I know my way

As Luc Froment walked on at random after emerging from Beauclair, he
went up the Brias road, following the gorge in which the Mionne torrent
flows between the two promontories of the Bleuse Mountains. And when he
found himself before the Abyss, as the Qurignon steel-works are called
in the region, he perceived two dark and puny creatures shrinking
timidly against the parapet at the corner of the wooden bridge. His
heart contracted. One was a woman looking very young, poorly clad, her
head half hidden by some ragged woollen stuff; and the other, nestling
amidst her skirts, was a white-faced child, about six years old, and
scarcely clothed at all. Both had their eyes fixed on the door of the
works, and were waiting, motionless, with the mournful patience of
despairing beings.

Luc paused and also looked. It would soon be six o’clock, and the light
of that wretched, muggy, mid-September evening was already waning.
It was a Saturday, and since Thursday the rain had scarcely ceased
to fall. It was no longer coming down at present, but across the sky
an impetuous wind was still driving a number of clouds, sooty ragged
clouds, athwart which filtered a dirty, yellowish twilight, full of
mortal sadness. Along the road over which stretched lines of rails,
and where big paving-stones were disjointed by continuous traffic,
there flowed a river of black mud, all the gathered moistened dust of
the neighbouring coal-works of Brias, whose tumbrels were for ever
going by. And that coal-dust had cast a blackness as of mourning over
the entire gorge; it fell in patches over the leprous pile of factory
buildings, and seemed even to besmirch those dark clouds which passed
on interminably like smoke. An ominous melancholy swept by with the
wind; one might have thought that the murky quivering twilight was
bringing the end of the world in its train.

Luc had stopped short at a few paces from the young woman and the boy,
and he heard the latter saying with a shrewd decisive air, like one who
was already a little man: ‘I say, _ma grande_,[1] would you like me to
speak to him? P’r’aps he wouldn’t get so angry with me.’

But the young woman replied: ‘No, no, _frérot_, those are not matters
for little boys.’

Then again they continued waiting in silence, with an air of anxious
resignation.

Luc was now looking at the Abyss. From professional curiosity he
had visited it when first passing through Beauclair the previous
spring. And during the few hours that he had again found himself in
the district, suddenly summoned thither by his friend Jordan, he had
heard through what a frightful crisis the region had just passed.
There had been a terrible strike of two months’ duration, and ruin was
piled up on either side. The establishment had greatly suffered from
the stoppage of work, and the workmen, their rage increased by their
powerlessness, had almost starved. It was only two days previously, on
the Thursday, that work had been resumed after reciprocal concessions,
wrung from either party with the greatest difficulty after the most
furious wrangling. And the men had gone back like joyless, vanquished
beings enraged by defeat, retaining in their hearts only a recollection
of their sufferings and a keen desire for revenge.

Under the wild flight of the mourning clouds the Abyss spread its
sombre piles of buildings and sheds. It was like a monster which had
sprung up there, extending by degrees the roofs of its little town.
One could guess the ages of the various structures by the colour
of those roofs which arose and spread out in every direction. The
establishment now occupied a surface of many acres and employed a
thousand hands. The lofty, bluish, slated roofs of the great halls with
coupled windows, overtopped the old blackened tiles of the earlier
buildings, which were far more humble. Up above one perceived from the
road the gigantic hives of the cementing-furnaces, ranged in a row,
as well as the tempering tower, seventy-eight feet high, where big
cannon were plunged on end into baths of petroleum. And higher still
ascended smoking chimneys, chimneys of all sizes, a very forest, whose
sooty breath mingled with the flying soot of the clouds, whilst at
regular intervals narrow blast-pipes, with strident respiration, threw
out white plumes of steam. All this seemed like the breathing of the
monster. The dust, the vapour that it incessantly exhaled, enveloped
it as in an everlasting cloud of the perspiration of toil. And there
was also the beating of its organs, the impact, the noise of its every
effort: the vibration of machinery, the clear cadence of helve-hammers,
the great rhythmical blows of steam-hammers resounding like huge bells
and making the soil shake. And at the edge of the road, in the depths
of a little building, where the first Qurignon had first forged iron,
one could hear the violent, desperate dance of two tilt-hammers which
were beating there like the very pulse of the colossus, every one of
whose life-devouring furnaces flamed afresh.

In the ruddy and dismal crepuscular mist which was gradually submerging
the Abyss, not a single electric lamp as yet lighted up the yards. Nor
was there any light gleaming through the dusty windows. Alone, through
the gaping doorway of one of the large halls, there burst a vivid flame
which transpierced the gloom with a long jet of light, like that of
some fusing star. A master puddler had doubtless opened the door of
his furnace. And nothing else, not even a stray spark, proclaimed the
presence of the empire of fire, the fire roaring within that darkened
city of toil, the internal fire which heated the whole of it, the
trained, subjected fire which bent and fashioned iron like soft wax,
and which had given man royalty over the earth ever since the first
Vulcans had conquered it.

At last the clock in the little belfry surmounting the offices struck
six o’clock. And Luc then again heard the poor child saying: ‘Listen,
_ma grande_, they will be coming out now.’

‘Yes, yes, I know well enough,’ the young woman answered. ‘Just you
keep quiet.’

As she moved forward to restrain the child, her ragged wrapper fell
back slightly from before her face, and Luc remarked the delicacy of
her features with surprise. She was surely less than twenty. She had
fair hair all in disorder, a poor, thin little face which to him seemed
ugly, blue eyes blurred by tears, and a pale mouth that twitched
bitterly with suffering. And what a light, girlish frame there was
within her old threadbare dress! And with what a weak and trembling
arm did she press to her skirts the child, her little brother, who was
fair like herself and equally ill-combed, but stronger-looking and
more resolute! Luc felt his compassion increasing, whilst the two poor
creatures on their side grew distrustfully anxious about that gentleman
who had stopped so near, and was examining them so persistently. She,
in particular, seemed embarrassed by the scrutiny of that young fellow
of five-and-twenty, so tall and handsome, with square-set shoulders,
broad hands and a face all health and joy, whose firmly-marked features
were o’ertopped by a straight and towering brow, the towering brow of
the Froment family. She had averted her gaze as it met the young man’s
brown eyes, which looked her frankly in the face. Then she once more
stole a furtive glance, and seeing that he was smiling at her in a
kindly way, she drew back a little more, in the disquietude born of her
great distress.

The clang of a bell was heard, there was a stir in the Abyss, and then
began the departure of the day-shifts which the night-shifts were about
to replace; for never is there a pause in the monster’s devouring life;
it flames and forges both by day and night. Nevertheless there was some
delay in the departure of the day-hands. Although work had only been
resumed on the Thursday, most of them had applied for an advance, for
after that terrible strike of two months’ duration great was the hunger
in every home. At last they began to appear, coming along one by one
or in little parties, all gloomy and in a hurry, with their heads bent
whilst in the depths of their pockets they stowed away their few dearly
earned silver coins which would procure a little bread for wife and
children. And in turn they disappeared along the black highway.

‘There he is, _ma grande_,’ the little boy muttered. ‘Can’t you see
him? He’s with Bourron.’

‘Yes, yes; keep quiet.’

Two men, two puddlers, had just left the works. The first, who was
accompanied by Bourron, had a cloth jacket thrown over his shoulders.
He was barely six-and-twenty; his hair and beard were ruddy, and he was
rather short, though his muscles were strong. Under a prominent brow he
showed a hook nose, massive jaws, and projecting cheek-bones, yet he
could laugh in a very agreeable way, which largely accounted for his
success with women. Bourron, five years the elder, and closely buttoned
in an old jacket of greenish velveteen, was a tall, dry, scraggy
fellow, whose equine face, with long cheeks, short chin, and eyes set
almost sideways, expressed the quiet nature of a man who takes life
easily, and is always under the influence of one or another mate.

Bourron had caught sight of the mournful woman and child standing
across the road at the corner of the wooden bridge, and, nudging his
companion with his elbow, he exclaimed: ‘I say, Ragu, Josine and Nanet
are yonder. Be careful if you don’t want them to pester you.’

Ragu ragefully clenched his fists. ‘The —- girl! I’ve had enough of
her, I’ve turned her out! Just let her try to come dangling after me
again and you’ll see!’

He seemed to be slightly intoxicated, as always happened indeed on
those days when he exceeded the three quarts of wine which he declared
he needed to prevent the heat of the furnace from drying up his skin.
And in his semi-intoxication he yielded the more especially to a cruel
boastful impulse to show his mate how he treated girls when he no
longer cared for them.

‘I shall send her packing,’ said he, ‘I’ve had enough of her.’

