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Chapter 17

LETTER XVII.

Rural Drives.—French Peasantry.—View of Montmartre.—The Boulevards.
—The Abattoirs.—Search for Lodgings.—A queer Breakfast.—Royal
Progresses and Magnificence.—French Carriages and Horses.—Modes of
Conveyance.—Drunkenness.—French Criminal Justice.—Marvellous Stories
of the Police.

To CAPT. M. PERRY, U.S.N.

I am often in the saddle since our removal to St. Ouen. I first commenced the business of exploring in the cabriolet, with my wife for a companion, during which time, several very pretty drives, of whose existence one journeying along the great roads would form no idea, were discovered. At last, as these became exhausted, I mounted, and pricked into the fields. The result has been a better knowledge of the details of ordinary rural life, in this country, than a stranger would get by a residence, after the ordinary fashion, of years.

I found the vast plain intersected by roads as intricate as the veins of the human body. The comparison is not unapt, by the way, and may be even carried out much further; for the grandes routes can be compared to the arteries, the chemins vicinaux, or cross-roads, to the veins, and the innumerable paths that intersect the fields, in all directions, to the more minute blood-vessels, circulation being the object common to all.

I mount my horse and gallop into the fields at random, merely taking care not to quit the paths. By the latter, one can go in almost any direction; and as they are very winding there is a certain pleasure in following their sinuosities, doubtful whither they tend. Much of the plain is in vegetables, for the use of Paris; though there is occasionally a vineyard, or a field of grain. The weather has become settled and autumnal, and is equally without the chilling moisture of the winter, or the fickleness of the spring. The kind-hearted peasants see me pass among them without distrust, and my salutations are answered with cheerfulness and civility. Even at this trifling distance from the capital, I miss the brusque ferocity that is so apt to characterise the deportment of its lower classes, who are truly the people that Voltaire has described as "ou singes, ou tigres." Nothing, I think, strikes an American more than the marked difference between the town and country of France. With us, the towns are less town-like, and the country less country-like, than is usually the case. Our towns are provincial from the want of tone that can only be acquired by time, while it is a fault with our country to wish to imitate the towns. I now allude to habits only, for nature at home, owing to the great abundance of wood, is more strikingly rural than in any other country I know. The inhabitant of Paris can quit his own door in the centre of the place, and after walking an hour he finds himself truly in the country, both as to the air of external objects, and as to the manners of the people. The influence of the capital doubtless has some little effect on the latter, but not enough to raise them above the ordinary rusticity, for the French peasants are as rustic in their appearance and habits as the upper classes are refined.

One of my rides is through the plain that lies between St. Ouen and Montmartre, ascending the latter by its rear to the windmills that, night and day, are whirling their ragged arms over the capital of France. Thence I descend into the town by the carriage road. A view from this height is like a glimpse into the pages of history; for every foot of land that it commands, and more than half the artificial accessories, are pregnant of the past. Looking down into the fissures between the houses, men appear the mites they are; and one gets to have a philosophical indifference to human vanities by obtaining these bird's-eye views of them in the mass. It was a happy thought that first suggested the summits of mountains for religious contemplation; nor do I think the father of evil discovered his usual sagacity when he resorted to such a place for the purposes of selfish temptation: perhaps, however, it would be better to say, he betrayed the grovelling propensities of his own nature. The cathedral of Notre Dame should have been reared on this noble and isolated height, that the airs of heaven might whisper through its fane, breathing the chaunts in honour of God.

Dismounting manfully, I have lately undertaken a far more serious enterprise—that of making the entire circuit of Paris on foot. My companion was our old friend Captain ——. We met by appointment at eleven o'clock, just without the Barrière de Clichy, and ordering the carriage to come for us at five, off we started, taking the direction of the eastern side of the town. You probably know that what are commonly called the boulevards of Paris, are no more than a circular line of wide streets through the very heart of the place, which obtain their common appellation from the fact that they occupy the sites of the ancient walls. Thus the street within this circuit is called by its name, whatever it may happen to be, and if continued without the circuit, the term of faubourg or suburb is added; as in the case of the Rue St. Honoré and the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, the latter being strictly a continuation of the former, but lying without the site of the ancient walls. As the town has increased, it has been found necessary to enlarge its enceinte, and the walls are now encircled with wide avenues that are called the outer boulevards. There are avenues within and without the walls, and immediately beneath them; and in many places both are planted. Our route was on the exterior.

