Weeks passed and Louis pushed the wagons more and more easily. But it was a very hard job: his legs, arms, and back hurt, and the fear of grisu never left him. When he could no longer suppress his tears, he would hide so that they would not see him cry.
Tounet had exchanged Apollo for Tambour. It was the only person who could make it work. When they heard a cheerful little whistle, everyone knew that Tounet was approaching Tambour.
Louis would also regain his smile thanks to a character who started working on “Hell”. One day, in front of his wagon, an elegantly dressed gentleman appeared.
“Who had the idea of opening such narrow galleries?” Exclaimed the man.
Seeing the child, he asked him:
“Could you help me, my little one?”
“I have to take the wagon to the train, sir,” Louis replied.
“Never mind, that’s not what will stop work at the mine.” You shouldn’t even be here anyway, ”the man continued.
Convinced, Louis left the wagon and helped the man unroll a strange chain.
“Well, where have I put my pencil?” Asked the stranger.
“It’s in your ear,” the boy noted.
– It is. I’m so distracted, ”muttered the character.
“Who is this lord so strange?” wondered Louis.
Suddenly there was a shout:
– Louis, where are you?
It was Ratel.
– With that then you hide there. You’ll see…
Ratel stopped when he saw the visitor.
– Oh, Lord Chagnon! I haven’t seen him, ”he apologized in a servant tone.
“I see not,” said the man dryly.
Approaching the person in charge, he asked:
– Hadn’t I told you to stop the exploitation of this sector?
– I said yes, but I thought that…
– Very well. I will speak directly to the administrator.
The man took the bag he had put on the floor and asked Louis:
– Take my material and follow me, little one.
– What about my wagon? Who will push it? Asked Ratel.
– Push it you. From now on, this child is my personal assistant.
He turned his back on the man in charge and walked away, followed by Louis. Ratel flushed with anger. An anger that would not fade…
Mr. Chagnon was a surveyor engineer. His job was to measure the galleries accurately so that he could map the mines. He used very funny instruments, which Louis was in charge of carrying. The child accompanied the surveyor on all his journeys and got to know the galleries.
One day they came into a gallery where a small stream ran. Here and there, the rats ate the footbridge wood and the mushrooms that grew everywhere. Lost in thought, Lord Chagnon did not see the meal scraps a rodent had just abandoned. The foot slipped, the man lost his balance and fell into the water. Luckily it didn’t hurt.
“Thank God my lamp didn’t go out.” It would be very difficult to find the dark exit.
– Where are you going to give this creek? Asked Louis as his new boss tried to dry himself.
– It will give to a special well: the lowest well of the mine. There are pipes that draw water from this well to the outside.
– Why do you need to send her abroad? Continued Louis.
– So that the mine won’t be flooded in a few days.
Although distracted, the surveyor knew the galleries like no one else. On another occasion, the young miner was surprised by a draft.
“We’re near a ventilation shaft,” the engineer explained. – It is equipped with a huge fan, which allows the mine air to be renewed and a part of the grisu removed.
Louis thought the mine was full of secrets, secrets that the villagers didn’t even suspect. But for all the pleasure of exploring the mine in the company of the surveyor, he was always happy when the workday was over.
He even envied the women and children who collected some coal from the landfills behind the mine. However, even if these people worked outdoors, they were far from earning what he earned as a bottom miner. He thought the same when he saw the women in charge of removing the pieces of rock mixed with the coal. It was a monotonous and stressful work, for which they were paid only according to the number of baskets of stones they filled each day.
Around one of the pontoons grew a tangle of railroad tracks. The freshly picked charcoal by the women was carried in large wagons, leaving for Lyon, Le Puy, and other ports on the Loire River. Louis continued to follow the engineer everywhere, from pontoons to walkways, from walkways to the building where the engineer’s office was located. After arranging the material, the boy began to admire the maps on the walls.
When sometimes the engineer didn’t spend all day at the bottom of the mine, Louis carried light bulbs. He went through the entire mine to switch on lighted lamps for unlit lamps, thus improving his knowledge of the galleries.
Louis always waited impatiently for Sunday to arrive, the miners’ only day of rest. Lying on the grass beside Tounet, he finally enjoyed the sun. They had been working at the bottom of the mine for over three months. A few feet from them, Louis’s father was in the garden. A former miner, he suffered from silicosis, a lung disease that affects most miners. Since she could no longer work in the mine, she took care of the garden to feed her family.
Tounet asked Louis:
– How old are the horses?
A little surprised, Louis thought for a moment and answered:
“I don’t know, but not as many as people.” Why do you ask?
– You’re welcome. I think you would like to spend a lifetime with Tambour.
The next day, they returned to work. No sooner had the two small miners reached the bottom than they found Ratel, who emerged from one of the galleries. Louis gave a mock smile that he soon lost.
– Come with me! Ordered the foreman.
“I’m waiting for Mr. Chagnon,” the boy resisted.
– I’m not talking to you! I’m talking to him!
And he designated Tounet with his chin.
“But… and the Tambour…” Tounet stammered.
Ratel hadn’t even heard him:
“Since the Engineer takes my people off me, I have to get him back where I can.”
The officer took the boy by the collar and took him with him.
Tounet screamed and cried:
– Tambour! I want to see the Tambour!
Louis was dismayed. Since he couldn’t attack him, Ratel attacked his best friend. When Lord Chagnon arrived, the child, almost crying, told him what had happened.
– Is that how he behaves? Don’t worry, tonight I’ll talk to the administrator. Most likely Ratel will be fired. It has given too much in the sights!
Louis was more relaxed. Tomorrow Tounet would return to the horse, and he would be rid of the man in charge. It was with the lighter heart that he followed the engineer into a gallery that a team was currently digging in the rock.
Just then, Ratel would set Tounet in front of a hand-held fan and have him put the machinery to work faster. With teary eyes, the little boy started to crank. The miners pitied him, but dared not say anything, afraid of Ratel.
Louis and the engineer had just arrived at the new gallery.
“If my calculations are correct, we must find coal soon,” said the surveyor.
Then he burst out laughing because he had been wrong in the instrument he had taken from the bag. Louis laughed too, always amazed at the man’s distraction.
But things were not going well for Tounet. Tiredness and despair consumed him. I was totally exhausted. Then he saw something that broke his heart: Tambour was being led by a miner and had not even noticed him. The boy began to sob.
Perhaps because of the tears, she suddenly had the feeling that the gallery light was fading. He tried to regulate the flame of his lamp without noticing the bluish hue the flame had acquired. Then, dead tired and oblivious to all the recommendations made to him over and over, Tounet lifted the lamp grille.
It is impossible to describe the tremendous noise and the infernal detonation that was felt throughout the mine. Within the new gallery all were thrown to the ground. After the surprise came panic.
– We have to evacuate everyone! Someone shouted through the clouds of dust.
They all started running toward the cabin that would take them to the surface. Louis heard a discussion between two caretakers:
“Someone caught grisu over there from Hell.”
Grisu? Hell? Louis thought.
– Tounet! He shouted, terrified, and started to run toward the mining maze.
She knew where to go, because she had been there before. He reflected on the directions to be taken aloud to appease the fear he felt. Suddenly she was breathless, and she felt the ground slip under her feet. A miner had just grabbed him by the neck and was leading him back to the cabin.
– Leave me, leave me! I have to go find Tounet!
The miner didn’t even pay attention to him. Louis shouted for his friend, but in vain. In the darkness of the mine, in the heart of Hell, Tounet could no longer hear him.
The balance of the accident was announced that night: fourteen injured and six killed. Among the dead was a boy named Antoine Vallat, whom everyone knew as Tounet. A horse had also died in the mine. The galleries, weakened by the explosion, soon collapsed.
The day after the drama, Louis returned to work at the mine. He would spend his whole life there. Hit by silicosis, like his father, he went down to the well for the last time in 1913, in a cabin installed in the new Couriot well. He died two years later, on 19 May 1915.
He was found lying in the grass a few meters from his garden, the one where forty years earlier his friend had murmured:
“I’d like to spend a lifetime with Tambour.”
Fabien Grégoire The Children of the Mine Paris, L’Ocole des Loisirs, 2003 (Translation and Adaptation)