The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter III
Among the many quarters on the point of disappearing was the Riet-Dijk: a narrow alley throttling itself behind the curb of the houses on the quai de l'Escaut, meeting at one end a canal, a wet-dock and storing place for boats, at the other, a wider and longer artery, the Fossé-du-Bourg.
In the Riet-Dijk and the Fossé-du-Bourg, agglomerated the houses of ill-fame. It was the "corner of joy," the Blijden-Hoek of ancient chronicles. In the alley were high-priced houses; in the main street less costly ones for modest purses. There were, in this district, brothels consistent with every class and caste of customers; rich men, naval officers, sailors, soldiers.
In the evening, harps, accordions and violins vied with each other, scraping and screeching in this supreme beguinage of hospitalers, and intrigued and allured from a distance the stray passerby or traveller. Hurried melodies, rhythms of the rabble, in which were blended, like strokes of the lash or the rope's-end, the crash of brass bands and fifes: street-walkers' music.
On the street, the whole length of illuminated ground-floor windows, there was a kermesse-like oscillation; street-walkers slouching along, loungers loitering about.
Until eleven o'clock the girls from these brothels had permission to roam the streets in turn in the quarter itself and even to go and dance at the Waux-Hall and Frascati, two dance-halls in the Fossé-du-Bourg.
After that hour, a partial curfew, only serious habitues wandered there, upon whom, little by little, the dives finally closed their doors. The screeching of fiddles was hushed. Soon one could hear only the lamentation of the river at full-tide, the plashing of the water against the piles of the docks, the intermittent grumble of a boat being fired up in anticipation of its early morning departure.
It was the hour of stealthy parties, of concealed obscenity. Noctambulists, their collars turned up, their hats pushed down over their eyes, slid along the yellow houses and tapped masonic signals on the secret doors of byways.
All banquets and celebrations terminated in a pilgrimage to the Riet-Dijk. Strangers had themselves taken there at night after having visited, during the day, the printing house of Plantin-Moretus and the Rubens' in the Cathedral. Orators at banquets took their last toasts there.
The ups and downs of this peculiar quarter coincided with the fluctuations of commerce in the metropolis. The period of the Franco-Prussian war was the golden age, the apogee of the Riet-Dijk. Never had so many fortunes been suddenly made, nor had parvenus ever sprung up in so great a hurry to enjoy them.
Their contemporaries told over and over again, while waiting until legend should have immortalized them, of the lupercalia celebrated in these temples by crafty and sedate looking nabobs. On certain days of record the habitues would requisition all the staff, after the fashion of speculators who had cornered the market.
Béjard, the slave-dealer, and Saint-Fardier, the Pasha organized, in the multicolored little salons of Madame Schmidt, especially in the red room, celebrated for its Boule bed with groove and sliding piece, a true state bed, orgies in which both Phoenician pranks and Roman exuberance were resuscitated.
On these occasions Dupoissy, the jack-of-all-trades, fulfilled the platonic functions of manager. It was he who conferred with Madame Adele, the housekeeper, prepared the program and paid the bill. While the ever headier allegories of these "masques," worthy of a Ben Jonson struck with satyriasis, unrolled, the smooth factotum sat at the piano and strummed circus jigs. At each pause the actresses, nude or clad in long stockings and black velvet masks, begged the approbation of their disordered masters, and, crouching like kittens, rubbed their moist and rice-powdered flesh against the funereal dress-suits.
Such was the bewildering renown of these brothels that, during the days of carnival, the chaste wives of regular customers came masked to these diligent hives—during free hours, let it be said—and, escorted by the patron and the patronne, inspected the delicately tufted little cells, gilded like reliquaries, the beds contrived, even to the erotic pictures, to fold up like altar pieces.
And, were one to believe the scandal spread by their little friends, the Mesdames Saint-Fardier had not been the last to put the docility and amiability of their husbands to so extravagant a test.
