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The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter VIII

VIII

IN SOCIETY

Regina was to enter society. Six hundred invitations were sent out; two hundred more than had been issued for the last ball given by the governor of the province! In the city the only subject of conversation was the great event that was being prepared for. If Madame Van Belt met Madame Van Bilt, they broached the important question immediately after the usual salutations had been disposed of. They inquired what each other's daughters were going to wear. Madam Van Bal dreamed of eclipsing Madam Van Bol, and Madam Van Bul enjoyed talking it over with Madam Van Brul, her most intimate friend, who had, doubtless through an oversight, not been invited. Madam Van Brand, also omitted, pretended to have sent her regrets, although she had not received even the shadow of an invitation. But they were all partial to details, and when they could not obtain them from their friends, they tried to drag them by main force from the tradesmen. Florists, restaurateurs, confectioners; the Dobouziez' monopolized them and retained them all.

"They have them all," said the Saint-Fardiers. Other clients resigned all hope of being served. Even the highest in the social scale, if they were insistent, drew forth this reply. "Impossible, madame, for that day we have the ball at the Dobouziez'!" The caterer, Balduyn, entrusted with the arrangement of the buffet, prepared prodigies. All the chairs at the furniture stores and the caterers' had been requisitioned. But nothing equalled the rush at the dressmakers'. Even in Brussels they cut, fitted, sewed, hemmed, embroidered and ruffled yards of goods in preparation for the inauguration of the social season in Antwerp. What ill-humor, enervation, caprice and exigencies these dressmakers had to undergo because of their beautiful clients will be placed to their credit in paradise, and, while waiting, were paid for in thousand franc bills on this earth.

The hosts were no less excited than the guests. Felicité had never been so disagreeable. She exercised her tyrannical authority upon the reinforcements of servants and workmen to whom the preparations had been entrusted. Madam Dobouziez could not stay still for a moment; her increasing embonpoint grieved her; thanks to the confusion and the exercise, she would lose a few pounds. Gina and Cousin William were more reasonable. Together they had curbed the list of guests. Gina was radiant; the trouble everyone was taking on her account flattered her and exalted her still more in her own opinion; from time to time she deigned to be pleased.

This monster ball occupied the thoughts of the clerks in the factory, and even the workmen talked of it during their hour of respite, as they drank their cold coffee. These good people did not know exactly what was going to take place, but for some days there had been such a procession of vans, of boxes, cartons and cases before the delivery entrance that even the least lazy among them had been distracted from their work.

Happily, Laurent was away at college for there was no room for him in his garret!

Invitations had been sent to the three chief clerks, to the bookkeeper, the man of country revels, to the cashier and the correspondent. This flattered the whole body of penmen, and the office boy manifested pride in the favor extended to his superior officers. The three elect were to represent their colleagues. During business hours, when they knew that Dobouziez was at home, they discussed in a very serious manner points of etiquette, convention, and social usage. The three privileged men first consulted their comrades about the word of the letter that had to be sent to Monsieur and Madam Dobouziez. Was it to be addressed to Madame or Monsieur? Having settled that point, they had to agree upon other points of etiquette. Should they wear chamois gloves, or pearl gray kids? Should they or should they not perfume their handkerchiefs? The office boy, having spoken of patchouli as being a very aristocratic scent, raised such a hue and cry that he did not dare risk any further remarks. And afterwards? Did they have to pay a party-call? And if so, when?

"Oh! let 'afterwards' take care of itself. We shall see when the time comes!" said the bookkeeper, the lover of the fields, the man of the little fir wood.

It is the eve—it is the day—it is the evening of the ball. The floors are waxed, the chandeliers illumined, lackeys in full uniform take their posts. At nine o'clock a first carriage risks itself in the tortuous and badly paved street leading to the factory, then a second, and then a long line begins to form. It begins to look like a nocturnal Longchamps.

The vile, stagnant drain which, the cholera having passed away, the owners no longer thought of closing over, had never been bordered by such a cavalcade. In its perplexity, it forgot to poison the wintry air.

