Friday, 27 December 2013

Not just a Revolution for the young.....

A National Guardsman and his wife by Rémy-Furcy Descarsin (1746-1793)
73cm x 90.5 cm.  Oil.
Signed "Descarsin, painter to Monsieur, brother of the King 1791"
Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille

This lovely painting was acquired by the Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille in 2004, having recently come up for public auction.  A piece of political propaganda certainly, but as an unpatronising portait of two ordinary people, it shows the legacy of the Revolution at its best.

Of the painter, Rémy-Furcy Descarsin,  little is known.  He was active in Paris and failed to gain entry to the Academy of Painting in 1789 when he submitted a self-portrait. Apparently he had two musical sisters.  He styled himself painter to the comte de Provence, dating the painting  to before the latter's successful flight from Paris in June 1791.  The title is a bit puzzling; clearly the man is too old to be an active National Guardsman. In fact the uniform is purely symbolic. The subjects were an old couple from Nantes, who were the recipients of charitable attention from the local Jacobins.  Here is a contemporary account from the Annales Nantaises 

2nd February 1791
A married couple, aged more than a hundred ("plus que centenaires") from the former diocese of Angers, named René Dogereau or Degro, and Perrine Trouillard, were living near the former Hermitage, in a state of abandonment and distress.  The Amis de la Constitution, who had heard about them though their inquiries after recommendations for public charity, awarded to these old people a pension which would continue to to be paid to whichever of the two remained living.  To give them an idea of the Revolution, which they could not expect to enjoy for long, they dressed them up in clothes in the three national colours.  The Compagnie des Adolescents then fetched them and took them to the Theatre, to performances of The Family Supper  and The Three Farmers which were put on in their benefit.  Dogereau, had been a wine grower, a ferryman and finally a caulker of boats.  He died a short time ago but his wife is still alive and still has the use of her senses. p.581-582.

Annales Nantaises,by  Michel Guimar, published in Year III of the Republic

For a discussion of the painting, see :

Monday, 23 December 2013

Fouquier-Tinville at Christmas

Légendes de Noël 

A very merry Christmas!

The following is an abridged translation of a story from G. Lenotre's Légendes de Noël, a series of Christmas tales set in the Revolution and Empire, first published in 1910.

Lenotre (Louis Léon Théodore Gosselin) was a great historian and unusual for his time in his willingness to extend sympathies to both sides of the Revolutionary struggle. In this story, he finds humanity in one of the most hated figures of the Terror, the Public Prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville.

I have been unable to trace the comte de Courville, but Lenotre's view of Fouquier-Tinville is certainly based on details fully documented elsewhere in his work. Accurate too is the description of Séraphin's famous silhouette theatre which operated in the Palais-Royal, to patriotic enthusiasm, throughout the darkest days of the Revolution.

In the time of the Terror, a passerby at night who walked along the quai de l’Horloge, under the walls of the Palais de Justice, would quicken his step and, take care, out of instinct, not to raise his head.  In one of the windows next to the towers of the Conciergerie, a light burned from dawn to dusk which, as far as it could be seen, made the people of Paris tremble in fear.

 This light illuminated the cell where worked, day and night, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor, the feared magistrate who furnished the Revolutionary Tribunal with its required quota of accused and the guillotine with its daily harvest of heads. The life of this man, whose tragic name weighed over Paris like the legendary sword over the head of Damocles, was one of crushing labour.  He slept three or four hours a day, rarely more.  For twenty hours at a stretch, he prepared the work of the death-machine, a colossal task which he would entrust to no-one else.

After the Revolution, the enormous bulk of the Tribunal’s dossiers were preserved in the National Archives, six hundred boxes stuffed with papers, inquiries, requisitions, depositions, seized documents, acts of accusation, reports, denunciations, interrogations...all had passed through Fouquier’s hands, every sheet with the sinister annotation of his red crayon and that terrible mark in the margin where he discerned a key question, the mark which indicated the trap into which many an unfortunate, his life in the balance, had stumbled.

Fouquier laboured “like an ox in his furrow”.  He understood that he personified fear, that he incarnated the Terror; he closed his eyes in order not to draw back. “Once you have stepped into crime, he would say, you are compelled to immerse yourself completely”.  Like Macbeth, he calculated that he would have to wade through as much blood to go back as to reach the other side, and he continued to go forward.  When he feared he was losing his nerve, he turned to drink.  Drunk, he regained a taste for his task,  took pleasure in it, taunted the condemned that he sent to execution, watched them put in the cart, then went back up to his terrible work. He had been drinking that night when, coming back from the Tuileries and crossing the Pont du Change, he seized his companion by the arm, showed him the Seine and remarked, “See, how it is red!”  He did not try to conceal his belief that “ghosts were pursuing him and he did not know how it would end.”

