ON the way from Notre Dame to the Ile of St. Louis we pass a small official-looking building at the extreme east end of the Ile de la Cité. It is the Morgue.
But the Morgue is now closed to idle gazers, and you win your way to a sight of that melancholy slab with the weary bodies on it and the little jet of water playing on each, only by the extreme course of having missed a relation whom you suspected of designs upon his own life or whom you imagine has been the victim of foul play. No doubt the authorities were well advised (as French municipal authorities nearly always are) in closing the Morgue; but I think I regret it. The impulse to drift into that low and sinister building behind Notre Dame was partly morbid, no doubt; but the ordinary man sees not only too little death, but is too seldom in the presence of such failure as for the most part governs here : so that the opportunity it gave was good.
I still recall very vividly, in spite of all the millions of living faces that should, one feels, have blurred one’s prosperous vision, several of the dead faces that lay behind the glass of this forlorn side-show of the great entertainment which we call Paris. An old man with a white imperial; more than one woman of that dreadful middle-age which the Seine has so often terminated; a young man who had been stabbed. Well, the Morgue is closed to the public now, and very likely no one who reads this book will ever enter it.
The Ile St. Louis, to put it bluntly, is just as common-place as the Ile de la Cité is imposing. It has a monotony very rare in the older parts of Paris: it is all white houses that have become dingy: houses that once were attractive and wealthy and are now squalid. One of the largest of the old palaces is to-day a garage; there is not a single house now occupied by the kind of tenant for which it was intended. Such declensions are always rather melancholy, even when, as, for example, at Ville-neuve, near Avignon, there is the beauty of decay too. But on the Ile St. Louis there is no beauty: it belongs to a dull period of architecture and is now duller for its dirt. Standing on the Quai d’Orléans, however, one catches Notre Dame against the evening sky, across the river, as nowhere else, and it is necessary to seek the Ile if only to appreciate the fitness of the Morgue’s position.
The island was first called L’Ile Notre Dame, and was uninhabited until 1614. It was then developed and joined to the Ile de la Cité and the mainland by bridges.
The chief street is the Rue St. Louis, at No. 3 in which lived Fénélon. The church of St. Louis is interesting for a relic of the unfortunate Louise de la Vallière. At No. 17 on the Quai d’Anjou is the Hotel Lauzan, which the city of Paris has now acquired, and in which once lived together for a while the authors of Mademoiselle de Maupin and Les Fleurs de Mal.
Of Saint Louis, or Louis IX., who gives his name to this island, and whose hand is so visible in the Ile de la Cité, it is right to know something, for he was the father of Paris. Louis was born in 1215, the year of Magna Charta, and succeeded to the throne while still a boy. The early years of his reign were restless by reason of civil strife and war with England, in which he was victor (at Tailleburg, at Saintes and at Blaize), and then came his departure for the Holy Land, with 40,000 men, in fulfilment of a vow made rashly on a sick-bed. The King was blessed at Notre Dame, as we have seen, and departed in 1248, leaving his mother Blanche de Castile as regent. But the Crusade was a failure, and he was glad to return (with only the ghost of his army) and to settle down for the first time seriously to the cares of his throne.
He was a good if prejudiced king : he built wisely and well, not only Sainte Chapelle, as we have seen, but the Sorbonne ; he devised useful statutes ; he established police in Paris; and, more perhaps than all, he made Frenchmen very proud of France. So much for his administrative virtues. When we come to his saintliness I would stand aside, for is he not in The Golden Legend? Listen to William Caxton : ” He forced himself to serve his spirit by diverse castigation or chastising, he used the hair many times next his flesh, and when he left it for cause of over feebleness of his body, at the instance of his own confessor, he ordained the said confessor to give to the poor folk, as for recompensation of every day that he failed of it, forty shillings. He fasted always the Friday and namely in time of lent and ad-vent he abstained him in those days from all manner of fish and from fruits, and continually travailed and pained his body by watchings, orisons, and other secret abstinences and disciplines. Humility, beauty of all virtues, replenished so strong in him, that the more better he waxed, so, as David, the more he showed himself meek and humble, and more foul he reputed him before God.
