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With thirty francs a week to spend on drinks I could take part in the
social life of the quarter. We had some jolly evenings, on Saturdays, in
the little BISTRO at the foot of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux.
The brick-floored room, fifteen feet square, was packed with twenty
people, and the air dim with smoke. The noise was deafening, for everyone
was either talking at the top of his voice or singing. Sometimes it was
just a confused din of voices; sometimes everyone would burst out together
in the same song--the 'Marseillaise', or the 'Internationale', or
'Madelon', or 'Les Fraises et les Fram-boises'. Azaya, a great clumping
peasant girl who worked fourteen hours a day in a glass factory, sang a
song about, 'IL A PERDU SES PANTALONS, TOUT EN DANSANT LE CHARLESTON.' Her
friend Marinette, a thin, dark Gorsican girl of obstinate virtue, tied her
knees together and danced the DANSE DU VENTRE. The old Rougiers wandered in
and out, cadging drinks and trying to tell a long, involved story about
someone who had once cheated them over a bedstead. R., cadaverous and
silent, sat in his comer quietly boozing. Charlie, drunk, half danced, half
staggered to and fro with a glass of sham absinthe balanced in one fat
hand, pinching the women's breasts and declaiming poetry. People played
darts and diced for drinks. Manuel, a Spaniard, dragged the girls to the
bar and shook the dice-box against their bellies, for luck. Madame F. stood
at the bar rapidly pouring CHOPINES of wine through the pewter funnel, with
a wet dishcloth always handy, because every man in the room tried to make
love to her. Two children, bastards of big Louis the bricklayer, sat in a
comer sharing a glass of SIROP. Everyone was very happy, overwhelmingly
certain that the world was a good place and we a notable set of people.
For an hour the noise scarcely slackened. Then about midnight there
was a piercing shout of 'CITOYENS!' and the sound of a chair falling over.
A blond, red-faced workman had risen to his feet and was banging a bottle
on the table. Everyone stopped singing; the word went round, 'Sh! Furex is
starting!' Furex was a strange creature, a Limousin stonemason who worked
steadily all the week and drank himself into a kind of paroxysm on
Saturdays. He had lost his memory and could not remember anything before
the war, and he would have gone to pieces through drink if Madame F. had
not taken care of him. On Saturday evenings at about five o'clock she would
say to someone, 'Catch Furex before he spends his wages,' and when he had
been caught she would take away his money, leaving him enough for one good
drink. One week he escaped, and, rolling blind drunk in the Place Monge,
was run over by a car and badly hurt.
The queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when
sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening
with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a
rampant Chauvinist, denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight,
and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles. It was at this stage that
he made his speech--for he made a patriotic speech every Saturday night.
The speech was always the same, word for word. It ran:
'Citizens of the Republic, are there any Frenchmen here? If there are
any Frenchmen here, I rise to remind them--to remind them in effect, of
the glorious days of the war. When one looks back upon that time of
comradeship and heroism--one looks back, in effect, upon that time of
comradeship and heroism. When one remembers the heroes who are dead--one
remembers, in effect, the heroes who are dead. Citizens of the Republic, I
was wounded at Verdun--'
Here he partially undressed and showed the wound he had received at
Verdun. There were shouts of applause. We thought nothing in the world
could be funnier than this speech of Furex's. He was a well-known spectacle
in the quarter; people used to come in from other BISTROS to watch him when
Us fit started.
The word was passed round to bait Furex. With a wink to the others
someone called for silence, and asked him to sing the 'Marseillaise'. He
sang it well, in a fine bass voice, with patriotic gurgling noises deep
down in his chest when he came to 'AUX ARRMES, CITOYENS! FORRMEZ VOS
BATAILLONS!' Veritable tears rolled down his cheeks; he was too drunk to
see that everyone was laughing at him. Then, before he had finished, two
strong workmen seized him by either arm and held him down, while Azaya
shouted, 'VIVE L'ALLEMAGNE!' just out of his reach. Furex's face went
purple at such infamy. Everyone in the BISTRO began shouting together,
'VIVE L'ALLEMAGNE! A BAS LA FRANCE!' while Furex struggled to get at them.
But suddenly he spoiled the fun. His face turned pale and doleful, his
limbs went limp, and before anyone could stop him he was sick on the table.
Then Madame F. hoisted him like a sack and carried him up to bed. In the
morning he reappeared quiet and civil, and bought a copy of L'HUMANITE.
The table was wiped with a cloth, Madame F. brought more litre bottles
and loaves of bread, and we Settled down to serious drinking. There were
more songs. An itinerant singer came in with his banjo and performed for
five-sou pieces. An Arab and a girl from the BISTRO down the street did a
dance, the man wielding a painted wooden phallus the size of a rolling-pin.
There were gaps in the noise now. People had begun to talk about their
love-affairs, and the war, and the barbel fishing in the Seine, and the
best way to FAIRE LA REVOLUTION, and to tell stories. Charlie, grown sober
again, captured the conversation and talked about his soul for five
minutes. The doors and windows were opened to cool the room. The street was
emptying, and in the distance one could hear the lonely milk train
thundering down the Boulevard St Michel. The air blew cold on our
foreheads, and the coarse African wine still tasted good: we were still
happy, but meditatively, with the shouting and hilarious mood finished.
By one o'clock we were not happy any longer. We felt the joy of the
evening wearing thin, and called hastily for more bottles, but Madame F.
was watering the wine now, and it did not taste the same. Men grew
quarrelsome. The girls were violently kissed and hands thrust into their
bosoms and they made off lest worse should happen. Big Louis, the
bricklayer, was drunk, and crawled about the floor barking and pretending
to be a dog. The others grew tired of him and kicked at him as he went
past. People seized each other by the arm and began long rambling
confessions, and were angry when these were not listened to. The crowd
thinned. Manuel and another man, both gamblers, went across to the Arab
BISTRO, where card-playing went on till daylight. Charlie suddenly borrowed
thirty francs from Madame F. and disappeared, probably to a brothel. Men
began to empty their glasses, call briefly, ''SIEURS, DAMES!' and go off to
By half past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving
nothing but headaches. We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants
of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and
dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit,
and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One's head had swollen up like a
balloon, the floor rocked, one's tongue and lips were stained purple. At
last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the
yard behind the BISTRO and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down
half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two
hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent
headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to
think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth