Two French Friends
( Originally Published 1877 )
Burst of Revolution.
I REMEMBER that in my old Geography —a little square, fat book, most unlike the Geographies which I observe spread out under the eyes and elbows of youngsters nowadays — the Frenchman was pictured and described as an extremely limber and graceful gentleman, taking off his hat with a wide flourish to ladies in great furbelows, or else dancing with others of like elegance around a tall tree ; and I always found it very hard to believe how so gay and polite and festive gentlemen should have taken it into their hearts or heads to engage in the bloody work of those " Days of Terror," which were also spoken of in the Geography. I have discovered since, that dancing men and women are often very cruel, and do not care on whose toes they tread.
You have all heard, I dare say, of the French Revolution. But do you know how it came about, and what its terrors were ?
It came about because there had been a great many wicked kings and wicked nobles in France, who had lived only for their own selfish ends, and had considered the people as beasts of burden, to be used to help them forward in their pleasure-seeking and their money-getting. If they wanted war for any ambitious purpose of their own, whole regions were desolated, and sons and fathers and husbands swept away down the bloody path that war always makes. If they wanted service of any kind, —whether honest labor or vile labor, —children were torn from parents, and new-married wives from their husbands.
But the poorest of the French people were so ignorant, and had lived in a state of slavish dread of those who were above them in rank, for so long a time, that perhaps they would have borne their trials longer — if it had not happened that very many among the richer people, and the better educated ones suffered too, by reason of quarrels with the nobles, or quarrels among themselves, or abuses of the king or his courtiers. Among the most fearful of these abuses were those which were committed under the authority of what were called lettres du cachet, or letters with the royal seal. Throughout the reigns of Louis XIV. and of Louis XV., this sort of tyranny was common. Thus, if a noble bore a grudge against some neighbor, and wished to take him out of the way, he would apply to the king or to a royal minister, and beg or buy an order with the royal seal upon it : — Under authority of this royal order, he would send a file of soldiers to seize his enemy, and thrust him into a prison of the state, where he might spend years without communication with wife or friends.
Friends or family would not know, indeed, whither he had gone ; and so secretly would the work be done, that they could not tell when or by whom he was torn away. Sometimes an old, white-haired man, who had been almost forgotten, would suddenly appear among his acquaintances again, after twenty years of dungeon life.
If you should ever read Mr. Dickens's " Tale of Two Cities," — and it is one of the strongest stories he wrote, and well worth your reading, — you will find a thrilling narrative of the imprisonment of a French physician, —who was torn away from his young wife, and for sixteen long years never heard if she were alive or dead. No wonder that his mind gave way, and that when he found liberty at last, he was a poor decrepit shadow of a man.
There is also another terrible story of abuse under these lettres du cachet, which is said to be wholly true, and which appeared in a book called "Letters from France," by Helen Maria Williams, — an English lady who passed much time in France before the Revolution, and who was herself a prisoner in the Temple, under the rule of Robespierre. Her story was about a black-hearted father, who, — under cover of one of these kingly orders or letters, — caused his own son, who had offended him, to be snatched away from his family, and to be buried in a dungeon for years. In fact, there was hardly any crime against persons that might not be permitted under shelter of one of those terrible "letters" of the king.
What would you think, pray, if our President, or Gen. Sherman, might issue a letter with the State seal affixed, which would empower any marshal or politician—or whoever might gain possession of the letter — to seize upon any enemy of his at dead of night, and bear him off to prison, and keep him there so long as he might choose ? Would not such a power, unchecked by any courts of justice or by law, make of our country—or of any country — a very doleful place to live in ?
And can you wonder that those poor people in that far-away France, and in that far-away time (nearly a hundred years now), should have chafed under it, and talked bitterly and threateningly; until after a while their angry and threatening talk grew into a great tempest that swept through the Paris streets like a whirl-wind
No wonder they were maddened ; no wonder their passion got the better of their judgment; no wonder the population, led on by enraged men, worked deeds of cruelty which made all Europe shudder. Very great wrongs, however orderly, are almost always balanced — sooner or later — by very great and disorderly avengement.
