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The Cabs of Paris by L. H. H.


Paris is without doubt, of all large cities, the easiest to get about in. Lines of omnibuses cross and recross its surface in every direction, and, better still, the streets swarm with cabs, in which for the small sum of thirty cents one can pass at will from any given point to any other far distant one within its limits. There are carriage-stands on every side and in every principal street, and unoccupied vehicles may be seen driven at a snail's pace, with their drivers keenly on the lookout for a possible fare. Yet, with all this provision, it is occasionally very difficult to secure a carriage in Paris. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, on the day of the Grand Prix de Paris, or during the prevalence of a sudden storm carriages are as scarce in Paris as they are in New York. Yet their number increases daily, thanks to the law of 1866, by virtue of which any coachman who can pass an examination as to his knowledge of driving and acquaintance with the streets of Paris can, if he likes, purchase a vehicle of the regulation style, have his number painted on it and set up for himself as a public cabman, subject always in the matter of pace, charges, etc. to the police laws regulating all such details.

It has taken two hundred and thirty years to bring the cab-system of Paris to the point of perfection to which it has now attained. In 1617 the only public means of locomotion was afforded by a company which let out sedan-chairs. In 1640 a certain Nicholas Sauvage, agent for the stage-coaches of Amiens, formed the plan of establishing carriages, harnessed and ready for use at certain designated points, for the accommodation of the public. These vehicles were christened fiacres, but the reason for their receiving this appellation remains unknown. Some say it was because Sauvage occupied a house the façade of which was decorated with an image of St. Fiacre: another and more probable solution of the mystery has been found in the fact that just at that epoch a monk of the Petits Pères, called Fiacre, died in the odor of sanctity, and his portrait was placed in all the new vehicles to protect them against accidents. Be this as it may, the new enterprise proved successful, and in 1703 a law was passed compelling the numbering of all public carriages. In 1753 there existed in Paris twenty-eight cab-stands and sixty livery-stables, containing in all one hundred and seventy carriages. At present, Paris possesses over eight thousand cabs and three thousand livery-stable carriages: these last are generally very handsome vehicles, drawn by spirited, well-kept horses and driven by stylish-looking coachmen. The public vehicles of Paris, exclusive of the omnibuses, may be divided into three classes. First, the voitures de place, which are permitted, on payment of an annual tax of three hundred and sixty-five francs, to stand at one of the one hundred and fifty-eight points designated by the police; these bear a yellow number. Secondly, the voitures mixtes, which may at will be hired from a livery-stable or stand or ply upon the public highway; these bear a red number. And thirdly, the voitures de remise, which can only be hired from a stable, and are prohibited from appearing on the stands; these also are numbered in red, but in a particular style, so that a policeman at a glance can distinguish the difference between the voitures mixtes and those of the last category. To this latter class belong the stunning and splendid equipages which may be hired for any period, extending from a few hours to an indefinite number of months, and which enable the stranger to make as fine a display of equipages and liveries as the wealthiest resident of the city. The first two classes, the cabs properly so called, are, however, the most interesting to the transient visitor to Paris or to the permanent resident with a purse of moderate dimensions.

The cabs of Paris, as a rule, are comparatively neat and comfortable, those belonging to the Compagnie Générale des Voitures (of which institution more anon) being carefully brushed and cleaned every day. In winter a two-seated coupé lined with dark cloth or with leather, and drawn by a single horse, is the usual style of vehicle offered for the accommodation of the public. The price of such a vehicle is thirty cents for a "course" or single unbroken trip, which may be from one side of Paris to the other, or forty cents an hour. The coachman is bound by law to give the person engaging him a square ticket on which is printed his number and the exact amount of his fare: this last, however, being stated as varying under certain conditions and at certain hours, is apt to be rather puzzling to the inexperienced traveler, particularly if he or she be ignorant of French. Four-seated carriages are hard to find in winter: they are drawn by two horses, and the fare is ten cents more on the course and by the hour than that of the two-seated ones. In summer the coupés are replaced by light, open, four-seated carriages, with a hood and with leather curtains, to be used in case of rain; and they are really pleasant and comfortable vehicles. The horses do not differ much from the style of cab-horses known all over the world, being thin, shabby and dismal-looking animals as a general thing, though exceptions to the rule are not uncommon.

