The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter III
SWARMS AND WASPS' NESTS
Master Jean Vingerhout immediately engaged the young man recommended by his friend Vincent Tilbak. Jean was a jolly fellow, vigorously, solidly built, the youngest son of a well-known family of farmers of the Polders, the alluvions of the Scheldt, who, tired of farming at a loss, had bought, with the proceeds of his inheritance, a share in one of the "Nations."
The "Nations," trades unions reminiscent of the ancient Flemish guilds, shared the business of loading, unloading, stowage, cartage and warehousing of merchandise; they formed a power in the modern city upon which the most powerful merchants had to rely, for, combined, they had at their command an army of not too precise workers capable of entailing a complete paralysis of commerce and holding the power of the Municipal Council under their thumb. With them, at least, the rights of the native sons would be safeguarded; no immigrant would ever supplant the true born inhabitant of the district of Antwerp as baes, or director, or even as a simple journeyman.
The "America," the oldest and richest of these nations, into whose service Laurent had just entered, took the best workmen, had at its command the finest horses, possessed model buildings and a highly perfected equipment. Their trucks, harness, cart tilts, lines, hampers, pulleys and scales were unequalled among the rival corporations. From Hoboken to Austruweel and Merxem one met only their busy gangs of workmen. Their weighers and gaugers were transhipping grain imported in lighters of an invariable burden; their porters were shouldering sacks and bales and lining them up on the quays, or hoisting them into drays, their dockers were piling planks, beams and raw wood upon the shore in assembling the products of the same species.
Too long accustomed to working with their two hands to peg away with pen and pencil, it was to Laurent that, on the recommendation of their colleague Vingerhout, the syndic of the directors or baes, they entrusted the office work and the task of checking up, at the entrance or exit of the docks, the accounts turned in by the weighers and gaugers of other corporations.
If a coffee merchant, a customer of the America, bought up a part of a colleague's commodity, Laurent had to receive the stock from the rival Nation with which the seller had dealt. A day's weighing in the midst of a tumult, under the broiling heat of the sun, or in rain or snow, was frequently his lot. But he was absorbed in his work. Hundreds of bales, stamped and numbered from the first to the last, marched past him. He added up columns of figures as he kept a sharp watch upon the records of the scales. For beware of mistakes! If the buyer did not find what he had paid for he would hold the America responsible for the mistake, unless Laurent could prove that the loss emanated from the seller and his workmen.
Many times he had to watch shipments from the Dobouziez factory, and it was not without emotion that he saw the white cases slashed by a black brush with the decisive "D. B. Z."
But he did not evince the slightest regret at his change in position. On the contrary. He rejoiced in working for employers who were without any arrogance, these baes, who were so easy in their manner, instead of toiling in the gloomy salesroom of a Béjard or some other arrogant parvenu. In sight of the roadstead and the basins, the uninterrupted movement of landing and embarking, the gorging or disgorging of cargoes, the coming and going between the floating warehouses and the docks on shore, the constant fall of merchandise on the quay and into the bottom of the holds, commerce no longer seemed an abstraction to him, but a tangible and imposing organism.
Laurent often attended the meeting of the baes in the evening, in one of the cafés near the Port. Wagons and drays had been put in the sheds, mangers had been filled, litters had been renewed. The horses were chewing their oats, the accountant had closed his books, the huge buildings now sheltered no other worker than the stable watchman, and the great doors, real fortress gates, protected the fortune of the America from the attacks of thieves.
What clamorous parties, what epic unbosoming of yarns, what smutty stories! Gods! The rugged chiefs of the union, these baes who were hardly less ill-bred than their subalterns, let loose such stiff ones that, as they themselves put it, a peasant would have fallen off his horse had he heard them. It was fine to see them wash their mouths with a deep draught after an outrageous bit of wantonness that they had all enjoyed, and which made them all rock on their stools and communicated to the table, the army of half-litres and the window-panes a tremor like that provoked during the day by one of their enormous wagons jolting along the street.
