Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter I

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CHAPTER I

THE HOUSE IN THE RUE DE VAUGIRARD

ANYONE going from the Rue du Cherche-Midi to the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs will see on his left nand, opposite a public fountain marking the corner of the Rue du Regard and the Rue de Vaugirard, a small house inscribed as No. 84 in the municipal registers of Paris.

But first, before proceeding farther, for a confession which I am loth to make. This house, where I was accorded the frankest of welcomes almost ere I had shaken the dust of the provinces from off my feet, this house where for three years I was looked upon as a brother, this house where, in every disaster and every triumph of my life, I could in those days have knocked with the certainty of seeing the door open to my tears or my joy,—the situation of this house I have just been obliged to verify on a plan of the city, before I could make my readers understand its exact topographical position!

Twenty years ago God knows I should not have believed this possible.

The truth is in these same twenty years so many stirring events, like an ever rising tide, have eftaced from the minds of the men of our generation the recollections of their youth that it is no longer their memory they must trust,—memory has a twilight of its own in which far-off recollections fade away,—but to their heart.

So, when I abandon my memory to fall back on my heart, I find enshrined there, as in a holy tabernacle, all the dear recollections that have disappeared from my life one by one, as water escapes drop by drop from a cracked vase; no twilight is there, growing ever darker and darker, but dawn brightening more and more to the perfect day. Memory merges into darkness and nullity; the heart aspires to the light, to God.

Well, there it stands, the house I spoke of, a small building shut in and half hidden away behind a dark grey wall, for sale now they tell me, ready to escape, alas! from the friendly hands that once threw open its doors to me.

Let me tell you how I first crossed that threshold; the tale will bring us, in a roundabout way I know, to the history I purpose to relate. But no matter, come with me, we will talk as we go, and I will do what I can to make the way seem less tedious than it is in reality.

It was towards the end of 1826, to the best of my belief. There you see, I said only twenty years ago, and lo! it is twenty-two. I was just twenty then myself at the time.

In connexion with poor James Rousseau, I have told you about my literary dreams and aspirations. Already in 1826 they had grown more ambitious. It was no longer the Chasse et l'Amour I was inditing in collaboration with Adolphe de Leuven, or the Noce et l'Enterrement I was composing in conjunction with Vulplan and Lassagne; it was Christine I was planning, alone and unassisted. Glorious, shining vision, that in my youthful hopes, was to open that garden of the Hesperides to me, that garden with the golden apples, whereof criticism is the sleepless dragon.

Meantime, poor Hercules that I was. Necessity had laid a world upon my unfortunate shoulders. Ill-conditioned Goddess, who had not in my case even the pretext she had with Atlas of resting for an hour while burdening me with the crushing weight.

No, Necessity was crushing me and how many others, as I crush an ant-hill. Why? who can tell? perhaps because I happened to be under her heel and because with her blindfolded eyes, cold goddess of the iron wedges, she never saw me.

The world she had set upon my shoulders was my office. I was paid 125 francs a month; and this is what I had to do for my 125 francs a month:

I began work about ten, and left off at five; but in the summer I had to go back again from seven till ten.

Why this overtime in the summer and at this hour of the day,—just when it would have been so good to breathe the pure country air or the stimulating atmosphere of the playhouse?

I will tell you why; there was the Duke of Orleans' despatch box to see to. "Duke of Orleans,"—such was the style and title in those days of this man of many parts, Dumouriez's aide-de-camp at Jemmapes and Valmy, proscribed in 1792, teacher of mathematics at Reichenau, sailor round the Horn, citizen of America, princely friend of Foy, Manuel, Lafitte, Lafayette, King in 1830, dethroned and banished in 1848.

It was the happiest period of his life; I had my dream, and my patron had his. Mine was a success in literature, his was the Throne of France.

Pity for a fallen Monarch! Peace for an old man's declining days! God grant a husband and father all that may yet remain for him of paternal and conjugal happiness in the infinite treasures of His loving-kindness! Alas! at Dreux I have beheld this Royal father weeping bitterly over the tomb of a son who was to have worn a Crown. The loss of your sceptre, Sire, has not cost you, I ween, so many tears as the death of your child.

