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 N»grier, 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 Th»rÀse Infirmary--visited the poor, succoured the sick, superintended crÕches, 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. R»camier 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.