The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter IX
THE STOCK EXCHANGE
One o'clock! The usual hour for the opening of the Exchange is rung out by the clock, the last vestige of the former, fire-gutted building, the diligent clock which, when the flames had devoured everything around it, and were pressing it most closely, persisted, like a faithful servant, in dying on the field of duty while giving the official time to the mercantile city.
One o'clock! Hasten, laggards! Hurry and dispatch your lunch, take nothing but a mouthful, men of affairs and of money! Other combinations call you, players of dominoes! Finish sipping your coffee and gulping down fine brandy! Put aside the newspaper, concise though it may be, and printed for your benefit! Pay your checks and run, or beware the penalty!
One o'clock! They pour in from all parts of the city. The rich of today, the rich of tomorrow, and the rich of yesterday, struggling against disaster, fighting off ruin, millionaires who, having made hay while the sun shone, have well stored their nests, and other millionaires whose hay has flamed up like a rick of straw!
Come, run, fly, miserable tools of Fortune! The wheel is turning; catch at a spoke, try and control its movement! Watch them jostle and clamber over each other to grip the fatal wheel, cling to it with the stubbornness of birds of prey, today on top, tomorrow underneath! The wheel turns and turns, and the axle grinds and creaks … And the creaking has a sinister echo! Crash!
Since early in the morning brokers and hangers-on have been coming and going, meeting each other in the street, busy, excited, not stopping, barely exchanging a greeting as dry as the ticking of their watches: Time is money! Before evening the best friends do not recognize each other. To buy or not to buy? That is the question! drones the sordid Hamlet of commerce. They see the universe only from the point of view of "bid" and "asked." Produce or consume; that is all!
One o'clock! Come, let the pack, avid for flesh, be swallowed up by the four doors of the beautiful palace. With its magnificent arches bearing the emblems, symbols and shields of all lands, beneath its arched iron nerves, this Gothic monument, varied by Moorish and Byzantine memories, half Aryan, half Semitic, presents a compromise well worthy of the temple of the god Commerce, the most furtive and versatile of gods.
The rites have begun. The dull murmur of incantations rises at times to an uproar. Standing up, their hats on their heads as if in a synagogue, the faithful are herding together and chattering. And gradually the atmosphere becomes vitiated. One can hardly see the metals or the coloring of the mural decorations; the massive beams are drowned in a dense, misty fog of thick smoke! Filthy incense! Heads look as though they were detached from bodies and floating beneath the waves.
At first sight, as one comes upon this assemblage, one thinks of conventicles and witches' sabbaths. Never did a fen of thirsty frogs croak in so swelling a chorus its prayer for rain. But these batracians implore a heavy rain of gold.
Little by little one succeeds in being able to distinguish the various groups of business men and petty traders.
In one corner is the place where the great wholesale merchants habitually congregate on the Exchange. They transact business while affecting to talk of other things, or transfer that responsibility to some assistant, who, from time to time, comes up to the "boss" to receive orders. So does the plenipotentiary consult the potentate. Here, enthroned, the billionaire magis, the high-priests of finance, assert their sovereignty. Themselves are pillars of commerce, as solid as the columns of their temples. Philistine columns, alas, over which even Samson could never prevail. Employes, proprietors, ship-owners, ship-brokers, bankers, strut pompously, their hands in their pockets or clasped behind their backs, talking little, talking of gold,—actually and figuratively. Corpulent plutocrats, formidable augurs, their sibylline predictions depress or extend the credit of subordinate promoters. One word from their lips enriches or ruins. The weather-vane of chance is turned by their breath. Upon their caprices depends the fluctuations of an universal market. Their moons regulate these tides. With their allies of other great cities, they possess the power to deliver over the poor world to famine and war.
Successors to the Fuggers and Salviatis, to the supercilious members of the Hanseatic League whom a richly apparelled convoy of heralds and musicians preceded each day to the Exchange, they traffic in empires and peoples as simply as in rice and coffee; but, should they lend money to kings, less pompous and less artistic than the legendary Focker, they would not throw upon a hearth fed with cinnamon-bark, the bond of Caesar, their great debtor, but their honored guest! In the old days they were patricians; today they are but parvenus.
Bulls and bears consult as an infallible barometer the wrinkles of their foreheads, the expression of their lips, the color of their look. They are vicars of the divinity symbolized by the five-franc note.
Thus, once when a frank talker so far forgot himself as to speak to the Rhenish Jew Fuchskopf about a noble character, a genius insufficiently provided with money, and to implore his aid for an unfortunate whose plight would move any more or less human mortal, the vile usurer, the dealer in souls, the provider of unsold shoes to the butchered soldiers of recent wars, the insatiable shareholder whom coal miners, caught by fire-damp, starved out by strikes, fired upon by the troops, cursed in their agony; the Jew drew from his pocketbook a shining five-franc piece and, instead of consecrating it to an exceptional charity, passed it two or three times beneath the nose of his petitioner, pressed it lovingly between his twisted fingers, moist as cupping glasses, drew it near his lips, as though he were kissing a paten, and, slightly bending his knee, addressed this untranslatable orison to the fetich:
"Ach lieber Christ
Wo du nicht bist
Ist lauter Schweinerei!"
Then, sneering, he replaced the offering in his purse and enjoyed the discomfiture of the unlucky intercessor, and the approbation of his hangers-on.
The exchange-brokers were loquacious and busy after another manner than that of the high priests of finance and commerce. Spruce and stylish, they whirled and rushed about, wormed and crept into crowds, gathering gold as they hovered. They were the sacred dancers, and their pantomime was a part of the ritual.
With a less dizzy locomotion, clad more soberly and more stiffly, the stock brokers moved about, shuffling sheafs of certificates carelessly rolled in pocketbooks or old newspapers, and scrawling their memorandums on the back of an obliging customer.
Clad in lounging suits, merchandise-agents stored a quantity of packages of samples in their pockets. One made a little heap of Cheribon beans in the palm of his hand so that the grocer whom he hoped to catch and overreach could smell them from a distance. Another tried to persuade a customer of the superiority of his tobacco, Kentucky or Maryland, and ended by saddling another timid customer, who only wanted a single hogshead, with the whole crop.
Each specialty, each article had its own location. No one would have suspected the order lurking beneath this apparent confusion; the number of divisions, classifications, subdivisions. Refiners, distillers, importers of oil or rubber, customs-house brokers, insurance brokers occupied, from January first to December thirty-first, the few square feet assigned to them without encroaching upon their neighbors. Anybody familiar with the Exchange could play blind-man's-buff in the middle of this anthill and with no difficulty lay his hands upon any particular man whom he might need.
The subject of the conversations, the business under discussion, varied step by step. Proprietors of ships discussed the clauses of a charter-party with their charterers. Bonders jabbered of schedules and warrants. The air was full of barbarous and exotic phrases; hundred-weights, primage, loans on bottomry. There was talk of special felonies provided against by particular laws. A shipowner was complaining of the barratry committed by his captains. Elsewhere someone was reckoning the total tax on navigation. A shipper was consulting with his supercargo. Nautical assessors were drawing up statements of damages.
His hat in his hand, the dean of a Nation was offering his services to an importer of live beef from Argentina, and to another man who had received a cargo of preserved meat from the same country. A customofficer was taxing the baes of one of the Nations with fraud and irregularity, and they, in turn, were blaming it upon the bonded merchant.
All around the ground floor, beneath the galleries, there were lines of high desks from which the calculators, figures turned men, climbed down only to climb up again, as if struck with vertigo, making themselves hoarse bawling out quotations that the reporters from financial newspapers were hastily taking down in their notebooks.
So many manœuvres to arrive at a single result; money! One man had a taciturn, almost funereal air, and talked business with compunction; another was treating Mercury lightly, and mixing into his jargon a few shady stories.
Lightermen, owners of beurts and barges, their faces brick-red, silver rings in their ears, stood at one side, near the door, and, shifting from one foot to the other, spat, chewed, played tricks on each other, and exhaled a greasy odor as they waited for charterers. English captains quarrelled, raising their voices as if they were ordering a landing, and disagreeably annoying a group of young fops and old beaus snubbed by some speculators who, not far off, were whispering the latest scandal, enumerating the instances of yesterday's good luck, unveiling the secrets of the alcove and the counting house, making up select pleasure parties for the evening, and relieving the arid ritual of commerce with stories of the boudoir and the greenroom.
