by MARK ALDANOV
THE restaurant had been in existence for several hundred years. At least that’s what the guidebooks said about it: every guidebook listed it as one of the historical and gastronomical landmarks of Paris. Casual tourists seldom visited the restaurant, which was located in an unfashionable part of town, far away from the center of things. In the old days its patrons had been Parisian connoisseurs — mostly wealthy or titled people, or else people who wanted others to believe that they were wealthy or titled. Occasionally the restaurant bestowed a posthumous mark of distinction on a famous regular patron by naming some complicated dish after him as though he had been the first one to concoct it.
Year in and year out the guests were met at the door by an old maitre d’hôtel who was known to the regulars as Albert. He pointed out to the novices who deserved special attention the autographs under the portraits on the walls, and he exhibited to them the “golden book” and the “historical tables” which were the creation of his inspiration or of the inspiration of his predecessors. He even persuaded himself that Napoleon had been one of the frequent guests, and that he always had had dinner at the large round table in the right corner. A suggestion had been made that “Napoleon’s table” be separated from the others by a chain, but the board of directors of the corporation which owned the restaurant refused to consider any notion that was certain to curtail the revenue.
The prices in the restaurant even in the old days had made people who were wealthy enough to afford frankness shrug their shoulders as they glanced at their bill. Now everybody shrugged shoulders — the new fashion required it. On one occasion a group of German officers who appreciated everything echt Pariser had made an issue of the price they had been charged for an Homard à l’Armoricaine (the ancient argument among gourmets about the terms à l’Armoricaine and à l’Américaine had been settled in favor of the first, possibly out of consideration for the new masters of the city, who had no fondness for America, though they considered themselves above such pettiness, and even did not frown at the wine list which, among others, mentioned a famous wine that bore the name of the Jewish owner of the vineyard).
Nothing came of it because an extremely important personage — some people said it was Göring — issued orders that the restaurant was not to be disturbed. This personage frequently condescended to visit the restaurant, and whenever he was present “Napoleon’s table” was surrounded by a group of unpleasant-looking men in civilian clothes whom the other patrons and waiters watched out of the corners of their eyes, now and then exchanging a whispered remark. The important personage was always on his best behavior and showed great tolerance: he volubly praised the wines, including the one that bore the Jewish name, he was not above admitting his admiration for the beauties of Paris, and he told in an atrocious French — “things like that simply cannot be told in German” — Parisian stories which invariably delighted his companions.
German officers patronized the restaurant frequently, though even with the fixed value of the mark they found the prices very high. Among them were a number of regulars who already knew the maître d’hôtel by name. But for the most part the new patrons were civilians whom Monsieur Albert never had seen before. No matter how forcefully they shrugged their shoulders when they paid their bills, no matter with how much feeling they exclaimed: “Non, tout de même!” the maître d’hôtel knew that the prices of the foods and wines made little difference to them because daily they made hundreds of thousands dealing with the Germans. Monsieur Albert was polite to them, but inwardly he despised them, though they were much more generous with their tips than his old patrons had been.
The old patrons dropped in very seldom now, and with them he exchanged sighs and bitter smiles. They looked in amazement at the menu: “Good Lord! Where do you get all these things?” The maître d’hôtel smiled sadly and with an expressive gesture of his hand indicated that the secret could not be revealed even to them.
THAT evening there were no Germans in the restaurant (their presence was no longer a novelty, but the other patrons still felt more comfortable without them). Not all the tables were occupied. The early autumn day was dreary and cold. By dinnertime darkness had settled, and at seven-thirty on the dot Monsieur Albert began the superfluous but regularly observed ritual of preparing for the night. Blue paper and diagonal white strips had been pasted on the windows at the beginning of the war. The curtains in the main dining room had to be lowered and adjusted carefully. Monsieur Albert went through this routine every evening with a sense of satisfaction, and the patrons assisted him as though these warlike precautions somehow vindicated their collective and undisputable security. The plunderers who occupied the large table at the right window, eager to demonstrate their willingness to do their bit for their country, rose from their seats to make Monsieur Albert’s task easier. He exchanged a few appropriate pleasantries with them while he was performing his duty.
Next he disturbed a solitary gentleman who since seven o’clock had been reading his paper at a table by another window. In Monsieur Albert’s mind this gentleman with a yellow, tired face and a black arm band did not belong among the old or among the new patrons. He never had been in the restaurant in the old days, and he was not one of the new crowd. As a rule he ordered a cutlet, a bottle of mineral water, and a cup of coffee. The maître d’hôtel assumed that the gentleman suffered with some internal disease and had to be on a strict diet which now could be observed only in a first-class restaurant. Though a cutlet and a bottle of mineral water were not enough to hold a table at this restaurant, Monsieur Albert showed utmost respect for this visitor who had become one of the regulars perhaps because of the black arm band, or perhaps because of the unconcealed distaste with which he looked at the other patrons. Like most civilians he came to the restaurant on a bicycle. The coatroom boy in a blue jacket with gold buttons never ceased admiring his new machine, which was of a famous make.
