Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership




A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook


Title:      "-- & Co."
Author:     Jean-Richard Bloch [1884-1947]
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.:  0300601.txt
Language:   English
Date first posted:          April 2003
Date most recently updated: April 2003

Production notes: Words in italics in the book
                  are enclosed by underscores (_) in this eBook

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Title:      "-- & Co."
Author:     Jean-Richard Bloch [1884-1947]

Translated by
C K. SCOTT MONCRIEFF
[1889-1930]

First published 1929, 1930





INTRODUCTION
BY
ROMAIN ROLLAND


I am not accustomed to writing prefaces for books, even for those by
my friends. I do so only when the work affects me deeply; then from
the moment it enters the lists, I am glad to become its
herald--indeed, even to break a lance for it, should the occasion
demand it, as it does in the present instance.

I had already read Jean-Richard Bloch's _"---& Co."_ in manuscript
before the war. I reread it in its first imperfect edition, published
at the end of the war. I have just finished reading it again in the
definitive edition--each time receiving the same impact of creative
power. Each time it recalled to me the genius of Balzac. I make bold
to say, without any reservations, that here is the only French novel I
know which is worthy to take its place among the masterpieces of the
_Human Comedy_. It is in the same tradition.

The coupling of these names would be perilous to any other man, but
the personality of Jean-Richard Bloch is quite capable of standing the
comparison. Nor is it called forth merely by the choice of subject,
that is to say, the world of affairs and the astonishing mixture of
impassioned idealism with the most meticulous practical spirit which
characterizes the immortal author of _César Birotteau_. No, the
analogy is rooted in the essential art of the book, in the prodigious
_ density_ of its material.

The great majority of novelists write from a shallow inkwell.  They
but scratch the surface of reality. They seize upon nature from a
single angle, perhaps by means of external description, or through the
minds of the characters, or through use of movement or emotion. I know
scarcely a single writer who, throughout a work of any size, comes to
grips with life like an athlete, hand to hand,--who embraces the
entire mass of reality, his chosen prey, in the net of his spiritual
and intellectual perception.

Yet this is the very achievement of _"---& Co."_ The tribe of the
Simlers is modeled from human flesh. We can see them, touch them,
watch them breathe; we can even carry away the living clay in our
hands.

For me, that is the first and indelible impression produced by this
great book--even beyond the overwhelming interest of the story itself:
an exceptional power of _integral_ creation, of body plus soul. The
verb "to create" here takes on its full complement of meanings. The
author has not only imagined or observed his characters. _He has
engendered them_.

His subject is a complex one. Two or three fundamental problems are
interwoven. There is the problem of the Company swallowing the Man.
There is the racial problem of the Jew implanted in an alien soil.

The author dismisses his work too lightly. In a short comment he has
written on his book, he discusses these problems as "ideologies." He
will permit me to differ with him on this point. This "ideology" is a
social reality of a twofold significance. It poses questions of life
and death.  We cannot allow ourselves the esthetic luxury of
dismissing it too peremptorily.

Whether or not modern man will be devoured by the infernal mechanical
organization he has founded--here is a tragedy which strikes us much
more forcibly than that of the Atrides, for we must endure the effects
of it. Nor do we submit to it cheerfully. And the answer given to our
anxiety by _"---& Co."_ is by no means reassuring. We see these hardy
human forces presented to us at the beginning, like white-hot forged
iron in which resistance and malleability are balanced, and within
thirty years, these same forces are oxidized, their wheels corroded,
choked with grease left by the daily friction, by the daily repetition
of the labor of ants, the slow contagion of the strange surroundings,
with its anemia-breeding atmosphere, its routine, its apathy.  Their
spirit is broken. The Simlers have conquered Vendeuvre.  They have
become--neutralized.

One only among these men, out of some dull vital impulse, devoid of
rational volition, attempts--for a day, for an hour--to escape from
the wheel of Destiny, from the Company which is dragging him away from
his own race through a marriage of love. But the psychology of the
herd, stronger among Jews than among other men, decrees that he halt
at the first sign of opposition from the family, and that he take his
place again at the chain, irrevocably defeated.

It is understood that salvation, both as conceived in the author's
mind and in the final utterances of Ben Stern, the Simler from beyond
the seas, is only for the intransigents, the apostates who flee
through a side door. Escape is the only refuge; but it is a fatal
refuge. Because among the Israelites, the more the pressure of the
environment becomes all-embracing and suffocating, the more
irresistible grows the nostalgia for flight. In the homes of old
bourgeois families from the provinces, I was once very well acquainted
with these "caravan" dreams, visions of the vagrant rootless gypsy
life. But the dream generally found its satisfaction in having been
born; and after having cherished it a while, the visionaries would
once more turn quite tranquilly to "cultivate their garden." But among
the Israelites, escape takes the form of a violent outburst; and in
these periodic flights they swarm all over the earth.

However fully and vigorously the author has treated the problem of the
relationship between the individual and the group, between man and
society, I find that he has halted at the threshold of the second
problem: the relation of the conquering Jew to the race which in turn
conquers him.  The problem is complex and thorny, changing its form
with each country. North and South, in the Orient and in the Occident,
ethnic factors vary: any contact with Israel gives rise to strongly
diversified chemical reactions. Jean-Richard Bloch has taken the most
heterogeneous substances from two races and brought them together: a
family of Alsacian Jews and a little French community in the west of
France.  But he does not supply us with the means of discussing the
advisability or the value of this mixture, for the Simler family
haughtily declines to be drawn into the melting-pot.  We cannot draw
any valid conclusions from the few slender contacts which they have
with the native inhabitants. I might add that the atmosphere and
milieu of western France are seen in this book only from the outside.
They are painted in two strangely juxtaposed colors: idealization and
disdain.  I do not believe that the picture takes into account the
permanency and durability of the life of this fallow race whose sleep
is only the periodic relapse of an age-old system.

But however important may be the place assigned to Mlle. Le Pleynier,
that engaging figure (in my opinion, the only one which is idealized
throughout the book) is especially important in connection with the
crisis produced by her contact with Joseph Simler, and which, after a
seeming rebellion, determines the conclusive subjection of the latter
to the solid mass of the family and the Company.

The outstanding and preeminent element in this book is obviously the
Simler family. And in painting their portraits, the author is
incomparable. His treatment, his style, by emphasizing certain
qualities, by making them stand out in monumental relief, by the
abundance of the clay and the vigorous joy of the modeler who shapes
it, borders very closely on caricature, yet is majestic to the point
of being epic.  He reminds me of Daumier. There is the same firm
touch, the well-rounded flesh and muscles, the michelangelesque ardour
in the bourgeois buffoonery, the _vis comica_ (_tragica_?), the
irresistible scenic movement, the genius not only of the individual
portraiture (Hippolyte Simler is a world in himself!), but of the
_ensembles_. In this novelist there lurks a dramatic demon which since
the writing of _"---& Co."_ has sought the theatre for
self-expression. Immediately following his début as a novelist, he
showed his theatrical claws in the magnificent dialogue scenes of
_"---& Co."_ and very little alteration would be required (as is also
true of Balzac) to transplant them onto the stage. Here is supreme
comedy in which lively buffoonery and tragic emotion are both
manipulated by a master. Need I cite that magnificent scene of the
family council at the Alsacian fireside, waiting to welcome the return
of the two Simler sons after the purchase of the factory,--or the
inventory scene,--or Hip-polyte's agony, depicted in that astonishing
style which intertwines the pathetic and the burlesque, conveying
nothing short of an epic inspiration?

No matter how summary and imperfect this necessarily rapid estimate of
the novel may be, I hope that it at least permits the reader to
visualize its amplitude and its solid construction.

Nevertheless, this _Introduction_ would betray him if it were to omit
the fact that the author of _"---& Co."_ cannot possibly be confined
within the limits of this one work, which reveals but a single side of
his genius. Every book that he has since published reveals him in a
different light. One could say that, similar to those periodic revolts
which are so much an integral part of _"---& Co.,"_ he too perpetually
rebels against the form and style which he has just expressed.

To the massive structure, the heavy layers of paint, the
superabundant, compact realism endowed with flesh and brilliant
colorings of _"---& Co."_ (which is so much a part of certain Flemish
works) there is opposed the clear, glowing atmosphere, the sharp
lines, the proud contours, the incisive phrase vibrating like a
slender rapier, the flame and light of that other masterpiece: _La
Nuit Kurde_, a story perhaps suggested by the _Nouvelles Asiatiques_
of Gobineau, who would assuredly not recognize himself in the fire of
passion that he has inspired. _Sur un Cargo_ and _Locomotives_, both
of which bear the subtitle of "Travels," give a vivid picture of the
nomad escaping from civilization, regaining possession of the world
with new eyes, never at home save in the great outside world,
fraternizing effortlessly with the passersby whose paths cross his own
for a brief instant, electing a native land in some groaning tender.
And at the same time two spiritual confessions and two investigations
of the present moment are revealed, conducted with lucidity and a joy
of discovery, as if earth and water were being born anew with every
passing moment. Besides all this, not to mention _Lévy_, a book rather
in the vein of _"---& Co.,"_ and _Carnaval est mort_, scintillating
paradoxical essays, "toward the better comprehension of my time," this
devil of a man would not deny himself the luxury of a poetic comedy,
exciting and ironic, much in the style of Musset in his hours of
Shakespearian fantasy: _Dix Filles dans un pré_.

And as yet we are still at the beginning of the journey!  Jean-Richard
Bloch has barely passed his fortieth year, and he is emerging from the
furnace of the war. The war, which scarred his body with three wounds,
has instilled a world of tragic experiences and emancipating
disillusions into his spirit. It is this world which still smoulders
in a brain wherein a fever of creation and universal curiosity rages.
Some day he will begin. I await the decisive picture of our era from
this poet.

What is there to add? That I have known and loved him as a brother for
fifteen years; that these stormy fifteen years which have been the
touchstone of souls and of friendships, have only served to consecrate
our mutual faith; that within this virile artist who thinks as he
writes, and who acts as he thinks, there is a character which is the
equal of his art; and that no figure of our own age has realized as
ably as he has that harmony of the proud virtues of art and
intelligence of those two ancient but always renascent peoples, of
those spiritual aristocracies, the Orient and the Occident--France and
Israel.

ROMAIN ROLLAND.

Villeneuve, April 8, 1926.




PART ONE: 1871

I


Three men emerged from the deserted building, and took a final turn
round it. A big man, wearing a bowler hat and trinkets upon his
watch-chain which rattled against his stomach, stopped at one of the
corners. He indicated in succession the four cardinal points. His
black finger-nails connected the factory with the national traffic
system: ten minutes to the wharf, twelve to the railway, seven to the
post office, a quarter of an hour to the Chamber of Commerce.

While this guide to the four winds of industry issued from between his
cheeks, the other two men exchanged anxious glances. Their attention
was drawn to the cracks in the wall, where the cement had fallen out.

One of them had his trousers turned up over his boots.  The dust of
two days reached to his knees. Round his neck, a grey scarf took the
place of a collar. The coal-dust of a night in the train still
darkened his eyelids and accentuated the wrinkles on his face. He was
small and thin and betrayed a nervous agitation in his hands.

His companion, who was stout without being any taller, looked at him
through his spectacles without seeing him.  His lips betrayed the
rapidity of the calculations in which he was absorbed. At one moment,
with the tips of his fingers, he would pull away from the wall a patch
of yellow moss.  After which, he would push back his cheap straw hat
and mop his scalp.

They completed, in the agent's wake, their tour of the building, and
found themselves at the rusty iron gate. The stifling heat of a
thundery morning had baked the clinkers on the path and scorched their
feet through the thin soles of their boots.

The little man pointed his chin towards the end of the street. Between
the ceiling of leaden sky and the dull reverberation of the ground, it
was already dark at ten o'clock in the morning. The glitter of the
whitewashed housefronts devoured his eyelids. A day and a night in the
train, six months of insomnia and calculation were revealed, that
morning, by rings of inflammation round his eyes and two thumbs
pressed against his temples.

"What sort of neighbours would there be, here?"

The agent broke out in a panegyric of the neighbourhood.  A few yards
farther on, to the right, Morindet & Co., the well-known shirt
factory. The other long brick wall, crowned with dusty vegetation,
represented the back of Lorilleux-Pommier & Co.'s weaving-mill.
Farther on, to the left, a porch of white masonry suggested the
millions of Sabouret and Son's combing-mill. The chimney that was
vomiting smoke, and rose above the roof-tops, indicated the farthest
outpost of Chevalier-Lefombère.

These names fell from his lips with the ring of golden coins. Clouds
of smoke invaded the sky, driven by a. warm breeze from the east; he
pointed towards the clouds his fingers loaded with pinchbeck rings:

"Here you are in the heart of the business world. To make money, you
must begin by coming to a place where money is made."

A glance cast by the stout stranger at the knees of his tweed trousers
did not inspire him with a proper appreciation of this aphorism. He
turned to the gate, and opened it again. It yielded with a prolonged
wail.

"I have not shown you the porter's lodge."

He pushed open a wooden door, and took them into a one-storeyed
building. The floor was tiled. The windows let in light, heat and dust
partly from the street, partly from the reddish clinkers of the
courtyard.

The agent raised the lid of a sort of hole, from which rose a whiff of
damp air; he proclaimed:

"The cellar!"

A corkscrew stairway led to the upper floor. A sort of attic, which
was reached by a ladder, alone sheltered the upper rooms from cold or
heat. The wall-paper hanging in strips, the warped woodwork, the
broken windowpanes, a bat's nest on the upper floor, pigeons' dung
everywhere, formed the furniture of the house.

"Two rooms and an office on the first floor; office, living-room,
kitchen on the ground floor; water and gas. A porter with no family
can live here like a king."

A sort of flash passed between the two strangers; they stood for a
moment gazing into one another's eyes. Instead of a porter with no
family, this cottage was destined to lodge, should the need arise,
their father and mother, one of the sons with his wife and two
children, and the other, for the present a bachelor.

The agent turned towards them to indicate that the inspection was, in
his opinion, finished.

"Indeed!" said the thinner of the two, in a harsh tone.  And their
gaze was abruptly severed, leaving a curious amusement in the trace of
a smile upon their lips.

They set off with bowed shoulders, without another word, along the
avenues through which streamed the heat of the summer morning.

The shield of smoke had spread over the town. The side-streets opened
sluices of silence upon the prevailing din. At certain moments, the
throb of the looms beat time to those heavy sounds; a few yards
farther on the hum of the fulling-mills drowned it. A spinning-mill
shook the five storeys of a factory with its thunder of artillery. A
cast-iron sewer suddenly heated the pavement of the side-walk; it
disgorged into the gutters a soapy stream, in which a row of poor
women were dipping their soiled rags.

An employer's mansion, flanked by outbuildings, caparisoned with
balconies, carved out here and there, in the thick of the tumult an
area of silence. Through the railings, the strangers could see, as
they passed, the shaven lawn which ended in a curve before the steps.
The tall windows of the winter-garden shed upon the palm-trees a glaze
of good breeding. The curtains hung without a fold; they allowed one
to imagine the glass pendants of a lustre and the arm of a bronze
David lurking in the interior of a drawing-room.

In the open doorway of the coach-house, beyond the path of raked
gravel, a groom, bare-armed, was sluicing the flawless varnish of a
brougham. The corner of the big house only half concealed a long alley
of limes. A porter, in a royal blue coat, came out of his lodge; he
cast at the wayfarers a glance which rose from their boots to their
hats, and, having estimated the value of each of these garments,
turned away.

When they had taken thirty paces the escort of clamorous factories
closed round them again. And so they walked on for many minutes, with
aching feet and agonised hearts.

The agent walked ahead, to show his discretion, and distributed
important greetings as he went. He turned round now and again, and
attached to the factories the labels of the firms that owned them. The
figures of their illustrious balance-sheets anointed these names with
the oil of millions.

The two men advanced shoulder to shoulder. They lowered their heads
without uttering a word, because what was at stake was nothing less
than their daily bread, the work of their hands, and the devouring
thirst of their ambition.

Finally, one of them, the bigger of the two, said:

"Upon my word, the street is paved with gold."

The other made some reply, without raising either his voice or his
head.

They passed by a private house. The name uttered by the agent brought
them to a halt.

"That is a man who came from Bitche, fifty years ago, as we are coming
from Buschendorf. See where his widow lived, Joseph."

The thin stranger chewed the words as a dog snatches its food.

"In fifty years' time, will Hermine be living in a house like that?"

His big companion flung his head back to examine the house through his
spectacles. He did not smile; it was not the time for smiles.

"In fifty years, Guillaume...?"

He turned his eyes again to the house with its eight windows abreast,
the central block of which was crowned with a high, four-square slate
roof.

The official agent had joined them. He drew the gentlemen's attention
to the peculiar fact that all the chimneys which could be seen from
where they were standing vomited their smoke to the profit of the
widow or of her dynasty.

The spectacled stranger turned once again to the thin one, laid his
hand on his shoulder:

"The time has come to take our factory."

They proceeded on their way, but this time with the elastic, loping
pace of wolves in pursuit of their prey, of which one would not have
thought them capable. In the tangled skein of the trails which they
had been following all that morning, all of which had led to success,
they had at length discerned a guiding line. They had set their feet
on the spot where one of those trails had started,

"What Schermann has done, the two Simlers can do," growled the big
one. They had left the trails of other men and were beginning to trace
a line of their own.




II


A leather-covered door closed heavily behind them and imprisoned them
in a kind of tunnel. If we except the sickly-looking clerk visible
from the passage through the panes of a glazed door, at the end of a
sort of cellar, the place filled with a sweetish odour to which their
trail had led them first of all, contained absolutely no one but the
agent and their two selves.

The door was of double thickness and reinforced; the two windows were
fitted with panes of ground glass and guarded by stout bars. This
abundance of reinforcements and bars made one suppose everything that
the agent wished the public to suppose.

When there was nothing within earshot of the trio but those windows,
those bars, that door, the green files of papers, and that other thing
of which they were thinking but which they refrained from mentioning,
the two strangers exchanged another glance. It shot across the room
like a hawser flung from one vessel to another, at sea. Then they
moistened their lips with their tongues, and waited together for the
third man to let them hear the sound of his voice.

The agent turned his back to them. He had just found the right file.
He extracted from it, with a sigh, a roll of tracing-paper, which he
spread out upon the table with the polite resignation of a public
official. He would have offered with the same indifference India tea,
neckties at one franc or mechanical pianos. It was his routine. Facing
him were two individuals prepared to stake their whole existence. The
violence of his sigh had burst the fastening of his collar; one saw a
livid Adam's apple dancing up and down after his recent effort, as a
fisherman's float bobs up and down after a tug at the hook. Joseph
smiled.

"It seems to me that we cannot do better than proceed methodically and
return to the details of an enumeration which... The premises that you
have just inspected..." the agent began in a toneless voice. The thin
man thereupon thrust forward his right hand, as though he would make a
clean sweep of everything on the table.

"What do we need these things for any more?"

"Oh, Wilhelm, the plans!"

His companion had flung himself upon the drawings, the whole weight of
his body supported upon the palms of his hands. His spectacles slipped
from his nose, and fell upon the table, their stems in the air.

"Sir!" The agent had turned crimson. The plans were his flesh and
blood. He clung to them as to the proof of a noble calling. He had
engraved upon his cards: _Expert Engineer_.

"What do you want those papers for, Joseph? Don't you know that
factory by now as well as if you had built it yourself?"

"In the event of any dispute as to the buildings, Sir, or as to the
land, these plans are evidence..."

Joseph replaced his spectacles, took a footrule from his pocket and
coolly cut the expert short:

"Leave me alone, Wilhelm. Talk to this gentleman. I am listening to
you both."

He bent over the plans. The other twitched his hands in his nervous
way and shrugged his shoulders. He began with a stammer, because he
was recovering command of himself, and without looking, at first, at
the man whom he was addressing: "Have you nothing _better_ to show
us?"

"I have let you see all the premises that are vacant at present in
Vendeuvre."

"Humph! They're in fine condition!"

The agent took shelter, with a wave of his hand, behind the decrees of
Providence.

"Would you rather I showed you the plans of the little Le Pleynier
factory, up the blind alley?"

Without raising his head, Joseph made a motion with his fingers which
sent this suggestion in the wake of many others, behind the wall of
files. The agent bowed; his hour had come; he awaited in patience the
inevitable question that would bring them on to his territory. As it
happened, his two adversaries were in no mood to keep him languishing.

"What price?" barked Wilhelm.

"What price? Good gracious, I shall have to refer the matter to the
owner."

"Refer the matter? Indeed? You undertake to let premises without
finding out what price is being asked for them?"

"Excuse me, gentlemen, I do not say that. But you must not suppose
that these affairs are always so simple."

"Always, Monsieur Gabard!" Joseph asserted, looking at him over his
spectacles.

M. Gabard smiled a fixed smile: "Why, of course. We agents could wish
for nothing better. What is our object? It is to..."

"Pardon me," put in the milder voice of Joseph Simler.  "Our object,
on our side, is to proceed as rapidly as possible.  Consequently, Sir,
if it was dependent upon your kindness ...?"

Gabard heaved a sympathetic sigh: "Of course, of course.  Let us come
straight to the point. The factory which you have just inspected
belonged to the grandfather of the present owners. He managed it
himself,--but that scarcely concerns you, I suppose..."

He plunged deftly into his file: "Let us say, then...  here it is... I
come down to, to, to... 1836."

"1836?"

Joseph endeavoured too late to suppress his brother's untimely
exclamation. It had already furnished the agent with a pretext for the
digression he had been longing to make:

"When I say 1836... it dates _actually_ from 1807, having been founded
by Monsieur Poncet the great-grandfather, during the International
Blockade. He did good business there--it is a building that carries
good luck with it, gentlemen!--But having died fairly soon
afterwards..."

Joseph stood erect and laid down his footrule: "Sir, my brother has
asked you a question. We are no longer children.  I do not know what
your time is worth, but ours has a value beyond all comparison with
the interest of the story that you are telling us. Monsieur Gabard, at
what rent has the proprietor instructed you to lease the factory which
we have just been inspecting?"

"Eh, gentlemen, the proprietor, where is he? Who has the right to fix
a price? Gentlemen, do not be angry with me, but since you are no
longer novices in business, you must have heard of what is called the
tutelage of minors, the _curator ad ventrem_, the... Ah! Gentlemen, I
wish I were able to answer your question and say: The rent is so much,
there! But, but, but, ah!"

Then, taking advantage of the slight confusion which he had produced
in the enemy's ranks, he went on, with his gentle placidity:

"In 1836 died Monsieur Frédéric Poncet, himself the son of... but let
us go on; he left two sons of full age, who divided his personal
estate, and formed a partnership for carrying on the business. I refer
now to Messieurs Firmin and Alexis Poncet. On the nth of September,
1858, Monsieur Alexis died, leaving three minor children, two of them
being girls, and expressing the wish that his son, the young
Norbert-Elesban, then aged seven years, should succeed him in due
course as the partner of his uncle, Monsieur Firmin. You follow me?
But the young Norbert-Elesban happening to die himself, before
reaching his majority, in consequence of a boating accident which cost
him his life at the same time as that of his mother, Monsieur Firmin
was appointed guardian to the two surviving sisters. Six years later,
Monsieur Firmin, who was considerably junior to his elder brother,
Monsieur Alexis, and had remained a bachelor, fell in love with the
younger of his wards, Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle--oh
dear! Elisabeth-Athénais-Juliette, and married her, on the 17th of
March, 1869, he himself being aged 46 years, and the young lady 17. As
ill-luck would have it, Monsieur Firmin Poncet abandoned his home and
the management of his business to perform his duty to his country, was
appointed captain in the Departmental Militia, and was killed, at the
close of the year '70, at the battle of Orléans, leaving his
unfortunate widow two months gone in pregnancy. You see the point? Of
course, nothing could be more plain. A _curator ad ventrem_ was
appointed, as the law directs, who is, as a matter of fact, the
President of the Civil Tribunal. But, a year earlier, Mademoiselle
Marguerite-Antonine-Félicie-Odette-Anne-Marie Poncet, elder sister to
the former Mademoiselle, presently Madame Elisabeth-Athénais-Juliette
Poncet, had married Monsieur Taffoneau des Lauriers; she died on the
7th of April, 1870, after giving birth to the infant
Urbain-Félix-Alexis Taffoneau des Lauriers. I ought to add," said the
agent, in a hollow tone, "that the friendly relations between the
Demoiselles Poncet had not survived the marriage of the younger with
her uncle, a circumstance which has rendered impossible any attempt at
a settlement between this lady on the one hand and her brother-in-law
on the other, and has made necessary the judicial liquidation of so
complicated a succession."

The two Simlers had listened to this narrative with an expression in
which anger finally prevailed:

"But surely, Sir, there must be some legal tutor, a liquidator, a
magistrate of some sort who is entrusted with this succession?"

"Gentlemen, there is indeed."

"Ah!"

"There was indeed, I should have said."

"What? Is he dead too, then?"

"Thank heaven, no, but he was a man scarcely fitted to deal with
these industrial matters, and..."

"And?"

"He resigned his office, a week ago."

It was at this moment that the Simlers understood their man, the West,
its cunning, the pitfalls that are covered by so much indolence and
good nature. They exchanged a quick glance and Joseph turned crimson.
His voice became all the calmer. It was now the agent's fault if he
noticed nothing.

"Monsieur Gabard, you are making fools of us. I forgive you, since it
is by these practices that you earn your livelihood.  But as we are
obliged to earn our own, we shall bid you a humble farewell. If,
before we reach that door, you have not given us an answer as to the
price--there is the train at midday. My dear Sir, I bid you good day."

He took three steps, Guillaume two.

"Eh, gentlemen, fix it for yourselves, your price!"

They stopped short, Joseph came back to the table, laid down his straw
hat upon it, and took up the footrule which he had forgotten.

"Ten thousand, Sir!" he said with a rasping quiver in his voice.

Thereupon an innocent surprise caused the honest man's eyebrows to
rise. He gazed at each of them in turn, lowered his eyes to the
trinkets upon his watch-chain, raised them again at length to the two
men, and a smile of indulgent fatherhood played about his swollen
lips: "Ten thousand francs, gentlemen? But this factory is not to
let,--it is for sa-ale."

"For sale?"

There was no possibility of misunderstanding the cry that escaped from
the brothers. For the first time that morning the man felt that he was
playing another game than that of the ceremonial preliminaries.

Joseph was by now standing in front of him, having come round the
table. Gabard saw his spectacles gleam within eight inches of his own
eyes, and felt the warmth of his breath upon his cheeks:

"I think that it is better to end this discussion... We are not
accustomed... A whole morning you have been dragging us about... And
yet you knew what we wanted!  You cannot say that we did not explain.
You are lying, aren't you?"

"Gentlemen!"

The big man found his line of retreat barred by his armchair.

"I want no more _gentlemen_!"

"I swear to you. I have received the order to sell. Do you wish to see
it?"

"Whose order? There is no longer any liquidator!"

"But he remains in office until he has appointed his success... oh!"

Joseph had laid his two heavy paws on the man's shoulders.

"Look us in the eyes, Monsieur Gabard. We are not the sort of people
that you think us. There has been a misunderstanding.  Your trade is
cheating, ours is manufacturing, because that is our livelihood, and
now we must have that factory. I do not give you so much as a minute
to accept.  It is ten thousand francs and a fifteen years' lease. You
hear me?"

"Sir," moaned Gabard, trying to turn his face to Guillaume, and
stretching out his arm to the table. "Sir, look, there, these papers,
I am only an intermediary, I must se-ell."

Joseph gripped him by the shoulders and shook him.

"Then why all this play-acting? Why..."

But he saw all of a sudden, within an inch of his spectacles, the
livid glottis dancing up and down like a fisherman's float; he smiled
again, released the man, and turned towards the table. Guillaume was
already turning over the file. Ga-bard, sinking back in his armchair,
tried to slip his hand towards the bell.

"Don't move hand or foot, I am warning you for your good," growled
Joseph, with a significant gesture. The man took the two ends of his
collar in his hands, and began to moan piteously.

Meanwhile the other two were turning over the papers in feverish
haste.

"Certificate of marriage... death certificate... certificate ...
certificate... certificate... deed of adjudication ... certificate...
letter of 7th January, 1861...  letter... certificate...
procuration--humph--nothing. If it is not here, my dear Sir, if it is
not here..."

"Dated the 20th of March, this year, oh! a letter from the liquidator,
oh! paper with the heading, oh! of the civil tribunal, it, oh! if is
there."

"I hope so for your sake," said Joseph coldly. Guillaume exclaimed:
"_Here it is_!" and they both bent over the letter, cheek by jowl,
Joseph keeping motionless behind his back, with his right hand, the
man in the armchair.

They read in silence, read again, and the paper rattled faintly
against Guillaume's fingertips. When he had laid it down, the two
Alsacians stood upright and withdrew from either side of the table.
Their faces were aflame, and they remained silent, refraining from
glancing at each other.

"You... you have seen it?"

"Yes."

There could be no mistaking the terms of the letter. The law was
explicit and ordered a sale.

"You have a copy of the Code?" asked Joseph. "Good. Do not move."

He followed the line of the big man's trembling finger, took a volume
from the open bookcase and turned the pages.  Guillaume chewed his
moustache. Joseph shut the book and flung it upon the table.

"That is all right."

He raised his eyes towards Guillaume and found a glance that was
awaiting his own. He saw in it no doubt all that he hoped and feared
to see, for his breath seemed to fail him, and he raised his hands to
his collar, copying the agent's gesture.

One could discern from the traces on the boots of the two men more
than one day spent in travelling, and, on their faces, an air of
exhausted covetousness. They must have been scouring France for weeks
without having found anything, and must be at their last gasp. As for
the motive which had made them emerge from Alsace, as wolves emerge
from a forest, the agent omitted to inquire, and this was his second
mistake.

"That is all right," Joseph growled again. He scanned his brother's
face with a sort of bewilderment. His brother spoke in turn, raising
his hand to his chest, to the level of his inside pocket:

"Our father, Monsieur Simler, Hippolyte Simler, cloth-weaver at
Buschendorf, Haut-Rhin, has given us authority..."

(His voice failed at the too precise memory of the power of attorney:
"I grant and confer, by this present act, full power to my sons
Guillaume and Joseph Simler, both being of full age, to conclude and
sign in my name all deeds, contracts, treaties and stipulations with
respect to the lease of a factory...." The word _lease_ does not cover
_purchase_.)

"--authority, legalised before the mayor of Buschendorf, on the 7th of
June, 1871, to... _act_ in his name. You are a dishonest man, Monsieur
Gabard, to have made us visit that factory when you knew that it was
not to let. What price... is asked for it?"

Joseph's glance raced from the agent to Guillaume and from Guillaume
to the agent. The latter bent over the table without ceasing to gaze
piteously at the two Simlers, and began in his turn to fumble among
the disorder of the file.

"Do you wish to see the liquidator's letter? It is--three hundred and
fifty thousand."

A burst of laughter interrupted him: "Three hundred and fifty
thousand!" sneered Joseph who felt his head swimming.

"Gentlemen, I am only a humble agent... a mere in-term--"

"Hold your tongue, then! Three hundred and fifty thousand?  It's
preposterous. Ha ha! The shanty is falling to pieces. It is worth, it
is worth ten thousand francs a year, two hundred thousand francs, cash
down."

"Do you wish to see the letter? I am a mere agent..."

"Hold your tongue, then! You don't make fools of people like that. Why
not double the price at once?"

Guillaume reentered the fray: "You have authority to deal, at least?"

"Stop!" Joseph cut him short. "The Code! Where is the Code? Ah,
but!... page, page... There has been a judicial liquidation, hasn't
there? _Then_, there must have been a public auction, mustn't there?
There _must_ have been a public auction? Answer, you!"

The agent raised a lifeless eye towards him: "Yes."

"_Pardi_! Give me those papers. Of course! Here is the deed of
adjudication. I had forgotten about it. Wilhelm, look at it!"

Guillaume did not understand. Joseph was furiously turning over the
bundle of stamped documents, bound in a Lyons paper with ribbons of an
artistic hue.

"_Pardi_! _Pardi_! Judgment delivered the... Ah! Civil Tribunal of
First Instance. What a fool I was! Adjudication ... listen: '_Several
candles were lighted, during the consumption of which no offer was
made_.'... I thought as much! But it is the reserve price that I want
to find... the reserve price... Ah! Reserve price.... Listen, Wilhelm,
do you know what was the reserve set on the shanty? I thought so
too.... Two hundred and seventy-five thousand, my boy, not a centime
more, and, at that figure, nobody would look at it. We offer two
hundred thousand, Gabard, my friend, cash down."

"Imp--"

"Two hundred thousand!"

"But, gentlemen..."

"There is no _but_ about it: two hundred thousand. You have your
authority, we have ours, come over here and write."

The agent raised himself upon the arms of his chair: "I cannot!"

"It is too late. You have lied to us three times. That was once too
often."

"A contract extorted by force..."

"Am I forcing you?" sneered Joseph, stepping back and spreading out
his hands with an ingenuous air. "But, tell me: what is the agent's
commission?"

Gabard turned pale: "I don't understand."

"Lie number four. What is your commission, Monsieur Gabard?"

"You know quite well."

"Tell us, all the same."

"T--t-wo per cent."

"Good!" Here Joseph rubbed his hands and gave vent to so nervous a
laugh that his brother turned to gaze at him with an air of alarm.
"But I think I saw..."

Gabard instinctively covered the papers with his arms.

"Aha? Now we understand, Master Gabard. A little letter.  ... You
didn't remember that you had left it there, I expect?"

"No! it is a lie!"

Joseph's voice rose a tone higher: "A letter from the liquidator, a
little reply, which mentions, eh?, something in the nature of a little
bit extra? People forget things.... Rash, when they have not a clear
conscience!"

Gabard's throat was beating a tattoo. Joseph advanced upon him,
followed by Guillaume who was beginning to understand:

"I say two hundred thousand, cash down."

The agent replied in a cadaverous tone: "Two hundred thousand, plus
the costs."

"Cash down."

The man, his face lowered, his hands flattened upon his papers, shook
his head:

"I cannot, Monsieur Simler. Two hundred and ten thousand, that is my
final word."

Joseph looked at the wretch, and realised that, this time, he had
spoken the truth.

"Write," he murmured simply.




III


When they came out of the agent's office, the angle of the midday sun
reduced their shadows to tiny pools at their feet. One of the pair was
buttoned up to the throat and kept his arms glued to his body. The
other, the stout one, was feeling the heat keenly.

He came to a halt on the very threshold of the house in which they had
just been gambling, heads or tails, a portion of their destiny. He
passed a finger between his collar and his throat. This caused his
back collar-stud to snap. The man swore, then raised his eyes in which
little flames of blood were dancing, and gazed for a moment at the
leaden sky: "I ask myself how the sun manages to live in a sky like
that, Guillaume." He broke out in an exaggerated laugh.  "Hey,
Guillaume, what are you thinking about? It is our sky, from to-day
onwards, that black thing up there."

He brought his hand down with a thump on Guillaume's shoulder. But his
laughter died away at the sight of the face that his companion turned
towards him.

"For the love of God, Joseph, don't laugh like that."

And Guillaume pressed his arms more tightly than ever to his meagre
chest:

"I keep asking myself what our father is going to say, and what will
be the end of all this business. Come."

He began to walk away. A white blur appeared at that moment behind
them, in the ground glass panes of the office window; the agent was
beginning to recover his spirits.

Joseph overtook his brother: "The devil take you. You have the
agreement, I hope?"

Guillaume stopped short. With a trembling hand, he unbuttoned his coat
and drew out a stamped document from the inside pocket. He squinted at
it for a moment, across his right cheek, and raised his eyes towards
Joseph. Whereupon the latter smiled a fatherly smile, and laid his
hand upon Guillaume's arm: "Don't lose it now. And don't worry any
more than you need. You have your wife and kids. But I have never
heard that where there is a pack of wool and a machine to weave it,
any Simler has ever starved. I have never felt so hot. What time does
the train go?"

"Half-past six, if I remember right."

"It is twelve o'clock. Suppose we look for some shade?"

His brother darted at him a yellowish eyeball in which an
extraordinary flame of passion blazed. Before he had finished
speaking, Joseph had, on his part, cast a hesitating glance at him.
They exchanged no more words, but set out, with the same loping pace
of hunting wolves, in a direction along, which they knew that within
six months every stone would have become familiar to them.

"Of what shall I be thinking, six months from now, when I pass by this
wall?" thought the thin one as he hopped over the gaping stones of the
pavement.

"What will be in our minds, six months from now, when we pass this
crossing?" thought the stout one, as he stepped across a gutter along
which a foul and scorching tide swirled.

The streets were empty. The factories were silent. A wagon loaded with
coal passed across the avenue farther ahead, jolting as it crossed the
gutter.

They passed by a tavern from which issued a splutter of frying food
blended with the sound of voices. As they left the door behind them,
the sound died away. There remained in the air only a very low sort of
odour which finally passed under their tongues and made their mouths
water.

They went straight ahead, casting violent glances on either side. They
recognised the channel along which they would so often have to steer.
The three chimneys of Chevalier Lefombère served as light-houses to
this strange, unpiloted navigation.

The porter of the house that had been occupied by the widow, an
immigrant fifty years ago from Bitche, was finishing his dinner. He
was sipping a glass of old Calvados and gazing at the avenue through a
pink Gloire de Dijon which decorated his window. He saw two dusty
wayfarers stop outside the railings, gaze inside with gloomy eyes,
then proceed upon their way. He never knew, in after years, that he
had seen the two Simlers at the foot of their ladder, on the very day
on which they began to climb.

At the corner of a side-street, Joseph halted. He pointed to a
building.

"That must be the place, the Cercle du Commerce. A one-storeyed
pavilion, with big windows, a garden behind railings, at the end of a
sort of square. Hey, Guillaume, that is where the big pots of the
place meet. In six months' time the porter will be bowing to the
ground before Monsieur Simler senior, when he comes in quietly to read
his _Temps_, on Sunday evenings. A different sort of place from
Buschen-dorf, I guess?"

The other displayed a sickly smile beneath his moustache.  Joseph grew
excited: "The wealth of the members of the Club amounts to one hundred
and eleven millions, you remember what we read in the guide? There are
sixty-five of them. 'To make money, one must come where money is
made.' Here we are. _Simler and Sons_: an excellent name for a firm! I
say, Wilhelm, when they are sixty-seven, in that pub, I doubt whether
the two latest recruits will add much to the wealth of these
gentlemen."

His brother's arms were pressed against the bosom in which reposed,
upon stamped paper, the stipulations of the contract. Guillaume sought
to react: "One hundred and eleven millions of clear property against
seventy-five thousand francs of initial debt... without reckoning...
what is to come...."

"You have omitted from your balance-sheet two Simlers, one stout and
one lean, each of them endowed with a keen desire to live!"

They moved on again, casting at the Club an almost joyful glance, and,
all of a sudden, at the next crossing, came upon _their_ factory.

They did not expect it so soon. It gave them a shock.

They had just passed by at least a dozen big factories in .which
the--stroke of noon had stopped all activity, as milk curdles in a
bowl. But through the railings or beneath the porches, everything
announced an untroubled prosperity.

The wagons loaded with bales of wool had halted by the sides of
weighing machines polished by use. Baskets, heaped to overflowing with
white spindles, drowsed aslant upon three handcarts at the gate of a
building. The driving bands were swaying in the air, with a supple
resilience, narrow paths of motive force at rest. No grass between the
paving-stones of the courtyards, whether because care had been taken
to weed them, or because the grass never found time to grow there. The
brick walls raised their squat elevation to four storeys without a
crack in their mortar, without a broken pane in their windows. An
acrid blackness enveloped the whole, but like a dust of superfluous
wealth.  The smell of small coal and briquettes, that of the sweat of
wool, that of the acids used in dyeing, the smell of machine oil, of
cloth damped for the presses, conveyed nothing in which the nostrils
of the brothers Simler might not rejoice.

A true festival of labour, which was better able to find its way to
their hearts than the smell of fried food. And yet they had had
nothing in their stomachs, since, their dinner overnight, save the
bitter little roll with their morning coffee, barely softened by a pat
of butter.

_It_ stood before them as though it had come there without warning
them. They had supposed that it was two blocks farther on. To tell the
truth, they did not recognise it at first.

A low and leprous wall ran along one side of a lane. The front that
faced the avenue was undistinguished. You came at once to the rusty
gate, and immediately after it to the other angle of the wall. That
was the end of the factory.

Everything was contained between these two angles, like a chest
compressed between two bony shoulders.

And suddenly they were overwhelmed by the despair, the appalling
apprehension of all the burden of their future.  Joseph, who had
recoiled to the opposite pavement, sat down upon a post, while his
heart sank to the pit of his stomach.

It was some time before they ventured to exchange a glance. And yet
they had spent part of the morning pacing this ground. There had
afterwards been the plans and the footrule. But imagination and the
passion of combat had made of them things that were powerless against
desire.

They contemplated stolidly one detail after another, and each detail
rose before them, in its solidity and its mockery.

The wall was pitted with holes, its ridge of tiles was falling to
pieces. The gate was crumbling. Deep gutters were carved through the
clinkers of the courtyard; a shower of rain would turn it into a
quagmire. The cracked doorstep. A hole filled with rubbish at the foot
of the weighing machine.  From where they were, they could see only
one corner of the main building; a scrofulous tile dangled from the
roof like a lip.

As for the lodging so suitable for a porter without a family, their
thoughts returned to it incessantly. They thought of the spacious
house in Alsace which had such ample room for them all, many as they
were; they dared not admit to themselves that this squat little cube,
with its two skylights warped by the glare of the sun, was to settle
upon their life, which would never emerge from it again.

"I... I don't quite remember how many rooms there are... there."

"We have perhaps been children... little senseless children."

Above all there was the absence of any odour. A rancid gust was wafted
to them now and then in the eddies of the air. The corpse of the
little factory opened, in the heart of the quarter, a well of silence.
Its internal shadows were rent by the teeth of the broken windowpanes.

"All the same we must reckon it up," murmured Joseph, stroking his
scalp with a distracted air. The post on which he was sitting was a
little too high for him. Only the tips of his toes reached the ground;
the hat that he was holding on his knees was shaken by a curious
tremor. He heard his brother say: "This... factory never covered a
hectare. It is... it is ridiculously small."

Joseph rose to his feet without replying. His head bare beneath the
sun, he set off along the alley with a firm step.  He moved along the
wall counting his paces. He parted his stumpy legs with the activity
of a beetle. His eyes never left the angle of the next corner, which
advanced to meet him.

His brother watched him go, with a stupid stare in his eyes, and
counted also, mechanically, his paces.

Having counted fifty, Joseph halted, struck his heel on the ground and
turned. A considerable expanse of receding wall separated him now from
the avenue, and kept him detached from it, at arm's length. He resumed
his pacing. He asked himself whether there was room for thirty paces
more before he reached the end. He had to struggle against the
temptation to shorten his steps as the corner approached.

"Sixty, sixty-one--I wasn't wasting my time the day I learned to march
in step--sixty-four, five, six--this wall can never be more than
eighty metres--seven, eight--the plans were faked, what idiots we have
been."

At eighty paces, there was still some ground left to cover.  He
hesitated, and could not help noticing at this point a slight
weakening in the masonry.

At ninety-five, the irregular lines between the paving-stones took him
as their centre, and began to circle slowly round him; then their
gyration became more rapid; space swam in a circle before his eyes;
the irregularities of the stones were transformed into curving streaks
of a prodigious immobility.

He steadied himself by placing his hand against the' wall, scorched
it, and continued on his way.

"Ninety-six, 'ty-seven, eight, nine..."

He did not know what exactly happened when he reached a hundred. For
there still remained a certain length of wall, and this contracted,
then drew back again in such a way that the corner was now within the
reach of his fingers, now recoiled until it touched the horizon.

Bent double, the purchaser of the wall and of the factory regarded
these transformations without surprise. He began nevertheless to run,
and had reached the corner of the building before he had time to pass
his fingers over it.

And the man whom he had left behind him had the strange experience of
witnessing the following spectacle: at the end of a deserted alley, a
figure clothed in brown was clinging with both hands to a dazzling
wall, while his legs trod a frenzied war-dance. Indistinct cries
reached him simultaneously:

"The plans are--correct! Hullo--Wilhelm!--A hundred and twenty-five
metres--a hundred and twenty--five--at--least!"

Then it seemed to the watcher that a window had been opened somewhere,
and that a cool draught began to circulate over the earth's surface.

He burst out laughing, turned his head round in search of somebody to
whom he might communicate the surprising length of the little wall,
saw that he was alone, and realised that the dancer in brown had taken
advantage of his inattention to disappear.

At once a miracle occurred. The factory rose a storey higher. The
porter's lodge became a commodious villa. The slender brick chimney
was transformed into a sturdy column, a hundred feet high, and ready
to stain the scorching sky with its smoke. The summer sunshine flooded
interminable rooms, suspended from the beams of their ceilings as from
the ribs of a giant.

They came together again side by side, their faces glued to the bars
of the gate. Joseph was breathless, and had turned a deep purple.

"We are--a pair of idiots.--I have--I have walked round
the--factory.--Everything is--is--is--perfect."

They spent the remaining hours that were at their disposal in rubbing
their noses against the walls of _their_ factory.  They yielded to the
intoxication of constructing their life to come in the three
dimensions of height, depth and width,--above all, width.

When they tore themselves away, their hands were blistered and they
carried, upon their sleeves, specimens of the various kinds of plaster
that had been laid on the building.

They went to find the post-office, the Chamber of Commerce, the canal
wharf, then the nearest grocery and bakery--these last out of
consideration for Hermine. They might then be seen, once again, halted
in front of the Club.

About four o'clock, a wool merchant of tertiary importance was passing
from his office to his warehouse, when he found himself confronted by
two strangers who in a guttural accent addressed him by his name.

He gave, that evening, at the Cercle du Commerce, a description of
them which remained, until the autumn, the sole documentary evidence
as to the purchasers of the Poncet factory. For it is to be remarked
that, throughout the whole summer, the agent remained scrupulously
silent with regard to them.

They were, according to M. Boulinier, two perspiring men, of
dishevelled appearance, and covered with an incredible coat of dust.
It formed, he said, a sort of mask, beneath which it was difficult to
make out their features.

They were evidently worn out; the mask was contracted over the
wrinkles of their skins; they had not shaved for several days. Both of
them spoke with a loquacity which he set down to over-excitement. The
bigger of the two seemed to have taken charge of their external
relations. He wore spectacles, and had put his collar in his pocket.
He had a strong Alsacian accent which did not add to the clarity of
his speech.

The other, a thin little man with big moustaches, interrupted him in a
staccato voice which might be described as a sort of bark.

They had explained to him that they were cloth-weavers, at
Buschendorf, in the annexed territory. As they refused to become
German subjects, Simler, their father, had sent them to France, to
find a vacant factory. They had arrived that morning, and had just
become the purchasers of the Poncet factory. Their intention was to
install their material in October and to start weaving without delay.

They had shown him a perfectly genuine letter of introduction, signed
by one Dollfuss of Mulhouse. They had brandished under his nose, with
the furious excitement of savages, the back of a stamped document,
which was the agreement of sale to them granted by the authorised
representative of the heirs of the Poncet estate.

Finally they had revealed the _ultima ratio_ of their ambition: the
two lumps of dust begged M. Boulinier to be so kind as to give his
support to their candidature for the Club.

At the thought of this, the respectable little wool-merchant could not
refrain from slapping his thighs with the palms of both his hands,
while he leaned against the back of his armchair an honest round head
swaddled in rolls of fat.

The Club listened to this tale with a barely concealed indifference.
Then M. Boulinier, who never gambled, decided, this evening, to play
the sly dog, sat down at a table, and was three hundred francs to the
good before he began to repeat the half of his tale.

The part that he still did not mention was that he had buttered the
Simlers with "My dear Sirs!", with "Will be so kind as to," with "Why,
of course!", with "The idea!", with "If you will allow me!", and that
he had incontinently offered to raise a second sponsor.

If the two Alsacians had been newborn babes, they would have left the
town convinced they had not on the face of the earth any friend more
devoted, body and soul, to their service than the little merchant
Boulinier. But they knew that a tradesman's offers are not to be
reckoned at more than twenty-five per cent of their worth, and
instinctively made use of their knowledge.




IV


In the meantime, an unexacting time-table was jolting a small train
along a railway that had been laid down upon principles of sordid
economy.

>From the summit of an embankment, the town had been visible to the
Simlers, and also _their_ factory, as soon as they were clear of the
station buildings. The two Simlers dashed towards the one window on
that side. It seized their two heads and held them in a vice-like
grip.

The sight was worth the trouble of looking at it. It had been as
ludicrous at first as a children's game with blocks.  But the slope of
the embankment joined this escorting view to the train, and combined
them both in a single reality.

The travail of the town was audible in a deep groan. The tiled roofs
spread out in sheets the reflection of the July sun.  A hot vapour
quivered on their surface.

The two hundred chimneys mentioned in the guide-book bent over it in
the attitudes of caryatids. They poured out incessant gusts of smoke.
These swelled at first where they rose, but a faint breeze from the
east took hold of them and blended them in a single cloud.

A Cardiff mine was being exhausted to feed that tide of smoke. The
clamour which darkened that patch of sky was paying six shifts of
Welshmen for their toil. Two good trains on the English railways
thrived upon it daily. Two or three marauding brigs had no other
reason for their existence, in the distribution of the universal
wealth, than to transport this ration of coal. They arrived one after
another, their heads between their shoulders, their backs astream with
water, affecting that sullen air which one contracts in steering
across bad weather. When one of them returned, her loading line in the
air, dancing over the waves with the abandon of a Gibson girl, she
assured the first collier who set eyes on her that the billows of the
Channel were rolling to his feet, that two hundred chimneys were
hungry and were waiting for him to feed them.

The Simlers were not fully acquainted with this sequence of facts; but
the silence of the black cloud was eloquent.

Moreover a sabre-blade advanced towards them at an angle over the
surface of the valley, and, as they crossed it, dazzled them with
sunlight. It was the canal. The evening light fell, rectilinear, upon
wave after wave. They had just time to observe a dozen little oblong
boxes, motionless and highly burnished. But they knew that these
objects were proceeding, breast foremost, each of them rumpling the
lacquered smoothness of the water, and that each was bringing three
hundred mouthfuls of coal, at a ton to the mouthful.

The line described a wide curve halfway up the hill. The train found
the gradient difficult. With the result that the town spun gently
round at their feet.

The town in full activity--and their factory in complete repose.
Repose was hardly the word. Their prevailing impression was that of an
open wound in the flank of the town.  An empty hole, and in that hole,
their hope.

They passed above their future abode. The dark, silent courtyard, the
dilapidated roofs, the four buildings welded together in a misshapen
rectangle came beneath them.

And as the return of the curve inclined them towards the plain, the
two men felt that they were gazing for an instant into the bowed heart
of the chimney. It gaped beneath them its humid maw, soiled, humble,
scarred on one side by lightning.  The angle of the railway-carriage
gave it the effect of sinking towards the north. It withdrew without
straightening itself. A cloud of smoke from the engine enwrapped it.
It disappeared. A corner of the building remained. A broken pane had
time to snip out a reflection of the sun, and was submerged. The gate
reappeared and vanished, like a memory.

And when the smoke had melted, when they sought with their eyes the
spot that was dearest to their hearts, the Lefombère spinning-mill
masked all that quarter of the town with its faultless alignments.

A freight train flung itself between the Simlers and the valley. Its
cars chopped up their view. The glimpses were intersected by patches
of darkness and noise, like a semaphore worked by drunken giants; some
fifteen trucks, loaded with coal, were content, for a time, to
threaten the rim of the valley with the flocking succession of their
edges; then a string of cars blocked the daylight once more, and the
train escaped by swinging up the slope, with its thunder, its
darkness, and its two rear wheels which caught up the wind.

"There'll be the devil to blame if next winter there isn't one of
those cars with the name of Simler arriving at the station," murmured
the big man, as though in apology for the hoarse sigh that he had
heaved when he saw vanish in the direction of Vendeuvre freights
addressed to other people.

Joseph made an effort to think of the future. Guillaume kept his eyes
fixedly opened upon the present. He could not help thinking back to
the factory at Buschendorf, as silent to-day as the one that had just
vanished from beneath their feet....

A squadron of Uhlans were billeted in the main building.  It was,
beneath the trees, a little elongated structure, with no upper storey,
in which the handlooms were placed. It had seemed to them both, ten
years earlier, an immensity which no human measure could calculate.

Their father paced up and down his room, his hands thrust into his
pockets, his head lowered, his mouth filled with blasphemies, and
apoplexy gathered \n a roll round his throat. He had not ceased to
rage since the Prussians had invaded the little town.

At the first report from Wissembourg, he had stopped his looms,
dismissed his workmen, locked his gate. The _pickel-hauben_, in search
of a billet, had forced the lock. The kicking of their horses
shattered the wall of the woolshed. One heard at times the dull sound
of a loom worked by some Saxon weaver, then a shout of laughter, and a
shuttle crashed through a windowpane to rebound from the pavement of
the courtyard.

Simler never left his room. His footsteps sounded all day long upon
the waxed floor. In the course of time he had worn a sort of circular
path upon it. Now and again the sound ceased. A chair crashed.

Their mother brought the weaver his food, which he swallowed between
his oaths. She remained seated, for hours on end, before her
lace-pillow, not venturing to raise her eyes.

Buschendorf had been so quickly occupied by the advance-guard of
German cavalry that the two sons had found themselves prisoners,
before they had time to escape. No one could have told whether their
father did not feel, in the midst of his humiliation and rage, a sort
of relief. In that case, the broken chairs could alone have testified
to the remorse which this sentiment inspired in him.

Guillaume and Joseph were bursting with the sense of their impotence.
They paced up and down, on the grass, along the buildings. At the
sight of a grey cloak, they went upstairs to shut themselves up in
their bedroom, and devoured the German newspapers which the conquerors
did not forget to leave lying about on the chairs.

A walk in the country was forbidden them. Sentries yawned beneath the
gates in the old walls. They were under orders to present themselves,
every afternoon, at five o'clock, at the office in the Hotel-de-Ville.
There, an elderly Captain of the Landwehr, who had come in time to
recognise them by the mere sound of their feet on the pavement, gave
himself the amusement of proceeding daily, with fresh care, to the
verification of their identity.

There were titters of laughter among those present when it came to the
scar on the chest. This was a memento left to Joseph by a shotgun
which, long ago, had burst in his hands. When the Captain ordered
Joseph to strip, and moved round him, fingering the plump flesh of his
body with his precise, magisterial fingers, the troops could hardly
contain their merriment.

One day, Joseph had flung his shirt in the man's face. A formal
intervention was needed to save him from a firing-party, or at least
from deportation to Silesia. That day, Simler senior had come down
from his room, and had not hesitated to reveal the entrance to a
second cellar, hidden behind the woodpile. The Landwehr had begun by
shouting at the top of his voice, strangling himself in his red
collar.  Old Simler's Alsacian had prevailed in the end over the
Badisch in which the magistrate chattered, and the latter's spouse had
seen her husband bring home fifteen cases of bottles of the best wine.

But when the father had retired, that night, to his room, he had
escaped suffocation only by smashing the crystal globe over the clock
on the chimneypiece, and by emptying the water-jug over his head.

And nobody could have told, even then, whether the fury of father and
sons was not due to the silence of the looms, to the suspension of
business and to the rapid approach of bankruptcy, as much as to the
misfortunes of their country.

Guillaume had arrived at this stage in his memories, when a hand was
laid forcibly on his forearm, while a lamentable wail sounded in his
ears. He blinked his eyes, recognised the setting sun, recognised the
town which was huddling out of sight in the distance, recognised the
compartment and Joseph who was thrusting towards him a face inflamed
by tides of blood.

"Listen!" said the other. From the plain a cry of superhuman distress
had risen, and in a moment had occupied the whole of space.

It quivered in the air at first, alone. But the creature that was
emitting this plaint must have stimulated others. It was taken up from
the heart of the plain by a strident note.  It broke out nearer to
them with the whistling of a shell. A herd of beasts, mortally
stricken, were uttering down there their deathcry.

The main street presented itself end on, diminished by distance.

"The end of a day; their day!" murmured Guillaume.

Labour was rendering up its soul. It was the hour at which one day
more slipped into the sum of the days that had passed since the
creation of the world. The amplitude of the cry measured the greatness
of the irreparable. The sun was sinking behind the cloud that had
invaded the atmosphere.

Then there appeared beneath the two men the little sharpened tongue of
a steel point. It waited for the train, seized it by its wheels, and
drew it violently to itself. They felt a shock, saw escape beneath the
curve of the hill four strips of gleaming metal, were hurled to the
left, and plunged, without a light, into something dark that roared.
The tunnel, distance, and the mass of a hill of blind earth fell
between them and the town.

Daylight returned to them. But the landscape which it illuminated
offered them nothing in which their passion might find solace.

It was in vain that those pine trunks stood up in serried ranks
against the gaping wound of the setting sun. In vain that the pond
which lay bleeding in the depths of a ravine shone for them with a
solitary flash and was eclipsed. In vain that the line leaped from
slope to slope, through the twilit forest, that the sound of the
train, echoing in the thickets, startled the pheasants, and made the
screech-owls perched on the tops of the beeches silently clap their
wings,--that the brakes clenched with a scream upon a slope which drew
them down towards the glimmering light of a plain.

It was in vain that they emerged from the night that had fallen to
return to a night that was beginning, that the valley unlaced for them
its bodice of hedges, orchards and roses.  Vainly did the great river
escape from a chalky cliff, lead towards them its motionless escort of
poplars, and offer them, in a quivering curve, all the light that was
dying between its banks. Vainly did the low water-meadows in which
cows were kneeling among the grass, support the tracery of lengthening
shadows. Vainly did the villages of white stone hold themselves
suspended, facing the west, and remain, with a tiny round cloud, the
last glowing shapes of the valley. Vainly did the Angélus hum round
Norman belfries like bees round the opening of a hive. Vainly did
Venus banish the last blood red streaks in order to install her
presence in the evening sky. Vainly did the daily miracle of the West
repeat itself before the eyes of these two Alsacians.

At a bend in the river, a bridge, blown up eight months earlier to
arrest the advance of Manteuffel, allowed its iron apron to trail in
the water of the stream. And the brothers Simler went on, to seek, out
there, in their native East, arguments for battle which had nothing in
common with the somnolence of the most religious of summer twilights.




V


Guillaume remembered afterwards an interminable wait by the platform
of a station. Steps had approached, along the roof of the carriage. A
rattling sound had opened, in the ceiling, an unplumbable violet
orifice in the depths of which a star was shining. But the star had
disappeared. They had witnessed a short contest between a wad of tow
upon a stick and a little yellow flame. A sharp sound. The steps had
withdrawn, leaving behind them a glass cage spotted with grease,
inside which, attached to a metal arm, the little flame was
struggling.

No matter. That feeble, agonising glimmer had been sufficient to expel
the rest of the world from the overheated box. As soon as the
lamplighter had dropped it into its place, a web of walls and
darkness, equally dense, had reformed about the travellers.

In fact, night has begun. No one is conscious how long it will last.

A force seizes the carriage and draws it on. It has gripped it one
knows not where, for the whole carriage shakes in unison. The dull
roar of a forge mounts from the earth.  Everything begins to vibrate.

It is a battle-royal. A question of transporting, to a distance of
sixty leagues, while the night lasts, three hundred tons of inert
matter, in a series of cubes.

Guillaume repeats to himself the terms of the problem.  Three hundred
tons! He shuts his eyes. The draught that, enters through the little
open windows is not sufficient to dispel the odours which are
poisoning the cell. The Alsacian rises among the jolts and unlaces his
shoes. No sooner are they liberated than his feet begin to swell. He
wriggles his toes in the white cotton of his socks, the hard creases
of which are scorching his feet.

Before lying down again he scrutinises his brother. Joseph is already
snoring. His head has slipped from the yellow travelling-bag on which
he had laid it; it has slipped down lower than his chest, to the very
edge of the seat. One of his hands is trailing on the floor, on which
an indescribable dust is stirring, to the breathless rhythm of the
forge.  Guillaume has the painful sensation that this hand is made of
gold-beater's skin. With misgivings he recognises once again in
Joseph's appearance, the marks of the paternal authority. That
instantaneous sleep, that spongy throat, those cheekbones accentuated
by the sagging of the cheeks, make him think of the excessive
reactions of that body, its notorious strength, its irresistible
gaiety, its needs as instantaneous as its passions.

He asks himself once again what is the law that urges males of the
same race to hate one another. At least he feels confusedly that there
is a question which he should ask himself.  But he has neither the
time to ask nor the habit of asking himself such questions. He is on
the point of taking Joseph's head in his hands and replacing it on its
pillow of yellow pasteboard. He changes his mind and confines himself
to touching his brother's shoulder:

"Up! Up!"

When Joseph at length opens a haggard eye, uttering in rapid
succession, like his father, a string of interjections, he sees
leaning over him a face in which it would take a very subtle mind to
discern anything but affection and pure cordiality.

Joseph has fallen asleep again. The destiny of the Simlers keeps watch
now only in the mind of Guillaume. Also doubtless, at Buschendorf,
beneath a copper lamp, old and worn, in the mind of a mother whose
anxiety accompanies their every step.

Guillaume repeats to himself the terms of the problem.  Three hundred
tons, sixty leagues. The flame of the lamp beneath which the mother,
far away, is turning the pages of her Hebrew ritual, rises with a jet
as calm as is frenzied the flame of the wick that writhes, up above
him, in its basin of oily glass.

Because everything, here, is a combat. Matter is inert. It refuses to
know anything. Matter is solid. Distance is slender and long. To make
one pass over the other. That is the whole question. Friction. Heat.
Guillaume Simler feels them as though the aching mass of his own body
were being dragged, through the night, joint by joint, over the
interminable gridiron of the metal track.

The night itself weighs upon him like a solidified mass.  Guillaume
Simler raises himself upon his elbow and tries to look out of the
window. His glance is shot back at him.  There is nothing outside but
density, a wall of warm darkness.  He strains his eyes. A tree,
lightened by a momentary flash, stands out and vanishes, with a sigh.
Nothing more.  Guillaume drops back upon the seat. His travelling-bag
slips one of its locks under his head and scratches him. The man
grumbles for a moment, turns from side to side, and continues to
explore the problem.

Guillaume Simler, by having contemplated it often, when as a boy he
came home from school after dark, knows the reason of this weariness
of a train that slackens its speed.  The train is nothing more, at
that hour, than a phantom in the heart of the summer night; one end of
it vomits smoke, flame, sparks; at the other end is the triangle of
three red lamps climbing the gradient; and behind it, a well of
silence and profundity, a vortex yawning at the foot of the
embankment, the law of gravity, against which a phantom struggles
desperately.

As a matter of fact, he had not supposed that there would be also a
wagon of coal. Nor that the merchants were in the habit of loading
their wagons so full. He watches with astonishment the efforts of an
old horse, presumably white, its head emerging from a halter that is
too large for it, to drag the enormous vehicle.

This appears at the corner of an avenue. The wagon jumps from one
paving-stone to another with the sound of a battery of guns. A man
swears as he thrashes with his whip the skeleton of his beast. And the
rays of an infernal sun writhe in every direction, enveloping the
universe in the heat of a furnace.

And now, look, after the first wagon, appears a second, then, up the
slope of a side-street, a string of others, all high, black, and
over-loaded.

Albeit the metal tires of the wheels are imitating, on the pavement,
the hammering of a forge, Guillaume feels convinced that the load will
never reach the top of the slope.  He would like to explain to the
driver of the first wagon that the law of friction prevents.... The
man has come level with him; he is indeed of abnormal stature. His
black fingers have extracted from his overalls a dirty sheet of paper
which Guillaume Simler knows well. And Guillaume Simler has no need to
give a second glance at the invoice from the railway company.

"Delivered at the station! Delivered at the station, you blockheads!
Can't you read? What do you expect me to do with all this stuff at the
house?"

The carter makes a gesture of indifference and proceeds on his way
mopping his brow with the veined back of his hand. The asphalt of the
side-walk sinks under Guillaume's thin soles. He raises an alarmed
glance at the string of wagons that are climbing towards him. He would
like to move away. He is sure of what is about to happen. But he is no
less sure that he is powerless to move away. He remains there,
watching the procession of carts from which the coal trickles down in
little avalanches, while the glittering band of the canal sears the
corner of his left eye.

And he counts them. To satisfy his conscience. A delivery must be
checked. He longs to go and pick up the crumbs of coal that are
falling from the carts. It hurts him to see so much good fuel crushed
beneath the wheels. Never has coal looked so oily, so rich. It is oily
like wool. His attention is arrested by a lump of anthracite with
flashing facets; at length a wheel catches against it; the cart
appears to be raised in the air; but the lump is cracked like a nut,
and dissolves in a rapidly subsiding cloud of dingy blackness.

Guillaume continues to count. The total is evidently correct.  What is
to be done with these three hundred tons when they reach the empty pit
over which the weighing-machine should stand?

Joseph has set off bare-headed to find a porter--a porter without
encumbrances for the lodge that will be so comfortable for him. He
seems to have entirely forgotten that it will have to house their
father, their mother, Hermine and the children. Who will attend to the
weighing? Will it be their father who will open the gate? Could not
these cursed carters keep their coal in their own store, by the canal,
confound them!

A smell begins to spread so persistently that Guillaume Simler turns
his head to look up the street. What can that little man be doing
dancing up there? Is it from bravado that he is wearing on his head
that extraordinary chimneypot of battered silk?

He opens his mouth, and puffs into Guillaume's face a stench of garlic
and decaying teeth. He is as round as a barrel. Freckles swarm on his
face like ladybirds; they apr pear to be determined to make the most
of a deep layer of dirt wedded to the vermilion of a generously
stimulated complexion. "Black, yellow, red. The Belgian flag," thinks
Guillaume, who cannot refrain from smiling.

"I... I just came to... that is to say to... present to... to
Messieurs S... Sim... ahem! _Smiler_ and C ... and C... and Company a
lew words of... ahem!  upon my word, I mean to say, of welcome."

It is not that he stammers. But he feels, at each word, so compelling
a sense of expansion, fellow-feeling, radiant sympathy, that, upon my
word, his utterance shows, I mean to say, the effects of so impetuous
a gush of feeling.

Now M. Boulinier discovers, once again, that such a display of
warm-heartedness has produced its customary effect.  The elder of the
brothers Simler remains speechless. He cannot tell whether it is in
his ears or in infinite space that the wheels of the moving carts are
rumbling. And the gate shut (will Papa have opened it?)--and the
missing balance--Where on earth has Joseph gone?

Guillaume believes that he is entitled to reply in the name of his
father, M. Simler, the sole head of the house of Smi--ahem!--of the
house of Simler, pure and simple, that the house of Simler regards
itself as greatly honoured by the sentiments which M. Boulinier has so
kindly expressed.  (If his father had opened the gate, Guillaume would
have heard the long-drawn owl-hoot which it gives when it turns on its
rusty hinges: _a-hoo-oo_!). Guillaume Simler is happy to add that, in
his own name, he, Guillaume Simler, is pleased to hope that his
relations with M. Boulinier will be maintained upon a footing which...
precisely! In short, M. Boulinier must understand that such a day as
this is not well-chosen, however delicate the sentiments to be
expressed, for coming to waste the time of a man who is engaged in
taking possession of...

Guillaume has no sooner uttered the words, than he is conscious of
their incongruity. But not for all the wealth of the house of
Rothschild, could he have refrained from speaking as he has done; nor
even from adding, coolly, that no doubt M. Boulinier will not refuse
to fill the place of the balance which is lacking from the Simler
establishment, in measuring this unexpected consignment of pit-coal
with the aid of the footrule of which he is the graceful prop.

"Ha! ha! An e-excellent joke. I cannot help congra-tulat-ing myself
upon having entered into rererelations with so, I mean to say, ha! ha!
so witty a customer."

In another moment, M. Boulinier would fall, in sheer joy, into the
arms of the stupefied Guillaume.

"But to... to enable myself to enj-oy myself more heartily, I have no
dou-ou-bt that Monsieur _S-S-Smiler_, ahem! junior, will relilieve me
of all uneasiness with regard to a little dodocument which bears the
honoured signature of his pa-apa."

Guillaume remembers then with horror that the first payment in the
contract concluded with little M. Boulinier for the supply of wool is
due this very day.

The elder of the Simler sons feels a tide of burning pitch flooding
his brain. He will have to explain to this little barrel reeking of
garlic the chain of circumstances that has led up to the postponement
of their installation until this burning July afternoon.

A damp frost descends upon Guillaume and paralyses his mind. A man
lost on foot in the heart of Central Australia is no farther from any
human aid.

He makes a brief effort to recall what he ought to have remembered.
Presently he preserves only the remotest trace of this last
enlightenment. He clings hold of the notion that there exists,
somewhere, an urgent memory, which would make everything clear.

All these efforts exhaust him. He turns away, wearily nodding his head
in which vacuity tolls like a bell. The Belgian national colours
vanish. A second neighbour, whom he did not hear approach, is standing
on his left, and leans towards him stiffly.

His cocked hat, his pale blue coat and the metal plate which shields
his heart proclaim the day of the month to Guillaume, more infallibly
than would a calendar. The messenger of the Banque de France
represents nothing more than a cipher, the fatal _thirty-one_, of
which the _three_ rears itself up, on its curly tail, with the
arrogance of a creditor certain of his claim, while the _one_, an
equivocal symbol, defies, commands and threatens.

The man opens his mouth. It emits a shriek which Guillaume compares
with astonishment to that of the factory gate: _oo-ooh_! The man
announces himself with the word by which housewives designate him:

"_Ooh_! The banker! _Oooh_!"

But already the plate of sheet-armour and the gimlet nose are no more
than an image that has receded to the end of a familiar road.

It is the Saturday evening walk. Father, in his frock coat, is wearing
an old-fashioned top-hat. Mother has her Chantilly bonnet fastened
under her chin with two ribbons of black silk. The children, tightly
breeched in their best trousers, trudge between the sorb-trees of the
footway, sullenly kicking up the dust.

It has been hot. It is still parching. Their feet are burning after
having walked too far on the too hot ground. A breath of cool air
comes from the wood round which the road turns, and flows down their
throats, at each breath, like cherry-syrup swallowed in little sips.
The children glance furtively at the suspicious shadows which lurk in
the wood. Cockchafers go blundering through the twilight with a
snoring hum. Frogs part the dusty grass of the ditch; when they think
themselves unobserved, they let fall their sonorous cry, liquid as a
drop of crystal.

But the father has halted. He is talking to an obese man whose fingers
are loaded with pinchbeck rings. Mother remains half a pace behind
him. She lends an anxious ear.

The conversation between the two men grows animated.  The stranger
points again and again at some one whom Guillaume ends by recognising,
in spite of himself. It is a question of Joseph and himself. Moreover
that dusty apathetic lump is not unknown to him.

He looks at Joseph. Joseph looks at him. They would gladly be anywhere
else. Is it because they long to drink?  They are no longer either hot
or thirsty. Is it the evening breeze that comes from the wood? Their
sweat freezes them, their teeth chatter.  The father calls them. The
stranger has extracted from his pocket a paper which he strikes
violently with the back of his right hand. Guillaume gazes at him with
a fixed stare.

"Come here!" Simler shouts at them from between his whiskers. His wife
intercedes:

"Hippolyte!"

"Silence! They must be taught a lesson! Wretches, did you hear what
Monsieur has just said? Is it true? Is it true that you have ruined
me?"

The obese man studies them with severity. The legal document, which he
clasps in his fingers, quivers with a faint rattle. One has no need of
this evidence to guess that its possessor conceals, in a pocket of his
frock coat, a flask of _schnapps_.

The silence of the guilty parties is a confession. They stand there,
both of them, their feet in the dust, like a pair of idiots. A great
tension takes the place of all sounds.  Everybody knows, from Rouffach
to Soulzmatt, what father Simler's anger can be. It bursts out all of
a sudden, like the clap of thunder a moment after the lightning. But
who would ever dream of smiling, if the father took it into his head
to shout, dwelling upon the final word:

"Fifteen minutes stop, refreshments, passengers for Orléans change
here!"




VI


The tewo Simlers travelled across Paris like lifeless parcels. Then
they submitted with resignation, at Troyes station, to passport
formalities the mere suggestion of which would, eighteen months
earlier, have been regarded as an excellent joke.

Uhlans, wearing flat-topped helmets with horsehair plumes, found great
diversion in making them spin round like teetotums. And they spun like
teetotums filled with submission, unaffected by anything that did not
threaten their future, and was not a bed on which they might lie down
and sleep.

Then there came the first tobacco-fields; their alignments took as
their centre a point on the horizon and began at once to rotate at
full speed about this centre, in such a way as to flick the travellers
with the extremities of their radii.

There was a second dusk, which forests of fir and oak packed close
about them. Then a harsh odour, greeting them in their native
language, spoke to them of great shadowy hopfields, and made them
raise their heads and gaze at each other with haggard eyes.

They arrived at Mulhouse station when they were beginning to despair
of ever again arriving at any station in the civilised world.

They took their places in the refreshment-room, at a narrow marble
table, between two open doors which engaged them in a battle of winds.
Beer was brought to them in thick glasses which became misted before
their eyes, in token of the coolness of their contents. They studied
with satisfaction the massive build, the fair complexion, the yellow
hair, and the air of studious and loyal devotion of the waiter, as he
skimmed the froth from the mugs with a little bat of white wood. And
when they had wiped off the mist with a stroke of the thumb, when the
beer revealed itself to them, through the ribs of the glass, with its
dazzling transparence, its musical sparkle, its vigorous and amber
colour, then a slight feeling of confidence arose in the hearts of the
brothers Simler.

They did not admit to themselves that they were returning to their
native land to hasten the moment in which they would abandon it for
ever. Nor that every expense which they incurred, from then onwards,
must add to the burden of their debts and constitute, strictly
speaking, a crime against their future. They allowed themselves to be
quietly invaded by the security that is given us by the land in which
we were born. They raised their mugs with a simultaneous movement,
happy to feel the handles press against the palms of their hands. They
exchanged, over the brims, a glance full of connivance, and drank.

A fringe of froth was still in the process of evaporating on their
moustaches, when they summoned the waiter again.  They ordered two
portions of larded sausages with cabbage and potatoes, followed
immediately by two stalwart veal cutlets, swimming in their own juice,
and buried in a field of haricot-beans.

