A short time before, Boris had given me an address in the rue du Marche des Blancs Manteaux. All he had said in his letter was that ‘things were not marching too badly’, and I assumed that he was back at the Hotel Scribe, touching his hundred francs a day. I was full of hope, and wondered why I had been fool enough not to go to Boris before. I saw myself in a cosy restaurant, with jolly cooks singing love-songs as they broke eggs into the pan, and five solid meals a day. I even squandered two francs fifty on a packet of Gaulois Bleu, in anticipation of my wages.
In the morning I walked down to the rue du Marche des Blancs Manteaux; with a shock, I found it a shimmy back street as bad as my own. Boris’s hotel was the dirtiest hotel in the street. From its dark doorway there came out a vile, sour odour, a mixture of slops and synthetic soup—it was Bouillon Zip, twenty-five centimes a packet. A misgiving came over me. People who drink Bouillon Zip are starving, or near it. Could Boris possibly be earning a hundred francs a day? A surly patron, sitting in the office, said to me. Yes, the Russian was at home—in the attic. I went up six flights of narrow, winding stairs, the Bouillon Zip growing stronger as one got higher. Boris did not answer when I knocked at his door, so I opened it and went in.
The room was an attic, ten feet square, lighted only by a skylight, its sole furniture a narrow iron bedstead, a chair, and a washhand-stand with one game leg. A long S-shaped chain of bugs marched slowly across the wall above the bed. Boris was lying asleep, naked, his large belly making a mound under the grimy sheet. His chest was spotted with insect bites. As I came in he woke up, rubbed his eyes, and groaned deeply.
‘Name of Jesus Christ!’ he exclaimed, ‘oh, name of Jesus Christ, my back! Curse it, I believe my back is broken!’
‘What’s the matter?’ I exclaimed.
‘My back is broken, that is all. I have spent the night on the floor. Oh, name of Jesus Christ! If you knew what my back feels like!’
‘My dear Boris, are you ill?’
‘Not ill, only starving—yes, starving to death if this goes on much longer. Besides sleeping on the floor, I have lived on two francs a day for weeks past. It is fearful. You have come at a bad moment, mon ami.’
It did not seem much use to ask whether Boris still had his job at the Hotel Scribe. I hurried downstairs and bought a loaf of bread. Boris threw himself on the bread and ate half of it, after which he felt better, sat up in bed, and told me what was the matter with him. He had failed to get a job after leaving the hospital, because he was still very lame, and he had spent all his money and pawned everything, and finally starved for several days. He had slept a week on the quay under the Font d’Austerlitz, among some empty wine barrels. For the past fortnight he had been living in this room, together with a Jew, a mechanic. It appeared (there was some complicated explanation.) that the Jew owed Boris three hundred francs, and was repaying this by letting him sleep on the floor and allowing him two francs a day for food. Two francs would buy a bowl of coffee and three rolls. The Jew went to work at seven in the mornings, and after that Boris would leave his sleeping-place (it was beneath the skylight, which let in the rain) and get into the bed. He could not sleep much even there owing to the bugs, but it rested his back after the floor.
It was a great disappointment, when I had come to Boris for help, to find him even worse off than myself. I explained that I had only about sixty francs left and must get a job immediately. By this time, however, Boris had eaten the rest of the bread and was feeling cheerful and talkative. He said carelessly:
‘Good heavens, what are you worrying about? Sixty francs—why, it’s a fortune! Please hand me that shoe, mon ami. I’m going to smash some of those bugs if they come within reach.’
‘But do you think there’s any chance of getting a job?’
‘Chance? It’s a certainty. In fact, I have got something already. There is a new Russian restaurant which is to open in a few days in the rue du Commerce. It is une chose entendue that I am to be maitre d’hotel. I can easily get you a job in the kitchen. Five hundred francs a month and your food—tips, too, if you are lucky.’
‘But in the meantime? I’ve got to pay my rent before long.’
