The New Carthage/Part II/Chapter V

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The New Carthage by Georges Eekhoud, translated by Lloyd R. Morris
Part II, Chapter V



"Ah! haughty city, wealthy city, selfish city, city of wolves so eager for their prey that they devour each other when there are no more sheep to shear to the bone! City conforming to the spirit of Darwin's law! Fecund city, but harsh mother! In your hypocritical corruption, your blatancy, your licentiousness, your opulence, your greedy instincts, your hatred of the poor, your fear of hirelings, you conjure up Carthage before me. Were you of Carthage, too, not filled with the prejudice against soldiers that Antwerp still maintains? Even Antwerpians whose sons are in the army are pitiless and harsh with troopers. In no other part of Belgium does one hear of terrible brawls between soldiers and the bourgoisie, of the ambushes where the slaughterers fall upon a drunken soldier on leave as he is returning to some barracks in the slums or a fort lost at the very end of a suburb.[1]

"Who have we at the head of Antwerp? Vain, stupid councillors, as inflated as were the magistrates of Carthage. Do you know what their last stroke was, Bergmans; do you know it?

"One day, having nothing else to demolish and rebuild, always an annoying situation to municipal councillors, they decreed to tear down the Tour Bleue, one of the few specimens of the military architecture of the fourteenth century remaining in Europe. All the artists and connoisseurs of the city stirred themselves up, protested against it, sent petitions to the "Regency." In the face of this opposition, what did our soothsayers do? They deigned to consult the famous expert, Viollet-Le-Duc. The archaelogist agreed with all the artists in favor of maintaining the old bastille. Look, then, upon their queer fellow who allowed himself to be of another mind than these omniscient merchants! And they had nothing more urgent to do than to raze the venerable relic without any form of trial …

"And, nevertheless, a sublime city! You are right, Rombaut, to praise its indefinable charm, which closes the mouths of her detractors. We cannot bear her a grudge for having given herself to that brood of plutocrats. We love her as we would a wanton and flirtatious woman, as we would a treacherous and adorable courtesan. And even her pariahs do not consent to curse her!"

It was Laurent Paridael who was railing thus before Bergmans, Rombaut and Marbol, at the cabaret Croix-Blanche, on the Plaine du Bourg.

"Good! The young docker's servant is taking the bit in his teeth," said Vyveloy. "And all because he finds that I have put too much chauvinism in my cantata, at the expense of Bruges and Ghent. The devil! You can understand the shortsightedness of the parish belfry when the belfry happens to be the pile of Notre Dame!"

"Absolutely," said Bergmans, approvingly. "And then, too, Antwerp will undergo a moral regeneration also. She will shake off the yoke that degrades her. She will be restored again to her true children. You will see it, Paridael; the oppressed masses are becoming insubordinate. I tell you that a new order will soon come into being! A breath of emancipation and youth has blown across the mob; there is something better here than a rich and proud city; there is a people no less interesting who are commencing to revolt against the representatives who do serve them badly and compromise them."

Bergmans' prediction was not long delayed in its realization. For a long time the air had been charged with electricity. Vyveloy's passionate cantata had contributed in no small measure to the reawakening of the population. The rich folk, in taking the initiative in a celebration in honor of Rubens, had not expected to raise up such a ferment. It happened that the painters of the Renaissance began to evoke the leaders of men of the sixteenth century, William the Silent, Mamix of Sainte-Aldegonde. They exhumed, an an ensign, the insulting epithet of the days of Charles V. and Philip II., the name of "gueux," which their valiant ancestors had been proud to bear as a badge of honor.

The mummified nobility, indifferent to all and ultra-mundane in addition, perhaps rejoiced at the dissension which the new current had in store for the upstarts, but did not dare to sponsor a party united under the name and the banner of the victorious adversaries of Catholic Spain.

The effervescence swayed, above all, the working population of the harbor.

Isolated conflicts had already broken out between Béjard and the Nations. At first there were disagreements over an account due from him to the America. The shipowner constantly refused to pay his bill. Then there arrived from Riga a grain ship with a cargo consigned to the recalcitrant debtor.

