The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter IV
Laurent began by procuring lodgings at the farthest end of Borgerhout, near a railroad cut, not far from a siding used only for baggage cars. It was a corner of the suggestive region that he had formerly observed from the Dobouziez's garret. The urban agglomeration here degenerated into a suburb of doubtful character, sparsely sown with houses, as if the blocks had broken ranks, pot-houses of all kinds, pounds, the workshops of marble-cutters, figurists and knackers. Soot on the walls, grass between the cobblestones. For monuments: a gasometer whose huge iron bell moved up and down in its masonry cage, equipped with jointed arms: an abattoir towards which drovers led their unsuspicious flocks, and a despotic barracks that swallowed up no less passive victims; all dirty red buildings, of a blood-tinged color.
From hour to hour the whistle of locomotives, the horn of the crossing-guard and the factory clock echoed each other, or the bugles of pitiable conscripts were wedded with the death rattle of flocks of sheep. Out to the ramparts of the fortifications empty lots alternated with yards in which itchy dogs were rooting; embryonic gardens adjoined insipid cottages strayed into this harsh neighborhood like a sunny disposition amongst grouches.
Little rag-pickers had long ago picked the tar away from the boards of fences, or broken them down. Armed with deep burlap bags, they scaled the fence, after having explored the abandoned enclosure with their eyes. Searching about with their sticks and their feet, they rejoiced when they found the skin of a carrion. They fought over their find as if it were a gold nugget, or tore it away from the puppies who were gnawing it growlingly.
The vicissitudes of this gang were for a long time the only distraction of Paridael's mornings. Later he discovered more abstract subjects for study.
Near the gatekeeper's, a tall, well-set man, dark and husky, whose straightforward face stood out in relief against the grimace and convulsions of the district and of its knavish natives, had been paying court to a plump blonde girl, as radiant as a field of corn, the rose of whose flesh was slightly streaked with russet, with delicate red lips and coaxing eyes. Her fresh clothes betokened her a lady's maid, and her pretty white cap and spotless apron told Paridael immediately that she was a stranger to the quarter. Without doubt, it was on a chance stroll that she had passed this way and remarked the handsome youth. She was not the first to be attracted by the black eyes, the curly mop and the serious, but not sullen, manner of the gatekeeper. He had, besides, a military manner of wearing his cap that was simply irresistible, and his velvet jacket set off his figure like a hussar's pelisse! The girls of the neighborhood, and not only those who lived nearby, passed by regretfully as they ogled the busy worker. The more daring made advances to him, did not refrain from telling him their whim, all the while pretending to joke, and barbing with a covetous glance the joke that they cast at him.
The line being unimportant, he filled the offices of crossing-keeper and switchman. The upkeep of his little station kept him as busy as though he were a simple workman in a gang. The flighty girls invariably found him busy. Deaf to their lures, perhaps a little proud, and judging them to be too free and too trivial, he worked harder than ever, and when he had finished blowing his horn, presenting, unfurling and planting his flag, opening and closing the crossing-gate, he hurried to fill his wheelbarrow with sand, reballast the tracks, and oil his switch.
The white-capped lady's maid did not allow herself to be rebuffed by his disdainful and bizarre manner. Prettier and of a better type than the girls of the quarter, at the same time more discreet and more alluring, she gently tamed the savage. He began to straighten up when he was bending over, working on the tracks, and slowly lifting his cap in answer to her greeting; the following week he came over to her, blushing and somewhat foolish, to talk about the rain; the next time, leaning upon the gate, he told her cock-and-bull stories, which she swallowed as though they were words of the gospel. One would have said that in order to plague them the blustering trains ran by in greater numbers on that day. But she waited until the young man had finished his many drudging tasks, followed his movements, won by his graceful carriage, and they took up the interrupted conversation … The gradual union of these two simple people greatly amused Laurent Paridael, conquered as he had been by their tempting blonde and dark beauty, so harmoniously different.
A while before he had become acquainted with the guard; in off-hours he offered him cigars and treated him to an occasional drink, and had him explain the details of his work. He complimented the guard upon his conquest, and when he found them together, inquired with a quick look about the progress of their affair, and the slightly embarrassed laugh and lively look of the guard answered him eloquently. As for the girl, she was so busy making sheep's eyes at her gallant that she never saw the signals of intelligence and interest that Paridael brought to their love. This happiness of others, this idyll of two young and handsome people both beautified and tortured the whimsical Paridael, the unacknowledged lover of Gina.
However, they could no longer restrain their desire for each other. She finished by joining him in his little wooden hut on the nights when he was on duty. One winter night of snow and gale Laurent saw them, through the half -opened door, crouching coldly in a corner, the girl on the fellow's knees. There was no light, but the red glow of the cast-iron stove betrayed the union of their silhouettes.