With Nanet still among her skirts Josine was now gently, timidly,
stepping forward. But she paused on seeing two other workmen approach
Ragu and Bourron. They belonged to a night-shift, and had just arrived
from Beauclair. Fauchard, the eldest, a man of thirty, looking quite
ten years older, was a drawer, and seemed already ‘done for’ by his
terrible work. His face had the appearance of boiled flesh, his eyes
were scorched, the whole of his big frame burnt and warped by the
ardent glow of the furnaces when he drew out the fusing metal. The
other, his brother-in-law Fortuné, was a lad of sixteen, though he
would hardly have been thought twelve, so puny was his frame. He had a
thin face and discoloured hair, and looked as if he had ceased growing,
as if, indeed, he were eaten into by the mechanical toil which he ever
performed, perched beside the lever of a helve-hammer amidst all the
bewilderment born of blinding steam and deafening noise.

On his arm Fauchard carried an old black osier basket, and he had
stopped to ask the others in a husky voice: ‘Did you go?’

He wished to ascertain if they had gone to the cashier’s office and
obtained an advance there. And when Ragu, without a word, slapped
his pocket in which some five-franc pieces jingled, the other made a
despairing gesture and exclaimed: ‘Thunder! To think that I’ve got to
tighten my belt until to-morrow morning, and that I shall be dying of
thirst all night unless my wife by some miracle or other contrives to
bring me my ration by-and-by.’

His ration was four quarts of wine for each day or night-shift, and
he was wont to say that this quantity only just sufficed to moisten
his body, to such a degree did the furnaces drain all the blood and
water from his flesh. He cast a mournful glance at his basket, in which
nothing save a hunk of bread was jolting. The failure to secure his
usual four quarts of wine meant the end of everything, black agony
amidst overpowering unbearable toil.

‘Bah!’ said Bourron complacently, ‘your wife won’t leave you in the
lurch; she hasn’t her equal for getting credit somewhere.’

Then, all at once, the four men standing in the sticky mud became
silent and touched their caps. Luc had seen a kind of bath-chair
approaching, propelled by a servant; and ensconced within it sat an
old gentleman with a broad face and regular features around which
fell an abundance of long white hair. In this old gentleman the young
fellow recognised Jérôme Qurignon, ‘Monsieur Jérôme’ as he was called
throughout the region, the son of Blaise Qurignon, the drawer, by whom
the Abyss had been founded. Very aged and paralysed, never speaking,
Monsieur Jérôme caused himself to be carted about in this fashion, no
matter what might be the weather.

That evening, as he passed the works on his way back to his daughter’s
residence, La Guerdache, a neighbouring estate, he had signed to his
servant to go more slowly, and with his still bright, living eyes he
had then taken a long look at the ever-busy monster, at the day hands
departing homeward, and at the night hands arriving, whilst the vague
twilight fell from the livid sky besmirched by rushing clouds. And
his glance had afterwards rested on the manager’s house, a square
building standing in a garden, which his father had erected forty years
previously, and where he himself had long reigned like a conquering
king, gaining million after million.

‘Monsieur Jérôme isn’t bothered as to how he will get any wine
to-night,’ resumed Bourron in a sneering whisper.

Ragu shrugged his shoulders: ‘My great-grandfather and Monsieur
Jérôme’s father,’ said he, ‘were comrades. Yes, they were both workmen
and drew iron here together. The fortune might have come to a Ragu
just as well as to a Qurignon. It’s all luck, you know, when it isn’t
robbery.’

‘Be quiet,’ Bourron muttered, ‘you’ll be getting into trouble.’

Ragu’s bounce deserted him, and when Monsieur Jérôme, passing the
group, looked at the four men with his large, fixed, limpid eyes, he
again touched his cap with all the timorous respect of a toiler who
is ready enough to cry out against employers behind their backs, but
has long years of slavery in his blood and trembles in the presence of
the sovereign god from whom he awaits the bread of life. The servant
meanwhile slowly pushed the bath-chair onward, and Monsieur Jérôme
disappeared at last down the black road descending towards Beauclair.

‘Bah!’ said Fauchard philosophically by way of conclusion, ‘he’s not
so happy after all, in that wheelbarrow of his. And besides, if he can
still understand things, that strike can’t have been very pleasant to
him. We each have our troubles. But thunder! I only hope that Natalie
will bring me my wine.’

Then he went off into the works, taking with him little Fortuné, who
had not spoken a word, and looked as bewildered as ever. Already
feeling weary, they disappeared amidst the increasing darkness which
was enveloping the buildings; whilst Ragu and Bourron set out again,
the former bent on leading the latter astray, to some tavern in the
town. But then, dash it all, a man surely had a right to drink a glass
and laugh a bit after undergoing so much misery!

However, Luc, who, from compassionate curiosity had remained leaning
against the parapet of the bridge, saw Josine again advance with
short unsteady steps to bar the way to Ragu. For a moment she had
hoped that he would cross the bridge homeward bound, for that was the
direct road to Old Beauclair, a sordid mass of hovels in which most
of the workpeople of the Abyss lived. But when she understood that he
was going down to the new town, she foresaw what would happen: the
money he had obtained would be spent in some wine-shop, and she and
her little brother would have to spend another whole evening waiting,
dying of starvation, amidst the bitter wind in the streets. And her
sufferings and a fit of sudden anger lent her so much courage that,
puny and woeful though she was, she went and took her stand before the
man.

‘Be reasonable, Auguste,’ said she; ‘you can’t leave me out-of-doors.’

He did not answer, but stepped on in order to pass her.

‘If you are not going home at once, give me the key, at any rate,’ she
continued. ‘We’ve been in the street ever since this morning, without
even a morsel of bread to eat.’

At this he burst forth: ‘Just let me be! Haven’t you done sticking to
me like a leech?’

‘Why did you carry off the key this morning?’ she answered. ‘I only ask
you to give me the key, you can come in when you like. It is almost
night now, and you surely don’t want us to sleep on the pavement.’

‘The key! the key! I haven’t got it, and even if I had I wouldn’t give
it you. Just understand, once for all, that I’ve had enough of it, that
I don’t want to have anything more to do with you, that it’s quite
enough that we starved together for two months, and that now you can go
somewhere else, and see if I’m there!’

He shouted those words in her face, violently and savagely; and she,
poor little creature, quivered beneath his insults, whilst gently
persevering in her efforts with all the woeful desperation of a wretch
who feels the very ground giving way beneath her.

‘Oh! you are cruel! you are cruel!’ she gasped. ‘We’ll have a talk when
you come home to-night. I’ll go away to-morrow if it’s necessary. But
to-day, give me the key just for to-day.’

Then the man, infuriated, pushed her, thrust her aside with a brutal
gesture. ‘Curse it all!’ he cried, ‘doesn’t the road belong to me as
much as you? Go and croak wherever you like! I tell you that it’s all
over.’ And as little Nanet, seeing his sister sob, stepped forward
with his air of decision, his pink face and tangle of fair hair, Ragu
added: ‘What! the brat as well! Am I to have the whole family on my
shoulders now? Wait a minute, you young rascal; I’ll let you feel my
boot somewhere.’

Josine quickly drew Nanet towards her. And they both remained there,
standing in the black mud, shivering with woe, whilst the two workmen
went their way, disappearing amidst the gloom in the direction of
Beauclair, whose lights, one by one, were now beginning to shine.
Bourron, who at bottom was a good-natured fellow, had made a movement
as if to intervene; then, however, in a spirit of imitation, yielding
to the influence of his rakish companion, he had let things take
their course. And Josine, after momentarily hesitating, asking what
use it would be to follow, made up her mind to do so with despairing
stubbornness as soon as the others had disappeared. With slow steps she
descended the road in their wake, dragging her little brother by the
hand, and keeping very close to the walls, taking indeed all sorts of
precautions, as if she feared that on seeing her they might beat her to
prevent her from dogging their steps.

Luc, in his indignation, had almost rushed on Ragu to administer a
correction to him. Ah! the misery of labour!–man turned to a wolf
by overpowering and unjust toil, by the difficulty of earning the
bread for which hunger so wildly contends! During those two months of
the strike, crumbs had been fought for amidst all the voracity and
exasperation of daily quarrels. Then, on the very first pay-day, the
man rushed to Drink for forgetfulness, leaving his companion of woe,
whether she were his wife or a girl he had seduced, in the streets!
And Luc remembered the four years which he had lately spent in a
faubourg of Paris, in one of those huge, poison-reeking buildings where
the misery of the working classes sobs and fights upon every floor!
How many tragedies had he not witnessed, how many sorrows had he not
attempted to assuage! The frightful problem born of all the shame and
torture attending the wage system had often arisen before his mind;
he had fully sounded that system’s atrocious iniquity, the horrible
sore which is eating away present-day society, and he had spent hours
of generous enthusiasm in dreaming of a remedy, ever encountering,
however, the iron wall of existing reality. And now, on the very
evening of his return to Beauclair, he came upon that savage scene,
that pale and mournful creature cast starving into the streets through
the fault of the all-devouring monster, whose internal fire he could
ever hear growling, whilst overhead it escaped in murky smoke rolling
away under the tragic sky.

