Souvenirs of Victor Hugo
— Off from one of those busy, narrow streets near the church of St. Sulpice, in Paris, opens a wide green court, where tall chestnut-trees shake out their rich green tops close to the high windows of a house surrounded by a seclusion and tranquillity as pervasive as those of some sleepy provincial town. Here in the lofty, square, old-fashioned rooms and narrow passages are gathered many souvenirs of Victor Hugo, treasured by the owner, who was the groat romancer’s friend.
The light in these apartments, softened by heavy hangings, falls on portraits, busts, carved wood-work, books, and furniture, all resting here in that touching way which inanimate things have when the life that gave them significance is gone. Here are grotesque figures carved by the strong bands of the poet on wainscoting, mirrors, and fireplace,during his exile at Guernsey. Almost every inch of wall in the rich-toned salon is covered with these carvings, which are as fantastic as many of the carver’s thought - creations. Flowers, beasts, and birds, beings human and supernatural, all hear the touch of a powerful imagination in which humor appeared only in its grotesque form. One exemption to this lack of humor is in the figure of a sanctimonious priest, whose face is formed by a clover arrangement of the three French accents, and who folds his bands in prayer, while a grim-looking angel holds a drawn sword over his head. Another example is shown in a representation of the future husband of Victor Hugo’s cook, whose gastronomic genius he admired. This imaginary individual is attired like an Oriental, and, with beaming countenance, sits before a table laden with the tempting viands prepared by his spouse. The panels and wainscoting are of hard wood, black and polished, and the carvings are painted in deep reds, yellows, and greens, by the. poet’s own hand. There are several splendid examples of his love of creating sprites, goblins, and such weird folk. On a door is carved a jar on which sits a djinn, whose red tongue and fiery eyes and red-tipped hands and feet are “enough to make one dream o’ nights and, near by, an angel of most terrifying appearance blows an apocalyptic trumpet, as he speeds away over a blue surface dotted with golden stars. On the frame of one mirror are vines and birds. These last whirl round the glass, while a dainty verse, in the poet’s firm lettering, calls upon the gay band to come and make music for his little grandchild. This mirror is the most human bit of art in the room. The rest leaves oue as dreamy and questioning as a hook ot Eastern tales.
What is the key to all this? Did the Oriental treasures unloaded before the wondering boy in the harbor of Brest come back to the exiled man at Guernsey, and the fantastic shapes he saw in childhood become suggestive or creative to him then ? All was symbolic to this mighty conjurer. Everywhere we find the initials V. H., often concealed in the most ingenious fashion in a leaf, a shadow, an angle, or the fold of a drapery; for, like some other great men, Victor Hugo believed that between his initials and his destiny there was some occult connection.
The poet’s transcendent faculty has expressed itself again in his sketches. Many are familiar with his famous drawing of John Brown, — a figure hanging between heaven and earth, in intense blackness save for a single ray of searching light which falls upon it. A duplicate of the picture was presented to this friend, and here, beside it, hang strange, phantasmagoric creations, cities whose gloomy towers and palaces seem as if conjured up by Aladdin’s lamp. We know how he did them, and can almost see that massive head bowed over the blackened paper, as, with the feather end of his quill pen or with his thumb, he worked out these astonishing pictures which captivate the imagination. He found them, he used to say, “by seeking,” as he did so many of the word-pictures he has left us. " I find of tuner than I create,” lie frequently said of his work.
In still another room hang portraits and caricatures of Victor Hugo from childhood to old age. All are dominated by that wonderful forehead, which in most of the later sketches is supported by his hand, as if otherwise too heavy. Yet we know the rare equilibrium of his nature, and that work, instead of wearing, seemed to rest him. Below the portraits hang personal souvenirs,—hats, swords, and the valise in which Victor Hugo carried the manuscript of Les Misérables from Guernsey to Brussels, that he might write on the battlefield the description of Waterloo. Here, too, are pens given by the poet to his friend, — the immortal quills with which he wrote Les Misérables.
One beautiful afternoon we sat in a room rarely shown to visitors, and looked out on the green court, while the soft air brought the everlasting music of nature with the fragrance of the chestnut blossoms and the songs of the birds to our hearts. Here, in the poet’s own words,
“A woman would say, ‘Hush ! ’ a priest, ‘ Peace ! ‘ ”
We looked over books, original editions, dedicated with many words of friendship in the bold, firm handwriting of the author. Sketches lay upon the table,—pictures of the. Guernsey home, where the owner of this mansion and these treasures shared the years of exile with the poet. Busts stood upon the mantel, and the mellow light touched their white surfaces with a, gulden benediction. Here Les Chatiments tells of a long-ago struggle over an empire whose crimes and achievements live only in the memory of men. This book, bound in Holland leather, is the gem of the whole collection. Inlaid in its cover is a gulden bee, rescued from the imperial mantle when it was torn in pieces by the Crowd, at the sacking of the Tuileries, and which was presented to Victor Hugo by a friend. It suggests one of those antitheses of which he was so fond ; for Les Chatiments was written against Napoleon III., and one of its famous poems is an address to the bees of the imperial mantle to sting its wearer, since men are afraid to punish him, or to fly from a throne reared by crime.