The blue southern sky was bedimmed by the dust rising from the haven; the burning sun looked dully down into the greenish sea as if through a thin grey veil. It could not reflect itself in the water, which indeed was cut up by the strokes of oars and the furrows made by steam-screws and the sharp keels of Turkish feluccas and other sailing vessels, ploughing up in every direction the crowded harbour in which the free billows of the sea were confined within fetters of granite and crushed beneath the huge weights gliding over their crests, though they beat against the sides of the ships, beat against the shore, beat themselves into raging foam—foam begrimed by all sorts of floating rubbish.
The sound of the anchor chains, the clang of the couplings of the trucks laden with heavy goods, the metallic wail of the iron plates falling on the stone flagging, the dull thud of timber, the droning of the carrier-wagons, the screaming of the sirens of the steamships, now piercingly keen, now sinking to a dull roar, the cries of the porters, sailors, and custom-house officers—all these sounds blended into the deafening symphony of the laborious day, and vibrating restlessly, remained stationary in the sky over the haven, as if fearing to mount higher and disappear. And there ascended from the earth, continually, fresh and ever fresh waves of sound—some dull and mysterious, and these vibrated sullenly all around, others clangorous and piercing which rent the dusty sultry air.
Granite, iron, the stone haven, the vessels and the people—everything is uttering in mighty tones a madly passionate hymn to Mercury. But the voices of the people, weak and overborne, are scarce audible therein. And the people themselves to whom all this hubbub is primarily due, are ridiculous and pitiful. Their little figures, dusty, strenuous, wriggling into and out of sight, bent double beneath the burden of heavy goods lying on their shoulders, beneath the burden of the labour of dragging these loads hither and thither in clouds of dust, in a sea of heat and racket—are so tiny and insignificant in comparison with the iron colossi surrounding them, in comparison with the loads of goods, the rumbling wagons, and all the other things which these same little creatures have made! Their own handiwork has subjugated and degraded them.
Standing by the quays, heavy giant steamships are now whistling, now hissing, now deeply snorting, and in every sound given forth by them there seems to be a note of ironical contempt for the grey, dusty little figures of the people crowding about on the decks, and filling the deep holds with the products of their slavish labour. Laughable even to tears are the long strings of dockyard men, dragging after them tens of thousands of pounds of bread and pitching them into the iron bellies of the vessels in order to earn a few pounds of that very same bread for their own stomachs—people, unfortunately, not made of iron and feeling the pangs of hunger. These hustled, sweated crowds, stupefied by weariness and by the racket and heat, and these powerful machines, made by these selfsame people, basking, sleek and unruffled, in the sunshine—machines which, in the first instance, are set in motion not by steam, but by the muscles and blood of their makers—in such a juxtaposition there was a whole epic of cold and cruel irony.
The din is overwhelming, the dust irritates the nostrils and blinds the eyes, the heat burns and exhausts the body, and everything around—the buildings, the people, the stone quays—seem to be on the stretch, full-ripe, ready to burst, ready to lose all patience and explode in some grandiose catastrophe, like a volcano, and thus one feels that one would be able to breathe more easily and freely in the refreshened air; one feels that then a stillness would reign upon the earth, and this dusty din, benumbing and irritating the nerves to the verge of melancholy mania, would vanish, and in the town, and on the sea, and in the sky, everything would be calm, clear, and glorious. But it only seems so. One fancies it must be so, because man has not yet wearied of hoping for better things, and the wish to feel himself free has not altogether died away within him.
Twelve measured and sonorous strokes of a bell resound. When the last brazen note has died away the wild music of labour has already diminished by at least a half. Another minute and it has passed into a dull involuntary murmur. The voices of men and the splashing of the sea have now become more audible. The dinner-hour has come.