The other side of this fearsome figure was equally troubling; he was a father, he adored his little children - two of whom were twins -  born in the Palais de Justice and still babes-in-arms at the time of the Terror.  Death sentences handed out, duty done, Fouquier went home, took his little ones on his knee, chatted lovingly with his young wife. In the alcove over the conjugal bed hung a religious image to which his wife was attached. When his last daughter died, they found in her house a medal of the Virgin wrapped in a paper on which was written: “He wore this around his neck when he had the widow Capet condemned.”


....The Palais-Royal was an ever-bubbling cauldron into which spilled the immense city, those ardent for pleasure, thirsty for gain, or simply bystanders of other people’s happiness.  On Christmas eve 1793 Fouquier-Tinville entered this bright arena.  His face was known only to spectators of the Revolutionary Tribunal.  He had never been seen in a place of entertainment. What spectacle was there to please him?  What public place could exist where the whisper of his name would not empty the crowd around him?  What drama could he have gone to watch?  Could there be any more terrifying than the one he acted out every day?  So he walked, his hat down over his eyes, through the crowd, with an air of preoccupation and a nervous tic on his left cheek, as though weighed down by the terror and hatred of the whole world.

What was he going to do?  Perhaps, coming back from the Tuileries, where he went in the evening to take orders from the Committees, he had gone in, caught up by the irresistible attraction of movement and noise?  A bird of the night, descending from his tower, he had been drawn in by the light and so he slipped among the glittering galleries, this man of death, astonished to mix with the living and to walk elbow to elbow with happiness.  It was, as we have said, Christmas Eve;  and although Midnight Mass and the reveillon were officially suppressed, a tradition so many centuries old demanded a feast; the spits turned, the puddings browned, faces were in festive mood, and the galleries were thronged with people determined to enjoy themselves and eat their fill.

La Foire Saint - Germain by night (Wallace Collection)

In one of the arcades, next to the famous Number 113, a crier was barking, “Roll up, roll up, young and old, to the Theatre of Citizen Séraphin!  See the Chinese Shadow Theatre, living, moving, but immaterial.  Tonight Citizen Séraphin will be showing, “The Broken Bridge” followed by the patriotic drama “Beauty and the Beast”. Come on in!  They are starting; time to take your places….."

The crier made his way along the gallery, shouting his announcement.  Under the narrow door of the little theatre, which was marked by a big square lantern decorated with silhouettes, children accompanied by parents, governesses and servants, crowded round the ticket office, craning their heads, their eyes alight with expectation. 

At the very moment the barrier opened and the tide of little children rushed into the theatre, Fouquieur rounded the corner of the gallery.  Faced with this flock of joyful faces, this stampede of  little beings possessed by eager anticipation, the sinister bystander stopped. In the hour that he had been prowling beneath the galleries, a light had kindled in his dark soul.  Christmas! It was Christmas!...What man could deny the ghost of feeling  awoken in his heart by the word?  It is so redolent of the poetry of the past, so heavy with the beliefs that gave comfort to our fathers, that it seems to bring to all of us some faraway scent, a whiff of clean and fresh perfume which sweetens the smell of everyday life.  And no doubt Fouquier-Tinville had his memories.  He too had been a child like these;  he had had his happy years of hope, of childish and naive faith.  He had know joyful Christmases.  There are times when every man, however jaded and disillusioned, sees again, as if in a dream, the place where he lived as a child, the cosy room, the garden of flowers; when he hears, distantly, the familiar sounds of long ago, the ticking of a clock, the bells of yesteryear, the sound of a beloved voice……

Fouquier, his hat pulled low over his face, went up to the ticket office, bought a ticket and entered Seraphin’s theatre.  He sat down in the back row, on a bench in the corner.  He felt comfortable there; the darkness was complete and, in the black of the night, he could be sure that no-one would suspect his presence.....

