In Chamber 32, Kingsley Longfellow told himself that there was just one chance of escape – although for a man without sight it was a remote one.
Deciding he was ready to reconnoitre, he started to crawl. Blind, crawling seemed safer than trying to grope around on his feet; and, feeling his way, sometimes he touched, sometimes he bumped head-on into the peripheral walls of the chamber – and sometimes he started, drawing back when he realised that the object he had come into contact with was a body. Then, kneeling, he would try to straighten the poor fellow out, saying a short prayer for his soul before crawling on.
Bumping into his truck he slapped the palm of his hand on it in gratitude. It had saved him; and now, like the needle of a compass, it was telling him the direction he should steer for the tunnel that led to the lifts.
Reaching the tunnel, at first he turned right, heading towards the lifts; but before he crawled very far he found his progress was obstructed by a solid wall of fallen rock. Even when he got to his feet and reached up, it stood taller than his reach. He knew his fears had been right: the fall had been close – too big and too close for comfort.
He turned round and crawled back. Crawling past Chamber 32 again, painstakingly he covered half mile or so until something told him that he had reached Chamber 33.
In that chamber fine brown dust, like smoke, swirled in the opaque fog now enveloping Steiger. It settled on him and made him choke; and he wondered if it was would help his wound to coagulate or whether it would make it suppurate.
With the sound of the second explosion he was beginning to realise that now it was possible there was no way out. Such equipment as the company had could deal with clearing only the smallest obstructions: Certainly nothing on the scale of the crescendo stuff he had heard cascading down. If they couldn’t dig down to him there was a good chance that he was going to die down here.
But had he seen something move across the chamber – or was the blood he had lost making him hallucinate?
He had been playing the beam of his lantern around, trying to pick out those objects that were bodies and those that were lumps of rock, when for a second he thought he had glimpsed some movement near the entrance. Then whatever it was he though he had seen vanished. Could it actually have been another person?
He tried to direct the lantern beam back, peering into the darkness. Yes, there is was! Faintly, at the extent of the beam he could see a man crawling; and the man, whoever he was, looked to be feeling his way, groping, finding his way by touch and not by sight…
He called, “Is anyone there?”
The figure halted; and, in the beam, he saw that he was looking at a black feller. A huge feeling of relief surged through him that he made no attempt to suppress. Whether the man was black or white, at least he was no longer alone.
“Where did you come from, Feller?”
The man raised his head, looking around as if trying to identify from where this voice had come.
“I’m over here!” Steiger called eagerly; and in the light from his lantern he saw the man looking right at him. He raised a hand, waving it about. “Here!” he said, “Over here! I’m waving at you. Can’t you see me, you stupid fucker?”
Shaking his head the man said: “Baas, I hear you good, but I can’t see you because I can’t see anything right now.”
The significance was lost on Steiger who still wondered why the man didn’t put his lamp on.
“Try turning your light on,” he said, trying to be helpful. He saw the light coming on, the beam sweeping the chamber. At one stage it was pointing directly at him before it moved on. Then the man’s words sank in: Hadn’t he told Steiger that he was blind?
“You had your lamp directly on me, Kaffir. Are you telling me you couldn’t see me?” he asked.
“I can see blackness only, Baas.”
The man must have been blinded by the explosion. His first feelings were of pity: Black or not, he couldn’t think of anything more awful than to have suddenly been blinded. Then, remembering the predicament they were in, he asked himself if it mattered: If you were going to die, did it make a difference if you did it sighted or blind? Come to that, did it matter if you died with one leg or two?
He shouted across the chamber, “Just as well that we’re not going anywhere in a hurry, Man. Okay, you’re blind; but if you could see you would see that I’m missing half a leg. We make a fine pair!”
Saying that, he began to laugh, wondering whether his nerves weren’t getting the better of him. “Pull yourself together,” he tried to tell himself.
But the man was sitting up on his haunches. He canted his head, listening.