Béjard applied for the unloading of his merchandise to one of his creditor's rivals, but under such conditions the corporations made common cause, and the Nation sought by him refused the enterprise until he should have settled with their competitors. He applied to a third and a fourth Nation, meeting the same reply from both.

Obstinate and furious, he had dockers brought from Flushing, the nearest seaport. The Antwerpian dockers threw many of the Hollanders into the basins, and took them out half -drowned, only to plunge them in again, so that all of them took the train home for their country the same day, swearing that they never again could be forced to interfere with and oppose the the expeditious Antwerpians in their strikes. In truth, when these workmen, as even-tempered as they were vigorous, decided to become nasty, they did it in the fashion of felines.

Béjard, having heard of the desertion of the Hollanders after the treatment that had been inflicted upon them, foamed with fury and swore that sooner or later he would get even with Vingerhout and his insolent Nations. But since, as time went on, his grain threatened to rot in the bottom of the hold, he gave in to claims of the dockers.

A little later on, an occasion presented itself to reopen hostilities against these much too rebellious plebes. There had just been invented in the United States elevators, apparatus which replaced cranes, lighters and computers, the adoption of which for the unloading of grain would fatally destroy a great part of the hand-labor, and in consequence would entail ruin for many members of the Nations.

So that there was great agitation among the people when it was learned that Béjard had recommended, in the councils of the "Regency," the acquisition of similar apparatus.

On the evening upon which Béjard's proposition was to be put to a vote in the meeting of the municipal council, the baes, deans and workers massed themselves in a compact and formidable array in the Grand' Place, in front of the Hotel de Ville. In their working clothes, their sleeves rolled up, their biceps bare, they waited there terribly resolute, their fists upon their hips, their noses in the air, their eyes fastened upon the lighted windows. With a jeering air, his pipe between his teeth, as radiant as though he were on his way to a dance, Jean Vingerhout circulated from group to group giving his instructions to the men. Although he needed no secretary for this night's work, he had with him young Paridael, who was enchanted by the little explosion that threatened the odious Béjard.

"We shall all laugh, my boy," said Jean, rubbing his hands so briskly that it seemed as if he would break the bones of his fingers.

Siska had kept her husband at home, not, however, without difficulty.

Several suspicious looking loungers, of the type of the young runners of Doel, had also approached the husky workers, but Jean did not intend to entangle himself with compromising allies. He rejected all of them without snubbing them too greatly. Good folk would suffice for the business in hand.

Policemen had tried to disperse the assembled crowd, but they did not insist in the face of the dignified manner, portentous in its calm, with which they were welcomed by the mutineers.

A rather long street, the Canal au Sucre, separates the Grand' Place from the Scheldt, but two hundred meters was no distance for these fellows, and the policemen, sly but puny, would not be heavy to carry as far as the water.

"What are they going to do?" the police asked themselves. They were alarmed by the inertia and the resolute and slightly ironic air of the dockers. The loafers of the Coin du Paresseux were not more offensive while waiting for the baes who steeped them in drink. To those who questioned them the workers responded with a certain vade retro as brief as it was energetic, untranslatable in any other idiom than their terrible Flemish, and to which their manner of making it ring out added an eloquent savor.

The windows of the left wing on the second floor of the ancient Hotel de Ville were illumined. It appeared that they were still deliberating. The vote was imminent; all those people were hand in glove with each other.

Nine o'clock pealed forth. At the last stroke, at a whistle from Vingerhout, the workers leaned over and phlegmatically set about pulling up the paving stones beneath them. They went about their work rapidly, so rapidly that the alguazils got out of breath uselessly in trying to prevent them.

And then Jean Vingerhout, in order to show how they were going to set to work, ardoitly sent a paving stone through one of the windows of the council chamber. Other arms rose, each hand grasping its paving stone with the steadiness and the vigor of a catapult. But at a sign from Vingerhout they replaced them upon the ground.

"Very gently. Perhaps one warning will suffice them!"

And presently an usher came running across the square, out of breath, and, spying Vingerhout, told him that the gentlemen of the Council were adjourning their decision.

"What are they waiting for, then?" asked Vingerhout, always attracted by the lighted windows.

