BEHIND THE LOUVRE
“PEOPLE may wish to know why I pull up here, and begin to play the fool. I am a pencil manufacturer: nothing more. I know that my pencils are good: look here! (Exhibits a medal.) This medal was given to me, as the manufacturer of these superlative pencils, by the promoters of the Great Exhibition in London.”
With this preliminary address, a very fashionable looking gentleman, who has drawn up his carriage at the roadside behind the Louvre in Paris, opens an address to a number of persons who begin to gather about him. His equipage is handsome; and people wonder what he means by this curious proceeding. Presently they perceive that in the buggy there is an organ, and that the individual perched behind the gentleman fulfils the double functions of footman and organ-grinder. They perceive also that the servant wears a magnificent livery, part of it consisting of a huge brass helmet, from the summit of which immense tricolor feathers flutter conspicuously in the breeze. The gentleman suddenly rings a bell; and forthwith the footman in the buggy grinds a lively air. The crowd rapidly increases. The gentleman is very grave: - he looks quietly at the people about him. And then addresses them a second time, having rung the little bell again to stop his footman’s organ: - “Now I dare say you wonder what I am going to do. Well, I will begin with the story which led me to this charlatan life – for I am a charlatan – there’s no denying it. I was, as you all know, and ordinary pencil merchant; and, although I sold my pencils in the street from my carriage-seat, I was dressed like any of you. Well, one day, when I was selling my pencils at a rapid rate, a low fellow set up his puppet-show close by me. This occurred many times. Wherever I drew up my carriage to sell my pencils in a quiet way some charlatan came, and drew all my customers from me. I found that my trade was tapering away to a point as fine as the finest point of my finest pencil; - and, as you may imagine, I was not very pleased. But suddenly I thought that if the public taste encourages charlatans, and if I am to secure the patronage of that public, I too must become a charlatan. And here I am – a charlatan from the tips of my hair to the heel of my boot, selling excellent pencils for forty centimes each, as you shall presently see.”
This second speech concluded in the most serious manner, the gentleman produces from the carriage seat a splendid coat embroidered with gold: this he puts on with the utmost gravity – then turns to the crowd to watch its effect upon them. Then he takes his hat off, picks up the huge brass helmet from the bottom of the carriage, and tries it on. Again he looks gravely at the crowd, suddenly removes the helmet, and places, singly, three plumes representing the national tricolor, watching the effect on the spectators, as he adds each feather. Having surveyed the general effect of the helmet thus decorated, he again puts it on; and, turning nowfull upon the crowd, folds his arms and looks steadfastly before him. After a pause, he rings his little bell, and the plumed organist behind him plays a soft and soothing air. To this tune he again speaks”
“Well, here I am: as you see, a charlatan. I have done this to please you: you mustn’t blame me. As I told you, I am the well-known manufacturer of pencils. They are cheap and they are good, and I shall presently show you. Look here – I have a portfolio!”
The gentleman then lifts a large portfolio or book – opens it, and exhibits to the crowd three or four rough caricatures. He presently pretends to perceive doubts floating about as to the capability of his pencils to produce such splendid pictures. Suddenly he snatches up one of them, brandishes it in the aid – turns over the leaves of the book – finds a blank page – then places himself in an attitude to indicate intense thought. He frowns; he throws up his eyes; he taps the pencil impatiently against his chin; he traces imaginary lines in the air; he stands for some seconds with upturned face, rapt – waiting, in fact, to be inspired. Suddenly he is struck by an irresistible and overpowering thought, and begins to draw the rough outlines of a sketch. He proceeds with his work in the most earnest manner. No spectator can detect a smile upon that serious face. Now he holds the book far away from him, to catch the general effect, marks little errors here and there; then sets vigorously to work again. At last the great conception is upon the paper. He turns it most seriously, and with the air of a man doing a very great favour, to the crowd. The picture produces a burst of laughter. The pencil manufacturer does not laugh, but continues solemnly, to the sounds of his organ in the buggy, to exhibit his production. Presently, however, he closes the book with the appearance of a man who is satiated with the applauses of the world. A moment afterwards he opens it a second time; puts the point of the pencil to his tongue, and looks eagerly at the people. He is selecting some individual, sufficiently eccentric and sufficiently prominent to be recognized by the general assembly when sketched. He has caught sight of one at last. He looks at him intensely, to the irrepressible amusement of the spectators, who all follow his eyes with theirs. The individual selected generally smiles, and bears his public position very calmly.
“For Mercy’s sake, do not stir!” the artist fervently ejaculates, as he sets vigorously to work. This proceeding, in the open street, conducted with the utmost gravity, and with the most finished acting, is irresistibly ludicrous. As the portrait advances towards completing, the organ plays a triumphant melody. In five minutes a rough and bold sketch has been produced, resembling only in the faintest manner the original – yet sufficiently like him to be recognized, and to create amusement. As the artist holds up the portrait to be seen by the crowd, he again rings the little bell to silence his musical attendant in the buggy.
