After three months spent in Lyons, we moved to Paris around mid-February. I thought that this city was the most beautiful in the world, and I was surprised by the sight it offered. The Faubourg Saint-Jacques and the centre are hardly beautiful, even today; but at that time, they were horrible. There were neither gates, nor new boulevards; most streets were both snakier and narrower than they are now, while the houses were taller in places, and much uglier; the quays and the bridges were crowded with multi-storied houses; the place was horribly muddy, the shops were low, without adornments and almost without light; a few old scattered lamp-posts made up all the lighting of this city, which we entered at night.
We received MM. Deslon, Joly, Bacher and Rossel—my father’s childhood friends—almost daily. As for me, none of my bonds with them date from that time, and I will come back to them later. I will merely name M. Cadet, of the Academy of Sciences, whom my father visited to run an errand for M. de Sozzi; but I cannot be so laconic about his son, who was then eight years old, and looked to us like the most spoilt child in the world1. This handsome little boy had been to the ball on the day before our visit. He claimed to be tired, and we found him as we left him, wrapped in a white silk dressing gown with flower patterns, lying on a sofa, from where he did not move at all while we were there.
It was also during this journey that I was introduced to my godfather, the Count of Guines, as my father tells in his Recollections2. Finally, I will stop one moment, not on Count Golowkin, who also appears in my father’s work3, but on his daughter, who was to me one of these phenomena one never forgets. I was utterly struck by what her father told me about her upbringing. I never grew tired of looking for the young lady under her men’s clothing, and I could not picture her eating only vegetables and milk, bathing in cold water every day, swimming like a sailor, riding like a jockey, shooting and fencing like a second lieutenant and walking a full stage every day. In short, I did not know what I saw in her, and I understood her neither as a girl, nor as a boy4.
To me, Mardi Gras is associated with one of the weirdest memories anyone can imagine. Indeed, there is no way to render what Paris looked like in these last moments of the carnival. It was as though the whole city was taken with dementia. The bourgeoisie and even the highest classes did not limit their masquerade to a few evenings in their salons, they took a public part in this delirium; anyone who could find a disguise of any kind dressed up, or rather, disfigured themselves, for the poorest smeared colours all over their faces and covered themselves in rags to make themselves look grotesque. It was not as it is now, where ugly maskers are only seen here and there, in pairs, in small groups or in isolated carriages; there were hundreds, thousands of them, crowding the streets and squares, most of them on foot, no doubt, but with many in more or less magnificent carriages or chariots. On Sunday and Mardi Gras, these masquerades started in the morning, ending only late at night and going on under the light of torches, held by maskers spread around on chariots, perched on their nags or standing in front, behind and even above some carriages and a great many fiacres. The places where this crowd was the most considerable and went beyond everything we could say were the Rues Saint-Honoré, de la Ferronnerie, de la Verrerie and Saint-Antoine, and the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. My father and my mother took me on that grand tour of Paris, first by day and then at night. As for the impression these bacchanalia left on me, with the general state of inebriation and the chivaree of shrieking voices, high-pitched screams and horrible laughs, it was made up of an inexpressible blend of surprise, of some horror and in short of a pleasure that is accessible to a seven-year-old; it was all the stronger as, having spent my early childhood in Berlin, which has nothing resembling such disorders, nothing had prepared me to spectacles of this nature.
When I came back to Paris in December 1784, this savage fury still existed with all its might; the carnaval of 1785 differs little from that of 1777; but from that time, the taste for such follies faded perceptibly and nothing came to invert this trend. Today, there are barely a few children or a few fools who join the arlequins and the pierrots paid—and badly paid—by the police, to
Dare retrace a shadow of ancient times,
and even then, they seemed ashamed at their prostitution. Now, there are no more scenes, no more concerted roles; nothing that can compensate for all the disgusting aspects of this display. The procession of the fat ox for rogues and onlookers, and the Opera balls for the middle to upper classes, are all that remain of these saturnalia.
