This was a first painful shock

During the four years that La Crêcherie had been established covert
hatred of Luc had been rising from Beauclair. At first there had
only been so much hostile astonishment accompanied by malicious
pleasantries, but since folk had been affected in their interests anger
had arisen, with a furious desire to resist that public enemy by all
possible weapons.
It was more particularly among the petty traders, the retail
shopkeepers, that anxiety at first displayed itself. The co-operative
stores of La Crêcherie, which had been regarded with derision when
first inaugurated, were now proving successful, counting among their
customers not only the factory hands, but also all the inhabitants who
adhered to them. As may be imagined, the old purveyors were thrown
into great emotion by that terrible competition, that new tariff which
in many instances meant a reduction of one third on former prices.
Ruin would soon ensue if that wretched Luc were to prevail with those
disastrous ideas of his, tending to a more just apportionment of
wealth, and aiming in the first instance at enabling the humble ones
of the world to live more comfortably and cheaply. The butchers, the
grocers, the bakers, the wine dealers, would all have to put up their
shutters if people were to succeed in doing without them. Thus the
tradespeople shouted in chorus that it was abominable. To them society
did indeed seem to be cracking and collapsing now that they could no
longer levy the profits of parasites, and thereby increase the misery
of the poor.
The most affected of all, however, were the Laboques, those ironmongers
who, after beginning life as market hawkers, had ended by establishing
something like a huge bazaar at the corner of the Rue de Brias and
the Place de la Mairie. The prices for the iron of commerce had
fallen considerably throughout the district since La Crêcherie had
been turning out large quantities; and the worst was that with the
co-operative movement now gaining upon the smaller works of the
neighbourhood, a time seemed coming when consumers would procure direct
at the co-operative stores, without passing through the clutches of
the Laboques, such articles as Chodorge’s nails, Hausser’s scythes
and sickles, and Mirande’s agricultural appliances and tools. Apart
from their output of raw iron and steel the Crêcherie stores were
already supplying several of those articles, and thus the amount of
business transacted by the Laboques became smaller every day. Their
rage therefore knew no end; they were exasperated by what they termed
that ‘debasement of prices,’ and regarded themselves as robbed, simply
because their useless cogwheels were no longer being allowed to consume
energy and wealth with profit for nobody save themselves. Their
house had thus naturally become a centre of hostility, opposition,
and hatred, in which Luc’s name was never mentioned otherwise than
with execration. There met Dacheux the butcher, stammering forth
his reactionary rage, and Caffiaux the grocer and wine-seller, who,
although reeking of rancour, was of a colder temperament and weighed
his own interests carefully. Even the beautiful Madame Mitaine, the
baker’s wife, though inclined to agreement, came at times and lamented
with the others the loss of a few of her customers.
‘Do you know,’ Laboque cried, ‘that this Monsieur Luc, as people call
him, has at bottom only one idea, that of destroying trade? Yes, he
boasts of it, he shouts the monstrous words aloud: “Trade is robbery.”
For him we are all robbers, and we’ve got to disappear! It was to sweep
us away that he established La Crêcherie.’
Dacheux listened with dilated eyes, and all his blood rushing to his
face. ‘Then how will one manage to eat and clothe oneself, and all the
rest?’ he asked.
‘Well, he says that the consumer will apply direct to the producer.’
‘And the money?’ the butcher asked.
‘Money? Why, he suppresses that too! There’s to be no more money. Isn’t
it stupid, eh? As if people could live without money!’
At this Dacheux almost choked with fury. ‘No more trade! no more money!
Why, he wants to destroy everything. Isn’t there a prison for such a
bandit? He’ll ruin Beauclair if we don’t put a stop to it!’
But Caffiaux was gravely wagging his head. ‘He says a good many more
things. He says first of all that everybody ought to work–he wants
to turn the world into a perfect stone-yard, where there’ll be guards
with staves to see that everybody does his task. He says, too, that
there ought to be neither rich nor poor; according to him one will be
no richer when one’s born than when one dies; one will eat according to
what one earns, neither more nor less, too, than one’s neighbour; and
one won’t even have the right to save up money.’
‘Well, but what about inheritances?’ put in Dacheux.
‘There will be no more inheritances.’
‘What! no more inheritances? I shan’t be able to leave my daughter my
own money? Thunder! that is coming it too strong!’ And thereupon the
butcher banged his fist on the table with such violence that it shook.
‘He says, too,’ continued Caffiaux, ‘that there will be no more
authorities of any kind, no government, no gendarmes, no judges, no
prisons. Each will live as he pleases, eat and sleep as he fancies. He
says also that machinery will end by doing all the work, and that the
workmen will simply have to drive it. It is to be the earthly paradise,
because there will be no more fighting, no more armies, and no more
wars. And he says, moreover, that when men and women love one another
they will remain together as long as they please and then bid each
other good-bye in a friendly fashion, to take up with others later on
if they are so inclined. And as for children, the community will take
charge of them, bring them up in a heap as chance may have it, without
any need of a mother’s or a father’s attentions.’
Beautiful Madame Mitaine, who hitherto had remained silent, now began
to protest: ‘Oh, the poor little ones!’ said she. ‘I hope that each
mother will at least have the right to bring up her own. It’s all very
well for the children who are forsaken by their parents to be brought
up pell-mell by strangers as in orphan asylums. But really it seems to
me that what you have been telling us is hardly proper.’
‘Say at once that it’s filthy!’ roared Dacheux, who was beside himself.
‘Why, their famous future society will simply be a house of ill-fame!’
Then Laboque, who did not lose sight of his threatened interests,
concluded: ‘That Monsieur Luc is mad. We cannot let him ruin and
dishonour Beauclair in this fashion! We shall have to agree together
and take steps to stop it all.’
The anger increased, however, and there was a universal explosion
when Beauclair learnt that the infectious disease of La Crêcherie was
spreading to the neighbouring village of Les Combettes. Stupefaction
was manifested, condemnation was passed on all sides–that Monsieur Luc
was now debauching, poisoning the peasantry! After reconciling the four
hundred inhabitants of the village, Lenfant, the mayor, assisted by his
deputy, Yvonnot, had induced them to put their land in common by virtue
of a deed of association similar to that which linked capital, talent,
and work together at La Crêcherie. Henceforth there would be but one
large estate, in such wise that machinery might be used, that manure
might be applied on a large scale, and high cultivation practised with
a view to increasing the crops tenfold and reaping large profits, which
would be shared by one and all. Moreover, the two associations, that
of La Crêcherie and that of Les Combettes, would mutually consolidate
each other; the peasants would supply the workmen with bread, and the
workmen would supply the peasants with tools and manufactured articles
necessary for life, in such a way that there would be a conjunction
of two inimical classes, tending by degrees to fusion, and forming
the embryo of a brotherly people. Assuredly the old world would come
to an end if Socialism should win over the peasantry, the innumerable
toilers of the country districts, who had hitherto been regarded as the
ramparts of egotistical ownership, preferring to die of unremunerative
labour on their strips of land rather than part with them. The shock of
this change was felt throughout Beauclair, and a shudder passed like a
warning of the coming catastrophe.
Again the Laboques were the first to be affected. They lost the custom
of Les Combettes. They no longer saw Lenfant nor any of the others come
to buy spades, ploughs, tools, and utensils. On the last occasion when
Lenfant called he haggled and finally bought nothing, plainly declaring
to them that he would gain thirty per cent, by no longer dealing with
them, since they were compelled to levy such a profit on articles which
they themselves procured at neighbouring works. Henceforth all the folk
of Les Combettes addressed themselves direct to La Crêcherie, adhering
to the co-operative stores there, which grew and grew in importance.
And then terror set in among all the petty retailers of Beauclair.
‘One must act, one must act!’ Laboque repeated with growing violence
each time that Dacheux and Caffiaux came to see him. ‘If we wait till
that madman has infected the whole region with his monstrous doctrines,
we shall be too late.’
‘But what can be done?’ Caffiaux prudently inquired.
Dacheux for his part favoured brutal slaughter. ‘One might wait for him
one evening at a street corner and treat him to one of those hidings
which give a man food for reflection.’
But Laboque, puny and cunning, dreamt of some safer means of killing
his man. ‘No, no, the whole town is rising against him, and we must
wait for an opportunity when we shall have the whole town on our side.’
