Panting, along the gray road, which lost itself in the distance in a damp autumn fog, an old man walked, doubled over.
Feet bare in worn-out shoes, trousers ragged and dirty, dressed in a thin shirt of blue cloth which covered him without protecting him from the bitter north wind that blew, a cheap cap pulled down over his eyes, an empty beggar’s bag on his back, and in his hand a gnarled stick which he supported his tottering only with great difficulty: his whole aspect inspired a distressing sadness.
He stopped sometimes, breathless, passed his hand over his damp and wrinkled forehead, sighed and set off again unsteadily.
Those who encountered him regarded him with compassion: “Poor old man!” they said, “to roam the roads at that age, to vagabond through the cold, if that is not a pity!”
Vagabond!… Yes, old Etienne was that, though not by choice, most certainly… He was not one of those who take to the roads for pleasure and who gain a strange and precarious support by tramping constantly, and looking for handouts, preferring the bread of charity and their fierce independence to the bread of labor, rudely gained by slogging away and by alienating a bit of their liberty to preserve their human dignity.
No, the old vagabond was not one of those. All his life he had worked hard and resolutely, producing much and hardly earning enough to feed himself and his wife—to look after the machine, as he said—and to feed the little ones.
Active, sober, inured to pain, stubbornly resistant to fatigue, Etienne had always fought against poverty, always wary lest hunger enter his household. But if the young ones had become big and healthy, sustained by the paternal love which neglected nothing in order to make them strong for the struggle for life – so hard and cruel to those who possess nothing! — the father had worn himself down for his children. He had given them his all: his present and his future; and choosing not to think of his own old age, had never been able to put aside the least bit of savings. To raise five children, to make adults of them is a severe task. The vital forces of the father was exhausted in accomplishing it; with old age, they had disappeared completely.
— In God’s name! thought Etienne, the blow of the hammer was no longer what it once was, and the work of fitting ached now!
In the workshop, some murmured about him: — It was, however, true that he no longer worked as he once had! He was well aware of that.
The bosses,—wealthy industrialists,—were solemn; the foremen, newcomers and young for the most part, bullied him, not understanding why this old man, who was no longer good for anything, was still kept at his workbench.
The masters, however, retained a shred of decency: Etienne had worked for them so long, the had seen him so often before the forge, his honest face set ablaze by the incandescent glow of the fire, or hardy, active, dauntless, multiplying himself, going in every direction at once, bravely adjusting a machine with all the ardor of a lover; then making it work, monitoring it, proudly contemplating his work, like a father with his child. Ah! The hammer lows rang out briskly and merrily then!…
He was fifty-six years old,—old already for a worker,—when, on the subject of a badly tightened nut, someone made bitter reproaches to him, and he was permanently dismissed.
Etienne did not complain:—“His bosses owed him nothing, after all,” he said sadly. “They had always paid him his wages promptly; it was not their fault is he was a worker and not a boss, is, during forty years of ceaseless labor, he had only be able to earn enough to let his family live poorly, while those they had enriched, had, from the profits of their industry, increased their wealth and today possessed factories, lands and manors. No, it was not the fault of the masters,” he thought, “if he had been born poor and must always remain so: money goes to money, like water in a river; capital generates income. Too bad for the unfortunate who has nothing! Such is society.”
And he, honest worker, after having labored his whole life, increased the fortune of his bosses and his country, aided in the development of the nation’s wealth and the well-being of all, he, poor wretch, had no right to anything at the end of his days; his masters and society did not concern themselves with him, had nothing to do for him, owed him nothing, nothing!… That did not concern them. And like the rind of a lemon from which all the juice has been pressed, old Etienne was cast into the street sans without anyone worrying about what would become of him!…
For some months more he stayed in the country which he had lived, loved and worked; as long as he had furniture to sell, old clothes to pawn, he did not leave the neighborhood of the factory, at the door of which he came to lurk, envying the younger comrades who could still labor.
And each day he became paler, sadder, and more tremulous.
