The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter X
A year slipped by. Young Paridael was able to come home for a few weeks. Dobouziez put him through an examination which showed conclusively that he had put all his energy into "grinding" harder than ever at subjects which his guardian thought unimportant, or that he studied them from a point of view totally opposed to that of his guardian. Thus, instead of learning from the modern languages the things necessary to a good business correspondent, he had crammed his head with literary nonsense.
"As if there were not enough silly stories in French!" protested Monsieur Dobouziez.
Laurent had become a tall, ruddy youth with straight hair and the constitution of a day laborer, but beneath his too material exterior, his sullen and dull expression, he hid a disposition that was excessively impressionable, an intense need for tenderness, an exalted imagination, a passionate temperament, and a heart greedy for justice. His seeming apathy, complicated by an insurmountable timidity and a slow and embarrassed diction, shackled and thwarted feelings that were almost morbidly acute, and vibrant and hypersensitive nerves. Beneath his torpor surged a lava, a ferment of desires and ideals.
From his earliest infancy he had been a little different, a little inconsistent, and this had made his parents fear for his future. The foreboding of the ordeals stored up for him by the world at large only endeared to them this scion who was both ill-favored and elect. But with the exception of these well-beloved folk, to whom his merits were revealed by the tie of flesh and blood, few people appreciated him. It need not be added that the boy baffled immediate observation, and discouraged commonplace advances. Then, too, when he was overflowing with feeling and thought, either his modesty or a false sense of shame prevented him from expressing them, or, if he tried to put them into words, what he said seemed excessively far-fetched and passed the bounds of normality set by convention.
Laurent was destined to be fatally misunderstood. The best-disposed and most penetrating people did not fathom him or were shocked by his unbridled enthusiasm and unusual opinions. He gave himself up to unseasonable demonstrations, and these would be followed by abrupt moods of dejection. Enthusiastic outbursts completely strangled themselves in his throat, and ended in an unintelligible, harsh and almost brutal grunt, as if his jealous soul were sharply recalling this flight of incendiary captives before they achieved expression, or as if he despaired of making himself understood and recoiled before the strangeness of his effusions. At times it was like the pantomime and the guttural noise of a deaf-mute on the point of speech. His impressions and his impulses congested him. At school he made but few friends. The other boys would have made him a laughing-stock had he not been able to make them keep their distance with his fists.
The premature death of his parents resulted not in disgusting him with life but in making him comprehend it in his own way, love it for other reasons, see it through other eyes, look askance at codes, morals and conventions. He became more and more taciturn. His apparent inertia resembled that of a Leyden jar filled to the point of explosion. Suffering, always constrained, plethoric, his instincts might have indemnified themselves for their long repression; he might have suddenly burst forth, gratified his passions without halt, ruined himself forever and ever; but, in doing so, he would have avenged himself upon life. Capable of any self-sacrifice and any tenderness, but also of any fanaticism, in certain events he would have justified vice and vindicated crime; according to circumstances, he might have been a martyr or an assassin; perhaps both.
At one of the informal dinners now quite frequent at the home of his guardians, Laurent became acquainted with Door Bergmans. His frank manner, his commanding appearance and his kindly attention tamed the young savage. Frequenters of the house had never taken any notice of the poor relation. Gina teased Bergmans about it.
"Do you remember my prediction on the day of the launching of the ship?"
"Perfectly," answered Bergmans, "and I must say that if that is the boy you were referring to he interests me greatly. The few words that I wormed out of him reveal a nature far above the ordinary."
Gina seemed not to take this praise seriously, but thereafter she condescended to talk more frequently with her cousin.
The marrying of Gina was not accomplished as easily as Monsieur Dobouziez could have supposed. Many obstacles stood in her road, even though she was an heiress and exceedingly beautiful. Suitors dreaded her imperious and trenchant disposition and her love of ostentation. Admirers were not lacking. She had around her a perpetual swarm of men paying her attentions, a siege of flirting and gallantry, but no recognized suitor presented himself.
Cora and Angéle Vanderling, who were younger than Gina, had just married Athanasius and Gaston Saint-Fardier. They plagued her with secret confidences and vaunted the liberty of conjugal life. Both led their lymphatic husbands around by the nose and hesitated less than ever to flirt with the gallants. Saint-Fardier senior, overjoyed at having rid himself of his sons, had obtained positions for both of them, one with an exchange-broker, and the other in the office of a nautical assessor. Vanderling, on his part, had dowered his daughters very fairly. The two young couples lived in very high style, and the girls, who were becoming ever more radiant and dazzling in their beauty, abandoned themselves to every whim.