Such an opportunity did indeed arise. For centuries past old Beauclair
had been traversed by a filthy rivulet, a kind of open drain, which was
called the Clouque. It was not known whence it came; it seemed to flow
up from under some antique hovels at the opening of the Brias gorges,
and according to the common opinion it was one of those mountain
torrents whose sources remain unknown. Some very old inhabitants
remembered having seen it in full flood at certain periods. But for
long years already it had supplied very little water, which various
industries contaminated. The housewives dwelling beside it had even
ended by using it as a natural sink into which they emptied all sorts
of slops, in such wise that it carried with it much of the filth of the
poor district, and in summer sent forth an abominable stench. At one
moment there had been serious fears of an epidemic, and the municipal
council, at the mayor’s initiative, had debated whether it should not
be covered over. But the expense seemed too great, so the matter was
shelved and the Clouque quietly continued perfuming and contaminating
the neighbourhood. All at once, however, it quite ceased to flow, dried
up apparently, leaving only a hard rocky bed in which there was no
longer a single drop of water. As by the touch of some magician’s wand
Beauclair was rid of that source of infection, to which all the bad
fevers of the district had been attributed. And all that remained was
a feeling of curiosity as to whither the torrent might have betaken
At first there were only some vague rumours on the subject. Then
more precise statements were made, and it became certain that it was
Monsieur Luc who had begun to divert the torrent from its usual course
by capturing the springs on the slopes of the Bleuse Mountains for
the needs of La Crêcherie, whose health and prosperity came largely
from its abundant supply of beautiful, clear water. But the climax had
come, all the water of the torrent being diverted by Luc, when it had
occurred to him to give the overplus of his reservoirs to the peasants
of Les Combettes, in that way founding their fortune, and bringing
about their happy association; for it was that beneficent water,
flowing on for one and all, that had first united them together. Before
long proofs became plentiful, the water which had disappeared from the
Clouque was streaming along the Grand-Jean, and turned to intelligent
use, was becoming wealth instead of filth and death. Then rancour and
rage arose and grew against that man Luc, who disposed so lightly of
what did not belong to him. Why had he stolen the torrent? Why did he
keep it and give it to his creatures? It was not right that people
should in that way take the water of a town, a stream which had always
flowed there, which people were accustomed to see, and which, whatever
might be said to the contrary, had rendered great services. The meagre
streamlet, transporting filthy detritus, exhaling pestilence and
killing people, was forgotten. Folk talked no more of burying it,
each recounted what great benefit he or she had derived from it, for
watering, for washing, and for the daily needs of life. Such a theft
could not be tolerated; it was absolutely necessary that La Crêcherie
should restore the Clouque, that filthy drain which had poisoned the
Naturally enough it was Laboque who shouted the loudest. He paid
an official visit to Gourier, the mayor, to inquire what decision
he intended to propose to the Municipal Council under such grave
circumstances. He, Laboque, claimed to be particularly injured, for the
Clouque had flowed behind his house, at the end of his little garden;
and he alleged that he had derived considerable advantages therefrom.
If he had drawn up a protest and sought to collect signatures he would
undoubtedly have obtained those of all the inhabitants of his district.
But, in his opinion, the town itself ought to take the affair in hand,
and commence an action against La Crêcherie, claiming the restitution
of the torrent, and damages for the temporary loss of it. Gourier
listened, and in spite of his own hatred against Luc, contented himself
with nodding approval. Finally he declared that he must have a few
days to reflect, look into the matter, and consult those around him.
He fully understood that Laboque was urging the town to take up the
matter, in order that he might not have to do so himself. And no doubt
Sub-Prefect Châtelard, whom all complications terrified and with whom
Gourier shut himself up for a couple of hours, was able to convince him
that it was always wise to let others embark in law-suits; for when the
mayor sent for the ironmonger again, it was only to explain to him at
great length that an action started by the town would drag on and lead
to nothing serious, whereas one brought by a private individual would
prove far more disastrous for La Crêcherie, particularly if after a
first condemnation other private individuals followed suit, prolonging
matters indefinitely.
A few days later Laboque issued a writ and claimed five and twenty
thousand francs damages. Taking as a pretext a kind of treat offered
by his son and daughter, Auguste and Eulalie, to their young friends,
Honorine Caffiaux, Évariste Mitaine, and Julienne Dacheux, Laboque
held quite a meeting at his house. The young folk were now fast
growing up–Auguste was sixteen and Eulalie nine; Évariste, now in
his fourteenth year, was already becoming serious, and Honorine,
nineteen, and thus of an age to marry, showed herself quite motherly
towards little Julienne, who was but eight years old, and therefore the
youngest of the party. The young people, it should be said, at once
installed themselves in the strip of garden, where they played and
laughed merrily, for their consciences were clear and gay, and they
knew nothing of hatred and anger such as consumed their parents.
‘We hold him at last!’ said Laboque to his friends. ‘Monsieur Gourier
told me that if we carried things to a finish we should ruin the works!
Let us admit that the court only awards me ten thousand francs. Well,
there are a hundred of you who can all bring similar actions, so he
would have to dip in his pockets for a million! And that is not all–he
will have to give us back the torrent and demolish the works he raised.
That will deprive him of that fine fresh water which he is so proud of.
Ah! my friends, what a good business!’
They all grew excited and triumphant at the idea of ruining the works
of La Crêcherie and lowering that fellow Luc, that madman who wished to
destroy trade, inheritances, money–in a word all the most venerable
foundations of human society. Caffiaux alone reflected.
‘I should have preferred to see an action brought by the town,’ said
he. ‘Whenever it’s a question of fighting the gentlefolk always want
others to do so. Where are the hundred people who will issue writs
against La Crêcherie?’
At this Dacheux exploded: ‘Ah! I would willingly join in, if my house
were not on the other side of the street. And even as things stand I
shall see if I cannot do something, for the Clouque passes at the end
of my mother-in-law’s yard. Yes, thunder! I must make one of you.’
‘But to begin,’ resumed Laboque, ‘there is Madame Mitaine, who is
circumstanced exactly as I am, and whose house suffers like mine since
the stream has ceased to flow. You will issue a writ, won’t you, Madame
He had craftily invited her that day with the express intention of
compelling her to enter into a formal agreement. He knew her to be
desirous of living in peace herself and of respecting the peace of
others. Nevertheless he hoped to win her over.
She at first began to laugh. ‘Oh! as for any harm done to my house by
the disappearance of the Clouque, no, no, neighbour; the truth is that
I had given orders that not a drop of that bad water was ever to be
used, for I feared I might render my customers ill. It was so dirty
and it smelt so bad that whenever it is given back to us we shall
have to spend the necessary money to get rid of it by making it pass
underground as there was formerly a question of doing.’
Laboque pretended that he did not hear this. ‘At all events, Madame
Mitaine,’ said he, ‘you are with us, your interests are the same as
ours, and if I win my suit you will act with all the other river-side
people, relying on the _chose jugée_, won’t you?’
‘We’ll see, we’ll see,’ replied the baker’s beautiful wife, becoming
grave. ‘I’m willing enough to be on the side of justice, if it is just.’
Laboque had to rest content with that conditional promise. Besides, his
state of excitement and rancour deprived him of all sense; he thought
that victory was already won, and that he was about to crush all those
socialist follies which in four years had diminished his sales by one
half. It was society that he avenged by banging his fist on the table
in company with Dacheux, whilst the prudent Caffiaux, before definitely
committing himself, waited to see which side would triumph.
Beauclair was quite upset when it heard of Laboque’s writ, and his
demand for an indemnity of twenty-five thousand francs. This was
indeed an ultimatum, a declaration of war. From that moment there
was a rallying-point around which all the scattered hatreds grouped
themselves into an army which pronounced itself vigorously against
Luc and his work, that diabolical factory, where the ruin of ancient
and respectable society was being forged. All Beauclair ended by
belonging to this army, the injured tradesmen drew their customers
together, and all the gentlefolk joined, since the new ideas quite
terrified them. Indeed, there was not a petty _rentier_ who did not
feel himself threatened by some frightful cataclysm, in which his own
narrow egotistical life would collapse. The women, too, were indignant
and disgusted now that La Crêcherie was depicted to them as a huge
disorderly house, the triumph of which, with its doctrine of free
love, would place them at any man’s mercy. Even the workmen, even the
starving poor, became anxious, and began to curse the man who dreamt
of saving them, but whom they accused of aggravating their misery
by increasing the pitilessness of their employers and the wealthy.
