himself falling back into the abyss

2018-09-10 17:20

  For a whole week Saccard experienced violent chagrin, as one does at the loss of a cherished idea; not that he felt himself falling back into the abyss of brigandage; but, just as a sentimental song will bring tears to the eyes of the most abject drunkard, so this colossal idyl of good accomplished by dint of millions had moved his corsair soul. Once more he fell, and from a great height: it seemed to him that he was dethroned. From money he had always sought to derive, in[pg 54] addition to the satisfaction of his appetites, the magnificence of a princely life, and never had he sufficiently achieved it. He grew enraged as one by one his tumbles carried away his hopes. And thus, when his project was destroyed by the princess's quiet, precise refusal, he was thrown back into a furious desire for battle. To fight, to prove the strongest in the stern war of speculation, to eat up others in order to keep them from eating him, was, after his thirst for splendour and enjoyment, the one great motive of his passion for business. Though he did not heap up treasure, he had another joy, the delight attending on the struggle between vast amounts of money pitted against one another—fortunes set in battle array, like contending army corps, the clash of conflicting millions, with defeats and victories that intoxicated him. And forthwith there returned his hatred of Gundermann, his ungovernable longing for revenge. To conquer Gundermann was the chimerical desire that haunted him, each time that he found himself prostrate, vanquished. Though he felt the childish folly attaching to such an attempt, might he not at least cut into him, make a place for himself opposite him, force him to share, like those monarchs of neighbouring countries and equal power who treat each other as cousins? Then it was that the Bourse again attracted him; his head once more became full of schemes that he might launch; conflicting projects claimed him in all directions, putting him in such a fever that he knew not what to decide until the day came when a supreme, stupendous idea evolved itself from amidst all the others, and gradually gained entire possession of him.

  Since he had been living in the Orviedo mansion, Saccard had occasionally seen the sister of the engineer Hamelin, who lived in the little suite of rooms on the second floor, a woman with an admirable figure—Madame Caroline she was familiarly called. What had especially struck him, at their first meeting, was her superb white hair, a royal crown of white hair, which had a most singular effect on the brow of this woman, who was still young, scarcely thirty-six years old. At the age of five and twenty her hair had thus[pg 55] turned completely white. Her eyebrows, which had remained black and very thick, imparted an expression of youth, and of extreme oddity, to her ermine-girt countenance. She had never been pretty, for her nose and chin were too pronounced, and her mouth large with thick lips expressive of exquisite kindliness. But certainly that white fleece, that wavy whiteness of fine silken hair, softened her rather stern physiognomy, and added a grandmother's smiling charm to the freshness and vigour of a beautiful, passionate woman. She was tall and strongly built, with a free and very noble carriage.

