Each time Lantier asks one of the Le Voreux workers if there is any work to be had, they tell him no but to wait for Monsieur Dansaert, the overman. He wanders around the mine, absorbing the sights and sounds of a working coal mine until he is nearly crushed by enormous weights fixed to churning cables.
He watches the noisy, dark, dirty, repetitious, and complex workings of the mine. One thing he does understand is that the pit routinely swallows twenty or thirty miners at a time, and it does so with great ease. Each of the workers comes out of the changing room barefoot and holding a lamp; groups of five or so silently climb into empty coal carts on one of four tiers of the cage. Someone shouts that a “meat load” is coming and the cage descends fife hundred and fifty-four meters; if the cable breaks, it would be a disaster. The cage tirelessly returns to the surface and delivers the next batch of human workers to the dark bowels of the mine.
Lantier feels a sudden sense of panic and walks away from the pit; he passes another group of workers, the Maheus. He asks if there is any work; Catherine bows her head no as they keep walking. Maheu is struck at the image of this man with no work and reminds his family and fellow workers to be thankful that they, at least, have jobs. Not everyone is as fortunate.
The Maheus enter the changing room where workers are gathered around the huge fires, soaking up the warmth before having to descend into the dank mines. One woman, La Mouquette, is obscenely endowed in bosom and buttocks and is sexually indiscriminate; she is the topic of this morning’s jocularity. She endures all the joking until one of them suggests she was with a nailer from another town; she would never consider having sex with anyone but a colliery worker.
The news that a worker, Fleurance, has died in her sleep is bad news for Maheu. He is paid based on production, and losing her will certainly slow down his production. Suddenly he thinks of Lantier and asks the overman if he can hire him, using as his argument that Dansaert is always trying to replace female workers with able-bodied males. The overman smiles, thinking about how worried workers usually are that their daughters will not be able to work the mines, but he agrees. Catherine runs to get the man, and he thanks her (though he thinks she is a boy) profusely before going with her to the changing room.
Maheu tells Lantier to keep his shoes on, gives him a leather cap to wear for protection (though none of them are wearing one), before going to the cage. Each worker signs out a lantern and then carefully closes it as their time of descent is recorded. Lantier is as brave a man as most, but the descent causes him great trepidation. The trip takes only a minute but it feels like hours to him, and...
(The entire section contains 779 words.)
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