Laurent came away from these meetings dumfounded, overpowered, a little suffocated, as though he had been surfeited with strong quarters of beef, or even been exposed, like a ham, to prolonged fumigation. And in the face of these hurricanes of abundant humour, how could anybody charge the full-blooded exuberance and the almost brutal license of the colorists of the past with being exaggerated?
In busy times, when the stationary force of workers on the premises was not sufficient to carry on the abundance of work, Laurent had the opportunity of accompanying Jean Vingerhout to the Coin des Paresseux, the crowded thoroughfare bordering the Maison Hanséatique, so called because it was there that the perpetually jobless congregated. Very typical were the scenes of enlisting and recruiting which he attended there! The first time Laurent did not understand why baes Jean, needing a reinforcement of only five men, had bothered himself with twenty of these tramps, all very strong, certainly, and even built for gigantic labors, but who exercised their muscles only in fighting, and mixed too much alcohol with their rich blood.
"Just you wait!" said the baes, who knew his men, with a laugh.
After the most ridiculous negotiations they finally accepted his terms and started on their way, but reluctantly, and sighing in the most heartrending fashion after every step. About twenty meters away from their standing place, one or another of these lazaroni of the north would stop short and declare he could go no further unless he were given a drink.
Vingerhout having turned a deaf ear to this demand, the thirsty one dragged along grumbling, ready to give vent to the same declaration a few steps further along. Although two other recruits had upheld the petition of their comrade by a suggestive smacking of their lips and gestures worthy of Tantalus, the recruiter paid no more attention to them than he had before.
At the third liquor shop, that is to say, the sixth house, the sufferer gave in, and, with an oath of despair, deserted the troop for the bar, which drew him more irresistibly than any magnet. His two partisans dragged along until the next temptation presented itself, and then, after a supreme but unsuccessful plea to their recruiter, they resumed their libations to the god Gin.
Laurent began to understand why Vingerhout had enlisted the contingent.
"Those three were drunkards and licensed loafers!" said the baes. "I engaged them more to ease my conscience than for any other reason, for I was sure that they would give me the slip at the first turn. And I am not sure of the others!"
Jean had good reason to distrust their force of character. The dockyard to which they were going being about a kilometer further on, a few more defections became manifest, one man debouching the other, so that when they finally arrived at their destination, there only remained to Vingerhout the five hands that he required.
"We ought to thank our lucky stars that even they did not give us the slip at the last minute, and so make us return to their fishpond and commence angling all over again!" concluded the Polderian philosopher, without in any other way epiloguing this edifying episode. And in recognition of their kindness he treated them to a round of gin.
Laurent learned to know queer chaps, even more eccentric than these loafers, on his trips with Vincent Tilbak, who took one or another of the river clerks down to meet an arrival in his boat. Having weighed anchor, the oarsman could only scull at first, in order to make his way out of the basin and the roadstead without crashing into barges and boats at anchor. The yawl passed between two ships whose dead hulks resembled somnolent whales having the winking ship lights for eyes. Then Tilbak began to row quickly. An intermittent silence, more impressive than absolute calm, hovered above the earth and the sky. Laurent listened to the grinding of the oars in the oarlocks, to the drip of the water from the blades, to the plashing of the water under the keel. From time to time a "Who goes there?" came from a custom-house launch searching for smugglers. The name and the voice of Tilbak made the excise men more sociable. At Doe! they passed the night, according to the season, in the common room of the frugal inn, a hut built of tarred wood, or beneath the stars, on the grassy dike.
There they met a fraudulent crowd of industrious time-servers whom Laurent had leisure to observe minutely. Unlicensed brokers, couriers, dragomen for places of ill repute, or, of a still lower rank, defaulting pilots' apprentices, discharged stewards' boys, wharf rats come from the reformatory, young fish from the penitentiary, usually called "runners." Beardless, sharp-witted youths, they were as greatly given to prowling by night as torn cats, and as insinuating as girls; good bait for fishing in troubled waters.
"Don't be afraid, Monsieur Lorki," said Tilbak, misunderstanding Laurent's amazement at the sight of this bivouac of smugglers.
