AT THE CAFE DE LA PAIX
As love-making in which we have no share is apt to be either tantalising or monotonous, I propose to skip the next fortnight and introduce myself to the reader at a moment when I am once more alone. It is about six o'clock on a summer afternoon, I am in Paris, and seated at one of the little marble tables of the Cafe de la Paix, dreamily watching the glittering tide of gay folk passing by,--
"All happy people on their way To make a golden end of day."
Meditatively I smoke a cigarette and sip a pale greenish liquor smelling strongly of aniseed, which isn't half so interesting as a commonplace whiskey and soda, but which, I am told, has the recommendation of being ten times as wicked. I sip it with a delicious thrill of degeneration, as though I were Eve tasting the apple for the first time,--for "such a power hath white simplicity." Sin is for the innocent,--a truth which sinners will be the first to regret. It was so, I said to myself, Alfred de Musset used to sit and sip his absinthe before a fascinated world. It is a privilege for the world to look on greatness at any moment, even when it is drinking. So I sat, and privileged the world.
It will readily be surmised from this exordium that--incredible as it may seem in a man of thirty--this was my first visit to Paris. You may remember that I had bought Orlando's tickets, and it had occurred to Sylvia and me to use them. Sylvia was due in London to fulfil a dancing engagement within a fortnight after our arrival; so after a tender good-bye, which there was no earthly necessity to make final, I had remained behind for the purposes of study. Though, logically, my pilgrimage had ended with the unexpected discovery of Sylvia Joy, yet there were two famous feminine types of which, seeing that I was in Paris, I thought I might as well make brief studies, before I returned to London and finally resumed the bachelorhood from which I had started. These were the grisette of fiction and the American girl of fact. Pending these investigations, I meditated on the great city in the midst of which I sat.
A city! How much more it was than that! Was it not the most portentous symbol of modern history? Think what the word "Paris" means to the emancipated intellect, to the political government, to the humanised morals, of the world; not to speak of the romance of its literature, the tradition of its manners, and the immortal fame of its women. France is the brain of the world, as England is its heart, and Russia its fist. Strange is the power, strange are the freaks and revenges, of association, particularly perhaps of literary association. Here pompous official representatives may demur; but who can doubt that it is on its literature that a country must rely for its permanent representation? The countries that are forgotten, or are of no importance in the councils of the world, are countries without literature. Greece and Rome are more real in print than ever they were in marble. Though, as we know, prophets are not without honour save in their own countries and among their own kindred, the time comes when their countries and kindred are entirely without honour save by reason of those very prophets they once despised, rejected, stoned, and crucified. Subtract its great men from a nation, and where is its greatness?
Similarly, everything, however trifling, that has been written about, so long as it has been written about sufficiently well, becomes relatively enduring and representative of the country in which it is found. To an American, for example, the significance of a skylark is that Shelley sang it to skies where even it could never have mounted; and any one who has heard the nightingale must, if he be open-minded, confess its tremendous debt to Keats: a tenth part genuine song, the rest moon, stars, silence, and John Keats,--such is the nightingale. The real truth about a country will never be known till every representative type and condition in it have found their inspired literary mouthpiece. Meanwhile one country takes its opinion of another from the apercus of a few brilliant but often irresponsible or prejudiced writers,--and really it is rather in what those writers leave out than in what they put in that one must seek the more reliable data of national character.
A quaint example of association occurs to me from the experience of a friend of mine, "rich enough to lend to the poor." Having met an American friend newly landed at Liverpool, and a hurried quarter of an hour being all that was available for lunch, "Come let us have a pork-pie and a bottle of Bass" he had suggested.
"Pork-pies!" said the American, with a delighted sense of discovering the country,--"why, you read about them in Dickens!" Who shall say but that this instinctive association was an involuntary severe, but not inapplicable, criticism? A nightingale suggests Keats; a pork-pie, Dickens.
Similarly with absinthe, grisettes, the Latin Quarter, and so on.
Why, you read about them in Murger, in Musset, in Balzac, and in Flaubert; and the fact of your having read about them is, I may add, their chief importance.
So rambled my after-dinner reflections as I sat that evening smoking and sipping, sipping and smoking, at the Cafe de la Paix.
Presently in my dream I became aware of English voices near me, one of which seemed familiar, and which I couldn't help overhearing. The voice of the husband said,--you can never mistake the voice of the husband,--
'T was the voice of the husband, I heard him complain,--
the voice of the husband said: "Dora, I forbid you! I will NOT allow my wife to be seen again in the Latin Quarter. I permitted you to go once, as a concession, to the Cafe d'Harcourt; but once is enough. You will please respect my wishes!"
"But," pleaded the dear little woman, whom I had an immediate impulse, Perseus- like, to snatch from the jaws of her monster, and turning to the other lady of the party of four,--"but Mrs. ---- has never been, and she cannot well go without a chaperone. Surely it cannot matter for once. It isn't as if I were there constantly."
"No!" said the husband, with the absurd pomposity of his tribe.
"I'm very sorry. Mrs. ---- will, of course, act as she pleases; but I cannot allow you to do it, Dora."
At last the little wife showed some spirit.
"Don't talk to me like that, Will," she said. "I shall go if I please. Surely I am my own property."
"Not at all!" at once flashed out the husband, wounded in that most vital part of him, his sense of property. "There you mistake. You are my property, MY chattel; you promised obedience to me; I bought you, and you do my bidding!"
"Great heavens!" I ejaculated, and, springing up, found myself face to face with a well-known painter whom you would have thought the most Bohemian fellow in London. And Bohemian he is; but Bohemians are seldom Bohemians for any one save themselves. They are terrible sticklers for convention and even etiquette in other people.
We recognised each other with a laugh, and presently were at it, hammer and tongs. I may say that we were all fairly intimate friends, and thus had the advantage of entire liberty of speech. I looked daggers at the husband; he looked daggers at me, and occasionally looking at his wife, gave her a glance which was like the opening of Bluebeard's closet. You could see the poor murdered bodies dangling within the shadowy cupboard of his eye. Of course we got no further. Additional opposition but further enraged him. He recapitulated what he would no doubt call his arguments,--they sounded more like threats,--and as he spoke I saw dragons fighting for their dams in the primeval ooze, and heard savage trumpetings of masculine monsters without a name.
I told him so.
"You are," I said,--"and you will forgive my directness of expression,--you are the Primeval Male! You are the direct descendant of those Romans who carried off the Sabine women. Nay! you have a much longer genealogy. You come of those hairy anthropoid males who hunted their mates through the tangle of primeval forests, and who finally obtained their consent--shall we say?--by clubbing them on the head with a stone axe. You talk a great deal of nonsense about the New Woman, but you, Sir, are THE OLD MALE; and," I continued, "I have only to obtain your wife's consent to take her under my protection this instant."
Curiously enough, "The Old Male," as he is now affectionately called, became from this moment quite a bosom friend. Nothing would satisfy us but that we should all lodge at the same pension together, and there many a day we fought our battles over again. But that poor little wife never, to my knowledge, went to the Cafe d'Harcourt again.Next