Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

the general idea which all people have formed of Voltaire; but whatever opinion may be entertained of the character of that remarkable man, the meed of a restless, wondrous activity cannot be denied to him. It is, indeed, difficult to understand, how he could have met all his engagements. He made his days long, for he rose at five and went to bed at ten. He complained of broken sleep: "I do not renounce, he says in one of his letters, the good digestions and sound sleep that you promise me; but such do not depend upon ourselves. It is in our power to clear uncultivated lands and to build houses in deserts, but he does not sleep who wills it." His correspondence was immense, and his literary labours incessant, and that at a time when he declares that his agricultural labours occupied him from morning to night, and that he was even breeding horses. "My seraglio is ready," he wrote; "there is only the sultan wanting. So much has been written about population, that I will at least people the county of Gex with horses, not expecting the honour of propagating my own species." He exercised hospitality "en grand seigneur," inviting his friends the philosophers Condorcet, D'Alembert, and Diderot to share his retreat with him, receiving persons of distinction, as the Marshal de Richelieu and the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha, which made him say that he was the hotel-keeper of Europe; upholding even the pleasures of the stage, in which he took parts with Lekain, with Mademoiselle Clairon, and Madame Denis. He was partial to every little amusement, especially chess, but grumbled at the waste of time they entailed. "To pass two hours," he exclaimed, "in moving about little pieces of wood! One could have written a scene in the same time!" His great antagonist was le père Adam, who, we are told, skilfully kept his superiority to himself.

But, above all, came his laborious enterprise of transforming the county of Gex into a rich productive territory. "Do you know," he wrote, "that in my retreat I have not a moment's leisure; I must be always building, planting, writing, arranging plays, instructing actors." "I have quarrelled with my oxen, they are too slow; they do not suit my vivacity. They are always ill; I want people who work quickly and enjoy good health. If precipitation spoils affairs, there are others that demand despatch. We must sometimes sap, but we must also sometimes mount the breach."

Nevertheless, health-without which nothing is enjoyable, without which there is nothing in the world, he used to say-failed him. "Certain newsmongers of Paris, who always speak the truth and know everything, have spread the report that I was dead, and they were not far wrong. It is true that I am not dead, but I cannot, at the same time, say positively that I am alive." "I have been on the point of ending my career, but nature permits me to take still a few steps." "The Parcæ, who have already woven many years for me" (he was then eightytwo years of age), "still permit me to live, but the wretches have broken the thread in so many places that it is now worthless." "A man of so slight a frame as myself would not expect a kind of apoplexy. I have experienced such just for the rarity of the thing." "The ethic apoplectic is obliged to remain in his bed till mid-day now, and that after going to bed early."

Long before this epoch he had delicate health, and yet his liveliness

66

was inexhaustible. He proposed in 1769 to sell Tournay to M. de Prégny. "It will bring you nothing," he said, so long as I am alive, and I warn you that I intend to live till at least eighty-two, for my grandfather, who was as dry as myself, and wrote neither verse nor prose, lived eightythree. I, a labourer, a shepherd, a rat retired from the world into a Swiss cheese-I am satisfied with laughing and quizzing, without troubling myself about any one. It is true that I laugh and quiz a good deal; it does one good, and holds a man up in his old age." "Always walk laughing in the road of truth," he also wrote to D'Alembert.

It was in this limitrophal spot of Switzerland that this great man wrote his best works, and from it that he filled all Europe with his renown. Associating the sacred to the profane, he had erected a church by the side of his château. "The church that I have built," he said, "is the only one in the universe erected in honour of God. England has churches built to St. Paul, France to Sainte Geneviève, but not one to God." He had engraved on its front, in letters of gold, the much-discussed inscription, DEO EREXIT VOLTAIRE MDCCLXI.

One of his secretaries, Wagnière, relates that Voltaire had expressly charged him to have his body transported after his decease to Ferney and buried in the bath-room, although he had had a sepulchre constructed against the walls of the church. One day he observed to those who were with him, "That sepulchre, half in the church, half without, will induce scoffers to say that I am neither within nor without."

Nothing was more curious than Voltaire's life at Ferney: criticising abuses and privileges, combating superstition and prejudices, rousing the public mind to insurrection, proclaiming rights, of which the Revolution, which broke out eleven years afterwards, was the consummation, he stirred the world to its up He himself wrote, foundation. very J'ai fait un peu de bien: c'est mon meilleur ouvrage.

No doubt he did much good, but he did still more mischief, more especially by extending his ridicule and satire to principles and creeds which are surrounded by the respect of all parties.

So great was the curiosity to see and converse with the philosopher of Ferney, of whom Diderot said, if there was an infallible authority, he was one, and the King of Prussia, that it required ages before nature could produce a Voltaire, that he could not even see all who came to visit him. Madame Denis had to do the honours of the house, and at a certain hour he would leave his study to pass through the salon to his walk, and there the crowd would intercept him in his passage. When he saw that the crowd was too great, he would order the carriage round to a back door, and get away into the woods and fields by stealth.

His house was neatly and appropriately furnished, but without luxury. Everything in it was simple and commodious. "I could live very well upon a hundred crowns a month," he wrote to one of his friends; "but Madame Denis, the heroine of friendship and the victim of Frankfort, deserves palaces, cooks, equipages, good living, and a good fire." "Enjoy your quiet leisure," he wrote to another; "I shall enjoy my tranquil occupations, my ploughs, my bulls, my cows:

Hanc vitam in terris Saturnus agebat." All of which did not prevent him at times venting his spite against the

climate. "Here I am, sir," he wrote to M. de Chauvelin, "become a mole. Your excellency must know that as soon as the snow begins to fall on our fine mountains my eyes assume a charming red aspect, et que j'aurai très-bon air aux Quinze-Vingts. This leads me sometimes to entertain regrets at having built and planted between the Jura and the Alps; but now the job is done, and one must have heart even against snow, although I can no longer suffice for the expenses of a prince of the empire or of a farmer-general."

Voltaire was unsparing towards the "farmer-general" of the epoch-a system which the Revolution put an end to. He was asked one day to tell a story about thieves. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "there was once upon a time a farmer-general-I have forgotten the remainder." A trustworthy authority, M. Léonce de Lavergne, in a memoir on the Rural Economy of France, gives Voltaire credit for his labours in reclaiming poor lands, building villages for the labourers, promoting industry, and, above all, protecting the peasants from the exactions of the farmergeneral. "If the voluptuous inhabitants of towns," he himself wrote, "knew what it cost to procure bread for them, they would be terrified. Happy Parisians, enjoy the fruit of our labours, and criticise the OpéraComique!"

Such was Voltaire at Ferney, in his private and literary life, inditing his immortal works, in prose and in verse, upon history and philosophy; and keeping up that correspondence in which the most brilliant qualities of that lively, ardent, mocking, sceptical, universal, and impatient spirit, as Condorcet has it, shine with greater lustre than perhaps in any other of his writings; building a theatre, at once for work and for amusement; and erecting a church, as a reply to the charges of impiety laid at his door-a double labour which induced him to say, "If you meet with bigots on your way, tell them that I have finished my church, and if you meet with some amiable people, tell them that I have finished my theatre."

Ferney was a mere village before Voltaire's time; he made of it an elegant, animated little town, a beehive of industry and activity. This is one of the things that are most creditable to the man, apart from the poet and the philosopher.

"If all those who dwell on their own land would do what I do with mine," he wrote on one occasion, "the state would be more flourishing than it is. I have reclaimed a considerable extent of territory; I have built houses for the labourers; I have brought abundance where there was before dearth; I have created churches; my curés, the gentry, my neighbours, cannot bear unjust testimony to my labours, and even if the Frérons and the Pompignans should wish to do me an injury, it is not in their power to do so." He wrote to Madame de Necker: "You did not know what was reserved to the little country of Gex. It is about to become, thanks to M. de Choiseul, one of the most flourishing in Europe, and the land will be worth double its value in a few years." To Marshal Duke of Richelieu, he wrote: "I have succeeded in converting a miserable and unknown hamlet into a very pretty little town, and founding a commerce which embraces America, Africa, and Asia. (!) The sole advantages that I have derived from this establishment are the satisfaction of having done a thing which is uncommon to men of letters, and it seems

to me that it is at all events ruining oneself as a good citizen." Another time he wrote to the duke, manifestly with a view to governmental support: "I have at length succeeded in founding a pretty little town; it is true it is by ruining myself; but one cannot ruin oneself for more honest purposes. Some ministers give me all kind of aid, except money." Again: "A very pretty theatre, built after the designs of Saint Geran, in Ferney itself, helps to give to a frightful village, which was once the horror of nature, the aspect of a very pleasant town." The buildings erected by him he used to estimate at 500,000 francs, or 20,8331. of our money, but this must be accepted as one of his usual exaggerations. His enthusiasm in everything he undertook knew indeed no bounds.

"In spite of the opposition of certain great men," he wrote, "such as the Frérons, Clément, and Sabatier, Ferney has become a place of sufficient importance to merit the attention of the ministry. There are not only several large houses of stone in it, but also pleasure houses much beauty, and which would adorn Saint Cloud and Meudon. My little colony occupies my whole attention. I am having more stone houses built, which strangers-new subjects for the king-will inhabit next spring. I have built at Ferney, for Florian, a little house, which resembles, like two drops of water, a pavilion at Marly, except that it is pretty and fresher. We have five or six houses in that style."

"There are at Ferney," the Memoirs of Bachaumont put on record, "gardens, magnificent terraces, and all the dependencies of a very handsome château, built with all solidity. Not a day passes that M. Voltaire does not put out children to nurse. That is his expression for planting trees, an operation which he presides over himself. There are also a vast number of pictures, statues, and rarities, which must be of immense value. There are about eighty houses in the village, all well built. The worst of them is better than any in the most superb villages of the environs of Paris. (!) There are about eight hundred inhabitants, and three or four houses of well-to-do people (bons bourgeois). The other inhabitants are watchmakers, carpenters, and other artisans. Out of these eighty houses, at least sixty belong to Voltaire. He is certainly the creator of that country. He does a great deal of good."

As to the number of pictures and statues at the château of Ferney, we have Wagnière's authority that such statements are much exaggerated. M. de Voltaire, his secretary tells us, had at the most twenty pictures and a few busts, among which were the portraits of some princes and celebrated men whom he had in esteem. "He is now," added Wagnière, "having eighteen houses built, which will make altogether a hundred. He never ceases to increase Ferney; he has, probably, expended 100,000 fr. in houses this year. The theatre is charming. He shows to amateurs who visit him the portrait of the King of Prussia, presented to him by that monarch, as also a bust of himself in porcelain." -(Mémoires de Wagnière et Longchamps, Secrétaires de Voltaire, t. i. p. 371.)

Many vestiges remain, according to M. Evariste Bavoux, to the present day, of this habitation, so long animated by his presence. The mausoleum before alluded to, built against the walls of the church, still exists. An elm, planted by Voltaire, is protected by a railing from the destructive curiosity of pilgrims. There are portraits and busts of Voltaire, and a

portrait of the little Savoyard who acted as errand-boy when he resided at Sceaux, at the Duchess of Maine's; and the furniture of his bedroom is also religiously preserved. There is also the hedge of evergreens, beneath the shade of which he used so often to sit and seek the inspirations of his genius in sight of Mont Blanc. These are so many intimate fragments of the existence of a man who dominated the eighteenth century, and fill the mind with feelings of respectful reminiscences. "Three months after the decease of Voltaire," according to Wagnière, "this property, which he destined to remain for ever with the family, was sold by Madame Denis, to whom her uncle left 100,000 fr. to 120,000 fr. income (without reckoning 600,000 fr. in ready money, and the property of Ferney), to the Marquis of Villette, for 230,000 fr., or 250,000 fr. The marquis entered into possession in 1779, altered everything, and had the greater part of the furniture sold. He had a little mausoleum of baked earth varnished, probably the ruins of a fireplace, worth about a couple of pounds, placed in a cabinet, and he put on record that he had deposited there the heart of Voltaire, which was not the case."

Whatever we may think of these assertions of a man who was in violent hostility with Madame Denis and with M. de Villette, it is not the less certain that the little mausoleum constructed by the latter, and which bears on its face the following line,

Son esprit est partout, et son cœur est ici,

and above, "My manes have found comfort, since my heart is among you," still exists in the room that precedes his bedroom.

Voltaire, with all his faults, was not the mere defender of the rights of man as a theorist. His eloquent and persevering advocacy of Calas, Sirven, Lalli, De la Barre, D'Etallonde, and Montbailli, of the serfs of Jura, and of the peasants of Gex, fully testify to the excellence of his heart, and to the practical efficacy which he could give to the principles of justice which he ever advocated and upheld. He has been accused of being so far a humanitarian as to advocate the theory of the intellectual equality of men; on the contrary, he denounced the theory as utterly unfounded. "God," he said, "has given the power of song to nightingales, of scent to dogs, and there are some dogs that have no scent. What an extravagance to imagine that every man could have been a Newton! Do not attribute to me the greatest of impertinences." Nor was he, albeit a humanitarian and sometimes a flatterer of the great, always so considerate towards the people. "I have always a difficulty in conceiving," he wrote to Baron Constant de Rebecque concerning the French, "how a nation so agreeable can be at the same time so ferocious; how it can pass so easily from the Opera to Saint Bartholomew; be composed one moment of monkeys that dance, and another of howling bears; be at the same time so ingenious and so stupid; at one moment so courageous, and at another so cowardly."

One of the great principles for which he struggled all his lifetime was toleration. He never ceased to denounce fanaticism. "I acknowledge," he said, one day, "that I never in my lifetime tasted of a joy so sweet as when I embraced the little Calas, who is now at Geneva, and when we received at the same time intelligence of the most ample justice having been done to oppressed innocence. This great example will gnaw for a long

« AnteriorContinuar »