From the moment of crossing the threshold

Bonnaire, the master puddler, one of the best hands of the works, had
played an important part in the recent strike. A man of just mind,
indignant with the iniquity of the wage-earning system, he read the
Paris newspapers and derived from them a revolutionary education in
which there were many gaps, but which had made him a fairly frank
partisan of Collectivist doctrines. As he himself, with the fine
equilibrium of a hard-working healthy man, very reasonably said,
Collectivism was the dream whose realisation they would some day seek;
and meantime it was necessary to secure as much justice as might be
immediately obtained in order to reduce the sufferings of the workers
to a minimum.
The strike had been for some time inevitable. Three years previously,
the Abyss having nearly come to grief in the hands of Monsieur Jérôme’s
son, Michel Qurignon, the latter’s son-in-law, Boisgelin, an idler,
a fine Paris gentleman, had purchased the works, investing in them
all that remained of his jeopardised fortune on the advice of a poor
cousin, a certain Delaveau, who had positively undertaken to make
the capital invested yield a profit of thirty per cent, per annum.
And for three years Delaveau, a skilful engineer and a determined
hard worker, had kept his promise, thanks to energetic management and
organisation, strict attention to the minutest details, and absolute
discipline on all sides. Michel Qurignon’s ill success in business had
been partly due to the difficulties which had beset the metal market
of the region ever since the manufacture of iron rails and girders had
there ceased to be remunerative, owing to the discovery of certain
chemical processes which in Northern and Eastern France had enabled
ironmasters to make use very cheaply of large quantities of ore which
previously had been regarded as too defective. The Beauclair works
could not possibly turn out the same class of goods so cheaply as
their competitors; ruin therefore seemed inevitable, and Delaveau’s
stroke of talent consisted in changing the character of the output,
in giving up the manufacture of rails and girders which Northern and
Eastern France could supply at twenty centimes the kilogramme,[1] and
confining himself to the manufacture of high-class things, such indeed
as projectiles and ordnance, shells and cannon, which brought in from
two to three francs per kilogramme. Prosperity had then returned, and
Boisgelin’s investment brought him in a considerable income. Only it
had been necessary to obtain a quantity of new plant, and to secure
the services of more careful and attentive workmen, who necessarily
required to be better paid than others.
In principle the strike had been brought about by that very question
of better pay. The men were paid by the hundred kilogrammes,[2] and
Delaveau himself admitted the necessity of a new wage tariff. But he
wished to remain absolute master of the situation, desiring above
all things to avoid anything which might seem like surrender on his
part to the pressure of his workpeople. With a specialist mind, very
authoritative in disposition, and stubborn with respect to his rights,
whilst striving to be just and loyal, he regarded Collectivism as a
destructive dream, and declared that any such utopian doctrine would
lead one direct to the most awful catastrophes. The quarrel on this
point between him and the little world of workers over whom he reigned
became a fierce one directly Bonnaire succeeded in setting a defensive
syndicate on foot. For if Delaveau admitted the desirability of relief
and pension funds, and even of co-operative societies supplying cheap
provisions and other necessaries, thus recognising that the workman was
not forbidden to improve his position, he at the same time violently
condemned all syndicates and class grouping designed for collective
From that moment then the struggle began; Delaveau showed great
unwillingness to complete the revision of the tariffs, and thought
it necessary in his turn to arm himself, in some measure, decreeing
a ‘state of siege’ at the Abyss. Soon after he had begun to act thus
rigorously the men complained that no individual liberty was left to
them. A close watch was kept on them, on their thoughts and opinions
as well as on their actions, even outside the works. Those who put
on a humble flattering manner and perchance became spies, gained
the management’s good graces, whilst the proud and independent were
treated as dangerous men. And as the manager was by instinct a staunch
conservative, a defender of the existing order of things, and openly
evinced the resolve to have none but men of his own views in the place,
all the underlings, the engineers, foremen, and inspectors strove to
surpass one another in energy, displaying implacable severity with
regard to obedience, and what they chose to call ‘a proper spirit.’
Bonnaire, hurt in his opinions, his craving for liberty and justice,
naturally found himself at the head of the malcontents. It was he
who with a few mates waited on Delaveau to acquaint him with their
complaints. He spoke out very plainly, and, indeed, exasperated the
manager without obtaining the rise in wages that he asked for. Delaveau
did not believe in the possibility of a general strike among his hands,
for the metal workers do not readily lose their tempers, and for many
years there had been no strike at all at the Abyss, whereas among the
pitmen of the coal mines of Brias strikes broke out continually. When,
therefore, contrary to Delaveau’s anticipations, a general strike did
occur among his own men, when one morning only two hundred out of a
thousand presented themselves at the works, which he had to close, his
resentment was so great that he stubbornly held to the course he had
chosen and refused to make the slightest concession. When Bonnaire and
a deputation of the syndicate ventured to go to him he began by turning
them out of doors. He was the master, the quarrel was between his
workmen and himself, and he intended to settle it with his workmen and
with nobody else. Bonnaire therefore returned to see him accompanied
only by three mates. But all that they could obtain from him were
arguments and calculations, tending to show that the prosperity of the
Abyss would be compromised if he should increase the men’s wages. Funds
had been confided to him, a factory had been given him to manage,
and it was his duty to see that the factory paid its way and that the
funds yielded the promised rate of interest. He was certainly disposed
to be humane, but he considered that it was the duty of an honest man
to keep his engagements, and extract from the enterprise he directed
the largest amount of gain possible. All the rest, in his opinion, was
visionary, wild hope, dangerous utopia. And thus, each side becoming
more and more stubborn after several similar interviews, the strike
lasted for two long months, full of disasters for the wage-earners
as well as for the owner, increasing as it did the misery of the men
whilst the plant was damaged by neglect and idleness. At last the
contending parties consented to make certain mutual concessions, and
came to an agreement respecting a new tariff. But throughout another
week Delaveau refused to take back certain workmen, whom he called
the ‘leaders,’ and among whom, of course, was Bonnaire. The manager
harboured very rancorous feelings towards the latter, although he
recognised that he was one of the most skilful and most sober of his
hands. When he ultimately gave way, and took Bonnaire back with the
others, he declared that he was being compelled to act in this manner
against his inclinations, solely from a desire to restore peace.
From that moment Bonnaire felt that he was condemned. Under such
circumstances he was at first absolutely unwilling to go back to the
works at all. But he was a great favourite with his mates, and when
they declared that they would not return unless he resumed work at the
same time as themselves, he appeared to resign himself to their wishes,
in order that he might not prove the cause of some fresh rupture. In
his estimation, however, his mates had suffered quite enough; he had
fully made up his mind and intended to sacrifice himself in order that
none other might have to pay the penalty of the semi-victory which
had been gained. And thus, although he had ended by returning to work
on the Thursday, it had been with the intention of taking himself off
on the ensuing Sunday, for he was convinced that his presence at the
Abyss was no longer possible. He took none of his friends into his
confidence, but simply warned the management on Saturday morning of his
intention to leave. If he were still working at the Abyss that night
it was solely because he wished to finish a job which he had begun. He
desired to disappear in a quiet, honest way.
Luc having given his name to the door porter, inquired if he could
speak to master-puddler Bonnaire; and the porter in reply contented
himself with pointing out the hall where the puddling-furnaces and
rolling-machines were installed at the further end of the second yard
on the left. The yards, soaked by the recent rain, formed a perfect
cloaca, what with their uneven paving-stones and their tangle of
rails, amongst which passed a branch line connecting the works with
Beauclair railway station. Under the lunar-like brightness of a few
electric lamps, amongst the shadows cast by the sheds and the plunging
tower, and the vaguely outlined cementing furnaces, which suggested
the conical temples of some barbarous religion, a little engine was
slowly moving about and sending forth shrill whistles of warning
in order that nobody might be run over. But what more particularly
deafened the visitor from the moment he crossed the threshold was the
beating of a couple of tilt-hammers installed in a kind of cellar.