“For he was accustomed on every Saturday to wash with his own hands, in a secret place, the feet of some poor folk, and after dried them with a fair towel, and kissed much humbly and semblably, their hands, distributing or dealing to every one of them a certain sum of silver, also to seven score poor men which daily came to his court, he administered meat and drink with his own hands, and were fed abundantly on the vigils solemn. And on some certain days in the year to two hundred poor, before that he ate or drank, he with his own hands administered and served them both of meat and drink. He ever had, both at his dinner and supper, three ancient poor, which ate nigh to him, to whom he charitably sent of such meats as were brought before him, and sometimes the dishes and meats that the poor of our Lord had touched with their hands, and special the sops of which he fain ate, made their remnant or relief to be brought before him, to the end that he should eat it; and yet again to honour and worship the name of our Lord on the poor folk, he was not ashamed to eat their relief.”
Qualities have their defects, and such a frame of mind as that can lead, for all the good motive, to injustice and even cruelty. Christ’s lesson of the Roman coin is forgotten as quickly as any. Louis’ passion for holiness, which became a kind of self-indulgence, led him into a hard and ugly intolerance and acts of severe oppression against those whom he styled heretics. His short way with the Jews recalled indeed those of our own King John, who was very nearly his contemporary. I know not if he pulled out their teeth, but he once did what must have been as bad, if not worse, for he published an ordinance ” for the good of his soul,” remitting to his Christian subjects the third of their debts to the Jews; and he also expressed it as his opinion that ” a layman ought not to dispute with an unbeliever, but strike him with a good sword across the body,” the most practical expression of muscular sectarianism that I know. Louis’ religious fanaticism was, however, his end ; for he was so ill-advised as to under-take a new Crusade against the unbelievers of Morocco, and there, while laying siege to Tunis, he died of the plague. That was in 1270, when he was only fifty-five.
Twenty-seven years later Pope Boniface the Eighth raised him to the Calendar of Saints, his day being August 25th. But according to The Golden Legend, which I for one implicitly believe (how can one help it, written as it is ?), the posthumous miracles of Louis did not wait for Rome. They began at once. “On that day that S. Louis was buried,” we there read, “a woman of the diocese of Sens recovered her sight, which she had lost and saw nothing, by the merits and prayers of the said debonair and meedful king. Not long after, a young child of Burgundy both dumb and deaf of kind, coming with others to the sepulchre or grave of the saint, beseeching him of help, kneeling as he saw that the others did, and after a little while that he thus kneeled with his ears opened and heard, and his tongue redressed and spake well. In the same year a woman blind was led to the said sepulchre, and by the merits of the saint recovered her sight. Also that same year two men and five woman, beseeching S. Louis of help, recovered the use of going, which they had lost by divers sickness and languors.
“In the year that S. Louis was put or written in the catalogue of the holy confessors, many miracles worthy to be prized befell in divers parts of the world at the invocation of him, by his merits and by his prayers. Another time at Evreux a child fell under the wheel of a water-mill. Great multitude of people came thither, and supposing to have kept him from drowning, invoked God, our Lady and his saints to help the said child, but our Lord willing his saint to be enhanced among so great multitude of people, was there heard a voice saying that the said child, named John, should be vowed unto S. Louis. He then, taken out of the water, was by his mother borne to the grave of the saint, and after her prayer done to S. Louis, her son began to sigh and was raised on life.”
We leave the island by the Pont Sully, first looking at the statue of Barye, the sculptor of Barbizon, many of whose best small bronzes are in the Louvre (to say nothing of the shops of the dealers in the Rue Laffitte) and several of his large groups in the public gardens of Paris, one, for example, being near the Orangery in the Tuileries. Barye’s monument standing here at the east end of the Ile St. Louis balances Henri IV. at the west end of the Ile de la Cité.
Crossing to the mainland we ought to look at the old houses on the Quai des Célestins, particularly the old Hôtel de la Valette, now the Collège Massillon, into whose courtyard one should boldly peep. At No. 32 we touch very interesting history, for here stood, two and a half centuries ago, Molière’s Illustre Théâtre, the stage entrance to which may be seen at 15 Rue de l’Ave Marie.
And now for the Marais.