Love In Paris
( Originally Published 1910 )
PEOPLE are wrong to leave Paris in summer. The impression that in that season the city becomes unbearably hot was, I fancy, spread by the English ; for unless there is a slight chill about the air and draughts to sit in, the average Englishman begins to mop his forehead and complain of the heat. But to the man born in our country of rigorous extremes, the summer climate of Paris seems gentle and equable. (I have, moreover, rarely found an American who succeeded in being warm enough anywhere in Europe at no matter what time of year.) And Paris in August is worth knowing. If it has lost the sense of freshness and buoyancy it possessed in early spring and has not yet gained the delicate melancholy of its autumn nor its strange, poignant winter charm, there is, nevertheless, a lavish sleepy beauty about it, more attractive in this period, when one's mind is in abeyance and one lives only through his senses, than would be those subtler moods. The city belongs to one, too, in a way it does not at any other season. The wide boulevards are all but deserted ; the Place Vendôme is bare and silent ; only a loitering omnibus and perhaps a tenantless cab or two interrupt the perspective of the rue Royale and the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde from the steps of the Madeleine; one may even cross the Champs Elysées without risking his life ; all the Paris world is at Trouville, Deauville, or somewhere else. From time to time personally-conducted parties of tourists surge into the town and pause for a day or two in their relentless way across Europe, — Germans with guide-books, spectacles and green hats flaunting each a solitary feather, English (of that class which likes the heat no more than another, but which has to travel now or not at all) with guide-books and pipes, and Americans with guide-books.' But they serve only to heighten one's sense of the city's emptiness —like rats in a vacant house. All this is in the day-time. At night everything is different; for then the workers who have been hidden in shops, bureaux, government-offices, pour forth and overflow the streets in which an hour before one could hear the echo of his own footsteps, and fill with the murmur of their voices the gardens that have been silent since morning.
Such is Paris in midsummer, and as such too I have grown to love it. If I go to the shore at all, it is in September, when I can possess unmolested the whole sea for half the price I must have paid to rent in discomfort a small fragment of it two months earlier. And although no events break its agreeable monotony, a summer in Paris al-ways contains unforgettable days (when one did nothing very particular) that one looks back to affectionately, which, I suppose, is as good a test as another of a season happily spent.
The recollection of one of these from last August is still vivid for me. It began—that is to say, I begin to remember it— at about four in the afternoon, when I stood smoking a cigarette on the little balcony outside my sitting-room, my elbows resting on the iron railing, —for all the world, it occurred to me with pleasant self-deceit, like Chad in "The Ambassadors." Sunlight permeated everything. The river was a dazzling blue ; its bridges a warm golden brown. The low hum of mature summer filled the air. It was a drowsy indolent day, and yet—beneath its seeming peacefulness there was to be felt an immense and restless vitality, like that of which one becomes sometimes aware in the lazy feline glance from between the half-closed eyelids of a languorous woman. Its effect on me was strangely to make me feel at once happy and discontented, and (paradoxical as it may sound) as though, if I were more contented, I should be less happy. I wanted something and did not know what. On reflection it seemed that it might be gingerbread with raisins in. When one experiences this desperate baffling desire for something he cannot name (and everyone knows the feeling), it is always a dainty he loved as a child that seems most nearly to approximate the object of his longing; for the simple luxuries of childhood were coupled with sensations more vivid and en-chanted than any the most complex pleasures can give us now. As for the object of my own wish, it might as well have been a roc's egg; pain d'épice is very unlike ginger-bread. Beyond the quay a little bateau mouche swept by silently on its way down stream to Suresnes; then another and another, and I noted with surprise that their decks were black with passengers. It must be Saturday; on the whole I believed it was. And since a large part of the population of Paris seemed to be going down the river, why should not I go too?
