CHAPTER VI

The Quartier at night — The Boulevard St Michel — Petites ouvrières — A good joke and its dénouement — Practical joking in the streets — The woman on the roof — Searching for a louis — The cafés in the Quartier — Bullier — A conjuring trick — Joke on the cocher — Fun at the waxwork show

It must not be inferred, however, that it was all work and no play with us, for we managed to put in a good time now and then of an evening after work, in spite of a strictly limited exchequer — though this of course was more likely to happen at the beginning of the month, for the reason already mentioned. Still it really didn't require to have such a very well-lined pocket to find amusement in the Quartier at night. First and foremost there was the Boulevard St Michel, that happy hunting-ground where one was pretty sure, if it was fine, to come across some pals from the atelier, or perhaps pick up some pretty girl who'd come and have coffee with you in one of the many places around. The petites ouvrières in those days were neither difficiles or extravangantes — the type is a bit altered since, from all accounts. There was rather a good joke which often served to while away an evening — it had at any rate the merit of originality. Supposing, for instance, after dinner we were three or four together and nothing particular to do, we'd separate at the corner of one of the big thoroughfares — the Rue des Écoles or Boulevard St Germain, for instance — and each one take a different direction, and agree to meet later, say in an hour's time, at some café we knew; but the conditions were that whoever turned up without a girl had to stand drinks all round; and to make it more amusing, it was understood that an old acquaintance should not count. It may be guessed how funny it often was when we all met, as arranged, and how sometimes there were some curious developments, as there was generally not much difficulty in finding a girl in the Latin Quarter.

These adventures, however, were not always unattended with risk, for there were many rough characters about, and I believe that it was the knowledge of this that made them the more attractive. I remember one occasion, however, which might easily have had an extremely unpleasant ending, so far as I was concerned. Several of us had dined together and had separated on one of these expeditions. I had chosen the Rue des Écoles as my hunting-ground, and had not been alone many minutes before I saw an exceedingly smart young woman get out of the tramway and come towards me ; she was as good-looking as she was well dressed. "By Jove," I said to myself, "if I can only walk into the café with that, the boys will be a bit astonished." She passed but took no more notice of me than if I had been part of the pavement. However, I was not so easily put off; I determined to follow it up — so right along the Rue des Écoles we went. At length she turned up a quiet side street. "Now is my chance," thought I, so dashing after her I caught her up and, raising my hat, said very politely, "I believe I have the pleasure of knowing you, Madame."

She half turned round and, looking at me steadily, said in the coldest of tones, "That then is the reason you have been following me all this time, Monsieur; please do me the pleasure then to accompany me to the corner of the street and I will introduce you to my husband who, I see, is waiting for me there."

I felt I had made a mistake indeed, and that the best thing to do was to beat a retreat with as much dignity as possible, so again raising my hat I said in my best French, "I perceive, Madame, I am in error — please accept my apologies," and with that turned on my heels and walked away.

After this, as may be imagined, I felt in no mood for further adventure that evening, so made my way back to the café where we had all arranged to meet, and gradually my friends turned up, and all had found a companion. I explained as the reason for my being alone that I had had no luck, which was literally true.

Now for the dénouement, which was almost dramatic. There was only one of us who had not yet put in an appearance, and we were beginning to wonder what had become of him, for it was getting late, when the door of the café opened and in he walked, accompanied by the very girl I had followed along the Rue des Écoles. I shall never forget her look of astonishment when she espied me seated at the table her newly found friend was bringing her to, but she gave no other sign of recognition. We were all introduced to the various ladies, as was customary on such occasions, though of course we never let the little dears know that their being with us was the result of a wager — and I fancied I detected a satirical smile on her face when it came to our turn to be presented to each other. I need scarcely add that I kept this adventure to myself, and I don't think she told our friend about it. Curiously enough, they were together for quite a long while after that; and I often wondered if their meeting that evening had really been purely accidental, or if he was the "husband" she had the appointment with.

There was endless joking in the streets at all times, day and night, and some of these very laughable. As, for instance, one which was known as the pas militaire. Four or five of us would perhaps be walking along some back street late at night when we'd notice some individual walking ahead with a swaggering sort of step, as often happens. We'd immediately start whistling a march and all get into Indian file, gradually closing up behind him. Of course his first idea would be to change his pace, so as not to appear to be one of us, but as soon as he did, then we altered the time of the march so that he was obliged to keep in step with us. If he crossed the street, as he probably would, we would do likewise, still keeping up the tune; so at last he found himself marching, whether he liked it or not, at the head of a procession. This would continue till he reached the main thoroughfare again, when we would leave him with a cheer. Only once I recollect a man losing his temper, but when he was asked "Que voulez vous, Monsieur — on n'est done pas libre de marcher comme Ton veut?" he thought better of it — besides, there were six of us.

