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Loitering In Paris - Part 1

( Originally Published 1938 )

Tuesday, July 10, 1923


I BELIEVE, honestly, that we are the most immovable family in the world! We are still in Paris weeks after we should have started for the coast; from day to day we plan to go on; then always some new and delightful reason appears and persuades us to remain. I meant to have written long ago, of course, but my days have been filled with busy idleness. Before we visited Paris; now we live here; there 's an enormous difference in just those two little phrases.

You know we left Touraine for, anyhow, I did send you postcards about the middle of June, and ever since then we have been established on the Left Bank, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. We are just opposite the lovely Luxembourg Gardens, only a short step down from the old Hotel Corneille where Little Billee lived, you remember. We tried to get in there, but it was crowded, and we console our-selves with the knowledge that so we are rather nearer the rue de Seine where Taffy had his lodgings, and not far from that never-to-be-forgotten studio which stood on the Place St.-Andr-des-Arts (Place St.-Anatole-des-Arts). I am not only in the Latin Quarter, you see; I am also in the Trilby Quarter: a sentimentally important fact to me, for Trilby is an early love and a late love, too, a book that I re-read at least twice a year. Our hotel is antiquated but very agreeable, with great airy chambers, and even if a hero of romance did not dwell therein, it was in recompense once the home of a famous French critic, Jules Janin. (I wonder if living in a "tableted" house is a fate that is always to pursue me?)

When you come over I want you to be here, or at least as near the Luxembourg as we are. It is the most beautiful place: like Hierusalem in the old hymn, full of gardens and gallant walks that continually are green. And it has become a sort of floral calendar of our days; when we returned from Touraine, cotton-fluff from the catalpa trees was blowing about; this afternoon, as I write to you, great masses of snapdragons around the statues, and tall fuchsia bushes are in full flower, while marching rows of pink and maroon hollyhocks make me just a little home-sick for a small white North Country cottage that I know. Apparently everybody loves it all as much as we do: students bring their books here, young girls write letters or sketch, and the alleys are gay with mothers who are making blue rompers for tiny things playing about in yellow ones. The Luxembourg is the Paradise for little children, for there are Punch-and-Judy shows and merry-go-rounds, and shops where hoops and whirligigs and bouncing balls can be bought. Do you know the very pleasantest way to enjoy the Gardens for an elderly person, I mean? It 's to walk through it all and stop at everything with the small soft hand of a little child tucked away confidingly in your own. Alicia begins to think herself a trifle old for such matters, and so I borrow Caroline M. I don't think you know Caroline, but she is one of my greatest friends, and my neighbor at home in Hanover as she is here. Except for the curls, she is a replica of "Dimples," even to the stand-up bow on her Dutch-clipped hair, for she has round blue eyes and rosy round cheeks and fat, skippety legs. And a most obliging disposition, for she will let you swing her in the balancoire until her brain reels, and her enjoyment of the donkey-carts is so vast and solemn that a ride in one of them resembles a ritual.

Other pleasures there are, too. It has become a daily occupation with us to go out in the morning and feed the birds; to saunter out again after dinner and toss bits of bread to the hungry carp in the great central pond. I am growing very lazy, I own, but when we were here before I sight-saw no, I don't like that phrase; I'll try another I saw-sights so energetically that I was ready to drop at night. Now I sit in divine leisure, with a neglected book in my hand as an excuse, and observe the infinite small dramas of the earth : ants dragging away a weary load of crumbs that the birds have left; the sparrows, balancing and scolding at the fountain's edge, and Fou-Fou, the T s' irresponsible black cat, stalking birds with unavailing patience. A seat for twenty centimes is the least expensive happiness I know. Blonde and buxom Marie de Medicis has never been one of my favorite queens; rather my heart inclines to shrewd Anne of Brittany and luckless, lovely Marie Antoinette, but I do feel grateful to this Italian lady whenever I sit beside her magnificent fountain far more beautiful now in its gray age than it ever could have been in the days of its youth. What joy she must have known in gazing at it from the windows of her charming painted bed-chamber, decorated by Rubens with a delicacy that I never before believed him to possess!

And so my days go by. I have become an idler, a loiterer, a despoiler of Time. Even my collecting shows what a flaneuse I have grown. I have spent hours and hours on the quais, always with pleasure, and occasionally with a great deal of profit. Beginning at the Carrousel bridge, of course these Left Bank stalls run as far down the Seine as the Quai d'Orsay, the farther up the river you go the better (and certainly the cheaper) the little booths become. It was just across from Notre Dame, under its gracious protection, that I bought one of my most valuable profiles. He 's worth looking at, is n't he? a most personable gentleman, "with as much whisker as a man might swear by," and a stock and buttoned coat which place him very early in the nineteenth century, about the decade of my cherished Governor Arnold, I should say. He is bound to be a much-traveled man; he began life in England, for the stamp on the back of the frame reads, "Hill, Green & Co., Birmingham," and now he is journeying with me to America to join my other shadows of the past in the parlor bedroom. The profile is beautifully done: a soft pastel which reveals a mass of wavy brown hair, penciled eyebrows, and a trim blue coat with gold buttons. And the frame is excellent, also: pear-wood with a burnished inner rim and a gilt acorn and oak-leaves atop, very much like the ones which enclose my Miers silhouettes. But infinitely cheaper, for I gave only twenty-five francs for this, while my others were about ten times as much.

