Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Waiter, a “Bock”1

1 A French imitation of German Lager Beer.]

Why did I enter, on this particular evening, a certain beer shop? I cannot explain it. It was bitterly cold. A fine rain, a watery dust floated about, which enshrouded the gas jets in a transparent fog, made the pavements that passed under the shadow of the shop fronts glitter, and which at once exhibited the soft slush and the soiled feet of the passers-by.

I was going nowhere in particular; was simply having a short walk after dinner. I had passed the Credit Lyonnais, the Rue Vivienne, besides several other streets. Thereupon, I suddenly descried a large public house, which was more than half full. I walked inside, with no object in view. I was not the least thirsty.

By a searching sweep of the eye I sought out a place where I would not be too much crowded, and so I went and sat down by the side of a man who seemed to me to be old, and who smoked a halfpenny clay pipe, which had become as black as coal. From six to eight beer saucers were piled up on the table in front of him, indicating the number of “bocks” he had already absorbed. With the same sweep of the eye I had recognized a “regular toper,” one of those frequenters of beer-houses, who come in the morning as soon as the place is open, and only go way in the evening when it is about to close. He was dirty, bald to about the middle of the cranium, while his long, powder and salt, gray hair, fell over the neck of his frock coat. His clothes, much too large for him, appeared to have been made for him at a time when he carried a great stomach. One could guess that the pantaloons were not suspended from braces, and that this man could not take ten paces without his having to stop to pull them up and to readjust them. Did he wear a vest? The mere thought of his boots and that which they enveloped filled me with horror. The frayed cuffs were as perfectly black at the edges as were his nails.

As soon as I had sat down near him, this queer creature said to me in a tranquil tone of voice:

“How goes it with you?”

I turned sharply round to him and closely scanned his features, whereupon he continued:

“I see you do not recognize me.”

“No, I do not.”

“Des Barrets.”

I was stupefied. It was Count Jean des Barrets, my old college chum.

I seized him by the hand, and was so dumbfounded that I could find nothing to say. I, at length, managed to stammer out:

“And you, how goes it with yourself?”

He responded placidly:

“With me? Just as I like.”

He became silent. I wanted to be friendly, and I selected this phrase:

“What are you doing now?”

“You see what I am doing,” he answered, quite resignedly.

I felt my face getting red. I insisted:

“But every day?”

“Every day is alike to me,” was his response accompanied with a thick puff of tobacco smoke.

He then tapped on the top of the marble table with a sou, to attract the attention of the waiter, and called out:

“Waiter, two ‘bocks.’”

A voice in the distance repeated:

“Two bocks, instead of four.”

Another voice, more distant still, shouted out:

“Here they are, sir, here they are.”

Immediately there appeared a man with a white apron, carrying two “bocks,” which he sat down foaming on the table, the spouts facing over the edge, on to the sandy floor.

Des Barrets emptied his glass at a single draught and replaced it on the table. He next asked:

“What is there new?”

“I know of nothing new, worth mentioning, really,” I stammered:

“But nothing has grown old, for me; I am a commercial man.”

In an equable tone of voice, he said;

“Indeed . . . does that amuse you?”

“No, but what do you mean to assert? Surely you must do something!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I only mean, how do you pass your time!”

“What’s the use of occupying myself with anything. For my part, I do nothing at all, as you see, never anything. When one has not got a sou one can understand why one has to go to work. What is the good of working? Do you work for yourself, or for others? If you work for yourself you do it for your own amusement, which is all right; if you work for others, you reap nothing but ingratitude.”

Then sticking his pipe into his whiskers, he called out anew:

“Waiter, a ‘bock.’ It makes me thirsty to keep calling so. I am not accustomed to that sort of thing. Yes, yes, I do nothing; I let things slide, and I am growing old. In dying I have nothing to regret. If so, I should remember nothing, outside this public house. I have no wife, no children, no cares, no sorrows, nothing. That is the very best thing that could happen to one.”

He then emptied the glass which had meanwhile been fetched to him, passed his tongue over his lips, and resumed his pipe.

I looked at him stupefied. I asked him:

“But you have not always been like that?”

“Pardon me, sir; ever since I left college.”

“That is not a proper life to lead, my dear sir; it is simple horrible. Come, you must indeed have done something, you must have loved something, you must have friends.”

“No; I get up at noon, I come here, I have my breakfast, I drink my ‘bock,’ I remain until the evening, I have my dinner, I drink ‘bock.’ Then about one in the morning, I return to my couch, because the place closes up. And it is this latter that embitters me more than anything. For the last ten years, I have passed six years on this bench, in my corner; and the other four in my bed, never changing. I talk sometimes with the habitues.”

“But on arriving in Paris what did you do at first?”

“I paid my devoirs to the Café de Medicis.”

“What next?”

“Next? I crossed the water and came here.”

“Why did you even take that trouble?”

“What do you mean? One cannot remain all one’s life in the Latin Quarter. The students make too much noise. But I do not move about any longer. Waiter, a ‘bock.’”

I now began to think that he was making fun of me, and I continued:

“Come now, be frank. You have been the victim of some great sorrow; despair in love, no doubt! It is easy to see that you are a man whom misfortune has hit hard. What age are you?”

“I am thirty years of age, but I look to be forty-five at least.”

I regarded him straight in the face. His shrunken figure, so badly cared for, gave one the impression that he was an old man. On the summit of his cranium, a few long hairs shot straight up from the skin of doubtful cleanness. He had enormous eyelashes, a large moustache, and a thick beard. Suddenly, I had a kind of vision. I know not why; the vision of a basin filled with noisome water, the water which should have been applied to that poll. I said to him:

“Verily, you look to be more than that age. Of a certainty you must have experienced some great disappointment.”

He replied:

“I tell you that I have not. I am old because I never take air. There is nothing that vitiates the life of a man more than the atmosphere of a café.”

I could not believe him.

“You must surely have been married as well? One could not get as bald-headed as you are without having been much in love.”

He shook his head, sending down his back little white things which fell from the end of his locks:

“No, I have always been virtuous.”

And raising his eyes towards the luster, which beat down on our heads, he said:

“If I am bald-headed, it is the fault of the gas. It is the enemy of hair. Waiter, a ‘bock.’ You must be thirsty also?”

“No, thank you. But you certainly interest me. Since when did you have your first discouragement? Your life is not normal, it is not natural. There is something under it all.”

“Yes, and it dates from my infancy. I received a heavy blow when I was very young, and that turned my life into darkness, which will last to the end.”

“How did it come about?”

“You wish to know about it? Well, then, listen. You recall, of course, the castle in which I was brought up, seeing that you used to visit it for five or six months during the vacations? You remember that large, gray building, in the middle of a great park, and the long avenues of oaks, which opened towards the four cardinal points! You remember my father and mother, both of whom were ceremonious, solemn and severe.

“I worshiped my mother; I was suspicious of my father; but I respected both, accustomed always as I was to see everyone bow before them. They were in the country, Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse; while our neighbors, the Tannemares’, the Ravelets’, the Brennevilles’, showed the utmost consideration for my parents.

“I was then thirteen years old. I was happy, satisfied with everything, as one is at that age, full of joy and vivacity.

“Now towards the end of September, a few days before my entering college, while I was enjoying myself in the mazes of the park, climbing the trees and swinging on the branches, I descried in crossing an avenue, my father and mother, who were walking along.

“I recall the thing as though it were yesterday. It was a very stormy day. The whole line of trees bent under the pressure of the wind, groaned, and seemed to utter cries — cries, though dull, yet deep, that the whole forest rang under the tempest.

“Evening came on. It was dark in the thickets. The agitation of the wind and the branches excited me, made me bound about like an idiot, and howl in imitation of the wolves.

“As soon as I perceived my parents, I crept furtively towards them, under the branches, in order to surprise them, as though I had been a veritable rodent. But becoming seized with fear, I stopped a few paces from them. My father, a prey to the most ferocious passion, cried:

“‘Your mother is a fool; moreover, it is not your mother that is the question, it is you. I tell you that I want money, and I will make you sign this.’

“My mother responded in a firm voice:

“‘I will not sign it. It is Jean’s fortune, I shall guard it for him and I will not allow you to devour it with strange women, as you have your own heritage.’

“Then my father, full of rage, wheeled round and seized his wife by the throat, and began to slash her full in the face with the disengaged hand.

“My mother’s hat fell off, her hair became all disheveled and spread over her back; she essayed to parry the blows, but she could not escape from them. And my father, like a madman, banged and banged. My mother rolled over on the ground, covering her face in both her hands. Then he turned her over on her back in order to batter her still more, pulling away her hands which were covering her face.

“As for me, my friend, it seemed as though the world had come to an end, that the eternal laws had changed. I experienced the overwhelming dread that one has in presence of things supernatural, in presence of irreparable disasters. My boyish head whirled round, floated. I began to cry with all my might, without knowing why, a prey to terror, to grief, to a dreadful bewilderment. My father heard me, turned round, and, on seeing me, made as though he would rush towards me. I believed that he wanted to kill me, and I fled like a haunted animal, running straight in front of me in the woods.

“I ran perhaps for an hour, perhaps for two, I know not. Darkness had set in, I tumbled over some thick herb, exhausted, and I lay there lost, devoured by terror, eaten up by a sorrow capable of breaking for ever the heart of a poor infant. I became cold, I became hungry. At length day broke. I dared neither get up, walk, return home, nor save myself, fearing to encounter my father whom I did not wish to see again.

“I should probably have died of misery and of hunger at the foot of a tree, if the guard had not discovered me and led me away by force.

“I found my parents wearing their ordinary aspect. My mother alone spoke to me:

“‘How you have frightened me, you naughty boy; I have been the whole night sleepless.’

“I did not answer, but began to weep. My father did not utter a single word.

“Eight days later I entered college.

“Well, my friend, it was all over with me. I had witnessed the other side of things, the bad side; I have not been able to perceive the good side since that day. What things have passed in my mind, what strange phenomena has warped my ideas? I do not know. But I no longer have a taste for anything, a wish for anything, a love for anybody, a desire for anything whatever, nor ambition, nor hope. And I perceive always my poor mother on the ground, lying in the avenue, while my father is maltreating her. My mother died a few years after; my father lives still. I have not seen him since. Waiter, a ‘bock.’”

A waiter brought him his “bock,” which he swallowed at a gulp. But, in taking up his pipe again, trembling as he was he broke it. Then he made a violent gesture:

“Zounds! This is indeed a grief, a real grief. I have had it for a month, and it was coloring so beautifully!”

He darted through the vast saloon, which was now full of smoke and of people drinking, uttering his cry:

“Waiter, a ‘bock’ — and a new pipe.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/maupassant/guy/works/chapter138.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09