Ducks by John
François-Auguste de Chateaubriand, the illustrious author of the Génie
du Christianisme, the poet, statesman, diplomatist, soldier, and
traveler in the Old World and the New, was one of the two or three human
beings who, at the commencement of the nineteenth century, disputed with
the emperor Napoleon the attention of Europe. Sprung from an old family
of the Breton nobility—a race preserving longer perhaps than any other
in France the traditions of the monarchy—he reluctantly gave in his
adhesion to the de facto government of Napoleon; but the execution of
the duc d'Enghien outraged him profoundly, and sending back to Napoleon
his commission as foreign minister, he abjured him for ever. Napoleon
probably regretted the fact seriously. "Chateaubriand," said the
emperor, "has received from Nature the sacred fire: his works attest it.
His style is that of a prophet, and all that is grand and national
appertains to his genius."
It would be out of place in the brief sketch here given to trace his
long and adventurous career. By turns author, minister, ambassador,
soldier, he saw, like his famous contemporary and associate, Talleyrand,
revolution after revolution, dynasty after dynasty, Bonapartist,
Bourbon and Orleanist, pass before him; and having in this long career
enjoyed or suffered all the splendors and all the woes of life—now at
the height of wealth and power, now a penniless and homeless
wanderer—he came at the age of eighty, in 1848, to Paris to die, in
wellnigh abject poverty.
Among the personal delineations of this celebrated man, the most
characteristic and entertaining perhaps are those presented by Victor
Hugo and Alexander Dumas in their respective memoirs. Chateaubriand is
there shown in undress, and the portrait drawn of him is vivid and
interesting. Victor Hugo describes him as he appeared in 1819 at his
fine hôtel in Paris, wealthy, influential and renowned. The author-to-be
of Les Misèrables was then a mere youth, and his budding glories as an
ultra-royalist poet conferred upon him the honor of an introduction to
the great man. Hugo was ushered in, and saw before him, leaning in a
stately attitude against the mantelpiece, the illustrious individual. M.
de Chateaubriand, says Hugo, affected the bearing of a soldier: the man
of the pen remembered the man of the sword. His neck was encircled by a
black cravat, which hid the collar of his shirt: a black frockcoat,
buttoned to the top, encased his small, bent body. The fine part about
him was his head—out of proportion with his figure, but grave and
noble. The nose was firm and imperious in outline, the eye proud, the
smile charming; but this smile was a sudden flash, the mouth quickly
resuming its severe and haughty expression.
"Monsieur Hugo," said Chateaubriand without moving, "I am delighted to
see you. I have read your verses on La Vendeé and the death of the duc
de Berri; and there are things in the latter more especially which no
other poet of this age could have written. My years and experience give
me, unfortunately, the right to be frank, and I say candidly that there
are passages which I like less; but what is good in your poems is very
In the attitude, inflections of voice and intonation of the speaker's
phrases there was something sovereign, which rather diminished than
exalted the young writer in his own eyes. Night came and lights were
brought. The master of the mansion permitted the conversation to
languish, and Hugo was much relieved when the friend who had introduced
him rose to go. Chateaubriand, seeing them about to take their leave,
invited Hugo to come and see him on any day between seven and nine in
the morning, and the youth gained the street, where he drew a long
"Well," said his friend, "I hope you are content?"
"Yes—to be out!"
"How! Why, M. de Chateaubriand was charming! He talked a great deal to
you. You don't know him: he passes four or five hours sometimes without
saying a word. If you are not satisfied, you are hard to please."
In response to Chateaubriand's general invitation, Hugo went soon
afterward, at an early hour of the morning, to repeat his visit. He was
shown into Chateaubriand's chamber, and found the illustrious personage
in his shirt-sleeves, with a handkerchief tied around his head, seated
at a table and looking over some papers. He turned round cordially, and
said, "Ah! good-day, Monsieur Victor Hugo. I expected you. Sit down.
Have you been working since I saw you? have you made many verses?"
Hugo replied that he wrote a few every day.
"You are right," said Chateaubriand. "Verses! make verses! 'Tis the
highest department of literature. You are on higher ground than mine:
the true writer is the poet. I have made verses, too, and am sorry I did
not continue to do so, as my verses were worth more than my prose. Do
you know that I have written a tragedy? I must read you a scene.
Pilorge! come here: I want you."
An individual with red face, hair and moustaches entered.
"Go and find the manuscript of Moses," said Chateaubriand.
Pilorge was Chateaubriand's secretary, and the place was no sinecure.
Besides manuscripts and letters which his master signed, Pilorge copied
everything. The illustrious author, attentive to the demands of
posterity, preserved with religious care copies of his most trifling
notes. The tragedy which Chateaubriand read from with pomp and emphasis
did not immensely impress Hugo, and the scene was interrupted by the
entrance of a servant with an enormous vessel full of water for the
bath. Chateaubriand proceeded to take off his head handkerchief and
green slippers, and seeing Hugo about to retire, motioned to him to
remain. He then continued to disrobe without ceremony, took off his gray
pantaloons, shirt and flannel undershirt, and went into the bath, where
his servant washed and rubbed him. He then resumed his clothes, brushed
his teeth, which were beautiful, and of which he evidently took great
care; and during this process talked with animation.
This morning seems to have been a fortunate exception, as Hugo declares
that he found Chateaubriand on other occasions a man of freezing
politeness, stiff, arousing rather respect than sympathy—a genius
rather than a man. The royal carelessness of his character was shown in
his financial affairs. He kept always on his mantelpiece piles of
five-franc pieces, and when his servant brought him begging letters—a
thing which took place constantly—he took a piece from the pile,
wrapped it in the letter and sent it out by the servant. Money ran
through his fingers. When he went to see Charles X. at Prague, and the
king questioned him in reference to his affairs, his response was, "I am
as poor as a rat."
