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Excerpt from The Café de la Régence, by a Chess-player

Fraser's Magazine, Vol. XXII, July to December, 1840.
Part 1/7


"I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine! Have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave; they have in visioned bowers
Of studious zeal and love's delight,
Outwatched with me the envious night." - Shelley

"V'la, Monsieur!"
"La carte à payer!"

And while, as Macheath sings, "the charge is prepared," let us settle the point as to how we shall keep our veins thawed this frosty night. We have dined, and -- thanks to Champeaux -- have dined well, but where, in phrase of France, shall we "do our digestion?" On a Sunday evening the Paris theatres are mob; to dress for pretty Madame B's soirée, upon a ten-franc dinner, with the thermometer below freezing point, is north of inviting; while both Valentino and Musard are on the seventh day equally rococo. I am a chess-player; and you, my friend, ought to be so too; therefore, put faith in my pilotage. We'll slip away to the Café de la Régence, and sip our Mocha among Caissa's votaries.

The garçon of Monsieur Champeaux serves his writ, and fingers the cash with a grace worthy of the name he bears. We are bowed forth. Ugh! How cutting is this north-easter! and how dense the snow-fall! The Place de la Bourse reminds me of an iceplain in Russia; and the Bourse itself looks like a huge twelfthcake, plastered over with white sugar. The building was modelled after a Greek temple; it is a temple still, the name of its God being merely altered. But it is much too cold to prate philosophy. Like Atlanta, I gather up my drapery, and run for it. Tramp -- tramp -- we plash through the snow and mud. The streets are desolate, to what this part of Paris generally is at seven o'clock, and the sludge is a foot deep. We gain the Rue Richelieu, bound like rain-deer across the Place du Palais Royal, and first draw breath as we dash headlong into the entrance of the brilliantly illuminated salon which constitutes the Café de la Régence.

We are in the temple of the THIRTY-TWO; and here indeed chess "rules and reigns without control." No pen has yet fairly sketched this celebrated locale, though many have pretended to trace its lineaments. In that amusing work, Les Français peints par euxmêmes, Méry pencils the Parisian chess-player, and -- the truth shall out -- depicts him vilely. Méry has a fluent tongue and a witty brain; but knows no more of chess, practically, than the man in the moon's dog. The historian of the Café must have mixed intimately, during many years, with the first chess artists, past and present, and must play pretty well himself. Let our own right hand crayonise the French chess-men, as they present themselves in the year of grace eighteen-hundred and forty; and pounds to pumpkins we beat Méry out of the field. Voyons.

The Café de la Régence, in its outward man, is soon disposed of. Large, low, and in shape resembling a parallelogram of toasted cheese, the very antithesis of the graceful or lovely, our salon presents nothing in its personal appearance which may compete with the glittering café of modern times. Stove-heated to suffocation -- gas-lighted to oppression -- the blackhole of Calcutta was its elder sister; though the Régence has mirrors in abundance, and slabs of marble to top its tables. Seven days in the week, from morn till midnight, the crowd passes over its sanded floor, like the waves of the sea on the Brighton beach; the said floor doing double duty on Sundays. then do the pekins and calicots -- Anglice "snobs" -- pour their myriads into the Régence, thicker than ever came suitors to Corinthian Lais. After three or four o'clock on a winter's Sunday, happy is the man who has formed his partie; room to place another chess-board, even on your knees, being out of the question. All keep their hats on, to save space; and an empty chair is worth a monarch's ransom.

The din of voices shakes the roof as we enter. Can this be chess? -- the game of philosophers -- the wrestling of the strong-minded -- the recreation of pensive solitude -- thus practised amid a roar like that of the Regent's Park beast-show at feeding time! Laughter, whistling, singing, screaming, spitting, spouting, and shouting, -- tappings, rappings, drummings, and hummings, disport in their glory around us. Have we not made a blunder, and dropped into the asylum of Charenton? Stunned with the riot, we sigh for cotton to stuff our ears; and fight our progress into a far-away corner, in order to recover our bewildered senses. Coffee is brought. We sip, and scan the scene before us; resolving its discordant elements by slow degrees into one vast tableau. Man gets used to everything except the toothach. I know a Londoner dwelling next door to a coppersmith, who wakes in the night when the artisans cease hammering! So is it with me at the present moment. The noise is bearable, and presently may become even agreeable. Manners are to be noted, and chess-men to be sketched. I mount my hobby, sternly resolving not to ride to-day with a snaffle-bridle. I fear the age is too unpoetical to bear with so much enthusiasm, in application to chess, as my pen ordinarily gives vent to.

The good city of Paris, be it known, holds four thousand cafés; of which the Café Procope, and the Café de la Régence are unquestionably the Adam and Eve. The Régence was established as a rendezvous for the literati of the day, under the government of the Duke of Orleans, and like Will's in London, became, from its eligible position, the haunt of the most celebrated esprits of France during the eighteenth century. Voltaire, the two Rousseaus, the profligate Duc de Richelieu, Marshal Saxe, Chamfort, St. Foix, Benjamin Franklin, Marmontel, Philidor, and Grimm, are but a few of the men of note who constantly frequented the Régence in early times. The very chairs and tables acquired name and fame from classical association; and, till quite recently, the master of the establishment might be heard commanding his attendants, in tones of pride to "Serve Jean Jacques," -- "Look to Voltaire," -- the identical tables at which this pair of philosophes were wont daily to play chess, being still at that time in existence, named from the departed great. These sacred shrines are now superseded by marble slabs; coal-gas sparkles in sun-like lustres; and Voltaire could hardly recognise his favoured lounge, save from the low-ceiled room unaltered in its proportions. A dingy portrait of Philidor yet hangs, I am glad to see, against the wall. To a chess antiquary, the relic would be worth purchase at its weight in gold.

Custom soon stamped the Café de la Régence as the head-quarters of chess, and the uninitiated retired from its walls. It is shocking to see the fane at the present time occasionally desecrated by draughts and dominoes; and had I my will, even the timber-framed journals should be thrown overboard. Chess is chess, and should be preserved intact from grosser material. In the French Ana exist many mots levelled at the Régence in the earliest years of its existence. One of the foremost of these Parisian "Joes" runs, that a certain man was once seen, who spent daily six or seven hours at the Régence for ten years; constantly occupied in poring over the players, but refusing invariably to play himself, and never speaking even a single word. A disputed point arose; the galérie was thin, and the taciturn veteran was pressed into service as umpire. Sorely pushed to decide the question, Monsieur owned that, so far from being a player, he did not even know the moves of the pieces! Astonished at this, the query naturally came, Why, then, waste ten years of life in looking over the board? the reply was, that "he was a married man, and did not care to go home!"