The New Carthage/Part III/Chapter VII
THE CARTRIDGE PLANT
That day in May the fogs of an exceptionally stubborn winter had scattered, to leave floating in the air only a diaphanous evaporation through which the azure tendered the interesting pallor of convalescence, and which became irridescent, in the radiant sunlight, like a mist of fine pearls.
After a long illness contracted on the morrow of his stormy Mardi Gras, Laurent, as convalescent as the season, left, for the first time, the hospital where the practitioners had saved him in spite of himself and less, without doubt, for interest in him than in order to triumph over one of the most stubborn and most complex cases of typhoid that had ever been met with in the establishment.
Put back upon his feet, returned to the life of the outside world, he seemed to have come back from a long and perilous voyage, as if pardoned from an exile that had lasted for years. And so never before, even on the day of his return to Antwerp, had the metropolis appeared to him with this aspect of power, splendor and serenity.
At the harbor, the activity was feeling the effects of the spring-like temperature. The recent famine caused by the blocking of the Scheldt had not persisted after the break-up of the ice. The roadstead and the docks were swallowing up more ships than ever and a mighty recrudescence was succeeding the long lull in traffic.
The workingmen were laboring without suffering, happy to spend their strength, considering the drudgery, often so painful, as an exercise giving elasticity to their long relaxed muscles.
Even the emigrants, stationed at the doors of the consulates, seemed to Paridael less pitiful and more resigned than usual.
Passing the Coin des Paresseux, he noticed that all its habitués were absent.
Their king, a perpetual loafer, who never worked even when the most downright lazy among them allowed themselves to be hired out, had exceptionally recanted his laziness. This humiliated Laurent not a little. He remained the only drone in the busy hive. He was impatient to regenerate himself in work.
To this end he stopped several brigades of dockers and asked for any employment from their baes, but the latter, after carefully looking him over, seemed not at all anxious to saddle himself with as ridiculous a laborer as the fellow before him, wasted with two months of fever, asked him to come back the next day, alleging that the day was already too far gone.
Drawing trucks, there passed with a slow and majestic gait the great horses of the Nations. On their large collars gilded nails set forth the name or the monogram of the corporation to which they belonged. The drivers of these drays employed for reins only a hempen rope drawn through one of the rings of the collar. Whether they stood up on their empty wagons, like antique coachmen, or whether they walked placidly and apparently unconcerned, by the side of their loaded drays, their dexterity, their watchfulness and the intelligence of their horses were such that the trucks passed each other and rubbed against each other without ever becoming tangled.
Laurent could not help admiring the strong horses and their magnificent drivers; he even stopped still in the middle of the road and would have been run over had not an imperative crack of the whip or a guttural onomatapoeia not warned him to watch out.
Drunken with the springtide, he splashed about with delight in the thick mud, the black and permanent sweat of a pavement constantly trampled down by the heavy rolling of traffic; he trespassed upon the railroad tracks; mooring-ropes caused him to stumble, bales thrown in flight from hand to hand like simple juggler's balls by Herculean jugglers, threatened to upset him, and the gang whose rhythmic, cadenced work he interfered with rated him in a patois as enormous and crusty as their bodies.
Nothing could alter, today, Laurent's good humor; he took pleasure in being hardly used by the world he preferred, enjoyed the extreme familiarity with which he was treated by these dockers, as robust as they were placid.
He lounged about the great Kattendyck basin. His heart beat more rapidly at the sight of comrades from the America, the Nation of which he himself had been a part, unloading grain. The sacks snatched by the hooks of the crane at the bottom of the hold were hoisted to the height of the masts and funnel, then the mighty lever, describing an horizontal quarter-circle, carried its load to a truck waiting on the quay.
Standing on the truck, bare-headed and bare-armed, a tall fellow, his loins girded like a wrestler, with a sort of pruning-hook in his hand, grappled the bags as they hung above his head, loosened them from their slings, and, by the same stroke, gave its liberty of movement back to the machine, which turned to continue its looting.
Other comrades, wearing hoods, came up in a single file to load upon another truck the load which the bareheaded man caught up and fastened upon their backs. All around sweepers were gathering in scoops the grain which was spilled, at every trip of the machine, from the fissures in the grappled and torn bags.