‘Oh, we shall find something. I have got a few cards-up my sleeve. There are people who owe me money, for instance—Paris is full of them. One of them is bound to pay up before long. Then think of all the women who have been my mistress! A woman never forgets, you know—I have only to ask and they will help me. Besides, the Jew tells me he is going to steal some magnetos from the garage where he works, and he will pay us five francs a day to clean them before he sells them. That alone would keep us. Never worry, mon ami. Nothing is easier to get than money.’
‘Well, let’s go out now and look for a job.’
‘Presently, mon ami. We shan’t starve, don’t you fear. This is only the fortune of war—I’ve been in a worse hole scores of times. It’s only a question of persisting. Remember Foch’s maxim: “Attaquez! Attaquez! Attaquez!”’
It was midday before Boris decided to get up. All the clothes he now had left were one suit, with one shirt, collar and tie, a pair of shoes almost worn out, and a pair of socks all holes. He had also an overcoat which was to be pawned in the last extremity. He had a suitcase, a wretched twenty-franc cardboard thing, but very important, because the patron of the hotel believed that it was full of clothes—without that, he would probably have turned Boris out of doors. What it actually contained were the medals and photographs, various odds and ends, and huge bundles of love-letters. In spite of all this Boris managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.
We went to a small cafe off the rue de Rivoli, a well-known rendezvous of hotel managers and employees. At the back was a dark, cave-like room where all kinds of hotel workers were sitting—smart young waiters, others not so smart and clearly hungry, fat pink cooks, greasy dish-washers, battered old scrubbing-women. Everyone had an untouched glass of black coffee in front of him. The place was, in effect, an employment bureau, and the money spent on drinks was the patron’s commission. Sometimes a stout, important-looking man, obviously a restaurateur, would come in and speak to the barman, and the barman would call to one of the people at the back of the cafe. But he never called to Boris or me, and we left after two hours, as the etiquette was that you could only stay two hours for one drink. We learned afterwards, when it was too late, that the dodge was to bribe the barman; if you could afford twenty francs he would generally get you a job.
We went to the Hotel Scribe and waited an hour on the pavement, hoping that the manager would come out, but he never did. Then we dragged ourselves down to the rue du Commerce, only to find that the new restaurant, which was being redecorated, was shut up and the patron away. It was now night. We had walked fourteen kilometres over pavement, and we were so tired that we had to waste one franc fifty on going home by Metro. Walking was agony to Boris with his game leg, and his optimism wore thinner and thinner as the day went on. When he got out of the Metro at the Place d’Italie he was in despair. He began to say that it was no use looking for work—there was nothing for it but to try crime.
‘Sooner rob than starve, mon ami. I have often planned it. A fat, rich American—some dark corner down Montparnasse way—a cobblestone in a stocking—bang! And then go through his pockets and bolt. It is feasible, do you not think? I would not flinch—I have been a soldier, remember.’
He decided against the plan in the end, because we were both foreigners and easily recognized.
When we had got back to my room we spent another one franc fifty on bread and chocolate. Boris devoured his share, and at once cheered up like magic; food seemed to act on his system as rapidly as a cocktail. He took out a pencil and began making a list of the people who would probably give us jobs. There were dozens of them, he said.
‘Tomorrow we shall find something, mon ami, I know it in my bones. The luck always changes. Besides, we both have brains—a man with brains can’t starve.
‘What things a man can do with brains! Brains will make money out of anything. I had a friend once, a Pole, a real man of genius; and what do you think he used to do? He would buy a gold ring and pawn it for fifteen francs. Then—you know how carelessly the clerks fill up the tickets—where the clerk had written “en or” he would add “et diamants” and he would change “fifteen francs” to “fifteen thousand”. Neat, eh? Then, you see, he could borrow a thousand francs on the security of the ticket. That is what I mean by brains . . . ’
For the rest of the evening Boris was in a hopeful mood, talking of the times we should have together when we were waiters together at Nice or Biarritz, with smart rooms and enough money to set up mistresses. He was too tired to walk the three kilometres back to his hotel, and slept the night on the floor of my room, with his coat rolled round his shoes for a pillow.
Last updated Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 15:46