II: Big Sea

Paris in the Spring

In April I moved to 15, rue Nollet near the Place Clichy in a room with slanting roofs up under the eaves, overlooking the chimney pots of Paris. It was a tall, old house, with very old furniture in the room, and a big bed with a feather tick. I don’t believe the hotel had a name, simply HOTEL. (In France every rooming house is a hotel, but not all have names.)

The elderly French couple who ran the place were good people, and the rent was cheap. It was a quiet, working folks’ hotel, with a little restaurant across the street, and a grocery store on the corner, and a cream and cheese shop next to the grocery.

That room was right out of a book, and I began to say to myself that I guess dreams do come true, and sometimes life makes its own books, because here I am living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests, in their ice buckets—thanks to their fleet removal by the waiters).

For a while I occupied my attic room alone. Then one night on my way to work I ran across Bob, the boy whose job I had taken at the cabaret. It was a cold, rainy night, depressingly wet and unpleasant, as so many early spring nights in Paris are. Bob was sitting at a café table, with his head in his arms, staring through the windowpane. He said he hadn’t been able to find another job and he had no place to sleep and no money. So I gave him the key to my room and told him he could stay there. He moved in with me.

Then I found out why Bob couldn’t keep a job. Although I seldom saw him, because he slept at night and I slept in the day, sometimes I would wake up in the late afternoon to find him there, sitting in a chair with his head in his hands staring into space.

I’d say: “Hey, Bob, what’s the matter?”

And he would look up, glassy-eyed, and it would take him a long time to say anything. Gradually, it dawned on me that Bob used dope. And there was nothing you could do about it. He couldn’t stop, he said.

So I was glad when Bob found work as a valet for an Englishman, and went away. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay long.

One day, Rayford Logan, who was crippled and had helped me get the job at the Grand Duc, asked me to do him a favor and carry a note to a young lady living in the Latin Quarter. I took the note, got on a bus, and went over to the Boulevard St. Michel. The young lady lived just in front of the Luxembourg Gardens. She was an English-African girl named Mary. Her roommate was a Jamaican girl named Rosalie. They offered me tea and little cakes. I liked Mary, and was pleased to meet such a charming and cultured, good-looking colored girl. She said I might come back to see her again.

I went back. We became good friends and often went dancing together and to the theaters, and shortly we began to be in love. It was spring in Paris.

Mary’s family divided their time between Lagos and London, for her father had business interests in West Africa, and so was frequently back and forth between England and the Nigerian coast. Mary had been educated in London and spoke very English English. And she thought I spoke very American American. Our accents were mutually amusing, and we used to laugh over the simplest words.

Mary was a soft, doe-skin brown. Perhaps her mother, now deceased, had been a white English woman. I never knew. But her father was an African of culture and money. Mary had read my poems in the Crisis, and she knew quite a lot about America, although she had never been there. But I think she had met Claude McKay, the Negro poet, in London. We both adored his “Spring in New Hampshire.” But Rosalie, Mary’s friend from the West Indies, said she did not like Claude McKay because he was too black. Rosalie was a light-skinned Jamaican, who had a violent prejudice toward dark Negroes—as, unfortunately, so many West Indian mulattoes have.

I said that color had nothing to do with the quality of one’s writing. But Rosalie said it had to do with the quality of one’s affections, and that was that. I didn’t like Rosalie much, so I was glad when she went away to Seville for Easter.

Mary had been sent to Paris for a season by her father, because she had got herself engaged to an official in the colonial service of His Majesty’s government, and now she didn’t want to marry the official. All of which was very embarrassing to her father, who thought it a good match and was insisting that she carry it through. Mary still said no. Meantime, she was studying weaving at Raymond Duncan’s school in Paris. Although she did not go about in a tunic and sandals like Raymond, she was, nevertheless, a great admirer of him and of Isadora, whom she had seen dance during her school days in London. So Mary, out of Africa, spent a great deal of her time talking about Isadora, out of Greece (by grace of San Francisco). And Mary gave me a piece of cloth woven with her own hands at Raymond Duncan’s school.

She was amusing, Mary. We went dancing at the Moulin Rouge and walking in the forest at Versailles. I seldom had any money to spend, but she always had money, and would spend it with me. That embarrassed me at first, but then that was the only way we could go around much together, at all. And since we liked each other, after a while it didn’t matter whose money we spent. We both liked shows, but seldom could go together except in the afternoons, since I had to be at work in the kitchen of the Grand Duc by eleven, and most French plays lasted much, much past that hour. But we often went to matinées at the varieties to hear Raquel Meller sing, and Damia, and Chevalier.

Spring came late in Paris that year, but when it did come, it was as golden-green a spring as I have ever seen, fresh and beautiful, and utterly Parisian. In June, Mary wanted to elope with me and run away to Florence and get married, then send her father a cable and tell him what she had done and tell him to tell the colonial official to go on back to his colony.

I was in love with Mary and the idea appealed to me immensely—until I felt my empty pocketbook. Then I said: “What would we live on in Italy?”

Mary said: “My father’s allowance, until you set up in business.”

“What business?” I wondered. “And suppose he cuts off your allowance?”

“He wouldn’t dare cut off my allowance,” said Mary.

But I thought he might dare, knowing fathers. And anyway, I couldn’t see married life on a girl’s money, when I myself didn’t have the price of even a ring or a new suit to get married in.

But Rosalie must have written Mary’s father, because Mary’s sister suddenly showed up from London and began to chaperon us around—every date we had. She asked me about my family, and since it amused me to pretend that I had no ancestors, like an Alger boy, I wouldn’t tell her anything. After a week, Mary’s sister wanted to take Mary back to England, but Mary wouldn’t go. She said she still had some important weaving to do at Raymond Duncan’s school. So we took her sister to the boat train and gave her some candy to eat on the way to Dieppe.

One day, about noon, when I was sleeping good and deep in my feather tick under the eaves, tired from the night’s work, there was a loud knock on the door, and a boy stood there with a note. Half asleep, I tore it open. It was from Mary. She said to come to her at once. She needed me. It was urgent.

Quickly, I dressed and went across Paris to the Latin Quarter to the big old house opposite the Luxembourg. Mary was in tears, packing. Her father had not only refused to continue her monthly allowance, but he had sent a friend of his to Paris, a distinguished Negro doctor, well known in London, with an order to bring Mary back at once to England. The doctor was returning on an early evening boat train and Mary had to go with him.

She and I decided to have dinner together, far from the Latin Quarter, so the doctor could not find us. We went to a little restaurant in the Place du Tertre almost up to Sacre-Cœur on top of the hill of Montmartre. We had wine and épaule de veau and a salade de saison and cœur à la crème. And then we went walking down the winding old streets of the hill, and across the Boulevard Clichy. And somehow we came to my house, and we went climbing up the steep stairs in the cool, half-dark hall, up, up, up, until we came to where the roof slanted and my room was under the eaves.

On the way to the house we had seen a pile of tiny strawberries, the wild French fraises de bois, in a grocer’s window, so we bought a paper coneful, and two little jars of yellow cream. And we sat in my room on the wide stone window seat, in an open gabled window that looked over the chimney pots of Paris, and ate the strawberries and cream, dipping each berry into the cream and feeding each other, and sadly watching the sun set over Paris. And we felt very tristes and very young and helpless, because we could not do what we wanted to do—be happy together with no money and no fathers to worry us.

When the roof tops were gleaming like reddish brass, and the sun was a great golden ball over the Bois, and the cool evening breeze began to blow from the meadows outside Paris, we knew that the doctor would be very, very angry (mad in American) if Mary kept him waiting much longer, so we went down to the street and found an old, open horse carriage, with a wrinkled coachman in a black coat, and arranged with him to drive us across the Seine, past the Odéon, and the Gardens, to the house where Mary lived.

Driving in the dusk through Paris, very close together, we didn’t say anything to each other, as the first stars came out and the early lights were lighted along the Seine and new green leaves rustled softly in the trees on the Boulevard St. Germain and the sound of auto horns and rumbling busses came faintly to the ear, though they were all around us and the scent of gasoline and café crème mingled on the Boulevard at the corner, where we turned past the Gardens, where children were still playing in the blue dusk—but the old people had closed their books and papers, because it was too dark to read.

The doctor, a dignified and very angry colored man, was pacing the sidewalk, up and down before Mary’s apartment. But Mary and I hadn’t noticed that we were in front of the house until the old coachman said: “Arrêtez!” to his horse. Then we saw the doctor glaring at us. Suddenly, he darted across the sidewalk and, before Mary could even tell me good-bye, he had reached up and pulled her from the carriage.

“I’ll lose our places on the train,” he cried. “Will you kindly hurry!”

The doctor hustled Mary toward the doorway of the house, as she called back weakly: “Good-bye! Darling! Good-bye! Good-bye!”

“Good-bye,” I said, standing up in the carriage as the old coachman cried: “Allons!” to his horse. But Mary had disappeared into the doorway with the irate doctor.

Clop! Clop! . . . Clop! Clop! went the horse’s hooves on the pavement. Clop! Clop! . . . Clop! Clop! as I drove away.

The lights grew bright along the Boulevard St. Michel and the café terraces filled with people. Notre Dame loomed on its island as we crossed the Seine. Night settled like a blue blanket over Paris. The old coachman cut through Les Halles toward Montmartre.

Clop! Clop! . . . Clop! Clop! . . . Clop! Clop! . . . Clop! Clop!


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.