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The Letters Of Madame De Sabran by By Henry James

 

THE present century in France has been the golden age of editors. It might have been supposed that the mine of literary wealth bequeathed to that country by the eighteenth century had been exhausted, and that the occupation of the exhibitory fraternity was gone. The mine has been worked with extraordinary industry, and with the most perfect appliances of erudition and criticism, and its contents have been brought to light in particles of all dimensions—-in massive boulders, such as only the more skilled engineers might safely transport, in fragments convenient for immediate use, and in barely ponderable powder and dust. More even than our own time, the eighteenth century was an age of scribbling. This indeed is untrue if taken in the sense that the amount of published writing, in proportion to the size of society, was larger than in our own day; but it is true if we speak with an eye to the quality of the literature. In proportion to the size of society, we suspect that there were more things written in private between 1720 and 1790, which might go to press without professional revision (save in the matter of orthography), than between 1800 and 1875. There was, in other words, so far as form was concerned, less merely wasted and squandered literary effort than we witness nowadays. The distinction between padding and substance had not then been invented; and it is not only more charitable but more accurate to say that all the writing (so far as it went) was substance rather than padding. There are vast quantities of it that we cannot read—-that we could not read even if our own age made no appeal to us; but this is in a great measure because the whole body of civilization has taken a jump, and we are woefully out of relation with our ancestors. We are a thousand times more clever; but it may be questioned whether, just as the Venetians in the sixteenth century knew something about the art of painting that all our cleverness will not put us into possession of, the ladies and gentlemen who sowed the last layer of the seeds of the French Revolution had not a natural sense of agreeable literary expression which is quite irrecoverable by our straining modern wit. Comparisons, however, are odious, and it is certain that our ancestors had their bores and that we have our charmers. What we may say is that people of the eighteenth century wrote much and wrote well—-so much that some lost or unsuspected yellow manuscript is still constantly drawn from hiding, and so well that the presumption is always in favour of its being very readable.

The best society at least wrote in those days more than it does now, and the obvious reason is that it had vastly more time on its hands. It had nothing to do with trade; the men who composed it had no daily duties in stores and counting rooms. The gentlemen of the eighteenth century were either in the army, the church, the diplomatic service or the civil service; and these are all eminently sociable professions. The occupations of women were proportionately less exacting, for women's lives have always been fashioned in that portion of the piece, as one may say, which remains after men's have been cut out. Women, therefore, wrote a great deal, and at a first glance of the field it seems as if every lady who is distinctly known to have spent her winters in Paris during the period of which the measurement has just been given had produced certain volumes of letters, of reminiscences, of memoirs, of maxims, or of madrigals. Since Mme. de Sévigné, French gentlewomen have been excellent letter writers, and those lessons in easy style to which allusion was made above may often be culled from their ill-spelled gossip with their absent friends. (They all spelled very much at random. Even Mme. du Châtelet, the learned coquette with whom Voltaire lived so many years, and who edited Newton, and competed for the prizes of the Academy of Sciences, gained appreciably as a correspondent by being charitably read aloud.) French society in the eighteenth century was indeed very small, and we know it nowadays with amazing minuteness; we know it almost as well as if a brilliant Balzac of that age had laboriously constructed it, and, with all the pains in the world, had not been able to make his people seem really more multitudinous than a pre-Raphaelite painter does the leaves of his trees. It is a multitude, but it is a multitude that we can count. For an historic group its outlying edges have very little nebulosity or mystery—-very little of the look of continuity with the invisible. The fierce light that beats upon the subject matter of French études critiques has illumined every corner and crevice of it. The people who are fond of remarking that, after all, the world is very small, must make their assertion with emphasis after a course of French memoirs, with an eye to the notes, or simply after reading Sainte-Beuve's “Causeries.” The same names, the same figures, the same anecdotes, the same allusions, constantly recur; it is a dense cross web of relations within a distinctly circumscribed frame. It is hardly too much to say that, for all purposes save those of specialists, the time is all contained in Sainte-Beuve's forty volumes. A collection of newspaper articles fairly comprehends it, even to many of its minutiæ. One says this to give its measure as to superficial area; remembering that if its bequest, in the way of publishable manuscript, has been so voluminous, the reason is that it was rather the rule than the exception to write.

