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Poirot and Bidan

A RECOLLECTION


Coming one dark December evening out of the hospital courtyard into the corridor which led to my little workroom, I was conscious of two new arrivals. There were several men round the stove, but these two were sitting apart on a bench close to my door. We used to get men in all stages of decrepitude, but I had never seen two who looked so completely under the weather. They were the extremes—in age, in colouring, in figure, in everything; and they sat there, not speaking, with every appearance of apathy and exhaustion. The one was a boy, perhaps nineteen, with a sunken, hairless, grey-white face under his peaked cap—never surely was face so grey! He sat with his long grey-blue overcoat open at the knees, and his long emaciated hands nervously rubbing each other between them. Intensely forlorn he looked, and I remember thinking: "That boy's dying!" This was Bidan.

The other's face, in just the glimpse I had of it, was as if carved out of wood, except for that something you see behind the masks of driven bullocks, deeply resentful. His cap was off, and one saw he was grey-haired; his cheeks, stretched over cheekbones solid as door-handles, were a purplish-red, his grey moustache was damp, his light blue eyes stared like a codfish's. He reminded me queerly of those Parisian cochers one still sees under their shining hats, wearing an expression of being your enemy. His short stocky figure was dumped stolidly as if he meant never to move again; on his thick legs and feet he wore mufflings of cloth boot, into which his patched and stained grey-blue trousers were tucked. One of his gloved hands was stretched out stiff on his knee. This was Poirot.

Two more dissimilar creatures were never blown together into our haven. So far as I remember, they had both been in hospital about six months, and their ailments were, roughly speaking, Youth and Age. Bidan had not finished his training when his weak constitution gave way under it; Poirot was a Territorial who had dug behind the Front till rheumatism claimed him for its own. Bidan, who had fair hair and rather beautiful brown eyes over which the lids could hardly keep up, came from Aix-en-Provence, in the very south; Poirot from Nancy, in the northeast. I made their acquaintance the next morning.

The cleaning of old Poirot took, literally speaking, days to accomplish. Such an encrusted case we had never seen; nor was it possible to go, otherwise than slowly, against his prejudices. One who, unless taken exactly the right way, considered everyone leagued with Nature to get the better of him, he had reached that state when the soul sticks its toes in and refuses to budge. A coachman—in civil life—a socialist, a freethinker, a wit, he was the apex of—shall we say?—determination. His moral being was encrusted with perversity, as his poor hands and feet with dirt. Oil was the only thing for him, and I, for one, used oil on him morally and physically, for months. He was a "character!" His left hand—which he was never tired of saying the "majors" had ruined ("Ah! les cochons!") by leaving it alone—was stiff in all its joints, so that the fingers would not bend; and the little finger of the right hand, "le petit," "le coquin," "l'empereur," as he would severally call it, was embellished by chalky excrescences. The old fellow had that peculiar artfulness which comes from life-long dealing with horses, and he knew exactly how far and how quickly it was advisable for him to mend in health. About the third day he made up his mind that he wished to remain with us at least until the warm weather came. For that it would be necessary—he concluded—to make a cheering amount of progress, but not too much. And this he set himself to do. He was convinced, one could see, that after Peace had been declared and compensation assured him, he would recover the use of his hand, even if "l'empereur" remained stiff and chalky. As a matter of fact, I think he was mistaken, and will never have a supple left hand again. But his arms were so brawny, his constitution so vigorous, and his legs improved so rapidly under the necessity of taking him down into the little town for his glass, of an afternoon, that one felt he might possibly be digging again sooner than he intended.

"Ah, les cochons!" he would say; "while one finger does not move, they shall pay me!" He was very bitter against all "majors" save one, who it seemed had actually sympathised with him, and all députés, who for him constituted the powers of darkness, drawing their salaries, and sitting in their chairs. ("Ah! les chameaux!")