Their big heads–the heads, it seemed, of voracious beasts–could
be seen striking the iron with a furious rhythm; they bit it, as it
were, and stretched it into bars with all the force of their desperate
metal teeth. The workmen beside them led calm and silent lives,
communicating with one another by gestures only amidst the everlasting
uproar and trepidation. Luc, after skirting a low building where some
other tilt-hammers were also working ragefully, turned to the left and
crossed the second yard whose ravaged soil was littered with pieces
of scrap metal, slumbering in the mud until collected for re-casting.
A railway truck was being laden with a large piece of wrought work,
a shaft for a torpedo boat, which had been finished that very day,
and which the little engine was about to remove. As this engine came
up whistling, Luc, in order to avoid it, took a pathway between some
symmetrically disposed piles of pig-iron, and in this wise reached the
hall of the puddling-furnaces and the rolling-machines.
This hall or gallery, one of the largest of the works, resounded in
the daytime with the terrible rumbling of the rollers. But the latter
were now at rest, and more than half of the huge place was steeped in
darkness. Of the ten puddling-furnaces only four were at work, served
by two forge-hammers. Here and there a meagre gas-light flickered
in the draught; huge shadows filled the place; one could scarcely
distinguish the great smoked beams upholding the roof above. A sound
of dripping water emerged from the darkness; the beaten ground which
served as a flooring–all bumps and hollows–was in one part so much
fœtid mud, in another so much coal-dust, in another, again, a mass of
waste stuff. On every side one noticed the filth of joyless labour, a
labour hated and accursed, performed in a black, ruinous, ignoble den,
pestilential with smoke and grimy with the dirt of every kind that flew
through the air. From the nails driven into some little huts of rough
boards hung the workmen’s town-clothes, mixed with linen vests and
leather aprons. And all that dense misery was only brightened when some
master puddler happened to open the door of his furnace, whence emerged
a blinding flow of light which, like the beaming of some planet,
transpierced the darkness of the entire gallery.
When Luc presented himself Bonnaire was for the last time stirring
some fusing metal–some four hundred and forty pounds’ weight of cast
iron, which the furnace and human labour between them were to turn into
steel. The whole operation of steel puddling required four hours, and
this stirring at the expiration of the first hours of waiting was the
hardest part of the work. Grasping an iron rod of fifty pounds’ weight
and standing in the broiling glare, the master puddler stirred the
incandescent metal on the sole of the furnace. With the help of the
hook at the end of his bar he raked the depths and kneaded the huge
sun-like ball or ‘bloom,’ at which he alone was able to gaze, with his
eyes hardened to the intense glow. And he had to gaze at it, since it
was by its colour that he ascertained what stage the work had reached.
When he withdrew his bar the latter was a bright red, and threw out
sparks on all sides.
With a motion of his hand Bonnaire now signed to his stoker to quicken
the fire, whilst another workman, the companion puddler, took up a bar
in order to do a stir in his turn.
‘You are Monsieur Bonnaire, are you not?’ asked Luc, drawing near.
The master puddler seemed surprised at being thus accosted, but nodded
affirmatively. He looked superb with his white neck and pink face full
of victorious strength amidst the glare of his work.
Scarcely five-and-thirty years of age, he was a giant of fair
complexion, with close-cropped hair and a broad, massive, placid face.
His large firm mouth and big peaceful eyes expressed great rectitude
and kindliness.
‘I don’t know if you recognise me,’ Luc continued, ‘but I saw you here
last summer and had a talk with you.’
‘Quite so,’ the master puddler at last replied; ‘you are a friend of
Monsieur Jordan.’
When, however, the young man with some embarrassment explained the
motive of his visit, how he had seen the unhappy Josine cast into the
street, and how it seemed that he, Bonnaire, could alone do something
for her, the workman relapsed into silence, looking embarrassed on
his side also. Neither spoke for a time; there came an interval of
waiting, prolonged by the noise of the forge-hammer near them. And when
the master puddler was at last able to make himself heard he simply
said: ‘All right, I’ll do what I can–I’ll go with you as soon as I’ve
finished, in about three-quarters of an hour.’
Although it was nearly eleven o’clock already, Luc resolved to wait;
and at first he began to take some interest in a cutting-machine, which
in a dark corner near at hand was cutting bar-steel with as much quiet
ease as if steel were butter. At each motion of the machine’s jaws, a
little piece of metal fell, and a heap was soon formed, ready to be
carried in a barrow into the charging-chamber, where each charge of
sixty-six pounds’ weight was made up in order to be removed to the
adjacent hall, where the crucible furnaces were installed. And with the
view of occupying his time, attracted as he was by the great pink glow
which filled that hall, Luc entered it.
It was a very large and lofty place, as badly kept, as grimy and as
much out of repair as the other. And on a level with the bossy ground,
littered with scrap, were the openings of six batteries of furnaces,
each divided into three compartments. Those narrow, long, glaring
pits whose brick walls occupied the whole basement, were heated by a
mixture of air and flaming gas, which the head caster himself regulated
by means of a mechanical fan. Thus, streaking the beaten ground of
the shadowy hall, there appeared six slits, open above the internal
hell, the ever-active volcano, whose subterranean brazier could be
heard rumbling loudly. Covers, shaped like long slabs, bricks bound
together by an iron armature, were laid across the furnaces. But these
covers did not join, and from each intervening space sprang an intense
pinkish light, so many sunrises as it were, broad rays starting from
the soil and darting in a sheaf to the dusty glass of the roofing. And
whenever a man, according to the requirements of the work, removed one
or another of the covers, one might have thought that some planet was
emerging from all obstacles, for the hall was then irradiated by a
brightness like that of aurora.
It so happened that Luc was able to see the operations. Some workmen
were loading a furnace, and he saw them lower the crucibles of
refractory clay, which had previously been heated till they were red,
and then by means of a funnel, pour in the charges, sixty-six pounds
of metal for each crucible. For some three or four hours fusion would
be in progress, and then the crucibles would have to be removed and
emptied, which was the terrible part of the work. As Luc drew near
to another furnace, where some men provided with long bars had just
assured themselves that the fusion was perfect, he recognised Fauchard
in the drawer whose duty it was to remove the crucibles. Livid and
withered, with a bony, scorched face, Fauchard had none the less
retained strong herculean arms and legs. Physically deformed by the
terrible labour–ever the same–which he had been performing for
fourteen years already, he had suffered yet more considerably in his
intelligence from the machine-like life to which he had been condemned:
perpetually repeating the same movements, without need of thought or
individuality of action, becoming as it were merely an element of the
struggle with fire. His physical defects, the rise of his shoulders,
the hypertrophy of his limbs, the scorching of his eyes, which had
paled from constant exposure to flaming light, were not his only
blemishes–he was also conscious of intellectual downfall; for caught
in the monster’s grasp at sixteen years of age, after a rudimentary
education suddenly cut short, he remembered that he had once possessed
intelligence, an intelligence which was now flickering and departing
under the relentless burden of a labour which he performed like some
blinded beast crushed down by destructive baleful toil. And he now had
but one sole craving, one sole delight, which was to drink–to drink
his four quarts of wine at each shift, to drink so that the furnace
might not burn up his baked skin like so much old rind, to drink so
that he might escape crumbling into ashes, so that he might enjoy some
last felicity by finishing his life in the happy stupor of perpetual
That night Fauchard had greatly feared that the fire would boil some
more of his blood. But, already at eight o’clock he was agreeably
surprised to see Natalie, his wife, arrive with the four quarts of wine
which she had obtained on credit from Caffiaux, and which he had no
longer expected. She expressed regret that she had not a little meat
to give him also, but Dacheux, she said, had shown himself pitiless.
