But down below his window

The Jordans were to return to Beauclair on the Monday by a train
arriving in the evening. And Luc spent the morning of that day in
strolling through the park of La Crêcherie, which was not more
than fifty acres in extent, though its exceptional situation, its
watercourses and superb greenery, made it quite a paradise, famous
throughout the whole region.
The house, a by no means large building of brick, of no particular
style, had been erected by Jordan’s grandfather in the time of Louis
XVIII. on the site of an old château destroyed during the Revolution.
Close behind it rose the range of the Bleuse Mountains, that steep
gigantic wall which jutted out like a promontory at the point where the
Brias gorge opened into the great plain of La Roumagne. Protected in
this wise from the north winds, and looking towards the south, the park
was like a natural hot-house where eternal springtide reigned.
Thanks to a number of springs gushing forth in crystalline cascades
the rocky wall was covered with vigorous vegetation, and goat-paths,
flights of steps cut in the stone, ascended to the summit amidst
climbing plants and evergreen shrubs. Down below, the springs united,
and flowing on in a slow river, watered the whole park, the great
lawns, and the clumps of lofty trees, which were of the finest and
most vigorous kinds. Jordan had virtually left that luxuriant corner
of nature to look after itself, for he only employed one gardener and
two lads, who, apart from attending to the kitchen garden and a few
flower-beds below the house-terrace, simply had to keep things somewhat
Jordan’s grandfather, Aurélien Jordan de Beauvisage, was born in 1790
on the eve of the Reign of Terror. The Beauvisages, one of the most
ancient and illustrious families of the district, had then already
fallen from their high estate, and of their formerly vast territorial
possessions they only retained two farms–now annexed to Les
Combettes–and between two and three thousand acres of bare rock and
barren moor, a broad strip indeed of the lofty plateau of the Bleuse
Mountains. Aurélien was less than three years old when his parents were
compelled to emigrate, abandoning their flaming château one terrible
winter’s night. And until 1816 Aurélien had his home in Austria, where
his mother and then his father died in swift succession, leaving him in
a fearful state of penury, reared in the hard school of manual toil,
with no other bread to eat than that which he earned as a worker in
an iron mine. He had just completed his twenty-sixth year when, under
Louis XVIII., he returned to Beauclair and found the ancestral property
still further diminished, for the two farms were lost, and there now
only remained the little park and the two or three thousand acres of
stones which nobody cared for. Misfortune had democratised Aurélien,
who felt that he could no longer be a Beauvisage. Henceforth then he
simply signed himself Jordan, and he married the daughter of a very
rich farmer of Saint-Cron, his wife’s dowry enabling him to build on
the site of the old château the _bourgeoise_ brick residence in which
his grandson now dwelt. But he had become a worker, his hands were
still grimy, and he remembered the iron mine and blast-furnace where
he had toiled in Austria. Already in 1818 he began to look around him,
and, at last, among the desolate rocks of his domain, he discovered
a similar mine, the existence of which he had been led to suspect by
certain old stories told him by his parents. And then, half-way up the
ridge on a kind of natural landing or platform, above La Crêcherie, he
installed his own blast-furnace, the first established in the region.
From that moment he became absorbed in industrial toil, though without
ever realising any very large profits, for he lacked capital, and
his life proved one continual battle from that cause. His only title
to the gratitude of the district was that by the presence of his
blast-furnace he brought thither the iron-workers who had created all
the great establishments of the present time, among others being Blaise
Qurignon, the drawer by whom the Abyss had been founded in 1823.
Aurélien Jordan had but one son, Séverin, born to him when he was more
than five-and-thirty, and it was only when this son replaced him after
his death in 1852 that the blast-furnace of La Crêcherie became really
important. Séverin had married a Demoiselle Françoise Michon, daughter
of a doctor of Magnolles, and his wife proved a woman of exquisite
kindliness and very superior intelligence. In her were personified
the activity, wisdom, and wealth of the household. Guided, loved, and
sustained by her, her husband excavated fresh galleries in his mine,
increased the output of ore tenfold, and almost rebuilt the furnace in
order to endow it with the most perfect plant then known. And thus,
amidst the great fortune which they acquired, the only grief of the
Jordans was to remain for many years childless. They had been married
ten years, and Séverin was already forty, when a son, Martial, was at
last born to them; and ten years later they finally had a daughter,
Sœurette. This belated fruitfulness crowned their lives; Françoise,
who had been so good a wife, proved also a most admirable mother,
one who battled victoriously against death on behalf of her son, a
weakling, and endowed him with her own intelligence and kindliness.
Doctor Michon, her father, a humanitarian dreamer, full of divine
charitableness, a Fourierist and Saint-Simonian of the first days,
withdrew in his old age to La Crêcherie, where his daughter built him
a pavilion, the one indeed which Luc had lately occupied. There it was
that the doctor died among his books, amidst all the gaiety of sunshine
and flowers. And until the death of Françoise, the fondly loved mother,
which occurred five years after that of the grandfather and father, La
Crêcherie lived on amidst all the joy of never-failing prosperity and
Martial Jordan was thirty years of age, and Sœurette was twenty, when
they first found themselves alone; and five years had now elapsed
since that time. He, in spite of his indifferent health, the frequent
illnesses of which his mother had cured him by force of love, had
passed through the Polytechnic School. But on his return to La
Crêcherie, finding himself master of his destiny, thanks to the large
fortune he inherited, he had relinquished all thoughts of official
appointments, and had taken passionately to the investigations which
the application of electricity offered to studious scientists. On one
side of the house he built a very spacious laboratory, installed the
necessary machinery for powerful motive force in an adjacent shed, and
then gradually took to special studies, surrendering himself almost
completely to the dream of smelting ore in electrical furnaces in a
practical way adapted to the requirements of industry. And from that
time he virtually cloistered himself, lived like a monk, absorbed in
his experiments, his great work, which became as it were his very
life. Beside him, his sister had now taken his dead mother’s place;
and indeed, before long Sœurette was like his faithful guardian,
his good angel, one who took every care of him, and set round him
all the warm affection that he needed. Moreover she managed the
household, spared him many material worries, served him as a secretary
and assistant-preparator, rendered all sorts of help ever gently
and quietly with a placid smile upon her face. The blast-furnace
luckily gave no trouble, for the old engineer Laroche, a bequest of
Aurélien Jordan, the founder, had been there more than thirty years,
in such wise that the present owner, deeply immersed in his studies
and experiments, was able to detach himself entirely from business
matters. He left the worthy Laroche free to manage the blast-furnace
in accordance with the routine of years; for he himself had ceased to
bother about possible ameliorations, since he cared nothing for mere
relative, transitory improvements now that he had begun to seek the
radical change, the art of smelting by electrical means, which would
revolutionise the whole world of metallurgical industry. Indeed, it was
often Sœurette who had to intervene and come to a decision on certain
matters with Laroche, particularly when she knew that her brother’s
mind was busy with some important investigation, and she did not wish
him to be disturbed by any outside matters. Now, however, Laroche’s
sudden death had so thoroughly upset the usual well-regulated order
of things, that Jordan, who deemed himself sufficiently rich, and had
no ambition apart from his studies, would willingly have rid himself
of the blast-furnace by at once opening negotiations with Delaveau,
whose desires were known to him, had not Sœurette more prudently
obtained from him a promise that he would in the first place consult
Luc, in whom she placed great confidence. Thence had come the pressing
call addressed to the young man which had brought him so suddenly to
Luc had first met the Jordans, brother and sister, at the Boisgelins’
residence in Paris, in which city they had established themselves
one winter in order to prosecute certain studies successfully. Great
sympathy had arisen between them, based, on Luc’s side, upon his
great admiration for the brother, whose scientific talent transported
him, and upon deep affection mingled with respect for the sister,
who seemed to him like some divine personification of goodness. He
himself was then working with the celebrated chemist Bourdin, studying
some iron ores overcharged with sulphur and phosphates which it was
desired to turn to commercial use. And Sœurette recalled certain
particulars that he had given her brother on this subject one evening
which she well remembered. Now, for more than ten years the mine
discovered by Aurélien Jordan on the plateau of the Bleuse Mountains
had been abandoned, as in the veins reached by the workers sulphur and
phosphorus prevailed to such a point that the ore no longer yielded
enough metal to pay the cost of extraction. Thus the working of the
galleries had ceased, and the smeltery of La Crêcherie was now fed
by the Granval mines near Brias; a little railway line bringing the
ore, which was of fairly good quality, as well as the coal of the
neighbouring pits, to the charging platform of the furnace. But all
this was very costly, and Sœurette often thought of those chemical
methods, the employment of which, according to what Luc had said, might
perhaps enable them to work their own mine afresh. And in her desire to
consult the young man before her brother came to a positive decision,
she felt too that she ought to know the real value of what would be
ceded to Delaveau should a deed of sale indeed be arranged between La
Crêcherie and the Abyss.
