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We had now twenty-eight francs in hand, and could start looking for
work once more. Boris was still sleeping, on some mysterious terms, at the
house of the cobbler, and he had managed to borrow another twenty francs
from a Russian friend. He had friends, mostly ex-officers like himself,
here and there all over Paris. Some were waiters or dishwashers, some drove
taxis, a few lived on women, some had managed to bring money away from
Russia and owned garages or dancing-halls. In general, the Russian refugees
in Paris are hard-working people, and have put up with/their bad luck far
better than one can imagine Englishmen of the same class doing. There are
exceptions, of course. Boris told me of an exiled Russian duke whom he had
once met, who frequented expensive restaurants. The duke would find out if
there was a Russian officer among the waiters, and, after he had dined,
call him in a friendly way to his table.
'Ah,' the duke would say, 'so you are an old soldier, like myself?
These are bad days, eh? Well, well, the Russian soldier fears nothing. And
what was your regiment?'
'The so-and-so, sir,' the waiter would answer.
'A very gallant regiment! I inspected them in 1912. By the way, I have
unfortunately left my notecase at home. A Russian officer will, I know,
oblige me with three hundred francs.'
If the waiter had three hundred francs he would hand it over, and, of
course, never see it again. The duke made quite a lot in this way. Probably
the waiters did not mind being swindled. A duke is a duke, even in exile.
It was through one of these Russian refugees that Boris heard of
something which seemed to promise money. Two days after we had pawned the
overcoats, Boris said to me rather mysteriously:
'Tell me, MON AMI, have you any political opinions?'
'Neither have I. Of course, one is always a patriot; but still--Did
not Moses say something about spoiling the Egyptians? As an Englishman you
will have read the Bible. What I mean is, would you object to earning money
'No, of course not.'
'Well, it appears that there is a Russian secret society in Paris who
might do something for us. They are Communists; in fact they are agents for
the Bolsheviks. They act as a friendly society, get in touch with exiled
Russians, and try to get them to turn Bolshevik. My friend has joined their
society, and he thinks they would help us if we went to them.'
'But what can they do for us? In any case they won't help me, as I'm
not a Russian.'
'That is just the point. It seems that they are correspondents for a
Moscow paper, and they want some articles on English politics. If we got to
them at once they may commission you to write the articles.'
'Me? But I don't know anything about politics.'
'MERDE! Neither do they. Who DOES know anything about politics? It's
easy. All you have to do is to copy it out of the English papers. Isn't
there a Paris DAILY MAIL? Copy it from that.'
'But the DAILY MAIL is a Conservative paper. They loathe the
'Well, say the opposite of what the DAILY MAIL says, then you can't be
wrong. We mustn't throw this chance away, MON AMI. It might mean hundreds
I did not like the idea, for the Paris police are very hard on
Communists, especially if they are foreigners, and I was already under
suspicion. Some months before, a detective had seen me come out of the
office of a Communist weekly paper, and I had had a great deal of trouble
with the police. If they caught me going to this secret society, it might
mean deportation. However, the chance seemed too good to be missed. That
afternoon Boris's friend, another waiter, came to take us to the
rendezvous. I cannot remember the name of the street--it was a shabby
street running south from the Seine bank, somewhere near the Chamber of
Deputies. Boris's friend insisted on great caution. We loitered casually
down the street, marked the doorway we were to enter--it was a laundry--
and then strolled back again, keeping an eye on all the windows and cafes.
If the place were known as a haunt of Communists it was probably watched,
and we intended to go home if we saw anyone at all like a detective. I was
frightened, but Boris enjoyed these conspiratorial proceedings, and quite
forgot that he was about to trade with the slayers of his parents.
When we were certain that the coast was clear we dived quickly into
the doorway. In the laundry was a Frenchwoman ironing clothes, who told us
that 'the Russian gentlemen' lived up a staircase across the courtyard. We
went up several flights of dark stairs and emerged on to a landing. A
strong, surly-looking young man, with hair growing low on his head, was
standing at the top of the stairs. As I came up he looked at me
suspiciously, barred the way with his arm and said something in Russian.
