Je ne Parle pas
Français by Katherine Mansfield
I DO not know why I have such a fancy for this little café. It’s dirty and sad, sad. It’s not as if it had anything to distinguish it from a hundred others—it hasn’t; or as if the same strange types came here every day, whom one could watch from one’s corner and recognise and more or less (with a strong accent on the less) get the hang of.
But pray don’t imagine that those brackets are a confession of my humility before the mystery of the human soul. Not at all; I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux—packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle. . . .
Not but what these portmanteaux can be very fascinating. Oh, but very! I see myself standing in front of them, don’t you know, like a Customs official.
“Have you anything to declare? Any wines, spirits, cigars, perfumes, silks?”
And the moment of hesitation as to whether I am going to be fooled just before I chalk that squiggle, and then the other moment of hesitation just after, as to whether I have been, are perhaps the two most thrilling instants in life. Yes, they are, to me.
But before I started that long and rather far-fetched and not frightfully original digression, what I meant to say quite simply was that there are no portmanteaux to be examined here because the clientele of this café, ladies and gentlemen, does not sit down. No, it stands at the counter, and it consists of a handful of workmen who come up from the river, all powdered over with white flour, lime or something, and a few soldiers, bringing with them thin, dark girls with silver rings in their ears and market baskets on their arms.
Madame is thin and dark, too, with white cheeks and white hands. In certain lights she looks quite transparent, shining out of her black shawl with an extraordinary effect. When she is not serving she sits on a stool with her face turned, always, to the window. Her dark-ringed eyes search among and follow after the people passing, but not as if she was looking for somebody. Perhaps, fifteen years ago, she was; but now the pose has become a habit. You can tell from her air of fatigue and hopelessness that she must have given them up for the last ten years, at least. . . .
And then there is the waiter. Not pathetic—decidedly not comic. Never making one of those perfectly insignificant remarks which amaze you so coming from a waiter, (as though the poor wretch were a sort of cross between a coffee-pot and a wine bottle and not expected to hold so much as a drop of anything else). He is grey, flat-footed and withered, with long, brittle nails that set your nerves on edge while he scrapes up your two sous. When he is not smearing over the table or flicking at a dead fly or two, he stands with one hand on the back of a chair, in his far too long apron, and over his other arm the three-cornered dip of dirty napkin, waiting to be photographed in connection with some wretched murder. “Interior of Café where Body was Found.” You’ve seen him hundreds of times.
Do you believe that every place has its hour of the day when it really does come alive? That’s not exactly what I mean. It’s more like this. There does seem to be a moment when you realize that, quite by accident, you happen to have come on to the stage at exactly the moment you were expected. Everything is arranged for you—waiting for you. Ah, master of the situation! You fill with important breath. And at the same time you smile, secretly, slyly, because Life seems to be opposed to granting you these entrances, seems indeed to be engaged in snatching them from you and making them impossible, keeping you in the wings until it is too late, in fact. . . . Just for once you’ve beaten the old hag.
I enjoyed one of these moments the first time I ever came in here. That’s why I keep coming back, I suppose. Revisiting the scene of my triumph, or the scene of the crime where I had the old bitch by the throat for once and did what I pleased with her.
Query: Why am I so bitter against Life? And why do I see her as a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick?
Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.
Anyhow, the “short winter afternoon was drawing to a close,” as they say, and I was drifting along, either going home or not going home, when I found myself in here, walking over to this seat in the corner.
I hung up my English overcoat and grey felt hat on that same peg behind me, and after I had allowed the waiter time for at least twenty photographers to snap their fill of him, I ordered a coffee.
He poured me out a glass of the familiar, purplish stuff with a green wandering light playing over it, and shuffled off, and I sat pressing my hands against the glass because it was bitterly cold outside.
Suddenly I realized that quite apart from myself, I was smiling. Slowly I raised my head and saw myself in the mirror opposite. Yes, there I sat, leaning on the table, smiling my deep, sly smile, the glass of coffee with its vague plume of steam before me and beside it the ring of white saucer with two pieces of sugar.
I opened my eyes very wide. There I had been for all eternity, as it were, and now at last I was coming to life. . . .
It was very quiet in the café. Outside, one could just see through the dusk that it had begun to snow. One could just see the shapes of horses and carts and people, soft and white, moving through the feathery air. The waiter disappeared and reappeared with an armful of straw. He strewed it over the floor from the door to the counter and round about the stove with humble, almost adoring gestures. One would not have been surprised if the door had opened and the Virgin Mary had come in, riding upon an ass, her meek hands folded over her big belly. . . .
That’s rather nice, don’t you think, that bit about the Virgin? It comes from the pen so gently; it has such a “dying fall.” I thought so at the time and decided to make a note of it. One never knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off a paragraph. So, taking care to move as little as possible because the “spell” was still unbroken (you know that?), I reached over to the next table for a writing pad.
No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel of pink blotting-paper, incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a little dead kitten, which I’ve never felt.
I sat—but always underneath, in this state of expectation, rolling the little dead kitten’s tongue round my finger and rolling the soft phrase round my mind while my eyes took in the girls’ names and dirty jokes and drawings of bottles and cups that would not sit in the saucers, scattered over the writing pad.
They are always the same, you know. The girls always have the same names, the cups never sit in the saucers; all the hearts are stuck and tied up with ribbons.
But then, quite suddenly, at the bottom of the page, written in green ink, I fell on to that stupid, stale little phrase: Je ne parle pas français.
There! it had come—the moment—the geste! And although I was so ready, it caught me, it tumbled me over; I was simply overwhelmed. And the physical feeling was so curious, so particular. It was as if all of me, except my head and arms, all of me that was under the table, had simply dissolved, melted, turned into water. Just my head remained and two sticks of arms pressing on to the table. But, ah! the agony of that moment! How can I describe it? I didn’t think of anything. I didn’t even cry out to myself. Just for one moment I was not. I was Agony, Agony, Agony.