The Jordans were to arrive at six o’clock, after twelve hours’
travelling, and Luc went to wait for them at the railway station,
driving thither in the carriage which was to bring them home. Jordan,
short and puny, had a somewhat vague, long, and gentle face, with hair
and beard of a faded brown. He alighted from the train wrapped in a
long fur overcoat, although that fine September day was a warm one.
With his keen, penetrating black eyes, in which all his vitality seemed
to have taken refuge, he was the first to perceive his friend Luc.
‘Ah, my dear fellow!’ said he, ‘how kind of you to have waited for us!
You can’t have an idea of the catastrophe that took us away, that poor
cousin of ours, dying like that, all alone, yonder, and we having to go
and bury him, when there’s nothing we hate so much as travelling….
Well, it’s all over now, and here we are.’
‘And the health’s good and you are not over-tired?’ asked Luc.
‘No, not too much. I was fortunately able to sleep.’
But Sœurette was in her turn coming up, after making sure that none
of the travelling-rugs had been left inside the carriage. She was not
pretty: like her brother she had a very slight figure, and was pale,
complexionless, indeed insignificant after the fashion of a woman who
is resigned to being a good housewife and nurse. And yet her tender
smiles lent infinite charm to her face, whose only beauty dwelt in
its passionate eyes, in the depths of which glowed all the craving
for love which lurked within her, but of which she herself was as yet
ignorant. Hitherto she had loved none excepting her brother, and him
she loved after the fashion of some cloistered maid, who for the sake
of her Deity renounces the whole world. Before even speaking to Luc she
called: ‘Be careful, Martial–you ought to put on your scarf.’
Then, turning towards the young man, she showed herself charming, at
once giving proof of the keen sympathy she felt for him: ‘How many
apologies we owe you, Monsieur Froment! What can you have thought of us
when you found us gone on your arrival! Have you been comfortable at
all events, have you been properly cared for?’
‘Admirably–I’ve lived like a prince.’
‘Oh! you are jesting. Before I started I took good care to give all
necessary orders so that you might lack nothing. But all the same I was
absent and unable to watch; and you cannot imagine how vexed I felt at
the idea of abandoning you like that in our poor empty house.’
They had got into the carriage, and the conversation continued as they
drove away. Luc fully reassured them at last by telling them that he
had spent two very interesting days, of which he would give them full
particulars later on. When they reached La Crêcherie, although the
night was falling, Jordan looked eagerly around him, so delighted at
returning to his wonted life that he gave vent to cries of joy. It
seemed to him as if he were coming back after an absence of several
weeks. How could one find any pleasure in roaming, said he, when
all human happiness lay in the little nook where one thought, where
one worked, freed by habit of the cares of life? Whilst waiting for
Sœurette to have the dinner served, Jordan washed himself in some warm
water, and then insisted on taking Luc into his laboratory, for he
himself was eager to return thither, saying with a light laugh that he
should have no appetite for dinner if he did not first of all breathe
the air of the room in which his life was spent.
The laboratory was a very large and lofty place, built of brick and
iron, with broad bay-windows facing the greenery of the park. An
immense table laden with apparatus was set in the centre, and all round
the walls were appliances, machine tools, with models, rough drafts
of plans, and electrical furnaces on a reduced scale in the corners.
A system of cables and wires hanging overhead from end to end of the
room brought the electrical motive force from the neighbouring shed and
distributed it among the appliances, tools, and furnaces, in order that
the necessary experiments might be made. And beside all this scientific
severity was a warm and cosy retreat in front of one of the windows, a
retreat with low bookcases and deep armchairs, the couch on which the
brother dozed at appointed hours, and the little table at which the
sister sat while watching over him or assisting him like a faithful
Jordan touched a switch, and the whole room became radiant with a rush
of electric light.
‘So here I am!’ said he. ‘Really now, I only feel all right when I’m
at home. By the way, that misfortune which compelled me to absent
myself happened just as I was becoming passionately interested in a new
experiment–I shall have to begin it again. But, _mon Dieu_! how well I
He continued laughing; colour had come to his cheeks, and he showed far
more animation than usual. Leaning back on the couch in the attitude he
usually assumed when yielding to thought, he compelled Luc also to sit
‘I say, my good friend,’ he continued, ‘we have plenty of time–have we
not?–to talk of the matters which made me so desirous to see you that
I ventured to summon you here. Besides, it is necessary that Sœurette
should be present, for she is an excellent counsellor. So if you are
agreeable we will wait till after dinner, we will have our chat at
dessert. And meantime, how happy I feel at having you there in front
of me to tell you how I am getting on with my studies! They don’t
progress very fast, but I work at them, and that’s the great thing, you
know. It’s enough if one works two hours a day.’
Then, this usually taciturn man went on chatting, recounting his
experiments, which as a rule he confided to nobody, excepting the trees
of his park, as he sometimes jestingly exclaimed. An electrical furnace
being already devised, he had at first simply sought how it might be
practically employed for the smelting of iron ore. In Switzerland,
where the motive power derived from the torrents enabled one to perform
certain work inexpensively, he had inspected furnaces which melted
aluminium under excellent conditions. Why should it not be possible to
treat iron in the same way? To solve the problem it was only necessary
to apply the same principles to a given case. The blast-furnaces in
use gave scarcely more than 1,600 degrees of heat,[1] whereas 2,000
were obtained with the electrical furnaces, a temperature which would
produce immediate fusion of perfect regularity. And Jordan had without
any difficulty planned such a furnace as he thought advisable, a simple
cube of brickwork, some six feet long on each side, the bottom and
crucible being of magnesia, the most refractory substance known. He had
also calculated and determined the volume of the electrodes, two large
cylinders of carbon, and his first real find consisted in discovering
that he might borrow from them the carbon necessary to disoxygenate
the ore, in such wise that the operation of smelting would be greatly
simplified, for there would be but little slag. If the furnace were
built, however, or at least roughed out, how was one to set it working
and keep it working in a practical, constant manner, in accordance with
industrial requirements?
‘There!’ said he, pointing to a model in a corner of the laboratory.
‘There is my electrical furnace. Doubtless it needs to be perfected;
it is defective in various respects, there are little difficulties
which are not yet solved. Nevertheless, such as it is, it has given
me some pigs of excellent cast iron, and I estimate that a battery
of ten similar furnaces working for ten hours would do the work of
three establishments like mine kept alight both by day and night.
