Page images
[ocr errors]

My sister, when the Bourbons come back, I swear to you that I will present my son to our excellent princes.'

" Take care that he don't sing them the Marseillaise.'

Béranger protests against being supposed to have invented this dialogue. A hundred times it was recalled to him, even to its minutest expressions, by subsequent conversations with his father. *

The elder Béranger made a point, after these family jars, of begging every one he saw to take Master Peter John in hand, and lecture him roundly and soundly on his republicanism. He had reposed particular confidence, in this respect, in a certain Chevalier de la Carterie, an elderly man, who had a liking for

he young fellow's babillage. Now it came to pass, one day, that the Chevalier and our Pierre Jean were in full tilt on the subject of “legitimate rulers.” Béranger got tired of this ever-recurring phrase, and at last exclaimed:

“ Well but, sir, let me learn what these folks are, after all, about whose cause their very partisans are at loggerheads."

“Of whom are you speaking to me, my son?" the old Chevalier replied, with a serious air.

“Why, of that Louis XVIII. of yours, and of the Comte d'Artois and his sons."

“ Pooh, pooh! much the case has to do with those said personages, forsooth. They are only a family of usurpers."

“ You astound me! What, sir, these rulers for whom so many nobles, so many Vendéens, devote their lives, are merely usurpers?”.

“ Real usurpers, my friend, and they know it too."
“Explain, I beg of you; I understand nothing of what you mean.”

“ So I should suppose. Listen then, and you'll see the mistake into which your royalists have led you. Previous to the births of Louis XIV. and his brother the Duke of Orleans, Anne of Austria had a son, who is no other than the Iron Mask. His rights it is that have been fallaciously transferred to the Queen's illegitimate children.”

“But, sir, was the Iron Mask any more legitimate than they?”

“ Certainly he was—the own son of Louis XIII. But Anne of Austria, always an object of suspicion to her husband, thought it likely that the king, incited by Richelieu, might show himself incredulous as to a paternity so slightly established by conjugal intimacy, and she therefore consented to sanction the disappearance of her first-born, on condition of so ordering for the future their conjugal relations, as to justify the legitimacy of any future offspring. Richelieu, who had pretended to be in love with Anne, to answer his ministerial ends, was not slow to gain information of her secret amours. Once that the first-born had disappeared, it was no longer in the Queen's power to rectify her error, which made her absolutely dependent on a favourite. This, my young friend, is how the throne of Henri IV. has become the inheritance of bastards."

Béranger here remarks, that, although at the time of this dialogue, he was but slenderly acquainted with history, he could unquestionably have opposed a few objections to this romantic statement; instead of doing so, however, he confined himself to the observation, that, in order to make out the Chevalier's case, the Man in the Iron Mask ought to have left heirs.

“And so he did, thank God,” answered M. de la Carterie. “You must know that he was at first brought up in Normandy, where the surveillance kept over him was far from strict. Before he was twenty, he contracted a secret marriage with a young person of noble family, by whom he had a son, whom the ill-fated man was never to know, for it is from the epoch of this marriage that we have to date the rigorous imprisonment which has made him so celebrated. Then it was that his wife knew of what blood he was, and felt the necessity of concealing the child she had had by him from every eye, for fear of that child's being treated as ill as his father, and worse still. This child, brought up with the most scrupulous care, was only made acquainted with his rights when he was old enough to keep the secret of them, which was transmitted to him with all the actes establishing the facts I have just told you. This inheritance has come down to the eldest branch of his descendants, to this very day.”

“And who, at the present time, is the happy mortal who enjoys such an honour?”

Before long the latter sent for him to Paris, to engage in “opérations de Bourse," and both of them became clever financiers. The boy learned to reckon by his head alone, with wonderful readiness. The future poet

“It is a man of nearly thirty years of age, who goes by the name of Vernon, and lives in a château in Brittany, where not a few of his loyal subjects make it their duty to visit him. There he enjoys the respect of those even who are ignorant of his royal descent—such is the advantage his mind, his education, and his majestic appearance give him over the common run of nien. During the Terror, he was protected by the revolutionists, and he has laissé passer a tempest which was to deliver him from his most cruel enemies." “When does he reckon on gaining his rights?”.

