JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS
I DO not know why I have such a fancy for this little café.
It's dirty and sad, sad. It's not as if it had anything to distinguish
it from a hundred others–it hasn't; or as if the same strange
types came here every day, whom one could watch from one's corner
and recognize and more or less (with a strong accent on the less)
get the hang of.
But pray don't imagine that those brackets are a confession of
my humility before the mystery of the human soul. Not at all; I
don't believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people
are like portmanteaux–packed with certain things, started
going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half
emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the
Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they
rattle. . . .
Not but what these portmanteaux can be very fascinating. Oh, but
very! I see myself standing in front of them, don't you know, like
a Customs official.
"Have you anything to declare? Any wines, spirits, cigars,
And the moment of hesitation as to whether I am going to be fooled
just before I chalk that squiggle, and then the other moment of
hesitation just after, as to whether I have been, are perhaps the
most thrilling instants in life. Yes, they are, to me.
But before I started that long and rather far-fetched and not frightfully
original digression, what I meant to say quite simply was that there
are no portmanteaux to be examined here because the clientele of
this café, ladies and gentlemen, does not sit down. No, it
stands at the counter, and it consists of a handful of workmen who
come up from the river, all powdered over with white flour, lime
or something, and a few soldiers, bringing with them thin, dark
girls with silver rings in their ears and market baskets on their
Madame is thin and dark, too, with white cheeks and white hands.
In certain lights she looks quite transparent, shining out of her
black shawl with an extraordinary effect. When she is not serving
she sits on a stool with her face turned, always, to the window.
Her dark-ringed eyes search among and follow after the people passing,
but not as if she was looking for somebody. Perhaps, fifteen years
ago, she was; but now the pose has become a habit. You can tell
from her air of fatigue and hopelessness that she must have given
them up for the last ten years, at least. . . .
And then there is the waiter. Not pathetic–decidedly not
comic. Never making one of those perfectly insignificant remarks
which amaze you so coming from a waiter (as though the poor wretch
were a sort of coffee-pot and a wine bottle and not expected to
hold so much as a drop of anything else). He is grey, flat-footed,
and withered, with long, brittle nails that set your nerves on edge
while he scrapes up your two sous. When he is not smearing over
the table or flicking at a dead fly or two, he stands with one hand
on the back of a chair, in his far too long apron, and over his
other arm the three-cornered dip of dirty napkin, waiting to be
photographed in connexion with some wretched murder. "Interior
of Café where Body was Found." You've seen him hundreds
Do you believe that every place has its hour of the day when it
really does come alive? That's not exactly what I mean. It's more
like this. There does seem to be a moment when you realize that,
quite by accident, you happen to have come on to the stage at exactly
the moment you were expected. Everything is arranged for you–waiting
for you. Ah, master of the situation ! You fill with important breath.
And at the same time you smile, secretly, slyly, because Life seems
to be opposed to granting you these entrances, seems indeed to be
engaged in snatching them from you and making them impossible, keeping
you in the wings until it is too late, in fact. . . . Just for once
you've beaten the old hag.
I enjoyed one of these moments the first time I ever came in here.
That's why I keep coming back, I suppose. Revisiting the scene of
my triumph, or the scene of the crime where I had the old bitch
by the throat for once and did what I pleased with her.
Query: Why am I so bitter against Life? And why do I see her as
a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in
a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick?
Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a
Anyhow, the "short winter afternoon was drawing to a close,"
as they say, and I was drifting along, either going home or not
going home, when I found myself in here, walking over to this seat
in the corner.
I hung up my English overcoat and grey felt hat on that same peg
behind me, and after I had allowed the waiter time for at least
twenty photographers to snap their fill of him, I ordered a coffee.
He poured me out a glass of the familiar, purplish stuff with a
green wandering light playing over it, and shuffled off, and I sat
pressing my hands against the glass because it was bitterly cold
Suddenly I realized that quite apart from myself, I was smiling.
Slowly I raised my head and saw myself in the mirror opposite. Yes,
there I sat, leaning on the table, smiling my deep, sly smile, the
glass of coffee with its vague plume of steam before me and beside
it the ring of white saucer with two pieces of sugar.
I opened my eyes very wide. There I had been for all eternity,
as it were, and now at last I was coming to life. . . .
It was very quiet in the café. Outside, one could just see
through the dusk that it had begun to snow. One could just see the
shapes of horses and carts and people, soft and white, moving through
the feathery air. The waiter disappeared and reappeared with an
armful of straw. He strewed it over the floor from the door to the
counter and round about the stove with humble, almost adoring gestures.
One would not have been surprised if the door had opened and the
Virgin Mary had come in, riding upon an ass, her meek hands folded
over her big belly. . . .
That's rather nice, don't you think, that bit about the Virgin?
It comes from the pen so gently; it has such a "dying fall."
I thought so at the time and decided to make a note of it. One never
knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off
a paragraph. So, taking care to move as little as possible because
the "spell" was still unbroken (you know that?), I reached
over to the next table for a writing pad.
No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel of pink blotting-paper,
incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a
little dead kitten, which I've never felt.
I sat–but always underneath, in this state of expectation,
rolling the little dead kitten's tongue round my finger and rolling
the soft phrase round my mind while my eyes took in the girls' names
and dirty jokes and drawings of bottles and cups that would not
sit in the saucers, scattered over the writing pad.
They are always the same, you know. The girls always have the same
names, the cups never sit in the saucers; all the hearts are stuck
and tied up with ribbons.
But then, quite suddenly, at the bottom of the page, written in
green ink, I fell on to that stupid, stale little phrase: Je ne
parle pas francais.
There ! it had come–the moment–the geste! and although
I was so ready, it caught me, it tumbled me over; I was simply overwhelmed.
And the physical feeling was so curious, so particular. It was as
if all of me, except my head and arms, all of me that was under
the table, had simply dissolved, melted, turned into water. Just
my head remained and two sticks of arms pressing on to the table.
