Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 8

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

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 8
My provincial occupations – My brother’s death – Family misfortunes – Two Frances – Hingant’s letters

London, April to September 1822.

I regained my strength; the excursions I made on horseback restored my health somewhat. England, seen in detail, was gloomy, everywhere the same, with the same aspect. Monsieur de Combourg was invited to all the gatherings. I had my studies to thank for the first alleviation of my lot. Cicero was right to recommend the commerce of letters while among the sorrows of existence. The ladies were delighted to meet a Frenchman with whom they could speak French.

The misfortunes of my family, which I learnt of from the newspapers and which made my real name known, (since I could not conceal my grief) increased people’s interest in me. The public pages announced the death of Monsieur de Malesherbes; that of his daughter, Madame la Présidente de Rosanbo; that of his grand-daughter, Madame la Comtesse de Chateaubriand; and that of his grandson-in-law, the Comte de Chateaubriand, my brother, executed together, on the same day, at the same hour, on the same scaffold. Monsieur de Malesherbes was an object of admiration and veneration among the English; my family connection with the defender of Louis XVI added to my hosts’ kindness.

My uncle Bedée told me of the persecution suffered by my other relatives. My aged, incomparable mother had been thrown into a cart with other victims, and taken from the depths of Brittany to the gaols of Paris, in order to share the fate of the son she loved so dearly. My wife and my sister Lucile, were awaiting sentence in the dungeons at Rennes; there had been talk of imprisoning them in the Château of Combourg, which was to become a State stronghold: they were accused in their innocence of the crime of my emigration. What were our sorrows on foreign soil, compared to those of the French still living in their own land? Yet, how sad, in the midst of the sufferings of exile, to know that our very exile was a pretext for the persecution of those close to us!

Two years ago it was, that my sister-in-law’s wedding ring was found in the gutter of the Rue Casette; someone brought it to me; it was broken; its two entwined strands had come apart, and hung together like links of a chain; the names engraved there were perfectly legible. How had the ring been found? Where and when had it been lost? Had the victim, a prisoner in the Luxembourg, passed through the Rue Casette on the way to execution? Had she dropped the ring from the tumbril? Had it been torn from her finger after death? I was deeply moved at the sight of this emblem, which, by its state and its inscription, recalled such cruel events. Something fateful and mysterious attached itself to this ring, which my sister-in-law sent me from the place of the dead, as a token of herself and my brother. I have given it to her son: may it not bring him ill luck!

Dear orphan, image of your mother,
From heaven, for you, below, I ask,
The sweet days taken from your father,
The children that your uncle lacks.

This poor verse and two or three others are the only wedding gifts that I was able to fashion for my nephew when he married.

I have another relic of those misfortunes: here is what Monsieur de Contencin wrote to me, who, while searching the City archives, found the order of the Revolutionary Tribunal which sent my brother and his relatives to the scaffold:

‘Monsieur le Vicomte,
There is a kind of cruelty in awakening in the soul of someone who has suffered greatly the memory of those ills which have affected him the most grievously. This thought made me hesitate for a while before offering you an extremely sad document which came into my hands during my historical research. It is a death warrant signed before execution by a man who always showed himself as implacable as death, every time he found lustre and virtue showered on the same head.
I hope Monsieur le Vicomte that you will not be too dissatisfied with me for adding a paper to your family archives which revives such cruel memories. I assumed it would interest you, since I found it of value, and in consequence thought to offer it to you. If I am not being indiscreet, I can congratulate myself doubly, since I find the occasion, today, in taking this step, of expressing to you the feelings of profound respect and admiration which you have inspired in me, for many years, and with which I am, Monsieur le Vicomte,
Your very humble and obedient servant,
A. de Contencin.
Hôtel de la préfrecture de la Seine.
Paris, the 28th of March, 1835.’