"With their god-damns, they would make a saint god-damn," declared the wittier of the two young Saint-Fardiers, looking at the flashy sea-wolves, and taking himself off as he said it. His brother left with him, as radiant as if he had been responsible for the joke. They were given time to withdraw some distance; then the circle came together again.
"Their wives are going it a nice pace! Til bet they make their husbands 'god-damn!' Athanasius has nothing to envy Gaston; they look more alike than ever. And everyone is asking which of the two is the more duped. Have you heard about Cora's last escapade?" "Our great Frederick Barbarossa?"
"No—the robin has been jilted! The military cap has supplanted the hat!"
"A Belgiancap …"
"Or almost …"
"That means the civic guard …"
"I don't know …"
"The excellent Pascal who knows no Greek …"
"Van Dam, the Greek consul? But he does not belong to the civic guard!"
"Who said anything to the contrary? O Pascal … lamb! It's Van Frans."
"And is that all you know?" asked a newcomer, De Zater, the man who was always gloved. "What old news! Here's something really new. Lucretia, the impregnable Lucretia …"
"Well, what about her?"
"… has ended up by imitating her little fool friends …"
"With her husband's new partner, the Señor Vera-Pinto, a Chilian, or Terra-Fuegian, or Patagonian; I don't rightly know which!"
"What! The imposter with whom Freddy Béjard is undertaking the transportation of emigrants to Argentina, and who proposed the cartridge transaction to him! Messieurs, doesn't this coincidence open up new horizons to you, as they say at the Palace?"
"You don't maintain that the husband is in connivance with his wife, do you? They detest each other too much for that!"
"Humph! Self-interest would bring them together …"
"And their downfall is thus doubly warded off. For I suppose you know that Papa Dobouziez is selling his share of the factory, and even his house … Hey, Tolmech, what's the quotation on metals?"
"What are you trumpeting there? Old Dobouziez, that rigid knave, that get yourself out as best you can; sacrifice himself for some one else! For Béjard!"
"So! Perhaps you've all just come from the moon, eh? There has been nothing else talked of but this liquidation since early this morning, in the offices, on the street-cars, at the harbor …"
"Daelmans-Deynze is to become the proprietor of the factory. Old Saint-Fardier is also quitting the manufacture of candles. He is dropping the father-in-law in order to become the son-in-law's silent partner. Saint-Fardier is to replace Dupoissy, who lacks 'punch,' in the office of enlistment for America, and he will take charge of the internal arrangements of the ships. There are thousands and thousands of francs waiting to be earned. They've announced the next departure of the Gina with five hundred heads."
"Instead of ebony, Béjard is setting out to sell ivory," concluded De Zater archly.
"By the way, De Maes, I'll take up those consols of yours, whenever they're due …"
"Dobouziez consented to remain as manager at the salary of a cabinet minister, so the cashier at the factory told me …"
"Two words. Monsieur De Zater, about the oils. Shall I buy, or sell?"
"Sell! You are pretty green, Tobiel! Telegraph without delay to Marseilles, and take on all you can get hold of …"
"And that deal in coffee; I'm sending two hundred bales to Brand Brothers, of Hamburg, on the Feldmarschall, and at the same time, I've told my broker to buy leathers with the proceeds …"
"Gentlemen, I have the honor … De Zater, I'm at your service … You were talking about the great self-denial of Dobouziez?"
"No, that's too much for me!… One isn't honest to that point."
"Honest!" sneered Brullekens, the maniac who had his small change cleaned every morning; "you would use another word, eh, Fuchskopf?"
"That Taelmans-Teynze, vot a queer chap he iss! An artist! Dummes Zeug! hauler Schweinerei! Yes, you're lying!"
"Always explicit, these Teutons!… But, De Zater, to come back to Lucretia and her admirer …" "What is that cartridge transaction?"
"Some highway robbery at the least!"
