AT a brilliant fête given by the city of Paris to the first Napoleon, the emperor suddenly paused, in his progress through the gay crowd, in front of a pretty woman with an animated, eager face, and asked her name. Her answer was simply this : “ I am the daughter of Beaumarchais.” Have we any idea of the just pride with which those words were uttered, or can we feel how much they meant to him who heard them ? It may answer for the world at large to remember only that Beaumarchais was the author of the Barber of Seville, and the witty defendant in some famous lawsuits ; but students of our early history are aware of his claims to the grateful remembrance of American citizens, ignored and controverted though those claims have been.
The only boy in a family of six children, Pierre Augustin Caron, better known as Beaumarchais, was born in Paris in 1732, the year of Washington’s birth. Undreamed of then, it is rarely recalled now, that the one was to supplement the other ; that the opportune, sorely needed succor sent by Beaumarchais from France for our brave men at Valley Forge cheered the sinking heart of the great general in that darkest hour before dawn. Beaumarchais died convinced that we were utterly ungrateful. Is it true, and if true can we afford to remain so ?
That was a humble home in the Rue St. Denis, where the watchmaker, his father, dwelt; but hardly in our own favored land could one be found more affectionate, more cultivated, or more refined in its atmosphere. There were five sisters to pet and admire the only brother among them, and at fifteen Pierre would seem to have been a lively, spoiled child, devoted to music, in which he excelled, and fond of playing pranks and writing verses instead of working steadily at his father’s trade, to which he was apprenticed. Music, indeed, must have been a family gift. All the children played on one or more instruments, and composed accompaniments to the little songs which they wrote on various festive occasions ; for there was evidently a great deal of fun and fondness, as well as accomplishment and cultivation, in this watchmaker’s home. One sister, Julia, understood Italian and Spanish well, and enjoyed the writings of Young and Richardson. Her letters are very graceful and lively, and she became in later life an author. Like her brother, however, her character is more remarkable than her writings.
The father was of good Huguenot stock, but had signed his public recantation before Pierre was born. It must be remembered that he could not otherwise have established himself in business in Paris, such was the prevalent intolerance even in those days of indifference and skepticism. When his son was hardly eighteen, his father turned him out-of-doors for idleness and dissipation ; keeping an eye upon him all the time, however, and conspiring with some friends who went to the rescue of the boy. The following letter, in which the father consents to the return of the contrite prodigal, throws some light on the relation between parents and children in those days : —
“ Your great misfortune consists in my having lost all confidence in you. Nevertheless, the esteem and friendship which I feel for the excellent people who have befriended you, and the gratitude I owe them for their kindness, induce me to consent to your return, persuaded though I am that there is hardly any chance that you will keep your word. These are my conditions : (1.) That you shall make, sell, or cause to be made or sold absolutely nothing, except for me alone. You shall not sell even an old watch-key without rendering an account of it to me. (2.) You must get up in summer at six, and in winter at seven. You must work cheerfully till suppertime at anything I give you to do. I mean that you shall employ the ability God has given you to become famous in your profession. Remember that it is shameful and disgraceful not to excel, and that if you do not become eminent you forfeit my respect; for the love of such a noble art should penetrate your heart, and fill your mind to the exclusion of all other interests. (3.) You must not go out any more to supper, or stay away from home of an evening ; but you may dine with your friends on Sundays and holidays, on condition, however, that I know where you go, and that you always come back before nine o’clock. (4.) You must give up entirely your miserable music, and, above all, the society of other young men. Both these things have brought you to ruin. Nevertheless, through regard to your weakness, I allow you to play on the flute and violin ; but only on the express condition that it shall be in the evening on week days, and at such times and places, moreover, as shall not interfere with our neighbors’ rest, or my own either.”
The boy promised to obey, and faithfully kept his word. From this time he never seems to have forfeited his father’s esteem or affection; on the contrary, he became the pride and joy of his life. Two years after, he invented a tiny escapement for watches, but was robbed of all honor and profit for the time being by the dishonesty of a wellknown watchmaker of the city, in whom he had with pride confided, and who appropriated the invention. The lad prosecuted him, however, and finally triumphed. The suit had attracted attention, and soon after he was appointed watchmaker to the king. Then he made a watch with the new escapement as a present for Madame Pompadour, who wore it in a ring on her finger. Such watches became the fashion, and orders flowed in from all the courtiers and those who mimicked their ways. Among these customers came a lady whose husband, considerably older than herself, held a place in the king’s household. Enchanted with the young man’s appearance and manners, she cultivated his acquaintance, put him in the way of buying her husband’s place at court, when he gave it up, soon afterwards, and, on the old man’s death, married the handsome young watchmaker. From a small estate in her possession he now assumed the name of Beaumarchais, which he shared at once with his favorite sister, Julia. He became also, about this time, secretary to his majesty, — rather a sinecure, one would think, in this part of the reign of Louis XV., — and soon made himself indispensable to the princesses, those four royal ladies whose pious, retired life, in the centre of the gay, licentious court of their father, presented such a striking contrast to their surroundings. Beaumarchais taught them to play on everything, from a trombone to a jew’s-harp ; procured them all the instruments they wanted; organized and presided at the weekly entertainments they gave their father,— concerts attended by the queen, the dauphin, and all the best part of the court. The thoughtlessness of the princesses in money matters, or their inability to pay for the instruments he bought for their use, was an endless source of embarrassment to their protégé, whose means were far from unlimited. However, he was making his way. The dauphin liked the young man, and said once, “ Beaumarchais is the only person who speaks the truth to me.” After his untimely death, no doubt this partiality was an additional passport to his sisters’ favor.
