Albert D. (Albert Dresden) Vandam.

My Paris note-book online

. (page 15 of 24)
Online LibraryAlbert D. (Albert Dresden) VandamMy Paris note-book → online text (page 15 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Allowing for the difference of attire, some of the Hebrew
prophets must have looked like M. Brisson ; I feel cer-
tain that they acted and spoke as he does ; and it will
easily be admitted that these Hebrew gentlemen could
not have been cheerful companions . in everyday Hfe.
M. Brisson, like Mrs. Gummidge, is a **lone, lorn
creature, ' ' and delights in his loneliness. He was, be-
fore Gambetta took him up, a barrister, neither briefless
nor prosperous. They still tell in and around the Palais
de Justice an anecdote about Maitre Henri Brisson, for
the whole truth of which I will not vouch ; it has no
doubt been embellished, but the main fact actually oc-
curred. In those days there was a President of one of
the Courts who suffered terribly from insomnia, and the
physicians prescribed their soporifics in vain. It so
happened that Maitre Henri Brisson was counsel for the



192 My Paris Note-Book.

plaintiff in a case which, on the face of it, was a forlorn
hope. His opponent was either Maitre Georges La-
chaud senior, or Maitre Barboux, the same who was
engaged lately in the Lesseps trial. I will not be certain
which of these two it was, but he enjoyed the reputation
of being a past master of oratorical skill and profound
legal knowledge ; he was, in fact, a shining light of the
French bar. He might have been the merest stagiaire
for all the chance he had, for the President fell into a
sound slumber while Maitre Brisson droned his drone,
and never heard a word of the arguments for the de-
fence. He only awoke when one of the assessors (puisne
judge) nudged him in the side. In spite of the palpa-
ble injustice, there was a judgment for the plaintiff.
Henri Brisson, the gossips add, was offered an engage-
ment as private reader to the judge, but the offer was
declined. The judge was disappointed but not angry,
and in the few cases in which the young barrister was
subsequently engaged before him, never gave judgment
against his clients.

The latter part of the story, including the judge's
offer of an engagement, I beg leave to doubt ; the
former part I am inclined to believe Implicitly. During
the five years it was my duty to attend the sittings of
the Chamber on important occasions, and afterwards,
during my periodical visits to Paris, I have heard M.
Brisson speak at length, not once, but a couple of scores
of times, and the result was invariably the same. I did
not fall asleep like the judge ; I listened with the great-
est attention, wondering all the while why sleep refused
to come, seeing that three-fourths of my colleagues in
''the Foreign Press Gallery" were indulging in fre-
quently recurring ** forty winks." Those who kept
bravely awake beside myself were mostly Germans and



My Paris Note-Book. 193

Austrians, with two or three Americans. The Germans
and Austrians assured me that, compared to the bores
to whom they had to hsten in their Reichsraths at home,
M. Brisson was amusing. The Americans averred that
they had had two or three years' training at St. Ste-
phen's, where they had to put up with seats in the
Strangers' Gallery, the British Parliament not providing
accommodation for the representatives of foreign papers.
At the outset of their apprenticeship they had endeav-
oured to beguile their weariness by taking a newspaper
or book from their pockets. The attendant had told
them that reading was against the rules. Their only
defence against drowsiness having been prohibited, they
naturally yielded to it, but in that instance also were
warned that sleeping was not allowed, and that repeated
indulgence would entail expulsion. Seeing that part of
their livelihood was at stake, they had become hard-
ened : hardened enough, in fact, to be able to face
Solomon Eagle himself were he to revisit the glimpses
of the moon.

On looking over what I have written, I feel inclined
to scratch the whole of it out, for I candidly confess
that were I to light upon a similar passage in any pub-
lication short of a soi-disant comic one, I would be dis-
posed to vote it trash, if not worse. And yet I can
assure the reader that I have exaggerated nothing.
There is not a single man in the Chamber of Deputies
who does not view with dismay the attempt of M. Bris-
son to get into the rostrum, for I may be permitted to
point out that the moment a deputy looks like contem-
plating a set speech, he is cheered, hooted, or some-
times hounded to the tribune. A member rarely speaks
from his seat, except to make a passing remark, and
then only by the tacit goodwill of the House. As an

\ n 17



194 ^Y Paris Note-Book.