As he came nearer, Laurent recognized in the principal actor of the scene, in which he alone, perhaps, among his contemporaries, experienced the sovereign beauty that would have intrigued Michael Angelo and sent Benvenuto Cellini into transports of lyricism, the docker whom he had aided in the garret, and thought himself recompensed for any terrestrial or divine perspective by the emotion which he felt at the sight of this noble creature restored to life and beauty. For an instant, Laurent thought of hailing him, but did not; the good chap might think, seeing his benefactor so shabby and worn looking, that a brutal appeal was being made to his gratitude. Paridael even hastened to keep on his way, fearful of being recognized, congratulating himself for having had this scruple, but sending a warm wave of emotion toward his debtor.
He passed through the drydocks, crossed many bridges and gang-planks, and came to the warehouses for inflammable matter, the storehouses of naphtha immerged in marshy hollows, the petroleum tanks, great vats like gasometers, all objects whose characteristic appearance contributed to the demarcation of this commercial landscape.
Here stopped, after its last wanderings, the monopolizing and voracious industry of the metropolis.
Therefore he was not a little surprised to find, beyond the petroleum reservoirs, towards the village of Austruweel—a pitiful bit of a village separated by strategic necessity from its parish and added to the urban region—an agglomeration of flimsy and provisional buildings, whose appearance was so troubled, so forbidding, so infernal, that Laurent was not far wrong in attributing a diabolic origin to claim his property, or as if he exercised an unavowable profession. The hovels must have shot up there like mushrooms growing in a single night in a damp spot, propitious also to the hatching of toads.
As a whole, it looked like a lazaretto, a dispensary, a horse-pound, a warehouse for contraband goods, or a clandestine still relegated to a district outside the zone of normal industries.
Disagreeably surprised, Laurent Paridael stopped in spite of himself before these interloping buildings, consisting of five bodies of buildings without floors, built of wreckage, loam, coarse plaster, of agglutinated materials, like a temporary thing of which only an ephemeral consistency was demanded.
Surrounded by a dilapidated wall of rotted handrails, it threw a discordant note into the grandiose and loyal harmony, into the impression of honest foundations produced upon him today by the panorama of Antwerp. These hovels, lacking any apparent purpose, intrigued Paridael more than he would have wished.
He was distracted from his examination by a dozen apprentices, boys and girls, who, hurrying along and chatting joyously, were going into precisely those suspicious sheds.
He stopped them with the nervousness of a rescuer who jumps into the water or throws himself at the bridle of a runaway horse, and asked them what the installations were.
"Those? But that's the Béjard Cartridge Plant," they answered him, looking at him as if he had fallen from the moon.
At this answer he must have had an even more bewildered look. How was it that he had not foreseen this correlation? An establishment with such a repulsive expression and such a malignant exterior could serve only Béjard.
Laurent Paridael remembered that someone had told him of this last operation of the former slaver. Without becoming reconciled to Bergmans, he had applauded the vehement campaign which the tribune had conducted against the threatening works of the dealer in human flesh, and if he had not been more actively concerned in this opposition, it was only because he thought the Council incapable of tolerating such manipulations in the interior of the city. And now Paridael was finding that his anticipations had been given the lie, and that the public safety had been imperilled despite Bergmans' phillipics, adjurations, and cries of alarm.
Béjard, the evil alchemist, had succeeded in establishing his laboratory where it best suited him.
It was in these dangerous workshops, almost open to all the winds, built rather to attract bats than to shelter human beings, that his dreadful operations were taking place!
It was in close proximity to the most combustible materials that the presence of the most withering producers of fire was tolerated!
It was to children, fatally rattle-brained and flighty babies, belonging essentially to the most turbulent and the most reckless class of the Antwerp proletariat, that they turned over work for which sufficiently careful and steady manipulators could not be found!
And so that nothing would be lacking to the stakes, so that the challenge would cry the louder to God or rather, to Hell, these little hands, unskilled and clumsy, were provided with cumbersome and rudimentary tools.
Finally, as a supreme provocation, a steam engine and its fire-box were accommodated next to the gunpowder-maker; quite literally, the powder was being treated in the fire!
