The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter iv.

Bonaparte’s Familiar Spirits

M. Mérimée was vile by nature, he must not be blamed for it.

With regard to M. de Morny it is otherwise, he was more worthy; there was something of the brigand in him.

M. de Morny was courageous. Brigandage has its sentiments of honor.

M. Mérimée has wrongly given himself out as one of the confederates of the coup d’état. He had, however, nothing to boast of in this.

The truth is that M. Mérimée was in no way a confidant. Louis Bonaparte made no useless confidences.

Let us add that it is little probable, notwithstanding some slight evidence to the contrary, that M. Mérimée, at the date of the 2d December, had any direct relations with Louis Bonaparte. This ensued later on. At first Mérimée only knew Morny.

Morny and Mérimée were both intimate at the Elysée, but on a different footing. Morny can be believed, but not Mérimée. Morny was in the great secrets, Mérimée in the small ones. Commissions of gallantry formed his vocation.

The familiars of the Elysée were of two kinds, the trustworthy confederates and the courtiers.

The first of the trustworthy confederates was Morny; the first — or the last — of the courtiers was Mérimée.

This is what made the fortune of M. Mérimée.

Crimes are only glorious during the first moment; they fade quickly. This kind of success lacks permanency; it is necessary promptly to supplement it with something else.

At the Elysée a literary ornament was wanted. A little savor of the Academy is not out of place in a brigand’s cavern. M. Mérimée was available. It was his destiny to sign himself “the Empress’s Jester.” Madame de Montijo presented him to Louis Bonaparte, who accepted him, and who completed his Court with this insipid but plausible writer.

This Court was a heterogeneous collection; a dinner-wagon of basenesses, a menagerie of reptiles, a herbal of poisons.

Besides the trustworthy confederates who were for use, and the courtiers who were for ornament, there were the auxiliaries.

Certain circumstances called for reinforcements; sometimes these were women, the Flying Squadron.

Sometimes men: Saint–Arnaud, Espinasse, Saint–George, Maupas.

Sometimes neither men nor women: the Marquis de C.

The whole troop was noteworthy.

Let us say a few words of it.

There was Vieillard the preceptor, an atheist with a tinge of Catholicism, a good billiard player.

Vieillard was an anecdotist. He recounted smilingly the following:— Towards the close of 1807 Queen Hortense, who of her own accord lived in Paris, wrote to the King Louis that she could not exist any longer without seeing him, that she could not do without him, and that she was about to come to the Hague. The King said, “She is with child.” He sent for his minister Van Maanen, showed him the Queen’s letter, and added, “She is coming. Very good. Our two chambers communicate by a door; the Queen will find it walled up.” Louis took his royal mantle in earnest, for he exclaimed, “A King’s mantle shall never serve as coverlet to a harlot.” The minister Van Maanen, terrified, sent word of this to the Emperor. The Emperor fell into a rage, not against Hortense, but against Louis. Nevertheless Louis held firm; the door was not walled up, but his Majesty was; and when the Queen came he turned his back upon her. This did not prevent Napoleon III. from being born.

A suitable number of salvoes of cannon saluted this birth.

Such was the story which, in the summer of 1840, in the house called La Terrasse, before witnesses, among whom was Ferdinand B— — Marquis de la L— — a companion during boyhood of the author of this book, was told by M. Vieillard, an ironical Bonapartist, an arrant sceptic.

Besides Vieillard there was Vaudrey, whom Louis Bonaparte made a General at the same time as Espinasse. In case of need a Colonel of Conspiracies can become a General of Ambuscades.

There was Fialin,14 the corporal who became a Duke.

There was Fleury, who was destined to the glory of travelling by the side of the Czar on his buttocks.

There was Lacrosse, a Liberal turned Clerical, one of those Conservatives who push order as far as the embalming, and preservation as far as the mummy: later on a senator.

There was Larabit, a friend of Lacrosse, as much a domestic and not less a senator.

There was Canon Coquereau, the “Abbé of La Belle–Poule.” The answer is known which he made to a princess who asked him, “What is the Elysée?” It appears that one can say to a princess what one cannot say to a woman.

There was Hippolyte Fortoul, of the climbing genus, of the worth of a Gustave Planche or of some Philarête Chasles, an ill-tempered writer who had become Minister of the Marine, which caused Béranger to say, “This Fortoul knows all the spars, including the ‘greased pole.’”

There were some Auvergants there. Two. They hated each other. One had nicknamed the other “the melancholy tinker.”

There was Sainte–Beuve, a distinguished but inferior man, having a pardonable fondness for ugliness. A great critic like Cousin is a great philosopher.

There was Troplong, who had had Dupin for Procurator, and whom Dupin had had for President. Dupin, Troplong; the two side faces of the mask placed upon the brow of the law.

There was Abbatucci; a conscience which let everything pass by. To-day a street.

There was the Abbé M— — later on Bishop of Nancy, who emphasized with a smile the oaths of Louis Bonaparte.

There were the frequenters of a famous box at the Opera, Montg —— and Sept — — placing at the service of an unscrupulous prince the deep side of frivolous men.

There was Romieu — the outline of a drunkard behind a Red spectre.

There was Malitourne — not a bad friend, coarse and sincere.

There was Cuch — — whose name caused hesitation amongst the ushers at the saloon doors.

There was Suin — a man able to furnish excellent counsel for bail actions.

There was Dr. Veron — who had on his cheek what the other men of the Elysée had in their hearts.

There was Mocquart — once a handsome member of the Dutch Court. Mocquart possessed romantic recollections. He might by age, and perhaps otherwise, have been the father of Louis Bonaparte. He was a lawyer. He had shown himself quick-witted about 1829, at the same time as Romieu. Later on he had published something, I no longer remember what, which was pompous and in quarto size, and which he sent to me. It was he who in May, 1847, had come with Prince de la Moskowa to bring me King Jérome’s petition to the Chamber of Peers. This petition requested the readmittance of the banished Bonaparte family into France. I supported it; a good action, and a fault which I would again commit.

There was Billault, a semblance of an orator, rambling with facility, and making mistakes with authority, a reputed statesman. What constitutes the statesman is a certain superior mediocrity.

There was Lavalette, completing Morny and Walewski.

There was Bacciochi.

And yet others.

It was at the inspiration of these intimate associates that during his Presidency Louis Bonaparte, a species of Dutch Machiavelli, went hither and thither, to the Chamber and elsewhere, to Tours, to Ham, to Dijon, snuffling, with a sleepy air, speeches full of treason.

The Elysée, wretched as it was, holds a place in the age. The Elysée, has engendered catastrophes and ridicule.

One cannot pass it over in silence.

The Elysée was the disquieting and dark corner of Paris. In this bad spot, the denizens were little and formidable. They formed a family circle — of dwarfs. They had their maxim: to enjoy themselves. They lived on public death. There they inhaled shame, and they throve on that which kills others. It was there that was reared up with art, purpose, industry, and goodwill, the decadence of France. There worked the bought, fed, and obliging public men; — read prostituted. Even literature was compounded there as we have shown; Vieillard was a classic of 1830, Morny created Choufleury, Louis Bonaparte was a candidate for the Academy. Strange place. Rambouillet’s hotel mingled itself with the house of Bancal. The Elysée has been the laboratory, the counting-house, the confessional, the alcove, the den of the reign. The Elysée assumed to govern everything, even the morals — above all the morals. It spread the paint on the bosom of women at the same time as the color on the faces of the men. It set the fashion for toilette and for music. It invented the crinoline and the operetta. At the Elysée a certain ugliness was considered as elegance; that which makes the countenance noble was there scoffed at, as was that which makes the soul great; the phrase, “human face divine” was ridiculed at the Elysée, and it was there that for twenty years every baseness was brought into fashion — effrontery included.

History, whatever may be its pride, is condemned to know that the Elysée existed. The grotesque side does not prevent the tragic side. There is at the Elysée a room which has seen the second abdication, the abdication after Waterloo. It is at the Elysée that Napoleon the First ended and that Napoleon the Third began. It is at the Elysée that Dupin appeared to the two Napoleons; in 1815 to depose the Great, in 1851 to worship the Little. At this last epoch this place was perfectly villainous. There no longer remained one virtue there. At the Court of Tiberius there was still Thraseas, but round Louis Bonaparte there was nobody. If one sought Conscience, one found Baroche; if one sought Religion, one found Montalembert.

14 Better known afterwards as Persigny.

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