Bavarian beer.
Why on this particular evening, did I enter a certain beer shop? I cannot explain it. It was bitterly cold. A fine rain, a watery mist floated about, veiling the gas jets in a transparent fog, making the pavements under the shadow of the shop fronts glitter, which revealed the soft slush and the soiled 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. Suddenly I descried a large cafe, which was more than half full. I walked inside, with no object in mind. I was not the least thirsty.
By a searching glance I detected a place where I would not be too much crowded. So I went and sat down by the side of a man who seemed to me to be old, and who smoked a half-penny clay pipe, which had become as black as coal. From six to eight beer saucers were piled up on the table in front of him, indicating the number of "bocks" he had already absorbed. With that same glance I had recognized in him a "regular toper," one of those frequenters of beer-houses, who come in the morning as soon as the place is open, and only go away in the evening when it is about to close. He was dirty, bald to about the middle of the cranium, while his long gray hair fell over the neck of his frock coat. His clothes, much too large for him, appeared to have been made for him at a time when he was very stout. One could guess that his pantaloons were not held up by braces, and that this man could not take ten paces without having to pull them up and readjust them. Did he wear a vest? The mere thought of his boots and the feet they enveloped filled me with horror. The frayed cuffs were as black at the edges as were his nails.
As soon as I had sat down near him, this queer creature said to me in a tranquil tone of voice:
"How goes it with you?"
I turned sharply round to him 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, so dumfounded that I could find nothing to say. I, at length, managed to stammer out:
"And you, how goes it with you?"
He responded placidly:
"With me? Just as I like."
He became silent. I wanted to be friendly, and I selected this phrase:
"What are you doing now?"
"You see what I am doing," he answered, quite resignedly.
I felt my face getting red. I insisted:
"But every day?"
"Every day is alike to me," was his response, accompanied with a thick puff of tobacco smoke.
He then tapped on the top of the marble table with a sou, to attract the attention of the waiter, and called out:
"Waiter, two 'bocks.' "
A voice in the distance repeated:
"Two 'bocks,' instead of four."
Another voice, more distant still, shouted out:
"Here they are, sir, here they are."
Immediately there appeared a man with a white apron, carrying two 'bocks,' which he set down foaming on the table, the foam running over the edge, on to the sandy floor.
Des Barrets emptied his glass at a single draught and replaced it on the table, sucking in the drops of beer that had been left on his mustache. He next asked:
"What is there new?"
"I know of nothing new, worth mentioning, really," I stammered: "But nothing has grown old for me; I am a commercial man."
In an equable tone of voice, he said:
"Indeed--does that amuse you?"
"No, but what do you mean by that? Surely you must do something!"
"What do you mean by that?"
"I only mean, how do you pass your time!"
"What's the use of occupying myself with anything. For my part, I do nothing at all, as you see, never anything. When one has not got a sou one can understand why one has to go to work. 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 reap nothing but ingratitude."
Then sticking his pipe into his mouth, he called out anew:
"Waiter, a 'bock.' It makes me thirsty to keep calling so. I am not accustomed to that sort of thing. Yes, I do nothing; I let things slide, and I am growing old. In dying I shall have nothing to regret. If so, I should remember nothing, outside this public-house. I have no wife, no children, no cares, no sorrows, nothing. That is the very best thing that could happen to one."
He then emptied the glass which had been brought him, passed his tongue over his lips, and resumed his pipe.
I looked at him stupefied and asked him:
"But you have not always been like that?"
"Pardon me, sir; ever since I left college."
"It is not a proper life to lead, my dear sir; it is simply horrible. Come, you must indeed have done something, you must have loved something, you must have friends."
"No; I get up at noon, I come here, I have my breakfast, I drink my 'bock'; I remain until the evening, I have my dinner, I drink 'bock.' Then about one in the morning, I return to my couch, because the place closes up. And it is this latter that embitters me more than anything. For the last ten years, I have passed six-tenths of my time on this bench, in my corner; and the other four-tenths in my bed, never changing. I talk sometimes with the habitues."
"But on arriving in 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 even that trouble?"
"What do you mean? One cannot remain all one's life in the Latin Quarter. The students make too much noise. But I do not move about any longer. Waiter, a 'bock.' "
I now 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; despair in love, no doubt! It is easy to see that you are a man whom misfortune has hit hard. What age are you?"
"I am thirty years of age, but I look to be forty-five at least."
I looked him straight in the face. His shrunken figure, badly cared for, gave one the impression that he was an old man. On the summit of his cranium, a few long hairs shot straight up from a skin of doubtful cleanness. He had enormous eyelashes, a large mustache, and a thick beard. Suddenly I had a kind of vision, I know not why--the vision of a basin filled with noisome water, the water which should have been applied to that poll. I said to him:
"Verily, you look to be more than that age. Of a certainty you must have experienced some great disappointment."
"I tell you that I have not. I am old because I never take air. There is nothing that vitiates the life of a man more than the atmosphere of a cafe." I could not believe him.
"You must surely have been married as well? One could not get as baldheaded as you are without having been much in love."
He shook his head, sending down his back little hairs from the scalp:
"No, I have always been virtuous."
And raising his eyes toward the luster, which beat down on our heads, he said:
"If I am baldheaded, it is the fault of the gas. It is the enemy of hair. Waiter, a 'bock.' You must be thirsty also?"
"No, thank you. But you certainly interest me. When did you have your first discouragement? Your life is not normal, is not natural. There is something under it all."
"Yes, and it dates from my infancy. I received a heavy blow when I was very young. It turned my life into darkness, which will last to the end."
"How did it come about?"
"You wish to know about it? Well, then, listen. You recall, of course, the castle in which I was brought up, seeing that you used to visit it for five or six months during the vacations? You remember that large, gray building in the middle of a great park, and the long avenues of oaks, which opened toward the four cardinal points! You remember my father and my mother, both of whom were ceremonious, solemn, and severe.
"I worshiped my mother; I was suspicious of my father; but I respected both, accustomed always as I was to see everyone bow before them. In the country, they were Monsieur le Comte and Madame la Comtesse; and our neighbors, the Tannemares, the Ravelets, the Brennevilles, showed the utmost consideration for them.
"I was then thirteen years old, happy, satisfied with everything, as one is at that age, and full of joy and vivacity.
"Now toward the end of September, a few days before entering the Lycee, while I was enjoying myself in the mazes of the park, climbing the trees and swinging on the branches, I saw crossing an avenue my father and mother, who were walking together.
"I recall the thing as though it were yesterday. It was a very windy day. The whole line of trees bent under the pressure of the wind, moaned and seemed to utter cries--cries dull, yet deep--so that the whole forest groaned under the gale.
"Evening had come on, and it was dark in the thickets. The agitation of the wind and the branches excited me, made me skip about like an idiot, 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 wolf. But suddenly seized with fear, I stopped a few paces from them. My father, a prey to the most violent passion, cried:
" 'Your mother is a fool; moreover, it is not your mother that is the question, it is you. I tell you that I want money, and I will make you sign this.'
"My mother responded 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 devour it with strange women, as you have your own heritage.'
"Then my father, full of rage, wheeled round and seized his wife by the throat, and began to slap her full in the face with the disengaged hand.
"My mother's hat fell off, her hair became disheveled and fell down her back: she essayed to parry the blows, but could not escape from them. And my father, like a madman, banged and banged at her. My mother rolled over on the ground, covering her face in both her hands. Then he turned her over on her back in order to batter her still more, pulling away the hands which were covering her face.
"As for me, my friend, it seemed as though the world had come 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 disaster. My boyish head whirled round and soared. I began to cry with all my might, without knowing why, a prey to terror, to grief, to a dreadful bewilderment. My father heard me, turned round, and, on seeing me, made as though he would rush at me. I believed that he wanted to kill me, and I fled like a hunted animal, running straight in front of me through the woods.
"I ran perhaps for an hour, perhaps for two, I know not. Darkness had set in, I tumbled over some thick herbs, exhausted, and I lay there lost, devoured by terror, eaten up by a sorrow capable of breaking forever the heart of a child. I became cold, I became hungry. At length day broke. I dared neither get up, walk, return home, nor save myself, 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 guard had not discovered me and led me away by force.
"I found my parents wearing their ordinary aspect. My mother alone spoke to me:
" 'How you have frightened me, you naughty boy; I have been the whole night sleepless.'
"I did not answer, but began to weep. My father did not utter a single word.
"Eight days later I entered the Lycee.
"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 things have passed in my mind, what strange phenomena have warped my ideas, I do not know. But I no longer have a taste for anything, a wish for anything, a love for anybody, a desire for anything whatever, no ambition, no hope. And I can always see my poor mother lying on the ground, in the avenue, while my father was maltreating her. My mother died a few years after; my father lives still. 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. Then he made a violent gesture:
"Zounds! This is indeed a grief, a real grief. I have had it for a month, and it was coloring so beautifully!"
Then he went off through the vast saloon, which was now full of smoke and of people drinking, calling out:
"Waiter, a 'bock'--and a new pipe."