A LETIER FROM PARIS.
[BY A SUPSHFICIAL OBS/MYER.]
I HAVE observed that as soon as one's friends have crossed the streak of sea which is so little• like silver at this season, they take a fiendish pleasure in sending home delightful accounts of the climate in foreign parts. They assure us that while we are smothered in fog in London, and blown out of breath and tem- per at Folkestone, "it is perfectly lovely" at Boulogne, and " quite too delicious" in Paris. We don't believe them ; we have the means of contradicting them at hand,—for are not the papers as meteorological as the typical Englishman,—but it is exasperating nevertheless, and we feel that they are like the fat boy in Pickwick," they love us, we have been very good to them, but they want to make our flesh creep for all that. How I should like to do it, but I do not dare ! Crisp, delightful air, spotlessly clean streets, clear blue skies, the exhilaration produced by the mere aspect of Paris ! It would all be so easy, so pleasant, but oh! so terribly unlike the truth. After weeks of rain, fog, cold, and wind constantly veering, but always unpleasant, out came the sun on the last day of January, and Paris looked like its old self for the first tinie; the people came down into the streets in peaceful crowds, the nurses in the daintiest of caps, and the babies, prettiest of all babies in the world, and most deliciously attired, swarmed in the Tuileries' Gardens; the benches were occupied by their cus- tomary tenants, the fountains sparkled, and the gilded railings and balconies glittered in the sunshine ; the sky seemed to be suddenly lifted up hundreds of miles above the city ; hand- carts laden with tempting flowers, white lilac in profusion especially, were seen in all the great thoroughfares, where the florists' shops are fragrant with violets, hyacinths, and roses in pots of quaint design. The notes of legions of birds, far out of sight, filled the fresh, cool air ; a vast multitude of flaneurs loitered under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, where the shops look nice, though naughty (on a Sunday) ; the men conspicuous in comforters, the women in astonishing costumes of velvet and fur ; all the wonderful people who offer all the wonderful things for sale at cinquante centimes,' and remind one of poor Grenier in " Rabagas," were surrounded by the usual admiring but non-pur- chasing crowd ; the gommeux drove about in smart coupes, ands;'', the gamins, who are more impudent and ragged, less funny and light-hearted, than they used to be dans Is temps, emerged from all sorts of places, as if to answer to a muster-roll by command of Phoebus Apollo himself. The gaiety of a Parisian crowd on a bright Sunday, after they have been shut up indoors by bad weather for a month or so, is quite infectious ; one is forced to. be glad ; to glance complacently at the burned palaces as at picturesque ruins which open charming vistas ; to think of the Prussian parade in that incomparable avenue as ancient history (they took the last lot of the scaffolding down from the Are de Triomphe last week, and there it is as triumphant as ever) ; for here is the blessed, beloved sunshine turning everything into a picture. The trees are all " coming out," real beauties of the season as they are ; the swollen waters of the Seine are turned into tumbling waves of silver, and the bells are clashing out sounds which seem to salute the weather. Of course there is one grumbler ; he is detained at the angle of the Place de la Concorde and the Rue Royale, and he tells his companion,—a timid young lady, with tight boots and a tendency to shriek,—first, that the crossing they are about to dare is the most dangerous in Europe, and then that it is all very fine for the Parisians to make such a fuss about one fine day, but it's a beastly climate, and they are sure to have snow or something as unpleasant to-morrow. Congratulating myself that I am not like that grumbler, I brave the crossing successfully,— you may propitiate the cockers by a very pronounced limp,—and go on my way, convinced that this is the inauguration of fine weather. But the grumbler is in the right after all ; that Sunday was a pet day, and since then we have had piercing north-east winds, sleet-showers, fogs, and the smarting, sticky, white dust of Paris, best ally of the modistes, because destructive to every- body's gowns and bonnets, succeeding each other with plenty of variety, but no intervals. Mardi Gras was a perfectly sunless day, and it was pitiable to see the children in their fancy costumes, kid shoes, and silk stockings, hurrying along the streets to the Fancy Balls, in the afternoon, which are the last relics of the old Carnival customs. The prophetic eye dis- cerned fluxion de poitrine on a grand scale as a commence- ment of Lenten exercises, and actually " tout Paris" had la grippe. We ought to naturalise that word ; we possess the' thing in perfection, but if we called our national colds by that truly expressive name, we should behave, when they catch us,— for our inverted phrase is absurd,—as the logical French people behave. They know that la grippe has got them, and they sub- mit ; they stay indoors, double their clothing, wrap their heads up, and in a word, coax the enemy to release them from its " grip." They expect sympathy, and they receive it ; they do not go about with shaking limbs, racking headache, streaming eyes, and a guttural growl, resenting the idea of anything being wrong- with them, and protesting against " coddling " for " a slight cold." It is the Frenchman who knows when he is beaten by in grippe. ; it is the Englishman who considers himself " betrayed."
One must be rigidly systematic if one would see Paris in any- thing but the sense of the jidneur. Once let the streets, the arcades, the boulevards, the bridges, and the "passages" get hold of you, and you are lost to the loftier claims of antiquity, history, art, and politics. Go to two or three salons and you will get into the way of them, into the easy charm of the pleasant conversa- tion, and the cozy luxury, and the actualites which are dismissed so lightly, while at a distance you read of them with grave seri- ousness ; and if you have any business to do in Paris, or any study to pursue, you won't do the one, and you will neglect the other. The Paris of the past and the Paris of the present are quite certain to contend for you, and you must begin by making up your mind which of the two is to win. Next to the lists of books which one has made at certain intervals in one's life, and the exact plans for the disposition of one's time, which one has drawn up with ineffectual care, I should think one's programmes of visits to Paris would offer the most forcible examples of unful- filled intentions ; and they don't carry the sting of the others ; they are not painful while absurd, like old love-letters, because
possibilities lurk in them stilL This time I had drawn up quite a profound programme of the educational sort ; but new Paris -caught me ; the programme has retired into my desk, to be carried out rigidly, some day of course, and I have not improved my mind one bit, though I did give myself one chance, before I adopted the easy attitude of a superficial observer. It was at the seance of the Assemblee Nationale, on the 2nd, a seance which was quite famous for a few days, until the result of it was overthrown, and „1‘,, -everything had to be begun all over again. We left a murky day in Paris, but found bright cold weather at Versailles, and having gone down early, the palace and the park in the orderly stillness and solitude which are so impressive there. We took our places in the Tribune (D) just over the benches of the Extreme Left, and had plenty of time to think about the royal theatre and its story, and to admire its rich, unin- jured decorations, before M. Buffet made his appearance, and the Deputies came trooping in. I had not seen them for two years, and the number of bald heads struck me newly. The seats were all filled in a few minutes, and it became speedily evident that M. Buffet was about to have a busy time of it, and that we should see him as Figaro describes, " se pendre a la sonnette." Among the first to arrive was the Due de Broglie, fresh, smiling, cheerful ; the Due de la Rochefoucauld-Bisaccia (who delivered the few sentences he afterwards spoke from the Tribune with a loyal frankness and courtesy which delighted us) ; M. Wallon, the ' Cynthia of the minute ;' M. Jules Favre, grave with the impend- ing weight of the proces Wimpffen-Cassagnac ; and a batch of the Left,—General Eliot, Messieurs Gambetta and Naquet, M. Louis Blanc, M. Tolain, and M. Quinet. M. Gambetta looks much more than two years older, and has grown grey and stout ; he and his friends were very restless and talkative, and mots d'ordre were busily distributed. Presently the Due de Grammont enters—the Ministerial and official benches are quite full—and immediately following him comes M. Thiers, looking livelier and brisker than ever, his thick white hair shining like silver, his solid little form tightly buttoned up in his brown coat, his coffee- coloured face full of astuteness and pleasure—for he is about to witness the triumph of his ideas—and his bands seized right and left by numbers of men as he makes his way to his place, and when he has taken it, arranges a black-silk calotte upon his steep white head with carefulness in which the recent death of M. Guizot may perhaps count for something. " I shall live ten years longer than Guizot," once said M. Thiers ; but there are cunning draughts in the royal theatre at Versailles, so the sturdy little statesman pulls his cap down to his coat-collar, turns his coat- -collar up to his cap, settles his hand behind his ear, and applies himself to listen to the debate with a steady attention which might be imitated with advantage by the occupants of the benches on all sides —except the Extreme Right, these rows of gentlemanly-looking, well-dressed individuals, who make no noise, and have a passe appearance, as they sit throughout the ensuing tumult, waiting, I suppose, for Henri Cinq. Right and Left, and the two Centres, are all ungovernable and noisy, and the attention of foreigners like -ourselves is irresistibly diverted from the speakers (whose discourses we may read to-morrow) to the physiognomy of the Chamber. Several times, when the uproar was most outrageous, and the scene, regarded as a deliberative occasion, as anything but Bedlam at play, had reached the height of grotesqueness, I observed that M. Thiers raised• his right hand with the peculiar drowning movement I noticed some years ago, when I first heard him speak, not as a signal, or an entreaty, but involuntarily, and most expressively. Quite in vain ; no one minded him ; No one minded M. Buffet, or the bell, though cries of 'Ecoutez, -donc !' rose indignantly from Right and Left alike. With all its interest and importance—its transience could not have been foreseen—the scene became very fatiguing after some hours, and we did not wait for the vote, which spoiled all the current bons- mots about " une Voix " by turning it into two hundred, but returned to Paris while yet the woods and the river were bathed in a magnificent sunset of purple, rose-colour, and gold. I never saw anything like the beauty of the Seine beneath St. Cloud, with low-lying wreaths of mist upon it, pierced by the mingled colours, which shot down like shafts into its bosom, along- side the reflections of the straight, leafless poplars and osiers. Let me note here that I have not heard a nickname applied to M. Thiers this time. " Le nain giant," " L'illustre homme d'etat," and "Le malin vieillard" have served their turn, and he is left alone at present,—more so than he likes, people tell me ; the decrease of affluence' to the Hotel Bagration is said not to be to his mind. The excitement caused by the vote of the 2nd February (it is correct to record all poli- tical incidents by the date of their occurrence, and maddening to endeavour to understand what are the events to which one is only referred by a date) was manifest to even a superficial observer; all Paris had the air of an event. It reminded me of the pouvoir- personnel epoch, in 1869, and the beginning of that very rough- hewn end. Then came the Municipal Loan, and I saw one of the strangest sights I have ever seen, even in Paris, where many wide departures from my programmes have led me into the seeing of remarkable things. I was passing by the gilded railings of the Gardens of the Luxembourg, late, on a clear, but intensely cold night, and there were crowds of men patiently waiting for the morning, that they might buy into the great loan, which has been raised to the rank of a financial romance. Some were hanging on to the railings drowsily, with their arms crooked into the bars ; some talking in groups collected round small brasiers, a few were lying on mattrasses ; while I caught sight of three or four gipsy encampments, where some boards loosely put together or an improvised tent afforded a much needed shelter to the ardent and courageous speculators. During the day crowds thronged all the temporary offices, and the hubbub was almost as great as that of the screaming concourse on the terrace and steps of the Bourse, where the scene on the day after the "vote of the two hundred" was more than ever bewildering.
An endless concourse of people, all closely wrapped up in very warm garments and thick furs, streaming along the great thorough- fares, and engaged in a close and critical examination of shop- windows, would have a ridiculous effect in London, but it has no such effect here. I used to think that I never could be brought to jianer while there were churches, antiquities, picture-galleries, and all the other treasures of Art to inspect, but I was induced to try it just for once, and it has become easy and natural. From the Musee de Cluny to Giroux's astonishing display of bibelots for the elaborate cotillons which, before Lent, threw all the memories of the Empress Eugenie's balls and the Marquis de Caux into obscurity ; from the new Gallery in the Louvre, where Delaroche now figures as an old master, to the Maison Persane in the Rue Royale, where the worthiest of men and manufacturers, M. Collinot, displays the exquisite porcelains fabricated by his orphan "hands ;" to the jewellers' shops in the Rue de is Pais, where the combinations of diamonds and turquoises are too beautiful for a world in which the women who possess them must grow old and ugly ; to the wonder- ful warehouses in the Passage des Princes, where the artistic beauty of the bonbons seems to elevate greediness into connois- seurship, and a mere glimpse of the fans and the bouquets, the dainty, impossible shoes, the wonderful web-like laces, and the soft, curling, beckoning feathers calls up a vision of beauty, and luxury, and pleasure which puts all the tragedy of Paris out of one's head,—I find it pleasant to go. During " Carnival" the butchers' shops were quite fascinating. One dislikes them in one's native London, but here, where the animals are not killed on the premises, and on the days preceding Lent, when the grim realities are veiled in gracefully depending wreaths of roses, with a stately background of palms, mirrors, and white marble; when the prize ox displays his broad back, and ribs many inches deep in fat, within a frame of roses, with green and silver leaves ; when a long line of flowers and foliage marks the indentation of his sunken backbone ; when the meek, white-faced calf stares placidly with glass eyes through a garland of rosebuds and white lilac ; when the head of the wild boar pro- trudes itself with a startling snarlingness of expression from cunningly arranged brushwood, and the lintels of the doors are decked as for a Roman holiday, one feels the force of extenuating circumstances and the poetry of butcher's meat.
As for the "fashions "—word of vague sublimity, but under- stood by all—of course they are not to be seen a l'etalage. They are discovered only in the penetralia and by favour, at least if one is merely a superficial observer. Let such an one accompany a substantial purchaser, and describe her impressions if she can. I cannot. I retreated from one of the most famous ateliers in Paris, utterly bewildered and dead beat, feeling that worlds of terminology, in the science of millinery and material, remained for me to conquer without a dictionary, convinced that my ignorance of the first principles of dress nearly equalled that of our newly-annexed fellow-subjects in Fiji, hardly venturing to hope that my profound and respectful silence had availed to save me from detection and scorn by the unrivalled artists who " collaborate " in the produc- tion of the toilettes ravissantes of the friend who presented me to their notice, and thankful to keep my eyes shut as we drove home. " There are persons to whom dress means simply clothing, and dinner only food," an eminent novelist once remarked to me.
One feels the truth of this sarcasm in Paris, where dressing and dining are fine arts. One impression concerning 'the fashion' remains with me distinctly, surmounting the bewilderment which drove me to the furniture-shops on the succeeding day, for relief,— it is decidedly fashionable to be fat.