“Where are you, Baas?” he asked. “I just heard you laugh but I don’t see you…
“Will you laugh again, Baas? I’ll listen and see if I can get closer to where you are… That is if you don’t mind my coming closer.”
Steiger didn’t come close to blacks, except to smack them one – not if he could help it. But now he found himself asking if it mattered? Wherever, he told himself, they were going, as sure as hell they were going together. He could hear more tunnels caving in somewhere in the distance; and he had to wait until their rumbles faded away before he could reply:
“I’m over here, Kaffir. And, yes, please come as close as you bladdy like – but while we’re about it, for God’s sake please stop calling me ‘Baas’! Whoever is the boss and whoever isn’t the boss is going to be pretty irrelevant before much longer.”
Perhaps, blind or not, the man knew what a mess they were in. He didn’t seem to be awed of Steiger, but at least he was being properly respectful. Yesterday, he thought, he would have said that the only good black was a dead black – but if a black couldn’t be dead then he had to mind his manners and be subservient. Now the thought made him feel uncomfortable, knowing that this black and he were in the same pickle together – and it was he knew one hell of a pickle that they were in, too.
“Sorry, Man,” he said, “but I can’t think of much to laugh about right now.”
Hearing him, the man started to crawl again; but now he was heading off course. Steiger told him: “To your right, Boy, turn a bit further right.” He saw him change direction, crawling, drawing closer; and as he came into reach Steiger leaned out and grabbed him by the arm.
The only time he ever held a black man by the arm was when, on duty, he needed to inflict discipline on him or, when off duty and in a brawl, he felt a compelling urge to break the fucking thing – yet he found feeling the black arm strangely reassuring. “Here,” he said, dragging the man up alongside him and setting him back against the side of the chamber. “You’ve arrived, Black Feller – and all I can say is that I’m glad to see you.”
In the light from his lantern, Steiger saw he was looking at a big man. Had he squared up to him in the ring, they would probably have stood eyeball to eyeball. But he could see that unlike himself, this black man was in great physical shape. Once they could have had one hell of a fight; but he knew that now, even if they both had two eyes and two legs, his companion would have easily put him on the canvass. Once – but not now.
He caught himself laughing again as he recited: “One fine day, in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight…”
“What you say nursery rhymes for, Baas?”
“Because it helps me not shit myself with fright, Man. That’s why!”
He pointed his lantern directly into the man’s face. He was blind alright. His empty eyes were looking directly into the beam of the lantern without blinking or flinching.
“I never thought I would hear myself saying welcome to a black feller – but that’s exactly what I am saying. Here we are: A black man who is blind and a white man with only one leg…
“One blind man to see fair play and one dumb man to shout hurray!”
“Stop saying nursery rhymes, Baas. If you’re scared, then maybe you should pray that the Lord shall lead the halt and the blind out from this dark place and into the light!”
“I don’t think so,” Steiger replied caustically. “For me, I don’t hold with that sort of stuff…
“And anyway, like I told you: Will you please stop calling me Baas! Man, if I ever get to heaven – which is not very likely – I’m not going to get there before you just because I’m white and you’re black.” He stopped, confronting his old self. “ Even if I did once think like that.”
“So what will I call you then, Baas?”
Steiger considered this and then he said: “From now on, Feller, you had better just call me Don Steiger…
“And, although I’ve never bothered calling black fellers anything before, it might be better if I called you something other than ‘kaffir’. What’s your name, Man?”
“I’m Kingsley, Kingsley Longfellow,” the blind man said. “And if I could see I would be telling you that it’s good to see you too, Don Steiger Baas.”
All blacks were much the same to Steiger but, by his size and strength, you couldn’t fail to recognise this one. He had seen him often as the blacks came out of their lift and guessed he must be in one of the gangs working the other two chambers.
“Chamber 32, Don Steiger Baas,” the man answered his question, pulling his hand across his throat. “No one else alive in there. Why God spared me?”