It was on the quais, too, that I found the "Cries of London" you wanted: not originals, naturally, for a careful investigation of reliable shops showed me that I would probably have to pay two thousand francs apiece for genuine Morlands and Wheatleys. But they are worthy reproductions, and, fittingly framed, they will look very attractive upon your parlor walls. Then, on my own account, I turned up two little color-prints to lay at your feet, the delightfulest things, I think. Because I had been such a good customer with your money the patron let me have them surprisingly cheap, thirty francs for the two. They are a pair: "L'Entree a l'Ecole" and "La Sortie de l'Ecole" ah, such prim and pretty eighteenth-century schoolchildren! And I hope you will love them enough to have them framed in old gilt to hang over the Vermont "low-poster," for they have the same quality of engaging simplicity.

By the way, speaking of furniture, how, lacking my loving care, does your collection grow? I thought of you the other day when on the rue Jacob I found a very pleasing desk made of apple-wood and tinged by the passing of many years to soft golden brown tones. It had delicately curving legs, and a deep secret drawer, and with all these mobiliary virtues it was, nevertheless, modestly priced at about forty dollars. But experience has taught me by now that you have to be personally fitted to a desk, and since this one was in Paris, and you were way across the ocean in Boston, I said a sad good-bye to it, and passed on. It was a bargain !

To go back to the quais: I do wish that the many women who love old-fashioned prints, those devotees of Godey's Lady's Book, could shop along the river-bank with me; for most pretty pages are to be picked up for nothing at all: to be absolutely exact, for fifty centimes apiece. Sometimes, they even are only twenty-five, and they are generally, it seems to me, a little more desirable than those that we buy at home.

There are many other things for sale as well: old coins and medals which, mounted in rounds of polished black wood, make paper-weights of dignity; blue-and-white tiles from Holland; snuffers as cheap as I bought them in Loches; and candlesticks and warming-pans, although these are apt to be higher than at the small Latin Quarter shops. And books and books and books : they are the principal industry of the quais. However, I know very little of first editions and I pray, that I never shall, but, instead, that I may be kept in wisdom's way; for I do not want my flesh any weaker, nor my purse any lighter than it is now. Rather I prefer to resemble myself to the man who did n't know much about music, but who knew what he liked. And the books that I like, the books that I love, should be bound in beaten gold!

Still, I delight in watching the people who do stop to buy them : young and old, rich and poor, every-body! And I never fail to enjoy the placid fishermen, those patient idlers who seem to be endlessly engaged in catching nothing at all. Unless, indeed, Time is the stream in which they go a-fishing! Besides, the Seine is always so lovely; not a vivid river of dancing blue like our Charles : even on the clearest day there is a hint of gray-green in her waters. But, proud lady, she wears the same glittering bridge-necklaces at night; more of them, glowing strands as far as the eye can reach against the rippled black silk of her gown. A little earlier, just before dusk, it is quite as beautiful, and sometimes we take one of those tiny bateaux-mouches which ply between Auteuil and Charenton, and go up the river far enough to look back at Notre Dame and my beloved Sainte Chapelle drawing themselves up proudly against the sunset, a scene that has been painted again and again, and to which no picture ever does justice. Don't you think that you would like to flaner here with me?

It was on my return yesterday from one of these afternoon "quai-ing" trips, hurrying home to dinner by way of the rue de Tournon, that I found the French silhouette which stands highest of all in my collecting esteem. I suppose I must have passed the shop where I bought her at least half a hundred times on the bus and never realized that she was there ! Yet it is such a pretty shop, very deserving of notice: small, but well arranged, and full of desirable little things: bead purses and faience and fans and mille-fleur paper-weights that are very fairly priced. I entered with that unfailing question on my lips, "Have you any silhouettes?" and I was bidden to look around and judge for myself. I did; and in a vitrine, in the midst of patch-boxes and laces and ivories, I found her. She is of the same genre and date as my black-and-gilt Empire lady, but very much more perfect. The years have laid but a gently detaining hand upon her; she is still as young and fair as on that day when first she clasped those golden beads around her slender throat. To study her through a reading-glass is a pure delight. The work is so meticulously fine, from her tall carved comb to the girdle which spans her high-waisted gown, that I tremble, every time I look at her, to think I might have missed such loveliness. And when I remember what I paid, forty francs, a mere fraction of her worth, - I thank my collecting stars that silhouettes have n't, as yet, become a collecting vogue in France.

A bientot, Teresa! I am a loiterer even about letters these days; moreover, I have an urgent rendezvous with Idleness in the Gardens. And to-morrow is also another day. Who knows what I may find to tell you about if I wait until then?

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