The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter VIII

The New Carthage by Georges Eekhoud, translated by Lloyd R. Morris
Part II, Chapter VIII



At the end of one of the riverside streets in the Marché-aux-Chevaux, where great cold mansions, the homes of patrician families, are unwilling neighbors to the offices and stores of wholesale merchants, the scene of the continual passage to and fro of a prosperous crowd,—there runs a tawny wall, crumbling to dust beneath the weight of two centuries, but massive enough to do service for many years to come.

Midway along the wall a great carriage entrance leads to a vast courtyard enclosed upon three sides by buildings that date back to the time of Archduke Albert and Isabella, but which, during the intervening centuries, have undergone the rebuilding and restoration made necessary by their modern destiny.

One of the heavy black doors bears a large brass plate, conscientiously polished, upon which one may read in tall letters: J. B. Daelmans-Deynze & Cie. The engraver had wanted to add, "Colonial produce." But why? It had long been established in Antwerp, as surely as two and two are four, that Daelmans-Deynze, the only Daelmans-Deynze, had been in colonial produce, father and son, since the Austrian domination, perhaps even as far back as the glories of the Hansa.

If one passed through the carriage entrance, as dark as a tunnel in the fortifications, and came into the courtyard, one first saw an alert, but stout, old man, ruddy, with thin twisted legs that were buttressed more than was actually necessary, but which were in constant movement He was Pietje the door-keeper, Pietje de kromme—the knock-kneed, as the clerks and journeymen of the firm irreverently called him. But Pietje took no umbrage at the name. As soon as he saw you, he would take off his black cap with the lacquered peak and, if you asked for the head of the firm, he would say, according to the hour of the day … "At the back, in the house, if you please, sir;" or, "To the right, in his ofiice, at your service."

The courtyard, paved with solid bluestone, was generally obstructed by bags, cases, casks, barrels, demijohns, and leather bottles of all colors and dimensions. But Pietje, amused by your frank expression of surprise, would tell you that all this was but a minor warehouse, a stock of samples.

"At the Saint-Felix warehouse, or on the docks at the Old Basins, you can see some of the merchandise imported or exported by Daelmans-Deynze!"

Heavy trucks, drawn by the enormous horses of the Nations, their powerful flanks glistening, waited in the street to be loaded or unloaded. Van Liere, the warehouse-keepeer, thin and lanky in his jacket, clean-shaven, with the eye of a customs-inspector, a pencil and notebook in hand, was taking notes, adding figures, filling out blanks, seizing way-bills, looking over invoices, occasionally jumping, with the agility of a squirrel, upon a pile of merchandise, the condition of which he was examining, ejaculating questions, reproving his assistants, hurrying the truckmen in a language as unintelligible as Sanskrit to one uninitiated into the mysteries of colonial produce.

The dockers, huge fellows with the build of antique gods, wearing leather aprons, the muscles of their bare arms twisting like strands of a cable, flushed, hurried, lifted the huge bales with lively cries, and, having balanced the burden upon their shoulders, seemed to be carrying only a load of feathers. The truckman, in blue blouse, brown-ribbed corduroy trousers, his felt hat misshapen and discolored by the rain, was listening respectfully to Van Liere's observations.

"Minus, move a little! Let the gentleman pass," said this potentate with a smile of condescension, seeing your embarrassing situation in the wink of an eye, as you were striding over bags and cases, not knowing how your gymnastics were to end.

One of the giants removed, as if with the back of his callous hand, a tormenting barrel, and with the *Thank-you" of a rescued castaway, you finally pushed a door in the corner made by the street wall and the right-hand building, a door on the glass pane of which was the word "Offices."

But you entered only the waiting-room.

A new swarm of people. Cheer up! The leather-padded door leading to the inner rooms slid silently. Twenty tireless pens were grinding on the thick paper of the account books, or brushing over the tissue on which letters were duplicated; twenty bookkeeper's desks, back to back, extended in a line down the whole length of a room, lit from the court, by six tall windows; twenty clerks perched on as many stools, their sleeves protected by paper cornucopias, their noses buried in work, seemed not to have perceived your intrusion. You coughed, not daring a direct question.

"Foreign business, sir?" "Correspondence?" "Cashier?" "Corinthian goods?" "Dates?" "Prunes?" "Olive Oil?" the heads of these diverse departments asked you mechanically, without even looking up, until you reached the end of the line.