And what easy work it would be, without any cause for anxiety, work
which children might direct by simply turning on switches. But I must
confess that my pigs cost me as much money as if they were silver
ingots. And so the problem is plain enough: my furnace, so far, is
only a laboratory toy, and will only exist with respect to industrial
enterprise when I am able to feed it with an abundance of electricity
at a sufficiently low cost to render the smelting of iron ore
Then he explained that for the last six months he had left his furnace
on one side to devote himself entirely to studying the transport of
electrical force. Might not economy already be realised by burning coal
at the mouth of the pit it came from, and by transmitting electrical
force by cables to the distant factories requiring it? That again was
a problem which many scientists had been endeavouring to solve for
several years, and unfortunately they all found themselves confronted
by a considerable loss of force during transit.
‘Some more experiments have just been made,’ said Luc with an
incredulous air. ‘I really think that there is no means of preventing
Jordan smiled with that gentle obstinacy, that invincible faith which
he brought into his investigations during the months and months which
he at times expended over them before arriving at the slightest grain
of truth.
‘One must think nothing before one is quite certain,’ said he. ‘I
have already secured some good results; and some day electrical force
will be stored up, canalised, and directed hither and thither without
any loss at all. If twenty years’ searching is necessary, well I’ll
give twenty years. It’s all very simple: one sets to work anew every
morning, one begins afresh until one finds–whatever should I myself do
if I did not begin again and again?’
He said this with such naïve grandeur that Luc felt moved as by a deed
of heroism. And he looked at Jordan, so slight, so puny of build, ever
in poor health, coughing, pain-racked under his scarves and shawls,
in that vast laboratory littered with gigantic appliances, traversed
by wires charged with lightning, and filled more and more each day by
colossal labour–the labour of a little insignificant being who went
to and fro, striving, battling to desperation, like an insect lost
amidst the dust of the ground. Where was it that he found not only
intellectual energy but also sufficient physical vigour to undertake
and carry through so many mighty tasks, for the accomplishment of which
the lives of several strong, healthy men seemed to be necessary? He
could hardly trot about, he could scarcely breathe, and yet he raised a
very world with his little hands, weak though they were, like those of
a sickly child.
However, Sœurette now made her appearance, and gaily exclaimed: ‘What!
aren’t you coming to dinner? I shall lock up the laboratory, my dear
Martial, if you won’t be reasonable.’
The dining-room, like the _salon_–two rather small apartments as warm
and as cosy as nests, in which one detected the watchful care of a
woman’s heart–overlooked a vast stretch of greenery, a panorama of
meadows and ploughed fields spreading to the dim distant horizon of La
Roumagne. But at that hour of night, although the weather was so mild,
the curtains were drawn. Luc now again noticed what minute attentions
the sister lavished on the brother. He, Martial, followed quite an
intricate regimen, having his special dishes, his special bread, and
even his special water, which was slightly warmed in order to ‘take
the chill off it.’ He ate like a bird, rose and went to bed early,
like the chickens, who are sensible creatures; then during the day
came short walks and rests between the hours that he gave to work. To
those who expressed astonishment at the prodigious amount of work that
he accomplished, and who thought him a terrible labourer, toiling from
morning till night and showing himself no mercy, he replied that he
worked scarcely three hours a day, two in the morning and one in the
afternoon. And even in the morning a spell of recreation came between
the two hours that he gave to work; for he could not fix his attention
upon a subject for more than one hour at a stretch without experiencing
vertigo, without feeling as if his brain were emptying. Never had he
been able to toil for a longer time, and his value rested solely in his
will-power, his tenacity, the passion that he imported into the work
which he undertook, and with which he persevered, on and on, in all
intellectual bravery, even if years went by before he brought it to a
Luc now at last discovered an answer to that question which he had so
often asked himself; wherever did Jordan, who was so slight and weak,
find the strength requisite for his mighty tasks? He found it solely
in method, in the careful, well-reasoned employment of all his means,
however slight they might be. He even made use of his weakness, using
it as a weapon which prevented him from being disturbed by outsiders.
But above all else, he was ever intent on one and the same thing, the
work he had in hand. To that work he gave every minute at his disposal,
without ever yielding to discouragement or lassitude, but sustained by
the unfailing desperate faith which raises mountains. Is it known what
a mass of work one may pile up when one works only two hours a day on
some useful and decisive task, which is never interrupted by idleness
or fancy? Such work is like the grain of wheat which, accumulating,
fills the sack, or like the ever-falling drop of water which causes
the river to overflow. Stone by stone, the edifice rises, the monument
grows, until it o’ertops the mountains. And it was thus, by a prodigy
of method and personal adaptation, that this sickly little man, wrapped
in rugs and drinking his water warm for fear lest he should catch cold,
accomplished work of the mightiest kind, and this although he gave
to it only the few hours of intellectual health that he succeeded in
wresting from his physical weakness.
The dinner proved a very friendly and cheerful repast. The household
service was entirely in the hands of women, for Sœurette found men too
noisy and rough for her brother. The coachman and groom simply procured
assistants on certain occasions when some very heavy work had to be
done. And the servant-girls, all carefully selected, pleasant-looking,
gentle and skilful, contributed to the happy quiescence of that cosy
dwelling, where only a few intimates were received. That evening, for
the return of the master and mistress, the dinner consisted of some
clear soup, a barbel from the Mionne with melted butter, a roast fowl
and some salad–all very simple dishes.
‘So you have really not felt over-bored since Saturday?’ Sœurette
inquired of Luc when they were all three seated at the table.
‘No, I assure you,’ the young man answered, ‘And besides, you have no
notion how fully my time has been occupied.’
Then he first of all recounted his Saturday evening, the covert state
of rebellion in which he had found Beauclair, the theft of a loaf by
Nanet, the arrest of Lange, and his visit to Bonnaire, the victim of
the strike. But by a strange scruple, at which he afterwards felt
astonished, he virtually skipped his meeting with Josine, and did not
mention her by name.
‘Poor folks!’ exclaimed Sœurette compassionately. ‘That frightful
strike reduced them to bread and water, and even those who had bread
were lucky. What can one do? How can one help them? Alms give but the
slightest relief, and you don’t know how distressed I have been during
the last two months, at feeling that we, the rich and happy, are so
utterly powerless.’
She was a humanitarian, a pupil of her grandfather Dr. Michon, the old
Fourierist and Saint-Simonian, who when she was quite little had taken
her on his knees to tell her some fine stories of his own invention,
stories of phalansteries established on blissful islands, of cities
where men had found the fulfilment of all their dreams of happiness
amidst eternal springtide.
‘What can be done? What can be done?’ she repeated dolorously, with her
beautiful, soft, compassionate eyes fixed upon Luc. ‘Something ought to
be done, surely.’
Then Luc, emotion gaining on him, raised a heartfelt cry. ‘Ah! yes,
it’s high time, one must act.’
But Jordan wagged his head; he, immersed in the cloistered life of
a scientist, never occupied himself with politics. He held them in
contempt, and unjustly–for after all it is necessary that men should
watch over the manner in which they are governed. He, however, living
amidst the absolute, regarded passing events, the accidents of the day,
as mere jolts on the road, and consequently of no account. According to
him it was science alone which led mankind to truth, justice, and final
happiness, that perfect city of the future towards which the nations
plod on so slowly, and with so much anguish. Of what use, therefore,
was it to worry about all the rest? Was it not sufficient that science
should advance? For it advanced in spite of everything–each of its
conquests was definitive. And whatever might be the catastrophes of the
journey, at the end there rose the victory of life, the accomplishment
of the destiny of mankind. Thus, though he was very gentle and
tender-hearted like his sister, he closed his ears to the contemporary
battle, and shut himself up in his laboratory, where, as he expressed
it, he manufactured happiness for to-morrow.
