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- Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands V2 - 60/64 -
their pots of blooming flowers. Every person in Paris named Louis or Louise, after this saint, has received this day little tokens of affection from their friends, generally bouquets or flowers. Madame Belloc is named Louise, and her different friends and children called and brought flowers, and a beautiful India China vase.
The life of Paris, indeed of the continent, is floral, to an extent of which the people in the United States can form no conception. Flowers are a part of all their lives. The churches are dressed with flowers, and on _fête_ days are fragrant with them. A _jardinière_ forms a part of the furniture of every parlor; a _jardinière_ is a receptacle made in various fanciful forms for holding pots of flowers. These pots are bought at the daily flower market for a trifle, in full bloom and high condition; they are placed in the _jardinière,_ the spaces around them filled with sand and covered with moss.
Again, there are little hanging baskets suspended from the ceilings, and filled with flowers. These things give a graceful and festive air to apartments. When the plants are out of bloom, the porter of the house takes them, waters, prunes, and tends them, then sells them again: meanwhile the parlor is ornamented with fresh ones. Along the streets on saints' days are little booths, where small vases of artificial flowers are sold to dress the altars. I stopped to look at one of these stalls, all brilliant with cheaply-made, showy vases of flowers, that sell for one or two sous.
We went also to the National Academy of Fine Arts, a government school for the gratuitous instruction of artists, a Grecian building, with a row of all the distinguished painters in front.
In the doorway, as we came in, was an antique, headless statue of Minerva; literally it was Minerva's _gown_ standing up--a pillar of drapery, nothing more, and drapery soiled, tattered, and battered; but then it was an antique, and that is enough. Now, when antique things are ugly, I do not like them any better for being antique, and I should rather have a modern statue than Minerva's old gown. We went through all the galleries in this school, in one of which the prize pieces of scholars are placed. Whoever gets one of these prizes is sent to study in Rome at the expense of the government. We passed through the hall where the judges sit to decide upon pictures, and through various others that I cannot remember. I was particularly interested in the apartment devoted to the casts from the statuary in the Louvre and in other palaces. These casts are taken with mathematical exactness, and subjected to the inspection of a committee, who order any that are defective to be broken. Proof casts of all the best works, ancient and modern, are thus furnished at a small price, and so brought within the reach of the most moderate means.
This morning M. and Madame Belloc took me with them to call on Béranger, the poet. He is a charming old man, very animated, with a face full of feeling and benevolence, and with that agreeable simplicity and vivacity of manner which is peculiarly French. It was eleven o'clock, but he had not yet breakfasted; we entreated him to waive ceremony, and so his maid brought in his chop and coffee, and we all plunged into an animated conversation. Béranger went on conversing with shrewdness mingled with childlike simplicity, a blending of the comic, the earnest, and the complimentary. Conversation in a French circle seems to me like the gambols of a thistle down, or the rainbow changes in soap bubbles. One laughs with tears in one's eyes. One moment confounded with the absolute childhood of the simplicity, in the next one is a little afraid of the keen edge of the shrewdness. This call gave me an insight into a French circle which both amused and delighted me. Coming home, M. Belloc enlarged upon Beranger's benevolence and kindness of heart. "No man," he said, "is more universally popular with the common people. He has exerted himself much for the families of the unfortunate deportes to Cayenne." Then he added, laughing, "A mechanic, one of my model sitters, was dilating upon his goodness--'What a man! what sublime virtue! how is he beloved! Could I live to see his funeral! _Quelle spectacle! Quelle grande emotion!'"_
At tea, Madame M. commented on the manners of a certain English lady of our acquaintance.
"She's an actress; she's too affected!"
Madame Belloc and I defended her.
"Ah," said M. Belloc, "you cannot judge; the French are never natural in England, nor the English in France. Frenchmen in England are stupid and cross, trying to be dignified; and when the English come to France, it's all guitar playing and capering, in trying to have _esprit._"
But it is hard to give a conversation in which the salient points are made by a rapid pantomime, which effervesces like champagne.
Madame Belloc and Madame M. agree that the old French _salon_ is no more; that none in the present iron age can give the faintest idea of the brilliancy of the institution in its palmiest days. The horrors and reverses of successive revolutions, have thrown a pall over the French heart.
I have been now, in all, about a month in this gay and flowery city, seeing the French people, not in hotels and _cafes,_ but in the seclusion of domestic life; received, when introduced, not with ceremonious distance, as a stranger, but with confidence and affection, as a friend.