The story of the watch has been often told, but may bear repetition. One day a young noble stopped Beaumarchais, as, all arrayed in his court suit, he was passing through the palace corridor, on his way to give a lesson to his royal pupils, and asked him, with mock gravity, to examine his watch, and see what was the matter with it. A group of youthful aristocrats at once drew near to enjoy the sport. “ I should not advise you to trust it in my hands,” said the young aspirant. “ I have grown very awkward.” His tormentor insisting, with profuse compliments, much to the amusement of his friends, Beaumarchais lifted the watch up to the light, as if to look closely at it, and then dropped it deliberately on the ground, so that it was crushed by the fall. Turning on his heel, saying, “ I told you I had grown very awkward,” he left the disconcerted courtier to pick up the pieces himself. Then he fought a duel, and killed another young nobleman, who had insulted him, but was too generous to reveal the name of his adversary before he died of his wounds.
He now persuaded his father, perhaps on account of all this trouble, to close his shop, and take up his abode with him. The old man did so reluctantly, but never seems to have repented of his acquiescence.
Through his influence with the king’s daughters, he ingratiated himself with an old speculator and financier, Paris Duverny, who had helped Voltaire to make his fortune, and was ready to do the same for young Beaumarchais. They entered into partnership, made extensive business arrangements, and set on foot many projects, almost always with a view to public benefit as well as private profit.
Meantime, two of Beaumarchais’s sisters had gone to Madrid, where one married an architect, and the younger became affianced to a literary man in favor at the Spanish court. Twice, when the wedding-day had been fixed and all preparations completed, the bridegroom had not been forthcoming, and the second time he failed to appear the young girl was made alarmingly ill by distress and mortification. Learning this, her brother first assured himself that she was in no wise to blame, and then departed post haste for Madrid, sought an interview with the faithless lover, and, on his refusing satisfaction, left no stone unturned till he had procured his public disgrace and summary dismissal. Goethe has made this story the subject of a play entitled Clavigo, in which he introduces Beaumarchais as “ the avenger.” Our hero remained a year in Madrid, where he made many friends, came into high favor at court, and contracted an intimacy with Lord Rochford, the English ambassador. Here again his “ miserable music ” made the bond of sympathy and contributed to his advancement.
He proposed at this time to colonize the Sierra Morena, to take the place of commissary-general of the king’s army, and also, I regret to say, obtained a monopoly for supplying the Spanish West India Islands with negroes direct from Africa. This project, however, seems ultimately to have been abandoned. His next step was to purchase a new place at court, that of lieutenant général des chasses, or superintendent of the king’s hunting grounds. This office involved the exercise of judicial functions, and now we find him invested with robes of state, holding court every week at the Palais de Justice.
He had lost his wife about a year after their marriage, and on his return from Spain there had been a projected union with a certain fair West Indian ward, in whom he was greatly interested, and who had become an inmate of his family. But this affair never culminated, and Beaumarchais soon married another widow, beautiful, brilliant, and very rich. She died in three years, and their little son did not long survive her.
At this time he first appeared in the character of a dramatic author. His two plays, Eugénie and Les Deux Amis met with no great success, and added nothing to his reputation; they were of the sentimental, serious character then in vogue, and are now forgotten. The most conspicuous part he then played was that of a wood merchant. In partnership with M. Paris Duverny he had bought the great forest of Chinon, and they were engaged in this business on a large scale, when M. Duverny died, and their accounts remained unsettled. Unfortunately, a nephew of the old financier, the Comte de la Blache, an avowed enemy of Beaumarchais, was appointed executor and residuary legatee. All Beaumarchais’s claims against the estate were contested, litigation ensued, and, when the first decision was rendered against him, the count appealed to a higher court, in which a commoner would necessarily contend at great disadvantage with a member of the aristocracy. The refusal to accept Beaumarchais’s statements involved an accusation of forgery, and while this important suit remained undecided a great scandal occurred. A brutal, stalwart nobleman, the Duc de Chaulnes, had become jealous of the favor shown Beaumarchais by a young actress whom the duke had taken under his protection. She appears to have been frightened by the nobleman’s violence, and he attributed her changed manner to the successful rivalship of our hero, challenged him to fight a duel, and, while they were waiting for their seconds, made an assault upon him in his own house, literally with tooth and nail. The police was obliged to interfere, and both parties were arrested. The duke was sent to Vincennes, and Beaumarchais to a less distinguished place of confinement, where he remained a long time, to the great detriment of his lawsuit.
The staunch old Parliament of Paris had been exiled, and was now replaced by the servile assembly called, from its creator, the Maupeou Parliament. It shows the frivolous mood of those days that, when one of the members of this assembly complained to Maurepas that they could not show themselves in the streets without being insulted by the populace, the minister replied, “ Wear dominos, then, and they will not know you.”To a member of this discredited and most discreditable body was referred the suit brought by the Comte de la Blache against Beaumarchais. It was a serious matter, affecting his character no less than his property. Beaumarchais received permission to leave his place of confinement, attended by a jailer, in order to solicit his judges, as was customary. But he failed in his repeated attempts to see the counselor Goëzman, whom he had reason to believe prejudiced against him by persistent endeavors, made by friends of La Blache and the Duke de Chaulnes, to blacken his character. They had published and widely disseminated most atrocious libels and unfounded accusations against him; among others, that of poisoning his two wives. In this dilemma, unable to obtain an audience, it was suggested that a handsome present made to Madame Goëzman, wife of the counselor, might gain him admission to the husband’s presence. The experiment was tried, and it succeeded, though the interview was unsatisfactory, and the decision, when rendered, proved to be adverse. It had been agreed that if the suit were decided against him the lady should return the money given her ; and she did so, all but a small sum, fifteen louis, said to be retained as a compensation to the great man’s secretary. Beaumarchais discovered that this individual had never received the money, and he immediately wrote to Madame Goëzman, indignantly demanding restitution. Probably having spent the money, she complained to her husband; and he, possibly misinformed in regard to the details of the affair, prosecuted Beaumarchais at once for false accusation and endeavor to corrupt a magistrate in the exercise of his judicial functions. Publicity in legal affairs was then unknown in France, such cases always being tried with closed doors, and Beaumarchais knew that Goëzman could thus bid him defiance with perfect impunity in the Maupeou Parliament. In this extremity, on the brink of financial ruin, his property attached for the debt to the Duverny estate, his hands tied, and his character defamed by libels industriously circulated, he had the genius to perceive that his only salvation lay in dealing a deadly blow at the infamous power, the assembly, which had pronounced one verdict against him, and most likely would hasten to confirm it by another. There was a great risk to be run; for the king himself would be indirectly assaulted in the persons of these members, his subservient tools ; but what else could be done ? No one could be found to undertake his case, so he became his own advocate, and proved a most able one. In polite European society, for the next seven months, his brilliant defense of himself and his scathing assaults of his enemies were the staple topics of conversation and an unfailing source of amusement.
Voltaire, Horace Walpole, and Goethe have all recorded their delight in these Memorials. The gay young dauphiness, Marie Antoinette, enjoyed them extremely, and named the bunch of plumes that crowned her head-dress from a jest in one of his dramatic reports of the proceedings. These witty appeals to public opinion, in which he knew “ how to merge his private grievances in the public wrongs,” and to hold up for merciless ridicule a deservedly despised tribunal, introduced publicity in legal affairs and made certain the downfall of the hated Parliament. It was not, however, legally abolished till 1774. A wit of the day said, “ It took Louis Quinze to establish, and quinze louis to overthrow, the Maupeou Parliament.” At the end of a seven months’ contest with a private individual, this notorious body signed its own death-warrant by condemning both Beaumarchais and the counselor Goëzman to “ public censure.” They were declared to have forfeited their civil rights, and the famous Memorials were ordered to be burned by the public executioner. When the verdict was made known it became the signal for a perfect ovation. Ail people of distinction in Paris flocked to the house of Beaumarchais, and vied in doing him honor. Led by the Prince de Conti, the world of fashion waited on the condemned criminal, and he was entitled “ the first citizen of France,” from a well-known passage in his Memorials, in which he says, “ I am a citizen, and I mean by that neither a courtier, an abbé, a man of rank, a financier, or a favorite. I am a citizen ; that is to say, what you should have been for the last two hundred years, — what you may be, perhaps, in twenty years to come.”
One statesman at this time laughingly warned him that it was not enough to have been sentenced by the Maupeou Parliament; he must try and bear his honors meekly.
The keen satire, fun, and graphic descriptions of these Memorials have secured for them a permanent place in French literature. All the scenes in which he introduces Madame Goëzman are particularly comic. She was a frivolous, pretty woman, whose head was turned by a compliment, and who became hopelessly bewildered in her statements. She shows in her conduct a remarkable mixture of craft, innocence, and impudence. “ The poor woman,” confronted with Beaumarchais, is made to say black is white; he alternately soothes and enrages her. When he drives her distracted, she threatens to box his ears; when he pays her a compliment, and says that he should take her to be eighteen instead of thirty, she smiles in spite of herself, does not think him quite so impertinent, and even asks him to escort her to her carriage. It is the gayest, most delicious irony. As he says of himself, “ Cry as much as you may, you cannot help laughing. Je suis un peu comme la cousine d’Héloïse, j’ai beau pleurer, il faut toujours que le rire s’échappe par quelque coin.” Some passages of a different sort have become classic; for instance, the one ending with this prayer: “ Being of Beings, I owe thee all : the joy of living, of thinking and feeling. I believe that thou hast ordered good and evil for us in equal measure. I believe that thy justice wisely compensates us for all, and that the succession of pain and pleasure, of fear and hope, is the fresh wind which fills the vessel’s sails, and sends her gayly on her way.”
Though a popular idol, he was yet legally disfranchised, and Beaumarchais was not a man to resign himself to his fate except for the time being, — “ provisoirement,” as he says. He had just married, too, for the third time. His wife was a most estimable and attractive woman, who was full of enthusiasm for the hero of the Goëzman suit, and he was unwearied in his endeavors to procure his restoration to civil rights by ingratiating himself with Louis XV. He undertook, among other things, a delicate diplomatic mission, and induced an unscrupulous scoundrel, who had taken refuge in England, to forego the publication of some scandalous memoirs of Madame Du Barry. This was accomplished “ for a consideration ; ” but when Beaumarchais returned to claim his reward, Louis XV. was on his death-bed, and his labor had been all in vain. Nothing daunted, however, he undertook to manage the mysterious Chevalier d’Eon for the new king, gained his point, and then offered to obtain the suppression of a pamphlet, offensive to Marie Antoinette, which was in the possession of a certain Jew named Angelucci. His remarkable adventures with Jews and bandits, his kind reception by Maria Theresa, and his subsequent incarceration in Austria are amusingly related by Loménie. While in England, employed in these delicate diplomatic missions, he had renewed his intimacy with his Madrid friend, Lord Rochford, now a cabinet minister, and he had become also a frequent visitor at the house of John Wilkes. There he met many of the friends of America, and subsequently made the acquaintance of the man who was destined to do him so much harm, Arthur Lee. France was at this time in a state of great exasperation against England, and Beaumarchais tried with all his might for two years to convince Louis XVI. of what he fully believed himself, — that civil war was imminent across the Channel, that the attempt to coerce America was extremely unpopular, and that aiding the insurgents would insure the final destruction of the dreaded hereditary enemy of France. To injure England, and thus aggrandize his own country, was apparently his object at first; but as he learned more of our struggle for liberty, he evidently became deeply interested in the issue.
In 1776, Congress sent Silas Deane to Paris to solicit aid for our dauntless army. Before any answer could arrive from him, the secret committee of Congress received a communication from Arthur Lee, in London, stating that the French ambassador at the court of St. James had been won over to the American cause by his strenuous efforts and powerful persuasion, and, at his solicitation, had induced his government to send a secret agent to him, Arthur Lee, offering as a gratuity a million livres. This present, however, he added, was to be made under cover of a commercial transaction of some kind, for fear of alarming England, with whom France was then at peace.
The truth was that the French ambassador in London knew nothing at all of the matter, and that Beaumarchais, striving to interest Louis XVI. and his ministers in what he had learned to regard as a great and glorious cause, had merely called on Arthur Lee, and imparted to him his own scheme for conveying assistance to the colonies. Indeed, in urgent letters to M. Vergennes on this subject, of a subsequent date, he alludes to Mr. Lee as an American who will go to Paris and confer with the ministers, if they eventually consent to help America.
The enthusiastic advocacy and persistent energy of Beaumarchais at last produced an effect. The king agreed to aid the “ insurgents,” but on the express condition that the commercial transaction should be bona fide. Beaumarchais on his part agreed to establish in Paris a mercantile house, under the assumed name of Rodrigue Hortalez & Co., for the purpose of procuring and sending to America all sorts of military supplies, to be paid for, on long credit, by returns of American products. This plan entirely superseded the first idea of gratuitous help, and met with especial favor, as it seemed to obviate the danger of war with England.
When, therefore, Silas Deane made his application for aid, it was refused ; but at the same time he was given to understand that he could doubtless make advantageous arrangements with the house of Hortalez & Co. It had been settled that arms, ammunition, and all sorts of military stores could be taken from the royal arsenals, — to be returned, however ; and also that his majesty should stand between the colonists and their creditor, to see that they were not pressed for speedy payment.
How the house of Rodrigue Hortalez & Co. should be subsidized, if at all, by the French government would seem clearly to have been a matter between Beaumarchais and the ministers. But, strangely enough, in after years, this idea appears never to have occurred to congressional committees, who persistently refused to pay Beaumarchais till they had found out all about his transactions with his own government.
Beaumarchais, finding Silas Deane the accredited American agent in Paris, now made all his arrangements with him on the new basis, perfectly unaware of the unfounded expectations which had been excited by Lee, whose premature statement to Congress was refuted by the actual condition of things, and who found himself, moreover, quite overshadowed by Deane, Lee now tried to maintain his ground and revenge himself by rep resenting, in his correspondence with his influential relatives at home, that Beaumarchais was an unscrupulous, intriguing adventurer, who was trying to enrich himself out of the king’s free gift; and that Silas Deane had been entrapped by him, and induced to join in the plot. Distance and the medium of an imperfectly understood foreign language made this tangled web very hard to unravel.
Dr. Franklin, too, who had just arrived as joint commissioner with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, was prejudiced against Beaumarchais, and a strange oversight of his own contributed not a little to keep up the mystification for many years to come. Dr. Dubourg, an old gentleman, who was a warm friend of America, and who had translated the Declaration of Independence into French, to Dr. Franklin’s great delight, dissatisfied to see himself thus overshadowed and supplanted by Beaumarchais, wrote to M. de Vergennes: “I have seen M. Beaumarchais this morning, and have conferred with him. No one does more justice than myself to his honesty, discretion, and zeal for all that is great and good. I believe him to be the best man in the world for political negotiations, but perhaps at the same time the most unfitted for commercial transactions. He likes show, and I am assured that he supports several young women. . . . There is not in all France a merchant or a manufacturer who would not hesitate to have business dealings with him.”
The minister, infinitely amused, sent the letter at once to Beaumarchais himself, who thus answers the doctor: —
“MY DEAR Sir,— Grant that I am wasteful and extravagant, and support young women : how does that affect the matter in hand? The young women whom I have supported for the last twenty years are your very humble servants. They were five in number, four sisters and one niece. Three years ago two of these young women died, to my great regret, and now I support only three, two sisters and one niece. No doubt this is extravagant for a private person like me. But what would you have thought, if, knowing me better, you had become aware of the outrageous fact that I have supported men also, two young nephews, — pretty fellows,— and even the unfortunate father who brought into the world such a scandalous supporter ? ”
This Dubourg episode shows conclusively that the commercial character of the transaction was fully recognized and acknowledged, in France, at least.
Beaumarchais now went to work at his chosen task with such hearty good will and abounding energy that before one year had elapsed he had transmitted supplies to the amount of a million livres. Acting under the misconception, however, of supposing it all a free gift from the King of France, Congress sent no returns of any consequence; and when some vessels laden with tobacco were consigned to the American commissioners in Paris, Beaumarchais expostulated, but received no explanation. No answer came to any of his letters, nor the slightest sign of recognition from a government in whose cause he was straining every nerve.
The English ambassador in Paris, having got wind of the transaction, had complained of it as an infringement of the treaty between the two countries, and Vergennes felt himself obliged to disavow and discountenance a proceeding which he secretly favored. So vessels were detained in port, and cargoes attached, and the representative of Hortalez & Co. must have had his patience sorely tried as he traveled in hot haste from Havre to Bordeaux, making herculean efforts to collect and dispatch his stores in face of countless difficulties. At last, confounded by this persistent non-recognition, he sent an agent to America, M. de Francey, — rather too young a man for the purpose. He came over in the same ship with Baron Steuben and some gallant French officers, whom Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette had fired with enthusiasm for America. The agent was disgusted with everything, saw nobody to admire but General Washington, and sent to his patron the most dismal and discouraging letters. Lee’s friends were powerful, and the cabal had taken into partnership a disaffected sea-captain, named Ducoudray, who had been discharged by Beaumarchais for incompetency, and who now wrote a pamphlet against him, which was published in America, and helped to manufacture prejudice and create an unfavorable public opinion. De Francey did succeed, however, in getting members of Congress to read the correspondence between Beaumarchais and Vergennes. This may have made some impression, for in 1779, after two years and a half of thankless toil, he received at last a letter of acknowledgment in the name of Congress, written by the president, and ending thus: —
“ While by your rare talents you were rendering yourself useful to your prince, you have gained the esteem of this newborn republic, and have earned the applause of the New World.
“ JOHN JAY, President.”
The enthusiasm of Beaumarchais had remained unabated through all this discouragement. He confidentially writes to his angry, discomfited agent: —
“ In spite of all these annoyances, the news from America fills me with joy. Brave, brave people! Their military prowess fully justifies my esteem and the fine enthusiasm felt for them in France. In short, my friend, I look anxiously for returns to enable me to meet my engagements here, mainly that I may then make new arrangements for their advantage.”
At last, a direct question from the chairman of a congressional committee brought out the explicit declaration, that the supplies for America, transmitted by Beaumarchais, were not given by the king. The debt was then acknowledged, payment promised, and all would have gone on smoothly but for two unfortunate circumstances. One was that Beaumarchais’s accounts, presented in 1788, were referred to a committee of three, of which his arch-enemy, Arthur Lee, was chairman ; and the other was that mysterious affair of the “lost million.”
In 1776, six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this receipt was signed : —
“ I have received from M. Duvergier, conformably to the orders of the Comte de Vergennes, on the 5th instant, the sum of one million livres, for which I am to account to the aforesaid Comte de Vergennes.
“ CARON DE BEAUMARCHAIS.”
The King of France, long after this, loaned and gave large sums to the American commissioners to carry on the war. In 1783 Franklin signed a receipt for nine millions gratuity ; yet three years after, on his return to America, it was discovered that only eight millions had passed through the hands of our banker in Paris. Dr. Franklin conjectured that the missing million must have been given to Beaumarchais for our use. In 1794 the government of France was often in unskilled hands, and Gouverneur Morris, then our envoy, contrived to get from the minister of foreign affairs the receipt already quoted as given to Vergennes. Thenceforth Beaumarchais was charged with that sum, and his accounts were persistently disputed, remaining unsettled for fifty years. Talleyrand wrote, exonerating him. The French government exerted itself in his favor, and through its successive ambassadors to this country uuwearyingly asserted the justice of his claim ; declaring over and over again, officially, that he had accounted for that million to its entire satisfaction; nay, even went so far as to explain and assert that it was given as secret service money, and not meant for supplies, at all. However that may have been, the fact remains that his claims, after being referred to six committees of Congress (three reporting favorably, and three adversely), were set aside till 1835, thirty-six years after the death of Beaumarchais ; and a settlement was effected then only by the most persistent importunity on the part of his representatives.
In exile, in 1795, from a garret near Hamburg, he addresses the following letter to the American people : —
“ Americans, I have served you with indefatigable zeal. During my life bitterness has been my only reward, and I die your creditor. Permit me, then, as a dying man, to bequeath to you my Only daughter, and to endow her with what you owe me. . . . Perhaps Providence has designed, by this delay in your payment, to provide her with means after my death, thus saving my child from utter destitution. Adopt her as a worthy daughter of the state.
“ If you refuse this, if I could fear that you would deny justice to myself or my heirs, desperate, ruined, by Europe as well as by you, I should have only one prayer, —for a respite which might allow me to go to America. Arrived amongst you, broken down in mind and body, I should be carried to your capiital, to the doors of your national assembly, with my accounts in my hand ; and there, holding out to all passers-by the cap of Liberty, with which no man more than myself has helped to adorn your brows, I should cry out, Americans! alms for your friend, for whose accumulated services behold the reward, ‘ Date obolum Belisario ’ ! ”
This man, who, beginning life as a watchmaker’s apprentice, had made himself an inventor, a courtier, a teacher in the royal family, a bunker, a shipping merchant on a larger scale than the Medici, a dramatic author of the greatest popularity, a diplomatist, a cabinet counselor, and a master of eloquence of European renown, was also a great publisher. The story of his two editions of Voltaire, complete for the first time, is a chapter by itself. “ Haunted by the fear of mediocrity,” as he used to say, he bought paper-mills in the Vosges and went to England to purchase the famous Baskerville types, so as to have the best of materials ; and when he could find no place for his printing-press in France, on account of prohibition, he persuaded the Margrave of Baden to let him have the dismantled fortress of Kehl for that purpose. As Loménie says, “ To superintend the manufacture, printing, and publication of these one hundred and sixty-two volumes, included in two editions of 15,000 copies each, and smuggle them into France, really with the connivance of the government, but still at the risk of prohibition, was a laborious enterprise for a man already overwhelmed by the pressure of business.” Maurepas had encouraged him to persevere in the work, and had assured him of his sanction; but he died in 1781, and his death was a heavy blow to Beaumarchais. He managed, however, to interest Calonne, the successor of Maurepas, and in three years’ time had completed this great task. It may be mentioned that this is the first time we hear of premiums and a lottery in connection with subscriptions for a book. The notes contributed by the editor are few in number, but characteristic. For instance, where Voltaire writes to M. d’Argental, “ An ardent, impetuous, passionate man like Beaumarchais may give a box on the ear to his wife, and possibly two boxes on the ear to his two wives, but he does not poison them,” he adds this note: “ I certify that this Beaumarchais, sometimes beaten by women, like most men who have loved them too well, never committed the disgraceful act of lifting his hand against one of them.”
We have come now to the most brilliant part of his career. The new parliament of Louis XVI., several years before, had triumphantly reinstated him in his civil rights, and had reversed the unfavorable decision in the La Blache case. He was a man of large fortune and great renown, married for the third time to a charming woman, and on familiar terms with those most famous in fashion, politics, and letters. His liberality and kindness seem as inexhaustible as his energy, and his private correspondence and business papers teem with many touching proofs of his sympathy for unfortunate people, who had no claim whatever upon him but their sorrows. He gave not only money but his precious time and the magnetic virtue of his cordial interest. The Barber of Seville had acquired the popularity it still maintains, giving him a high place in the fraternity of dramatic authors ; but now he produced The Mariage de Figaro. Probably he had no definite design of disturbance in writing this comedy, which flashed out upon the wrongs of the poor and the abuses of the powerful; but Napoleon said of it, “ It is the Revolution in action.”
