Paris - August Nights
( Originally Published 1915 )
To be in Paris in August is not hard luck, although many people think it is. How they pity you because you are not "in the country" or "at the shore." "Everybody, you know, is out of town"; and, "Everybody you know is out of town",; so they say! But I don't know. And I do know many people who never leave town in August, year after year. As a general rule, they are much more interesting and much more worth while than the Exempt from-Toil who flee an imaginary "stifling atmosphere" and "awful heat."
Aside from those who have small children or are in poor health, most people go away from the city in the summer because they are afraid that their friends will think they cannot afford to go away,' C'est le chic, as the French put it. In order to keep up appearances they put up with wretched beds and absence of bathtubs,, with mosquitoes and gnats, with one mail a day and newspapers two days old, with poor food poorly served, and die of ennui. No city person honestly enjoys the country for more than two weeks on end. Why not be frank about it'?
There is a pitiful side of all this sacrifice of comfort. In the first place, despite the tourists, Paris is never more delightful than in August. It is the most glorious month of the year in the most glorious city in the world. If I have any misgivings about this statement, it is only because I have said August instead of July. And in the second place, there are those who would look with as much horror on spending the midwinter in Paris as you do on spending the midsummer there, and for exactly the same reason. "Everybody, you know, is at St. Moritz, or Cannes, or Nice, or Monte Carlo, or Pau, or Biarritz"; and "Everybody you know has gone South or to Switzerland." There are always some a little higher up to whom you are nobody. Social climbing is such a discouraging business. You are never at the top unless you care nothing about getting there. Blessed are those who are themselves !
And yet, although I never think of Paris in August in any other way than as the perfectly natural place to be, there is some hard luck in being here this August. It is not because of the war. I have not yet begun to think or write of the war tonight. The usual spell of August Paris nights has been upon me, and it has made me long for the usual August companion of these nights, the Research Scholar.
If you have ever gone into the Salle des Manuscrits of the Bibliothèque Nationale during the past decade in midsummer between the hours of ten A. M. and four P.M., you have seen the Research Scholar there, digging out of musty manuscripts discoveries in the field of patristic Latin that were some months later to electrify the world of scholar-ship, and to bring further fame to a renowned university in which the Research Scholar holds that venerable chair of Humanity, established in the sixteenth century. But you would not identify the learned university professor with the enthusiastic Scotchman, loving Paris as all his countrymen have done since Quentin Durward, intelligent admirer of the French and France, to whom the stones of Paris mean more than did those of Venice to Ruskin. After four p. M., when the portfolios with their precious papers have been carefully put in safety, the Research Scholar and I go out for our walk, ending generally at a certain table on the street in front of a restaurant of the Rue de Rivoli, where we have long been cachetiers.
The Research Scholar is not here this summer.Oh, this war! There, I have mentioned it for the first time. You may think you can get away from the war, but you cannot. Every thought, even when started in another direction, inevitably comes back to it. The war influences every action. From morning to night, you have it in Paris, and it reaches your subliminal self, if there is such a thing. The Research Scholar is not here. Why? The war! Everything is like this. You do certain things because of the war. other things you do not do because of the war. You wish for something that is n't here its absence is due to the war. You would like to get rid of something that is here you cannot because of the war. You want to laugh at something : you want to play the piano; you do wish there was a show going somewhere in this town : the war. None of these things would be seemly. The burden of sorrow weighs down upon you; you are anxious for friends who have gone; suffering and anguish have already come within the circle of those whom you know intimately; you feel depressed and like wearing a long face. But you must be cheerful, happy even. Why? The war; and what is the suffering of the present in comparison with the joy that is to come from the inevitable victory? If you laugh, you are unsympathetic : if you cry, you are unpatriotic. There it is in a nutshell !
I must give up cheerfully the companionship of the Research Scholar this summer, give up this companionship as my little sacrifice for France.
of an August day in Paris the choice hour is from six to seven in the evening> The choice promenade is the Seine between the Pont Alexandre III and the Pont de l'Archevêché. If one walks down the quays of the Rive Gauche toward Notre Dame first, and then turns back on the Rive Droite, he has the full glory of the setting sun before him and reaches the Place de la Concorde just in time to get a glimpse up the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe as the last light of day is disappearing. I am not yet old enough to have taken this walk a thousand times, but when I have I am sure that it will present the same fascination, the same stirring of soul, the same exaltation that it does today.
Choose, if you will, your August sunset at the seashore or in the mountains. There you have nature unspoiled, you say. But is there not a revelation of God through animate as well as inanimate creation?' If we can have the sun going down on both at the same time, why not? Notre Dame may be surpassed by other churches, even in France. But Notre Dame, in its setting on the island that is the heart and center of this city, historically and architecturally the high water mark of human endeavor, cannot be surpassed. Standing on the bridge between the Morgue and the Ile St. Louis, and looking towards the setting sun, one sees the most perfect blending of the creation of God and the creation of the creatures of God that the world affords. And it is not because I have not seen the sunset from the Acropolis, from the Janiculum, from the Golden Horn, and from the steps of El Akbar, that I make this statement. Athens, Rome, Constantinople, Cairo—these have been, but Paris is.
Paris is ! I feel Paris this August night. I feel it more than ever before, because tonight is different from any night that Paris has known in my day. The news has just come that the armies are in contact on French soil. The Germans intend to strike again the third time in one hundred years, for the city whose message to the world has always had and still has a greater influence, a more universal acceptance, than the doctrines of their Kultur. over the confidence that has come from initial victories is cast the shadow of this menace. Try as they will, Parisians cannot forget 1870. Is there any discredit in being a bit sober over the fact that your home is the goal of the most redoubtable army in the world?
The booksellers have closed their boxes on the parapets. The quays are almost deserted. Few vehicles, and fewer pedestrians. Fishermen are reluctantly doing up their lines, and stretching themselves to get the kinks out of their legs. The fish will bite no more because it is growing dark. It is true that the fish have not been biting all the afternoon, but then there was always hope as long as daylight lasted. If you want a striking example of faith, take the man who throws his hook into the Seine. Talk about your Western miner, tramping for a decade in the Rocky Mountains, and tapping for gold every vein of quartz he sees! Here are white-haired men who began to fish in the Seine when they were boys. Kingdoms and republics and empires have come and gone in Paris, most of the familiar landmarks have disappeared, but as long as the river is still there, they will continue to fish. How often do they catch anything'? I am one of the most faithful frequenters of the Paris quays. I have yet to see a fish pulled out of the Seine. There is one shop for fishing-tackle and bait which bears the sign, "Maison fondée en 1728." In these exciting days of mobilization, it is not closed.
I have been loitering. The sun has got ahead of me. There is not time to reach the Place de la Concorde. Never mind : here is the Pont des Saints Pères. I turn in under the deserted arches where generally at this hour one has to prove his agility if he does not want to be knocked down by the ceaseless stream of taxi-autos, and stand to salute the passing day under the Arc du Carrousel in the courtyard of the Louvre. The sun has gone. The Arc de Triomphe stands upon its hill, outlined against the dark red afterglow. The quadruple rows of lamps that mark the ascending Avenue des Champs Elysées spring into light, and in front of them the electrical extravagance of the Place de la Concorde indicates that Paris has no fear yet of a shortage of coal.
Just as I turn to go, I see something that Paris has never known before. Great shafts of light shoot forth into the closing darkness, as if to combat its progress. From the Arc de Triomphe, from the Trocadéro, from the Champ de Mars and from Issy-les-Moulineaux, sweeping the sky in every direction, high and low, all are moving, sometimes crossing each other, sometimes forming an arch symbolic of their purpose over the Eiffel Tower. These searchlights will continue their sentinel duty all night long while Paris sleeps.
And now it is dark. There is no doubt about it. I am shivering. The city heat of August nights is generally a fallacy. But perhaps it is a shivering from hunger and not from cold. one cannot feed on sunsets and searchlights. As I cross the Pont des Arts, I am held again by a picket of searchlights in the other direction. They must be down by the Entrepôt de Bercy and Ivry, pretty far away, and yet, when they point in my direction, I feel that Notre Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, and even the Louvre here beside me, are being protected from a night attack of the enemy's airmen. The eye of the Skibereen Eagle' was never fixed more unwaveringly upon Napoleon than are these vigilant eyes of Paris upon the aircraft of his twentieth-century emulator.
As I pass through the Rue de Seine, I find that there are other eyes than those that I have described, watching for the enemy. Several groups I meet, each with heads upturned and index fingers pointed heavenward. If one did not know these people, and did not understand what they are saying, he would think that they are quarreling. How often the most simple remark in a foreign—especially Latin—tongue seems to the uninitiated like words spoken in anger ! Two men, who are merely politely inquiring of each other concerning the health of their respective mothers-in-law (more important and more vital a question in France than anywhere else in the world) you expect to see falling to and striking each other.
The groups I join are not fighting. They think they have discovered Zeppelins.
I am not drawing on my imagination. I am trying honestly to write a record of sober fact. Certain stars, which are probably harmless planets to those who know the topography of the heavens, are playing a thrilling rôle for Paris these August nights. They are lights of Zeppelins. The burning question is, to the Parisians, not whether there is a Zeppelin up there, but which star is the Zeppelin. As some stars twinkle and others don't for reasons which I would be the last in the world to try to explain the twinklers, by the very fact that they move, are suspicious characters. But there are many twinklers, and you know as well as I do that when you look along the line of vision of an index finger towards some distant object you do not always see what your informant intends that you should see. He grows impatient at your stupidity : you grow impatient at the inaccuracy of his pointing. So there is much to discuss,and some cause for disagreement in the Zeppelin-hunting groups which I meet on my way towards dinner.
From the tone of the comments, I gather that no one is afraid of Zeppelins. They are merely interested and curious, and not lacking in pride that our city is the first in the world to be the object of attack by these reputed masters of the air.
As I cross the Boulevard St. Germain, I realize how late it is. So silent is the night, that I can hear the mournful chimes of the Catholic University way off on the Rue Vaugirard : "Ting-tong, ting-tong, ting-tong, ting-tong!" Four quarter-hours. Then the deeper strokes of the hour, eight of them. Saint Germain-des-Près and Saint-Sulpice follow suit. And hark. Can it be? Yes, Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, across the river. Who could believe that from this spot by the statue of Danton one could hear so far'? But there is no competition of tramways, of wheels and hoofs on asphalt, of auto-taxis' "honk-honk" this evening.
Eight o'clock. Waiters are carrying in the tables and chairs from the terraces of cafés, and putting up shutters. I hurry through the Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine. The electric sign in front of Pascal's is extinguished. No music and laughter come floating out from the interior to tempt you. Now I am in the "Soul Mich," I have to pinch myself to realize that I am I, that this the "Soul Mich," and that it is only eight o'clock. Every café is shut up tight from the Boulevard St. Germain to the Rue Soufflot. Searchlights are not the only novelty of August nights. Something that you have never seen before does not necessarily impress you. You may even be like the Kansas farmer who, when he first went to the circus, looked at the camel, shook his head ositively, and remarked, "There ain't no such animal."
But what cannot fail to stir you to the depths is the absence of something, which, in your mind, has been indissolubly linked with a certain familiar spot. Sailing into New York and meeting a sky line without sky scrapers, hitting London on a cloudless night and finding a city of glaring white marble buildings these sensations could not be weirder than turning into the "Boul Mich" on an August evening at eight o'clock and seeing a dark and empty street. No tables and chairs with coffee consuming groups on the sidewalks, no lights, no noise.
I have been boasting that Paris is normal. So it is in spirit, but not in spirits. Drastic all day , long is the decree forbidding the sale of absinthe and kindred drinks. But even the Parisians addicted to the habit of the spoon and lump of sugar and of watching green change to cloudy white, are not complaining. They acknowledge the curse, and accept the remedy. There is remorse when they think of Germany's sixty-five millions. There is humiliation when they read that the German reservists are marching fifty kilometers a day without fatigue. And I have seen the bitter tears of Normans and Bretons when they were told that the Etat-Major feared to put in the first line for the invasion of Alsace reservists from their alcohol saturated provinces. Not worthy to die for France !
The eight o'clock closing law is difficult. That hits everybody, and it hits us with a force that it is difficult for outsiders to understand. The Parisian is a child of the open air, and he stays in the house only when he has to. He goes to bed as a last resort. To sweep away the terraces of the cafés is against nature : it is cruel.
After all, one can be thankful that the restaurants are allowed to serve meals indoors until half past nine.
I go into Boulant's. The Lawyer has tipped a chair for me. He has finished his soup, and is wrinkling his brow over the question of entrée. He is glad to see me, for choosing from the card is one subject concerning which he occasionally seeks advice.
We eat our meal with an eye on the clock to leave time for a smoke before they put out the lights on us. We discuss the news in the Temps. Then we go home, and go to bed. There is nothing else to do.