He seemed to be saying it as if, in surviving, he had done something un-acceptable.
Steiger replied harshly, “Don’t ask me, Kingsley! Perhaps so you can keep me company. Do you know any good jokes? Perhaps we can tell each other jokes until we are too weak to laugh any more and fall asleep…
“Let’s be honest, Kingsley: We’re done for aren’t we?”
He expected Kingsley Longfellow to nod in agreement; but the black man surprised him by shaking his head.
“No? How come no?”
More emphatically this time, Kingsley shook his head again.
Now it was Steiger’s turn to shake his head – but this time in disbelief.
“Has God told you something that I don’t know then?”
Kingsley said, “Don Steiger Baas, maybe I can’t see, but still I can think. I tell you, we not getting out by going back. Back all blocked up. We stay here and die or we go on.”
Kingsley must have sensed Steiger’s disbelief, for he went on: “Yes, Don Steiger Baas: You must believe. We follow the river down. It will be a hard thing. There is much water falling down – but if a blind black man and a one-legged white man help each other along then maybe together we get out.”
“You must be crazy, Man! We need to get ourselves up from out of this hole, not bury ourselves deeper in it…
“And anyway they say the river flows all the way down to the bottom of the mine. You black fellers say it flows down to ‘Hades’, don’t you?”
“No, not Hades, Don Steiger Baas: Hadeles!” He spelt the word out.
“Hadeles?” Steiger asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s name of a village,” Kingsley explained. “There, down bottom of hill, the river comes out.”
Steiger was wondering, ‘Hades, Hadeles or whatever the hell. How does this black man know that the river comes out there?’ He asked him; and, tapping the side of his nose, the black man said, “Maybe, like you said, God told me the secret.”
Probing further wasn’t going to extract any more from Kingsley. There was nothing more inscrutable than a black who didn’t want to give a straight answer. So, shrugging, Steiger said: “Well, tell me this then Kingsley: Has God told you just how far it is that we have to go?”
Thinking, Kingsley held up three fingers and said, “About three miles, Don Steiger Baas.”
The man didn’t seem to be just guessing. But how, Don Steiger wondered, did he get to know things that even the bosses at the mine didn’t know? He was beginning to get the feeling that Kingsley’s head held a lot more knowledge about what went on in the mine than the man cared to admit to.
“It’s a hard journey, Don Steiger Baas.”
Steiger knew that, at the far end of the chamber, the river’s flow quickened; and then it cascaded down over a precipice. He had tried to look over the edge once but had hadn’t been able to see the bottom. How far, he wondered, was the drop? And if they were to go down it, did they do it by climbing down the rock face, or did they just go with the flow, sliding over, carried along by the current?
He looked at the damaged leg and wondered how he could ever get down it with a broken leg with a foot that pointed the wrong way?
Dispirited, he told Kingsley: “Okay then, Kingsley: If your God is telling you it can be done, perhaps you would mention that there’s a problem: If you could see then you’d know how bad my right leg is broken. I can’t imagine myself crawling far, let alone swimming. Ask God what he is going to do about that, will you?”
Kingsley shook his head and said, “You can ask Him yourself, Don Steiger Baas. He won’t bite you. Sure, I’ll ask him for you: but first, may I feel your broken leg? Maybe I can ask God to show me how to fix it up a bit.”
“Carry on, old chum,” Steiger, directing the blind man’s hand to his tourniquet, told him. “But just you ask God to take it easy because it hurts enough like it is.”
He watched Kingsley feeling his way, running both hands down the leg. He saw how he recoiled when he came in contact with the splintered bone. Kingsley was gently feeling all around the break and then he let his hands continue down the leg’s obscene misalignment until he reached the offending foot. He nodded and his lips moved as if in prayer; and the he crawled down to the bottom of Steiger’s feet. He turned round, sat up; and, planting both his legs firmly against the rock face, he pulled and twisted.
Steiger screamed and fainted.