The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter I
THE NEW CARTHAGE
Monsieur William Dobouziez arranged the funeral of Jacques Paridael in a manner deserving the approbation of his set, and the admiration of modest folk. That he was doing things handsomely could not help but be the opinion of the crowd. He would not have done better for himself. A second class service, but, with the exception of the undertaker's assistants, who was sufficiently experienced to distinguish the slight shading of difference between the first class and the second? A plain chant mass, but no general absolution, for he felt it useless to prolong a ceremony so trying for those concerned and so tedious to the indifferent. So and so many yards of black mourning crape bordered with white, so and so many pounds of yellow wax candles. During his life the late Paridael, poor devil, had never hoped for such obsequies as these.
Forty-five years old, upright, but already becoming grey, nervous, dry and precise, the red ribbon in the buttonhole of his tightly fitting coat. Monsieur William Dobouziez walked behind little Laurent, his ward, the only child of the dead man, who was plunged in an acute and hysterical grief.
Since his father's death Laurent had not ceased crying. In church he was a pitiable sight. The doleful tolling of the great chimes and especially the abrupt jingling of the choir bell produced little convulsive tremors throughout his body. This obvious affliction exasperated his cousin William, a former officer in the army, thick skinned, an enemy to all exaggeration.
"Come, come, Laurent! For heaven's sake control yourself! Be sensible!… Stand up!… Sit down!… Come along, now!" he kept repeating in a whisper.
It was of no avail. Every minute the little boy compromised the irreproachable progress of the ceremony by his wailing and his trembling. And just when so great an honor was being paid his father!
Before the funeral procession began to leave the church Monsieur Dobouziez, being a man who thought of everything, gave his ward a twenty franc coin, one of five francs, and a twenty-sou piece. The first was for the collection plate, the other two for alms. But the child, decidedly as awkward as he looked, became confused in the division of his offerings and, contrary to custom, gave the gold piece to the representative of the poor, five francs to the churchwarden, and the twenty-sou piece to the priest.
At the cemetery he barely escaped falling into the grave when throwing the little clod of yellow, fetid earth which sank with so muffled and lugubrious a sound.
Finally, to the great relief of his guardian, he was put into the carriage, and the coach and two horses rapidly regained the home and factory of the Dobouziez', located in a suburb outside the fortifications.
At dinner the conversation was general, and the family, without lingering over the events of the morning, accorded only an awkward attention to Laurent, who was seated between his great-aunt and Monsieur Dobouziez. He addressed no word to Laurent excepting to exhort him to duty, good behaviour, and common sense, three words sufficiently abstract to a boy who had barely received his first communion.
His kindly great-aunt wished to sympathize more tenderly with the orphan's grief, but she feared being taxed with weakness by the master and mistress of the house, and doing him an ill turn with them. She even tried to staunch his tears through fear that his prolonged grief would seem ungrateful to the two people who, from that time forth, were to take the place of his father and mother. But, when one is but eleven years old, one lacks tact, and her whispered injunctions provoked only a recrudescence of tears.
Through the mist that veiled his eyes, Laurent, fearful and panting like a hunted bird, surreptitiously examined the group around the table.
Madame Dobouziez, his cousin Lydia, was enthroned directly across the table from her husband. A little woman, slightly bent, her skin was yellow, and shrivelled like that of a prune. Her hair was black and shiny and dressed in thick coils that hid her forehead and touched the thick, heavy eyebrows that shaded her eyes, black also, gelatinous and almost popping out of her head. Her face was singularly inexpressive in its masculine features, thin and colorless lips, and flattened nose beneath the nostrils of which a little down was perceptible. Her voice was harsh and guttural, bringing to mind the cry of a guinea hen. A heart cold and contracted rather than entirely absent; she had moments of kindness, but never of delicacy, and her soul was narrow and constricted.
William Dobouziez, brilliant captain of industry, had married her for her money. The dowry of this daughter of a retired Brussels hosier served, after he had resigned from the army, to build his factory and become the first stepping-stone toward a rapidly acquired fortune.
Laurent's eyes rested with more satisfaction and even with a certain pleasure upon Regina, or Gina, the only child of the Dobouziez', a few years older than himself, a slender, nervous brunette with expressive black eyes, a mass of curly hair, and a flawlessly oval face. The nostrils of her aquiline nose were sensitive, her mouth was roguish and wilful, her chin marked by a delicious dimple, and the soft rose of her coloring had the delicate, dull transparence of a cameo. Never before had Laurent seen so exquisite a little girl.
Nevertheless, he did not dare stare at her for very long, nor endure the fire of her malicious eyes. The turbulence of this spoiled and roguish child was tempered by a little of the solemnity and arrogance of cousin Dobouziez. And already something disdainful and inexpressibly bantering puckered her innocent lips and altered the tone of her candid laugh.
She dazzled Laurent, she impressed him as being a personage. And vaguely, he felt afraid of her. Especially since she had looked at him fixedly two or three times, accompanying her examination with a smile full of condescension and superiority.