Considering only the little difficulty required by the work itself, "regular child's play," as the greedy capitalist said with a chuckle, he had carried off two hundred of the very young blackguards swarming in the Quartier des Bateliers and the Quartier de la Minque, offspring of drunkards, women peddlers, pilots, smugglers and runners, hopeless vagrants to whom he paid a few cents a day, Béjard worried as little about the safety of the poor children as he had about that of the emigrants. Laurent even imagined that he recognized, among the moss-grown and tarry boards, the wreckage oi The Gina, and, going even further back, he thought of the boats whose construction was helped, in the time of Béjard, senior, by the children tortured to amuse Béjard, junior.
The eldest of the boys, to whom Laurent had just spoken, was but sixteen years old, and Laurent learned from him that the majority of his companions had not yet reached that age.
In questioning them, Paridael took a hitherto unfelt interest in their welfare, felt there and then an imperious and almost piercing solicitude, the most intense, the most jealous that any human being had ever aroused in his veins, taxed his ingenuity to prolong the conversation in order to hold them back, there, near him, and delay their entrance into the factory from minute to minute.
He racked his brain in order to divert them from their work, to disband this deleterious workshop. He had never before nourished such a desire to dispute a factory its workingmen; to debauch, to liberate, to emancipate the apprentices yoked to a homicidal trade. All his former loves revived and condensed into that supreme attachment.
"In that building there, in front of your nose, is the workroom where the boys empty the cartridges. Back of the shed, the customshouse. In the middle, that species of fort surrounded by bare earth is the powder-house, where we case the powder coming from the broken cartridges. On the other side of the powder-house, the girls' workroom. It's there that my girl works, the red-haired one who is hiding behind the other one. Like they used to do at school, they separate the breeches from the skirts. I don't say that they are altogether wrong … the more because we make amends for it when we come out, don't we. Carrot? Finally, that shed there contains the oven in which we melt in separate ingots the copper and the lead.
"The same shed contains the steam engine which crushes the empty and burned shells. I work at the oven. It is I, Frans Verwinkel, who explode the fulminate of the percussion-caps after having emptied the shells. It is very amusing, and no more difficult than thumping him, here! Vlan! I do it like that! And the thing is finished! Don't get angry, Pitiet, it's only to explain the trick to Monsieur!"
In proportion as the eldest gave him, without any recrimination, even in a bragging tone strongly impregnated with racy local slang, these details and others of the place, the materials and the workers, Laurent's affinities for this crew of sturdy fellows and buxom girls increased to its paroxysm of commiseration.
They had well-modelled flesh, their faces were healthy, although they had lost something of their velvety quality, their expressions were sprightly, their movements quick, their eyes flashing, their lips mobile, they had the tan complexion, the red cheeks, the dark coloring of the harbor folk, the type whom Laurent prized so highly that it made him sympathetic to even the runners and other land-sharks.
As he looked at them, how did it come to pass that he suddenly reflected that the first victims of Béjard and his shipyards, the little crucified children of the Fulton shipyards, must have been of their age, must have had their grace, their beauty, their bluster? Truly, they must have been congeners of those proud youths whom, as the newspapers of the time said, had been tortured and made martyrs of without drawing information from them.
"And don't you do yourselves any harm? Does no one do you any harm in there? Are you sure? That man, Béjard; doesn't he take pleasure in drawing blood from you? Are you not lending yourselves to his amusements; doesn't he burn you and mangle you, the tyrant? Don't deny it! I know him! Be careful!…"
They looked at each other and burst out laughing, not understanding anything of this reveller's divagations.
The presentiment of a hidden danger that menaced them worried Paridael cruelly, sorrowed, to employ the word of the sublime Saviour, his soul unto death. A train of torments and torture was lying in wait for this adolescent flesh. He would have liked to ransom these poor children at the price of his own blood, from he did not know what vivisectors.
One moment he thought that he had found a means to ward off their destiny.
After having mentally calculated how much he still possessed, he proposed point blank to the whole troop to take them to the country, beyond Austruweel, where he would have regaled them with rice, with "Corinth bread," and with sugared coffee, just as Jesus treats his elect in Paradise.
