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V

THE DRAIN

That vacation passed like the others, with this difference only, that in the great, newly-furnished house, Laurent was even more neglected and left to himself than usual. He came to envy the lot of the old pieces of furniture, cast off and doomed to slumber in the gloom and the dust of the attic. At least, when they had ceased to please, they were not humiliated by being placed in contact with their successors, while he, who had never pleased, nevertheless continued to figure as an incongruous and melancholy contrast to the assortment of rich furnishings and chilly plants. He felt himself more and more out of place in this costly and exclusive environment. Waiting for that day to come when he would be free to join others among his fellow men as ill-favored as himself, he used to long for night to come so that he might rejoin, in his narrow corner under the roof, the repudiated and banished objects that he loved.

And yet, as dismal and long as these vacations seemed to him, he was surprised to find that, hardly returned to school, he began to lament their end out of a real love of those tedious hours.

Of his sojourn with his guardians, he remembered most pleasantly the melancholy episodes, and it was the least pleasing and the most rough and corroded aspects of the factory that haunted him as he studied, or when he could not sleep. Out of aversion for the hyacinths that to him symbolized his beautiful cousin's harshness toward the poor and the downtrodden, he would have collected withered bouquets and rustic flowers. To the expensive nectarines reserved for Cousin Lydia, he preferred a hard apple that would crunch between his teeth.

In the same way, he retained in his nostrils the anything but soft odour of the factory, especially the smell of the drain which bordered the immense inclosure and into which was discharged the refuse of the various chemical processes, pestilential acids, the waste arising from the refining of the tallow. The musty, oily odour exhaled by these filthy excrescences pursued him, when he was at school, with the obstinacy of a vulgar refrain. This reek was associated in his mind with the working classes, with the poor wretches blinded by acreoline, mangled by the machines, discharged by Saint-Fardier; it spoke to Laurent of the packing room and its girls, with their breasts bare, of Tilbak and the episode of "The Swiss Family Robinson"; it suggested the peculiar suburb, the glutted, wanton night about the Stone Mill.

When he set foot in his natal city it was by this drain that the realm of Gina announced its presence to him. Of all that belonged to the factory, this drain alone came to meet him at a distance, took him when he got out of the train, welcomed him with a certain cheerfulness long before he had seen, through its curtain of trees, the first roofs and mills of the suburb, the high, red, rigid chimneys shaking their fulginous plumes in derisive welcome. It was also the last to say farewell to him when he went away, like a lost, mangy dog that runs along after a pitying passer-by.

Its dark surface streaked with delicate colours, this horrible sink flowed, open to the sky, the whole length of the leprous road leading to the factory. With insolent sluggishness it sought the branch of the river whose waters it dishonored. The dwellers upon the banks of the river, humble folks who were dependent upon the all-powerful factory, murmured among themselves but did not dare complain too loudly. Confident of their submission, the owners kept adjourning the great expense of covering this cesspool. An epidemic of cholera, breaking out in the middle of August, gave them, however, something to think about. Provoked and stimulated by the noxious exhalations of the drain, the scourge struck the factory quarters more cruelly than any other. The working people died like flies. Although the survivors feared famine should they protest openly against the stench, the Dobouziez family thought they could win over the population, secretly rising against them, and came to the relief of the stricken families. But their almost forced generosity expended itself without good grace, without tact, without that pity which enhances kindness and distinguishes true charity from made-to-order philanthropy. To the charitable Felicité had been entrusted the distribution of alms. Occupied in this direction, she had less chance to watch Laurent, and he profited by this laxity in taking an occasional furlough.

One opaque and coppery evening he was making his way toward the factory-quarter. While walking slowly down the long workingman's street, sordidly lit at great intervals by a smoky lantern, his attention, more finely sharpened and more subtle than usual, was distracted by a prolonged and mournful murmur. He thought first of a chorus of frogs, but immediately knew that no living beast ever haunted the silt of the drain. As he advanced, the noise became more distinct. Upon turning the corner near a crossroad close to the factory he discovered the cause.

In a little bracketed niche adorning the angle of two streets was enthroned a Madonna of painted wood about which a hundred tallow candles made a resplendent halo. The total obscurity of the rest of the road rendered this partial illumination especially fantastic. At the foot of the glistening tabernacle, before which there usually burned only a small night light, underneath this naive simulcarum of the Assumption, so low that the tongues of flame darting and trembling in the immobile, suffocating night could barely reach them, the poor women of the quarter swarmed in a prostrate mass. In black mantles and white caps, they told their rosaries, mumbling litanies in the broken and whining voices of beggars who tell their misfortunes. They had each paid their share of this offering of illumination in the hope of prevailing, through the intercession of His Mother, upon the God who at will lets loose and withholds devouring plagues.

It was to be expected that the illumination would not last as long as the psalmody. The aureole was already punctured with black stains. And each time that a candle threatened to become extinguished the supplicants redoubled their prayers, lamented more loudly and quickly. Without doubt the dear souls of a brother, a husband or a child corresponded to those agonizing flames. And they would cease trembling at the moment when the invalid was in the throes of death. It was as if so many last breaths extinguished one by one the tremulous glimmering candles. And the shadows thickened, heavily weighted with the day's dead. A few steps away rose the factory, even darker than the surrounding gloom, like the temple of a malicious divinity. An excess of calamity: at that equivocal hour the terrible drain, rising higher than usual, neutralized by its murderous effluvia the increase of their prayers and the holy water of their tears.

To reinforce this impression of agony and despair, it seemed to Laurent, who was closely scrutinizing the smiling Madonna, that her face reproduced the imperious and too regular features of his Cousin Gina. Was it possible that, in order to make these devotions miscarry, the spirit of the Dobouziez factory had substituted itself for the Queen of Heaven? Just then the poor mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, children and grandmothers began to intone, after the vicar, a pleading and lamentable Regina Coeli!

Laurent could no longer doubt it. He recognized her overweening expression, her distant and mocking glance. He would have sworn that a breath escaped between the lips of the false Madonna, and that she was taking a crafty pleasure in blowing out the last candles!

He was tempted to throw himself between the crowd and the idol and to cry to them:

"Stop! You are deceiving yourselves cruelly, O poor women, my sisters! She whose aid you are invoking is the other Queen, as beautiful, but the most pitiless of all queens. Stop! She is Regina, the nymph of the drain, the flower of the cesspool; it nourishes her and makes her proud and strong. But you! You it poisons, and you it kills!"

But the canticle melted suddenly into a torrent of tears. Not one candle was burning any longer. The little Madonna hid herself from the imploring eyes of those many women. The last victim of the cholera had just expired.