And now he dwells emphatically upon the virtues of his pencils. He declares that they are at once black and hard. He pretends, once more, to detect an air of incredulity in the crowd. He is indignant. He seizes a block of oak – informs his imaginary detractors that it is the hardest known wood – and, with a hammer, drives the point of one of his pencils through it. The wood is split, the pencil is not injured: - and he tells his imaginary detractors that even if they are not in the habit of using pencils for art, they are at liberty to split wood with them for winter firing. All they have to do is to buy them. This is of course a very popular point in the performances. The next is the display to the melancholy grind of the organ in the buggy, of a huge box full of silver money.
This box is opened and exhibited to the crowd as the astonishing result of these wonderful pencils. And then the charlatan goes through all that pantomime which usually describes a man utterly tired of all the enjoyments wealth can give him. He seizes a handful of the money, and then lazily drops it into the box. He throws himself back and pushes the box from him, to indicate that he is tired of riches. At last he jumps up, and, seizing a five-franc piece, raises his arm to throw it amongst the spectators: but he is prevented, apparently, by a sudden impulse.
“Once,” he explains, “I threw a five-franc piece in the midst of my customers, when it unfortunately struck a man in the eye. That accident gave me a lesson which I should do wrong to forget to-day.”
So he closes the box; throws it to the bottom of the carriage, and calls upon the crowd to become purchasers of pencils, which will never break, and which are patronized by the most distinguished artists. The droll thing about this performance is that the pencils sold are really good, and that they actually did obtain honourable mention from the English Exhibition Committee in eighteen hundred and fifty-one.
The crowd having decided to purchase or to reject the merchandise of this extraordinary pencil-manufacturer, are soon drawn away to the occupant of another elegant carriage. Truly, this little licensed space at the back of the Louvre presents odd pictures to strangers.
This is serious business. The crowd are listening to a lecture on teeth, and on the virtue of certain drugs for the teeth, the composition of which the lecturer alone knows the secret of – a secret that has been rigidly handed down in his family from the time of the ancient Gauls. He is a well known dentist in Paris, and is in partnership with his father. The senior dentist remains at home to perform operations of dental surgery which are the result of the remarkable advertising system pursued by the young man in the carriage. The business, I am led to believe, is a most flourishing one in the cité; and when the father was young, he himself was his father’s advertiser.
The scientific gentleman now haranguing the crowd is certainly the worthy representative of his parent. It is reported indeed that the man is a skilful dentist. At the present moment he offers to prove his dexterity upon any individual present who may be troubled by a refractory tooth. He looks about eagerly for a patient. Presently a boy is thrust forward to be operated upon. The poor little fellow is rapidly hoisted into the vehicle. To suffer the extraction of a tooth in an elegant drawing-room, or in the privacy of a fashionable dentist’s apartment, is not a pleasant operation, even for a man with the strongest nerve; but to have a singularly happy illustration of the ills to which teeth are subject, drawn from your head, and exhibited to a crowd of curious strangers, is an ordeal from which all people, save philosophers and small French boys would shrink with horror. The little victim, however, does not seem to be ashamed of his public position. He seats himself in the presence of the crowd, and allows the operator to fasten a towel about his neck, without displaying the least nervousness. The business-like manner of the operator is very amusing. He looks upon the boy only as a model. When the patient is fully prepared, he displays him to the crowd with much the same expression as that adopted by all parental exhibitors of wonderful little children. The operation is then performed, and the boy’s head is rapidly buried in a convenient basin. This accomplished, the dentist, with an air of triumph, begins to sell his tooth powders, and other toilette necessaries, and to refer the crowd to his father’s establishment.
We pass the conjuror as an old and well-known friend, to enjoy the performances of the sergeant of the old guard. This sergeant is represented by an old, care-worn looking poodle – a poodle that appears to be utterly tired of the world – to have exhausted all the enjoyments of two ordinary poodles’ lives, and to take good and evil fortune now with equal calmness. This canine representation of the old guard is dressed – so far as his poodle’s proportions can be adapted to those of the human form – in the regimentals of the old Imperial soldiers, and his long grey moustaches and shaggy beard give to his head an appearance not altogether dissimilar to his assumed character. He stands upon his hind legs; he carries his musket with military precision; his most conspicuous fault, which he seems to have abandoned as quite insurmountable, is his tail. True it is a very little tail, but there it is, and he cannot help it. His master, or superior officer, is an old man, with silver hair, enjoying the advantages of a singularly even pair of silver moustaches. The master and the subaltern appear to have a family likeness. The master is dressed in a blue blouse and wide trousers, and wears a low, half-military cap. In his hand he carries a little drum and a whip.