Appetite came with eating. They turned ogreish glances on the bill of
fare, which the waiter had carelessly left on the table. They cleaned
the narrow dishes of white earthenware, upon which they were served,
with ample sponges of bread-crumb which their grimy fingers extracted
from the heart of the loaf.

The Simlers ordered for each of them two thick slices of galantine,
variegated like a map of the United States and fringed by tidal seas
of pale jelly, the frozen aspect of which appealed to them. A
fruit-dish, upon which big white cherries, stalks in air, bristled
with a mass of green bayonets, gave them the desire to eat to excess,
so as to dissolve the surfeit in the acid juice of the fruit.

The doors were now driving in buffets of night air, like children
playing ball. With their food and the end of this day, there entered
into them a heavy and artless gaiety.  Joseph thrust back his straw
hat; his spectacles on his forehead, like a schoolmaster's giglamps,
he began to play stupid tricks. The stupefaction of the other
travellers was immense when they saw this corpulent gentleman blow
solemnly into his glass so as to bedew his nose with the froth, and
then assume the air of a startled marmoset. Guillaume was no less
solemn in peeling the sausage-skins in bracelets, and, having hung
them upon the neck of a pursy water-bottle, shot at the corpulent
effigy the most passionate glances.

These water-drinkers, whom two glasses of beer intoxicated, devoured
their sausage-meat with the hilarity of orchard-robbing schoolboys.
Had they been able, at that moment, to call for oysters, no power
human or divine could have restrained them. Fortunately for the law of
Moses, the refreshment-room at Mulhouse did not supply oysters, and an
official flung at them suddenly, through the door, the warning that
their train was about to start.

They paid their bill in haste, filled their pockets with cherries,
and, their hands seared by the handles of their baggage, set off at a
trot in the direction of their platform.

They had no indignation left for the guard of Prussian infantry, whose
helmets reflected the light when the sentries passed beneath the
lamps. Everything seemed to them to be in order, and to be
administered with a view to universal satisfaction. No sooner were
they installed in their compartment than they fell asleep, sitting up,
like beasts of burden.

* * *

The spreading roofs of Buschendorf covered low, white houses, decked
with vines and climbing roses. And these white houses contained a
number of people who looked to the decision reached by the two
brothers for some enlightenment as to their own destiny.

For, between half the town of Buschendorf and the Simler factory,
there was a solidarity hardly less perceptible than between the white
houses of the place and their own thatched roofs.

As for telling which, the factory or Buschendorf, might be called the
roof, and which the house, that was another question.

Was it the factory that protected the houses of the town in the
manner of a kindly and benevolent roof, providing it with privacy,
shelter, warmth and light?

Or was it the town that had protected the beginnings of the factory,
providing it with the water from its wheel, the stones for its walls,
the arms of its workmen, and even the small loans to which the
vicissitudes of industry had obliged the Simlers to have recourse, at
periods which they did not care to hear mentioned?

Nobody could have given a satisfactory answer to the question.
Buschendorf and the Simler factory were two entities which the
imagination of Upper Alsace instinctively associated. People said: the
Simlers-of-Buschendorf, not so much to distinguish them from a number
of other Simlers, scattered between the Black Forest and the Meurthe,
as because these Simlers, who lived and laboured at Buschendorf, might
indeed be regarded as the most characteristic product that Buschendorf
had, up to the present, manufactured.  They embodied its spirit, its
ideal--I would go so far as to say that they were its substance, were
not certain minds always inclined towards malicious interpretations.

When two travellers in raw wool, in madder, or in fuller's soap, or
even two cattle-dealers, unconnected with the woollen trade, met upon
one of the roads that connected Buschendorf with the outer world, it
was seldom that one of them did not say:

"It is to Buschendorf that you are going, my friend? A charming little
town. You know of course Hippolyte Simler, a very capable man? No?
Then his brother Myrtil, the one who is unmarried, and has a birthmark
on the left side of his face, like that? No? Then Sarah Simler,
Hippolyte's wife, who is the daughter of Moïse Blum, the Lorrainer?
Not her, either? I shan't ask you, then, if you know Wil-helm Blum,
the cloth-merchant, Hippolyte's brother-in-law, a fine man, to be
sure, but, between ourselves, a trifle _schlemihl_. Whereas Hippolyte
Simler, there's a fellow who's afraid of nothing, a man who does very
good business, upon my word, who is very well off indeed. We shall
drink a glass of beer at Soulzmatt station, if you like, and I shall
tell you their story since they were little boys. Do you think I
haven't known them! My late father and Jonathan Simler, Hippolyte's
father, went to school together, and Jonathan often hadn't a scrap of
food in his satchel, and it was my father who used to feed him out of
his. To-day, I would be glad to exchange my satchel for his, ha!
ha!..."

Thus, once again, Buschendorf found itself associated with the
destinies of the Simler family, as though the town had sprung to life,
ready-armed, from the activity and careful forethought of the Simler
family.

* * *

It was a sober little village of two thousand inhabitants, without
luxury or pretension, and the Simler mansion was in keeping with the
rest. An old, square house, whose two storeys were modestly crowned
with a broad roof of squat, concave tiles. A bit of railing, a few
yards of path and three steps to the door were sufficient to separate
the "château" from the street.

The steps were of grimy sandstone, chipped at the edges.  The passage
of feet had long ago heaped the gravel in little mounds along the
borders in which a few pinks bloomed.  The railing was not six feet
high; it had lost all memory of its last coat of paint; every spring,
Sarah Simler would say, in an indifferent tone: "You must send me
Pouppelé to paint the railing"; and, every spring, Hippolyte would
shrug his shoulders with an air of exasperation as he answered: "It is
quite good enough as it is. Upon my word, it can wait. I need Pouppelé
myself."

And yet, neglected as it was, this strip of railing contained in
itself an aristocratic virtue sufficient to swell the Simler heart
with pride. People said to strangers: "You will have no difficulty in
finding it: a house, with a railing in front of it, on your right,
after you have passed the square, a fine, big house. You can't miss
it. Besides, you have only to ask for Monsieur Hippolyte, anybody will
show you the way at once. It is the only railing in Buschendorf."

More than once, in consequence, in delicate circumstances for pride or
dignity, the memory of three stone steps, of a few square yards of
gravel, and of a little unpainted iron gate was a comfort more
effective than any number of exhortations.

That evening, the gravel crunched under uneven steps, and two shadows
were roaming between the gate and the front door. The moon, in its
last quarter, had not yet risen.  The hesitating gait of the shadows
suggested the monotonous to-and-fro of a shuttle, upon which some one
had slowly wound a strand of anxiety.

"I repeat to you, Hippolyte was right, and you must have faith in your
sons. They will have acted for the best. I know Guillaume."

The man who spoke thus had a rumbling voice. When he turned his back
to the railings, his shoulders stamped their outline upon the bluish
wall of the house; whenever he put his left foot to the ground, his
bulk foundered suddenly, as though his foot had struck against the cam
of a loom. He was wearing a little soft cap, which his head swelled
from inside.

The woman seemed, by his side, to be of tall stature. Her hands folded
across her skirt made the only spot of light on the uniform darkness
of her figure.

"I have faith in Guillaume," she said; "Joseph too knows his duty. But
they are young, they may have taken ideas into their heads. And
Hippolyte is so absolute!"

"What was to be done? Hippolyte was not fit to go there himself."

"They should have stayed here!"

The woman's voice quivered in harsh tones. She straightened her lean
figure as she walked. The man seemed to be lowering his head.

"You are not finding fault with Hippolyte, I hope, Sarah?"

She kept him waiting for her answer during the time that it took them
to walk from the steps to the gate. Then she stopped and gazed at the
road from which no sound came.

"Who am I, to find fault with anyone? Have they consulted me?"

The man was silent in his turn, as though the words that had just been
uttered had a remote and irrefutable meaning.  It was the woman who
broke the silence, after heaving a sigh, and in a curiously lowered
tone.

"What would be the good? Stay here or go. We should have to begin
afresh, in any case. As soon as Hippolyte and Myrtil came to that
decision, and the boys agreed..."

"The Altermanns are staying."

"What difference does the Altermanns' decision make to Hippolyte and
his brother?"

The rapid, hissing accent of this retort made the cripple withdraw,
with the submission of a man who is outwitted in this sort of tactics.
He abased himself without shame:

"Certainly Hippolyte has no need to have the way pointed out to him."

And as the woman, by keeping silence, seemed to encourage him, he went
on:

"It is always he that has shown us our way. Joseph...  Joseph is his
living image. Your Guillaume takes more after you."

"I don't know. Perhaps Guillaume is more..."

The thought that occurred to her was doubtless one of those which
people suppress, for she did not continue.

A window opened in the wall a rectangle of light. Figures were visible
within, passing to and fro. As they passed, their shadows fell upon
the garden. The sacred border of pinks enhanced their distortion with
unforeseen irregularities.

One of these shadows lengthened upon the gravel path, and halted, Its
arms raised crosswise left no doubt as to the violence of the feelings
that were convulsing its person.

Sarah Simler, escorted by the cripple, was at that moment returning
from the gate towards the house. She stopped speechless to gaze at the
monstrosity endowed with life which was moving silently at her feet.
She was pointing it out to her companion, when the shadow seemed to
relax and, after a moment of hesitation, fled hotfoot towards the
sorb-tree in which it was swallowed up.

The woman could not restrain a murmur.

"Myrtil... will Myrtil never leave _him_ in peace?"

The front door of the house opened; a flood of light shot down the
steps; a figure rose up in an attitude of authority; a voice cried:

"Sarah! Sarah!--and you too, Wilhelm."

The speaker had added this name on hearing the cripple's step
crunching on the path. But it was evident that the presence or absence
of Wilhelm did not matter to him in the slightest degree.




VII


There were four of them in the room, when the cripple had shut the
door behind him.

A massive body, seated on a reclining-chair, had its back to the
light. Its head was bent forward, revealing a bloodshot neck, furrowed
with wrinkles.

The man who had summoned the other two stood erect, his fist upon the
table,

A ceremonial black cravat helped his neck to sustain his head above
its long thin column. The agile skeleton of his swarthy hands barely
emerged from the overlong sleeves of his frock coat, of military cut,
which a pair of horizontal, narrow, square, muscular shoulders brought
to an abrupt finish. Macerated as though by smallpox, his face
projected three salients, over which the skin was tightly stretched,
suggesting the ivory surface of a billiard-ball. A couple of shadowy
furrows crossed it laterally, one, the higher of the two, beneath the
ridge of his eyebrows, the other under his nose.

It was in the former that lurked the gaze of Myrtil Simler, from the
latter that issued the metallic inflections of his voice.

Contracted between his temples, his birdlike skull extended backward,
drawing after it a pair of finely shaped ears, pointed at the top. Two
ropes of brown hair started from it to lose themselves beneath his
cravat. They assured to the general effect a haughty backward thrust,
and prevented the head of Myrtil Simler from ever adopting the
inclinations typical of characters devoid of energy.

And then, a final harmony, a delicate nose, trenchant as a Moorish
scimitar, hollowed beneath the cartilage and vigorously curved,
affirmed a descent free from any mixture of blood. An aristocracy that
was not refuted by the arch of the foot, within its elastic-sided
boot.

Never did a Judge of the Supreme Court watch a Minister take his place
in the dock with an air of dignity so imperious as that of Hippolyte
Simler's brother, when he watched the entry, into the room in which he
was standing, of Sarah and the cripple.

At the moment when the latter shut the door behind him, he turned his
judicial mask towards the man with the expansive neck and uttered
these words:

"Hippolyte, here are Sarah and your brother-in-law."

Even without the raucous, hammering sound of the voice in which these
words were uttered, there would still have been reason for
astonishment. For their meaning, to all appearance anodyne, bore no
relation to the severe tone of the man who had uttered them. And most
of all, because in turning to address his brother he had brought into
the lamplight a cheek deformed with a large wine-coloured blemish,
over which a bloodshot eye hurled a glance charged with indignation.

>From the chair, without any raising of the neck, rose a loud, throaty
voice.

"What o'clock is it? Oughtn't the children to be here?"

"It is not ten yet, Hippolyte," replied the cripple, taking a step
forward beneath Myrtil's contemptuous glare. As he spoke, he drew from
his pocket an old plated-gold watch in a double case, the key of which
hung from his chain.

"They could have sent a telegram, I suppose," the neck continued.

Myrtil turned his judicial mask towards his sister-in-law, and
appeared ready to weigh the answer that he expected of her.

Sarah unfolded her hands from in front of her skirt of flowered satin.
She pushed back one of the ribbons that were hanging from her bonnet,
and sighed:

"Have a little patience, Hippolyte. The children can't have had much
of a time, themselves. Heaven knows how tired they'll be when they do
arrive. If they haven't arranged everything according to your idea,
calm yourself. You know that they will have acted for the best. Myrtil
and you will settle everything that isn't quite correct."

"Those are easy things to say at home; in business, signed, settled."

These words fell from the thin lips of Myrtil like so many
hammer-blows upon the anvil of the public conscience. Having spoken,
he drew himself sharply erect.

A hurricane ran through the neck; a roar filled the room:

"Signed? And why should they have signed? What is it that they have
signed? People don't _sign_, when they risk involving their father,
their family, their fortune."

"You gave them your power of attorney, Hippolyte," murmured the
cripple in a smooth voice. Sarah shrugged her shoulders, and moved
with unhurried step towards the sideboard, which she opened.

But there had been a movement in the chair. Hippolyte had turned
round. Something like a tide of the sea swept into the lamplight. A
mass that seemed flat because of its breadth, filigreed with red veins
in the place of cheeks, and backed by one of those thick skulls whose
monumental front makes one conscious of their density and volume.

Grey, bushy whiskers enlarged still farther the yellowish entablature
of the flesh. The features that formed his face were concentrated in
this aspect of it. With the result that the man never looked at one
save with his full face. The greater part of this plane surface was
unaffected by the movements which convulsed its centre. It seemed to
be always holding half the horizon in its gaze. Hence that fixity, in
which there was nothing human, but which suggested the slowness proper
to the movements of nature. His immobility was astronomical.

His fascinating stare rested upon the cripple. He placed him in the
centre of his field of vision, and seemed to be gripping his image
between his eyebrows, as though he had 'made an effort in order not to
overlook so meagre a figure in a vaster contemplation.

"Have you become an idiot, Wilhelm?"

At the sound of the syllables which foamed from between his whiskers,
and then rolled from his lips, the crockery on the sideboard rattled.

"An idiot, Hippolyte? What do you mean?" replied the cripple with the
utmost simplicity. But it was evident that the rumbling voice had not
prevailed.

"An idiot, or an enemy?"

"Brrrrm!" said Myrtil, drawing himself up abruptly to examine from a
greater altitude the man who was addressed in this fashion. Wilhelm
trustfully expanded ten stout fingers filled with honest conviction,
and offered the palms of his hands as a pledge of his sentiments.

"When you signed a power of attorney for your sons..."

"Who was the first to speak, in this house, of a stamped document?"
uttered the face.

"Brrrrm!" Myrtil gave his support.

"It... was I, Hippolyte, I don't dream of denying it, but..."

"But?" shouted the other. "Let me tell you what there is in that
_but_; there is this, that, at the present moment, my two sons are I
don't know where, and, I don't know where, with them, in a portfolio,
in a portmanteau, or in the drawer of a bed-table, there is the
stamped paper, at the foot of which all the world can read the
signature of Hippolyte Simler; and, you see this lamp, and this table,
and the cloth upon this table, and the silver, and the house we are
in, and the factory, the looms, the wool, my coat--by a word written
over that signature we may lose everything, destroy everything, give
away everything, and... Sarah! bring me the pen I used to sign!"

"Brrrrm!" Myrtil gave his support.

"And when I wrote those two words: Hippolyte Simler, do you know, you,
what I was writing? Listen here, it was: Simler ruined."

"You think so?" exclaimed Sarah from the other end of the room.

"What else would you have me think? My name is roaming the wide world
on a blank sheet of paper, and you haven't yet shut me up in the
madhouse? Bring me the pen, I tell you. It is the first time anybody
has seen a man divide himself in two, and sit in his chair without
moving, while he goes out proclaiming to the entire world: 'Who wants
Simler's factory? Who wants the money of the Simlers of Buschendorf?'
Have you found that pen?"

"But after all," exclaimed the cripple with more vigour than might
have been expected of him, "your signature is not roaming the world by
itself, nor in the hands of enemies.  Your children..."

"My children are my children. Is there any reason why I should make
them my masters? Why I should give them greater power over myself than
my father _selig_ ever wielded?"

Myrtil, shaken by a gust of tragic feeling, gave a jerk, in the
lamplight, to the chessboard of his face. His eyes darted from his
brother to the cripple. The latter stepped forward, casting at the
farther end of the room the despairing glance of a doctor renouncing
all hope of curing his patient. He laid his cap on the edge of the
table and said:

"If any harm should come from the power of attorney which you have
given your sons to act in your name, I allow you to blame nobody but
myself. It was I alone that advised you. I persist in believing that
they will have justified the confidence that you have placed in them."

"That is all right, Wilhelm; I know my sons better than anyone, and we
shall soon be settled, I think," replied the master of the house in an
unanswerable tone. And he turned his face towards his wife, as though
he held her personally responsible for the punctual arrival of their
two sons.

"In any case," he went on, bringing Wilhelm once more within his
horizon, "I may be mad, I am not yet weak-minded.  If I have given my
signature, I have not done so in ignorance of what I was doing.
Nobody, not even Myrtil..."

"Brrrm!" said his brother, striking the table nervously with the hand
that was leaning upon it.

"... has ever yet made me do anything that I had not already decided
to do."

A steam-roller does not make a road more smooth than was the cripple's
conscience after this admonition. As a matter of fact, he would have
been greatly surprised had anyone told him that no diplomacy could
have proceeded with a more prompt adroitness than his own in cooling
the wrath of the great Simler, and that by making the manufacturer
assume responsibility for the power of attorney, little Blum had
deprived his pride of its most stimulating nourishment.

But such subtleties, frequent as they might be, were powerless to add
to the self-satisfaction even of the man who employed them. Simler's
voice had not finished sending its stormy echoes to the four corners
of the room before an abject humility had taken up its abode in
Wilhelm's heart. He drew back his cap which in a moment of expansion
he had laid on the table, and, literally, bent his back beneath the
furious glare of the two brothers.

When Sarah brought her husband, not without hesitation, the
writing-pad and pen for which he had asked her, she too replied to her
brother's glance with an expression which confirmed their scorn:

"What can a Blum from Thionville know of the decisions and intentions
of Hippolyte Simler of Buschendorf? And even though this Blum from
Thionville be my own brother, he has only to look at himself to learn
that he is not of a stock that can set his foot where the Simlers set
theirs."

Wilhelm had no need to look at himself, in order to feel weighing upon
him, morally as well as physically, the shoulders, the eyes and the
opinion of the Simlers.

It is not necessary for a man to be a great expert in psychology in
order to know the capital value of a hunched back, a clubfoot, a pair
of startled, squinting, colourless eyes, hair of a neutral tint,
inclining to red, scanty everywhere, a skin like a cheese-scraper, and
a voice devoid of any resonance. Especially when this is your own
personal lot, and you have been putting it, for five and forty years,
to the daily proof of the vast world and its circumstances.

The vast world, indeed, in its supreme order and its perfect wisdom,
is more prone to condemn a crooked spine or a stumbling gait, than it
is to appreciate how indispensable are the goodness of a mouth free
from malice, the malice of an honest thick nose, full of sensual
kindness, the cordiality of a loyal back, and the brotherly gesture of
a stumpy, hairy hand, with square-cut nails.

For the moment, Wilhelm Blum, ill at ease as to his bodily attributes,
and embarrassed outwardly by an indefinable grey suit, had just taken
back, in his hand, the woollen headgear which in a moment of expansion
he had laid upon the table; and registered, to enrich his collection,
the look with which his sister cast him forth from the Simler clan.

Nevertheless a ring encircled one of his fingers, rather as a hoop
encircles a little barrel. And this alliance indicated marriage, a
family, a household.

The Simlers were great. But, at this moment, it did not appear that
their humble brother-in-law, the cloth-merchant Blum, enjoyed the
companionship of a woman. And yet the hour was late; if he was still
there, it was not, obviously, for any personal motive; if he opened
his mouth, it was not to discuss his own private affairs; if the
circumstances were painful for anyone, they did not seem to be so for
him.

He was there, remote from his own people, seeking the best way to
appease the wrath of Hippolyte Simler, and anxiously awaiting his two
nephews, returning from, their journey into an unknown world.

Thus it is that things happen. It is bad taste to be surprised at
them. To be touched by them is a weakness. To notice them, even,
superfluous. Wilhelm Blum knew his duty.

But a step crunched the gravel; he could not refrain from hastily
pulling out his fat onion of a watch. Myrtil with a harsh gesture
turned his head over his left shoulder. Sarah's arms dropped on the
table the writing-pad, the ink in which had turned to lead. Hippolyte
alone did not move.

"But it is not... it is not time yet," muttered the cloth-merchant.
Two sharp knocks reminded the occupants of the room that between them
and the world there was only a door.

A face whose bright eyes were supported upon heavy moustaches,
appeared.

"No news yet, Monsieur Hippolyte? Madame Hippolyte, your servant."

His eyes grew accustomed to the dim light in the room.

"Good evening, Monsieur Myrtil.--Ah!"

This "ah!" fell to Wilhelm, to whom the newcomer confined himself to
offering his hand with a marvellously skilful blend of familiarity,
protection and at the same time respect; Blum was, after all, a
brother-in-law.

"As you see, Fritz," replied Monsieur Hippolyte from his full face. A
silence fell. Then the head of the house of Simler added: "Nothing!"
in so sharp a tone that everyone started.  Fritz appeared embarrassed
at having shown his impatience.  He pursed his lip under his drooping
moustache.

"We thought, perhaps, a telegram..."

His master gazed at him fixedly, and lowered the corners of his mouth;
the effect was an astonishing expression of disdain.

"And so here is another person who can't wait. Bear this in mind,
Fritz: if you wish to succeed in life, it means waiting, and
understanding."

This fine moral uttered for the admiration of his audience, the fiery
old man at once forgot its substance. His eyebrows rose side by side,
to retain before his eyes the insignificant figure that had addressed
him, and he continued, fresh storms gathering in his voice:

"Fritz Braun, you and yours are waiting, and yet you do not know why
you are waiting, you do not know for what you are waiting. What is
your object? There must be an object in everything, even in worrying
and waiting. Have you one, you? If I go, the buildings remain, a
Prussian is sure to come to start the factory again and give you work.
You have no object, either you or your comrades, in waiting for my
sons to return."

The Alsacian remained motionless beneath this torrent of insulting
implications. He gave to the soldierly planes of his face the most
innocent expression that it was in his power to give them.

Hippolyte Simler went on, in a louder tone:

"For me--for me, my brother Myrtil, my wife, it is another question.
You see this pen, Fritz?"

Although he was accustomed to the manufacturer's unexpected outbursts,
Fritz was taken by surprise. A monstrous hand, fat to bursting-point,
reached out from the chair to the table. It covered the writing-pad,
and seized the fragile stick of firwood.

"Look, it is neither thick nor heavy. How much time does it take to
write a name with this little pen? Very well, that has been enough,
and that is why you find me, at this hour of the night, waiting still
for my sons to return without knowing whether I am still in my own
house, whether I am still a weaver, or whether I must abandon
everything to begin again, elsewhere. There you have my object, mine.
When the head is weak, a man needs strong legs. My head was weak one
day, Fritz. Perhaps other people have taken advantage of it. Let this
serve as a lesson to all those who place themselves in the--hands of
others."

A sharp crack concluded this speech. The monstrous hand made a
gesture, and the fragments of the penholder went flying to the ends of
the floor. Myrtil uttered a sharper "Brrrrm!" than usual, then a
stifling silence filled the room.  His head lowered, Wilhelm went over
in vain, in his memory, the points of his apology. Fritz Braun
endeavoured to conceal his terror beneath his sheepish air, and felt
that he knew all that there was to know. Sarah gazed at her husband
with a sombre admiration.

Fritz summoned up the courage to speak:

"Monsieur Hippolyte, it is not the opportunity that makes the thief,
nor the work that makes the workman. There are men who have confidence
in one another. You say things, and we believe them. You go ahead, the
rest follow you.  With you, one is never led astray. Monsieur
Guillaume and Monsieur Joseph are sons of whom any father might be
proud. Whatever arrangement they may have made, it will be white bread
for us. This, my comrades have not sent me to tell you. But I tell you
it all the same, both for myself, and for them. There."

It was the turn now for the fair moustaches to swell, for the level
brows to rise, and the Alsacian face assumed planes more martial than
ever.

To himself, the foreman was thinking:

"_Zum Teufel_! This devil of a man always makes one say more than one
meant."

Hippolyte held him under the impassive command of his face. Blum
looked at his own feet. Myrtil appeared strangled by his black cravat.

The duty of the alto, in a choir, is to stir our feelings by the most
difficult means. Now it was repellent to the pride of the house of
Simler to acknowledge its moral debts. It was to a woman's voice that
this duty was, as a rule, delegated.

Sarah stepped forward, with that calm and measured pace which had won
her the name of _Kônigin Simler_.

A stainless dignity enhanced the meagre stature of an aging woman. She
allowed no wrinkle to betray her feelings beneath the impeccable,
slightly yellowed varnish which seemed to be spread over the skin of
her face.  The law of the Orient, which orders everything with wisdom,
for it has known mankind since the day of Creation, has taken steps to
secure that woman shall remain the helpmeet of one man alone, and
shall not circulate from one to another, an object of coveting and a
subject of discord. And so Sarah concealed her poor grey tresses, as
she had begun by concealing, on the morrow of her wedding, the heavy
plaits of her girlhood. Her mother before her had done likewise; her
daughter-in-law had followed her example. A _front_ of black silk
framed the ivory of her brow. The ringlets that fell in front of her
ears, from beneath a rich cap of Chantilly lace, were made of false
hair. But inasmuch as deceit was born in the Continent of supple
sandals, and coquetry awaited our mother Eve at the gate of Paradise,
a thread of white silk, stitched across the _front_, imitated the
parting which divides the natural hair.

A sign of mourning which celebrates, from generation to generation,
the dispersal of the tribes.

Only the whiteness of a collar of white linen, doubled over the black
silk of her bodice, and that of her two hands folded over her bosom,
interrupted the funereal livery.

Such a woman, silent, secretive, and acknowledged as mistress in her
own house, soon acquires the air of royalty before which everyone must
bow. The shortest women find their stature increased by it. Beneath
the imperious circumflex accent which divided her brow, on either side
of a large nose, protruding and curved in a gesture of command, Fritz
Braun could see a pair of eyes which rested upon him without fear. A
velvet which emerges refreshed from beneath the hot iron, distant
memories, irony as to the present, regret for the past, a sorrrowful
calm at heart. An exact knowledge, a profound ignorance, certainty of
her own limitations, valour within them, resignation without. This
gaze of an unduly precocious child, of a mother for ever innocent and
an old woman who could still beguile, overpowered the solid virility
of the Alsacian. And the phrase of renunciation that was commonly
uttered at Buschendorf sounded in his ears: "The man who is caught
between the mouth of Hippolyte Simler and the eyes of Madame
Hip-polyte, is no longer his own master."

"We are passing through a painful time, Fritz Braun.  But you have
just uttered the only words that could soothe my husband's grief.
These are things which one does not forget. You see how we are placed.
Our whole life is in the balance. But, if you, and your friends..."

"Take care!" the foreman warned himself.

"... are on our side, I have no longer any reason to dread my sons'
return."

Braun felt a cord tighten round his throat: "If there are not forty of
us who will go with you, men, women, children, and truckle-beds, I go
back as a tier to the spinning-mill."

"I can go back there without waiting," the inward Braun replied
incontinently. "And the strangest thing of all is that she has not
done it on purpose!"

For, to the great indignation of this inward Braun, the other, the
diplomat deputed to receive information, sets himself meekly to accept
the offered sop.

"Why don't you come out and take a turn in Buschendorf, Monsieur
Hippolyte? No fear of meeting a Prussian; that lot go to bed before
the fowls. A little stroll would do you more good, upon my word, than
sitting here poisoning your blood. You would see that even at this
time of night, there are still lighted candles in the town. A candle,
that may be lighting honest folk. So, you suppose that we would have
allowed you to leave the place without drum and fife? We< don't buy
the same bread with German money as with French. Some _Preuss_ or
other may come here; if he wants labour, he will have to bring it with
him. We have never made anything but Simler cloth, and Simler cloth is
French cloth. There is old Hermann who has sold his four silver spoons
and forks, there are Gottlieb and his wife who have pawned their
furniture, there is Pouppelé who has bought a thick coat and fur
goloshes for his boy, there is Mayer who never leaves the station, so
as to be the first to see _them_ alight from the train, there are, all
along the Haupt-gasse, as many faces at the windows as there are
Baumanns, Hausers, Kapps, Zellers, Francks,--all because it is nearly
ten o'clock, at ten o'clock there is still a train from Mulhouse, and
no one must be the last to pack up his traps, if the young gentlemen
come to bid us boot and saddle.  It is mobilisation day, for us. The
war may perhaps be over, in one sense; in the other, it is only
beginning. And I who was born an Alsacian in Alsace, I swear to you
that I will never breathe easily until we have, saving your presence,
b------d out of this country."

"Upon my word, it would never have occurred to them!" incontinently
observes the inward Braun. Sarah's lip begins to tremble; she holds
out her hand. But already Myrtil has undertaken to conclude the
discussion with a manly utterance: he turns towards his brother his
three-decker profile:

"After all, you agree that it will not take us long to start work
again."

And Braun realises once again that, in the presence of a Simler, every
man, small or great, appears as a child.




VIII


It was not for want of imagining the thousand different forms which
her sons' return might take; but when, at that very moment, the
door-handle began silently to rotate, and, borrowing the tone of a
familiar voice, said: "It is I; what is the matter?" Sarah's eyes
fastened themselves upon it, and her tongue clove to the roof of her
mouth.

The door opened without a creak of its hinges. The battered end of a
leather travelling-bag appeared first of all, A sigh was heard. The
four men then became aware (Wilhelm was the first, and Fritz Braun the
second to notice) that something was happening. And Guillaume Simler
was in the room, followed immediately by Joseph, while afar off there
sounded the belated baying of a dog.

"Humph! Good evening."

It is better to pass over the incidents of the next few minutes. The
license that motherhood allowed itself, and the disregard that two
great, grimy men showed for their own dignity, are not subjects which
it is seemly to examine in detail.

Wilhelm expended a satisfaction sufficient to support the whole life
of an uncle in exclamations such as: "The boys!  The scamps!"
Meanwhile Myrtil, who was ill prepared for this unexpected change in
the situation, extended in the direction of the window the penthouse
of his brows, and imperiously summoned Fritz Braun to explain to him
by what witchcraft the gravel on the path had not crunched under the
boots of the two travellers.

"Where? Where?" Wilhelm questioned in an undertone, pressing the hand
of each nephew in turn. But neither of them thought fit to answer him.

However it may have been, each of them began to feel that displays of
affection, even when they are extravagantly prolonged, are not
sufficient to settle all the difficulties of industrial life. Failing
any other reminder, Hippolyte's presence would promptly have dried the
spring of such noble effusions.

He had not greeted the entry of his sons with any apparent gesture;
for one cannot so describe a change in his colour, which from a brick
red had passed to a greyish yellow that was by no means reassuring. At
most, his mouth twitched without emitting a sound, and his swollen
forefinger rose jerkily to point at the newcomers.

The hoarse pant of an uneasy bull was his way of entering into
conversation; it had the immediate effect of producing silence.
Guillaume had finished soiling a handkerchief by mopping his brow; he
advanced towards the table:

"Good evening, Father."

"Eh?" said his father. This was not what he had expected.  His son's
voice returned to that sort of nervous bark with which he had spoken
two days before, to the faint-hearted agent.

"Father, we bring you news!"

"Eh?" his father repeated; but the tone was no longer the same. Joseph
slipped his spectacles over his ears; he came to his brother's rescue,
but thought it wiser to adopt the roundabout method of joviality:

"It is to Monsieur Hippolyte Simler, weaver of textiles at Vendeuvre
that..."

"Where?" came a stifled cry from the old man's throat.

"At Vendeuvre, in... the West, Father," Guillaume supported his
brother, devouring their father with his gaze.

"Vendeuvre?"

"Vendeuvre!"

Myrtil's exclamation killed the triumphant tone of Wil-helm Blum.

"I knew it, I knew it!" Myrtil went on, in an accent of despair, and
struck the table with the palm of his hand.  Hippolyte leaned forward:

"It is _there, there_ that...?"

Guillaume nodded his head in assent. Joseph, trusting in his tactics,
adjusted his spectacles and, bowing again:

"... weaver of textiles, at Vendeuvre, and proprie--" He did not
finish the word. His father had risen to his feet. The chair, flung
backward, crashed to the ground, and held up in the lamplight its
broken seat, flanked by four revolving wheels. The old man dominated
his family by the altitude of his head:

"You have bou-ought?"

"Brrrrm!"

"We have... bought," replied Guillaume's bloodless lips; his eyes
remained glued to his father's. He was on the point of extracting the
stamped document from his breastpocket, when Joseph's hand cut him
short.

"Had no time to consult you by telegram. We had to...  had to make up
our minds on the spot. If it had to be done again, we... I swear to
you!"

When the barrister turns towards the public benches, it is not a good
omen for his case. Joseph called to witness the circle of eager eyes
that surrounded him.

"It wanted..." said Myrtil.

"You have bou... ought?" the manufacturer cried once again. Then the
supreme question issued from his lips, after making his whiskers
quiver:

"For how much?"

"Calm yourself, Papa; we have not betrayed your interests.  We are
certain that we have acted for the best," said Joseph, in what he
hoped was a suitably filial tone.

"Let us take everything in order. We set off to look for a factory.
That was your intention, wasn't it?" corroborated Guillaume. Joseph
leaned with an all too plain anxiety over the black leather travelling
bag: "Look at these plans first of all, and tell us what price you
would have offered for this business."

"A unique opportunity, Uncle Wilhelm," said Guillaume, proving that
their uncle's presence might be of some advantage.  But their father's
logic was not one of those masses which, once dislodged, can be turned
from their course by the sweep of a hand:

"For how much, bought?"

"You shall know in a moment, just look at these plans first," replied
Joseph in a business-like tone.

"Answer him," murmured their mother. But the rage of the head of the
house had already exceeded all bounds.  He ranged the room with his
gaze, gave vent to a fierce snort, and, his neck swelling until it
became crimson, shouted, punctuating each syllable with a blow of his
fist:

"For how much did you buy?"

Everything that was capable of shaking shook, glass and metal alike.
Guillaume stood in front of him, rigid and empty as a swordless
sheath. After two or three futile quiverings of his lip, he succeeded
in giving utterance to the sounds that were required to form the
words, the enormity of which had thus full time to become apparent,
wholly and severally: "Two hundred and ten thousand francs."

He said actually: "_frangx_."

"Hippolyte!" cried Sarah, hastening toward her husband.

Gazing at his brother with protruding eyes, in which there was no
trace left of humanity, the weaver repeated:

"_Zwei Hundert... Gott im Himmel... Myrtil...  allés, ailes_..." then,
his legs giving way, he stepped backwards, tried to sit down, collided
with one of the legs of the overturned chair, and fell in the gap
between it and the table, emitting the long roar of the bull that has
received its deathblow.




IX


People do not always die when they wish. The "Hippopotamus," as the
Altermann clan dubbed him--but for that matter the Altermanns were
themselves of mixed blood, _yid_ and _goy_--had a carcass that would
last a century.

"It will let the blood out. He was getting too fat," had been
Friedrich Altermann's conclusion, as he prodded his porcelain pipe.
The Altermanns opted _preuss_. A competitor the less and a debt on the
competitor's balance-sheet made this morose man quite cheerful.

A bed had been hastily prepared in the sitting-room. But "a Simler and
a bed do not stay long together" was an expression frequently uttered,
for his own personal satisfaction, by the grandfather, _selig_, Mosche
Hersch Simler, the former drum-major of the Grand Army.

Thirty hours later, the old man's step was sounding from top to bottom
of the house, and the heavy _fuffuffuff_ of his breath passed
unexpectedly through the shut doors.

This stroke, which would have turned any other man into a lifeless
corpse, had barely affected his left eyelid.  And if, during the week
that followed, he had articulated his words with difficulty, this
symptom appeared of slight importance compared with the reactions
furnished by his character.

"The hippopotamus is furious. Take care!" sneered Altermann, who had
listened to the rumours that were current.  Their gardens adjoined.
And cousin Jacob Stern came and went between his gate and the
Simlers', repeating in a despairing tone:

"Why did nobody listen to Sarah Simler? Women understand these things.
Hippolyte will die rather than take the train!"

In the meantime, it was Hippolyte who was killing them, and quickly.
Joseph caught him by the sleeve, as he passed the door of the room;
his voice would have cooled a furnace: "Papa, come and look!"

The blue gelatine of the plans was glazing the surface of a table. The
father released himself stiffly, and continued on his way. The first
words that he could bring himself to utter were:

"You say two hundred and ten thousand?"

"Two...? Y-es!"

"Then that is more than I possess. Then I won't pay it."

And he had gone on his way. For three whole days, they had got nothing
more out of him than: "I won't pay it. I won't pay a cent."

But by dint of travelling we end by acquiring wisdom.  Three days and
nights spent in wandering and panting brought him at length into the
dining-room early one afternoon.

The hair had sprouted on his chin and round his lips. The grey hair of
his whiskers was bristling; his bushy eyebrows were tumbling untidily
over the bloodshot globes of his eyes, one of which, the left eye,
remained half shut. The hair that remained on his scalp, of a steely
grey, straggled across his head, from ear to ear, and was mingled with
the fluff of the cushions upon which he had slept. His collar dangled
on either side of his heavy dewlap. His frock coat of brown cloth,
threadbare, buttoned in the wrong holes, encased with deep wrinkles
his chest and abdomen. He was obviously worn out. But an expression of
inexpiable rancour fought against his exhaustion.

The July heat penetrated the house with a heavy throb.  Assembled
behind closed shutters, the family discussed matters quietly, their
ears alert for the master's coming.

His sudden arrival plunged them in confusion. Sarah, who had been on
her feet since the evening when the armchair had collapsed, ran to
meet him. He withdrew. She managed, nevertheless, to seize hold of the
brown velvet collar of his coat, which was turned up. There was no
point in making any preliminary speech.

"We were waiting for you," said the cripple simply, still wearing his
soft hat. The affectionate smile that accompanied this speech was
wasted.

"_Nichts_! I won't pay a cent!" uttered the thick voice, out of the
darkness. Cousin Jacob Stern, who was in the room, said:

"Good! Seeing costs nothing. Look at the plans first, you can think
about them afterwards."

One (or the other) of the sons added: "We are ready to tell you
everything, Father."

"Let me see them then, at once. Since I must after all know the
worst...."

Somebody went to open the shutters. But Sarah shut the window again,
where, without losing a moment, the wasps were beginning to hum their
interminable scales in a minor key.

It was a hammer-and-tongs discussion. The sons, in their desperation,
mingled in a confusion in which everyone, at first, seemed inclined to
go astray, the pinchbeck rings of the agent, the porter's lodge, with
interminable weaving-rooms, heroically suspended from the beams of
their ceilings, and flooded with a dazzling glare of toil, and a
certain wall that had been too short and had suddenly become long
enough by favour of a dancing figure in a brown suit.

Joseph had to interpose his footrule between them and this chaos.
Heads were bowed over the plans. A voice then spoke of figures,
capital, interest, dates of payment, instalments, fractional payments,
labour, area, and possible markets. The footrule slid wildly over the
plans. Moist forefingers followed the white outlines from corner to
corner.

Uncle Blum accompanied with a steadily intensified: "Good! Good!" the
building up of a future in which one saw liabilities convert
themselves automatically into assets, and the initial debt make all
the more dazzling a triumph that was assured from the start.

If the native of Alsace is habitually calm, if he is not master of a
very extensive vocabulary, he holds in reserve an accent which gives
his words their full meaning, and other meanings as well; and he is
capable of becoming heated, internally, to a temperature which
transforms him, when the occasion arises, into a regular devil.

Whence it occurred that, within the limits of precise sums, and beyond
those limits, there arose, among these five men, a dream which no
longer shared any common measure with their calculations.

However, from having, willy-nilly, played too extensively with gold,
one section of Israel has acquired, in this connection, an
intransigence compared with which their ordinary scruples would appear
singularly flexible. The Simlers, failing other civic virtues, had
transmitted this horror of gambling from father to son, through an
untold number of generations.

Guillaume chewed his moustache as he listened to his brother's
explanation. He now disowned, with all the force of his blood, this
foolish prank for which he was more than half responsible. He remained
silent, but did not fail to observe any of the waves of feeling that
were passing through his father. The sense of his resemblance to that
man, so little loved, to whom no other tie attached him, increased his
horror at himself and at life. He waited for the unjust to utter the
cry which the just should have uttered.

Hippolyte did not keep him waiting long.

"Very good. Now take away all this stuff."

"Hippolyte!" Sarah could not help exclaiming. Their cousin Jacob Stern
hesitated; he could not tear his eyes from the papers. He repeated:

"Not so bad, this business!"

"There, Papa!" said the helpless Joseph, with a trace of sharpness.
Hippolyte, who had turned away, swung round to face him. It was the
first time that he had felt sufficient command of himself to be able
to look one of his sons in the eyes.

"Listen, this is my last word, my son. You insist, and you are wrong.
There is one thing, however, which I wish to tell you: my factory is
worth, in buildings and plant--the plant is old--from sixty to seventy
thousand; I shall sell it for forty thousand, if not thirty. Goods in
the warehouse and with tradesmen, eight thousand, which makes
forty-five. Money due to me, three or four thousand, which makes
forty-eight thousand five hundred. Due by me to sundry contractors,
two thousand eight hundred, which makes forty-six thousand. The house
and garden, twenty-five thousand before the war, twelve thousand
to-day, which makes fifty-eight thousand. In the bank, Myr-til's
fortune, Sarah's and Hippolyte's" (here a tremor in the voice, and a
pause) "eighty-five thousand, which makes--ah!--which makes one
hundred and forty-three thousand, roughly one hundred and forty-five
or one hundred and forty, which, subtracted from two hundred and ten,
leaves a balance of seventy thousand francs. I possessed one hundred
and forty-three thousand francs when I let you go away with your
brother, and you expect me to owe seventy thousand when you return?"

The "_I_ possessed" was listened to by the family with a respectful
terror. It embodied the mystery of the trinity formed by the two
brothers and the wife of one of them.  But one could not deny that old
Simler had the merit of being able to put a question upon its proper
footing. He had already gone on, in a tone which automatically
swelled:

"If one of my family has ever borrowed money, it has been to preserve
his life and to continue. But to fling money away for pleasure and beg
to recover it, none of us has ever done. When all is said, which of us
here is the madman?  _Wer ist der Narr_? To leave this place, I have
decided.  To let my sons go ahead, I have agreed. To sign the paper,
that also. But, listen to me, Joseph!..."

Scorn furrowed his lips, as the sea is furrowed by the wake of a
steamer proceeding at full speed. And what he next said did indeed
deserve careful attention.

There was this, first of all, that Simler was a factory, but it was
also a name, and an honoured name; and Dollfuss could not mean
anything more. Then it appeared that Simler meant more things than had
been supposed: for it was at once a power which asked nothing of
anyone, helped its coreligionists, paid in full before the stipulated
date, and was worth a million when it wrote to the local managers of
the Bank, with respect to some one or other: "This is an honest man;
allow him credit; I, Simler of Buschendorf (Haut-Rhin), guarantee his
solvency."

And Simler appeared in aspects more and more varied and more and more
stormy: in fact, spreading itself without fear or restraint, it
presently included (apart from Myrtil) the sainted mother of two
unworthy sons, the memory of a series of manufacturers piously
deceased after serious and harassed lives,--even entities that were
more abstract, such as orders for wool, sales of cloth, the wagebill
upon which (virtually) Buschendorf existed,--in short everything that,
nearly or remotely, concerned a little factory of white stone hidden
among chestnut-trees.

The guttural intonations of the head of the family penetrated the
heart of the silence, like so many wooden wedges.  His audience
learned without transition that the brow of man might serve to bear
the blush of shame, but that it did not rest with the old man's brow
to begin--that the adult has more wisdom, but children a greater
frankness than had been shown by the two Simler sons.

Finally at the moment in which a raucous syllable, closely akin to the
word _ruin_, was struggling between Hippolyte's whiskers and
endeavouring to pass the half-blocked threshold of his lips, the
tornado, which the more circumspect had discerned in the distance,
arose and overwhelmed them.

It was no longer a manufacturer in dispute, nor a father lecturing his
sons. It was an old man who stalked sneering about the room, crushing
the floor with his weight, and stiffening, in the enormous sheath of
his check trousers, his legs swollen by gout. It was a frenzied
colossus, defending what he supposed to be his life, and charging
blindfold into the ranks of his enemies.

"Bought? Bought? By what right? Answer me! I wash my hands of you! Go
away! The power of attorney,--what was there in the power of attorney?
There was to _lease_, not to _buy_! Go away! You are nothing to me any
more! I remain here; I shall be a Prussian who pays, not a Frenchman
who goes bankrupt! If I chose--do you hear me?--it would be the courts
for you, for all of you, you included, Blum! I have only to raise my
hand. Go away! You are... _Chanef_!  You are... Myrtil, rrrr! Myrtil!"

Myrtil took the stage. His three-decker head, vigorously supported by
the vice-like grip of his jaw and the pillory of his cravat, announced
to all present that its owner was not lacking in resolution.

The Hippopotamus gripped him by the arm. The brotherhood of the two
men was obvious even in their dissimilarities.  Myrtil felt the
swollen drumsticks of his brother's fingers grip his arm in jerks. He
cast his keen, judicial stare at his relatives. He saw Guillaume,
filled with more horror than a man can contain, his lip and chin
flapping like eyelids, his body trembling from head to foot, by dint
of feeling his own logic agree with that of the unjust parent.
Joseph, on the other side of the table, the light of the Criminal
Court glowing in his eyes, was carefully fastening his gaze upon a
corner of the sideboard, and compressing his anger to bursting-point,
behind the dam of a footrule. Sarah stood apart in silence, knowing
that this was not her hour.

"What is to be done?" Myrtil finally asked--a question that was, to
say the least, superfluous.

It was then that little Blum showed his sublimity. He was conscious of
it at once, and was conscious of it again in time to come. If ever
anyone, in after years, had been anxious to collect the details of his
biography, he would have admitted it without modesty, and would
perhaps have added more than one advantageous detail.

His eyes illuminated by a sort of heavenly certainty, and the smile
with which he began to speak, proved his self-confidence.  He began in
a low tone which, however, grew steadily clearer and ended by reaching
heights that are rarely attained by those who remain, to the end of
their lives, the brothers-in-law of the strong men of this world.  One
learned that day (to forget it the day after) that the clubfoot had
not lived in vain, and that in the matter of human sagacity he could
give points to the Receiver of the Paris Stock Exchange, who is, as
everyone knows, the most profound diplomat in the Western world.

The fact remains that before the company had had time to turn round,
little Blum had set upon their feet Weaving, Traffic, Trade and
Credit, and was beginning to play, with those forces, an impressive
game of puss-in-the-corner.

He was not to prevail for long, and it was better so. For his theme,
when regarded as a whole, was dangerous; he affirmed this, that Debt
is the death of individuals and the life of business; and this, that
Credit ruins man and maintains Society; moreover this, that nothing
clogs the wheels of an industry so much as the stagnation of its own
funds; that an industry begins to work only when it appeals for money
from outside; that to maintain a capital of one hundred and forty
thousand francs with a factory costing two hundred and ten thousand is
better than to have to support a capital of two hundred thousand with
a business which cannot be liquidated for more than one hundred
thousand; in short, he outlined in so few words so complete a theory
of what has since been named undercapitalisation, that, himself the
first to take alarm, he beat a retreat.

Quietly, with a smiling and candid toss of his head, he reassured his
hearers. He passed over the "Buts!", "Look heres!" and sniffs of the
two Simlers, and set off coolly in a direction slightly different from
that which he had begun by taking.

This was his culminating point. A too rigorous demonstration would
have alarmed them. He drew his listeners into the maze of his
dialectic, and led them so effectively astray that it became
impossible for them ever to return to their starting-point.

He admitted that the sons had exceeded their rights; but it had been
in order to derive from the situation without delay an unexpected
advantage. Seventy thousand francs, to be paid in fifteen annual
instalments, was not to be compared with an annual rent of fifteen
thousand. The only thing was, how to procure the fresh supply of
liquid cash.  Little Blum abolished in an instant all the distance
between himself and the Supreme Magistrature of the Provisional
Government. There was as yet no question of the law, enacted shortly
afterwards, under which the Republic advanced to the natives of
Alsace-Lorraine who had opted for France, free of interest, the sums
necessary for their transplantation.  The little cloth-merchant
improvised it, drafted it, voted it with an unfaltering intrepidity.
He broke into the columns of the estimates drawn up by the imagination
of Joseph, multiplied his nephew's figures by the power of the
Simlers' industry and the square of their spirit of initiative, turned
the totals inside out, and installed his own hypotheses upon the
tottering column of decimals.

No one had ever heard the clubfoot speak for so long without stopping.
No one was ever to hear him again. But his voice was already subdued
by alarm in the presence of the general surprise and attention. His
final sentences were drowned in a murmur of comment. Of the heroic
Blum, there remained only that sort of celestial smile upon his face,
and the gesture of fundamental conviction with which he threw out his
arms on either side of his nondescript grey coat.

Otherwise, there was now only the ordinary Blum whose appearance bore
witness to an absolute incapacity to enrich himself by any one of the
methods which he had just been expounding in theory.

"Hippolyte, I fail to understand you; it is quite simple," said
Abraham Stern, from the midst of the little pink wrinkles which
covered his face like a sieve.

"Simple to you, perhaps, Afroum," replied Myrtil. But Afroum did not
abandon his placidity as he answered him over the top of his
spectacles: "I do not see what you mean by that. I have given up my
office at Turckheim, I will not be notary to the King of Prussia, but
the indemnity that was due to me from the Prussians has been
diminished by one-third on account of my option, and I shall not find
a practice at that price in France. My Lambert was killed at
Gravelotte. Only Benjamin is left to me; he cannot return into
occupied territory, he is waiting for me in Paris, without any means
of livelihood. I do not know what is to become of me. I find that
simple, as you say, Myrtil. But I do not consider that your situation
is more embarrassing than my own, nor that your nephews' proposal
deserves so little attention. The time has come, don't you see, my
dear friends, to find everything simple, because, if we consented, any
of us, to look at things as they really are, there would be nothing
left for us but to sit down and weep until we die."

His smooth, legal lips closed in time to suppress a comical little
hiccough. His brother Jacob added:

"When it is not by hatred that we are cast out, it is by love that we
are obliged to go."

He rose with as great an effort as though it had been a question of
setting forth, at that very moment, towards an unknown destiny. As he
passed by Hippolyte, and a little behind him, he patted him on the
arm, and added in a tone of affection: "Pull yourself together, my
good Hippolyte.  You are going away with, your family. I, if I had not
him..."

And the widower could do no more than point, with his hand, to his
brother the lawyer, who, his eyes starting out of his head, seemed to
be lost in some perennial dream.

Hippolyte had looked on without moving a muscle at the conclusion of
this scene. He then made a half-turn, left the room, and, when Sarah
had joined him, the house was filled, for hours on end, with a long
sobbing groan, to which responded, at intervals, murmurings of an
indescribable tenderness.

As this day ended, a sense of peace and calm stole into the houses of
Buschendorf. The candle kept watching more than one window, as had
been the custom for many weeks past. But it shed its light, everywhere
almost, upon a strange scene of activity. Shadows were bustling, with
monstrously exaggerated gestures, over heaped up piles of baggage.

And since there is more in man than the hope of gain, for the first
time in fully a year, the sound of Joseph's flute rose in the night.
He was playing by himself, in the dark, in his bedroom beneath the
sloping roof.

His window was open; the notes emerged timidly at first; then they
became continuous like hesitating dancers who have joined hands; they
formed a line which swayed, seemed to sink, recovered itself, and
moved onward, beating time with a martial tread. It was no longer a
line, but a garland.  It wove and unwove itself in successive figures.
The pure, naked sound gathered strength. It combined with the rustling
of the sorb-trees in the garden, caught up everything that was alive
in the darkness without, and drew it into its harmony. It was the
abnormal brilliance of Venus, the ruddy glow of Mars, the silent
activity of the Great Bear, the twinkling of Fomalhaut upon the
rounded horizon, the water of the little dark river passing over the
gravel of its bed, and the breeze that slipped among the osiers of its
banks.

Joseph's flute was now audible from one end of the village to the
other.

"He can play with a glad heart, to-night, the dear boy," said a young
woman in Fritz Braun's house, as she paused from her task of emptying
a cupboard of its piles of lavender-scented linen.

All the air was trembling with it. The coolness of the night made one
with the far-off strain of the instrument.  Bosoms swelled, here and
there, eyes flooded certain faces with tears which were drunk by
quivering lips.

But, as indifferent to these griefs which it relieved of their burden
as to the over-excited mirth which it transformed into quiet
meditations, the music continued on its way, as though its sole
anxiety were to realise consciously an inward perfection. The soul of
the artist was manifested only by the loyal practice of his art. No
one could ask for more. Simplicity and emotion were the only qualities
fitted to exalt the contradictory passions of all those whom this
summer night found awake.

Joseph's flute, the last voice to be heard in that valley, sounded
thus for more than one person whom the player would never know. It
sounded unmistakably also for those very strange depths which were
Joseph's own soul, which life was endeavouring to submerge.

And because, indeed, money-making is not the only thing on this earth,
Guillaume Simler, at the same hour, had set out in order to experience
once again, in the company of a young woman whose fair complexion had
already begun to fade, the horror that he felt of himself and of life.

She was waiting for him in the house of Aunt Babette, Uncle Wilhelm's
wife. This was eight miles away, in the outskirts of Colmar. He
reached the place about midnight.  And at the first glance, he knew.
He wished that he had never come back. He longed for a violent
shattering of everything in some universal catastrophe.

His wife was standing beneath the solitary lamp that lighted the
little station; a child was tugging at each of her hands. She was
slight, without delicacy of form. She was smiling, with her perpetual,
slightly forced smile, which engraved itself upon the fragile tissue
of her skin. She was smiling already, before she had caught sight of
her husband, because she was on the watch, because the darkness was a
strain upon her docile attention, but chiefly because she went through
life like an obedient, well brought-up schoolgirl.

Nevertheless she was moved. If it had occurred to Guillaume to place
his hand upon his wife's bodice, he would have felt a rapid pulsation
against his palm. But no such idea occurred to him. Besides, it was
not with emotion that Hermine was smiling.

He kissed his wife upon both cheeks, stooped down to the children--a
boy and a girl--and fumbled for a moment with his moustache, to reach
a little face that hid itself against his shoulder. They came out upon
the road; he kept on repeating:

"How are you? How are you? All well, eh? Eh? Not in bed yet? Aren't
you cold?"

Aunt Babette had tactfully retired before Guillaume's arrival.  The
table groaned beneath the weight of the _Kugel-hopf_, the _Schnitte_,
the saveloys, and one gigantic _Kugel_ that was still steaming.
Guillaume scarcely gave a glance at these preparations which the
children, suddenly wide awake, were devouring with their eyes. He
ordered Hermine to put them to bed at once. Then she had to be content
with a far too succinct account of his adventures. Leaning towards
him, she drank in his detached words, unable to quicken their flow.
He avoided her eye.

They found themselves presently side by side in the narrow bed. Her.
fine golden hair, neatly braided, lay along her shoulders, without his
thinking of disturbing it, or her remembering that he had the right to
do so. He brushed her forehead with a kiss. She kissed him on the
cheek. And he fell asleep, leaving her to turn from side to side
remembering each of the words that he had said to her.

He did not hate his wife. He had never wished to marry any other
woman. He was one of those men who carry in their bones the curse of
the bone, in their flesh the curse of the flesh. He was not a brute,
far from it. Music made him cry. He knew several good stones, and
would tell them when he was in the mood. But he was always of the race
that set Job upon his dunghill. With this difference, that a palace
would have brought him no more peace than the dunghill of the Elect.
People said:

"The Simlers are all workers, but Monsieur Guillaume is a perfect
devil for work. You would think that his only pleasure in life is to
kill himself."

It was the bare truth; only, he had never allowed himself time to
think about his horror of life. He diverted to his work the instinct
which, had he let it come to light, would have led him to hang himself
with two feet of rope from the stoutest branch of the big
chestnut-tree at the factory.  And life, which knows how to make use
of everything in preparing its own ultimate triumph, drew from this
splenetic creature an output of work calculated to discourage the
blithest human machines.

Joseph's flute furnished, in its own fashion, eight miles away, the
reply to Guillaume's disgust with life. Different causes, identical
results. Did the Cercle du Commerce at Vendeuvre suspect this? For, in
unconscious obedience to obscure laws, men of the Simler quality are
incapable of creating anything that will last.




X


"For Heaven's sake, Pierrotin, you window!"

Thirty gentlemen of good position are engaged in feeling the comfort,
external and internal, of not being out of doors.  Between the world
indoors and that outside, the plate glass windows interpose their thin
but vigilant frontier.

When the open fires, vigorously stirred, spread their comfortable
message through the rooms, it is pleasant to look on at the fight that
is being waged between Vendeuvre and the fog. And the chink of gold
coins, supported _stringendo_ by the whistle of the gas-jets in the
lustres, creates a symphony that is full of charm for men who have
toiled all day long in the service of lucre.

But, through the half-open window, sounds have penetrated which are
not of the sort admitted into Clubs: there is first of all the
interminable weeping of one of those autumnal drizzles, of which the
west of France possesses the secret; there is also the clatter of
looms at work. This is why the Club exclaims as one man: "For heaven's
sake, Pierrotin!"

The unfortunate Pierrotin does not wait to be scolded a second time;
he hastens to shut the window.

Do you want to find out whether a house is well built?  Shut one of
its windows. If the two halves, plump and solid in the hand, dovetail
into one another with the compliance of a well-oiled machine, it means
that the architect has not scamped his work, and that the workmen have
done theirs to perfection.  Pierrotin pushes the window to without the
slightest rattling of a pane in its bed of putty. The long curtains
are only awaiting this act before straightening out the folds of their
red damask. October may now streak the chalky pallor of the sky with
its squalls, or bury the patient town in its mists, there is no fear
that any breath of air will shake the gilded bobbins of their fringes.
The lords of the local industry are under shelter, and they know it.

"A fine day for moving in," puts in young Pautauberge, expressing what
is in all their minds.

"Has anyone seen them?" inquires an old man from the depths of his
armchair.

"Little Boulinier has just come in. It will be strange if he doesn't
know something. Boulinier! My dear Boulinier!"

Boulinier enters the room, his moustache a sponge, with purple slabs
of cold on his cheeks.

"Behold our worthy colleague, full to overflowing, I wager, with all
the gossip," announces Lefombère (of Chevalier-Lefombère, weavers).

"Boulinier, you are all impatience, my good fellow, we are listening,"
exclaims Morindet (of Morindet & Co., shirt-makers), his legs crossed
in front of the fire in the grate.

"Have your friends arrived, dear Monsieur Boulinier?" deigns to
articulate, from the depths of his armchair, the old man who has
spoken before. Boulinier has never yet been so highly honoured.

"Ah! Monsieur de Rauglandre, to which friends do you refer?"

"The rascal is shamming stupid to take us in," murmurs young
Pautauberge in a tone of disgust. His father has made his million out
of army contracts; he despises fortunes that are still in course of
formation.

"Come now, Boulinier!" cries M. des Challeries, from the card-room
beyond, "you were seen, not three hours ago, arm in arm with your
Alsacians."

Boulinier turns to face the speaker, with a disarming good nature:
"Ah! Monsieur des Challeries, how we envy you who have never had to
take under your arm anything in the nature of an order or a contract."

"This damned Boulinier is warming up his customer."

"The cookery of commerce," the merchant replies humbly.

But M. de Rauglandre is persistent. He lies buried in his armchair,
his cheeks roasted by the heat of the log-fire, and holds up a glass
of chartreuse against the shifting background of the flames.

"_Dear_ Monsieur Boulinier, are your friends in good health?"

Boulinier is not so easily brought to the end of his tether.  The
round stone rolls, the flat stone slides. He knows the proverb.
Outwardly round, inwardly flat, he pushes ahead by any means in his
power.

"Ah! Any man who sells, buys and pays is my friend."

"And you think that they will pay?"

"What is one to expect of these people?"

"What are they like? Tell us, des Challeries, you assure us that you
saw the tribe?"

"Gipsies on the move!" replies M. des Challeries, from where he is
sitting.

The Club exclaims:

"And then?"

"And then? Imagine it..." And M. des Challeries makes an unexpected
appearance. His tall figure fills the doorway: "Imagine it: a tribe of
people from heaven knows where, with long teeth, and noses, and skirts
of black cloth covered in mud to their waists. At the head, treading
in the puddles, our great idiot Gabard, under a cotton umbrella, with
a stream of water splashing off his stomach; he led the procession
with the air of a circus-hand going to put his performing dogs in
their kennel, who feels his hair glued to his head, and foresees an
empty house that night. On his heels, a troop of bowed backs. I had
spotted my Israelites. I stopped on the pavement to watch the
procession pass. First of all, sharing an umbrella, a stout one and a
lean one, following in Gabard's paces, and splashing one another with
a marvellous disregard of fortuitous circumstances. Leather bags and
carpet bags dangled from their forepaws; they kept catching them
between their legs, and made me think of funeral mutes trying to play
football with their knees.

"A little way behind them, two important looking parties whom I
guessed to be the father with his younger brother, the master, our new
colleagues, gentlemen, nothing less than the two Simlers senior, think
of that, the fine flower of Rhineland business, the very best type of
what they have been turning out, ever since the Revolution of
Eighty-nine, in the ghettos of Frankfurt, the first fruits of M.
Thiers's Government, a pretty German warp on a Jewish weft, one of
those reversible stuffs, don't you know, usury on one side, swindling
on the other, with a broad selvage of meanness, stuffs that look well
enough, I don't deny, smooth to the touch, that take in the purchaser,
but the expert can detect for certain the end of all honest and
conscientious work. Hum! You would not have liked me not to make a
proper introduction of the strange clique whom we see entering into
possession of our poor Poncet's leavings."

A murmur of approval greets this emphatic speech, which Boulinier has
not ceased to interpret, word by word, in his attitudes. M. des
Challeries has made his way to the chimney-piece, where Lefombère has
made room for him. Even when M. des Challeries speaks from his full
face, he always seems to be speaking over his shoulder. His words have
to overcome, before emerging from under his bristling moustache, a
slight hesitation of his upper lip. His speech derives from this an
aristocratic nonchalance, the disdain of which is intensified by the
silent domination of his monocle. It is all very well, his mocking at
over-prominent noses: his own yields pride of place to none; but one
thinks, when one looks at it, only of an eagle's beak.

"Of the two elders, I cannot tell you much. They were hidden from me
by their umbrellas. But our friend Boulinier, who was trotting
familiarly between them, will perhaps be able to enlighten us."

Whereupon Boulinier exclaims, rubbing his hands together with an
ineffable satisfaction: "Oh, oh, oh, oh! You speak like Saint-Simon,"
(this is M. des Challeries's foible) "but why on earth paint so black
a picture where I see nothing but four poor, honest men? Gabard?
Gabard is a fool; it is possible that they have got round him. But a
baby six months old could get round Gabard."

"You do not explain to us why you were trotting, Boulinier!" a voice
insists.

"Trotting, oh, very well, that is perhaps my natural gait, I shall not
venture to question the incomparable description given us by Monsieur
des Challeries; but how do you expect my fat body to walk between two
fellows as tall as that, who wouldn't even do me the kindness to
shorten their pace?"

"Familiarly! You were trotting familiarly, Boulinier; do not evade the
point!"

"It is untrue, gentlemen. Here our Vendevoriate Saint-Simon's
description has attempted the impossible. I place in the hands of our
valued secretary Pierrotin a louis of twenty francs, with instructions
to hand it over to the first person who is able to boast of any sort
of familiarity with either of the two elder Simlers. The young ones
are positive spaniels in comparison. Rocks, gentlemen, rocks without a
smile. I don't know whether they are all like that in their country,
but if anyone can get a civil word out of them, I forfeit my stake,
and Boulinier is Boulinier no more."

"I say then, your protégés are no longer so friendly as you made out."

"If they were what you suppose, would they allow anyone to protect
them? Humph! We are dealing with the hardest heads in French textiles;
they see no need to impose upon us with melodrama. The barking dog
doesn't bite."

"But sharp teeth need strong muzzles. I don't like the sound of these
newcomers," opines the stout Huillery (weaving), in a voice that fails
to succeed in seeming calm. M.  de Rauglandre intervenes once more;
his little brick and copper face continues to reflect the fire of
logs: "Go on, my dear fellow; your description was amusing."

"The women, Sir, tell us about the women!" adds young Pautauberge. Des
Challeries proceeds, but first of all rewards Boulinier for having
tickled his vanity: "Let us then withdraw all familiarity from your
trot, my friend; I shall still prefer your French step to the heavy
tread of that Bavarian artillery."

"My dear fellow! I am afraid you are going a little too far. There is
a considerable distance between Alsace and Bavaria, in any case there
is the Rhine between them and a recent treaty, which I should prefer
not to see you ratify so light-heartedly."

This objection has been made, in a tone which lacks neither calm nor a
certain pedantic complacency, by some one who is entirely hidden by
the back of an armchair of English leather. The vivacity with which
des Challeries answers him proves that the objector is of greater
importance than might be supposed.

"Ah, my dear Sir, I draw every proper distinction between the
Frenchmen of Alsace and--certain colonials in the frontier zone. To my
mind, France will never cease to extend to the Rhine. But, within that
frontier established by nature and by the law of nations, you will
never prevent me from distinguishing between my compatriots and those
who never at any moment, since the war or before it, have been my
compatriots."

"You don't mean to say..."

"Allow me to continue, my dear Sir, the subject is worth discussing.
Fifteen hundred thousand French citizens have become Germans. But even
after they had sworn allegiance to the Emperor Wilhelm and paid the
German levy, they would still remain for me true and authentic
Frenchmen. I will indeed go farther; of all the Alsacians and all the
Lorrainers, the most French are those that have remained out there, to
carry on the war after the war."

"Very well said, Monsieur des Challeries!" exclaims some one, from the
next room; the sound of his voice falls with a curious effect upon the
silence which prevails in the Club.  M. des Challeries readjusts his
monocle and proceeds slowly: "Among those who have abandoned their
post of battle in the rearguard of our retreat,--the advanced guard of
tomorrow, gentlemen, there are some who have their reasons.  Peace be
to their conscience. Let them come, we are ready to make room for
them...."

"Of course!" comes at once from Huillery, whose opinion nobody has
asked. At the same time a member of little influence mutters with
sincerity:

"After all there is room elsewhere."

"But if you had witnessed like myself, my dear Sir," des Challeries
continues, "the spectacle which the band oi...  of Simlers offered me
this afternoon, you would agree that, among the flotsam which is
coming to us from the annexed territories, there is, certainly, stuff
worth taking, but there is also much that should be rejected."

The voice from the armchair of English leather rose again, with the
same indolent, ironical, and slightly preaching inflection: "I do not
question your description, my dear Sir. You may well be right. These
Simlers, I do not know them. At the same time I would rather hear you
decide as you have decided, had chance furnished you already with some
opportunities of exercising your power of analysis in the discernment
of genuine Frenchmen from Alsace. You are too quick to take offence.
If you do not mean us to believe that you are afraid of the
competition of these immigrants in your business, wait until you are
inundated by others of their kind before quibbling about their status
as Frenchmen. There is no longer an abundance of Frenchmen, alas,
there-is-no-longer-an-abundance!"

Before he has finished speaking, the general opinion begins to buzz
uncertainly, but with evident regret: "True; true!"

"Is it you that speak thus, Monsieur Le Pleynier?" retorts des
Challeries, "you whose son nearly lost his life in trying to stop the
rout of a battalion of militia? It is not so much numbers that we lack
as quality. And what quality, what French quality do these Simlers
bring us? Once again, Monsieur Le Pleynier, I wish that you had been
present with myself at their entry into the town..."

"You have plenty of wit, you may continue your description, I assure
you that we shall enjoy it," the mocking voice interrupts him.

"My dear Sir," exclaims M. des Challeries, half-flattered,
half-offended, "it is a question not of wit, but of common sense and
indignation. Anyhow, let them live. I do not deny the right to anyone.
But as our neighbours and colleagues, no!"

At this moment M. des Challeries utters a little nasal laugh, sharp
and drawling, which banishes the Simler clique a hundred leagues from
his moral or material boundaries.  He then continues in a playful
tone:

"Can you imagine Madame de Rauglandre, Madame Pommier, Madame
Morindet, Madame Pierrotin, Madame des Challeries receiving on their
days Mesdames--ahem!--Simler, and going to return the civility in
their little parlour? Eh, you would not allow Mademoiselle Le Pleynier
to call there, my friend! I am indeed losing my temper, Hut I have
good reason. Anyone who had seen, as I saw, those bundles of old muddy
shawls, draped round those soaked serges, those boots, those slimy
parcels carried at arm's length, all those signs of a sordid rapacity,
would not even ask what Vendeuvre can mean to these people, except a
halting-place on their road. They are tramps, gentlemen, and nothing
more. It is regrettable, I say it aloud, that they have managed to
insinuate themselves into the Poncet works. But our duty is clearly
indicated.  Let them keep to themselves, and let us keep to ourselves.
When they go, which will not be long, we shall cross ourselves, cross
off their names, and continue as before.  In the meantime, let us
regard them as a foreign body that has found its way into our town, as
though we were carrying a bullet in a wound."

>From scorn or laziness, M. Le Pleynier remains silent. A stir at once
follows in the rooms of the Club. It starts from the fireplace and
spreads into the outer rooms. M. des Challeries watches with a
satisfied eye his listeners disperse, leaving behind them a wake of
sound. The speaker's peroration has given each of them an idea, even
though it be not that which he intended: with regard to the Simlers,
complete indifference, but a keen apprehension of the unknown, of
irregularity, of the rain and of this misty autumn evening.

And M. des Challeries is left speechless when young Pautauberge,
raising his boots, in the American fashion, to the level of his eyes,
draws the secret conclusion from his remarks:

"To think that Lorilleux should have chosen a day like this to go
shooting!"

Meanwhile the honest Boulinier remains standing, and rubs his hands
with a disturbing perplexity.

"I see," he murmurs at length, but in a tone sharp enough to attract
general attention, "I see that it would be quite superfluous to repeat
my little compliment." Young Pautauberge mutters rudely: "What yarn is
this damned Jesuit going to spin us now?"

Boulinier continues, as though in a dream, studying upon the pattern
of the carpet the marks left by his own boots: "These great simpletons
imagine that they can get into our Club like grist into a mill."

Some of the others have gathered round him. Des Chal-leries, who has
reached the threshold of the cardroom, stops, without turning round.
Then Boulinier grips his own left wrist, as though he were about to
carry himself off to the police-station, shakes his imprisoned hand
vigorously in the vice of his imprisoning hand, flings back his head
and cries: "Can you imagine, my dear Pierrotin, the mission which
those poor devils have asked me to undertake? Apparently they only
lack a seconder to have the impertinence to offer themselves for
election here."

An uproar follows, in which loud laughter and contemptuous sniffs
prevail. Pierrotin's raucous voice makes itself heard: "_But_ as _no_
seconder can be found..."

"You are mistaken, my dear Sir. If it can make any difference..."

Le Pleynier has risen from his chair, and makes his way calmly to a
table on which there are a few matches with a striker.

First of all there has risen a sort of huge bony gourd, upon the
surface of which the light of the lustres, abandoning the rest of the
room, has begun to play. Then, framed in the flowing nobility of a
pair of whiskers and a crown of white hair, is carved a face of bold
architecture, dominated by the cliff of the forehead, polished,
heavily overhanging, then, from the nose to the chin, by a wall of
porphyry, barely cloven by the crack of his lips.

The Club may well be accustomed to his behaviour, when M. Le Pleynier
begins to move, the folds of an ample frock-coat flapping against his
legs, the others cannot suppress a feeling of uneasiness. It is not so
much due to his height; but, from his stout boots and grey spats, to
his high collar and legal cravat, there is not a detail of his dress
that does not clearly indicate the old dandy, a past-master in
contempt of transient fashions, and perfectly convinced of the
authority of his own taste.

"If, that is to say, none of you gentlemen has any objection."


He has spoken with a gentle inclination of his head from right to
left; then he strikes a match with so delicate a precision that one
cannot help looking at his clenched fist, which is half concealed by
his sleeve.

However, these few gestures are enough to reveal different and less
solemn features. We see, beneath the cornice of his brows, a pair of
little pig's eyes sparkle, eyes placed too close together. We see that
the nose itself is a clown's nose; it has the prehensile protuberance,
the fatness, the rascality.

We know now from where the ironical accent of the voice proceeds. To
add to it, the somewhat too mottled vertical surface of the cheeks is
hollowed by two dimples, while the mouth, half-opened, reveals a
fleshy lower lip, rounded like a saucer, and full of mocking weakness.
And we discover, at the same time, that if M. Le Pleynier's shoulders
seem to overtop everyone's else, it is only a moral illusion. A mere
matter of authority and bearing. If we study him closely, he has a
long body with an exaggerated paunch. M. Le Pleynier's majesty then
appears a very dubious majesty. It is all the more disconcerting for
that. And the nasal voice penetrates with an incisive vigour, in which
its own self-indulgence is concealed from itself.

No one moves.

"Le Pleynier!" exclaims young Pautauberge, struck with such
stupefaction that he seizes his feet in his hands. Le Pleynier's voice
rises, almost offensive in its condescension, and at the same time
full of conviction.

"Yes, gentlemen, these people interest me. I cannot forget that they
are poor and Alsacians; their exterior does not affect me, I am not
moved by differences of creed; and we must help one another in this
vile world."

A silence follows, during the time that Le Pleynier takes to light his
pipe. Finally, des Challeries decides to speak: "You don't really mean
it, Le Pleynier? Those people? You would be sorry..."

"We shall see. If at least Monsieur Boulinier will accept me as
seconder?"

