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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Parisian Sketches

By Washington Irving (1783–1859)

[Wolfert’s Roost, and Other Papers. 1855.]


I OFTEN amuse myself by watching from my window (which by-the-by 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 theatre. He has resided at 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 pigtail. 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 entresol, 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 café 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 mid-day. 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
  • Le lendemain
  • Matin.”

    In another part of the hotel, a handsome suite of rooms is occupied by an old English gentleman of great probity, some understanding, and very considerable crustiness, who has come to France to live economically. He has a very fair property, but his wife, being of that blessed kind compared in Scripture to the fruitful vine, has overwhelmed him with a family of buxom daughters, who hang clustering about him, ready to be gathered by any hand. He is seldom to be seen in public, without one hanging on each arm, and smiling on all the world, while his own mouth is drawn down at each corner like a mastiff’s, with internal growling at everything about him. He adheres rigidly to English fashion in dress, and trudges about in long gaiters and broad-brimmed hat; while his daughters almost overshadow him with feathers, flowers, and French bonnets.

    He contrives to keep up an atmosphere of English habits, opinions, and prejudices, and to carry a semblance of London into the very heart of Paris. His mornings are spent at Galignani’s news-room, where he forms one of a knot of inveterate quidnuncs, who read the same articles over a dozen times in a dozen different papers. He generally dines in company with some of his own countrymen, and they have what is called a “comfortable sitting,” after dinner, in the English fashion, drinking wine, discussing the news of the London papers, and canvassing the French character, the French metropolis, and the French revolution, ending with a unanimous admission of English courage, English morality, English cookery, English wealth, the magnitude of London, and the ingratitude of the French.

    His evenings are chiefly spent at a club of his countrymen, where the London papers are taken. Sometimes his daughters entice him to the theatres, but not often. He abuses French tragedy, as all fustian and bombast, Talma as a ranter, and Duchesnois as a mere termagant. It is true his ear is not sufficiently familiar with the language to understand French verse, and he generally goes to sleep during the performance. The wit of the French comedy is flat and pointless to him. He would not give one of Munden’s wry faces, or Liston’s inexpressible looks, for the whole of it.

    He will not admit that Paris has any advantage over London. The Seine is a muddy rivulet in comparison with the Thames; the West End of London surpasses the finest parts of the French capital; and on some one’s observing that there was a very thick fog out-of-doors: “Pish!” said he, crustily, “it’s nothing to the fogs we have in London!”

    He has infinite trouble in bringing his table into anything like conformity to English rule. With his liquors, it is true, he is tolerably successful. He procures London porter, and a stock of port and sherry, at considerable expense; for he observes that he cannot stand those cursed thin French wines: they dilute his blood so much as to give him the rheumatism. As to their white wines, he stigmatizes them as mere substitutes for cider; and as to claret, why “it would be port if it could.” He has continual quarrels with his French cook, whom he renders wretched by insisting on his conforming to Mrs. Glass; for it is easier to convert a Frenchman from his religion than his cookery. The poor fellow, by dint of repeated efforts, once brought himself to serve up ros bif sufficiently raw to suit what he considered the cannibal taste of his master; but then he could not refrain, at the last moment, adding some exquisite sauce, that put the old gentleman in a fury.

    He detests wood-fires, and has procured a quantity of coal; but not having a grate, he is obliged to burn it on the hearth. Here he sits poking and stirring the fire with one end of a tongs, while the room is as murky as a smithy; railing at French chimneys, French masons, and French architects; giving a poke, at the end of every sentence, as though he were stirring up the very bowels of the delinquents he is anathematizing. He lives in a state militant with inanimate objects around him; gets into high dudgeon with doors and casements, because they will not come under English law, and has implacable feuds with sundry refractory pieces of furniture. Among these is one in particular with which he is sure to have a high quarrel every time he goes to dress. It is a commode, one of those smooth, polished, plausible pieces of French furniture, that have the perversity of five hundred devils. Each drawer has a will of its own; will open or not, just as the whim takes it, and sets lock and key at defiance. Sometimes a drawer will refuse to yield to either persuasion or force, and will part with both handles rather than yield; another will come out in the most coy and coquettish manner imaginable; elbowing along, zigzag; one corner retreating as the other advances, making a thousand difficulties and objections at every move; until the old gentleman, out of all patience, gives a sudden jerk, and brings drawer and contents into the middle of the floor. His hostility to this unlucky piece of furniture increases every day, as if incensed that it does not grow better. He is like the fretful invalid, who cursed his bed, that the longer he lay, the harder it grew. The only benefit he has derived from the quarrel is, that it has furnished him with a crusty joke, which he utters on all occasions. He swears that a French commode is the most incommodious thing in existence, and that although the nation cannot make a joint-stool that will stand steady, yet they are always talking of everything’s being perfectionée.

    His servants understand his humor, and avail themselves of it. He was one day disturbed by a pertinacious rattling and shaking at one of the doors, and bawled out in an angry tone to know the cause of the disturbance. “Sir,” said the footman, testily, “it’s this confounded French lock!” “Ah!” said the old gentleman, pacified by this hit at the nation, “I thought there was something French at the bottom of it!”