The poor old guard as he walks round the circle formed by the people to the time of the drum, looks wistfully at his officer, and sadly at his officer’s whip. To describe the military movements through which the old guard passes would be as tedious to the reader as they are certainly tedious to the poodle; but the officer is really impressive. He is a serious old man, with a military severity in his look. He talks to the poodle in a voice of thunder, and comments on the slightest laxity of discipline with tremendous earnestness. He reminds the old sergeant (who absolutely looks conscious of his disgrace) that he is an unworthy representative of the Emperor’s noble veterans. He tells his that he has twice been fired for drunkenness, and that he spends every sous he gets in cognac. The sergeant looks very much ashamed. And then the anger of his officer rises to a terrific pitch. The end of the matter is, that the sergeant goes through all the forms of a military trial, and is condemned to be shot. The severe old gentleman then solemnly beats his drum, and with a mournful look, places the condemned soldier in the position he is to occupy while his sentence is carried out. The poodle, with a hang-dog look, then suffers his master to fire a percussion cap at him, and falls dead. But the business does not end here. The old man proceeds with the utmost gravity to bury the sergeant with military honours. Aided by a little boy, he carries the defunct slowly round the circle, and then sings a dirge over his grave.
After the funeral, the dog wakes to a lively air, and performs a country dance with his serious old master. The animal is a character, but his master is a study. His age, his dignified manner, the imperturbable seriousness with which he goes through the military forms, the well-acted pathos with which he pronounces the old sergeant’s sentence, the severity with which he rebukes any levity in the people, and the insensibility to ridicule with which he dances the country dance, are perfect in themselves. And, as he talks to the dog, his ingenuity in carrying round his discourse to money matters, and to the duty which his spectators owe to themselves not to forget the little ceremony of throwing a few centimes into the arena, is a matter which gives zest to the performance. He never appeals directly to the people – he seldom recognizes them in any way; he talks at them in an incidental way, to the old sergeant.
Another public exhibitor claims popular attention behind the Louvre. He is said to share a goodly proportion of Parisian patronage, and to be rewarded with an indefinite number of centimes. His performance is at once rapid and astonishing.
All he does is break a huge stone – to crumble it up into small pieces. He begins by declaring to the crowd that this process may be performed by a blow of the hand. He lets the crowd examine the stone he is about to crush with a blow of his mighty arm; all are satisfied that it is a solid mass. He places it upon another stone, and, with one blow with his naked hand, shatters it to atoms. This performance is, of course, both rapid and astonishing; and sagacious men have endeavoured to account for it by explaining that the underneath stone is so arranged that the whole force of the blow falls upon one point, and so acts like a sharp instrument, - a pickaxe, for instance. This may be the right or it may be a wrong interpretation of the performance; but that it is a legitimate thing – that there is no cheat about it – I am well assured. I might linger here to watch other performances of this class; but my attention is drawn to a gentleman dressed quietly and well, who has just taken his hat off, and is bowing to us from the high curb-stone. His expression is serious, even sad. He has an intellectual face, a high forehead, a thoughtful look. People flock about him very fast; evidently he has something to say. He has a bundle of papers under one arm. He remains, while the crowd gathers, looking sadly round, and still holding his hat respectfully in his hand. Presently he murmurs a few words; and, by degrees, bursts into an oratorical display at once dramatic and effective. He is a poet. He felt the soul of poetry within him when he was an obscure boy in his native village. He longed to be known – to catch the applauses of the world. At last he resolved to travel to Paris; Paris, where generous sentiments were always welcomed; Paris, the natural home of the poet. Full of youthful hope, he presented himself to a publisher, offering his poems. The reply he obtained was, that he was unknown. He went to a second publisher, to a third, to a fourth; all were polite to him, but all rejected his works. He was in despair. Was he, with a soul of poesy burning within him, to starve in Paris, the cradle of poesy? He was tempted often in that dark time to sully the purity of his muse. But he said no; he might be poor, but he would be without stain. At last he was compelled to write songs for obscure cafés chantants; but he should be unworthy to address that assembly could he not assure them that all these songs breathed a high moral purpose. Well, one of these songs became last year the rage – thousands of copies were sold. And what did the author get for that most popular production? Here the orator pauses, and looks sternly about him. Presently, he raises his arm, and, shaking it in the air, shouts, with the countenance of a roused fiend, “Trios francs!”
After this burst, he proceeds, in a subdued voice, to describe his struggle. How he resolved to fight his hard battle bravely, and how, at last, stung by the neglect of publishers, he resolved to place himself in the streets, face to face with the Paris public. He knew that they reverenced poets. He believed that, while his muse was pure, he might appeal to them with confidence. They may judge by his language that he is no common imposter; and he confidently believes that the time will come when it will be a popular wonder that the known man once in that was sought a pubic in the streets of Paris. To that time he looks courageously forward; and only asks his audience to buy a number of his works with he has under his arm, and which may be had for three sous each, in confirmation of all he has said. And, forthwith, the poet bows to the crowd, who press about him to buy his works.
This last exhibition behind the Louvre sent me away thinking seriously of the strange things to be seen in the byways of Paris, where few strangers penetrate. Indeed, these licensed street performers form a class peculiar to the French capital. Their ingenuity is as extraordinary, as their knowledge of French taste and sentiment is truthful. From the prosperous pencil manufacturer down to the old man who carries a magic lantern about the neighbourhood of Luxembourg every night, for hire, all the people who get their living in the streets of this giddy place are worth loitering in a byway to see and hear.
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