c. 1785 | Paris

Wee Hours

Louis-Sébastien Mercier diagrams the night.

Toward seven the din dies down in the city, everywhere and all at once. You can hear the cab horses’ hooves pawing the stones as they wait—in vain. It is as though the whole town were gagged and bound, suddenly, by an invisible hand. This is the most dangerous time of the whole day for thieves and such, especially toward autumn, when the days begin to draw in; for the watch is not yet about, and violence takes its opportunity.

Night falls; and while sceneshifters set to work at the playhouses, swarms of other workmen, carpenters, masons, and the like make their way toward the poorer quarters. They leave white footprints from the plaster on their shoes, a trail that any eye can follow. They are off home, and to bed, at the hour that finds Madame la Marquise sitting down to her dressing table to prepare for the business of the night.

At nine this begins; they all set off for the play. Houses tremble as the coaches rattle by, but soon the noise ceases; all the fine ladies are making their evening visits, short ones, before supper. Now the prostitutes begin their night parade, breasts uncovered, heads tossing, color high on their cheeks, and eyes as bold as their hands. These creatures, careless of the light from shopwindows and streetlamps, follow and accost you, trailing through the mud in their silk stockings and low shoes, with words and gestures well matched for obscenity. This sort of thing keeps the pure women safe, that is the cant, the excuse; without these creatures there would be more assaults, and the innocent would suffer. Certainly, whether or not this is the reason, rape and assault have become much rarer. But it remains a scandal for all that, and one unthinkable in a provincial town, that these women should ply their trade at the very doors of decent folk, and that honest wives and young girls should be obliged to see them at their business; for it is impossible not to see them, and worse, not to overhear what they say.

Still, by eleven most of these are off the streets. People are at supper, private people, that is; for the cafés begin at this hour to turn out their patrons, and to send the various idlers and workless and poets back to their garrets for the night. A few prostitutes still linger, but they have to use more circumspection, for the watch is about, patrolling the streets, and this is the hour when they “gather ’em in”; that is the traditional expression.

A quarter after midnight, a few carriages make their way home, taking the noncardplayers back to bed. These lend the town a sort of transitory life; the tradesman wakes out of his first sleep at the sound of them and turns to his wife, by no means unwilling. More than one young Parisian must owe his existence to this sudden passing rattle of wheels. Thunder sends up the birth rate here, too, as it does everywhere else.

Darkness endows the small and ordinary ones among mankind with poetical power.

—Thomas Hardy, 1874

At one in the morning, six thousand peasants arrive, bringing the town’s provision of vegetables and fruits and flowers, and make straight for the Halles; their beasts have come some eighteen leagues perhaps, and are weary. As for the market itself, it never sleeps, Morpheus never shakes his poppy seed there. Perpetual noise, perpetual motion, the curtain never rings down on this enormous stage; first come the fishmongers, and after these the egg dealers, and after these the retail buyers; for the Halles keep all the other markets of Paris going; they are the warehouse whence these draw their supplies. The food of the whole city is shifted and sorted in high-piled baskets; you may see eggs, pyramids of eggs, moved here and there, up steps and down, in and out of the throngs miraculously; not one is ever broken.

Then the brandy starts to flow across tavern counters; poor stuff, half water, but laced with raw spirit. Porters and peasants toss down this liquor, the soberer of them drink wine. The noise of voices never stops, there is hardly a light to be seen; most of the deals are done in the dark, as though these were people of a different race, hiding in their caverns from the light of the sun. The fish salesmen, who are the first comers, apparently never see daylight, and go home as the streetlamps start to flicker, just before dawn; but if eyes are no use, ears take their place; everyone bawls his loudest, and you must know their jargon to be able to catch what your own vendor shouts in this bedlam of sound. On the Quai de la Vallée, it is the same story; but there hares and poultry take the place of herrings and cuts of salmon.

This impenetrable din contrasts oddly with the sleeping streets, for at that hour none but thieves and poets are awake.

From Tableau de Paris. Before beginning work on this twelve-volume survey of life in late eighteenth-century Paris, playwright and journalist Mercier visited London in 1780. “The parallel suggests itself,” Mercier wrote. So influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau that he was sometimes referred to by contemporaries as Jean-Jacques’ Ape, Mercier spent the remainder of the decade publishing his Tableau, providing classifications of Parisian social types that would prefigure Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy.