When we drove up to the hotel – the hotel that Collins was stopping at – there was a bit of a discussion with the proprietor, during which I lay stretched out on the sofa in the bureau. I could hear Collins saying to the patron that it was nothing… just a little breakdown… be all right in a few days. I saw him put a crisp bill in the man's hands and then, turning swiftly and lithely, he came back to where I was and said: "Come on, buck up! Don't let him think you're croaking." And with that, he yanked me to my feet and, bracing me with one arm, escorted me to the elevator.
Don't let him think you're croaking! Obviously it was bad taste to die on people's hands. One should die in the bosom of his family, in private, as it were. His words were encouraging. I began to see it all as a bad joke. Upstairs, with the door closed, they undressed me and put me between the sheets. "You can't die now, goddamn it!" said Collins warmly. "You'll put me in a hole… Besides, what the hell's the matter with you? Can't stand good living? Keep your chin up! You'll be eating a porterhouse steak in a day or two. You think you're ill! Wait, by Jesus until you get a dose of syphilis! That's something to make you worry…" And he began to relate, in a humorous way, his trip down the Yangtze Kiang, with hair falling out and teeth rotting away. In the feeble state that I was in, the yarn that he spun had an extraordinary soothing effect upon me. It took me completely out of myself. He had guts, this guy. Perhaps he put it on a bit thick, for my benefit, but I wasn't listening to him critically at the moment. I was all ears and eyes. I saw the dirty yellow mouth of the river, the lights going up at Hankow, the sea of yellow faces, the sampans shooting down through the gorges and the rapids flaming with the sulfurous breath of the dragon. What a story! The coolies swarming around the boat each day, dredging for the garbage that was flung overboard, Tom Slattery rising up on his deathbed to take a last look at the lights of Hankow, the beautiful Eurasian who lay in a dark room and filled his veins with poison, the monotony of blue jackets and yellow faces, millions and millions of them hollowed out by famine, ravaged by disease, subsisting on rats and dogs and roots, chewing the grass off the earth, devouring their own children. It was hard to imagine that this man's body had once been a mass of sores, that he had been shunned like a leper; his voice was so quiet and gentle, it was as though his spirit had been cleansed by all the suffering he had endured.
As he reached for his drink his face grew more and more soft and his words actually seemed to caress me. And all the while China hanging over us like Fate itself. A China rotting away, crumbling to dust like a huge dinosaur, yet preserving to the very end the glamor, the enchantment, the mystery, the cruelty of her hoary legends.
I could no longer follow his story; my mind had slipped back to a Fourth of July when I bought my first package of firecrackers and with it the long pieces of punk which break so easily, the punk that you blow on to get a good red glow, the punk whose smell stick to your fingers for days and makes you dream of strange things. The Fourth of July the streets are littered with bright red paper stamped with black and gold figures and everywhere there are tiny firecrackers which have the most curious intestines; packages and packages of them, all strung together by their thin, flat, little gutstrings, the color of human brains.
All day long there is the smell of powder and punk and the gold dust from the bright red wrappers sticks to your fingers. One never thinks of China, but it is there all the time on the tips of your fingers and it makes your nose itchy; and long afterwards, when you have forgotten almost what a firecracker smells like, you wake up one day with gold leaf choking you and the broken pieces of punk waft back their pungent odor and the bright red wrappers give you a nostalgia for a people and a soil you have never known, but which is in your blood, mysteriously there in your blood, like the sense of time or space, a fugitive, constant value to which you turn more and more as you get old, which you try to seize with your mind, but ineffectually, because in everything Chinese there is wisdom and mystery and you can never grasp it with two hands or with your mind but you must let it rub off, let it stick to your fingers, let it slowly infiltrate your veins.
A few weeks later, upon receipt of a pressing invitation from Collins who had returned to Le Havre, Fillmore and I boarded the train one morning, prepared to spend the weekend with him. It was the first time I had been outside of Paris since my arrival here. We were in fine fettle, drinking Anjou all the way to the coast. Collins had given us the address of a bar where we were to meet; it was a place called Jimmie's Bar, which everyone in Le Havre was supposed to know.
We got into an open barouche at the station and started on a brisk trot for the rendezvous; there was still a half bottle of Anjou left which we polished off as we rode along. Le Havre looked gay, sunny; the air was bracing, with that strong salty tang which almost made me homesick for New York. There were masts and hulls cropping up everywhere, bright bits of bunting, big open squares and high ceilinged cafés such as one only sees in the provinces. A fine impression immediately; the city was welcoming us with open arms.