But, ah! the agony of that moment! How can I describe it? I didn't
think of anything. I didn't even cry out to myself. Just for one
moment I was not. I was Agony, Agony, Agony.
Then it passed, and the very second after I was thinking: "Good
God! Am I capable of feeling as strongly as that? But I was absolutely
unconscious! I hadn't a phrase to meet it with! I was overcome!
I was swept off my feet! I didn't even try, in the dimmest way,
to put it down!"
And up I puffed and puffed, blowing off finally with: "After
all I must be first-rate. No second-rate mind could have experienced
such an intensity of feeling so . . . purely."
The waiter has touched a spill at the red stove and lighted a bubble
of gas under a spreading shade. It is no use looking out of the
window, Madame; it is quite dark now. Your white hands hover over
your dark shawl. They are like two birds that have come home to
roost. They are restless, restless. . . . You tuck them, finally,
under your warm little armpits.
Now the waiter has taken a long pole and dashed the curtains together.
"All gone," as children say.
And besides, I've no patience with people who can't let go of things,
who will follow after and cry out. When a thing's gone, it's gone.
It's over and done with. Let it go then ! Ignore it, and comfort
yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never
do recover the same thing that you lose. It's always a new thing.
The moment it leaves you it's changed. Why, that's even true of
a hat you chase after; and I don't mean superficially –I mean
profoundly speaking . . . I have made it a rule of my life never
to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of
energy, and no one who intends to be a writer can afford to indulge
in it. You can't get it into shape; you can't build on it; it's
only good for wallowing in. Looking back, of course, is equally
fatal to Art. It's keeping yourself poor. Art can't and won't stand
Je ne parle pas francais. Je ne parle pas francais. All the while
I wrote that last page my other self has been chasing up and down
out in the dark there. It left me just when I began to analyse my
grand moment, dashed off distracted, like a lost dog who thinks
at last, at last, he hears the familiar step again.
"Mouse! Mouse! Where are you? Are you near? Is that you leaning
from the high window and stretching out your arms for the wings
of the shutters? Are you this soft bundle moving towards me through
the feathery snow? Are you this little girl pressing through the
swing-doors of the restaurant? Is that your dark shadow bending
forward in the cab? Where are you? Where are you? Which way must
I turn? Which way shall I run? And every moment I stand here hesitating
you are farther away again. Mouse! Mouse!"
Now the poor dog has come back into the café, his tail between
his legs, quite exhausted.
"It was a . . . false . . . alarm. She's nowhere . . . to
. . . be seen."
"Lie down then! Lie down! Lie down!"
My name is Raoul Duquette. I am twenty-six years old and a Parisian,
a true Parisian. About my family–it really doesn't matter.
I have no family; I don't want any. I never think about my childhood.
I've forgotten it. In fact, there's only one memory that stands
out at all. That is rather interesting because it seems to me now
so very significant as regards myself from the literary point of
view. It is this.
When I was about ten our laundress was an African woman, very big,
very dark, with a check handkerchief over her frizzy hair. When
she came to our house she always took particular notice of me, and
after the clothes had been taken out of the basket she would lift
me up into it and give me a rock while I held tight to the handles
and screamed for joy and fright. I was tiny for my age, and pale,
with a lovely little half-open mouth–I feel sure of that.
One day when I was standing at the door, watching her go, she turned
round and beckoned to me, nodding and smiling in a strange secret
way. I never thought of not following. She took me into a little
outhouse at the end of the passage, caught me up in her arms and
began kissing me. Ah, those kisses! Especially those kisses inside
my ears that nearly deafened me.
When she set me down she took from her pocket a little round fried
cake covered with sugar, and I reeled along the passage back to
As this performance was repeated once a week it is no wonder that
I remember it so vividly. Besides, from that very first afternoon,
my childhood was, to put it prettily, "kissed away." I
became very languid, very caressing, and greedy beyond measure.
And so quickened, so sharpened, I seemed to understand everybody
and be able to do what I liked with everybody.
I suppose I was in a state of more or less physical excitement,
and that was what appealed to them. For all Parisians are more than
half–oh, well, enough of that. And enough of my childhood,
too. Bury it under a laundry basket instead of a shower of roses
and passons oultre.
I date myself from the moment that I became the tenant of a small
bachelor flat on the fifth floor of a tall, not too shabby house,
in a street that might or might not be discreet. Very useful, that.
. . . There I emerged, came out into the light, and put out my two
horns with a study and a bedroom and a kitchen on my back. And real
furniture planted in the rooms. In the bedroom a wardrobe with a
long glass, a big bed covered with a yellow puffed-up quilt, a bed
table with a marbled top, and a toilet set sprinkled with tiny apples.
In my study–English writing table with drawers, writing chair
with leather cushions, books, arm-chair, side table with paper-knife
and lamp on it, and some nude studies on the walls. I didn't use
the kitchen except to throw old papers into.
Ah, I can see myself that first evening, after the furniture men
had gone and I'd managed to get rid of my atrocious old concierge–walking
about on tip-toe, arranging and standing in front of the glass with
my hands in my pockets, and saying to that radiant vision: "I
am a young man who has his own flat. I write for two newspapers.
I am going in for serious literature. I am starting a career. The
book that I shall bring out will simply stagger the critics. I am
going to write about things that have never been touched before.
I am going to make a name for myself as a writer about the submerged
world. But not as others have done before me. Oh, no! Very naively,
with a sort of tender humour and from the inside, as though it were
all quite simple, quite natural. I see my way quite perfectly. Nobody
has ever done it as I shall do it because none of the others have
lived my experiences. I'm rich–I'm rich."