A spree on the other side of the city separated Laurent from his friends. Upon returning from it he was surprised to find that the young man was neither in his little house, nor on the tracks. If Laurent remembered rightly, this was the week during which the boy was on day service. Was he ill? Had they replaced him? Paridael worried about his unaccustomed absence as though the poor devil had been bound to his heart by the ties of long friendship. It was worse when, at nightfall, another than the waited-for person came to relieve the day-watchman. Giving in once again to his timidity, to the bashfulness that entered his slightest sympathies, Laurent did not dare inquire for the deserter. Moreover, Laurent did not know his name. He would have had to describe him, enter into explanations, and he imagined that his overtures would seem strange. He went home again, but the thought of the absent one tortured him all night, and the horn, blown by another, seemed to call for help and sound an alarm.
The next day, the guard was not at his post. Laurent decided to speak to his substitute.
Then he heard a dismal epilogue.
In flagrant disobedience to all rules, under threat of fine and discharge, at the risk of being found by the travelling inspector, the lover had not quit his mistress. But, one night, they were so tightly enmeshed, so absolutely lost, lips against lips, that he had neither the strength nor the presence of mind to signal a train and bar the crossing. Perhaps he, too, counted upon the utter solitude and loneliness of the road at that late hour! A frightful rattle of distress, followed by a volley of oaths, aroused him from his ecstacy. When he had rushed to the gate, he found that a train had just stopped a few meters away from his post after having crushed an old couple to jelly.
Certain of having to pay dearly for his negligence, the guilty man had not awaited the result of the inquest, but had disappeared while the police and detectives were looking for him. He had so much the more reason for fearing the severities of the law since the two old people killed during that night of love were very rich and very miserly, and their hypocritical heirs owed it to their memory to relentlessly pursue the agent of their massacre, although at the bottom of their hearts the heirs doubtlessly were blessing the interesting homicide.
The unlucky girl disappeared at the same time as her lover, and no one knew where they were hiding. Laurent never saw them again. But, after that fatal adventure, each time he heard the hoarse cry of a crossing-keeper's horn or saw the black tank of a gasometer overhanging a surly suburban district, there rose before his eyes the two young people leaning against the crossing-gate; he, swarthy as a faun, clad in a reddish-brown smock, his brass horn hung over his shoulder by a red woolen band; she, blonde, rose, ready to swoon, and, with her white cap and apron, as appetizing as the cloth at a banquet.
To shake off his sorrow, Laurent instantly changed his lodgings, and travelled about exploring the Antwerpian country made dear to him by the peasant emigrants. Willeghem became, even for him, the object of a pilgrimage.
Without leaving his country, without ceasing to bathe in its sunshine and breath its atmosphere, Laurent experienced the deadly devotion, the voluptuous martyrdom of an exile. He saw and perceived the smallest objects of the land with a sensuous intensity known only by those who return after a long absence, or who are leaving forever; those who are resuscitated or who are dying. It is only on native shores that the three kingdoms of nature are adorned with this freshness, this youth, this eternal resurrection.
His fervent piety extended from the overworked beings and the eccentric quarters of the city to the sloppy or arid country, to the hallucinating sky, to the taciturn peasants, to those plains of the Campine which the tourist avoids as he would remorse.
Braving hurricanes and tempests, he was out in all weathers.
In the full autumn drizzle he often stood watching a peasant pacing the fields with long steps, and sowing with a full and rhythmic gesture. In summer, a reaper gravely sharpening his scythe on the grindstone held him fast, like one of the faithful watching a symbolic episode of the divine office. He wandered about all the villages near Willeghem, where he had seen that vision, often returned to the same place, but always suffering from the same vague shame, did not dare approach the sculptural peasant.
He was deeply moved, too, by the slight odor of manure, that April evening when a peasant walked about with his pail sprinkling his tardy soil with ladle-fulls. The contempt of this rustic for the tender, delicate spring, the phlegm of this large-breeched, tanned, tow-headed peasant busying himself with his inelegant, but useful job, the violent contrast between the substantial lout and the ambient archness of the season conquered Laurent Paridael there and then, and in the same minute, the view that he had been enjoying seemed insipid and sophisticated. He could but look at the young farmer. This same rustic, accosted by Laurent, stopped mixing his compound and stimulating the soil, and brightening up, spoke to Laurent quite simply as he scratched his ear:
"Yes, Monsieur, four of us, all like me, made our first communion the same day that we were drawn for service!"
And this coincidence of the holy sacrament with the brutal conscription never left Laurent's brain, and was inseparable from a mixture of paschal incense and of filthy mixture, like the odor of day upon which this remarkable fact had been told him.