What distracted Beauclair more than all else, however, was a violent
campaign which the local newspaper, the little sheet published by
Lebleu the printer, started against Luc. This journal now appeared
twice a week, and Captain Jollivet was suspected of being the author of
the articles whose virulence was creating such a sensation. The attack,
it should be said, reduced itself to a cannonade of lies and errors,
all the muddy trash which is cast at Socialism by way of caricaturing
its intentions and besmirching its ideal. It was, however, certain
that such tactics would prove successful with poor ignorant brains,
and it was curious to see how greatly the indignation spread, uniting
against the disturber of the public peace all the old inimical classes,
which were furious at being disturbed in their ancient cesspool by a
pretended desire to reconcile them and lead them to the just, happy,
and healthy city of the future.
Two days before Laboque’s action was heard in the civil court of
Beauclair, the Delaveaus gave a grand lunch, with the secret object
of enabling their friends to meet and arrive at an agreement prior to
the battle. The Boisgelins naturally were invited, and so were Mayor
Gourier, Sub-Prefect Châtelard, Judge Gaume, with his son-in-law
Captain Jollivet, and finally Abbé Marle. The ladies of the various
families also attended, in order that the meeting might retain all the
semblance of a private pleasure party.
Châtelard that day, according to his wont, called on the mayor at
half-past eleven to fetch him and his wife, the ever-beautiful Léonore.
Ever since the success of La Crêcherie Gourier had been living in
anxiety. He had divined that a quiver was passing through the hundreds
of hands that he employed at his large boot-works in the Rue de Brias.
The men were evidently influenced by the new ideas, and inclined to
combine together. And he asked himself if it would not be better to
yield, to help on such combination himself, for he would be ruined by
it if he did not contrive to belong to it. This, however, was a worry
which he kept secret, for there was another which filled him with great
rancour, and made him Luc’s personal enemy. His son, indeed, that tall
young fellow Achille, so independent in his ways, had broken off all
connection with his parents and sought employment at La Crêcherie,
where he found himself near Ma-Bleue, his sweetheart of the starry
nights. Gourier had forbidden any mention of that ungrateful son, who
had deserted the _bourgeoisie_ to join the enemies of social security.
But although the mayor was unwilling to say it, his son’s departure had
aggravated his secret uncertainty, and brought him a covert fear that
he might some day be forced to imitate the youth’s example.
‘Well,’ said he to Châtelard, as soon as he saw the latter enter,
‘that lawsuit is at hand now. Laboque has been to see me again, as he
wanted some certificates. He is still of opinion that the town ought
to intervene, and it is really difficult to refuse him a helping hand
after egging him on as we did.’
The sub-prefect contented himself with smiling. ‘No, no, my friend,’ he
answered, ‘believe me, don’t involve the town in it. You were sensible
enough to yield to my reasoning, you refused to take proceedings,
and you allowed that terrible Laboque, who thirsts for vengeance
and massacre, to act by himself. That was fitting, and, I beg you,
persevere in that course, remain simply a spectator; there will always
be time to profit by Laboque’s victory if he should be victorious. Ah!
my friend, if you only knew what advantages one derives by meddling in
Then by a gesture he expressed all that he had in his mind, the peace
that he enjoyed in that sub-prefecture of his since he allowed himself
to be forgotten there. Things were going from bad to worse in Paris,
the central authorities were collapsing a little more each day, and
the time was near when _bourgeoise_ society would either crumble
to pieces or be swept away by a revolution. He, like a sceptical
philosopher, only asked that he might endure till then, and finish his
life happily in the warm little nest which he had chosen. His whole
policy therefore consisted in letting things go, in meddling with them
as little as possible; and he was convinced that the Government, amidst
the difficulties of its last days, was extremely grateful to him for
abandoning the beast to its death without creating any further worries.
A sub-prefect whom one never heard of, who by his intelligence had
effaced Beauclair from the number of governmental cares, was indeed
a precious functionary. Thus Châtelard got on extremely well; his
superiors only remembered him to cover him with praises, whilst he
quietly finished burying the old social system, spending the autumn of
his own days at the feet of the beautiful Léonore.
‘You hear, my friend,’ he continued, ‘don’t compromise yourself, for
in such times as ours one never knows what may happen on the morrow.
One must be prepared for everything, and the best course therefore is
to include oneself with nothing. Let the others run on ahead and take
all the risk of getting their bones broken. You will see very well
afterwards what you ought to do.’
However, Léonore now came into the room, gowned in light silk. Since
she had passed her fortieth year she had been looking younger than
ever, with her blonde majestic beauty and her candid eyes. Châtelard,
as gallant now as on the very first day, took her hand and kissed
it, whilst the husband with an air of relief glanced at the pair
‘Ah! you are ready,’ said he. ‘We will start then–eh, Châtelard? And
be easy, I am prudent, and have no desire to thrust myself into any
turmoil, which would destroy our peace and quietness. But by-and-by, at
Delaveau’s, you know, it will be necessary to say like the others.’
At that same hour Judge Gaume was waiting at home for his daughter
Lucile and his son-in-law Jollivet, who were to fetch him in order that
they might all repair to the lunch together. During the last four years
the judge had greatly aged. He seemed to have become yet more severe,
and sadder; and he carried strict attention to the letter of the law
to the point of mania, drawing up the preambles of his judgments with
increasing minuteness of detail. It was said that he had been heard
sobbing on certain evenings, as if he felt everything connected with
his life giving way, even that human justice to which he clung so
despairingly as to a last piece of wreckage which might save him from
sinking. Amidst his dolorous remembrance of the tragedy which weighed
upon his life–his wife’s betrayal and violent death–he must above all
else have suffered at seeing that drama begin afresh with his daughter
Lucile, of whom he was so fond, and who was so virginal of countenance,
and so strikingly like her mother. She in her turn was now deceiving
her husband. Indeed, she had not been married six months to Captain
Jollivet before she had taken a lover, a solicitor’s petty clerk, a
tall fair youth with blue girlish eyes, younger than herself. The
judge having surprised the intrigue, suffered from it as if it were a
renewal of that betrayal which had left an ever-bleeding wound in his
heart. He recoiled from a painful explanation, which would have brought
him perchance a repetition of the awful day when his wife had killed
herself before his eyes after confessing her fault. But how abominable
was that world in which all that he had loved had betrayed and failed
him! And how could one believe in any human justice when it was the
most beautiful and the best who made one suffer so cruelly!
Thoughtful and morose, Judge Gaume was seated in his private room,
where he had just finished reading the ‘Journal de Beauclair,’ when the
Captain and Lucile made their appearance. The violent article against
La Crêcherie which he had just read seemed to him foolish, clumsy, and
vulgar. And he quietly expressed his opinion to that effect.
‘It is not you, I hope, my good Jollivet, who write such articles, as
is rumoured. No good purpose is served by insulting one’s adversaries,’
he said.
The Captain made a gesture of embarrassment: ‘Oh, write!’ he retorted,
‘you know very well that I don’t write, it is not to my taste. But it’s
true that I give Lebleu some ideas, some notes, you know, on scraps of
paper, and he gets somebody or other to write articles based on them.’
Then, as the judge still pursed his lips disappprovingly, the captain
went on: ‘What else can one do? One fights with such weapons as one
has. If those cursed Madagascar fevers had not compelled me to send
in my papers, I should have fallen sabre and not pen in hand on those
idealogues who are demolishing everything with their criminal utopian
schemes. Ah! yes indeed, it would relieve me to be able to bleed a
dozen of them!’
Lucile, short and _mignonne_, had hitherto remained silent, with her
usual keen enigmatical smile upon her lips. But now she turned so
plainly ironical a glance upon her husband, that great man with the
victorious moustaches, that the judge easily detected in it all the
merry disdain she felt for a swashbuckler whom her little hands toyed
with as a cat may toy with a mouse.
‘Oh, Charles!’ said she, ‘don’t be wicked, don’t say things that
frighten me!’
But just then she met her father’s glance, and feared lest her true
feelings should be divined; so putting on her candid, virginal air
again, she added: ‘Isn’t it wrong of Charles to get so heated, father
dear? We ought to live quietly in our little corner.’
But Gaume detected that she was still jeering. ‘It is all very sad
and very cruel,’ said he by way of conclusion, virtually speaking to
himself. ‘What can one decide, what can one do when all deceive and
devour one another?’