One afternoon I and a friend were standing talking at the corner of the Rue du Dragon when we were joined by an awfully amusing little chap, who was always the life of our party; he stood talking to us for a few minutes about nothing in particular, without a suggestion of a joke, when all of a sudden he called out, "Mon Dieu, look up there," pointing to the roof of a house opposite. We looked, but there was nothing unusual to be seen; but his gesture and exclamation had been noticed by a passer-by and he stopped to look up. This was all he wanted. " Mon Dieu, mon Dieu," almost shrieked our funny man, working himself up into a state of much excitement, "she'll fall off the roof — look there she goes behind those chimneys; something must be done to save her — look — she nearly slipped that time — oh! I can't stand here and look at it — it's too awful," and so on, and began to wring his hands and moan.

By this time a crowd had begun to collect, and everyone was gazing up; people opened their windows and looked out, wondering what all the excitement was about. My friend and I stood by, keeping our countenances with difficulty; it wouldn't have done to give the joke away — besides the funny man might have got hurt. Casual people in the streets don't like being made fools of. In a few minutes the thoroughfare was congested, and the traffic blocked. I asked someone who was standing near in the crowd if he could tell me what was the matter; without hesitation he told me that a man who lived on the fourth floor of the house was trying to murder his maîtresse, and that she had escaped from him on to the roof, and that the police had just gone to fetch the firemen and a ladder to get her down.

That was enough; I passed the hint to my friends and we discreetly came away. This same little chap had quite a gift of getting crowds to assemble, and all his ideas were equally funny.

Here's another joke that he played one evening. We were passing through a quiet street leading on to the Boulevard, when all of a sudden, just as someone came along, he lit a match and commenced searching for something on the pavement; the passer-by stopped casually and in an aimless way started looking also, without even asking what was lost. Some rough-looking men came along and joined in the search; matches were lit and a regular hunt commenced. Someone even produced a bit of candle. Everybody was looking on the off-chance of finding something, which they probably did not intend to give up if they found. I can still see the curious effect of all these people groping about on the pavement and in the gutter with lighted matches. Suddenly it occurred to someone to ask our friend what he was looking for.

"A louis," he said.

"Are you sure you lost it just here?"

"Oh, I haven't lost one here," he replied casually.

"What! not lost one; then what are you doing with a lighted match?"

"I'm looking for one."

"Well, I'll be d—d," said the man, as it dawned on him it was a joke.

We did not as a rule wait to see the effect of the jest on the rest of the crowd. The bon bourgeois of the Quartier were, however, so accustomed to the escapades of the students, that scarcely any notice was taken of even the most uproarious wit; though I must add that there was seldom any real harm in it, and if any damage was done they'd pay up like gentlemen — as indeed most of the students were. There was a noticeable absence of drinking strong liquors; coffee or light beer were the extent of one's libations, and I don't recollect seeing a drunken étudiant the whole time I was in the Quartier — whilst as to a drunken woman, I never saw one the whole time I was in Paris. All the fun and practical joking were the outcome of the exuberance of youth only, and the police knew it and treated it accordingly.

As may be imagined, the life in the Quartier was very divided up, and according to one's means one chose one's café de preference, where one would meet one's pals of an evening; the Soufflet, La Source, Vachette, and the Pantheon all had their own special clientele, but they were too expensive and swagger for the average étudiant of the Beaux Arts, who used to patronize the little cafés round the Rue de Buci and Rue de Seine, where, over bocks or mazagrans, heated, though good-humored discussions on Art would take place. There was, of course, dancing at Bullier on certain nights, but it was a bit too far off to go too often — and besides I always used to think it was a lot overrated, and the crowd there very mixed. The idea of calling it a "bal d'étudiants" was to my mind somewhat a misnomer, judging from the class of youths one saw there as a rule, who had no claim whatever to be called students — whilst as to the "girls" who went there alone, they were nothing, more or less, than a lot of common women. It all resolved itself into a question of money — "Combien me donneras-tu?" Chance of any real adventure there was very remote, as one soon discovered; still Bullier was the only place of its sort on that side of the river, so it was always pretty full on Saturday and Sunday nights, and there was plenty of music and life, and if one went en bande it was often quite amusing. I remember a very funny incident occurring one night as a lot of us were going there.

