Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/An afternoon at Auteuil


Tired for the moment of lounging up and down the boulevard, satiated with the sight of the glittering fantastic articles de Paris in the shop-windows, and weary of the ceaseless stir and bustle of the liveliest thoroughfare in the world, I was sitting, the other day, on one of the benches which the considerate municipality of the French capital has liberally provided for the benefit of weary pilgrims, meditating a new excitement. To quit the animated scene before me, and to plunge suddenly into the silence and solitude of Faubourg St. Germain, certainly promised a sensation of a decided kind quite equal to the climax of a Turkish bath; but I was repelled by the recollection of the gloomy aspect of that region, where everything and everybody seem to wear a scowl of Ultramontane wrath, from the pale-faced students of the seminary, and the care-worn priests, down to the beadle of St. Sulpice; from the great mute hotels, with all their gates and windows closed toward the street, down to the little book-shops with windows full of portraits of ecclesiactical monseigneurs in lithographic black and white, each looking as grim and sour as if he were listening to a telling speech from the Devil’s Advocate on his own case; dismal tomes of polemical theology in funereal livery of black and gold, and pamphlets of every size and price denouncing one Iscariot (supposed to live somewhere near the Louvre), on sallow, bilious-coloured pages.

The Marais also suggested itself to my mind as the seat of quiet and repose, but I did not feel in sufficiently good spirits to face the depressing exhibition of the elaborate economies which prevail in the head-quarters of the shabby-genteel. As I was thus hesitating in which direction I should turn, up rolled an omnibus, and saved me the trouble of making up my mind. In an instant I had clambered up the iron rigging and taken a vacant seat on the forecastle—I mean the roof—without knowing or caring whether my vehicle was a red or a yellow,—a “gazelle” or an “elephant,” or “swallow,” or a “gondola.” I had not the most remote idea whither I was bound. A glance at the sides of the ‘bus, would, of course, have enlightened me on that point, but I carefully averted my eyes. Just then I shared Dundreary’s feeling—I didn’t like to look because I liked to wonder. There was something quite refreshing in my utter ignorance of the destination to which the three podgy grey horses were conveying me.

The course lies eastward. Presently, dashing across the Place de la Concorde, we get a passing glimpse of the grand vista of the Champs Elysées, with its pleasant avenues full of children and nurses, six-goat carriages and vendors of lemonade and cakes. In a few seconds more the Seine is flashing its whitey-brown waters in the sun. The swimming-baths are gay with fluttering pennons; the washerwomen in their barges are hard at work thumping the obstinately dirty clothes with wooden mallets; the tide keeps the clumsy wheels of the colour-grinding maching in lively motion.

We follow the course of the river till, turning off beyond the Pont d’Jena, the fat little horses slacken pace in order to climb rather a steep incline. Here we get a capital panoramic view of Paris, with its domes and towers rising out of the dull red and white labyrinth of streets. The dusty plain of the Champ de Mars lies before us on the other side of the river, and the ceaseless, monotonous tattoo of the young drummers practising among the trees reaches our ears in softened cadence. We have surmounted the col now, and enter a pleasant highway lined with trees and villas. The houses by the road-side vary in style. A few are grand mansions embowered in groves, and here and there one sees a coat-of-arms or quaint, heraldic supporters interwoven with the scroll-work of the tall iron gates and railings. The majority of the dwelling-houses are villas of moderate size, plain and elegant, with none of the elaborate coxcombry of what your cockney calls his cottage ornée. They are the refuge of government clerks and other officials—men with fixed salaries of not too liberal a figure, who have been driven from their old quarters on a third floor in the heart of the capital by the Emperor’s demolitions and buildings. The new mansions are too dear for them. Domestic seclusion is apparently not much heeded here. Most of the windows are wide open, the doors stand agape. I see the cook in her little kitchen (which is almost invariably the room to the left of the door as you enter, and immediately opposite the parlour or dining-room on the other side of the passage), surrounded by a bright array of those copper skillets and saucepans in which she concocts her mysterious but piquant messes. I look in upon the lady of the house seated at her embroidery or reading the last new novel in her easy-chair. I have a good view of the bonne and her little charges in another chamber, where they are playing in that reserved manner in which French children seem to me always to take their sport. Alphonse never for a moment forgetting his natty velvet blouse, or Marie her miniature skirts. Soon shops begin to mingle meekly with, and then to bustle, and finally to displace the villas. There are no more gardens lining the road, but a straggling line of trees keeps us company for a little way further. With an explosive crack of the driver’s whip, a demonstrative gallop by the podgy steeds, and much clatter on the nobbly causeway, the ‘bus wheels round suddenly into the little square and halts opposite to a large, staring, white-washed building, which proclaims itself in big blue letters, aided by a dingy tricolor, as the Mairie of Passy.

A very brief acquaintance with Passy enables me to discover that it is engaged in a continual and energetic protest against a calumny as cruel and fatal to its business as that which Dr. Isaac Bickerstaffe published against Partridge, the almanack-maker. The Doctor declared the weather-prophet was dead; the prophet declared he was alive. In the same way a wicked law has declared Passy to be part and parcel of Paris; Passy repudiates the charge with scorn and anger. By a legal fiction it may be so, but as to the individuality of Passy being dead, we have it on the word and honour of every inhabitant that it never was more vivid or emphatic. You see this was once a green country town, and made a good living out of the summer visitors. It has a mineral spring, too, and would like to be a fashionable watering-place, only it can’t get people to believe any longer that, to be in Passy, is to be in the country.

It is only a suburb, says the scornful metropolitan; I might as well sit on a two-sous chair in the gardens of the Tuileries or Palais Royal as go there—it is only half-an-hour’s walk or a quarter of an hour’s ride—the country lies further a-field. In fact, it is the misfortune of Passy to be overlaid by its fat old mother, Paris. Yet, with a heart for every fate, Passy bears up against its doom. It clings to the past by the cords of the old swinging lanterns which still adorn its by-streets, though the horrid innovation of gas has been inflicted on its main street. It is garrulous about the Abbé Raynal, Dr. Franklin, Piccini, Bellini, and the other worthies who once lived there. It boasts of its rural situation and salubrious air. It hangs out its thousand placards announcing the summer lodgings which it makes ready for the people who never come. Its shopkeepers proclaim by conspicuous bills in their windows, that Paris fashions, Paris confectionery, and charcuterie are periodically imported from that remote capital. Yet it is easy to see that this is a hopeless struggle.

“Ah!” said the dealer (en gros et en detail), of whom, just to give trade a fillip, I bought a glass of white wine, “Passy est passé.” He had lost heart, but he uttered these words in a whisper. I don’t know what would have happened to him if any of the sparrows had carried the matter to the ears of his heroic townsmen.

Taking coach again, I find myself, some ten minutes after, set down in Auteuil—a dull, dozy, little place, with a promenade ground, flanked with trees and benches, running up the middle of the High Street. Here are “several spots of interest,” as the guide-books say. There is an old church, in the graveyard of which the Chancellor d’Aguesseau is buried, and a bran new hospital—the asylum of Sainte Périne—for persons of decayed fortunes. I don’t care about either, but, turning up the Rue de Boileau, I take a good look at No. 18. It is a modest two-storey house, turning its whitewashed gable end towards the street. Through the open gate in the high, jealous wall I get a sight of a tidy little garden and of the front of the house, which is very plain, with small old-fashioned windows and wooden trellis-work, on which a creeper hangs gracefully. This No. 18 is commonly set down in guide-books as the house of Boileau. That is a mistake. It was, I believe, the dwelling, not of the poet, but only of the poet’s gardener, Antoine Regnier—that same Antoine to whom his master addressed so much poetic counsel, and whom he has celebrated in one of his verses as

Qui dir—gouverneur de mon jardin d’Auteuil
Qui dirige chez moi l’if et le chèvre-feuille.

Boileau’s own house has disappeared, and in its absence we must be content with this relic as a link in the chain of association. Perhaps the honeysuckle on the verandah is the very one which Antoine used to tend while the Historiographer Royal looked on and gossiped with him. The skittle-ground in which Boileau pursued his favourite diversion was, no doubt, somewhere in the garden. What a sight it must have been to see the didactic author of the “Art of Poetry,” in his long, flowing wig, and ample ruffles, bringing down the regiment of pins at one heave of the ball, while Molière, Racine, Lafontaine, and other wits and notabilities of the day formed an applauding circle of onlookers. Molière was as fond of Auteuil as his friend: but the house has fallen in which he wrote several of his greatest plays, and in which he gave those famous suppers where his bursts of humour, like those of our own rare Ben at another series of lyric feasts,

Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.

We can, however, trace the site of the mansion, for on the front of the pavilion, built by the order of the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin, appears the inscription, “Ici fut la maison du Molière.” The house in the Rue Molière in which Racine wrote “Les Plaideurs,” has since been the residence of Madame Récamier and Franklin. Near the villa which was once a seat of the Dukes of Montmorency, you may still see the habitation where Madame Helvetius, widow of the author of “L’Esprit,” passed her latter years, receiving the visits of a circle of distinguished men, including Turgot, Franklin, and Napoleon, but never forgetting amidst the distractions of such society to be kind and charitable to the poor, who called her in gratitude Notre Dame d’Auteuil.

Till lately Auteuil has retained, with the exception of a building pulled down here, and a few others erected there, very much the aspect which; it wore when it was the haunt of the poets and other celebrities I have named. But a change is at hand, as, continuing my stroll, I soon discover. Passing up the high street, I find myself in front of the high earthworks of the fortifications, immediately on the other side of which is the Bois de Boulogne. This being the terminus of the omnibus service, and there being also a railway station close at hand, one is not surprised to find a little knot of cafés, estaminets, and dining-rooms. Wedding-parties of the middle rank, and Sunday visitors to the Bois have long patronised these establishments, but they are now looking forward to a more extended business. Already, indeed, the fickle traiteurs have changed their colours, and now do homage, through their sign-boards, to the rival with which the famous park is about to be confronted in the new permanent Exhibition. New refreshment houses are springing up, and the old ones are adding each a wing or a storey. Before long we may expect to see a little commissariat city here. Turning down a dull, ill-kept road to the left, with two or three mouldy-looking villas on the one hand, and a dingy dead wall on the other, I come upon the site of the new undertaking—a site occupied down to the days of the Grand Monarque by a royal hunting-lodge, and subsequently by the Château du Coq, and the magnificent conservatories built by Richelieu. More recently, the property belonged to Madame Elizabeth, and in our own day to Duke Pasquier and M. Guizot. Before me lies a wide, irregularly shaped enclosure, cut up by pits and trenches, and littered with blocks of stone, piles of bricks, and heaps of timber. Here and there are dotted oblong wooden shanties, which serve as the offices of the contractors and their foremen. Several lofty towers of planks and spars, each bound in its place by a sort of rigging, rise at various points. Connecting these conspicuous structures are the walls of white Caen stone, which have already risen some height above the ground, and in which you may, when the eye grows used to the maze, read the ground plan of the new palace. Near the centre of the enclosure is a group of noble cedars, fresh, green, and symmetrical, in the midst of the prevailing dust and confusion. The clang of a thousand hammers, the clatter of trowels, and the rasping of saws resound on all sides, and everywhere swarms a busy legion of blue blouses. Such is the ardour with which the work is carried on, that if you came at night you would find the indefatigable blouses toiling away under the glare of the electric light.

The Palace of Industry, which. is thus rising into form at Auteuil, promises to be a very fine edifice. Arriving by the new boulevard, which is being constructed by the city of Paris, and which will be embellished with parterres, rows of chestnut-trees and fountains, the visitor will see before him an imposing structure, at once light and solid, composed of glass and iron, resting on a basement of white stone. The grand façade will present a coup d’œil of 500 mètres, or more than double the elevation of the Exposition building of 1805 in the Champs Elysées, and will be surmounted by a vast central dome, of larger dimensions than those of our own Great Exhibition, and consequently than any other in the world. Entering a lofty portal, in the ornamentation of which will be conspicuous a fine screen of wrought iron and some beautiful stained glass, and passing through a short avenue of shrubs and statues, the visitor will find himself in a long and spacious transept cutting at right angles a nave of equal size running north and south. Roomy aisles will extend on each side. Over the point of intersection of the nave and transept, marked by the clump of cedars, the great dome will spring to a total height of 345 feet. No matter how intense may be the sunshine, its beams will be so refracted and tempered by the glass of this cupola, which is manufactured after a new fashion, that all undue heat or garishness will be subdued without the intervention of an awning. Round the building, at the height of some twenty-five feet from the ground, will run a range of elegant galleries. On every side will be arrayed specimens of the arts and industries of the world. Side by side, for instance, may be compared the damasks and brocades of Lyons with those of Spitalfields and Manchester; the rival chintzes of Mulhouse, Lancashire, and Cumberland; the laces of Chantilly and Valenciennes, Nottingham and Limerick; the chefs d’œuvre of Gobelins and Aubusson with the cheaper and more popular carpetings of Kiddersminster and Brussels. In metal work, porcelain, jewellery, in all those arts which minister to luxury as well as in those which supply the wants of life, the materials for a similar comparison will be supplied. Numerous statues will be seen, glimmering white among groves of plants and shrubs, and there will be a corridor of paintings. But the exposition will be not only a museum, but a mart, for all the objects exhibited will be for sale, and a constant variety and succession of contributions will thus be secured. At each extremity of the building will be an elegant refreshment pavilion. Opening off one of these will be a vast polygonal saloon, capable of holding 10,000 persons, where concerts and other entertainments will be given. The other pavilion will lead to a large machinery annex. Near the music hall will be two buildings of glass and iron, which will be used as winter gardens.

As I sit on the earthwork of the fortifications, surveying the busy scene before me, I wonder how far the programme of the undertaking is destined to be fulfilled. It is headed with this magniloquent invitation:—“Approach all you who think that the progress of the agriculture, the industry, and the commerce of a nation contributes to its general welfare; and that the more reciprocal intercourse is multiplied, the more national prejudices will be effaced.” One cannot doubt that the architect’s plan will be done justice to. Next August we shall see the palace with its brilliant façade, towering dome, and long roofs of glistening glass, gay with flags. But we have heard talk before, and nearer home, about popularising art and elevating commerce, through the peaceful rivalry of the genius and enterprise of all nations. We cannot but recollect with what sublime views the Sydenham Palace was established, and how far it has fallen short of them. Let us hope there may yet be a revival of our home institution, and that a better fate is reserved for that at Auteuil.

J. Hamilton Fyfe.