But to return to the Duke's despatch-box. Its contents consisted of the day's letters and the evening papers, which had to be sent in to Neuilly. Then these documents duly forwarded by mounted messenger, the next thing was to wait for the answer.

The junior clerk was entrusted with these duties, and as I was the last comer to the office, they had fallen to my share. My comrade, Ernest Banet, superintended the morning despatches, while the Sunday mail we took turn and turn about in alternate weeks.

Well, one evening in the interval between getting off the despatch-box and receiving the return one, I was scribbling down some lines for Christine when the door of the office-room opened; a head of light curly hair and a delicate clear-cut face appeared, and a rather shrill voice enunciated in a tone not untinged with gentle raillery the three monosyllables:

"Are you there?"

"Yes," I answered eagerly; "come in, do!" I had recognised Cordelier Delanoue, son, like myself, of an ex-Republican General, and, like myself, a budding poet. Why, I wonder, in pursuing our careers side by side in after life, has he been less successful than I? I cannot tell; he has as much intelligence and talent and he writes better verses, there is no question about that.

'Tis all a matter of chance, — fortune or misfortune in this world; only when we come to die, shall we know which of us two, he or I, has been really fortunate or misfortunate.

Cordelier Delanoue's visit was a perfect godsend. Like all the people I have ever loved, I loved him then and I love him still; only I love him even better to-day, and I feel convinced it is the same on his side.

He had come to ask me if I would go with him to the "Athénée" to hear a lecture on something or other,—I have forgotten what.

The lecturer was M. de Villenave. I knew the name only; I had heard of the man as having executed a translation of Ovid which was well thought of, as having formerly been secretary to Monsieur de Malesherbes, and tutor to the children of the Marquis de Chauvelin.

At that time plays and such-like amusements very seldom came my way. Theatres and drawing rooms all threw their doors wide later on for the author of Henri III. and Christine, but they were shut to the junior clerk on fifteen hundred livres a year who took charge of the Duke of Orleans' despatch box.

I therefore accepted gladly, only begging Delanoue to stay with me and wait the messenger's return. Meantime, he read me an ode he had just composed,—by way of fitting preparation for the meeting at the "Athénée." Presently the man arrived; I was free for the night, and we set off for the Rue de Valois.

Whereabouts in the said street the Athénée held its sittings I have not the faintest notion; this was, I think, the only time I ever attended one of them. To tell the truth, I have never cared very greatly for meetings of this sort,—where one individual speaks and all the rest listen. The subject spoken of must be exceptionally interesting, or exceptionally unhackneyed; the speaker thereanent must be uncommonly eloquent or uncommonly picturesque, if I am to find much gratification in an unchallenged monologue of this nature, where to differ is to be discourteous, to criticise is an indiscretion.

I have never in all my life succeeded in hearing out an orator or a preacher to the end. There is always an angle somewhere in the discourse that catches hold of me and stops me dead, to follow out a train of thought of my own, while the speaker goes on his way without me. Once left behind, naturally enough I look into the subject from my own individual point of view,—the result being that while our friend is speechifying or preachifying aloud, I am making my own silent discourse a sermon to myself. Arrived at the finish, the two of us are often a hundred miles apart, albeit we started originally from the same point.

It is just the same with stage plays. Except at a first night of a piece written for Arnal, or Grassot, or Ravel, that is to say a work utterly foreign to my customary line and one which I frankly and freely admit myself incapable of emulating, I am the worst first-nighter ever known. If it is a drama of the imagination, no sooner are the characters set on the stage and their general outlines sketched than presto! they cease to be the author's puppets to become mine. By the time the first interval is over, I have appropriated them. Instead of waiting and watching for unexpected developments in Acts II., III., IV. and V., I am finding them places in four Acts of my own composition, making what I can of their idiosyncrasies, turning their originality to advantage for myself. Then if the interval lasts but ten minutes, that is longer than I need to build the house of cards I give them to live in.