We were in high spirits, and larking and fooling as usual when out for a spree. We all got into an omnibus to get there quicker. On the way one of our number, who rather fancied himself as an amateur conjurer, began palming coins and doing other feats of legerdemain, to the great astonishment of the passengers; then suddenly stooping down he pretended to pick up a five-franc piece from the floor, at the feet of a testy-looking old gentleman seated opposite, and showed it to us all as though he had been lucky enough to find it. Of course we knew the trick, but still we all laughed. Not so the old gentleman — he called the conductor and said something to him, which made him come to our friend and say that all property found on the omnibus must be handed over to him, as he had to take it to the office; he would therefore ask him to be good enough to give him the five-franc piece which he had just picked up. The look on our friend's face can be imagined, as he was not over-blessed with five-franc pieces. In vain did he protest it was only a conjuring trick; the conductor was adamant — that could be explained by him at the office to the Secretary, who could believe him or not as he chose; his, the conductor's duty was plain. So there was no help for it — and so as not to create a scene we all advised our friend to hand it over and claim it later on, which he did. It took him six months I believe to get it back, less 1.50 for expenses. He gave up conjuring tricks after that.

It
              Was Quite Amusing
 
But of practical joking there was no end. There was one pleasantry of a particularly idiotic nature which was always successful. When several of us were together at night we would sometimes hail a passing cab, and one of us would get in and immediately slip out by the opposite door, whilst the others would engage the attention of the cocher. There would ensue an earnest colloquy with the man who was apparently in the cab — ending up perhaps with an earnest recommendation to take great care of himself, not to eat too much tripe, obey his parents, write to us as often as possible, and so on, after which we would absolutely insist on paying his fare for him — the very least we could do for such an old friend. Then with strong exhortations to the driver to go slowly and carefully, as his fare was very delicate, off would go the cab to some destination one thought of at the moment — generally a distant railway station, so as not to run the risk of meeting the cocher again. The idea of the effect on the driver when he discovered his passenger was missing was in itself sufficient to compensate us for the slight outlay the joke necessitated.

On one occasion four of us went to visit a big waxwork exhibition which had just been opened on the Boulevard. It was a most artistically arranged place — the disposition of the figures being particularly life-like. In one of the galleries on a slightly raised platform with a red rope encircling it was a group representing some famous musicians standing round a grand piano at which Liszt was seated playing one of his compositions. It was very realistic and all the poses most natural — it had evidently been done by a very talented artist. Close by the piano was a chair from which one of the figures was supposed to have arisen to lean over the piano. Our funny man immediately saw his chance of a joke. With a glance round to make sure no one was looking, he slipped under the rope and seated himself in the vacant chair, in a pose which harmonized capitally with the mise en scène. Although we were always prepared for anything humorous he might do, this audacity fairly took us aback for a moment, and we had hastily to move aside so as not to be convulsed with laughter and give the joke away. Fortunately no one was near at the moment, not even an attendant. Our friend sat as rigid as a lay figure, hat in hand, head slightly bowed down in an attitude of deep respect, as became a person listening to a maestro playing one of his own chefs-d'œures. He happened to be dressed in a black suit of artistic cut, so somehow did not appear out of place in his surroundings. Presently a party of men and women came along and stood admiring the group — the ladies were particularly impressed at its realism — our friend coming in for especial praise, and receiving a lot of complimentary remarks — for I forgot to mention he was an exceptionally good looking young fellow. At last one of the ladies said she never could have believed it was possible to copy anything so accurately in wax — it was positively life itself.

"I wonder what it feels like," she said, and slipping forward she furtively touched our friend's hand. This was too much for his equanimity, and he burst out into a loud laugh. The woman gave a shriek of fright, and she and her companions drew back so hurriedly that they knocked over a settee behind them — whilst our friend quickly descended from the platform. In a few seconds, however, with the delightful good-humor of the French nation, as soon as they realized the joke they all joined so heartily in our laughter that an attendant came along to ascertain what all the hilarity was about; it had not struck him before that there was anything particularly humorous in the group of great composers.



Proceed To Next Chapter

Go To Table Of Contents

Return To BohemianLit.com Home Page