The situation has a certain resemblance to those portions of modern Rome and Athens in which there are still chances of disinterring Greek statues. Excavation has been so systematically pursued that we may reasonably suppose there are now many more maimed divinities above ground than beneath it; and yet the explorers spade still rings against a masterpiece often enough to maintain us in hopeful attention. It was but the other day—-compared to the duration of its mouldy concealment—-that the beautiful mailed Augustus of the Vatican was restored to the light, and it was but yesterday that MM. de Magnieu and Prat put forward, in a beautiful and substantial volume, the letters of Mme. de Sabran. This excellent publication belongs to a class to which there is good reason for expecting more recruits. Mme. de Sabran's letters are love letters, and in such missives the female hand has at all times been prolific. The author was not in her day a woman of eminent distinction; she moved in the best society, she was known to be clever, and those who corresponded with her had a high appreciation of her epistolary talent. But she never published anything (although she alludes to a work on the “conduct of life” which she has in hand), and you will not find her name in the “Biographie Universelle.” She was one of the multitudinous satellites of the French court, of usual brilliancy; she represents the average clever woman and great lady of her time. Many other women were presumably esteemed equally clever, and many others must have left letters as voluminous and, on some grounds, as valuable as hers. Many such, as we know, have already seen the light. This is not said to depreciate the merit of Mme. de Sabran's epistles, but simply to note the fact that, charming as they are, they belong to a numerous family. Mme. de Sabran's letters were piously preserved by her son, recently deceased (of whose childhood they contain much mention), and are published in execution of his testamentary injunctions. For him at least his mother had claims to renown. Few readers of the volume before us will fail to agree with him. In France it has been highly relished, and the relations of Mme. de Sabran and the Chevalier de Bouffiers have taken their place as one of the most touching episodes in the history of the old French society. The writer of these lines has read the book with extreme pleasure, and he cannot resist the temptation to prolong his pleasure and share it with such readers as have a taste for the finer literary savours.

Mme. de Sabran, who was born in 1750, married with the usual docility of the young women of her country. M. de Sabran was an officer in the navy, fifty years his wife's senior, and possessed of a meagre fortune, though also of what we call nowadays a handsome “record.” She speaks of her marriage in the very charming account which she gives, in 1787, of her daughter's wedding: “My heart has never beaten so hard as at the moment I placed her on the prie-dieu where she was going to utter that famous yes which one can never unsay when once it is said, much as one may sometimes wish to. My own did not produce such an effect upon me; and yet what a difference! I was about to marry an infirm old man, of whom I was to be rather the sick nurse than the wife, and she [sic] a young man full of grace and merit. But it is that then I felt the consequences so little; everything seemed to me equally well, equally good; as I loved nothing, everything seemed to me worthy of being loved, and I felt toward my bonhomme de mari very much as toward my father and my grandfather—-a feeling very sweet at that time, and that my heart found sufficient. Time has undeceived me; I have lost my faith in happiness; so in spite of myself, during the whole service, I wept a flood of tears.” Her married life lasted but a short time; M. de Sabran died of apoplexy, leaving his wife among social ties which might have beguiled an even less consolable widowhood. The Abbé De-lille, the horticultural poet, taught her Latin, and the great Turgot prized her conversation. Several years later she made the acquaintance of the Chevalier de Bouffiers, and her first letter, in the volume before us, is of the date of 1778. Mme. de Sabran was a woman of culture, and M. de Bouffiers was a patron of arts and letters; he also passed for one of the most agreeable men of his time, and he figures not infrequently in its chronicles. They became intimate, and Mme. de Sabran's friendship ripened into a passion of which the present letters are the flickering but always ardent utterance. At a certain moment (apparently in 1781) she begins to address her correspondent with the thou, and to call him “my child.” Up to this moment it had been “my brother.” M. de Bouffiers was altogether a man of the world, and of the gayest world, and his roving disposition was a constant interruption to his attentions to his friend. In 1785 he was appointed governor of the colony of Senegal, and during his sojourn in Africa Mme. de Sabran continued her letters in the form of a journal. He was absent but eighteen months, but after a short visit to France he returned to his post and remained there two years. Mme. de Sabran resumed her diary, and M. de Bouffiers also kept, for her entertainment, a journal which is hardly less charming than that of his mistress. He married Mme. de Sabran in 1797, when he was sixty years old and his bride was forty-seven. This long delay is but insufficiently accounted for by his desire to be able to offer his wife a fortune and a great position. M. de Bouffiers enjoyed many of the advantages of matrimony without its incumbrances. The division was not equal, for Mme. de Sabran seems to have had all the anxieties of a wife and none of the guarantees. The couple emigrated during the Revolution, and their marriage took place in Germany. The Chevalier de Boufflers died in Paris in 1815, and his widow survived him twelve years. A certain reticence on the part of the editors prompts the adventurous reader to wonder whether, in its later stages, this intimacy was not touched by the ravages of time; but the conjecture is almost impertinent, decidedly cynical, and inasmuch as there is no visible answer to the question, utterly vain.