‘Act?’ he declared in his turn. ‘Thought is an act, and the most
fruitful of all acts in influence upon the world. Do we even know what
seeds are germinating now? The sufferings of all those poor wretches
are very distressing, but I do not allow myself to be disturbed by
them, for the harvest will come in its due season.’
Luc, feverish and disturbed as he himself felt, did not insist on
the point, but went on to relate how he had spent his Sunday, his
invitation to La Guerdache, the lunch there, the people he had met at
table, and what had been done and what had been said. But whilst he
spoke he could see that the brother and sister were becoming cold, as
if they took no interest in all those folks.
‘We seldom see the Boisgelins now that they are living at Beauclair,’
Jordan exclaimed, with his quiet frankness. ‘They showed themselves
very amiable in Paris, but here we lead such a retired life that all
intercourse has gradually ceased. Besides, it must be acknowledged
that our ideas and our habits are very different from theirs. As for
Delaveau, he is an intelligent and active fellow, absorbed in his
business as I am in mine. And I must add that the fine society of
Beauclair terrifies me to such a point that I keep my door closed to
it, delighted at its indignation and at remaining alone like some
dangerous madman.’
Sœurette began to laugh. ‘Martial exaggerates a little,’ said she. ‘I
receive Abbé Marle, who is a worthy man, as well as Doctor Novarre
and Hermeline the schoolmaster, whose conversation interests me. And
if it is true that we remain simply on a footing of courtesy with
La Guerdache, I none the less retain sincere friendship for Madame
Boisgelin, who is so good, so charming.’
Jordan, who liked to tease his sister at times, thereupon exclaimed:
‘Why don’t you say at once that it is I who compel you to flee the
world, and that if I were not here you would throw the doors wide open!’
‘Why, of course!’ she answered gaily, ‘the house is such as you desire
it to be. But if you wish it I am quite willing to give a great ball,
and invite Sub-Prefect Châtelard, Mayor Gourier, Judge Gaume, Captain
Jollivet, and the Mazelles and the Boisgelins and the Delaveaus. You
shall open the ball with Madame Mazelle!’
They went on jesting, for they felt very happy that evening, both on
account of their return to their nest and of Luc’s presence beside
them. At last, when the dessert was served, they proceeded to deal with
the great question. The two silent servant-girls had gone off in their
light felt slippers, which rendered their footsteps inaudible; and the
quiet dining-room seemed full of the charm of affectionate intimacy,
when hearts and minds can be opened in all freedom.
‘So this, my friend,’ said Jordan, ‘is what I ask of your friendship. I
wish you to study the question, and tell me what you yourself would do
if you were in my place.’
He recapitulated the whole business, and explained how he himself
regarded it. He would long since have rid himself of the blast-furnace
if it had not, so to say, continued working of its own accord in the
jog-trot manner regulated by routine. The profits remained sufficient,
but holding himself to be rich enough he did not take them into
account. And on the other hand, had he been minded to increase them,
double or treble them as ambition might dictate, it would have been
necessary to renew a part of the plant, improve the systems employed,
and in a word devote oneself to them entirely. That was a thing
which he could not and would not do, the more particularly as those
ancient blast-furnaces, whose methods to him seemed so childish and
barbarous, possessed no interest for him, and could be of no help in
the experiments of electrical smelting in which he was now passionately
absorbed. So he let the furnace go, occupied himself with it as little
as possible, whilst awaiting an opportunity to get rid of it altogether.
‘You understand, my friend, don’t you?’ he said to Luc. ‘And now, you
see, all at once old Laroche dies, and the whole management and all its
worries fall on my shoulders again. You can’t imagine what a lot of
things ought to be done–a man’s lifetime would scarcely suffice if one
wished to deal with the matter seriously. For my part nothing in the
world would induce me to relinquish my studies, my investigations. The
best course, therefore, is to sell, and I am virtually ready to do so;
still, first of all, I should much like to have your opinion.’
Luc understood Jordan’s views, and thought them reasonable.
‘No doubt,’ he answered, ‘you cannot change your work and habits, your
whole life. You yourself and the world would both lose too much by it.
But at the same time I think you might give the matter a little more
thought, for perhaps there are other solutions possible. Besides, in
order to sell you must find a purchaser.’
‘Oh! I have a purchaser,’ Jordan resumed. ‘Delaveau has long desired
to annex the blast-furnace of La Crêcherie to the steel-works of the
Abyss. He has sounded me already, and I have only to make a sign.’
Luc had started on hearing Delaveau’s name, for he now at last
understood why the latter had shown himself so anxious and so pressing
in his inquiries. And as his host, who had noticed his gesture,
inquired if he had anything to say against the manager of the Abyss, he
responded, ‘No, no, I think as you yourself do, that he is an active
and intelligent man.’
‘That is the very point,’ continued Jordan; ‘the business would be in
the hands of an expert. It would be necessary, I think, to come to
certain arrangements, such as agreeing to payments at long intervals,
for Boisgelin has no capital at liberty. But that doesn’t matter. I can
wait, a guarantee on the Abyss would suffice me.’ Then looking Luc full
in the face, he concluded: ‘Come, do you advise me to finish with the
matter, and treat with Delaveau?’
The young man did not immediately reply. A feeling of uneasiness
and repugnance was rising within him. What could it be? Why should
he experience such indignation, such anger with himself, as if,
by advising his friend to hand the blast-furnace over to that man
Delaveau, he would be committing some bad action which would for ever
leave him full of remorse? He could find no good reason for advising
any other course. Thus he at last replied: ‘All that you have said to
me is certainly very reasonable, and I cannot do otherwise than approve
of your views. And yet you might do well in giving the matter a little
more thought.’
Sœurette had hitherto listened very attentively, without intervening.
She seemed to share Luc’s covert uneasiness, and now and again glanced
at him anxiously, whilst waiting for his decision.
‘The smeltery is not alone in question,’ she at last exclaimed; ‘there
is also the mine, all that rocky land which cannot be separated from
the furnace, so it seems to me.’
But her brother, eager to get rid of the whole affair, made an
impatient gesture, saying: ‘Delaveau shall take the land as well, if he
desires it. What can we do with it? A mass of peeling calcined rock,
amongst which the very nettles refuse to grow! It has no value whatever
nowadays, since the mine can no longer be worked.’
‘Is it quite certain that it can no longer be worked?’ insisted
Sœurette. ‘I remember, Monsieur Froment, that you told us one evening
in Paris that the ironmasters in Eastern France had managed to make
use of most defective ore by subjecting it to some chemical treatment.
Why has that process never been tried here?’
Jordan raised his arms towards the ceiling in a fit of despair.
‘Why? why, my dear?’ he cried. ‘Because Laroche was deficient in all
initiative; because I myself have never had time to attend to the
matter; because things worked in a certain way and could not be got to
work otherwise. If I’m selling the property it’s precisely because I
don’t want to hear it mentioned again, for it is radically impossible
for me to direct the business, and the mere thought of it makes me ill.’
He had risen, and his sister seeing him so agitated, remained silent
for fear lest in provoking a dispute she might throw him into a fever.
‘There are moments,’ he continued, ‘when I think of sending for
Delaveau so that he may take everything whether he pays or not. I am
not hard up for money. It’s like those electrical furnaces which so
greatly impassion me; I have never once thought of employing them
myself and of coining money with them, for as soon as I solve all the
difficulties in my way, I shall give my invention to everybody, so as
to help on universal prosperity and happiness…. Well then, it is
understood. As our friend considers my plan to be a reasonable one, we
will study the conditions of sale together to-morrow, and then I’ll
finish everything.’
