My money oozed away—to eight francs, to four francs, to one franc, to twenty-five centimes; and twenty-five centimes is useless, for it will buy nothing except a newspaper. We went several days on dry bread, and then I was two and a half days with nothing to eat whatever. This was an ugly experience. There are people who do fasting cures of three weeks or more, and they say that fasting is quite pleasant after the fourth day; I do not know, never having gone beyond the third day. Probably it seems different when one is doing it voluntarily and is not underfed at the start.
The first day, too inert to look for work, I borrowed a rod and went fishing in the Seine, baiting with bluebottles. I hoped to catch enough for a meal, but of course I did not. The Seine is full of dace, but they grew cunning during the siege of Paris, and none of them has been caught since, except in nets. On the second day I thought of pawning my overcoat, but it seemed too far to walk to the pawnshop, and I spent the day in bed, reading the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It was all that I felt equal to, without food. Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-wann water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger; that, and being obliged to spit very frequently, and the spittle being curiously white and flocculent, like cuckoo-spit. I do not know the reason for this, but everyone who has gone hungry several days has noticed it.
On the third morning I felt very much better. I realized that I must do something at once, and I decided to go and ask Boris to let me share his two francs, at any rate for a day or two. When I arrived I found Boris in bed, and furiously angry. As soon as I came in he burst out, almost choking:
‘He has taken it back, the dirty thief! He has taken it back!’
‘Who’s taken what?’ I said.
‘The Jew! Taken my two francs, the dog, the thief! He robbed me in my sleep!’
It appeared that on the previous night the Jew had flatly refused to pay the daily two francs. They had argued and argued, and at last the Jew had consented to hand over the money; he had done it, Boris said, in the most offensive manner, making a little speech about how kind he was, and extorting abject gratitude. And then in the morning he had stolen the money back before Boris was awake.
This was a blow. I was horribly disappointed, for I had allowed my belly to expect food, a great mistake when one is hungry. However, rather to my surprise, Boris was far from despairing. He sat up in bed, lighted his pipe and reviewed the situation.
‘Now listen, mon ami, this is a tight comer. We have only twenty-five centimes between us, and I don’t suppose the Jew will ever pay my two francs again. In any case his behaviour is becoming intolerable. Will you believe it, the other night he had the indecency to bring a woman in here, while I was there on the floor. The low animal! And I have a worse thing to tell you. The Jew intends clearing out of here. He owes a week’s rent, and his idea is to avoid paying that and give me the slip at the same time. If the Jew shoots the moon I shall be left without a roof, and the patron will take my suitcase in lieu of rent, curse him! We have got to make a vigorous move.’
‘All right. But what can we do? It seems to me that the only thing is to pawn our overcoats and get some food.’
‘We’ll do that, of course, but I must get my possessions out of this house first. To think of my photographs being seized! Well, my plan is ready. I’m going to forestall the Jew and shoot the moon myself. F—— de camp— retreat, you understand. I think that is the correct move, eh?’
‘But, my dear Boris, how can you, in daytime? You’re bound to be caught.’
‘Ah well, it will need strategy, of course. Our patron is on the watch for people slipping out without paying their rent; he’s been had that way before. He and his wife take it in turns all day to sit in the office—what misers, these Frenchmen! But I have thought of a way to do it, if you will help.’
I did not feel in a very helpful mood, but I asked Boris what his plan was. He explained it carefully.
‘Now listen. We must start by pawning our overcoats. First go back to your room and fetch your overcoat, then come back here and fetch mine, and smuggle it out under cover of yours. Take them to the pawnshop in the rue des Francs Bourgeois. You ought to get twenty francs for the two, with luck. Then go down to the Seine bank and fill your pockets with stones, and bring them back and put them in my suitcase. You see the idea? I shall wrap as many of my things as I can carry in a newspaper, and go down and ask the patron the way to the nearest laundry. I shall be very brazen and casual, you understand, and of course the patron will think the bundle is nothing but dirty linen. Or, if he does suspect anything, he will do what he always does, the mean sneak; he will go up to my room and feel the weight of my suitcase. And when he feels the weight of stones he will think it is still full. Strategy, eh? Then afterwards I can come back and carry my other things out in my pockets.’
‘But what about the suitcase?’
‘Oh, that? We shall have to abandon it. The miserable thing only cost about twenty francs. Besides, one always abandons something in a retreat. Look at Napoleon at the Beresina! He abandoned his whole army.’
Boris was so pleased with this scheme (he called it une ruse de guerre) that he almost forgot being hungry. Its main weakness—that he would have nowhere to sleep after shooting the moon—he ignored.
At first the ruse de guerre worked well. I went home and fetched my overcoat (that made already nine kilometres, on an empty belly) and smuggled Boris’s coat out successfully. Then a hitch occurred. The receiver at the pawnshop, a nasty, sour-faced, interfering, little man—a typical French official—refused the coats on the ground that they were not wrapped up in anything. He said that they must be put either in a valise or a cardboard box. This spoiled everything, for we had no box of any kind, and with only twenty-five centimes between us we could not buy one.
