‘Ah,’ the duke would say, ‘so you are an old soldier, like myself? These are bad days, eh? Well, well, the Russian soldier fears nothing. And what was your regiment?’
‘The so-and-so, sir,’ the waiter would answer.
‘A very gallant regiment! I inspected them in 1912. By the way, I have unfortunately left my notecase at home. A Russian officer will, I know, oblige me with three hundred francs.’
If the waiter had three hundred francs he would hand it over, and, of course, never see it again. The duke made quite a lot in this way. Probably the waiters did not mind being swindled. A duke is a duke, even in exile.
It was through one of these Russian refugees that Boris heard of something which seemed to promise money. Two days after we had pawned the overcoats, Boris said to me rather mysteriously:
‘Tell me, mon ami, have you any political opinions?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Neither have I. Of course, one is always a patriot; but still—Did not Moses say something about spoiling the Egyptians? As an Englishman you will have read the Bible. What I mean is, would you object to earning money from Communists?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Well, it appears that there is a Russian secret society in Paris who might do something for us. They are Communists; in fact they are agents for the Bolsheviks. They act as a friendly society, get in touch with exiled Russians, and try to get them to turn Bolshevik. My friend has joined their society, and he thinks they would help us if we went to them.’
‘But what can they do for us? In any case they won’t help me, as I’m not a Russian.’
‘That is just the point. It seems that they are correspondents for a Moscow paper, and they want some articles on English politics. If we got to them at once they may commission you to write the articles.’
‘Me? But I don’t know anything about politics.’
‘Merde! Neither do they. Who does know anything about politics? It’s easy. All you have to do is to copy it out of the English papers. Isn’t there a Paris Daily Mail? Copy it from that.’
‘But the Daily Mail is a Conservative paper. They loathe the Communists.’
‘Well, say the opposite of what the Daily Mail says, then you can’t be wrong. We mustn’t throw this chance away, mon ami. It might mean hundreds of francs.’
I did not like the idea, for the Paris police are very hard on Communists, especially if they are foreigners, and I was already under suspicion. Some months before, a detective had seen me come out of the office of a Communist weekly paper, and I had had a great deal of trouble with the police. If they caught me going to this secret society, it might mean deportation. However, the chance seemed too good to be missed. That afternoon Boris’s friend, another waiter, came to take us to the rendezvous. I cannot remember the name of the street—it was a shabby street running south from the Seine bank, somewhere near the Chamber of Deputies. Boris’s friend insisted on great caution. We loitered casually down the street, marked the doorway we were to enter—it was a laundry—and then strolled back again, keeping an eye on all the windows and cafes. If the place were known as a haunt of Communists it was probably watched, and we intended to go home if we saw anyone at all like a detective. I was frightened, but Boris enjoyed these conspiratorial proceedings, and quite forgot that he was about to trade with the slayers of his parents.
When we were certain that the coast was clear we dived quickly into the doorway. In the laundry was a Frenchwoman ironing clothes, who told us that ‘the Russian gentlemen’ lived up a staircase across the courtyard. We went up several flights of dark stairs and emerged on to a landing. A strong, surly-looking young man, with hair growing low on his head, was standing at the top of the stairs. As I came up he looked at me suspiciously, barred the way with his arm and said something in Russian.
‘Mot d’ordre!’ he said sharply when I did not answer.
I stopped, startled. I had not expected passwords.
‘Mot d’ordre!’ repeated the Russian.
Boris’s friend, who was walking behind, now came forward and said something in Russian, either the password or an explanation. At this, the surly young man seemed satisfied, and led us into a small, shabby room with frosted windows. It was like a very poverty-stricken office, with propaganda posters in Russian lettering and a huge, crude picture of Lenin tacked on the walls. At the table sat an unshaven Russian in shirt sleeves, addressing newspaper wrappers from a pile in front of him. As I came in he spoke to me in French, with a bad accent.
‘This is very careless!’ he exclaimed fussily. ‘Why have you come here without a parcel of washing?’
‘Everybody who comes here brings washing. It looks as though they were going to the laundry downstairs. Bring a good, large bundle next time. We don’t want the police on our tracks.’
This was even more conspiratorial than I had expected. Boris sat down in the only vacant chair, and there was a great deal of talking in Russian. Only the unshaven man talked; the surly one leaned against the wall with his eyes on me, as though he still suspected me. It was queer, standing in the little secret room with its revolutionary posters, listening to a conversation of which I did not understand a word. The Russians talked quickly and eagerly, with smiles and shrugs of the shoulders. I wondered what it was all about. They would be calling each other ‘little father’, I thought, and ‘little dove’, and ‘Ivan Alexandrovitch’, like the characters in Russian novels. And the talk would be of revolutions. The unshaven man would be saying firmly, ‘We never argue. Controversy is a bourgeois pastime. Deeds are our arguments.’ Then I gathered that it was not this exactly. Twenty francs was being demanded, for an entrance fee apparently, and Boris was promising to pay it (we had just seventeen francs in the world). Finally Boris produced our precious store of money and paid five francs on account.
At this the surly man looked less suspicious, and sat down on the edge of the table. The unshaven one began to question me in French, making notes on a slip of paper. Was I a Communist? he asked. By sympathy, I answered; I had never joined any organization. Did I understand the political situation in England? Oh, of course, of course. I mentioned the names of various Ministers, and made some contemptuous remarks about the Labour Party. And what about Le Sport? Could I do articles on Le Sport? (Football and Socialism have some mysterious connexion on the Continent.) Oh, of course, again. Both men nodded gravely. The unshaven one said:
‘Évidemment, you have a thorough knowledge of conditions in England. Could you undertake to write a series of articles for a Moscow weekly paper? We will give you the particulars.’
‘Then, comrade, you will hear from us by the first post tomorrow. Or possibly the second post. Our rate of pay is a hundred and fifty francs an article. Remember to bring a parcel of washing next time you come. Au revoir, comrade.’
We went downstairs, looked carefully out of the laundry to see if there was anyone in the street, and slipped out. Boris was wild with joy. In a sort of sacrificial ecstasy he rushed into the nearest tobacconist’s and spent fifty centimes on a cigar. He came out thumping his stick on the pavement and beaming.
‘At last! At last! Now, mon ami, out fortune really is made. You took them in finely. Did you hear him call you comrade? A hundred and fifty francs an article—nom de Dieu, what luck!’
Next morning when I heard the postman I rushed down to the bistro for my letter; to my disappointment, it had not come. I stayed at home for the second post; still no letter. When three days had gone by and I had not heard from the secret society, we gave up hope, deciding that they must have found somebody else to do their articles.
Ten days later we made another visit to the office of the secret society, taking care to bring a parcel that looked like washing. And the secret society had vanished! The woman in the laundry knew nothing—she simply said that ‘ces messieurs’ had left some days ago, after trouble about the rent. What fools we looked, standing there with our parcel! But it was a consolation that we had paid only five francs instead of twenty.
And that was the last we ever heard of the secret society. Who or what they really were, nobody knew. Personally I do not think they had anything to do with the Communist Party; I think they were simply swindlers, who preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary society. It was quite safe, and no doubt they are still doing it in some other city. They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.