Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The heart of Voltaire, living and dead
THE HEART OF VOLTAIRE, LIVING AND DEAD.
t sometimes happens that after a man has lived out his life in tranquil obscurity, little noticed, little known, beyond the circle of his own family, friends and acquaintances, his taking his place in the tomb assigned him, after an easy and natural death has made it his fitting abode, so stirs the ashes of other men long dead, perhaps half-forgotten, that these last become for the moment resuscitated; their names are once more pronounced by a generation born since they were buried; men speak of them as they were spoken of when their bodies were yet freshly interred (though, it may be, with greatly modified views of their natures, merits, and characters); forgotten or unknown anecdotes concerning them are recalled, repeated and listened to with interest, and the phantom thus accidentally evoked, once more frets its little hour upon the stage, till some richer or more pressing interest rises, and allows it once more to glide, silently and unseen, into the tomb where it had passed so many years in oblivion.
Not long since, in France, expired the Marquis de Villette, the owner of considerable possessions in that country. A fanatic devotion to the French Bourbons seems to have been the only remarkable characteristic of this gentleman. The language of his letters to the remaining representatives of that doomed family, and of his correspondence concerning them, far more resembled that of an impassioned lover, or the enthusiastic devotion to a saint, than the words of the adherent, however faithful, of a family which, whether taken individually or collectively, appears, to common mortals, little calculated to inspire such entire devotion; and in his will, he desired that the last epistles he had received from the Comte de Chambord and his mother, with locks of their hair, should be enclosed in a flat gold box, and securely screwed to the ribs immediately over his heart.
So far, so good. France and her government had no objection to any amount of sentimental reverence offered by M. le Marquis de Villette at the shrine of his proscribed idols. In them he worshipped “an idea,” and he who now sits on the throne of that nation has shown, too much, by his own august and ever-to-be-admired example, his respect for “an idea,” and the lengths he will go to maintain it, for those in authority under him not to hold such motives in the highest consideration.
But when M. de Villette abandoned the ground of the ideal, and came to that of solid fact, represented by so many acres of field and forest, by so much gold, silver, and precious stones, the affair was placed on an entirely new footing.
M. de Villette being childless, and conceiving that he might not have very long to live, directed, by the will which contained the sentimental dispositions already alluded to, that the bulk of his property, with all the benefits therefrom accruing, should be placed in the possession of M. de Dreux-Brézé, bishop of Moulins.
Now as M. de Dreux-Brézé was known to entertain the same feeling, though in a somewhat modified form, for the representatives of the late dynasty, as M. de Villette, it was considered by those interested in the matter of the heritage that this nominal bequest to the bishop was a mere blind, and that the real heir who was to enjoy its benefits was the last male descendant of St. Louis.
Such a destination, at least, being declared by the collaterals, who would, in the ordinary course of events, have profited by the succession, and the bequeathing of landed property in France to a political exile being forbidden by the law of the land, a trial ensued in which all the eloquence of Maîtres Marie and Berryer was called into play.
Who should possess the domains, the forests, the châteaux, the biens meubles et immeubles of the deceased? Such was the question debated between the pleaders within the court; while without, a few, mostly literary men, or elderly men of studious habits, cultivated tastes, worshippers of the French demi-god, esprit, began to moot the (to them) far more interesting question concerning a piece of property descending from the preceding Marquis de Villette to his son, just deceased.
This possession was the Heart of Voltaire, preserved in a marble urn.
What had become of the relic? Who owned—who claimed it? inquired these men. What was the precise history of it? of its preservation, its vicissitudes? asked the men—not to say women—of the later generation, who had heard, more or less vaguely, of the existence of such relic, but who, till their attention was thus directly called to it, had cared little to inquire further into the details concerning it.
Then came forward some few of the literati, and of the worshippers of the demi-god above alluded to, and from their notes and their souvenirs, and from the anecdotes handed down to them by previous chroniclers, or by the lips of those men and women of a former generation in whose footsteps they trod, they gave such details of the life and death of Voltaire, and of his Heart, living and dead, as for awhile to make the dry bones live again in men’s minds, and place before the eyes of the children of the nineteenth century the image and presentment of the Philosopher of Ferney, as he appeared to their grandfathers in the eighteenth. From these and other sources, the present writer has gathered together some details that may not be without interest.
It is hardly likely that we English should regard Voltaire from the same point of view that the French do, even setting aside the grand point of his religious and moral theories. The quality that he possessed, perhaps beyond all other men, that of esprit, is a quality before which every Frenchman bows the knee, and he who possesses it in the largest measure, is, by an inevitable consequence, considered the first of men. In England, the thing that is especially meant by esprit (though the term is also used generally), is rare, and we have for it no synonym that I know of; neither of the words wit nor humour precisely embodying the idea. In Ireland it is much more frequently found, but certainly the country where the quality exists in the greatest perfection, though even there it is not largely disseminated, is France; and whosoever is richly gifted therewith may cover with it more sins than any amount of charity that could be bestowed on him.
With us it is otherwise. We are not deficient in our appreciation of esprit, when we find it; but we regard it as a secondary, not a primary quality; as a means rather than as an end; a man must have something besides esprit, and something higher than it, to command our reverence, admiration, and esteem.
A persifleur amuses us, but we have no notion of making him
Our pattern to live and to die,
whereas in France a first-rate persifleur is the perfection of a man of esprit.
Now Voltaire, being the Prince of Persifleurs, was in France considered a great man, a title which no Englishman would accord him.
He laughed at everything, except, indeed, at what was truly risible, in the career, pretensions, and tragi-comic ending of “la sublime Emilie,” Marquise du Châtelet, and the tremendous parody between himself and St. Lambert that followed her death.
At seventeen, being already the friend of Ninon de Lenclos, and “très recherché,” as we are told, “in this enchanted world of gaieties, songs, petits vers, and comédies de société,” he composed, amid this atmosphere, so favourable to serious study and conscientious labour, his Œdipe. It was represented on the stage, and the young poet entered yet higher in the ranks of the great world in the following manner.
The Maréchale de Villars inquiring who was the young man who bore the train of the high priest, was informed that it was the poet himself, the author of the piece; she desired to see him, and he was brought to her box, from which period he became the constant guest of the Maréchal and Maréchale de Villars.
Mighty was the success of Œdipe. Sully, the Marquis de la Fare, the beaux-esprits, the bas-bleus, and the grand monde flocked thereto, and showered on the poet praises and attentions; the Prince de Conti wrote thereon a highly complimentary and extremely mediocre copy of verses. One of those who, in a spirit of intense admiration, relates to us the career of “le jeune Arouet,” informs us that he desired to be at once Homer and Corneille, and in the same passage relates that as he composed la Henriade, “Il riait avec son poëme, aussi bien qu’avec sa tragedie,” which promised well for the fulfilment of such an ambition.
We in England,—and, I am inclined to think, the poets of ancient Greece resembled us in this respect,—find it a little difficult to comprehend the notion of sitting down to write an epic poem and a Greek tragedy “en riant.”
Be that as it may, it appears that there were times when Voltaire (he was eighteen when he commenced the Henriade), seemed to have had moments over it when he was not in a laughing humour, for it one day cost the president Hénault a fine pair of ruffles to rescue the MS. from the fire, where the author had flung it in a pet.
From thence triumph succeeded triumph. He wrote Brutus, Zaïre, l’Enfant prodigue, Mahomet, &c. This last work he dedicated to the Pope, Benedict XIV, who replied in a Latin letter to his “son” Voltaire.
Then came Mérope, in which the tears of Dumesnil aided powerfully to produce the success which Voltaire himself thus records:—“The seduction of the piece went so far, that the pit clamoured to see me. I was sought in the hiding-place into which I had crept (not, friend Voltaire, without having taken care, we must believe, that the niche in question should be known beforehand to the seekers!), and taken by force (!) to the box of the Maréchale de Villars, with whom was her daughter-in-law. The pit were wild: they shouted to the Duchesse de Villars to embrace me, and so violent was the outcry, that she was forced to yield, by order of her mother-in-law. Thus I was kissed publicly, like Alain Chartier by the Princess Margaret of Scotland; only he slept, and I was wide awake.” I should think so, M. de Voltaire!
The fame of his genius having extended beyond the shores of France, Frederick II., later surnamed the Great, invited him to his court. Thither he went, with what result most of my readers are acquainted.
He amused himself, taking the bitter with the sweet, enjoying the latter, lightly glossing over the former, forgetting, and in that way pardoning, even the gravest indignities to which he was subjected; and after his arrest at Frankfort, by order of the Roi-Philosophe, he recommenced a friendly correspondence with the monarch, and occupied himself in the most good-natured manner imaginable in correcting his verses.
The fact is that Voltaire’s natural bias of character found itself so completely at home in the age, country, and environments in which he lived, that it cannot be matter of surprise that, with such natural tendencies as his, they should become developed in the manner and to the extent they did.
He was born with an extraordinary amount of esprit; esprit of the bright, light, keen, mocking order; with little depth or breadth of view, much vanity, extraordinary expertness and adroitness, no reverence. He was especially easy-going, good-natured,—even generous and highly charitable on occasions;—not spiteful, notwithstanding his singular epigrammatic powers, amiable to those about him; a man easy to live with, always preferring to glide out of a quarrel, a difficulty, a danger, to running his head against it.
And such qualities were, among those with whom he lived, considered invaluable. That he had little faith in God or man; that his morals were of the laxest, that he only cared for truth inasmuch as it could be proved, and satisfactorily and willingly accepted as such by those people, and that its acceptance or assertion on his own part was not likely to lead him into trouble; that he had no earnestness, no devotion, no true heroism,—what was all this to men and women who laughed at such characteristics as proofs of weakness, folly, Quixotism? Is it likely, is it possible—that possessing such qualities as he did, and having them considered as the greatest and most precious a man could own, he would undervalue them, or seek to raise himself to a higher standard?—or that when his faults,—even his gravest sins, so far from being considered in that light, were such as were daily committed, tolerated, even applauded, in his own circle, he should be troubled with any remorseful sense of them, any idea of the necessity of reforming them?
What can be more significantly characteristic of the man and of the time than the fact that not long after the production of his epic, his great tragedies, his history of Charles XII., &c., we find him busily engaged, in company with Rameau, the musician, M. de la Popelinière, the fermier-général, and Madame de Pompadour, in composing, for the fêtes of the marriage of the Dauphin with the Infanta of Spain, a spectacle de cour, in which the decorations, the music and the ballet played the chief parts!
The Queen of France, Marie Leczinska, was so great an admirer of his talents that she admitted him to her intimacy, and gave him a pension:—what then? “He had the happy chance,” writes one of his panegyrists, “to please her Majesty the Queen, and to please the favourite (Madame de Pompadour) at the same time.” And through the same favourite he intrigued, might and main, to obtain from “Trajan,” Louis XV (!) titles and honours, but was fain to content himself, faute de mieux, with the modest appointment of gentilhomme de la chambre to the king,—who turned his back upon him!
And while he wrote poems, tragedies, histories, epigrams and court entertainments, his hard shrewd head was busily and most successfully employed in making his fortune.
He speculated in the funds, traded with America, and for years was a victualling contractor for armies. At Ferney, “l’auberge de l’Europe,” as he was pleased to call it, he received men and women of every sort of celebrity; he corresponded with kings, queens, princes, philosophers, with the Empress Catherine of Russia, and the Pope Benedict. An active life, truly, and one strangely occupied and organised.
The Du Châtelet episode filled up fifteen years of his life. Fifteen stormy years they were, yet borne with a fortitude worthy of a better cause.
Marvellous are those records of Voltaire’s mode of life in connection with the “Sublime Emilie,”—her perfectly trained, altogether accommodating husband, D’Alembert, St. Lambert! What scenes, when Urania came down from the stars, and shrieked and stormed, and brandished knives in the merest Xantippe fashion: the while this French eighteenth century Socrates bore all with, we cannot say, Christian resignation.
What journeyings, when it pleased the Marquise to change her quarters, in quest of other scenes, other excitements, other homage! What absurd and disgraceful humiliations he supported from this elderly, pretentious, gambling, shameless shrew and termagant! In what terms he records the last, and, as it afterwards proves, the fatal event of her life! All these details paint not merely the individuals immediately concerned, but the state of morals and manners then existing, in a way that goes far to explain the peculiarities of Voltaire’s life, writings, and how it was that he and they held the place and exercised the sway they did. His grief for the loss of this wonderful woman is displayed in a manner no less characteristic of the times, when “taste,” and “the rules,” were held to be the sole conditions of poetry—
L’univers a perdu la sublime Emilie,
Elle aima les plaisirs, les arts, la vérité:
Les dieux, en lui donnant leur âme et leur génie,
N’avoient gardé pour eux que leur immortalité.
Strange, that the greatest persifleur, the keenest mocker, perhaps, of any age, should have been utterly blind to the long series of parodies, follies, vices, basenesses, and preposterous vanities that composed the existence of this god-gifted woman, whose loss not only he and his friends, but the whole universe, were to feel as a breavement.
With regard to Voltaire’s attacks on the Christian religion, the subject is one far too weightily momentous to be entered on here. But this much we may say. In the first place, it was impossible for a man of Voltaire’s character, turn of mind, mode of life, culture and surroundings, to have anything like an idea of the real spirit, foundation, and tendencies of Christianity; nor had he ever regarded the question in anything but a doctrinal and polemical point of view, and with that essentially French democrat principle of changing, destroying, treating with hatred or ridicule things that nought but an infinite feeling of love, reverence, and humility, could ever make in any degree comprehensible. In the second, be it remembered what face Christianity, so called, had presented on the continent through many centuries, and still presented in Voltaire’s time. Where vice the most atrocious, tyranny, indolence, avarice, and the constant effort to keep men’s minds down to a level of brutish ignorance and stagnant demoralisation were the common characteristics of the ministers of what Voltaire and nearly all France with him, were accustomed to regard as the Christian religion.
“L’homme propose et Dieu dispose.” After many years’ sojourn at Ferney, where, doubtless, some of Voltaire’s happiest years were spent, and where he meant to lay his bones, it pleased his niece, Madame Denis, an elderly dame, yet withal sharing the sublime Emilie’s much-to-be-admired love of pleasure, and some of her thirst for conquest, to decide that he should bend his steps once more towards Paris; and in such glowing colours did she represent to him what his reception there would be, so ceaselessly did she dwell on the subject; in short, “she so teased him, and she so pleased him” in the matter, that on the 5th of February, 1778, Voltaire, at the age of eighty-four, took his departure from Ferney, accompanied by Madame Denis and his goddaughter, “Belle-et-bonne,” the Marquise de Villette, and turned his steps towards Paris.
Voltaire at Breakfast at Ferney.
“Le bruit seul de son départ,” writes the panegyrist before alluded to, “souleva dans tout Paris une acclamation universelle. La ville entière se prépara à recevoir son héros, et de la Rue Saint Denis aux plus nobles maisons des grands faubourgs se faisaient sentir les avant-coureurs d’un triomphe éclatant.”
At four o’clock in the afternoon Voltaire arrived at the house of the Marquis de Villette, in the Rue de Beaune. He was wrapped up in a vast pelisse; on his head was a large woollen wig, surmounted by a grey squirrel cap, beneath which could be seen little but his eyes, “vifs et brillants comme deux escarboucles.”
Crowds arrived to visit him, and grands seigneurs, court beauties, friends, strangers, bourgeois, litterateurs, actors and actresses, celebrities and nobodies, elbowed each other in the desire to see and to hear the illustrious hero, who had for each a smile, a compliment, “une parole aimable, un doux regard.” Hardly was he recovered from the fatigues of his journey, and from the somewhat oppressive homage of his admirers, when, always with an eye to business, he set about preparing for the stage his “Irène,” which he wished to see brought out at the Théâtre Français.
The day but one after his arrival, he received a deputation from the Academy, with a petition that he would be present at the approaching meeting of the assembly. At the same time arrived the semainiers of the Théâtre Français, submitting, as it was the custom to do to the king, the programme of the entertainment, at which was to be played Cinna, for the benefit of a grand-nephew of Corneille, and humbly requesting his presence.
On the 17th of February arrived a fresh deputation of the artistes who were to play in Irène. He replied with perfect ease and grace to the solemn speech prepared and addressed to him by M. Bellecour, their leader. On the 18th, fatigue and illness rendered it impossible to him to attend the representation of Cinna, given in his honour, but despite all remonstrance, he received Franklin, Madame Necker, the English ambassador, and others, who all cried “au miracle!” at the brilliancy, lucidity, and àpropos of his conversation. On the 19th, it was absolutely necessary to close the door to the crowds of visitors who arrived, entreating for a look, a word, a touch of the hand of their divinity, and the intimations from Marie Antoinette and the Duc d’ Artois, that the Queen requested his presence at a spectacle de la cour, and that the Duc would be happy to see him that evening at the Comédie, were powerless to give him even the amount of health and strength necessary to avail himself of them.
And Heaven knows what the gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi would not have done to set himself well at court! “Et pourtant le roi ne veut pas me voir!” he exclaimed in bitterness of spirit, when, in the midst of all these triumphs, M. Pigal, sculptor to the king, came to inform him that his Majesty had consented that he should execute a statue of him for the Academy. For two days he was confined to bed, utterly worn out with this constant strain on body and mind.
Yet not then, nor for many of the brief days he had still to live, does the idea seem to have occurred to him, even put interrogatively,—Is this Death that comes so near?
On the 22nd took place two curious scenes. In the morning Franklin brought his young son, and Voltaire gave him his blessing! in the names of “Dieu, liberté, tolérance.” At mid-day, M. de Villette ushered in “un grand vieillard de grande apparence, décoré du cordon bleu et de toutes les beautés de la vieillesse”—no less than M. le Maréchal de Richelieu, arrived from Versailles “to embrace the poet who had so flattered him in his life.”
An eventful and a suggestive, though not an edifying sight—that of those two wily, wicked, worldly old men, standing each on the side of a yawning grave, towards which they were tottering, stretching hands to each other across it, with smiles and compliments and courtly speeches, as though it had been a bed of flowers, and they met in their own and in the world’s golden age to congratulate each other on their and on its happiness and virtues!
The next day, Voltaire, engaged in a further revision of Irène, had not dressed himself, but sat in his dressing-gown, having forbidden access to whoever might come. A coach entered the courtyard. The rustle of silks, the tapping of red heels, ascended the staircase—stopped at the door; “On n’entre pas!” cried Voltaire. “Sauve qui peut!” said the Marquis de Villette, “c'est Madame Dubarry!” “Non, non!” protested Voltaire, in high trepidation, “elle est trop belle et je suis trop vieux!—she is dressed, and I am undressed; she has her rouge and her patches, and I am not shaved! Send her away—tell her I am dead!” In vain: “Ami Voltaire,” said a little sharp voice at the door, “Ami Voltaire, ouvrez-moi, je vous montrerai patte-blanche! Ouvrez-moi, nous parlerons de nos beaux jours!”