"That will not do," said the king. "Come, Chateaubriand, how much would
make you rich?"
"Sire," was the reply, "you are throwing away your time. If you gave me
four millions this morning, I should not have a penny this evening."
It must be conceded that there was something imposing in this refusal of
royal generosity; but the poet seems to have passed through life thus,
with his head carried superbly aloft, and his "grand air" ready on all
Hugo draws him at fifty, in his fine hôtel at Paris—a celebrity in
politics and society. Dumas shows him in his old age, poor, self-exiled,
and wellnigh forgotten by the world in which he had played so great a
part. The brilliant and eccentric author of Henry III. was traveling
in Switzerland in 1834, and on reaching Lucerne was informed that the
hotel of The Eagle had the honor of sheltering no less a personage than
one of his own literary idols—the great, the famous, the imposing M. de
Chateaubriand. Dumas declares that genius in misfortune was always
dearer to him than in its hours of greatest splendor, and the statement
seems to have been honest. He determined to call and pay his respects to
the great poet. He accordingly repaired to the hotel of The Eagle, asked
for M. de Chateaubriand, and was informed by the waiter in a
matter-of-fact voice that M. de Chateaubriand was not then at the hotel,
as he had "gone to feed his ducks."
At this strange announcement Dumas stared. He suppressed his curiosity,
nevertheless, left his name and address, and duly received on the next
morning a polite note from Chateaubriand inviting him to come and
breakfast with him at ten.
The invitation was gladly accepted, not, however, without a tremor of
awe on the part of the youthful author. Even in old age, poverty, exile
and forgotten by the world, Chateaubriand was to him the impersonation
of grandeur. He trembled at the very thought of approaching this "mighty
rock upon which the waves of envy had in vain beaten for fifty
years"—this grand genius whose "immense superiority wellnigh crushed
him." His demeanor, therefore, he declares, when shown into
Chateaubriand's presence, must have appeared exceedingly awkward.
Nevertheless, the cordial courtesy of the exile speedily restored his
self-possession, and they proceeded to breakfast, conversing meanwhile
upon political affairs, the news from France, and other topics of
national interest to the old poet. Dumas represents him as simple,
cordial, grave, yet unreserved. He was gray, but preserved his imposing
When breakfast was over, and they had conversed for some time upon
French affairs, Chateaubriand rose and said with great simplicity, "Now
let us go and feed my ducks."
At these words Dumas looked with surprise at his host, and after
hesitating an instant essayed to reach a solution of the mystery.
"The waiter informed me yesterday," he said, "that you had gone out for
that purpose. May I ask if you propose in your retirement to become a
In reply to this question Chateaubriand said in his tranquil voice, "Why
not? A man whose life has been, like mine, driven by caprice, adventure,
revolutions and exile toward the four quarters of the world, would be
happy, I think, to possess, not a chalet in these mountains—I do not
like the Alps—but a country-place in Normandy or Brittany. Really, I
think that this is the resource of my old age."
"Permit me to doubt it," returned Dumas. "You remember Charles V. at
Yuste. You do not belong to the class of emperors who abdicate or kings
who are dethroned, but to those princes who die under a canopy, and who
are buried, like Charlemagne, their feet in their bucklers, swords at
their sides, crowns on their heads and sceptres in their hands."
"Take care!" replied Chateaubriand. "It is long since I have been
flattered, and it may overcome me. Come and feed my ducks."
The impressible visitor declares that he felt disposed to fall upon his
knees before this grand and simple human being, but refrained. They went
to the middle of a bridge thrown across an arm of the lake, and
Chateaubriand drew from his pocket a piece of bread which he had placed
there after breakfast. This he began to throw into the lake, when a
dozen ducks darted forth from a sort of isle formed of reeds, and
hastened to dispute the repast prepared for them by the hand which had
written René, The Genius of Christianity and The Martyrs. Whilst
thus engaged, Chateaubriand leaned upon the parapet of the bridge, his
lips contracted by a smile, but his eyes grave and sad. Gradually his
movements became mechanical, his face assumed an expression of profound
melancholy, the shadow of his thoughts passed across his large forehead
like clouds of heaven; and there were among them recollections of his
country, his family and his tender friendships, more sorrowful than all
others. He moved, sighed, and, recalling the presence of his visitor,
"If you regret Paris," said Dumas, "why not return? Nothing exiles
you—all recalls you."
"What could I do?" said Chateaubriand. "I was at Cauterets when the
revolution of July took place. I returned to Paris. I saw one throne in
blood, and another in the mud—lawyers making a constitution—a king
shaking hands with rag-pickers: that was mortally sad; above all, when a
man is filled as I am with the great traditions of the monarchy."
"I thought you recognized popular sovereignty?"
"Well, kings should go back from time to time to the source of their
authority—election; but this time they have cut a branch from the tree,
a link from the chain. They should have elected Henry V., not Louis
"A sad wish for the poor child! The Henrys are unfortunate: they have
been poisoned or assassinated."
"Well," said Chateaubriand, "it is better to die by the poniard than
from exile: it is quicker, and you suffer less."
"You will not return to France?"
"Possibly, to defend the duchess de Berri if she is tried."
"And if not?"
"Then," said Chateaubriand, throwing bread into the water, "I shall
continue to feed my ducks."
John Esten Cooke.