Of all large cities there is a class of men too lazy or too foolishly proud to work, or at least to work steadily and with the definite object of a support in view. How they live is a mystery to most persons, for they are miserably poor, and to all appearance are never engaged in any occupation but that of avoiding their landlords and other creditors. A majority of these men are either artists or writers, some of them possessed of decided abilities, but all aimless and shiftless, and so wedded to their vagabondage as to be incapable of systematic exertion. If a success is won it is rarely followed up with a determined effort to win another, but is succeeded by a season, if not an entire life, of idleness. All dream of success, and say they are ambitious, but they find it much pleasanter to do nothing, even in poverty, than to work. They would like to be famous, and would enjoy wealth, and are perfectly willing to take both should they be thrust upon them, but as for working for them, they will have none of it. They pass strange lives, and though nominally "leading minds," sink their intellects in vagrancy or dissipation. They are termed Bohemians in consequence of living entirely by their wits.
The truest types of Bohemians, and the purest and most genuine Bohemian communities, are to be found in the Latin Quarter. The Bohemians are mostly young men, lawyers, writers, musicians, artists, soldiers, and actors. They are too careless to think of the future, and look only to the enjoyment of the present, and trust to luck for the days to come. They are seen to-day, pale and careworn, taking their meals in a wretched crémerie, and to-morrow you may, perhaps, meet them radiant and careless in the most brilliant salons of the city. "Up one day, down the next," is a fair description of them. The most industrious earn a precarious living by writing for the press and the stage, and by practising various artifices known only to the initiated. Their money (when they have any) goes quickly. They are very popular with the pretty, vivacious grisettes, with whom their poverty is no crime, and when one of the poor fellows is laid in the fosse commune, it is not unfrequently the case that the sincerest mourner present is some pretty girl of this class whom the dead man lightly loved, and, perhaps, still more lightly cast aside. They are the sworn enemies of landlords and tailors, and look upon them as a class of monsters sent upon the earth to torment men of genius.
There is, amongst the Bohemians of Paris, an immense amount of talent, squandered and perverted as it is. In the midst of their vagrancy, they are conscious of their powers, and are restless and discontented. A revolution is hailed by them with joy, and they enter upon it with an energy and an ardor that contrasts strangely with their general habits. These upheavings invariably bring the best of this element to the surface, for, in spite of its faults, it has contributed some great men to the world. The most illustrious example that occurs to me is the First Napoleon, than whom, in his early manhood, a truer Bohemian never existed. Victor Hugo and many others that could be named, were at some, time members of this class. Napoleon had the will as well as the genius to raise himself above the poverty and struggles of his youth, and when he came into power, profited by the lessons he had learned among his old companions. His keen knowledge of human nature, which may be said to have been almost intuitive, and his association with the dwellers in the great Bohemia, enabled him to call to his aid the best of its members — men endowed with genius and imbued with new ideas. He chose them with matchless skill; he was quick to detect their good qualities, and he placed them where they would benefit and not injure France. Having done this, he held down the rest of the class with a firm hand. He recognized in them the natural enemies of law, order, and stability, and he knew that it was necessary to curb them rigidly, so that it is true that, while he was the unwavering foe of the Bohemians of Paris after his elevation to power, he also drew the most of the great dignitaries of his reign from amongst that element, and whenever he needed new and more vigorous men he sought them there.
The following account of some of the incidents in the life of a Bohemian is taken from a letter of M. Jules Fleury to Henry Mürger, the author of "Scenes in the Life of a Bohemian." Mürger and Fleury passed their vagrant days together, and were sworn friends, even after they had won fame: "Nine years ago we lived together, and we possessed between us fourteen dollars a month. Full of confidence in the future, we rented two rooms in the Rue de Vaurigard, for sixty dollars a year. Youth does not reckon. You spoke to the porter's wife of such a sumptuous set of furniture that she let the rooms to you on your honest face, without asking references. Poor woman! what thrills of horror ran through her when she saw our furniture set down before her door. You had six plates — three of which were of porcelain — a Shakspeare, the works of Victor Hugo, a chest of drawers in its dotage, and a Phrygian cap. By some extraordinary chance, I had two mattresses, a hundred and fifty volumes, an arm-chair, two plain chairs, a table, and a skull. The idea of making a grand sofa belongs to you, I confess; but it was a deplorable idea. We sawed off the four feet of a cot-bedstead and made it rest on the floor; the consequence of which was that the cot-bedstead proved to be utterly worthless. The porter's wife took pity on us, and lent us a second cot-bedstead, which furnished your chamber, which was likewise adorned with several dusty souvenirs you hung on the wall: such as a woman's glove, a velvet mask, and various other objects which love had hallowed. The first week passed away in the most delightful manner. We stayed at home, we worked hard, we smoked a good deal. I have found among this mountain of papers a blank sheet, on which is written, 'Beatrix: A Drama, in Five Acts. By Henry Mürger. Played at the _______ Theatre, on the ____ day of ____, 18__.'