Luc made no response; a feeling of repugnance still possessed him, and
he did not wish to pledge himself too far. But Jordan became yet more
excited, and ended by suggesting that they should go up to see the
furnace, the more especially as he wished to ascertain how things had
gone there during his three days’ absence.
‘I am not without anxiety,’ said he. ‘Although Laroche has been dead a
week I have not replaced him–I have let my master-smelter, Morfain,
direct the work. He is a capital fellow! He was born up yonder, and
grew up amidst the fires! Nevertheless the responsibility is heavy for
a mere workman such as he is.’

Sœurette, alarmed by her brother’s suggestion, intervened entreatingly.
‘Oh, Martial!’ she cried, ‘you have only just come back from a long
journey, and yet, tired as you must be, you want to go out again at ten
o’clock at night.’
Jordan thereupon became very gentle again, and kissed her. ‘Don’t
worry, little one,’ said he; ‘you know that I never attempt more than
I feel I can do. I assure you that I shall sleep the better after
making certain that things are all right. It is not a cold night, and,
besides, I will put on my fur coat.’
Sœurette herself fastened a thick scarf about his neck, and accompanied
him and Luc down the steps in order to make sure that the night was
really mild. It was indeed a delightful one, the trees, the rivulets,
and the fields all slumbered beneath the heavens, which spread out like
a canopy of dark velvet spangled with stars.
‘I am confiding him to your care, Monsieur Froment,’ said Sœurette,
referring to her brother. ‘Do not let him remain out late.’
The two men at once began to climb a narrow stairway which was cut
out in the rocks behind the house, and ascended to the stony landing
whereon the furnace stood, half-way up the huge ridge of the Bleuse
Mountains. It was a labyrinthine stairway of infinite charm, winding
between pines and climbing plants. At each bend, on raising one’s head,
one perceived the black pile of the smeltery standing forth more and
more plainly against the blue night-sky, the strange silhouettes of
various mechanical adjuncts showing forth fantastically around the
central pile.
Jordan went up the first with light short steps, and as he was at last
reaching the landing he paused before a pile of rocks among which a
little light gleamed like a star.
‘Wait a minute,’ he said, ‘I want to make sure whether Morfain is at
home or not.’
‘Where, at home?’ asked Luc in astonishment.
‘Why here, in these old grottoes, which he has turned into a kind of
dwelling-place, to which he clings most obstinately with his son and
daughter, in spite of all the offers that I have made of providing him
with a little house.’
All along the gorge of Brias quite a number of poor people dwelt in
similar cavities. Morfain for his part remained there from taste,
for there forty years previously he had first seen the light; and,
moreover, he was thus close beside his work, that furnace which was at
once his life, his prison, and his empire. Moreover, if he had chosen a
prehistoric dwelling, he had behaved like a civilised man of the caves,
closing both sides of his grotto with a substantial wall and providing
a stout door and some windows fitted with little panes of glass.
Inside, there were three rooms, the bedroom shared by the father and
the son, the daughter’s bedroom, and the common room, which served at
once as kitchen, dining-room, and workshop. And all three chambers were
very clean, with their walls and their vaulted roof of stone, and their
substantial, if roughly hewn, furniture.
As Jordan had said, the Morfains from father to son had been
master-smelters at La Crêcherie. The grandfather had helped to found
the establishment, and after an uninterrupted family reign of more
than eighty years the grandson now kept watch over the tappings. Like
some indisputable title of nobility the hereditary character of his
calling filled Morfain with pride. His wife had now been dead four
years, leaving him a son then sixteen, and a daughter then fourteen
years of age. The lad had immediately begun to work at the furnace, and
the girl had taken care of the two men, cooking their meals, sweeping
and cleaning the dwelling-place like a good housewife. In this wise
had the days gone by; the girl was now eighteen and the lad twenty,
and the father quietly watched his race continuing pending the time
when he might hand over the furnace to his son, even as his father had
transmitted it to him.
‘Ah! so you are here, Morfain,’ said Jordan, when he had pushed open
the door, which was merely closed by a latch. ‘I have just returned
home, and I wanted to know how things were getting on.’
Within the rocky cavity, lighted by a small and smoky lamp, the
father and son sat at table eating some soup–a mess of broth and
vegetables–before starting on their night’s work, whilst the daughter
stood in the rear, serving them. And their huge shadows seemed to fill
the place, which was very solemn and silent. At last in a gruff voice
Morfain slowly answered, ‘We’ve had a bad business, Monsieur Jordan,
but I hope that things will be quiet now.’
He rose to his feet, as did his son, and stood there between the lad
and the girl, all three of them strongly built and of such lofty
stature that their heads almost touched the rough smoky stone vault,
which served as a ceiling to the room. One might have taken them for
three apparitions of the vanished ages, some family of mighty toilers
whose long efforts throughout the centuries had subjugated nature.
Luc gazed with amazement at Morfain, a veritable colossus, one of the
Vulcans of old by whom fire was first conquered. He had an enormous
head, with a broad face, ravined and scorched by the flames. His brow
was a bossy one, his eyes glowed like live coals, his nose showed like
an eagle’s beak between his cheeks, which looked as if they had been
ravaged by some flow of lava. And his swollen, twisted mouth was of a
tawny redness like that of a burn; while his hands had the colour and
the strength of pincers of old steel.
Then Luc glanced at the son, Petit-Da,[2] as he was called, this
nickname having been given him because in childhood he had been
accustomed to pronounce certain words badly, and, further, had one
day narrowly missed losing his little fingers in some ‘pig’ which was
scarcely cold. He again was a colossus, almost as huge as his father,
whose square face, imperious nose, and flaming eyes he had inherited.
But he had been less hardened, less marked by fire; and, besides, he
could read, and his features were softened and brightened by dawning
powers of thought.
Finally Luc gazed at the daughter, Ma-Bleue, as her father had ever
lovingly called her, so blue indeed were her great eyes, the eyes of
a fair-haired goddess, lightly and infinitely blue, and so large that
in all her face one was conscious of nothing else save that celestial
blueness. She was a goddess of lofty stature, of simple yet magnificent
comeliness, the most beautiful, the most taciturn, the wildest creature
of the region, yet one who in her wildness dreamt, read books, and saw
from afar off the approach of things that her father had never seen,
and the unconfessed expectation of which made her quiver. Luc marvelled
at the sight of those three creatures of heroic build, that family in
which he detected all the long overpowering labour of mankind on its
onward march, all the pride begotten of painful effort incessantly
renewed, all the ancient nobility that springs from deadly toil.
But Jordan had become anxious. ‘A bad business, Morfain!’ said he, ‘how
was that?’
‘Yes, Monsieur Jordan, one of the twyers got stopped up. For two days
I fancied that we were going to have a misfortune, and I didn’t sleep
for thought of it. It grieved me so much that a thing like that should
happen to me just when you were away. It’s best to go and see if you’ve
the time. We shall be “running” by-and-by.’
The two men finished their soup standing, hastily swallowing large
spoonfuls of it whilst the girl already began to wipe the table.
They rarely spoke together, a gesture or a glance sufficed for them
to understand each other. Nevertheless the father, affectionately
softening his gruff voice, said to Ma-Bleue: ‘You can put out the
light, you need not wait for us, we shall have a rest up above.’
Then whilst Morfain and Petit-Da went off in front, accompanying
Jordan, Luc, who was in the rear, glanced round, and on the threshold
of that barbarian home he perceived Ma-Bleue, standing erect, tall and
superb, like some _amorosa_ of the ancient days, whilst her large azure
eyes wandered dreamily far away into the clear night.