In the intermission....Fouquier noticed in front of him two little girls of ten or twelve with their governess. These two children alone appeared not to share in the happy participation of the audience.  Pressed against their companion, they had a frightened and melancholy air which contrasted painfully with the unanimous gaity of the crowd.  The governess tried to distract them, repeating and commenting on Seraphin’s amusing banter - but in vain.  The two little girls remained morose and followed the action of the play with eyes dark with shadows.  When the curtain rose once more, on Seraphin’s famous “pyrotechnics", the clapping and exclamations began again, and Fouquier noticed that only his two little neighbours remained silent and preoccupied....

Then it was the famous scene, Séraphin’s triumph, “The Girl who let her tripes be eaten by the cat…”  Everyone laughed; even Fouquier-Tinville himself laughed; only the two little girls did not laugh. Their sadness struck the Prosecutor and intrigued him.  Not that he had been moved by tears in a long time, but the contrast between everyone’s joy and the misery of these children obsessed him.  He leaned towards the governess and demanded harshly.

- Are these little ones ill?

- No, Citizen, she replied.

- Why aren’t they laughing like all the others?

The governess, lowered her voice and replied:

- They have their troubles.

- A bereavement?

- Something like that, Citizen,  the woman replied.

The two little girls turned timidly towards Fouquier and seemed to follow the dialogue between him and their companion.  In the flickering light of a “firework” he discerned that their eyes were large with tears.  He was going to press his questions further but saw such pain in the eyes of the two children, that he feared he had been recognised, he was afraid… He withdrew  back onto his seat and said nothing more.

....The curtain rose on the final number in the programme, "Beauty and the Beast", which was billed as a "patriotic play".  Still all in silhouette, there appeared:  a Revolutionary Club, a patrol, an agent of the Committee of General Security, a jailer and an executioner. The interior of an aristocratic house was represented, the house of a former gentleman who had conspired traitorously against the Republic. The agent of the Committee went to denounce him to the Club, the patrol began to march and burst into the conspirator's house.  He was arrested, despite the pleas of his wife and children; in the following scene he was seen in prison where the executioner entered, rope in hand, and tied him up to prepare him for the guillotine.

At last it was the end of the little drama and Séraphin concluded his commentary with the following words:  “The miserable are going to be punished for their crimes.  And so perish, citizens, all the enemies of liberty.  If this has pleased you, tell your friends and send them to see Séraphin’s Theatre.”  Fouquier-Tinville had listened to the patriotic spiel distractedly, his attention absorbed, from the first, by the attitude of the two little girls whose melancholy had so intrigued him. 

At the appearance of the policeman, cap on head and club in hand, the younger of the two children drew close to the governess and clung to her;  her face buried in her fur hood, she no longer looked at the stage.  The other child, in contrast, watched the drama with absorbed attention and missed nothing of the comings and goings;  as far as Fouquier could see in the gloom, she appeared to be convulsed by emotion;  from her eyes rolled great tears that she did not try to wipe away.  When the soldiers fell upon the aristocrat to arrest him, she put two hands over her mouth to stifle a cry.  Finally when the prisoner was tied up by the executioner, Fouquier heard her murmur plaintively, “Papa, oh Papa!” 

 And she burst into sobs.  The governess took her in her arms.  “Be quiet, please be quiet darling; you will give us all away…”  But since the spectacle was finished, the audience was going out noisily and no-on noticed the misery of the two little girls;  no-one, that is, except Fouquier-Tinville who went out behind them.  The governess led them rapidly under the galleries, but Fouquier, quickening his pace, caught up with them in the passage du Perron:

- I beg your pardon, Citizen, said he, a question, please?.  

The woman recognised her neighbour from the Théâtre Séraphin.  A well-used metaphor, but one current at the time, has credited Fouquier-Tinville with “the face of a tiger”.  Either his physionomy was not so terrible at that moment, or he knew how to modify it to fit the circumstances, for the governness read such interest and tenderness in his face that she didn’t hesitate to stop.

- I noticed, continued Fouquier, the distress of these little ones.  I wanted to know the cause.  

Perhaps….he added, lowering his voice and looking around him nervously, perhaps it might not be without use if I were to know….

- Oh!  Citizen, it is very simple…

It is all my fault.  I wanted to distract these poor children who suffered terribly yesterday and chance has served me badly.  I did not know that Séraphin’s  show ended with those unfortunate scenes which could only serve to make the tragic memory worse…

- What memory?

- Their father was arrested yesterday, as a suspect, and taken to the Conciergerie…

- To the Conciergerie?...

