Paris – Montmartre

ONE may gain Montmartre by every street that runs off the Grands Boulevards on the left, between the Opéra and the Place de la République; but when the night falls and the tide begins to turn that way, it is the Rue Blanche and the Rue Pigalle that do most of the work. All are very steep. To the wayfarer climbing the hill in no hurry, I recommend for its interest the Rue des Martyrs (Balzac once lived at No. 47), leading out of the Rue Laffitte; or, starting from the Boulevards at a more easterly point, one may gain it by the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, which runs into the Rue des Martyrs at Notre Dame de Lorette and is full of activity and variety.

By taking the Rue de la Rochefoucauld one may spend a few minutes in a little white building there which was once the home and studio of the painter Gustave Moreau and is now left to the nation as a permanent memorial of his labours. In industry the man must have approached Rubens and Rembrandt, for this, though a large house, is literally filled with paintings and drawings and studies, which not only cover the walls but cover screens built into the walls, and screens within screens, and screens within those. The menuisier and Moreau together have contrived to make No. 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld the most tiring house in Paris — at least to me, who do not admire the work of this painter, or at any rate do not want to see more of it than is in the Luxembourg, where may be seen several of his pictures, including the most famous of all, the Salome. Herr Baedeker considers that Moreau’s works have a charm of their own, but I do not find it. I find a striving after the grandiose and startling, with only occasional lapses into sincerity and good colour. It is better than Wiertz, no doubt; but less entertaining, because less shocking.

Montmartre’s life may for our purpose be divided into three distinct periods : day, evening, and the small hours. By day one may roam its streets of living and of dead and study Paris from its summit; in the evening its cabarets are in full swing; and then comes mid-night when its supper cafés open, not to close or cease their melodies until the shops are doing business again.

Montmartre (so called because it was here that St. Denis and his associates were put to death) really is a mountain, as anyone who has climbed to the Sacré-Coeur can tell. The last two hundred yards are indeed nearly as steep as the Brecon Beacons ; but the climb is worth it if only for the view of Paris. (There is, however, a funicular railway.) As for the cathedral, that seems to me to be better seen and appreciated from the distance : from the train as one enters Paris in the late afternoon, with the level sun lighting its pure walls; from the heights on the south side of the river; from the Boulevard des Italiens up the Rue Laffitte; and from the Buttes-Chaumont, as in Mr. Dexter’s exquisite drawing. For the cathedral itself is not particularly attractive near at hand, and within it is cold and dull and still awaiting its glass. It was, however, one of the happiest thoughts that has come to Rome in our time to set this fascinating bizarre Oriental building here. It gave Paris a new note that it will now never lose.

Before leaving, one ought perhaps to have a peep at Françoise-Marguerite, for one is not likely to see her equal again. Françoise-Marguerite, otherwise known as La Savoyarde de Montmartre, is the great bell given to the cathedral by the province of Savoy. She weighs nineteen tons, is nine feet tall and her voice has remark-able timbre.

Behind the new cathedral lies the old church of St. Pierre-de-Montmartre, on the side of which, it is said, once stood a temple of Mars. (Hence, for some lexicographers, Mont Mars and Montmartre; but I prefer to think of St. Denis wandering here without his head.) It was in the crypt of this church, I have somewhere read, that Ignatius Loyola, with Xavier and Laine, founded the order of Jesuits.

I attended early mass at the Sacré-Coeur church on January 1st, 1908. It was snowing lightly and very cold, and as I came away, at about eight, and descended the hill towards Paris, I was struck by the spectacle of the lame and blind and miserable men and women who were appearing mysteriously from nowhere to descend the hill too, groping and hobbling down the slippery steepnesses. Such folk are an uncommon sight in Paris, where everyone seems to be, if not robust, at any rate active and capable, and where, although it eminently belongs to the poor as much as to the rich, extreme poverty is rarely seen. In London, where the poor convey no possessive impression, but, except in their own quarters, suggest that they are here on sufferance, one sees much distress. In Paris none, except on this day, the first of the year — and on one or two others, such as July 14th — when beggars are allowed to ask alms in the streets. For the rest of the year they must hide their misery and their want, al-though I still tremble a little as I remember the importunities of the Montmartre cripple of ferocious aspect and no legs at all, fixed into a packing-case on wheels, who, having demanded alms in vain, hauls himself night after night along the pavement after the hard-hearted, urging his torso’s chariot by powerful strokes of his huge hands on the pavement, as though he rowed against Leander, with such menacing fury that I for one have literally taken to my heels. He is the only beggar I recollect meeting except on the permitted days, and then Paris swarms with them.

Standing on the dome of the cathedral one has the city at one’s feet, not as wonderfully as on the Eiffel Tower, but nearly so. From the Buttes-Chaumont we see Montmartre; here we see the Buttes-Chaumont, which, before it was a park, shared with Montmartre the gypsum quarries from which plaster of Paris is made. Beyond the Buttes-Chaumont is Père Lachaise, a hill strangely mottled by its grave-stones, while immediately below us is the Cimetière du Nord, which we are about to visit for the sake of certain very interesting tombs.

One realises quickly the strategical value of this mountain. Paris has indeed been bombarded from it twice — by Henri IV., and again, only thirty-eight years ago. It was indeed on Montmartre that the Communard insurrection began, for it was the cannon on these heights that the rebel soldiers at once made for after the assassination of their officers. They held them for a while, but were then overpowered and forced to take up their quarters in the Buttes-Chaumont and Père Lachaise, which were shelled by the National Guard from Mont-martre until the brief but terrible mutiny was over.

The great dome, close by us on the left, which might be another Panthéon, crowns the Maison Dufayel.

Who is Dufayel ? you ask. Well, who is Wanamaker, who was Whiteley ? M. Dufayel is the head of the gigantic business in the boulevard Barbès, a northern continuation of the Boulevard de Magenta. His advertisements are on every hoarding. I think the Maison Dufayel is well worth a visit, especially as there is no need to buy anything : you may instead sip an apéritif, listen to the band or watch the cinematoscope. One also need have none of that fear of what would happen were there to be a sudden panic which always keeps me nervous if ever I am lured into the Magasins du Louvre or the Galerie Lafayette; for at Dufayel’s there is space, whereas at those vast shopping centres there is a congestion that in a time of stress would lead to perfectly awful results. The Maison Dufayel is not so varied a repository as Wanamaker’s or Whiteley’s, but in its way it is hardly less remarkable. Its principal line is furniture, and I never saw so many beds in my life. It was M. Dufayel who brought to perfection the deposit system of payment, and his agents continually range the otherwise pleasant land of France, collecting instalments.

Since I had wandered into this monstrous establishment, which may not be as large as Harrod’s Stores but feels infinitely vaster, I determined to buy something, and decided at last upon a French picture book for an English child. Buying it was a simple operation, but I then made the mistake of asking that it might be sent to England direct. One should never do that in a bureaucratic country. The lady led me for what seemed several miles through various departments until we came late in the day to rows and rows of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen each in a little glass box. These boxes were numbered and ran to hundreds. We stopped at last before, say, 157, where my guide left me. The Frenchman in the box denied at once that the book could go by post. It was too large. It must go by rail. For myself, I did not then care how it went or if it went at all: I was tired out. Feeling that such an act as to abandon the parcel and run would be misconstrued and resented in a home of such perfect mechanical order, I waited until he had written for a quarter of an hour in a fine flowing hand with a pen sharper than a serpent’s tooth, and then I paid the required number of francs and set out on the desperate errand of finding the street again. The book was a week on its journey. Go to Dufayel’s, I say, most certainly, for it is quite amusing; but go when you are young and strong.

To me the most interesting thing on Montmartre is the grave of Heinrich Heine in the Cimetière du Nord, a strange irregular city of dead Parisians all tidily laid away in their homes in its many streets, over which a busy rumbling thoroughfare has been carried on aviaduct. I had Heine’s Salon with me when I was last in Paris, and I sought his grave again one afternoon with an in-creased sense of intimacy. A medallion portrait of the mournful face is cut in the marble, and on the grave itself are wistful echoes of the Buch der Lieder. A little tin receptacle is fixed to the stone, and I looked at the cards which in the pretty German way visitors had left upon the poet and his wife; for Frau Heine too lies here. All were German and all rain-soaked (or was it tears ?).

Heine has many illustrious companions. If you would stand by the grave of Berlioz and Ambroise Thomas, of Offenbach, who set all Europe humming, of Délibes the composer of Genée’s ” Coppélia,” of the Brothers de Goncourt, of Rénan, who wrote the Life of Christ, or of Henri Murger, who discovered Bohemia, of De Neuville, painter of battles, of Halévy and Meilhac the playwrights, or of Théophile Gautier the poet, you must seek the Cimetière du Nord.

Montmartre in the evening centres in the Boulevard de Clichy — a high-spirited thoroughfare. Many foreigners visit it only then, and the Boulevard spreads its wares accordingly, and very tawdry some of them are. Here, for example, is a garish façade labelled ” Ciel,” in which a number of grubby blackguards dressed as saints and angels first bring refreshments at a franc a glass, and then offer the visitor a “prêche humoristique” followed by variations of Pepper’s ghost in what are called ” scènes paradisiques,” the whole performance being cold, tawdry and very stupid. Next door is ” Enfer,” where similar delights are offered, save that here the suggestion is not of heaven but hell. Instead therefore of grubby black-guards as saints we have grubby blackguards as devils. On the opposite side of the road is the Cabaret du Néant, where you are received with a mass for the dead sung by the staff, and sit at tables made of coffins.

It is hardly necessary to say that very few Parisians enter these places. The singing cabarets, however, are different: they are genuine, and one needs to be not only a Parisian but a very well-informed Parisian to appreciate them, for the songs are palpitatingly topical and political. The Quatz’-Arts, the Lune-Rousse and the Chat-Noir (once so famous, but now lacking in the genius either of Salis, its founder, or of Caran d’Ache, Steinlen or Willette, who helped to make it renowned) are all in the Boulevard de Clichy. So also is Aristide Bruant’s cabaret, where an organised shout of welcome awaits every visitor, and Aristide — in costume a cross between a poet and a cowboy — sings his realistic ballads of Parisian street life. Here also is the Moulin-Rouge, which in the old days of the elephant was in its spurious way amusing, but is now rebuilt and redecorated out of knowledge, and for all the words you hear might be on Broadway.

Here, also at the extreme western end of the Boulevard, is the Hippodrome, now a hippodrome only in name and given up to the populous cinematoscope. I regret the loss of the real Paris Hippodrome. Paris still has her permanent circuses, but the Hippodrome is gone. It was there that, one night, in 1889, I chanced to sit very near the royal box, into which with much bowing and scraping of managers, a white-haired old gentleman with the features of a lion and an eagle harmoniously blended was ushered. He was only seventy-nine, this old gentle-man, and he was in the thick of such duties as fall to the Leader of the Opposition and promoter of Home Rule for Ireland; but he followed every step of the performance like a schoolboy, and now and then he sent for an official to have something explained to him, such as, on one occasion, the workings of the artificial snow-storm which overwhelmed Skobeleff’s army. That ill-fated Russian general was the hero of the spectacle, a remarkable one in its way; but to me the restless animation and ‘whole-hearted enjoyment of Mr. Glad-stone was the finer entertainment.

Montmartre has also three dancing halls, two of which are genuine and one a show-place. The genuine halls are the Moulin-de-la-Galette, high on the hill on the steepest part of it above the Moulin-Rouge, and the Elysée in the Boulevard de Rochechouart, which are open only two or three times a week and which are thronged by the shop-assistants and young people of the neighbourhood. The spurious hall is the Bal Tabarin, which is open every evening and is a spectacle. It is, however, by no means unamusing, and I have spent many pleasant idle hours there. Willette’s famous fresco of the apotheosis of the Parisian leg decorates a wall-space over the bar with peculiar fitness. At all the bals the men who dance retain their hats and often their overcoats, and for the most part leave their partners with amazing abruptness at the last step. Some of the measures are conspicuous for a lack of restraint that would decimate an English ballroom; but one must not take such displays “at the foot of the letter”; they do not mean among these Latin romps and frolics what they would mean with us, whose emotions are less facile and sense of fun less physical.

And so we come to midnight, when Montmartre enters its third, and, to a Londoner exasperated by the grandmotherly legislation of his own city, its most entertaining phase. The idea that Paris is a late city is an illusion. Paris is not a late city: it is a city with a few late streets. Paris as a whole goes to bed as early as London, if not earlier, as a walk in the residential quarters will prove. Montmartre is late, and the Boulevards des Capucines and des Italiens are late, although less so; and that is about all. When it is remembered that Paris rises and opens its shops some hours earlier than London, and that the Parisians value their health, it will be recognised that Paris could not be a late city. One must remember also that the number of all-night cafés is very small, so small that by frequenting them with any diligence one may soon come to know by sight most of the late fringe of this city, both amateurs and professionals. One is indeed quickly struck by their numerical weakness.

There is a fashion in night cafés as in hats; change is made as suddenly and as inexplicably. One month everyone is crowding into, let us say, the Chat Vivant, and the next the Chat Vivant kindles its lamps and tweaks its mandolins in vain : all the world passes its doors on the way to the Nid de Nuit. What is the reason ? No one knows exactly; but we must probably once again seek the woman. A new dancer (or shall I say attachée ?) has appeared, or an old dancer or attachée transferred her allegiance. And so for a while the Nid has not a free table after one o’clock, and on a special night—such as Mi-Carême, or Réveillon, or New Year’s Eve — it is the head-waiter and the door-keeper of the Nid into whose hands are pressed the gold coins and bank notes to influence them to admit the bloods and their parties and find them a table which a year ago would have gone to the officials of the Chat Vivant.

They remain, when all has been said against them, simple and well-mannered places, these half-dozen famous cafés on which the sun always rises. To think so one must perhaps graduate on the Boulevards, but once they are accepted they can become an agreeable habit. Sleepiness is as unknown there as the writings of Thomas â Kempis. Not only the dancers de la maison but the visitors too are tireless. There may be ways of getting ennui into a Parisian girl, but certainly it is not by dancing. Nor does the band tire either, one excellent rule at all of them being that there should be no pause whatever between the tunes, from the hour of opening. until day.

There lies before me as I write an amusing memorial of the innocent high spirits that can prevail on such a special all-night sitting as Réveillon : one of the tails of a dress coat, lined with white satin on which a skilful hand has traced with a fountain pen (my own) two very intimate scenes of French life. These drawings were made between five and six in the morning in the intervals of the dance, the artist, lacking paper, having without a word taken a table knife and shorn off his coat-tails for the purpose. His coat, I may say, was already being worn inside out, with one of the leather buckles of his braces as a button-hole. A tall burly man, with a long red Boulevard beard, he had thrown out signs of friendliness to me at once, and we became as brothers. He drew my portrait on the table cloth; I affected to draw his. He showed me where I was wrong and drew it right. He then left me, in order to walk for a while on an imaginary tight-rope across the floor, and having safely made the journey and turned again, with infinite skill in his recoveries from falling and the most dexterous managing of a balancing-pole that did not exist, he leaped lightly to earth again, kissed his hand to the company, and again sat by me and resumed his work; finally, after other diversions, completing the chef d’oeuvre that is now lying on my desk and lending abandon to what is otherwise a stronghold of British decorum. We parted at seven. I have never seen him since, but I find his name often in the French comic papers illustrating yet other phases of their favourite pleasantry for the entertainment of this simple and tireless people.

Another incident I recall that is equally characteristic of Montmartre. ” Ça ne fait rien,” said a head-waiter when we had expressed regret on hearing of the death of the maitre d’hôtel, for whom (an old acquaintance) we had been asking. ” Ça ne fait rien :” it is necessary to order supper just the same. True. True indeed everywhere, but particularly true on Montmartre.