The sun has gone down behind the huge Arc de Triomphe, the last notes of the band in the Tuileries garden have died away, and the shades of evening are gathering over the great city. All the streets are crowded with people, workmen and workwomen coming from their daily avocations, and taking their way to the poorer quarters which they call "home." The omnibuses and cabs are filled with persons seeking their homes in the distant parts of the city, and on every railway long trains are departing with thousands bound for the suburban towns. In the morning you will see these same people coming back, dull and silent, for a day of care and fatigue lies before them; but now they are merry and careless. The labor of the day is over, and the season of pleasure is approaching. So they go, thousands upon thousands, and in a little while the streets seem deserted.
It is tine dinner hour, and you will find the salons of the Palais Royal and the Boulevards, and the humbler establishments of the less favored quarters thronged with persons in search of their evening meal. By seven o'clock the cafés and restaurants are almost deserted in their turn, and the throngs betake themselves to the places of amusement with which the city abounds.
The Cafés on the Boulevards are ready now for their evening visitors. If it be summer the pavements are lined with chairs and little tables around which, during the whole evening, thousands sit and sip their refreshments. How the lights flare out upon the dark streets from the brilliant saloons in the winter! Through the half curtained windows and doors you may see the merry pleasure-seekers within, and listen to their laughter which comes to you mingled with the rattle of glasses and dominoes. Pausing for a moment to glance at the brilliant scene is a poor wretch whose whole appearance is expressive of misery. He has not tasted food for a whole day, and these people are squandering that which would be life to him. He utters a half suppressed groan, and you turn quickly, but merely to catch a glimpse of his dark, pinched face, as the Sergent de Ville drives him onward. And so onward, all the long, weary night must he go, with the heavens dark and heavy above him, and the earth cold and hard at his feet.
The omnibuses rattle by with a furious crashing, and the lights of the cabs fairly dance, like so many fire flies between the lines of green trees, the crowd on the wide side walks grows thicker every moment, and overflows into the street. The hum, the buzz of thousands of voices floats merrily on the air, and at short intervals the music of a score of bells rises above all, proclaiming the flight of time to these careless creatures.
The clinking of sabres mingled with the rapid tramp of horses' hoofs attracts your attention, and a handsome carriage surrounded by a squadron of mounted men with gleaming helmets and gorgeous uniforms, dashes by swiftly, and by the glare of the street lamps you catch a glimpse of the tired, care-worn features of the Emperor, and the pensive face of the beautiful Empress. Their Majesties are bound for the Grand Opera, where you may see them more at your leisure.
The Imperial carriage has created a stir on the Boulevard, and you find yourself in the centre of a crowd which has suddenly gathered about you, all like you, watching the sovereigns as they pass down the broad street. A young girl next to you, says to you, half-laughing, that her Majesty is growing old, and that she can see her wrinkles, and thus draws your attention upon herself. She is young, and passably pretty, too, and is laughing and careless. Her dress is flashy, but not without taste, and she wears a profusion of jewelry, but there is a reckless look upon her face, and she has covered its dark lines with powder and paint. Look around you, and you will see hundreds — I might say thousands — of others, of which she is the type. The cafés are full of them. You will find one or more at every table, smoking, drinking, and laughing — the gayest of the gay. They come here to seek company, and when they find it, make the most of it. They, of course, are shameless, and this publicity is very agreeable to them; and you will find hundreds of them here, in the most beautiful and public resort of Paris, strolling arm in arm with their male friends or drinking with them at the tables. The men are as shameless as they. They are fully aware that no one is deceived as to the exact status of the women who hang on their arms, or sit with them in the full blaze of the cafe lights, but they seem rather to enjoy the display they are making. They are not all young men, gray hairs are seen at some of the tables, and many of these merry gentlemen have wives and children at home. Nor are the French the only transgressors against decency. Do you see that fine looking fellow, hobnobbing with that merry little woman, who has already drank more brandy than is good for her? His home is on Beacon Hill, in Boston that respectable city and I fear the steady children of the Pilgrims who so admire his perfect propriety of conduct at home, would hold up their hands in horror could they see him now. Yonder is a New York banker, called here by sudden and urgent business, and who writes to his absent better-half, that his time is so occupied with engagements that he will not be able to leave for home as soon as he expected. That magnificent beauty by his side could tell a different tale were she so disposed. That fat, good-natured old gentleman over yonder, is from Chicago. His good wife and children are snugly stowed away in their cozy quarters at the Grand Hôtel, believing in their innocence that papa has gone out to see his banker. He will have need to see him if he keeps up this thing very long, and, after all, he might have exhibited a little more taste in the selection of his companion. And that one, more shy than the rest, who only half understands the silly prattle of the merry girl by his side — why, that one is absolutely Deacon X______, from Brooklyn. Oh, fie! my worthy deacon, is Paris so different from "the City of Churches" that what is vice there is virtue here? and when the good pastor next calls on you for your experience, will you tell him of the company you were in when I found you at this pretty cafe?
Do I exaggerate? Tell me, ye that have seen Paris by night, if you have not also seen your countrymen, staid and respectable at home, plunge into vice here with a recklessness which appalled you?
But the crowd at the café and out on the side-walks is not entirely composed of black sheep. They are numerous enough, but the great majority of the people assembled here are persons of respectable positions. Men come here with their families, women with their husbands, young girls and boys with their parents, and the good and depraved mingle together in one careless throng. What must be the result of this promiscuous assembling, where virtue is degraded to the level of vice, where no distinction can, with politeness, be made between a pure woman and a lorette, and where licentiousness is held up to the gaze of the young — and the old, too, for that matter — not only unrebuked, but as the highest form of pleasure what must be the result of all this, I leave to others to determine, merely observing that I thanked God that my own country, with all its faults, was not cursed with such a state of society as this!
By eleven o'clock the theatres begin to discharge their thousands of spectators, who come to swell the crowd on the Boulevards, and from now until long after midnight the gayety will be at its height. Then the café's will close, the streets will become almost deserted. A few of the cafés remain open all night, and in them you will find one or two women waiting in the often vain hope of finding some visitor generous enough to give them a supper.
The Boulevards, however, do not attract all the Parisians. Come with me to the Champs Elysées. The great avenue is thronged with the many colored lights of the cabs and omnibuses. How they dart to and fro across the Place de la Concorde, and over the bridge. The lamps twinkle brightly in the Tuileries garden and amongst the green trees of the Champs Elysées. Every seat, every chair is filled, and the walks are full of promenaders. Here and there, on every hand, are the shooting stands, hobby-horse galleries, toy and refreshment stands, and all the pretty sights for which the place is famous. Those bright lights in the direction of the Avenue Gabriel mark the entrance to the circus, and you can hear on every hand the music from the cafés-chantants, which nestle amongst the trees on each side of the great avenue. Yonder is the Avenue Montaigne, and the glare of light which streams out of it is from the Jardin Mabille. Here, under these pretty trees, the throng is almost as great as on the Boulevards, but the crowd is quieter. The glare of the lights in the groves blinds you, the palaces in the distance rise white and bewildering, and until you have thoroughly familiarized yourself with the place, you are forced to call in the aid of a cab to enable you to find your hotel.
The river is alive with lights. There are long lines of illuminated windows on each side, lamps on the bridges, at the water's edge, and on the boats that dart rapidly to and fro through the silent and dark waters.
The blaze of the gaslight in the better parts of this great city is something wonderful. The American plan of a few sickly burners, separated by wide intervals of space, is discarded, and the lights are numerous and close together, and there are often as many as six or eight burners enclosed in a single lamp. In the Rue de Rivoli a lamp is hung between every arch, and the street is flooded with a perfect blaze of light. You cannot find a dark corner in any part of new Paris. And to see these streets on the nights of the great fêtes, when every house is illuminated, when long rows of gas jets throw out in bold relief the beautiful façades of the stately edifices, and climb to the summits of towers and monuments, when crowns arid crosses of fire deck the heads of statues and gleam down from the lefty heights, when millions of lamps, twined in wreaths and festoons, and of every shape and color, sparkle amidst the thick green of the Tuileries garden and the Champs Elysées, and pain the eyes with their brilliancy, when thousands of rockets and shells are bursting over head in mottoes and designs of fire to see all this in one brief night is enough to turn the coolest head, and set it to dreaming of Paradise as the only place whose splendors are not eclipsed by those which he has witnessed.
But do not think that beauty and splendor reign everywhere in the great city. Come with me out of the bright and crowded streets into the dark and narrow thoroughfares of old Paris. What a change of scene! Look up at the tall dark houses, old, begrimed with dirt, the windows stopped with old clothes and hats, and strips of paper. Everything about you betokens poverty — the very darkest and deepest poverty. The shops are small and wretched, and the poor little tapers with which their occupants seek to illuminate them but add to their gloom. The streets are full here, as in the better quarters, but with a very different throng. The dresses are coarse and ragged, or patched, the faces are pinched and wan. There are no cafés here — alas, there is not in the whole quarter as much money as will change hands to-night in one of the gilded saloons of the Boulevards! These people are hungry, dirty, ignorant and wretched! You hear no laughter from them, for hearts are heavy here, and life is all one long tragedy. It is a terrible place!
Midnight is long past. The heavy rumble of wheels is heard in the silent streets. But do not be alarmed; it is not artillery, but merely the "night carts" going their rounds. Those lights which dart about so rapidly and so close to the ground are the lanterns of the chiffoniers, who are seeking for rags, bones, and lost valuables, and who are picking out their living from the refuse of the streets. They will be out all night searching for their prey. But at last, as the gray streaks begin to light up the eastern sky, they too will disappear, and the streets will be left to the mysterious-looking sergents de ville, and for a little while Paris will be wrapped in silence and slumber.
Source: Paris by Sunlight and Gaslight; a work descriptive of the mysteries and miseries, the virtues, the vices, the splendors, and the crimes of the city of Paris. By James D. McCabe. .