What we have here, then, is something very light—-the passionate, unstudied jottings of an amiable and intelligent woman who loves a man whose affection she is conscious of possessing, but whose absences, and delays, and preoccupations, and admirations, and social dissipations, and duties of all kinds, are a constant irritant to the impatience, the jealousies, the melancholy, of which her own affection, in its singularly delicate texture, is all indivisibly composed. It is hard to say why we should be interested in these very personal affairs of an obscure French lady of a hundred years ago, and if a stern logician should accuse us of frivolous tastes, we should find it difficult to justify our enthusiasm. Mme. de Sabran's letters have in the direct way but a slender historical value, for they allude to but few of the important events of the time. They throw no very vivid light on contemporary manners; for there is little in them that would refer them to their actual date, if we were ignorant of this. Their psychological and dramatic interest cannot be said to be profound; they have none of the dignity of tragedy. Their compass of feeling is not wide, and the persons concerned in them are not, in any very striking way, at the mercy of events. They portray no terrible suffering, no changes of fortune; the most important event related is that Mme. de Sabran marries her daughter. If they are passionate, it is passion in the minor key, without any great volume or resonance. Yet for all that they are charming, simply because, so far as they go, they are perfect. Mme. de Sabran had an exquisite gift for the frank expression of feminine tenderness, and a gift like this has an absolute value. Two appreciable causes throw it here into a sort of picturesque relief. One is the fascination of the background—-our sense of the peculiar atmosphere of the eighteenth century; the other is the extremely dramatic form in which, in this case, the usual contrast between the man's life and the woman's is presented to us—-the opposition between the heart for which any particular passion was but one of many and the heart for which all passion resolved itself into a single unquenchable flame. As regards the eighteenth century, it is rather late in the day, perhaps, to talk about that, but so long as we read the books of the time, so long will our sense of its perplexing confusion of qualities retain a certain freshness. No other age appeals at once so much and so little to our sympathies, or provokes such alternations of curiosity and repugnance. It is near enough to us to seem to partake of many of our current feelings, and yet it is divided from us by an impassable gulf. For many persons it will always have in some ways an indefinable charm—-a charm which they will entertain themselves in looking for even in the faded and mouldering traces of its material envelope—-its costumes, its habits, its scenic properties. There are few imaginations possessed of a desultory culture that are not able to summon at will the dim vision of a high saloon panelled in some pale colour, with oval medallions over the doors, with a polished, uncarpeted floor, with thin-legged chairs and tables, with Chinese screens, with a great glass door looking out upon a terrace where clipped shrubs are standing in square green boxes. It is peopled with men and women whose style of dress inspires both admiration and mistrust. There is a sort of noble amplitude in the cut of their garments and a richness of texture in the stuff; breeches and stockings set off the manly figure, and the stiffly pointed waists of the women serve as a stem to the flower-like exuberance of dazzling bosoms. As we glance from face to face, the human creature seems to be in an expansive mood; we receive a lively impression of vigour of temperament, of sentimental fermentation, of moral curiosity. The men are full of natural gallantry and the women of natural charm, and of forms and traditions they seem to take and leave very much what they choose. It is very true that they by no means always gain by minute inspection. An acute sense of untidiness is brought home to us as we move from group to group. Their velvets and brocades are admirable, but they are worn with rather too bold a confidence in their intrinsic merit, and we arrive at the conviction that powder and pomatum are not a happy combination in a lady's tresses, and that there are few things less attractive than soiled satin and tarnished embroidery. In the same way we gather an uneasy impression of moral cynicism; we overhear certain phrases which make us wonder where our steps have strayed. And yet, as we retreat, we cast over the threshold a look that is on the whole a friendly one; we say to ourselves that, after all, these people are singularly human. They care intensely for the things of the mind and the heart, and though they often make a very insane use of them, they strike here and there a light by whose aid we are reading certain psychological mysteries. They have the psychological passion, and if they expose themselves in morbid researches, it is because they wish to learn by example as well as precept and are not afraid to pay for their knowledge. “The French age par excellence,” an acute French critic has said, “it has both our defects and our qualities. Better in its intelligence than in its behaviour, more reasoning than philosophical, more moralistic than moral, it has offered the world lessons rather than examples, and examples rather than models. It will be ever a bad sign in France when we make too much of it, or too little; but it would be in especial a fatal day were we to borrow its frivolity and its corruption and leave it its noble instincts and its faculty of enthusiasm.” A part of our kindness for the eighteenth century rests on the fact that it paid so completely the price both of its corruption and its enthusiasms. As we move to and fro in it we see something that our companions do not see—-we see the sequel, the consummation, the last act of the drama. The French Revolution rounds off the spectacle and renders it a picturesque service which has also something besides picturesqueness. It casts backward a sort of intense supernatural light, in the midst of which, at times, we seem to see a stage full of actors performing fantastic antics for our entertainment. But retroactively too it seems to exonerate the generations that preceded it, to make them irresponsible and give them the right to say that, since the penalty was to be exorbitant, a little vice more or less would not signify. There is nothing in all history which, to borrow a term from the painters, “composes” better than the opposition, from 1600 to 1800, of the audacity of the game and the certainty of the reckoning. We all know the idiom which speaks of such reckonings as “paying the piper.” The piper here is the People. We see the great body of society executing its many-figured dance on its vast polished parquet; and in a dusky corner, behind the door, we see the lean, gaunt, ragged Orpheus filling his hollow reed with tunes in which every breath is an agony.

