Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 8

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IX, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 8
Brussels – Dinner with the Baron de Breteuil - Rivarol – Departure for the Army of the Princes – The route – Encounter with the Prussian Army – I arrive at Trèves

London, April to September 1822.

Brussels acted as general quarters for the noblest émigrés: the most elegant women of the Paris and the most fashionable men, those who only travelled as aides-de-camp, waited amongst their distractions for the moment of victory. The latter had beautiful and completely new uniforms; they paraded about with all the strictness of frivolity. Considerable sums of money which they could have lived on for several years, they consumed in a few days: there was scarcely any need to economise, since they would soon be in Paris…These shining knights planned for success in love and glory, in the opposite manner to ancient chivalry. They contemplated us contemptuously as we travelled about on foot, our rucksacks on our backs, we minor gentry from the provinces, impoverished officers reduced to being infantrymen. At the feet of their Omphales, these Hercules twirled the distaffs they had sent us, and which we had returned to them on arrival, contenting ourselves with our swords.

At Brussels, I found my small amount of luggage, which had been smuggled through in advance of my arrival: it consisted of my uniform from the Navarre Regiment, with my linen and my precious papers, from which I could not bear to be separated.

I was invited to dinner at the Baron de Bretueil’s house, with my brother; there I met the Baronne de Montmorency, then young and lovely, and who captivated, at that time, martyred bishops in silk cassocks with golden crosses, young magistrates transformed into Hungarian colonels, and Rivarol, whom I only saw on that one occasion. No one had named him; I was struck by the language of a man who alone held forth, and possessed the right to be heard, like some oracle. Rivarol’s wit harmed his talent, his words harmed his pen. A propos of revolutions, he said: ‘The first blow reaches God, the second only strikes unfeeling marble.’ I had resumed the uniform of a lowly second lieutenant in the infantry; I had to leave at the end of the meal, and my haversack was behind the door. I was still bronzed by American suns and sea air; I had straight, dark hair. My face and my silence bothered Rivarol; the Baron de Breteuil, noticing his uneasy curiosity, satisfied it: ‘Where has your brother the Chevalier arrived from?’ he asked my brother. I replied: ‘From Niagara.’ Rivarol exclaimed: ‘From a Waterfall!’ I fell silent. He hazarded the beginning of a question: ‘Monsieur is going…? – To where one fights,’ I interrupted. We all rose from the table.

This fatal emigration was hateful to me; I was in a hurry to meet my peers, émigrés like myself, with 600 livres income. We were quite foolish, doubtless, but at least we would draw swords and if we achieved success, it would not be us who profited from the victory.

My brother remained in Brussels, with Baron de Montboissier, whose aide-de-camp he had become; I set out alone for Coblentz.

There is nothing that possesses more history than the road I took; it recalled especially various memories or grandeurs of France. I passed through Liège, one of the municipal republics, which rose so many times against its bishops or the Counts of Flanders. Louis XI, though allied to the people of Liège was forced to sack their town, to escape from his ridiculous prison at Péronne.

I went to meet and join those men of war who pinned their fame on similar events. In 1792, the relations between France and Liege were more peaceable: the Abbé de Saint-Hubert was required to send two hunting dogs a year to the successors of King Dagobert.

At Aix-la-Chapelle, another gift, but on France’s part: the mortuary sheet which served for the interment of a most Christian monarch was donated to the tomb of Charlemagne, like a liege’s flag to the ruling fief. Our Kings declared their loyalty and paid homage in this manner, when taking possession of the Eternal heritage; they swore, clasping the knees of death, their lady, that they would be faithful to him, after giving him a feudal kiss on the lips. Moreover, it was the only suzerainty to which France considered itself a vassal. The cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle was built by Charles the Great and consecrated by Leo III. Two prelates being absent from the ceremony, they were replaced by two Bishops of Maestricht, long dead, who resurrected themselves expressly. Charlemagne, having lost a beautiful mistress, took her corpse in his arms and refused to be separated from it. His passion was attributed to a charm: the young girl’s body was examined, and a little pearl was found beneath her tongue. The pearl was thrown into a marsh; Charlemagne, madly enamoured of the marsh, ordered it drained; there he built a palace and a church, in order to spend his life in one, and his death in the other. The authorities for this are Archbishop Turpin and Petrarch.

At Cologne, I admired the cathedral: if it had been finished it would have been the most beautiful Gothic monument in Europe. Monks were the painters, sculptors, architects and masons of their basilicas; they gloried in their title of master mason, caementarius.

It is curious today to hear ignorant philosophers and chattering democrats speak out against religion, as if those frocked proletarians, those mendicant orders, to whom we owe almost everything, had been gentlemen.

Cologne put me in mind of Caligula and Saint Bruno: I saw the remains of the dikes built by the first at Baiae, and the empty cell of the second at La Grande Chartreuse.

I followed the Rhine as far as Coblentz (Confluentia). The Army of the Princes was no longer there. I crossed those empty kingdoms, inania regna; I saw that lovely Rhine valley, temple of the barbarian muses, where ghostly knights would appear among the ruins of their castles, and one heard the clash of arms at night, when war was at hand.

Between Coblentz and Trèves, I fell in with the Prussian Army: I was passing along the column, when, coming up with the Guards, I saw that they were marching in battle order with canon in line; the king and the Duke of Brunswick were in the centre of the square, which was composed of Frederick’s old grenadiers. My white uniform caught the king’s eye; he sent for me: he and the Duke of Brunswick removed their hats, and saluted the old French Army in my person. They asked me my name, and my regiment, and where I was intending to meet the Princes. This military welcome moved me: I replied with emotion that learning, in America, of the king’s misfortunes I had returned to shed blood in his service. The officers and gentlemen surrounding Frederick William gave a murmur of approval, and the Prussian monarch said: ‘Monsieur, one can always recognise the sentiments of the French aristocracy.’ He took off his hat again, and remained uncovered and motionless, until I had disappeared behind the ranks of grenadiers. Nowadays people speak out against the émigrés; they are the tigers who clawed at their mother’s breast; at the time of which I speak, one followed the old exemplars, and honour counted as highly as country. In 1792, loyalty to one’s oath still ranked as a duty; today, it has become so rare it is regarded as a virtue.

A strange encounter, which had already happened to others, almost made me retrace my steps. They would not allow me to enter Trèves, which the Army of the Princes had already reached: ‘I was one of those men who wait on events to form their decisions; I should have reported three years previously; I arrived when victory was certain. I was not needed; they already had too many war-hardened braves. Every day, cavalry squadrons deserted; even the artillery was leaving en masse and if that continued, no one would know what to do with those men over there.’

A wonderfully partisan illusion!

I met my cousin Armand de Chateaubriand: he took me under his wing, gathered the Bretons together and pleaded my cause. They summoned me; I explained my situation: I said that I had arrived from America in order to have the honour of serving with my friends; that the campaign was under way, but scarcely begun, so that I was still in time to face the first shot; that moreover, I would return, if that was demanded, but only after having discovered the reason for this unmerited insult. The business was arranged: as I was a good lad, the ranks opened to receive me, and I was only left with an embarrassment of choices.