He rose painfully, and took his hat and gloves in order to go to
Delaveau’s. Then in spite of everything, when once he was in the
street, and Lucile–of whom he was so fond, whatever the sufferings she
caused him–took hold of his arm, he enjoyed a moment of delightful
forgetfulness as after a lovers’ quarrel.
Meantime, when noon struck at the Abyss, Delaveau joined Fernande in
the little _salon_ opening into the dining-room of the pavilion built
by the Qurignons, which was now the home of the manager of the works.
It was a rather small dwelling; for, apart from the dining and drawing
rooms and the domestic offices, the ground floor only contained one
other apartment, which Delaveau had made his private room, and which
communicated by a wooden gallery with the general offices of the works.
Then on the first and second floors were some bed-rooms. Since a young
woman passionately fond of luxury had been living in the house, carpets
and hangings had imparted to the old floors and dark walls some little
of the splendour that she dreamt of.
Boisgelin was the first guest to arrive, and came unaccompanied.
‘What!’ exclaimed Fernande, as if greatly distressed, ‘is not Suzanne
with you?’
‘She begs you to excuse her,’ Boisgelin replied in very correct
fashion. ‘She woke up this morning with a sick headache, and has been
unable to leave her room.’
Each time that there was any question of going to the Abyss matters
took this course–Suzanne found some pretext for avoiding such an
aggravation of her grief, and only Delaveau, in his blindness, failed
to understand the truth.
Moreover, Boisgelin immediately changed the conversation. ‘Ah! so here
we are on the eve of the famous law-suit,’ said he. ‘It is as good as
settled, eh? La Crêcherie will be condemned!’
Delaveau shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘What does it matter to us
whether it be condemned or not?’ he replied. ‘It does us harm, no
doubt, by lowering the price of metal, but we don’t compete in
manufactured articles, and there is nothing very serious as yet.’
Fernande, who looked wondrously beautiful that day, stood quivering,
gazing at her husband with flaming eyes. ‘Oh! you don’t know how to
hate!’ she cried. ‘What! that man set himself to thwart all your plans,
founded at your very door a rival enterprise, the success of which
would be the ruin of the one you manage–a man, too, who never ceases
to be an obstacle and a threat–and you don’t even desire to see him
crushed! Ah! if he’s flung naked into a ditch I shall be only too
From the very first day she had felt that Luc would be the enemy, and
she could not speak calmly of that man who threatened her enjoyment
of life. Therein for her lay his one great unique crime. With her
ever-increasing appetite for pleasure and luxury, she required ever
larger profits, an abundance of prosperity for the works, hundreds and
hundreds of workmen, kneading, fashioning steel at the flaming doors
of their furnaces. She was the devourer of men and money, the one
whose cravings the Abyss with its steam hammers and its huge machinery
no longer sufficed to satisfy. And what would become of her hopes of
future pomp and vanity, of millions amassed and devoured, if the Abyss
should fall into difficulties, and succumb to competition? With that
thought in her mind, she left neither her husband nor Boisgelin any
rest, but ever urged them on, worried them incessantly, seizing every
opportunity to give expression to her anger and her fears.
Boisgelin, who feigned a superior kind of way–never meddling with
business matters, but spending the profits of the works without
counting them, setting his only glory in being a handsome ladykiller,
an elegant horseman, and a great sportsman–was none the less
accustomed to shiver when he heard Fernande speak of possible ruin.
Thus, on the present occasion, turning towards Delaveau, in whom he
retained absolute confidence, he inquired, ‘You have no anxiety, eh,
cousin? All is going on well here?’
The engineer again shrugged his shoulders. ‘I repeat that the works are
in no wise affected as yet. Moreover, the whole town is rising against
that man–he is mad. We shall all see now how unpopular he is; and if
at bottom I am well pleased with that law-suit, it is because it will
finish him off in the opinion of Beauclair. Before three months have
elapsed all the workmen that he has taken from us will be coming with
hands clasped to beg me to take them back. You will see, you will see!
Authority is the only sound principle, the enfranchisement of labour is
arrant stupidity, for the workman no longer does anything properly when
once he becomes his own master.’
Silence fell, then he added more slowly, with a faint shade of anxiety
in his eyes, ‘All the same, we ought to be prudent. La Crêcherie is not
a competitor that one can neglect, and what would alarm me would be any
lack of the necessary funds for a struggle in some sudden emergency. We
live too much from day to day, and it is becoming indispensable that
we should establish a substantial reserve fund, by setting apart, for
instance, one third of the annual profits.’
Fernande restrained a gesture of involuntary protest. That was indeed
her fear: that her lover might have to reduce his expenditure, and that
she, in her pride and pleasures, might suffer therefrom. She had to
content herself for the moment with looking at Boisgelin. But he, of
his own accord, plainly answered: ‘No, no, cousin, not at the present
moment. I can’t set anything aside, my expenses are too heavy. At the
same time I must thank you once more, for you make my money yield even
more than you promised. We will see about the rest later on–we will
talk it over.’
Nevertheless Fernande remained in a nervous state, and her covert anger
fell upon Nise, who had just lunched alone, under the supervision of a
maid, who now brought her into the _salon_ before taking her to spend
the afternoon with a little friend. Nise, who was now nearly seven
years old, was growing quite pretty, pink and fair, and ever merry,
with wild hair which made her resemble a little curly sheep.
‘There, my dear Boisgelin,’ said Fernande, ‘there’s a disobedient child
who will end by making me quite ill. Just ask her what she did the
other day at that treat which she offered to your son Paul and little
Louise Mazelle!’
Without evincing the slightest alarm, Nise, with her limpid blue eyes,
continued gaily smiling at those about her.
‘Oh!’ continued her mother, ‘she won’t admit any wrong-doing. But
do you know, although I had forbidden it a dozen times, she again
opened the old door in our garden wall to admit all the dirty urchins
of La Crêcherie into our grounds. There was that little Nanet, a
frightful little rascal for whom she has conceived an affection. And
your boy Paul was mixed up in it, and so was Louise Mazelle, all of
them fraternising with the children of that man Bonnaire, who left us
in such an insolent fashion. Yes, Paul with Antoinette, and Louise
with Lucien, and Mademoiselle Nise and her Nanet, leading them to the
assault of our flower-beds. Yet she has not even a blush of shame on
her cheeks, you see!’
‘It isn’t just,’ Nise simply answered in her clear voice; ‘we did not
break anything, we played together very nicely. He is funny, is Nanet.’
This answer made Fernande quite angry: ‘Ah! you think him funny, do
you? Just listen to me. If ever I catch you with him, you shall have no
dessert for a week. I don’t want you to get me into any unpleasantness
with those people near us. They would go about everywhere saying that
we attract their children here in order to render them ill. You hear
me? This time it is serious; you will have to deal with me if you see
Nanet again.’
‘Yes, mamma,’ said Nise in her quiet, smiling way. And when she had
gone off with the maid, after kissing everybody, the mother concluded:
‘It is very simple–I shall have the door walled up. In that way I
shall be certain that the children won’t communicate. There is nothing
worse than that–it corrupts them.’
Neither Delaveau nor Boisgelin had intervened; for on the one hand they
saw in this affair only so much childishness, and on the other they
approved of severe measures when good order was in question. But the
future was germinating. Stubborn Mademoiselle Nise had carried away
in her little heart the thought of Nanet, who was funny and played so
At last the guests arrived, the Gouriers with Châtelard, then Judge
Gaume with the Jollivets. Abbé Marle was the last to appear, late
according to his wont. Though the Mazelles had expressly promised to
come and take coffee, some obstacle prevented them from sharing the
repast. Thus there were only ten at table; but then they had desired
to be few in number in order that they might be able to chat at their
ease. Besides, the dining-room, of which Fernande felt ashamed, was
such a small one that the old mahogany sideboard interfered with the
service whenever there were more than a dozen round the table.
From the serving of the fish, some delicious trout of the Mionne, the
conversation naturally fell on La Crêcherie and Luc. And what was said
by those educated _bourgeois_, in a position to know the truth about
what they called ‘socialist utopia,’ proved scarcely one whit more
sensible or intelligent than the extraordinary views expressed by such
people as Dacheux and Laboque. The only man who might have understood
the real position was Châtelard. But then he preferred to jest.
‘You know,’ said he, ‘that the boys and girls there grow up all
together in the same class-rooms and workshops, so that we may expect
the little town to become a populous one, very rapidly. With their
loose theories, they will all be papas and mammas, and there will be
quite a tribe of children running about?’
‘How horrible!’ exclaimed Fernande, with an air of profound disgust,
for she affected extreme prudishness.
Then, for a few moments, the free love theories attributed to the
denizens of La Crêcherie formed the topic of conversation. But a matter
of that kind did not worry Delaveau. In his estimation the serious
point was the undermining of authority, the criminal dream of living
without a master.
‘Such a conception as that is beyond me,’ he exclaimed. ‘How will their
future city be governed? To speak only of the works, they say that by
association they will suppress the wage system, and that there will be
a just division of wealth when only workers are left, each giving his
share of toil to the community. But I can conceive of no more dangerous
dream than that, for it is irrealisable, is it not, Monsieur Gourier?’
The mayor, who was eating with his face bent over his plate, spent some
time in wiping his mouth before he answered, for he noticed that the
sub-prefect was looking at him.
‘Irrealisable, no doubt,’ he said at last. ‘Only one must not lightly
condemn the principle of association. There is great strength in
association, and we ourselves may be called upon to make use of it.’
This prudent reply incensed the captain, who retorted angrily, ‘What!
wouldn’t you condemn once and for all the execrable deeds which that
man–I speak of that Monsieur Luc–is planning against all that we
love, that old France of ours, such as the swords of our fathers made
it and bequeathed it to us?’
Some mutton cutlets served with asparagus heads were now being handed
round, and a general outcry against Luc arose. The mention of his
hated name sufficed to draw them all together, unite them closely, in
alarm for their threatened interests, and with an imperious craving
for resistance and revenge. Somebody, however, was cruel enough to
ask Gourier for news of his son, Achille the renegade, and the mayor
had to curse the lad once again. Châtelard alone tried to tack about
and keep the discussion on a jocular footing. But in this he failed,
for the captain continued prophesying the worst disasters if the
factious-minded were not immediately kicked into obedience and order.
And his words disseminated such a panic that Boisgelin, becoming
anxious again, appealed to Delaveau, from whom there happily came a
reassuring declaration.
‘Our man is already hit,’ declared the manager of the Abyss. ‘The
prosperity of La Crêcherie is only on the surface, and an accident
would suffice to bring everything to the ground. Thus, for instance, my
wife was lately giving me some particulars—-‘
‘Yes,’ broke in Fernande, happy to have an opportunity of relieving her
feelings, ‘the information came to me from my laundress. She knows one
of our former hands, a man named Ragu, who left us in order to go to
the new works. Well, it seems that Ragu is declaring everywhere that he
has had quite enough of that dirty den, that the men are bored to death
there, that he isn’t the only one to complain, and that one of these
fine days they will all be coming back here. Ah! who will begin, who
will deal the blow necessary to make that man Luc totter and fall to

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‘But there’s the Laboque lawsuit,’ said Boisgelin, coming to the young
woman’s help. ‘I hope that will suffice for everything.’
Fresh silence ensued whilst some roast ducks made their appearance.
Although the Laboque lawsuit was the real motive of that friendly
gathering, nobody as yet had dared to speak of it in presence of the
silence which Judge Gaume preserved. He ate but little, his secret
sorrows having brought him a complaint of the digestive organs, and
he contented himself with listening to the others and gazing at them
with his cold grey eyes, whence he knew how to withdraw all expression.
Never had he been seen in a less communicative mood, and this ended by
embarrassing the others, who would have liked to know on what footing
to treat him, and at least have some certainty as to the judgment which
he would deliver. Although no thought of possible acquittal at his
hands entered anybody’s mind, they all hoped that he would have the
good taste to pledge himself in a sufficiently clear fashion.
Again it was the captain who advanced to the assault. ‘The law is
formal, is it not, Monsieur le Président?’ he inquired. ‘All damage
done to anybody must be repaired?’
‘No doubt,’ answered Gaume.
More was expected from him, but he relapsed into silence. And
thereupon, by way of compelling him to pledge himself more thoroughly,
the Clouque affair was noisily discussed. That filthy stream became one
of the former adornments of Beauclair; it was not right that people
should steal a town’s water in such a fashion as that man Luc had done,
particularly to give it to peasants whose brains had been turned to
such a point that they had converted their village into a hotbed of
furious anarchy which threatened the whole region. All the terror of
the _bourgeoisie_ now became apparent, for assuredly the ancient and
holy principle of property was in sore distress if the sons of the
hard-fisted peasants of former times had reached such a point as to
place their strips of land in common. It was high time that justice
should interfere and put a stop to such a scandal.
‘Oh! we may be quite easy,’ Boisgelin ended by saying in a flattering
tone. ‘The cause of society will be in good hands. There is nothing
above a just judgment, rendered in all liberty by an honest conscience.’
‘Without doubt,’ Gaume simply repeated.
And this time it was necessary to rest content with that vague remark,
in which they all strove to detect the certainty of Luc’s conviction.
The meal was now virtually over, for after a Russian salad there were
only some strawberry ices and the dessert. But the guests’ stomachs
were comforted, and they laughed a good deal, for they were convinced
of victory. When they had gone into the _salon_ to take coffee and the
Mazelles arrived, the latter were, as usual, greeted with somewhat
jocose friendliness. Those worthy folk, living on their income, and
personifying the delights of idleness, moved one’s heart! Madame
Mazelle’s complaint was no better, but she was delighted at having
obtained from Doctor Novarre some new wafers which enabled her to eat
anything with impunity. It was only such matters as the abominable
stories of La Crêcherie, the threat that Rentes would be done away
with, and that the right of inheritance would be abolished, that now
gave her a turn. But what was the use of talking about disagreeable
things? Mazelle, who watched over his wife with profound satisfaction,
winked at the others and begged them to raise those horrid subjects
no more, since they had such a bad effect on Madame Mazelle’s failing
health. And then the gathering became delightful, they all hastened to
revert to the happiness of life, a life of wealth and enjoyment, of
which they plucked all the flowers.
At last, amidst growing anger and hatred, the day of the famous lawsuit
dawned. Never had Beauclair been so upset by furious passion. Luc in
the first instance had felt astonished at Laboque’s writ, and had
simply laughed at it, particularly as it seemed to him impossible that
the claim for twenty-five thousand francs by way of damages could be
sustained. If the Clouque had dried up it would in the first place
be difficult for anybody to prove that this had been caused by the
capturing of hillside springs at La Crêcherie; and moreover those
springs belonged to the estate, to the Jordans, and were free from all
servitude, in such wise that the owner had a full right to dispose of
them as he pleased. On the other hand Laboque must assuredly base his
claim for damages on facts proving that he had really sustained injury
and loss, but he simply made such a feeble and clumsy attempt to do
so that no court of justice in the world could possibly decide in his
favour. As Luc jocularly put it, it was he who ought to have claimed a
public grant as a reward for having delivered the waterside landowners
from a source of infection, of which they had long complained. The town
now simply had to fill up the bed of the stream and sell the land for
building purposes, thereby putting a few hundred thousand francs into
its coffers. Thus Luc laughed, not imagining that such a lawsuit as
Laboque’s could be at all serious. It was only afterwards, on finding
rancour and hostility rising against him on every side, that he began
to realise the gravity of the situation, and the peril in which his
work would be placed.
This was a first painful shock for him. He was not ignorant of the
maliciousness of man. In giving battle to the old world, he had fully
expected that the latter would not yield him place without anger and
resistance. He was prepared for the Calvary he foresaw, the stones
and mud with which the ungrateful multitude usually pelt precursors.
Yet his heart wavered as he realised the approach of folly, cruelty,
and betrayal. He understood that behind the Laboques and the other
petty traders there was the whole _bourgeoisie_, all who possess and
are unwilling to part with aught of their possessions. His attempts
at association and co-operation placed capitalist society, based on
the wage-earning system, in such peril that he became for it a public
enemy, of which it must rid itself at any cost. And it was the Abyss
and La Guerdache and the whole town and authority in every form that
were now bestirring themselves, joining in the struggle and striving
to crush him. If he fell that pack of wolves would rush upon him and
devour him. He knew the names of those enemies, functionaries, traders,
mere _rentiers_ with placid faces who would have eaten him alive had
they seen him fall at a street corner. And therefore, mastering his
distress of heart, he prepared for battle, full of the conviction that
one can found nothing without battling, and that all great human work
is sealed with human blood.
It was on a Tuesday, a market day, that Laboque’s action was heard by
the civil court, over which Judge Gaume presided. Beauclair was in a
state of uproar, all the folk who had come in from the neighbouring
villages helped to increase the general feverishness on the Place de
la Mairie and in the Rue de Brias. Sœurette, who felt anxious, had
therefore begged Luc to ask a few strong friends to accompany him. But
he stubbornly refused to do so, he resolved to go to the court alone,
just as he had resolved to defend himself in person, having engaged an
advocate simply as a matter of form. When he entered the court-room,
which was small and already crowded with noisy people, silence suddenly
fell, and the eager curiosity which greets an isolated, unarmed victim
ready for sacrifice became manifest. Luc’s quiet courage increased
the rage of his enemies, who pronounced his demeanour to be insolent.
He remained standing in front of the bench allotted to defendants,
and whilst quietly gazing at the closely packed people around him, he
recognised Laboque, Dacheux, Caffiaux, and other shopkeepers among all
the many furious enemies with ardent faces, whom he saw for the first
time. However, he felt a little relieved on finding that the intimates
of La Guerdache and the Abyss had at least had the good taste to
refrain from coming to see him delivered to the beasts.
Long and exciting proceedings were anticipated, but there was nothing
of the kind. Laboque has chosen one of those provincial advocates
with a reputation for maliciousness who are the terror of a region.
And, indeed, the best time which Luc’s enemies spent was when this
man spoke. Knowing how flimsy were the legal grounds on which the
demand for damages was based, he contented himself with ridiculing
the reforms attempted at La Crêcherie. He made his hearers laugh a
good deal with the comical and distorted picture which he drew of
the proposed future society. And he raised general indignation when
he pictured the children of both sexes being corrupted, the holy
institution of marriage being abolished, and free love and all such
horrors taking its place. Nevertheless, the general opinion was that
he had not found the supreme insult or argument, the bludgeon blow
by which a suit is gained and a man for ever crushed. And so great,
therefore, became the anxiety that when Luc in his turn spoke, his
slightest words were greeted with murmurs. He spoke very simply,
refrained from replying to the attacks made upon his enterprise, and
contented himself with showing with decisive force that Laboque’s
demands were ill-founded. Would he not rather have rendered a service
to Beauclair if he had, indeed, dried up that pestilential Clouque, and
presented the town with good building land? It was not even proved,
however, that the works carried out at La Crêcherie had caused the
disappearance of the torrent, and he was waiting for the other side
to give proof of it. When he concluded, some of his bitterness of
heart appeared, for he declared that if he desired nobody’s thanks for
whatever useful work he might have done, he would be happy if people
would but allow him to pursue his enterprises in peace, without seeking
groundless quarrels with him. On several occasions Judge Gaume had to
enjoin silence on the audience; nevertheless when the public prosecutor
also had spoken, in a designedly confused manner, in turn praising and
condemning both parties, Laboque’s advocate replied in so violent a
fashion, calling Luc an Anarchist bent on destroying the town, that
loud acclamations burst forth, and the judge had to threaten that
he would order the court to be cleared if such demonstrations were
renewed. Then he postponed judgment for a fortnight.
When that fortnight was past, the popular passions had become yet more
heated, and folk almost came to blows on the market-place in discussing
the probable terms of the judgment. Nearly everybody, however, was
convinced that it would be a severe one, fixing the damages at ten or
fifteen thousand francs, and ordering the defendant to restore the
Clouque to its former condition. At the same time some people wagged
their heads and felt sure of nothing, for they had not been satisfied
with Judge Gaume’s demeanour in court. Anxiety was caused, too, by the
manner in which the judge had shut himself up at home on the morrow of
the hearing, under the pretence of suffering from some indisposition.
It was said that he was really in perfect health, and had simply
desired to place himself beyond any pressure, refusing to see people
lest they might try to influence his judicial conscience. What did
he do in that silent house of his, whose doors and windows were kept
strictly closed, and which his daughter even was not allowed to enter?
To what moral struggle, what internal drama had he fallen a prey amidst
his wrecked life, the collapse of all that he had loved and all that he
had believed in? Those were questions which occupied many people, but
which none could answer.
Judgment was to be delivered at noon at the outset of the court’s
sitting. And the room was yet more crowded and excited than on the
former occasion. Laughter rang out, and words of hope and violence were
exchanged from one to the other end. All Luc’s enemies had come to see
him annihilated. And he had again refused to let anybody accompany
him, preferring to present himself alone, the better to express the
peacefulness of his mission. He stood up smiling and looking around
him without even appearing to suspect that all that growling anger was
directed against himself. At last, punctual to the minute, Judge Gaume
came in, followed by his two assessors and the public prosecutor. There
was no need for the usher to command silence, the chatter suddenly
ceased, and the faces of one and all were stretched forward, aglow with
anxious curiosity. The judge had in the first instance seated himself,
then he rose holding the paper on which his judgment was written;
and for a moment he remained thus, motionless and silent, with his
eyes gazing far away beyond the crowd. At last, slowly and without
the faintest emphasis, he began to read his judgment. It was a long
business, for ‘whereas’ followed ‘whereas’ with monotonous regularity,
presenting the various questions submitted to the court in full detail
and under every possible aspect. The people present listened without
understanding much of what was read, and without managing to foresee
the conclusion, so incessantly and closely did arguments on either side
follow one another. It seemed, however, at each forward step that Luc’s
contentions were adopted by the court, that no real damage had been
done to another, and that every landowner had a right to execute what
work he pleased on his own land when no servitude existed to restrain
him. And the decision at last burst forth–Luc was acquitted, the
action was dismissed.
At first a moment of stupefaction ensued in the court-room. Then,
everybody having understood the position, there came hooting and
violent threatening shouts. What! the excited crowd, maddened by lies
for months past, was robbed of its promised victim! It demanded that
victim, it claimed him that it might tear him to pieces, since an
attempt to rob it of him was made at the last moment by a judge who had
evidently sold himself. Was not Luc the public enemy, the stranger who
had come nobody knew whence to corrupt Beauclair, ruin its trade, and
foment civil war in its midst by banding the workmen together against
their masters? And had he not with diabolical wickedness stolen the
town’s water, dried up a stream whose disappearance was a disaster for
all who had property near its banks? The ‘Journal de Beauclair’ had
repeated those accusations every week, all the authorities, all the
gentlefolk had spread them abroad, and now the humbler ones, blinded
and enraged, convinced that a pestilence would come from La Crêcherie,
‘saw red’ and demanded death. Fists were thrust forward, and the cries
‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner, to death with
Very pale, with his features rigid, Judge Gaume remained standing
amidst the uproar. He wished to speak and give orders for the court to
be cleared, but he had to renounce all hope of making himself heard.
And for dignity’s sake he had to rest content with suspending the
sitting by withdrawing from the court followed by his two assessors and
the public prosecutor.
Luc had remained calm and smiling beside his bench. He had been as
much surprised as his adversaries by the tenor of the judgment, for he
knew in what a vitiated atmosphere the judge lived. It was comforting
to meet a just man amid so much human baseness. When, however, the
cries of death burst forth, Luc’s smile became a sad one, and his heart
filled with bitterness as he turned towards that howling throng. What
had he done to those petty _bourgeois_, those tradesmen, those workmen?
Had he not desired to benefit all, was he not working in order that
all might become happy, loving, and brotherly? But the fists still
threatened him, and the shouts lashed him more violently than ever:
‘To death! to death with the thief! To death with the poisoner!’
To see those poor folk so wild, maddened by falsehoods, caused Luc
profound grief, for he loved them in spite of everything. He restrained
his tears, for he wished to remain erect, proud, and courageous beneath
those insults. The public thinking itself braved, would have ended,
however, by breaking down the oaken partitions in order to get at him,
if some guards had not at last succeeded in thrusting him out of the
court-room and securing the doors. Then, on behalf of Judge Gaume, the
clerk of the court came to beg Luc to refrain from leaving immediately,
for fear of some accident; and eventually the clerk prevailed on him
to wait a few minutes in the room of the doorkeeper of the Palace of
Justice, whilst the crowd was dispersing.[1]
But if Luc consented to do this he none the less experienced a feeling
of shame and revolt at being obliged to hide himself. He spent in that
doorkeeper’s room the most painful fifteen minutes of his life, for
he thought it cowardly not to face the crowd, and was indignant that
the position of an apparent culprit should thus be forced upon him.
