THE LITERARY, THE ELECTRIC, AND THE ORIENTAL CAFES.
The history of France is in a large degree the history of its cafes. We do not make the remark in order to humiliate the French nation, who might well retort that the history of England is to be read in its tavern-signs, and even in its baked potatoe-cans. If a collection of the baked potato cans of the last fifteen years were to be made, those of the period of the Anti-Corn-Law agitation would be found inscribed “Free Trade ; ” those of 1850, bear the words ” Kossuth for ever,” testifying to the sympathy of the English mob for the great Hungarian insurgent; the cans of 1854, sail, or rather steam, under the banner of the French alliance, and call down imprecations on the head of Nicholas, “the never-to-be-forgotten,” and we are told that there was recently a pause in the manufacture of potato-cans, simply because the makers could not come to a decision as to what the popular cry would be during the autumn and winter, in reference to the great struggle on the continent.
On the connection between our tavern-signs and our military and naval heroes, it would be superfluous to insist. We have, it is true, our Dogs and Ducks, our Geese and Gridirons, our Bells and Horns, but we have also our Admiral Keppels, our Wellington Arms, and our Napier’s Heads, and, taking them all together, the names of our hostelries indicate the various epochs of their origin in a remarkable manner. Another characteristic of the British tavern-sign as compared with the French enseigne, whether of the cafe, the restaurant, or the tobacco-shop, is the permanency of the former, which we take to be typical of our national conservatism.
Potato cans “se suivent et ne ressemblent pas;” but the public-house endures; and, enduring, would scorn to change its colours. Who ever heard of the “Earl of Chatham” being converted into the “Sir Robert Peel.” or “Lord Nelson “into the “Sir Charles Napier,” except by some rare contingency? Now, in France, just the contrary takes place. All the cafes, tobacco-shops, theatres, steamers, and even omnibuses, that rejoice in what may be called demonstrative titles, change their signs and their appellations with each successive dynasty. We saw a curious instance of this in February, 1848, on board one of the little steamers which ascend “the rapid Rhone” from Avignon to Lyons.
The vessel was called “La Duchesse de Nemours.” When we left the ancient papal city, it was supposed that Louis Philippe reigned in France, though alarming rumours in connection with certain reform banquets had already reached us. However, we steamed slowly towards Lyons, with the tricolour at the mast-head, and the figure of the duchess at the prow. The words “Duchesse De Nemours,” were painted in letters of gold on the paddle-wheels, the decks were white, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, the passengers were in high spirits, the experiments with the vin du pays at the different stations were satisfactory, and we were almost congratulating ourselves that, owing to the unusual strength of the current, the voyage would he rather longer than had originally been expected, when suddenly at one of the landing stations we were astonished by the news that the king had taken to flight, and that the republic had been proclaimed.
“The workmen of Lyons are mad with joy,” said our informant, who was the company’s agent, “and if you attempt to enter the place under Orleanist colours,” he added, addressing the sailors, “they will certainly knock your figurehead to pieces, and perhaps fire into you.”
“What are the colours of the new republic?” inquired the captain, with admirable promptitude.
“Most probably red,” replied the agent. “At all events, they are all reds at Lyons, as you know well enough, yourself.”
“Pull down that flag,” cried the captain, as soon as we had started. “Et puis, vite, une camisole rouge!”
Three of the sailors brought red camisoles. The captain took a pair of shears, cut off the arms of each, gave the mutilated bodies to the steward, and desired that functionary to sew them together, so as to form a large red flag.
“A pot of red paint!” shouted the captain, once more; but there was no red paint on board. “Never mind, then, green, blue, black, any kind will do,” he added.
A pot of black paint was produced, and the captain with a bold brush commenced painting out the words ” Duchesse de Nemours,” until at last all the beautiful gold letters were covered with one hideous sable smear.
“Adieu, la duchesse!” muttered one of the men, with a grin.
“There, don’t chatter,” said the captain, “but see if that flag’s ready.”
“Here it is, captain, all ready to hoist,” cried a sailor, into whose hands the steward had just delivered the improvised drapeau rouge.
“Then hoist it,” cried the gallant commander, and an instant afterwards, the united camisoles were seen fluttering in the breeze.