Fundamentally, this terrible Vingerhout was a shrewd, but a good fellow. He knew the layout of the Hotel de Ville, and knew, too, that the stone which he had thrown would fall in an empty space in the room. But he admitted this only to Laurent.

The windows receded into the darkness. The burgomaster, the aldermen and councillors came out of the communal palace abashed, surrounded by a cloud of policemen; the reserves and the outposts had been placed in requisition, and the commandants of the barracks had been telegraphed. Béjard had even wanted to ask aid from Brussels. But the Nations thought that they had achieved a sufficient result from their little manifestation, and, leaving their paving stones behind them, they dispersed slowly, like the good giants that they were, contenting themselves with sending a sagnificant jeer after the councillors, especially after Béjard, who had very seriously thought that they were going to treat him like Deacon Steven.

Intimidated, the Council very wisely decided to bury the much too burning question until after the election for the legislative chambers.

The baes of the corporations violently exposed the campaign of Bergmans, who had frankly sided with the dockers and was running for candidacy against Freddy Béjard. Laurent had entered a society of fanatics of his own age, the Jenne Garde des Gueux, recruited from among the apprentices and the sons of minor employes.

As the campaigning period advanced, it became more and more fraught with bitterness. The plutocrats, owners of newspapers, devoted themselves to a debauch of posters, enormous, multicolored, eye-compelling, of brochures, of pamphlets, all printed in large type.

Restlessness increased among the lower classes.

"What matter?" stormed Béjard. "Those outcasts are not electors. I shall be elected just the same."

As a matter of fact, the majority of "copyholders" took sides with the rich. But the latter, fearing that Béjard's unpopularity would jeopardize the rest of their ballot, tried to obtain the shipowner's promise that he would postpone his candidacy until a more favorable time. He flatly refused. He had waited too long; the seat was due him as an indemnification for his long and precious service to the oligarchy. They did not insist. Moreover, he held them in the palm of his hand. A thousand compromising secrets, a thousand skeletons subsisted between them and him. His light-fingered hands held the reputation and fortune of his colleagues. And this diabolic man possessed the genius for organization to such an extent that he was indispensible. He alone knew how to conduct an electoral campaign and to manoeuvre the cohorts of shopkeepers by tickling their interests. Without his assistance they might as well have declared themselves beaten in advance.

Not at all scrupulous as to the means that he employed, his agents multiplied trips to saloons and visits from house to house. They had been instructed to see the thwarted shopkeepers and to promise them capital or customers. To the more stubborn they went as far as to give half of a banknote, the other half to be delivered to them on the night of the count, if the director of the Southern Cross won.

Other employes in his imposing campaign organization, as complicated and as numerous as a ministry, prepared marked ballots for voters of whom they were suspicious; still others were busy compiling statistics of his chances, in dividing the voters in "good," "bad" and "doubtful" classes. The forecasts gave at least a thousand votes in majority to Béjard. He continued, however, to buy as many as he could, spending the party's money freely, drawing even upon his private resources. He would have ruined himself in order to win.

His assistants worked upon the imagination of the peasants of the district, orthodox people like the nobility, and superstitious besides. Ignorant of history, these rural folk took the name of gueux in its literal sense. The least landholder, having been confirmed in his terrors by the talks of old folk on winter evenings, saw his holdings already pillaged, given over to the torch, and himself trampled down as by the Cossacks, and by anticipation, the soles of his feet began to burn. He would not vote for foot-broilers and incendiaries. In the villages Béjard's heelers gossiped quite naturally about Bergmans and his people, venting the most monstrous and extravagant calumnies, difficult to make city-folk believe, but which passed for truth among the rustics as if they had been articles of the evangel.

Door den Berg could oppose these underhand plots only with his character, his talent, his personal worth, his warm conviction and eloquence, his frank expression; in the battle of newspapers, posters and brochures, he got the worst of it; on the other hand, in public meetings, wherever the merits of the candidates were threshed out, he had the advantage. Moreover, one had to be infeudated into the clan of Béjard to take his, or rather Dupoissy's, prose and eloquence seriously, for it was Dupoissy who manufactured his speeches and articles.