"No!" you would answer to the least imposing of this staff, a young man with the polite air of a novice, the office boy, clad in trousers too short for his long body, his arms doing a perpetual steeple-chase with the sleeve of his jacket, beating the short-winded goods by the length of a hand, a wrist, or part of a forearm.

"No!" you said, "I would like to speak to Monsieur Daelmans——"

"Daelmans-Deynze," the terrified young man would answer. "Monsieur Daelmans-Deynze … the door right ahead of you. Let me go first, please. He may be busy. Your name, please, sir?"

Finally, the last formality having been complied with, you advanced, skirting the line of desks, and passing in review the twenty clerks, fat and lean, chlorotic or pimpled, pale or ruddy, blond or dark, varying from sixty to eighteen—the age of the distressed young man—but all equally busy, profoundly disdainful of the profane motive that brought you, a simple observer, an artist, an intermittent worker, into this environment of incessant activity, one of the sanctuaries consecrated to Mercury of the winged feet.

And it was hardly worth while for Monsieur Lynen, the old cashier, to raise his bald head and gold spectacles as you went by, or for Monsieur Bietermans, second to him in importance, the correspondent for foreign languages, to adjust his Japanese eyeglasses on his diplomatically curved nose to ogle you for a second.

But did these supernumeraries count, now that you were admitted to the presence of the supreme head of the firm? He had bid you enter in his sonorous voice. He was there before your eyes, this man, solid as a pillar, a pillar maintaining upon its shoulders one of the oldest houses in Antwerp. He has looked you up and down with blue-grey, clear eyes, without impertinence; in a single glance he gauges his man as quickly as he transacts a bit of business on the Exchange; his eyes contain both compass and plummet; he knows what stuff you are made of, and can tell, with the certainty of a touchstone, if you are pure gold or but gold plate.

A terrible man for uneasy consciences, or for speculators, this Daelmans-Deynze! But a judicious friend, an amiable protector and a reliable support for honest people, and you must be one, for he has tendered his large hand heartily, and grasped yours.

His pen behind his ear, his mouth smiling, his face frank and cordial, he listens to you, punctuating your polite phrases with the kind, "Very well, thank you," of a man who knows that one interests oneself only in what concerns one. His health? You inquire as to his health. Could anyone carry fifty-five years more lightly than he? His hair is correctly cut, and divided by an irreproachable part; it is becoming grey, but has not yet deserted his fine head; later on it will be a white aureole, and lend an added attraction to his sympathetic face. His long, dark whiskers, which he keeps fingering mechanically, are beginning to show a few white hairs, but they are very aristocratic-looking as they are. And his forehead; can the slightest wrinkle be discovered there? Is not his rosy complexion the healthiest of colors, the complexion of a man without any rancor, with a well-balanced temperament as far removed from consumption as it is from apoplexy? Daelmans-Deynze does not even wear spectacles. A little folding eyeglass is suspended from a cord worn around his neck. But that is but a simple fad. It renders him as little service as the charms that hang from his watch chain. His clothes are sober and fashionable. Very dark suits and very white linen are his sole indulgence in the matter of dress. Tall, large of shoulder, he holds himself as straight as a die, or rather, as we have already said, as a pillar upon which reposes the interests of one of the oldest houses in Antwerp.

Worthy Daelmans-Deynze! In the street, he has to bow at every step. From children on their way to school to factory hands, everyone doffs their hat to him. Even to the old and aristocratic Baron Van der Dorpen, who salutes him, often the first, with a friendly, "Good morning, Monsieur Daelmans." It is because his commercial escutcheon has never borne the slightest stain. If you claim his acquaintance, no door in the great business city, from Tête de Grue to Astruweel, will ever be closed to you.

In a matter that threatens litigation, it is with him that both parties prefer to consult before seeking attorneys. How many times has not his arbitration staved off ruinous lawsuits, or his intervention and guarantee prevented disastrous failures! You ask after his wife? … "She is very well, thank heaven! I shall take you in to see her. You will take luncheon with us, won't you? And in the meanwhile we shall have a glass of sherry."

He puts his great hand on your shoulder in sign of possession; you are his man, no matter what you may do. Moreover, it is impossible to refuse so cordial an invitation. He could take you directly from the office to the house through a little secret door, but he has still a few instructions to give to Messrs. Bietermans and Lynen.

