Wednesday, January 07, 2015

"Pere La Chaise and Story of Lavalette" by Grace Greenwood 1867

It was on a Sunday, -- a soft, golden October day, that we drove out to Pere la Chaise, the most beautiful cemetery of Paris. This burial-place is very picturesquely situated on the slope of a hill, northeast of the city, and contains within its walls one hundred and fifty acres. It was consecrated in 1804, and named after Pere la Chaise, who was the superior of a religious establishment which once stood on the ground.

This cemetery is like a vast royal garden, full of all beautiful and rare trees and plants, overflowing with flowers, crowded with little chapels, monuments and tombs. Of the last there are sixteen thousand; and the cost of the monuments is estimated at one hundred and twenty millions of francs.

I cannot tell you how lovely and solemn this "city of the dead" seemed to me on that calm Sunday. A sweet south wind was blowing, which gently shook down from trees and vines showers of autumn leaves, that rustled and fluttered about the monuments, eddied in the grass, and rolled along the paths in little drifts of crimson and gold. The soft, mild sunshine seemed to fall tenderly from heaven, like a sign of God's acceptance and forgiveness of that multitude of his erring children, prostrate and silent in the last sleep. The ivy and some other vines were yet green, and clung about tombs like kindly recollections, -- flowers of many kinds, -- roses that reminded one of "the Rose of Sharon"; the azure heliotrope, the brave, constant little mignonette, and the tender myrtle, made sweetness and brightness in the shadow of cypresses and massive tombs; while on many a humble, unmarked mound, and little baby grave, half hidden in the grass, grew fragrant blue violets, glistening with dew, and looking like watchful, loving eyes, brimmed with tears.

So graced and watched over, no grave could look lonely and neglected; but there are other marks of faithful and affectionate remembrance here. Lying on the mounds, and hanging on crosses and monuments, are innumerable wreaths, made of a fadeless flower called the Immortelle; and over many graves the tombs are built in the form of little chapels, or oratories, where mourners go for prayer and meditation; where alone, secluded from all the world, they can spend hours in devotion, in thinking beautiful thoughts, and recalling sweet, sad memories of their dear lost ones, in weeping out their griefs and regrets, and in cherishing precious hopes of an eternal reunion in the blessedness and rest of heaven. In most of these oratories fresh wreaths or bouquets are left daily; and in some, wax tapers are kept burring before the image of our Lord Jesus, or Mary his mother.

The French are usually considered light, irreligious, and heartless; but visiting this cemetery, and seeing what loving care they have for their dead, is enough to convince any one that very many of them must be true-hearted, serious minded, full of good and tender feeling.

It is so much better to have our burial-places pleasant, shady spots, where flowers will bloom luxuriantly, and birds will sing, -- where little children, and, we may hope, angels, will love to come, than to have them shut up in by city walls, crowded and damp and dark, or away off on some bleak hillside, exposed to wind and sun, overgrown with rank weeds, neglected and forgotten.

Lavallette division 36
The first monument that attracted our attention was one in the form of a small Gothic chapel. This was erected to the memory of Abelard and Heloise, two famous, unfortunate lovers of the twelfth century. Their lives were very sorrowful, for they were parts, -- Abelard became a priest and Heloise an abbess, -- but they always loved one another, and were buried side by side. Their bodies were removed several times, and now their dust lies here. Reclining under a canopy on the monument are two marble statues of the lovers, dressed in the costume of their time, lying apparently asleep, and looking very peaceful, though somewhat weary and sad.

This is the most interesting tomb in all the cemetery to romantic people, but I think you would feel as much emotion at the grave of the brave Marshal Ney, who was shot for his devotion to Napoleon, -- at the tomb of the wise and good La Fontaine,-- or that of Bernardin St. Pierre, the author of the exquisite story of "Paul and Virginia," -- or of Madame Cottin, who wrote "Elizabeth, or the Exiles of Siberia," -- or of the the Count Lavalette (pictured right, today).

The most magnificent monument at Pere la Chaise is that of a Countess Demidoff. It consists of ten marble columns, resting on a wide, massive base, and supporting an entablature, under which is a sarcophagus, on which is a sculptured cushion, bearing the arms and the coronet of the Countess. This great, costly monument, which stands on a hill, overlooking the whole cemetery, is erected to one who was merely rich and titled. It seemed to me, in its massiveness and white beautify, but a pile of arrogance and pride, haughtily towering above the graves of heroes and poets, the great and good, and defying death itself. I thought I should rather lie in the lowliest grave of the poor, and have the violets creep over me, than lie in state in that pompous mausoleum, -- that dead woman's palace.