A gust of wind passed, and a few rain-drops flew by in the moaning
wind. Luc had remained on the bridge, looking towards Beauclair
and trying to take his bearings by the last gleams of light that
fell athwart the sooty clouds. On his right was the Abyss, with its
buildings bordering the Brias road; beneath him rolled the Mionne,
whilst higher up, along an embankment on the left, passed the railway
line from Brias to Magnolles. These filled the depths of the gorge,
between the last spurs of the Bleuse Mountains, at the spot where
they parted to disclose the great plain of La Roumagne. And in a kind
of estuary, at the spot where the ravine debouched into the plain,
Beauclair reared its houses: a wretched collection of working-class
dwellings, prolonged over the flat by a little middle-class town, in
which were the sub-prefecture, the town-hall, the law-courts, and the
prison, whilst the ancient church, whose walls threatened to fall,
stood part in new and part in old Beauclair. This town, the chief one
of an arrondissement,[2] numbered barely six thousand souls, five
thousand of them being poor humble souls in suffering bodies, warped,
ground to death by iniquitous hard toil. And Luc took in everything
fully when, above the Abyss, half-way up the promontory of the Bleuse
Mountains, he distinguished the dark silhouette of the blast furnace of
La Crêcherie. Labour! labour! ah! who would redeem and reorganise it
according to the natural law of truth and equity so as to restore to it
its position as the most noble, all-regulating, all-powerful force of
the world, and so as to ensure a just division of the world’s riches,
thereby at last bringing the happiness which is rightly due to every
man!

Although the rain had again ceased Luc also ended by going down towards
Beauclair. Workmen were still leaving the Abyss, and he walked among
them as they tramped on, thinking of that rageful resumption of work
after all the disasters of the strike. Such infinite sadness born
of rebellion and powerlessness pervaded the young man that he would
have gone away that evening, indeed that moment, had he not feared
to inconvenience his friend Jordan. The latter–the master of La
Crêcherie–had been placed in a position of great embarrassment by the
sudden death of the old engineer who had managed his smeltery, and he
had written to Luc, asking him to come, inquire into things, and give
him some good advice. Then, the young man, on hastening to Beauclair
in an affectionate spirit, had found another letter awaiting him, a
letter in which Jordan announced a family catastrophe, the sudden,
tragical death of a cousin at Cannes, which obliged him to leave at
once and remain absent with his sister for three days. He begged Luc
to wait for them until Monday evening, and to instal himself meanwhile
in a pavilion which he placed at his disposal, and where he might make
himself fully at home. Thus Luc still had another two days to waste,
and for lack of other occupation, cast as he was in that little town
which he scarcely knew, he had gone that evening for a ramble, telling
the servant who waited on him that he should not even return to dinner.
Passionately interested as he was in popular manners and customs, fond
of observing and learning, he felt that he could get something to eat
in any tavern of the town.

New thoughts came upon him, whilst under the wild tempestuous sky
he walked on through the black mud amidst the heavy tramping of the
harassed, silent workmen. He felt ashamed of his previous sentimental
weakness. Why should he go off, when here again he once more found, so
poignant and so keen, the problem by which he was ever haunted? He must
not flee the fight, he must gather facts together, and, perhaps, amidst
the dim confusion in which he was still seeking a solution, he might
at last discover the safe, sure path that led to it. A son of Pierre
and Marie Froment, he had learnt, like his brothers Mathieu, Marc and
Jean, a manual calling apart from the special study which he had made
of engineering. He was a stone-cutter, a house-builder, and having a
taste for that avocation, fond of working at times in the great Paris
building-yards, he was familiar with the tragedies of the present-day
labour-world, and dreamt, in a fraternal spirit, of helping on the
peaceful triumph of the labour-world of to-morrow. But what could he
do, in which direction should he make an effort, by what reform should
he begin, how was he to bring forth the solution which he felt to be
vaguely palpitating within him? Taller and stronger than his brother
Mathieu, with the open face of a man of action, a towering brow, a
lofty mind ever in travail, he had hitherto embraced but the void with
those big arms of his which were so impatient to create and build. But
again a sudden gust of wind sped by, a hurricane blast, which made
him quiver as with awe. Was it in some Messiah-like capacity that
an unknown force had cast him into that woeful region to fulfil the
long-dreamt-of mission of deliverance and happiness?

When Luc, raising his head, freed himself of those vague reflections,
he perceived that he had come back to Beauclair again. Four large
streets, meeting at a central square, the Place de la Mairie, divide
the town into four more or less equal portions; and each of these
streets bears the name of some neighbouring town towards which it
leads. On the north is the Rue de Brias, on the west the Rue de
Saint-Cron, on the east the Rue de Magnolles, and on the south the
Rue de Formerie. The most popular, the most bustling of all–with its
many shops stocked to overflowing–is the Rue de Brias, in which Luc
at present found himself. For in that direction lie all the factories,
from which a dark stream of toilers pours whenever leaving-off time
comes round. Just as Luc arrived, the great door of the Gourier
boot-works, belonging to the Mayor of Beauclair, opened, and away
rushed its five hundred hands, amongst whom were numbered more than two
hundred women and children. Then, in some of the neighbouring streets,
were Chodorge’s works, where only nails were made; Hausser’s works,
which turned out more than a hundred thousand scythes and sickles
every year, and Mirande’s works, which more particularly supplied
agricultural machinery.

They had all suffered from the strike at the Abyss, where they supplied
themselves with raw material, iron and steel. Distress and hunger had
passed over every one of them, the wan, thin workers who poured from
them on to the muddy paving-stones had rancour in their eyes and mute
revolt upon their lips, although they showed the seeming resignation of
a hurrying, tramping flock. Under the few lamps, whose yellow flames
flickered in the wind, the street was black with toilers homeward
bound. And the block in the circulation was increased by a number of
housewives who, having at last secured a few coppers to spend, were
hastening to one or another shop to treat themselves to a big loaf or a
little meat.

It seemed to Luc as if he were in some town, the siege of which had
been raised that very evening. Hither and thither among the crowd
walked gendarmes, quite a number of armed men, who kept a close watch
on the inhabitants, as if from fear of a resumption of hostilities,
some sudden fury arising from galling sufferings, whence might come
the sack of the town in a supreme impulse of destructive exasperation.
No doubt the masters, the _bourgeois_ authorities, had overcome the
wage-earners, but the overpowered slaves still remained so threatening
in their passive silence that the atmosphere reeked of bitterness,
and one felt a dread of vengeance, of the possibility of some great
massacre, sweeping by. A vague growl came from that beaten, powerless
flock, filing along the street; and the glitter of a weapon, the silver
braid of a uniform shining here and there among the groups, testified
to the unacknowledged fear of the employers, who, despite their
victory, were bursting into perspiration behind the thick, carefully
drawn curtains of their pleasure houses; whilst the black crowd of
starveling toilers still and ever went by with lowered heads, hustling
one another in silence.

Whilst continuing his ramble Luc mingled with the groups, paused,
listened, and studied things. In this wise he halted before a large
butcher’s shop open on the street, where several gas-jets were flaring
amidst ruddy meat. Dacheux, the master butcher, a fat apoplectical man,
with big goggle eyes set in a short red face, stood on the threshold
keeping watch over his viands, evincing the while much politeness
towards the servants of well-to-do customers, and becoming extremely
suspicious directly any poor housewife came in. For the last few
minutes he had kept his eyes upon a tall slim blonde, pale, sickly,
and wretched, whose youthful good looks had already faded, and who,
whilst dragging with her a fine child between four and five years old,
carried upon one arm a heavy basket, whence protruded the necks of
four quart-bottles of wine. In this woman Dacheux had recognised La
Fauchard, whose constant appeals for little credits he was tired of
discouraging. And as she made up her mind to go in, he all but barred
the way.

‘What do you want again, you?’ he asked.

‘Monsieur Dacheux,’ stammered Natalie, ‘if you would only be so
kind–my husband has gone back to the works you know, and will receive
something on account to-morrow. And so Monsieur Caffiaux was good
enough to advance me the four quarts I have here, and would you be so
kind, Monsieur Dacheux, as to advance me a little meat, just a little
bit of meat?’

At this the butcher became furious, his blood rushed to his face, and
he bellowed: ‘No, I’ve told you no before! That strike of yours nearly
ruined me! How can you think me fool enough to be on your side? There
will always be enough lazy workmen to prevent honest folk from doing
business. When people don’t work enough to eat meat, they go without
it!’

He busied himself with politics, and like a narrow-minded hot-tempered
man, one who was greatly feared, he was on the side of the rich and
powerful. On his lips the word ‘meat’ assumed aristocratic importance:
meat was sacred, it was a luxury reserved to the happy ones of the
earth, when it ought to have belonged to all.

‘You owe me four francs from last summer,’ he resumed; ‘I have to pay
people, I have!’

At this Natalie almost collapsed, then she again strove to touch him,
pleading in a low prayerful voice. But an incident which occurred
just then completed her discomfiture. Madame Dacheux, an ugly, dark,
insignificant-looking little woman, who none the less contrived to
make her husband the talk of the town, stepped forward with her little
daughter Julienne, a child of four, plump, healthy, fair, and full of
gaiety. And the two children having caught sight of one another, little
Louis Fauchard, despite all his wretchedness, began to laugh, whilst
the buxom Julienne, feeling amused, and doubtless as yet unconscious of
social inequalities, drew near and took hold of his hands. In such wise
that there was sudden play, fraught with childish delight, as at the
prospect of some future reconciliation of the classes.

