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Chapter 5

LETTER V.

Paris in August 1826.—Montmartre.—The Octroi.—View of Paris.
—Montmorency.—Royal Residences.—Duke of Bordeaux.—Horse-racing.
—The Dauphine.—Popular feeling in Paris.—Royal Equipage.—Gardes du
Corps.—Policy of Napoleon.—Centralization.

To R COOPER, ESQ., COOPERSTOWN.

We were not a fortnight in Paris before we were quietly established, en bourgeois, in the Faubourg St. Germain. Then followed the long and wearying toil of sight-seeing. Happily, our time was not limited, and we took months for that which is usually performed in a few days. This labour is connected with objects that description has already rendered familiar, and I shall say nothing of them, except as they may incidentally belong to such parts of my subject as I believe worthy to be noticed.

Paris was empty in the month of August 1826. The court was at St. Cloud; the Duchesse de Berri at her favourite Dieppe; and the fashionable world was scattered abroad over the face of Europe. Our own minister was at the baths of Aix, in Savoy.

One of the first things was to obtain precise and accurate ideas of the position and entourage of the place. In addition to those enjoyed from its towers, there are noble views of Paris from Montmartre and Père Lachaise. The former has the best look-out, and thither we proceeded. This little mountain is entirely isolated, forming no part of the exterior circle of heights which environ the town. It lies north of the walls, which cross its base. The ascent is so steep as to require a winding road, and the summit, a table of a hundred acres, is crowned by a crowded village, a church, and divers windmills. There was formerly a convent or two, and small country-houses still cling to its sides, buried in the shrubbery that clothe their terraces.

We were fortunate in our sky, which was well veiled in clouds, and occasionally darkened by mists. A bright sun may suit particular scenes, and peculiar moods of the mind, but every connoisseur in the beauties of nature will allow that, as a rule, clouds, and very frequently a partial obscurity, greatly aid a landscape. This is yet more true of a bird's-eye view of a grey old mass of walls, which give up their confused and dusky objects all the better for the absence of glare. I love to study a place teeming with historical recollections, under this light; leaving the sites of memorable scenes to issue, one by one, out of the grey mass of gloom, as time gives up its facts from the obscurity of ages.

Unlike English and American towns, Paris has scarcely any suburbs. Those parts which are called its Faubourgs are, in truth, integral parts of the city; and, with the exception of a few clusters of winehouses and guinguettes, which have collected near its gates to escape the city duties, the continuity of houses ceases suddenly with the barrières, and, at the distance of half a mile from the latter, one is as effectually in the country, so far as the eye is concerned, as if a hundred leagues in the provinces. The unfenced meadows, vineyards, lucerne, oats, wheat, and vegetables, in many places, literally reach the walls. These walls are not intended for defence, but are merely a financial enceinte, created for offensive operations against the pockets of the inhabitants. Every town in France that has two thousand inhabitants is entitled to set up an octroi on its articles of consumption, and something like four millions of dollars are taken annually at the gates of Paris, in duties on this internal trade. It is merely the old expedient to tax the poor, by laying impositions on food and necessaries.

From the windmills of Montmartre, the day we ascended, the eye took in the whole vast capital at a glance. The domes sprung up through the mist, like starling balloons; and here and there the meandering stream threw back a gleam of silvery light. Enormous roofs denoted the sites of the palaces, churches, or theatres. The summits of columns, the crosses of the minor churches, and the pyramids of pavilion tops, seemed struggling to rear their heads from out the plain of edifices. A better idea of the vastness of the principal structures was obtained here in one hour, than could be got from the streets in a twelvemonth. Taking the roofs of the palace, for instance, the eye followed its field of slate and lead through a parallelogram for quite a mile. The sheet of the French opera resembled a blue pond, and the aisles of Notre Dame and St. Eustache, with their slender ribs and massive buttresses, towered so much above the lofty houses around them, as to seem to stand on their ridges. The church of St. Geneviève, the Pantheon of the revolution, faced us on the swelling land of the opposite side of the town, but surrounded still with crowded lines of dwellings; the Observatory limiting equally the view, and the vast field of houses in that direction.

Owing to the state of the atmosphere, and the varying light, the picture before us was not that simply of a town, but, from the multiplicity and variety of its objects, it was a vast and magnificent view. I have frequently looked at Paris since from the same spot, or from its church towers, when the strong sunlight reduced it to the appearance of confused glittering piles, on which the eye almost refused to dwell; but, in a clouded day, all the peculiarities stand out sombre and distinct, resembling the grey accessories of the ordinary French landscape.

From the town we turned to the heights which surround it. East and south-east, after crossing the Seine, the country lay in the waste-like unfenced fields which characterize the scenery of this part of Europe. Roads stretched away in the direction of Orleans, marked by the usual lines of clipped and branchless trees. More to the west commence the abrupt heights, which, washed by the river, enclose nearly half the wide plain, like an amphitheatre. This has been the favourite region of the kings of France, from the time of Louis XIII. down to the present day. The palaces of Versailles, St. Germain, St. Cloud, and Meudon, all lie in this direction, within short distances of the capital; and the royal forests, avenues, and chases intersect it in every direction, as mentioned before.

Farther north, the hills rise to be low mountains, though a wide and perfectly level plain spreads itself between the town and their bases, varying in breadth from two to four leagues. On the whole of this expanse of cultivated fields, there was hardly such a thing as an isolated house. Though not literally true, this fact was so nearly so as to render the effect oddly peculiar, when one stood on the eastern extremity of Montmartre, where, by turning southward, he looked down upon the affluence and heard the din of a vast capital, and by turning northward, he beheld a country with all the appliances of rural life, and dotted by grey villages. Two places, however, were in sight, in this direction, that might aspire to be termed towns. One was St. Denis, from time immemorial the burying-place of the French kings; and the other was Montmorency, the bourg which gives its name to, or receives it from, the illustrious family that is so styled; for I am unable to say which is the fact. The church spire of the former is one of the most beautiful objects in view from Montmartre, the church itself, which was desecrated in the revolution, having been restored by Napoleon. St. Denis is celebrated, in the Catholic annals, by the fact of the martyr, from whom the name is derived, having walked after decapitation, with his head under his arm, all the way from Paris to this very spot.

Montmorency is a town of no great size or importance, but lying on the side of a respectable mountain, in a way to give the spectator more than a profile, it appears to be larger than it actually is. This place is scarcely distinguishable from Paris, under the ordinary light; but on a day like that which we had chosen, it stood out in fine relief from the surrounding fields, even the grey mass of its church being plainly visible. If Paris is so beautiful and striking when seen from the surrounding heights, there are many singularly fine pictures in the bosom of the place itself. We rarely crossed the Pont Royal, during the first month or two of our residence, without stopping the carriage to gaze at the two remarkable views it offers. One is up the reach of the Seine which stretches through the heart of the town, separated by the island; and the other, in an opposite direction, looks down the reach by which the stream flows into the meadows, on its way to the sea. The first is a look into the avenues of a large town, the eye resting on the quaint outlines and endless mazes of walls, towers, and roofs; while the last is a prospect, in which the front of the picture is a collection of some of the finest objects of a high state of civilization, and the background a beautiful termination of wooded and decorated heights.

At first, one who is accustomed to the forms and movements of a sea-port feels a little disappointment at seeing a river that bears nothing but dingy barges loaded with charcoal and wine-casks. The magnificence of the quays seems disproportioned to the trifling character of the commerce they are destined to receive. But familiarity with the town soon changes all these notions, and while we admit that Paris is altogether secondary, so far as trade is concerned, we come to feel the magnificence of her public works, and to find something that is pleasing and picturesque, even in her huge and unwieldy wood and coal barges. Trade is a good thing in its way, but its agents rarely contribute to the taste, learning, manners, or morals of a nation.

The sight of the different interesting objects that encircle Paris stimulated our curiosity to nearer views, and we proceeded immediately to visit the environs. These little excursions occupied more than a month, and they not only made us familiar with the adjacent country, but, by compelling us to pass out at nearly every one of the twenty or thirty different gates or barriers, as they are called, with a large portion of the town also. This capital has been too often described to render any further account of the principal objects necessary, and in speaking of it, I shall endeavour to confine my remarks to things that I think may still interest you by their novelty.

The royal residences in Paris at this time are, strictly speaking, but two,—the Tuileries and the Palais Royal. The Louvre is connected with the first, and it has no finished apartments that are occupied by any of princely rank, most of its better rooms being unfinished, and are occupied as cabinets or museums. A small palace, called the Elysée Bourbon, is fitted up as a residence for the heir presumptive, the Duc de Bordeaux; but, though it contains his princely toys, such as miniature batteries of artillery, etc., he is much too young to maintain a separate establishment. This little scion of royalty only completed his seventh year not long after our arrival in France; on which occasion one of those silly ceremonies, which some of the present age appear to think inseparable from sound principles, was observed. The child was solemnly and formally transferred from the care of the women to that of the men. Up to this period, Madame la Vicomtesse de Gontaut-Biron had been his governess, and she now resigned her charge into the hands of the Baron de Damas, who had lately been Minister of Foreign Affairs. Madame de Gontaut was raised to the rank of Duchess on the occasion. The boy himself is said to have passed from the hands of the one party to those of the other, in presence of the whole court, absolutely naked. Some such absurdity was observed at the reception of Marie Antoinette, it being a part of regal etiquette that a royal bride, on entering France, should leave her old wardrobe, even to the last garment, behind her. You will be amused to hear that there are people in Europe who still attach great importance to a rigid adherence to all the old etiquette at similar ceremonies. These are the men who believe it to be essential that judges and advocates should wear wigs, in an age when, their use being rejected by the rest of the world, their presence cannot fail, if it excite any feeling, to excite that of inconvenience and absurdity. There is such a thing as leaving society too naked, I admit; but a chemise, at least, could not have injured the little Duke of Bordeaux at this ceremony. Whenever a usage that is poetical in itself, and which awakens a sentiment without doing violence to decency, or comfort, or common sense, can be preserved, I would rigidly adhere to it, if it were only for antiquity's sake; but, surely, it would be far more rational for judges to wear false beards, because formerly Bacon and Coke did not shave their chins, than it is for a magistrate to appear on the bench with a cumbrous, hot, and inconvenient cloud of powdered flax, or whatever may be the material on his poll, because our ancestors, a century or two since, were so silly as to violate nature in the same extraordinary manner.

Speaking of the Duke of Bordeaux, reminds me of an odd, and, indeed, in some degree a painful scene, of which I was accidentally a witness, a short time before the ceremony just mentioned. The émigrés have brought back with them into France a taste for horse-racing, and, supported by a few of the English who are here, there are regular races, spring and autumn, in the Champs de Mars. The course is one of the finest imaginable, being more than a mile in circumference, and surrounded by mounds of earth, raised expressly with that object, which permit the spectators to overlook the entire field. The result is a species of amphitheatric arena, in which any of the dramatic exhibitions, that are so pleasing to this spectacle-loving nation, may be enacted. Pavilions are permanently erected at the starting-post, and one or two of these are usually fitted up for the use of the court, whenever it is the pleasure of the royal family to attend, as was the case at the time the little occurrence I am about to relate took place.

On this occasion Charles X. came in royal state, from St. Cloud, accompanied by detachments of his guards, many carriages, several of which were drawn by eight horses, and a cloud of mounted footmen. Most of the dignitaries of the kingdom were present, in the different pavilions, or stands, and nearly or quite all the ministers, together with the whole diplomatic corps. There could not have been less than a hundred thousand spectators on the mounds.

The racing itself was no great matter, being neither within time nor well contested. The horses were all French, the trial being intended for the encouragement of the French breeders, and the sports were yet too recent to have produced much influence on the stock of the country. During the heats, accompanied by a young American friend, I had strolled among the royal equipages, in order to examine their magnificence, and returning towards the course, we came out unexpectedly at a little open space, immediately at one end of the pavilion in which the royal family was seated. There were not a dozen people near us, and one of these was a sturdy Englishman, evidently a tradesman, who betrayed a keen and a truly national desire to get a look at the king. The head of a little girl was just visible above the side of the pavilion, and my companion, who, by a singular accident, not long before, had been thrown into company with les enfans de France, as the royal children are called, informed me that it was Mademoiselle d'Artois, the sister of the heir presumptive. He had given me a favourable account of the children, whom he represented as both lively and intelligent, and I changed my position a little, to get a better look of the face of this little personage, who was not twenty feet from the spot where we stood. My movement attracted her attention; and, after looking down a moment into the small area in which we were enclosed, she disappeared. Presently a lady looked over the balustrade, and our Englishman seemed to be on tenter-hooks. Some thirty or forty French gathered round us immediately, and I presume it was thought none but loyal subjects could manifest so much desire to gaze at the family, especially as one or two of the French clapped the little princess, whose head now appeared and disappeared again, as if she were earnestly pressing something on the attention of those within the pavilion. In a moment the form of a pale and sickly-looking boy was seen, the little girl, who was a year or two older, keeping her place at his side. The boy was raised on the knee of a melancholy-looking and rather hard-featured female of fifty, who removed his straw hat in order to salute us. "These are the Dauphine and the Duc de Bordeaux," whispered my companion, who knew the person of the former by sight. The Dauphine looked anxiously, and I thought mournfully, at the little cluster we formed directly before her, as if waiting to observe in what manner her nephew would be received. Of course my friend and myself, who were in the foreground, stood uncovered; as gentlemen we could not do less, nor as foreign gentlemen could we very well do more. Not a Frenchman, however, even touched his hat! On the other hand, the Englishman straddled his legs, gave a wide sweep with his beaver, and uttered as hearty a hurrah as if he had been cheering a member of parliament who gave gin in his beer. The effect of this single, unaccompanied, unanswered cheer, was both ludicrous and painful. The poor fellow himself seemed startled at hearing his own voice amid so profound a stillness, and checking his zeal as unexpectedly as he had commenced its exhibition, he looked furiously around him and walked surlily away. The Dauphine followed him with her eyes. There was no mistaking his gaitered limbs, dogged mien, and florid countenance; be clearly was not French, and those that were, as clearly turned his enthusiasm into ridicule. I felt sorry for her, as, with a saddened face, she set down the boy, and withdrew her own head within the covering of the pavilion. The little Mademoiselle d'Artois kept her bright looks, in a sort of wonder, on us, until the circumspection of those around her, gave her a hint to disappear.

This was the first direct and near view I got of the true state of popular feeling in Paris towards the reigning family. According to the journals in the interest of the court, enthusiasm was invariably exhibited whenever any of their princes appeared in public; but the journals in every country, our own dear and shrewd republic not excepted, are very unsafe guides for those who desire truth.

I am told that the style of this court has been materially altered, and perhaps improved, by the impetuous character of Napoleon. The king rarely appears in public with less than eight horses, which are usually in a foam. His liveries are not showy, neither are the carriages as neat and elegant as one would expect. The former are blue and white, with a few slight ornaments of white and red lace, and the vehicles are showy, large and even magnificent, but, I think, without good taste. You will be surprised to hear that he drives with what in America we call "Dutch collars." Six of the horses are held in hand, and the leaders are managed by a postilion. There is always one or more empty carriages, according to the number of the royal personages present, equipped in every respect like those which are filled, and which are held in reserve against accidents; a provision, by the way, that is not at all unreasonable in those who scamper over the broken pavements, in and about Paris, as fast as leg can be put to the ground.

Notwithstanding the present magnificence of the court, royalty is shorn of much of its splendour in France, since the days of Louis XVI. Then a city of a hundred thousand souls (Versailles) was a mere dependant of the crown; lodgings for many hundred abbés, it is said, were provided in the palace alone, and a simple representation at the palace opera cost a fortune.

It is not an easy matter to come at the real cost of the kingly office in this country, all the expenditures of the European governments being mystified in such a way, as to require a very intimate knowledge of the details to give a perfectly clear account of them. But, so far as I have been able to ascertain, the charges that arise from this feature of the system do not fall much short, if indeed they do any, of eight millions of dollars annually. Out of this sum, however, the king pays the extra allowances of his guards, the war office taking the same view of all classes of soldiers, after distinguishing between foot and cavalry. You will get an idea of the luxury of royalty by a short account of the gardes du corps. These troops are all officers, the privates having the rank and receiving the pay of lieutenants. Their duty, as the name implies, is to have the royal person in their especial care, and there is always a guard of them in an ante-chamber of the royal apartments. They are heavy cavalry, and when they mount guard in the palaces, their arm is a carabine. A party of them always appear near the carriage of the king, or indeed near that of any of the reigning branch of the family. There are said to be four regiments or companies of them, of four hundred men each; but it strikes me the number must be exaggerated. I should think, however, that there are fully a thousand of them. In addition to these selected troops, there are three hundred Swiss, of the Swiss and royal guards; of the latter, including all arms, there must be many thousands. These are the troops that usually mount guard in and about all the palaces. The annual budget of France appears in the estimates at about a milliard, or a thousand millions of francs; but the usual mystifications are resorted to, and the truth will give the annual central expenses of the country at not less, I think, than two hundred millions of dollars. This sum, however, covers many items of expenditure, that we are accustomed to consider purely local. The clergy, for instance, are paid out of it, as is a portion of the cost of maintaining the roads. On the other hand, much money is collected, as a general regulation, that does not appear in the budget. Few or no churches are built, and there are charges for masses, interments, christenings, and fees for a hundred things, of which no account is taken in making out the sum total of the cost of government.

It was the policy of Napoleon to create a system of centralization, that should cause everything to emanate from himself. The whole organization of government had this end in view, and all the details of the departments have been framed expressly to further this object. The prefects are no more than so many political aides, whose duty it is to carry into effect the orders that emanate from the great head, and lines of telegraphs are established all over France, in such a way that a communication may be sent from the Tuileries, to the remotest corner of the kingdom, in the course of a few hours. It has been said that one of the first steps towards effecting a revolution, ought to be to seize the telegraphs at Paris, by means of which such information and orders could be sent into the provinces, as the emergency might seem to require.

This system of centralization has almost neutralized the advancement of the nation, in a knowledge of the usages and objects of the political liberty that the French have obtained, by bitter experience, from other sources. It is the constant aim of that portion of the community which understands the action of free institutions, to increase the powers of the municipalities, and to lessen the functions of the central government; but their efforts are resisted with a jealous distrust of everything like popular dictation. Their municipal privileges are, rightly enough, thought to be the entering wedges of real liberty. The people ought to manage their own affairs, just as far as they can do so without sacrificing their interests for want of a proper care, and here is the starting point of representation. So far from France enjoying such a system, however, half the time a bell cannot be hung in a parish church, or a bridge repaired, without communications with and orders from Paris.

James Fenimore Cooper

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