Once Valenti, at a slack time, told me a story about himself.
‘You know, mon p’tit, this hotel life is all very well, but it’s the devil when you’re out of work. I expect you know what it is to go without eating, eh? Forcément, otherwise you wouldn’t be scrubbing dishes. Well, I’m not a poor devil of a plongeur; I’m a waiter, and I went five days without eating, once. Five days without even a crust of bread—Jesus Christ!
‘I tell you, those five days were the devil. The only good thing was, I had my rent paid in advance. I was living in a dirty, cheap little hotel in the Rue Sainte Eloise up in the Latin quarter. It was called the Hotel Suzanne May, after some famous prostitute of the time of the Empire. I was starving, and there was nothing I could do; I couldn’t even go to the cafes where the hotel proprietors come to engage waiters, because I hadn’t the price of a drink. All I could do was to lie in bed getting weaker and weaker, and watching the bugs running about the ceiling. I don’t want to go through that again, I can tell you.
‘In the afternoon of the fifth day I went half mad; at least, that’s how it seems to me now. There was an old faded print of a woman’s head hanging on the wall of my room, and I took to wondering who it could be; and after about an hour I realized that it must be Sainte Éloise, who was the patron saint of the quarter. I had never taken any notice of the thing before, but now, as I lay staring at it, a most extraordinary idea came into my head.
‘“Écoute, mon cher,” I said to myself, “you’ll be starving to death if this goes on much longer. You’ve got to do something. Why not try a prayer to Sainte Éloise? Go down on your knees and ask her to send you some money. After all, it can’t do any harm. Try it!”
‘Mad, eh? Still, a man will do anything when he’s hungry. Besides, as I said, it couldn’t do any harm. I got out of bed and began praying. I said:
‘“Dear Sainte Éloise, if you exist, please send me some money. I don’t ask for much—just enough to buy some bread and a bottle of wine and get my strength back. Three or four francs would do. You don’t know how grateful I’ll be, Sainte Éloise, if you help me this once. And be sure, if you send me anything, the first thing I’ll do will be to go and burn a candle for you, at your church down the street. Amen.”
‘I put in that about the candle, because I had heard that saints like having candles burnt in their honour. I meant to keep my promise, of course. But I am an atheist and I didn’t really believe that anything would come of it.
‘Well, I got into bed again, and five minutes later there came a bang at the door. It was a girl called Maria, a big fat peasant girl who lived at our hotel. She was a very stupid girl, but a good sort, and I didn’t much care for her to see me in the state I was in.
‘She cried out at the sight of me. “Nom de Dieu!” she said, “what’s the matter with you? What are you doing in bed at this time of day? Quelle mine que tu as! You look more like a corpse than a man.”
‘Probably I did look a sight. I had been five days without food, most of the time in bed, and it was three days since I had had a wash or a shave. The room was a regular pigsty, too.
‘“What’s the matter?” said Maria again.
‘“The matter!” I said; “Jesus Christ! I’m starving. I haven’t eaten for five days. That’s what’s the matter.”
‘Maria was horrified. “Not eaten for five days?” she said. “But why? Haven’t you any money, then?”
‘“Money!” I said. “Do you suppose I should be starving if I had money? I’ve got just five sous in the world, and I’ve pawned everything. Look round the room and see if there’s anything more I can sell or pawn. If you can find anything that will fetch fifty centimes, you’re cleverer than I am.”
‘Maria began looking round the room. She poked here and there among a lot of rubbish that was lying about, and then suddenly she got quite excited. Her great thick mouth fell open with astonishment.
‘“You idiot!” she cried out. “Imbecile! What’s this, then?”
‘I saw that she had picked up an empty oil bidon that had been lying in the corner. I had bought it weeks before, for an oil lamp I had before I sold my things.
“That?” I said. “That’s an oil bidon. What about it?”
‘“Imbecile! Didn’t you pay three francs fifty deposit on it?”