With Bergmans, Béjard still remained the most assiduous visitor at the Dobouziez's. Laurent, who now knew the shipowner's antecedents, did not hide his aversion for him. Inclined toward a vague mysticism, he now accounted for the moment of hallucination that had come to him on the excursion to Hemixem. To Laurent, Freddy Béjard seemed to exhale the corrosive vapor of acreoline, to embody in corporeal form the manslaughtering machines. He, therefore suffered indescribably at seeing this sinister and inauspicious satellite incessantly gravitate in the orbit of the radiant Gina. Béjard had an intuition of the feeling that he inspired in Laurent, and amused himself by irritating him, but distantly and prudently, as one irritates a watch dog that can unloose himself.
"My word!" he often used to say to Gina; "he hasn't a reassuring manner at all, that young ragamuffin! Look how he gloats over us with his assassin's eyes! Don't you think he will bite some fine day? Were I you I should muzzle him!"
In fairness to Gina it must be said that although Bergmans' praise of the little savage had annoyed her, she was nevertheless tempted to defend Laurent against Béjard's sarcasm.
Laurent was drawn closer to Bergmans by the fact that he was a competitor against Béjard. Laurent had heard Bergmans speak publicly, and, having been profoundly stirred by his imaginative and savory eloquence, he was not only his friend, but his partisan, too.
Nevertheless, by degrees a feeling of jealousy took possession of him, a feeling so vague that he could not have fairly said whether he was jealous of Gina or of Bergmans. One of Bergmans' inoffensive jokes, made before Gina, had wounded him. He turned his back on his friend, was sulky with him for days afterward, and was moodier toward him than toward any of the others.
"What's the matter with our little cousin now?" asked Bergmans.
But, unlike Béjard, who was amused by this fit of bad temper, Bergmans sought the poor boy and scolded him tenderly with so much real kindliness that the child finished by being captivated once more and asked Bergmans' forgiveness for his whims.
Since his puberty the capricious and indefinite sentiment that he cherished for his cousin had been aggravated by enervating sensuous appeals. With increasing age he became even more impressionable. The unreasonable demands of his temperament made him impatient of his innate reserve and timidity.
At school, when he was in his fifteenth year, he fainted like a little girl at the too ardent perfume of the vernal gardens. The witchery of the springtime, whiffs of stormy twilights, the heavy winds that preceded rain, beating down upon the tall grass and seeming to swoon there, too intoxicated with joy to resume their flight, the atmosphere of the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox caressed him like the touch of invisible lips.
During these moments the whole of creation embraced him, and demoralized and beside himself, he burned to give it caress for caress! Why could he not clasp to him in a spasm of total possession the trees that grazed him with their branches, the hay-ricks against which he leaned, and all the perfumed and soul-stirring environment? He longed to be absorbed forever into Nature in ferment. To live for but one season, but to live the life of that season! What gentle melancholy, what a renunciation of his being, what a delicious anguish there was in this already posthumous suppleness! One day the singular timbre of an alto voice had moved him to tears. He discovered again its velvety, grave sound, sombre and rich like the mantle of night, or like an autumnal thicket, in his cousin's voice. He compared the despotism of her voice to the quality of those unusual nights when he obtained only a mocking sleep; nights propitious to nightmare, to entreaties and attempted violation—the nights of the Stone Mill.
He had not ceased, he thought, bearing Gina a grudge; he judged her with more severity and bitterness than ever. And the fact that she accepted no one brought him a certain amount of pleasure. Not only did he rejoice in the disdain and malice with which she treated Béjard, but he was almost happy when she teased and repulsed Bergmans. Apparently she did not encourage either more than the other. "The little mischief-maker," he said to himself with a labored and artificial indigation, "in Door's place I'd teach her a lesson."
Distrustful as he was, he noticed one day the tender and almost passionate intonation m which she said a few inconsequential words to Door. And he was so troubled by it that, alone with her afterward, he gathered his courage and said, point blank:
"Why don't you marry Monsieur Bergmans?"
