Sleep in peace

Before long complications arose, and Luc barely escaped the clutches of
death. For a couple of days it was thought that he was dying. Josine
and Sœurette never quitted him, and Jordan came to seat himself beside
the bed of anguish, thus forsaking his laboratory, a thing which he had
not done since his mother’s last illness. And how great was the despair
of those loving hearts which from hour to hour expected to see their
dear one drawing his last breath!
The knife-thrust which Ragu had dealt Luc had quite upset La Crêcherie.
Work went on in the mourning workshops, but at every moment the men
desired tidings. There was great solidarity among them, and all felt
an anxious affection for the victim of that crime, which did more
to tighten the bonds of fraternity between them than many years of
experimental humanitarianism. Even in Beauclair sympathy became
apparent; a great many people there felt for that young, handsome, and
active man, whose one crime, apart from his work of justice, consisted
in having loved a very charming woman, who had been incessantly reviled
and beaten by her husband. Briefly, nobody seemed to be scandalised at
seeing Josine instal herself at Luc’s bedside. It was indeed thought
quite natural, for was he not the father of the child? And had they
not purchased at the cost of many tears the right to live together? On
the other hand, the gendarmes despatched after Ragu had found no trace
of him; for a fortnight all the researches proved fruitless, but at
last, in the depths of a ravine of the Bleuse Mountains, the remains of
a man, half devoured by wolves, were discovered; and in these remains
the searchers asserted that they could recognise the body of Ragu. It
was impossible to draw up a death certificate on such evidence, but a
legend arose to the effect that Ragu had perished either accidentally
or by suicide amidst the furious madness born of his crime. In this
case, if Josine were a widow, why should she not live with Luc? And why
should not the Jordans accept the situation? The union of the young
couple seemed so natural, so firm, so indissoluble, that later on the
idea that they were not legally married occurred to nobody.
At last, one bright February morning, Doctor Novarre declared that he
thought he might answer for Luc; and, indeed, a few days later the
latter was quite convalescent. Then Josine, who had not spared herself
throughout his illness, in her turn required to be nursed, for she
gave birth to a vigorous boy, named by his parents Hilaire. During the
weeks which followed, Luc often spent an hour, seated in an arm-chair,
near Josine’s bed. The early springtide filled the room with sunshine;
on the table there was always a fresh bunch of lovely roses which the
doctor brought from his garden, like a prescription of youth, health,
and beauty, as he was wont to say. Between the parents was the cradle
occupied by little Hilaire, whom Josine herself nursed. Yet greater
strength and hope than they had previously known now flowered from
their lives in the person of that child. As Luc constantly repeated,
amidst the many plans for the future in which he indulged pending the
time when he might set to work once more, he was now at ease, convinced
that he would found the city of justice and peace, since in Josine
and Hilaire he had love–fruitful love–upon his side. Nothing is
founded without a child. A child is living work, the broadening and
the propagation of life, the assurance that to-morrow will duly follow
to-day. The mated couple alone brings life, alone works for human
happiness, and will alone save poor men from iniquity and wretchedness.
On the first day when Josine, erect once more, was able to begin her
new life by the side of Luc, he caught her in his arms, exclaiming:
‘Ah! you are mine alone! your child is mine also! And now we are
perfected, and fear nothing more from fate!’
As soon as Luc was able to resume the management of the works,
the sympathy which had gone out to him on all sides helped him to
accomplish prodigies. Moreover, it was not only the baptism of blood
which brought about the success of La Crêcherie, a success which now
ever increased, continuously and invincibly. There was also a lucky
discovery: the mine once more became a source of great wealth, for they
fell at last upon considerable lodes of excellent ore, thus proving
that Morfain had been right. From that time forward iron and steel were
turned out of such excellent quality, and at such a low cost, that the
Abyss was even threatened in its manufacture of superfine articles.
All competition became impossible. And then there was also the effect
of the great democratic movement which now tended on all sides to an
increase in the means of communication, to an endless extension of
railway lines, and to the erection of bridges, buildings, whole cities
indeed, in which iron and steel were employed to a prodigious and ever
larger and larger extent. Since the days of the first Vulcans who had
smelted ore in a pit for the purpose of forging weapons to defend
themselves and conquer dominion over beings and things, the employment
of iron had been steadily spreading, and when its conquest by science
should be perfect, when it would be possible to work it for next to
nothing and adapt it to all usages, iron itself would become a source
of justice and peace. That, however, which more particularly brought
about the prosperity and triumph of La Crêcherie was its improved
management, into which there entered increase of truth, equity, and
solidarity. Its success had been certain from the day when it had been
founded on the provisional system of an association between capital,
labour, and intelligence; and the difficult days through which it had
passed, the obstacles of all kinds, the various crises which had been
deemed deadly, were simply so many inevitable jolts upon the road
during the first trying days of the advance, when it is necessary that
one should brace oneself for resistance if one desires to attain one’s
goal. All this was now clearly manifest; the enterprise had ever been
full of life, laden with sap whence the harvests of the future would
The works were now like a practical lesson, a decisive experiment which
would gradually convince everybody. How was it possible to deny the
strength of that association of capital, labour, and intelligence when
the profits became larger from year to year, and the workmen of La
Crêcherie earned twice as much as those of other establishments? How
could one do otherwise than admit that eight hours’, six hours’, three
hours’ work–work rendered attractive by variety, and accomplished in
bright, gay workshops with the help of machinery which children might
have directed–was the fundamental principle necessary for future
society, when one saw the wretched wage-earners of yesterday born
anew, becoming healthy, intelligent, cheerful, and gentle men again
as things progressed towards complete liberty and justice? How also
could one do otherwise than conclude in favour of the necessity of
co-operation which would suppress all intermediary parasitic growths,
mere trading in which so much wealth and strength is swallowed up, when
the general stores of La Crêcherie worked so smoothly, ever increasing
the comfort of those who yesterday had been famished, and loading
them with enjoyments hitherto reserved for the rich alone? How again
could one do otherwise than believe in the prodigies accomplished by
solidarity, which renders life so pleasant and makes it a continual
festival for one and all, when one attended the happy meetings at the
common-house, destined to become the people’s royal palace, with its
libraries, its museums, its concert-halls, its gardens, and its many
diversions? And how could one do otherwise than renew the whole system
of educating and rearing children in such wise that this system should
no longer be based on a theory of the innate idleness of man, but on
his inextinguishable craving for knowledge? And how refuse to render
study agreeable and leave each pupil in possession of his individual
energy, and allow the two sexes to mingle from infancy–since they are
destined to share life side by side–when one beheld the prosperity of
the schools of La Crêcherie, whence all excessive book-learning was
banished, where lessons were mingled with play and rudimentary notions
of professional apprenticeship, so as to help each fresh generation
to draw nearer to that ideal community towards which mankind has been
marching for so many centuries?
Thus the extraordinary example which La Crêcherie day by day displayed
in the broad sunlight became contagious. There was no longer any
question of theories, but one of facts evident to the eyes of all.
And naturally the association gained more and more support; crowds of
fresh workmen presented themselves for admission, attracted by the
larger earnings, the increase of comfort; and new buildings arose on
all sides, continually adding themselves to those which had been first
erected. In three years the population was doubled, and the pace of the
progress was increased till it became one of incredible rapidity. This
was the dreamt-of city, the city of reorganised work, restored to its
status of nobility, the city of happiness at last conquered, springing
naturally from the soil around the works, which likewise grew and
spread, becoming, as it were, a metropolis, a central heart, the source
of life, dispensing and regulating social existence. The workshops,
the great halls became larger and larger until they covered acres
of ground, whilst the little bright, gay dwelling-houses, standing
amidst the greenery of their gardens, multiplied incessantly even as
the number of workers increased. And this overflowing wave of new
buildings advanced towards the Abyss, which it threatened to destroy
and submerge. At first, between the two establishments there had been
a great bare space made up of all the uncultivated land which Jordan
owned below the ridge of the Bleuse Mountains. Now, beyond the few
houses first built near La Crêcherie, there had come others and ever
others, lines of houses invading everything like a rising tide, which
only some two or three hundred yards separated from the Abyss. And
whenever the waves might advance against it, would it not be covered,
carried away, to be replaced by a triumphant florescence of health and
joy? Even Old Beauclair was threatened, for one part of the new city
was marching thither, and would sweep off that black and evil-smelling
den of the old-time workers, that nest of pain and pestilence, where
the wage-system lay at its last gasp under the crumbling ceilings of
the hovels.
One evening, when Luc stood gazing at his new city, which he could
already picture covering the whole estuary of the Brias gorges,
Bonnaire brought Babette, Bourron’s wife, to him. Said she, with her
everlasting expression of good humour, ‘It’s like this, Monsieur Luc.
My man would very much like to come back to work at La Crêcherie.
Only he wasn’t bold enough to come and speak to you himself, for he
remembers that he took himself off in a very wrong fashion. So I’ve
come for him.’
Then Bonnaire added: ‘One ought to forgive Bourron. That wretched Ragu
led him astray. There’s no malice in Bourron; he’s only weak, and
perhaps we can still save him.’
‘Oh, let him come back!’ Luc gaily exclaimed. ‘I do not desire the
death of a sinner–rather the reverse! How many there are who only take
to bad courses because they are led to them by their mates, idlers and
revellers whom they cannot resist! Bourron will be a good recruit;
we’ll make an example of him for the benefit of the others.’
Never had Luc felt so happy. Bourron’s return seemed to him a decisive
symptom, albeit the man had become a mediocre worker. But, then,
as Bonnaire said, would not his redemption be a victory over the
wage-system? And besides, this would mean another household in the new
town, another little wave added to all the others which helped to swell
the tide by which the old world would be swept away.
Some days later Bonnaire again came to ask Luc to admit one of the
men of the Abyss. On this occasion, however, the recruit was such a
pitiable one that the former master-puddler was not disposed to insist
on the matter.
‘It’s that poor Fauchard,’ said Bonnaire; ‘he’s made up his mind at
last. He prowled about La Crêcherie on several occasions, as you may
remember; but he could come to no resolution, he was afraid to choose,
to such a degree had he been brutified, exhausted by excessive labour,
ever the same. He’s no longer a man, you know; he’s simply an old
warped bit of mechanism. I fear that we shall never get anything good
out of him.’
Luc was reflecting, recalling the first days that he had spent at
Beauclair. ‘Ah! yes,’ he said, ‘I know; he has a wife called Natalie,
isn’t that so? A woman of complaining mind, full of care, who is
always in search of credit. And he has a brother-in-law, Fortuné, who
when I first met him was only sixteen years old, and looked so pale,
so bewildered, so shattered already by mechanical toil! Ah! the poor
creatures! Well, let all of them come; why shouldn’t they? This will be
another example, even if we cannot make Fauchard a free and cheerful
man again.’
Then in a jocular, joyful manner he added: ‘This will mean another
family, another house added to the others. La Crêcherie is becoming
populous, eh? Do you know, Bonnaire, we are now on the high road to
that beautiful great city of which I used to speak to you at the very
beginning, when you were so incredulous! Do you remember? You were
anxious as to the result of the experiment; and if you remained on my
side it was chiefly out of gratitude. But are you convinced now?’
Bonnaire, who seemed somewhat embarrassed, did not immediately reply.
At length, in his usual frank way, he said: ‘Is one ever convinced?
It’s necessary that one should be able to touch the result with
one’s finger. The works are prosperous, no doubt; our association
is growing, the men live in more comfort; there is a little more
justice and happiness. But you know my ideas, Monsieur Luc; it is
still the accursed wage-system, and I don’t yet see any realisation of
It was only as a theorist that Bonnaire now defended himself. If he
did not give up his ideas, as he expressed it, he at least showed
admirable activity and courage in helping on the work which was going
forward. He was the hero-worker, the real leader, whose brotherly
example of solidarity had decided the battle in favour of La Crêcherie.
When he appeared in the workshops, looking so tall, so strong, and so
good-natured, all hands were stretched towards him. And he was more won
over to the cause than he was willing to admit, for it delighted him to
see that his comrades suffered less, tasted all sorts of delights, and
dwelt in healthy homes with flowers around them. After all it seemed as
if he would not go off without seeing the fulfilment of his life dream,
that dream of a world in which there would be less wretchedness and
more equity.
‘Yes, yes, Collectivist society,’ said Luc, laughing, for he knew
Bonnaire well, ‘we shall bring it about, even in a better way perhaps
than many of its partisans imagine; and if we don’t, our children will.
Be confident, Bonnaire, and remember that the future henceforth belongs
to us, since our town is growing, always growing.’
Then, with a broad gesture Luc pointed to the houses which stood among
the young trees, and whose roofs of coloured faïence showed so gaily
in the light of the setting sun. Ever and ever did he return to those
living houses which seemed to rise from the ground at his command, and
which he really pictured on the march like some pacific army which had
set forth to sow the future on the ruins of Old Beauclair and the Abyss.
If, however, the industrial workers of La Crêcherie alone had
triumphed, the result would simply have been a happy one, with
consequences still open to discussion. But it was rendered decisive
by the fact that the peasant workers of Les Combettes triumphed on
their side also in the association which had been formed between the
village and the factory. Here again there was only a beginning, but
how great was the promise of prodigious fortune! Since the day when,
realising that agreement was necessary if they were to struggle on and
live, Mayor Lenfant and his assessor Yvonnot had become reconciled, and
had prevailed on all the petty landowners of the village to combine
together in order to constitute one large estate of several hundreds
of acres, the land had developed extraordinary fertility. Previously
it had seemed as if it were becoming bankrupt, even like the great
plain of La Roumagne which had once been so fruitful, and which now
presented such a sorry spectacle with its poor, stunted, meagre crops.
In point of fact this was simply the effect of man’s stubborn laziness
and ignorance, his adherence to old-fashioned methods, and the lack
of proper manure, machinery, and agreement. Thus what a lesson was
given to others when the peasants of Les Combettes began to cultivate
their land in common. They purchased manure cheaply and procured tools
and machinery at La Crêcherie in exchange for the bread, wine, and
vegetables with which they supplied it. Strength came to them now that
they were no longer isolated, but had formed a solid and henceforth
indestructible bond between the village and the factory. And this was
the long-dreamt-of reconciliation between peasant and mechanic, which
for so many years had seemed impossible: the peasant supplying the corn
that nourishes, and the other supplying iron and steel in order that
the land might be sown with corn. If La Crêcherie needed Les Combettes,
Les Combettes on the other hand could not have thriven without La
Crêcherie. At all events union was at last effected, there was a
fruitful alliance whence the happy community of to-morrow would spring.
And what a miraculous spectacle was presented by that plain, now
reviving to life. A short time previously it had been almost abandoned,
and now it overflowed with crops! Amidst the other stretches of land
stricken by disunion and incompetence, Les Combettes formed as it
were a little sea of rich verdure which the whole region contemplated
at first with stupefaction and then with envy. Such dryness, such
sterility yesterday, and so much vigour and abundance to-day! Why not
follow, then, the example of the folk of Les Combettes? Neighbouring
villages were already making inquiries, and showing a desire to join
the movement. It was said that the mayors of Fleuranges, Lignerolles,
and Bonneheux were drawing up articles of association and collecting
signatures. Thus the little green sea would soon grow, join other seas,
and spread its waves of greenery afar until the whole expanse of La
Roumagne would form but one sole domain, one sole pacific ocean of
corn, vast enough to nourish the whole of a happy people.
For pleasure’s sake, Luc often took long walks through those fertile
fields, and he occasionally met Feuillat, Boisgelin’s farmer, who
likewise strolled about, with his hands in his pockets, whilst
contemplating in his silent enigmatical way the growth of the fine
crops which sprang from that well-tilled land. Luc knew what a large
part Feuillat had had in prompting Lenfant and Yvonnot to take the
initiative, and he was aware that the farmer still advised them
nowadays. Thus the young man remained full of surprise at seeing in
what a lamentable condition the other left the land which he himself
farmed–the land belonging to La Guerdache, whose sorry fields looked
like an uncultivated desert beside the rich domain of Les Combettes.
One morning, as Luc and Feuillat were chatting whilst they sauntered
along the road which separated the two estates, the former could not
help remarking: ‘I say, Feuillat, don’t you feel ashamed at keeping
your land in such poor condition, when over the way your neighbours’
land is so admirably cultivated? Surely your own interest ought to urge
you to active and intelligent work, such as I know you to be quite
capable of.’
At first the farmer simply smiled; then he fearlessly spoke out: ‘Oh,
Monsieur Luc! shame is far too fine a sentiment for such poor devils
as we are. As for my interest, it is just to get a living, and no
more, out of this land which does not belong to me. That’s what I do;
I cultivate it just sufficiently to procure bread. I should simply be
a dupe if I were to work it properly, manure it and improve it; for
all that would only enrich Monsieur Boisgelin, who each time my lease
expires is free to turn me out of doors. No, no! To make a field a good
field it ought to belong to oneself, better still to everybody.’
Then he began to jeer at the folk who shouted to the peasants: ‘Love
the land! Love the land!’ No doubt he was willing to love it: but all
the same he wished to be loved in return, or rather he did not desire
to love it for the sake of others. As he repeated, his father, his
grandfather, and his great-grandfather had loved it in all good faith,
bending beneath the rod of those who exploited them, and never drawing
from it aught save wretchedness and tears. For his own part he would
have none of the system by which landlords ferociously imposed upon
their tenants that farming system which meant that the farmer was to
love and caress and fructify the soil in order to increase the owner’s
A pause followed. Then in a lower voice, with an expression of
concentrated ardour, Feuillat added: ‘Yes, yes, the land to everybody,
so that one may love it again and cultivate it properly. For my part,
I’m waiting.’
Greatly struck by these words, Luc again glanced at the farmer. Close
as he might keep, he was evidently a man of keen intelligence. Behind
the peasant, who simply seemed unobtrusive and somewhat shy, Luc now
divined a skilful diplomatist, a keen-eyed precursor, one who gazed
into the future and helped on the experiment at Les Combettes with
a distant object, known to him alone, in view. Luc suspected the
truth, and, wishing to make certain on the point, he said: ‘So, if
you leave your land in that condition, it is in part to make people
compare it with the neighbouring land and understand the reasons of the
difference. But is it not all a dream? Surely Les Combettes will never
invade and swallow up La Guerdache.’
Again did Feuillat break into a silent laugh. Then he contented himself
with saying: ‘Something big would have to happen between now and then.
But, after all, who knows? I’m waiting.’
They took a few steps, and then, with a sweeping gesture which embraced
the whole scene, the farmer resumed: ‘All the same, things are moving.
Do you remember what a horrid view one had from here with all those
little patches of ground which yielded such poor crops? And now just
look! With everything united in one estate, and cultivation in common
with the help of machinery and science, the crops overflow on all
sides. Ah, it is indeed a splendid sight!’
The ardent love which he had secretly retained for the soil was
manifest at that moment in the fire of his glance and the enthusiasm
of his voice. And Luc himself was impressed by the great gust of
fruitfulness which passed, quivering, over that sea of corn. If he
felt so strong and competent at La Crêcherie, it was because he now had
his granary and was assured of bread, through having added a community
of peasants to his community of industrial workers. And the delight
he experienced when he saw his city marching on, its waves of houses
ever advancing to the conquest of the Abyss and Old Beauclair, was
no greater than that which he felt when he came to view the fertile
fields of Les Combettes, which on their side were likewise marching
on, stretching into the neighbouring fields, and gradually spreading
out into an ocean of crops which would cover La Roumagne from one
to the other end. Here as there the effort was identical; the same
civilisation was coming–mankind was marching towards truth, justice,
peace, and happiness.
