Paris – Southward From The Madeleine

Standing on the steps of the Madeleine one looks downhill along the Rue Royale across the Place de la Concorde and the Pont de la Concorde to the Chambre des Deputes. A church is at the top of the hill and a parliament at the bottom. But lest too much should be deduced from this fact, it should be added that the church itself was originally built by Napoleon as a temple of glory in which the memory of his victories might be kept alive. Its site was a graveyard, where the victims of the guillotine were hastily buried. Here were brought, among others, the bodies of Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette, and it is said that among the records in the Madeleine is an entry by the sexton : ” Paid seven francs for a coffin for the widow Capet.” After the fall of Napoleon, and before the building was finished, it became a church. Marie Antoinette was reentered at St. Denis. To me the Madeleine is unimpressive and dull, betraying its pagan origin. But it is pleasant to stand on its steps in the summer, with the flower markets on either hand, and to look towards the famous Place, and the river beyond.

I have one vivid personal memory of the Madeleine. I arrived in Paris late one evening in January 1915, when the horror of the war had not been lessened by familiarity. Paris was a dark city. Hardly a street lamp was alight. And, as I passed the Madeleine, scores of sombrely clothed men and women, who had been praying for the repose of the souls of their dead, came down the long flight of stone steps, almost like spectres, to be lost in the darkness of the surrounding streets. It was my first realisation of the tragedy of war. England’s losses at that time had been comparatively slight, and though it was not my last or worst close experience of war sorrow, the picture will always remain with me.

Opposite the Madeleine, at the corner of the Rue Royale and the Grands Boulevards, was the famous Restaurant Durand. It was at Durand’s that General Boulanger, a pinchbeck militarist adventurer, met with his friends to decide whether or no to attempt a coup d’Etat. If it had been attempted it would probably have been a success, and Boulanger, whose black horse and threats to Germany and attacks on the parliamentary system which the French people have never loved, had made him a popular hero, would have been a dictator. But Boulanger was a coward. The moment passed, and he went into exile to commit suicide two years afterwards in Brussels. Boulanger was the hero of the music-halls, and the great Paulus, the most famous of French cafe chantant singers, made his own reputation and the adventurer’s with the now forgotten ” En revenant de la Revue.”

There is little history in the Rue Royale though (and this is, may be, to be preferred) there are many excellent restaurants. Among them I count most highly the Res taurant Weber where, for a moderate figure, the wise can dine well, and indeed far better than at the more fashionable eating-places, that cater for the tourists with over-filled purses. At Weber the discerning always drink Vouvray, that delightful vin de Touraine which, as a punishment for the sins of the English, high Heaven will not permit to travel without deterioration.

It was at number eight Rue Royale that Madame de Stael lived at the end of her life, being moved from there in the summer of 1817 to die in the Rue Neuve des Mathurins. The indomitable woman, whom Napoleon feared more than any of his enemies, fought death with splendid courage. She was threatened with paralysis, but she declined to change her mode of life. ” She resisted the attack with heroic imperturbability : invited everywhere, going everywhere, keeping open house, receiving in the morning,at dinner and in the evening, all the distinguished men of all parties, ranks and stations, taking the same interest in politics, literature, philosophy and society whether serious or frivolous, intimate or noisy, of the Government or of the Opposition, as in the brightest days of her early youth.”

Few men or women have crammed so much experience into fifty-one years as Madame de Stael, the daughter of Necker, the Swiss banker-minister of Louis XVI. She had sat as a small girl, upright on a high chair, listening to the wisdom that fell from the lips of the encyclopoedists. Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, Gibbon and Hume were among the celebrities with whom she was familiar, and Grimm copied out her childish essays and circulated them among his friends. She was the greatest figure of the period of sensibility. It is jolly to remember that she journeyed all the way to London to weep on the tomb of Richardson, whose Clarissa had touched her heart. Her novels were vastly applauded in her own time though they are now forgotten. Mme. de Stael was a great woman-a grande amoureuse, a tremendous traveller, an enthusiastic hater. Byron, whom she met in Italy, asserted that she talked too much, while she said of the English poet that he had ” just enough sensibility to ruin a woman’s happiness.” Of all the stories of Mme. de Stael I like best the incident of her calling on Barras in the days of the Directoire to demand that Talleyrand, who was credited with being one of her many lovers, should be made Minister of Foreign Affairs, weepingly protesting that if Barras refused, the ex-bishop of Autun would throw himself into the Seine !

