Paris – Westward From The Place De La Concorde

The view looking westward on a sunny morning from the Place du Carrousel, near the Louvre, is the best that Paris can offer and one that few other cities can rival. In a long unbroken line you see the Tuileries gardens, the Place de la Concorde and the Champs -Elysees, crowned with the Arc de Triomphe. Beyond, but out of sight, the line continues along the Avenue de la Grande Armee, the Porte Maillot and Neuilly. I know no more delightful adventure on such a sunny morning than to walk leisurely along the Champs-Elysees in the shade of the trees, and to conjure up the memories enshrined in this most wonderful avenue. It is a walk not without adventure, for the Paris taxi-driver takes the right-hand turn from the Place de la Concorde always at top speed, and in a manner that demonstrates his indifference to death-either his own or his passenger’s or the wayfarer’s.

Each man to his own taste, and I always linger longest at the Petit Guignol, the famous Punch and Judy shows on the right-hand side of the Avenue, which are the delight of the true Parisian from early youth to hoary age. Near the Petit Guignol there is on certain days of the week an open-air stamp market, and it is good to stop for a while watching the bargainings and exchanges. I have none of the zest of the collector. Spending money on used stamps seems to me sheer insanity, and it tickles my pride to see other people in deadly earnest over something that to me does not matter in the least.

The Champs-Elysees were first planned by Marie de Medicis in 1616, and her Cours la Reine still exists on the south side of the Avenue. Marie de Medicis was an unattractive, unpleasant and unhappy lady. Henri IV. owed money to the great family of Florentine bankers and married Marie to prevent them being too insistent in their demand for repayment. Marie was a bad bargain. ” Imperious, jealous, stupid to a degree, ruled at all times by the dregs of the Court and by the people she had brought with her from Italy, she was the cause of wretchedness to Henri IV., to her son and to herself as well, though she might have been the happiest woman in Europe merely at the cost of abstaining from giving way to her temper and her servants.” She was immensely fat, immensely stupid, and immensely lazy, and she pitted herself against Richelieu with the result that she spent the later part of her life in lonely exile. But during the years of her power, after the murder of Henri IV. in 1610, Marie, ” the fat she-banker,” as the Parisians called her, set her mark on Paris. She planned the Champs-Elysees, she built the Palais du Luxembourg and added to the Louvre. Incidentally she was the mother of Louis XIII. and of Henrietta Maria, the unfortunate wife of Charles I.

The tree -planted Avenue, as we know it now, dates from 1670, when Colbert, the dour minister of Louis XIV. found the money, while doubtless begrudging it. Colbert was a statesman born out of due season. He believed in the power of money. Had he been permitted, he would have made seventeenth-century France rich, and probably the Revolution would not have taken place-an unpleasant, hard, ill-mannered man this Colbert, the son of a small tradesman, and at the beginning of his life steward to Mazarin. Madame de Sevigne called him ” the north,” and his sour face and hollow eyes must have well suited the gloomy atmosphere of the Court of the Grand Monarque when he had repented of his sins and was tended by de Maintenon, even though it was said of Colbert that he ” thought only of his finances and hardly ever of religion.” In less austere days Colbert had gained favour by permitting his wife to bring up the children of La Valliere. Colbert created the French navy and developed French overseas trade. He carried on the great traditions of Richelieu by founding the Institut de France, the Observatoire and various academies. And in the manner of the age, he enriched himself and his family. Be it added that he gave pensions to Moliere, Corneille and Racine. This hard man-so odd is human nature-had one strange weak ness. He took immense pains to prove a fictitious descent from the kings of Scotland. And I have_ often wondered, and never discovered, why sole Colbert is named after him. But perhaps it is not.

Marie de Medicis, fat and silly, Colbert, thin and clever, and Napoleon were the creators of the Champs – Elysees. It was Napoleon who crowned the Avenue with the Arc de Triomphe, erected as a monument to his glory. The Arc de Triomphe has on two sad occasions been an Arc d’Humilite. Through it there marched in 1815 the allied armies after Waterloo to bivouac on the Place de la Concorde. Through it in 1871 marched the conquering Germans, Paris being at last starved into submission, tramping along the Avenue watched by silent, half-fed men and women, already dreaming of la revanclae. Their dreams came true. In the early autumn of 1919 I watched from the roof of the Hotel Astoria the Victory March of the Allies through Napoleon’s arch, justified at last, and along the tree-lined Avenue of a city that never lost its dignity during those years of trial, and now was elate with joy.

Under the Arc de Triomphe lies the body of the Unknown Soldier of France. The French borrowed the idea of immortalising a nameless hero-patriot from England, and who in England knows that the suggestion first came from an almost unknown army chaplain, the Rev. David Railton ?