Boulinier remains speechless. The discussion has risen to a level at
which he is as helpless as a fish out of water. He can only stammer a
few inconsequent words, and turns a bewildered face to his fellow
members.

"It shall not be said that, in the land of Voltaire, four poor
wretches who have chosen to remain in their stricken country, have
been maltreated by their fellow-countrymen.  Gentlemen, I propose that
we proceed, at your next monthly meeting, to the nomination of
Messieurs Simler as members of the Club."

With a little anvil blow of his pipe on the edge of the table, M. Le
Pleynier accentuates the abruptness of this conclusion. A cloud of ash
falls upon the tiles of the hearth.

Pierrotin, who is the secretary, acts after the fashion of the
striking mechanism in a clock. Inert during the rest of the hour, he
gets busy as soon as anything sets in motion the wheels of the Rules
and Regulations.

"Ah-hah! The rule lays down, I mean to say, if there is any
opposition, and if the proposer and seconder, I mean to say, are not
members of the Committee, which is, I mean to say, which is the case
here, that the proposal must be supported, I mean to say, by at least
one-fourth of the members of the Club. The rule has been drafted to
provide for eventualities, I mean to say. In fact, Monsieur Le
Pleynier, you understand, you have no backing."

"Very good. Do your duty as secretary. There are present ..."

"Twenty-eight!" cries Lefombère.

"Twenty-eight present, in other words more than a third, to say the
least!"

"And all the regular frequenters!"

"And all the regular frequenters. Let us proceed to the formality
which you mention, Monsieur Pierrotin. If the vote goes against me, I
am content."

A few minutes later, M. Le Pleynier, gravely mocking, stands alone
facing twenty-six gentlemen silently grouped in front of the door that
leads to the cardroom. Between them, Hector Boulinier, helpless as a
barge that has broken its moorings, endeavours to liberate his legs
from the chairs and his conscience from certain tergiversations. Le
Pleynier begins to smile: "I shall not insist."

He has no sooner spoken, than a sound as of fat in a frying-pan issues
from the clock. Each of the stomachs present echoes it. Seven solemn
strokes sound from the chimney-piece, and sternly conclude a day well
spent.

But if a discreet chime is sufficient to announce the time to a group
of well dressed gentlemen, the world that stirs beyond their windows
needs more peremptory injunctions.  That is why the clamour of the
sirens succeeds in penetrating the blanket of the thick curtains of
red damask.


The roar of the looms stops as though by magic. Their lights are
extinguished; the factories vanish in the night.  Autumn alone remains
to cover with its wailing the muffled clatter of twenty thousand boots
over which nicker, along the streets, the miserable quincunxes of the
gas lamps. From the ground, the mirrors of muddy puddles multiply the
agonies of the flames. The rush of damp footsteps trickles and dies
away. Shadows still turn the comers, and good nights are exchanged
before the banging of doors. As we pass along the streets, we see in
succession, behind calico curtains, round tables beneath the yellow
light of hanging lamps. Families are sitting down to their supper.
Soup-tureens are steaming. Bottles of wine rear their black and dusty
necks above the glitter of waxcloth. Four-pound loaves lie sleeping
upon their bellies, presenting to the passer-by their open maws. All
is warmth and a pleasant light. The street, the fog and the darkness
remain the lot of the strangers whom need and chance have cast out of
their own homes.

The step of a few stragglers does not diminish the terror of this
isolation. For the assured beat of their heels proclaims loudly enough
the certainty of people for whom the potent apparatus of comfort is
waiting. The gentlemen of the Club do not mix with the others in the
street. They go home last of all, along deserted pavements. But they
have not been able to resist their curiosity, and prepare to pass with
an air of innocence along the buildings of the late lamented Poncet.
The soft round hat, which is good enough for young Pautauberge, keeps
pace with the broad-brimmed top hat in which M. Le Pleynier encloses
the glittering casket of his skull.

Boulinier gives a faint whistle when they reach the little factory. A
gas-jet blinks on the avenue; the bars of a grotesque railing quiver
against the front of the building, in which the black holes of its
windows gape.

But it is not this that is the spectacle. Two windows open into the
lodge so suitable for a porter with no family, and the windows are not
lined with curtains.

Seated upon their baggage, on the bare floor, the Simler family are
deliberating as they listen to the weeping of the night. Two candles,
stuck in the necks of bottles, distribute a flickering yellow light.

Two men are on their feet; a tall dry man whose face is mottled like a
chessboard, and a little paunchy man with gold spectacles. The others
seem to be crouching at their feet. A woman, whose bonnet of faded
straw is tilted over her pale, dishevelled hair, presses to her bosom
the sleeping form of a little girl; of the latter nothing is visible
but a pair of knees grimy from the seats of railway-carriages and a
pair of plump calves plastered with mud. A little boy, clinging to his
mother, gazes with awe at his uncle and great-uncle pedestalled upon
their own wavering shadows.  An old woman dressed in black, bends a
sorrowful imperial profile over a carpet bag from which she brings out
a few slices of pastry wrapped in a newspaper, and a chain of
sausages, the colour of red clay. Lastly, two men, extremely unlike in
features and bearing, are seated apart from the rest: one of these,
perched upon a tall brown trunk with an arched lid, touches the ground
only with the toe of one of his boots; he sways the other foot
mechanically, while his hands move in gestures which the candle-light
caricatures upon the faded wall-paper; the other bends beneath his
weight the black leather cover of a hamper. He points with his thumb
over his shoulder, towards various things which must be somewhere
outside the buildings, outside this night itself.

It is the small man on the trunk who seems to be speaking.

The old woman rises to her feet and distributes the contents of her
packages. The fair young woman accepts a sandwich resignedly, but
passes it to her little boy. The man seated upon the hamper does not
even answer; the small man on the trunk declines the offer with a
disconsolate gesture, while the men who are standing seem to detach
themselves suddenly from their shadows, and advance with outstretched
hands.

Then one of them, as he tears the sausage with his teeth, which can be
seen gleaming beneath his moustache, begins an animated speech. What
he is saying arrests the attention of all the rest. His hand points to
something in turn,--but in the opposite direction. The small man
perched on the trunk shrugs his shoulders, folds his hands between his
knees and ceases to take any interest in the discussion. But the tall
dry man with the chessboard face gives a sudden toss to his head,
turns towards the hamper covered in black leather, and reveals, in the
light of one of the candles, an enormous birthmark. His counsel
prevails. The empress makes haste to shut up her store of provisions.
The small dry man slips from the lid of his trunk and makes his way
towards the door.

The representatives of the industry of the place ask for nothing more.
They have no need of any concerted plan to make them turn round as one
man and withdraw from this savage spectacle, with a gait which tries
to be neither stealthy nor precipitate.

When M. Lefombère, three hundred yards farther on, after they have
crossed the band of light which the café Massoneau sheds across the
street, exclaims suddenly: "Good night, gentlemen! I turn off here!"
everyone else feels relieved at not having had to break the silence;
they forgive him the tone of voice in which he has uttered these
simple words.

As for M. Le Pleynier, suddenly dissatisfied with himself and feeling
a curious nervous exhaustion, he turns his back and vanishes into the
night without saying a word. The twenty-five minutes that he requires
to reach his house, on the road to Nantes, heat his blood beyond its
normal temperature.  And it is with his heart wrung by an anguish the
cause of which he seeks in vain to discover, that he has the relief of
shutting behind him the big rustic gate that gives access to his
garden.




XI


Uncle Wilhelm Blum rejoined the others forty-eight hours later, with a
first instalment of workmen from Buschendorf, whose luggage was piled
in the rooms of the ground floor.

But the Simlers had not wasted any time. On the morning after their
arrival, Guillaume had sprung to his feet at the brief six-o'clock
summons with which the sirens call the first shifts to work. It was
still pitch dark. He had at first been brought in contact with an
unfamiliar environment of curtains and carpets, while a cold smell of
dampness died away in his nostrils. He had remembered in time that it
was no longer a question of Alsace nor of a white factory buried among
chestnut-trees, but of a gloomy hotel bedroom, in the chill West.

He had found his candlestick, had kindled a feeble flame, and had
dressed himself, shuddering. A little round mirror, in a frame of
unvarnished mahogany, which took the place of a looking-glass above a
basin of chipped earthenware, had presented him with a fleeting image
of himself against which he rose up with all his force. Guillaume
Simler might indeed have the haggard appearance which the little
mirror reflected; but three calm respirations which rose and sank
alternately, bade him take confidence and make the best of the
situation. Once he had shaved, there would be nothing to reveal that
he had spent the night in battling against the powers of darkness, and
had awakened with a start whenever a cry was wrung from the children
by their nightmares.

Joseph had joined him upon the threshold of the little hotel. The
younger brother's hand had sought that of the elder, and had pressed
it without their uttering a word.

For that matter, they had risen from force of habit. The sirens were
not blowing yet for them. They set out nevertheless along the street,
in the wake of the sleepy, damply treading groups which the gates of
various factories swallowed in turn.

The looms were beginning to hum, here and there, and the lights to
shine. The oil lamps, in long canisters of yellow brass, glowed
austerely in the glazed boxes in which the porters marked the workers'
names as they entered.

And when, having passed the last groups outside the last gate, they
came to the silent phantom of their own factory, a burning, swelling
force rose up in them.

>From that moment, their work had not ceased.

About eleven o'clock in the morning, they had received a call from
Boulinier. The little merchant had greeted them, upon the threshold of
the factory, with nonchalance, as though surprised to see them. And in
a tone of affectionate rebuke mingled with regret, he had given them
an account of the discussion at the Club.

This account would have greatly astonished twenty-seven respectable
gentlemen. But there emerged from it the indubitable proof of the
devotion shown by a little wool-merchant to the interests of Messieurs
Simler, and this was all that the merchant could wish.

He would nevertheless have given a good deal to know exactly what the
young men thought of this rebuff. But he was obliged to content
himself with brief replies.

When the tall figures of Hippolyte and Myrtil had come into sight at
the end of the avenue, and had approached, Boulinier decided that he
would find out more. He turned towards them and gave them his
greetings. They listened to him in silence, with close attention.
Boulinier would have preferred not to feel the glances of the younger
Simlers passing over his head, conveying expressions of doubtful
confidence. But his duplicity was rewarded, for the Hippopotamus, who
had raised his chin towards the end of the speech, said in a thick
voice: "Much good may it do them.  The dog knows nothing better than
its kennel," and left him without honouring him with a glance.
However, Bouli-nier did not go away until he had booked an order. They
needed him, having no other credit open to them at Vandeuvre.
Boulinier knew this, and took advantage of it. The Simlers were not
unaware that he knew it; and each side punctiliously played its part.
So, on the first Saturday, the travellers found the new firm issuing
wool for distribution to the women of the countryside who spin with
wheels. On the following Saturday they received enough yarn from this
wool to supply the weavers.

They were obliged to go ahead, even without customers.  There must be
pieces of cloth in the warehouse, not only because an empty warehouse
depresses the purchaser, but most of all so that they might surround
themselves as quickly as possible with that odour, that touch, that
spectacle so necessary to their existence.

The Simlers set to work without delay, as soon as night fell, to
write, upon the hotel table, short letters in which Messieurs Simler
had the honour to announce to their honoured patrons that the seat of
their factory had been shifted from Buschendorf to Vendeuvre, and that
they hoped that their honoured patrons would continue their confidence
and would carry on their business relations, basing this hope upon the
pains which they had always taken in manufacturing their wares, as
well as upon their scrupulous execution of the orders that they had
received. As for the reasons for their migration, the Simlers would
have died of shame rather than make the slightest allusion to it. But
they were drooping with sleep over their papers.

They had still to weed out the contractors' estimates and to check the
invoices for the work that had been done. No one would give them
credit. These adventurers would perhaps no longer be in the town at
the end of the year. The _Avenir de Vendeuvre_ had suggested as much.
The refusal of those gentlemen of the Club must have had some reason.
A man does not do things without a serious and pondered reason when he
is named des Challeries, Pommier, Morindet, Pierrotin or Boulinier.

This is why the inn presented, every Saturday at five o'clock, its
weekly bill, without making any charge for the bugs. One Saturday
when, after turning out their pockets, they had not been able to put
up more than thirty francs in cash, the landlord had the insolence to
keep them waiting for their dinner until half-past eight, to serve
them in the kitchen and to refuse them any dessert.

When the locksmith's or mason's apprentices brought their bills, they
waited for their money, clutching the stamped receipts in their
fingers; their hobnailed boots clattered on the stone threshold like
the shoes of a horse, and they exchanged loud jokes with the waiter
and kitchenmaid.

The trifle that came from the Sterns had thus more than once saved
their honour. The first moments had nevertheless been bitter.
Everything must be started afresh, and must be started.

Joseph, who had set out on a voyage of discovery, wrote from Elbeuf
reporting a good bargain in Mercier looms; a weaving-mill was in
liquidation; Myrtil took the train and settled the matter. But the
furnace stood in urgent need of repair; it had served the lamented
Poncet as a wine-cellar, and, since his death, had been a
roosting-place for bats.

Joseph had gone on to Roubaix and Sedan; a series of telegrams
announced five assortments of carding, a "Willy," four horizontal
spinning-frames, two combs.

If Hippolyte and Myrtil spent their time principally in keeping guard
over the building, casting fiery glances to right and left, Guillaume
and Uncle Blum multiplied themselves to greater advantage.

The glazier, the mason, the carpenter, the plumber had descended upon
the lifeless body, and had gradually restored it to life. Goblin
lights of labour, which were those of the lamps hung from nails by the
workmen of the various crafts, had shone from the windows.

The women had not yet seen the factory save at nightfall.  They had
spent the first few days in settling the children and adapting the
four rooms in the inn. Finally Blum had come to fetch them. He knew
the place by this time as though he had built it all himself.

At their entry, Fritz's martial moustache had swollen with pleasure;
he was coming out of the future home of his employers--that suitable
porter's lodge--; he was carrying on his shoulder a bundle of
worm-eaten laths. From under these he had given them a military
salute, with an expression calculated to warm the thirty-one nights of
December.

"Madame Hippolyte, we are building your nest."

"And you, Fritz, where are you living?"

The Alsacian had nodded in the direction of the main building: "There
are lots of people," he had said, "who are worse housed. Monsieur
Guillaume has found us a corner, for the time being. But go and
inspect your empire, Madame Hippolyte; it will amuse the children. You
will see how fine it is, and that there is plenty of room to weave
cloth!"

Blum had led them straight to the main building. He had pushed open a
soiled wooden door that needed repainting; a cast-iron weight, hanging
from a leather strap, shut the door again behind them. This resistance
following the thrust had reminded the women of the little side door of
the Buschendorf synagogue. But instead of plunging into the unctuous
and attentive twilight of silence, and feeling their hearts swell at
the conquest of the temple, they had at once blinked their eyes, and
everything had receded from them, for a bleak and unexpected glare had
assailed them.

A long alternation of sickly daylight and whitewashed wall occupied
the room on the ground floor. The milky light of October peered
through the five windows; the floor, cleared of its rubbish, faced
them with the penury of its bare boards. A rusty transmission-rod ran
along the room from end to end, the sole object to which the room
might have attached itself. But its immobility rendered it useless for
that purpose. So the heart and soul of the room, entangled among the
cobwebs, abode there, aloft, naked, seemingly dead. The slightest
shock tore it from its lethargy with the echoing roar of an explosion.

At the moment when the women entered, a little black-coated group was
moving at the other end of it; it was Hippolyte accompanied by his
sons and by strangers. No sooner had he caught sight of them than he
left the room, the rest following him. So that the burden of that soft
luminosity rested upon themselves alone. It had crushed them. To
humanise that immensity, people it, subdivide it, had seemed to them
an overwhelming task. Their housewifely scrutiny had taken in the
smallest details, and everything that they saw made them despair.
Sarah's eyes had turned red and stabbing:

"Good God!" she had said; "the poor children!"

Meanwhile the cripple never breathed a word. He had brought them out
at the far end of the room. The bang of the closing door had sounded
behind his shoulders with so cavernous an echo that a memory had
assailed Sarah's mind; turning her head towards her silent
daughter-in-law, she had found her great blue eyes fastened upon
herself: a brick-lined pit, and a long wooden box that is lowered into
it by two cords, which bumps and thuds against the sides, was lurking
in both their minds.

They had followed Blum up to the loft and its mass of rubbish. The
uncle had with difficulty opened a window, and the women had leaned
out, Hermine holding her children in her arms.

They had taken their fill of the spectacle with a savage
deliberateness. The fact was that "their empire" was revealed to them
in a different aspect. The vast was followed by the meagre. A
miserable little quadrangle. The women saw only three stunted sides of
it; they could feel the fourth side closing behind them, a few yards
away.

All that money! All that money for so little! And more than the money,
all that anxiety, all that passion, all those altercations, all that
hope and turmoil, to end in these four low walls, this courtyard of
black mud, the sordid avarice of these buildings!

"Good God!" Sarah had said once again; "the poor children!"

Vanquished by her discouraging tone, the little uncle had turned to
Laure and Justin with an evident want of assurance: "Well, little
lady, what do you say to this palace? Is it fine enough, big enough
for you? There'll be grand games of hide and seek in this loft--if
Mamma allows them" (a sidelong glance at Hermine). "Lean out, Tintin,
and don't be frightened, I am holding you. Upon my word, it's a bit
higher than the loft at Buschendorf! You want to look too, do you?
Make room for your sister; here comes my Laure-Mayor."

Nobody, not even Wilhelm Blum himself, remembered the point of this
joke. It had emerged one day from the _Messager boiteux de
Strasbourg_; but the description of London that had given birth to it
had long been forgotten. The pun survived like a bad habit, at which
the grown-ups did not fail to show due irritation. It is true that
Wilhelm Blum had not yet reached the stage of irritation.

"Look, now, down there. Do you see Papa, and Uncle Joseph, and
Grandpapa Hippolyte, and my Uncle Myrtil crossing the yard? Come
along, call out something to them.  Good day! Hep! Hey, you there!
Good day! Oho! Look how they're lifting their heads! Ohoho! You see
how pleased they are! Blow them a kiss with your little hand, my
Laure-Mayor!  Too late. What a pity. It must keep until next spring.
Look where they have gone in, on the right, Hermine; that is the
building which they mean to use for dyeing. Oh!  they'll have lots of
room, even if they don't send out to the dyeworks. And beneath the
other roof, farther on, which runs to the corner, the dressing will be
done. All of that, good solid stuff, d'you hear, Sarah, and easy to
add on another storey when the ground floor isn't big enough for them.
I have examined the foundations: solid rock. The boys showed what they
were worth, the day they discovered this factory. Now then, Tintin,
don't lean out like that. The chimney, is it? We shall go down and let
you look at it. Yes, my boy, a fine furnace which will start roaring
one of these days, when Grandpapa Hippolyte has ordered the coal to
put in it, and then everything will begin to move, and turn, and hum
in this factory. And the wool that Moussu Boulinier brings to that
little house, over there, on the left of the courtyard, will pass over
the cards, where my Uncle Myrtil will turn it into good yarn. And then
my Uncle Myrtil will take the yarn upstairs, to Grandpapa Hippolyte,
who will put it on the looms and make it into good cloth. And then
Papa will come and fetch it and will take it down there, to the right,
to wash it, and scour it, and mill it, and comb it, and dye it, and
press it, and weigh it, and that will make it into good stuff. Then
Uncle Joseph will take it on the train all the way to Paris, where
Cousin Jacob will sell it to fine gentlemen and pretty ladies. And
then Uncle Joseph will come back from Paris and say: 'Look, I have
sold all mine, and Jacob has sold all his.' And then Papa, and
Grandpapa, and my Uncle Myrtil will be very glad, and Fritz Braun will
be glad, and old Hermann will be glad, and Pouppelé will shut the
gate, that night, with a happy face, and Kapp will waggle his long red
nose for joy, and Gottlieb will run to tell the news to Mina Gottlieb,
and Zeller will walk solemnly along in his muffler, rubbing his hands
for joy, and papa will come home and tell grandmamma and mamma, and
Tintin will run like the wind, and my Laure-Mayor will pick up her
skirts so as not to be left behind, and they'll both come running to
_onkele_ Wilhelm and _tantele_ Babette, and tell them the good news,
then they'll all join hand in hand and dance round the table, round
the _Kugel_, round the _Honig_, round the _Magen_, round the
_Bretzel_, and then bumpety-bump, down we'll all fall on the ground!"

And as he was actually making the children dance round, he had cast a
glance out of the window, and had begun to whine, in the most absurd
voice:

"Here is that old silly Babette come to look for me!"

The thought that _tantele_ Babette could be called an old silly, and
the thought that anyone could waste her time in looking for _onkele_
Wilhelm had sent the children into such fits of laughter, that he had
had to take one under each arm and carry them wriggling down the
stairs, with the risk of dislocating his clubfoot for good and all.

Uncle Wilhelm's functions were not so negligible as had at first
appeared. When the first machines that Joseph had purchased arrived,
everything was ready for their installation.

When the cases had been broken open, they appeared, with that unctuous
and chilly aspect, which makes metal suggest serpents.

Like serpents, too, they slid, piece by piece, from the cases. Once
they had been laid down or propped against the walls, until they could
be assembled, they were like so many spearpoints by which the
atmosphere of the room was stabbed, and upon which it finally expired.

Sarah, summoned at once by her elder son, no longer felt, when the
door had closed behind her, the burden of the soft whiteness, nor the
smell of death. The floor was covered with unassembled pieces of
machinery. The gleam of the green paint, with which the castings were
coated, absorbed the daylight, gave it form and colour. The gay autumn
sun, which entered through the polished windows, began, first and
foremost, by outlining the spine of a metal shaft. A faint odour of
grease and varnish was beginning to float in the air. The
transmission-rod still pierced the room from end to end; but the brown
flesh of the iron had come to light; oil covered its surface with
gleaming spirals like the tracks of snails. Driving-bands of fresh
leather swung indolently, diffusing an acrid odour, offering their
strength like that of a domesticated animal.

They could breathe freely. They advanced beneath the guidance of the
metal shaft. They passed from loom to loom. Space was conquered.

It was the same on the floor above, the same again in the two low
buildings in the yard. Guillaume took his mother to the furnace. A
steam generator, of good make, picked up as a bargain at Mulhouse,
reared aloft its cylindrical guillotine.  The piston rod was swimming
in oil. A brass pressure-gauge splashed the wall with light. The
cylinder, cased in wood and belted with broad hoops of brass, seemed
like a parlour ornament of preposterous size.

The fireman greeted his employer's wife by swiftly raising his hand to
his blue cap, and resumed his polishing, watching the strangers with a
sullen attention.

"Good day, Sir," replied Sarah Simler with her renowned civility.

"Pailloux, this is my mother," Guillaume said in his turn, as a man
may utter those words five or six times, ten times at the most, in the
course of his life.

But this man who was so neurotic, was he neurotic enough--or was he
neurotic enough, once he had emerged from his own cosmos--to echo the
emotion that had gripped his mother when he uttered the two syllables
of that unknown name?

A name more than unknown, an alien name. The shock was so violent that
Sarah's mind swung like a vessel straining at its anchor. Fifty
Alsacian names passed through her heart, in dancing, rounded
syllables, framed all of them for familiarity or mockery, names that
sound like nicknames, garrulous Christian names that reveal everything
with a laugh, parentage, neighbourhood, character, reputation, age,
and handicraft.

But there was an end, for ever, of all neighbourhood, all familiarity.
The man who was standing there, slender and stooping, in his stained
overalls, was indeed Pailloux, a man of the West to his fingertips and
to the bottom of his heart.  How long would it take Sarah to discover
the virtues which the West conceals, beneath its banter, its laziness
and its dirt? Pailloux, in the meantime, stood before her, with his
evasive name and his suspicious glance, as the symbol of the world
into which she had been flung.

And Guillaume might squander in vain the treasures of a morbid
sentimentality, in introducing his mother to the new fireman of the
factory; there was an end now, and for ever, of the time when
Hippolyte's wife had been, in the eyes of all and sundry, _Königin
Simler_.

Pailloux again raised his hand to the peak of his cap, and resumed his
work. When all was said, what were these people, and what new element
could they claim to introduce, in a land where, for the last two
thousand years, everything had been said and attempted?

"Let us go home, my son," Madame Hippolyte murmured, when they had
come out of the furnace. And they returned to the hotel side by side,
without exchanging a word.




XII


It had not required any lengthy calculation for Uncle Wilhelm to
dispose of his little cloth business at Colmar. It had disposed of
itself. The war had seen to that. The Simlers--and first and foremost
Blum himself--found this an advantage, for there was nothing to
distract the uncle from devoting his time to the new factory. His
inventive genius, which a sort of shyness prevented him from employing
to his own profit, found here material to develop.

There was, on the left of the entrance, facing the "convenient" lodge,
a little structure of yellow brick, backed by the outer wall. It
consisted of two communicating rooms, one relatively short and lofty,
the other long and covered by a low ceiling above which there was a
loft. Outcrops of saltpetre had detached from the walls in long strips
a flowered paper dating from the days of the July Monarchy. The wooden
floor had warped and cracked under the pressure of damp. The gaps in
the tiled roof gave admission to nocturnal regiments of cats, whose
manoeuvres brought rage and desperation to the hearts of an important
colony of rats. The late Poncet's porter had used the place as a store
for his firewood and for the booty of countless depredations.

Blum saw this filthy shed, and formed his plans for it.  What is
certain is that he passed into it and vanished. For the last fortnight
nothing had been seen or heard of him, save at mealtimes. But while
Guillaume was supervising the installation of the machinery and the
allotment of the different buildings, he more than once found himself
pricking his ears, when he heard in the distance _Hans im
Schnoge-loch_ chanted by the most tuneless voice in Alsace. Meanwhile
the uncle would come slipping furtively in through the gate, his
greatcoat bulging with parcels, and followed by errand-boys in white
blouses, laden like mules.

Then there came, at cockcrow, a handcart which nearly foundered in the
quagmire of the yard and halted outside the door of the little
outhouse. When, the Club gentlemen noticed it, it was already
returning, relieved of its load, drawn by a taciturn lad, harnessed to
it by a leather strap.

That same evening, sheets of wrapping-calico screened the windows and
door of the little outhouse.

"_Stinkerei_! How you reek of turpentine," said Babette one day to her
husband.

"_Pfui_! How you smell of grease, you old silly," replied the man who
could never be serious, with a wink at his great-nephew and niece.
Babette and he fed now and then with the rest of the family. But they
lodged farther afield, near the Porte de Paris, in a carters' inn with
which the Simlers would not have put up at any price. Babette did the
cooking upon a little cast-iron stove; this sorceress discovered a way
of conjuring up, by the aid of mystic formulas, some of those
combinations of pastry, grease, meat, sugar and spices which, for a
time, appeased the nostalgia that was devouring them all.

"Joseph is coming back to-night," Wilhelm Blum announced one evening
as he opened the door of their room; he let himself sink down on a
chair, took off his cap, mopped his hair, and held out towards the
stove his hands stiff with the cold and smeared with paint.

"_Um Gottes Willen_!" the shrill, chanting voice of Babette hastened
to respond by way of exorcism.

"What could God wish better?" replied her husband. "It is high time.
Our Guillaume is killing himself with work.  There's plenty to be
done, and he won't allow anyone else to do it."

The old woman muttered as she lifted the lid of a pot; a smell of
boiled potatoes escaped rapturously, like a prisoner restored to
freedom: "You can't say the same of his father or of Myrtil!"

"You don't know what you're saying, Babette!" the club-foot exclaimed
angrily. "Hippolyte was the strongest man in the Haut-Rhin. He will
put the people here in his pocket.  Nobody has ever doubted him but
yourself. I don.'t know what you have against him."

"Get along with you! Go and kill yourself for him."

"I am not killing myself, but there isn't a soul alive that could see
the poor boys in the position they are in without lending them a
helping hand! Hippolyte is not cut out for that sort of work. A fine
occupation for a man of his sort!  It is for us to drive in the nails.
Hippolyte is the man to produce the goods. Wait just six months, and
you'll see whether he doesn't find work for them all. Ah! those
gentlemen are proud and disgusted, are they? I ask you! My blood
fairly boils when I pass by their Club. A proper pigsty, upon my word
it is. Did anyone ever see the like?"

Babette had spread a white napkin over the dubious tablecloth. She set
on it the lamp, two earthenware plates, pewter forks and spoons, the
tumblers, the water-bottle, the salt-cellar and a saucer of butter;
then, she removed the pot from the stove; a few drops escaped from it
to perish with a great splutter upon the heated iron; the potatoes
rolled out on the plates and clouded themselves in steam, like the
Eternal upon Sinai.

Wilhelm Blum, appeased by this spectacle, turned his chair, grasped
his knife, and let his eyes rest upon his wife.  A tiny mouth, but
plump and kindly, parted its lips with an air of calm. A chin, once
pink, now the colour of amber, at all times charming, was muffled in a
mattress of appetising flesh. This cool, living covering rested upon a
bodice of black stuff. A procession of cloth-covered buttons, black
and round, ran down it from throat to waist and left no doubt as to
the breasts which were thrust into prominence by the tightness of the
stays. The upper part of the face was invisible in the shadow cast by
the lampshade.

"Babette!" the cripple cried gaily, "Babette, our Joseph comes back,
to-night, and to-morrow, to-morrow, they are lighting the furnace in
the factory."

The worthy man had waited all this time with a view to producing a
greater affect. He produced none at all.

"Babette, do you hear me?"

The little mouth quivered, but it was to give passage, with a
mouselike nibble, to a little, a tiny piece of steaming potato.  The
flash of a tongue-tip, plump and furrowed, appeared, the mouth closed,
the potato vanished, the lips parted again calmly, and did not move.

The little man grew indignant.

"Have you no heart, Babette?"

"My poor Wilhelm, have you given a single thought to your own affairs,
since you came to this place?"

"Everyone in his turn. They must come first, it is only justice."

"Justice is not everything, we must have bread too."

"They have only to make the stuff, then I shall sell it."

"You will sell, provided they don't sell it direct to gentlemen in
Paris."

"Do we need as much as that to live? Let it be, Babette, our heirs
will be quite content."

"Our heirs might indeed be quite content to find a few sous at the
foot of our stocking. Who knows whether they won't expect more of us,
one fine day?"

"You can see for yourself, Babette! When I work at the factory, I am
working as much for ourselves as for them."

They continued upon this theme until there was not a boiled potato
left in the pot, and the little man, assisted by his little wife, had
cleaned up a modest plate of salt beef, flanked with gherkins.

Wilhelm's gruff voice met the crystal-clear arguments of Babette with
responses that had become liturgical by force of habit. They did not
convince each other. Of what, for that matter, could they have been
convinced? Everyone acts according to his own nature. And the nature
of the Blum couple led them to rise from their bed, on the morrow,
before daybreak, to dress themselves shivering, by the light of a
halfpenny candle, and to walk a mile in order to reach, before any
other living soul, the gate of the factory.  The moon, as round as a
swollen face, and as polished as a patent-leather slipper, slipped
silently behind a motley band of wintry clouds. Pouppelé, who was
lodged provisionally in his employer's house, came out at the rattle
of the gate. The uncle carried his own key, like a chamberlain.

A few lanterns were bobbing at the end of the avenue.  Voices drew
nearer. In couples, or in files, human figures glided into the yard;
two distinct groups were gradually formed. The men spoke in lowered
tones. From time to time, a gulp indicated the emptying of a flask of
spirits down a human throat. For a moment, a voice proclaimed, by its
exuberance, the success of this operation. Then whispers again
prevailed.

A ringing cough was Hippolyte. The two heads of the business and the
young men appeared, and began with a strange encounter.

Monsieur des Challeries was going out shooting with Messieurs
Pautauberge and Lefombère. They passed by the Poncet building, at the
moment when its new occupants were about to enter. The gas jet on the
avenue had long been put out. The jets in the factory were not to be
lighted until circumstances permitted the purchase of a metre and the
repair of the pipes. But a moonbeam lighted the whole scene.

The Alsacians had put on, for this occasion, their frock-coats and
silk hats. Hippolyte wore his hat like a dungeon, and the cut of his
coat did not encourage mirth. The four men saluted with a simultaneous
gesture and passed through the gate without unbending from their
stiffness. The three gentlemen had barely time to raise their hands to
the peaks of their shooting-caps; their action revealed confusion, a
profound surprise, and came too late. The sportsmen stopped short, and
this is what they beheld:

The four men went in. One corner of the darkness burst like a ripe
pomegranate. Fifty voices rang out. The group of workmen from the
West, newly enlisted, remained buried in the darkness, and contented
themselves with brushing it from their faces in a salute. The blond
voices uttered three shouts:

"_Fife la France! Fife l'Alsace! Fife Simler_!"

At that moment, a crude, precedented, sudden daylight of a magic blue
rose behind the Alsacians; the men of the West received it in their
faces. To the blue light was added a white, then, immediately after
it, a red. On the avenue, the gentlemen were ablaze. The neighbouring
walls stood out from the darkness, like a transformation scene in a
pantomime.  One could see a chimney-top behind the sharp outline of a
chestnut-tree. The silhouettes of the Alsacians broke out again with:
"_Fife la France_!"

Quite half of the other group responded. M. Hippolyte knitted his
brows. Guillaume wept unashamed. The three Bengal flares died out at
the same moment, leaving in the men's hearts the echo of a
too-exciting music. The moon's penurious lantern remained alone
suspended over the factory.  The groups melted in the darknes-s with a
shuffling tread. The yard was empty. The gentlemen were pensive during
their sport.

While the workmen were going to the rooms, a few of the Alsacians,
forewarned, made their way towards the boiler-house.  Fritz ran into
Blum in a doorway and nudged his elbow with the air of an accomplice.
The half-light hid the cloth merchant's grimace of satisfaction.

Pailloux was at the door. He had lighted a little miner's lamp.

"Here we are, Pailloux; let us go down," said M. Myrtil's voice. The
ranks parted to make way for the four manufacturers.  Pailloux stepped
upon the iron ladder which led to the basement. His rope-soled shoes
soon reached the bottom. The others began to descend backwards, by the
light of the lamp which the fireman held up to guide them.  It took
some time before they were all assembled by the wall of the boiler, at
the foot of which the trap of the furnace opened a dark, cold throat.
Tintin's voice rang out again from the floor above: "May we come down?
We missed the illumination!"

Joseph and Uncle Blum hurried up to fetch the two children.  The
women, who had brought them, remained upstairs with Aunt Babette.

"Here is the coal, Sir," said Pailloux, in an undertone, pointing out
the pile of fuel to Hippolyte; a shovel was planted in it. The silence
became profound.

"This morning, the sixteenth of November, after a year and a half of
war and unemployment, and in consequence of our option for the quality
of French citizens, we find ourselves gathered together among
stout-hearted men to start again. I declare this day to be the first
effective day of the new factory. We have come down here to place the
first piece of coal in this furnace. In an hour from now, all the
looms will be at work. They are good looms. Everything has been
checked, tested, bought at the highest price. God grant that they may
never stop save from Saturday night to Monday morning. My brother, my
wife, my sons and myself, thank all those who have chosen to accompany
us.  They are gallant Alsacians. I announce to all those who are
newcomers that with us men work hard, but that we are parted by death
alone, and then, I believe, satisfied with one another. But this is
not the time for sentiment. To work, and may God give His blessing to
our labours."

The darkness was indeed beginning to conceal heaving bosoms and moist
eyes. The strong face of Monsieur Hippolyte was alone lighted by
Pailloux's lamp.

The manufacturer stooped, seized the shovel, and, with the grunt of a
baggage-porter, drew from the heap an enormous shovelful of coal. He
lifted it without any sign of strain to the open trap, and there, with
an abrupt gesture, scattered it in the void of the furnace; the iron
shovel rang against the brick wall. Having done this, he drew himself
erect, very red in the face, straightened his frock coat, and handed
the shovel to Myrtil who stepped forward.

No word, no signal had been given: but each came forward in turn, took
the shovel from the hands of the last person, and flung a shovelful of
coal into the furnace. Laure and Justin were helped by Joseph and
uncle Wilhelm. Pailloux lighted this ceremony without unclenching his
teeth.

It was disconcerting and silent, like the procession of mourners by a
graveside. To weavers, coal was indeed a sort of consecrated earth.
And it was not difficult, at trie start of the winter of 1872, to
imagine all that these men were engaged in burying.

But those who, at Vendeuvre, were engaged in watching them with
suspicion, were they being suspicious 'enough?  For there are people
in this world who are capable of making life out of death, and
Hippolyte's gesture was by no means the gesture of a man who has
resigned himself to fate.

Up above, day had begun to break; it turned Pailloux's lamp pale. As
the others were dispersing to the various work rooms, Blum plucked
Joseph's sleeve.

"Come with me, you, and tell the others to follow us."

They followed, greatly astonished, and were still more astonished when
Blum tore down the wrapping-cloth that screened the entrance to the
little building. An oak door, new and freshly varnished, met their
gaze. A brass plate glittered. Blum struck a match, and said: "What is
that engraved there?"

"Uncle Wilhelm!" Joseph could not help exclaiming. The word
_Warehouse_ was engraved on the brass in black capitals four inches
high. The uncle took a little key from his pocket, pushed open the
door, struck a second match, climbed upon something and lighted a
solid lamp that hung from the ceiling. Its light flooded the room to
its farthest corners. A second brass lamp was suspended at the same
height at the other end. Four long oak tables occupied the floor
space, two on either side. The wall, entirely coated with fresh
distemper, was furnished from floor to ceiling, with shelves of bright
new oak, ready to support without bending the weight of the pieces of
cloth. A ladder communicated with the loft above. The floor was
beeswaxed.  Everything smelt new, and fresh, and polished.

"Uncle Wilhelm!" Joseph again exclaimed, and seizing his uncle in his
arms hugged him warmly. Guillaume waited his turn to do the same; but
the Warehouse was Joseph's department.

"It's not possible, it's not possible!" muttered Hippolyte and Myrtil
as they made a tour of the room. Blum succeeded in releasing himself.

"You have not seen it all!"

They followed him into the adjoining room. The increasing daylight
made the lamp superfluous. This room was high and square. A round
table, covered with a green cloth, stood in the centre. By the window
a pair of mahogany writing-tables stood face to face, upholstered in
moleskin, and provided each with a pasteboard filing-cabinet. A large
double cabinet stood against the back wall. A bronze Empire clock,
escorted by its pair of candelabra, adorned the wooden chimneypiece
painted to imitate marble. An oil lamp stood upon the table. Lastly
four armchairs and four leather upright chairs invited the occupants
to work or to meditation.  Guillaume approached the writing-tables:
the inkpots were filled, with their differently coloured inks side by
side; the new pens rested upon cloth penwipers.

"Your office, gentlemen!" said Blum, colouring as he spoke.

"You, Wilhelm?" and the Hippopotamus halted, facing his
brother-in-law. "You, Wilhelm? Why, you are worth more than the lot of
us put together."

And he gripped him with his own strong hands. Even Myrtil betrayed
emotion. Blum, slightly confused, managed to say:

"It is my present... for the opening... Not worth mentioning... Except
for the furniture, I made everything myself."

They went to fetch the women; there were fresh cries of astonishment.
Babette stood confounded by the generosity and guile of her husband.
But as she had brought with her, on her part, without saying a word, a
hamper filled with Alsacian pastries, the creature of her little
cast-iron stove, she produced her surprise. The children sat down at
the table; and such was the official opening, upon this morning in
November 1871, of the factory and office of the _Nouveaux
Etablissements Simler_, at Vendeuvre.




PART II

I


He pushed the gate. A bell rang. He was in the Le Pleyniers' garden.

Joseph had been putting off this call for the last six months. The
Simlers had not been long in hearing of M. Le Pleynier's vain
endeavour on their behalf at the Cercle du Commerce. But the old
gentleman had never shown them any more sign of recognition than a
distant raising of his hat; and none of the Simlers had felt that he
had the leisure, or was in the humour to diminish that distance.

No sooner had the bell tinkled than four or five dogs began to bark,
and a girl appeared, at the turn of a winding path. She had a pair of
shears in her hand and was carrying a few sprays of budding foliage.
Joseph did not know her by sight. He did not doubt for an instant that
it was she.  Hélène Le Pleynier had a reputation.

He took his hat in his hand, and made his way towards her between
rose-hedges on which the buds were already bursting. She smiled and
stopped to watch him advance.  Perhaps Joseph Simler was known to her
also.

"Mademoiselle... Is Monsieur Le Pleynier at home, and can he see me?"

"If you will come with me, Sir, I shall inquire."

She spoke in a grave and measured tone. As he followed her, Joseph was
impressed by the almost bold decision of her step, and by the supple
and robust fullness of her figure.  Her skirt, of a plain beige
taffeta, was finished behind with a large bow of the same stuff. She
rustled over the gravel of the carefully raked paths, stirring a
little warm breeze, which the young man received on his shins.

When they came to a wider path, she made a half-turn, and, without
halting, pointed out to him, with a nod of amusement, the house,
half-hidden in the distance by the branches of the pleached alley.

The garden, which was very big, indicated at once great care and a
studied neglect, like its gate which was made of rough wood, but was
scrupulously kept up in the English style. There was no sign of any
servant. It seemed that the same dilettante spirit controlled the
service of the establishment and the upkeep of the park.

But Joseph was conscious, at the moment, only of the gleam of a neck
of dull gold, between the white frill of the collar and a thick tress
of chestnut hair.

And he was still asking himself what was implied by the furtive and
slightly mocking scrutiny of a pair of violet eyes, when the master of
the house entered the room in which Mademoiselle Le Pleynier had asked
the visitor to wait.

So far from disarming Joseph, the old man's majesty restored his
assurance.

He straightened his spectacles and began in a friendly tone:

"Sir, my obliging guide vanished before I could ask her to give you my
name. I am Monsieur Joseph Simler; you can now guess the purpose of my
visit."

Le Pleynier had listened to him with a stern air and without a quiver
on his face. The Alsacian's candour seemed to increase his solemnity.
He waved his hand to bid the other be seated, and himself sat down in
an armchair.

"I am delighted, Sir, to make your acquaintance. But I confess that I
do not know to what I am indebted for the honour."

"It is true, Sir, that in six months you have had time to forget it a
hundred times. My father, Monsieur Hippolyte Simler, who is suffering
from gout and has difficulty in walking, has asked me to make his
apologies for his not having conveyed our thanks to you earlier and in
person."

Monsieur Le Pleynier continued to examine the young man without
speaking; his clean-shaven lips tightened with reserve. Joseph went on
with the too ready patter of a commercial traveller, unable to
restrain a familiar gesture of his forearm.

"Surely, you do not expect me to believe that my name does not recall
to you an occasion at the Cercle du Commerce last October, of which we
have heard more than once, and in which you played a part wh--"

He stopped short. Monsieur Le Pleynier had just cast a slight glance
at his guest's boots, which were white with dust from the road. And a
furtive light had sparkled in his little eyes. Joseph at once realised
that this detail could not have escaped the girl's notice; he recalled
the rapid and amused scrutiny of her eyes. He forgot the friendliness
of her glance, and blushed as he hid his feet beneath the chair.

He studied the other over his spectacles, and continued, with a less
frank appreciation of the situation:

"However it may be, Sir, you cannot suppose that a deliberation so
many details of which were of interest to us should not have been
reported to us with glee by half the town. That is... what happened."

As Le Pleynier still made no sign of response, he raised his voice and
threw back his head to finish his speech:

"We know that you intervened in the discussion, Sir, and that it was
not your fault that the candidature of my father and my uncle,
Monsieur Myrtil Simler, for the Cercle du Commerce, was not taken into
consideration."

Le Pleynier unfolded his hands with an expression of courteous but
profound boredom.

"What you say, Sir, is possible, but I do not remember the occasion.
In any case, there was no deliberation. As for what may be said in
conversation, these are things which one forgets, however keen may be
the interest of the questions that may have been debated."

The cold politeness of this reply succeeded in making Joseph feel ill
at ease. With a sigh, he wiped his brow with a gloved finger, and let
his eyes range round the room.

He had no doubt that the old man remembered the whole incident
perfectly. But his instinct lacked a certain polish which would have
enabled him to penetrate the reason that underlay this make-believe.

The very different tone in which the old man resumed the conversation
did not throw any light upon the mystery.

"I am delighted, all the same, that the gossip of a small town should
afford me an opportunity of making your acquaintance.  Has not your
father entered into possession of a factory... let me think...?"

"Poncet's?"

"Precisely. Did you find a satisfactory agent? There are some who are
very shady."

"It was Gabard who..."

"He is not exactly a champion."

Joseph felt a strong desire to escape. "This individual is sly and
conceited," he said to himself; and began to look upon the white
whiskers and grey gaiters of his companion as so many provoking
details.

All the same, he did not go; indeed, in the next quarter of an hour,
his adversary had gently drawn him on to a topic on which his flow was
unending:

"There will have to be a clean sweep, Sir," he was to be heard saying;
"the commercial customs of the place are ponderous, the manufacturers
are grand gentlemen. They consent to make cloth but do not condescend
to sell. They think it beneath their dignity to canvass their
customers.  That is all very fine; but, run on these lines, industry
languishes.  Why, here you have a town which is the only, or
practically the only place in the world that makes a specialty of
_amazone_. I expected to find here a mass of huge mills fitted with
the latest machinery. And what did we see, when we arrived? Ten
factories, obviously important, but so far from what they might be
that one asks oneself how they can have managed to supply the market
for so long."

"You are young, Monsieur Simler," replied the crafty old man, making
his hand thrust forward in the other's direction the folds of his
right ear. "You are young, and you believe that ardour is necessarily
better than the most established customs."

"Sir, customs are what we make them. I arrived from Paris, last night;
I return there on Wednesday week, and so every fortnight, sometimes
oftener. It is expensive and tiring. But our family is united and
numerous, we divide the duties among ourselves. I bring back fresh
orders each time. I make our firm known. Perhaps, in a few months from
now, you will hear certain manufacturers complain that we have taken
customers from them. We do not fight with unfair weapons. But why am I
always alone on the Paris train?"

Joseph forgot that the word "I" is odious. The honest fellow deluged
his confidences with it.

"I do not deny that your methods may be above reproach.  And yet, as
you say, those journeys are expensive. The outlay must be recovered
somehow. Believe me, customers always return to the best goods."

"We recover the outlay from our profits, not by raising the net price.
We are satisfied with a smaller profit, but we want more business. And
that business we will have."

"You are united; that is your main strength."

Joseph did not stop to consider the general and particular
implications of this "you." He felt himself soaring upon wings.

"This town of Vendeuvre, it is not a year ago that I saw it for the
first time; well, I--have become more ambitious for it than the men
who were born here. It ought to be ten times more important and more
active."

"Remember that old towns are not handled so easily as young ones. You
are not in America, gold is scarcer here than in Colorado."

"An admirable country, Sir! But it is all new, all young!  What is
Alsace in comparison? Forgive my frankness: a threadbare carpet. Here
everything abounds. One has only to stoop. The people here have never
done anything."

The old man responded gently to this trenchant aphorism: "I am all the
more aware of that, Sir, since I am the son and grandson of
manufacturers, and was myself a manufacturer for thirty years, and put
up my shutters, eight years ago, convinced that there was nothing to
be done, in business, except to live from hand to mouth, or lose one's
capital."

Joseph once more lost his presence of mind. Le Pleynier restored it
with a smile that deepened the dimples in his cheeks and a relishing
quiver of his clown's nose.

"However, you may try, Sir, colonise us if you can. Young strength has
never injured an old country. I shall watch you in the process as a
friendly spectator."

He isolated the epithet with a pedantic and intentional drawl. Joseph
did not know where to turn. Le Pleynier pursued the subject and began
to talk, in the same tone, of his own factory. Joseph remembered
suddenly that he had visited it with Guillaume, the year before, under
Gabard's guidance. It opened upon a sort of blind-alley, narrow and
dark. They had rejected it because it was too small and because of the
inconvenient access.

And while his host was speaking-, he studied with an increasing
astonishment that faultless interior, full of a subdued opulence, of
significant, rare memories. His eyes drifted back to the neatly
groomed old man whose clean-shaven lips were emitting, with such an
elegant detachment, memories of capitulation at which Joseph could
not help blushing.  He thought of the garden, at once wild and
carefully tended, and of the beautiful, silent girl, with her easy
manners, her indulgent and observing eyes, who had taken him into the
house. This was like a little spark that had been kindled in him and
sought throughout his being for a wick on which it might take, fire
and sprtad. He felt a sudden desire to interrupt Monsieur Le Pleynier
in order to tell him that he himself played the flute. But he did not
know how to introduce this topic.

Monsieur Le Pleynier, on his feet, his face raised in the air, was at
the moment uttering various opinions as to real estate, rents, and the
Bordeaux Assembly of which he had nearly become a member. He took down
from the walls and showed to Joseph a number of family souvenirs. He
pointed out to him certain pieces of furniture to which a history or
some well-known name was attached.

Then he took him out of doors and showed him all his rose-bushes. He
expressed himself without either gaiety or irony, but with a slightly
emphatic calm tinged with melancholy.  He was wearing a straw hat with
a broad brim, though the sun of this early May was not yet scorching;
he walked slowly, and stopped, with bent shoulders, to declaim.

Joseph, who had failed to explain to himself the feeling that had
overwhelmed him, began to feel bored. He lent a docile ear to his
host's paraphrases. But the interest of these stones escaped him; what
could all these people really have done of whom he was hearing? He
tried to indicate that he was attending. Le Pleynier barely listened
to him. He became silent. After all, the worthy man was no better than
a lunatic. What affectation!

Joseph had reached this stage in his embitterment, when the gown of
beige taffeta appeared at the end of a path.  Hélène Le Pleynier, a
straw hat on her head and a cane in her hand, seemed to be going out
for a walk. She saw the two men, hesitated for a moment, responded
with a rapid bow to Joseph's raising of his hat, and turned back
towards the house. Joseph felt himself scorned, did not know why, and
was conscious of a grudge against his host.

"That is my daughter," said M. Le Pleynier, his nose protruding, in a
meaninglessly confidential tone. "A child of great merit. The poor
girl is not leading a gay life with me, since her mother's death. I am
not very entertaining company."

Joseph resented his thinking of himself when his daughter had just
appeared.

"Have you not a son, Sir?"

"To be sure. He is a lieutenant in the dragoons."

They reached the wooden gate. Joseph then realised that the stroll
which they had taken through the garden had been arranged so as to
conduct him off the premises. He felt the angry impulse of a child who
sees that he has been fooled. He determined to regain the advantage,
and said emphatically:

"Surely, Sir, you do not persist in refusing to accept our thanks over
that affair of the Club?"

What was his surprise to feel a hand laid upon his shoulder and to see
an almost affectionate glance meet his own.

"Come, come! Do not speak of that wretched business.  But I am glad to
see that you never own yourself beaten.  That is what builds up
character."

And at the moment when all Joseph's precautions were vanishing like a
soap-bubble, when something akin to affection was beginning to master
him, the old man pushed him gently through the gate, saying:

"Good-bye, good-bye, take care they don't crush you!"

Whereupon he turned away and walked back to the house.

"What an absurd old man!" Joseph almost shouted, on the road,
repressing a strong desire to laugh mingled with a sense of confusion.
Ten paces farther on, he added, to himself: "And what an absurd
house...."

He made his way down the slope which leads from the high ground to the
outskirts of Vendeuvre and the river which loiters past it.

The image of Hélène Le Pleynier crossed his mind: "What an absurd
creature."

He crossed a street which recalled the somewhat painful memory of
various Sunday evenings, in the past winter, during the worst period
of their distress and toil. A slightly stale odour tickled his
nostrils. He turned his head away, quickened his pace, and saw once
again the dull gold of a neck between a white frill of pleated muslin
and a woven tress of chestnut hair. He thrust this memory aside,
however, with a trace of embarrassment. He preferred to concentrate
his thoughts upon the furtive, sly, at the same time indulgent
scrutiny of a pair of large violet eyes, shaded by dark lashes, in a
fair, amber face.

It was in this state of mind that he passed through the gate of the
factory and made his way into that convenient little porter's lodge.
He removed his hat and greatcoat in a narrow passage, then opened a
door and entered the sitting-room.

The half-closed shutters expelled from it all the gaiety of the spring
afternoon. The air that slumbered in the room was sullen and cold. The
shrouded chairs were drawn up in line as in the parlour of a school.
On the mantelpiece, a meagre bunch of artificial flowers and foliage
was gathering dust, one of Hermine's attentions, in a cheap porcelain
vase.  He thought of the garden on the Nantes road, of the budding
rosery, of the branches of fresh leaves which Hélène Le Pleynier had
just cut when he accosted her. He left the house, banging the door
behind him, and made his way, without changing his brown jacket,
towards the factory, whose walls were humming and quivering with the
effort of the looms, like the vibration of the May sun.




II


When he opened the wooden door, forty faces turned towards him. He
discerned their motion only by the luminosity of the forty white
faces. Each of the women seemed to be a part of the loom at which she
was working and throbbed with the throbbing of the machine. The air
trembled.  Joseph's spectacles began to tremble upon his nose.  The
whiplash of the forty shuttles hissed and then cracked forty times a
second. All these sounds were mingled in a roaring, steady clamour
which filled the room to overflowing.

A remark that he had made to Le Pleynier, an hour ago, recurred to his
mind. "That business we will have," and something stabbed his heart.
What was the use of all this din if there was nothing solid underlying
it?

His father was seated in the glazed office from which he overlooked
the weaving-room. A foreman in a white overall stood by the side of
his armchair. Hippolyte turned to his son with an air of weary
severity:

"Four pieces spoiled this week. Your looms are worthless.  Your uncle
is complaining of the willy. Go and find him."

Without waiting for an answer, the manufacturer turned back to the
rubicund foreman who was peering at the papers from between the
bloodshot rims of his eyes.

"What kind of system of work is this? What are all these new habits
and customs? It was not worth the trouble of changing the looms, if
the women refuse to do any work."

"Julie Dadillon says that she is unwell. Célina Caillon is going to
have a baby."

"_Dummkopf! Schlemihl_! You, Zeller, expect me to believe such
rubbish? Upon my word, you are becoming as stupid as the natives!"

"Monsieur Hippolyte..."

"Don't answer me back! If Célina and Julie are unable to work, they
can ask for their wages. My wife will take them soup. I would rather
pay their doctor's bill than see them work badly. And Noémi, is she
expecting, too? Why does she turn out half a piece less every week?
And Adelaide Courtois, does she have her times too? Or is it the
little bunch of flowers on her loom that keeps her from working? Just
look, Zeller, look at the result I get out of it!  And Fernande
Brébinaud, what's the matter with her that she doesn't settle down to
her work? And what's the matter with you that you don't look after all
these creatures?"

"Monsieur Hippolyte..."

The rubicund foreman played with a little wart on his unshaven chin.

"Enough, Zeller, not a word more! You will pay off Fernande, Adelaide,
Noémi, Angèle Buet, Marie Désétang, and you will tell Célina and Julie
to come and speak to me downstairs, before they leave the place this
evening."

"Am I to look out for substitutes?"

"Who said anything about substitutes?" cried Hippolyte in an outburst
of rage. "We shall carry on with thirty-three looms, and if this sort
of thing continues, tell them, Zeller, you understand, that I am
prepared to close down twenty looms, but every one of those idle,
good-for-nothing women is to clear out of my factory."

Zeller hesitated for a moment, fingered his wart, but bowed and left
the office. The opening of the door admitted a brief roar from the
looms. Joseph could see the glimmer of forty white faces turned
towards the foreman as they had turned towards himself.

Monsieur Hippolyte angrily turned over one paper after another, and
growled: "_Chanef_! _Chanef_! A land of good-for-nothings.  That's
what it is to employ labour. I shall make a clean sweep, a clean
sweep!"

Then, without raising his head, or altering his tone:

"Have you received that order from Dupommereuil?"

"No."

"No? _Chanef_! _Chanef_! Out with the lot of them! Listen to me: the
output has declined by one-third. That idiot Zeller notices nothing.
As soon as the sun comes in through the windows, they forget all about
weaving. And that customer at Tours, has he answered? No?"

"Bazin? N--no."

"No? _Chanef_! _Chanef_! It is not seven of them that I shall turn out
of the place! Things are not going well, Joseph, not going well! Even
if they are doing less work, there are still too many of them at it.
It is ten of them we must turn off this evening, not seven. Ten! And
Delmotte?"

"I wrote again this morning."

"This morning. There's another of them that has gone to Elbeuf. I
forbid you to write to Delmotte again. I shall do no more business
with him."

"I have just come from Le Pleynier's."

"Ah?"

Hippolyte had uttered this "ah?" with the maximum of scorn. But his
huge face contracted.

"A most friendly reception. I made your apologies, Papa.  He's a rum
customer. He wouldn't let me say a word. He pretends he has forgotten
all about it. But the reception was perfect."

Joseph kept the rest of his observations to himself. Hippolyte, bent
over his papers, listened to him with a strained attention.
Notwithstanding this, he cut him short with: "What does all that
matter now? Backstairs gossip, and good time wasted. You would do
better... Look after the customers. Myrtil is waiting for you."

As he made his way down to the ground floor, Joseph met Myrtil at the
door of the spinning-room. His uncle thrust forward the eaves of his
stubbly eyebrows and compressed his lips.

"Capital! Is it a fine spring day in the country?"

He opened the door and the spinning-room flung its roar in his face.
Joseph followed him.

A machine rolled forward to meet him. The five hundred threads on the
spindles seemed to stretch out with a whirling motion and stop the
trolley; a fever seized the machine; the rotation of the winders was
accelerated; the drawn thread assumed the form of a silky and
transparent funnel; the trolley shook violently and set off again in
the reverse direction to hurl itself beneath the frame of the machine.
Boys kept pace with it at a run, joining the broken threads with a
quick motion of thumb and forefinger.

Five other spinning machines were moving to and fro in the room. The
precipitate and monotonous thud of the looms punctuated, from the
floor above, the more restless rhythm of this other work.

The modest silence of a little white factory, buried among
chestnut-trees, without either furnace or spinning-mill, could it be
compared with the intoxication of this din? It was a fine thing to
have created all this. The elastic atmosphere rebounded upon the
sunbeams. A universe of motes transmitted the slightest tremors across
them. A score of workmen were controlling this magical disorder by
careful supervision.  A rich, bestial odour trembled like a jelly.
Joseph set foot upon it delicately, not quite knowing where his body
ended and the spinning began. The spring touched him with its
finger-tips. If the May sun was vibrating round the walls, was not
this the forge in which that vibration was created?  And was Joseph
himself anything more than a molecule dancing in the heart of that
warm and luminous vibration?

The bang of a door cut short his dream; a sound like that which a
grindstone draws from a rusty knife rained upon the young man; Myrtil
was speaking: "I congratulate you.  You are looking well. Exercise
does you good."

Where was now the elastic dance of the springtime upon the rhythm of
the machines?

"You gave me a commission, Uncle Myrtil, I..."

"I gave you nothing of the sort. What do I care about those _goyim_?
It is very kind of your father to take any notice of what they may
think."

"Le Pleynier received me very correctly."

"My compliments. I see that you have not wasted your afternoon."

"Even if it does not help us in any way, it cannot do us any harm."

"Everything that is outside our work does us harm. A friendly goy has
no more to do with us than a hostile goy.  If business is good, they
will all be friendly. And business allows nobody, here, to take a
whole afternoon in the middle of the week to go out paying calls."

The last swayings of exhilaration die down. There is nothing now round
Joseph, beyond those walls which close him in, but a roaring motion to
and fro, full of menace. His uncle is right. Are the whole lot of them
more than is necessary to maintain this devouring roar? He bows his
head to the lecture, and casts a terrified glance at his uncle over
his spectacles.

"There is a... willy that is not working properly?"

His uncle glares at him with animosity from the depths of the ravine
that sears his face beneath his eyebrows.

"Nothing is working properly. Neither machines nor customers. If there
were enough orders, nothing else would matter."

"But the willying..."

"The willying works well enough for all that is asked of it. Give it
more work to do, you, the salesman, and then we can spend money on
improving it. You may be sure it is not working properly! What does,
in this place, in this cursed factory? I've been talking to your
brother. It's the same story in the dressing-room as in the
spinning-room.  This evening I shut down two machines."

Two machines in the spinning-room, seven weaving-mills, a carding
machine, six fulling-mills, two combs shut down, seventeen workers
thanked for their service, no reply from Dupommereuil, Delmotte or
Bazin, nothing in the morning mail, nothing in the afternoon mail, and
that distant racket to be maintained, such is the clearest thought in
Joseph's mind when he returns to the Warehouse.

Might it not be, when all is said, apprehension that turned towards
him, in the weaving-room, forty female faces? And the so well
co-ordinated effort of the score of workers in the spinning-room, has
the time indeed come to disperse it?

The odour of gum and mould that fills the Warehouse is not a stimulant
for a wounded heart. Joseph passes into the office. He casts a glance
at a bunch of white wallflowers which droop, faded, over the edge of a
vase, a kindly attention by Sarah, never repeated. Is this what
springtime can effect, aided by woman?

He stirs a few papers with his finger, and straightens his spectacles
on his nose. What madness! Struggle, risk, faith.  "There is nothing
to be done, in business, except to live from hand to mouth, or lose
one's capital." Could the prophet on the Nantes road have foreseen it?
But why make a sport of depressing people? Live from hand to mouth,
when a man was in debt for everything he possessed, even the shirt on
his back? It would be better... it would be better...

Joseph feels that he is too great a coward to adopt the final
solution. A memory rises to his cheeks which flush crimson. With the
full force of his lungs he heaves a deep sigh. He knows that he will
have to return presently to Paris, and there there is, to his
knowledge, one place, at least, where everything is forgotten, where a
man can find happiness. What matters the quality of the happiness? The
pleasure is in itself, the lips are servile. And so everything is not
foreclosed, since this still exists.

The rattle of the door-handle brings him back to earth and to
Vendeuvre. Hermine enters the room, apologising as she does so, with
her slightly forced smile.

"Am I disturbing you?"

"Sit down."

"I have just looked in for a moment. I wanted to ask you... But you're
sure I'm not disturbing you?"

"Come, come, Hermine, you don't disturb me often enough."

She thanks him as she raises, timidly, to his face her grey-green
eyes. Joseph feels that these eyes are sexless. He is weary, in
anticipation, of the time that this woman is going to spend with him.
But he would accept to-day with gratitude the company of a bailiff.
And besides, why should he not love his brother's wife with all his
fraternal affection?

"I wanted to ask you... it is about that beige cloth for Justin's
greatcoat."

"Of course. I had forgotten it. Will you come with me?"

Joseph, mounted upon a ladder, is turning over pieces of cloth. "For
Laure, I want some light summer stuff, in grey, something in the line
of a serge, have you got any?"

"A serge? Indeed, no. You must ask Uncle Wilhelm. He has received some
Scotch tweeds which may perhaps take your fancy...."

He comes down the ladder holding out a piece of cloth on his
outstretched arms, like a child.

"See whether this is what you want."

"Oh, good gracious..."

She touches the stuff with her long white fingers punctuated with
yellow.

"It is very heavy."

"Heavy? Tintin is strong enough to carry two metres of this stuff
without collapsing under the weight."

She laughed awkwardly at his joke. He continued: "Shall I cut you off
two metres?"

"Two metres, yes..."

"Two and a half metres, perhaps?"

"Yes, perhaps two and a half... But you say that Uncle Wilhelm..."

"If I see him, I shall ask him."

She has shut the door upon her smile of confused gratitude, and
immediately Joseph is left motionless, his foot still on the ladder.

That, a woman? Come, now! Joseph recalls that never once, since his
brother's betrothal, has it occurred to him that Hermine's bodice and
skirt concealed a woman's body.  A noble effect of brotherly love. But
also, is not Hermine herself partly responsible? Has there ever been,
in the wise mother of his nephew and niece, anything more than a
schoolgirl docility? Are there not equally chaste corsets which cover
far more throbbing bosoms? A certain amber skin...?

But there! What is the use of all these thoughts? Here is Joseph,
transformed into a working man, who multiplies his activities in the
Warehouse, carries the ladder about, brings down pieces, carries
others back, alters labels, and hurriedly gathers together the samples
for his next journey. Would you not say that Master Joseph Simler is
seeking to banish some disturbing thought by dint of work and
exhaustion?




III


The white heat of two o'clock in the afternoon is as vertical as a
flagstaff. The cry of the grasshoppers shoots its shrill points up at
the sky and supports the motionless weight of the zenith. The
firmament opens with the colourless misery of a blind man's eyeball.
The metal sheet of the earth's surface spreads its desolation beneath.
All life is gathered up on it in the tension of an eternal moment.
July holds Vendeuvre in the hollow of its hand.

And the child whose eyes are being seared through the shutters by the
roasting macadam of the courtyard, may imagine that he alone survives
in the world to gather the moments as they pass.

Nevertheless the dimness of the sitting-room behind him is peopled now
and again with strange whisperings. And if he exhausts himself in the
effort to penetrate with his mind the wall of sunshine that separates
him from a huge building, half melted in the light, it is because a
mystery full of anguish and ceremony is occurring inside it.

At noon, the men who had been absent all morning reappeared, with
flushed faces and flashing teeth. They ate without uttering a word,
mopping the sweat from their brows. Uncle Joseph was in his
shirtsleeves. Papa cast stealthy glances at the plump little hands of
Jacob Stern, and his own hand shook as he raised his glass. Afroum's
wrinkles seemed to be expressing sardonic thoughts. His throat gripped
tightly by his cravat, Great-uncle Myrtil was savager and more purple
than ever. As for Grandpapa, better not to think about him.

With the coffee, little Uncle Wilhelm had arrived, and the whole party
vanished, banging the door behind them.

"Justin, stay where you are!" a voice had said, a flat voice in which
there was no trace of affection. Justin had stayed. But the society of
women is a very poor substitute when one scents that there is man's
work being done. Why, on this implacable Sunday, are _they_ toiling
with the sweat of their brows?

And so we find the child pressing his nose and lips against the
window. But no sound filters in through the slats of the closed
shutters. The bayonet-sharp shrilling of the grasshoppers has long ago
sunk into the heart of the silence.

However, Aunt Mina, Uncle Afroum's wife, is there, in the
sitting-room, and more than one contentious memory is, in her honour,
revived, related and discussed. Kindred, neighbours, Paris, the war,
migrations, deaths, marriages, dowries and legacies, the East and the
West are subjected, between one armchair and another, to a careful
enumeration.

Hermine lets her chatter flow freely. Laure, too tightly repressed,
laced from ankle to knee, listens, seated upon a low chair, and never
takes her eyes from the plump form of Jacob's daughter, Elisa. Sarah
expresses herself with reserve, because Mina, according to her habit,
makes the others aware, by means of adroit speeches, of her own
position in the scale of the cloth industry.

The fact is that the Sterns' two sons have not been long in breeding
after their kind. The ex-lawyer has been marvellously fortunate on the
pavements of Paris. He has gone into partnership with his brother.
Jacob attends sales, at Sedan, Roubaix and Leeds; Abraham, his wife
and his niece look after the house in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois;
Benjamin scours the country for four and five months on end. The
ex-lawyer's smooth-shaven lips, short whiskers and professional
secrecy have inspired confidence in his customers.  His honesty crowns
the whole. But their confidence is such that they would almost be
ready to disperse with that.

Jacob and Afroum made their appearance at Vendeuvre in the early days
of the migration, in the depressing period of the previous autumn.
Their presence has regularly coincided, for the children, with days
full of a solemn anxiety.  Family councils have been held at unusual
hours. On the third occasion, Papa came from the office, after dinner,
to fetch Mamma and Grandmamma. The children sat up half the night,
alone and terrified, the lamp having suddenly spluttered and gone out.

And so when, two days ago, Grandpapa Hippolyte had come in, suddenly,
holding a letter between his swollen fingers, and saying in a tone
that suggested much hidden thought: "They are coming," Tintin had
foreseen the rites and ceremonies of this strange day.

He repeats to himself until he is breathless, without succeeding in
producing any cloud upon the warm glass: "What are they doing, what
are they doing, what are they doing ...?"

He pictures to himself the interior of the factory and the lifeless
mass of the looms, drawn up in line like the wagons on the square of
the artillery barracks. The spinning-room is silent, and the traps of
the fulling-mill no longer clatter under the pressure of the torrent
of soapy water. And yet Papa mentioned that Zeller, Kapp, Braun and
one or two others are there. Are they in white overalls or in their
Sunday clothes? Perhaps even in tail-coats and top-hats, as at the
Gottlieb child's funeral? And why have they come?

"Tintin, be quiet!"

He has heard this remark more than once.

"I am being quiet, I am being quiet, I am being quiet..." the child
continues in a lower tone, stamping the pattern of his brow upon the
glass, while the glare from the yard streaks his eyeballs with red and
green bars.

Behind him the murmur of the women is mingled with the buzzing of
flies round the lustre.

"Ever since those wretches decided not to admit Papa and Uncle Myrtil
to their club, there has been a sort of campaign," moans the
melancholy Hermine. "Everyone has turned against us. If we had needed
to engage a maid, we should not have found one. Those gentlemen don't
lift their hats to us in the street. There have been words written on
the walls of the factory. The carters, as they drive out of the yard,
mutter things we don't always understand. We have had to change our
baker three times. They used rude words to Tintin."

"If I had not restrained my Joseph," says Sarah, "there would have
been trouble."

"And Guillaume is so excitable! Fortunately," Hermine continues, "Papa
has never noticed anything."

"He has never noticed anything? What a man!" says Mina in a tone which
reveals her devouring curiosity.

"Fortunately!" says Sarah with an ambiguous smile; "Hippolyte and my
brother-in-law had troubles enough without that."

"This year will be set to their credit somewhere, Sarah!" says Mma,
while Elisa nods her head with an air of wise approval. "And please
God they may not have laboured in vain!"

"We shall know presently," the old woman goes on. "Yes, please God
those poor boys may be rewarded for their labours.  They deserve it."

And she is silent, stopping short on the threshold of lamentation,
with a smile the quiet pride of which disarms her cousin.

Does a child's mind require any more than this to set it off on a
roving errand between the slats of a shutterl? He has listened with a
distracted ear. To be sure, Tintin has more--than once had things said
to him, when he went, on winter mornings, for the bread and the milk.
And he has returned home more often than might be expected with his
knuckles bruised by contact with the metal buttons of the jackets at
the Brothers' School.

But is that of the slightest importance, now? "We shall know
presently," says Grandmamma. What is it that we are to know presently?
Whether Zeller is in his overalls or wearing a tall hat? Why the
Sterns have come to bore everyone to death with their presence? Or why
this Sunday is being spent in buzzing like a bluebottle against a
window-pane, while the men are taking part in heaven knows what
exciting occupations?

Good, there is cousin Elisa's voice drowning the whispers with its
loud vulgarity.

She is so glad that she has been able to see Uncle Joseph several
times during his visits to Paris, and at once begins to simper, in
spite of the fact that Aunt Mina is rebuking her with dry little
"ahems" in her throat.

Tintin pictures with animosity the smug face of admiration which Laure
is raising towards the moist suet pudding of their cousin's face.
Privately, he labels his sister with various animal names which her
innocent profile does not yet deserve.

"Your brother, Sarah," Aunt Mina is saying, "looked to me as though he
were satisfied with his business."

"He is so easily pleased," sighs Hermine. The kindly Mina knows what
she has been seeking to learn, and Sarah's lips, on the point of
opening, tighten.

But Tintin is no longer listening. A dull bang is heard coming from
the wall of the factory, a step crunches the gravel, the boy dances
into the room from his concealment behind the curtains.

"They are coming, it is all over, it is all over!"

What is all over, Tintin does not know; but he is not long in noticing
the effect that his words have produced. Sarah has risen to her feet:
"Already!" she exclaims. Mina gazes at her with terror. Hermine
clutches Laure's head convulsively.  A key rattles in the lock. It is
Papa. Tintin flies to the door. Papa enters the room.

"Guillaume? Well?" Sarah is unable to restrain the cry.  But
Guillaume's harassed air indicates that the task, whatever it may be,
is not completed.

"I seem to have left a letter from Bellonet here," he barks under his
moustache.

"I thought so," murmurs Sarah. She sits down again and smiles at the
two Parisians.

Papa carries off the letter. He leaves the door wide enough open to
allow the slim form of a boy of nine to escape in his wake. The next
thing to happen is that Tintin receives upon his head something that
feels like a sandbag. And who can have played this joke of pumping all
the air out of the yard? But one soon grows used to the three o'clock
sun and the heat of a July day.

The outer gate is shut, a circumstance which always fills the boy with
misgivings. Groups of people in their Sunday clothes are standing
about on the avenue. The men seem to be well disposed. The long face
of a little boy rises between two bars of the gate. It draws attention
to Tintin, and grins from ear to ear. A woman's voice is heard
explaining: "It is the Simlers stock-taking."

Tintin is unable to breathe until he has shut the door of the
warehouse behind him.

Buried in a restful darkness and coolness, Uncle Joseph is running up
and down the oak ladder. He shifts pieces of cloth and declaims in a
cross tone numbers and letters which Pouppelé jots down grubbily in
pencil on the--back of a washing bill.

"Go on writing, I shall make a fair copy later. PL 328, General Prym
14, got that? Prym 14,750, in the last column."

He is streaming with sweat; his shirt gapes open exposing his hairy
chest.

"What are you doing here, you little rascal? Get out...."

Tintin flies. He plunges once more into the furnace, follows the
inside wall of the yard, and slips into the spinning-room through the
door with the iron pig.

A churchlike silence. The machines are asleep between their tall
wheels. The flat rails are thrust forward like arms.  Tintin loves
them. He loves the rigid stiffness, of the paste-board winders and
their steel bands polished by friction.  He stretches out his hand
towards that immaterial pulp which comes down to the winders, which is
neither hair nor yarn, which yields to the finger like a cobweb, but
gives a warm and rich caress.

"Don't you dare!" a harsh voice warns him. Uncle Myrtil appears from
behind a machine, followed by Kapp, his shadow, and by one of those
beastly Sterns. The uncle; lowers the visor of his brow and fastens
his great-nephew.

Once again the furnace. Rather than go upstairs to the weaving-room,
and face the bloodshot eye of Grandpapa, Tintin would prefer to pass
by the gate a second time.

And so when at last there arrives, without a breath of air, the end of
this inexorable day, the boy is nothing more than, a lump buried in
the stifling darkness of the boiler-house.  It is a favoured spot;
from it one commands the great fly-wheel, the sixteen cables that pass
round it and escape from it by the two holes pierced in the upper part
of the wall.