Ever in low spirits, and greatly given to complaining, she expressed
her anxiety as to how they would manage to get anything to eat on
the morrow. But her husband, who was well pleased at having secured
his wine, dismissed her saying that he should apply to the manager
for an advance as his mates had done. A crust of bread sufficed him
as food, he drank, and at once found himself full of confidence.
When the time to remove the crucibles arrived he tossed off another
half-quart at a gulp, and went to the water cistern to soak the large
linen apron that enveloped him. Then, with big wooden shoes on his
feet and wet gloves on his hands, armed too with long iron pincers, he
stood astride the furnace, resting his right foot on the cover, which
had just been pushed aside, his chest and stomach being exposed the
while to the frightful heat which arose from the open volcano. For a
moment he appeared quite red, blazing like a torch in the midst of a
brazier. His wooden shoes steamed, his apron and his gloves steamed,
the whole of his flesh seemed to melt away. But without evincing any
haste, he looked below him. His eyes, accustomed to the brightest
glare, sought the crucible in the depths of the burning pit. Then he
stooped slightly in order to seize it with his long pincers, and with
a sudden straightening of the loins, with three supple rhythmical
movements–one of his hands opening and gliding along the rod until
the other joined it–he drew up the crucible, raising easily, at
arm’s length, that weight of one hundred and ten pounds–pincers and
crucible combined–and deposited it on the ground, where it looked
like some piece of the sun, at first of dazzling whiteness, which
speedily changed to pink. Then he began the operation afresh, drawing
the crucibles forth one by one amidst the increasing glow, with more
skill even than strength, coming and going amidst that incandescent
matter without ever burning himself, without seeming even to feel the
intolerable heat.
They were going to cast some little shells, of one hundred and
thirty-two pounds. The bottle-shaped moulds were ranged in two rows.
And when the assistants had skimmed the slag off the crucibles with
the aid of iron rods, which came away smoking and dropping purple
slaver, the head caster quickly seized the crucibles with his large,
round-jawed pincers, and emptied two into each mould. And the metal
flowed like white lava, with just a faint pinkish tinge here and there
amidst a shooting of fine blue sparks as delicate as flowers. It might
have been thought that the man was decanting some bright, gold-spangled
liqueur; all was done noiselessly, with precise and nimble movements,
amidst a blaze and a heat that changed the whole place into a devouring
Luc, who was unaccustomed to it all, felt stifling, unable to remain
there any longer. At a distance of twelve and even fifteen feet from
the furnaces his face was scorched, and a burning perspiration streamed
from him. The shells had interested him, and he watched them cooling,
asking himself what men they would some day kill. And going on into
the next hall, he there found himself among the steam hammers and
the forging-press. This hall was now asleep, with all its monstrous
appliances. Its press of a force of two thousand tons and its hammers
of lesser power spread out, showing in the depths of the gloom their
black squat silhouettes, which suggested those of barbarian gods. And
here Luc found more projectiles, shells which that very day had been
forged under the smallest steam-hammer, on leaving the moulds after
annealing. Then he became interested in the tube of a large naval gun,
more than nineteen feet long, which was still warm from having passed
under the press. Billets totalling two thousand two hundred pounds of
steel had spread out and adapted themselves like rolls of paste to form
that tube, which was waiting chained, ready to be lifted by powerful
cranes and carried to the turning-lathes, which were farther off,
beyond the hall where the Martin furnace and some of the steel-casting
plant were installed.
Luc went on to the end, across that hall also, the most spacious of
them all, for there the largest pieces were cast. The Martin furnace
enabled one to pour large quantities of steel in a state of fusion into
the cast-iron moulds, whilst eight feet overhead two rolling bridges
worked by electricity gently and easily moved huge pieces weighing many
tons to every requisite point. Then Luc entered the lathe workshop, a
huge closed shed which was rather better kept than the others, and
where on either hand he found a series of admirable appliances in which
incomparable delicacy and power were blended. There were planes for
naval armour-plates which finished off metal-work even as a carpenter’s
plane gives a finish to wood. And there were the lathes of precise if
intricate mechanism, as pretty as jewels, and as amusing as toys. Only
some of them worked at night-time, each lighted by a single electric
lamp, and giving forth but a faint sound in the deep silence. Again did
Luc come upon projectiles. There was one shell which had been fixed to
a lathe, to be calibrated externally. It turned round and round with
a prodigious speed, and steel shavings which suggested silver curls
flew away from under the narrow motionless blade. Afterwards it would
only have to be hollowed internally, tempered, and finished. But where
were the men that would be killed by it, after it had been charged?
As the outcome of all that heroic human labour, the subjugation of
iron bringing royalty to man and victory over the forces of nature,
Luc beheld a vision of massacre, all the bloodthirsty madness of a
battle-field! He walked on, and at a little distance came upon a large
lathe, where a cannon similar to the one whose forged tube he had
just seen was revolving. This one, however, was already calibrated
externally, and shone like new money. Under the supervision of a
youth who leant forward, attentively watching the mechanism, like a
clock-maker that of a watch, it turned and turned interminably with
a gentle humming, whilst the blade inside drilled it with marvellous
precision. And when that gun also should have been tempered, cast
from the summit of the tower into a bath of petroleum oil, to what
battle-field would it journey to kill men–how many lives would it mow
down, that gun made of steel which men in a spirit of brotherliness
should have fashioned only into rails and ploughshares!
Luc pushed a door open, and made his escape into the open air. The
night was damply warm, and he drew a long breath, feeling refreshed
by the wind which was blowing. When he raised his eyes he was unable
to distinguish a single star beyond the wild rush of the clouds. But
the lamp globes shining here and there in the yard replaced the hidden
moon, and again he saw the chimneys rising amidst lurid smoke, and a
coal-smirched sky, across which upon every side, forming as it were
some gigantic cobweb, flew all the wires which transmitted electric
power. The machines which produced it, two machines of great beauty,
were working close by in some new buildings. There were also some
works for making bricks and crucibles of refractory clay; there was a
carpenter’s shop for model-making and packing, and numerous warehouses
for commercial steel and iron. And Luc, after losing himself for a time
in that little town, well pleased when he came upon deserted stretches,
black peaceful nooks where he seemed to revive to life, suddenly
found himself once more inside the inferno. On looking around him he
perceived that he was again in the gallery containing the furnaces for
the crucibles.
Another operation was now being executed there. Seventy crucibles were
being removed at the same moment for some big piece of casting which
was to weigh over three thousand nine hundred pounds. The mould with
its funnel was waiting in readiness in the pit, in the neighbouring
hall. And the procession was swiftly organised, all the helpers of
the various squads took part in it, two men for each crucible, which
they raised with pincers and carried off with long and easy strides.
Another, then another, then another, the whole seventy crucibles
passed along in a dazzling procession. One might have thought it some
ballet scene, in which vague dancers with light and shadowy feet
passed two-by-two carrying huge Venetian lanterns, orange-red in hue.
And the marvellous part of it all was the extraordinary rapidity, the
perfect assurance of the well-regulated movements in which the bearers
were seen gambolling, as it were, in the midst of fire, hastening
up, elbowing one another, marching off and coming back, juggling all
the while with fusing stars. In less than three minutes the seventy
crucibles were emptied into the mould, whence arose a sheaf of gold, a
great spreading bouquet of sparks.
When Luc at last returned to the hall containing the puddling furnaces
and the rollers, after a good half-hour’s promenade, he found Bonnaire
finishing his work.
‘I will be with you in a moment, monsieur,’ said the puddler.