The cabmen of Paris form a distinct class, a separate society, composed of all sorts of elements—a turbulent, indocile, rebellious set of men, always in revolt against their employers and against the law, which holds them with an iron and inflexible grasp. Most of them are Communists, though many of them are men belonging to the higher classes of society, whom dissipation, extravagance or misfortune has driven to this mode of gaining a living. Thus, it is a well-known fact that the son of a distinguished diplomat, an ambassador to more than one foreign court, is now a cab-driver, and not a particularly good one. Unfrocked priests, unsuccessful school-teachers, small bankrupt tradesmen, swell the ranks, the personnel of which is mainly composed of servants out of place or of provincials who have come to Paris to seek their fortune. These last come mostly from Normandy, Auvergne and Savoy; and it has been noticed that the Savoyards are the most sober and docile of all. The Parisian cabman is always under the surveillance of the police: a policeman stationed on every stand watches each cab as it drives off, and takes its number to guard as far as possible against any overcharge or peculation. In case of a collision and quarrel or an accident the ubiquitous policeman is always at hand to take the numbers of the vehicles whose drivers may be concerned in the affair. Complaints made by passengers are always attended to at once, and immediate redress is pretty sure to follow. The cabman is generally gruff and surly, and, though seldom seen drunk, in the majority of cases is addicted to drink—a vice which the exposed nature of his calling palliates if it does not wholly excuse. Some cabmen are devoted to newspaper reading, and may be seen engaged perusing the Rappel or the Événement while awaiting the appearance of a fare or stationed before the door of a shop or a picture-gallery. Others prefer to nap away their leisure moments, and may be seen, half sitting, half lying on their boxes, and sound asleep. It is rather a curious process to pass slowly along the line of a Parisian cab-stand and observe the faces of the men. Every variety and type of countenance—from the Parisian "Jakey" with villainous eyes, sharp features and black soaplocks, to the jolly old patriarch, gray and stout, and somewhat stiff in the joints, who has been a cab-driver for over forty years perhaps—presents itself to your view. The best way to engage a cab is by observing the face of the driver, not the condition of the vehicle or that of the horse. The Parisian cabmen wear no uniform, the high glazed hat being the only article of attire which is universally adopted. Even the red waistcoat, once a distinctive mark of their calling, is gradually falling into disuse, and every variety of coat and overcoat may be seen, liveries past private service being very generally adopted. Any overcharge may be reclaimed by the passenger by the simple process of making a complaint before the nearest chef de police. In past days the coachman thus complained against was forced to go in person to the complainant to beg his or her pardon, and to pay over the extra sum demanded. A frightful catastrophe which occurred some twenty years ago put an end to this form of retribution. On the 16th of September, 1855, M. Juge, director of the normal school at Douai, took a cab in the Place de la Concorde and went for a drive in the Bois de Boulogne. The driver, one Collignon, insisted on being paid more than his legal fare, and M. Juge forwarded his complaint to the prefecture of police the next day. Collignon was condemned to make restitution in person to M. Juge. He sold his furniture, purchased a pair of pistols and went on the appointed day to the house of M. Juge in the Rue d'Enfer. No hard words passed between them, but while the gentleman was in the act of signing the receipt the coachman drew out one of his pistols and shot him through the head, killing him instantly. Collignon was at once arrested: he was tried and condemned to death, and expiated his crime on the scaffold on the 6th of December following. Since that event another system of restitution has been followed, the sum exacted in excess of the legal fare being deposited at the prefecture of police, whither the traveler is compelled to go in quest of it.

At the prefecture of police is likewise situated the storehouse of articles forgotten or left behind in public carriages. According to the law, every coachman is commanded to inspect carefully his carriage after the occupant has departed, and to deposit every article left therein, were it but an odd glove, in the storehouse above mentioned. Each object is inscribed in a register and bears a particular number, and the number of the cab in which it was left as well. These articles fill a large room, whereof the contents are ever changing, and which is always full. Umbrellas, muffs, opera-glasses, pocket-books (sometimes containing thousands of francs) are among the most usual deposits. In one year there were found in the cabs of Paris over twenty thousand objects, among which were six thousand five hundred umbrellas. Should the article bear the address of the owner, he is at once apprised by letter of its whereabouts; otherwise, it is kept till called for, and if never claimed it becomes the property of the city at the end of three years, and is sold at auction. A vast row of underground apartments is appropriated to the unclaimed articles—dim cellar-rooms, lighted with gas. There may be seen umbrellas by the hundred or the thousand, strapped together in bundles and stacked up like fagots. Everything is registered, numbered and catalogued, and if returned to the owner his address  and the date of delivery are carefully noted. The strict surveillance of the police contributes greatly toward keeping the Parisian cabman honest. Instances are on record where costly sets of jewels, bags of napoleons and pocket-books crammed with bank-notes have been faithfully deposited at the prefecture by their finders. On the other hand, an anecdote is told of a cab-driver in whose vehicle a gentleman chanced to leave his pocket-book, containing fifty thousand francs which he had just won at play. He traced his cabman to the stable, where he was in the act of feeding his horse, opened the carriage-door, and found his pocket-book lying untouched upon the floor. On learning what a prize he had missed the coachman incontinently hung himself.