These cables go out, upon weekdays, to distribute the power that is
generated by the piston. Tintin Simler follows each of them in his
mind, in the rectilinear and circular effects of its velocity. He
hangs on to them and allows himself to be drawn through the dark hole,
then through the space beyond, interminably, returning finally to
revolve at full speed round the fly-wheel. And he perspires with heat,
fear and pride; for the person who stands here, where the cables meet,
is at the centre of everything and is master of the factory. What then
can a stock-taking be if it is concerned with everything, save the
great fifteen-foot fly-wheel? When there are people looking into
everything, save the ball-bearings?

Voices pass outside the door. He scrambles out of his brick oven,
follows them, and sees in front of him the members of the firm making
their way to the Office. A minute later, he is in the warehouse, where
Uncle Joseph is represented only by a pair of cuffs as rigid as zinc.

The door of the Office is merely pushed to. The boy slips his nose
through the chink, and withdraws it quickly in order not to be seen by
little Uncle Blum, whose sharp eye does not overlook even so slight a
movement.

A vast silence, broken by heavy breathing, fills the room.  Four of
the gentlemen are seated before sheets of paper black with figures.
Another stands by each of them, and checks his calculations. A buzz of
muttered numbers flows along the floor. Sometimes one of them
emphasises the penultimate syllable of a "carry forward":
"_Twenty_-five," then turns a page, and the prayer-wheel starts again.
The foremen are no longer present. Anyhow, they were in their
overalls, and were not wearing tall hats.

The sawyer looks only at the back of his saw and never bows his head
to contemplate the work that he has done.  So long as the gleaming
back of the saw covers exactly the whole length of the edge, he goes
on with his work. Similarly, the four men who were seated in the room
had been gazing steadily at the back of the saw; for the first time in
six months, they were allowing themselves time to inspect the result.

This much the boy understands from the silence that emanates from
those men, and from something else besides, which is in himself. He
does not know why he has become almost faint.

One of the men--Uncle Myrtil, so far as he can judge--says: "Ah!" and
heaves a more hollow sigh. Two of the others in turn show that they
have finished their, addition and sit erect on their chairs, waiting
in silence.

Justin feels that his father is the last to complete his calculations.
His heart contracts at the sound of that stammering voice, the
mistakes which his father is making in his nervousness and which the
little old uncle corrects in an undertone.

Finally, Guillaume too has finished. The light is beginning to fade.
The men gather round the armchair of Hippolyte, who collects, the
sheets of paper in his hand. Justin feels afraid.

A growl passes over their heads. It swells for a moment, then dies
away. You would think that something was in its death-agony. Hippolyte
utters a muffled oath. A long minute elapses. Then a thick,
unrecognisable voice rises tremulous, but with the immense force of a
cathedral organ: "_Gott sei dank! Gott sei dank_! Myrtil!"

A confused' noise keeps the boy rooted to the ground.  Men are kissing
one another, arms are stretched out, nothing is heard but stifled
gasps and sobs.

"Myrtil, _Kinder_, Afroum, Jacob, Wilhelm!"

The old man seizes their shoulders in his arms, his whiskers rasp
their faces. Justin does not know whether everything is finished
forever. But a triumphant voice breaks out suddenly in a discord:

"And Sarah!" exclaims the clubfoot. "We must tell Sarah!"

Then, like the--cry of a wild beast from the heart of a forest, a roar
fills the two rooms and rends the boy's heart:

"Tell her, Wilhelm! Seventeen thousand francs, in nine months! And
that the boys will be as rich as kings! Tell her, Wilhelm, go and tell
her!"




IV


A river does not sweep down the water of its spring floods between the
flanks of its valley with a more savage joy than that of the Simlers
when, during the week that followed, they gave rein to their feelings.
Seventeen thousand francs is not a fortune. There was nothing perhaps,
at first sight, to justify the patriarch in his wild cry.

But these seventeen thousand francs represented the net profit, after
interest had been paid on the debt, and a certain sum placed to
reserve. Nor did they even represent a full working year.

In any case it meant a livelihood, with some provision for the future.

And so the Simlers opened their bosoms to the flowing tide of hope.
Hippolyte recovered, by nightfall, his youthful laugh, and made the
windows rattle. Myrtil provided the children with the great surprise
of hearing him sing an old Alascian song, and Blum beat all his former
records for ingenuity by arriving with two long-necked bottles of
Kitterlé.  As for Mina, she had made all her preparations for flight
in the event of a disastrous balance-sheet. She found it natural and
pleasant to prolong her stay.

They dined so late, on the evening of the stock-taking, that Justin
and Laure were drooping with their noses in their plates, when the
foremen began to arrive, in batches, wearing their Sunday clothes and
a stiff, formal expression.  The first glance reassured them, so far
as they themselves were concerned. Each of them acted then according
to his nature.

Zeller was there, rubicund, martial, cold and satisfied, Kapp waggling
his long red nose with a joyous and sagacious air, Pouppelé like a
good and faithful dog, his round head covered with tumbling locks of
hair, Gottlieb in mourning, but his chin gleaming with the action of
white wine, Fritz Braun, with his dyer's hands and his loyal flaxen
moustaches, and the old book-keeper Hermann, bursting with the desire
to go outside and triumph noisily among his peers.

It was decided that Tuesday should be a half-holiday, but on full pay.
This announcement succeeded in awakening the children, who tossed for
a long time between their clinging sheets in the scorching atmosphere
of the little room in which they slept.

After Sunday, there was Monday, on which they awoke late and already
baked by the sun. After Monday, there was Tuesday, which did not
arrive without witnesses, but was watched for, from a skylight window,
from the first break of dawn, by four eyes aflame with desire.

And the midday siren, which dispersed the workers fan-wise from the
gate, did not lack an echo.

The fact was that gaiety had now a fine revenge to take.  A whole year
hung behind it like a debt which was to be wiped out in an instant.
And what a year! Since the battle of Wissembourg, the sun had never
yet shone upon a day free from anguish. An air was circulating at last
which was beginning not to be the property of others; lips could now
part in laughter and lungs expand.

And so it was with an exciting shock that, as soon as he had drunk his
coffee, Joseph's heel rang on the pavement, while he hastened towards
a mysterious goal. And each step that he took released a little
eruption of white dust which seemed to assert a sort of further
control of the external world.

The deference that had been paid to the Simlers, during the last two
days, did not extend beyond a certain zone.  In ranging as far afield
as M. Antigny, who rented carnages, young Simler was entering
unexplored territory.

But just as there are coloured glasses which allow only a certain
number of rays of light to pass through them, so Joseph's spectacles
seemed to be made of some subtle substance against which the most
malicious intentions were shattered.

These spectacles had observed quite plainly, from a distance, in the
streets, how M. Pierrotin gave a jump, and the sudden curiosity that
seized that worthy secretary when he recognised young Simler. Nor did
the rage with which M.  Huillery turned away his head, at the corner
of the Rue de la Bretonnerie, escape them either.

They remained impenetrable however to the horse-owner's attempts at
insolence.

"Will he take us as far as the forest of l'Epine?" asked Joseph, as he
gazed with a pitying air at the knock-kneed animal which a groom was
harnessing to the break.

"It is Monsieur himself that intends to drive?" replied the
ex-sergeant of the Impératrice dragoons.

"It is," Joseph assured him, with a glance at the man's yellow
leggings.

"In that case..."

A slight hiss of his whip gave their full meaning to these three
monosyllables.

"He is very thin."

"I feed my horses, but there are thin _mares_ just as there are fat
men."

"He has novice?"

M. Antigny had exhausted his small stock of patience.

"That depends. If you drive _her_ badly, _she_ will land you in the
ditch like any of them."

The groom, anxious for a tip, interposed, from between the legs of the
resigned animal, where he was strapping the girth: "No need to be
afraid with this beast! But with a driver from the stable, who'd have
her well in hand, you'd get far better satisfaction."

Joseph turned abruptly towards the dilapidated break, while the groom
went on, with a sly chuckle: "She'll trot right enough on the road
home."

"This carriage is very old. Haven't you got anything more ... decent?"

This unfamiliar realm of business made him ill at ease.  M. Antigny
had stepped back a few paces to master in an ostensible fashion the
contempt in which he held this strange type of customer. He pinched
his nose as he answered:

"I can put a mail-coach at your disposal."

"I mean another break," replied Joseph with a mild firmness.  "This
one..."

"Pardon me! Are we speaking of a break? This carriage is called a
wagonette."

"Indeed? But I ordered a break."

"Is Monsieur taking his family out?"

"Y... es. What has that got to do with it?"

"Your family won't get inside my break. But that doesn't matter:
Eugène, unharness."

Joseph saw red. He cracked one of the knuckles of his right hand in
the hollow of his left.

"I did not tell you to unharness, but to show me a carriage less dirty
than the one you have there."

M. Antigny found accents of a sovereign phlegm in which to order:

"Jules, bring out the tilt-cart."

The bare arms of the grooms swelled with muscular effort round a pole
and four wheels. A tilt-cart big enough to convey a choir-treat,
thundered over the cobbles of the yard and halted, foundering in a
gutter of liquid manure.

Then Joseph remembered that there were certain ugly rumours anent the
business methods of M. Antigny, who was said to be sacrificing to the
Queens of Spades and Hearts far more than the prosperity of his
establishment allowed.  And when he recalled the circumstances that
brought him, Joseph Simler, into this stable-yard, there arose in him
a joyous, irresistible force, comparable to the laughing ripple of an
evening breeze on the surface of a lake. He looked round the yard
blithely, and said: "I shall take the wagon."

Then he made them take the carriage out into the street, mounted the
box and took up the reins with less awkwardness than the stableman
expected to see.

As for the ex-sergeant-major, as soon as he had received the sum which
he demanded in advance, he had let it be seen from his attitude that
the cream of the farce was at an end in his eyes. He had withdrawn
with dignity into his private office furnished with pipes, English
engravings, a chair with a broken seat, an old iron stove, a porcelain
racehorse on the chimney-piece, two evil-smelling fox-terriers, curled
up on ragged mats, and a considerable quantity of old bridles, rusty
spurs, broken curbs and whips.

"And they'll all be behaving like that worm," Joseph said to himself,
as he urged the old screw in the direction of the factory. He added
with disgust: "A town of rascals!" but did not succeed in suppressing
the feeling of happiness which was making his head swim.

The break creaked and rattled and made an infernal din.  It was
sufficient to bring the children to the windows, not sufficient to
damp their enthusiasm.

Decidedly Uncle Joseph had not his match in the matter of inventions.
It was impossible to imagine a coachman more proud of his occupation.
Laure climbed up from behind on to the box and kissed him on the
cheek.

"You are all wet!" she cried, tapping him on the shoulder with the
tips of her fingers. A cloud of dust rose from it and made her sneeze.
They both of them burst out laughing.  Justin stood in readiness at
the mare's head, as though he were holding the charger of the Quatre
Fils Aymon.

"You know, Cousin Benjamin has just come," Laure went on. At that
moment, a sly, smiling face, red as a pantile, appeared framed in one
of the windows. The family gathered round this fresh witness of their
success. Joseph felt a painful contraction at the pit of his stomach.
He greeted his cousin nevertheless with a gay wave of his whip. The
other responded with a smile which seemed a grimace and wrinkled up
his face like a Venetian blind.

"Hallo, coachman, come down and let us give you a kiss."

"Hallo, passenger, come up and let me give you a kiss."

"I have come in the nick of time, it seems."

"You always come in the nick of time," replied Joseph, sardonically.
Benjamin encircled with a more pronounced smile the gleaming potato
which served him for a nose, and made a comical gesture of menace at
the driver: "You, Chosef..."

He exaggerated his Alsacian accent. The family stood blissfully
looking on at this exchange of banter. As for the real feeling that
lurked beneath these provocations, it went beyond the sphere of their
competence.

"All aboard!" cried Joseph.

"All aboard!" Laure screamed, casting a flashing glance at Benjamin
over her uncle's shoulder on which she was leaning.

The women had meanwhile piled up a mountain of shawls, rugs and
cushions.

"You'll have us all in the ditch. This old screw can never draw all
that load!" Joseph protested.

"Don't forget the thermometer," Justin went one better.

"And the hot-bottle for our feet!" cried Laure in her shrillest tones.
It was a day of Saturnalia. The slaves were mocking their masters. But
a day that knew no morrow...

A few workmen, who had come back, having nothing else to do, after
their midday meal, had stopped on the other side of the avenue. They
looked on, good-humouredly, at this spectacle.

The appearance of a hamper of food calmed the automedon.  He had his
work cut out to trim the vehicle, when the passengers, armed with
umbrellas and sunshades, scrambled into the break.

Mina Stern sat behind Joseph, with Myrtil facing her.  Guillaume took
his place on his cousin's left, having Hermine opposite him. Afroum
was next the door on Hermine's side, Elisa on Guillaume's. She had
asked for this place with a deliciously childish air "so as to get a
better view of the country." Benjamin took his place on the box, by
the side of Joseph, and set Laure on his knee, while Tintin found,
between the two men, a scrap of scorching wood on which to seat his
slender anatomy.

Hippolyte and Sarah would have nothing to do with this excursion. They
had presided over the start, from the window, in company with Jacob
Stern. Little Uncle Blum had been unable to find, in the state of his
own affairs, any valid excuse for losing half a working day. He had
nevertheless promised to join them in the forest, at five o'clock.

The break quivered on its back springs, grinding up the black dust
from the roadway, and the party were left in doubt, for a full minute,
as to whether the reins would hold.  The children shouted: "Courage,
ahi, hue, pull!" until Uncle Myrtil was moved to order:

"_Stiegen, Kinder_, silence!"

Sitting erect in the stiff casing of his frock-coat and beneath the
aegis of his silk hat, his hands folded over the silver knob of his
pear-wood cane, he personified the statue of industrial
respectability.

Finally the four wheels began to turn and the whole party vanished in
a moment from the sight of the old people.  Until the first corner was
reached, Mina, Hermine and Elisa had waved their handkerchiefs, and
Guillaume the back of his hand, but without ceasing, in his case, to
watch Uncle Myrtil's expression and to conform to it. Abraham kept a
sharp look-out upon everything, with a smiling, crafty attention.




V


The slope up to the station brought the carriage to a crawling pace.
Benjamin turned his mocking face to Joseph.  "Well, weaver, may we
congratulate you?'

"You may," replied Joseph laconically, without taking his eyes off the
mare's crupper.

"Do you know that, for the first year, it's quite decent?"

Joseph knew it. He knew indeed that the sentiment which had possessed
them all, on the evening before last, had nothing "decent" about it.
He could not help tossing his head, and said, with a trace of sadness
in his voice: "You are always the same, Benjamin."

The other shook his own round, red head: "In what respect, my good
Joseph? I maintain that, given the conditions, the environment, the
possibilities, you have not got out of it badly."

"And you, are you satisfied?" said Joseph, to turn the conversation.

"Always the same jogtrot. Given the conditions, the environment, the
possibilities, one has done one's little best."

Joseph thought: "He is getting out of it. At his leisure," and was
silent, feeling vexed.

The children followed the conversation, turning to look at each
speaker in turn. This silent jury weighed upon their uncle.

Behind them, the break was ahum with speech. People turned to gaze at
them. They were not accustomed to seeing the Alsacians outside their
own quarters, still less to seeing them holiday-making. A boy chanted:

  "_Voilà les Guidal
  Qui s'en vont au bal_."

Shopkeepers hurried out to their doorsteps. Joseph, as the driver, had
to endure laughter and criticism. Elisa's plump figure earned her
several compliments.

And M. des Challeries, whom they met unexpectedly in the neighbourhood
of the railway station, turned away his head, quickened his pace, and
whistled to his collie which was going to sniff at these dubious
persons.

Meanwhile Benjamin was taking in everything with his red, monkey-like
eye. He shrugged his shoulders.

"A mere matter of working days. The result follows as 'in my
snuff-box' follows 'good snuff.' "

"I don't understand you."

"This country is not worth a tinker's dam. Everything here goes by
foresight and consequences. It is not life, I don't know what it is,
geometry maybe. You raise the capital, you put it into building and
stock, you cling on to it, like a hanged man on his rope, you never
raise your nose for three-hundred-and-five, six or seven days (not
forgetting Sundays and public holidays), and then you triumphantly
gather in the little profit foretold by Nostradamus and le Vieux
Major. Hey, presto! Nothing in my pockets, gentlemen, nothing up my
sleeve. Do you call that life? You were gazing at that coxcomb who
stopped his nose as we passed, with his English penny cigar and his
hair parted down the back? I don't know who he is, but I'm willing to
bet that, in ten years, you will have ruined him. It's mathematics;
besides you can see it written on his face. Seventeen thousand this
year, it's a little nest egg. Next year fifty thousand, in ten years
your turnover will be five millions, and you will have two hundred
thousand to divide among yourselves. You can lie down and sleep, you,
or your father, or your uncle, who seems to be repeating his catechism
behind my back, it will make no difference. Because this is an old
country, and what has once been begun continues of its own accord
until the life of the world is extinct. That is why I am so bored
here, why I knew that the war would be won by the Germans who are a
young people, and why the Germans will be beaten by the Americans who
are younger still,"

He burst out laughing, and turned his potato-like nose in the
direction of Joseph, whom his remarks were suffocating.

"Keep to the right, giglamps, or these aristocrats who are coming
along at full trot will heave you into the ditch with the entire firm
of Simler. And don't upset yourself.  What I have said is what
everybody knows to be true."

Joseph gave a docile tug to his horse. But when you have been living
in the conviction that nothing can come up to what you have just
brought off, you cannot look on unmoved at the destruction of your
ideal.

Then, as they had reached the top of the hill, he whipped the animal
into a trot, and was not sorry that the rest of the conversation was
drowned by the rattling of the carriage.

"All very fine, principles. In the meantime you work like a horse, and
your stock-taking was superb.

"Patience! That poor devil Lambert has handed in his checks. That,
look you, is the only aspect of the question that deserved mention.
Lambert was an honest man, a man who did his duty, and as brave as a
lion; you don't see that sort any more. Enough said! I was within ten
feet of him, sniping, and I could do nothing for him. There's nothing
I can do for him now. And so, silence!"

Tintin stared with awe at the cousin who had been in battle within ten
feet of that poor Lambert.

Joseph was not by nature inclined to bitterness. But there was, in
this topic, more than he was able to endure. He began again, thrusting
his spectacles on to his forehead, to which they remained glued, and
raising his voice to drown the rattle of the wheels:

"You were heroes, Lambert and yourself. Others were left trapped like
beasts, in the wake of the invasion, and had to devour their hearts
for eight months."

"There is no such thing as heroes. There are men who march straight
ahead and halt when there is nothing more to be done. I have heard
some story of a shirt flung over the head of a Badische attorney. That
is not so bad. I only had to follow, halt, fire and run, squealing
like a pig, from a fixed bayonet. Lambert had his dose, I am still
here. Four paces more to the left, and people would be saying: 'That
poor Benjamin,' instead of saying: 'That poor Lambert,' and Lambert
would have no need to play Benjamin, as Benjamin has to play Lambert."

"Don't swagger, Benjamin," replied Joseph, thoroughly angered.
"Lambert was everything that could be said in his praise. But if he
had remained in this world, there would be two of you to do what you
are doing single-handed."

"A cigar?" said Benjamin, offering his cigar-case with a simultaneous
gesture to Joseph and Tintin. "Do you know, my little mannikin," he
went on, addressing Tintin this time, but without looking at him,
"what it is that makes life worth the trouble of living? I am going to
tell you, I, Stern, Benjamin, of Turckheim, Haut-Rhin, who knows what
he is saying and speaks only when he is sober: it is, first of all, to
construct the machine, and then to break it. Don't pull your beast
like that," he added ironically in the direction of Joseph, who at
once grew nervous. "We, the Sterns, set up a machine. That's all right
for me. It's a life that suits me.  But when the machine is going, and
they have no more need of me, I hitch up my pants, and off I go!"

"Where to?" said Joseph, as though he were giving the other a kick.

"Where? To Valparaiso, Melbourne, Boston, the Cape, Honduras, wherever
results do not follow foresight, as a man follows his nose, where it
is possible to work from morning to night without having to earn a
fortune."

"That is play, not work," growled Joseph from the depths of his chest.

"It is the true form of work, Joseph. You don't love the machine, you
only love what the machine produces. You don't love work, you only
love the fruits of your work. You will be rich, very rich, until the
day..."

"Until the day?"

"When Tintin parts his hair behind and starts buying English dogs..."

M. Antigny's mare never knew to what was responsible for the lash of
the whip that stung her flanks. The want of understanding that divided
her already from her driver was from that moment intensified. In her
obtuse equine mind, this outing began to take a definite shape.

"It's idiotic, what you're saying," growled Joseph.

"To Toul!" cried Benjamin, in response to a question which the break
had left suspended in the air, for a moment, and which the little
man's alert mind had picked up. "Must I repeat it a hundred times? The
Lévys of Ingwiller at Nancy, the Sterns of Turckheim in Paris, the
Frànkels of Bischwiller at Elbeuf, the Aarons of Colmar at Epernay,
the Simlers of Buschendorf at Vendeuvre, the Weils at Sedan, and a
Dreyfus, a Spire, a Jacob, a Blum, a Hirtz, a Hertz, a Kahn wherever
the archangel has scattered them--is that what you were asking? The
chosen people are regular slaves for work. I assure you that, as far
as knowing the geography of the Promised Land goes, our revered
ancestors ought to have known it by heart before they even reached it.
It's positively stupendous, this redispersal of the tribes! We had
gathered together a regular little _kile_ in the last generations,
between Basel and Trêves. We were quietly becoming citizens,
burgesses, proprietors, mayors--all the honours. And then, bang! the
Everlasting becomes angry and sends us packing to five hundred
thousand devils. To think that we are all going to _begin_ by becoming
as rich again as Croesus and as stupid as pigs! A true stroke of fate,
that. There is a _moschelisch_ about it."

Thereupon a silence fell over the break, because you can keep all
Israel quiet, from the East End of London to the Dead Sea, with a
well-told tale. And Benjamin had a reputation as a great teller of
_moschelisches_.

"Listen then to my moschelisch, o ye of little faith. Once upon a time
the devil appeared on earth and was arrested, for some disgraceful
business. Then he found three men, a Protestant, a Catholic, and a
_Yid_, to get him out of his trouble. And when he was set free, he
gathered them round him and said to them: 'Before I leave you, I wish
to give you each a proof of my gratitude. You will see that I am not
such a bad devil, after all. Choose, therefore, each of you, what it
is that you want most in the world, and your wish will at once be
granted.'

"Then he began: 'You, the Protestant, what would you like most?' And
the Protestant answered: 'I wish to have power upon earth.' 'Good,'
said the devil, 'that is easily done. Power you shall have. And you,
the Catholic?' 'I?' said the Catholic, 'I, it is riches that I
desire.' 'Bah! Bah!' said the devil; 'you shall have all the money you
want. And you, the Jew?' 'I?' said the Jew, bowing, 'I ask one little
thing only.' 'What is that?' 'Well, give me the Catholic's address.' "

Whereupon they all laughed, looking at one another with eyes of
happiness, as it has been in their blood to do, in such circumstances,
from the days of Abraham, and before.

Joseph, meanwhile, continued to feel a red, monkeyish eye fixed upon
him, and to feel some discomfort. But they had reached the woods.
There followed two hours of respite for Joseph, the mare and the
cousin.

The party alighted, and shook off the dust which covered them from
head to foot. Myrtil Simler paraded solemnly in his frock-coat with
Afroum, while Elisa flaunted her coquetry in Joseph's honour, before
the indignant but powerless eyes of Mina Stern. As for the children,
they were greatly astonished to discover that a man who had fought in
the war and spoke indifferently about going to the ends of the earth,
could be an inexhaustible inventor of games.

Even Joseph himself, relieved by this diversion, entered into it
whole-heartedly, ended by taking off his coat and collar and jumping
the ditches with a surprising agility, in view of his weight. As for
Guillaume, after various attempts, he consoled himself for his
incompetence in such matters with the perfectly easy conversation of
the people of age and experience.

At the stroke of five, the two Blums put in their appearance, in the
guise of a humble party that had arrived on foot, arm in arm, very
tired and dusty. The provisions were unpacked, and this scene
furnished more than one passer-by, that evening, with an opportunity
for impertinent descriptions.

Then, when the time had come, they all stowed themselves in the break,
and Joseph took the reins. But the mare had had time to think. She
displayed an evident ill-will.  Roused by the convergence of all eyes
upon himself, Joseph began pulling in every direction, which proved
disastrous.  Benjamin whispered advice, to which Laure and Tintin gave
a blaring publicity. The women felt that the moment had come for them
to scream. Myrtil stood up in the break, Guillaume cried: "Look out!"
After a more stinging lash from the whip, the mare, who was backing
determinedly, deposited the break in the ditch, one wheel after the
other.  Uncle Myrtil tumbled over the side, with his frock-coat and
silk hat.

The Blums hastened to the spot. The passengers were rescued, as best
they might. After everyone had decided that the beast would listen to
no argument, Benjamin expressed the opinion that she must be
unharnessed. Tintin, greatly to his father's anxiety, was detailed to
hold the quiet animal by the head, a few paces away. Uncle Blum lifted
the shafts, Benjamin, Afroum and Joseph put their shoulders to the
wheels, without any result.

Heroic measures were required. Joseph for the second time took off his
coat, waistcoat and collar, and everyone but himself admired the
strength of the biceps which he revealed when he rolled up his
shirtsleeves.

Only the back wheels of the break were in the ditch.  Joseph stepped
down into it, became rather flushed, folded his spectacles, handed
them to his sister-in-law, and stooped down to grip the step. The
sweat streamed from his temples.

At that moment, Afroum shouted: "Let this carriage pass!"

Joseph, without straightening his back, raised his honest,
short-sighted eyes.

Along the road, over which the sun was setting in a cloud of dust, a
dogcart was approaching at full speed, driven, with taut reins, by an
old man with white whiskers and a broad-brimmed hat. A girl, in a
plain dress, was seated on his left, without a sunshade. Three dogs
thrust their gaping jaws between the wicker bars of their basket.

It was not even necessary for the unusually high box-seat to make
these people clearly visible. Joseph had guessed who they were, and
flushed a deep crimson.

The old man showed an instinctive surprise, but was unable to pull up
his horse until he had passed them by some thirty yards.

Joseph had detected this action. He bowed his bull-like neck, gripped
the step of the break in both hands, and with a mighty thrust, lifting
the heavy carnage, steadying its oscillation, placed it in position on
the road. Elisa had uttered a shrill cry.

Guillaume ran along the road, after the strangers, without thinking of
what he was saying: "There's no need...  Go on... It's all right now!"

The old man made a gesture of polite regret, picked up the reins, and
the dogcart bore away, in a cloud of dust, the barking of the dogs,
the grand manner of their master, and the indulgent, uneasy smile of
the girl in the brown silk dress.

"I always knew that he was as strong as a Turk," said Abraham Stern.
"But this time he has surpassed himself."

They all gazed with awe at Joseph. M. Antigny's Vendevoriate mare had
done enough for one day. She slavered abundantly on the hands of the
disgusted Justin. She allowed herself to be harnessed, and finally
carried back to the worn pavements of Vendeuvre a cart-load of weary,
thirsty, anything but comfortable folk.

In the meantime, little Uncle Blum, having taken in the hollow of his
own arm the plump arm of little Aunt Babette, was making his way home,
on foot, to his house on the plain of Saint-Simplicien. But he raised
his head and remarked, as he went, to his wife, who did not contradict
him: "Babette, at Buschendorf, our Chosef used not to hire a horse and
carriage, and blush when goy girls stared at him."

As for Joseph, if he remained silent on the box, this afternoon had
furnished him with at least three excuses for silence. The best excuse
was not that which Tintin supposed.




VI


Whether it was the fact of his having passed the Simler family in such
remarkable circumstances, or the impressive report of their
stock-taking, for one reason or another, M. Le Pleynier reproached
himself with not having visited the Alsacians in return for Joseph's
call. But, what with one thing and another, he put off the execution
of this plan until an afternoon in September, when he sallied forth in
his dogcart along the road to Vendeuvre, with the faithful Hilaire
behind.

He left both cart and man outside the Club, and proceeded slowly on
foot towards the establishment of the late lamented Poncet.

A slight storm was brewing beneath the bronze lid of the sky. The
premature redness of the chestnut leaves testified to the rigours of
an implacable summer. The great cedar of the Aubugeois de la Borde
raised aloft over the top of the wall a plaster mould of itself in
coagulated dust. The tension of the atmosphere found expression at
moments in a whirling dance of fallen leaves, which at once settled
down again.

The familiar escort of place and buildings gave M. Le Pleynier an
increase of confidence as he went on. The work of the looms was
communicated to the earth around; torrents of black smoke poured from
the chimneys; gusts of warm odour reached the nostrils; everything was
as it had always been.

He passed by the flawlessly symmetrical walls of the Lorilleux-Pommier
spinning-mill, and appreciated the full-bodied roar that came from
within. A string of loaded lorries blocked the monumental approach to
the Sabouret combing-mill. He thought of a witticism that was going
the rounds at the expense of Adrien Sabouret, and laughed in his
whiskers. A glance in the direction of their three chimneys reassured
him as to the activity that was shaking the tall buildings of
Chevalier-Lefombère.

He passed by a small café, stepped over a gutter that ran deep in
scalding refuse, and cast a very different glance at the lane from
which the stream emerged. It was a crooked blind-alley, damp and
sunless in the very height of summer.  A dilapidated wall flanked it
along half its length.

M. Le Pleynier smiled for the second time. The essential part of his
life had to all appearance been lived in the two silent storeys of the
factory which this wall concealed. A mere episode in the sequence of
time. He attached to it no more than a distinctly ironical importance.
His egoism had the insolent refinement of regarding everything in its
relation to himself while not reckoning himself as anything at all.

He was no less satisfied by the discovery that nobody had taken
possession of this old ruin than by the sight of the rival factories
carrying on as he had always seen them, neither more nor less. Not a
chimney more against the horizon, nor a new roof beneath the leaden
sky. Not a wallflower was missing from the chinks between the
whitewashed bricks. The wild bees were nesting beneath the same tiles.
The same coachman, the same porters greeted the old man as he passed.

To be sure the little Morindet girl was a charming creature, as he had
seen her just now, trotting meekly by her mother's side, in her
rippling frock of silver-grey silk, with her kerchief folded over her
nascent bosom, and her little flat hat, with its pink feather, poised
on her thick brown tresses. But there had been pretty women in the
days of his own youth; there would be pretty women still, long after
he had rotted away in some hole in the ground.

Nothing made any difference to anything; and, for that very reason,
everything deserved the effort of a light and careful scrutiny.

And so "the Le Pleynier incident," as he styled himself, felt his
heart fairly buoyant as he came in sight of the Simler factory. And it
was precisely at the moment when he least expected it that he was
fated, that day, to receive a surprise.

For not a soul was stirring in the factory of the "Prussians," which
stood silent and empty, with blank windows and closed gates.

"Hallo?" he grunted, as he tapped the ground with his stick. The
entrance had been put in apple-pie order. A coat of still dazzling
whitewash on the pillars of the gate, a wash of paint on the ironwork,
the woodwork repainted, windows mended and the soil freshly metalled.
But an air of threadbare poverty still hung about those commonplace
buildings.  The shutters of the dwelling-house were closed.

M. Le Pleynier gathered in these details with a sweep of his little
pig's eyes, and inhaled a draught of air.

"Humph!" he said for the second time, in a tone of distrust.  And he
rang the bell at the little door of painted sheet-iron.

A long time passed without anything happening. No sign of life behind
the iron door. The martins were flitting to and fro, over the ground.
As they passed, they made the sound of scissors ripping silk. Behind
him Vendeuvre was shaking from the impact of a hundred thousand
spindles. He rang a second time. A doubt occurred to his mind: "Can it
be...?"

But there was a creak of turning hinges, a light footfall approached
and the door opened. A child's startled face appeared.  He had curled
hair, and dark, drooping eyelids.  His mouth cut across his face like
a recent wound.

"Are the Messieurs Simler visible, my young friend?" asked M. Le
Pleynier, as he removed his broad-brimmed hat. He handed a card to the
boy, who retired without uttering a word.

The caller followed.

At the top of the steps that led to the house, the boy turned round
and murmured something inaudible.

"What a damned silly idea to dress children up like that," the old man
said to himself. A stale cold air enveloped him as soon as he set foot
in the hall. And if he had been prepared for many spectacles, the
spectacle which was in store for him upset many of the ideas upon
which he was in the habit of basing his judgments.

The door of a sort of drawing-room had been left open by the boy. The
shutters and curtains plunged the room in a darkness that was barely
punctuated by the little flickering lights of a seven-branched
candlestick placed upon the chimneypiece. Two other candles seemed to
be burning in the part of the room that was invisible from the
doorway; they shed a faint light upon the carpet and the furniture.

Standing erect in this dying glimmer, a skull-cap of black silk on his
head, his neck and shoulders swathed in a white shawl with a fringe, a
pair of spectacles straddling the fleshy part of his nose, a
silhouette, which could only be that of M. Hippolyte, was reading in
an indistinct voice from a book which he was holding to his eyes, in
order to see the text more clearly. By his side, leaning against the
corner of the chimneypiece, entirely draped in a similar shawl, and
wearing a silk hat on his head, M. Myrtil was following the lesson in
his own book, his long body stooping forward.  Other persons no less
immobile were scattered in the gloom, and created by their intoning a
murmur broken by groans.  The men were seated or standing, capped with
different forms of headgear, their faces bowed over their books, and
their silk shawls folded over their shoulders; women, in deep black,
crouched over the arms of their chairs.

The boy's furtive entry had created no stir; M. Le Pleynier had
therefore all the time that he required to develop his amazement. But
a whisper arose in a corner which he could not see. The toe of a shoe
creaked on a plank in the floor, and a thing which resembled the face
of Joseph Simler appeared gently before the eyes of the visitor.

The thing gazed at him mildly through its spectacles with a startled,
distant expression; the thing was of a pallor so livid as to give
colour to the white fringed shawl that enwrapped it; and the thing had
its head buried in a bowler hat of the very kind which was being worn
in the streets, at that time, by numbers of adult Frenchmen. M. Le
Pleynier did not easily lose his presence of mind. Nevertheless he was
able only to open his mouth and say: "Am I disturbing you?" Which
earned him the incontinent judgment of a "double-dyed idiot" from his
inner self. The thing parted its lips: "Excuse us, Sir. My nephew has
made a stupid mistake.  But to-day we are not _at home_ upon any
excuse..." Then, in an even lower tone: "It is our holy day--our
annual fast--you understand...?"

As if Le Pleynier understood!

"What on earth have I done?"

He stammered an apology, turned his back hurriedly, and walked away,
trying to muffle his step. Two heads had been raised at the sound. He
would have sworn that one of them crowned the normally most Christian
shoulders of one Monsieur Victor Léon, a coffee-broker and ardent
Orléanist. As for the other, it was merely a rubicund foreman who had
migrated from Alsace, who had once been pointed out to him. Neither
Hippolyte nor Myrtil had made the slightest gesture.

M. Le Pleynier reached the courtyard. Joseph followed on his heels
breathing deeply. When they were in the daylight, the visitor turned
round. Then a pair of dull eyes, hollow cheeks and sunken temples gave
its full meaning to the word _fast_: "_Fichtre_! This seems a serious
matter. The savages!" he thought to himself again. And he insisted
that the other should accompany him no farther. As he shut the iron
door behind him, he could see Joseph, swathed in his white silk shawl
with blue stripes, watching him depart and touching his bowler hat
again with a distracted air.

As soon as he had "regained his freedom," M. Le Pleynier quickened his
pace. The clatter of the hundred thousand spindles of Vendeuvre seemed
to have considerably decreased.  On the other hand, the enigmatic
silence of the "Nouveaux Etablissements Simler" weighed upon his
shoulders as though it had been supporting all the fringed shawls of
Israel.

Two blocks farther on, he ran into des Challeries and Huillery. The
former accosted him with vivacity: "Did you come by the Jews' factory?
Something must have gone wrong. They've stopped work."

"Anyway," the stout Huillery added, with a triumphant rage in his
voice, "their last balance-sheet can't have been as wonderful as
people make out. My information..."

"In six months they will have vacated the premises," des Challeries
broke in, rubbing his shapely hands together.

"If they haven't before that," growled Huillery, suppressing the
offensive word out of respect for the company in which he found
himself. M. Le Pleynier leaned towards des Challeries and said to him,
lowering his tone:

"You know my opinion about that. These are matters in which I have
neither mental nor material interest,

  "_I grieve for you...
  Not for myself, for I can flee, or hide_."

He made the other turn round, pointed out to him the Simler roofs,
visible above the monumental porch of Sa-bouret fils, and continued,
dwelling with emphasis upon the opening beat, the caesura and the
rhyme of each line:

  "_But mark yon hand that travels to and fro:
  A day will come, and come not slow,
  When that small grain it sheds will be your ruin.
  Breeding contrivances for your undoing,
  Springes and snares to catch you in,
  And many a noose and many a gin,
  Till when the fatal day has risen
  You'll all be dead, or clapt in prison.
  Beware the cage, beware the pan_."

[Footnote: As once before, I am indebted to my friend Mr. Edward
Marsh, for permission to quote these lines from his version of La
Fontaine's Fable, C. K. S. M.]

M. des Challeries settled his monocle in position: "Good heavens, my
dear friend, you seem greatly agitated! What about the time when you
tried to force them upon us as members of the Club?"

"I am no longer in business, thank God. I am restored to the status of
a man. But if I were one of you..."

"What about it? You see they have stopped work to-day.  This is only
the beginning of the end. I've even heard it said that they cleared
out during the night. Within six months from now, Gabard, rash fellow
that he is, and the bailiff Michonneau will be pasting up some
interesting documents on their gate."

M. Le Pleynier, who had walked away from him, returned, his forefinger
raised: "Cage or pan, des Challeries, cage or pan! That is why I say:

  "_And eat the seed while yet you can_."

"It destroys itself, my dear sir; without any need of all this
agitation."

But M. Le Pleynier was walking away, his head in the air, repeating
aloud:

  "_Beware the cage, beware the pan_!"

and leaving the other two in doubt as to his sanity.



On the evening of this day, Laure's sharp eyes were the first to
detect, high up in the sky, the tremulous apparition of the third
star. Kitchen and parlour at once learned the tidings.  The result was
an immediate clamour. A door opened to reveal Sarah's joyful smile:
"Supper is ready!"

A smell of rich soup crept over the floor. It rose and gripped the
members of the party by the shoulders. The folded _talesses_ were
already lying heaped upon the chimney-piece.  M. Hippolyte was the
first to appear; he was followed by Myrtil, his brow encircled with a
crimson weal where his hat had pressed upon it.

The table and the room itself were too small. Appetites of twenty-four
hours' standing brought the blood to their cheeks. A pink wine,
sulphurous as a gunflint, a noble relic of Alsace, saved in the
evacuation, sharpened the flavour of a boiled beef fit for the gods.
The children let the scalding marrow run onto long slices of bread
with salt butter.  And when hunger had fired its last shot at the
potatoes and lettuce, a dish of _gänsefleisch_, a terrine of
Strasbourg pâté, thirty feet of sausage and a mountain of fritters
trickling with grease came to remind the party that pleasure is au
worthy of respect as necessity.

Great was the merriment at the expense of Victor Léon, speechless with
astonishment at the thought of having kept another _Kippur_.

And the broker agreed that religion has its points, as he crunched
morsels of _griebe_ behind his moustaches. A drop of Vouvray succeeded
in convincing him that the Eternal had granted the pardon implored
throughout a night and a day.  The children had vanished. The women
drove the men into the parlour with their pipes and a priceless bottle
of Kirsch from the Black Forest. The storm that had been threatening
all day had passed away without breaking. Joseph and Guillaume
exchanged a glance and stole from the room.




VII


They made their way to the office, and Joseph lighted the lamp. A
modest allowance of alcohol, after a day of uninterrupted abstinence
and reflection, made their minds keen and alert.

The mail had been waiting for twenty-four hours. They sat down at
either side of the table and attacked it methodically.  It was the one
day in the year on which, by a tradition already of long standing,
this privilege was bestowed upon them.

"Bonnet," said Guillaume, "six pieces Loup de Mer."

"Sigaut-Legrand cancel the order they sent two days ago."

"What reason?"

"No reason. 'Deeply regret.' "

"Ye-es! Jalabert, of Dijon, four pieces blue serge."

"The _Bon Marché_... humph! Absolutely nothing they require... useless
for us to trouble... regrets."

"Must try them again."

"I intend to. If they think they're rid of us with a letter ..."

"Verneuil Brothers, ten pieces _pékiné General Faidherbe_, on
approval."

"On approval. We've got beyond the stage of approval."

Guillaume's uneasiness gives the answer to Joseph's ill humour.

"Will they stick to us?"

"Yes, with all sorts of airs and graces. I know the fellows; they've
no life in them. After their junior clerk had been keeping his
greatcoat for a month on their empty shelves, they would make me waste
four trips on begging them to be so kind..."

"_Belle Jardinière_," Guillaume went on.

"Ah, _Belle J--_?"

"Gentlemen, humph... deeply regret... promise not to forget you...
interesting samples..."

"What in hell! I know: 'delay in negotiations, previous orders,
long-standing relations with Elbeuf and Roubaix.' Well, Guillaume, you
can write them off."

"The _Belle Jardinière_ and the _Bon Marché_, both on the same day."

"A useful mail." "Let us get on."

But Joseph has flung himself back in his chair:

"There are days when one would like to let the whole thing go hang."

The unfamiliar languor in his voice makes Guillaume prick up his nose.

"Like Benjamin?" he inquires, in a tone which he is unable to rid of
its aggressive accent. "Like Benjamin."

"You knew about it."

"He gave me to understand... the day we went in the break."

This calm response comes as fresh fuel to Guillaume's nervous
irritation, like a faggot of dry wood.

"Pure madness."

"Humph...?"

"Jacob and Afroum are in a fine mess."

"Tut, their business is doing well."

"You are astounding. Grief counts for nothing with you?"

Joseph buries himself in a sort of abstraction which might be
considered affected. He adopts his most drawling tone: "Grief?
Whose... grief?"

"To chuck up everything; scribble a line from the post-office and get
away on a steamer, like a thief. I should never have thought it of
him."

Joseph lowers a vague gaze at his brother, through his spectacles:
"All the same, he has done what he said he would do."

"Done... what?"

"Tried his luck, given up what was becoming too easy, to start
afresh..."

"And, if I am not mistaken, you do not altogether disapprove?"

Joseph puts an excessive glibness in his reply: "I neither approve nor
disapprove. Every man is... free."

But this speech, no sooner uttered, has brought Guillaume with a bound
to the middle of the floor. "Free? No one is free. Everyone has his
task which he is bound to perform." "Bound?"

Without heeding the latent mockery, Guillaume paces the floor, with a
short, quick step: "As though it were easy to live when we _know_ what
we have to do. He has run away.  I call that cowardice. We have no
right, Chosef, no right.  There are certain things which we do not
leave behind us, like an empty barrel: the business to which we have
pledged ourselves and which bears our name, our parents, wife,
children.  We are all bound up with what we have done, and to-day is
bound up with yesterday, and to-morrow, and so on, like... like the
links in a chain. He thought he was setting himself free. He will live
and learn... And that was forbidden him, to him more than to anyone."

"Why?" Joseph inquires in an abysmal voice. The fanatic comes to a
halt, plants himself in front of him, and raises his Minor Prophet's
voice: "Because he was a Frenchman, Chosef, and he had the _good
fortune_ to fight for his country. That is what ought to have held him
back more than anything."

To this awakening of the memory which gnaws each of them alike, Joseph
replies feebly: "He had paid his debt."

"One does not pay. One never pays. One merely increases the debt."

"But Lambert!"

"By letting himself be killed, Lambert made Benjamin all the more
French, not any less."

An idea occurs to him, he suddenly lowers his tone:

"As a matter of fact, you may well ask yourself why...  at
Gravelotte... one was taken, and not the other?"

Joseph leans forward with a concentrated stare: "He was asking himself
that very question, Guillaume. Isn't that extraordinary?"

But already Guillaume has relapsed to the level of his everyday cares,
if not slightly below it: "Hermine was upset by his visit, the other
day, because of the effect it might have on Justin, you follow me?
>From that point of view, we may feel a certain relief."

It is now Joseph's turn to feel the tempest of rage beating up within
him: "Ugh! We've talked enough. To work."

He returns to his task, with a cold fury which astonishes Guillaume:
"Bazin, five pieces... We weren't asking him for chanty... A man who
offers us yarn... Another who wants to sell us oil. His prices are not
extravagant; we might consider him... The Clothweavers' Friendly
Society.  That's pretty good! They don't think us good enough to touch
with a pair of tongs, but they would like to have our quotations...
And who is this? Wilhelm! Wilhelm!  Wilhelm! Delmotte..."

"What, Delmotte? Tell me!"

"Delmotte, an order for ninety pieces, including sixty of _pékiné_
Châteaudun at seventeen fifty."

"_Donnerwetter_! Ninet..."

"One of Lorilleux-Pommier's customers!"

"Had you called upon him?"

"Not a word. I sent them my samples with my card, by a commissionaire,
six weeks ago."

"That's the stuff, we're _getting_ them."

"It's only a beginning... Wait six months, and you shall see."

While Joseph is rubbing his hands and performing other

gestures of the sort, Guillaume is hurriedly opening the remaining
letters.

"Eleven more pieces, in three orders: Mathias of Tours, Haas of
Limoges, and a man at Saint Denis; and two refusals, one from le
Havre... the other from old Cari-mand."

"Good _Kippur_, Guillaume!"

Joseph is on his feet, his spectacles beaming, and holds out his hands
to his brother. Guillaume grips them awkwardly.

"Good _Kippur_, Jos!"

But they might have told each other that, with the exception of
Joseph's one afternoon in May, none of the family has known what it is
to take an hour off for his own relaxation; the gate has never been
opened, in the morning, save by the hands of Guillaume; the pay has
never passed through any hands but Hippolyte's; Myrtil has taken in
his fingers and put to his nose a specimen of every bale of wool; no
customer has received a call from anyone but Joseph.

"They're sharp for profit; add it to their pile and leave it there.
Regular _Pruscos_," growls Pailloux, with a grudging respect for these
hard-working men.

"The _Bon Marché_ and the _Belle Jardiniere_, you'll get them, like
the rest, and the _Louvre_ thrown in!" says Joseph.  The envelopes
with their printed headings fly lightly about the room. The brothers
leave it. A sound of voices comes from the dining-room to which the
smokers have returned, from a preference for the round table and a
desire to economise in light. The full moon illuminates before the
brothers the architecture of their factory.

"Do you remember?" Joseph murmurs, almost unconsciously.  There is
nothing glorious about this little factory.  But every stone of it is
alive. Joseph amused himself with the calculation, during one of those
too inactive days at the start: capital, interest, machinery, looms,
cost of transport and installation--each stone and each brick works
out at eighty-two centimetres of cloth, cleaned and pressed.

"It is not paid for yet," replies Guillaume. A sigh expands Joseph's
breast like the bellows of a forge. He lays his hand with a fatherly
gesture upon his excitable brother's arm: "It is paying for itself
every day. Lorilleux-Pommier, by keeping up their 1802 scale of
prices, are paying us for it." Then, in a lower tone: "All the same,
what a cursed winter! Do you remember? When nothing was coming in, no
orders, no work. All those scoundrels who had taken advantage of the
war to step into our shoes. And the customers who answered us:
'Acquired fresh standards, show us what you're worth.'"

As if Guillaume does not remember! He gnaws his moustache and attempts
a sickly smile: "What a plunge that was, buying the factory."

But his smile is drowned by the surge of hateful memories.  With a
shudder he presses his arms against his chest upon which there
reposed, for two days and a night, the stipulations of the informal
agreement.

That madman Joseph has already darted off. He is pacing the night in
long strides; there he is melting into the shadow of the low wall; he
can be heard counting: "Seventy-nine ... eighty... this wall is never
eighty metres..."

A burst of laughter freezes Guillaume's blood. He, poor fellow, is
unable to live the past over again. These fourteen months have
definitely fixed his character.

While Joseph is on his way back to him, he is drawing up the budget of
their life. He has calculated it so often that the account is soon
balanced. Of the 210,000 francs which the factory cost, to which must
be added 10,500 francs of interest for the first year, 22,000 have
already been repaid, two months in advance, by a cheque dated July 31.
The cost of the looms and of installation is covered without
difficulty by increasing monthly installments.

But the notary of the German Emperor and King of Prussia is in no
hurry to sell the building at Buschendorf.  The grass is sprouting.
The windowpanes have become irresistible targets for the projectiles
of boyhood. A gale of wind has blown down half the chimneys. The
wooden gate has fallen; two letters have reported this damage.
Therefore: 60,000 francs to be deducted temporarily from the assets.

A _Rechtsanwalt_ has installed himself in the old home. He has been
most obliging; he has valued it at 20,000. But the Simlers have long
ceased to feel any surprise at this; for he sedulously forgets to pay,
and the imperial notary refrains from pressing him.

Of the 5,000 due from various debtors, 700 have been paid; the rest
must, it seems, be placed under the heading _War Risks_, which are not
covered by insurance.

The 8,000 francs for stock in trade have declined to 5,000.  The
removal worked out at not less than 8,000.

And if ten months of unceasing toil have already reduced to 230,000
the 260,000 francs of debt (buildings and material) which the
initiative of the young Simlers contracted in the West, on the credit
side there is nothing to be shown but 75,000, if the _Rechtsanwalt_
pays, or 55,000 if he proves a defaulter.

Now, to keep eight people alive upon an uncertain income of 17,000
francs, without a cent in reserve...

"What are you thinking about, Wilhelmr"

Joseph has been standing there for some time, his legs apart, gazing
at his elder brother. The moonlight accentuates the worn aspect of
that delicate profile. And when Joseph has followed his brother to the
warping-shed bathed in a blue radiance, the sight of the line of
buildings over which Guillaume reigns inspires the same thought in
them both: "We shall still need plenty of Delmotte's orders, to pay
for everything, to provide all our supplies..."

The machines stand there in a row with the tranquillity of creditors,
gluttonous and gorged. They do indeed embody a privileged debt, the
debt to labour. It is now ten o'clock at night; in eight hours more,
the siren of the Simler works will raise its voice to summon six score
workers to their toil.  Be the work scanty or abundant, its summons
will be equally imperious. No one will be able to detect in it the
tremor that reveals false courage.

How many mails to be opened and stock-takings to be made, before these
partial victories become the decisive victory!  Until then, a life of
bondage to the machine, yarn, labour, the stone of the walls, and the
balance-sheet re-drafted, a hundred times in a week, by shrewd
calculating brains.

Joseph examines the warping-machine of whose slowness Guillaume has
complained.

"Who sold it to us?"

"It was bought when we moved in, from Huillery. It has done forty
years' service. The wheels won't go round."

"Hm! A machine would come to...?"

"Three thousand five hundred."

"Three, five? Ha." (A pause.) "The saving in labour would balance the
cost of purchase, surely?"

For the last month Guillaume has been brooding over the figures.
"There can be no possible doubt of it, Joseph."

A silence big with meaning. Finally, it is broken by Joseph:

"Has any of them got one?"

"No, there's only old lumber like this, at Vendeuvre."

Joseph's large head rises with a jerk: "In that case, buy."

But Guillaume still has something on his mind: "Ver-viers offers
warping-machines at three, five... we might find one at Mulhouse...
for two, six... a less recent model."

"Take my advice, don't utter a word before Papa and Myrtil. We must
have the machine. Buy the model at three, five."

Guillaume heaves a sigh and passes his hand over his face.  He was
quite certain of Joseph's support. But now his warping-machine is
secured. He grips his brother's arm:

"You shall see, Joseph, you shall see!"

And, with a stifled squeal: "It is my share in Delmotte's order!"

The balance sheet of a moment ago is clean forgotten.  Their business
blood is hammering against their temples.  And the moonlight is
fortunately insufficient to reveal the alternate flush and pallor of a
thin man with the profile of a Persian king.

"Shall we take a little turn?" says Joseph. As they pass the iron
door, Joseph feels a burning little hand slipped into his own, and
Tintin raises a pair of imploring eyes towards him.

"Mamma said I might. It was so hot up there!"

The walls breathe upon their cheeks a dark, brick-kiln swelter. They
pass between the double hedge of their competitors.  They proceed
along the interminable front of the Lorilleux-Pommier weaving-mill,
whose six chimneys raise their crowned heads above an unmoving bank of
foliage. A feeling of satisfaction flows through their veins.

"Well?" comes at length from Joseph. Guillaume smiles, and suddenly
draws closer to his brother.

"Joseph, listen. Ahem..."

As he seems reluctant to continue, Joseph is obliged to supply a
little momentum: "Ahem? Get on with it!"

"The Sterns... the Sterns have behaved really well."

"No complaint to make," Joseph replies cautiously.

"We... one... they have the right..."

"To all our gratitude."

"To all our friendship, Joseph."

"They have."

"Good. Then I can ask you, in confidence: what do you think of Elisa?"

Tintin feels a quiver pass through the hand that is grasping his own.

"No fault to find with her, in the matter of gratitude and respect,
Guillaume."

"Yes, yes," his elder brother hastens to reply. "But in another
connection, Joseph?"

"Oh well, she's a big girl, and I wish her every happiness, Guillaume;
will that do?"

"Is that all you feel?"

"I suppose Cousin Mina has been raising hell over Benjamin's going.
She had them as good as married already."

"Yes, but Benjamin has gone. It is a question of deciding who is to be
Elisa's husband, and..."

"That leaves me quite unmoved," Joseph interrupts him in a calm tone.
"But if everyone else feels as I do, she runs a great risk of dying an
old maid."

Guillaume feels discouraged; he knits his brows and quickens his pace.
They no longer feel any desire to go on walking.  Tintin holds his
breath. He thrusts his hand anxiously into the hollow of his uncle's,
as though this contact were a secret confidence.

And yet they advance until they see, at the end of a street, the first
lamps of the Place d'Armes. Then they change their course and turn
homewards, without a word.

A hundred yards from the factory, a couple meet them.

"We've just come away from your place. These manufacturers deny
themselves nothing. They're not satisfied with our old _Kippur_ coffee
and milk!" cries Uncle Wilhelm with a forced gaiety.

Aunt Babette's black shawl is drawn tightly over her bosom. Her
nephews fail to appease her humour. She has declined, for herself and
her husband, the invitation to share the soup and goose. Her silvery
voice confines itself to the words: "Good night, good night!"

And off she goes, taking her old chatterbox with her.

Guillaume bows his head with a worried air. Joseph is now walking four
paces ahead; he is muttering to himself.  Tintin hears him say, with a
nervous shrug of his shoulders:

"Bah! After all..."

The fact is that the Simlers agreed, a fortnight ago, to let the
Sterns have their output in the summer of '73 at a special price. Blum
knew this; Blum has been waiting for the same offer to be made to
himself; Blum considers that the state of his own affairs entitles him
to this token of affection; Blum is still waiting; he will have a long
time to wait.

His nephews reach the gate. They bring back with them several damaged
articles: Guillaume, his diplomacy, Joseph, his blind faith in the
necessity of a strict industrial policy, Tintin--it would be hard to
say. And Joseph's flute may continue, for the next hour, to wail the
most lonely and desolate of its airs, but all in vain.




VIII


"You know, that stout monsieur Simler with spectacles, who called here
last spring?" said M. Le Pleynier.

"Yes?" came--in a tone that implied "no"--from his daughter, who knew
perfectly well to whom her father was referring.

"You don't remember him?" M. Le Pleynier insisted; "that worthy
Alsacian, in that incredible brown jacket, who stayed for an hour here
boring me with some story about the Club, and aimed at nothing less
than teaching us all how to live by making a little cloth at old
Poncet's place?"

As a general rule, if you are famed for your refinement, erudition, or
wit, you may be quite certain that this quality, whichever it be, will
invariably make your children lose their tempers, and will create a
permanent cause of discord between them and yourself.

M. Le Pleynier had well earned his reputation for enveloping his
subtlety in sententious, eloquent periphrases. Mlle.  Le Pleynier
might have become philosophically resigned to these. But we must make
allowances for a temperament in the composition of which gunpowder and
other explosives occupied an undue place.

"Yes? What then? Assuming that I do remember the young man. What
then?"

"It is not possible that with your discerning eye..."

"Oh, you'll make me die."

"You are astonishing. It amounts almost to divination.  All the
world..."

"What has all the world got to do with me? I leave the world alone,
and they will kindly leave me alone."

"Very good, my child. Do not be vexed with me, I beg of you," the old
man replied, expelling from his meerschaum pipe clouds of smoke that
were undeniably angry. A silence followed during which Hélène Le
Pleynier finished mixing a dish of bread, gravy and milk for her cat,
"my old-maid's cat," as this Power of two-and-twenty summers used to
call it.

But M. Le Pleynier had not an ounce of bitterness in his nature, and
as for Mlle. Le Pleynier, life was the only thing that mattered to
her. He raised his coffee-cup to his cleanshaven lips:

"It was the day when that rascal Brichet came to put a plaster on
Turc."

"That animal: I have never heard anyone talk so much nonsense about
animals," replied Hélène.

"It is quite true," her father said, laughing, "it is quite true that
Turc would have been better qualified to give advice to Brichet than
Brichet to Turc."

"Advice and plaster."

She rose, set the dish down on the hearthstone, and as she left it
there, wiping her hand on her blue apron, M. Le Pleynier shot an
incisive glance in her direction, and told himself once again that
there was no fault to be found with the perfect harmony of his
daughter,--with the sole exception that it was his daughter's, and
that, for that reason, he felt it to be his duty not to enjoy it in
silence.

"If he could bring himself to refrain from either flattering or
educating me, he would be the most tolerable of fathers," his daughter
used to say. But an evil spirit would whisper in the good man's ear
the very words of praise which a daughter cannot tolerate from her
father, or the most inopportune of moral maxims. He was clever enough,
but his cleverness was of no use whatsoever in domestic transactions.
And so he contented himself with bowing his shoulders to the tempests
that he provoked, without ever understanding, but without ceasing to
admire. For his daughter's superiority was the one dogma which he
would never have allowed himself to discuss, while he continued to
treat her as a child, as befits a father and a man of experience.

He joined her in the garden through which, already equipped with a
walking-stick, shawl and straw hat, she was making her way, book in
hand, towards her favourite retreat beneath the pines.

"As I was saying to you, my child, I met that stout Simler in brown
with spectacles, who paid us a visit on the day when that poor Brichet
had called to doctor Turc. Honestly, you can't place him?"

Mlle. Le Pleynier stopped, in some uneasiness. Her father was too
little interested in anything to keep to any topic of conversation or
to any person in the world, save herself and himself. But he was
pigheaded, and capable, by way of amusing himself, of the most
flagrant interference with the liberty of the subject. He continued,
as it happened, to dwell upon the topic with a splendid ponderosity:

"You don't recollect, either, the day when we were coming home in the
dogcart by the l'Épine road, and came upon him and all his tribe,
overturned in the ditch opposite the keeper's house?"

"It wasn't opposite the keeper's house, it was within a hundred yards
of the Fontaine de la Plate," thought Mlle.  Le Pleynier; "what is he
driving at?"

She felt herself filled with apprehension for herself and for her day,
that precious day which was like every other.  "Well, anyhow, I ran
across him last week, and told him that it would be a pleasure to us
both if he would come and see us one Sunday."

A warm flush suffused Mlle. Le Pleynier's face.

"What in the world possesses you, to make you mix me up in all your
calls and invitations? Haven't I begged you a hundred times not to
force me to make fresh acquaintances?  I have not the slightest
interest in this young man and he has not the slightest need to see me
again. It is quite sufficient that I appear to have met him once
already. You're always landing me in some trouble or other."

"But, my dearest girl, I really fail to see what trouble it can cause
you if I invite one of those worthy young Alsa-cians to my house. It
is of no consequence."

"Everything is of consequence. You know quite well that it is not to
your house that you are inviting him, but to mine, since you have been
so clever as to drag my name into it.  Besides, if I fail for a moment
to put in an appearance at this historic interview, I should not,
perhaps, have to listen to you reproaching me for the next month, and
calling me all the names under the sun?"

M. Le Pleynier made the hopeless gesture of a man who feels that his
reason has deserted him: "If I had supposed for a moment that I should
arouse such a hue-and-cry..."

Hélène returned with a firm step to the house, where she laid aside
her straw hat, her stick and her shawl. Her father stood for a while,
crestfallen, before the border in which his rose-trees were preparing
their last display of blossom, muttered a few quite meaningless
expressions and finally retired to his study, where he invoked sleep
to soothe his remorse.

He had not for a moment lost sight of the fact that to bring Joseph
Simler to the house would cause his daughter serious annoyance. She
had explained to him a hundred times over her reasons for withdrawing
from society, and a hundred times over he had agreed that she was
right. He had himself no other reason for what he had done than the
accident of his meeting with Joseph and a secret predilection.  But he
had, until the last moment, soothed his conscience with pretexts in
which he did not believe. The scene was enacted afresh every time. For
all his respect for his daughter never prevented him from doing what
he chose in the end.

And so, while the rumble of his pacified spirit shook a whole storey
of the house, on the floor above his daughter was getting rid of her
anger in interminable feats of pianistic velocity.

If Mendelssohn suffered thereby, the fault must be imputed perhaps to
that obliging genius himself. He has the fate that he deserves. He
serves as initiator, and we attribute to others the knowledge that we
owe to him; when the storm breaks, he is to be found in his place, to
dispel the vapours and profit by opportunities.

When she considered that the vapours were sufficiently dispelled,
Mlle. Le Pleynier shut her piano, but not with a bang, for she treated
that Father of Joys with respect, and sat down at her desk.

In a square, vigorous hand which traced the outline of each letter
with the unexpected, decisive stroke of a Japanese painter, at the
same time marking the paper with the force of Callot's needle, she
wrote, without raising her head from the table, the letter that
follows:


DARLING,

The dear good man is taking his nap, in his study, one of those light
snoozes with both eyes and both ears which you know so well, and you
would never guess, if you could hear how he is snoring, the trick the
cunning old wretch has just played upon me.

If he hasn't gone and found a new diversion in an unfortunate family
of Alsacians, driven from their home by the war, who have set up a
sort of dead-alive little weaving-plant at Vendeuvre! He met them, as
he never fails to meet any oddity that may be wandering over the
earth's surface, and he has naturally constituted himself their
protector.

All this would have mattered no more than anything else that he does,
had he not made up his mind to introduce them--each of them in turn, I
dare say--to me.

I can quite understand his becoming bored, poor man, with no society
but my own, and yours for a month or two now and again. But you know
all the efforts I have made to get him to consent to amuse himself. I
have succeeded in ridding him of almost all his scruples as to leaving
me alone in the house. With his club, his shooting, his griffons, his
four tenants to argue with him, and, last year, his famous
parliamentary candidature, and his newspaper after dinner and his
_Dictionnaire Philosophique_ after supper, and those _Souvenirs du
Coup d'Etat_ which he is compiling and does not fail to read to me for
my sins, and I listening to them as though they were the _Revelation_,
all this manages to pass a few hours. But God alone--and women--know
what a genius men have for not finding anything to do, and remaining
on our hands like lead. The sheer laziness of mind and body in which
most of the men whom I have met spend their lives is a thing that
always astounds me. A woman, at that rate, would waste away. The
silliest geese among us take ten times more trouble, since the mere
organic conditions of our life involve us, as a rule, in suffering
which the lord of creation would not endure for an instant.

I must however be fair. My father is the only more or less live man
that I have ever met. I am fully conscious of his merits. Which,
incidentally, accounts for his getting so upon my nerves. For we have
frequently observed, you and I, that when a girl takes to admiring her
father, it is imperative that she should not be able to endure him,
otherwise they both become too ridiculous and intolerable.  Now you
can say whether my father is not a man worthy of all respect. If I had
been of my mother's generation, and had met him, I would no more have
hesitated to marry him than she did.  But, good heavens, how bored I
should have been!  It is true that, with a nature like mine, I shall
die an old maid. And that will be a perpetual proof of what fools men
are. For you alone are not unaware, my dear and great friend, that I
am the most easy-going woman in the world.

If men only knew how little we are prepared to demand of them!
Honesty, generosity! What woman would not be satisfied with such a
jointure?

But no. The devil will have his due. They think to win us only by
their physical attractions, and (the cleverer among them) their
intellect.

Intellect, to be sure,--the minimum necessary for everyday life. That
is not enough for us, we must have the Whole, the Whole alone seems to
be worthy of our interest. I mean by this that great male intellect,
creative and fertilising, which must exist somewhere, since the world
continues to go on, but which I have never met. As for what they call
by that name, their schoolbook patter, their supposedly clever
conversation, which goes with good breeding as their neckties go with
their white shirtfronts, their tinsel wit, what use can we make of
these to live?

We are left, therefore, with physical attraction.  I can hear you
laugh from where I am sitting, you who have been married in the
fullest sense of the word. And you might hear me laughing merrily in
return, since even in the maiden state we have certain intuition, a
power of divination--since even a little girl of three _knows_ quite
well.

Who will get the idea out of their heads that when they appear in our
presence there can be any question of their being or making themselves
desirable, in the sense in which they doubtless understand the word? I
believe that this is really at the root of all the trouble. As they
judge us in the light of desire, they suppose that we judge them
accordingly.

That some of them may be repulsive, and others extremely appetising,
there is no use in denying.  But to say that, to a healthy-minded
woman,_ this feeling has the slightest connection with desire--you
know better than I what to think of that.  It is desire that, one day
or another, may give birth to physical attraction. But with what
careful attentions, I presume, that birth must be watched and tended
if it is not to end in immediate death?

Tell me, my dear good friend, you with whom I have never put any
restraint upon my thought or language, tell me if I am wrong in my
suspicion that, by his failure to use those attentions, man is reduced
nine times out of ten, to making the best of a woman's weakness and
consent? And does he not then assure himself, out of sheer vanity,
that he is tasting the fruits of a crop which has never sprouted from
the soil? Ah, Renée de l'Estorade, wisdom never sufficiently studied!

But doubtless this mutual deceit is in accordance with the secret ways
of nature, and it is because I have failed to practise it that I find
myself compelled to withdraw from the world, with, my twenty-two
birthdays, my "Wingless Victory" figure, and that pythian brain with
which you tease me. I cannot explain to myself, save by their disgust
at not finding me a blindfold partner in the charming game which they
have invented, why every man who has crossed my path should have
turned his back on me, shocked or mystified.

My feminine pride, however, cannot bear not to admit that there have
been a few who have left me captivated by my charm. But really their
insignificance made them resemble those vices for which there is no
excuse. Their sentiments succeeded only in making them slightly less
supportable.  You who have seen practically all the men whom I have
met in the last five years, must agree with me that not a single one
of them has ever been in the least degree attractive.

I shall marry or I shall not, according as destiny may have decreed.
But if my fate does intervene, it will manage everything by itself,
without any human assistance, least of all my father's. For he is
terrible. I can hear him as I write, going about everywhere repeating,
with that inimitable air which we know so well: "Yes, my daughter is a
superior person." But when he's calling upon his grain merchant, or
upon the Prefect, he never fails to ask them, between his bowings and
scrapings, if they haven't got a husband somewhere for me.

Does not all this help to justify my fury when he informed me just
now, innocently, that he had included me in his invitation to one of
those young Alsacians I told you about?

I have no longer a mother who would enable me to hold my tongue and
pass unnoticed. I am obliged to be there and to open fire, like the
Guards.  What is more, my natural warmth always gets the better of me
and carries me beyond the limits of prudence. You have seen me a
hundred times giving battle!

And so it was not for want of assuring him that I did not wish to meet
or know anyone in the world, this man no more than any other. And
indeed this man less than any other.

For I have met him already, this young man.  First of all, here; he
came to thank my father over something or other in which the people of
Vendeuvre had once again shown the meanness of their natures. After
which I passed him on the road, with his family.

Was it the man from the East, with his character and features? Or was
it the Israelite (I had never met one before)? Or was it not after all
simply the individual, and a sort of personality, I dare not say
superiority, diffused through him, that forced me to notice him?

The fact remains that this young man, who is neither handsome nor what
could be called seductive, but thoroughly clean and simple, seemed to
me to be of a different species. A sort of confidence in himself, an
abundant but controlled strength, pride marred by contempt for other
people--youth, a fresh life, quite new, active, curious and gay, life
in. short--a creature made to understand, to understand at once and
accurately the meaning, with the roots and radiations of one's
intentions, and no doubt, to anticipate, in a little while, and guess
them. Otherwise, a formlessness, a want of culture that are
stupefying. A regular child-man, in contrast to the men-children who
surround us.

And yet, in him, a unique.and unexpected element, by which I cannot
help being repelled, and for which I can find no comparison, except an
almost horrible image--that strange, quick, mechanical intelligence
that we observe in an ant, do you follow me? With that metallic
certainty which seems to us pitiless, because there is nothing in
common between their motives and ours.

But perhaps this is an impression that every man gives who is at all
original.

However that may be, even when he is reduced to his exact proportions,
this young man, you know as well as I, can have no place in my life. I
cannot consent to allow anything to enter it which will destroy the
organisation and balance that I have succeeded in giving to it.
Nothing will penetrate it henceforward that is not inevitable. Neither
an inquisitive stranger, nor anyone else. It is--since two events
which I need not recall to you--my last possession. Even if I am to
grow old alone, there are enough interests in this world to furnish my
existence from cellar to attic. So long as there remains a picture
that I have not seen, a symphony or a quartet that...

But the Power that disposes of our actions has determined to spare me
nothing. A moment ago the bell at the outer gate rang. Here he is
coming up the path. I can watch him approaching from my window. What
act of folly have I allowed my father to commit?

Thank heaven, he is not alone--he is leading a dark little boy by the
hand--is he married, then?--has he got a son?--There is a justice in
injustice after all. I shall confine myself to the child.

Can you decipher the hieroglyphics of these last lines? He is crossing
the threshold. I must tear myself from you.

Ah, my good friend, my dear old friend, why are you not here to bring
to the most barren of lives the support of your judicious, silent
presence?



The faithful Hilaire was already tapping at her door.  Hélène
recognised once again, in this zeal, the exclusive attachment of his
servants to M. Le Pleynier, and a trace of affectation in making
themselves his messengers.




IX


"I have taken the liberty of bringing my young nephew to see you,"
Joseph's unembarrassed voice sounded from the drawing-room on the
ground floor.

"Undoubtedly I am mad; _could_ that little dark curly-headed boy be
his son?" Hélène asked herself as she heard him, from the landing
above.

"You were quite right, my daughter adores children," M. Le Pleynier
replied.

"They have wakened him from his nap; he is furious," thought Hélène,
hearing the nasal, contemptuous tone that her father's voice had
assumed. And it would be untrue to pretend that she did not feel a
certain satisfaction.

She entered the room. Joseph held out his hand to her, while his eyes
sparkled cordially behind his spectacles.

"A bold beginning! In a minute, he'll be knocking me down!" and she
gave the Alsacian's hand a firm clasp.

M. Le Pleynier had definite ideas about the kissing of hands; he
turned his head away muttering: "English habits, I suppose"; and
Hilaire, who showed his face inopportunely at the door, received an
order the urgency of which was not apparent to him either at the
moment or afterwards.

Joseph was prepared to be subjected to the mocking attention of a pair
of large violet eyes. He was quite disarmed by receiving from them a
greeting that was slightly bored and full of commiseration. Hélène's
grave, controlled voice bade him good day, her hand had given a virile
response to his abrupt overture. He was left feeling a trifle ashamed
of himself.

"My young nephew, Justin Simler, Mademoiselle. I have ventured to
bring him with me. He is my companion on my walks."

Hélène was already making for the child, who stood stiffly in his
Sunday clothes, an absurd little round hat clenched in his fist, his
hands encased in gloves of champagne-coloured floss silk, matching his
socks. As he watched her approach he hardened his face, in which,
separated by a too long nose, a pair of fine dark eyes were filled
with a fierce defiance.

"Oho, this is a little chap who does not like women," thought Hélène,
as Justin timidly and disdainfully drew back after she had taken his
fingers in hers.

"We sent him to the lycée, when term began. _Naturally_, he went to
the top of his class at once," said Joseph, gazing proudly at his
nephew. The child did not move a muscle.

"A little boy ought not to listen so coolly to flattery of that sort,"
was Hélène's further impression. M. Le Pleynier scanned the boy with a
peremptory glare which confirmed his daughter's judgment. But, as
woman combines the elements necessary to criticism and to affection,
Tintin found himself taken in hand, relieved of his outdoor garments,
seated, and installed before a collection of the _Magasin
Pittoresque_, before he knew what was happening to him, and without
abandoning his airs and graces.

It was a fact that Justin had risen to the top of his class with a
bound, as though by instinct, and that he regarded this triumph, the
reward of a passionate self-esteem, but won without any great effort,
as the recognition due to his merits.

As for Joseph, the first word that Hélène uttered had struck him full
in the face, and from that moment he floundered through a morass of
deceptively familiar memories: "When have I been before, with these
same people, at the same time of day, in this same situation? Tintin
was _already_ perched on those cushions, _she_ was _already_ smoothing
down the pages of the book with the tips of her fingers, and the old
gentleman was _already_ asking me..."

"Well, Monsieur Simler, have your prophecies been fulfilled?"

"It's the same, appallingly the same," Joseph told himself, making
superhuman efforts to escape from the hallucination.  He flushed
crimson, his ears began to twitch, this being his habitual reaction to
the slightest emotion. Tintin was watching him covertly with surprise.
Hélène intercepted an imploring glance and replied to it with so
directly indulgent a smile from her handsome mocking eyes, that the
Alsacian found himself plunging, thirty fathoms deep, into the most
luminous of aquariums.

"_She_ looked at me in just that way, while I was thinking the very
same thing, that other time...."

Meanwhile he was perspiring with the effort to reply to M. Le
Pleynier.

"Not too bad; it all fits in, you know... even the style of hair...
ahem, the millinery... I mean to say, the retail trade."

He was hypnotised by the other's whiskers. He stopped short, literally
streaming.

"What nonsense is this he's telling me? Can he be drunk?" M. Le
Pleynier asked himself as he scrutinised him.

"Spectacles don't always make a person look silly," thought Hélène.
She smiled faintly, and focused her attention upon the _Magasin
Pittoresque_, in which Justin was discovering a far larger and more
varied universe than he had hitherto supposed to exist.

