IN THE OFFICE OLD MONGILET WAS LOOKED ON AS A "character." He was an old employee, a good-natured creature, who had never been outside Paris but once in his life.
It was the end of July, and we all went every Sunday to roll in the grass, or bathe in the river in the country near by. Asnieres, Argenteuil, Chatou, Bougival, Maisons, Poissy, had their habitues and their ardent admirers. We argued about the merits and advantages of all these places, celebrated and delightful to all employees in Paris.
Old Mongilet would say:
"You are like a lot of sheep! A nice place, this country you talk of!"
And we would ask:
"Well, how about you, Mongilet? Don't you ever go on an excursion?"
"Yes, indeed. I go in an omnibus. When I have had a good luncheon, without any hurry, at the wine shop below, I look up my route with a plan of Paris and the time-table of the lines and connections. And then I climb up on top of the bus, open my umbrella and off we go. Oh, I see lots of things, more than you, I bet! I change my surroundings. It is as though I were taking a journey across the world, the people are so different in one street and another. I know my Paris better than anyone. And then, there is nothing more amusing than the entresols. You would not believe what one sees in there at a glance. One can guess a domestic scene simply by seeing the face of a man shouting; one is amused on passing by a barber's shop to see the barber leave his customer all covered with lather to look out in the street. One exchanges heartfelt glances with the milliners just for fun, as one has no time to alight. Ah, how many things one sees!
"It is the drama, real, true, natural drama that one sees as the horses trot by. Heavens I I would not give my excursions in the omnibus for all your stupid excursions in the woods."
"Come and try it, Mongilet, come to the country once just to see."
"I was there once," he replied, "twenty years ago, and you will never catch me there again."
"Tell us about it, Mongilet."
"If you wish to hear it. This is how it was: You knew Boivin, the old clerk, whom we called Boileau?"
"He was my office chum. The rascal had a house at Colombes and always invited me to spend Sunday with him. He would say:
"'Come alone, Maculotte (he called me Maculotte for fun). You will see what a nice walk we shall take.'
"I let myself be trapped like an animal, and set out one morning by the eight o'clock train. I arrived at a kind of town, a country town where there is nothing to see, and I at length found my way to an old wooden door with an iron bell, at the end of an alley between two walls.
"I rang, and waited a long time, and at last the door was opened. What was it that opened it? I could not tell at the first glance. A woman or an ape? The creature was old, ugly, covered with old clothes that looked dirty and wicked. It had chickens' feathers in its hair and looked as though it would devour me.
"'What do you want?' she said.
"'What do you want of him, of M. Boivin?'
"I felt ill at ease on being questioned by this fury. I stammered: 'Why--he expects me.'
"'Ah, it is you who are coming to lunch?'
"'Yes,' I stammered, trembling.
"Then, turning toward the house, she cried in an angry tone:
"'Boivin, here is your man!'
"It was my friend's wife. Little Boivin appeared immediately on the threshold of a sort of barrack of plaster covered with zinc, that looked like a foot-warmer. He wore white duck trousers covered with stains and a dirty Panama-hat.
"After shaking my hands warmly, he took me into what he called his garden. It was at the end of another alleyway enclosed by high walls and was a little square the size of a pockethandkerchief, surrounded by houses that were so high that the sun could reach it only two or three hours in the day. Pansies, pinks, wallflowers and a few rose bushes were languishing in this airless well which was as hot as an oven from the refraction of heat from the roofs.
"'I have no trees,' said Boivin, 'but the neighbours' walls take their place. I have as much shade as in a wood.'
"Then he took hold of a button of my coat and said in a low tone:
"'You can do me a service. You saw the wife. She is not agreeable, eh? To-day, as I had invited you, she gave me clean clothes; but if I spot them all is lost. I counted on you to water my plants.'
"I agreed. I took off my coat, rolled up my sleeves, and began to work the handle of a kind of pump that wheezed, puffed and rattled like a consumptive as it emitted a thread of water like a Wallace drinking-fountain. It took me ten minutes to fill the watering-pot, and I was in a bath of perspiration. Boivin directed me:
"'Here--this plant--a little more; enough--now this one.'
"The watering-pot leaked and my feet got more water than the flowers. The bottoms of my trousers were soaking and covered with mud. And twenty times running I kept it up, soaking my feet afresh each time, and perspiring anew as I worked the handle of the pump. And when I was tired out and wanted to stop, Boivin, in a tone of entreaty, said as he put his hand on my arm:
"'Just one more watering-potful--just one, and that will be all.'
"To thank me he gave me a rose, a big rose, but hardly had it touched my buttonhole than it fell to pieces, leaving of my decoration only a hard little green knot. I was surprised, but said nothing.
"Mme Boivin's voice was heard in the distance: 'Are you ever coming? I tell you lunch is ready!'
"We went towards the foot-warmer. If the garden was in the shade, the house, on the other hand, was in the blazing sun, and the sweating-room of a Turkish bath is not so hot as my friend's dining-room was.
"Three plates, at the side of which were some half-washed forks, were placed in a table of yellow wood. In the middle stood an earthenware dish containing warmed-up boiled beef and potatoes. We began to eat.
"A large water-bottle full of water lightly coloured with wine attracted my attention. Boivin, embarrassed, said to his wife:
"'See here, my dear, just on a special occasion, are you not going to give us a little undiluted wine?'
"She looked at him furiously.
"'So that you may both get tipsy, is that it, and stay here gabbing all day? A fine special occasion!'
"He said no more. After the stew she brought in another dish of potatoes cooked with bacon. When this dish was finished, still in silence, she announced:
"'That is all! Now get out!'
"Boivin looked at her in astonishment.
"'But the pigeon--the pigeon you plucked this morning?'
"She put her hands on her hips:
"'Perhaps you have not had enough? Because you bring people here is no reason why we should devour all that there is in the house. What is there for me to eat this evening?'
"We rose. Boivin whispered:
"'Wait for me a second, and we will skip.'
"He went into the kitchen where his wife had gone, and I overheard him say:
"'Give me twenty sous, my dear.'
"'What do you want with twenty sous?'
"'Why, one does not know what may happen. It is always better to have some money.'
"She yelled so that I should hear:
"'No, I will not give it to you!
As the man has had luncheon here, the least he can do is to pay your expenses for the day.'
"Boivin came back to fetch me. As I wished to be polite I bowed to the mistress of the house, stammering:
"'Madame--many thanks--kind welcome.'
"'That's all right,' she replied. 'But do not bring him back drunk, for you will have to answer to me, you know!'
"We set out. We had to cross a perfectly bare plain under the burning sun. I attempted to gather a flower along the road and gave a cry of pain. It had hurt my hand frightfully. They call these plants nettles. And, everywhere, there was a smell of manure, enough to turn your stomach.
"Boivin said, 'Have a little patience and we will reach the river bank.'
"We reached the river. Here there was an odour of mud and dirty water, and the sun blazed down on the water so that it burned my eyes. I begged Boivin to go under cover somewhere. He took me into a kind of shanty filled with men, a river boatmen's tavern.
"'This does not look very grand, but it is very comfortable.'
"I was hungry. I ordered an omelet. But lo and behold, at the second glass of wine, that cursed Boivin lost his head, and I understand why his wife gave him water in his wine.
"He got up, declaimed, wanted to show his strength, interfered in a quarrel between two drunken men who were fighting, and, but for the landlord, who came to the rescue, we should both have been killed.
"I dragged him away, holding him up until we reached the first bush, where I deposited him. I lay down beside him and apparently I fell asleep. We must certainly have slept a long time, for it was dark when I awoke. Boivin was snoring at my side. I shook him; he rose, but he was still drunk, though a little less so.
"We set out through the darkness across the plain. Boivin said he knew the way. He made me turn to the left, then to the right, then to the left. We could see neither sky nor earth, and found ourselves lost in the midst of a kind of forest of wooden stakes, that came as high as our noses. It was a vineyard and these were the supports. There was not a single light on the horizon. We wandered about in this vineyard for about an hour or two, hesitating, reaching out our arms without coming to the end, for we kept retracing our steps.
"At length Boivin fell against a stake that tore his cheek and he remained in a sitting posture on the ground, uttering with all his might long and resounding hellos, while I screamed 'Help! Help!' as loud as I could, lighting wax-matches to show the way to our rescuers, and also to keep up my courage.
"At last a belated peasant heard us and put us on our right road. I took Boivin to his home, but as I was leaving him on the threshold of his garden, the door opened suddenly and his wife appeared, a candle in her hand. She frightened me horribly.
"As soon as she saw her husband, whom she must have been waiting for since dark, she screamed, as she darted toward me:
"'Ah, scoundrel, I knew you would bring him back drunk!'
"My, how I made my escape, running all the way to the station, and as I thought the fury was pursuing me I shut myself in an inner room, as the train was not due for half an hour.
"That is why I never married, and why I never go out of Paris."