Loitering In Paris - Part 2
( Originally Published 1938 )
Oh, the heat — the blinding, intolerable heat! I shan't write another word until it is over. Or stir a step out of my cool chamber, softly green with the sunlight which filters through the old jalousies.
It 's still hot and hot! The June heat-wave which engulfed you in America has swept across the ocean to France, and for a week we have been simmering; the only comfortable places I have found have been the shaded walks beside the Medicis fountain, and the Louvre. For I finally decided to brave the heat, and, leaving my cool seclusion, venture out once more upon my quests. I could n't let a little thing like temperature desolate Paris for me; besides, I remembered that if I were at home at this time, I'd probably be putting up strawberry-jam, and far less comfortable than I am here.
And my reward was immediate, an eglomise silhouette-locket that is a real treasure. Mr. H has one, a beautiful shadowy thing done by Miers in his earlier manner, and I dare say there are some in Mrs. W---'s large collection in Baltimore. But personally I know of no others in America, and they are rare enough in any country. It came from my discerning little shop; Madame, seeing my interest in such things, had saved it to show me. And it is just as characteristically fine and French as my captivating ladies, and like them, also, black against a background of gold. I have just been measuring it carefully for you. (Do you know that there are two things the careful collector should never travel with-out : a magnifying glass and a tape measure?) My locket is one and one-eighth inches wide, and a tiny trifle over one and three-eighths inches long, and the gilded glass is set in a silver rim. But here 's the real joy of it all: it is an eighteenth-century piece, the earliest example of this method that I have ever seen. And its value is enhanced — not merely sentimentally by the fact that there are two heads : a man's on one side, a woman's on the other. Her profile is aristocratically aquiline, and you can see that she wore her hair high and powdered, while his was tied in a queue. Again it is a pleasure to employ a reading-glass; to observe the ruffle at his throat and the infinitesimal buttons on his coat. I know you '11 agree with me that thirty francs for each head was very little to pay.
I am rewarded, too, in other ways; not tangible always, but daffodils for my heart to dance with when muddy March comes in, and there 's no place but the railroad tracks to walk. Now that I am used to it, I rather think I like Paris in the heat and the haze. Or, anyhow, it is more beautiful. Flower-stalls splash bright color along almost every street, and the blurred distances are lovely, lovely! I know that I prefer the Eiffel Tower, that divine Meccano, wrapped in a light veil of iridescent mist. And the other day, while I was searching for the antiquity-shop where the sweetheart of Tricotrin's temporary fancy "sat mending paled brocades," I found something else: Sacre-Ceeur rising high and white before my eyes, and looking, in the quivering heat, very much more like a bubble palace from the Arabian Nights than any Christian church.
The Louvre, though, has been my greatest recompense. Not that I did n't go there before — often — but in these hot days I live there ! In Louis the Fourteenth's time, I believe, the poor folk used to huddle into its corridors to get warm. How they ever contrived it I can't imagine, for when I was here in March I used to wear my thickest coat, plus the sweater I take when I go snowshoeing, and even then I nearly froze to death. Now I, in the twentieth century, reverse the process : I go to the Louvre to keep cool. To step from the blazing Place du Carrousel into its lofty peace, its tranquil beauty, is the essence of happiness. The essence of education as well, for the collector without standards is lost, and I do not know a better way to set them — high!—than by constant visits to good museums.
But will you tell me why on earth guidebooks recommend travelers to save museums for rainy days? You need every bit of light you can get for proper seeing; in dull weather, in the Cluny especially, those beautiful ancient tapestries lose half their gentle color and the oak carvings are drowned in shadows. Here 's another question for you to answer, too. In this brazen weather, what perverted business instinct persuades antiquaires to fill their windows full of glittering candlesticks and burnished warming-pans? Oh yes, I can understand the candlesticks for the sake of the pure, translucent flames they bear; but bassinoires! 'When all you long for at night is cool fresh sheets ! Still, I wonder if you could n't fill them with lumps of ice instead of coals, and freeze your bed o'nights?
Such a dillydallying letter as this one is! I am too indolent even to go out in the Gardens, too completely comfortable after my breakfast of chocolate and croissants and cherries to do anything but sit here in my pleasant room, and write to you. Gisele, our pretty bonne, brings up the first two when we ring at about half-past eight, and we have fallen into the habit of carrying home big bags of cherries and strawberries at night to eat with our petit dejeuner the next morning.
We keep them in the cool of the evening out on our narrow window-ledge, — against the law, I know, — and we constantly pray that no frolicsome gust of wind shall toss them down on the heads of the sauntering sergents de ville, for, being in the neighborhood of the Senat, we are always abundantly policed.
