The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter IX

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The dockyard of Fulton and Co., shipbuilders, was being cleared for action. A new ship, built for the Southern Cross, the line plying between Antwerp and Australia, was about to be launched. The ceremony had been announced for eleven o'clock. The last preparations were being made. Like an enormous butterfly that had for a long time been dormant in its chrysalis, the boat, now completely matured, had been stripped of its envelope of timber work.

The dockyard was decorated with masts and with porticos that vanished beneath a profusion of banners and flags of all colors and all nations, among which the most prevalent was the red, yellow and black of Belgium. Ingenious monograms drew together the names of the ship, its builder and its owner: Gina, Fulton, Béjard. And here and there were displayed figures telling when the work had been begun and when finished.

Near the ship itself rose a platform hung with sailcloth, which the damp wind blew furiously about. Near the water, looking like a stranded whale, lay the huge boat, a powerful carcass, shored up and freshly painted black and red. On the poop, in golden letters upon a carved shield representing a siren, could be read the word Gina.

Since early morning the dockyard had been filled by a crowd of curious people. The guests who were fortified with cards of admittance took their places in the tiers of the platform. In the front row arm chairs, upholstered in Utrecht velvet, awaited the authorities, the godmother and her family. Lookers on of little importance and the workmen took risks by placing themselves near the shore and the boat.

It was a beautiful, sunshiny day, as beautiful as It had been when they had made the excursion to Hemixem, almost a year before. Everybody who had the slightest pretension to importance in the world of intellect, style and politics, met there as if by chance. They strutted about, these people who counted, the Saint-Fardiers, the Vanderlings, the Brullekens, the De Zaters, the Fuchskops, the many Verhulsts, Verbists, Peeters and Janssens, and all the Vons and the Vans of the other occasion. It was always the same crowd.

Dupoissy was radiant and put on as many airs as if he had been the designer, owner and captain of the ship all in one. The ladies exhibited charming gowns designed with very evident meaning. Angéle and Cora Vanderling sat simpering next to their fiances, the young Saint-Fardiers, who were parading stylish lounging suits of blue with brass buttons, like the uniform of a naval officer. Door Bergmans was also at the ceremony, accompanied by his friends, the realist painter William Marbol and Rombaut de Vyveloy, the composer.

And now everything was ready. The crew gathered upon the bridge of the boat, according to the custom. The sailors, clean looking in their holiday clothes, good-natured, frank fellows, would have recalled to Laurent, had he been there, his old friend Vincent Tilbak. A little embarrassed by their sealegs, they looked as if they did not relish parading upon a boat that was still on dry land. Caught, as they were, in the midst of the crew, some of the lookers-on would have liked to give themselves the emotion of going down the ways on the boat. The wheedling Dupoissy would have liked to be among them, but his delicate duties kept him on shore. While waiting for the master he had to receive the guests, find a place for the ladies under the awning, and also do the duty of manager, and, when necessary, dislodge the outsiders. He was conscious of his importance, and very radiant. It was good to see him take the Misses Vanderling close to the boat and explain the details of its construction in technical terms. He confided to them, too, with an air of mystery, that he had prepared some verse, which he thought were "well turned." In order to get rid of him, the editor of the great commercial daily had promised to intercalate them in his account.

Several crews of the most picturesque and vigorous laborers on the dockyards waited, at arm's length from the boat, for the moment to set her at liberty. They were waiting only for the authorities and the principal actors in the ceremony to arrive. Outside the dockyards, on the quays, and down stream toward the city, thousands of curious people, stemmed only by the Fulton buildings, which were filled to suffocation, were standing, waiting to take their part in the spectacle, and were pushing each other in an uproar of excitement.

Attention! Dupoissy, his handkerchief tied to the end of his cane, gave a signal like a starter at the races.

Extemporaneous artillerymen, hidden behind the sheds, set off the charges of powder. "The cannon," said the crowd, trembling with a delicious thrill of expectation. The young Saint-Fardiers teased Angéle and Cora, who had jumped at the noise.

A choral society began singing "La Brabançonne."

"They have come! They have come!"

