The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter IV
"THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON"
"Were I to live till the end of the world," the machinist, a former cavalryman, said to Laurent while he cleaned, polished and rubbed down the three hundred horsepower metal monster, "I should never forget that scene. Yes, sir! This jade here did a pretty piece of business that day! And instead of grooming it as I am doing now, I am often tempted to hack it into as many pieces as it made of my pal. And he hadn't even been drawn, that stoker of mine! And he was so robust, so healthy, that they called him the blond 'Curly.' Not a blemish on his body. There was a conscript for you whom the board of militia would not have discharged! He was so well built that one of those gentlemen from the Academy sculptured him in white marble, like the 'poses' in the park—idols, they say! Maybe that resemblance to the false gods brought him bad luck! It wouldn't have made any difference had he walked around naked like our first parents; nobody would have been shocked. Oh, well! It wasn't in ten, but in a hundred pieces that he was hacked by this machine. After the pieces had been gathered together with great trouble, it was necessary to shroud them, and I began with two other good chaps—I tell you it was necessary—by swallowing, one right after the other, five glasses of pure gin. We rolled that human chopped meat, like so much sausage meat into sausage casing, into a half dozen linen sheets reluctantly sacrificed by Mademoiselle Felicité. And six sheets were not enough, for the blood trickled through the last one!"
While this tale, so evocative in its barbaric candor, was distressing young Laurent, he heard his name called by a great voice which was trying to make itself small.
"Hey, Master Laurent!… Master Lorki!"
Lorki! He had not been called that since leaving his father's house. He turned swiftly, in agony, expecting to see a ghost rise before him. And what was his joy in recognizing a stocky, bronzed fellow with twinkling eyes and a great curly beard.
"Vincent!" he cried, pale with emotion. "You, here!"
"At your service. Master Lorki. But sit down. My word! One would say I'd scared you. I'm foreman of the packing-room; you know, the women's workshop …"
This packing-room was the only part of the factory into which Laurent had not yet adventured. These low women, more brazen, more roystering, less patient than their companions, had never ceased frightening him. From his bed, at night, Laurent had often heard the clock strike the hour of deliverance. The women were released fifteen minutes before the men. Directly there arose, from the carters' door, the stamping, the galloping, the uproar of the unbridled fillies. Outside, however, they dawdled, dragging their feet. The clock struck once more. The men, in turn, packed up, more heavily, joking with each other in less sharp voices. And in a few moments there arose from the end of the street the confused clamor of badly treated women and their surly swains. It made Laurent's flesh creep.
"The devils, they're hurting them!"
The innocent boy did not yet understand the oaths, the jerky laughs that became shrill shrieks. The uproar turned the corner of the street, lost itself at the bottom of blind alleys, dispersed, little by little, in the windings of the courts, until the district again fell into dismal and secret silence, a party to the gloom, auspicious for lurking and pairing off in the glutted, wanton night around the Stone Mill.
The next day, those who had yelped and clamored in a heart-rending fashion appeared sprightly, alert, even more full of pranks than before; and in the halls on the ground floor the men, vainglorious and pleased with themselves, jostled each other with an air of connivance, winking to each other, avidly gabbling.
To what mysterious conquests were they alluding, these truculent fellows?
"What! You don't know the packing-room?" cried Vincent Tilbak. "It's the most curious corner of the factory. You must see my crew! Regular bees, they are!"
Tilbak was a sailor, and from the same district as Siska.
Formerly, after a long voyage, having hardly disembarked, he would make for the house of the Paridaels. His clothing of coarse blue cloth exhaled tar, seaweed, brome, the salt water, and all the fragrance of the open, and from his being emanated a perfume no less virile and loyal. To assure himself of a welcome, his pockets were always full of curiosities from the ocean and the antipodes; carnation-colored shells, scented fruit for Laurent, and for Siska some material from the far East, a Japanese jewel, a cannibal's amulet. Tilbak told of his adventures, and so great was the pleasure that Laurent derived from these tales that when the teller had exhausted his repertoire of true ones, he had to draw upon his imagination. And woe to him should he decide to abridge them, or alter a single detail! Laurent did not permit any variants, and implacably recalled the primitive version. Happily for the willing rhapsodist, the little tyrant, in spite of his vigilance and his curiosity, would fall asleep. Siska would then put him to bed in a little room next to the master's. And then the two friends, relieved of their beloved though occasionally annoying witness, could talk of other things than shipwrecks, whales, white bears and cannibals.