There are those whom the proximity of a crowd renders unhappy, who experience distaste for its vulgarity and pain at its ugliness. Unless the revulsion is a pose, they are not to be despised for it (no sincere feeling is despicable), but they are to be pitied. Through this innate or cultivated atrophy of one side of their nature they are cut off from that unity of impression by which an understanding of a city is expressed. They may completely appreciate a Norman landscape; Paris they will never know. For one knows a city in a profound and significant sense, not when one has become familiar with its museums, parks, and ancient streets, —all this serves as little as an acquaintance with anatomy would serve toward a philosophic understanding of man's nature; — but when one has come to feel a great, if vague, good-will, an honest friendly sympathy, and above all, a pity in which there is no condescension for the commonplace unromantic human beings who jostle past him on the city's sidewalks. It is because I have never reached this state of mind in London that the English metropolis remains for me an admitted enigma. The men I have known who confessed to this distaste for the populace were avowedly seekers after beauty, and it was, they averred, the bitter ugliness they saw in the crowd that offended them. Yet, conceding as reasonable such singleness of quest, and acknowledging the emotional sensitiveness to which they all pretend, I find them singularly warped and narrow even in their own specialized department of feeling. There are so many kinds of beauty ; it exists everywhere, gleaming out at one often from ugliness itself. Surely the aesthete's life would be richer if he would only see the beauty, fragmentary as it is, in the common everyday things.
It was the variegated aspect of the deck of the little boat to which I stepped from the Passy landing that started such random thoughts. With my back against the rail I stood and watched the spectacle,—people wedged along the inadequate benches, people in the aisles between, chatting, smoking, crowding against one another and me ; making broad jokes and bursting into roars of laughter over them ; breaking into swift quarrels to which some flash of wit in the remarks bandied hotly back and forth brought swifter reconciliation ; espousing the disputes of others ; soldiers, clerks, shop-keepers, women young and gay, women old and so superlatively ugly that they could be nothing but ouvreuses from some theatre, and set one instinctively groping for a fifty-centime piece ; babies with wide curious eyes and sticky mouths ; servant maids, —just people, in short, and at every new landing more people, their expression changing from tense apprehension, as the boat slowly neared the wharf, to relief and placid self-congratulation, when it had touched and they had struggled aboard. There was not a handsome face to be seen, nor a dainty gown, nor a graceful gesture, —yet there was a homely beauty about it all. What an aesthete would have felt it is difficult to divine, — I am afraid of doing injustice to his point of view ; but no one else could have considered this careless, happy, vulgar, holiday multitude without experiencing pleasure at its frank enjoyment and a sympathetic curiosity as to the lives of the individuals who composed it.
Some one (perhaps it was Thackeray) wrote wistfully of what a spectacle of humanity we should have if the roofs of the houses in a city were removed and we could hover above looking down into each. There is a charm about the idea like that investing the magical attributes of the prince in a fairy tale; but after all we should learn from such a survey little more than we know already. If instead we could see into the minds, now so infinitely removed, of the men and women swarming all about us, — could see the hopes and the doubts, the base desires, the high aspirations, the nobility and the ignominy struggling confusedly in each, — then what a spectacle indeed we should get! Our own minds, I think, would be sweetened and purified by such insight, full of tolerance, and with no room left in the sadness of so immense a knowledge for any emotion except the profound passion of pity which touches us now only rarely and faintly ; we should not be men but demi-gods. If you doubt so much, you have only to look into the face of some old Catholic priest of the best type. And yet he, sitting day after day in the confessional, has not learned a tenth of the truth, even as to those penitents who stammer their sins brokenly into his ear.
These reflections pertained to the initial stage of the trip. Afterwards, before we had even come in sight of the smug ubiquitous statue of Liberty, I fell into the grasp of a different more precise feeling, — a kind of apologetic sense of being out of place, an intruder ; for when the inevitable first five minutes of inability to see a crowd of which one is a part, except as a confused whole, only vaguely composed of parts, were over, and I had begun to consider the elements of the scene separately, I found that this multitude did not analyze into individuals but into pairs. The idea seemed, to begin with, so absurdly literary that I fancied I had fallen on exceptions and was generalizing from insufficient material, — a not uncommon fault, —and so abandoned my place at the rail for a wider survey ; but before I had made my way curiously half round the deck, I was fairly swamped with proofs. There never was such another truth as that ! A philosopher would have turned green at its absoluteness and a grammarian would have died of envy. These people, whether occupying the benches, resting against the rail, or ebbing to and fro in the space between, were without exception not ones but twos. Every soldier had his bonne amie, every clerk his mistress, every shop-keeper his wife. In all the throng the pilot, the man who collects the fares, the engineer, and I were the only individuals.
It did not matter to the other three, doubtless, who had their duties to attend to ; but me it filled with a sense of my obtrusiveness that was almost embarrassment. I felt like a chaperon on a picnic. Not for the world would I have annoyed these merry-makers, yet I had to look somewhere, and I saw in growing consternation that I could turn my gaze nowhere except to the river without breaking in upon a flirtation, a love-affair, or a family council. Then, at the very height of my quandary, something kindly happened to set me at ease. On the bench opposite, a young soldier, who was sitting with his arm about a little servant-girl, looked up after a whispered confidence (which must have been mischievous; for she had uttered a low giggle of protesting pleasure), caught my eye, saw that I was looking at him, gave me a stare devoid of interest, resentment, or sheepishness, turned back to his mate, and kissed her soberly (behind the ear). There was neither bravado nor defiance of my observation in the act. He simply did not care. Incredible as it seems to an Anglo-Saxon, he did not; neither did any of the other two or three hundred people on that boat. I stared now right and left for fifteen minutes, but I might have been a stuffed cat in a cellar and they sportive mice, for all they minded. It was an instructive quarter of an hour, and as amusing as a story of Courteline's ; but at the end of it I turned away with a sudden inexplicable petulance and took to regarding the river. I thought again of ginger-bread with raisins in.
The machine-shops and the factories were past now. We had reached the outer edge of that desolate and sordid circle which makes Paris a jewel set in mud. Where the Seine curves more sharply, we stole in between the islands of Billancourt and Séguin. The river here was as smooth as the sky, only rippling into one soft diagonal fold where the bow of the boat cut it. The tall slim poplars on the Ile Séguin were repeated line for line in the water beneath, but less delicate, less softly green above than below, as an idea of a thing is always lovelier than the thing itself. A silence had fallen upon the deck, but not the silence of reflection and resignation an autumn afternoon would bring. Out of this radiant, perfect, fruitful day there stole to one who looked a sense of vibrant, exultant joy in existence. I felt it shudder through me and knew, though I did not look round, that the others felt it too, and that the soldier had tightened his arm about the waist of his bonne amie.
Saint-Cloud finally, and every one struggling to disembark at once. The boat would go on still to Suresnes, but not I, with the nearer prospect of the park, the wood, and the cascades before me. Besides, to go farther would be, through the vagaries of the river, to draw nearer the city. The crowd knew best.
He who has not seen Saint-Cloud is to be pitied. Saint-Germain with its forest, its castle, and the wide view from its high ter-race, is nobler, Chantilly is more exquisite, but Saint-Cloud is the most human. It is so close to Paris, — only three sous away by boat,—and there is an ironic amusement in the thought that the common people come and go now just as formerly the court came and went. There is no illusion of country to be had here. Even when lying in the high grass, with all about one the green trunks of trees supporting a foliage so thick that the sunlight cannot penetrate directly, but steals through the translucent leaves in a soft disseminated haze, one is aware, beneath the buzzing of the bees and the thousand delicate forest-sounds, of the low hum of the city; from the edge of the wooded hill above the cascade the Eiffel Tower, the white cupolas of the Sacré Coeur, and the dome of the Invalides, are to be seen, dwarfed but distinct. This closeness in touch with life is what I most love about Saint-Cloud. Landscapes are painted without figures or with vague unreal ones; we are accustomed to think of natural beauty and actual prosaic existence as incompatible. Saint-Cloud proves that they are not. The final effect, to be sure, is that of a compromise; but if in the adjustment beauty is not at its highest, far less is existence at its dullest; what the one has lost the other has more than gained. At Versailles I am conscious of a pang of unhappiness in the sight of these black-trousered-and-coated men and dingily dressed women swarming about the fountains and up the steps of the Little Trianon. It is not so much that they are ugly, —though from a decorative point of view they are, — as that there, where the memories of the gorgeous aristocratic past cling about everything, they—and I — are desperately out of place. But at Saint-Cloud, where the aroma of the past is only a faint lingering perfume and the present is all about one, I would not permanently ex-change the spectacle of these working-men and shop-girls for the presence of the lords and ladies of the court, who wandered here sometimes under Louis XVI, making love lightly, whispering assertions of eternal en-durance for passions that would last a month —or less; behaving, in short, for all their grace and breeding, in much the same manner as this canaille they would have despised.
Meanwhile I strolled on, climbing the hill, and getting always farther into the wood. Sometimes I would emerge upon a clearing that would be all ablaze with poppies; but whether in meadow or forest, everywhere there were people, and always by twos except when there were children to augment the number. Once, in a sunny little hollow, I came upon a party of three,— a man, a woman, and a baby. The man lay on his back, his coat off and rolled under his head for a pillow. He had covered his face with a red handkerchief and was slumbering in heavy stertorous content. It was hot. The woman had removed her shirt-waist and sat, her brown arms and shoulders glistening, her head bent over, and her hands resting on the ground. She looked up as I passed and stared at me without embarrassment. Why should she have been ashamed ? Clothes were made to keep the cold from our bodies—for nothing else. She was right, I thought. When her clothes had changed from a blessing to a discomfort, she simply took them off with-out shame. She was right, for she was natural. It was I who was wrong, for not daring to do as much.
I threw myself down at last beneath some great elms, in the green twilight of whose shadow I could lie and yet gaze out upon a sunny meadow beyond, that fairly flamed with the sleepy red flowers. Here surely I should be spying on no one (the scruple was for myself ; but I had scarcely stretched myself on the ground, when I became aware of a murmur of voices drifting to me from a nearby thicket, and despite myself I began turning the sounds into words. (One's ears, it would seem, have no connection with one's conscience.)
Mais si, — encore plus. Tu le sais bien.
It's you who love me less—"
"I ! — Ah, Jacques ! "
And so forth.
Banal ? Yes, profoundly, limitlessly banal; and in being so, very characteristic of Saint-Cloud. You must not go to Saint-Cloud to find a bright new idea that no one has ever had before. You will find only the old ones there that all people have in common. That is why Saint-Cloud is so important. We pass our lives in a futile attempt to avoid the banal. The fear of having feelings, and especially thoughts, that others have had is a bugbear to us. Our goal is to be as different as possible from every one else — original, in short. We do not see, or seeing do not feel, that the vital ideas and emotions are just those we have in common—that all the rest have little value. The man who quotes proverbs is insupportable, it is true ; but that is not because he expresses thoughts thou-sands of men have had, but because he is not thinking at all, only making believe to think, with his parrot-like repetition of a ready-made phrase. It is exasperating to be told that a rolling stone gathers no moss ; but to hear the same familiar truth expressed in words that show the thought to exist in the speaker's mind is not exasperating. The difficulty is, not to lose sight of the significance of the banal, not to find people less interesting because they resemble one another, not to find daily happenings any the less wonderful that they are daily ; to keep always be-fore us the marvelous quality of the usual.
"What a character for a book ! " we think, — we petty scribblers, —when every once in a while we meet an eccentric. Not at all. There is no need to put him in a book ; there is nothing to explain. His peculiarities have, just because they are peculiarities, but slight bearing on life; to transcribe them is a matter of photography. The great novelist is he who takes the common experience of ordinary people, and so vitalizes and interprets it as to make us, for the moment at least, see it as the wealth it really is. Only, when such a one arrives, we are too stupid to under-stand that he has but made evident the meaning of old formulas, and praise him for his new ideas.
The drowsy babble of the lovers' voices made my eyes droop, and I fell asleep. --When I awoke the shadows were long and cool, and the poppies glowed more dully in the field. I looked at my watch : it was nearly seven. So I strolled down out of the wood and the gardens into the village, and followed the quay until I had reached the Restaurant Belvédère. I could not go wrong in dining here ; for the wide terrasse was covered with little tables at which, always in pairs, were half the people I had seen on the boat. But I found a vacant place, slipped into it, and sat with my eyes half-closed, gazing across at the Bois de Boulogne that swept its greenness graciously down to the river. It was twilight. The warm evening breeze had sprung up, stirring my hair softly, but filling me somehow with a wistful discontent.
Monsieur désire?" asked the waiter respectfully.
" Gingerbread with raisins in," I replied absently. I was not quite awake yet. "Monsieur??"
"Oh ! "—I started "le veux diner. Don't ask me. Bring me anything, — only not chicken."
" Bien, monsieur."
He might have cheated me, — I was in no mind to quibble about money, — but I do not think he did; not much anyway. I sat for a long time over the dinner, eating mechanically, sipping the delicate bordeaux (I was less vague in ordering the bordeaux), and watching the sky fade from gold to mauve. It came to me suddenly that I had dreamed something very beautiful asleep on the hill, but I could not recall what. Only the mood of the dream remained, hauntingly delicate. The dreams we cannot re-member are always the loveliest. Across the Seine the poplars had faded to silver gray and their reflections were blurred together in the water. Lights began to show here and there. If there had been something perturbing about the day, what can I say of the evening ? Its beauty ached through one like pain. I pushed back my chair at last on the crackling gravel, paid the bill hastily, and walked away, followed for some little time by the other diners' voices, high and slender through the still air.
The little tramway of the Val d'Or carries one swiftly back to Paris from the neighborhood of Saint-Cloud, through and beside the Bois. Yet if you asked me for advice I should hardly dare counsel you to take it at half-past eight of an August evening. Beautiful as the ride is then, it is a thousand times more melancholy. There were few other passengers in the tram with me. A man and his wife, she dozing, her head resting on her husband's shoulder, and two sleeping babies sprawling in tangled confusion over the legs of both parents, were all, during most of the trip. As we fled onward through the wood, the lamps of the open car spread a dim circle of light about us, evoking strange shadows and the ghosts of trees. But the effect of even this was not so profoundly sad as the impression I got when we whirled swiftly past some brightly illuminated restaurant (like that of the Château de Madrid) and caught for an instant the tinkle of laughter and the clatter of plate and glass.
At the Porte Maillot I descended. The depression was lost in the brilliancy of the reentered city ; instead, I was conscious of a reaction into exhilaration. It seemed incredible that there were Parisians still left at Saint-Cloud. The popular impression (that became promptly mine) was, clearly, that it would be folly to be at home on a night like this, so I took a cab and drove slowly down the Avenue de la Grande Armée and the Champs Elysées. That wide white pleasure street was flecked with open carriages. Not the splendid equipages that fill it to overflowing in winter, but dingy democratic sapins like the one I rode in. Cab after cab approached, met mine, and rolled by, all at so nearly identical a rate of motion that to watch them was like watching floating chips of wood in a river ; and on a careful average five out of six held each a pair of lovers. Unless you have yourself driven down the Champs Elysées of an August night I despair of making you believe that, — because it is true, and truth, whether stranger or not, is less plausible than fiction, which is constructed with especial reference to being believed. If, furthermore, you ask me how I knew that the couples I saw were lovers, I reply that no mistake was possible.
The lack of self-consciousness in these Parisians, and their admirable unconcern for what others might think, set me marveling once more. I had often wondered why in Paris one should be conscious of a harmony, a perpetually reinforced unity of impression, that one misses in other large cities. The explanation was clear enough now : it was because the people of Paris were in keeping with their surroundings. (And I saw that this also had been at the root of my liking for Saint-Cloud.) True, the pressure of middle-class philistinism is to be felt here as elsewhere ; but whereas in London its de-pressing influence is paramount, here it is only a minor force struggling against the spirit of Paris, which is pagan, and which on such a night as this rises like a great flood, sweeping everything before it. Here was a night that fairly besought one to love. Not a sound in the air, not a soft breath from the warm breeze, like the touch of a woman's fingers on one's cheek, that spoke of any-thing else. Anglo-Saxon lovers would have resisted the appeal and sat stiffly side by side without daring to embrace, for fear of "what people might think " ; or at least would have awaited a dark turning. But in Paris what is natural is not to be ashamed of. French philosophers reason this out, French poets sing it (scarcely a year goes by that some new symbolic play in verse depicting the struggles of pagan Nature and Christian asceticism, the sympathy all with the former, is not produced at the Odéon), and, more important, because a surer index to the real spirit of the race, the masses feel it. Perhaps the truth is that there is rather an aesthetic than a moral ideal in France, that beauty takes precedence over right. If there is any justice in so broad a generalization I am not sure that the French ideal is not the more trustworthy. (I do not like professed æsthetes ; but that is because they have narrowed and warped the meaning of beauty.) For while the words " right " and wrong" have, it would seem, only a relative significance, and are even at that so confused that half the time we cannot decide which is which, beauty stands out as something absolute ; our individual conceptions of it, as we grow in fineness of feeling, resemble each other strangely. Not that I believe the lovers in the taxi-cabs to have been behaving as they did for such reasons. Oh dear, no! Most of them probably did not know how to reason, and anyway they had no time. Nevertheless I felt that they were acting — by instinct, if you will, — harmoniously (and harmony is the first law of beauty), instead of being consciously good. For on much of the affection that came under my eyes this August evening—particularly on that displayed the most intensely — I fear that the Church would have frowned.
Through all the mile-long splendor of the avenue, the carriages followed one another a few yards apart, — black, shabby, ordinary, like actors in street-dress rehearsing on a stage set for a drama of gods. Paris was very like Saint-Cloud in its humanity — or perhaps it was Saint-Cloud that resembled Paris : for in this white sweeping drive, befitting the pomp and luxury of a princely cavalcade, these hackney cabs and their unaristocratic occupants were not out of place.
In the long vista a fiacre, still far away, appeared somehow taller and more shadowy than the others; as it approached it resolved itself into one like the rest, but the hood of which had been raised. Within were a couple exchanging the most frantic kisses I had yet remarked, and with such desperate rapidity that one thrilled at the thought of the number they would have achieved by the time they reached the Place de l'Étoile.
I lay back on my cushions and laughed and laughed. For do you think they had raised the hood in an attempt at concealment? Not they! In the event of an extremely obliging rain, or of a pedestrian's tardy desire to stare, once you are well past him, the hood of your Parisian cab is of some little service. As protection from the prompter gaze of loungers or that of the occupants of other vehicles, it is worse than useless. Not only does it disguise nothing, but the fact of its being up in fine weather is the signal for a close and curious inspection by all within range. No, this superlatively amorous pair had raised it in the pretense that they believed they were doing something wrong, and did not want to be seen; in the effort to realize the intoxicating impression of secret sin. I could only laugh in appreciation of the refinement ; but a more serious observer might have frowned. For there was more of what is bad about Paris in this subterfuge than is at first apparent. If Paris were thoroughly pagan, it would be as moral a city as exists; moreover, it would have a morality to which an intelligent man could assent. But it is not. That the sex-relation between people not united in marriage is more facile here than elsewhere seems to me at times a step away from the unnaturalness of monogamy (it is only convention that makes polygamy vile) and so right. What is bad is that in theory it is still held to be wrong. From the resulting paradox there is derived that unwholesome sophisticated pleasure that invests an act at once officially considered wicked and not personally felt to be so. And the children? Yes, that is the difficulty. We have a long way to go before a satisfactory system of polygamy can be established.
But the lovers' carriage was gone, and I was conscious again of the strange discontent, stronger now, sweeping in upon me like a great wave. The mood of the night was too overpoweringly complete, its pressure too intense. It was like the persistent throbbing of one note in a symphony. I touched the cocher's arm with my stick, and bade him drive me home.
"It is instructive," I said to myself when I stood once more on my little balcony, "to watch from outside. If you had been part of this day, my friend, you would not have understood it."
I had spoken aloud to convince myself that what I said was true; but the lack of enthusiasm in my voice was too apparent, and suddenly, without quite knowing how, I found myself within at my table.
My dear Linette," I wrote, I was out at Saint-Cloud today—all alone. It was very beautiful, and there were red poppies everywhere. But I was unhappy : for I re-membered when I had the poppies and you too, ma petite Linette. Have you forgotten ? If you have nothing better to do tomorrow, I wonder whether you would not care to —"