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III

THE FACTORY

Felicité ended by locking up the hermit's garret during the day, and sending him out into the garden to play. The garden itself had been reduced, by one encroachment after the other, to the dimensions of a back-yard. From the windows of the house the eyes of the spy could pry into its furthest corners. And, wearied by her surveillance, the boy made incursions into the workshops.

The fifteen hundred hands in the factory were held in check by rules of a draconian severity. For the least infraction there were penalties, salaries were held up, dismissals accorded against which there was no appeal. A strict justice. No actual iniquity, but the discipline was that of a barracks, the code of penalties was badly proportioned to the offenses, and the balance invariably inclined toward the owners.

Saint-Fardier, a stout man with the head of a comic mask, an olive green skin, thick lipped, with woolly hair like that of a quadroon, scoured the factory upon certain days, leaving behind him a trail of flame and brimstone. He bellowed, rolled his basilisk eyes, shoved his way about, slammed doors, and bounded like a ball of fire from one room to the next. Like a waterspout, he left in his wake despair and desolation. Penalties rained like grapeshot upon the bewildered population. The least peccadillo entailed the discharge of the best and oldest hand. Saint-Fardier showed himself as abrupt with the foremen as with the most recent apprentice. One would have thought that if it occurred to him to measure his blows and distinguish between his victims, he would have preferred to smite the oldest employees, those whom no punishment had ever compassed, and those who had been with the factory since its foundation. The workers had named him "The Pasha," equally because of his despotism and his wantoness.

Dobouziez, who was as self-willed and as arbitrary as his partner, was less demonstrative and more closemouthed. He was the judge, the other, the executioner. Dobouziez, crafty and well-bred, gauged at his true value the illiterate and boorish partner whom a rich marriage had put into the possession of a fortune equal to his own. The mathematician was happy in making use of the man of strength, the man whose mouth was as scorching as that of a furnace, in extremities repellant to his own finely tempered nature.

It was generally known among the workers that the worst holocausts among the important employees usually coincided with a decline in the demand for the manufactured article or an increase in the price of raw materials.

Nevertheless, Dobouziez found it necessary to curb the zeal of his partner, who, urged on by a chronic affection of the liver, rioted in proscriptions worthy of a Marius.

A very shrewd business man, but none the less clever, Dobouziez, who permitted the exploitation of the proletariat, disapproved equally of Utopian schemes and poetic eccentricities and of useless brutality and compromising cruelty. He likened his workers to beings of an inferior race, to beasts of burden that he worked for his personal gain. He was a frigid positivist, a perfect money-making machine, without the slightest inopportune vibration, without any sentimental fancies, never deviating by the thousandth part of a second. With him nothing was unforeseen. His conscience represented a superb sextant, a magnificent instrument of precision. If he was virtuous, it was because of his dignity and his aversion to all irregularity, scandal and publicity, and also because he had found it true of human life that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. It was virtue of a purely abstract order.

If he disapproved of the uproar of his too hasty acolyte, it was in the name of equilibrium, of good order, because of his respect for the proper alignment, for the golden mean, because he wished to preserve appearances and a nicely adjusted symmetry.

When he walked around the factory, which he did only upon rare occasions, as, for instance, when it was necessary to experiment with or apply some new invention, he often found himself astonished at the absence of a face to which he had become accustomed.

"Hm!" he would say to his partner, "I don't see old Jeff around any more!"

"Cleared out!" replied Saint-Fardier, with a gesture as sharp as a chopper.

"And why?" Dobouziez objected. "A man who has worked for us for twenty years."

"Peuh! He drank … He became careless and negligent. What?"

"Really? And his successor?"

"A solid, healthy workman who draws only a quarter of what that old invalid used to cost us." And Saint-Fardier winked maliciously, noting a smile of intelligence on the face of his partner. But the other soothsayer did not unbend, and without disapproving of the discharge, called off the dogs with an indifferent air.

A strong dose of philosophy and of patience was required by the workers in order to endure without contempt the haughtiness, the scornful treatment, the rigor, the despotism of employers armed against them with an iniquitous legality.

And what accidents, infirmities, deaths did not aggravate the lot of these helots!

Laurent, who visited all parts of the factory, who followed the many complex processes necessary in the making of candles from the treatment of the fetid organic matter, beef and mutton fats, from which the white and glossy stearine was separated with great difficulty, to the packing, the casing, and the loading of the trucks—Laurent was not long in attributing an occult influence, fatal and perverse, to this place itself, to all this apparatus, to this stock of tools to which was applied all the perfection of mechanics and the most recent chemical discoveries.

He went down into the engine room, dodged about the machine room, passed the vats in which the raw matter was purified by being melted and remelted, and came to the presses where, refined of its impurities, it was compressed in skins and again solidified.