On the glaring sole of the furnace, whose open door was blazing, he had
already on three occasions isolated one quarter of the incandescent
metal, that is a hundredweight of it, which he had rolled and fashioned
into a kind of ball with the aid of his bar; and those three quarters
had gone one after the other to the hammer. He was now dealing with
the fourth and last portion. For twenty minutes he had been standing
before that voracious maw, his chest almost crackling from the heat of
the furnace, his hands manipulating his heavy hooked bar, and his eyes
clearly seeing how to do the work aright in spite of all the dazzling
flames. He gazed fixedly at the fiery ball of steel which he rolled
over and over continuously in the centre of the brazier; and in the
fierce reverberation which gilded his tall pinkish form against the
black background of darkness, he looked like some maker of planets,
busily creating new worlds. But at last he finished, withdrew his
flaming bar, and handed over to his mate the last hundredweight of the
The stoker was in readiness with a little iron chariot. Armed with
his pincers the assistant puddler seized hold of the ball, which
suggested some huge fiery sponge that had sprouted on the side of a
volcanic cavern, and with an effort he brought it out and threw it
into the chariot, which the stoker quickly wheeled to the hammer. A
smith at once caught it with his own pincers and placed and turned it
over under the hammer, which all at once began working. Then came a
deafening noise and a perfect dazzlement. The ground quaked, a pealing
of bells seemed to ring out, whilst the smith, gloved and bound round
with leather, disappeared amidst a perfect tornado of sparks. At some
moments the expectorations were so large that they burst, here and
there, like canister shot. Impassive amidst that fusillade, the smith
turned the sponge over and over in order that it might be struck on
every side and converted into a ‘lump,’ a loaf of steel, ready for
the rollers. And the hammer obeyed him, struck here, struck there,
slackening or hastening its blows without a word even coming from
his lips, without anyone even detecting the signs which he made to
the hammer-lad who sat aloft in his little box with his hand on the
Luc, who had drawn near whilst Bonnaire was changing his clothes,
recognised little Fortuné, Fauchard’s brother-in-law, in the hammer-lad
thus perched on high, motionless for hours together, giving no other
sign of life than a little mechanical gesture of the hand amidst the
deafening uproar which he raised. A touch on the right-hand lever so
that the hammer might fall, a touch on the left-hand lever so that it
might rise, that was all; the little lad’s mind was confined to that
narrow space. By the bright gleams of the sparks one could for a
moment perceive him, slim and frail, with an ashen face, discoloured
hair, and the blurred eyes of a poor little being whose growth, both
physically and mentally, had been arrested by brutish work, in which
there was nothing to attract one, in which there was never a chance of
any initiative.
‘If monsieur’s willing, I’m ready now,’ said Bonnaire, just as the
hammer at last became silent.
Luc quickly turned round, and found the master puddler before him,
wearing a jersey and a coarse woollen jacket, whilst under one of his
arms was a bundle made up of his working-clothes and certain small
articles belonging to him–all his baggage in fact, since he was
leaving the works to return to them no more.
‘Quite so–let us be off,’ said Luc.
But Bonnaire paused for another moment. As if he fancied that he might
have forgotten something he gave a last glance inside the plank hut
which served as a cloakroom. Then he looked at his furnace, the furnace
which he had made his own by more than ten years of hard toil, turning
out there thousands of pounds of steel fit for the rollers. He was
leaving the establishment of his own free will, in the idea that such
was his duty towards both his mates and himself, but for that very
reason the severance was the more heroic. However, he forced back the
emotion which was clutching him at the throat, and passed out the first
in advance of Luc.
‘Take care, monsieur,’ he said; ‘that piece is still warm–it would
burn your boot.’
Neither spoke any further. They crossed the two dim yards under the
lunar lights, and passed before the low building where the tilt-hammers
were beating ragefully. And as soon as they were outside the Abyss
the black night seized hold of them again, and the glow and growl of
the monster died away behind them. The wind was still blowing, a wind
carrying the ragged flight of clouds skyward; and across the bridge the
bank of the Mionne was deserted, not a soul was visible.
When Luc had found Josine reclining on the bench where he had left
her, motionless and staring into the darkness, with Nanet asleep and
pressing his head against her, he wished to withdraw, for he considered
his mission ended, since Bonnaire would now find the poor creature some
place of shelter. But the puddler suddenly became embarrassed and
anxious at the idea of the scene which would follow his homecoming when
his wife, that terrible Toupe, should see him accompanying that hussy.
The scene was bound to be the more frightful since he had not told his
wife of his intention to quit the works. He foresaw, indeed, that a
tremendous quarrel would break out when she learnt that he was without
work, through throwing himself voluntarily out of employment.
‘Shall I accompany you?’ Luc suggested; ‘I might be able to explain
‘Upon my word, monsieur,’ replied the other, feeling relieved, ‘it
would perhaps be the better if you did.’
No words passed between Bonnaire and Josine. She seemed ashamed in
presence of the master puddler, and if he, with his good nature,
knowing too all that she suffered with Ragu, evinced a kind of
fatherly pity towards her, he none the less blamed her for having
yielded to that bad fellow. Josine had awakened Nanet on seeing the
two men arrive, and after an encouraging sign from Luc, she and the
boy followed them in silence. All four turned to the right, skirting
the railway embankment, and thus entering Old Beauclair, whose hovels
spread like some horrid stagnant pool over the flat ground just at the
opening of the gorge. There was an intricate maze of narrow streets
and lanes lacking both air and light, and infected by filthy gutters
which the more torrential rains alone cleansed. The overcrowding of
the wretched populace in so small a space was hard to understand, when
in front of it one perceived La Roumagne spreading its immense plain
where the breath of heaven blew freely as over the sea. The bitter
keenness of the battle for money and property alone accounted for the
niggardly fashion in which the right of the inhabitants to some little
portion of the soil, the few yards requisite for everyday life, had
been granted. Speculators had taken a hand in it all, and one or two
centuries of wretchedness had culminated in a cloaca of cheap lodgings,
whence people were frequently expelled by their landlords, low as might
be the rents demanded for certain of those dens, where well-to-do
people would not have allowed even their dogs to sleep. Chance-wise
over the ground had risen those little dark houses, those damp shanties
of plaster-work, those vermin and fever-breeding nests; and mournful
indeed at that night hour, under the lugubrious sky, appeared that
accursed city of labour, so dim, so closely-pent, filthy too, like
some horrid vegetation of social injustice.
Bonnaire, walking ahead, followed a lane, then turned into another,
and at last reached the Rue des Trois Lunes, one of the narrowest of
the so-called streets. It had no footways, and was paved with pointed
pebbles picked from the bed of the Mionne. The black and creviced house
of which he occupied the first floor had one day suddenly ‘settled,’
lurching in such wise that it had been necessary to shore up the
frontage with four great beams; and Ragu, as it happened, occupied
the two rooms of the second story, whose sloping floor those beams
supported. Down below, there was no hall; the precipitous ladder-like
stairs started from the very threshold.
‘And so, monsieur,’ Bonnaire at last said to Luc, ‘you will be kind
enough to come up with me.’
He had once more become embarrassed. Josine understood that he did
not dare take her to his rooms for fear of some affront, though he
suffered at having to leave her still in the street with the child. In
her gentle resigned way she therefore arranged matters. ‘We need not go
in,’ she said; ‘we’ll wait on the stairs up above.’
Bonnaire immediately fell in with the suggestion. ‘That’s best,’ said
he. ‘Have a little patience, sit down a moment, and if the key’s in my
place, I’ll bring it to you, and then you can go to bed.’
Josine and Nanet had already disappeared into the dense darkness
enveloping the stairs. One could no longer even hear them breathing,
they had ensconced themselves in some nook overhead. And Bonnaire in
his turn then went up, guiding Luc, warning him respecting the height
of the steps, and telling him to keep hold of the greasy rope which
served in lieu of a hand-rail.
‘There, monsieur, that’s it. Don’t move,’ he said at last. ‘Ah! the
landings aren’t large, and one would turn a fine somersault if one were
to fall.’
He opened a door and politely made Luc pass before him into a fairly
spacious room, where a little petroleum lamp shed a yellowish light.
In spite of the lateness of the hour La Toupe was still mending some
house linen beside this lamp; whilst her father, Daddy Lunot, as he was
called, had fallen asleep in a shadowy nook, with his pipe, which had
gone out, between his gums. In a bed, standing in one corner, slept the
two children, Lucien and Antoinette, one six, the other four years
old, and both of them fine, big children for their respective ages.
