The Real Thing
THERE was the merest flicker of scorn on the porter’s blasé face; there was the least suspicion of a shove as he dropped the well-worn bag in the elevator. Hans Gustav Pedersen, alertly on the defensive, winced, bristled, and then smiled — a superior, reserved, confident smile.
Of course he knew that his old traveling companion was out of place in the Hotel Royal Condé. The hotel was spick and span, a new venture in that rather dingy quarter of old Paris between the Odéon and Saint-Sulpice. A very sophisticated and very successful blend of ancient dignity and quaintness, American comfort, futuristic decoration, it consciously appealed to those who appreciated the unusual — and could afford it. The bag was emphatically nondescript. It had never been handsome, even in its robust youth, way back in the early Rooseveltian era. Two decades of intermittent strenuousness had left it discolored, travel-stained and weary, limp, sagging and bulging, hideous and pitiful. It lay on the elevator floor with the humble mien of a cur expecting to be kicked. Well, to-morrow, this very day perhaps, it would go to its long rest. Or, more likely, sink to a lower circle in the endless inferno of suitcases. Horrible thought! Shouldn’t one give decent burial to an old retainer? Hans had a brief vision of the bag, filled with sand, mercifully dropped into the turbid Seine at midnight. Like Buridan of old. . . . And also a vision of the tragi-comic sequel: a policeman springing out of the dark, a hopelessly muddled explanation before the commissaire, an undignified appeal to the Embassy, his friends the next day chuckling and winking over their Parisian New York Herald. . . . No; better leave the poor old thing to its ignoble fate. Hans was not a sentimentalist, anyway.
To get at last a new bag was one of his chief reasons for being in Paris at all. Indeed, it was his middle reason, snugly fitting between his avowed purpose and his secret intention. Ostensibly, he had come merely to attend a Mathematical Congress. He would duly read a paper on Sigmund’s automorphic functions, to which half a dozen of his peers would listen, and which two at least might understand. Then there would be all the sober festivities which invariably grace such gatherings: a reception at the Sorbonne, under the pale frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes; a special meeting of the Academy of Sciences; a formal banquet presided over by a rather dull war secretary with a brilliant mathematical past. Next his respected French friends would take him to the Opéra, the Comédie-Française, the Louvre — ‘real France, you know, not those frivolous spectacles patronized only by Americans.’ At the thought, he groaned and shuddered. He had not come to Paris to be ‘uplifted’ and bored again. He could get all the uplift he wanted from his books, and more boredom than was good for him right at home, in the poky little college town on the Pacific slope. This time he meant to see ‘real Paris,’ the Paris he had always read about, and of which he had ever been defrauded. He wanted Montmartre, the Moulin-Rouge, the Folies-Bergère, names no less magical than Napoleon’s Tomb and the Eiffel Tower. He wanted to have his fling — within reason. He deserved it: fiftyseven, a great mathematician, a conscientious teacher, a blameless old bachelor. Almost an old maid.
Just a taste of this fabulous intoxicating Paradise, and he would return, content, to his modest quarters, his dingy classrooms, his everlasting equations. To-morrow he would be old, or at any rate ageless. To-day there was spring in the air, and he felt young. His tweeds sat tolerably well on his Viking frame. His Scandinavian blue eyes had kept their youthful candor: there is no better preservative than the higher mathematics. But this time it must indeed be ‘the real thing’ — no mere show of superficial naughtiness rigged up for the country cousins from Kiowa. ‘The real thing,’ he repeated softly to himself; his scientific thoroughness would be satisfied with no substitute. The Convention, Montmartre, the new bag; if, within three days, he had done justice to all three, he would feel he had won the Battle of Paris.
So he sallied forth, on conquest bent, along the darksome rue Saint-Sulpice, in the shadow of the great barocco church. No dim classical vault, incense-laden, picked out with twinkling tapers, no drone of chanting priest and shrill response of choir boys for him, this fine June morning! On to the busy, commonplace rue de Rennes, to the first leather-goods shop recommended by the omniscient concierge. A neat little shop, the window full of frivolous wallets, purses, handbags; but, inside, his respect for the place increased. There was a very fair show of suitcases, of all sizes and shades, of all materials from lowly brown canvas to genuine leather.
