Sunday, 30 April 2017

Adams on Robespierre on Tarts

From the book “Wrecked Lives ; Or, Men Who Have Failed” by William Henry Davenport Adams.


‘Robespierre, as a singer of songs, is opposite enough to the figure we conceive of him from his appearances on the stage of history; but we find a still more striking antithesis in his letters, which are those of a quick observer and easy writer, given to homely jesting, with a touch of sentiment raising and redeeming his badinage. The following is, as Mr. Lewes says, if we consider who its author, a very curious and suggestive letter. It is dated from "Carvins, June 12, 1788," and we adopt, in the main, Mr. Lewes's translation:-*

"Sir,
               "There is no such thing as a pleasure unless it be shared among friends. I am about to give you a sketch therefore, of what I have enjoyed these last few days.
              
               "Don't expect a book of travels! For several years the public has been so prodigiously over-stocked with that kind of work, that it may well be satiated with them now. I can conceive an author who has made a journey of five leagues, celebrating it in prose and verse ;  and yet what is that adventurous enterprise compared with the one I have executed ?  I have not only travelled five league. I have travelled six ;  and such leagues, that the opinion of the inhabitants of the country would go to prove that they were equal to seven ordinary leagues. And yet I will not tell you a word respecting my journey : for your sake I regret it ;  you lose much.  It would have offered you some adventures which would have been infinitely interesting: those of Ulysses and Telemachus were nothing by their side.

               "We started at five in the morning. Our car quitted the gates of the city at precisely the same moment as the chariot of the sun rose from the bosom of the ocean. it was adorned with a cloth, of brilliant white, one portion of which floated in the zyphyr's breast.  It was thus we passed the guard-house of the custom-house officers [the Octroi] triumphantly. As you may suppose, I did not fail to cast my eyes on them. I wished to ascertain whether those Arguses would not give the lie to their ancient reputation ; and, animated with a noble emulation, I dared to aspire after the glory of, if possible, vanquishing them in politeness. I leaned over the side of our car, and taking off the new hat which covered my head, saluted them with my most charming smile. I counted on a suitable response ; but would you believe it? these clerks, motionless as the god Terminus at the door of their cabin, regarded me fixedly without returning my salute. I have always had an infinite self-love ; that mark of contempt wounded me to the quick ; and for the rest of the day my temper was intolerable.

               "Meanwhile, our coursers bore us onward with a swiftness which they imagination can scarcely conceive. It seemed as if they would fain rival the swiftness of the coursers of the sun who flew over our heads.... With one bound they cleared the Faubourg St.Catherine ; a second carried us to the gate at Sens. We stayed a short time in that town. I profited by the delay to examine the beauties it presents to the travellers curious gaze. While my companions were breakfasting, I ascended the hill upon which the Calvary is placed. From that point my eyes wandered, with a mingled sentiment of sadness and exultation, over the vast plain where Conde at twenty, gained that famous victory [Rocroi] over the Spaniards which saved France.

               "But an object interesting for other reasons next drew all my attention, the Hotel de Ville.  It is not remarkable for grandeur or magnificence ; but it has not the less claim upon my attention, does not the less inspire me with lively interest. This modest edifice, said I, meditatively, is the sanctuary where the hunchback T-----, with his blonde wig, holding the balance of Themis in his hand, formerly weighed with great impartiality the claims of his co-citizens. Minister of justice and favourite of Esculapius, he passed a sentence and then wrote a prescription. The criminal and the patient were equally terrified by his presence ; and this great man, by virtue of his twofold office, was in possession of the most extensive power that man ever exercised over his fellow men.....

               "We remounted out conveyance. Scarcely had I settled myself comfortably on a bundle of straw when Carvins rose into view. At the sight of this happy spot we all burst forth into a shout of joy, comparable to that which burst from the Trojans, fugitives from the disaster of Troy, when they discovered the shores of Italy. The people of the village gave us a welcome which amply compensated for the indifference of the clerks at the Meaulens gate. Citizens of every class manifested their enthusiasm for us, The cobbler arrested his awl, about to pierce a sole, that he might regard us at leisure ; the barber abandoned a half-shaved chin, and rushed out before us, razor in hand ; the huswife, to satisfy her curiosity, braved the perils of a burnt tart; I actually saw three gossips break off in the midst of a lively conversation to rush to the window. In short we tasted during our passage - which alas, was too brief! - that satisfaction, so flattering to our self-love, of seeing a numerous people occupied with us.  How pleasant, I said to myself, it is to travel!  With great truth is it said that one is never a prophet in ones own land. At the gates of your own town you are despised ; six leagues beyond it you are a personage worthy of public curiosity.

               "I was engaged in these wise reflections when we arrived at the house which represented the goal of our voyage. I will not attempt to depict the transports of tenderness which broke forth in our embraces. It was a spectacle to have drawn tears from your eyes. In history I knew of but one scene of the kind to be compared with it.  When Aeneas, after the fall of Troy, lands in Epirus with his fleet, and there meets with Helenus and Andromache, whom destiny has seated on the throne of Pyrrhus, it is said that their meeting was most affecting. I doubt not that Aeneas had a most excellent heart. Helenus, the best Trojan in the world, and Andromache, the amiable widow of Hector, shed many tears and sighed many sighs on this occasion. I am willing to believe that their transports were not inferior to ours ; but after Aeneas, Helenus, Andromache, and us, you must drop the curtain.

               "Since our arrival all our time has been occupied with pleasures. Ever since last Saturday I have been eating tarts. Destiny has willed that my bed should be placed in a room which is the depȏt of the pastry. That was exposing me to the temptation of eating tarts all night! But I reflected that it was noble to subdue ones passions, and therefore I slept though in the midst of such seductive objects. It is true that during the day I made up for this long abstinence."

[Here Robspierre indulges in some humorous verses in praise of the first maker of tarts, for which I have not room. He continues, after an allusion to the oblivion which wraps the name of ce sublime genie:-]

               "Of all the traits of ingratitude which the human race has exhibited towards its benefactors, this it is which has always most revolted me. It is for the Artesians to expiate it; seeing that, in the opinion of all Europe, they know the value of the tart better than any other people.   Their glory calls upon them to erect a temple to its inventor. I will confess, entre nous, that I have drawn up a project to that effect which I purpose to submit to the Artesian States.  I count upon the powerful support of the clergy.

               "But to eat tarts is nothing : one must eat them in good company. Yesterday I received the greatest honour to which I could aspire. I dined with three lieutenants and the son of a bailli! The whole magistracy of the neighbouring villages was assembled at our table. In the centre of the senate shone monsieur the lieutenant of Carvins, like Calypso amidst the nymphs. Ah, if you could but have seen how affably he conversed with the rest of the company, as if he were an ordinary mortal! With what indulgence he approved of the champagne which was poured out for him! With what a satisfied air he seemed to smile at the reflection of his person in the glass! I saw it all - yes, I! - and yet, observe how hard it is to content the heart of man! All my desires are not yet satisfied. I am preparing to return to Arras ; and I hope to find greater pleasure in seeing you than even in all or any of the circumstances above described. We shall meet with as much satisfaction as Ulysses and Telemachus after twenty years of absence. I shall have no difficulty in reconciling myself to the loss of my baillis and lieutenants. (However seductive a lieutenant may be, believe me, Madame, he can never enter into with you. His countenance, even when champagne has tinted it a soft carnation does not present the charm which Nature's self has given to yours ; and the company of all the baillis in the universe can never compensate for your agreeable conversation.)

               "I remain, with the sincerest expression of friendship, sir, your very humble and obedient servant,
                              "De Robespierre."

In our limited space we should not transcribe so long a letter did we not look upon it as a curious psychological study when read by the light of its writer's after career.’


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