Then it passed, and the very second after I was thinking: “Good God! Am I capable of feeling as strongly as that? But I was absolutely unconscious! I hadn’t a phrase to meet it with! I was overcome! I was swept off my feet! I didn’t even try, in the dimmest way, to put it down!”
And up I puffed and puffed, blowing off finally with: “After all I must be first-rate. No second-rate mind could have experienced such an intensity of feeling so . . . purely.”
The waiter has touched a spill at the red stove and lighted a bubble of gas under a spreading shade. It is no use looking out of the window, Madame; it is quite dark now. Your white hands hover over your dark shawl. They are like two birds that have come home to roost. They are restless, restless. . . . You tuck them, finally, under your warm little armpits.
Now the waiter has taken a long pole and clashed the curtains together. “All gone,” as children say.
And besides, I’ve no patience with people who can’t let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over and done with. Let it go then! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It’s always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it’s changed. Why, that’s even true of a hat you chase after; and I don’t mean superficially—I mean profoundly speaking . . . I have made it a rule of my life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy, and no one who intends to be a writer can afford to indulge in it. You can’t get it into shape; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in. Looking back, of course, is equally fatal to Art. It’s keeping yourself poor. Art can’t and won’t stand poverty.
Je ne parle pas français. Je ne parle pas français. All the while I wrote that last page my other self has been chasing up and down out in the dark there. It left me just when I began to analyse my grand moment, dashed off distracted, like a lost dog who thinks at last, at last, he hears the familiar step again.
“Mouse! Mouse! Where are you? Are you near? Is that you leaning from the high window and stretching out your arms for the wings of the shutters? Are you this soft bundle moving towards me through the feathery snow? Are you this little girl pressing through the swing-doors of the restaurant? Is that your dark shadow bending forward in the cab? Where are you? Where are you? Which way must I turn? Which way shall I run? And every moment I stand here hesitating you are farther away again. Mouse! Mouse!”
Now the poor dog has come back into the café, his tail between his legs, quite exhausted.
“It was a . . . false . . . alarm. She’s nowhere . . . to . . . be seen.”
“Lie down then! Lie down! Lie down!”
My name is Raoul Duquette. I am twenty-six years old and a Parisian, a true Parisian. About my family—it really doesn’t matter. I have no family; I don’t want any. I never think about my childhood. I’ve forgotten it.
In fact, there’s only one memory that stands out at all. That is rather interesting because it seems to me now so very significant as regards myself from the literary point of view. It is this.
When I was about ten our laundress was an African woman, very big, very dark, with a check handkerchief over her frizzy hair. When she came to our house she always took particular notice of me, and after the clothes had been taken out of the basket she would lift me up into it and give me a rock while I held tight to the handles and screamed for joy and fright. I was tiny for my age, and pale, with a lovely little half-open mouth—I feel sure of that.
One day when I was standing at the door, watching her go, she turned round and beckoned to me, nodding and smiling in a strange secret way. I never thought of not following. She took me into a little outhouse at the end of the passage, caught me up in her arms and began kissing me. Ah, those kisses! Especially those kisses inside my ears that nearly deafened me.
When she set me down she took from her pocket a little round fried cake covered with sugar, and I reeled along the passage back to our door.
As this performance was repeated once a week it is no wonder that I remember it so vividly. Besides, from that very first afternoon, my childhood was, to put it prettily, “kissed away.” I became very languid, very caressing, and greedy beyond measure. And so quickened, so sharpened, I seemed to understand everybody and be able to do what I liked with everybody.
I suppose I was in a state of more or less physical excitement, and that was what appealed to them. For all Parisians are more than half—oh, well, enough of that. And enough of my childhood, too. Bury it under a laundry basket instead of a shower of roses and passons oultre.
I date myself from the moment that I became the tenant of a small bachelor flat on the fifth floor of a tall, not too shabby house, in a street that might or might not be discreet. Very useful, that. . . . There I emerged, came out into the light and put out my two horns with a study and a bedroom and a kitchen on my back. And real furniture planted in the rooms. In the bedroom a wardrobe with a long glass, a big bed covered with a yellow puffed-up quilt, a bed table with a marbled top and a toilet set sprinkled with tiny apples. In my study—English writing table with drawers, writing chair with leather cushions, books, arm-chair, side table with paper-knife and lamp on it and some nude studies on the walls. I didn’t use the kitchen except to throw old papers into.
Ah, I can see myself that first evening, after the furniture men had gone and I’d managed to get rid of my atrocious old concierge—walking about on tip-toe, arranging and standing in front of the glass with my hands in my pockets and saying to that radiant vision: “I am a young man who has his own flat. I write for two newspapers. I am going in for serious literature. I am starting a career. The book that I shall bring out will simply stagger the critics. I am going to write about things that have never been touched before. I am going to make a name for myself as a writer about the submerged world. But not as others have done before me. Oh, no! Very naively, with a sort of tender humour and from the inside, as though it were all quite simple, quite natural. I see my way quite perfectly. Nobody has ever done it as I shall do it because none of the others have lived my experiences. I’m rich—I’m rich.”
All the same I had no more money than I have now. It’s extraordinary how one can live without money. . . . I have quantities of good clothes, silk underwear, two evening suits, four pairs of patent leather boots with light uppers, all sorts of little things, like gloves and powder boxes and a manicure set, perfumes, very good soap, and nothing is paid for. If I find myself in need of right-down cash—well, there’s always an African laundress and an outhouse, and I am very frank and bon enfant about plenty of sugar on the little fried cake afterwards. . . .
And here I should like to put something on record. Not from any strutting conceit, but rather with a mild sense of wonder. I’ve never yet made the first advances to any woman. It isn’t as though I’ve known only one class of woman—not by any means. But from little prostitutes and kept women and elderly widows and shop girls and wives of respectable men, and even advanced modern literary ladies at the most select dinners and soirées (I’ve been there), I’ve met invariably with not only the same readiness, but with the same positive invitation. It surprised me at first. I used to look across the table and think “Is that very distinguished young lady, discussing le Kipling with the gentleman with the brown beard, really pressing my foot?” And I was never really certain until I had pressed hers.
Curious, isn’t it? I don’t look at all like a maiden’s dream. . . .
I am little and light with an olive skin, black eyes with long lashes, black silky hair cut short, tiny square teeth that show when I smile. My hands are supple and small. A woman in a bread shop once said to me: “You have the hands for making fine little pastries.” I confess, without any clothes I am rather charming. Plump, almost like a girl, with smooth shoulders, and I wear a thin gold bracelet above my left elbow.
But, wait! Isn’t it strange I should have written all that about my body and so on? It’s the result of my bad life, my submerged life. I am like a little woman in a café who has to introduce herself with a handful of photographs. “Me in my chemise, coming out of an eggshell. . . . Me upside down in a swing, with a frilly behind like a cauliflower. . . .” You know the things.
If you think what I’ve written is merely superficial and impudent and cheap you’re wrong. I’ll admit it does sound so, but then it is not all. If it were, how could I have experienced what I did when I read that stale little phrase written in green ink, in the writing-pad? That proves there’s more in me and that I really am important, doesn’t it? Anything a fraction less than that moment of anguish I might have put on. But no! That was real.
“Waiter, a whisky.”
I hate whisky. Every time I take it into my mouth my stomach rises against it, and the stuff they keep here is sure to be particularly vile. I only ordered it because I am going to write about an Englishman. We French are incredibly old-fashioned and out of date still in some ways. I wonder I didn’t ask him at the same time for a pair of tweed knickerbockers, a pipe, some long teeth and a set of ginger whiskers.
“Thanks, mon vieux. You haven’t got perhaps a set of ginger whiskers?”
“No, monsieur,” he answers sadly. “We don’t sell American drinks.”
And having smeared a corner of the table he goes back to have another couple of dozen taken by artificial light.
Ugh! The smell of it! And the sickly sensation when one’s throat contracts.
“It’s bad stuff to get drunk on,” says Dick Harmon, turning his little glass in his fingers and smiling his slow, dreaming smile. So he gets drunk on it slowly and dreamily and at a certain moment begins to sing very low, very low, about a man who walks up and down trying to find a place where he can get some dinner.
Ah! how I loved that song, and how I loved the way he sang it, slowly, slowly, in a dark, soft voice:
There was a man
Walked up and down
To get a dinner in the town . . .
It seemed to hold, in its gravity and muffled measure, all those tall grey buildings, those fogs, those endless streets, those sharp shadows of policemen that mean England.
And then—the subject! The lean, starved creature walking up and down with every house barred against him because he had no “home.” How extraordinarily English that is. . . . I remember that it ended where he did at last “find a place” and ordered a little cake of fish, but when he asked for bread the waiter cried contemptuously, in a loud voice: “We don’t serve bread with one fish ball.”
What more do you want? How profound those songs are! There is the whole psychology of a people; and how un-French—how un-French!
“Once more, Deeck, once more!” I would plead, clasping my hands and making a pretty mouth at him. He was perfectly content to sing it for ever.
There again. Even with Dick. It was he who made the first advances.
I met him at an evening party given by the editor of a new review. It was a very select, very fashionable affair. One or two of the older men were there and the ladies were extremely comme il faut. They sat on cubist sofas in full evening dress and allowed us to hand them thimbles of cherry brandy and to talk to them about their poetry. For, as far as I can remember, they were all poetesses.
It was impossible not to notice Dick. He was the only Englishman present, and instead of circulating gracefully round the room as we all did, he stayed in one place leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets, that dreamy half smile on his lips, and replying in excellent French in his low, soft voice to anybody who spoke to him.
“Who is he?”
“An Englishman. From London. A writer. And he is making a special study of modern French literature.”
That was enough for me. My little book, False Coins had just been published. I was a young serious writer who was making a special study of modern English literature.
But I really had not time to fling my line before he said, giving himself a soft shake, coming right out of the water after the bait, as it were: “Won’t you come and see me at my hotel? Come about five o’clock and we can have a talk before going out to dinner.”
I was so deeply, deeply flattered that I had to leave him then and there to preen and preen myself before the cubist sofas. What a catch! An Englishman, reserved, serious, making a special study of French literature. . . .
That same night a copy of False Coins with a carefully cordial inscription was posted off, and a day or two later we did dine together and spent the evening talking.
Talking—but not only of literature. I discovered to my relief that it wasn’t necessary to keep to the tendency of the modern novel, the need of a new form, or the reason why our young men appeared to be just missing it. Now and again, as if by accident, I threw in a card that seemed to have nothing to do with the game, just to see how he’d take it. But each time he gathered it into his hands with his dreamy look and smile unchanged. Perhaps he murmured: “That’s very curious.” But not as if it were curious at all.
That calm acceptance went to my head at last. It fascinated me. It led me on and on till I threw every card that I possessed at him and sat back and watched him arrange them in his hand.
“Very curious and interesting. . . .”
By that time we were both fairly drunk, and he began to sing his song very soft, very low, about the man who walked up and down seeking his dinner.
But I was quite breathless at the thought of what I had done. I had shown somebody both sides of my life. Told him everything as sincerely and truthfully as I could. Taken immense pains to explain things about my submerged life that really were disgusting and never could possibly see the light of literary day. On the whole I had made myself out far worse than I was—more boastful, more cynical, more calculating.