The opening lines of the first of Mme. de Sabran's letters are characteristic both of the time and of the woman. The time was sceptical, and priests were out of fashion, except for such assistance as they might render at a lady's toilet; but Mme. de Sabran's most amiable quality is a certain instinctive moderation. “I really need to talk with you to-day, my brother, to cheer myself up and divert myself from a certain visit I have been making. And what a visit! A visit that one makes only at certain times, to the knees of a certain man, to confess certain things which I won't tell you. I'm still very weary and ashamed with it. I don't at all like that ceremony. They tell us it is very salutary, and I submit, like a respectable woman.” It is not in our power to say what sins Mme. de Sabran had to confess; she gives an account of her life at Anisy, the residence of her uncle the Bishop of Laon, where she regularly spent her summers, which seems to allow a margin for none but very venial aberrations: “I get up every morning at eight, and read and write till eleven; then I set myself at painting till dinner time. I am doing at present a superb oil picture which I have composed for myself and which I will show you. . . . I read in Latin the original letters of Héloïse and Abélard, and I have a good mind to translate some of the most coherent ones—-not those of Abélard, for they are most tiresomely dry and pedantic, but those of poor Héloïse.” In everything that Mme. de Sabran says there is a certain closely personal accent, and at last we have a complete portrait, formed by a multitude of desultory touches. The total is something we like so much that we do not feel disposed to call the weak spots by their specific names. Is it vanity when she frankly pronounces her oil painting “superb?” “Apropos, I have not yet spoken to you of the portrait of the Countess Auguste that I made while she was staying here; it is a little masterpiece. It is a perfect likeness. It is full length, a table beside her, with books and papers. It is a charming picture, and it will be a pleasure to me to show it to you.” Is this vanity, or is it the unaffected frankness of a person who is conscious of genuine talent? We have no means of taking the measure of Mme. de Sabran's talent, but she was a very clever woman, and it is not hard to believe that her pictures were charming, and that the airs which she is constantly composing and sending to M. de Bouffiers were infinitely sweet. But in dealing with people of this race and society, especially at that time, we Anglo-Saxons are constantly reminded of the necessity of weighing virtues and vices in an adjusted scale. Words and things, ideas and feelings, have a value to which we must freshly accommodate our imagination. There are French vanities which are very innocent, and English humilities which are not at all so; French corruptions which, mutatis mutandis, are by no means damning. For instance: M. de Bouffiers, writing from Africa, tells Mme. de Sabran of the condition of her portrait, which she has given him. “As by a special grace, I have been left alone a moment. I have just left my letter to go and kiss you. You are behind certain crosspieces of wood, intended to fix the picture in its case, and you look like your pretty Delphine in her convent parlour—-though if there is a difference, I know very well to whose advantage it is.” Here is a gallant gentleman trying to be agreeable to a superior woman by telling her that she is prettier than her own daughter. The inference is, that M. de Bouffiers thought he was saying something very charming, and that Mme. de Sabran received his compliment in a sympathetic spirit. And yet Mme. de Sabran was a devoted mother. M. de Bouffiers in the next sentence speaks with the tenderest solicitude of Mlle. de Sabran, and in the next letter he sends a most graceful message to his friends children. “Kiss your charming children for me. My heart bleeds when I think that I cannot press them against my breast and prove to them what it is in my eyes to be born of you.” The portrait mentioned by M. de Bouffiers is apparently not the charming picture by Mme. Vigée le Brun of which a capital reproduction in aqua fortis is prefixed to the present volume. Mme. de Sabran was called a beauty, but we should say that, if this picture is to be trusted, this was just what she was not. It is an intensely French physiognomy, and quite the one that shapes itself in one's minds' eye out of the perusal of the letters; but half its interest is in the way it pleases in spite of its irregularity. It is extraordinarily sympathetic, and offers a singular combination of wit and amiability.