One time when they thought he was fast asleep, before Siska had taken him upstairs, Laurent half woke up at the sound of a sonorous kiss immediately followed by a slap no less generously administered. The kiss was Vincent's work, the blow, Siska's. Good old Vincent! Laurent inter f erred in the quarrel and reconciled the two friends before going back to sleep for good. At other times Siska wickedly chided the good-natured fellow on account of his acrid tobacco, which made her cough, she said, and which smelled up the whole house. One should have seen the contrite and appealing face, at once radiant and abashed, of this "tar-coat," as Siska called him.
And it was this Vincent, this bewitching Vincent, whose cap and loosely hanging oilskins, whose large turned-down collar and high boots dazzled him to the point of making him wish to become a cabin-boy, that young Paridael saw again this morning, in the prosaic costume of a landlubber, in the stifling factory of Cousin Dobouziez! How did that happen?
In spite of his passion for the "big pond" and for dangerous but ennobling adventures which banished from him all vile and narrow thoughts, Tilbak had resigned himself, for love of Siska, to doff his tarry brogues, his blue cotton jersey, his oilskin sou'wester, and to set foot upon dry land. The friends had married. From their savings they bought a little food-shop for sailors in the sailors' quarter. Siska ran the shop, and Vincent had just taken the position of foreman with Monsieur Doubouziez, having been recommended by his former captain, who had become very fond of his brave topman.
"And Siska?" young Paridael kept asking.
"Prettier than ever. Master Lorki—Master Laurent, I should say, for you are a man now … How happy she would be to see you! No day goes by that she does not talk about you to me. During the three weeks that I have shipped here, she has asked me at least a thousand times whether I hadn't seen you, whether I didn't know what had become of you, how her Lorki looked, for, by your leave, she continues to call you by the name you were called by when your late dear father was alive. But, confound it, I did not know who would give me any information. These bourgeois here—excuse my frankness—have something about them that takes away any desire to talk to them. Really, he isn't a very comfortable person, that Captain Doubouziez! And the other! A regular old field marshal! But here you are, anyhow, so tell me quickly what to say to Siska! And when will you come to see us?"
And the good fellow, always square, always frank, always open hearted as he had been in other days, a little more bearded, a trifle less burnt, his ears still pierced by silver rings, thought it was his duty to tell young Paridael how well he looked, although the boy no longer had his former bright and carefree air. But at that minute the boy's joy at seeing Vincent again was so great that a transient gleam dissipated the shadows of his prematurely thoughtful expression.
"I never go out alone," he answered, sighing deeply. "My cousin thinks it wasted time, and that visits would distract my attention from my studies. Studies! That's all my cousin ever thinks about!"
"True! Well, it's a pity," said Vincent, a little disappointed. "But it's for your own good. Siska will understand that! And you will become a great scholar and do us all proud, eh. Master Lorki?"
What would he not have given to seize the sailor and charge him with kisses for Siska! But within the walls of that malevolent factory, so near the room in which his majestic cousin sat enthroned, not far from the place haunted by the terrible Felicité and the mocking Gina, the schoolboy felt ill at ease, hampered, constrained, and so did not give expression to his emotion. And he felt a little remorseful at the thought that he had not once inquired for his faithful Siska since the day of his father's funeral.
Vincent divined the boy's embarrassment. At Laurent's age feelings are not easily disguised, and Vincent easily read the boy's pain in his serious expression, his husky voice, and especially in the fervent looks that lingered upon this dear inhabitant of his father's house. And as tears threatened to veil Laurent's big homesick eyes:
"Come, come, Master Lorki!" he said, grasping the boy's hands in his and pressing them warmly. "None of that, now, by my quid! Shh! Hush! We're not setting sail yet! At least you can join me on the bridge of the schooner! I'll wait for you. Now I'm going to heave anchor, for I hear the voice of old Cat o' Nine Tails, otherwise called The Pasha. To your posts, all of you!"
The packing-room, a huge hall around the sides of which ran a platform, was situated on the first floor of the main building, and accommodated three hundred workwomen, for the most part fresh, plump, turbulent girls, brazen, full blooded, with laughing, sensual mouths, intrepid eyes, possessing the gift of gab. They were uniformly and cleanly garbed in blue skirts and cottonette jackets, their hair tightly twisted into a knot at the back and held together under little, white frilled caps, the strings of which fell down their backs. Employed in putting the finishing touches to the candles as they came out of the mould, in polishing and packing them, some plying the roller, others the wick-cutter, they bustled about the three rows of tables and polishing machines, and the candles passed from one machine to the next, approaching, with each manipulation, the type destined to garnish candelabra and girandoles. Since it was very hot working above the steam propelled machines, and since they worked with a great deal of spirit, many of them, in order to be more comfortable, opened their waists and uncovered their throats, braving the reproofs administered by Tilbak reluctantly, and, to borrow his own picturesque phrase, only when the girls had reefed their last sails. They and their machines were reflected in the floor, constantly waxed by stearine waste, and as slippery as the floors of "The Pelican" or "The Mirror," their favorite dance halls. In the evening, the light of many lamps enlivened this multiplied reflection, and added to the noise of many voices and the grinding of the machines, blinded and deafened Laurent each time that he had come to the door of the room. What troubled him most was the sight of all these pretty girls facing him as they stood at their benches. Very abashed and very clumsy, he passed between the long lines of benches and, stepping gingerly to avoid slipping on the glassy floor, he gained the end of the room where Vincent Tilback sat enthroned in a species of pulpit that he termed his "poop."
There, under the protection of his friend, Laurent soon regained his self-possession. He suffered the inquisition of those many dark and brilliant eyes, responded to the smiles upon those shining faces, and gathered his courage sufficiently to approach the polishers and follow the movement of rosy hands as smooth as the stearine itself.
One day Tilbak asked him if he still cared as much for stories as he used to. "Oh! more than ever," exclaimed Laurent. The sailor took from beneath his coat two volumes that had been tightly pressed to his breast, and gave them to the young schoolboy.
"Accept these books as a remembrance from Siska and Vincent," said the good fellow. They were "The Swiss Family Robinson." "I inherited them from a helmsman who died of yellow fever in the Antilles. I do not know how to read, Master Lorki; when I was nine years old I took care of the cows with Siska, and I was a cabin-boy at twelve."
Laurent did not foresee the consequences of receiving this gift. Felicité soon discovered the two poor volumes so well hidden at the bottom of his trunk. He had not yet read them through. Outrageously spoiled, these two contraband old books exhaled that odor of the hold and of stale tobacco which obstinately impregnates the belongings of sea-folk, and as suspicious as an excise-man, Felicité doubted greatly that they could have come from the library, hermetically shut since last vacation. The untidy people and the air of adventure in "The Swiss Family Robinson" likewise contributed to excite the horror and indignation of Felicité. Souls of her species become harder and haughtier in proportion as they wish to impress humble folk with their importance. She began a genuine magisterial hearing. Laurent submitted to question after question, and, since he was firm in his refusal to name the donor of the books, she took them to Cousin Dobouziez. Called before his guardian, Laurent refused to answer his summons. He was deprived of dessert, put upon a diet of bread and water, locked in a dark room, but they forced not one more word from him. Denounce Tilbak! He would rather have been crushed to his last fiber by the man-killing machine! While waiting to share the lot of the blond "Curly," he commenced by braving old Cat o' Nine Tails, whom Dobouziez, who had exhausted all his methods of intimidation, had decided to call to the rescue.
The Pasha had stripped the boy with the truculence of a flagellant friar, and held the boy's head between his knees. Laurent did not deign to make the slightest plea for mercy. Already the executioner began to raise his cane to thrash the rebel, when Dobouziez, overcome by some scruple or shocked by a spectacle more worthy of a convict gang than a respectable place of business, stopped his partner's hand.
"I have just found a method of breaking your pigheaded will," he declared to Laurent, whom Felicité had come to remove to his cell. "Tomorrow you will leave for Saint Hubert, where parents lock up rascals like you with young thieves!"
Laurent told himself that, prison for prison, any one would be satisfactory that did not have Felicité for its jailor.
However, Tilbak, worried because he no longer saw his young friend, that very day asked the servants, and having been told what had happened, he immediately asked to see Monsieur Dobouziez about an urgent matter.
Sitting at his desk, his back turned to the door, the manufacturer, who had just condemned his ward, had recovered his habitual calm and was working with his usual lucidity of spirit. Tilbak presented himself, hat in hand, and took off his great boots in deference to the rich Tournal carpet. Dobouziez barely turned his head, and without raising his eyes from the diagram stretched before him called:
"Come here! What do you want of me?"
"Excuse me, sir, but it was I who gave Master Laurent the books which made you so angry with him …"
"Oh! It was yon, was it?" was all that Dobouziez said, and he pressed the electric button on his desk.
"Please ask Mademoiselle Felicité for the objects forfeited by Monsieur Paridael," he ordered the office boy who had run from the next room.
The circumstantial evidence having been brought to him, the manufacturer rose with a bored air, considered a moment, with disgust, the poor old books, as if they represented to him a jelly fish or some other slimy and gelatinous inhabitant of the waves, and, having no forceps with which to touch them, made a sign to Tilbak to remove his property.
