Old magazines are often very charming. This is true even when what comes down to us are only loose undated pages that give us glimpses of the remote past.
A Paris journal of the last century, L ‘Illustration, carried an article, “Customs of the Café Valois,” written by A. de Belloy, whose memory has been whisked away by time.
What is the date of these pages? The article gives us only the most vague elements as to the answer. It is safe to place them somewhere in the 1860’s. In any case they have the merit of evoking certain values of the social conduct of old. Values that increasingly disappeared as large cities came into being in the last century, and of which, not even vestiges have remained among the general public of today’s Babels of concrete, steel and asphalt. They were precious values that endowed social relationships with human warmth and that stemmed from the fact that the civilization of yesteryear was centered more around the goods of the soul than those of the body, while later, materialism increasingly shaped customs and institutions.
Here we will quote extensively from the aforementioned article to stimulate reaction against this decay. One that makes so many noble characters suffer and painfully stifles so many healthy initiatives. After evoking the picturesque ambience of the Parisian cafés of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, some of which were centers of a refined social life while others displayed a rich ideological effervescence, the writer laments that they were replaced by new cafes of banal, unstylish luxury and an atmosphere of an establishment whose customers thought only of eating and drinking and whose proprietors only thought of making money.
As a counterpoise to this materialized environment, this article evokes the picturesque customs of the old cafés and the deeply affable and trusting relationships that frequently developed among them.
What took place between the Chevalier de Lautrec and the owner of the Café Valois during the French Revolution faithfully illustrates the sweetness of life that the café ambience once had.
It should be noted that one of the effects of the French Revolution, that devoured aristocratic blood and Catholicity, was to impoverish many of those noble families that survived the Terror. However, in spite of the ravages of one of the most violent revolutions in history, the values of Christian generosity and nobility of soul did not vanish. The following words of Monsieur de Belloy describe one such case.
Farewell, O good old days! Farewell, O affable visage of the proprietor and smiling and respectful reception of the waiters! Farewell, O solemn entries of the Café Valois’ dignified customs, which people were curious to see. Such was the case with the Knight Commander Odoard de La Fere’s arrival.
At exactly noon, the canon of the Palais-Royal heralded his arrival. He would appear on the threshold and pause for a moment to sweep the salon with an affable and self-assured gaze as someone eager to practice a longtime custom. His right hand pressing firmly on the white and blue porcelain handle of his cane, he threw his old faded brown cape over his shoulder with a swing of his left hand. No one ever snickered at this, since not even the most elegant mantle with golden fleur-de-lys embroidery was ever thrown back with a more distinguished movement.
In 1789 the former steward of the Prince of Conti ran the Café Valois; it was rather devoid of political color and local flavor at that time.
Among the frequenters of the place, standing out by his noble manners, stately demeanor and wooden leg, was the Chevalier de Lautrec. He was from the second line of that family, an old brigadier of the king’s army, a Knight of Malta, of Saint Louis, of Saint Maurice and of Saint Lazare.
The Chevalier de Lautrec was a middle-aged man who lived a modest, though very dignified life on his small pension. Though he rarely appeared in society, he could be seen most often at the Palais Royal and the Café Valois. He was a very cultured mind and an assiduous reader of all the newspapers.
Deprived of his pension overnight, it was never known what the Chevalier de Lautrec lived on at a time when it was so difficult to live, and so easy to die. But here we have something that sheds at least a dim light on this mystery.
One morning after finishing a very modest breakfast in the Café Valois, as was his custom, the Chevalier de Lautrec rose from his table, chatted with all naturalness with the proprietress, who stood behind a counter, bid good-day to the master of the café with a slight gesture of the eyes, and walked out majestically saying nothing about the bill.
This scene was repeated the next day, and the next, and on every day for weeks, months and years without the owner of the establishment ever receiving an explanation from the Chevalier or even thinking to ask him for one.
A few days after the first of these singular exits, as the Chevalier directed his gaze to the good proprietor’s son, he said to the father in an unpresuming tone of voice.
