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Chapter 45

POETICAL SCENES IN PARIS.


What a gay little world in miniature this is! I wonder not that the French, with their exuberant gaiety of spirit, should revel in its ceaseless tides of pleasure, as if it were an earthly Elysium. I feel already the influence of its cheerful atmosphere, and have rarely threaded the crowds of a stranger city, with so light a heart as I do now daily, on the thronged banks of the Seine. And yet it would be difficult to describe wherein consists this agreeable peculiarity. You can find streets as dark and crooked and dirty anywhere in Germany, and squares and gardens as gay and sunny beyond the Alps, and yet they would affect you far differently. You could not, as here, divest yourself of every particle of sad or serious thought and be content to gaze for hours on the showy scene, without an idea beyond the present moment. It must be that the spirit of the croud is magnetically contagious.

The evening of our arrival we walked out past the massive and stately Hotel de Ville, and took a promenade along the Quais. The shops facing the river presented a scene of great splendor. Several of the Quais on the north bank of the Seine are occupied almost entirely by jewellers, the windows of whose shops, arranged in a style of the greatest taste, make a dazzling display. Rows of gold watches and chains are arranged across the crystal panes, and heaped in pyramids on long glass slabs; cylindrical wheels of wire, hung with jewelled breastpins and earrings, turn slowly around by some invisible agency, displaying row after row of their glittering treasures.

From the centre of the Pont Neuf, we could see for a long distance up and down the river. The different bridges traced on either side a dozen starry lines through the dark air, and a continued blaze lighted the two shores in their whole length, revealing the outline of the Isle da la Cité. I recognized the Palaces of the Louvre and the Tuileries in the dusky mass beyond. Eastward, looming against the dark sky, I could faintly trace the black towers of Notre Dame, The rushing of the swift waters below mingled with the rattling of a thousand carts and carriages, and the confusion of a thousand voices, till it seemed like some grand nightly festival.

I first saw Notre Dame by moonlight. The shadow of its stupendous front was thrown directly towards me, hiding the innumerable lines of the ornamental sculpture which cover its tall, square towers. I walked forward until the interlacing, Moorish arches between them stood full against the moon, and the light, struggling through the quaint openings of the tracery, streamed in silver lines down into the shadow. The square before it was quite deserted, for it stands on a lonely part of the Isle de la Cité, and it looked thus far more majestic and solemn than in the glaring daylight.

The great quadrangle of the Tuileries encloses the Place du Carrousel, in the centre of which stands a triumphal arch, erected by Napoleon after his Italian victories. Standing in the middle of this arch, you look through the open passage in the central building of the palace, into the Gardens beyond. Further on, in a direct line, the middle avenue of the Gardens extends away to the Place de la Concorde, where the Obelisk of Luxor makes a perpendicular line through your vista; still further goes the broad avenue through the Elysian Fields, until afar off, the Arc de l'Etoile, two miles distant, closes this view through the palace doorway.

Let us go through it, and on, to the Place de la Concorde, reserving the Gardens for another time. What is there in Europe--nay, in the world,--equal to this? In the centre, the mighty obelisk of red granite pierces the sky,--on either hand showers of silver spray are thrown up from splendid bronze fountains--statues and pillars of gilded bronze sweep in a grand circle around the square, and on each side magnificent vistas lead the eye off, and combine the distant with the near, to complete this unparalleled view! Eastward, beyond the tall trees in the garden of the Tuileries, rises the long front of the Palace, with the tri-color floating above; westward, in front of us, is the Forest of the Elysian Fields, with the arch of triumph nearly a mile and a half distant, looking down from the end of the avenue, at the Barriere de Neuilly. To the right and left are the marble fronts of the Church of the Madeleine and the Chamber of Deputies, the latter on the other side of the Seine. Thus the groves and gardens of Paris--the palace of her kings--the proud monument of her sons' glory--and the masterpieces of modern French architecture are all embraced in this one splendid coup d'oeil.

Following the motley multitude to the bridge, I crossed and made my way to the Hotel des Invalides. Along the esplanade, playful companies of children were running and tumbling in their sports over the green turf, which was as fresh as a meadow; while, not the least interesting feature of the scene, numbers of scarred and disabled veterans, in the livery of the Hospital, basked in the sunshine, watching with quiet satisfaction the gambols of the second generation they have seen arise. What tales could they not tell, those wrinkled and feeble old men! What visions of Marengo and Austerlitz and Borodino shift still with a fiery vividness through their fading memories! Some may have left a limb on the Lybian desert; and the sabre of the Cossack may have scarred the brows of others. They witnessed the rising and setting of that great meteor, which intoxicated France with such a blaze of power and glory, and now, when the recollection of that wonderful period seems almost like a stormy dream, they are left to guard the ashes of their ancient General, brought back from his exile to rest in the bosom of his own French people. It was to me a touching and exciting thing, to look on those whose eyes had witnessed the filling up of such a fated leaf in the world's history.

Entrance is denied to the tomb of Napoleon until it is finished, which will not be for three or four yours yet. I went, however, into the "Church of the Banners"--a large chapel, hung with two or three hundred flags taken by the armies of the Empire. The greater part of them were Austrian and Russian. It appeared to be empty when I entered, but on looking around, I saw an old gray-headed soldier kneeling at one side. His head was bowed over his hands, and he seemed perfectly absorbed in his thoughts. Perhaps the very tattered banners which hung down motionless above his head, he might have assisted in conquering. I looked a moment on those eloquent trophies, and then noiselessly withdrew.

There is at least one solemn spot near Paris; the laughing winds that come up from the merry city sink into sighs under the cypress boughs of Pere Lachaise. And yet it is not a gloomy place, but full of a serious beauty, fitting for a city of the dead. I shall never forget the sunny afternoon when I first entered its gate and walked slowly up the hill, between rows of tombs, gleaming white amid the heavy foliage, while the green turf around them was just beginning to be starred by the opening daisies, From the little chapel on its summit I looked back at the blue spires of the city, whose roar of life dwindled to a low murmur. Countless pyramids, obelisks and urns, rising far and wide above the cedars and cypresses, showed the extent of the splendid necropolis, which is inhabited by pale, shrouded emigrants from its living sister below. The only sad part of the view, was the slope of the hill alloted to the poor, where legions of plain black crosses are drawn up into solid squares on its side and stand alone gloomy--the advanced guard of the army of Death! I mused over the tombs of Molière and La Fontaine; Massena, Mortier and Lefebre; General Foy and Casimir Perier; and finally descended to the shrine where Abelard reposes by the side of his Heloise. The old sculptured tomb, brought away from the Paraclete, still covers their remains, and pious hands (of lovers, perhaps,) keep fresh the wreaths of immortelles above their marble effigies.

In the Theatre Français, I saw Rachel, the actress. She appeared in the character of "Virginia," in a tragedy of that name, by the poet Latour. Her appearance as she came upon the stage alone, convinced me she would not belie her renown. She is rather small in stature, with dark, piercing eyes and rich black hair; her lips are full, but delicately formed, and her features have a marked yet flexible outline, which conveys the minutest shades of expression. Her voice is clear, deep and thrilling, and like sonic grand strain of music, there is power and meaning in its slightest modulations. Her gestures embody the very spirit of the character; she has so perfectly attained that rare harmony of thought, sound and action, or rather, that unity of feeling which renders them harmonious, that her acting seems the unstudied, irrepressible impulse of her soul. With the first sentence she uttered, I forgot Rachel. I only saw the innocent Roman girl; I awaited in suspense and with a powerful sympathy, the developement of the oft-told tragedy. My blood grew warm with indignation when the words of Appius roused her to anger, and I could scarcely keep back my tears, when, with a voice broken by sobs, she bade farewell to the protecting gods of her father's hearth.

Among the bewildering variety of ancient ornaments and implements in the Egyptian Gallery of the Louvre, I saw an object of startling interest. A fragment of the Iliad, written nearly three thousand years ago! One may even dare to conjecture that the torn and half-mouldered slip of papyrus, upon which he gazes, may have been taken down from the lips of the immortal Chiun. The eyes look on those faded characters, and across the great gulf of Time, the soul leaps into the Past, brought into shadowy nearness by a mirage of the mind. There, as in the desert, images start up, vivid, yet of a vague and dreamy beauty. We see the olive groves of Greece--white-robed youths and maidens sit in the shade of swaying boughs--and one of them reads aloud, in words that sound like the clashing of shields, the deeds of Achilles.

As we step out the western portal of the Tuileries, a beautiful scene greets us. We look on the palace garden, fragrant with flowers and classic with bronze copies of ancient sculpture. Beyond this, broad gravel walks divide the flower-bordered lawns and ranks of marble demigods and heroes look down on the joyous crowd. Children troll their hoops along the avenues or skip the rope under the clipped lindens, whose boughs are now tinged a pale yellow by the bursting buds. The swans glide about on a pond in the centre, begging bread of the bystanders, who watch a miniature ship which the soft breeze carries steadily across. Paris is unseen, but heard, on every side; only the Column of Luxor and the Arc de Triomphe rise blue and grand above the top of the forest. What with the sound of voices, the merry laughter of the children and a host of smiling faces, the scene touches a happy chord in one's heart, and he mingles with it, lost in pleasant reverie, till the sounds fade away with the fading light.

Just below the Baths of the Louvre, there are several floating barges belonging to the washer-women, anchored at the foot of the great stone staircase leading down to the water. They stand there day after day, beating their clothes upon flat boards and rinsing them in the Seine. One day there seemed to have been a wedding or some other cause of rejoicing among them, for a large number of the youngest were talking in great glee on one of the platforms of the staircase, while a handsome, German-looking youth stood near, with a guitar slung around his neck. He struck up a lively air, and the girls fell into a droll sort of a dance. They went at it heavily and roughly enough, but made up in good humor what they lacked in grace; the older members of the craft looked up from their work with satisfaction and many shouts of applause wore sent down to them from the spectators on the Quai and the Pont Neuf. Not content with this, they seized on some luckless men who were descending the steps, and clasping them with their powerful right arms, spun them around like so many tops and sent them whizzing off at a tangent. Loud bursts of laughter greeted this performance, and the stout river maidens returned to their dance with redoubled spirit.

Yesterday, the famous procession of the "boeuf gras" took place for the second time, with great splendor. The order of march had been duly announced beforehand, and by noon all the streets and squares through which it was to pass, were crowded with waiting spectators. Mounted gens d'armes rode constantly to and fro, to direct the passage of vehicles and keep an open thoroughfare. Thousands of country peasants poured into the city, the boys of whom were seen in all directions, blowing distressingly through hollow ox-horns. Altogether, the spirit of nonsense which animated the crowd, displayed itself very amusingly.

A few mounted guards led the procession, followed by a band of music. Then appeared Roman lictors and officers of sacrifice, leading Dagobert, the famous bull of Normandy, destined to the honor of being slaughtered as the Carnival beef. He trod rather tenderly, finding, no doubt, a difference between the meadows of Caen and the pavements of Paris, and I thought he would have been willing to forego his gilded horns and flowery crown, to get back there again. His weight was said to be four thousand pounds, and the bills pompously declared that he had no rival in France, except the elephant in the Jardin des Plantes.

After him came the farmer by whom he was raised, and M. Roland, the butcher of the carnival, followed by a hundred of the same craft, dressed as cavaliers of the different ages of France. They made a very showy appearance, although the faded velvet and soiled tinsel of their mantles were rather too apparent by daylight.

After all these had gone by, came an enormous triumphal car, very profusely covered with gilding and ornamental flowers. A fellow with long woollen hair and beard, intended to represent Time, acted as driver. In the car, under a gilded canopy, reposed a number of persons, in blue silk smocks and yellow "fleshtights," said to be Venus, Apollo, the Graces, &c. but I endeavored in vain to distinguish one divinity from another. However, three children on the back seat, dressed in the same style, with the addition of long flaxy ringlets, made very passable Cupids. This closed the march; which passed onward towards the Place de la Concorde, accompanied by the sounds of music and the shouts of the mob. The broad, splendid line of Boulevards, which describe a semi-circle around the heart of the city, were crowded, and for the whole distance of three miles, it required no slight labor to make one's way. People in masks and fancy costumes were continually passing and re-passing, and I detected in more than one of the carriages, checks rather too fair to suit the slouched hunter's hats which shaded them. It seemed as if all Paris was taking a holiday, and resolved to make the most of it.


Bayard Taylor