Catherine has been working the Jean-Bart mine for an hour and she is already drenched with sweat and has to stop rolling tubs to wipe her face. They are working at a depth of seven hundred and eighty-seven meters, only three kilometers from the pit bottom. This is the part of the mine that makes experienced miners turn pale and lower their voices, as if they are talking about hell. The coal burns red and fierce here, and people walking on the surface above can see sulphurous flames and smell foul gases below them.
The heat not only stifles Catherine; it makes her afraid, remembering terrifying stories from her childhood. She pushes her tub to the relay person, a woman, and then rolls her empty tub back.
Ten years ago in this part of the mine, a firedamp explosion had set fire to the seam; that fire is still raging behind a wall of clay which is constantly at bay to keep the fire contained. It is along this wall that Catherine must roll her tubs. After two more trips, Catherine is finally overcome with the heat.
With great effort, Catherine fills her tub but can barely move it. Never before has she struggled so much at a job she has been doing for years; her ears are buzzing and her throat is on fire. She blames it on the bad air and suddenly feels the need to strip completely, thinking that she can cover up at the relay point. Now she is reduced to a grimy, sweaty animal pushing the tub on all fours.
Now Catherine is in despair, for even removing her clothes brings her no relief. The buzzing in her ears is deafening and she think she sees her lamp dimming, as if searching for oxygen, and then it goes out. Everything begins to spin, and she is lying on the ground, dying of asphyxiation.
Chaval hollers at Catherine when he does not hear the rumble of her tub. Angrily he walks threateningly toward her, tripping over her prostrate body in the dark. He is angry at her laziness but then realizes the air must be bad. He grabs her body and runs with her to a cooler part of the mine. She appears to be dead, but soon she revives enough to tell him she is cold. He dresses her, but she is still in a daze. She has never seen him so gentle and is touched when he says she should not be working in this part of the mine.
Catherine protests that she can do her share of the work but does tell Chaval that she wishes he would be kinder to her. He tells her he must love her or he would not have taken her to live with him, but she just cries, thinking about the life she might have had. He smiles and says he is not any worse than the next man, and Catherine thinks perhaps he is right.
As they are getting ready to return to work, a crowd is shouting around them and...
(The entire section contains 771 words.)
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