Moveable Feast (Chapter 4)
People of the Seine
There were many ways of walking down to the river from the top of the rue Cardinal Lemoine. The shortest one was straight down the street but it was steep and it brought you out, after you hit the flat part and crossed the busy traffic of the beginning of the Boulevard St.-Germain, onto a dull part where there was a bleak, windy stretch of river bank with the Halle aux Vins on your right. This was not like any other Paris market but was a sort of bonded warehouse where wine was stored against the payment of taxes and was as cheerless from the outside as a military depot or a prison camp.
Across the branch of the Seine was the Île St.-Louis with the narrow streets and the old, tall, beautiful houses, and you could go over there or you could turn left and walk along the quais with the length of the Île St.-Louis and then Notre-Dame and Île de la Cité opposite as you walked.
In the bookstalls along the quais you could sometimes find American books that had just been published for sale very cheap. The Tour D’Argent restaurant had a few rooms above the restaurant that they rented in those days, giving the people who lived there a discount in the restaurant, and if the people who lived there left any books behind there was a bookstall not far along the quai where the valet de chambre sold them and you could buy them from the proprietress for a very few francs. She had no confidence in books written in English, paid almost nothing for them, and sold them for a small and quick profit.
“Are they any good?” she asked me after we had become friends.
“Sometimes one is.”
“How can anyone tell?”
“I can tell when I read them.”
“But still it is a form of gambling. And how many people can read English?”
“Save them for me and let me look them over.”
“No. I can’t save them. You don’t pass regularly. You stay away too long at a time. I have to sell them as soon as I can. No one can tell if they are worthless. If they turn out to be worthless, I would never sell them.”
“How do you tell a valuable French book?”
“First there are the pictures. Then it is a question of the quality of the pictures. Then it is the binding. If a book is good, the owner will have it bound properly. All books in English are bound, but bound badly. There is no way of judging them.”
After that bookstall near the Tour D’Argent there were no others that sold American and English books until the quai des Grands Augustins. There were several from there on to beyond the quai Voltaire that sold books they bought from employees of the left bank hotels and especially the Hotel Voltaire which had a wealthier clientele than most. One day I asked another woman stall-keeper who was a friend of mine if the owners ever sold the books.
“No,” she said. “They are all thrown away. That is why one knows they have no value.”
“Friends give them to them to read on the boats.”
“Doubtless,” she said. “They must leave many on the boats.”
“They do,” I said. “The line keeps them and binds them and they become the ships’ libraries.”
“That’s intelligent,” she said. “At least they are properly bound then. Now a book like that would have value.”
I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood. At the head of the Île de la Cité below the Pont Neuf where there was the statue of Henri Quatre, the island ended in a point like the sharp bow of a ship and there was a small park at the water’s edge with fine chestnut trees, huge and spreading, and in the currents and back waters that the Seine made flowing past, there were excellent places to fish. You went down a stairway to the park and watched the fishermen there and under the great bridge. The good spots to fish changed with the height of the river and the fishermen used long, jointed, cane poles but fished with very fine leaders and light gear and quill floats and expertly baited the piece of water that they fished. They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a plateful. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.
One of the best places to eat them was at an open-air restaurant built out over the river at Bas Meudon where we would go when we had money for a trip away from our quarter. It was called La Pêche Miraculeuse and had a splendid white wine that was a sort of Muscadet. It was a place out of a Maupassant story with the view over the river as Sisley had painted it. You did not have to go that far to eat goujon. You could get a very good friture on the Île St.-Louis.
I knew several of the men who fished the fruitful parts of the Seine between the Île St.-Louis and the Place du Verte Galente and sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.
Travel writers wrote about the men fishing in the Seine as though they were crazy and never caught anything; but it was serious and productive fishing. Most of the fishermen were men who had small pensions, which they did not know then would become worthless with inflation, or keen fishermen who fished on their days or half-days off from work. There was better fishing at Charenton, where the Marne came into the Seine, and on either side of Paris, but there was very good fishing in Paris itself. I did not fish because I did not have the tackle and I preferred to save my money to fish in Spain. Then too I never knew when I would be through working, nor when I would have to be away, and I did not want to become involved in the fishing which had its good times and its slack times. But I followed it closely and it was interesting and good to know about, and it always made me happy that there were men fishing in the city itself, having sound, serious fishing and taking a few fritures home to their families.
With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smoke-stacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river. With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.
A False Spring
When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.
In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept. The windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain. The sun was drying the wet faces of the houses that faced the window. The shops were still shuttered. The goatherd came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers. The goatherd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing. I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk. She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and then the shutting of her door. She was the only customer for goat milk in our building.