Apart from this common room, where the family cooked and ate their
meals, the lodging only comprised two others, the bed-room of the
husband and wife, and that of Daddy Lunot.
La Toupe, stupefied at seeing her husband return at that hour, for she
had been warned of nothing, raised her head, exclaiming: ‘What, is it
He did not wish to start the great quarrel by immediately telling her
that he had left the Abyss. He preferred to settle the matter of Josine
and Nanet first of all. So he replied evasively: ‘Yes, I’ve finished,
so I’ve come back.’ Then, without leaving his wife time to ask any more
questions, he introduced Luc, saying: ‘Here, this gentleman, who is a
friend of Monsieur Jordan’s, came to ask me something–he’ll explain it
to you.’
Her surprise and suspicion increasing, La Toupe turned towards the
young man, who thereby perceived her great likeness to her brother
Ragu. Short and choleric, she had his strongly marked face, with thick
ruddy hair, a low forehead, thin nose and massive jaws. Her bright
complexion, the freshness of which still rendered her attractive and
young-looking at eight-and-twenty years of age, alone explained the
reason which had induced Bonnaire to marry her, though he had been
well acquainted with her abominable temper. That which everybody had
then foreseen had come to pass. La Toupe made the home wretched by her
everlasting fits of anger. In order to secure some peace her husband
had to bow to her will in every little matter of their daily life. Very
coquettish, consumed by the ambition to be well-dressed and possess
jewellery, she only evinced a little gentleness when she was able to
deck herself in a new gown.
Luc, being thus called upon to speak, felt the necessity of gaining her
good will by a compliment. From the moment of crossing the threshold,
however bare might be the scanty furniture, he had remarked that
the room seemed very clean, thanks undoubtedly to the housewife’s
carefulness. And drawing near to the bed he exclaimed: ‘Ah! what fine
children, they are sleeping like little angels.’
La Toupe smiled, but looked at him fixedly and waited, feeling
thoroughly convinced that this gentleman would not have put himself out
to call there if he had not had something of importance to obtain from
her. And when he found himself obliged to come to the point, when he
related how he had found Josine starving on a bench, abandoned there
in the night, she made a passionate gesture, and her jaws tightened.
Without even answering the gentleman, she turned toward her husband in
a fury: ‘What! What’s this again? Is it any concern of mine?’
Bonnaire, thus compelled to intervene, strove to pacify her in his
kindly, conciliatory way.
‘All the same,’ said he, ‘if Ragu left the key with you, one ought to
give it to the poor creature, because he’s over yonder at Caffiaux’s
place, and may well pass the night there. One can’t leave a woman and a
child to sleep out of doors.’

At this La Toupe exploded: ‘Yes, I’ve got the key!’ said she. ‘Yes,
Ragu gave it to me, and precisely because he wanted to prevent that
hussy from installing herself any more in his rooms, with her little
scamp of a brother! But I don’t want to know anything about those
horrors! I only know one thing, it was Ragu who confided the key to me,
and it’s to Ragu that I shall return it.’
Then, as her husband again attempted to move her to pity, she violently
silenced him. ‘Do you want to make me take up with my brother’s fancies
then?’ she cried. ‘Just let the girl go and kick the bucket elsewhere,
since she chose to listen to him. A nice state of things it’s been,
and no mistake! No, no, each for himself or herself; and as for her,
let her remain in the gutter; a little sooner, a little later, it all
amounts to the same thing!’
Luc listened, feeling hurt and indignant. In her he found all the
harshness of the virtuous women of her class, who show themselves
pitiless towards the girls that stumble amidst their trying struggle
for life. And in La Toupe’s case, ever since the day when she had
learnt that her brother had bought Josine a little silver ring, there
had been covert jealousy and hatred of that pretty girl whom she
pictured fascinating men and wheedling gold chains and silk gowns out
of them.
‘One ought to be kind-hearted, madame,’ was all that Luc could say, in
a voice that quivered with compassion.
But La Toupe did not have time to answer, for all at once an uproar of
heavy stumbling footsteps resounded on the stairs, and hands fumbled
at the knob of the door, which opened. It was Ragu with Bourron,
one following the other like a pair of good-humoured drunkards who,
having wetted their whistles in company, could no longer separate.
Nevertheless Ragu, who had some sense left him, had torn himself away
from Caffiaux’s wine-shop, saying that, however pleasant it might be
there, he none the less had to go back to work on the morrow. And thus
he had looked in at his sister’s with his mate, in order to get his key.
‘Your key!’ cried La Toupe sharply, ‘there it is! And I won’t keep it
again, mind. I’ve just had a lot of foolish things said to me in order
to make me give it to that gadabout. Another time when you want to turn
somebody out of the house just do it yourself.’
Ragu, whose heart had doubtless been softened by liquor, began to
laugh: ‘She’s so stupid, is Josine,’ he said. ‘If she had wanted to be
pleasant she would have drunk a glass with us instead of snivelling.
But women never know how to tackle men.’
He was unable to express himself more fully, for just then Bourron,
who had fallen on a chair, laughing at nothing with his everlasting
good humour, inquired of Bonnaire: ‘I say, is it true then that you’re
leaving the works?’
La Toupe turned round, starting as if a pistol had been fired off
behind her. ‘What! He’s leaving the works!’ she cried.
Silence fell. Then Bonnaire courageously came to a decision. ‘Yes, I’m
leaving the works; I can’t do otherwise.’
‘You’re leaving the works! you’re leaving the works!’ bawled his wife,
quite furious and distracted as she took her stand before him. ‘So
that two months’ strike, which made us spend all our savings, wasn’t
enough, eh? It’s for you to pay the piper now, eh? So we shall die of
starvation, and I shall have to go about naked!’
He did not lose his temper, but gently answered: ‘It’s quite possible
that you won’t have a new gown for New Year’s Day, and perhaps too we
shall have to go on short commons. But I repeat to you that I’m doing
what I ought to do!’
She did not give up the battle as yet, but drew still nearer, shouting
in his face: ‘Oh, bunkum! you needn’t imagine that folks will be
grateful to you! Your mates don’t scruple to say that if it hadn’t been
for that strike of yours they’d never have starved during those two
months. Do you know what they’ll say when they hear that you’ve left
the works? They’ll say that it serves you right, and that you’re only
an idiot! I’ll never allow you to do such a foolish thing! You hear,
you’ll go back to-morrow!’
Bonnaire looked at her fixedly with his bright and steady eyes. If as
a rule he gave way on points of domestic policy, if he allowed her
to reign despotically in ordinary household matters, he became like
iron whenever any case of conscience arose. And so, without raising
his voice, in a firm tone which she well knew, he answered: ‘You will
please keep quiet. Those are matters for us men; women like you don’t
understand anything about them, and so it’s better that they shouldn’t
meddle with them. You’re very nice, but the best thing you can do is to
go on mending your linen again if you don’t want a quarrel.’
He thereupon pushed her towards the chair near the lamp, and forced her
to sit down again. Conquered, trembling with wrath which she knew would
henceforth be futile, she took up her needle, and made a pretence of
feeling no further interest in the questions from which she had been so
decisively thrust aside. Awakened by the noise of voices, Daddy Lunot
her father, without evincing any astonishment at the sight of so many
people, lighted his pipe once more and listened to the talk with the
air of an old philosopher who had lost every illusion; whilst in their
little bed the children Lucien and Antoinette, likewise roused from
their slumber, opened their eyes widely, and seemed to be striving to
understand the serious things which the big folk were saying.
