The New Carthage/Part I/Chapter VI
THE NEW SUIT
That winter Mademoiselle Dobouziez was to make her debut. The days passed in errands and purchases. Gina was ordering many expensive and rare gowns. Her mother, forced to chaperon and accompany her, felt the effects of an access of coquetry. She thought it proper to dress like a young girl, to wear light colors, to choose gowns and hats as nearly like her daughter's as she could obtain them. Pushing her love of artificial flowers and flashy ribbons to an extreme, she turned the modistes' shops topsy turvy, unrolling all the ribbons, upsetting all the reels of trimming, bathing in a sea of feathers, ribbons, marabou and ostrich plumes. Had Regina not been there to take the milliner aside as she left the shop and cancel some of the embellishments chosen by the good lady, her mother would have harbored upon her hats enough things to decorate the chief altar of the cathedral or to enrich a botanical and ornithological museum. It was not without a struggle that Gina, who was very sensitive to ridicule, succeeded in pruning away a few of the shrubs from the nursery that Madame Dobouziez proposed to offer to the admiration of the commercial aristocracy.
Gina was already beginning to reveal a feminine restlessness, to cherish some thoughts of emancipation. For the surroundings in which she exhibited them, her girlish gowns were a little lacking in modesty, so the provincial puritans said, but they possessed a great deal of character, and Gina wore them with a challenging swagger that was very alluring. Laurent felt himself more and more greatly fascinated by the radiant heiress, and that without discerning whether his feeling for her was envy or love.
He arrived at the moment when the perspective of continued pleasures and new successes was beginning to excite Gina and make her more communicative and more amiable to those around her. Won by her good spirits, her conciliating and jovial moods, Laurent himself often remained near her. When he sulked in his corner she would call him, tell him her plans, disclose the number of invitations being sent out for her first dance, show him her purchases, even deign to consult him about the shade or the hang of a gown or the choice of a ring.
"Come here, Peasant, and show that you have some taste!"
She darted out the sobriquet with a good humor that deprived it of any disagreeable implication. Would this momentary calm in their family relations endure? Laurent availed himself of it as a famished tramp happily warms himself at an hospitable hearth-side, forgetting that in an hour he will have to resume his road out in the snow and ice.
When Laurent went to the vestibule or to the porte-cochère to watch their departure, Gina accepted his attentions, consenting to let him hold her evening wrap, her fan, her umbrella. He watched her quickly get into the carriage, lifting the lacy flounces of her petticoat with an adorable gesture.
"Are you coming, Mother? Good-by, Peasant!"
Cousin Lydia, all out of breath, hoisted herself into the carriage. The step creaked under her weight, and the carriage itself leaned down on her side.
Finally she was installed. Gina's nervous little gloved hand let down the window. The footman, hat in hand, opened the folding doors of the entrance hall and saluted the ladies. She had gone!
It was necessary also to give some attention to the outfitting of young Paridael, who was to be sent far away, to an international college, from which he would not return until he had finished his studies.
Cousin Lydia and the inevitable Felicité made inroads upon the wardrobe of Monsieur Dobouziez. With the minute exactitude of archaeologists they inspected, piece by piece, the togs that "Monsieur" no longer wore, passing them from hand to hand, weighing them, fingering the material, deliberating together. Herself won over by the spirit of gayety that filled the house, Madame Dobouziez declared herself ready to sacrifice, in order to complete Laurent's outfit, one of her husband's coats, almost new, or an overcoat that was rather more out of fashion than worn out.
But Felicité invariably found the clothes too good for a boy so negligent about his belongings.
"Really, madame, the boots, cap and leather trousers of one of our workmen would suit him better."
Cousin Lydia tore a promise from Laurent, almost upon his oath, to take good care of his clothes. It was "you are sure, now?" and "you'll do better, won't you?" as if they had been confiding to his care the seamless tunic of the Saviour. They brought it to such a pass that rather than saddle himself with the responsibility which he had to assume with his cousin's cast-off clothes, Laurent would have preferred to wear the comfortable and durable clothes of his friends the laborers.
Nothing remained but to dispose of a certain pair of green and blue plaid trousers, an abomination that Cousin Wilham himself, who was not very exacting in regard to his wearing apparel, had ceased using after its third wearing.