Directly the approaches of the Palace of Justice had been cleared, he
insisted on going home, on foot, and unaccompanied by anybody. He had
merely a light walking-stick with him, and was even sorry that he had
brought it, for fear lest anybody should imagine that he had done so
for purposes of defence. He had all Beauclair to cross, and he set out
slowly and quietly along the streets. Until he reached the Place de
la Mairie nobody seemed to notice him. The people who had quitted the
court had waited for him for a few minutes; then feeling certain that
he would not venture out for some hours, they had gone off to spread
the news of the acquittal through the town. But on the Place de la
Mairie, where the market was being held, Luc was recognised. He was
pointed out and a few persons even began to follow him, not as yet with
evil intentions, but solely to see what might happen. There were only
some peasants and their customers present, mere sightseers who were not
mixed up in the quarrel. Thus matters only took a serious turn when the
young man turned into the Rue de Brias, at the corner of which, in
front of his shop, Laboque, infuriated by his defeat, was venting his
anger amidst a small crowd of people.
All the tradespeople of the neighbourhood had hastened to Laboque’s
establishment directly they had heard the disastrous tidings. What!
was it true then? La Crêcherie would be free to finish ruining them
with its co-operative stores, since the judges took its part? Caffiaux,
who looked overwhelmed, preserved silence, full of thoughts which he
would not express. But Dacheux the butcher, with all his blood rushing
to his face, showed himself one of the most violent, eager to defend
his meat, sacred meat, meat the privileged food of the wealthy! And he
even talked of killing people rather than reduce his prices by a single
centime. Madame Mitaine, for her part, had not come. She had never been
in favour of the lawsuit, and she simply declared that she should go
on selling bread as long as she found buyers, and that, for the rest,
she would see afterwards. Laboque, however, boiling over with fury, was
for the tenth time recounting the abominable treachery of Judge Gaume
when all at once he perceived Luc quietly walking past his shop–that
ironmongery shop whose ruin he was consummating. Such audacity brought
Laboque’s rage to a climax; and he almost threw himself on the young
man as, half stifled by his rising bile, he growled, ‘To death with the
thief! To death with the poisoner!’
Luc, without pausing, contented himself with turning his calm brave
eyes on the tumultuous throng whence came Laboque’s husky invectives.
This was taken by all as an act of provocation, and a general clamour
arose, gathered force, and became like a tempest blast. ‘To death with
the thief! To death with the poisoner! To death with him!’
Luc meantime, as if he himself were not in question, quietly went his
way, glancing to right and left, like one who is interested in the
sights of the streets. But almost the whole band had begun to follow
him with louder and louder hoots, and threats, and the outrageous
words, ‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner! To death
with him!’
And those shouts never ceased, but grew and spread as he went at
a leisurely pace up the Rue de Brias. Out of each shop came fresh
tradespeople to join the demonstration. Women showed themselves in
the doorways and hooted the young man as he passed. Some in their
exasperation even rushed up and shouted with the men: ‘To death with
the thief and poisoner!’ Luc saw one of them, a fair young woman, a
fruiterer’s wife, charmingly beautiful, showing her fine white teeth
as she shouted insults after him, and threatening him with her hands,
whose rosy finger-nails seemed eager to tear him to pieces. Children
also had begun to run after him, and there was one, some five or six
years old, no bigger than a jack-boot, who almost threw himself between
the young man’s legs in order that he might be the better heard: ‘To
death with the thief! To death with the poisoner!’ Poor little urchin!
Who could have already taught him to raise that shout of hatred? But
matters became worse when Luc passed the factories situated in the
upper part of the street. The workgirls of Gourier’s boot manufactory
appeared at their windows, clapped their hands and howled. Then there
were even the workmen of the Chodorge and Mirande factories, who stood
smoking on the foot-pavement waiting for the bells to ring the close of
the dinner-hour, and who, brutified by servitude, likewise joined in
the demonstration. One thin little fellow, with carroty hair and big
blurred eyes, seemed stricken with insanity, so furiously did he rush
about, shouting louder than all the others: ‘To death with the thief!
To death with the poisoner! To death with him!’
Ah! that ascent of the Rue de Brias, with that growing band of enemies
at his heels, amidst that ignoble torrent of threats and insults!
Luc remembered the evening of his arrival at Beauclair four years
previously, when the black tramp, tramp of the disinherited starvelings
along that same street had filled him with such active compassion that
he had vowed to devote his life to the salvation of the wretched. What
had he done for four years past, that so much hatred should have sprung
up against him? He had made himself the apostle of the morrow, the
apostle of a community all solidarity and brotherliness, organised by
the ennoblement of work–work, the regulator of human wealth. He had
given an example of what he desired to establish, at that La Crêcherie
where the future city was germinating, and where such additional
justice and happiness as was for the time possible already reigned.
And that had sufficed–the whole town regarded him as a malefactor;
for he could feel that the whole of it was behind the band now barking
at his heels. How bitter was the suffering that accompanied that
Calvary-ascent, which all just men must make amidst the blows of the
very beings whose redemption they seek to hasten! Yet as for those
_bourgeois_ whose quiet digestions he troubled, Luc excused them for
hating him; for were they not terrified by the thought of having to
share their now egotistical enjoyment with others? He also excused
those shopkeepers who ascribed their ruin to his malice, when he simply
dreamt of a better employment of social forces, and of preventing
all useless waste of the public fortune. And he even excused those
workmen whom he had come to save from misery, and for whom he was so
laboriously raising a city of justice, yet who hooted and insulted him,
to such a degree, indeed, had their brains been fogged and their hearts
chilled. Only if he excused them all, in his sorrowful brotherliness,
he bled, indeed, at finding, amongst the most insulting, those very
toilers of factory and workshop whom he desired to make the nobles, the
free and happy men of to-morrow.
Luc was still ascending that endless Rue de Brias, and the pack of
wolves was still increasing in numbers, their shouts knowing no
cessation: ‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner! To
death with him!’
For a moment he paused, turned, and looked at all those people in order
that they might not imagine that he was fleeing. And as there happened
to be some piles of stones thereabouts, one man stooped down, took up a
stone and flung it at him. Immediately afterwards others stooped, and
the stones began to rain upon him amidst ever-growing threats.
‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner! To death with
So now he was being stoned. However, he made not a gesture even, but
resumed his walk, persevering in the ascent of his Calvary. His hands
were empty, he had with him no weapon save his light walking-stick, and
this he had slipped under his arm. But he remained very calm, full of
the idea that if he were destined to fulfil his mission it would render
him invulnerable. His grief-stricken heart alone suffered, cruelly rent
as it was by the sight of so much error and madness. Tears rose to his
eyes, and he had to make a great effort to prevent them from flowing
down his cheeks.
‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner! To death with
him!’ Still and ever did those cries resound.
A stone at last struck one of Luc’s heels, then another grazed his
hip. It had become a game now–the very children took part in it. But
they were unskilful, and most of the stones rebounded over the ground.
Twice, however, did pebbles pass so near Luc’s head, that one might
have thought him struck. He no longer turned round, but still and ever
ascended the Rue de Brias at the same leisurely pace as before, like
one who, after going for a stroll, is returning home. But at last a
stone did hit him, tearing his right ear; and then another, striking
his left hand, cut the palm of it open. At this his blood gushed out,
and fell in big red drops upon the ground.
‘To death with the thief and poisoner! To death with him!’ some of the
crowd still cried. But an eddy of panic momentarily stayed the advance.
Several people ran off, seized with cowardice, now that the moment to
kill the man seemed to have arrived. Some of the women, too, shrieked,
and carried the children away in their arms. Only the most furious
fanatics then kept up the pursuit. Luc, still continuing his painful
journey, just glanced at his hand; then, after wiping his ear with his
handkerchief, he wrapped the latter over his bleeding palm. But he had
slackened his pace, and could hear his pursuers drawing quite near to
him. When on the nape of his neck he detected the ardent panting of the
throng, he turned round for the last time. Rushing on frantically, in
the front rank, was the short and scraggy workman with carroty hair and
big dull eyes. He was a smith belonging to the Abyss, it was said. With
a final bound he reached the man whom he had been following from the
bottom of the street, and though there seemed to be no motive for his
frenzied hatred, he spat with the greatest violence in his face.
