My French Neighbor
I often amuse myself by watching from my window (which, by the bye, is tolerably elevated) the movements of the teeming little world below me; and as I am on sociable terms with the porter and his wife, I gather from them, as they light my fire, or serve my breakfast, anecdotes of all my fellow lodgers. I have been somewhat curious in studying a little antique Frenchman, who occupies one of the jolie chambres à garçon already mentioned. He is one of those superannuated veterans who flourished before the revolution, and have weathered all the storms of Paris, in consequence, very probably, of being fortunately too insignificant to attract attention. He has a small income, which he manages with the skill of a French economist; appropriating so much for his lodgings, so much for his meals; so much for his visits to St. Cloud and Versailles, and so much for his seat at the theater. He has resided in the hotel for years, and always in the same chamber, which he furnishes at his own expense. The decorations of the room mark his various ages. There are some gallant pictures which he hung up in his younger days; with a portrait of a lady of rank, whom he speaks tenderly of, dressed in the old French taste; and a pretty opera dancer, pirouetting in a hoop petticoat, who lately died at a good old age. In a corner of this picture is stuck a prescription for rheumatism, and below it stands an easy-chair. He has a small parrot at the window, to amuse him when within doors, and a pug dog to accompany him in his daily peregrinations. While I am writing he is crossing the court to go out. He is attired in his best coat, of sky-blue, and is doubtless bound for the Tuileries. His hair is dressed in the old style, with powdered ear-locks and a pig-tail. His little dog trips after him, sometimes on four legs, sometimes on three, and looking as if his leather small-clothes were too tight for him. Now the old gentleman stops to have a word with an old crony who lives in the entre-sol, and is just returning from his promenade. Now they take a pinch of snuff together; now they pull out huge red cotton handkerchiefs (those «flags of abomination,» as they have well been called) and blow their noses most sonorously. Now they turn to make remarks upon their two little dogs, who are exchanging the morning’s salutation; now they part, and my old gentleman stops to have a passing word with the porter’s wife; and now he sallies forth, and is fairly launched upon the town for the day.
No man is so methodical as a complete idler, and none so scrupulous in measuring and portioning out his time as he whose time is worth nothing. The old gentleman in question has his exact hour for rising, and for shaving himself by a small mirror hung against his casement. He sallies forth at a certain hour every morning to take his cup of coffee and his roll at a certain cafe, where he reads the papers. He has been a regular admirer of the lady who presides at the bar, and always stops to have a little badinage with her en passant. He has his regular walks on the Boulevards and in the Palais Royal, where he sets his watch by the petard fired off by the sun at midday*. He has his daily resort in the Garden of the Tuileries, to meet with a knot of veteran idlers like himself, who talk on pretty much the same subjects whenever they meet. He has been present at all the sights and shows and rejoicings of Paris for the last fifty years; has witnessed the great events of the revolution; the guillotining of the king and queen; the coronation of Bonaparte; the capture of Paris, and the restoration of the Bourbons. All these he speaks of with the coolness of a theatrical critic; and I question whether he has not been gratified by each in its turn; not from any inherent love of tumult, but from that insatiable appetite for spectacle which prevails among the inhabitants of this metropolis. I have been amused with a farce, in which one of these systematic old triflers is represented. He sings a song detailing his whole day’s round of insignificant occupations, and goes to bed delighted with the idea that his next day will be an exact repetition of the same routine:
«Je me couche le soir,
Enchanté de pouvoir
Recommencer mon train
*A small bronze cannon was installed at Palais Royal in 1786 at the initiative of Mr. Rousseau, a watchmaker who had a shop in the gallery. It was installed on the Paris meridian. A wick, burned by the sun through a magnifying glass, set off the charge of gunpowder on sunny days at noon. The small explosion was used to set timepieces all over Paris, today we Google the «current local time». In 1799, it was moved off the meridian and positioned in the middle of the garden where it worked steadily until 1914. A Latin motto was engraved on the pedestal: Horas non numero Nibi Serenas, liberally meaning «The only hours counted are the sunny ones».
In 1990, the cannon was restored and began to thunder again at high noon, but the «Plan Vigipirate» silenced the cannon once more. In 1998 it was stolen. A replica was made and is now in place, booming on Wednesday at noon – unless the new vigipirate has silenced it once again.