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Au Temp Jadis - Part 1

( Originally Published 1938 )



Wednesday, March 14, 1923

DEAR ISABEL:-

By this time you must have had my letter written on the steamer — a doleful enough note too, I am afraid, for in spite of my proud boast of Newburyport seafaring ancestry, I am a sailor who loves the ocean best near the shore. Of course there were moments of joy: times when the wide expanse of water looked like crumpled silver, or resembled a great blue Staffordshire platter with a rim of lilac lustre, and I was happy just to be alive. But then suddenly a black curtain of misery would fall, and I am honestly bound to confess that it stayed down most of the voyage. Such a pity! There were so many interesting people on board: a pretty violinist who has been touring the United States; a minor Parisian musical troupe; a group of young art students going back to their beloved Latin Quarter; a Follies girl; and an artist — a French Basque, who looked, with his dark. face and swirling cape, as if he had stepped out of one of Goya's magic canvases. He was the real thrill of the trip : not only a pleasure to the eye, but obligingly talented; in the evenings he danced fandangos for us and accompanied himself with nimbly clicking castanets. (By the way, he turns out to be a portrait painter of note, and to-day I have been admiring a serene and lovely group of his in the Luxembourg.) How you would have enjoyed it all, you to whom a life on the roughest ocean wave presents no problems. When you do come over, let me recommend the Rochambeau; the captain is blandly agreeable, the food very good, while the constant gayety makes the ship like a floating cabaret — all advantages, if you are a secure sailor.

But how blessedly dear land did seem to me! Only a sense of Orde's vivid chagrin kept me from kneeling like Columbus at San Salvador, and kissing the ground at my escape from the sea. It was a little shock at the customs to find that I had to pay a rather heavy duty on my well-worn, familiar type-writer, but that was the only blot on perfection.

Spring has come graciously early to France this year, and the countryside from Havre to Paris was all gentle green. Picture the wonder of it to me; for at home Hanover would still have been knee-deep in February snows, and the most daring blade of grass could not have appeared before April. But here, all along the way, men dressed in soft dull blues — colors which fell in agreeably with the landscape — were working in thrifty gardens, and broom and dandelions and primroses brightened the world with their varied yellows. And every now and then a pommier in full bloom, or the deep sweet pink of a Judas tree against a cloudy sky.

Normandy is infinitely lovelier than I had fancied: less flat, with rolling, rich meadows, and rounded hills which remind you of New England. And, my dear, the houses! Little fermes, clay-walled and softly thatched; larger manor-houses, red-roofed and set in square enclosures of tall poplars; and, occasionally, high, high up, the flash of a white chateau. You may imagine the largess of antiquities with which I endowed them all, and the agonies I endured at having to pass them by unsearched. And it was an equal grief to go straight through Rouen — to see just a very ugly railway-station, and at a distance the lovely, reaching spires of the Cathedral. But I shall return; it is only an hour or two away from Paris, and unlike the less fortunate Conrad, for me there shall be a road back to Rouen.

We are quite settled here now in a little hotel on the rue Monsigny, a street only sixty or seventy years old, they tell me, but which looks, with its antiquated iron lamps — the sort, you know, I have always longed to install in Hanover — and its sedate houses of sober brown-gray stone, quite as if it had been built in the eighteenth century. It rained that first night; of course it rained, and I should have been disappointed if it hadn't, for in Maupassant's stories — he who knew Paris better than anybody else — don't you remember how "une pluie fine, interminable" seems forever to be falling? And the next morning it poured torrents ! But how could it rain in my heart, even if it rained in the city, when out-side all Paris was waiting for me — sights and sounds I had dreamed of for years: a baker's boy scuttling by with a huge basket of petits pains on his head; the clopin-clopant of horses' hoofs on the wooden-paved streets; and, suddenly, under my windows, a burly water-vender who cried, "Ah, de l'eau, de l'eau, de l'eau, de l'eau," in a falling melody, so cadenced, so musical, that it was not difficult to believe his wares came from some enchanted spring. I am, you perceive, a romantic.

In the afternoon the weather changed as if by magic; the wind veered, and the sky became blue with masses of feather-bed clouds. We hurried out while Paris smiled to enjoy it all — up by the Louvre, across the Place du Carrousel, through the Tuileries, where small boys were sailing boats and early spring flowers bloomed in prim beds, and took an omnibus for the Left Bank, our destination being the Bon Marchι for gloves, and a visit to the M —s, who have been here now for a fortnight. And, naturally enough, I hoped for antiquity shops. Literally, Isabel, on certain streets they are as thick as patisseries, and these seem to pop up every few feet. After we had bought our gloves, and stopped to eat our first real babas bien arroses, and, oh, so delicious ! — we walked down a few steps into a tiny place where there was a scramble of everything in the windows: miniatures, engravings, frames, purses, glass, and china. But the patron had never heard of the silhouettes my heart desired, nor had the patronne in the next little shop, where there was the same jumble of the past. It needs a practised eye to discover treasures. Still, that 's just the way it is at home; you know how we have to poke and prowl about in New England to find what we want, and the only difference is that here in Paris there seem to be about fifty times as many chances, and at a fraction of what we are asked in America.

After the second refusal we grew a little discouraged,— remember, it was our first day, and we were in a strange city, — besides, it was late. So, not seeing a bus, we decided to take a short cut from the Boulevard St.-Germain across to the "Boul Mich," where the M —s are en pension. Ah, the lucky walk, the fortunate decision — for at the Boulevard Raspail, on a windy corner where we stopped to ask a direction, there was a watchmaker; in his window modern watches and old clocks, with a sprinkling of miniatures and engravings. In we went again, and this was how we made our wants known, a double enterprise since Orde is new at the antique game and I am very new at French. After the first "Bonjour, Madame," — for you must never enter a French shop without a figurative hat in hand and courteous greetings upon your lips, — Orde proffered his request: "Madame, tenez-vous, par hasard, quelques vieilles silhouettes, des profils anciens, en noir, vous comprenez?" Madame shook her head blankly; then suddenly in some forgotten mental corner she must have found a vague memory, for, rummaging in the drawers of an old walnut secretary, full of miniatures, she took out my first French silhouette.

You'll see him when I come home, of course, but I do wish you could behold him now, this gracious eighteenth-century gentleman in a round gilt frame, backed with faded blue silk. It is a small profile, the frame not quite three inches across, the head itself just an inch and a half in height. But it is beautifully done: painted in India ink, and then touched lightly with a faint grayish-blue shade so that the stock, the lace frills, the military frogs and buttons on the coat all are clear and fine. Even his hair, tied in a becoming queue, seems lightly powdered, and from the way it is dressed, and from his costume as well, I should put him in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Just think — he might have been a friend of Lafayette's, or gone gayly, with a smile on his lips, to a rendezvous with Madame Guillotine! But just who this gallant gentleman was, alas and alack, I never shall know!

But let me come back to practical matters — to the price I paid. Madame said, "Trente francs," but Orde, rankling with the sense of an injustice done him that morning when a shopkeeper had dexterously added five francs to the figures already marked on a most necessary umbrella, turned to me and remarked, "C'est un peu trop cher, n'est-ce pas?" whereupon she immediately replied, "Vingt-cinq; et c'est mon dernier prix." Of course I took it gladly, and without more ado. Who wouldn't? At the present rate of exchange it amounted to only a little more than a dollar and a half, and even before the fall of the franc it would not have been dear to our way of thinking — about six dollars; although, in that case, it also would not have been marked so high; for prices have certainly been pushed up to adjust themselves to lowered money-values. How-ever, I cannot get used to bargaining, because it isn't done in America, I suppose. But here — at least in antiquity shops — everybody is expected to marchander, and I do endeavor, with the result that my timid manner has become more boldly successful, though I trust it still remains ingratiating. But imagine how infuriated our Favorite Dealer would be if we tried to cheapen prices with him!

The next day we went sightseeing and shabby-shopping, too. Ah, Isabel, my dear, that 's the joy of antique-ing in Paris — you collect the past in so many, many ways. To come out upon the street after a triumphant quest and behold the sixteenth-century Tour St.-Jacques set against a saffron sky; to walk past the amiable Madame Recamier's hotel, an equally lovable silhouette clasped in your guarding hands; to take your dejeuner in a little restaurant where an eating-house of some sort has stood ever since the days of the Regency, comparing, between courses, your captured treasures — why, it is the apotheosis of collecting! Toss a pebble lightly into the air anywhere, and you hit history.

