The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter VII
SON-IN-LAW AND FATHER-IN-LAW
Freddy Béjard, the newly elected deputy, gave his political friends the great dinner postponed by the sacking of his house and the effervescence of the masses.
The disturbance had not lasted. The next day the peaceful bourgeois, whom the tumult had kept awake and shaking with fear in their beds, began to make the principal mansions ravaged by the populace the object of their promenades. And since the rich did not hesitate to impute these acts of vandalism to Bergmans, notwithstanding his protestations and energetic disavowals, Freddy Béjard benefited by the indignation of sober-minded and scrupulous citizens.
The newspapers, having been importuned by Dupoissey for weeks, published editorials dealing with "law and order," "the hydra of civil war" and "the specter of anarchy," with the result that many good people of Antwerp, detesting Béjard and foreigners in general, and inclining toward Bergmans, feared that by continuing to support him they were encouraging fresh disorder.
As it was incumbent upon the city to indemnify the victims of the mob, Béjard lost nothing, in a financial way, and made a profit by overestimating the value of the havoc.
So that it was in a repainted and refurnished mansion, costlier than ever, showing no traces of the runners' visit, that monsieur de député feasted his trusty friends; his colleagues of the Antwerp "bench" in parliament, his equals the rich; Dobouziez, Vanderling, Saint-Fardier senior and the two young Saint-Fardier couples. Van Frans and the other Vans, the Peeters, the Willems, the Janssens, not omitting the indispensable Dupoissy.
The beautiful Madame Béjard presided at the dinner. She was more beautiful than ever. She was loaded with compliments and congratulations, and Dupoissy could not lift his glass without looking gallantly at Madame la représentante.
In truth, however, Madame Béjard was profoundly unhappy.
Her husband, whom she had never loved, she now detested and scorned. For a long time past their household had been a living hell; but her pride made her suffer tortures, and she succeeded in acting so cleverly before the world that she fooled all the gossips.
She knew that her husband was maintaining an English ballet girl, a great, common, vulgar woman who swore like a trooper, smoked cigarettes until they burned her fingers, and drank gin by the bottle.
Virtuous and upright, proud, but possessing a character to which any slovenly actions were repugnant. Gina had been forced to put up with her husband's cynical confidences. The infamy of the private and public life of the people of her world had been revealed to her by this aspirant. And, suddenly, she had seen clearly through this society, so brilliant from the outside; she understood Bergmans' intransigeance, she loved him for it so deeply that she, the proud Gina, espoused the cause of this revolutionary, or, as her husband termed him, this king of the wastrels, in the very depth of her heart.
And during the trouble, when she had met Laurent Paridael, she had been aloof and bantering because it was habitual, because of a certain reserve, because of a last false shame that prevented her from letting him know that she had been converted to the benevolent sentiments which she had so despised and carped at in him.
In reality, at the time of the election she had prayed ardently for Bergmans' success and cursed her husband's good fortune. So much so that the looting of their house on that evening of popular fury had corresponded with her mood of weariness, vexation and failure. But as she was never to be Bergmans' wife she would keep such feelings sealed in the bottom of her heart. She was living only for her son, a baby a year old, who was the image of her, and for her father, the only rich person she still loved and believed in. Those little sirens, Angéle and Cora, continued to waste effort in trying to inculcate in Gina their own special philosophy: to take life as though it was a perpetual pleasure party, never to conjure up dreams or ideals, to attach one's self but moderately so that detachment would be easy, to profit by youth and the smile of opportunity, to close one's eyes to all sadness and pain. They were at the dinner, alluring, in evening gowns, their bodies prepossessing, laughing and rattling like plants vivacious in the conquering breath of summer; bawling, cackling, irritating their neighbors, and from time to time darting a conniving glance to one side of the table or the others. It was very naive of their friend Gina to harbor blue devils and black butterflies!
Madame Béjard, suffering from an excruciating headache, presided with irreproachable tact over this dinner that seemed never to come to an end.
What would she have not given to retort to the calumny which, in order to flatter her husband, his friends, led by Dupoissy, were sprinkling upon the reputation of Bergmans!
"—Oh! very funny, very delicate! Did you understand it?"
And Dupoissy hurried to repeat the little scandal in veiled language. If Gina were not enthusiastic over It she must at least approve it with a smile or a nod.
Béjard was trying the fit of his new role. He was talking jargon in imitation of his colleagues, speaking at length of reports, investigations, commissions, budgets.