At the Riet-Dijk the interloping compounds produced by the gamy civilization of New Carthage afforded him pessimistic subjects for observation. After white nights, he watched these girls at their toilette, saw them go through their paces, surprised their instinctive terror at the imminent visit of the doctor; he noted, in return, their easy air of familiarity, almost that of woman to woman, with the androgynal hairdresser.
More than any other familiar or purveyor to these places, Gay the Dalmatian interested him. This industrious celibate, clerk at one hundred and fifty francs a month in the office of a ship-broker, drew annually fifteen to twenty thousand francs in commissions from the chief houses in the Riet-Dijk. He brought to the better houses the captains to whom his employers, the brokers, had attached him as guide during their stay in Antwerp. Gay spoke all languages, even the dialects and idiom of minor countries and the slang of the most distant people. Gay brought to these delicate transactions a probity that was highly appreciated. There were never any errors in his bookkeeping. When he came, every three months, to collect his commissions, the procurers paid their intelligent and wide-awake recruiter unhesitatingly. On these occasions Gay would accept a glass of wine or a liqueur, to drink the health of Madame, Monsieur, and their boarders.
Gay's discretion was proverbial. With his little red mustache, his broad grin, his neat appearance and his affable manner. Gay had no enemies among his colleagues. To him they respectfully applied the English adage: The right man in the right place; the man worthy of his place, the place worthy of the man.
One month after the departure of the emigrants, Paridael was accosted one morning on the Plaine Falcon by Gay, who, rushed and out of breath, threw this terrible news full in his face:
"The Gina has sunk with all on board, off the coast of Brazil!… It's posted at Lloyds!"
And the Dalmatian passed on without turning, anxious to inform as many people as he could of the sinister news, never for a moment suspecting the blow that he had just dealt Paridael.
Laurent reeled, closed his eyes, and ended by collapsing on a doorstep, his legs refusing to support him any longer. The syllables of the fatal words tolled a knell in his ears. When he came to his senses again he said to himself:
"The blood has gone to my head! Apoplexy is giving me a warning. I've had a moment of delirium, and thought I heard somebody tell me that … horror. But things like that don't happen!" But he found himself remembering all too clearly Gay's voice and exotic accent, and blinking his eyes and gazing down the Docks, did he not see the Dalmatian hurry-off into the distance?
Laurent dragged himself to the quai Sainte Aldegonde, where the offices of Béjard, Saint Fardier and Company were. In turning the Coin des Paresseux he found that even the ineradicable and carefree loafers had moved farther on to obtain the news. Worthy Jean Vingerhout was popular even with this phlegmatic tribe. And they knew him to be on board the ill-fated Gina.
The air of sorrowful commiseration among these rebellious loafers who were crowding upon the quay and joining the mob in front of the emigration office prepared Laurent for the worst. A feeble ray of hope, however, continued to tremble among the sudden shadows in his soul. It would not have been the first time that ships given up as lost had returned to the port where they were being mourned!
Laurent broke through the mob of dockers, sailors and tearful women whom a common grief had brought together, a mob made even more tragic by the presence of many wretched looking families of emigrants, designated for the next sailing, perhaps marked for the next wreck! Lamentations and sobs arose at intervals above the black and suffocating silence.
Laurent succeeded in worming himself through the crowd as far as the counter in the office.
"Is it true, Monsieur, what they are saying in the city?…"
He stammered each word and affected a doubtful intonation.
"Oh, yes!… How many times do I have to repeat it to you? Long enough to die of hunger, at least!… Get out, now, and leave us some peace, and be hanged to you!"
At these abominable words that only a Saint-Fardier could be capable of pronouncing, Paridael hurled himself against the partition between himself and the inner offices.
The door burst inward.
Laurent followed it and struck the individual who had just spoken to him, and who was none other than the former partner of Cousin William, full in the face, with the fury of a mad bull.
The Pasha had always had the soul of a convict-warden or a slave-driver, and the ex-slave-dealer Béjard had found in him the implacable brute whom he required to plan and expedite his traffic in souls.
Had it not been for the intervention of his clerks, who tore him away from his aggressor, the miserable man would have been killed on the spot. Laurent had half strangled him, and in both of his clenched fists he clutched Saint-Fardier's pepper and salt whiskers.
While several of the employes were overpowering Laurent, whose rage had not been satisfied, some of their comrades had hurried the wounded man, mad with fear, into Béjard's private office, where he did not stop moaning and calling the police.
The provoking and unnatural words of Saint-Fardier had been heard by others beside Laurent, and, learning what was taking place, the crowd outside partook of his indignation and would have torn to shreds the policeman who dared try and arrest him. It threatened even to drag the partners from the retreat and execute immediate justice upon them. So that Béjard, hearing the thunder of hoots and calls from the crowd, thought it prudent to push Laurent into the street and return him to his terrible friends. Then, in the excitement produced by the reappearance of the hostage, Béjard quickly shut the door behind him. Dismissing his men for the rest of the day, he dragged the pitiable Saint-Fardier through a back door into a little deserted alley bordered by shops and warehouses, from which they regained, not without tacking about to avoid the quays and too frequented streets, their residences in the new city.
"We shall catch that loafer again!" said Béjard to Saint-Fardier, who was rubbing his bleeding cheeks with his handkerchief, as they hurried along. "We can't think of locking him up. We can't even think of it for a long time to come, old fellow, for this little accident has already made too much noise, and it wouldn't be good to have the law prying too closely into our business. Wait till these dogs have finished howling! If they continue barking the way they have been this morning, they'll be hoarse by tonight! And then we shall settle our account with Master Laurent!"
"After all, the affair isn't so bad for us … (here the execrable trafficker forgot himself so far as to rub his hands) … The ship wouldn't have lasted so much longer. The rats had already left it because so much water leaked into the hold. An old wooden shoe, the insurance on which will net us double what it was worth! And if we lose the bounties paid in advance to some of the vigorous and flourishing emigrants, like that Vingerhout—you remember, Bergmans' tool, the leader of the elevator riot. And now he's with his fathers!—after all, we collect the insurance on those of the crew who were drowned. There's some compensation in that!"
The ship-owner came in for dinner as if nothing had happened. Gine thought his expression bestially jovial and crafty. At dessert, as he meticulously cut a succulent melon and poured himself a glass of old Bordeaux with the ceremony of a taster, he announced in a hardly detailed fashion the shocking and complete loss of the ship which she had baptized.
Without noticing the sudden pallor that overspread his wife's face, he entered into, details and figured up the number of victims. She begged him to stop; he insisted, and pushed his sarcasm to the point of conjuring up to her that launching at the Fulton Dockyards. Then, utterly sick, she left the room and took refuge in her own suite, where she thought of the evil presage which certain onlookers had found in her hesitation and maladroitness when the boat was to have been cut loose upon the ways.
Laurent, after having escaped from the hands of the crowd than questioned him about the affair, ran bareheaded—he had forgotten to pick up his cap after the flight—without seeing or hearing anything, to his garret, and, tumbling upon his bed as he used to do at the Dobouziez's, shed the tears that his fury had driven back into his bosom. He paused in his crying only to repeat these names: "Jean!… Vincent!… Siska!… Henriette!… Pierket!…"
Afterward, no day went by that did not find him murderously humming to himself, as though inoculating himself with a sweet, but very powerful poison, the "Où peut-on être mieux?" of the Willeghem band.
Without suspecting the transformation that his haughty cousin was undergoing, Laurent henceforth confused the two Ginas, the woman and the boat; it was Madame Béjard who, in order to kill his good and sainted Henriette, had dedicated the ship, her godson, to shipwreck. And to think that he had for one moment been in love with that Regina, on the night of Béjard's election! At present, he flattered himself that he would always curse her!
His devotion to the dear dead soon became confused, in his hatred of the oligarchic society, not only with his love for the simple working-people, but with an extreme sympathy for the poorest and the most disgraced, even for those wretches who had fallen to the very dregs of society. Finally he gave himself up to that need for anarchy which had fermented within him since his earliest infancy, which rent his heart and entered into his deepest spirit.
It was toward the condemned of earth that his vast desire for communion and tenderness oriented itself.