An Evening of Visits by J. Fenimore Cooper


I have had an odd pleasure in driving from one house to another on particular evenings, in order to produce as strong contrasts as my limited visiting list will afford. Having a fair opportunity a few nights since, in consequence of two or three invitations coming in for the evening on which several houses where I occasionally called were opened, I determined to make a night of it, in order to note the effect. As A—— did not know several of the people, I went alone, and you may possibly be amused with an account of my adventures: they shall be told.

In the first place I had to dress, in order to go to dinner at a house that I had never entered, and with a family of which I had never seen a soul. These are incidents which frequently come over a stranger, and, at first, were not a little awkward, but use hardens us to much greater misfortunes. At six, then, I stepped punctually into my coupé, and gave Charles the necessary number and street. I ought to tell you that the invitation had come a few days before, and, in a fit of curiosity, I had accepted it, and sent a card, without having the least idea who my host and hostess were, beyond their names. There was something piquant in this ignorance, and I had almost made up my mind to go in the same mysterious manner, leaving all to events, when happening in an idle moment to ask a lady of my acquaintance, and for whom I have a great respect, if she knew a Madame de ——, to my surprise her answer was, "Most certainly—she is my cousin, and you are to dine there to-morrow." I said no more, though this satisfied me that my hosts were people of some standing. While driving to their hotel, it struck me, under all the circumstances, it might be well to know more of them; and I stopped at the gate of a female friend who knows everybody, and who I was certain would receive me even at that unseasonable hour. I was admitted, explained my errand, and inquired if she knew a M. de ——. "Quelle question!" she exclaimed; "M. de —— est Chancelier de la France!" Absurd, and even awkward, as it might have proved but for this lucky thought, I should have dined with the French Lord High Chancellor without having the smallest suspicion who he was!

The hotel was a fine one, though the apartment was merely good; and the reception, service, and general style of the house were so simple, that neither would have awakened the least suspicion of the importance of my hosts. The party was small, and the dinner modest. I found the Chancelier a grave dignified man, a little curious on the subject of America; and his wife, apparently a woman of great good sense, and, I should think, of a good deal of attainment. Every thing went off in the quietest manner possible, and I was sorry when it was time to go.

From this dinner I drove to the hotel of the Marquis de Marbois, to pay a visit of digestion. M. de Marbois retires so early on account of his great age, that one is obliged to be punctual, or he will find the gate locked at nine. The company had got back into the drawing-room; and as the last week's guests were mostly there, as well as those who had just left the table, there might have been thirty people present, all of whom were men, but two. One of the ladies was Madame de Souza, known in French literature as the writer of several clever novels of society. In the drawing-room were grouped in clusters the Grand Referendary, M. Cuvier, M. Daru, M. Villemain, M. de Plaisance, Mr. Brown, and many others of note. There seemed to be something in the wind, as the conversation was in low confidential whispers, attended by divers ominous shrugs. This could only be politics; and, watching an opportunity, I questioned an acquaintance. The fact was really so. The appointed hour had come, and the ministry of M. de Villèle was in the agony. The elections had not been favourable, and it was expedient to make an attempt to reach the old end by what is called a new combination. It is necessary to understand the general influence of political intrigues on certain côteries of Paris, to appreciate the effect of this intelligence on a drawing-room filled like this, with men who had been actors in the principal events of France for forty years. The name of M. Cuvier was even mentioned as one of the new ministers. Comte Roy was also named as likely to be the new premier. I was told that this gentleman was one of the greatest landed proprietors of France, his estates being valued at four millions of dollars. The fact is curious, as showing, not on vulgar rumour, but from a respectable source, what is deemed a first-rate landed property in this country. It is certainly no merit, nor do I believe it is any very great advantage; but I think we might materially beat this, even in America. The company soon separated, and retired.

From the Place de la Madeleine I drove to a house near the Carrousel, where I had been invited to step in, in the course of the evening. All the buildings that remain within the intended parallelogram, which will some day make this spot one of the finest squares in the world, have been bought by the government, or nearly so, with the intent to have them pulled down at a proper time; and the court bestows lodgings, ad interim, among them, on its favourites. Madame de —— was one of these favoured persons, and she occupies a small apartment in the third story of one of these houses. The rooms were neat and well arranged, but small. Probably the largest does not exceed fifteen feet square. The approach to a Paris lodging is usually either very good or very bad. In the new  buildings may be found some of the mediocrity of the new order of things; but in all those which were erected previously to the Revolution, there is nothing but extremes in this as in most other things,—great luxury and elegance, or great meanness and discomfort. The house of Madame de —— happens to be of the latter class; and although all the disagreeables have disappeared from her own rooms, one is compelled to climb up to them through a dark well of a staircase, by flights of steps not much better than those we use in our stables. You have no notion of such staircases as those I had just descended in the hotels of the Chancelier and the Premier President; nor have we any just idea, as connected with respectable dwellings of these I had now to clamber up. M. de —— is a man of talents and great respectability, and his wife is exceedingly clever, but they are not rich. He is a professor, and she is an artist. After having passed so much of my youth on top-gallant-yards, and in becketting royals, you are not to suppose, however, I had any great difficulty in getting up these stairs, narrow, steep, and winding as they were.

