THE very paving stones of great cities might sometimes cry out, ” Let us have peace.”
Some of them may well complain that the foot of man makes too short work of them, considering the time and trouble it took them to grow. Those of the boulevard are surely entitled to this grievance, as they are ground to premature dust by an army everlastingly on the march. It is a stage army, for it turns on its steps, to repeat the trick of entrance and exit half a dozen times a day. The entrance, I may observe as a stage direction, is by the Rue Royale ; the exit very little higher than the Boulevard des Italiens. Beyond that point the long line is simply a place of transit on lawful business, like any other street. The short stretch between the Madeleine and the Rue Richelieu forms the Grand Boulevard ancient of days.
When the New Caledonian of the future seeks his arch of the opera house to sketch the ruins of the Madeleine, he will not fail to observe that the asphalt here is ground to a finer surface than elsewhere. Its air of fatigue will be as eloquent of a too busy past the rutted ways of Rome. The custom of ages, since these sites ceased to be open country, or open ditch, just beyond the city wall, has sent the people here for news and gossip every day. Once they came for fresh air as well ; and having contracted the habit, they are loath to part with it, though now they are naturally rationed in that commodity like other inhabitants of walled cities. They seldom, however, fail to get a good blow of the winds of the spirit. The boulevard is the source or the distributing center of all the flitting fancies of France. You come here in the daytime for the sensation of the day. You get it of a surety, whatever else you may miss ; and while you enjoy it, hot and hot, truth seems but a spoil sport. The art of life is, after all, but an art of impressions ; and this impression, while it lasts, is sure to be to your taste. The boulevard asks no more. There will be something new tomorrow, and what you have is sufficient unto the day.
When the boulevard ends, and the mere boulevards begin, the thing soon rights itself. At Poissonière, if you go so far, you take your sensation for little more than it is worth. By the time you have reached Bonne Nouvelle, you are for crying, ” What ‘s in a name ? ” Yet these thoroughfares, after all, are in the grand line, and for many of the humbler sort they have something of its subtle charm. The countless boulevards in other quarters have no such relation to the pulsing life of the city. There are boulevards of communication, boulevards of industry, boulevards of silence, meditation, and prayer. Be sure, therefore, to see that you get the right label when you make your choice. Without this,indeed, you may know the boulevard by the composition of its crowds. Their appointed hour is the hour of absinthe, within measurable distance of the time for dinner. They are sleek and stallfed, and they look forward to their meal with a sure and certain hope. With some, not with many, the whole day has been little more than a preparation for this great act of life. I knew one still to narrow it down to exceptions that by no means prove the rule with whom the absinthe was only a final stage of the treatment for appetite. Before that came the douche. When a lusty fellow had pumped on him, as with strokes of a whip of cold water, to urge the sluggish blood into a trot, he was driven to the café for the inward application. Then the green corrosive gnawed him into hunger, and he sought his club to do justice to its cook, if not exactly to his Maker.
The club, it must be owned, is the enemy of the boulevard, in being the enemy of its cafés and of its restaurants. At the beginning of things it was these institutions or nothing if you wanted to exchange a word with your shopmates in the work of life, or to take bite and sup in their company. This has passed. The club cuisine gives points to the cuisine of the restaurant. The club company is necessarily more select than any café of artists, café of poets, or what not, subject to the intrusion of the outsider. The club, too, has its own town talk ; and since this is but the gossip of the boulevard, with some improvement in the inflections, it gives members all they want. But what the boulevard loses in this way it gains in many another, and its masses of mere human beings make a society of their own.Y
Yet the Parisian déjeûner au restaurant is still an institution. I know of nothing better in the world. In the general competition among nations in the arts of life, France has fixed the form for this repast, if we call it by its proper name of lunch. There are, indeed, midday meals of every variety, all over the planet, for those who are able to get them ; but the Parisian déjeûner is the only realized ideal. The breakfasts of the Autocrat were but the ideal ; he probably lived on a cracker, in the interest of his splendid conversational dreams. The luncheons of the mighty in London society are the nearest English approach to the realization. What there is of light and grace about them is French by origin or by suggestion. The delicate courses succeed one another with ever richer promise to the eye than to the palate, and the Petit verre seems to close the vista with flowers.