When that tempest of madness I was speaking of just now first swept through the streets of Paris, in the reign of Louis XVI., it drove the crazed people in herds, to glut their vengeance upon those who were keeping captives in chains, within the great prison of the Bastille. This was a grim and dismal-looking building upon the borders of Paris, with sluggish water around it ; and its door was entered by a draw-bridge. Toward the frowning walls of this prison (there is only a tall bronze column upon the spot now) the populace of the city rushed headlong, with whatever weapons they could lay hands upon. Butchers took their cleavers, stable-men their forks, carters their heavy oaken stakes, carpenters their axes ; and there were thousands with guns and cutlasses, while brawny women carried huge pistols.
The soldiers who guarded the prison were so frightened by the sights and sounds of this tempest of the people's fury, that they could hardly make any opposing fight at all. The governor of the prison, seeing what mad rage he must encounter, would have blown up the huge building altogether ; and had actually laid the match to do so, but the soldiers rebelled, and forced him to surrender. Then the raging mob flowed in ; and those who wore the uniform of the king were smitten to death. The dungeon gates were unlocked, and prisoners staggered out, who had not seen the sun for dozens and scores of years.
Days of Terror
A beautiful girl was caught sight of, flying down one of the great stairways. She was straightway seized upon by those who believed her to be a daughter of the governor, and would have been burned in the court-yard had not a few generous soldiers stolen her away, and secreted her until the sack was over. As for the governor, — who was a marquis and the king's friend, — they cut off his head, and bore it bleeding from the top of a pike-staff, all down the street ; and all down the street poured the mad, rejoicing rabble, slaying many another as they went, and carrying the trophies with them, —gory heads on pikes, or gory heads on chafing-dishes carried by women.
As it was on that day, so it was on many a day there-after, and for many a week and month ; and for years, whoever was a noble, or friend of the hated nobles, — or rich, or friend of the hated rich, — lived, if he lived at all in that city of revolution, in great dread and danger.
There was not much feeling at the first against Louis XVI., for he was a far better king than those who had gone before him. He was kindly at heart, and what we might call nowadays a gentlemanly, amiable man, — with not much force of character, and disposed to yield to the opinions of those who had been his old advisers. These, by their obstinacy, brought him very soon to grief. The people forced him to trial, and there was a forced condemnation. His head, too, fell before the fury of the enraged people, and was held ùp by the executioner upon the scaffold, for the thronging mob to look upon.
This poor king had left behind him in the prison a son, whom he had taught, as he best could in those dreary prison hours, arithmetic and geography. Do you think the boy ever forgot those lessons, or ever forgot the sorrow, and the loud wailings of his mother — the queen, when the king went out to his death ?
A little after this, those crazy ones who were governing France gave over this prince boy to the care of a shoemaker and his wife,— to whom they furnished a lodgement in the prison ; and they did this in order, as they said, that the bringing-up of the boy might be as low as that of the lowest of the people. Poor boy ! poor prince !
A little later, Marie Antoinette, the queen, was taken out of her dungeon to go to trial : they called it a trial, for the sake of decency ; but I think they knew how it would end, before they called on her to appear. If the judges before whom she 'stood had said she was innocent and must go free, I am sure that the wives of the wine-sellers, and the fish-women, and the hags of Paris, would have snatched her away, and carried her off to execution, — if they had not slain her with their own bread-knives in the street.
These mad people had such a thirst for blood !
It was better perhaps that the judges should say the queen must be beheaded, as they did, than that these wild women should cut her in pieces.
She certainly died an easier death by the guillotine.
Another famous woman who fell under the hands of the executioner in these bloody days, and whom we do not know whether most to pity or, to admire, was Char lotte Corday.
She was of humble family, in Normandy. No one in Paris had ever heard of her when she left her home in early July, 1793, to come up to the bloody city. Yet what she did, and what happened to her within one week, have made her name known everywhere.
She had a lover who was suspected by the revolutionary tribunal, and who was assassinated by order of Marat,—who was the most cruel and the most hated of all the men who governed.
Charlotte Corday deter-mined to avenge her lover, and free France of the monster Marat. So she journeyed up to Paris, — went to the home of Marat, — found some excuse for admission, —engaged him in talk (for she was winning in manner, and intelligent), and, seizing her chance, plunged a dagger in his bosom.