"Not bad, that!"
"Well, this is what it is: Béjard, the unique Béjard, himself and always himself, has just bought from the last Chilian dictator, and through the agency of and in partnership with Senor Vera-Pinto, a balance of fifty million cartridges, withdrawn from use as a consequence of the reforms of their armament. It appears that the worthy pair of friends acquired these refuse munitions for a song … But our clever Béjard counts on selling separately the powder, fulminate, lead and copper that he will get out of those cartridges, and realizing on the deal the neat profit of over five hundred per cent."
"A stroke of genius!" decided all these players of neat strokes, with as much admiration as envy; they were constantly on the scent of an opportunity to make fortunes over night, but never had such a simple means occurred to them. Decidedly, Béjard might be a scoundrel, but he was confoundedly clever, and could teach them all a thing or two!
"Nevertheless, these difficulties remain," continued Brullekens. "To bring that colossal lot of cartridges here isn't all. It is necessary to declare them at the customs-house, and then obtain the city's consent to unload such a formidable cargo, amounting to between two hundred and two hundred and fifty kilos of powder; that is to say, enough to explode the whole of Antwerp and its forts. The Regency will hesitate all the more in such a litigious affair since Bergmans, the vigilant agitator, Béjard's bitterest enemy, having got wind of his intrigue, has not stopped intimidating the Magistrate, and threatens Béjard and his marvellous enterprise with the terrors of the anger of the harbor dockers, who have not yet forgotten the affair of the elevators. As unpopular as he is, Béjard has offset Bergmans' fiery assaults by reminding the riverside population, who are usually in want, of the easy and lucrative work that his industry will procure them.
"He has promised the city administration to extract a thousand kilos of powder from the cartridges every day, so that the business will be finished at the end of nine months. Moreover, he has bound himself to furnish all guarantees, and to conform to whatever precautionary measures the authorities impose. And you'll see—at heart I hope so, for the deal is too sublime—that that devil of a fellow will overcome all the obstacles raised up against him, and he will again make a fool of the city, the province, the government, Bergmans' thunderbolts, and even the vox populi!"
A movement evidencing itself from group to group near the west entry of the Exchange, near the corner in which were located the stock brokers and speculators, put an end to this edifying conversation. The loud outbursts of a bitter argument outvoiced the usual psalmody. The tumult and pushing became so great that the wealthy Verbist, supreme admiral of a fleet of twenty merchant vessels, deigned to inquire of his broker the cause of the commotion.
"What is it all about, Claessens?"
"A shark whom they're calling for his margins, sir. They say he's a pretty hard case!"
Verbist, his face puffed and bloated, wan as a dropsical star, smiled lugubriously, shrugged his shoulders in a singular way, and, as a spectator who was accustomed to this species of execution, and who no longer bothered about the bankrupts among his colleagues, did not ask the name of the hapless speculator, but continued to pick his teeth with the greatest possible comfort.
It was, however, the gentle, suave, unique Dupoissy who was being so sharply taken to task. Chance had willed it that he was to completely wreck himself on the very day that Béjard, his master and employer, was victoriously doubling the cape of ruin. His intimacy with Béjard had given him faith in his own star. And the satellite had believed himself a planet. He had taken himself for an eagle, merely because he was volatile, had wished to fly with his own wings. On the day that rumors of Béjard's imminent discomfiture began to circulate, Dupoissy had dropped him with the ease of a lackey. Moreover, Béjard, having been apprised of the slimy creature's treason, did nothing to retain him.
During Béjard's prosperity, Dupoissy had obtained large commissions, and he, who had never before had a penny to his name, either in his own country or elsewhere, found himself in possession of a quite considerable capital. Instead of establishing himself, for instance, in the woollen or drapery business, in which he claimed his competency was unrivalled, he risked all he possessed in aleatory and long-winded ventures. While Béjard stood over him, the gambler profited by his advice and quit the game, if not without profit, at least without serious losses. But, abandoned to his own initiative, he allowed himself to be thoroughly trimmed. Things came to such a pass that he neglected the most elementary precautions; he hardly even asked the state of the market. Persuaded of his own genius, he speculated indiscriminately in foreign exchange, in metals, in public funds and industrial stocks. For a while he had been able to discount his notes and to continue his short sales; then, one after another, the bankers had refused him credit, and, with the exception of a few pigeons who were taken in by his sweet and oily manner, his hypocritical talk, his air of respectability, and who, taking his jeremiads for truth, thought him a victim of Béjard, he had no one to guarantee his signature but a few freebooters as badly rated as himself.
The forbearance by which he had formerly benefited was now costing him dear.
It happened that the day was one of huge liquidation on the Exchange. The speculator, at the end of his resources, had spent the morning in running from office to office, without finding anyone who would lend him a penny. That did not at all deter him from showing himself on the Exchange, exactly as usual, shining, curly, mild, greeting everyone hypocritically and pretending not to notice the rebuffs and affronts that he met with. Spying one of his partners whom he had properly fleeced, he greeted him with his most captivating smile, and began to converse with him, in a sweetish voice and with enveloping gestures, about a superlatively splendid (he liked those words) deal that was to make them both rich.
This time he was unlucky.
"I wouldn't ask anything better than to go in on a new deal with you," the man answered; "but first, if you don't mind, we'll settle the little matter of the French bonds. You know what I mean. For three months you have put off paying up that little bagatelle!"
Dupoissy was still smiling as he replied:
"Why, of course! Willingly, my dear fellow!… I was just about to ask you to stop in and see me this evening … I only spoke to you about the new deal because it is closely connected with the one we have just finished;—so closely that we could very easily combine them, I tell you …"
"Excuse me," interrupted the other; "all that isn't necessary. I've had enough of your continual combinations. Before I go in with you on any more deals, I'd like to see the color of your money …"
"Monsieur Vlarding!" exclaimed Dupoissy, giving himself the air of an irreproachable man whose sentiments have been outraged.
"Tut, tut! Don't 'Monsieur Vlarding' me! All that has nothing to do with the matter in hand. You are going to pay me two thousand francs right now, in exchange for this receipt!"
"But, my dear old friend, what a way to act, after all these years of mutual confidence!"
"A truce to your protestations. I have but one word to say to you: pagare, pagare!"
"And I repeat to you that I haven't so much money about me!" muttered Dupoissy in an undertone, squeezing his companion's arm. "For heaven's sake, calm down … we are being overheard!"
A circle of people was, in fact, beginning to form around them. To the usual idle onlooking was added a malignant curiosity, the expectation of a scuffle.
And the more Dupoissy tried to wheedle Vlarding, the more did Vlarding yell:
"For the last time. Monsieur Dupoissy, are you ready to pay me the two thousand francs you owe me?"
"When I have them!" let fly Dupoissy, decidedly at his wits' end.
Vlarding jumped like a burned dog.
"What are you saying?" he cried in the face of the insolvent debtor.
Other dupes now joined the chorus with Vlarding. Each one was claiming his debt.
"Will pay! Won't pay," chanted the crowd hilariously, stamping with fierce joy.
"Messieurs, my good sirs, let me go, I beg you! I'm a French citizen, and I shall call my country's consul. It's an indignity …"
"Have you finished?" jeered the young Saint-Fardiers. "Shame upon the deserter! Shame upon the man of Sedan! Shut your trap! To the door with him!"
But the creditors were getting angry and threatening him with their fists, canes and umbrellas. Vlarding has just knocked his hat off. "No! No! No violence!" the majority of the onlookers interposed hypocritically. "Let the pleasure last!"
Trembling with fear, haggard, livid, perspiration and melting pommade rolling down his forehead and ears, the big man did not budge. But, not having the luck of a polecat, his odor did not keep his enemies at a distance! How should he escape from their combined efforts? The signal had been given. They would not hit him; they confined themselves to jostling him. The game had rules consecrated by many earlier precedents. More than one dishonest speculator had been served in the same way. Their hands plunged in their pockets, the tyrants used only their elbows, knees and backs. Just so do the waves roll and cast about a castaway, tormenting him everywhere, and pitch him from one to the other, doing him the least possible injury.
Dupoissy was indeed a shipwrecked man!