‘The little nuisance!’ cried Dacheux, who had quite lost his temper.
‘She’s always getting between my legs. Go and sit down at once!’

Then, turning his wrath upon his wife, he roughly sent her back to the
cash desk, saying that the best thing she could do was to keep an eye
on the till, so that she might not be robbed again, as she had been
robbed only two days previously. And, haunted as he was by that theft,
of which he had never ceased to complain with the greatest indignation
during the last forty-eight hours, he went on, addressing himself to
all the people in the shop: ‘Yes, indeed, some kind of beggar woman
crept in and took five francs out of the till whilst Madame Dacheux
was looking to see if the flies laughed. She wasn’t able to deny it,
she still had the money in her hand. Oh! I had her taken into custody
at once. She’s at the gaol. It is frightful, frightful; we shall be
utterly robbed and plundered soon if we don’t keep our eyes open.’

Then with suspicious glances he again watched his meat to make sure
that no starving wretches, no workwomen out of work, should carry
any pieces away from the show outside, even as they might carry away
precious gold, divine gold, from the bowls in the windows of the
money-changers’ shops.

Luc saw La Fauchard grow alarmed and retire; she feared, no doubt, that
the butcher might summon a gendarme. For a moment she and her little
Louis remained motionless in the middle of the street, amidst all the
jostling, their faces turned the while towards a fine baker’s shop,
decorated with mirrors and gaily lighted up, which faced the butcher’s
establishment. In one of its windows, which was open, numerous cakes
and large loaves with a crust of a golden hue were freely displayed
under the noses of the passers-by. Before those loaves and cakes
lingered the mother and the child, deep in contemplation. And Luc,
forgetting them, became interested in what was taking place inside the
shop.

A cart had just stopped at the door, and a peasant had alighted from
it with a little boy about eight years old and a girl of six. At
the counter stood the baker’s wife, the beautiful Madame Mitaine, a
strongly-built blonde who at five-and-thirty had remained superb. The
whole district had been in love with her, but she had never ceased to
be faithful to her husband, a thin, silent, cadaverous-looking man who
was seldom seen, for he was almost always busy at his kneading trough
or his oven. On the bench near his wife sat their son, Évariste, a
lad of ten, who was already tall, fair, too, like his mother, with an
amiable face and soft eyes.

‘What, is it you, Monsieur Lenfant!’ said Madame Mitaine. ‘How do you
do? And there’s your Arsène, and your Olympe. I need not ask you if
they are in good health.’

The peasant was a man in the thirties, with a broad sedate face. He did
not hurry, but ended by answering in his thoughtful way, ‘Yes, yes,
their health is good; one doesn’t get along so badly at Les Combettes.
The soil’s the most poorly. I shan’t be able to let you have the bran I
promised you, Madame Mitaine. It all miscarried. And as I had to come
to Beauclair this evening with the cart, I thought I’d let you know.’

He went on giving expression to all his rancour against the ungrateful
earth, which no longer fed the toiler, nor even paid for sowing and
manuring. And the beautiful Madame Mitaine gently nodded her head.
It was quite true. One had to work a great deal nowadays to reap but
little satisfaction. Few were able to satisfy their hunger. She did not
busy herself with politics, but, _mon Dieu_, things were really taking
a very bad turn. During that strike, for instance, her heart had almost
burst at the thought that a great many poor people went to bed without
even a crust to eat when her shop was full of loaves. But trade was
trade, was it not? One could not give one’s goods away for nothing,
particularly as in doing so one might seem to be encouraging rebellion.

And Lenfant approved her. ‘Yes, yes,’ said he, ‘everyone his own. It’s
only fair that one should get profit from things when one has taken
trouble with them. But all the same there are some who want to make too
much profit.’

Évariste, interested by the sight of Arsène and Olympe, had made up his
mind to quit the counter and do them the honours of the shop. And like
a big boy of ten he smiled complaisantly at the little girl of six,
whose big round head and gay expression probably amused him.

‘Give them each a little cake,’ said beautiful Madame Mitaine, who
greatly spoilt her son, and was bringing him up to kindly ways.

And then, as Évariste began by giving a cake to Arsène, she protested
jestingly: ‘But you must be gallant, my dear. One ought to begin with
the ladies!’

At this Évariste and Olympe, all confusion, began to laugh, and
promptly became friends. Ah! the dear little ones, they constitute the
best part of life. If some day they were minded to be wise they would
not devour one another as do the folk of to-day. And Lenfant went off,
saying that he hoped to be able to bring some bran after all, but, of
course, later on.

Madame Mitaine, who had accompanied him to her door, watched him climb
into his cart and drive down the Rue de Brias. And at this moment
Luc noticed Madame Fauchard dragging her little Louis with her, and
suddenly making up her mind to approach the baker’s wife. She spoke
some words which Luc did not catch, a request no doubt for further
credit, for beautiful Madame Mitaine, with a gesture of consent,
immediately went into her shop again, and gave her a large loaf, which
the poor creature hastened to carry away, close-pressed to her scraggy
bosom.

Dacheux, amidst his suspicious exasperation, had watched the scene from
the opposite foot pavement. ‘You’ll get yourself robbed!’ he cried.
‘Some boxes of sardines have just been stolen at Caffiaux’s. They are
stealing everywhere!’

‘Bah!’ gaily answered Madame Mitaine, who had returned to the threshold
of her shop. ‘They only steal from the rich!’

Luc slowly went down the Rue de Brias amidst the flocklike tramping
which ever and ever increased. It now seemed to him as if a Terror were
sweeping by, as if some gust of violence were about to transport that
gloomy, silent throng. Then, as he reached the Place de la Mairie, he
again saw Lenfant’s cart, this time standing at the street corner, in
front of some large ironmongery stores, kept by the Laboques, husband
and wife. The doors of the establishment were wide open, and he heard
some violent bartering going on between the peasant and the ironmonger.

‘Good heavens! why, you charge as much for your spades as if they were
made of gold! Why, for this one you ask two francs more than usual.’

‘But, Monsieur Lenfant, there has been that cursed strike. It isn’t our
fault if the factories haven’t worked and if everything has gone up in
price. I pay more for all metal goods, and, of course, I have to make a
profit.’

‘Make a profit, yes, but not double prices. Ah! you do drive a trade!
It will soon be impossible to buy a single tool.’

Laboque was a short, thin, wizened man, extremely active, with a
ferret’s snout and eyes; and he had a wife of his own size, a quick,
dusky creature, whose keenness in money-earning was prodigious. They
had both begun life at the fairs, dragging with them a hand-cart full
of picks, rakes, and saws, which they hawked around. And having opened
a little shop at Beauclair ten years back, they had managed to enlarge
it each succeeding twelvemonth, and were now at the head of a very
important business as middle-men between the factories of the region
and the consuming classes. They retailed at great profit the iron of
the Abyss, the Chodorges’ nails, the Haussers’ scythes and sickles, the
Mirandes’ agricultural appliances. They battened on a waste of wealth
and strength with the relative honesty of tradespeople who practised
robbery according to established usage, glowing with satisfaction
every evening when they emptied their till and counted up the money
that they had amassed, levied as tribute on the needs of others. They
were like useless cogwheels in that social machine, which was now fast
getting out of order; they made it grate, and they consumed much of its
remaining energy.

Whilst the peasant and the ironmonger were disputing furiously over
a reduction of a franc which the former demanded, Luc again began to
examine the children. There were two in the shop–Auguste, a big,
thoughtful-looking boy of twelve, who was learning a lesson, and
Eulalie, a little girl, who seemed to be scarcely five years old, and
who, grave and gentle, sat quietly on a little chair as if judging
all the folk who entered. She had shown an interest in Arsène Lenfant
from the moment he crossed the threshold. Finding him to her taste,
no doubt, she greeted him like the good-hearted little body she was.
And the meeting became complete when a woman entered, bringing a
fifth child with her. This woman was Babette, the wife of Bourron the
puddler, a plump, round, fresh-looking creature, whose gaiety nothing
would ever dim, and who held by the hand her daughter Marthe, a little
thing but four years old, who seemed as plump and as gay as herself.
The child, it should be said, at once quitted her mother and ran to
Auguste Laboque, whom she doubtless knew.

Babette meantime promptly put an end to the bartering between the
ironmonger and the peasant, who agreed to halve the franc over which
they had been disputing. Then the woman, who had brought back a
saucepan purchased the previous day, exclaimed: ‘It leaks, Monsieur
Laboque. I noticed it directly I put it on the fire. I can’t possibly
keep a saucepan that leaks, you know.’