And there sat the man I had confided in, singing to himself and smiling. . . . It moved me so that real tears came into my eyes. I saw them glittering on my long silky lashes—so charming.
After that I took Dick about with me everywhere, and he came to my flat, and sat in the arm-chair, very indolent, playing with the paper-knife. I cannot think why his indolence and dreaminess always gave me the impression he had been to sea. And all his leisurely slow ways seemed to be allowing for the movement of the ship. This impression was so strong that often when we were together and he got up and left a little woman just when she did not expect him to get up and leave her, but quite the contrary, I would explain: “He can’t help it, Baby. He has to go back to his ship.” And I believed it far more than she did.
All the while we were together Dick never went with a woman. I sometimes wondered whether he wasn’t completely innocent. Why didn’t I ask him? Because I never did ask him anything about himself. But late one night he took out his pocket-book and a photograph dropped out of it. I picked it up and glanced at it before I gave it to him. It was of a woman. Not quite young. Dark, handsome, wild-looking, but so full in every line of a kind of haggard pride that even if Dick had not stretched out so quickly I wouldn’t have looked longer.
“Out of my sight, you little perfumed fox-terrier of a Frenchman,” said she.
(In my very worst moments my nose reminds me of a fox-terrier’s.)
“That is my Mother,” said Dick, putting up the pocket-book.
But if he had not been Dick I should have been tempted to cross myself, just for fun.
This is how we parted. As we stood outside his hotel one night waiting for the concierge to release the catch of the outer door, he said, looking up at the sky: “I hope it will be fine to-morrow. I am leaving for England in the morning.”
“You’re not serious.”
“Perfectly. I have to get back. I’ve some work to do that I can’t manage here.”
“But—but have you made all your preparations?”
“Preparations?” He almost grinned. “I’ve none to make.”
“But—enfin, Dick, England is not the other side of the boulevard.”
“It isn’t much farther off,” said he. “Only a few hours, you know.” The door cracked open.
“Ah, I wish I’d known at the beginning of the evening!”
I felt hurt. I felt as a woman must feel when a man takes out his watch and remembers an appointment that cannot possibly concern her, except that its claim is the stronger. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He put out his hand and stood, lightly swaying upon the step as though the whole hotel were his ship, and the anchor weighed.
“I forgot. Truly I did. But you’ll write, won’t you? Good night, old chap. I’ll be over again one of these days.”
And then I stood on the shore alone, more like a little fox-terrier than ever. . . .
“But after all it was you who whistled to me, you who asked me to come! What a spectacle I’ve cut wagging my tail and leaping round you, only to be left like this while the boat sails off in its slow, dreamy way. . . . Curse these English! No, this is too insolent altogether. Who do you imagine I am? A little paid guide to the night pleasures of Paris? . . . No, monsieur. I am a young writer, very serious, and extremely interested in modern English literature. And I have been insulted—insulted.”
Two days after came a long, charming letter from him, written in French that was a shade too French, but saying how he missed me and counted on our friendship, on keeping in touch.
I read it standing in front of the (unpaid for) wardrobe mirror. It was early morning. I wore a blue kimono embroidered with white birds and my hair was still wet; it lay on my forehead, wet and gleaming.
“Portrait of Madame Butterfly,” said I, “on hearing of the arrival of ce cher Pinkerton.”
According to the books I should have felt immensely relieved and delighted. “. . . Going over to the window he drew apart the curtains and looked out at the Paris trees, just breaking into buds and green. . . . Dick! Dick! My English friend!”
I didn’t. I merely felt a little sick. Having been up for my first ride in an aeroplane I didn’t want to go up again, just now.
That passed, and months after, in the winter, Dick wrote that he was coming back to Paris to stay indefinitely. Would I take rooms for him? He was bringing a woman friend with him.
Of course I would. Away the little fox-terrier flew. It happened most usefully, too; for I owed much money at the hotel where I took my meals, and two English people requiring rooms for an indefinite time was an excellent sum on account.
Perhaps I did rather wonder, as I stood in the larger of the two rooms with Madame, saying “Admirable,” what the woman friend would be like, but only vaguely. Either she would be very severe, flat back and front, or she would be tall, fair, dressed in mignonette green, name—Daisy, and smelling of rather sweetish lavender water.
You see, by this time, according to my rule of not looking back, I had almost forgotten Dick. I even got the tune of his song about the unfortunate man a little bit wrong when I tried to hum it. . . .
I very nearly did not turn up at the station after all. I had arranged to, and had, in fact, dressed with particular care for the occasion. For I intended to take a new line with Dick this time. No more confidences and tears on eyelashes. No, thank you!
“Since you left Paris,” said I, knotting my black silver-spotted tie in the (also unpaid for) mirror over the mantelpiece, “I have been very successful, you know. I have two more books in preparation, and then I have written a serial story, Wrong Doors, which is just on the point of publication and will bring me in a lot of money. And then my little book of poems,” I cried, seizing the clothes-brush and brushing the velvet collar of my new indigo-blue overcoat, “my little book—Left Umbrellas—really did create,” and I laughed and waved the brush, “an immense sensation!”
It was impossible not to believe this of the person who surveyed himself finally, from top to toe, drawing on his soft grey gloves. He was looking the part; he was the part.
That gave me an idea. I took out my notebook, and still in full view, jotted down a note or two. . . . How can one look the part and not be the part? Or be the part and not look it? Isn’t looking—being? Or being—looking? At any rate who is to say that it is not? . . .
This seemed to me extraordinarily profound at the time, and quite new. But I confess that something did whisper as, smiling, I put up the notebook: “You—literary? you look as though you’ve taken down a bet on a racecourse!” But I didn’t listen. I went out, shutting the door of the flat with a soft, quick pull so as not to warn the concierge of my departure, and ran down the stairs quick as a rabbit for the same reason.