The gossips, their chubby babies in their arms, amused themselves by watching, from the doorsteps of their hovels, the procession of carriages, and tried vainly to look through their misty windows as they passed, and see the beautiful women lounging in their little rolling rooms. But the poor women saw nothing but the light of the lamps, the shining gleam of the harness, the flashing of curb chains, the cockade on the coachman's hat. The horses whinnied and sent their white breath out into the night. The little Madonna of the crossroads, reduced to the illumination of a single vacillating candle, seemed as poor and as humble as her devout people.

The factory did not abstain from labor, however. The night shift had taken the place of the day workers, and were busy feeding the furnaces, for the stuff must never be allowed to chill. Toil and sweat, O brave "prolos," while your masters are amusing themselves!

In getting out of their carriages under the porte-cochère, the muffled-up guests had, at the bottom of the vast back courtyard, a momentary vision of the factory walls, and could hear the drowsy but sleepless machines, and an odour of fat assailed their nostrils. But instantly the great glass doors opened upon the vestibule filled with flowers and plants, and the radiators sent forth a gust of warm, caressing air.

The three gentlemen from the office were the first to arrive. That afternoon they had hired, at joint expense, a coupé from the livery stable, although the factory was but fifteen minutes' walk from their lodgings. The office must be represented with dignity! They left their overcoats in the waiting room, greatly confused by the attention which the lackeys accorded them. It was even necessary for the footmen to insist before the three friends consented to accept their services.

Madame Dobouziez, who was finishing her toilette, hastened to come down to the reception room. A footman announced the trio and showed them into the room. The lady started to come forward and meet these too punctual guests, but, when they had presented themselves as three of the columns of the house of Dobouziez and Co., the welcoming smile with which Madame Dobouziez had greeted them began to visibly contract. She condescended to inquire about their health; they bowed and bowed again to express their satisfaction. They were delighted to see that their employer's wife had never enjoyed better health!

At this point of the conversation, Madame Dobouziez feigned the necessity of giving some orders, and, after apologising to them, left the room. She went upstairs to add a rose and some golden combs to her coiffure, which Regina had made decidedly too simple.

However, the crowd, the really distinguished guests, began to arrive. Madame Dobouziez repeated to satiety the three or four formulas of welcome consonant with the rank of their guests.

Among them was the Governor of the province, the Burgomaster of Antwerp and his wife, the Military Governor of the city and his wife, the Commander-in-Chief of the Province and his wife, the Presiding Justice of the Court of the First Instance and his wife, the Colonel of the Civic Guard and his wife, the superior grades of the army, but especially Monsieur du Million, Madame du Million, and the young du Millions of both sexes with German, French, and Flemish particles, or with no particles at all; there were also all the Vans of commerce, all the Vons from the banks, Janssens, Verbists, Meyers, Stevens, and Peeters in a body. Everybody was there who possessed a negotiable name, a name that could be discounted at the banks; wealthy picture dealers jostled with usurers, the upstart of today lounged next to the bankrupt of tomorrow. Each guest could have made good an income of twenty-five thousand francs, or a capital of two hundred thousand francs invested in business. A judicious and sagacious proportion. If the names announced by the footman resembled each other, the bonds of identity were even more obvious in the people themselves. The same black dress suits, the same white ties, the same opera hats. The same faces, too, for the similarity of their professions, the worship of money, gave them all a certain family resemblance. The brands of identical preoccupations made them all resemble each other, the apoplectic and the ascetic, the fat and the thin. There were gross, self-satisfied faces, imperturbable and solemn, more tightly closed than the strong-boxes of their possessors. There were uneasy, shrewd, mobile faces, bucket-shop faces, spying faces, the faces of choir boys who gorged upon the remains of the abundant hecatombs devoured by the high priests of Mercury. Long, narrow noses, winking eyes, shifty looks. These people were possessed with a badly repressed temptation to scratch their beards as they did when they thought out a business transaction or a good deal; sensual mouths, a vaguely sardonic grin, goose-footed, bald, wearing massive rings consistent with their short, stubby fingers and pontificial stomachs. Those who spent most of their time in their offices were the palest, others, travellers who were constantly moving about, retained the tan of the sea and the open air.

