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Ch. 14 - A Gossip On A Novel of Dumas's

THE books that we re-read the oftenest are not always those that we
admire the most; we choose and we re-visit them for many and
various reasons, as we choose and revisit human friends. One or
two of Scott's novels, Shakespeare, Moliere, Montaigne, THE EGOIST,
and the VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, form the inner circle of my
intimates. Behind these comes a good troop of dear acquaintances;
THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS in the front rank, THE BIBLE IN SPAIN not
far behind. There are besides a certain number that look at me
with reproach as I pass them by on my shelves: books that I once
thumbed and studied: houses which were once like home to me, but
where I now rarely visit. I am on these sad terms (and blush to
confess it) with Wordsworth, Horace, Burns and Hazlitt. Last of
all, there is the class of book that has its hour of brilliancy -
glows, sings, charms, and then fades again into insignificance
until the fit return. Chief of those who thus smile and frown on
me by turns, I must name Virgil and Herrick, who, were they but

"Their sometime selves the same throughout the year,"

must have stood in the first company with the six names of my
continual literary intimates. To these six, incongruous as they
seem, I have long been faithful, and hope to be faithful to the day
of death. I have never read the whole of Montaigne, but I do not
like to be long without reading some of him, and my delight in what
I do read never lessens. Of Shakespeare I have read all but
RICHARD III, HENRY VI., TITUS ANDRONICAS, and ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS
WELL; and these, having already made all suitable endeavour, I now
know that I shall never read - to make up for which unfaithfulness
I could read much of the rest for ever. Of Moliere - surely the
next greatest name of Christendom - I could tell a very similar
story; but in a little corner of a little essay these princes are
too much out of place, and I prefer to pay my fealty and pass on.
How often I have read GUY MANNERING, ROB ROY, OR REDGAUNTLET, I
have no means of guessing, having begun young. But it is either
four or five times that I have read THE EGOIST, and either five or
six that I have read the VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE.

Some, who would accept the others, may wonder that I should have
spent so much of this brief life of ours over a work so little
famous as the last. And, indeed, I am surprised myself; not at my
own devotion, but the coldness of the world. My acquaintance with
the VICOMTE began, somewhat indirectly, in the year of grace 1863,
when I had the advantage of studying certain illustrated dessert
plates in a hotel at Nice. The name of d'Artagnan in the legends I
already saluted like an old friend, for I had met it the year
before in a work of Miss Yonge's. My first perusal was in one of
those pirated editions that swarmed at that time out of Brussels,
and ran to such a troop of neat and dwarfish volumes. I understood
but little of the merits of the book; my strongest memory is of the
execution of d'Eymeric and Lyodot - a strange testimony to the
dulness of a boy, who could enjoy the rough-and-tumble in the Place
de Greve, and forget d'Artagnan's visits to the two financiers. My
next reading was in winter-time, when I lived alone upon the
Pentlands. I would return in the early night from one of my
patrols with the shepherd; a friendly face would meet me in the
door, a friendly retriever scurry upstairs to fetch my slippers;
and I would sit down with the VICOMTE for a long, silent, solitary
lamp-light evening by the fire. And yet I know not why I call it
silent, when it was enlivened with such a clatter of horse-shoes,
and such a rattle of musketry, and such a stir of talk; or why I
call those evenings solitary in which I gained so many friends. I
would rise from my book and pull the blind aside, and see the snow
and the glittering hollies chequer a Scotch garden, and the winter
moonlight brighten the white hills. Thence I would turn again to
that crowded and sunny field of life in which it was so easy to
forget myself, my cares, and my surroundings: a place busy as a
city, bright as a theatre, thronged with memorable faces, and
sounding with delightful speech. I carried the thread of that epic
into my slumbers, I woke with it unbroken, I rejoiced to plunge
into the book again at breakfast, it was with a pang that I must
lay it down and turn to my own labours; for no part of the world
has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages, and not even my
friends are quite so real, perhaps quite so dear, as d'Artagnan.

