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The Cries of the Marchands by G. F.

 

The other morning I was lying quietly in bed, waiting for the bonne to fetch my café noir, when a most extraordinary sound caught my ear. The cries of Paris marchands early in the morning are curious enough usually, but this one exceeded in quaintness all that I had heard since my arrival. Between the words "Chante, chante, Adrienne!" a horrible braying broke forth, resounding through our quiet faubourg in a manner which brought many a bonnet de nuit to the windows. I got up to see what was the matter.

"Chante, chante, Adrienne!" re-echoed again over the smooth asphalte.

By this time a crowd of gamins—the gamins are always up, no matter how early—had gathered in the middle of the street around the object of the disturbance. It was a marchand of vegetables in a greasy blouse, leading an ass. There was a huge pannier on the ass's back full of kitchen vegetables, which the marchand was crying and praising to our sleepy faubourg. With an economy worthy of Silhouette, the scamp had taught Adrienne—for that was the beast's name—to bray every time he said "Pommes de terre, de terre—terre!" As often as he said this, or "Chante, Adrienne, chante!" Adrienne would switch her tail and chante lugubriously, setting the whole neighborhood in commotion. So adroitly had he trained the creature—with her thigh-bones sticking in peaks through her hide, and a visage of preternatural solemnity—that when her master but lifted his finger Adrienne would go through her part with admirable gravity, thus helping her lord to get his daily bread. I laughed till the bonne came with my coffee, and was glad to see the pannier gradually emptying as the grotesque procession defiled through our street, with a rear-guard of exhilarated urchins poking at poor meek Adrienne in a manner the most méchant. And so on they went till the peasant and his invaluable assistant were quite out of hearing.

There is no end to the originality of the Parisians. If you but go to a kiosque to get a Figaro, the white-capped marchande has something clever to say. The rain, the air, the clouds, the sun are full of esprit for her—are to her banques de France, upon which she has an unlimited credit—credit fonder, if you will, credit mobilier, or what not. The conducteur who stands behind his omnibus and obligingly helps you in, says Merci! with an accent so exquisite that it is like wit or poetry or music, utterly throwing you into despair after your months and months of travail and dozens and dozens of louis lavished on incompetent professors.

"Pronounce that for me, please," said I one day to a gentleman who had just spoken some word whose secret of pronunciation I had been trying to filch for weeks—some delicate little jewel of a word, faint as a perfume, expressive as only a tiny Parisian word can be—and he did so in the politest manner in the world, adding some little witticism which I do not recall. Whereupon I went home and instantly dismissed my "professor."

But to return to our theme, the cries of the marchands. It would take a pen like Balzac's, as curiously versatile, as observant, as full of individual ink, to catch all the shades of these odd utterances. You may recollect as you lay in your sweet English bed in London, just as the fog was lifting over the great city early in the morning, the distinct individuality of the voices which, although you did not see their owners, told each its story of sunrise thrift and industry as it cried to you the early peas or the wood or the melons of the season. You may remember, too, how perplexing, how fantastic, many of those cries were, making it impossible for you to understand what they meant, or why a wood-huckster, for example, should give vent to such lachrymose sentimentality in vending his fagots. But quite different is the Paris marchand. With a physiognomy of voice—if the expression be pardoned—quite as marked as the cockney's, what he says is yet perfectly clear, often shrewd, gay, cynical, sometimes even spiced with jocularity, as if it were pure fun to get a living, and the world were all a holiday.

Some years ago a marchand was in the habit of visiting our neighborhood whose specialty it was to vend baguettes, or small rods for beating carpets, tapestry and padded furniture. His cry was—"Voilà des baguettes! Battez vos meubles, battez vos tapis, battez vos femmes pour un sou!"

It is said that as this gay chiffonnier went one morning by the fish-markets uttering this jocose cry, a squad of those formidable poissardes, the fishwomen of Paris, got after him, and administered a sound thrashing with his own baguettes. Such is the vengeance of the French-woman!

But there is a curious pathos in many of these cries—queer searching tones which go to the heart and set one thinking; tones that come again in times of revolution, and gather into the terrible roar of the Commune. I sometimes wonder if they ever sell anything, those strange sad voices of the early morning struggling up from the street. They are the voices of Humanity on its mighty errand of bread and meat. Some dozen or so traverse our quarter through the day—some of feeble old women, full of sharp complaint; some of strong, quick-stepping men; some of little children with faint modest voices, as if unused to the cruel work of getting a living. It is these poor people who walk from Montmartre to Passy in the morning, and in the evening fish for drowned dogs or pick up corks along the canal of the Porte St. Martin. For a dog it is said they get a franc or two, and corks go at a few sous a hundred.

Such is an inkling of the life-histories wafted through our summer windows by the voices of the street. Well, the sun is brilliant, the Champs are crowded with the world, the jewelers of the Palais Royal are driving a thriving trade, the great boulevards are margined by long lines of absinthe drinkers. Who cares? Only it is a little disagreeable in the early morning to have one's sleep broken by the pathos of life. Let us sleep well on our wine, and dine to-morrow at the Grand Hotel. We shall forget the misery of these patient voices which visit us with their prayer for subsistence every day.

G. F.