With this impression was closely linked that of a morning spent in the pasture with a crowd of cowherds and milkmaids. A large hoydenish girl commanded the tattered band and supervised the cooking of the frog's legs, for the dressing of which she had requisitioned all the butter in the group. Alert little hands heaped up under the pot faggots and dead wood as though in a camp. The roasting of the stew seemed an artificial murmur of the leaves.
Paridael frisked that day like a savage; he had even forgotten his mourning and his rancor, but this rare gaiety fell away in less than an instant. One of the children, glutted with gin by a waggoner, slept against the hedgerow; in vain they shook him, he only snored, slobbering and besotted as an alcoholic; shaggy caterpillars produced a little quiver beneath his red skin, and raging, moist gad-flies that, a little way off, were making a troop of chickens sneeze and squawk, drew from time to time a little drop of blood, the color of crushed mulberry, from the sleeper, or a squeal that cried to heaven for vengeance.
Many times Paridael ascended or descended the long, straight Flemish canals on canal-boats. He lived the life of the lightermen, partook of their meals and slept in their cabins, small and neat as a doll's boudoir, lent a hand to his hosts, but spent the greater part of his time doing absolutely nothing, tasting the joy of wasting time and of gliding with the stream without moving and of being, in his turn, the immobile, passive, irresponsible thing before which filed the willows, bowed the osier beds, trooped the villages and belfrys. And the manœuvres, always the same, repeated at different stops, in lock-chambers constructed all on the one model, the halts while waiting for lockage, the trade boats lining up, touching each other in the waiting place, while the lock-keeper worked the sluice and the boats descended on the lowering water! And the same jocular conversations were begun from bridge to bridge, by the lock-keepers and the boatmen.
Sometimes an unforeseen modulation intruded itself into the doleful flourish.
As soon as the boats had found their places in line, one of the men profited by the delay to jump to the shore, root up a clump of turf with his pocket-knife, and, regaining the boat, busied himself with putting the live earth into the cage of the inevitable lark. Sensible of this attention, the lovable captive welcomed the feast with a deafening trill. But at this unseasonable joy, the old boss, who, never being able to finish a job, had been scolding and storming at his helper, spied him at the stern of the boat and called him down at the very moment when he was hurriedly closing the cage. Ah! the do-nothing! For him that taunt and that blow! The quitter pocketed the scolding and took the blow, reeled stoically without a complaint or a retort. His large mouth trembled nervously, he reddened beneath his tan, but his great eyes did not tear. He was disarmed less by the joy of the bird than by the affectionate and pitying look cast him by the boss's wife. Ah! to win that dear woman, he would willingly undergo the boss's brutality. He cared as little for the husband's rage as for the barking of a dog.
And without bitterness, he went on with his work. He went on, too, with his song. Brave boy! The locks opened again, the tow-boat again fished up its endless hawser, and from one boat to the other the sailors bent over their oars.
The boat began moving, taking up the line again. Slowly, straight on toward Rupel the file descended.
Laurent also wandered by stage-coach through the far-away and, nevertheless, near-by districts. Between Beveren and Calloo in the Waes district he saw the rhythmic fall of the flail threshing wheat. A girl, her dress unfastened at the bosom, shining as the apple of the district, ran up and climbed on the bank to the roadway, just in time to catch the package flung her 'by the driver. With a quick movement she broke the seal, hesitated a moment before unfolding the letter, then decided to look it through.
Not a muscle of her face moved; but Laurent thought he heard the panting of her heart. And the motionless threshers—two bronzes rose-tinged in the half-light of the barn, bathed in a sweat more volatile than liquid—the threshers waited for the news with a certain solemnity. A letter from "our Jan," her brother, the "son of the house," or "my Frans," the betrothed, a soldier at Antwerp? Had he had an unlucky hand in a scuffle, was he languishing in the military hospital, did the letter come from the prison of Vilvorde? Laurent posed all these questions to himself. He burned to ask the young girl. She entered the farmhouse. He would have always to wait for the answer. The diligence pursued its course. The little bells tinkled laughingly on the collars of the horses, the whip cracked without shame; it was tediously hot, one of those noonday heats that make us curse the sun and lament winter. The clock of Calloo rang out its melancholy midday, the most tedious hour of all to peal, it seemed to say … The crickets were rasping their wing-shells ragingly. And Laurent would always see, tomorrow, afterward, fatally, the unique farm of the trip, the crushed peasant-girl, the two half-nude bronze-colored boys … For his second look had told him that the news was bad news. He would have liked to retrace his road, console the beautiful girl; he felt himself capable of watching, with them, the shade of the dead. But it was over. Far, far back already; he would never come over this road again in his life. But he had one memory the more to weigh down his heart during the suffocating heat of the dog-days. The tolling of a village bell, the rapture of the flies in the sunlight, the grinding of crickets' wings would always reproach him with the vision of folk whom he could have pitied and loved …
Thus, a quantity of scenes, to which the crowd and professional observers would have been indifferent, a face barely glimpsed, a passerby jostled, a look intercepted, a typical manner, left ineradicable impressions upon his life. He sorrowed over the loss of companions of a short journey, over meetings without a sequel; inconsolable for the bifurcation of roads which destiny imposes upon the best matched travellers.