There were many in Paris who gave a sigh of relief when they heard of this murder ; but there were howling thousands who clamored for the blood of poor Charlotte Corday. A young man offered to die in her place ; but this could not be. There was a sharp, quick trial, and within a week, — in her little Norman sacque, — and in her Norman cap, she too went through the streets to take her turn under the sharp, swift knife of the guillotine.
You don't know what the guillotine is ?
I will tell you. Perhaps you have sometimes seen the great knives sliding up and down in a frame, by which hay and straw are cut for horses. Well, imagine, if you can, a knife like those, — only a great deal larger and a great deal sharper, working up and down in grooves like the straw-cutter. Then imagine such a knife at the top of two grooved posts some eight feet high, with a great weight resting on it; then fancy the poor victim lying at the foot of these posts, with the bared neck placed directly between the grooves ; next imagine the headsman, — as he was called, —pulling a cord which sets the great knife free—to come—clanging down with an awful thud
It does dreadfully quick work : but, for all that, it is the most humane way of executing capital punishment : —if there be any humanity in it at all — which I doubt.
The machine was called guillotine, after a Dr. Guillotin, who, in the French Assembly in 1791, proposed a better way of cutting off people's heads than the old way of doing it by an axe ; which he said was a clumsy way, and clumsy headsmen sometimes made bad work of it. But Dr. Guillotin was not the inventor, as some books will tell you ; nor did he lose his own head by it, as other books will tell you.
In 1792 the question of finding some new way of execution was referred to Dr. Antoine Louis, the Secretary of the College of Surgeons ; and he advised such a method as had been .hinted at by Dr. Guillotin the year before.. They had therefore a machine made for trial by one Schmidt, who was a knife-maker. Finding it worked well, after trial, they adopted it ; and people called it at first " Louisette." But Dr. Louis said he didn't invent it, or make it. (Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, which is so rarely wrong, makes a mistake in saying he did invent it.)
So the people went back on the name of Dr. Guillotin — all because a poet of that day had made some jingling rhymes, in which the honor had been referred to him.
The real truth is, that a machine like it had been used in Italy, at Genoa, two hundred years before ; and in England, at Halifax ; and in Scotland, at Edinburgh, more than a hundred years before. The Scotch people had called it " The Maiden."
It is a dreadful machine, and does very quick work, as I know; for I have myself seen a man's head taken off by it ; and I never wish to see such a sight again.
And now, why do you suppose I have run over this dismal bit of history ? Only as a sort of introduction to two of your good friends, — a man and a woman who lived in Paris through all this time of blood, and who yet have written the two most charming and pleasant stories for children that are anywhere to be found in the French language.
Paul and Virginia
The name of the first story is " Paul and Virginia ; " and the name of its author, Bernardin de St. Pierre. He was born at Havre, a seaport town at the mouth of the Seine, and went to school there until he was twelve ; but while he was at school he fell in with a translation of "Robinson Crusoe," and he loved the book so much that he came to love adventure more than books, and begged for permission to go over seas with an uncle, who was bound for Martinique.
And he went there, and saw first in that island (which you will find on your atlas among the West Indies) the bananas, and palms, and orange-trees, and all that rich tropical growth, which afterward he scattered up and down upon the pages of his story of "Paul and Virginia."
But the boy Bernardin did not stay in Martinique : he grew homesick, and went back to France, and studied engineering in Paris ; and before he was twenty had gone away again to Malta, which is a strongly fortified little island in the Mediterranean, lying southward of Italy. He did not stay, however, in Malta ; for he fought a duel there, which made it an unsafe place for him.
Not long after this he obtained a position under the famous Empress Catherine of Russia, and had strange adventures in Poland ; where it is said a beautiful Polish princess would have married the young French engineer, but her friends took good care she should not commit what was counted so great an indiscretion.
He then went to his old home at Havre again ; but his family was scattered, and the home broken. He next gained an appointment as engineer to the Isle of France,— which was another tropical island near to Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. After five or six years here, among the bananas and the palm-trees, he went back to Paris—without business, without money, almost without friends. This was his own fault, however ; for he was reckless and petulant and proud.