Could Voltaire be deaf to the voice that had charmed his sovereign? He opened his door. He took in his old withered trembling hands the yet beautiful little ones that had once, in a spurious fashion, touched a sceptre,—that ere many years should pass would be clasped in vain and agonised supplications to the executioner. And there the somewhile courtier and the royal courtezan sat down together to talk frankly and without unnecessary retinences over the delights of those “beaux jours” of vice, vanity, flattery, and corruption!
Then arrived Sophie Arnould, the glittering actress whose bon-mots are to this day repeated overall Paris. “Bruyante et très attifée,” she came in, kissing the poet on both cheeks. He presented to her—the Marquise presented to the actress of not doubtful reputation! “Belle-et-bonne,” to whom she laughingly addressed an equivocal compliment, at which those present “riaient si fort,” that the Marquis, entering at the moment, anxiously but vainly demanded the cause of their mirth.
The end of February brought with it an augmentation of Voltaire’s weakness and sufferings, and those around him began to see “the beginning of the end.” In the midst of all, two ideas seemed chiefly to occupy his thought: the success of Irène, and the coldness of the Court,—of the king, especially. And these are the dying preoccupations of a “great man!”
He had now adopted the sour-grapes tone with regard to his non reception at Court. “After all,” he said, “though the king would not see me at Versailles, I know well enough what would have happened to me, without having put a foot there. The king would have said, laughing,—a loud, foolish laugh—‘M. de Voltaire, have you good hunting at Ferney?’ the Queen, with a fine salute, would have talked to me of the theatre at Ferney; Monsieur would have asked me what income Ferney brought in; Madame would have recited four or five lines of Mérope; the Comtesse d’Artois would have stammered I know not what, and the Comte d’Artois would have talked to me of the Pucelle.” Poor consolation, and rather late arrived at!
The malady continuing to make alarming progress, the priests arrive, and on being denied admittance, threaten to break open the door. The abbé Gautier, sent by the curé of St. Sulpice, is allowed to enter, and is well received, but on attempting to press the matter of confession, is requested to “call again.” On the Mardi gras arrives l’abbé de Latteignant, the ex-chansonnier, “un vieux pécheur, converti de la veille,” and who comes, reciting prayers, and repeating his confiteor aloud, “pour convertir M. de Voltaire.” Such a hubbub does the newly-converted saint make, that ere he enters the room, M. de Villette, Tronchin the physician, Lorry, the second physician, Madame Denis, rush to the rescue, and the abbé is hustled out, protesting.—“A ces causes,” writes the chronicler, somewhat obscurely, “the invalid passes a tolerable night; he eats an egg, he drinks un doigt de bon vin: il est tout réconforté d’avoir bien dormi.” And thereupon he dictates to Wagniėre, his secretary, the following declaration as to his religious faith:—
“I declare, that being attacked for four days with a spitting of blood, at the age of 84, and being unable to drag myself (me trainer) to church, M. le Curé de St. Sulpice has kindly added to his good offices by sending me M. l’Abbé Gautier; I have confessed to him (a falsehood) and if God disposes of me, I die in the holy Catholic religion in which I was born, hoping of the divine mercy that it will deign to pardon all my faults, and if I have scandalised the church, I ask pardon of God and of her.
(Signed) Voltaire, 2nd March, 1778, in the house of M. le Marquis de Villette, in presence of the abbé Mignot, my nephew, and M. le Marquis de Villevieille, my friend.”
This little matter happily disposed of, he instantly proceeded to far more important concerns, and demanded Irène, “à grands cris.” He began the arrangement for the distribution of the tickets, of which he desired to have a hundred and fifty, and received the chevalier or chevaliėre d’Eon.
The 24th of March was the day fixed for the first representation of Irėne.
Voltaire did all that man could do to collect strength, to be present on the occasion: but in vain; already the approaching Death was beginning to master him,—had his clutch on that Heart which saw yet stranger vicissitudes dead than living. But, obliged, as he found himself, to give up this triumph, he kept messengers hourly on the wing between the theatre and his sick chamber. He insisted upon knowing what portions, what tirades, what lines, had produced the most effect, and as it was told him that the passages against the clergy had been highly applauded, “he was enchanted,” writes his admiring biographer, “to know that they compensated for the unfortunate effect his confession had produced on the public!”
The piece was not successful, which in no way hindered M. Dupuy, the husband of Mademoiselle Corneille, from coming hot-foot at the end of the fifth act, to announce the most brilliant success, adding that the Queen had written several of the lines on her tablets. And the dying old man exclaimed, “Allons! I must think of my Agathocles!”
Two days later, buoyed up with excitement and gratified vanity, he went out in his “char de l’Empyrée,” a sky-blue coach, studded with stars, dressed in the grande toilette of the preceding reign; a red velvet coat, lined with ermine; an immense curled wig, black and unpowdered, surmounted by a square, crown-shaped red cap; in his hand a dainty cane. In this wig his emaciated face was so buried that little could be seen but his eyes “qui jetoient des flammes.” “Bref, il était tout joyeux, tout charmant, même égrillard.”