I have spoken above of the tomb of Count Lavalette. Possibly some of you may be unacquainted with his story; I will relate it at a venture: --


Marie Chamans, Count de Lavalette, was born at Paris in 1769. He was the son of a shopkeeper, but he received a liberal education, and studied law. When the great Revolution broke out he joined the National Guard; yet at the storming of the Tuileries he nobly risked his life in defending Louis XVI and his family from the fury of the mob. He was filled with horror and disgust at the atrocities of the revolutionists, left France and joined the army abroad. After the battle of Arcola, Napoleon, then General Bonaparte, made him his aid-de-camp, and from that time manifested towards him the utmost affection and confidence. In this instance he showed great good sense and taste, selecting an officer and a friend, for Lavalette was a man of superior talents, remarkable sagacity, a generous spirit, and rare elegance of manner. He accompanied Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt; but a few weeks previous, married Mademoiselle Emilie de Beauharnais, a niece of Josephine, Madame Bonaparte. This marriage was planned, almost commanded by Napoleon, but it proved a very happy one. The bride was young, beautiful, good, and very noble; while Lavalette was amiable, affectionate and faithful, -- loving and admiring his Emilie with all his heart.

Lavalette encountered many dangers in Egypt, in battle and from the plague, but he finally returned to his country and home in safety.

When Napoleon became emperor, he made Lavalette a Count of the empire, and his wife mistress of the robes to the Empress; but when her aunt was divorced, Emilie left the court, and retired to private life.

On the abdication and first exile of Napoleon, Lavalette submitted, and promised allegiance to Louis XVIII. He would have remained faithful, had not this king proved himself a stupid tyrant, and a coward, unfit to reign. When Napoleon returned from Elba, and Louis fled from France, Lavalette gladly went back to the service of his beloved Emperor.

When, after the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon left France for his long, last exile, there was a sad and tender parting between him and his faithful friend. After the restoration fog Louis XVIII, Lavalette was advised to fly from his country; but his wife was ill at the time, and he could not believe Louis base and cruel enough to punish him for his attachment to his old master. However, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Conciergerie, the gloomy, terrible prison in which Marie Antoinette, Madame Roland, and may other noble victims of the Revolution, were confined. Here, in a wretched apartment, -- dark, cold, and damp, -- he sighed away his weary days from July to November, when he was brought to trial, and condemned to die by the guillotine, on the 21st of December.

As soon as she heard of this sentence, Madame Lavalette went to the King, flung herself at his feet, and implored him to spare the life of her husband. So beautiful was her face, even though bathed in tears, -- so noble and graceful her manner, -- such sweetness was in her voice, such pathos in her words, that only very hard-hearted, revengeful man could have resisted her. This miserable king, however, refused to grant her prayer, though he cruelly encouraged her at first. She went a second time, but was repulsed from his presence, and actually sat for more than an hour alone, not he stone steps of the palace, in utter grief and despair.

But as she sat there, weeping, shunned and abandoned by all the world, suddenly a strong, comforting angel seemed to whisper to her soul a brave plan for saving her beloved husband, and she rose up with a noble purpose in her heart, and a prayer on her lips for heavenly help and strength.

She was in the habit o dining with Lavalette daily, sometimes accompanied by her daughter, a lovely young girl, and sometimes by a faithful old nurse. One the last day but one preceding that fixed on for the Count's execution, Emilie said to him, "There no longer remains for us any hope but in one plan; you must leave here at eight o'clock, in my clothes, and go in my sedan chair to where Monsieur Baudus will have a cabriolet waiting to conduct you to a place of safety, where you will remain till you can quit the country."

Lavalette was astounded: he thought the plan of his wife a made and hopeless one, and so he told her. But she was calm and firm, and replied: "No objections; your death will be mine; so do not reject my proposal. My conviction of its success is deep, for I feel that God sustains me."

bronze relief depicting Lavalette's escape dressed in his wife's clothes
It was in vain that Lavalette represented how almost impossible it would be for him to so disguise himself as to deceive the sharp eyes of the turnkeys and soldiers, whom she was obliged to pass every night on leaving the prison; and the probability that, should he escape, they would ill-treat, perhaps kill her, in their rage. She turned very pale, but she was firm, and at last wrung from him a promise to attempt to execute her plan on the following day, his last day of life, if it should fail.

When Madame Lavalette came for her last visit, she was accompanied by her daughter Josephine and the old nurse. She wore over her dress a merino pelisse, lined with fur, and brought her a black silk petticoat. She said to her husband, "These will disguise you perfectly. Before going into the outer room, be sure to draw on your gloves, and put my handkerchief to your face. Walk very slowly, leaning on Josephine, and take care to stoop as you pass through these low doors, for if they should catch the feathers of your bonnet all would be lost. The jailers will be in the anteroom, and remember the turnkey always hands me out. The chair will be near the staircase. Monsieur Baudus will meet you soon and point our your hiding-place. Mind my directions, -- keep calm. God guide and protect you, my dearest husband."

She also gave some directions to her daughter, which the child promised to follow carefully. After dinner the prisoner retired behind a large screen, where his wife dressed him in the petticoat and pelisse she had brought, and put her bonnet on his head, all the while repeating, "Mind you stoop at the doors, -- be sure you walk through the hall slowly, like a person worn with suffering. What do you think of your papa," she said to Josephine, "will he do?"

"Not very badly," said the child, trying to smile bravely, but feeling a great deal of doubt.

As they heard the turnkey approaching, Lavalette said, "He looks in every evening, as soon as he has seen you off. Remain behind the screen, and make a noise by moving something, so that he will think all is right, and not discover my escape till I am clear away."

they they took a solemn, loving leave of each other, and as the door opened, Emilie sprang behind the screen. Lavalette went out with his daughter and the nurse. He followed the directions of his wife, and passed safely jailers, turnkey and soldiers, to the sedan chair, and was soon carried in it beyond the black shadow of the prison, and found himself breathing the delicious air of freedom once more. Monsieur Baudus and the Count de Chassenon met him at the appointed place, with a cabriolet, which he entered with Baudus, and was driven away by the count. The last look he had of Josephine, she was standing on the quay, with her hands joined, her sweet face uplifted in the starry night, praying for her dear father.

In the carriage was a groom's livery, which Lavalette put on, and assumed the character of a servant to Baudus, who conducted him to the house of the one of the king's ministers, -- about the last place in all Paris to be suspected and searched. Here he was received by Madame Brisson, wife of an officer of government, who, at the risk of her life, concealed him, and kindly cared for him; because, having once been a hunted fugitive, she had a vow to help, and, if possible, save any one in similar circumstances.

The full account of Lavalette's long concealment, and the dangers he ran from the rigorous search that was made for him, is very interesting; but I have not room to tell it here. He was obliged to keep his windows closed shut all day, and when at night he ventured to open them, he often heard proclamations of reward for his discovery, or threats of vengeance on those who were harboring him, cir dint he street below, and sounding like the howling of wolves, thirsting for his blood. But he had the joy of hearing also, from Madame Brisson, that the heroic devotion of his wife was everywhere praised, -- that she was almost worshipped by the people.

Lavalette finally owed his escape to some generous Englishmen, who conveyed him out of the country in the disguise of an English officer of the Guards. After an exile of six years, he was allowed to return to France, and rejoin his beloved wife and daughter once more. He sought the seclusion of country life, and in affectionate devotion to his family spent his remaining years. He die din 1830.

Poor Madame Lavalette! When it was discovered that she had set her husband free, she was treated very cruelly by the jailers and the government authorities. She was closely confined like the worst of criminals, -- forbidden to see or hear from a friend, and denied almost every comfort. In delicate health, worn with grief and anxiety, she sunk under her lonely suffering, and, when she was liberated, after six weeks imprisonment (for her enemies dared not condemn her), her noble mind was shattered, -- she had become as a child, only sadder than child ever was. She remained in this melancholy state throughout her life, -- only when her husband returned from exile she seemed to find a sweet content in his presence, and to love him all the better for all she had suffered for him. And so she continued, "ever good and gentle," but not all herself, till she passed from under the cloud of her mortal life, into the light of God's peace.

Josephine married a man worthy of her noble heart, and lived happily, far away from courts and prisons. Perhaps she is living now. Perhaps she sometimes gathers her little grandchildren around her, and tells them the story of their great-grandparents, -- O, far better than I have told it, -- while little hearts swell with pride, and indignation, and sympathetic sorrow. Perhaps she lays a trembling hand on the head of ht youngest darling, whose face is hidden in her lap, and says, while her own dim eyes overflow with tears, -- "Let us not grieve, my children, -- God comforts them now." [From Chapter V, pp. 38-52 in Stories and Sights of France and Italy, by Grace Greenwood, 1867. Lavellette's tomb and the bronze relief depicting his escape can be found in division 36]

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