In the letter but one preceding that one which has been mentioned as indicating the moment of expansion, as it were, in Mme. de Sabran's friendship, she evidently defends herself against such contingencies. She has been scolding her friend for delay in writing. “You can have no idea what I have suffered, and I am so frightened at it myself that there is nothing I wouldn't do to recover my reason, even to going to the moon in search of it on the back of a hippogriff. But meanwhile I take the firm resolution to trouble myself no more about your silence, your absence, and even your indifference; to live a little for you, a great deal for myself, and to be always gay and contented whatever befalls me. In the midst of all this fine philosophy, however,” she adds, “I rejoice in your return”; and her philosophy henceforth was destined to play a very secondary part. There are times when she summons it to her aid—-for as regards all things in which M. de Bouffiers was not concerned, it was very alert and competent; but when she plays at resignation or indifference, stoicism or epicureanism, she hardly even pretends that she deceives herself. She had indeed a strain of melancholy in her disposition which is constantly cropping up; she was afraid of the deeper currents of life, and she thought that when one felt one's feet touching bottom it was the part of wisdom to stand still. “I don't rejoice as you do in the discovery of truth. I'm afraid it will hurt me. All those people will turn your head, and in conducting you to happiness they will spoil ours. We are comfortable; let us rest upon that; what do we need more? I don't care for a science which is of no use to our love and which may on the contrary be injurious to it.” M. de Bouffiers had sent home a little blackamoor as a present to a friend, who had taken the interesting stranger to see the aunt of the donor. Shortly afterward Mme. de Sabran called upon this lady, who denounced the little Negro as an ill-bred monster. “As soon as he saw her he uttered horrible cries and threw himself upon the ground with signs of the greatest fright, while he had been caressing every one else. On his being asked why, he replied that she made up a face at him. The Maréchale never suspected that he had reasons for finding her different from other people, and has given him no thanks for his frankness. It makes one shudder to see how little we know ourselves. Is it a good? is it an evil? I can't decide. But I believe that illusion is useful in all things, and for myself all that I fear in this world is the truth. She is almost always sad, and leaves almost no consolation behind her. Happily, every individual has a common interest in being cheated, and the human race, in this respect, doesn't spare itself. What is most to be desired is to be well cheated, till one's last day.” In one place, however, she relates how her mind has taken a flight into the very empyrean of philosophy. “At the degree of elevation at which my spirit travelled, objects grew so small to my imagination that you also seemed no more to me than a worm, and I was indignant that so little an animal could do me so much harm and make me see things so crookedly.”