“Well, here is a cavalier that will learn very little now that the schools are closed. You should send him to my house everyday between one and four o’clock in the afternoon. I shall teach him elementary mathematics and English, which I speak passably.”
“No doubt this would be useful to him if he is to replace you some day; and besides, I really don’t have anything to occupy my time, so these lessons would help to entertain me.”
“Milord, you are really very good, a thousand times good,” answered the innkeeper. “What you propose would be an invaluable favor to us, especially in these times. But, we would not dare encumber you to the point of…”
“But it would rather be doing me a service, I tell you!” the Chevalier interjected.
Despite the fact that his eyes were so full of authority, he said this with no firmness at all, but the worthy proprietor was indeed perceptive to appreciate this contrast, and he came close to thrusting his son into the Chevalier’s arms.
“Milord,” said the innkeeper, “you are much too generous to us. My son is yours, as well as my whole house, today, tomorrow and always.”
For many years thereafter the boy studied English and mathematics at the house of the impoverished noble.
On the 7th of December, 1817, at eleven o’clock in the morning, that is, exactly 26 years to the day and to the hour after this conversation, the now elderly Chevalier de Lautrec entered into the Café Valois as was his custom. The former owner had died 5 years earlier and was succeeded by his son.
After he had dined with a good appetite the Chevalier, for the first time in 26 years, candidly asked for the check while he paged with all naturality through the Drapeau Blanc (the Monarchist Daily).
Without batting an eyelash, the proprietor exchanged a few words with his young wife. Ten minutes later the Chevalier received a bill in the amount of 16,980 francs for 8,490 dinners at two francs each.
The old nobleman glanced at the total, opened his wallet, took out enough bills for the sum and handed them to the waiter along with the check, telling him to keep the change, which was exactly 520 francs. He rose up from the table, doubtless feeling much lighter, though his expression betrayed nothing of it. He then went over to the counter according to his old habit and conversed with the young mistress of the establishment for a few moments before slowly directing his steps towards the door. Then, with a napkin draped over his arm, the proprietor respectfully stepped aside to allow him to pass by, the old Chevalier gravely took his hand and warmly pressed it between his own.
The silent scene we have just described did not go unnoticed by the Marquis de Rivarol, who was coming in just then after having set his watch to the famous clock of the Palais Royal.
At the time of the Restoration, the Chevalier de Lautrec inherited a small share of the estate of one of his brothers who had died in Coblentz shortly before. Even though it was an appreciable sum, most of it was consumed settling hefty bills that were long overdue. But thanks to the recovery of his pension, he was able to end his days with financial ease and always faithful to the Café Valois for whose advancement he contributed to as we shall explain.
We have seen that the proprietor of that hospitable establishment was a creditor like few are found in any epoch. Few cases as beautiful as the one we have related dignified the life of that good man, with no great harm to his finances. This businessman of ancient stock did not treat everyone indiscriminately. He possessed a clear perception and sensibility of heart.
With the Chevalier de Lautrec’s payment, the proprietor recovered most of what was owed him, and as to the interest on that debt, which he had never contemplated charging, he was generously compensated by the lessons from such a proficient teacher of English, mathematics and, above all, good sentiments.
Furthermore, owing to this noble relationship, the Café Valois won distinguished and selected patrons. It acquired an even greater original character, which was a considerable advantage and almost vital need for such an establishment at that time.
Indeed, the Marquis de Rivarol was not a man who would miss such a good opportunity to be indiscreet for charity’s sake. Since he had many relations among the monarchists of that time, as he would also among those of the future, it became easy for him to serve the interests of his favorite café by making this and other anecdotes well known.
Thanks to him, the owner of the establishment became something of a curiosity and was sought out to the point of aggravation. This was compounded by the fact that although the innkeeper’s political convictions were as vague as they were moderate, his qualities were ascribed to his perceived political fervor, but in reality they lay in innate kindness and paternal tradition. In any case, this was very advantageous to him, for while the Calé Lemblin became the meeting place of the officers of the Empire, now retired or in the reserves, and of some republicans and liberals not belonging to the army, the voltigeurs of Louis XV and the young members of the Guards Corps chose the Cafe Valois.