"What the devil!" Joseph could not help muttering. This false identity
was still floating treacherously on the surface.  But he felt that the
illusion would soon be dispelled. The sound of voices drew nearer. He
was tempted to regret it.  These phantom surroundings released him, or
so he felt, from the exaggerated formalism of the real world.

In a minute or two, he found himself in a fit state to show a bold
front to the questions with which the "old gentleman" was assailing
him.

"The industrial crisis?" So there was a crisis? To tell the truth, he,
Joseph Simler, had heard it mentioned often enough in the course of
his canvassing of customers. He had heard a confused sound of
complaints round about him. But they themselves paid no attention,
being at work from morning to night, and meeting literally nobody at
Vendeuvre.

"Which proves that you have every cause for satisfaction with the
state of your own business."

If he answered yes, it would not be true, and yet, without any thought
of subterfuge, it would be wrong to say no.

"Still, the crushing burden of the new taxes..."

"Undoubtedly, but by working hard..."

"The decline of the purchasing power of the masses..."

"Yes, possibly. But there is always a demand for cloth, after all. And
when one is turning out tolerably good stuff, at a price that is not
too high..."

"You are fortunate. It is not everybody who can say the same," M. Le
Pleynier replied from the depths of his armchair, drawing several
mouthfuls of smoke in succession from his pipe and raising his head
with an air of annoyance.

"You think so?" said Joseph, with a malicious dilation of his eyes.

"He is _decidedly_ charming," thought Hélène, as she watched them from
where she was sitting; "and not too ant-like after all; only a
little."

The pictures of the vast world, softly engraved in copperplate, or
subjected to the romantic treatment of the woodblock, were passing
meanwhile before the eyes of Tintin.

He became more human, and ventured at times upon a question.  Then the
tip of a long sunburned finger turned back in search of the picture,
and, in a tone of confidence, a warm, grave, controlled voice told him
of astonishing sorceries.  The finger, the voice, this atmosphere of
liberty in a sphere of interests into which he had never penetrated,
the discreet attentions of the young lady, the absurd and nevertheless
imposing manners of the Old Gentleman seemed to him to be so many
disloyal counterfeits. And why was Uncle Joseph's face so red?

The choice that a child of ten makes among different representations
of the world is undoubtedly the most instructive of all lessons.
Hélène did not hesitate to make use of it.  The prints of battles,
Alphonse de Neuville's battle-pieces, or pictures of bridges, railway
stations and steamboats were the only ones that found favour in
Justin's sight.

"You like that one?" Mlle. Le Pleynier would ask as she saw him bend
over it.

"And this one?" she would then insinuate treacherously as she paused
at the next page, upon which there might be a Delacroix, a Velasquez
or a Titian. The child made a grimace and passed on. And yet a
grotesque figure made him laugh, and the head of Leonardo, the great,
white-bearded head of the Father of Magicians, held his attention for
a moment, but only as a joke.

"The war generation, a barren harvest," thought Hélène, with the
reflection that it was among this generation that she would end her
days. As he had said twice: "At my lycée," she realised that this was
the way of approach to the real Justin Simler. They set out along it,
the boy taking the lead without hesitation. His young masculine
arrogance made her feel at once the importance that she must attach to
such a guide. An inimitable look of superiority fell from his altitude
upon the girl's humility. This storehouse of three weeks' experience
condescended thus to reveal a certain tale of mutiny against a
drawing-master, and the odious tyranny practised upon a score of
youthful liberties by a fat, squinting, stammering usher; he mingled
with these information concerning tricks whose object was to filch
from the housekeeper the dusters used for cleaning the blackboard, the
comparative merit of the cream buns sold by the porters of the Petit
and Grand Lycées, and the history of a composition which a Veteran had
cribbed from a New Boy, who had basely sneaked to the Authorities; one
could not be quite certain whether the New Boy (denounced, brought
before a court martial, condemned and sent to Coventry) had not acted
precisely as would have acted, in his place, a little fellow in Sunday
clothes, whose skinny calves emerged from socks of yellow floss silk,
with a pair of feverish eyes divided by a nose that was slightly too
big.  But Hélène did not allow this person to utter more than the
minimum of nonsense which it is not always possible to check in time,
and came away from this conversation considerably edified.

The conversation between the Old Gentleman and Uncle Joseph was not
flagging meanwhile. Mlle. Le Pleynier, who seemed to possess more than
one pair of eyes and ears, lost none of it. She was greatly amused in
following the meanderings along which her father's caprice, curiosity,
insolence and laziness were leading Joseph. She held herself in
readiness to count him out. Impartial justice obliged her to admit
that the Alsacian was managing to avoid, skilfully and openly, the
most ingeniously laid traps.

"He has found his match," she concluded finally, without guessing
whence she derived a certain feeling of satisfaction, which, however,
she did not allow to appear.

The young man got wind of something. He kept turning his face in
Hélène's direction. She was not long in noticing that he did this more
readily whenever he had reason to be not unduly dissatisfied with
something that he had just said. He encountered however nothing but
the impressive curve of a domed head, sloping down to the most
mysterious of necks, and of superb waves of ashen hair, bordered by
the pearly strand of a forehead. When on one occasion she was so
incautious as to raise her eyes from the _Magasin Pittoresque_, he
flushed so violently that she vowed that she would not let herself be
caught again. And it was at this moment that she began to take notice,
without deriving any pleasure from them, of various things.

M. Le Pleynier meanwhile was pursuing the satisfaction of his designs
with the encyclopaedic politeness of Rica and Usbek. He came at length
to the second of his objects: having tried to make Joseph discuss the
affairs of the Simler family, he attacked him upon "Jewish
ceremonies."

"Tell me, now, Monsieur Simler," he began, watching the other with his
little pig's eyes, "what is that fast that you were celebrating, on
the day when I so unfortunately broke in and disturbed you?"

"To tell the truth, it _is_ a curious way of spending a day," said
Joseph without any false modesty.

"To what does it correspond?"

"Twenty-four hours free from any distraction, which we spend in
self-denial and in prayer--you understand, I am not very well up in
these matters, but it is supposed to deliver us from our sins," the
Alsacian replied with a smile.

"You believe in it?"

"It has always been done."

"You fast, literally."

"Heavens, yes."

M. Le Pleynier remembered the waxen cheeks and eyelids of the stalwart
young man who was now uttering these words.

"Quite so," he growled. He went on: "You believe in miracles then,
Monsieur Simler?"

"Not for a moment."

"In that case...?"

"What do you suppose? All the Israelites fast, on that day, throughout
the whole world. That in itself is something."

Hélène inclined over a picture of Taku a passably anxious face; Justin
had stopped looking at the pictures and was blushing as he listened.

M. Le Pleynier had purled out his chest; he tried to be humorous:
"Twenty-four hours, you say? You don't include the night?"

"We are not supposed to sleep."

"You are joking! You go without sleep?"

Joseph gave a hearty laugh.

"I sleep, yes; but neither my father, nor my uncle..."

"What? Monsieur Hippolyte S--"

"Yes, the older generation."

"Pffff! And these gentlemen remain on their feet all night reading
Hebrew, with little caps on their heads?"

Joseph nodded in assent.

"And why do not you follow their example?"

"The custom is dying out."

"But you don't understand a word of what you are reading?"

"My father and uncle understand. Most of the Jews in Alsace know
Hebrew."

"Well then, are these gentlemen convinced of their ultimate
absolution?"

"I know nothing about it. We have never talked about it."

"Never talked about it? Never discussed it?"

"No," the Alsacian replied calmly. "It is always done.  It is our
hallmark."

"There it is, the ant!" Hélène said to herself with an intolerable
mingling of horror and nervous strain. She had, for an instant, the
feeling that it was no longer her father who was "winning," but Joseph
Simler. And this was to her a novel spectacle.

"Well then, if you have already eliminated the night, what will the
young generation do," M. Le Pleynier went on in an aggressive tone,
pointing the bowl of his pipe at Justin who was frozen stiff with
shame, "after they have been educated in the lycées of the Republic?"

"I know nothing about it. I never had time to go to college, you know.
It's nothing to boast of. I am as ignorant as a block of wood." (At
this point, a glance at Hélène.) "But I don't think that education
makes any difference to _that_."

"_Sacrebleu_, if you are French citizens, what need have you to be
also... ahem! citizens of Israel?"

"Is it you who ask me that, Monsieur Le Pleynier? People take good
care to remind us. Did not the Cercle du Com--"

"Quite right, yes.... After all... A band of idiots and savages. But
you have just emerged from your native fastness, Monsieur Simler,
without being any the worse for that. People do not know you. Whereas
in twenty years' time, these..." and once again he pointed the bowl of
his pipe at Justin.

"It is possible," Joseph replied laconically, with a swelling of
admiration and pride as he looked at his nephew, "but then they will
know better than we what they have to do."

Hélène could not endure any more. The boy, by her side, was grinding
his teeth. She interrupted the conversation: "You are boring us, Papa,
with these stories. Everyone acts as he thinks fit. Why don't you show
your griffons to Monsieur...?"

She laid her hand on the arm of the child who raised towards her a
pair of eyes from which the last trace of confidence, of condescension
even, had vanished. But Hélène's smile had evidently the power to melt
his black cloud as butter melts in the sun, for he succeeded in
uttering, in a hoarse whisper: "Justin."

The girl then completed her sentence, confirming with a glance this
unspoken reconciliation: "... why don't you show your griffons to
Monsieur Justin?"

"Come along!" said M. Le Pleynier. He could always rely upon his
daughter to get him out of an awkward situation.




X


Hélène could do herself the justice of admitting that she had done
nothing to help Joseph to find himself by her side, in the garden, and
everything to prevent him.

But, restored to the glory of his griffons, M. Le Pleynier had
distrusted the weaver's enthusiasm. As soon as his daughter had gone
to put on her gloves and hat, he had taken Justin's arm in his and
carried him off in the direction of the kennels, hopping along the
ground with a surprising agility, to make the child laugh.

And so, what ought not to have happened had every facility for coming
to pass.

"You do not go out much, Mademoiselle," said Joseph, by way of a
start. How was it that he managed to keep every trace of silliness or
commonplace out of these half-dozen hackneyed words?

"Gracious, no," replied Hélène. She bent her brows and gazed remotely,
with a pained recognition, at the country which had kept company with
her for two and twenty years.

The Le Pleynier house was built on the edge of the plain.  A strip of
twenty-five acres, long and narrow, lay between it and the main
entrance to the property, and the Nantes road. A large grove of forest
pines, artificial meadows, a kitchen garden and a sort of Norman
close, planted with apple-trees and black cherries, formed the upper
part of the estate.

The dwelling-house, which dated from the Regency, stood facing the
road. It exposed, to the south, three sides of a rectangle open
towards the valley, overlooking clumps of ancient trees--and wide low
pastures. Beyond the sunken channel of the river, there rose, on the
farther bank, an ascending slope of red tilled land. Lastly,
dominating the whole scene, the mighty shoulder of the plain resumed
possession of the horizon half a league farther off, and stretched
away to the south carrying its burden of parks, harvest fields, elms
and light.

Summer was at an end. The blue of the sky still remained almost
mineral. But the mark of autumn was already visible on the under-side
of every leaf.

Joseph was never to forget the brilliance of this day, nor the
astonishing red glow of the creepers that covered the walls of the
house.

He cast his eyes round about him: "I can understand," he said. The
tone of his voice made Hélène bend her brows yet farther. She gazed
despairingly down into the valley, and advanced rapidly along the path
on which her father had preceded her.

"Why, oh why?" she thought, while the' blood surged to the tips of her
ears. An apprehension of the inevitable lurked in each of his words,
and gave it its flavour.

He had the sense not to run after her and keep by her side. She heard
his step keeping pace with her own: "There--the pitiless activity of
the ant!"

"Have you not a brother, Mademoiselle?"

"Yes, indeed."

"Is he like you?"

Hélène looked at the questioner. She could perceive nothing but fear
and timidity. A pair of meek eyes were turned towards her with a
fervent humility. She felt almost as though a lump of ice had been
laid between her shapely shoulders.

But it is not untrue to maintain that laughter is the best tempered
weapon that has been given us to resist the assaults of the Evil One.
Those whom nature has endowed with it are unconscious of their own
power.

Hélène's laugh flashed forth like the irresistible dart of an April
sun. It had a marvellous variety, being, according to circumstances, a
token of understanding, an offer of friendship, a message of esteem,
praise, reserve, an evasive response, a refusal untinged with
bitterness. One expression only was lacking from it: mockery. Abundant
joy in life does not go with the offensive spirit. Besides, the risk
is great; a woman does not venture upon mockery save in extreme cases.
To attack is to admit equality. In all other circumstances, silence or
gaiety is the weapon to adopt.

Hélène's laughter would intervene to dispel, in conversation, the
stagnant mists in which misunderstandings are bred. It circulated like
a keen, invigorating air. And it was all the more surprising in that
it was not in harmony with the tone of her voice, which was normally
grave and if anything slightly subdued.

As for the man who failed to play up to certain sprightliness, like
that of an old sister of charity, he was doomed never to understand
anything of the character of Mlle. Le Pleynier.

Having then turned over and weighed in all its bearings the question
put to her by this man who was now engaged in tugging his moustaches,
Hélène let her eyes stray back to her valley and burst out laughing:
"Is he like me? Ah, the dear boy! He would be greatly embarrassed if
he were."

"And why?" inquired a voice muffled like the sound of a distant drum.

The friendly laugh broke out more irresistibly than before: "Why?
Because he has already as much Le Pleynier blood in his veins as is
good for him, and a little drop more would prevent him from having any
sort of career."

Joseph allowed himself to be captivated by this gay humour:

"It is a very terrible thing then, that blood?"

"You may well say so," replied Hélène, taking care not to meet his
eye. There shone in her own eyes a sparkle which was not to be
misinterpreted, as it were a ripple of overflowing vitality. She
added, in the gentlest tone that she could assume, at this instant in
which she felt as though she held the world in her hand like a ball:
"Blood of foolish, idle, independent people. Not at all suited to the
public service."

"But, Monsieur your brother is..."

"An officer? Don't talk about them! They think about nothing but their
promotion and their cliques. A fine mess they've made of France!
Haven't all the defeated generals been decorated and promoted, with
one exception?"

"And who is that?"

"Who? Denfert-Rochereau."

The girl's brows shot down for the second time, like a pair of
sash-windows. Joseph was entirely ignorant of all public questions. He
looked upon every officer as a born hero.

"I meddle with things that are not my business," she went on, resuming
an air of gaiety. "My brother Julien is an excellent fellow, who is so
foolish as to imagine himself a Legitimist because he has a good seat
on a horse and makes out that he has noble blood. A Le Pleynier must
always have a fad of some sort."

"Do you see him often?" Joseph inquired. The idea of this horseman
displeased him.

"No, not very often. He hunts a great deal, with genuine nobles and
sham ones. And then there are the intrigues which take up most of
those gentlemen's time. They imagine that they are conspiring whenever
a group of them get together to sneer at Thiers or Gambetta."

Joseph opened his mouth uneasily: "Your father, is he...?"

"My father? He was the Republican candidate, last year; he was in
prison for a week, at the Coup d'État. It was in that wood, look, that
the gendarmes were ambushed, and there is the road on which they
arrested him and my Uncle Julien, as they were coming back from
partridge shooting.  No, you must leave my father out of that," she
concluded with a smile. He was disagreeably impressed by this manner
of treating the most formidable masculine interests. He wondered in
what way he might himself fall a victim to this irony, the indulgence
of which, at the moment, escaped his notice. He found all this
vivacity disconcerting. And Joseph Simler remembered suddenly that his
idea of women had always been that of a modest, silent, frail and
gently exacting creature.

None of these fluctuations was lost upon Hélène. She could not help
murmuring, with harsh blend of contempt and relief: "Heaven be
praised! He is _like_ the rest."

But Joseph was not _like_ the rest. This was indeed one of the things
that distinguished the firm of Simler. He was the man who is
frightened and tempted by the unknown.  It must not be forgotten that
Benjamin, who had embarked for the New World, was his cousin, and that
Guillaume, who had decided upon the purchase of the Poncet factory,
was his brother.

There was another thing that prevented him from being like the
rest--namely, that however much he might reason about events and
arrive at false conclusions, his mind still remained open to any fresh
sensation.

Now, in the present instance, two sensations prevailed in his mind:
the first was one of exhilaration at this feminine society. He was
making one surprising discovery after another.  Hermine, Elisa, Mina,
even Sarah--none of these honest housewives had prepared him for such
an adventure.

Moreover, it was beyond question that the "dear and great friend" was
not exaggerating when she spoke to her Hélène of her "Wingless
Victory" figure. Hélène was extremely beautiful. Even the supreme
advantage of a perfect skin was not lacking, with that piquancy which
Rome never succeeded in discerning in Greek marbles. With her
suppleness, strength, harmony of motion ("the expression of Minerva in
the body of the Amazonian Venus" was another of her old friend's
tributes), Mlle. Le Pleynier furnished that so rare combination, in
which pure femininity loses none of its rights and acquires all the
others.

Nothing is less in the fashion of the times, whatever fashion,
whatever times be in question. And so no man until then had observed
this phenomenon save with alarm.  "Hélène will die an old maid" had
been Madame Le Pleynier's last words, on her deathbed, to "dear and
great friend." And no one had ever yet discovered a single occasion
upon which the late Madame Le Pleynier had been proved wrong.

Nevertheless, arriving upon the scene with a fresh vision and an
ingenuous spirit, Joseph found no reason in his heart to restrain him
from feeling Hélène's beauty as keenly as a woman's beauty can be felt
by a man.

This explains why, just as he was succumbing to these disagreeable
impressions, the gesture with which the girl straightened the shawl on
her shoulders and round her neck reverberated in the darkest recesses
of his being.

"Haaah!" was the cry that sounded in those dark recesses.  And his
heart began to throb.

He thought it due to a lingering trace of rancour to declare, drily:
"Well, you know, I have no education, and really I have not the time
to take an interest in that sort of thing."

"I understand you perfectly. The most trivial occupation is less
sterile."

"But you must have some opinion about these matters, since you are a
Republican..."

"Lord, yes," she replied, not without amusement. "Only with me it is a
matter of instinct, it's the Le Pleynier blood that decides."

"Your brother, then..."

"My brother derives his royalism from the few drops of Villepin blood
that we have in our veins."

"From the..."

"My mother was a Villepin. But she derived all her character from my
grandmother, who was a bourgeoise, a Bazinette. The true-blue
Villepins have never believed in anything that was not quite correct."

"You go back a long way?" asked Joseph, simply, after a pause. Hélène
smiled.

"A family of lawyers. We have always had a weakness for scrivening.
But every family goes back a long way."

He blushed as he answered: "Of course. I think it is better not to
bother about it."

"And why?"

"Because it is not good for us to torment ourselves with questions
about our origin and from where we derive our good and bad qualities."

"It is quite true that, if you are looking for men of action, you are
not likely to find them among us."

"I imagine," Joseph Simler pursued, flushing a deep crimson, "that you
_too_ regard action as the essential thing?"

"Oh, the dear simple fellow!" thought Mlle. Le Pleynier.  She gazed at
him, and it was with the utmost seriousness that she replied:
"Unquestionably!"

As for him, the onslaught of those eyes, more abounding than ever in
indulgence and vitality, made him lose his head.

("They are not grey," he told himself indignantly, "they are violet.")
"I could not conceive a life devoted to anything else..." ("than what
I am doing," he ought to have said) "than a struggle. To go ahead, to
be always advancing, and to take the lead, whatever your goal may be,
I hold that that is the principal duty of man. In any case, it is not
possible to find another that is preferable, because the effort to
become the first, wherever you may be, is always difficult, and does
not leave you time to think... of other things.  If everyone thought
only of performing his task as well as possible, there would be no
need of all these laws and discussions.  However, talk never prevents
anyone from filling the place that he ought to fill."

Hélène listened to him, curious and slightly flushed. He tugged his
moustaches again with his hand, which, plump as it was, was white and
muscular, and felt the need of her approval: "Don't you agree with
me?"

"I think that you have expressed admirably the ideal of many
healthy-minded men. Possibly the human race is not exclusively
composed of men who are altogether healthy, in that sense, and what
seems to us most alien to ourselves is at the same time indispensable
to the world. Besides," she added with a laugh, "you are right to
speak as you do; a woman might think rather differently, from her own
point of view."

"A woman?"

"A woman, yes. While approving without reservation of what you say,
she might not very well be able to follow your rule of life. It takes
wood to make a fire, but it takes water to make wood."

"I must seem to you very absurd."

"Absurd? Good heavens!"

"I have read nothing, I know nothing, and you who..." he said,
reversing his opinion with a regal unconsciousness.  "Oh, for pity's
sake, do not attempt to compare a busy life with a woman's idleness."

"There is something else."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Yes, yes. I know a number of... I am surrounded by women who..."

When a man has arrived at the point at which he begins to compare a
woman with the rest of the world, and to bring her that world timidly
in the hollow of his hand, as though it were a present of no value,
then is the time for that woman to discover her own true nature.
Hélène's blood ceased to flow, for the space of a breath, then began
again, in time for her to parry in haste: "I have neither husband nor
children to look after, Sir," she began, attempting to drown Joseph's
speech in an unctuous flow of words. "I do not speak of my father, who
is the least difficult man in the world to surround, nor of this house
which runs by itself, with a staff of old servants. A girl left to
herself finds ten times more leisure than she needs to..."

He cut her short, in a tone of authority: "It is not that at all,
Mademoiselle. The women of whom I am speaking have never had four
ideas in their heads." He checked himself.  "It would be wrong to
reproach them with their want of education. Besides, their way of
life..."

"This man is goodness incarnate," thought Hélène.

"But, let me explain, what they lack is something different, it is..."

He raised his head, looked round about him, and heaved a deep sigh,
followed by an abrupt silence.

Fifteen paces farther on began the display of the griffons.  Hélène
dreaded each of those fifteen paces; and the burden of the silence
seemed to her heavier than she could have imagined.

She felt Joseph's eyes upon her--twice. But could she prevent her gait
from being the motion of the prow of a ship plunging through the
waves?

Could she prevent the man who was walking by her side--_the first man_
that she had ever met--from beginning to tremble like a child?

M. Le Pleynier was very proud of his griffons. He had arrived at the
breed by judicious crossings. They bore his name: "Le Pleynier
griffons." They had won a prize in London.  Indeed, he had just
presented a couple to M. Thiers, and was delighted to show you the
autograph letter which he had received from him, although, in his
heart of hearts, he felt nothing but contempt for the fierce little
veteran.

Halting before the bars of the kennel he explained the dogs' points to
Justin, with emphasis rather than with accuracy of detail.

The kennel was quite well kept. Seven wiry mops of brown hair,
animated by a perpetual agitation, were flying from side to side, at
express speed, each upon four woollen muffs, wagging a stump of furry
tail. The precious detail of their truffle-like noses, the carmine of
their throats, the pink of their tongues, and most of all the pairs of
gimlet-holes which their eyes filled with a black glow, at once so
vivid and so deep, gave an animated appearance to these bundles.

They leaped up and down in the air, like jacks-in-the-box, and barked
themselves hoarse, in honour of man.

M. Le Pleynier exhibited with pride a system of sleeping-pens invented
by Hilaire. The roof opened by means of a pair of hinges, like the lid
of a box, which made it easier to clean out the place.

And yet the griffons looked dirty and had an unpleasant smell.
Everywhere there recurred this curious blend of neglect and attention
which had already struck Joseph, at the time of his former visit, as a
sign of dilettantism, and which contrasted so profoundly with the
domestic cleanliness which Sarah and Hermine carried to the pitch of a
shameless persecution.

M. Le Pleynier did not have all the satisfaction that he had expected.
For Hélène's cat, having come to join them, slipped with arched back
between the visitors and the kennel.  The griffons followed her
movements with gaping jaws from behind the bars.

Justin was far more keenly interested in the cat than in the dogs.
Hilaire, appearing at the critical moment, beckoned to him, and
carried him off to see, in a basket lined with a cast-off woollen
garment, six sightless kittens, the litter of the previous week. The
fierce strategist of the sixth form discovered that he possessed the
heart of a little child and was not ashamed to show his emotion.

When he was on his homeward road, entirely taken up with the kittens,
he did not fail to notice that Uncle Joseph appeared nervous. He
walked with a jerky step, breathed hoarsely, and kept turning his head
to right and left, as though he were suffocating.

Intercepting his nephew's uneasy glance, he took him up suddenly in
his arms and planted a kiss upon each of his cheeks.

"_We_ have spent a happy day?"

Justin nodded his head, making a grimace with his lips: too much
woman, too much Old Gentleman, too many inconsequent remarks, he
decided in his heart of hearts. The strange pleasure that his uncle
seemed to value so highly was indeed slightly embarrassing to the
nephew, even although he could not tell what the matter was. Who,
indeed, could have told?

Yes. Justin learned something that same evening, when, at dinner time,
a ring at the bell preceded the jubilant entry of Hilaire, carrying a
little brown basket, with a note for Monsieur Justin.

'"What a horror!" exclaimed Grandmamma, when, from the basket lined
with clean cloth, Justin extracted a blind kitten. The letter ran:


MONSIEUR JUSTIN,

You appear to be fond of kittens. Here is one.  Feed it on nothing but
milk for a month and see that it has a little heap of cinders. It will
look after everything else itself. My father and I were delighted to
make your acquaintance. Come again as often as you like. And please
invite Mademoiselle Laure to come with you.

Your friend,

HÉLÈNE LE PLEYNIER.




XI


The feet of the dancers beat on the sounding-board of the floor like
rhythmical showers of small gravel. The oil lamps swing on their
wires, and circumscribe the extent of the shadows beneath. The
oxidised flakes of their last leaves indicate the position of the
shrubberies. The regular patrons nevertheless find the seclusion which
they deem necessary for their exploits; soothing violins sound through
the branches; grisettes offer the resistance that is expected of them;
now and again the sharp sound of a slap rouses the energy of the
orchestra, which responds, to the great delight of the public, with a
rude noise on the trombone.

Two acidulated violins, a cornet (for sentiment), a trombone and a
cello (for awkward moments) distribute rhythm and love to the two
hundred patrons who keep moving among the cast-iron tables and
leafless lilacs, beneath the uncertain favours of a warm November sky.
But the orchestra grows animated. Cora and Léocadie have gathered up
their dubious draperies in their hands and the chahut begins.

A lad from one of the humbler outskirts, in a threadbare jacket,
muffler and cloth cap, stands up to face them and thus pays for his
right to sip the Suresne of the establishment.  Two men in corduroys,
whose flowing locks grease their shoulders as their imperials grease
their chests, come forward arm in arm to offer themselves as partners,
without relinquishing their pipes. A moment later, there is nothing
but a whirl of legs and down-at-heel slippers.

"That looks like business," shouts a jubilant voice. Only a few
couples of sentimental dancers insist upon keeping the floor in an
intense silence, and turn their backs upon the cancan, with the smiles
of waxwork figures.

Four groups have formed for _chahut_. Thread stockings, silk
stockings, woollen socks, cotton socks, slippers, high heels, patent
leather boots, rope soles, patched soles, kick the lamps up to the
ceiling and hammer the boards of the floor.

The wretched two franc musicians grow excited in earnest.  They break
off playing, streaming with perspiration, to utter wild cries and bang
their instruments with their fists. The figures become muddled, ladies
and their squires gambol about, slap their thighs, and utter loud
exclamations. A circle is formed round a pseudo-painter, capped _à la_
Fra Diavolo, who, pipe in hand, is spinning round at such speed that
his legs are visible only in a mist.

The orchestra expires breathlessly with a bray from the cornet
supported by an unrehearsed trill from the trombone.  A volley of
protest resounds. A first violin turns to face his audience. He
embarks upon a speech which is drowned amid animal cries. An ovation
is made to his honest alcoholic head, fringed with a quadrogenarian
mane. The women scream with the full force of their lungs, the men
execute their final pirouettes, sprinkling the floor with a generous
libation of sweat.

The clamour dies down. Cheap brandy and cherries in spirit are brought
in to moisten the interlude.

The company is not promiscuous. Soft felt hats indicate artists,
bowlers, wrestlers and journalists, cloth caps bullies.  Studios and
slums fraternise. No bourgeois ventures upon the heights of
Montmartre, after dark, save an occasional party of bankers or
diplomats, escorted by policemen in plain clothes.

This is why the entry of four tall hats creates a sensation.
Comfortable winter greatcoats enlarge the figures of the wearers. They
have cigars in their mouths, and sport the jovial complexion of people
whom a copious dinner has sent up to explore these heights, from the
_Anglais_ or _Voisin_.

A waiter hastens to clear a table for them. The newcomers take their
seats, looking round them with the provoking smile that is bred of
nervousness. The great mill-sails that cut off the sky, to right and
left of them, distract their attention.  They are flushed after
scrambling up the path which climbs the hill between vineyards and
hedges. They cannot overcome their amazement at the myriad stars which
Paris scatters below their feet.

"A perfect Milky Way," says one of them with an emphasis that seeks to
disguise itself in jocularity.

"Counter-jumpers who've made their pile," a hissing voice remarks. The
four men turn simultaneously. But, at a signal from the proprietor,
the orchestra starts a mazurka. The women rise, calling to one
another; their backs appear hollow above bustles which convert plump
and lean alike into Callipygean Venuses.

Cora, whom the whole of Montmartre comes up to watch dancing at the
_Moulin de la Galette_, refuses male partners, takes Anaïs in her arms
and begins to waltz slowly to the broken rhythm of the mazurka.

Her skirt brushes the knees of the men seated round a bottle of
Hermitage. Her large blue eyes pass indifferently over them. She
allows the inevitable effect to be created. The four men look at one
another with awkward laughter and conceal their blushes in their
glasses.

"Very curious, this ball-room."

"Pooh! There are plenty like it at Neuilly."

"Do you get this view at Neuilly, or at the Barrière du Trône?"

"And what character! There are at least a dozen men in the room who
are wanted by the police, rubbing shoulders with eminent musicians and
well-known painters," adds he who is acting as guide. The grumbler is
still not satisfied:

"At the Halles..."

"I know the Halles as well as you do; there is a low atmosphere there
that I do not like. What I find surprising here is the ease and good
tone. And do you consider that the scenery on the way from the
Italiens here is not worth looking at?"

"What! I nearly broke my neck four times coming up, and it wasn't
exactly a bed of roses."

"But you, Monsieur Simler, what do you think of it?"

"I?" replies the Alsacian, as he straightens his spectacles and cracks
the middle finger of his right hand against the palm of his left. "I?
I am perfectly happy."

His flushed features testify moreover to a satisfaction which he would
find it hard to deny. The whirl of the dance brings towards them again
the floating skirt, dreaming gaze and vivid complexion of Cora. The
men are silent. She passes. They remark, each of them to himself, the
way in which her arm lies along the shoulders of the ruddy Anaïs, and
the golden throat outlined by a coral necklace. The unseeing eyes
stray over them once again. Each of them thinks that he has detected
an imperceptible wink addressed to himself alone.

"The women are really not bad," Joseph adds, stretching himself. But
his observation is received in silence. Something has turned dry
between his lips.

"I like a waltz," says one of the smokers at length, thinking of the
sensual curve of Cora's hip. This remark is greeted with sundry grunts
of approval.

A Parisian customer is giving this select party. It is Saturday
evening. Myrtil and Hippolyte have acknowledged that Joseph could not
decline the invitation, and so here he is, happy and free from
remorse.

For the third time, Cora sweeps past them. Anaïs multiplies her signs
and her bursts of laughter. The orchestra stops playing. Farmyard
cries resound. A spasm of emotion grips the four men. But, dignified
as a classical statue, Cora detaches herself from Anaïs and returns to
her own table.

"Come along, we didn't climb up here to sit glued to our chairs. Which
is the best dancer of us four?"

"Sure to be Monsieur Simler. An Alsacian must be fond of waltzing...."

Joseph does not resist for longer than it takes him to subdue a sudden
burning sensation in his ears. Just as the violinist, refreshed with
beer, rises to his feet and gives the signal to his team, he gets up
and takes off his greatcoat.

The whole room utters a prolonged "Ah!" From covert winks to nudgings
of elbows and whisperings, the four strangers have somehow become the
central attraction. Art students, prowlers, workmen and girls have
decided to look to them for their evening's amusement. The
well-dressed man must pay his forfeit.

This "Ah!" continues and turns to a far from cordial mutter. The three
cigar-smokers turn pale. As for Joseph, foursquare, calm and smiling,
he turns his head from side to side in surprise.

"He'll do it, no he won't--he'll dance, he won't--come along
ducky--goldilocks--he won't have the courage, he will--the spectacle
bird--which is he going to ask?--Just look this way, dearie--he's too
stout, I don't like him!--Hahaha!--don't swagger!"

Farmyard cries and catcalls. The musicians give up their attempt and
turn, interested, to watch.

Meanwhile Joseph has started on his course, very upright in his short
jacket. He does not hesitate, but makes his way towards the table at
which Cora is heedlessly sipping an orangeade.

"Get on with it, then--no, don't be frightened!--Cora?  should like to
see!--Hey, Mimi--Mimi, Mimi! Sst!--This way, Mimi!--don't accept him,
Cora!--Mimi!--he won't have the courage, et cetera."

A long-limbed rascal in a tight corduroy suit comes slipping serpent
fashion between the chairs ahead of him, like a herald:

"Ladies 'n gents. Pr'sent t'yr notice t'night a natural curiosity of
the most remarkable kind, a genuine native of the Sentier quarter, the
true and autochthonous aborigine from the treacle stores of the
Marais, bred by crossing the tardigrade bear from New Zealand with the
spectacled woman, variety known as..."

But a hand falls upon his velveteen shoulder and thrusts the jester
aside with a significant firmness. The round face, with protruding
brow and chin, bristling with a fair moustache, is of so menacing a
hue that the buffoon hastens to change his game. He dissolves in
clownish gambollings.

Everyone is standing up. Joseph reaches Cora. She pretends not to have
seen him approach, raises her head, receives his smile, rises to her
feet, and, with an audacious sweeping stare lays her bare arm in the
hand that is held out to her.

"I was expecting you," she murmurs in his ear. Her expression rids the
words of all vulgarity.

The room rings with applause. The band strikes up the waltz a second
time. No other couple takes the floor. Joseph embarks upon the
scrubbed, uneven boards, with the best dancer in Montmartre.

But the Best Dancer soon realises that they are not ill-matched.  The
grace and lightness of this stout young man are surprising. Almost
without movements, with an easy sliding of his toes and the deliberate
swaying of his shoulders, Joseph Simler seems to be commanding the
rhythm rather than conforming to it. He dances without an effort, as
it were under the flying tails of his coat. He holds Cora carefully in
his rounded arm, like a fragile object. And Cora abandons herself to
his dexterity. The entire room accompanies with a stamping of feet,
clapping of hands, and a curt "ha!" each first beat of the triple
waltz-time. The pace increases. No sign of effort on Joseph's glowing
face.  He avoids the tendency to whirl lightly round at the end of a
waltz. He merely lengthens his gliding steps, and gives his partner
all the pleasures of virtuosity by whisking her round him without
appearing himself to shift his ground.

When the four gentlemen leave the ballroom, an hour later, Joseph has
declined any number of courteous invitations to what had been the most
hostile tables, and the wealthy customer has met the fire of two or
three conversations with their nearest neighbours.

"Lucky dog!" says the wealthy customer to the Alsacian, and pinches
his arm. The night receives the homage of Joseph's smile.

A telegram will inform Vendeuvre of his return by the last train on
Sunday night. Tintin will not go with his uncle for their weekly walk,
Laure will not have her Sunday evening serenade on the flute.

On the other hand, Cora receives to her surprise the homage of a
sensuality the warmth of which is less surprising than its delicacy.
And Joseph does not exhaust, in twenty hours of rigorous isolation
with her, his display of marvels as refined as they are natural.

He has had to wait until he is in his thirtieth year before tasting a
happiness which requires to be won even after it has been bought, and
lips that have no experience of thrall-dom.

So that all the pleasure will not have been on his side?  And the
games of life are, when all is said, worth only the value of our
fellow-player.




XII


Joseph is distinctly tired when he climbs, the following evening, into
his second-class compartment. November is driving its keenest blasts
through the cracks in the woodwork.  The young man stretches himself
out on the narrow bench covered in blue cloth, draws a deep breath and
shuts his eyes.

A cascade, as harsh as the fall of a pile of plates, bursts out so
close to his ear that he starts up in a sitting posture, uttering a
string of exclamations. A young man is bending over him with a
confused expression.

"I had to warn you. Excuse my awakening you, but we are just getting
there."

"Getting there? Where?"

"Vendeuvre,"

The young man smiles without succeeding in concealing a sort of
astonishment. The train is jolting over points, and seems to be flying
through the night over a clatter of paving stones.

"Good Lord! Then I have been asleep for four hours?  Thank you, Sir,"
Joseph adds, rising to his feet. He discovers that he is awake and
alert.

"Oh, it was the least I could do," says the young man, with the
evident intention of not allowing the conversation to lapse. Joseph
seems to recognise him. He is a tall young fellow, smartly dressed,
with dark eyes rather close together on either side of a long nose;
the fair moustaches barely conceal a delicate mouth; in the
expression, a blend of social discretion, feminine irony and that
frigid courtesy which is taught by the "Good Fathers," an air of
surprising sincerity and simplicity predominate. Joseph bursts out
laughing.

"But for you, I should have awakened in the station at Bordeaux."

"You're a sound sleeper. I've been watching you since we left Paris.
You never knew that a lot of people had got in and out?"

"Heavens, no. But you know me, then?"

"You know me by name, yourself. I am Hector Lefombère."

"Is it you that I see passing four times a day along the Boulevard du
Grand Cerf?"

"On my way between the works and my father's house?  Yes," says the
young man with a detachment that appears slightly affected.

Whereupon, "delighted to make your acquaintance," says Joseph. He
rises and shakes the other's hand not without a certain coldness.

"I am even more delighted.... We have still ten minutes.  I have long
been wishing to make yours. And, my word, I am more anxious than ever
since yesterday evening."

Joseph stares at him. The fair young man smiles: "You didn't know that
I was in the dancing-room at the _Moulin de la Galette_?"

"You?"

"That makes two occasions on which I know something that you do not. I
was there with a few friends and we had taken the precaution of going
'disguised as artists' so as not to attract attention."

The thought that he was seen at the _Moulin_ is extremely disagreeable
to Joseph. He makes no reply, and busies himself with folding up his
travelling rug. But the voice of young Lefombère with its liquid
modulations persists, endeavouring to drown the racket of the train:
"I was there all the time. Forgive my accidental indiscretion, and
allow me to express my admiration for your enterprise. I was with a
group of fellows who are not generally regarded as cowards; none of us
would have had the nerve that you showed. I've never seen a roomful of
people so entirely conquered.  Not, however, that it surprises me...
in your case."

Joseph is astonished to find the other's face filled with timidity and
hesitation.

"Yes, I am delighted to have found an opportunity...  You don't
understand, do you?"

Joseph makes a sign with his chin, his hands being engaged with the
straps of his rug.

"Can't I help you? No? I was saying that you must be surprised when
you hear me speak like this. We have behaved rather... caddishly
towards you, in our venerable city of Vendeuvre. If you had known the
country better, and the fossils... However, that was not and will not
be of the least importance. Only, I wanted to let you know that it is
possible to be born a Vendévoriate and yet not be an absolute clod."

The Alsacian still seems doubtful.

"I assure you, I am flattered..."

"No, no, no flattery about it, Monsieur Simler. I have spoken to you
frankly and doubtless clumsily, as a decent-hearted man who has been
more pained than yourselves by the insult that was offered you, and
has watched you living and working here for the last year with no less
sympathy than admiration. You can make of that what you please."

Joseph seized and wrung his hand:

"Fery goot, you give me great pleasure, that is what I can say to you,
Monsieur Lefombère. If it were only the respect that I feel for your
father..."

It is curious, how the least emotion strengthens Joseph's accent.

"Oh, my father is a worthy man, but you must not expect anything from
him outside his shooting and his Club. You may be sure that he voted
without knowing what it was about."

The first lights of the Vendeuvre station brighten the windows of the
compartment. A series of points catch the carriage in its turn, and
make it leap up and down. Standing up and clinging to the racks, the
travellers collect their luggage.  Their shoulders come in contact,
and they smile at each other, in the glimmer of the platform lamp.

"I have heard a lot about you," shouts Hector Lefombère, who overtops
Joseph by at least half a head.

"Where was that?"

"At the Le Pleyniers'."

"At the...?"

"The Le Pleyniers'! I believe you know them?"

"Yes... slightly."

The train slows down. Lefombère resumes his seat, crosses his long
legs, and slips his arm through the arm-rest, as though he were
preparing to spend the rest of the night in the carriage.

"Charming people," he says, gazing at Joseph with his dark eyes which
are rather too close together.

"Extremely," Joseph replies in a non-committal tone.

"A curious fellow, the old man!"

"A man of great merit."

"And the daughter, eh?"

"The daughter?" Joseph repeats, in embarrassment.

"Interesting, original. But devilish odd."

"Odd... yes... Or rather, no. I don't find her so."

Joseph is ready to swear that the expression in the eyes that are
scrutinising him grows more sly every moment.  Yet young Lefombère
goes on:

"You know what they call her?"

"...?"

"The Clandestine. Not bad, eh? The Clandestine! Don't you agree?"

And he laughs. The train crawls into the station. The penurious
darkness of the interior is punctuated by six butterflies of gas which
the wind keeps perpetually moving within their grimy glass lanterns.
Joseph jumps down upon the platform, balancing a fairly light
travelling-bag in each hand. He notices that young Lefombère hands the
ticket-collector the yellow pasteboard of the first-class, from which
it may be supposed that his fellow-traveller has sacrificed his own
comfort for Joseph's sake.

It is now eleven o'clock. It is not raining, but ragged black clouds
darken the sky and the wind howls at every crossroads.

"We go more or less the same way," says Hector Lefombère.

"Unless you are taking a cab," Joseph puts out.

"The one thing I like is walking at night against the wind."

"We're off, then."

They set forth, their greatcoats clinging to their legs and their
bodies bent double. The young man's last speech has destroyed Joseph's
flow of conversation. He cannot, however, refrain from inquiring, in
an indifferent tone: "Do you see much of the Le Pleyniers?"

"The old boys go out shooting together, my mother thinks it her duty
to go up to Le Plantis twice a month. I am usually roped in to go with
her. Last time, old Le Pleynier could talk of nothing but yourself, my
dear fellow. That was by no means the most boring day I have spent
there. I was all the more delighted with the way he spoke about you
because there were in the room a dozen of my most idiotic
fellow-citizens who had to listen in silence. It doesn't do to answer
back Papa Le Pleynier."

In this way Joseph learns that he and his family are still as fruitful
a topic of local conversation as on the day of their arrival.
Lefombère goes on, with that aristocratic familiarity which men
trained in monastic schools retain in their subsequent relations with
their fellows, and which consists in letting the lower lip droop above
a stiffly protruding chin--a procedure highly recommended for
moderating the voice and for expressing coldness, self-assurance and
superiority.

"It seems that you have even found favour with the Clandestine. You
must give us your recipe."

"I don't understand what you mean by that," Joseph answers brutally.

"I'm not saying that she sang your praises in so many words.
Mademoiselle Le Pleynier does not commit herself to that extent. She
did not run you down, my dear fellow, and that in itself is a great
deal."

This expression irritates Joseph: "Run me down?"

"Yes, in two or three of those words of which she has the secret,
which pin a man down like a butterfly on a cork.  And when Papa Le
Pleynier went on chanting your praises in the most pompous language,
she nodded her head over her embroidery and uttered in a decisive tone
a: 'That is all quite true,' which made us all sit up!" Hector
Lefombère becomes speechless with laughter.

A neck of dull gold presents itself to Joseph's vision. A slightly
abrupt gait carries ahead of him the full curve of the most supple of
backs; the sunlight falls upon the pearly strand of a brow, and a pair
of violet eyes gaze into his with an insupportable blend of
indulgence, irony and fervent lassitude. The vision is so clear that
Joseph finds himself remarking: "_What's more_, her eyes are larger
and wider apart than anyone's else in the world."

But a pair of haunches which belong to another of God's creatures
comes unexpectedly to complete this image. A swelling abdomen,
traversed by a downy furrow. The man explores its softness with the
tip of each of his fingers. A pair of gleaming, muscular arms raise
their hands to clasp an admirable Bordelaise bosom, and a surprised,
plebeian voice, betraying a trace of emotion, the voice of Cora, says
as she holds out the purple points of her breasts towards the lips of
her lover: "Here you are, since you must. Ah-ah-ah, little..."

The latent Centaur in man rears before the ambiguity of the
Centauress. But while the animal is neighing within him, Joseph is
gripped by anguish. The malicious nickname that young Lefombère
revealed to him just now assumes, in his mind, an almost religious
significance. By what right is he associating the image of the
Clandestine with that of his debauches? Is it not a form of violation?
Hélène's name appears to Joseph as a sort of masonic symbol; he is in
no doubt as to his own initiation; that another should be initiated,
and, what is more, this great idiot with the silky hair, who is
humming a popular song by his side, is more than he feels himself in
the humour to stand.

"I forbid you, do you hear me, I forbid you to speak of Mademoiselle
Le Pleynier like that," he shouts--or is preparing to shout...

For at this moment, the tall fellow throws back his head uneasily,
sniffs the air, shoots out his neck and cries: "I should say there was
something burning, over there!"




XIII


The coming of the Simlers to Vendeuvre had endowed the town with a
permanent source of interest. If they remained more or less invisible
at ordinary times, and did not, as the saying goes, do their business
on the housetops, if adventures such as the world-famous excursion
with M.  Antigny's mare were not to be repeated, on the other hand, as
soon as the fine weather came in 1872, and thereafter invariably, the
citizens of Vendeuvre had been permitted to enjoy, every Sunday
evening, a very curious spectacle: at the stroke of eight, the little
iron-sheeted door upon the Boulevard du Grand Cerf opened with a
clang, and M.  Hippolyte emerged, followed by M. Myrtil.

It was their weekly outing. They appeared, on these evenings, dressed
in black frock coats, and with silk hats on their heads. But whereas
M. Hippolyte's hat was concave, broad-brimmed, planted vertically on
his head and pulled down over his eyebrows, M. Myrtil's was strictly
cylindrical, with a narrow brim and a tendency to cover the nape of
his neck and to expose his forehead. Apart from this detail, the
mutual conformity of the pair was most impressive.

They advanced side by side, at a stiff and solemn pace.  As a rule
they did not converse. Their itinerary was unvaried.

They first of all turned to the left along the Boulevard du Grand
Cerf, crossed Pont-Achard, climbed the long slope to the railway
station, branched off along the former Boulevard Impérial, entered the
Jardin des Plantes, crossed it by the lime-walk to emerge by the
principal gate, found themselves in the Rue du Quatre-Septembre which
brought them into the Place d'Armes. They paced it from end to end,
without missing a stone, paving-stones themselves, with a cadaverous,
contemptuous and formidable slowness. From there, they turned the
corner of the Basses-Treilles, without a glance at the dolphin and
nymph on its fountain, came down to the Port Saint-Gilles by the
footpath known as the Petit Bonneveau, and proceeded along the canal
bank as far as the Venelle Sainte-Radegonde, which brought them back
to the Boulevard du Grand Cerf and to their factory.

On the evening of this Sunday on which Joseph's power of sleep aroused
the admiration of the young Lefombère, the two mill-owners made their
customary circuit. They conversed even less than usual, each of them
being absorbed in his own gloomy thoughts.

They could not get over the wrench of leaving Buschen-dorf.  These
large bodies did not survive transplantation.  Accustomed to a routine
of work, to familiar scenes and voices, they were paralysed by
novelty. The slurred French of the West had the same effect on their
ears as an insipid drink on the palate. Everything hurt them, the
frivolity of conversation as well as the general spirit of joviality.

But, first and foremost, to men who had always respected the
equilibrium of Debit and Credit as the foundation of rectitude, Debt
created an atmosphere which they found it impossible to breathe.

When an engineer has finished planning a bridge, and has calculated,
to ten decimal places, the resisting strength of each arch, extrados
and abutment, he takes his papers, and in the space of a few seconds,
multiplies his figures by sixty.  They call this their coefficient of
safety. This is the allowance that they make for matter and its
tricks. It is their sacrifice to the Unknown Gods, and the stroke of
the pen which is to transform the minute clockwork of their estimates
into a bridge in stone and mortar open to the public.

The Simlers had always multiplied their precautions in this fashion.
Until the war came, their budgets worked at long range; the
stock-taking for the year '60 assured a daily security in the year
'80. The coefficient was large enough to cover, without undue
disturbance, strikes, sickness, fire or death.

But there is one event in the face of which human coefficients become
inoperative, for the law by which man is encompassed and the law which
he carries within him combine in stultifying them: this event is a
removal.

The Simlers had removed. These men had abandoned everything in order
to remain citizens of France. (And, we may say in passing, if they
felt every nerve in their bodies smarting with the pain of the
operation, they were, thank heaven, too little versed in eloquence to
explain the reasons that had impelled them.)

Only they had foreseen everything, except the fact that death is a
sort of removal, whereas a removal is a twofold death. To die is
nothing, when a man dies where he was born, and hands on to his son
what he has received from his father.

A place, be it the most isolated marlpit, or a row of fishermen's huts
on a reef of bare rock, contains in itself a certain number of things.
These things are gathered round your cradle, at the initial moment,
and return to lean over you--at the moment when _you are about to
learn_.

These things, they are perhaps the sounds, the scents and lights, that
peculiar flavour that is to be found, more or less, in every tiniest
corner of the earth; but there is added to them, in equal measure,
what the course of generations has left behind of their chimeras and
their tenacity.

It was with this that the Simlers had broken. Since then, everything
had been wanting. They were simple-minded enough to be surprised at
this.

There was no question, then, of _roots_ or of being _uprooted_, in
France. And it was better thus, if we admit that in this country many
reasonable thoughts, once they have been uttered with a certain air,
turn into pernicious ineptitudes.  This fortunate circumstance
permitted Hippolyte to confide to his brother, that evening, in an
artless tone, as they were going down to Port Saint-Gilles: "We are
two trees, Myrtil, whose roots have been laid bare."

He accompanied these words with a savage glare at their surroundings,
a group of bare-walled houses, crushed down by their flat roofs.

Even the ground beneath their feet was lacking. The Debt had mined it.

"A foul spot," replied Myrtil, screwing up his nose. We must forgive
the Simlers their inability to dress up their thoughts in more
precision or elegance. They had received only an elementary education.
They were animals adapted exclusively to productive toil. In speaking
as he did, Myrtil had no desire to insult Vendeuvre. But these
barbarians came from a land where civic proper pride is by no means
unknown. The well-scoured pavements of Alsace, Protestant diligence,
and the ample supply of water from the Vosges had given them a keen
sense of smell. The state of neglect in which the West is content to
live shocked them. If it be true that small discomforts hurt us more
than great catastrophes, they felt their exile more in this than in
other signs.

They were beginning however to be something more than merely "the
Prussians" and to lift their hats in response to several greetings.
But this new trend of public opinion had not yet come to their notice.
Hippolyte said: "This place makes me afraid of dying."

"Dying?"

"It is not an idea that would have occurred to me, at home. What would
become, here, of Sarah, of the children, of yourself, Myrtil?"

These words were uttered without tenderness. Moreover, Hippolyte was
merely stating a fact. Myrtil was under no misapprehension as to that.
He uttered no protest. He did not waste any time considering the
contempt with which Hippolyte seemed to regard his, Myrtil's, own
part, in the present and in the future. He was simply astonished at
the turn that his brother's thoughts had taken, and said to him:
"Dying? There is no question of anybody's dying."

"There is always the question of that," replied Guillaume's father.
Myrtil stole a sidelong glance at his elder brother's imposing figure.
He tried to imagine the spot at which death would assail it. He
replied, with no humorous intention:

"This is not the moment."

Hippolyte shrugged his shoulders:

"Every moment is the moment. _It_ does not await our pleasure. Just
when it is most important to you that _it_ should not come, that is
the moment when _it_ does come.  Ever since we left Buschendorf, I
have been expecting _it_ every night. My asthma is growing worse. I
cannot believe that business will last. We ought never to touch what
was made to last for ever. _It_ has begun by taking the things, _it_
will go on and take the man."

He lowered his voice, and his throat became slightly choked. But there
was nothing in the attitude of either man to reveal the subject of
this singular conversation. Myrtil listened, as he always listened
when Hippolyte spoke. His gait was no less jerky, his neck no less
stiff than on ordinary occasions. He said:

"The boys have put their heart and soul into the work..."

"The boys? The boys have been the cause of everything.  I ought to
have listened to you. I trusted the women, and those to whom women
listen. The boys have acted as though they were acting for themselves.
A man ought never to parcel out his own life to right and left while
he is alive. There are no two ways of being right about a thing, nor
are there two kinds of men who know what ought to be done. We have
steered the ship long enough. It was we that knew how. Do not
interrupt: business is not going badly, I know that myself. It is
going well. But I cannot believe that it will last. Over there, yes...
But here? It is too early. We ought to have waited, waited a long
time. Then we might have tried. Myrtil, when I am dead, you won't
leave them alone, not for a day, you promise me, Myrtil?"

He had recovered his thick, imperious voice, interrupted by his
asthmatic wheeze. Myrtil, who was following him attentively, was taken
off his guard: "There's no need to think of that, Hippolyte..."

"Promise!"

"Wait until the time comes."

"Promise, Myrtil!"

"But what else should I have to do, until my own death, since we are
speaking of death? Plant cabbages? Not my style. _Hasch_! There's no
need to promise." Then his raucous, piercing voice shook: "And even if
I do promise, of what use should I be, without you?"

"You will be the last person left who knows what we would have done,
upon _our own_ ground."

"Those are not arguments that appeal to young people."

"I am not thinking of them, but of saving and maintaining as much as
possible. Sarah is not strict with her sons..."

"Enough. I have promised. But you're not going just yet.  And so...."

"I may go at any moment. What is there to keep us here, us, the men of
Alsace? Besides, does one ever cease to think about--that affair?"

Myrtil never thought about it, any more than he thought about many
other of the serious obligations of this world.  But Hippolyte having
spoken, he remained silent.

A lump appeared out of the darkness, gleaming and round like a hunting
horn. It was the little merchant Boulinier. He must have been watching
them for some time. His surprise at meeting them exploded noisily.

"Well, I never! This is a stroke of luck. Since when has anyone seen
the Messieurs Simler outside their factory?"

"When it is time for them to leave it," was the grave response.

"Fuut, fuut, you, gentlemen, you never do anything without a reason. I
am sure that you are engaged in plotting, calculating, forestalling,
observing."

The malice of this speech did not rouse the Alsacians.

"It is certain that chattering for the £ake of chattering is a thing
that does not appeal to us, Monsieur Boulinier."

A drop of wine had made the little merchant more aggressive and more
self-confident than usual.

"Talking of that, gentlemen, explain to me how it is that you, who
have piled up a comfortable fortune, over there, in your own
country--between ourselves, now, you won't deny the fact, to
me--haven't taken the opportunity to invest a bit, or to buy a little
land, here or there, and so live in comfort? What is the good of
working if one is never to enjoy one's profits? We were talking about
this very subject a few moments ago, just among a few friends.  And
people were asking the question, really, because they don't understand
what you are after, and that destroys confidence.  So hard at it! What
need had you to come and start a new business, when your old business
had made you certain at least of comfort, eh? What I say is not meant
as criticism. Good customers... ahem!... such excellent relations of
all sorts... dear, dear gentlemen,... but it damages you, it damages
you, fuut, ft!"

The two tall figures listened in silence and sought to unravel the
meaning of this speech. Finally:

"Have you any children, Sir?"

"I should think so. A girl and a boy, the pair of them fit for a
king."

"What does he do, your poy?" was the abrupt retort.

"My 'poy'? Why, he is well provided for. He's a lucky dog, if you
like. He has no need to worry about the future, or balance-sheets. He
is Receiver of Taxes, thanks to Monsieur de Rauglandre, Receiver of
Taxes at Loches, gentlemen, with a guaranteed pension."

"And your zon-in-law?"

"My 'zon-in-law'? Brrouf! Ffuut! He hasn't to worry his head like me,
either. A secretary of a sub-prefecture, in a charming town, such as
Loudun, is a little king."

"Very well then, Monsieur Poulinier, whether you like it or not, my
sons are cloth-weavers, as I myself am, as my brother is, as my father
_selig_ was, as my grandfather _selig_ was, as will be, please God, my
grandson and the children of my grandson. My grandfather, Mosche Hertz
Simler, was Trum-major to the Young Guard of the Emperor Napoleon. He
served in the retreat from Russia, the campaign in France, the war of
Waterloo. When he returned home, he had twelve thousand francs saved,
and the cross.  He founded the first cloth factory there had ever been
at Buschendorf. He prospered, by the grace of God, and his son left
the factory to us, to my brother Myrtil and myself.  I worked there
from the age of twelve. My sons were sent to study, all the study that
was possible in Buschendorf, and each of them started work in the
factory at the age of fifteen. When the war broke out, we possessed
one hundred and forty-three thousand francs, Monsieur Poulinier, I
give you the figure, you can spread it among your friends. That meant
an income of eight thousand livres, upon which to be kings in
Buschendorf, as you say. But we find that tedious, to be kings in a
small town, Monsieur Poulinier. We do not know how to be kings after
that fashion. There is something more than that, in the world, when it
is a question of not allowing the business to decline which our
fathers have entrusted to us, and of giving a purpose to life. My
grandson is taking a complete course of study at the lycée. He will
nevertheless be a cloth-weaver, and not a receiver of taxes or a
little clerk in an office. He will risk his own fortune every day, and
his children's fortune, and your confidence too, it seems. But he will
carry on our task, and will make it his own, as we make it ours. And
if fortune smiles upon him, well then,--well, we shall see, Sir."

The little merchant was a trifle too intoxicated to take offence:
"Then, you fear nothing?"

"Nothing, Sir."

"Not the risk, nor...? Supposing war breaks out again, and... You
would begin all over again?"

"Over again, Sir. It would be the second time, merely."

"_Fichtre_! Ah, well," he concluded with a coarse laugh, "when I come
across stalwarts of your sort, gentlemen, saving your reverence, I
prefer to know that my children are in government service. I must go
and tell all this to... to my friends. Your servant, gentlemen, a
pleasant walk, every happiness. _Fichtre_, brroum, fuut."

No sooner had the trumpeting little fellow moved away than Hippolyte
uttered, in an undertone, one of those terrifying indigenous formulas,
the effect of which is that the man from whom the speaker has just
parted is brought back, judged, and condemned for ever.

Not that Mons. Boulinier had any ground for complaint.  The Simlers
would have yielded up their last drop of blood sooner than fail to
meet his demands punctually, to the last cent. Was it not already
being whispered that, in their mutual accounts, it was he who was
beginning to appear as debtor to the _Nouveaux Etablissements Simîer_,
for a sum that ran into many figures?

As for reproaching Hippolyte with his emphatic outburst, and the regal
assurance with which he had just contradicted himself, only Myrtil
could have dreamed of doing that. And he was likely to do so!

After the Port Saint-Gilles, over which towered the broad bellies of
the lighters, came the Venelle Sainte-Radegonde, then the dark funnel
of the Boulevard du Grand Cerf. Few shops. Walls of factories, and
muffled street corners. Not a soul. The breeze swept down the avenue
as down an organ pipe.

The two weavers walked with bowed shoulders, keeping hold of their
hats; the legs of their trousers floated before them like naval
pennons, and tugged at their calves.

"Eh?" said Myrtil suddenly. A darker stain was spreading over the
nocturnal darkness. It must originate halfway up a building whose
presence they could guess, from force of habit.

They continued to advance, for a few paces. An acrid odour was swept
over them in an eddy of the wind, like a distant rumble; hot soot, and
those subtle ethers that are generated in the destruction of things.

The building was a small structure which served as stable and loft to
the Lefombère factory. It abutted on the store in which oil and dyes
were kept. The groom was doubtless taking a Sunday holiday, somewhere
in the town.

The two men stood still, shoulder to shoulder, without breathing,
gazing and listening, but to their own hearts rather than to anything
outside.

A hundred yards away, a shop was closing. Its light was extinguished
amid the clatter of the last shutter. They were alone. The smoke was
thickening in a leisurely fashion. The gusts of wind wreathed it and
carried it away, howling.

Then, without having said anything, they began to walk on and returned
home, with no quickening of their pace, but without exchanging a word.

Sarah and Hermine were sewing in the lamplight. Aunt Babette was
nodding over a book. Seated in the shadow, the clubfoot was dreaming,
with bent head, by the lighted stove.  Guillaume came and went,
tugging his moustaches.

Sarah laid down her work and gazed at her husband with her sombre,
tranquil eyes. Hermine sighed. Babette awoke.  Blum did not stir. The
two weavers sat down with a frigid air which discouraged the silence
even.

They did not notice this. Their thoughts had remained outside. In the
warm room they found it impossible to breathe. Hippolyte rose first,
and went out. Myrtil followed him. In the courtyard, where the gale
was shrieking, they examined the dark mass of their factory. Its form,
its presence, its weight, its existence reassured them. But a gust of
wind enveloped them in a pungent aroma as to which there could be no
mistake. Now, the Lefombère buildings were at least two hundred yards
away. The fire was gaining strength.

They turned face to face. The night was as dark as the bottom of a
pit. Neverthless, it is no exaggeration to say that they saw each
other's face, and saw that it was as white as pipe-clay.

"Myrtil," moaned the old patriarch.

"Yes, yes, Hippolyte," murmured his brother. The tempest increased its
violence. They had still the strength to turn indoors, to sit down in
the lamplight, amid their family circle, and to listen to the idle
remarks that were being exchanged.

A clock sounded half-past ten, a sharp stroke, that vanished as soon
as it was formed, irretrievable. Hippolyte raised his head, cast his
eyes round him, and went out a second time, abruptly. Myrtil at first
dared not follow him.

The iron door banged. The weaver walked up the boulevard as fast as
the wind allowed him. A crackling sound warned him to raise his head.
Showers of sparks, escaping through the airholes in the shutters,
showed that the loft had caught. The organ pipe of the boulevard was
no longer the only thing that roared and rumbled.

Hippolyte heard a step rapidly overtaking him. He looked once again at
the stable. It was beginning to light up inside, like a skull in which
a candle is burning. He went on, past fifty yards of wall, came to an
iron gate, and halted for a moment. The footstep was no longer
audible. Not that it could have been anyone else than Myrtil.

He put out his hand, groped, found the handle of a bell, and again
halted. Finally, he pulled it. A harsh, jangling peal began to dance,
rending apart something incredibly inert and opaque. The rectangle of
a window was lighted in the Lefombère mansion. A door was unbarred. A
man in a dressing gown, his throat wrapped in a yellow silk muffler,
appeared on the threshold; his hand was sheltering the flame of a
candle and threw back its light upon his face.

"Who is there?"

"Come at once," cried Hippolyte Simler, "come, Monsieur Lefombère,
your factory is on fire!"




XIV


"Don't go back, M'sieur Joseph."

"Ah! Whatever's left inside will have to burn, no one can save it."

"Hong-kong, Hong-kong," groans the pump, in the hands of the municipal
fire brigade.

"Keep back there."

"Why, just look at M'sieur Lorilleux, the old man, there, in his fur
coat."

"What can you expect with a wind like this? It caught like a wisp of
straw."

"Have the horses been saved?"

"... Simler who gave the alarm."

"The people I'm sorry for are those poor Bernuchons."

"Their house was built into the wall, as you might say, and now not
one stone left standing on another."

"Come along now, get back there."

The silver-braided cap of authority manoeuvres vainly amid the crowd.

"Hong-kong, Hong-kong..."

"And that unfortunate Monsieur Hector coming off the Paris train and
knowing nothing about it."

"The poor Bernuchons, people that wouldn't harm a flea, with the
father lying helpless."

"Who is that stout fellow, all black, wait now, if you stand on tiptoe
can't you see him?"

"What, don't you know him? That's young Simler, the P.---I mean the
Alsacian's second son, Monsieur Joseph, to be precise. Why, I was just
going to tell you, he was coming back on the train with M'sieur
Hector. At Les Ormes station some one called out to them: 'Your place
is on fire,' and off the train went before they could find out which,
and so, you see, they had to come all the way from Les Ormes asking
themselves which of their places it was that was burning."

"That stout man in the oilskins?"

"Yes, they're for the water, not the fire. That's the fourth time he
has gone in. He has saved old Bernuchon and two horses. But as I was
telling you. Out they get at the station ..."

"Will you keep back there, do you hear me?"

"I say, Tinus, you're being very important to-night. Come and have a
drop of something at the P'tit Goret, better than bawling in the
street at this time of night!"

"Keep your mouth shut, won't you? Here's M'sieur Le-fombère coming."

"That great skeleton there, the owner? Poor man! To have to watch his
place burning."

"Hong-kong, Hong-kong, Hong-kong..."

"As I was telling you, they come running down from the station, see
what has happened, and then Simler whips off his coat and dashes into
the fire, in the hottest part!"

"They're fine fellows, after all."

"Old Bernuchon is a cripple, isn't he?"

"Does anyone know how it started?"

"The night-watchman, they say; he fell asleep in the hay with his
lantern."

"Think of that, now!"

"Didn't he rescue the watchman too, young M'sieur Simler?"

"Yes, he fell from the hayloft as soon as the fire woke him, but he
was lying on the stable floor with a sprained ankle."

"And how many times has he gone back?"

"Four. There, do you hear that?"

"Don't go back again, M'sieur Simler; you've done quite enough."

"You can't do any more."

"No use courting death."

"There's nothing left but wood and wool, it will have to burn, don't
try to save it."

But Joseph, his moustaches scorched to the roots, his eyelids charred
and black, engulfed in a duck-shooter's oilskins, his head protected
by two damp towels upon which the fire has traced continents with red
frontier-lines, is struggling amid a group of men.

"Stay here, I beg of you, Monsieur Simler," says the drawling,
distinguished voice of M, Yves Lefombère, "there is nothing more to be
got out."

"But your books, your books!" cries Joseph, "Have you got your books?
You're not going to allow your books to perish?"

His sweat, tracing rivulets through the soot, marks his face with
apparent cracks of a bright red.

The stable is nothing more now than a ditch full of black mud over
which a charred roof-beam straddles. Two mounds of rubbish, from which
steam is spitting, indicate the site of the warehouse, and, farther
off, that of the Bernuchons' house. The main building is now ablaze.
The firemen and a squad of infantry, in their gym-fatigue dress, are
endeavouring to isolate the fire. The sound of axes echoes from the
timber.

The crowd has gradually invaded the courtyard. It mutters, wavers, and
at times gives vent to a loud confused cry when a burst of flame
illumines the sea of faces anxiously gazing at the calamity.

"Chain, form a chain!"

"Then the pump isn't working any longer?"

"I thought so."

"Here, you can talk about it to-morrow. Get a move on, d'you hear?"

"Seems it's spreading below the floor of the spinning-mill."

"Hi! Make way there, will you. Chain!"

"Hong-kong, Hong-kong..."

"Well, Captain?"

"Well, my poor Lefombère, and Madame?"

"I've sent her home with my daughters, since you assure me that the
house..."

"No danger in that direction. But tell me, ahem, are you insured?"

"Yes."

"Ah! That takes a load off my mind. But, ahem, is it known, do you
know how, ahem, the fire..."

"My dear Captain, I know nothing, nothing, nothing," replies M.
Lefombère at the top of his voice. "I was insured, but my business was
going well, and I authorise you to make it publicly known that it was
not I who set..."

"Come, come, my dear Sir, what are you thinking of?  Who would ever
dream...?"

"Poor Lefombère is in a dreadful state of nerves," the Captain
confides to M. Lorilleux.

"All the more so as he is controlling himself. Look at him. There's no
doubt about it."

"Hong-kong, Hong-kong..."

"What a disaster, too!"

"Tell me, Captain, do they still think that it was the watchman?"

"How should I know? The hay was damp and slightly-fermented.  The fire
must have been smouldering for some time. The watchman should be in
prison. If we'd been warned half an hour earlier, a couple of buckets
would have put it out."

A movement on M. Lorilleux's part makes the Captain turn. Within a few
feet of him, and gazing at him, stands a tall figure whose bulk and
immobility suggest a hallucination.  Anguish, contempt and provocation
occupy the centre of the face. The reflection of the fire glows
ruddily upon the convexity of a pair of bloodshot eyes forcibly
embedded in the furrows of the surrounding flesh.

The Captain gives a somewhat stiff salute. M. Hippolyte begins to
move, and, without acknowledging the salute, without ceasing to hold
the officer with his gaze, passes, followed by his brother, no less
impenetrable. The crowd part before them with a sort of respect.

"Ugly brute," murmurs the Captain.

"Yes, yes," replies M. Lorilleux without conviction: "but a pair of
devilish strong men."

At this moment, Joseph emerges for the fifth time from the blazing
factory. The water with which he was drenched, before going in, steams
from his shoulders. He is carrying without stooping five huge ledgers,
the charred corners of which hiss and crumble.

Everyone dashes towards him. His oilskins and towels are torn off.
Nothing is visible at first but a skull. Those who are nearest to him
think that he is burned to the bone.  There are some who run away
shrieking. M. Hippolyte arrives just in time to hear: "Poor Monsieur
Joseph Simler!  Oh!"

And, the crowd having parted, he makes out a crouching, blackened
creature who is protecting his face with both hands. Although he is
still at some distance, the glow of the fire throws a light on those
hands, which he knows to be plump; they are charred, desiccated, as
though they had been steeped in iodine.

At the same moment a tall form crosses the empty space, jumping over
the puddles and the piles of rubbish; it is Hector Lefombère: "Simler!
My dear fellow, my...  friend!"

But there is nothing to equal the growl that comes from M. Hippolyte
nor the pace that he imparts to his gouty legs.  Everyone makes way
for him.

Joseph removes his hands from his face and holds them out, while he
attempts to smile. His face is visible, a motley of coppery eruptions
and patches of soot.

Then catching sight of his father, feeling Hector Lefom-bère's hand
gripping his own, seeing converge upon him M.  Lefombère, the Captain,
and the black coats of the officials, he can think only of how he is
to escape from any sort of effusion, by any manner of means.

It is remarkable that, loyal by instinct to a sort of coarse
symbolism, industry has allotted to the summons to work the most
despairing appeal that it has been able to find.

The siren of the Etablissements Simler did not indicate to the
stragglers, on the Monday morning that followed, the shutting of the
gates with an authority any less inexorable or more arrogant than on
ordinary mornings.

The oil lamps were lighted above the lines of machines.  They did not
make the November morning any less dreary or cold. Guillaume was at
his post, by the door, Hippolyte in the weaving-room, Myrtil in the
spinning-mill.

There was nothing altered, in Vendeuvre, save one wailing siren the
less, and three hundred workers who, awakened by force of habit, were
asking themselves where they were to procure, on that day and the days
to come, their daily bread.

However, about ten o'clock, a servant brought M. Hippolyte a
voluminous budget, fastened with four metal clips and a large seal of
brown wax. A letter accompanied it. M.  Hippolyte was strolling among
the looms, escorted by Zeller, and was displaying the most execrable
temper that his workers had ever seen. He took the letter, stared for
some time at the hat and livery of the bearer, twisted the envelope in
his hands and finally shut himself up in his glazed office.


SIR,

You must kindly excuse me if I do not devote much time to the
expressions which gratitude enjoins, and if I do not bring you proof
of it in person.

My presence is indispensable this morning among the ruins of what was,
yesterday, my factory.

But for your assistance, and the courage of one of your family, the
disaster would have been complete.

I should be unworthy of the warning that has been sent me, did I not
retain for all time to come, as one of the most precious treasures
which Divine Providence has left to me, the sense of the obligations
which I have contracted towards yourself.

The force of circumstances compels me, however, to beg you to render
me, here and now, a second service, of the utmost importance to
myself.

Work is at a standstill, here, for a period the length of which I
cannot estimate. Nor does anything remain of seven hundred pieces of
cloth ready for delivery. My customers' orders cannot all be subjected
to a delay that must probably exceed a year.

In these conditions, I should regard myself as bound to you by a fresh
bond of gratitude, if you would consent, within the limits (of which I
know nothing) of the materials and machinery at your disposal, to
substitute yourself for me, entirely, without any condition or
engagement of any sort on your part, in the execution of the orders
left in default by last night's disaster.

I take the liberty, in order that you may be able to reply with
knowledge of the facts, of sending you with this letter a detailed
list of these orders with the cards of samples selected and other
information as complete as it has been possible for us to make them,
this morning, from the books rescued by your son.

I need scarcely say that in the event of your agreeing, I undertake to
obtain the consent of my customers. I am aware of the irreproachable
quality of your output.


Finally...

"Monsieur Myrtil! Go and fetch me Monsieur Myrtil!"

The windows rattle as the door bangs.

The brothers remained for a long time stooping over the paper covered
with M. Lefombère's weary but distinguished script. They exchanged
several glances and shook their heads. This at least was all that the
messenger was able to report.

Guillaume, then Joseph swathed in bandages (his injuries were not
serious), came and joined them. Vehement gestures were observed, and
the silence of M. Hippolyte, who listened to each of them in turn
without moving his head, assembling them all in his large field of
vision. Zeller had his hands full, keeping the women's attention on
their work.

In the middle of this deliberation, two men made their way into the
clamour of the weaving-room, with the same precautions as though they
had been entering a drawing-room during a religious meeting. One of
them, a midget of a man smothered in a grey muffler, dropped a few
words into Zeller's ear. The other, upon whom a Boniface obesity ought
to have conferred authority, confined himself to resting each of his
many chins upon the edge of his collar, raising his eyebrows like a
man who has slept too soundly.

Zeller ventured into the office. His four employers turned.  An
unfinished sentence remained suspended from Guil-laume's jaw, which it
threatened to dislocate.

But the midget and the thread merchant, finding the door open, had
wormed their way into the room. The muffler bowed to the ground and
explained, unfolding a large sheet of paper, that he came on behalf of
the Bernuchon committee, which...

"Give it here," M. Hippolyte cut him short. He took the paper. His
brother and sons looked over his shoulder. Zeller remained in the
room, to see what would happen next.