- Yes, Citizen,  .Alas, she continued more quietly, we fear that in a week’s time he will appear before the Tribunal.

- His name?

- You can understand, seeing the same scene acted out which devastated our house yesterday in all reality, these poor children thought of their father….

- His name, quickly?

The woman hesitated; she feared she had already said too much; but as though moved by a sudden inspiration, by a foolish hope that clutches at straws, the younger of the two girls looked up at the man she thought could be her protector, her eyes filled with tears, and she said, shaking with sobs:  “Monsieur….if you could ….do something to get us back our papa…. He is called the comte de Courville”.  And opening her little arms, she threw herself at Fouquier-Tinville who had bent down to hear her words.  He hugged her convulsively against his chest, then, pushing her away brutally, strode away quickly and was lost in the crowd, under the galleries.

The next day a sealed letter was delivered to the former Hôtel de Courville on which was written “To Félicité et Laure Courville.  For Christmas”.  And underneath these two lines, as a signature, a simple first name:  Quentin.  It was an order to free the suspect, who, that same evening, was restored to his loved ones and was not troubled further during the Terror.

We are assured that this anecdote is authentic; and, if the details are made up, the tradition survives that a movement of pity on a certain day, when faced with a child in tears, softened the heart of Fouquier-Tinville.  And one cannot help imagining that, eighteen months later, when his turn came to mount the scaffold, when he crossed Paris to triumphant cries of hatred and anger, the worst storm of vengeful abuse which has ever buffeted a human being, one cannot help imagining that there were two children who cried at the thought they were going to put to death the man who had saved the life of their father.

Who can say whether the tears of these two girls might not outweigh in the eternal balance the opprobrium and maledictions of the whole world?!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Stop press: Robespierre reconstructed!

What do you know?!  Robespierre and his death mask have made the headlines!  Mulhouse-based facial reconstruction expert, Philippe Froesch used advanced FBI techniques to create this image from a plaster copy of the Tussaud mask, now in the Museum of Natural History in Aix-en-Provence. 

I'd say the features look superficially convincing, especially in profile, but somehow - and Maximilien's many fans will no doubt agree - it doesn't quite satisfy the imagination. Monsieur Froesch himself professed surprise at the harshness of the result - possibly he has overdone the poxy complexion and those tiny icy eyes don't seem right. (Were Robespierre's eyes actually blue? In some portraits they are brown.) Robespierre is often described as dapper in appearance and feline in his movements, and not the sort of person to stand out in a crowd. I'm not sure this is quite that person.  It is certainly hard to see here a man who was attractive to women.

Here what Philippe Froesche had to say, according to the Times:

We used a hand-held scanner to obtain a 3-D image that we had to adapt to take account of all the details — the scars, the spots, everything,” said the specialist, who worked with Philippe Charlier, a renowned forensic scientist. He faced a difficulty with the eyes, because the mask had them closed and the eyelids had been drawn by hand in the wrong place.

Mr Froesch used techniques invented by the FBI to place the eyes correctly in relation to marks left by the corneas in Grosholtz’s mask.

He said the result was a “worrying face” — in keeping with Robespierre’s infamous reputation, and far harsher than contemporary portraits of him.

“The portraits made him look quite gentle, probably because the painters knew about his temper and wanted to be careful,” he said.

“The true Robespierre had 100 or so pockmarks, bags under the eyes and a nose in the form of an inverted V. He was pale, tired and he had a lot of nosebleeds.

“I don’t think he was the kind of person who would go out for a drink in the evening.”


Article in The Times, 17 December 2013,

Philippe Froesch's website is

It is interesting to note the existence of this copy of the Tussaud "death mask" in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence:  apparently a number of copies were made on the instructions of Pierre Marie Alexandre Dumoutier, who founded the Society of Phrenology of Paris in the 1830s, including one which preserved in the collections of the Musée de l'homme in Paris.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A monument in honour of the Bourbons

Earlier this year I went to an exhibition at the Sir John Soane Museum, "Northern Vision: Master Drawings from the Tchoban Foundation" (June-September 2013).  There were all sorts of great architectural fantasies - the peach was a design for a truly mega 1930s Palace of Soviets.  Also included were a couple of noteworthy 18th-century French confections. The first is a drawing submitted for the 1772 Grand Prix of the Academy of Architecture by Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1804) for a "Monument in honour of the Bourbons":  unsurprisingly it didn't win. (How the Revolutionaries would have enjoyed tearing this down if it had ever been built!)

