Poor Sap by Georges de la Fouchardiere by Georges de la Fouchardiere - Read Online

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Poor Sap - Georges de la Fouchardiere

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Sap

Georges de la Fouchardiere

This page copyright © 2007 Olympia Press.

Copyright 1930 by Albin Michel

To

My Friend

MAURICE METAYER

AUTHOR'S PREFACE

Ordinarily in a novel the principal character is the author. It is he who takes the floor, makes the explanations, and imposes upon you his sympathies and his antipathies for or against his puppets, whose fate he has determined before their creation, according to the divine plan.

That is not right. It is not always even agreeable.

In fairness in setting forth a tale which I have, perhaps, imagined, I have chosen a technique borrowed from dramatic art, though not entirely unknown in fiction. Each of the characters who participate in the story will in turn take the stage and tell in his own way about events in which he has been implicated.

These characters are not many. There are—as always—He, She, and The Other.

He is an honest fellow, diffident, not very young, but extraordinarily credulous. He follows a humble profession, but has managed to give himself an intellectual and spiritual education above that of the environment in which he moves—just enough above so that those of his circle regard him as not quite all there.... Accept his confidences as you please, like the Confessions of Jean-Jacques.... It is a private soliloquy you will hear, or, say, a diary—at any rate nothing intended for public consumption.

She is a young woman with her own brand of charm and with her own shoddiness, too, who can nevertheless fire a passion and set in flames a nature hitherto untouched and, hence, inflammable.... When it is her turn, she tells her side of it in a letter to, or direct conversation with, a girl friend. She is always sincere and—forever lying.

The Other is of the young racketeer-gigolo type that has become common in Paris since the war. His ambition is a job with the movies or running a garage. Meanwhile the woman is supporting him. His hair is slicked down with brilliantine, he wears a loud signet-ring and sports silk hosiery. When he speaks, you must picture him draped over a bar, one eyelid drooping, cigarette-smoke blowing through his nostrils, as he impresses the pal who listens to his big talk.

Such are the three you are going to know.

Perhaps I have known them.

It is He who speaks first.

POOR SAP

Chapter I. HE

LAST night something happened to me.... It is the first time in my life that anything ever happened to me; and I'm forty-two....

Maybe it was all just commonplace. Maybe the adventure I'm going to tell about happened only in my imagination—because I had been looking for it so long....

Yesterday evening the people who work at Jules Henriot's, where I'm a cashier, gave a banquet to the chief, who had just been decorated for his work in the election campaign. These stag dinners always have a dismal gaiety; they begin with talking politics and wind up with dirt.... I ate too much, drank a lot, and laughed as hard as the rest at the stories we all knew by heart. But it was the chief telling them....

About one o'clock in the morning I found myself all alone on the avenue Trudaine without any definite plan. I had refused when the others wanted to take me to finish the evening where such parties usually finish. In all walks of life, it seems, there comes the moment when the gentlemen present begin to grow tired of smoking together, and somebody suggests going to look up the ladies. And they don't mean their wives, either.

I objected, not for any holier-than-thou reason, but because, once I had paid for my banquet ticket, I had only thirty francs left, over and above what my wife gives me every week for carfare.... Then, too, like all retiring people, I have a horror of appearing ridiculous; and nothing is more ridiculous than a party of men, bloated, asinine, and pop-eyed, flocking into a night-club, or some other place less particular about how you dress. You have to be there first, as a spectator, to get the full idea of it—the looks, amused or frankly mercenary, that the new-comers get, the joyous bantering and the scornful deference—but you nearly always forget what you're in for when you're the one that's making the entrance.

I had pleaded that I had to get home so Adele wouldn't worry, but the men understood the situation exactly. Somebody murmured: 'Poor old Pop Legrand—tied to his wife's apron-strings!'

To tell the truth, he wasn't so far wrong.

As soon as I had parted from my friends, I took a direction away from the home nest, where my wife would be waiting for me—sitting up for me, too, never fear; multiplying her grievances and sharpening her tongue, all prepared to find on the shoulder of my dinner coat some fleck of face-powder or to disentangle from its general aroma of mothballs some suspicious perfume....

I had been walking aimlessly, or at least without any other purpose than to put off the fatal moment of getting back to her—my desiccated, skinny wife with her grenadier's look and her clammy feet.... My wife, grim widow of the heroic top sergeant, dead now on the field of honor, whose virtues were dinned daily into my ears to show up my own faults by contrast; my wife, who saw to it every night that I atoned for the blunder of having married her, as I did, out of sheer dread of solitude and inability to get a real woman.

And then, little by little, as I passed through streets tremulous with mystery and possibility, I was picked up by my old madness—that chronic vice of mine, contracted, I suppose, from reading too many bargain novels from the quay bookstalls and from indulging in reveries at night in bed, pretending to be asleep while my wife nagged away at me so steadily that I could put the monotony of her lectures out of my consciousness altogether.

I yearned for adventure, love....It would have to come unbidden, because I can never accost a woman without feeling like a fool. But, so coming, it would be a miracle—a real miracle—for I am forty-two years old, and I somehow missed the joys of youth when I was twenty.... And then my dream flowered into a climax that to most men might seem trivial: I dreamt of some woman who would kiss me for her own sake and call me 'My darling!'... Never, never has any woman called me her darling—except in sight of the cash-down remuneration.

Often this dream of mine has made queer, abortive starts toward a realization. Sometimes, like last night, as I walk the streets at an hour when hardly anybody is there to see and laugh at me, I follow some solitary woman and let myself imagine things.

Usually the woman gets annoyed and steps along faster. If women only knew! They imagine that everyone who follows them at night must be some gross libertine intent upon a brutish attack, whereas in reality many are but timid, unhappy souls desirous only of laying their inner riches at the feet of the unknown goddess—but not daring to. Oh well, if the women did know, it wouldn't make any difference. Such men are, very properly, just the ones women despise.

But sometimes the pursued one turns and makes advances which my shyness inhibits me from repulsing... and I continue on behind this professional to the door of some obscure hotel. I must be frank with myself: I follow not only through absurd scruples of breaking without reason an engagement which I have voluntarily entered into, but also because my sensuality is not altogether of the head.... But when that sensuality is satisfied, the illusion flees and there follows sickness at heart. Does that same heart-sickness follow also the love that is not venal? Is the satisfied lover disgusted for the time being with her whom he has been calling 'My darling'? Does she, being more polite, continue to use terms of endearment toward the man whom in her own satiety she also finds repulsive? That is something I don't know, but something I want to know very much, at an age when most men have collected their souvenirs of gallantry, but at which I have amassed only barren hopes, like dead autumn leaves on a tree which has never borne flower or fruit, but which every spring feels its sterile impulses under the pressure of the rising sap.

However, at one o'clock last night on the avenue Trudaine I came upon what may be the great adventure for me. I found, perhaps, the woman for whom I have been waiting thirty years....

She was down on the sidewalk. A man was kicking her savagely. He was yelling and cursing her in a hoarse voice. Under his kicks the woman lay still and silent. I though she was dead.

For the sake of my own self-esteem, I should like to think it was honest rage that made me sail into the brute and not just a reaction of my romantic education. I confess, though, that I thought of Prince Rodolpho, of the Mysteres de Paris, and of the heroes of the screen. My physical strength is decidedly below that of an average boxer. In school I was always the mark for anybody who could fight, and I have been that way ever since. When there are arguments on the street or in the subway, I never interfere when the smaller man is right, except to observe, as if to myself, that perhaps he is right, and then only so that the bigger man won't hear me.

However, under my gentle tap, and much to my astonishment, the fellow crumpled up. He fell easily, as if he had only been waiting for an excuse to go down; and on the ground he did not assume the tragic pose of a conquered gladiator, but rather the peaceful attitude of a drunken man asleep in the gutter.

So I got no elation out of my victory.

'Huh! He was just soused.'

Then I thought about picking up the lady.

She turned up toward me a baby face, very pale, but which seemed beautiful to me. She had big brown eyes, which held not so much an expression of suffering as of shame; and I thought I saw in them, too, a reproach for myself. They seemed to say: 'What's the idea, monsieur, of your mixing up in our family affairs?'

'I beg your pardon,' I answered aloud. 'I was just going by....'

Which was another way of saying: 'And why, madame, do you pick out the sidewalk of the avenue Trudaine for your family discussions?'

'Are you hurt?' I added.

She leaned over the drunken man, who was already snoring, and said to me reproachfully: 'You hurt him!'

A policeman approached at a calm, majestic pace.

'Here! What's all this about?' he asked me.

I didn't know. The woman didn't want to tell me. The other wasn't in any state to answer.

'I interfered,' I began, 'because...'

With great presence of mind the woman broke into my sentence.

'Because our friend has been taken sick.'

The officer suggested an ambulance, but, having bent over to examine the patient, he began to laugh that correct, interior chuckle which is according to regulation on the force.

'Take your friend home,' he counseled me. 'It's not serious. There are taxis at the end of the avenue.'

He went away discreetly. I had a definite impression that I owed his indulgence to my dinner-jacket, which gave me the appearance of a Montmartre rounder. If I had been dressed as I am on days when we do not celebrate the chief's decorations, he would have taken all three of us to the station, where the other man could legitimately have lodged against me a charge of assault and battery.

When the policeman had gone, I made a show of energy.

'I am going with you to your door, little one,' I said to the young woman. 'You'll have nothing more to fear to-night from that ruffian.'

She favored the object sprawled at our feet with a look for which I would have given all the negative happiness of my dreary existence.

'He'll catch cold if we leave him here,' she answered. 'We must take him to his home, and—'

She hesitated.

'I'm not sure I have enough for the taxi,' she finished.

She reddened under my appraisal. She was poorly dressed, whereas the man lying on the sidewalk had a flashy elegance. He was one of those slick young gentlemen that you see at the bars, the dance halls, or hanging around garages. I felt myself stung by a foolish jealousy, but just as unreasonably I took satisfaction in the phrase she had used: 'his home....' Evidently they weren't living together.

We got the fellow up on his feet. He rewarded me with a loose grin. While I was watching for a taxi, he launched a furtive kick at his companion. 'This is all your fault again,' he growled. The girl stifled a cry of pain, managed to smile, and then soothed him: 'It will be all right, honey. It's just the fresh air that's making you a little dizzy. We're going to take you home so you can go to sleep right away.'

The girl gave an address to the driver, and we kept silent during the ride. I sat on one of the folding seats. The fugitive illumination from the passing street-lamps lit the delicate profile of the girl and the tough visage of the man, with its cruel eyes and heavy jaw.

The cab stopped at a rooming-house with a cheap, pretentious front.

'I'll go up with him, but I'll be down right away.'

I thought that she wouldn't come down. But I told myself that just the same I had had an adventure. I wasn't at all dissatisfied with the figure I had cut. If not exactly heroic, it was at least romantic—the heaven-sent rescuer of beauty in distress! If I had