We are now at the door, and I have rung. On whom do you imagine the curtain will rise? On a réunion of philosophers some to discuss questions in botany with M. de ——, or on artists assembled to talk over the troubles of their profession with his wife? The door opens, and I enter.

The little drawing-room was crowded; chiefly with men. Two card-tables were set, and at one I recognised a party, in which were three dukes of the vieille cour, with M. de Duras at their head! The rest of the company was a little more mixed; but, on the whole, it savoured strongly of Coblentz and the émigration. This was more truly French than anything I had yet stumbled on. One or two of the grandees looked at me as if, better informed than Scott, they knew that General La Fayette had not gone to America to live. Some of these gentlemen certainly do not love us; but I had cut out too much work for the night to stay and return the big looks of even dukes, and, watching an opportunity when the eyes of Madame de —— were another way, I stole out of the room.

Charles now took his orders, and we drove down into the heart of the town, somewhere near the general post-office, or into those mazes of streets that near two years of practice have not yet taught me to thread. We entered the court of a large hotel that was brilliantly lighted; and I ascended, by a noble flight of steps, to the first floor. Ante-chambers communicated with a magnificent saloon, which appeared to be near forty feet square. The ceilings were lofty, and the walls were ornamented with military trophies, beautifully designed, and which had the air of being embossed and gilded. I had got into the hotel of one of Napoleon's marshals, you will say, or at least into one of  a marshal of the old régime. The latter conjecture may be true, but the house is now inhabited by a great woollen manufacturer, whom the events of the day have thrown into the presence of all these military emblems. I found the worthy industriel surrounded by a group, composed of men of his own stamp, eagerly discussing the recent changes in the government. The women, of whom there might have been a dozen, were ranged, like a neglected parterre, along the opposite side of the room. I paid my compliments, stayed a few minutes, and stole away to the next engagement.

We had now to go to a little retired house on the Champs Elysées. There were only three or four carriages before the door, and on ascending to a small, but very neat apartment, I found some twenty people collected. The mistress of the house was an English lady, single, of a certain age, and a daughter of the Earl of ——, who was once governor of New York. Here was a very different set: one or two ladies of the old court, women of elegant manners, and seemingly of good information; several English women, pretty, quiet, and clever; besides a dozen men of different nations. This was one of those little réunions that are so common in Paris among the foreigners, in which a small infusion of French serves to leaven a considerable batch of human beings from other parts of the world. As it is always a relief to me to speak my own language, after being a good while among foreigners, I stayed an hour at this house. In the course of the evening an Irishman of great wit and of exquisite humour, one of the paragons of the age in his way, came in. In the course of conversation, this gentleman, who is the proprietor of an Irish estate, and a Catholic, told me of an atrocity in the laws of his country of which until then I was ignorant. It seems that any younger brother, or next heir, might claim the estate by turning Protestant, or drive the incumbent to the same act. I was rejoiced to hear that there was hardly an instance of such profligacy known. To what baseness will not the struggle for political ascendancy urge us!

In the course of the evening, Mr. ——, the Irish gentleman, gravely introduced me to a Sir James ——, adding, with perfect gravity, "a gentleman whose father humbugged the Pope—humbugged infallibility." One could not but be amused with such an introduction, urged in a way so infinitely droll, and I ventured, at a proper moment, to ask an explanation, which, unless I was also humbugged, was as follows.

