Heinrich Heine: Cholera in Paris 3
Excerpt from The Works of Heinrich Heine, Vol. 14. Translated from the German by Charles Godfrey Leland.
Since these events all has been quiet again, or, as Horatius Sebastiani would say, “L’ordre regne a Paris.” There is a stony stillness as of death in every face. For many evenings very few people were seen on the Boulevards, and they hurried along with hands or handkerchiefs held over their faces. The theatres are as if perished and passed away. When I enter a salon, people are amazed to see me still in Paris, since I am not detained by urgent business. In fact, most strangers, and especially my fellow-countrymen, left long since.
Obedient parents received from their children orders to return at once. God-fearing sons fulfilled without delay and tender wishes of their loving sires, who longed to see them in their homes again. Honour thy father and thy mother … then, thy days shall be prolonged upon the earth! In others, too, there suddenly awoke an endless yearning for their fatherland, for the romantic valleys of the noble Rhine, for the dear mountains, for winsome Suabia, the land of pure true love and woman’s faith, of joyous ballads and of healthy air. It is said that thus far more than 120,000 passports have been issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Although the cholera evidently first attacked the poorer classes; the rich still very promptly took to flight. Certain parvenus should not be too severely judged for having done so, for they probably reflected that the cholera, which came hither all the way from Asia, does not know that we have quite lately grown rich on Change, and thinking that we are still poor devils, will send us to turn up our toes to the daisies. M. Aguado, one of the richest bankers and a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, was field-marshal in this great retreat. The knight is said to have glared with mad apprehension out of the coach-window, and believed that his footman all in blue who stood behind was blue Death himself or the cholera morbus.
The multiple murmured bitterly when it saw how the rich fled away, and, well packed with doctors and drugs, took refuge in healthier climes. The poor man saw with bitter discontent that money had become a protection also against death. The greater portion of the juste milieu and of la haute finance have also departed, and now live in their chateaux. But the real representatives of wealth, the Messieurs Rothschild, have, however, quietly remained in Paris, thereby manifesting that they are great-minded and brave. Casimir Perier also showed himself great and brave in visiting the Hotel Dieu or hospital after the cholera had broken out.
It should have grieved even his enemies that he was attacked by the cholera after this visit. He did not, however, succumb to it, being in himself a much worse pestilence. The young Prince d’Orleans, who in company with Perier, visited the hospital, also deserves the most honourable mention. But the whole royal family has behaved quite as nobly in this sad time. When the cholera broke out, the Queen assembled her friends and servants, and distributed among them flannel bandages, which were mostly made by her own hands.
The manners and customs of ancient chivalry are not yet extinct; they have only changed into domestic citizen-like forms; great ladies now bedeck their champions with less poetical, but more practical and healthier scarfs. We live no longer in the ancient days of helm and harness and of warring knights, but in the peaceful, honest bourgeois days of under-jackets and warm bandages; that is, no longer in the iron age, but that of flannel – flannel everywhere. It is , in fact, the best cuirass against the cholera, our most cruel enemy. Venus, according to the Figaro, would wear today a girdle of flannel. I myself am up to my neck in flannel, and consider myself cholera-proof. The King himself wears now a belt of the best bourgeois flannel.
Nor should I forget to mention that he, the citizen king, during the general suffering, gave a great deal of money to the poor citizens, and showed himself inspired with civic sympathy and noble. And while in the vein, I will also praise the Archbishop of Paris, who also went to the Hotel Dieu, , after the Prince Royal and Perier had made their visits, to console the patients. He had long prophesied that God would send the cholera as a judgment and punishment on the people “for having banished a most Christian king, and struck out the privileges of the Catholic religion for the Charte.”
Now when the wrath of God falls on the sinners, M. de Quelen would fain send prayers to heaven and implore grace, at least for the innocent, for it appears that many Carlists also die. Moreover, M. de Quelen offered his Chateau de Conflans to be used as a hospital. The proffer was declined by the Government because the building is in such a ruined and deplorable condition that it would cost too much to repair it. And the Bishop had, as a condition, exacted that he should have unconditional authority or carte blanche in directing the hospital.
But it was deemed too dangerous an experiment to entrust the souls of the poor patients, whose bodies were already suffering terribly, to the tortures of attempted salvation, which the Archbishop and his familiars intended to inflict. It was thought better to let the hardened Revolutionary sinners die simply of the cholera, without threats of eternal damnation and hell-fire, without confession or extreme unction. For though it is declared that the Catholic is a religion perfectly adapted to the unhappy time through which we are now passing, the French will have none of it for fear lest they should be obliged to keep on with this epidemic faith when better days shall come.
