The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter VI
Obviously, Laurent's relations with the dangerous and poorer strata of the population did not proceed without an unbridled prodigality. One would have said that, in order to more closely resemble the people around him, he longed not to have a cent to bless himself with. The vague disgust, mingled with terror, that he had conceived for the money even on the day of his majority, when he had barely come into possession of his little hoard, had only augmented since his discussion with the Tilbaks.
As in Das Rheingold, in the Wagnerian tetralogy, he attributed a malignant virtue to capital, the cause of all human calamities, and to it he also ascribed his personal afflictions. Had not the money separated him from both Regina and Henriette? That money which had not even been powerful enough to do him the great service of keeping in Antwerp his dear friends of the Cocoanut!
However, at the rate at which he had been abusing his property, it would hardly last for a year.
After the departure of the emigrants and his break with Bergmans there had been no check and no more exhortation to stop him. He tasted the delight of ridding himself of his abhorred gold, rolling it in the gutter or scattering it in starved surroundings where it rarely consented to glisten. He paraded as much contempt for this lever of the modern world as the traders dedicated respect and idolatry to it.
He invented any number of extravagances in order to scandalize an essentially timorous and bashful bourgeoisie, until his visible dissipation outraged, as a sacrilege and a blasphemy, hoarders and systematic people. He would have been pardoned his other eccentricities, his degradation of body and soul, his open struggle against society, but his savage squandering procured him only the anathema of even the most tolerant spirits.
Had he not taken it into his head, after having dined too well, to walk in broad daylight with his hardly respectable friends, the assistant riding-master and the stud-groom of a bankrupt riding school, who were no less intoxicated than himself, through the most crowded streets in order to meet the business men on their way to the Exchange? As an excess of provocation the restaurant porter walked a few feet in front of the edifying trio, carrying on each arm, as a banner, a bottle of the best champagne. And with this pomp the three gay dogs undertook the ascension of the Haute tour and, when they came to the highest balcony, above the carillon and the bell chamber, they gloriously sipped the sparkling liquor, and then threw the bottles down into the square at the risk of stoning the cabbies stationed at the foot of the monument.
He often paid for rounds of liquor for all the dockers working on the quays. On the watch at the bar, Paridael prevented the bartender from accepting payment from the drinkers as fast as they stood on line, in whole gangs, each telling the other of the good fortune that awaited them.
And many a time there were interminable sprees with whole crews or companies of troopers, tippling from dive to dive, pilgrimages to the sanctuaries of love, the whole stressed by brawls and scuffles with the police.
But one could have discovered a noble motive at the bottom of his greatest excesses; a need for expansion, protection of the weak, disguised charity, a limitless compassion, the happiness of procuring some little pleasure and some moments of peace for the downtrodden. It seemed as if, in indulging himself in so fantastic a slaughter of coins and banknotes, the spendthrift wanted to put at their ease the beggars whom he was helping, and justify their eventual forget fulness. By holding at such a small value that which he was scattering about him, he absolved the recipients of all gratitude. To the poor devils who melted into thanks he would say: "Take it; take all you can get. Pocket it all, and a truce to your thanks … As well as someone else … I would have none of the money by tonight, anyway!"
His charities appeared to be as untimely and as immoderate as his pranks. Not only had he aided the flight and the desertion of a prisoner, but he bought back many sailors from their vampires, repatriated emigrants, and harbored liberated convicts.
All during a winter, a terrible winter when the Scheldt was ice-bound, he visited the homes of day-laborers and mechanics. He gave himself out for an anonymous delegate from the charities, emptied his pockets onto the table or mantlepiece, and before the starving people had time to discover the importance of his offering, ran down the stairs as if he had robbed and pillaged these paupers.
He never forgot, among all the calls in his errands of mercy, the garret in which a brood of children ranging from one to five years old were crying in a packing case stuffed with shavings, a litter too fetid even for a hutch. It seemed, as he listened to their crying and saw their convulsions, that hunger herself was bending over them and that her nails, scraping their wasted bodies, were skinning them as the rake of a greedy gleaner scrapes fallow-land that has already been reaped.