The poor little moribund old man, with his sprightliness! What a picture!
Then came the last earthly triumph, the scene that was so immediately to precede the dark disgraces which were to be heaped on that poor worn-out body, denied Christian burial, laid by stealth in a stolen tomb.
On the 30th of March, or, as some say, the 1st of April (mark the ironical significance of the date), he proceeded in his starry chariot, by invitation, to the Academy, where were assembled all the members, moins the clerical ones, with the exceptions of the Abbés Millot and Boismont. The Academy in a body advanced before this its oldest member. It placed him in the seat of the director, after having by universal acclamation named him director for the April quarter.
From the Academy Voltaire proceeded to the Théâtre Français. “It was then that his triumph really commenced. An enormous crowd, cries, hurrahs, tears, extended hands. He was carried into the theatre, and there was an inconceivable spectacle of all that Paris possessed of renown and splendour: the bust of Voltaire was raised on a pedestal, to the sound of fanfares, trumpets, and drums, and this bust was embraced by all the comédie with infinite transports. The entertainment consisted of Irène and Nanine (also a piece of Voltaire’s), but not one listened to the poetry; every one was greedy only to see the great old man.”
Then came the final triumph. As soon as the hero of the evening appeared in the box of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber, opposite to that of the Comte d’Artois, a cry arose of “La Couronne!” and Brizard, the actor, came and placed it on the grande perruque à la Louis XIV.
“Ah, Dieu! vous voulez donc me faire mourir!” cried the old man with tears; and, taking off the wreath, he presented it (why, it is hard to say), to Belle-et-bonne. She in her turn resisting, the Prince de Beauvais once more placed it on the head (or wig) for which it was intended.
On leaving the theatre, it was with the greatest difficulty that he could be got through the crowd: even the Duc de Chartres (afterwards Egalité) and the Comte d’Artois, though they kept somewhat aloof, contrived to witness the exit, and the people were near taking the horses from the carriage, and drawing it home themselves.
“Vous voulez donc me faire mourir!” Full of prophecy was the expression.
The violent strain and excitement proved more than the object of such homage could, with his aged and enfeebled frame, endure.
For two months more he lingered, tottering on the borders of the grave, and on the 30th or 31st of May, expired tranquilly.
So much for Voltaire’s last days of life. Let us now turn to his first days of death. There is no occasion to moralise, or to repeat sage reflections on the subject.
Never, perhaps, did a tale so carry its own moral on the face of it.
Imperial Cæsar, dead and turned to clay,
was, as soon as cold, refused a burial by the Archbishop of Paris. The Academy, addressing themselves to the brotherhood of the Cordeliers, to say a mass for the soul departed, the fraternity, though “peu scrupuleux,” says the account, and ready enough to do as they were requested, replied that they regretted to have to refuse the Academy, but they had already received express orders not to pray for M. de Voltaire.
The Academy then addressed themselves to the Prime Minister, M. de Maurepas. The cynic, whose sneers were mere aperies of the sneers of Voltaire, replied that his conscience opposed itself to the accordance of any funeral honours, adding that there would be no great harm if the people of France should be persuaded that M. de Voltaire had been carried off by the devil. At the same time the Government issued orders that no writers should mention him in their books, newspapers or conversations, and that in no theatre should any piece be represented that could in any way recal him to the minds of the people.
And while these things were going on, the poor corpse was unburied.
At last, to escape public outrage, the Abbé Mignot, nephew of the deceased, and some of his friends, determined to inter the body in secret. In the middle of a dark night (already M. de Villette had had the heart removed, with a promise to preserve it at Ferney), silently, in fear and trembling, they took the uncoffined corpse from the bed where it lay, dressed it in a dressing-gown and night-cap, and placed it in a carriage, propping it up to represent an invalid, who was being taken into the country for change. Then they turned their steps towards Romilly-sur-Seine, where stood the abbey of Scellières, of which the Abbé Mignot was Abbé Commendataire.
Picture that night journey! No longer the old man, “en grande toilette, tout charmant, tout égrillard,” parading in triumph the streets of Paris, in broad daylight, with eyes “qui jetoient des flammes;” but a poor, weary worn-out corpse, covered up in a dressing-gown and night-cap, being stolen along bad country roads in the stillness and darkness of night, to escape insult and outrage; helplessly jerked about by the movement of the vehicle, the mocking smile on those lips replaced by flaccid formlessness, the “flames” of those glittering eyes extinguished for ever and for ever!
