The Face of Paris
By George McLean Harper
[Scribner's Magazine, December 1917]
How does Paris look by this time? How does a city look when, its fate hangs on the strength of a line of men only seventy miles away? Are the people anxious? Is there any laughter in the houses, any light in women's faces, any spring in children's feet? Are there signs of discouragement? Is food scarce? Is there much discontent? Is man-power much depleted? These are questions which are likely to be put to a person who has been in Paris recently. If some, tourist agency could arrange for a. three hours' visit to Paris, taking up the travellers from their homes in America, bringing them by wireless to the Place de l'Étoile, conducting them through those parts of the city that are most worth seeing, and then setting them down, safe and sound, at their own dinner-tables, it might charge a very considerable price and yet do an immense business. Many stay-at-home Americans would be glad to have that experience.
In my walks here I like to fancy myself dropped down thus for a three hours' visit, a precious only visit, and try to note everything significant and memorable. I shut my eyes, count five, and open them again, pretending that I have just arrived by magic. Then I busily record every unwonted aspect and incident. I did this once in a trolley-car that was climbing a hill from the Seine in Saint Cloud, and the first thing I saw beside the track was a group of very ragged, dirty, and barefoot children. "This is war," I sighed. "I never saw the like in antebellum France." A turn in the road disclosed a gypsy camp, into which the children darted, and I laughed at myself, realizing that they were not French nor in all probability either hungry or unhappy.
But in the matter of impressions there is no time like the first twenty-four hours, and I attach considerable barometric value to the fluctuations of my spirits on the fifteenth of May, when I found myself, after five years' absence, on the Quai d'Orsay outside the railway station, in a new and yet strangely familiar Paris. There were only half a dozen cabs in sight where there used to be a hundred, and some of the drivers were women, dressed, from the waist up, as nearly as possible like the traditional cocher, in red vests, blue coats with metal buttons, and glazed round hats. Passengers from the trains were walking off with their own bags and bundles. Here were two slender girls carrying a trunk between them. They put it down to breathe when they reached the Pont Royal. The motorbuses, which used to come thundering and screeching down the Rue du Bac, were not running, so that it was easier than it had been before the war to understand why Madame de Sévigné sighed for the gutter of that ancient thoroughfare. It was a pleasure to see old people and children stringing across that once dangerous crossing without terror. "War," I thought, "has one good side if it has restored Paris to the pedestrian."
The sun was setting behind the Arc de Triomphe, and for a few moments a golden light flared from the river and danced among the leaves of the poplars that line the quays. With a shock of pleased surprise I saw that the book-stalls were still in place on the parapet and open and full of books and maps and engravings, more or less worthless, but always stimulating to curiosity. Somehow I had supposed that the book-stalls would have been among the first features of Paris to disappear. But there they were, just like the river-itself, and the old women who guard them with such apparent indifference were still knitting and looking the other way, so as not to make shy purchasers nervous. From the Quai Voltaire I turned in at a familiar door to a hospitable and quiet hotel which, had often sheltered me in years gone by. The old landlord, who remembered me, showed no surprise. Perhaps it was a war economy, but in any case it pleased, me to see that the same old carpet was on the stairs. I knew by the shaking of the house that the underground trains were still running. The river steamboats flashed past as usual and the slow barges nosed their way between the arches of the bridge just as they always did. Breakfast next morning was the same as before the war, except that the bread was made from whole-wheat flour and the lumps of sugar for my coffee were exactly the number that a reasonable man would require, and no more. And the price had not changed. In old days this hotel was the resort of a few American and British families and of sedate French people from the country; now I noticed various pieces of uniform hanging in the hall and inferred that the house was full of officers on short leave.
