Bishop then led us to the closed dark front of a house in front of which stood a suspicious looking man, who eyed us contemptuously. Bishop told him that we should like to enter. The man assented with a growl. He beat upon the door with a stick; a little wicket opened, and a villainous face peered out at us.
“What do you want?” came from the gruff tones.
“To enter, of course,” responded Bishop.
“Are they all right, do you think?” asked the face of the sentinel.
“I think they are harmless,” was the answer.
Several bolts and locks grated, and the stubborn door opened. “Enter, you vile specimen of human folly!” hissed the inside guard as we passed within. “All three of you.”
We had no sooner found ourselves inside than this same person, a short, stout man, with long hair and a powerful frame, and the face of a cutthroat, struck a table with a heavy stick that he carried, and roared to us. “Sit down!”
Mr Thompkins involuntarily cowered but he gathered himself up and went with us to seats at the nearest table. While we were doing this the habitués of the place greeted us with a song, sung in chorus:
“Oh, la la! C’te gueule
Oh, la la, c’te gueule,
“What are they singing?” asked Mr Thompkins; but bishop spared him by explaining that it was only the latest song.
The room had a low ceiling crossed by heavy beams. Wrought Iron gas lamps gave a gloomy light upon the dark, time browned colour of the place. The beams were loaded with dust, cobwebs and stains, the result of years of smoke and accumulation. Upon the walls were dozens of drawings by Steinlen, illustrating the poems of low life written by the proprietor of the cafe; for we were in the den of the famous Aristide Bruant, the poet of the gutter, - Verlaine had a higher place as the poet of the slums. There were also drawings by Cheret, Willett and others, and some clever sketches in oil; the whole effect was artistic. In one corner was an old fireplace, rich in carvings of grotesque heads and figures, grilled iron-work and shining copper vessels. The general impression was of a mediaeval gun-room.
Near the fireplace, upon a low platform, was a piano; grouped about it were four typical Bohemians of lower Bohemia; they wore loads of hair; their faces had a dissipated look, their fingers were heavily stained by cigarettes; they wore beards and negligee black cravats. These were all minor poets, and they took their turn in singing or reciting their own compositions, afterwards making a tour of the crowded tables with a tin cup and collecting the sous upon which they lived, and roundly cursing those who refused to contribute.
Bishop was so delighted with the pictures on the walls that he proceeded to examine them, but the bully with the stick thundered,
“Sit down!” and shook the bludgeon menacingly. Bishop sat down.
Then the brute swaggered up to us and demanded,
“What the devil do you want to drink, anyway? Speak up quick!” When he had brought the drinks he gruffly demanded, “Pay up!” Upon receiving the customary tip he frowned, glared at us with a threatening manner, and growled, “Humph! c’est pas beaucoup!” and swept the money into his pocket.
“Goodness! This is an awful place!” exclaimed Mr Thompkins under his breath. He seemed to fear being brained at any moment. Retreat had been rendered impossible by the locking of the door. We were prisoners at the will of our jailer, and so were all the others.
The great Bruant himself sat with a party of congenial Bohemians at a table near the piano and fireplace; they were drinking bocks and smoking cigarettes and long stemmed pipes. On the wall behind them was a rack holding the pipes of the habitues of the cafe, mostly broken and well browned. Each pipe was owned by a particular Bohemian, and each had its special place in the rack. The other tables held a general assortment of lesser Bohemians and sight-seers, all cowed and silent under the domination of the bawling ruffian with the stick. Whenever he smiled (which was rare, a perpetual frown having creased a deep furrow between his eyes) they smiled also, in great relief, and hung upon every word that his occasional lapses into an approach to good nature permitted him to utter.
The poets and singers howled their productions in rasping voices, and put a strain upon the strength of the piano; and the minor Bohemians applauded them heartily and envied them their distinction.
In the midst of this performance there came a knock upon the door. The bully walked up to the wicket, peered out, and admitted an elderly gentleman, accompanied by a woman, evidently his wife. These the habitues greeted with the following song:
“Tout les clients sont des cochons-
La faridon, la faridon donne
Et surtout les ceux qui s’en vont-
La faridon, la faridon donne.”
The gentleman, somewhat abashed by this reception, hesitated a moment then sought seats. The two had hardly seated themselves when the burly ruffian with the stick began to recite a villainous poem reflecting upon the chastity of married women, emphasising it with atrocious side remarks. The gentleman sprang from his seat in a rage and advanced threateningly upon the brute, who stood leering at him and taking a firmer hold upon his stick; but the visitor’s wife caught the outraged man by the arm and restrained him. A wordy war ensued (for the gentleman was a Frenchman), in which the choicest argot of Montmartre and La Villette was exhausted by the ruffian. He closed by shouting, -
“You were not invited to enter here. You asked the privilege of entering; your wish was granted. If you don’t like it here, get out!”
The gentleman flung down a franc upon the table, the bolts were withdrawn, and he and his wife passed out while the roisterers sang, -
“Tout les clients sont des cochons,” etc,
amid the laughter of the smaller Bohemians.
Aristide Bruant now rose from his table and strode to the centre of the room. A perfect silence fell. He is rather a small man, slender, and of delicate build; he has a thin, sallow face, with piercing black eyes, prominent check-bones and long raven-black hair falling over his shoulders from beneath a broad black slouch hat down over his eyes. His unbuttoned coat showed a red flannel shirt open at the throat; a broad sash was about his waist; his trousers were tucked into top-boots, - the ensemble reminding one of Buffalo Bill. He glared sullenly round upon the people, and then he sprang lightly upon a table. From that perch he recited one of his poems, selected from his book of songs and monologues. It does not bear reproduction here! For that matter, being written in the argot of Montmartre, it could hardly be understood even by French scholars unfamiliar with Montmartre.
Happily Mr Thompkins understood not a word of it, smiling perfunctorily out of politeness while Bruant was uttering things that might have shocked the most hardened Parisians. There were several young women present, and while Bruant was reciting they ogled him with genuine adoration. The other poets hung reverently upon his every word.
A mighty burst of applause greeted the finish of the recitation; but Bruant slouched indifferently to his seat, ignoring the ovation. The bully with the stick immediately stopped the noise by yelling, “Silence!” This he followed up with the contribution cup for the benefit of the idol of Montmartre. With the cup be brought the volume of Bruant’s poems from which he had given the recitation, - a cheaply printed pamphlet. No one dared refuse to buy, and no change was returned. Was not this the great Aristide Bruant, the immortal of Monmartre?
He was followed by other poets with songs and the banging of the piano. We presently rose to leave, but the bully shouted, - “Sit down! How dare you insult the young poet who is now singing?” We submissively resumed our seats. After a while, in a lull, we respectfully rose again, and the bully, shouting, “Get out!” unbarred the door and we were free.
Mr Thompkins was more deeply puzzled than he had been before the night. He could not understand that such a resort, where one is bullied and insulted, could secure patronage.
“But this is Paris, Mr Thompkins,” explained Bishop, somewhat vaguely; and this particular part of Paris is Montmartre.”