Naturally, we went without delay to Notre Dame; I've always had a mad desire to see the hurtling towers from which Quasimodo dashed Claude Frollo to the earth : Victor Hugo's novel made an immense impression on my ten-year-old mind, although I have not read it since. Still this is a letter, not a guide-book, and I do not repeat my raptures; Notre Dame, enduring, will await your coming, I am convinced. But it was my first great Gothic cathedral, my first glimpse backward into the Middle Ages, and yet, do you know what it will always remind me of? — violets! For I bought my earliest bunch from a high-piled barrow an old woman was pushing through the square; perhaps they were sent to whisper of Esmeralda's gentle spirit. Indeed, I know I shall remember flowers whenever I think of Paris. For a tiny fifty-centime piece you may buy a nosegay, blue and fragrant; for double the price, a sheaf of yellow daffodils to gild your room when the weather sulks and the sun refuses to shine; and gillyflowers, pinks, and lilacs are plentiful and cheap. The little restaurants and patisseries all have their bunches of daisies and poppies; even the antiquity shops often show bouquets blooming in old china vases or adorning copper pots — it is a pleasant and unexpected sight.

There are several kinds of boutiques de curiosites: tiny holes-in-the-wall where, if you have patience, you may find delightful trinkets for a song; larger shops, just as higgledy-piggledy, everything from needle-point footstools to discarded Church ornaments — rooms as fresh and charmingly arranged as any attractive parlor ever could be. And the names are even more engaging. Here are just a few of them: Au Temps Jadis, Aux Anges Gothiques, A la Croix de Jeanette, Au Vieux Rouet, Au Temps du Roy, Le Vieux Logis. Are n't they lovely? Enough to tempt the francs out of any collector's pocketbook. And as yet I've just scratched the surface. Lightly! I have n't been to Batignolles — where Zola bought his Rouen ware — or to Montmartre, or to any of the expensive city shops, where prices are beyond the dreams of avarice. But fancy, Isabel, on the rue des Saints-Peres, between the Quai Voltaire and the Boulevard St.-Germain, there are thirty-odd antique shops. This is but one instance; every boulevard on the Left Bank has scores, and they are scattered up and down all the little side-streets. Don't worry about my losing the addresses : they are engraved upon my memory. Moreover, I am making out a complete and careful list for your use.

It was on the rue de Grenelle that I found my second silhouette. Actually the place looked like a furniture shop: old chairs on the sidewalk, faded damasks in the window, with just enough miniatures to make it a possible chance. We lifted the latch and walked in, and Orde declared that my hands trembled with eager joy when the proprietor put into them a lovely black-and-gold Empire lady — eglomisee, of course—who, for another twenty-five francs, became mine. True, she lacks a frame; but done on glass, she represents a thoroughly French genre: the kind, you know, where the glass is first washed with gold, then, after the profile and border design have been delicately etched out, painted over with black, and. finally backed with protecting paper. They are almost impossible to pick up in America; I know of two in the Essex Institute and a few others in private collections: that 's all. I think my lady is of lofty lineage; in spite of gilt comb and earrings she wears a hussar's coat, and if you remember that German costume-book I am forever poring over, you may recall a portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia in a colonel's costume, which this very much resembles. Paris is full of old frames: tortoise-shell, gilt, and wood, from ten francs up, and so I have no disturbing doubt of being able to enclose my profile fittingly. And even if I can't find one agreeably aged, I still can have an old frame perfectly reproduced for only twenty-five francs more.

Good-night, Isabel. I'll go on to-morrow, but now I must hasten to my most comfortable bed. It must be late and late; droves of noisy taxis are beginning to hoot their way along, for the theatres are just closing, and that in Paris means twelve o'clock at least. Besides, I am dog-tired. For three days I have tramped up and down, growing rich in the lore of city streets, but very poor in shoe-leather, I fear.



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