Dobouziez spoke even less than usual. The knowledge of his daughter's unhappiness had aged him. It was useless for her to pretend that she was happy and contented; he loved her too deeply not to feel intuitively what she was concealing. A year ago he had become a widower; his hair had whitened, his chest did not swell as proudly as it used to, his shoulders bent slightly. One would have thought, to see him, that some of his problems had remained unsolved, or that the algebraist had found their solutions inconsistent.
After dessert, the hostess was asked to sing. Regina still possessed a beautiful voice, supple and powerful as it had been that night at Hémixem, but made richer by the expression, the melancholy and the charm of maturity that had invested her formerly too serene face. And she did not sing the bounding waltz from Romeo tonight, but an ample and passionate melody of Schubert, the Adieu.
Sitting alone in a corner, Dobouziez was hanging upon the sound of his daughter's voice, when he felt a hand upon his shoulder. He jumped. And Béjard whispered:
"Let's go into my study for a moment, father-in-law. I have something to say to you …"
The manufacturer, a little disappointed at being thus torn away from one of the few distractions that remained to him, followed his son-in-law, filled with dismay at the strange intonation in his voice.
When they were seated opposite each other in front of his desk, Béjard opened a drawer, rummaged through a set of pigeonholes, and handed a file of papers to Dobouziez.
"Will you kindly take note of these letters?"
He leaned back in his arm-chair, his fingers drumming upon the leather pads, while with his eyes he followed the impression made by the letters reflected in Dobouziez's face.
The manufacturer's face fell; he paled and his lips moved convulsively. Suddenly, he broke off reading.
"Will you please tell me what all this means?" he said, looking at his son-in-law with more distress than anger.
"Simply that I am ruined, that in a month, or perhaps two weeks, I shall be proclaimed a bankrupt … If you do not come to my assistance …"
"To your assistance!" And Dobouziez flew into a passion. "You wretch! Have I not already plunged myself in difficulties from which I cannot retrieve myself? And at this very minute, isn't the disaster that is striking you carrying me down with you? You must be mad, or very brazen, to look to me again!"
"Nevertheless, you had better get busy, sir … Or perhaps you would rather be known as the father-in-law of an insolvent man? But you haven't finished reading those letters. Please continue. You will see that it merits at least some reflection … Admit that it's not my fault. The failure of Smithson and Co., of New York! Such a well-established bank! Who could have foreseen that? And those copper mines at Sgreveness; the shares have dropped to twenty below par! But it was not I who persuaded you into it! Be fair, and remember your confidence in that little engineer, your brother genius, who offered to let you in on the business!…"
"Keep quiet!" interrupted Dobouziez. "For heaven's sake, stop! What about those wild speculations in coffee that swallowed up your wife's dowry in less than four days? I suppose you went into them on my advice, too! And that gamble in the public funds, in which you made use of Dupoissy! Maybe you think that the fellows on the Exchange are stupid enough to suppose for one minute that the hundred or two hundred thousand francs above the market paid by that lamb, who never had any wool of his own, came out of his own pocket! And that boot-licking rascal is very quietly letting go of you. You ought to hear how he talks about you behind your back! You have succeeded in nauseating even that nobody! On the exchange he doesn't hesitate to say out loud what he thinks of your new … industry, the emigration agency, which will involve you, in all probability, in trouble with the courts! Shame on you!"
"Sir!…" said Béjard, jumping to his feet; "Dupoissy is a blackmailer whom I shall put in jail!"
But without even listening to the interruption, Dobouziez was continuing:
"And you have gone from bad to worse! To stoop to becoming a dealer in human flesh! Really, I am beginning to believe the stories that they tell about you. First dealing in negroes, then in whites; it's quite proper! On my word of honor, I don't know which I should rather have, a slave-dealer or an emigration agent. You haven't even had enough shame to change the name of the "Gina," which now carries off all those poor wretches to Buenos Aires! And your political jobbery! I suppose that I borrowed from your cash-register all the goldpieces and banknotes with which you had yourself elected deputy … I don't have to remind you with how much enthusiasm and sincerity!…"
And, terrible, regaining the commanding air and bitter tone of other days, Dobouziez threw all his grievances in his son-in-law's face.
