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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The City of Iron and Fire
By Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897)
 
From ‘Jack’

THE SINGER rose and stood upright in the boat, in which he and the child were crossing the Loire a little above Paimbœuf, and with a wide sweeping gesture of the arms, as if he would have clasped the river within them, exclaimed:—  1
  “Look at that, old boy; is not that grand?”  2
  Notwithstanding the touch of grotesqueness and commonplace in the actor’s admiration, it was well justified by the splendid landscape unrolling before their eyes.  3
  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. A July sun, a sun of melting silver, spread a long luminous pathway of rays upon the waters. In the air was a tremulous reverberation, a mist of light, through which appeared the gleaming light of the river, active and silent, flashing upon the sight with the rapidity of a mirage. Dimly seen sails high in the air, which in this dazzling hour seem pale as flax, pass in the distance as if in flight. They were great barges coming from Noirmoutiers, laden to the very edge with white salt sparkling all over with shining spangles, and worked by picturesque crews; men with the great three-cornered hat of the Breton salt-worker, and women whose great cushioned caps with butterfly wings were as white and glittering as the salt. Then there were coasting vessels like floating drays, their decks piled with sacks of flour and casks; tugs dragging interminable lines of barges, or perhaps some three-master of Nantes arriving from the other side of the world, returning to the native land after two years’ absence, and moving up the river with a slow, almost solemn motion, as if bearing within it a silent contemplation of the old country, and the mysterious poetry belonging to all things that come from afar. Notwithstanding the July heat, a strong breeze blew freshly over the lovely scene, for the wind came up from the coast with the cheerful freshness of the open sea, and let it be guessed that a little further away, beyond those hurrying waves already abandoned by the calm tranquillity of still waters, lay the deep green of the limitless ocean, with its billows, its fogs, and its tempests.  4
  “And Indret? where is it?” asks Jack.  5
  “There, that island in front of us.”  6
  In the silvery mist which enveloped the island, Jack saw confusedly lines of great poplars and tall chimneys, whence issued a thick filthy smoke, spreading over all, blackening even the sky above it. At the same time he heard a clamorous and resounding din, hammers falling on wrought and sheet iron, dull sounds, ringing sounds, variously re-echoed by the sonority of the water; and over everything a continuous and perpetual droning, as if the island had been a great steamer, stopped, and murmuring, moving its paddles while at anchor, and its machinery while yet motionless.  7
  As the boat approached the shore, slowly and yet more slowly,—for the tide ran strongly and was hard to fight against,—the child began to distinguish long buildings with low roofs, blackened walls extending on all sides with uniform dreariness; then, on the banks of the river as far as the eye could reach, long lines of enormous boilers painted with red lead, the startling color giving a wildly fantastic effect. Government transports, steam launches, ranged alongside the quay, lay waiting till these boilers should be put on board by means of a great crane near at hand, which viewed from a distance looked like a gigantic gibbet.  8
  At the foot of this gallows stood a man watching the approach of the boat.  9
  “It is Roudic,” said the singer; and from the deepest depths he brought forth a formidable “hurrah!” which made itself heard even in the midst of all the din of forging and hammering.  10
  “Is that you, young ’un?”  11
  “Yes, by Jove, it is I; are there two such notes as mine in the whole world?”  12
  The boat touched the shore, and the two brothers sprang into each other’s arms with a mighty greeting.  13
  They were alike; but Roudic was much older, and wanting in that embonpoint so quickly acquired by singers in the exercise of trills and sustained notes. Instead of the pointed beard of his brother, he was shaven, sunburnt; and his sailor’s cap, a blue wool knitted cap, shaded a true Breton face, tanned by the sea, cut in granite, with small eyes, and a keen glance sharpened by the minute work of a fitter and adjuster.  14
  “And how are all at home?” asked Labassindre. “Clarisse, Zénaïde, every one?”  15
  “Every one is quite well, thank Heaven. Ah, ah! this is our new apprentice. He looks like a nice little chap; only he doesn’t look over strong.”  16
  “Strong as a horse, my dear fellow, and warranted by the Paris doctors.”  17
  “So much the better, then, for ours is a roughish trade. And now, if you are ready, let us go and see the manager.”  18
  They followed a long alley of fine trees that soon changed into a street, such as is found in small towns, bordered by white houses, clean and all alike. Here lived a certain number of the factory workmen, the foremen, and first hands. The others were located on the opposite bank, at Montagne or at Basse Indre.  19
  At this hour all was silent, life and movement being concentrated within the iron works; and had it not been for the linen drying at the windows, the flower-pots ranged near the panes, the occasional cry of a child, or the rhythmical rocking of a cradle heard through some half-opened door, the place might have been deemed uninhabited.  20