Well, it is the same with my theatrical house of cards as with the speech or the sermon I spoke of just now. My house of cards is hardly ever the same as the author's; hence, as I have made a reality out of my dream, so the reality seems a dream to me,—one which I follow out, ever on the alert to raise objections. "But that's not right. Monsieur Arthur; that's not the way, Mademoiselle Honorine; you go too fast, or you go too slow; you turn to the right when you ought to turn to the left; you say yes when you should say no. Upon my word, what mistakes; it's past all bearing!"

As for historical plays the case is still worse. Once I know the title, of course I construct my own piece, the materials of which I bring all ready made with me; then, equally of course, seeing it is constructed with all my characteristic faults, to wit superabundance of detail, stiffness of characterisation, double, treble, quadruple intrigue, it is very, very seldom my play bears the smallest resemblance to the one they are acting on the boards. All this simply makes a first night, which is a pleasure to most people, a veritable torture to me.

Well, my fellow authors are fairly warned. If they invite me to their first nights, they know what to expect.

That evening at the "Athénée" I behaved to Monsieur de Villenave as I do to everybody; only, as he was three parts through with his lecture when we arrived, I began by looking at the man instead of listening to what he was saying.

He was in those days a tall old man of sixty four or sixty five, with fine silvery white hair, a pale complexion and dark flashing eyes. His dress showed that sort of careless carefulness peculiar to busy men who make a regular toilet two or three times in the week at the outside, spending all the rest of their time in dressing-gown and slippers amid the dust of their working-room. His gala costume, with its frilled shirt and white cravat freshly ironed is the work of wife or daughter, whoever looks after the house in fact, whose business it is to make him look respectable. Hence the sort of mute protest the well-brushed coat and neatly pressed trousers seem to enter on these occasions against the everyday, working garments which for their part have a perfect horror of clothes-brush and all such superfluities.

Monsieur de Villenave wore a blue coat with gilt buttons, black trousers, a white waistcoat and white tie.

Verily a curious piece of mechanism our thinking apparatus, an intellectual engine that goes on or stops short in spite of ourselves, because it is God's hand winds it up, a clock that strikes, at its own sweet will and pleasure, the hours of the past and sometimes those of the future.

Now what did my thoughts attach themselves to when I looked at Monsieur de Villenave? Was it to an angle of his speech, as I put it just now? No, this time it was to an angle, a salient incident, of his life.

I had read somewhere, I have no notion where, a pamphlet by Monsieur de Villenave, published in 1794 entitled, Relation de Voyage de 132 Nantais (Account of the Journey of 132 Men of Nantes). Well, it was upon this episode in Monsieur de Villenave's life that my mind fastened when I set eyes for the first time on that gentleman.

Monsieur de Villenave was actually living at Nantes, it seems, in 1793, that is at the very time when Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of bloody memory, was there. He had seen with his own eyes the terrible Proconsul, who, finding the courts too dilatory and the guillotine too slow, had abolished legal trial altogether (quite superfluous indeed, as the accused were never acquitted), and replaced the guillotine by those barges of his invention with sliding valves. He may have stood on the Nantes quays when, November 15, 1793, Carrier, by way of first trial of his Republican bathing-boais and his expatriations vertically (these were the facetious names he gave this new method of capital punishment which he had devised), embarked ninety four priests, under the pretence of deporting them to Belle-Isle; he may have been walking on the Loire banks when the horror-stricken river cast up on its shores the ninety four corpses of the men of God; he may have shuddered at the sight which, repeated night after night, had ended by corrupting the water to such a degree that the citizens were forbidden to drink it; he may, more rashly still, have helped to bury one of these first victims, soon to be followed by so many others. Be this as it may, it fell out one morning that Monsieur de Villenave was arrested, cast into prison, and condemned like his fellows to add his quota to the corruption of the stream. But by this time Carrier had changed his mind. He chose out a hundred and thirty two prisoners, all under penalty of death, and despatched them to Paris,—an offering of beings from the scaffolds of La Vendée to the guillotine of Paris. Then, once they had started. Carrier changed his mind afresh. Apparently the offering struck him as too insignificant, and he sent orders to Captain Boussard, in command of the escort, to shoot his hundred and thirty two prisoners on reaching Ancenis.