We began the march in good spirits, and by twelve we had handsomely done our four miles and a half. Of course we passed the different barrières, and the gate of Père Lachaise. The captain commenced with great vigour, and for near two hours, as he expressed himself, he had me a little on his lee quarter; not more, however, he thought, than was due to his superior rank, for he had once been my senior as a midshipman. At the Barrière du Trône we were compelled to diverge a little from the wall, in order to get across the river by the Pont d'Austerlitz. By this time I had ranged up abeam of the commodore, and I proposed that we should follow the river up as far as the wall again, in order to do our work honestly; but to this he objected that he had no wish to puzzle himself with spherical trigonometry; that plane sailing was his humour at the moment; and that he had, moreover, just discovered that one of his boots pinched his foot. Accordingly we proceeded straight from the bridge, not meeting the wall again until we were beyond the abattoir. These abattoirs are slaughter-houses, that Napoleon caused to be built near the walls, in some places within, and in others without them, according to the different localities. There are five or six of them, that of Montmartre being the most considerable. They are kept in excellent order, and the regulations respecting them appear to be generally good. The butchers sell their meats, in shops, all over the town, a general custom in Europe, and one that has more advantages than disadvantages, as it enables the inhabitant to order a meal at any moment. This independence in the mode of living distinguishes all the large towns of this part of the world from our own; for I greatly question if there be any civilized people among whom the individual is as much obliged to consult the habits and tastes of all, in gratifying his own, as in free and independent America. A part of this uncomfortable feature in our domestic economy is no doubt the result of circumstances unavoidably connected with the condition of a young country; but a great deal is to be ascribed to the practice of referring everything to the public, and not a little to those religious sects who extended their supervision to all the affairs of life, that had a chief concern in settling the country, and who have entailed so much that is inconvenient and ungraceful (I might almost say, in some instances, disgraceful) on the nation, blended with so much that forms its purest sources of pride. Men are always an inconsistent medley of good and bad.

The captain and myself had visited the abattoir of Montmartre only a few days previously to this excursion, and we had both been much gratified with its order and neatness. But an unfortunate pile of hocks, hoofs, tallow, and nameless fragments of carcasses, had caught my companion's eye. I found him musing over this omnium gatherum, which he protested was worse than a bread-pudding at Saratoga. By some process of reasoning that was rather material than philosophical, he came to the conclusion that the substratum of all the extraordinary compounds he had met with at the restaurans was derived from this pile, and he swore as terribly as any of "our army in Flanders," that not another mouthful would he touch, while he remained in Paris, if the dish put his knowledge of natural history at fault. He had all along suspected he had been eating cats and vermin, but his imagination had never pictured to him such a store of abominations for the casserole as were to be seen in this pile. In vain I asked him if he did not find the dishes good. Cats might be good for anything he knew, but he was too old to change his habits. On the present occasion, he made the situation of the Abattoir d'Ivry an excuse for not turning up the river by the wall. I do not think, however, we gained anything in the distance, the détour to cross the bridge more than equalling the ground we missed.

We came under the wall again at the Barrière de Ville Juif, and followed it, keeping on the side next the town until we fairly reached the river once more, beyond Vaugirard. Here we were compelled to walk some distance to cross the Pont de Jena, and again to make a considerable circuit through Passy, on account of the gardens, in order to do justice to our task. About this time the commodore fairly fell astern; and he discovered that the other boot was too large. I kept talking to him over my shoulder, and cheering him on, and he felicitated me on frogs agreeing so well with my constitution. At length we came in at the Barrière de Clichy, just as the clocks struck three, or in four hours, to a minute, from the time we had left the same spot. We had neither stopped, eaten, nor drunk a mouthful. The distance is supposed to be about eighteen miles, but I can hardly think it is so much, for we went rather further than if we had closely followed the wall.