But, while he was searching his pockets for his last money, he examined himself for bandages, lint and salve. His clothes had been fumigated at the hospital, but an abominable odor of phenol, laudanum and cauterized flesh outraged his nostrils.
Dressed in one of those picaresque rigs to the composition of which he brought a true dandyism, his cheeks sunken, his face ravaged by his illness and made more haggard and more distorted by his present worry, his ridiculous and incoherent vaporing coinciding with the unfavorable impression of his looks, Laurent Paridael was so little the person from whom one could expect liberality that, when they heard him propose such a wonderful treat in the country, the gamins believed themselves to be absolutely in the presence of an insane man, an opium smoker, or a drunkard incapable of doing what he offered, and endeavored to stun him with their ridiculous answers.
"Say, Jan Slim, have you finished humbugging your set? Tell us your tailor's address? Hey, rare bird, since you are in the mood to preach, why not recite the ten commandments for us? Surely, we'll go with you, little father, and right off, but can you take us to the Hotel Saint-Antoine or to Casti's for dinner? We don't want to hurt your feelings, but we think you've broken out from the Rue des Beguines or that you are a pilgrim to Merxplas! Is it with stolen money that you are going to cram our bellies?"
Far from taking offence at these jokes, Laurent profoundly regretted that he could no longer find a single hundred franc note to distribute among them, and pay their ransom to fate. He was himself at the end of his resources, and should he not be able to hire out his enfeebled arms on the morrow, he would in point of fact have to begin a pilgrimage to Merxplas, to the hospitable prison for tramps and vagrants, where he would meet Karl the Blacksmith and so many other worthy pariahs.
Warned of an ever more imminent trouble, Laurent persisted in trying to take the young folks far from this neighborhood; he begged them almost with his tears to hire themselves out elsewhere as hodmen, navvies, coffee-sorters, herring-peddlers, or at least to take a holiday today, only one afternoon, to play the truant from the factory for the rest of the day.
But thinking that this mystification was becoming a bore, their chief scamp with large eyes the color of a ripe chestnut, with a teasing expression, with a willful, dimpled chin, a difficult rogue to handle, the same Frans Verwinkel who said his job was to explode the fulminate, lifted his cap respectfully to Paridael, and, bowing his black, curly head, harangued him in these terms:
"It isn't, old brother, that your company is particularly disagreeable to us, or that your conversation lacks relish, but if you will believe me, you will be first in the field and wait for us at Wilmarsdonck … It's over an hour ago that the clock struck, and, without altogether being the bugbear that you say he is, Béjard would not hesitate to fine us, or put us all out, sure as he is of always being able to catch enough artists of our genius to keep his shop going.
"And so, in this case, it is not you, our uncle, who butters our bread, or lodges us in the henhouse, or offers himself up to take a whipping as paternal as it is burning, we bid you good day, friend. Good luck, and a good wind behind you!"
Laurent tried to bar his passage, to hold him by the arm, to grip him by the hands:
"Come, hop, friend! Down with your paws I Get out, do you understand!"
The frisky apprentice released himself, and Laurent vainly clung desperately to blouses and skirts; they all passed him, following their leader, not without molesting him a little. And with hisses and catcalls, with any amount of derisive gestures, they were all swallowed up by the cartridge plant, more brazen and more blustering than a flock of crows scorning a scarecrow.
Paridael stood there for a long time after the door had shut upon the last of the laggards. The sonorous laugh, their vibrant voice still rang in his ears; he saw the great chestnut eyes of the eldest sparkle and glisten once more, recalled the relish of his gesture when he had raised his cap to heaven like a quarrelsome titmouse bristling its tuft.
Paridael's heart bled more and more sorrowfully in his bosom. And that because of some young scoundrels who were absolute strangers to him.
"There are hundreds, even thousands of these louts, all cast in the same mold, between Merxem and Kiel!" the judicious and moderate Marbol had told told him.
Did not they themselves realize that Béjard would not have found it difficult to raise more than one reserve of conscripts of the same kidney!
The prolific city threw them upon the streets, neglectfully, exposing them to accidents, abandoning them to their own industry, to their good or evil instincts, destining nearly all of them to helotism, squandering them upon the racy atmosphere of the streets and the waterfront.