I decided to go down and buy a morning racing paper. There was no quarter too poor to have at least one copy of a racing paper but you had to buy it early on a day like this. I found one in the rue Descartes at the corner of the Place Contrescarpe. The goats were going down the rue Descartes and I breathed the air in and walked back fast to climb the stairs and get my work done. I had been tempted to stay out and follow the goats down the early morning street. But before I started work again I looked at the paper. They were running at Enghien, the small, pretty and larcenous track that was the home of the outsider.
So that day after I had finished work we would go racing. Some money had come from the Toronto paper that I did newspaper work for and we wanted a long shot if we could find one. My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chèvre d’Or that was a hundred and twenty to one and leading by twenty lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us six months. We tried never to think of that. We were ahead on that year until Chèvre d’Or.
“Do we have enough money to really bet, Tatie?” my wife asked.
“No. We’ll just figure to spend what we take. Is there something else you’d rather spend it for?”
“Well,” she said.
“I know. It’s been terribly hard and I’ve been tight and mean about money.”
“No,” she said. “But—”
I knew how severe I had been and how bad things had been. The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers. I thought of bathtubs and showers and toilets that flushed as things that inferior people to us had or that you enjoyed when you made trips, which we often made. There was always the public bathhouse down at the foot of the street by the river. My wife had never complained once about these things any more than she cried about Chèvre d’Or when he fell. She had cried for the horse, I remembered, but not for the money. I had been stupid when she needed a grey lamb jacket and had loved it once she had bought it. I had been stupid about other things too. It was all part of the fight against poverty that you never win except by not spending. Especially if you buy pictures instead of clothes. But then we did not think ever of ourselves as poor. We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich. It had never seemed strange to me to wear sweatshirts for underwear to keep warm. It only seemed odd to the rich. We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.
“I think we ought to go,” my wife said. “We haven’t been for such a long time. We’ll take a lunch and some wine. I’ll make good sandwiches.”
“We’ll go on the train and it’s cheap that way. But let’s not go if you don’t think we should. Anything we’d do today would be fun. It’s a wonderful day.”
“I think we should go.”
“You wouldn’t rather spend it some other way?”
“No,” she said arrogantly. She had the lovely high cheek-bones for arrogance. “Who are we anyway?”
So we went out by the train from the Gare du Nord through the dirtiest and saddest part of town and walked from the siding to the oasis of the track. It was early and we sat on my raincoat on the fresh cropped grass bank and had our lunch and drank from the wine bottle and looked at the old grandstand, the brown wooden betting booths, the green of the track, the darker green of the hurdles, and the brown shine of the water jumps and the whitewashed stone walls and white posts and rails, the paddock under the new leafed trees and the first horses being walked to the paddock. We drank more wine and studied the form in the paper and my wife lay down on the raincoat to sleep with the sun on her face. I went over and found someone I knew from the old days at San Siro in Milano. He gave me two horses.
“Mind, they’re no investment. But don’t let the price put you off.”
We won the first with half of the money that we had to spend and he paid twelve to one, jumping beautifully, taking command on the far side of the course and coming in four lengths ahead. We saved half of the money and put it away and bet the other half on the second horse who broke ahead, led all the way over the hurdles and on the flat just lasted to the finish line with the favorite gaining on him with every jump and the two whips flailing.
We went to have a glass of champagne at the bar under the stand and wait for the prices to go up.
“My, but racing is very hard on people,” my wife said. “Did you see that horse come up on him?”
“I can still feel it inside me.”
“What will he pay?”
“The cote was eighteen to one. But they may have bet him at the last.”
The horses came by, ours wet, with his nostrils working wide to breathe, the jockey patting him.
“Poor him,” my wife said. “We just bet.”
We watched them go on by and had another glass of champagne and then the winning price came up: 85. That meant he paid eighty-five francs for ten.
“They must have put a lot of money on at the end,” I said.
But we had made plenty of money, big money for us, and now we had spring and money too. I thought that was all we needed. A day like that one, if you split the winnings one quarter for each to spend, left a half for racing capital. I kept the racing capital secret and apart from all other capital.
Another day later that year when we had come back from one of our voyages and had good luck at some track again we stopped at Pruniers on the way home, going in to sit at the bar after looking at all the clearly priced wonders in the window. We had oysters and crabe Mexicaine with glasses of Sancerre. We walked back through the Tuileries in the dark and stood and looked through the Arc du Carrousel up across the dark gardens with the lights of the Concorde behind the formal darkness and then the long rise of lights toward the Arc de Triomphe. Then we looked back toward the dark of the Louvre and I said, “Do you really think that the three arches are in line? These two and the Sermione in Milano?”
“I don’t know, Tatie. They say so and they ought to know. Do you remember when we came out into the spring on the Italian side of the St. Bernard after the climb in the snow, and you and Chink and I walked down all day in the spring to Aosta?”
“Chink called it ‘across the St. Bernard in street shoes.’ Remember your shoes?”