Despite their uniform clothing, they were distinguishable by certain habits: a young stock broker, embarrassed by his dangling arms, manipulated his dance card as he would his memorandum pad; a dealer in novelties searched his pockets for samples of sachet; the fingers of a manufacturer of worsteds were magnetically attracted to the upholstery of the chairs and portieres. Some of these wealthy people pushed their haughtiness and arrogance almost to the point of monomania. Old man Brullekens would never touch a piece of money, gold, silver, copper, unless as a preliminary it had been polished, scraped and cleaned in such a fashion that not the slightest bit of dirt adhered to it. A footman wore himself out every day polishing up his small change. By preference he desired 'freshly coined pieces, and collected bills newly come from the bank.

His neighbor, De Zater, never offered an ungloved hand to anyone, not even to his children, and if he were to inadventently pollute his aristocratic right hand by touching that of one of his acquaintances, he could not rest until he had washed it.

All were learned in the arcana of commerce, in the tricks and the legerdemain that made money pass from other people's hands into their own coffers, as if by virtue of the phenomenon of endosmose established by the physicists; all of them practised dupery and legal theft; all were experts in finesse, in composition under a strict law, in the art of evading the law itself. Rich, but insatiable, they wished to be even richer. The younger men, their heirs, already looked weary, care-ridden and prematurely old. They had the oldish foreheads of dejected men about town as much worn out by scheming as by dissipation. Although they were in society, they scrutinized and interrogated each other, their looks crossed swords as if it were necessary to play a careful game and "get" the other fellow. The practice of lying and of giving orders, the habit of deprecating and appraising everything, the instinct of craftiness and greed enveloped their persons with a feverish temperature. They could hardly refrain from being brusque even when people were polite to them. Their decorum was convulsive, their handshake seemed to feel the pulse of your fortune, and their fingers had soft and crafty flexions like those of a placid strangler who is about to twist the neck of a fat chicken. And in the very young, the greenhorns, and the fops, one felt the humiliation and the timidity of novices annoyed more because they had not yet begun to make money than because they could not spend it as they wished.

There was as much monotony and professional resemblance among the women. Only by the variety of plumage was the collective preoccupation masked and disguised. Fat mammas were stufifed into corsets far too tightly laced; bilious matrons seemed to have just broken a long fast, although the price of the cabochons illuminating their ear lobes was sufficient to feed fifty poor families for two years. As for the young girls, there were tall ones, thin ones, precocious ones; there were the unsophisticated, the elegant, the chubby, the blondes, the brunettes, the sentimental, the laughing, and the affected. They had delicate judgment but narrow sentiments. In order to eclipse their friends, these ladies would employ as much Machiavelism in their social relations as did their fathers, brothers and husbands in order to bankrupt their competitors. Their conversation? It was of the most gossipy banalities.

The salons now being filled with people, Regina, whom the dressmaker, the chambermaid, the hairdresser and Felicité had succeeded in dressing, made her entrance on her father's arm. Among all these graven personages, his associates and his equals. Monsieur Dobouziez looked the youngest and the most carefree, at least on this occasion, for his paternal pride had brightened his usually worried expression. Nevertheless, his excitement did not prevent him from strictly observing, as he passed from group to group introducing his daughter, the administrative and financial hierarchy of his guests.

Gina's appearance provoked a whispered murmur of approval. Laurent would have been more dazzled than ever before. She wore a gown of white net, strewn with tiny beads of silver; lilies-of-the-valley and forget-me-nots were on her shoulder-strap and in her hair. Her regular, classic beauty was enhanced by a graceful carriage; she created a harmony of gesture and contour that would have been the despair of any sculptor. Her great black eyes, her moist red lips, her profile, like an antique medallion graven upon an agate of faint rose, were framed by the wilful curls of her opulent hair, and crowned a figure of beautiful proportions and the exquisite modelling of her neck and shoulders.

The smart little pencils had finished marking up the satin surface of the dance-cards, and the beautiful girls were now showing each other their lists, murmuring, whispering, envying each other for having so many dances taken by the one man, consoling themselves in the fact that his name did not appear so frequently on their friends' cards.

The two brothers Saint-Fardier were very much in demand. They were on familiar terms with all the men, and they flirted with all the girls. But it was, however, the little Vanderlings who attracted them most. Nervous and excited, they had a stock of phrases which they kept repeating. "It is almost as good as the Count d'Hamberville's last affair," they were pleased to remark.

Monsieur Saint-Fardier, senior, ill at ease in his evening clothes, perorated and gesticulated as if he were setting upon the workmen in the factory. Angéle and Cora wore, with hoydenish ease, scandalous dresses designed by their mother, who, being the daughter of a wealthy cabinet-maker of the Faubourg Saint Antoine in Paris, professed a most aristocratic disdain for commercial and provincial society. She admired only Gaston and Athanasius Saint-Fardier de la Bellone, who at least had been educated in Paris, and as soon as they had seemed to select her daughters, she resolutely pushed Angéle and Cora upon them. Alluring, intoxicating, cleverly trained by the Parisienne—the nickname given to Madame Vanderling, a superior woman who was as crafty as a procuress—the two girls allowed their suitors no respite, and it seemed as if the game were hunting the hunters. Their father, the eminent Vanderling, a well-known figure in all important cases before the courts, abandoned to his wife the care of providing for their daughters, and, retiring to the little card room, was telling, between two games of bridge, the story of the crime of passion whose author he was to defend.

"Ah! an affair with an unquestionable relish. Just as if it came out of Byron's work. Lara or the Corsair in real life," he said, passing his hand over his apostolic beard with a gesture that he had copied from a veteran of the Parisian bar who had been exiled to Antwerp during the Second Empire.

Here, too, was Freddy Béjard, accompanied by his bosom friend, his shadow, his man-of-straw, so evil tongues whispered. Dupoissy was the planet that received light and heat only in the sunlight of Béjard's presence. Whatever he was he owed to the powerful shipowner. The business men were hard put to it to find out just what he was "in." Was he in—it is the consecrated expression—grain, coffee, or sugar? Eloi Dupoissy was "in" everything, and nothing. If he were left alone for two minutes, he would ask, with an uneasy air, where Béjard, his master, was. Being but a subaltern, he never refused to carry out any orders with which he was entrusted by the omnipotent ship-owner. He cherished a contempt for the people with whom Béjard did not agree, exaggerated Béjard's haughtiness, made his opinions his own. Mealy-mouthed, insinuating, sticky, when Dupoissy opened his mouth he resembled a music-loving carp striking the pitch before singing a song. Originally from Sedan, he passed himself off as a merchant of wholesale woolens. It was characteristic of him to speak of the little country in which he was living in the tone of indulgent protection so irritating in exiles from large nations. He felt as much at home as did Tartuffe with Orgon, took part in everything, discovered local glories, fulminated literary anathemas, and sent articles to the newspapers.

In France, the most centralized of countries, the draining of values toward Paris is formidable. Unhappily, in no other country than France is provincial life so narrow and insipid. And Dupoissy had exiled himself from one of these provinces in order to initiate the people of Antwerp into the life of the intellect, and to contribute his efforts to their moral renascence. Dupoissy possessed one defect which rendered his career as a well-known man about town very difficult. His breath was so malodorous that Madame Vanderling, the Parisienne, who treated the French provincial with the utmost contempt, complained that he had swallowed a dead rat.

He tried vainly to conquer this pestilential effluence by means of a strong dose of mint, cachous, and other remedies; the stench only dominated their faint aromas and became more formidable than ever.

Dupoissy did not dance, but while his patron was dancing with Mademoiselle Dobouziez he extolled the power of Terpischore, and with the sickly expression of an obese and elderly counter-jumper he entertained the crowd by recalling his youthful exploits. He remarked devotedly that Béjard and Regina were a beautiful couple; they evoked for him, among other allegories, Beauty giving wings to Genius. This and other poetic efforts made him both hungry and thirsty and he profited by the absence of his master to make frequent visits to the buffet and place an embargo upon all the food and drink that was being served.

The ball grew livelier and livelier. The three clerks, having been presented to some dowerless girls, daughters of functionaries to whom the Dobouziez' were obligated, conscientiously did their duty, and, since the girls were as pretty and far more amiable than the rich heiresses, the penmen considered themselves as happy as the Béjards, Saint-Fardiers and Dupoissys. Béjard's assiduous attention to Mademoiselle Dobouziez worried all the mothers, who either wanted the shipowner for their daughters or the daughter of the wealthy manufacturer for their sons.

But, and nobody could have foreseen such an occurence, the dancer especially honored by Mademoiselle Dobouziez at this memorable ball was the grain-dealer Theodore Bergmans, or Door den Berg, as he was familiarly called by his friends, that is to say, by the whole population.

Door Bergmans was an exception, in the breadth of his views and the loftiness of his spirit, to the selfish and tardigrade men with whom he came in contact. He was young, hardly twenty-five years old, and did not look his age. Vigorous and healthy, he had the stature of a mortal destined to command, and he was taller by a head than the tallest man in the assembled company. His thick, flaxen hair curled slightly above his high forehead, his kindly, penetrating eyes were set beneath arched eyebrows, the pupils of that blue-violet which becomes darker or lighter in the reflection of thought in the same way as does a sheet of water beneath the play of clouds. His nose was aquiline, his mouth small and hidden by a cavalier mustache, his beard was like those seen in portraits by Franz Hals. His voice, warm and vibrating, had that compelling tone which sways the minds of crowds from the very first words, one of those fatal voices that subjugate and inspire, so musical that the significance of the words is not immediately apparent. The son of a low-grade fish-dealer in the ruélle des Crabes, who sold more eels than he did herrings and fresh sea fish, the bromides and iodine and the odour of fish that saturated his father's underground shop doubtless contributed in endowing young Door with the healthy and appetizing complexion that is characteristic of most young fishermen. At the primary school, where his^ parents sent him upon the advice of customers who had been struck by the boy's intelligence and vivacity, his record for conduct was impossible, but he carried off all the prizes. Taken to the Flemish Theater, he developed a passion for the Flemish language, the only language of the poor. At fifteen he wrote a play which was produced at the Poesjenellekelder, a puppet show that had been established in the cellar of the old Halle-de-la-Viande', where all the children of the boatmen and mussel-merchants came to be amused. When he had left grammar school he did not pursue his studies, having learned enough to be able to perfect himself without the assistance of teachers. Forced into the paternal business, he attracted custom by his good humor, his fluent wit, his sharp mind. Among the lower middle classes there flourished formerly, and still flourish, "societies" of all sorts, political, musical, and so forth. Bergmans, who already exercised a tremendous influence among his friends, only had to present himself in one of these societies to be immediately elected president. From that moment politics called him, but politics of a broad nature, essentially inspired by the needs of the common people and especially adapted to the character, the customs and the condition of the land and of the race. He took the initiative in a great movement for a national revival, in which the youth of the country followed him. But his lofty ideals did not interfere with his material welfare. Fortune favored him. He pleased old Daelmans-Deynze, one of the old aristocrats of Antwerp, who loaned him capital with which to extend his business. Leaving his fishmongery, young Bergmans, after a profitable apprenticeship to his patron, launched himself into the world of big business, especially into the grain-market He became rich, but his fortune did not impair his popularity. He remained the idol of the people even though he was highly thought of by the bigwigs and met the proudest and most aristocratic people on an equal footing. He became the head of the democratic and nationalistic movement.

Without yet holding any office, he represented a much more actual power than that of the deputes or the ediles elected by a limited body of voters vaguely corrupted by foreign influences. He was, in brief, one of those men for whom his followers, even though they comprised the majority of the truly representative public of Antwerp, would have thrown themselves into the fire—a tribune of the people, a ruwaert. He was so upright, so lucid in his spirit, he possessed so much common-sense and so much kindliness of nature, that the most delicate people forgave his trivial faults, his braggadocio, his gasconades, his tendency to employ flashy, vulgar and trivial methods of speech.

This violent and often brutal tribune became, in society, a perfect conversationalist. He spoke French with a pronounced accent, drawling his words, and introducing a profusion of images and an unexpected color. He expressed his admiration for women in terms that were often a trifle frank, of which the bourgeois, weary of conventions and banalities, tasted the spicy flavour even while pretending to be shocked and finding fault. Bergmans had a rare barbarism and an always piquant license.

At the Dobouziez's ball he lived up to his flattering reputation of being a charmer and a heart-breaker. Quite naturally, he was very attentive to Gina. It was the first time he had met her. Beneath her proud beauty, which caressed his taste for fine lines, noble blood, well-modelled flesh, he divined a character more original and more interesting than those of the other heiresses. On her part Gina did not fail to save him one of her so greatly coveted dances. Bergmans' frank and pleasing expression, his inherent ease of manner, impressed this proud young girl who for the first time had met in him a young man worthy of her attention. Beyond the perfect fashion of their clothes, Gina had for a long time found nothing to appreciate in the Saint-Fardiers. Therefore she did not for a moment dream of disputing Angéle's and Cora's title to them. And as for Laurent Paridael, that thick-witted savage could, at the most, hope only for her patronage.

During the dance Mademoiselle Dobouziez engaged Bergmans in one of those spirited skirmishes in which she excelled; but this time she met her match, for the tribune parried her sallies with a skill equal to his courtesy. Several times he reluctantly returned a spirited retort, showing, in doing it, his great desire not to conquer his petulant antagonist. They were seen together several times during the course of the evening. Even while she was dancing with other men, Gina tried to join the groups in which Bergmans found himself, and enter the conversation. Her interest in him was not lacking in a little vexation with this son of the people, this revolutionist, this species of intruder who allowed himself to possess both better looks and more clever conversation than all the potentates of commerce. Instead of being thankful for the moderation with which he had defended himself against her epigrams, she was humiliated at having been spared, the more because from the first engagement she had recognized his superiority. Into each of his reluctant retorts the young man had put a reverent gallantry. Gina's sentiment toward him was indefinable. Admiration or vexation; which was it? Perhaps aversion, perhaps sympathy. At one time, knowing herself too weak, she called Béjard to her aid. He was recognized as one of the most convincing dialecticiants of his set. She gave Bergmans an opportunity to confute one of the beings whom he held responsible for the moral decay of the city.

The tribune was bitter. He stripped his foils of their buttons. Nevertheless he showed himself to be a man of the world, respected the neutrality of the salon in which he was being entertained, did not forget himself, and tried to merit the esteem of Regina.

Béjard, irritated by Bergmans' moderation, fenced maladroitly, and became almost uncouth. Neither of them touched apparently upon the matter nearest their hearts; but they measured each other, looked for each other's vulnerable spots, told each other in an indirect manner their animosities, their contrary instincts, their disagreements. Béjard was not fooled by his adversary's tact and conciliating spirit. They revealed to him a force, a character and a talent even more formidable than those which he had learned to know in the public meetings. Was the tribune also a politician? Béjard would not admit that this idol of the people, this fanatic nationalist found as much pleasure as the others were willing to think in frivolous meetings and in conversations in which so many things had to be said and done contrary to his convictions.

And Béjard likewise began to realize with what contempt and aversion Bergmans regarded people of his species. However, Bergmans' ironic good humor and ease of manner increased with the growing discomfiture of his opponent. Béjard ended by being totally eclipsed. Gina was annoyed by Bergmans' success; it was impertinent of him, a mere street-corner orator, to put to rout an oracle so greatly esteemed by Monsieur Dobouziez.

Several times during that winter, Gina and Bergmans met at various functions. She continued to pay him a little more attention than she did to the others. She treated him as a comrade, but nothing in her manner told him that she preferred him to the rest. And to the Vanderlings, who teased her about him, she answered: "Nonsense. He only amuses me!"

Nobody, after all, attached any importance to their friendship.

Bergmans, irresistibly attracted by Gina's charm, held himself violently in check in order not to tell her his feelings. The solidarity of caste and of interests, the community of sentiments and aspirations that he knew existed between Béjard and Gina's parents made him disconsolate.

Many times he had been on the point of proposing to her. In the meanwhile, Gina went about so much and with such an alarming ardor that Monsieur Dobouziez had to beg her to rest and take care of herself. She was the belle of the season, the most feted, the most flattered, the most intrepid.

Everywhere Bergmans and Gina treated each other with an assumed familiarity, trying to put each other upon the wrong scent with regard to their reserve and their intimate thoughts. And each bore a grudge to the other because of this paraded friendship and flirtation, under which a profound and tender sentiment was budding.

"I shall draw no inferences!" thought Door Bergmans, as little experienced as Hercules at the feet of Omphale. "She thinks me a little livelier playtoy than the others, and nothing else! Does she know how much she fascinates me? Why am I not richer, or she poor and born to another sphere? I would have proposed long ago!"

Regina suffered no less. She was forced to admit to herself that she loved this "anarchist," she, the well-born girl, the heiress of the Dobouziez'. She would never have dared speak to her father about such a preference.