Bonnaire was now addressing himself to Luc, as if to invoke his
‘Each has his honour, is that not so, monsieur? The strike was
inevitable, and if it had to be begun over again, I should begin it
over again–that is, I should employ my influence in urging my mates to
try to secure justice. One can’t let oneself be devoured–work ought
to be paid at its proper price, unless men are willing to become mere
slaves. And we were so much in the right that Monsieur Delaveau had to
give way on every point by accepting our new wage tariff. But I can now
see that he is furious, and that somebody, as my wife puts it, has got
to pay for the damage. If I were not to go off willingly to-day, he’d
find a pretext for turning me out to-morrow. So what? Am I to hang on
obstinately and become a pretext for everlasting disputes? No, no! It
would all fall on my mates, it would bring them all sorts of worries,
and it would be very wrong of me. I pretended to go back, because my
mates talked of continuing the strike if I didn’t. But now that they
are all back at work and quite quiet I prefer to take myself off. That
will settle everything; none of them will stir, and I shall have done
what I ought to do. That’s my view of honour, monsieur–each has his
He said all this with simple grandeur, with so easy and courageous
an air that Luc felt deeply touched. From that man whom he had seen
black and taciturn, toiling so painfully before his furnace, from that
man whom he had seen gentle and kindly, tolerant and conciliatory in
household matters, there now arose one of the heroes of labour, one
of those obscure strugglers who have given their whole being to the
cause of justice, and who carry their brotherliness to the point of
immolating themselves in silence for the sake of others.
Without ceasing to draw her needle La Toupe meanwhile repeated
violently: ‘And we shall starve.’
‘And we shall starve, it’s quite possible,’ said Bonnaire, ‘but I shall
be able to sleep in peace.’
Ragu began to sneer. ‘Oh! starve, that’s useless, that’s never done any
good. Not that I defend the masters–a pretty gang they are, all of
them! Only as we need them we always have come to an understanding with
them, and do pretty well as they want.’
He rattled on, jesting, and revealing his true nature. He was the
average workman, neither good nor bad, the spoilt product of the
present-day wage system. He cried out at times against capitalist rule,
he was enraged by the strain of the labour imposed on him, and was even
capable of a short rebellion. But prolonged atavism had bent him; he
really had the soul of a slave, respecting established traditions and
envying the employer–that sovereign master who possessed and enjoyed
everything; and the only covert ambition that he nourished was that of
taking the employer’s place some fine morning in order to possess and
enjoy life in his turn. Briefly his ideal was to do nothing, to be the
master so that he might have nothing to do.
‘Ah! that pig Delaveau!’ he said, ‘I should like to be just a week in
his skin and to see him in mine. It would amuse me to see him smoking
one of those big cigars of his while making a ball. But everything
happens, you know, and we may all become masters in the next shake-up!’
This idea amused Bourron vastly; he gaped with admiration before Ragu
whenever they had drunk together. ‘That’s true, ah! dash it, what a
spree it will be when we become the masters!’
But Bonnaire shrugged his shoulders, full of contempt for that base
conception of the future victory of the toilers over their exploiters.
He had read, reflected, and he thought he knew. Excited by all that had
just been said, wishing to show that he was right, he again spoke. In
his words Luc recognised the Collectivist idea such as it is formulated
by the irreconcilable ones of the party. First of all the nation had
to resume possession of the soil and all instruments of labour in
order to socialise and restore them to one and all. Then labour would
be reorganised, rendered general and compulsory, in such wise that
remuneration would be proportionate to the hours of toil which each man
supplied. The matter on which Bonnaire grew muddled was the practical
method to employ in order to establish this socialisation, and
particularly the working of it when it should be put into practice; for
such intricate machinery would need direction and control, a harsh and
vexatory State police system. And when Luc, who did not yet go so far
as Bonnaire did in his humanitarian cravings, offered some objections,
the other replied with the quiet faith of a believer: ‘Everything
belongs to us; we shall take everything back, so that each may have
his just share of work and rest, trouble and joy. There is no other
reasonable solution, the injustice and the sufferings of the world have
become too great.’
Even Ragu and Bourron agreed with this. Had not the wage-system
corrupted and poisoned everything! It was that which disseminated
anger and hatred, gave rise to class warfare, the long war of
extermination which capital and labour were waging. It was by the
wage-system that man had become wolfish towards man amidst the
conflict of egotism, the monstrous tyranny of a social system based
on iniquity. Misery had no other cause. The wage-system was the evil
ferment which engendered hunger with all its disastrous consequences,
theft, murder, prostitution, the downfall and rebellion of men and
women cast beyond the pale of love, thrown like perverse, destructive
forces athwart society. And there was only one remedy, the abolition
of the wage-system, which must be replaced by the other, the new,
dreamt-of system, whose secret to-morrow would disclose. From that
point began the battle of the systems, each man thinking that in his
own system rested the happiness of the coming centuries; and a bitter
political _mêlée_ resulted from the clashing of the Socialist parties,
each of which sought to impose on the others its own plans for the
reorganisation of labour and the equitable distribution of wealth. But
none the less the wage-system in its present form was condemned by one
and all, and nothing could save it; it had served its time, and it
would disappear even as slavery, once so universal, had disappeared
when one of the periods of mankind’s history had ended by reason of the
ever-constant onward march. That wage-system even now was but a dead
organ which threatened to poison the whole body, and which the life of
nations must necessarily eliminate under penalty of coming to a tragic
‘For instance,’ Bonnaire continued, ‘those Qurignons who founded the
Abyss were not bad-hearted people. The last one, Michel, who came to
so sad an end, tried to ameliorate the workman’s lot. It is to him
one owes the creation of a pension fund, for which he gave the first
hundred thousand francs, engaging also to double every year such sums
as were paid in by the subscribers. He also established a free library,
a reading-room, a dispensary where one can see the doctor gratis twice
a week, a workshop, too, and a school for the children. And though
Monsieur Delaveau isn’t at all so well disposed towards the men, he
has naturally been obliged to respect all that. It has been working
for years now, but when all is said it’s of no good at all. It’s mere
charity; it isn’t justice! It may go on working for years and years
without starvation and misery being any the less. No, no, the people
who talk of “relieving” distress are simply good-natured fools; there’s
no relief possible, the evil has to be cut off at the root.’
At this moment old Lunot, whom the others thought asleep again, spoke
from out of the shadows: ‘I knew the Qurignons,’ said he.
Luc turned and perceived him on his chair, vainly pulling at his
extinguished pipe. He was fifty years old, and had remained nearly
thirty years a drawer at the Abyss. Short and stout as he was, with a
pale, puffy face, one might have thought that the furnaces had swollen
instead of withering him. Perhaps it was the water with which he had
been obliged to drench himself in the performance of his work that had
first given him the rheumatics. At all events he had been attacked
in the legs at an early age, and now he could only walk with great
difficulty. And as he had not fulfilled the necessary conditions to
obtain even the ridiculous pension of three hundred francs a year[3]
to which the new workmen would be entitled later on, he would have
perished of starvation in the streets, like some old stricken beast
of burden, if his daughter, La Toupe, on the advice of Bonnaire, had
not taken him in, making him pay for her generosity in this respect by
subjecting him to continual reproaches and all sorts of privations.
‘Ah, yes,’ he slowly repeated, ‘I knew the Qurignons. There was
Monsieur Michel, who’s now dead and who was five years older than me.
And there’s still Monsieur Jérôme, under whom I first went to the
works when I was eighteen years old. He was already forty-five at that
time, but that doesn’t prevent him from still being alive. But before
Monsieur Jérôme, there was Monsieur Blaise, the founder, who first
installed himself at the Abyss with his tilt-hammers nigh on eighty
years ago. I didn’t know him myself. But my father Jean Ragu, and my
grandfather, Pierre Ragu, worked with him; and one may even say that
Pierre Ragu was his mate, since they were both mere workmen with hardly
a copper in their pockets when they started on the job together, in
the gorge of the Bleuse Mountains, then deserted, near the bank of
the Mionne, where there was a waterfall. The Qurignons made a big
fortune, whereas here am I, Jacques Ragu, with my bad legs and never
a copper, and here’s my son, Auguste, who’ll never be any richer than
I am after thirty years’ hard work, to say nothing of my daughter and
her children, who are all threatened with starvation, just as the Ragus
have always been for a hundred years or more.’