Of all the rooms in which the fats were triturated, the one in worst repute was that in which they were treated with acreoline, a colorless and volatile substance whose gases attacked the eyes of the workmen. In vain they were relieved every twelve hours, and from time to time took a respite in which to neutralize the effect of the poison; in the end the odious essence frustrated their precautions and ate away their eyeballs.

It was as if Nature, the eternal sphynx, furious at having her secrets torn from her, revenged herself upon the lowest auxiliaries of the defeats inflicted upon her by the scientists.

More expeditious than the corrosive vapors, but as artful and as silently inevitable in its effect, the dynamic force masked itself and, not always succeeding in gaining in a single blow its revenge upon the men whom it had enslaved, it lay in wait and trapped its victims one by one. Danger was not present in the spot where the machine, in full activity, rumbled, bellowed and stamped, and shook the cage of thick masonry in which was plunged, like a giant buried alive, its mass of steel, copper and cast iron. Its roars kept the vigilance of its guardians ever keen. And just when it was ready to free itself from its shackles, to burst forth, to shatter everything around it, the monster would be betrayed by its gauge, and the accumulated steam would inoffensively escape through the safety valves. But far away from the generator, the fly-wheel and the cranks, the machine conspired against its servitors. Simple bands of leather detached themselves from the principal mass like the long tentacles of an octopus, and, through holes let into the walls, ran tributary machines. These endless bands wound and unwound upon their reels with a grace and a smoothness that banished any idea of cruelty and assault. They moved so rapidly that they seemed immobile. And there were even moments in which they were no longer visible. They escaped, flew away, returned to their point of departure, flew forth again tirelessly, accomplished the same operation thousands of times, making as they revolved hardly as much noise as the beating of wings or the purr of a wheedling kitten, and in nearing them their breath floated past with a soft and gentle caress.

In the end, the workmen who kept them in repair and superintended them did not suspect them of any more harm than the trainer suspects the apparent forbearance of his felines. At intervals in the work they lulled him to sleep or induced him to revery like the murmur of water or the nasal whirr of a spinning wheel. But velvety cats are panthers on the watch. Forever lying in wait, they took advantage of his drowsiness, of a slight relaxing of his attention, of a furtive heedlessness, of a careless gesture in working, of his desire to lean back, to stretch and yawn.

They took advantage even of his untidiness. A puffed shirt, a loose blouse, a mere crease sufficed them. Masters of a tip of his clothing, the transmission belts, their endless bands like prehensile, sucking tentacles, pulled at the cloth and, before it could tear, drew it toward them, sucked it in and the poor fellow with it. Vainly he tried to fight it off. Dizziness overcame him. A cry of horror strangled in his throat. The torturer exhausted upon him the whole series of obsolete punishments. He was extended upon the rack, torn, scalped, mangled, hacked to pieces, flung piece by piece yards away like a stone from a sling, or squeezed like a lemon in the gearing, his blood, his brain and his marrow were sprinkled over the excited and helpless gang of laborers. Most rarely did the burnt offering get an opportunity to take reprisals upon the drunken minotaur. If he did recover, it was with one member the less, an arm reduced to pulp, a leg broken in twenty places. Dead forever to work, he was a living mockery.

Fall upon the murderer? Shut off the power? The man is either mangled or killed before one has time to see the unequal struggle.

Laurent absorbed from the worst instruments of torture and the most malignant elixirs of the inquisitors the highly vaunted marvels of physics and industrial chemistry; he could see only the reverse of that prosperous industrialism of which Gina, from her side, saw only the radiant and brilliant aspect. He discovered the lie innate in the word Progress so constantly upon the lips of the middle classes, he saw the illusion of a society, claiming to be fraternal and democratic, founded upon a third estate more rapacious and more inhuman than the feudal lords. And, from that moment, a profound pity, an instinctive and absorbing affection, a sympathy partly maternal, partly that of a lover, seized him, a fundamental pity for these pariahs, beginning with those of his own environment, the brave daily laborers of the Dobouziez factory, who belonged to the eccentric and interloping suburban proletariat that swarmed about the Stone Mill. He took forever the side of these wide-awake, husky, well-built chaps, who worked with such energy, who braved each day sickness, poisoning, mutilation, formidable tools that turned against them, without losing for an instant their rude, free manner, their familiarity, whose relish excused its indecency.

With them the boy became communicative. When he met them, black, sweaty, panting, and they doffed their caps to him, he summoned enough courage to stop them and ask questions. After the little persecution of veiled hints, of irony, of reticence, and the blind torture that he had undergone in the drawing-room of his guardians, to speak to them was like inhaling brisk country air after being in a hot-house of forced plants whose perfume made him giddy. He began to consider himself a sharer in the destiny of the lowly. His downtrodden weakness communed with their passive force. He conciliated stokers, machinists, draymen, laborers. They responded to the halting advances made by this repulsed child, morally neglected, misunderstood, severed from parental tenderness, whom the servants, scum of the common people, patterning themselves upon Felicité, treated as a burden upon the establishment.