Open main menu

VII

HEMIXEM

Happy Laurent! At the wharf, exulting in his new clothes, carrying his head high, he mixed with the guests with a confidence and an equality that he had never before felt. There were at least thirty people in the party. Ladies and girls in fresh, delicate summer gowns, gentlemen in elegant negligé, straw hat and white flannels. Not only was Laurent as well dressed as they, but even better dressed, and the Saint-Fardier boys, two prigs of eighteen and twenty, to whom Gina introduced him as a young savage reputed to be incorrigible, but in the process of being trained, looked askance, exchanging a smile of understanding with the young girl, which, at any other moment, would have quite taken the starch out of Laurent. That smile commented clearly upon the anomaly of his city clothes.

Athanasius and Gaston were inseparable, and always dressed alike, so that they looked like two fingers from the same hand, or two stalks of asparagus from the same box. Spare, pale, unhealthy looking, they made their weak tonsils a pretext for exaggerating the height of their collars and for periodically muffling up their throats.

The widow Saint-Fardier, their grandmother, mistress of a gouty and almost imbecile nobleman, had wheedled her lover so successfully that he had forced his daughter, a charming and affectionate girl, to contract a mesaillance with the son of his concubine. To the misconduct of the Pasha was attributed the moral affliction and the mysterious and incurable disease which caused the premature death of Madame Saint-Fardier. Athanasius and Gaston had inherited from their mother her agreeable features and a certain native distinction, but they were no more intelligent than the Baron de La Bellone, their grandfather, and the paternal immoralities had marked them with the stigmata that had obliterated the kings of France.

To Saint-Fardier, his pitiful offspring constituted a reproach, a living remorse. He had had a horror of them since he first saw them in their cradle, but his repugnance prevailed over his hatred, and he never dared to whip them. He kept them at a distance, confided them to the care of strangers, or left them to themselves, filled their pockets with money and sent them travelling, so that he might see as little of them as he possibly could. They ended by living their own life, as he lived his, by taking their meals and lodging outside the house, treating him simply as a banker, and even having business only with the cashier of the factory. It was not his fault that they had not become horrible scamps; that they came to be nothing but high livers infatuated with their own appearance, but not thoroughly rotten. In spite of their weak mentality, they could not forgive him for what they had vaguely heard of the death of their mother. The jockey-like pace of the Pasha made them blush. They avoided talking to him, frequented patrician society, looking to their mother's name as protection, and had themselves called Saint-Fardier de La Bellone.

Blasé and unsophisticated, young and already senile, their appearance recalled to Laurent his own when, one All Souls' day, Siska had made him up to look like an old man. But the young Saint-Fardiers did not claim his attention for very long.

A gong rang, the signal for departure. The gangplank had been drawn in, the engine was stretching its limbs, and everybody, having hurried to gtt on board, placed themselves as best they could on the front deck, which had been covered with an awning to protect the passengers from the indiscreet ardors of an August sun.

The weather favored the excursionists. Not a cloud appeared in a sky blue with the clear color of a turquoise.

The wide olive-yellow river had a holiday aspect. Toward the north, in the roadstead and in the basins, reposed the great ships of commerce, steamers and sailors, deserted by the bulk of their crews. The gangs of dockers were taking a day off. At most one boat would be loaded in time to get to sea by afternoon. There was no other movement on the river than that of the pleasure excursions; yawls, the yachts of amateurs and sportsmen rigged for a cruise, steamers offering trips at a reduced price to the principal riverside villages for the idle working people.

Entire societies, in holiday attire and accompanied by fanfares, embarked upon these little boats. A great, noisy, demonstrative gaiety, a pressing haste, a fever of excitement exhilarated the emancipated populace, a legion of accidental and inexperienced sailors. Families joked with each other on the shore about parcels that had been left in saloons. Choral societies sang in double quick time after the signal for departure had been given, and one or another boat, having unmoored, left the shore and tacked majestically before gaining the current in the middle of the river.

The yacht upon which the Dobouziez and their guests had embarked belonged to Béjard, a great ship-owner and wholesale merchant of the city. He had placed his elegant and spacious boat at the service of the Dobouziez's, and in exchange accepted their invitation to be one of the party.

The yacht weighed anchor, to the great joy of Laurent.

The Scheldt! With what emotion the boy saw it again! Another old and good friend of his father's day. How many times had they not walked, the two Paridaels, on the tree-planted quays, making a halt now and then in one of the little restaurants, so well frequented on Sunday afternoons that the doors were not wide enough to accommodate the crowd of patrons who entered through the windows, after climbing a little portable staircase set against the wall outside. There, if one could find a table, how nice it was to follow the movements of the strollers on the quay and the sails on the water! What a sweet freshness was in the air at twilight! How many years had gone by without his having seen his beloved river.

But it was the first time that Laurent had sailed upon it, and the new impressions allayed his regrets.

The yacht, after having turned about with the coquetry of a bird that tries its wings before taking flight, found the channel and stole away, under redoubled pressure of steam. The panorama of the great city became visible at first in all its length, and then betrayed the audacious and grandiose proportions of its monuments. It was as if the city appeared out of the earth. The trees on the quays shot forth their leafy tops, then the roofs of the houses appeared above the foliage; the piles of the churches, surging above the high houses, looked across the roofs of warehouses, markets, historic halls, higher and always higher, towers, donjons, campaniles, pointing, mounting, seeming to climb the sky, till the moment came when they all ceased, vanquished, breathless, except the glorious tower of the cathedral. That alone continued its ascension, leaving far behind the highest of the others. Again! Again! In its turn it abandons the attempt. It overhangs the city and towers above the country. The aerial and lacy belfry surpasses all its rivals, so high that one can now see nothing else. Antwerp is eclipsed by a bend in the river; the tower, like a proud lighthouse, marks the location of the powerful metropolis. And Laurent contemplated the tower of Notre Dame until it melted, slowly, into the far distance where the blue horizon paled.

Then the devout passenger began to look at the banks of the river; clayey polders, reddish brickyards among green dykes; white villas curtained by trees, whose vast lawns, descending gently to the banks, afforded a perspective from the river. But, more than all else, the Scheldt itself made an impression upon the boy. He filled his heart with it through his eyes, his nostrils, his ears, with the avidity of an exile on the eve of banishment; he drank in pictures that were to be the stuff of his dreams during so many to-morrows.

Leaning against the rail at the stern, he amused himself with the foamy back- wash of their wake, with a flock of sea gulls, battering down upon the water, calling each other with a harsh cry, with the bulging, heavily laden lighters which passed by the yacht, with sails that were like landmarks in the far reaches of the distance. Then Laurent awoke to his surroundings, to the bustle on the bridge, to the work being done by three or four stalwart looking sailors picked from among the most robust in Monsieur Béjard's crews—for, being the founder of a line of steamers running between Antwerp and Melbourne and Antwerp and Batavia, the owner of the yacht owned more serious craft than his plaything.

"Do you see that hull?" Béjard was asking Mademoiselle Dobouziez, not far from where Laurent was standing, pointing to the dockyards on the right bank. "Excuse me, mademoiselle; hull is the technical word for the skeleton of a boat under construction. That one IS the embryo which is to become a vessel of nine hundred tons, equipped in a fashion never before seen, the pearl of our merchant fleet. It will be called the Regina if, in a year's time, you will do us the honor of being its godmother." And he bowed politely.

"In one year! We shall have time to think it over. Monsieur Béjard. And do you not find me a little lean and young to hold a beau as corpulent as your boat over the baptismal fount? I who do not weigh as much as a small cask! For I had myself weighed the other day at the factory, like any keg of stearine. Suppose some misfortune were to befall my godson!"

"Oh!" said Béjard, with the laugh of one who plays a sure hand, "nothing ever happens to the Southern Cross boats. They are all born under a good star. Besides, they are insured!"

"That makes no difference," answered Gina, "I have the pride of a godmother, and all the insurance in the world would not make amends for my chagrin in knowing my great godson engulfed in the bottom of the sea, gone to the kingdom of the madrepores. I'm sorry; I give you back your hull." And laughing, she ran to join a neighboring group in which her friends, the Vanderlings, were chattering.

Hearing Gina's clear voice, Laurent turned toward the speakers. He regarded the proprietor of the yacht attentively.

Béjard had, in addition to the haughty manner common to the great merchants of Antwerp, a furtive expression in his eyes and a crafty manner of speech. Forty-five years old, of medium height, dry and gnarled, a yellowish, almost watery complexion, a hooked nose, long reddish beard and auburn hair brushed back from his forehead, thick lips, grey eyes, an arched forehead and distorted ears; such was the physical aspect of the man. In his manner and his features there was both the shrewdness of a musty Jew behind the counter in a sordid alley of Frankfort or Amsterdam, and the audacity of an adventurer who has skimmed the seas and traded in vague, distant lands. But this mixture of braggadocio and honeyed urbanity was irritating in its atrocious discordance. His expression was protean and desperate; his dull eyes gave the lie to a sharp word, or his crafty, cloying voice contradicted the malicious, hard gleam of his grey eyes. Withal, he was correct, well bred, a facile conversationalist, a prodigal host.

He was not well liked in society, but he was sought assiduously, people suspected him, but sought to propitiate him. Through his fortune, his activity, his address he had become an influence in the world of business, and now he was seeking to cut a figure in the world of politics and that of art and literature in Antwerp. He paraded the most complete tolerance, extolled broad ideas, claimed to be a free-trader and a utilitarian, swore by Cobden and Guizot, affected, during business hours, the manners of a Yankee, but, having left the atmosphere of commerce, he aped the etiquette and the bearing of a perfect "English gentleman."

His origin and that of his fortune was far from being commensurate with his actual prestige. Credible tales, strange and disquieting as legends, were told of him. With an utter detachment and perfect serenity he had just called Gina's attention to the Fulton dockyard. And nevertheless, the mere sight of that locality should have seared his heart, or at least shamed him into modesty, so bound up was it with some deplorable pages of his career.

Many years before, his father had been the director of that same dockyard when unheard of abuses and monstrous acts which had been committed there were brought to light.

Succumbing to a perverted imagination, rare enough among the common people, the workmen in the dockyard had amused themselves by martyrising their young apprentices, threatening them with even more atrocious tortures or with death itself, should they ever attempt to divulge these abominable practices. The victims, terrorized as the "fags" in English colleges used to be, could only succeed in escaping these tortures by paying over to their tormentors the greater part of their wages. Finally, however, the whole proceedings came to light.

The scandal was tremendous.

The band of torturers were lined up in court, and, as long as the trial lasted, a special detail of policemen and soldiers had difficulty in protecting them from the reprisals of the crowd, especially from the raging women, whose nails would have torn them to pieces. The court proceedings had revealed abominable mysteries; sham crucifixions, wholesale flagellations, drownings pushed almost to the last extremity, a veritable auto-da-fé. Children had been buried for hours up to their necks, others had been forced to eat revolting things, still others had been forced to fight with each other, though they cherished no animosity.

The verdict removed any suspicion of direct complicity with his underlings on the part of Monsieur Béjard, but his negligence was made manifest in a most crushing manner. The company having dismissed him from its employ, the public was not yet satisfied, and, confusing Béjard's father with the criminals who had been sentenced to hard labor, forced him to leave the city. One circumstance that had been established by all the testimony contributed to their ostracism. The disgraced director's son, then a schoolboy fifteen years old, had presided more than once at these spectacles, and, upon the oath of those concerned, took pleasure in them. Little more would have been necessary to make the public, in their great excitement, urge the imprisonment of the crafty sneak who had taken such good care not to denounce to his father the people responsible for these pleasures.

Twenty-five years later it was rumored that Béjard, junior, was coming back to his natal city. His father had become wealthy in Texas, and had left him important plantations of rice and sugar cane, cultivated by an army of blacks. On the eve of the Civil War, Freddy Béjard liquidated a part of his holdings and placed the proceeds in the principal European banks. He stayed in America for the beginning of the campaign less because of sympathy with the slavery party than to protect his remaining property. He was under fire as a prairie guerilla against the northerners. Finally, after peace had been declared, many times a millionaire in spite of his great losses, he returned to Antwerp, dreaming, perhaps of clearing his reputation from the blots and stains of the past.

This was what was known about Béjard and his antecedents, and he himself had avowed it, with an air of boasting, in his moments of good humor.

His ostentation and the magnificent enterprises through which he contributed to the superficial prosperity of his city, opened all doors to him, at least those of the business world, for the aristocracy and the higher patrician bourgeoisie held him in as shabby repute as did the common people.

If the flatterers of success, the admirers of "clever business men," the speculators bowed down before his millions, forgot and buried the past, the most essentially local classes, the stable population, the old families of Antwerp remembered former scandals and cherished an inveterate antipathy for Freddy Béjard.

Thus they had gone as far as to claim that, enraged by the victory of the North, whose abolition movement had cut into his fortune, he had, far from freeing his slaves at the conclusion of the war, sold them to a Spanish slave dealer in the Antilles, and that he had had to leave his adopted country in order to evade the law. Another version had it that, rather than obey the decree by which the slaves were freed, he had slaughtered his down to the very last one.

The business men treated all these stories as old women's tales invented by jealous people and by the political adversaries of the parvenu. Monsieur Dobouziez himself, without exhibiting a fondness for Béjard which it was not his habit to lavish, could not but admit that the enterprising and courageous shipowner was being held responsible for a fault, or, rather, an accident, that had been expiated with enough pain by his father. Saint-Fardier evinced for this daring chap Béjard the admiration of a connoiseur. He was ambitious to serve him as a ferocious and faithful retriever, for he approved of the bloodhounds with which the planters tracked down their fugitive slaves. At bottom he chafed under the scruples of the correct Dobouziez; his proper partner would have been Béjard.

Laurent had never seen Béjard before, and he was ignorant of his reputation. And, nevertheless, an unspeakable uneasiness took possession of him in that man's presence. He had a sad presentiment, his heart contracted, and when he had turned away from the shipowner to resume his contemplation of the landscape, the banks of the river seemed to exhale a fatidical sadness.

Just as the Fulton dockyard was about to disappear behind a band in the Scheldt, the complicated framework surrounding the hull took on the appearance of an enormous skeleton to which clung, here and there, strips of flesh and burned clothing. But this sinister illusion lasted for but a moment, and the charm of other parts of the landscape reassured the momentarily troubled spirit of Paridael.

After the illusion had passed, he attached no importance to it, but later he was destined to recall it when, with a redoubled horror, it occurred again in the most tragic moment of his life.

They had spared themselves the trouble of presenting Laurent to the proprietor of the yacht. Several times Béjard threw a keen and distrustful glance at the boy, who, embarrassed by his new clothes and staying by himself, was continually contemplating the Flemish scenery, too flat and too unpicturesque to be of interest to an habitual tourist. The shipowner himself inquired about the intruder, having made ready to stop the boat and land him.

"Let him be," said the elegant Saint-Fardier, laughing at his annoyance, "he's a poor young relation of the Dobouziez'. They are sending him away tomorrow, and no doubt that is why he is so taciturn."

"I understand," answered Béjard, not laying claim, by that exclamation, to understanding the orphan's feelings, but simply approving of the isolation in which he had been left. And reassured of the identity of this worthless person, he ceased worrying about him.

In the natural order of events, the little passenger in the stern would have held no claim to the attention of Croesus. But had he foreseen the decisive rôle which the scamp was to play in the future! The other passengers, informed about Laurent in equally indifferent terms, accorded him no more attention. He did not notice their disdain today. He rejoiced in being able to draw in, at his ease, the full raciness of his beloved land.

Cousin Lydia, wearing a gown of Nile green trimmed with ivy, and looking like a walking arbor, was exhausting her breath in schooling the host of servants who accompanied the society with baskets of provisions. Cousin William was conferring with Béjard, Saint-Fardier, and the eminent lawyer Vanderling. If these grave gentlemen honored the Scheldt by looking at it, it was only to discuss the profit that a group of capitalists were drawing from a manufactory of chemical matches or of guano that had been estabHshed upon its banks.

Regina, clothed in tea-rose muslin, her curly head topped by a large straw hat turned back à la Lamballe, was the center and the life of a group of young girls who amused themselves by making piquant remarks about a circle of young men in the midst of which were enthroned the Saint-Fardier brothers. The two little Vanderling girls, blonde, plump, loquacious and very alluring, had taken their eye.

The yacht glided up to the pier of Hemixem. Once landed, the program was accomplished without impediment. During their walk, the excursionists occupied themselves chiefly by ascertaining the names of the proprietors of the principal villas and estates. The young fellows guessed at the contents of the stables, and the young girls exclaimed over the beautiful white swans and red, red roses. And when the whole troupe stopped with some respect before a gilded grille at the foot of a lordly avenue at the end of which could be seen, across the lawns, a beautiful renaissance pavilion:

"Yes, it's very handsome," said Béjard, who, with his inseparable chum Dupoissy, had rejoined them, "It belongs to Baron de Waerlant, and it is very handsome. But it is mortgaged up to the hilt, and one can have the whole thing for fifty thousand francs above his debts, which amount to about a hundred thousand francs. So if you like it, buy it!"