“Wait, wait. A man has already appeared who seems predestined to restore the throne to him.” “Is that Buonaparte ?" "Exactly; he is not what men take him to be, and you will know more anon.”

The story of the Iron Mask had often occupied the thoughts of Béranger, too often indeed, and too seriously, to allow of his laughing at the good faith with which the old Chevalier explained that inexplicable history. “But what pleased me beyond all,” he says, “ was the use I would now make of it in my eternal discussions with my father. In fact, at the very first sermon in behalf of our maitres légitimes, I detail this marvellous narrative to my father and several royalists, for whose presence I had made an express point of waiting.”.

“What rubbish!” cried Béranger père; "who can possibly have been telling you such a tale as that ?"

“ M. de la Carterie.".
At this name, the poor man was stunned.

“ What!” he exclaimed, “ he who promised me to cure you of your republicomania !" Even so.

The cure was as bad as the disease. And thus the Chevalier came to be treated as a madman by his friends, the il-legitimate royalists. But he was not mad, Béranger affirms, while admitting, however, that he belonged to the Illuminati of Swedenborg's sect, as represented in France by Saint-Martin, and of which Cazotte, the author of the “Diable Amoureux," is said to have been one of the most fervent adepts. “Many French Illuminati had the same political ideas as my Chevalier, and one of them prophesied to me, in 1806, the fall of Napoleon for not having fulfilled the mission which God had imposed upon him, to restore the throne of France to the descendants of the Iron Mask.”

It was not unnatural that Béranger should, for many years, be curious about M. de Vernon, and in what light to regard that mysterious recluse. All clue to him was long wanting; but at length a creditable reporter was met with in one who had known, or rather seen, him in Brittany. According to this reporter, M. de Vernon's exterior answered to the Chevalier's description. “This M. de Vernon, who inhabited a modest château, appeared to live with a certain degree of comfort, at the expense of his credulous partisans; and stories were whispered in the country about his origin and his rights. It seems that, under the Empire, he was an object of surveillance; at least, according to my authority, the préfets repeatedly desired a meeting with him. Without revolting against these polite injunctions, he only submitted to them at the last extremity, and like a man compelled to bend before his inferiors. Full of the ideas transmitted to him, he, no doubt, had faith in himself, nor does he seem to me less respect-worthy than other Pretenders. If he is no longer alive, doubtless he has left an heir to the crown, as fully convinced as himself of the rights of the Iron Mask and of his own."

At a later stage in the Biography, when narrating the circumstances of the Bourbon Restoration, Béranger does not forget “M. de Vernon, the supposed offspring of Louis XIII., of whom,” he says, “ I have already spoken. In 1814, it would have been amusing to see him claim his rights, and make a show of devoting himself to the salvation of France. I do verily believe, that if the people had been consulted, the descendant of the Iron Mask would have had, next to Napoleon and his son, a great chance of obtaining the majority of votes."

It may not yet be too late, as far as the Breton Vernon Gallery is concerned. Possibly, like Henri V., a living member of that long line of family portraits only bides his time, to walk out of his frame, and, like our Vernon Gallery, make himself over to the nation.

was at this period a walking Ready Reckoner. His sire dabbled in this speculation and that, in too venturesome a spirit, and was the dupe of any one who would take advantage of his weak points. In 1798 the Béranger house fell to pieces ; Béranger père had to flee from his creditors, who managed, however, to clap him into prison; and Béranger fils had to begin the world again, and face it, and squeeze his daily bread out of it, as best he might. His father had lived recklessly, being naturally and habitually a spendthrift. But the son was of economical' habits, and at this very time was living in an attic, without a fire, though the rain and snow often flooded his coarse bed.

His Attic experiences we all know something of, unless absolutely unread in the most popular of his songs. And in prose as in verse, in his Biography as in his Chansons, he dwells on the pleasant associations he could connect with this and that mansarde, and the poverty for which they were a local habitation and a name. Thus, describing his position during the Consulate, he says: “There was, nevertheless, some sweetness in my poverty. I lived in an attic, on the sixth floor, on the boulevard Saint-Martin. What a beautiful view I had up there! How I loved to hover, of an evening, over the immense city, when with its ceaseless noises there was mingled the noise of some grand storm! I had installed myself in this garret with unspeakable satisfaction, moneyless, uncertain of the future, but happy in being at length delivered from such numbers of mauvaises affaires as had never ceased, from the time of my returning to Paris, to clash with my feelings and tastes. To live alone, to write verses at my pleasure, seemed happiness to me. We may take pretty literally, then, the celebrated grenier stanzas, as a transcript of actual experience, and no mere fancy-piece, or record of second-hand observation. But we are warned, in this biography, against assuming as a general rule that Béranger meant himself, and described his own life, in its lights and shades, or referred to his own relations and friends, whenever the substance of the song might seem to warrant this construction. Was bis grandmother, for example, so doubtful a character as that corrupt old creature in the chansons ? Was her practice when she was young, were her precepts after she became old, of the same loose sort? Hear Béranger himself, in a foot-note annexed to his incidental mention of “ma bonne vieille grand mère Champy,” the tailor's wife : “I think it expedient to accompany the name of my grandmother with a note, to inform critics that my song entitled Ma Grand' Mère is in no possible respect the portrait of either of my grandmothers, who were women of equal respectability. The tailor's wife, she who had the charge of my earliest years, was a hard-working woman, whose only amusement was reading; and my father's mother, a woman of no less spirit, was equally a model of virtue.” He adds that he supposed it easy to distinguish, among an author's various productions, between those which are the creations of fancy and those which imply self-portraiture by design. But as others found it less easy, he indited for their use, and in his own defence, this precautionary note against a literal interpretation. And he continues : "As my sister is religieuse, I consider myself bound to mention that the


of the • Voisiu,' in which I say,

pour sæur une béguine,
was composed long before my sister thought of taking the veil.

“I would not have the application of that moi in one of my prefaces, * Mes chansons, c'est moi,' pushed too far. True, they are myself ; but there are many

others as well, and I feel obliged to the critic who, in speaking of my collected pieces, made use of this expression, the comédie des chansons."

Besides the occupations in which we have already seen him engaged, Béranger at one time assisted his father in keeping a cabinet de lecture in the rue Saint-Nicaise; and at another, was in the employment of Landon the painter, with a salary of eighteen hundred francs—a sum which, together with a thousand francs he now received from the Institute (thanks to the good-will of Lucien Buonaparte), seemed to secure to him, at five-and-twenty, the sweets of wealth itself. He had won the favour of Lucien by an appeal to him for assistance, during a season of severe personal straits in 1804. At this crisis his wardrobe consisted of three worn-out shirts, a thin and many-patched overcoat, pantaloons out at the knees, and a pair of boots that wrung his heart every morning, as every morning in cleaning them he found some new hole, or rent, or rupture. At no time was Béranger a rich man, or anything like it. But in after days, when he was welcomed into the wealthiest society—when he was the visitor and, more or less, the confidant of rulers and millionnaires the companion and guest of such men as Lafitte, and Manuel, and Sebastiani, and Casimir Périer-he was never ashamed, quite the contrary, of being thought or of calling himself poor. Surrounded by rich men, " my indigence,” he says, “occasioned me no sort of embarrassment, for it cost me nothing to say, 'I am poor.' This word, which too many people hesitate to utter, almost stands in the stead of fortune, for it secures your license to practise every kind of economy, and it

procures for you

the interest of many a woman, and consequently that of the salons, which in this respect have been calumniated. Beware of turning your poverty to the annoyance of others ; learn to laugh over it at the proper season, and men will feel for you without wounding your pride. What I now say, I have often repeated to our young people, who, too much captivated by aristocratic luxury, blush to be without it. If they would compromise neither their honour nor their independence, let them learn to say, 'I am poor.''

