"I'll come back in a bit and see how you're getting on," Price said, and he retraced his steps, leaving Billy alone.
Billy had not expected this. He had assumed he would be working with older men and learning from them. But he could only do what he was told.
He unhooked the lamp from his belt and looked around for somewhere to put it. There was nothing he could use as a shelf. He put the lamp on the floor, but it was almost useless there. Then he remembered the nails Da had given him. So this was what they were for. He took one from his pocket. Using the blade of his shovel, he hammered it into a timber prop, then hung up his lamp. That was better.
The dram was chest high to a man but shoulder height to Billy, and when he started work he found that half the dust slipped off his shovel before he could get it over the lip. He developed an action that turned the blade to prevent this happening. In a few minutes he was bathed in sweat, and he realized what the second nail was for. He hammered it into another timber and hung up his shirt and trousers.
After a while he felt that someone was watching him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a dim figure standing as still as a statue. "Oh, God!" he shrieked, and he turned around to face it.
It was Price. "I forgot to check your lamp," he said. He took Billy's lamp off the nail and did something to it. "Not so good," he said. "I'll leave you mine." He hung up the other lamp and disappeared.
He was a creepy character, but at least he seemed to have Billy's safety in mind.
Billy resumed work. Before long his arms and legs began to ache. He was used to shoveling, he told himself: Da kept a pig in the waste ground behind the house, and it was Billy's job to muck out the sty once a week. But that took about a quarter of an hour. Could he possibly keep this up all day?
Under the dust was a floor of rock and clay. After a while he had cleared an area four feet square, the width of the tunnel. The muck hardly covered the bottom of the dram, but he felt exhausted.
He tried to pull the dram forward so that he would not have to walk so far with his shovelful, but its wheels seemed to have locked with disuse.
He had no watch, and it was difficult to know how much time had passed. He began to work more slowly, conserving his strength.
Then his light went out.
The flame flickered first, and he looked anxiously at the lamp hanging on the nail, but he knew that the flame would lengthen if there was firedamp. This was not what he was seeing, so he felt reassured. Then the flame went out altogether.
He had never known darkness like this. He saw nothing, not even patches of gray, not even different shades of black. He lifted his shovel to face level and held it an inch from his nose, but he could not see it. This was what it must be like to be blind.
He stood still. What was he to do? He was supposed to take the lamp to the lighting station, but he could not have found his way back through the tunnels even if he had been able to see. In this blackness he might blunder about for hours. He had no idea how many miles the disused workings extended, and he did not want the men to have to send a search party for him.
He would just have to wait for Price. The deputy had said he would come back "in a bit." That could mean a few minutes, or an hour or more. And Billy suspected it would be later rather than sooner. Price had surely intended this. A safety lamp could not blow out, and anyway there was little wind here. Price had taken Billy's lamp and substituted one that was low on oil.
He felt a surge of self-pity, and tears came to his eyes. What had he done to deserve this? Then he pulled himself together. It was another test, like the cage. He would show them he was tough enough.
He should carry on working, even in the dark, he decided. Moving for the first time since the light went out, he put his shovel to the ground and ran it forward, trying to pick up dust. When he lifted it he thought, by its weight, that there was a load on the blade. He turned and walked two paces, then hefted it, trying to throw the muck into the dram, but he misjudged the height. The shovel clanged against the side of the dram and felt suddenly lighter as its load fell to the ground.
Excerpted from Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Copyright © 2010 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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