With President Faure at the Elysée Palace
( Originally Published 1903 )
I WAS glad when my term of service with the jewelry firm was over, and I prepared to leave for London at an early date. I had visited the principal points of interest in Paris, and as November was far advanced, and the weather was getting uncomfortably cool, I felt that I should go to London as quickly as possible, because there was much that I wanted to do there before returning to America.
Before leaving " the capital of the world," however, I was determined to secure an audience with President Felix Faure, of the French Republic, who had but recently returned from a visit to the Czar of Russia, and who was the idol of the hour in Paris. I had read something of M. Faure's remarkable career, how he had been but a poor boy, and had educated and enriched himself entirely through his own efforts, and I was curious to learn something of his personality at close range. It is nothing unusual for poor boys to rise to fame and fortune in the United States, but in France conditions are different, and I knew that M. Faure must possess unusual gifts to have progressed as he had done.
When I thought of securing an interview, and began to consider ways and means, I discovered that the French President resided in the Elysée Palais, which had been a residence of Napoleon and many other famous persons. It is situated in the very heart of Paris, and is surrounded on every side by a high stone wall. To this wall there is but one public entrance, and I found it guarded by soldiers when I went there to reconnoitre.
Seeking an Audience with President Faure
After considering various plans, I decided that it would be advisable to first write a letter, requesting an audience in the regular way; if this failed, why then I would try something else. So I penned a very courteous note, explaining that I had been privileged to interview many notable personages in Europe, and that I was particularly anxious to meet President Faure before returning home. I made my position so plain, that I felt certain that I would receive an answer of some sort, but the days passed without any such result. Probably the letter never reached the President at all, but was stopped by some one of his secretaries.
It became evident that I would have to try some other plan of securing an audience, and I decided to go to the Palais itself, and see what impression I could make on the soldiers at the gate. I went up to the entrance with an air of unconcern, but when I attempted to walk into the courtyard, one of the gendarmes motioned me away. I knew better than to persist. I tried to explain in French what it was I wanted, but the soldiers couldn't or wouldn't understand, and I finally went away discouraged, after standing for some time, watching the distinguished visitors passing in and out.
I noticed, during my visit to the gate, that persons who were very well-dressed, and who arrived in carriages, were invariably allowed to drive into the courtyard without being stopped or questioned by the soldiers, who seemed to take it for granted that these people were all right. I then began to wonder why it was they refused to allow me to pass, and I reached the conclusion that on account of my old clothes, and my youth, I presented a suspicious appearance to their eyes. Naturally, they wondered what a boy of my age and description wanted inside the Palais, and doubtless they were confirmed in their doubts of my trustworthiness when they found that I was able to speak but little French. As these thoughts passed in my mind, I though of a great scheme, which would probably enable me to outwit the soldiers after all. If good clothes were the passport for admission, I would certainly go in.
A Bold Scheme
I knew of a tailor shop where I could hire all the necessities of evening dress for a very small sum, and when I visited the place I found that they had the clothing in sizes which would fit me as if they were made for me. So I rented the suit and a top hat and the patent leather shoes, and when I donned the articles in my lodging and looked in the mirror, I hardly knew myself. The fashionable clothing made all the difference in the world, and I didn't look like the same boy as when I wore the little five-dollar suit with which I had started from Chicago.
It was about six in the evening when I sent for a cab to take me to the Elysee. I thought that at this hour the President would probably have no visitors, since it was so soon before dinner, and that I would stand a better chance of seeing him than at any other hour of the day. I ordered the cab, because I was afraid the soldiers might recognize me if I tried to walk in at the gate, and anyhow, it wouldn't have been very dignified to have walked in evening clothes.
I dressed myself with the greatest care, because I wanted to make the best possible appearance, and when I left my lodging I was satisfied that I looked fit to call upon any president. The cab rolled rapidly through the streets, and as it neared the Palais my heart beat faster and faster. What if I were to be stopped at the gate, after all? Then I would have had all my trouble for nothing, and I would regret the expense of the dress-suit, and the unwonted luxury of a cab in which to ride.
I had given the cabman orders not to take any notice of the soldiers as he drove into the courtyard, and when he reached the gates he drove through without stopping. I saw the soldiers raise their hands in salute, and in a few moments I was alighting from the vehicle in front of the carpeted steps of the Palais itself. It was then that I needed all my dignity of manner, in order to make a good impression upon the servants at the door. I had paid the cabby before starting, so when I reached the top of the steps I motioned him away with a grand air, as if I had been always accustomed to giving orders. The footmen at the door bowed low as I entered, and I immediately handed one of them a card, saying in French that it was for the President himself. While one of the servants went off with the card, the other showed me into a handsomely furnished reception room, where my time was fully occupied in observing the beautiful tapestries and other works of art.
A gentleman in evening dress presently entered the room, and explained that he was the President's secretary, sent to learn something of the nature of my business. I explained to him frankly that my only motive in seeking the inter-view was one of curiosity, and I described the audiences I had enjoyed with other distinguished persons. I had no trouble in convincing the secretary that. I was honest in my statement, and he went off to report to the President.
In a few minutes President Faure himself came in, and as I advanced to meet him I felt at once that I would like his personality. There was a friendly smile on his face and a hearty grasp in his hand-shake which placed me at my ease at once, and almost before I knew it I was telling him all about myself, and how it was that I happened to be alone in Paris. M. Faure was an excellent listener, and by a few carefully directed questions he was able to get out of me most of the important details of my trip. I was glad to talk, because I could see that he was interested. He seemed to speak and understand English perfectly, and I learned afterward that he was also the master of several other languages.
I told M. Faure how it was that I had finally managed to gain admittance to the Palais, and of the difficulties I had encountered. He laughed heartily when I told him frankly that I had hired the dress-suit I wore. " I don't blame you at all," he said, " and I'm very glad you persevered." In speaking of my trip to Europe, he asked the question which had been put to me so often before. " I don't see why you ever thought of doing such a thing," he said, and when I replied that I didn't know myself exactly why I had embarked upon the trip, he laughed heartily. " Well, American boys seem to get along some way," he said, " If they don't find a way, they make one." I thought this a very good compliment for all American boys, coming from the President of France, who knew from experience how it feels to be alone in the world, and to struggle for a livelihood.
A Remarkable Career
I couldn't resist asking M. Faure a few questions about his own boyhood and his remarkable career, and he spoke of his experiences in a most interesting way. He said that he had discovered that he could never hope to accomplish anything unless he were better educated, and he determined to study at night until he could secure admission to the Bar of France. He worked during the day, and spent his evenings with his books, and when he finally attained his ambition, there was no doubt in his mind about how it had been accomplished. He knew that he would never have been anybody without hard work and perseverance. I was deeply impressed with what he said. It helped me to understand the importance of having a trained mind, and I determined that when I returned to America I would always do some studying, in order that I might advance as M. Faure had done.
I had expected that my call would be a very formal affair and that I would be glad to take my departure at the earliest possible moment. But instead of this being the case, I made what might be called a visit, and I wouldn't have gone at last, had not a visitor arrived to see the President. This visitor was a titled person-age from Russia, who was to dine at the Palais, so I said good-bye rather hurriedly, and left the room just as the Grand Duke entered. The secretary was awaiting me outside, and before I left the building I had a pleasant visit with him. He had some relatives in America, and was curious to know about Chicago, where they lived. He was astonished to learn that Chicago was about half the size of Paris, and when I told him of the high buildings and the elevated railways, he held up his hands in horror. Like thousands of other intellectual people in Europe, he had a surprising ignorance of our American cities, and actually believed that Indians and buffalo roamed the outskirts of our Western metropolis.
The secretary accompanied me to the door, and when he saw that I had no cab he kindly offered me the use of one of those standing in the courtyard. So I had the supreme satisfaction of driving past the soldiers in one of the state carriages, and I sincerely hoped that they would recognize me as the boy they had turned away. What a shock they would have then !
I had the driver let me out in the Place de l'Opera. I was afraid that the landlady would raise my rent if she saw me arriving home in such an equipage, and I had no money to spare. This had been an extravagant evening, but a very successful one. Since I had succeeded in meeting M. Faure, I thought the money for the dress-clothes had been extremely well invested.