Commemorative Monument in Honour of the Bourbons 1772
Pen, Indian ink, brown ink, applied to a sketch in black chalk
Signed Desprez invenit on the base, in pen and brown ink
Copyright: Tchoban Foundation
Image courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum

"This highly complex drawing was produced by Desprez for the 1772 Grand Prix of the French Academy of Architecture. Here, he has designed a monument based on a circular temple or tholos. The architecture is richly adorned with symbols and allegorical statues evocative of the Bourbon dynasty, including fleur-de lis, suns, Gallicroosters and the intertwined initials ‘L’ and ‘H’ representing the current Bourbon monarch Louis XVI and the founder of the dynasty Henri IV.
The capitals of the temple’s columns are based on those of the ‘French Order’ developed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and used in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Perhaps because of this overly complex decorative scheme,Desprez failed to win the Grand Prix with this submission. He left France in 1784 to enter the service of the King of Sweden, Gustave III."

The second offering is a Hercules by Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801) intended to adorn the Napoleonic Cisalpine Republic.  It is probably as well that this neo-classical delight never made it past the drawingboard - it would have been 83 feet tall!

 Hercules of Gaul, or the Victorious French People
in the image of Hercules (1800-01);
Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801).
Copyright: Tchoban Foundation.
Image courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum.
"Although born and trained as an architect in France, Petitot worked mainly in Italy. Having won the Grand Prix of the Academy of Architecture in 1745, at the age of eighteen, he took up a residency in Rome the following year, where he joined the ranks of French ‘Piranesians’, such as Clérisseau, Vien, Challe and Le Lorrain. In 1753 he entered the service of the Duke of Parma and founded the Academy of Fine Arts there. This drawing probably relates to a plan for a new district of Milan, which between 1797 and 1802 was the capital of the Cisalpine Republic – a short-lived French client state founded byNapoleon. Hercules of Gaul was a particularly popular subject during the French Revolution. Petitot based his figure on a well-known antique statue but with the addition of the French cockerel."

Notice and notes from the Exhibition:

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Aviary of Madame Helvétius

The Aviary of Madame Helvetius is a mawkishly sentimental little fable published in 1809 as part of a set of "Instructional narratives" for little girls, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842), who is remembered today chiefly as the librettist of Beethoven's Fidelio. In the story, a tame pigeon is sent to Madame bearing an anonymous begging letter; she trustingly obliges and has her money returned in due course, to outpourings of uplifting emotion, by a pretty member  of the "deserving poor" .  As far as I know Bouilly had no personal connection and is merely echoing Madame H's well-known kindness and fondness for birds. 

According to Antoine Guillois, the tale is particularly fitting since Madame Helvétius was as fond of children as she was of animals.  Her entourage included his grandmother Eulalie Roucher,  Ambroise Firmin-Didot, Amithe Cabalis and Elisa de Condorcet, as well as the two daughters of her faithful servant Marin. The children were  allowed into her room and aviaries as well as having their own gardens. Madame gave the delicate little Eulalie her own youthful nickname "Minette". She apparently used to recit La Fontaine's fables to them regularly at their dinner time.

The tale is also if interest for its memories of the terrible winter of 1788.


MADAME Helvetius, the amiable wife of the celebrated writer of that name, who has described with so much eloquence the advantages to be derived from the mind, and the errors to which it is liable ; a lady whose graces and rare qualities inspired her husband with the sentiments of his charming poem entitled " Happiness," had a remarkable fondness for birds. She knew every genus and every species of them, and collected them at her beautiful house at Auteuil in a large elegant aviary, which was only shut during the night in order to preserve her numerous family from noxious animals. In the morning, as soon as she had given to each of them the food that was best suited to it, she opened the doors of their prison, and left them to the enjoyment of dispersing themselves about the country. Very often a small part of them only returned in the evening. In fine weather particularly the joyful flock finding sufficient nourishment out of doors, forgot the asylum where the most solicitous attention supplied an abundance equal to or beyond what they found elsewhere. But an insect just ready to fly, the muddy water of a pool, and the slightest shelter under the foliage of a tree or shrub, were preferred to the long millet straw, to the fountains of clear water, and to the nests of moss and down, with which the aviary was furnished. So true it is that nothing can compensate the charms of liberty and independence! But from the time the frosts began, almost all the fugitives returned to enjoy the comforts of hospitality. It even often happened that these little emigrants brought with them a great number of the birds of the neighbourhood, who sought like them to avoid the horrors of cold and hunger ; for everything yields to the imperious law of necessity.

