The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter VI
First consternation, and then rage, took possession of the people of Antwerp at the final outcome of the struggle. The plutocracy had carried it off, but only with the co-operation of corruption and stupidity. The peasantry had opposed their veto to the will of the great city. The victors, who could not conceal from themselves the equivocal alloy of their triumph, committed the error of wishing to celebrate it, and, although inwardly somewhat crestfallen, they faced it out, feigned jubilation, and resolved the crowd, by their bravado and their grimacing challenges, upon the explosion of hostile sentiments that it had been containing with great difficulty since the morning. They did not, however, risk showing themselves upon the balcony of their club, whither they were ironically called by the mob, a sea of convulsive heads, pale and wan with fury, red and inflamed, grinning sardonically, tight-lipped, beating back their tears of rage.
Five o'clock. Night had fallen. The wealthy folk had returned to their houses in the new part of the city, sliding timidly through the crowd that was still keeping watch in the square.
They all stayed there, uneasy, not knowing what to make up their minds to do, their fists clenched, certain that "it was not going to go on this way," but not knowing how "it was going on."
In anticipation of trouble, the burgomaster had called out the civic guard, posts had been doubled; the gendarmerie was under arms.
Bergmans, while crossing the square, had been recognized, cheered, and borne off in triumph. He freed himself as best he could from these ovations; since early in the morning he had exhorted all those who came in contact with him to calm and resignation. "We shall be victorious next time!" he said.
The orange flag floating from the balcony of the Association bearded and exasperated his friends. In the first moments after the news of defeat the consternation of the vanquished had given the victors an opportunity to hoist their flag with impunity.
Suddenly a pushing this way and that began in the crowd. Paridael and his young comrades of the "Jeune Garde des Gueux" jostled their way through until they reached the club.
Carried upon the shoulders of Jean Vingerhout, Laurent, as nimble as a monkey, using both hands and feet, clinging to whatever slight ledges he could, climbed to the balcony, clutched the flagstaff, tried to loosen it, and ending by hanging from it, pulling on the material. A cracking was heard; the wood snapped …
The crowd yelled with anxiety.
The flag was conquered, but the daring conqueror tumbled into empty space with his trophy. He would have broken his neck upon the pavement had the vigilant and solidly built Vingerhout not been there. Vingerhout caught Laurent in his arms without flinching as if he were catching a bale of rice or a sack of cereal in full flight. Then he put Laurent quietly upon his feet with an oath of approval. The young fellow, feeling the earth once more beneath his feet, began to wave his flag over the heads of the crowd. A burst of stormy cheers broke out and continued. The police tried to take Laurent by the collar. Hundreds of hands, following Vingerhout's fist, freed him, threw the policemen into disorder, and reduced them to impotence.
The young fellows took the head of a huge column that began moving after having sent three volleys of cat-calls toward the dismantled balcony, singing the "Hymne des Gueux," composed by Vyveloy, and a Flemish refrain improvised in honor of their leader.
From a distance came the song of the other party. Where could such a challenge come from? An electric tremor ran through the whole line.
"Down with them!" And the crowd rushed wildly across the Place de Meir.
At the corner of this square, where it becomes narrowest, the Gueux fell upon a crew of young revellers with blue cockades, with a band and torches. With a frightful clamor they threw themselves upon their provokers. In an instant the torches had been torn from their hands, a hole had been kicked in the drum, the whole crew had been thoroughly trounced and trampled upon without having made the slightest resistance.
And by the time that the middle and the tail of the line had come up to the place where the scuffle had taken place, the fugitives were already far away.
The Gueux, however, had heard that the rich people, thinking themselves sheltered from the wrath of the mob, on the Boulevard Leopold, in the new part of the city, had illuminated their houses and decorated them with flags.
"To Béjard's!" howled the mob.
From the Place de Meir onward the demonstration took on a sinister aspect. The ranks of workmen, dockers and bourgeois disappeared to make way for a crowd of shameless fellows. They were no longer singing the "Hymne des Gueux," but were shouting incendiary refrains.
