Awaiting the Age of the Blue Train

Hadley knew that Ernest would want to get back
to his fiction once he was finished at Lausanne. Her
decision to pack the typescripts and carbons
with the original handwritten manuscripts…
would turn into one of the most famous calamities of modern American literature.

— Gioia Diliberto, Hadley

It has your stories in it.
Yes.
They’ll read them and think they’re wonderful
and they’ll call up the stationmaster and say,
Who was that genius?
No they won’t.

— Nicholas Delbanco, The Lost Suitcase

Raymond and I celebrate our windfall with the latest Parisian rage. Hashish abounds these days, smuggled from the Suez through Djibouti to Marseilles and then into the ville lumière. Such is the trade that a man can make a small fortune if he can just secure the capital to enter the business. The valise, I assure Raymond, is our way out of other men’s pockets and into prosperity.

“Bah,” Legrand disagrees. “You’ll both be old men before you graduate from the Gare de Lyon.” He sells us a pipe’s worth of hash out of pity. He is our Fagin, our Valjean, a former sneak thief like us who graduated to the far more luxurious life of a dream merchant — not only hashish but cocaine, women, other pleasures. He is successful because he has an eye for the value of things. And he doesn’t believe anyone would trade a pencil to get back the papers contained in the suitcase we stole.

He is our Fagin, our Valjean, a former sneak thief like us who graduated to the far more luxurious life of a dream merchant… He is successful because he has an eye for the value of things.

“But you didn’t see the woman’s response,” I insist. “I went back to the platform to check her reaction. It was risky, but the only way of knowing whether our work was indeed for naught. It also cost me fifty centimes to get back through the turnstiles. Small cost, though. She was causing quite the scene. I could hear her wailing to the gendarmes and porters, half in French and half in English. I had to ask the man beside me to translate. ‘It’s my husband’s life!’ she screamed. ‘His whole life! Every bit of writing he’s ever done — I might as well have murdered him!’”

“This woman,” Raymond feels the need to elaborate. “She didn’t look much like a woman. More like a man. She was festooned with luggage but not at all weighed down with it because her legs were thick as pillars and her back broad as a quai.”

“And that’s why you were scared of her,” I remind my partner. “You should have heard him, Legrand: ‘If she were to tackle me, I’d snap in two.’ And when I doubted there was anything in that valise but air, he said, ‘Well, then, you’ll have an extra gasp’s worth if she stops you by sitting on your chest’… So when I finally agree to take the chance, what does my very own George Barrington do? He leaves me waiting twenty minutes under the clock tower, the case under my coat. I looked like I’d caught a case of goût.”

Raymond insists he was late for following the woman. He had to make sure she didn’t return and catch me in the act. “She wandered up and down the quai without a concern in the world. I had to watch her buy Evian, pick through the bookstalls, and chitchat with all the wolfish Americans trying to woo her. Like most of those men, her husband is a journalist. This much I learned. They’re all headed to Lausanne to cover the war conference. Switzerland! I would’ve guessed someplace cheaper and more staid. Somewhere with a lot of convents. Because this woman looked to me like a nun on vacation.”

Legrand grows tired of my friend’s clowning. He wants to know why I’m so sure a reward will be offered for the valise. After all, there was nothing in it but a fistful of paper. No cash, no bonds, no passport — just a blizzard of a sheaf, many handwritten, some typed, a batch of inky carbons.

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