Laurent, however, was concealing a more than partial curiosity beneath a very plausible constraint and repugnance. They were chewing tobacco, cheating at cards, passing the bottle, behaving as loosely as they could, mixing with their Burgundian-Flemish dialect the terms of a cosmopolitan language, eructations of slang. Trickery, anger, the lust for gain, and vice ruffled faces that were comely when shaded by the large peaks of sailors' caps, and the Rembrandtesque light of the wretched little den, the fleeting moonlight and the coppery false-dawn without, such a false-dawn as usually graces an execution, lent them an added ambiguity.
The good Tilbak, whom they respected sufficiently to let his customer pass first, disliked them from his sailor days.
"They know how to gouge the seafolk!" he said. "Ah! How they used to make me swear, those sloppy tars. The temptations and the claptrap chatter that I had to suffer when they swooped down on my deck like a school of flying fish. Fortunately I was too smitten with Siska to let myself be caught by their bait. They used to have samples of it, and their favors brought a market price. I would never have been fool enough to pledge them my advance pay, my flesh and my welfare. Never mind; I was glad to get on dry land in order to escape their hooks. I tell you. Monsieur Laurent, those runners are the true agents of the seven deadly sins!"
Vincent Tilbak should have noticed that, instead of sharing his animadversion, Laurent was scrutinizing the young runners with unseasonable kindness.
One day he let his mentor hear of the affinity that he had discovered between these nasty little fellows and himself.
At this confidence the face of Vincent Tilbak expressed such pitiful consternation that the madcap hastened to disavow his misplaced sympathies, and declared, not without blushing, that he had simply wanted to joke. Perverted and obstinate instincts smouldered within him. From them arose, without his being able to explain them, the muffled desires, the enervating pangs, the painful curiosity, and the jealous and pitiable heartaches, at once timorous and tender, that used to torment him before the wild Stone Mill, the haunt, but also the asylum, of asymmetrical souls.
The hard-working and salubrious life that he led with honest and upright fellows like Jean Vingerhout, the friendship of Vincent and Siska, but even more greatly, the gentle influence of Henriette, should have deferred the hatching of these morbid germs. Laurent had become an habitual guest at the Tilbaks for meals. A fraternal confidence grew up immediately between himself and Henriette. Never before had he felt so greatly, the gentle influence of Henriette, should have charmed opposite a person of the other sex. He seemed to have known her for a long time. It was just as if they had grown up together. In the evening Laurent helped the children, Pierket and Lusse, to write their exercises and learn their lessons. The elder sister, tending to her housekeeping, coming and going through the room, used to admire the young fellow's knowledge. After supper he read out loud to the whole family, or instructed them in talking to them. Henrietta would listen with a fervor not free from uneasiness. When he talked of world issues and of the condition of humanity the young girl was much more impressed by the excitement, the restlessness and the revolt that talk betrayed, than by the actual sense of his objurgations. With the second-sight of an affectionate feminine soul, she guessed him to be fundamentally sad and troubled, and the more he showed solicitude for the unfortunates, the suffering and the misguided, the more did she become frankly absorbed in him, having a presentiment that among all this world's wretched people this one had the greatest need for charity.
On the other hand, when he was with her, the train of his thought took a less harassing turn. Under the protecting caress of her great blue eyes, ingenuously fixed upon him, he saw only the present quietude, the loyal ambience, and the smile of life. He ceased to look for difficulties where there were none, and doomed his stormy speculations to silence.
Formerly, at the factory, the pupils of Gina's eyes had injected a traitorous liquid under his skin; he could not contain himself, became bad, dreamed of ruin and reprisals, a rising of the humble and a revolt of the servile, after which he would have seized, as part of his booty, the proud and scornful patrician girl and subdued her to the outrages of his burning desire. It was as much due to bitterness toward Gina as to hate of the directors and capitalists that he had turned to the exploited. He was going to descend to the subversive pariahs when he met proletarians who were reconciled to their lot. He became a kind of dilettante laborer. The wholesomeness, the placidity, the good humor and the philosophy of the people in his new surroundings, especially the sweetness and the charm of Henriette allayed his bitterness and his grief, made him complacent and almost an opportunist. The image of Gina began to pale.