She burst out laughing, and looking him straight in the eye:
"I? Marry a demagogue like him and become the wife of Citizen Bergmans?" she cried with so great an accent of sincerity that Laurent allowed himself to believe her.
Although he protested bitterly, at heart he was overjoyed. Her words so greatly reassured him that he pretended to reproach Bergmans for his hesitancy and backwardness. He was deceitful unpremeditatedly, instinctively; he was indignant at his own diplomacy, and was furious at finding all the dictates of his upright conscience thwarted and paralyzed in the meshes of a sensual duplicity. If ostensibly he were serving his friend Bergmans, it was in spite of the cry of his flesh.
"I, marry? Ask for the hand of Mademoiselle Dobouziez? You're joking, my boy!" protested Bergmans at the perspective that young Paridael had just suggested to him, not wholly without anxiety. "Who the devil put that bee in your bonnet? In the first place, the girl is too rich for me …" And when Paridael urged him: "To tell the truth, I do love her, and I have made seeing her a delicious habit. If she had encouraged me the slightest bit perhaps I should have dared to open my heart to Father Dobouziez … But what you have just said is a warning to me! Other people have also probably taken note of my assiduity. It's time that I stopped compromising your cousin!"
"What a pity!" answered Laurent. "You two seem made for each other." But in spite of this justifiable conviction the paradoxical youth had difficulty in containing his joy, and not throwing his arms about Bergmans. He did his best, however, to combat and dispel his friend's scruples. And when he thought that if Bergmans stopped coming to the house he would have no more chance to see him, he found himself exhorting his friend without a mental reservation, for he was honestly and exceedingly fond of him.
As for Béjard, Laurent was certain that Gina would never accept him as her husband. Not only could the shipowner have been her father, but the correct and irreproachable Dobouziez esteemed him in a purely professional way which did not render him oblivious to the little peccadilloes that this aspirant had upon his conscience. He would more easily have chosen Béjard for a partner than for a son-in-law.
Faithful to his resolution, Bergmans frequented the house less regularly, and, after a month of these visits, farther and farther apart, he ceased coming altogether. Laurent breathed freely, although he was both happy and heart-broken; almost happy in spite of himself and his remorse. But he was not yet at the end of his anguish.
Gina, the flirtatious and mischievous Gina, who seemed to have made so little of Bergmans' attentions, seemed most affected by his absence. Her regret and her worry became so apparent that finally a light broke upon Laurent.
"She lied to me; she loves him!" he said to himself. And the lacerating torture that this discovery caused him made him admit to himself his own desperate love for her. He was struck down, for he knew instantly that she could never love him.
In that case it was his duty to bring the two lovers together. He should have warned the girl long ago of the love that Bergmans bore her. If he kept quiet now he would be acting like a cheat. By one word he could have consoled his cousin and overwhelmed his friend Bergmans with joy. Racked with remorse, he abstained from saying that word. He endured an unheard-of martyrdom. "Are you finally going to speak?" asked his conscience. "No! No! Pity! Have mercy on me!" sobbed his flesh. "Call Bergmans back as quickly as you can." "I can't! I'd rather die!" "Miserable fool, I tell you she will never love you!" "It makes no difference! She will never belong to anyone!" "But Bergmans is your friend!" "I hate him!" "Murderer, Gina is dying!" "Rather than bring them together I shall kill them both!"
That Gina was dying was true. Watching her become thin, emaciated, sad, so feeble, so quiet and sweet, never laughing or teasing, indifferent to all distractions, Laurent was a hundred times upon the point of telling what he knew of Bergmans' feeling. His tongue burned like that of a mute whom one word will relieve, but whom pitiless nature prevents from pronouncing that word. A hundred times, too, upon the point of writing to Door, he let the pen drop from his hand. He would have preferred to sign his death warrant.
Having left for Odessa, Bergmans sent two or three business letters from the shores of the Black Sea so that people would not comment upon his prolonged eclipse. The anguish of the Dobouziez' was so great that they paid no attention to their ward's convulsed face and extraordinary manner.
Laurent, who did not feel able to talk to Gina, resolved one evening to tell everything to her father the next day. "She will never love me!" he said to himself, like a stoic refining his torture in order the less to feel it. "And am I sure that I love her? Is it not envy that blinds me, and which makes me, because I am gloomy and without inheritance, hostile to the good fortune of everyone else?" In spite of all the effort that he made to persuade himself that such was the case, in the presence of Dobouziez he could not speak one word, and all his spiritual grandeur foundered in the abyss of his love.