Continual nostalgias plagued him. He was seized with a shooting desire to conjure up, at no matter what cost, these fleeting visions; he craved for these beloved apparitions, and time, far from effacing them from his memory, only improved them and gave them new strength, like noble wine.
A handsome and noble face of the people, a tall, swarthy lad with deep, inquiring eyes, leaning upon the door of a third-class railway coach, in a train which passed his. And no more was needed for Laurent to link to him this being whom he would never see again. For eternity he would relish that too rapid minute; not one jot of its atmosphere would be lost: it was near a viaduct, and in the air undulated an odor of stagnant water and the song of a track-walker. A foul effluence and a sad melopœia framed the supreme nobility of attitude and great affective eyes of the unknown …
Such incidents became for Laurent powerful pictures, of a magnetic color, of a highly conceived relief, but with, in addition, perfume, music and symbol, and the indefinable that differentiated from all others the chosen object or person. What masterpieces, he thought, if anyone could succeed in rendering these pictures as he himself reviewed them and ruminated them, with closed eyes!
This one also!
A farm-hand was taking back to the stable his unyoked, but not yet unharnessed horses. The fore-parts of the team had already disappeared into the darkness; only their rumps shone in the half-light within the barn-door. Outside, the pole clenched in his fist, the farm-hand, a hardy fellow, wide of shoulder, in shirt sleeves, seen from the back, was bending over slightly toward the right, in the action of holding back his too impatient animals. One could have heard his "hiuho!" or the chatter of his coaxing words, or his imperative oath, but one remembered, above all, the pattern of his gesture so unique, harmonious and almost sublimated, and inseparable from the man himself was that muscular pose.
With the mental image of this gesture, Laurent recreated the scene in all its accessory details. In truth, it wholly resided in the movement which he had tried to illustrate to Marbol.
Despairing of making himself understood, he dragged the painter by force to the farm where the capital pose had manifested itself. They stood lying in wait toward evening, but after having vainly watched for the model, Laurent inquired for him from the farm people.
They could hardly recognize their equal, or at least one of themselves, from the exalted portrait that he drew of the fellow.
"Oh, yes! It's 'Curly,'" said one of the women with an hypocritical indifference,—for she must have closely known and admired her fellow-workman. "The master dismissed him a week ago, and we don't know where he has hired himself out."
"To have such a mime under one's eyes and discharge him!" cried Laurent with an indignation of which the materialistic laborers understood nothing.
Marbol tried to persuade his friend that they would again find the same attitude, the same practised play of muscles in other subjects of the same type as the unique discharged hand. And, in order to acquiesce in Paridael's mania and compensate him for the deplorable loss, they watched the return of many gangs of workmen. But, at the awaited moment, their appearance, their pose and their awkward gestures were but a parody, a pale counterfeit, an almost stupid and pitiful symbol of the posture of "Curly." Marbol would have been satisfied with them and even took his pad from his pocket in order to note down this characteristic moment of farm-labor, but Laurent would not let him begin the sketch, and, when Marbol teased him about his exclusiveness, he replied with conviction:
"Laugh all you want, my friend. But I'd have you know that in order to secure for my eyes the voluptuousness and the caress of that young blackguard's gesture of the other day, I'd willingly become a farmer myself, in order to hire that helot. Perhaps he is a bad lot, an intractable character, a dishonest servant, but, though he were a drunkard, a thief and a rake, I'd pardon his vices as little peccadilloes because of his superior plasticity. He and the others whom we have been watching do not lack grace, and I agree with you that their movements are identical. Briefly, it*s the same receipt, the same broth; only the marrow-bone is lacking."
"Well, it's a good thing you don't know in what kitchen this marrow-bone, as you call him, has gone to give a relish to the soup!"
"Yes, because I should be capable of engaging him at once."
And, as Marbol began to laugh harder than ever:
"Oh! keep quiet," begged his friend. "If you were really an artist, you would understand that!"
And in returning, downcast and sullen, he did not again open his lips the whole way.
Little by little the poise, the good sense, the wholesome mind of Bergmans displeased him. He began to weary of his friends. He now went so far as to find his inseparable triumvirate too indifferent, too prudent. He reproached the painter with the thickness and the opacity of his pictures, his lack of curiosity and comprehension. The wholesomeness, the luxuriance, the glad optimism of Vyveloy's genius no longer procured him the joy of former days.