But Boussard was a gallant soldier; he ignored the savage order and simply went on his way towards Paris.

On learning this, Carrier sent despatches to Hentz, Commissioner of Convention at Angers, bidding him arrest Boussard as he passed through that town and throw the hundred and thirty two Nantese into the river.

Hentz duly arrested Boussard; but when it came to drowning the hundred and thirty two prisoners, the bronze of his Republican heart melted—it was not triple it would appear,—and he directed his victims to continue their march on Paris. It made Carrier shake his head in pained surprise and ejaculate contemptuously: "Poor drowner this Hentz, a very poor drowner."

The prisoners accordingly continued their route. Out of the hundred and thirty two thirty six died before reaching the capital; but the ninety six who did arrive there, did so, fortunately for themselves, just in the nick of time to give evidence as witnesses at Carrier's trial instead of appearing before the judges on their own account.

The ninth Thermider had come, the day of vengeance had dawned, the turn of the judges had arrived to be judged; after a month of debate and hesitation, the Convention had just put the grand drowner on his trial.

The recollection of this pamphlet, which M. de Villenave published thirtyfour years ago when in prison, had thus carried me back into the past, and what I saw and heard was no longer a lecture on a literary subject delivered by a professor of the " Athénée," but an act of accusation, an appeal formidable, strenuous, a matter of life and death, of the weak against the strong, the prisoner against the judge, the victim against the executioner.

Such is the power of imagination that lecture-hall, lecturer and listeners, speakers, all underwent a metamorphosis, —the hall of the "Athénée" became that of the Convention, the peaceful and placid audience were turned into angry men clamouring for vengeance, while the erudite, honey-mouthed Professor was thundering forth a public accusation, demanding the penalty of death, complaining that Carrier had only one life wherewith to pay for the fifteen thousand human lives he had cut short.

Then I saw Carrier, scowling down the accuser with his dark looks, I heard him calling upon his former colleagues in his loud, harsh voice:

"Why blame me to-day for carrying out your orders of yesterday? Accusing me, the Convention is accusing itself. My condemnation will be your condemnation, everyone of you; be sure of this, you will all be involved in the proscription that shall include me. If I am guilty, every man here is guilty,—every man and every thing, down to the President's bell."

Yet in spite of this, votes were taken; in spite of this, he was condemned. Terror drove men frantic now, as it had then, and the guillotine, after drinking the blood of the condemned was to drink that of judges and headsmen with the same indiflerence.

I had buried my face in my hands, as though shocked, atrocious murderer as the fellow was, to see him meet the death he had dealt out so recklessly to others.

Delanoue dropped his hand on my shoulder. "It is all over," he remarked.

"Ah!" I said, "so he is executed?"

"Who executed?"

"Why, that monster, Carrier."

"Yes, yes, yes," Delanoue assured me; "indeed it is thirty-four years ago now since he met with the little accident you refer to!"

"Ah!" I told him, "how glad I am you awoke me; I was having a nightmare."

"So you were asleep, eh?"

"I was dreaming at any rate."

"The deuce! I must not tell Monsieur de Villenave that. I am going to take you for a cup of tea to his house."

"Oh! you may tell him. I will repeat my dreams to him; he will not be offended."

Thereupon Delanoue, still doubtful about my temper on waking, drew me out of the public hall and into a waiting room, where Monsieur de Villenave was receiving his friends' congratulations. Arrived there, I was first of all presented to Monsieur de Villenave, then to Madame Mélanie Waldor, her daughter, finally to Monsieur Théodore de Villenave, his son.

Presently everybody set out on foot, by way of the Pont des Arts, in the direction of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. After half an hour's walk we reached our destination; whereupon we disappeared, one after the other, into the house in the Rue de Vaugirard I spoke of at the beginning of the chapter. I will now endeavour to give a description of its interior, having already sketched the outside.