The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter II
Béjard, Saint-Fardier and Vera-Pinto had well chosen the moment to begin their traffic in white flesh, or, as De Zater called it, ivory. Much money was to be made in this filthy commerce. In their narrow offices a continual procession was constantly marching by. Saint-Fardier was in command, and made the hordes and tribes of poor devils run the gauntlet. It was he who sent out recruiters to beat the woods and drain the land.
Originating in Ireland, emigration swept over Russia, Germany, and then the north of France. Thousands of foreigners had already expatriated themselves before the Belgians were inoculated with the fever. The contagion first spread among the laborers of the Borinage and the district about Charleroi, coal-miners whose merciless subterranean slavery was unrelieved by death, fallen cyclops, torn between the intolerance of labor-leaders and the harshness of the capitalists, worn out by strikes and enforced idleness, and, when spared by the fire-damp, dispatched by a soldier's bullet.
And, after having depopulated the Walloon, the fever of expatriation consumed Flanders. Weavers of Ghent, their lungs clogged by the fine flues of thread, packed off to America as, centuries before, their ancestors had gone to England.
Finally, the impulse spread to the district about Antwerp.
For a long time past the dockers, working on the very banks of the river from which heavy cargoes of exiles, penned up like sheep, were constantly departing, resisted the general enthusiasm. Suspicious and skeptical, they had no desire to fatten with their carcasses the land of the celebrated guano, after having given up their last farthing to the emigration agents, whom they saw swelling and prospering all around them, leeches fattening upon the blood of fools.
Previously, the departure of a peasant or of a laborer would have stupefied the whole quarter or the whole parish. Such a thing would have been considered an act of desperation, an apostasy, the deed of an unnatural being. The only people capable of such an act were occasional unskilled laborers, farm-hands who had been dismissed everywhere, riff-raff who, no longer knowing to which baes to hire out, ended, under the influence of a last debauch, by selling themselves to the crimp who enlisted volunteers for the Dutch army in the East Indies.
But now expatriation began to enter into the customs of respectable people. By the hundreds, urban and rural folk, from the banks of the Scheldt, from the waste dunes of the Campine, navvies from the Polder, brush-trussers of Bruyere, fled the land as if pursued by the surge of an occult inundation.
A restlessness beneath the ancestral roof, a distrust of the good will of the native land, a nomadic impatience, an instinctive need for change penetrated and consumed the most distant and lonely localities.
The same pioneers who never, never would have changed their labor, no matter how fruitless and painful, for a lucrative position in the city, suffered overnight the vertigo of exodus and exiled themselves in masses.
How many, however, of these inveterate dwellers on the land, their bodies bent almost double over the bare earth, more obdurate at home than anywhere else, undergoing with fanatical voluptuousness the crafty effects of atmosphere and climate, their plump hovels sticking to plowed fields as tawny as their breeches, had formerly suffered from a sharp nostalgia when conscription had brutally transplanted them into the tumultuous and turbulent city, deprived them of their laborer's garb to harness them in military livery, detained them in putrid barracks far from their balsamic native fields, or spewed them forth, on certain days, confused and dreary, into the snare-ridden street? What desolation; what desires for the wretched homeland! How many hours there were in which to ruminate trifling memories!
Ah! the stealthy homecoming of the soldier; the minutes exactly calculated, the road travelled at a fugitive's pace!
The day-long furlough, the short respite employed to pass one hour, but one brief hour, at the natal hearth; the unexpected apparitions conjured up on the hasty trip, breathless and panting like a hunted tramp; only time enough to go and come, to put foot upon the delicious home fields, to embrace the old folk and the loved one, to again breathe the odor of the land in the emollient humidity of twilight!
And now these same hardened rustics, seeing themselves confronted by a sinister dilemma, filled with a poignant and sullen resolution, consented to cut themselves off forever from their native land.
For a long time their faithful hearts had resisted. As long as they had succeeded in being able to divide among them a crust of black bread and a porringer full of potatoes they had been inflexible, stinting themselves, as strong in their attachment to the land as Christians are in the faith; but when the day came when the women and even the children had nothing to eat, their heroism had given away, and one morning they had resolved upon exile as if they were resigning themselves to suicide.
It is all over. The household leaves the ancestral farm; its head gives up the leased land, sells the cattle, horses, the wagons, the agricultural tools!…
The defeat of the most tenacious partisans of the land, of the best among the peasantry, excited the rest of the population and set them in motion; the panic propagated itself from village to village.
Farmers who could have held out for a few years more and withstood the crisis took fright, and sent off their laborers and poor, half-starved wretches. They remembered so many of their richer neighbors, who had always been hoping, who had moved heaven and hell against repeated proof, against chronic distress, until the insufficiency of the crops, aggravated by the competition of transatlantic granaries, reduced them in their old age to taking service on the farms of which they had formerly been the masters.
The far-sighted took their tools and the beasts of burden with them. They went bravely to the fertile fields, the promised lands and eldorados, the kingdoms of Cockaigne ruled over by Prester John, America bursting with grain and fruit, the produce of which, fat beef, tasty meat, prolific wheat, was inundating, from over the sea, the markets of Europe, submerging the ridiculous flora and fauna torn from our pasturage and fallow fields. No! rather than wait for the coupde-grace, the harvesters of decadent Europe were leaving for the plethoric continent.
And, to complete the defeat and transform into nomads the hitherto underacinated peasants, recruiters with the gift of the gab, adroit and insinuating, went from market town to market town, visited the inns on the days of fairs and sales, and took advantage of the poor fellows' after-taste and lassitude on Sunday evenings, or on the mornings following a kermess, to excite their minds with troubling mirages of prosperity. In order the better to hearken to the honeyed voiced tempter and his glittering gabble, cowherds and haymakers, horny and innocent, their mouths wide open, their eyes ecstatic, allowed their clay pipes to go out. The electricity of wonder played upon their tanned and shiny skins, tickled their ingenuous feelings to the marrow, stupefied their cunning senses, and held them breathless, hanging upon the lips of the rascal from which fell, like fireworks, descriptions more dazzling and more fiery than the chromos on a mercer's bale or ballad-monger's screen.
A swarm of these jobbers recruited from among the lowest class of procurers had pounced upon the country like jackals upon a battlefield. They had the suspicious manner, the air of familiarity, the gawky movements of cheap peddlers which would have set less simple minds against them.
Thus, they examined the sturdiest of the laborers, inspected them from head to foot with an almost embarassing persistence, going so far as to pass their hands over the legs and thighs, feeling and testing them as they would test cattle or poultry on market days, taking their chins as if it were a question of telling a foal's age by its mouth. A little more and they would have asked the unsuspecting rustics to undress in order to examine and auscultate them more easily. Slave dealers behaved hardly any differently with the negroes at the slave markets. They operated especially among young, vigorous men, gaining their confidence, jesting, bantering paternally, as free in their pleasantry as military surgeons presiding at a board of appeal.
These crimps, fugitives from the country or emaciated denizens of the slums, broken to unclean business, knew well how to beget eager desires in these primitive but complex hearts; they stirred up the vague need for enjoyment that slumbers in the hearts of brutes; they enticed these illiterates, warmed them up, worked them up morally, as they did physically.
Deceived and ravished as if in a dream, our rustics inhaled the honeyed discourse, lent themselves to insidious caresses; never had so much attention been paid them, never had such flattering opinions so highly extolled them to themselves, the louts! They became slack, became the lieges of their magnetisers, and no longer moved, fearing lest the lethargy and long enervation should cease! And presently, the crimp would but have to pull the string in order to catch a plentiful and flourishing haul.
Ah! they were not squeamish, these emigration agents! After having operated throughout the rest of Europe, draining prolific but degenerate races, here they were casting their spell upon the best blood of Flanders, choosing strong and well-built fellows as patient and hard-working as their dogs. "We must have a hundred thousand Belgians, and we shall have them in six months!" had declared Béjard, Saint-Fardier and Vera-Pinto. And their hired crimps set to work with a will. Go it, impostors! To the prey, vampires! The commission is worth taking some trouble for. It is fifteen to twenty francs, according to quality, for each Flemish head turned over to the shipper of human flesh.
But the beaters and their subaltern trackers were carefully silent about their profits. To listen to them, they were the most disinterested of apostles, purely philanthropic, particularly devoted to the peasantry.
Their clap-trap speeches gushed with gold and sunshine. The brokers in lies led their hearers through the promised land, gardens of paradise and palaces of faery. The warmth and the brilliant sun of the tropics kindled and illumined the melancholy horizons of these visionaries; it was as if a magic fire-screen had appeared in a dark room. Ripe corn, crowned with ears as large as their golden wigs, lifted its sheaves to the height of the roofs; trees were bent beneath the weight of gourds that were apples. The sands yielded tobacco; rivulets of milk irrigated the newly-opened land; the chimney smoke rose gently toward a sky more blue than the garb of the holy Daughters of Mary; and that purple, suddenly burnished and scintillant, which clothes the hill-sides until they are lost to view, is not that of your heather, oh, stout drinkers of beer, but the purple of your vines, oh, future bruisers of grapes!
From time to time the charmer interrupted himself, as much to catch his breath as to give the simple folk, whom he was heaping with promises, time to sniff and to taste the perfumed visions he had conjured up.
Then he vaunted the good temperature, the clement climate, the eternally smiling seasons. There were no visitors, no tempests to disconcert the foresight of the farmer and ruin his crops.
There, work was a diversion; there were no landlords, no masters, no cares; no servitude and no rent.
Alternately tender and sportive, the impostor absolutely intoxicated his audience. To the pomp of a florid description, to the hyperboles of a dentist, the instrument of the dealers in souls added the wit of the street-corner; he spiced his eloquence with the gross jests of the peasantry; he flattered the weaknesses, kindled the brutal sensuality, fed the carnal desires of these shameless lovers, conjured up willing subjects for a frenzied passion excited by prolonged continence. The bumpkins were tempted, as they listened, drythroated, quivering, to the smutty visions, harassed and quickened by the subtle viciousness and perverse ribaldry of this rogue, as scaly as any siren.
Finally, as a last resort, the procurer proposed to read letters from those adventurers who had tried and gained fortune in the promised land:
"Ah! they are as authentic as the Evangel, these epistles! Look them over yourself, schoolmaster; you can read! See the postmark on the letter … And these stamps, these "little heads," as you call them, do not bear the features of our king 'Liapol!' Why don't you read them, schoolmaster? Fm not trying to force you into believing them! Here is what I've told you, in black and white!"
The letters flowed with coarse eulogy, dictated in Europe or elaborated in the facendas of the purveyors across the sea. The collusion would have undeceived more lettered listeners.
"Yes, boys, I'm going back myself in a few days. As sure as there is a God I shall never again be able to live in our little Europe!"
And the jolly fellow wheedled them, urged them, and took them all in. Sometimes, in order to emphasize his talk, he would roll, with pretended carelessness, a handful of gold upon the table, sticky with the slops of many glasses. They were foreign, enormous coins. Over there one paid only in goldpieces as large as our wretched five francs silver coins. At the clinking of the gold, the little cowherd's eyes would sparkle; he already saw himself a conquistador; his mistress would order about hundreds of servants, clothe herself only in laces, and sprawl upon a bed of down.
When they reached home, the young fellows ruminated these visions; if they slept, they found them again in their dreams. Husbands talked it over in bed with their wives; at first grumbling and refractory, their wives allowed themselves to be convinced and fascinated.
In the fields, beneath a sullen sky, in the midst of flat, broken fields, while they disembowelled the earth that seemed more recalcitrant than ever, the mirage returned to haunt them and, sluggish at their work, their elbows and chins resting on the handle of the hoe, or idly whistling their oxen, the laborers recalled the fabulous lands, and dreamed of the crimp's promises.
And the gold that he toyed with! One of those yellow disks alone represented triple the value of the white coins that they earned from their baes …
And that is why, on this January morning, the bowels of The Gina—that big craft, once so rakish, but long since painted the uniform black of a poor man's coffin—should have been elastic to accommodate all the human flesh that was being stowed therein, all those pariahs for whom wily thaumaturges evoked, out of the leaden fogs of the Scheldt, the gleaming, distant Pactolus.
However, two huge trucks of the American Nation, requisitioned by Jean Vingerhout, drove down to the quay. Out of honor to him, two pairs of Furnes horses, enormous, epic palfreys, stately, slow-paced workers, whose equal and solemn step bettered the trot of a racer, had been harnessed to them. The proud beasts had never drawn such light and pitiable merchandise; the baggage piled up, but was not heavy. So very little that in order not to humiliate the powerful horses, the emigrants themselves rode on the drays.
In the midst of the confusion, the disorder of white cases tightly nailed and roped, of opened sacks, of shabby outfits tied up in checked cotton scarfs, there lounged about groups of young emigrants from Lille, Brasschaet, Santvliet, Pulderbosch and Viersel.
A few were boisterously laughing, noisily skipping about, questioning the curious onlookers, seeming to exult. In reality they were forcing themselves to self-deception, to renounce the fixed idea that was gnawing them as keenly as remorse. Under the pretext of heartening their less cheerful and exuberant companions, they clapped them stoutly on the back. Among these villagers there were at most one or two whose immoderate and demonstrative joy was sincere. The others were trying to excite themselves. But, now that the gamble had been taken, and they could neither change their minds nor extricate themselves, as the xnist of illusion began to dissipate, and their consciences consciences began to awake, they drank huge bumpers of alcohol as on the day when military lots were drawn.
Wide-eyed and flushed, dressed in their best, but dishevelled, they would, at first sight, have been taken for those young servants and farm-hands who, on the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, were trundled about from dawn until night in carts covered with flowers and green leaves.
The majority were silent and apathetic, lost in meditation. If, perchance, they were won over by their neighbors' frenzy to bawl out a kermess-song, the "Nous irons au pays des roses," of the Rozenlands of Saint Peter and Paul, or the "Nous arrivons de Tord-le-Cou," of the mardigras Gansrijders, the notes were quickly strangled in their throats, and they fell back into reflection.
Before their journey began, their thoughts were already soaring through the boundless space of cloud and tide to the distant shores where new lands awaited them; or their spirit was travelling back to their native villages, left but the night before, to the slate belfry of the church, whose melancholy voice would never again exhort them to resignation. Oh, those chimes that in former days had awakened a guerilla cavalry to arms against the regicide foreigner, and whose tocsin was no longer sufficiently eloquent to stave off the invasion of Hunger! In memory the already repentant fugitives returned to their precarious heritages, among their little crops, pitifully rotated and won only after a struggle with the wild heather (adorable enemy, so cursed, and already so regretted!); or again, to the banks of the vennes and meers, where they fished with worms while watching their thin cows; or around the scaddes, or bonfires, fighting off the marshy moisture of October evenings with its resinous perfume.
Oh, the fair hamlet in which they would never again set foot, where they could not even go to sleep their last and best sleep in earth twice sanctified, beside the rebellious folk of the past!
Laurent plumbed their mental reservations. His compassion for the Tilbaks extended to their companions. Among many touching episodes, one especially stirred him forever and seemed to be the quintessence of the distress and heart-breaking grief of this prologue of exile.
At least thirty households from Willeghem, a straggling little village on the fartherest northern frontier, had agreed to leave their wretched land all together. They had not taken their places on the trucks, but a little after the arrival of the bulk of the Flemish emigrants, they presented themselves in good order, as if in a holiday procession. They were anxious to make a good showing, to distinguish themselves from the mob, hoping that after their departure people would exclaim, "The bravest showing was made by Willeghem!"
First came the young men, then the women with their children, then the young girls, and last of all the old people. Some of the mothers were still suckling their last-born. How many old folk, leaning upon crutches, and hoping for a mysterious renewal of youth, were destined to die upon the way and, having been sewn in bags ballasted with sand, would be rolled off a board as food for the fishes? Men with navvies' outfits, clad in heavy curduroy, were carrying pickaxes and hoes on their shoulders, and wallets and flasks at their hips. Tilers and brickmakers were getting under way for lands where tiles and bricks were unknown.
A young girl, with the air of a simpleton, her face bloated and beaming, was carrying off a tarin in a cage.
At the head of the line marched the village band, with banner flying.
The band and the flag were also emigrating. The musicians could boldly carry off their instruments and their flag, for there was no one left in Willeghem to employ the band.
Laurent spied a white-haired ecclesiastic, the village priest, marching next to the flag-bearer. Despite his advanced age, the pastor had insisted in accompanying his parishioners to the dock just as he had accompanied them each year upon the pilgrimage to Montaigu, for the many past years during which the famine had lasted! Why, oh, mistress of the Campine and of Hageland, were you deaf to their cry of distress? Instead of ascending, as in legendary times, the turbid streams of the land, in barks without crew or pilot, to disembark on shores chosen by their divine fancy and have miraculous sanctuaries builded there, the madonnas were now deserting their time-honored resting places and had travelled back over the same rivers that formerly had brought them, unknown saints, to the heart of Flanders. Nevertheless, the simple folk of the Flemish plains had built you a basilica on one of the only mountains in their land, as much so that the resplendent starry cupola of your temple of compassion might be seen from the far distance so as to bring you nearer to your Heaven. Fickle Virgin, did you give the example of emigration to all the homesick folk from the moors of the Scheldt?…
But that evening, after having seen the ship disappear behind a bend in the river, and the spirals of smoke become indistinguishable in the mist lying over the polders, the good pastor would journey back slowly to his fold, as sad as a shepherd who has just delivered to the formidable unknown the half of a flock branded with a red cross by the drover.
If, however, the aristocratic and noble landowners, county-squires and baronets, had consented to reduce the rents, these lovers of the land would not have had to depart. They would be in a pretty pickle, when there were no longer any hands to clear their wide lands!
Some of the emigrants from Willeghem wore a sprig of heather in their caps; others had tied an armful of the symbolic flowers to the ends of their sticks, to the handles of their implements, and the most fervent among them were carrying off, with touching childishness, a handful of the native sand tied in a little box, or sewn in a bag, as an amulet.
Ingenuously, not to recriminate against the unnatural antipathy of their mother country, but to render her a last filial honor, these peasants flaunted their national costumes, the most local and characteristic attire; the men, their high and puffy caps of silk, coarse breeches, smocks of a peculiar cut and color, of dark blue bordering upon the slate grey of their sky, so that one might differentiate by their blouses the peasants of the North from those of the Midi;—the women wearing large winged lace caps tied to their chignons by a flowered ribbon, and those bizarre hats, shaped like a truncated cone, that have no like in any other country on earth.
At the moment of finally deserting their native land, it seemed as if they hoped to extol her and anoint themselves with her in an indelible fashion. So they talked loudly, rolling out the fat and sticky syllables of their dialect with a certain ostentation; they insisted upon making the diphthongs reverberate in the atmosphere of their origin.
And they found still another means of accentuating the tender and unconscious irony of their demonstrations.
When they came under the shed, before walking down the gangplank of the boat, steaming up for departure, those at the head of the line halted and faced about, turning toward the tower of Antwerp, and putting the brasses to their lips, their flag hoisted high, they began, not without false notes, the supreme national song, the "Où pent on être mieux" of the Liégeois Grétry, the simple and gentle melody of which brought together, in the accents of the noblest language, Flamands and Walloons, sons of the same Belgium, differing in temperament, but not enemies, in spite of what politicians say. And so the colliers of the Borinage were stretching out their hands to the Flamands.
In just such a way two orphans might embrace and become reconciled at their mother's deathbed!
The pathetic implications of this final aubade to the fatherland brought a rush of thoughts to Laurent's mind. He heard in that tender hymn, scanned and modulated in so beautifully barbarous a fashion by these loving exiles, the hoarse cry of all the repressed emotions and disillusions of his life. The scene before him rendered the world of the downtrodden and misunderstood dearer than ever to him.
How far he was already from that carefree day of the excursion to Hémixem, and how far, too, from the day of his return to Antwerp and his long contemplation of the banks of the well-loved river!
On that Sunday of sunshine the air had rang with music, but none of the peasant phalanxes had left the shore never to see it again!
The arrival of the Tilbaks and of Jean Vingerhout carried Laurent's excitement to its paroxysm. He tottered like a sleep-walker when the master-docker touched his shoulder. His heart was too full for utterance, but the convulsed expression of his face told them better than words the world of sorrow that he was undergoing.
He embraced Siska and Vincent, hesitated a moment, then consulting brave Jean Vingerhout with a look, pressed a long fraternal kiss upon Henriette's forehead, crushed the former baes of the America Nation against his breast, and, taking Henriette's hands, put them in those of her husband and clasped them both in his, as if to unite them in an almost sacramental clasp.
Then, feeling the emotion choking his throat, he could only turn to Lusse and Pierket, who were stretching him their hands and lips. And, beneath the tears that Laurent could no longer withold, Pierket, who adored his big friend, burst into tears and clung to his neck as though he wanted to carry Laurent off beyond the seas.
The lugubrious and ironic coincidence that brought about the departure of Henriette and her family upon The Gina had wrung Laurent's heart far too much. He recognized in it the evil genius of Béjard and his wife. This Gina was ravishing him of Henriette and of all whom he loved!
Other bizarre and unsuspected correlations also presented themselves. The village of Willeghem, emigrating in a body, was precisely the one of Vincent's and Siska's origin. As they had left it as children, they knew nobody. But in asking the crowd, they discovered a few names, distinguished some family features among the mass of faces and ended by discovering some cousins. These acquaintances had the one good quality of astonishing and diverting the emigrants. Jean Vingerhout said laughingly:
"Willeghem will be full over there! And we shall found a new colony and give it the name of the dear village! Vive New-Willeghem!"
And all echoed him.
But other comrades than the peasants monopolized the Tilbaks' attention. The America Nation in a body; deans, baes, comrades, wagoners, measurers, stevedores, stable-watchmen, loaders, carters and many of the chiefs of other corporations had made an escort for the worthy Jean, the best liked of the chiefs and colleagues. How many efforts they had made to retain him! For, when he offered as protests his hatred of the business, his wish to see other lands, hard times, the more perspicacious of them knew that the worthy fellow, having been the ringleader of the last troubles, feared, by remaining at their head, to draw down upon them the ire of the wealthy folk, and so do the union a disservice.
Among the mob of dockers could be found loiterers from the Coin de Pasesseux, athletic do-nothings, as proud as they were indolent, who so often had disarmed Jean Vingerhout by their superb phlegm, when they did not make him furious by their inertia and desertion from work. These triflers were jostling each other to grasp heartily the hands of the emigrants, and for once quitting their habit of pure acting, they even helped put the baggage on board.
The shopkeepers in the neighborhood of the Cocoa-nut likewise crowded about the Tilbaks. The maritime and working population of the harbor and the basins joined as a body in this manifestation of regret and sympathy. In the crowd Laurent thought that he even recognized a few young runners who were perhaps not as black as they had been painted, and who were determined to show their sympathy for these poor folk.
These demonstrations brought a happy diversion to the farewells by stupefying those in whose honor they were made. The workers on the docks, healthy and joyous fellows, the blackest thing about whom was their quid of tobacco, affected a rather forced gaiety, exaggerated their frank humour, tortured their spirit to find mirth-provoking sallies; but more than one of them blew his nose too frequently, or wiped his face with his sleeve when there was not a sign of sweat to dry away.
Nor would Jean Vingerhout allow his spirits to lag; clever in his answers, he succeeded in telling the biggest fibs, and faithful to his reputation of being the life and soul of the Nations, delivered a debauch of aphorisms and stupefying monologues in which cropped up the spirit of Pere Cats and Uilenspiegel.
He absolutely had to drink a few more glasses with his comrades in the nearest café. Nor could Paridael refuse the hospitality of his worthy employers and fellow- workers. And in front of the bar, where round after round was drunk, amidst the hot fire of their jokes and volleys of oaths and blows upon the table, Laurent could not help but imagine himself back at the "local," after work, on the evenings when accounts were turned in. Several of the dockers had brought gifts to "their Jean," this one a pipe, that one a plug of tobacco. One of the good fellows had hit upon the idea of giving Vingerhout a box of paper in three colors. They had to provide against interception by the facenderos. If Jean wrote on white paper, it would be a sign that things were going well; the rose-colored paper would signify precarious, but supportable conditions; the green, profound distress. And that in spite of the fact that the letter would contain only optimistic and reassuring news.
The hour was at hand. Laurent disappeared from view to install the women between decks with Tilbak. At first some difficulty was made about Laurent's going on board. Access to the emigrants' quarters was strictly forbidden to the curious, and for good reason. Once on board the boat, the travellers were forbidden to return on shore, under penalty of losing their places and the price of their tickets. Nevertheless, thanks to the assistance of a sailor with whom Tilbak had formerly sailed, Paridael was allowed to inspect the new domicile of his friends.
The Gina contained over six hundred camp-beds, or rather, badly joined frames that folded up, coupled and piled one above the other in groups of a dozen. The bedding of these hammocks consisted of a bag crammed with fetid straw upon which a hog would have refused to stretch, a true receptacle for vermin.
In spite of the long airing, the corridors reeked with the indefinable smell of a badly kept hospital, a mixture of bottles and of rank stench. What was it going to be later, after all these stray mortals had piled within, their bodies and their rags exuding as evil an odor as a swarm of deer; especially in bad weather, when the port-holes were battened down.
The rules prescribed the separation of sexes and the separation of small children from adults. But Béjard and his partners were not men to be bound by prescriptions; they were to be observed only while in the harbor.
Before even gaining the open sea all these arrangements were overturned; promiscuity was not hindered, an increase of passengers brought from the shore in smugglers' boats during the night was fraudulently received on board. Runners and smugglers had no better customer than Béjard and Company.
The store-rooms were furnished with lard, smoked beef, ship's biscuits, beer, coffee and tea "in quantity more than enough for twice the duration of the voyage," set forth the prospectus, the last literary work of Dupoissy. In truth the fresh water alone could hardly last the trip! The wretched passengers were rationed as though they were a besieged garrison. Each of them received a little iron bowl like those given to soldiers. Eatables and drinkables were distributed twice daily; the former measured by the pound, the latter in tots, a special measure used on boats. Naturally a piercing cold reigned incessantly below decks; the draught coming through the chinks brought on colds without ever sweeping out the inveterate odor.
And this was where his good Siska and dear Henriette were to lie!
"Damn!" said Tilbak, seeing Laurent's uneasy expression, "the voyage isn't long. And I've seen many others!"
Jhey went up on deck again, Laurent remarked some wooden stalls containing eleven draught-horses, the stable of some wealthy farmer who had been frightened by the panic and was emigrating before ruin came. Looking at the provision made for them, it seemed that he might just as well have thrown his horses into the Scheldt. Their owner must have been very unsophisticated to think that they would endure a voyage under such conditions. The exploiters had arranged to transport them very cheaply. The maintenance of the horses would cost their owner heavily, and in the end he would barely realize the price of their hides. Above the summary stables, without the least shelter, wooden boxes held straw, hay and oats.