Since then I have been going to and fro at very brief intervals in
my favourite book; and I have now just risen from my last (let me
call it my fifth) perusal, having liked it better and admired it
more seriously than ever. Perhaps I have a sense of ownership,
being so well known in these six volumes. Perhaps I think that
d'Artagnan delights to have me read of him, and Louis Quatorze is
gratified, and Fouquet throws me a look, and Aramis, although he
knows I do not love him, yet plays to me with his best graces, as
to an old patron of the show. Perhaps, if I am not careful,
something may befall me like what befell George IV. about the
battle of Waterloo, and I may come to fancy the VICOMTE one of the
first, and Heaven knows the best, of my own works. At least, I
avow myself a partisan; and when I compare the popularity of the
VICOMTE with that of MONTRO CRISTO, or its own elder brother, the
TROIS MOUSQUETAIRES, I confess I am both pained and puzzled.

To those who have already made acquaintance with the titular hero
in the pages of VINGT ANS APRES, perhaps the name may act as a
deterrent. A man might, well stand back if he supposed he were to
follow, for six volumes, so well-conducted, so fine-spoken, and
withal so dreary a cavalier as Bragelonne. But the fear is idle.
I may be said to have passed the best years of my life in these six
volumes, and my acquaintance with Raoul has never gone beyond a
bow; and when he, who has so long pretended to be alive, is at last
suffered to pretend to be dead, I am sometimes reminded of a saying
in an earlier volume: "ENFIN, DIT MISS STEWART," - and it was of
Bragelonne she spoke - "ENFIN IL A FAIL QUELQUECHOSE: C'EST, MA
FOI! BIEN HEUREUX." I am reminded of it, as I say; and the next
moment, when Athos dies of his death, and my dear d'Artagnan bursts
into his storm of sobbing, I can but deplore my flippancy.

Or perhaps it is La Valliere that the reader of VINGT ANS APRES is
inclined to flee. Well, he is right there too, though not so
right. Louise is no success. Her creator has spared no pains; she
is well-meant, not ill-designed, sometimes has a word that rings
out true; sometimes, if only for a breath, she may even engage our
sympathies. But I have never envied the King his triumph. And so
far from pitying Bragelonne for his defeat, I could wish him no
worse (not for lack of malice, but imagination) than to be wedded
to that lady. Madame enchants me; I can forgive that royal minx
her most serious offences; I can thrill and soften with the King on
that memorable occasion when he goes to upbraid and remains to
flirt; and when it comes to the "ALLONS, AIMEZ-MOI DONC," it is my
heart that melts in the bosom of de Guiche. Not so with Louise.
Readers cannot fail to have remarked that what an author tells us
of the beauty or the charm of his creatures goes for nought; that
we know instantly better; that the heroine cannot open her mouth
but what, all in a moment, the fine phrases of preparation fall
from round her like the robes from Cinderella, and she stands
before us, self-betrayed, as a poor, ugly, sickly wench, or perhaps
a strapping market-woman. Authors, at least, know it well; a
heroine will too often start the trick of "getting ugly;" and no
disease is more difficult to cure. I said authors; but indeed I
had a side eye to one author in particular, with whose works I am
very well acquainted, though I cannot read them, and who has spent
many vigils in this cause, sitting beside his ailing puppets and
(like a magician) wearying his art to restore them to youth and
beauty. There are others who ride too high for these misfortunes.
Who doubts the loveliness of Rosalind? Arden itself was not more
lovely. Who ever questioned the perennial charm of Rose Jocelyn,
Lucy Desborough, or Clara Middleton? fair women with fair names,
the daughters of George Meredith. Elizabeth Bennet has but to
speak, and I am at her knees. Ah! these are the creators of
desirable women. They would never have fallen in the mud with
Dumas and poor La Valliere. It is my only consolation that not one
of all of them, except the first, could have plucked at the
moustache of d'Artagnan.

Or perhaps, again, a proportion of readers stumble at the
threshold. In so vast a mansion there were sure to be back stairs
and kitchen offices where no one would delight to linger; but it
was at least unhappy that the vestibule should be so badly lighted;
and until, in the seventeenth chapter, d'Artagnan sets off to seek
his friends, I must confess, the book goes heavily enough. But,
from thenceforward, what a feast is spread! Monk kidnapped;
d'Artagnan enriched; Mazarin's death; the ever delectable adventure
of Belle Isle, wherein Aramis outwits d'Artagnan, with its epilogue
(vol. v. chap. xxviii.), where d'Artagnan regains the moral
superiority; the love adventures at Fontainebleau, with St.
Aignan's story of the dryad and the business of de Guiche, de
Wardes, and Manicamp; Aramis made general of the Jesuits; Aramis at
the bastille; the night talk in the forest of Senart; Belle Isle
again, with the death of Porthos; and last, but not least, the
taming of d'Artagnan the untamable, under the lash of the young
King. What other novel has such epic variety and nobility of
incident? often, if you will, impossible; often of the order of an
Arabian story; and yet all based in human nature. For if you come
to that, what novel has more human nature? not studied with the
microscope, but seen largely, in plain daylight, with the natural
eye? What novel has more good sense, and gaiety, and wit, and
unflagging, admirable literary skill? Good souls, I suppose, must
sometimes read it in the blackguard travesty of a translation. But
there is no style so untranslatable; light as a whipped trifle,
strong as silk; wordy like a village tale; pat like a general's
despatch; with every fault, yet never tedious; with no merit, yet
inimitably right. And, once more, to make an end of commendations,
what novel is inspired with a more unstained or a more wholesome
morality?

Yes; in spite of Miss Yonge, who introduced me to the name of
d'Artagnan only to dissuade me from a nearer knowledge of the man,
I have to add morality. There is no quite good book without a good
morality; but the world is wide, and so are morals. Out of two
people who have dipped into Sir Richard Burton's THOUSAND AND ONE
NIGHTS, one shall have been offended by the animal details; another
to whom these were harmless, perhaps even pleasing, shall yet have
been shocked in his turn by the rascality and cruelty of all the
characters. Of two readers, again, one shall have been pained by
the morality of a religious memoir, one by that of the VICOMTE DE
BRAGELONNE. And the point is that neither need be wrong. We shall
always shock each other both in life and art; we cannot get the sun
into our pictures, nor the abstract right (if there be such a
thing) into our books; enough if, in the one, there glimmer some
hint of the great light that blinds us from heaven; enough if, in
the other, there shine, even upon foul details, a spirit of
magnanimity. I would scarce send to the VICOMTE a reader who was
in quest of what we may call puritan morality. The ventripotent
mulatto, the great cater, worker, earner and waster, the man of
much and witty laughter, the man of the great heart and alas! of
the doubtful honesty, is a figure not yet clearly set before the
world; he still awaits a sober and yet genial portrait; but with
whatever art that may be touched, and whatever indulgence, it will
not be the portrait of a precision. Dumas was certainly not
thinking of himself, but of Planchet, when he put into the mouth of
d'Artagnan's old servant this excellent profession: "MONSIEUR,
J'ETAIS UNE DE CES BONNES PATES D'HOMMES QUE DIEU A FAIT POUR
S'ANIMER PENDANT UN CERTAIN TEMPS ET POUR TROUVER BONNES TOUTES
CHOSES QUI ACCOMPAGNENT LEUR SEJOUR SUR LA TERRE." He was
thinking, as I say, of Planchet, to whom the words are aptly
fitted; but they were fitted also to Planchet's creator; and
perhaps this struck him as he wrote, for observe what follows:
"D'ARTAGNAN S'ASSIT ALORS PRES DE LA FENETRE, ET, CETTE PHILOSOPHIE
DE PLANCHET LUI AYANT PARU SOLIDE, IL Y REVA." In a man who finds
all things good, you will scarce expect much zeal for negative
virtues: the active alone will have a charm for him; abstinence,
however wise, however kind, will always seem to such a judge
entirely mean and partly impious. So with Dumas. Chastity is not
near his heart; nor yet, to his own sore cost, that virtue of
frugality which is the armour of the artist. Now, in the VICOMTE,
he had much to do with the contest of Fouquet and Colbert.
Historic justice should be all upon the side of Colbert, of
official honesty, and fiscal competence.

And Dumas knew it well: three times at least he shows his
knowledge; once it is but flashed upon us and received with the
laughter of Fouquet himself, in the jesting controversy in the
gardens of Saint Mande; once it is touched on by Aramis in the
forest of Senart; in the end, it is set before us clearly in one
dignified speech of the triumphant Colbert. But in Fouquet, the
waster, the lover of good cheer and wit and art, the swift
transactor of much business, "L'HOMME DE BRUIT, L'HOMME DE PLAISIR,
L'HOMME QUI N'EST QUE PARCEQUE LES AUTRES SONT," Dumas saw
something of himself and drew the figure the more tenderly. It is
to me even touching to see how he insists on Fouquet's honour; not
seeing, you might think, that unflawed honour is impossible to
spendthrifts; but rather, perhaps, in the light of his own life,
seeing it too well, and clinging the more to what was left. Honour
can survive a wound; it can live and thrive without a member. The
man rebounds from his disgrace; he begins fresh foundations on the
ruins of the old; and when his sword is broken, he will do
valiantly with his dagger. So it is with Fouquet in the book; so
it was with Dumas on the battlefield of life.

To cling to what is left of any damaged quality is virtue in the
man; but perhaps to sing its praises is scarcely to be called
morality in the writer. And it is elsewhere, it is in the
character of d'Artagnan, that we must look for that spirit of
morality, which is one of the chief merits of the book, makes one
of the main joys of its perusal, and sets it high above more
popular rivals. Athos, with the coming of years, has declined too
much into the preacher, and the preacher of a sapless creed; but
d'Artagnan has mellowed into a man so witty, rough, kind and
upright, that he takes the heart by storm. There is nothing of the
copy-book about his virtues, nothing of the drawing-room in his
fine, natural civility; he will sail near the wind; he is no
district visitor - no Wesley or Robespierre; his conscience is void
of all refinement whether for good or evil; but the whole man rings
true like a good sovereign. Readers who have approached the
VICOMTE, not across country, but by the legitimate, five-volumed
avenue of the MOUSQUETAIRES and VINGT ANS APRES, will not have
forgotten d'Artagnan's ungentlemanly and perfectly improbable trick
upon Milady. What a pleasure it is, then, what a reward, and how
agreeable a lesson, to see the old captain humble himself to the
son of the man whom he had personated! Here, and throughout, if I
am to choose virtues for myself or my friends, let me choose the
virtues of d'Artagnan. I do not say there is no character as well
drawn in Shakespeare; I do say there is none that I love so wholly.
There are many spiritual eyes that seem to spy upon our actions -
eyes of the dead and the absent, whom we imagine to behold us in
our most private hours, and whom we fear and scruple to offend: our
witnesses and judges. And among these, even if you should think me
childish, I must count my d'Artagnan - not d'Artagnan of the
memoirs whom Thackeray pretended to prefer - a preference, I take
the freedom of saying, in which he stands alone; not the d'Artagnan
of flesh and blood, but him of the ink and paper; not Nature's, but
Dumas's. And this is the particular crown and triumph of the
artist - not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to
convince, but to enchant.

There is yet another point in the VICOMTE which I find
incomparable. I can recall no other work of the imagination in
which the end of life is represented with so nice a tact. I was
asked the other day if Dumas made me laugh or cry. Well in this my
late fifth reading of the VICOMTE, I did laugh once at the small
Coquelin de Voliere business, and was perhaps a thought surprised
at having done so: to make up for it, I smiled continually. But
for tears, I do not know. If you put a pistol to my throat, I must
own the tale trips upon a very airy foot - within a measurable
distance of unreality; and for those who like the big guns to be
discharged and the great passions to appear authentically, it may
even seem inadequate from first to last. Not so to me; I cannot
count that a poor dinner, or a poor book, where I meet with those I
love; and, above all, in this last volume, I find a singular charm
of spirit. It breathes a pleasant and a tonic sadness, always
brave, never hysterical. Upon the crowded, noisy life of this long
tale, evening gradually falls; and the lights are extinguished, and
the heroes pass away one by one. One by one they go, and not a
regret embitters their departure; the young succeed them in their
places, Louis Quatorze is swelling larger and shining broader,
another generation and another France dawn on the horizon; but for
us and these old men whom we have loved so long, the inevitable end
draws near and is welcome. To read this well is to anticipate
experience. Ah, if only when these hours of the long shadows fall
for us in reality and not in figure, we may hope to face them with
a mind as quiet!

But my paper is running out; the siege guns are firing on the Dutch
frontier; and I must say adieu for the fifth time to my old comrade
fallen on the field of glory. ADIEU - rather AU REVOIR! Yet a
sixth time, dearest d'Artagnan, we shall kidnap Monk and take horse
together for Belle Isle.

Robert Louis Stevenson