  “Oh! the flag’s down,” said the singer, as they reached the gate leading to the workshops. “What frights that confounded flag has given me before now.”  21
  And he explained to his “old Jack,” that five minutes after the arrival of the workmen for the opening hour, the flag over the gate was lowered, and thus it was announced that the doors were closed. So much the worse for those who were late; they were marked down as absent, and at the third offense dismissed.  22
  While he was giving these explanations, his brother conferred with the gate-keeper, and they were admitted within the doors of the establishment. The din was frightful; whistlings, groanings, grindings, varying but never diminishing, were re-echoed from many vast triangular-roofed sheds, standing at intervals on a sloping ground intersected by numerous railways.  23
  An iron city!  24
  Their footsteps rang upon plates of metal incrusted in the earth. They picked their way amid heaps of bar iron, pig iron, ingots of copper; between rows of worn-out guns brought hither to be melted down, rusty outside, all black within and almost smoking still, venerable masters of fire about to perish by fire.  25
  Roudic, as they passed along, pointed out the various quarters of the establishment: “This is the setting-up room, these the workshops of the great lathe and little lathe, the braziery, the forges, the foundry.” He had to shout, so deafening was the noise.  26
  Jack, half dazed, looked with surprise through the workshop doors, nearly all open on account of the heat, at a swarming of upraised arms, of blackened faces, of machinery in motion in a cave-like darkness, dull and deep, lit up by brief flashes of red light.  27
  Out poured the hot air, with mingled odors of coal, burned clay, molten iron and the impalpable black dust, sharp and burning, which in the sunlight had a metallic sparkle, the glitter of coal that may become diamond.  28
  But what gave a special character to these formidable works was the perpetual commotion of both earth and air, a continual trepidation, something like the striving of a huge beast imprisoned beneath the foundry, whose groans and burning breath burst hissing out through the yawning chimneys. Jack, fearful of appearing too much of a novice, dared not ask what it was made this noise, which even at a distance had so impressed him….  29
  As they talked, they passed along the streets of the iron-works laid with rails, crowded at this hour, the working day just at an end, with a concourse of men of all kinds and sizes and trades; a motley of blouses, pilot jackets, the coats of the designers mixing with the uniforms of the overseers.  30
  The gravity with which this deliverance from toil was effected struck Jack forcibly. He compared this scene with the cries, the jostling on the pavements which in Paris enliven the exit from the workshops, and make it as noisy as that of a school. Here, rule and discipline were sensibly felt, just as on board a man-of-war.  31
  A warm mist of steam floated over this mass of human beings, a steam that the sea breeze had not yet dispersed, and which hung like a heavy cloud in the stillness of this July evening. From the now silent workshops evaporated the odors of the forge. Steam whistled forth in the gutters, sweat stood on all the foreheads, and the panting that had puzzled Jack a little while ago had given place to a breath of relief from these two thousand chests wearied with the day’s labor.  32
  As he passed through the crowd, Labassindre was soon recognized.  33
  “Hullo! young ’un, how are you?”  34
  He was surrounded, his hand eagerly shaken, and from one to another passed the words:—  35
  “Here, look at Roudic’s brother, the fellow who makes four thousand pounds a year just by singing.”  36
  Every one wished to see him, for one of the legends of the workshops was this supposed fortune of the quondam blacksmith, and since his departure more than one young fellow-worker had searched to the very bottom of his larynx, to try if the famous note, the note worth millions, were not by some happy chance to be found there.  37
  In the midst of this cortège of admirers, whom his theatrical costume impressed still more, the singer walked along with his head in the air, talking and laughing, casting “Good morning, Father So-and-so! Good morning, Mother What-’s-your-name!” towards the little houses enlivened by women’s faces looking out, towards the public-houses and cook-shops which were frequent in this part of Indret; where also hawkers of all kinds held sway, exposing their merchandise in the open air: blouses, shoes, hats, kerchiefs, all the ambulating trumpery to be found in the neighborhood of camps, barracks, and factories.  38
  As they made their way through this display of wares, Jack imagined he saw a familiar face, a smile, parting the various groups to reach him; but it was only a lightning flash, a mere vision swept away at once by the ever changing tide of the mass flowing away and dispersing through the great industrial city, and spreading itself over to the other side of the river in long ferry-boats, active, numerous, heavily laden, as if it were the passage of an army.  39
  Evening was closing in over the dispersing crowd. The sun went down. The wind freshened, moving the poplars like palms; and the spectacle was imposing of the toiling island in its turn sinking to repose, restored to nature for the night. As the smoke cleared, masses of verdure became visible between the workshops. The river could be heard lapping the banks; and the swallows, skimming the water with tiny twitter, fluttered around the great boilers ranged along the quay.  40
 
 
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