On the road, in the Avenue des Arts, a runner threw a paving stone through the door of the Saint-Fardier residence, the windows of which were decorated with lanterns. The panes of glass smashed to pieces. The wind, rustling a silk curtain, blew it close to the flame of a lantern; the goods took fire. The ferocious mob shivered and cheered the flames, an unexpected accomplice.
"That's it! Let's burn the whole caboose!"
But a half-company of gendarmes, the police, and a company of the civic guard prevented them from carrying this pleasantry any further.
While one part of the procession remained behind to annoy the gendarmes, the others made good their escape by passing through the side streets and coming out upon the Boulevard Leopold almost opposite Béjard's residence.
"Down with Béjard!… Down with the vendor of souls!… Down with the slave-trader!… Down with the torturer of children!…"
An outburst of bloodthirsty cries greeted the home of the oligarch. Whether or not he knew what was in the air, Béjard, the foreigner, the elect of the peasantry, had abstained from illuminating his mansion. The shutters on the ground floor were closed, and it seemed as if there were no light within.
But this discretion did not disarm the mob. They hurled themselves furiously upon the accursed house. Prowlers and vagrants, of which the greater part of the procession now consisted, especially excel in demolition. The barred shutters were torn from the windows, and the windows themselves shattered to splinters.
"To the death! To the death!" shrieked the rioters.
Confiding the flag to his faithful Vingerhout, Paridael came between them, and tried to prevent them from breaking into the house, for suddenly all his thoughts had returned to the wife of the unpopular ship-owner, his Cousin Gina. Let them tear Béjard to pieces or hang him! Laurent would not have cared at all. Let them not leave one stone of the house upon another! Laurent would have willingly helped the destroyers. But he would give his last drop of blood to spare Madame Béjard one fright or emotion!
Ah! luckless fellow, why had he had not foreseen this danger sooner?
He called Vingerhout to his aid. But they were swept aside. It was impossible to dam the furious mass. There was nothing to do but follow them, or, better, precede them into the house and bring help to the young woman. Laurent jumped through a window into the salon. Already a swarm of infuriated men were struggling in there like epileptics; shattering the furniture and bibelots, tearing down curtains, cutting holes into cushions, pulling pictures from the wall, reducing tapestries and hangings to lint, throwing the debris out of the windows, pillaging and degrading everything that came to hand.
Laurent outran them into the neighboring room; it was dark and deserted. He penetrated into a third salon; nobody there; into the dining room. Again nobody; he ransacked the orangery and the conservatory without meeting a living soul.
Others, however, followed him. Weary of breaking everything, they wanted to do their business with Béjard. Laurent rushed out into the vestibule, saw the staircase, and mounted it four steps at a time.
He reached the first floor landing, penetrated into the bedrooms, a dressing room, and another room. Nobody. He called, "Gina! Gina!" Not even the ghost of Gina! He continued his search, rummaging all the corners, opening closets and wardrobes, looking under the beds. And still nothing! She was not on the upper floors, or in the garret. Coming downstairs in despair he ran into the ringleaders, who were still howling for Béjard. For a very little they would have accused Paridael of having let his enemy escape. Happily, Vingerhout came along just in time to take him out of their hands.
Outside the tumult was augmenting. Laurent walked out into the garden and visited the stables with no greater success.
Finally he resolved to quit the deserted house. In the street, where hundreds of spectators among the rioters watched the sacking of this luxurious home with sanctimonious curiosity, he learned from the servants that the master and mistress were dining with Madame Athanasius Saint-Fardier. Reassured, he was about to leave the theatre of the saturnalia when he heard a furious galloping resounding in the distance.
"The civic guard on horseback! Every one for himself!"
Pillagers and destroyers interrupted their business.
The platoon approached at a gallop. At a hundred meters distance from the rabble the captain, Van Frans the banker, an old friend of the Dobouziez family, ordered a halt.
All rich men and the sons of rich men, parade soldiers only, they were proud of their handsome dark green uniform, of their silver-buttoned tunics and black brandenburgs, of their trousers with the amaranthine stripe, of their astrachan knapsacks with the red shoulder-straps and silver tassels. Their mounts had shabracks matching the uniform, on the corners of which were embroidered silver bugles, and an ordonnance cloak was rolled up on the front of the saddles.