  Every time he met her, Saccard, shorter than she was, followed her with his eyes, in an interested way, secretly envying her tall figure, her healthy breadth of shoulders. And gradually, through the servants, he became acquainted with the whole history of the Hamelins, Caroline and George. They were the children of a Montpellier physician, a remarkable savant, an enthusiastic Catholic, who had died poor. At the time of their father's death the girl was eighteen and the boy nineteen; and, the latter having just entered the polytechnic School, his sister followed him to paris, where she secured a place as governess. It was she who slipped five-franc pieces into his hand, and kept him in pocket-money during his two years' course; later, when, having graduated with a low rank, he had to tramp the pavements, it was still she who supported him until he found employment. They adored each other, and it was their dream never to separate. Nevertheless, an unhoped-for marriage offering itself—the good grace and keen intelligence of the young girl having made the conquest of a millionaire brewer in the house where she was employed—George wished her to accept; a thing which he cruelly repented of, for, after a few years of married life, Caroline was obliged to apply for a separation in order to avoid being killed by her husband, who drank and pursued her with a knife in fits of imbecile jealousy. She was then twenty-six years old, and again found herself poor, obstinately refusing to claim any alimony from the man whom she left. But her brother had at last, after many attempts, put his[pg 56] hand upon a work that pleased him: he was about to start for Egypt, with the Commission appointed to prosecute the first investigations connected with the Suez Canal, and he took his sister with him. She bravely established herself at Alexandria, and again began giving lessons, while he travelled about the country. Thus they remained in Egypt until 1859, and saw the first blows of the pick struck upon the shore at port Said by a meagre gang of barely a hundred and fifty navvies, lost amid the sands, and commanded by a handful of engineers. Then Hamelin, having been sent to Syria to ensure a constant supply of provisions, remained there, in consequence of a quarrel with his chiefs. He made Caroline come to Beyrout, where other pupils awaited her, and launched out into a big enterprise, under the patronage of a French company—the laying out of a carriage road from Beyrout to Damascus, the first, the only route opened through the passes of the Lebanon range. And thus they lived there three years longer, until the road was finished; he visiting the mountains, absenting himself for two months to make a trip to Constantinople through the Taurus, she following him as soon as she could escape, and fully sharing the revivalist projects which he formed, whilst tramping about this old land, slumbering beneath the ashes of dead and vanished civilisations. He had a portfolio full of ideas and plans, and felt the imperative necessity of returning to France if he was to give shape to all his vast schemes, establish companies, and find the necessary capital. And so, after nine years' residence in the East, they started off, and curiosity prompted them to return by way of Egypt, where the progress made with the works of the Suez Canal filled them with enthusiasm. In four years a city had grown up on the strand at port Said; an entire people was swarming there; the human ants were multiplying, changing the face of the earth. In paris, however, dire ill-luck awaited Hamelin. For fifteen months he struggled on with his projects, unable to impart his faith to anyone, too modest as he was, too taciturn, stranded on that second floor of the Orviedo mansion, in a little suite of five rooms, for which he paid twelve hundred francs a year, farther[pg 57] from success than he had even been when roaming over the mountains and plains of Asia. Their savings rapidly decreased, and brother and sister came at last to a position of great embarrassment.

  In fact, it was this that interested Saccard—the growing sadness of Madame Caroline, whose hearty gaiety was dimmed by the discouragement into which she saw her brother falling. She was to some extent the man of the household; George, who greatly resembled her physically, though of slighter build, had a rare faculty for work, but he became absorbed in his studies, and did not like to be roused from them. Never had he cared to marry, not feeling the need of doing so, his adoration of his sister sufficing him. This whilom student of the polytechnic School, whose conceptions were so vast, whose zeal was so ardent in everything he undertook, at times evinced such simplicity that one would have deemed him rather stupid. Brought up, too, in the narrowest Romanism he had kept the religious faith of a child, careful in his observance of all rites and ceremonies like a thorough believer; whereas his sister had regained possession of herself by dint of reading and learning during the long hours when he was plunged in his technical tasks. She spoke four languages; she had read the economists and the philosophers, and had for a time been moved to enthusiasm by socialistic and evolutionary theories. Subsequently, however, she had quieted down, acquiring—notably by her travels, her long residence among far-off civilisations—a broad spirit of tolerance and well-balanced common-sense. Though she herself no longer believed, she retained great respect for her brother's faith. There had been one explanation between them, after which they had never referred to the matter again. She, with her simplicity and good-nature, was a woman of real intelligence; and, facing life with extraordinary courage, with a gay bravery which withstood the cruel blows of fate, she was in the habit of saying that a single sorrow alone remained within her—that of never having had a child.