The black pile of the furnace soon arose before the young man’s view.
It was of a very ancient pattern, heavy and squat, not more than fifty
feet in height. But by degrees various improvements had been added, new
organs, as it were, which had ended by forming a little village around
it. The running hall, floored with fine sand, looked light and elegant
with its iron framework roofed with tiles. Then on the left, inside
a large glazed shed, was the blast apparatus with its steam engine;
whilst on the right rose the two groups of lofty cylinders, those in
which the combustible gases became purified, and those in which they
served to warm the blast from the engine, in order that it might reach
the furnace burning hot, and in this wise hasten combustion. And there
were also a number of water-tanks and a whole system of piping, which
kept moisture ever trickling down the sides of the brick walls in order
to cool them and diminish the wear and tear of the awful fire raging
within. Thus the monster virtually disappeared beneath the intricate
medley of its adjuncts, a conglomeration of buildings, a bristling
of iron tanks, an entanglement of big metal pipes, the whole forming
an extraordinary jumble which, at night-time especially, displayed
the most barbarous, fantastic silhouettes. Above, beside the rock one
perceived the bridge which brought the trucks laden with ore and fuel
to the level of the mouth of the furnace. Below, the kieve reared its
black cone, and then from the belly downward a powerful metal armature
sustained the brickwork which supported the water conduits and the
four twyers. Finally, at the bottom there was but the crucible, with
its taphole closed with a bung of refractory clay. But what a gigantic
beast the whole made, a beast of disquieting, bewildering shape, which
devoured stones and gave out metal in fusion.
Moreover, was there scarcely a sound, scarcely a light. That mighty
digestion apparently preferred silence and gloom. One could only hear
the faint trickling of the water running down the sides of the bricks,
and the ceaseless distant rumbling of the blast apparatus in the
engine-shed. And the only lights were those of three or four lanterns
gleaming amidst the darkness, which the shadows of the huge buildings
rendered the more dense. Moreover, only a few pale figures were seen
flitting about, the eight smelters of the night-shift, who wandered
hither and thither whilst waiting for the next ‘run.’ On the platform
of the mouth of the furnace up above one could not even discern the men
who, silently obeying the signals sent them from below, poured into the
furnace the requisite charges of ore and fuel. And there was not a cry,
not a flash of light; it was all dim, mute labour, something mighty and
savage accomplished in the gloom.
Jordan, however, moved by the bad news given him, had reverted to
his dream; and pointing to the pile of buildings, he said to Luc,
who had now joined him: ‘You see it, my friend; now am I not right
in wishing to do away with all that, in wishing to replace such a
cumbersome monster, which entails such painful toil, by my battery of
electrical furnaces, which would be so clean, so simple, so easily
managed? Since the day when the first men dug a hole in the ground to
melt ore by mingling it with branches which they set alight, there
has really been little change in the methods employed. They are still
childish and primitive. Our blast-furnaces are mere adaptations of the
prehistoric pits, changed into hollow columns and enlarged according to
requirements. And one continues throwing in the ore and the combustible
pell mell, and burning them together. One might take such a furnace
to be some infernal animal, down whose throat one is for ever pouring
food compounded of coal and oxide of iron, which the beast digests
amidst a hurricane of fire, and which it gives out down below in the
form of fused metal, whilst the gases, the dust, the slag of every
kind goes off elsewhere. And observe that the whole operation rests
in the slow descent of the digested substances, in total absolute
digestion, for the object of all the improvements hitherto effected
has been to facilitate it. Formerly there was no blast, no blowing
apparatus, and fusion was therefore slower and more defective. Then
cold air was employed, and next it was perceived that a better result
was obtained by heating the air. At last came the idea of heating
that air by borrowing from the furnace itself the gases which had
formerly burnt at its mouth in a plume of flames. And in this wise
many external organs have been added to our blast-furnaces, but in
spite of every improvement, in spite of their huge proportions, they
have remained childish, and have even grown more and more delicate,
liable to frequent accidents. Ah! you can’t imagine the illnesses
which fall upon such a monster. There is no puny, sickly little child
in the whole world whose daily digestion gives as much anxiety to his
parents as a monster like this gives to those in charge of it. Day and
night incessantly two shifts, each of six loaders up above and eight
smelters down below, with foremen, an engineer, and so forth, are on
the spot, busy with the food supplied to the beast, and the output it
yields; and at the slightest disturbance, if the metal run out should
not be satisfactory, everybody is in a state of alarm. For five years
now this furnace has been alight; never for a single minute has the
internal fire ceased to perform its work; and it may burn another five
years in the same way before it is extinguished to allow of repairs
being made. And if those in charge tremble and watch so carefully over
the work, it is because there is the everlasting possibility that the
fire may go out of itself, through some accident of unforeseen gravity
in the monster’s bowels. And to go out, to become extinguished, means
death. Ah! those little electrical furnaces of mine, which lads might
work, they won’t disturb anybody’s rest at nights, and they will be so
healthy, and so active and so docile!’
Luc could not help laughing, amused by the loving passion which entered
into Jordan’s scientific researches. However, they had now been joined
by Morfain and Petit-Da, and the former, under the pale gleam of a
lantern, pointed to one of the four pipes which, at a height of nine or
ten feet, penetrated the monster’s flanks.
‘There! it was that twyer which got stopped up, Monsieur Jordan,’ he
said, ‘and unfortunately I had gone home to bed, so that I only noticed
what was the matter the next day. As the blast did not penetrate a
chill occurred, and a quantity of matter got together and hardened.
Nothing more went down, but I only became aware of the trouble at the
moment of tapping, on seeing the slag come out in a thick pulp which
was already black. And you can understand my fright; for I remembered
our misfortune ten years ago, when one had to demolish a part of the
furnace after a similar occurrence.’
Never before had Morfain spoken so many words at a stretch. His voice
trembled as he recalled the former accident, for no more terrible
illness can fall on the monster than one of those chills which solidify
the ore and convert it into so much rock. The result is deadly when one
is unable to relight the brasier. By degrees the whole mass becomes
chilled and adheres to the furnace; and then there is nothing else to
be done but to demolish the pile, raze it to the ground, like some old
tower chokeful of stones.
‘And what did you do?’ Jordan inquired.
Morfain did not immediately answer. He had ended by loving that monster
whose flow of glowing lava had scorched his face for more than thirty
years. It was like a giant, a master, a god of fire which he adored,
bending beneath the rude tyranny of the worship that had been forced
upon him the moment he reached man’s estate as his sole means of
procuring daily bread. He scarcely knew how to read, he had not been
touched by the new spirit which was abroad, he experienced no feelings
of rebellion, but cheerfully accepted his life of hard servitude, vain
of his strong arms, his hourly battles with the flames, his fidelity to
that crouching colossus over whose digestion he watched without ever
a thought of going out on strike. And his barbarous and terrible god
had become his passion; his faith in that divinity was instinct with
secret tenderness, and he still quivered with anxiety at the thought
of the dangerous attack from which he had saved his idol, thanks to
extraordinary efforts of devotion.
‘What I did!’ he at last responded. ‘Well, I began by trebling the
charges of coal, and then I tried to clear the twyer by working the
blast apparatus as I had sometimes seen Monsieur Laroche do. But the
attack was already too serious, and we had to disjoint the twyer and
attack the stoppage with bars. Ah! it wasn’t an easy job, and we lost
some of our strength in doing it. All the same, we at last got the air
to pass, and I was better pleased when, among the slag this morning, I
found some remnants of ore, for I realised that the matter which had
set had got broken up again and carried away. Everything is once more
well alight now, and we shall be doing good work again. Besides it
will soon be easy to see how things are; the next run will tell us.’