But ah! the old spider. She was too quick for me. She let me run down the last little ladder of the web and then she pounced. “One moment. One little moment, Monsieur,” she whispered, odiously confidential. “Come in. Come in.” And she beckoned with a dripping soup ladle. I went to the door, but that was not good enough. Right inside and the door shut before she would speak.
There are two ways of managing your concierge if you haven’t any money. One is—to take the high hand, make her your enemy, bluster, refuse to discuss anything; the other is—to keep in with her, butter her up to the two knots of the black rag tying up her jaws, pretend to confide in her, and rely on her to arrange with the gas man and to put off the landlord.
I had tried the second. But both are equally detestable and unsuccessful. At any rate whichever you’re trying is the worse, the impossible one.
It was the landlord this time. . . . Imitation of the landlord by the concierge threatening to toss me out. . . . Imitation of the concierge by the concierge taming the wild bull. . . . Imitation of the landlord rampant again, breathing in the concierge’s face. I was the concierge. No, it was too nauseous. And all the while the black pot on the gas ring bubbling away, stewing out the hearts and livers of every tenant in the place.
“Ah!” I cried, staring at the clock on the mantelpiece, and then, realizing that it didn’t go, striking my forehead as though the idea had nothing to do with it. “Madame, I have a very important appointment with the director of my newspaper at nine-thirty. Perhaps to-morrow I shall be able to give you . . .”
Out, out. And down the métro and squeezed into a full carriage. The more the better. Everybody was one bolster the more between me and the concierge. I was radiant.
“Ah! pardon, Monsieur!” said the tall charming creature in black with a big full bosom and a great bunch of violets dropping from it. As the train swayed it thrust the bouquet right into my eyes. “Ah! pardon, Monsieur!”
But I looked up at her, smiling mischievously.
“There is nothing I love more, Madame, than flowers on a balcony.”
At the very moment of speaking I caught sight of the huge man in a fur coat against whom my charmer was leaning. He poked his head over her shoulder and he went white to the nose; in fact his nose stood out a sort of cheese green.
“What was that you said to my wife?”
Gare Saint Lazare saved me. But you’ll own that even as the author of False Coins, Wrong Doors, Left Umbrellas, and two in preparation, it was not too easy to go on my triumphant way.
At length, after countless trains had steamed into my mind, and countless Dick Harmons had come rolling towards me, the real train came. The little knot of us waiting at the barrier moved up close, craned forward, and broke into cries as though we were some kind of many-headed monster, and Paris behind us nothing but a great trap we had set to catch these sleepy innocents.
Into the trap they walked and were snatched and taken off to be devoured. Where was my prey?
“Good God!” My smile and my lifted hand fell together. For one terrible moment I thought this was the woman of the photograph, Dick’s mother, walking towards me in Dick’s coat and hat. In the effort—and you saw what an effort it was—to smile, his lips curled in just the same way and he made for me, haggard and wild and proud.
What had happened? What could have changed him like this? Should I mention it?
I waited for him and was even conscious of venturing a fox-terrier wag or two to see if he could possibly respond, in the way I said: “Good evening, Dick! How are you, old chap? All right?”
“All right. All right.” He almost gasped. “You’ve got the rooms?”
Twenty times, good God! I saw it all. Light broke on the dark waters and my sailor hadn’t been drowned. I almost turned a somersault with amusement.
It was nervousness, of course. It was embarrassment. It was the famous English seriousness. What fun I was going to have! I could have hugged him.
“Yes, I’ve got the rooms,” I nearly shouted. “But where is Madame?”
“She’s been looking after the luggage,” he panted. “Here she comes, now.”
Not this baby walking beside the old porter as though he were her nurse and had just lifted her out of her ugly perambulator while he trundled the boxes on it.
“And she’s not Madame,” said Dick, drawling suddenly.
At that moment she caught sight of him and hailed him with her minute muff. She broke away from her nurse and ran up and said something, very quick, in English; but he replied in French: “Oh, very well. I’ll manage.”
But before he turned to the porter he indicated me with a vague wave and muttered something. We were introduced. She held out her hand in that strange boyish way Englishwomen do, and standing very straight in front of me with her chin raised and making—she too—the effort of her life to control her preposterous excitement, she said, wringing my hand (I’m sure she didn’t know it was mine), Je ne parle pas Français.
“But I’m sure you do,” I answered, so tender, so reassuring, I might have been a dentist about to draw her first little milk tooth.
“Of course she does.” Dick swerved back to us. “Here, can’t we get a cab or taxi or something? We don’t want to stay in this cursed station all night. Do we?”
This was so rude that it took me a moment to recover; and he must have noticed, for he flung his arm round my shoulder in the old way, saying: “Ah, forgive me, old chap. But we’ve had such a loathsome, hideous journey. We’ve taken years to come. Haven’t we?” To her. But she did not answer. She bent her head and began stroking her grey muff; she walked beside us stroking her grey muff all the way.
“Have I been wrong?” thought I. “Is this simply a case of frenzied impatience on their part? Are they merely ‘in need of a bed,’ as we say? Have they been suffering agonies on the journey? Sitting, perhaps, very close and warm under the same travelling rug?” and so on and so on while the driver strapped on the boxes. That done——
“Look here, Dick. I go home by métro. Here is the address of your hotel. Everything is arranged. Come and see me as soon as you can.”
Upon my life I thought he was going to faint. He went white to the lips.
“But you’re coming back with us,” he cried. “I thought it was all settled. Of course you’re coming back. You’re not going to leave us.” No, I gave it up. It was too difficult, too English for me.
“Certainly, certainly. Delighted. I only thought, perhaps . . .”
“You must come!” said Dick to the little fox-terrier. And again he made that big awkward turn towards her.