In the Champs-Elysées you may breakfast under the trees, with manufactured surroundings of nature which, for this purpose, are an improvement on the real article. The tame sparrows are probably on the staff of the establishment, but they please. Yet, for profit and pleasure, as for scenery of another kind, the rendezvous may still be the boulevard. The main things are ever the same lightness and brightness, the former extending from the mode of service to the thing served. There is nothing out of the way in the quality of the viands. The Paris market is ill supplied with fish from the great deep, and the roasts of the Paris kitchen sometimes produce a longing for home that is not purely patriotic. Yet the French cook rarely fails to hold you with the magic of his kickshaws; and if you choose your restaurant with judgment you will find the fare quite good enough for human nature’s daily food. The one thing needful is to approach the table in the right spirit, or all the magic goes for naught. That spirit is the spirit of expectation, of longing, of desire for the good things of the body, and the good humor which is its natural expression. The doctors say that this lickerishness is an important part of the business of eating, as the mouth that honestly waters for its morsel lightens the labor of the digestive juices.
The Frenchman makes no apology for enjoying his victual, and he knows nothing of the rather artificial humility of our forms of grace before meat. He does not pray that the food may be sanctified to his use and to the most exalted service. It is enough for him to have it agreeable to his palate. So he avoids the hypocrisy exposed in the rebuke of Dr. Johnson’s wife : ” Where is the use, Mr. Johnson, of returning thanks for a dish which, in another minute, you will declare is unfit for a dog?” He holds, the incorrigible pagan, that the gratifications of sense are as legitimate as all others, and that a filet Châteaubriand is quite as much of an absolute good as the virtue of the Socratic system. Good things to eat, beautiful things to look at, especially women, the quickening appeals of music, oratory, conversation, all these are main parts of his scheme of life.
The very scavenger in his gargote will smack his lips over a glass of wine limed with plaster of Paris, if he can find no better. The moral it carries, as it goes down, is not exactly thankfulness for the kindly fruits of the earth. He feels only that it is good to be alive ; or, to put it inside out, that ” when one dies it is for a long time.” In rustic wine shops, here and there, the motto may still be read beneath a faded lithograph wherein three citizens of the time of Louis Philippe touch glasses in an arbor in spring. They are all as dead now as lithography itself, but, while they had their chance, they made the cannikin clink. It was their national application of the text, ” Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The compassion of these people for those who devote their entire thought to riches and the toil of ambition might make some of us pause.
This is the French philosophy of the French table of the breakfast table especially. I do not criticize, of course I only try to explain. Its hours are times of truce in the more or less meaningless battle of life, wherein both sides try to find out what it is all about, and to penetrate to the real purpose of Renan’s “promenade through the Real.” All is in harmony. The very waiters are in keeping with this kindly and tolerant scheme. In their unpretentious jackets and aprons and slippers, in their civility, and readiness to give counsel on the bill of fare, each of them is a humble friend of man. No such character is to be attributed at sight to the creatures of the same species in foreign restaurants, uniformed like undertakers, and obtruding dresscoats on you in the garish day. Life advances pleasantly, with such aids, in its most serious affairs. Merchants breakfast over bargains, lawyers over cases, lovers over meetings. Blessed are these breakfasters, while they breakfast, though they may have to remember, before and after, that they are one of the great sad races of mankind. Joyous is their chatter of irresponsible frivolity, tempered by wit; joyous their brag, untrammeled by the modesty which they appraise as a mean way of seeking condonation for success. All is flowing and gracious as the courtesy of kings. The art of its flow is simply an art of thinking aloud. The dullest of us is always thinking of something, if only of what he ought to think about. Let him but think in spoken words, and he has the wherewithal for the companionship of the table. Their strong point is the generous fullness with which they give themselves away to the adversary by saying just what comes into their heads. But it is less generous than it seems, for they know that no one is in ambush at breakfast time.