Of all the processions that have passed up the ChampsElysees, I like best to recall the progress of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in 1855- It was a return visit, Napoleon III. and Eugenie having stayed at Windsor some months before. The conquest of Victoria by Louis Napoleon was the great achievement of his career. He had to counter the prejudice of the proud heir of a long line of monarchs, who at first regarded him as an unscrupulous adventurer. But Napoleon knew how to manage women, even when they were swathed in English respectability. He talked to the Queen in his low, insinuating voice, and what was far more effective, he modestly and with respectful attention listened to Albert’s ceaseless monologues. Only once did he show the slightest boredom, and that, as the Prince recorded, was ” when I expatiated a little on the Holstein question.” The Queen, in odd contrast to Eugenie’s elegance, was dowdily dressed, but she won the hearts of bourgeois France by her bourgeois virtues. And not only bourgeois France. ” S’il y avait beaucoup de .femmes comme elle,” said Beranger, ” je leur pardonnerais d’etre reine.” And the elder Dumas regretted that he had not been given an audience. ” Une femme aussi remarquable et qui devzendra probablement la plus grande femme du siecle aurait dic se rencontrer avec le plus grand homme en France.” In a sense the entente may be said to have begun in these summer days in 1855 when Queen Victoria with husband and children stayed at St. Cloud and drove about the city. Waterloo was at last forgotten, even though elderly lookers-on might suggest that Napoleon I. would not have approved of the diplomatic triumph of Napoleon III. ” Si le vieux revenait, il serait rudement colere.”

Open-air restaurants and open-air music-halls with strident jazz tunes and energetic English dancers are to the right and left of the Avenue until one arrives at the Rond Point near which, at number nine Avenue d’Antin, now Avenue Victor Emmanuel, lived Marguerite Gauthier, ” La Dame aux Camelias.” I have little sympathy with the sentimentalising of the courtesan, for which Alexandre Dumas fils was responsible, but none the less what memories he and Marguerite have contrived between them! I remember Coquelin and Sarah Bernhardt playing together in the Dumas play, Sarah of the wondrous voice, of whom even the disgruntled Edmond de Goncourt said : ” This woman has undoubtedly an innate amiability, a desire to please which is not put on, but natural.” And I recall a greater than Sarah-Eleonora Duse-as Marguerite, acting with a haughty austerity that made Dumas entirely ridiculous. Alphonsine Plessis was the real name of the woman whom Dumas made the heroine of his play. She was a beautiful Norman, always notably well dressed, as modest as it was possible for a woman in her position to be, and with her success she had the constant conviction that she was destined to die very young.

Close to the Rond-Point too, lived Madame Tallien, in a thatched cottage, and there, poverty-stricken, half blind and ill, her divorced husband, the redoubtable Thermidorist, died in 1820. The men of the Revolution nearly all died young. Tallien-” Clerk Tallien ” as Carlyle calls himoutlived most of them, and he died when he was fifty-three, his active life having ceased twenty years before. Two events from his few years of power must have lived most vividly with him. It was in November 1793 that he was sent to Bordeaux to set up the guillotine and extirpate Girondism. It was there that he met the beautiful Therese, ” a brown beautiful woman,” the daughter of a Spanish merchant, who pleaded for her friends and contrived to soften the heart of the bristly fox-haired terrorist. It was she, ” Our Lady of Thermidor,” who urged him to plan the overthrow of Robespierre and the end of the Terror. Under the thatched roof of his wife’s cottage-the brown Therese had become the Princesse de Chimay-he must often have repeated to himself with a little consoling pride his famous speech of July 1794 when, interrupting SaintJust, he brandished a dagger and exclaimed, ” If the Convention dare not strike the tyrant, then I myself dare.”

After Thermidor, Tallien practically disappeared from the political stage, but Therese was the great lady of the Directoire. ” Behold her,” says Carlyle, ” that beautiful adventurous citoyenne in costume of the ancient Greeks, such Greek as painter David could teach ; her sweeping tresses snooded by glittering antique fillet; bright -dyed tunic of Greek women ; her little feet naked, as in antique statues with mere sandals and winding strips of ribbon defying the frost.” It was she who introduced Josephine Beauharnais to Barras. She was present when Napoleon, unaccustomed to luxury, clumsy in manner and appearance, first met Josephine at Barras’s house, and she urged Josephine to marry, when Barras, ” tired and bored, was eager to find her a husband.” Not a lady over whom moralists can wax enthusiastic, but ” Our Lady of Thermidor,” none the less, a woman who turned the heart of a revolutionist and hindered the activities of the guillotine.

Near by at number three Avenue Matignon, Heine died in 1856. The great German poet, the patriotic Jew who worshipped Napoleon because he had freed the Jews from their political disabilities, had been condemned for eight years to a mattress grave with a disease of the spine, tended faithfully by the uneducated, vain French shop-girl whom he had married, and writing wonderful poems inspired by his mystic passion for Die Mouche.

By far the most interesting house in the Champs-Elysees district is the Palais de 1′ Elysee in the Faubourg St. Honore, the street of the British Embassy and curiosity shops, the prices of which are not for the slender purse. The Palais de 1’Elysee, now the home of the Presidents of the Third Republic, where Felix Faure died and where Poincare, the Lorrainer with the shrill high voice, lived during the war, was built in 1718, and in 1753, a year before her death, it passed into the possession of La Pompadour, the passionless courtesan whose domination over Louis XV. lasted long after his passion for her had ceased. La Pompadour was a woman of greed and brains, sufficiently a child of the eighteenth century to favour the philosophers, generally only to be snubbed by them. Voltaire called her ” la Pompadounette,” Rousseau wrote to her that ” a charcoalburner’s wife was more to be respected than a king’s mistress.” La Pompadour died at Versailles, but her body was brought to the Palais de 1′ Elysee before it was interred in the vault of the Church of the Capucines on the site of the Place Vendome. She was forty-three when she died. At the beginning of her reign, twenty years before, she was the subject of the famous scabrous Parisian jokes, the ” Poissonnades,” in which her lowly origin was ridiculed. One verse ran :

Une petite bourgeoise,

E`levee a la grivoise,

Mesurant tout a sa toise,

Fait de la cour un taudis-dis-dis,

Louis, malgre son scrupule,

Froidement pour elle brule,

Et son amour ridicule

A fait rire tout Paris-ris-ris.

Later in the eighteenth century the Palais de 1’Elysee was inhabited by the Duchesse de Bourbon, mother of the Due d’Enghien, who was done to death by Napoleon.

From 1803 to 1808 it was the home of Murat and Caroline Bonaparte. Murat, the son of an innkeeper, was the typical Napoleonic swashbuckler, the greatest of those first-class fighting men whom Arthur Conan Doyle has used with such ingenuity in his Brigadier Gerard. He was with Napoleon in 1795 when they were both penniless soldiers in Paris. He was with him when the ” whiff of grape shot ” brought the Revolution to an end. He was with him in his first campaign in Italy, and he was with him in Egypt, leading the cavalry charge at the battle of the Pyramids. He was with him in Paris at the coup d’ Etat of the 18th Brumaire. He commanded the cavalry at Marengo, at Austerlitz and at Jena, and in 1806 the innkeeper’s son was made King of Naples. Napoleon’s sisters were not lovable young women, and Caroline must have been the most difficult of them all. From the beginning they demanded their full share of their brother’s loot, and Caroline was quite prepared to intrigue against him whenever she thought that she was not receiving hers. Made by the conqueror sovereigns of Naples, she and her husband assumed the arrogance of genuine royalty, and this brought down on them Napoleon’s furious admonitions and denunciations of what he called their ” monkey tricks.” King Murat had ideas. He dreamed, as so many other men had dreamed since Cesare Borgia, of a united Italy, of course with himself as king. Somewhat against his will he joined Napoleon in the unfortunate Russian campaign, hastening home when disaster occurred, haply to save his throne. Subsequently he intrigued with Austria and England, and was used by them as a cat’s-paw to be thrown over when the Bonaparte adventure had collapsed. During the Hundred Days he again offered his sword to Napoleon, but it was contemptuously refused, and the refusal was afterwards bitterly regretted, for Napoleon was convinced that with Murat at Waterloo, he would have won the battle. Afterwards, in a last insane and romantic adventure, Murat landed on the shores of Calabria, imagining that ” his people ” would welcome him. He was mistaken and was imprisoned and shot. Caroline died in Trieste in 1838. Napoleon was not lucky in his relations, but Murat was at least picturesque, which is more than can be said for the stingy Joseph or the ill-tempered Louis. It is easy to imagine the gorgeous state in which he and Caroline lived in the Elysee when he was Governor of Paris in the halcyon days of the Empire.

The Elysee Palace is associated with Napoleon himself in tragic times of his career. After the return from Elba and the public entry into the Tuileries, he moved to the Elysee for greater quiet, and there in the evening before he left Paris he dined alone with Hortense Beauharnais, one of the few who were always faithful to him, discussing the campaign that ended in Waterloo. He went back to the Elysee after the battle, and there he signed the act of abdication that was the prelude to the exile in St. Helena. The Rlysee was offered to Josephine after the divorce, but she preferred Malmaison.

Between the First and Second Empire the Palais de l’ Elysee was for a time occupied by the Duc de Bordeaux, grandson of Charles X., who might have been King of France had he not possessed to the full the Bourbon quality of learning nothing and forgetting nothing. Two years after the Franco-Prussian war, when Marshal MacMahon was President of the Republic, France was ready for a Bourbon restoration. The Duc de Berri, better known under the title of the Comte de Chambord, was the legitimate king, and had he been willing to abandon the fleur de lis for the tricolour, he might have been crowned in Rheims Cathedral.

Louis Napoleon lived at the Elysee after his election as Prince President of the Second Republic in 1848, and there the coup d’Etat was planned. Napoleon’s half-brother, de Morny, a cynic and something of a wit, talking to his brother shortly before midnight on December 1, 1851, concerning the events which they had prepared, said to him : ” Whatever happens during the next few hours, you are sure to have a sentry at your door tomorrow morning.” De Morny was an intimate friend of Sarah Bernhardt’s aunt, and, as such, was invited to attend a conseil de famille called to decide that lady’s destiny when she was a girl at a convent school and was eager to take the veil. The future actress wept and implored, and her relations’ hearts were moved by her apparent sincerity. When de Morny was asked for his opinion he said : ” I will arrange for the young lady to begin her studies at the Conservatoire next week.”

Napoleon’s cousin, the Princess Mathilde, has left through Edmond de Goncourt a striking pen-picture of the Emperor, the veritable roi faineant : ” He is neither alive nor impressionable. Nothing bothers him. The other day a servant emptied a syphon of seltzer water down his neck, and he was quite satisfied with passing his glass across to the other side of him without saying a word or giving a single sign of impatience. A man who never gets into a temper and whose most irate expression is ` It’s absurd.’ He never says more than that. If I had married him I think I should have broken his head just to see what was inside.”

On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon journeyed from the Elysee to the Tuileries. Eleven months afterwards a plebiscite approved the revolution. Le paysan voulut cou ronner sa legende. If Louis Napoleon had remained President, to quote Mr. Guedalla, ” Maximilian would never have gone to Mexico or Bazaine to Metz, and the world would have missed the gas-lit tragedy of the Second Empire.”

The Princess Mathilde lived in the Rue de Berri, a street running off the Champs-Elysees, in a house built by Mme. de Genlis, the famous educationist, who in the eighteenth century anticipated many of the theories of the twentieth. The Princess was the friend of all the great French writers of her time. She was a daughter of Jerome Bonaparte and was the cleverest and the best of her family, as her father was the most rascally. She was a corpulent, dignified and sharp-tongued lady, whose salon was the centre of culture during her cousin’s reign. She was most unhappily married to an unpleasant Russian from whom she separated sixty years before her death in 1904, and who was forced by the Czar Nicholas, who hated him and had great affection for her, to pay her a handsome allowance. I quote once again from the de Goncourts :

” This evening we are almost alone at the Princess’s. She looks a little tired and talks about her past. She speaks about her marriage, Russia and the Emperor Nicholas. `I shall never forgive you,’ is what the Tsar said to her when she came to him, married to Demidov. The dream of the Tsar had been to give his son the hand of a Napoleon. So that this woman who was talking to us has missed two imperial crowns. Is it not natural that in her loneliness the memory of the shadow of the crowns which have all but touched her brows should come back to her ? ”

My stroll along the Champs-Ellysees is never quite complete without turning towards the river-side to look at the remarkable statue of Alphonse Daudet, as he has been called ” Alphonse of the tired eyes.” Nearly all the statues in London are an affront to high Heaven. Most of the statues in Paris are suggestive works of art. Perhaps, but I am not quite sure that it would be fair, the spiritual character of the two cities could be summarised and contrasted by the statue of Sir Wilfrid Lawson by the side of the Thames, and the statue of Alphonse Daudet by the side of the Seine.

Daudet was Scott’s rival in industry. He would write from four o’clock in the morning till eight, from nine till twelve, from two till six, and from eight till midnight twenty hours’ work out of the twenty-four. Daudet was a great creator of characters, and his Tartarin is as real. to me and nearly as jolly as Sam Weller himself. Daudet was a queer creature. Mistral, the poet of Provence, once described him as ” the man of disillusion and of illusion, of a senile scepticism and a juvenile curiosity.” Like many another famous writer he had a long spell of poverty before he achieved success, and in the de Goncourt journal there is a delightful story, told by himself, of those early days :

“It was when I first began to write for the Figaro, when I was about seventeen. I don’t know what was the matter, but one day I went to find Pere Felix and asked him to confess me and to grant me absolution. He refused to do it unless I first read four large volumes of his sermons. Well, they were very nicely bound, and a few days later, when my access of religion had gone off a little, and being hungry, I sold the four volumes of Pere Felix, which kept me in food for two or three days.”