Why did I go into that beer hall on that particular evening? I do not know. It was cold; a fine rain, a flying mist, veiled the gas lamps with a transparent fog, made the side walks reflect the light that streamed from the shop windows–lighting up the soft slush and the muddy feet of the passers-by.
I was going nowhere in particular; was simply having a short walk after dinner. I had passed the Credit Lyonnais, the Rue Vivienne, and several other streets. I suddenly descried a large beer hall which was more than half full. I walked inside, with no object in view. I was not the least thirsty.
I glanced round to find a place that was not too crowded, and went and sat down by the side of a man who seemed to me to be old, and who was smoking a two-sous clay pipe, which was as black as coal. From six to eight glasses piled up on the table in front of him indicated the number of “bocks” he had already absorbed. At a glance I recognized a “regular,” one of those frequenters of beer houses who come in the morning when the place opens, and do not leave till evening when it is about to close. He was dirty, bald on top of his head, with a fringe of iron-gray hair falling on the collar of his frock coat. His clothes, much too large for him, appeared to have been made for him at a time when he was corpulent. One could guess that he did not wear suspenders, for he could not take ten steps without having to stop to pull up his trousers. Did he wear a vest? The mere thought of his boots and of that which they covered filled me with horror. The frayed cuffs were perfectly black at the edges, as were his nails.
As soon as I had seated myself beside him, this individual said to me in a quiet tone of voice:
“How goes it?”
I turned sharply round and closely scanned his features, whereupon he continued:
“I see you do not recognize me.”
“No, I do not.”
I was stupefied. It was Count Jean des Barrets, my old college chum.
I seized him by the hand, and was so dumbfounded that I could find nothing to say. At length I managed to stammer out:
“And you, how goes it with you?”
He responded placidly:
“I get along as I can.”
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“You see what I am doing,” he answered quit resignedly.
I felt my face getting red. I insisted:
“But every day?”
“Every day it is the same thing,” was his reply, accompanied with a thick puff of tobacco smoke.
He then tapped with a sou on the top of the marble table, to attract the attention of the waiter, and called out:
“Waiter, two ‘bocks.’”
A voice in the distance repeated:
“Two bocks for the fourth table.”
Another voice, more distant still, shouted out:
“Here they are!”
Immediately a man with a white apron appeared, carrying two “bocks,” which he set down, foaming, on the table, spilling some of the yellow liquid on the sandy floor in his haste.
Des Barrets emptied his glass at a single draught and replaced it on the table, while he sucked in the foam that had been left on his mustache. He next asked:
“What is there new?”
I really had nothing new to tell him. I stammered:
“Nothing, old man. I am a business man.”
In his monotonous tone of voice he said:
“Indeed, does it amuse you?”
“No, but what can I do? One must do something!”
“Why should one?”
“So as to have occupation.”
“What’s the use of an occupation? For my part, I do nothing at all, as you see, never anything. When one has not a sou I can understand why one should work. But when one has enough to live on, what’s the use? What is the good of working? Do you work for yourself, or for others? If you work for yourself, you do it for your own amusement, which is all right; if you work for others, you are a fool.”