A bright little madame, buxom and alert, capably smiling, pulled down one bag after another for him, and, with an expectant upward glance, poured forth an unceasing Franco-American chirp. He understood very little, except that she was a friendly, courageous little body, who was very eager to effect a sale, and whom he would greatly like to oblige. So he smiled, his slow, quizzical, benevolent Nordic smile; but, alas! no bag in the shop would suit his fancy. Mere cowhide lined with buckram, the kind he could have got anywhere on Market Street, and at half the price too, in one of those perennial bankrupt sales. A few suitcases did have a jaunty, Parisian air — true midinettes of the leather world! Totally unfit for a leading mathematician, six foot two and fifty-seven. Anyway, a mere tyro among bell boys or redcaps would have smashed them or wrenched them to pieces even without trying. So he bowed and went, apologizing in his best American French, registering regret in every tone and feature; but he was so beaming with the joy of life that the little woman, overcoming her disappointment, smiled in return, a smile warm and sunny like a blessing.
On down the narrow rue Bonaparte, without a glance at the art shops; across the familiar bridge and the Louvre Gardens — wonders which he had always enjoyed vaguely, dumbly, without presuming to voice his admiration, for he was not a trained artist, and he despised those amateurs who venture beyond their appointed sphere. Avenue de l’Opéra: closing the vista, the mass of the grand theatre, a huge lump of architecture laden with tarnished jewelry, like an aging coquette — yet impressive, vital, unforgettable. But for the Opéra he had no eyes, for there, at the corner of the rue Saint-Roch, in a window full of splendid traveling articles, lay the bag of his dreams.
It was a marvelous creation of pigskin and heavy brass, elegant and substantial, rich without ostentation, capacious yet manageable. Half opened, it revealed a tray lined with suède. And Hans Gustav imagined the reverence with which the porter at the Royal Condé would handle such an aristocrat. Here was a patent case of preëstablished harmony. That bag and Hans Gustav Pedersen had been foreordained for each other. He came, he saw, he was conquered. The price? A mere trifle — 1200 francs.
A mere trifle? He awoke from his daydreaming. For the two fancies that had so long haunted his mind, Montmartre and the bag, he had set aside, after meticulous computations, a maximum of 1500 francs. And not even an Aberdonian could do Montmartre improperly on a paltry 300. It could not be done: the world authority on automorphic functions had reached the parting of the ways.
For the throng that jostled him, the June sunshine may have preserved its radiance; for Hans Gustav Pedersen, the gold had turned to ashen gray. Only the midday heat remained — a heat that was not even redeemed by fierceness, but was insidiously, oppressively mild. A crowded, rattling autobus took him back to the Latin Quarter.
He sought comfort as well as sustenance at Le Petit Cochon de Lait. But the labored picturesqueness of The Suckling Pig, and even a commendable châteaubriand aux pommes, failed to restore his cheerfulness. The aged Odéon across the street loomed more lugubrious than ever; its leprous walls seemed to exude the tædium of untold generations. . . . Why was pigskin so much more expensive than cowhide? Roast pork did not cost more than roast beef. . . . The eternal triangle: two conflicting desires, an emaciated purse. For such an equation the highest mathematics could find no solution.
As he walked along the boulevards again, in the late afternoon, he could not help noticing the taxis bulging with luggage — for Paris was in the thick of the Great Invasion. Pigskin, cowhide, fibre: aristocracy, bourgeoisie, rabble; by their bags they could be told. Would he be satisfied with anything short of the best? Was he not entitled to the visible sign of his intellectual prominence? He owed it to the mathematical profession! But then, would he have to turn homeward again, his thirst for romance unappeased? Just in order to impress the bell hop at the Royal Condé and his ilk? Still, worldly pleasures soon fade in the memory; a pigskin bag lasts a lifetime — at least if you don’t reach extreme old age. And the battle went on indecisively in his uneasy soul.
He had planned to spend the early part of the evening, in orthodox fashion, at the Folies-Bergère. A mere appetizer. He brushed his pepper-andsalt suit; a silk handkerchief peeped saucily, but not impudently, out of his pocket, and he had changed to low black shoes. He could dance or not, as the spirit moved him. The spirit? That would move willingly enough, but how would he go about it? Would he conquer the ineradicable timidity of a lifetime? He longed for an experienced, indulgent, confidential friend; but he dreaded most of all to come across any of his colleagues.
The Folics show went easily enough. Exquisite dancing; bewitching curves displayed without stint; lights that would clash and blend in the weirdest, most entrancing fashion; music that blared and drummed away every thought and care; words that possibly had a meaning (and maybe two), but which you did not need to bother to understand; there was no sense to it all, thank whatever gods may be! Just pure art, if you were not too squeamish about the definition of ‘pure.’
A taxi to the Place Pigalle and Le Rat Mort, duly recommended by excellent authorities. Why a dead rat? Sheer absurdity, or French wit beyond his depth? Rat Mort, Amor? An allusion to ill-fated Polonius? Paris was so cryptic! He remembered a friend who expected Au Bœuf à la Mode to serve beef with ice cream. He felt exhilarated, slightly reckless, past straining at any rat, dead or alive.
A gorgeously uniformed porter opened the door of his taxi. But Hans Gustav asserted his manhood by moving haughtily away. Dead Rat indeed! He was not going to be rushed, for the only night he would spend at Montmartre, into something so blatantly commercial! This was not the real thing; Pigall’s, on the other side of the street, was more alluring. On to Pigall’s!
No, Pigall’s would never do. Pompons and confetti flying; shrieks of laughter; effluvia of pungent perfumery; heat, drink, and smoke. Pleasure chased through such reek and din would be a sickly, bedraggled thing. And with firm, decided step he walked away from Pigall’s.
A fine figure of a man, no doubt, as he forced his way through the crowded sidewalks—purposeful, masterful. But at heart he was despairing. He felt the mood of his compatriot Hamlet upon him: ‘Not yet, not yet!’ And it would ever be so. Before every Palace of Pleasure the ghost of his scholarly solitude would stand, and drive his desire away, sullen and untamed. He knew that, in the end, he would meekly sit on the terrasse of some café, sip an innocuous bock, and pretend that it was best — with hopeless rage in his soul.
He had wandered into a quieter street, — rue Fontaine, was it? — and his nervous irritation was yielding to the comparative obscurity and silence, and to the healing touch of the gentle night. A dark red lantern, an electric sign, attracted his attention: TROIKA, RUSSIAN DANCING. A handsome Cossack stood in the doorway and smiled invitingly. Was there a depth of timidity behind that smile that called unto the depths of Pedersen’s shyness? He smiled in return and went in. Before he had come to himself, his hat and his coat had been taken away from him, and his retreat was cut off. Slightly dazed, but exulting in his own daring, he sat on the plush seat that ran round the wall.
The place was small — hardly larger than a private drawing-room. There was nothing gorgeous or bizarre about the dark walls and hangings; the light was subdued, yet there was no sense of gloom. A gypsy quartet played music that he could understand. There were very few ‘guests’; across the floor, eight girls in bright Russian costumes were chatting in muffled tones, and glancing at him. Quite evidently they were talking him over, appraising him with practised eye; but he felt no embarrassment. The whole scene was strangely exhilarating and at the same time soothing to him. To be there at all was an achievement after his despairing quest. It was a haven of refuge from the brutal vulgarity of the noisier resorts. Those girls would probably pretend that they were princesses in exile: it is the stock in trade of every White Russian, and Bolshevism has multiplied the Muscovite aristocracy a hundredfold. He did not care: he was willing to play their game. Yes, they were exiles — and so was he. They would help him escape from that awful Montmartre that he had so eagerly sought, and from which he recoiled.
Among the girls there was an older woman, tall and dark, not so gayly dressed as the others. He did not stop to scan her features; he caught only the proud poise of her head, the pleasant contrast between her sombre dress and the healthy pallor of her face. She gave him a quiet, friendly, understanding look. Would he dare to ask her to join him? The waiter had placed champagne, cherries, and almonds before him; from time to time, he would give the bottle a turn in the pail of cracked ice. Some of the girls and Cossacks were now giving an exhibition dance in the centre of the floor. He had no eyes for them: his dark beauty was still gazing on, placidly, not stupidly; mysterious, yet not menacing. The gypsy music filled the room with strange nostalgic calls. Hans Gustav Pedersen had never been moved in such a way before, yet he had no sense of surprise or fear. It seemed as though he were entering into his heritage.
He beckoned to the host. ‘Please ask this lady to join me, won’t you?’ She came, without reluctance and without hurry, with her quiet, sympathetic smile. A wonderful creature, so handsome and so self-possessed! He felt so safe with her, although throbbing with delight! Would she dance with him? Certainly. But he could only waltz? Waltzing was very nice. A waltz was requested, and she guided him firmly, gently, still smiling, round and round the room. He was happy beyond words, and a little out of breath. ‘Now you must sit down and rest a little,’ she was telling him in her clear, slightly guttural French. ‘We shall have another dance later on.’ He nodded approval. Wine and waltz had slightly impaired the mathematical clarity of his thought. Her words came to him muffled, remote, with blurred meaning. ‘Her husband could not dance very long either’? Her husband? It did not really give him a pang that she should have a husband, although he answered, ‘Très triste,’ with doubtful relevancy. Somehow, in the magic circling of the waltz, she had seemed to belong to him. . . . Preposterous! Such a splendid creature among the colorless faculty wives, in the sedate little college town! Champagne had gone to his head, no doubt. . . .
The gentle dream went on: warm hands in his hands, soft music in his ears, confidences exchanged and not remembered. The other guests had left; the musicians were placing their instruments in their cases; the waiter laid his bill on the table. Reality chasing away vague visions! The bill was enough to sober him, more efficiently than spirits of ammonia or onion soup. With a brave show of steadiness, he stood up, bowed before his partner, kissed her fingers, and slipped into her hand a crumpled blue note, vaguely identified; he hoped it was not outrageously too little — or too much. 'À demain!’ And she answered, ‘À demain!’ with the same quiet, understanding smile. Bag or no bag, Congress or no Congress, he would be at the Troika to-morrow night — or was it this evening?
The memory of her smile, the haunting gypsy melodies, the thinning fumes of champagne, made the drive across Paris a moment’s flight. Life was good. When, at the Royal Condé, he saw on the elevator the usual notice, L’ascenseur ne marche pas, he smiled with overflowing indulgence. How very French! What a nice little touch of the artistic temperament, even in modern machinery! There was but one Paris in the world! And so to bed, and no dreams.
The femme de chambre drew the curtains and placed his café au lait beside him. The sun was well up, but the long heavy sleep had brought no refreshing. He had a definite sense of discomfort, and a vague sense of loss. His paper on automorphic functions? His watch? His passport, tickets, travelers’ checks? No, something less familiar, yet more precious than all that — but what?
Then his eyes fell on the ancient suitcase, sprawling untidily in the middle of the floor — the horrible suitcase that he wanted to drown, and which seemed to cling to him with despairing energy. And the veil was lifted. He remembered his two great experiences of yesterday — the pigskin bag and the Lady of the Troika. And the old dread came upon him again; within a few hours, he would have to make a choice. He had not been quite so generous as he had hoped, or feared, last night; he still had 1200 francs to spare; the bag was not beyond his reach. The bag, or else two, three nights at the Troika. For the first time in his life, Hans Gustav cursed a world in which the highest mathematics were not so profitable a commodity as chewing gum.
He had to go to the Mecca of all travelers, the Opéra district, where American banks, newspaper offices, and tourist agencies grow in serried ranks. Sophisticated globe-trotters follow that daily ritual as piously as Gopher Prairie folks meet the afternoon train. And at the corner of the rue Saint-Roch he saw the bag of his dreams. The Hamlet strain again! Ever ‘Not yet’! He rushed inside the shop, pointed to the bag, flung down the cash, and walked off with his prey — erect, indomitable, a berserker fiercely roaming the world; wondering at every step whether he could muster courage to return and try to get his money back.
Still, it was pleasant, as he had surmised, to watch the approving glance of taxi driver and hotel porter; happiness consists in impressing those we despise. The old bag was flung away, and the room was transformed. Selfconfidence, pride, and joy seemed to radiate from the pigskin beauty. It would mark a new era in Hans Gustav’s life. And, as he passed his finger tips voluptuously over the suède lining, he repeated with a blissful smile, ‘The real thing!’
Then, on the table, he saw the programme of the Troika: a picture of the entertainers in a group; in the centre, tall, dark, proud, and friendly, mysterious yet understanding, the lady he had promised to meet again to-night.
He toyed with the marvelous brass fittings of the pigskin bag. ‘The real thing!’ he repeated.
But there was an imperceptible crack in his voice.