The meal over, there is still the balance of the day, and what is to be done with it? This difficulty is the bane of breakfast for the idler. Let us consider, then, only the few- a- very few in Paris who have no business to resume. The breakup may be for a stroll and a peep at the shops. An art-shop will do to begin with, for this will best keep us in touch with that life of old Rome of which you have the perpetual suggestion in all that passes here. A famous shop for bronzes will do as the highest possible of its kind in our time, since no importations from Athens can now put the native work to shame. Its exquisitely rendered types of the humanity of all the ages keep us true to the mood of the hour. We are on a higher table land of dream than the one we have just left, amid these nymphs and fauns, troubadours and men-at-arms, who seem to assure us upon their sacred honor that there is nothing like living for the splendid shows of things. They may be right or wrong, but the mastery of art with which they are set before us makes it exceedingly hard to contradict them. Every form of the nobler animal life lives, breathes, moves, in the still, reposeful metal. The crouching tigers on the spring might win a roar of recognition from the real article, as, according to Haydon, a horse of the Elgin Marbles won a neigh of fraternity from an English thoroughbred. The lions stalking with the stride of Artemis, the sun-affronting eagles, are manifestly lords of earth and air.
The Frenchman’s eye for character in form is unfailing, as though he had in him the potentiality of all the moods and passions of animate life. And it is the same with his feeling for nature at large, as you may see when you leave this shop for a picture dealer’s. It is the other part of his intense, sympathetic delight in the whole visible, tangible world, the world of men and women, of plains and trees and flowers. You are as Prospero’s band, dazzled by the sheer beauty of the brave creatures that have just swum into your ken. The demonstration stops short at their braveries, and is in no wise concerned to weight itself with a moral.
The little gems in oil and watercolor are conceivable altar-pieces of a new religion,a religion for men of taste, and that category perhaps includes the largest of the dissenting bodies here. The very bonnets in a neighboring shop have their modest use in the same service. In their present state of unsoiled perfection they look as if they could do no wrong. So of the trailed skirts of the dress-shops ; of the exquisite fancies in the windows of the jewelers. And so of the regiment that passes, clarion in front, going now only to its barracks, perhaps in the Place de la République, but beyond that to deeds and to fortunes determinable by the turning of a hair.
What a world of the senses, if not exactly what a world of sense ! The stately cortège of the pompes funèbres, that was for the earlier part of the day, perhaps should have come at this hour to remind us that other things pass besides the regiment and the applauding crowd. But with these invincible sight-seers that . would have been only one more of the shows of life. ” So may I live as to merit a great public funeral,” cried Claretie one day, in a mood of high resolve. Victor Hugo ordained by will a pauper’s shell for his remains. He forgot to forbid them to set his catafalque under the Arc de Triomphe, and to call out the horse and foot of the garrison of Paris to carry him to his grave. So they did itwith apologies to his not implacable shade.
The boulevard at night is a very different affair. The later the better. Paris, though the most northerly, is still one of the Latin cities, and the Latin cities sit up late. The farther south the more incorrigible. At Madrid the newsboys find it worth their while to cry the papers till one in the morning. The best of the night hours, for Paris, is the hour after the play. The audiences pour into the cafés to celebrate with mild refreshment their recovery of the atmosphere. It is the hour of high change for the affairs of the boulevard. A haze of illuminating fire falls on a haze of dust rising from the vexed pavement, and, if one may put it so, on a haze of sound. The huge multitude has come out to see itself. That is the spectacle ; just that and nothing more. The settled swarm under the awnings of the caféstwenty deep, if you carry your eye to the indoor recessesseem to pass the moving swarm in review. The pavement, in like manner, surveys the cafés on one side, and on the other the busy road. It is a promenade of curiosity in which, no matter how often you have seen it, you are sure of your reward. Perhaps the seated crowd has the best of it. The others seem to glide past like so many figures of the new-fashioned scheme for painless locomotion. In this, as you remember, a sidewalk on wheels does all the work, and the wayfarer has only to keep still to find himself at his journey’s end. The whole scene is a good deal better than the play the spectators have just left. And there is nothing to grumble at in the price of the seatsa bock or a sherry cobbler not more than three hundred per cent. above cost price.