The whole of Vendeuvre figured already in the list. The subscriptions
ranged from forty sous to eighty francs. The eighty francs were given
by the Mayor, who had promised a hundred more from the Council, the
muffler explained. M.  de Rauglandre was responsible for a louis, M.
des Challeries for an ecu, M. Boulinier, who expected great credit for
his generosity, for a magnificent ten-franc piece. They would be
satisfied with the humblest copper, the muffler explained, only too
thankful that he had not been shown the door; he was finishing his
first round with the Simlers, and was not over-confident.

M. Hippolyte said not a word, but cast sidelong glances, to right and
left, as though to communicate his decision to the frock-coats round
about him. He put his hand upon a pen-holder, which it engulfed, then
with an angular nib which crossed, quavered, and spat ink, he wrote:

"Nouveaux Etablissements Simler, 2,000 francs."

Guillaume drew himself up. Joseph made a grimace of satisfaction
beneath his bandages. Myrtil said nothing, but heaved a deep sigh, and
his eyes withdrew within the shells of his brows like the horns of a
snail.

"There, Sir! The money will be paid to you to-day, between two and
four o'clock."

The Boniface did not think of casting his eye over the list until he
noticed the confusion of the midget. One might have expected a liver
attack in the little man, a heart attack in the big. They had to be
shown the door. Even then they left a long track of verbose humility
between the glazed office and the courtyard, where they bowed to the
factory, the house, the scales, the paving-stones, the gate, and a bay
horse tied to a ring.

The next half-hour passed in a scrutiny of the documents that had been
sent with the letter. Voices were lowered. The stroke of the two
thousand francs had created a feeling of awkwardness.

Nevertheless, when Guillaume left the office in quest of some
information in his own lair, Zeller could hear his master's thick
voice saying, in a tone from which a sort of anger was not lacking:
"He ought to have known all the same that he was selling at ten per
cent more than we, and that his customers will stick to us!"

When Guillaume returned, Myrtil, bowed over Lefom-bère's lists, was
saying: "Half of it is priests' and officers' cloth. We shall have to
buy two looms too for billiard cloth."

However, the following letter was weighed and composed, word by word.
These people were more awkward in words than in action.


MONSIEUR LEFOMBÈRE,

SIR,

We are extremely obliged to you for the sentiments expressed in your
esteemed letter of the 2lst instant, and express all our hopes that
the damage which you have suffered in consequence of last night's fire
may be speedily repaired.

We have given full consideration to the proposals embodied in your
esteemed letter. We need hardly say that we place our establishment at
your disposal within the limit of our means, if it appears to you that
we can facilitate to the slightest extent the settlement of the
difficulties which you are temporarily undergoing. This offer is,
moreover, in our eyes, merely the natural consequence of our position
as neighbours, and of the relations of mutual assistance which are its
necessary consequence.

Nevertheless, after examining the proposals which you have been so
kind as to make to us, they have seemed to us to be inacceptable,
inasmuch as they transform the temporary support which we may be able
to give you into a direct service which we should be receiving from
you, without any apparent reason.

In consequence, we have the honour to submit to you the following
proposal: the orders enumerated in the documents which you have
submitted to us shall be entirely executed and delivered by our
personal means, in conformity with the lists of prices which you have
submitted to us; and we shall take a half share in the profit ensuing
from this work, a profit calculated upon the basis of a selling price
the detailed estimate of which will be submitted to you by us within
forty-eight hours.

If this arrangement suits you, we are ready to carry it into effect as
soon as you have let us know and we have agreed as to details.

Believe me, Sir, etc.,

HlPPOLYTE SlMLER.


Guillaume held the pen, M. Hippolyte signed. The letter was carried
there and then by Zeller to Lefombère, in whom it created a
considerable astonishment.

Hector hurried to the Simlers'; he spent the afternoon in the
warehouse, closeted with Joseph, and parted from him with tears and
embraces.

For forty-eight hours the Simlers did not rise from their
calculations. The result of this toil was that they took on half of
Lefombere's hands, and that Guillaume went off to purchase fifteen new
Mercier looms. Myrtil had to get spinning done outside. Sabouret
_fils_, with whom things were not going famously, accepted the order.
Unaware of the arrangement that Lefombère had made with the Simlers,
he did not know what to think of such activity.  M. Hippolyte had been
a true prophet. Lefombère engaged upon a lawsuit with the insurance
company and rebuilt his factory slowly. His customers remained with
the Simlers, who would not have needed these events in order to
realise a handsome figure, but made, that year, a turnover of fifteen
hundred thousand francs, and a profit of thirty-five thousand.




XV


The destruction of two-thirds of the Lefombère factory had stirred
Vendeuvre. But the Simlers' hundred louis had burst upon the town like
a clap of thunder.

Fire was included in the category of current risks. Neither the
long-established credit of the Lefombères nor the existence of
Vendeuvre was gravely affected by it. The sum subscribed by the
Alsacians introduced a novel situation and raised a definite question.

"Those men are devilish strong," public opinion repeated, with a blend
of bitterness and admiration. Public opinion thus endorsed the remark
made by M. Lorilleux to the infantry captain in command of the fire
picket.

Was it sound? The barbed silence of M. Hippolyte during the weeks that
followed the disaster--in any other man you would have called it
grief--seemed serious enough to Sarah. And the way in which Myrtil in
imitation kept his own lips sealed did not seem to her any more
intelligible.

"What is it that is worrying them?" she said one day to Hermine.
However, the balance-sheet for 1873 dispelled the last traces of this
mysterious bitterness.

Was it vanity? Or generosity?

Vendeuvre was incapable of solving so complicated a problem. But the
Simlers--strong men as they were--could they have solved it
themselves?

They did not give it a thought. Barely conscious of the stir that they
had made, they continued to live, apparently along a straight line,
and advanced, with an irresistible force, towards a future which they
believed that they and they alone could foresee.

The ladies Lefombere came to pay a call upon Mme.  Hippolyte. This was
a most ceremonial occasion. But the overture, which began with
somewhat forced effusions, ended in a distinct failure on account of
the awkwardness of the Mesdames Lefombere and of Sarah's icy dignity.
Hermine contributed as her share a silent discomfort, and the little
parlour its stuffiness.

Nevertheless, this call suggested to Sarah and her daughter-in-law
that it might be expedient to go and thank Mlle. Le Pleynier for the
kitten.

We must make haste to explain that this idea did not occur to them
spontaneously. After two Sundays devoted to healing his burns and to
playing the flute to Hector, followed by a third which was imperiously
due to Cora, Joseph felt such a conflict of sentiments in his own
heart that he took his friend Justin's hand in his own and set off
into the country.

Frosty December weather made walking good and the road firm. They
started out without any ostensible goal but went by the Nantes gate.

The gate of Le Plantis stood open. There was no sign of life beyond
it. Justin grinned at his uncle. His malice went unrewarded. Joseph
did not hesitate.

Near La Buchellerie, a side road enticed them away.  Three hundred
yards farther on, and they were steering through the heart of a wood,
leafless at this season, but dense and green.

"We must come back here next summer," said Joseph.  Justin made no
reply. He was already making plans to return there before Christmas.
They were treading upon a crackling floor of withered leaves.
Periwinkles and violets, violets of enormous size, appeared and
vanished. Brooms still in blossom focussed upon themselves the light
that filtered through the undergrowth, and, with the help of the pale
autumn sun, succeeded in forming dazzling clusters.

A scent of new bread crept to their nostrils. The nature of the wood
began to change. The tree-trunks drew apart, but this was to leave a
pine-tree the space that it requires. The ground was now covered with
a fine, green grass, which recalled the patient toil of mediaeval
illuminators. The scurrying of blackbirds shattered the silence of the
lower branches. Little birds flew away in multitudes.

Flakes of ice, caught among the pine needles, took the place now,
under foot, of the crackling of withered leaves.  Coarse, friendly
scents ran along the ground. Others came down from the pine-bough
ceiling, transforming the sunlight into perfume, as the broom
transformed it into colour.

Justin gave a shout. A strawberry, which had escaped the frost, made a
spot of blood at the root of an ivy. Never had he felt man so remote.

But a glimmer among the tree-trunks indicated a clearing.  Bordered by
a hawthorn hedge interspersed with gorse, the wood came to a halt on
the edge of a patch of sandy soil, at the farther end of which a man
in moleskin corduroys was working.

The road went on. Two lines of tall pines detached themselves
simultaneously from the wood to escort it. Their trunks were twisted
out of shape by the west wind. They rose only by a series of spiral
twists and curves. They glowed with an extraordinary glazed redness
which seemed not so much to be laid upon them as to be emerging from
them.

Thus enframed, the road described a long curve, to end at a brown
gate. Joseph laid his hand upon the latch which opened of its own
accord, as though it had merely been awaiting this invitation.

A marvellous lawn descended, gradually widening, between shrubberies
of bay-laurels, Corsican pines and umbrella pines. The morning light
shone straight upon it, and rested upon it as lightly as a bird poised
on a hazel-bough.  An astonishing mystery emanated from this grass,
these thickets, this silence.

At the farther end of the lawn was a house with brown shutters. A line
of rose-bushes, in their winter trim, screened its foundations. A
flight of moss-grown steps led to the ground floor.

The slope continued on either side of the house, and ended, a few
yards beyond it, in a dense thicket of trees of every sort. Beyond
this coppice, the tops of a line of poplars marked the end of the
valley, spoke of watermeads and the coolness of running streams. They
could hear the rivulet purling among the reeds of a small hatch.
Beyond, a chalky cliff rose in shadow for a hundred feet, behind a
breastplate of box and evergreen oak.

A sullen roar grew louder. A train was climbing the hill from
Vendeuvre. The panting of the engine sounded so close that Justin
stood on tiptoe to watch the smoke rising above the trees. The sound
was suddenly swallowed up. The train had entered the tunnel.

No sensation was ever equal, in Joseph's mind, to the happiness of
that minute. He felt that his destiny would remain incomplete so long
as he had not united in it the vigour of rest with the vigour of work.
He discovered that the land was as indispensable to his nature as
water, air and wool. He realised that his existence might become his
own personal task, and that it had been until then merely the blind
product of his environment and of circumstances.

He thought of his Uncle Blum. He thought of Cora and asked himself
what place that connection occupied in his life. He thought of
Hermine, and blushed at the association of her with the other. He saw
the wide sloping meadows of Le Plantis, the indolent and too familiar
form of Hector Lefombère, the determination to produce and to acquire
which stiffened the form of his father. He heard the sound of his
brother's harsh, abrupt voice, the_ imposing nasal tones of M. Le
Pleynier--and Hélène, in her turn, appeared before him.

An indulgent, mocking, grave, slightly controlled voice said: "This is
where I must live, or I shall never live at all," and Joseph became
aware, as though it were quite natural, that the voice had expressed
the very essence of his own sentiment.

The joy of a young animal possessed Justin. He scampered, burrowed,
unearthed, plunged, climbed, emerged from the thickets, feet first and
with a crimson face, barked to startle the blackbirds whose yellow
beaks starred the gloom. His hair had become a green meadow, his knees
two earthy mounds.

Joseph gazed round him. His present surroundings included all the
substance necessary to life. To what purpose go beyond this large
sufficiency in which already happiness was swelling to bursting-point?

There was not, here, even the slightly solemn planning of Le Plantis.
Everything was made exactly to his measure.  It had precisely the
extent that might be covered, with due development, by his
middle-class habits which luxury alarmed no less than poverty.

Meanwhile Justin had discovered a gap in the fence which opened upon
the patch of sandy soil. The man in moleskins was quite near,
scratching the soil and rubbing his hands together.

Joseph overtook his nephew. The man turned towards them the face of an
old friend in which a pair of eyes gleamed with complicity. He was
old, his skin clean and rosy.

The preliminaries did not disturb him. Just as Joseph had always known
these pines, this grass, that house, and this winter morning, so the
man seemed to feel no doubt that he had always known the two
strangers.

"Fine day. You've come on a visit?"

"No, just for a walk. We had never been this way before."

"Oh? It's not a bad spot."

"Indeed, no," the uncle hastened to reply, enchanted to receive this
endorsement.

"I wish we could say as much of the soil."

"It's not good, the soil?"

"You might say it's nothing but sand. But it's not bad for the
vegetables."

"They belong to you, these fields?"

"No, no. Never. I'm only the tenant."

He studied his questioner with a sagacious eye. "You've come on a
visit?"

"No. To visit what?"

"Oh! You've not come on a visit?" the old man went on, with an
extraordinary merriment in his eye.

"The house is for sale?" inquired Joseph, without noticing that his
heart had almost stopped beating.

"It is for sale. But, if you buy it, it won't be for sale any longer."

"Ah!" said Joseph gravely. "And what might they be asking for it?"

The old man's eyes seemed no longer big enough to contain all the
slyness that filled them.

"Bound to be a lot more than I can afford, and a lot less than you can
spare."

Joseph began to laugh: "Don't be too sure. We must find out. Do you
know the price?"

"Maît' Bénin, the lawyer, will tell you better than I can. There's
plenty of ground up there! Would you like to look at it?"

He looked at Justin, as he uttered these words, as though addressing
the more rational of the pair. He was playing with them, with an
eye--to business, of course, but for his own amusement first and
foremost.

When they had shut the front door behind them, carrying away in their
nostrils that unique odour of spices, silence and intimacy which
impregnates old cupboards and empty houses, Joseph and Justin could
contain themselves no longer.

"You want to buy it, don't you, Uncle Jos? Do you suppose Grandpapa
will agree? It would be ripping, wouldn't it! Look at that path! Oh!"

He sped away. Joseph reflected: six rooms, a big kitchen, two dark
closets, cellar and attic, seven and a half acres of meadow, sand and
wood. Given this setting, he was scarcely astonished to imagine his
life installed in it, without any further formality.

He had extracted the price from the old man: Maître Bénin spoke of
twelve thousand francs, which might be taken to mean seven or eight
thousand. For six years now Passe-Lourdin had been for sale, and the
old man was growing bored with having no one with whom he could
gossip. He did not conceal the fact that, so far as keeping up the
garden went... not to mention the vegetables that he grew, and his
rabbits, and his wife to do the washing.  ... He rented the patch of
sand for a hundred and fifty francs, and made his livelihood from it.

He pointed out, jingling the keys in his hand, a path which led by the
low way to Vendeuvre, Crossing the Auxance just below M. Le Pleynier's
property. And he dismissed them with a wave of his hand instinct with
nobility.

Joseph left him with a humming in his ears. Justin, had he been a dog,
would have shot out a yard of tongue.

"Shall we come back with Laure, I say? Shall we come back this
afternoon?"

It was eleven o'clock. They walked along the meadows and brushed
through the stiff frozen grass for a long way before they came to the
boundary stone which marked the limit of the lands of Passe-Lourdin.

"We should have a boat, eh? Oh, stunning! A boat, Uncle Jos!"

What was fated to happen happened. Hilaire was under the wooden
bridge, and was watering a pair of horses, one of them the half-blood
which reminded Joseph of the unfortunate incident of the break.

The servant raised towards the wayfarers a face radiant with pleasure
("Curious, how pleased people seem to be to see me, to-day!" thought
Joseph) and bade them, without ceremony, go up to the house. Monsieur
was at his writing, Mademoiselle at her music; they would not be
disturbing them.

Twenty years spent in their society had failed to persuade Hilaire
that the one desire of a man who is engaged in writing or of a woman
who is seated at her piano is not that something or other may occur
that will call them away from their task.




XVI


For once in a way, however, he was right. And if M. Le Pleynier had
not considered it natural that everybody should like the things of
which he himself approved, he would have been astonished at the
promptitude with which his daughter laid aside everything else to
receive his visitors.

Seeing which way the wind blew, Justin allowed himself to be patted on
both cheeks, but spoke of Passe-Lourdin before he mentioned the
kitten.

An hour later, Joseph and he were still there, chattering away without
the least thought of the inconvenience of the hour. The uneasy
expression of Francine, Hilaire's wife, had not disturbed them, even
when she had made her third appearance at the drawing-room door.--

Finally Hélène rose, left the room, and, returning a moment later,
said, with a smile at the solemn air which her father was beginning to
assume, his eye fastened on the clock: "That's all settled. You will
stay to luncheon."

Uncle and nephew rose in confusion. But their protests were of no
avail. M. Le Pleynier, in a contemptuous nasal drawl, said: "Where do
you propose to go at this time of day? It is half-past twelve!"

Joseph was obliged to admit this, with stupefaction. M.  Le Pleynier
took Justin's head under his arm, and carried him off to the table,
while a glance from Hélène made--despite them both--the excuses die
away on Joseph's lips.

Delighted with a solution which brought amusement within the range of
his habits, M. Le Pleynier displayed a charming good-humour. And for
all that Sarah was an excellent cook, there was a certain method of
serving hard boiled eggs, filled (although there was no perceptible
hole) with chopped greenstuff, in a cream sauce, with just the right
dose of condiment, which surprised Justin. The stuffed bream from the
Auxance taught him something more in their turn. A rustic mess,
judiciously seasoned, of wood-mushrooms and tomatoes left his palate
in a condition to welcome, as the earth welcomes summer after spring,
a fillet of beef, long steeped in a choice Anjou wine and in many
other substances as well. As for the island of chocolate, entirely
surrounded, according to the definition of the word island, by a cold
sea of vanilla cream, he was obliged to declare that it screwed his
courage to the sticking point, and was unable to come back for a
fourth helping. M. Le Pleynier crowned the whole achievement by
saturating him with an old pre-Empire Beaune, in defiance of his
daughter, making him tell the dullest stories imaginable.

Joseph did not make the mistake of pretending not to be hungry, but
managed to listen as well as to eat.

He had mentioned Passe-Lourdin, "I know it, it is a charming place,"
said Hélène with animation. Joseph blushed. M. Le Pleynier pronounced
judgment: "You ought to buy it."

"Buy it? I should have no objection.... But it is a serious question."

"In what respect?" said the other in a hectoring tone.  "You aren't
thinking of clearing out of the place to-morrow?  You are here for
some time, I imagine? The mistake you have always made, you Jews, is
not establishing yourselves in a place with the idea of remaining
there, and starting off by buying land. Once you have a scrap of
ground and a hut of your own, people will be only too anxious to take
off their hats to you and to sell you their manure at top prices, as a
preliminary to returning you to Parliament at the head of the poll."

"Whose fault is that?" replied Joseph, who felt the force of the
argument.

"I didn't say so, I didn't say so. Race! That thing which nobody can
define and for the sake of which we kill one another. The librarian at
Vendeuvre has written some quite remarkable works upon the theories of
Monsieur de Gobineau.  He maintains that he can tell an Aryan by a
mere glance at his facial angle, and proposes an Act of Parliament to
banish every other race. And yet, my dear Sir, his wife has, saving
your presence, the most pronounced Israelite beak that you could dream
of.

"Very well, then, furnish your proofs, on your side. People feel that
you are always ready to leave the place. Buy Passe-Lourdin, you will
set our minds at rest. And this big fellow here," said the old man,
tapping Justin's cropped and heated cranium with the flat of his
fingers, "make him into a 'gentleman farmer.'" (He pronounced the last
words with an atrocious French accent, and insisted that he made
himself better understood by the English than when he dislocated his
jaw in trying to imitate their music.)

Justin had arrived at that degree of congestion when the future weighs
upon us less than the past, and the past less than the present. He
smiled a fatuous smile. M. Le Pleynier leaned across to examine his
young neighbour's glass and saw that it was empty. He heaped
reproaches upon Hi-laire which plunged that faithful servant in a
silent mirth.

"That joke is in bad taste," observed Hélène, in the hope of saving
Justin. But M. Le Pleynier had got going, and Joseph was up in the
clouds. The latter began, however, to realise, as time went on, that
the meal was in no way improvised. He said so. Hélène began to laugh,
with that laughter which was a conversation and a refreshment.

"When Francine saw you come to the house, as late as that, it was not
very difficult for her to guess that we would keep you for luncheon. I
only went down to give her the pleasure of seeing my surprise."

Joseph felt himself caught, once again, in the web of an accumulation
of customs singularly close, alert and cunning.

"The machine runs smoothly," he said, making an awkward attempt to
bow.

"Don't envy us. It is all that we have left. Let this at least be done
well."

"All? Oh!... Oh, Mademoiselle!" exclaimed the Al-sacian from the
bottom of his heart, gazing at her.

"For God's sake, he's not going to begin again," Hélène said to
herself; "if he does, I shall lose my head. And never, O Wingless
Victory, have you needed it more."

All the more need of it inasmuch as the adversary had entirely lost
his. This adversary even took advantage of the fact that M. Le
Pleynier was making a great deal of noise with Justin, to venture upon
sundry remarks of little logical sequence, but of great intrinsic
clarity, upon what would, at a later date, have been called, the
nature of his soul. He began indeed to flounder miserably enough
through that quagmire, which neither cloth-weavers nor professional
psychologists had as yet explored. And it distressed him to observe
that Hélène replied only by a series of evasive nods.

Joseph then remembered the nickname given to Mlle. Le Pleynier. And
this gave rise in him to various mutually contradictory resolutions.

The fact remains that, when they had risen from table, and were taking
coffee in the drawing-room which had alarmed him so, on his first
visit, the joints of his right fingers cracked against the palm of his
left hand, and, with a twitch of his ears which dislodged his
spectacles, he approached Hélène. She had already begun to prepare a
little isolated bastion, with Justin by her side.

"We disturbed you when we called. Would you be so kind as to give us a
little... music?"

She looked him coldly in the face.

"We know how to listen," he added, with a humble, submissive air.

"What am I going to play for _him_?" she asked herself as she turned
her eyes away. "To what music will he _know how_ to listen?"

She went across to a bookcase, drew out a well worn volume bound in
red cloth, sat down, gathering her brown skirt under her, and opened
the book with a fierce gesture.

A storm broke out suddenly beneath her fingers. She had begun to play
the Waldstein Sonata.

Joseph had never heard a woman at the piano, save when his mother
played German waltzes upon a little instrument of five octaves, with
an old fashioned courtesy and gentleness.

Hélène's brutal attack shocked him. Her playing, like her handwriting,
was devoid of those glissandos, those ral-lentissimos, those die-away
pianissimos which make the music of young ladies resemble a graceful
ride upon a swing.

She played boldly, with an almost metaphysical firmness.  Her fingers
had a virile touch, accentuated that day by the state of her nerves.
Her eyebrows were arched, her nostrils dilated, her lips quivered.

M. Le Pleynier slipped quietly from the room to take his nap.

It was barely a moment before the storm filled the vast body of the
grand piano. It groaned and writhed in torment.  Ever and again, a
flash of lightning rent the sky.  A peal of thunder answered it, then
a rest as of the grave held everything in a state of expectancy.

The nocturnal rumble then began again. Pressing interrogations held up
the horizon. Various storms assembled from different quarters of the
night. They blended their several thunders. An intolerable sense of
the infinite thickened round the man, and the solitude of humanity
expressed itself in a despairing cry the fullness of which, for a
moment, covered everything.

But the growls of thunder drowned this cry of the strayed traveller. A
battle began, interspersed with cries and yield-ings of ground. And
when everything seemed appeased, the storm started afresh with a
_faux-bourdon_ sound which strained the listeners' nerves to
breaking-point. It must all be fought over again.

Meanwhile the soul had regained its valour. The forces were now
equally matched. They measured their strength and sought to avoid each
other. It was then that the implacable movement of destiny intervened.
Nature preferred total subversion to a renunciation. No capitulation
satisfied the enraged powers, who find their reckoning neither in the
humiliation of the conquered nor in the solitary ecstasy of the
conqueror.

Everything must be put to the question once again. Even the dying rose
up to embrace one another. And suddenly, without conclusion or
warning, after an imperious summons to the stricken champions, the
first movement came to an end.

Joseph no longer thought of Hélène's playing. He was possessed equally
by exaltation and terror. He heard the last oscillations of the
titanic combat die away. And he watched, upon Hélène's hard and absent
face, for the apparition of the unknown god whose existence had
supplanted her own.

He had lost all control of himself when he approached her and said to
her, point-blank: "Is _that_ why they call you Clandestine?"

Hélène's eyes were glued to her music-book. She had refused to let
herself hear his approach. She started violently.  A crimson flush
flooded her face and neck and ran down to the tips of her fingers.

"Oh! The brute, the brute!" she thought, and turned her face away for
fear of bursting into tears.

But Justin, too, had risen. The Beaune gave him the self-possession of
a pope: "You know, Mademoiselle Le Pleynier, Uncle Jog plays the
flute...."

Hélène summoned up her last remains of energy and directed at Joseph
Simler an expression of icy ferocity: "Indeed?  I am enchanted to hear
it! That is really very good!" And she burst out laughing.

"If he kills me, I shall have deserved it. But why did he say that to
me?"

Joseph was the next to speak: "Whose is that piece that you have just
played, Mademoiselle?" He uttered this question on so paternal a nott
of imploration, with so helpless, so confident a respect, that to hear
it was like a friendly hand laid over one's eyelids and blotting out
the nightmare.

"Beethoven," said Hélène, in a faltering tone.

"I did not know," Joseph replied simply. "I have never heard the
name."

She was obliged to look at him a second time. But it was this look
that decided everything.

The stroke of three, sounding shortly after this, provoked a shout
from M. Le Pleynier in the next room: "I don't want to drive you away,
young men, but if they are expecting you to luncheon at home..."

Joseph could never afterwards remember what he had said, during the
minutes that had preceded this return to ordinary life. He could see
himself, standing beside the silent piano, inquiring, through his
clenched teeth, of the inanimate statue of a woman: "Will you allow me
to come again?" and knowing, at the same moment, that she acceded to
his desire.

When he found himself once more in the garden, gripping Justin's hand
in his own, he summoned up the courage to turn his head. Still seated
at her piano, rigid and white, Mlle. Le Pleynier had drawn back one of
the curtains with her left hand and was watching Joseph's departure
with an absent expression. She made no response either to the young
man's bow, or to the timid gesture with which Justin, who had
recovered his sobriety, touched his sailor hat.

The cold air gripped them. Uncle and nephew began to walk fast, Justin
trotting to keep pace. When they reached the Boulevard du Grand Cerf,
Justin broke the silence.  He murmured the question:

"You aren't angry, Uncle Jos?"

Joseph gripped his hand until he squealed, and sighed by way of
answer. Justin felt sleepy, and his head ached.

They saw in the distance a small thin man, in a black jacket,
bareheaded in defiance of the evening air. He was pacing up and down
in an agitated fashion, stopped when he caught sight of them, then ran
to meet them.

"Where have you been? What on earth has happened?" he shouted in a
choking voice. "We have been looking for you everywhere for the last
four hours. What on earth has happened?"

"Why, nothing," replied Joseph, genuinely surprised. Justin, less
detached from the world of reality, felt the storm approaching and
drew back.

"Oh, indeed! Indeed! Are you both mad?" shouted Guillaume as he
reached them, breathless. He had lost all control of himself.

Joseph protested: "What is the matter? Really, Guillaume!"

"Not hurt: Then nothing has happened? You simply come home at four
o'clock when we've been waiting for you since noon. You are... I
consider that you're behaving like..."

"Guillaume!" Joseph interrupted him, exasperated by his shouting.

"Like scoundrels. Your mother is out of her wits with fear. Go in and
comfort her, as quick as you can.... But where..."

It is unnecessary to print all the wild things that a man says in a
crisis of panic and excitement. Joseph left him and quickened his
pace. An ignominious scene awaited the latecomers. It will surprise no
one who is acquainted with the admirable strength of family
solidarity. Hermine had no sooner caught sight of her son than she
burst out sobbing.  Hippolyte advanced a couple of paces and raised
his hand to strike the boy. Myrtil, leaning against the porcelain
stove, watched them enter the room and seemed unable to contain his
disgust. Sarah called Joseph to her and greeted him with eyes ablaze
with anger. Guillaume so far forgot himself as to grip his son from
behind and squeeze his shoulders, shouting as he did so. Blum and his
wife looked on at the scene with an air of terrified reproach, while
Laure, infected with the prevailing excitement, sobbed aloud, her head
buried in her aunt's lap.

Patience was not Joseph's strong point. It did not take much to make
the general tone leap to a terrible diapason.

"Joseph!" Sarah shouted at her son, who had made a somewhat heated
reply to a question as to how they had been spending the day.
Hippolyte turned to him: "What is the matter? You answer your mother
like that?"

"I allow nobody to address me in that tone, even here."

"Don't shout at me. Where have you been with this boy?"

"I shall answer when you are all more calm."

"You are an insolent wretch, hold your tongue!"

"You can hold your tongues! What are you all shouting about? Anyone
would think I had murdered him!"

"Shameful son!" Sarah hissed, as she drew herself up in her armchair.

"Where have we been? In a house to which you ought to have gone six
months ago, if you had any sense of your own dignity."

"You seem to enjoy yourself there!" retorted Sarah.

"One breathes a different atmosphere there, that is certain."

Joseph was saying, probably, more than he really meant.  Hippolyte was
beside himself with rage.

"Get out! Leave this room!"

"With pleasure," cried Joseph, moved nevertheless by his father's
state. And he left the room banging the door behind him so that the
whole house shook.

The chill air of the attic that served him as a bedroom (ten feet by
twelve) restored his self-control. He plunged his face in water, and
soon came to regard his behaviour as the last word in absurdity.
Occasional sobs rose from the room beneath. He reproached himself with
having stupidly made Justin's case all the blacker, and remained in
his room until supper time, trying to read by the light of a candle,
his head burning and his conscience ill at ease.

Laure came timidly to call him through the shut door.  He felt his
rancour revive as he went downstairs to the dining-room. He found the
others assembled round the table.  The poor people looked so crushed,
so broken, that no anger could hold out against such misery.

Joseph told himself, once again--the scene that afternoon was by no
means unique--that his violence always ended by intimidating them. He
took his seat, unfolded his napkin and shrugged his shoulders with a
sigh of boredom.  The remains of his anger yielded with a painful
effort to pity, a pity that lacked sympathy but was unbounded, and
almost inevitably meant weakness.

Supper passed in the most profound silence. None of them tasted a
morsel. They felt that the delicate episode would begin only after the
termination of this futile ceremony.

At that moment Joseph rose, went to his mother, grasped her hand and
kissed her on the brow. She stiffened, for form's sake, but a minute
later she was sobbing on her son's shoulder. M. Hippolyte, with an
aggressive countenance, gazed at his empty plate and drummed on the
table with his knife.

Sarah effected the reconciliation between the two men, who embraced
coldly, as was their habit upon such occasions.  There followed half
an hour of maudlin sentimentality, which Justin interrupted most
opportunely by showing signs of acute indigestion.

Left alone in the company of their sons and Myrtil, the Simlers
discussed the Le Pleyniers calmly and sensibly, as they might have
done six hours earlier. It was then that it was decided, Hermine
having meanwhile reappeared, that a call would be paid on them, on the
following Sunday, to thank them for the kitten.

Then it was time for M. Hippolyte and Myrtil to take their walk
through the town. Joseph did not take his flute.  He and his brother
remained with the women, talking by fits and starts, and raking over,
each by himself, the ashes of the furnace in which they had all seemed
about to be destroyed.

Joseph said to himself: "And yet we said nothing to each other! I
don't even know the feel of her hand in mine."

Meanwhile Hélène, gazing into the outer darkness, over the dome formed
in the lamplight by her father's scalp, was proceeding, without pity
for herself or for anyone else, to an ardent surgical exploration of
her conscience.

She completed the first operation at the hour when Joseph rose to go
to bed. "What has happened to me? How well he said: _I have never
heard the name_. That little ignorant child leaned towards me, and his
strength held out a hand to me, with what kindness! Wingless Victory,
O Wingless Victory, you were in need of kindness, to-day, poor feeble
Victory without wings; and it was that little child-man that showed
you it."




XVII


Joseph took leave of absence at five o'clock on Wednesday to go to Le
Plantis to give warning of the projected visit. He had taken some
pains with his toilet. His outward appearance gained nothing thereby.
Better not to speak of his taste in the matter of neckties. But what
is, to a woman, a man who is already perfect in every respect?
Precisely as Miss Threegan said of an unwaxed moustache, he is like an
egg without salt.

There was plenty of salt in Joseph. And he returned home, that
Wednesday evening, in a state of excitement which nobody, not even his
family, could fail to observe.

The most serious thing about it was that he went there again, upon
Saturday, beguiling himself with the pretext that he ought to
enlighten M. Le Pleynier as to certain of his relatives'
peculiarities. But M. Le Pleynier, who was not surprised to see him
arrive (it never surprised him that anybody else should find pleasure
in coming to see him), yawned in his face and was afterwards bound in
honesty to confess that this Simler did, at times, talk in the most
extraordinary fashion.

He returned there, naturally, on the following day, Sunday, full-blown
as a peony and bursting with pride, notwithstanding the snowy weather
which chapped everybody's lips and reduced Laure to hémiplégie smiles.

Sarah could not forget certain things that he had said.  She had
determined to study for herself people so full of attractions. An
instinctive mistrust gave force to Hermine's colourless reserve. It
had not been possible to persuade either Hippolyte or Myrtil to pay
this call. The excuse of the kitten they thought unworthy of
themselves. Guillaume went there as he would have gone anywhere else,
satisfied with the Sunday holiday, with the outing, equally prepared
to be amused or bored as the case might be. Whenever he went outside
the factory, he found himself facing life like a docile, timorous
schoolboy. As for Laure, infected with an infernal curiosity by
Justin's reports and Joseph's assiduity, she proceeded slyly to make
the same preparations for battle as the two women.

Although shorn of its two ships of the line and preceded by a radiant
pilot, the Simler squadron sailed into the enemy's harbour, in the
grimmest, most circumspect fashion, with masked batteries but with
loaded guns.

And yet it is no exaggeration to say that they were received with
flying colours. M. Le Pleynier had been feasting upon this interview
for days past. As for Hélène, she had not failed to see that there
existed between Joseph and the rest of his family an enigmatic bond,
which was one neither of judgment nor of mutual understanding, but one
so to speak of substance, which she had never observed among any other
family.

It was hard to resist Mlle. Le Pleynierv She had got it into her head
that the Simlers would not resist her. Did she trust too blindly in
her instinct? Or was it the desire to do too much that made her
overshoot her goal? What is certain is that she was completely
mistaken as to the kind of woman before whom she was about to
manoeuvre.

She had no sooner kissed Laure than she realised that she had broken
an unknown law. And this element of the unknown grew steadily denser
round about her. She laughed, and laughed alone. She spoke, and felt
that her words were not understood. She made much of her guests, and
her advances, whose charm would have melted the snows of Greenland,
were shattered against an iceberg of hostility.

Out of her element, she was seized by fear, and fear exaggerated her
most kindly but most dangerous impulses.

"When people resist me, I weary them to death," was one of her
sayings. She did not say it to boast, but as a statement of that
imperious process of her nature, which transformed everything into
vital energy, even irritation.

"What are these women made of?" she asked herself anxiously. She was
like a jumper upon a too-elastic springboard.  At every spring she
overshot her mark.

It was a long time before she realised what she ought to have borne in
mind from the first. She came of a country which had lost, in the wars
of the Revolution and Empire, three million of its male population,
the young and the best,--the feeble alone remaining, during a score of
years, to marry the women and beget the children. That the women
immediately felt a crushing superiority to their weakly husbands,
that, with the aid of the clergy, they had taken the education of the
children into their own hands, and assumed, for a century, the secret
control of family, public business, and society; of all this Hélène
was not unaware; nor that France was still, at that moment, condemned
by the best statisticians to remain, until the end of the nineteenth
century, a country dominated by women. She had seen and continued to
see the traces of this state of things in everything round about her,
incessantly.

But she was unaware that there existed also, in France, at that
moment, a small group of people, to which the Simlers belonged,
endowed with sobriety, endurance, subtlety, passion, and a somewhat
corroded strength, among whom the male reserves were more or less
intact and who had, from all time past, kept women in their obscure
subjection as bearers of children and oriental slaves.

Hélène advanced to meet Sarah, Hermine and Laure as an ally and an
equal. What she found facing her were women taken from the seraglio
and blinking their eyes painfully at the light of the outer world. In
taking hold of Laure to kiss her with a too personal impulse, she had
violated the hermetic rights of the clan and assailed the exclusive
claims of family devotion. By speaking freely of every subject under
the sun, she raised against her ten centuries of ignorance and
credulity.

A woman, such as were the Simler women, belongs only to her husband,
her father, her brothers, her sons. Everything that lies outside the
circle of domestic service is to her alien, and a menace, in the front
rank of which Hélène figured thenceforward as the aggregate of all the
snares which the vast world sets for the eternal stupidity of males.

What could be the significance, to such women, of the terms of the
pact that Hélène was offering them: "Let us be friends, and secure his
happiness"? Happiness is not secured.  It exists, by a mechanical
process, wherever the women of the clan are found to obey and to
surround _them_; it is a heresy to suppose, that there can be any
question of it upon a different ground.

And so Hélène spent the day in laying down her cards before women who
refused to see in them anything but the wiles of Satan and the snares
of the Occident. By the evening, she was shattered, and foresaw
defeat.

Joseph's satisfaction, throughout that afternoon, was unclouded.  But
this sign, by itself, terrified Hélène. She realised the place, the
nature, the solidity of the bond. She felt the same impression as
before of an anthill, and on every side came up against the implacable
presence of the tribe.

"He seemed to be in a hurry to go, so as to find out as quickly as
possible what his mother thought."

Hélène knew only too well what she must be thinking.  She forced
herself not to think of the moment in which the young man would
surrender to that influence.

For, at every moment, she found it less possible to overlook the
existence of a second element, of which she was surprised to find that
she had never dreamed: relegated as they might be to subordinate
functions, the women of the clan still enjoyed a domain of their own
in which their men of action took care not to disturb them. A tacit
distribution of parts allotted to them the high hand in everything
that concerned opinion--business being left out of account.
Observation and judgment were their affair. Man, whatever his own
secret feeling, waited until they had spoken and agreed. And if you
will take the trouble to consider it, you will see that the unity of
the family requires this. To man belongs the decision as to the
warpath; to woman, the fierce defence of hearth and home, and the
right to judge other women.

"He doesn't imagine for a moment that they can like me, but neither
does he imagine that he can never marry a woman whom they dislike,"
she concluded, as she watched him give his arm to his mother and
disappear with her along the frost-bound road. Hermine led one of her
children with each hand. Guillaume approached her with a movement
analogous to that which drew Joseph towards Mme. Hippolyte.

That same evening, Sarah found the excuse of an order at the Bon
Marché, which she begged Cousin Mina to undertake for her, in order to
make Joseph spend the following Friday with the Sterns. The writing
out of this order took an unconscionable time and required six large
pages of Yiddish.

On the Thursday, Joseph went up again to Le Plantis.  Never had
complete isolation from everything seemed to Hélène so horrible. Snow
had been falling heavily. Even Hilaire had ceased to go down to the
town.

"Vendeuvre might be destroyed, I should know nothing about it," she
thought, with a sort of cold dismay. She looked at her father sitting
by the fire, busy over his correspondence with his tenants. "Would
anyone know even here, if I were to die?"

She had waited, without hope, without even authorising herself to
wait, all Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  When his step crunched on
the hard snow, in the darkness, she bowed her head and absorbed
herself in her knitting, counting the stitches.

He told her that he was terribly busy. He had had the greatest
difficulty in getting away. He seemed just as usual.  Her joy at his
return, when she had been so certain of never seeing him again, was
powerless against the annoyance of having had to wait four days for
it. She had been afraid of finding him cold or embarrassed; that he
should be as he had always been, without any perceptible modification,
seemed to her, after a few moments, a more menacing symptom.

The fact was that he could not help coming, but was controlling
himself. Between his mother and himself, nothing had yet been said,
otherwise he would not have come again, or would have done so only
after mature deliberation. But the sapheads were pierced, and the
enemy was advancing along the traverses. Joseph had not thought of
denying himself the pleasure that he found in visiting Le Plantis.  A
mere trifle would have sufficed to convert this pleasure into a
definite intention. But this mere trifle had been dispersed, had
evaporated since Sunday, and his mother's silence had sufficed to
disperse it.

"I am going to take a turn along the road," he had said when he left
the factory, at half-past five. He had not said: "I am going to Le
Plantis."

Hélène knew this as clearly as if she had been with him at that
moment. When he informed her that he was leaving for Paris, next day,
she felt a pang of anguish which she strove in vain to stifle. It was
not jealousy. It was dread of the unknown peril. It took shape in a
hallucination: Joseph, knocked down by an omnibus, trampled under the
hooves of the horses, at the very entrance to the station, the broken
glass of his spectacles gouging out one of his eyes.

But Mademoiselle Le Pleynier was Mademoiselle Le Pleynier. Joseph was
unable to carry away any impression of her, that evening, save that of
a somewhat taciturn friendliness.

Her father and she supped briefly upon tea, toast and jam. He settled
down, immediately after supper, to his _Souvenirs d'un républicain sur
le Coup d'Etat_, and she took up her knitting. She remembered, with a
horrible gripping of her heart, that Joseph had asked her, a week
earlier, yielding to his inclination to tease, how long it would take
her to clothe all the babies in the Department. She had replied, in
the same jesting tone, that the newborn naked babes outnumbered the
sands of the sea, but that, anyhow, her knitting was not what he
supposed it to be.

"What is it then?" he had said.

"It is the rosary of our lay cloister."

"And what office do you hold in the community?"

She remembered, with a blush, that she had answered: "The sister at
the gate, Sir, the one who watches, like Sister Anne, for the dust
rising along the road."

And remembering what she had not said, but had nearly added, she
turned crimson with shame:

"However, the Knights upon the road are for Lady Bluebeard.  There was
never any idea of their being for Sister Anne."

"The sister at the gate..." these words and the image that they
conveyed haunted her brain, with the gimletlike persistence of a
nightmare.

To escape from it, she took from a shelf a volume of _Dichtung und
Wahrheit_. From the Goethean well she could draw without fail peace of
mind as to the past, courage for the future.

She went on reading for some time, and discovered that she was not
taking in what she read. She turned back, paragraph by paragraph, to
the beginning of this leakage, and found its origin and its reason
when she saw start up before her eyes the following lines:

"To be detached from everything, and, most of all, from love and
friendship, was my supreme desire, my motto, my practice. So that the
bold words which come after: 'If I love you, what does it matter to
you?' was the genuine cry of my heart..."

Hélène had perhaps no need of Goethe to think in similar terms. She
did need him to make her think thus at that particular moment. And
this was not one of the least important aspects of her reading.

Then an episode in their conversation that afternoon weighed like a
stone upon her bosom. Talking of the Sunday visit, Hélène kept on
reverting to Laure. With more purpose than he usually adopted, Joseph
had asked her, in his way of saying things point-blank: "But what did
you think of my mother and my sister-in-law?"

What Hélène had then felt cannot be expressed in the vocabulary of
works of peace. She had indeed felt herself swept away by the Wind of
Opportunity, which does not blow a second time. A glance had assured
her of her power over the Alsacian, who remained seated, his head
inclined towards her as though swollen by expectancy and by a trace of
alarm, his gaze frank behind his spectacles. An intoxicating certainty
had seized hold of her.

"I am Victory. I have only to rise, and who would resist me? Am I not
Victory?"

It was sufficient for her to speak, and to say but little, in moderate
terms, to raise her face once, at the right moment.  She would deal
Sarah and Hermine two blows for each of theirs, choosing her ground,
and would win, by a swift offensive, that decisive victory which the
man was offering her.

Instead of which, she had kept everything to herself, and had remained
silent. Or rather the words that she had uttered came to little more:
compliments, personal tributes, friendly trivialities.

There had been raging in her, since before dinner, the wrath of an
Amazon discomfited in battle. And, as she measured the extent of the
irreparable, she felt sickened by spasms of despair.

And so there was, that evening, another soul to which Goethe restored
peace. She found herself at last, and ceased to doubt.

"_If I love him, what does it matter to him_? If he can be happy in a
way which involves neither choice nor division, am I sufficiently
certain of the superiority of what I can bring him to impose it upon
him? is it not enough for my pride to know that I can? Let fate
decide, perish everything that is not meant to live. I remain at my
post and strive no more. Let him join me if he is to join me.
Faithful heart, constant heart, unswerving, burning heart!  I am
losing, probably, the only man that I shall ever meet upon my path.
_But if I love him, what does it matter to him_?"

Mlle. Le Pleynier's bedroom was white, narrow and bare--the cell of a
nun or of a Csesar. She bade her father good night and shut herself up
in it, wholly absorbed, as she wrote to Dear and Great Friend, in
"plucking that Wingless Victory, in case her wings should decide to
grow again."




XVIII


"They really are the worthiest people alive," thought Joseph in the
train that was bringing him back to Vendeuvre, on the following
evening. The Sterns had made much of him. He could not help laughing
at Elisa's aspirated sibilants. But it was a hearty laugh. It seemed
as though the stout girl had all of a sudden abandoned her pert airs.

"Shall we go to Passe-Lourdin?" Joseph asked Justin the following
Sunday, when he came downstairs, shaved to the quick, smelling of
soap, sparkling with cold water. Justin was making a fair copy of an
exercise by lamplight. Day had not yet dawned.

Sarah brought in their coffee and milk which they took in great
earthenware bowls patterned with blue flowers.  Joseph devoured in
addition half a _kugelhopf_, two eggs, half a pound of cold meat and a
few gherkins.

"Why shouldn't you go with them?" said Sarah to Guillaume in a
compelling tone. They set off, a party of four, including Laure. Dawn
was staining one corner of the frozen surface of the night.

Guillaume opened his eyes wide when they came to Passe-Lourdin.

"Don't you think this a charming spot?"

"Ye-es. For what purpose?"

Joseph smiled a superior smile: "To live in."

Guillaume's brow wrinkled like an accordion, and with a nervous
gesture he sucked one end of his moustaches between his teeth.

"I wouldn't say... To live in? And do nothing, you mean?"

"Do what is necessary."

The necessary had, to Guillaume, exactly the same boundaries as the
possible: "Listen, you would never dream..."

"You know... plenty of ideas... And why not, after all?"

"But the factory, Choseph, our duty..."

"All right, all right. Who spoke of leaving the factory?  We shall pay
our debts, of course. The rest..."

"The rest? Where do you see any rest? Joseph, once more I cannot
understand these new ideas. You are not serious. Do you really think
of settling down here, in this...? But where will you get the money?
To live here by yourself? No! With whom, then, Joseph?"

The question was rather too near the mark. It took Joseph by surprise.
He believed, however, that it was answered for him. But it was
answered only in theory, not in fact. On the other hand, Guillaume had
not accustomed him to making such definite statements, apart from
questions of flock or carded wool. Somebody or something was guiding
him.  Joseph was uneasy rather than irritated.

"Go and play with Justin," Guillaume told Laure.

"No, stay here. What else is there to be said? Besides, you have seen
everything, for the present. This is the path that takes us back to
Vendeuvre."

"Are we going to stop at Monsieur Le Pleynier's?" asked Laure. Joseph
pretended not to hear, and quickened his pace.

In the meantime Sarah had received a letter from Mina.  It was not
handed round, but it provided the subject of conversation at luncheon.
Hippolyte, his wife and daughter-in-law were inexhaustible upon the
subject of the Sterns.  There was no question of finding where the
others had gone for their walk, that morning. Only, after luncheon,
Sarah took care to have a long discussion with her elder son.

There are certain easy actions in the course of life which the least
afterthought transforms into innovations of vast effect.

One of these was the visit which Mlle. Le Pleynier paid to the
Simlers, that afternoon. Nothing simpler, one would have thought, than
to call upon the ladies of the Boulevard du Grand Cerf in return for
their courtesy of the week before.  As M. Le Pleynier was going to the
Club she made Hilaire drive her to the Simlers'.

We must admit however that the affair appeared slightly more
complicated, for Hélène, when she heard the bell tinkle inside the
house, lost her head altogether. And it was a bloodless apparition
that made Hermine start to her feet in a panic and sent a purple flush
to Joseph's cheeks.

Sarah, when Laure came up to warn her, concluded her conversation with
Guillaume with a peremptory nod, and went downstairs. It was time.
Hermine, crushed under the burden of her mother-in-law's confidences,
regarded Mlle.  Le Pleynier as nothing less than a gorgon's head.
Joseph, put to the torment by his sister-in-law's silence and Hélène's
voiceless pallor, called upon the infernal powers to extricate him
from the situation.

When Sarah entered the room, with the majesty of a Proconsul's dame
who has prepared herself to receive the homage of a native queen, it
was a relief. The stock of good will which Hélène had brought with her
was still in close juxtaposition to the most bellicose tendencies, and
Her-mine's insignificance would have infuriated an angel.

But it did not take Hélène long to estimate the effort that was being
required of her. Her voice hesitated for an instant only between the
shrill note of provocation and the soft pedal of renunciation. And it
was Mme. Hippolyte who was given complete freedom to attack.

It would be untrue to say that this lady did not set to work with her
whole heart. Finding the field clear, her assault became a charge.
Everything that frigidity, scorn and suspicion can bring to bear,
outside the strict limits of the offensive, was put into effect with a
dignity and a valour which Hélène could not help admiring.

But also the Simler ladies were upon their own ground.  Women of their
sort show their mettle only within their own doors and among their own
furniture. They lose everything by transplantation.

Let it not astonish us either that Mme. Hippolyte was not alarmed by
the surprising readiness of a girl whose merit she ought to have
appreciated. We must never expect of people what they are unable to
give. If twenty centuries of seraglio arm a woman for the inexpiable
warfare of the home, they do not, on the other hand, predispose her to
equity.

Mlle. Le Pleynier was there, the only one of her sex with any
conception of disinterestedness. That she was deeply pained is beyond
question. Would she have come, had not a gleam of hope remained? And
the presence of Joseph, a helpless onlooker, filled her with a revolt
the murmur of which, at several points in the conversation, nearly
rose to a shriek.

But she bowed her head. Her grave voice gradually assumed that social
resonance which covers everything, and denies everything, even death.

"If I love him, what does it matter to him? If he wishes, let him come
and take me. A heart that bleeds does not budge..."

Once again, but for the last time doubtless, the demon of humility
assumed in her the cast-off cloak of pride and deceived her as to the
part it had to play. She who valued her happiness at the price of
blood, by what right did she claim to spare another's happiness all
struggle?

Did the Clandestine understand the indwelling flaw in her strategy
when, twenty minutes later, with a smile on her face, and the chill of
death in her heart, she bade the ladies farewell and returned to her
dogcart, escorted by Guillaume and Joseph?

She cast a glance as she went by at the factory, and another, slightly
more covert, at Joseph.

Although they were mere men, Guillaume, who was forewarned, and Joseph
had missed none of the phases of this duel.

But even if Sarah had not acted under the compulsion of instinct
alone, she could have had no more effective policy than that of
putting her son at once, as she had just done, under the necessity of
making a choice.

She knew that there was no precedent, in the clan, that the
alternative had never been stated in the form required by the law of
the family. If there was one, Sarah pretended to be unaware of it.
What was more, she had provided for it. Not for nothing was she the
wife of Hippolyte, the _Kônigin Simler_. And restricted as her world
was, her provisions had always contrived to make, in the present,
allowance for the future.

Hélène would, in similar circumstances, have despised any other man.
She pitied Joseph and forgot to pity herself. She had, moreover,
retained this right alone.

"Could the poor fellow have foreseen this?"

When the cart drove away, she studied the lining of her glove, and
everything became confused and flickered before her eyes.

Joseph left the house immediately afterwards to pay Hector a visit.
Guillaume remained between his mother and his wife, who henpecked him
until the evening. Sarah announced that the Sterns would arrive upon
Christmas Eve, which fell upon Thursday, and decided that Guillaume
should discourse with Joseph of various matters, beginning next day.

Guillaume was appalled at this mission. But the calamity of which his
mother had given him a hint appalled him even more. Besides, the
expedition that morning to Passe-Lourdin had caused him an uneasiness
which Mlle. Le Pleynier's visit did not allay.

He could no longer sleep at night. He slept only one night in three.
He had begun to waste away and was subject to nervous fits which
nothing could control. He had become the destroyer of his own body and
of other people.

At five o'clock on Monday morning, Joseph, who had not closed an eye
either, came downstairs on tiptoe, when his attention was caught, as
he was entering his warehouse, by a faint light which glimmered
through the windows of the factory.

He went to examine it more closely. He had arrived at the stage of
intellectual disorder when nothing can cause surprise. He saw a
familiar figure patrolling the spinning-room between the machines.

Guillaume was carrying in one hand a candle, the flame of which he was
sheltering from draughts with fingers like pink wax. The candle was
guttering over his fingers and scalding him. All of a sudden he
started violently and almost dropped the light. Joseph saw a dark
object dart across the floor, a huge rat.

He could control himself no longer; he went to the little door, pushed
it open and entered the room amid the stiff skeletons of the machines.
His ear was caught by a humming sound: Guillaume, at the other end of
the room, with his back turned to him, was talking to himself.

Joseph at once said to himself that his brother was mad, and
remembered that sleepwalkers may die if they are suddenly awakened.

He called his brother softly: "Wilhelm! Hey, Wilhelm!"

But Guillaume did not hear him, and left the room by the door at the
foot of the stair. Joseph followed him upstairs and passed in his wake
down the long alley of the weaving-room, overtaking him, then allowing
him to regain his lead.

On reaching the attic, which was stuffed with rubbish of every sort,
Guillaume seemed to be annoyed by the disorder.  He set his candle
down on the edge of a case, and tried to push out of the way an old,
broken, copper oil-barrel.  With the vibration, the candle fell and
went out, while the flapping of soft wings was audible from the roof.

"Wilhelm, what on earth are you doing?" cried Joseph.

"Is that you, Jos?" asked a toneless, ageless voice. "I have dropped
my candle."

"So I see."

"Help me to get out of here."

Joseph could hear him fumbling and muttering.

"This way. Take my hand. What are you doing here?"

"I couldn't sleep."

"Couldn't sleep, couldn't sleep, that's no excuse for...  Are you
often taken that way?"

"What way?"

"With this sort of sleeplessness."

"Sometimes. Have you found my candle?"

"Don't bother about the candle, come downstairs and get warm. Do you
often go roaming about the factory?"

"Sometimes, yes."

The memory of a mysterious confusion that he had found one morning in
his office, occurred to Joseph: "In the factory only?"

"Why do you ask that?"

"You must know. You have never gone into the warehouse?"

"Possibly. I go everywhere."

"Then it was you?"

"What?... Possibly. Listen, I spend so many hours unable to sleep, I
cannot remain in bed. Even if I don't move, I waken Hermine and the
children. And then, being there alone, sitting up in bed, thinking,
anything in the world is better than that. I get up, and go down to
see if everything is in order."

"In my books? I should never have believed it of you.  You have been
spying upon me."

"You are mad, Joseph! I, spying upon you? Where do you expect me to
go, in the middle of the night? When I have altered my price-list a
dozen times, and answered my letters, I have nothing left to do. If I
have opened your books..."

Joseph stood at the head of the stair, beside himself with rage: "I
should not have made any objection. You had only to ask me for them!"

"Why, what are you imagining, Joseph? I opened your books without any
definite idea, to kill time, to see what business we were doing and
where we stood. Surely we have no secrets from one another, here."

"That is precisely why. Your behaviour has not been frank."

"Do you know what it is to go without sleep for three nights in a
week, sometimes more? I had no intention of insulting you. But I could
not let you know. We don't discuss such things, Jos, after all."

Joseph could not see Guillaume's features. But his voice was strained
by his emotion.  "Three nights in a week? You go to sleep every
evening at nine."

"I go to sleep at nine, yes, but at eleven, it is all over."

A feeling of shame or of pity made Joseph say: "Then, when we tease
you about your habit of falling asleep..."

"That is of no importance, Joseph, so long as the rest don't know."

"Has it been going on for long?"

"I don't remember. It must have begun during the war."

"And it is getting worse?"

"Yes."

Joseph began to go downstairs: "Have you found the rail? Take care.
You know, it's not good for you, this sort of thing."

"I know. What am I to do?"

"Have you taken anything for it? You ought to see somebody."

"Oh, we have it in our blood. It is devouring us all."

"You have worries?"

"One has always worries."

"You're a thorough Simler, you are!"

"And you?" replied Guillaume, his voice, on this occasion, recovering
its trenchant tone.

Joseph avoided the point: "Oh, I!"

They groped their way down to the landing outside the weaving-room,
the door of which had been left open. A livid glimmer floated through
the wide bays of the room.

Down below, Pailloux's lantern was advancing through the darkness
towards his engine. Guillaume stepped into the glazed office and
tried, with a trembling hand, to light his father's oil lamp.

Now, it must be borne in mind that this oil lamp was the very same
which had burned ever since their childhood upon M. Hippolyte's desk.
The furniture of the glazed office was the same which had served at a
different time and place.  And we must not lose sight of the fact that
the two men who stood face to face, at that hour, were two Simlers,
from Buschendorf, transplanted like cuttings to Vendeuvre, to undergo
a new destiny. With the result that, when Guillaume raised his narrow
profile, like that of a Persian king, and his eyes hesitatingly sought
Joseph's, there was already a considerable change in their relative
positions.

And so it was with less assurance in a tone in which physical
weariness was already apparent, that Joseph went on: "What is the
cause of your worries?"

Guillaume's conviction thereupon achieved the very stroke which a
shrewd policy might have suggested to him.

"Is it true?" he cried, seizing his brother's arm. "Is it true,
Choseph?"

Joseph was prepared for anything, save for being forced to look into
his own heart.

"What? What do you mean?"

"Ah! Then it is true!" Guillaume concluded on a note of despair. "It
is true!" And he released his brother's arm.

"But in heaven's name, tell me!"

"Tell you what? What you know already? What everybody knows!"

"Everybody is very clever and discerning. I don't understand a word of
what you're saying."

"Oh! Choseph! Why did you do it?"

By dint of certainty, Guillaume listened to nothing that the other
said and went on answering himself. Ten minutes later, there was not a
dark corner left in Joseph's consciousness.  He knew what he would so
gladly not have known yet awhile, and his brother's feverish hand
parted, with a mystic frenzy, the viscid lips of the wound.

"You cannot, you cannot do a thing like that."

Rage and grief kept Joseph pacing to and fro in the glazed office. His
solid throat buried itself between his shoulders, his fists were
forced against the bottoms of his pockets.

"Who gave you leave? Why did you do it?"

Neither of them could make use of any but the vaguest expressions:
they had "done it." What was the issue at stake? For Guillaume, it was
the maintenance of the inflexible laws of the clan. For Joseph, the
protection of intimate aspirations, less easily denned.

"I do not deny that the girl has many merits," drawled Guillaume,
carried away by a sacrificant's inebriation, and terrified by his
brother's anger.

"What do you know about it? Do you know her? Have you any idea of her
worth?"

"I do not deny it, although neither Mamma, nor Hermine, nor myself...
But you cannot have been entirely mistaken."

"Very good of you. But what are you getting at, may one know that at
least?"

"At this, Joseph: whatever may happen, whatever you may feel, there is
one thing that is impossible, which is to do anything that affects the
family and the factory. You cannot leave us, you cannot create a
division among us."

Let those who think that Joseph had merely to reply: "I am going to
marry Mademoiselle Le Pleynier and I am not going to divide myself
from you," raise their heads, look around them, in the heart of the
Republic One and Indivisible, and say whether there are not more
things unwritten than written in the text of the Law.

Joseph had no need, at that moment, of any skill in sociology to
discover that thirty centuries of commandments weigh far more heavily
in the scales than an inclination a month old.

Whether it was the thirty centuries that were in the right or the
month was a wholly different matter. Joseph was to have more than a
year in which he was free to weigh them in the balance and start his
calculations afresh. He did not fail to do so.

At the moment, he did indeed open his mouth, intending to reply: "What
is the connection? I shall marry whom I choose, and I shall not divide
myself from you."

But it so happened that he remained there gaping open-mouthed, on his
feet, before the lamp, realising, as he unravelled each of his knots,
that everything was connected and entangled with everything else.

Guillaume, in the meantime, knew better than to develop his line of
thought. He barked, chokingly, at his brother, without equalling the
speed or the precision with which the consequences outlined themselves
in Joseph's mind.

"A _goy_ girl among us?... You know that it is impossible ... Mamma...
you may do what you like...  don't you see?... You know her... And
besides...  do you suppose that she... that she would consent?  Would
she turn _yid_? No, no... it would mean leaving us ... leaving us,
Joseph!... And what then?... Is it that Mâche... Mâche-Bourbin,
that... little house which you showed me yesterday?... That, for
you?...  Your life spent there, Joseph?,.. And us? You would leave us,
the factory, our debts?... To live simply, spend nothing, give up
work... what you have undertaken?  Your duty?... And I? When Papa and
Uncle Myrtil are no longer with us, I am to be left alone, alone...
alone?"

The thought of this seized him as it passed. And he was all the more
alarmed by it in that he had not said all. He had kept to himself the
picture of a Hélène whose sole preoccupation would be to make good
Catholics of Joseph Simler's children. This was not for want of
believing it. In the matter of knowledge of women, you must bear in
mind that neither Hermine nor Sarah was capable of error. Guillaume
saw--as clearly as they had shown him them--the ruses of a cautious
sister-in-law, shrouded in a long black religious veil, creeping along
at nightfall and leading a procession of his nephews and nieces to the
dark trap of the confessional.

But the fact of his having stopped short of this argument, from a
secret male modesty, increased the alarm that he felt at the other
prospects which he had revealed. Most of all, the sword of his own
eventual solitude pierced him to the heart. It made him stammer with
terror.

"Alone! I should have to give up everything, all thought of enlarging
the works, of taking on fresh business. Or else, go and look, yes,
look for a partner, perhaps... Joseph!  While you..."

An idea shot across his mind; he seized it, for what it might be
worth, and it turned out to be of the highest order: "It is true that
Penchamin, yes, has gone away, but that was to do more, to work. He
has had a sense of his duty.  I do not share it. But a sense of duty,
all the same. Whereas, whereas... Ach! it is not possible."

At the end of all the tracks that crossed his own thoughts, Joseph,
for his part, could see something dawning which resembled his
brother's conclusion. Then he emerged abruptly from his state of
semi-hallucination, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back.

Behind him extended the weaving-room. The beam of light shed by the
lamp was broken, as it entered that vast space, by the body of the
nearest loom. The wood of the batten, polished by use, sped away,
taking the light with it, towards a darkness bristling with shadowy
forms.

If ever an oily tongue of yellow flame was able to speak for anyone,
it was for the two men who were in that office.  Each of the fibres of
that silence, muscular and hard, had its echo in them. The former
nonentity of the Poncet factory, that empty, silent corpse, had not by
its own unaided effort acquired substance, strength, mass, been
transformed into this dark pomegranate. Their toiling shoulders still
recalled the effort of uprooting, and the violent struggle to
establish a shadow in a spot where the tree had not grown.

But who knew so well as they that the void was still not far off? Who
but a Simler ever knew what is meant by a plank that quivers and
sways, poised over an abyss?

And so Guillaume was royally wasting his time in developing, rightly
or wrongly, points of view which the weaving-room itself was
sufficient to express. From the chaos of contradictions, one
conclusion rose now in Joseph's mind: "Is it possible to retain the
one while saving the other?"

The man of Buschendorf, the man of cloth, was beginning to realise
that to abandon the one was a thing not to be dreamed of. Then the
problem appeared to him all of a sudden to have become quite simple:
Passe-Lourdin--the day spent here, the night there, life framed in
that setting of happy activity.

"And why not?" he growled, turning solidly to face Guillaume. "You
will drive me out of my wits! How in the world does my private life
affect my work in the factory?  Is it the factory that is marrying
me?"

"Yes," cried Guillaume without giving himself time to hesitate. And he
had no sooner said it, than the piercing truth of the word took the
breath out of his mouth. Awkwardly, he added, in a quieter tone:

"The factory, the family, there is no difference, two aspects of the
same thing."

"And what is that thing?" Joseph sneered. He had almost forgotten the
third term of the proposition. The equation became insoluble.

His brother gazed at him in surprise. How could anyone not know things
that were so simple that there are not even words in which to express
them? Their great-grandfather, Mosche Hertz Simler _selig_, had
founded the factory, the grandfather and his sons had enlarged it,
against wind and tide, the grandsons had transported it, piecemeal.
Today, _Chustin_ was at the head of his class in the lycée, and the
Simler team, closely united in good as in evil fortune, was dragging,
groaning beneath the yoke, the heavy chariot to the conquest of
Vendeuvre.

"What is that thing? It is that we have never been anything but one
heart and one mind, and that, _among our people_, it has always been
the same."

For an hour and a half these two men had been torturing each other,
and the magic word had only now been uttered.  But it covered
everything. Joseph felt that it was one of those things which we try
to elude but which we do not deny. And as if this were not enough,
Guillaume, faithful to the spirit of a race which does not know what
it is to destroy outside itself in order to build up inside, held out
to Joseph a pair of bony hands, carved in browned ivory, and
exclaimed: "Chos! My Chos! We all of us have some inward suffering.
And why do we not die of it? Because we must sacrifice ourselves to
something. Chos! Remain one of us, do not leave us either in heart or
in thought. It is not for myself that I ask you, nor even for Mamma.
But there is duty, there is our tradition, our obligations, there
is--disinterestedness."

Only the day before, not a hundred yards away, in the presence of
these two men, Hélène Le Pleynier had repeated this word to herself.
Did she deserve that, turned like the finger of a glove, it should now
be used against her?

Joseph had failed to understand all that had happened the day before.
But he guessed enough of it for this word to wound him keenly. He
raised towards Guillaume a swollen, mottled face: "That will do. We
shall discuss it another time. You have said enough."

The floor creaked beneath a step. M. Hippolyte came in.  He had seen
the light, and came hastening with such speed as his gouty legs could
muster.

He stopped to scrutinise his sons. The only sound to be heard was his
asthmatic wheezing.

Are we to suppose that insomnia had sent him in his turn to join them?
Or that, duly informed by his wife, he found no difficulty in
interpreting the situation? His large features became drawn together,
his eyelids slid down over the bloodshot hemispheres of his eyes, and
a contemptuous pity wrinkled the ends of his mouth. He made but a
single gesture, which was that of laying his hand upon Joseph's
shoulder. A thick voice, loud but restrained, gave utterance to these
astonishing words: "We have all gone through it, Choseph. Every man
must be unhappy once in his life. You have had no great unhappiness so
far. It is an unpleasant thing to say, but now your turn has come.
Take as much time as you please. Go away, travel, console yourself.
You shall come back and work with us when it has passed."

Then he released his son's shoulder after gripping it for a moment in
his swollen fingers, turned his back on him and addressed Guillaume in
the imperious tone that he normally used:

"You and I. Myrtil will take charge of the warehouse during Choseph's
absence. We shall divide the spinning.  You can manage it? Not too
tired? Heart not troubling you?  No? A serious worker? Very good..
Have you a reply from Tuchartin about the cylinder for the machine?"

And he accompanied this speech with an expression of nothing less than
benevolence towards his elder son.

When Joseph found himself in the courtyard, he took note of two
things: first of all, that his father's unprecedented gentleness did
not alter the fact that he had been quietly shown the door of the
factory for an unspecified time; secondly, that he had neither
anywhere to go nor anything to do.

Meanwhile M. Hippolyte was opening the floodgates of his wrath in
Guillaume's face.

"The imbecile! So he seriously thought of marrying that _goy_? The
daughter of a bankrupt manufacturer? That stuck-up minx? If he does
anything of the sort, he can die in his ditch, neither his mother nor
I will ever look at him again."

A blow of his fist crushed upon the table a horrible oath, and the
flow of his curses made the interior of the glass cage echo until the
first wail of the siren.

Guillaume was too exhausted, as he went to open the gate, to observe a
motionless form, seated upon a corner-stone notwithstanding the cold,
and bearing a resemblance to his brother.

"Uuu-uh!" moaned the gate as it opened its jaws with an effort. For a
quarter of an hour the feet of the workers clattered in the darkness.
Rows of oil lamps punctuated the length of the rooms.

Joseph looked on at this spectacle as though he had never seen it
before. The second cry of the siren reverberated over Vendeuvre. The
sound of trotting clogs coursed along the avenue. The gate shut with
the same wail and the same effort. A roar emerged from the interior of
the building.  The plunger of the cylinders made a long expectoration.
The transmission shafts began to move.

Joseph shut his eyes: the workers were connecting the driving-band
with the pulleys of their looms; the little fasteners of the
weaving-room were speeding on their course along the rows of shuttles.
The first heavy sounds of the weaving-room echoed from the floor
above. Farther off, the fulling-mills were set in motion, with a sound
as of angry wasps; the outflow of soapy water released, with a Vosgian
murmur, a hotly, stalely smelling torrent. A sickly vapour began
gradually to invade the courtyard. Joseph could hear, through an open
ventilator, the cough of a young woman who was suspected of being
consumptive, and the metallic scream of a spinning machine in which a
broken piece required changing.

Uncle Myrtil's voice ground for an instant a series of steel knives
and was then drowned. Two cries echoed in the distance. Zeller's white
overalls and muffler crossed the farther end of the courtyard. A shout
of childish laughter burst from some unknown quarter, and remained
without an echo.

The whole of Vendeuvre was athrob. The dark front of the factory shook
from top to bottom. A line of rolling-mills seized a corner of the
darkness and drew it towards themselves.

Then the cry of a sort of shrill and hoarse siren, more animal still,
if possible, burst from beyond the walls, near or far, it was
impossible to say. It aroused others, which continued out of earshot.
The cocks were saluting after their fashion the birth of a day which
labour had not awaited.

Joseph turned his head. Something livid and wretched was surmounting
the eastern wall. The slightest irregularities of tile or moss were
already outlined against this light.  A gust of wind flung itself down
into the courtyard, as though in a panic. The young man rose, looked
round him in every direction, and moved with a sharp step towards
the warehouse, the key of which was weighing down his right pocket.

Half an hour later, the other three Simlers appeared there. They found
Joseph, who greeted them with a cold, almost menacing stare. They said
not a word, and returned each to the place from which he had come.

It was in this singular fashion that there were installed, for the
second time, on this morning in December, eighteen hundred and
seventy-two, the _Nouveaux Etablissements Simler_, at Vendeuvre.





PART III

I


The twenty-thired of December, '72 was rendered famous in the annals
of the Simler family by the disappearance of an enormous piece of
_Derefleisch_, a triumph of Sarah's culinary art, and lovingly spiced
for the benefit of the "Stern clique" (to use Justin's expression). A
diligent search revealed its traces, stage by stage, from the shelf in
the kitchen from which it had been removed to the corner of the
courtyard in which "Kitten" had taken up his abode, on account of the
peculiarly repugnant emanations that were wafted there from the
dyeing-room.

"Kitten," caught unawares in actual possession of the _corpus
delicti_, thereby pleaded guilty if not to larceny at least to
resetting. It was Laure who solved the mystery. She astutely allowed
herself time to weigh the pros and cons.  Finally the clan spirit
triumphed over _esprit de corps_. Even Justin's feelings were
sacrificed at the feet of outraged law and order, and "Kitten" was
violently denounced.

No time was wasted in inquiring whether the receiver was identical
with the thief. For a long time past Grandmamma had been expressing
her loathing of the "horror." The source from which the "horror" came
was not accepted as a caution for it; far from it. The outcry was
great. And "Kitten," who had had time to grow up into a fine black and
white Angora, was bestowed with a thousand imprecations, upon the
chair-mender whom chance had brought that way.

The announcement was made by Sarah, that evening at dinner. Justin,
who had just come back from the lycée and knew nothing, sat
open-mouthed with amazement. But having turned to look at Uncle Jos,
he saw him flush crimson, bite his lips, turn his eyes away, swallow a
long draught of water, and remain silent. This was sufficient example
for his nephew. He managed to retain a pair of scalding tears between
his eyelids, and more or less concealed in an apparent fit of coughing
the most unmanly of sounds.

The Sterns arrived on the following day, Christmas Eve, by the five
o'clock train.

"You will come with us to meet them," Sarah said quietly to Joseph.

"I too," put in Justin, who had a holiday. Which brought down upon him
the speedy retort: "You were not asked to speak."

He was nevertheless one of the party, and his absence would have been
indeed deplorable. For he had first of all the spectacle of a most
unusual Uncle Joseph. Just as they were about to start, he turned
round and gazed attentively at the factory. It was impossible to say
whether his expression was hostile or respectful. That little pitcher
Laure was near enough to hear him murmur: "They are right.  It is
bigger than all of us put together."

She did not understand a word, but, being a woman, was none the less
satisfied for that. Her uncle walked on ahead, far more stiffly than
was usual with him. The Lefombère ladies approached upon the opposite
pavement. He raised his hat with a careless gesture, and, a hundred
yards farther on, waved his hand most patronisingly at the worthy
Bou-linier.  If the truth must be told, Justin heard his uncle
whistling, and whistling through his nose, if such a thing is
possible. Upon reaching the level ground outside the station, at the
top of the slope, the party turned round.

It was customary, from this spot, to admire the view of Vendeuvre. The
guide-book commended it, and was not far wrong.

The lamps were beginning to be lighted, in the thick mist of a winter
evening. A dark liquid streamed between the banks of the canal. The
chimneys were vomiting torrents of smoke. A confused din floated over
the mass of factories, smoke and fog.

Justin and Laure began the invariable game of labelling each factory
with the name of its owner. Their uncle was the great settler of
disputes. Laure came racing towards him, followed by Justin, both
greatly excited.

"Please, isn't that Monsieur Huillery's factory, those two chimneys,
to the right of the market, down there?"

"Pfft!" replied Uncle Joseph, "what does Huillery matter?  He or any
of them, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. The
Etablissements Simler will wipe away all those mouldy sheds before
very long. You won't have to bother your heads about their names."

Joseph had not accustomed his little class to such aggressive
utterances, nor to an abrupt tone, which seemed to be broken off
short, nor indeed to seeing him turn on his heel and stalk off without
another word.

They overtook him only in the station itself, to which Mme. Hippolyte
hurried upon hearing the sound of voices raised in anger.

Had the porter really been rude, or was it Joseph whose question as to
the lateness of the train from Paris had been uttered in an offensive
tone? Neither of the two heated men who stood face to face, shouting,
in a circle of spectators, could possibly have told.

"Joseph!" Mme. Sarah called out as she hurried to the spot. She had an
inherited fear of anything that attracted attention. A white-cap broke
up the throng: "You, Chau-faille, begin by holding your tongue."

"Has he any right to treat people like dogs? No! Did you see this
dirty Prussian..."

"Unless you make that man keep quiet..."

"Chaufaille, oblige me by going off to the lamp-room without another
word. If there is a complaint, I shall hear what you have to say when
you are a little calmer."

"The insolence of these people..."

"Excuse me, Sir, would you mind coming with me to my office. You can
explain to me more easily there..."

