It was the first time that I had been in a French pawnshop. One went through grandiose stone portals (marked, of course, ‘Liberté, Egatité, Fraternité’ they write that even over the police stations in France) into a large, bare room like a school classroom, with a counter and rows of benches. Forty or fifty people were waiting. One handed one’s pledge over the counter and sat down. Presently, when the clerk had assessed its value he would call out, ‘Numéro such and such, will you take fifty francs?’ Sometimes it was only fifteen francs, or ten, or five—whatever it was, the whole room knew it. As I Came in the clerk called with an air of offence, ‘Numéro 83—here!’ and gave a little whistle and a beckon, as though calling a dog. Numéro 83 stepped to the counter; he was an old bearded man, with an overcoat buttoned up at the neck and frayed trouser-ends. Without a word the clerk shot the bundle across the counter—evidently it was worth nothing. It fell to the ground and came open, displaying four pairs of men’s woollen pants. No one could help laughing. Poor Numéro 83 gathered up his pants and shambled out, muttering to himself.
The clothes I was pawning, together with the suitcase, had cost over twenty pounds, and were in good condition. I thought they must be worth ten pounds, and a quarter of this (one expects quarter value at a pawnshop) was two hundred and fifty or three hundred francs. I waited without anxiety, expecting two hundred francs at the worst.
At last the clerk called my number: ‘Numéro 97!’
‘Yes,’ I said, standing up.
Seventy francs for ten pounds’ worth of clothes! But it was no use arguing; I had seen someone else attempt to argue, and the clerk had instantly refused the pledge. I took the money and the pawnticket and walked out. I had now no clothes except what I stood up in—the coat badly out at the elbow—an overcoat, moderately pawnable, and one spare shirt. Afterwards, when it was too late, I learned that it was wiser to go to a pawnshop in the afternoon. The clerks are French, and, like most French people, are in a bad temper till they have eaten their lunch.
When I got home, Madame F. was sweeping the bistro floor. She came up the steps to meet me. I could see in her eye that she was uneasy about my rent.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘what did you get for your clothes? Not much, eh?’
‘Two hundred francs,’ I said promptly.
‘Tiens!’ she said, surprised; ‘well, that’s not bad. How expensive those English clothes must be!’
The lie saved a lot of trouble, and, strangely enough, it came true. A few days later I did receive exactly two hundred francs due to me for a newspaper article, and, though it hurt to do it, I at once paid every penny of it in rent. So, though I came near to starving in the following weeks, I was hardly ever without a roof.
It was now absolutely necessary to find work, and I remembered a friend of mine, a Russian waiter named Boris, who might be able to help me. I had first met him in the public ward of a hospital, where he was being treated for arthritis in the left leg. He had told me to come to him if I were ever in difficulties.
I must say something about Boris, for he was a curious character and my close friend for a long time. He was a big, soldierly man of about thirty-five, and had been good looking, but since his illness he had grown immensely fat from lying in bed. Like most Russian refugees, he had had an adventurous life. His parents, killed in the Revolution, had been rich people, and he had served through the war in the Second Siberian Rifles, which, according to him, was the best regiment in the Russian Army. After the war he had first worked in a brush factory, then as a porter at Les Halles, then had become a dishwasher, and had finally worked his way up to be a waiter. When he fell ill he was at the Hôtel Scribe, and taking a hundred francs a day in tips. His ambition was to become a maître d’hôtel, save fifty thousand francs, and set up a small, select restaurant on the Right Bank.
Boris always talked of the war as the happiest time of his life. War and soldiering were his passion; he had read innumerable books of strategy and military history, and could tell you all about the theories of Napoleon, Kutuzof, Clausewitz, Moltke and Foch. Anything to do with soldiers pleased him. His favourite cafe was the Gloserie des Lilas in Montparnasse, simply because the statue of Marshal Ney stands outside it. Later on, Boris and I sometimes went to the rue du Commerce together. If we went by Métro, Boris always got out at Cambronne station instead of Commerce, though Commerce was nearer; he liked the association with General Cambronne, who was called on to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, ‘Merde!’
The only things left to Boris by the Revolution were his medals and some photographs of his old regiment; he had kept these when everything else went to the pawnshop. Almost every day he would spread the photographs out on the bed and talk about them:
‘Voilà, mon ami. There you see me at the head of my company. Fine big men, eh? Not like these little rats of Frenchmen. A captain at twenty—not bad, eh? Yes, a captain in the Second Siberian Rifles; and my father was a colonel.
‘Ah, mais, mon ami, the ups and downs of life! A captain in the Russian Army, and then, piff! the Revolution—every penny gone. In 1916 I stayed a week at the Hôtel Édouard Sept; in 1920 I was trying for a job as night watchman there. I have been night watchman, cellarman, floor scrubber, dishwasher, porter, lavatory attendant. I have tipped waiters, and I have been tipped by waiters.
‘Ah, but I have known what it is to live like a gentleman, mon ami. I do not say it to boast, but the other day I was trying to compute how many mistresses I have had in my life, and I made it out to be over two hundred. Yes, at least two hundred . . . Ah, well, ça reviendra. Victory is to him who fights the longest. Courage!’ etc. etc.
Boris had a queer, changeable nature. He always wished himself back in the army, but he had also been a waiter long enough to acquire the waiter’s outlook. Though he had never saved more than a few thousand francs, he took it for granted that in the end he would be able to set up his own restaurant and grow rich. All waiters, I afterwards found, talk and think of this; it is what reconciles them to being waiters. Boris used to talk interestingly about Hôtel life:
‘Waiting is a gamble,’ he used to say; ‘you may die poor, you may make your fortune in a year. You are not paid wages, you depend on tips—ten per cent of the bill, and a commission from the wine companies on champagne corks. Sometimes the tips are enormous. The barman at Maxim’s, for instance, makes five hundred francs a day. More than five hundred, in the season . . . I have made two hundred francs a day myself. It was at a Hôtel in Biarritz, in the season. The whole staff, from the manager down to the plongeurs, was working twenty-one hours a day. Twenty-one hours’ work and two and a half hours in bed, for a month on end. Still, it was worth it, at two hundred francs a day.
‘You never know when a stroke of luck is coming. Once when I was at the Hôtel Royal an American customer sent for me before dinner and ordered twenty-four brandy cocktails. I brought them all together on a tray, in twenty-four glasses. “Now, guarçon,” said the customer (he was drunk), “I’ll drink twelve and you’ll drink twelve, and if you can walk to the door afterwards you get a hundred francs.” I walked to the door, and he gave me a hundred francs. And every night for six days he did the same thing; twelve brandy cocktails, then a hundred francs. A few months later I heard he had been extradited by the American Government—embezzlement. There is something fine, do you not think, about these Americans?’
I liked Boris, and we had interesting times together, playing chess and talking about war and Hôtels. Boris used often to suggest that I should become a waiter. ‘The life would suit you,’ he used to say; ‘when you are in work, with a hundred francs a day and a nice mistress, it’s not bad. You say you go in for writing. Writing is bosh. There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter. But you would make a good waiter if you shaved that moustache off. You are tall and you speak English—those are the chief things a waiter needs. Wait till I can bend this accursed leg, mon ami. And then, if you are ever out of a job, come to me.’
Now that I was short of my rent, and getting hungry, I remembered Boris’s promise, and decided to look him up at once. I did not hope to become a waiter so easily as he had promised, but of course I knew how to scrub dishes, and no doubt he could get me a job in the kitchen. He had said that dishwashing jobs were to be had for the asking during the summer. It was a great relief to remember that I had after all one influential friend to fall back on.