Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 9

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IV, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IV, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IV - Chapter 9
Presentation at Versailles – Hunting with the King

Berlin, March 1821.

The dreaded day arrived; I was forced to set out for Versailles, more dead than alive. My brother took me there the day before my presentation and introduced me to Marshal de Duras, a worthy gentleman with a mind so ordinary that it cast something of the commonplace over his fine manners: nevertheless this good Marshal scared me terribly.

Next morning, I went alone to the palace. One has seen nothing, if one has not seen the pomp of Versailles, even after the disbanding of the old royal household: Louis XIV was still there.

Things went well so long as I only had to pass through the guardrooms: military display has always pleased me and never overawed me. But when I entered the Oeil-de-Boeuf, the ante-chamber to the Great Hall, and found myself among the courtiers, my agony began. They gazed at me; I heard them ask who I was. One must remember the ancient prestige of royalty, to realise the importance of a presentation in those days. A mysterious sense of destiny clung to the debutant; he was spared the patronising contempt, coupled with extreme politeness, which made up the inimitable manners of the grandee. Who could tell whether this debutant might not become the master’s favourite. One respected in him the future familiarity with which he might be honoured. Today we rush to the palace with even more enthusiasm than before, and curiously, without illusions: a courtier reduced to living on truths is not far from death by hunger.

When the King’s levee was announced, those who had not been presented withdrew; I felt a moment of vanity: I was not proud of remaining, but would have felt humiliated at having to leave. The door of the King’s bed-chamber opened: I saw the King, in accord with custom, complete his toilette that is to say he took his hat from the hands of the first gentleman in waiting. The King passed on his way to Mass; I bowed, Marshal de Duras presented me: ‘Sire, the Chevalier de Chateaubriand.’ The King looked at me, returned my bow, hesitated, and appeared as if he wished to stop and say a word to me. I would have replied with a calm countenance: my shyness had vanished. To speak to the commander of the Army, the Head of State seemed simple enough to me, without my being able to explain why. The King more embarrassed than I was, finding nothing to say to me, passed on. The vanity of human destiny! This sovereign whom I saw for the first time, this monarch so powerful was Louis XVI six years from the scaffold! And this new courtier at whom he scarcely glanced, having been presented on proof of nobility to the grandeur of Saint Louis’ heir, would one day, charged with separating remains from remains, be presented on proof of fidelity to his dust! A twofold mark of respect to the twofold royalty of the sceptre and the palm! Louis XVI might have answered his judges as Christ did the Jews: ‘Many good works I have showed you’…‘for which of those works do you stone me?’

We hurried to the gallery to see the Queen pass on her return from the chapel. She soon appeared with a glittering and crowded retinue; she made us a stately curtsey; she seemed enchanted with life. And those lovely hands which bore then the sceptre of so many kings with so much grace, were destined, before being bound by the executioner, to mend the rags of the widow imprisoned in the Conciergerie!

Though my brother had obtained a concession from me, it was not in his power to make me pursue it further. He begged me in vain to remain at Versailles in order to attend the Queen’s card-play in the evening: ‘You will be presented to the Queen, ‘he told me, ‘and the King will speak to you.’ He could not have given me a better reason for flight. I hastened to go and hide my glory in my furnished room, happy to have escaped the Court, but seeing before me, still to come, the terrible day of the carriages, the 19th February 1787.

The Duc de Coigny informed me that I was to hunt with the King in the forest of Saint-Germain. Early in the morning I headed for my torment, dressed as a debutant in a grey coat, red jacket and breeches, lace-topped riding boots, a hunting knife at my side, and a little gold-laced French hat. There were four of us debutants at the Palace of Versailles, myself; the two Messieurs de Saint-Marsault, and the Comte d’Hautefeuille. (I have met Monsieur the Comte d’Hautefeuille again: he is translating a number of pieces by Byron; Madame the Comtesse d’Hautefeuille is the talented author of l’Âme exilée etc.) The Duc de Coigny gave us our instructions: he advised us not to interfere with the hunt as the King was angered if anyone came between him and the quarry. The Duc de Coigny bore a name fatal to the Queen. The meet was at Le Val in the forest of Saint-Germain, an estate leased by the crown from Marshal de Beauvau. Custom decreed that the horses of a first hunt in which debutants took part were provided by the royal stables. (The Gazette de France for Tuesday 27th February 1787 reads as follows: ‘Comte Charles d’Hautefeuille, the Baron de Saint-Marsault, the Baron de Saint-Marsault-Chatelaillon, and the Chevalier de Chateaubriand who had previously had the honour of being presented to the King, have received on the 19th, that of riding in his Majesty’s carriages, and following the chase.’)

The guard beat the salute: at the voice of command, they presented arms. There was a shout of: ‘The King!’ The King appeared, and entered his carriage: we rode in the carriages behind. It was a far cry from this expedition and hunt with the King of France, to my hunting trips on the Breton moors, and an even further cry to my hunting trips with the savages of America: my life would be full of these contrasts.