Arrived at the abbey, the body was buried with the least possible movement and ceremony, and there, as might be supposed, it would be allowed to rest in its stolen tomb. Not so, however. Next day the Bishop of Troyes wrote to the Prior of Scellières, forbidding the body to be buried in hallowed ground. The Prior replied that it had been buried twenty-four hours previously at the entreaty of M. l’Abbé Mignot, councillor of the grand council, Abbé Commendataire of the house, “who showed us the consent of M. le Curé de St. Sulpice, signed by that pastor—that the body of M. de Voltaire might be transported hither, without ceremony. He showed me, as well, a copy collated by the same Curé of St. Sulpice, of a profession of the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman faith, which M. de Voltaire had made under the hands of an approved priest, in the presence of two witnesses, of whom one is M. Mignot, our abbé, nephew of the penitent, the other a gentleman, the Marquis de Villevieille. Besides these, he showed me a letter of the minister of Paris, M. Amelot, addressed to him and to M. de Dampierre d’Hornoy, nephew of the Abbé Mignot and grand nephew of the defunct, by which those gentlemen were authorised to transport their uncle to Ferney, or elsewhere.”
At Ferney Voltaire’s happiest, and, on the whole, we may say, best days were spent. There, where he lived so long, where he did so much, where he was visited by hundreds of Europe’s celebrities; where everything, imagined or constructed by him, was so intimately and personally associated with him, he ought to have died. Such had been his intention. He had built there, beside the theatre, a chapel, and a tomb for himself half in the church, half in the churchyard.
“Et les malins,” he said, “vous soutiendront quand je serai là, que je ne suis ni chair, ni poisson, ni dedans ni dehors,” thus anticipating M. de Maurepas’ suggestion on the subject.
Voltaire left Ferney, with a very considerable income, a large sum of ready money, and his pictures, plate, furniture, books, &c., to Madame Denis. Hardly had they come into her possession when she sold Ferney to the Marquis de Villette, and wrote to propose the library to the Empress of Russia, who purchased it, writing a most flattering letter addressed to “Madame Denis, la nièce d’un grand homme qui m’aimoit beaucoup.”
Having sold the chateau, the land, the furniture, everything, in short, even to the private letters and papers of her uncle, the lady having probably heard something vaguely about the removal of his heart, but having been too much occupied with the arrangement of her property to occupy herself sooner in the matter, began to make inquiries thereanent. Learning that it was in the hands of M. de Villette, who proposed to take it to Ferney, she got in a rage, and threatened to resort to the most peremptory steps to reclaim the precious relic.
Touching this matter, a number of the “Mercure” of the day gives the following letter, signed by Voltaire’s other relatives:
Monsieur,—A report, accredited by certain foreign papers, having spread in Paris that the heart of the late M. de Voltaire had been taken from his body in order that it might be made the object of especial obsequies, we, his nephews, his nearest male relations, and consequently charged with the care of his funeral, declare, as we have already done in a public protestation, placed in the hands of M. Dutertre, notary, and signed by all the parties interested, that neither the will of the late M. de Voltaire nor any writing proceeding from him indicate that he ever desired that such extraction should be made in favour of any person whatever, nor of any monastery or any church: that we never consented thereto, nor meant to have consented; that the written report of the opening and embalming, placed in the hands of the same notary, makes no mention of this pretended extraction, that there appears no act proving it; that, under such circumstances, what might have been undertaken in this respect would be absolutely illegal; and that what might have been taken from the body of M. de Voltaire without any of the indispensable formalities would not be fitted for any funeral honours. We beg of you, Monsieur, for the interest of public order and truth, to insert this assertion in the next Mercury. We are, &c.
This document, not remarkable for either straightforwardness or style, seems to have put an end to the controversy, and allowed M. de Villette to retain possession of the relic.
The Marquis, whose whole character may be judged—nay, which probably posterity would never have had any other opportunity afforded it of judging—by his conduct with respect to this matter, having purchased Ferney, swore that it should never leave his family, and thereupon called a sale of all the furniture. He vowed to erect a splendid monument to the heart of Voltaire, and “he arranged in a closet a sort of little tomb in glazed earthenware, or rather the remains of a stove, worth about two louis, and stated that in this fine monument he had placed Voltaire’s heart, which is not there now.”
Above this splendid mausoleum he inscribed the following line:—
“Son esprit est partout et son cœur est ici.”
and when he had changed, overturned, sold, and dispersed nearly every trace of the late inmate, M. de Villette let Ferney to an Englishman, persuading him that he had left him the heart of Voltaire in the earthen stove.
Some years later, the Marquis de Villette’s fortune was seriously affected by the bankruptcy of the Prince de Guéméné, and this period of trial was marked by violent revolutions in his mind. At times he would be seized with highly devout fits, during which the heart of Voltaire, in the marble urn which contained it, would be driven from cellar to garret: these moods would change to philosophical ones, whereupon the relic was brought forward once more, and treated with every honour. Finally, the Marquis arranged la chambre du cœur in the following manner:—“This room is ornamented not only with the portraits found in the château, but with those of the various most illustrious personages whom Voltaire celebrated. Benedict XIV., Ganganelli, Quirini, Fénelon, are on one side; the ladies de Sévigné, de Lambert, Tencin, Geoffrin, de Boufflers, du Deffand, de Genlis, opposite these prelates. The other side is the canton of the beaux esprits—Saint-Lambert, Chatellux, Thomas, Tressan, Marmontel, Raynal, de Lille. Below the portrait of the last is written: ‘Nulli flebilior quam tibi, Virgili.’—The friends are the nearest to the heart.”