And seeing this wizened old man who regarded them with an envious eye, the new [workers], the young, who did not know him, thought he was a beggar and offered him some pennies.
Old Etienne set them right:
— Me, he said, shaking, Me, beg! Never!
And he appeared no more at the door of the workshops, where he was yet greeted by the elders with a friendly air:
— Bonjour, old Etienne, how are you?
He decided to leave that country. His wife had been dead for some years; the married children had enough to feed their little ones, without taking care of the father, who, moreover, did not want to ask them for anything. “The old should not eat the portion of the young,” he said.
He left, then, at random. It mattered little where he went now!
And it was like that four or five years that he roamed the roads, having neither shelter for his age, nor fire to warm his thin and trembling hands, once so sturdy, which had accounted for so much labor!
He knew the pains, the disgraces, the hardships, and the humiliating hardships of vagabondage; going hither and yon, aimless, without fixed course, seeking his subsistence like the birds seek grain. Cast off, often rejected, inspiring mistrust with his shabby clothes, his shuffling step, his haggard eyes and his shaggy beard; sleeping in barns, in the grass, anywhere. Sometimes received some humanity from the municipalities, in the villages where he passed, a little bread and some straw to sleep on, in a shed open to all the winds, and happy even when he found such relief. Other times, he passed the night in the open air, stretching himself on the bare earth at the edge of the ditches, having only water to comfort him and roots for his only food. Oh! What a sad and abominable life that was!…
* * *
No one knew what had become of the poor man, he had never given news to anyone, his children least of all, so they would not be tormented.
To beg!… He must do it now, to eat, to tender to the fortunate the rude and calloused hand of a proletarian, accustomed to handling tools and not to being held out, soft and weak, to beg for charity! Ah! How may times, the red rising in his face, had he suddenly pulled back his timid hand, preferring to go without bread than to demand it.
Five year of that dreadful life had murdered in old Etienne all that remained to him of resilience and vitality.
And now, faltering, blanched, all bent over with fatigue, harassed and weary, exhausted by the struggle, he went jolting along, head bowed, without knowing where.
For four days he had not eaten, and was slowly dying, but his despondency was so great that he was not even hunger. His cheekbones protruding, his eyes bright and hollow, his skin wet with the sticky sweat with which long privations cover the bodies of paupers: his was indeed the look of those unfortunates who die of poverty and slow starvation.
He walked like one in a dream, hardly able to advance. He found himself unexpectedly before the doors of a great factory, worker’s hive, where the sounds of work and life rang out everywhere. The worker left hurriedly, their work-day ended.
Old Etienne looked on curiously; suddenly he started: he recognized several comrades, some old friends… But none of them recognize him: he had changed so much!…
Habit, instinct, and love of country had led the steps of the poor old man, before the workshop where he had worked for forty years of his life and from which he had been chased, because he was too old to produce!…
He hid himself in a corner so as to not be seen by his friends.
After the workers, a carriage left the factory at a gallop, pulled by two superb horses.
— Someone should clear the streets of these beggars, said a gentleman who road in the elegant coupé, angrily. It is insufferable to constantly meet them on the road!
The carriage passed rapidly and the old man sank, exhausted, on a stone by the door.
— The boss, he murmured, is always rich and happy, and me, I beg and I die of hunger!…
He bent his head sadly, teeth chattering, while chills shook his whole frame…
Little by little, he collapsed completely… From his tightened through issued only rattles of pain and croaks of agony…
The following day, at the opening of the factory, he was found dead, rigid and frozen at the door of the workshop where his life had passed.
Some comrades recognized him:
— But! It is old Etienne, they said, full of pity. Poor old man! To have worked so much, toiled so hard, and to die of hunger and cold like this! Good lord! If that does not break your heart!…
— It is too much, all the say, exclaimed other friends, that there is not a corner somewhere where the old workers could die in peace after slaving away all their dog’s life! Damn it! Damn!…
And the comrades entered the workshop sadly, strongly impressed by the tragic fate of old Etienne, — which could be theirs as well one day.