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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 6/7


The great variety of character developed in the Café de la Régence is not the least interesting feature of the picture. The French are the worst losers in the world; in more ways than one. I have seen them, when checkmated, dash the men about the floor, with as many sacré tonnerres as would sink a seventy-four. They are, moreover, not too exact in the settlement of certain small debts of honour, for which judgment is sometimes claimed in our chequer court. A very small stake is necessarily risked at the Régence; it being the custom that the loser on the balance pays the sixteen-sous tribute levied by the garçon for the use of the chess equipment for the sitting, no matter how long. A half-franc or franc is occasionally wagered on the game, in addition; and this slender slip of silver creates a system of petty Greekism, which, like that of Newmarket, bears many branches. While you go on, game after game, dropping your coin kindly and readily, monsieur is funny and gentlemanly enough; but turn the tables upon him, and the pestes and sacrés break bounds audibly. "Base is the slave who pays" is often the maxim. I once played, when a youngster, in the Régence, several days consecutively, with a regular old soldier, at half-a-franc the game, and departed after each sitting minus two or three francs. Now it happened that upon one glorious occasion, rising to leave, I found myself to be for the first time on the credit-side of the account. One half-franc was the sum due to me; and I could not forbear smiling at the rueful look of my very respectable friend on casting up the score. Poor fellow! deeply, and slowly, and vainly, did he dive for the needful. The silver would not come; the pockets were free from encumbrance. Feeling pity for the man's position, I turned to quit the café, saying, "Never mind," and all that. "Monsieur," cried the gentlemen, gravely, "je suis Français -- je suis homme d'honneur -- what do you mean in going thus without your money? -- rendez-moi un demi-franc." Of course, I complied, handing him the change I supposed him to require, and presenting my palm to grasp the larger piece of silver in return. "Now, sir," quoth monsieur, dropping the cash into his pocket with a low bow, "now, sir, I owe you a franc, which I shall do myself the honour to pay the very first opportunity."

The last recollection walked into my mind through the circumstance of a man's crossing the room, a fair average sample of a class not unknown, either to the frequenters of the Régence or of the London chess divans, as a tribe of Arabs to whom the "little shilling" is a thing of system. He claims an especial paragraph; and even the devil shall have his due. So stand back, ladies and gentlemen, and make room for the great Monsieur Pillefranc.

The Sieur Pillefranc dwells in a mansarde, for he is high of soul, and loves to soar above the crowd. He has neither employment nor sinecure, beyond an annuity of three hundred francs yearly; and depends for further means upon Providence and the chess-board. Poor as he really is, write him a billet without styling him propietaire, and your chance of reply were slender. At the Café de la Régence, seven days in the week this player occupies one particular chair; the leathern bottom of which he has worn to rags three several times during his five-and-thirty years' war. A good practitioner of what I term the cast-iron school, he plays with great rapidity; and so as he despatches his enemy, cares not how. He knocks down knights and bishops as though they were ninepins, rarely winning by checkmate; but preferring the certainty of picking off your men in detail, one at a time, until the board is a blank. In aiming at mate, he knows he might make a blunder, even with queen and rook against a pawn; and the wise will run no risk. M. Pillefranc is the most modest of bipeds. He speaks ever of himself as a mere block, stock, and stone. He owns to having acquired the rudiments of the game -- plays daily pour se désennuyer merely -- and protests he would not encounter La Bourdonnais at the rook for pins; the truth being that he is about what is termed, in club parlance, a knight-player. In thirty-five years, M. Pillefranc has never purposely played a single party with a better player; -- I say purposely, because the greatest tactician may now and then catch a Tartar; although, even in such case, ways are frequently found by a captor of genius to "bring him along." M. Pillefranc plays upon a system; his system being to win. "Make money, my son," says the dying lawyer; "honestly, if you can; but make money." A stranger enters the café, and is invited smilingly by the Pillefranc to play a game -- of course, for nothing. The new comer wins once, twice, thrice; and monsieur then quietly tries on the question of "Voulez-vous intéresser la partie?" -- the stake proposed never, I must own, exceeding vingt sous. But somehow it happens, although really I know not how, that, after the franc is wagered, the stranger wins less and less, and at last cannot win at all; but yet goes away comfortable, for if he lost the last four games (at a franc), did he not win the first three? (played gratis.) An appointment is made for next day; and the Frenchmen, hating to win money, chivalrously proposes to render odds. "I think I could give, perhaps, pawn and move," says he; and I, who have looked over his play some years, think he could give a castle! But even at the pawn, Pillefranc will not take every game. No; monsieur knows better than to kill the bird which lays the egg, and stands so quietly to have its tail salted. Pillefranc wins at each sitting a small but certain majority. He speaks with profound respect of the stranger's skill; and the latter boasts in society that he plays daily with the great Monsieur Pillefranc, who can only give him pawn and move!

Should a chess-player of acknowledged force ask our adventurer to play, the Frenchman has the headach, or is going away, or is waiting for somebody -- from the kingdom of the moon! You are fain to take the excuse; but, as you glance from your Galignani to the stove by which sits monsieur, you may mark his cold, grey eye, watching the door, -- like a hawk about to dart upon a pullet; or a cat under a gooseberry-bush looking out for a fat sparrow, or a bloated spider, coiled up in its meshes, eager to hug some unsophisticated and tender fly. I am fond of a simile, and if those given be too homely, let us compare him to one of those obscure and foul birds of prey -- the grizzly vulture, perched upon the topmost point of a blasted rock, whetting beak and talon, while his keen sight traverses sea and land in quest of quarry. A greenhorn is not long wanting, and monsieur nails him down to the mahogany; taking care, as you are within hearing, to tender the invite in a low tone, that you may believe this was the gentleman he told you he expected. Should the preliminary game with a fresh hand cause Pillefranc to believe he has hooked a trout too strong for his tackle, with that one battle does the war then and thereafter for ever cease and determine. Should the visitor, again, decline peremptorily to play for money, most assuredly will he never henceforth be honoured with the light of M. Pillefranc's countenance over the chess-field.

With all this cutting, carving, and contriving, the wants of our Paris sharp are few, and his habits of life simple. White does Pillefranc mark the day in his calendar on which Fortune, or Lafitte's diligence, brings a generous Englishman to the altar of immolation, a victim who will lose his three francs by two o'clock. Adieu for that day to chess. John Bull demands his revanche, but is put off on account of "a particular engagement with a lady." To the proprietaire it is a jour de fête, and he resolves to enjoy it accordingly. He bows lower than ever to the damsel at the desk, and sallies forth a flaneur of the first order, to sun himself on the Boulevard Italien. His faded hat is cocked smart on his left temple, his cane is poised musket-fashion, and his coat buttoned tightly across the chest to give a military air to his long and attenuated figure. He sings as he goes, but disdains tunes below A te O cara, or Ma Normandie; and these he hums in everlasting encores, to the jingling accompaniment of the three francs in his astonished pocket. Bulwer's bon-vivant regrets that man can dine but once a-day. M. Pillefranc dines many times that afternoon; devouring, in anticipation, the whole carte of Paris cookery, from end to end. He asks the price of a diamond-ring, and pronounces it cheap at two hundred louis. His blood is for the time ethereal, and you could hardly sour his temper, even by a kicking. He lounges round the glittering cafés of the Boulevards as if he had just come forth, or were about to enter; reminding me of a fashionmonger I once knew, who regularly went at midnight to the doors of the Italian Opera to see the company come out! Pillefranc basks in the warm air, like a May-fly, until six-o'clock; when, having duly aired his appetite, he slips into the restaurant, termed Les Trois Vierges, in the Rue St. Martin, where he luxuriates over three courses and a dessert, -- a fork, a napkin, and a toothpick, -- half a bottle of wine, and pain à discrétion, -- all for the small charge of twenty-two sous.

Now I pronounce this man to be a chess-problem, more difficult of solution than any one you will find in the writings of the learned. If his happiness really depended upon chess, why not play with acknowledged artists; and enjoy the excitement derived from encountering a noble foe, in preference to the chasing and slaying of "rats and mice, and such small deer?" If, again, his pursuit be money -- if he really want to eat, if he humble himself to lie, swivel, and swindle for silver -- surely he could earn a couple of francs in fifty different ways in half the time, and at a quarter the cost of brain. I can understand a man's cutting a throat, or stopping the mail, or selling a race, for a thousand pounds, but I cannot comprehend filching one poor franc at a time.

There is but one way to solve the riddle. Pillefranc loves the hunt of small game, as there exist men who can find pleasure in baiting a rat. Pillefranc's enjoyment is in the torture of his victim. He licks him, and oils him all over, with gloating eye, as the serpent slavers the antelope while breaking his bones, to make him slippery of swallow. Pillefranc racks his adversary with the zest of the Popish inquisitor. He rubs his nerves with a saw, and smiles at the agonies he elicits. Pillefranc was born too late. He ought to have been dungeon-keeper to some feudal baron. A believer in the Pythagorean transmission of soul might fancy the spirits of Lafemas and Trois Echelles condensed into the inward man of M. Pillefranc.

The family of Pillefranc is large, but its members never play chess with each other. Wolf tears not wolf, thief robs not thief. You may espy at times a brace of the Pillefrancs sitting amicably side by side, engaged in conversation; each watching to do a little business on his own account, like Thames watermen waiting for a fare. When a flat draws near, the scramble to secure him is too ludicrous, either Greek popping the question in so smiling and indifferent a tone of voice. The Pillefrancs never talk of their profession, but it is conventionally assumed that they are all honourable men -- most perfect gentlemen. As the foulest thing has its use, so may M. Pillefranc be made servicable to the tyro who wants a block to chop at. Three hours' amusement are surely worth a crown; and thus you got a pennyworth for your penny, and take it with your eyes open. And with this, M. Pillefranc, I bid you God speed -- au revoir. Go back to the dark abode from which I have momentarily called you forth, and get your bread honestly -- if you can. It is to be noted that none of the first-rate artists practise the dirty tricks of Pillefranc. They render large odds, and are quite satisfied to have the turn in their favour.