Some new guests arrived with gay exclamations which involuntarily escaped them as they came out of the darkness into the brightly lighted, comfortable room and saw tables covered with white tablecloths and buckets holding bottles with gilded corks. Monsieur Albert anxiously seated them at a table and expressed his gloomy view of the weather (he did this in a way that implied that even the weather was not what it had been in the old days).
Precisely at seven-fifty-five the sound of clinking spurs came from the coatroom. The boy in the blue jacket threw open the doors, and two German officers entered. A tall, broad-shouldered, clean-shaven colonel, — one of the new regulars who once or twice had visited t he restaurant in the retinue of the important personage, — followed by Monsieur Albert, made straight for “Napoleon’s table.” The maître d’hôtel could not distinguish the German insignia of rank, and as a rule addressed all elderly officers as “ Votre Excellence,” which did not evoke any protestations on their part. In this particular instance he knew that the patron was a colonel, but he could not force himself to address a German as “ Mon colonel. ”
In age and appearance the second officer was very much like the first one: they both were large, strong, red-faced men with square heads and with folds of fat at the back of their necks; they both had the same manner and wore the same expressions which since time immemorial all over the world have simplified the work of cartoonists hostile to Germany, and which even in peacetime were responsible for a universal dislike of everything German. The only difference was that the second officer had a mustache, lacked two fingers on his white, puffy left hand, looked a shade more goodnatured, and had different shoulder straps. “Probably a lieutenant colonel,” the maitre d’hôtel thought as with respectful dignity he helped him to a chair, inwardly wishing cancer of the stomach to both the colonel and the lieutenant colonel.
THE colonel ordered dinner without glancing at the menu, or at the maître d’hôtel; he did it with an air of delivering a speech from the throne. The lieutenant colonel, on the other hand, buried his nose in the menu. Monsieur Albert’s trained eye immediately noticed that he was concerned chiefly with the right column of the page.
The lieutenant colonel had arrived in Paris only yesterday from a distant battle front. He had been given his new assignment as a rest after his wound. He had little work, and for two days he had been sight-seeing with the aid of a German guidebook. He had come to the famous restaurant at the invitation of his colleague, but he had not understood clearly whether it was an outright invitation or a Dutch treat. The guidebook described the restaurant as: “Very famous. Prices in keeping.” In discussing Paris restaurants in general, the same book offered advice: “The Paris cuisine is considered the best in the world. In the best restaurants the portions are very large. Two or three people should dine together. One portion of soup is sufficient for two; two portions of steak, for three; one portion of anything else, for three. In this way variety can be obtained without overeating. Gourmets seldom dine alone.”
But the gourmet with whom he was dining had not suggested that t hey divide their portions. When among the resounding array of French dishes he found a humble and more modestly priced Choucroute garnie, the lieutenant colonel was relieved and with a brisk smile carefully enunciated: —
“ Choucroute garnie. . . . No wine. . . . Some beer. . . .”
The boy came in from the coat room and, almost imperceptibly nodding in the colonel’s direction, ’whispered something in the maître d’hôtel’s ear. Monsieur Albert, treading noiselessly on the soft rug, hurriedly approached “Napoleon’s table.”
“Your car is outside, Votre Excellence. The driver asks whether he should wait,” he said in a solemn tone, as if he were imparting a state secret, and glanced angrily at the red-nosed wine waiter who, with an expression of contempt, was bringing on a silver platter the beer for the lieutenant colonel. In the old days this beverage never had been served in the restaurant.
The colonel, keeping his eyes at a seventy-degree angle from the floor, gazed into space and did not answer.
“People call this beer!” having taken one sip the lieutenant colonel said bitterly. For a second his digestive memory brought back a vision of real Pschorrbräu with which in Munich he had accompanied the music of the Niebelungen and the varied assortment of Bockwurst, Blutwurst, Rotwurst, Weisswurst, Knackwurst, and Leberwurst. The angle between the colonel’s gaze and the floor reduced itself to sixty degrees. Monsieur Albert, waiting for an answer, stood in the same respectfully dignified attitude.
“Tell him to wait!” Monsieur Albert, except for the accent like an echo, hurriedly repeated the order to the boy and glanced at the clock. It was two minutes past eight. With a respectfully dignified smile he looked at the German officers and at the other guests, and turned the knob on the radio. This was another innovation. During all the long years of its existence the restaurant never had had any music. The radio had been installed at the outbreak of the war. In thirty seconds an inhuman voice which seemed to rise out of an abyss on a half-finished sentence began to speak words which did not contain a particle of truth. Smiles instantly disappeared, and all the faces in the room became anxious and taut.