Madame Helvetius never parted from her numerous and dear guests but with regret ; but the celebrity of her name, her natural graces, and the charms of her society, often recalled her to the capital, whither she usually went towards the month of January. 

It was the memorable winter of 1788 which made such ravages and occasioned so many misfortunes to France. The oldest forests were in part destroyed : the rivers rolling down from mountains of ice which were heaped one upon another, broke their banks and destroyed alike the castles and the cottages. The wild beasts besieged the hamlets, darted into the sheepfolds, and even upon the cradles of children ; their cruel hunger drove them to devour everything that came in their way. Travellers were met on the great roads who were in a manner petrified with the cold ; in the fields and in the woods, the game of all kinds was found dead upon the snow ; and the birds fell by thousands into the snares, into which they were attracted by the least bait that they presented to them. It might have been said that the stars had deviated from their course ; and that France, the mildness of whose climate is not one of the least advantages that it has received from nature, had changed its place upon the globe, and was all at once transported into Greenland, or Nova Zembla

Madame Helvetius, after having taken care that her aviary at Auteuil did not suffer in any way from so disastrous a winter, employed herself at Paris in relieving the distressed in the part of the town that she inhabited. Her compassion extended to every suffering being around her. From the windows of her apartment which looked upon a long terrace, she often saw a great number of sparrows, who at night took refuge in the stables of her hotel, and during the day sought every where in vain for some food. Exposing herself without regard to the rigours of the cold, she swept the snow from a part of the terrace, and never failed in the morning to scatter there seeds of all kinds, on which an immense number of birds immediately threw themselves, approaching her without fear, and even coming into her room.

One day as she was thus indulging herself in the pleasure of feeding all the sparrows in her neighbourhood, one amongst them came and perched upon her head, then descended to her shoulder, and at last came and nestled in her bosom. Madame Helvetius thought at first that this boldness was occasioned by the cold with which the bird seemed to be overcome. Her first care was to warm it in her hands, and then to revive it by the fire ; but perceiving that it perched familiarly upon her finger, reclined upon her neck, and made caressing gestures by beating its wings; Madame Helvetius no longer doubted that it was a tame sparrow that had flown from some neighbouring house, and which was attracted, like so many others, by the seeds scattered upon the terrace.

After having shown this refugee every attention that its gentleness and familiarity inspired, Madame Helvetius would not make it repay them with its liberty: she therefore opened her window, and said to the bird : " If you belong to any body in this part of the town, they must be uneasy as to your fate. Fly instantly to satisfy those who regret you. If you cannot find your asylum again, return to me, poor little wanderer, oh ! return again to warm yourself in my bosom !' At these words she gave the sparrow a kiss, and it then flew away and es- caped from her sight.

The next day, when Madame Helvetius lavished to her proteges the food of which they were so much in need, the same deserter came again hovering over her head ; and, lighting upon her hand, seemed to express all the pleasure that it felt at revisiting its benefactress. As she was caressing it anew, and warming it with her breath, she perceived that the bird had a little collar of blue silk twist upon its neck, to which hung a small bag made of the finger of a glove : Madame Helvetius took hold of this bag to examine what it might be, and thought she felt a paper in it. She searched it immediately with a lively curiosity, and actually found a very small piece of paper folded into the least possible form. On opening it she perceived several lines of close writing, the ink of which being still fresh, made it obvious that they had been written in haste. The first thing presented to her eyes was the following couplet from a celebrated poet :
" By thee the younglings of the nest are fed. And o'er all nature are thy bounties shed."
Madame Helvetius, as much affected as surprised, finished reading the note, which was in these words :
" Some worthy persons in your neighbourhood languish in distress, will you do less for them than for the numerous family which you are seen to succour every morning ?"
"Undoubtedly not !" exclaimed Madame Helvetius, giving herself up to her emotion : " how can one resist so affecting an appeal, or refuse sa charming a messenger ?" She flew immediately to her secretary, took from it a note for fifty pounds, and put it into the little bag, instead of that which it had contained; then kissing the sparrow several times for its commission, went out upon the terrace, and let it take its flight. She wished to follow it with her eyes, and, by observing the direction in which it flew, to discover on which side the unfortunate persons lived whom she had assisted: but the bird passing rapidly over the trees of the garden, concealed itself from the observation of its benefactress, and left her full of the most gratifying reflections.

