The Man in a Hurry

Paul Morand

The Man in a Hurry

~ ~ ~


To Hélène Morand

… but does one dedicate a book

to the person to whom one dedicated one’s life?


PART ONE A Cracking Pace


AT THE POINT at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. There was such a contrast between the sweltering, glare-filled outskirts of the city and the still, stony silence of this panorama that he stopped in his tracks. Paris fanned out beneath him; an incline plunged towards the Seine, hemmed in by the hills of Clamart and the heights of the Sénart forest. The eye could look down from Villeneuve-Saint-Georges as far as Kremlin-Bicêtre. He took a seat at a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were a friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

The sun was still lighting up the sky, while below, darkness had already fallen; driven from the heavens by sudden flurries of light, rather like an actor unable to make up his mind whether to leave the stage, at nine o’clock the sun was lingering in the summer dusk, drowned in a rosy mist.

The customer without a drink cast his eye over the surrounding tables; all around him people were dining; at that time of the year refugees (everyone was exclaiming rapturously in Central European languages) had come to graft themselves onto the old Parisian clientele of lovers, boozy wedding parties and entertainers for whom Sceaux and Robinson were a rustic extension of Montparnasse.

The man kept turning around, as though he were being followed; twice he looked to see whether his watch had anything new to tell him. He had scarcely been sitting down for more than a minute or two than he clapped his hands again, prodded the hobbling, elderly waiter, and insisted on having something to drink.

Behind the lady at the bar, who was totting up numbers, a whole array of aperitifs was displayed. The visitor gazed at the cordials and coloured alcoholic drinks with melancholy, with longing, with love. His legs began to quiver; his knees knocked together; he clenched his fists, did his best to resist, sighed, and all of a sudden yielded to his desire, abruptly giving way to his impulse, and dashed over to the shelf; his arm brushed against the tiered cake that was the barmaid’s hairdo, he snatched a bottle of quinquina at random, slipped a finger into the handle of a beer mug as he passed the trolley, having also grabbed a soda siphon with the other hand, hopped down the two steps and collapsed into his chair. After having poured the soda water and the Dubonnet into his beer mug — simultaneously, to save time — he gulped it all down.

Only then did he realize that he had never been thirsty.

“May I, monsieur, at your table be seated?”

The customer looked the newcomer up and down.

“Is it to sketch a portrait of me? No one has ever been able to draw me, I warn you; I don’t keep still.”

“Allow me to introduce myself: Doctor Zachary Regencrantz, from Jena. Here is my card. Yours, please? Your behaviour has greatly interested me, Monsieur… Monsieur Pierre Niox. I have been observing you ever since you entered the restaurant. Fascinating! My attention was drawn by your extremely sudden appearance on the terrace. I saw the way you bounded in! Your impetuous movements struck me, a specialist in the study of impulsive movement and the anatomy of reflexes, as most unusual and not at all in keeping with their aim. They had originality and even beauty. Rather like a panther leaping on a mosquito. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

The doctor held forth in measured tones, without beating about the bush, proceeding as though on tiptoes in a language which he was clearly more accustomed to reading than speaking; he lost his balance over the slippery syntax and recovered as best he could.

“So far nothing abnormal, my dear monsieur. I classified you straight away among the paroxysmal-needing-to-satisfy-himself-quickly-subjects, having initially imagined that you dashed in so that you could shorten the distance that separated you from the moment at which you could drink, since thirst seemed to be the Mittelpunkt, the core of your activity. But this new incident — one that would readily require clinical observation and even perhaps a substantial monograph — is that having satisfied an apparently burning desire, but which in reality was not burning, you have not so much as touched your glass, as it were.”

Pierre scrutinized this Regencrantz with the friendliness one feels for someone who talks to you about yourself, even though in theory he did not care for people touching him or murmuring in his ear, but he was used to Jews who, when they speak to you, always look as though they are buying something or telling you a secret. Pierre felt himself being stared at intently by a pair of blue eyes rimmed with gold; the eyes of a 100-year-old man in the sallow face of a skier. Very white teeth shone from skin bronzed by altitude; the doctor’s tan was not as well preserved as it had been and was starting to turn green in patches. A nose like a bishop’s crosier protruded between two cheeks that at the most serious moments always looked as though they were about to burst out laughing. Regencrantz scratched his skull, which was covered with a pale moss that was all the more unusual because the hair on his head had taken refuge in his ears and his nostrils.

“Sit yourself down, doctor. I’m going to give you a consultation. I am neither worried, nor paroxysmal, nor impulsive, nor overwrought. I am perfectly healthy.”

“We shall see.”

“Were I on my own, I would feel marvellous; but there are other people.”

Halt! All my patients say the same thing: ‘Doctor, I’m a victim…’”

“I’m not a victim, I’m a martyr.”

“Ah, there we are. You can tell me what it is that is bothering you.”

“My misfortune is to be precise. My life is spent waiting. You see, this evening I was meant to meet a friend here. Where is he? He is where everyone is: elsewhere.”

“One question I shall ask you: are you enthusiastic?”

“No. Normally quite indifferent, and even apathetic.”

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

“And do you believe in progress?”

“What do you take me for?”

“Is your restless activity of the metaphysical kind? I mean: polypragmosyne?”

“Don’t look for a moral cause, most honourable doctor, you won’t find anything. It is not because of any acquired wisdom that I move quickly, I do so instinctively. The only explanation is that I possess a fatal gift, as the romantics used to say: that of mobility. I am cursed with moving at a galloping pace in a universe that moves at a trot.”

“You are like the alchemists who used to see all the principles of the properties of the body in quicksilver. Have you always been so… impatient?”

“Me, impatient? But I’m so patient that I sometimes have convulsions as a result.”

“The expression gave me away. Can you say in French: ‘How long have people appeared slow to you?’”

“Always have done. Well, actually, no. I’m not really sure.”

“You imply that your subconscious”—the doctor laid stress on the word with a very Germanic relish for terminology—“prefers not to remember. You don’t know, but it knows and it has to speak out. If you would care to see me again, we shall collaborate on a methodical observation of your good self, which will lead us to throw some light on your nature.”

“But I’m not ill!”

“Who mentioned illness? I certainly don’t want to treat you. If you want to charge around like that, you’re perfectly entitled to.” (And with his hand the doctor imitated the throw of the javelin.) “I am simply trying to find out for myself, and I say once more that your case is interesting, that there is an original personality within you. The way you took flight, a moment ago, was admirable, and your agility and your lightness were exemplary. This is not a fatal gift in the least, I can assure you, it is a gift pure and simple.”

“You make me very happy, doctor.”

“My first diagnosis is that you are not living under a curse, as you say you are. No more than other men. You are actually rather better built, more athletic, and your reflexes, which are made of saltpetre, deserve my careful study. Call me from time to time, especially at moments of over-excitement, and we shall chat. Here is my address.” ...