Whilst Laboque, fuming, examined the utensil and decided to give
another in exchange, Madame Laboque began to speak of her children.
They were perfect pests, said she, they never stirred, one from her
chair, the other from his books. It was quite necessary to earn money
for them, for they were not a bit like their parents, nobody would
ever find them up and doing to earn a pile. Meantime Auguste Laboque,
listening to nothing, stood smiling at Marthe Bourron, and Eulalie
Laboque offered her little hand to Arsène Lenfant, whilst the other
Lenfant, Olympe, thoughtfully finished eating the cake which little
Mitaine had given her. And it was altogether a very pleasant and moving
scene, instinct with good fresh hope for to-morrow amidst the burning
atmosphere of battle and hatred which heated the streets.

‘If you think one can gain money with such affairs as this, you are
mistaken,’ resumed Laboque, handing another saucepan to Babette. ‘There
are no good workmen left, they all scamp their work nowadays. And what
a lot of waste and loss there is in a place like ours! Whoever chooses
comes in, and what with having to set some of our goods outside, in the
street, it’s just like the Fair of Take-what-you-like. We were robbed
again this afternoon.’

Lenfant, who was slowly paying for his spade, expressed his
astonishment at this. ‘So all those robberies one hears about really
take place then?’ said he.

‘Really take place! Of course they do. It isn’t we who rob, it’s others
who rob us. They remained out on strike for two months, you know, and
as they haven’t the money to buy anything they steal whatever they can.
Only a couple of hours ago some clasp-knives and paring-knives were
stolen out of that case yonder. It isn’t tranquillising by any means.’

And he made a gesture of sudden disquietude, turning pale and quivering
as he pointed to the threatening street, crowded with the gloomy
throng, as if he feared some hasty onrush, some invasion which might
sweep him, the owner and tradesman, away and despoil him of everything.

‘Clasp-knives and paring-knives!’ repeated Babette with her sempiternal
laugh. ‘They’re not good to eat. What could people do with them? It’s
just like Caffiaux over the way–he complains that a box of sardines
has been stolen from him. Some urchin just wanted to taste them, no
doubt.’

She was ever content, ever convinced that things would turn out well.
As for that Caffiaux, he was surely a man whom all the housewives ought
to have cursed. She had just seen her man Bourron go into his place
with Ragu, and Bourron would certainly break up a five-franc piece
there. But when all was said it was only natural that a man should
amuse himself a bit after toiling so hard. And having given expression
to this philosophical view she took her little girl Marthe by the hand
again and went off, well pleased with her beautiful new saucepan.

‘We ought to have some troops here, you know,’ resumed Laboque,
explaining his views to the peasant. ‘I’m in favour of giving a good
lesson to all those revolutionaries. We need a strong government with a
heavy fist to ensure respect for respectable things.’

Lenfant jogged his head. With his distrustful common sense he hesitated
to express his opinions. At last he too went off, leading Arsène and
Olympe away and saying: ‘Well, I hope that all these affairs between
the _bourgeois_ and the workmen won’t end badly!’

For the last minute or two Luc had been examining Caffiaux’s
establishment over the road, at the other corner of the Rue de Brias
and the Place de la Mairie. At first the Caffiaux, man and wife, had
simply kept a grocery, which now had a very flourishing appearance
with its display of open sacks, its piles of tinned provisions and all
sorts of comestible goods protected by netting from the nimble fingers
of marauders. Then the idea had come to them of going into the wine
business, and they had rented an adjoining shop and had fitted it up
as a wine-shop and eating-house, where nowadays they literally coined
gold. The hands employed at all the neighbouring works, notably the
Abyss, consumed a terrible amount of alcohol. There was an endless
procession of them going in and coming out of Caffiaux’s establishment,
particularly on the Saturdays when they were paid. Many lingered and
ate there, and many came away dead drunk. The place was a den of
poison, where the strongest lost the use of both their heads and their
arms. Thus the idea at once occurred to Luc to enter it to see what
might be going on inside. It was a very simple matter; as he was to
dine out, he might as well dine there. How many times in Paris had not
his passion to learn everything about the ‘people,’ to dive to the
depths of their misery and suffering, impelled him to enter the very
worst dens and spend hours in them?

He quietly installed himself at one of the little tables near the
huge zinc bar. The room was large, a dozen workmen stood up drinking,
whilst others, seated at table, drank, shouted, and played cards,
amidst the thick smoke from their pipes, a smoke in which the gas-jets
merely looked like red spots. And at the very first glance around him
Luc recognised Ragu and Bourron seated face to face at a neighbouring
table, and shouting violently at one another. They had doubtless begun
by drinking a quart of wine, then they had ordered an omelet, some
sausages and some cheese; and the quart bottles having followed one
after another, they were now very drunk. What particularly interested
Luc, however, was the presence of Caffiaux, who stood near their table
talking. For his part the young man had ordered a slice of roast beef,
and whilst eating it he listened.

Caffiaux was a fat, podgy, smiling man with a paternal face. ‘But I
tell you,’ said he, ‘that if you had held out only three days longer
you would have had the masters bound hand and foot at your mercy! Curse
it all! you’re surely not unaware that I’m on the side of you fellows!
Yes, indeed, you won’t upset all those blackguardly exploiters a bit
too soon.’

Ragu and Bourron, who were both greatly excited, clapped him on the
arm. Yes, yes, they knew him, they were well aware that he was a good,
a true friend. But all the same a strike was too hard to bear, and it
always had to come somehow to an end.

‘The masters will always be the masters,’ stammered Ragu. ‘So you see
we have got to put up with them, whilst giving them the least we can
for their money. Another quart, Caffiaux–you’ll help us to drink it,
eh?’

Caffiaux did not decline. He sat down. He favoured violent views
because he had noticed that his establishment expanded after each
successive strike. Nothing made one so thirsty as quarrelling, the
worker who was exasperated rushed upon Drink, rageful idleness
accustomed toilers to tavern life. Besides, in times of crisis, he,
Caffiaux, knew how to be amiable. Feeling certain that he would be
repaid, he opened little credit accounts for needy housewives, and
did not refuse the men a glass of wine on ‘tick,’ thus winning the
reputation of being good-hearted, and at the same time helping on the
consumption of all the poison he retailed. Some folks said, however,
that this Caffiaux, with his jesuitical ways, was a traitor, a spy of
the masters of the Abyss, who had helped him financially to set up
in business, in order that he might make the men chatter whilst he
was poisoning them. And it all meant fatal perdition; the wretched,
pleasureless, joyless, wage-earning life necessitated the existence
of taverns, and taverns finished by rotting the wage-earning class.
Briefly, here was a bad man and a bad place, a misery-breeding shop
which ought to have been razed to the ground and swept clear away.

Luc’s attention was for a moment drawn from the conversation near him
by the opening of an inner door communicating with the grocery shop,
and the appearance on the threshold of a pretty girl about fifteen
years of age. This was Honorine, the Caffiaux’s daughter, a short,
slim brunette, with fine black eyes. She never stayed any time in the
tavern, but confined herself to serving grocery. And on now entering
she merely called her mother, a stout, smiling woman, as unctuous as
her husband, who stood behind the large zinc bar. All those tradesfolk,
so eager for gain, all those hard egotistical shopkeepers seemed to
have very fine children, thought Luc. And would those children for
ever and ever remain as grasping, as hard, and as egotistical as their
forerunners?

But all at once a charming and mournful vision appeared before
the young man. Amidst the pestilential odours, the thickening
tobacco-smoke, the noise of a scuffle which had just broken out before
the bar, he saw Josine standing, so vague and blurred, however, that
at the first moment he did not recognise her. She must have slipped in
furtively, leaving Nanet at the door. Trembling, and still hesitating,
she stood behind Ragu, who did not see her; and for a moment Luc was
able to scrutinise her, so slim in her wretched gown, and with so
gentle and shadowy a face under her ragged _fichu_. But he was struck
by something which he had not observed over yonder near the Abyss: her
right hand was no longer pressed against her skirt, and he could see
that it was strongly bandaged, wrapped round to the wrist with linen,
doubtless a bandage for some injury which she had received.

At last Josine mustered up all her courage. She must have followed
as far as Caffiaux’s shop, have glanced through the windows and have
seen Ragu at table. She drew near with her little, faltering step, and
laid her girlish hand upon his shoulder. But he, in the glow of his
intoxication, did not even feel her touch, and she ended by shaking him
until he at last turned round.

‘Thunder!’ he cried. ‘What! is it you again? What to the–do you want
here?’

As he spoke he dealt the table such a thump with his fist that the
glasses and the quart-bottles fairly danced.

‘I have to come, since you don’t come home,’ she answered, looking very
pale and half closing her large frightened eyes in anticipation of some
act of brutality.

But Ragu was not listening to her, he was working himself into a
frantic passion, shouting by way of showing off before all the mates
who were present.

‘I do what I choose!’ he cried, ‘and I won’t have a woman spying on
me! I’m my own master, do you hear? And I shall stop here as long as I
please!’

‘Then give me the key,’ she said despairingly, ‘so that at any rate I
may not have to spend the night in the street.’

