Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 7

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

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 7
A sumptuous reception – The end of my forty crowns – Fresh misery - Table d’hôte – Bishops – Dining at the London Tavern – Camden’s manuscripts

London, April to September 1822.

Those reading this part of my Memoirs are not aware that I have twice interrupted my writing of them: once, to offer a banquet for the Duke of York, brother of the King of England; and again, to give a reception marking the anniversary of the King of France’s return to Paris, on the 8th of July. This reception cost me forty thousand francs. Peers and Peeresses of the British Empire, ambassadors, and distinguished foreigners filled my splendidly decorated rooms. My tables shone with the glitter of London crystal, and the gold of Sèvres porcelain. There was an abundance of the finest dishes, wines and flowers. Portland Place was dense with gleaming carriages. Collinet, and Almack’s orchestra, charmed the fashionably melancholy dandies, and the dreamy beauty of the pensively dancing ladies. The Opposition and the Ministerial majority had called a truce; Lady Canning chatted with Lord Londonderry, Lady Jersey with the Duke of Wellington. Monsieur, who complimented me this year, 1822, on my lavish hospitality, had no idea that in 1793 there existed not far from him a future Minister, who pending greatness, fasted above a cemetery as a penance for his loyalty. Today, I congratulate myself on having been almost shipwrecked, glimpsed war, and shared the sufferings of the lowest class of society, just as I am thankful in times of prosperity for meeting slander and injustice. I have benefited from these lessons: life, without the ills which give it gravity, is a child’s bauble.

I was the man with forty crowns; but equality of wealth had not yet been established, and food was no cheaper, so there was nothing to offset my rapidly emptying purse. I could not count on further help from my family, exposed in Brittany to the double scourge of the Chouan insurrection and the Terror. I saw nothing ahead but the workhouse or the Thames.

The resourceful Peltier, dug me up, or rather unearthed me in my eyrie. He had read in a newspaper, in Yarmouth, that a group of antiquaries was preparing a history of the country of Suffolk, and were seeking a Frenchman capable of deciphering some twelfth-century French manuscripts from Camden’s collection. The parson of Beccles, was in charge of the enterprise, and it was him I needed to contact. ‘This is for you’ Peltier told me, ‘go: decipher these old papers; you can go on sending copy for the Essai to Baylis; I’ll force the coward to start printing again; and you’ll return to London with two hundred guineas, and your work done, come what may!’

I tried to stammer out my objections: ‘Ah! What the devil,’ he cried, ‘do you reckon on staying here, in this palace, where I’m already half-frozen? If Rivarol, Champcenetz, Mirabeau-Tonneau and I had been lily-livered, we’d have made a fine mess of the Actes des Apôtres! Do you know that this tale of Hingant made a hell of a row! You’d prefer both of you died of hunger, then? Ha! Ha! Ha! Pouf!...Ha! Ha!’ Peltier, bent in two, grasped his knees he was laughing so much. He had happened to sell a hundred copies of his newspaper to the Colonies; he had received payment and made the guineas jingle in his pocket. He took me away by force, with the apoplectic La Bouëtardais, and two ragged émigrés who were at hand, to dine at the London Tavern. He made us drink Port, and eat roast beef and plum pudding till we were bursting. ‘Monsieur le Comte,’ he said to my cousin, ‘why is your mouth all twisted?’ La Bouëtardais, half offended, half pleased, explained as best he could; he told him how he had a sudden seizure while singing those few words: O bella Venere! My poor stricken friend had so dead, so numb, so worn an air, while mutilating his bella Venere, that Peltier, convulsed with mad laughter, contrived to upset the table, striking it from below with both feet.

On reflection, the advice of my compatriot, truly a character invented by my other compatriot Le Sage, did not seem so bad. After three days spent making enquiries and being fitted out by Peltier’s tailor, I left for Beccles with some cash that Deboffe lent me, on the basis that I would resume writing the Essai. I altered my name, since the English could not pronounce it, to that of Combourg, which my brother had borne, and which recalled the pain and pleasure of my first youth. Ensconced at the inn, I presented the local minister with a letter from Deboffe, well regarded by the English literary world, which recommended me as a scholar of the first order. Well received, I met all the gentlemen of the district, and encountered two officers of our own Royal Navy who gave lessons in French to the neighbourhood.