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Part 2 Chapter 3 Qu’on Est Bien a Vingt Ans

In an old album, which we have at home, a friend has made various sketches of Philip, Charlotte, and all our family circle. To us oldsters the days we are describing seem but as yesterday; yet as I look at the drawings and recal my friend, and ourselves, and the habits in which we were dressed some twenty years since, I can’t but think what a commotion we should create were we to enter our own or our neighbour’s drawing-room in those garments which appeared perfectly becoming in the year 1840. What would be a woman without a crinoline petticoat, for example? an object ridiculous, hateful, I suppose hardly proper. What would you think of a hero who wore a large high black-satin stock cascading over a figured silk waistcoat; and a blue dress-coat, with brass buttons, mayhap? If a person so attired came up to ask you to dance, could you refrain from laughing? Time was, when young men so decorated found favour in the eyes of damsels who had never beheld hooped petticoats, except in their grandmothers’ portraits. Persons who flourished in the first part of the century never thought to see the hoops of our ancestors’ age rolled downwards to our contemporaries and children. Did we ever imagine that a period would arrive when our young men would part their hair down the middle, and wear a piece of tape for a neckcloth? As soon should we have thought of their dyeing their bodies with woad, and arraying themselves like ancient Britons. So the ages have their dress and undress; and the gentlemen and ladies of Victoria’s time are satisfied with their manner of raiment; as no doubt in Boadicea’s court they looked charming tattooed and painted blue.

The times of which we write, the times of Louis Philippe the king, are so altered from the present, that when Philip Firmin went to Paris it was absolutely a cheap place to live in; and he has often bragged in subsequent days of having lived well during a month for five pounds, and bought a neat waistcoat with a part of the money. “A capital bed-room, au premier, for a franc a day, sir,” he would call all persons to remark, “a bedroom as good as yours, my lord, at Meurice’s . Very good tea or coffee breakfast, twenty francs a month, with lots of bread and butter. Twenty francs a month for washing, and fifty for dinner and pocket-money — that’s about the figure. The dinner, I own, is shy, unless I come and dine with my friends; and then I make up for banyan days.” And so saying Philip would call out for more truffled partridges, or affably filled his goblet with my Lord Ringwood’s best Sillery. “At those shops,” he would observe, “where I dine, I have beer: I can’t stand the wine. And you see, I can’t go to the cheap English ordinaries, of which there are many, because English gentlemen’s servants are there, you know, and it’s not pleasant to sit with a fellow who waits on you the day after.”

“Oh! the English servants go to the cheap ordinaries, do they?” asks my lord, greatly amused, “and you drink bière de Mars at the shop where you dine?”

“And dine very badly, too, I can tell you. Always come away hungry. Give me some champagne — the dry, if you please. They mix very well together — sweet and dry. Did you ever dine at Flicoteau’s , Mr. Pecker?”

“I dine at one of your horrible two-franc houses?” cries Mr. Pecker, with a look of terror. “Do you know, my lord, there are actually houses where people dine for two francs?”

“Two francs! Seventeen sous!” bawls out Mr. Firmin. “The soup, the beef, the r?ti, the salad, the dessert, and the whitey-brown bread at discretion. It’s not a good dinner, certainly — in fact, it is a dreadful bad one. But to dine so would do some fellows a great deal of good.”

“What do you say, Pecker? Flicoteau’s ; seventeen sous. We’ll make a little party and try, and Firmin shall do the honours of his restaurant,” says my lord, with a grin.

“Mercy!” gasps Mr. Pecker.

“I had rather dine here, if you please, my lord,” says the young man. “This is cheaper, and certainly better.”

My lord’s doctor, and many of the guests at his table, my lord’s henchmen, flatterers, and led captains, looked aghast at the freedom of the young fellow in the shabby coat. If they dared to be familiar with their host, there came a scowl over that noble countenance which was awful to face. They drank his corked wine in meekness of spirit. They laughed at his jokes trembling. One after another, they were the objects of his satire; and each grinned piteously, as he took his turn of punishment. Some dinners are dear, though they cost nothing. At some great tables are not toads served along with the entrées? Yes, and many amateurs are exceedingly fond of the dish.