Although he was well-nigh exhausted by such a long discourse, he added
in a lower voice: ‘I really believe, Monsieur Jordan, that I should
have gone up above and flung myself into the mouth if I had not had
better news to give you this evening. I’m only a workman, a smelter, in
whom you’ve had confidence, giving me a gentleman’s post, an engineer’s
post. And just fancy me letting the furnace go out and telling you on
your return home that it was dead! Ah! no, indeed, I’d have died too!
I haven’t been to bed for two nights now; I’ve kept watch here, like I
did beside my poor wife when I lost her. And at present, I may admit
it, the soup which you found me eating was the first food I had tasted
for forty-eight hours, for I couldn’t eat before, my own stomach seemed
to be stopped up like the furnace’s. I don’t want to apologise, but
simply to let you know how happy I feel at not having failed in the
confidence you put in me.’
That big fellow, hardened by perpetual fire, whose limbs were like
steel, almost wept as he spoke those words, and Jordan pressed his
hands affectionately, saying: ‘I know how valiant you are, my good
Morfain; I know that if a disaster had happened you would have fought
on to the very end.’
Meantime Petit-Da had stood listening in the gloom, intervening neither
by word nor gesture. He only moved when his father gave him an order
respecting the tapping. Every four-and-twenty hours the metal was run
out five times, at intervals of nearly five hours. The charge, which
might be eighty tons a day, was at that moment reduced to about fifty,
which would give runs of ten tons each. By the faint light of the
lanterns the needful arrangements were made in silence; channels and
panels for casting were prepared in the fine sand of the large hall;
and then before running out the metal the only thing remaining to be
done was to get rid of the slag. Thus the shadowy forms of workmen were
seen passing slowly, busily engaged in operations which could be only
dimly distinguished, whilst amidst the heavy silence which prevailed
within the squatting idol, one still heard nothing save the trickling
of the drops of water which were coursing down its sides.
‘Monsieur Jordan,’ Morfain inquired, ‘would you like to see the slag
run out?’
Jordan and Luc followed him, and a few steps brought them to a hillock
formed of an accumulation of waste. The aperture was on the right-hand
side of the furnace, and the slag was already pouring out in a flood of
sparkling dross, as if the cauldron of fusing metal were being skimmed.
The matter was like thick pulp, sun-hued lava, flowing slowly along and
falling into waggonets of sheet iron, where it at once became dim.
‘The colour’s good, you see, Monsieur Jordan,’ resumed Morfain gaily.
‘Oh! we are out of trouble, that’s sure. You’ll see, you’ll see.’
Then he brought them back to the running-hall in front of the furnace,
whose vague dimness was so faintly illumined by the lanterns. Petit-Da,
with one lunge of his strong young arms, had just thrust a bar into the
bung of refractory clay which closed the tap-hole, and now the eight
men of the night shift wore rhythmically ramming the bar in further.
Their black figures could scarcely be discerned, and one only heard
the dull blows of the rammer. Then, all at once, a dazzling star, as
it were, appeared, a small peep-hole through which showed the inner
fire. But as yet there was only a faint trickling of the liquid metal,
and Petit-Da had to take another bar, thrust it in, and turn it round
and round with herculean efforts in order to enlarge the aperture.
Then came the _débácle_, the flood rushed out tumultuously, a river
of fusing metal rolled along the channel in the sand, and then spread
out, filling the moulds, and forming blazing pools, whose glow and heat
quite scorched the eyes of the beholders. And from that channel and
those sheets of fire rose a crop of sparks, blue sparks, of delicate
ethereality, and fusees of gold, delightfully refined, a florescence
of cornflowers, as it were, amidst a growth of wheat-ears. Whenever
any obstacle of damp sand was encountered both the sparks and the
fusees increased in number, and rose to a great height in a bouquet
of splendour. And all at once, as if some miraculous sun had risen,
an intense dawn burst over everything, casting a great glare upon the
furnace, and throwing a glow as of sunshine upward to the roof of
the hall, whose every girder and joist showed forth distinctly. The
neighbouring buildings, the monster’s various organs, sprang out of
the darkness, together with the men of the night-shift, hitherto so
phantom-like and now so real, outlined with an energy and splendour
never to be forgotten, as if, obscure heroes of toil that they were,
they suddenly found themselves enveloped by a nimbus of glory. And the
great glow spread to all the surroundings, conjured the huge ridge of
the Bleuse Mountains out of the darkness, threw reflections even upon
the sleeping roofs of Beauclair, and died away at last in the distance
far over the great plain of La Roumagne.
‘It is superb,’ said Jordan, studying the quality of the metal by the
colour and limpidity of the flow.
Morfain took his triumph modestly. ‘Yes, yes, Monsieur Jordan,’ said
he, ‘it’s good work, such as we ought to turn out. All the same, I’m
glad you came to have a look. You won’t feel anxious now.’
Luc also was taking an interest in the proceedings. So great was the
heat that he felt his skin tingling through his clothes. Little by
little all the moulds had been filled, and the sandy hall was now
changed into an incandescent sea. And when the ten tons of liquid
metal had all poured forth, a final tempest, a huge rush of flames
and sparks, came from the cavity. The blowing-apparatus was emptying
the crucible, the blast sweeping through it in all freedom like some
hurricane of hell. But the pigs were now growing cold, their blinding
white light became pink, next red, and then brown. The sparks, too,
ceased to rise, the field of azure cornflowers and golden wheat-ears
was reaped. Then gloom swiftly fell once more, blotting out the hall
and the furnace and all the adjoining buildings, whilst it seemed as
if the lanterns had been lighted up afresh. And of the workmen one
could again only distinguish some vague figures actively bestirring
themselves–they were those of Petit-Da and two of his mates, who were
again plugging the tap-hole with refractory clay, amidst the silence
which was now deeper than ever, for the blast machinery had been
stopped to permit of this work being performed.
‘I say, Morfain, my good fellow,’ Jordan suddenly resumed, ‘you will go
home to bed, won’t you?’
‘Oh! no, I must spend the night here,’ the man answered.
‘What! you mean to stay, and pass a third sleepless night here?’
‘Oh! there’s a camp bedstead in the watch-house, Monsieur Jordan, and
one sleeps very well on it. We’ll relieve each other, my son and I;
we’ll each do two hours’ sentry duty in turn.’
‘But that’s useless, since things are now all right again,’ Jordan
retorted. ‘Come, be reasonable, Morfain, and go and sleep at home.’
‘No, no, Monsieur Jordan, let me do as I wish. There’s no more danger,
but I want to make sure how things go until to-morrow. It will please
me to do so.’
Thus Jordan and Luc, after shaking hands with him, had to leave him
there. And Luc felt extremely moved, for Morfain had left on him an
impression of great loftiness in which met long years of painful and
docile labour, all the nobility of the crushing toil which mankind had
undertaken in the hope of attaining to rest and happiness. It had all
begun with the ancient Vulcans, who had subjugated fire in those heroic
times which Jordan had recalled, when the first smelters had reduced
their ore in a pit dug in the earth, in which they lighted wood. It
was on that day, the day when man first conquered iron and fashioned
it, that he became the master of the world, and that the era of
civilisation first began. Morfain, dwelling in his rocky cave, and for
whom nothing existed apart from the difficulties and the glory of his
calling, seemed to Luc like some direct descendant of those primitive
toilers, whose far-off characteristics still lived by force of heredity
in him, silent and resigned as he was, giving all the strength of his
muscles without ever a murmur, even as his predecessors had done at the
dawn of human society. Ah! how much perspiration had streamed forth and
how many arms had toiled to the point of exhaustion during thousands
and thousands of years! And yet nothing changed–fire, if conquered,
still made its victims, still had its slaves, those who fed it, those
who scorched their blood in subjugating it, whilst the privileged ones
of the earth lived in idleness, in homes which were fresh and cool!