One feature of this correspondence—-and I suppose we may dignify it with the name of historical, for it is probable that in love letters exchanged in artistocratic circles at the present day such allusions are rare—-is the manner in which both Mme. de Sabran and M. de Bouffiers expatiate on the state of their health and upon their drugs and doses. “Meanwhile,” the former writes, “I will take no more pills, since they make you so sick at your stomach”; and she adduces this concession as a proof of her lover's empire over her mind. Could there be a more touching illustration of intimate union than this phenomenon of a lover being acted upon by his mistress's medicine? Mme. de Sabran's health was delicate, and she paid frequent visits to various healing springs. “These two days,” she writes from Spa, “I have been in my bed with fever. I shall get off with a bad cold, which I owe to the Princess of Orange, who did me the honour I don't know by what fantasy—-to choose me out of a thousand to accompany her in a ride on horseback, which she performed throughout at a great gallop, beneath a fearful sun, and with an abominable wind. I came back tired half to death, coughing, with my ribs and thighs broken, cursing all the princesses on earth, who never do anything like other people.” On leaving Spa on this occasion, Mme. de Sabran made an excursion into the Low Countries, of which she gives a most humorous and entertaining account. “We are making this journey like plain goodwives, by the public vehicles, under assumed names; whereby it will cost us almost nothing, we shall be much better, and be restored to Spa within a week. But don't go and speak to any one of this project; I wish to tell it to you alone for a thousand thousand reasons. You must know that I am called Mme. de Jobert and Mme. d'Andlau, Mme. Bertin. We came hither from Brussels in a barge which was quite like Noah's ark, by all that it contained. I amused myself all day with sketching the queer people who were with us, and among others two Capuchins, whom I painted so like life that every one admired them; which gave me a great reputation and success in the assembly. I effected immediately the conquest of a young English merchant, who never left us during the voyage, and who, from time to time, treated my companion and me to beer, to refresh us, almost making us tipsy, for in politeness we were afraid to refuse it.” “The journey to Holland,” she writes later, “was not a success [as regards her health], but it vastly amused us. No one knew who we were; we were taken now for saleswomen on their way to the Haarlem fair, now for ladies from Friesland, now for singing-women. We were treated sometimes very well and sometimes very ill; we often dined at the public table. We travelled sometimes on foot, sometimes in a phaëton, sometimes in a sail-boat. We passed one night on the highway, and another at the city gate. It would be impossible to see and do more things in a week. We went as far as Amsterdam, where the sight of the port amazed us; for neither of us had ever seen a ship. They are superb contrivances, but I should be very sorry to be shut up in one, unless it were with you.”

Mme. de Sabran's letters are so vaguely dated that we are often in ignorance of her whereabouts; but considering that in theory she led a very quiet life, she seems to have spent a good deal of time on the road. She made excursions if not journeys. To meet M. de Boufflers away from home was often the purpose of her wanderings. It would be part of the entertainment afforded by these letters to understand the logic of Mme. de Sabran's goings and comings; to know to what extent it was part of her scheme to conceal from the world the extent of her intimacy with her friend. Such intimacies may in those days have been concealable, but they certainly were not generally concealed. Mme. do Sabran lived half the year, however, with a great clerical dignitary. She was a bishop's niece, and this doubtless put her somewhat in the position of Cæsar's wife. It is not unfair to M. do Bouffiers, however, to imagine that his society was often to be enjoyed only on his own terms, and that there were moments when he would rather go ten miles to meet his friend than thirty. Was it not in his character to commingle a due appreciation of the bird in the hand with a lively attention to the bird in the bush? Mme. de Sabran, who professed in general a high, relish for illusions, appears to have judged her friend in some points without them. We cannot say whether she was jealous of the past: if she was, she gave a very amiable turn to her jealousy. Writing in 1787 from Nancy, where M. de Bouffiers had formerly been in garrison, “I have not stopped thinking of you all day,” she says, “and I am tired to death with it. It must be that the air of this place is impregnated with certain little atoms, which come and fasten themselves to me by sympathy. I don't pass through a street without thinking how often you have walked there. I don't see a house without imagining it is inhabited by one of the Dulcineas who formerly vied with each other for the happiness of pleasing you. I was present at the session of the Academy on the day of Saint Louis, where I saw all kinds of these same Dulcineas, and was greatly entertained. I tried to read in their faces and their eyes some traces of love for you; for at present, contrary to old times, I want every one to love you. But I saw in them the traces of time much more than of love; they were all frightfully old and ugly.” Mme. de Sabran is generous, and this little scratch at the end is the least possible tribute to human weakness. She saw another indubitable Dulcinea at the theatre at Valenciennes. “Looking at her with other eyes than mine, she has really very few charms. . . . She amused me a thousand times more than the play. She was extremely occupied with two officers, who kept her in continual motion from right to left, to make neither jealous; she laughed and talked louder than the actors. This time I was jealous, not of her successes, but of her happiness, and I said to myself, 'She knew that poor African; she loved him; she did more, and yet she has been able to forget him and love others. How can she do it?' I would like to have her receipt—- pauvre bête that I am, consuming myself in vain regrets, and, a thousand leagues away from him, seeing only with his eyes, hearing him only, able to think of him only, making the past the present for the love of him, and giving up the present to sadness and despair. My life will not be longer than hers, yet she turns hers to profit and I throw mine out of the window.”