Conscious herself of the favorable effect that she had produced upon him, she became even more restless and capricious than usual. She began to intrude upon the conversation, and toyed with her food, not knowing how to attract attention to herself. Her mother seemed unable to control her and, reluctant to scold her, since that would draw the minx's malice upon herself, she cast distressed glances at Dobouziez.
He resisted his wife's desperate appeal as long as he possibly could. Finally, he interfered. Gina yielded instantly, with an amusingly martyred air, to the kindly command of her father. In behalf of Gina the head of the family dispensed with his habitual rigidity. He controlled himself with a violent effort that he might not reply to the irritating sallies of his darling child; when he did finally call her to account, it was only in self-defence. And the unaccustomed sweetness of his tone and of his look recalled to Laurent the voice and the smile of Jacques Paridael. So much so that Lorki, for that was the name by which his dear absent father had called him, could hardly believe that the cousin Dobouziez who was remonstrating with his little Gina was the same rigid disciplinarian who, at the sad ceremony so shortly before, had commanded him to do this, and then that, to do so many things that he had not known which to do first. And in what a brief and peremptory tone those instructions had been uttered!
What matter; though his childish heart was breaking at the comparison, the Lorki of yesterday, the Laurent of to-day did not bear his little cousin a grudge for being the favorite. She was far too beautiful for that! But, had it been a question of some other child, a boy like himself, for example, the orphan would bitterly have resented this revelation of the extent of his loss; he would have experienced malice and hate as well as consternation and despair. It would have gone badly with the other child, for the injustice of his own lot would have made him rebellious.
But Gina seemed to him one of the radiant princesses or fairies of his nursery tales, and it seemed natural that God should be more clement toward beings of so superior an essence!
The little fairy could control herself no longer.
"Run along, children, and play," said her father, making a sign to Laurent to follow her.
Gina led him into the garden.
It was an enclosure as regularly laid out as a peasant's backyard, bounded by walls roughcast with lime upon which fruit trees were being trained. It was a kitchen-garden and orchard as well as a pleasure garden; as large as a park, it offered neither sloping lawns nor shady woods.
It boasted, however, a single curiosity, a turret built of red brick, its back to a little hill, at the foot of which stagnated a tiny sheet of water serving as an habitation for two pairs of ducks. Winding paths converged at the top of the hillock, from which one commanded a view of the pond and the garden. This bizarre structure was rather pompously known as "The Labyrinth."
Gina did the honors to Laurent. With the air of a busy guide she showed him everything of importance. She marched him along with her in a protecting manner.
"Lookout! Don't fall into the water …!"
"Mama doesn't allow anyone to pick the raspberries …!"
She laughed heartily at his awkwardness. When two or three hardly elegant phrases crept into their jargon, she reproved him. Laurent, who was little of a talker, became even more taciturn than usual. His timidity increased, and he felt disgusted with himself for appearing ridiculous to Gina.
That day Gina was wearing her school dress, grey trimmed with blue silk. She described to her companion, who never wearied of listening to her, all the peculiarities of the convent at Malines. She even regaled him with a few caricatures, imitating, with grimaces and gestures, several of the good sisters. The Reverend Mother squinted and Sister Veronica, who took care of the linens, spoke through her nose, and Sister Hubertine fell asleep and snored during the evening study hour.
The chapter of infirmities and defects of her teachers having put her in good humor, she took delight in embarrassing her companion.
"Is it true that your father was nothing but a clerk? Was there only one little door to your house? Why did you never come to see us? We are cousins, eh? Funny, isn't it? Paridael, that's a Flemish name, isn't it? You know Gaston and Anthanasius Saint-Fardier, the sons of my father's partner. Monsieur Saint-Fardier? They are two merry fellows. They ride horseback, and they don't wear caps. They're not at all like you. Papa told me you looked like a little peasant, with your red cheeks, your big teeth, and your hair pasted down flat. Who cut your hair that way? Yes, father is right, you look very much like the little peasants who assist the priest at the mass here!"
She set upon Laurent with implacable malice. Every word went straight to his heart. Blushing more than ever, he forced himself to laugh as he had at the portraits of the good sisters, and found nothing to say in reply.
He would have liked to prove to the little tease that one may wear a blouse puffed out like a bag, a coat both too long and too wide, made to last for two years, that clung to one's legs and made one look knock-kneed, a starched collar from which emerged a face as childish and blank as that of John the Baptist after his decapitation, a cap with grotesque lace trimming badly concealed by a mourning band, buttons of jet and velvet, useless buckles and cumbersome tassels, that one may, in short, be dressed like a peasant's son and yet not be more silly and ungainly than a Gaston or Athanasius Saint-Fardier!
His good nurse Siska was not a model tailor, but at least she knew how to make the most of the material. And then, too, Jacques Paridael had liked these clothes so well upon his little Laurent. On the day of his first communion the dear man had repeated, as he embraced him, "You are as handsome as a prince, my Lorki!"
