Paris - Au Bois
( Originally Published 1910 )
MAY, and afternoon — and the Bois de Boulogne !
I am half afraid to go on. There are a thousand things to say, and yet I feel that if I wrote a work in three volumes and said them all, I might look back and think to myself that they were better and more completely said in those first eight words. But perhaps you do not know the Bois ; then you will not mind my amusing myself with just a few of the thousand things. Perhaps again you do. If so, two courses of action are open to you : you may close the book at once, or you may read on disapprovingly, and frown, and say to yourself, " He misses the spirit of the place"; which, too, will not be without its charm.
How I came to be in the Bois is so obvious that it does not matter. Where else, unless to the Luxembourg Gardens, could one go on a spring afternoon when the shifting sun-light was as capricious as the breeze, when every horse-chestnut along the Champs Elysées nodded its white plumes, as if saying, "There are a great many more like me a little farther on,—yes, in that direction"; and when even the cloud-shadows that flitted across the Place de l'Etoile made straight for the Porte Dauphine.
Except the step one takes from the rue de Vaugirard into the Luxembourg Gardens, I know of none so enchanted as that by which one leaves Paris at the Porte Dauphine and enters the Bois de Boulogne. One walks out of the city into a fairy tale. It is a French fairy tale. In these courtly woods there is none of that sombre anxious mystery that in-vests the forest in which Hansel and Gretel found the witch's gingerbread house, nor the atmosphere of charms and magic enveloping that in which Amjed and Assad wandered before they came to the country of the Fire-worshippers. No, the Porte Dauphine is the gateway to one of those well-bred seventeenth-century fairy tales, in which every-thing is in good taste, where the princes make love to the princesses in the politest, most formal fashion, and beneath which runs a gentle current of satire. But I, for one, am too happy at being able to enter any fairy tale at all to quibble about the kind.
And fairy tale it was, —oh, unmistakably! I knew that, the moment my feet had crossed the threshold. I had known it before; I had known it always, it seemed ; yet each time I returned to the Bois the recognition came as something new and surprising, and never so fresh, so convincing, as on this May after-noon. The wide splendidly-curving route de Suresnes was swept with great silent automobiles ; along its outer edges carriages rolled by more slowly, and horsemen trotted stylishly. Horsemen, automobiles, carriages and the ladies in them shading their eyes with pretty little parasols, — outside the iron gates they would be ordinary enough ; here they were all under a spell. And on the gravel-walks that border the road, in the interminable line of chairs (to be rented at two sous for an ordinary, four for an arm, — chair) sat miraculous bourgeois, and enchanted nurses watching magic babies. Beyond, to right and left, were the woods, dim and cool with sliding shadows, brilliant and warm with green-gold pools of sunshine. A hundred little paths led in, but I waited until the route de Suresnes should have led me farther on be-fore leaving it. There were too many people in the paths here. Not that I wished to avoid them (that would indeed be to miss the spirit of the Bois), but seen thus from without they were so much in keeping, so decorative, that I disliked to approach and destroy the charm. An artist once pointed out to me how, seen by one in a strong light, all colors in half-light fall into value" ; and I have treasured the knowledge ever since. There was a woman seated in a little glade, her chair against the trunk of an oak. Gown and wide hat and small half-blurred profile, — she was perfect. Seen thus she was radiantly, harmoniously beautiful. I refused to draw nearer.