I went back and told Boris the bad news. ‘Merde!’ he said, ‘that makes it awkward. Well, no matter, there is always a way. We’ll put the overcoats in my suitcase.’
‘But how are we to get the suitcase past the patron? He’s sitting almost in the door of the office. It’s impossible!’
‘How easily you despair, mon ami! Where is that English obstinacy that I have read of? Courage! We’ll manage it.’
Boris thought for a little while, and then produced another cunning plan. The essential difficulty was to hold the patron’s attention for perhaps five seconds, while we could slip past with the suitcase. But, as it happened, the patron had just one weak spot—that he was interested in le sport, and was ready to talk if you approached him on this subject. Boris read an article about bicycle races in an old copy of the Petit Parisien, and then, when he had reconnoitred the stairs, went down and managed to set the patron talking. Meanwhile, I waited at the foot of the stairs, with the overcoats under one arm and the suitcase under the other. Boris was to give a cough when he thought the moment favourable. I waited trembling, for at any moment the patron’s wife might come out of the door opposite the office, and then the game was up. However, presently Boris coughed. I sneaked rapidly past the office and out into the street, rejoicing that my shoes did not creak. The plan might have failed if Boris had been thinner, for his big shoulders blocked the doorway of the office. His nerve was splendid, too; he went on laughing and talking in the most casual way, and so loud that he quite covered any noise I made. When I was well away he came and joined me round the corner, and we bolted.
And then, after all our trouble, the receiver at the pawnshop again refused the overcoats. He told me (one could see his French soul revelling in the pedantry of it) that I had not sufficient papers of identification; my carte d’identite was not enough, and I must show a passport or addressed envelopes. Boris had addressed envelopes by the score, but his carte d’identite was out of order (he never renewed it, so as to avoid the tax), so we could not pawn the overcoats in his name. All we could do was to trudge up to my room, get the necessary papers, and take the coats to the pawnshop in the Boulevard Port Royal.
I left Boris at my room and went down to the pawnshop. When I got there I found that it was shut and would not open till four in the afternoon. It was now about half-past one, and I had walked twelve kilometres and had no food for sixty hours. Fate seemed to be playing a series of extraordinarily unamusing jokes.
Then the luck changed as though by a miracle. I was walking home through the Rue Broca when suddenly, glittering on the cobbles, I saw a five-sou piece. I pounced on it, hurried home, got our other five-sou piece and bought a pound of potatoes. There was only enough alcohol in the stove to parboil them, and we had no salt, but we wolfed them, skins and all. After that we felt like new men, and sat playing chess till the pawnshop opened.
At four o’clock I went back to the pawnshop. I was not hopeful, for if I had only got seventy francs before, what could I expect for two shabby overcoats in a cardboard suitcase? Boris had said twenty francs, but I thought it would be ten francs, or even five. Worse yet, I might be refused altogether, like poor Numero 83 on the previous occasion. I sat on the front bench, so as not to see people laughing when the clerk said five francs.
At last the clerk called my number: ‘Numero 117!’
‘Yes,’ I said, standing up.
It was almost as great a shock as the seventy francs had been the time before. I believe now that the clerk had mixed my number up with someone else’s, for one could not have sold the coats outright for fifty francs. I hurried home and walked into my room with my hands behind my back, saying nothing. Boris was playing with the chessboard. He looked up eagerly.
‘What did you get?’ he exclaimed. ‘What, not twenty francs? Surely you got ten francs, anyway? nom de dieu, five francs—that is a bit too thick. mon ami, don’t say it was five francs. If you say it was five francs I shall really begin to think of suicide.’
I threw the fifty-franc note on to the table. Boris turned white as chalk, and then, springing up, seized my hand and gave it a grip that almost broke the bones. We ran out, bought bread and wine, a piece of meat and alcohol for the stove, and gorged.
After eating, Boris became more optimistic than I had ever known him. ‘What did I tell you?’ he said. ‘The fortune of war! This morning with five sous, and now look at us. I have always said it, there is nothing easier to get than money. And that reminds me, I have a friend in the rue Fondary whom we might go and see. He has cheated me of four thousand francs, the thief. He is the greatest thief alive when he is sober, but it is a curious thing, he is quite honest when he is drunk. I should think he would be drunk by six in the evening. Let’s go and find him. Very likely he will pay up a hundred on account. Merde! He might pay two hundred. Allons-y!’
We went to the rue Fondary and found the man, and he was drunk, but we did not get our hundred francs. As soon as he and Boris met there was a terrible altercation on the pavement. The other man declared that he did not owe Boris a penny, but that on the contrary Boris owed him four thousand francs, and both of them kept appealing to me for my opinion. I never understood the rights of the matter. The two argued and argued, first in the street, then in a bistro, then in a prix fixe restaurant where we went for dinner, then in another bistro. Finally, having called one another thieves for two hours, they went off together on a drinking bout that finished up the last sou of Boris’s money.
Boris slept the night at the house of a cobbler, another Russian refugee, in the Commerce quarter. Meanwhile, I had eight francs left, and plenty of cigarettes, and was stuffed to the eyes with food and drink. It was a marvellous change for the better after two bad days.
Last updated Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 15:46