And even now he was wearing that same holiday suit, just as it had been then, with the exception of the crape wound about his cap and replacing, upon his right arm, the glorious band of moire trimmed with silver.
The tease was suddenly seized with a good impulse. While running through the flower beds she picked a China-aster with poppy colored petals and golden heart.
"Here, Peasant," she cried, "put this flower in your buttonhole!"
She might call him Peasant all she wanted! He forgave her freely. This flower stuck in his black blouse was the first smile that illumined his grief. Even less able to put into words his joy than he had been able to express his bitterness of heart, he would, had he dared, have fallen upon his knees before the little girl and kissed her hand, as he had seen the plumed knights do in an old volume of the "Family Magazine" that he had read on Sunday afternoons in Winter, munching roasted chestnuts as he turned the pages.
But Regina skipped to the other end of the garden without waiting for Laurent to put his gratitude into words.
He felt a pang of remorse at having allowed himself to be so quickly tamed, and sullenly tore the gay flower from his blouse. But instead of throwing it away, he put it tenderly into his pocket. And, giving himself up to his loneliness, he began to think of his home. It was empty now, and had been placed upon the market. His dog, good old Lion, had been willingly abandoned to a neighbor who consented to relieve the house of death of its presence. Siska, having been paid off, had also left. Where was she now? Would he ever see her again? Lorki had not said farewell to her in the morning. He saw her face as he had seen it in church, far at the farther end, as swollen with tears as his own.
In leaving, he had had to pass her, urged on by Cousin William, when he would so greatly have loved to throw his arms about her neck. In the carriage, he had timidly hazarded a single question.
"Where are we going now. Cousin William?"
"To the factory, of course! Where did you think?" So they were not going to return to the house! The little boy had not insisted; he had not even asked permission to say farewell to his nurse. It was not because he had already become hard and proud. He was only timid, and out of his element. Cousin William would have snubbed him had he mentioned so inconspicuous a person as Siska…!
Tired of calling him, Gina decided to return to the dreamer. She took his arm.
"You must be deaf… Come, I want you to see the nectarines. They are Mamma's special fruit, and Felicité counts them each morning. There are twelve of them. Don't touch any!"
She did not notice that Laurent had removed the flower. The little girl's indifference enlivened the Peasant, though he would have preferred her to ask what had become of her present.
He tried to forget his grief, and allowed himself to be led about by Gina. They played boys' games. To please her, he tumbled about, yelled like a little savage, rolled on the grass and in the paths, soiling his good clothes, mottling his cheeks, wet with perspiration, tears and mud.
"Oh! What a funny sight!" cried the little girl.
She dipped the corner of her handkerchief in the pond and tried to clean Laurent's face, but she laughed too much, and succeeded only in making it even more dirty.
During this operation there came the squeaking of a shrill voice.
"Madamoiselle, Monsieur would like you to come in. The guests are leaving… And you, come here! Tomorrow you go back to school! You have had enough vacation as it is!"
But at the sight of young Paridael Felicité, the redoubtable Felicité, confidential servant to the family, cried out as though she had met the devil himself.
"Faugh! You nasty child!"
She had called for him at school the night before, and was to take him back again. Acrid, grumbling, crafty, flattering the pride of her masters by copying their faults, she had immediately divined the footing upon which the child was to be treated by the household. Cousin Lydia had shifted to this wretched servant the maintenance and supervision of the intruder.
The imprudent child had just provided Felicité with a magnificent debut in her rôle of guardian. The harpy took good care not to neglect this windfall. She gave free play to her amiable sentiments.
Gina, still shaking with laughter, abandoned her companion to the taunts and scolding of the servant, and entered the drawing-room at top speed, so anxious was she to describe the farce to her parents and their guests.
Laurent made a movement to rejoin the little rogue, but Felicité did not let him escape. She pushed him toward the stairs, giving him, as she did so, such a description of the dispositions of Monsieur and Madame Dobouziez toward little pigs like himself that, wholly terrified, he hastened to gain the garret in which he had been lodged, and hid himself beneath the sheets.
Felicité had pinched and cuffed him. He had been stoic, not uttering a sound, controlling himself as far as possible before the shrew.
The stormy ending of the day diverted his mind from his grief. Emotion, fatigue, and the open air produced a heavy sleep disturbed by dreams in which contradictory images blended in a fantastic sarabande. Armed with the faery ring, the radiantly laughing Gina conducted the dance, and alternately sacrificed him to and saved him from the dark plots of an old scorceress incarnated in Felicité. In the background the pale and sweet shades of his father and Siska, the dead and the absent, stretched their arms toward him. He threw himself toward them, but Monsieur Dobouziez with an ironic "Stop it, young rascal!" seized him in full flight. Bells were ringing. He was throwing the China-aster, Gina's gift, into the collection plate. The flower fell with a clink like that of a gold-piece, accompanied by the sprightly laugh of his little cousin, and the sound put to flight the mocking goblins and the pitying shades…
Such was the initiation of Laurent Paridael into his new family life…