The first effect of La Crêcherie’s success was to make the petty
factories of the region understand the advantage they would reap by
following its example and combining with it. The Chodorge works–nail
works which purchased all their raw material from their powerful
neighbours–were the first to come to a decision, allowing themselves
to be absorbed by La Crêcherie in the interest of both sides. Then
the Hauser works, which after manufacturing sabres had made scythes
and sickles their specialty, likewise joined the association, forming
as it were a natural adjunct of the great forge. Some difficulties
arose with another establishment, that of Mirande & Co., who built
agricultural machinery, for one of the two partners was a reactionist,
and fought against all novelties. But the position of the firm became
so critical that, fearing a catastrophe, he withdrew from it, and the
other partner hastened to save his works by merging them into those of
La Crêcherie. All the establishments thus drawn into the movement of
association and solidarity accepted the same statutes–a division of
profits based upon an alliance between capital, work, and intelligence.
They ended by constituting one sole family made up of various groups,
ever ready to welcome fresh adherents, and in this wise capable of
spreading indefinitely. And in this there was a re-casting of society,
which reconstituted itself on the basis of a new organisation of work,
tending to the freedom and happiness of mankind.
Beauclair was astonished and disconcerted, and its anxiety soon reached
a climax. What! would La Crêcherie grow without cessation, absorb
every little factory it might meet, this one, that one, and then
that other? And would the town itself and the immense plain beside
it be swallowed up and become the dependencies, the domain, the very
flesh of La Crêcherie? Men’s hearts were disturbed, and their brains
began to wonder in what direction might lie the true interest of one
and all, and the possibility of fortune. The perplexity of the petty
traders, particularly the usual household purveyors, increased and
increased as day by day their takings diminished. It became a question
whether they would not be soon obliged to put up their shutters. The
sensation was general when people learnt that Caffiaux, the grocer and
taverner, had come to an arrangement with La Crêcherie by which his
establishment would be turned into a simple _dépôt_, a kind of branch
of the factory’s general stores. Caffiaux had long been regarded as the
hireling of the Abyss, more or less a spy, one who poisoned the worker
with alcohol and then sold his secrets to his masters, for taverns are
the strongest pillars of the wage-system. At all events the man was
a suspicious character, one who ever watched to see which side would
prove victorious, and who was always prepared to commit some act of
treachery, readily turning his coat with the ease of one who is by no
means partial to defeat.
Thus the circumstance that he had so jauntily set himself on the side
of La Crêcherie greatly increased the anxiety of his neighbours, who,
for their own parts, wished to take up the most profitable position
as soon as possible. A pronounced movement of adherence to the
association then set in, and was destined to proceed more and more
rapidly. Beautiful Madame Mitaine, the bakeress, had not waited for
Caffiaux’s conversion to express approval of the developments at La
Crêcherie, and she was quite disposed to enter the association, though
her establishment remained prosperous, thanks to the reputation for
beauty and kindliness which she had imparted to it. Butcher Dacheux
alone persevered in obstinate resistance, full of fury at the downfall
of all his cherished notions. He declared that rather than yield to the
current he would prefer to die amongst his last quarters of beef on the
day when he should no longer find a _bourgeois_ disposed to buy them at
their proper price. And it seemed indeed as if this would come to pass,
for his customers were gradually deserting him, and such were his fits
of wrath that assuredly he was threatened with some sudden stroke of
One day Dacheux betook himself to Laboque’s establishment, whither
he had begged Madame Mitaine also to repair. It was a question, said
he, of seeing to the moral and commercial interests of the whole
district. A rumour was current that the Laboques, in order to avoid
bankruptcy, were on the point of making peace with Luc and joining La
Crêcherie, in such a way as to become mere depositaries of its goods.
Since the works had been directly exchanging their iron and steel,
their tools and machinery for the bread of Les Combettes and the other
syndicated villages, the Laboques had lost their best customers, the
peasants of the environs, without counting the housewives and even
the _bourgeoises_ of Beauclair, who effected great savings by making
their purchases at the stores of La Crêcherie, which Luc by a happy
inspiration had ended by throwing open to everybody. This meant the
death of trade, such as it had hitherto been understood, such as it
was personified by the middleman who intervened between producer and
consumer, increasing the cost of life, and living like a parasite on
the needs of others. And thus amidst their deserted bazaar the Laboques
poured forth their lamentations.
When Dacheux arrived, the woman, dark and scraggy, sat behind her
counter doing nothing, for she lacked even the courage to knit herself
some stockings; whilst the man, with the eyes and the snout of a
ferret, came and went like a soul in distress, before the pigeon-holes
full of unsold, dust-covered goods.
‘What’s that I hear?’ cried the butcher, flushing purple. ‘You’ve
turned traitor, Laboque, so people say, you are on the point of
surrendering! To think of it! You who lost that disastrous lawsuit,
you who swore that you’d kill the bandit even if it should cost you
your skin! Would you now set yourself against us, then, and add to the
But Laboque, whose hopes were all shattered, burst into a rage. ‘I’ve
quite enough worry; just leave me in peace,’ he answered. ‘As for that
idiotic lawsuit, you all urged me to it. And now you don’t spend enough
money with me to enable me to make my monthly payments. So you need not
come taunting me about saving my skin.’ And pointing to his dusty goods
he went on: ‘My skin’s there, and if I don’t come to an arrangement the
bailiffs will be here next Wednesday. Yes, it’s quite true, since you
want me to say it; yes, I’m negotiating with La Crêcherie, I’ve come to
an understanding with them, and I shall sign the papers to-night. I was
still hesitating, but I’m being worried beyond endurance.’
He sank upon a chair, whilst Dacheux, quite thunderstruck, and almost
choking, was only able to stammer oaths. Then in her turn Madame
Laboque, huddled up behind her counter, poured forth her plaint in
a low and monotonous voice: ‘To have worked so hard, _mon Dieu_, to
have taken so much trouble when we first started in business and
went selling ironmongery from village to village! And then too, all
the efforts that we had to make here in order to open this shop, and
enlarge it from year to year! We were rewarded, no doubt; the business
prospered, and we dreamt of buying a house right in the country and
of retiring to it and living on our income. But now everything is
crumbling away, Beauclair has gone mad, though I can’t yet understand
why, _mon Dieu_!’
‘Why, why?’ growled Dacheux; ‘why, because the Revolution has come, and
the _bourgeois_ are cowards and don’t even dare to defend themselves.
For my part, if I’m hustled too much I’ll take my knives one morning,
and then you’ll see something.’
Laboque shrugged his shoulders. ‘A lot of use that would be!’ he
exclaimed. ‘It’s all very well when folk are with one, but when a man
feels that to-morrow he will be left quite alone, the best is to go
where the others are going, however much it may enrage one to do so.
Caffiaux understood it well enough.’
‘Ah! that filthy Caffiaux!’ shouted the butcher, full of fury once
more. ‘There’s a traitor for you–a man who sells himself! You know
that Monsieur Luc, that bandit, gave him a hundred thousand francs to
desert us.’
‘A hundred thousand francs,’ repeated the ironmonger, whose eyes
glowed, although he feigned ironical scepticism. ‘I only wish he’d
offer them to me, I’d take them at once. But no, it’s stupid to be
obstinate, and the sensible course is always to side with the stronger.’
‘How awful! how awful!’ resumed Madame Laboque in her whining voice.
‘The world is certainly being turned upside down; it is coming to an
Beautiful Madame Mitaine, who was Just then entering the shop, heard
those last words. ‘What! the end of the world,’ said she gaily, ‘why
there were two babies, two fine big boys, born yesterday. And your
children, Auguste and Eulalie, how are they? Aren’t they here?’
No, they were not there, they were never there. Auguste, now nearly
two-and-twenty, had acquired a passion for mechanical arts, holding
trade in horror; whilst Eulalie, who was a very sensible girl, already
a little housewife at fifteen, lived for the most part with one of her
uncles, a farmer of Lignerolles, near Les Combettes.
‘Oh! the children,’ said Madame Laboque, again in a complaining voice,
‘one can’t rely on the children.’
‘They are all so ungrateful,’ declared Dacheux, who was indignant at
finding no trace of his own nature in his daughter Julienne, a plump,
good-looking girl of a compassionate disposition, who, although she
had passed her fourteenth birthday, still played with all the little
ragamuffins that infested the Rue de Brias. ‘When one relies on one’s
children one may be sure of dying of misery and grief.’
‘Well, I certainly rely on my Évariste, I do,’ resumed the baker’s
wife. ‘He’s close on twenty now, but we shan’t quarrel because he has
refused to learn his father’s calling. These young people naturally
grow up with ideas different from ours, for they are born for times
when we shall no longer be here. All I ask of my Évariste is to love me
well, and that he does.’
She then plainly stated her position to Dacheux. If she had come
to Laboque’s shop at his request it was in order that it might be
fully understood between them that each tradesman of Beauclair ought
to retain full freedom of action. She did not as yet belong to the
association of La Crêcherie, but she relied upon joining it when she
might be so pleased, that is to say, when she might feel convinced that
she would be acting in the general interest as well as in her own.
‘It’s evident that we ought to be free,’ put in Laboque by way of
conclusion. ‘As I can’t do otherwise, I shall sign to-night.’
Then Madame Laboque’s moan began once more: ‘I told you so, the world
is topsy-turvy, this is the end of it.’
‘No, no!’ the beautiful Madame Mitaine again exclaimed. ‘How can the
world be coming to an end when our children are just getting to an age
when they may marry and have children of their own, who in their turn
will marry and have children too? The young people are pushing the
others aside, the world is being renewed, that’s what it is–the end of
_a_ world, if you like.’
Those last words fell from her so sharply and decisively that Dacheux,
banging the door behind him, went off exasperated, with bloodshot eyes
and a quiver of the apoplexy by which he was threatened. As Madame
Mitaine had said, it was indeed the end of _a_ world, the end of
iniquitous and rotting trade, that trade which only creates the wealth
of a few at the expense of the greater number.