The captain paced the deck, as if in thought. Then suddenly pausing, he said to a group of passengers:
“La République doit-etre une femme?”
“I should think so,” answered an old officer, who had served under Napoleon. “That is why she never knows what she wants.”
“Captain,” at that moment interrupted the engineer, (he was an Englishman, and appeared much amused at the sudden change that had taken place in the political creed of his boat). “Captain, I have just come up to ask you whether you arc going to do anything to the figure-head? You know we have the duchess there as large as life.”
“How ingenious we English are!” replied the captain; “that was just what I was thinking about myself. But the piece of sculpture is monumental. It cost the company five hundred francs, and I don’t want to knock it to pieces.”
Some one suggested that the Duchess might be crowned with the cap of Liberty, and that she would then look like an emblematic figure of the Republic; but the captain maintained that the features of her royal highness were too well known, and that the excited mob might misinterpret their emblematic figure, and regard it as the symbol of an unnatural union between the exiled Orleanists and the now triumphant popular party.
At last the following brutal expedient was resorted to. The duchess, wearing her ducal coronet, was allowed to remain at the prow, but a rope was put round her neck; and under the protection of this scandalous device, and with the red flag glaring at the mast-head, the steamer passed along-side the quays of Lyons, amid the cheers of an intelligent and high-minded populace. In the evening a coloriste was sent for, who over the effaced “Duchesse de Nemours ” painted in white letters on a black ground, “Au Salut De La Republique ;” and an ingenious sculptor chiselled the Duchess’s nose into an absurd straight line continuous with her forehead, gave her ferocious eyes, cut her crown off, decorated her with the Phrygian cap, and probably sent in his bill to the company in the following words:
To the citizen Phidias Dupont, sculptor, for converting an
ex-Duchess into a figure of Liberty, 25 francs.
Proceeding from Lyons to Paris, we observed that theatres, public buildings, in short, everything in the country, had shared, more or less, the fate of the unfortunate Duchess. The Louvre was inscribed, ‘national property.’ In the evening we went to the Academic Nationale de Musique, and happening to purchase a box of lucifers on the boulevard, found that they were labelled, “allumettes nationales.” But above all the cafes and hotels had suffered. Even the old Cafe de la Regence, where Phillidor used to take his demi-tasse, and which had always been a chess playing and not a political cafe, had assumed some republican name (it is the Cafe de la Regence again now); and the only place of public entertainment which never ceased for an instant to assert its dependence on the monarchical system was the excellent Hotel des Princes.
But we were saying, that it is above all in the cafes proper that the history of France is to be read; and not the political history alone, for it can be shown that those interesting establishments are responsive not only to every political, but also to every social, literary, and commercial change that takes place in the French metropolis. The demoiselle du comptoir in the more popular, or perhaps we should say more plebeian, quarters of Paris, is herself an important historical figure, appearing, as she did during the African war, as an Algerienne, in the days of the Republic and of Mimi Pinson, as a priestess of Liberty, and while Sebastopol was being besieged as a Tartar girl of the Crimea: but she too is a political rather than a social index.
Such also were the United Cooks, whose miserable gargotes flourished during the Liberty Equality and Fraternity period. May they never return, with their boeuf a la republique, their agneau a la Robespierre, their veau a la baionnette, and their mouton a la sauce rouge, of which it would be difficult to say which was the most economical, and, above all, which was the most indigestible. Far different were the restaurants and cafes whose titles and interior arrangements might be looked upon as indicative of the social and intellectual movement of the nation, and of which the most remarkable we can remember at the present moment, were the enormous Literary Cafe on the Boulevard Bonnes Nouvelles, the Electric Cafes, of which there were several between the Porte St Martin and the Theatre Lyrique, and the still existing Cafe Oriental, near the Boulevard du Temple.
Most strangers, provincial Frenchmen as well as foreigners, who have visited Paris in the character of sight-seers, have been conducted to the dreary Cafe des Aveugles, and probably to the absurd Café des Singes; but it is only those who have never taken the trouble to enter the Pantheon or the Invalides, and who have wandered about the boulevards, careless how they might be devoured, that can have found their way to the Literary, the Electric, or the Oriental Cafe.
The Cafe Litteraire was a building of which it would be little to say that it was more magnificent than an English palace. Above the portico the title of the establishment, in gigantic letters and in striking relief, was conspicuous. The stone stair.case which led to the entrance was so imposing, that as you walked up it you instinctively put your hand in your pocket to assure yourself that you had a respectable number of francs at your disposal. In the vestibule stood two officials—one was the under-waiter, the other the sub-editor of the establishment.
“Does Monsieur wish to eat?” “Does Monsieur wish to read?” said the two functionaries at the same time.
Anxious to offend neither, and not possessing the art of eating and reading simultaneously, we replied that we wished to play at billiards.
“You will find the professor and tables in abundance on the first floor,” said the underwaiter. “Allow me to present you with the carte of my department;” and he handed me an ordinary carte du jour.
“Here is the carte of the department with which / have the honour to be connected,” said the sub-editor, giving me at the same time an astounding, unheard-of literary bill of fare, of which we subjoin a translation:
BILL OF THE DAY.
Odes and Ballads by Victor Hugo 8 parts (livraisons).
Poetic Meditations by Lamartine 10 ,,
Poems by Hippolyte Moreau . . 6 ,,
The Three Musketeers, by Alex. Dumas …. 40 ,,
Twenty Years Afterwards, by Alex. Dumas . . 40 ,,
The Viscount of Bragelonne, by Alex. Dumas . . 40 ,,
Memoirs of the, &c, by F. Soulie 40 ,,
The Sin of Mr. Antony, by George Sand . . . . 18 ,,
Scribe’s Theatre . . . 110 parts (livraisons).
Faust (Gerard de Nerval’s translation) 4 „
Corneille . . . . 2 ,,
The above works are ready, and can be supplied at a moment’s notice. The following have either not yet appeared in the edition peculiar to this establishment, or are still at the printer’s.
Then came a long list of French and Foreign works of every kind, followed by the annexed:
General Rules. Every consumer spending a franc in this establishment is entitled to one livraison, to be selected at will from our vast collection ; or in that proportion up to the largest sum he may expend. N.B.—To avoid delay, gentlemen consumers who may require an entire romance are requested to name their author with the soup.
“May billiard-players take advantage of this system?” we said to the professor, having now reached the first floor.
“Certainly,” was the reply. “It was but last week that a gentleman came here, who wanted the ‘Three Musketeers.’ He played eight hours a-day for four days in succession, and on the fourth, towards midnight, received from the hands of our editor-in-chief the last number of the work he so ardently desired,—one of the longest that this or any other age has produced.”
“I see, you charge twenty-five sous an hour for the tables, and the livraisons cost, at the ordinary book-shops, four sous each. But at the cafes on this boulevard, the ordinary charge for billiards is only twenty sous; so that…”
“Pardon me, sir,” interrupted the professor, with a sweet smile, “I perceive that you do not quite understand our system, which for the rest is unique. Allow me to explain it. At other cafes (is you play to win or to lose: perhaps only a demi-tasse, or a bottle of beer; but still there is a chance of loss. Here, on the other hand, there is a certainty of gain; and the great beauty of the system consists in this —that the longer you play, the more you win. As I was telling you, a gentleman only last week won a book worth forty francs, and that in four days! Why, sir, during tho same period many a man has ruined himself.”
Having played a few games with the professor, we found that we had two francs and a-half to pay, and having paid it and received a voucher for the sum, were waited upon by the editor in-chief. We were entitled, in strict justice, to two livraisons and a half; but the editor assured us that it was contrary to the rules of the establishment to serve less than an entire livraison. To ask for half a livraison, he said, was like ordering half a mutton chop or half a bottle of lemonade.
“What works are in season?” we inquired.
“All kinds, sir,” was the reply. “Would you like a nice little vaudeville? or, if it would not be more than you require, we could offer you a portion of a novel, by George Sand; it is not quite done, but it will be very fine when it is, if you don’t mind waiting. Or you could have a play by Victor Hugo—just up; or a poem—though it’s rather late,” he added, “and I’m afraid the poems are all gone. Let me recommend something by Dumas, and a piece of Scribe’s to follow.”
And with eight sous’ worth of literature, at the market value, in our pocket, we walked towards the door. As we passed the entrance to the restaurant, we overheard a conversation between an irascible ” consumer” and the head-waiter.
“I didn’t like the dinner you served me yesterday at all,” said the former.
“I am sorry it displeased you, sir,” answered the latter. “I will mention it to the cook.”
“It’s quite true the filet was tough,” continued the consumer. “But what I principally complain of is the novel. Confounded stuff! It actually gave me the nightmare!”
“I regret the occurrence exceedingly,” responded the waiter. “If you will favour me with the title of the work which disagreed with you, I will call the editor’s attention to it.”
The establishment of the Cafe Litteraire was contemporaneous with the first issue on a large scale of three-franc volumes and four-sous livraisons; with liberty of the press, open discussion, and the ascendency of literary men in connection with politics. As a natural consequence of this general intellectual activity, a taste for popular science arose, which the astronomer on the Pont Neuf, with his long telescope and his interminable orations, was unable to satisfy. The public laughed at the old savant. He assured us that the little boys repeated to him his own lecture on the moon,—in fine, treated him with contempt.
Unable to assist the poor man, even with our advice, we went to dine, and in the evening visited the Folies Nouvelles, where the great impersonator of the Sire de Framboisy was then performing. At the end of the representation, afflicted with thirst, we entered a kind of cafe, which however was more a buffet than a cafe, and in which the most remarkable object was an enormous metal counter. Having disposed of our beverage, we, in accordance with the custom in such cases, were in the act of placing a piece of money on the counter in token of payment, when, to our astonishment and confusion, we received a violent shock in the right arm, which might have caused a person with less presence of mind to relax his hold on the coin. Turning to a friend who was with us, we hinted our suspicions that we had received an electric shock.
“The notion is absurd,” said our friend. “You must have knocked your funny-bone against the corner of the wall. Why should the proprietor of a cafe electrify his customers, and how should he do so simply with a metal counter, just like any other counter?”
We replied that we were ignorant of science, but that we could recognise a sensation, and that we had been electrified.
“Perhaps it was the young lady behind the counter,” suggested the incredulous one. “We often read in the journals of a prima donna electrifying the audience. Probably it was something in the young lady’s manner of saying ‘Vingt quatre sous‘ that affected you so powerfully.”
“Touch the counter yourself,” was our laconic rejoinder.
“I am touching it,” answered the unbeliever, as he in fact placed his hand upon it, “and it produces no effect whatever upon me.”
We had been conversing in English. In the meanwhile the demoiselle du comptoir had put down our change, amounting to sixteen sous, which, electrified or not, we had no intention of leaving. With considerable determination we made a clutch at the half-franc, and succeeded in obtaining possession of it without any unpleasant result beyond that of exposing ourselves to the ridicule of every one in the cafe. Then with more composure we proceeded to gather up the coppers, but in making the attempt received such a violent shock that we were obliged to abandon our project. The demon of electricity protected the sous. It was impossible to take hold of them, and we were about to leave them to their fate, when the demoiselle du comptoir collected them apparently without the slightest difficulty, and placed them in our hand, saying very calmly: “Monsieur appears to be afraid of his own money.”
“It is very strange,” said our friend as we left the place, “we both had our hands uncovered, and you certainly seemed to receive an electric shock, whereas I experienced nothing of the kind.”
Having been mystified ourselves, our only consolation was to mystify some one else. We returned to the electric caff i the next evening with an unsuspicious compatriot, and had the satisfaction of seeing him receive several severe shocks while endeavouring to pay for a cup of coffee. We, on the other hand, touched the counter with impunity. It was evident that we were already reckoned among the initiated.
However, we were determined not to go away until we had penetrated the great mystery of the establishment; and when we had spent a sufficient sum of money to entitle us to the privilege, the demoiselle du comptoir condescended to explain to us in a neat lecture how it was that her counter electrified us. We will not reproduce her discourse. Suffice it to say, that at the foot of the metal counter was a strip of sheet-iron, which was connected with one of the wires of a galvanic battery, the other wire being in communication with the counter itself. When one of the initiated touched the counter, the young lady who presided thereat interrupted the communication; when she abstained from doing so, it was of course impossible to touch it without receiving a shock.
“We find that this amuses the consumers,” said our instructress in conclusion ; “but the electric counter was originally established in the interests of science.”
The end of the electric counters was curious. They spread so rapidly that at length the government felt called upon to suppress them. Whether there are scientific” as well as literary censors in Paris we cannot say, but in all probability there are; and the censor for the electric department may have feared that the abundance of electricity on the lower boulevard would some day produce a terrific thunder-storm. Or the effects of sudden agitation on a people condemned to political inactivity may have been dreaded; but, whatever the motive, it is certain that the electric counters were severely condemned and strictly forbidden by the police.
Shortly afterwards, when all the journalists in Paris were suffering either from the tyranny of the censorship which rendered the exercise of their profession nearly impossible, or from the absolute suppression of their journals, we stumbled upon the announcement of a certain “Diner Oriental” held at the Cafe Oriental, and which we afterwards discovered to be one of the results of the destruction of periodical literature in France. Qui dort, dine, says the proverb, and thus (slightly to misapply the dictum) the journalists, finding themselves condemned to a sort of literary atrophy, had taken to uttering their opinions at the dinner-table. Why the dinner in question was honoured with the epithet of “oriental” we never could make out, unless it was that it was held at the east end of Paris. The meal was not an expensive one, costing a franc and a half with half a bottle of ordinary wine, or two francs with a bottle of “old Macon.” The menu was as follows: “Soup, hors d’oeuvre of radishes and butter, one entree, one roast, two vegetables, salad,” and, in place of dessert, “literary and artistic conversation by Messieurs les habitues.” We thought this last dish was certainly not nourishing, but it might be refreshing.
It was spring, the afternoon was magnificent, and we dined in a garden beneath a grove of trees, which, however, was more poetical than pleasant, for the birds were making their nests overhead, and from time to time kicked down little twigs and pieces of moss, which fell into the dishes or on to the heads of the diners. “Messieurs les habitues” ate like ogres, and drank freely either of the ordinary wine or of the “old Macon,” which had apparently been about five minutes in bottle.
At last, the moment of the intellectual dessert arrived. We confess it disappointed us. One habitue produced a number of the Charivari, another a copy of the Tintamarre, a third had brought a volume of the extinct Garret Journal (Journal de la Mansarde), of which it was one of the rules that no contributions should be received from any writer who occupied apartments lower than the fourth floor; a fourth exhibited a prospectus of the forthcoming Flash of Lightning, (L’Eclair), in which it was announced that as the subscribers to the Flash of Lightning were sure to be persons belonging to the elite of intellectual society, it was proposed to re-unite them once every year in the largest ball-room that could be found in Paris; and the editor added that distant provincial subscribers who might not think it worth their while to come to Paris specially for the ball might, if they chanced to visit the metropolis, call upon the editor at his private residence, when he would be only too happy to accompany them on an artistic expedition through the capital, and to point out to them and enlarge upon the beauties of the various monuments which had made the fair Lutetia the glory of the civilised world.
Other habitues had brought manuscripts which they threatened to read, and the “literary and artistic conversation ” (hitherto almost exclusively literary) had been going on for about ten minutes when Mademoiselle Blanche, whom we at once recognised as a coryphee from the Folies Dramatiques (and who was the daughter of the proprietor of the cafe), made her appearance with a number of the Gazette des Theatres in her hand. Then the conversation took an exclusively “artistic,” that is to say theatrical, turn, doubtless out of compliment to Mademoiselle Blanche. The little coryphee, on her side, had many civil things to say to a sentimental gentleman who had written about her in the theatrical journal just named, and who, without ceremony, had compared her to Taglioni.
At half-past seven Mademoiselle Blanche, having first of all promised the editor of the Flash of Lightning that she would be present at his ball, went off to the “Folies,” escorted by the critic. Then the manuscript holders again tried to make themselves heard, and after a very narrow escape from a political novel in eight books, we thought it time to make good our retreat, and went away highly edified by the “literary and artistic conversation of Messieurs les habitues.”
H. Sutherland Edwards.