"This is hot, with a vengeance. A match, please ?"—lighting his cigar. "But the walk is worth the trouble. If it were not that you must have heard it so often, Kirby, I would tell you that your works look like Dante's Inferno."
"Yes. Yonder is Farinata himself in the burning tomb,"—pointing to some figure in the shimmering shadows.
"Judging from some of the faces of your men," said the other, "they bid fair to try the reality of Dante's vision, someday."
Young Kirby looked curiously around, as if seeing the faces of his hands for the first time.
"They're bad enough, that's true. A desperate set, I fancy. Eh, Clarke?"
The overseer did not hear him. He was talking of net profits just then,—giving, in fact, a schedule of the annual business of the firm to a sharp peering little Yankee, who jotted down notes on a paper laid on the crown of his hat: a reporter for one of the city-papers, getting up a series of reviews of the leading manufactories. The other gentlemen had accompanied them merely for amusement. They were silent until the notes were finished, drying their feet at the furnaces, and sheltering their faces from the intolerable beat. At last the overseer concluded with-
"I believe that is a pretty fair estimate, Captain."
"Here, some of you men!" said Kirby, "bring up those boards. We may as well sit down, gentlemen, until the rain is over. It cannot last much longer at this rate."
"Pig-metal,"—mumbled the reporter, -"um!—coal facilities,—um!—hands employed, twelve hundred,- bitumen,—um!—all right, I believe, Mr. Clarke;—sinking-fund,—what did you say was your sinking-fund?"
"Twelve hundred hands?" said the stranger, the young man who had first spoken. "Do you control their votes, Kirby?"
"Control? No." The young man smiled complacently. "But my father brought seven hundred votes to the polls for his candidate last November. No force-work, you understand,—only a speech or two, a hint to form themselves into a society, and a bit of red and blue bunting to make them a flag. The Invincible Roughs,—I believe that is their name. I forget the motto: 'Our countries hope,' I think."
There was a laugh. The young man talking to Kirby sat with an amused light in his cool gray eye, surveying critically the half-clothed figures of the puddlers, and the slow swing of their brawny muscles. He was a stranger in the city, spending a couple of months in the borders of a Slave State, to study the institutions of the South,—a brother-in-law of Kirby's,—Mitchell. He was an amateur gymnast,—hence his anatomical eye; a patron, in a blasé way, of the prize-ring; a man who sucked the essence out of a science or philosophy in an indifferent, gentlemanly way; who took Kant, Novalis, Humboldt, for what they were worth in his own scales; accepting all, despising nothing, in heaven, earth, or hell, but one-idead men; with a temper yielding and brilliant as summer water, until his Self was touched, when it was ice, though brilliant still. Such men are not rare in the States.
As he knocked the ashes from his cigar, Wolfe caught with a quick pleasure the contour of the white hand, the blood glow of a red ring he wore. His voice, too, and that of Kirby's, touched him like music,—low, even, with chording cadences. About this man Mitchell hung the impalpable atmosphere belonging to the thorough-bred gentleman. Wolfe, scraping away the ashes beside him, was conscious of it, did obeisance to it with his artist sense, unconscious that he did so.
The rain did not cease. Clarke and the reporter left the mills; the others, comfortably seated near the furnace, lingered, smoking and talking in a desultory way. Greek would not have been more unintelligible to the furnace-tender whose presence they soon forgot entirely. Kirby drew out a newspaper from his pocket and read aloud some article, which they discussed eagerly. At every sentence, Wolfe listened more and more like a dumb, hopeless animal, with a duller more stolid look creeping over his face, glancing now and then at Mitchell, marking acutely every smallest sign of refinement, then back to himself, seeing, as in a mirror his filthy body, his more stained soul.
Never! He had no words for such a thought, but he knew now, in all the sharpness of the bitter certainty, that between them there was a great gulf never to be passed. Never!
The bell of the mills rang for midnight. Sunday morning had dawned. Whatever hidden message lay in the tolling bells floated past these men unknown. Yet it was there. Veiled in the solemn music ushering the risen Saviour was a key-note to solve the darkest secrets of a world gone wrong,—even this social riddle which the brain of the grimy puddler grappled with madly tonight.
The men began to withdraw the metal from the caldrons. The mills were deserted on Sundays, except by the hands who fed the fires, and those who had no lodgings and slept usually on the ash-heaps. The three strangers sat still during the next hour, watching the men cover the furnaces, laughing now and then at some jest of Kirby's.
"Do you know," said Mitchell, "I like this view of the works better than when the glare was fiercest? These heavy shadows and the amphitheatre of smothered fires are ghostly, unreal. One could fancy these red smouldering lights to be the half-shut eyes of wild beasts, and the spectral figures their victims in the den."
Kirby laughed. "You are fanciful. Come, let us get out of the den. The spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too real for me to fancy a close proximity in the darkness,—unarmed, too.
The others rose, buttoning their overcoats, and lighting cigars.
"Raining, still," said Doctor May, "and hard. Where did we leave the coach, Mitchell?"
"At the other side of the works.— Kirby, what's that?"
Mitchell started back, half-frightened, as, suddenly turning a corner, the white figure of a woman faced him in the darkness,—a woman, white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning.
"Stop! Make that fire burn there!" cried Kirby, stopping short.
The flame burst out, flashing the gaunt figure into bold relief.
Mitchell drew a long breath.
"I thought it was alive," he said, going up curiously.
The others followed.
"Not marble, eh ?" asked Kirby, touching it.
One of the lower overseers stopped.
"Who did it?"
"Can't say. Some of the hands; chipped it out in off-hours."
"Chipped to some purpose, I should say. What a flesh-tint the stuff has! Do you see, Mitchell?"
He had stepped aside where the light fell boldest on the figure, looking at it in silence. There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf's. Kirby and Doctor May walked around it, critical, curious. Mitchell stood aloof, silent. The figure touched him strangely.
"Not badly done," said Doctor May. "Where did the fellow learn that sweep of the muscles in the arm and hand? Look at them! They are groping, do you see?—clutching: the peculiar action of a man dying of thirst."
"They have ample facilities for studying anatomy," sneered Kirby, glancing at the half-naked figures.
"Look," continued the Doctor, "at this bony wrist, and the strained sinews of the instep! A working-woman,—the very type of her class."
"God forbid!" muttered Mitchell.
"Why?" demanded May. "What does the fellow intend by the figure? 1 cannot catch the meaning."
"Ask him," said the other, dryly.
"There he stands,"—pointing to Wolfe, who stood with a group of men, leaning on his ash-rake.
The Doctor beckoned him with the affable smile which kind-hearted men put on, when talking to these people.
"Mr. Mitchell has picked you out as the man who did this,—I'm sure I don't know why. But what did you mean by it?"
"She be hungry."
Wolfe's eyes answered Mitchell, not the Doctor.
"Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow! You have given no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,—terribly strong. It has the mad, half-despairing gesture of drowning."
Wolfe stammered, glanced appealingly at Mitchell, who saw the soul of the thing, he knew. But the cool, probing eyes were turned on himself now,—mocking, cruel, relentless.
"Not hungry for meat," the furnace-tender said at last.
"What then? Whiskey?" jeered Kirby, with a coarse laugh.
Wolfe was silent a moment, thinking.