The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter II
He began his search for the home of the Tilbaks in the Quartier des Bateliers.
The street lamps were beginning to be lit when he spied a little shop, bearing a sign proclaiming it to be At the Sign of the Cocoanut. The show window displayed a pile of the most incongruous objects; field glasses and compasses, tarred hats, coarse woolen caps, packages of English and American tobacco wrapped in yellow paper, plugs of Cavendish and rolls of chewing tobacco, penknives, bottles of perfume, and Windsor soap.
Something told him that it was the home of his dear Siska. He had no further doubt when he saw, inside the shop, a woman busy putting in order the objects that had been misplaced. She had her back turned toward Laurent, and, as the room had not yet been lit, he could hardly discern her silhouette. But before she turned her face toward him he had recognized her. She lit the oil lamps. He saw her in full face. It was the same good, open face of former days; she still wore her hair in the curly bands, now beginning to become a little grey, in which the lad's fingers used to become tangled, and which he used to pull mercilessly. He stood still in front of the show window with the air of a customer making his choice, and as the street was even darker than the store, Siska could hardly see him. From time to time, while busy tidying up her shop, she threw the unknown a stealthy glance. That didn't please him? What did he need to decoy him into the shop? Poor woman! Laurent wondered whether she sold many of these things.
Siska, no longer counting upon this customer, began walking toward the little room at the back of the shop. In opening the door Laurent rang a little bell; she turned and came toward him with the alacrity and the engaging smile that shopkeepers display before a customer.
In the most serious manner possible Laurent asked to try on some caps. She looked him up and down, trying to guess which among her stock of caps would please him. This rapid examination gave her, without doubt, a sufficiently high notion of Paridael's elegance, for she showed him the dearest ones, fancy sailors' caps such as stylish travellers wear. But Laurent asked to see peasants' caps, stevedores' caps, or carters' caps, and pretended to fix his choice upon huge tufted, peaked, brown woolen ones.
Siska looked at him suspiciously. He surely was an odd one! Or he had good reason to disguise himself when it was not carnival time! Nothing good about that. She filled Laurent's cup of malicious joy to the brim by quickly removing her bunch of keys from the counter; he watched her out of the corner of his eye. Laurent had occasion to remember, because of its consequences, this sudden desire to masquerade, and his fancy for plebeian headgear.
Keeping one of the flashiest specimens of the assortment, a rakish cap that would have delighted the heart of a wharf rat, upon his head, he asked the price. She looked at him with so amusing and sincere an air of consternation that he could no longer control himself. While she gave him change for a twenty-franc note with the haste of one who would willingly be rid of a suspicious customer, he, on the contrary, took his time, could not finish looking at himself in the mirror, or adjusting his purchase in the most impudent and flippant manner.
Finally he planked himself down comically, his hands on his hips, before the shopkeeper, and looked her up and down fixedly. And when, nettled by his gaze, the good woman changed color, recognizing in his eyes a familiar expression, Laurent abruptly threw his arms about her neck. With a little cry she had already opened her arms to him.
"It is I, Siska, I. Laurent Paridael, your Lorki!"
"Lorki! Monsieur Laurent! It isn't possible!" the good soul exclaimed.
She released him, stepped back to admire him, hugged him again, uttering over and over again:
"What an old rogue! What a child to make a fool of me so seriously!"
However, at Siska's cries of joy, Vincent had run in, no less agreeably surprised than his wife. They took Laurent by the shoulders and pushed him into their little living room.
This retreat resembled a cabin with a vengeance. During the day a window as narrow as a porthole admitted a dull, filtered light as though it were submerged under water. Its industrious occupants solved anew each day the problem of making it hold the greatest possible number of people and objects. There was not an empty inch of space. The walls of the room were daubed in a brown color to look like mahogany, decorated with cuts of travel scenes; on the mantel there was a miniature three-master riding at full sail, a masterpiece of Vincent's handiwork, and several of those large shells which, when they are held against the ear, reverberate with the surge of the sea.
Laurent found himself in the presence of a string of children of all ages. They first introduced him to Henriette, a demure little housewife. She had an oval face, elongated without being badly proportioned, blue eyes that were astonishingly tender, and, so to speak, milky, blonde curls, a quiet and confident expression; her whole personality spoke sweetly of primordial candor and deep-seated purity.
Siska's possession of such a grown-up girl puzzled Laurent greatly. Before he had time to count the number of years that had slipped by since their marriage Vincent profited by a moment during which the girl left the room to whisper in his ear, nudging him and winking as he laughed heartily:
"You see. Monsieur Laurent, after Siska had put you to bed, we had to spend the time somehow … The humbug only slapped me and held me off while you were in the room!"
And Laurent recalled a certain mysterious illness that had come upon the servant, and with what joy and good-heartedness Jacques Paridael had summoned her home after a month in the country.
After Henriette came Felix, a long-limbed, dark lad of fourteen, who resembled his father, and whom Door Bergmans had engaged as office and errand boy; then Pierket, a delightful little chap of twelve with the blonde hair of his mother and big sister, and the fiery brown eyes and slightly ambered coloring of his father and Felix; and Lusse, a baby of at most six years, the miniature of her mother.
How many confidences were poured out! Laurent told the Tilbaks everything that had happened since Vincent had been discharged, but his bashfulness kept him from saying anything about Gina. He was not sure that he detested her as much as he would have liked to. Had he not just conjured up her image on the bank of the Scheldt?
Always allured by his favorite element, Vincent had been forced to relinquish even pilotage and the coasting trade, and discharged the functions of a ferryman, a lighterman and a barge pilot at one and the same time. He also took down to the mouth of the river the river clerks sent out by the traffickers to meet ships at the pilot station.
"And you, what are you going to become?" asked Vincent, with such a show of devotion that one could never have taxed him with indiscretion.
The young man himself did not know. He had nothing to look for from the people of his family, and even had his hundred francs of income been enough to live on, he was not at an age to fritter away his time.
"If I understood you correctly," Siska's husband resumed, "you would prefer, to a sedentary occupation, a job that would leave you free to come and go and give you plenty of exercise? Perhaps I can arrange it for you. The head of one of the 'Nations,' a comrade of mine, needs an employee who can help him with his estimates and superintend the work, both at the dockyards and at the warehouse. Shall I speak to him about you?"
Laurent could ask nothing better; it was arranged that he come and hear the result the next day.