Augustin was of a rather changeable temperament. The smallest misfortune could put him in the worst sort of mood but any bit of luck could send his spirits in the other direction just as extremely.
A few days later, he had a better day than usual. The nearby garage had work for him that day. Père Belanger, the man who owned it, was a good sort and helped Augustin out whenever he could.
That day he came home with some money in his pocket and was in the best mood imaginable. He walked home whistling to himself and smiling and winking at pretty girls.
Augustin came to a passageway about thirty paces long and five or six paces wide paved with greasy, yellowish stones. On one side of it were low, flattened shops with dirty, greenish, windows which oozed moisture from their cracks along with an acrid, cellar-like smell. On the other side were three streetlights. Above him hung a glass roof which was blackened with years of grime. On fine days, like this one, some pale light came through it and made the passageway seem less gloomy.
At the end was a set of blackened stairs which lead up into the dingy courtyard of an old, grey building. Articles of ragged clothing hung out of the windows to dry and noisy and unruly gangs of urchins played on the uneven paving. The place rang and wreaked with the sounds and smells of life.
Augustin lived in a room in a corner of the first floor which had been converted into a separate lodging by knocking out a window which had looked out onto the courtyard and replacing it with a set of french doors and knocking out the original door and filling it in with plaster. His few belongings were placed neatly around the room; it was not hard to be neat since he did not own very much.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a ring. It’s red stone winked at him in the dim light conspiratorially, like it knew he was guilty. He did not know why he had taken it but something he could not control came over him. In this case, he did not have the usual excuse of “they had money, I didn’t” that he usually had when he stole. That girl had helped him and he had repaid her by stealing something that was probably very precious to her.
Augustin had made a promise to himself that if he ever saw her again, he would return it. As long as he had it, he had the hope of seeing her again. Even if she cursed him and hated him forever, that would all be worth it.
“Monsieur Augustin” a voice called from the courtyard.
A pale, waiflike girl of about fourteen appeared in the doorway and looked at him with large, unblinking, cat-like eyes and stood there with a gawky pose and precociously world weary expression which reminded one of Degas’s little dancer.
“Yes, Eulalie?” Augustin answered.
“Have you seen my old man?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Eulalie began to twist her long, burgundy colored hair into a plait and tied it with a large white ribbon which made her look even more like the little dancer.
“I hate wearing my hair in a braid” she whined,“But if my old man sees me with my hair loose, he’ll color me black and blue”
The girl’s bony and gangly limbs bore witness to the fact that she had been colored black and blue many times before. In Augustin’s hand, the red stone winked at her.
“That’s pretty, where’d you get that? Did your girlfriend give it to you?”
“None of your business” Augustin answered, giving her a playful smile.
“I think I’ve seen that ring before. There’s a girl that comes to the grocery stand where I work sometimes after school and she has a ring with a red stone that winks like that. I thought it was pretty and I told her so.”
“What does she look like?”
“About my height but older. Blond hair and grey eyes.”
“Does she live near by there?”
“I think she does. Why are you so curious?”
“Again, none of your business”
Eulalie laughed at him and then ran away. Now that he was alone, Augustin pulled a box out from under his bed. Inside, he kept the money from the bourgeois’s wallet. Counting the francs, he got up to 100. After the francs were counted he stashed them back in the box and slid it back under his bed.
In the evening, Augustin decided to go and visit his Tante Maude. Tante Maude still lived in the old flat on the rue St. Denis and so did the landlady Madame Villon who still had not forgiven Augustin for the death of her cat eight years earlier and gave him a look which could have turned him to stone.
It was Lèon who opened the door for him. The two young men greeted each other in the rowdy, familiar way they usually did.
“Where’s your maman?” Augustin asked.
“Still working” Lèon answered.
Not much had changed in the old flat. The old sofa decorated with doilies still stood in the center of the living room with a table covered in old magazines in front of it. Near by was an old tweed armchair and a set of cluttered shelves with an electric fan sitting on top of it. Off in the corner was a table and chairs and a wireless.
“Would you look at all this junk” Augustin said as he looked at the things crammed among the shelves, “Your maman doesn’t throw anything out does she?”
One of the things he found was a small, spanish guitar.
“I can’t believe she still has this.”
“It belonged to my father” Lèon said.
Augustin strummed a little on the guitar. It was out of tune from not having been played in a long time. Léon’s father, his Oncle Gérard had been a good man. He had been shot and killed trying to stop a man who had robbed the service station he had worked at. Lèon had been only five at the time and did not remember much about him but Tante Maude had talked about him often.
“I’ve been doing some work for Père Beranger down at his garage lately” Augustin told his cousin as he began to tune the guitar, “And he’s been fixing up this old motorcycle, a 1920 Harley Davidson 20-J. You should have seen it, Lèon, we fixed it up real nice. Père Beranger even let me ride it a little bit and it rode like a dream. Nothing in my life has ever felt as good as when I was riding that motorcycle; racing down the street all fast and loud.”
“If only old Desmarais could of seen you” Lèon commented with much admiration
“All he would of seen was my dust. I tell you, for that one moment, I didn’t care about him or anyone or anything else”
Lèon smiled and clapped him on the back. They sat down on the sofa and Augustin began to play a tune he had heard somewhere long ago. As he played, the image of the fair haired girl from the wedding and the café came to his mind and the name Marianne almost came to his lips and rang in his ears as softly and sweetly as a prayer.
“What to know what else has happened?” he asked Lèon
“What?” Lèon answered curiously
“I’ve met a girl”
The door opened and Tante Maude stepped in.
“Lèon, are you home?” She asked
“Yes maman, and Augustin’s here too.”
Augustin got up and went over to kiss his aunt on the cheek.
“Nice to see you Augustin” she said, “How have you been?”
“Very well, Tante Maude,” he answered.
“Are you going to stay for dinner?”
“Certainly, why not?”
He noticed the same uneasiness she had around him that had been there for the past eight years. It was like she expected something bad to happen every time he showed up. He always felt guilty for the worry he had caused her during his adolescence and that he needed to make it up for her somehow. Times were not easy and he could tell that Tante Maude was working harder than usual to get by. She was probably somewhere in her forties but the times were aging her horribly.
After dinner, Augustin and Lèon decided to go out.
“Be back by breakfast,” Tante Maude said cheerfully.
When Lèon had gone out the door, Augustin took Tante Maude aside.
“I’ve been working at this garage lately and I have some money.” he took a wad of money out of his pocket. “This isn’t much but I want you to have it”
“Keep it” she said with a smile, “Buy some new clothes. Take some girl out.”
Before he left to join Lèon, he left the money on the table when she was not looking.
The place Augustin and Lèon were heading to was a bit of a hike from the Rue St. Denis but was definitely worth the trip. It boasted some of the best jazz to be heard in Paris and those who went there would have fought anyone who said otherwise.
The place was called Le Monstre and it’s patrons walked through a doorway made to look like a monster’s mouth. In side they met the eyes of a beautiful dark haired girl whose face was painted on posters under the phrase “Mademoiselle Hélène”. Then they descended down a seemingly endless spiral staircase into a dim room lit with electric lights covered in red shades.
In it’s heady atmosphere, gangsters, wealthy middle aged businessmen sat among working class youths, students from the Latin Quarter and artists from Montparnasse. Rebellious heiresses seeking to annoy their parents looked for poor lovers, grisettes hoping for a better life looked for rich lovers; frustrated wives looked for anyone, and tarts looked to make a living.
It was the type of place where young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, corrupt and innocent, bohemia and the establishment met and mixed and occasionally duped one another.
Usually no further entertainment than the band was needed, in the dim light it was expected that the patrons would entertain themselves, but that evening a young singer was to be heard.
“Mademoiselle Hélène” the master of ceremonies announced.
A girl of about eighteen or nineteen in a form fitting gown of blue crêpe de Chine stepped shyly onto the stage. She was of medium height and voluptuous build with pale skin and dark, curling hair. Her blue eyes were large and endearingly sad looking, and the cheeks and lips of her beautiful face were exaggeratedly rosey with rouge.
The band began to play and Mademoiselle Hélène began to sing a popular song called I’ll be there Tonight. The usual hooting and whistles which always greet a pretty female singer came from the male half of the audience but the entire room soon fell dead silent. Hélène’s voice captivated them from the first note.
The celebrated band seemed to play even better just because they were accompanying her. Augustin had heard the song I’ll be there Tonight many times before on the wireless but he had never heard it performed better than he had at that moment.
A man sitting at a table next to the stage watched Hélène more closely than anyone else in the room appearing to be utterly mesmerized. He was in the prime of life, perhaps early to mid thirties, handsome in a manly, athletic sort of way, impeccably dressed and obviously rather wealthy. Like, perhaps more than, most of the men there, he had fallen completely in love with the young chanteuse.
When the song ended, the room erupted into applause. Hélène seemed surprised, as if she had no idea of the effect her voice had. She gave a playful smile and wink to her audience and then disappeared.
“What did you think of her?” A voice asked Augustin and Léon.
A young man with red hair and a face like a sleeping puppy dog appeared next to them.
“Jules, good to see you” Augustin said, welcoming him to sit with them.
He liked Jules a lot because Jules was a likeable person. Jules had the sort of naive, easy going good nature of someone whom everyone likes and nothing bad has ever happened to. He came from a fairly well off bourgeois family who could afford to send him the Sorbonne. One of his sisters was a dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet and married to a rich art dealer.
“How are you Jules?” Lèon asked
“Good, good, I came in when that girl was singing and was glad I came. I’ve always liked this place, they play good music here and I like good music”
“Clare didn’t come with you?” Augustin asked.
“No, Père Abel has her working late tonight like always. The poor girl never has any time to have any fun. There’s a lot to be said for sneaking into her place late at night but what’s the point of having someone like Clare if you can’t take her out and show her off. On top of that, I don’t have the money to marry her”
“That’s too bad” Lèon added “Clare’s crazy for you. Speaking of which: you never told me about that girl, Augustin”
“What girl?” Jules asked
Augustin just smiled at them. He stayed quiet on the subject of Marianne mostly because there was not much to say and he enjoyed teasing his friends by making them think there was more to the story than there was.
Augustin walked over towards where the band was playing and made a request of the song he had strummed on Oncle Gèrard’s guitar.
Later when the three young men left Le Monstre, they noticed a queue of admirers outside of the stage door waiting for an audience with Mademoiselle Hélène.
When Augustin returned to the passageway which lead to his building, it was filled with gloomy shadows which the flickering pale yellow circles of light from the lamps did little to chase away. Walking down that passageway at night had always made Augustin nervous. One never knew who might be hiding in there.
An imposing figure stepped out of the darkness. Augustin, a tall young man at about five foot eleven though not one who would stand out as being particular tall, was overpowered by this figure’s shadow.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A booming familiar voice asked.
A gruff, bulldog-like face was revealed in the flickering lamplight.
“Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Augustin answered curtly.
“Yeah, but I’m not doing them right now. Do we understand each other, Lerou?”
The imposing figure with a bulldog-like face called Desmarais disappeared back into the darkness. He had been the very person Augustin had feared to run into. Desmarais had been after him since he was a boy and his shadow hung over Augustin wherever he went.