If they did not serve for food for the fishes, they would, one day, be stretched out upon the slabs in the morgue, or contribute to the instruction of medical students. Did they possess the supreme and unique character with which Laurent endowed them? Incontestably. Were he the only one to see them in this warm light and in so bold a relief, it would be because they were created and existed so.
On the point of joining the apprentices in their workshop in order to suspend the malignant labor with which they were charged, and disputing them with Béjard himself, the same odor as before, but stronger, the stifling heat of a slaughter-house, blended with the mustiness of an infirmary and puffs of the odor of burning pounced upon him. As though he had been made to breathe a powerful anesthetic, he became dizzy, and things reeled before his eyes.
The wall surrounding the cartridge plant was swept away, the masonry crumbled to pieces, the walls of the buildings cracked and parted like scenery, or as if a sudden torrent of water had burst forth, and, in a green Bengal light with the color of a glaucous and phosphorescent sea, unwonted human forms whirled about before his eyes, more rapid and more fleeting than a luminous bank of fishes, or than the thousand candles quivering before the pupil of an apoplectic^s eye. In the horrible bustling of these apparitions, Laurent distinguished trunks without members, hands and feet amputated from bodies, and what dismayed him the most was the imploring or terrified expression in the gleaming eyes of those bloodless heads, the same youthful roguish eyes that he had seen a few seconds before, and the grin, the convulsion, the grimace of horrible suffering upon these mouths, the same mouths that only just now had been so willful and so bantering, and the frank, courageous beauty of these children, now twisted in he knew not what convulsion.
Was he watching a shipwreck or a fire? He saw again, but together, the martyrized children of the Fulton shipyards, and the emigrants who had gone down on The Gina. And one of these faces, that of young Frans Verwinkel, extraordinarily resembled that of his dear Pierket, Henriette's youngest brother and her living image, but a stubborn and determined version of that pensive image.
This phantasmagoria lasted but one brief second, after which the green light died down, the walls closed up, the fence rose once more, and the hideous factory took on its sullen, but normal aspect.
"What now!" said Paridael to himself. "Am I going mad?"
And blushing at this morbid seizure, which he attributed to an hyperesthesia caused by his illness, to the heady effect of the air after a long claustration, he finally resolved to turn his back upon these hallucinating objects, and make his way toward the river.
Two or three times, however, he looked back at the factory, turned in his path for a moment as if he had forgotten something, or as though some dearly beloved person had called him back to repeat their farewell.
Gradually the spell ceased to operate. The normal and reassuring appearance of the other buildings in the light and warmth of this first fine day soothed him. Not a single cloud darkened the azured opal of the sky. Imperceptible wavelets skimming the surface of the sun-drenched river reminded him of the little shiver of comfort rippling the flank of a horse that is being stroked by its master.
Laurent could no longer distinguish the rigging or the cordage of distant ships, so that their white sails, whiter than the sheets of his numbered bed in the hospital, or the covers of stretchers, seemed to float unshackled in space, and suggested the wings of angels sent to meet the souls who were shortly expected above!
When he reached the embankment, the same place from which he had watched the disappearance of the ship that bore away the Tilbaks, Paridael lovingly and jealously embraced the panorama of his native city. His look travelled over the outlines and the contour of monuments, it completed a delineation as exact and minute as that of a diagram, while his enthusiasm livened the tints, multiplied and chromatized the nuances of this familiar architecture. He inhaled with the avidity of one asphyxiated and restored to life the briny air, the aroma of the open, the perfume of odoriferous spices, and even the smell of fetid organic matters loaded on the merchant fleet. The haunting odor of the hospital dissolved in this superior aroma.
Laurent was aware of diligent crews, discovered choral manœuvres in the great gestures of elevators and cranes, recorded the calls, the signals and the orders. He confused in an immense transport of affection the native horizon and all whose sight is circumscribed. A profound and total beatitude invaded him; a sort of Nirvana, of voluptuous stupor. While he was tasting and relishing the ambient and tangible reality, he no longer felt himself part of the city. For it took on the proportions and the character of a sublime work of art. Would he never again participate in creation, or had he been dissolved and melted into the essences and the principles of which it was composed?
It was the first day that he had appreciated it, that he had thus assimilated it through all his pores. In what strange life was he living? If such delights as these constituted the day without a tomorrow, he would never tire of the eternity!
A melody from the carillon preluded the stroke of three o'clock.
Before the first chime, Paridael felt the sensation of cold of a sleeper who awakes in the open air; at the same time, it seemed that he was being pulled fiercely by the sleeve, and that the last human voices he had heard, those of Béjard's young workers, were hailing him from the far distance. He turned toward the buildings of the cartridge plant. There was no living soul beneath the buildings and the river, and annoyed at this recall, Laurent turned toward the roadstead.
At the moment when the clock struck the first stroke of the hour, he heard a series of little detonations go off with ever increasing rapidity at the cartridge plant, and as he gave up trying to count them, a shock plowed through his legs, the soil bent and unbent beneath his feet like a spring-board and threw him, with an involuntary force, a few feet away.
A thunder comparable to that of all the cannons in all the forts united in a single battery broke his iympanum and made the blood gush from his ears. At the same moment a part of the cartridge plant—alas, the workrooms of the children:—shook and was rent asunder like a house of cards, and, huddled and thrown together in a white spout, leaped and liquified toward heaven.
It mounted in a single jet, quickly, the upright stem of a vegetation, and at the tip of this white, cottony unending stem, there formed the immense bulbous mass of a red and black tulip blowing, like the fabulous aloe, in the crash of lightning; a still born flower shedding its petals in ominous fireworks.
At the second stroke of three, during the thousandth of a second in which this pyrotechnic flower had its life, Laurent, who was gazing at the petals, distinguished arms, legs, trunks, and entire human silhouettes, gesticulating horribly like disjointed puppets. He recalled analogous gestures and contortions in the canvases of visionary painters, evocators or scorcerers repairing to their sabbaths. And these parts of the red and black tulip, bloody and charred, rained, rained, rained in innumerable ruins to the accompaniment of untranslatable outcries and the continuous cannonade. The howls of human beings being burnt alive! Neronian pyrotechnics!
While Laurent was thinking that he had already heard these voices, a few lumps and a hail of shot tumbled down about him, and he had a hurried vision of a trunk to which a bit of chest was still hanging, of a child's foot still lodged in its little boot, of a muscular leg breeched in velveteen, and he remembered the curve of that body, the rumple of the breeches, the sprightly noise of the boots running about their work, and the handsome impudence of a bright face beneath a saucy cap.
"It's I, Frans Verwinkel, who explode the fulminate! You should see me at work! I have only to hit it thus, and the thing is over!"
Perhaps the poor thing had only hit it thus …
No, it was impossible! Laurent could not believe his senses. The mirage had come on again, stronger than before. To convince himself of his own state of hallucination, he laughed out loud, but he heard himself laugh, and the nightmare persisted.
Toward the extremity of the urban belt, where less than a second ago there had been a block of houses of the village of Austruweel, not one of the twenty hovels remained with the exception of the tap-room In den Spanjaard, contemporaneous with the Spanish domination, and flourishing in the year 1560. Through the raging gap one could see the country, the grass-covered slopes of the fortifications, the curtain of budding trees, and the placid church-steeple of Austruweel, above which the lark was singing its first song. The sentry box of a sentinel was lying at the bottom of a rampart.
Capricious as lightning, the explosion had preserved some shaky, nearby hovels that a breath could have swept away, and even spared a part of the cartridge plant, while it had overturned and pulverized buildings several kilometers off, reduced to jelly torpedo-proof masonry, broken like a wisp of straw the piles and the joists of docks, converted iron into filings, and rumpled like a piece of silk the galvanized sheet-iron roofs of the warehouses.
Ruins leaned in an unstable state of equilibrium and slashed themselves into fabulous profiles and unheard of styles of architecture.
Before the third stroke of three rang out, from behind the cartridge plant, hissing and howling like a host of snakes, there surged a flaming geyser whose waves rolled a surface of ten hectares; all the stock of petroleum, fifty thousand barrels, burst into flame, like a simple match.