The great source of supply for public vehicles in Paris is the Compagnie Générale des Voitures, one of the most gigantic of the great enterprises of Paris. It possesses five thousand cabs and over two thousand handsome and stylish voitures de remise. It furnishes every style; of carriage for hire, from the superb private-looking barouche or landau, with servants in gorgeous livery and splendid blooded horses, or the showy pony-phaeton and low victoria of the cocotte du grand monde, down to the humble one-horse cab. This beneficent company will furnish you, if desired, with a princely equipage, with armorial bearings, family liveries, etc., all complete and got up specially to suit the ideas of the hirer. Nine-tenths of the elegant turnouts in Paris are supplied in this manner. There is a regular tariff for everything: each additional footman costs so much, there is a fixed charge for powder, for postilions, for a chasseur decked with feathers and gold lace. You can be as elegant as you please without purchasing a single accessory of your equipage.

The cab-horses of the Compagnie Générale are usually brought from Normandy, and belong to a specially hardy race, such a one being needed to endure the privations and trials to which a Parisian cab-horse is exposed. Each horse has to be gradually initiated into the duties of his new calling: he has to be trained to eat at irregular hours, to sleep standing, and to endure the fatigues of the Parisian streets. Were the country-bred horse to be put at once to full city work, he would die in a week. He is first sent out for a quarter of a day; then after a week or two for half a day; then for a whole day; and when accustomed to that he is considered fit for night-work. The horses of the Compagnie Générale remain in the stable one day out of every three. If well fed, well kept and well looked after, the life of a Paris cab-horse may be prolonged from three to five years, but the latter is the extreme limit.

The Compagnie Générale not only buys its own horses, but constructs its own carriages. Its coachmen are obliged to pass through a preliminary examination, not only as to their capabilities for driving, but as to their knowledge of the streets of Paris. But the passage of the law of 1866 has let loose upon the community a swarm of ignorant coachmen, who, assuming the reins and whip, in some instances without any knowledge even of the great thoroughfares of Paris, will lead their unhappy hirer a pretty dance, particularly if he or she is a stranger on a first visit to the great city. I know of one instance where a lady, desirous of visiting the Pare Monceau, was taken to the extreme northern boundary of the city limits, and was only rescued by the intervention of the police. Then one must be very particular as to the pronunciation of the name of the street, as so many streets exist in Paris the names of which closely resemble each other when spoken, such as the Rue de Téhéran and the Rue de Turin, the Rue du Marl and the Rue d'Aumale, etc. And if your coachman can make a mistake, you may rest assured he will do it.

The Parisian cab is not, like its London compeer, a prohibited pariah of a vehicle, excluded from parks or the court-yards of palaces. You can go to call at the Élysée or to attend a ball there in a cab if you like, and the Bois de Boulogne or the Pare Monceau is as free to that plebeian vehicle as to the landau of a prince. And if one attends a ball in  Paris, there is no need to engage a carriage to return home in. Attracted by the lights, the cabmen station their vehicles in long lines in the neighborhood of any mansion where such a festivity is taking place, waiting patiently till three, four and five o'clock in the morning for a chance of conveying home some of the merrymakers. The only instance in which I ever heard of their failing to be on hand on such an occasion was at a large fancy ball where the German was kept up till six o'clock in the morning. The gay troupe issued forth into the golden glowing sunshine of the April morning, and found not a single cab in attendance; so powdered and brocaded Marquises, white-satin clad "Mignons," Highlanders, Turks and Leaguers were forced to walk to their homes, in many instances miles away, to the immense amusement of the street-sweepers and naughty little boys, the only Parisians astir at that hour of the city's universal repose.