Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 9

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


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IX - Chapter 9
The Army of the Princes – The Roman amphitheatre - Atala – Henry IV and his shirts



London, April to September 1822.

The Army of the Princes was composed of gentlemen, organised by province, and serving as private soldiers: the aristocracy was returning to its origins, and the origin of the monarchy, at the very moment when that aristocracy and that monarchy were ending, like an old man returning to his infancy. There were also brigades of émigré officers from various regiments, likewise acting as soldiers once more: among their number were my comrades from the Navarre Regiment, led by their colonel, the Marquis de Mortemart. I was sorely tempted to enlist with La Martinière, even if he were still in love; but Armorican patriotism carried the day. I enrolled in the Seventh Breton Company, commanded by Monsieur de Gouyon-Miniac. The nobles from my province had furnished seven companies; an eighth was added of young men from the Third Estate: the steel-grey uniform of this last company differed from that of the other seven, which was royal blue with ermine facings. Men attached to the same cause and exposed to the same dangers perpetuated their political inequality by means of these odious distinctions: the true heroes were the plebeian soldiers, since there was no personal interest involved in the sacrifices they made.

An enumeration of our little army:

The infantry, composed of gentlemen soldiers and officers; four companies of deserters, dressed in the different uniforms of the regiments from which they had come; one artillery company; a few officers from the engineers, with canons, howitzers, and mortars of various calibres (gunners and engineers, almost all of whom espoused the Revolutionary cause, were to be responsible for its widespread success). Excellent cavalrymen, consisting of German carabineers, musketeers under the command of the elderly Comte de Montmorin, and naval officers from Brest, Rochefort and Toulon, supported our infantry. The mass emigration of these latter officers plunged the French Navy back into that enfeebled state from which Louis XVI had rescued it. Never, since the days of Dusquesne and Tourville, had our squadrons won greater glory. My comrades were delighted, but I had tears in my eyes, when I saw those dragoons of the ocean pass by, no longer in command of the vessels with which they had humiliated the English and delivered America. In stead of going in search of new continents to bequeath to France, these companions of La Pérouse sank into the German mud. They rode horses dedicated to Neptune; but they had changed element, and the earth was not their natural place. It was in vain that their commander carried, at their head, the tattered flag from the Belle-Poule, the sacred remnant of that white ensign, from whose shreds honour still hung, but victory had fallen.

We had tents; otherwise we lacked everything. Our muskets of German manufacture, worthless weapons, and terribly heavy, dislocated our shoulders, and were often in no fit state to be fired. I went through the whole campaign with one of those muskets whose hammer refused to fall.

We remained at Trèves for two days. It was a great pleasure to me to see the Roman ruins, after having viewed nameless ruins in Ohio, and to visit that town sacked so often that Salvien said of it: ‘Fugitives from Trèves, you desire entertainments, you beg the Emperors again and again for games in the Circus: for what state I ask, what people, what city? Theatra igitur quaeritis, circum a principibus postulatis? Cui, quaeso, statui, cui populo, cui civitati?’

Fugitives from France, where was that people for whom we wished to restore the monuments of Saint Louis?

I sat down, with my musket, among the ruins; I took from my haversack the manuscript of my American voyage; I arranged the individual sheets on the grass around me; I revised and corrected the description of a forest, a passage from Atala, in the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, preparing myself in that way for the conquest of France. Then, I put away my treasure, the weight of which, added to that of my shirts, my cloak, my tin mess-can, my demijohn, and my little Homer, caused me to spit blood. I tried ramming Atala into my pouch with my useless ammunition; my comrades laughed at me, and pulled at the sheets which stuck out on either side of the leather cover. Providence came to my rescue: one night, after sleeping in a hay-loft, I found on waking that the shirts had vanished from my haversack; the papers had been left behind. I gave thanks to God: chance, while preserving my glory, saved my life, since the sixty pounds that weighed on my shoulders would have made me consumptive. ‘How many shirts have I? Henri IV asked his valet, ‘There are still a dozen here, Sire, un-torn. – And handkerchiefs: have I eight? – There are only five at the moment.’ The Béarnais won the battle of Ivry without shirts; I was unable to restore his kingdom to his descendants by losing mine.