Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C4

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Catbird Press -- Draft 3
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske


Third Draft - Chapter Four


Pierce came to Vidalon-le-Haut in 1783. He arrived at the ravine near dawn on a clear morning in mid-summer. It was cold down in the valley next to the river, even in July, but Pierce never minded cold. As he approached the gate of the mill to present himself, an old man in a Phrygian cap stood slowly from a stool and wrapped his coat more tightly around with one hand as he raised a lantern toward Pierce's face with the other. The cuffs of the old man's coat were frayed, and Pierce could see an ancient stain at the bottom of one of the patch pockets at his hip. A herald's bell fixed with a wooden handle rested on the ground by the stool, and Pierce hoped the old man was not going to shatter the quiet to announce him.

"I am Pierce," he said, "here at the pleasure of Monsieur Montgolfier."

"Yes." The man squinted at his face by the lantern light, then looked him up and down. "You are expected. Follow this path, and take the left fork to the rear entrance of the house. Don't you need a light?"

"Thank you, no."


The sky was beginning to turn pink above the ravine, but in the shadow of the bluff, the darkness was thick in the way Pierce preferred. He could see quite well without light, and he followed the old man's gesture toward the eclectic structure that housed the mill, its workers, and the Montgolfier family. An ancient farmhouse, it had apparently grown gables and annexes as they were needed over the years to house the hundred-odd families and the machinery they used to make fine paper from linen rags.

Pierce started up the path. The pebbles were sparse underfoot, and he thought the path overdue for new gravel. The mill was apparently not as prosperous as it should be. As the path approached the edge of a wide, gravel-paved roundabout for carriages, it forked. He took the fork that turned toward the back of the house, away from the roundabout and the unlit main entrance of the house, an portal of declining grandness. The path took him toward a servants' entrance with a dim light in the window next to the door, which was appropriate, he supposed, for a candidate for the position of secretary.

At this smaller door, Pierce presented his credentials to a servant who was much younger and better dressed than the old man at the gate. He wore knee breeches and a dark coat but no wig. His hair was fastened at the back of his head with a dark ribbon. The young man took the letter of introduction and told Pierce to wait by the light of a single candle on a rough bench in a sparsely furnished room obviously intended for tradesmen.

Pierce was pleased with the opportunity to sit quietly. He'd been traveling throughout the night, and although he rarely required rest, he wanted to reflect on why he'd come before he met with the mill master.

It was an idea that brought Pierce to Vidalon-le-haut, an idea best symbolized by an airborne sheep. The previous month, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, had constructed a vessel for sailing the air. They made an enormous bag of linen and paper and filled it with buoyant gases, then used it to send aloft a duck, a rooster, and a sheep. They called it a ballon dirigeable. When Pierce had heard of the event, he knew he had to meet the men responsible for it. He had always felt it possible to learn from human beings, and he knew he could learn a great deal from men whose ideas were grand enough to be loosed from the very Earth.

It wasn't that he wanted to take voyages in the air. He was quite confident there was no future in that. But he knew there was a powerful idea behind the ballon dirigeable, and he needed to be close to it. Pierce loved ideas. No, what he felt for them was more than love. It was a craving. He literally fed on ideas, and he was willing to travel great distances to find them and the people who produced them.

And, in his travels coming to this place, he learned that the Montgolfiers' ideas extended beyond airborne sheep. They were among the principal proponents of a new social order as well.

The Montgolfier mill provided clean, safe, orderly conditions for their workers, both work and residence. The Montgolfiers were generous with festivities and payment, and the mill provided work on a fixed schedule for those willing to submit to its discipline. That work could be disciplined and organized for the purpose of supporting an enterprise was a strange notion in 1783, and Pierce knew it had probably met opposition here in this provincial river valley.


The servant returned and told Pierce the Messieurs Montgolfier were ready to receive him. He led him by lamplight along a darkened hallway bounded on either side by idle millworks. They passed room after room of unattended pulping vats and empty drying racks until they reached what appeared to be workers' quarters. Here, they entered a hallway and walked past several closed doors beyond which Pierce could hear the murmured conversations of families preparing themselves for the day ahead. After two more such hallways, they arrived at a broad stairwell in the center of the house.

The servant made no apology for the darkness, but neither did Pierce require one. They ascended three flights by staircases that grew increasingly well-appointed and richly decorated as they neared the masters' floor. At the top of the final flight of stairs was a carpeted landing, and the young servant led Pierce down another hallway to a door, which he opened to reveal a man sitting at an enormous desk, writing by the light of a double-chimneyed oil lamp.

Pierce had never before seen a lamp of such design, but it did not surprise him to find a novel device on Montgolfier premises. Reflected lamplight glistened from a gold medal lying on the desk. It had an engraving of the ballon on it, and Pierce realized it was a royal commemoration of the flight of the sheep.

Etienne Montgolfier, a man in his late thirties with a look of pleasant intensity on his face, wore neither coat nor wig, and Pierce was pleased at the atmosphere of informality. The mill master stood as Pierce entered.

"Monsieur Pierce?"

"Good morning, Monsieur." Pierce bowed.

"I am Etienne Montgolfier. This is my brother, Joseph." He gestured toward the corner of the room, where a tall, fit-looking man in shirtsleeves was tinkering with some kind of mechanical wooden device. Pierce realized with a slight start the device was a simulacrum of a man. The likeness was indifferent, but the limbs appeared ingenious, with joints fashioned of pulleys and small cables. The torso was embellished with rococo carvings and above that was a head that appeared unnecessary to any purpose but decoration. It had a face painted on it, with an expression Pierce thought rather wistful.

Joseph Montgolfier looked up from his work and nodded.

"I shan't introduce you to Joseph's companion." Etienne laughed. "My brother, you see, is working on a way to replace a three-man vat crew."

Pierce laughed politely. He thought the goal of creating an artificial worker had a certain bizarre wisdom to it, but he could not understand why anyone would want to paint a face on the device. It was just the kind of sentimentality with which human beings so often undermined their best efforts.

Through the window behind the mill master, he could see the top of the ravine wall on the other side of the river. The sky was becoming pink as the sun struggled to spill dawn into the valley around the mill. The Montgolfier brothers appeared to have been awake and working for some time.

Etienne studied him by the light of the lamp. "You may sit."

Pierce sat in a chair on the other side of the desk.

Etienne sat as well. Pierce heard a scratching from the vicinity of Joseph. He turned and saw the man had put a small drawing board on his lap and was sketching on it with short, competent strokes of a pencil.

"This will take but a moment," said Etienne calmly.

Joseph finished and brought the sketch over to the desk, where he and Etienne pored over it, looking back at Pierce from time to time as if to check its accuracy. They then proceeded to take various measurements of it with a compass and a ruler.

Pierce had not expected to sit for a sketch. This meeting was turning out better than he could have hoped. This was obviously a place of many ideas.

"Appearance is the first sign of a man's suitability for employment," said Etienne at last. "An irregular physiognomy is often a record of dissolution or animosity."

Joseph returned to the automaton in the corner, and Etienne laid the sketch down on the desk. "I am quite skilled at determining men's ages from their appearance. I would say, Monsieur, that you are twenty-eight."

"Twenty-nine," Pierce corrected. He filed the number away in his mind---that he might remember it if it came up again. "Just last month," he added.

Etienne smiled, obviously pleased with himself.

Pierce was actually two hundred and seven that year, but he had learned at least a hundred years before not to be truthful with people about such matters.


"Well, then," said Etienne. "I have your endorsement from Monsieur Riffault, and it is impressive. He says he found your advice indispensable in the execution of his business affairs, and he particularly commended your dealings with the local journeymen's association."

"I spoke with the journeymen on Monsieur Riffault's behalf," said Pierce. "They saw the wisdom in accepting the high-speed loom." Pierce reflected that people often saw the wisdom of his intentions when he spoke with them.

"You mean the journeymen's association permitted new machinery and work procedures?"

"I believe that when a man is hired to work for a proprietor his loyalty belongs to the proprietor rather than his craft." Pierce would have elaborated, but Montgolfier had risen from the chair in his excitement and began to pace the room.

"Monsieur Pierce, I must tell you that journeymen are at once the bane and the basis of my life. This mill cannot make paper without them. Yet, as a class, their habits are so irregular and raucous that they keep the place in an uproar. They are itinerants. We have no way to ensure we will have the men to do the work to produce the paper for orders we have already taken. We are at their utter mercy."

Pierce now understood what had inspired the Montgolfier brothers to design wooden versions of their vat workers.

"Not only do these gadabouts disrupt the work, but they corrupt our apprentices with their habits. They are as enslaved to their traditions and their festivals as if they lived in the twelfth century rather than the eighteenth." Montgolfier walked to the tall window and stood in front of it, gazing upward toward the coming dawn. After a moment, he spoke to the glass.

"Two years ago, shortly after we brought in the Dutch machines to grind rags, I promulgated a house rule that the apprentices were forbidden to participate in the journeymen's rituals. I thought it protection for the younger workers from the dissolution and license practiced by these rascals." He turned from the window to face Pierce again. "Do you want to know what they did?"

Pierce nodded.

"They left the mill en masse."

Pierce shook his head in sympathetic disbelief.

"And when we hired new men, the journeymen set upon them outside our grounds and battered them. We were unable to staff the mill, and we failed to fill our orders that year."

Pierce suspected it must have been humiliating for the Montgolfiers to default on their orders, although he had no idea why people seemed so easily humiliated, or what it meant to feel that way.

"Inexcusable." Pierce could hear the distant sounds of work as the mill below them started to awaken.

Etienne turned to look out the window again and mused about his workers. "Nothing is more revolting than the tyrannical power that the worker exercises with respect to his master, nothing more debauched and insolent than this wretched bunch of rascals." [Quoted in The Workplace Before the Factory, edited by Thomas Max Safley, p.230]

He turned back to face Pierce and seemed to come to himself. "Our workers oppose the Dutch grinding machines. Many of them refuse to operate these machines. I fear some of them are even inclined to destroy them."

Pierce, of course, knew about sabotage. When Monsieur Riffault had ordered the first high-speed loom for his mill, it had broken during early trials, quite completely and rather mysteriously. Pierce inspected the machine and was amazed to determine it had been broken deliberately. Why would anyone desire to punish machinery? And yet, the idea of punishing machinery in the name of some sort of social justice was seductive in its power and simplicity. Pierce sought out the man who had destroyed the machine and spoke with him. The saboteur was prominent in the local journeymen's association. Pierce talked with him about work, machines, and ownership of property. Pierce was delighted to discover the sabotage idea was much more subtle and refined than he had supposed. The saboteur had created an entire philosophy around manufacturing machinery and its role in the destruction of human sensibilities. The man simultaneously reviled the social order and sought to preserve it from the encroachments of machinery. Pierce was captivated. He could not resist feeding on the man.


He drank in the man's idea in all its ambivalence and contradictions, and Pierce was so carried away that he fed until the man died. He had never done that before, because he had been given to understand that a single feeding resulting in death created a revenant. Nevertheless, the machinery was thereafter safe, the journeymen's association fell into disarray, and Pierce was sated for some months. Monsieur Riffault spoke at the man's funeral, and the mill closed for an afternoon to mourn.

Pierce's understanding proved to be correct, because the man returned to work several days later. The townspeople, of course, regarded this as a miracle. But the man's family and friends shunned him when he returned from the grave, saying his behavior was unusual, his appearance was strange, and he smelled bad. Pierce waited to see how the man's appearance would affect work at the mill. He reinstalled the man to his former responsibilities, hoping that being shunned would allow the revenant to concentrate more carefully on his work.

But this hope was misdirected. Over the course of three manufacturing seasons without incident of sabotage, Pierce noticed the mill's output was shrinking, almost imperceptibly. He investigated and found the mill no longer had only one revenant, but five.


Revenants, while tractable, proved far less enterprising than live people in mill work. It seemed clear that feeding on the workers had serious limitations for one who wishes to run a productive enterprise. Pierce realized that if he was going to feed on workers, he must avoid the temptation of depleting their lives and use them more gradually. In any case, Monsieur Riffault's mill was doomed to extinction, high-speed looms or no. A plague of revenants, once started, will not stop until it has exhausted itself in the local population.

Pierce understood that he would have to find a new method for dealing with workers. He wrote himself a letter of recommendation over the signature of Monsieur Riffault and left as soon as he could get away. He left in the night, and neglected to say good-bye to Monsieur Riffault who was, in any case, enduring a nocturnal visit from the mill's principal journeyman that evening.

"Monsieur Pierce," said Etienne, "would you be able to advise me on ways of persuading our journeymen to accept the Dutch grinding machines?"

The floor began to hum, and Pierce realized that several floors below them the great mill wheels that spun in the river had been engaged to the mill's machinery. The workday had begun.

"With all due respect, Monsieur." Pierce turned in the chair and gestured toward the mannequin that Joseph Montgolfier was working on. "I think such persuasion will ultimately prove a better course than replacing the workers with automatons."

Through the window behind the mill master, the sun's first scarlet rays emerged from over the ravine wall and poured into the room. Pierce looked down and saw the blood-colored light wash over his arm. It was going to be what people called a beautiful day. He looked up at Etienne Montgolfier, who was shrouded in shadow.

"Then let me ask you another question," said the mill master. "Are you prepared to begin work today?"

Pierce wondered if he would eventually be able to persuade the Montgolfiers to institute night hours for work at the mill. Sunlight never hurt him, but when one sees well in darkness and has no reason to fear it, one comes to prefer it.

"Yes, Monsieur," he said, "today would be excellent."


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