Many old stagers come here, night after night, as though to stock their imagination with the stuff of which they hope to make their dreams. It at once quickens and soothes, with a sense of Paris as the hub of the universe and the glory of the world. And glory of a kind it is in good faith. The whole broad space between the two sides of the way is filled with life and movement. In the stretch between curb and curb you have hundreds of light ramshackle cabs rolling home with their freight of lovers from the Bois, or their heavier burden of ” blouses,” packed six deep, and vocal with the message of the music-halls. The ” victoria ” is the gondola of Paris, with a better title, perhaps, than the hansom has to being the gondola of London. Its long nightly procession to the Cascade, thousands strong, is best seen in the Champs-Elysées, all one side of the road alive with dancing light from the front lamps. As for the occupants, the vehicle is roofless, so they have nothing between them and the stars. The passing regiment is not wanting, even at this late hour, as the smart municipal guards return to barracks from their service of order at the places of public resort. More rarely, at this time, you may see a stray dragoon passing from late duty at one of the minis-tries to the palace of the President. But this is only for emergencies. The daytime is the best for these huge military postmen, who fetch and carry as a regular thing between the departments, and whose pouches are sometimes laden with nothing more important than a three-cornered note bidding an opera-dancer to lunch.
But the sidewalk is, after all, the distinctive sight of the boulevard. It is much more than all Paris in its best-known types, and it might pass for all France, or, for that matter, all the world. The small shopkeeper-whose person, as a rule, has shrunk* to the fit of his premises has come out with his wife to take the air. Their little ” magazine of novelties ” in the haberdashery line has so far yielded in its strife with the temple of Janus as to close at eleven o’clock. Their stroll tends to relieve an otherwise intolerable tedium of existence with a sense of the larger movement of life. The flamboyant provincials from Normandy or from the country of Tartarin have just been disgorged by an excursion train. These, and the soldiers on leave from distant garrisons, have come up for a bath of light in this all abounding flame. The unhealthy-looking lads, bourgeoning with stray hairs and pimples, have evidently given maternal vigilance the slip. The students from the Quarter have left a like scene on the Boulevard Mich ” for the richer variety of this one. The bloused workmen with their wives, and here and there, even at this late hour, with their children as well, give the note of gravity and purpose, and correct the cruder frivolities of the scene. Yet, in the main, it is quite a ” respectable ” crowd, and the revelers are still its minority.
The French have so much the sense of character and the sense of spectacle that they are capable, at need, of an entire disinterestedness on the moral side in regard to the shows of things. Our pair from the magazine of novelties take the moral judgment for granted, and come here just for the stimulus of the thought that Paris is a fine feast for the eye. The wife, no doubt, has her thoughts as she sees some of the women in the crowd. But these thoughts permit her to feel that she has her reward in selfrespect for the weariness of trying to save for old age on the fractional profits of the sale of ha’p’orths of thread. The little man himself may make the like improving reflections as he catches sight of the gray headed old lounger who is at his perch in the corner when he ought to be in bed. There was a sort of parting of the ways, perhaps, when our mercer repented of his leadership of the dance at vanished Valentino, and gave security for future good behavior by taking the wife and the shop.
The baser crowd is not edifying. There are the café scavengers, who live by picking up the ends of cigars and cigarettes, to be worked up again into a sort of resurrection pie for the refreshment of poor smokers. Terrible creatures some of these,lean, unwashed, slouching, saturnine, with murder as an occasional alternative to their industries of poverty or shame. The opportunity comes when they meet a drunken carter reeling home at night by one of the bridges. Then the silent knife does its work, and the rifled body is tossed into the water to vanish forever, save for the brief interval of its reappearance at the morgue. There is a more sickening villainy in these lower types of Paris than in the London rough of the same calling. He kills with violence, but without finesse, and he is wicked with his appetites rather than with his reason. He wants his toke and his beer, and he robs or, at need, slays to get them. His French colleague affects the niceties of the band and the password, and lays out his booty in diversions of infamy in which mere tipple has but a small share. Not unfrequently he is quite a philosopher in his way. When Ravachol was not murdering solitary misers for their hoards, or breaking open graves for trinkets, he used to spout at public meetings on the wrongs of the proletariat and, at the end, he raised the ” Carmagnole ” as his death-song, though, it must be owned, in a cracked voice, as he danced his way to the guillotine.
