want to appear, then, before the Lord with a crime on your conscience?" cried the professor; "let him repent!"

"I repent! I repent," wailed Comperou, more feebly than a child, in spite of his great strength.

"To the water! To the water!" cried Pages and Bergounhoux, trying to get at the sinner, who was crouching behind the professor.

"If you want to throw him in the water, you'll throw me with him!"

"No! No!"

Finally, they said they would not push him in the water, but upon one condition; he was to be left in a corner and no one was to speak to him or to pay any attention to him.

"Yes, that's what he deserves," said the professor. "That's only fair."

After the professor's words, which seemed like a judgment condemning Comperou, we all huddled together and got as far away from him as possible, leaving a space between us and the unfortunate man. For several hours, I should think, he sat there, grief stricken, his lips moving every now and again, to say:

"I repent! I repent!"

And then Pages and Bergounhoux would cry out:

"It's too late! It's too late! You repent because you're afraid now; you should have repented six months ago, a year ago."

He gasped painfully, but still repeated:

"I repent! I repent!"

He was in a high fever; all his body shook and his teeth were chattering.

"I'm thirsty," he said; "give me the boot." There was no more water in the boot. I got up to go and fetch some, but Pages, who had seen me, called to me to stop, and at the same moment Uncle Gaspard pulled me by the arm.

"We swore we would pay no attention to him," he said.

For some minutes Comperou repeated that he was thirsty; seeing that we would not give him anything to drink, he rose up to go to the water himself.

"He'll drag down the rubbish!" cried Pages.

"Let him at least have his freedom," said the professor.

He had seen me go down by letting myself slide on my back. He wanted to do the same, but I was light, whilst he was heavy. Scarcely was he on his back than the coal gave way beneath him and, with his legs stretched out and his arms striking into space, he slipped into the black hole. The water splashed up to where we were. I leaned forward ready to go down, but Uncle Gaspard and the professor each grasped me by the arm.

Half dead, and trembling with horror, I drew myself back.

Time passed. The professor was the only one who could speak with courage. But our depression finally made his spirits droop. Our hunger had become so great that we ate the rotten wood about us. Carrory, who was like an animal, was the most famished of all; he had cut up his other boot and was continually chewing the pieces of leather. Seeing what hunger had led us to, I must confess that I began to have terrible fears. Vitalis had often told me tales of men who had been shipwrecked. In one story, a crew who had been shipwrecked on a desert island where there was nothing to eat, had eaten the ship's boy. Seeing my companions in such a famished state I wondered if that fate was to be mine. I knew that the professor and Uncle Gaspard would never eat me, but of Pages, Bergounhoux, and Carrory, especially Carrory with his great white teeth which he dug into the leather of his boot, I was not quite so sure.

Once, when I was half asleep, I had been surprised to hear the professor speak in almost a whisper, as though he was dreaming. He was talking of the clouds, the wind, and the sun. Then Pages and Bergounhoux began to chatter with him in a foolish manner. Neither waited for the other to reply. Uncle Gaspard seemed hardly to notice how foolish they were. Were they all gone mad? What was to be done?

Suddenly, I thought I would light a lamp. To economize we had decided only to have a light when it was absolutely necessary. When they saw the light they apparently regained their senses. I went to get some water for them. The waters were going down!

After a time they began to talk strangely again. My own thoughts were vague and wild, and for long hours and perhaps days we laid there chattering to one another foolishly. After a time we became quieter and Bergounhoux said that before dying we should put down our last wishes. We lit a lamp and Bergounhoux wrote for us all, and we each signed the paper. I gave my dog and harp to Mattia and I expressed a wish for Alexix to go to Lise and kiss her for me, and give her the dried rose that was in my vest pocket. Dear little Lise....

After some time, I slipped down the bank again, and saw that the waters were lowering considerably. I hurried back to my companions and told them that now I could swim to the ladders and tell our rescuers in what part of the mine we had taken refuge. The professor forbade me to go, but I insisted.

"Go on, Remi, and I'll give you my watch," cried Uncle Gaspard.

The professor thought for a moment, then took my hand.

"Do as you think, boy," he said; "you have a heart. I think that you are attempting the impossible, but it is not the first time that what was thought impossible has been successful. Kiss us, boy."