“My poor shoes. Do you remember us having fruit cup at Biffi’s in the Galleria with Capri and fresh peaches and wild strawberries in a tall glass pitcher with ice?”
“That time was what made me wonder about the three arches.”
“I remember the Sermione. It’s like this arch.”
“Do you remember the inn at Aigle where you and Chink sat in the garden that day and read while I fished?”
I remembered the Rhône, narrow and grey and full of snow water and the two trout streams on either side, the Stockalper and the Rhône canal. The Stockalper was really clear that day and the Rhône canal was still murky.
“Do you remember when the horse-chestnut trees were in bloom and how I tried to remember a story that Jim Gamble, I think, had told me about a wisteria vine and I couldn’t remember it?”
“Yes Tatie, and you and Chink always talking about how to make things true, writing them, and put them rightly and not describe. I remember everything. Sometimes he was right and sometimes you were right. I remember the lights and textures and the shapes you argued about.”
Now we had come out of the gateway through the Louvre and crossed the street outside and were standing on the bridge leaning on the stone and looking down at the river.
“We all three argued about everything and always specific things and we made fun of each other. I remember everything we ever did and everything we ever said on the whole trip,” Hadley said. “I do really. About everything. When you and Chink talked I was included. It wasn’t like being a wife at Miss Stein’s.”
“I wish I could remember the story about the wisteria vine.”
“It wasn’t important. It was the vine that was important, Tatie.”
“Do you remember I brought some wine from Aigle home to the chalet? They sold it to us at the inn. They said it should go with the trout. We brought it wrapped in copies of La gazette de Lucerne, I think.”
“The Sion wine was even better. Do you remember how Mrs. Gangeswisch cooked the trout au bleu when we got back to the chalet? They were such wonderful trout, Tatie, and we drank the Sion wine and ate out on the porch with the mountainside dropping off below and we could look across the lake and see the Dent du Midi with the snow half down it and the trees at the mouth of the Rhône where it flowed into the lake.”
“We always miss Chink in the winter and the spring.”
“Always. And I miss him now when it is gone.”
Chink was a professional soldier and had gone out to Mons from Sandhurst. I had met him first in Italy and he had been my best friend and then our best friend for a long time. He spent his leaves with us then.
“He’s going to try to get leave this next spring. He wrote last week from Cologne.”
“I know. We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.”
“We’re watching the water now as it hits this buttress. Look what we can see when we look up the river.”
We looked and there it all was: our river and our city and the island of our city.
“We’re too lucky,” she said. “I hope Chink will come. He takes care of us.”
“He doesn’t think so.”
“Of course not.”
“He thinks we explore together.”
“We do. But it depends on what you explore.”
We walked across the bridge and were on our own side of the river.
“Are you hungry again?” I said. “Us. Talking and walking.”
“Of course, Tatie. Aren’t you?”
“Let’s go to a wonderful place and have a truly grand dinner.”
“That’s perfect and it’s so close.”
So we walked up the rue des Saints-Pères to the corner of the rue Jacob stopping and looking in the windows at pictures and at furniture. We stood outside of Michaud’s restaurant reading the posted menu. Michaud’s was crowded and we waited for people to come out, watching the tables where people already had their coffee.
We were hungry again from walking and Michaud’s was an exciting and expensive restaurant for us. It was where Joyce ate with his family then, he and his wife against the wall, Joyce peering at the menu through his thick glasses holding the menu up in one hand; Nora by him, a hearty but delicate eater; Giorgio thin, foppish, sleek-headed from the back; Lucia with heavy curly hair, a girl not quite yet grown; all of them talking Italian.
Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, “I don’t know, Tatie. There are so many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.”
I was being stupid, and looking in the window and seeing two tournedos being served I knew I was hungry in a simple way.
“You said we were lucky today. Of course we were. But we had very good advice and information.”
“I didn’t mean about the racing. You’re such a literal boy. I meant lucky other ways.”
“I don’t think Chink cares for racing,” I said compounding my stupidity.
“No. He’d only care for it if he were riding.”
“Don’t you want to go racing any more?”
“Of course. And now we can go whenever we want again.”
“But you really want to go?”
“Of course. You do, don’t you?”
It was a wonderful meal at Michaud’s after we got in; but when we had finished and there was no question of hunger any more the feeling that had been like hunger when we were on the bridge was still there when we caught the bus home. It was there when we came in the room and after we had gone to bed and made love in the dark, it was there. When I woke with the windows open and the moonlight on the roofs of the tall houses, it was there. I put my face away from the moonlight into the shadow but I could not sleep and lay awake thinking about it. We had both wakened twice in the night and my wife slept sweetly now with the moonlight on her face. I had to try to think it out and I was too stupid. Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring and heard the pipes of the man with his herd of goats and gone out and bought the racing paper.
But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.