Leaning backward in a comer, at the other end of the garret, as far away as possible from their agony, the father, a widower, a powerful and muscular calker from the Basins, whose flesh and blood misery had not yet succeeded in exhausting, was without doubt meditating the prompt and violent destruction of his useless strength.
With a roar and a vivid gesture that would bear no reply, the wretched man commanded the intruder to relieve him of his presence, but the increasing pitiableness of the children's wailing was as imperious as the father's comminatory attitude, and, spurred on, though almost sure of being killed, but not wishing to survive these innocents, Laurent walked toward the despairing man and offered him a twenty franc piece.
It was more blinding than the sunshine, for the giant could not bear the gleam of it, and turned toward the wall, like a sulky, shame-stricken child, raising his hands to eyes, tormented to the point of tears! And it was so heavy that, when Laurent had slipped it into his other hand, his huge fingers let it drop!
The gold rang like an angelus, a message from Providence, for the abominable reaper abandoned this meager rake-full of human grain, and the wailing subsided.
And suddenly, like a madman, the man threw his arms around Paridaers neck, and hid his good plebian head on the shoulder of the declassed man. And Paridael, bruised against that great and sobbing breast, bedewed with the warm tears of gratitude, no less mad than the workingman himself, swooned in the bosom of infinite beatitudes and thought the hour of the assumption promised to the elect of the Saviour had already arrived! And never had he lived with a more intense life, nor found himself nearer death!
That did not prevent him, upon leaving this pathetic meeting, from consecrating a part of his money, that very evening, to his debauchery, and from throwing himself body and soul into bestiality.
He particularly distinguished himself during the carnival of that same calamitous winter. Never in the memory of Antwerp had Shrovetide unloosed so much license nor been celebrated with such gusto. The general misery and distress were taken as a pretext to multiply the celebrations for the benefit of the poor. The people themselves were swept by giddiness, took a double holiday, sought in a fleeting drunkenness and brutishness a refuge from the sinister reality, celebrated like a ragged Decameron this exceptional carnival which, instead of preceding Lent, fell in a season of absolute abstinence unforeseen by the Church, which the Curia would have never dared impose even in its severest mandates.
Not being any longer able to procure food, the poor devils found means to get enough to drink. Besides being cheaper than bread, alcohol deceived their sudden pangs of hunger and deadened the twinges of their stomachs. A wretched man spends more time in sleeping off the effects of bitter gin than in digesting a ridiculous mouthful of bread. And the fumes of the liquor, heavy and dense as the splenetic fogs of the country, passed away the more slowly lest the new blood again become cold in their veins. They procured a bizarre and brutal drunkenness during which the stupefied organs demanded no food and the instincts slept like reptiles in torpor.
For three nights the Théâtre des Variétés, uniting in a single immense hall its suite of four huge rooms, swarmed with a rutilant mob, blazed with lights, resounded with savage music and furious stamping. Within, there reigned a hubbub and a confusion of all castes almost as great as in the street. Ladies and lorettes, foreladies and shop-girls, grisettes and prostitutes fluttered about in the same quadrilles. Silk and satin dominos rubbed against horrible hired cloaks. During intermissions, while young swells in full dress were leading a mistress for whose sake they had deserted their fiancees into the little withdrawing room, and treating her to the classic dozen of "Zeeland" sprinkled with Roederer, the vaults beneath the dancing floor, converted into a Gargantuan cook-shop, claimed the less fashionable couples and groups who were cramming themselves, in the midst of the strong exhalations of pipes, with boiled sausage, and were flooding themselves with a sparkling, white Louvain beer, the popular champagne, which was not at all heady, but which cleansed out their bladders without having any other effect upon their organisms.
Towards morning, the hour of the last cancans, these crypts of the temple of Momus presented the lugubrious appearance of a community of troglodytes exhausted by too strenuous incantations.
During the length of the carnival Laurent made it a point of honor never to see his bed, nor quit his tattered Pierrot domino.
The street carnival intrigued him no less than the nocturnal dissipations. Loafing in the streets that had been turned over to the maskers, he was wherever the sport was at its giddiest, the crowd most effervescent. The din of horns and rattles reverberated from street to street, and pig-bladders blown up and brandished like clubs beat down with an ill thud upon the backs of wayfarers. Maskers, false sinners, aggravated the crush, and were thrusting forth like fishhooks at the end of lines small loaves of bread smeared with molasses which gamins as frisky and as voracious as ablests were struggling to snatch, though they were only succeeding in smudging their faces.