All the same I had no more money than I have now. It's extraordinary
how one can live without money. . . . I have quantities of good
clothes, silk underwear, two evening suits, four pairs of patent
leather boots with light uppers, all sorts of little things, like
gloves and powder boxes and a manicure set, perfumes, very good
soap, and nothing is paid for. If I find myself in need of right-down
cash–well, there's always an African laundress and an outhouse,
and I am very frank and bon enfant about plenty of sugar on the
little fried cake afterwards. . . .
And here I should like to put something on record. Not from any
strutting conceit, but rather with a mild sense of wonder. I've
never yet made the first advances to any woman. It isn't as though
I've known only one class of woman–not by any means. But from
little prostitutes and kept women and elderly widows and shop girls
and wives of respectable men, and even advanced modern literary
ladies at the most select dinners and soirées (I've been
there), I've met invariably with not only the same readiness, but
with the same positive invitation. It surprised me at first. I used
to look across the table and think "Is that very distinguished
young lady, discussing le Kipling with the gentleman with the brown
beard, really pressing my foot?" And I was never really certain
until I had pressed hers.
Curious, isn't it? I don't look at all like a maiden's dream. .
I am little and light with an olive skin, black eyes with long
lashes, black silky hair cut short, tiny square teeth that show
when I smile. My hands are supple and small. A woman in a bread
shop once said to me: "You have the hands for making fine little
pastries." I confess, without my clothes I am rather charming.
Plump, almost like a girl, with smooth shoulders, and I wear a thin
gold bracelet above my left elbow.
But, wait! Isn't it strange I should have written all that about
my body and so on? It's the result of my bad life, my submerged
life. I am like a little woman in a café who has to introduce
herself with a handful of photographs. "Me in my chemise, coming
out of an eggshell. . . . Me upside down in a swing, with a frilly
behind like a cauliflower. . . . " You know the things.
If you think what I've written is merely superficial and impudent
and cheap you're wrong. I'll admit it does sound so, but then it
is not all. If it were, how could I have experienced what I did
when I read that stale little phrase written in green ink, in the
writing-pad? That proves there's more in me and that I really am
important, doesn't it? Anything a fraction less than that moment
of anguish I might have put on. But no! That was real.
"Waiter, a whisky."
I hate whisky. Every time I take it into my mouth my stomach rises
against it, and the stuff they keep here is sure to be particularly
vile. I only ordered it because I am going to write about an Englishman.
We French are incredibly old- fashioned and out of date still in
some ways. I wonder I didn't ask him at the same time for a pair
of tweed knickerbockers, a pipe, some long teeth, and a set of ginger
"Thanks, mon vieux. You haven't got perhaps a set of ginger
"No, monsieur," he answers sadly. "We don't sell
And having smeared a corner of the table he goes back to have another
couple of dozen taken by artificial light.
Ugh! The smell of it! And the sickly sensation when one's throat
"It's bad stuff to get drunk on," says Dick Harmon, turning
his little glass in his fingers and smiling his slow, dreaming smile.
So he gets drunk on it slowly and dreamily and at a certain moment
begins to sing very low, very low, about a man who walks up and
down trying to find a place where he can get some dinner.
Ah! how I loved that song, and how I loved the way he sang it,
slowly, slowly, in a dark, soft voice:
There was a man
Walked up and down
To get a dinner in the town . . .
It seemed to hold, in its gravity and muffled measure, all those
tall grey buildings, those fogs, those endless streets, those sharp
shadows of policemen that mean England.
And then–the subject! The lean, starved creature walking
up and down with every house barred against him because he had no
"home." How extraordinarily English that is. . . . I remember
that it ended where he did at last "find a place" and
ordered a little cake of fish, but when he asked for bread the waiter
cried contemptuously, in a loud voice: "We don't serve bread
with one fish ball."
What more do you want? How profound those songs are ! There is
the whole psychology of a people; and how un-French–how un-French!
"Once more, Dick, once more!" I would plead, clasping
my hands and making a pretty mouth at him. He was perfectly content
to sing it for ever.
There again. Even with Dick. It was he who made the first advances.
I met him at an evening party given by the editor of a new review.
It was a very select, very fashionable affair. One or two of the
older men were there and the ladies were extremely comme il faut.
They sat on cubist sofas in full evening dress and allowed us to
hand them thimbles of cherry brandy and to talk to them about their
poetry. For, as far as I can remember, they were all poetesses.
It was impossible not to notice Dick. He was the only Englishman
present, and instead of circulating gracefully round the room as
we all did, he stayed in one place leaning against the wall, his
hands in his pockets, that dreamy half smile on his lips, and replying
in excellent French in his low, soft voice to anybody who spoke
"Who is he?"
"An Englishman. From London. A writer. And he is making a
special study of modern French literature."
That was enough for me. My little book, False Coins, had just been
published. I was a young serious writer who was making a special
study of modern English literature.
But I really had not time to fling my line before he said, giving
himself a soft shake, coming right out of the water after the bait,
as it were: "Won't you come and see me at my hotel? Come about
five o'clock and we can have a talk before going out to dinner."
I was so deeply, deeply flattered that I had to leave him then
and there to preen and preen myself before the cubist sofas. What
a catch! An Englishman, reserved, serious, making a special study
of French literature. . . .
That same night a copy of False Coins with a carefully cordial
inscription was posted off, and a day or two later we did dine together
and spent the evening talking.
Talking–but not only of literature. I discovered to my relief
that it wasn't necessary to keep to the tendency of the modern novel,
the need of a new form, or the reason why our young men appeared
to be just missing it. Now and again, as if by accident, I threw
in a card that seemed to have nothing to do with the game, just
to see how he'd take it. But each time he gathered it into his hands
with his dreamy look and smile unchanged. Perhaps he murmured: "That's
very curious." But not as if it were curious at all.
That calm acceptance went to my head at last. It fascinated me.
It led me on and on till I threw every card that I possessed at
him and sat back and watched him arrange them in his hand.