We reached the rallying-point, where a number of saddle horses, held in hand under the trees, showed their impatience. The carriages with their guards drawn up in the forest; the groups of men and women; the packs barely retrained by the huntsmen; the hounds barking, horses neighing, the sound of the horns, made a very lively picture. The hunts of our kings recalled both the ancient and new customs of the monarchy, the rough pastimes of Clodion, Chilpéric, and Dagobert, the elegant enjoyments of François I, Henri IV, and Louis XIV.

I was too full of my reading not see everywhere Comtesses de Chateaubriand, Duchesses d’Etampes, Gabrielles d’Estrées, La Vallières, and Montespans. My imagination seized on the historic aspect of this hunt, and I felt at ease; besides I was in a forest, I was at home.

Descending from the carriage, I gave my ticket to the huntsman. A mare called L’Heureuse had been chosen for me, a swift creature, but hard-mouthed, skittish and capricious; a fair enough likeness of my fate, which never ceases to set back its ears. The King having mounted departed; the hunt followed, taking different routes. I was left behind, struggling with L’Heureuse who would not let her new master straddle her; however, in the end, I did manage to leap on her back: the hunt was already far off.

At first I mastered L’Heureuse well enough; forced to shorten her pace, she bowed her neck, shook her bit white with foam, and bounded along sideways; but once she neared the scene of the action, there was no holding her. She stretched out her head, forcing my hand down to her neck, and galloped straight into a knot of hunters, sweeping aside all in her way, and stopping only when she collided with the mount of a woman whom she almost knocked to the ground, in the midst of shouts of laughter from some, cries of fear from others. I have tried in vain today to remember the name of the woman, who accepted my apology politely. Nothing else was spoken of but the debutant’s adventure.

I had not reached the end of my trials. About half an hour after my mishap, I was riding across a lengthy clearing in a deserted part of the woods: there was a summerhouse at the end: there I began to think about these palaces scattered about the Crown forests, in memory of the long-haired kings and their mysterious pleasures: a shot rang out; L’Heureuse veered sharply, plunged head first into a thicket, and carried me to the very spot where the roe-buck had just been killed: the King appeared.

Then I remembered, too late, the Duc de Coigny’s warning: the wretched Heureuse had done for me. I leapt to the ground, pushing my mare back with one hand and sweeping my hat off with the other. The king stared; he felt he should speak; instead of being angered, he said in a good-natured tone, and with a loud laugh: ‘He did not hold out long.’ That was the only word I ever had from Louis XVI. People arrived on every side; they were amazed to find me talking with the King. The debutant Chateaubriand made a noise with his two adventures; but as has always happened since, he did not know how to profit from his good or bad luck.

The King brought three other roe-bucks to bay. Debutants were only allowed to pursue the first animal, so I went back to Le Val to wait with my companions for the hunt to return.

The King rode back to Le Val; he was cheerful and talked of the incidents during the chase. We took the road for Versailles. There was a fresh disappointment for my brother: instead of going off to dress, in order to attend the un-booting, a moment of triumph and favour, I threw myself into my carriage, and returned to Paris, full of joy at being delivered from my honours and tribulations. I told my brother I was determined to return to Brittany.

Content with having made his name known, and hoping one day to bring to maturity by means of his own presentation what had proved abortive in mine, he did not oppose the departure of so eccentric a brother. (The Mémorial historique de la Noblesse has published an unedited document annotated in the King’s hand, taken from the Royal archives, section historique, register M813, and box M814; it contains the attendees. My name and that of my brother are found there, proving that my memory has served me well concerning the dates: Note, Paris 1840).

Such was my first view of Town and Court. Society seemed even more odious than I had imagined; but though it scared me it did not discourage me; I felt, confusedly, that I was superior to what I had seen. I took an unconquerable dislike to the Court; this dislike, or rather contempt, which I have been unable to hide, will prevent my succeeding, or bring about my fall at the very summit of my career

As for the rest, if I judged the world without knowing it, the world, in its turn, ignored me. No one imagined on my debut what I might achieve, and no one was any the wiser when I returned to Paris. Since attaining my melancholy fame, many people have said: ‘How readily we would have noticed you, if we had met you in your youth!’ This kind pretension is no more than an illusion produced by an existing reputation. Men are alike on the outside: it is idle for Rousseau to tell us that he possessed a pair of small but very attractive eyes: it is no less certain witness his portraits that he looked like a schoolmaster or a crotchety cobbler.

To have done with the Court, I should say that having revisited Brittany, and returned once more to live in Paris with my younger sisters, Lucile and Julie, I plunged more deeply than ever into my solitary habits. I have been asked what came of this history of my presentation. It stopped there. – ‘You never hunted with the King again, then?’ – ‘No more than with the Emperor of China.’ – ‘You never returned to Versailles?’ – ‘I twice went as far as Sèvres; courage failed me, and I returned to Paris.’ – So you had no profit from your position?’ – ‘None at all.’ – ‘What did you do then?’ – ‘I got bored.’ – ‘So you felt no ambition?’ – ‘Indeed: by dint of worry and intrigue, I achieved the glory of publishing an idyll in the Almanach des Muses whose appearance nearly killed me with hope and fear. I would have given all the King’s carriages to have written the ballad: O ma tendre musette! (Oh my gentle air!), or De mon berger volage (My faithless shepherd)’

Good for anything on others behalf, good for nothing where I am concerned: there you have me.