Why did I go into that beer hall on that particular evening? I do not know. It was cold; a fine rain, a flying mist, veiled the gas lamps with a transparent fog, made the side walks reflect the light that streamed from the shop windows — lighting up the soft slush and the muddy 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, and several other streets. I suddenly descried a large beer hall which was more than half full. I walked inside, with no object in view. I was not the least thirsty.
I glanced round to find a place that was not too crowded, and went and sat down by the side of a man who seemed to me to be old, and who was smoking a two-sous clay pipe, which was as black as coal. From six to eight glasses piled up on the table in front of him indicated the number of “bocks” he had already absorbed. At a glance I recognized a “regular,” one of those frequenters of beer houses who come in the morning when the place opens, and do not leave till evening when it is about to close. He was dirty, bald on top of his head, with a fringe of iron-gray hair falling on the collar of his frock coat. His clothes, much too large for him, appeared to have been made for him at a time when he was corpulent. One could guess that he did not wear suspenders, for he could not take ten steps without having to stop to pull up his trousers. Did he wear a vest? The mere thought of his boots and of that which they covered filled me with horror. The frayed cuffs were perfectly black at the edges, as were his nails.
As soon as I had seated myself beside him, this individual said to me in a quiet tone of voice:
“How goes it?”
I turned sharply round and closely scanned his features, whereupon he continued:
“I see you do not recognize me.”
“No, I do not.”
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. At length I managed to stammer out:
“And you, how goes it with you?”
He responded placidly:
“I get along as I can.”
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“You see what I am doing,” he answered quit resignedly.
I felt my face getting red. I insisted:
“But every day?”
“Every day it is the same thing,” was his reply, accompanied with a thick puff of tobacco smoke.
He then tapped with a sou on the top of the marble table, to attract the attention of the waiter, and called out:
“Waiter, two ‘bocks.’”
A voice in the distance repeated:
“Two bocks for the fourth table.”
Another voice, more distant still, shouted out:
“Here they are!”
Immediately a man with a white apron appeared, carrying two “bocks,” which he set down, foaming, on the table, spilling some of the yellow liquid on the sandy floor in his haste.
Des Barrets emptied his glass at a single draught and replaced it on the table, while he sucked in the foam that had been left on his mustache. He next asked:
“What is there new?”
I really had nothing new to tell him. I stammered:
“Nothing, old man. I am a business man.”
In his monotonous tone of voice he said:
“Indeed, does it amuse you?”
“No, but what can I do? One must do something!”
“Why should one?”
“So as to have occupation.”
“What’s the use of an occupation? For my part, I do nothing at all, as you see, never anything. When one has not a sou I can understand why one should work. But when one has enough to live on, what’s the use? 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 are a fool.”
Then, laying his pipe on the marble table, he called out anew:
“Waiter, a ‘bock.’” And continued: “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 shall have nothing to regret. My only remembrance will be this beer hall. No wife, no children, no cares, no sorrows, nothing. That is best.”
He then emptied the glass which had been brought him, passed his tongue over his lips, and resumed his pipe.
I looked at him in astonishment, and said:
“But you have not always been like that?”
“Pardon me; ever since I left college.”
“That is not a proper life to lead, my dear fellow; it is simply horrible. Come, you must have something to do, you must love something, you must have friends.”
“No, I get up at noon, I come here, I have my breakfast, I drink my beer, I remain until the evening, I have my dinner, I drink beer. Then about half-past one in the morning, I go home to bed, because the place closes up; that annoys me more than anything. In the last ten years I have passed fully six years on this bench, in my corner; and the other four in my bed, nowhere else. I sometimes chat with the regular customers.”
“But when you came to Paris what did you do at first?”
“I paid my devoirs to the Cafe de Medicis.”
“Next I crossed the water and came here.”
“Why did you take that trouble?”
“What do you mean? One cannot remain all one’s life in the Latin Quarter. The students make too much noise. Now I shall not move again. Waiter, a ‘bock.’”
I 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; some disappointment in love, no doubt! It is easy to see that you are a man who has had some trouble. What age are you?”
“I am thirty, but I look forty-five, at least.”
I looked him straight in the face. His wrinkled, ill-shaven face gave one the impression that he was an old man. On the top of his head a few long hairs waved over a skin of doubtful cleanliness. He had enormous eyelashes, a heavy mustache, and a thick beard. Suddenly I had a kind of vision, I know not why, of a basin filled with dirty water in which all that hair had been washed. I said to him:
“You certainly look older than your age. You surely must have experienced some great sorrow.”
“I tell you that I have not. I am old because I never go out into the air. Nothing makes a man deteriorate more than the life of a cafe.”
I still could not believe him.
“You must surely also have been married? One could not get as bald-headed as you are without having been in love.”
He shook his head, shaking dandruff down on his coat as he did so.
“No, I have always been virtuous.”
And, raising his eyes toward the chandelier which heated our heads, he said:
“If I am bald, it is the fault of the gas. It destroys the hair. Waiter, a ‘bock.’ Are you not thirsty?”
“No, thank you. But you really interest me. Since when have you been so morbid? Your life is not normal, it is not natural. There is something beneath it all.”
“Yes, and it dates from my infancy. I received a great shock when I was very young, and that turned my life into darkness which will last to the end.”
“What was it?”
“You wish to know about it? Well, then, listen. You recall, of course, the castle in which I was brought up, for you used to spend five or six months there during vacation. You remember that large gray building, in the middle of a great park, and the long avenues of oaks which opened to the four points of the compass. You remember my father and mother, both of whom were ceremonious, solemn, and severe.
“I worshipped my mother; I was afraid of my father; but I respected both, accustomed always as I was to see every one bow before them. They were Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse to all the country round, and our neighbors, the Tannemares, the Ravelets, the Brennevilles, showed them the utmost consideration.
“I was then thirteen years old. I was happy, pleased with everything, as one is at that age, full of the joy of life.
“Well, toward the end of September, a few days before returning to college, as I was playing about in the shrubbery of the park, among the branches and leaves, as I was crossing a path, I saw my father and mother, who were walking along.
“I recall it as though it were yesterday. It was a very windy day. The whole line of trees swayed beneath the gusts of wind, groaning, and seeming to utter cries — those dull, deep cries that forests give out during a tempest.
“The falling leaves, turning yellow, flew away like birds, circling and falling, and then running along the path like swift animals.
“Evening came on. It was dark in the thickets. The motion of the wind and of the branches excited me, made me tear about as if I were crazy, and howl in imitation of the wolves.
“As soon as I perceived my parents, I crept furtively toward them, under the branches, in order to surprise them, as though I had been a veritable prowler. But I stopped in fear a few paces from them. My father, who was in a terrible passion, cried:
“‘Your mother is a fool; moreover, it is not a question of your mother. It is you. I tell you that I need this money, and I want you to sign this.’
“My mother replied 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 squander it with strange women, as you have your own heritage.’
“Then my father, trembling with rage, wheeled round and, seizing his wife by the throat, began to slap her with all his might full in the face with his disengaged hand.
“My mother’s hat fell off, her hair became loosened and fell over her shoulders; she tried to parry the blows, but she could not do so. And my father, like a madman, kept on striking her. My mother rolled over on the ground, covering her face with her hands. Then he turned her over on her back in order to slap her still more, pulling away her hands, which were covering her face.
“As for me, my friend, it seemed as though the world was coming 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 childish mind was bewildered, distracted. I began to cry with all my might, without knowing why; a prey to a fearful dread, sorrow, and astonishment. My father heard me, turned round, and, on seeing me, started toward me. I believe that he wanted to kill me, and I fled like a hunted animal, running straight ahead into the thicket.
“I ran perhaps for an hour, perhaps for two. I know not. Darkness set in. I sank on the grass, exhausted, and lay there dismayed, frantic with fear, and devoured by a sorrow capable of breaking forever the heart of a poor child. I was cold, hungry, perhaps. At length day broke. I was afraid to get up, to walk, to return home, to run farther, 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 park guard had not discovered me and led me home by force.
“I found my parents looking as usual. My mother alone spoke to me “‘How you frightened me, you naughty boy. I lay awake the whole night.’
“I did not answer, but began to weep. My father did not utter a single word.
“Eight days later I returned to school.
“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 has taken place in my mind, what strange phenomenon has warped my ideas, I do not know. But I no longer had a taste for anything, a wish for anything, a love for anybody, a desire for anything whatever, any ambition, or any hope. And I always see my poor mother on the ground, in the park, my father beating her. My mother died some years later; my, father still lives. 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. “Confound it!” he said, with a gesture of annoyance. “That is a real sorrow. It will take me a month to color another!”
And he called out across the vast hall, now reeking with smoke and full of men drinking, his everlasting: “Garcon, un ‘bock’— and a new pipe.”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 12:34