  Saccard was able to render Hamelin a service—some little work which he secured for him from some investors who[pg 58] needed an engineer to report upon the output of a new machine, and thus he forced an intimacy with the brother and sister, and frequently went up to spend an hour with them in their salon, their only large room, which they had transformed into a work room. This room remained virtually bare, for its only furniture consisted of a long designing table, a smaller table covered with papers, and half a dozen chairs. Books were heaped up on the mantel-shelf, whilst on the walls an improvised decoration enlivened the blank space—a series of plans, of bright water-colour drawings, each held in place by four tacks. The plans were those which Hamelin had gathered together in his portfolio of projects; they were the notes he had taken in Syria, the bases on which he hoped to build up all his future fortune; whereas the water-colours were the work of Madame Caroline—Eastern views, types, and costumes which she had noted while accompanying her brother about, which she had sketched with keen insight into the laws of colour, though in a very unpretending way. Two larger windows overlooking the garden of the Beauvilliers mansion admitted a bright light to illumine these straggling designs, typical of another life, of an ancient society sinking into dust, which the plans, firmly and mathematically outlined, seemed about to put upon its feet again, supported, as it were, by the solid scaffolding of modern science. And Saccard, when he had rendered himself useful, with that display of activity which made him so charming, would often linger before the plans and water-colours, seduced, and continually asking for fresh explanations. Vast schemes were already germinating in his brain.

  One morning he found Madame Caroline seated alone at the little table which she used as her desk. She was dreadfully sad, her hands resting among her papers.

  'What can you expect?' said she, 'things are turning out very badly. I am brave, but everything seems about to fail us at once; and what distresses me is the powerlessness to which misfortune reduces my poor brother, for he is not valiant, he has no strength except for work. I thought of getting another situation as governess, that I might at least help him.[pg 59] But I have sought, and found nothing. Yet I cannot go out working as a charwoman.'

  Never had Saccard seen her so upset, so dejected. 'The devil! you have not come to that!' he cried.

  She shook her head, and evinced great bitterness against life, which she usually accepted so jovially, even when at its worst. And Hamelin just then coming in with the news of a fresh disappointment, big tears ran slowly down her cheeks. She spoke no further, but sat there, her hands clenched on the table, her eyes wandering away into space.

  'And to think,' said Hamelin, 'that there are millions awaiting us in the East, if someone would only help me to make them!'

  Saccard had planted himself in front of a plan representing a view of a pavilion surrounded by vast store-houses. 'What is that?' he asked.

  'Oh! something I did for my amusement,' explained the engineer. 'It's the plan of a dwelling at Beyrout for the manager of the Company which I dreamed of, you know, the United Steam Navigation Company.'

  He became animated, and went into fresh particulars. During his stay in the East, he had noticed how defective were all the transport services. The various companies established at Marseilles were ruining one another by competition, and were unable to provide vessels in sufficient number or of sufficient comfort. One of his first ideas, the very basis indeed of his many enterprises, was to syndicate these services, to unite them in one vast, wealthy company, which should exploit the entire Mediterranean, and acquire the sovereign control thereof, by establishing lines to all the ports of Africa, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Asia, and even the remotest parts of the Black Sea. It was a scheme worthy at once of a shrewd organiser and a good patriot; it meant the East conquered, given to France, to say nothing of the close relations which it would establish with Syria, where lay the vast field of his proposed operations.

  'Syndicates,' murmured Saccard—'yes, nowadays the future seems to lie in that direction. It is such a powerful form of[pg 60] association! Three or four little enterprises, which vegetate in isolation, acquire irresistible vitality and prosperity as soon as they unite. Yes, to-morrow belongs to the association of capital, to the centralised efforts of immense masses. All industry and commerce will end in a single huge bazaar, where a man will provide himself with everything.'

  He had stopped again, this time before a water-colour which represented a wild locality, an arid gorge, blocked up by a gigantic pile of rocks crowned with brambles. 'Oh! oh!' he resumed, 'here is the end of the world. There can be no danger of being jostled by passers-by in that nook.'

  'A Carmel gorge,' answered Hamelin. 'My sister sketched it while I was making my studies in that neighbourhood,' and he added simply: 'See! between the cretaceous limestone and the porphyry which raised up that limestone over the entire mountain-side, there is a considerable vein of sulphuretted silver—yes, a silver mine, the working of which, according to my calculations, would yield enormous profits.'

  'A silver mine?' repeated Saccard eagerly.