Though, according to the showing of my friends, Paris is empty of many of her most brilliant ornaments, yet I have been so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of many noble and justly celebrated people, and to feel as if I had gained a real insight into the French heart.
I liked the English and the Scotch as well as I could like any thing. And now, I equally like the French. Exact opposites, you will say. For that reason all the more charming. The goodness and beauty of the divine mind is no less shown in the traits of different races than of different tribes of fruits and flowers. And because things are exact opposites, is no reason why we should not like both. The eye is not like the hand, nor the ear like the foot; yet who condemns any of them for the difference? So I regard nations as parts of a great common body, and national differences as necessary to a common humanity.
I thought, when in English society, that it was as perfect and delightful as it could be. There was worth of character, strength of principle, true sincerity, and friendship, charmingly expressed. I have found all these, too, among the French, and besides them, something which charms me the more, because it is peculiar to the French, and of a kind wholly different from any I have ever had an experience of before. There is an iris-like variety and versatility of nature, a quickness in catching and reflecting the various shades of emotion or fancy, a readiness in seizing upon one's own half-expressed thoughts, and running them out in a thousand graceful little tendrils, which is very captivating.
I know a general prejudice has gone forth, that the French are all mere outside, without any deep reflection or emotion. This may be true of many. No doubt that the strength of that outward life, that acuteness of the mere perceptive organization, and that tendency to social exhilaration, which prevail, will incline to such a fault in many cases. An English reserve inclines to moroseness, and Scotch perseverance to obstinacy; so this aerial French nature may become levity and insincerity; but then it is neither the sullen Englishman, the dogged Scotchman, nor the shallow Frenchman that we are to take as the national ideal. In each country we are to take the very best as the specimen.
Now, it is true that, here in France, one can find people as judicious, quiet, discreet, and religious, as any where in the world; with views of life as serious, and as earnest, not living for pretence or show, but for the most rational and religious ends. Now, when all this goodness is silvered over, as it were, reflecting like mother-of-pearl or opal, a thousand fanciful shades and changes, is not the result beautiful? Some families into which I have entered, some persons with whom I have talked, have left a most delightful impression upon my mind; and I have talked, by means of imperfect English, French, and interpretations, with a good many. They have made my heart bleed over the history of this most beautiful country. It is truly mournful that a people with so many fine impulses, so much genius, appreciation, and effective power, should, by the influence of historical events quite beyond the control of the masses, so often have been thrown into a false position before the world, and been subjected to such a series of agonizing revulsions and revolutions.
"O, the French are half tiger, half monkey!" said a cultivated American to me the other day. Such remarks cut me to the heart, as if they had been spoken of a brother. And when they come from the mouth of an American, the very shade of Lafayette, it would seem, might rise and say, "_Et tu, Brute!_"
It is true, it is a sarcasm of Voltaire's; but Voltaire, though born a Frenchman, neither imbodied nor was capable of understanding the true French ideal. The French _head_ he had, but not the French heart. And from his bitter judgment we might appeal to a thousand noble names. The generous Henri IV., the noble Sully, and Bayard the knight _sans peur et sans reproche_, were these half tiger and half monkey? Were John Calvin and Fénélon half tiger and half monkey? Laplace, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Cuvier, Des Cartes, Malebranche, Arago--what were they? The tree of history is enriched with no nobler and fairer boughs and blossoms than have grown from the French stock.
It seems a most mysterious providence that some nations, without being wickeder than others, should have a more unfortunate and disastrous history.
The woes of France have sprung from the fact that a Jezebel de Medici succeeded in exterminating from the nation that portion of the people corresponding to the Puritans of Scotland, England, and Germany. The series of persecutions which culminated in the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and ended with the dragonades under Louis XIV., drained France of her lifeblood. Other nations have profited by the treasures then cast out of her, and she has remained poor for want of them. Some of the best blood in America is of the old Huguenot stock. Huguenots carried arts and manufactures into England. An expelled French refugee became the theological leader of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and America; and wherever John Calvin's system of theology has gone, civil liberty has gone with it; so that we might almost say of France, as the apostle said of Israel, "If the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fulness!"
When the English and Americans sneer at the instability, turbulence, and convulsions of the French nation for the last century, let us ask ourselves what our history would have been had the "Gunpowder Plot" succeeded, and the whole element of the reformation been exterminated. It is true, vitality and reactive energy might have survived such a process; but that vitality would have shown itself just as it has in
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