The ivory, however, was crowding on board hastily. The deck had the look of a bivouac of tramps, of a gypsy encampment. In jostling these pariahs from every country, carrying heaven knows what special color and odor in their belongings, Laurent noticed that they were very lightly clad, and that already there were many whose teeth chattered and who were trembling with fever. One of Béjard's agents was passing among them, and to comfort them was telling that the cold would last but for a few days. Once past the gulf of Gascony, perpetual summer would begin. The agent did not add that between Africa and the shores of Brazil they would bake so that they could not come on deck, and that calenture and furious delirium would carry off some of those who could have borne the marsh-fever. He especially concealed from them the horrors of the crossing; the despotism and brutality that awaited them upon landing, and the numerous miseries not to be endured in such incompatible surroundings.
"It is time to take in the gang-plank, for we're off, comrade!" the sailor said to Paridael.
The strident whistle alternated with the noise of the engine. Laurent tore himself away from the embraces of his friends and regained the dock.
As if there had not already been enough distress and horror, a lamentable incident came up at the last moment.
A tattered wretch, yellow and livid at the same time, his eyes haggard, his hair in disorder, under the dominion of a violent alcoholic excitation, was forcing toward the gangway of the boat a poor woman with a kindly face, but no less stricken, thin and illy-clad than himself, who was struggling, shrieking, resisting him with all her might, two wretched brats clinging to her knees. Without doubt the unfortunate mother did not intend to follow her drunkard husband to America, regarding as worse than the famine endured in her native land exile far away from all friends, from all familiar faces and things, in lands where nothing would console her for the disgrace and the debauchery of her husband.
Sickened by this scene, Laurent and several of the baes and comrades of the Nations quickly delivered the mother and children. While some led the poor woman, almost dead from exhaustion, to a nearby cafe, the others led the scamp toward The Gina and put him on board more quickly than he would have wished, throwing him across the gang-plank at the risk of plunging him into the water.
The drunkard, completely besotted, seemed to resign himself to this unlooked for divorce; besides, communication with shore had just been cut off. Without worrying further about his family, he came near the rail, and the lookers-on saw him take a half-full bottle of gin from the pocket of his overcoat.
"See here," he stuttered, as he reeled about brandishing the bottle above his head, "here's all that I have left; the last money I had was drowned in this bottle … and I drink this in farewell to Belgium!…"
And putting the bottle to his lips, he emptied it at one gulp; then he threw it with all his force against the side of the dock, shattering it into splinters in the water. And with a vacant laugh, he yelled:
However, the sailors drew in and rolled up the hawsers unloosed from the dock, the screws commenced to churn the water; on his bridge the captain was hurling repeated orders to aft and stern, and talking through a tube with the men in the engine room; and beneath the touch of the helmsman, the boat turned slowly from the bank, and seething little waves licked the sides of The Gina.
At the shock of the start, the drunkard collapsed at the feet of his fellow-travellers.
Laurent turned his eyes toward more sympathetic people.
The Willeghem band waved its velvet flag, embroidered and tasselled with gold, and again took up the "Où peut-on être mieux," which both Borains and Campinois shouted in chorus.
Among the mass of ruddy or wan faces, Laurent ended by seeing only the Tilbak group. Until the last minute he had thought of taking passage, without telling them, on board The Gina, to share their destiny and face the unknown with them; only the fear of displeasing Vincent and Siska, of opening up a freshly cauterized wound in their daughter's heart, of awakening suspicion in the heart of honest Vingerhout, of being an object of constraint and annoyance to them had retained him in Antwerp.
Then, too, a vague magnet prevented him from saying farewell to his city; he had a presentiment of a fatal duty that had to be fulfilled, of a rôle necessary for him to play. He did not know what they were. But without worrying about the future destiny had in store for him, he was awaiting his hour.
On The Gina, shouts, cheers, a scuffle and a tumult of yells drowned the sound of the band. They were answering, with heart and lungs no less dilated, from the mob banked on the dock. Boat and shore answered each other, contending in bluster, verve and vigor. Caps flew in the air, colored handkerchiefs waved like the variegated banners at naval parades.
Women who looked as if they were crying and laughing at the same moment held their children up in their arms. And the further off the boat drew, the more frantic became the gestures. It seemed as if arms were extending themselves to clasp each other again across the intervening water.
Because of the great amount of water it drew and because of its more than full cargo, the boat remained for a long while within view of the onlookers. Laurent profited by this to run a little further toward the end of the Tête de Grue, to the beginning of the basins, that he might follow the boat until it turned. Henriette had already gone down to the cabin with Jean Vingerhout. Siska and Pierket continued to throw him kisses; he heard the strong male voice of Vincent throwing him a last injunction with all the force of his soul.
But with each turn of the screw Laurent felt himself losing a little of his security and confidence. The "0ù peut on être mieux" receded, died away in the distance like a murmur.
It was the same promontory from which Laurent had watched the faery sunset on the Scheldt some years before. Today it was gray, foggy, overcast; instead of jewels, the river was rolling in slime; the embankments of the Polder sent down yellowed grass; the sadness of the season harmonized with that of the people. The carillon seemed heavier to him, and the seagulls of former days, the hieratic and welcoming priestesses, shrieked and cried like sybils of misfortune.
When the hulk of the boat has disappeared behind a bend in the Flanders shore, Laurent continued to watch the smoke-stack, a travelling landmark above the dikes; then, gradually, it became only a black line, and finally the last banner of smoke was lost in the desolation of a January fog.
When an insidious and glacial fine rain awoke the young man from this coma, he noticed that he was not the only observer at the end of the promontory.
The curé of Willeghem was still looking for the track and the backwater of The Gina. Two big tears fell slowly down his cheeks and he traced in the air the sign of the cross. But the scattering flight of the seamews, their shrieks of hailing scorceresses seemed to parody that gentle professional gesture in the four corners of the heavens. Unnerved by this final sarcasm, Laurent turned back toward the city. The noise of pickaxes and of crumbling blended with the grumbling of the harbor cranes, with the rumble of merchandise being thrown into the bottom of holds, with the continual fall of calkers' picks.
In order to enlarge the docks, the demolition of the old quarters had been ordered, and the wrecking had begun. Already large pieces of wall were lying crumbled into plaster at the corners of streets; tumbledown houses, disembowelled, cut away from their gables, showed their carcasses of bleeding brick from which hung, like strips of flesh and skin, sad, flapping decorations. They looked like carcasses hung up in butchers' stalls.
Here and there breaches had been made in the blocks of buildings dating back to before the Spanish dominion, in these decaying and unsteady old houses that swayed toward each other like cold old women, brought to light still older constructions, unmasked vestiges of mediæval donjons, unearthed the Roman forts of the first ages of the city.
On a part of the line of the quays that had to be repaired the trees beneath which the two Paridaels had so often walked had already disappeared.
Not only was the glorious Carthage rejecting her surplus population, exiling her people, but, not content with having turned loose her pariahs, she was demolishing and undermining their hovels. She was behaving like a parvenue who rebuilds, and transforms from cellar to roof a noble and ancestral lordly home; discarding or destroying all the relics and vestiges of a glorious past, and replacing picturesque and blueblooded ornaments by a flashy new garb, a showy new luxury and an improvised elegance.
The news of the crimes and vandalism to which the imbecile Rich had delivered over his natal city had chagrined Laurent to the point of making him move away from the theater of demolitions, the progress of which would have afflicted him too keenly.
Chance had willed it that he should witness this devastation on the very day when he had just attended the departure of his friends. The contrast between the, activity of the docks and the ruin that was beginning to border the river was not of a nature to console him.
At the moment when the tumbrils were carrying away the plaster, the broken stone and the materials of the house to take them to far distant dumps. The Gina was also carrying away as much refuse material, good-for-nothings, cumbersome parasites, workers without work, peasants without land, the broke, the down and out, poor devils from the land and business.
For many of the people and of the Antwerpians of the old school, it was as if the proud Scheldt was repudiating his first wife. He was replacing old Antwerp by a harsh stepmother bringing new unreasonableness and customs, a foreign language favorable to the breeding of other customs. She was gradually repudiating the children of the first marriage-bed, brutally proscribing the descendents of the primitive stock, in order to draw near her arrogant bastards, to substitute in the paternal favor a population of mongrels and foreigners.
There had even been talk, in the meetings of the Regency, of tearing down the Steen, the old castle, just as they had already torn down the Tour-Bleue and the Port Saint-Georges. In truth, they had damaged the admirable arch of triumph in spite of themselves. Had not these good idiots made up their minds to tear down the gate in numbering the quarters, block by block, as in a game of patience? But our eagles did not reckon with the work of centuries, and at this game of architects in their second childhood, what was their consternation when they saw the ashlar crumble away to dust in their profane fingers!
Ah! it was high time for the Tilbaks to expatriate themselves. It was as good to go as to remain for the havoc and depredation. Those who might ever return ran the risk of not knowing their land.
The wreckers had already torn down the first houses in the savory quartier des Bateliers. Navvys were already beginning to fill in the old canal Saint-Pierre.
Laurent dived further and further into the city, wandering with filial devotion through the threatened streets, according to the agonized walls a little of the sympathy and clemency that he felt for the expelled.
And, beneath their hollowed gables, the sorrowful facades possessed the emotions of human faces, of faces solemn with approaching death, and the cross-barred windows, the dusty panes of glass, cried like blind eyes, and here and there, in the far-off and discordant music of some hovel, wailed the last "Où peut on être mieux?" of the Willeghem band.