|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
When the flower-women and peddlers become too numerous before the cafe and you are weary with declining nuts and nougats and ten-olives-for-two-sous, you may have a look into Les Noctambules or some other smoke-laden cabaret. The old-timers will grin behind their cigars at your "stung-again" expression when the polite garron adds to the price of your first refreshment a franc or so for the consommation of what was advertised as a free show; but shortly you get the run of things and settle down to attend the chansonnier, who is the ox-eyed gentleman in the long beard who strides up to the consumptive piano and pours forth an original and impassioned rhapsody to our old friend "Parfait Amour."
A little of this goes a long ways. When you have politely heard him through, you are apt to think better of the boulevards and to start bowing your way into the street. How still and deserted the familiar places appear where by day is so much life and stir - such bustling about of stout market-women in aprons, such racing of delivery-boys in white blouses shouldering trays and boxes, such a concourse of the little fruit wagons they push and the two-wheeled carts they haul! In the little wineshops that dot the side street-, one sees the portly proprietors in shirt-sleeves behind the shining zinc bars polishing glasses and chatting with their patrons, who are workmen in jerseys and corduroy trousers and cabmen in glazed hats and whips in hand. The loveliness of the Luxembourg Gardens fairly shouts for appreciation. One could scarcely linger too long under the chestnuts and sycamores, among the puffing fountains, the bronzes and marbles, the beds of dahlias and geraniums, the oleanders of the Terrace and the great stone urns that drip petunias and purple clematis. As you cross the Seine by the old Pont Neuf and lean a moment on its broad balustrade, kindly thoughts go out to the garrets that may now be sheltering those pathetic stooping figures that bend all day above the long lines of book-shelves along the quays, and never buy, and you wish "good luck" to the goodnatured book-sellers who never annoy them with importunities, but sit indulgently oblivious on the benches opposite and smoke their pipes and read their papers. So great a love of books will at least insure the old habitues from ever being included in that dread toll of two-a-day that the Seine regularly pays into the Morgue.
It is like getting home to be back on the boulevards, - gay, gleaming, brimming, and confused. The air hums with the incessant shuffle of feet on the asphalt sidewalks and the pounding of hoofs on the woodpaved streets. The eyes ache with trying to miss none of the faces that flash past or any of the good-fellowship that abounds. The bubbling current drifts one along by little kiosks all a-flutter with magazines and newspapers, by advertising pillars flaming in play-bills of many colors, by crowded curb benches, glowing shop windows and table-lined cafe fronts. The wise drop out where the red lights mark tobacco bureaux and replenish their cigar-supply from government boxes with the prices stamped on them, rather than pay double for the same article in a restaurant later on. As you proceed to your favorite cafe it is immensely diverting to catch the glimpses of good cheer from those you pass. It is the same sort of thing in each case and yet somehow always different. On the red divans that extend around the rooms, with mirrors at their backs and petits verres on marble-topped tables before them, one beholds formidable arrays of bons vivants, all taking their ease with as hearty a will as the very kings of Yvetot. Military men with red noses and white imperials, politicians with pervasive smiles, litterati bearded like the Assyrian kings and wearing rosettes of the Legion of Honor, fat merchants in fat diamonds, and pot-hatted elegants who advertise smart tailors with as much exuberant grace as Roland himself. Happily for Paris, champagne is never out of season, and popping corks are held by many to make sweeter music than some of the orchestras in restaurant corners. The tide of life appears at flood. La Belle Ninette, of the Folies, tres fetee et tres admiree, fares daintily on out-of-season delicacies, thanks to the enduring ardor of the distingue Marquis opposite, and drops candied fruits with the prettiest air imaginable into the nervous mouth of her favorite poodle, who is himself rejoicing in a new silver collar set with garnets. La seduisante Gabrielle, at an adjoining table, having once been a blanchisseuse herself, appropriately excels in a toilette of cloudlike gossamer, and is quite the adored of the rheumatic old party beside her, who has probably been doting on the ballet for two generations. The talk is largely of la belle this and la belle that, of the latest display of extravagance, the most recent spectacle, the most promising plays for the fall, or the drollest freaks of the new fashions. One sees foreign faces from all quarters of the earth, as though it were some kind of international congress, with both hemispheres fully represented. Long accustomed to seeing the world without leaving home, nothing surprises Paris. A Chinese admiral, a Bedouin sheik, a Spitzbergen Eskimo, a lotus-lover of Tahiti, a Russian Grand Duke, or a millionaire hemp-grower of Yucatan pass practically unremarked. It would be a matter of no comment if "the Owl and the Pussy Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat." L'amour is the point of common contact, and even so one has little chance against a rich old roue in the eyes of a premiere danseuse or a far-visioned chanteuse of the Marigny. Business flourishes in the cafes. The harried waiters are kept bowing right and left and hurry off crying "tout de suite." Each open door sends out its vision of fluttering hands and shrugging shoulders and one hears an incessant rapid fire of "Bien!" "Dis done! " "Ecoutez ! " " Mais non!" " Precisement ! " " Al lons ! " "Oh, la la'! " - and so on and on. At Maxim's and the Olympia you would think there was a riot. Ice pails are as numerous as pulse-beats.
