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Victor Hugo

Title:     Victor Hugo
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Man is neither master of his life nor of his fate. He can but offer to his fellowmen his efforts to diminish human suffering; he can but offer to God his indomitable faith in the growth of liberty.

--_Victor Hugo_

The father of Victor Hugo was a general in the army of Napoleon, his mother a woman of rare grace and brave good sense. Victor was the third of three sons. Six weeks before the birth of her youngest boy, the mother wrote to a very dear friend of her husband, this letter:

"To General Victor Lahorie,

"Soon to become the mother of a third child, it would be very agreeable to me if you would act as its godfather. Its name shall be yours--one which you have not belied and one which you have so well honored: Victor or Victorine. Your consent will be a testimonial of your friendship for us.

"Please accept, Citizen-General, the assurance of our sincere attachment.

"Femme Hugo."

Victorine was expected, Victor came. General Lahorie acted as sponsor for the infant.

A soldier's family lives here or there, everywhere or anywhere. In Eighteen Hundred Eight, General Hugo was with Joseph Bonaparte in Spain. Victor was then six years old. His mother had taken as a residence a quaint house in the Impasse of the Feullantines, Paris.

It was one of those peculiar old places occasionally seen in France. The environs of London have a few; America none of which I know. This house, roomy, comfortable and antiquated, was surrounded with trees and a tangle of shrubbery, vines and flowers; above it all was a high stone wall, and in front a picket iron gate. It was a mosaic--a sample of the Sixteenth Century inlaid in this; solitary as the woods; quiet as a convent; sacred as a forest; a place for dreams, and reverie, and rest. At the back of the house was a dilapidated little chapel. Here an aged priest counted his beads, said daily mass, and endeavored to keep moth, rust and ruin from the house of prayer. This priest was a scholar, a man of learning: he taught the children of Madame Hugo.

Another man lived in this chapel. He never went outside the gate and used to take exercise at night. He had a cot-bed in the shelter of the altar; beneath his pillow were a pair of pistols and a copy of Tacitus. This man lived there Summer and Winter, although there was no warmth save the scanty sunshine that stole in through the shattered windows. He, too, taught the children and gave them little lectures on history. He loved the youngest boy and would carry him on his shoulder and tell him stories of deeds of valor.

One day a file of soldiers came. They took this man and manacled him. The mother sought to keep her children inside the house so that they should not witness the scene, but she did not succeed. The boys fought their mother and the servants in a mad frenzy trying to rescue the old man. The soldiers formed in columns of four and marched their prisoner away.

Not long after, Madame Hugo was passing the church of Saint Jacques du Haut Pas: her youngest boy's hand was in hers. She saw a large placard posted in front of the church. She paused and pointing to it said, "Victor, read that!" The boy read. It was a notice that General Lahorie had been shot that day on the plains of Grenville by order of a court martial.

General Lahorie was a gentleman of Brittany. He was a Republican, and five years before had grievously offended the Emperor. A charge of conspiracy being proved against him, a price was placed upon his head, and he found a temporary refuge with the mother of his godson.

That tragic incident of the arrest, and the placard announcing General Lahorie's death, burned deep into the soul of the manling, and who shall say to what extent it colored his future life?

When Napoleon met his downfall, it was also a Waterloo for General Hugo. His property was confiscated, and penury took the place of plenty.

When Victor was nineteen, his mother having died, the family life was broken up. In "Les Miserables" the early struggles of Marius are described; and this, the author has told us, may be considered autobiography. He has related how the young man lived in a garret; how he would sweep this barren room; how he would buy a pennyworth of cheese, waiting until dusk to get a loaf of bread, and slink home as furtively as if he had stolen it; how carrying his book under his arm he would enter the butcher's shop, and after being elbowed by jeering servants till he felt the cold sweat standing out on his forehead, he would take off his hat to the astonished butcher and ask for a single mutton-chop. This he would carry to his garret, and cooking it himself it would be made to last for three days.

In this way he managed to live on less than two hundred dollars a year, derived from the proceeds of poems, pamphlets and essays. At this time he was already an "Academy Laureate," having received honorable mention for a poem submitted in a competition.