"A letter from our London correspondent?" asks Bietermans, rising.

"Oh! from Mordaunt-Hackey … Yes, yes! The sugar business, no doubt! Please write him that we abide by our conditions. Messieurs, I bid you a very good day!… Who is going on the Exchange today? You, Torfs? Then don't forget to speak to Monsieur Barwoets … Excuse me, my friend. There! Now I am with you!…"

What an amiable man is Daelmans-Deynze!

His orders were given in the paternal tone that made his employes fanatic auxiliaries.

One of the causes of his popularity in Antwerp, and that not the least cause, was that the firm employed only Flemish workmen, and especially natives of Antwerp, while the majority of the great houses gave preference to Germans.

The worthy sinjoor did not even wish to accept foreigners as volunteers. He did not shirk additional expense in order to give bread and butter to the young men of Antwerp, the jongens van Antwerpen, as he said, proud himself to be one of them.

The other merchants found this way of conducting a business very eccentric. The Rhenish banker Fuchskopf shrugged his shoulders, and said to his compatriots residing in Antwerp, "Dot chap Taelmans is making boetry," but the worthy Flamand did good and let others talk about it, and the Tilbaks spoke lovingly of the patriotism of the millionaire at the Marché-aux-Chevaux, and Vincent held this destiny before the eyes of his little Pierket, a good student, "One day you will enter the employment of Daelmans-Deynze."

He has led you to the end of the courtyard, and into the house, the ancient facade of which is overrun with ivy almost as old as the house itself. At the left, opposite the offices, are the stables and coach-house. You ascend four steps, and push open the great glass door, canopied by a marquise.

"Josephine! Here is a resurrected friend!"

And a hearty clap on the back from the hand of your host brings you into the presence of Madame Daelmans.

She has been working at a bit of crochet, but gives vent to an exclamation of surprise, and goes into raptures at the happy inspiration to which they owe your visit.

If the husband is charming, and a splendid host, what can be said of his wife? Pre-eminently the Antwerp housewife, she is solicitous, neat and diligent.

She is forty years old, this Madame Daelmans. Strands of glossy black hair frame a merry face wherein burn two dark, affectionate eyes, and whose lips smile maternally. Her cheeks are plump, and the color of a ripening apple.

The good lady is short, and complains that she is beginning to be too stout. However, laziness is not the cause of her corpulence. She rises at daybreak, and is always on her feet, as active and busy as an ant. She presides, so she says, over all the details of the housekeeping, but what she does not tell is that she puts her hand to all the work. Nothing goes quickly enough to suit her. She instructs her cook in the art of making pot-au-feu repeatedly, and shows the chambermaid how the furniture must be dusted. She runs upstairs and down. She has hardly sat down and put her hand upon the newspaper or the knitting that she has just begun when she begins to worry about the fate of the ragout simmering in the casserole, or the store of pears in the cellar. Lise might have made too big a fire, and Pier would forget to turn the fruit that had begun to spot on one side. But she is never ill-tempered; the good lady is vigilant without being a meddler. She gives largely to the poor of the parish, but does not tolerate the waste of the slightest crumb of bread.

And how beautifully she maintains Daelmans-Deynze's old house! In the great room into which you have been led, you are not struck by new-fangled styles, a flaming new set of furniture, paintings to which the fashionable decorator has just given the last hasty touch. No; it is the substantial and simple room which you imagined in seeing its owners. Their furniture is not the companion of a day, bought in a moment of caprice and to be replaced by another whim. There are solid sofas and massive mahogany arm-chairs in Empire style, upholstered in pistache green velour. The upholstery is renewed from time to time with jealous care, and the time-honored wood is conscientiously polished; they are kept on like the old household servants, and will never be replaced.

The gilding of the mirrors, the picture frames and the chandeliers has long ago lost its native gleam, and the colors of the thick Smyrna carpet have been eaten away by the sunlight, but the old family portraits gain in intimacy and in a patriarchal poetry in their dulled gold frames, and the fleecy carpet has shed its shrill colors; its striking bouquets have taken the tone of September foliage. For many years past the huge alabaster vases have filled out the four corners of the vast room, the walls have been hung in the same Cordovan leather, the round rosewood table has held the center of the room, the ornamental clock with a vibrating and silvery tone has struck the hours from its position between the ten-branched bronze candelabras. But these old things have an air of distinction about them; they are relics of the penates. And the antimacassars and tidies, examples of Madame Daelmans' diligent crochetting, hang upon the dull velour in the severe and charming folds of altar-cloths.

It was to Daelmans-Deynze that William Dobouziez presented himself on the morrow of Freddy Béjard's political dinner.

The two men, comrades at college, had always highly esteemed each other, and had seen each other frequently for many years; it was the too apparent luxury, the flashy style of living, and especially the bustling, cosmopolitan connections of the manufacturer which had alienated Monsieur Daelmans from a colleague whose solid knowledge, application and probity he had deeply appreciated. At one time, indeed, they had even seriously thought of going into partnership. Daelmans had intended to invest his capital in the factory. But that had been at the time of Dobouziez's greatest prosperity, and he had preferred to continue as sole proprietor of the business. Today he came to humbly propose that the merchant reconsider the proposition.

Daelmans-Deynze had long known that the factory was in jeopardy, he was no less ignorant of the sacrifices incurred by Dobouziez in establishing his daughter and helping out Béjard; he could have exhibited a certain astonishment at such a proposition, and disparaged the offer in order to obtain huge concessions; but Daelmans-Deynze behaved with greater discretion and less knavery.

At heart, he had no great desire to embarrass himself with a new business during a time of crisis and stagnation, but he had divined, from the first words of their interview, even from the measures upon which Dobouziez had resolved to take, that Dobouziez was in frightful difficulties, and Daelmans belonged to the ever-diminishing class of business men who come to each other's assistance. One may well admire the tact with which Daelmans discussed the conditions of the purchase. In order to set Dobouziez at his ease he evinced no surprise, nor did he employ that tone of compassion which would have so cruelly hurt the manufacturer; he did not even insinuate that, if he bought the factory, it would be only to oblige a friend in need. Not a recrimination, not a reproach, no air of superiority!

What a good man was Daelmans-Deynze! And his kindheartedness did not prevent him from examining and discussing the business at length. He knew how to combine his interests and his generosity; he was willing to oblige his friend, but upon condition of not running into debt himself. What could be more equitable? It was both strictly businesslike and broadly human. And they were about to finish the deal.

There remained one point which neither of them wished to touch upon, although both had it at heart. But Dobouziez was proud, and Daelmans, delicate. Finally Daelmans resolved to take the bull by the horns.

"And, without being indiscreet, Monsieur Dobouziez, what do you plan to do now?"

Dobouziez hesitated to answer. He did not dare express what he would have wished.

"See here," continued Daelmans, "you will receive my proposition as you understand it, and it is agreed in advance that you will forgive me, if it appears to be inacceptable to you … Well! If the factory is to change proprietors, it would be disastrous for it to lose its director at the same time. Do you understand me? I would even say that such an eventuality would prevent me from buying it. Capital is replaced, money is made, or lost, or," he was about to say "frittered away," but refrained, "is made again. But what it is hard to find, and harder to replace, is a man of talent, intelligence, active, experienced; in short, a business man … That is why I am asking you. Monsieur Dobouziez, whether you would find it inconvenient to remain at the head of a business that you yourself built up, and that you alone can maintain and improve. Do we understand one another?"

Did they understand each other! They could not agree upon more favorable terms. It was precisely the solution that Monsieur Dobouziez was hoping for.

Between men so honest and so upright, the salary of the director was agreed upon with as great facility, subject to the ratification of Saint-Fardier and the minor shareholders; a simple formality. It goes without saying that Daelmans put the director's salary at a respectably high figure. He even wished the director to continue his occupation of the house adjoining the factory. But the solitary father wished to go and live with his daughter.

Ah! nobody could have so completely assuaged the bitterness and the humiliation which this sacrifice cost Dobouziez! Who could have believed the merchant capable of such delicacy and such fine shadings of kindness? Dobouziez was forced to admit it in the bottom of his heart, so armored, proud, and inaccessible to emotions. And, as he was leaving M. Daelmans—his employer—as he was uttering some correct formula of gratitude, he felt as if icicles were suddenly melting in his breast, and thinking better of it, fell into the arms of his friend, his saviour.

"Courage!" said the other, with his habitual simplicity and heartiness.