'MOT D'ORDRE!' he said sharply when I did not answer.
I stopped, startled. I had not expected passwords.
'MOT D'ORDRE!' repeated the Russian.
Boris's friend, who was walking behind, now came forward and said
something in Russian, either the password or an explanation. At this, the
surly young man seemed satisfied, and led us into a small, shabby room with
frosted windows. It was like a very poverty-stricken office, with
propaganda posters in Russian lettering and a huge, crude picture of Lenin
tacked on the walls. At the table sat an unshaven Russian in shirt sleeves,
addressing newspaper wrappers from a pile in front of him. As I came in he
spoke to me in French, with a bad accent.
'This is very careless!' he exclaimed fussily. 'Why have you come here
without a parcel of washing?'
'Everybody who comes here brings washing. It looks as though they were
going to the laundry downstairs. Bring a good, large bundle next time. We
don't want the police on our tracks.'
This was even more conspiratorial than I had expected. Boris sat down
in the only vacant chair, and there was a great deal of talking in Russian.
Only the unshaven man talked; the surly one leaned against the wall with
his eyes on me, as though he still suspected me. It was queer, standing in
the little secret room with its revolutionary posters, listening to a
conversation of which I did not understand a word. The Russians talked
quickly and eagerly, with smiles and shrugs of the shoulders. I wondered
what it was all about. They would be calling each other 'little father', I
thought, and 'little dove', and 'Ivan Alexandrovitch', like the characters
in Russian novels. And the talk would be of revolutions. The unshaven man
would be saying firmly, 'We never argue. Controversy is a bourgeois
pastime. Deeds are our arguments.' Then I gathered that it was not this
exactly. Twenty francs was being demanded, for an entrance fee apparently,
and Boris was promising to pay it (we had just seventeen francs in the
world). Finally Boris produced our precious store of money and paid five
francs on account.
At this the surly man looked less suspicious, and sat down on the edge
of the table. The unshaven one began to question me in French, making notes
on a slip of paper. Was I a Communist? he asked. By sympathy, I answered; I
had never joined any organization. Did I understand the political situation
in England? Oh, of course, of course. I mentioned the names of various
Ministers, and made some contemptuous remarks about the Labour Party. And
what about LE SPORT? Could I do articles on LE SPORT? (Football and
Socialism have some mysterious connexion on the Continent.) Oh, of course,
again. Both men nodded gravely. The unshaven one said:
'EVIDEMMENT, you have a thorough knowledge of conditions in England.
Could you undertake to write a series of articles for a Moscow weekly
paper? We will give you the particulars.'
'Then, comrade, you will hear from us by the first post tomorrow. Or
possibly the second post. Our rate of pay is a hundred and fifty francs an
article. Remember to bring a parcel of washing next time you come.
AU REVOIR, comrade.'
We went downstairs, looked carefully out of the laundry to see if
there was anyone in the street, and slipped out. Boris was wild with joy.
In a sort of sacrificial ecstasy he rushed into the nearest tobacconist's
and spent fifty centimes on a cigar. He came out thumping his stick on the
pavement and beaming.
'At last! At last! Now, MON AMI, out fortune really is made. You took
them in finely. Did you hear him call you comrade? A hundred and fifty
francs an article--NOM DE DIEU, what luck!'
Next morning when I heard the postman I rushed down to the BISTRO for
my letter; to my disappointment, it had not come. I stayed at home for the
second post; still no letter. When three days had gone by and I had not
heard from the secret society, we gave up hope, deciding that they must
have found somebody else to do their articles.
Ten days later we made another visit to the office of the secret
society, taking care to bring a parcel that looked like washing. And the
secret society had vanished! The woman in the laundry knew nothing--she
simply said that 'CES MESSIEURS' had left some days ago, after trouble
about the rent. What fools we looked, standing there with our parcel! But
it was a consolation that we had paid only five francs instead of twenty.
And that was the last we ever heard of the secret society. Who or what
they really were, nobody knew. Personally I do not think they had anything
to do with the Communist Party; I think they were simply swindlers, who
preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary
society. It was quite safe, and no doubt they are still doing it in some
other city. They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably.
Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and
as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.