Paris – The Grands Boulevards – The Opera To The Place De La République

FROM the Place de l’Opéra to the Place de la République is an interesting and instructive walk, but at no time of the day a very easy one; and between five o’clock and half-past six, and eight and ten, on the north pavement, it is always almost a struggle; but when the baraques are in full swing around Christmas and the New Year, it is a struggle in earnest, at any rate as far as the Rue Drouot. Indeed Christmas and New Year, but especially Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, are great times in France, and presents are exchanged as furiously as with us.

On Christmas Eve — Réveillon as it is called — no one would do anything so banal as to go to bed. The restaurants obtain a special permission to remain open, and tables are reserved months in advance. Montmartre, never very sleepy, takes on a double share of wakefulness.

The first street on our left, the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, is one of the busiest in Paris, with excellent shops and many interesting associations. Madame Récamier lived at No. 7, the site of the Hôtel d’Antin. So also did Madame Necker and Madame Roland, and for a while Edward Gibbon. Chopin lived at No. 5. This street, by the way, has suffered almost more than any other from the Parisian fickleness in nomenclature. It began as the Rué de la Chaussée Gaillon, then Rue de l’Hôtel Dieu, then Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, from Richelieu’s Hôtel d’Antin, then the Rue Mirabeau, from the revolutionary who lodged and died at No. 42, then, when Mirabeau’s body was removed ignominiously from the Panthéon, the Rue Mont Blanc, and in 1815 it became once again the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin.

At the foot of the Rue Laffitte one should stop, be-cause one gets there a glimpse of Montmartre’s white and oriental cathedral, hanging in mid air high above Paris and the church of Notre Dame de Lorette. This street is, to me, one of the most entertaining in the city, for almost every other shop is a picture-dealer’s, and to loaf along it, on either side, is practically to visit a gallery.. Two or three of these shops keep as a continual sign the words ” Bronzes de Barye.” The Rue Laffitte was named after the banker Jacques Laffitte, whose bank was in the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. Cerutti, who delivered Mirab’eau’s funeral oration, set up his revolutionary journal La Feuille Villageoise here. At the Hôtel Thelusson at the end of the street the Incroyables Ind the Merveilleuses assembled. Among the guests was General Buonaparte, and it was here that he first met Joséphine Beauharnais.

The Musée Grévin, to which we soon come on the left, is the Parisian Tussaud’s; and it is as much better than Tussaud’s as one would expect it to be. Tussaud’s is vast and brilliant; the Musée Grévin is small and mysterious. There is so little light that everyone seems wax, and one has to look very narrowly and anxiously at all motionless figures. The particular boast of the Grévin is its groups : not so much the Pope and his pontifical cortège, the coulisses of the Opera (a scene of coryphées and men about town) and the Fête d’Artistes, as the admirable tableaux of the Revolution. To the untutored eye of one who, like myself, avoids waxworks, the Grévin figures and grouping are good and, what is perhaps more important, intelligent. Pains have been taken to make costumes and accessories historically accurate, and in many cases the actual articles have been employed, notably in the largest tableau of all — ” Une Soirée Malmaison “—which was arranged under the supervision of Frédéric Masson, the historian, an effigy of whom stands near by. Among these scenes the historical sense of the French child can be really quickened. There are also tableaux of Rome in the time of the early Christians — very clever and painful.

At the Rue Drouot, at the conjunction of the Bouleyards des Italiens and de Montmartre, there is an angle. Hitherto we have been walking west by north; we now shall walk west by south. From this point we shall also observe a difference in the character of the street, which will become steadily more bourgeois. At this corner, where the traffic is always so congested, owing largely to the omnibuses with the three white horses abreast that cross to and from the Rue Richelieu, all the best cafés are behind us.

If that £32,000,000 reconstruction scheme of which I have already spoken comes to pass, this point will be unrecognisable, for among the items in that programme is the uniting of the Boulevard Haussmann, which now comes to an abrupt end at the Rue Taitbout, with the Boulevard de Montmartre, which, as a glance at the map will show, is in a line with it. But my hope is that the improvement will be long deferred.

It is in the Rue Richelieu that the Bibliothèque Nationale stands, where the foreign resident in Paris may read every day, precisely as at the British Museum, provided always that he is certified by his Consul to be worthy of a ticket, and the visitor may on certain days examine priceless books and autographs, prints and maps and cameos and wonderful antiquities. Here once lived Cardinal Mazarin, and it is in the galerie that bears his name that the rarest bindings are to be seen — some from Grolier’s own shelves. Among the MSS. is that of Pascal’s Pensées. The library, which is now perhaps the finest in existence, has been built up steadily by the kings of France, even from Charlemagne, but Louis XII. was the first of them who may really be called a bibliophile, to be worthily followed by François I. It was not until 1724, in the reign of Louis XV., that the royal collection was removed to this building. The Revolution greatly added to its wealth by transferring hither the libraries of the destroyed convents and monasteries. The treasures in the Cabinet de Médailles I cannot describe ; all I can say is that they ought not to be missed. They may be called an extension of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre.

Before leaving the Bibliothèque I should add that in certain of its rooms, with an entrance in the Rue Vivienne, exhibitions are periodically held, and it is worth while to ascertain if one is in progress. In the spring of 1908I saw there a most satisfying display of Rembrandt’s etchings.

It was in one of the old book shops in the neighbourhood of the Bibliothèque that I received my first impression of the Paris Bourse. I was turning over little pocket editions of Voltaire’s Pucelle and naughty Crébillons and such ancient boudoir fare, when I began to be conscious of a sound as of a thousand boys’ schools in deadly rivalry. On hurrying out to learn the cause I found Paris in its usual condition of self-containment and intent progress ; no one showed any sign of inquisitiveness or excitement ; but on the steps of the Bourse I observed a shouting, gesticulating mob of men who must, I thought, be planning a new Reign of Terror. But no; they were merely financiers engaged in the ordinary work of life. The Bourse is free, and I climbed the steps, pushed through the money-makers, and entered. Never again. I have seen men engaged in the unlovely task of acquiring lucre by more or less improper means in various countries, but I never saw anything so horrible as the rapacity expressed upon the faces of this heated Bourse populace.

Capel Court is not indifferent to the advantages of a successful coup, but Capel Court differs from the Bourse not only in a comparative retention of its head, but also in a certain superficial appearance of careless aristocracy. Capel Court dresses well and keeps time for a practical joke now and then. The Bourse is shabby and in the grip of avarice. Wall Street and the Chicago pit, I am told, are worse: I have not seen them; but no race-course scramble for odds could exceed the horrors of that day in the Bourse. The home, by the way, of this daily vociferous service of Mammon was built on the site of the old convent of the Filles de St. Thomas. During the Revolution the connection between the Bourse and Heaven was even closer, for the church of the Petits Pères was then set apart for Exchange purposes.

Returning to the point where we left the Boulevard — at the Rue Richelieu — I am moved to ask what would happen in London if Messrs. Baker in the Tottenham Court Road or Messrs. Gardiner in Knightsbridge were suddenly to break out into caricature and embellish their windows with scarifying cartoons of Kings, Kaisers, Presidents and Premiers ? The question may sound odd, but it is simple enough if you visit the High Life tailor at the corner of the Rue Richelieu, or, farther east, a similar establishment at the corner of the Rue de Rouge-mont, for it then becomes obvious that it is quite part of the duties of the large Parisian clothier to do his part in forming public opinion. These cartoons are always bold and clever, although often too municipal for the foreigner’s apprehension.

I have said somewhere that one of my favourite streets in Paris is the Rue Montorgeuil. That is largely, as I have explained, because it is old and narrow, and the people swarm in it, and the stalls are so many, and the houses are high and white and take the sun so bravely, and it smells of Paris; and also, of course, because the Compas d’Or is here, bringing the middle ages so nigh. Another favourite is the Rue du Faubourg-de-Montmartre (which is now the next on the left eastward) for its busy happy shops and its moving multitudes. In its own narrow way it is almost as crowded as the Grands Boulevards.

A little way up this street, on the right, is a gateway leading into a very curious backwater, as noticeably quiet as the highways are noisy and restless : the Cité Bergère, the largest of those cités within a cité of which Paris has several, to be compared in London only with St. Helen’s Place in Bishopsgate or Park Row at Knightsbridge. The Cité Bergère is practically nothing but hotels — high and narrow, with dirty white walls and dirty green shutters — very cheap, and very incurious as to the occupations of their guests, whether male or female. It has a gate at each end which is closed at night and penetrated thereafter only at the goodwill of the concierge, whom it is well to placate. The Cité Bergère leads into the Cité Rougemont (hence offering an opportunity to an innkeeper between the two to hang out the imposing sign of the Hôtel des Deux Cités), and from the Cité Rougemont you gain that district of Paris where the woollen merchants congregate.

Returning to the Grands Boulevards, the next street on the left is the Rue Rougemont, and if we take this we come in a few moments to the Conservatoire, where so many famous musicians have been taught, and where Coquelin and Sarah Bernhardt learned the art of elocution. There is a little museum at the Conservatoire in which every variety of musical instrument is preserved, together with a few personal relics, such as a cast of Paganini’s nervous magical hand, with its long sharply pointed fingers, and the death-mask of Chopin.

Close to the Conservatoire is the darkest church in Paris — Saint Eugène, a favourite spot for funeral services. I chanced once to stay in a room overlooking this church, until the smell of mortality became too constant. There was a funeral every day : every morning the undertakers’ men were busy in the preparations for the ceremony — draping the façade with heavy curtains of a blackness that seemed to darken the circumambient air : every afternoon removing it, together with the other trappings of the ritual — the candlesticks and furniture. It is not without reason that the French undertaker ambushes beneath the imposing style of Pompes Funèbres.

It was, by the way, on the walls of Saint Eugène, each side of the door, that I first saw any of those curious affiches, made, I suppose, necessary, or at any rate prudent, by recent events in France, directing notice to — advertising, I almost wrote, and indeed why not ?-the advantages of religion. Religion (this is what the notice came to in essence), religion has its points after all. When President Fallières’ daughter was married, it re-marked, where was the ceremony performed ? In a church. (Ha Ha !) Who, it asked, is called to visit a man on his death-bed, no matter how wicked he has been ? A priest. (Touché !) And so forth. Surely a strange document.

In the same street is an old book-stall whose shelves are fastened to the wall, giving the appearance of an open-air library for all — the Carnegie idea at its best. There used to be one on the side of the Hôtel Chatham in the Rue Volney (opposite Henry’s excellent American Bar) but it has now gone.

We may regain the Boulevards by turning down the long Rue du Faubourg Poissonière, which leads direct, through the Rue Montorgeuil, to the Halles and the Pont Neuf — a very good walk. Passing Marguery’s great restaurant on the left, famous for its filet de sole in a special sauce, which everyone should eat once if only to see the great Marguery on his triumphant progress through the rooms, bending his white mane over honoured guests, we come to a strange thing — a massive archway in the road, parallel with the pavements, which I think needs a little explanation. It will take us far from the Grands Boulevards : as far, in fact, as The Golden Legend; for the arch is the Porte St. Denis, and St. Denis is the patron saint of Paris.

St. Denis was not a Frenchman but an Athenian, who was converted by St. Paul in person, after consider-able discussion. Indeed, discussion was not enough : it needed a miracle to win him wholly. “And as,” wrote Caxton, ” S. Denis disputed yet with S. Paul, there passed by adventure by that way a blind man to fore them, and anon Denis said to Paul: If thou say to this blind man in the name of thy God: See, and then he seeth, I shall anon believe in him, but thou shalt use no words of enchantment, for thou mayst haply know some words that have such might and virtue. And S. Paul said : I shall write tofore the form of the words, which be these : In the name of Jesu Christ, born of the virgin, crucified and dead, which arose again and ascended into heaven, and from thence shall come for to judge the world : See. And because that all suspicion be taken away, Paul said to Denis that he himself should pronounce the words. And when Denis had said those words in the same manner to the blind man, anon the blind man recovered his sight. And then Denis was baptized and Damaris his wife and all his meiny, and was a true Christian man and was instructed and taught by S. Paul three years, and was ordained bishop of Athens, and there was in predication, and converted that city, and great part of the region, to Christian faith.”

Denis was sent to France by Pope Clement, and he converted many Parisians and built many churches, until the hostile strategy of the Emperor Domitian prevailed and he was tortured, the scene of the tragedy being Montmartre. “The day following,” says Caxton, “Denis was laid upon a gridiron, and stretched all naked upon the coals of fire, and there he sang to our Lord saying : Lord thy word is vehemently fiery, and thy servant is embraced in the love thereof. And after that he was put among cruel beasts, which were excited by great hunger and famine by long fasting, and as soon as they came running upon him he made the sign of the cross against them, and anon they were made most meek and tame. And after that he was cast into a furnace of fire, and the fire anon quenched, and he had neither pain ne harm. And after that he was put on the cross, and thereon he was long tormented, and after, he was taken down and put into a dark prison with his fellows and many other Christian men.

“And as he sang there the mass and communed the people, our Lord appeared to him with great light, and delivered to him bread, saying: Take this, my dear friend, for thy reward is most great with me. After this they were presented to the judge and were put again to new torments, and then he did do smite off the heads of the three fellows, that is to say, Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius, in confessing the name of the holy Trinity. And this was done by the temple of Mercury, and they were beheaded with three axes. And anon the body of St. Denis raised himself up, and bare his head between his arms, as the angel led him two leagues from the place, which is said the hill of the martyrs, unto the place where he now resteth, by his election, and by the purveyance of God. And there was heard so great and sweet a melody of angels that many of them that heard it believed in our Lord.”

Anyone making the pilgrimage from, say, Notre Dame to the town of St. Denis to-day, can follow the saint’s footsteps, for the Rue St. Denis at the foot of Montmartre leads out into the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis, and that street right over Montmartre, Caxton’s hill of the martyrs, to St. Denis itself. I do not pretend that the legend as it is thus given has not been subjected to severe criticism; but when one has no certain knowledge, the best story can be considered the best evidence, and I like Caxton better than the others, even though it conflicts a little with the legend of St. Geneviève. It is she, I might add, who is credited with having inaugurated the pilgrimage to St. Denis’ bones.

The Rue St. Denis was more than the road to the saint’s remains : it was the great north road out of Paris to the sea. Just as the old Londoners bound for the north left by the City Road and passed through the village of Highgate, so did the French traveller leave by the Rue St. Denis and pass through the village of St. Denis. Similarly the Rue St. Martin was the high-road to Germany. In the old days, when this street was a highway, the Porte St. Denis had some meaning,for it stood as a gateway between the city and the country; but to-day, when the course of traffic is east and west, it stands (like the Porte St. Martin) merely as an obstruction in the Grand Boulevard — not quite so foolish as our own revised Marble Arch, but nearly so. The Porte St. Denis dates from 1673 and celebrates, as the bas-reliefs indicate, the triumphs of Louis XIV. in Germany and Holland; the Porte St. Martin (to which we are just coming) belongs to the same period and commemorates other successes of the same monarch.

The Rue St. Denis is one of the most entertaining of the old streets of Paris, although adulterated a little by omnibuses and a sense of commerce. But to have boundless time before one, and no cares, and no fatigue, and starting at the Porte St. Denis to loiter along it prepared to penetrate every inviting court and alluring by-street — that is a great luxury. The first theatre in Paris, and indeed in France, was in the Hospital of the Trinity in the Rue St. Denis. That was early in the fifteenth century, and it was designed for the performance of Mystery plays in which the protagonist was, of course, Jesus Christ. Paris has now many theatres, with other ideals; but whatever their programmes may be, they proceed from that early and pious spring.