But Beauclair was to be upset by another and greater blow. Hitherto the
success of La Crêcherie had reacted only on establishments of a similar
nature, and on the petty traders, those who lived from day to day on
passing customers. Thus the emotion became great indeed when one fine
morning it was learnt that Mayor Gourier himself had been won over to
the new ideas. He–firmly established, needing nobody, as he declared
in a spirit of vanity–did not intend to join the association of La
Crêcherie. But he founded another one of a similar character, dividing
his large boot-works of the Rue de Brias into shares, on the basis of
a partnership between capital, work, and intelligence, amongst which
the profits were to be apportioned in three parts. This was simply the
establishment of a new group, what may be called the clothing group,
by the side of that which dealt in iron and steel. And the resemblance
between the two became the more pronounced when Gourier succeeded in
syndicating all the branches of the clothing industry: the tailors,
hatters, hosiers, linendrapers, and mercers. Then, too, yet another
group was spoken of, one which a big building contractor proposed to
establish by associating all the workers of the building trade, masons,
stonecutters, carpenters, locksmiths, plumbers, tilers, and painters.
And this group would assuredly absorb the architects and artists,
as well as the workers of the furniture trade, the cabinetmakers,
upholsterers, and bronze-workers, and in time even the clockmakers and
the jewellers. All this was simply logical; the example of La Crêcherie
had sown that fruitful idea of so many associations forming natural
groups, which grew up by themselves, in an imitative spirit, through a
craving to reach the greatest possible sum of life and happiness. The
law of human creation was working, and it would certainly work with
increasing energy if such were necessary for the happy existence of the
species. It already became apparent that a general bond was in process
of formation above these groups, a common link which would some day
join them all together in a vast system of social reorganisation, which
would prove the one code of the future community.
However, the idea of escaping from La Crêcherie by imitating it seemed
too good a one to have emanated from a man of Gourier’s intellect. Thus
the general opinion was that it must have been suggested to the mayor
by Sub-Prefect Prefect Châtelard, who kept himself more and more in the
background and displayed more and more quiet indifference as Beauclair
gradually transformed itself. The guess was a correct one, for the
matter had been settled at a little _déjeuner_, when the mayor and the
sub-prefect had sat face to face with only the ever-beautiful Léonore
beside them.
‘My dear fellow,’ had said the sub-prefect, with his amiable smile, ‘I
believe that we are at the end of our tether. Everything is going from
worse to worse in Paris, and the Revolution is approaching to sweep
away whatever remains of the old, rotting, ruinous social edifice.
Here, our chief man, Boisgelin, is a poor, vain creature, who will be
drained of his last copper by little Madame Delaveau. Nobody excepting
her husband is ignorant of what becomes of the money that he still
makes at the Abyss in his heroic struggle against bankruptcy. And
you’ll see what a disaster there will be presently. So it would really
be foolish if one did not think of oneself if one does not wish to be
dragged down with the others.’
At this Léonore showed some anxiety. ‘Are you, yourself, threatened, my
friend?’ she asked.
‘I? Oh, no! Who thinks of me? No Government will trouble about my
paltry self, for I am clever enough to do as little as possible in
the way of administrative duties, and I am always of precisely the
same opinion as my superiors, whoever they may be. I shall die here,
forgotten and happy, when the last Ministry collapses. But it is of you
that I am thinking, my good friends.’
Thereupon he explained his ideas and enumerated all the advantages
that would accrue from anticipating the Revolution by making a
second Crêcherie of the Gourier boot-works. The profits would not be
diminished–on the contrary. Besides, he was convinced–he was too
intelligent, said he, to fail to understand the truth–the future lay
in that direction, reorganised labour would end by sweeping the old
iniquitous _bourgeoise_ society away. As Châtelard proceeded it became
manifest that in that peaceful, sceptical functionary who deliberately
preserved an attitude of absolute inactivity, there had sprung up a
genuine Anarchist, though in public he carefully kept this concealed
beneath a demeanour of diplomatic reserve.
‘You know, my dear Gourier,’ he concluded with a laugh, ‘all this won’t
prevent me from declaring myself openly against you when you have gone
over to the new community. I shall say that you are a traitor or that
you have lost your reason. But I shall embrace you whenever I come
here, for you will have played them all a fine trick, which will bring
you in a deal of money. You’ll see what faces they’ll pull!’
All the same, Gourier was quite scared by the other’s suggestions. He
did not consent, but argued the matter at great length. The whole of
his past life rose up in protest. He rebelled at the idea of becoming
nothing more than the partner of hundreds of workers, of whom hitherto
he had been absolute master. Beneath his heavy exterior, however,
there was a very shrewd business mind; he fully understood that he
would risk nothing by the change, but, on the contrary, would assure
his establishment against all the dangers of the future should he
adopt the advice of Châtelard. Besides, he himself had been touched
by the passing gale, that exaltation, that passion for reform, whose
contagious fever at times of Revolution transports the very classes
which are about to be despoiled. Gourier, indeed, ended by believing
that the other’s idea was his own, even as Léonore, by the advice of
her friend Châtelard, repeated to him every morning, and thus he at
last set to work.
The whole _bourgeoisie_ of Beauclair was scandalised. Deputations
called upon Judge Gaume to beg him to intervene with the mayor, since
the sub-prefect, anxious to avoid compromising the Government, had
formally declined to meddle in this sorry affair, which he proclaimed
to be scandalous. Judge Gaume now led a very retired life, seeing
virtually nobody since his daughter Lucile, compromised it seemed
beyond remedy by an intrigue with a notary’s clerk, had been obliged
to seek a refuge with him. On being approached he followed the same
course as Châtelard, and showed great unwillingness to go to the mayor
with representations which the latter would doubtless take in very bad
part. It was then resolved to bring pressure to bear upon the judge.
Captain Jollivet, his son-in-law, after Lucile’s flight from her home,
had, with growing wrath, thrown himself into reactionary courses. He
contributed such violent articles to the ‘Journal de Beauclair’ that
Lebleu, the printer and proprietor, becoming anxious at the turn which
things were taking, feeling that it was necessary to be on the side
of the stronger, and thus pass from the Abyss to the Crêcherie party,
one day closed his door to him. The captain, thus disarmed and reduced
to idleness, spent his time in airing his futile rancour abroad, when
the idea suddenly occurred to his fellow-townsmen that he alone might
compel the judge to range himself on their side. As a matter of fact
the captain had not broken off all intercourse with his father-in-law;
they exchanged salutes whenever they met. Accordingly, on being
entrusted with the delicate mission, Jollivet presented himself at
the judge’s house in the most ceremonious fashion, and two long hours
elapsed before he came out of it again. It was then learnt that he had
only been able to extract some evasive replies from his father-in-law,
but that he had become reconciled with his wife. On the following day
she returned to the conjugal roof, the captain having forgiven her on
her solemn promise that she would never transgress again. All Beauclair
was stupefied by this _dénouement_ to a very scandalous business, and
the affair ended in a great outburst of laughter.
It was the Mazelles who ultimately succeeded in drawing from Gaume an
expression of his views, and this purely by chance, without having
been entrusted with any mission whatever. As a rule the judge went out
every morning and made his way to the Boulevard de Magnolles, a long,
deserted avenue, where he walked up and down in a gloomy reverie,
with his head bent and his hands clasped behind him. He stooped as if
beneath some final collapse, as if weighed down by the failure of his
whole life, the harm he had done, or the good which he had found he
could not do. And whenever he raised his eyes for a moment and gazed
far away, he seemed to be looking and waiting for something which did
not come, which perchance he would never see. Now one morning, on the
Boulevard de Magnolles, the Mazelles, who had risen early to go to
mass, mustered sufficient courage to approach the judge in order to ask
him his opinion on public affairs, so greatly did they fear that these
would lead to some disaster for themselves.
‘Well, Monsieur le Président, and what do you think of all that is
happening?’ asked Monsieur Mazelle.
The judge raised his head, and for a moment gazed into the distance.
Then, reverting to his torturing reverie, thinking aloud as though
nobody were listening to him, he said: ‘I say that the hurricane is a
long time coming–yes, the hurricane of truth and justice which will
end by sweeping this abominable world away.’
‘What! what!’ stammered the Mazelles, thunderstruck, and imagining that
they had misunderstood him. ‘You want to frighten us, eh, because you
think that we are not over-brave? That’s in a measure true, and people
tease us about it.’
But Gaume had recovered his self-possession, and as soon as he
recognised the Mazelles, who stood before him scared, with pale faces,
perspiring with anxiety for their money and their idle lives, his lips
became curved into an expression of disdainful irony. ‘What do you
fear?’ he resumed; ‘the world will well last another twenty years,
and if you are still alive then you will console yourselves for the
_ennuis_ of the Revolution by witnessing some very interesting things.
It is your daughter who ought to think of the future.’
At this Madame Mazelle sorrowfully exclaimed: ‘Ah! that’s the very
thing that Louise does not think about–ah! not at all. She is scarcely
thirteen as yet, and when she hears us talking of what goes on, as we
naturally do from morning till evening, she finds it very funny. While
we despair she simply laughs. Whenever I say to her, “You wretched
girl, why, you won’t have a penny,” she jumps about like a goat, and
answers: “Oh! I don’t mind that–no, not a bit; I shall be all the
merrier!” But, all the same, she’s a very dear girl, although she does
so little of what we desire.’
‘Yes,’ said Gaume; ‘she dreams of mapping out her life for herself.
There _are_ girls like that.’
Mazelle remained perplexed, for he feared that the judge was again
poking fun at him. The idea that he had made a fortune in ten years,
that he had since been leading the delightful life of sloth of which he
had dreamt already in his youth, and that his felicity might now come
to an end, that he might, perhaps, be compelled to work again if work
should become the general rule, filled him with ceaseless, intolerable
anguish, which was like a first punishment for his sins.
‘But the Rentes, Monsieur le Président, what would become of them,
in your opinion, if all those Anarchists should succeed in turning
the world topsy-turvy? As you may remember, that Monsieur Luc, who is
behaving so badly, used to make fun of us, saying that the Rentes would
be suppressed. In that case they may as well cut our throats.’
‘Sleep in peace, I tell you,’ Gaume repeated with quiet irony, ‘the new
social fabric will feed you if you won’t work.’
Then the Mazelles went off to church, where they now burnt tapers to
the Virgin in the hope of inducing her to cure Madame Mazelle; for
Doctor Novarre had one day been brute enough to tell the old lady that
she was not ill at all. Not ill, indeed! when she had been nursing her
illness so lovingly for so many years–that illness which was her very
life–to such a point had she made it her occupation, her joy, her
_raison d’être_! If the doctor forsook her it must be that he deemed
her incurable; at which thought, full of terror, she had addressed
herself to religion, in which she now found great relief.
There was another promenader on the Boulevard de Magnolles, that desert
whose quietude was so seldom disturbed by any passer-by. This was Abbé
Marle, who came thither to read his breviary. But he often let the
hand which held the book fall beside him, whilst still slowly walking
on, absorbed, like the judge, in a gloomy reverie. Since the last
events, those incidents of the evolution which was bearing the town
towards a new destiny, his church had become still emptier. By way of
congregation, there only remained some very old women of the people,
dull-witted, obstinate creatures, and a few _bourgeoises_ who supported
religion because they deemed it to be the last rampart of fine society
which was now crumbling to pieces. When the last of the faithful should
desert the Catholic churches, leaving them to brambles and nettles
like the ruins of a dead social system, another civilisation would
begin. And with this threat above his head, the presence of the few
_bourgeoises_ and old women of the people in no wise consoled Abbé
Marle, who felt that the void around him was ever increasing. Léonore,
the mayor’s wife, looked very decorative, no doubt, at high mass on
Sundays, and opened her purse widely to contribute to the expenses of
public worship; but he knew her indignity, her life of sin, which the
whole town accepted, and over which he himself had been compelled to
cast the cloak of his holy office, though he regarded that life as one
leading to eternal perdition, for which he himself would be accounted
responsible. And still less did the support of the Mazelles content
him. They were so childish and so basely egotistical. If they came to
him, it was solely in the hope of extracting some personal felicity
from heaven. Even as they had invested their money, so did they invest
their prayers–that is, with the object of deriving Rentes from them on
high. And one and all were the same in that dying society, all lacked
the true faith which in the first centuries had given Christianity its
force, all lacked the spirit of renunciation and absolute obedience–a
spirit which was more than ever necessary nowadays if the power of the
Church was to be maintained. Thus the priest no longer hid it from
himself–the days were numbered, and if God in His mercy did not soon
call him hence, he would, perhaps, behold the awful catastrophe–the
steeple of his church falling, bursting through the roof of the nave,
and crushing the altar of the Divinity.
It was in such sombre reveries that he indulged for hours whilst he
walked about the Boulevard de Magnolles. He kept them well within him,
and affected to remain brave and haughty, full of disdain for passing
events, under the pretext that the Church was the mistress of eternity.
But whenever he met Hermeline the schoolmaster, who was in a continuous
rage over the successes of La Crêcherie, and ready to go over to the
reactionists in order to save the Republic, he no longer discussed
things with his former bitterness, but declared that he placed his
trust in the Divinity, who must certainly be allowing these Anarchist
saturnalia with the object of ultimately striking down the enemies of
religion, and thus making it triumphant. Doctor Novarre jestingly said
that the Abbé abandoned Sodom on the eve of the rain of fire. By Sodom
he meant Beauclair, that plague-spot, _bourgeois_ Beauclair, devoured
by egotism, the town condemned to be destroyed and of which the earth
must be purified, if on its site one desired to see the city of health
and delight, justice and peace arise. Every symptom pointed to the
approach of the final rending: the wage-system was at its last gasp,
the distracted _bourgeoisie_ was passing over to the revolutionists,
the despairing desire to save something of one’s interests was bringing
all the living strength of the country over to the conquerors; and as
for what remained, the scattered, worn-out, unusable remnants of the
old system, they would be swept away by the wind. The radiant Beauclair
of to-morrow was already emerging from the ruins; and when Abbé Marle,
as he strolled under the trees of the Boulevard de Magnolles, let his
breviary fall, and slackening his pace, half-closed his eyes, it was
assuredly a vision of that coming city that arose before him and filled
him with such intense bitterness.

At times, Judge Gaume and Abbé Marle met in the course of those silent
solitary walks. At first they did not see one another, but walked on
with lowered heads, so absorbed in the contemplation of what they
pictured that nothing of their surroundings remained visible to them.
Each on his own side chewed the cud of his own despair–the one his
regret for the world which was disappearing, the other his appeal to
the world which was now rising from the ground. Exhausted religion was
unwilling to die; justice, awaiting birth, was in despair that its
advent should be so long delayed. However, the two men at last raised
their heads, and recognised one another. Then it became necessary for
them to exchange a few words.
‘This is very gloomy weather, Monsieur le Président. We shall have some
rain,’ the priest would say.
‘I fear so, Monsieur l’Abbé,’ replied the judge. ‘It is quite cold for
the month of June.’
‘Ah! how can it be otherwise? The seasons are all out of order now.
There is no equilibrium left.’
‘True; yet life goes on. The good sun will perhaps set everything right
Then each resumed his solitary perambulations, sank into his
reflections, carrying hither and thither the eternal battle between the
past and the future.
It was, however, especially at the Abyss that one felt the effects
of the evolution of Beauclair which the reorganisation of labour was
gradually transforming. At each fresh success achieved by La Crêcherie
Delaveau had to display more activity, intelligence, and courage; and
naturally everything which contributed to the prosperity of the rival
works to him brought disaster. Thus the discovery of excellent lodes of
ore in the once-abandoned mine dealt him a terrible blow, since it so
greatly reduced the price of raw material. He could no longer continue
struggling so far as commercial iron and steel were concerned. And the
manufacture of guns and projectiles likewise suffered. There had been
a marked falling off in orders since the money of France had been more
particularly spent on manufactures that symbolised peace and social
solidarity–such as railways, bridges, structures of all kinds in which
iron and steel triumphed. The worst was that the orders for ordnance,
which went to only a few establishments, no longer sufficed to enable
all of them to pay their way, and, if the market was to be cleared,
one of them at least must be killed. The least firmly established of
all being at that moment the Abyss, it was the latter which the other
competing foundries savagely resolved to destroy.
The difficulties of the Abyss were becoming the greater since its
workmen no longer remained faithful to it. Ragu’s attempt to kill Luc
had thrown the comrades that he left behind him into confusion. And
when Bourron, converted, brought round to reason, had returned to La
Crêcherie followed by Fauchard, a general movement set in, most of
the other men asking themselves why they should not follow Bourron’s
example, since so many advantages awaited them yonder. The success of
Luc’s experiment was now evident; the men employed at La Crêcherie
earned twice as much as at the Abyss, and yet they only worked eight
hours. And, besides, there were other attractions–the pleasant little
houses, the schools where the children learned things so well and so
merrily, the common-house which was ever _en fête_, and the general
stores, whose prices were fully a third lower than those of other
places, the whole tending to increase of health and increase of comfort.
Nothing is of any avail against figures. The men of the Abyss, wishing
to earn as much as those of La Crêcherie demanded a rise in wages. As
it was impossible to grant this demand, many of them naturally went
off. And, finally, Delaveau was paralysed by the lack of a reserve
fund. He did not yet confess himself conquered; he would have held
out for a long time, and would, in his own opinion, have ended by
triumphing if he had possessed a few hundred thousand francs to help
him to pass through this crisis, which he obstinately believed to be
a temporary one. Only how was he to continue fighting? how was he to
face pay-days when money failed him? Moreover, the money which he had
already borrowed was proving a crushing charge on the business. Yet he
struggled on heroically, ever erect, devoting all his intelligence,
his very life, to his work, in the hope that he might still save the
crumbling past which he supported, and that he might wring from the
capital entrusted to him the revenue that he had promised.
Delaveau’s worst sufferings, indeed, arose from the fact that he
could no longer hand Boisgelin the profits which he had covenanted to
extract from the business, and his defeat became materialised in the
most cruel fashion on the days when he was compelled to refuse his
cousin money. Although on the last occasion when accounts had been
balanced the position had proved to be disastrous, Boisgelin would in
no respect curtail his expenditure at La Guerdache. In this matter
he was inflamed by Fernande, who treated her husband like an ox at
the plough, one that needed to be goaded till it bled in order to
discharge its work properly. Never had the young woman shown herself
more ardent, more insatiable than now. She was consumed by a passion
for excesses. There was something wild in her glance, something that
suggested a desire for the impossible. Her acquaintances felt anxious
about her, and Sub-Prefect Châtelard confidentially told Mayor Gourier
that the little woman would assuredly end by perpetrating some great
piece of folly, from which all of them would suffer. Hitherto she
had contented herself with changing her home into a hell by urging
Boisgelin upon her husband, pressing him with continual demands for
money, whereby Delaveau was thrown into such a state of exasperation
that he even continued growling at night when resting his head on the
conjugal pillow. Fernande, by her remarks, maliciously kept his wound
open. Nevertheless, he still adored her, set her upon one side like an
innocent, immaculate being whom it was impossible to suspect.
November came with intense early cold. The payments which fell due
that month were so large that Delaveau fancied he could feel the very
ground he walked upon trembling beneath him. He had not the necessary
amount of money in the safe. On the evening before the day on which
the payments had to be made he shut himself up in his private room
to reflect and write some letters, whilst Fernande went to dine at
La Guerdache, whither she had been invited. Though she was unaware
of it, he himself had gone thither in the morning, and had had a
decisive conversation with Boisgelin, in which, after plainly stating
the terrible position, he had at last prevailed on him to reduce his
expenditure. He meant to limit him to a proper allowance for several
years, and had even advised him to sell La Guerdache. And now, alone
in his private room, Delaveau walked about slowly, every now and
then mechanically stirring the large coke fire which was burning in
a kind of stove before the chimney-piece. The only possible means of
salvation was to secure time: he must write to the creditors, who
could not possibly desire to see the works closed. However, he did not
hurry about it; he would write his letters after dinner. Meantime, he
continued thinking whilst going from one window to the other, ever
returning to the one whence he could see the far-spreading lands of La
Crêcherie, even to the distant park and the pavilion where Luc resided.
