( Originally Published 1914 )
From "Parisian Caricature," first published in the London and West minter Review for April, 1839 (Volume 32, No. 2, pp. 282-305)
AMONG the various characters of roguery which the French satirists have amused themselves by depicting, there is one of which the greatness (using the word in the sense which Mr. Jonathan Wild gave to it) so far exceeds that of all others, embracing, as it does, all in turn, that it has come to be considered the type of roguery in general; and now, just as all the political squibs were made to come of old from the lips of Pasquin, all the reflections on the prevailing cant, knavery, quackery, humbug, are put into the mouth of Monsieur Robert Macaire.
A play was written, some twenty years since, called the "Auberge des Adrets, " in which the characters of two robbers escaped from the galleys were introduced —Robert Macaire, the clever rogue above mentioned, and Bertrand, the stupid rogue, his friend, accomplice, butt, and scapegoat, on all occasions of danger. It is needless to describe the play—a witless performance enough, of which the joke was Macaire's exaggerated style of conversation, a farrago of all sorts of high-flown sentiments such as the French love to indulge incontrasted with his actions, which were philosophically unscrupulous, and his appearance, which was most picturesquely sordid. The play had been acted, we believe, and forgotten, when a very clever actor, M. Frederic Lemaitre, took upon himself the performance of the character of Robert Macaire, and looked, spoke, and acted it to such admirable perfection, that the whole town rung with applauses of the performance, and the caricaturists delighted to copy his singular figure and costume. M. Robert Macaire appears in a most picturesque green coat, with a variety of rents and patches, a pair of crimson pantaloons ornamented in the same way, enormous whiskers and ringlets, an enormous stock and shirt-frill, as dirty and ragged as stock and shirt-frill can be, the relic of a hat very gaily cocked over one eye, and a patch to take away somewhat from the brightness of the other—these are the principal pieces of his costume—a snuff-box like a creaking warming-pan, a handkerchief hanging together by a miracle, and a switch of about the thickness of a man's thigh, formed the ornaments of this exquisite personage. He is a compound of Fielding's "Blueskin" and Goldsmith's "Beau Tibbs." He has the dirt and dandyism of the one, with the ferocity of the other : sometimes he is made to swindle, but where he can get a shilling more, M. Macaire will murder without scruple : he performs one and the other act (or any in the scale between them) with a similar bland imperturbability, and ac-companies his actions with such philosophical remarks as may be expected from a person of his talents, his energies, his amiable life and character.
Bertrand is the simple recipient of Macaire's jokes, and makes vicarious atonement for his crimes, acting, in fact, the part which pantaloon performs in the pantomime, who is entirely under the fatal influence of clown. He is quite as much a rogue as that gentleman, but he has not his genius and courage. So, in pantomimes (it may, doubtless, have been remarked by the reader), clown always leaps first, pantaloon following after, more clumsily and timidly than his bold and accomplished friend and guide. Whatever blows are destined for clown, fall, by some means of ill-luck, upon the pate of pantaloon; whenever the clown robs, the stolen articles are sure to be found in his companion's pocket; and thus exactly Robert Macaire and his companion Bertrand are made to go through the world; both swindlers, but the one more accomplished than the other. Both robbing all the world, and Robert robbing his friend, and, in the event of danger, leaving him faithfully in the lurch. There is, in the two characters, some grotesque good for the spectator —a kind of "Beggars' Opera" moral.
Ever since Robert, with his dandified rags and airs, his cane and snuff-box, and Bertrand, with torn surtout and all-absorbing pocket, have appeared on the stage, they have been popular with the Parisians; and with these two types of clever and stupid knavery, M. Philipon and his companion Daumier have created a world of pleasant satire upon all the prevailing abuses of the day.
Almost the first figure that these audacious caricaturists dared to depict was a political one : in Macaire's red breeches and tattered coat appeared no less a personage than the King himself—the old Poire—in a country of humbugs and swindlers the facile princeps; fit to govern, as he is deeper than all the rogues in his dominions. Bertrand was opposite to him, and having listened with delight and reverence to some tale of knavery truly royal, was exclaiming, with a look and voice expressive of the most intense admiration,
"AH VIEUX BLAGUEUR ! VA ! "—the word blague is untranslatable—it means French humbug as distinct from all other; and only those who know the value of an epigram in France, an epigram so wonderfully just, a little word so curiously comprehensive, can fancy the kind of rage and rapture with which it was received. It was a blow that shook the whole dynasty. Thersites had there given such a wound to Ajax, as Hector in arms could scarcely have inflicted : a blow sufficient almost to create the madness to which the fabulous hero of Homer and Ovid fell a prey.
Not long, however, was French caricature allowed to attack personages so illustrious: the September laws came, and henceforth no more epigrams were launched against politics; the caricaturists were compelled to confine their satire to subjects and characters that had nothing to do with the State. The Duke of Orleans was no longer to figure in lithography as the fantastic Prince Rosolin; no longer were multitudes (in chalk) to shelter under the enormous shadow of M. d'Argout's nose; Marshal Lobau's squirt was hung up in peace, and M. Thiers' pigmy figure and round spectacled face were no more to appear in print. Robert Macaire was driven out of the Chambers and the Palace—his remarks were a great deal too appropriate and too severe for the ears of the great men who congregated in those places.
The Chambers and the Palace were shut to him; but the rogue, driven out of his rogue's paradise, saw that the world was all before him where to choose," and found no lack of opportunities for exercising his wit. There was the Bar, with its roguish practitioners, rascally attorneys, stupid juries, and forsworn judges; there was the Bourse, with all its gambling, swindling, and hoaxing, its cheats and its dupes; the Medical Profession, and the quacks who ruled it, alternately ; the Stage, and the cant that was prevalent there ; the Fashion, and its thousand follies and extravagances. Robert Macaire had all these to exploiter. Of all the empire, through all the ranks, professions, the lies, crimes, and absurdities of men, he may make sport at will; of all except of a certain class. Like Bluebeard's wife, he may see everything, but is bidden to beware of the blue chamber. Robert is more wise than Bluebeard's wife, and knows that it would cost him his head to enter it. Robert, therefore, keeps aloof for the moment. Would there be any use in his martyrdom l Bluebeard cannot live for ever ; perhaps, even now, those are on their way (one sees a suspicious cloud of dust or two) that are to destroy him.
Not being endowed with patrimonial wealth, but compelled to exercise their genius to obtain distinction, or even subsistence, we see Messrs. Bertrand and Macaire, by turns, adopting all trades and professions, and exercising each with their own peculiar ingenuity. As public men, we have spoken already of their appearance in one or two important characters, and stated that the Government grew fairly jealous of them, excluding them from office, as the Whigs did Lord Brougham. As private individuals, they are made to distinguish themselves as the founders of journals, sociétés en commandite (companies of which the members are irresponsible beyond the amount of their shares), and all sorts of commercial speculations, requiring intelligence and honesty on the part of the directors, confidence and liberal disbursements from the shareholders.
These are, among the French, so numerous, and have been of late years (in the shape of Newspaper Companies, Bitumen Companies, Galvanized-Iron Companies, Railroad Companies, etc.) pursued with such a blind furor and lust of gain, by that easily excited and imaginative people, that, as may be imagined, the satirist has found plenty of occasion for remark, and M. Macaire and his friend innumerable opportunities for exercising their talents.
Accordingly Messrs. Macaire and Bertrand are made the heroes of many speculations of the kind. In almost the first print of our collection, Robert discourses to Bertrand of his projects. "Bertrand," says the disinterested admirer of talent and enterprise, '' j'adore l'industrie. Si tu veux, nous créons une banque, mais là, une vraie banque : capital cent mil-lions de millions, cent milliards de milliards d'actions. Nous enfoncons la banque de France, les banquiers, les banquistes; nous enfoncons tout le monde." "Oui," says Bertrand, very calm and stupid, "mais les gendarmes?" "Que tu es bete, Bertrand : est-ce qu'on arrete un millionnaire ? " Such is the key to M. Macaire's philosophy; and a wise creed too, as times go.
Acting on these principles, Robert appears soon after; he has not created a bank, but a journal. He sits in a chair of state, and discourses to a shareholder. Bertrand, calm and stupid as before, stands humbly behind. "Sir," says the editor of La Blague, journal quotidienne, "our profits arise from a new combination. The journal costs twenty francs; we sell it for twenty-three and a half. A million subscribers make three millions and a half of profits; there are my figures ; contradict me by figures, or I will bring an action for libel." At Plate 33, Robert is still a journalist ; he brings to the editor of a paper an article of his composition, a violent attack on a law. "My dear M. Macaire," says the editor, "this must be changed; we must praise this law." "Bon, bon!" says our versatile Macaire. "Je vais retoucher ca, et je vous fais en faveur de la loi un article mousseux."
When he has done with newspapers, Robert Macaire begins to distinguish himself on 'Change, as a creator of companies, a vendor of shares, or a dabbler in foreign stock. "Buy my coalmine shares," shouts Robert; "gold mines, silver mines, diamond mines, `sont de la pot-bouille de la, ratatouille en comparaison de ma houille.' " "Look," says he, on another occasion, to a very timid, open-countenanced client, "you have a property to sell ! I have found the very man, a rich capitalist, a fellow whose bills are better than bank-notes." His client sells ; the bills are taken in payment, and signed by that respectable capitalist, Monsieur de St. Bertrand. At Plate 81, we find him inditing a circular letter to all the world, running thus: "Sir,—I regret to say that your application for shares in the Consolidated European Incombustible Blacking Association cannot be complied with, as all the shares of the C. E. I. B. A. were disposed of on the day they were issued. I have, nevertheless, registered your name, and in case a second series should be put forth, I shall have the honour of immediately giving you notice. I am, sir, yours, etc., the Director, Robert Macaire. "—"Print 300,000 of these," he says to Bertrand, "and poison all France with them." As usual, the stupid Bertrand remonstrates : "But we have not sold a single share ; you have not a penny in your pocket, and—" "Bertrand, you are an ass; do as I bid you."
When Macaire has sufficiently exploité the Bourse, whether as a gambler in the public funds or other companies, he sagely perceives that it is time to turn to some other profession, and, providing himself with a black gown, proposes blandly to Bertrand to set up—a new religion. "Mon ami," says the repentant sinner, "le temps de la commandite va passer, mais les badauds ne passeront pas." (0 rare sentence! it should be written in letters of gold!) "Occupons-nous de ce qui est éternel. Si nous fassions une religion?" On which M. Bertrand remarks, "A religion ! what the devil—a religion is not an easy thing to make." But Macaire's receipt is easy. "Get a gown, take a shop," he says, "borrow some chairs, preach about Napoleon, or the discovery of America, or Moliere—and there 's a religion for you."
The above is the Reverend M. Macaire's solitary exploit as a spiritual swindler : as Maitre Macaire in the courts of law, as avocat, avoue—in a humbler capacity even, as a prisoner at the bar, he distinguishes himself greatly, as may be imagined. On one occasion we find the learned gentleman humanely visiting an unfortunate détenu—no other person, in fact, than his friend M. Bertrand, who has fallen into some trouble, and is awaiting the sentence of the law. He begins :
"Mon cher Bertrand, donne moi cent ems, je te fais acquitter d'emblée."
"J'ai pas d'argent."
"He bien, donne moi cent francs."
"Pas le sou."
"Tu n'as pas dix francs?"
"Pas un liard."
"Alors donne moi tes bottes, je plaiderai la circonstance attenuante."
The manner in which Maitre Macaire soars from the cent écus (a high point already) to the sublime of the boots, is in the best comic style. In another instance he pleads before a judge, and, mistaking his client, pleads for defendant, instead of plaintiff. "The infamy of the plaintiff's character, my luds, renders his testimony on such a charge as this wholly unavailing." "M. Macaire, M. Macaire," cries the attorney, in a fright, "you are for the plaintiff !" "This, my lords, is what the defendant will say. This is the line of defence which the opposite party intend to pursue ; as if slanders like these could weigh with an enlightened jury, or injure the spotless reputation of my client!"
M. Macaire is more skilful in love than in law, and appears once or twice in a very amiable light while under the influence of the tender passion. We find him at the head of one of those useful establishments unknown in our country—a Bureau de Mariage : half a dozen of such places are daily advertised in the journals : and "une veuve de trente ans ayant une fortune de deux cent mille francs," or "une demoiselle de quinze ans, jolie, d'une famille tres distinguée, qui possède trente mille livres de rentes, "—continually, in this kind-hearted way, are offering themselves to the public : sometimes it is a gentleman, with a "physique agréable,—des talens de société"—and a place under Government, who makes a sacrifice of himself in a similar manner. In our little historical gallery we find this philanthropic anti-Malthusian at the head of an establishment of this kind, introducing a very meek, simple-looking bachelor to some distinguished ladies of his connoissance. "Let me present you, sir, to Madame de St. Bertrand" (it is our old friend), "veuve de la grande armée, et Mdlle. Eloa de Worm-spire. Ces dames brulent d'envie de faire votre connoissance. Je les ai invitées à diner chez vous ce soir : vous nous menerez à l'opera, et nous ferons une petite partie d'écarté. Tenez vous bien, M. Gobard ! ces dames ont des projets sur vous !"
Happy Gobard ! happy system, which can thus bring the pure and loving together, and acts as the best ally of Hymen ! The announcement of the rank and titles of Madame de St. Bertrand—"veuve de la grande armée "—is very happy. "La grande armée" has been a father to more orphans, and a husband to more widows, than it ever made. Mistresses of cafes, old governesses, keepers of boarding-houses, genteel beggars, and ladies of lower rank still, have this favourite pedigree. They have all had malheurs (what kind it is needless to particularize), they are all connected with the grand homme, and their fathers were all colonels.
The male beggar of fashion is not so well known among us as in Paris, where street-doors are open; six or eight families live in a house; and the gentleman who earns his livelihood by this profession can make half-a-dozen visits without the trouble of knocking from house to house, and the pain of being observed by the whole street, while the footman is examining him from the area. Some few may be seen in England about the inns of court, where the locality is favourable (where, however, the owners of the chambers are not proverbially soft of heart, so that the harvest must be poor) ; but Paris is full of such adventurers,—fat, smooth-tongued, and well dressed, with gloves and gilt-headed canes, who would be insulted almost by the offer of silver, and expect your gold as their right. Among these, of course, our friend Robert plays his part; and an excellent engraving represents him, snuff-box in hand, advancing to an old gentleman, whom, by his poodle, his powdered head, and his drivelling, stupid look, one knows to be a Carlist of the old regime. "I beg pardon," says Robert; "is it really yourself to whom I have the honour of speaking?"—"It is." "Do you take snuff ? "—"I thank you." "Sir, I have had misfortunes—I want assistance. I am a Vendéan of illustrious birth. You know the family of Macairbec—we are of Brest. My grandfather served the King in his galleys; my father and I belong, also, to the marine. Unfortunate suits at law have plunged us into difficulties, and I do not hesitate to ask you for the succour of ten francs."—"Sir, I never give to those I don't know. "—"Right, sir, perfectly right. Perhaps you will have the kindness to lend me ten francs?"
In speaking of M. Macaire and his adventures, we have managed so entirely to convince ourselves of the reality of the personage, that we have quite forgotten to speak of Messrs. Philipon and Daumier, who are, the one the inventor, the other the designer, of the Macaire Picture Gallery. As works of esprit, these drawings are not more remarkable than they are as works of art, and we never recollect to have seen a series of sketches possessing more extraordinary cleverness and variety. The countenance and figure of Macaire and the dear stupid Bertrand are preserved, of course, with great fidelity throughout; but the admirable way in which each fresh character is conceived, the grotesque appropriateness of Robert's every successive attitude and gesticulation, and the variety of Bertrand's postures of invariable repose, the exquisite fitness of all the other characters, who act their little part and disappear from the scene, cannot be described on paper, or too highly lauded. The figures are very carelessly drawn ; but, if the reader can understand us, all the attitudes and limbs are perfectly conceived, and wonderfully natural and various. After pondering over these drawings for some hours, as we have been while compiling this notice of them, we have grown to believe that the personages are real, and the scenes remain imprinted on the brain as if we had absolutely been present at their acting.