Pale, excited, their eyes glistening, they made their horses wheel and paw the ground. Seeing that they had stopped, the rioters were emboldened to mock them. "Cardboard soldiers! Buffoons! Sunday cavaliers!" Laurent recognized Athanasius and Gaston Saint-Fardier, and heard the former, who was pushing his horse forward, say to Van Frans: "Are we never going to charge that rabble, Captain?" In passing through the Avenue des Arts the two brothers had seen the havoc wrought upon their father's house, and burned with impatience to avenge the affront.
Until now the service of this honorary squadron had been a recreation, a simple sport, a pretext for walks and excursions and parties in the country. It was not the fault of the handsome dilettante in uniform that these loafers forced them to take themselves seriously.
"Draw … sabres!" commanded Van Frans in a slightly trembling voice. And the virgin swords, drawn from their sheaths with a metallic clinking, added a livid flame to the gloved hand of every cavalier.
This v^as enough to throw the looters into a panic. The crowd broke in front, and flung themselves into the side streets to the left and right. The more daring hurried to get out of the way on the opposite pavement or beneath the trees in the center of the avenue.
"Charge!" ordered Van Frans, sharply. "Forward!"
And the squadron dashed forward at a breakneck gallop. Stirrups and scabbards clanked each other, the pavement sparkled like an anvil.
After having put the mob to flight and pretended to chase them, the soldiers halted, wheeled, and charged a second time, in the opposite direction.
The police succeeded in dispersing the last rioters, and by now, being in the majority, began to capture the ringleaders and put them under arrest.
Pursued from that side, the most infurated members of the mob resigned themselves to making a demonstration elsewhere.
Turning the comer of a street, Laurent found himself face to face with Regina. The news of the riot had surprised the Béjards at the dinner table, and while her husband had gone to the Hotel de Ville to confer with his friends, Gina, in spite of all efforts to detain her, had walked out alone, curious to see for herself her husband's unpopularity.
Laurent took her by the arm.
"Come with me, Regina. You can't go home. Your house is a ruin, and even the street is dangerous for you. It would be better for you to go to your father's,"
She saw that he was wearing the colors of Bergmans' party upon his cap.
"You are making common cause with them; you were among those who made that little expedition to my house … Really, Laurent, that's the last straw! What a dirty deed!"
"This is not the time to recriminate and say unpleasant things to me!" said Paridael with an assurance that he had never before felt in talking to her. "Come with me!"
Frightened and overmastered by his air of resolution, she allowed herself to be led, and even took his arm. He lifted her into the first carriage that they met, cast the Dobouziez address to the cabby, and sat down opposite her before she had risked a remark.
"Excuse me," he said, "I shall not leave you until I know that you are in a safe place."
She did not answer. Neither of them opened their lips again.
Laurent's knees brushed those of the young woman; their feet met, and she withdrew hers with a terrified start, drawing back into a corner of the carriage, or pretending to look out of the window. Laurent held his breath in order the better to hear hers; he could have wished that the trip would last forever. Both were thinking of the last time they had met. She began to be afraid; he felt himself again becoming the lover of former days.
They passed drunken runners brandishing cudgels at the end of which were attached shreds of material torn from the furniture and hangings of the mansions that had been sacked. As they passed each street lamp Laurent caught a fleeting vision of the young woman. The alarm that he was causing his cousin sorely vexed him. Forever, then, he was to be an object of aversion and scorn! When they reached the factory he got out first and offered her his hand. She stepped out without taking his proffered assistance, and said, for the sake of politeness:
"Won't you come in?"
"You know that your father has sworn never to receive me …"
"True. I almost forgot that … However, I owe you my thanks, don't I?… Monsieur Béjard has some chivalrous enemies …"
"I beg you, cousin, don't scoff at me! If you only knew how unjust your sarcasms are! Instead, believe in my unalterable devotion and my profound … admiration for you."
"You talk like the end of a letter," she answered with a faint air of having taken up her old bantering manner. But it lacked sincerity and good humor. "Very well … again, thank you …" And she vanished into the house.