The reader, as he goes, marks certain passages as signs of the times; the first thunder-growls of the French revolution affect one like the strokes of the bell that rings up the curtain at a tragedy. “People talk of nothing but taxes, and cutting down pensions: it is the paying the piper—-le quart d'heure de Rabelais. People live with the edge of their teeth.” And elsewhere: “The poor marshal [de Soubise] died this morning. His sister the dévote is in despair—-all the more that he died without confession and without consciousness to ask pardon of God for his millions of mortal sins. He was the Solomon of our age, minus the wisdom. His whole seraglio is at present in tears and misery, even to the sultana Validé. The King inherits five hundred thousand livres of income; it comes in the nick of time, for in spite of the notables and their sage counsels, he doesn't know where to thrust his head.” Mme. de Sabran was in the tree that the tempest had begun to shake; she was on an honourable footing of familiarity at court. Her little son Elzéar was at Versailles with his uncle. “He has already,” she writes, “great success at court. The Queen found him on her passage, and kissed him on his two little pink cheeks. This morning she said to me, 'Do you know that I kissed a gentleman yesterday?' 'I know it, Madame, for he boasts of it.'“

The journal kept by M. de Bouffiers during his second sojourn in Senegal is appended to these letters of his friend. M. de Bouffiers is known on other evidence, but this charming record of homeward thoughts in exile completes his portrait, and completes it very favourably. He is not positively an edifying figure, but he is, in his way, a decidedly interesting one. He was an eminent specimen of the “charming man,” as this fortunate mortal flourished in favourable social conditions. Those of the last century in France placed him much more in relief, and enabled him to develop on a more imposing scale, than the preoccupied, democratic, commercial society of our own day. M. de Bouffiers was a gentleman in the large, picturesque sense; it is striking at what a cost his good humour was kept up—-on what a copious diet it had to be fed. He had an admirable vigour of temperament and he was prodigiously at home in the world. He was the son of a king's mistress, and the incumbent of an ecclesiastical living of forty thousand livres, by the bounty of the king himself (the deposed Stanislaus I. of Poland, to whom as a comfort for his old age Louis XV.,—-his son-in-law—-made over the duchy of Lorraine, where the little court of Lunéville was a vastly less splendid but an easier and cosier Versailles). Bouffiers had signalised his period of probation at the seminary of Saint Sulpice by the production of certain contes galants, which, though abbés in those days could go far, transgressed even the abbatial license. So he turned from priest to knight of Malta, went to the German wars, amused himself on a great scale, squandered his money, and at middle age, to repair his wasted substance, had to solicit a colonial governorship. In Africa, characteristically, his vigour and vivacity did him service; he took his duties in hand and really administered his government. All this time he dabbled in letters, and made love à l'envi. There are several anecdotes about him in Grimm's “Correspondence,” and all that I know of his literature is a short tale in verse, on two alternating rhymes, quoted by Grimm, and chiefly remarkable for its frank indecency. On his return from Africa he went as deputy to the States General, and after the Revolution entered the French Academy and completed the circle of his activity by composing a very dull book on free will. The Bouffiers of these letters is the full-blown Bouffiers of middle life, largely versed in men, women, and things, and possessed of a great acquired flexibility of sentiment and wit. He strikes one as a shrewd epicurean, with a decided mind to eat his cake and have it. It is nothing new to observe that when men and women spin the web of sentiment together, the finest threads are generally the woman's, and it doubtless cannot be said, in this particular case, that M. de Bouffiers abused the lover's usual right to be less exquisite than his mistress; only certain it is that the reader cannot rid himself of the feeling that not a little of what is exquisite in Mme. de Sabran is wasted, given simply to the air, exhaled into the elements. M. de Bouffiers balanced his account in the gross, and of a certain proportion of this amiable woman's articulate heartbeats no note was ever made. But probably one makes these reflections simply because one is jealous of the extravagant Chevalier. The reader is himself in love with Mme. de Sabran, and he judges M. de Bouffiers but grudgingly. Speaking impartially, these two hundred pages of his journal are delightful reading. His gayety, his wit, his ardour, his tenderness, his mingled impatience and resignation, his frank marital invocations and ejaculations, his delicate natural compliments, make the tone of this fragmentary diary a real model of manly grace.

There is a sketch of M. de Bouffiers in one of Mme. de Sabran's letters which should already have been quoted: “No, my child, I have no use for your illusion; our love has no need of it; it was born without it and it will subsist without it; for it was surely not my charms, which had ceased to exist when you knew me, that fixed you near me; neither is it your manières de Huron, your absent, surly air, your stinging, truthful sallies, your great appetite, and your profound sleep when one wishes to talk with you, that have made me love you to distraction; it is a certain nameless something which puts our souls into unison, a certain sympathy which makes me feel and think like you. For beneath this rude envelope you conceal the spirit of an angel and the heart of a woman. You unite all contrasts, and there is no being in heaven or on earth more lovable and more loved than you. Come and see me, à cause de cela, as soon as you can.” It implies no want of sagacity to imagine that the unflattering lines in this picture are only finer and subtler caresses. M. de Bouffiers could at times express himself with an implicit tenderness of which an angel, since Mme. de Sabran would have it so, need hardly have been ashamed. “A thing that no one suspects, not even you, is that I am forty-eight years old to-day. Here is a vast amount of time lost; for there have been nothing but minutes well spent. I leave you to guess them. But, ma fille, this number forty-eight—-doesn't it impress you with respect? I let you off of the respect in advance, for it seems to me that I leave half of my years here, as I leave half of my luggage, not wanting it all on my voyage. Besides, I have grown so used to the idea of being loved by you, in spite of youth, in spite of old age, that I think much less of my age as it goes on. You remember, perhaps, that portrait that I loved so before I dared to speak to the original, that widow's dress which I wished you to retain in my honour. My age makes me think of it, but it doesn't make me think of your change; it is only matter that changes in us, and there is so little in you that it seems to me that I have nothing to fear. Farewell, my daughter. I have struck out two or three lines which would have saddened you. Let us love life and not fear death, for souls don't die, but love for ever.” This was written on his ship, as he was approaching the shores of France, and he adds the next day: “I see France drawing near, and I am like the little girl of a fairy story when they told her, There is a kingdom; in the kingdom there is a town; in the town there is a house; in the house there is a room . . . Here are forty days thrown overboard,” he says later, recording adverse winds. “Forty days! that is almost the life of a man, if one counts in life only the moments worth counting.” It is to be hoped that he found reason to reckon time less wastefully after his reunion with his friend.

These few extracts from Mme. de Sabran's letters can have given but an imperfect idea of those things by which she irresistibly pleases. Her grace, her tempered vivacity, her softened intensity, her admirable mixture of passion and reason, her happy, natural, flexible style, are all forcible appeals to our sympathy. It seemed in place just now to say that some of these charming qualities had been squandered; but I must hasten to unsay it when I reflect that, in this foreign land and in this alien age, we restlessly appreciative moderns are almost reverently inhaling their faint, sweet perfume.

 
 
 

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