And such was the progress of the conflagration, such was the fury of this incendiary tide that it seemed about to submerge the metropolis and swallow its river at one gulp.
Through an illusion of perspective, the enormous red tongues, immoderately elongated, all darting in the same direction, were licking the buttresses of the cathedral. In spite of the broad daylight, the towering pile reflected a sunset. And the ships in the basins, alternately masked and uncovered as the flaming waves scattered away from them or drew near to them, seemed the playtoys of these devouring billows, to pitch upon an ocean in eruption.
The apocalyptic splendor of the spectacle ended by drowning Laurent's horror and pity in a monstrous trance. But the bitumen and sulpher were not raining from the skies. Never had so pure and so sweet an ether filled space, never had so blue and caressing a sky enticed mortals. Contrary to prophecy, the stars were not dashing to pieces, the spring day continued to smile indifferently, and the thick, black smoke, unfurling its hurried scrolls from far off, the black foam of this tempest of flames, did not succeed in troubling the unruffled and serene majesty of the sun.
However, after the helplessness and consternation of the first moment, a wave of terror swept the population of the southern districts and sent flying from their homes, under a hail of plaster and breaking glass, the inhabitants of quarters furthest distant from the cartridge plants. Workmen who had escaped from death; calkers, dockers, sorters, women with their babies on their arms, young girls almost nude, sailors, customs-officials, lock-keepers, haggard, horribly out of breath, their eyes more distended than by belladonna, their mouths cloven and widened by a prolonged cry, their hair and clothing burned, sometimes even their flesh, living torches whose speed was stimulated by the race crowded to the banks of the river and even tried to throw themselves into the Scheldt.
One of these fugitives ran against Laurent and almost knocked him over. Laurent recognized Béjard, and, torn sharply out of his trance, his hate restoring him his lucidity, persuaded that this extermination was the work of his enemy, the crown of his iniquities, he grappled him as he passed.
In this hypercritical moment, he retrieved his lost forces. He was going to stick to his word: avenge Regina, avenge Antwerp, avenge the emigrants who had deliberately been thrown to the fishes, avenge, finally, the children in the cartridge plant.
Ah! these, then, were the ends for which destiny had saved him!
Béjard fought, yelled for help, but completely occupied with their own distress, the fugitives pursued their course without bothering about this struggle. Laurent overpowered Béjard, clasped him in an implacable grip like that of a bulldog's jaws, of a vulture's claw, of a spider's tentacle, or of the sucker of an octopus.
Ah! he had flattered himself, the exactor, the extortioner, the dealer in souls, that he would survive this hecatomb of children! He had just reached safety, the scourge seemed to have spared him, when one more violent and more implacable than the flames was luckily on hand to supplement their blind clemency and restore to them the prey which they had allowed to escape.
As implacable as death itself, a final justiciary, Laurent dragged his culprit back to the Gehenna. In all Antwerp he was the only person who cold-bloodedly was going back to this hearth of horror. He intended to stay there with his condemned criminal. The idea of death had no terrors for him. Had he not felt himself go off deliciously a few minutes ago?
Béjard, guessing the horrible purpose of his executioner, screamed, bit, used all his strength, despair increasing his normal vigor tenfold.
From time to time he put up such resistance that Laurent could not succeed in advancing, and they fought in the one place. But the advantage always remained with Paridael and he kept victoriously pushing his captive before him, through all, over the slimy mass, flabby, charred matter in which one could hardly recognize human remains.
He even jostled the wounded, the idea of vengeance made him deaf to their death rattle. Cartridges were constantly exploding beneath his feet, shots whistled in his ears, he could have thought himself upon the battlefield during the decisive fusillade.
The heat was becoming intolerable. The flaming naphtha was asphyxiating him. In this extremity he addressed but one prayer to God, not to die until he had killed Béjard.
God granted his prayer.
At the moment when, at the end of his strength, Paridael was about to give up the struggle, what remained of the cartridges blew up in a mass, in one supreme explosion. The last vestiges of the Béjard factory leaped into the air. Another red and black tulip brightened in a flash of light.
Two shades tightly entwined fought in the midst of a lake of fire.