"A just punishment for a do-nothing aristocrat, a libertine," added Dupoissy, in a nasal tone like that of the chanter of funeral offices.

These figures threw cold water upon the admiration of these well-bred people who one and all laid claim to a solid position. They hurried on their way, ashamed of their condescension toward this real estate, feeling a little as if the proprietor, reduced to the last ditch, was going to make his appearance from a grave and borrow money from them.

After an hour's walk under the blue cupola in which carolling larks were darting, through fields of aftermath exhaling perfume from every rick, all of them, without daring to say so, were beginning to have enough of the blue and green, of the little farms and the big estates whose owners they did not know. A halt was made in a little wood of fir trees, the only one in the district, a horrible little artificial grotto placed there by the proprietor, the Dobouziez' chief clerk, a fellow who understood "country pleasures" and "al-fresco breakfasts." They had skirted superb avenues of generously shady beeches and oaks, all beseeching them to halt. But they must needs have a wood, even though that wood were wretched and scraggly.

The ladies' parasols supplemented the miserly shade of the firs. The provisions were unpacked, and they ate cold food and drank warm drinks, the ingenious apparatus for freezing the champagne having refused to work, as such things usually do. Nevertheless, the luncheon was very gay, subjects for conversation not being lacking, thanks to the cursed apparatus and the heat. The bugs and caterpillars that fell into plates and upon the necks of the ladies gave Gaston and Athanasius Saint-Fardier an opportunity to remove them from Angéle and Cora Vanderling, near whom they had placed themselves, and whose coquetry held them fast.

A company of little peasants returning from high mass were regaining their hamlet at an accelerated pace. At first timid and defiant, they halted, and after having consulted together, red as the neck of a turkey-cock, they drew close, pushing each other, and the crowd filled the boys' pockets and the girls' aprons with the remains of the meat-patties, sandwiches, badly broken bones and carcasses of chicken, and, as they were about to leave, called them back to put the hardly opened bottles of wine under their arms.

This interlude diverted the walkers until they came to the estate of the Dobouziez'. Cousin William, a good walker, would have liked to take the longest road back to the dock. His guests wanted first to know whether it was shadier, and whether there was anything else to see but fields and trees.

But as, after searching his memory. Monsieur Dobouziez remembered no other curiosities than an abandoned distillery and the military depot of Saint Bernard, the majority wanted to retrace their way by the shortest path at the risk of stumbling upon the penniless baron.

Having reached the house, and while waiting for dinner, the ladies went upstairs to freshen up, and the gentlemen went off to look at the grounds.

At dinner, which was served in a fashion to satisfy folk who did not care for rustic gastronomy, all were unanimous in praising their luncheon in the woods, and the younger folk, whose craving for food had now been satisfied, feigned astonishment at their appetites. "It is true that the walk and the fresh air …"

They took coffee on the terrace. Béjard took Gina to the piano and begged her to sing. Laurent went down into the garden, allured by the delicious evening-tide, the breeze from the Scheldt, the perfume of the thickets, the sensuous and heady silence that teased the cry of the crickets and dulled the oblique, velvety flight of the bats, terrified by the unwonted presence of the masters of this deserted country place.

The voice of Gina, clear and pearled, reached him at the other end of the garden. She sang the waltz from Romeo et Juliette divinely; the interpretation was superior to the song. She gave it the sincerity that it lacked, she treated it with the cavalier spirit of a virtuouso. She parodied its sophistication by exaggerating the rhythm to such an extent that one could have danced to it. Laurent felt that Gina was showing herself to be too much the woman of that waltz, the woman of the void, of the vortex, of intoxication, of rarity, of velleity. Without having read Shakespeare, Laurent detested this tinkling music, thought its trilling out of place: this song, too gay, too laughing, became worse than an air of bravura, an air of bravado.

The listeners, Béjard and the Saint-Fardiers, applauded and called for more. Laurent tried to approach the beautiful singer to say farewell to her. The first morning train was to take him away. He had so many things to say to his cousin. He wanted to thank her for her kindness of the past week; to ask her to remember him from time to time. He could only stammer the simplest of goodbyes. She negligently gave him her finger tips, not turning toward him, continuing to skirmish with Béjard. Laurent was beginning to despair of attracting her attention and of obtaining a word with her, a word sweet to keep in memory, when she threw him with a coolness and a self-possession truly cruel a: "Goodnight, Laurent; be good and study hard!"

Monsieur Dobouziez could not have said it better.