But Paridael was especially fond of the war of pepernotes, the true originality of Antwerp carnivals. He converted a great part of his last coins into bags of these "pepper nuts," northern confetti, large, cubic hailstones as hard as rocks, which were sold by the butchers, and with which, from afternoon to twilight, hot battles were fought between the ladies crowded in windows or balconies, and the gallants stationed in the streets, or between the riders upon the floats and the pedestrians who passed them in review.
On the afternoon of Shrove-Tuesday Laurent recognized in the recess of a window in the Hotel Saint-Antoine, rented at an enormous tariff for the occasion, Mesdames Béjard, Falk, Lesly and both the little Saint-Fardiers.
He had not seen his cousin since the sacking of the Béjard mansion, and he was astonished at feeling, at the sight of his so idolized Gina, only spite and a sort of bitterness. He grudged her, so to speak, his love for her. His stormy life and the desolation of the pariahs with whom he had come into contact were not foreign to this sudden change.
But the catastrophe of The Gina had complicated this antipathy with a superstitious terror and aversion. The nymph of the drain, the evil genius of the Dobouziez manufactory, was now exercising her evil influence over the whole city. She was poisoning the Scheldt and contaminating the ocean.
The vague sadness which her face reflected, the indolent part which she took in the battle of pepernotes, the nonchalance with which she defended herself would without doubt at any other time have disarmed and softened the heart of the worshipping Paridael.
It cannot be said that at any other time he would not have again found something of his early religion for the lofty idol, but he was in one of his days, now ever more frequent, of ill-humor and of biting irascibility, in one of those states of mind in which, gorged and saturated with rancor, he had a desire to smash some precious bibelot, to damage some work whose symmetry and immutable serenity seemed an insult to the general distress; a critical juncture in which one is capable of tormenting and hurting in every way the most beloved person.
He found it piquant to join the batallion of young fops who, stationed on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, that they might be easily seen, were paying homage to the young ladies by languidly letting fly, from the tips of their gloved fingers, one pepernote at a time. Among these handsome gentlemen were the two Saint-Fardiers, von Frans, the dapper captain of the civic horse-guards, Ditmayr, the rich woollen-merchant, and a swarthy, exotic-looking man, wearing a red tie and dogskin gloves, whom Laurent saw for the first time.
Irritated by the phlegm and the blase air of Madame Béjard as much as by the ostentation and delicate airs of the fops, he resolved not to spare her, even promised himself to lose his patience, to pelt her, to force her to withdraw from the scene. Rummaging in his deep pockets, he set himself to hurl handfulls of pepernotes at the impassive beauty. It was a continual volley of shrapnel. The projectiles, thrown with increasing force, were always aimed at Madame Béjard and especially at her face.
After a furtive examination of the dishevelled Pierrot, she affected to pay no more attention to him for a long while. Then, in the face of the impetuosity and the tenacity of his aggression, she let fall, at two or three repetitions, a disdainful look upon the fellow, and proceeded to chatter away to her companions in the most detached manner.
This air only enraged Laurent. He no longer observed the slightest restraint. She would notice him, or leave her place. At present he was throwing like a madman.
He was looked at askance from the beginning by the fashionable clique to whom he was lending such furious reinforcement, and the gentlemen, having become more and more annoyed by the reveller, left the game, repudiating and disavowing so ragged a partner.
Those around them, on the contrary, were hugely enjoying the cruel ballistics. The people were ready to take the part of the intruder, whose looks and apparel proclaimed him to be one of them, against the gallants. It was a little to their servility and to their collective objection that the patrician lady was opposing her ever more irritating disdain.
A few drops of blood fell from a slight wound on Gina's cheek made by the hail of Paridael's ammunition. She barely turned her head away, made a little face of disgust, and far from honoring her discourteous adversary with a retort, she mechanically threw a handfull of pepernotes toward the other side of the square.
"Enough!" cried the fops, looking as though they were about to interfere. "Enough, you cad!"
But some rough-looking comrades wedged in between Paridael and those who were threatening him, crying: "Well aimed, old boy! Go it! Let him alone … If s carnival time!… Free play! Free play!"
Paridael heard neither the one nor the other. Made feverish by the exercise, like a sportsman breaking some record, he had neither eyes nor attention for anyone but Regina. He lashed her and riddled her with real animosity. His wiry arm performed the function of a sling with as much violence as precision.
In the heat of the firing, each volley brought him nearer to her, the force of his throw carried him along with his shot, and it seemed to him as if his fingers had lengthened until they touched her cheeks, and that he was tearing her skin with his nails!
Gina, no less stubborn, persisted in serving as a target for him, unflinchingly continued to laugh, did not even deign to protect her face with her hands.
She had not recognized Laurent, but she took pleasure in exasperating this truculent ragamuffin and in driving him to extremities, firmly resolved not to allow her force of character to flag beneath the hostile gaze of the populace.
Laurent had come to that point of blind rage in which a scuffle began as a joke, degenerates into a massacre. In default of other ammunition, he would Have thrown pebbles and stoned her. The bonbons seemed to grow hard in the pressure of his sinewy hands, and such was the anxious silence of the crowd that they could be heard beating against the panes of glass, the walls and even Gina's face.
Finally, her face was covered with blood. Angela and Cora made Regina return into the room and closed the shutters after her.
With a final handfull of pepernotes, Laurent cracked the window behind which the courageous woman had appeared.
Then panting, weary as though from drudgery, as careless of the growling and the murmur of reprobation which his brutality drew from the well-dressed folk as he was of the amused laugh of the populace, he lost himself in the crowd, hastily gained a cross street away from the tumult and the swarm; and there, seized with shame and remorse, his former idolatry suddenly reacting against his sacreligious outburst, he burst into tears that smeared his makeup and made him look like the "little savage" daubed by Gina, twenty years before, in the garden of the factory.
A crowd which imperceptibly formed about this crying Pierrot brought him back so sharply to his rôle of brazen and bragging reveller that the onlookers could have imagined that he was crying from laughter.
Toward evening he joined several poor devils of dancers from an insolvent theater, whom he was taking to dine at Casti's, the fashionable restaurant. It was to be his last feast! No matter what he did to forget his thoughts, he found himself lacking in spirit. Instead of enlivening him, the wine only made him more sorrowful. Moreover, he was exhausted with fatigue. He grew drowsy in the middle of the repast while around him the others gorged and drank in silence.
Partly in dream, partly in revery, certain landscapes came back to him like a sweet vexation. His past, his lost life whispered in gusts loaded with moldiness, with rancid perfume, with a sickening roar, and, in this retrospective and intermittent breeze, there tumbled the rough flourishes heard every evening in low cabarets. The uselessness of his days defiled before Laurent like a macabre procession, a trail of clowns and slick Pierrots, trifling, lisping cold and plaintive, whom salacious paroxysms electrified, and who twisted and mingled in dances as lascivious as the spasm itself …
As he was finally falling asleep, indifferent to the grateful and almost canine caresses of a girl, he jumped up suddenly at a lively explanation at the bottom of the stairs, followed by footsteps upon the stairway, then in the hall, that drew near the room in which Laurent was dining, but which stopped before the next door.
"Open! In the name of the law!" commanded a grave voice, with the brutally professional intonation of a superintendent of police.
Laurent, having come to his senses in a minute, commanded his companions to be silent, and at the same time put his ear to the partition separating the two rooms.
Cries, confusion, the sound of breakage, a window being opened, but no reply. Then the crash of the door being broken in.
Insurgent by instinct against all authority, ready to take the part of the feasters against the police, Laurent flew outside, and above the shoulders of the superintendent of police who had stopped at the sill of the door, above those of Béjard, of Athanasius and Gaston, he saw, to his consternation, Angéle and Cora crouching each one in a corner of the room and forcing themselves to disguise in the folds of the window-curtain the pagan simplicity of their toilette. Not far from them, seeking to put on a face, a dignified and resolute air, incompatable, however, with a state of attire as makeshift as that of their fair ladies, stood the elegant von Frans and the tall Ditmayr and—easily recognizable, although he was no longer wearing his red tie and dogskin gloves—the swarthy pimp whom Laurent had that afternoon taught how to throw pepernotes. The husbands were perhaps even more astounded and more overwhelmed than the gallants; this was the case, at least, with the young Saint-Fardiers. The superintendent of police himself lost assurance, and became confused in his procedure.