So, still following the route de Suresnes, I wandered on past the lake with its poplar-clad island. I might have turned off here, for the paths and the glades were less frequented; but I lingered a little longer, con-tent to loaf, — to flâner, as the French expressively has it, — and watch the incredibly heterogeneous crowd about me. English, Americans, Turks, guttural-sputtering Germans, with " Remember Sedan" written so unmistakably in their aggressive carriage that I wondered they were not immediately massacred, until I remembered what contempt the Greeks had felt for their conquerors, and understood ;— it was a congress of all nations, and yet the whole effect was superlatively French. Just as Rome received wave after wave of Germanic invasion, changed her victors to vanquished with the spell of herself, and left them Romans or (I cannot help fancying, with the analogy in my mind) would-be Romans,— so today does Paris rise supreme and unchangeable above her invaders. Let the Danes and the Germans come; turn in all the hordes of transatlantic barbarians (most of us have already been turned in), wise men or fools, philosophers, poets or libertines, — there is something, good or bad, for every one. Paris is inexhaustible, and always Paris. Those who came with an idea, lose it, but are given a hundred others in return ; those who came for no reason at all, find one for not going back ; and those who came to scoff, remain to pay, — which serves them right. Having achieved this profound reflection, I found myself standing still and gazing at an excellently placed chair that happened to be empty. I had one second of hesitation, then I dropped into it, feeling in my pocket for the copper which that hawk-eyed old woman, already approaching with her sheaf of yellow coupons, would exact in the name of the French Re-public.
We accuse women of being perverse; yet their perversity is as nothing compared to ours. They are only perverse as to facts (being told to do one thing they do another ; but we men are perverse about an idea, about a fancy of our own, simply for the pleasure of it. Consider my case. The woods were more attractive than the route de Suresnes ; I intended to go into the woods; I wanted to go into the woods; yet because my mind was made up to go, I found a guilty pleasure in sitting down here and putting it off.
" I will just wait," I said apologetically, "until something happens; then I'll go."
What if nothing did happen? Impossible. You might as well fear that nothing will happen in a play, that the hero will have no adventures, that the heroine will marry some one else and go to live somewhere off the stage before the third act. The Bois is just a play. You might as well fear that nothing would happen in a fairy tale. The Bois is a fairy tale, — a seventeenth-century French fairy tale, one of Madame d'Aulnoy's or Monsieur de Caylus's — remember, when you speculate on what kind of thing will happen.
The spring breeze was fresh and imperious. It tumbled the yellow curls of a little four-year-old American boy who was playing near me, and kept his English nurse patting at her unbeautiful coiffure. It ruffled the parasols in the carriages, and annoyed especially one horsewoman who bent her head now and again to meet it as she cantered by. She was a wonderful little creature, demimondaine from the tip of her little American shoe to her mass of bronze hair (like that of the Botticelli Venus) and the tiny man's hat that surmounted it. But demi mondaine or duchess, she sat her horse well. So much cannot be said of her cavalier, a gray-haired man of about fifty, who trotted uncomfortably a hundred feet behind, as though he had been a groom instead of the financier who could have bought his companion three times over, that he probably was. As for her, she rode ahead cruelly, with never a look behind. But only a little way past my chair she raised her head unwarily, and a sharper gust of wind than any yet caught hat and bronze hair, swept them swiftly off, and dropped them limply to the ground. I heard a cry from beside me, and withdrawing my eyes for a moment from the stage, I saw the little boy with the yellow curls standing, his face set, his eyes wide with horror at the spectacle of so much suffering. He raised one hand to his own locks;—they were still safe. A spectator, stepping out, picked up hat and wig, and handed them soberly to the cavalier, who accepted them with imperturbable gravity, and trotted off after his inamorata. (She would wait for him now, I thought.) The last episode was too much for the English nurse, who broke into hearty British laughter. But the boy turned on her in a flash, his eyes ablaze with anger.
" You muth n't laugh, nurthe ! " he cried, stamping his small foot. It ithn't funny ! it ithn't!"
I should like," I reflected as I rose, "to know that child's mother. She must be the only woman in Paris who wears her own hair ; and living in Paris, she would not do that unless it were beautiful."