He went and sat beside the invalid, in the orangery, among the intoxicating and perverse flowers with which she persisted in surrounding herself. Since her illness she had accustomed herself to Laurent's presence and care as she would have to those of a trained nurse. Generally he read to her, and she took pleasure in finding fault with him. On this particular morning he stammered and stuttered outrageously.
"What is the matter with you, Laurent?" she asked. "I can no longer understand, one word, that you are, reading!"
He threw the book down on the table and seized her attenuated hands.
"Regina," he muttered; "I have something very serious to tell you …" He stopped, looked in her eyes and became very red. He was about to pronounce the name of Door Bergmans, and again that name stuck in his throat. Without saying another word, carried away by an irresistible impulse, seized with dizziness, he could only fall upon his knees and cover with kisses the bands which Gina, confused and even frightened, was trying to withdraw. Annoyed and excited by her aversion for him, instead of ceasing, he came nearer and brutally caught her to him. Gina gave vent to a piercing scream, in answer to which the providential Felicité came running.
"Better and better!" shrieked the factotum, throwing her arms in the air.
Laurent ceased, and ran out, his fists clenched, furious at having betrayed himself and ruined everything just when he was about to score a victory. The servant immediately told her employers, and that same day, before his vacation had expired, Monsieur Dobouziez sent Laurent back to college.
From there the guilty boy, abashed and ashamed of his violence, and worried at its probable consequences for Gina, wrote letter after letter asking for news. Nobody answered them. He was horror-stricken. Without doubt, Gina was getting worse. Was not the aggravation of her illness due to the emotion which he had caused her to undergo? Perhaps she was in agony; perhaps dead! Finally he was no longer able to contain himself, and he fled from college and fell like a bomb into the factory. The first person he met was the terrible Saint-Fardier. The telegraph had already warned the establishment of his flight.
"Ah! Here you are, good-for-nothing?" cried Saint-Fardier, making a face as though he would have liked to cut off Laurent's ears.
"I beg you, monsieur, tell me how my Cousin Regina is."
"Madame Béjard is much better since she no longer has occasion to have anything to do with a rascal like you!"
Madame Béjard! Laurent heard nothing but these two words and stood dully, so dully that when Saint-Fardier took him by his collar he did not even think to defend himself. Dobouziez interfered at that moment.
"Let him go," he said to his partner. "I'll finish with this blackguard!" And to Laurent: "You, come with me to my office!"
The young man obeyed mechanically.
"Here are a hundred francs," Dobouziez said to him. "On the first of each month you will be sent that amount. That sum represents the income from the modest capital left by your father. And now, get out. Oh! One word of advice. You can never count upon any member of my family. All our doors are closed to you! That indefensible prank of yours has placed you without the pale of your relatives. Good-by. I am not detaining you!"
"Cousin Gina has become Madame Béjard, hasn't she?" Laurent hazarded, hardly having heard the major excommunication fulminated against him.
"Mme. Béjard is no longer your cousin. Come, take your money. And see that I never hear you spoken of!"
Laurent paused at the door. Already Dobouziez had sat down in front of his desk and was going back to work as if nothing important had happened, as if he had simply been paying off a discharged clerk.
His attitude froze Laurent, and recalled him to the feeling of the situation. For several seconds he was plunged in grief, and foreswore life; then he came to his senses.
"Very well! So be it!" he thought. "It is just as well that we separate!"
He left the room. In the street a nervous gaiety took possession of him, in reaction. Was he not free, emancipated, his own master? No more college, no more control, no more guardians. And, especially, no more remorse, no more jealousy, even no more love. He believed her to be Madame Béjard now, detached her forever from Gina. He rejected his cousin as if he were throwing away a flower polluted by a slug.
"And to think that the Dobouziez' think that they are punishing me in throwing me upon my own resources!" he repeated excitedly. "And that brute of a Saint-Fardier! If I had not been taken by storm by the news I would have strangled him on the spot!"
And in going along the ditch: "You speak in vain, oh, greasy, putrid water! It is the past, my past, that wallows at the bottom of your oily urn. It is a cadaver, a chrysalis that you withhold! Your nymph has become Mme. Béjard! Cloaca for cloaca, oh, disastrous ditch, you seem less disgusting to me than certain marriages!"