In his twentieth year, fortune came to him in triple form: he brought out a book of poems that netted him seven hundred francs; soon after the publication of this book, Louis the Eighteenth, who knew the value of having friends who were ready writers, bestowed on him a pension of one thousand francs a year; then these two pieces of good fortune made possible a third--his marriage.

Early marriages are like late ones: they may be wise and they may not. Victor Hugo's marriage with Adele Foucher was a most happy event.

A man with a mind as independent as Victor Hugo's is sure to make enemies. The "Classics" were positive that he was defiling the well of Classic French, and they sought to write him down. But by writing a man up you can not write him down; the only thing that can smother a literary aspirant is silence.

Victor Hugo coined the word when he could not find it, transposed phrases, inverted sentences, and never called a spade an agricultural implement. Not content with this, he put the spade on exhibition and this often at unnecessary times, and occasionally prefaced the word with an adjective. Had he been let alone he would not have done this.

The censors told him he must not use the name of Deity, nor should he refer so often to kings. At once, he doubled his Topseys and put on his stage three Uncle Toms when one might have answered. Like Shakespeare, he used idioms and slang with profusion--anything to express the idea. Will this convey the thought? If so, it was written down, and, once written, Beelzebub and all his hosts could not make him change it. But in the interest of truth let me note one exception:

"I do not like that word," said Mademoiselle Mars to Victor Hugo at a rehearsal of "Hernani"; "can I not change it?"

"I wrote it so and it must stand," was the answer.

Mademoiselle Mars used another expression instead of the author's, and he promptly asked her to resign her part. She wept, and upon agreeing to adhere to the text was reinstated in favor.

Rehearsal after rehearsal occurred, and the words were repeated as written. The night of the performance came. Superb was the stage-setting, splendid the audience. The play went forward amid loud applause. The scene was reached where came the objectionable word. Did Mademoiselle Mars use it? Of course not; she used the word she chose--she was a woman. Fifty-three times she played the part, and not once did she use the author's pet phrase; and he was wise enough not to note the fact. The moral of this is that not even a strong man can cope with a small woman who weeps at the right time.

The censorship forbade the placing of "Marion Delorme" on the stage until a certain historical episode in it had been changed. Would the author be so kind as to change it? Not he.

"Then it shall not be played," said M. de Martignac.

The author hastened to interview the minister in person. He got a North Pole reception. In fact, M. de Martignac said that it was his busy day, and that playwriting was foolish business anyway; but if a man were bound to write, he should write to amuse, not to instruct. And young Hugo was bowed out.

When he found himself well outside the door he was furious. He would see the King himself. And he did see the King. His Majesty was gracious and very patient. He listened to the young author's plea, talked book-lore, recited poetry, showed that he knew Hugo's verses, asked after the author's wife, then the baby, and--said that the play could not go on. Hugo turned to go. Charles the Tenth called him back, and said that he was glad the author had called--in fact, he was about to send for him. His pension thereafter should be six thousand francs a year.

Victor Hugo declined to receive it. Of course, the papers were full of the subject. All cafedom took sides: Paris had a topic for gesticulation, and Paris improved the opportunity.

Conservatism having stopped this play, there was only one thing to do: write another; for a play of Victor Hugo's must be put upon the stage. All his friends said so; his honor was at stake.

In three weeks another play was ready. The censors read it and gave their report. They said that "Hernani" was whimsical in conception, defective in execution, a tissue of extravagances, generally trivial and often coarse. But they advised that it be put upon the stage, just to show the public to what extent of folly an author could go. In order to preserve the dignity of their office, they drew up a list of six places where the text should be changed.

Both sides were afraid, so each was willing to give in a point. The text was changed, and the important day for the presentation was drawing nigh. The Romanticists were, of course, anxious that the play should be a great success; the Classics were quite willing that it should be otherwise; in fact, they had bought up the claque and were making arrangements to hiss it down. But the author's friends were numerous; they were young and lusty; they held meetings behind locked doors, and swore terrible oaths that the play should go.

On the day of the initial performance, five hours before the curtain rose, they were on hand, having taken the best seats in the house. They also took the worst, wherever a hisser might hide. These advocates of liberal art wore coats of green or red or blue, costumes like bullfighters, trousers and hats to match or not to match--anything to defy tradition. All during the performance there was an uproar. Theophile Gautier has described the event in most entertaining style, and in "L'Historie de Romanticisme" the record of it is found in detail.

Several American writers have touched upon this particular theme, and all who have seen fit to write of it seem to have stood under umbrellas when God rained humor. One writer calls it "the outburst of a tremendous revolution in literature." He speaks of "smoldering flames," "the hordes that furiously fought entrenched behind prestige, age, caste, wealth and tradition," "suppression and extermination of heresy," "those who sought to stop the onward march of civilization," etc. Let us be sensible. A "cane-rush" is not a revolution, and "Bloody Monday" at Harvard is not "a decisive battle in the onward and upward march."

If "Hernani" had been hissed down, Victor Hugo would have lived just as long and might have written better.

Civilization is not held in place by noisy youths in flaming waistcoats; and even if every cabbage had hit its mark, and every egg bespattered its target, the morning stars would still sing together.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was next turned out--written in five months--and was a great success. Publishers besieged the author for another story, but he preferred poetry. It was thirty years before his next novel, "Les Miserables," appeared. But all the time he wrote--plays, verses, essays, pamphlets. Everything that he penned was widely read. Amid storms of opposition and cries of bravo, continually making friends, he moved steadily forward.

Men like Victor Hugo can be killed or they may be banished, but they can not be bought; neither can they be intimidated into silence. He resigned his pension and boldly expressed himself in his own way.

He knew history by heart and toyed with it; politics was his delight. But it is a mistake to call him a statesman. He was bold to rashness, impulsive, impatient and vehement. Because a man is great is no reason why he should be proclaimed perfect. Such men as Victor Hugo need no veneer--the truth will answer: he would explode a keg of powder to kill a fly. He was an agitator. But these zealous souls are needed--not to govern or to be blindly followed, but rather to make other men think for themselves. Yet to do this in a monarchy is not safe.

The years passed, and the time came for either Hugo or Royalty to go; France was not large enough for both. It proved to be Hugo; a bounty of twenty-five thousand francs was offered for his body, dead or alive. Through a woman's devotion he escaped to Brussels. He was driven from there to Jersey, then to Guernsey.

It was nineteen years before he returned to Paris--years of banishment, but years of glory. Exiled by Fate that he might do his work!

* * * * *

Each day a steamer starts from Southampton for Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey. These are names known to countless farmers' boys the wide world over.

You can not mistake the Channel Island boats--they smell like a county fair, and though you be blind and deaf it is impossible to board the wrong craft. Every time one of these staunch little steamers lands in England, crates containing mild-eyed, lusty calves are slid down the gangplank, marked for Maine, Iowa, California, or some uttermost part of the earth. There his vealship (worth his weight in gold) is going to found a kingdom.

I stood on the dock watching the bovine passengers disembark, and furtively listened the while to an animated argument between two rather rough-looking, red-faced men, clothed in corduroys and carrying long, stout staffs. Mixed up in their conversation I caught the names of royalty, then of celebrities great, and artists famous--warriors, orators, philanthropists and musicians. Could it be possible that these rustics were poets? It must be so. And there came to me thoughts of Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Joaquin Miller, and all that sublime company of singers in shirt-sleeves.

Suddenly the wind veered and the veil fell; all the sacred names so freely bandied about were those of "families" with mighty milk-records.

When we went on board and the good ship was slipping down The Solent, I made the acquaintance of these men and was regaled with more cow-talk than I had heard since I left Texas.

We saw the island of Portsea, where Dickens was born, and got a glimpse of the spires of Portsmouth as we passed; then came the Isle of Wight and the quaint town of Cowes. I made a bright joke on the latter place as it was pointed out to me by my Jersey friend, but it went for naught.

A pleasant sail of eight hours and the towering cliffs of Guernsey came in sight. Foam-dashed and spray-covered they rise right out of the sea at the south, to the height of two hundred seventy feet. About them great flocks of sea-fowl hover, swirl and soar. Wild, rugged and romantic is the scene.

The Isle of Guernsey is nine miles long and six wide. Its principal town is Saint Peter Port, a place of about sixteen thousand inhabitants, where a full dozen hotel porters meet the incoming steamer and struggle for your baggage.

