I caught sight of her at the play, and in response to her beckoning, I went over during the interval and sat down beside her. It had been a long time since I had last seen her, and if someone had not mentioned her name, I hardly think I would have recognized her. She greeted me brightly, “Well, it’s been many years since we first met. How time flies! We’re none of us getting any younger. Do you remember the first time I saw you? You asked me to lunch.” Did I remember? It was twenty years ago, and I was living in Paris. I had a tiny apartment in the Latin Quarter overlooking a cemetery, and I was earning barely enough money to keep body and soul together.
She had read a book of mine and had written to me about it. I replied, thanking her, and soon after, I received another letter from her saying she was passing through Paris and would like to chat with me. But her time was limited, and the only free moment she had was on the following Thursday. She was spending the morning at the Luxembourg, and would I give her a little luncheon at Foyot’s afterwards? Foyot’s was a restaurant where French senators ate, and it was so far beyond my means that I had never even thought of going there.
But I was flattered, and I was too young to have learned to say no to a woman. (Few men, I may add, learn this until they are too old to make it of any consequence to a woman what they say.) I had eighty gold francs to last me the rest of the month, and a modest lunch should not cost more than fifteen. If I cut out coffee for the next two weeks, I could manage well enough. I replied that I would meet my correspondent at Foyot’s on Thursday at half-past twelve. She was not as young as I expected and was imposing rather than attractive in appearance.
She was, in fact, forty years old (a charming age but not one that excites a sudden and devastating passion at first sight), and she gave me the impression of having more teeth, white and large and even, than were necessary for any practical purpose. She was talkative, but since she seemed inclined to talk about me, I was prepared to be an attentive listener. I was startled when the bill of fare was brought because the prices were a great deal higher than I had anticipated. But she reassured me, “I never eat anything for lunch,” she said. “Oh, don’t say that!” I replied generously. “I never eat more than one thing.”
I think people eat far too much nowadays. A little fish, perhaps. I wonder if they have any salmon.” “Well, it was early in the year for salmon and it was not on the bill of fare, but I asked the waiter if there was any. Yes, a beautiful salmon had just come in. It was the first they had had. I ordered it for my guest. The waiter asked her if she would like something while it was being cooked. “No,” she answered, “I never eat more than one thing, unless you have a little caviar. I never mind caviar.” My heart sank a little. I knew I could not afford caviar, but I could not very well tell her that.
I told the waiter to bring caviar by all means. For myself, I chose the cheapest dish on the menu, which was a mutton chop. “I think you’re unwise to eat meat,” she said. “I don’t know how you can expect to work after eating heavy things like chops. I don’t believe in overloading my stomach.” Then came the question of drink. “I never drink anything for lunch,” she said. “Neither do I,” I answered promptly, “except white wine,” she proceeded as though I had not spoken. “These French white wines are so light. They’re wonderful for digestion.” “What would you like?” I asked, still hospitable, but not exactly effusive. She gave me a bright and amicable flash of her white teeth. “My doctor won’t let me drink anything but champagne.” I fancy I turned a trifle pale. I ordered half a bottle.
I mentioned casually that my doctor had absolutely forbidden me to drink champagne. “What are you going to drink, then?” “Water.” She ate the caviar and the salmon. She talked gaily of art, literature, and music. But I wondered what the bill would come to. When my mutton chop arrived, she took me quite seriously to task. “I see that you’re in the habit of eating a heavy lunch. I’m sure it’s a mistake. Why don’t you follow my example and just eat one thing? I’m sure you’d feel ever so much better for it.” “I am only going to eat one thing,” I said as the waiter came again with the bill of fare. She waved him aside with an airy gesture. “No, no, I never eat anything for lunch. Just a bite. I never want more than that, and I eat that more as an excuse for conversation than anything else. I couldn’t possibly eat anything more—unless they had some of those giant asparagus. I should be sorry to leave Paris without having some of them.” My heart sank.
I’m sure it’s a mistake. Why don’t you follow my example and just eat one thing? I’m sure you’d feel ever so much better for it. ” “I am only going to eat one thing,” I said as the waiter came again with the bill of fare. She waved him aside with an airy gesture. “No, no, I never eat anything for luncheon. Just a bite, I never want more than that, and I eat that more as an excuse for conversation than anything else. I couldn’t possibly eat anything more—unless they had some of those giant asparagus. I should be sorry to leave Paris without having some of them. ” My heart sank.
I had seen them in the shops, and I knew that they were horribly expensive. My mouth had often watered at the sight of them. “Madame wants to know if you have any of those giant asparagus,” I asked the waiter. I tried with all my might to will him to say no. A happy smile spread over his broad, priest-like face, and he assured me that they had some so large, so splendid, so tender that it was a marvel. “I’m not in the least hungry,” my guest sighed, “but if you insist, I don’t mind having some asparagus.” I ordered them. “Aren’t you going to have any?” “No, I never eat asparagus. I know there are people who don’t like them. The fact is, you ruin your palate by all the meat you eat.” We waited for the asparagus to be cooked. Panic seized me. It was not a question now of how much money I should have left over for the rest of the month, but whether I had enough to pay the bill. It would be mortifying to find myself ten francs short and be obliged to borrow from my guest. I could not bring myself to do that. I knew exactly how much I had, and if the bill came to more, I made up my mind that I would put my hand in my pocket and with a dramatic cry start up and say it had been picked.
Of course, it would be awkward if she had not enough money either to pay the bill. Then the only thing would be to leave my watch and say I would come back and pay later. The asparagus appeared. They were enormous, succulent, and appetizing. The smell of the melted butter tickled my nostrils as the nostrils of Jehovah were tickled by the burned offerings of the virtuous Semites. I watched the abandoned woman thrust them down her throat in large voluptuous mouthfuls, and in my polite way, I discoursed on the condition of the drama in the Balkans. At last, she finished. “Coffee?” I said. “Yes, just an ice-cream and coffee,” she answered. I was past caring now, so I ordered coffee for myself and an ice-cream and coffee for her. “You know, there’s one thing I thoroughly believe in,” she said, as she ate the ice-cream. “One should always get up from a meal feeling one could eat a little more.” “Are you still hungry?” I asked faintly. “Oh, no, I’m not hungry; you see, I don’t eat luncheon. I have a cup of coffee in the morning and then dinner, but I never eat more than one thing for luncheon. I was speaking for you.” “Oh, I see.” Then a terrible thing happened.
While we were waiting for coffee, the head waiter, with an ingratiating smile on his false face, came up to us bearing a large basket full of huge peaches. They had the blush of an innocent girl, and they had the rich tone of an Italian landscape. But surely peaches were not in season then? Lord knows what they cost. I knew too—a little later, for my guest, going on with her conversation, absentmindedly took one. “You see, you’ve filled your stomach with a lot of meat”—my one miserable little chop—”and you can’t eat 30 any more. But I’ve just had a snack and I shall enjoy a peach.” The bill came, and when I paid it, I found that I had only enough for a quite inadequate tip. Her eyes rested for an instant on the three francs I left for the waiter, and I knew that she thought me mean. But when I walked out of the restaurant, I had the whole month before me and not a penny in my pocket. “Follow my example,” she said as we shook hands, “and never eat more than one thing for lunch.” “I’ll do better than that,” I retorted, “I’ll eat nothing for dinner tonight.” “Humorist!” she cried gaily, jumping into a cab. “You’re quite a humorist!” But I have had my revenge at last.
I do not believe that I am a vindictive man, but when the immortal gods take a hand in the matter, it is pardonable to observe the result with complacency. I saw her at the theater and, in response to her signal, I went during the intermission and sat down next to her. It had been a long time since I had last seen her, and if someone had not mentioned her name, I do not think I would have recognized her. She turned to me, smiling brilliantly. “Well, it’s been many years since our first meeting. How time flies! Neither of us is getting any younger. Do you remember the first time you saw me? You asked me to lunch. Do I remember? It was 20 years ago, and I was living in Paris. I had a small apartment in the Latin Quarter, overlooking a cemetery, and I was earning just enough money to keep body and soul together. You had read one of my books and had written to me about it. I had replied, thanking you, and now I had received another letter from you saying that you were passing through Paris and would like to have a chat with me, but your time was limited, and the only free moment you had was the following Thursday, when you were spending the morning at the Luxembourg Gardens, and I should meet you there and give you lunch at Foyot’s?”
Foyot’s is a restaurant where French senators eat, and it was so far beyond my means that I had never even thought of going there. But I was flattered, and I was too young to have learned to say no to a woman. (Few men, I may add, learn this until they are too old to make it of any consequence to a woman what they say.) I had 80 francs (gold francs) to last me the rest of the month, and a modest lunch should not cost more than fifteen. If I cut out coffee for the next two weeks, I could manage quite well.
Risposi che avrei incontrato il mio amico per corrispondenza al Foyot sulla Giovedì alle dodici e mezzo. Non era così giovane come mi aspettavo e appariva imponente, piuttosto che attraente. Era infatti una donna di 40 anni (un’età affascinante, ma non una che suscita una passione improvvisa e devastante a prima vista), e mi ha dato l’impressione di avere più denti, grandi e bianchi di quanto fosse necessario per qualsiasi scopo pratico. Era loquace, ma dal momento che sembrava incline a parlare di me, ero pronto ad essere un ascoltatore attento.
Sono rimasto sorpreso quando la lista delle vivande è stata portata, poiché i prezzi erano molto più alti di quanto mi aspettassi. Ma lei mi ha rassicurato: “Non ho mai mangiato niente per pranzo”, ha detto. “Oh, non dire così!” Ho risposto con generosità. “Non ho mai mangiato più di una cosa. Penso che la gente mangi troppo al giorno d’oggi. Un pesce piccolo, forse. Mi chiedo se hanno qualche salmone.” Beh, era nei primi mesi dell’anno per il salmone e non era sulla lista delle vivande, ma ho chiesto al cameriere se c’era qualcosa.
Sì, un bel salmone era appena arrivato ed era il primo che avevano avuto. L’ho ordinato per il mio ospite. Il cameriere le chiese se volesse qualcosa mentre veniva cotto. “No”, rispose, “Non mangio mai più di una cosa. Meno che non si avesse un po’ di caviale. Amo il caviale.” Il mio cuore si è fermato un po’. Sapevo che non poteva permettersi il caviale, ma non potevo certo dirglielo. Ho detto al cameriere di portare del caviale. Per quanto mi riguarda, ho scelto il piatto più economico sul menu, che era una costoletta di montone. “Penso che tu sia saggio a mangiare carne”, ha detto. “Non so come si possa lavorare dopo aver mangiato cose pesanti come le braciole. Non credo nel sovraccaricare lo stomaco.”
Poi venne la questione delle bevande. “Non bevo mai niente per pranzo”, ha detto. “Nemmeno io”, ho risposto prontamente. “Tranne il vino bianco”, ha continuato come se non avessi parlato. “Questi vini francesi bianchi sono così leggeri. Sono meravigliosi per la digestione.” “Cosa vuoi?” ho chiesto, ancora ospitale ma non esattamente espansivo. Lei mi ha sorriso con i suoi denti bianchi e luminosi. “Il mio medico non mi permette di bere niente, tranne lo champagne. Mi piace tanto!” Sono diventato un po’ pallido. Ho ordinato mezza bottiglia. Ho detto per caso che il mio medico mi aveva imposto un divieto assoluto di bere champagne. “E tu, cosa bevi?” “Acqua”. “Ha mangiato il caviale e il salmone. Parlava allegramente di arte, letteratura e musica. Ma mi sono chiesto cosa sarebbe successo con il disegno di legge. Quando il mio piatto di montone è arrivato, mi sono concentrato seriamente sul compito. “Vedo che sei abituato a mangiare un pranzo pesante”.
“Sono sicuro che sia un errore. Perché non seguire il mio esempio e mangiare qualcosa? Sono sicuro che ci si sente sempre molto meglio per questo”, dissi.
“Mangerò solo una cosa”, dissi mentre il cameriere tornava con la lista delle pietanze. Lei lo fece cenno da parte con un gesto arioso. “No, no, non ho mai mangiato niente per pranzo. Solo un boccone, non voglio mai di più, e mangio solo per conversare, non per altro. Non potrei mangiare nulla di più, a meno che non avessi degli asparagi giganti. Mi dispiacerebbe lasciare Parigi senza averne assaggiati alcuni.”
Mi fece un tuffo al cuore. Li avevo visti nei negozi e sapevo che erano terribilmente costosi. La mia bocca saliva spesso alla vista di essi.