‘To death with the thief! To death with the poisoner! To death with
Luc had at last ascended his Calvary–he was at the top of the Rue de
Brias now. But he staggered beneath that final abominable outrage.
His face became frightfully pale, and an involuntary impulse of his
whole being prompted him to raise his uninjured hand and clench it
vengefully. He looked like some superb giant beside a wretched dwarf,
for with one blow he could have felled the little workman to the
ground. But his consciousness of strength enabled him to restrain
himself. He did not bring down his fist. From his eyes, however, flowed
two big tears, tears of infinite grief which hitherto he had been able
to keep back, but which he could now no longer hide, such had become
the bitterness of his feelings. He wept to think that there should be
so much ignorance, so terrible a misunderstanding, that all those poor,
unhappy, well-loved toilers should refuse to be saved! And they, after
sneering at him, allowed him to return home, bleeding, and all alone.
In the evening Luc shut himself up in the little pavilion which he
still occupied at the end of the park, alongside the road to Les
Combettes. His acquittal did not leave him any illusions. The violence
displayed towards him that afternoon, the savage pursuit of the crowd,
told him what warfare would be waged against him now that the whole
town was rising. These were the supreme convulsions of an expiring
social system which was unwilling to die. It resisted and struggled
furiously, with the hope of staying the march of mankind. Some, the
partisans of authority, set salvation in pitiless repression; others,
the sentimentalists, appealed to the past and its poetry, to all indeed
that man weeps for when he is forced to quit it for ever; and others,
again, seized with exasperation, joined the revolutionaries as if eager
to finish matters at once. And thus Luc felt that he had virtually been
pursued by all Beauclair, which was like a miniature world amidst the
great one. And if he remained brave and still resolved for battle, he
was none the less bitterly distressed, and anxious to hide it. During
the hours, few and far between, when he felt weakness coming over
him, he preferred to shut himself up and drain his cup of sorrow to
the dregs in privacy, only showing himself once more when he was hale
and brave again. That evening therefore he barred both the doors and
windows of the pavilion, and gave orders that nobody was to be admitted
to see him.
About eleven o’clock, however, he fancied that he could hear some light
footsteps on the road. Then came a low call, scarce audible, which made
him shiver. He went to open the window, and on looking between the
laths of the shutters he perceived a slender form. Then a very gentle
voice ascended, saying: ‘It is I, Monsieur Luc, I must speak to you at
It was the voice of Josine. Luc did not even pause to reflect, but at
once went to open the little door communicating with the road. And then
he led her into his closed room, where a lamp was burning peacefully.
But on looking at her he was seized with terrible anxiety, for her
garments were in disorder and her face was bruised.
‘Good heavens! what is the matter, Josine? What has happened?’ he cried.
Tears were falling from her eyes, her hair drooped about her delicate
white neck, and the collar of her gown was torn away.
‘Ah, Monsieur Luc, I wanted to see you,’ she began. ‘It isn’t because
he beat me again when he came home, but on account of the threats he
made. It’s necessary you should know of them this very evening.’
Then she related that Ragu, on learning what had happened in the Rue
de Brias, the ignominious manner in which ‘the governor,’ as he called
Luc, had been escorted out of the town, had gone off to Caffiaux’s
wine-shop, leading Bourron and others astray with him. And he had but
lately returned home, drunk, of course, and shouting that he had had
quite enough of La Crêcherie, and would not stop a day longer in a
dirty den where one was bored to death, and had not even the right to
drink a drop too much if one wanted to. At last, after jeering and
laughing and indulging in all sorts of foul language, he had wished to
compel her, Josine, to pack up their clothes at once in order that they
might go off in the morning to the Abyss, where all the hands leaving
La Crêcherie were readily taken on. And as she had desired him to pause
before coming to such a decision, he had ended by beating her and
turning her out of the house.
‘Oh! I don’t count, Monsieur Luc,’ she continued. ‘It’s you who are
insulted and whom they want to injure. Ragu will certainly go off in
the morning–nothing can restrain him–and he will certainly carry off
Bourron as well as five or six others whom he didn’t name to me. For
my part, I can’t help it, but I shall have to follow him, and it all
grieves me so much that I felt I must tell it you at once, for fear
lest I might never see you again.’
Luc was still looking at her, and a wave of bitterness submerged his
heart. Was the disaster even greater then than he had supposed? His
workmen now were leaving him, returning to the hard toil and filthy
wretchedness of former times, seized with nostalgia for the hell whence
he had so laboriously striven to extricate them. In four years he
had won naught of their minds or their affection. And the worst was
that Josine was no happier; she now came back to him as on the first
day, insulted, beaten, cast into the street! Thus nothing was done,
and everything remained to be done; for did not Josine personify the
suffering people? It was only on that evening, when he had met her
grief-stricken and abandoned, a victim of accursed toil, imposed on
human kind like slavery, that he had yielded to his desires to act. She
was the most humble, the lowest, the nearest to the gutter, and she was
also the most beautiful, the gentlest, the saintliest. Ah! as long as
woman should suffer, the world would not be saved.
‘Oh! Josine, Josine, how grieved I am for you–how I pity you!’ he
murmured with infinite tenderness, whilst he also began to weep.
When she saw his tears thus falling, she suffered yet more grievously
than before. What! he was weeping thus bitterly, he, her god, he whom
she adored, like some superior power, in gratitude for all the help he
had brought her, the joy with which he had henceforth filled her life!
The thought, too, of the outrages that he had undergone, that awful
ascent of the Rue de Brias, increased her adoration, drew her near to
him as with a desire to dress his wounds. What could she do to comfort
him, how could she efface from his face the insult spat upon him,
enable him to feel himself respected, admired, and worshipped?
‘Oh, Monsieur Luc,’ said she, ‘you do not know how grieved I am at
seeing you so unhappy, and how I should like to relieve your sorrows a
They were so near together that the warmth of their breath passed over
their faces. And their mutual compassion filled them with increasing
tenderness. How she suffered! how he suffered! And he only thought of
her, even as she only thought of him, with immensity of pity and a
craving for love and felicity.
‘I am not to be pitied,’ said Luc at last; ‘there is only you, Josine,
whose suffering is a crime, and whom I must save.’
‘No, no, Monsieur Luc, I do not count; it is you who ought not to
suffer, for you are the providence of us all.’
Then, as she let herself sink into his arms, he clasped her
passionately to his breast. It was a crisis not to be resisted–the
mingling of two flames in order that they might henceforth become
but one sole flame of affection and strength. Thus was their destiny
accomplished. All had led them to it; a sudden vision appeared to
them of their love born one stormy evening, then slowly growing in
intensity, in the depths of their hearts. Nothing henceforth could part
them. They were two beings meeting in a long-awaited kiss, attaining to
florescence. No remorse was possible; they loved even as they existed,
in order that they might be healthy and strong and fruitful. And as Luc
sat in that quiet chamber with Josine he became conscious that a great
help had suddenly come to him. Love alone could create harmony in the
city he dreamed of. Josine was his; and his union with the disinherited
was thereby sealed. Apostle that he was of a new creed, he felt that
he had need of a woman to help him to redeem mankind. The poor little
beaten workgirl whom he had met one evening dying of starvation had now
for him become a very queen. She had known the uttermost depths, and
she would help him to create a new world of splendour and joy. She was
the only one whose help he needed to complete his task.
‘Give me your hand, your poor injured hand, Josine,’ he gently said to
She gave it him; it was the hand which had been caught in some
boot-stitching machinery, and the forefinger of which had been cut off.
‘It is very ugly,’ she murmured.
‘Ugly, Josine? Oh no! it is so dear to me that I kiss it with devotion.’
He pressed his lips to the scar left by the injury, he covered the
poor, slender, maimed hand with caresses.
‘Oh, Luc!’ she cried, ‘how you love me, and how I love you!’
As that cry of happiness and hope rang out they once more flung their
arms around each other’s necks. Outside, over the heavy sleep of
Beauclair sped the thuds of hammer-strokes, the clang of steel coming
from La Crêcherie and the Abyss, both working, competing one with the
other through the night. And doubtless the war was not yet over, the
terrible battle between Yesterday and To-morrow was destined to become
fiercer still. But in the midst of all the torture there had come a
halt of happiness, and whatever sufferings might lie ahead, love at
least was sown for the harvest of the future.