‘Now, of course I had paid the three francs fifty. They always make you pay a deposit on the bidon, and you get it back when the bidon is returned. But I’d forgotten all about it.
‘“Yes—” I began.
‘“Idiot!” shouted Maria again. She got so excited that she began to dance about until I thought her sabots would go through the floor, “Idiot! T’es fou! T’es fou! What have you got to do but take it back to the shop and get your deposit back? Starving, with three francs fifty staring you in the face! Imbecile!”
‘I can hardly believe now that in all those five days I had never once thought of taking the bidon back to the shop. As good as three francs fifty in hard cash, and it had never occurred to me! I sat up in bed. “Quick!” I shouted to Maria, “you take it for me. Take it to the grocer’s at the corner—run like the devil. And bring back food!”
‘Maria didn’t need to be told. She grabbed the bidon and went clattering down the stairs like a herd of elephants and in three minutes she was back with two pounds of bread under one arm and a half-litre bottle of wine under the other. I didn’t stop to thank her; I just seized the bread and sank my teeth in it. Have you noticed how bread tastes when you have been hungry for a long time? Cold, wet, doughy—like putty almost. But, Jesus Christ, how good it was! As for the wine, I sucked it all down in one draught, and it seemed to go straight into my veins and flow round my body like new blood. Ah, that made a difference!
‘I wolfed the whole two pounds of bread without stopping to take breath. Maria stood with her hands on her hips, watching me eat. “Well, you feel better, eh?” she said when I had finished.
‘“Better!” I said. “I feel perfect! I’m not the same man as I was five minutes ago. There’s only one thing in the world I need now—a cigarette.”
‘Maria put her hand in her apron pocket. “You can’t have it,” she said. “I’ve no money. This is all I had left out of your three francs fifty—seven sous. It’s no good; the cheapest cigarettes are twelve sous a packet.”
‘“Then I can have them!” I said. “Jesus Christ, what a piece of luck! I’ve got five sous—it’s just enough.”
‘Maria took the twelve sous and was starting out to the tobacconist’s. And then something I had forgotten all this time came into my head. There was that cursed Sainte Éloise! I had promised her a candle if she sent me money; and really, who could say that the prayer hadn’t come true? “Three or four francs,” I had said; and the next moment along came three francs fifty. There was no getting away from it. I should have to spend my twelve sous on a candle.
‘I called Maria back. “It’s no use,” I said; “there is Sainte Éloise—I have promised her a candle. The twelve sous will have to go on that. Silly, isn’t it? I can’t have my cigarettes after all.”
‘“Sainte Éloise?” said Maria. “What about Sainte Éloise?”
‘“I prayed to her for money and promised her a candle,” I said. “She answered the prayer—at any rate, the money turned up. I shall have to buy that candle. It’s a nuisance, but it seems to me I must keep my promise.”
‘“But what put Sainte Éloise into your head?” said Maria.
‘“It was her picture,” I said, and I explained the whole thing. “There she is, you see,” I said, and I pointed to the picture on the wall.
‘Maria looked at the picture, and then to my surprise she burst into shouts of laughter. She laughed more and more, stamping about the room and holding her fat sides as though they would burst. I thought she had gone mad. It was two minutes before she could speak.
‘“Idiot!” she cried at last. “T’es fou! T’es fou! Do you mean to tell me you really knelt down and prayed to that picture? Who told you it was Sainte Éloise?”
‘“But I made sure it was Sainte Éloise!” I said.
‘“Imbecile! It isn’t Sainte Éloise at all. Who do you think it is?”
‘“Who?” I said.
‘“It is Suzanne May, the woman this hotel is called after.”
‘I had been praying to Suzanne May, the famous prostitute of the Empire . . .
‘But, after all, I wasn’t sorry. Maria and I had a good laugh, and then we talked it over, and we made out that I didn’t owe Sainte Éloise anything. Clearly it wasn’t she who had answered the prayer, and there was no need to buy her a candle. So I had my packet of cigarettes after all.’