From ‘Nobody Shouted Author’ by R.F. Delderfield (1951)
“Prenez-garde la Voiture!”
THE TRIP TO GENOA WAS DEBILITATING BUT AN EVEN MORE unnerving experience came our way during a supper expedition to Montmartre.
We had been introduced to a charming little café in the picturesque square that occupies the summit, just behind the Sacré Coeur. There is nothing wrong with the square, it provides everything the most exacting tourist could demand in the way of quaintness and drollery, being shut in on all sides by mouldering stucco walls, pierced by gloomy windows with shutters that saw their last coat of paint shortly before the Franco-Prussian War. Sitting in the open you eat under a striped umbrella to the accompaniment of muted music, surrounded on all sides by bearded hawkers looking slightly more arty than any artist ought to look, even at a fancy dress ball.
All this is exactly as it should be and harms nobody so long as tourist and tourist-trapper thoroughly understand one another.
The sole trouble with the square is in getting there and getting away from it. Nobody ought to be allowed to go there at all except on foot and wearing fifteen-century plate armour, for it is approached by a kerbed bottleneck about two yards wide. Through this bottleneck each evening goes every vehicle in Paris not engaged in chasing people round the Arc de Triomphe. The fun begins as soon as kindly dusk makes the dog-eared nudes and landscapes displayed for sale look like real works of art.
We hired a taxi to go there and because it was still early evening we arrived without much trouble. It is true that our driver, a huge, genial ruffian who somehow reminded me of Sanson, the executioner of the Terror, succeeded in felling a couple of cyclists en route, but he pointed out (lifting both hands from the steering wheel to emphasise his point) the incident had not been witnessed by more than four gendarmes and therefore could not possibly result in litigation.
“Sanson” deposited us at the café and promised to call back about ten. We had a good meal and settled back over our cognac to study the scene, quite the most absorbing in Paris so long as you are a mere observer, protected by massive tubs of hydrangeas and far enough from the carriageway to avoid mutilation and death.
By nine o’clock the little square took on the aspect of the quadrangle of an asylum for the criminally insane. Madly gesticulating driver, some of them in charge of immense American cars, charged the bottleneck, locking their wheels against the kerbs in impossible efforts to get into, or out of, the square, and screaming at pedestrians who cowered behind the flimsy tables displaying paintings and drawings by local artist. Frantic disputes broke out between the drivers of cars going in opposite directions, and more often than not their little differences led to a scuffle in which surviving pedestrians took part.
By 9.30 p.m. the din was hellish. Above the roar of petrol engines, the screams of the injured, the curses of the drivers, and the prayers of the dying, rose the persistent howl of electric horns. At the very climax of the din I saw “Sanson,” our driver, forging his way through the press in a praiseworthy endeavour to keep his appointment with us.
Seeing him May said: “Have we got to go through that?”
“Far better in a car than on foot,” I told her, reflecting that I would cheerfully sit behind the tubs all night rather than walk into the maelstrom of the bottleneck.
I don’t know where or how “Sanson” turned his car but he did and the next moment we were in the back hooting our way into the thick of the press, rolling together in the nearside corner as “Sanson” lurched his vehicle on to the kerb and scraped his battered wings along the offside wall.
From my corner I had a close-up of a chauffeur-driven Packard, engaged in trying to pass us from the opposite direction. The driver had also mounted the kerb but his front bumper had caught in a rainwater pipe and he had come to a halt, penning three screaming pedestrians into a little triangle made by some display stands and the running-board of the car. When the pedestrians saw there was no escape forth or back, and that the least movement of the car would smear them on the wall, they panicked and began to climb over the bonnet. All their mouths were wide open, and they were less than four feet away from me, but it was quite impossible to overhear any advice they may have been giving the driver.
I was becoming thoroughly interested in the chauffeur’s endeavours to reach through the window and pluck them from the bonnet, when May drew my attention to what was happening on our side of the road.
“We’ve his someone, a soldier!” she said, adding gaily: “I think we’ve cut his foot off!”
It wasn’t really a soldier but a man dressed like one, a portly, grizzled fellow, attired in what he sincerely believed to be the uniform of a Napoleonic infantryman. I don’t know why he was dressed like this, perhaps he hoped that Americans would take him for a survivor of Waterloo and, remembering their debt to Lafayette, supplement his pension. He had on the right sort of clothes but somehow he didn’t look romantic, just plain stupid, and it now appeared that he was about to give his life for the Emperor. May was so intrigued that she began to recite “You know we French stormed Ratisbon,” a poem to which she is much attached for it is the only one she can remember all through.
It worried me a little to observe her moral degeneration. When we left England she would have wept for a rabbit in a trap, but here she was, after a mere week in the Continent, reciting poetry whilst the car in which she was sitting was steadily grinding an old man to death. It made me think of Marie Antoinette and the cake.
The little street was now effectually barricaded. Reading from right to left we had: scarred wall, frame containing plump nudes and water-colours of Sacré Coeur, pinioned old soldier, our car, the other car, three marooned pedestrians, display stands exhibiting naked Negro and frilly knickered can-can girl. There wasn’t a chink wide enough for a rat to crawl through.
The antics of the old soldier were the most interesting. The odd thing was that he didn’t appear to be in any great pain, although his howls and gestures were those of a man being broken on the wheel. He had on, as part of his equipment, a pair of huge, thick-soled boots and one boot had become firmly wedged between the edge of the kerb and our offside front-tyre. Short of climbing up the man’s legs there was nothing more our driver could do about it and he settled down philosophically to await developments on the other side of the road. The soldier’s flailing arms soon brought the display frame about his ears and for a moment he was enveloped in the pink curves of the nudes that rained down on him.
I think May must have enjoyed her cognac for she said dreamily: “Why are all those models so fat? They could easily do something about it.”
Something pitched on our roof and a moment later a pair of dangling legs told us that the pedestrians had eluded the chauffeur’s grabs and made good their escape. Seeing they had gone he put his car in reverse and moved back a yard or two, taking the rainwater pipe with him. This movement, small as it was, enabled “Sanson” to reverse and he did so reluctantly, for he was loath to lift his hand from the horn. Thus freed, the old soldier leapt on to the pavement and ran up a short flight of steps that jutted into the road a few yards farther on. Feeling comparatively safe on the high doorstep he hooped round in circles, hands clasped round his dented boot.
“’. . . Smiling the boy fell dead!’ “ said May, and then, somewhat irritably: “I do wish those horns would stop, I would so love to hear what he’s saying!”
In a few seconds the situation had become fluid. That’s one of the teasing things about Paris traffic, one moment you are in a deadlock from which it seems that the efforts of fifty Metropolitan policemen could never extricate you, and the next you are bumping up and down kerbs once more and chasing pedestrians into archways. I had one last glimpse of the other car as it ploughed forward again, waving the rainwater pip like an antennae, and sweeping the naked Negro into the voluptuous embrace of the girl with the frilly knickers. Then we were shooting downhill and round right-angle bends, leaving old soldier to gyrate at leisure.
Recovered somewhat, I said: “I think you were a little callous about that poor man, May, he might have been crippled for life!”
May smiled the smile of an understanding mother, soothing the alarms of a sensitive child.
“Nonsense, darling,” she said gently, “I expect he stands at exactly that spot every night, hoping that someone will pin him to the wall and pay him handsome compensation. Why else do you suppose he wears such strong-looking boots?”
If this is true the old soldier should be more careful selecting his victims. “Sanson” was a bad choice, he had already forgotten the incident. He roared into Place de Clichy shouting “Touché!” at every scuttling pedestrian who grazed his wings.