This sheet was torn out of an enormous blank copy-book for you were guilty of the execrable habit of using all our paper to write nothing else but the titles of dramas. You wrote 'Played' as seriously as could be, just to see what effect the title-page would produce. Our paper disappeared too fast in this way. Luckily, when all of it had disappeared, you discovered heaven knows where, or how some old atlas of geography, where alternate leaves were blank a discovery which enabled us to do without the stationer. * * * * You resolved, on the third of November, that we would cook our own victuals as long as the fourteen dollars lasted; so you bought a soup-pot, which cost fifteen cents, some thyme, and some laurel; being a poet, you had such a marked weakness for laurel, you used to poison all the soup with it."
Their mode of living may be gathered from the following extracts: "When money failed us, you pointed out to me an old cashmere shawl, we used as a table cover. I told you, 'They will give nothing for that.' You replied, 'Oh, yes they will, if we add pantaloons and waistcoast to it.' I added pantaloons and waistcoast, and you took the bundle and started for the den in Place de la Croix Rouge. You soon came back with the huge package, and you were sad enough as you said, 'They are disagreeable yonder; try in the Rue de Condé, the clerks who are accustomed to deal with students are not so hard-hearted as they are in the Place de la Croix Rouge.' I went to the Rue de Condé. The two pairs of pantaloons, the famous shawl, and the waistcoats were closely examined; even their pockets were searched. 'We cannot lend anything on that,' said the pawnbroker's clerk, disdainfully pushing the things away from him. You had the excellent habit of never despairing. You said, ' We must wait until this evening; at night all clothes are new, and to take every precaution, I shall go to the pawnbroker's shop in the Rue du Fouare, where all the poor go; as they are accustomed there to see nothing pledged but rags and tatters, our clothes will glitter like barbaric pearl and gold.' Alas, the Rue du Fouare was cruel as his brethren."
There is another class of men who may be included amongst the Bohemian element, who are simply idlers, men too lazy to work. They are called loungers. "The lounger," says Jules Janin, "does not acknowledge that he is a lounger; on the contrary, he considers himself — happy man! — the busiest and most laborious person in the world. He a lounger! how can you imagine such a thing; he has a perfect horror of idleness; he is hardly risen in the morning before he betakes himself to his favorite work; if an artist, he is at his painting; a poet, at his poem; a statesman, at his correspondence. You will see how he will work to-day, for it must be confessed, he is not quite satisfied with yesterday; yesterday he went out to look for a document which he wants, some advice of which he is in need, a little color for his sky, blue or black, but now he will do without it, he will not stir out all day, time is too precious; it is the thread of which the life of man is spun. Now, says he, for work! Our hero heaves a sigh, and at last his resolution is taken; the color is on the pallet, the inspiration has come — or the white paper is waiting for the laborious — writer yes, but there is a provoking ray of the sun shedding its bright yellow light below in the street; or else, here is a tiresome cloud, throwing darkness into my room; and then it is cold it is warm — my head is heavy. * * * * * 'If I were to profit by this moment, to go and see my friend Theodore,' says the lounger to himself. 'Theodore lives not far from here, he is always at home till six o'clock, he gives good advice, and he really loves me; I will go, it is only a moment's affair. On my word of honor I shall be back in an hour. Madame Julien,' says he to the portress, 'I shall be back immediately; if any one calls upon me tell him to wait; and take care of my fire, and get my dinner for me; for I mean to work all day and part of the night.' So saying to Madame Julien, who laughs in her sleeve, he goes out into the street. He is no longer the same man, his head is raised, his chest dilates, his legs feel lighter, life reascends to his cheek, hope to his heart. He looks at everything with as much astonishment as our first father Adam could have felt when he awoke in the midst of the works of creation. At this moment he has forgotten everything; his wife, if he has a wife, (but more often the lounger is not married,) his creditors, his work, his ambition, his genius, everything, even himself. If he were ill, he would forget his malady, while lounging. There he is; make room for him. While the crowd respectfully gives place to him, he sees it not; he mingles in it without knowing it, without intending it, as wave mingles with wave. The crowd draws and pushes him wherever he wishes to go." Be sure the lounger will never accomplish anything. He will always be a lounger.
There is yet another class, who have some means, very slight, but still something, but who are unwilling to work. A pleasant writer calls them the "Poor Bachelors," and thus describes them: "The Poor Bachelor is innately indolent, not with the indolence of the English sluggard, who lies a-bed to mid-day, and then remains at home with slippers on his feet and a yawn at his mouth, but with a sort of cultivated, elegant indolence, that very much resembles philosophy. You cannot condole with him on his poverty, because he makes a boast of it. He has nothing, but he desires nothing. Man is a ray of sunshine that is gone when it has shone; the path of life is rugged, let us strew it with flowers; we can die but once, and it is better to die with white hands and rosy finger nails, than with horny palms! These and a thousand other such remarks make up the doctrine of the Poor Bachelor. He repels, however, the accusation of idleness. He is up betimes in the morning, and has walked three times round the garden of the Palais Royal before many business people have opened their eyes. He punctually reads every line of some favorite journal. He is a useful part of the social machinery, because he carries about little scraps of news from one place to another, as sparrows do bits of stick. He calls on all his friends at regular intervals, and is the ornament of some family circle.
"The resources which the Poor Bachelor has at his disposal are, of course, various; but he rarely has more than a thousand francs a-year, because if he had he would belong to another category. Monsieur F________ is the extremest case I know of. He has precisely 500 francs, or 20l a-year — the produce of a small capital placed at good interest in one of the ready-made clothes houses, where, I suspect — on this point he is impenetrably discreet — he was once a clerk. I could point out the house in which he lives, but have never been asked up-stairs; for it is one of the first rules of conduct in this class not to be at home, except in some coffee-house at certain hours of the day. Their room is 'a nest,' as they call it, to sleep in. F__________ tells me, that more than twenty years ago he was fortunate enough to find a mansarde for sixty francs a-year. He has remained in it ever since, and his landlord has refrained from raising his rent on the tacit understanding that his tenant shall play a game of dominoes with him on Sunday after dinner. For this reason the bachelor is missed at his post in the cafe of the Rue du Bouloi every seventh evening, and every Monday is exposed to the satirical remarks of his cronies, who pretend to imagine that he observes the Sabbath!
"But how is it possible for even an old gentleman to be always dressed in garments not very threadbare, to appear occasionally in a new hat, to have his silver snuff-box replenished every morning, and to show a rosy and invariably smiling face, on 20l a-year, or 17l. 12s. rent deducted? M. F_________ 's own account of the matter, which he gave me one day that we were alone at the café, is as follows: 'When I have taken my little turn round the garden I slip into a by-street, where there is a baker who invariably has my sou loaf ready in a corner. With this I go to the crémerie, or milk-shop, and ask for five centimes' worth of milk, which I dilute with water, and drink as I eat my bread, and talk to the mistress of the place — about twenty years ago, when she was a morsel for a king — and I let that pass. [This was said with a very eloquent smile.] Your young stomach would not be satisfied with this; but I am then armed for the day. I feel light and cheerful; and as the afternoon advances, begin to look forward to the great affair — the important occupation of dinner. That meal is my delight. I spare no expense. Let those who know nothing be attracted by the gilded salons of the Palais Royal, and help to pay their extravagant rents. Thirty-two sous — two francs for a dinner! It is monstrous; and what a dinner! I go back to my crémerie, where I have long had the privilege [another smile] of dining. The good woman gives me a bowl of soup or plate of beef, and another of roast meat, or stewed meat, or vegetables, with fruit or cheese for dessert — all for sixteen sous. Do not imagine that I am at all favored in the price; there are three other customers equally well treated; but I flatter myself that my portions are a little more copious; and yet the crémerie makes a fair profit. In this way, you see, the two great expenses of the day are provided for; and I have 109 francs left. Now I see by your face,' continued the old gentleman, crossing his legs and stirring about a piece of sugar in a glass of water, 'that you are counting up that this leaves me only about six sous a-day for washing, tobacco, coffee, expenses, etc. I must, therefore, reveal to you the great secret of philosophical life in Paris. My little talents of society have procured me friends who invite me to dinner on an average once a-week; I have some relations to whom I go on other days; and I am very lucky at dominoes.' "
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. .