We come next to the Boulevard de Strasbourg, running north to the Gare de l’Est, and the Boulevard de Sébastopol, running south to the Ile de la Cité; and then to the second archway, the Porte St. Martin.

St. Martin (who was Bishop of Tours) lived in Paris for a while, and it was here that he performed the miracle of healing a leper by embracing him — an act commemorated by Henri I. in the founding of the Priory of St. Martin, which stood a little way down the Rue St. Martin on the left, on a site on which the Musée des Arts et Métiers now stands. But it was at Amiens that the saint’s most beautiful act — the gift of his cloak to a beggar — was performed, and perhaps I may be allowed to quote here, from another book of mine, the translation of a poem by M. Haraucourt, the curator of the Cluny museum, celebrating that deed : —


Because so bitter was the rain, Saint Martin cut his cloak in twain, And gave the beggar half of it To cover him and ease his pain.

But being now himself ill clad, The Saint’s own case was no less sad. So piteously cold the night; Though glad at heart he was, right glad.

Thus, singing, on his way he passed, While Satan, grim and overcast, Vowing the Saint should rue his deed, Released the cruel Northern blast.

Away it sprang with shriek and roar, And buffeted the Saint full sore, Yet never wished he for his cloak; So Satan bade the deluge pour.

Huge hail-stones joined in the attack, And dealt Saint Martin many a thwack, “My poor old head!” he smiling said, Yet never wished his cape were back.

“He must, he shall,” cried Satan, “know Regret for such an act,” and lo, E’en as he spoke the world was dark With fog and frost and whirling snow.

Saint Martin, struggling toward his goal, Mused thoughtfully, “Poor soul! poor soul! What use to him was half a cloak? I should have given him the whole.”

The cold grew terrible to bear, The birds fell frozen in the air: “Fall thou,” said Satan, “on the ice, Fall thou asleep, and perish there.”

He fell, and slept, despite the storm, And dreamed he saw the Christ Child’s form Wrapped in the half the beggar took, And seeing Him, was warm, so warm.

The Arts et Métiers is a museum devoted to the progress of mechanics and the useful crafts : a kind of industrial exhibition, a modern utilitarian Cluny. It is a memorial of the world’s ingenuity and the ingenuity of France in particular, and one cannot have a much better reminder that the frivolity of the Grands Boulevards is not all. Apropos, however, of the frivolity of the Grands Boulevards, I may say that the case that was attracting most interest on the Sunday that I was here contained a collection of all the best mechanical toys of the past dozen years, with their dates affixed. The only article in the vast building which seemed to serve no useful purpose was a mirror cracked during the Commune by a bullet, with the bullet still in it. In the square opposite the Musée is the statue of Béranger, who for many years made the ballads of the French nation.

Returning to the Grands Boulevards once more, we pass first the Porte St. Martin theatre, where the great Coquelin played Cyrano, and where he was rehearsing Chanticlère when he died, and then the Ambigu, home of sensational melodrama, and come very shortly to the Place de la République, with its great central monument. The Republic thus celebrated is not merely the Third and present Republic, but all the efforts in that direction which the French have made, as the twelve reliefs round the base will show, for they begin with the scene in the Jeu de Paume in 1789, and end with the National Fête on July 14th, 1880. Paris would still have statues of the République if this were to go, for there is one by Dalou, the sculptor of these bas-reliefs, in the Place de la Nation, and another by Soitoux at the Institut. Dalou (whose work we saw in such profusion at the Little Palace in the Champs-Elysées) made a very spirited and characteristic group, with the Republic standing high on a chariot being drawn by lions and urged forward by an ouvrier and an ouvrière.

There is another and hardly less direct walk eastward to the Place de la République, which, taken slowly and amusedly, instructs one as fully in the manners of the busy small Parisian as the Boulevards in those of the flâneur. This route is by the Rue de Provence, the Rue Richer, the Rue des Petites-Ecuries and the Rue Château-d’Eau — practically a straight line, and in the old days a highway. You see the small Parisian at his busiest — at her busiest — this way.