“The bill,” the man with the black arm band said abruptly. People at adjoining tables involuntarily glanced in his direction. He finished his coffee, paid the bill, walked out into the coatroom, and, putting his foot on a chair, slipped a metal band around the bottom of his trouser — a procedure which no longer surprised anyone. The boy who enviously was holding his new bicycle noticed that his hands were trembling. Having turned off the light in the coatroom, the boy with obvious admiration switched on his new-type flashlight — one with a blue lens — and opened the door. The gentleman gave him a tip and walked outside.
“We hope you will be with us tomorrow, Monsieur,” the boy said, switching off the flashlight (new batteries were difficult to get).
“What? . . . Oh, yes. . . . Tomorrow,” the gentleman with the black arm band answered.
A SINGLE green-gray, weather-beaten car stood in front of the entrance. It had a number and the initials “ W. M.” on it, a red flag with a black swastika, and a solitary headlight which was dimmed, but which still gave sufficient light. Ten feet away the darkness was impenetrable. The gentleman with the black arm band quickly glanced at the car, led his bicycle away from the bright streak on the sidewalk, and rolled down the street at the uncomfortably low speed which was observed by all cyclists at night. Under a lantern on the next corner an old woman, wearing a dress made of a curtain, was digging in a half-empty garbage can. The streets became completely deserted. Contrary to the regulations, some of the city lights were on. For the most part they were in front of buildings decorated with swastika flags, and guarded by helmeted German soldiers who stood like statues hewn out of stone. In this quarter of Paris such buildings were less frequent, but even here they were not uncommon.
The impenetrable, silent, heavy darkness was momentarily rent by a car with a flag which instantly disappeared from view. Nothing else could be seen or heard, except for an occasional lonesome pedestrian whose wooden shoes clattered distinctly and hurriedly on the sidewalk. Suddenly the noiseless darkness was filled with light and the clanging hubbub and uproar of a motorbus filled with young Germans returning from a pleasure and educational tour of the Paris landmarks, from Notre Dame to Montmartre. The bus stopped in front of a small, very ancient church. A bell rang imperiously inside the bus, the laughter ceased instantly, and a domineering, full-blooded voice that sounded as if it had been soaked in beer launched into a long tirade: “This is one of the oldest . . .” The church door opened, and outlined against its pale light appeared the bent figure of a priest who, with a nervous gesture, pressed his fingers to his forehead.
“Quare tristis es anima mea? Et quare conturbas me?” the gentleman with the black arm baud thought. “Ages ago in Spain they said a messe pour la mart des ennemis; later Rome discarded it, but it should be revived now, at the end of a thousandyear-old civilization which groundlessly persists in wanting to go down in history as Christian. . . .”
“In this church Dante Alighieri, 1265 to 1321, that great poet whose memory is justly treasured by our brave allies, the Italians . . .” (there was an outburst of laughter instantly interrupted by the bell, which this time had an angry ring).
“ . . . The finest passage in that book is: ‘Morintur anima mea cum Philistiim.’ That is so true, so clear, and so fine. . . .”
Almost imperceptibly he increased his speed. About fifty feet ahead two dim lights flickered in the darkness and came to meet him; they were joined by a third light just above them, as two French policemen on bicycles went by slowly, going in the opposite direction. One of them leaned forward and, holding a flashlight in his outstretched hand, looked suspiciously at the gentleman with the arm band. A little further, opposite the house behind which was an alley leading to the next street, only three feet away someone suddenly cursed in German, not angrily, but with a hearty coarseness. A high-pitched female voice repeated the curse in its briefer French form. The gentleman put on the brake and lifted his left hand, in which he held a flashlight. Right in front of the bicycle a helmeted soldier was leading a woman across the street.
“. . . Non, mais des fois! T’es soûl! Alors quoi! J’t’enfoutrai!” the streetwalker was shouting, eager to show her companion that in a conversation of this sort she could hold her own. “Saukerl! Schweinehund!” the soldier growled.
AT “Napoleon’s table" dinner was drawing to a close. It turned out to be an outright invitation and not a Dutch treat; the lieutenant colonel realized it as soon as the colonel, without consulting him, ordered a bottle of champagne. The wine was delicious, and it tasted even better because he knew that he was not drinking a Henckell, but the best French champagne in existence. “He really is not a bad fellow. ... I wonder who is responsible for all the rumors that he is so brutal, and all that sort of thing?” the lieutenant colonel wondered, He also thought about the neat little sum he had saved; considering the price of the Choucroute, the beer, and his share of the tip the amount was quite sizable; even considering the price of any dinner in a medium-priced restaurant. He could afford to buy some perfume for his wife: some of the stores still had perfume for sale.