"Hereafter you will spare yourself the trouble of putting such rubbish in the hands of my ward."
"Certainly, sir. And be sure that had I foreseen the trouble which these old books caused the dear boy, I should have been careful not to give them to him. Forgive him, I beg you. It wasn't his fault. I am the guilty party …"
Monsieur Dobouziez, visibly annoyed by this intercession, turned his back upon the pleader, seated himself, and methodically filling the space between the two branches of his compass with Chinese ink, settled himself to continue his diagram.
"Listen to me, boss," insisted Tilbak, after having coughed to attract the magnate's attention, "your ward is not a rascal. They are deceiving you about him … My wife knows him better, you know. She can tell you what he's worth! Are you serious about locking him up with thieves? Captain, I appeal to your honor, to your feelings as a former soldier. It is impossible foe you to condemn that child because he refused to be a Judas!… Yes—a Judas!"
At this heated defiance. Monsieur Dobouziez jumped, half rose from his chair, and more white than usual, stretched his arm toward the door with so peremptory a gesture, and cast so bitter a look at Tilbak, that the latter, fearing to do an ill office to Paridael by insisting, decided to draw on his boots, and to walk out, holding his hand to his hat.
Did the mediation of Tilbak cause the wise Dobouziez to reflect? Or did the moderate man fear the effect that such an extremely rigorous act would have upon public opinion? Laurent escaped the prison of Saint Hubert. Only, to the numerous interdictions which weighed down upon him, his guardian added one forbidding him entrance to the factory and converse with the workmen.
"As if he were not ill-bred and common enough without that," added Felicité, charged with keeping a tighter rein than ever upon the unnatural child. "Beware, Peasant, if I catch you rooting about the workroom!" said Saint-Fardier, accompanying this menace with a twirl of his cane.
As if Laurent would have recoiled before the dangers of a whipping! He tried more than once to violate the interdiction, and to see Tilbak, to thank him and convey to him his faithful affection, but they had not forgotten the key in the door connecting the garden with the factory, and the date of his return to school came before he had found the chance to climb the wall in order to visit the foreman.
In the following vacation, Felicité told Laurent, in the guise of welcome news, that his sailor had not remained in the factory for long after the affair of "The Swiss Family Robinson." Particularly designated for the ill-humor and meddling ways of Saint-Fardier, the much-enduring and very stoic man had finally replied in kind, and the satrap, who was seeking only a single pretext for getting rid of him, did not allow the occasion to slip by.
All broken up by this news, Laurent sought Gina, counting upon interesting her in the fate of Tilbak and his family, for the poor folk had children.
During the drama which ended with the discharge of the foreman, Gina had affected a supreme indifference to what was occurring. Far from seeking to excuse the so-called fault of Vincent Tilbak, she had not even interceded in Laurent's favor. On the contrary, as soon as she heard of her cousin's relations with "common people," she outdid her former coldness and disdain, ceasing even to speak to him of the scandal that was turning the house upside down. During the boy's quarantine, for Tilbak and his book had given the boy the pestilence, the proud little lady had not once asked for him. And when he was put back into circulation she hardly deigned to recognize him.
And in despite of this, Laurent retained illusions concerning his cousin's character. He imputed her dryness and her lack of feeling to her education. How could she be interested in the working classes, people whose existence she scarcely suspected? She never came in contact with them, and she heard them spoken of by her parents as a fourth kingdom of nature, a tool, an animated mineral less interesting than plants, and more dangerous than animals.
He found Gina alone in the dining room, watering the hyacinths that flourished in the window-boxes. Emboldened by his affection for Vincent, Laurent came up to her and began without preamble:
"Gina, Cousin Gina, ask your father to reinstate Vincent Tilbak …"
"—Vincent," she answered, continuing to tend to her aristocratic flowers, "I do not know Vincent Tilbak …"
"The foreman of the packing room, whom Monsieur Saint-Fardier discharged …"
"Ah! Now I know whom you mean. 'The Swiss Family Robinson!' The man who made us all angry with you! Are you not ashamed to speak again of that pretty mess? I certainly shall be careful not to mention his name to my father!"
And, with a scandalized grimace, Gina passed into the other room, humming a popular song. Laurent remained stupefied, mechanically looking at the hyacinths, pretty and crisp, of which Gina was so careful. For an instant he nourished a desire to ravage these flowers, persuaded for the moment that he had taken an eternal dislike to his inhuman little cousin.