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Life in the quarter. Our BISTRO, for instance, at the foot of the
Hotel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with
wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed 'CREDIT EST
MORT'; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives; and
Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with the face of a
strong-minded cow, drinking Malaga all day 'for her stomach'; and games of
dice for APERITIFS; and songs about 'LES PRAISES ET LES FRAMBOISES', and
about Madelon, who said, 'COMMENT EPOUSER UN SOLDAT, MOI QUI AIME TOUT LE
REGIMENT?'; and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to
meet in the BISTRO in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a
quarter as cheery.
One heard queer conversations in the BISTRO. As a sample I give you
Charlie, one of the local curiosities, talking.
Charlie was a youth of family and education who had run away from home
and lived on occasional remittances. Picture him very pink and young, with
the fresh cheeks and soft brown hair of a nice little boy, and lips
excessively red and wet, like cherries. His feet are tiny, his arms
abnormally short, his hands dimpled like a baby's. He has a way of dancing
and capering while he talks, as though he were too happy and too full of
life to keep still for an instant. It is three in the afternoon, and there
is no one in the BISTRO except Madame F. and one or two men who are out of
work; but it is all the same to Charlie whom he talks to, so long as he
can talk about himself. He declaims like an orator on a barricade, rolling
the words on his tongue and gesticulating with his short arms. His small,
rather piggy eyes glitter with enthusiasm. He is, somehow, profoundly
disgusting to see.
He is talking of love, his favourite subject.
'AH, L'AMOUR, L'AMOUR! AH, QUE LES FEMMES M'ONT TUE! Alas, MESSIEURS
ET DAMES, women have been my ruin, beyond all hope my ruin. At twenty-two I
am utterly worn out and finished. But what things I have learned, what
abysses of wisdom have I not plumbed! How great a thing it is to have
acquired the true wisdom, to have become in the highest sense of the word a
civilized man, to have become RAFFINE, VICIEUX,' etc. etc.
'MESSIEURS ET DAFFIES, I perceive that you are sad. AH, MAIS LA VIE
EST BELLE--you must not be sad. Be more gay, I beseech you!
'Fill high ze bowl vid Samian vine,
Ve vill not sink of semes like zese!
'AH, QUE LA VIE EST BELLE! LISTEN, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, out of the
fullness of my experience I will discourse to you of love. I will explain
to you what is the true meaning of love--what is the true sensibility,
the higher, more refined pleasure which is known to civilized men alone. I
will tell you of the happiest day of my life. Alas, but I am past the time
when I could know such happiness as that. It is gone for ever--the very
possibility, even the desire for it, are gone.
'Listen, then. It was two years ago; my brother was in Paris--he is
a lawyer--and my parents had told him to find me and take me out to
dinner. We hate each other, my brother and I, but we preferred not to
disobey my parents. We dined, and at dinner he grew very drunk upon three
bottles of Bordeaux. I took him back to his hotel, and on the way I bought
a bottle of brandy, and when we had arrived I made my brother drink a
tumblerful of it--I told him it was something to make him sober. He drank
it, and immediately he fell down like somebody in a fit, dead drunk. I
lifted him up and propped his back against the bed; then I went through his
pockets. I found eleven hundred francs, and with that I hurried down the
stairs, jumped into a taxi, and escaped. My brother did not know my address
--I was safe.
'Where does a man go when he has money? To the BORDELS, naturally. But
you do not suppose that I was going to waste my time on some vulgar
debauchery fit only for navvies? Confound it, one is a civilized man! I was
fastidious, exigeant, you understand, with a thousand francs in my pocket.
It was midnight before I found what I was looking for. I had fallen in with
a very smart youth of eighteen, dressed EN SMOKING and with his hair cut A
L'AMERICAINE, and we were talking in a quiet BISTRO away from the
boulevards. We understood one another well, that youth and I. We talked of
this and that, and discussed ways of diverting oneself. Presently we took a
taxi together and were driven away.
'The taxi stopped in a narrow, solitary street with a single gas-lamp
flaring at the end. There were dark puddles among the stones. Down one side
ran the high, blank wall of a convent. My guide led me to a tall, ruinous
house with shuttered windows, and knocked several times at the door.
Presently there was a sound of footsteps and a shooting of bolts, and the
door opened a little. A hand came round the edge of it; it was a large,
crooked hand, that held itself palm upwards under our noses, demanding
'My guide put his foot between the door and the step. "How much do you
want?" he said.
'"A thousand francs," said a woman's voice. "Pay up at once or you
don't come in."
'I put a thousand francs into the hand and gave the remaining hundred
to my guide: he said good night and left me. I could hear the voice inside
counting the notes, and then a thin old crow of a woman in a black dress
put her nose out and regarded me suspiciously before letting me in. It was
very dark inside: I could see nothing except a flaring gas-jet that
illuminated a patch of plaster wall, throwing everything else into deeper
shadow. There was a smell of rats and dust. Without speaking, the old woman
lighted a candle at the gas-jet, then hobbled in front of me down a stone
passage to the top of a flight of stone steps.
'"VOILA!" she said; "go down into the cellar there and do what you
like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you
'Ha, MESSIEURS, need I describe to YOU--FORCEMENT, you know it
yourselves--that shiver, half of terror and half of joy, that goes
through one at these moments? I crept down, feeling my way; I could hear my
breathing and the scraping of my shoes on the stones, otherwise all was
silence. At the bottom of the stairs my hand met an electric switch. I
turned it, and a great electrolier of twelve red globes flooded the cellar
with a red light. And behold, I was not in a cellar, but in a bedroom, a
great, rich, garish bedroom, coloured blood red from top to bottom. Figure
it to yourselves, MESSIEURS ET DAMES! Red carpet on the floor, red paper on
the walls, red plush on the chairs, even the ceiling red; everywhere red,
burning into the eyes. It was a heavy, stifling red, as though the light
were shining through bowls of blood. At the far end stood a huge, square
bed, with quilts red like the rest, and on it a girl was lying, dressed in
a frock of red velvet. At the sight of me she shrank away and tried to hide
her knees under the short dress.
'I had halted by the door. "Come here, my chicken," I called to her.
'She gave a whimper of fright. With a bound I was beside the bed; she
tried to elude me, but I seized her by the throat--like this, do you see?
--tight! She struggled, she began to cry out for mercy, but I held her
fast, forcing back her head and staring down into her face. She was twenty
years old, perhaps; her face was the broad, dull face of a stupid child,
but it was coated with paint and powder, and her blue, stupid eyes, shining
in the red light, wore that shocked, distorted look that one sees nowhere
save in the eyes of these women. She was some peasant girl, doubtless, whom
her parents had sold into slavery.
'Without another word I pulled her off the bed and threw her on to the
floor. And then I fell upon her like a tiger! Ah, the joy, the incomparable
rapture of that time! There, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, is what I would expound to
you; VOILA L'AMOUR! There is the true love, there is the only thing in the
world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and
ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high
attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes. When one has experienced
love--the true love--what is there in the world that seems more than a
mere ghost of joy?
'More and more savagely I renewed the attack. Again and again the girl
tried to escape; she cried out for mercy anew, but I laughed at her.
'"Mercy!" I said, "do you suppose I have come here to show mercy? Do
you suppose I have paid a thousand francs for that?" I swear to you,
MESSIEURS ET DAMES, that if it were not for that accursed law that robs us
of our liberty, I would have murdered her at that moment.
'Ah, how she screamed, with what bitter cries of agony. But there was
no one to hear them; down there under the streets of Paris we were as
secure as at the heart of a pyramid. Tears streamed down the girl's face,
washing away the powder in long, dirty smears. Ah, that irrecoverable time!
You, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, you who have not cultivated the finer
sensibilities of love, for you such pleasure is almost beyond conception.
And I too, now that my youth is gone--ah, youth!--shall never again see
life so beautiful as that. It is finished.
'Ah yes, it is gone--gone for ever. Ah, the poverty, the shortness,
the disappointment of human joy! For in reality--CAR EN REALITE, what is
the duration of the supreme moment of love. It is nothing, an instant, a
second perhaps. A second of ecstasy, and after that--dust, ashes,
'And so, just for one instant, I captured the supreme happiness, the
highest and most refined emotion to which human beings can attain. And in
the same moment it was finished, and I was left--to what? All my
savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose. I was left
cold and languid, full of vain regrets; in my revulsion I even felt a kind
of pity for the weeping girl on the floor. Is it not nauseous, that we
should be the prey of such mean emotions? I did not look at the girl again;
my sole thought was to get away. I hastened up the steps of the vault and
out into the street. It was dark and bitterly cold, the streets were empty,
the stones echoed under my heels with a hollow, lonely ring. All my money
was gone, I had not even the price of a taxi fare. I walked back alone to
my cold, solitary room.
'But there, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, that is what I promised to expound to
you. That is Love. That was the happiest day of my life.'
He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what
diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d'Or quarter.