What above all things engaged the imagination of Madame Helvetius, was to learn how the faithful sparrow had been taught to fulfil such a commission. " By what means,"' she said to herself, " can it have been accomplished, to make him direct his flight towards my apartment, to hit upon the moment at which I gave food to its companions in misfortune, to come and rest upon my head; in a word, to distinguish and choose me for the consoler of suffering beings, for whom it is the captivating mediator?. ...The more I think upon it, the more I am at a loss."

Several days passed in which Madame Helvetius thought incessantly on this singular adventure; but she forbore from any mention of it, as that would have been to reveal her good works, and she knew by experience that secrecy doubles the value of a benefit. Some- times also in the liveliness of her brilliant imagination, and from her extensive knowledge of the world, she feared that she might have been made the dupe of intrigue or avarice; as amongst the interesting beings who have a claim upon our compassion, so many impostors obtrude themselves who abuse our confidence !

One morning as Madame Helvetius was employed in sweeping the snow from the terrace, in order to assemble the birds, the faithful messenger returned, with the same little bag hanging from its neck into which this benevolent lady had put the note for fifty pounds. She supposed that it was come again with a request for further assistance, and prepared to deposit in the bag a fresh pledge of her generosity; but what was her surprise to find a second note in it, expressed in the following terms :
" You have saved an estimable artist and his numerous family; the fifty pounds will be remitted to you, as soon as the return of spring and the labour of our hands will allow us to acquit ourselves of the obligation."
Madame Helvetius read over this anonymous note several times and perceiving that many of the words were partly effaced by tears of gratitude, she could not restrain her tears, and was still more satisfied at having yielded to the first impulse of her heart. She detained the engaging messenger some time, unable to cease caressing it; but reflecting to what a degree this bird must be dear to the family who thus confided its destiny to it, she restored it to liberty as soon as she had put the following answer to the note into the little bag :
'* I supposed I had made a gift: if it is but a loan, the happiness of having been useful to you will make me your debtor."
From that moment the tame sparrow reappeared no more. Madame Helvetius vainly supposed she recognised it in each one of its species whom her kindness drew together ; but as soon as she would have put her hand on one of them, the whole flock flew away with a rapid wing, and saved themselves as from before a bird of prey.
The frosts at length ceased ; and the snow yielding to the rays of the sun, which acquired more power every day, announced that the appearance of the spring would not be long delayed. Madame Helvetius now scattered her abundance of seeds in vain, as she no longer attracted more than a small number of her dear guests: the others finding a sufficient supply for their wants, and already engaged in preparing the nests which were to contain their first broods, came but seldom upon the terrace. They even seemed to become more wild in proportion as the fine weather returned. Madame Helvetius felt a secret mortification at this forgetfulness, at this ingratitude : "But can one," she remarked to herself, " impute to birds as a fault, what one meets with every moment amongst mankind?"

On the first of May this lady returned to her house at Auteuil, in order to repair the disasters of the cruel winter which was just over. She was eager above everything to make good the injuries that the frosts had occasioned in her aviary. There, every time that she cast a look on the several sparrows which made a part of her various collection, they recalled to her mind the engaging mediator between her and the unknown family ; and although this species of bird may not be remarkable either for the variety of its song, or the splendour of its plumage, Madame Helvetius felt a predilection, she could not resist, for every sparrow that she saw, for which the generosity of her heart fully accounted.

Towards the middle of the summer she was obliged to leave her rural occupations, as some business made it necessary for her to go to Paris. A few days after her arrival, as she was enjoying the morning air upon the terrace, she perceived the faithful sparrow, with the same little bag hanging from its neck, flying about here and there, seeming no longer to know her. It was in vain that she called to it, threw it some seeds, and made a thousand caressing motions to it: the sparrow passed and re-passed over her head, expressing at once a fear and a desire of resting there. Madame Helvetius then supposed that it must be the change in her dress which occasioned this distrust.

Returning immediately into the house, she changed her dress for the winter clothes in which she had received the bird many months before, putting on a blue satin pelisse lined with ermine, and a large green velvet mantle, although it was one of the hottest days of the year, and re-appeared upon the terrace. The sparrow as she had foreseen came to her instantly, and perching upon her shoulder expressed by every possible means his confidence and joy. Madame Helvetius impatiently opened the little bag, and found a note for fifty pounds, enclosed in a paper containing these few lines :
"We lose no time in acquitting ourselves of the sum of money that you have condescended to lend us ; but not of our gratitude, which will remain for ever engraven on our hearts."

Madame Helvetius was at first tempted to send back the fifty pounds ; but she reflected that this might only deprive these amiable unknown persons of the sweet enjoyment of having acquitted themselves of a sacred debt. Being desirous to accustom the intelligent messenger to know her in her summer dress, she put off her mantle and pelisse, and appeared in a white morning dress, without a cap. The sparrow was soon reconciled to this new appearance ; and as his intelligence, and the services that he had been instrumental in, often procured him his liberty, he came regularly every morning to Madame Helvetius's terrace. If she did not appear in a short time, he struck with his bill against her window, in order, if it may be so expressed, not to return without having paid his homage to his amiable benefactress.

Not many days after, on a Sunday, Madame Helvetius, having resorted to her favourite walk the botanic garden, after walking about some time sat down, in company with many persons of distinction who formed her usual society. She was earnestly engaged in a delightful conversation, when all at once the faithful sparrow, which had been so often a messenger to her, came out from under the silk handkerchief of a young woman sitting opposite to her upon a bank of turf, and, lighting upon Madame Helvetius, testified by his caresses that he knew her again. "It is my pretty messenger",  she exclaimed, kissing it repeatedly : " but how could it come into this public garden, in the midst of so much company ?" " Let me beg you will excuse it, madam," said a young girl of ten or twelve years old as she approached Madame Helvetius, "it is my sister's favourite."
" And who is your sister, my little friend ?'"
" That young woman dressed in white, that you see there by my father and mother: this bird I assure you belongs to her ; she would not part with it for all the money in the world."

When she had done speaking, she pointed to a young woman of sixteen or seventeen years old of an interesting figure, who colour-ing with joy and surprise said to her parents, " It is she! Yes, it is she herself."

At last the young Elizabeth, for such was the name of this unknown person, recovering her voice, informed Madame Helvetius that she was the eldest daughter of a carver of the name of Valmont ; that her father, having been attacked with a lingering illness, had been unable to work, which had reduced them to great distress ; and as the labour of his children could not effectually relieve them they being as yet in general quite young ; the name of Madame Helvetius had inspired her with the happy idea of procuring that assistance for her father by the means she had adopted, that his spirit would not suffer them to beg. That in a word it was she,who unknown to her parents had made the experiment of sending her dear sparrow, whose intelligence had seconded her views beyond what she could have hoped.

" But by what means, let me understand," said Madame Helvetius, " did you accomplish the directing our mutual interpreter to me ?" " Oh! madam, it has cost me great pains and great distress !" replied the young Elizabeth, caressing the sparrow which was upon her breast. " I have often been obliged to expose it to the severity of the cold, I have even been obliged to have the cruelty to keep it without food for whole days, in order that it might be attracted, like all the other birds, by the food that you threw out to them, that it might be accustomed to see you, and to approach you. I observed all that was going forward from the window of my room, which looks upon your garden. Sometimes the poor little creature flew about the neighbourhood quite frightened, and only returned after a long time allured by the sound of my voice. Sometimes it was pursued by the wild sparrows, and returned wounded from their pecking it, and with its wings torn. At last I saw it one day flying about you, and lighting upon your head. The next day, having again had the resolution to deprive it of food, I seized the moment at which you threw out your benefaction of seeds upon the terrace, and risked the little bag which contained my first note. You know what followed."
Madame Helvetius could not, any more than those who surrounded her, suppress the most lively emotion. This interesting detail made her feelingly alive to the tender ingenuity of filial piety. She pressed the young Elizabeth several times in her arms, thanking her for having selected her to assist in saving her estimable family, and entreating her not to let the dear sparrow lose the habit of coming often to see her. And in relating this anecdote she never failed to repeat, what I here repeat to you, my daughter, as my first advice. That it is better to pardon one guilty person than to condemn an innocent one. That even the fear of encouraging vice, or of favouring imposture, ought never to make us lose an opportunity of assisting honest and respectable poverty.


Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, "The aviary of Madame Helvetius" in  Instructive Narratives from Real Life; Or, A Father's Advice to His Daughter,  English translation,  Colburn (1814) 

Jean-Nicolas Bouilly - biography:

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