“Get in, Mouse.”
And Mouse got in the black hole and sat stroking Mouse II and not saying a word.
Away we jolted and rattled like three little dice that life had decided to have a fling with.
I had insisted on taking the flap seat facing them because I would not have missed for anything those occasional flashing glimpses I had as we broke through the white circles of lamplight.
They revealed Dick, sitting far back in his corner, his coat collar turned up, his hands thrust in his pockets, and his broad dark hat shading him as if it were a part of him—a sort of wing he hid under. They showed her, sitting up very straight, her lovely little face more like a drawing than a real face—every line was so full of meaning and so sharp cut against the swimming dark.
For Mouse was beautiful. She was exquisite, but so fragile and fine that each time I looked at her it was as if for the first time. She came upon you with the same kind of shock that you feel when you have been drinking tea out of a thin innocent cup and suddenly, at the bottom, you see a tiny creature, half butterfly, half woman, bowing to you with her hands in her sleeves.
As far as I could make out she had dark hair and blue or black eyes. Her long lashes and the two little feathers traced above were most important.
She wore a long dark cloak such as one sees in old-fashioned pictures of Englishwomen abroad. Where her arms came out of it there was grey fur—fur round her neck, too, and her close-fitting cap was furry.
“Carrying out the mouse idea,” I decided.
Ah, but how intriguing it was—how intriguing! Their excitement came nearer and nearer to me, while I ran out to meet it, bathed in it, flung myself far out of my depth, until at last I was as hard put to it to keep control as they.
But what I wanted to do was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion—like a clown. To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out of the window and cry: “We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen, one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous,” to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof and dive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet.
I watched myself do all this, you understand, and even managed to applaud in a private way by putting my gloved hands gently together, while I said to Mouse: “And is this your first visit to Paris?”
“Yes, I’ve not been here before.”
“Ah, then you have a great deal to see.”
And I was just going to touch lightly upon the objects of interest and the museums when we wrenched to a stop.
Do you know—it’s very absurd—but as I pushed open the door for them and followed up the stairs to the bureau on the landing I felt somehow that this hotel was mine.
There was a vase of flowers on the window sill of the bureau and I even went so far as to re-arrange a bud or two and to stand off and note the effect while the manageress welcomed them. And when she turned to me and handed me the keys (the garçon was hauling up the boxes) and said: “Monsieur Duquette will show you your rooms”—I had a longing to tap Dick on the arm with a key and say, very confidentially: “Look here, old chap. As a friend of mine I’ll be only too willing to make a slight reduction . . .”
Up and up we climbed. Round and round. Past an occasional pair of boots (why is it one never sees an attractive pair of boots outside a door?). Higher and higher.
“I’m afraid they’re rather high up,” I murmured idiotically. “But I chose them because . . .”
They so obviously did not care why I chose them that I went no further. They accepted everything. They did not expect anything to be different. This was just part of what they were going through—that was how I analysed it.
“Arrived at last.” I ran from one side of the passage to the other, turning on the lights, explaining.
“This one I thought for you, Dick. The other is larger and it has a little dressing-room in the alcove.”
My “proprietary” eye noted the clean towels and covers, and the bed linen embroidered in red cotton. I thought them rather charming rooms, sloping, full of angles, just the sort of rooms one would expect to find if one had not been to Paris before.
Dick dashed his hat down on the bed.
“Oughtn’t I to help that chap with the boxes?” he asked—nobody.
“Yes, you ought,” replied Mouse, “they’re dreadfully heavy.”
And she turned to me with the first glimmer of a smile: “Books, you know.” Oh, he darted such a strange look at her before he rushed out. And he not only helped, he must have torn the box off the garçon’s back, for he staggered back, carrying one, dumped it down and then fetched in the other.
“That’s yours, Dick,” said she.
“Well, you don’t mind it standing here for the present, do you?” he asked, breathless, breathing hard (the box must have been tremendously heavy). He pulled out a handful of money. “I suppose I ought to pay this chap.”
The garçon, standing by, seemed to think so too.
“And will you require anything further, Monsieur?”
“No! No!” said Dick impatiently.
But at that Mouse stepped forward. She said, too deliberately, not looking at Dick, with her quaint clipped English accent: “Yes, I’d like some tea. Tea for three.”
And suddenly she raised her muff as though her hands were clasped inside it, and she was telling the pale, sweaty garçon by that action that she was at the end of her resources, that she cried out to him to save her with “Tea. Immediately!”
This seemed to me so amazingly in the picture, so exactly the gesture and cry that one would expect (though I couldn’t have imagined it) to be wrung out of an Englishwoman faced with a great crisis, that I was almost tempted to hold up my hand and protest.
“No! No! Enough. Enough. Let us leave off there. At the word—tea. For really, really, you’ve filled your greediest subscriber so full that he will burst if he has to swallow another word.”
It even pulled Dick up. Like someone who has been unconscious for a long long time he turned slowly to Mouse and slowly looked at her with his tired, haggard eyes, and murmured with the echo of his dreamy voice: “Yes. That’s a good idea.” And then: “You must be tired, Mouse. Sit down.”
She sat down in a chair with lace tabs on the arms; he leaned against the bed, and I established myself on a straight-backed chair, crossed my legs and brushed some imaginary dust off the knees of my trousers. (The Parisian at his ease.)
There came a tiny pause. Then he said: “Won’t you take off your coat. Mouse?”
“No, thanks. Not just now.”
Were they going to ask me? Or should I hold up my hand and call out in a baby voice: “It’s my turn to be asked.”
No, I shouldn’t. They didn’t ask me.
The pause became a silence. A real silence.
“. . . Come, my Parisian fox-terrier! Amuse these sad English! It’s no wonder they are such a nation for dogs.”
But, after all—why should I? It was not my “job,” as they would say. Nevertheless, I made a vivacious little bound at Mouse.
“What a pity it is that you did not arrive by daylight. There is such a charming view from these two windows. You know, the hotel is on a corner and each window looks down an immensely long, straight street.”
“Yes,” said she.
“Not that that sounds very charming,” I laughed. “But there is so much animation—so many absurd little boys on bicycles and people hanging out of windows and—oh, well, you’ll see for yourself in the morning. . . . Very amusing. Very animated.”
“Oh, yes,” said she.
If the pale, sweaty garçon had not come in at that moment, carrying the tea-tray high on one hand as if the cups were cannon-balls and he a heavy weight lifter on the cinema. . . .
He managed to lower it on to a round table.
“Bring the table over here,” said Mouse. The waiter seemed to be the only person she cared to speak to. She took her hands out of her muff, drew off her gloves and flung back the old-fashioned cape.
“Do you take milk and sugar?”
“No milk, thank you, and no sugar.”
I went over for mine like a little gentleman. She poured out another cup.
“That’s for Dick.”
And the faithful fox-terrier carried it across to him and laid it at his feet, as it were.
“Oh, thanks,” said Dick.
And then I went back to my chair and she sank back in hers.
But Dick was off again. He stared wildly at the cup of tea for a moment, glanced round him, put it down on the bed-table, caught up his hat and stammered at full gallop: “Oh, by the way, do you mind posting a letter for me? I want to get it off by to-night’s post. I must. It’s very urgent. . . .” Feeling her eyes on him, he flung: “It’s to my mother.” To me: “I won’t be long. I’ve got everything I want. But it must go off to-night You don’t mind? It . . . it won’t take any time.”
“Of course I’ll post it. Delighted.”
“Won’t you drink your tea first?” suggested Mouse softly.
. . . Tea? Tea? Yes, of course. Tea. . . . A cup of tea on the bed-table. . . . In his racing dream he flashed the brightest, most charming smile at his little hostess.
“No, thanks. Not just now.”
And still hoping it would not be any trouble to me he went out of the room and closed the door, and we heard him cross the passage.
I scalded myself with mine in my hurry to take the cup back to the table and to say as I stood there: “You must forgive me if I am impertinent . . . if I am too frank. But Dick hasn’t tried to disguise it—has he? There is something the matter. Can I help?”
(Soft music. Mouse gets up, walks the stage for a moment or so before she returns to her chair and pours him out, oh, such a brimming, such a burning cup that the tears come into the friend’s eyes while he sips—while he drains it to the bitter dregs. . . .)
I had time to do all this before she replied. First she looked in the teapot, filled it with hot water, and stirred it with a spoon.
“Yes, there is something the matter. No, I’m afraid you can’t help, thank you.” Again I got that glimmer of a smile. “I’m awfully sorry. It must be horrid for you.”
Horrid, indeed! Ah, why couldn’t I tell her that it was months and months since I had been so entertained?
“But you are suffering,” I ventured softly, as though that was what I could not bear to see.
She didn’t deny it. She nodded and bit her under-lip and I thought I saw her chin tremble.
“And there is really nothing I can do?” More softly still.
She shook her head, pushed back the table and jumped up.
“Oh, it will be all right soon,” she breathed, walking over to the dressing-table and standing with her back towards me. “It will be all right. It can’t go on like this.”
“But of course it can’t.” I agreed, wondering whether it would look heartless if I lit a cigarette; I had a sudden longing to smoke.
In some way she saw my hand move to my breast pocket, half draw out my cigarette case and put it back again, for the next thing she said was: “Matches . . . in . . . candlestick. I noticed them.”
And I heard from her voice that she was crying.
“Ah! thank you. Yes. Yes. I’ve found them.” I lighted my cigarette and walked up and down, smoking.
It was so quiet it might have been two o’clock in the morning. It was so quiet you heard the boards creak and pop as one does in a house in the country. I smoked the whole cigarette and stabbed the end into my saucer before Mouse turned round and came back to the table.
“Isn’t Dick being rather a long time?”
“You are very tired. I expect you want to go to bed,” I said kindly. (And pray don’t mind me if you do, said my mind.)
“But isn’t he being a very long time?” she insisted.
I shrugged. “He is, rather.”
Then I saw she looked at me strangely. She was listening.
“He’s been gone ages,” she said, and she went with little light steps to the door, opened it, and crossed the passage into his room.
I waited. I listened too, now. I couldn’t have borne to miss a word. She had left the door open. I stole across the room and looked after her. Dick’s door was open, too. But—there wasn’t a word to miss.
You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet room—a long comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not only puts one’s grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah! how good that is.
It was over at last. I heard some one move and tip-toed away.
It was Mouse. She came back. She felt her way into the room carrying the letter for me. But it wasn’t in an envelope; it was just a sheet of paper and she held it by the corner as though it was still wet.
Her head was bent so low—so tucked in her furry collar that I hadn’t a notion—until she let the paper fall and almost fell herself on to the floor by the side of the bed, leaned her cheek against it, flung out her hands as though the last of her poor little weapons was gone and now she let herself be carried away, washed out into the deep water.
Flash! went my mind. Dick has shot himself, and then a succession of flashes while I rushed in, saw the body, head unharmed, small blue hole over temple, roused hotel, arranged funeral, attended funeral, closed cab, new morning coat. . . .
I stooped down and picked up the paper and would you believe it—so ingrained is my Parisian sense of comme il faut—I murmured “pardon” before I read it.
“MOUSE, MY LITTLE MOUSE,
It’s no good. It’s impossible. I can’t see it through. Oh, I do love you. I do love you. Mouse, but I can’t hurt her. People have been hurting her all her life. I simply dare not give her this final blow. You see, though she’s stronger than both of us, she’s so frail and proud. It would kill her—kill her, Mouse. And, oh God, I can’t kill my mother! Not even for you. Not even for us. You do see that—don’t you.
It all seemed so possible when we talked and planned, but the very moment the train started it was all over. I felt her drag me back to her—calling. I can hear her now as I write. And she’s alone and she doesn’t know. A man would have to be a devil to tell her and I’m not a devil, Mouse. She mustn’t know. Oh, Mouse, somewhere, somewhere in you don’t you agree? It’s all so unspeakably awful that I don’t know if I want to go or not. Do I? Or is Mother just dragging me? I don’t know. My head is too tired. Mouse, Mouse—what will you do? But I can’t think of that, either. I dare not. I’d break down. And I must not break down. All I’ve got to do is—just to tell you this and go. I couldn’t have gone off without telling you. You’d have been frightened. And you must not be frightened. You won’t—will you? I can’t bear—but no more of that. And don’t write. I should not have the courage to answer your letters and the sight of your spidery handwriting——
Forgive me. Don’t love me any more. Yes. Love me. Love me. Dick.”
What do you think of that? Wasn’t that a rare find? My relief at his not having shot himself was mixed with a wonderful sense of elation. I was even—more than even with my “that’s very curious and interesting” Englishman. . . .
She wept so strangely. With her eyes shut, with her face quite calm except for the quivering eyelids. The tears pearled down her cheeks and she let them fall.
But feeling my glance upon her she opened her eyes and saw me holding the letter.
“You’ve read it?”
Her voice was quite calm, but it was not her voice any more. It was like the voice you might imagine coming out of a tiny, cold sea-shell swept high and dry at last by the salt tide. . . .
I nodded, quite overcome, you understand, and laid the letter down.
“It’s incredible! incredible!” I whispered.
At that she got up from the floor, walked over to the wash-stand, dipped her handkerchief into the jug and sponged her eyes, saying: “Oh, no. It’s not incredible at all.” And still pressing the wet ball to her eyes she came back to me, to her chair with the lace tabs, and sank into it.
“I knew all along, of course,” said the cold, salty little voice. “From the very moment that we started. I felt it all through me, but I still went on hoping—” and here she took the handkerchief down and gave me a final glimmer—“as one so stupidly does, you know.”
“As one does.”
“But what will you do? You’ll go back? You’ll see him?”
That made her sit right up and stare across at me.
“What an extraordinary idea!” she said, more coldly than ever. “Of course I shall not dream of seeing him. As for going back—that is quite out of the question. I can’t go back.”
“But . . .”
“It’s impossible. For one thing all my friends think I am married.”
I put out my hand—“Ah, my poor little friend.”
But she shrank away. (False move.)
Of course there was one question that had been at the back of my mind all this time. I hated it.
“Have you any money?”
“Yes, I have twenty pounds—here,” and she put her hand on her breast. I bowed. It was great deal more than I had expected.
“And what are your plans?”
Yes, I know. My question was the most clumsy, the most idiotic one I could have put. She had been so tame, so confiding, letting me, at any rate spiritually speaking, hold her tiny quivering body in one hand and stroke her furry head—and now, I’d thrown her away. Oh, I could have kicked myself.
She stood up. “I have no plans. But—it’s very late. You must go now, please.”
How could I get her back? I wanted her back. I swear I was not acting then.
“Do feel that I am your friend,” I cried. “You will let me come to-morrow, early? You will let me look after you a little—take care of you a little? You’ll use me just as you think fit?”
I succeeded. She came out of her hole . . . timid . . . but she came out.
“Yes, you’re very kind. Yes. Do come to-morrow. I shall be glad. It makes things rather difficult because—” and again I clasped her boyish hand—“je ne parle pas français.”
Not until I was half-way down the boulevard did it come over me—the full force of it.
Why, they were suffering . . . those two . . . really suffering. I have seen two people suffer as I don’t suppose I ever shall again. . . .
Of course you know what to expect. You anticipate, fully, what I am going to write. It wouldn’t be me, otherwise.
I never went near the place again.
Yes, I still owe that considerable amount for lunches and dinners, but that’s beside the mark. It’s vulgar to mention it in the same breath with the fact that I never saw Mouse again.
Naturally, I intended to. Started out—got to the door—wrote and tore up letters—did all those things. But I simply could not make the final effort.
Even now I don’t fully understand why. Of course I knew that I couldn’t have kept it up. That had a great deal to do with it. But you would have thought, putting it at its lowest, curiosity couldn’t have kept my fox-terrier nose away . . .
Je ne parle pas français. That was her swan song for me.
But how she makes me break my rule. Oh, you’ve seen for yourself, but I could give you countless examples.
. . . Evenings, when I sit in some gloomy café, and an automatic piano starts playing a “mouse” tune (there are dozens of tunes that evoke just her) I begin to dream things like . . .
A little house on the edge of the sea, somewhere far, far away. A girl outside in a frock rather like Red Indian women wear, hailing a light, barefoot boy who runs up from the beach.
“What have you got?”
“A fish.” I smile and give it to her.
. . . The same girl, the same boy, different costumes—sitting at an open window, eating fruit and leaning out and laughing.
“All the wild strawberries are for you, Mouse. I won’t touch one.”
. . . A wet night. They are going home together under an umbrella. They stop on the door to press their wet cheeks together.
And so on and so on until some dirty old gallant comes up to my table and sits opposite and begins to grimace and yap. Until I hear myself saying: “But I’ve got the little girl for you, mon vieux. So little . . . so tiny.” I kiss the tips of my fingers and lay them upon my heart. “I give you my word of honour as a gentleman, a writer, serious, young, and extremely interested in modern English literature.”
I must go. I must go. I reach down my coat and hat. Madame knows me. “You haven’t dined yet?” she smiles.
“No, not yet, Madame.”