But the humorous side of this modernist scene did not in the least strike Laurent; he could only consider and figure out the consequence of the crash.
The presence of Béjard, moreover, would have been sufficient to remove any desire to laugh. Alone among them the ugly hypocrite seemed at his ease. One would have even thought that the scandal rejoiced him. In any case he was the man to have first fomented it and brought it to its consummation. Who could say with what black infamy he would complicate the deplorable scandal?
He alone had gone into the room. He went from the table to the window, handled the dishes and the tablecloth, ferreted into the corners, showed an appalling presence of mind, directed the investigation, pointed out to the superintendent the pieces of evidence, pushed his impudence to the point of crumpling and rummaging the garments strewn about the furniture, and, without worrying about the presence of the wretched adulteresses, even found the spirit to joke.
"There were six places set! One of the male birds, no, one of the female birds has taken flight by the window, helping herself with a curtain, torn down, as you see … It was even worse than a party of two couples; a cubic party … What a pity! I should like to have seen the fugitive! I'll bet she was the prettiest of all!"
He put so treacherous a meaning into these last words, he allowed such a devilish double meaning to pierce this reticence that a sinister light penetrated Laurent's spirit and he threw himself forward toward Béjard to treat him like a coward.
Béjard contented himself with surveying this impertinent reveller from head to foot and immediately going on with his investigations, but the violent entrance of Paridael recalled the superintendent to his rôle.
"Hey, you, Pierrot?… Get out, quickly! This is none of your business!" he said, taking Laurent by the arm and pushing him out; then turning to Béjard and the two husbands: "I think the facts have been sufficiently established, Monsieur Béjard, and that it is superfluous to prolong this delicate situation. We can therefore retire."
After coughing, he added in a constrained tone, as if modesty prevented him from speaking directly to the lightly clad culprits: "These gentlemen and ladies will have the kindness to join us at the commissariat for the little formalities that we still have to go through!"
Laurent, contrary to his usual habit, thought it useless to resist. He would find the superintendent of police again. Béjard would lose nothing by waiting!
For the moment another duty was incumbent upon Laurent.
Guilty or not, Gina had to be warned of what had just taken place and of the manner in which Béjard had spoken of her … Laurent rushed to the street like a madman, hailed a cabby, jumped into the fiacre:
He tore at the bell, jostled the footman, entered an illuminated room like a housebreaker.
Gina screamed loudly, first at recognizing her Pierrot of that afternoon, and then, beneath his disordered costume and the remainder of his makeup, her cousin Laurent Paridael.
He snatched her brutally by the hand: "A yes or no, Gina; were you at Casti's restaurant this evening?"
"I! From what asylum have you escaped?"
He told her, in one breath, the scandal which he had just attended.
"The wretch!" she cried, as she heard the rôle played by Béjard in the vile performance. "I have not Keen out of the house this evening. Is not my word enough for you? Here, the postmarks on this registered letter prove that it was delivered to me about an hour ago. I was just finishing my reply to it when you burst in, and you will admit that it would take easily an hour to fill these four pages with a handwriting as close as mine."
In order to be satisfied Laurent had no need of an irrefutable proof; everything about Gina proclaimed her innocence; her air of repose, her house-gown, her coiffure, arranged for the night, the sound of her voice, the honest look in her eyes, even the cool and calm perfume that she herself exhaled.
"Forgive me, cousin, for having doubted you for a moment … Forgive me, above all, my conduct of this afternoon …"
"I have already forgotten that nonsense … Ah! Laurent, it is rather I who should ask your pardon! Have I not been cruel toward everyone, but especially toward you, my poor Laurent!… Be merciful to me. Just now I need to be spared! I am expiating my coquetry!
"For a long time you have hated Béjard, haven't you? You will never hate him enough! He is the enemy of us all, the malignant beast par… You know about the shipwreck of The Gina! Well, it is a horrible thing to say, but I am convinced that the wretch anticipated the disaster, that it even entered into his calculations. Yes, he knew that the boat wouldn't hold water very much longer!"
"No! Oh, no! Don't say that! Béjard was an angel two minutes ago! Béjard was as good as Jesus!… He knew that; he wanted that shipwreck! God! God! God! Oh, no! …" cried Laurent, burying his head in his hand, and stopping up his ears.
"Yes, I would take an oath upon my soul that he knew about it. He distrusted me. He knew that I divined it; he feared me. He is afraid that I may talk. I know that he planned, with old Saint-Fardier, to have you shut up as a lunatic. And had it not been for my father, they would have done it. Crazy! Anyone would go crazy in such surroundings. It is a miracle that I have preserved my sanity. I would swear that this evening's plot was brewed by him, with Vera-Pinto, the Chilian whom you noticed in the street this afternoon, and saw again at Casti's this evening."
And Gina told Laurent that, since his arrival in Antwerp, the foreigner had pursued her with his attentions. She had dismissed him many times, but he always came back to the onset, encouraged, unbelievable as it seemed, by Béjard, with whom he had taken Dupoissy's place. He had, for sure, a lower and a blacker mind than the Sedanese, and Gina did not augur any good from the fact that the two partners went about together under the pretext of business.
Béjard hoped to regain his liberty to marry another heiress. After having ruined her, Gina was but an obstacle to his fortunes. Not daring to rid himself of his second wife as he had been able to rid himself of his first, across the sea, he was trying to persuade Gina to consent to a divorce. The interest of her child, and respect for her own reputation had prevented Gina from listening to his advances, otherwise she would have been the first to break their abominable union. In the face of her refusal, Béjard had had recourse to threats, and then, since his wife continued unsubmissive to his will, he had beaten her without pity. However, one day when he again raised his hand to her, Gina had armed herself with a knife and threatened to plunge it into his breast. As cowardly as he was vicious, he took her at her word. But, in order to break down his wife's resistance, he took other abominable means. He tried to throw her into the arms of the Chilian. She avoided these pitfalls, and the charlatan was out of pocket for his gallantry. Finally, in despair of getting a case, not having succeeded in inducing his wife to adultery, Béjard had resolved upon having her condemned and stigmatized as though she had been guilty. With the connivance of Vera-Pinto he had not hesitated, in order to attack her, to ruin the two little Saint-Fardiers.
And thus, mused Gina, she was the warp and woof of the plot:
"After having warned Béjard of the party arranged for the evening, the Chilian went to it with one or the other of his conquests.
"They are not lacking, I give you my word," she continued, "even in what is called good society, for my equals do not all share my aversion for that suspicious half-breed. It makes no difference who they are. Luckier than Angéle and Cora, the third lady mixed up in the escapade found a way, at least, of fleeing in time. She does not suspect that she owes her good fortune to the hatred which Béjard, in his damned soul, bears me. It was necessary for them to have her out of the way before the arrival of the police in order to implicate me in the affair. Was I not seen, this very afternoon, with my unfortunate friends? And were not von Frans, Ditmayr and Vera-Pinto planted beneath our balcony the whole time? The scene at Casti's represents the epilogue of an intrigue begun at the Hotel Saint-Antoine, and tomorrow there will not be one person in the whole of Antwerp, with the exception of my father and yourself, who is not persuaded of my relations with that Chilian! Ah! Laurent! To think that Bergmans himself will believe my traducers! And it is from my memory of him that I have drawn the strength to remain virtuous!
"It was he whom I loved; it was he whom I should have married! I discouraged him by my vanity, and when he had gone away, my conceit still got the better of my love, and I consented to the most disastrous of marriages. To irritate the one whom I loved, I made myself eternally unhappy!"
In vain had Paridael tried to wear out his passion, to make it more and more absurd by multiplying, with deliberate intention, the obstacles and barriers that separated him from his cousin; in vain had he descended so low that he could never raise himself up to her again.
He thought himself cured, but he had only brought his trouble to the boiling point once more. We know how, a few hours before, his animosity had been aroused against her.