Our agility having greatly exceeded my calculations, we were obliged to walk two miles further, in order to find the carriage. The time expended in going this distance included, we were just four hours and a half on our feet. The captain protested that his boots had disgraced him, and forthwith commanded another pair; a subterfuge that did him no good.

One anecdote connected with the sojourn of this eccentric, but really excellent-hearted and intelligent man,[22] at Paris is too good not to be told. He cannot speak a word of pure French; and of all Anglicizing of the language I have ever heard, his attempts at it are the most droll. He calls the Tuileries, Tully_rees_; the Jardin des Plantes, the Garden dis Plants; the guillotine, gully_teen_; and the garçons of the cafés, gassons. Choleric, with whiskers like a bear, and a voice of thunder, if anything goes wrong, he swears away, starboard and larboard, in French and English, in delightful discord.

[Footnote 22: He is since dead.]

He sought me out soon after his arrival, and carried me with him, as an interpreter, in quest of lodgings. We found a very snug little apartment of four rooms, that he took. The last occupant was a lady, who, in letting the rooms, conditioned that Marie, her servant, must be hired with them, to look after the furniture, and to be in readiness to receive her at her return from the provinces. A few days after this arrangement I called, and was surprised, on ringing the bell, to hear the cry of an infant. After a moment's delay the door was cautiously opened, and the captain, in his gruffest tone, demanded, "Cur vully voo?" An exclamation of surprise at seeing me followed; but instead of opening the door for my admission, he held it for a moment, as if undecided whether to be "at home" or not. At this critical instant an infant cried again, and the thing became too ridiculous for further gravity. We both laughed outright. I entered, and found the captain with a child three days old tucked under his right arm, or that which had been concealed by the door. The explanation was very simple, and infinitely to his credit.

Marie, the locum tenens of the lady who had let the apartment, and the wife of a coachman who was in the country, was the mother of the infant. After its birth she presented herself to her new master; told her story; adding, by means of an interpreter, that if he turned her away, she had no place in which to lay her head. The kind-hearted fellow made out to live abroad as well as he could for a day or two—an easy thing enough in Paris, by the way,—and when I so unexpectedly entered, Marie was actually cooking the captain's breakfast in the kitchen while he was nursing the child in the salon!

The dialogues between the captain and Marie were to the last degree amusing. He was quite unconscious of the odd sounds he uttered in speaking French, but thought he was getting on very well, being rather minute and particular in his orders; and she felt his kindness to herself and child so sensibly, that she always fancied she understood his wishes. I was frequently compelled to interpret between them; first asking him to explain himself in English, for I could make but little of his French myself. On one occasion he invited me to breakfast, as we were to pass the day exploring in company. By way of inducement, he told me that he had accidentally found some cocoa in the shell, and that he had been teaching Marie how to cook it "ship-fashion." I would not promise, as his hour was rather early, and the distance between us so great; but before eleven I would certainly be with him. I breakfasted at home therefore, but was punctual to the latter engagement. "I hope you have breakfasted?" cried the captain, rather fiercely, as I entered. I satisfied him on this point; and then, after a minute of demure reflection, he resumed, "You are lucky; for Marie boiled the cocoa, and, after throwing away the liquor, she buttered and peppered the shells, and served them for me to eat! I don't see how she made such a mistake, for I was very particular in my directions, and be d——d to her! I don't care so much about my own breakfast neither, for that can be had at the next café; but the poor creature has lost hers, which I told her to cook out of the rest of the cocoa." I had the curiosity to inquire how he had made out to tell Marie to do all this. "Why, I showed her the cocoa, to be sure, and then told her to boily vous-même." There was no laughing at this, and so I went with the captain to a café; after which we proceeded in quest of the gullyteen, which he was particularly anxious to see.

My rides often extend to the heights behind Malmaison and St. Cloud, where there is a fine country, and where some of the best views in the vicinity of Paris are to be obtained. As the court is at St. Cloud, I often meet different members of the royal family dashing to or from town, or perhaps passing from one of their abodes to another. The style is pretty uniform, for I do not remember to have ever met the king but once with less than eight horses. The exception was quite early one morning, when he was going into the country with very little éclat, accompanied by the Dauphine. Even on this occasion he was in a carriage and six, followed by another with four, and attended by a dozen mounted men. These royal progresses are truly magnificent; and they serve greatly to enliven the road, as we live so near the country palace. The king has been quite lately to a camp formed at St. Omer, and I happened to meet a portion of his equipages on their return. The carriages I saw were very neatly built post-chaises, well leathered, and contained what are here called the "officers of the mouth," alias "cooks and purveyors." They were all drawn by four horses. This was a great occasion—furniture being actually sent from the palace of Compiègne for the king's lodgings, and the court is said to have employed seventy different vehicles to transport it. I saw about a dozen.

Returning the other night from a dinner-party, given on the banks of the Seine, a few miles above us, I saw flaring lights gleaming along the highway, which, at first, caused nearly as much conjecture as some of the adventures of Don Quixotte. My horse proving a little restive, I pulled up, placing the cabriolet on one side of the road, for the first impression was that the cattle employed at some funeral procession had taken flight and were running away. It proved to be the Dauphine dashing towards St. Cloud. This was the first time I had ever met any of the royal equipages at night, and the passage was much the most picturesque of any I had hitherto seen. Footmen, holding flaming flambeaux, rode in pairs in front, by the side of the carriage, and in its rear; the piqueur scouring along the road in advance, like a rocket. By the way, a lady of the court told me lately that Louis XVIII. had lost some of his French by the emigration, for he did not know how to pronounce this word piqueur.

On witnessing all this magnificence, the mind is carried back a few generations, in the inquiry after the progress of luxury, and the usages of our fathers. Coaches were first used in England in the reign of Elizabeth. It is clear enough, by the pictures in the Louvre, that in the time of Louis XIV. the royal carriages were huge, clumsy vehicles, with at least three seats. Mademoiselle de Montpensier, in her Memoirs, tells us how often she took her place at the window, in order to admire the graceful attitudes of M. de Lauzun, who rode near it. There is still in existence, in the Bibliothèque du Roi, a letter of Henry IV. to Sully, in which the king explains to the grand master the reason why he could not come to the arsenal that day; the excuse being that the queen was using the carriage! To-day his descendant seldom moves at a pace slower than ten miles the hour, is drawn by eight horses, and is usually accompanied by one or more empty vehicles of equal magnificence to receive him, in the event of an accident.

Notwithstanding all this regal splendour, the turn-outs of Paris, as a whole, are by no means remarkable. The genteelest and the fashionable carriage is the chariot. I like the proportions of the French carriages better than those of the English or our own, the first being too heavy, and the last too light. The French vehicles appear to me to be in this respect a happy medium. But the finish is by no means equal to that of the English carriages, nor at all better than that of ours. There are relatively a large proportion of shabby-genteel equipages at Paris. Even the vehicles that are seen standing in the court of the Tuileries on a reception day are not at all superior to the better sort of American carriages, though the liveries are much more showy.

Few people here own the carriages and horses they use. Even the strangers, who are obliged to have travelling vehicles rarely use them in town, the road and the streets requiring very different sorts of equipages. There are certain job-dealers who furnish all that is required for a stipulated sum. You select the carriage and horses on trial and contract at so much a month, or at so much a year. The coachman usually comes with the equipage, as does the footman sometimes, though both are paid by the person taking the coach. They will wear your livery, if you choose, and you can have your arms put on the carriage if desirable. I pay five hundred francs a month for a carriage and horses, and forty francs for a coachman. I believe this is the usual price. I have a right to have a pair of horses always at my command, finding nothing but the stable, and even this would be unnecessary in Paris. If we go away from our own stable, I pay five francs a day extra. There is a very great convenience to strangers, in particular, in this system, for one can set up and lay down a carriage, without unnecessary trouble or expense, as it may be wanted. In everything of this nature, we have no town that has the least character, or the conveniences, of a capital.

The French have little to boast of in the way of horseflesh. Most of the fine coach and cabriolet cattle of Paris come from Mecklenburgh, though some are imported from England. It is not common to meet with a very fine animal of the native breed. In America, land is so plenty and so cheap, that we keep a much larger proportion of brute force than is kept here. It is not uncommon with us to meet with those who live by day's work, using either oxen or horses. The consequence is that many beasts are raised with little care, and with scarcely any attention to the breeds. We find many good ones. In spite of bad grooming, little training, and hard work, I greatly question if even England possesses a larger proportion of good horses, comparing the population of the two countries, than America. Our animals are quicker footed, and at trotting, I suspect, we could beat the world; Christendom, certainly. The great avenue between the garden of the Tuileries and the Bois de Boulogne, with the allées of the latter, are the places to meet the fast-goers of the French capital, and I am strongly of opinion that there is no such exhibition of speed, in either, as one meets on the Third Avenue of New York. As for the Avenue de Neuilly, our sulky riders would vanish like the wind from anything I have seen on it; although one meets there, occasionally, fine animals from all parts of Europe.

The cattle of the diligences, of the post-houses, and even of the cavalry of France, are solid, hardy and good feeders, but they are almost entirely without speed or action. The two former are very much the same, and it is a hard matter to get more than eight miles out of them without breaking into a gallop, or more than ten, if put under the whip. Now, a short time previously to leaving home, I went eleven measured miles, in a public coach, in two minutes less than an hour, the whip untouched. I sat on the box, by the side of the driver, and know that this was done under a pull that actually disabled one of his arms, and that neither of the four animals broke its trot. It is not often our roads will admit of this, but, had we the roads of England, I make little doubt we should altogether outdo her in speed. As for the horses used here in the public conveyances, and for the post routes, they are commonly compact, clumsy beasts, with less force than their shape would give reason to suppose. Their manes are long and shaggy, the fetlocks are rarely trimmed, the shoes are seldom corked, and, when there is a little coquetry, the tail is braided. In this trim, with a coarse harness, that is hardly ever cleaned, traces of common rope, and half the time no blinkers or reins, away they scamper, with their heads in all directions, like the classical representation of a team in an ancient car, through thick and thin, working with all their might to do two posts within an hour, one being the legal measure. These animals appear to possess a strange bonhomie, being obedient, willing and tractable, although, in the way of harness and reins, they are pretty much their own masters.

My excursions in the environs have made me acquainted with a great variety of modes of communication between the capital and its adjacent, villages. Although Paris is pared down so accurately, and is almost without suburbs, the population, within a circuit of ten miles in each direction, is almost equal to that of Paris itself. St. Denis has several thousands, St. Germain the same, and Versailles is still a town of considerable importance. All these places, with villages out of number, keep up daily intercourse with the city, and in addition to the hundreds of vegetable carts that constantly pass to and fro, there are many conveyances that are exclusively devoted to passengers. The cheapest and lowest is called a coucou for no reason that I can see, unless it be that a man looks very like a fool to have a seat in one of them. They are large cabriolets, with two and even three seats. The wheels are enormous, and there is commonly a small horse harnessed by the side of a larger, in the hills, to drag perhaps eight or nine people. One is amazed to see the living carrion that is driven about a place like Paris, in these uncouth vehicles. The river is so exceedingly crooked, that it is little used by travellers above Rouen.

The internal transportation of France, where the lines of the rivers are not followed, is carried on, almost exclusively, in enormous carts, drawn by six and even eight heavy horses, harnessed in a line. The burthen is often as large as a load of hay, not quite so high, perhaps, but generally longer, care being had to preserve the balance in such a manner as to leave no great weight on the shaft horse. These teams are managed with great dexterity, and I have often stopped and witnessed, with admiration, the entrance of one of them into a yard, as it passed from a crowded street probably not more than thirty feet wide. But the evolutions of the diligence, guided as it chiefly is by the whip, and moving on a trot, are really nice affairs. I came from La Grange, some time since, in one, and I thought that we should dash everything to pieces in the streets, and yet nothing was injured. At the close of the journey, our team of five horses, two on the pole and three on the lead, wheeled, without breaking its trot, into a street that was barely wide enough to receive the huge vehicle, and this too without human direction, the driver being much too drunk to be of any service. These diligences are uncouth objects to the eye; but, for the inside passengers, they are much more comfortable, so far as my experience extends than either the American stage or the English coach.

The necessity of passing the barrière two or three times a day, has also made me acquainted with the great amount of drunkenness that prevails in Paris. Wine can be had outside of the walls, for about half the price which is paid for it within the town, as it escapes the octroi, or city duty. The people resort to these places for indulgence, and there is quite as much low blackguardism and guzzling here, as is to be met with in any sea-port I know.

Provisions of all sorts, too, are cheaper without the gates, for the same reason; and the lower classes resort to them to celebrate their weddings, and on other eating and drinking occasions. "Ici on fait festins et noces,"[23] is a common sign, no barrier being without more or less of these houses. The guinguettes are low gardens, answering to the English tea-gardens of the humblest class, with a difference in the drinkables and other fare. The base of Montmartre is crowded with them.

[Footnote 23: Weddings and merry-makings are kept here.]

One sometimes meets with an unpleasant adventure among these exhilarated gentry; for, though I think a low Frenchman is usually better natured when a little grisé than when perfectly sober, this is not always the case. Quite lately I had an affair that might have terminated seriously, but for our good luck. It is usual to have two sets of reins to the cabriolets, the horses being very spirited, and the danger from accidents in streets so narrow and crowded being great. I had dined in town, and was coming out about nine o'clock. The horse was walking up the ascent to the Barrière de Clichy, when I observed, by the shadow cast from a bright moon, that there was a man seated on the cabriolet, behind. Charles was driving, and I ordered him to tell the man to get off. Finding words of no effect, Charles gave him a slight tap with his whip. The fellow instantly sprang forward, seized the horse by the reins, and attempted to drag him to one side of the road. Failing in this, he fled up the street. Charles now called out that he had cut the reins. I seized the other pair and brought the horse up, and, as soon as he was under command, we pursued our assailant at a gallop. He was soon out of breath, and we captured him. As I felt very indignant at the supposed outrage, which might have cost, not us only, but others, their lives, I gave him in charge to two gendarmes at the gate, with my address, promising to call at the police office in the morning.

Accordingly, next day I presented myself, and was surprised to find that the man had been liberated. I had discovered, in the interval, that the leather had broken, and had not been cut, which materially altered the animus of the offence, and I had come with an intention to ask for the release of the culprit, believing it merely a sally of temper, which a night's imprisonment sufficiently punished; but the man being charged with cutting the rein, I thought the magistrate had greatly forgotten himself in discharging him before I appeared. Indeed I made no scruple in telling him so. We had some warm words, and parted. I make no doubt I was mistaken for an Englishman, and that the old national antipathy was at work against me.

I was a good deal surprised at the termination of this, my first essay in French criminal justice. So many eulogiums have been passed on the police, that I was not prepared to find this indifference to an offence like that of wantonly cutting the reins of a spirited cabriolet horse, in the streets of Paris; for such was the charge on which the man stood committed. I mentioned the affair to a friend, and he said that the police was good only for political offences, and that the government rather leaned to the side of the rabble, in order to find support with them, in the event of any serious movement. This, you will remember, was the opinion of a Frenchman, and not mine; for I only relate the facts (one conjecture excepted), and to do justice to all parties, it is proper to add that my friend is warmly opposed to the present régime.

I have uniformly found the gendarmes civil, and even obliging; and I have seen them show great forbearance on various occasions. As to the marvellous stories we have heard of the police of Paris, I suspect they have been gotten up for effect, such things being constantly practised here. One needs be behind the curtain, in a great many things, to get a just idea of the true state of the world. A laughable instance has just occurred, within my knowledge, of a story that has been got up for effect. The town was quite horrified lately, with an account, in the journals, of a careless nurse permitting a child to fall into the fossé of the great bears, in the Jardin des Plantes, and of the bears eating up the dear little thing, to the smallest fragment, before succour could be obtained. Happening to be at the garden soon after, in the company of one connected with the establishment, I inquired into the circumstances, and was told that the nurses were very careless with the children, and that the story was published in order that the bears should not eat up any child hereafter, rather than because they had eaten up a child heretofore!

James Fenimore Cooper

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