Nothing could have been more disgusting than his humanitarian and long-winded confections; collections of commonplaces worthy of the worst departmental gazette, filled with clichés, hollow aphorisms, flat and redundant phrases, rhetoric so vile and so ranting that the very words seemed to refuse to cover his lies and obscenity any longer.

The night before the eve of election a monster meeting was held at the Variétés, an immense dance hall, in which political mass-meetings alternated with shrove-tide masquerades.

For the first time during the many years that he had been regaling the gulls and his creatures with doctrinaire harangues, always delivered in the same nasal, monotonous voice, Béjard was sharply hissed. He was not even allowed to finish his speech.

The heaving crowd, electrified by a hearty phillipic from Bergmans, rushed like a furious tide to attack the speaker's table on the platform, passed over the orchestra pit, overturned the table, trampled and tore the green carpet to tatters, inundated the parquet with water from the carafes intended for the speakers, kicked about the jangling bell of the chairman, and barely refrained from hacking the organizers of the meeting to pieces.

Happily, as they saw the cyclone coming on, these prudent folk beat a retreat, candidates and bosses together, and left the place to the people.

Election day finally dawned; a grey October day. From early morning the drums of the civic guard beat out the call for voters; the city bustled with an unusual life that was not its every-day activity, the business of clerks and tradespeople, cartage and traffic. The voters, in holiday attire, left their houses, and under their stovepipe hats wore a grave and slightly strained expression, citizens conscious of their dignity. With their voting papers in their hands they walked quickly to the election booths, school buildings, foyers of theatres and other public buildings.

Young bloods, rich men's sons, wearing an orange cockade, the party color, at their buttonhole, hired hacks to bring feeble, sickly, or indifferent voters to the polls. They gave themselves airs of importance, consulted their lists, greeted each other mysteriously, gnawed at the pencils which they used to register the voters. Omnibuses left very early to pick up the rural voters in distant little straggling villages. Dumfounded and red with excitement, the peasants grouped themselves according to their parishes, and the black-coated priests went about among these blue-clad folk giving advice and counting the votes. Groups formed in front of the polls. They were reading posters still wet from the press, in which one or the other candidate denounced a last-minute manoeuvre of his adversary, and uttered a final, laconic and vigorous proclamation. Nearly all these manifestos began with the phrase: "Voters! You are being deceived!" Newsboys were crying the latest extras. On each side of the poll a ne'er-do-well was standing, wearing a signboard inviting people to vote for one or the other ticket. The blue cockades in one group exchanged defiant glances with the orange rosettes of another; people who were ordinarily quite inoffensive assumed a belligerent air, and hands feverishly tormented the handles of canes. They talked a great deal, but in low voices, like conspirators.

However, each booth having been provided with a chairman and two watchers, the voting began. Answering to the roll-call in alphabetical order, the voters brushed a passage through the crowd, passed behind a partition, and presented themselves before the three grave men. The latter sat behind a table, covered with the traditional green cloth and bearing an ugly black, cubic box, pompously called the urn. The voter pushed his ballot, folded four times and stamped with the arms of the city, for a brief second beneath the eyeglassed and suspicious nose of the chairman, and then let it fall into the urn as if it were a poor-box, a money-box, or a letter-box. There were some upon whom this simple action made a profound impression; they lost their wits, dropped their canes, became confused in their bows, and persisted in trying to put their ballot into the watcher's inkwell.

On the partition, on the side of the waiting room, were displayed the lists of candidates; nearsighted men put their noses right up to it; dirty fingers travelled all over it as over the timetable posted up in railroad stations. The classroom reeked with the stench of dog's ordure and the butts of extinguished cigars, and there lingered the musty smell of poor scholars who had fed upon delicatessen.

There were many absences. The "junior guards" of both parties, on picket duty at the entrance, identified their men, and kept sending carriages to get their absentees, in anticipation of the check-roll. The litany of names, the long procession of voters, kept passing in ruefully. From time to time incidents cropped up that relieved the monotony. A voter omitted from the list or challenged became angry; people having the same name presented themselves for each other; they persisted in summoning dead men whom they absolutely wished to see vote, or, on the other hand, they tried to persuade living men that they were no longer of this world.