Here is my reply to this letter:

‘I made a search, Monsieur, in Sainte-Chapelle, for the documents concerning my unfortunate brother’s trial, but no one could find the warrant which you have been so good as to send me. This warrant and so many others, with their erasures, their misspelled names, will have been presented to Fouquier before God’s Tribunal: there he would certainly have had to admit to his signature. Those were the times that some regret, and about which they write volumes in admiration! Nevertheless, I envy my brother: for many years he has been beyond this sad world. I thank you infinitely, Monsieur, for the esteem that you are pleased to show me in your fine and noble letter, and beg you to accept my assurance of the very great consideration with which I have the honour to be, etc.’

That death warrant is especially remarkable as evidence of the carelessness with which murder was committed: some names are wrongly spelled, others are erased. These formal errors, which would have been enough to invalidate the lightest sentence, did not halt the executioners; they were only exact in the matter of the hour of death: at five o’clock precisely. Here is the authentic document, copied here faithfully:

The enforcer of criminal justice will not fail to attend the house of justice of the Conciergerie, in order to execute there the sentence which condemns Mousset d’Esprémenil, Chapelier, Thouret, Hell, Lamoignon Malsherbes, the wife of Lepelletier Rosambo, Chateau Brian and his wife (the correct name erased, unreadable), the widow Duchatelet, the wife of Grammont, former Duke, the wife of Rochechuart (Rochechouart), and Parmentier:
- 14, on pain of death. The execution will take place today, at five o’clock precisely, in the Place de la Révolution of this city.
The Public Prosecutor,
H. Q. Fouquier
Given at the Tribunal, the third Floréal, Year Two, of the FrenchRepublic.
Two carts.

The 9th Thermidor saved my mother’s life; but she was left, forgotten, in the Conciergerie. The commissary for the Convention discovered her: ‘What are you doing here, citizeness?’ he asked; ‘Who are you? Why are you still here?’ My mother answered that having lost her son, she had no further interest in what was happening, and was indifferent as to whether she died in prison or elsewhere. ‘But perhaps you have other children?’ the commissary replied. My mother mentioned my wife and sisters, imprisoned at Rennes. An order to set them at liberty was swiftly sent, and my mother was compelled to leave.

In histories of the Revolution, they omit to paint the external picture of France to set alongside the internal picture, one which reveals the great colony of exiles, varying its effort and industry to suit the diversity of climate and the different national customs.

Outside France, everything happened individually, through changes of condition, hidden sufferings, wordless sacrifices, without reward; yet in that plethora of individuals of every pedigree, age, and sex, one fixed concept was maintained; the old France was abroad with all its prejudices and loyalties, as once the Church of God wandered the earth with its virtues and its martyrs.

Inside France, everything operated en masse; Barère proclaimed murders and victories, civil wars and foreign wars; the titanic conflicts of the Vendée and the banks of the Rhine; thrones disintegrating at the sound of our marching armies; our fleets engulfed by the waves; the mob disinterring the monarchs at Saint-Denis, and throwing the dust of dead Kings in the faces of living ones to blind them; the new France, glorying in its new-found freedoms, proud even of its crimes, stable on its own soil, extending all its frontiers, doubly armed with the executioner’s blade and the soldier’s sword.

In the midst of my family grief, several letters arrived from Hingant reassuring me as to his fate, letters moreover of a remarkable nature: he wrote to me in September 1795: ‘Your letter of the 23rd of August is full of the most moving sentiments. I have shown them to several people who had tears in their eyes while reading them. I am almost tempted to say of them as Diderot said on the day when Rousseau shed tears over him in his prison, at Vincennes: “See how my friends love me.” My illness has only proved, in truth, a nervous fever which caused a great deal of suffering, and for which time and patience are the best remedies. I have been reading extracts from Phaedo and Timaeus. Those books give one an appetite for death, and I have said like Cato:

“It must be so, Plato; thou reason’st well!”

I conceived an idea of my voyage, as one conceives the idea of a voyage to the Indies. I imagined I saw hosts of new objects in the world of spirits (as Swedenborg calls it), and especially that I would be freed from the effort and danger of the voyage.’