Anyway we stayed there an hour or so, and as I was the only one in condition to enjoy the privileges of the house, Collins and Fillmore remained downstairs chattering with the girls.
When I returned I found the two of them stretched out on the bed; the girls had formed a semicircle about the bed and were singing with the most angelic voices the chorus of Roses in Picardy. We were sentimentally depressed when we left the house – Fillmore particularly. Collins swiftly steered us to a rough joint which was packed with drunken sailors on shore leave and there we sat awhile enjoying the homosexual rout that was in full swing. When we sallied out we had to pass through the red light district where there were more grandmothers with shawls about their necks sitting on the doorsteps fanning themselves and nodding pleasantly to the passers by. All such good-looking, kindly souls, as if they were keeping guard over a nursery. Little groups of sailors came swinging along and pushed their way noisily inside the gaudy joints. Sex everywhere: it was slopping over, a neap tide that swept the props from under the city. We piddled along at the edge of the basin where everything was jumbled and tangled; you had the impression that all these ships, these trawlers and yachts and schooners and barges, had been blown ashore by a violent storm.
In the space of forty eight hours so many things had happened that it seemed as if we had been in Le Havre a month or more. We were planning to leave early Monday morning, as Fillmore had to be back on the job. We spent Sunday drinking and carousing, clap or no clap. That afternoon Collins confided to us that he was thinking of returning to his ranch in Idaho; he hadn't been home for eight years and he wanted to have a look at the mountains again before making another voyage East. We were sitting in a whorehouse at the time, waiting for a girl to appear; he had promised to slip her some cocaine. He was fed up with Le Havre, he told us. Too many vultures hanging around his neck. Besides, Jimmie's wife had fallen in love with him and she was making things hot for him with her jealous fits. There was a scene almost every night. She had been on her good behaviour since we arrived, but it wouldn't last, he promised us. She was particularly jealous of a Russian girl who came to the bar now and then when she got tight. A troublemaker. On top of it all he was desperately in love with this boy whom he had told us about the first day. "A boy can break your heart," he said. "He's so damned beautiful! And so cruel!" We had to laugh at this. It sounded preposterous. But Collins was in earnest.
Around midnight Sunday Fillmore and I retired; we had been given a room upstairs over the bar. It was sultry as the devil, not a breath of air stirring. Through the open windows we could hear them shouting downstairs and the gramophone going continually. All of a sudden a storm broke – a regular cloudburst. And between the thunderclaps and the squalls that lashed the windowpanes there came to our ears the sound of another storm raging downstairs at the bar. It sounded frightfully close and sinister; the women were shrieking at the tops of their lungs, bottles were crashing, tables were upset and there was that familiar, nauseating thud that the human body makes when it crashes to the floor.
About six o'clock Collins stuck his head in the door. His face was all plastered and one arm was stuck in a sling. He had a big grin on his face.
"Just as I told you," he said. "She broke loose last night. Suppose you heard the racket?"
We got dressed quickly and went downstairs to say goodbye to Jimmie. The place was completely demolished, not a bottle left standing, not a chair that wasn't broken. The mirror and the show window were smashed to bits. Jimmie was making himself an eggnog.
On the way to the station we pieced the story together. The Russian girl had dropped in after we toddled off to bed and Yvette had insulted her promptly, without even waiting for an excuse. They had commenced to pull each other's hair and in the midst of it a big Swede had stepped in and given the Russian girl a sound slap in the jaw – to bring her to her senses. That started the fireworks. Collins wanted to know what right this big stiff had to interfere in a private quarrel. He got a poke in the jaw for an answer, a good one that sent him flying to the other end of the bar.
"Serves you right!" screamed Yvette, taking advantage of the occasion to swing a bottle at the Russian girl's head. And at that moment the thunderstorm broke loose. For a while there was a regular pandemonium, the women all hysterical and hungry to seize the opportunity to pay off private grudges. Nothing like a nice barroom brawl… so easy to stick a knife in a man's back or club him with a bottle when he's lying under a table. The poor Swede found himself in a hornet's nest; everyone in the place hated him, particularly his shipmates. They wanted to see him done in. And so they locked the door and pushing the tables aside they made a little space in front of the bar where the two of them could have it out. And they had it out! They had to carry the poor devil to the hospital when it was over. Collins had come off rather lucky – nothing more than a sprained wrist and a couple of fingers out of joint, a bloody nose and a black eye. Just a few scratches, as he put it. But if he ever signed up with that Swede he was going to murder him. It wasn't finished yet. He promised us that.
And that wasn't the end of the fracas either. After that Yvette had to go out and get liquored up at another bar. She had been insulted and she was going to put an end to things. And so she hires a taxi and orders the driver to ride out to the edge of the cliff overlooking the water. She was going to kill hersclf, that's what she was going to do. But then she was so drunk that when she tumbled out of the cab she began to weep and before any one could stop her she had begun to peel her clothes off. The driver brought her home that way, half-naked, and when Jimmie saw the condition she was in he was so furious with her that he took his razor strop and he belted the piss out of her, and she liked it, the bitch that she was. "Do it some more!" she begged, down on her knees as she was and clutching him around the legs with her two arms. But Jimmie had enough of it.
"You're a dirty old sow!" he said and with his foot he gave her a shove in the guts that took the wind out of her – and a bit of her sexy nonsense too.
It was high time we were leaving. The city looked different in the early morning light. The last thing we talked about, as we stood there waiting for the train to pull out, was Idaho. The three of us were Americans. We came from different places, each of us, but we had something in common – a whole lot, I might say. We were getting sentimental, as Americans do when it comes time to part. We were getting quite foolish about the cows and sheep and the big open spaces where men are men and all that crap. If a boat had swung along instead of the train we'd have hopped aboard and said good bye to it all. But Collins was never to see America again, as I learned later, and Fillmore… well, Fillmore has to take his punishment too, in a way that none of us could have suspected then. It's best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment. Like that, you imagine it's always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn't exist, America. It's a name you give to an abstract idea…