Upon coming out from the booths into which only one man went at a time, their happy and relieved expression and their sprightly air would have lead one to suppose they had isolated themselves for other motives.

The taking of the vote, checking and counter checking, lasted until noon, and then the count commenced. No one knew anything definite, but they hazarded a reckoning of results. "Few absences!"

The orange cockades commiserated each other upon the abundance of blouses, gloved hands and shovel hats; on the other hand, the blues were worrying over the unusual contingent of baes from the Nations, of business people, and of patriotic officers.

Nobody went home; everybody ate badly at taverns crammed with patrons, and fever and anxiety having dried their throats, they became intoxicated with both. beer and words.

People began to mass themselves, their noses in the air, in the Grand' Place, in front of the "Association," Béjard's club and that of other wealthy men, where there were just beginning to be displayed, in the eight windows of the first floor, the results of twenty-six polling places; and also down at the waterfront, in front of the Croix Blanche, where the "Nationalists," Bergmans' partisans, were gathered.

A fine rain drenched the onlookers, but curiosity made stoics of them. Hawkers continued to bawl the article of the day, blue or orange cockades.

There was a threatening storm brewing in the excited and taciturn crowd, swelled now by many laborers, minor employees, and students who did not appear upon the rolls. Enraged because they had not been able to vote for Door den Berg, they nourished deep in their hearts a violent desire to manifest their preference in another manner.

And, at present, the blue cockades dominated in the crowd. The laborers pinned them upon their woolen vests. Brawls had broken out in the morning outside the booths where the country-folk had cast their votes. And, intimidated by the look of hate thrown at them by their comrades of the waterfront, the peasants hastened, after voting in accordance with the wishes of their parish priests, to climb upon the roofs of the waiting coaches, and put miles of polders or heather between themselves and the ramparts of the metropolis.

The party men crowded into the salons of the "Association," where the party bosses and candidates sat waiting the results. The harsh, metallic voice of Béjard rose above the whispers of the talkers; Dupoissy, congratulatory and inspired, Saint-Fardier, turbulent and aggressive, speaking in thunderclaps of Bergmans and the whole of the dirty common people, Dobouziez, sober in his judgment, aged, worried looking, little interested in active politics and grumbling to himself at the costly ambition of his son-in-law; finally, the young Saint-Fardiers, gaping till their jaws almost broke, tapping upon the window-panes, watching the crowd gather in the square.

At the Croix Blanche, Door did not have hands enough to grip the hands of every one who insisted upon shaking his. The affection, the exuberance and the sincerity of these well-worn and upright natures touched him keenly.

Laurent, the Tilbaks, Jean Vingerhout, Marbol and Vyveloy could not stay still, but went out, looked at the returns, ran to the central poll where the general count was being taken.

The first favorable results for Béjard and for Bergmans were greeted by hisses from the Association, by cheers from the Croix Blanche, or vice-versa. But the manifestations of the assembled plutocracy awoke a contradictory echo each time from the crowds in the square. Thus, when the figures of the majority attributed to Béjard appeared upon the sign at the windows of the Association, there was a little timid applause, promptly smothered beneath a chorus of groans and whistles; the opposite occurred whenever luck favored Our Door."

Several times the votes balanced each other. The majority of the voters in the city declared for Bergmans. Already the crowd in the street and at the Croix Blanche trembled with happiness; every one began hugging every one else, and congratulating Bergmans. Paridael even wanted them to fly the flag of the Gueux, orange, white and blue, with the two hands fraternally entwined, the two hands drawn and quartered upon the shield of Antwerp. Bergmans, less optimistic, had difficulty in preventing his friends from triumphing too early. Our enthusiasts did not reckon upon the country. Not only did the rural poll overwhelm the swerving results, but the total of the peasant vote grew greater, always distending, swallowing up, like a stupid tide, and submerging under its waves the legitimate hopes of, the majority of urban citizens.

  1. Attention must be called to the fact that this book was written before the introduction into Belgium of compulsory personal military service. The same observation applies to important passages in the third part, notably the chapter entitled Contumacy. G. E.