Instance of the dread M. Brisson's oratory inspires,
I may recount a personal anecdote. On the day of
Victor Hugo's funeral I was among a serried group of
deputies while MM. Auguste Vacquerie and Floquet
delivered their funeral orations. M. Brisson was stand-
ing a few paces off, and I asked a neighbour if M. Bris-
son was not going to speak. ' ' Assuredly not, ' ' was
the answer. "If he did, Saussier and all the officers
of his staff would tumble off their horses, and the
horses themselves would want waking afterwards. I
believe Brisson intended to speak, but Floquet, to
whom he read and rehearsed his speech, dissuaded
him." "In what way?" I asked. "After he had
done, Floquet said — * It is very fine; still, I am very
sorry.' * What for?' asked Brisson, in a sepulchral
voice. ' I could have wished that you had died, and
that Victor Hugo had been deputed to eulogise your
virtues.' "

Frenchmen are apt to give the respectable bore in the
tribune, however well intentioned that bore may be, a
shorter shrift than our members at St. Stephen's ; they,
the Frenchmen, will mercilessly shout him down, re-
gardless of the amenities of debate, and demand la
cldturey irrespective of the number of speakers who
have asked to be heard ; and the President is bound to
take the sense of the House on the demand. After
that there is no possibility of opening the original ques-
tion again ; the only resource of the minority is to speak
against the motion by sending 07ie member to the tribune,
for a second speech is not allowed. Well, notwithstand-
ing the dismay his appearance in the tribune generally
provokes, M. Brisson is almost invariably listened to
with respectful silence, and only interrupted on questions
of policy, or because he rubs an adversary the wrong



My Paris Note-Book. 195

way, and not on account of his ponderous style.
Whence this exceptional tolerance of the Chamber with
regard to him ?

Because even his most determined adversaries admit
the integrity of the man, his sterling character, his
superiority to most of the RepubHcans around him.
That alone is sufficient to single him out from the rest,
and his opponents' abstention from all gratuitous inter-
ruption is, as it were, a tribute to his sullen but dis-
tinctly genuine honesty, which seems to be wholly out
of keeping with the political tactics practised in the
latter end of the nineteenth century. M. Brisson is
regarded as a Republican modelled after the antique
pattern, inflexible with regard to principles, self-inocu-
lated against the prevailing contagion, proof against
corruption, in short, a modern Cato and Brutus rolled
into one, ' ' probably, ' ' as some one said, ' ' because
there was not sufficient material among the latter-day
would-be saviours of France to make two men of that
stamp. ' '

Unfortunately, the moral has its reverse. All these
sterUng qualities are rendered useless as far as the wel-
fare of France is concerned, for the want of a little
amiability and tolerance, by the absolute dislike to cakes
and ale which in M. Brisson' s opinion should mark the
sincere Republican. M. de Montespan thought fit to
wear perpetual mourning for that wife of his, though she
was ' ' very much alive, ' ' as Louis XIV. could have tes-
tified. I cannot understand why M. Brisson should be
wearing perpetual mourning in his looks, gait, and de-
meanour for the Third Republic, which, after all, has
done him no injury, and is not likely to fling itself into
the arms of either Prince Victor or the Comte de Paris.
From being an obscure though respected barrister, he



196 My Paris Note-Book.

became, thanks to that Third RepubUc, a President of
the Chamber, a Prime Minister, and, but for his own
fault, would have become the Chief Magistrate of France.
I repeat, but for his own fault, for odd, or perhaps most
natural to relate, in that apparently frivolous Paris, which
in overwhelming numbers made M. Edouard Lockroy
her ** first deputy," there was a large substratum of
serious-minded men — by no means all Jacobins — who
elected to pin their faith on the less attractive but more
sterling qualities of M. Brisson when in 1887 the reve-
lations inculpating his son-in-law in the ' ' Caffarel scan-
dal" compelled M. Jules Gr^vy to resign his functions,
M. Brisson stood practically and theoretically a fairer
chance of being elected to the Presidential chair than
M. Sadi Carnot. But those senators and deputies who
* ' know their Paris, ' ' and there are a goodly number,
were virtually afraid to carry so austere a Republican to
the Elys6e-Bourbon, and they communicated their fears
to those who did not ' ' know their Paris. ' ' Republican
austerity is very well in theory ; the man who would
carry it out at the Elys^e-Bourbon by utterly abstaining
from giving fetes and entertainments would not only
arouse the laughter — and the contemptuous laughter —
of the whole of Paris, but, what is worse, her ire. ' ' The
Parisian must show his teeth ; he must either growl or
laugh," said Victor Hugo, and if M. Brisson had been
** enthroned" in the Faubourg Saint- Honor6, the
Parisians would not have left off growling until M.
Brisson had resigned, for M. Brisson, they knew, would
have assuredly resigned sooner than tolerate the sound
of minstrelsy and watch the twinkling of merry feet
under the same roof that sheltered his Republican head.
The little man to whom M. Brisson has been talking
all the while would have cut a better figure at the former