The cold, frosty atmosphere was very clear, and the sun was setting in
a sky as pure as crystal, a pale golden glow bringing the growing town
into delicate relief against a purple background. Never had Delaveau
seen it so plainly. It seemed to palpitate with life; he could have
counted the light slender branches of the trees, and he was able to
distinguish the smallest details of the houses, down to the decorations
of faïence which rendered them so gay. There came a moment when, under
the oblique rays of the sun, all the windows began to flame and sparkle
like hundreds of bonfires. It was like a triumph, a glory. And Delaveau
remained there, drawing the cretonne curtains aside, and gazing at that
triumph with his face close to the window-pane.
Even as Luc over yonder, at the other end of the lands of La
Crêcherie, occasionally watched his town marching on, spreading out
and threatening the Abyss with invasion, so Delaveau on his side often
came to gaze at it, and found it ever growing, threatening him with
conquest. How many times of recent years had he not lingered at that
window, and on each occasion he had seen the rising tide of houses
growing larger and drawing nearer to the Abyss. It had started from a
remote point of a great stretch of uncultivated, deserted land; one
house had appeared there like a little wave, then another, and another.
And those waves had covered the whole space before them, and now they
were only a few hundred yards away, and were rolling in a sea of
incalculable power, ready to carry off everything which might oppose
them. To-morrow would witness an irresistible invasion; all the past
would be swept away, the Abyss and Beauclair, too, would be replaced by
the young and triumphant city. At one moment, when a very severe crisis
had fallen on La Crêcherie, Delaveau had hoped that the advance would
stop, but before long the new town had resumed its march so impulsively
that the old walls of the Abyss were now already shaking. Yet he would
not despair; he tried to stiffen himself against the evidence of facts,
and flattered himself that he would find the necessary dyke and rampart
in his own energy.
That particular evening, however, he was enervated by anxiety, and
began to feel some covert regrets. Had he not formerly made a mistake
in letting Bonnaire take himself off? He remembered certain prophetic
words spoken by that strong, yet simple, man at the time of the great
strike. And it was on the morrow of that strike that Bonnaire, like a
good worker, had helped to found La Crêcherie. Since then the Abyss had
scarcely ever ceased to decline: Ragu had besmirched it with attempted
murder; Bourron, Fauchard, and others were quitting it as they might
have quitted an accursed ruin-breeding spot. And afar off the new town
was still flaming in the sunlight. At the sight of it sudden anger
seized upon Delaveau–anger whose violence restored him to himself, to
the beliefs of his whole life. No, no! he had been right, the truth was
in the past; nothing could be extracted from men unless one bent them
beneath the authority of dogma; the wage-system remained the true law
of labour, and beyond its pale there could be naught save madness and
catastrophe. Then Delaveau, intent on seeing nothing more, drew the
large cretonne curtains together, lighted his little electric lamp, and
again began to reflect as he strolled about his well-closed room, which
the glowing stove rendered extremely warm.
At last, after dinner, Delaveau sat down at his writing table to attend
to his letters, in accordance with the plans which he had been maturing
for hours, plans whereby he hoped to save the business. Midnight
struck and he still sat there, completing that worrying and difficult
correspondence. And doubts had now come to him, he was again possessed
by fear. Did salvation really lie in the direction he was taking? What
would he be able to do, even if the delays he asked for should be
granted? Exhausted by the superhuman effort he was making to save the
Abyss, he at last bowed his head and let it rest upon his hands. And
thus he remained, deep in anguish. But at that same moment the rattle
of a carriage was heard, and words rang out. Fernande had just returned
from the dinner at La Guerdache, and was sending the servants to bed.
When she entered her husband’s private room it was with hasty gestures
and excited speech, like a woman who is beside herself, one who has
been restraining and nursing her anger for hours.
‘Good heavens, how hot it is here! How can one live with such a fire?’
Then sinking back in an armchair she unclasped and threw off the
magnificent furs which covered her shoulders, and appeared in all her
marvellous beauty, gowned in silk and white lace, with arms and bosom
bare. Her husband expressed no surprise at her luxurious ways–he did
not even notice them–he loved her solely for herself, her beauty; and
passion always rendered him obedient to her whims, deprived him of
both foresight and strength. Never, too, had a more intoxicating charm
emanated from her person than at this period.
That evening, however, when Delaveau, with his head still buzzing,
looked up at her, he became anxious: ‘What is the matter with you, my
dear?’ he asked.
It was evident that she was greatly upset. Her large dark blue eyes,
which as a rule had such a caressing expression, now glowed with a
sombre fire. Her little mouth, which usually smiled in such a tenderly
deceitful way, opened, showing her strong teeth, whose lustre nothing
could tarnish, and which seemed ready to bite. And the whole of her
face, which displayed such a charming oval under her black hair, was
swollen as by a craving for violence.
‘What is the matter with me?’ she ended by saying, whilst she still
quivered, ‘Nothing.’
Silence fell again, and amidst the lifeless quietude of that winter
night one heard the growling of the busy Abyss, the blows of whose
hammers continuously shook the house. As a rule the Delaveaus remained
unconscious of it, but that night, in spite of the falling off in
business, the huge steam-hammer had been set to work to forge the tube
of a great gun in all haste; and the ground quaked, the vibrations of
each blow seemed to resound in that very room, coming thither along the
light wooden gallery which connected it with the works.
‘Come, there is something the matter with you,’ Delaveau resumed. ‘Why
won’t you tell me what it is?’
A gesture of wrathful impatience escaped Fernande, who replied: ‘Let us
go to bed, that will be better.’
Nevertheless she did not stir; with feverish hands she continued
twisting her fan, whilst her breath came short and quick, and her bosom
heaved. At last she blurted out what was stifling her.
‘So you went to La Guerdache this morning?’
‘Yes, I went there,’ answered Delaveau.
‘And what Boisgelin has just told me is true, then? The works are in
danger of bankruptcy, we are on the eve of ruin–such ruin, indeed,
that I shall have to content myself with woollen gowns and dry bread!’
‘I had to tell him the truth.’
Fernande was trembling, and had to restrain herself from bursting
forth into reproaches and insults at once. It was all over, her life
of enjoyment was threatened–nay, ended. No more festivities, neither
dinners, nor balls, nor hunts, would be given at La Guerdache. Its
doors would be closed to her, for had not Boisgelin confessed that
he would perhaps be compelled to sell the property? And her dream
of returning to Paris with millions to squander was ended also. All
that she had imagined she held within her grasp, fortune, luxury, and
pleasure, had crumbled to pieces. Nought but ruin encompassed her,
and that wretched Boisgelin had increased her exasperation by his
supineness, his cowardice in bending his head beneath the disaster.
‘You never tell me anything about our affairs,’ she continued bitterly.
‘I’m treated as if I were a fool. That news fell on me as if the very
ceilings were coming down. But if things are like that what are we
going to do, just tell me?’
‘We shall work,’ Delaveau simply answered; ‘there is no other means of
salvation possible.’
But she did not hear his last words, she had ceased to listen. ‘Did you
for a moment imagine,’ said she, ‘that I should consent to remain with
nothing to wear, to trudge about in worn-out boots and begin afresh
that wretched life which I remember like a nightmare? Ah, no! I’m not
like you others, I won’t have it, I won’t. You will have to arrange
something, you and Boisgelin between you, for I won’t be poor again.’
Then she went on pouring forth all that was distracting her mind.
There was her wretched youth, when living with her mother, the music
teacher, she had failed to capture the prize which her great beauty
had seemed to promise her–for after seduction she had been abandoned.
And following upon that odious adventure, the memory of which she hid
deep within her, had come her marriage, all calculation and diplomacy,
the acceptance of that ugly insignificant Delaveau whom she had taken
because she felt the need of some support, a husband whom she might
put to use. And then had come a lucky stroke, the acquisition of the
Abyss, the success of her plans, her husband procuring victory for her,
Boisgelin conquered, La Guerdache and every luxury and enjoyment at her
disposal. Twelve years had followed, replete with all the pleasures
that she had tasted there, like the enjoyer, the perverter she was,
satisfying her endless appetites and the dark rancour amassed within
her since childhood, happy in lying, betraying, bringing ruin and
disorder with her, and, in particular, exulting over the tears which
she drew from Suzanne’s eyes. But now, to think that this was not to
last, that she was destined to relapse, vanquished, into the poverty of
her former days!
‘You must arrange something–arrange something,’ she repeated. ‘I
won’t go bare; I won’t dispense with anything to which I have been
Delaveau, growing impatient, shrugged his sturdy shoulders. He was
still resting his massive bulldog head, with projecting jaws, upon
his two fists, whilst looking at her with his big dark eyes, his face
reddened the while by the great heat of the fire.
‘You were right, my dear,’ said he, ‘don’t let us talk of these
matters, for you seem to me to be scarcely reasonable to-night. I am
very fond of you, as you know, and am ready to make any sacrifice to
spare you suffering. But I hope that you will resign yourself to doing
as I myself intend to do. I mean to fight as long as there is breath
in my body. If necessary I shall get up at five in the morning, live
on a crust of bread, give my whole day to work, and no doubt I shall
go to bed at night feeling quite content. Besides, what if you do have
to wear more simple gowns, and have to go out on foot! Only the other
evening you yourself were telling me how all these pleasures, ever the
same, wearied and disgusted you!’
This was true. Fernande’s blue, caressing eyes darkened till they
almost became black as she thought of it. For some time past she had
failed to satisfy her passion for enjoyment. Though she was unwilling
to give up her present life, it palled upon her. She was full of
rancour against both her husband and her lover, who no longer amused
her, and she often wondered wrathfully whether she would ever feel
amused again. Thus, it was with insulting contempt that she had greeted
the lamentations of Boisgelin when the latter had told her of his
despair at being compelled to cut down his expenses. And this also
was why she had returned home in such a passion, eager to bite and to
‘Yes, yes,’ she stammered, ‘those pleasures which are always the same!
Ah! it isn’t you who’ll ever give me any new ones!’