Madame Campan has told us of her reading the manuscript aloud to Marie Antoinette and her husbard, and how the king walked up and down the room, when she came to the famous monologue, exclaiming, “ This is detestable ! It shall never be played. So long as the Bastille stands, the representation of this piece would be a dangerous folly. This man sports with everything that should be respected in a government.” “ Can’t it be played ? ” urged the queen. “ Certainly not,” answered Louis XVI. “ You may be sure of that.” So the representation was forbidden. No one sided with the king but his brother, the Comte de Provence, and M. Mirosmenil, the keeper of the seals. All the fashionable world longed for the forbidden fruit, and ran wild to hear the author read it in private. You heard on all hands, “ I am going to-night to hear M. Beaumarchais read the Mariage de Figaro ; or, “ Are you invited to-morrow to hear the Mariage de Figaro?” The Duc de Fronsac, son of the Duc de Richelieu, writes to the author to entreat him, as a great favor, to read it at the hôtel of the Princesse de Lamballe, and Catherine of Russia sends for him to bring it out in St. Petersburg. The manuscript used at these readings is still extant, tied with faded pink ribbons, and the words “ opuscule comique ” on the outside, in the author’s handwriting.
After a three years’ battle between Beaumarchais and all Paris, on the one hand, and the king, his brother, and the keeper of the seals, on the other, the popular party gained the day, and the piece was represented. The effect was prodigious. Beaumarchais himself says, “ If there is one thing more extravagant than my piece, it is its success.”
“ It will come to an end,” said one of his enemies, behind the scenes, on the evening of the first representation. “ Yes,” answered Sophie Arnould, “fifty times over.” The witty actress was wrong; it was acted more than a hundred times in succession.
The elder brother of the king had been very much annoyed on the opening night, and through a M. Suard constantly sent to the newspapers unfavorable criticisms of the piece and abuse of its author, suggested, if not written, by Monsieur himself. Whether Beaumarchais knew this or not, he began by replying with his usual gayety and readiness, but after a while, weary, probably, of the whole thing, he sent a communication to the Journal de Paris, declining in future to notice these attacks, and saying that “ when he had brought out his play in spite of lions and tigers, he did not mean, after it had succeeded, to spend his time fighting every morning, like a Dutch servant-girl, the vile insect of the night.” Monsieur ” took the insult to himself, and went in high dudgeon to the king, whom he found playing cards, and who consented at once to punish this daring Beaumarchais by writing on the seven of clubs, which he held in his hand, an order for his immediate incarceration in the prison of St. Lazare, used as a house of correction for young offenders. The king may have given vent in this way to his suppressed Irritation in regard to the piece. It must be said, however, that it is the only act of inexcusable tyranny attributed to Louis XVI.
One roar of laughter went up from Paris the next morning, when it was known that this favorite author and illustrious man was shut up in prison for his impetuous sally. He stayed there only three days, and at last was almost entreated to come out. The king had repented of his precipitation, and may have been rendered uneasy by the popular demonstration, which was losing its jocular tone, and becoming serious in its character. He sent the prisoner a handsome sum of money, which was declined all but a hundred francs, — the amount, perhaps, of his expenditure during his detention. On his release he repaired to the theatre, where the obnoxious play was being represented, and received an uproarious welcome. It was a long time before the actors could go on, and the deafening applause was renewed when they came to this phrase in the great monologue: “Not being able to degrade wit, they maltreat it.” Soon after this The Barber of Seville was acted at the Trianon, the queen herself taking the part of Rosine ; and the author was invited to be present, a delicate way of making reparation for the insult which he had received.
Apart from its historic significance, the Mariage de Figaro does not interest us to-day. The plot is objectionable, and the wit often licentious. Most of the abuses he satirizes no longer exist, though we may still need reminding, even here in the United States of America, that “ without the privilege of blaming, no praise is flattering,” and that “ only petty men dread insignificant writings.” 1 One passage, however, commonly omitted in representation, though found in all standard editions of the play, may be worth quoting. Marceline, the mother of Figaro, is speaking, and she says, —
“ Men, more than ungrateful, who wither with your scorn the playthings of your passions, your victims, you should be made to suffer also for the errors of our youth. . . . What employment is there left for these miserable young women ? They have a natural right to busy themselves with female apparel, and thousands of men are set to work upon it.”
Figaro, angrily : “ Yes, even the soldiers now are made to embroider.”
Marceline : “ Even in the higher ranks women obtain from you only derisive consideration, lured by pretended respect into real servitude,2 treated as irresponsible minors in regard to our property, and punished as responsible beings for our faults.”
So a reformer of the present day may find a text in the Mariage de Figaro.
The Parisian public was very much excited at this time by the production of his philosophical, political, and scientific opera, entitled Tarare, in which he aimed at producing all the effect of a Greek drama, combining dancing, music, and poetry with more solid attractions, but substituting scientific statement for the Greek mythology. The best pupil of Glück, Salieri, composed the music, and the piece had a great run. Wonderful to relate, it was popular, and kept its place on the stage, under different metamorphoses, till 1819.
