Frédéric Boutet: The Leveler (complete)
Young Pierre-Édouard Harleur, student at the Central College and son of a northern factory owner, had decided himself on (while he much despised the distracting noises and bohemian pleasures) passing a Carnival evening in the Latin Quarter, so as to “see what it’s like”.
Amid the tumult that disordered the streets and cafés, he at first held himself aloof, a little disdainful, as one who makes a study of odd folkways. But he was twenty-two years old, and the excitement, the shouts, the songs, the women who threw themselves at him, the confetti that bombarded him, above all the countless mugs of beer that his gang made him share, soon had him thawed out. He had for his own enjoyment been drinking, smoking, shouting; and singing as well, pinching anonymous backsides, kissing faces whose greasepaint stained his cheeks…
He had purchased and now sported the most hideous of false noses. He had turned his coat inside-out—that supreme and time-honored proof of lightheartedness. He had lost, found, and lost again his comrades. Around half-past midnight, he began to flag; he was alone, past tipsy, a little hoarse, but very content. He had come to the last of the low cafés on the boulevard Saint-Michel.
If possible, the hooting and catcalling in this place were worst of all. Three bugles and two trombones, their players inexplicably marooned, went at it with all their might. A frenetic gang straddled chairs, chanting and pounding the marble tables, while some American painters hurled war cries in a rhythm and style meant to be Indian, and accompanied by strident whistles. These things helped constitute a din dominated by the shrieks of women, that for the lagging customer augmented the general delirium.
Pierre-Édouard faltered at the door; the noise, the lights, the smoke, and his half-drunkenness bewildered him…
“What a carry-on!” Someone he did not know, entering on his heels, cried this with admiration.
“A table for the gentlemen?”
The waiter nudged them at a diagonal to one at the end of the café, where a partier exhausted from screaming was with difficulty dislodged. Pierre-Édouard, finding all things amusing that evening, allowed himself to be led, and fell onto the banquette at the side of this new companion.
“You look like a brotherly fellow,” the other said. “You’ll stake me a round?”
“So be it,” Pierre-Édouard responded gravely. “Waiter! Two Kümmels, and cigars! I have no more cigarettes.”
“All the fancier! And after, I’ll take the punishment…next round’s on me.” The man spread himself across the banquette. He was short and stocky, dressed as a laborer, and in his blunt face were two small eyes alive with intelligence, but at the moment moist from the same drunkenness that colored his raw and dying voice. He knocked back his hat and shook away confetti that dotted his beard.
“Yours!” he said, downing his Kümmel in a single inhalation.
“Yours!” Young Harleur, keeping up, emptied his glass in one gulp as well. The adventure amused him more and more.
“Take off your nose, how can you drink? We’ll die of heat in this place…” remarked the stranger. “Waiter! Two more!”
The drinks arrived. Pierre-Édouard took off his nose. The two lit cigars, and the stranger said: “There is nothing to say. No, there is gaiety for everyone here…don’t they make a racket! And I mouth at you, I strain…no manners in it… But well and good. Brave speeches, all that…there you have the seed of the dirty bourgeois… Who are gentlemen all the same. But the cover of night, that too…”
“You are wise.” The young man, very grave, stifled a giggle. “Waiter! Two more!”
“Oh, hey! Harleur!” All at once, someone called this out.
“Hey!” returned Pierre-Édouard. Among the crowd, he vaguely recognized a comrade.
“’We’re going up to Monmartre, is that so…” The voice lost itself in the hubbub, and the comrade, no longer interested in the young man, went off with a noisy gang.
“Harleur!” The stranger bolted from the banquette. “Harleur…it’s not your relative who owns the factory?”
“Uh huh. My father.” He straightened, amazed.
“Your father…your father… Well, me, you don’t know who I am? I am Chanvin!”
Chanvin! Pierre-Édouard, sobering, looked at him. Chanvin had been dismissed, a headstrong, relentless enemy, a northern agitator in the labor war, the leader of a strike, a man whom M. Harleur had declared good for the guillotine. He was the born adversary of their class, and through the past year had conducted assaults on the factories of Pierre-Édouard’s father.
Pierre-Édouard made an effort to raise himself, but fell back on the banquette. The din of the café overpowered the young man’s fleeting will. In vain against his drunkenness, dissipated for an instant but returning in force, he tried to rally. With a last effort, he laid a louis on the table to pay, but the table, the banquette, the whole café began to spin him in a fit of vertigo. He put out a hand, emptied his glass, broke it in putting it down…
All at once this struck him—confusedly, but acutely—as a thing so comical that he burst into convulsive laughter.
The other looked at him agape, but being drunk himself, fell also to hugging his ribs.
“Never mind, never mind, it’s good.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Chanvin, that’s me. You have heard of me, if you have never seen me, no? My friends have sent me here for the union. Then, as it’s carnival, I wanted to see how things pass among the students…among the young bourgeois… Must make the day worthwhile…why not? Plenty of time. Strike is one thing, holiday another… Well, now…are you going to sleep at this hour?”
Young Harleur, in fact, slept snoring, fallen on the banquette, so sunk in drink that no power in the world could have woken him.
“Yours,” murmured Chanvin, perplexed. He emptied his last glass. “Now,” he added aloud, addressing himself. “I hadn’t planned on this. They are going to close this place and put him on the street, where he’ll be carried off by the cops or killed… But this one could be a boss…me a picketer… We were drinking together. He sleeps like a brat…hey, over here! Waiter! The gentleman’s money…you see, I put it in his pocket. The tip? Let me see, four rounds… No, but you’re not content? Watch me a minute… I’m rifling his pockets for his address…see, on this letter… Now help me carry him…”
Between Chanvin, swaying on his feet, but lucid and vigorous, and the waiter, reluctant and weary, the unconscious Pierre-Édouard Harleur was carried to a cab. His strange guardian angel mounted beside him, and during the ride kept up a monologue on the strikes, the unions, the workers and bosses, the pickets and fines. He then returned him safe and sound…still snoring…into the care of his furious concierge, who’d been roused with a tenacious racket.
Afterwards, he went back to the cabarets of the Halles; and having no one waiting for him at home, made his bed under a bench.
And, this story makes “Fin”, as to the collection under the title Le spectre de M. Imberger. Time to put the whole thing through a second edit. Meanwhile, something new next week, a novel by Mathilde Alanic, called Rayonne!
(Yes, the exclamation point in the title is the main reason for choosing it.)
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)