His outbursts greatly amused his little circle. They treated their censor like a spoiled child and cared for him as though he were a dear convalescent. Their protective kindness and forbearance, far from calming Laurent, only put him beside himself, and, not succeeding in damaging their serenity, blasted their civility, only to return to them within a few days. They cherished no bitterness toward him, and forgave his thoughtless insults and passionate harangues as being the paradoxes and sophisms of a large heart.
But, haunted by his outlandish ideas, Laurent dreamed of conforming his conduct to them. The moment was coming when he would strip himself of his last prejudices and violate social conventions. His eccentric habits finally wearied the tolerance of his intimates, and, as people who had a reputation to sustain in the world, they hazarded a few observations. One day they had met him accompanied by a couple of picturesque fellows, prowlers on the quays, bad laborers, well modelled, but of a much too excessive originality, to whom, nevertheless, with the best faith in the world, he expected to present them. Having freed themselves in haste from this compromising acquaintance, they were severely taxed with philistinism.
This time Bergmans replied sharply. Paridael was asking too much of them. His jokes were turning sour. To interest himself in folk who worked and suffered; nothing could be finer. But to take a deep interest in blackguards, to rub elbows with criminals and with the riff-raff; that was to behave eccentrically, to say the least! Then, softening, Bergmans tried to show the stray sheep the abyss toward which he was slipping; he reproached him with being out of work, with his solitary life, his dreams, offered him a position in his offices, or a place with Daelmans-Deynze.
Paridael refused point blank. The slightest dependence, the least control was as repugnant to him as a chain.
Sometimes, affected by a friendly word, he promised to take to regular habits; he would make an effort to content himself with the commonplace existence of sedate and more sober people; but these good resolutions left him at the first vexation which bourgeois platitudes and self-sufficiency caused him.
The prognostications of Cousin Dobouziez weighed upon him like a malediction; that positive and clear-sighted man had fathomed the future of his exceptional relative.
Laurent began to wish himself irresponsible, to envy the shut-away, criminal or insane, who were not tormented with the worry about daily bread and the struggle for existence. His almost saintly goodness of heart, an hysterical excellence like that of the Franciscans of Assisi, unbridled him and pushed him to the ultimate consequences of fatalism. He believed himself predestined; without will, without faith, without object, he wished to die and sink himself again into the great all, like a defaced coin which the minter puts back into the crucible. After his atoms had been scattered and his elements dispersed, the eternal chemist would again combine them with more profit to creation.
The visit which Laurent paid, at the height of this crisis, to a penitentiary, aggravated his deleterious desires.
"Sick, irresponsible, unfortunate people!" he pleaded, on his return from this excursion, before the politician, the painter and the musician. "People who stare, who are bewildered, dazzled and aghast with great visionary eyes that understand nothing of life, law or morality,—the weak, the hopeless, lambs that are always shorn, passive instruments, dupes who have jostled every infamy, and remain as candid as children; easy-going folk who would never have killed a fly had not ruffians taken them in; vitiated but not vicious, as greatly torn by life as they are wreckers of life …"
"Are you speaking for yourself?" interrupted Marbol.
"You an artist!" sneered Paridael, without answering his question. "What have you suffered for your art; what have you sacrificed to it? It was there that I met a true artist! And a sincere one, mind you! After having led me from workshop to workshop, the director took me into a model smithy. Imagine three tiers of anvils, as many bellows beating out, with their Aeolian breath, the rhythm of the red dance of the flames; a hundred men, their chests and stomachs protected by leather aprons as inflexible as armor, hairy, bearded, black, strong, their arms bare to the bulging muscles, quickly tapping hammers; the thunder and the temperature of a crater in eruption; a maddening whirl of filings in human sweat; the flash of tests alternating with bursts of flame; and, splashed in sparks, torsos comparable to that in the Vatican.
"Apart from its huge dimensions and more complex apparatus, nothing distinguished this smithy from any other; the magnificent and robust smiths looked like all the other blacksmiths in the world. The activity and the fever of emulation that pervaded this immense hall were neither more nor less edifying than those of a workshop full of free workers, and many a criminologist, versed in the science of Gall and Lavater, would have been shocked by the faults and the divergences of these almost superhuman athletes.
"Passing between the files of anvils, one of the hammerers especially interested me; a hoary, strapping fellow with a gentle and wistful face, at the most thirty years of age. The director had shown me, in his rooms, admirable pieces of wrought iron, recalling, or rather perpetuating the exquisite ironwork of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
"Here," he said to me, "is the maker of those pieces!" and to the hammerman who did not stop puddling the flaming iron: "Karel, this gentleman has been good enough to find some merit in your slight work." "Not some merit, but the greatest merit," I hurriedly corrected. "Those window-grilles, that fire-gate, the candelabra, the banister are superb, and I heartily congratulate you upon them!" At my convinced tone, and the explicit expression of my praise, his serious face lit up with a pale smile, his tempestuous eyes radiated; he thanked me in a gentle and moved voice; but smile, intonation and look were so poignant that, had I persisted, and touched the same chord, his expression of gratitude would have become a burst of tears. I, too, felt myself as much overwrought as he, and after having furtively touched his callous hands, I moved away quickly, a lump in my throat and a mist before my eyes.
"'And to think,' the director said to me, when we had left the room and I had turned away to hide my emotion, 'that I have placed that hardhitter very nicely with the village farrier. He earned a good salary, and his employer treated him well. Moreover, I had been able to recommend him very highly. He had undergone infinite affliction; the death of his family, carried off during the last epidemic of typhoid, brought him to desperation, drunkenness, misery and stranded him upon our doorstep. I prided myself upon having reconciled him to life and society. However, didn't he get the notion to suddenly leave his employers and return to our door? Called before me, he begged me to take him back. You cannot imagine under what pretext. That original thought it beneath his dignity to hire out his arms to the village blacksmith, who employed them in rough work, and he believed himself happier in working here as a prisoner at work of his choice, at the craftsmanship undertaken here.
"'Naturally, I refused to lend myself to such a singular whim, and thinking that I had demonstrated the absurdity of his proposition, I sent him away, promising him that I would find a workshop more worthy of his talent. He did not once object to my reasons, seemed to submit, but he said goodbye to me in a sarcastic tone quite contrary to his nature.
"'Two months after this interview he returned to me, this time escorted by gendarmes in the coach-load of prisoners sent us daily by the judicial authorities: he had had himself admitted not by favor, but by law, well furnished, as a letter of introduction, with aas an incorrigible vagrant. And when he had done his time I consented to keep him on, in order to spare him a second offence. Only don't repeat this story, for if it came to the ears of the Minister, my kindness might be severely judged! What means did I have of treating that devil of an aristocrat differently?'
"Would you believe it, far from blaming him, I sincerely congratulated the official and thanked him for his kindness to one of the only complete artists, of the only true aristocrats—that was my word—that I had ever met with … Oh! sit down again, Marbol, and you, too, Bergmans; I haven't finished … Our walk ended in a long silence of thought.
"I reproached myself for my pusillanimity in regard to the man whom we left behind in the smithy. I should have embraced that victim of social stupidity and cried to him: *I understand you, proud wretch. How greatly plausible is your so-called aberration! I share your predilection for this refuge where you can give yourself up to the creative impulse without hindrance, where the person who pays you does not set your conscience and your liberty by the ears. How many artists are pigmies compared to you! Then, also, my good fellow, I divine in you a character too impressionable for you to repatriate yourself among geometrical humanity. A slight swerving would put you without the ban of ostensibly virtuous people. A false step would alienate you forever from those austere equilibrists. You prefer to this hypocritical and rectilinear society your strange equals, your comrades of the hulks. You live without mortification; you create according to your own fancy. That bread which you eat; no competitor will tear away from you, and you still less will steal from your brother in distress. No more struggle for existence, that struggle which finishes by taking all the color out of the artist's soul. No dealers, no exhibitions, no public. Around you poor beings who, without necessarily understanding your work better than acknowledged connoisseurs, excuse and respect your art, your vice, your rare vice, because you, on your part, do not think of wronging their subversive originality.'"
After this vindication of the defaulting and the downtrodden, a fierce argument arose between Laurent and his companions, although the latter did all they could to call off the dogs. These scenes repeated themselves, tearing away each time a shred of their former intimacy, and Laurent ended by no longer seeing his former faithful friends.
He once more plunged himself deeper and deeper into the extreme quarters exemplified by the loves of the crossing-keeper, frequented the haunts of the city boundaries, the cut-throat dives of Looibroek and Doelhof, the slanting streets of the Stone Mill and of Zurenborg, the sight of which had touched his heart, when he was a child, and inspired him with a curiosity blended with anguish and an unhealthy pity; that eccentric district to the east of the city, actual vestibules of the reformatories, waiting room of the prisons, swarming with moral lepers.
He loafed also about the immense region of the Basins, beginning at the former Palais des Hanseates, stripped of its campanile and imperial eagle, and presenting an uninterrupted succession of quadrangular reservoirs, enormous and solid as the arenas inundated for the naumachies of the Caesars. However, sometimes the boats flocked together in such compact masses that Paridael crossed the docks, dry-footed, as if it were the deck of a boat. Others were being built, larger, deeper, without any delay. Hardly opened, they were already insufficient for the merchant fleets that met there from the four corners of the earth, and anew the metropolis, glorious Messaline of commerce, insatiable and unsatiated, enlarged her bosom to receive these arks of abundance, and, always spurred forward, contested in expansion and in vigor with her copious tributaries.
And navvies from the Polder incessantly struggled to dig a bed that would fit her lovers, for the queen of the Scheldt.
But, though they were exacting, at least these loves were fecund.
Around each basin, the whole length of the quays, cranes and hoists driven by water power and steam, and tended by gangs of Herculean dockers stretched far and wide. As alarming as the ballistic engines and siege machines invented long ago by Gianibelli, the Antwerpian Archimedes, to shatter to bits and sink the galleons of Farnese, their immoderate arms brandishing a perpetual threat toward heaven, they no longer tore ships from their element, but, after having plunged their hooks, like hands armed with forceps, into the depths of the hold, they hoisted out, without too much grinding of chains or teeth, the cargoes stowed away in these wombs perpetually in travail.
Communicating with the docks and the roadstead by means of powerful locks provided with gang-planks and revolving bridges, were lined the dry-docks, like convalescent homes next to maternity hospitals. There all sick and wounded ships were recruited. A swarm of operators, calkers and painters, took charge of the damaged boat, skinned it, repaired it, plated it, paved it, painted it freshly; and the reverberations of hammers, mallets and picks drowned the wailing of the cranes, and the whistle of sirens and the crash of cartage.
Then, beyond the hospital, the pound and the morgue. Waste fields where carcasses of ships, lying upon their sides, eaten up with sea-wrack, cracked, with the air of incurable or stranded whales, waited for the wrecker, or finished by rotting like carrion among the refuse and minor wrecks.
Then he pushed his exploration farther on. He came to the warehouses for inflammable substances. Storehouses of petroleum and naphtha immerged like islets in marshy flats. Here the industry of the great city had halted for the time being. Barring the entrance to the country toward Austruweel rose the glacis of the old Citadelle du Nord, a discarded fortress, a bulky and antiquated rampart, a decayed bugbear, a wretched poultry-yard of which the utilitarian city had obtained the cession and which she was hurrying to sap in order to convert it, like her other annexations, into docks, basins, dry-docks and warehouses. Ah! why could she not do the same with all the other ramparts and intrenchments with which they persisted in surrounding her! For the city, essentially mercantile, reluctantly suffered her rôle of fortified town, although she had been predestined to it from her origin, by the Roman fort, her cradle, of which vestiges can still be seen today and whose despoiled and travestied poetry awaits its cavalier, as in the early days Elsa of Brabant, countess of Antwerp, conjured up the apparition of Lohengrin, her champion, from the dazzling track of the fatal swan.
Having in her heart a last filial scruple, instead of tearing down the ancient donjon, Antwerp contented itself with scoffing at it by flanking it with two galleries as shabby as the practicable bridges in a comic opera.
But she did not manifest even such debatable attentions to more recent fortresses.
She cursed as a detestable slavery the belt of fortifications which her princes consented to demolish from century to century only to transport them further out and make them inexpugnable.
The maid of Antwerp, more haughty than bellicose, would gladly trample beneath her feet the crenelated crown that she had been forced to wear.
History does not hesitate to justify the repugnance of the metropolis for this martial garb. Instead of preserving her, these walls and ramparts had always attracted the worst scourges toward her. Besieged for months, bombarded, then forced, invaded, pillaged, sacked, put to fire and sword, devastated from cellar to roof by foreign soldiery, notably during the Spanish Fury, so well named, she was nigh to never again recovering from it, to never rising from her ashes, but to disappearing with her fortune. But, thanks to her faithful Scheldt, which for her took the place of Pactolus and the fountain of youth, she was reborn each time more beautiful, more desirable, and recovered her ravished fortune tenfold. As she grew richer, however, she grew more surly and more selfish. Did she have a presentiment of fresh disasters? She spread out so insolent a luxury, and so much misery surrounded it! And the more her commerce flourished, the more inveterate became her hatred of these inauspicious fortifications, which not only thwarted her growth, but destined her, in case of war, to be the theater of desperate struggles and supreme disasters.
Her ramparts charged with cannon and her barracks crammed with soldiers continually evoked the spectre of ruin and death before these Crœsuses, as insolent as they were cowardly. And the city came to envelop in the same animadversion the bastions that strangled her and the idle, parasitic garrison that seemed to insult her activity, and with whom she vied even in patriotic courage. In the same way Carthage used to detest her mercenaries.