He began now to think of printing books, though he was past thirty-four. His first venture was a story of his voyage to the Isle of France ; afterward he passed many years working at what he called " Studies of Nature." He could hardly find a publisher for this. At last, however, he bargained with M. Didot to print it, — and Didot was the most celebrated printer in France. Not only did he print the book of the adventurous Bernardin, but he gave him his daughter for a wife.
I suppose that this author gave a great deal more of study and of care to his book on Nature, than he did to the little story of "Paul and Virginia." Yet it was this last—which was published some two years or more before the capture of the Bastille — which gave him his great fame.
Where there was one reader for his other books, there were twenty readers for " Paul and Virginia." In those fierce days when the Revolution was ripening, and a gigantic system of privileges was breaking up and consuming away,—like straw in fire, — this little tender, simple story, with its gushes of sentiment, and its warm, tropical atmosphere, was being thumbed in porters' lodges, and was read in wine-shops, and hidden under children's pillows, and was sought after by noble women, — and women who were not noble,—and by priests who slipped it into their pockets with their books of prayer. Even the hard, flinty-faced young officer of artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte, had read it with delight, and, in after-years, greeted the author with the imperial demand, — " When, M. St. Pierre, will you give us another `Paul and Virginia' ? "
It is only a simple tale, tenderly told. A boy and girl love each other, purely and deeply ; they have grown up together; they are poor and untaught; but the flowers and fruits are rich around them, and the sweetest odors of the tropics are spent upon the story. Virginia — loving the boy—sails away from their island home to win education in the old world—of France.
The boy grieves ; and studies that he may match in himself the accomplishments which Virginia is gaining in Europe. At last the ship is heralded which speeds her back. In a frenzy of delight Paul sees the great ship sweep down toward the shore.
But clouds threaten ; a wild swift storm bursts over the beautiful island ; there is gloom and wreck ; and a fair, lifeless form is stranded on the sands.
Poor Virginia ! Poor Paul !
Then — two graves, with the name of the story over them. And the birds sing, and the tropical flowers bloom as before.
This is all there is of it.
Do you not wonder that so slender a tale could take any hold upon a people who were ingulfed in the terrors of that mad revolution? Why was it?
Partly, I think, because the dainty and tender tone of the story-teller offered such strange contrast to the fierce wrangle of daily talk ; partly also, because in the breaking down of all the old society laws and habits of living in France, it was a relief to catch this sweet glimpse of the progress of an innocent life and innocent love—albeit of children—under purely natural influences.
It is worth your reading, were it only that you may see what tender and exaggerated sentiment was relished by this strange people, at a time when they were cutting off heads in the public square, by hundreds.
It is specially worth reading in its French dress, for its choice and simple and limpid language.
The Siberian Wanderer
We come now to talk of the other book of which I spoke. It is by Madame Cottin, and is called " Elizabeth ; or, The Exiles of Siberia."
Siberia, you know, is a country of great wastes, where snows lie fearfully deep in winter, and winds howl across the bleak, vast levels ; and wolves abound. It is under the dominion of Russia; and to this pitiless country the emperor of Russia was wont to send prisoners of state in close exile — where their names were unknown, and all communication would be cut off ; and where they would live as if dead.
Well, Elizabeth was the daughter of such a prisoner ; who, with his wife, lived in a lonely habitation in the midst of this dreary region. She grows up in this desolate solitude, knowing only those tender parents, and their gnawing grief. She knows nothing of their crime, or exile, or judge, or real name. But as she ripens into girlhood the parents cannot withhold their confidence ; and she comes to know of their old, and cherished, and luxurious home on the Polish plains,—which is every day in their memory.
From this time forth the loving daughter has but one controlling thought ; and that is, — how she may restore these sorrowful parents to their home, and to the world.
It is a child's purpose ; and opposed to it is the purpose of the Autocrat of all the Russias. But then, courage and persistence are noble things, and they win more triumphs than you could believe. They will win them over school lessons, and bad habits, and bad temper, — just as surely as they win them in the battles of the world.
So, upon the desolate plains of Siberia the fair young girl plots — and plots. How could this frail creature set about the undoing of an imperial edict, and the restoration of father and mother to life and happiness once more ? Over and over she pondered in the solemn quietude of those wintry Siberian nights, upon all the ways which might avail to gain her purpose. At last came the resolve — and a very bold one it was—to make the journey on foot, from their place of exile to the Russian capital; never doubting—in the fulness of her faith — that if she could once gain a hearing from the emperor, she could win his favor, and put an end to her father's exile.
Ah ! what could she know of the depth of state crimes, or of the bitterness of royal hate, or of that weary march of over two thousand miles across all the breadth of Russia ?
She had not the courage to tell of this resolution to her parents ; but kept it ever uppermost in her thoughts as months and years rolled on, and she gained strength ; while the dear livès she most cherished were wasting with grief and toil in the wintry solitudes.
One friend she made her confidant : this was the son of the governor of Tobolsk, who, in his hunting expeditions, had come unawares upon the retired cabin of her father, and thereafter repeated twice or thrice his visit. He was charmed by her beauty and tenderness, and would have spoken of love ; but she had no place in her heart for that. Always uppermost in her thought was the weary walk to be accomplished, and the pardon to be sought.
The young hunter could not aid her ; for intercourse with the exiled family was forbidden, and he had already been summoned away and ordered to regions unknown.
At last, after years of waiting, — Elizabeth being now eighteen, - an old priest came that way who was journeying to the west. It seemed her golden opportunity. She declared now, for the first time, her purpose to her parents. They expostulated and reasoned with her. The long way was a drear one ; monarchs were remorse-less ; they had grown old in exile, and could bear it to the end.
But the tender girl was more unshaken and steadfast than they. She bade them a tearful adieu, and with the old priest by her side, turned her steps toward the Russian capital. Very toilsome it was, and day followed day, and week week, with wearisome walking ; and be-fore the journey was half done the old priest sickened and died—she nursing him and closing his eyes for his last sleep — in a cabin by the way.
But still she had no thought of turning back, but wearily and painfully pressed on. Week followed week, and still long roads lay before her. It will make your hearts ache to read the story of her toil, — of her bleeding feet, — of her encounters with rude plunderers, — her struggles with storm and snow and cliff. There were great stretches of silent forest; there were broad rivers to cross ; there were gloomy ravines to pass through ; and her strength was failing, and she had been robbed of her money, and the winter was coming on ; and there was no messenger or mail to tell her of the dear ones she had left in the little cabin of the exile. But through all, her courage never once failed ; and at last it rejoiced her heart—to see in the blazing sun-light, on the edge of the Muscovite plains, the great shining domes of the palace of Moscow.
Here she was a stranger in a great city ; and the wilderness of the streets was full of more terrors and more dangers for her than the wilderness of the vast forests she had crossed in safety. Her very frailty, how-ever, with her earnestness and her appealing look, won upon passers-by ; and well-wishers befriended her, and heard her story with amazement. And her story spread, and made other well-wishers aid, until at last she came to the feet of the emperor.
They knew — all of them — the tale she had to tell ; and the eyes of all pleaded with her so strongly, that her request was granted, and the father set free.
Of course the story glides on very pleasantly after this. She has a government coach to carry her back over that long stretch of foot-travel ; she finds her parents yet alive ; she somehow has encountered again that stray son of the governor of Tobolsk ; and I believe they were married, and all lived happily ever after.
It is not much of a love story however, — except of parental love, — which, after all, is one of the purest kinds of love.
Madame Cottin, who wrote the story, lived, as I said, in the days of the French Revolution, and was married in the year 1790, when she was only seventeen years old. Her husband was very much older, and a rich banker. I doubt if she loved him greatly ; there are some things in other books of hers (for she published a great many) which make me think so very strongly. Still I believe she was an honest woman, and struggled to do her duty. I do not think Madame Coffin's other works are to be commended, or that any one reads them very much nowadays. " Elizabeth " — the book of which I have given you the story — was printed in the time of the First Napoleon (18o6), and had an immense success. There is hardly a language of Europe in which it is not to be found printed now.
It is a good story. What devotion !— so rare—so true — so tender !
Read it for this, if nothing else ; and cherish the memory ever in your young hearts.
It is as good a sermon on the fifth commandment as you will ever hear ; and remember—that it was preached by a Frenchwoman, who lived in Paris through the reign of blood.