‘The key! the key!’ shrieked the man, ‘you ask me for the key!’ And
with furious savagery he rose up, caught hold of her by her injured
hand and dragged her down the room to throw her into the street.

‘Haven’t I told you that it’s all over, that I don’t mean to have
anything more to do with you?’ he shouted. ‘The key, indeed! just go
and see if it isn’t in the street!’

Josine, bewildered and stumbling, raised a piercing cry of pain. ‘Oh!
you have hurt me!’

Ragu’s violence had torn the bandage from her right hand, and the linen
was at once reddened by a large bloodstain. But none the less the man,
blinded, maddened by drink, threw the door wide open and pushed the
woman into the street. Then returning and falling heavily upon his
chair before his glass, he stammered with a husky laugh: ‘A fine time
of it we should have, and no mistake, if we listened to them!’

Beside himself this time, quite enraged, Luc clenched his fists with
the intention of falling upon Ragu. But he foresaw an affray, a useless
battle with all those brutes. And feeling suffocated in that vile
den he hastened to pay his score, whilst Caffiaux, who had taken his
wife’s place at the bar, tried to arrange matters by saying in his
paternal way that some women were very clumsy. How could one hope to
get anything out of a man who had been tippling? Luc, however, without
answering, hurried out and inhaled with relief the fresh air of the
street, whilst searching among the crowd on all sides, for in leaving
the tavern so hastily his one idea had been to rejoin Josine and offer
her some help, so that she might not remain perishing of hunger,
breadless and homeless, on that black and stormy night. But in vain
did he run up the Rue de Brias, return to the Place de la Mairie, dart
hither and thither among the groups: Josine and Nanet had disappeared.
Terrified perchance by the thought of some pursuit, they had gone to
earth somewhere; and the rainy, windy darkness wrapped them round once
more.

How frightful was the misery, how hateful were the sufferings to be
found in spoilt, corrupted labour, which had become the vile ferment
whence every degradation sprang! With his heart bleeding, his mind
clouded by the blackest apprehensions, Luc again wandered through the
threatening crowd whose numbers still increased in the Rue de Brias.
He once more found there that vague atmosphere of terror which had
come from the recent struggle between the classes, a struggle which
never finished, whose near return one could scent in the very air. That
resumption of work was but a deceptive peace, there was low growling
amidst all the resignation of the toilers, a silent craving for
revenge; their eyes still retained a gleam of ferocity, and were ready
to flash once more. On both sides of the way were taverns full of men;
drink was consuming their pay, poisonous exhalations were pouring into
the very street, whilst the shops never emptied, but still and ever
levied on the meagre resources of the housewives that iniquitous and
monstrous tribute called ‘commercial gain.’ Everywhere, upon every side
the toilers, the starvelings, were exploited, preyed upon, caught and
crushed in the works of the ever-grating social machine, whose teeth
proved all the harder now that it was falling to pieces. And in the
mud, under the wildly flickering gaslights, as on the eve of some great
catastrophe, all Beauclair came and went, tramping about like a lost
flock, going blindly towards the pit of destruction.

Among the crowd Luc recognised several persons whom he had seen on the
occasion of his first visit to Beauclair during the previous spring.
The authorities were there, for fear no doubt of something being amiss.
He saw Mayor Gourier and Sub-Prefect Châtelard pass on together. The
first, a nervous man of large property, would have liked to have troops
in the town; but the second, an amiable waif of Parisian life whose
intellect was sharper, had wisely contented himself with the services
of the gendarmes. Gaume, the presiding judge of the local court, also
went by, accompanied by Captain Jollivet, an officer on the retired
list, who was about to marry his daughter. And as they passed Laboque’s
shop they paused to exchange greetings with the Mazelles, some former
tradespeople who, thanks to a rapidly acquired income, had finally
been received into the high society of the town. All these folks spoke
in low voices, with scarcely confident expressions on their faces,
as they glanced sideways at the heavily tramping toilers who were
still keeping up Saturday evening. As Luc passed near the Mazelles
he heard them also speaking of the robberies, as if questioning the
Judge and the Captain on the subject. Tittle-tattle was indeed flying
from mouth to mouth. A five-franc piece had been taken from Dacheux’s
till; a box of sardines had been abstracted from Caffiaux’s shop; but
the gravest commentaries were those to which the theft of Laboque’s
paring-knives gave rise. The terror which was in the air gained upon
sensible people. Was it true then that the revolutionaries were
arming themselves, and purposed carrying out some massacre that very
night, that stormy night which hung so heavily over Beauclair? That
disastrous strike had put everything out of gear, hunger was impelling
wretches hither and thither, the poisonous alcohol of the taverns was
breeding destructive and murderous madness. Truly enough, right along
the filthy, muddy roadway, along the sticky foot-pavements one found
all the poisononsness and degradation that come from iniquitous toil,
the toil of the greater number for the enjoyment of the few–labour,
dishonoured, hated, and cursed, the frightful misery that results
therefrom, together with theft and prostitution which are its monstrous
parasitic growths. Pale girls passed by, factory girls whom some
unprincipled men had led astray and who had afterwards sunk to the
gutter; and drunken men went off with them through all the puddles and
the darkness.

Increasing compassion, rebellion compounded of grief and anger, took
possession of Luc. Where could Josine be? In what horrid dark nook had
she sought refuge with little Nanet? But all at once a clamour arose,
a hurricane seemed to sweep over the crowd first, making it whirl and
then carrying it away. One might have thought that an attack was being
made upon the shops, that the provisions exposed for sale on either
side of the street were being pillaged.

Gendarmes rushed forward, there was scampering hither and thither, a
loud clatter of boots and of sabres. What was the matter? What was the
matter? Questions pressed one upon the other, flew about in stammering
accents amidst the growing terror, whilst answers came back wildly from
every side.

At last Luc heard the Mazelles saying, as they retraced their steps,
‘It’s a child who has stolen a loaf of bread.’

The snarling, excited crowd was now rushing up the street. The affair
must have taken place at Mitaine’s shop. Women shrieked, an old man
fell down and had to be picked up. One fat gendarme ran so impetuously
through the groups that he upset two persons.

Luc himself began to run, carried away by the general panic. And as he
passed near Judge Gaume he heard him saying slowly to Captain Jollivet:
‘It’s a child who has stolen a loaf of bread.’

That answer came back again, punctuated as it were by the rush of the
crowd. But there was a great deal of scrambling and nothing could yet
be seen. The tradespeople standing on the thresholds of their shops
turned pale, and thought of putting up their shutters. A jeweller was
already removing the watches from his window. Meantime, a general
eddying took place around the fat gendarme, who was busy exerting his
elbows.

Then Luc, beside whom Mayor Gourier and Sub-Prefect Châtelard were also
running, again detected the words, the pitiful murmur rising amidst a
little shudder: ‘It’s a child who has stolen a loaf of bread.’

At last, as the young man was just reaching Mitaine’s shop in the wake
of the fat gendarme, he saw him rush forward to assist a comrade, a
long, lanky gendarme, who was roughly holding a boy, between five and
six years old, by the wrist. And in this boy Luc at once recognised
Nanet, with his fair tumbled head, which he still carried erect with
the resolute air of a little man. He had just stolen a loaf of bread
from beautiful Madame Mitaine’s open window. The theft could not be
denied, for the lad was still holding the big loaf, which was nearly
as tall as himself. And so it was really this childish act of larceny
which had upset and excited the whole Rue de Brias. Some passers-by
having noticed it had denounced it to the gendarme, who had set off at
a run. But the lad on his side had slipped away very fast, disappearing
among the groups, and the gendarme, raising a perfect hullabaloo in
his desperation, had nearly turned all Beauclair topsy-turvy. He was
triumphant now, for he had captured the culprit, and had brought him
back to the scene of the theft to confound him.

‘It’s a child who has stolen a loaf of bread,’ the people repeated.

Madame Mitaine, astonished at such an uproar, had come once more to the
door of her shop. And she was quite thunder-struck when the gendarme,
addressing her, exclaimed: ‘This is the young vagabond who just stole a
loaf of yours, madame.’

Then he gave Nanet a shake in order to frighten him. ‘You’ll go to
gaol, you know,’ he said. ‘Why did you steal that loaf, eh?’

But the little fellow was not put out. He answered clearly, in his
flute-like voice: ‘I’ve had nothing to eat since yesterday, nor my
sister either.’

Meantime Madame Mitaine had recovered her self-possession. She was
looking at the little lad with her beautiful eyes so full of indulgent
kindness. Poor little devil! And his sister, where had he left her? For
a moment the baker’s wife hesitated, whilst a slight flush rose to her
cheeks. Then, with the amiable laugh of a handsome woman accustomed to
be courted by all her customers, she said in her gay quiet way: ‘You
are mistaken, gendarme–that child didn’t steal the loaf, I gave it
him.’

