Read CHAPTER VI - A VOICE IN THE EVENING of Light, free online book, by Henri Barbusse, on ReadCentral.com.

I approached the workpeople with all possible sympathy. The toiler’s lot, moreover, raises interesting problems, which one should seek to understand. So I inform myself in the matter of those around me.

“You want to see the greasers’ work? Here I am,” said Marcassin, surnamed Petrolus. “I’m the lamp-man. Before that I was a greaser. Is that any better? Can’t say. It’s here that that goes on, look ­there. My place you’ll find at night by letting your nose guide you.”

The truth is that the corner of the factory to which he leads me has an aggressive smell. The shapeless walls of this sort of grotto are adorned with shelves full of leaking lamps ­lamps dirty as beasts. In a bucket there are old wicks and other departed things. At the foot of a wooden cupboard which looks like iron are lamp glasses in paper shirts; and farther away, groups of oil-drums. All is dilapidated and ruinous; all is dark in this angle of the great building where light is elaborated. The specter of a huge window stands yonder. The panes only half appear; so encrusted are they they might be covered with yellow paper. The great stones ­the rocks ­of the walls are upholstered with a dark deposit of grease, like the bottom of a stewpan, and nests of dust hang from them. Black puddles gleam on the floor, with beds of slime from the scraping of the lamps.

There he lives and moves, in his armored tunic encrusted with filth as dark as coffee-grounds. In his poor claw he grips the chief implement of his work ­a black rag. His grimy hands shine with paraffin, and the oil, sunk and blackened in his nails, gives them a look of wick ends. All day long he cleans lamps, and repairs, and unscrews, and fills, and wipes them. The dirt and the darkness of this population of appliances he attracts to himself, and he works like a nigger.

“For it’s got to be well done,” he says, “and even when you’re fagged out, you must keep on rubbing hard.”

“There’s six hundred and sixty-three, monsieur” (he says “monsieur” as soon as he embarks on technical explanations), “counting the smart ones in the fine offices, and the lanterns in the wood-yard, and the night watchmen. You’ll say to me, ’Why don’t they have electricity that lights itself?’ It’s ’cos that costs money and they get paraffin for next to nothing, it seems, through a big firm ’at they’re in with up yonder. As for me, I’m always on my legs, from the morning when I’m tired through sleeping badly, from after dinner when you feel sick with eating, up to the evening, when you’re sick of everything.”

The bell has rung, and we go away in company. He has pulled off his blue trousers and tunic and thrown them into a corner ­two objects which have grown heavy and rusty, like tools. But the dirty shell of his toil did upholster him a little, and he emerges from it gaunter, and horribly squeezed within the littleness of a torturing jacket. His bony legs, in trousers too wide and too short, break off at the bottom in long and mournful shoes, with hillocks, and resembling crocodiles; and their soles, being soaked in paraffin, leave oily footprints, rainbow-hued, in the plastic mud.

Perhaps it is because of this dismal companion towards whom I turn my head, and whom I see trotting slowly and painfully at my side in the rumbling grayness of the evening exodus, that I have a sudden and tragic vision of the people, as in a flash’s passing. (I do sometimes get glimpses of the things of life momentarily.) The dark doorway to my vision seems torn asunder. Between these two phantoms in front the sable swarm outspreads. The multitude encumbers the plain that bristles with dark chimneys and cranes, with ladders of iron planted black and vertical in nakedness ­a plain vaguely scribbled with geometrical lines, rails and cinder paths ­a plain utilized yet barren. In some places about the approaches to the factory cartloads of clinker and cinders have been dumped, and some of it continues to burn like pyres, throwing off dark flames and darker curtains. Higher, the hazy clouds vomited by the tall chimneys come together in broad mountains whose foundations brush the ground and cover the land with a stormy sky. In the depths of these clouds humanity is let loose. The immense expanse of men moves and shouts and rolls in the same course all through the suburb. An inexhaustible echo of cries surrounds us; it is like hell in eruption and begirt by bronze horizons.

At that moment I am afraid of the multitude. It brings something limitless into being, something which surpasses and threatens us; and it seems to me that he who is not with it will one day be trodden underfoot.

My head goes down in thought. I walk close to Marcassin, who gives me the impression of an escaping animal, hopping through the darkness ­whether because of his name, or his stench, I do not know. The evening is darkening; the wind is tearing leaves away; it thickens with rain and begins to nip.

My miserable companion’s voice comes to me in shreds. He is trying to explain to me the law of unremitting toil. An echo of his murmur reaches my face.

“And that’s what one hasn’t the least idea of. Because what’s nearest to us, often, one doesn’t see it.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I say, rather weary of his monotonous complaining.