The manner in which the army was recruited did not contribute to elevating it in the eyes of the oligarchs. It was composed, for the major part, only of poor devils and vagabonds; of conscripts and paid volunteers. But millionaires brought up in the cult of money recognized no difference between poverty and vagabondage. The army had good reason to think the garrison of Antwerp the most inhospitable. Soldiers sent into these unsympathetic surroundings soon presented a constrained expression. In the street they instinctively effaced themselves and ceded the right of way to the bourgeiosie. They wore, not the uniform of warriors, but the livery of pariahs. Instead of representing an army, of emanating from the patriotism of a people and incarnating the best of its blood and youth, they were conscious of their position of pensioners.
The people of Antwerp confused these soldiers of a neutral country with indigents succored by public charity, with the inhabitants of orphan asylums and almshouses.
And, by a strange anomaly, the prejudice of the bourgeoisie of Antwerp against the soldier blinded the common people, even those who intended serving or had served, and fathers whose sons were or were to become soldiers.
It was no longer a question of class hatred, but of a true incompatability of habits, of an historic hatred that Antwerpians imbibe, as if from a tradition inherent in the air they breathed, or the milk with which they were suckled.
In roadside inns, working women often refused to dance with soldiers. In other lands, in the eyes of the women military uniform lends an irresistible smartness to any gallant; here it is a blot upon the most attractive cavalier. When they knew themselves to be in the majority, the rebuffed soldiers did not swallow the insult, but, touched to the quick, raised their voices, took the offensive, turned the ball topsy-turvy, took the first weapons that came to hand and revenged themselves upon the men for their doxies' scorn. Nearly every week a brawl broke out between civilians and soldiers, especially in the ill-famed blocks of houses bordering the barracks of Berchem and Borgerhout. This antagonism between civilian and soldier raged even outside the belt of fortifications, in the country about Antwerp. Unfortunate was the stranger who travelled back alone in the evening to one of the outlying forts. Ambushed peasants fell upon him, peppered him with blows, beat him unmercifully and dragged him along the road. This ambuscade called forth a frightful reprisal. On the next furlough, the victim's brothers in arms descended in force upon the village, and if they could not succeed in laying hands upon the guilty, invaded the first cabaret in their path, broke up the furniture, smashed the glasses, battered in the heads of casks, slashed the drinkers and abused the women. It came to pass that whole streets of Berchem were delivered up to the excesses of these madmen. At their approach the inhabitants immured themselves under lock and key. Drunk with rage and liquor, the madmen buried their swords in doors and shutters and did not leave a single window unbroken.
The next day the colonel vainly consigned the regiment to barracks, and forbid them thenceforth the privilege of entering the dives of the neighborhood; after these night attacks the hatred continued to smoulder, latent and dull, and at the next opportunity would break out in fresh and murderous brawls.
Naturally, Laurent, in the majority of cases, took sides with the soldiers, provoked beyond endurance by the butchers and slaughterers of the Stone Mill.
He made friends, above all, with the newcomers, the novices, those who were most rebuffed and out of their element. For they suffered not only the affronts of the bourgeosie, but also served as butts for their seniors in service. Butts for butts, they were, for the most part, unsophisticated and massive peasant literally uprooted from their villages in the Campine.
Laurent followed the poor conscripts from those grey afternoons when lots were drawn and the militia-board met, when, muddied up to their loins, they fidgeted and bellowed in the mud and the mist of the streets, their caps decorated with red ribbons and colored papers, with the falsely foppish air of cattle, their eyes humid and vacant, arm in arm, beating out extravagant quadrilles.
Then he saw before his eyes these falsely joyous fellows during the first few days in barracks; instructors chosen from among the substitutes abused and molested these peasants, bewildered to the point of no longer being able to tell their name or that of their village. And the tortures to which they were put in the dormitories! Then their walks in the street, in their new uniforms, in coteries made up of men from the same district, coming together like chicks from the same litter; their admiring halts in front of shop-windows; their rocking gait, their rustic awkwardness; their vaguely troubled and begging air of lost dogs; the puerile travesty of a soldier accommodating himself badly to the handling of his weapons and stressing the contrast between his muscular body and his placid, frank face.
Perhaps, real Samaritan that he was, Laurent would have preferred, to the passive and submissive soldier, deserters, the refractory, even the disgraced who were driven from the army and punished with the yellow badge.
In memory of the poignant enigma between Beveren and Calloo he harbored and concealed for a week, time enough to throw the gendarmes off the scent, and procure him enough money to leave the country, a deserter who had escaped punishment, an inoffensive and bewildered conscript who had been condemned, for a trifle, to stagnate in a fort in the marshes, and young and brave as he was, to endure the despotism of a disgraced officer. At the hour for fatigue duty he had upset his wheelbarrow, pitched away his mattock, and taken to flight under the eyes of the guard who aimed at him. He even told Laurent that he hoped less for freedom than for death. And as all the muskets discharged without touching him, he thought the clumsiness of the sentinels, his brother peasants, had been in the nature of mercy.