Imagine a place where you do not endure the horror of being alone, and yet have the freedom of solitude. There, free from the dust, the boredom, the vulgarities of a household, you reflect at ease, comfortably seated before a table, unincumbered by all the things that oppress you in houses; for if useless objects and papers had accumulated here they would have been promptly removed. You smoke slowly, quietly, like a Turk, following your thoughts among the blue curves.
If you have a voluptuous desire to taste some warm or refreshing beverage, well-trained waiters bring it to you immediately. If you feel like talking with clever men who will not bully you, you have within reach light sheets on which are printed winged thoughts, rapid, written for you, which you are not forced to bind and preserve in a library when they have ceased to please you. This place, the paradise of civilization, the last and inviolable refuge of the free man, is the café.
It is the café; but in the ideal, as we dream it, as it ought to be. The lack of room and the fabulous cost of land on the boulevards of Paris make it hideous in actuality. In these little boxes–of which the rent is that of a palace–one would be foolish to look for the space of a vestiary. Besides, the walls are decorated with stovepipe hats and overcoats hung on clothes-pegs–an abominable sight, for which atonement is offered by multitudes of white panels and ignoble gilding, imitations made by economical process.
And (let us not deceive ourselves) the overcoat, with which one never knows what to do, and which makes us worry everywhere,–in society, at the theatre, at balls,–is the great enemy and the abominable enslavement of modern life. Happy the gentlemen of the age of Louis XIV., who in the morning dressed themselves for all day, in satin and velvet, their brows protected by wigs, and who remained superb even when beaten by the storm, and who, moreover, brave as lions, ran the risk of pneumonia even if they had to put on, one outside the other, the innumerable waistcoats of Jodelet in ‘Les Précieuses Ridicules’!
“How shall I find my overcoat and my wife’s party cape?” is the great and only cry, the Hamlet-monologue of the modern man, that poisons every minute of his life and makes him look with resignation toward his dying hour. On the morning after a ball given by Marshal MacMahon nothing is found: the overcoats have disappeared; the satin cloaks, the boas, the lace scarfs have gone up in smoke; and the women must rush in despair through the driving snow while their husbands try to button their evening coats, which will not button!
One evening, at a party given by the wife of the President of the Chamber of Deputies, at which the gardens were lighted by electricity, Gambetta suddenly wished to show some of his guests a curiosity, and invited them to go down with him into the bushes. A valet hastened to hand him his overcoat, but the guests did not dare to ask for theirs, and followed Gambetta as they were! However, I believe one or two of them survived.
At the café no one carries off your overcoat, no one hides it; but they are all hung up, spread out on the wall like masterpieces of art, treated as if they were portraits of Mona Lisa or Violante, and you have them before your eyes, you see them continually. Is there not reason to curse the moment your eyes first saw the light? One may, as I have said, read the papers; or rather one might read them if they were not hung on those abominable racks, which remove them a mile from you and force you to see them on your horizon.
As to the drinks, give up all hope; for the owner of the café has no proper place for their preparation, and his rent is so enormous that he has to make the best even of the quality he sells. But aside from this reason, the drinks could not be good, because there are too many of them. The last thing one finds at these coffee-houses is coffee. It is delicious, divine, in those little Oriental shops where it is made to order for each drinker in a special little pot. As to syrups, how many are there in Paris? In what inconceivable place can they keep the jars containing the fruit juices needed to make them? A few real ladies, rich, well-born, good housekeepers, not reduced to slavery by the great shops, who do not rouge or paint their cheeks, still know how to make in their own homes good syrups from the fruit of their gardens and their vineyards. But they naturally do not give them away or sell them to the keepers of cafés, but keep them to gladden their flaxen-haired children.
Such as it is,–with its failings and its vices, even a full century after the fame of Procope,–the café, which we cannot drive out of our memories, has been the asylum and the refuge of many charming spirits. The old Tabourey, who, after having been illustrious, now has a sort of half popularity and a pewter bar, formerly heard the captivating conversations of Barbey and of Aurevilly, who were rivals in the noblest salons, and who sometimes preferred to converse seated before a marble table in a hall from which one could see the foliage and the flowers of the Luxembourg. Baudelaire also talked there, with his clear caressing voice dropping diamonds and precious stones, like the princess of the fairy tale, from beautiful red, somewhat thick lips.
A problem with no possible solution holds in check the writers and the artists of Paris. When one has worked hard all day it is pleasant to take a seat, during the short stroll that precedes the dinner, to meet one’s comrades and talk with them of everything but politics. The only favorable place for these necessary accidental meetings is the café; but is the game worth the candle, or, to speak more exactly, the blinding gas-jets? Is it worth while, for the pleasure of exchanging words, to accept criminal absinthe, unnatural bitters, tragic vermouth, concocted in the sombre laboratories of the cafés by frightful parasites?
Aurélien Scholl, who, being a fine poet and excellent writer, is naturally a practical man, had a pleasing idea. He wished that the reunions in the cafés might continue at the absinthe hour, but without the absinthe! A very honest man, chosen for that purpose, would pour out for the passers-by, in place of everything else, excellent claret with quinquina, which would have the double advantage of not poisoning them and of giving them a wholesome and comforting drink. But this seductive dream could never be realized. Of course, honest men exist in great numbers, among keepers of cafés as well as in other walks of life; but the individual honest man could not be found who would be willing to pour out quinquina wine in which there was both quinquina and wine.
In the Palais Royal there used to be a café which had retained Empire fittings and oil lamps. One found there real wine, real coffee, real milk, and good beefsteaks. Roqueplan, Arsène Houssaye, Michel Lévy, and the handsome Fiorentino used to breakfast there, and they knew how to get the best mushrooms. The proprietor of the café had said that as soon as he could no longer make a living by selling genuine articles, he would not give up his stock in trade to another, but would sell his furniture and shut up shop. He kept his word. He was a hero.