Among the détenus in 1804 was Sir William ——, the father of Sir James ——, the person in question. Taking advantage of the presence of the Pope at Paris, he is said to have called on the good-hearted Pius, with great concern of manner, to state his case. He had left his sons in England, and through his absence they had fallen under the care of two  Presbyterian aunts; as a father he was naturally anxious to rescue them from this perilous situation. "Now, Pius," continued my merry informant, "quite naturally supposed that all this solicitude was in behalf of two orthodox Catholic souls, and he got permission from Napoleon for the return of so good a father to his own country,—never dreaming that the conversion of the boys, if it ever took place, would only be from the Protestant Episcopal Church of England to that of Calvin; or a rescue from one of the devil's furnaces to pop them into another." I laughed at this story, I suppose with a little incredulity; but my Irish friend insisted on its truth, ending the conversation with a significant nod, Catholic as he was, and saying—"humbugged infallibility!"

By this time it was eleven o'clock; and as I am obliged to keep reasonable hours, it was time to go to the party of the evening. Count ——, of the —— Legation, gave a great ball. My carriage entered the line at the distance of near a quarter of a mile from the hotel; gensdarmes being actively employed in keeping us all in our places. It was half an hour before I was set down, and the quadrilles were in full motion when I entered. It was a brilliant affair,—much the most so, I have ever yet witnessed in a private house. Some said there were fifteen hundred people present. The number seems incredible; and yet, when one comes to calculate, it may be so. As I got into my carriage to go away, Charles informed me that the people at the gates affirm that more than six hundred carriages had entered the court that evening. By allowing an average of little more than two to each vehicle, we get the number mentioned.

I do not know exactly how many rooms were opened on this occasion, but I should think there were fully a dozen. Two or three were very large salons; and the one in the centre, which was almost at fever heat, had crimson hangings, by way of cooling one. I have never witnessed dancing at all comparable to that of the quadrilles of this evening. Usually there is either too much or too little of the dancing-master, but on this occasion every one seemed inspired with a love of the art. It was a beautiful sight to see a hundred charming young women, of the first families of Europe,—for they were there, of all nations, dressed with the simple elegance that is so becoming to the young of the sex, and which is never departed from here until after marriage,—moving in perfect time to delightful music, as if animated by a common soul. The men, too, did better than usual, being less lugubrious and mournful than our sex is apt to be in dancing. I do not know how it is in private, but in the world, at Paris, every young woman seems to have a good mother; or, at least, one capable of giving her both a good tone and good taste.

At this party I met the ——, an intimate friend of the ambassador, and one who also honours me with a portion of her  friendship. In talking over the appearance of things, she told me that some hundreds of applications for invitations to this ball had been made. "Applications! I cannot conceive of such meanness. In what manner?" "Directly; by note, by personal intercession—almost by tears. Be certain of it, many hundreds have been refused." In America we hear of refusals to go to balls, but we have not yet reached the pass of sending refusals to invite! "Do you see Mademoiselle ——, dancing in the set before you?" She pointed to a beautiful French girl whom I had often seen at her house, but whose family was in a much lower station in society than herself. "Certainly; pray how came she here?" "I brought her. Her mother was dying to come, too, and she begged me to get an invitation for her and her daughter; but it would not do to bring the mother to such a place, and I was obliged to say no more tickets could be issued. I wished, however, to bring the daughter, she is so pretty; and we compromised the affair in that way." "And to this the mother assented!" "Assented! How can you doubt it? What funny American notions you have brought with you to France!"

I got some droll anecdotes from my companion, concerning the ingredients of the company on this occasion, for she could be as sarcastic as she was elegant. A young woman near us, attracted attention by a loud and vulgar manner of laughing. "Do you know that lady?" demanded my neighbour. "I have seen her before, but scarcely know her name." "She is the daughter of your acquaintance, the Marquise de ——." "Then she is, or was, a Mademoiselle de ——." "She is not, nor properly ever was, a Mademoiselle de ——. In the Revolution the Marquis was imprisoned by you wicked republicans, and the Marquise fled to England, whence she returned, after an absence of three years, bringing with her this young lady, then an infant a few months old." "And Monsieur le Marquis?" "He never saw his daughter, having been beheaded in Paris, about a year before her birth." "Quel contre-temps!" "N'est-ce pas?"

It is a melancholy admission, but it is no less true, that good breeding is sometimes quite as active a virtue as good principles. How many more of the company present were born about a year after their fathers were beheaded, I have no means of knowing, but had it been the case with all of them, the company would have been of as elegant demeanour, and of much more retenue of deportment, than we are accustomed to see, I will not say in good, but certainly in general society, at home. One of the consequences of good breeding is also a disinclination, positively a distaste, to pry into the private affairs of others. The little specimen to the contrary, just named, was rather an exception, owing to the character of the individual, and to the indiscretion of the young lady in laughing too loud; and then the affair of a birth so very posthumous was rather too patent to escape all criticism.