My Paris Note-Book. 197

town residence of Madame de Pompadour ; for M. Rene
Goblet's Republicanism is also above suspicion, and
though, like most small men, he is somewhat cantanker-
ous — which M. Brisson is not — and more or less pro-
vincial, he is at the same time bright and witty. It is a
well-known fact that when he was at the Ministry of the
Interior, he was much more master of the situation than
any of his predecessors had been, and than any of his
successors, save M. Constans, have been since. The
officials at the Place Beauveau are no respecters of
ministers. There are generally three Ministers of the
Interior, and though the officials have no time to be-
come familiar with their fast-succeeding chiefs' charac-
ters, the contempt is there all the same. M. Goblet had no
objection to their becoming familiar, but was determined
to put a stop to their contempt. There was in those days,
and there maybe still, a '' Director of the Press" — read,
"head of the newspaper department" — named Carle.
His principal duty consisted in looking to the cuttings
and extracts from the French and foreign sheets to be laid
before his superior. M. Carle, in spite of his benevo-
lent countenance and patriarchal white locks, used to
delight in annoying the fast-succeeding chiefs. His
method was invariably the same. During the honey-
moon of his term of office, the minister was allowed to
see none but flattering and complimentary paragraphs ;
then their number gradually diminished, and less satis-
factory expressions of quasi-public opinion were substi-
tuted. At the same time M. Carle's attitude to the
minister whose popularity was on the wane, underwent
a change. It grew more sympathetic in direct propor-
tion to the vituperations of the press. On the very
first day of his assumption of the portfolio of the Inte-
rior, M. Goblet took the bull by the horns. ' ' I have

17*



198 My Paris Note-Book.

heard, M. Carle," he said, "that you are very much
affected by having to show adverse criticisms to your
chiefs. If there should be any, please to keep them
back, and if you will take my advice, don't read them
yourself You'll be spared a great deal of pain, and I
shall not have the sad spectacle of seeing you suffer."
M. Goblet is the only Minister of the Interior of whom
M. Carle had subsequently a good word to say. His
was probably the only one, for M. Goblet is not Hked.
He is overbearing, and still fancies himself a god of
some kind. Perhaps it is not his fault, but that of the
provincial town in the north where he began his career.
M. Goblet poses as the apostle of ''decentralisation."
He would fain do away with prefects and sub-prefects,
and limit the authority of the Minister of the Interior
over the mayors of towns, large and small, as well as
communes. The idea in itself may be good or the re-
verse for France. Unfortunately, M. Goblet is not an
agreeable example of a local celebrity, ' ' promoted to
higher destinies ;' ' the most ' ' buckram' ' prefect, the
most conceited sub-prefect, is a Chesterfield and modest
creature compared to him. But he is not devoid of
brains, and but for the lack of vocal power, his speeches
would afford an agreeable and refreshing change from
the * ' dull fluency' ' around. As it is, he has great diffi-
culty in making himself heard. M. Goblet's biography,
like that of the late M. Tirard, and a dozen others,
reads, at the first blush, like a fragment from the libretto
of an op6ra bouffe or extravaganza, rather than a piece
of sober fact ; but even with the comparatively large
space at my command, I cannot fill in all the particulars,
nor afford more than a passing glimpse of all the figures
whose names are household words — if they are not by-
words — with newspaper readers throughout the world.



My Paris Note-Book. 199

As the hour for the sitting draws nigh, they come
trooping into the Salle des Pas-Perdus, singly, in pairs,
in groups. Here comes M. de Douville-Maillefeu, the
would-be Mirabeau of the Third RepubHc, who, up to
the present, has only succeeded in being its Triboulet.
At his heels almost, walks Mgr. d' Hulst, the successor
to Mgr. Freppel, and the man upon whom religious
and Conservative France is inclined to look as the
counterpart of the Abbe (afterwards Cardinal) Maury.
The little fellow who nimbly gets out of the ecclesias-
tic's way — whether out of respect or dislike, I am un-
able to say — and who looks like Fancelli, the well-known
Italian tenore robusto, is M. Graignon, the erstwhile
Prefect of Police, who, during the " Caffarel scandal,"
so unfortunately lost the documents and letters which
would have proved the innocence of M. Daniel Wilson.
It is on the stroke of three, and the lobby is very full,
for it is a field day. Here is M. de Freycinet, looking
not unlike Mr. George Bentley, the eminent publisher,
though somewhat shorter ; the silk purse, of which the
Third Republic, in spite of everything that has been said
lately, has been unable to make socially and financially a
sow's ear. Immediately behind him come three former
ambassadors to the Court of St. James's — the Due de la
Rochefoucauld-Bisaccia, M. Challemel-Lacour, and M.
Leon Say. They are not together, though their elbows
almost touch, and they are as far apart, mentally, socially,
and morally, as the poles are asunder. The ' ' History of
the French Embassy in London," and the *' History of
the English Embassy in Paris," have yet to be written,
but whosoever writes them, whether he intend to pub-
lish them in the form of bulky quartos or modest octa-
vos, must divest his mind of all idea of accomplishing
a work of conciliation, and before engaging upon the