"And as if all this were not enough," he continued; "not content with having stupidly ruined yourself, and having lost with criminal laxity the property of your wife and child, you are making Gina unhappy; you not only sacrifice her to your political ambition, but you have mistresses, too … you have to keep actresses … with the excuse that it's a man's privilege! And that's not all. The houses of ill-fame in the Riet-Dijk have no customer as frequent and as prodigal as Deputy Béjard! Look here! If I could follow my own inclination, I should take Gina and her child home with me, and I should let you give yourself all your parliamentary airs before the empty cash-box and exhausted credit …"
'Your daughter! You had better talk about your daughter!" sneered Béjard, pulling and chewing his reddish whiskers with temper. "Do you reckon as nothing Madame's whims and her unreasonableness? Damn it! I had to resort to speculation and lucrative business to meet her harlot's luxury. My income as a ship-owner would never have been enough. But that was to be expected, after the splendid education you gave her!"
"Why did you take her away from me, then?" asked Dobouziez. "I was happy and proud to see her well-dressed, radiant, surrounded by things that were expensive, but to her taste. Oh! if I had had to pay only for her clothes and her pleasures, her jewels and little ornaments, monsieur, do you hear me, my funds would not be as low as they are now, since I have had to defray the bills of your political sport, and cover your stupid and extravagant expenses with my signature. You had better not talk to me about what it has cost me; wasters and spenders like you don't let me off so cheap. They take everything away from me; even my reputation!…"
And Dobouziez, exhausted, let himself fall into an armchair.
Béjard had been listening almost all the while, tramping up and down the floor, whistling softly at the most lashing truths.
Upstairs in the drawing rooms, the voice of Madame Béjard, low, rich and melancholy, continued to resound. And her voice stirred the manufacturer to the depths of his heart. For though his probity and his prudence as a business man suffered because he had been so mistaken in his son-in-law's commercial faculty, Dobouziez was especially bitter with himself for having exposed the honor and the fortune of his daughter to the risks of this marriage.
Dobouziez had hoped for a divorce, but the child had come, and the mother feared that it would be taken away from her. In rehearsing the difficulties of his own situation, the manufacturer had not exaggerated. For a long time the factory had been losing money; it gave employment to but half its former staff. Dobouziez had drained his resources completely ten times to finance Béjard's deals. The suspension of payment of the American house, of which Béjard had received notice, affected him also. How would he meet this new complication? He could get out of the mess himself only by mortgaging the factory and his property.
But could he allow his daughter's husband, the father of his grandson and godson, to be declared a bankrupt?
Béjard waited his answer in silence. He had let him argue and vent his wrath, and now he was reading in the old man's contracted face the conflicting emotions that were struggling for mastery within him. When he thought the time had come to take up the subject once more, he resorted to his cloying tone of a crafty Jew.
"No more of these recriminations, father-in-law," he began. "And even though we throw our wrongs, real or fancied, in each other's faces for hours, what good is it going to do? Let's talk little, but keep to the point. It isn't so desperate, hang it all! It will come through all right if you don't persist in plunging me further and further in the scrape into which I feel myself sinking. I have figured up on this paper—and you can take it away to verify my figures at your leisure—that my debts and obligations will reach two million francs. Please don't let's have any more electric shocks … so that I may be able to explain the situation to you! I have enough money myself to liquidate the first four notes that mature, amounting to about eight hundred thousand francs. That will carry us until the first of next month …"
"And then I shall have to reckon upon you!"
"Do you seriously believe that I am going to find you over a million francs?"
"I couldn't believe it any more seriously."
The same mortal and tense silence ensued, while Gina, upstairs, continued singing the beautiful classic German songs, accompanying herself at the piano. Dobouziez put his forehead between his hands and crushed it as if he wished to squeeze out his brain, then relaxed suddenly, rose, clenched his fists, and without letting Béjard know in any other way what extreme measures he had resolved upon, he said:
"Let me have two weeks to think it over … and don't involve yourself any further between now and then!…" Béjard understood that his father-in-law would save him, and came toward him, his hand outstretched, smothered in sweetish formulas of gratitude.
But Dobouziez drew back, swinging his hands sharply behind his back.
"Useless!… If you are really capable of some gratitude, you owe it to Gina and the baby … If it had not been for them!…"
He did not finish, but Béjard, not lacking perspicacity, did not persist.
They both went upstairs into the drawing rooms, pretending to carry on a trifling conversation.
Dobouziez started to go home. Gina went with him to the hall, helped him into his coat, and then offered him her forehead. Dobouziez kissed it lingeringly, took her head in his hands, and looked at her with pride and tenderness.
"Would you be happy, darling, to live with me again?"
"How can you even ask that?"
"Very well; if you are very good, and especially if you recover a little of your former gaiety, I shall arrange to come and live with you here. But keep my intentions secret. Goodnight, girl …"