They had arrived. Getting out of the carriage were the burgomaster, the godfather of the ship, giving his arm to the godmother. Mademoiselle Dobouziez, who looked ravishing in a gown of rose silk and net; then Béjard, leading Mamma Dobouziez, who was more beflowered and beplumed than ever, especially since Gina had given up opposing her mother's innocent mania. At the very end came Dobouziez, who was escorting the wife of the constructor. The populace, whom the police had great difficulty in keeping out of the reserved space, wondered naively at Mademoiselle Dobouziez' beauty. They had acclaimed Door Den Berg, but had grumbled audibly as Béjard went by And there were to be found in more than one group of these good people and even on the benches upon the platform, narrators to establish a contrast between the brilliant ceremony of that day at the Fulton Dockyards, and the atrocities that had taken place there twenty-five years before, under the responsibility of Béjard senior, and with the complicity of Freddy Béjard, the future shipowner. But the hardly repressed hisses and murmurs were drowned by the silly gaiety and idle jubilation. When the cortégé had gained their places there was another peal of cannon. The musicians were about to start playing when Dupoissy gave them a furious signal to be quiet. And, planting himself in front of the platform, on the steep bank of the river, a few steps away from the boat, he took a rose-colored paper from his pocket, opened it, coughed, bowed, and twittered in a voice like that of a prematurely weaned kid a whole litany of rancid alexandrines to which nobody, however, paid the slightest attention. From time to time, through the talking that was going on, one could catch a hemstitch: "Oh, ship! Thou son of earth!… Thou conqueror of the seas!… On distant shores … Salute for us … dawn creeps above the horizon over the sea … symbol of our laws … kingdom of Amphytrite …"

"What a lot of commonplaces!" murmured Madame Vanderling in Gaston Saint-Fardier's ear. "You will see that he won't pass one up! That man is a veritable almanach of the muses!"

He finished. There were a few discreet bravos. A few people whispered "Not bad, not bad!" Most of the audience indulged in a sigh of relief. Finally the really moving part of the ceremony began to be prepared. The musicians played an air of Grétry's: "Où peut-on être mieux," M. Fulton, the builder, gave a sharp order to the workmen.

Beneath the powerful pressure of the rams and the wedges that were urging her forward, the immense hulk, immovable until now, began to move almost invisibly. All eyes anxiously followed the efforts of the robust crew of workmen massed under the bow of the ship, shoring it up from that side, and armed with handspikes in order to make it slide down the ways with greater speed. Piles, stanchions and braces had all been removed; the last bit of shoring had been taken away.

Béjard had escorted Mademoiselle Dobouziez close to the mooring. Taking a plush-handled hatchet, the blade of which had been filed down to a razor-like keenness, he offered it to the godmother, and asked her to cut the last restraining cable with one sharp blow. The beautiful Gina, usually so adroit, went about it badly; she struck the cable, but the stout hemp held fast. She hacked at it a second and a third time, became impatient, and uttered a clicking sound of irritation. The silence in the crowd was such that the panting spectators, holding their breath, perceived the spoiled child's obstinate access of temper. The wags laughed.

"Ifs a bad omen for the ship," said the sailors to each other.

"And for the godmother!" added the lookers on. As Mademoiselle Dobouziez did not make an end to it, Béjard, in turn, became impatient, took the recalcitrant tool from her hands, and with a firm and vigorous stroke cut the cable.

The enormous hulk creaked in every plank, began to move, and slid majestically down into its ultimate domain.

It was an affecting moment. What was it that made the hearts of all these people beat a little faster; not only those of the unpretentious, but those of the most vain and haughty, more difficult to move than the enormous colossus itself?

In slipping down to the water the boat, which now seemed possessed of a strange life, continued to creak and groan. Nothing could have been as majestic as the prolonged rumble that reverberated in the flanks of The Gina. Some horses whinney thus with pleasure and pride when their master puts to the test their vigor and their speed. Then, brusquely, it traversed, like an impatient diver, the distance by which it was separated from the undulating water. Then with a crash it plunged into the Scheldt, whose foamy mass seemed to quiver and make way.

The noise of the boat having ceased, there arose from the crowd prolonged and insistent cheers. The band sent forth repeated and inspiring fanfares, the salvos began again, an immense tricolor was hoisted to the top of the largest mast. The crew of The Gina burst forth with cries of jubilation, and her sham passengers, convinced of their importance, waved hats and handkerchiefs.

Presently the ship strode into the middle of the river and turned with the dignity and easy grace of a triumpher. It was no longer the heavy, inert, crabbed and rather woeful mass that, a moment before, everyone had admired only in expectation; for a ship out of water has always the look of a wreck, but, as soon as it strikes its element, it is buoyed up and quickened into life. Its engines had been put in motion, its huge screws were churning the water, smoke was escaping from its great funnel. Its formidable organism was functioning, its muscles of steel and iron began to work, it groaned, it breathed, it lived. And the cheers were louder than ever. In the meanwhile, under the tent on the shore. Monsieur Fulton's manager had champagne and biscuits passed around. All the man drank, in high good humor, pretending a great joy, to the good fortune of The Gina. Everyone crowded about the beautiful godmother to express their good wishes for her godson. Gina carried her glass to her lips and replied to every toast, with a dignified and aristocratic smile. The little Vanderlings, however, really drank. Held tightly by their fiances, they pretended to be ticklish, laughing like little lunatics, white, plump, red-lipped, their eyes full of the science of love.