These pleasant reveries were soon dispelled by a less agreeable thought: he would have to reciprocate and ask the colonel out for dinner. But this occurred to him only for a brief moment, and even while he was thinking about it he very well knew that he had no intention of reciprocating. “I could not bring him here. This would be silly and ridiculous— he knows my financial circumstances only too well. To ask him to a cheap restaurant will not do, and, strictly speaking, it would not be reciprocating. Besides, it’s definitely bad manners to extend a return invitation immediately. Sometime, when the occasion arises. . . .”
Over the champagne the colonel began to talk about his successful career, and about his friends among the influential people, and the lieutenant colonel’s cordiality waned. A long time ago they had been stationed in the same small town, but they had not seen each other for eight years; by birth they belonged to different social circles, and they never had been very close. “Perhaps he invited me so that he could tell me how far ahead of me he has progressed in the service? . . . But with all of that he is very polite, and quite generous. . .”
At that very moment the colonel was casting his eye at the bill. Having paused for just a fraction of a second over the total, he did not say a word, and added an eight per cent tip (in Berlin he tipped ten per cent, but here his position was an assurance of proper attention). Monsieur Albert thanked him respectfully and thought that, perhaps, cancer of the liver would be even more painful than cancer of the stomach. The colonel looked at his watch and emitted an exclamation: it seemed that a most important personage was expecting him for an informal evening of conversation and bridge.
“He will not sit down at a card table without me. But first I will take you wherever you are going.”
“No, no! It’s out of your way, and it’s not at all necessary.” The lieutenant colonel was slightly embarrassed. He had hoped that the colonel would drive him home, because he still was not too familiar with the subways.
“Then allow me at least to take you to the subway station opposite my house. From there you can take a train without having to change. And this will not take me out of my way. We can be there in seven minutes.”
“In seven minutes? What precision!”
“I follow the same route every night. If it were not for this miserable bridge 1 should be going home now. We still have time to finish the bottle.”
“Our forefathers always had one before the last one,” the lieutenant colonel responded with an old German saying.
IN THE car the colonel continued to talk about his career and to air his views on army administration. The gratefully polite smile began to disappear from the lieutenant colonel’s face, “The usual story: he is a headquarters man, and I am a front line officer. He receives decorations, while I receive wounds. ... I suppose I should be grateful that I only lost two fingers!” (His left wrist began to ache as soon as he remembered it.) “Perhaps there is some truth in what they say about him.” The lieutenant colonel’s thoughts became less and less pleasant. But he managed to keep up his end of the conversation, for the most part asking questions which gave his companion no opportunity to elaborate on his successes.
When the car presently came to a stop in front of a blue street light, the lieutenant colonel said: “I hope we see each other soon again.” He deliberately refrained from being more definite, smiled hospitably, and repeated how much he had enjoyed himself. “A delightful evening. . . .”He firmly shook the colonel’s hand and stepped out of the car, leaning cautiously against the door in order not to jar his wounded hand.
The car rolled away and left the lieutenant colonel standing in the square. Only a few feet away everything faded into a thick darkness which had a peculiar effect on him, even though only recently he had been at a distant front, in villages which had not known a street light since the beginning of time. The lieutenant colonel remembered that Paris had been known as the “city of light,” and smiled. “As usual we have gone too far: the English have no intention of bombing us here. Probably this is the only safe place left in the world. So safe that it is positively boring. . . . That must be the entrance to the subway, but I suppose one cannot smoke down there. I will have just one more smoke — the last one tonight.”
Frowning with pain, he took a cigarette case out of his pocket, turned his back to the wind, and, puckering his lips which held the cigarette, tried to light it. A tiny blue dot flashed at the other end of the square. “Thank God! At least one other live human being!” The lieutenant colonel had no lighter — he had to set an example of saving lighting fluid — but he had a system of his own: he lined three matches so that the head of one protruded slightly beyond the others; if the first match went out, the oilier two had time to catch on. “Here is hoping that the English flyers will not take advantage of my matches, or of that blue light over there. . . . Why is he traveling so fast? Is he trying to break his neck?” The blue dot, rushing straight at him, suddenly began to slow down. A quick thought stabbed the lieutenant colonel’s mind. “What is this? Who is this man? What does he want? He must be. . . .”
The air was rent by several shots. The other two matches flared up, illuminating the lower part of a face, the puckered lips, and the graying mustache. A fleeting expression of horror passed over the cyclist’s face; he dropped his hand, pressed on the pedals, and instantly was swallowed by the darkness. The lieutenant colonel clamped his teeth on the cigarette, dropped it, took several uncertain steps, swayed, and, striking the light post with his skull, fell heavily, face down, on the pavement.