The very paralytic who prowls the boulevard with his hand twisted by art or nature into a cup for alms has his social theory. It is in the character of the race. They are constructive artists even in their vices, and they like to feel that what they are doing is a thing that admits of being done with an air. The boulevard is the happy hunting ground of these castaways, but, beyond it, each one has a boulevard of his own. Here, on off days, he too sits and sips with his mates, reads his paper, and chucks his forlorn Thais under the chin. In times of trouble they all descend upon the boulevard, and play sad havoc with the furniture of existing constitutions in the brief interval between the scamper of the policemen and the arrival of the guard. During the troubles at “Fort Chabrol,” in the summer of 1899, they sacked a church and defiled its altars under the stimulus of a liberal allowance in promotion-money by the factions interested in the proceeding. They work by the job, and the secret agents of the Orleanist Pretender know where they are to be found when the time has come to demonstrate the need of a monarchical savior of society.
The newspaper-hawker is sometimes of their corporation, and he is always an essential figure of the boulevard. This crowd that has come out for the new thing must be fed with it, especially at night, when its mind is most free for impressions. The busy couriers shouting their wares in cavernous head voice are but one sign of the insistence of the demand. The kiosk is, above all things, a Parisian institution, gorged as it is to overflowing with flying sheets and flying fancies from every part of the planet, from every corner of the human mind, even the foulest. Its budgets of papers hang from the pointed roof, obscure the windows, overflow from the narrow ledge of the half door into supplementary counters outside. They are of all sorts the academic ” Débats,” the solid and serious ” Temps,” the wild ” Libre Parole,” with its sensational shriek of the hour against the Protestants or against the Jews.
The kiosk is a picture-gallery as well as a library, its whole surface exhibiting a very rash of illustration, occasionally symptomatic of deep-seated disease. Here, in colored lithograph, they murder a woman, and the red stream trickles from the knife driven to the hilt in her breast. The mincing misses of the fashion sheets are close by. The society journals spread themselves in large cartoons of ball and bathing place. The “Amusing Journal “save the mark !Displays wares of a kind to suggest that, at last, the very Yahoos have learned to read. The ” almanacs ” of the different orders touch every social interest from religion to debauchery. Add to this American and English papers, with Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, and Levantine, the latest pamphlets for and against everything in church and state, the time-tables of the railways, the quotations of the Bourse, and you have a hurly-burly of imaginative suggestion amid which the old woman who sits wedged among these explosive forces, with her feet on a brazier, is serviceable as a fixed point.
The midnight boulevard is a sort of first ” finish ” for most of the pleasures of the town. You come here for the wind-up, if you are for keeping within the limits of discretion. So, among the many roads leading this way, is the Avenue of the Champs-Elysées. These lamp-lit gardens begin to pale their fires as the night wears on. Very pretty they are when the lights are in the fullness of their mellowed blaze, with the screen of foliage to soften them still more into a suggestion of tender mystery. I think those who see them through the screen, that is to say, from the outside, have the best of it. Within, these cafés have the hardness of a cage of performing birds that sing by command. Still the stranger must not pass them by. Their songs are brief chronicles of the time, studies of manners, signs of the point of view. Their singers are like such singers everywhere, never less to be mistaken for their betters than when they are most carefully dressed for the part but the business of these artists is the humor of the moment, and their tuneful truisms are fresh from the surface of the popular mind. It is not that what they sing to day Paris does tomorrow. But you may put it the other way : they would not sing it if Paris had not done something of the sort yesterday. So,one of them, figuring as an excabman, tells us in somewhat interminable verse that he has now become the driver of a motor car. And another this time a woman warbles the fascinations of the little work-girl of the capital her smile, her mocking air.
The newcomer; who appears in the character of the poor workman, is a social satirist. Such, he assures you, is his positive adoration of work that he could sit still a whole day seeing other people do it. This means that the café chantant does not exactly strike the democratic note, at any rate, when the café is in the Champs-Elysées. When it is farther east, this song would never do. Next, perhaps, we have the ” Polka of the Englishes,” which of course is but another shy at the universal Aunt Sally of the Continent. Why the American escapes in Paris I know not, but escape he does. I have seen him from time to time in drama, but never on the music-hall stage. Yet the Americans of this capital, as I should judge at a guess, outnumber the English. Chorus:
Tra la la la la, la la la la la!
Voilà les Englishes ! Ach, yes! Very well ! Tra la la la la, la la la la la!
Plats comm’ des sandwiches ! Ach, yes! Very well !
The last line is an unkind allusion to the figures of the ladies. The singer goes on to say that when the Englishes have made their millions in Paris they go back to eat” them at their ease in London. No wonder, since they receive this hard measure from the Paris bards.
Now it is the turn of the latest idol of the musichalls. He figures as the common soldier, the ” pioupiou,” with his simple virtues of good humor and fidelity to the flag, and his simple tastes for good eating and drinking and fat nurse-maids-gallantry, gaiety, and courage, the irresistible combination for the French mind. It will be conducive to your comfort if you are not able to understand quite all that he sings. Happily, you will never be able to do it if you have con-fined your studies of French to the classic models. He and a clever songstress blaze together in the firmament. Her muse is more subtle, and its eccentricities are better composed. But composed they are. The story goes that some art students, foreseeing the possibilities of a new music-hall type, resolved to create a feminine decadent. They searched long for their model, and at length found it in this slender and archaic-looking woman. Then they trained her for tones, gestures, tricks of mannerin a word, for style. She was an apt pupil, and when they had done with her she seemed to have stepped out of some picture of Botticelli as the languidly graceful embodiment of all the wickedness and cynicism of an empty day. She is really an artist, and that is perhaps why she has lasted so long. But let her make hay while the sun shines, remembering a once beautiful and incomparable creature who has fallen from her high estate, and now twinkles in a mere milky way of unmappable stars. Nor is the man who nearly sang France into a revolution, as the Pindar of General Boulanger, now very. much in evidence. Yet the historian of the future will have to take account of En Revenant de la Revue.” He must, however, not fail to remark that the song has been altered to suit the times, and that, in place of
Moi j’ faisais qu’ admirer
Notr’ bray’ Général Boulanger,
we must sing,
Moi très fort je criais,
” Vive le Président Loubet ! ”
As the boulevard is the finish for the Champs-Ely-sées, so Montmartre is the finish for the boulevard. The whole hillside keeps it up very late ; in fact, one of the cafés is open all night. Montmartre by night is a thing that many go to see just to make sure that it is not worth seeing. The goal of this pilgrimage is the group of cafés, artistic, literary, and other, which are now among the shows of Paris. They never were anything but shows, as their proprietors were never any thing but showmen. Some of the Bohemians for the decorative part of the scheme are hired precisely like the waiters. The net result is the patronage of provincials and of foreigners, especially of candid souls from oversea who think they are looking on something peculiarly Parisian. As a matter of fact, the showman has these fresh importations in view from first to last. The cafés of poets are always changing, and always the same. At one time the Café of the Black Cat had all the vogue. Then, when this grew tiresome, commercial enterprise proved equal to the invention of the Café of the Dead Rat. Now the names have changed again, but not the things. The Rat was the Cat, as Cat and Rat together are in palingenesia, in our latest birth of time, the Red Ass, whose name might be enough to excite misgiving in the minds of its customers. The poets and artists of the Quarter come here for refreshment, spiritual and other ; that is the humor of it. They are supposed to come to recite their pieces to one another, or to show their sketches, as they might offer their confidences of genius to the family circle, if they had ever heard of such a thing. Their nearest approach to the conception of family is in their touching filial relation to the landlord of the house another supposition expressly started for the crowd. He is their father rather than their limonadier. He lets them run up scores during the sharp frosts of the Muse. Nay, he sometimes helps to bring them out, such is the legend. Then, when they win fame and riches,and they all win these in due course, they make him free of their palaces in the Avenue de Villiers, and of their chalets at Poissy or at Ecouen.
Alas and alas ! it is all moonshine in purest ray serene. The Montmartre poets are mostly an even poorer lot in spirit than they are in purse, and they will never be anything else. The writers and artists of repute know nothing of these cafés, or, at most, see them once and never see them again. Such men are mostly steady as a mere condition of success. Victor Hugo was temperate and a hard worker in his youth, a youth of iron, not a youth of gold. So was Leconte de Lisle. So was Coppée. So was Sully-Prudhomme. De Musset sometimes took more than was good for him, but not in places like these. The new model was started by Verlaine, but one swallow does not make a summer, and it is needless to say you do not exactly imitate his talent by imitating his infirmities.
Montmartre is not so much as the Grub Street of Paris, for Grub Street was actually productive, and it was at least sincere. Most of these poets and painters are simply the failures of the schools masquerading as the coming man. They are put out of doors as soon as they cease to draw. Their very wickedness is scenic, and it bears a strong family likeness to the potations from the skull in the revels of Newstead Abbey. The contemplative ratepayer looks in, drinks his glass of beer, and goes his way, thanking Heaven he was not born clever. The tourist lays out a few francs in a copy of a song or a copy of a volume, and writes well-meant but misguiding letters to his native papers to say that he has been at supper with the gods.
If the Red Ass is your mark, you must steer for the Rue des Martyrs. Its walls are covered with pictures and sketches, with here and there a bust of some celebrity of the Quarter. There is a piano, as a matter of course, and near it hangs a monstrous crown surmounted by a star, which, from time to time, is solemnly placed on the brows of the local master of song. The coronation, to be fair, is sometimes a joke, and the utmost refinement of local humor is to offer it to the biggest fool of the company, and to enjoy his fatuous smile of self-satisfaction. The room is crowded, the drinks are in brisk demand ; and through the haze of smoke one may get a glimpse of a sibyl of the moment in her incantation scene of a sentimental song. It may be a pretty song, for the singers do not always cry their own wares. The company is too busy with itself to pay much attention to her at the close, but it is brought to a sense of its duties by a master of ceremonies. This personage, who is in evening dress, may possibly be a bard, but he is certainly on the staff of the establishment. He calls for three rounds of applause, which are given in a French variety of the Kentish fire, and the sibyl abates something of the rigor of her frown. His business is to force the fun, and he has evidently begun with himself by getting considerably alcoholized. His hat is on the back of his head, as though to temper the severity of his scheme of costume with a suggestion of Bohemian freedom. The sibyl is succeeded by a young man whose song is of poor mad jean,” who passes for a sort of village idiot, but who, nevertheless, apostrophizes all the pillars of society with the most withering effect. No deputy, no banker, no mayor in his scarf, can cross Jean’s path without a word of invective : ” You take bribes.” ” You get up bogus companies.” “Your popular cry of the hour is but a juggler’s password.” But these crafty villains are equal to the occasion, and they juggle away his censures with their pitying smile. ” It is only poor mad Jean.’ ” One of the verses might almost provoke Mr. Sheldon to enter an action. The song is well written, and still better conceived. But the odd thing is to find it but an item of an entertainment by which the man of business who owns the establishment is making his fortune as fast as he can. It seems to lack conviction on the part of the management. However, it breathes the sentiment which is proper to the quarter where the Commune made its last stand and, besides, there is a policeman at the door.
The Conservatoire, hard by the Place Pigalle, is just such another cafésketches, paintings, portraits of degenerate poets, chiefly of Montmartre, a motley company. The portrait of Verlaine of course is not wanting. He is the patron saint of these houses, and every one of them makes believe to have a shrine of his ” favorite corner.” The walls and ceiling are wrought into the likeness of a Gothic vault. The songs are the songs of the Red Ass ; the singers are sometimes the singers of that establishment on their rounds ; the applause is manufactured, as before, by another leader of the claque. The impression which these mechanics labor to convey is that everybody concerned is having a deuce of a time. Some of the poets rush from café to café in feverish pursuit of applause, and may be found now in the Latin Quarter, now at Montmartre, with their baggage of a new ode. One I have visited in his workshop on a sixth floor, and, sitting on his narrow bed, for want of a second chair, have had the honor of listening to a theory of decadent literature which I should have thought beyond the dreams of the asylum at Charenton. Yet he was a mild mannered young fellow, and, as I should judge, a man of convictions, the chief one being that you must be, above all things, desperately wicked if you want to succeed in the arts.
The attempt to surpass these institutions, still for the benefit of the same set of customers, has led to the cafés devoted to horrors. Here the subjects are crime and the terrors of death. It is infinitely puerile, and to consider it with indignation would be to consider it too seriously. The proprietors are showmen once more. One of the weaknesses of the French is a taste for make-believe wickedness, and they play at being naughty as others play at being good. Their Tartuffe, though he is a national creation, is no national type. To make that of him we should have to turn him the other way about, and portray, not a hypocrite of virtue, but a hypocrite of vice. Thus, in the Place Pigalle, we have a café of the hulks, an establishment devoted entirely to the glorification of crime. Its proprietor would no doubt be highly indignant with anybody who picked his pocket or broke into his house, and would claim the same immunity from the imputation of moral perversity as the proprietor of the chamber of horrors in a waxwork show. So he has fitted up his place as a museum, with scraps of furniture and fittings from the old prison of Mazas, lately demolished. Here you have the door of the cell in which some famous criminal, Franzini or other, passed his last night on earth, with perhaps the suit of clothes in which he was executed, or, it may be, a mortuary tablet of some other noted hand, ” guillotined on ” such a day. The den is ill lighted, and to keep it in the note of doom you enter to a kind of infernal discord due to the joint efforts of a cracked piano and a big drum. The master of ceremonies, attired as a Russian muzhik, but in black velvet at that, offers you a sort of disdainful welcome, and affects to regard you as a convict or a murderer at large. The songs and recitations are in honor of the fraternity of crime to which you are supposed to belong. It is dreadfully tedious, and five minutes of it is more than enough for the most robust endurance. If you ask for explanation, you are informed that it is a sort of object
lesson on the theories of the realist school. The man in velvet occasionally contributes to the harmony, in the character of a desperate ruffian glorying in a deed of blood, but, as one may judge, he is, at the heart of him, a finished noodle and nincompoop. In private conversation he alludes to the little villa in the suburbs which is the reward of his steady attention to business. A yawning policeman in the background takes the sting out of the whole entertainment by showing that it is under the protection of order and of law.
If you care for any more of it, there is a neighboring Café du Néant, otherwise a café of nothingness or café of death. There the tables at which you are served are shaped as coffins, and the whole place is lighted with corpse lights. A waiter rigged up as an undertaker’s man accosts you with a ” Good evening, moribund,” and serves you with refreshment, which, by its quality, seems designed to hasten your passage to the other world. There are emblems of death all round the walls, with mottos, such as, ” To be or not to be,” or ” Life is a folly which Death corrects. From the café you pass into a vaulted chamber at the back of the premises, with a stage which is simply furnished with a coffin, standing upright. A man takes his place in the coffin, kisses his hand to the audience, and then by some optical illusion he gradually fades away into the likeness of a skeleton outlined in light. In a moment he comes back to life again, steps out, and with a bow disappears. This is the Café of Death.
The Café of the Infernal Regions, close by, is an equally finished contrivance in absurdity. Here, as you enter, you find yourself in a scene of penal fire, very red, and your orders are taken by devils. Then, as before, you troop into the room at the back, in which twining serpents form the scheme of decoration. When the curtain goes up, you are introduced by the showman to Satan, and to madame, his wife. The enemy of mankind is simply an acrobat, dressed in red, and illuminated with lime-light of the same color as he turns and twists before the audience. Madame is a lady in the scanty costume of the ballet, and she stands in flames of many colors, and finally seems to . be consumed by them and to disappear. Other ladies of her court burn down to the vanishing-point in the same way.
The final stage of this pilgrimage of tomfoolery is the Cabaret of Heaven, a few doors farther off. Here it is needless to say the waiters wear wings, and the place is made up like a Gothic cathedral, while a sort of deacon ushers customers to their places. You are then invited to mount to the abode of bliss, and you pass into an upper room where other members of the gang go through a blasphemous masquerade.
These cafés are not to be taken as a sign of the utter wickedness and degradation of Paris. They are but a corner of the city, at the worst, and a corner in which you will, as a rule, find more foreigners and provincials than you will find Parisians.
The Empire, with all its faults, kept a tighter hand on the dissipations of the capital, and, whatever it did on its own account, it knew how to govern in the interests of public order. If follies now enjoy more toleration, it is because they are merely the accidents and the excesses of the freedom that France has won. We must take the good with the bad. The administration is less powerful ; people are better able to do as they like for good, and that implies, in rare and exceptional instances, the power of doing as they like for evil. The all- night cafés should be closed. There is a huge one in the Rue Royale which casts a ruddy light across the way until the dawn comes to put it to shame. By that ray we may see the neighboring flower-market of the Madeleine, now being stocked for the day, in time for the morning visit of fashion. This brings us to the boulevard once more, and, as the boulevard is at last at peace, it had better lead us home to bed.