200 My Paris Note-Book.

task, must faithfully promise himself to eschew through-
out the stock phrases of ' ' friendly nations, " " the sym-
pathy existing between two great peoples," and so forth.
I can give him an epigram which, if worked out in the
proper spirit, will produce a more truthful version of
the real state of feeling between the French and the
English than all the comphmentary after-dinner speeches
of lord mayors and their "guests of the evening." It
is not my own, but Lesage's : ''We embraced one
another most effusively, and have been the bitterest
enemies since." M. Decrais is the thirty-ninth French
Ambassador to the Court of St. James's since the First
Revolution ; Lord Dufferin is the eleventh English
Ambassador to France during that same period. The
historian, if he be so minded, will have no difficulty in
pointing out the causes of this numerical difference, and
showing its effect on the "friendly relations between
two great peoples. ' '

I am, however, not concerned with ambassadors at
this present moment, consequently I let the duke and
the erstwhile professor of philosophy pass, to contem-
plate for an instant the grandson of the celebrated Jean
Baptiste Say, who (the grandson) is the virtual and
permanent, though unseen Finance Minister of the
Third Republic, no matter whether the post be occupied
nominally by M. Rouvier, M. Burdeau, or any one else.
When the former is in office, M. Say's hand is least
apparent : when the late M. Tirard held the portfolio,
M. Say's hand was most apparent. As M. Haentjens,
the Imperialist deputy, said once — "Tirard proposes,
and Say disposes." Unlike the erstwhile manufacturer
of mock jewellery, M. Say does not sacrifice to the
graces : his trousers seem to be at perpetual logger-
heads with his shoe-leather ; the skirts of his coat are



My Paris Note-Book. 201

almost symbolical of his budgets — they meet in front,
but there is an ugly gap behind. His moustache is the
most wonderful part of him — it is a refractory, angry
moustache, evidently ill at ease beneath the ever-quiv-
ering nostrils ; the rest of the face is almost motionless,
and the epithet of Thiers, ^' gros egdiste'' — in a quarrel
between two niggers, the one is sure to call the other
"nigger" — that epithet which was altered by Gambetta
into '' gras econome,'' suggests itself at once to the
observer.

All of a sudden there is a rolling of drums ; M. Paul
de Cassagnac, who has been talking to M. Edouard
Herve—'' Apollo all but the legs in conversation with
Apollo all but the head," as some one has it — M. Paul
de Cassagnac vanishes as if by magic, lest he should be
compelled to take off his hat ; but we all ' ' uncover ; ' '
the troops present arms ; and the President of the
Chamber, preceded by two ushers, and flanked by two
officers, passes between the lines of soldiers. I have
not been in the Chamber for over fifteen months ; the
last President I saw was M. Floquet, and on that day
his face curiously reminded me of Marie Antoinette's
as the old prints represent her. It may have been a
fancy of mine. When the President has disappeared,
the Salle des Pas-Perdus becomes almost empty in a few
minutes, and as I ascend to my perch on the second floor,
by courtesy called * ' la Tribune de la Presse Etrangere, ' '
I can hear the sound of the President's bell. It is the
signal that the business of the day has begun, for —

" C'est au bruit de la sonnette
Que Ton parle et qu'on se tait;
C'est au bruit de la sonnette
Qu'on se leve et qu'on s'assied ;
Sans le bruit de la sonnette
Jamais rien ne se ferait."



202 My Paris Note-Book.



CHAPTER IX.

Round about the Palais-Bourbon — More about the President's bell
— Past Presidents and their performances on the instrument —
Dupin aine — A mot of M. Floquet — Unruly deputies— M. de Cas-
sagnac — M. Baudry d'Asson — The President's task more difficult
now than it was formerly — The President's hat — The President's
chair and table— The eight secretaries — The rostrum — Orators
of former days, and speakers of to-day — Interrupters — The offi-
cial shorthand reporters and summary writers — Their honesty —
French journalists and their duties — M. Emile Ollivier, the ex-
Empress Eugenie, and Sir John Lintorn Simmons — The Quaes-
tors — The members' stipend, and what it led to in one instance
— First appearance of Gambetta on the political scene — A word
about "An Englishman in Paris" — Refreshments for deputies —
Quaestor Baze's reform — Distribution of the members' seats —
The ministerial bench— The manner of voting— Ladies in the
Chamber — Parliamentary oratory.

That metrical allusion to the importance of the Presi-
dent's bell in the Chamber with which I wound up just
now is even more true at present than when it was writ-
ten about a hundred years ago. It would be difficult
perhaps to convey a just estimate of that importance,
not only as it affects the deputies themselves, but as
showing the temper and disposition of the chairman. I
have not been at the Palais- Bourbon since MM. Casimir-
Perier and Dupuy have occupied the position ; but I
remember the performances on the bell of MM. de
Morny, Walewski, and Schneider (during the Empire),
and those of their successors, MM. Gr6vy, Buffet,
d'Audiffret-Pasquier, Gambetta, Brisson, and Floquet,
under the Third Republic. That of the late President



My Paris Note-Book. 203

of the Republic was a kind of sober, mild protest, emi-
nently suggestive of a desire not to damage the metal,
and as if to lend colour to the suggestion, M. Grevy
used to bend forward now and again to ascertain
whether any such damage had been done. It would
tally with the character of the man who, whenever a
heated discussion arose in the Ministerial Council, en-
deavoured to still the troubled waters with a ' ' Do what
you like, but don't let's have any fuss ; " it would tally,
above all, with his economical spirit, which saw no good
in the smashing of furniture that had to be replaced.
The subject of M. Grevy' s "carefulness" is, however,
too interesting, especially when viewed in connection
with the exalted position he occupied, to be dismissed
in a few lines ; I will refer to it again in my notes about
the Elys6e-Bourbon.

M. Buffet' s performance was equally characteristic of
himself It was sustained and prolonged even after the
necessity of it had ceased — out of time and out of tune,
defiant and harsh like his speeches, which were always
sprinkled with things disagreeable to political friends
and foes alike, and emphasised by a scowling challenge
to his listeners. M. Brisson's ring depressed you like
the tolling at a funeral ; Gambetta's sounded like a toc-
sin ; and M. Floquet's two sharp jerks gave one the
impression of the fall of the lunette on the condemned
man's neck, and the whirr of the descending guillotine
immediately afterwards. For M. Charles Floquet,
though he is probably not the Jacobin of former days,
'' now that he's got a coo," would not like the knowl-
edge of that change to go forth to the world at large. He
lashed himself in a rage by shaking his bell, as Edmund
Kean lashed himself in a rage by shaking a ladder
before "going on " in the third act of The Merchant of



204 My Paris Note-Book.

Venice. In my notes on the Com6die-Fran9aise will be
found an anecdote of Got's telling that story to M.
Mounet-Sully. M. Floquet, who is a frequent visitor
to the green-room, must have heard and applied it in
his own way.

The greatest ''virtuoso on the Presidential bell,"
however, was undoubtedly Dupin aine, who occupied
the chair from 1832 till 1839, and from May 24, 1849,
till the day of the Coup d' Etat. Though I remember
seeing him once or twice in the early sixties, I never
heard him perform, his Presidential career having come
to an end long before my time. His manipulation of
the instrument was, by all accounts, something wonder-
ful — in fact, if we are to believe his contemporaries,
many of whom are still alive, he was the most wonder-
ful President the Chamber ever had or is likely to have.
His remarks and answers to refractory or merely turbu-
lent deputies remind one of Rivarol and Rochefoucauld.
Here is one which the next time Dr. Farquharson at-
tempts to suppress the titles of courtesy the members
of the British House of Commons give to one another,
may be pointed out to him with advantage. Among
the most unruly members during the Second Republic
was the so-called workingman Miot. One day he was
addressing the Chamber, when, pretending to make a
distinction between the two sides of the House, he
turned to the left, saying — '' Citoyens democrates ;'' then
turning to the right, he exclaimed — ''Messieurs les


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryAlbert D. (Albert Dresden) VandamMy Paris note-book → online text (page 15 of 24)