All manner of paths lead off from the route de Suresnes at this point,— paths that run parallel with the road, diagonal paths, paths that begin to meander before they have gone six rods. I took one that plunged straight in and, like an enchanted flight of steps, led me at once from the brilliant confusion of the highway into a different world, a world of soft, half-audible sounds, of gold light and green shadows. Sometimes through the trees to right or left I would get a swift glimpse of a white gown or catch the mur-mur of words; but the path itself was quite deserted. Above, in the sunlight, the top leaves of the elms and maples were like stained glass. There are no other woods so green as the French woods; for in France not alone the foliage of the trees, but their trunks, are green,—a dull moss-color. In one place the path was all in darkness; farther on it was a brook of sunlight, with a long shadow lying across it like a bridge. High up the gusty spring wind caught at the tops of the trees, and set them rustling almost articulately ; but here below there was only a futile baby breeze, full of a hundred childish impulses that came to nothing. It tried daintily to blow the shadow away, and failing, danced off to other absurdities.
The path stopped abruptly; but from a little green circle of open ground in which it ended two others led away, to right and left. It occurred to me after a moment's hesitation that, if I walked in turn a little way down each, I should surely find something to direct my choice. The right-hand path offered a butterfly and a pair of lovers ; but I had not gone far along that to the left, when I caught, faint but sweet, the scent of acacias. I hurried on swiftly. I had forgot-ten : it was mid-May, and the wonderful trees that give the Allée des Acacias its name would be in bloom there and in the woods all about it.
Where the delicate odor was strongest and the blossoms lay thickest, I paused. Everywhere the white petals were drifting slowly down. They were falling all around me; I felt one brush my cheek softly. They had covered the ground with a white foam. It fairly snowed blossoms. And their fragrance hung like a faint mist over every-thing. As I lifted my head to inhale more profoundly their perfume, I felt the breath suddenly choke in my throat, and my eyes grow hot with tears. I am not ashamed to write of it ; for if one is not to feel his eyes wet in the sadness and wistfulness of the perception of perfect beauty, then indeed aspirations are dead, a Beethoven symphony becomes only an exercise in harmony, and we must weep other and bitter tears at the world's sterility.
But we are all chained by the fundamental materialism of our lives. Our divinest longings we instinctively attempt to express in terms of facts. It is this that makes the step from the sublime to the ridiculous so short and so inevitable. I had never had a moment of truer feeling, of higher reaching out toward the unfettered soul of beauty; and yet (it is right that I should tell you) two seconds later I was trying to express the discontent, which was my helpless struggle to escape from the finite, as a concrete desire.
"One should be in love," I thought, "to appreciate this ! "
Do me the credit to believe that the next instant I had turned on myself with scorn. And well I might! Put aside all the stupidity, all the prosaic ignominy of which I had been guilty in so interpreting what I had felt; take the reflection as just a generalization on a walk beneath flowering trees that had a pretty perfume; and then consider its overwhelming absurdity ! One can appreciate nothing when one is in love. One is dazed, self-centred, drunk — with the charm but the dullness of intoxication. No, to appreciate, one must not be in love — one must be free, clear-headed, untrammeled ; but — and this is the secret— one must have been in love, and one must feel the possibility of falling in love again.
You," I said to myself contemptuously, "are unworthy of genuine feeling. Your mind is as earthy as Monsieur Perrichon's, and you had better be off with it to some place that is mundane enough to be within its comprehension, — the Château de Madrid, for example " ; and turned my steps sheepishly thither.
But," you will say, if you have been in the Bois only a few times, " the Château de Madrid is not in the Bois at all ; it is across the Boulevard Richard Wallace from it at the Porte de Madrid." If, on the other hand, you have come to know the splendid Parisian park more intimately, you will for once, I think, nod approval. For as Brook-line is to Boston, — that is to say, more essentially Bostonian than Boston itself, — so stands the Château de Madrid in relation to the Bois de Boulogne. It is like one of those models of an ancient city before which one lingers, fascinated, at museums. In the city itself there would have been at any period uncharacteristic monuments, meaning-less sticks and stones ; in the model there is nothing that is not significant. So here, all the gracefulness of the Bois, all its unreality, all its prettiness, all its chic (if you will permit the word), are gathered up and expressed in this dainty little court which is the Château de Madrid, as a distant landscape is gathered into the finding-glass of a camera. What the Château de Madrid may once have been, or what may formerly have stood in the exquisite place it occupies, I do not know. To-day it is a restaurant, and its full name is Le Restaurant du Château de Madrid; so I fancy it is called for some vanished palace. Moreover it is not a restaurant of the Bois but the restaurant. There are numerous others, all crowded at the proper hours in spring and summer; nevertheless, the Château de Madrid is the restaurant. Society is fickle. By the time you read this, some other may have its approval, and the Château de Madrid, though seemingly as crowded as ever, be deserted, to one who can discriminate. Only a few years ago Armenonville was supreme, and now who goes to Armenonville? and how odd it seems to be told, in a novel dealing with the polite world, of engagements made for breakfast there! But fashion is a wheel that rotates (I think some one else has said this before me), passing repeatedly the same point ; so it may be that if, through some improbable chance, there is any one to read these words ten years from now, he will smile and acknowledge that there is no restaurant but the Château de Madrid, and que les autres n'existent pas.
A short curving drive, bordered with glowing beds of flowers, leads to the arch-way through which one reaches the gay little court. There are two acceptable manners of entering the Château de Madrid, on foot, or in your own carriage. There is a third way, — by an ordinary taxi-cab. But, though the face of the servant who hastens up is as impassive as ever, and his deference in assisting your lady — if lady you have — to alight, as perfect, there is that in his manner which, added to your own sense of wrong-doing, makes then for your discomfort. I entered on foot.
There is for most people a kind of exhilaration in an environment of elegance. I feel it sometimes in a drawing-room, where perhaps the wit is not keen, and the conversation much less brilliant than in many a dingy café. I felt it now, as the suave maitre d'hôtel bowed me to an unoccupied table whence I had an easy view of the whole graceful little scene. The sensation is a puzzling one. It is hardly the titillation of tickled vanity, the effervescence of the consciousness that one is part of a superior world ; for it is dependent solely on appearances, and remains no duller or less grateful, when of one's own certain knowledge one can correct the appearances. The questions, Who were your fathers ? " " Had you grandfathers ?" never lurk uncomfortably behind it. Indeed it is, I fancy, more readily obtained from a restaurant full of cocottes than from a room full of duchesses; since a very old and dowdy woman may be a duchess, while only a young and well-groomed one can be a cocotte. The cocotte to-day, in her brief butterfly hour of life, sets the fashion, and is supreme in elegance. The comtesse or the marquise, immured in her grim faubourg, has yet, it is true, something else that she will not bring to the Château de Madrid to profane— the tradition of a nobler vanished elegance (though indeed those long-dead ladies, her relatives, whose portraits as shepherdesses smile down upon her shabby gentility, were only superlative cocottes them-selves, willing, the most virtuous of them, to sell themselves for the king's favor) ; but as for the respectable bourgeoise, let her sniff as morally as she please, however high her bourgeoisie, there will be a touch of envy beneath the disdain with which she regards the elegance of the cocotte.
Not half the tables in the little open-air enclosure were taken, for it was not quite the tea-hour yet. But the people were arriving fast. On the other side of the drive that leads into and through the court an orchestra was playing ; but though one saw all the panto-mime of music, only a sudden crescendo in the strings, or an occasional shrill note from the flute, was audible. The rest was drowned in the rattling of horses' hoofs, the crunching of the gravel beneath carriage-wheels, and the warning blasts of entering automobiles. It was just as well: I had heard that orchestra on quieter afternoons. There were flowers all about, in masses, in boxes, in pots. The mirrors that lined the entrance-wall, and others tucked in every conceivable corner, glowed with the scarlet reflection of geraniums. The breeze was subsiding (it would play no more tricks that day ; but when with its gentle subdued puffs it touched my face, I was conscious of a heady intoxicating odor, the combined fragrance of roses, iris, mignonette, and the different subtle per-fumes that the women wore.
The tables were filling swiftly. From carriage after carriage the women descended, light-gowned, dainty, young, — nearly all of them, — (there were men too, but no one looked at them ; until in a surprisingly short time, the court was full, and the maitre d'hôtel spread out his expressive deprecating hands, with a gesture of sorrowful helplessness, before the straggling late-comers. A pleasant hum of voices, that was like the diffused radiance of the flowers or the pervasive perfume, filled the enclosure. Daintiness, elegance, the perfection of prettiness,— one got the impression of these things harmoniously through three senses at once. It may not have been an impression of much importance in life; but it was a most agreeable one. Moreover, about no other place that I have seen was there ever a more splendid atmosphere of youth. It set eyes sparkling and tongues babbling. These women — most of them — were des cigales, and this was their summer. Heart and soul they threw themselves unreservedly into the present. Who stopped to think of the poor cigales of yesterday? Who would croak of the winter to come? Pah ! Sermons at a masked ball ?
An exquisite fair-haired girl, in a pale blue gown and a wide, slanting, blue-flowered hat, caught me gazing at her, and threw me a swift brilliant smile. It was not that she fancied me, I knew, but she was pleased at the unguarded admiration in my look, and then—she and I were young, while the man she was with was forty at least. Without him, it is true, or some other like him, she would not have been here nor wearing the pale blue gown ; and the great drooping hat would have been reposing in some window on the rue de la Paix. Well, what then ? She paid him, did she not ? Must she like him into the bargain ? Her smiles were her own.
I fell to wondering, as I stared about me, which of the women were the cocottes and which the honnêtes femmes. Broadly speaking, the former were probably, as I have said, to be distinguished by their greater elegance; but the rule was a bit too sweeping. In the end I concluded that the cocottes were those who were eating ices, and the honnêtes femmes those who were drinking tea ; for the first do as they please, but the second as it is proper to do ; and though the English have forced the custom upon them, the French have never honestly learned to reverence tea.
Sitting alone at a table near mine, where I could watch her without turning my head, was a little demi-mondaine. She was very pretty. Her gown and hat were charming, her features behind her light veil were small and fine, and on her cheeks there was just the softest touch of rose, that I should have thought natural if it were not that such creamy complexions are usually colorless, She could not have been more than two or three and twenty. Yet she made a sadly pathetic little figure. It was not that she was alone. The maître d'hotel had shown her especial courtesy, and a man who had been welcomed with a word of respectful recognition by more than one waiter had bowed and stopped for a moment to speak pleasantly with her. Indeed, her being here unaccompanied was rather a sign that her position was established. One goes to the Château de Madrid when one's fortune is made,— not to seek it. I should as soon have thought of accosting the girl with the middle-aged man as her. Neither did I fancy sentimentally that she was reflecting on cigales and winters. There are many ways of classifying people ; but one of the most useful, and perhaps the only universally accurate manner, is of dividing people into those who are and those who make believe. The pretty demimondaine was of the second category, and her pathos lay in the fact that she felt it. With her irreproachable gown, her well-chosen hat, and her tiny pompous spaniel that lay curled in a chair beside hers, and ate wafers from her hand, she was as complete as any of the others and prettier than most ; yet her slender fingers played nervously with the ivory handle of her small fluffy parasol, and her eyes were timid. If she could have understood intellectually that the difference between herself and the rest was not in externals but just in a shabby trick that Nature had played her, she might have learned not to show her consciousness of being a make-believe. But that consciousness came to her, I was sure, merely as a vague uneasiness. Her life was pure feeling. Reason was at least as foreign to her as to the little spaniel. And after all it may be she would not have made a success had she been different. Her charm, I reflected, lay precisely in her wistfulness. Very likely her life was happier than that of many who were not make-believes. Men are always gentle with such women.
When the tea-hour was over and it was no longer fashionable to remain, I left the restaurant, and again crossing the Boulevard Richard Wallace, reentered the Bois. The paths were shadowy and very still now, and I wandered peacefully, without thought of direction, from one to another, until as evening began to fall I happened on the Restaurant du Pré Catalan. I dined there agreeably out of doors, while a tolerable orchestra just within played Strauss waltzes and other decorative music. When I had finished, the sun was long set, and the moon, not yet quite at the full, was high.
I set off again, taking a cab this time, in deference to the tradition that after dark the Bois is unsafe for pedestrians. A moment, and Pré Catalan with its lights and its laugh-ter had vanished like one of those enchanted palaces—scarcely more real indeed— in the "Arabian Nights." The tones of the orchestra were audible for a little while, then they too died away, and there was nothing to break the moonlit silence of the allée we followed but the low murmur of leaves overhead, the rhythmic thudding of the horses' hoofs, and the soft whispering sound that the rubber tires of the open carriage made on the ground. I looked for a second at the squat inscrutable figure on the box before me, and wondered what thoughts were in his mind. It has often seemed strange to me that cochers, whose opportunities for observation and for solitude are immense and exactly equal, whose very métier it is to be alone in the midst of the changing scene, should become wits rather than philosophers. Perhaps, I thought vaguely, they were witty because when on a course they crossed swiftly the path of some copain, or when their cab for an instant locked wheels with the wagon of an irate teamster, the moment was too brief for any but terse epigrammatic phrases to tell. True, there was nothing to indicate that they were not philosophers also. But was that probable ? Men who were both wits and philosophers could rule Paris. All vocations were open to them; they could succeed in anything. Well, perhaps they knew it, and preferred to remain cochers. If they were philosophers they were in pursuit of knowledge ; what other profession would offer so much ? And as to ruling Paris, it was matter for deliberation whether they did not rule it already.
At night, in such a setting of silence and unreality, one's fancy frisks along unimpeded like one's thought in a dream, where there are none of the inhibitions of waking life.
As in the dream, one's deductions are entirely logical and completely absurd because no suggestion of common sense ever enters to modify the initial premise. Asleep, we should follow the idea to such a point of impossibility that when we waken, being unable to remember the steps by which we progressed, we should dismiss the result as sheer vagrant inanity (and this sometimes happens), if it were not that generally, be-fore one train of thought goes very far, some-thing happens — a breath of air touches our cheeks or a sound our ears — to change the current of the dream and establish a new point of departure. In waking life the thought can never be carried so far, since the possibilities for this something to arise are many times more numerous.
So now when we had rounded a curve and I looked up to see Bagatelle a stone's throw away, cochers ceased to exist for me. It was no wonder. The little château shone as white and still as the moon herself, while on the terrace before it the shrubbery was a deep blue-black. All about rose the poplars, beautifully grouped by threes and fours that melted together indistinguishably, each group a splendid mass of pale light and lu-minous darkness, except where, high up, the feathery curving top of one or another emerged and trembled delicately, a blurred shadow against the sky. They would be wonderful by day ; but now, at night, they seemed the shivering wings of Beauty herself, poised for a little fugitively upon the earth. If I could only have stayed ! If I could have held it! If I could have somehow become part of it! Yet I did not dare even to pause; for I knew that, after a moment, though a tender reverence for the scene would remain, the inspired perception, the acute sense of its loveliness, would be gone ; and the regret for what I had lost would be too poignant. What cry is bitterer than Coleridge's, " I see, not feel, how beautiful they are ! " Whether it is that before the almost tangible presence of beauty we ache to merge ourselves, to lose our personality, — and that this would mean death, —
"Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
while, in spite of ourselves, the overwhelming instinct of life calls on us to maintain and strengthen our individuality, or whether the reason lies elsewhere, the sad truth is that intense emotion such as we then feel can come but by accident and endure but an instant. The next, the wax melts in the wings that would have carried us out of the world, and we fall, like Icarus, heavily upon ourselves.
"Forlorn, the very word is like a bell
No one has put it better than Keats.
The gleaming château, the moonlit terrace, and the poplars were gone now. "A la Porte Maillot," I said to the cocher, wearily.
Ah," I thought, raising my head, " as the black night with stars, so the immense banality of our lives is set with moments of feeling."