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Chapter 21

CHATEAUBRIAND.

July 5, 1848.

Chateaubriand is dead. One of the splendours of this
century has passed away.

He was seventy-nine years old according to his own
reckoning; according to the calculation of his old friend
M. Bertin, senior, he was eighty years of age. But he had
a weakness, said M. Bertin, and that was that he insisted
that he was born not in 1768, but in 1769, because that
was the year of Napoleon's birth.

He died yesterday, July 4, at 8 o'clock in the morning. For
five or six months he had been suffering from
paralysis which had almost destroyed his brain, and for
five days from inflammation of the lungs, which abruptly
snuffed out his life.

M. Ampere announced the news to the Academy, which
thereupon decided to adjourn.

I quitted the National Assembly, where a questor to succeed
General Négrier, who was killed in June, was being
nominated, and went to M. de Chateaubriand's house, No.
110, Rue du Bac.

I was received by M. de Preuille, son-in-law of his
nephew. I entered Chateaubriand's chamber.

He was lying upon his bed, a little iron bedstead with
white curtains round it and surmounted by an iron curtain
ring of somewhat doubtful taste. The face was uncovered;
the brow, the nose, the closed eyes, bore that expression
of nobleness which had marked him in life, and which was
enhanced by the grave majesty of death. The mouth and
chin were hidden by a cambric handkerchief. On his head
was a white cotton nightcap which, however, allowed the
grey hair on his temples to be seen. A white cravat rose
to his ears. His tawny visage appeared more severe amid
all this whiteness. Beneath the sheet his narrow, hollow
chest and his thin legs could be discerned.

The shutters of the windows giving on to the garden were
closed. A little daylight entered through the half-opened
door of the salon. The chamber and the face were illumined
by four tapers which burned at the corners of a table
placed near the bed. On this table were a silver crucifix,
a vase filled with holy water, and an aspergillum. Beside
it a priest was praying.

Behind the priest a large brown-coloured screen hid the
fireplace, above which the mantel-glass and a few engravings
of churches and cathedrals were visible.

At Chateaubriand's feet, in the angle formed by the bed
and the wall of the room, were two wooden boxes, placed
one upon the other. The largest I was told contained the
complete manuscript of his Memoirs, in forty-eight
copybooks. Towards the last there had been such disorder in
the house that one of the copybooks had been found that
very morning by M. de Preuille in a dark and dirty closet
where the lamps were cleaned.

A few tables, a wardrobe, and a few blue and green
armchairs in disorder encumbered more than they furnished
the room.

The adjoining salon, the furniture of which was hidden
under unbleached covers, contained nothing more remarkable
than a marble bust of Henry V. and a full-length
statuette of Chateaubriand, which were on the mantelpiece,
and on each side of a window plaster busts of Mme.
de Berri and her infant child.

Towards the close of his life Chateaubriand was almost
in his second childhood. His mind was only lucid for about
two or three hours a day, at least so M. Pilorge, his former
secretary, told me.

When in February he was apprised of the proclamation
of the Republic he merely remarked: "Will you be any
the happier for it?"

When his wife died he attended the funeral service and
returned laughing heartily--which, said Pilorge, was a
proof that he was of weak mind. "A proof that he was in
his right mind!" affirmed Edouard Bertin.

Mme. de Chateaubriand's benevolence was official, which
did not prevent her from being a shrew at home. She
founded a hospice--the Marie Thérèse Infirmary--visited
the poor, succoured the sick, superintended crêches,
gave alms and prayed; at the same time she was harsh
towards her husband, her relatives, her friends, and her
servants, and was sour-tempered, stern, prudish, and a
backbiter. God on high will take these things into account.

She was ugly, pitted with small-pox, had an enormous
mouth, little eyes, was insignificant in appearance, and
acted the ~grande dame~, although she was rather the wife
of a great man than of a great lord. By birth she was only
the daughter of a ship-owner of Saint Malo. M. de
Chateaubriand feared, detested, and cajoled her.

She took advantage of this to make herself insupportable
to mere human beings. I have never known anybody less
approachable or whose reception of callers was more
forbidding. I was a youth when I went to M. de
Chateaubriand's. She received me very badly, or rather she
did not receive me at all. I entered and bowed, but Mme.
de Chateaubriand did not see me. I was scared out of my
wits. These terrors made my visits to M. de Chateaubriand
veritable nightmares which oppressed me for fifteen days
and fifteen nights in advance. Mme. de Chateaubriand hated
whoever visited her husband except through the doors that she
opened. She had not presented me to him, therefore she
hated me. I was perfectly odious to her, and she showed it.

Only once in my life and in hers did Mme. de Chateaubriand
receive me graciously. One day I entered, poor
little devil, as usual most unhappy, with affrighted
schoolboy air and twisting my hat about in my hands. M. de
Chateaubriand at that time still lived at No. 27, Rue Saint
Dominique.

I was frightened at everything there, even at the servant
who opened the door. Well, I entered. Mme. de Chateaubriand
was in the salon leading to her husband's study. It
was a summer morning. There was a ray of sunshine on
the floor, and what dazzled and astonished me much more
than the ray of sunshine was a smile on Mme. de Chateaubriand's
face. "Is that you, Monsieur Victor Hugo?" she said. I
thought I was in the midst of a dream of the
_Arabian Nights_. Mme. de Chateaubriand smiling!
Mme. de Chateaubriand knowing my name, addressing me by
name! It was the first time that she
had deigned to notice my existence. I bowed so low
that my head nearly touched the floor. She went on: "I
am delighted to see you." I could not believe my ears.
"I was expecting you," she continued. "It is a long time
since you called." I thought then that there certainly
must be something the matter either with her or myself.
However, she pointed to a rather large object of some kind
on a little table, and added: "I reserved this for you. I
felt sure you would like to have it. You know what it is?"
It was a pile of packets of chocolate made by some religious
institution. She had taken the stuff under her protection
and the proceeds of its sale were to be devoted to charitable
works. I took it and paid for it. At that time I had to live
for fifteen months on 800 francs. The Catholic chocolate
and Mme. de Chateaubriand's smile cost me 15 francs; that
is to say, a fortnight's board. Fifteen francs meant as much
to me then as 1,500 francs does now.

It was the most costly smile of a woman that ever was
sold to me.

M. de Chateaubriand, at the beginning of 1847, was a
paralytic; Mme. Récamier was blind. Every day at 3
o'clock M. de Chateaubriand was carried to Mme. Recamier's
bedside. It was touching and sad. The woman
who could no longer see stretched forth her hands
gropingly towards the man who could no longer feel; their
hands met. God be praised! Life was dying, but love still
lived.

Victor Hugo