Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 6

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IX, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 7


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IX - Chapter 6
I gamble and lose - An adventure in a fiacre (four-wheeled cab) – Madame Roland – The Gate of L’Ermitage – The Second Federation of the 14th July – Preparations for Emigration



London, April to September 1822.

These conversations with the illustrious defender of the king took place at my sister-in-law’s house: she had just given birth to a second son, of whom Monsieur de Malesherbes was the godfather, and to whom he gave the name, Christian. I was present at the baptism of this child, who was only able to know his father and mother at an age when life is without memories, and appears later like a dream that cannot be recalled. The preparations for my departure dragged on and on. My family had thought to arrange a wealthy marriage for me: they found that my wife’s fortune was invested in Church securities; the nation undertook to pay them in its own way. Moreover, Madame de Chateaubriand had lent the scrip of a large part of these securities, with the consent of her guardians, to her sister, the Comtesse du Plessix-Parscau, who had emigrated. So money was still lacking; it was necessary to borrow.

A notary obtained 10,000 francs for us: I was taking them home to the Cul-de-sac Férou, in the form of assignats, when, in the Rue de Richelieu, I met one of my old friends from the Navarre Regiment, Comte Achard. He was a great gambler; he suggested going to the rooms of a certain Monsieur … where we might talk: the devil urged me on; I went upstairs, I gambled, I lost all except fifteen hundred francs, with which, full of remorse and confusion, I climbed into the first carriage that came by. I had never gambled before: the play produced a kind of painful intoxication in me; if the passion had seized me completely, it would have turned my brain. Semi-distracted, I left the cab at Saint-Sulpice, and forgot my pocket-book containing the remains of my wealth. I ran home and told them I had left the whole 10,000 francs in the cab.

I went out again, I turned down the Rue Dauphine; I crossed the Pont-Neuf, not without feeling tempted to throw myself into the water, and made my way to the Place du Palais-Royal, where I had taken the wretched cab. I questioned the Savoyards who watered the nags, and described my particular vehicle; indifferently, they gave me a number. The police superintendent for the district informed me that the number belonged to a man who hired carriages, and lived at the top of the Faubourg Saint-Denis. I went to this man’s house, and remained in the stables all night, waiting for the fiacres to return: a substantial number of them appeared in succession, none of which was mine; at last, at two in the morning, I saw my chariot enter. I had barely time to recognise my two white steeds, when the poor creatures, exhausted, collapsed in the straw, stiff-legged, their bellies distended, their limbs stretched out as if they were dead.

The coachman remembered having driven me. After dropping me, he had picked up a citizen who had got down at the Jacobins; after the citizen, a lady whom he had taken to Number13, Rue de Cléry; after the lady, a gentleman whom he had set down at the Récollets in the Rue Saint-Martin. I promised the coachman a tip, and at daybreak, set out myself to discover my fifteen hundred francs, as if in search of the North-West Passage. It seemed clear to me that the citizen of the Jacobins had confiscated them by right of sovereignty. The young lady of the Rue de Cléry claimed she had noticed nothing in the fiacre. I arrived without hope, at my third address; the coachman gave, as well as he could, a description of the gentleman he had driven. The porter cried: ‘That’s Père So-and-so!’ He led me through the corridors and empty apartments, to the rooms of a Recollect, who had remained behind alone to make an inventory of his monastery’s furniture. This monk, in a dusty frock-coat, sitting on a pile of rubbish, listened to the tale I told: ‘Are you,’ he said, ‘the Chevalier de Chateaubriand?’ – ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Here is your pocket-book,’ he said; ‘I was going to bring it to you when I had finished; I found your address inside.’ It was this monk, hounded and despoiled, engaged in counting conscientiously the relics of his cloister, for those who were banishing him, who restored to me the fifteen hundred francs with which I was going to travel into exile. Lacking this small sum, I could not have emigrated: what would have happened to me? My whole life would have been altered. I would be hanged if I would move a single step today to recover a million.

So passed the 16th June, 1792.

Loyal to my feelings, I had returned from America to offer my sword to Louis XVI, not to become involved with party intrigue. Neither the dismissal of the new King’s Guard, in which Murat made one; the successive ministries of Roland, Dumouriez, and Duport du Tertre; the minor Court conspiracies, nor the great popular uprisings, inspired in me anything other than boredom and contempt. I heard Madame Roland spoken of a great deal, but never saw her; her Memoirs show that she possessed an extraordinarily forceful spirit. She was said to be very pleasant; who knows whether she was sufficiently so at that time to make the stoicism of her unnatural virtues bearable. Certainly, a woman who, at the foot of the guillotine, asks for a pen and ink in order to record the last moments of her journey, to record the discoveries she has made in her transit from the Conciergerie to the Place de la Révolution, such a woman shows a preoccupation with the future, a scorn for life of which there are few examples. Madame Roland had character rather than genius: the first may grant a person the second, the second cannot grant the first.

On the 19th of June, I went to the valley of Montmorency, to visit Rousseau’s ‘Hermitage’: not because I wished to recall Madame d’Épinay and that depraved and artificial set; but because I wished to say farewell to the retreat of a man, endowed with a talent whose accents stirred me in my youth, even though his morals were antipathetic to my own. Next day, the 20th of June, I was still at the ‘Hermitage’; there I had come across two men taking a walk like me in that same wilderness during that day fatal to the monarchy, indifferent as they were, or might be, I thought, to worldly affairs: the one was Monsieur Maret, of the Empire, the other was Monsieur Barère, of the Republic. The good Barère had come, full of sentimental philosophy, far from the noise, to count the florets of the Revolution in the shadow of Julie. The troubadour of the guillotine, following whose report the Convention decreed that Terror was the order of the day, was saved from that Terror by hiding in a basket of heads; from the depths of the tub, under the scaffold, only his croaking of death could be heard! Barère was one of those tigers that Oppian caused to be born from a light breeze: Zephyri vel Favoni aura: a breath of Zephyr or the West Wind.

Ginguené and Chamfort, those men of letters and my old friends, were delighted by the events of the 20th of June. Laharpe, continuing his lessons at the Lycée, shouted with the voice of Stentor: ‘Madmen! You reply to every representation the people make: Bayonets! Bayonets! Well! There are your bayonets!’ Though my voyage to America had made me a less insignificant person, I could not rise to such great heights of principle and eloquence. Fontanes was at risk because of his former connections with the Société monarchique. My brother was a member of a club of enragés. The Prussians were on the march by virtue of the agreement between the Cabinets of Vienna and Berlin; already a fairly hot encounter had taken place between the French and Austrians, near Mons. It was high time to make a decision.

My brother and I procured forged passports for Lille: we would be wine merchants, in the Parisian National Guard, whose uniform we wore, who were setting out to tender for army supplies. My brother’s manservant, Louis Poullain, known as Saint-Louis, travelled under his proper name: though from Lamballe, in Lower Brittany, he was going to visit his relatives in Flanders. The day of our emigration was set for the 15th of July 1792, the day after the second Festival of the Federation. We spent the 14th in the Tivoli Gardens, with the Rosanbo family, my sisters and my wife. Tivoli belonged to Monsieur Boutin whose daughter had married Monsieur de Malesherbes. Towards the end of the day, we saw a fair number of federates wandering around, the crowd having dispersed, on whose hats in chalk was written: ‘Pétion, or death!’ Tivoli, the starting point for my exile, was to become a rendezvous for amusement and entertainment. Our relatives left us without any sadness; they were persuaded we were going on a pleasure-trip. The fifteen hundred francs I had recovered seemed sufficient riches to see me back in triumph to Paris.