Without relaxing his hold on Nanet, the gendarme stood before her,
gaping. Ten people had seen the boy take the loaf and run off with
it. And all at once butcher Dacheux, who had crossed the street,
intervened, in a furious passion. ‘But I saw him myself. I was looking
this way at the very moment. He threw himself on the biggest of the
loaves, and then took to his heels. That’s how it happened. As true
as I was robbed of five francs the day before yesterday, as true as
Laboque and Caffiaux have been robbed to-day, that little vermin has
just robbed you, Madame Mitaine, and you can’t deny it.’

Quite pink from having told a fib, the baker’s wife none the less
repeated gently: ‘You are mistaken, neighbour, it was I who gave the
child that loaf. He did not steal it.’

Then, as Dacheux flew into a temper with her, predicting that by her
foolish indulgence she would end by having them all pillaged and
massacred, Sub-Prefect Châtelard, who had judged the scene at a glance
like a shrewd man, approached the gendarme and made him release Nanet,
to whom, in a loud, ogre-like whisper, he said: ‘Off with you quick,’
youngster.’

The crowd was already growling. Why, the baker’s wife herself declared
that she had given the boy the loaf! A poor little beggar, no higher
than a jack-boot, who had been fasting since the previous day!
Exclamations and hisses arose, and suddenly a thunderous voice made
itself heard above every other.

‘Ah! curse it! so little urchins six years old have to set us the
example now? The child did right. When one’s hungry one may take
whatever one wants! Yes, everything in the shops is ours, and if you
are all starving it’s simply because you are cowards!’

The throng swayed about and eddied back, as when a paving-stone is
flung into a pond. ‘Who is it?’ people asked. And at once came back
replies, ‘It’s Lange, the potter.’ Amidst the groups which drew aside,
Luc then saw the man who had spoken, a short, thick-set man, barely
five-and-twenty, with a square-shaped head, bushy with black hair and
beard. Of a rustic appearance but with a glow of intelligence in his
eyes, he went on speaking, proclaiming the dream of his life aloud, in
soaring but unpolished language, like a poet yet in the rough. And he
made no gestures, but quietly kept his hands in his pockets.

‘Provisions and money and houses and clothes,’ said he; ‘they have
all been stolen from us, and we have a right to take them all back!
And not to-morrow, but this very evening, if we were men, we ought to
resume possession of the soil, the mines, the factories, all Beauclair
indeed! There are no two ways of doing it, there is only one–to throw
the whole edifice on the ground at one blow, to poleaxe and destroy
authority everywhere, so that the people, to whom everything belongs,
may at last build up the world anew!’

Women took fright on hearing this. Even the men, in presence of the
aggressive vehemence of Lange’s words, became silent and retreated,
anxious as to the consequences. Few of them really understood, the
greater number, beneath the century-old grinding bondage of the
wage-earning system, had not as yet reached such a degree of embittered
rebellion. What was the good of it? They would none the less die of
starvation and go to prison, they thought.

‘Oh! you don’t dare, I know it!’ continued Lange, with terrible
sarcasm. ‘But there are others who will dare some day. Your Beauclair
will be blown up unless it falls to pieces from sheer rottenness. Your
noses can’t be worth much if you are unable to smell this evening that
everything’s rotten, and stinks of putrefaction! There is only so much
dung left; and one doesn’t need to be a great prophet to predict that
the wind which blows will some day sweep away the town and all the
thieves and all the murderers, our masters! Ah! may everything tumble
down and break to pieces! To death, to death with all of it!’

The scandal was becoming so great that Sub-Prefect Châtelard, though
he would have preferred to treat the matter with indifference, found
himself obliged to exercise his authority. Somebody had to be arrested,
so three gendarmes sprang upon Lange, and led him off down a gloomy,
deserted side street, where their heavy footfalls died away. The crowd
itself had shown but vague, contradictory impulses, which were promptly
quieted. And the gathering was broken up and the tramping began afresh,
slow and silent through the black mud from one to the other end of the
street.

But Luc had shuddered. That prophetic threat had burst forth like
the frightful fated outcome of all that he had seen, all that he had
heard, since the fall of daylight. Such an abundance of iniquity
and wretchedness called for a final catastrophe, which he himself
felt approaching from the depths beyond the horizon, in the form
perchance of some avenging cloud of fire which would consume and
raze Beauclair to the ground. And with his horror of all violence
Luc suffered at the thought of it. What! could the potter be right?
Would force, would theft and murder, be necessary for mankind to find
itself once more within the pale of justice? In his distracted state
it had seemed to Luc that, amidst all the harsh, sombre faces of the
toilers, he had seen the pale countenances of Mayor Gourier, Judge
Gaume, and Captain Jollivet flit past him. Then, too, the faces of the
Mazelles, perspiring with terror, darted by in the flickering light
of a gas-lamp. The street horrified him, and only one compassionate
consolatory thought remained, that of overtaking Nanet, following him,
and ascertaining into what dark nook the unhappy Josine had fallen.

The lad was walking on and on with all the courage of his little legs.
Luc, who had seen him go off up the Rue de Brias in the direction of
the Abyss, overtook him fairly rapidly, for the dear little fellow
had great difficulty in carrying his big loaf. He pressed it to his
chest with both his hands, from fear of dropping it, and from fear too
lest some evil-hearted man or some big dog might tear it from him. On
hearing Luc’s hasty footsteps in the rear, he no doubt felt extremely
frightened, for he attempted to run. But on glancing round he
recognised by the light of one of the last gas-lamps the gentleman who
had smiled at him and his big sister, and thereupon he felt reassured,
and allowed himself to be overtaken.

‘Shall I carry your loaf for you?’ the young man asked.

‘Oh, no! I want to keep it. It pleases me,’ said the boy.

They were now on the high road beyond Beauclair, in the darkness
falling from the low and stormy sky. The lights of the Abyss alone
gleamed forth some distance off. And one could hear the child splashing
through the mud, whilst he raised his loaf as high as possible, so that
it might not get dirty.

‘You know where you are going?’ asked Luc.

‘Of course.’

‘Is it very far?’

‘No–it’s somewhere.’

A vague fear must have been stealing over Nanet again, for his steps
slackened. Why did the gentleman want to know? Feeling that he was his
big sister’s only protector, the little man sought to devise some ruse.
But Luc, who guessed his feelings, and wished to show him that he was a
friend, began to play with him, catching him in his arms at the moment
when he narrowly missed stumbling in a puddle.

‘Look out, my boy! You mustn’t get any mud-jam on your bread.’

Conquered, having felt the affectionate warmth of those big brotherly
arms, Nanet burst into the careless laugh of childhood and said to his
new friend: ‘Oh! you are strong and kind, you are!’

Then he went trotting on, without showing further disquietude. But
where could Josine have hidden herself? The road stretched out, and in
the motionless shadow of each successive tree Luc fancied he could see
her waiting. He was drawing near the Abyss, the ground already shook
with the heavy blows of the steam-hammer, whilst the surroundings were
illumined by a fiery cloud of vapour traversed by the broad rays of the
electric lights. Nanet, without going past the Abyss, turned towards
the bridge and crossed the Mionne. Thus Luc found himself brought back
to the very spot where he had first met the boy and his sister earlier
in the evening. But all at once the lad rushed off, and the young
man lost sight of him and heard him call, whilst once more laughing
playfully:

‘Here, big sister, here big sister! look at this, see how fine it is.’

Beyond the bridge the river bank became lower, and a bench stood there
in the shadow cast by some palings facing the Abyss, which smoked and
panted on the other side of the water. Luc had just knocked against the
palings when he heard the urchin’s laughter turn into cries and tears.
He took his bearings, and understood everything when he perceived
Josine lying exhausted, in a swoon, upon the bench. She had fallen
there overcome by hunger and suffering, letting her little brother go
off, and scarcely understanding what he, with the boldness of a lad of
the streets, had intended to do. And now the child, finding her cold,
as if lifeless, sobbed loudly and despairingly.

‘Oh! big sister, wake up, wake up! You must eat, do eat, there’s bread
now.’

Tears had come to Luc’s eyes also. To think that so much misery, such
a frightful destiny of privation and suffering, should fall upon such
weak yet courageous creatures! He quickly descended to the Mionne,
dipped his handkerchief in the water, and came back and applied it to
Josine’s temples. Fortunately that tragic night was not a very cold
one. At last he took hold of the young woman’s hands, rubbed them,
and warmed them with his own; and finally she sighed and seemed to
awaken from some black dream. But in her prostrate condition, due to
lack of food, nothing astonished her; it appeared to her quite natural
that her brother should be there with that loaf, accompanied too by
that tall and handsome gentleman, whom she recognised. Perhaps she
imagined that it was the gentleman who had brought the bread. Her poor
weak fingers could not break the crust. He had to help her break the
bread into little pieces, which he passed her slowly, one by one, so
that she might not choke herself in her haste to quiet the atrocious
hunger which griped her. And then the whole of her poor, thin, spare
figure began to tremble, and she wept, wept on unceasingly whilst
still eating, thus moistening each mouthful with her tears ere she
devoured it voraciously, evincing the while the shivering clumsiness
of some eager beaten animal which no longer knows how to swallow. Luc,
distracted, with a pang at his heart, gently restrained her hands
whilst still giving her the little pieces which he broke off the
loaf. Never could he afterwards forget that communion of suffering
and kindliness, that bread of life thus given to the most woeful and
sweetest of human creatures.