Though he was several years younger than oneself, one always thought of him as "Old Poirot" indeed, he was soon called "le grand-père," though no more confirmed bachelor ever inhabited the world. He was a regular "Miller of Dee," caring for nobody; and yet he was likeable, that humorous old stoic, who suffered from gall-stones, and bore horrible bouts of pain like a hero. In spite of all his disabilities his health and appearance soon became robust in our easy-going hospital, where no one was harried, the food excellent, and the air good. He would tell you that his father lived to eighty, and his grandfather to a hundred, both "strong men" though not so strong as his old master, the squire, of whose feats in the hunting-field he would give most staggering accounts in an argot which could only be followed by instinct. A great narrator, he would describe at length life in the town of Nancy, where, when the War broke out, he was driving a market cart, and distributing vegetables, which had made him an authority on municipal reform. Though an incorrigible joker, his stockfish countenance would remain perfectly grave, except for an occasional hoarse chuckle. You would have thought he had no more power of compassion than a cat, no more sensibility than a Chinese idol; but this was not so. In his wooden, shrewd, distrustful way he responded to sympathy, and was even sorry for others. I used to like very much his attitude to the young "stable-companion" who had arrived with him; he had no contempt, such as he might easily have felt for so weakly a creature, but rather a real indulgence towards his feebleness. "Ah!" he would say at first; "he won't make old bones—that one!" But he seemed extremely pleased when, in a fortnight or so, he had to modify that view, for Bidan (Prosper) prospered more rapidly even than himself. That grey look was out of the boy's face within three weeks. It was wonderful to watch him come back to life, till at last he could say, with his dreadful Provençal twang, that he felt "très biang." A most amiable youth, he had been a cook, and his chief ambition was to travel till he had attained the summit of mortal hopes, and was cooking at the Ritz in London. When he came to us his limbs seemed almost to have lost their joints, they wambled so. He had no muscle at all. Utter anæmia had hold of all his body, and all but a corner of his French spirit. Round that unquenchable gleam of gaiety the rest of him slowly rallied. With proper food and air and freedom, he began to have a faint pink flush in his china-white cheeks; his lids no longer drooped, his limbs seemed to regain their joints, his hands ceased to swell, he complained less and less of the pains about his heart. When, of a morning, he was finished with, and "le grand-père" was having his hands done, they would engage in lively repartee—oblivious of one's presence. We began to feel that this grey ghost of a youth had been well named, after all, when they called him Prosper, so lyrical would he wax over the constitution and cooking of "bouillabaisse," over the South, and the buildings of his native Aix-en-Provence. In all France you could not have found a greater contrast than those two who had come to us so under the weather; nor in all France two better instances of the way men can regain health of body and spirit in the right surroundings.

We had a tremendous fall of snow that winter, and had to dig ourselves out of it. Poirot and Bidan were of those who dug. It was amusing to watch them. Bidan dug easily, without afterthought. "Le grand-père" dug, with half an eye at least on his future; in spite of those stiff fingers he shifted a lot of snow, but he rested on his shovel whenever he thought you could see him—for he was full of human nature.

To see him and Bidan set off for town together! Bidan pale, and wambling a little still, but gay, with a kind of birdlike detachment; "le grand-père" stocky, wooden, planting his huge feet rather wide apart and regarding his companion, the frosted trees, and the whole wide world, with his humorous stare.

Once, I regret to say, when spring was beginning to come, Bidan-Prosper returned on "le grand-père's" arm with the utmost difficulty, owing to the presence within him of a liquid called Clairette de Die, no amount of which could subdue "le grand-père's" power of planting one foot before the other. Bidan-Prosper arrived hilarious, revealing to the world unsuspected passions; he awoke next morning sad, pale, penitent. Poirot, au contraire, was morose the whole evening, and awoke next morning exactly the same as usual. In such different ways does the gift of the gods affect us.

They had their habits, so diverse, their constitutions, and their dreams—alas! not yet realised. I know not where they may be now; Bidan-Prosper cannot yet be cooking at the Ritz in London town; but "grand-père" Poirot may perchance be distributing again his vegetables in the streets of Nancy, driving his two good little horses—des gaillards—with the reins hooked round "l'empereur." Good friends—good luck!

John Galsworthy

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