In the works the heavy blows of the steam hammer still resounded,
making the ground tremble. Long had that hammer forged delight for her,
by wringing from steel the wealth she coveted, whilst the grimy flock
of toilers gave their lives in order that her own might be one of full
and free enjoyment. For a moment she listened to the dolorous commotion
of labour sounding amidst the heavy silence. Then, with her savage
hatred increasing, she turned upon her husband. ‘It is all your fault
if this has happened!’ she cried, ‘I told Boisgelin so. If you had
begun by strangling that wretched Luc Froment, we should not now be on
the eve of ruin. But you have never known how to conduct business.’
At this Delaveau abruptly rose from his chair, and, resisting the anger
which was gaining on him, retorted, ‘Let’s go to bed. If we went on
discussing, you would end by making me say things which I should regret
But she did not stir; she continued speaking so bitterly, so
aggressively, accusing her husband of having wrecked her life, that he,
on his side, waxing brutal, at last exclaimed: ‘Why, when I married
you, my dear, you hadn’t a halfpenny; it was I who had to buy you some
clothes. You were on the point of falling to the streets, and where
would you have been now?’
At this, thrusting her face and bosom forward, she answered, with a
murderous glance, ‘What! do you imagine that, beautiful as I was, a
prince’s daughter, I should have accepted such a man as you, ugly,
common, and without position, if I had only had bread? Just look at
yourself, my friend! I took you because you promised to win a fortune,
a royal position for me. And if I tell you this it is because you have
kept none of your engagements.’
Delaveau was now standing before her, letting her talk on, whilst
clenching his fists and striving to retain his _sangfroid_.
‘You hear!’ she repeated, with furious obstinacy, ‘none of your
engagements–none! No more with Boisgelin than with me, for it’s
certainly you who have ruined the poor fellow. You prevailed on him
to trust his money to you; you promised him a fabulous income, and
now he won’t oven have enough money left him to buy a pair of shoes.
When a man isn’t capable of managing a large business, my friend, he
remains a petty clerk, and lives in a hovel with a wife ugly enough
and stupid enough to wash a pack of children, and mend their socks.
Yes, bankruptcy has come, and it is your fault; you hear me, your
fault–yours! yours alone!’
Delaveau was unable to restrain himself any longer. Those savage words
tortured him as if a knife had been turned round and round in his heart
and conscience. To think that he had loved that woman so well, and to
hear her speak of their marriage as a base bargain, in which on her
side there had only been so much necessity and calculation! For nearly
fifteen years he had been striving so loyally and so heroically to
keep the promise he had made his cousin, and yet she accused him of
incapacity and lack of business knowledge! He caught hold of her bare
arms with both hands, and shook her, saying in a low tone, as if he
feared that the sound of his own voice might unhinge him, ‘Be quiet,
you unhappy woman; do not madden me!’
But she in her turn arose and freed herself, stammering with anger and
pain at the sight of the red circles which his rough grasp had left
round her delicate white arms. ‘You beat me now, you blackguard, you
brute!’ she cried. ‘Ah! you beat me, you beat me!’
And again she thrust forward her beautiful face, now convulsed by
wrath, and spat out all her contempt full in that man’s countenance
which she longed to lacerate with her nails. Never had she hated him
so much; never had the sight of his massive bulldog figure irritated
her to such a degree as now. All the rancour amassed within her arose
once more, urged her on to some irreparable insult which should end
everything. With instinctive cruelty she sought a means of inflicting
some poisonous wound, something that should make him howl and suffer.
‘You are only a brute!’ she cried. ‘You are not capable of directing a
gang of ten men!’
At this singular insult, which seemed to him stupid and childish,
Delaveau burst into convulsive laughter. And this laughter exasperated
Fernande to such a point that she became half delirious. What could she
say to him that would prove a mortal blow and bring his laughter to an
‘Yes, it was I who made you what you are!’ she exclaimed. ‘If it had
not been for me you would not have remained director of the Abyss a
single year!’
At this he laughed all the louder: ‘You are mad, my dear; you say such
stupid things that they don’t affect me!’
‘I say foolish things, do I? So it was not thanks to me that you kept
your place?’
Confession had suddenly risen to her throat. Ah! to shout it full in
his dog’s face, to shout that she had never loved him, and that she
was another’s mistress. That was the knife-thrust which would make
his laughter cease. And how it would relieve her! what terrible and
ferocious and voluptuous enjoyment she would taste in that collapse
of her life which was already crumbling to pieces! She flung herself
into the pit with a cry of horrible delight: ‘The things I say are not
stupid, for I’ve been Boisgelin’s mistress for twelve years past.’
Delaveau did not immediately understand her. Those horrible words,
striking him full in the face, had almost stunned him.
‘What is that you say?’
‘I say that I’ve been Boisgelin’s mistress for twelve years past, and
since there’s nothing left, since all is falling to pieces, well,
there, that’s the end of it!’
In his turn half delirious, stammering, with his teeth clenched,
Delaveau rushed upon her, caught hold of her arms, shook her, and threw
her into the arm-chair. He would have liked to pound and annihilate
all that provoking nudity which she displayed, her bare shoulders and
bare bosom, to prevent her from ever insulting and torturing him again.
The veil was at last torn away, and he saw and divined things clearly.
She had never loved him; her life beside him had never been aught
but hypocrisy, ruse, falsehood, and betrayal. From that beautiful,
polished, charming woman whom he had adored there suddenly emerged
a she-wolf, all sombre fury and brutal instinct. Many things of the
cause of which he had been ignorant had sprung from her; she was the
perverter, the poisoner, who had slowly corrupted all around her; hers
was the flesh of cruelty and treachery, whose enjoyment had been made
up of the tears and blood of others.
But whilst he was still struggling with his stupefaction she insulted
him again: ‘With your fists, eh, you brute! Oh! go on, hit, hit, like
your workmen do when they are drunk!’
Then, amidst the frightful silence which fell between them, Delaveau
heard the rhythmic blows of the steam-hammer, the commotion of labour
which, without a pause, accompanied both his days and his nights.
The sound came to him like a well-known voice, whose clear language
acquainted him with the whole of the horrible adventure. Was it not
Fernande, with her little teeth of unchangeable lustre, who had
devoured all the wealth which yonder hammer had forged? That burning
thought possessed his brain: she was the devourer, the one cause of
the disaster, of the squandering of millions, of the inevitable,
approaching bankruptcy. Whilst he had been heroically striving to keep
his promises, working eighteen hours a day, endeavouring to save the
old and crumbling world, it was she who had gnawed at the edifice and
rotted it. She had lived there beside him, looking so quiet, with her
soft smiling face, and yet she herself was the poison, the destructive
agent who had paralysed his efforts and annihilated his work. Yes, ruin
had ever been present beside him, at his table, in his bed, and he had
not seen it. She had shaken everything with her little agile hands, and
pulverised everything with her little white teeth. He remembered nights
when she had returned from La Guerdache, intoxicated by the caresses of
her lover, by the wine she had drunk, by the waltzes she had danced,
by the money which she had flung around her, and, when she had slept
off that intoxication, lying by his side, whilst he, with his eyes wide
open, peering into the darkness, tortured his brain in striving to
devise some means for saving the Abyss, and did not even stir for fear
of disturbing her slumber. And this, which seemed to him the supreme
horror of all, inspired him with mad fury and made him shout: ‘You
shall die!’
She sat up in the chair, her elbows resting on its arms, her bare bosom
and her charming face again thrust forward under her black casque of
splendid hair: ‘Oh! as for that I’m agreeable. I’ve had enough of you
and the others, and myself, and life as well! I’d rather die than live
in wretchedness.’
‘You shall die! you shall die!’ he howled, growing wilder and wilder.
But he had no weapon, and vainly sought one whilst he turned around the
room. He had not even a knife, nothing save his two hands, with which
he might strangle her. But what use would that be? What could he do
afterwards–could he go on living? A knife would have sufficed for both.
She noticed his embarrassment, his momentary hesitation, and triumphed
over it, believing that he would not again find the strength to kill
her. And in her turn she began to laugh, with an insulting, taunting
laugh. ‘What! are you not going to kill me, then? Kill me, kill me
then, if you dare!’
All at once, in the midst of his wild search for a weapon, Delaveau
perceived the sheet-iron stove in which such a brasier of coke was
glowing that the room seemed to be on fire already. And utter dementia
suddenly fell upon him, making him forget everything, even his
daughter, his fondly-loved Nise, who was sleeping quietly in her little
room on the second floor. Oh! to make an end of himself, annihilate
himself amidst the fury which transported him! Oh! to carry that
hateful woman to death, so that she might never more belong to another,
and to go with her, and cease to live, since life was now utterly
soiled and wrecked!
She was still urging him on with her lashing, contemptuous laugh. ‘Kill
me! kill me then! You are far too big a coward to kill me!’
Yes, yes, thought Delaveau, to burn everything, to destroy everything
by a huge conflagration in which the house and the works alike would
disappear, a conflagration which would complete the work of ruin
carried on by that woman and her idiotic lover! Ay, a gigantic pyre
on which he himself would crumble into ashes with that malignant,
devouring, lying creature, amidst the smoking ruins of that old social
system which he had so foolishly striven to defend.
With a terrible kick, he overturned the stove, and projected it into
the middle of the room, ever repeating his shout: ‘You shall die! you
shall die!’
The red-hot coke spread in a red sheet over the carpet. Some pieces
rolled as far as one of the windows. Then the cretonne curtains were
the first to flare, whilst the carpet began to burn. The furniture and
the walls flamed in their turn with overwhelming rapidity. The house,
which was but lightly built, caught fire and sparkled and smoked like a
mere wisp of hay.
The rest was frightful. Fernande had sprung up in her terror, gathering
the silk and lace of her skirts together, and seeking a passage where
the flames would not reach them. She darted towards the door opening
into the hall, feeling certain that she would have time to escape, that
she would reach the garden at a bound. But in front of the door she
found Delaveau, whose arms barred her passage. He looked so terrible
that she then sprang towards the other door, the one which opened into
the wooden gallery, connecting the room with the works. But it was too
late to flee in that direction–the gallery was burning, acting like a
chimney, in which the draught urged on the flames with such rapidity
that the adjacent business offices were already threatened. So she came
back to the centre of the room, stumbling, blinded, suffocating, full
of rage and terror at feeling that her dress was flaring, that her
uncoiled hair also was catching fire, covering her bare shoulders with
burns. And in a frightful voice she gasped:
‘I will not die! I will not die! let me pass, murderer! murderer!’