Before we ever reached the bar we saw Collins coming down the street on a trot, heading for the station, no doubt, and a little late as usual. Fillmore immediately suggested a Pernod; we were all slapping each other on the back, laughing and spitting, drunk already from the sunshine and the salt sea air. Collins seemed undecided about the Pernod at first. He had a little dose of clap, he informed us. Nothing very serious – "a strain" most likely. He showed us a bottle he had in his pocket – "Vénétienne" it was called, if I remember rightly. The sailors' remedy for clap.
We stopped off at a restaurant to have a little snack before repairing to Jimmie's place. It was a huge tavern with big, smoky rafters and tables creaking with food. We drank copiously of the wines that Collins recommended. Then we sat down on a terrasse and had coffee and liqueurs. Collins was talking about the Baron de Charlus, a man after his own heart, he said. For almost a year now he had been staying at Le Havre, going through the money that he had accumulated during his bootlegging days. His tastes were simple – food, drink, women and books. And a private bath! That he insisted on.
We were still talking about the Baron de Charlus when we arrived at Jimmie's Bar. It was late in the afternoon and the place was just beginning to fill up. Jimmie was there, his face red as a beet, and beside him was his spouse, a fine buxom Frenchwoman with glittering eyes. We were given a marvelous reception all around. There were Pernods in front of us again, the gramophone was shrieking, people were jabbering away in English and French and Dutch and Norwegian and Spanish, and Jimmie and his wife, both of them looking very brisk and dapper, were slapping and kissing each other heartily and raising their glasses and clinking them – altogether such a bubble and blabber of merriment that you felt like pulling off your clothes and doing a war dance. The women at the bar had gathered around like flies. If we were friends of Collins that meant we were rich. It didn't matter that we had come in our old clothes; all Anglais dressed like that. I hadn't a sou in my pocket, which didn't matter, of course, since I was the guest of honour. Nevertheless I felt somewhat embarrassed with two stunning looking whores hanging on my arms waiting for me to order something. I decided to take the bull by the horns. You couldn't tell any more which drinks were on the house and which were to be paid for. I had to be a gentleman, even if I didn't have a sou in my pocket.
Yvette – that was Jimmie's wife – was extraordinarily gracious and friendly with us. She was preparing a little spread in our honor. It would take a little while yet. We were not to get too drunk – she wanted us to enjoy the meal. The gramophone was going like wild and Fillmore had begun to dance with a beautiful mulatto who had on a tight velvet dress that revealed all her charms. Collins slipped over to my side and whispered a few words about the girl at my side. "The madame will invite her to dinner," he said, "if you'd like to have her." She was an ex whore who owned a beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. The mistress of a sea captain now. He was away and there was nothing to fear. "If she likes you she'll invite you to stay with her," he added.
That was enough for me. I turned at once to Marcelle and began to flatter the ass off her. We stood at the corner of the bar, pretending to dance, and mauled each other ferociously. Jimmie gave me a big horse wink and nodded his head approvingly. She was a lascivious bitch, this Marcelle, and pleasant at the same time. She soon got rid of the other girl, I noticed, and then we settled down for a long and intimate conversation which was interrupted unfortunately by the announcement that dinner was ready.
There were about twenty of us at the table, and Marcelle and I were placed at one end opposite Jimmie and his wife. It began with the popping of champagne corks and was quickly followed by drunken speeches, during the course of which Marcelle and I played with each other under the table. When it came my turn to stand up and deliver a few words I had to hold the napkin in front of me. It was painful and exhilarating at the same time. I had to cut my speech very short because Marcelle was tickling me in the crotch all the while.
The dinner lasted until almost midnight. I was looking forward to spending the night with Marcelle in that beautiful home up on the cliff. But it was not to be. Collins had planned to show us about and I couldn't very well refuse. "Don't worry about her," he said. "You'll have a bellyful of it before you leave. Tell her to wait here for you until we get back."
She was a bit peeved at this, Marcelle, but when we informed her that we had several days ahead of us she brightened up. When we got outdoors Fillmore very solemnly took us by the arm and said he had a little confession to make. He looked pale and worried.
"Well, what is it?" said Collins cheerfully. "Spit it out!"
Fillmore couldn't spit it out like that, all at once. He hemmed and hawed and finally he blurted out "Well, when I went to the closet just a minute ago I noticed something…"
"Then you've got it!" said Collins triumphantly, and with that he flourished the bottle of "Vénétienne." "Don't go to a doctor," he added venomously. "They'll bleed you to death, the greedy bastards. And don't stop drinking either. That's all hooey. Take this twice a day… shake it well before using. And nothing's worse than worry, do you understand? Come on now. I'll give you a syringe and some permanganate when we get back."