The 14th of July, 1789, found Beaumarchais busily superintending the erection of a magnificent dwelling-house, close by the Bastille. He did not occupy it till 1791, and it was thenceforth a fertile source of annoyance in those troublous times. It became the wonder of Paris, but in 1818 it was pulled down, to carry out the new plans for improving the city. Beaumarchais took charge of the demolition of the Bastille at his own request, but he was far from sympathizing with the extremists, and wrote an address to the French people, which he sent to the Jacobins. It begins thus : “ I defy the devil to carry on any business in these frightful days of disorder, misnamed liberty;” and he ends with these words : “ O my weeping country, O wretched Frenchmen, to what purpose have you overthrown Bastilles, if robbers are to come and dance over the ruins, and slaughter us upon them ? Friends of freedom, know that license and anarchy are its executioners. Join me in demanding laws of these deputies, who owe them to us, who have been made our representatives solely for that purpose. Let us be at peace with Europe. Was it not the most glorious day of our lives when that peace was proclaimed to the world? Your maxims will be established, will be propagated, far better, if you are shown to have been made happy by them, — far better than they can possibly be by war and devastation. Are you happy ? Tell the truth. Is it not with French blood that our land is deluged? Speak! is there one of us who has not tears to shed? Peace, laws, and a constitution, — without these blessings we have no country ; worse than all, no freedom ! ” A man who writes, signs, and publishes such words as these on the 6th of March, 1793, and then stays in Paris, is not cowardly. As Sainte-Beuve says, “ The only wonder is that he kept his head on his shoulders.”
In 1792 France needed arms, and Beaumarchais undertook to obtain them in Holland. Sent after them in 1794 by the committee of public safety, he was put on the list of emigrants by the department of Paris, which confiscated his property, seized and destroyed his papers, imprisoned his sister, wife, and daughter, and declared him a public enemy. He took refuge at last in Hamburg, and could not return till long after the death of Robespierre had opened the prison doors and set his family at liberty. His daughter had a horror of their magnificent house, where they had all suffered so much ; nothing could induce her to return to it; so she hid herself away with her mother, while his sister Julia, in order to preserve the property from destruction, lived there entirely alone, in great poverty, for a whole year, subject to constant annoyance from domiciliary visits. At last, under the Directory, they were reunited in the great house, and Beaumarchais tried to gather up what was left of the wreck of his fortune. The old man felt the prevailing enthusiasm for Bonaparte, and addressed some verses to the young conqueror, adjuring him to add one more to his glorious deeds, and remember the prisoners at Olmutz. It was like Beaumarchais to remind him of Lafayette then. He had also become much interested in the use to be made of balloons, in war and in peace, and busied himself in preparing a memorial, addressed to the Directory, on the massacre of the French plenipotentiaries at Rastadt. This was his last work. On a May morning, 1799, the old man was found dead in his bed: probably the cause Of his death was apoplexy. The last evening with his family had been gay and pleasant, as usual.
He left an only child, his daughter Eugénie, married, after the Terror, to M. Delarne, aid-de-camp to Lafayette. His widow writes after his death, “Our loss is irreparable: the companion of twenty-five years has vanished, leaving only useless regret, a terrible loneliness, and ineffaceable memories. He readily forgave his enemies, and gladly overlooked an injury. He was a good father, a zealous and serviceable friend, and the born champion of any absent person attacked in his presence. Superior to the petty jealousy so common among men of letters, he counseled and encouraged all, helping them with his money and advice. We should be grateful for the manner of his death ; it saved him the pain of parting. He quitted this life as unconsciously as he entered it.”
He had been quite deaf for the last few years, but he never lost his enjoyment of a joke, and liked to sign himself, “ The first poet in Paris, entering by the Porte St. Antoine.” The inscription on the collar of his little dog has often been quoted : “ I am Mlle. Follette. Beaumarchais belongs to me. We live on the Boulevard.”
Sullied by the faults and vices of his day and generation, dissolute at times in life and utterance, he yet seems to have been invariably generous and affectionate in his family relations, and was idolized as a son and a brother. Fond of display and reckless in speculation, always savoring somewhat of an adventurer, he still devoted himself unremittingly and unsparingly to works of public utility and private beneficence.
Imprudent, often quixotic in these enterprises, he was nevertheless remarkable for practical knowledge and shrewd common sense. His energy and industry were wonderful, and his kindness of heart and ready sympathy appear to have been inexhaustible.
His bust stands to-day in the Comédie Française in Paris. Should there not be a niche in American memories for our friend in need ; a man like him, thus associated with the early days of our history ; one who, while striving to help himself, never forgot to help others ? Was not Eugénie Delarne justified in the pride with which she said to the conqueror of Austerlitz, “ I am the daughter of Beaumarchais ” ?
Maria Ellery McKaye.