Many disguised priests are now gliding and sliding here and there among the people, persuading them that a rosary which has been consecrated is a perfect preservative against the cholera.
The Saint-Simonists regard it as an advantage of their religion that none of their number can die of the prevailing malady, because progress is a law of nature, and as social progress is specially in Saint-Simonism, so long as the number of its apostles is incomplete none of its followers can die.
The Bonapartists declare that if any one feels in himself the symptoms of the cholera, if he will raise his eyes to the column of the Place Vendome he shall be saved and live.
And so hath every man his special faith in these troubled times.
As for me, I believe in flannel.
Good dieting can do no harm, but one should not eat too little, as do certain persons who mistake pangs of hunger felt in the night for premonitory symptoms of cholera. It is amusing to see the poltroonery which many manifest at table, regarding with defiance or suspicion the most philanthropic and benevolent dishes, and swallowing every dainty with a sigh.
The doctors told us to have no fear and avoid irritation; but they feared lest they might be unguardedly irritated, and then were irritated at themselves for being afraid. Now they are love itself, and often use the words Mon Dieu! and their voices are as soft and low as those of ladies lately brought to bed. Withal they smell like perambulating apothecary shops, often feel their stomachs, and ask every hour how many have died. But as no one ever knows the exact number, or either as there was a general suspicion as to the exactitude of the figures given, all minds were seized with vague terror, and the extent of the malady was magnified beyond limits.
In fact, the journals have since published that on one day, on the 10th of April, two thousand people died. But the people would not be deceived by any such official statement, and continually complained that far more died than were accounted for. My barber told me how an old woman sat at her window a whole night on the Faubourg Montmartre to count the corpses which were carried by, and she counted three hundred; but when morning came she was chilled with frost, and felt the cramp of the cholera, and soon died herself.
Wherever one looked in the streets, there he saw funerals, or, sadder still hearses with no one following. But as there were not hearses sufficient, all kinds of vehicles were used, which, when covered with black stuffs, looked very strange. Even these were at last wanting, and I saw coffins carried in hackney coaches. It was most disagreeable to see the great furniture wagons which were used for “moving” now moving about as dead men’s omnibuses, or omnibus mortuis, going from house to house for fares and carrying them by dozens to the field of rest.
The neighborhood of the cemetery where many funerals met presented the most dispiriting scene. Wishing to visit a friend one day, I arrived just as they were placing his corpse in the hearse. Then the sad fancy seized me to return the call which he had last made, so I took a coach and accompanied him to Pere la Chaise. Having arrived in the neighborhood of the cemetery, my coachman stopped, and awaking from my reverie, I could see nothing but literally sky and coffins.
I was among several hundred vehicles bearing the dead, which formed a queue or train before the narrow gate, and as I could not escape, I was obliged to pass several hours among these gloomy surroundings. Out of ennui, I asked my coachman the name of my neighbor corpse, and – what the chance! – he named a young lady whose coach had, some months before, as I was going to a ball at Lointier, been crowded against mine and delayed just as it was today. There was only this difference, that then she often put out of the window her little head, decked with flowers, her lovely, lively face lit by the moon, and manifested the most charming vexation and impatience at the delay.
Now she was quite still, and probably very blue; but ever and anon, when the mourning-horses of the hearses stamped and grew unruly, it seemed to me as if the dead themselves were growing impatient, and, tired of waiting, were in a hurry to get into their graves; and when, at the cemetery gate, one coachmen tried to get before another, and there was disorder in the queue, then the gendarmes came in with bare sabres; here and there were cries and curses, some vehicles were overturned, coffins rolling out burst open, and I seemed to see that most horrible of all emeutes — a riot of the dead.
To spare the feelings of my readers, I will not further describe what I saw at Pere la Chaise. Hardened as I am, I could not help yielding to the deepest horror. One may learn by deathbeds how to die, and then await death with calmness, but to learn how to be buried in graves of quicklime, among cholera corpses, is beyond my power.
I hastened to the highest hill of the cemetery, whence one may see the city spread out in all its beauty. The sun was setting; its last rays seemed to bid me a sad good-bye; twilight vapours cover sick Paris as with a light-white shroud, and I wept bitterly over the unhappy city, the city of freedom, of inspiration and of martyrdom, the saviour-city which has already suffered so much for the temporal deliverance of humanity.
Paris as seen from Pere-la-Chaise