I try a few words of consolation, knowing that he was recently married. “After all, no one comes bothering you in your own little corner. There’s always that. And then, after all, you’re going home ­your wife is waiting for you. You’re lucky ­”

“I’ve no time; or rather, I’ve no strength. At nights, when I come home I’m too tired ­I’m too tired, you understand, to be happy, you see. Every morning I think I shall be, and I’m hoping up till noon; but at night I’m too knocked out, what with walking and rubbing for eleven hours; and on Sundays I’m done in altogether with the week. There’s even times that I don’t even wash myself when I come in. I just stay with my hands mucky; and on Sundays when I’m cleaned up, it’s a nasty one when they say to me, ‘You’re looking well.’”

And while I am listening to the tragicomical recital which he retails, like a soliloquy, without expecting replies from me ­luckily, for I should not know how to answer ­I can, in fact, recall those holidays when the face of Petrolus is embellished by the visible marks of water.

“Apart from that,” he goes on, withdrawing his chin into the gray string of his over-large collar; “apart from that, Charlotte, she’s very good. She looks after me, and tidies the house, and it’s her that lights our lamp; and she hides the books carefully away from me so’s I can’t grease ’em, and my fingers make prints on ’em like criminals. She’s good, but it doesn’t turn out well, same as I’ve told you, and when one’s unhappy everything’s favorable to being unhappy.”

He is silent for a while, and then adds by way of conclusion to all he has said, and to all that one can say, “My father, he caved in at fifty. And I shall cave in at fifty, p’raps before.”

With his thumb he points through the twilight at that sort of indelible darkness which makes the multitude, “Them others, it’s not the same with them. There’s those that want to change everything and keep going on that notion. There’s those that drink and want to drink, and keep going that way.”

I hardly listen to him while he explains to me the grievances of the different groups of workmen, “The molders, monsieur, them, it’s a matter of the gangs ­”

Just now, while looking at the population of the factory, I was almost afraid; it seemed to me that these toilers were different sorts of beings from the detached and impecunious people who live around me. When I look at this one I say to myself, “They are the same; they are all alike.”

In the distance, and together, they strike fear, and their combination is a menace; but near by they are only the same as this one. One must not look at them in the distance.

Petrolus gets excited; he makes gestures; he punches in and punches out again with his fist, the hat which is stuck askew on his conical head, over the ears that are pointed like artichoke leaves. He is in front of me, and each of his soles is pierced by a valve which draws in water from the saturated ground.

“The unions, monsieur ­” he cries to me in the wind, “why, it’s dangerous to point at them. You haven’t the right to think any more ­that’s what they call liberty. If you’re in them, you’ve got to be agin the parsons ­(I’m willing, but what’s that got to do with labor?) ­and there’s something more serious,” the lamp-man adds, in a suddenly changed voice, “you’ve got to be agin the army, ­the army!”

And now the poor slave of the lamp seems to take a resolution. He stops and devotionally rolling his Don Quixote eyes in his gloomy, emaciated face, he says, “I’m always thinking about something. What? you’ll say. Well, here it is. I belong to the League of Patriots.”

As they brighten still more, his eyes are like two live embers in the darkness, “Deroulede!” he cries; “that’s the man ­he’s my God!”

Petrolus raises his voice and gesticulates; he makes great movements in the night at the vision of his idol, to whom his leanness and his long elastic arms give him some resemblance. “He’s for war; he’s for Alsace-Lorraine, that’s what he’s for; and above all, he’s for nothing else. Ah, that’s all there is to it! The Boches have got to disappear off the earth, else it’ll be us. Ah, when they talk politics to me, I ask ’em, ‘Are you for Deroulede, yes or no?’ That’s enough! I got my schooling any old how, and I know next to nothing but I reckon it’s grand, only to think like that, and in the Reserves I’m adjutant ­almost an officer, monsieur, just a lamp-man as I am!”

He tells me, almost in shouts and signs, because of the wind across the open, that his worship dates from a function at which Paul Deroulede had spoken to him. “He spoke to everybody, an’ then he spoke to me, as close to me as you and me; but it was him! I wanted an idea, and he gave it to me!”

“Very good,” I say to him; “very good. You are a patriot, that’s excellent.”

I feel that the greatness of this creed surpasses the selfish demands of labor ­although I have never had the time to think much about these things ­and it strikes me as touching and noble.

A last fiery spasm gets hold of Petrolus as he espies afar Eudo’s pointed house, and he cries that on the great day of revenge there will be some accounts to settle; and then the fervor of this ideal-bearer cools and fades, and is spent along the length of the roads. He is now no more than a poor black bantam which cannot possibly take wing. His face mournfully awakes to the evening. He shuffles along, bows his long and feeble spine, and his spirit and his strength exhausted, he approaches the porch of his house, where Madame Marcassin awaits him.