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My money oozed away--to eight francs, to four francs, to one franc,
to twenty-five centimes; and twenty-five centimes is useless, for it will
buy nothing except a newspaper. We went several days on dry bread, and then
I was two and a half days with nothing to eat whatever. This was an ugly
experience. There are people who do fasting cures of three weeks or more,
and they say that fasting is quite pleasant after the fourth day; I do not
know, never having gone beyond the third day. Probably it seems different
when one is doing it voluntarily and is not underfed at the start.
The first day, too inert to look for work, I borrowed a rod and went
fishing in the Seine, baiting with bluebottles. I hoped to catch enough for
a meal, but of course I did not. The Seine is full of dace, but they grew
cunning during the siege of Paris, and none of them has been caught since,
except in nets. On the second day I thought of pawning my overcoat, but it
seemed too far to walk to the pawnshop, and I spent the day in bed, reading
the MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. It was all that I felt equal to, without
food. Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more
like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one
had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one's blood had been
pumped out and luke-wann water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief
memory of hunger; that, and being obliged to spit very frequently, and the
spittle being curiously white and flocculent, like cuckoo-spit. I do not
know the reason for this, but everyone who has gone hungry several days has
On the third morning I felt very much better. I realized that I must
do something at once, and I decided to go and ask Boris to let me share his
two francs, at any rate for a day or two. When I arrived I found Boris in
bed, and furiously angry. As soon as I came in he burst out, almost
'He has taken it back, the dirty thief! He has taken it back!'
'Who's taken what?' I said.
'The Jew! Taken my two francs, the dog, the thief! He robbed me in my
It appeared that on the previous night the Jew had flatly refused to
pay the daily two francs. They had argued and argued, and at last the Jew
had consented to hand over the money; he had done it, Boris said, in the
most offensive manner, making a little speech about how kind he was, and
extorting abject gratitude. And then in the morning he had stolen the money
back before Boris was awake.
This was a blow. I was horribly disappointed, for I had allowed my
belly to expect food, a great mistake when one is hungry. However, rather
to my surprise, Boris was far from despairing. He sat up in bed, lighted
his pipe and reviewed the situation.
'Now listen, MON AMI, this is a tight comer. We have only twenty-five
centimes between us, and I don't suppose the Jew will ever pay my two
francs again. In any case his behaviour is becoming intolerable. Will you
believe it, the other night he had the indecency to bring a woman in here,
while I was there on the floor. The low animal! And I have a worse thing to
tell you. The Jew intends clearing out of here. He owes a week's rent, and
his idea is to avoid paying that and give me the slip at the same time. If
the Jew shoots the moon I shall be left without a roof, and the PATRON will
take my suitcase in lieu of rent, curse him! We have got to make a vigorous
'All right. But what can we do? It seems to me that the only thing is
to pawn our overcoats and get some food.'
'We'll do that, of course, but I must get my possessions out of this
house first. To think of my photographs being seized! Well, my plan is
ready. I'm going to forestall the Jew and shoot the moon myself. F----
LE CAMP--retreat, you understand. I think that is the correct move, eh?'
'But, my dear Boris, how can you, in daytime? You're bound to be
'Ah well, it will need strategy, of course. Our PATRON is on the watch
for people slipping out without paying their rent; he's been had that way
before. He and his wife take it in turns all day to sit in the office--
what misers, these Frenchmen! But I have thought of a way to do it, if you
I did not feel in a very helpful mood, but I asked Boris what his plan
was. He explained it carefully.
'Now listen. We must start by pawning our overcoats. First go back to
your room and fetch your overcoat, then come back here and fetch mine, and
smuggle it out under cover of yours. Take them to the pawnshop in the rue
des Francs Bourgeois. You ought to get twenty francs for the two, with
luck. Then go down to the Seine bank and fill your pockets with stones, and
bring them back and put them in my suitcase. You see the idea? I shall wrap
as many of my things as I can carry in a newspaper, and go down and ask the
PATRON the way to the nearest laundry. I shall be very brazen and casual,
you understand, and of course the PATRON will think the bundle is nothing
but dirty linen. Or, if he does suspect anything, he will do what he always
does, the mean sneak; he will go up to my room and feel the weight of my
suitcase. And when he feels the weight of stones he will think it is still
full. Strategy, eh? Then afterwards I can come back and carry my other
things out in my pockets.'
'But what about the suitcase?'
'Oh, that? We shall have to abandon it. The miserable thing only cost
about twenty francs. Besides, one always abandons something in a retreat.
Look at Napoleon at the Beresina! He abandoned his whole army.'
Boris was so pleased with this scheme (he called it UNE RUSE DE GUERRE)
that he almost forgot being hungry. Its main weakness--that he would have
nowhere to sleep after shooting the moon--he ignored.
At first the RUSE DE GUERRE worked well. I went home and fetched my
overcoat (that made already nine kilometres, on an empty belly) and
smuggled Boris's coat out successfully. Then a hitch occurred. The receiver
at the pawnshop, a nasty, sour-faced, interfering, little man--a typical
French official--refused the coats on the ground that they were not
wrapped up in anything. He said that they must be put either in a valise or
a cardboard box. This spoiled everything, for we had no box of any kind,
and with only twenty-five centimes between us we could not buy one.
I went back and told Boris the bad news. 'MERDE!' he said, 'that makes
it awkward. Well, no matter, there is always a way. We'll put the overcoats
in my suitcase.'
'But how are we to get the suitcase past the PATRON? He's sitting
almost in the door of the office. It's impossible!'
'How easily you despair, MON AMI! Where is that English obstinacy that
I have read of? Courage! We'll manage it.'
Boris thought for a little while, and then produced another cunning
plan. The essential difficulty was to hold the PATRON's attention for
perhaps five seconds, while we could slip past with the suitcase. But, as
it happened, the PATRON had just one weak spot--that he was interested in
LE SPORT, and was ready to talk if you approached him on this subject.
Boris read an article about bicycle races in an old copy of the PETIT
PARISIEN, and then, when he had reconnoitred the stairs, went down and
managed to set the PATRON talking. Meanwhile, I waited at the foot of the
stairs, with the overcoats under one arm and the suitcase under the other.
Boris was to give a cough when he thought the moment favourable. I waited
trembling, for at any moment the PATRON'S wife might come out of the door
opposite the office, and then the game was up. However, presently Boris
coughed. I sneaked rapidly past the office and out into the street,
rejoicing that my shoes did not creak. The plan might have failed if Boris
had been thinner, for his big shoulders blocked the doorway of the office.
His nerve was splendid, too; he went on laughing and talking in the most
casual way, and so loud that he quite covered any noise I made. When I was
well away he came and joined me round the corner, and we bolted.
And then, after all our trouble, the receiver at the pawnshop again
refused the overcoats. He told me (one could see his French soul revelling
in the pedantry of it) that I had not sufficient papers of identification;
my CARTE D'IDENTITE was not enough, and I must show a passport or addressed
envelopes. Boris had addressed envelopes by the score, but his CARTE
D'IDENTITE was out of order (he never renewed it, so as to avoid the tax),
so we could not pawn the overcoats in his name. All we could do was to
trudge up to my room, get the necessary papers, and take the coats to the
pawnshop in the Boulevard Port Royal.
I left Boris at my room and went down to the pawnshop. When I got
there I found that it was shut and would not open till four in the
afternoon. It was now about half-past one, and I had walked twelve
kilometres and had no food for sixty hours. Fate seemed to be playing a
series of extraordinarily unamusing jokes.
Then the luck changed as though by a miracle. I was walking home
through the Rue Broca when suddenly, glittering on the cobbles, I saw a
five-sou piece. I pounced on it, hurried home, got our other five-sou piece
and bought a pound of potatoes. There was only enough alcohol in the stove
to parboil them, and we had no salt, but we wolfed them, skins and all.
After that we felt like new men, and sat playing chess till the pawnshop
At four o'clock I went back to the pawnshop. I was not hopeful, for if
I had only got seventy francs before, what could I expect for two shabby
overcoats in a cardboard suitcase? Boris had said twenty francs, but I
thought it would be ten francs, or even five. Worse yet, I might be refused
altogether, like poor NUMERO 83 on the previous occasion. I sat on the
front bench, so as not to see people laughing when the clerk said five
At last the clerk called my number: 'NUMERO 117!'
'Yes,' I said, standing up.
It was almost as great a shock as the seventy francs had been the time
before. I believe now that the clerk had mixed my number up with someone
else's, for one could not have sold the coats outright for fifty francs. I
hurried home and walked into my room with my hands behind my back, saying
nothing. Boris was playing with the chessboard. He looked up eagerly.
'What did you get?' he exclaimed. 'What, not twenty francs? Surely you
got ten francs, anyway? NOM DE DIEU, five francs--that is a bit too
thick. MON AMI, DON'T say it was five francs. If you say it was five francs
I shall really begin to think of suicide.'
I threw the fifty-franc, note on to the table. Boris turned white as
chalk, and then, springing up, seized my hand and gave it a grip that
almost broke the bones. We ran out, bought bread and wine, a piece of meat
and alcohol for the stove, and gorged.
After eating, Boris became more optimistic than I had ever known him.
'What did I tell you?' he said. 'The fortune of war! This morning with five
sous, and now look at us. I have always said it, there is nothing easier to
get than money. And that reminds me, I have a friend in the rue Fondary
whom we might go and see. He has cheated me of four thousand francs, the
thief. He is the greatest thief alive when he is sober, but it is a curious
thing, he is quite honest when he is drunk. I should think he would be
drunk by six in the evening. Let's go and find him. Very likely he will pay
up a hundred on account. MERDE! He might pay two hundred. ALLONS-Y!'
We went to the rue Fondary and found the man, and he was drunk, but we
did not get our hundred francs. As soon as he and Boris met there was a
terrible altercation on the pavement. The other man declared that he did
not owe Boris a penny, but that on the contrary Boris owed HIM four
thousand francs, and both of them kept appealing to me for my opinion. I
never understood the rights of the matter. The two argued and argued, first
in the street, then in a BISTRO, then in a PRIX FIXE restaurant where we
went for dinner, then in another BISTRO. Finally, having called one another
thieves for two hours, they went off together on a drinking bout that
finished up the last sou of Boris's money.
Boris slept the night at the house of a cobbler, another Russian
refugee, in the Commerce quarter. Meanwhile, I had eight francs left, and
plenty of cigarettes, and was stuffed to the eyes with food and drink. It
was a marvellous change for the better after two bad days.