Arthur F. (Arthur Fitzwilliam) Davidson.

Alexandre Dumas (père) his life and works online

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M61ingue, and others made so much. This, however, by the
way ; for Talma died in 1826, three years before the advent
of Dumas as a serious dramatist. On the present occasion,
hugging to his breast the precious order signed " Talma,"
Dumas came out rejoicing, and having made an appointment
with De Leuven to meet before the theatre at the Caf6 du
Roi, he proceeded to spend the day in the country cousin's
round of sight-seeing, this being apparently his first visit to
Paris since the one (narrated above) in 1814. Reaching the
cafe in good time that evening, he found himself in a kind of
Bohemian literary club — where, seated at httle tables with
their pdits verres in front of them, men were busy scribbUng
away, deriving inspiration, it seemed, from the movement
and noise around them. It was curious that one of the first
on whom his eye lighted was his old acquaintance Lafarge,
whose smartness had so delighted him a few years ago —
alas ! no longer smart, but seedy and out at elbows.
Lafarge had failed to meet with a wife whose dowry would
have enabled him to buy a notary's practice : he had given
up that profession and had lapsed into the precarious shifts
of tentative literature. His views of men and things had

37



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

taken a correspondingly sombre tinge. If Dumas was burn-
ing to see Talma play, Lafarge could assure him that Talma
was played out and would soon cease to draw : the success of
Sylla was due to no merit of author or actor, but simply to
the Napoleonic make-up : if the papers said otherwise every-
body knew how the papers were written and nobody believed
a word of them. To Dumas this C5mical tone was a mystery,
until De Leuven, who soon arrived, enlightened his inno-
cence as they walked to the Fran9ais by pointing out that
it is the way of the world for failure to cavil at success,
and for those whose stomachs are empty to begrudge those
who have dined weU — an element in the philosophy of life
which Dumas noted now and verified hereafter. That even-
ing, with ardour unquenched by Lafarge's douche of cold
water, he enjoyed the theatre immensely. Everything
pleased him — the crowded house, the applause, the fine
acting of Talma, especially in the last scene, when the
Dictator voluntarily abdicates the power given him by the
Senate. To crown all — when the curtain fell, Adolphe took
him behind the scenes to Talma's dressing-room, in which
surrounding the actor were gathered several prominent
plajTwrights of the day — De Jouy himself, Delavigne,
Soumet, Arnault, Lemercier. Here was enacted the sequel
to Sylla, an epilogue of personal interest. For Talma,
noticing young Dumas as he stood abashed near the door,
called him forward, and asked him how he had enjoyed the
evening, and told him he must come again to some other
play. Then this dialogue —

Dumas : Unhappily I must go back to-morrow to the
country to my office, for I am a lawyer's clerk.

Talma : No need to be ashamed of that, young man.
Comeille was a lawyer's clerk. (Turning to the company.)
Gentlemen, let me present to you a future Comeille.

38



THE YOUTH

Dumas : Touch my forehead, sir, it will bring me luck.

Talma (putting his hand on Dumas' head, and with his
best histrionic air) : So be it ! I baptize thee Poet in the
name of Shakespeare, Comeille, and Schiller. Return now
to your office, and be sure your proper vocation will find you
wherever you are.

Dumas blushed — we can well believe it. He would
gladly have kissed Talma's fingers, and the latter, giving him
a cordial handshake, observed, " Come, come — this lad has
enthusiasm : he will do something yet."

From a situation thus embarrassing and fast verging on
the ridiculous the two friends were saved by a speedy exit.
Once outside, Dumas turned to De Leuven and said : " Yes,
I shall come to Paris, you may be sure of that."

But before this fateful resolution could be carried out
certain preliminaries, neither very easy nor pleasant, had
to be gone through. In the first place, it was necessary to
return to Crepy. The return was accomphshed much as
the journey out had been ; but on reaching Crepy at mid-
day on Wednesday Dumas found that M. Leffevre had
preceded him by a few hours. Stepping into the office he
sat down to his desk and waited events. The day's work
went forward as usual ; the chief came in and out of the
room, but said not a word. It was not tiU dinner was
over that he requested his clerk to walk into his study, and
introduced the subject by this question.

" May I ask, M. Dumas, if you have any knowledge of
mechanics ? "

Alexandre thought he knew something of it in practice,
though not in theory.

" Very good," continued M. Leffevre in his suavely sar-
donic tone, " you will doubtless, then, be aware that, for a
machine to work properly, every one of its wheels must

39



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

contribute to the general movement." He then applied
the parable to his clerk, who, being a wheel — a very small
wheel — in the business machine, had for the last three days
stopped working and had so far deranged the action of the
whole. This warning, he added, was only meant to be pro-
visional ; but the clerk — his head somewhat turned by the
scenes he had just left — treated his employer in the most
haughty, not to say impudent fashion, and intimated that
he preferred to consider it a notice of dismissal. " As you
like, of course," said the notary. So the interview ended,
and next morning Dumas said good-bye to Cr6py.

Preliminary number one was thus got over. The next —
for he had mapped out the details of his course — was to
soothe and win over his mother, who, though her son did
not at first reveal the fact, guessed pretty well that he
would not return to M. Leffevre. To her, motherhke, the
pleasure of having her boy home again outweighed the
vexation of his conduct. At the same time she pointed out
to him that their resources had now reached the vanishing
point. Even this melancholy fact concurred — as all things
concurred — to help the adventurer on his path. A des-
perate position excused an otherwise desperate folly, and
Dumas was able more easily to break to his mother his
intention of going to Paris to seek his fortune and hers. His
plan was simplicity itself. There were several military men,
old friends and acquaintances of his father (as letters in
his possession showed), who had found salvation in the
new regime, and now occupied important posts under the
government. To these he would apply, and surely it would
be no great matter for one or other of them to assist the
son of an old comrade-in-arms to earn £50 a year. This
secured, he himself would do the rest. It would have been
useless to argue : Madame Dumas acquiesced. Then came

40



THE YOUTH

the question of ready money. For this also an expedient was
found in the sale of two engravings which had belonged to
the General, and which now met with a purchaser at fifty
francs. It would be a pity to draw on this modest little
sum for the diligence fare to Paris. So Dumas thought, and
such also was clearly the view of Providence. Otherwise how
account for the following remarkable series of events ? Re-
turning home, jingling his fifty francs in his pockets, he meets
friend Cartier, proprietor of the Villers-Cotterets posting-
house. Cartier and Dumas have often played billiards
together — fairly matched, and each fancying he can give the
other a few points. A game is proposed, and the stakes are
two petits verres of absinthe — the said absinthe being merely
a measure of value, for Dumas is careful to inform us that
he never touched that liquor in those days or afterwards.
They play — the Russian game of thirty-six points up — and
the young one wins. Again with the same result — and again,
his opponent becoming ever more flurried and more ob-
stinate, and the stakes being doubled each time. In short
" we played for five consecutive hours, at the end of which
I had won from Cartier six hundred glasses of absinthe."
Then a bargain is made, Dumas agreeing to consider this
oceanic debt as cancelled if Cartier will give him his coach
fare : the other consents, and so the great question of how
to get to Paris for nothing is solved in a manner worthy of
the best romance. ,

Elated by the favour of fortune, Dumas took next the
very sensible step of providing himself with an introduction
to the Deputy of his Department — no less a person than
General Foy, who after distinguished service in war had
now become one of the most popular Opposition members
of the Chamber. For this purpose he called on M. Danr6,
a neighbouring farmer, whose electioneering help had largely

41



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

won the General his seat. Danr6 knew the Dumas family,
and he listened with interest to the glowing prospects of his
young visitor, readily wrote the requisite letter of introduc-
tion, and even came to see Madame Dumas that he might
reconcile her to her son's departure. Three days later,
with fifty francs of cash in his pocket and an unlimited
fund of hope in his heart, Alexandre reached Paris, where
his friends the De Leuvens were glad to put him up,
though sceptical of any practical result. He had brought
of course the old letters of his father — and the most
important of these seemed to be from the Due de
Bellune, now Minister of War, better known by his former
name of Marshal Victor. To him without delay an epistle
was composed and sent. So sanguine was Dumas of a
favourable reply that he rather resented De Leuven's sen-
sible advice to put other irons in the fire. Still he took the
advice, and, wishing to ascertain the addresses of Marshal
Jourdan and General Sebastiani, was about to invest five
francs in a directory. Again the practical Adolphe dis-
suaded him from an outlay quite superfluous in the case
of an article so easily accessible, and again Dumas' im-
petuous optimism revolted against the seeming cynicism of
his friend. Having found what he wanted, he betook
himself next morning to the residence of Marshal Jourdan
in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The Marshal on hearing
his visitor's name had expected apparently to see his old
comrade : of the son's existence he had never heard, and
remained politely incredulous throughout a ten minutes'
inspection. Crestfallen, Dumas next waited on General Se-
bastiani in the Rue Saint-Honor6. The General was in his
study, dictating to four secretaries seated at the four comers
of the room, each of whom presented to him as he passed by
in his promenade a gold snuff-box, from which he graciously

42



THE YOUTH

took a pinch. The visit to Sebastiani was as fruitless as,
and even briefer than, that to Jourdan. Dumas began to
perceive that the good deeds of the father are not always
visited upon the children, especially when times have
changed and republics have become monarchies ; and his
opinion of human nature sank. A third visit was more
cheering — this time to General Verdier, a veteran who lived
on a modest fourth-floor in the Faubourg Montmartre and
occupied himself in painting battle pictures. Great was the
contrast between these humble surroundings and the palatial
abodes of Jourdan and Sebastiani, greater still between the
reception in this case and in those. Verdier, poor man,
— ^himself shelved and without influence — could do nothing
except give the lad a cordial welcome, invite him to dinner,
and wish him good luck with the patron he had not yet
approached. General Foy. It may be attributed either to
the guilelessness or to the filial affection of Dumas that he
had put his first and chief faith in the men who had been
friendly with and perhaps indebted to his father, rather
than in one to whom he was accredited by commendation
from a living and influential friend. His order of proceeding
seems at any rate foreordained as the one best adapted to
narration, leading up as it does from failure to success.
For General Foy, his most substantial hope, was now his
last. Receiving his visitor courteously, the General (who
was engaged, with books, plans and charts in front of him,
in writing his history of the Peninsular War), after a few
preliminary remarks, put Dumas throiigh a sort of cate-
chism designed to find out what he was good for. An un-
pleasant process, it may be imagined. " Mathematics ? "
— " Physics ? " — " Latin ? " — " Greek ? " — " Book-
keeping ? " — each question elicited a reluctant negative
qualified only by some slight confidence in ItaUan. The

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

General himself found the position painful, and ended by
telling his visitor to write down and leave his name and
address, and he would see what could be done. Just then
a marvellous thing happened. Hardly had Dumas formed
the letters of his name when the General uttered an ex-
clamation of surprise and delight. " You write a most excel-
lent hand," said he. Yet — strange perversity — this tribute
to the merits of the Villers-Cotterets writing-master seemed
to Dumas the greatest humiliation of aU ; "a capital hand-
writing ' ' — the haU-mark of incapacity ! His patron, however,
little guessing this thought, promised to speak that very
evening to the Due d'Orleans with a view to getting a clerk-
ship. The Duke's Liberal tendencies might predispose him
to the son of a Republican General, and his connexion with
Villers-Cotterets might add to the appropriateness of the
favour. So it proved ; for when Dumas returned next
morning General Foy was able to announce the promise of
a post as supernumerary clerk in the Secretarial department
of the Palais Royal, with a salary of twelve hundred francs.
Dumas' delight was unbounded : he was in love and charity
with all things — even with his own terribly excellent hand-
writing. This fifty-pound clerkship, due to the influence of
General Foy and probably also in part to M. Deviolaine,
gave him just the pied-d-terre he wanted. " Ah ! Gen-
eral," he said to his benefactor, " I am going to live by my
penmanship now, but some day, I promise you, I shall live
by my pen " — a prophecy amply justified, if not suggested,
by later events. Foy kept the young man to luncheon, gave
him some good advice, and listened to his outpouring of
literary schemes with all the indulgence of one who has heard
many such things before. Adolphe de Leuven fully shared
his friend's joy. But there were others who would be still
more affected by it, and nothing would satisfy Dumas but

44



THE YOUTH

that he should return home at once and bear the good news
in person. Whether the cost of this journey also was de-
frayed from the famous six hundred petits-verres we know not ;
in any case Dumas was the last man to think of expense.
So he set off that very afternoon, and reaching VUlers-
Cotterets in the small hours of the night, awakened his
mother by rushing into her room with cries of " Victory !
victory ! ! ! "

Next morning his triumphal " Veni, vidi, vici," spread
rapidly over the town. M. Danre was visited and thanked ;
Abbe Gregoire too ; and all the gossips of the place, hitherto
unanimous prophets of evil, now came flocking to Madame
Dumas with congratulations upon a success which they
of course had always predicted. A few busy and happy days
were thus spent before Dumas returned to Paris to begin
life in earnest.

He was now in his twenty-first year, an interesting and
romantic young man, six feet tall and well made, rather
slim than otherwise (strange as this may appear to those
familiar with portraits of him in later Ufe) ; his feet and hands
were small and delicate — a fact of which he was sufficiently
proud ; the hair was long, dark and curly, the com-
plexion still fresh. It was only as time went on that the
one assumed that frizzy aspect, and the other that deep
dull tint which — inherited from the coloured lady of St.
Domingo — became pronounced enough to offer a mark for
various personal witticisms, such as Nodier's observation
{a propos of Dumas' liking for imiforms and decorations),
" How fond of toys you negroes are ! " or that caustic and
probably apocryphal sajnng attributed to the younger
Dumas, " My father is so vain that he is capable of mounting
behind his own carriage, if only to make people think that
he keeps a black servant ! " But no feature of Dumas,

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

either now or in mature life, struck people so much as
his eyes — bright, quizzing eyes, vivacious outposts of a
vivacious brain — eyes that twinkled merrily through the ups
and downs of nearly threescore years and ten.

On reaching his old quarters in Paris at the hotel in the
Rue des Vieux Augustins, his first concern was to look about
for a lodging ; nor was he long in securing a fourth story
bed-sitting room in the Place des Italiens for the modest
rent of 120 francs per annum. Having still a day or two's
grace before beginning his clerkly duties, he lotmged about
the Boulevards, where everything was new, and, passing
rich on fifty pounds a year, he thought he might treat
himself one evening to the play. He chose the Porte Saint-
Martin theatre, which was then performing a drama called
The Vampire. That evening, by Dumas' own account,
must be enrolled among notable nights at the play. Fresh
to the ways of Paris, he began by paying a franc for a place
in the queue, imagining that this would take him into the
theatre. The illusion being rudely dispelled, and another
franc and a half expended for a seat in the pit, he found
himself in the midst of a noisy gang of fellows — the claque,
as he afterwards discovered — who amused themselves by
insulting questions as to who was his tailor, or when he
had last had his hair cut. Indignant he turned upon
the offenders, and was at once pounced upon by the
officials of the theatre and ejected for causing a disturbance.
" Finding myself in the street I reflected that it was a stupid
thing to go away without seeing the play, and that, as I
had already gone to the expense of two places, I might as
well go in for a third " — a thoroughly Dumasesque piece of
reasoning, this latter. So he purchased another ticket,
this time for the orchestra stalls, and reappeared smiling
in the lobby. The society in this part of the house was more

46



THE YOUTH

polite than that of the pit, and Dumas perceived that he
was seated next to a middle-aged gentleman of benign
aspect, engrossed in the reading of a dainty little volume,
which inspection showed to be Le Pastissier Francois and to
bear the magic impress of " Louis and Daniel Elzevir, Am-
sterdam, 1655." Attracted by the title with its suggestion
of delicate cookery, the ingenuous youth ventured to put a
question. Hence a conversation which, beginning with the
subject of eggs and the various modes of serving them
up, soon diverged into Elzevirs, bibUomaniacs, claqueurs,
vampires, and what not. This conversation, beginning before
the rise of the curtain, was pursued during the intervals
of the play — a weird sensational drama with supernatural
beings flitting across the stage, cr5T)tic utterances of melan-
choly, deep-toned men, and a general flesh-creeping atmo-
sphere of mystery and horror. Dumas thought it very fine
— indeed, he traced back to this evening the first idea of
his own Don Juan de Marana. Not so his neighbour, whose
attitude was remarkable. He had apparently come to scoff,
and whenever he turned his attention from his Elzevir to
the stage it was to signify his feelings by occasional loud
expressions of disapproval — very conspicuous among an
audience sympathetic with the play. Finally, in the course
of the third act, professing that he could no longer sit out
so inept a piece he left his seat ; and Dumas was sorry to
lose a neighbour whose extensive and pecuHar knowledge
had enlightened him on such a variety of topics. But before
the play had proceeded much further, suddenly at a most
critical point of the dialogue a loud prolonged hiss was heard
from one of the private boxes. Every one turned towards
the sound, and Dumas was not altogether surprised to
discern the features of his late companion who had sought
that new vantage-point whence to damn the piece most

47



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

decisively. The offender was of course expelled, and the
performance went on peaceably to its end. Next day the
newspapers, recording the incident, mentioned that the
ejected person was the well-known Charles Nodier, believed
himself to be one of the anonymous authors of The Vampire,
who had used this original method of criticizing either the
work of his partners or his own, probably the latter. For
Nodier's eccentricity was not less than his erudition. Novel-
ist, scholar, bibliophile, naturalist, master of style and slave
of paradox, the author of Jean Sbogar and of Smarra was at
once the earliest pioneer of Romanticism and the keenest
critic of its extravagances. He may be regarded either as
an elegant trifler who played with every form of literary art
and patronized every new development until, by becoming
serious, it lost his S3mipathy ; or else as a profound philo-
sopher who, considering literature as the vainest of vanities,
deprecated with pleasant irony the assumption that books
and their makers are reaUy of supreme consequence in -the
scheme of things. Nodier at any rate was soon to become
a good friend to the young man whose acquaintance he made
in so strange a fashion.

On the following Monday Dumas began his professional
duties. He had discovered that neither his hair nor his gar-
ments were of the Parisian cut : the services therefore of a
coiffeur and a taUor were requisitioned, the former of whom
did his work so thoroughly that " whereas with my loiig hair
I had resembled one of those pomatum-dealers who use their
own heads as an advertisement, with my hair cropped short
I was like nothing so much as a seal." Thus prepared he
mounted the stairs leading to his office in one of the courts
of the Palais Royal. His chef de bureau, M. Oudard, re-
ceived him graciously, referring to the recommendations of
General Foy and M. Deviolaine. The latter irascible gentle-

48



THE YOUTH

man, who occupied an adjoining office, was now his close
neighbour, and took an early opportunity of cautioning his
young relative against any further indulgence in " trumpery
verses and rubbishy plays." When Dumas replied with
spirit that this was his very purpose in coming to Paris, vast
was M. Deviolaine's contempt.

" You, with your education at three francs a month — do
you think you are going to become a Corneille or a Racine,
or a Voltaire ? "

Dumas modestly opined that he might still discover some
path of literature untrodden ; and the interview ended, as
usual, in fury on the one side and a hasty retreat on the
other — both quite farcical. There was plenty of sting, how-
ever, in that taunt about a poor education, and though
Dumas' plans when he arrived in Paris were vague in the
extreme, he had two fixed purposes — first of which was to
repair his ignorance by study, and then to become a drama-
tist. Fortunately for the first purpose his immediate su-
perior was a literary and sympathetic gentleman called
Lassagne, who not only instructed the newcomer in his office
duties, but advised him what to read, and suggested even
now that in the history of France, neglected by French
novelists, a rich material for imaginative work might be
found. Meanwhile to copy letters in his best handwriting,
to fold and seal the same when signed, these simple me-
chanical duties the new clerk performed to the satisfaction
of M. Oudard, of M. de Broval (the Director-General), and
of the Due d'0rl6ans himself, for whom he executed some
private and confidential work so successfully that he was
promoted from a supernumerary to a regular clerkship, and
his salary was raised from twelve to fifteen hundred francs.
In occasional interviews with the man who was afterwards
to become King Louis Philippe, Dumas was impressed with

49 E



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

the Duke's shrewdness and the attention he gave to every
detail of his affairs. To his employees he was affable, with-
out abating his dignity or showing as yet any signs of that
ostentatious simplicity by which later on he tried to har-
monize Republicanism with Monarchy. The hours of the
Bureau — 10.30 to 5, with occasional evening work — ^were
not excessive, and beyond the inevitable monotony of
routine Dumas had nothing to complain of. He was really
a very fortunate young man.



50



CHAPTER III

STUDY AND EFFORT

(1824-1828)



Online LibraryArthur F. (Arthur Fitzwilliam) DavidsonAlexandre Dumas (père) his life and works → online text (page 4 of 35)