For three more days we continued traipsing about looking for work, coming home for diminishing meals of soup and bread in my bedroom. There were now two gleams of hope. In the first place, Boris had heard of a possible job at the Hotel X, near the Place de la Concorde, and in the second, the patron of the new restaurant in the rue du Commerce had at last come back. We went down in the afternoon and saw him. On the way Boris talked of the vast fortunes we should make if we got this job, and on the importance of making a good impression on the patron.
‘Appearance—appearance is everything, mon ami. Give me a new suit and I will borrow a thousand francs by dinner-time. What a pity I did not buy a collar when we had money. I turned my collar inside out this morning; but what is the use, one side is as dirty as the other. Do you think I look hungry, mon ami?’
‘You look pale.’
‘Curse it, what can one do on bread and potatoes? It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you. Wait.’
He stopped at a jeweller’s window and smacked his cheeks sharply to bring the blood into them. Then, before the flush had faded, we hurried into the restaurant and introduced ourselves to the patron.
The patron was a short, fattish, very dignified man with wavy grey hair, dressed in a smart, double-breasted flannel suit and smelling of scent. Boris told me that he too was an ex-colonel of the Russian Army. His wife was there too, a horrid, fat Frenchwoman with a dead-white face and scarlet lips, reminding me of cold veal and tomatoes. The patron greeted Boris genially, and they talked together in Russian for a few minutes. I stood in the background, preparing to tell some big lies about my experience as a dish-washer.
Then the patron came over towards me. I shuffled uneasily, trying to look servile. Boris had rubbed it into me that a plongeur is a slave’s slave, and I expected the patron to treat me like dirt. To my astonishment, he seized me warmly by the hand.
‘So you are an Englishman!’ he exclaimed. ‘But how charming! I need not ask, then, whether you are a golfer?’
‘Mais certainement,’ I said, seeing that this was expected of me.
‘All my life I have wanted to play golf. Will you, my dear monsieur, be so kind as to show me a few of the principal strokes?’
Apparently this was the Russian way of doing business. The patron listened attentively while I explained the difference between a driver and an iron, and then suddenly informed me that it was all entendu; Boris was to be maitre d’hotel when the restaurant opened, and I plongeur, with a chance of rising to lavatory attendant if trade was good. When would the restaurant open? I asked. ‘Exactly a fortnight from today,’ the patron answered grandly (he had a manner of waving his hand and flicking off his cigarette ash at the same time, which looked very grand), ‘exactly a fortnight from today, in time for lunch.’ Then, with obvious pride, he showed us over the restaurant.
It was a smallish place, consisting of a bar, a dining-room, and a kitchen no bigger than the average bathroom. The patron was decorating it in a trumpery ‘picturesque’ style (he called it ‘le normand’; it was a matter of sham beams stuck on the plaster, and the like) and proposed to call it the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, to give a medieval effect. He had a leaflet printed, full of lies about the historical associations of the quarter, and this leaflet actually claimed, among other things, that there had once been an inn on the site of the restaurant which was frequented by Charlemagne. The patron was very pleased with this touch. He was also having the bar decorated with indecent pictures by an artist from the Salon. Finally he gave us each an expensive cigarette, and after some more talk he went home.
I felt strongly that we should never get any good from this restaurant. The patron had looked to me like a cheat, and, what was worse, an incompetent cheat, and I had seen two unmistakable duns hanging about the back door. But Boris, seeing himself a maitre d’hotel once more, would not be discouraged.
‘We’ve brought it off—only a fortnight to hold out. What is a fortnight? Je m’en f———. To think that in only three weeks I shall have my mistress! Will she be dark or fair, I wonder? I don’t mind, so long as she is not too thin.’
Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently. We sat most of that day in the Jardin des Plantes. Boris had shots with stones at the tame pigeons, but always missed them, and after that we wrote dinner menus on the backs of envelopes. We were too hungry even to try and think of anything except food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, bortch soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en casserole, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy. Boris had international tastes in food. Later on, when we were prosperous, I occasionally saw him eat meals almost as large without difficulty.
When our money came to an end I stopped looking for work, and was another day without food. I did not believe that the Auberge de Jehan Cottard was really going to open, and I could see no other prospect, but I was too lazy to do anything but lie in bed. Then the luck changed abruptly. At night, at about ten o’clock, I heard an eager shout from the street. I got up and went to the window. Boris was there, waving his stick and beaming. Before speaking he dragged a bent loaf from his pocket and threw it up to me.
‘Mon ami, mon cher ami, we’re saved! What do you think?’
‘Surely you haven’t got a job!’
‘At the Hotel X, near the Place de la Concorde—five hundred francs a month, and food. I have been working there today. Name of Jesus Christ, how I have eaten!’
After ten or twelve hours’ work, and with his game leg, his first thought had been to walk three kilometres to my hotel and tell me the good news! What was more, he told me to meet him in the Tuileries the next day during his afternoon interval, in case he should be able to steal some food for me. At the appointed time I met Boris on a public bench. He undid his waistcoat and produced a large, crushed, newspaper packet; in it were some minced veal, a wedge of Camembert cheese, bread and an eclair, all jumbled together.
‘Voila!’ said Boris, ‘that’s all I could smuggle out for you. The doorkeeper is a cunning swine.’
It is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but I was too hungry to care. While I ate, Boris explained that he was working in the cafeterie of the hotel—that is, in English, the stillroom. It appeared that the cafeterie was the very lowest post in the hotel, and a dreadful come-down for a waiter, but it would do until the Auberge de Jehan Gottard opened. Meanwhile I was to meet Boris every day in the Tuileries, and he would smuggle out as much food as he dared. For three days we continued with this arrangement, and I lived entirely on the stolen food. Then all our troubles came to an end, for one of the plongeurs left the Hotel X, and on Boris’s recommendation I was given a job there myself.
Last updated Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 15:46