Going out into the morning streets, I found them certainly less crowded than before the war. Almost as many soldiers were to be seen as civilians, and among the latter there were few foreigners. Motor-trucks, carrying aeroplanes and military supplies, were more noticeable and perhaps more frequent than ordinary business lorries. There was no hurry, and no one looked anxious, though it was plain enough that a deep seriousness possessed the minds of all adults. The latter half of May was a period of depression in France. A winter almost without coal had left many people suffering from colds and chilblains. The April offensive, though not altogether unsuccessful, had fallen far short of what was expected. Men wounded in that great attack and kept hitherto in base hospitals were now being brought into Paris. The extent of Russia's defection was beginning to be appreciated. There were some strikes in the clothing trade, not in themselves very important, but full of menace. Women, under their black veils, looked sad.
No one, except soldiers in uniform, looked really cheerful. It was then that the face of Paris, the physical loveliness of this queen of cities, helped to keep up the courage of the people. The city government had wisely paid at least as much attention as usual to the parks and public gardens; flowers were blooming in every open plot of ground; the parterres in the Tuileries were glorious; and I have no doubt that the beauty of Paris, appealing to a sensitive population, went far to turn the winter of their discontent into the summer of hope that presently arose. The newspapers were unnecessarily pessimistic in May, and their foolish headlines gave currency to exaggerated reports of strikes and revolts. It was wonderful to see the change that sunshine and success brought about by the middle of July. In the interval Russia had had one of her favorable turns, the British had won a splendid victory near Arras, the French themselves had repulsed a fierce attack before Verdun, and American troops had been seen in France. There is nothing like seeing. The French have never doubted the fidelity and tenacity of Britain, but that the United States would actually send an army was seriously disbelieved. The welcome given to our men on the Fourth of July had in it therefore something of the frankness of a confession.
Since then a splendid summer has made people forget the coal problem, abundant crops have reduced the cost of food, the quality of bread has improved, fewer recently wounded men are to be seen and more German prisoners, several lines of motor omnibuses are operated, more underground trains are run, more shops are open, and a general feeling of relief is evident everywhere. Bread is cheaper than in the United States, though the quality, as compared with the yard of golden-brown ambrosia that ten sous would buy before the war, leaves much to be desired. Notwithstanding that there are two meatless days a week and two days when the sugar-loving American cannot purchase chocolate or confectionery, a good meal may still be had for three or four francs in most of the restaurants of Paris. In spite of the supposed shortage of gasolene, taxicabs are equal to the demand, which of course is not great, and the fares are much lower than in New York. One can cross the street without much risk in places like the corner of the rue de Rivoli and the rue Royale. Young and middle-aged men in civilian garb are few and far between. Even more noticeable is the absence of overdressed people, wasters, and those who cater to the fancies of the idle rich. The plain people possess Paris, which, is rather gain than loss, A good many shops are closed, but if you examine their signs you see that what was formerly sold in them were goods not strictly necessary to life and happiness. Luxury trades have suffered, but the dealing in essentials goes on about as usual. To any one accustomed to think of Paris chiefly as a city of luxurious refinements; it must be surprising to observe how little difference is made by the closing of jewellers' shops and how the genuine Paris has revealed itself. An old Parisian friend of mine once told me that no city in the world contained more men and women devoted to serious pursuits, and I believe he was right.
Though there must be many families with broken fortunes, nobody seems to be out of work. I have seen only two or three beggars in three months, except the gypsy children in Saint Cloud. I have seen no bread-lines. On the other hand, I have seen very few dresses that look new or fashionable. Women appear to have turned over the contents of their wardrobes and to have exercised their individual tastes. The results are charming. The serious question is: "How are we to keep warm next winter?" Every bit of bark that falls from the sycamores in Neuilly, every dead branch that drops in the Bois de Boulogne, every piece of board and every box are being gathered against the coming cold, Housekeepers are saving paper, which they roll into balls with some sticky substance, to use as fuel.
It is hardly proper to speak of the face of Paris, for the city has many parts and aspects. Between Neuilly, for example, Modern, sanitary, with wide, well-shaded avenues, and the Latin Quarter, still mediaeval notwithstanding some regrettable reforms, there can be no measure of comparison. Passy, rising above the Seine on the right bank, is a town by itself. The hasty traveller remembers only the Champs Élysée, the Grands Boulevards, and the adjacent streets, but Montmartre and Belleville are here to assert their rights, and the rue de la Paix is not so rootedly Parisian as the rue de l'Arbre Sec or the rue du Pot de Fer or the rue du Puits de l'Ermite, Yet, after all, if the war has made any impression, it will be seen plainly enough in the course of a walk from the Place de l'Étoile to the Louvre, then across the Pont Royal and along the Quai Voltaire and the Quai des Grands Augustins to the Boulevard Saint Michel, and thence by a winding way to the Pantheon, the Luxembourg Garden, and the Odeon.
No other thoroughfare in Paris shows the effect of the war so much as the Champs Élysée. At the very top of it stands a great hotel that has been turned into a hospital for French wounded, over which floats the Union Jack, for it is maintained by the British as a fraternal offering to France. As we go down the avenue we pass a Russian hospital, likewise in a celebrated hotel and through the windows of the ground floor we see big Russian soldiers lying in gilt beds in an overdecorated dining-room. Roumanian, Montenegrin, and French hospitals, a shop for the sale of goods made by wounded men, the headquarters of an American relief association, the warehouses of the American Fund for French Wounded, closed lace, fur, and tapestry stores, mark the way to the Place de la Concorde. Nearly all the men one meets are in uniform, or perhaps it would be truer to say multiform. British and Belgians are in khaki. The Montenegrin doublets of dust-colored gray and trousers of dark blue and long black boots are different from any other costume, and the men that wear them are the tallest.
Australians are distinguishable from New Zealanders by their hats. The Russians, who were numerous in May, have disappeared. Here and there one meets a Portuguese officer in a neat pea-green uniform. American, British, and Canadian officers look much alike to any but the sharpest eyes. The variety of the French uniforms is bewildering. At first it seemed as if I must conclude "motley's the only wear," but soon I observed that the youngest, dustiest, most weary-looking men, with hard-set faces, who glanced neither to right nor left but lunged painfully forward under enormous packs, men with the mark of great memories on their brows and a stern determination in their legs, men from the trenches whose feet the pavement hurt, wore tunics and breeches and puttees and helmets all of a decided that this was the real thing. The men in brown velveteen, yellow khaki, and the red trousers and blue coats of the old infantry, the men in red fezes and wide red pantaloons and other fantastic finery of the zouaves, the men in various experiments in protective coloration, were reservists and permissionaires.
It is a strange sight, this mingling of types in the Champs Élysée. Homesick French boys wandering aimlessly along; energetic English subalterns bent on having some fun; Highlanders whose mien accords fully with the French saying, "Fier comme un Ecossais"; tall, thin Senegalese taller and blacker than any American negroes; brown Algerians; American ambulance-drivers, waiting with sorely tried patience for something to do; little yellow soldiers from Annam who look like girls—it is, indeed, a military kaleidoscope. But most noticeable of all are the wounded, generally in groups and always pitiful; and, on the whole, the Champs Élysée presents a depressing spectacle.
It is only when one reaches the Place de la Concorde, surely the centre of the finest panorama in any city, that one feels relief from the sense of war's wastefulness, for here one enters a region of great and permanent monuments and the Seine comes into view, with its bridges and curving quays, and the poplars whisper their old song, and the barges drift slowly by, and on the other side lies a more ancient and fascinating Paris, which the war has touched only to make more distinct and true to itself. In the garden of the Tuileries the fountains play as usual and children sail toy boats in the basins. In the Place de Rivoli, Joan of Arc still rides to victory, and who that sees her can doubt or despair? Only, O Maid in Armor, it is the race bred from your old foes the Anglois (the old spelling) who with your own heroic countrymen will free the soil of your Lorraine.
There is unfortunately no name except the awkward and inadequate compound "Anglo-Saxon" to designate the English-speaking people, but however called and under whatever flag, it is the men of British origin and English speech who will have to finish this war. France is capable of holding her own, and doubtless will hold her own, along the line she has reserved for herself, but it would be too much to expect her to lead in the next great offensive. Even now her losses appear to be far short of those which the British are suffering. She has not yet been obliged to send her boys under twenty-one to the front, and it is to be hoped she will not have to send them. I make these statements merely from personal observation and without paying much attention to published figures. Judging from the small number of recently wounded men who came to the hospitals of Paris and its environs during the summer, I should say that the French were suffering smaller losses than the British, and from the ages of the men I am confident that the younger classes have been held in reserve. No one observing the high proportion of women who wear mourning could demand greater sacrifices than they have made. I have witnessed nothing that distressed me so much as the drilling of French youth from eighteen to twenty-one years old. They know what awaits them unless the war ends next summer. And one feels that they are doubly, trebly precious to their families and their country because of the losses already suffered in the classes that preceded them.
The Latin Quarter shows fewer traces of war than the city on the right bank, and such changes as have occurred have brought out the true character of that mountain of schools and busy homes. There is a feeling of neighborliness here, as if we were in a small town and among old acquaintances. On the quays and at the foot of the rue de Seine people still finger the soiled bouquins that are exposed for admiration and sale, and seem inspired with the old hope of finding a treasure. In this corner, dedicated to literature and the fine arts, surrounded by print-shops, the Institute, the palace of the Beaux Arts, and the river which was the cause of Paris and is still its chief ornament, stands the statue of Voltaire, contemplating with his astute smile the innocents who fish in the Seine for gudgeons .and those equally hopeful optimists who turn the pages looking for pearls of wisdom. How much of the best of all that is French is represented by these two statues, that of the devout heroine and this of the humane wit!
There still are cafes in the Boul' Miche' and the pace of the passing throng is leisurely as of yore, and half a dozen long-haired young-old men in velveteen jackets and Rembrandt hats are still to be seen; but they look strangely out of place and very lonely, and by ten o'clock at night quiet reigns from the Odéon to the Seine. The quarter has gained as well as lost by the war. Wisdom no longer cries aloud in the street, but neither does folly. Though the schools have suffered, they have kept open, and their work is intensely serious. The many women and the few men who attend lectures in the university realize that the tradition of sound learning must pass through them or be lost. And now that the human tide has ebbed, the architectural monuments, like rocks in shoal water, assert their ancient claims. If France had been conquered in 1914 and fallen to the rank of a second or third rate power, so that Paris remained only a relic of civilization, certain structures, like the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Panthéon, if the barbarians had spared them, would have kept a touching charm and a serene aloofness. Even now, because the flood of traffic is low and the noises of the street are stilled, their high qualities are enhanced. In the pale light of these summer evenings the Panthéon especially is a lonely figure of grandeur. The pavement around it is empty. The lines of the rue Soufflot converge without interruption till they embrace this edifice, Roman in its massive and simple outline, yet very French in its fine gray color. This monument, not only of great men but of a great country and a great age, would grace a Paris in ruins, One thinks of the temple of Neptune at Paestum and of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
But the terrible and beautiful dream of a dead Paris lasts only a moment. The vast city still pulsates at our feet, and it is seldom, on the quietest nights, that the sound of the guns reaches our ears. There is some doubt as to how the deliverance was accomplished. In the ancient church of Saint Etienne du Mont, hard by the Panthéon, there is a votive tablet to the patron saint of Paris that gives one account and not the most fantastic; it reads: "Gratitude to Sainte Geneviève, who preserved Paris from the invasion of the modern Huns, September, 1914." For my part I have more faith in "la bonne Lorraine." and will confess to being deeply touched by a prayer, embroidered by the hands of a little girl and pinned to the statue of the heroine, in another church: "Jeanne d'Arc protegez mon Papa."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald