Some quarters still resist the encroachments of silence and apathy. Some arteries continue to beat. Some ribbons here and there brighten up the shop-windows: bare-headed shopgirls pass by with a smile on their lips; men look after them as they trip along. At the corner of the Boulevards a sort of tumult is occasioned by a number of small boys and girls, venders of Communal journals, who screech out the name and title of their wares at the top of their voices. But even there where the crowd is thickest, one feels as if there were a void. The two contrary ideas of multitude and solitude seem to present themselves at once in one’s mind. A weird impression! Imagine a vast desert with a crowd in it.
The Boulevards look interminable. There used to be a hundred obstacles between you and the distance; now there is nothing to prevent your looking as far as you like. Here and there a cab, an omnibus or two, and that is all. The passers-by are no longer promenaders. They have come out because they were obliged: without that they would have remained at home. The distances seem enormous now, and people who used to saunter about from morning till night will tell you now that “the Madeleine is a long way off.” Very few men in black coats or blouses are to be seen; only very old men dare show themselves out of uniform. In front of the cafe’s are seated officers of the Federal army, sometimes seven or eight around a table. When you get near enough, you generally find they are talking of the dismissal of their last commander. Here and there a lady walks rapidly by, closely veiled, mostly dressed in black, with an unpretending bonnet. The gallop of a horse is distinctly audible—in other times one would never have noticed such a thing; it is an express with despatches, a Garibaldian, or one of the Vengeurs de Flourens, who is hoisted on a heavy cart-horse that ploughs the earth with its ponderous forefeet. Several companies of Federals file up towards the Madeleine, their rations of bread stuck on the top of their bayonets. Look down the side-streets, to the right or the left, and you will see the sidewalks deserted, and not a vehicle from one end to the other of the road. Even on the Boulevards there are times when there is no one to be seen at all. However, beneath it all there is a longing to awaken, which is crushed and kept down by the general apathy.
In the evening one’s impulses burst forth; one must move about; one must live. Passengers walk backwards and forwards, talking in a loud voice. But the crowd condenses itself between the Rue Richelieu and the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Solitude has something terrible about it just now. People congregate together for the pleasure of elbowing each other, of trying to believe they are in great force. Quite a crowd collects round a little barefooted girl, who is singing at the corner of a street. A man seated before a low table is burning pastilles; another offers barley-sugar for sale; another has portraits of celebrities. Everybody tries hard to be gay; but the shops are closed, and the gas is sparingly lighted, so that broad shadows lie between the groups.