Open main menu

PART II

FREDDY BÉJARD

I

THE HARBOR

Carrying his head high and throwing out his chest with the air of a conqueror, Laurent began to walk through his native city. One thing he had to consider immediately, and that was the choice of a lodging. The merchants' quarter, in the heart of the city, summoned him more strongly than any of the others.

He took lodgings on the second floor of one of those picturesque houses, with wooden facade and Spanish gables, in the Marché-au-Lait, a narrow and much frequented street encumbered from morning until night with all sorts of vehicles, the trucks and drays of large manufacturing corporations, the hampers and carts of the market gardeners.

Laurent's windows looked out over the hovels across the street, upon the gardens of the cathedral. The immense Gothic pile rose above the grove of tall trees. A few crows flew about the coping of the cathedral. It was at Notre Dame that Laurent had been baptised, and precisely the same dear carillon, the melodious soul of the tower, that used to lull him to sleep during his early childhood, when he used to play marbles or hopscotch in front of the cathedral door with the boys of the neighborhood, began to peal out the notes of an old Flemish ballad that Siska used to sing:

"Au bord d'un rivelet rapide,
Se lamentait une blanche jeune fille."

Laurent resolved to hunt up his faithful friend immediately.

A new shock awaited him at the water-gate. He passed through the Place du Bourg, where the quay broadens and juts a point out into the roadstead. From the very end of this promontory the view was magnificent.

Upstream and downstream the Scheldt spread out with a majestic quietude the superb surge of its tide. One could see it describe a curve to the northwest, recede, wind back again, proceed on its way, turn once again, as if it wanted to retrace its steps and again salute the sovereign metropolis, the pearl of all the cities through which it flowed, as if it were forsaking her with regret.

On the horizon sails receded toward the sea, funnels of steamers unfurled against the milky, pearly grey of the sky, long woolly pennants, like exiles who wave farewell with their handkerchiefs as long as they are able to see the beloved shores. Sea gulls scattered in flight above the tawny, green surface of the water, rising and falling in the gentle and subtle curves that will forever be the despair of marine painters.

The sun was slowly setting; it, too, could not decide to leave these shores. Its fiery glow, pierced with wide bands of gold, crested the waves with luminous little drops of blood. As far as the eye could see along the wharfs and the tree-planted quays and beyond the grassy.dikes of Polder, there was a fluttering and scintillating of living jewels.

Fishing boats began to regain the canals and basins in which they were to tie up for the night. Lazy barges slipped down stream with the tide so slowly that they seemed almost immobile and unconscious of the titillating caress of the flaming water, charged with electricity like the fur of a cat.

White sails became rose. The decks, the loins and the flanks of the boats were almost lifeless at this hour. And every little while the graceful silhouette of a sailor, hauling in a cable or repairing a mast, would stand in bold relief, tall and black, against the sail of the ship's boat, taking on an air of indescribably fateful authority and superterrestrial worth.

To the right, on the border of the residence quarter, there plunged deeply inland, as if following upon a victory of the river over the land, great square sheets of water that were the basins, and yet more basins, from which shot up in compact tufts thousands of entangled crossyards and masts. And in this forest of masts, pierheads, gangways, locks and drydocks, rose faintly and by fits and starts against the horizon.

In certain parts of the basins the crowding was so great that, viewed from a distance, the masting and rigging of the closely packed boats seemed to be tangled up, to cross, and conjured up a web so tightly woven that it clouded the opaline sky or pricked off an early star, setting one to dream of the cloths woven by fabled genii, where the multicolored signal lights and silvery constellations began to appear like glowworms and fireflies.

Ready to seek its rest, the swarm of workers hurried, redoubled its activity, in a desire to finish its daily task. To recrudescences of tumult there succeeded sudden lulls. The calkers' pickaxes ceased hammering at rotted hulls, the chains of the hand winches suspended their grinding; a snorting, whining steamboat held its peace; the yells and the rhythmic chant of sailors and longshoremen working in gangs suddenly died down.

And these alternate moments of silence and tumult extended simultaneously in all parts of the laboring city, giving the effect of the sighs of a Titan confronted with interminable labor.

In the infinite confusion, Laurent distinguished guttural calls, raucous or strident, as plaintive as the bugle calls at the barracks, as sad as the moaning of exhausted forces.

And after each phrase of the human chorus there resounded a grosser noise; bales fell to the bottom of the hold, bars of iron tumbled and rebounded upon the flagging of the quays.

In turning his attention from the river to the shore Laurent perceived a gang of workmen uniting their forces to move a giant cedar sent from America. Their manner of forming in line, of grouping themselves, of bringing their force to bear upon its inert mass, of bringing into play their shoulders, backs and loins, would have made a bas-relief of heroic days look quaint in comparison.

But a strange and complex odor, compounded of sweat, spices, the skins of animals, fruit, tar, wrack, coffee and herbage, intensified by the heat, went to his head like the bouquet of a superfine wine; the incense pleasing to the god of commerce. This perfume, teasing his nostrils, sensitized his other organs.

The carillon began to peal once more. Rippling down from above the water, the sound seemed even more gentle and tender, as if lubricated by some mysterious unction.

The sea gulls were wheeling, their oblique flight taking the air over his shoulder. They came near, flew away, returned, surrendered themselves to a choreography determined by the most elemental rites; in turn, attracted by the water, the earth and the sky at the moment when these three masters of space were kindled in the same bath of humid and unctuous vesperal light.

At this last magic spell Laurent turned away, fascinated, almost reeling, sucked in by the abyss. He looked once more at the workmen who had been toiling at the cedar; then saw, nearer to him, a huge dray to which a powerful horse was harnessed, and the driver waiting at its side for his wagon to be loaded. And on the plank between the dray and the ship, the cadenced coming and going of the plastic, hooded longshoremen, bending their necks but not their bodies beneath their burdens, their figures in full relief against the stern of the boat, their knees bending a little at each step, settling their load firmly on their shoulders with one hand, the other fist at their hips, Gods!

A pyramid of bales gradually piled up upon the dray. The tackle and the hydraulic crane never ceased to search and bite into the entrails of the transatlantic steamer and to withdraw gobbets of merchandise.

Not far away a contrary operation was taking place. Instead of emptying the stomach of a steamer they were gorging it without respite; coal was sliding into its bunkers, bags and cases engulfed themselves in the insatiable depths of its hold. And its purveyors sweated hugely without succeeding in allaying its sudden pangs of hunger.

The manual labor being accomplished by picked men suggested to the observer the grandeur and the omnipotence of his native city. But it did not cease to frighten and intimidate him.

"Shall I again be repulsed and held at a distance?" he asked himself.

And in its proud raiment Antwerp, in its turn, seemed to him the incarnation of a no less haughty and triumphant creature.

One night when going to theater in full evening dress, his Cousin Gina had been so dazzling that an ineluctable impulse had precipitated him toward her like a ruffian. But the radiant young girl had foreseen his movement of adoration. She had settled herself, waved aside his candid idolatry with a distant gesture, as if it were unclean dust, and with a desperately even voice, without pleasure, without even the gleam of satisfaction that all homage, even the shallowest, calls up in a woman's face, she said to him:

"Go away, silly! You will crumple my flounces!"

Yes, his city, too rich, too beautiful, too vast for her foster child, deceived Laurent that evening.

"Is she, too, going to wave me aside, as if I were valueless and unworthy?" he asked himself in anguish.

But it was as if the adorable city, less hard and less cruel than the woman, had read the distress of the declassed youth and determined that nothing should spoil the intoxication of his emancipation before he had entirely succumbed to grief, and the flaming sky dulled its too brilliant radiance, and at the same moment, the water, into which it seemed that rubies had been poured, took on its normal appearance. The twilight air became tender and fluid once again; the waves were velvety with a fleeting mist, on the horizon there was but the vague memory of the furious kindling that had terrified Paridael.

It was a veritable relaxing. The city was going to treat him more kindly and with more pity!

Even the movements of the longshoremen seemed less superhuman, less hieratic. The workers, on the point of quitting work, surprised him by breathing like simple mortals, their arms crossed or hanging loosely at their sides, or wiping their foreheads with the back of their sleeves. Laurent found them as handsome this way, and more kindly. At the moment of going home, of bathing themselves in the intimacy of home life, they laughed, having become listless in advance, and a langor descended from their backs to their legs, and their embraces sought objects less rough and less inert.

Laurent set foot upon reality once again.