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Chateaubriand's Ducks by John Esten Cooke


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 good."

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 breath.

"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 occasions.

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 carriage.

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 farmer?"

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, turned round.

"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 Philippe."

"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.