My friend was in a gossiping mood this evening, and, as she was well turned of fifty, I ventured to continue the conversation. As some of the liaisons which exist here must be novel to you, I shall mention one or two more.

A Madame de J—— passed us, leaning on the arm of M. de C——. I knew the former, who was a widow; had frequently visited her, and had been surprised at the intimacy which existed between her, and M. de C——, who always appeared quite at home in her house. I ventured to ask my neighbour if the gentleman were the brother of the lady. "Her brother! It is to be hoped not, as he is her husband." "Why does she not bear his name, if that be the case?" "Because her first husband is of a more illustrious family than her second; and then there are some difficulties on the score of fortune. No, no. These people are bonâ fide married. Tenez—do you see that gentleman who is standing so assiduously near the chair of Madame de S——? He who is all attention and smiles to the lady?" "Certainly: his politeness is even affectionate." "Well, it ought to be, for it is M. de S——, her husband." "They are a happy couple, then." "Hors de doute: he meets her at soirées and balls; is the pink of politeness; puts on her shawl; sees her safe into her carriage, and——" "Then they drive home together, as loving as Darby and Joan." "And then he jumps into his cabriolet, and drives to the lodgings of ——. Bon soir, monsieur ——; you are making me fall into the vulgar crime of scandal."

Now, much as all this may sound like invention, it is quite true that I repeat no more to you than was said to me, and no more than what I believe to be the fact. As respects the latter couple, I have been elsewhere told that they literally never see each other except in public, where they constantly meet as the best friends in the world.

I was lately in some English society, when Lady G—— bet a pair of gloves with Lord R—— that he had not seen Lady R—— for a fortnight. The bet was won by the gentleman, who proved satisfactorily that he had met his wife at a dinner party only ten days before.

After all I have told you, and all that you may have heard from others, I am nevertheless inclined to believe that the high society of Paris is quite as exemplary as that of any other large European town. If we are any better ourselves, is it not more owing to the absence of temptation, than to any other cause? Put large garrisons into our towns, fill the streets with idlers who have nothing to do but to render themselves agreeable, and with women with whom dress and pleasure are the principal occupations, and then let us see what Protestantism and liberty will avail us in this particular. The intelligent French say that their society is improving in morals. I can believe this assertion, of which I think there is sufficient proof by comparing the present  with the past, as the latter has been described to us. By the past, I do not mean the period of the Revolution, when vulgarity assisted to render vice still more odious—a happy union, perhaps, for those who were to follow,—but the days of the old régime. Chance has thrown me in the way of three or four old dowagers of that period, women of high rank, and still in the first circles, who, amid all their finesse of breeding, and ease of manner, have had a most desperate rouée air about them. Their very laugh, at times, has seemed replete with a bold levity that was as disgusting as it was unfeminine. I have never, in any other part of the world, seen loose sentiments affichés, with more effrontery. These women are the complete antipodes of the quiet, elegant Princesse de ——, who was at Lady —— ——'s this evening; though some of them write Princesses on their cards, too.

The influence of a court must be great on the morals of those who live in its purlieus. Conversing with the Duc de ——, a man who has had general currency in the best society of Europe, on this subject, he said,—"England has long decried our manners. Previously to the Revolution, I admit they were bad; perhaps worse than her own; but I know nothing in our history so bad as what I have witnessed in England. The King invited me to dine at Windsor. I found every one in the drawing-room, but his Majesty and Lady ——. She entered but a minute before him, like a queen. Her reception was that of a queen; young, unmarried females kissed her hand. Now, all this might happen in France, even now; but Louis XV, the most dissolute of our monarchs, went no farther. At Windsor, I saw the husband, sons, and daughters of the favourite, in the circle! Le parc des Cerfs was not as bad as this."

"And yet, M. de ——, since we are conversing frankly, listen to what I witnessed, but the other day, in France. You know the situation of things at St. Ouen, and the rumours that are so rife. We had the fête Dieu during my residence there. You, who are a Catholic, need not be told that your sect believe in the doctrine of the 'real presence.' There was a reposoir erected in the garden of the château, and God, in person, was carried, with religious pomp, to rest in the bowers of the ex-favourite. It is true, the husband was not present: he was only in the provinces!"

"The influence of a throne makes sad parasites and hypocrites," said M. de ——, shrugging his shoulders.

"And the influence of the people, too, though in a different way. A courtier is merely a well-dressed demagogue."

"It follows, then, that man is just a poor devil."

But I am gossiping away with you, when my Asmodean career is ended; and it is time I went to bed. Good night!