How do Parisians live at all? is a question which has often set me wondering. How do men, in public offices, with fifteen thousand francs, let us say, for a salary — and this, for a French official, is a high salary — live in handsome apartments; give genteel entertainments; clothe themselves and their families with much more sumptuous raiment than English people of the same station can afford; take their country holiday, a six weeks’ sojourn aux eaux; and appear cheerful and to want for nothing? Paterfamilias, with six hundred a year in London, knows what a straitened life his is, with rent high, and beef at a shilling a pound. Well, in Paris, rent is higher, and meat is dearer; and yet madame is richly dressed when you see her; monsieur has always a little money in his pocket for his club or his café; and something is pretty surely put away every year for the marriage portion of the young folks. “Sir,” Philip used to say, describing this period of his life, on which and on most subjects regarding himself, by the way, he was wont to be very eloquent, “when my income was raised to five thousand francs a year, I give you my word I was considered to be rich by my French acquaintance. I gave four sous to the waiter at our dining-place:— in that respect I was always ostentatious:— and I believe they called me Milor. I should have been poor in the Rue de la Paix: but I was wealthy in the Luxembourg quarter. Don’t tell me about poverty, sir! Poverty is a bully if you are afraid of her, or truckle to her. Poverty is good-natured enough if you meet her like a man. You saw how my poor old father was afraid of her, and thought the world would come to an end if Dr. Firmin did not keep his butler, and his footman, and his fine house, and fine chariot and horses? He was a poor man, if you please. He must have suffered agonies in his struggle to make both ends meet. Everything he bought must have cost him twice the honest price; and when I think of nights that must have been passed without sleep — of that proud man having to smirk and cringe before creditors — to coax butchers, by George, and wheedle tailors — I pity him: I can’t be angry any more. That man has suffered enough. As for me, haven’t you remarked that since I have not a guinea in the world, I swagger, and am a much greater swell than before?” And the truth is, that a Prince Royal could not have called for his gens with a more magnificent air than Mr. Philip when he summoned the waiter, and paid for his petit verre.

Talk of poverty, indeed! That period, Philip vows, was the happiest of his life. He liked to tell in after days of the choice acquaintance of Bohemians which he had formed. Their jug, he said, though it contained but small beer, was always full. Their tobacco, though it bore no higher rank than that of caporal, was plentiful and fragrant. He knew some admirable medical students; some artists who only wanted talent and industry to be at the height of their profession; and one or two of the magnates of his own calling, the newspaper correspondents, whose houses and tables were open to him. It was wonderful what secrets of politics he learned and transmitted to his own paper. He pursued French statesmen of those days with prodigious eloquence and vigour. At the expense of that old king he was wonderfully witty and sarcastical. He reviewed the affairs of Europe, settled the destinies of Russia, denounced the Spanish marriages, disposed of the Pope, and advocated the liberal cause in France, with an untiring eloquence. “Absinthe used to be my drink, sir,” so he was good enough to tell his friends. “It makes the ink run, and imparts a fine eloquence to the style. Mercy upon us, how I would belabour that poor King of the French under the influence of absinthe, in that café opposite the Bourse where I used to make my letter! Who knows, sir, perhaps the influence of those letters precipitated the fall of the Bourbon dynasty! Before I had an office, Gilligan, of the Century, and I used to do our letters at that café; we compared notes and pitched into each other amicably.

Gilligan of the Century, and Firmin of the Pall Mall Gazette, were, however, very minor personages amongst the London newspaper correspondents. Their seniors of the daily press had handsome apartments, gave sumptuous dinners, were closeted with ministers’ secretaries, and entertained members of the Chamber of Deputies. Philip, on perfectly easy terms with himself and the world, swaggering about the embassy balls — Philip, the friend and relative of Lord Ringwood — was viewed by his professional seniors and superiors with an eye of favour, which was not certainly turned on all gentlemen following his calling. Certainly poor Gilligan was never asked to those dinners, which some of the newspaper ambassadors gave, whereas Philip was received not inhospitably. Gilligan received but a cold shoulder at Mrs. Morning Messenger’s Thursdays; and as for being asked to dinner, “Bedad, that fellow Firmin has an air with him which will carry him through anywhere!” Phil’s brother correspondent owned. “He seems to patronize an ambassador when he goes up and speaks to him; and he says to a secretary, ‘My good fellow, tell your master that Mr. Firmin, of the Pall Mall Gazette, wants to see him, and will thank him to step over to the Café de la Bourse.’” I don’t think Philip for his part would have seen much matter of surprise in a minister stepping over to speak to him. To him all folk were alike, great and small: and it is recorded of him that when, on one occasion, Lord Ringwood paid him a visit at his lodgings in the Faubourg St. Germain, Philip affably offered his lordship a cornet of fried potatoes, with which, and plentiful tobacco of course, Philip and one or two of his friends were regaling themselves when Lord Ringwood chanced to call on his kinsman.