How long the heart remained there, and when and why and whither it was removed, seems still an unfathomed mystery.
During all this time the body of Voltaire, which was to have been removed to Ferney, remained in its obscure tomb in the convent. But when in 1790 the abbey was sold and the monks dispersed, a question arose concerning it, and a year later four commissioners arrived at Romilly-sur-Seine, charged to transport the remains to the Pantheon. They were conducted to Paris in the most unceremonious manner, and while the conductors stopped to refresh themselves at a disreputable inn, the coffin, left at the door, was opened, and the embalmed body exposed to view.
The face appeared perfectly calm, as if in sleep, but at the contact of the air, it fell in, and nothing distinguishable remained.
What has become of the heart no one seems to know, nor do those who might be supposed to be specially interested appear to care.
At all events, no claim, no mention of any kind is made of the relic in the trial where all else relating to what were the possessions of M. de Villette is narrowly discussed and warmly disputed; and though the question has been several times put forth since the occurrence of the trial, which took place some three months since, I am not aware that any answer has been given.
Innumerable were the epitaphs composed on Voltaire at the period of his death, some rabidly malicious, others raising his name to the seventh heaven, most of them agreeing in the points of affectation and mediocrity.
Here is one attributed to Rousseau, falsely, I believe, not only from the poverty of the verses, but from the small probability that they would have been written during Voltaire’s lifetime, which, in the event of their authenticity, must have been the case, as Jean-Jacques died before him:—
“Plus bel-esprit que grand génie,
Sans loi, sans mœurs et sans vertu;
Il est mort comme il a vécu,
Couvert de gloire et d’infamie.”
“O, Parnasse!” writes another “poet,” who, probably, had studied the style of the sublime Emily’s epitaph:—
“O Parnasse, frémis de douleur et d’effroi!
Muses, abandonnez vos lyres immortelles:
Toi, dont il fatigua les cent voix et les ailes
Dis que Voltaire est mort, pleure, et repose-toi!”
All things considered, we may, I think, reasonably hope that the universe is consoled for the one loss, and that Fame has dried her eyes, and being sufficiently rested from her fatigues, has found employment since the death of the other.
That Voltaire was not occasionally actuated by noble and disinterested motives, we need not for a moment affirm or believe, witness the instances of his conduct in the cases of Calas, Servins, la Barre, &c. He himself wrote, perhaps, not at the moment, insincerely:—
“J’ai fait un peu de bien; c’est mon meilleur ouvrage.”
But that applause, the public voice, the gratification of his vanity, and a narrow and no way elevated fame were the objects he habitually toiled for, and regarded as a sufficient reward, are facts yet more evident.
Witness, among others, the anecdote of the Café de Procope.
When he brought out his Sémiramis, instead of waiting with dignity to study its effects when time might have been given to judge of these, he, on the night of the second representation, borrowed the dress of a doctor of the Sorbonne, consisting of cassock, long cloak, black stockings, girdle, and bands, not forgetting even the breviary. On his head he wore an immense wig, unpowdered and unkempt, which nearly hid his face, and surmounted it with a shabby old three-cornered hat, and proceeding to the Café de Procope, while the play was yet in progress, he called for a small roll of bread, a bavaroise, and the Gazette.
This café, which stood opposite the Comédie Française, seems to have borne some humble resemblance to Wills’s, and one or two other London coffee-houses of nearly the same period, though bearing a more exclusively theatrical character; for there, we are told, “had been held for upwards of sixty years, the tribunal of these self-styled aristarchs, who fancied they could pass judgment without appeal on plays, authors, and actors.” And to the judgment of such a tribunal, on the second appearance of his work, was Voltaire satisfied to submit himself! and up till eleven o’clock, at which time the self-constituted critics had dispersed, did he sit there in silence, spectacles on nose, pretending to read the Gazette, and drinking in every word of praise or blame, as if on the breath of this gang of idlers depended his fame or obscurity!
The affair of his “Confession” speaks for itself, especially followed, as it was, by his delight that the applause given by the multitude to the passages against the clergy in Irène, produced not many days after, should do away with the bad effect of the Confession on the public!
Of the same spirit smacks his never-ceasing mortification at the coldness of the king and court, whom he pretended, individually, to despise; but not till all hope, of softening or winning them to receive and notice him, had departed.
But, perhaps, in a little speech to d’Alembert, is more epigrammatically expressed than anywhere else this passion of his for general applause.
“If you meet,” said he, as d’Alembert was quitting Ferney, after a six weeks’ visit, “any dévots on your way, tell them that I have finished my church; and if you meet any gens aimables, tell them that I have finished my theatre.”