Jules Vallès (1832-1885)
From Le Bachelier
I arrive at Monsieur Caumont’s, and find him in his sitting-room with his wife.
He welcomes me as if I had a private income of forty-thousand pounds. It is the first time that I am so well received and that anyone is so polite with me.
It’s nearly embarrassing. I feel myself obliged to admit my poverty to him.
“Monsieur Eudel has told you that I don’t really know when I’ll be able to pay you.”
Monsieur Caumont seems as surprised as could be.
I press the point. Oh, trouble is brewing!
“Monsieur Vingtras, if you speak once more of money, we shall fall out! Come, what shall we do for you?
“A frock coat.”
“A frock coat?” Monsieur Caumont is stunned, Madame Caumont likewise. They consult with their eyes.
I’m afraid I’ve gone too far. I should have just asked for a short little jacket.
I strive to make good my blunder and make gestures coming to half way down my backside; I saw my backside with my hand.
“With tiny little basques. I like my basques short.”
It’s not true; I like basques long. It’s like with the fish-heads instead of whole fish, at Turquet’s: you need less material for short basques, and I will find it easier to get credit if the suit is cut as if for a dwarf.
Monsieur and Madame Caumont cry out; they seem delivered of a mighty weight.
“You’re talking about a jacket! We were thinking as much: a frock coat, that’s well and good for those in offices and for old people, but for a young man such as yourself …! You need something like this!”
I am shown a jacket which is hanging on a chair, and which has an elegant turn to it: olive buttons, brown silk lining, grey shadings, of a soft and lively grey, like steel-dust.
I am given a choice of materials.
How supple it is under one’s hand! It is as if I were caressing and counting bank notes.
I play the blasé, and wink and act the connoisseur.
In the end I decide on a very dark fabric; I hate dark colours, but I imagine to myself that in choosing sad fabrics I come across as being more serious and consequently that I present more of a guarantee of solvency. I regret not having worn blue-tinted glasses.
“Come now; decidedly, you want to be a member of the Académie,” says Monsieur Caumont, smiling delicately, “but one has to be forty years old for a fabric like that. You may as well measure up for a coffin.”
I am heading askew: “Monsieur Vingtras, you are heading askew! You are going to make a mess of your coat!”
I abandon the inspection of samples, declaring that I am at a loss in that domain; like a tired man, I fall back upon the excuse of my sedentary life.
“I live among my books; I never leave my books. Could you choose for me?”
“That we never do. The customer afterwards is bound to be unhappy.”
“I understand, but honestly, being in the habit of thinking …. Thus, for example, I was just this second thinking of a Roman custom …”
“Ah yes, people who live the life of the mind, I know!”
Monsieur and Madame Caumont have an air of feeling sorry for my cerebrum, and decide to make an exception for me. They choose me an overcoat.
“For your breeches, how would like the seat of them?”
Of the one colour! Ah, all of the one colour! My last pair of breeches had a seat ever so slightly different in colour from the belly and the legs! All of the one colour! I would beg for it on my knees.
These cries very nearly escaped me, like a pair of too large pants that I one time in someone’s house nearly let fall, having forgotten in the heat of conversation to hold them up by clenching them tight behind my back.
I was able, God be thanked, to strangle them in my breast.
“You haven’t said for the seat.”
I play the man returning from a far-off place. I shake my head wearily. Monsieur Caumont carries on insistently.
“Do you prefer it tight? the buckle raised? the buckle dropped?”
I prefer the buckle exactly on the stomach. When I have not enough in order to dine, I’ll tighten it one notch, two notches.
“The buckle at the level of the navel, if you please, Monsieur Caumont.”
We pass to the long coat.
“What shape do your overcoats have normally?”
Of a sack, generally, of a bit of newspaper wrapped around a leg of lamb, of a rag around a batch of sticks, voila the shape of my overcoats up to this point; but to Monsieur Caumont I reply, “I have never noticed the cut of my clothing,” with a sad smile and shaking my head, “for I live on the work of the mind.”
Liar! I live on nothing! On a bit of sausage or a wedge of Roquefort, but not on the work of the mind, and not on leaning over my books. It cuts my appetite straight away, what’s more; it’s like a bar across my stomach when the volumes are any way sizeable.
Monsieur Caumont takes my measurements, then opens an order book.
“How do spell your name, please? ‘Vintras’, with no g?”
I don’t want to displease; he has perhaps a horror of the letter g. I agree to a falsification; I deform the name of my fathers.
“That’s right, with no g.”
“Residence Broussais, rue d’Enfer, 52.”
I don’t live at the Residence Broussais, rue d’Enfer, 52, but I couldn’t give my own address. I gave that of a friend who pays thirty francs a month. It’s a palace where he lives.
It’s the first time in my life that I have kept my cool, that I have found right away what it was I should say; the lie gave me confidence.
As it should happen, Monsieur Caumont knows the house.
“The one with a statue of the god of the gardens in the courtyard?”
“That’s the one.”
I have never noticed the statue - I don’t generally notice statues -, but I say, “that’s the one” off the top of my head, because Monsieur Caumont seems to like the house.
“Do you like the arts, Monsieur Vin-tras?”
He was expecting more, I can see it.
I had answered as if he had asked me about a dish: of radishes, of meatballs, of veal lung. I think I would do right to press the point, to give some development to my thought, and I repeat with some little heat, “I like the arts very much.”