He was whirled from right to left, pitched for a moment or two in one direction, then tacked about fantastically. Hardly had one crowd of his torturers flung him forth than another shoved him back. Again, he stood motionless, torn between two currents of equal force, almost reduced to pulp, three-quarters exhausted. Those who were nearest him took the risk of sharing his fate.
"Stop! Not so hard!" they cried to their comrades.
A carnivorous joy fed upon his distress. A single cruel emotion possessed these hundreds of brokers venting themselves upon an unskillful gambler, as if they were college boys hazing a butt. And, as is usually the case, those most in debt and most suspected were the leaders of the orgy.
Gouty millionaires were represented by their brokers or heirs.
The policemen watched discreetly. As long as the victim's skin was uninjured, and they limited the sport to jostling him, the policemen had no authority to interfere. Tradition allowed the assembled business men to punish a defaulting speculator in this fashion.
Between the arcades of the first floor, leaning upon the balustrades of the balcony, hanging over this veritable arena, the little messenger boys were making merry, not without evincing some astonishment at the sight of bearded and usually well-regulated personages playing pranks like rogues of their own age. And they were racked by a desire to go down into the crowd and participate in the savory sport. But, notwithstanding the fact that the placid policemen would not have granted them the immunity accorded to the brokers, a feeling of terror and pity found its way into the hearts of the boys; they still looked on, wide-eyed, but they had stopped laughing.
The rough boatmen, so prone to buffet each other, were petrified with amazement at the "fashionable gentlemen's" unchained fury, and forgot to puff at their short pipes or even to chew their quids.
None of Dupoissy's former friends, none of the hosts who had in other days entertained him at their tables, ran to his rescue. The more tender-hearted among them, seeing what a critical turn the altercation between Dupoissy and his creditors had taken, had prudently stolen away, either for fear of being mixed up in the scandal, or to spare themselves the sight of so painful a scene.
During a raging storm a fishing smack tries to thread its way through the narrow mouth of the harbor. The skiff vainly strives to make its way, but each time the helm bears it into the drift or threatens to break it against the sea-wall. The human hurricane ensnared the pitiable Sedanese in just such a fashion, and drew him near one of the doors of safety only to send him reeling inside, and in so doing shattered him almost to pieces against the columns.
When, after many vicissitudes and a prolonged agony, a strong propulsion sent him flying for a twentieth time toward the entrance, a late-comer pushed open the padded door.
"Hold the door open, Béjard!" roared Saint-Fardier, senior, who had enjoyed the game as much as an Oxford lad enjoys a football match, as he mopped his face.
Expensively clad, buttoned into an overcoat of irreproachable cut, a flower in his buttonhole, haughtier, more poised and more the leader than ever, Béjard realized the situation, and, having nothing more in common with his former creature, wishing above all to show that he had utterly repudiated him, he ceremoniously did as he had been told.
Drawing himself close up to the wall, he flung the door wide to let the victim pass. His face shone with a Satanic joy. Truly, he was a pretty sight, this mean coward!
On his part, Dupoissy recognized his former associate. To be mauled about before him was the last straw, the supreme opprobrium. Frankly, he did not merit this excess of ignominy. He concentrated all that he had left of energy, fire and vital force in one look of cruel malice, a mute imprecation. A toad, crushed by a clodhopper's boot, must dart forth such a look as he gave. Béjard never flinched beneath his fluid vindictiveness. On the contrary, nothing could have flattered him more. Just as a final push was speeding Dupoissy's flight, and he swept past Deputy Béjard with the speed of a projectile, the latter made the profound bow of a notary who receives an important visitor.
Dupoissy rolled like a torn package into the middle of the street, between the two sidewalks. Béjard saw him pick himself up, dust himself, and take himself off, like a slug, keeping close to the walls of the houses.
Then, slowly and accurately, without paying any further attention to the derelict, the great man released the swinging door, and entered the temple where he was being awaited by the felicitations and the homage of a mob ready to treat him as they had treated Dupoissy on the day that Fortune should cease to so patiently choose him as her favorite.
- The Antwerp Bourse burned down on the night of August 8, 1858.