It was not angrily that he said these things, but rather with the
resignation of an old stricken animal. For a moment he looked at his
pipe, surprised at seeing no smoke ascend from it. Then, remarking that
Luc was listening to him with compassionate interest, he concluded with
a slight shrug of the shoulders: ‘Bah! monsieur, that’s the fate of
all of us poor devils! There will always be masters and workmen. My
grandfather and father were just as I am, and my son will be the same
too. What’s the use of rebelling? Each of us draws his lot when he’s
born. All the same, one thing that’s desirable when a man gets old
is that he should at least have the means to buy himself sufficient
‘Tobacco!’ cried La Toupe, ‘why you’ve smoked two sous’ worth to-day!
Do you imagine that I’m going to keep you in tobacco, now that we
sha’n’t even be able to buy bread?’
To her father’s great despair she rationed him with respect to tobacco.
It was in vain that he tried to get his pipe alight again; decidedly
only ashes were left in it. And Luc, with increasing compassion in
his heart, continued looking at him as he sat there, huddled up on
his chair. The wage-system ended in that lamentable wreck of a man,
the worker done for at fifty years of age, the drawer condemned to
be always a drawer, deformed, hebetated, reduced to imbecility and
paralysis by his mechanical toil. In that poor being there survived
nothing save the fatalist sentiment of slavery.
But Bonnaire protested superbly: ‘No, no! It won’t always be like that,
there won’t always be masters and toilers; the day will come when one
and all will be free and joyful men! Our sons will perhaps see that
day, and it is really worth while that we the fathers should suffer a
little more if thereby we are to procure happiness for them to-morrow.’
‘Dash it!’ exclaimed Ragu, in a merry way. ‘Hurry up, I should like to
see that. It would just suit me to have nothing more to do, and to eat
chicken at every meal!’
‘And me too, and me too!’ seconded Bourron in ecstasy. ‘Keep me a
With a gesture expressive of utter disillusion, old Lunot silenced
them in order to resume: ‘Let all that be, those are the things one
hopes for when one’s young! A man’s head is full of folly then, and
he imagines that he’s going to change the world. But then the world
goes on, and he’s swept away with the others. I bear no grudge against
anybody, I don’t. At times, when I can drag myself about a bit, I meet
Monsieur Jérôme in his little conveyance, which a servant pushes along.
And I take off my cap to him, because it’s only fit that one should
do so to a man who gave one work to do, and who’s so rich. I fancy,
though, that he doesn’t know me, for he contents himself with looking
at me with those eyes of his, which seem to be full of clear water. But
when all’s said the Qurignons drew the big prize, so they are entitled
to be respected.’
Ragu thereupon related that Bourron and he, on leaving the works that
very evening, had seen Monsieur Jérôme pass in his little conveyance.
They had taken off their caps to him, and that was only natural. How
could they do otherwise without being impolite? All the same, that a
Ragu should be on foot in the mud, with his stomach empty, bowing to a
well-dressed Qurignon with a rug over him and a servant wheeling him
about like a baby who’d grown too fat, why that was enough to put one
in a rage. In fact it gave one the idea of throwing one’s tools into
the water and compelling the rich to shell out, in order that one might
take one’s turn in doing nothing.
‘Doing nothing, no, no! That would be death,’ resumed Bonnaire.
‘Everybody ought to work, in that way happiness would be won, and
unjust misery would at last be vanquished. One must not envy those
Qurignons. When they are quoted as examples, when people say to us:
“You see very well that with intelligence, toil, and economy, a workman
may acquire a large fortune,” I feel a little irritated, because I
understand very well that all that money can only have been gained by
exploiting our mates, by docking their food and their liberty; and
a horrid thing like that is always paid for some day! The excessive
prosperity of any one individual will never be in keeping with general
happiness. No doubt we have to wait if we want to know what the future
has in reserve for each of us. But I’ve told you what my idea is–that
those youngsters of mine in the bed yonder, who are listening to us,
may some day be happier than I shall ever be, and that later on their
children may in turn be happier than they. To bring that about we only
have to resolve on justice, to come to an understanding like brothers,
and secure it, even at the price of a good deal more wretchedness.’
As Bonnaire said, Lucien and Antoinette had not gone to sleep again.
Interested apparently by all those people who were talking so late,
they lay, plump and rosy, with their heads motionless on the bolster, a
thoughtful expression appearing in their large eyes, as if indeed they
could understand the conversation.
‘Some day happier than us!’ said La Toupe viciously. ‘Yes, of course,
that is if they don’t perish of want to-morrow, since you’ll have no
more bread to give them.’
Those words fell on Bonnaire like a hatchet-stroke. He staggered,
quailing amidst his dream beneath the sudden icy chill of the misery
which he seemed to have sought by quitting the works. And Luc felt
the quiver of that misery pass through that large bare room where the
little petroleum lamp was smoking dismally. Was not the struggle an
impossible one? Would they not all–grandfather, father, mother, and
children–be condemned to an early death if the wage-earner should
persist in his impotent protest against capital? Heavy silence came,
a big black shadow seemed to fall chilling the room, and for a moment
darkening every face.
But a knock was heard, followed by laughter, and in came Babette,
Bourron’s wife, with her dollish face which ever wore a merry look.
Plump and fresh, with a white skin and heavy tresses of a wheaten
hue, she seemed like eternal spring. Failing to find her husband at
Caffiaux’s wine-shop, she had come to seek him at Bonnaire’s, well
knowing that he had some trouble in getting home when she did not lead
him thither herself. Moreover, she showed no desire to scold; on the
contrary she seemed amused, as if she thought it only right that her
husband should have taken a little enjoyment.
‘Ah! here you are, father Joy!’ she gaily cried when she perceived him.
‘I suspected that you were still with Ragu, and that I should find you
here. It’s late, you know, old man. I’ve put Marthe and Sébastien to
bed, and now I’ve got to put you to bed too!’
Even as she never got angry with him, so Bourron never got angry with
her, for she showed so much good grace in carrying him off from his
‘Ah! that’s a good ‘un!’ he cried. ‘Did you hear it? My wife puts me to
bed! Well, well, I’m agreeable since it always has to end like that!’
He rose, and Babette, realising by the gloominess of everybody’s face,
that she had stumbled upon some serious worry, perhaps even a quarrel,
endeavoured to arrange matters. She, in her own household, sang from
morning till night, showing much affection for her husband, consoling
him and telling him triumphant stories of future prosperity whenever
he felt discouraged. The hateful want in which she had been living
ever since childhood had made no impression upon her good spirits. She
was quite convinced that things would turn out all right, and for ever
seemed to be on the road to Paradise.
‘What is the matter with you all?’ she asked. ‘Are the children ill?’
Then, as La Toupe once more exploded, relating that Bonnaire was
leaving the works, that they would all be dead of starvation before a
week was over, and that all Beauclair, indeed, would follow suit, for
people were far too wretched and it was no longer possible to live,
Babette burst forth into protests, predicting no end of prosperous days
of sunshine, in her gay and confident manner.
‘No, no, indeed!’ she cried. ‘Don’t upset yourself like that, my dear.
Everything will settle down, you’ll see. Everybody will work and
everybody will be happy.’
Then she led her husband away, diverting him as she did so, saying such
comical and affectionate things that he, likewise jesting, followed her
with docility, his inebriety being subjugated and rendered inoffensive.
Luc was making up his mind to follow them when La Toupe, in putting
her work together on the table, there perceived the key which she had
thrown down for her brother to pick up.
‘Well, are you going to take it?’ she exclaimed. ‘Are you going to bed
or not? You’ve been told that your hussy’s waiting for you somewhere.
Oh! you’re free to take her back again if you choose, you know!’
