Émile Zola: To what field of disaster would it be taken to kill men? what harvest of human lives would it reap?
From Labor (1901)
Translator not identified
The great forge was there, with its monstrous tools, its press with a power of two thousand tons, but all these were now quiet; even the smaller hammers were quiet, which in the dim light showed their dark, dumpy profiles, looking like barbarous gods. Here Luc found shells – shells that had that day been forged by the smallest of the steam-hammers, after coming out of the moulds in which they had been annealed. What also interested him greatly was an enormous naval cannon, nine teen feet in length, which was still warm, after having passed through the press where pieces of steel weighing 4400 pounds were pressed out like soft pastry; and the great cannon stood there chained, ready to be carried off and lifted by great cranes to the lathe-house, which was some way off beyond the hall of the Martin furnace and the building where steel was cast.
They were about to make small shells of one hundred and thirty pounds each. The ingot moulds, shaped like bottles, were standing in two rows. Then when the helpers had raked the scorise from the crucibles by means of an iron rod, which came out smoking, with little purple dribbles, the master-smelter seized the crucibles in the jaws of his great tongs, emptied two of them into each mould, and the metal, which ran first like a jet of white lava, cooled to pink, with small blue sparks as delicate as flowers. One might have thought that liqueurs were being decanted, liqueurs sparkling like gold, and, all was done without noise, with quick and certain motions, with simple beauty in the glare and heat of the fire, which made the whole hall seem a mighty brazier. Luc, who was not accustomed to the heat, felt stifled and could stay no longer. When he stood within four or five yards of the furnaces his face seemed to be scorched, a boiling sweat burst out upon his body. The shells had interested him, he looked at them as they cooled, and asked himself who were the men that they were destined to kill. Then he went into the next building and found himself in the hall of steam-hammers. There a cannon had been fixed upon a lathe to form the proper calibre for others. It was revolving with prodigious swiftness, and chips of steel were flying about under the sharp blade that itself was motionless; the chips looked like bits of silver. Nothing more would be needed than to bore the interior of this gun, to temper it, and to finish it, and where were the men it would kill when it should be fired? Luc, as he gazed on this heroic result of human labor, saw fire subdued and made serviceable to man – man who was king and conqueror among all the forces of nature – could not help seeing before him a vision of massacre, and all the red folly of a battle-field. He walked away and soon came to another lathe, upon which another cannon was revolving just like the one he had previously seen; but this one was already polished on the outside until it shone like new money. It was in charge of a young man hard ly more than a child, who was leaning attentively over the machinery, just as a watchmaker does over that of a watch. It revolved incessantly, with a slight noise, while the tool in the interior was boring it with such precision that the deviation was not the tenth part of a millimetre. And when this cannon should have been tempered – that is, should have been dropped from the top of the tower into a bath of petroleum, to what field of disaster would it be taken to kill men? what harvest of human lives would it reap? – forged out of that steel which men and brothers ought only to use to make ploughs and rails.