He moralises and egotises in a similar way, when describing his prison experiences at Sainte-Pélagie, where he occupied the room just vacated by Paul Louis Courier. “ I have known persons whom a prison terrified: me it never could alarm. At Sainte-Pélagie I had a warm room, healthy, and sufficiently furnished, whereas I had come there out of a lodging stripped of its furniture, exposed to all the inconveniences of cold and thaw, without either stove or chimney, and where I had nothing but cold water in winter for uses of all kinds, and an old blanket in which I used to wrap myself up when, in the long nights, the fancy took me to scribble a few rhymes. Certes, I could not but find myself better off at SaintePélagie. Accordingly I sometimes wrote to my friends that prison was spoiling me. To those who, remembering my official salary of two thousand francs, may be astonished at the poverty of my lodging in town, I will answer in the words of my favourite axiom : Quand on n'est pas égoïste, il faut être économe.' How open-handed Béranger was, all that knew him knew well, and the wide world knows too.

It was some time before he settled down to his true vocation, that of a song-writer. He was feeling his way for long years first. M. Perrotin is in possession of a manuscript of not less than 100 pages folio, dated 1809, which appears to form the introduction to an intended historical work on the heroes of Grecian antiquity-probably a bookseller's bespeak. It comprises what M. Perrotin calls “ véritables articles d'érudition" upon Achilles, Diomed, Theseus, Hercules, and other mythological grandees. Then again we find him composing and completing two dithyrambic poems, styled the Rétablissement du Culte and the Déluge, which he made bold to forward to his future patron, Lucien Buonaparte. When they became acquainted, Lucien induced him to undertake a poem on the Death of Nero; but he soon found himself out of his element, and broke off, or broke down. He meditated a poem on Clovis, intending to show how the Gaulish bishops assisted that sovereign in founding the French empire. He almost finished a pastoral poem, of Joan of Arc's time, to say nothing of numerous idyls of modern life. He also tried his hand at several comedies, two of them in five acts--one of which was a hit at the savants, never a favourite set with Béranger, despite his respect for science-and the other a piece called “ The Hermaphrodites," under which whimsical title he introduced some effeminate male characters, reliques of the ancien régime, and some women who affect the habits of the ruder sex. Nor was tragedy overlooked, though longer deferred. Béranger all at once took to talking about tragedy with Talma, whom he counselled to study Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as superior in poetic truth not only to Lope de Vega and Calderon, to Shakspeare and Massinger, and to Goethe and Schiller, but even to Corneille and Racine-both of whom he deems inferior to the Greek tragedians in a naive intelligence of art. His own design was to supply that which he accounts the one thing wanting in the French tragic theatre—the familiar. He would endeavour to ally the familiar with the heroic, and so avoid that stilted uniformity of tone which he found far more “ shocking” than the unities of time and place. To reduce his system to practice he set about a “Count Julian," a “ Death of Alex ander the Great,” a “Charles VI.," a "Spartacus," and other tragical themes; but he could not please himself, and would not give a malicious public the chance of being publicly displeased, and so of acquiring the right to express its displeasure in its own privileged way.

There was, in fact, a fund of good sense in Béranger which ensured him against any palpable absurdity. He took a correct estimate of his powers, and limited his pretensions accordingly. He somewhere congratulates himself on having never succeeded, in spite of repeated attempts (constrained by hunger rather than request of friends), in getting any drama of his performed on the stage, nor indeed so much as the honour of a reading. To the obstacles, conflicting interests, petty rivalries, and sensitive vanities of the green-room, he would never have become reconciled. Even had I the genius of Molière, he exclaims, my temper would have been the ruin of me in the coulisses. In the same spirit he declined all proffers of ministerial place and power. His friends urged him, but he knew too well, he says, how unfit the weakness of his character and his imperfect education rendered him for any such post. Ardent young republicans would come to him with pressing solicitations to stretch out

« PreviousContinue »