Béjard redoubled his attentions to Gina. "Well, you are linked up to my fortunes, mademoiselle," he said, not without intention. "In The Gina that belongs to me, and which will do honor to its name, I don't doubt, I shall rejoice to find something of you. Besides, the English, our teachers in commerce, have done their ships the honor of including them among the women. For them, all objects are alike in being of the neuter gender. Only ships belong to the fair sex!"

"I feel like a little girl beside that imposing matron!" Gina replied, laughing. "And I find it difficult to believe that I held her over the baptismal fount. It was rather she who seemed to accord me her patronage. And that explains my emotion of a few moments ago! Really, all my nerve left me!"

Dobouziez, in a generous humor because of his daughter's success, and always anxious to follow usage and not to be stingy in public, had had the foreman called.

"Here," he said, giving him five louis, "here are the baptismal sweetmeats! Divide them among your men and have them quench their thirst!"

"What an idea!" grumbled Saint-Fardier senior in Béjard's ear. "The brutes won't be able to stand on their feet. Perhaps you think that I'd give them a tip! You ought to see how I sober them up at the factory on Monday mornings!"

After having executed several rxiktioeuvres; in order to show herself to full advantage to the fashionable and critical crowd that had attended her first gambollings The Gina put on double speed and flew off to the roadstead to rejoice the eyes of other spectators. A berth had been prepared for her near the quay, where she could wait until she had taken on her full equipment and crew and her first cargo of passengers and merchandise. It had been agreed by the owner and the captain that she was to put to sea in a week's time.

Dupoissy, a little mortified at the slight success of his verses, approached the water, and, his glass filled with champagne, standing at the extreme end of the ways from which the boat had taken to the water, he called the crowd, with the air of a juggler waiting to do a new trick: "Attention, please!"

Every one turned to look at him. He had drunk glass after glass of champagne while nobody was paying any attention to him, and now, dishevelled and a little grey, he had remembered the marriage of the Doge and the Adriatic, and the antique libations to the Ocean made by the pagans in order to propitiate Neptune and Amphytrite.

"May this nectar of Bacchus, poured into the kingdom of the waves, assure to the glorious Gina the clemency of the elements!"

He spoke, and, seeking a graceful pose, put all his weight upon one foot and poured the Roederer into the river. But, being a fat man, he narrowly escaped following it; had Bergmans not held him back by his coat-tails he would have taken a header. Every one applauded and laughed.

"Good! Our bard is going to throw himself into the river," sneered the Parisienne.

"Be careful, monsieur, the ancient gods and the old Scheldt do not seem to be pleased with your parody of their rites!" said Bergmans.

"Oh, yes! I am a profane foreigner, am I not?" the pseudo wool merchant answered spitefully, instead of thanking his rescuer. "Only pure-blooded natives of Antwerp may revive the ancient ritual!"

"I did not say quite that!" added Bergmans with a laugh.

The company took leave of each other; the guests began to enter their carriages. The workmen, holding their tip as a pledge, cheered the important personages with more conviction than at their arrival. That afternoon there was to be a dance in the dockyard for all the staff; several casks were to be broached. Some of the workmen were already skipping about, making preparations for this new part of the program. Being fond of such ceremonies, Marbol and his friend Rombaut resolved to return with Bergmans in the afternoon.

"And you," he hazarded to Gina; "are you not going to attend these good folks' gambol; are you not going to take part in their joy, which is, after all, a little due to you?"

She made a little face of disgust.

"Peuh! It's not to my taste! That sort of thing is all right for democrats like you! You and Laurent would get along perfectly!"

"Who is Laurent?"

"A very distant cousin, both actually and figuratively, for just now he is at school some hundred miles away. He believes, like you, in the importance of the common herd. But he hasn't the excuse of painting them like your friend Marbol, and making money out of them; or, like you, the prospect of becoming president of the Republic and Free City of Antwerp."

She only thought of Paridael in order to make an uncomplimentary comparison, at least in her own mind, between Bergmans and the boy. She was annoyed with Bergmans for not having been sufficiently attentive to her during the ceremony, and for having left her alone with Béjard the whole time.

"Decidedly," thought Door, "our opinions and feelings are widely separated. I would do anything to overcome the divergence. She is intelligent enough, and fundamentally she has a great deal of rectitude. If she loved me, I could easily interest her in my work and in my ideals. I should make an ally of her! If she but loved me. For in spite of her pride and disdain and her submission to convention and prejudice, she is out of place in her world. She is worth more, or will be worth more than her parents. Noble ideals and superior thoughts should find a place in her. Her beauty and her instinct contradict her education! Why should not I contend for her against the rich eligibles who are always prowling around her?"