To my sister and me, our mother’s and our father’s name days were much more joyful occasions than our own name days. Indeed, in the latter, we only needed to receive, while in the former, we could give tokens of our tenderness. For several years, we had used our little savings to buy trinkets which we thought our parents would like, especially our mother; but we were forbidden to make such presents, so that in 1784, around 25 August, my mother’s name day, we agreed that we would perform a play and we obtained permission from our father to go have supper in the Park after that, along with those we would invite pending his approval. To that end, we turned the great parlour into a theatre; we set it up while our father took our mother to visit a lady who lived in the same house, and, once our guests were seated, once the theatre was lit, we sent for my mother. We had concealed our preparations so well that this came as a complete surprise to her. Finally, after we played an overture behind the backdrop, my sister on the piano, me with my violin, and assisted by our music teachers and a few artists or amateurs we had invited, we hastily took the piano away, and the curtain rose.
My mother recognised my sister and the other actors. As for me, I played a woman’s role, and with my size and features, I looked at least eighteen under my disguise; she did not recognise me. Every time I appeared, she would ask her neighbours: “Who is this sweet young lady?”; and since everyone was in on the secret, they laughed and answered nothing. At last, when the play ended, we came to offer her flowers and kiss her, and she was very surprised to discover the truth.
I was genuine, and I did not feel so bad; in fact, I felt so good that I wanted to go to the Park in my disguise. As I stepped down from the carriage and into Corsica’s, the delicatessen where the finest Berlinese society gathered for such events, I was noticed by two officers of the gendarmerie. Lacking the shyness usually associated with my dress, I soon went into the garden for a walk as was my wont, and the officers followed me. When I became aware of their presence, I started to act like a coquette; I dropped my fan; they hurried to pick it up and behaved very courteously. I was called for dinner, and the officers could not help going back and forth in front of the door of the room; since I had related my adventure to M. von Platen, a major in the gendarmerie and one of our guests, the rest of the company placed me so that these gentlemen could admire me all they wanted. This jest lasted for a good part of the meal; but, while my corset had been quite bothersome before we sat for dinner, it became unbearable now that I had eaten, so that, just as my admirers looked at me in utmost rapture, I unravelled my scarf, cut the tie and made myself comfortable. All was well that ended well, as M. von Platen told the officers to come in and congratulated them on their good taste; they laughed with us at their mistake; my father invited them to sit down, and they dined in our company.
Around eleven o’clock, my father, following a remark by M. von Platen, sent all the carriages away to the Brandenburg Gate, and said that we would take advantage of the beautiful weather to go to the Gate on foot and through the woods. We had barely walked a hundred paces when the gendarmes’ musicians, following a parallel street, started playing and accompanied us all the way to the carriages. This was a delightful surprise, and the music of these wind instruments, at night, was a perfect complement to this day, one of the most pleasant in my life both because of its details and my mother’s enjoyment of it.
1This son of M. Cadet’s became known as a litterateur, under his father’s surname “de Gassicourt”. He became Paul Thiébault’s close friend, and this friendship will be explored later.
2At that time, in wealthy German families, a child’s baptism was the occasion for a great reception, and the celebration was postponed until the day the mother had recovered from the birth and could preside the ceremony. As it were, in the interval between Paul Thiébault’s birth and baptism, M. de Guines, sent from France to Berlin, was suddenly recalled by M. de Choiseul. Someone else had stood for him at the ceremony, and he did not meet his godson before this presentation. (Ed.)
3Count Golowkin, a Russian by birth and close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, known as “Golowkin the philosopher”, was the director of the theatres in Berlin for two years. His sister, Countess Kameke, a distinguished lady who enjoyed high esteem at Frederick’s court, is often mentioned over the course of these Mémoires. (Ed.)
4Struck by gout from an early age, Count Golowkin wanted to protect his children from this ailment, and following the advice of his friend Jean-Jacques, he accustomed them to bathing in cold water when they woke up each morning, and to eating only milk and vegetables. His daughter, “a charming young man until one o’clock, then a very lovely young lady from that moment till the evening”, dressed as a boy in the morning and as a girl for the rest of the day. (Ed [though it is almost entirely copied from Dieudonné Thiébault’s Recollections].)