“La signora vuole sapere se avete degli asparagi giganti”, chiesi al cameriere. Cercai di resistere alla tentazione di dire di no. Un sorriso felice si sviluppò sul suo viso largo come una cattedrale, e mi assicurò che ne avevano alcuni così grandi, splendidi e teneri che era una meraviglia.
“Non ho affatto fame”, sospirò il mio ospite, “ma se insistete non mi dispiacerebbe avere un po’ di asparagi”.
Li ordinai. “Non ne vuoi?”, chiesi.
“No, non ho mai mangiato gli asparagi”, rispose.
“So che ci sono persone a cui non piacciono. Il fatto è che si rovina il palato con tutta la carne che si mangia”, commentai.
Aspettammo che gli asparagi fossero cucinati. Il panico mi prese. Non si trattava più di sapere quanti soldi mi erano rimasti per il resto del mese, ma se avrei avuto abbastanza per pagare il conto.
Sarebbe stato mortificante ritrovarmi a corto di dieci franchi e dover chiedere un prestito al mio ospite. Non potevo farlo. Sapevo esattamente quanto avevo e se il conto fosse stato più alto, avrei fatto in modo di mettere la mano in tasca, con un grido drammatico, e avrei detto che l’avevo già pagato. Certo, sarebbe stato imbarazzante se lei non avesse abbastanza soldi per pagare il conto. Quindi, l’unica cosa sarebbe stata lasciare il mio orologio e dire che sarei tornato a pagare più tardi.
Gli asparagi arrivarono. Erano enormi, succulenti e appetitosi.
L’odore del burro fuso solleticava le narici, come le narici di Geova sono state solleticate dagli olocausti dei Semiti virtuosi. Ho guardato la donna che abbandonava gli spinaci giù per la gola in un grande boccone voluttuoso e, nel mio modo educato, mi ha discorso sulla condizione del dramma nei Balcani. Finalmente, era finito. “Caffè?” Ho detto. “Sì, proprio un gelato e caffè”, ha risposto lei. Ero passato dalla fame ora, quindi ho ordinato il caffè per me e un gelato e caffè per lei. “Sai, c’è una cosa in cui ho sempre creduto”, ha detto mentre mangiava il gelato. “Devi sempre alzarti da un pasto sentendoti come se potessi mangiare un po’ di più.” “Hai ancora fame?” ho chiesto debolmente. “Oh, no, non ho fame. Vedete, non mangio il pranzo. Ho solo una tazza di caffè al mattino e poi ceno, ma non ho mai mangiato più di una cosa per pranzo. Ho parlato per voi.” “Oh, capisco.”
Poi accadde una cosa terribile. Mentre stavamo aspettando il caffè, il capocameriere, con un sorriso accattivante sul viso falso, si avvicinò a noi portando un grande cesto pieno di pesche enormi. Avevano il rossore di una ragazza innocente, ma avevano il tono ricco di un paesaggio italiano. Ma sicuramente le pesche non erano di stagione, no?
Sapevo che il signore sapeva quanto costavano. Ho anche capito, un po’ più tardi, che la mia ospite, andando avanti con la sua conversazione, distrattamente ne aveva presa una. “Vedi, hai riempito lo stomaco con un sacco di carne – il mio miserabile chop – e non puoi mangiarne altri 30. Ma io ho appena avuto uno spuntino e mi piace una pesca.” Il conto è arrivato e quando l’ho pagato, ho scoperto che avevo abbastanza solo per una mancia del tutto insufficiente. I suoi occhi si sono posati per un istante sui tre franchi che avevo lasciato per il cameriere e ho capito che pensava male di me.
Ma quando sono uscito dal ristorante, avevo tutto il mese davanti a me e non un soldo in tasca. “Segui il mio esempio”, disse mentre ci stringevamo la mano, “e non mangiare mai più di una cosa per pranzo.” “Farò di meglio”, ho ribattuto, “non mangerò niente per la cena di stasera.” “Umorista!” gridò allegramente, saltando su un taxi. “Sei un bel umorista!” Ma alla fine ho avuto la mia rivincita. Non credo di essere un uomo vendicativo, ma quando gli dei immortali prendono parte alla questione, è perdonabile osservare il risultato con compiacimento.