Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE contemplation of my fine little regiment of French military memoirs had brought me to the question of Napoleon himself, and you see that I have a very fair line dealing with him also. There is Scott's life, which is not entirely a success. His ink was too precious to be shed in such a venture. But here are the three volumes of the physician Bourrienne that Bourrienne who knew him so well. Does any one ever know a man so well as his doctor? They are quite excellent and admirably translated. Meneval also — the patient Meneval who wrote for untold hours to dictation at ordinary talking speed, and yet was expected to be legible and to make no mistakes. At least his master could not fairly criticise his legibility, for is it not on record that when Napoleon's holograph account of an engagement was laid before the President of the Senate, the worthy man thought that it was a drawn plan of the battle? Meneval survived his master and has left an excellent and intimate account of him. There is Constant's account, also written from that point of view in which it is proverbial that no man is a hero. But of all the vivid terrible pictures of Napoleon the most haunting is by a man who never saw him and whose book was not directly dealing with him. I mean Taine's account of him, in the first volume of "Les Origines de la France Contemporaine." You can never forget it when once you have read it. He produces his effect in a wonderful, and to me a novel, way. He does not, for example, say in mere crude words that Napoleon had a more than mediæval Italian cunning. He presents a succession of documents — gives a series of contemporary instances to prove it. Then, having got that fixed in your head by blow after blow, he passes on to another phase of his character, his coldhearted amorousness, his power of work, his spoiled child wilfulness, or some other quality, and piles up his illustrations of that. Instead, for example, of saying that the Emperor had a marvelous memory for detail, we have the account of the head of Artillery laying the list of all the guns in France before his master, who looked over it and remarked, "Yes, but you have omitted two in a fort near Dieppe." So the man is gradually etched in with indelible ink. It is a wonderful figure of which you are conscious in the end, the figure of an archangel, but surely of an archangel of darkness.
We will, after Taine's method, take one fact and let it speak for itself. Napoleon left a legacy in a codicil to his will to a man who tried to assassinate Wellington. There is the mediæval Italian again! He was no more a Corsican than the Englishman born in India is a Hindoo. Read the lives of the Borgias, the Sforzas, the Medicis, and of all the lustful, cruel, broad-minded, art-loving, talented despots of the little Italian States, including Genoa, from which the Buonapartes migrated. There at once you get the real descent of the man, with all the stigmata clear upon him — the outward calm, the inward passion, the layer of snow above the volcano, everything which characterized the old despots of his native land, the pupils of Machiavelli, but all raised to the dimensions of genius. You can whitewash him as you may, but you will never get a layer thick enough to cover the stain of that cold-blooded deliberate endorsement of his noble adversary's assassination.
Another book which gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of the man is this one — the Memoirs of Madame de Remusat. She was in daily contact with him at the Court, and she studied him with those quick critical eyes of a clever woman, the most unerring things in life when they are not blinded by love. If you have read those pages, you feel that you know him as if you had yourself seen and talked with him. His singular mixture of the small and the great, his huge sweep of imagination, his very limited knowledge, his intense egotism, his impatience of obstacles, his boorishness, his gross impertinence to women, his diabolical playing upon the weak side of every one with whom he came in contact — they make up among them one of the most striking of historical portraits.
Most of my books deal with the days of his greatness, but here, you see, is a three-volume account of those weary years at St. Helena. Who can help pitying the mewed eagle? And yet if you play the great game you must pay a stake. This was the same man who had a royal duke shot in a ditch because he was a danger to his throne. Was not he himself a danger to every throne in Europe? Why so harsh a retreat as St. Helena, you say? Remember that he had been put in a milder one before, that he had broken away from it, and that the lives of fifty thousand men had paid for the mistaken leniency. All this is forgotten now, and the pathetic picture of the modern Prometheus chained to his rock and devoured by the vultures of his own bitter thoughts, is the one impression which the world has retained. It is always so much easier to follow the emotions than the reason, especially where a cheap magnanimity and second-hand generosity are involved. But reason must still insist that Europe's treatment of Napoleon was not vindictive, and that Hudson Lowe was a man who tried to live up to the trust which had been committed to him by his country.
It was certainly not a post from which any one would hope for credit. If he were slack and easy-going all would be well. But there would be the chance of a second flight with its consequences. If he were strict and assiduous he would be assuredly represented as a petty tyrant. "I am glad when you are on outpost," said Lowe's general in some campaign, "for then I am sure of a sound rest." He was on outpost at St. Helena, and because he was true to his duties Europe (France included) had a sound rest. But he purchased it at the price of his own reputation. The greatest schemer in the world, having nothing else on which to vent his energies, turned them all to the task of vilifying his guardian. It was natural enough that he who had never known control should not brook it now. It is natural also that sentimentalists who have not thought of the details should take the Emperor's point of view. What is deplorable, however, is that our own people should be misled by one-sided accounts, and that they should throw to the wolves a man who was serving his country in a post of anxiety and danger, with such responsibility upon him as few could ever have endured. Let them remember Montholon's remark: "An angel from heaven would not have satisfied us." Let them recall also that Lowe with ample material never once troubled to state his own case. "Je fais mon devoir et suis indifférent pour le reste," said he, in his interview with the Emperor. They were no idle words.
Apart from this particular epoch, French literature, which is so rich in all its branches, is richest of all in its memoirs. Whenever there was anything of interest going forward there was always some kindly gossip who knew all about it, and was ready to set it down for the benefit of posterity. Our own history has not nearly enough of these charming sidelights. Look at our sailors in the Napoleonic wars, for example. They played an epoch-making part. For nearly twenty years Freedom was a Refugee upon the seas. Had our navy been swept away, then all Europe would have been one organized despotism. At times everybody was against us, fighting against their own direct interests under the pressure of that terrible hand. We fought on the waters with the French, with the Spaniards, with the Danes, with the Russians, with the Turks, even with our American kinsmen. Middies grew into post-captains, and admirals into dotards during that prolonged struggle. And what have we in literature to show for it all? Marryat's novels, many of which are founded upon personal experience, Nelson's and Collingwood's letters, Lord Cochrane's biography — that is about all. I wish we had more of Collingwood, for he wielded a fine pen. Do you remember the sonorous opening of his Trafalgar message to his captains? —
"The ever to be lamented death of Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, the Commander-in-Chief, who fell in the action of the 21st, in the arms of Victory, covered with glory, whose memory will be ever dear to the British Navy and the British Nation; whose zeal for the honor of his king and for the interests of his country will be ever held up as a shining example for a British seaman — leaves to me a duty to return thanks, etc., etc."
It was a worthy sentence to carry such a message, written too in a raging tempest, with sinking vessels all around him. But in the main it is a poor crop from such a soil. No doubt our sailors were too busy to do much writing, but none the less one wonders that among so many thousands there were not some to understand what a treasure their experiences would be to their descendants. I can call to mind the old three-deckers which used to rot in Portsmouth Harbor, and I have often thought, could they tell their tales, what a missing chapter in our literature they could supply.
It is not only in Napoleonic memoirs that the French are so fortunate. The almost equally interesting age of Louis XIV. produced an even more wonderful series. If you go deeply into the subject you are amazed by their number, and you feel as if every one at the Court of the Roi Soleil had done what he (or she) could to give away their neighbors. Just to take the more obvious, there are St. Simon's Memoirs — those in themselves give us a more comprehensive and intimate view of the age than anything I know of which treats of the times of Queen Victoria. Then there is St. Evremond, who is nearly as complete. Do you want the view of a woman of quality? There are the letters of Madame de Sévigné (eight volumes of them), perhaps the most wonderful series of letters that any woman has ever penned. Do you want the confessions of a rake of the period? Here are the too salacious memoirs of the mischievous Due de Roquelaure, not reading for the nursery certainly, not even for the boudoir, but a strange and very intimate picture of the times. All these books fit into each other, for the characters of the one reappear in the others. You come to know them quite familiarly before you have finished, their loves and their hates, their duels, their intrigues, and their ultimate fortunes. If you do not care to go so deeply into it you have only to put Julia Pardoe's four-volumed "Court of Louis XIV." upon your shelf, and you will find a very admirable condensation — or a distillation rather, for most of the salt is left behind. There is another book too — that big one on the bottom shelf — which holds it all between its brown and gold covers. An extravagance that — for it cost me some sovereigns — but it is something to have the portraits of all that wonderful galaxy, of Louis, of the devout Maintenon, of the frail Montespan, of Bossuet, Fénelon, Moliere, Racine, Pascal, Condé, Turenne, and all the saints and sinners of the age. If you want to make yourself a present, and chance upon a copy of "The Court and Times of Louis XIV.," you will never think that your money has been wasted.
Well, I have bored you unduly, my patient friend, with my love of memoirs, Napoleonic and otherwise, which give a touch of human interest to the arid records of history. Not that history should be arid. It ought to be the most interesting subject upon earth, the story of ourselves, of our forefathers, of the human race, the events which made us what we are, and wherein, if Weismann's views hold the field, some microscopic fraction of this very body which for the instant we chance to inhabit may have borne a part. But unfortunately the power of accumulating knowledge and that of imparting it are two very different things, and the uninspired historian becomes merely the dignified compiler of an enlarged almanac. Worst of all, when a man does come along with fancy and imagination, who can breathe the breath of life into the dry bones, it is the fashion for the dryasdusts to belabor him, as one who has wandered away from the orthodox path and must necessarily be inaccurate. So Froude was attacked. So also Macaulay in his day. But both will be read when the pedants are forgotten. If I were asked my very ideal of how history should be written, I think I should point to those two rows on yonder shelf, the one McCarthy's "History of Our Own Times," the other Lecky's "History of England in the Eighteenth Century." Curious that each should have been written by an Irishman, and that though of opposite politics and living in an age when Irish affairs have caused such bitterness, both should be conspicuous not merely for all literary graces, but for that broad toleration which sees every side of a question, and handles every problem from the point of view of the philosophic observer and never of the sectarian partisan.
By the way, talking of history, have you read Parkman's works? He was, I think, among the very greatest of the historians, and yet one seldom hears his name. A New England man by birth, and writing principally of the early history of the American Settlements and of French Canada, it is perhaps excusable that he should have no great vogue in England, but even among Americans I have found many who have not read him. There are four of his volumes in green and gold down yonder. "The Jesuits in Canada," and "Frontenac," but there are others, all of them well worth reading, "Pioneers of France," "Montcalm and Wolfe," "Discovery of the Great West," etc. Some day I hope to have a complete set.
Taking only that one book, "The Jesuits in Canada," it is worth a reputation in itself. And how noble a tribute is this which a man of Puritan blood pays to that wonderful Order!
He shows how in the heyday of their enthusiasm these brave soldiers of the Cross invaded Canada as they did China and every other place where danger was to be faced, and a horrible death to be found. I don't care what faith a man may profess, or whether he be a Christian at all, but he cannot read these true records without feeling that the very highest that man has ever evolved in sanctity and devotion was to be found among these marvelous men. They were indeed the pioneers of civilization, for apart from doctrines they brought among the savages the highest European culture, and in their own deportment an object-lesson of how chastely, austerely, and nobly men could live. France has sent myriads of brave men on to her battlefields, but in all her long record of glory I do not think that she can point to any courage so steadfast and so absolutely heroic as that of the men of the Iroquois Mission.
How nobly they lived makes the body of the book, how serenely they died forms the end to it. It is a tale which cannot even now be read without a shudder — a nightmare of horrors. Fanaticism may brace a man to hurl himself into oblivion, as the Mandi's hordes did before Khartoum, but one feels that it is at least a higher development of such emotion, where men slowly and in cold blood endure so thankless a life, and welcome so dreadful an end. Every faith can equally boast its martyrs — a painful thought, since it shows how many thousands must have given their blood for error — but in testifying to their faith these brave men have testified to something more important still, to the subjugation of the body and to the absolute supremacy of the dominating spirit.
The story of Father Jogue is but one of many, and yet it is worth recounting, as showing the spirit of the men. He also was on the Iroquois Mission, and was so tortured and mutilated by his sweet parishioners that the very dogs used to howl at his distorted figure. He made his way back to France, not for any reason of personal rest or recuperation, but because he needed a special dispensation to say Mass. The Catholic Church has a regulation that a priest shall not be deformed, so that the savages with their knives had wrought better than they knew. He received his dispensation and was sent for by Louis XIV., who asked him what he could do for him. No doubt the assembled courtiers expected to hear him ask for the next vacant Bishopric. What he did actually ask for, as the highest favor, was to be sent back to the Iroquois Mission, where the savages signalized his arrival by burning him alive.
Parkman is worth reading, if it were only for his account of the Indians. Perhaps the very strangest thing about them, and the most unaccountable, is their small numbers. The Iroquois were one of the most formidable of tribes. They were of the Five Nations, whose scalping-parties wandered over an expanse of thousands of square miles. Yet there is good reason to doubt whether the whole five nations could have put as many thousand warriors in the field. It was the same with all the other tribes of North Americans, both in the east, the north, and the west. Their numbers were always insignificant. And yet they had that huge country to themselves, the best of climates, and plenty of food. Why was it that they did not people it thickly? It may be taken as a striking example of the purpose and design which run through the affairs of men, that at the very moment when the old world was ready to overflow the new world was empty to receive it. Had North America been peopled as China is peopled, the Europeans might have founded some settlements, but could never have taken possession of the Continent. Buffon has made the striking remark that the creative power appeared to have never had great vigor in America. He alluded to the abundance of the flora and fauna as compared with that of other great divisions of the earth's surface. Whether the numbers of the Indians are an illustration of the same fact, or whether there is some special cause, is beyond my very modest scientific attainments. When one reflects upon the countless herds of bison which used to cover the Western plains, or marks in the present day the race statistics of the French Canadians at one end of the Continent, and of the Southern negro at the other, it seems absurd to suppose that there is any geographical reason against Nature being as prolific here as elsewhere. However, these be deeper waters, and with your leave we will get back into my usual six-inch wading-depth once more.