‘Free at last, mon ami! You can give notice in the morning. The Auberge opens tomorrow.’
‘Well, possibly we shall need a day or two to arrange things. But, at any rate, no more cafeteria! Nous sommes lancés, mon ami! My tail coat is out of pawn already.’
His manner was so hearty that I felt sure there was something wrong, and I did not at all want to leave my safe and comfortable job at the hotel. However, I had promised Boris, so I gave notice, and the next morning at seven went down to the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. It was locked, and I went in search of Boris, who had once more bolted from his lodgings and taken a room in the rue de la Groix Nivert. I found him asleep, together with a girl whom he had picked up the night before, and who he told me was ‘of a very sympathetic temperament.’ As to the restaurant, he said that it was all arranged; there were only a few little things to be seen to before we opened.
At ten I managed to get Boris out of bed, and we unlocked the restaurant. At a glance I saw what the ‘few little things’ amounted to. It was briefly this: that the alterations had not been touched since our last visit. The stoves for the kitchen had not arrived, the water and electricity had not been laid on, and there was all manner of painting, polishing and carpentering to be done. Nothing short of a miracle could open the restaurant within ten days, and by the look of things it might collapse without even opening. It was obvious what had happened. The patron was short of money, and he had engaged the staff (there were four of us) in order to use us instead of workmen. He would be getting our services almost free, for waiters are paid no wages, and though he would have to pay me, he would not be feeding me till the restaurant opened. In effect, he had swindled us of several hundred francs by sending for us before the restaurant was open. We had thrown up a good job for nothing.
Boris, however, was full of hope. He had only one idea in his head, namely, that here at last was a chance of being a waiter and wearing a tail coat once more. For this he was quite willing to do ten days’ work unpaid, with the chance of being left jobless in the end. ‘Patience!’ he kept saying. ‘That will arrange itself. Wait till the restaurant opens, and we’ll get it all back. Patience, mon ami!’
We needed patience, for days passed and the restaurant did not even progress towards opening. We cleaned out the cellars, fixed the shelves, distempered the walls, polished the woodwork, whitewashed the ceiling, stained the floor; but the main work, the plumbing and gas-fitting and electricity, was still not done, because the patron could not pay the bills. Evidently he was almost penniless, for he refused the smallest charges, and he had a trick of swiftly disappearing when asked for money. His blend of shiftiness and aristocratic manners made him very hard to deal with. Melancholy duns came looking for him at all hours, and by instruction we always told them that he was at Fontainebleau, or Saint Cloud, or some other place that was safely distant. Meanwhile, I was getting hungrier and hungrier. I had left the hotel with thirty francs, and I had to go back immediately to a diet of dry bread. Boris had managed in the beginning to extract an advance of sixty francs from the patron, but he had spent half of it, in redeeming his waiter’s clothes, and half on the girl of sympathetic temperament. He borrowed three francs a day from Jules, the second waiter, and spent it on bread. Some days we had not even money for tobacco.
Sometimes the cook came to see how things were getting on, and when she saw that the kitchen was still bare of pots and pans she usually wept. Jules, the second waiter, refused steadily to help with the work. He was a Magyar, a little dark, sharp-featured fellow in spectacles, and very talkative; he had been a medical student, but had abandoned his training for lack of money. He had a taste for talking while other people were working, and he told me all about himself and his ideas. It appeared that he was a Communist, and had various strange theories (he could prove to you by figures that it was wrong to work), and he was also, like most Magyars, passionately proud. Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.
As each day went by Jules grew more and more enraged at the trick the patron had played on us. He had a spluttering, oratorical way of talking. He used to walk up and down shaking his fist, and trying to incite me not to work:
‘Put that brush down, you fool! You and I belong to proud races; we don’t work for nothing, like these damned Russian serfs. I tell you, to be cheated like this is torture to me. There have been times in my life, when someone has cheated me even of five sous, when I have vomited—yes, vomited with rage.
‘Besides, mon vieux, don’t forget that I’m a Communist. à bas la bourgeoisie! Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No. And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning. Every day I drank four litres of milk, besides half a litre of cream. The patron was at his wits’ end to know where the milk was going. It wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand, because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.
‘Well, after three days I began to get dreadful pains in my belly, and I went to the doctor. “What have you been eating?” he said. I said: “I drink four litres of milk a day, and half a litre of cream.” “Four litres!” he said. “Then stop it at once. You’ll burst if you go on.” “What do I care?” I said. “With me principle is everything. I shall go on drinking that milk, even if I do burst.”
‘Well, the next day the patron caught me stealing milk. “You’re sacked,” he said; “you leave at the end of the week.” “Pardon, monsieur,” I said, “I shall leave this morning.” “No, you won’t,” he said, “I can’t spare you till Saturday.” “Very well, mon patron,” I thought to myself, “we’ll see who gets tired of it first.” And then I set to work to smash the crockery. I broke nine plates the first day and thirteen the second; after that the patron was glad to see the last of me.
‘Ah, I’m not one of your Russian moujiks...’
Ten days passed. It was a bad time. I was absolutely at the end of my money, and my rent was several days overdue. We loafed about the dismal empty restaurant, too hungry even to get on with the work that remained. Only Boris now believed that the restaurant would open. He had set his heart on being maître d’hôtel, and he invented a theory that the patron’s money was tied up in shares and he was waiting a favourable moment for selling. On the tenth day I had nothing to eat or smoke, and I told the patron that I could not continue working without an advance on my wages. As blandly as usual, the patron promised the advance, and then, according to his custom, vanished. I walked part of the way home, but I did not feel equal to a scene with Madame F. over the rent, so I passed the night on a bench on the boulevard. It was very uncomfortable—the arm of the seat cuts into your back—and much colder than I had expected. There was plenty of time, in the long boring hours between dawn and work, to think what a fool I had been to deliver myself into the hands of these Russians.
Then, in the morning, the luck changed. Evidently the patron had come to an understanding with his creditors, for he arrived with money in his pockets, set the alterations going, and gave me my advance. Boris and I bought macaroni and a piece of horse’s liver, and had our first hot meal in ten days.
The workmen were brought in and the alterations made, hastily and with incredible shoddiness. The tables, for instance, were to be covered with baize, but when the patron found that baize was expensive he bought instead disused army blankets, smelling incorrigibly of sweat. The table cloths (they were check, to go with the ‘Norman’ decorations) would cover them, of course. On the last night we were at work till two in the morning, getting things ready. The crockery did not arrive till eight, and, being new, had all to be washed. The cutlery did not arrive till the next morning, nor the linen either, so that we had to dry the crockery with a shirt of the patron’s and an old pillowslip belonging to the concierge. Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking, and the patron and his wife sat in the bar with a dun and some Russian friends, drinking success to the restaurant. The cook was in the kitchen with her head on the table, crying, because she was expected to cook for fifty people, and there were not pots and pans enough for ten. About midnight there was a fearful interview with some duns, who came intending to seize eight copper saucepans which the patron had obtained on credit. They were bought off with half a bottle of brandy.
Jules and I missed the last Métro home and had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant. The first thing we saw in the morning were two large rats sitting on the kitchen table, eating from a ham that stood there. It seemed a bad omen, and I was surer than ever that the Auberge de Jehan Cottard would turn out a failure.