The accidents, the intimacies, the promiscuities of his vagabond life, his commerce with the rebellious and the refractory fellows who were not ashamed of their nature, who were initiated in every form of turpitude, had stripped him, also, of all prejudice, had made him more daring and more expeditious.
While she was denouncing Béjard's brutalities to him, Paridael was strangely torn; one part of his being sympathized, from the depths of his soul, with so great a misfortune, and was revolted by so monstrous a villainy, and the other part burned to leap upon the weeping woman, to beat her in his turn, to treat her with more barbarity than he had, just a little while before, at the carnival. Never had the extremes of his nature so contradicted each other. His feelings clashed with each other like contrary winds in a tempest.
The nudity of the two blonde adulteresses, surprised at Casti's restaurant, still trembled before his eyes and inflamed his blood.
"Why do you not quickly strip this quivering woman? Would you be less brave than the little violator of Pouderlée?" suggested the material side of his nature. "I shall find enough nobility of soul to love her better than Bergmans himself!" the other phase of his nature promised him. And he cherished no less generous and extravagant an idea than that of sacrificing himself in order to assure her of happiness by ridding both her and Antwerp of the damnable despoiler.
It was under the influence of this quixotic thought that he said to Gina, after a long silence during which he held her hands in his:
"You still love Bergmans, then?"
The accent of his voice betrayed so much sadness and affection that Gina looked at him. But she was amazed to find in his eyes the strange, wrecked expression she had already seen, one eventful day, in the orangery, and as he gripped her hands more tightly:
"Laurent!" she cried, trying to push him away, and not answering his question.
He, however, continued in his weak and breaking voice:
"Fear nothing from me, Gina. Think anything you want about me, overwhelm me with contempt, but know that there is nothing I would not do for your happiness!"
It was the sincere expression of his feelings, but wherefore, while offering Gina this respectful devotion, did the rough pressure of his fingers, and the wild light of his eyes give the lie to his speech?
"If Béjard were to disappear, it would be Bergmans that you would marry?"
His voice seemed to come from the other world, like that of one who dreams out loud.
"Do you want me to kill him, that husband of yours? You have only to speak the word! Come, answer me! Answer me, I say!"
His murderous look did not threaten only the person who had defined it with such intensity and concentrated fire. Gina had just read in it something other than murderous fury, a more direct plea, an imminent danger …
"Before I assure your happiness and that of Bergmans forever, be good to me just for one instant, Gina … the instant that it takes to give a sister's kiss. Then I shall leave to accomplish my mission. And you shall never see me again … Quick! the farewell kiss, my Regina …"
His voice changed, became hoarse and threatening; his plea sounded false; he dragged her by force to him, twisting her wrists as he did it.
"Laurent! Stop! You're hurting me!…"
Instead of obeying her, he stroked the flesh of her arm; he even put his hands to her corsage, and, at the thrill of her bosom, beneath the thin material of her tea-gown, he pressed his lips greedily to hers. Almost thrown back, and on the point of belonging to him, she succeeded in releasing herself, and bounded to the other side of the table:
"All my compliments, master cheat! And to think that I was accusing Vera-Pinto! It is you who are the tool of Béjard! I follow it, now. After having paid you for maltreating me this afternoon, he counted upon surprising me with you, you hideous clown! Your ugliness and your beastliness would have made the enormity of my fault even greater!"
Whipped by this violent attack, as blinded as though she had dashed a bottle of vitriol in his face, Laurent did not even try to justify himself. Appearances overwhelmed him; the best thing he could do would be to take himself off at once. The arrival of Béjard might convert her slanderous hypothesis into a reality at any moment.
Laurent took to flight, not without stumbling many times, ready to fall.
Gina! His dearly beloved Gina! To think him capable of such deceit! Never could Laurent rise beyond it again. He would be right forever more to wallow in all mire to add ignominies to ignominies: his worst actions would seem good beside the one of which she had impeached him, and the severest penalties, the most infernal expiation that a list of unimaginable iniquities would yield him would seem gentle and clement to him when compared with the rigor and the cruelty of her accusation.
Gina herself could never retrieve her error nor repare her injustice. It was indelible. Any rehabilitation or forgiveness would come too late.