The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter I
Laurent had just attained his majority, and the manager of the factory had written him a strictly polite letter asking him to call in at the office. Laurent found his guardian just as he had left him four years before, at least in respect to his manner, his bearing and his greeting. His smooth, impassive face was slightly wrinkled, his hair had become white, and he held his commanding head a little less high. On the desk, which the unlucky Swiss Family Robinson had disgraced years before, were placed a sheaf of banknotes and a sheet of paper covered with figures aligned in columns.
The manufacturer, always the man of business, hardly replied to the "Good morning, cousin!" which Laurent was trying to make as respectful and affectionate as possible.
"Kindly take notice of this sheet of paper and verify the exactitude of the figures. It sets forth my account of my stewardship; on the one hand your income; on the other, the expenses of your maintenance and education. You will concede that I have abstained, as far as possible, from making any inroads upon your little capital. When you have examined it, if you are satisfied, I beg that you will sign here … You may have a duplicate of it …"
Laurent made a movement to seize the pen and sign immediately.
Monsieur Dobouziez caught his arm, and said, in his even voice: "None of that!… You'll only displease me … Look it through, first."
Since he felt that way about it, Laurent sat down at the desk and pretended to attentively look over the account of transactions. While waiting, his guardian turned his back upon him and looked out the window, strumming upon the pane.
Laurent did not dare make too short work of his sham verification. He waited five minutes, then risked attracting his relative's attention.
"It is absolutely perfect, cousin!"
And he hastened to affix his best signature to this paper, drawn up so distinctly and with such minute detail.
Dobouziez came back to the desk, blotted the receipted sheet, and locked it in a drawer.
"Good! There is due you thirty two thousand, eight hundred francs. Kindly see whether this is the correct amount."
Vexed and chagrined, Laurent started to pocket the bills and the gold pell-mell.
"Count it, first," said Dobouziez, stopping him.
The young man again obeyed, even counted out loud; then, choking, before he came to the end of his reckoning, he pushed away the neatly piled bills and cash with an abrupt gesture.
"What's the matter? Is there an error?"
The ferociously honest man!
Laurent would have liked to say to him: "Keep this money, guardian … Place it yourself. I don't need it, and will only spend it; it will get away from me because I am not used to it. While you are the man to manage and make use of it as it should be done …"
But he was afraid that the proud Dobouziez, accustomed to playing with millions, would accept such an offer of his laughable capital, the legacy of the late Paridael, that poor clerk, as an insulting familiarity.
And yet with what good will Paridael, junior, would have lent, or even given, the savings of the defunct clerk to this employer of yesterday, himself become, in his turn, a clerk.
"Come, hurry up!" repeated Dobouziez in an icy tone, after having consulted his watch.
Laurent was compelled to take his money. He still delayed going to the door: "At least, cousin, allow me to thank you and to ask you …" he mumbled, pushing his conciliation to the point of repenting his involuntary wrongs and reproaching himself for the antipathy he had inspired, in spite of himself, in the sage.
"All right! All right!"
And the imperturbable gesture and expression of Dobouziez continued to repeat: "I have done my duty, and I don't need anyone's gratitude!"
The transaction had been exact. The inheritance had been administered in an irreproachable manner. The result had been foreseen. Everything was foreseen!
But the rational Dobouziez did not expect the anomalous way in which the orphan was soon to testify his gratitude! He forgot, this perfect calculator, that certain problems are capable of many solutions, Otherwise he would perhaps have called back the young man whom he was dismissing so categorically, and would have said to him: "So be it, unfortunate child! Leave me your little hoard, and above all never consider yourself the debtor of Gina and her father, the fated avenger of my daughter …"
Neither did Laurent suspect, at that moment, what was going to happen, but, nevertheless, he felt a dumb and thick distress rising in his heart. Before coming to the factory, he had rejoiced in the idea of becoming his own master, of possessing a real capital, almost a fortune!… And now that he held these banknotes and this gold, they were burning his pocket and disturbing him as if they did not belong to him. Really, a thief could be no more anxious than this gentleman of independent means.
He had been confident and cheerful after a different fashion the last time he had parted company with his guardian. What illusions and what hopes had he not cherished, then! With the hundred francs that he drew every month he had thought himself the richest of mortals, and now that his fortune was figured in thousands of francs, he had never been at such an utter loss to know what to do with himself, so undecided, nor had his mind ever been so agitated.
Arrived in the street, the Ditch seemed to him to be exhaling a prophetic miasma: the Ditch itself was turning against him! Paridael scented occult menaces in these emanations, but without being able to decipher their vague presage. While waiting, his ill-humor rebounded upon the manufacturer.
"What an iceberg!" he murmured, feeling a shock in every affectionate fibre. "He received me as if I were the vilest of criminals. At the end, if I had not contained myself, I should have thrown the dirty money in his face … the dirty money!"
And feeling very lonely, very much abandoned, afraid of himself and dreading his first tête-à-tête with his heavy fortune, the idea came to him to visit the Tilbaks, so that he might dispel his black thoughts.
The other time, too, he had gone to them immediately after leaving the factory. Immediately regaining his self-possession, his serenity half recovered, he hurried along. As he walked he conjured up the vivifying and salubrious environment in which he was going to gain renewed vigor.
For some time past he had been neglecting his good friends. Honorable scruples were the cause of this apparent indifference. Henriette was no longer the same toward him; not that her affection for him had grown less,—quite to the contrary—but there was something febrile and constrained in her manner that made him think, without being in the least fatuous, that he was the object of a more vibrant feeling than mere fraternal friendship. But, incapable of forgetting the superb Gina, Laurent feared to nourish this passion, for which he could see no hope, for he would have killed himself rather than abuse the confidence which Siska and Vincent placed in him.
But today, as he wended his way toward The Cocoa-nut and his spirit succumbed to a gracious reaction, the image of Henriette appeared sweeter and more touching than ever, and, at this evocation, he experienced, or at least encouraged himself to experience, an inclination toward her less quiet and less platonic than in the past. Why had he wandered for so long? He held happiness in his hand. He could inaugurate his new life and break with his old associations in no better way than by marrying the upright and wholesome daughter of the Tilbaks.
The state of mind into which his interview with Dobouziez had plunged him contributed to accelerate this resolution. Nothing seemed to him more reasonable and more realizable. Her parents' consent he had in advance. They would publish the banns immediately.
Caressing these matrimonial perspectives, he came to The Cocoanut, and, crossing the shop, entered directly, like a familiar friend, into the room at the back. He found all the members of the family together, but was struck by their melancholy. Before he had time to ask for an explanation, Vincent drew him into the front room, and after a fit of nervous coughing, said in a throaty voice:
"It's decided. Monsieur Lorki! We are going to emigrate; we are leaving for Buenos Aires."
Laurent thought he would drop.
"But, my good Vincent, you're losing your wits!"
"Not a bit of it! It's a very serious matter. I took passage this morning at Monsieur Béjard's, on the quai Sainte-Aldegonde. We're going to sail. For months the idea has been running around in my head. There is nothing left for us to attempt here. The shop doesn't pay any longer. Bread is rare with us now!
"The business has been spoiled. What with the runners who seize upon the sailors at the mouth of the Scheldt and drag him, drunk and besotted, to their dark cellars where they skin him and fleece him to the marrow, the little shopkeeper has to give up the struggle … Unless he wants to consort with them, use their methods and fight with them over the prey with fists and knives! I'd as lief join a band of downright thieves!
"And then, too, the invention of steam lighters has forced me to sell my boat for kindling wood. And, to finish the matter, here are our sons who can no longer find positions. The heads of the big firms here engage only Germans. The best disposed toward their poor fellow-citizens, for example, Daelmans-Deynze and Bergmans, are besieged with demands and have already taken on more than twice as many employees as they need! As a special favor they have been willing to take on our Felix. And they are talking of sending him to their Hamburg branch. We should have to wait until a place became vacant for Pierket. But between now and then we have plenty of time to starve … You can see that if s the end. Antwerp doesn't want us any more. So we have made up our minds to leave—all of us! And, if we must die, at least we shall have struggled valiantly until the last effort to live!…"
And Vincent forced back, with a frightful oath, the emotion that was strangling him.
"No, no!" cried Laurent, clapping him on the Back to comfort him. "You shall not go, my brave old Vincent! And I doubly bless the inspiration that brought me here! Since this morning I have become rich, my dear man! I have more than enough to help you and yours. I have more than thirty thousand francs at your command, dear friend. You never suspected me of it, I suppose. Very well, then! Come, come, cease your lamenting … But before going back to Siska and the children, let me complete the project. The money which it would be repugnant to you to accept at the hands of a friend, you will be forced to take from a son, yes, from a son—has not Siska always considered me as her eldest?—or, if it pleases you better, from a son-in-law … Vincent, give me the hand of your daughter Henriette!"
Tilbak put his hands upon Laurent's shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes:
"Thank you. Monsieur Laurent! Your generous offer touches us no less profoundly than your request, but we cannot grant it … For a long time past my wife has read our daughter's heart and struggled against the unreasonable feeling that is concealed there. To hide nothing from you, that love is itself one of the reasons for our departure. All of us, here, need a change of air …
"I tell you, also. Monsieur Laurent, that this marriage is impossible. Even were I to consent to it, my wife would oppose it with all her strength. You don't yet know our Siska! Her ideas of duty are perhaps very singular, but very fixed. When once she has said that this is white and that is black, you can preach to her in vain, you cannot make her retract it … Do you know that she would think she were lacking in respect for the memory of your dear parents if she ever were to consent to an alliance between her family and yours? You are young, Monsieur Laurent, you have a nice little capital, you have had a good education, rich relatives may leave you their fortunes … and you will make a match worthy of that fortune, of your education and your name; a match in accordance with the hopes that your poor, dear, dead parents cherished for your future. Can you not see that your wealthy family would reproach Siska for having harnessed you to her daughter, would consider her an intriguer, a wretched intruder?…"
"Vincent!" cried Laurent, putting his hand over Vincent's mouth. "Be sensible, Vincent. I disregard my good family entirely! It would be very foolish of me to refrain for the sake of the few remaining. You will finish by making me hate them in talking to me this way! It's a pity you were not present to see the welcome I received from that Dobouziez! Old age and disappointments have made him colder and fishier than ever! I am no longer one of them! I wonder whether I ever was! I owe them nothing. Our last links have been broken. And it is to those relatives who deny me, that you would have me sacrifice my affections? Come, come! Your refusal isn't serious … Siska will be more sensible than you."
"Useless, Monsieur Laurent! If my wife had foreseen this love affair, she would never have allowed you here! Spare her the pain of having to emphasize my refusal …"
"So be it!" said Laurent. "But if my visits are a nuisance to you, if a false honor,—yes, I say it advisedly, and so much the worse for you if you take it amiss—prevents your accepting me as a son-in-law,—I who had hop^d to make your Henriette so happy—^at least nothing can prevent you from accepting me as a creditor, and then it will be unnecessary to emigrate!"
"Thank you again. Monsieur Laurent, but we do not need it. To make all plain to you, Jean Vingerhout, the baes of the America, and your friend, is coming with us. He has realized his last cent and is going to try his luck in a new America …"
"Ah! I see it clearly, now! You are going to give Henriette to him!…"
"Well, yes!… Jean is a good chap in our sphere whom you appreciated from the first. And I must ask you a favor, Monsieur Laurent. Our friend has never for a moment suspected Henriette's love for you … Please let him always remain ignorant of her extravagant whim!"
"That is too much!" Laurent interrupted. "Do I have to enter your plans to the extent of making your daughter hate me?"
And within, he was saying to: "Too poor for Gina; too rich for Henriette!" Then, giving free rein to his bitterness:
"Really, my dear Tilbak, you are all the same here in Antwerp! You reduce everything to a question of greasy pennies. My worthy cousin Dobouziez would unreservedly approve of you. The ties of the heart and emotions have no weight. Everything is wiped out by business considerations. Gold alone joins and sunders. You all have money-tills instead of hearts. There! Even you, the Tilbaks, whom I have always considered as my own, are no better than the rest! And I am destined to live always alone and misunderstood … Eternally declassed, a creature of exception, I shall never anywhere find my equals, people of the same temperament as myself!…"
And, in the clutches of a nervous crisis that had been smouldering since that morning, his body shaking from these reiterated emotions, he threw himself into a chair and burst into tears like a child.
Siska, however, having been attracted by the sound of their voices, had half opened the door and heard the end of the conversation. She came to the young fellow and tried to calm him with her motherly words.
"You naughty child! What a way to talk about us! Listen to me, my dear Laurent, and don't be angry. We'll talk this all over again before our departure, but not today. You are too excited. Who knows? Perhaps I can open your eyes to your own feelings!"
A bit intimidated by the solemn tone in which the good woman had said these few words, Laurent restrained himself, and after a desultory conversation, went into the back room and took leave of the family.
A few days later Paridael came back to the Tilbaks'. Siska was valiantly busying herself with the preparations for their departure. Laurent having asked her for the promised explanation, she interrupted her work, and piercing him with an inquisitorial look:
"What I have to say to you, Laurent," she said, "is simply that you have never loved Henriette."
Laurent tried to protest, but while the clear, steady eyes of the worthy woman continued to look into his he would only blush and hang his head.
"And that because you are in love with another!" pursued Siska. "I can even tell you who she is: your cousin Gina become Madame Béjard. You need not deny it! Did you think you could hide that secret from me? Your troubled air when anyone talked of Madame Béjard; your own affectation never to talk of her, would have revealed it to diviners less adroit than myself. Yes, even Henriette knew in which direction your real love was tending. Surely, you are fond of our daughter. Under the impulse of your generous feelings you are even ready to marry her. But, at bottom, you would have continued to prefer the other one. The memory of her would have come between Henriette and yourself. And neither you nor your wife would have met with the happiness you both deserve. As soon as my child suspected your passion for Madame Béjard, I succeeded in completely opening her eyes, and cured her of her love for you … Ah! it was necessary! I should lie were I to say the cure was easy … Laurent, if you swear to me that you really love Henriette, and that she is the chosen of your flesh and of your spirit, I am still ready to give her to you! In doing otherwise, I should be twice a bad mother …"
For his sole response, the boy threw his arms about his clairvoyant friend and confessed to her at length his contradictory desires and griefs.