"Thank you, thank you. I have no wish to lodge a complaint.  But it
must not happen again."

"Just as you please," the white-cap concluded, as he turned away,
trained by twenty years of service in the diplomacy of appeasing the
public without betraying his subordinates, all for two thousand francs
a year.

Joseph, for that matter, was not particularly proud of his own
behaviour. And when Sarah and Hermine began in muffled tones to
overwhelm the railway company, its staff, and the West as a whole, in
a bitter lament, he turned his back upon them with an air of
exasperation.

This enabled him to see approaching, at a walking pace, its two
side-lamps lighted, a dogcart, the sight of which afforded him no
pleasure. As it happened, a distant whistle announced the express.
Chaufaille raced off to the end of the platform, stooped and pulled a
switch. A roaring sound filled the station from end to end, and the
bell began to dance in its cage.

"I told you we should be late," said a cross, nasal voice which rose
over the barricade and penetrated the din of the station. A peal of
laughter sounded in response, and Joseph wished earnestly that some
urgent summons might make the devil come and open a trap-door in the
platform upon which he was standing.

The "Crampton" glided slowly down the station followed by half a score
of little irregular cubes, perched high upon their springs. The
brakesmen clutched the rotating shafts that connected with the wheels.
Their effort expelled from the coaches a shower of well-muffled
persons who flung themselves in the arms of the waiting crowd, filling
the platform with clamour.

No creature more restrained than Elisa Stern, nor plumper, nor for
that matter fresher of complexion, sprang that evening from that
express, enveloped in her piercing laugh and her faint odour of
palm-oil.

Joseph was not sufficiently interested in the spectacle not to see
alight, from a first-class compartment, a great gaunt fellow whom M.
Le Pleynier took in his arms with every sign of affection. Hilaire,
who had arrived on the scene by his own means of transport, rose up
with something more than his official smile on his face, climbed into
the compartment, and reappeared loaded with a traveling bag, a
sheathed sabre and two handsome pigskin valises.

"How good of you to have troubled," a sugared voice gushed in the ear
of the younger Simler, while he was saying to himself: "Aha! Julien!"

And the vague misery which had kept a lump in his throat during the
last two days almost thrust him upon the young man. M. Le Pleynier's
eye had not missed Joseph.  When they found themselves cheek by jowl,
at the exit from the station, he waited sternly for the other's
greeting which he acknowledged with an ample sweep of his hat. The
Simler procession attracted the astonished, and immediately
disapproving gaze of the Lieutenant in the Dragoons.

Joseph might do all that he could to prolong the ceremony of greeting,
it was inevitable that M. Le Pleynier's courtesy should make him give
place to the ladies, so that they all emerged pell-mell into the
station yard. The dogcart was drawn up by the footpath, and Mlle. Le
Pleynier was holding the reins.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was placed there for the special
requirements of the toll-collector and not for the general
convenience, a gasjet lighted the passage sufficiently to make it
impossible to pass unseen. Hélène greeted the Simler ladies with the
most gracious affability. She received nothing in return but a slight
inclination of the little black plumes that stuck up from their hats.
Joseph spent six months asking himself, in a cold sweat, whether he
had lifted his hat or had simply turned his head away, with a
snobbishness that deserved kicking.

And, as though this were not enough, M. Hippolyte and Myrtil must next
appear, having come as a surprise, at this precise spot, whereupon a
raising of arms, a rushing together and embracing with vigorous
intonations, giving Hélène ample time to make her observations, and
Elisa time to form the most rooted antipathy to the stranger, while
she took care to display her right of possession over Joseph.

The dogcart, with the father and daughter in front, and Julien behind,
bowled away without the Alsacians paying it the slightest attention.
Hilaire, passing in and out, to his great delight, through the doors
that were barred to the public, was engaged in collecting the
lieutenant's luggage before conveying it away by his own private and
personal means.

It may incidentally be supposed that two pairs of young eyes had
derived ample profit and instruction from this unspoken comedy.

The time that Julien Le Pleynier was prepared to bestow upon his
father and sister had reached its limit by ten o'clock on the
following morning. The lieutenant might have been found, about that
hour, calling upon a certain gentleman whom the brutalities of the
fourth of September had restored to civil life and to the humble
duties of a jobmaster.  M. Antigny was full of regard for the
arrogance of

M. Le Pleynier junior, as well as for his indomitable contempt for the
Republican Government. He therefore concealed from him nothing of what
he and the rest of Vendeuvre had upon their hearts.

Having furnished himself with the information which he required,
Julien mounted his horse again and made a detour in order to be able
to leer, over his moustaches, at the humble factory of the Simlers of
Buschendorf. Then he returned to Le Plantis, his head seething with
resolutions.

He chose his opportunity when his father was taking him to inspect the
kennels--an unsavoury duty included in each of his furloughs--to
broach, with a quite military frankness, the subject that was worrying
him.

At his first word, M. Le Pleynier halted, gazed at him, and gave vent
to a superb peal of laughter.

In vain might Julien insist, extract from his pocketbook the budget of
anonymous letters which had been raining upon him for the last three
months, appeal to public opinion, swear that he did not like the look
of these Simlers, that it was impossible to know people of that sort,
he drew from his father nothing but renewed peals of laughter, and
finally an affirmation full of pomp:

"And why not? A very worthy fellow indeed! But do not alarm yourself,
_he would never dare_."

"What can they be jabbering about?" Hélène asked herself as she saw
them, through the blurred window-panes, arguing and gesticulating.

"I must talk to my sister about it," Julien said to himself with a
quite military determination.

Hélène had no longer any hope. It was part of her temperament always
to consider herself, and part of her system never to consider herself.
And her system always prevailed over her temperament.

At the first obstacle, she had decided that the die was now cast; to
retain any hope would be more than foolish, it would be a crime. No
trace of injured pride. Rancour, in such circumstances, does not
accord either with passion or with a lofty nature.

But as the supreme test of attachment consists in knowing how to
detach oneself, she, who had devoted the greater part of her youth and
of her solitude to reflecting upon these matters, had felt herself,
with the same instantaneity and the same strength, tied to Joseph for
life and ready to untie herself, as soon as she found herself a burden
to him.

It must be added that she had never before seen a man who was a prey
to his calling. These circumstances explain the mortal anguish
involved in this renunciation by the feminine creature most charged
with vitality that existed on the earth at that moment.

Her visit to the Simlers, the casual glance that this manufacturer's
daughter had bestowed upon their rigid and tenacious little factory,
had decided everything. She had missed nothing of the encounter
overnight. She knew now everything that divided him from herself, and
at what cost she would impose herself upon him. In this ferocious act
of weighing, she forgot one thing only: this was that between herself
and Joseph neither was the distance nor were the obstacles any less
than between Joseph and herself. In fact:

"Hélène, by the way," said Julien, with a quite military openness, as
they were taking their coffee, after luncheon, "are you aware, my dear
girl, that there is a rumour going about the town which is quite
absurd and even rather revolting?  I have your authority, I trust, to
take a horsewhip to the first lout who utters in my hearing any talk
of your marriage to one of those Simlers down there?"

"I do not suppose that M. Joseph Simler has ever given me a thought,"
replied Mademoiselle Hélène Le Pleynier.  "But in the event of his
doing me that honour, I authorise you, simply and solely, to lay
before me in private the arguments against his marriage to the
daughter of Monsieur Le Pleynier. I should be most interested to hear
them."

Having said this, she shut her book and withdrew to her own room,
leaving her brother speechless, and M. Le Pleynier divided between an
immoderate joy and a passably discomfited indignation.




II


"Let go the anchor," cried Jonathan the Corsair with a horrible oath
and without taking his eyes off the young Chevalier de Lindet, his
lieutenant. "Cut the cable, the schooner will go all the more briskly
and your courage also!"

The operation recommended in such forcible terms by the Dutch Pirate
found in Justin a reader all the more enthusiastic in that, several
years since, the strange vessel upon which the cabin-boy of the
Simlers had been sailing the seas, had undergone a similar amputation.
The operation was, moreover, quite in order. And although the
inclination which, once upon a time, Joseph had felt to cast anchor
for ever in a safe haven was now only a distant memory, the habit of
cutting cables had survived among the General Staff of the _Nouveaux
Etablissements Simler_.

What was there, for that matter, to prevent the whole of the Vendeuvre
fleet from following this example? The master-weavers preferred to
anchor upon safe bottoms. They were welcome! The Simler schooner put
out to sea in all weathers, with equal risk to each of her crew; there
was no question of dividing the watches, no one ever left the deck,
they had but little sleep, but they did not put to shore until the
water came over the gunwale and the laden hull was scraping the sand
of the harbour.

In another part of the _Pirate Hollandais_, Jonathan the Corsair made
the following statement to the Chevalier, his intrepid but elegant and
hypersensitive lieutenant:

"So you wish to return home to marry, youngster? As you please. But
you cease from that moment to figure on the list of my crew.
Chevalier, I would have thought you had a stouter heart. A sailor
marries only a daughter of the seas, a corsair weds only death. I know
you no longer!"

Was there anything extraordinary in the fact that the _Pirate
Hollandais_ ceased all of a sudden to interest its reader, from the
one-hundred-and-seventy-third of its gilt-edged pages, that is to say,
from the moment when, summoned home to the practice of good works by
Mademoiselle des Saintes-Lunes, the Chevalier forsook the sea,
returning to it only to lead the King's frigates against the corsair,
and blow sky high, with blasphemies on their lips, his former
companions in evil?

Justin's fourteen years were prepared to swear that things do not
happen, in real life, in so easy or so boring a fashion.  He had
merely to raise his eyes from his book: outside the window, the
buildings of the new spinning-mill were rising in three storeys of
brick and immaculate whitewash. If he leaned out a little way, to the
left, two hundred yards away, scaffolding and the creaking of winches
spoke of additions to the original building. The clipper had made a
good chase; the bark that had set out alone returned as a squadron.

"Justin!" came a sound of children's voices.

"Utin!" an infant echoed the sound: kicking feet seemed to expect that
they would break in the door. The Chevalier Lindet became decidedly a
person not to know. Justin flung the book away and opened the door.
Laure, a fine upspring-ing thistle with dark, anxious eyes, came into
the room, followed by a plump little redhead of three, the living
image of Elisa, who dragged "Utin" by the sleeve in the direction of a
dark courtyard.

"Come and pla-ay with me-e."

A square patch of gravel, surrounded by bay-laurels and jasmines,
extended from Pole to Pole, comprising, within an area of fifty square
yards, the Old and New Worlds, three or four islands guaranteed
desert, the Indian jungle, the African equatorial forest, the Pampas,
the Siberian Steppes, and the boundless rolling Oceans. A gateway--a
variant of the Magellan Straits--opened into the adjoining yard of
Uncle Joseph and Aunt Elisa. As Aunt Elisa did not approve either of
trees, which attract mosquitoes as everyone knows, or of climbing
plants which encourage mice, her yard was paved. It represented
Civilisation, in terrible proximity to Savagery.

" 'ook at me!" came a triumphant shout from a ruddy, self-confident
youngster. He stuck a cocked hat of paper upon his head; then, with
the agility of a cat, a mask transformed the healthy globe of his face
into a white surface, pierced by a hole from which protruded a tongue
a foot long.

"You'll get caught again," said Justin with an air of annoyance. He
seized the cocked hat and tore its folds apart:

"Little... fool!" he cried, as he saw appear, clumsily concealed by
the folds, the fateful inscription:


SPÉCIALITÉ DE DRAPS

NOIRS

Draps pour ecclésiastiques,

officiers, etc.

BUREAUX ET DÉPÔT A

PARIS

CHEZ A. & J. STERN

_7 his, rue de Cléry_

SIMLER & C'« A VENDEUVRE

(ANCIENS ETABLISSEMENTS

SIMLER, DE BUSCHENDORF,

HAUT-RHIN, ET DE

VENDEUVRE)

_Vendeuvre, les 187_


It was forbidden to play with the headed note-paper; and Justin added
to the official taboo his own personal devotion.

Nor was he unaware that those spaces, those horizontal rules, those
bold capitals, those romans and italics represented something far more
important than a mere order at the lithographer's.

He could still hear ringing in his ears the "That's all right!" which
Grandpapa Hippolyte had uttered, with the roar of a blacksmith's
bellows, one snowy evening, when he made a sudden appearance in the
dining-room of the "old house." Neither Justin nor Laure had
understood, at first, the import of his "That's all right!" but its
consequences had speedily unrolled themselves before their eyes: Uncle
Joseph had come out of the parlour, wild-eyed, purple and perspiring,
revealing, through the open door, a shattered Elisa, whose sobs had
filled the whole house with a sort of bovine lowing. The stout girl
had then flung herself upon Aunt Mina's bosom, upon Hermine's, and
lastly, with an even louder lowing, upon Grandmamma Sarah's,
circumspect but decided.

The meals at the common table had from that moment shed their
lugubrious constraint. The prolonged discussions with the Sterns had
ceased. "We are united henceforward in life and death," Afroum had
declared, that same evening, at dinner, as he rose to his feet, glass
in hand. And, would you believe it, everyone had burst into tears,
while Laure failed for breath upon the frenzied bosom of Elisa.

For the next fortnight, Hermine had put on her cloak every afternoon
with a curious smile and had gone out in company with her cousin. They
would return in the evening, dead tired, but filled to overflowing
with tender and exalted sentiments.

At length the family had been invited to judge the result of their
explorations. They had wandered, for a whole day, from one to another
of a dozen empty houses, and had raised loud cries over certain rusty
kitchen ranges while Joseph paced the measurements of the rooms. Now
and again he disappeared, and, from the landings came sounds of
stifled laughter which could be attributed only to Elisa.

Returning home, they had found Grandpapa, Uncle Myr-til and "those
Sterns" bowed over huge sheets of writing-paper on which the words
"_Simler et Cie_" replaced in various styles at the top of the sheet
the former heading: "_Etablissements Simler_."

There was frequent mention, at that time, of a notary, of partnership,
of shares and of a limited company. These unfamiliar words passed
rumbling round the sumptuous bills of fare which characterised this
epoch.

Afterwards, there had been nothing special, until the flitting, except
the surprise, one fine evening, as Justin came home from the lycée, of
finding a slab of black marble, brand new and brilliantly polished,
fastened by four gilt nails to one of the gateposts, and announcing
with the gold of its capital letters that lived and laboured:

SIMLER & Cie

ANCIENS ETABLISSEMENTS SIMLER DE BUSCHENDORF (H-R.)

VENDEUVRE ET PARIS

Of the marriage and the flitting, the most striking impressions had
been left by the flitting. Of the other survived only the initiation
to strawberry ice and the discovery of little baskets of nougat
caramel. But when they left the old lodge by the factory, given over
now to the grandparents and Uncle Myrtil, to set up their _mezuzzeh_
two hundred yards away, in a universe of seven rooms, Justin and Laure
had felt the same sensations as Vasco da Gama when he doubled the Cape
of Storms.

Shortly after this had begun the first squabbles in the house next
door, the series of Elisa's fits of weeping, her outcries when her
husband returned from Paris, and their uncle's furious escapes from
the house, banging every door behind him. But as these episodes were
interspersed with intervals of a far more delicate nature--days in the
country or musical evenings--they ceased to offer any interest to the
younger generation.

Elisa was moreover scrupulous in carrying out all the clauses of the
contract and abundantly assured the perpetuity of the new firm. Thus
there had been conceived and brought into the world, with sickness,
fainting fits and crying, but also thanks to a robust appetite and an
imperturbable constitution, the shockheaded Hermance and the ruddy
package of eight pounds' weight burdened from his birth with the
Judéo-Christian label of the names Moïse-Benjamin-Louis.

It need hardly be said that the awakened zeal of the younger
generation had not allowed this long series of events to pass without
deriving from them a certain philosophy.  Thus, the Justin of
fourteen, who unfolded the criminal cocked hat with such an air of
indignation, had not failed to learn that a board of directors such as
that of the Simler factory presupposes the conjunction of numerous
circumstances, not the least of which is the inflow of considerable
capital. Nor had he failed to observe that the promotion of stout
Elisa to the rank of aunt had led to an increased interest on the part
of the Sterns in the prosperity of the Simlers.

Torrents of causes and effects, the starting point of which _was not_
an irresistible attraction of Uncle Joseph towards 'his cousin--but
the final point of which was: very necessary changes of residence; an
undeniable improvement in their style of living; finally the purchase,
decided in twenty-four hours, of the Huillery factory, buildings and
equipment, the transference of the dressing and spinning departments
bodily to the new buildings, which had been entirely rebuilt, and an
annual turnover exceeding three million francs.

The fourteen-year-old Justin had this additional superiority over the
boy that he had once been, of knowing that the detachment of a
countryman of independent means is incompatible with a virile
activity. The scream of strident laughter that Cousin Elisa had
uttered, before she became Aunt Elisa, on the day when Uncle Jos,
having taken her for a walk with Justin, had timidly made her visit
Passe-Lourdin, asking her what she thought of it, was one of those
indications which an attentive mind does not overlook. This experience
had marked the end of Passe-Lourdin, the end also of the nephew's
walks with his uncle.

The third-form schoolboy could not help laughing when he thought of a
kid in champagne-coloured silk socks, who used to dream in Yiddish and
lost his head at the sight of a patch of grass among laurel-bushes and
pines.

More than one other habit had been quick in making a similar change.
Placed in juxtaposition to Hermine, a languishing but pitiless
housewife, Elisa had found the part of pretty woman vacant and had
seized upon it. Her constant pregnancies and her fits of jealous rage
served only to make her tyranny more delicious. Nor had she failed,
immediately upon her promotion to the rank of "aunt," to declare, one
evening, that nothing made her more miserable than the sound of a
flute.

The instrument had been silenced for ever, that evening.

The virtue of experience had in this way completed, and profitably
reorganised, in Justin, the store of knowledge with which the first
ten years of his life had already burdened hini.

As he was not in any sense of the word a genuine Simler, he did not
despise, when he measured it by the standard of his own, his elders'
capacity for work. If then one had seen Joseph's absences in Paris
extend by gradual degrees beyond what mere business transactions
required, all that this meant was, and it was as clear as daylight,
that man must eat of the fruits of the tree that he has planted; and
that, if he does not find them in one place, he must go and seek for
them in another.

And who would have ventured to assert that Elisa's peevish outbursts
compose the ideal life with which a man of Joseph's temper should be
satisfied, after a fortnight of back-breaking toil?

Just as they please, on their own little plot of ground, beneath their
group of family portraits, let the former occupants of a broken-down
little factory, take in the rest of the world with their impertinent
poses. Justin looked down, from his second-floor window, upon the
crumbling ruins of the Le Pleynier mills. He knew that the Simlers
would buy them in, whenever they needed that plot of ground to build
their stables.

They would buy in many other things as well, now that they had started
to ride roughshod over Vendeuvre. And who would have ventured to
assert, in the hearing of the Justin Simler of 1876, that similar
prospects do not justify a man in enduring, with a light heart,
certain situations such as that of which Elisa was the living image?

There is only one law, that of finishing ahead of everyone else, and
of being, in every place and by every means, the best man! Then the
world becomes inexhaustibly prodigal of its joys, and life is worth
living.

Justin applied these conclusions instinctively, long before he
astonished the "beak" of the third form by putting them, in Latin
verse, in the mouth of the rebuked Coriolanus.

The precocious awakening of this half-oriental intelligence, sustained
by that insatiable thirst for knowledge, which is a mark of his race,
was upsetting the time-honoured routine of the Normal School. The
lycée of Vendeuvre watched this phenomenon grow with a thrill of
anxious pride. The Former Pupils' Association thought of founding a
prize which young Simler would inaugurate upon passing out of the
Rhetoric class.

"What are we playing?" Laure and Hermance had already begun to ask,
taking from his hands Louis's crumpled cocked hat.

It was, therefore, with entire sincerity, with an impeccable secret
logic, that the future Justin Simler, of Simler & Co., replied, as he
placed four iron chairs in a row in front of him, and went to fetch a
little garden table: "I am a lecturer, you are my audience. I am going
to speak to you, ahem!  I am going to speak to you about the True, the
Beautiful and the Good."




III


When you have learned to take down and assemble the breech of a piece
of artillery, when you possess the formula of the explosive, when you
have weighed the shell in your hand and explored its surface with your
fingers, you know so much that you will have little more to learn on
the range itself.

So it was with the Simler family. As soon as their fourfold energy had
been brought into play, then, conditions remaining normal, their
results were in slavish conformity with their anticipations.

Consequently, a detailed account of the fifty months that followed the
winter of 1872-73 is not worth giving, until the day when fate once
again asked for a slice of the pie.

If they did literally, during this period, eat their bread in the
sweat of their brows, they did not for that reason curse the hour in
which they were born, nor did they break out, seven times daily, in
lamentations upon original sin.  Hard work was the marrow of their
bones. Each week contained, in its fullness, the ration of effort,
ambition and achievement which natures such as theirs require.

It would be false, however, to pretend that they omitted to thank One
Who was outside themselves; these men, who supposed themselves to
adore the God Without Form or Feature of their forebears, rendered
thanks in reality to the God of Iron and Wool whom they served from
morning to night.

Ever since the day when, substituting themselves for the original
creditors, the Sterns had repaid themselves with shares in the new
Company, Limited, while, as a makeweight, Elisa's dowry had remained
invested in their business in Pans, Vendeuvre had begun to torment
itself, not without reason. The West understood nothing of the
industrial mechanism of which these Alsacians were furnishing it with
a first example.

"I find that I have a few sous in my safe," M. Lorilleux--inspired by
the devil--confided one day to M. Hippolyte in an indifferent tone.
"They tell me of a nice piece of property in the Melle direction.
Humph! If you know of any investments you can recommend, you must know
all about that sort of thing, I would rather, ahem!, yes, I should
prefer."

M. Hippolyte could not contain himself: "Investments?  A property? And
you are a spinner? Buy new machines, Monsieur Lorilleux, buy
warping-plant, buy new cards, there is your property, there are your
investments!"

"The old Jew, there's no getting anything out of him," said M.
Lorilleux that night to his wife. He resigned himself to seeking
unaided a profitable use for his savings, and finally entrusted them,
like a wise man, to the enlightened care of the _Union Générale_.

"They are as-tounding, as-tounding," said M. Hippolyte, without
offering any further explanation. But his eyes flashed fire as they
followed the lines of his building. To tell the truth, so far from
taking money out of it as fast as it accumulated, the Simler method
was quite the contrary. And Joseph, if he had been questioned, and had
delved a little way down in his memory, Joseph would have been able to
furnish interesting information as to the nature of the mortar that
they did not hesitate to use, when the solidity of the foundations
required it.

And yet, three months later, fate, which never does anything without
planning a sequel, brought face to face that little rascal Lorilleux
and his highly redoubtable colleague of the Boulevard du Grand Cerf.
This was on the Place d'Armes, from which everything starts and to
which everything returns. Vendeuvre was passing from politeness to
precaution, now that the Simlers were becoming, without any possible
doubt, people of means.

"My dear Sir, will you despise me utterly? I have not followed your
advice. I have placed _it_ in the bank."

"Ah? A-ha?" the chief of the Simlers repeated more slowly; he dilated
the bloodshot kernels of his pupils to examine the speaker more
closely. "Hah? Well, Monsieur Lorilleux, perhaps you have not been
wrong."

"So that's all!" thought Lorilleux as he left him. "I thought as
much."

"Lorilleux!" shouted the terrace of the Café de l'Europe, "come and
have a glass of something and tell us what the Hippopotamus was
whispering to you."

"Gentlemen, listen to what I am about to tell you, if you have ears,
and try to understand it, if you have brains.  Either the Simlers have
a nest-egg in the bank, in which case they are downright liars, but we
have only to pack up our traps and make way for them. Or else they
have sunk everything in their business, and they're scuppered."

The terrace received this information with the mistrust that was
enjoined by M. Lorilleux's character and the nature of his revelation.

"That's all very well! Give us proofs!" cried Nicouleaux, the deputy
mayor.

"Will you be so kind as to take a look at that back, and tell me if it
is what you consider a triumphant back?"

The terrace pivoted upon its collective buttocks and gazed after the
retreating shoulders and back of M. Hippolyte.

"Indisputable," growled the chorus.

"Since when have we seen any of the Simlers outside his den on any day
but Sunday? Not that Pommier and I care a rap," added the benevolent
gentleman. "We are spinners, your troubles are not ours. _We_ shall
continue to spin. If Vendeuvre ceases to buy from us, Sedan, Louviers,
Elbeuf, Roubaix, or the devil will buy from us. As for black cloth,
you must make up your minds, it is no longer wanted except for
hearses. My opinion is that the trade is done for."

"Fut! Done for," Boulinier sententiously confirmed.

"Listen to Boulinier. He ought to know something about it."

"I do know something about it, tsch, tsch! Let those who can produce
an honourable balance-sheet do so, and realise their assets."

"Oho! When the rats leave the ship, there is nothing left for the crew
but to take to the boats."

"Safety first, gentlemen, precisely. If you care tol know, for the
last six months I have neither taken an order nor passed one on. In a
week's time, I shall not have enough stuff in my warehouse to feed a
mite, and I shall go off to begin the fishing-season at my
son-in-law's. Pfft, tk, tk! Excellent place to sublet. Any offers?"

Their _apéritif_ swallowed, and, this time, ill digested, the
gentlemen climbed heavily to the terrace outside the station.  The
first call of the sirens found them still leaning there, on the brown
gate, uttering isolated reflections as to the smokeless chimneys,
Marshal MacMahon and the uncertainty of the times.

It was a fact that the activities of the factories of Lyons, the
invasion of English "novelty" goods, and the decrees of Parisian
tailors, bringing into fashion foulards, silks, light-coloured cloths,
and, for children, "Scotch tartans," had recently overthrown the
thirty-year-old hegemony of the manufacture of black stuffs.

Now this was the only shot that Vendeuvre had in its locker. And the
Simlers were no wiser, in this respect, than their rivals.

Ended, the daily Pactolus of the mails. The French middle classes had
suddenly discarded the black frock-coat of M. Guizot. After six years
of deep mourning, the women of France felt that they had done
sufficient honour to ill-starred courage. And it is not materially
possible to create a turnover of three millions out of clergymen's
cassocks.

"In less than six months from now, Morindet, Sabouret, Pommier and
myself will be the only people still going," that rascal Lorilleux
declaimed on the terrace outside the station, before a silent audience
of two dozen bondholders, officials and tradesmen. "Within six months,
pfft! finished, Vendeuvre! Finished the _Vendeuvre cloth_. The Jews,
like everyone else, all in a heap. Listen to me, gentlemen, you will
be able to say, one day: 'I was there, the evening when Lorilleux
prophesied the ruin of Vendeuvre.' In the meantime, if you don't wish
us to fall into the hands of incendiaries and communists, vote for the
Marshal, and up with any party, rather than this rotten Republic!"

Meanwhile, M. Hippolyte, who had come out by himself, this Friday
evening, returned, about five o'clock, with a rolling gait, to the
white walls of the Grand Cerf. His meeting with the rascal had upset
him, and he was awaiting, with something more than impatience, the
return of Joseph, who had gone to Paris.

"Well?" inquired the eyes and lips of M. Hippolyte, of Myrtil, of
Guillaume and of Uncle Wilhelm, when Joseph entered the warehouse.
They had been pacing its floor for the last two hours.

"There's nothing doing. Paris will be under the Commune before May,
and if anything sells then it will be silk, amazone and novelty goods.
How many machines are at work in the spinning-room?"

"Six."

"And in the weaving?"

"Nine."

"Hum! And we have a fortnight's' work still before us."

Oaths do not solve problems, but they clear the air, and give time for
reflection. M. Hippolyte, in this case, had all the time that he
required. Joseph went on: "My father-in-law made no secret of the fact
that they are looking everywhere for what they want. Afroum has gone
down to Bal-zan's.  He is to go on as far as Vienne in the Isère, and
perhaps, on his way home, visit England, going by Elbeuf and Louviers.
They are very sorry, but theere is nothing they can do now with black
stuffs, or with us.'"

"What did they advise?"

"Do people give advice when they are in the cart themselves?"

"You didn't discuss, consider..."

"Consider? One always considers. It is easier than finding a
solution."

"And you found nothing?"

"And you, here?"

"You shall hear... we have thoughtt..."

"Good, but let us dine first."

"First?"

"I am as hungry as a hunter, and it is impossible to talk sense on an
empty stomach."

The _Shabbesabend_ had brought the whole clan together in what had
once been their common dwelling. Dinner was eaten in silence. When the
boiled beeef came, Hippolyte pushed his plate away. "Ach, I can't
swallow it!" and, resting his elbows on the table, he buried his face
in his hands.  Elisa decided that the moment had come for her to burst
into sobs. Hermine and her mother-in-law exchanged glances.  Joseph
ate ravenously. Guillaume picked at his plate, as was his dyspeptic
habit. The children dared not breathe. Before Fanny, the Alsacian
maid, had cleared the table, M. Hippolyte rose massively to his feet:

"To-morrow! To-morrow! I need to--think still. Tomorrow!"

And he went out, into the night.

A cloth factory is a singularly nervous animal, for it participates,
as metaphysicians say, in all the modalities of time. One year's work
is dovetailed into another year; the cloth that your tailor buys for
your winter greatcoat was ordered eighteen months ago, and woven the
winter before that. So that if the season has been a failure, and if
the cloth has remained on the shelves, it will be a year before the
blow reaches the weaving-mills and stabs them in the back. But long
before the list of orders in execution is exhausted, apprehension of
the future will have slipped along the driving-bands. A curious
languor will have invaded the weaving-rooms, and before the first
pucker of his brow has betrayed the employer's anxiety, the humblest
ragamuffin who pushes a trolly of shuttles will have heard it said
that it will be prudent to start looking for work for the following
season.

If you add that weaving does not enjoy any privilege over other
industries, that it vibrates like them at the least shock of political
electricity, and at the slightest variations which affect the
maintenance of human life, you will agree that it is difficult to
imagine a more sensitive indicator, provided always that you are in a
position to read its indications.

The thing had caught the Simler factory early in the current autumn.
An insistent, almost mild discomfort, like those hardened tumours
which lodge between skin and flesh, roll about under the finger, seem
a mere nothing, and turn the heart sick as soon as they are touched.
The young people had at first felt nothing. But in the first days of
October, 1876, the oldest workers had cocked their ears at the sound
that came from the shops, and said: "Things are not going to recover,
this season."

Taking them all in all, many had worked for other employers until
their shutters went up. They knew how these calamities are heralded.

This state of things had then dragged on for three months, without
growing worse. Confidence revived. But the elders were obdurate:
"There has been no sign of a recovery so far; we must wait until the
spring now to see."

It was not that the firm had thanked a comrade for his services or
stopped a single loom. The factory was working at full tilt, and M.
Joseph, that admirable merchant, continued his regular goings and
comings, between Vendeuvre and Paris.

But the distemper was universal. The factories no longer concealed the
difficulty of carrying on until the last days of winter. Elsewhere,
looms were stopping one after another.  The unemployed comrades began
to haunt the canal bank, in the hope of finding a barge to unload or
picking up a hint from one of the strangers who landed there.

The first weeks of April had come, and, for the second time, the
recovery had not occurred. The winter had been mild with a heavy
rainfall. Rumours of revolution were muttered round Paris. Gambetta
was touring the country, his mouth inflated with republican wrath. War
with Prussia was possible. Money had gone into hiding.

M. Joseph was increasing the frequency of his journeys, and that was
not a good sign. You could see in it the anxiety of the cattle who
smell the fire in their byre and dash their horns against the door.
Pailloux knew that the engine was having less and less strain put upon
it. Two weeks more, and the consumption of coal would have diminished
by one half. Some looms were working eight hours only, others six, and
the weavers asked themselves each morning whether this was the day on
which would begin, as at Lefombere's, as at Lorilleux's, the foremen's
rounds: "Momot, Laroq, Bodin, Monsieur Guillaume would like to speak
to you before you go."

Finally a terrible thunderbolt had fallen: black cloth will not be
worn any more, the black industry is dead! And courage had deserted
the factories of Vendeuvre.

Sarah, that evening, waited for her husband until after eleven
o'clock. Little Blum, Babette and Myrtil had kept her company, after
the children had gone home. But when, by her side, his belly pressed
against the mattress and his face buried in the pillow,
notwithstanding his asthma, her man had at length managed to go to
sleep, she could at her leisure weigh the horror of the present in the
scales of the past.

She saw first of all a little white building overshadowed by chestnut
trees, scarcely larger than a shed. Its sound mingled with the sounds
of the kitchen. Its rhythm was domestic.  It entered into everyday
life like the care of a pair of cows, a horse and a nanny-goat. An
hour's work would have sufficed to draw up the balance-sheet, and two
months' savings would have paid every debt.

Then the sound of galloping hooves on the road, two sharp raps of the
knocker, an order in a language neither French nor Alsacian, and the
creak of leather made by a cavalry patrol in the act of dismounting.

... Autumn rains, the memory of damp, disheartening hours, in which
eight people huddle together in the mire of a wretched porter's lodge,
beneath the menace of a tall, foreign factory, treeless, blind and
dead. Slow openings of doors, futile comings and goings, agonies,
weariness, plans altered a hundred times, quarrels, reconciliations,
and heavy crushing silences between man and man.

And then one morning something begins to stir underground and makes
the whole place shake; a grinding sound, and so alien, like everything
else; the factory begins to move, life starts afresh.

Month follows month into the past. Hope that had at first been
suspended from each of the family like a bat hanging from a
curtain-rod, makes a violent effort and succeeds in acquiring speed.
Apprehension of the quarterly return spans the months. It completes
the year, and the moment arrives when--Joseph having been rescued from
the _goy_ viper--the Stem money comes flooding into the veins of the
factory.  Wagons bring fresh looms and machinery. The roar increases.
The family home, which originally regulated everything else according
to its own rhythm, is no more now than a plank tossed upon the waves.
A mighty din overwhelms the universe. The urgency of the common safety
requires that it shall not cease nor diminish for a single instant.

And this is the very hour in which the attentive ear surprises, one
day, the first sign of faltering. Neither husband nor sons have as yet
said a word. But instinct is alert. And, for the last six months, the
old woman has felt that the huge body is being drained of its vigour.

_O Weh_! That such a struggle should end simply in fresh fears.

She knows too well that the day of reckoning which approaches will be
the last. The man who is sleeping by her side, and whose asthma is
whistling from his chest, has lived long enough. She knows that he
finds it difficult to raise his left eyelid. His strength has given
all that it had to give. It is escaping by the same channels as the
strength of the factory.  But his will not return again.

_O Weh_! The old woman sits up in bed, in the darkness of the night,
draws her nightlight nearer, straightens her white nightcap over her
hair, folds her shawl over her shoulders, takes her spectacles from
their case, opens the Book, and her lips begin to quiver over the
crabbed type and the imperishable words.


  _The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer....

  I will call upon the Lord;... so shall I be saved from mine enemies.

  The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men
  made me afraid.

  The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death
  prevented me.

  In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he
  heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even
  into his ears....

  Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me, for my soul cleaveth
  unto thee_.





IV


On the morning that followed, the workers received a clue to the fate
that was in store for them. Guillaume's face was installed by the
gate, suggesting by its colour a burnt-out cresset hanging from a
wire. And when the partners, abandoning the workrooms in turn, had
assembled in the warehouse, the foremen tried in vain to assume an
authority which they no longer felt themselves to possess.

Little Uncle Wilhelm, who had been rescued on the very brink of
disaster, was understudying Joseph. His club-foot sprang from rung to
rung of the ladders. And so there were five of them, that morning,--he
hanging back a little behind the other four--when Hippolyte, rising to
his feet, and inadvertently keeping his silk hat on his head, as
though in the synagogue, opened the meeting:

"I do not think that there is very much to be said, and it is better
so. Business is going down. Black cloth has ceased to sell. It will be
a matter of ten or fifteen years before that line comes into favour
again, if it ever does. You know this as well as I; everybody in
France knows it this morning.  We have not the means, we have not the
patience to wait ten or fifteen years--is not that so?"

This "is not that so?" sought neither answer nor approbation.  M.
Hippolyte looked at each of his audience and went on: "To persevere,
with a plant like ours, would be madness. Ruin, within two years. I
would not have consented to do so when my money alone and Myrtil's was
in the business. There can be no suggestion of such a thing now."

"Rrrrm!" came from Myrtil's throat. His brother cast a curious glance
at him.

"And so, this is what I have decided to propose to you.  We are going
to liquidate."

And as the group of his four listeners quivered, he repeated, in a
louder tone, turning livid, while his left hand assisted his eyelid to
rise over the bloodshot hemisphere of his eye:

"I have said: we are going to liquidate. By working for three years
with one quarter of our plant, we shall be able to pay off our debt.
When that time comes, we shall stop work altogether, and the factory
will be so-old."

Myrtil could be heard grinding his teeth.

"From to-day, Myrtil and I intend to retire. Guillaume and Joseph are
capable of managing the business. And if the liquidation is carried
out on the conditions which I anticipate, I shall buy them, when the
time comes, a place on the stock exchange, in Paris. So!"

As no one made any response, he added almost at once, letting his
eyelid droop again, and flushing from his dewlap to the back of his
neck:

"I shall confine myself to stating this one fact, that I am now about
to retire from business, in eighteen hundred and seventy-seven, a
poorer man than I was in the year seventy.  But--as everyone has done
his duty--since then--I shall reproach no one, nor shall I speak of
the matter again. The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away,
blessed be His Holy Name."

He raised his enormous hand, and this strange man was seen to smile.
There occurred also an unforeseen incident, His hand having come in
contact with the brim of his hat, he realised that he was wearing it;
his smile vanished, he banged his hat down upon the table and,
knitting his brows, glared at his sons with an expression of unbounded
scorn.

They had followed his movements with a hypnotised stare. They opened
their mouths to utter the same word: "Unthinkable!"

"What?"

"Unthinkable," Joseph repeated with greater emphasis.

"Leave the factory?" muttered Guillaume's safety-valve, "unthinkable,
Papa!"

Of all the speeches that people had composed, in the course of their
lives, with the intention of flattering Hippo-lyte, none had ever
proved so successful as this. And so he was beside himself when he
responded: "You see, Myrtil, what they think of us?"

Myrtil immediately posed as the statue of outraged dignity.  Joseph
took the bit in his teeth: "Extreme solutions are all very well for
doing things, not for undoing them.  Will you allow me to speak? I
have talked to the Sterns, as you know. And the two of us, Guillaume
and I, have perhaps a stake in the business."

The Hippopotamus turned away with a grunt, and made a gesture which
Joseph was free to interpret as he chose.  But his response was to
express his opinion briefly: "Black cloth is no longer selling? Very
well. Let us make coloured cloth. And if Amazone [Footnote: A
patternless cloth, black or coloured.] is not enough, let us turn out
Nouveauté."

Hippolyte turned quickly, and Myrtil rose to his full height. As for
Guillaume, he had formed no plan save that of a desperate struggle to
retain the ground already won.  The thought of carrying the war into
the enemy's country made him livid:

"Madness! I did not think you were such a fool," replied the
Hippopotamus, as soon as he was capable of speech.

"And why should not we turn out as good stuff as Balzan, the people at
Roubaix or the English?"

"There is no why about it. It is not our line."

"It will become our line."

"I don't know how to make it."

"We shall learn."

"I refuse to risk everything at one stroke."

"Very well, but we must take risks. Wilhelm and I are young, and as
for your idea of turning us into brokers, you need not give it another
thought."

"In other words, you mean to turn us out of doors, the pair of you?"
growled M. Hippolyte, retrieving his hat and looking at his brother.

"Who was it that spoke of retiring?" inquired Guillaume, who was
beginning to recover. "Joseph's plan deserves consideration, and the
whole lot of us would not be too many for..."

"Stern spoke to you of this?"

"Stern," Joseph went on, "will buy the half of our output in coloured
cloth and Nouveauté for two years, on trial."

"No. I do not know how to make it!" M. Hippolyte cried once again.
Joseph flung upon the table a score of many-coloured samples:

"Is it difficult to make, this sort of thing? Pooh!"

Anyone who saw the other four bend over these crumpled scraps of cloth
would have made more than one discovery.  There was a silence broken
by the sound of heavy breathing, in the course of which eager ringers
felt, pulled, plucked, scrutinising the cloth thread by thread,
wresting the secret of this rival manufacture from the intersection of
warp and woof.

"Serge," breathed Myrtil as he stretched a deep blue sample over the
back of his thumb.

"Well, O weavers, have you seen all that there is to see?  Is it too
hard a task for you?"

"And the dyeing?" growled Myrtil, looking at Joseph as he might have
looked at some slightly repulsive specimen in a museum.

"There are dyers."

"That isn't going to be the most difficult part," murmured the little
uncle. M. Hippolyte raised his head at once and turned towards his
brother-in-law:

"What would you do, now, if you were in my shoes?"

"I should trust _them_," Blum replied quietly.

Hippolyte seemed angry: "I thought as much!"

And to himself he muttered: "_Lorrain, fils de chien, âpre au
gain_..."

"Come then," exclaimed Joseph, as he banged the table with his hand
and sent the heap of samples flying, "keep the black trade for
yourselves, let Guillaume and me seek our fortune. If, in two years
from now, we have not made four millions, call me an idiot."

"You mean plain stuffs only?" his father was beginning to waver.

"I mean anything and everything that we have to take up in order to
extricate ourselves and not to become moneychangers and usurers,
Papa."

"If they imagine that we are going to sit tight on Amazone like a cow
on her dung!" Joseph said to his brother as he shut the door on the
old men. "This is not the time to stop half-way. It is everything or
nothing. As Papa said, this morning the whole of France knows it.
There are three hundred firms discussing, at this very moment, what
line they are going to take. Fifty of them will decide upon taking the
plunge. Of those fifty, ten will prove successful. We must be one of
the ten. The market will go to those that are ready soonest. You'll
admit I carried it through pretty well, Guillaume! Were you expecting
anything of the sort, old man?"

A stream of warm blood gave fresh youth to Guillaume's sallow cheeks.
And little Uncle Blum, if he was not the most rational of the three,
was not to be disregarded as an adviser in the elaboration of the
plan.

The factory had seen the two senior partners come out of the
warehouse. Their anxious and embarrassed expression had not augured
any good. M. Hippolyte withdrew at the earliest possible moment, and
went to shut himself up with his wife. The whole of Vendeuvre knew,
when the midday break came, that the Simlers were no cleverer than
anyone else, and that all must be prepared to suffer alike.

There followed nevertheless three full days of discussion before
Hippolyte would surrender, three days which Elisa employed to the best
of her ability in alternating between scenes of love-swooning in
Joseph's arms, and paroxysms of sobbing in Hermine's. As for Justin,
he was wasting away with emotion.

Jacob Stern came down to Vendeuvre in person and returned to Paris.
The period of secret deliberations began again. Bands of people began
to spring from the ground, their hands in their pockets and starvation
in their eyes.  One heard of difficulties in the Banque de l'Ouest,
and the 363 [Footnote: Is it necessary to remind the French reader of
to-day that the reference is to the 363 Republican Gambettist
Deputies, whose reelection by ballot put an end to the crisis of May
16 and impelled Marshal Mac-Mahon, the President of the Republic, to
resign?] were accused of vicious practices the mere enumeration of
which would have astonished them greatly.

When the town omnibus called for Joseph, one morning, there were as
many tears shed as in the good old days.  Joseph was not allowed to
start until he had been duly _gebenscht_. For the second time, the
fortune of the Simlers was sent out into the highways.

Guillaume was prowling in the background, gnawing his moustaches. It
never entered his head that the operation could be effective without
him. He seized an opportunity to approach his brother: "You are sure
that I can't help you in any way?" he said in a voice rendered sombre
by anxiety on his own account and by the general depression.

"You would be most useful to me, Wilhelm. But one of us is
indispensable here; the old people have lost their heads."

Joseph's fingers slid over a hand prematurely cased in parchment, and
expressing all that he left unsaid.

The wheels had not bumped for more than a quarter of a mile over the
cobbles when Joseph sprang from the omnibus.  "Stop!"

"Monsieur Hector has not come down yet," said the porter, summoned by
his imperious tug at the bell. "But if Monsieur Joseph..."

M. Joseph had cleared the outer steps in a stride, and was covering
the thick felt carpet on the staircase four steps at a time. The door
was familiar; he turned the handle with entire candour of heart:

"Hector, my dear fellow..."

Hector Lefombère was sitting there, motionless, his bare legs dangling
from the bed, lost in a strange contemplation: his right arm bent, the
elbow pressed to his side, the forearm horizontally extended, he was
carefully studying the movements of the hand that protruded from the
sleeve of his nightshirt.

He raised for an instant, without any trace of surprise, his regular,
equine face, and relapsed into his scrutiny: "Yours doesn't shake?"

Joseph remained breathless and bewildered.

"It doesn't shake? You may count yourself fortunate, my friend. Just
look at this rag. For the last half-hour I've been trying, by
concentrating my will, to keep it m-m-motionless.  It is like a bunch
of dates. I'm finished, my dear fellow."

The hand, a shapely hand, white and tapering, was indeed quivering in
its cuff, with a motion that was barely perceptible, but never ceased
and must soon become intolerable.

"Aha! That is because you are not a Lefombère! Blue blood. Half-blue
blood. Look at this little tremor. D'you see?  Very well, I might
offer all the money in Vendeuvre, this morning, nobody could make it
stop. I am healthy, never any disease, don't touch spirits, have taken
care of myself since I left school like a little old man, simply to
end in this.  My father used to go on the razzle with Barbey
d'Aurevilly, and my grandfather was the biggest fop in the Bodyguard.
Ah! The grandson may well be proud. Look, look! Curious, isn't it? And
yours doesn't shake? You have only Simler blood in your veins."

He had not raised his eyes again to Joseph's face, but was keeping
them fixed upon his own hand. Joseph made as though to feel his own
wrist, but felt ashamed, and thrust his hand into the pocket of his
greatcoat.

"Hector, Hector, old man, forget about all that. Everybody's hand has
been shaky at some time in his life. You have been going the pace."

"Word of honour," cried young Lefombère, looking him frankly in the
face, this time. "Never, not since... you remember."

Joseph blushed.

"Yes. Still, this little tremor is not going to prevent you from
living to a hundred and making the most of life. My father's hand
shakes like..."

"It didn't shake when he was twenty-eight."

"Possibly not, but it's a hand that will make old bones, I can promise
you. Get up every morning at five o'clock, and saw half a cord of wood
before you go to business. In a month's time you'll have forgotten all
about it."

Hector shrugged his shoulders, and at once began to whine: "Then you
don't know what it means, this little signal?  You know nothing at
all? It means a padded cell or a wheeled chair in ten years' time, and
an attendant in uniform to wipe my mouth. There's the pox of my dandy
forebears in that, the swell parties of the Restoration, the dances at
Sceaux and the rich dinners of the Second Empire. I'm washed out," he
added, growing a little calmer. "Bah, don't let us think any more
about it. It is unpleasant. But who will remember it in a hundred
years? Sit down, my dear fellow. I have been keeping you on your feet.
And tell me what good wind brings you here at this unusual hour?"

He rose and took Joseph's arm, held it in a friendly grip, and pointed
to a chair. Apart from his being attired in the most ridiculous
costume in which a son of Adam can display himself, his two knees and
his two long legs, coated with golden hairs, emerging from the ample
skirts of a nightshirt, the affability of his manners would have done
credit to the most exacting drawing-room.

"I shall not sit down. Thank you. I called... I see now that it was
not the right moment."

"What a strange man. Sit down over there, and speak."

"Only a moment, then. My steed is champing at the door."

"You are going away? On a Monday morning?"

"Yes. To London."

"What nonsense!"

"Are you quite calm? Very well, then, I am going to tell you a
secret.... This is between you and me and no one else, here or
anywhere: Vendeuvre is finished."

"That is news, to be sure."

"Good. Wait a moment: we are changing our line of business."
"Indeed?... A-ha!... Excellent. You are quite right.  You are the same
as ever. There was nothing else to be done.  Still, it required the
power to do it."

"The will."

"Precisely."

"Listen, my dear fellow, let us come to the point. This air of
detachment bores me and... frightens me. As my old man says: 'I don't
know what to make of it.' I called here to tell you that I am leaving
for England, that we want to try and get ourselves out of the mess.
That can only be done by trying coloured goods, Nouveauté, the devil
and all his angels. I am going to make a little collection of English
samples, get hold of an individual who knows his job to set the looms,
and do everything that the situation may require. Do you care to come
in? There is room for two, and... and I don't like to see you go
under." Hector Lefombère rose.

"My dear old Simler, you are better than the finest gentleman in the
world. As for discretion, don't alarm yourself.  I shall think of it
always, and shall never say a word. Seriously, go to London, don't
worry any more about us."

Joseph did not know whether it was the moment to be sorry or
indignant.

"You are raving!"

"Not at all. It is quite simple, and you will understand in a moment.
You people are young..."

"Young?" exclaimed Joseph, summing up his slim junior in a
comprehensive glance.

"Yes, my dear fellow, all _young_, extremely _young_, old Simler just
as young as yourself, and the man with the face like a crimson
shutter--heaven forbid that I should ever forget it--is as young as
your brother, the gloomy Guillaume.  You are seeking your fortune. You
are quite right.  No joking, it is an admirable spectacle. Carry on,
so long as your side of the wheel is uppermost. In fact, you have
every reason to make haste. You can't tell how much time you have
before you. The wheel keeps turning. But unquestionably your turn has
come. Only don't burden yourselves with us. The same causes do not
produce the same effects here as with you. People talk nonsense when
they say that a flea the size of a man could jump over the towers of
Notre-Dame. A flea the size of you or me could not jump three feet,
and would sweat at that. There are a state and a moment in which
bodies give out their maximum of energy.  When that state and that
moment have passed, everything grows feeble. That is what is happening
with us, and with the rest of our neighbours. For a century now, half
a century at least, we have been spending all the money that we have
made, and sometimes more. You have seen my hand, too. I don't press
the point. And I am the only male of the younger generation, my dear
fellow. Two of my sisters wish to become nuns. The third is not the
type that people marry without a dowry. You have no idea of the
exquisite refinement of their feelings. It is the fine flower of
civilisation.  But that has nothing to do with free competition in
business.  My governor was the biggest dandy of the forties. Even if
he has grown as glum and solemn as a nightcap, he is still the
greatest idealist of the present day. You don't know him. His business
formulas are in the same grand manner as his way of lifting his hat,
and he clings to his old looms as he does to his pocket Montaigne. The
place was rebuilt, after the fire, exactly from the original plans,
and we bump our heads in exactly the same dear old dark corners. Don't
you say a word to him about changing his line. He would listen to all
you had to say with the utmost politeness, and would consider you the
most dangerous man he had ever met in his life."

"But, great God in heaven," exclaimed Joseph, adjusting his
spectacles, "you are in the business too!"

"I? By the way, it would be just as well if I put on a pair of
drawers, don't you think? I? I'm good for fifteen years more, if I
take care of myself, more probably for ten, and, between now and then,
an uncontrollable dread of any confusion, of any worry. Frankly, am I
the man to do single-handed what you are going to do as a quartet, and
a quartet of Simlers?"

"Your subordinates..." Joseph began in a less trenchant tone. The
Lefombère factory maintained a hierarchy of officials almost as
numerous as that of a Government Department.

"Since when have we done anything _with_ those people, and not
_against them_? Let us sink quietly and peacefully, dragging one
another down. My father will see nothing of what is happening, and
will have the satisfaction of blaming the Republic for all the
mischief. As for me, I am rich enough to end my life respectably,
which is more than I should be able to do if I remained in business.
Besides, we are invited to tea at Le Plantis this afternoon....
Goodbye, old man, it is nearly seven, off with you, and good luck."




V


Joseph's luck was good, and his spirits would have been as good or
better, had not the unpleasant reminder of Le Plantis spoiled the
first day of his travels.

There are certain things which a man of feeling cannot recall with
impunity. Joseph spent this day asking himself whether, like Rodrigue
in the play, he had a heart, and finding that he was unable to answer
a question so ill expressed he reviled himself as a brute, an ignoble
brute, shrinking back into a corner of the blue upholstery of the
train and pulling his cap down over his eyes.

But the equivocal and still novel charms of Gustave Droz, not to
mention the excitement of the crossing to Newhaven, were sufficient to
arouse in him a new spirit, to which the world was still a vast
assemblage of marvels.

Once in England, all trace of him is lost. He himself never referred
to this period save with an infinity of reticences and restrained
mirth. It is certain that he penetrated as far as Leeds and even
Manchester, that he did not always travel first-class, that he did not
exclusively haunt the big hotels, but that with the complicity of a
manufacturer of machinery at Newcastle, assuming the style and title
of Herr Mit-macher, a German machine-fitter, he forced the doors of
several large weaving-mills and inspected them minutely. It is no less
certain that his entire ignorance of the English language does not
seem to have stood in the way of his forming a numerous acquaintance;
that he found his way into many a bar with many different companions;
that having, on one occasion, entered a little wine-shop at Tottenham
with a person who moved with the gait of a commercial traveller, he
emerged from it a little later bearing a respectable package under his
arm and an air of complete satisfaction on his face.

It remains to be recorded that he had the pleasure, as he was on his
way back to Vendeuvre, of falling quite by chance, on the quay at
Boulogne, into the arms of his uncle by marriage, Afroum Stern. What
he said and showed to that respected merchant, who was crossing to
Folkestone, was of the greatest possible interest to him.

Six days later, three large valises, two of which, quite new, bore the
mark of the Army and Navy Stores, were making the tables in the
warehouse groan. When he opened them, they proved to be filled with
little scraps of cloth of all colours, some mounted on cards, some
bound up in little books. Joseph's pocket-book, when he condescended
to produce it, was no less fertile in surprises. Thirty pages were
covered with his close little curling script. The reading of these
notes occupied two whole days, during which a storm was brewing, if
one was to judge by the shouts of M. Hippo-lyte, but by the end of
which the rumour began to spread through Vendeuvre that the Simlers
were not closing down, and that the whole place was being overhauled
from top to bottom.

As a matter of fact, cards of samples, so long as they are in their
first freshness, are not made an object of public discussion.  For it
need not be said that an attentive scrutiny of them is tantamount to
an exploration of our neighbour's secrets and enables persons of
intelligence to draw extremely rapid conclusions. Weavers know this
and protect themselves.  But try if you can prevent the human
conscience from succumbing to punch, whisky, and other arguments as
well!

A week later, there arrived a strange comrade, hermetic and extremely
curt, whom Joseph went to meet at the station with every mark of
respect, but who was immediately shut up in a little room used for
treating raw wool, which had been hastily cleared of its contents.
Joseph and Guillaume spent more than one day there discussing matters.
M.  Hippolyte and Myrtil called there more frequently than might have
been expected. Then Zeller, Uncle Blum and two or three others were
invited to attend.

An hour's leisure was allowed the new comrade every morning and
evening. He would spend this time smoking a short pipe on the canal
bank, a cap on his head, with an air of complete indifference to
everything within sight or hearing. He had ascertained, on the day of
his arrival, the non-existence of any kind of bar in this primitive
country.  His personal curiosity extending no farther, he had uttered
an "oh!" and the sound of his voice had not been heard again.

Fanny carried his meals to him in the room in which he slept. Justin,
who had slipped into the room on her heels, came upon a pair of
handlooms, of ridiculously inadequate breadth but of abnormal height,
enclosed in frames of heavy wooden beams; the threads of the warp
passed through a series of holes in cards ruled with squared lines;
the whole thing appeared barbaric and rudimentary. He was to become
familiar, in time, with the mysteries of "setting" Nouveauté, and to
learn that Grandpapa had very nearly smashed the machine in his blind
rage the first time he was admitted to the presence of the gentleman
with the short pipe.

The latter, as it happened, aroused in Vendeuvre all the curiosity
that he himself failed to feel. He worked with the precision of an
automaton, required quantities of water for his bodily ablutions, and
came home blind drunk as ever was every Saturday night.

Five weeks later, Joseph, who had begun to lose flesh, unpacked before
the Sterns a number of samples of his own manufacture which made the
hearts of those hard-boiled veterans quiver with surprise. A hasty
tour of his customers brought him a respectable number of orders on
approval, for both Nouveauté and Amazone. The Simlers set to work
without interruption, and did not give a thought to the Sixteenth of
May until that inoffensive storm had passed.

The first piece of Amazone and the first piece of Nouveauté came out
of the press almost simultaneously, as the hot weather was beginning.
The lilac hue of the former, for which Guillaume was personally
responsible, was no doubt of a remarkably acid variety. The dull grey,
chequered with red and green silk, of the other was not perhaps quite
an ideal specimen of "English goods."

They acted nevertheless as fountains in a dry land. All the Alsacian
element in the factory came down, one by one, to the warehouse. Each
of them took the cloth, tugged at it, and rubbed it between finger and
thumb with a knowing air.  Mr. Smith was asked to be so kind as to let
himself be seen.  His smooth, fair head completed the excited circle
that gathered round the Simler family.

While this was happening, Guillaume felt a gentle tug at his sleeve,
and the voice of little Uncle Blum whispered in his ear:

"I think it would be as well... take Papa out of the room, Wilhelm."
Guillaume turned his head in his father's direction. The mask of death
had descended upon the old weaver's face. The left eyelid hung down
over his cheek like a pouch of flesh. A meaningless smile made his
mouth gape open at one side. A colour such as might be obtained by
mixing clay and chalk was tinging his neck and temples.  Lastly, his
right eye remained fastened upon some alarming object, while a corner
of the piece of lilac cloth began to slip slowly between his spatulate
fingers.

"Take Papa out of the room, I tell you."

Neither Sarah nor anyone else had noticed anything.  Guillaume himself
could not yet believe his eyes.

He went round to the other side of the table, and touched his father's
arm. M. Hippolyte did not appear to feel anything, but the fixed smile
on his left cheek became more deeply embedded in it.

"Papa, Papa!"

"Ah, ab, ab..." was the weaver's sole response. Sarah looked across at
her husband. She uttered no cry, but thrust her two hands forward,
and, propelling her whole weight after them, succeeded in preventing
his head from striking against the edge of the massive table.

"Ohoho! What is the matter now?" cried Myrtil. No sooner was Hippolyte
installed in the big leather armchair than a hissing sound began to
issue from his lips amid a tempest of sighs and groans. The children
had been sent out of the room, and stood rooted to the ground, in the
courtyard, listening to the ebb and flow of a sort of lowing sound,
broken by angry gurgles.

Mme. Hippolyte, herself livid, raised her husband's massive head,
pressed it to her bosom. One of the foreman whipped off the tie and
collar. The trembling dewlap of his throat and the upper part of a
formidable brick-red chest swelled and sank with a jerky alternation.
The right eye remained open and fastened upon the alarming object.

"We must get him out of here," somebody said. Joseph and Guillaume had
lost all their presence of mind. They stooped over the armchair,
holding out their ineffectual hands and uttering raucous syllables.

Every arm was lent to the service. And while the shrill voice of Elisa
began to wail: "Oh God, oh God!" the heavy fleshy envelope of
Hippolyte Simler passed through the door.  The bearers at his head had
slowed down for a moment as they reached the landing outside, the
dying man's knees rose at a sharp angle, one of his hands fell and
began to trail along the ground. Guillaume dashed to the rescue,
picked up this hand and clasped it in his own, casting questioning
glances to right and left. The head was swaying heavily upon Kapp's
arm.

Mr. Smith had taken his hands out of his pockets. He turned to the
little uncle: "Oh," he said, "I don't think the old gentleman is quite
well," and he knitted his brows with a perplexed air.

A simultaneous impulse brought all the staff to the windows, a cry ran
along every floor of the building, and the noise of the factory
suddenly died away. But Myrtil had only to raise his peaked eyebrows
for the women to disperse like a flight of sparrows, and the sound of
the looms to swell to its full volume. Various foremen set off at a
run to their several departments.

M. Hippolyte's last agony began in an atmosphere of suffocating gloom.
The July heat beat upon the wooden slats of the dosed shutters. His
body lay half naked upon the great bed of waxed mahogany, and the
stupefied watchers lifted his head to the huge place which it filled.
The doors remained open, admitting a creak of cautious boots, and a
sickening medley of pharmaceutical odours conveyed to the farthest
corners of the establishment the news that human life had reached its
term.

Amid a buzz of whispered orders, the necessary implements were
fetched. One could almost hear the pressure of the bistoury against
the yielding flesh, and, one by one, rich slow drops began to fall
into a metal basin, as the first drops of a thunderstorm ring upon the
zinc roof of a verandah.

Then, faint as the twitter of a mouse, an "ee-ee-ee" which nobody
could identify, rose by the side of the bed. It was Sarah beginning to
weep.

"Human medicine can do no more," the doctor murmured to Guillaume and
Hermine, casting curious glances round the room. "The body is still
robust, but he has used up all his vitality. Do not alarm yourselves
unduly. He may last a long time yet. I shall look in again."

Then, while the ritual silence gained a footing everywhere, and only
the hum of the factory made the house shake, the last battle began:

"Hahaha! Light! Put out the light! Sarah! Put out the factory! But we
must carry out our or-ders. Has Jacob written? Myrtil! Myrtil! Are you
sure they wrote Bale on the cases? If they should find out that they
were for Bour-baki's army, for Barmée's arky, at-at-at Lyons. Poor
Jacob.  Has he come back? I have seen nothing, German gentlemen!
Eight hundred pieces? But they were for Bale, not for Baki, gentlemen,
not for Baki. Sarah, tell these gentlemen that Jacob has written and
that he has arrived at Lyons!  For-the-army-of-Bour-the-army-of-Bour
... ach! There: Marmy, pourky?  Marmy.... I am so tired."

Then Yiddish gently took the place of French, and a fresh childlike
voice sounded in Hippolyte's ear with the rustle of a morning breeze
among a row of poplars.

"My treasure, my Hippolyte," moaned Sarah, laying a timid hand upon
the sleeper as he stirred and muttered. But he felt nothing, for his
soul had gone far away and was struggling, as it descended towards the
roots of things.

"Mamma, O Mamma, why has Myrtil eaten all the cherries?  You ought to
have stopped him, you ought...  Clémentine, the white horse, the big
white horse that Papa bought is for Myrtil and me. We shall go to
Colmar on the white horse, to see Tantele, and Clémentine shall stay
behind.  I shall hold the _griebe_. The light! Oh, that light! Will
you please put it out? Papa will be angry. It is so bad for the eyes.
It is dancing. I shall dance too on the night of Hagada. I can say the
whole of my _parche_."

The nasal muttering of Hebrew texts took the place of the Yiddish
speech. The most far-fetched prayers were uttered one after another,
the despairing lamentation of Kip-pur, the shrill chant of Pesar,
which commemorates the escape from Egypt, the rumbling plain-chant of
the _Rosh Hashone_, until the moment when the recaptured _Kaddish_
brought the wandering spirit back to Buschendorf, and the angry spirit
of the father came to torment the son. Clémentine, the sister who had
died in childhood, the complicated family tree, and winter runs amid
the snows of Alsace appeared each in turn and passed away, like the
light which was incessantly rekindled and which hurt so cruelly that
left eye. But none of these images offered any solution. And yet the
soul knew that time was pressing.

"Hippolyte, my darling, oh, rest in peace," sobbed Sarah, as the body
groaned and tried to turn over. She bent over him, but the dying man's
words remained an impenetrable secret.

"He is suffering, seeking, he wants something. Does either of you know
what it is?" Sarah murmured to her sons.

Evening came. The siren did not sound, that evening. The workers left
the place in silence. They gathered in groups outside the house and
dispersed slowly. As soon as they had had their dinners, a certain
number returned. Night found them there, and engulfed them with
everything else, a warm night quiet and soothing through which a scent
of wistaria stole.

"He is worried, he is worried," Sarah said to the doctor.  "I can feel
that he is worried. Why is it, Doctor? He has surely earned the right
to die in peace."

"None of us has earned that right, Madame. You will give him three
drops of this prescription in a coffee-spoonful of sugared water,
Madame, as soon as he wakes. Death is not a kind or a restful thing,
Madame. Have you any ice? Ice for his head? Good, thank you. You will
change it every hour, please, Madame. I shall come back about two
o'clock in the morning. It is only children that die peacefully,
Madame. Should the pulse rise above a hundred and twenty, you must
send for me at once. Madame, there is a balance to be struck. It must
be done before death, otherwise the soul does not die in peace, and
the soul must die, Madame, before the body can die in its turn. What I
am saying is not very orthodox, Madame, but that is the way things
happen.  See that the patient does not uncover himself. A perspiration
would do no harm, but you must change his linen at once. Your husband
is weighing the pros and cons, at this moment, Madame. If he can
balance his account before he dies he will die the happier. That is
why we have to prolong life as far as is in our power. The second
injection at six o'clock, Madame, that is very important."

M. Hippolyte did not succeed in balancing his accounts until the
second sunrise. Then, after two days and nights of search, despairing,
no doubt, of finding what he still lacked to establish the balance, he
sighed after a haven for his weariness, and let himself drift upon the
current that was bearing him whither he must go.

This was the moment at which the doors were hurriedly opened.
Guillaume rose up at the foot of the sofa on which the children had
found a sleep disturbed by nightmares.

"Come at once and say good-bye to your grandfather.  Quietly. Not a
sound."

They sat down, in alarm, and were surprised that they no longer heard
echoing through the house the raucous, angry trumpet-call which died
away and revived like the sound of a badly fitted pump.

His back raised upon a pile of white pillows, M. Hippo-lyte watched
them enter the room. His scalp was bald and polished, his head drooped
over his chest, and his lower lip hung down over his shrunken chin,
with an unspeakably piteous expression. The sound of the pump came
only faintly, in breathless double pulsations, separated by long
silences. People were sniffling in the corners of the room.  Sarah,
her eyes dry and feverish, her hair neatly parted beneath her black
cap, stood by the side of the bed and gazed at her husband.

He, with the drooping eye, watched the children approach.  The
starched shirt was stirred by a sudden movement, and the right hand,
on which the flesh hung down on either side of the bones, pointed
towards them.

"Hin'--Hin'--Kin'--"

The eye became anxious and a yellow tide flooded its corner.  Sarah
stooped over him. At length the following words forced a passage
through his lips:

"Kinder--Fabrik--Myrtil--Honest--Good children--Work--Riches ... no,
no need--Take great care--Money--no--no need--no, great care!--Ach!
Sarah,--my--my love!"

There followed a sort of convulsion. "Go!" was shouted in the ears of
the children and they found themselves on the landing outside.

The soul of Hippolyte Simler, having doubtless found what it was
seeking, abruptly ceased its calculations, and set his body free to
enter as it might choose into the vast flux of non-existence.




VI


"I declare, they haven't given the old Maccabee time to grow cold!"

This is what everyone was saying, in Vendeuvre, on the day after M.
Hippolyte's funeral. It had been said that the Simlers were fated
always to surprise their fellow-citizens.  On this day, they surprised
their mother herself. When the wail of the siren rent the silence, the
old woman covered her face with her hands to shut out the sacrilege.
When Joseph and her beloved Guillaume came and tapped at her door for
the _Kaddish_, they found a frozen face with tightly pressed lips:

"Oh! The shame of it! Not to have prayed as much as twelve hours over
their dead father!"

But when, after gathering first in the warehouse, with burning brows
and choking throats, the Simlers, uncle and nephews, started to go
across to the factory, it was the nephews' turn to be surprised.
Myrtil set off at a sharp pace to the weaving-room, and, making a sign
to Zeller, took over M. Hippolyte's duties for that morning.

At the midday break, they found him seated in the dead man's own
chair, inside the little glazed cage. He wrinkled the triple penthouse
of his profile, thrust out his hand, seized a bundle of letters which
were on the table, and, casting a bitter glance at them, began:

"What does this mean? Verneuil writes that two pieces in the last
order were badly joined. Who is in charge of the joining, here?"

But neither of the two younger Simlers was unaware that time was
pressing. A question of life or death. The machine that they had set
in motion had no longer any common measure with the episodes of family
life. Either the orders that Joseph brought back from Paris would be
executed by the promised date, or the Simlers would have nothing else
to do but to hand back the keys to M. Gabard, house and estate agent.

In reality they were no less horror-stricken than Mme.  Hippolyte.
That their father should be dead, and the earth continue to turn, was
in no way remarkable. That the factory should go on as usual, this
filled them with anguish.

If they had taken this opportunity and had allowed themselves a whole
day in which to meditate upon this phenomenon, the Simlers would
doubtless have emerged from it armed against more than one amazement,
in the future.  It is indeed probable that they would have made more
than one discovery. They did not give themselves that day. They did
not grant it to themselves that week nor in the weeks that followed,
that year nor in the years that followed. They were not in the habit
of speaking of holidays, in their family.

At the most Guillaume would occasionally turn his head with an effort,
in the course of the afternoon, when, alone in his den in the
spinning-room, he felt the ceilings, walls and floors throb round
about him, with the ceaseless clatter of the machines.

"If I were to kill myself, here, would that _thing_ stop?"

He sank back in his armchair, bowed his head, let his arms trail on
the ground, shammed dead, keeping watch athwart the flooding tide of
his heart. But the imperturbable tumult--a copper ball rolling along a
road of sheet-iron--revealed no pity. Guillaume then left his office,
crimson with shame and terror, raced through the rooms, leaving the
foremen breathless in his wake, immersing his substance in a life
which he discovered to be more durable than his own. And when, that
evening, his eye fell upon Justin, he could not refrain from saying:

"Hurry up, Justin. Your place is waiting for you. We need you."

It needs no more than this to make a youngster of fifteen form a high
opinion of his own importance in the world.  In '79, the portentous
figure reached before the crisis had reappeared in the balance-sheet.
Justin derived from this the best arguments in the world for making
his own presence desired, and for continuing to conduct his precious
person through the matriculation exams, with brilliant success.

On the tenth of July, 1880, the balance-sheet revealed an upward leap
of twelve hundred and fifty thousand francs.  The turnover exceeded
the fifth million, and went a quarter of the way into the sixth.

On the 12th, Guillaume returned home unexpectedly at eight o'clock in
the morning, rattling a stiff sheet of paper in both hands. Justin, in
white linen trousers, a light alpaca jacket, an irreproachable straw
hat on his somewhat boldly featured head, was preparing to spend a day
on the river with a few bosom friends--a pale replica of those famous
days on the Marne. Laure was finishing her breakfast with the airs of
a kitten by a plate of milk that had not yet cooled, and was eyeing
her brother with a passably caustic glance. Hermine came running into
the room in her dressing-gown and slippers, a strip of flannel
dangling from her arm.

"Listen," cried Guillaume breathlessly. "This is a letter I found in
the post. It went to the factory by mistake."

And he read it out with emphasis, not omitting a line of the text
whether printed or in manuscript:


LYCÉE DE VENDEUVRE

CABINET

DE M. LE PROVISEUR.

Vendeuvre, n July, 1880.

SIR,

I have the honour to offer you my warmest congratulations on the
occasion of the brilliant success with which your son, my pupil Simler
(Justin) has brought his scholastic years to a close.  He has passed
his third matriculation with the maximum of marks ever hitherto
obtained in our Academy. The Rector has kindly allowed me to see the
highly eulogistic note which the Dean of the Faculty of Science has
devoted to our former pupil in the report which he presented to the
Minister at the end of the session.

I should be most happy, Sir, to send you myself a copy of a document
which does honour to the Establishment of which I have charge, and
will ever remain among our archives.

M. Justin Simler has, however, made us accustomed to regard him as one
of the best justifications which we have had, up to the present, for
believing in the excellence of the methods which form the tradition of
the University of France.  The threefold consecration that has crowned
the last three years of his presence among us, and the variety of
aptitudes to which his successes bear witness, in the faculty of Arts
as in that of Science, will make us regret for ever the departure of a
person whose name our pupils will learn to remember, when they see it
engraved in letters of gold, at the beginning of next term, on the
great Board of Honour in our venerable hall.

But the object of my addressing you is not merely, Sir, to convey to
you my personal congratulations; we all of us consider that your son
belongs to the Studies for which he has shown so remarkable an
aptitude. Whatever the special branch that may tempt him, we feel that
we may predict for him a brilliant career. The Superior Normal School
awaits him. I flatter myself that I shall have no difficulty in
obtaining your assent to a decision of such high importance. Kindly
regard this hope as chief among the reasons that make me desire to
obtain from you the opportunity for discussion which I request.

I have the honour to be, &c.


A Jew would sell the shirt off his back in order to learn to read, and
goes without bread so that he may have his children taught. If we
consider that the sole distinction before which these people have ever
bowed has been erudition, that they have no priests, but only doctors,
that three-quarters of their books deal with historical and
philological disputes, in short that, accustomed by necessity to
purchasing everything, they know that learning is the one thing that
cannot be bought with money, we can imagine the thunderbolt that this
letter produced.

That same evening, all Vendeuvre, already informed, ten years back, of
the ever-increasing merits of Monsieur Simler (Justin), had read,
re-read and commented on the document.  At eleven o'clock that morning
Joseph had arrived, his face aglow with pride, his arms flung open,
and a gleam of noble triumph had shot from the deeply shadowed eyes of
Uncle Myrtil.

As for Laure, she was in an ecstasy of excitement, having discovered
in the eyes of the redheaded Hermance, the very same expression with
which Aunt Elisa used to gaze at Uncle Jos--not so very long ago.

Justin remained impassive, as "British" as could be desired.  But his
innocent heart was bursting with joy.

The letter told him nothing, unless it was that the solemn imbecility
of the academic style knows no bounds. And the head's greasy
self-importance, in spite of his continual failure to obtain a Chair,
brought everything back into focus,

And yet the head was playing only a more or less neutral part as
intermediary. Behind him there were the School Inspector, likewise a
person of no importance, the Rector, who carried more weight, the two
Deans (Arts and Science), the Inspector General, who had carefully put
the candidate through his paces at each of his two latest inspections,
the Director of Secondary Education, the Supreme Council, the
Minister's Secretaries, finally Jules Ferry himself, that is to say,
the great administrative machine of France from bottom to top. Each of
these, not to mention the ushers, prefects, secretaries, clerks,
deputy-chiefs and chiefs of departmental branches, had learned the
name of Simler (Justin) and had recorded it somewhere, so as to find
it again and remember it.

Justin was not the sort of boy to misinterpret the smile that had
beamed upon the faces of his examiners, affable and circumspect men,
when the "tangent" had addressed him by his name, with a wink of old
acquaintance, at each of his last two orals; nor yet the tone of
social and at the same time learned conversation in which these
interrogations had been made. The Prefect knew him by sight after
having crowned him at least ten times with his own hands, on
prize-giving days, and the President of the Court of Appeal
acknowledged the doffing of Justin's hat with a cordial wrinkling of
his shrivelled face, for a similar reason.