When you reach your cafe at last, on the corner by the Opera House, perhaps, the ponderous maitre de assigns you a garcon, whose name is doubtless Francois, Gustave, or Adolphe, and who is very businesslike in short jacket and white apron. To him goes your order for a filet de bceuf, or perhaps a fricandeau, or, better still, a sole with shrimp sauce; and as you await its preparation you think with satisfaction of the selfappreciative observation of Brillat-Savarin, "One eats everywhere; one dines only in Paris."
The life you then see about you is the usual thing here; to a stranger, novel and amusing; to a Parisian, altogether important and absorbing - an indispensable part of his existence. The setting is of soft carpets, palms, red velvet divans, chandeliers, and a crush of small, marble-topped tables. The place is crowded to the point of discomfort. A thin veil of smoke hangs over all. There are people in all kinds of street clothes and evening dress, ladies in opera cloaks and gentlemen in immaculate white waistcoats. There are ordinary individuals and fantastic "types"; ruddy, portly bourgeois who shout "mon vieux" at each other and make a prodigious racket generally; and nervous old beaux in toupees who fancy themselves in drafts. Occupations vary. Ladies are dining on champagne and truffles; the man at your elbow is writing a letter; another is looking through the illustrated papers; another has called for ink and paper and is casting up the day's expenditures; rubbers of dominoes and ecarte are being played out; there is a continual running to the telephone-booths and you hear the muffled calls of "Allo!" - and all the time an orchestra is holding forth in the corner. The clatter of chairs and dishes and the confused rattle of conversation is amazing. Wit whets on wit. Everybody has an opinion and is anxious to back it. Politicians bang their fists on the tables and address one another as "citoyen." Philosophers have it out, Cartesian against Hegelian. Poets quote from their latest lyrics and are tremendously applauded. Novelists dispose of rival books with a scornful shrug and a withering mot. And the playwright, by universal concession, is supreme cock of the walk.
Presently you move a little out of all this and have a seat near the outer edge of the terrace, and begin to accumulate a pile of cups and saucers each with the price of the order burned in the bottom. So far as out of doors goes, you'are now the audience and the passing crowd the show. The number has dwindled, but in characteristics it remains the same - sociable, good-humored, easy in manner, and quick in intelligence. It will be seen to differ from the night throngs of other cities not only in variety and exuberance, but in dramatic qualities as well. Camelots rush up to you crying the latest editions of the evening papers, and suddenly, with furtive glances over their shoulders, thrust some questionable commodity under your nose and protest it is a bargain. Jolly parties sweep along, arm in arm, in lines that cross the sidewalk from house to curb. Lady visitors, with eyes full of excited delight, pause for a wistful glance down Rue de la Paix where the establishments of famed milliners and modistes stand in gloom, little dreaming that they may be touching elbows this minute with the very . chefs, des jupes, corsag'eres, and garnisseuses that they are to visit in the morning. Chic grisettes trip smilingly by, who have dined frugally at Duval's on chocolate and bread, to have another rose to their corsages. There are blase clubmen from the exclusive cercles of Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysees, and supercilious representatives of the American colony of the Boulevard Haussmann. Here comes D'Artagnan himself, capable and alert, arm in arm with blustering Porthos. Ragged voyous with shifty looks run to open the carriage doors. From time to time there saunters by in cap and cape that model policeman, the affable and accommodating sergent de ville, and if you look around for a camelot then, you will find him attending very strictly to business. And so the fascinating procession troops merrily by: roaring students from the Boul' Miche', black-eyed soldiers in shakos and baggy red trousers, members of the Institute, pretty workinggirls who handle their skirts with the captivating grace of comediennes, the shapely dress-models they nickname "quails," conceited figurantes from the cafes-concerts, famous models, cocottes, - frail daughters of Lutetia, - with complexions like Italian sunsets, impudent gamins chattering in unintelligible argot, dilettanti, poseurs, and the usual concomitants of beggars and thieves. What a jumble of happiness and misery! What an amazing spectacle, with the shimmer of silks and the glint of pearl ranged beside the mendicant in his rags!
What a wealth of material, too, for the capable! One sees how Balzac found the best types of his "Human Comedy" on the boulevards; why Victor Hugo tramped them day and night and read shop signs by the hour in search for characters and the names to fit them; where Zola got the misery that he put between covers; where Moliere secured impressions that he transplanted so efFectually to the stage. How Dumas must have known these streets! And Flaubert and De Maupassant ! Nor are they exhausted yet; or ever will be. Where the entire gamut of the emotions is so incessantly run as here, vital, human material can never be lacking.
As one o'clock wears round, it is easy to distinguish a change in the appearance of the crowd.
"The tumult and the shouting dies,
Something of that wan and forlorn look is beginning to appear that makes even these buildings themselves seem dejected and remorseful, by the time the street cleaners advance to flood the boulevards and the sky beyond Pere-Lachaise is paling to dawn. The heart says, "Let's keep it up"; the body says, "To bed." And now, too, the crasser comedies of the fag end of the night receive their premieres. Amaryllis has lost her Colin and laments loudly with Florian : -
"C'est mon ami,
Mlle. Fifi demands her carriage and bundles out into it, with the red-faced Baron hurrying after, carrying her amazing hat; and off they go toward the ChampsElysees. A stag party of revelers hails a victoria and sinks limply onto its cushions; and they, too, head for the Champs-Elysees with one hanging onto the cocher and reciting dramatically: -
"Au clair de la lune,
Everyone smiles, for they know whither, they are bound. For Pre Catelon, of course, in the Bois de Boulogne, where they will chase the ducks and chickens around the little farmyard and make speeches to the mild-eyed cows and recover themselves gradually on mugs of cold milk.
Clearly, it is time to depart. One does not want the lees of this sparkling cup. A man is a fool to abuse his pleasures - though this may sound naive at one o'clock in the morning. Go, while everything is still charming and delightful. The seasoned boulevardier can do it, for he has a viewpoint that is all his own; it is by no means that of France, nor yet that of Paris by day, but of Paris by night - his Paris. It is opportunism applied to society. Not the mad, reckless apresmoi-le-deluge folly rout of the late Louises, but rather a conception of the importance of few things and the inconsequence of many. He sings with Villon : " Where are the snows of yester-year? " He searches the classics, and has "Carpe Diem" framed. He skims Holy Writ and puts his finger on "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." "Life is poetry," quoth he, "in spite of a limping line here and there! Why fuss over Waterloo, or the Place de Greve, or the guillotine, or the tumbrils that rattled up the Rue Royale? The present alone is ours; enjoy it to the uttermost! Life is beautiful and of the moment. Lights are sparkling. Fountains are splashing. The night is delicious with fragrance and enchanting with music and laughter. Join me! " he cries. "I raise my glass: To the lilies of France and the Bright Eyes of the Daughters of Paris!"