Hotels and boarding-houses here are numerous and good. Guernsey is a favorite resort for invalids and those who desire to flee the busy world for a space. In fact, the author of "Les Miserables" has made exile popular.

Emerging from my hotel at Saint Peter Port I was accosted by a small edition of Gavroche, all in tatters, who proposed showing me the way to Hauteville House for a penny. I already knew the route, but accepted the offer on Gavroche's promise to reveal to me a secret about the place. The secret is this: The house is haunted, and when the wind is east, and the setting moon shows only a narrow rim above the rocks, ghosts come and dance a solemn minuet on the glass roof above the study.

Had Gavroche ever seen them? No, but he knew a boy who had. Years and years--ever so many years ago--long before there were any steamboats, and when only a schooner came to Guernsey once a week, a woman was murdered in Hauteville House. Her ghost came back with other ghosts and drove the folks away. So the big house remained vacant--save for the spooks, who paid no rent.

Then after a great, long time Victor Hugo came and lived in the house. The ghosts did not bother him. Faith! they had been keeping the place just a' purpose for him. He rented the house first, and liked it so well that he bought it--got it at half-price on account of the ghosts. Here, every Christmas, Victor Hugo gave a big dinner in the great oak hall to all the children in Guernsey: hundreds of them--all the way from babies that could barely creep, to "boys" with whiskers. They were all fed on turkey, tarts, apples, oranges and figs; and when they went away, each was given a bag of candy to take home.

Climbing a narrow, crooked street we came to the great, dark, gloomy edifice situated at the top of a cliff. The house was painted black by some strange whim of a former occupant.

"We will leave it so," said Victor Hugo; "liberty is dead, and we are in mourning for her."

But the gloom of Hauteville House is only on the outside. Within all is warm and homelike. The furnishings are almost as the poet left them, and the marks of his individuality are on every side.

In the outer hall stands an elegant column of carved oak, its panels showing scenes from "The Hunchback." In the dining-room there is fantastic wainscoting with plaques and porcelain tiles inlaid here and there. Many of these ornaments were presents, sent by unknown admirers in all parts of the world.

In "Les Miserables" there is a chance line revealing the author's love for the beautiful as shown in the grain of woods. The result was an influx of polished panels, slabs, chips, hewings, carvings, and in one instance a log sent "collect." Samples of redwood, ebony, calamander, hamamelis, suradanni, tamarind, satinwood, mahogany, walnut, maples of many kinds and oaks without limit--all are there. A mammoth ax-helve I noticed on the wall was labeled, "Shagbark-hickory from Missouri."

These specimens of wood were sometimes made up into hatracks, chairs, canes, or panels for doors, and are seen in odd corners of these rambling rooms. Charles Hugo once facetiously wrote to a friend: "We have bought no kindling for three years." At another time he writes:

"Father still is sure he can sketch and positive he can carve. He has several jackknives, and whittles names, dates and emblems on sticks and furniture--we tremble for the piano."

In the dining-room, I noticed a huge oaken chair fastened to the wall with a chain. On the mantel was a statuette of the Virgin; on the pedestal Victor Hugo had engraved lines speaking of her as "Freedom's Goddess." This dining-room affords a sunny view out into the garden; on this floor are also a reception-room, library and a smoking-room.

On the next floor are various sleeping-apartments, and two cozy parlors, known respectively as the red room and the blue. Both are rich in curious draperies, a little more pronounced in color than some folks admire.

The next floor contains the "Oak Gallery": a ballroom we should call it. Five large windows furnish a flood of light. In the center of this fine room is an enormous candelabrum with many branches, at the top a statue of wood, the whole carved by Victor Hugo's own hands.

The Oak Gallery is a regular museum of curiosities of every sort--books, paintings, carvings, busts, firearms, musical instruments. A long glass case contains a large number of autograph-letters from the world's celebrities, written to Hugo in exile.

At the top of the house and built on its flat roof is the most interesting apartment of Hauteville House--the study and workroom of Victor Hugo. Three of its sides and the roof are of glass. The floor, too, is one immense slab of sea-green glass. Sliding curtains worked by pulleys cut off the light as desired. "More light, more light," said the great man again and again. He gloried and reveled in the sunshine.

Here, in the Winter, with no warmth but the sun's rays, his eyes shaded by his felt hat, he wrote, always standing at a shelf fixed in the wall. On this shelf were written all "The Toilers," "The Man Who Laughs," "Shakespeare" and much of "Les Miserables." The leaves of manuscript were numbered and fell on the floor, to remain perhaps for days before being gathered up.

When Victor Hugo went to Guernsey he went to liberty, not to banishment. He arrived at Hauteville House poor in purse and broken in health. Here the fire of his youth came back, and his pen retrieved the fortune that royalty had confiscated. The forenoons were given to earnest work. The daughter composed music; the sons translated Shakespeare and acted as their father's faithful helpers; Madame Hugo collected the notes of her husband's life and cheerfully looked after her household affairs.

Several hours of each afternoon were given to romp and play; the evenings were sacred to music, reading and conversation.

Horace Greeley was once a prisoner in Paris. From his cell he wrote, "The Saint Peter who holds the keys of this place has kindly locked the world out; and for once, thank Heaven, I am free from intrusion."

Lovers of truth must thank exile for some of our richest and ripest literature. Exile is not all exile. Imagination can not be imprisoned. Amid the winding bastions of the brain, thought roams free and untrammeled.

Liberty is only a comparative term, and Victor Hugo at Guernsey enjoyed a thousand times more freedom than ever ruling monarch knew.

Standing at the shelf-desk where this "Gentleman of France" stood for so many happy hours, I inscribed my name in the "visitors' book."

I thanked the good woman who had shown me the place, and told me so much of interest--thanked her in words that seemed but a feeble echo of all that my heart would say.

I went down the stairs--out at the great carved doorway--and descended the well-worn steps.

Perched on a crag waiting for me was little Gavroche, his rags fluttering in the breeze. He offered to show me the great stone chair where Gilliatt sat when the tide came up and carried him away. And did I want to buy a bull calf? Gavroche knew where there was a fine one that could be bought cheap. Gavroche would show me both the calf and the stone chair for threepence.

I accepted the offer, and we went down the stony street toward the sea, hand in hand.

* * * * *

On the Twenty-eighth day of June, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-four, I took my place in the long line and passed slowly through the Pantheon at Paris and viewed the body of President Carnot.

The same look of proud dignity that I had seen in life was there--calm, composed, serene. The inanimate clay was clothed in the simple black of a citizen of the Republic; the only mark of office being the red silken sash that covered the spot in the breast where the stiletto-stroke of hate had gone home.

Amid bursts of applause, surrounded by loving friends and loyal adherents, he was stricken down and passed out into the Unknown. Happy fate! to die before the fickle populace had taken up a new idol; to step in an instant beyond the reach of malice--to leave behind the self-seekers that pursue, the hungry horde that follows, the zealots who defame; to escape the dagger-thrust of calumny and receive only the glittering steel that at the same time wrote his name indelibly on the roll of honor.

Carnot, thrice happy thou! Thy name is secure on history's page, and thy dust now resting beneath the dome of the Pantheon is bedewed with the tears of thy countrymen.

Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, died in Five Hundred Twelve. She was buried on a hilltop, the highest point in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. Over the grave was erected a chapel which for many years was a shrine for the faithful. This chapel with its additions remained until Seventeen Hundred Fifty, when a church was designed which in beauty of style and solidity of structure has rarely been equaled. The object of the architect was to make the most enduring edifice possible, and still not sacrifice proportion.

Louis the Fifteenth laid the cornerstone of this church in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-four, and in Seventeen Hundred Ninety the edifice was dedicated by the Roman Catholics with great pomp. But the spirit of revolution was at work; and in one year after, a mob sacked this beautiful building, burned its pews, destroyed its altar, and wrought havoc with its ecclesiastical furniture.

The Convention converted the structure into a memorial temple, inscribing on its front the words, "Aux grandes Hommes la patrie reconnaisante," and they named the building the Pantheon.

In Eighteen Hundred Six, the Catholics had gotten such influence with the government that the building was restored to them. After the revolution of Eighteen Hundred Thirty, the church of Saint Genevieve was again taken from the priests. It was held until Eighteen Hundred Fifty-one, when the Romanists in the Assembly succeeded in having it again reconsecrated. In the meantime, many of the great men of France had been buried there.

The first interment in the Pantheon was Mirabeau. Next came Marat--stabbed while in the bath by Charlotte Corday. Both bodies were removed by order of the Convention when the church was given back to Rome.

In the Pantheon, the visitor now sees the elaborate tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau. In the dim twilight he reads the glowing inscriptions, and from the tomb of Rousseau he sees the hand thrust forth bearing a torch--but the bones of these men are not here.

While robed priests chanted the litany, as the great organ pealed, and swinging censers gave off their perfume, visitors came, bringing children, and they stopped at the arches where Rousseau and Voltaire slept side by side, and they said, "It is here." And so the dust of infidel greatness seemed to interfere with the rites. A change was made. Let Victor Hugo tell:

"One night in May, Eighteen Hundred Fourteen, about two o'clock in the morning, a cab stopped near the city gate of La Gare at an opening in a board fence. This fence surrounded a large, vacant piece of ground belonging to the city of Paris. The cab had come from the Pantheon, and the coachman had been ordered to take the most deserted streets. Three men alighted from the cab and crawled into the enclosure. Two carried a sack between them. Other men, some in cassocks, awaited them. They proceeded towards a hole dug in the middle of the field. At the bottom of the hole was quicklime. These men said nothing, they had no lanterns. The wan daybreak gave a ghastly light; the sack was opened. It was full of bones. These were the bones of Jean Jacques and of Voltaire, which had been withdrawn from the Pantheon.

"The mouth of the sack was brought close to the hole, and the bones rattled down into that black pit. The two skulls struck against each other; a spark, not likely to be seen by those standing near, was doubtless exchanged between the head that made 'The Philosophical Dictionary' and the head that made 'The Social Contract,' When that was done, when the sack was shaken, when Voltaire and Rousseau had been emptied into that hole, a digger seized a spade, threw into the opening the heap of earth, and filled up the grave. The others stamped with their feet upon the ground, so as to remove from it the appearance of having been freshly disturbed. One of the assistants took for his trouble the sack--as the hangman takes the clothing of his victim--they left the enclosure, got into the cab without saying a word, and, hastily, before the sun had risen, these men got away."

The ashes of the man who wrote these vivid words now rest next to the empty tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau. But a step away is the grave of Sadi-Carnot.

When the visitor is conducted to the crypt of the Pantheon, he is first taken to the tomb of Victor Hugo. The sarcophagus on each side is draped with the red, white and blue of France and the stars and stripes of America. With uncovered heads, we behold the mass of flowers and wreaths, and our minds go back to Eighteen Hundred Eighty-five, when the body of the chief citizen of Paris lay in state at the Pantheon and five hundred thousand people passed by and laid the tribute of silence or of tears on his bier.

The Pantheon is now given over as a memorial to the men of France who have enriched the world with their lives. Over the portals of this beautiful temple are the words, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite." Across its floors of rarest mosaic echo only the feet of pilgrims and those of the courteous and kindly old soldiers who have the place in charge. On the walls color revels in beautiful paintings, and in the niches and on the pedestals is marble that speaks of greatness which lives in lives made better.

The history of the Pantheon is one of strife. As late as Eighteen Hundred Seventy the Commune made it a stronghold, and the streets on every side were called upon to contribute their paving-stones for a barricade. Yet it seems meet that Victor Hugo's dust should lie here amid the scenes he loved and knew, and where he struggled, worked, toiled, achieved; from whence he was banished, and to which he returned in triumph, to receive at last the complete approbation so long withheld.

Certainly not in the quiet of a mossy graveyard, nor in a church where priests mumble unmeaning words at fixed times, nor yet alone on the mountain-side--for he chafed at solitude--but he should have been buried at sea. In the midst of storm and driving sleet, at midnight, the sails should have been lowered, the great engines stopped, and with no requiem but the sobbing of the night-wind and the sighing of the breeze through the shrouds, and the moaning of the waves as they surged about the great, black ship, the plank should have been run out, and the body wrapped in the red, white and blue of the Republic: the sea, the infinite mother of all, beloved and sung by him, should have taken his tired form to her arms, and there he would rest.

If not this, then the Pantheon.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Victor Hugo