About Paris - Richard Harding Davis - ebook
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THE street that I knew best in Paris was an unimportant street, and one into which important people seldom came, and then only to pass on through it to the Rue de Rivoli, which ran parallel with it, or to the Rue Castiglione, which cut it evenly in two. It was to them only the shortest distance between two points, for the sidewalks of this street were not sprinkled with damp sawdust and set out with marble-topped tables under red awnings, nor were there the mirrors and windows of jewellers and milliners along its course to make one turn and look.

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About Paris

By

Richard Harding Davis

Illustrator: Charles Dana Gibson

 

"PARIS HAD TAKEN OFF HER MOURNING"

 

I.THE STREETS OF PARIS

 

The street that I knew best in Paris was an unimportant street, and one into which important people seldom came, and then only to pass on through it to the Rue de Rivoli, which ran parallel with it, or to the Rue Castiglione, which cut it evenly in two. It was to them only the shortest distance between two points, for the sidewalks of this street were not sprinkled with damp sawdust and set out with marble-topped tables under red awnings, nor were there the mirrors and windows of jewellers and milliners along its course to make one turn and look. It was interesting only to those people who lived upon it, and to us perhaps only for that reason. If you judged it by the circumstance that we all spent our time in hanging out of the windows, and that the concierge of each house stood continually at the front door, you would suppose it to be a most interesting thoroughfare, in which things were always happening. What did happen was not interesting to the outsider, and you had to live in it sometime before you could appreciate the true value of the street. With one exception. This was the great distinction of our street, and one of which we were very proud. A poet had lived in his way, and loved in his way, in one of the houses, and had died there. You could read the simple, unromantic record of this in big black letters on a tablet placed evenly between the two windows of the entresol. It gave a distinguished air to that house, and rendered it different from all of the others, as a Legion of Honor on the breast of a French soldier makes him conspicuous amongst his fellows.

"THE CONCIERGE OF EACH HOUSE STOOD CONTINUALLY AT THE FRONT DOOR"

We were all pleased when people stopped and read this inscription. We took it as a tribute to the importance of our street, and we felt a proprietary interest in that tablet and in that house, as though this neighborly association with genius was something to our individual credit.

We had other distinguished people in our street, but they were very much alive, and their tablets were colored ones drawn by Chéret, and pasted up all over Paris in endless repetition; and though their celebrity may not live as long as has the poet's, while they are living they seem to enjoy life as fully as he did, and to get out of the present all that the present has to give.

The one in which we all took the most interest lived just across the street from me, and by looking up a little you could see her looking out of her window, with her thick, heavy black hair bound in bandeaux across her forehead, and a great diamond horseshoe pinned at her throat, and with just a touch of white powder showing on her nose and cheeks. She looked as though she should have lived by rights in the Faubourg St.-Germain, and she used to smile down rather kindly upon the street with a haughty, tolerant look, as if it amused her by its simplicity and idleness, and by the quietness, which only the cries of the children or of the hucksters, or the cracking at times of a coachman's whip, ever broke. She looked very well then, but it was in the morning that the street saw her at her best. For it was then that she went out to ride in the Bois in her Whitechapel cart, and as she never awoke in time, apparently, we had the satisfaction of watching the pony and the tiger and cart for an hour or two until she came. It was a brown basket-cart, and the tiger used to walk around it many times to see that it had not changed in any particular since he had examined it three minutes before, and the air with which he did this gave us an excellent idea of the responsibility of his position. So that people passing stopped and looked too—bakers' boys in white linen caps and with baskets on their arms, and commissionnaires in cocked hats and portfolios chained to their persons, and gentlemen freshly made up for the morning, with waxed mustaches and flat-brimmed high hats, and little girls with plaits, and little boys with bare legs; and all of us in-doors, as soon as we heard the pony stamp his sharp hoofs on the asphalt, would drop books or razors or brooms or mops and wait patiently at the window until she came.

When she came she wore a black habit with fresh white gloves, holding her skirt and crop in one hand, and the crowd would separate on either side of her. She did not see the crowd. She was used to crowds, and she would pat the pony's head or rub his ears with the fresh kid gloves, and tighten the buckle or shift a strap with an air quite as knowing as the tiger's, but not quite so serious. Then she would wrap the lap-robe about her, and her maid would take her place at her side with the spaniel in her arms, and she would give the pony the full length of the lash, and he would go off like a hound out of the leash. They always reached the corner before the tiger was able to overtake them, and I believe it was the hope of seeing him some morning left behind forever which led to the general interest in their departure. And when they had gone, the crowd would look at the empty place in the street, and at each other, and up at us in the windows, and then separate, and the street would grow quiet again. One could see her again later, if one wished, in the evening, riding a great horse around the ring, in another habit, but with the same haughty smile; and as the horse reared on his hind-legs, and kicked and plunged as though he would fall back on her, she would smile at him as she did on the children in our street, with the same unconcerned, amused look that she would have given to a kitten playing with its tail.

The houses on our street had tall yellow fronts with gray slate roofs, and roof-gardens of flowers and palms in pots. Some of the houses had iron balconies, from which the women leaned and talked across the street to one another in purring nasal voices, with a great rolling of the r's and an occasional disdainful movement of the shoulders. When any other than a French woman shrugs her shoulders she moves the whole upper part of her body, from the hips up; but the French woman's shoulders and arms are all that change when she makes that ineffable gesture that we have settled upon as the characteristic one of her nation.

"SHE LOOKED DOWN UPON OUR STREET"

In a street of like respectability to ours in London or New York those who lived on it would know as little of their next-door neighbor as of a citizen at another end of the town. The house fronts would tell nothing to the outside world; they would frown upon each other like family tombs in a cemetery; but in this street of Paris the people lived in it, or on the balconies, or at the windows. We knew what they were going to have for dinner, because we could see them carrying the uncooked portions of it from the restaurant at the corner, with a long loaf of bread under one arm and a single egg in the other hand; and when someone gave a fête we knew of it by the rows of bottles on the ledge of the window and the jellies set out to cool on the balcony. We were all interested in the efforts of the stout gentleman in the short blue smoking-jacket who taught his parrot to call to the coachman of each passing fiacre; he did this every night after dinner, with his cigarette in his mouth, and with great patience and good-nature. We took a common pride also in the flower-garden of the young people on the seventh floor, and in their arrangement of strings upon which the vines were to grow, and in the lines of roses, which dropped their petals whenever the wind blew, upon the head of the concierge, so that she would look up and shake her head at them, and then go inside and get a broom and sweep the leaves carefully away. When any one in our street went off in his best clothes in a fiacre we looked after him with envy, and yet with a certain pride that we lived with such fortunate people, who were evidently much sought after in the fashionable world; and when a musician or a blind man broke the silence of our street with his music or his calls, we vied with one another in throwing him coppers—not on his account at all, but because we wished to stand well in the opinion of our neighbors. It was like camping out on two sides of a valley where everyone could look over into the other's tent.

There was a young couple near the corner, who, I think, had but lately married, and every evening she used to watch for him in a fresh gown for a half-hour or so before he came. During the day she wore a very plain gown, and her eyes wandered everywhere; but during that half-hour before he came she never changed her position nor relaxed her vigil. And it made us all quite uncomfortable, and we could not give our attention to anything else until he had turned the corner and waved his hand, and she had answered him with a start and a little shrug of content. After dinner they appeared together, and he would put his arm around her waist, with that refreshing disregard for the world that French lovers have, and they would smile down upon us in a very happy and superior manner, or up at the sun as it sank a brilliant red at the end of our street, with the hundreds of chimney-pots looking like black musical notes against it. There was also a very interesting old lady in the house that blocked the end of our street, a very fat and masculine old lady in a loose white wrapper, who spent all of her time rearranging her plants and flowers, and kept up an amiable rivalry with the people in the balconies above and below her in the abundance and verdure of her garden. It was a very pleasant competition for the rest of us, as it hung that end of the street with a curtain of living green.

"WITH A LONG LOAF OF BREAD"

For a little time there was a young girl who used to sit upon the balcony whenever the sun was brightest and the air not too chill; but she took no interest in the street, for she knew nothing of it except its noises. She lay always in an invalid's chair, looking up at the sky and the roof-line above, and with her profile against the gray wall. During the day a nurse in a white cap sat with her; but after dinner a stout, jaunty man of middle age came back from his club or his bureau, and took the place beside her until it grew dark, when he and the nurse would lift her in-doors again, and he would take his hat and go off to the boulevards, I suppose, to cheer himself a bit. It did not last long, for one day I came home to find them taking down a black-and-silver curtain from the front of the house, and the concierge said that the girl had been buried, and that her father was now quite alone. For the first week after that he did not go to the boulevards, but used to sit out on the balcony until late into the evening, with the night about him, so that we would not have known he was there save for the light of his cigar burning in the darkness.

The step from our street to the boulevards is a much longer one in the imagination than in actual distance. Our street, after all, was only typical of thousands of other Parisian streets, and when you have explained it you have described miles after miles of other streets like it. But there is nothing just like the boulevards. If you should wish to sit at the exact centre of the world and to watch it revolve around you, you have only to take your place at that corner table of the Café de la Paix which juts the farthest out into the Avenue de l'Opéra and the Boulevard Capucines. This table is the apex of all the other tables. It turns the tides of pedestrians on the broad sidewalks of both the great thoroughfares, and it is geographically situated exactly under the "de la" of the "Café de la Paix," painted in red letters on the awning over your head. From this admirable position you can sweep the square in front of the Opera-house, the boulevard itself, and the three great streets running into it from the river. People move obligingly around and up and down and across these, and if you sit there long enough you will see every one worth seeing in the known world.

There is a large class of Parisians whose knowledge of that city is limited to the boulevards. They neither know nor care to know of any other part; we read about them a great deal, of them and their witticisms and café politics; and what "the boulevards" think of this or that is as seriously quoted as what "a gentleman very near the President," or "a diplomat whose name I am requested not to give, but who is in a position to know whereof he speaks," cares to say of public matters at home. For my part, I should think an existence limited to two sidewalks would be somewhat sad, especially if it were continued into the middle age, which all boulevardiers seem to have already attained. It does not strike one as a difficult school to enter, or as one for which there is any long apprenticeship. You have only to sit for an hour every evening under the "de la," and you will find that you know by sight half the faces of the men who pass you, who come up suddenly out of the night and disappear again, like slides in a stereopticon, or whom you find next you when you take your place, and whom you leave behind, still sipping from the half-empty glasses ordered three hours before you came.

The man who goes to Paris for a summer must be a very misanthropic and churlish individual if he tires of the boulevards in that short period. There is no place so amusing for the stranger between the hours of six and seven and eleven and one as these same boulevards; but to the Parisian what a bore it must become! That is, what a bore it would become to any one save a Parisian! To have the same fat man with the sombrero and the waxed mustache snap patent match-boxes in your face day after day and night after night, and to have "Carnot at Longchamps" taking off his hat and putting it on again held out for your inspection for weeks, and to seek the same insipid silly faces of boys with broad velvet collars and stocks, which they believe are worn by Englishmen, and the same pompous gentlemen who cut their white goatees as do military men of the Second Empire, and who hope that the ruddiness of their cheeks, which is due to the wines of Burgundy, will be attributed to the suns of Tunis and Algiers. And the same women, the one with the mustache and the younger one with the black curl, and the hundreds of others, silent and panther-like, and growing obviously more ugly as the night grows later and the streets more deserted. If anyone aspires to be known among such as these, his aspirations are easily gratified. He can have his heart's desire; he need only walk the boulevards for a week, and he will be recognized as a boulevardier. It is a cheap notoriety, purchased at the expense of the easy exercise of walking, and the cost of some few glasses of "bock," with a few cents to the waiter. There is much excuse for the visitor; he is really to be envied; it is all new and strange and absurd to him; but what an old, old story it must be to the boulevardier!

"TES DANS LA RUE, VA, T'ES CHEZ TOI"

The visitor, perhaps, has never sat out-of-doors before and taken his ease on the sidewalk. Yet it seems a perfectly natural thing to do, until he imagines himself doing the same thing at home. There was a party of men and women from New York sitting in front of the Café de la Paix one night after the opera, and enjoying themselves very much, until one of them suggested their doing the same thing the next month at home. "We will all take chairs," he said, "and sit at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway at twelve o'clock at night and drink bock-bier," and the idea was so impossible that the party promptly broke up and went to their hotels.

Of course the visitor in Paris misses a great deal that the true boulevardier enjoys through not knowing or understanding all that he sees. But, on the other hand, he has an advantage in being able to imagine that he is surrounded by all the famous journalists and poets and noted duellists; and every clerk with a portfolio becomes a Deputy, and every powdered and auburn-haired woman who passes in an open fiacre is a celebrated actress of the Comédie Française. He can distribute titles as freely as the Papal court, and transform long-haired students into members of the Institute, and promote the boys of the Polytechnic School, in their holiday cocked hats and play-swords, into lieutenants and captains of the regular army. He believes that the ill-looking individual in rags who shows such apparent fear of the policeman on the corner really has forbidden prints and books to sell, and that the guides who hover about like vultures looking for a fresh victim have it in their power to show him things to which they only hold the key—things which any Frenchman could tell him he could see at his own home if he has the taste for such sights.

The best of the boulevards is that the people sitting on their sidewalks, and the heavy green trees, and the bare heads of so many of the women, make one feel how much out-of-doors he is, as no other street or city does, and what a folly it is to waste time within walls. I do not think we appreciate how much we owe to the women in Paris who go without bonnets. They give the city so homelike and friendly an air, as though every woman knew every other woman so well that she did not mind running across the street to gossip with her neighbor without the formality of a head-covering. And it really seems strange that the prettiest bonnets should come from the city where the women of the poorer classes have shown how very pretty a woman of any class can look without any bonnet at all.

The enduring nature of the boulevards impresses one who sees them at different hours as much as does their life and gayety at every hour. You sometimes think surely to-morrow they will rest, and the cafés will be closed, and the long passing stream of cabs and omnibuses will stop, and the asphalt street will be permitted to rest from its burden. You may think this at night, but when you turn up again at nine the next morning you will find it all just as you left it at one the same morning. The same waiters, the same rush of carriages, the same ponderous omnibuses with fine straining white horses, the flowers in the booths, and the newspapers neatly piled round the colored kiosks.

"THE PARTY PROMPTLY BROKE UP"

The Champs Élysées is hardly a street, but as a thoroughfare it is the most remarkable in the world. It is a much better show than are the boulevards. The place for which you pay to enter is generally more interesting than the place to which admittance is free, and anyone