Morfain, like some legendary hero, did not seem even to suspect the
existence of all the monstrous iniquity around him; he was ignorant of
rebellion, of the storm growling afar; he remained quite impassive at
his deadly post, there where his sires had died and where he himself
would die. And Luc also conjured up another figure, that of Bonnaire,
another hero of labour, one who struggled against the oppressors, the
exploiters, in order that justice might at last reign; and who devoted
himself to his comrades’ cause even to the point of giving up his daily
bread. Had not all those suffering men groaned long enough beneath
their burdens, and, however admirable might be their toil, had not the
hour struck for the deliverance of the slaves in order that they might
at last become free citizens in a fraternal community, amidst which
peace would spring from a just apportionment of labour and wealth?
However, as Jordan, whilst descending the steps cut in the rock,
stopped before a night-watchman’s hut to give an order, an unexpected
sight met Luc’s eyes and brought his emotion to a climax. Behind some
bushes, amidst some scattered rocks, he distinctly saw two shadowy
forms passing. Their arms encircled each other’s waist and their lips
were meeting in a kiss. Luc readily recognised the girl, so tall she
was, so fair and so superb. She was none other than Ma-Bleue, the
maid whose great blue eyes seemed to fill her face. And the lad must
assuredly be Achille Gourier, the mayor’s son, that proud and handsome
youth whose demeanour he, Luc, had noticed at La Guerdache–that
demeanour so expressive of contempt for the rotting _bourgeoisie_ of
which he was one of the revolting sons. Ever shooting, fishing, and
roaming, he spent his holidays among the steep paths of the Bleuse
Mountains, beside the torrents or deep in the pine woods. And doubtless
he had fallen in love with that beautiful, shy, wild girl, around
whom so many admirers prowled in vain. She, on her side, must have
been conquered by the advent of that Prince Charming, who brought her
something that was beyond her sphere, who set all the delightful dreams
of to-morrow amidst the sternness of that desert. To-morrow! to-morrow!
Was it not that which dawned in Ma-Bleue’s blue eyes, when, with her
gaze wandering far away, she stood so thoughtful on the threshold of
her mountain cave? Her father and her brother were watching over their
work up yonder, and she had escaped down the precipitous paths. And for
her to-morrow meant that tall, loving lad, that _bourgeois_ stripling,
who spoke to her so prettily as if she had been a lady, and vowed that
he would love her for ever.
At first, amidst his amazement, Luc felt a heart-pang at the thought of
how grieved the father would be should he hear of that sweethearting.
Then a tender feeling took possession of the young man’s heart, a
caressing breath of hope came to him at the sight of that free and
gentle love. Were not those children, who belonged to such different
classes, preparing amidst their play, their kisses, the advent of the
happier morrow, the great reconciliation which would at last lead to
the reign of justice?
Down below, when Luc and Jordan reached the park, they exchanged a few
more words.
‘You haven’t caught cold, I hope?’ said the young man to his friend.
‘Your sister would never forgive me, you know.’
‘No, no, I feel quite well. And I am going to bed in the best of
spirits, for I’ve quite made up my mind. I intend to rid myself of that
enterprise, since it does not interest me, and proves such a constant
source of worry.’
For a moment Luc remained silent, for uneasiness had returned to him,
as if, indeed, he were frightened by Jordan’s decision. However, as he
left his friend he said, shaking his hand for the last time, ‘No, wait,
give me to-morrow to think the matter over. We will have another talk
in the evening, and afterwards you shall come to a decision.’
Then they parted for the night. Luc did not go to bed immediately. He
occupied–in the pavilion formerly erected for Dr. Michon, Jordan’s
maternal grandfather–the spacious room where the doctor had spent
his last years among his books; and during the three days that he had
occupied this chamber the young man had grown fond of the pleasantness,
peacefulness, and odour of work that filled it. That evening, however,
the fever of doubt, by which he was possessed, oppressed him, and
throwing one of the windows wide open he leant out, hoping in this wise
to calm himself a little before he went to bed. The window overlooked
the road leading from La Crêcherie to Beauclair. In front spread some
uncultivated fields strewn with rocks, and beyond them one could
distinguish the jumbled roofs of the sleeping town.
For a few minutes Luc remained inhaling the gusts of air which arose
from the great plain of La Roumagne. The night was warm and moist, and
athwart a slight haze a bluish light descended from the starry sky.
Luc listened to the distant sounds with which the night quivered; and
before long he recognised the dull, rhythmical blows of the hammers
of the Abyss, that Cyclopean forge whence day and night alike there
came a clang of steel. Then he raised his eyes and sought the black,
silent smeltery of La Crêcherie, but it was now mingled with the inky
bar which the promontory of the Bleuse Mountains set against the sky.
Lowering his eyes he at last directed them upon the close-set roofs
of the town, whose heavy slumber seemed to be cradled by the rhythmic
blows of the hammers–those blows which suggested the quick and
difficult breathing of some giant worker, some pain-racked Prometheus,
chained to eternal toil. And Luc’s feeling of uneasiness was increased
by it all; he could not quiet his fever; the people and the things
that he had beheld during those last three days crowded upon his mind,
passed before him in a tragic scramble, the sense of which he strove
to divine. And the problem which possessed his spirit now tortured him
more than ever. Assuredly he would be unable to sleep until he found a
means of solving it.
But down below his window, across the road, amongst the bushes and the
rocks, he suddenly heard a fresh sound, something so light, so faint,
that he could not tell what it might be. Was it the beating of a bird’s
wings, the rustle of an insect among some leaves? Luc gazed down, and
could see nothing save the swelling darkness that spread far, far away.
No doubt he had been mistaken. But the sounds reached his ears again,
and even seemed to come nearer. Interested by them, seized with a
strange emotion which astonished him, he again strove to penetrate the
darkness, and at last he distinguished a vague, light, delicate form
which seemed to float over the grass. And still he was unable to tell
what that form might be, and was willing to believe himself the victim
of some delusion, when, with a nimble spring like that of some wild
goat, a woman crossed the road and lightly threw him a little nosegay,
which brushed against his face like a caress. It was a little bunch of
mountain pansies, just gathered among the rocks, and of such powerful
aroma, that he was quite perfumed by it.
Josine!–he divined that it was she, he recognised her by that fresh
sign of her heart’s thankfulness, by that adorable gesture of infinite
gratitude! And it all seemed to him exquisite in that dimness, at that
late hour, though he could not tell how she had happened to be there,
whether she had been watching for his return, and how she could have
contrived to come, unless indeed Ragu were working at a night-shift.
Without a word, having had no other desire than that of expressing her
feelings by the gift of those flowers, which she had so lightly thrown
him, she was already fleeing, disappearing into the darkness spread
over the uncultivated moor; and only then did Luc distinguish another
and a smaller form, that assuredly of Nanet, bounding along near her.
They both vanished, and then he again heard nought save the hammers
of the Abyss, ever rhythmically beating in the distance. His torment
was not passed, but his heart had been warmed by a glow which seemed
to bring him invincible strength. It was with rapture that he inhaled
the little nosegay. Ah! the power of kindness, which is the bond of
brotherhood, the power of tenderness, by which alone happiness is
created, the power of love, which will save and make the world anew!