Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 7

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IX, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 8

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 7
I and my brother emigrate – Saint-Louis’ adventure – We cross the frontier

London, April to September 1822.

On the 15th of July, at six in the morning, we climbed into the diligence: we had booked our seats in the cabriolet, next to the driver; the valet, whom we were not supposed to know, squeezed inside with the other passengers. Saint-Louis was a sleep-walker; in Paris he would go and look for his master during the night, with his eyes open, but fast asleep. He would undress my brother and put him to bed, asleep all the while, replying: ‘I know, I know,’ to anything said to him during his attacks, and only waking when cold water was thrown in his face; he was a man of about forty years of age, nearly six foot high, and as ugly as he was tall. This poor fellow, very respectful, had never served any other master than my brother; he was quite worried when he had to sit at table with us for supper. The passengers, great patriots, talked of hanging aristocrats from the lamp-posts which added to his fears. The idea that at the end of it all, he would have to pass through the Austrian Army, to fight in the Army of the Princes, served to turn his brain. He drank heavily, and climbed into the diligence; we returned to our seat.

In the middle of the night, we heard the passengers shouting, with their heads out of the window: ‘Stop, driver, stop!’ We stopped, the door of the diligence opened, and immediately men and women’s voices cried: ‘Out, citizen, out! We can’t stand it, out, you swine! He’s a brigand! Out, out!’ We got down too. We saw Saint-Louis, pushed and thrown from the coach, getting to his feet, gazing around with wide-open but sleep-filled eyes, set off for Paris, as fast as his legs would carry him, and without his hat. We were unable to acknowledge him, because it would have given us away; we had to abandon him to his fate. Taken and arrested at the first village, he stated that he was Monsieur de Chateaubriand’s servant, and lived in Paris, in the Rue de Bondy. The police passed him from one force to the next till he reached President de Rosanbo’s house; the unfortunate man’s statements served to prove that we had emigrated, and to send my brother and my sister-in-law to the scaffold.

The next morning when the diligence breakfasted, we had to listen to the whole story twenty times over: ‘That man’s mind was disturbed; he dreamt aloud; he said strange things; he was surely a conspirator, an assassin fleeing from justice.’ The well bred citizenesses blushed and waved large Constitutional fans of green paper. In their description we readily recognised the effects of somnambulism, fear and wine.

Arriving at Lille, we went in search of the man who would take us across the frontier. The Emigration had its agents of deliverance who ultimately became agents of perdition. The monarchist party was still powerful, the issue undecided; the weak and cowardly served it, while awaiting the outcome.

We left Lille before the gates were closed: we waited in an out of the way house, and did not set off again until ten at night, in complete darkness; we took nothing with us; we carried sticks in our hands; it was less than a year since I had followed my Dutchman in this way through the forests of America.

We crossed cornfields through which ran lightly-marked paths. French and Austrian patrols were scouring the countryside: we might fall in with one or the other, or find ourselves facing a sentry’s pistol. We made out solitary horsemen far off, motionless, gun in hand; we heard horses’ hooves in sunken lanes; putting our ears to the ground, we heard the steady tramp of marching infantry. After three hours progress, now running, now tiptoeing slowly along, we reached a crossroads in a wood, where a few belated nightingales were singing. A company of Uhlans concealed behind a hedge fell on us with raised sabres. We shouted: ‘Officers wishing to join the Princes!’ We asked to be escorted to Tournai, saying we were in a position to establish our identities. The officer in command positioned us between his troopers and led us away.

When day broke, the Uhlans noticed our National Guard uniforms under our greatcoats, and mocked the colours in which France would soon set out to clothe a subjugated Europe.

In the Tournaisis, an ancient kingdom of the Franks, Clovis spent the first years of his reign: he left Tournai with his companions, called as he was to the conquest of the Gauls: ‘Their weapons gave them every right’ says Tacitus. Through that town, from which, in 486, the first king of the first race issued to found his powerful and enduring monarchy, I passed, in 1792, to rejoin the Princes of the third race, on a foreign soil, and returned again in 1815, when the last King of the French abandoned the kingdom of the first King of the Franks: omnia migrant; everything alters.

Reaching Tournai, I left my brother to struggle with the authorities, and escorted by a soldier I visited the cathedral. Once, Odon d’Orleans, scholar of that cathedral, sitting all night at the door of the church, would teach his disciples the paths of the stars, pointing out to them with his finger the Milky Way and the constellations. I would have preferred to meet that simple astronomer of the eleventh century at Tournai, than the Pandours. I liked those times, when, as the chronicles told me, under the entry for the year 1049, that in Normandy a man was metamorphosed into an ass: which is what was thought to have happened to me, it would appear, when I was with my schoolmistresses, the Couppart sisters. Hildebert, in 1114, had noticed a girl with ears of corn emerging from her own ears: perhaps it was Ceres. The Meuse, which I would soon cross, was suspended in the air in the year 1118, witnessed by Guillaume de Nangis and Albéric. Rigord assures us that, in 1194, between Compiègne and Clermont en Beauvoisis, a tangled hail of rooks fell, bearing coals and starting fires. If the storm, as Gervais de Tilbury assures us, was unable to quench a candle over the window of the Priory of Saint Michael of Camissa, we know too, through him, that in the diocese of Uzès there was a pure and lovely fountain, which changed location whenever anything dirty was thrown into it: today’s consciences would not trouble about such a small thing. – Reader, I am not wasting your time; I am chattering to you while you wait patiently for my brother to finish his negotiations: here he is; he returns after explaining everything to the satisfaction of the Austrian commandant. We are allowed to travel to Brussels, an exile purchased with too much care.