Felicité coveted these disastrous breeches with a view to reselling them to the haberdasher. Each piece of clothing falling to the orphan decreased by so much the profit which she usually made on her employers' wardrobe. This circumstance was no stranger to the animosity that she cherished for Laurent. He, moreover, would willingly have given her his cousin's entire outfit, and especially the frightful spinach and indigo trousers, but he did not dare show his repugnance openly, since Cousin Lydia had taken it into her head that they would please him mightily.
At this moment Regina, who was looking for her mother, appeared on the stair-landing.
"Oh! The nightmare!" she cried, "I hope, Mamma, that you're not going to give that to Laurent? All the Peasant needs is that horror to make him deserve his name!"
And in an outburst of fraternal emotion, Gina, having examined the pile of old clothes destined for her cousin, declared that some of it might do for lounging clothes, but that there was no single suit which he could wear in public.
"Let's go. Mamma," she said, "I have two things to tend to down town, and, in passing, we'll stop at the Saint-Fardier's tailor's. He will find a way to polish this young man up a bit. Come along, you, too."
There was no way of resisting Gina. Felicité swallowed her spite, and consoled herself for the unwonted favor which the capricious girl was bestowing upon the accursed child by appropriating the plaid trousers entirely without repugnance.
It was the first time that Laurent had gone out riding with his cousins. Seated next to the coachman, whom surprise had almost precipitated from his seat when Laurent perched there, he turned from time to time to show Gina a less sullen expression than usual, and to thank her by his unaccustomed joy. He counted for something in the Dobouziez family! This sudden access of favor just escaped making him vain. He felt a bit of conceit creeping into his spirit and looked down upon the pedestrians from the height of his grandeur. Under the effect of this moment he forgot the disparagement and the affronts that he had previously undergone, the harshness of Gina and her parents toward the Tilbaks, and he remembered, not without remorse, his blasphemies against the "nymph of the drain" on that sinister night of the novena when the cholera was raging.
Ah! the cholera-stricken, the wounded, the pariahs were far away! He had not abjured them, but he no longer worried about them. He was ready to recognize without pain or reserve the benificence of his guardian, to find Cousin Lydia very affectionate, to account for the Pasha's ferocity on the score of his liver trouble. He no longer bore a grudge even against Felicité.
A charming morning of reconciliation! It was a beautiful day, the streets seemed in holiday apparel, the ladies whose carriages passed theirs almost included him in their bows.
They stopped in turn at the Saint-Fardier's tailor, haberdasher, bootmaker and hatter. The tailor took Paridael's measure for a suit, for which Gina chose the most expensive and finest material, in spite of the protests of her mother, who was beginning to find Gina's solicitude for their young, poor relative a rather ruinous affair. To what prodigalities would Gina not go before being obliged to return home? Every minute the economical lady consulted her watch.
"Gina, if s time for luncheon. Your father is waiting for us."
But Gina had taken it into her head that it was her turn to arrange her cousin's outfit, and she brought to the execution of her plan her customary haste and petulance. When she had decided to do something she brooked neither delay nor reflection. "Now or never" could well have been upon her crest.
At the haberdasher's, besides ordering six fine linen shirts to be made up for her protégé, she bought a couple of beautiful ties. At the hatter's he exchanged his worn felt for an irreproachable headgear, and at the bootmaker's he bought shoes that fitted his foot to perfection. He wore his new shoes and hat. It was the beginning of a metamorphosis. At the glove shop Gina remarked for the first time that he had a finely shaped foot and hand. She rejoiced in the gradual change that was taking place in the boy's appearance.
"Look, Mamma! He hasn't such a clownish appearance now. In fact, he is almost nice looking, isn't he?"
The "almost" spoiled Laurent's happiness at bit, but he could hope that when he was newly clad from head to foot Gina would find him altogether presentable.
An illusion, a lure, a mirage, that day was none the less one of the happiest in Laurent's experience. After Gina had paved the way, every one at the factory, even Cousin William and the irreconciliable Felicité, was more gentle with the boy, and did not scold him as often.
"Mademoiselle acts as if she still played with dolls," the peevish creature contented herself with saying in an undertone, when Gina made Laurent turn and turn so that he might show his new things to Cousin William.
The game must have amused the girl, for when the tailor delivered Laurent's things on the eve of a boat trip to Hemixem, where the Dobouziez had their country place, she asked that he be included in the party. As he was to leave the following day, her parents lent themselves to this latest fancy, upon condition that he merit it by prodigies of application to his studies.
Decidedly Laurent felt his last prejudices disappear. He was of the privileged age when injuries are forgiven, VN^hen the slightest attention compensates for years of disaffection and indifference.