Nor did Justin lack ears. He had heard it said that the Republic
wanted men. He could not help feeling sure that she had cast her eye
upon himself.

The Normal School awaited him. But the Normal is an objective only for
simpletons. Justin felt no desire to teach Latin verses and the
analytical admiration of _Cinna_ to thirty successive classes of young
Frenchmen. As for preaching, from a professorial chair, a rationalist
idealism, finally reconciling Janet, Taine and Cournot (he went as far
as that), this remained to be seen. Moreover, the Faculties lead to
more than one haven. Guizot, Sainte-Beuve, yes, or even that worthy
Monsieur Duruy, are proofs of this.

It must be explained that these reflections were accompanied by the
emphatic one-two of the rowing coach, while

Justin endeavoured to steer as straight as possible, the question
being that of training to break the "thousand" record for France
established by the Lower Seine.

However, a practical mind, which is not embarrassed by any ideology,
manages to keep cool in any circumstances.  His friends had shown
their perception of this quality when they made him their coxswain. To
it he decided to leave the question of his future.

"Granted that there is a struggle required everywhere (in view of the
equality of the opposed forces), the question comes down to this: in
what sphere will the struggle be most effective? I mean by that: most
rapidly and most effectively useful. Useful to what? To two things.
First of all: to myself, Justin Simler, three times matriculated,
determined not to waste my time here on earth (let us leave out of
account everything but the spiritual meaning of the words that we may
use). Secondly, to France, which is my country, to the Republican
State, which has made me a free citizen, and to Society, which
protects me in my person and my goods. I owe to them renown, strength,
riches, in return for what they have given, are giving, and have yet
to give me. And _since_ it is in this fashion that I shall waste my
time least upon earth, we thus reduce to a single object the original
duality of purpose, which always simplifies things, which is the sign
of a properly framed question, and conforms with the best logic. I
declare, I know how to reason."

Having reached this point, Justin felt a self-satisfaction infinitely
keener than that which he had derived from the head's letter.

"This established, it is as clear as daylight that, if little Chavasse
goes on rowing like a housewife skimming her pot, we shall pass the
buoy by at least three breadths.  Let that be a lesson to me, and
deter me from a form of activity in which success must be a function
of other people's skill. This dependence is exactly what I find in the
teaching career. A professor's success does not depend entirely upon
his talent nor upon his work. There are plenty of lean years for every
fat one."

Here, M. Simler junior embraced in a glance those of his
contemporaries who formed the eight, and reminded himself, to his own
satisfaction, of different incidents in his passage through the lycée
of Vendeuvre.

"Well then, let us count up: one year of idleness (I reckon _one_ year
of preparation); Normal, three years; volunteer service, one; lycée
teaching, preparation and defence of thesis, three... four... five...
five years. Five and one, six; and three, nine; and one makes ten.
Eighteen and ten make twenty-eight. Two years at least to establish
the value" (he dared not say "the fame") "of my course, that makes me
thirty. From then onwards, three thousand francs a year as a master,
later on five thousand, I suppose, as full-blown Professor. I declare,
I know how to count."

The eight having just failed to capsize as they rounded the buoy, the
coxswain's logical process was slightly interrupted.  But the vigorous
one-two of the coach restored its rhythm.

"Well now, Joseph" (he had ceased to say "Uncle") "was in love with
Mademoiselle Le Pleynier, and he married Elisa with whom he was not in
love. But they have made five million, two hundred and fifty thousand
francs. In four years, the profits are doubled, and they might make
more.  Old Le Pleynier was ruined, the Sterns have now more than a
million. The whole of Vendeuvre came to Grandpapa's funeral, and they
treated him like a dog in 1871. If I go into the factory in October (I
am going to begin by insisting upon my holidays), _they_ will make me
spend two months in the spinning-room, three months weaving, one month
dyeing and so forth, which I know as well as they do; then six months
in the warehouse with Joseph, and buying material with Uncle Myrtil,
which is a less deadly prospect.  On the first of October 1881, I
shall take over the treating and dyeing, with a fixed salary of five
thousand francs a year and a percentage on profits. I know. In five
years, they may let me have _so many_ shares, and I join the Board.
Whatever happens, in ten years I shall be earning twenty or
twenty-five thousand francs a year, I shall be in command of a capital
of from sixty to sixty-five thousand francs.  I shall have no
expenses. I shall be somebody."

It was the strict truth. Nevertheless, we feel bound to point out that
this "having no expenses" upon which Justin prided himself implied
already a set of habits which would have meant oriental luxury to
thirty millions of his fellow-countrymen.  A mere matter of social
grades. But it is surprising that this aspect of the question should
have escaped so incisive an intelligence.

Justin was in the habit of writing. If his manuscripts were brief,
they were expressive. His method consisted in setting forth in
parallel columns the advantages and drawbacks of any decision. He was
distinctly proud of this method, in which the Simler strain was more
apparent than he knew.

On reaching home, he went upstairs and locked himself in his room. He
possessed character, but he had no sense of order. The young and
irreverent Louis Simler came upon this paper afterwards. And, being
more interested because of his inability to understand it than for any
other reason (a deplorable method from the practical point of view),
he folded it up and put it aside, in the hope that he might one day
find an opportunity of ragging his cousin.

This is the curious document, in itself scarcely comprehensible:


REASONS FOR ACCEPTING THE

HEAD'S OFFER

(a) Negative reasons.

Risks of a crisis.  (Risk of strikes??)

(Uncle Blum?)

An uneasy, disturbed existence, no intellectual life (remains to be
seen!)

(b) Positive reasons.

Extremely interesting work.

Certain influence, even if belated and indirect.

Inculcating theoretical study from a practical point of view.

REASONS AGAINST ACCEPTING

THE HEAD'S OFFER

(a) Negative reasons.

Passe-Lourdin.

Joseph and Mlle. Le Pleynier.

Old Le Pleynier, factory

in the Venelle Saint-Hilaire.


Sedentary life, pedantry, penury, the Limousin schoolboy, the Sterns.

(b) Positive reasons.

An active life.

Almost certain influence, rapid and direct.

Social position. Action upon the practical evolution of municipal,
departmental, parliamentary politics.


Example of England, the Netherlands.

Inculcating material occupations from an idealist point of view.

Helping towards the formation of a strong, cultivated middle class.



"Ough," he said as he rose from the table, "I think the Normal gets it
in the neck."

It was the devil of a job, that evening, to make head or tail of
Guillaume's story. He had run, hot and breathless, and flung himself
into the Headmaster's arms, and it appeared, first and foremost, that
the people there had overwhelmed him with congratulations.

Justin, in his irritation, cut short this "family galantine," as he
was rude enough to name this agglomeration of noble sentiments. It
then appeared that the Headmaster had urgently repeated the
objurgations contained in his letter.

Guillaume mixed up, in his statement, in the most touching fashion,
the Normal School with the Collège de France, mathematical analysis
with comparative grammar. What remained certain was that Justin was
summoned to an exalted destiny, and that France (official France, to
be accurate--but was there any question of any other?) awaited him.

If anyone but his father had reported these formal declarations,
Justin would no doubt have taken his time. But the shrill tone and
vague nature of his father's remarks inspired him with a morbid desire
to bring into play a cold, dry, decided tone, such as may be heard in
England.  This tone had brought a discreet smile to the lips of more
than one "old Normal" in the lycée, and had impressed itself on the
memories of ushers, porter and public opinion generally, ever since
his third year, in which Justin had adopted it. And besides, what boy
can ever resist the pleasure of astonishing a family table? Now there
were seven of them present, that evening, not including himself.

"I know all that quite as well as they do," Justin accordingly broke
in with immense phlegm. "I have not waited for them to be so kind as
to invite me there to make the offer. I can secure
an--ahem!--honourable career in the University.  On the other hand,
humph! Louis is only five. How much longer will you three be able to
carry on, down there?" (He pointed his thumb backwards over his
shoulder.) "Everything depends upon what offer you can make me."

"Boo-oo! He's starting well, my brother is! The cheek!"

And Laure turned upon him a pair of eyes rounded by a serene
indignation. Guillaume floundered in the quagmire of paternal delight.
Hermine felt her eyes grow moist with sheer pride. Elisa's husband
rose and came towards his nephew with open arms:

"You are right, Justin. You are a brave boy, and you are choosing the
better way. Stay with us, we will give you the position to which you
are entitled."

"Good, good," Myrtil expressed his approbation, jerkily relaxing the
tendons of his throat. As for Sarah, a faint misgiving had flitted
through her mind. But Justin was her grandson, and he was going to
remain in the factory. We must not expect too much of human nature.




VII


du Plantis, 24 December, 1882.

DEAR AND GREAT FRIEND,

An hour ago, the ten years came to an end during which I vowed that I
would never mention a certain subject. I have kept my word. And now
that I come to break this long silence, I ask myself whether what I
have now to relate will carry me to the foot of this page. Is it even
worth the trouble of mentioning it again? If I wish to be clever, I
might say that this story is like a manuscript which its author has
kept for too long in a drawer of his desk; when he takes it out again,
it is out-of-date and worthless.  I have not died of a broken heart.
But Hélène Le Pleynier's heart does not break. So then you must regard
this letter as written by one old woman to another. Old wives' tales
are everywhere entitled to a respectful hearing.

Ten years and one hour ago, I knew that that man was not for me. At
that moment, the personal interest which I used to take in life came
to an end. Heaven be praised, and you--and myself as well, i'faith!--I
began to develop another interest, which has flourished and grown.
Will it be a challenge to fate if I say that the general meaning of
existence had never been revealed to me until that moment? Question
myself as I may, today, I cannot succeed in persuading myself that
this substitution of the whole for the part has been anything more
than a wretched subterfuge. Subterfuge?  Perhaps. In that case, Dame
Nature is a marvellous actress, for I have been as completely taken in
as the youngest chit in the back row of the gallery. Wretched?
Certainly not; so long as there is a drop of life remaining anywhere,
wretchedness has no right of entry there.

Does this mean that I felt no regret? I have remained silent for ten
years. That was enough to assure me that I should not be straining the
truth were I to admit, now, that my unhappiness was immense. And it is
still just as keen as on the first day. I have told you that this
letter is written by one widow to another. What woman can contemplate,
without starting back in horror, the day that made her an old woman?

But one need not be wretched even with a lasting regret. In any case,
it was worth trying. I feel nothing but disgust for the inconsolable.
Life would become too easy if we could convert our unhappiness into a
small change of lamentations, and really too abject if each trial
could not find its compensation, and more.

However, I am teaching my grandmother how to suck eggs. You were
already a past-mistress of all this lore before I had mastered my
alphabet. It is more to the point that I should tell you that my
stupid inflammation of the kidneys has had nothing to do with our
return home. It has very properly been left submerged in the waters of
Vittel. After seven years, it was high time. But our last eighteen
months of hotel life began all of a sudden to weigh upon my father and
myself, and we returned here, the day before yesterday, post haste.

Who would ever have said that I should have to travel for five years
on end with that man without flinging myself fifty times over into the
sea, out of sheer exasperation? Ever since the only day in my life on
which it entered his head to insult me, by asserting, inspired by my
gallant brother, that my behaviour had authorised a _Simler_ to show
insufficient respect for me, and on which I put him so firmly in his
place, the dear man has felt such remorse for his own behaviour and
has been in such awe of myself that he has become, upon my word, the
sweetest of fathers. You saw him in this state, a year ago.

You have probably realised by now that it was not a mere accident that
the longing for Le Plantis came to us just before Christmastide. I was
obliged to return here so that the fruit of these ten years might be
complete.

But you will never imagine the friendly greeting that my home has
given me. This morning, at break of day, my murmuring sister the
Auxance, my big brothers the trees, my gnarled grandfather the plain,
and the beautiful level meadows, glistening with hoarfrost, received
me with the most joyous welcome. Apart from yourself, I felt that I
had all the company that I could wish among whom to celebrate this
anniversary.

And as chance does what it chooses without waiting to be asked, whom
should I see this very day but him, _him_ whom I had never seen in all
those years?

The place does not matter. I was quite close, quite at my ease,
completely invisible.

It was so entirely unexpected, but such a marvellous coincidence, that
I was left speechless, and incapable, for a minute or more, of seizing
the opportunity.  Then I found myself on the point of going to him,
taking him by the hand, and saying to him: "Sit down, let us talk, and
tell me what sort of man you have become in these ten years." Who
knows? His face still retains so much of the old simplicity that he
might have approved. But he was with his family, and his escort
attracted my attention as well.

He does not look like an unhappy man. He seems light-hearted and well,
with a general air of weariness that spreads over everything. I
question myself: my pride is perhaps over-anxious to discover in him
the weariness of a man who has never known happiness, is not satisfied
with not having known it, and seeks to get rid of the thought.  Alas,
no; I have not been dreaming; there it is, broadly displayed. God
knows along what paths he must have taken it! His youthfulness, which
will never desert him, has a little rift through which many precious
things must have escaped. His wife suspects this. The poor creature
would indeed be miserable if she had not a thick hide within which
everything is bound to be melted by the charity of an occasional
caress and the consolation of good feeding. She is a thoroughly
gelatinous person, of the sort that makes jealous wives, plaintive,
whining and persecuted. But peace be with her. She has borne him
children. I have seen them. The eldest is a red-haired creature with
rectangular eyes who perpetuates, for good or evil, her mother's
image.  The youngest must be about five years old; I fancy that he
contents himself with eating and drinking, with a few dreams of glory
which will only too easily find their satisfaction in position and
money.

But what am I to say to you, Dear Friend, of the creature that comes
between the redhead and the glutton, except that it ought to have been
ours, his and mine? You will have guessed that it was of this that I
was thinking, just now, when I spoke of compensation!

The nervous, ardent, quivering slenderness of the needle of a pair of
scales; a thing without sex or age by dint of resembling them all; the
overlong arms and the little shrunken stomach of one who is doomed to
the curse of the flesh; but a full chest, a complexion, a movement
that guarantee a hundred years of life, and, in the eyes, Experience,
all Experience, human and other, in the inhuman state still, raw, like
a metal before it is cast, hard, distrustful and sad, streaked with
childish joys and with that grave puerility at which it will see, for
fifty years of its life, the pedants shake their heads.

That child is ours. Whether he come to me one day or I never see him
again, it is sufficient that he exist, and that I have assured myself,
once and for all time, of his existence. He was the young violinist
whose acid and decided bowing rooted us to the ground, you and myself,
on the only occasion on which we went past their house.

Ah! What does it matter to him that the Simlers have become rich, and
are destined to become steadily richer? That after attracting to
themselves all the life that was perishing in this miserable
Vendeuvre, they can make nothing of it but a more highly tainted
death? He will escape from them, from it, and from everything here. He
was destined to _us_, and he will compensate for all the others. It
will be easier for me to die, now that this child has come, _as he was
obliged to come_. And so I was not mistaken about that man! Oh you,
the prudent friend who would not forgive him, will you forgive him
now, now that having begotten this creature he has played his part in
life, and that I, having written this letter, have come to the end of
mine?

At that moment, to return to it, I saw myself on the point of going
and taking the man by the hand, and saying to him, this time: "My
brother, the work has been well begun, let us withdraw now, for fear
of spoiling it; we have nothing left to do."

Never was the fruit of any womb more my own than that child. _Praise
God, Pimpleton_! My joy is so winged that I shall be saying something
idiotic in a moment. Still, life is a marvellous thing, don't you
agree?

A word about the other. You remember Justin?  He is now a Gentleman
who sucks the knob of his cane with a thoroughly fashionable air.
There was good stuff in that young Simler. But it should have been
passed through the mill, teased and trimmed.  The tissue is not
strong. Life has spared him the dry bread, the hard blows which his
nature needed.  It has turned him into a fop, the intelligent kind of
fop, who knows himself, has money, a smooth tongue, a certain aptitude
for business, but who, plunged in a too feeble environment, triumphs
too soon, does not know where to fix his ambition and readily becomes
unhappy.

His sister astonished me. Can it be the violinist who has attracted
her already to himself? He would be quite capable of it. We shall see
many other things, if we only live. She had remained in my memory as a
typical lady's maid, quite prepared to suppress the lady in herself,
with something more than insignificance to help her to succeed. I was
mistaken. She has become quite pretty, and has acquired a certain air
which, so far as I can judge, is not without a certain cousinship to
_the Other_ and promises a surprise to those who least expect it.

The father of these two is still the same yellow Seer who used to make
me think of the Minor Prophets of their Scripture. But life has
managed to pass over him with the seven plates of the cylinder.  It
has left of him only a flat shadow. The wife is that grim Harpy, the
sight of whom makes me long to trample upon her in order to hear the
sound that her slavish, floor-scrubbing soul would make beneath my
heel.

Has my day been wasted? You will not think so.  I have no longer any
need of high roads. Le Plantis seemed to me to show a divine
antiquity, after Rome, Sicily and Greece. My father plunges in among
his tenants like a duck into its native pond.  I have been surrounded,
for the last two days, by a tempest of shouts, disputes, and uncorked
bottles which rejuvenates me from top to toe. Come, Dear and Great
Friend, we expect you. The spirit is grateful and pacified for ever.

HÉLÈNE LE PLEYNIER.

P. S. The Lorilleux, who had put everything into the _Union Générale_,
have lost every penny they possessed. The old man was kept under
observation for three days for fear of his committing suicide. Until
it is possible to hand his wife five-franc pieces wrapped in tissue
paper, people are sending her soup, and oranges for the children.  For
that matter, one hears of nothing here but bankruptcy and ruin. These
people are so sluggish that the storm has burst over them before they
were even aware that the clouds were gathering.  Of course they accuse
the Simlers, whose only crime is that of having foreseen the crash,
but who, finding things within their grasp, are seizing them.  Even
then they are showing discretion, and biding their time.





VIII


CAFÉ DU CHEMIN DE FER

MARTIN-NOISETTE

Vins et Spiritueux

Vins de pays

Vendeuvre, 1 May, 1886.

Spécialité de bière au tonneau

REPAS A LA CARTE

ON GARDE LES VALISES

To Citizen Jules Guesde, Paris.

CITIZEN GUESDE!

Taking as an excuse for troubling you the fact that I was one of the
audience of the interesting lecture which you delivered three years
ago in the Market of this town of Vendeuvre, not to mention my having
been among the earliest readers and propagandists of your writings, I
venture to send you some information as to the most recent
developments of the social struggle and the capitalist concentration
in this industrial region!

The first point to which I feel that I may profitably draw your
attention is the rapidity with which events in our town are endorsing
the principles of scientific communism as revealed to us by the genius
of Karl Marx! You may yourself have observed their effects during your
two visits to the place. But the crisis which affected the woollen and
cloth-weaving industry in the year 1877 had not then produced its full
effect! This is the state of things to-day: in 1870, the industrial
establishments of the canton of Vendeuvre numbered 26, employing 7,300
men and women, without counting a fairly large number of outside
workers, women spinning in the fields and cottage weavers; the annual
turnover of these 26 establishments amounted to 31 millions.

At the present moment the canton of Vendeuvre (I have these figures
from a friend of our comrade secretary of the workers' union, Comrade
Vursant, who is employed in the secretarial department of the
_bourgeoise_ Chamber of Commerce) contains no more than 14 industrial
establishments employing 5,430 men and women and not a single outside
worker! Annual turnover: about 19 millions!!

As you see, Vendeuvre has declined a long way from the prosperous
years before '70! But the most remarkable thing is that of these 14
establishments six are manufacturing produce other than cloth. We
possess, in fact, a shirt factory, two tanneries, a brewery, a shop
for mechanical constructions and a factory devoted to the preparation
of gooseskins.  There remain therefore only eight weaving mills in a
town which was at one time the Queen of French textiles! Very well,
and this, citizen Guesde!  is the point that I have been trying to
make, of these eight cloth factories, one alone, the establishments
known by the name of _Simler et Cie_ employ eighteen hundred men and
women and have a turnover that cannot be far short of eight figures!!!

Nor can you imagine without seeing it the transformation that this
rapid concentration has wrought in our town! Most of the old factories
are silent and falling into ruin! There are whole districts which give
the impression that fire, flood or pestilence has passed over them and
I can assure you that those long dumb walls do not brighten up our
town. On the other hand the lower districts (I don't know whether you
remember the geography of a town in which to our regret you have spent
a few hours only!) are bursting with activity and noise!  For it is
there that the establishments have sprung up of _Simler et Cie_!

These facts are hardly known outside this neighbourhood.  That is why
it occurred to me that it might be of interest to bring them to the
notice of our comrades of the P. O. F., [Footnote: I How many
Frenchmen are still aware that these initials denote the extinct Parti
Ouvrier Français (French Workers' Party), founded by Guesde, in 1880?]
through yourself, as well as to your own notice, as they will be of
immense use to you in your propaganda!

You will ask me next the cause of this concentration.  As to this I
must be less precise but I shall give you a summary of the rumours
that one hears with regard to this subject! I remember very well that
when the Simlers arrived at Vendeuvre, coming from a small village in
Alsace immediately after the war and bringing with them a few workmen
from their village, they were still very humble folk!  and the factory
in which they installed themselves at first and which is still to be
seen (they have left part of their spinning-mill in it) is scarcely
brilliant!! but they were very hard workers, and besides, like all the
Jews, they were largely supported by the Big Banks of Paris! the
Rothschild and others, for those people always help one another!  The
worker was treated no worse by them than elsewhere. But as the owners
were always on the spot, the output required of each man was naturally
greater, which is a drawback in one sense but is compensated in
another because the foremen and other non-coms and jailers cannot
abuse their power so freely as when they are free to do what they like
without the master's eye on them! Well then, with the help of
Rothschild money, they were already in a pretty strong position when
the great Crisis of 1877 came, smashing half of the oldest factories
in the place. They managed to weather the storm and having introduced
in time self-coloured cloth and the fancy goods known as _nouveauté_
into their factory, they survived and have continued to advance ever
since all the more rapidly since all competition had so to speak
disappeared from the scene! The factories that still remain cannot
compete with them and the bankruptcy of the _Union Générale_ helped
considerably to weaken them, which is curious when we see how these
capitalists fight against one another, devour and rob one another
under the régime which they have baptised that of peace and public
order!!

Having given you this summary of the situation, I must now inform you
of the consequences that have arisen from it, so far as they affect
the development of Socialism among us. It is unfortunately less rapid
than might have been expected, in view of the conditions! And that is
due to several causes, the first and certainly the most important of
which is that the great crisis, the minor crises which have followed
it pell-mell, and the stagnation to which they have led have turned a
considerable number of unemployed upon the streets! The population of
our town has declined by two thousand inhabitants in five years, many
of the former workers have opened taverns; there is a keen competition
among them which is all the more deplorable since it puts them under
the thumb of the police and they become very timid when it is a
question of lending their premises for our corporative or
instructional meetings! Moreover the abundance of unemployed serves
the interests of the employers who bully and intimidate the workers,
never hesitating to sacrifice the _leaders_, in other words, our most
courageous militants! In this we are testing once again, to our own
hurt, the truth of that great principle of Marx according to which the
stronger and more prosperous a capitalist class becomes the greater
the opportunity that Socialism has of developing in opposition!

In the second place, there are with the Simlers a large number of
Alsacians, all Jews and Protestants who came here with their "masters"
in 1871, who follow them with a doglike devotion and show themselves
absolutely refractory to our propaganda!  We shall have to wait until
this fatal element has died out before we can hope to obtain any
effective result and to develop a true class-consciousness.

Finally, the Simlers carry on that sort of private charity which all
socialists have so rightly denounced as being the direct opposite of
equalitarian justice and as retarding the collective appropriation of
invested wealth! They have what are called open pockets. (I speak of
the elder members of the family, for the younger ones seem determined
to adopt the "high and mighty" style, at which we rejoice!) And you
know whether anything else has such an effect on the workman as these
humiliating charities which enslave him and make him flexible and
crawling! We attempt, generally in vain!  to open the eyes of these
poor sheep as to the difference there is between a twenty-franc piece
bestowed here or there or a visit from the ladies bringing in their
carriage a loaf of bread or a meat-ticket to a woman in childbed, and
the fantastic profits realised annually by these Capitalists by the
aid of Human Toil paid 30 centimes an hour for working 11, 12 and 13
hours a day!

Nevertheless the situation has become so intolerable that
notwithstanding all these reasons for despair, there occurred last
year among our working-class an impulse to revolt! You have heard of
the three weeks' strike that we underwent from the 8th of November to
the 2nd of December last. I had not time to tell you of it at the
moment, I do so now. The spinners in the Simler factory asked for 40
centimes an hour for men, 35 for women, 30 for children, the
fine-drawers 30 centimes and the weavers 35 and 45 respectively, with
an eight hour day for children under sixteen and ten hours for all the
rest. The masters accepted the claim of the fine-drawers who had
started the movement and those put forward on behalf of the children.
They turned down all the others and the strike was declared!  But what
can you expect with an unconscious proletariat, unorganised, numbering
barely 200 members enrolled in and subscribing to the Union? We tried
to provide for those whose need was greatest! We managed as best we
could to keep up our communal soup-kitchens, to distribute a few
garments and 50 centimes daily to each striker. But in four days our
safe was empty! If our comrades in Paris, Vienne, Elbeuf and Troyes
had not hearkened to the call of solidarity, the hardship would have
been appalling, the weather having suddenly turned cold! Finally we
were obliged to surrender and resume the harness of slavery. Our
enemies took the opportunity to make a fearful decimation of our
ranks! they refused to re-engage twenty-one of our comrades most of
whom were obliged to quit the district, leaving their furniture in
pawn and weakening still further our little battalion of militants.

You see, dear citizen Guesde! that the situation is far from
favourable and that the working-class of our region must expect long
years of oppression and starvation before they see the day dawn upon
which will triumph the right of every man to a living wage, the
reorganising power of Labour and the proletarian Republic!

Yet, if you wish my opinion, there is, I consider, no justification
for complete despair. Many considerations ought to give us courage and
I often set them before our comrades when I see them inclined to give
way to discouragement.

The first is that the strike last year, utterly disastrous as it
proved, brought to light a quite remarkable energy and devotion! It
established a bond between many of us who were previously ill
acquainted and were jealous of one another, Broussists, Proudhonians,
Blanquists and Libertarians, whom the imminence of danger coalesced
into activity. It is only by working at the forge that one becomes a
blacksmith. So far from the failure of a strike made with so little
preparation having demoralised the proletariat we took advantage of
every opportunity that it offered us to spread among them the
socialist doctrine, the breath of revolution, and the most vehement
appeals with a view to a powerful class organisation. In short the
great formula of the Workers' International: "The Emancipation of the
Workers will be the task of the workers themselves" has not lacked its
echo in the consciousness of the proletariat of Vendeuvre and our
little battalion comes out of the test inured to battle rather than
discouraged!

I add that on the masters' side also we shall soon see a change! The
establishments of _Simler et Cie_ have owed their great success to
their activity and the pains they have taken to keep their plant
constantly abreast of the progress of science. Now it is quite evident
that this activity has begun to decline, the fortune they have made
and the ease of their success is putting them to sleep in their turn.
Certain comrades who have come here from Roubaix and elsewhere have
already informed us that the methods employed by our industrials are
beginning to date! A more up-to-date firm has only to establish itself
here and the Simlers will meet with the fate to which they have doomed
their rivals! If you will allow a humble apiarist to find in his
favourite occupation a metaphor in which to express his thought: one
would say that fortune brings with it the same dangers as those bees
which unconsciously seal up in the same cell their own egg and the egg
of a parasite which is their most dangerous enemy! The desire to enjoy
the wealth they have so speedily acquired has crept in among these
proud bourgeois! We have seen them in the last fifteen years change
their abode three times, abandon the little house that sheltered them
all when first they came, to spread by degrees into the most costly
mansions in the town! These people who used to wear out their
shoe-leather like the common herd, now drive about the place in
carriages!!  If the older members of the family make little use of
these, the younger ones have lost all inclination to mingle with
ordinary mortals. Their carriage-wheels spatter us with mud as they
pass; M. Justin Simler, who entered the factory barely five years ago,
behaves there with an insolence the like of which was never before
seen. It is to him more than anyone that our comrades attribute the
rejection of their demands. This young bourgeois leaves his work at
four or five o'clock in the afternoon when those who are earning him
his leisure toil over their looms until nightfall! He is associated
with the least reputable of our young men who lead a scandalous life,
seduce our young working-girls and bring shame and dishonour into
proletarian families!! But our comrades allow none of these activities
to pass unremarked and even if we do not see the day dawn on which
accounts shall be fairly settled, the evolution of Social Realities
will not be long in descending upon the heads of our oppressors! Let
us hope that, when the moment comes, the Working-Class may have become
strong enough not to allow to fall into any hands but their own the
instruments of public wealth!

Accept, dear citizen Guesde! my socialist and brotherly greeting,

FOURNIER AUGUSTE,

_formerly a mechanic in the firm of Simler et de dismissed for
activities in the strike!  specialist in bee-keeping, secretary of the
section of the P. O. F._




EPILOGUE: (1889)

EPILOGUE

I


Certainly, had you placed one above another, by an ingenious process,
all the images of Benjamin stored up in the memories of the different
Simlers, you would not have produced the alert, corpulent Yankee who
plumped, as he sprang from the train, into Guillaume's arms.

A month earlier, Afroum had sent a cutting from the _Temps_, which he
had carefully marked with a blue pencil.  It appeared from this that
among the passengers of note who had landed from the _Champagne_, at
the Bassin de l'Eure, the most important was Mr. Ben Stern, an
American multimillionaire. "The considerable fortune of Mr. Ben Stern,
rapidly acquired in railways, cotton, and machinery, is not the only
original feature of this typically American personage. As cannot be
said of a certain number of his fellow-countrymen, the source of his
fortune appears to be free from any taint, and the magnificent
generosity of its possessor does honour to that class of business men
for whom we are indebted to the feverish activity of the New World.
Mr. Ben Stern arrived in poverty at New York, in 1872. He is,
therefore, a self-made man in the full sense of the term. Let us add
that this remarkable representative of American energy is of French
origin. A native of our lost provinces, Mr. Ben Stern is understood to
have served in the ranks of our army during the Terrible Year and to
have received his baptism of fire on the battlefield of Gravelotte.
Mr. Ben Stern's father is none other than one of the most highly
esteemed merchants of the Bonne-Nouvelle quarter.  Mr. Ben Stern has
been attracted to our shores, like so many of his compatriots, by a
desire to visit our great World Exposition."

"Hallo, Will! Don't you remember me?"

The blend of the nasal intonations of Alsace and America produced a
strange result.

"The wife? Children? Business? All right! Presto! I've an appetite and
I want to see all the dear old faces. Old Will!  Not changed an atom!"

Guillaume, as he hopped from foot to foot to keep pace with Mr. Ben,
felt in his heart of hearts that his cousin had not changed much
either.

Sarah was somewhat dismayed when she found herself kissed on both
cheeks by so important-looking a stranger.  But the stranger felt
himself at home and quite at his ease.  If he was unable to restrain a
shout of spontaneous merriment on finding the Elisa of his youthful
dreams a middle-aged woman, he behaved with a sprightly deference to
the women and with a by no means patronising cordiality to the men.
Myrtil was obliged to admit that millions, multimil-lions, do not
necessarily destroy a man's sense of respect.

"The old man is still going strong," Benjamin said to Guillaume, at a
moment when they were not overheard, pointing to Myrtil's dictatorial
profile. "Solemn as ever, I suppose, and as empty, eh? That sort of
thing lasts for ever.  In America, we're a young nation, we like old
men. Well, Uncle, are you going to show me over your factory by and
by? There must have been great changes, since the old days.  You're
the monarchs of all you survey."

"Guillaume will take you over," said the old man, colouring at the
other's flattery. "I get tired easily, and there is indeed a great
deal to see, if one does not wish to miss anything.  Everything has
been so improved that old people don't know where they are."

"We shall see about that," thought Mr. Ben, remembering two or three
hints that he had picked up on his way from the station.

Justin, who had been detained in the factory until that moment, and
did not entirely resent anything that could advertise the extent of
his occupations, now made his appearance.

"Why, here's my old chum of the char-à-bancs! It was a char-à-bancs,
wasn't it, Jos? But, honest to God, the horse was a fiery stallion, he
let us have it straight! Come here and let me look at you, Master
Justin. Good. Here is my hand.  You are supposed to shake it. Thank
you. You wouldn't care for to play prisoner's base now, out in the
wood there? I'm still game. They say you've become a very smart
gentleman.  Oh, you old idiot, there was no need to take offence. I've
come back to this old place to see the family and rejoice with them
that we're still alive. I only know what I have heard said, and I've
always had the habit of chattering so as to find things out. But where
are all the rest?"

The little red eyes of the exuberant cousin darted from one to
another, and Joseph began to feel once again, as in the good old days,
his heart exposed to them in the painful character of a pincushion.

"You haven't seen my children," he said.

"No. Show me them, weaver."

"Laure has gone to fetch them," said Hermine in her colourless voice.
Luncheon was served at Guillaume's, where Sarah and Myrtil now lived.

"You haven't got the telephone here?" asked Benjamin, turning suddenly
to Guillaume.

"Not yet, not yet," the other replied with a smile.

"And at the factory? _Not_ at the factory? Oh! Why not?"

The same mysterious smile creased Myrtil's birthmark.

"If one had to adopt all the inventions..."

"Why of course one has to."

"And the cost?" hissed the patriarch, in his old tone of command.

"But it repays one hundred per cent--it means life. Ha, here come the
young folks."

There followed a regular inspection, the twofold result of which found
expression in fatuous remarks made aloud and in mute observations of a
more intimate nature.

"Now what is this thing here, first of all? Oh, the redhead, Father
and Mother Stern's darling. Plump cheeks, upon my word. God delivered
me from the mother, he will doubtless deliver some one else from the
daughter. Oho! The puss doesn't keep her eyes in her pocket, but she
has learned only one part and is acting it all the time. You must vary
your play, my girl. Now it's this free citizen's turn. My word, Jos
has larded them well. If the firm of Simler and Co. are relying upon
you to advance along the way of progress ... Not a bad boy, all the
same. Why, he even knows how to offer his hand to an older man. As
soon as this well-nourished lad has his pocket full of the money his
father has earned, the place will begin to take its revenge. Wretched
contamination. In that respect, the _Judengasse_ and the pedlar's pack
were better. Bast! Their grandsons will be properly plucked by the
first Yids from Galicia that come to seek their bread in this quarter,
and necessity will polish off all this pinchbeck West. Aha! Oho! Frr!
Here's something very different! Who are these two? I knew we should
be seeing something of this sort. Phah! My journey has not been in
vain."

Laure came joyously in, accompanied by a burst of laughter which
stopped short on the threshold of the domestic convent and before the
Yankee's gold spectacles.

"May the good God protect my three-and-forty years!  Judith, Ruth and
Rebecca, ah, women of my race! But why were not there any like this
when I was twenty-five? Keep calm, old sinner, let us use our eyes,
since that is one of the things we came here to do. My faith, the old
Laure who sat winking at me on the char-à-bancs (it was a
char-à-bancs, wasn't it?) gave no reason to expect... But who can have
extracted the diamond from its bed? Could it be this young gentleman
with the flashing, rather sugary eyes--master Louis, I suppose--who is
hypocritically struggling to conceal the vitality that is oozing out
of him at every pore? My boy, hypocrisy is a good thing, but not too
much of it. I bet that you spend your time conscientiously denying the
world as it is revealed to you. That is very wise. It is just as well,
however, that you should not waste too much time over that necessary
but sterile exercise. Besides, there is more languor than I care to
see, at the corners of your long eyes. You look pretty washed-out for
fourteen. But I shall come back to you later, my young friend. Let
your uneasy eyes gaze their fill; for the moment I am going to make
polite speeches to all these old family portraits, as well as to the
young lady with whom you were laughing so merrily, on the other side
of that door. For she is the only person in the room, except myself,
whom your presence does not transform into a chromo in two
dimensions.--Hallo, Elisa, your children are splendid. And these
gherkins, Hermine, these gherkins! It is seventeen years since I felt
a pickled gherkin melt in my mouth, except on one occasion, in a
_Gar-Küche_ in Chicago where the forks and spoons (you were allowed to
use your own jack-knife) were fastened to the table by little chains,
in view of the incomparable quality of the metal. The Gar-Kuche still
exists. I must have you all to dine there when you come over to return
my visit. For I count on your coming.  For one thing, you aren't going
to allow the Germans to go on inundating the place any longer. There's
work there for ten big boys like you, Charlie. As for Justin, I guess
that to take a breather over there for six months wouldn't do him any
harm. I shall take you back with me, if you like, you'll find you'll
double your business in five years. But we can talk about all that
another time. Aunt Sarah, I've brought you a big shawl of
Massachusetts wool. If you keep on refusing to grow any older, people
will say when they see us go by together:--Look, they're father and
daughter!" The sixty million dollars with which common report credited
Benjamin made these speeches ring pleasantly in the ear. The men were
slightly vexed at not being taken seriously enough, or rather at
receiving that impression. As for Sarah and Myrtil, this nephew
awakened in them such a host of memories, that they smiled to see
their own young days brought back again, and his cordiality refreshed
and invigorated the oldest phantoms.

"He has exactly his grandfather's voice. Do you remember him? Mina's
father, Ludwig, little Ludwig from Dannemarie.  Ach, good gracious, I
seem to see him now, dancing with my sister Palmyre, on my
wedding-day. Aha!"

A flood of tears streamed from the aged eyelids, searing them like
molten lava. Each of them bent his head for a moment over his plate to
allow the spectres of the absent the time to vanish. Then the
genealogies rose again to the surface, and Alsace intertwined with
Lorraine, the Sarre and the Comtat in multiple and immemorial wedlock.

"And Aunt Babette, I haven't seen her," cried Benjamin, as he suddenly
put down his coffee-cup. "Aunt Babette, Uncle Wilhelm, what has become
of them?"

"Babette has long been confined to the house, and never leaves her
chair," Sarah replied, shaking her head.

"Oh, poor soul!" said Benjamin. "I must run and say how d'ye do to
her. Does she still live at that place... what is it called... in that
little dark cellar? And the uncle, how is he keeping?"

"You... humph! You will see him at the factory," said

Myrtil with a certain stiffness which might be due to embarrassment.

There was not a moment to be lost; this impetuous cousin must be
escorted to the house on the Plan Saint-Simplicien.

"It is nice of you to remember the old and helpless," said Babette in
her shrill, musical voice. Dropsy kept her tied to her chair, and her
doll-like face smiled a friendly welcome.  "What a fine gentleman you
have grown! Where is the little Benjamin of long ago, who used to play
with poor Lambert in our little yard outside Colmar, in holiday-time?
Do you still remember our little house in Alsace, Benjamin?  So many
things have happened since then, and it all seems so very far away
now!"

"Aunt Babette, here is a trinket that the savages make in the place
where I live. I thought it might amuse you."

It was a curious buckle of enamelled silver, carefully chosen so as to
dispel any idea of humiliating generosity.

"Thank you, my dear Benjamin. You were always a good boy. Come nearer
and let me kiss you. I'm not very active on my feet now, you know.
Other people have to put themselves out for me now."

"This is an aspect of the question which certainly does not suggest
opulence. Why the devil did they all cringe like whipped dogs, at the
_tantele's_?" Benjamin said to himself, as he towed the male Simlers
back towards the factory at lightning speed.

Jos, who had undergone sufficient strain for one day, went and shut
himself up in the warehouse. Justin found the most excellent reason
for absenting himself, and Myrtil waved his hand in farewell, as a
servant pushed him in his wheeled chair into the weaving-rooms.

So that Guillaume had to serve alone as target, during the next four
hours, to a running fire of questions. Although he allowed quite three
out of five to pass unheeded, from sheer inability to answer them, he
heard quite enough to make him feel thoroughly exhausted. Whereupon
Benjamin ceased his operations.

"So this is the famous factory?" muttered the cousin, while his
round-toed shoes, his gold spectacles and his coat with its brown
check, cut full in the English style, aroused general curiosity.
"Humph! Not kept very tidy, the famous factory, I don't believe they
have a gang of scrubbers in the place, or sweepers. Rasch!" (They
passed into the carding-room.) "You could coat all the sheep in
Australia with the fluff that's floating in the air here. Healthy, for
those who have to swallow it morning noon and night, I suppose. It
must give a fine lining to your lungs and throat. This floor has never
heard of such a thing as a mop. You can't see an inch before your nose
at three o'clock on a June afternoon; what must it be like in January?
No use, I suppose, my saying anything to him about electric light. He
would fall down in a fit. I must make some inquiries, though. Tell me,
Will, when you move stuff from one floor or one building to
another..."

"Yes. What about it?"

"I mean to say, do you do it all by hand?"

"Why, of course."

"Ah! And you are certain that it wouldn't be a saving of time and
labour to... to do it differently, by some mechanical process, for
instance?"

"Mechanical?"

"I am thinking of elevators, endless bands, or spiral rods."

Guillaume shrugged his shoulders: "What would be the use? If we were
building a new factory, I don't say. But it has grown up bit by bit,
and things are not going badly as they are."

"Divine Justice," sighed Benjamin, "these are the people who for ten
years were at the head of progress. Their very improvements have
drifted into routine. Acrr!" he gave a sudden shout, as he clutched
his hat which was being swept off his head by a driving band, "so your
transmission is not protected! Have you many accidents?"

"A few of them get caught at times," said Guillaume with an unfeigned
commiseration. "But what is one to do?"

"Of course, what is one to do? And I bet that among the three thousand
unwashed, consumptive, panic-stricken galley slaves who work here,
there are not thirty capable of washing their hands, putting on
frock-coats and coming and saying to their employers: 'We have come as
a deputation from the _Union_ of your workers, to come to an
understanding with you about the conditions of our labour. We
demand...' Show me the dressing-rooms and lavatories," he asked
Wil-helm suddenly.

"The dress... There aren't any."

"Nor shower-baths, I suppose, any more than you have sweepers in the
courtyards. What are those fellows doing scratching the cloth, and
those others flogging at it?"

"That is the velvet dressing. Would you like to watch?"

"Thanks, thanks. I have seen it, or something like it, in the Sudanese
village at the Exposition, if I'm not mistaken."

The infernal din of the looms prevented Guillaume from grasping the
point of this interesting comparison.

"How many generators have you?--engines?" he corrected himself, seeing
that Guillaume did not understand him.

"Seven."

"Seven? Good God in Heaven! Why, you must be wasting seven times as
much as you're worth in coal and energy!  What's to prevent you from
putting up a central power station? It will cost you eighty thousand
dollars, but you will save five thousand dollars a year. I am
beginning to get an idea of what the factories must have been like
that have gone under! You will do well to lavish your generosity upon
your customs officials. For evidently money shows no reluctance to let
itself be made, in France."

He decided, in consequence of this, to postpone until some more
suitable time the quite simple questions which he had prepared as to
the effective power absorbed per loom-hour, the amount lost in
transmission of energy, the underlying reasons that had determined the
placing of the different departments, and the financial system that
had been responsible for the building of the workers' dwellings.
Having actually caught a glimpse, beneath his spectacles, of some
filthy little note-books which could only be registers of pay, he
dismissed from the field of his curiosity everything that concerned
the organisation of labour, the workers' club and the cooperative
restaurant.

These reflections were, perhaps, lacking in generosity.  There had,
after all, been a considerable advance from the little cloth-mill
among the Alsacian chestnut-trees. But Mr.  Ben had cultivated, under
other skies, a certain ideal of industrial and human decency, which
the good old routine no longer satisfied.

"Astonishing how dingy the place has become. What is called
instinctive mimicry, I suppose."

He shot a glance at his guide.

"Humph! They've grown old devilish quick in this place, and poor Will
here more than any of them, I can see it now.  I really must stop
persecuting him by appearing shocked.  What is the matter with him?
Tell me, Will (I think I can mention this), have your workers formed a
Union?"

Once again he translated his word, to cover the weaver's ignorance:

"A Syndicate?"

By Guillaume's terrified expression, he guessed that he had put his
foot in a wasps' nest.

"Aha!... Strikes?"

Guillaume made no reply, but the rest of the inspection gave evidence
of the haste with which he seemed to be impelled to rid himself of a
burden.

They had been on the move for four hours, nevertheless, and without
seeing everything, when an anxious and harassed man flung himself down
upon his revolving chair, the sole emblem of proprietorial dignity in
a little closet opening off the spinning-room.

And, all of a sudden, the self-satisfied, unlistening guide of a
moment earlier returned abruptly to the questions which he had evaded
during the tour.

"Yes, Benjamin, yes, there was a Syndicate. Immediately after that
dreadful law was passed in '84! Our workers, whom we had treated like
our own children, whom we addressed by their names, with whom we
shared our work and our anxieties, whom we used to visit, whom we
helped in times of trouble, they had no sooner seen the door of
ingratitude forced open... In the autumn of '85, in the height of the
busy season, they sent delegates, without warning us, laid down terms,
asked to see our books--they, six poor devils who would never have
dared to raise their voices, had not a smooth-tongued mechanic whom we
had just taken on, held the floor and repeated all the patter of the
agitators from Paris. Always the same old game, don't you know?"

And what then? Their legitimate demands had been granted, and at once
they had cried victory, speechified at public meetings and drawn up a
list of preposterous claims.  Work had ceased. The Simler looms had
been silent, for the first time since the War. Guillaume used to
recognise his own workers, in the street, during those three weeks, by
the fact of their being the only ones who did not touch their caps to
him. But, to keep themselves from doing so, they had to clench their
fists tightly in their pockets. And, four days after the beginning of
the strike, they began to come, as soon as it was dark, to ring the
bell at the back door and ask for bread, accepting reproaches and
rebukes with a ten-sou piece.

Thereupon he, Guillaume, had wished to give up the whole business, and
Myrtil, dismayed by this unforeseen aspect of the catastrophe,
announced that they would have to liquidate and that his nephews must
become stockbrokers.  But for Joseph, but for Justin most of all (at
this a sudden stiffening of his body), who could tell what would have
happened? Three weeks later, the Syndicate capitulated.  Masters and
workers set the factory going again, with their tails between their
legs.

Would Benjamin kindly say whether this was adequate reward for a life
of toil? And whether it was really necessary to barter the pleasant
patriarchal system of the past for this all-invading modernity?

As though this had not sufficed, two years later, only last year, in
fact, in the full swing of orders for the Exposition, fresh
injunctions. The Syndicate had won, by devious channels.
Self-confident and stupid, the Simlers had stopped their ears to every
warning. A delegation, headed by a strange gentleman, with white hands
and a derby hat, had laid a sheet of paper upon the table and
withdrawn, without uttering a word, with a stupefying air of sarcasm.
Joseph had run out after them and had flung the scraps of their paper
in their faces. The children had had to be kept indoors.  The street
became insolent. The Simlers had moved their beds into the factory,
with a picket of Alsacian foremen; and finally a company of infantry
had shown the flash of their bayonets through the railings. Even if
the damage was confined to a few broken panes and some shouting, did
Benjamin think that things were any better to-day, when Guillaume felt
himself a stranger in his own factory, intercepted glances that froze
a tender heart like his, and woke with a start, in the middle of the
night, at the least flash of light reflected on his windows?

Yes, let Benjamin say whether such behaviour was in the interest of
all parties concerned.

But Benjamin inquired the salaries of the workers, and, having noted
them down in a little pocket-book, drew conclusions from them which he
took care not to communicate to his cousin. Then Ben inquired what had
happened to the ringleaders of the movement, after the two strikes
were ended. Having learned that they had been, as was right and
proper, given notice at the earliest opportunity, he sucked his pencil
with an impenetrable air, and began to study the plinth of the walls.

Whereupon Guillaume, spurred to vehemence, added that the recruiting
of three thousand workers was becoming the threatening point. How were
they to assure themselves against the elements of disorder and
preserve among their staff that family unity which was the joy and
comfort of the old system of working? Ah, who would bring back Alsace,
its domestic workrooms, the easy authority of the good rich over the
trusting poor? All the pleasure went out of profits that were
laboriously acquired. The worker did as little as he could for his
money, he despised his trade, and the joyous harmony of all parties
was destroyed for ever in the thraldom of modern industry.

Thus there appeared, before the startled eyes of Mr. Ben, and before
his face which was puckered with the strain of listening, a bitter
image of industry, masters adrift upon an ocean of ill-will and
jealousy, reduced to the part of castaways, feeling their
powerlessness increase as each fresh wave carried them to its crest.

Had Benjamin seen this factory, which four hours' continuous walking
was not sufficient to cover? Which was doing business to the tune of
fourteen millions, with an increase of one million annually? Did he
suspect that each of these millions was an addition to the weight of
an enormous burden upon their shoulders?

Who could breathe freely, once he was shut up within these fatal
walls? What was a man worth, compared with that mass in motion? Within
twenty hours of the burial of their father, the looms had been
restarted, and Sarah had cried shame. But is the traffic on a railway
stopped because a man has fallen under the wheels of a train? Were
they not fated to fall in the same way, with full steam ahead, our
after the other? And when it was the last Simler's turn to disappear,
does Ben suppose that, even then, the factory could be casually
stopped? Will not the State, one fine day, add to all its previous
usurpations the right to dictate to the manufacturer the amount of his
output, his sales, his profits, regulating the worker's hours of rest
and destroying the employer's rest for all time?

Work or perish! Work even after you have perished, through your sons,
through your heirs, through the active force of your name....

It was at this point that Ben interrupted him with: "Why are you
tormenting yourself? You can retire whenever you choose: you have a
son and nephews...."

But speech failed him as soon as he noticed the surprising effect
produced by this remark. Guillaume at once became silent and sank into
a bitter meditation, swinging one leg across the knee of the other.

Then, at the solemn stroke of five, he rose and, without looking at
his cousin, said: "This is the time when we meet in the warehouse.
Would you care to come?"

At the foot of the stair, a bent back, a careening gait, and a furtive
glance reminded Ben of something: "Uncle Wilhelm!" he exclaimed. The
clubfoot, who had been waiting all day for this meeting, turned round
and flung his arms apart:

"My Benjamin, my little Benjamin!"

Ben clasped him to his bosom.

"What are you doing here, Uncle Wilhelm?"

"I do odd jobs, you see, odd jobs," said the uncle, shifting his feet,
and trying to conceal a hammer behind his back.

"His pocket is full of nails, his back is covered with sawdust, and
his hands are all chapped. They put the poor old man on to make
packing cases."

Firmly planted on their feet, at the door of the warehouse, Joseph and
Justin were spectators of this scene.  When Ben came within earshot,
Justin looked him straight in the face, and said, in excellent
English:

"You may perhaps have imagined certain things, and I don't care if you
have. We have offered a dozen times to let him retire, with a handsome
pension, and he always refuses."

"Oh! Noble hearts!"

"Perhaps you don't believe me?"

"I believe," replied Ben as he gripped the other's arm above the elbow
and wrinkled his own face behind his spectacles, "I believe that you
have conveyed to me all the truth that is capable of remaining in you.
You speak quite good English, by the way, with a Yorkshire accent, of
which you will perhaps have to get rid."

When Myrtil's wheeled chair had been pushed into the room by the
servant, the family council was complete, and Mr. Ben had a full hour
in which to give a final polish to his remarks. His pencil indulged,
during the course of their discussion, in a discreet little task of
its own, which Simler junior sought in vain to overlook.

When everybody had left the room, Justin returned, struck a match, and
was furious at the other's vandalism: from the printed heading of
every sheet of notepaper in the rack, the cousin had struck out the
name Simler, and reduced the style of the firm to a mere, absurd,
enigmatic--"-- & Co."




II


On the following day, as he came out of school, Louis had the surprise
of seeing his schoolfellows gaping at a Yankee with gold spectacles,
who was absorbed in an animated conversation with the head.

The Yankee gave Louis an imperceptible signal which absolved the
latter from the necessity of appearing to have anything in common with
the phenomenon. Then, the phenomenon made the head introduce him to
the second master, who appeared greatly surprised.

Louis waited, uneasy and furious, in the purlieus of the _bazaar_.
Finally, Benjamin emerged. He took leave ceremoniously of the prof,
seized his cousin by the arm and led him away without uttering a word.

As soon as they had reached the open country, he broke the silence:

"First of all, I have to apologise for having meddled in your
affairs."

The English _you_ came as a shock to Louis, who had not expected it.

"But I am only passing through, there was something I wanted to know,
I had no other way of finding it out. I shall be glad when you tell me
that you bear me no ill will.

"I regret that I have to inform you, continuing to tread upon your
private domain, that your head and your form-master are not
unreservedly pleased with you. You are: capricious, irregular,
absent-minded, often inattentive, and you work only at the subjects
that suit you. Your head declares that you are infinitely less
brilliant than Justin, and he has not the same confidence in your
future."

Benjamin broke off his speech at this point and darted a glance at his
listener. He saw only a hard sneering face upon which anger had
painted two great livid patches. He went on quietly:

"But my own opinion is that your head and your form-master are a pair
of old idiots."

Apart from a twitching of the eyebrows, no change could be detected on
Louis's features. As though encouraged by the result of his scrutiny,
Benjamin went on:

"It is not with the object of repeating this tittle-tattle that I am
taking this walk in your company. I have to talk to you about
something infinitely more serious....  Laure."

Louis raised his head quickly. Benjamin was emphatic: "Yes, about
Laure. She is two-and-twenty, she is not married, she shows no
inclination to marry. I consider that you are largely responsible for
this state of things."

Louis came to a standstill: "I, responsible?"

"Tut! You will understand what I mean in a moment.  You are doubtless
not unaware that your cousin has refused two or three proposals of
marriage?"

Louis nodded his head in assent.

"All right. These proposals did not appeal to her nature, I suppose?"

Another nod.

"Yes. Very well, it is your fault. No use protesting. And don't run
away from me, either. I have very little time, I am only passing
through, that is why I am forced to be slightly brutal, if, that is to
say, the subject is of any interest to you."

Then, as he saw the young man step out again by his side:

"My friend, the first rule of conduct, in this world, in order to
diminish as far as possible the harm that we are capable of doing, is
to know exactly what we are and of what we are capable. You will
remain useless to yourself and dangerous to other people, so long as
you persist in ignoring what is at present the one thing that it is
essential for you to know: that is to say, that you are a force. Yes,
yes, my dear boy, and the only force that exists, for the moment, in
the house of Simler. However, you know that already."

Louis had turned a deep crimson, and his ears burned as though they
were being torn from his head.

"You acquiesce," the Yankee went on, with a certain tremor in his
voice, "you cannot do otherwise without disparaging yourself in a
wretched fashion. My dear boy, there are, among our people--I mean the
Jews--two currents.  They have often mingled without amalgamating.
They are in any case mutually antagonistic. You belong to one, the
rest of the Simlers who are now alive belong to the other.  There have
been Simlers, in the past, not to mention Blums, and Sterns, and Lévis
and Haases, who, in their little communities, have been of your sort.
That is why you are what you are, and why there will always be others
in every generation. You know _exactly_ what I mean."

For the tenth time, the nature of Louis's silence changed, and gave
Benjamin the answer that he expected.

"I am not going to make any prophecies about your future, as your
grandmother would do or your headmaster, first of all because it is
your own affair, and secondly because we shall come back to it in a
moment. Well, then, being what you are, that is to say of the sort
which, for want of a better word, I shall call--hum! I shall not call
by any name, but of the sort which, in a word, makes it an honour to
be a Jew, you have attracted to yourself a nature which was more
uncertain, but which asked only to be allowed to develop. Do not
protest. I mean Laure. I do not say that she is in love with you, or
that you are in love with her. If you don't object, we can leave all
that sort of nonsense out of account. She is a warm-hearted, wholesome
girl of two-and-twenty and you are a gentleman of fourteen.  But you
have influenced her. She has sought--_sought_, do you understand? And
she has not found a husband."

A lump that had stuck in his throat was suffocating Louis.  Benjamin
did not appear to notice this. He continued:

"This situation puts you under an obligation. No privilege without a
relative and proportionate responsibility, you understand. Woman's
function is to unite herself to man, to bear children, to bring them
up and feed them. Do not deduce from this the man's part; you would do
it by a process of reasoning, and it is still a little complicated for
the fourteen-year-old structure of your bodily frame. Try, then, to
escape as soon as possible from an environment in which you will meet
nobody who has not made it his object in life to get rich as quickly
and as sordidly as possible."

So far, Benjamin had only once heard the sound of his cousin's voice,
but he did not seem to mind.

"The direction that you choose matters little--or rather it matters
only to yourself. You may become an artisan, or hawk newspapers, in
which I should see no harm--since that is not the question--but which
might set you wrong at the very start, and increase your difficulty in
getting under way. For it is a remarkable thing that, in this damned
country, it is easier for a boy from the classical side to become
President of the Court of Appeal than to get a job as
crossing-sweeper. But if I hark back to what your master told me, I am
led to suppose that you have a distinct talent for philology. It is a
fine subject. Jews are generally good at it. I have heard also of your
taste for the violin. You have got together quite a collection of
minerals which must have brought you plenty of ridicule. Your private
preferences extend doubtless to other things as well. I do not ask to
know them. The sole practical purpose of my sermon--one must always
have a practical purpose when one starts preaching--is to inform you
that, if you encounter the slightest difficulty in the quest of your
true career, you can always reckon upon me. If, for instance, you
should one day feel a desire to go and study in America, where we are
sounder upon quite a number of questions than you good Europeans
imagine, I shall do whatever is necessary with regard to your parents
and yourself. I tell you all this, because they consider that three
Simlers will not be too many in this hole,--which is quite true, from
their point of view. In consequence of which I know that they intend
to keep you here at any cost, and that it must not happen at any cost,
you understand me, Louis, at any cost!"

The note of authority in his voice having stiffened the boy's face
afresh, Benjamin laid his hand on his shoulder:

"I have made inquiries. I have looked around me. Outwardly, everything
is irreproachable. But the buildings are wormeaten. They are leaking
at every pore. Your father and uncles will live and die without the
slightest suspicion, you may be sure of that. But the younger
generation will no sooner be at the helm than the ship will sink, my
dear boy, body and soul, unless the crew should take the heroic
decision to get rid of the staff, a decision of which I suppose them
to be quite incapable. Well, not only does all this business not
concern you in any respect, but you have already contracted quite
sufficient obligations, in other fields, as I have had the honour of
informing you."

Louis was scarcely breathing. Just as he raised his head, possibly to
speak, Benjamin stopped him with a wave of his hand and proceeded:

"I beg your pardon, I had forgotten: when I told you that you might
reckon upon me--I should have said, except for money. That again ought
to reassure you. No one here shall ever see the colour of my money. My
friend, when I saw that the house of Stern was making its pile, I took
my hook. But when I found that, over there, instead of making my pile,
I was simply becoming a very rich man, I said to myself: 'Steady, my
boy; think what you are doing.' It was then that I made myself an
American citizen. My father had all that he needed. I saw to that too,
you understand.  But the rest was not to be allowed to fall into men's
hands.  Money scorches them, they are never any use afterwards for
work. With your cursed French law, there was no way of preventing
this. Everything that I shall leave when I die is divided already into
two portions. One is going to an Institute of Philosophy, experimental
and otherwise--you have nothing of the sort here, with your
highfalutin metaphysics. It is in America. If you would care to come
and see it some day, you would not be wasting your time.  The other
half is earmarked for Pasteur, for his Institute, in Paris; for there
is nothing like it in the world. And works of that sort are more
important than the individual, don't you agree?"

It was Louis's turn now to speak, in a voice that at first was hoarse
and broken.

"I think... I consider that there was no harm in your talking to those
old fogies in the hole. As for what you said about Laure, I should
like to feel that you were mistaken, I... I shall investigate. As for
myself, what you have said interests me. But I should like to know
first of all what has led you to that opinion of the factory... and
the family which... yes."

"Aha. This is where we come to the critical point. _Cul-men,
discrimen_, as old Glotz used to say in the school at Schlestadt. You
are a Frenchman, a bourgeois, and a Jew.  Other people have to solve
an equation of two degrees; in ours, there are three. Shall we examine
them together?  Frenchman and bourgeois, all right. Frenchman and Jew,
I see less difficulty than in any other combination of that sort. As
for Jew and bourgeois...

"You were asking, were you not, what it was that had led me to form an
opinion of the factory and of the family which does not, really,
surprise you, does it? It is because I have seen, in the past, a
species of Simler entirely different from those who gave you life and
are seeking so honourably to deprive you of it: I mean the Simlers of
Alsace, that is to say, men of the people who might have been taken
for aristocrats. You follow me? Strength, means, habits, an honesty
that were plebeian, and the mentality, the civilisation of
aristocrats. You do not remember your grandfather.  However, it would
have been too late. It was back there that you ought to have known
him.

"When I left France, I had a poor opinion of Uncle Hip-polyte; I said
to myself: There is a man for whom there is nothing but facts, and
those only the facts of his own life. But since then, I have seen so
many men of his type, that I have come to understand them: facts, to
him, were only an outward appearance. He did not really live
surrounded by facts, he transformed them first of all into ideas, and
it was only then that he began to act, along a straight line, like a
true idealist. He made cloth like a Cabbalist doctor, and not like a
weaver. That is a great difference, my dear Louis, and a sign of great
strength. He accomplished something far more difficult than going and
establishing himself straight off in the ideal with his years at the
University, his _Encyclopaedia Britannica_, his 'comfort,' and touring
about in it in an easy chair, with a rug over his feet, peeling
oranges, as one goes across the Rockies in a Pullman. But there is
this to be borne in mind; Hippolyte is dead, and you others have sold
the sword to pay for gilding the scabbard."

Louis was one of those people who do not make a point of calling
attention to the fact that they have understood what is being said to
them. He decided that what Ben might still have to say would be more
novel to himself than the reply that was expected of him, and
continued to walk by his cousin's side in silence. Ben seemed
delighted.

"I shall not assume you to be more of a fool than you are. You
understand exactly what I mean. However, with your permission, I have
two or three little considerations to add on my own account. Here, you
have an old and fine country in which people have settled down to live
upon the remains of something great. These people, you follow me, are
the children of clerks or peasants who imagine themselves to be powers
sprung from the remotest past because they have bought slices of parks
or wings of castles, and make other people work hard for low wages.
The difficulty was not how to outstrip them, but how to outstrip them
without ceasing to be yourselves, without becoming mere rich people,
like all the parvenus in the world. When one is the senior labourer
and the premier aristocrat in the whole of the earth, one does not
permit oneself to decline. And as the bourgeois of this country has
after all something on his side which you lack, the habit of living
among people of his civilisation (an old and fine civilisation), his
religion, his customs, his speech, you are, compared with him, merely
sham bourgeois, bourgeois reduced and made ridiculous, of whom they
are quite right to make fun and you to feel ashamed."

Here Ben burst out laughing: "That reminds me that I let myself be
tempted, yesterday, in their office, to indulge in a little joke of
which I have no reason to feel proud. My dear boy, if it should so
happen that anything which I have said makes it the least bit
difficult for you to honour your father and mother, forget it. But I
do not believe that it will. Honour your father and mother, honour the
name of Simler. In fact, it is too late now to honour it, the time has
come to save it.

"You know of course what is printed upon the office paper, eh? Two
terms, two forces: first of all _Simler_, good--and then the
_Company_. In the first beginning, there was _Simler_--alone, like
God. And then _Simler_ grew, and, conscious of his solitude, like God,
he created the _Company_, as God created the world. Then, the
_Company_ grew also. And there happened to Simler what happens to all
people who found businesses, the business devours the man, '---& Co.'
is devouring _Simler_, and if you don't take great care, you yourself,
I mean, there will be no _Simler_ left. You understand?  Nothing left
at all."

Louis had stopped short and was gazing at Ben:

"Would you be so kind as to tell me what exactly is implied, to your
mind, by that... by the _Company_?"

"Why, of course, your curiosity is entitled to be set at rest. Two men
erect, at a great expense of energy and strength, a cairn of big
stones. The cairn grows, rises above them, towers over them. And as
they have no other idea in their minds than that of erecting a big
cairn, the biggest cairn in existence, they do not waste time either
in choosing their stones, or in shaping them, or in binding them with
mortar. With the result that, at a given moment, when the wind rises,
the pile begins to totter. They hasten to prop it with their arms. But
what can they do? The wind becomes stronger and stronger. If they let
go, before they have run a yard, the whole pile will have crashed upon
them. And there they are asking themselves to what form of death they
are doomed, to run away and be crushed, or to stay where they are and
perish of inanition and exhaustion.

"The devil is carrying me away, you have excited my brain. I believe
that I have just delivered myself of a parable.  Our world has
painfully created something that is stronger than itself. The cairn is
that something, and besides, what people forget when they think of
their business, which is their employees, the employees' wives, their
children, their dependents, their lodgers, the people who sell them
spirits, their pawnbrokers, and the railways, steamers, employees on
railways, in steamers, in mines, and besides, there is... there is
this, my boy."

Thrusting his hand into his pocket, Ben produced a handful of small
change:

"This is what it is, the _Company_."

He added in an important tone: "There is the whole history of modern
society in my parable."

"A cheerful story. How are we going to get out of it?"

"That does not concern either you or me. Let us carry on with our
jobs. It will concern the workers when their minds get to work. You
must begin by getting clear of it all."

"I? And how?"

"You. Simply by carrying on with your job."

"Which is..."

"To throw away the scabbard and take up the sword."

"Against?"

"Against anyone who tries to oppose your becoming yourself again."

"And who will that be?"

"Who should it be, but all those who are urgently interested in doing
so?"

Louis remained silent. Then he went on:

"I must confess that I do not yet understand."

"That is quite all right. The fault lies not in your intelligence but
in your modesty."

After a silence, thick and tense as a cable, Benjamin continued in a
lowered but impressive tone:

"I have seen the new world, the United States, the Grand Canyon, I
have marked my own trail and crossed several millions of others. I
have travelled from Colorado to New England. I have been terrified a
score of times at its bigness and amazed at its unity. I have rubbed
shoulders with the citizen of yesterday, the citizen of twenty years
ago, and the citizen of last century. Beneath their various jargons I
have seen that America had set her mark upon them all, and had made
them, by the same token, her sons and servants.  I have learned there
the law of the maximum output achieved with the minimum outlay, of an
ordered, feverish activity, of the coordination of everyone in the
struggle of all against all. America is a great and noble country.

"And then I returned to this ancient land which I had forsaken and in
which you had meanwhile been born. Ah, my dear boy, this is the
country that we love, this is the country which we feel ourselves
bound to serve. Your railways are in a bad way, your factories are out
of date, your statesmen are third rate, your policy thinks of nothing,
at home or abroad, but the oppression of one man by another.  So much
for what I have seen for myself, in the first week.  But all that is
only the envelope, and we must strip it off.  I have gone in search of
the realities where they used to be found. They were still there,
Louis, and, with them, any number of others that used not to be there,
twenty years ago, or else I was incapable of noticing them. And when I
thought of it again, America was no more than a confusion without an
idea, without a direction, without inherited traditions, without
beauty, a giant mosquito buzzing round an old white ox.

"Listen: America is quite as much in need of you Frenchmen as you are
of her. What she has to learn from you will take her a century. What
she has to teach you, in industry and in business, can be learned in
ten years, as soon as the people here take to studying it. Is this a
task of such paramount importance that the Simlers, all the Simlers in
France, ought to sacrifice to it what elements they possess of eternal
force?"

"You speak lightly," said Louis bitterly. "My people were not doing
nothing, when they left Buschendorf."

"It is not a question of not doing nothing, one has to do everything,
when one is a... a Simler. Did they come away from Buschendorf to
serve their country, or to become corrupted in it?"

"I think they did... practically everything in their power to serve."

"They ought to have proceeded straight ahead, instead of stopping by
the roadside, to shake the pagoda-tree with the local dandies, and
learn to argue after their fashion."

"According to you, we ought to have remained Germans?" "No. But it is
not worth while, to pluck your right hand from the flame, if you allow
the left to be scorched. You know what I mean."

"Yes."

"I do not, however, consider that the... that our people have been
altogether valueless to this country. It may even be that they were
essential to it. We shall find out some day, and many other things at
the same time. But for the present, _basta_! You can't see everything.
Vendeuvre is only one aspect of the question. The Simlers are only
another. I have just been travelling through your North, your East.
There are some curious discoveries to be made there. And even here,
this profound and intimate civilisation, which does not ever die,
which is asleep perhaps...

"You are not old enough yet to understand this. One of your family,
according to what I hear, did, one day, approach that ancient
civilisation, but his courage failed him.  However that may be, I
prophesy that, within twenty years from now, this ancient land will
have shaken off its slumber and will find itself, if it chooses, in
commerce and in thought, one of the youngest in the world. It will
perhaps have attained its salvation through you. You, in turn, may
attain your salvation through it."

In the mind of anyone who had been present at this conversation, Louis
would have seemed to be animated by an ineradicable hostility to his
cousin. But Ben was not unaware of the effect produced upon a nature
accustomed to long cloistral meanderings by a first buffet of fresh
air. He betrayed no resentment, and continued, not however without a
certain quickening of his tone, to the end. It was growing late, and
he was beginning to feel--partly because it seemed so absurd, and also
because his throat was becoming hoarse--that he had been talking for a
long time without leaving the core of the subject.

"So Papa is to distribute his wealth among the poor, and we are to put
on white shirts and stand in the Place d'Armes, making a public
confession of our sins?"

"It would be a charming ceremony to watch, but would, I fear, do no
good to anyone. The money that is distributed among the poor has never
helped to make them any less poor. The touch of the white shirt shows
that you have imagination, which I never suspected.

"But why should you not make a similar procession through your own
hearts? It is a long time since any of you has set foot on that
ground. It must have become devilish deserted. You know what I mean,
that part in which there lies the profound reason for what makes us
endure among the races of mankind--the professions call it _our
mission_, which is not a particularly enlightening explanation. There
are more profitable discoveries to be made there than you imagine.
Shut yourselves up in yourselves for a year or two.  Become
hermit-like once again. No country has ever conceived any great
thoughts except in the minds of its hermits.  It is not by being like
other people that one serves them, but by differing from them. A
country needs to have its dissenters just as much as its conformists.
Recover the purpose of your sojourn upon earth, Louis, recapture the
personal notion of what is meant by your mind. If you must break with
your family, break. When we have to save a drowning man without
letting him drown us, we begin by stunning him with a blow on the
head. As for popular opinion, you may imagine that it will not
facilitate your escape, since it is all too well aware that a man who
sets himself free is an axis round which everything will turn. There
may be a certain amount of opposition...."

Here, Ben gripped Louis's right arm in his fingers, and, before the
other could free himself, felt his muscles for a moment.

"... Develop your fists, free man!" Louis released himself, not too
roughly, however:

"And Laure, in all this business, is she to develop her fists, free
woman?"

Ben began to laugh. Louis, who had nourished a vague hope of wounding
him, felt slightly disappointed.

"You blaze the trail, she will follow. And once you have both overcome
the opposition, we have no further say in the matter, which concerns
only herself and destiny. You will have paid your debt."

Straying from one path to another, and walking without any goal, they
had come to the great battlemented rock which overhung the railway
tunnel, the whole extent of the plain, and Vendeuvre, pinned to its
cliffs by the silver lance of its canal. A May sun was sparkling
joyously over the panorama. The smoke of Vendeuvre rose in the
atmosphere like a violet shawl. A diffused sound spread like seed
scattered from the sower's hand. Every voice was represented in it,
from that of the insect boring the dead branch at their feet, to that
of a lonely dog, whose barking sounded from a farm a league away. A
train crossed the canal and the metal viaduct uttered its sound. The
five Simler factories seemed to be seized by a frenzy of activity, a
muddy stream belched from their chimneys, a more sharply defined
tumult passed, like an affirmation, through the fog of sounds, and
rose to where the man and boy were standing.

"You seem to know everything," said Louis, in a voice that would not
acknowledge defeat. "Is _my mission_ to destroy all that or to
preserve it? On the employer's side, or on the worker's?"

"Once again, that does not concern me. On the side of justice. It is
for you to decide what proportion of right there is on one side and
the other. If you arrive at a conclusion before the day of your death,
you will be able to boast that you have rendered no mean service to
your fellow-men. In case you do not arrive at it, I give you the
answer now: on the side of suffering."

Louis allowed his school satchel, which he had been carrying and which
had been bothering him all this time, to slip to the ground between
his feet. He undid the top button of his jacket, drew out a
pocket-book of patent leather, and from this extracted a sheet of
paper which he handed to Ben without saying a word.

It was the sheet which Justin had covered with his laconic
inscriptions, the day on which he had made his decision.  Louis had
discovered it, and had kept it, meaning to play a joke on his cousin.
It is to be supposed that he had found it, as time went on, food for
reflections of a different sort, for the sheet was worn, crumpled,
like a document that has often been unfolded.

The boy studied Benjamin's rubicund face as he mastered the contents
of the strange document. Then, without looking, he laid his finger
upon the spot where, coupled with the name of Hélène Le Pleynier,
appeared that of his father.

"And he, Ben, did he find, that day, the purpose of his mission?"

Ben seemed worried: "I did not suppose that that episode would have
come to your knowledge. Here, Louis, _I know absolutely nothing_. And
how could anyone know?  Honour thy father and mother. If Joseph had
not married Elisa, would you be in the world? That is all that you
need consider. You have no judgment to pronounce upon it. Joseph is
the man of whom I was speaking, who came near, one day, to that
ancient civilisation. Who can say whether that is not what has made
you what you are? Go ahead, never do anything that may place you in
the path of anyone else, and take care to keep the way clear in front
of you. At the same time... if _she_ is not dead, and if you ever
happen to meet _her_, ask her... ask her for her blessing. She will
never refuse it to you. As all life must pass through woman in order
to perpetuate itself, so women know something more than we know, in
the realm of things obscure."

A silence followed,--the last in this conversation.

"Meanwhile, if I were you, I should not carry that mortification about
in my bosom any longer. Let the past destroy itself. Judge not. Act.
Your actions contain the one sanction that is of any value. Your
actions shall be the judgment passed on your judgments."

Louis said nothing, but took the document from Ben's hands. The pulp
of the paper had been worn so thin that a mere twitch of his thumb was
sufficient to reduce it to dust. A sort of grey fluff floated for a
moment before their eyes; then a light breeze from the east caught it,
and the flakes drifted away, one by one, to lose themselves over
Vendeuvre, whose long roofs were quivering in the May sun, as though
moved by the strain of some internal agony.



THE END




This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia