CHAPTER XVII

Changing characteristics of Montmartre — Advent of music — The Divan Japonais — The opening night — A merry evening — The orchestra — The audience oblige on the piano — An impromptu dance — Going round Montmartre — A "chinois sur lo zinc" — The garçon de marchand de vins — An unexpected musical talent— The garçon becomes a great pianist — Christmas in Montmartre — A party in studio in the Rue Bochard de Saron— Artistic arrangements — I give an impromptu ventriloquial entertainment — Extraordinary effect — "All's well that ends well" — Another incident — A duel by arrangement — Drawing lots — An unexpected climax

WITH the closing of the Café de la Rochefoucauld there came about a great change in our life in Montmartre; the place had so long exercised an influence, as it were, on our daily habits, that it is no exaggeration to state that we felt like fish out of water for some time after that final dinner in the old place. It was not easy to fill up the hiatus; and still less to find another place of rendezvous which would, even to a certain extent, replace the familiar surroundings we had so long been accustomed to. Of cafés in Montmartre there were of course no end; every street almost has its own particular établissement, which is practically the club of its regular habitués, who are usually residents in the immediate neighborhood — and who are always to be found there at certain times.

It was thus with the Rochefoucauld; therefore the hardship to its clientèle its closing entailed can be better appreciated. We found ourselves practically out in the street, and with but little hope of ever being again united in the cheery camaraderie we had so long enjoyed. I and my particular pals drifted somehow to the Nouvelle Athènes on the Place Pigalle, where for some time we had been in the habit of going for an aperitif and a chat before dinner. In the evenings we generally managed to put in a cheery time going round to the different cafés, and looking up friends in other quarters.

But a change was slowly but surely coming over Montmartre, and one could not but notice it; the old life was not what it was — there were signs of a restlessness that was scarcely in keeping with what one might term the traditions of the district, and this was beginning to be more noticeable in café life. The most significant symptoms of this unrest was the advent of music, not only in the établissements de nuit which were gradually springing up, but in the cafés and brasseries with which the Quartier was becoming more and more supplied. When I had first taken up my abode in the neighborhood music was unknown almost in any of the cafés along the Boulevard's exterieurs near the Place Pigalle, and had such an innovation been suggested to any of the proprietors of these establishments it would have been received and dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders.

The opening of the "Chat Noir" had, however, in a large measure started the change, not only in the Quartier, but also in the ideas of its inhabitants. Perhaps about the first of the cafés where music was introduced was at one called the Divan Japonais in the Rue Lepic — if I remember rightly, for it has long ceased to exist — and it caught on at once. I recollect the proprietor gave a big house-warming on the opening night, and we were all invited — and had a merry evening.

Everything in the shape of drinks and smokes was free up till a certain hour, and as this was known beforehand, most of the guests were there early, and were very thirsty till the end of the reception. There was a small orchestra consisting of pianist, a portly cornet player, and a 'cellist; and when they got tired, volunteers with musical talent and otherwise from amongst the audience obliged on the piano, and the opening ceremony ended with an impromptu dance, rather an innovation for a café in those days.

Talking of music reminds me of an interesting incident that occurred about this time. One evening a party of us were going round Montmartre — and when I mention that there were several pretty girls with us it is scarcely necessary to add that we were having a lively time as usual. Suddenly, as we were going along the Boulevard Rochechouart, someone suggested our going to a marchand de vin we knew of, and having a "chinois sur le zinc" — in other words, a prunes à l'eau de vin — across the counter. Many wine-shops in the Quartier made a specialty of these delicacies in those days. So we made for the particular establishment — a very unpretentious little place in a back street close by. There was no one there at the moment, and our irruption seemed to divert the patron hugely — as these wine shops are usually only frequented by ouvriers. As we were standing at the bar taking our consummations, amidst much laughter, for as no spoons are provided one has to use one's fingers, we noticed a piano in a small room adjoining; so we all went in, and someone who fancied himself as a pianist started playing a lively tune which set us singing. The patron came and stood at the door, smoking a pipe, and with his hands in his pockets; he was evidently very much interested in his unusual clients. After a few minutes he remarked that if we would like to hear some good music he had a garçon who would play to us.

In The Evenings...
"Send him along," we cried, tickled at the idea of a garçon de marchand de vins being a musician as well.

"Jean," he called out, "venez faire un peu de musique pour ces dames et messieurs."

An extremely good looking young fellow of about twenty appeared in his shirt sleeves. After a little ironical and jocular persuading on our part, for it seemed to us too funny for words, and he must have known we were laughing at him, he sat down to the instrument. I shall never forget the look on the faces of my companions as soon as he commenced. He was a born musician — a positive genius. We all looked at each other and stood spellbound. The joke, if any, was on his side now. Without faltering, and yet in the most modest manner, he played a most complicated morceau by Chopin, a piece one would have expected to hear at a concert. When he had finished there was a great outburst of genuine applause. Our fun at his expense was changed to amazement, and we crowded round him, all anxious to know how and where he had managed to attain his marvelous ability; and learned to our surprise that he was quite self-taught. He told us that he hoped one day to get into the Conservatoire of Music if he could manage to save up sufficient money. From this moment he was the center of attraction, to the ladies particularly — and he played and played to their hearts' content, for his repertoire appeared limitless.

The patron meanwhile stood by with an air of pride.

"What did I tell you!" he exclaimed. "I knew I was not exaggerating."

Some of us had a talk with him aside, and he told us the young fellow — who was not a Parisian — had only been with him a short time; that he had a good reference when he came, but beyond that he knew nothing about him. Then, turning to the rest of the party, he made the good-humored but curious suggestion that as he was about to close we might like to take the musician with us and show him a bit of the Quartier, as he was new to Paris. We could not well refuse after having been thus entertained, so we got him to come along; and when he had put on his coat and hat he looked a very gentle-manly and well-bred young fellow, and we almost got jealous of the attentions the ladies lavished on him. A few days later I was passing the wine shop and noticed the patron standing at the door; when he saw me he called out laughingly, "What have you done with my garçon?"

I stopped to ask what he meant — when, to my surprise, he informed me that he had not seen the garçon since the evening we had taken him away with us. I assured him I knew nothing whatever of his whereabouts, and was much astonished at his mysterious disappearance. That evening I learned that one of our friends had been so much impressed with the extraordinary talent of the youth, that he had interested himself on his behalf, and forthwith gave him an introduction to one of the leading men of the Conservatoire; his career, therefore, as a garçon de café was ended, for he had been taken up by a rich man, and would be able in future to carry out his cherished desire to study music seriously. This is a great many years ago. The erstwhile garçon de café is now one of the greatest pianists of the world.

That Christmas was very lively. On one occasion a lot of us had dined together and had gone on to the Élysee Montmartre later, as there was a fête on. We were all in great spirits, and went round afterwards and finished up the evening, or rather what was left of the night, at a friend's studio close by in the Rue Bochard de Saron. There was quite a little crowd of us, and several pretty models also. We had invited ourselves, as we knew there was a piano. Our friend had told us he had nothing to offer us in the shape of refreshment — probably to put us off, as it was a bit late even for the Quartier — but we were not to be got rid of so easily. We all armed ourselves with bottles of wine, saucisses, cheese, fruit and bread, which we bought at the café — all that one could want for an impromptu supper; after which we formed up in mock military formation on the Boulevard, someone took command, then to the accompaniment of a cheery march, which we sang in chorus, we all stepped out in grand style.

I have often thought since how absolutely impossible such goings-on would have been in staid old London — even in the most artistic quarter — five or six years ago; only fancy such a procession at three in the morning in, let us say, St John's Wood. One can imagine the dénouement, and where it would have taken place. But in those days in Montmartre the police seldom interfered with artists, unless it was for some very flagrant breach of the regulations. And singing or, rather, making a noise at night, was not considered a very serious offence, especially during the festive season. The ebullition of youth did not suffer much restriction at the hands of the law, therefore, so long as it did not go too far.

Well, we got to the studio, and fixed up quite an imposing supper table with what we had brought with us in the way of food and liquid. It made quite a great display. We then discovered, however, the reason for our friend's reticence in inviting us to his studio for the supper, as he suddenly remembered that he had broken his only glass that afternoon, and had no plates or knives and forks. Everything was down in the country — so he said. This was a bit of a shock; but a la guerre comme à la guerre, and we were preparing to "pig it" when someone exclaimed "Eureka," and pointed to the pottery and swords and bayonets decorating the walls. In spite of our host's protests that they were thick with the dust of ages, down they came; the girls wiped them on a towel, and with an old china bowl as a loving-cup we sat down to the banquet. It was indeed an artistic arrangement, the swords and bayonets serving as knives and forks, a sheet as a tablecloth, and towels as napkins.

We were a boisterous and merry crew, and very soon the girls were somewhat in a state of dishabille. I may here mention that I was always a bit of a ventriloquist; and whilst we were in the midst of the banquet, and the studio resounding with laughter, it suddenly occurred to me to knock loudly on the entrance-door, which was immediately at my back. This was easily done with the hilt of a sword which I held behind me; no one noticed my movement.

Immediately the din ceased.

"What's that?" the women whispered, nervously arranging their disordered attire.

I again knocked in a peremptory manner.

Our host held up his hand to enjoin our keeping silent; then shouted out:

"Who's there?"

Everyone naturally looked towards the door, not knowing what was going to happen next, for it was no friendly knock I had given. I turned also — which, of course, hid any movement of my lips.

"I am the Commissaire of Police; open in the name of the law," I called out, making my. voice appear to come from outside, and then looked round to see the effect of my joke. It was magical, and surpassed anything of the kind I had ever attempted before. I could not have believed it possible for people to be taken in so completely. Consternation was on every face. Our friend whispered hurriedly:

"Let's gather up all the things; he must not see I've been having a party. And you girls had better go and hide somewhere in my room or in the kitchen. Someone has evidently been to the police station and made a complaint about the row at this time of night. I was afraid it would happen."

I could hardly keep my countenance, but I managed to give another and still louder knock — and called out:

"Allons, ouvrez je vous dis."

At this the girls nearly went into hysterics, and made a wild scramble for the inner room; and the men hastily collected the remains of the feast. They all seemed to lose their heads — for why, I couldn't make out, for a moment's reflection would have convinced them that we were not breaking the law by having an impromptu supper-party with some models in a studio.

Emboldened by the success of my joke, I called out in a brave tone to the imaginary Commissaire: " ll right; don't be angry, Monsieur. I am going to open the door directly"; and was about to suit the action to my words when to my further amazement, my friend, who was a very powerful chap, rushed forward, and seizing me roughly by the arms, held me back, saying in a voice harsh with excitement:

"Are you mad? Do you want to get us all into trouble? You mustn't open the door till the girls are out of the way!"

I pretended to struggle with him; at the same time calling out again loudly to the Commissaire that I was going to open the door, but my comrade would not let me. This time a heavy hand was placed over my mouth to prevent me saying more. I felt it was time to conclude my entertainment, or I might get hurt. I wrenched myself free, and, roaring with laughter, told them that it was only a little joke of mine.

"A joke," they all repeated — and the girls peeped in at the door on hearing the word "plaisanterie." "Where does the joke come in? Please don't make a fool of yourself; we don't want to get into the hands of the police if you do."

Never had I dreamed that my humble effort could have been so successful. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I convinced them that there really was no one outside. It was the funniest joke I ever attempted — and for a long while after it was talked about, and I was continually being called upon to speak to strangers who had got lost up the chimney, or locked in dark cellars, and couldn't get out.

All our joking did not, however, always end so happily. On one occasion there might have been an unpleasantness if not tragedy. It came about this wise.

Several of us were in the Nouvelle Athènes one evening when someone, who was reading a paper, remarked that there appeared to be quite an epidemic of dueling in Paris at the time. One read of duels in the papers every day.

"It's all an advertisement," said someone else; "no one ever gets hurt, or very seldom at any rate."

This led to a lively discussion on the easy way a man could gain a reputation for being a duelist and a man of great courage.

"It's the simplest thing in the world; you've only got to arrange everything carefully and systematically beforehand — a public insult, exchange of cards, appointment of seconds, meeting arranged, then two shots fired at the regulation distance but with blank cartridge — and honneur est satisfaite. The adversaries shake hands and go off with their seconds to a nice little lunch somewhere — and all the papers would speak about the affaire."

The idea struck us all as being so original and fraught with such possibilities that someone suggested what a splendid joke it would be to have a duel in our own set. The idea was taken up with enthusiasm; and we started to arrange the details for it to come off that evening. It was settled that we should draw lots to decide who were to be the principals. Every part in connection with the duel was written on small pieces of paper, put into a hat, and we agreed to abide by the result. I drew one of the " seconds," someone else "the doctor," and so on. The principals turned out to be two burly fellows who would look very impressive in their role.

When this was done, a long discussion ensued as to the most effective and theatrical way of bringing about the spoof result. This was somewhat difficult to decide on, but at length it was settled that the two principals should be sitting playing picquet in a café and a quarrel should occur between them; we would all interfere, and then suddenly one of them would spring up and pretend to smack the other across the mouth, whereupon he would instantly produce his card and hand it across the table, saying that his seconds would wait on his aggressor the following day. It worked out capitally; we had a dress rehearsal there and then — and were so elated at its realism that we decided to carry it out at once; and one of our party, a journalist, promised to send an account of the "incident" at once to the papers, so as to prepare the public for a bloodthirsty duel. I forgot to mention that the man who had drawn the paper which assigned to him the part of the insulted party was a somewhat peppery and very conceited individual, just the sort of chap who would be likely to get into trouble.

Well, off we started for the cafe, where the preliminary proceedings in the way of the smack in the face and exchange of cards were to take place.

We had chosen one some little distance away — in order to run no risk of meeting anyone likely to know us. As we went along we rehearsed our various parts. At last we arrived at the café, and just as we were going in the "insulted" party, who had been very silent as we came along, suddenly stopped us and said, "Let's clearly understand what I've got to do — so as not to make any mistake."

"Well, it's very easy to remember," replied his "aggressor." "You call me a sacré couillon or anything worse than that if you can think of anything; I jump up and smack you across the mouth and you then pull out your card and hand it to me."

"After I've hit you back?"

"Of course not — you don't hit me at all; that's part of the compact that leads to the duel."

"Oh, don't I? Well, I'm not going to let you hit me without returning it, compact or no compact — so I warn you. I'll hand you my card afterwards."

That duel was off.



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