"Very curious and interesting . . . "
By that time we were both fairly drunk, and he began to sing his
song very soft, very low, about the man who walked up and down seeking
But I was quite breathless at the thought of what I had done. I
had shown somebody both sides of my life. Told him everything as
sincerely and truthfully as I could. Taken immense pains to explain
things about my submerged life that really were disgusting and never
could possibly see the light of literary day. On the whole I had
made myself out far worse than I was–more boastful, more cynical,
And there sat the man I had confided in, singing to himself and
smiling. . . . It moved me so that real tears came into my eyes.
I saw them glittering on my long silky lashes–so charming.
After that I took Dick about with me everywhere, and he came to
my flat, and sat in the armchair, very indolent, playing with the
paper-knife. I cannot think why his indolence and dreaminess always
gave me the impression he had been to sea. And all his leisurely
slow ways seemed to be allowing for the movement of the ship. This
impression was so strong that often when we were together and he
got up and left a little woman just when she did not expect him
to get up and leave her, but quite the contrary, I would explain:
"He can't help it, Baby. He has to go back to his ship."
And I believed it far more than she did.
All the while we were together Dick never went with a woman. I
sometimes wondered whether he wasn't completely innocent. Why didn't
I ask him? Because I never did ask him anything about himself. But
late one night he took out his pocket-book and a photograph dropped
out of it. I picked it up and glanced at it before I gave it to
him. It was of a woman. Not quite young. Dark, handsome, wild-looking,
but so full in every line of a kind of haggard pride that even if
Dick had not stretched out so quickly I wouldn't have looked longer.
"Out of my sight, you little perfumed fox-terrier of a Frenchman,"
(In my very worst moments my nose reminds me of a fox-terrier's.)
"That is my Mother," said Dick, putting up the pocket-book.
But if he had not been Dick I should have been tempted to cross
myself, just for fun.
This is how we parted. As we stood outside his hotel one night waiting
for the concierge to release the catch of the outer door, he said,
looking up at the sky: "I hope it will be fine tomorrow. I
am leaving for England in the morning."
"You're not serious."
"Perfectly. I have to get back. I've some work to do that
I can't manage here."
"But–but have you made all your preparations?"
"Preparations?" He almost grinned. "I've none to
"But–enfin, Dick, England is not the other side of the
"It isn't much farther off," said he. "Only a few
hours, you know." The door cracked open.
"Ah, I wish I'd known at the beginning of the evening!"
I felt hurt. I felt as a woman must feel when a man takes out his
watch and remembers an appointment that cannot possibly concern
her, except that its claim is the stronger. "Why didn't you
He put out his hand and stood, lightly swaying upon the step as
though the whole hotel were his ship, and the anchor weighed.
"I forgot. Truly I did. But you'll write, won't you? Good
night, old chap. I'll be over again one of these days."
And then I stood on the shore alone, more like a little fox-terrier
than ever. . . .
"But after all it was you who whistled to me, you who asked
me to come! What a spectacle I've cut wagging my tail and leaping
round you, only to be left like this while the boat sails off in
its slow, dreamy way. . . . Curse these English! No, this is too
insolent altogether. Who do you imagine I am? A little paid guide
to the night pleasures of Paris? . . . No, monsieur. I am a young
writer, very serious, and extremely interested in modern English
literature. And I have been insulted–insulted."
Two days after came a long, charming letter from him, written in
French that was a shade too French, but saying how he missed me
and counted on our friendship, on keeping in touch.
I read it standing in front of the (unpaid for) wardrobe mirror.
It was early morning. I wore a blue kimono embroidered with white
birds and my hair was still wet; it lay on my forehead, wet and
"Portrait of Madame Butterfly," said I, "on hearing
of the arrival of ce cher Pinkerton. "
According to the books I should have felt immensely relieved and
delighted. " . . . Going over to the window he drew apart the
curtains and looked out at the Paris trees, just breaking into buds
and green. . . . Dick! Dick! My English friend!"
I didn't. I merely felt a little sick. Having been up for my first
ride in an aeroplane I didn't want to go up again, just now.
That passed, and months after, in the winter, Dick wrote that he
was coming back to Paris to stay indefinitely. Would I take rooms
for him? He was bringing a woman friend with him.
Of course I would. Away the little fox-terrier flew. It happened
most usefully, too; for I owed much money at the hotel where I took
my meals, and two English people requiring rooms for an indefinite
time was an excellent sum on account.
Perhaps I did rather wonder, as I stood in the larger of the two
rooms with Madame, saying "Admirable," what the woman
friend would be like, but only vaguely. Either she would be very
severe, flat back and front, or she would be tall, fair, dressed
in mignonette green, name–Daisy, and smelling of rather sweetish
You see, by this time, according to my rule of not looking back,
I had almost forgotten Dick. I even got the tune of his song about
the unfortunate man a little bit wrong when I tried to hum it. .
I very nearly did not turn up at the station after all. I had arranged
to, and had, in fact, dressed with particular care for the occasion.
For I intended to take a new line with Dick this time. No more confidences
and tears on eyelashes. No, thank you!
"Since you left Paris," said I, knotting my black silver-spotted
tie in the (also unpaid for) mirror over the mantel-piece, "I
have been very successful, you know. I have two more books in preparation,
and then I have written a serial story, Wrong Doors, which is just
on the point of publication and will bring me in a lot of money.
And then my little book of poems," I cried, seizing the clothes-brush
and brushing the velvet collar of my new indigo-blue overcoat, "my
little book–Left Umbrellas –really did create,"
and I laughed and waved the brush, "an immense sensation!"
It was impossible not to believe this of the person who surveyed
himself finally, from top to toe, drawing on his soft grey gloves.
He was looking the part; he was the part.
That gave me an idea. I took out my notebook, and still in full
view, jotted down a note or two. . . . How can one look the part
and not be the part? Or be the part and not look it? Isn't looking–
being? Or being–looking? At any rate who is to say that it
is not? . . .
This seemed to me extraordinarily profound at the time, and quite
new. But I confess that something did whisper as, smiling, I put
up the notebook: "You literary? you look as though you've taken
down a bet on a racehorse!" But I didn't listen. I went out,
shutting the door of the flat with a soft, quick pull so as not
to warn the concierge of my departure, and ran down the stairs quick
as a rabbit for the same reason.
But ah! the old spider. She was too quick for me. She let me run
down the last little ladder of the web and then she pounced. "One
moment. One little moment, Monsieur," she whispered, odiously
confidential. "Come in. Come in." And she beckoned with
a dripping soup ladle. I went to the door, but that was not good
enough. Right inside and the door shut before she would speak.
There are two ways of managing your concierge if you haven't any
money. One is–to take the high hand, make her your enemy,
bluster, refuse to discuss anything; the other is–to keep
in with her, butter her up to the two knots of the black rag tying
up her jaws, pretend to confide in her, and rely on her to arrange
with the gas man and to put off the landlord.
I had tried the second. But both are equally detestable and successful.
At any rate whichever you're trying is the worse, the impossible
It was the landlord this time. . . . Imitation of the landlord
by the concierge threatening to toss me out. . . . Imitation of
the concierge by the concierge taming the wild bull. Imitation of
the landlord rampant again, breathing in the concierge's face. I
was the concierge. No, it was too nauseous. And all the while the
black pot on the gas ring bubbling away, stewing out the hearts
and livers of every tenant in the place.
"Ah!" I cried, staring at the clock on the mantelpiece,
and then, realizing that it didn't go, striking my forehead as though
the idea had nothing to do with it. "Madame, I have a very
important appointment with the director of my newspaper at nine-thirty.
Perhaps tomorrow I shall be able to give you . . . "
Out, out. And down the metro and squeezed into a full carriage.
The more the better. Everybody was one bolster the more between
me and the concierge. I was radiant.
"Ah! pardon, Monsieur!" said the tall charming creature
in black with a big full bosom and a great bunch of violets dropping
from it. As the train swayed it thrust the bouquet right into my
eyes. "Ah! pardon, Monsieur!"
But I looked up at her, smiling mischievously.
"There is nothing I love more, Madame, than flowers on a balcony."
At the very moment of speaking I caught sight of the huge man in
a fur coat against whom my charmer was leaning. He poked his head
over her shoulder and went white to the nose; in fact his nose stood
out a sort of cheese green.
"What was that you said to my wife?"
Gare Saint Lazare saved me. But you'll own that even as the author
of False Coins, Wrong Doors, Left Umbrellas, and two in preparation,
it was not too easy to go on my triumphant way.
At length, after countless trains had steamed into my mind, and
countless Dick Harmons had come rolling towards me, the real train
came. The little knot of us waiting at the barrier moved up close,
craned forward, and broke into cries as though we were some kind
of many-headed monster, and Paris behind us nothing but a great
trap we had set to catch these sleepy innocents.
Into the trap they walked and were snatched and taken off to be
devoured. Where was my prey?
"Good God!" My smile and my lifted hand fell together.
For one terrible moment I thought this was the woman of the photograph,
Dick's mother, walking towards me in Dick's coat and hat. In the
effort–and you saw what an effort it was–to smile, his
lips curled in just the same way and he made for me, haggard and
wild and proud.
What had happened? What could have changed him like this? Should
I mention it?
I waited for him and was even conscious of venturing a fox-terrier
wag or two to see if he could possibly respond, in the way I said:
"Good evening, Dick! How are you, old chap? All right?"
"All right. All right." He almost gasped. "You've
got the rooms?"
Twenty times, good God! I saw it all. Light broke on the dark waters
and my sailor hadn't been drowned. I almost turned a somersault
It was nervousness, of course. It was embarrassment. It was the
famous English seriousness. What fun I was going to have! I could
have hugged him.
"Yes, I've got the rooms," I nearly shouted. "But
where is Madame?"
"She's been looking after the luggage," he panted. "Here
she comes, now."
Not this baby walking beside the old porter as though he were her
nurse and had just lifted her out of her ugly perambulator while
he trundled the boxes on it.
"And she's not Madame," said Dick, drawling suddenly.
At that moment she caught sight of him and hailed him with her
minute muff. She broke away from her nurse and ran up and said something,
very quick, in English; but he replied in French: "Oh, very
well. I'll manage."
But before he turned to the porter he indicated me with a vague
wave and muttered something. We were introduced. She held out her
hand in that strange boyish way Englishwomen do, and standing very
straight in front of me with her chin raised and making–she
too–the effort of her life to control her preposterous excitement,
she said, wringing my hand (I'm sure she didn't know it was mine),
Je ne parle pas Francais.
"But I'm sure you do," I answered, so tender, so reassuring,
I might have been a dentist about to draw her first little milk
"Of course she does." Dick swerved back to us. "Here,
can't we get a cab or taxi or something? We don't want to stay in
this cursed station all night. Do we?"
This was so rude that it took me a moment to recover; and he must
have noticed, for he flung his arm round my shoulder in the old
way, saying: "Ah, forgive me, old chap. But we've had such
a loathsome, hideous journey. We've taken years to come. Haven't
we?" To her. But she did not answer. She bent her head and
began stroking her grey muff; she walked beside us stroking her
grey muff all the way.
"Have I been wrong?" thought I. "Is this simply
a case of frenzied impatience on their part? Are they merely 'in
need of a bed,' as we say? Have they been suffering agonies on the
journey? Sitting, perhaps, very close and warm under the same travelling
rug?" and so on and so on while the driver strapped on the
boxes. That done–
"Look here, Dick. I go home by metro. Here is the address
of your hotel. Everything is arranged. Come and see me as soon as
Upon my life I thought he was going to faint. He went white to
"But you're coming back with us," he cried. "I thought
it was all settled. Of course you're coming back. You're not going
to leave us." No, I gave it up. It was too difficult, too English
"Certainly, certainly. Delighted. I only thought, perhaps
. . . "
"You must come!" said Dick to the little fox-terrier.
And again he made that big awkward turn towards her.
"Get in, Mouse."
And Mouse got in the black hole and sat stroking Mouse II and not
saying a word.
Away we jolted and rattled like three little dice that life had
decided to have a fling with.
I had insisted on taking the flap seat facing them because I would
not have missed for anything those occasional flashing glimpses
I had as we broke through the white circles of lamplight.
They revealed Dick, sitting far back in his corner, his coat collar
turned up, his hands thrust in his pockets, and his broad dark hat
shading him as if it were a part of him–a sort of wing he
hid under. They showed her, sitting up very straight, her lovely
little face more like a drawing than a real face–every line
was so full of meaning and so sharp cut against the swimming dark.
For Mouse was beautiful. She was exquisite, but so fragile and
fine that each time I looked at her it was as if for the first time.
She came upon you with the same kind of shock that you feel when
you have been drinking tea out of a thin innocent cup and suddenly,
at the bottom, you see a tiny creature, half butterfly, half woman,
bowing to you with her hands in her sleeves.
As far as I could make out she had dark hair and blue or black
eyes. Her long lashes and the two little feathers traced above were
She wore a long dark cloak such as one sees in old-fashioned pictures
of Englishwomen abroad. Where her arms came out of it there was
grey fur–fur round her neck, too, and her close-fitting cap
"Carrying out the mouse idea," I decided.
Ah, but how intriguing it was–how intriguing! Their excitement
came nearer and nearer to me, while I ran out to meet it, bathed
in it, flung myself far out of my depth, until at last I was as
hard put to it to keep control as they. But what I wanted to do
was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion–like a clown.
To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out
of the window and cry: "We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen,
one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous,"
to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof,
and dive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look
for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which
was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet.
I watched myself do all this, you understand, and even managed
to applaud in a private way by putting my gloved hands gently together,
while I said to Mouse: "And is this your first visit to Paris?"
"Yes, I've not been here before."
"Ah, then you have a great deal to see."
And I was just going to touch lightly upon the objects of interest
and the museums when we wrenched to a stop.
Do you know–it's very absurd–but as I pushed open the
door for them and followed up the stairs to the bureau on the landing
I felt somehow that this hotel was mine.
There was a vase of flowers on the window sill of the bureau and
I even went so far as to re-arrange a bud or two and to stand off
and note the effect while the manageress welcomed them. And when
she turned to me and handed me the keys (the garcon was hauling
up the boxes) and said: "Monsieur Duquette will show you your
rooms"–I had a longing to tap Dick on the arm with a
key and say, very confidentially: "Look here, old chap. As
a friend of mine I'll be only too willing to make a slight reduction
. . . "
Up and up we climbed. Round and round. Past an occasional pair
of boots (why is it one never sees an attractive pair of boots outside
a door?). Higher and higher.
"I'm afraid they're rather high up," I murmured idiotically.
"But I chose them because . . . "
They so obviously did not care why I chose them that I went no
further. They accepted everything. They did not expect anything
to be different. This was just part of what they were going through–that
was how I analysed it.
"Arrived at last." I ran from one side of the passage
to the other, turning on the lights, explaining.
"This one I thought for you, Dick. The other is larger and
it has a little dressing-room in the alcove."
My "proprietary" eye noted the clean towels and covers,
and the bed linen embroidered in red cotton. I thought them rather
charming rooms, sloping, full of angles, just the sort of rooms
one would expect to find if one had not been to Paris before.
Dick dashed his hat down on the bed.
"Oughtn't I to help that chap with the boxes?" he asked–nobody.
"Yes, you ought," replied Mouse, "they're dreadfully
And she turned to me with the first glimmer of a smile: "Books,
you know." Oh, he darted such a strange look at her before
he rushed out. And he not only helped, he must have torn the box
off the garcon's back, for he staggered back, carrying one, dumped
it down, and then fetched in the other.
"That's yours, Dick," said she.
"Well, you don't mind it standing here for the present, do
you?" he asked, breathless, breathing hard (the box must have
been tremendously heavy). He pulled out a handful of money. "I
suppose I ought to pay this chap."
The garcon, standing by, seemed to think so too.
"And will you require anything further, Monsieur?"
"No! No! " said Dick impatiently.
But at that Mouse stepped forward. She said, too deliberately,
not looking at Dick, with her quaint clipped English, accent: "Yes,
I'd like some tea. Tea for three."
And suddenly she raised her muff as though her hands were clasped
inside it, and she was telling the pale, sweaty garcon by that action
that she was at the end of her resource, that she cried out to
him to save her with "Tea. Immediately!"
This seemed to me so amazingly in the picture, so exactly the gesture
and cry that one would expect (though I couldn't have imagined it)
to be wrung out of an Englishwoman faced with a great crisis, that
I was almost tempted to hold up my hand and protest.
"No! No! Enough. Enough. Let us leave off there. At the word–tea.
For really, really, you've filled your greediest subscriber so full
that he will burst if he has to swallow another word."
It even pulled Dick up. Like someone who has been unconscious for
a long long time he turned slowly to Mouse and slowly looked at
her with his tired, haggard eyes, and murmured with the echo of
his dreamy voice: "Yes. That's a good idea." And then:
"You must be tired, Mouse. Sit down."
She sat down in a chair with lace tabs on the arms; he leaned against
the bed, and I established myself on a straight-backed chair, crossed
my legs, and brushed some imaginary dust off the knees of my trousers.
(The Parisian at his ease.)
There came a tiny pause. Then he said: "Won't you take off
your coat, Mouse?"
"No, thanks. Not just now."
Were they going to ask me? Or should I hold up my hand and call
out in a baby voice: "It's my turn to be asked."
No, I shouldn't. They didn't ask me.
The pause became a silence. A real silence.
" . . . Come, my Parisian fox-terrier! Amuse these sad English!
It's no wonder they are such a nation for dogs."
But, after all–why should I? It was not my "job,"
as they would say. Nevertheless, I made a vivacious little bound
"What a pity it is that you did not arrive by daylight. There
is such a charming view from these two windows. You know, the hotel
is on a corner and each window looks down an immensely long, straight
"Yes," said she.
"Not that that sounds very charming," I laughed. "But
there is so much animation–so many absurd little boys on bicycles
and people hanging out of windows and–oh, well, you'll see
for yourself in the morning. . . . Very amusing. Very animated."
"Oh, yes," said she.
If the pale, sweaty garcon had not come in at that moment, carrying
the tea-tray high on one hand as if the cups were cannon-balls and
he a heavy weight lifter on the cinema. . . .
He managed to lower it on to a round table.
"Bring the table over here," said Mouse. The waiter seemed
to be the only person she cared to speak to. She took her hands
out of her muff, drew off her gloves, and flung back the old-fashioned
"Do you take milk and sugar?"
"No milk, thank you, and no sugar."
I went over for mine like a little gentleman. She poured out another
"That's for Dick."
And the faithful fox-terrier carried it across to him and laid
it at his feet, as it were.
"Oh, thanks," said Dick.
And then I went back to my chair and she sank back in hers.
But Dick was off again. He stared wildly at the cup of tea for
a moment, glanced round him, put it down on the bed-table, caught
up his hat, and stammered at full gallop: "Oh, by the way,
do you mind posting a letter for me? I want to get it off by tonight's
post. I must. It's very urgent. . . ." Feeling her eyes on
him, he flung: "It's to my mother." To me: "I won't
be long. I've got everything I want. But it must go off tonight.
You don't mind? It . . . it won't take any time."
"Of course I'll post it. Delighted."
"Won't you drink your tea first?" suggested Mouse softly.
. . . Tea? Tea? Yes, of course. Tea. . . . A cup of tea on the
bed-table . . . . In his racing dream he flashed the brightest,
most charming smile at his little hostess.
"No, thanks. Not just now."
And still hoping it would not be any trouble to me he went out
of the room and closed the door, and we heard him cross the passage.
I scalded myself with mine in my hurry to take the cup back to the
table and to say as I stood there: "You must forgive me if
I am impertinent . . . if I am too frank. But Dick hasn't tried
to disguise it–has he? There is something the matter. Can
(Soft music. Mouse gets up, walks the stage for a moment or so
before she returns to her chair and pours him out, oh, such a brimming,
such a burning cup that the tears come into the friend's eyes while
he sips–while he drains it to the bitter dregs. . . . )
I had time to do all this before she replied. First she looked
in the teapot, filled it with hot water, and stirred it with a spoon.
"Yes, there is something the matter. No, I'm afraid you can't
help, thank you." Again I got that glimmer of a smile. "I'm
awfully sorry. It must be horrid for you."
Horrid, indeed! Ah, why couldn't I tell her that it was months
and months since I had been so entertained?
"But you are suffering," I ventured softly, as though
that was what I could not bear to see.
She didn't deny it. She nodded and bit her under-lip and I thought
I saw her chin tremble.
"And there is really nothing I can do?" More softly still.
She shook her head, pushing back the table, and jumped up.
"Oh, it will be all right soon," she breathed, walking
over to the dressing-table and standing with her back towards me.
"It will be all right. It can't go on like this."
"But of course it can't," I agreed, wondering whether
it would look heartless if I lit a cigarette; I had a sudden longing
In some way she saw my hand move to my breast pocket, half draw
out my cigarette case, and put it back again, for the next thing
she said was: "Matches . . . in . . . candestick. I noticed
And I heard from her voice that she was crying.
"Ah! thank you. Yes. Yes. I've found them." I lighted
my cigarette and walked up and down, smoking.
It was so quiet it might have been two o'clock in the morning.
It was so quiet you heard the boards creak and pop as one does in
a house in the country. I smoked the whole cigarette and stabbed
the end into my saucer before Mouse turned round and came back to
"Isn't Dick being rather a long time?"
"You are very tired. I expect you want to go to bed,"
I said kindly. (And pray don't mind me if you do, said my mind.)
"But isn't he being a very long time?" she insisted.
I shrugged. "He is, rather."
Then I saw she looked at me strangely. She was listening.
"He's been gone ages," she said, and she went with little
light steps to the door, opened it, and crossed the passage into
I waited. I listened too, now. I couldn't have borne to miss a
word. She had left the door open. I stole across the room and looked
after her. Dick's door was open, too. But–there wasn't a word
You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet
room–a long comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not
only puts one's grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks
it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah!
how good that is.
It was over at last. I heard someone move and tiptoed away.
It was Mouse. She came back. She felt her way into the room carrying
a letter for me. But it wasn't in an envelope; it was just a sheet
of paper and she held it by the corner as though it was still wet.
Her head was bent so low–so tucked in her furry collar that
I hadn't a notion–until she let the paper fall and almost
fell herself on to the floor by the side of the bed, leaned her
cheek against it, flung out her hands as though the last of her
poor little weapons was gone and now she let herself be carried
away, washed out into the deep water.
Flash! went my mind. Dick has shot himself, and then a succession
of flashes while I rushed in, saw the body, head unharmed, small
blue hole over temple, roused hotel, arranged funeral, attended
funeral, closed cab, new morning coat. . . .
I stooped down and picked up the paper and would you believe it–so
ingrained is my Parisian sense of comme il faut – I murmured
"pardon" before I read it.
"MOUSE, MY LITTLE MOUSE,
It's no good. It's impossible. I can't see it through. Oh, I do
love you. I do love you, Mouse, but I can't hurt her. People have
been hurting her all her life. I simply dare not give her this final
blow. You see, though she's stronger than both of us, she's so frail
and proud. It would kill her–kill her, Mouse. And, oh God,
I can't kill my mother! Not even for you. Not even for us. You do
see that–don't you.
It all seemed so possible when we talked and planned, but the very
moment the train started it was all over. I felt her drag me back
to her– calling. I can hear her now as I write. And she's
alone and she doesn't know. A man would have to be a devil to tell
her and I'm not a devil, Mouse. She mustn't know. Oh, Mouse, somewhere,
somewhere in you don't you agree? It's all so unspeakably awful
that I don't know if I want to go or not. Do I? Or is Mother just
dragging me? I don't know. My head is too tired. Mouse, Mouse–what
will you do? But I can't think of that, either. I dare not. I'd
break down. And I must not break down. All I've got to do is–just
to tell you this and go. I couldn't have gone off without telling
you. You'd have been frightened. And you must not be frightened.
You won't–will you? I can't bear–but no more of that.
And don't write. I should not have the courage to answer your letters
and the sight of your spidery handwriting–
Forgive me. Don't love me any more. Yes. Love me. Love me. Dick."
What do you think of that? Wasn't that a rare find? My relief at
his not having shot himself was mixed with a wonderful sense of
elation. I was even–more than even with my "that's very
curious and interesting" Englishman. . . .
She wept so strangely. With her eyes shut, with her face quite
calm except for the quivering eyelids. The tears pearled down her
cheeks and she let them fall.
But feeling my glance upon her she opened her eyes and saw me holding
"You've read it?"
Her voice was quite calm, but it was not her voice any more. It
was like the voice you might imagine coming out of a tiny, cold
sea-shell swept high and dry at last by the salt tide. . . .
I nodded, quite overcome, you understand, and laid the letter down.
"It's incredible! incredible! " I whispered.
At that she got up from the floor, walked over to the washstand,
dipped her handkerchief into the jug, and sponged her eyes, saying:
"Oh, no. It's not incredible at all." And still pressing
the wet ball to her eyes she came back to me, to her chair with
the lace tabs, and sank into it.
"I knew all along, of course," said the cold, salty little
voice. "From the very moment that we started. I felt it all
through me, but I still went on hoping"–and here she
took the handkerchief down and gave me a final glimmer–"as
one so stupidly does, you know."
"As one does."
"But what will you do? You'll go back? You'll see him?"
That made her sit right up and stare across at me.
"What an extraordinary idea!" she said, more coldly than
ever. "Of course I shall not dream of seeing him. As for going
back–that is quite out of the question. I can't go back."
"But . . ."
"It's impossible. For one thing all my friends think I am
I put out my hand–"Ah, my poor little friend."
But she shrank away. (False move.)
Of course there was one question that had been at the back of my
mind all this time. I hated it.
"Have you any money?"
"Yes, I have twenty pounds–here," and she put her
hand on her breast. I bowed. It was a great deal more than I had
"And what are your plans?"
Yes, I know. My question was the most clumsy, the most idiotic
one I could have put. She had been so tame, so confiding, letting
me, at any rate spiritually speaking, hold her tiny quivering body
in one hand and stroke her furry head–and now, I'd thrown
her away. Oh, I could have kicked myself.
She stood up. "I have no plans. But–it's very late.
You must go now, please."
How could I get her back? I wanted her back. I swear I was not
"Do you feel that I am your friend," I cried. "You
will let me come tomorrow, early? You will let me look after you
a little–take care of you a little? You'll use me just as
you think fit?"
I succeeded. She came out of her hole . . . timid . . . but she
"Yes, you're very kind. Yes. Do come tomorrow. I shall be
glad. It makes things rather difficult because"–and again
I clasped her boyish hand–"je ne parle pas francais.
Not until I was half-way down the boulevard did it come over me–the
full force of it.
Why, they were suffering . . . those two . . . really suffering.
I have seen two people suffer as I don't suppose I ever shall again.
. . .
Of course you know what to expect. You anticipate, fully, what I
am going to write. It wouldn't be me, otherwise.
I never went near the place again.
Yes, I still owe that considerable amount for lunches and dinners,
but that's beside the mark. It's vulgar to mention it in the same
breath with the fact that I never saw Mouse again.
Naturally, I intended to. Started out–got to the door–wrote
and tore up letters–did all those things. But I simply could
not make the final effort.
Even now I don't fully understand why. Of course I knew that I
couldn't have kept it up. That had a great deal to do with it. But
you would have thought, putting it at its lowest, curiosity couldn't
have kept my fox-terrier nose away . . .
Je ne parle pas francais. That was her swan song for me.
But how she makes me break my rule. Oh, you've seen for yourself,
but I could give you countless examples.
. . . Evenings, when I sit in some gloomy café, and an automatic
piano starts playing a "mouse" tune (there are dozens
of tunes that evoke just her) I begin to dream things like . . .
A little house on the edge of the sea, somewhere far, far away.
A girl outside in a frock rather like Red Indian women wear, hailing
a light, barefoot boy who runs up from the beach.
"What have you got?"
"A fish." I smile and give it to her.
. . . The same girl, the same boy, different costumes–sitting
at an open window, eating fruit and leaning out and laughing.
"All the wild strawberries are for you, Mouse. I won't touch
. . . A wet night. They are going home together under an umbrella.
They stop on the door to press their wet cheeks together.
And so on and so on until some dirty old gallant comes up to my
table and sits opposite and begins to grimace and yap. Until I hear
myself saying: "But I've got the little girl for you, mon vieux.
So little . . . so tiny." I kiss the tips of my fingers and
lay them upon my heart. "I give you my word of honour as a
gentleman, a writer, serious, young, and extremely interested in
modern English literature."
I must go. I must go. I reach down my coat and hat. Madame knows
me. "You haven't dined yet?" she smiles.
"No, not yet, Madame."