The Place de la Concorde at the bottom of the Rue Royale has been the scene of many of the most thrilling events in the history of France. At the left-hand corner is the Ministere de la Marine, from the balcony of which, with a group of Senators and Deputies, I watched President Wilson make his triumphal entry into Paris in December 1918, the legislators ironically shouting, Vivent les quatorze points, as the American President bowed right and left with uncomfortable wooden dignity. On the right-hand corner is the Hotel Crillon where the Americans had their headquarters during the Peace Congress. On the left the Tuileries gardens, on the right the Champs-Elysees, and in front the river and the Chambre des Deputes.

The Place de la Concorde was first laid out as a square in the middle of the eighteenth century. Louis XV., popular as all young kings are when they succeed the aged and decrepit, was taken dangerously ill at Metz. To his people he was then the Well-Beloved, and the whole nation prayed for his recovery. ” The prayers of priests and people,” wrote a contemporary quoted by Carlyle, ” were every moment interrupted by their sobs.” The WellBeloved recovered, and, as a thank-offering, the people of Paris determined to erect a statue to their King. The site selected was then a stretch of market gardens between the Tuileries and the river, and the Place was created very much as it is now. The statue of the King showed him crowned with laurels and riding a charger, surrounded by four figures of the Virtues. It was twenty-one years before the whole design was completed and by that time the WellBeloved had become the Generally Hated. As Carlyle says: ” With Pompadourism and Du Barryism, his fleur de lis has been shamefully struck down in all lands and on all seas.” And Paris laughed when it saw the king on his charger with the Virtues at his feet :

Ah la belle statue, oh le beau piedestal,

Les Vertus sont a pied et les Vices a cheval !

In 1770 Paris was en fete on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette. A display of fireworks was given on the Place Louis Quinze, as it was then called, and one of the rockets was discharged directly into the crowd, causing a wild panic. Many of the sightseers were pushed into the river and were drowned. Others attempted to escape by the Rue Royale, which was obstructed by new building operations, and were crushed underfoot, and more than a hundred were killed there-an omen of the hapless lot of the royal pair.

At the Revolution the Place Louis Quinze became the Place de la Revolution. The statue of the King who ” opened his mouth, said nothing and thought not at all,” gave place to a statue of Liberty, and on the east side, almost in front of the gates that nowadays admit to the Tuileries gardens, the guillotine was set up in 1793. Guillotin, who has given his name to the instrument of death, demanded at the Constitutional Assembly that, as a democratic right ” in all cases of capital punishment it shall be of the same kind-that is decapitation-and that it shall be executed by means of a machine.” Under the old regime only men of noble birth had the right to have their heads cut off. For lowlier persons there was the gibbet and the rope. But all men were to be equal in the Republic, both in life and in death. The first guillotine was constructed under the direction of the Secretary of the Academy of Surgeons, and before it was used for the hated aristocrats, experiment was made on a highwayman in the Place de Greve.

The guillotine was erected on the Place de la Revolution, particularly for the execution of Louis XVI. History has no more pathetic figure. He is more pathetic than Mary Queen of Scots or Charles I., or any other of the kings and queens whose life has ended with a violent death, because he was so harmless and so extraordinarily futile. Mary and Charles, and even Marie Antoinette in her way, had played their parts, but Louis was nothing but the victim of his times. Carlyle has told the story of his execution in some of the most masterly passages in a peerless book. It was a great scene, lacking nothing in intensity and dignity, and culminating with the Abbe Edgeworth’s splendid command : ” Fils de St. Louis, montez au Ciel ! ”

For a year the guillotine was taken to the Place du Carrousel, but it was back again in the Place de la Revolution for the killing of Charlotte Corday, that appealing revolutionary figure who appears on the stage only to disappear; of Madame Roland, a type of the sententious doctrinaire who contrives revolutions, always to be destroyed by them; and of Queen Marie Antoinette, guilty of nothing but of being beautiful and frivolous and a queenoffences grave enough, be it added, at a time of a nation’s rebirth. She was a good mother and, so far as was possible with dull Louis, a good wife, but Anatole France has some justification when he says that she was ” frivolous, ignorant, imprudent, light-headed and extravagant, and that, as Queen of France, she had an anti-French policy.” To the French people she was always the Austrian, and the pro-Austrian policy that she compelled her husband’s Government to adopt was one of the causes of her undoing.

These were the three most notable of the twelve hundred and thirty-five victims of Sanson, the headsman, a sufficiently large number,but a small exploit in massacre compared to the achievements of the Russian Bolshevists. If the world has seen progress nowhere else, it has certainly seen progress in revolutionary zeal. The Revolution took over many of the officials of the Bourbon Government, among them the headsman. The notorious Sanson belonged to a family of executioners, and when he retired after the Terror he was succeeded by his son, who retained his office under the Directoire, the Consulate and the Empire, and during the reigns of Louis XVIII., Charles X. and Louis Philippe. Sanson was a serious, conscientious tradesman as may be gathered from the following curious letter that he wrote to Fouquier-Tinville :

Au citoyen Fouquier, accusateur, public du tribunal revolutionnaire, Paris.

CITOYEN-Suivant les ordres que j’ai requs du departement de faire construire des panieres, etc., se trouvant sur le point d’estre faits, et ses sortes de marchandises, ne pouvant se trouver con fondues avec les charpentes sans courir le risque d’estre a chaque instant ecrases, il reste a cote du angard que vous avez fait donner au charpentier un autre petit angard propre a mettre deux voitures. Il sera sufisant mais necessaire pour le service des executions attandu que ces paniers seront montes sur des roues. L’executeur vous prie, citoyen, de vouloir bien lui faire donner cc local pour les objets detailles cy-dessus, d’ailleurs il n’y aura pas de depense a faire cy ce n’est 1′elargissement de la porte qui consistera a lever deux planches.

Le citoyen republicain SANSON. executeur des jugements criminels a Paris.

Paris, ce 25 floreal Fan 2 de la Republique une et indivisible.

It is hard to understand the enjoyment that the guillotine gave to revolutionary Paris. It is hard to comprehend the mentality of Madame Defarge and her friends, who sat in the front seats, knitting and counting the heads as they fell into the basket. But it is well to remember that executions outside Newgate Gaol remained a popular amusement long after the revolutionary Terror had run its course in Paris.

It was in the evening of April 5, 1794, while the setting sun burnished the statue of Liberty in the centre of the square, that the Republic destroyed the greatest of its sons. Danton is the outstanding, splendid, masculine figure of the French Revolution. Heroic times do not necessarily call forth an army of heroic figures. It is indeed the irony of life that little men are constantly bungling great opportunities. But the French Revolution was, at its best, the work of two great men-Mirabeau and Danton. It was destroyed by a miserable little manRobespierre. By the beginning of 1794 it was clear that Robespierre and Danton could not exist together, and it was the mean, acid plotter, aided by the fanatical eloquence of Saint-Just, ” a youth of slight stature with mild mellow voice, enthusiast olive complexion and long black hair,” who swayed the Convention and decreed a mock trial for Danton and the guillotine on the Place de la Revolution. The tumbrils came, from the prison of the Conciergerie, along the Rue St. Honore, and as Danton and his friends passed the house of Duplay, where he lodged, they knew that Robespierre (Mr. Belloc has called him ” the mad narrow enemy of mercy and of all good things”) was hidden behind the shutters.

So they arrived at the square, Danton massive, unafraid, buoying up the courage of his friends, taunting his enemy in satiric song, and at the end, the last to die, thinking of his wife and muttering to himself, ” I shall never see her again. No weakness ! ” Rarely in the whole history of the world have men witnessed so magnificent a passing into the unseen-a great figure, certain of himself, arrogant with justification. ” I am Danton not unknown among the revolutionaries, I shall be living nowhere soon, but you will find my name in Valhalla!

Swift Nemesis! Less than four months later RobesPierre, with his broken jaw-bone done up in dirty linen, is jostled along the Rue St. Honore on the same journey as his great enemy.

It was to his house at what is now the Rue Royale end of this street that Duplay, who is generally described as a carpenter, but who was really a comparatively comfortable bourgeois, took Robespierre in 1791, after he had made a hectic speech at the Jacobin Club, and when his life was in danger, during what proved to be a temporary and unimportant reaction. Robespierre lived with Duplay until his course was run, content in an atmosphere of unqualified adulation. It was a simple, sober household, and RobesPierre was a simple, sober man, and yet as even a simple, sober man well may be, a creature of most excessive vanity, delighted always to see the full-length portrait of himself on the wall and his metal bust on the writing-table. It was from this house that he went out to fight for his life, neatly attired, wearing his famous light blue coat. Duplay, who was an intelligent politician, was fearful for the safety of his friend, but Robespierre had no foreboding. But again to quote Mr. Belloc, ” he never came home and he never slept again.” He died well hated. A woman in the crowd sprang up to the side of the cart and struck him in the face, and, always the victim of phrases, he muttered : ” De mourir pour le peuple et d’en Ore abhorre ! ”

Robespierre is an enigma. To Carlyle he is the seagreen incorruptible, an honest dyspeptic, a narrow-souled doctrinaire. Mr. Belloc says that he could neither laugh nor hate. He was the high priest of the gospel of Rousseau, but he never understood that gospel. He was tireless, persistent, a peerless schemer. The death of Danton was in a sense the supreme achievement of his career, and its undoing. When Danton died no man was safe. It was in very truth the blood of Danton that choked Robespierre when he attempted to defend himself before his accusers.

The great crowd in the Place de la Revolution was awed and silent when Danton died. The scene was that of an epic tragedy. But when Robespierre died it was a tawdry melodrama, the crowd shouting execrations, the executioner brutally tearing off the bandage from his victim’s broken jaw, the man howling in agony as he died.

Napoleon gave its present name to the square in 1799, using it for military displays, the demonstration to the Parisians of his victories and his glory. In 1815, after the surrender and exile of the Emperor, British troops bivouacked on the Place, the Duke of Wellington doubtless rejoicing that his long march with the insufferable Blucher had come to an end. The statue of Liberty was pulled down and carted away. The Bourbons were back in their ancient capital, but not for long. After the Revolution of 1830 the Citizen King erected in the centre of the Place the famous Luxor column given to him by the Sultan of Turkey, and it is there to this day.

1848, and another revolution ! The Citizen King, stealing out of the Tuileries, hired a cab on the Place de la Concorde to take him on the first part of his journey to the exile that was the usual lot of France’s nineteenth-century rulers.

It was in the Chambre des Deputes, most uncomfortable of parliament houses, that the beginning of the Second Republic was decreed, a great cheering crowd swarming over the quays and bridge into the Place de la Concorde behind, with Alexandre Dumas among the Deputies who decided that France should have no more kings.

Twenty-two years pass, and on the 4th September 1870, there was again a great crowd on the Place, surging towards the Chamber. The news of the defeat at Sedan had reached the capital, the Second Empire had been found out, and Paris was demanding another change of ruler. Standing on a chair behind the railings Gambetta, the tribune of the people, black-bearded, olive-skinned, fiercely eloquent, urged them to patience and restraint. The always malicious Edmond de Goncourt says of Gambetta : ” He has the fat and oily face of a money-changer on whom the gas of the Boulevard de 1′Opera shines by night.” But he admitted that ” this man who appears so child-like and sleepy has an attention always on the alert.” The foreigner has played a large part in the history of France. Napoleon I. was an Italian in mind and by descent. Napoleon III. was more than half German, at least in culture. Gambetta was the son of a Genoese grocer, and it was he who inspired France with the courage to accept misfortune with dignity and to preserve her soul after her defeat by Germany. De Goncourt has left us an account of the proclamation of the Third Republic:

” Towards four o’clock the outside of the C’hambre looked thus : Separating itself from the grayness of the facade, above and around the pillars, on the steps of the grand staircase, a multitude has accumulated, a world of men whose blouses make blue and white spots against the black-clothes men, the majority of whom have boughs in their hands or bouquets of green leaves fastened to their hats. Suddenly a hand raises itself above all the heads and writes on a pillar, in great red letters, the list of members of the Provisional Government, while, at the same time appears in black on another pillar, ` The Republic is Proclaimed.’ Then shouts of applause, hats in the air, people climbing up the pedestals of the statues, a man in a blouse who calmly begins to smoke his pipe on the stone knees of the Chancellor L’Hopital, and clusters of women who hang on to the railings immediately opposite the Pont de la Concorde.”

The Parisians were so delighted at having got rid of Napoleon III. that “strangers met on the Place de la Concorde, shook hands warmly with each other and were happy enough to forget all about the war and the Germans.”

Paris during the siege of 1870 was a city of fantasy, of courage and odd incidents, of despair clutching at every straw of hope. A great crowd of children was seen one morning, for example, singing and dancing on the Place de la Concorde around two sandy-haired Bavarian prisoners, guarded by a detachment of Gardes Mobiles. Two prisoners were taken ! Paris might yet be saved !

Has any square in Europe such a treasure -house of thrilling memories ? Here died Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette ; Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland ; Danton and Robespierre. Here a king furtively hid himself in a four-wheeled cab. Here crowds have acclaimed the beginnings of two republics. Across the square has ridden a pinchbeck general on a black charger, for the moment a popular hero and almost made a dictator against his will, and in 1918 across the square there passed an austere professor from America intent on making the world safe for democracy.