I kissed the professor and Uncle Gaspard and then, having thrown off my clothes, I went into the water.

"You keep shouting all the while," I said, before taking the plunge; "your voices will guide me."

I wondered if the space under the roof of the gallery was big enough for me to move freely. That was the question. After some strokes I found that I could swim if I went gently. I knew that there was a meeting of galleries not far away, but I had to be cautious, for if I made a mistake in the course I should lose my way. The roof and the walls of the gallery were not enough to guide me; on the ground there was a surer guide, the rails. If I followed them I should be sure to find the ladders. From time to time I let my feet go down and, having touched the iron rails, I rose up again, gently. With the voices of my companions behind me and the rails under my feet, I was not lost. As the voices became less distinct, the noise of the pumps increased. I was advancing. Thank God, I should soon see the light of day!

Going straight down the middle of the gallery, I had only to turn to the right to touch the rail. I went on a little farther, then dived again to touch the rail. It was not there! I went from side to side of the gallery, but there was no rail!

I had made a mistake.

The voices of my companions only reached me in the faintest murmur. I took in a deep breath, then plunged again but with no more success. There were no rails!

I had taken the wrong level; without knowing, I must have turned back. But how was it the others were not shouting. If they were I could not hear them. I was distracted, for I did not know which way to turn in this cold, black water.

Then, suddenly, I heard the sounds of voices again and I knew which way to turn. After having taken a dozen strokes back, I turned to the right, then to the left, but only found the walls. Where were the rails? I was sure now that I was in the right level, then I suddenly realized that the railroad had been carried away by the rush of waters, and that I had no guide. Under these circumstances it was impossible for me to carry out my plan, and I was forced to turn back.

I swam back quickly to our place of refuge, the voices guiding me. As I approached, it seemed to me that my companions' voices were more assured as though they felt stronger. I was soon at the entrance of the shaft! I hallooed to them.

"Come back; come back," shouted the professor.

"I could not find the way," I called out.

"Never mind, the tunnel is nearly finished: they hear our cries and we can hear theirs. We shall soon speak."

I climbed quickly up to our landing and listened. We could hear the blows from the picks and the cries of those who worked for our freedom came to us feebly, but yet very distinct. After the first rush of joy, I realized that I was frozen. As there were no warm clothes to give me, they buried me up to the neck in coal dust and Uncle Gaspard and the professor huddled up against me to keep me warm.

We knew now that our rescuers would soon reach us through the tunnel and by the water, but these last hours of our imprisonment were the hardest to bear. The blows from the picks continued, and the pumping had not stopped for one moment. Strange, the nearer we reached the hour of our deliverance, the weaker we grew. I was lying in the coal dust trembling, but I was not cold. We were unable to speak.

Suddenly, there was a noise in the waters of the gallery and, turning my head, I saw a great light coming towards us. The engineer was at the head of several men. He was the first to climb up to us. He had me in his arms before I could say a word.

It was time, for my heart was failing me, yet I was conscious that I was being carried away, and I was wrapped up in a blanket after our rescuers had waded through the water in the gallery. I closed my eyes; when I opened them again it was daylight! We were in the open air! At the same time something jumped on me. It was Capi. With a bound he had sprung upon me as I laid in the engineer's arms. He licked my face again and again. Then my hand was taken; I felt a kiss and heard a weak voice murmuring: "Remi! oh, Remi!"

It was Mattia. I smiled at him, then I glanced round.

A mass of people were crowded together in two straight rows, leaving a passage down the center. It was a silent crowd, for they had been requested not to excite us by their cries, but their looks spoke for their lips. In the first row I seemed to see some white surplices and gilt ornaments which shone in the sun. They were the priests, who had come to the entrance of the mine to offer prayers for our deliverance. When we were brought out, they went down on their knees in the dust.

Twenty arms were stretched out to take me, but the engineer would not give me up. He carried me to the offices, where beds had been prepared to receive us.

Two days later I was walking down the village street followed by Mattia, Alexix, and Capi. There were some who came and shook me by the hands with tears in their eyes, and there were others who turned away their heads. These were in mourning, and they asked themselves bitterly why this orphan child had been saved when their fathers and sons were still in the mine, ghastly corpses, drifting hither and thither in the dark waters.