For a moment Ragu, in a sneering way, let the key swing from one of his
thumbs. Throughout the evening he had been shouting in Bourron’s face
that he did not mean to feed a lazybones who had stupidly lost a finger
in a boot-stitching machine, and had not known how to get sufficient
compensation for it. Since his return, however, he had become more
sober, and no longer felt so maliciously obstinate. Besides, his sister
exasperated him with her perpetual attempts to dictate a proper line of
conduct to him.
‘Of course I can take her back if I choose,’ he said. ‘After all she’s
as good as many another. One might kill her and she wouldn’t say a bad
word to one.’ Then turning to Bonnaire, who had remained silent: ‘She’s
stupid, is Josine, he said, ‘to be always getting frightened like that.
Where has she got to now?’
‘She’s waiting on the stairs with Nanet,’ said the master puddler.
Ragu thereupon threw the door wide open to shout: ‘Josine! Josine!’
Nobody replied, however, not the faintest sound came from the dense
darkness enveloping the stairs. In the faint gleam of light which the
lamp cast in the direction of the landing one could see merely Nanet,
who stood there, seemingly watching and waiting.
‘Ah! there you are, you little rascal!’ cried Ragu. ‘What on earth are
you doing there?’
The child was in no wise disconcerted, he did not so much as flinch.
Drawing up his little figure, no taller than a jackboot, he bravely
answered: ‘I was listening so as to know.’
‘And your sister, where’s she? Why doesn’t she answer when she’s
‘_Ma grande_? She was upstairs with me, sitting on the stairs. But when
she heard you come in here, she was afraid that you might go up to beat
her. So she thought it best to go down again, so that she could run
away if you were bad-tempered.’
This made Ragu laugh. Besides the lad’s pluck amused him. ‘And you,
aren’t you frightened?’ he asked.
‘I? If you touch me, I’ll shriek so loud that my sister will be warned
and able to run away.’
Quite softened, the man went to lean over the stairs, and call again:
‘Josine! Josine! Here, come up, don’t be stupid. You know very well
that I sha’n’t kill you.’
But the same death-like silence continued, nothing stirred, nothing
ascended from the darkness. And Luc, whose presence was no longer
requisite, took leave, bowing to La Toupe, who with her lips compressed
stiffly bent her head. The children had gone off to sleep again. Old
Lunot, still with his extinguished pipe in his mouth, had managed to
reach the little chamber where he slept, hugging the walls on his way.
And Bonnaire, who in his turn had sunk upon a chair, silent amidst his
cheerless surroundings, his eyes gazing far away into the threatening
future, was waiting for an opportunity to follow his terrible wife to
‘Keep up your courage, _au revoir_,’ said Luc to him, whilst vigorously
shaking his hand.
On the landing Ragu was still calling, in tones which now became
entreating: ‘Josine! come, Josine! I tell you that I’m no longer angry.’
And as no sign of life came from the darkness he turned towards Nanet,
who meddled with nothing, preferring that his sister should act as she
pleased: ‘Perhaps she’s run off,’ said the man.
‘Oh! no, where would you have her go? She must have sat down on the
stairs again.’
Luc was now descending, clinging the while to the greasy rope and
feeling the high and precipitous stairs with his feet for fear lest
he should fall, so dense was the darkness. It seemed to him as if he
were descending into a black abyss by means of a fragile ladder placed
between two damp walls. And as he went lower and lower he fancied that
he could hear some stifled sobs rising from the dolorous depths of the
Overhead Ragu resumed resolutely: ‘Josine! Josine! Why don’t you
come–do you want me to go and fetch you?’
Then Luc paused, for he detected a faint breath approaching, something
warm and gentle, a light, living quiver, scarcely perceptible, which
became more and more tremulous as it drew nearer. And he stepped back
close to the wall, for he well understood that a human creature was
about to pass him, invisibly, recognisable only by the discreet touch
of her figure, as she went upward.
‘It is I, Josine,’ he whispered, in order that she might not be
The little breath was still ascending, and no reply came. But that
creature, all distress and misery, passed, brushing lightly, almost
imperceptibly against him. And a feverish little hand caught hold of
his own, a burning mouth was pressed to that hand of his, and kissed it
ardently, in an impulse of infinite gratitude instinct with the gift
of a soul. She thanked him, she gave herself, like one unknown, veiled
from sight, full of the sweetest girlishness. Not a word was exchanged;
there was only that silent kiss, moistened by warm tears, in the dense
The little breath had already passed, the light form was still
ascending. And Luc remained overcome, affected to the depths of his
being by that faint touch. The kiss of those invisible lips had gone
to his heart. A sweet and powerful charm had flowed into his veins.
He tried to think that he simply felt well pleased at having at last
helped Josine to secure a resting-place that night. But why had she
been weeping, seated on the step of the stairs on the very threshold of
the house? And why had she so long delayed returning an answer to the
man overhead, who offered her a lodging once more? Was it that she had
experienced mortal grief and regret, that she had sobbed at the thought
of some unrealisable dream, and that in going up at last she had simply
yielded to the necessity of resuming the life which fate condemned her
to lead?
For the last time Ragu’s voice was heard up above. ‘Ah! there you
are–it’s none too soon. Come, you big stupid, let’s go up. We sha’n’t
kill one another to-night, at any rate.’
Then Luc fled, feeling such despair that he instinctively sought the
why and wherefore of that frightful bitterness. Whilst he found his
way with difficulty through the dim maze of the filthy lanes of Old
Beauclair he pondered over things and gave rein to his compassion. Poor
girl! She was the victim of her surroundings, never would she have led
such a life had it not been for the crushing weight and perverting
influence of misery and want. And, picturing mankind as plough land,
Luc thought how thoroughly it would have to be turned over in order
that work might become honour and delight, in order that strong and
healthy love might sprout and flower amidst a great harvest of truth
and justice! Meantime, it was evidently best that the poor girl should
remain with that man Ragu, provided that he did not ill-treat her too
much. Then Luc glanced upward at the sky. The tempest blast had ceased
blowing, and stars were appearing between the heavy and motionless
clouds. But how dark was the night, how great the melancholy in which
his heart was steeped!
All at once he came out on the bank of the Mionne near the wooden
bridge. In front of him was the Abyss ever at work, sending forth a
dull rumble amidst the clear dancing notes of its tilt-hammers which
the deeper thuds of the helve-hammers punctuated. Now and again a fiery
glow transpierced the gloom, and huge livid clouds of smoke passing
athwart the rays of the electric lamps showed like a stormy horizon
about the works. And the nocturnal life of that monster whose furnaces
were never extinguished brought back to Luc a vision of murderous
labour, imposed on men as in a convict prison, and remunerated, for
the most part, with mistrust and contempt. Then Bonnaire’s handsome
face passed before the young fellow’s eyes; he perceived him as he
had left him, in the dim room yonder, overcome like a vanquished man
in presence of the uncertain future. And without transition there came
another memory of his evening, the vague profile of Lange the potter,
pouring forth his curse with all the vehemence of a prophet, predicting
the destruction of Beauclair beneath the sum of its crimes. But at that
hour the terrorised town had fallen asleep, and all one could see of it
on the fringe of the plain was a confused dense mass where not a light
gleamed. Nothing indeed seemed to exist save the Abyss, whose hellish
life knew no respite; there a noise as of thunder continually rolled
by, and flames incessantly devoured the lives of men.
Suddenly a clock struck midnight in the distance. And Luc then crossed
the bridge and again went down the Brias road on his way back to La
Crêcherie, where his bed awaited him. As he was reaching it a mighty
glow suddenly illumined the whole district, the two promontories of
the Bleuse Mountains, the slumbering roofs of the town, and even the
far-away fields of La Roumagne. That glow came from the blast furnace
whose black silhouette appeared half way up the height as in the midst
of a conflagration. And as Luc raised his eyes it once more seemed to
him as if he beheld some red dawn, the sunrise promised to his dream of
the renovation of humanity.