Nanet, meantime, broke off his own share, and ate like a little
glutton, proud of his exploit. His sister’s tears astonished him–why
did she still weep when they were feasting? Then, having finished,
quite oppressed by his ravenous feast, he nestled close beside her and
was overpowered by sudden somnolence, the happy sleep of childhood,
which beholds the angels in its dreams. And Josine pressed him to
her with her right arm, leaning back against the bench and feeling a
trifle stronger, whilst Luc remained seated by her side, unable to
leave her like that alone in the night with that sleeping child. He had
understood at last that some of the clumsiness that she had shown in
eating had been due to her injured hand, around which, as well as she
could manage, she had again wound her bloodstained bandage.

‘You have injured yourself?’ he said.

‘Yes, monsieur, a boot-stitching machine broke one of my fingers and
I had to have it cut off. But it was my fault, so the foreman said,
though Monsieur Gourier gave me fifty francs.’

She spoke in a somewhat low and very gentle voice, which trembled at
moments as with a kind of shame.

‘So you worked at the boot-factory belonging to Monsieur Gourier, the
Mayor?’

‘Yes, monsieur, I first went there when I was fifteen–I’m eighteen
now. My mother worked there more than twenty years, but she is dead.
I’m all alone, I’ve only my little brother, Nanet, who is just six. My
name’s Josine.’

And she went on telling her story, in such wise that Luc only had to
ask a few more questions to learn everything. It was the commonplace,
distressful story of so many poor girls; a father who goes off with
another woman, a mother who remains stranded with four children, for
whom she is unable to earn sufficient food. Although she luckily
loses two of them, she dies at last from the effect of over-work, and
then the daughter, just sixteen years of age, has to become a mother
to her little brother, in her turn killing herself with hard work,
though at times she is unable to earn bread enough for herself and the
boy. Then comes the inevitable tragedy which dogs the footsteps of a
good-looking workgirl–a seducer passes, the rakish Ragu, on whose
arm she imprudently strolls each Sunday after the dance. He makes her
such fine promises, she already pictures herself married, with a pretty
home, in which she brings up her brother together with the children
that may come to her. Her only fault is that one evening in springtime
she stumbles; how it was she hardly remembers. And six months later
she is guilty of a second fault, that of going to live with Ragu, who
speaks no more to her of marriage. Then her accident befalls her at the
boot-works, and she finds herself unable to continue working at the
very moment when the strike has rendered Ragu so rageful and spiteful
that he has begun to beat her, accusing her of being the cause of his
own misery. And from that moment things go from bad to worse, and now
he has turned her into the street, and will not even give her the key
so that she may go home to bed with Nanet.

Whilst the girl went on talking it seemed to Luc that if she should
have a child by Ragu he might become attached to her and make up his
mind to marry her. However, when the young man hinted this to Josine
she speedily undeceived him. No, nothing of that was at all likely.
Then silence fell, they no longer spoke. The certainty that Josine was
not a mother, that she would never bear children to that man Ragu,
brought Luc, amidst his dolorous compassion, a singular feeling of
relief, for which he was unable to account. Vague ideas arose in his
mind, whilst his eyes wandered far away over the dim scene before him,
and he again discerned that gorge of Brias which he had viewed in the
twilight before it was steeped in shadows. On either side where the
Bleuse Mountains reared their flights of rocks the darkness became more
dense. Midway up the height behind him the young man now and again
heard the passing rumble of a train which whistled and slowed down as
it approached the station. At his feet he distinguished the glaucous
Mionne, rippling against the stockade whose beams upheld the bridge.
And then, on his left, came the sudden widening of the gorge, the two
promontories of the Bleuse Mountains drawing aside on the verge of the
vast Roumagne plain, where the tempestuous night rolled on like a black
and endless sea beyond the vague eyot of Beauclair, where constellated
hundreds of little lights, suggesting sparks.

But Luc’s eyes ever came back to the Abyss in front of him. It showed
forth like some weird apparition under clouds of white smoke, fired,
so it seemed, by the electric lamps in the yards. Through open doorways
and other apertures one at times perceived the blazing mouths of
the furnaces, with now a blinding flow of fusing metal, now a huge
ruddy glare; all the internal, hellish flames indeed of the monster’s
devouring, tumultuous work. The ground quaked all around, whilst
the ringing dance of the tilt-hammers never ceased to sound above
the dull rumbling of the machinery, and the deep blows of the great
steam-hammers, which suggested a far-away cannonade.

And Luc, with his eyes full of that vision, his heart lacerated by
the thought of the fate that had befallen that hapless Josine, now
reclining in utter abandonment and wretchedness on that bench beside
him, said to himself that in this poor creature resounded the whole
collapse of labour, evilly organised, dishonoured, and accursed.
In that supreme suffering, in that human sacrifice ended all his
experiences of the evening, the disasters of the strike, the hatred
poisoning men’s hearts and minds, the egotistical harshness of
trade, the triumph of drink which had become necessary to stimulate
forgetfulness, the legitimation of theft by hunger, the cracking
and rending of old-time society beneath the very weight of its own
iniquities. And he fancied that he could again hear Lange predicting
the final catastrophe which would sweep away that Beauclair, which
was rotten itself and which rotted everything that came in contact
with it. And he saw once more also the pale girls wandering over the
pavement, those sorry offspring of manufacturing towns, where the vile
wage-system invariably brings about the ruin of the better-looking
factory hands. Was it not to a similar fate that Josine herself was
drifting? He could divine that she was a submissive, a loving creature,
one of those tender natures that give courage to the strong and prove
their reward. And the thought of abandoning her on that bench, of doing
nothing to save her from accursed fate, filled him with such revolt,
that he would have for ever reproached himself had he not offered her a
helping and a brotherly hand.

‘Come, you cannot sleep here with that child,’ he said. ‘That man must
take you back. For the rest we’ll see afterwards. Where do you live?’

‘Near by, in the Rue des Trois Lunes, in Old Beauclair,’ she replied.

Then she explained things to him. Ragu occupied a little lodging of
three rooms in the same house as one of his sisters, Adèle, nicknamed
La Toupe. And she suspected that if Ragu really had not got the key
with him, he must have handed it to La Toupe, who was a terrible
creature. When the young man spoke of quietly going to her and asking
her for the key, Josine shuddered.

‘Oh, no! you must not ask her. She hates me. If one could only come
upon her husband, who’s a good-natured man, but I know that he works at
the Abyss to-night. He’s a master puddler, named Bonnaire.’

‘Bonnaire!’ Luc repeated, a recollection awakening within him; ‘why I
saw him when I visited the Abyss last spring. I even had a long talk
with him–he explained the work to me. He’s an intelligent fellow,
and, as you say, he seemed to me to be good-natured. Well, it’s quite
simple, I will go and speak to him about you.’

Josine raised a cry of heartfelt gratitude; she was trembling from head
to foot, and she clasped her hands as her whole being went out towards
the young man. ‘Oh! monsieur, how good you are!–how can I ever thank
you!’

A sombre glow was now rising from the Abyss, and Luc, as he glanced at
her, saw her, this time bare-headed, for her ragged wrapper had fallen
over her shoulders. She was no longer weeping, her blue eyes gleamed
with tenderness, and her little mouth had found once more its youthful
smile. With her supple graceful slimness she had retained quite a
childish air, she looked like one who was still playful, simple, and
gay. Her long fair hair, of the hue of ripe oats, had fallen, half
unbound, over the nape of her neck, and lent her quite a girlish and
candid appearance in her abandonment. He, infinitely charmed, by
degrees quite captivated, felt moved and astonished at the sight of the
winning creature that seemed to emerge from the poor beggarly being
whom he had met badly clad, frightened, and weeping. And, besides,
she looked at him with so much adoration, she surrendered to him so
candidly her soul, like one who at last felt herself succoured and
loved. Handsome and kind as he was, he seemed to her a very god after
all the brutality of Ragu. She would have kissed his very footprints;
and she stood before him with her hands still clasped, the left
pressing the right, the mutilated hand round which was wrapped the
bloodstained bandage. And something very sweet and very strong seemed
to bind her and him together, a link of infinite tenderness, infinite
affection.

‘Nanet will take you to the works, monsieur,’ she said; ‘he knows every
corner of them.’

‘No, no, I know my way. Don’t awake him, he will keep you warm. Wait
here for me quietly, both of you.’

He left her on the bench, in the black night, with the sleeping child.
And as he stepped away a great glow illumined the promontory of the
Bleuse Mountains on the right above the park of La Crêcherie, where
stood Jordan’s house. The sombre silhouette of the blast furnace could
be seen on the mountain side. A ‘run’ of metal flowed forth, and all
the neighbouring rocks, even all the roofs of Beauclair, were illumined
by it as by some bright red dawn.