Prof. GEORGE SAINTSBURY, M.A.
BIGELOW, BROWN & CO., Inc.
By FRANK S. HOLBY
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I MET Mérimée frequently in society. He was a tall man, erect in his bearing, pale, and, excepting his smile, had the appearance of an Englishman; he had, at all events, that cold, distant manner which forbids in advance any attempt at familiarity. Merely to see him one was impressed by his callousness, either natural or acquired, by his self-control, by his determined self-repression. On ceremonious occasions, especially, the immobility of his countenance was conspicuously manifest.
Even in the society of his intimate friends, and when relating a witty anecdote, his voice retained its habitual calmness and tranquillity, with never an outburst, never a sign of enthusiasm. The drollest details he described in the most precise language, in the tone of a man asking for a cup of tea. All evidences of sensibility he had mastered until it seemed a quality absent from his nature. Not that it was so—quite the contrary; but race-horses there are so well trained that, once under their master’s hand, they never so much as make a sudden start.
His training, it must be said, had begun early. When ten or eleven years old, I imagine, having committed some impropriety, he was scolded severely and sent from the room. Weeping and in great distress, he was just closing the door when he heard laughter within the room, and some one said: “Poor child! he believes we are really angry with him!” Intolerable to him was the idea of being a dupe, and he resolved thereupon to overcome a sensitiveness which had caused him such humiliation. He kept his word. “Remember to mistrust,” such was his motto.
To guard against every manifestation of pleasure, never to abandon himself unreservedly to the expression of emotion, to be tricked neither by others nor by himself, in his conduct and his writings to have in view the constant presence of an unsympathetic, mocking spectator; to be himself that spectator—these are the most distinguishing characteristics of his nature, of which every phase of his life, of his work, and of his talent bears the imprint.
His attitude was always that of an amateur; it can hardly be otherwise with one who is endowed with the critical temperament. From turning the tapestry around and around, one ends by seeing nothing but the wrong side; and thus, instead of lovely figures, gracefully posed, one sees only the rough bits of embroidery silk. To such a one, it is irksome with forbearance to engage in any public work; to cast in his lot even with the party of his choice, with the school of his preference, the science which he pursues, the art in which he excels; and if, at times, he descends voluntarily into the contest, more frequently he regards it from afar.
At an early age he was placed in comfortable circumstances, then in an employment which was both congenial and interesting, that of Inspector of Historic Monuments. He then succeeded to a seat in the Senate Chamber, and later to a post at court.
As Inspector of Historic Monuments, he was capable, painstaking, and valuable; in the Senate he had the good taste to be usually absent or silent; at court, he enjoyed perfect freedom of action and of speech. To travel, to study, to mingle with men and affairs, such was his real occupation, and his official claims proved no restraint to the indulgence of his tastes. We must remember, too, that a man of such genius compels respect, even in the face of obstacles. His irony pierces the best case-hardened armour. Let us see with what ease and grace he handles it, even to the point of directing it against himself, thus making a double shot.
One day, at Biarritz, he had read one of his novels to the empress. “Not long afterward I received a visit from a policeman, who said he had been sent by the grand-duchess. ‘In what way may I serve you?’ ‘I come in the name of her royal highness, to beg that you will attend her this evening with your novel.’ ‘What novel?’ ‘The one you read to her majesty the other day.’ I replied that I had the honour to be her majesty’s jester, and that without her permission I could not accept engagements outside the court. I flew without delay to tell her the incident, expecting that the result would be, at the very least, a war with Russia, and I was no little chagrined not only to receive authority to go, but to go that very evening to the home of the grand-duchess, to whom the policeman had been assigned as factotum. However, to soothe my feelings I wrote a letter to the grand-duchess giving her a piece of my mind. This letter, ‘giving her a piece of my mind,’ must have been an interesting composition, and I am sure the factotum did not show himself again.”
As for formal gatherings, it would be impossible for any one to address them with more seriousness of demeanour and with less inward deference. Grave, sedate, of dignified carriage, when making an Academic visit, or delivering an impromptu address in public, his manner was irreproachable; but all the while the bird-organ behind the scenes was playing a comic air which turned both the orator and the audience to ridicule. “The president of the Antiquarian Society rose from his seat, all the other guests following his example. He began to speak, saying that inasmuch as from those aspects I was a man of notable attainments, he wished to propose my health, as senator, as man of letters, and as a scholar. There was only the table between us, and I was strongly tempted to hurl a glass of Roman punch at his head.... The next morning I listened to the minutes of the proceedings of the night before, in which it was stated that I had delivered a most eloquent address. I made a speech, to urge that all the adverbs be omitted from the report, but my request was not granted.”
While a candidate for the Academy of Inscriptions, he was taken to call upon some learned persons of formidable aspect; he wrote, on his return: “Have you ever seen dogs entering a badger’s hole? Before they have had some experience in this occupation, they make, on entering, a desperate show of fierceness, and not infrequently come out much faster than they go in, for the badger is an ugly beast to visit. I never touch the door-bell of an Academician that I am not reminded of the badger, and compare myself, in my mind’s eye, to the dog I have just described. I have not yet been bitten, however, but I have had some ludicrous encounters.”
He was elected, and had, along with others, his archæological burrow. It is easy to guess, however, that his was not the temperament to be restricted to this or to any place of hiding. For him there were always several modes of exit. In him were two individualities: one which acquitted himself conscientiously of the essential duties and ceremonials incumbent upon him as a member of society; the other dwelling beside or above the first, and in contempt or resignation observing his actions.
Similarly, in his affections he had within him two distinct personalities. The first, the natural man, was kind, even tender. In friendship no one was more loyal, more trustworthy. Once he had extended his hand, there was no withdrawal. We see an instance of this in his defence of M. Libri, in opposition to the