But think of buying a heaping quart of blackhearts, bursting with juice, for about ten cents! Straw-berries, too, great sweet things, are only a little more; and flowers, not just roses, but the kind of old-fashioned blossoms that I begin to miss: larkspurs and bachelors' buttons and fat double marigolds are so abundant that, for a few francs a week, I can keep our rooms fresh and blooming. How I am ever going to climb down from this lap of luxury I don't know.
Well — I've found some more shops, and I've had some more luck. Up in the old St.-Etienne district, back of the Panthéon, I discovered a little shop, oh, a tiny place, marked "Occasions," where there were many things well worth having, and reasonable in the extreme. Little things, naturally, for the space was not large enough to hold furniture; but there was copper and brass and glass, — blown, not pressed, — and pretty Empire vases of white-and-gold china. However, I did n't want any more candlesticks or another warming-pan, so I contented myself with buying squares of old rose-red damask — ancient chair-seats — for five francs apiece. I am always needing them, you know. These Soldes-et-Occasions (bargain shops) repay investigation; nearly always there is something within that interests the collector. They are in the poorer quarters for the most part, and their stock changes hands frequently, but it really is this very here-to-day-and-gone-to-morrowness which makes them such a happy hunting-ground. Often I 've seen pretty faience plates for ten francs apiece, and — malheur! — once I just missed a pair of old silver sugar-tongs for twenty-five francs.
To go on with my purchases : I 've bought a pair of Strasbourg plates of the same type as mine at home, for I 've long since realized that none of my collection ever came from the ateliers of the great Hannong, but that they probably are only a peasant-ware of terre de pipe made in the vicinity. Which in no way interferes with their charm, to my way of thinking, and these last are quite as agreeable as my others, although of a different design: on them a little Chinaman sits placidly smoking in the midst of an improbable landscape where the river is very blue and the grass is very green, and tall pink flowers grow on slender stalks — a color-note which serves to unite the rose of his coat with the hue adorning the edge. I confess I am fond of these plates, unpretentious as they are, and I am looking now for four more to go with them, though I doubt if I can find them so cheap — only twelve francs for each one.
I wish you were sitting here with me; even from my high window Paris is so interesting. An old raccommodeur de faience has just passed down below, playing an airy, whimsical tune on a little flageolet — the traditional way of advertising his trade — and now he and his wife are sitting cross-legged on the pavement of the Senat, mending pitchers and basins. This ancient rue de Vaugirard on which we live has been a highway ever since the Middle Ages, and as a settlement, I suppose it would go back way beyond that ; only last week, workmen digging up the drains, farther on, found a Merovingian coffin of heavy lead. The street is old and gray and rather beautiful, and on still, clear nights, when the full moon silvers all the tall chimney-pots of the Palais du Senat, I love to lean out and look at the Carmelite convent, or picture Madame de Sevigne coming to call upon her very literary though less celebrated friend, Madame de La Fayette, whose hotel was just a few doors away. And sometimes it 's so quiet that you can hear the cocks crowing — we have an enter-prising neighbor who keeps both chickens and rabbits in a courtyard on the rue de Garanciere; think of it in this crowded district! But usually it is a bustling place, thronged with busses and heavy drays and taxi-cabs and noisy with the little staccato automobile horns which make all Paris sound like an incipient Fourth of July.
You know the traffic system here is deplorable. Or, rather, there is n't any. To think that I ever dreaded crossing Fifth Avenue! There, at least, you can calculate death. Rousseau used to insist that Parisian cab-drivers were in conspiracy against him, and I assure you that matters have n't changed since his day. I 'm sure they plot against my life. The only way to enjoy taxis is to ride in them; they are so absurdly cheap that I believe you could drive all over the city for about ten francs.
I now descend into this maelstrom to purchase a gift for my Candid Friend: a little brazier that some Picardy farmer, years ago, filled with red coals to light his pipe. I 've been meaning to buy it ever since I first saw it, it 's so unique and simple and altogether quaint, but I just did n't. Loitering, Teresa, is a most pernicious habit!
I bought the brasero — I 'm told that 's its proper name — and received a financial lesson at the same time. Before, when I priced it it was only twenty francs, and instead of going on to the Gardens I should have bought it then. To-day it was thirty-five, but since I was "une cliente," Madame let me have it for twenty-five. Certainly prices have gone up as the franc has gone down. Orde returned from the theatre the other evening with an amusing in-stance of this. He had gone with Margaret to La Dame aux Camelias, and when he came in he re-marked, "There 's no doubt that prices have risen in Paris. Camille's debts to-night were just three times what they used to be." Perfectly logical, of course. How could this expensive siren be expected to live in guilty splendor to-day on the pittance Dumas allowed her in 1850?
Good-night. The journals, optimists as they al-ways are, promise us a thunderstorm and cooler weather to follow. I hope it proves true; I want the right kind of energy for the Sébastopol Fair.
The weather-man was not deceived : at midnight the storm burst, and now the air is cool, and little spattering showers come every now and then to make it cooler. And I have been to the Fair three times.
I was so afraid I was going to miss it; I had heard that it was held at Christmas only, from the eve of Noel to the Jour de l'An. But it comes twice a year, it seems : in summer from the ninth to the twenty-fourth of July. And always in the same place, for blocks and blocks on the left-hand side as you go down the Boulevard. St.-Denis will be the Métro station for you to stop at, and I give you my word that it 's well worth visiting; rather more selective than the Foire aux Ferrailles, although many of my old friends from that fascinating place were here, too. And from the quais and the Marché aux Puces as well, for there are certain small dealers who make it a practice to "follow the fair." I think I am like them, my heart so leaps up when I behold one upon the horizon; I am sure, in some earlier incarnation I must have worn spangled skirts and twirled a tambourine.
My only sorrow is that I did not go earlier: that I let an inconsiderable discomfort like ninety in the shade keep me away. Judging from the things I did find, the earlier bargains must have been wonderful. As it was, I bought a little triple-mould bit of glass — three dolphins holding up a small cup — for three francs: one for each dolphin, I suppose. Glass like this is bringing frantic prices in America; you re-member, don't you, the awful sums asked nowadays for this particular design? Then at the same unpretentious stall I found a colored lithograph, the kind for which at the larger shops they want any-where from thirty to fifty francs. Set in a wide mahogany frame, she is the sweetest lady, Louis-Philippe in date; and I think I shall hang her over the desk in the Prettiest Room, for her mauve gown shades softly into pink, her folded fichu and cap are a gentle cream, and her eyes are very blue — just the colors that make up the flowered wall-paper. Fancy! She was but six francs, and the artist friend with whom I was loitering along openly lamented his ill fortune at not having first perceived her. And I unearthed two more silhouettes: one for eight francs, a decoupure of the eighteenth century framed in black passe-partout; the other half as much, and dated 1845; late, but a method hitherto unknown to me, since the profile was painted on a white card and then glazed with a transparent varnish as a protection.
And I could have bought many more things : for one, a fine large japanned tray, gilt-scrolled on the edge and set with mother-of-pearl; but it would have been hard to pack, and moreover, such trays, being early-Victorian, do not come within the hundred-years exemption of duty. Then there was a pair of bellows, cheap enough — just fifteen francs — but they were delightfully French, and too elaborate for my simple-minded fireplaces. And there was a really good mirror of the late seventeen-hundreds, with a small pastoral scene painted in the upper panel: shabby, and needing to be re-gilded, but it was only ten dollars, and it tempted me terribly. It did not fall in with the needs of Webster Cottage, however, and I am relinquishing all such collecting vanities until the time when I buy my villina in Touraine. On that glad day I shall indulge myself.
Oh, I wish you were here with me! If only to sit on the terrasse of some café, listening to a super-Pop Concert, and watching the world go by. In the small space of time it takes you to sip one glass of coffee you can see so many types: officers, priests in long black soutanes, soldier schoolboys from St. Cyr, midinettes, students from the French colonies (at times, even, in native costume), and pretty ladies who, two generations ago, would have adorned the pages of Murger's Vie de Boheme. Or perhaps a mariage rides along and waves colored streamers at you; for the latest thing in some circles, it appears, is to charter a huge sightseeing car, and fill it full of the exuberant wedding-party. Or a strolling violinist will come by, squeaking a tune on his fiddle and holding out an humble cap for sous, and then suddenly astonish you by reciting beautifully a poem of Verlaine's.
For there is a Paris that is n't just Druot sales, or gowns from the rue de la Paix, or dinners at Voisin's. Here there is something for everybody, and that 's the magic of it all. I think I never saw a place where so many poor people were happy. It is the humanest city! I weep to think that I must journey on so soon.
Yours sincerely, very, ALICE
P. S. I now can make out a laundry-list in French, shop intelligibly, register a letter, or go to the theatre with perfect pleasure. But upon my return you will find that I still speak an English pure and undefiled, and quite without accent.