A crust and a carafon of small beer, a correspondence with a weekly paper, and a remuneration such as that we have mentioned — was Philip Firmin to look for no more than this pittance, and not to seek for more permanent and lucrative employment? Some of his friends at home were rather vexed at what Philip chose to consider his good fortune; namely, his connection with the newspaper and the small stipend it gave him. He might quarrel with his employer any day. Indeed no man was more likely to fling his bread and butter out of window than Mr. Philip. He was losing precious time at the bar; where he, as hundreds of other poor gentlemen had done before him, might make a career for himself. For what are colonies made? Why do bankruptcies occur? Why do people break the peace and quarrel with policemen, but that barristers may be employed as judges, commissioners, magistrates? A reporter to a newspaper remains all his life a newspaper reporter. Philip, if he would but help himself, had friends in the world who might aid effectually to advance him. So it was we pleaded with him, in the language of moderation, urging the dictates of common sense. As if moderation and common sense could be got to move that mule of a Philip Firmin; as if any persuasion of ours could induce him to do anything but what he liked to do best himself!

“That you should be worldly, my poor fellow” (so Philip wrote to his present biographer) — “that you should be thinking of money and the main chance, is no matter of surprise to me. You have suffered under that curse of manhood, that destroyer of generosity in the mind, that parent of selfishness — a little fortune. You have your wretched hundreds” (my candid correspondent stated the sum correctly enough; and I wish it were double or treble; but that is not here the point:) “paid quarterly. The miserable pittance numbs your whole existence. It prevents freedom of thought and action. It makes a screw of a man who is certainly not without generous impulses, as I know, my poor old Harpagon: for hast thou not offered to open thy purse to me? I tell you I am sick of the way in which people in London, especially good people, think about money. You live up to your income’s edge. You are miserably poor. You brag and flatter yourselves that you owe no man anything; but your estate has creditors upon it as insatiable as any usurer, and as hard as any bailiff. You call me reckless, and prodigal, and idle, and all sorts of names, because I live in a single room, do as little work as I can, and go about with holes in my boots: and you flatter yourself you are prudent, because you have a genteel house, a grave flunkey out of livery, and two greengrocers to wait when you give your half-dozen dreary dinner parties. Wretched man! You are a slave: not a man. You are a pauper, with a good house and good clothes. You are so miserably prudent, that all your money is spent for you, except the few wretched shillings which you allow yourself for pocket-money. You tremble at the expense of a cab. I believe you actually look at half-a-crown before you spend it. The landlord is your master. The livery-stablekeeper is your master. A train of ruthless, useless servants are your pitiless creditors, to whom you have to pay exorbitant dividends every day. I, with a hole in my elbow, who live upon a shilling dinner, and walk on cracked boot soles, am called extravagant, idle, reckless, I don’t know what; while you, forsooth, consider yourself prudent. Miserable delusion! You are flinging away heaps of money on useless flunkeys, on useless maid servants, on useless lodgings, on useless finery — and you say, ‘Poor Phil! what a sad idler he is! how he flings himself away! in what a wretched, disreputable manner he lives!’ Poor Phil is as rich as you are, for he has enough, and is content. Poor Phil can afford to be idle, and you can’t. You must work in order to keep that great hulking footman, that great rawboned cook, that army of babbling nursery-maids, and I don’t know what more. And if you choose to submit to the slavery and degradation inseparable from your condition; — the wretched inspection of candle-ends, which you call order; — the mean self-denials, which you must daily practise — I pity you, and don’t quarrel with you. But I wish you would not be so insufferably virtuous, and ready with your blame and pity for me. If I am happy, pray need you be disquieted? Suppose I prefer independence, and shabby boots? Are not these better than to be pinched by your abominable varnished conventionalism, and to be denied the liberty of free action? My poor fellow, I pity you from my heart; and it grieves me to think how hose fine honest children — honest, and hearty, and frank, and open as yet — are to lose their natural good qualities, and to be swathed and swaddled, and stifled out of health and honesty by that obstinate worldling their father. Don’t tell me about the world, I know it. ............

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