This was especially so after inaction had put his extremities to sleep while the rest of him remained wide awake. After dawn we ran slowly to Charleroi, the center of the Belgian iron industry, in a sterile land of mines and smelters and slag-heaps, and bleak, bare, ore-stained hillsides.
Beyond that, upon our left front, looms Fosse Eight, still surmounted by its battered shaft-tower. Right ahead, peeping over a low ridge, is a church steeple, with a clock-face in it. That is our objective. Next moment we have deployed into extended order, and step out, to play our little part in the great Battle of the Slag-Heaps.
The villages of Waasmes, Paturages, and Frameries were in the midst of such a network of roads that the map could not possibly be clear. If the country had been flat, we might at least have found our way by landmarks. It was not. The roads wandered round great slag-heaps, lost themselves in little valleys, ran into pits and groups of buildings. Each one tried to be exactly like all its fellows.
Let the progress of industry make life noisy and ugly and anxious and unhappy: let it engross the great mass of mankind in tedious and uncongenial tasks and the remainder in the foolish and unsatisfying activities of luxurious living; let it defile the green earth with pits and factories and slag-heaps and the mean streets of those who toil at them, and dim the daylight with exhalations of monstrous vapour.
Walk the streets of London; everywhere you will see huge blocks of ready-made decoration, pilasters and porticoes, friezes and façades, hoisted on cranes to hang from ferro-concrete walls. Public buildings have become public laughing-stocks. They are as senseless as slag-heaps, and far less beautiful. Only where economy has banished the architect do we see masonry of any merit.
Framed in the bright light of the open doorway, it seemed to McMurdo that he had never seen a more beautiful picture; the more attractive for its contrast with the sordid and gloomy surroundings. A lovely violet growing upon one of those black slag-heaps of the mines would not have seemed more surprising.
Their route ran now among large, scattered boulders, and between stony, shingly hills. A narrow winding path curved in and out amongst the rocks. Behind them their view was cut off by similar hills, black and fantastic, like the slag-heaps at the shaft of a mine. A silence fell upon the little company, and even Sadie's bright face reflected the harshness of Nature.
And one and all are they damnable, for ever accursed . . . But the country behind ah! there's where the difference comes. You may have the dead flat of pastoral Flanders, the little woods, the plough, the dykes of Ypres and Boesinghe; you may have the slag-heaps and smoking chimneys of La Bassée and Loos; you may have the gently undulating country of Albert and the Somme.
You were conscious of some supreme administrative influence everywhere imposing itself. That influence was Ezra Brunt. And yet the man differed utterly from the thing he had created. His was one of those dark and passionate souls which smoulder in this harsh Midland district as slag-heaps smoulder on the pit-banks, revealing their strange fires only in the darkness.
We stopped at a station surrounded by the evidences of that tireless, unceasing, and tremendous manufacturing industry which distinguishes the Five Towns, and I was left alone in the compartment. The train rumbled on through a landscape of fiery furnaces, and burning slag-heaps, and foul canals reflecting great smoking chimneys, all steeped in the mild sunshine.