Then again she threw herself towards the door opening into the hall,
and strove to force a passage, rushing upon her husband, who still
stood there, erect and motionless, full of fierce determination.
Without any violence he simply repeated: ‘I tell you that you are going
to die.’
To force him to give way, she dug her nails into his flesh, and then
only did he catch hold of her again and bring her back into the centre
of the room, which had now become a perfect brasier. And here there
was a horrible battle. She struggled with all her strength, which was
increased tenfold by the dread of death; she sought the doors, the
windows with the instinctive eagerness of a wounded animal; whilst he
still kept her amidst the flames in which he wished to die, and in
which he wished her to perish with him, in order that the whole of
their abominable existence might be annihilated. And to accomplish
this he needed all the strength of his strong arms, for the walls were
cracking, and ten times in succession did he have to drag her from the
outlets by which she might have escaped. At last he imprisoned her in
a final savage embrace, and they fell together amidst the embers of
the flooring, whilst the last hangings burnt away like torches, and
ardent brands rained from the woodwork overhead. And although she bit
him, he did not release her, but held her fast, carrying her away into
nothingness, both of them burning together with the same avenging fire.
Soon all was over, the ceiling fell upon them with a great crumbling of
flaming beams.
* * * * *
That night at La Crêcherie, as Nanet left the machinery gallery, where
he was now serving his apprenticeship as an electrician, he perceived
a red glow in the direction of the Abyss. At first he imagined that it
came from the cementing furnaces. But its brightness increased, and
all at once he understood the truth–the manager’s house was on fire.
He experienced a sudden shock, for he thought of Nise, and then ran
off wildly and came into collision with the party-wall, over which, in
former times, they had both climbed so nimbly in order to be together.
And once again, with the help of hands and feet, he somehow got over
the wall and found himself in the garden, alone as yet, for no alarm
had been given. It was, indeed, the house that was burning, and the
frightful feature of the conflagration was that like a fire lighted
at the base of some huge pyre, it spread from ground-floor to roof,
without anybody within showing sign of life. The windows remained
closed, and the door was already burning, in such wise that one could
neither go in nor out. It merely seemed to Nanet that he could hear
some loud cries and a commotion like that of some horrible death
struggle. But at last the shutters of one of the second-floor windows
were flung back violently, and then, amidst the smoke, appeared Nise,
all in white, wearing only her chemise and a petticoat. She called for
help and leant out, terrified.
‘Don’t be frightened, don’t be frightened,’ cried Nanet in distraction,
‘I’m going up.’
He had perceived a long ladder lying alongside a shed. But on going
to take it he found that it was chained. A moment of terrible anguish
ensued. The lad took up a large stone and struck the padlock with all
his strength in order to break it. Meantime the flames were roaring,
and the whole of the first floor took fire amidst such an outpouring
of smoke and sparks, that at certain moments Nise, up above, quite
disappeared from sight. Nanet still heard her cries, however, which
grew wilder and wilder, and he struck and struck the padlock, whilst
calling in response: ‘Wait! wait! I’m coming!’
At last the padlock was crushed and he was able to take the ladder. He
never remembered afterwards how he had managed to set it erect. It was
a prodigious feat; but he was able to rear it under the window. Then,
however, he perceived that it was too short, and such was his despair
at the discovery that his courage wavered. Boy hero that he was, only
sixteen years of age, he was resolved to save that young girl of
thirteen, his friend and playmate; but he was losing his head, and no
longer knew how to act.
Nevertheless, he called again: ‘Wait! wait! It doesn’t matter, I’ll
come somehow!’
At that moment one of the two servant girls, whose garret bedroom had
a window opening on to the roof, managed to get out, clutching hold of
the guttering. But, maddened by terror, imagining that the flames were
already reaching her, she suddenly leapt into space and fell, dead,
with her skull broken, beside the flight of steps.
Nanet, unhinged by Nise’s cries, which had become more and more
frightful, fancied that she also was about to jump out. He pictured her
lying at his feet, covered with blood, and he raised a last terrible
call: ‘Don’t jump; I’m coming, I’m coming!’
Then, in spite of everything, the young fellow ascended the ladder, and
when he reached the burning first floor he entered the house by one of
the windows whose panes had been burst by the violence of the heat.
Help was now arriving; there were a number of people already on the
road and in the garden. And the throng spent some minutes of frightful
anxiety in watching one child save the other with such wild bravery.
The conflagration was still and ever spreading; the walls cracked, and
the very ladder seemed to ignite as it stood against the house front,
whilst neither the boy nor the girl reappeared. But at last Nanet came
back, carrying Nise on his shoulders as a shepherd may carry a lamb.
He had managed to climb through the furnace from one story to the
other, take her up, and come down again; but his hair was singed and
his clothes were burning, and when he had slipped, rather than stepped,
down the ladder with his well-loved burden, both he and she were
covered with burns and fell fainting in one another’s arms, clasped in
so close an embrace that they had to be carried thus to La Crêcherie,
whither Sœurette, who had now been warned, repaired to nurse them.
Half an hour later the house fell; not a stone of it remained standing.
And the worst was that the fire, after reaching the general offices by
way of the wooden gallery, had now gained the neighbouring buildings,
and was devouring the great hall where the puddling-furnaces and the
rolling-machinery were installed. The entire works were in danger; the
fire blazed amidst those old buildings, almost all of which were of dry
woodwork. It was said that the Delaveaus’ other servant, having managed
to escape by way of the kitchen, had been the first to give the alarm
to the night-shifts, who had hurried up from the works. But they had
no fire-engine, and nothing could be done till their comrades of La
Crêcherie, headed by Luc himself, came in brotherly fashion to the help
of the rival establishment with both engine and firemen. The Beauclair
fire brigade, whose organisation was very defective, only turned up
afterwards. And it was too late to save the Abyss; it was now blazing
from one to the other end of its sordid workshops over an expanse of
several acres, forming a huge brasier whence emerged only the lofty
chimneys and the tower in which great cannon were tempered.
When the dawn rose after that night of disaster numerous groups of
people still stood before the smouldering wreckage under the livid,
chilly November sky. The Beauclair authorities, Sub-Prefect Châtelard
and Mayor Gourier, had not quitted the scene of the catastrophe, and
Judge Gaume was with them, as well as his son-in-law, Captain Jollivet.
Abbé Marle, warned late, only arrived when it was light, and was soon
followed by a stream of inquisitive folk, _bourgeois_ and shopkeepers,
the Mazelles, the Laboques, the Caffiaux, and even Dacheux. A gust of
terror was sweeping by; one and all spoke with bated breath, their
great anxiety being to know how such a catastrophe could possibly
have taken place. Only one witness remained, the servant-girl who
had managed to escape. She related that Madame had returned from La
Guerdache about midnight, and that immediately afterwards there had
been some loud shouting, after which the flames had suddenly appeared.
People listened to her, and repeated her story in low tones; and
those who had been intimate with the Delaveaus divined the frightful
tragedy which had taken place. It was evident, as the servant said,
that Monsieur and Madame had perished in the fire. The horror, which
was spreading, increased still further on the arrival of Boisgelin,
who had to be helped out of his carriage, such was his faintness and
pallor. He ended by swooning, and Doctor Novarre had to attend to him
there, before that field of ruin where the remnants of his fortune were
smoking, and where the bones of Delaveau and Fernande were at last
crumbling into dust.
However, Luc continued directing the last efforts made by his men to
save the still burning gallery where the steam-hammer was installed.
Jordan, wrapped in a rug, obstinately remained in spite of the intense
cold. Bonnaire, who had arrived one of the first, had distinguished
himself by his courage in saving such machinery and appliances as was
possible. Bourron, Fauchard, and all the other former hands of the
Abyss who had gone to La Crêcherie, helped him, exerted themselves
devotedly on that ground which they knew so well, where they had
toiled for so many dolorous years. But destiny in its fury seemed to
have transformed itself into a hurricane. In spite of all the efforts,
everything was carried, swept away, and annihilated. Fire the avenger,
fire the purifier had fallen upon the walls like lightning, razed
everything, cleared the expanse of the ruins with which the downfall of
the old world had littered it. And now the work was done, the ground
stretched away clear and open, and the rising city of justice and peace
might carry its conquering waves of houses even to the end of the great
All at once Lange, the potter, the Anarchist, who stood in one of the
groups of people, was heard saying in his rough but jovial voice: ‘No,
no, I haven’t to pride myself on it, for I didn’t light it. But, no
matter, it’s fine work, and it’s rather funny that the masters should
help us by roasting themselves.’
He was referring to the conflagration. And such was the shudder that
passed through all his listeners that none attempted to silence him.
The feelings of the throng impelled it towards the victorious forces;
the authorities of Beauclair congratulated Luc on his devotion; the
tradespeople and petty _bourgeois_ surrounded the workers of La
Crêcherie, at last openly ranging themselves upon their side. Lange
was right; there are tragic hours when decaying societies, stricken
with madness, fling themselves upon the pyre. And now, of all those
grimy works of the Abyss, where the wage-system had gasped in the last
hours of dishonouring, accursed toil, there only remained against the
grey sky a few crumbling walls supporting the frameworks of roofs,
above which the high chimneys and the tempering tower alone rose up,
useless and woebegone.
That morning, about eleven o’clock, when the sun at last made up its
mind to show itself, Monsieur Jérôme passed by in his bath-chair
propelled by a servant. He was making his usual promenade. He had just
followed the Combettes road, skirting the works and the growing town
of La Crêcherie, which looked so bright and gay in the dry, sunshiny
weather. And now he beheld the field of defeat, the Abyss sacked and
destroyed by the justice-dealing violence of the flames. For a long
time his clear and empty eyes, as transparent as spring water, gazed
upon the scene. He spoke no word, he made no gesture; he simply looked,
and then was wheeled away, nothing about him telling whether he had
really seen and understood.