Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIV, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIV- Chapter 5
The year 1803 – I am named as First Secretary to the Embassy in Rome

Paris, 1837

Following this interview, Bonaparte thought of me for Rome: he had judged at a glance where and how I could be of use. It mattered little to him that I had not been immersed in public affairs, that I knew not the first thing about diplomatic practice; he believed that such minds as mine always have an understanding, and can do without an apprenticeship. He was a great discoverer of men; but he wished them to possess talent only for his employment, even then on condition that it was little talked of: jealous of all fame, he regarded it as a usurpation of what was due to himself: there was to be no-one but Napoleon in the universe.

Fontanes and Madame Bacciochi told me of the satisfaction the Consul had taken in my conversation: I had not opened my mouth; that was as much as to say that Bonaparte was content with himself. They urged me to profit from my good fortune. The idea of accepting an appointment had never occurred to me; I firmly refused. Then, they asked an authority whom it was difficult to resist if he would speak to me.

The Abbé Émery, the superior of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, came to entreat me, in the name of the clergy, to accept for the good of religion the position of First Secretary to the Embassy, Bonaparte intending to appoint his own uncle, Cardinal Fesch as Ambassador. He gave me to understand that the Cardinal’s intellect was not exactly remarkable, and I would soon find myself the master of the Embassy’s affairs. A singular chance had established a link between Abbe Émery and myself: I had travelled to the United States with Abbé Nagot and his seminarists, as you know. That memory of my obscurity, my youth, my life as a voyager, reflecting on my public life, took hold of my feelings and imagination. Abbé Émery, well-regarded by Napoleon, was made lean by nature, religion, and the Revolution; yet this threefold early experience simply allowed him to profit from his true merit; ambitious only to do good works, he restricted his actions to achieving the greatest benefit for his seminary. Circumspect in his words and actions, it would have been pointless to show violence to Abbé Émery, since he always placed his whole self at your service, while never yielding his will: his strength was in waiting for you, as if seated on his tomb.

He failed in his first approach to me; he returned to the attack, and patiently convinced me. I accepted the position which it was his mission to propose to me, without being the least bit convinced of my ability for the post to which I was nominated; I am worth nothing in a supporting role. I would probably still have declined it, if the thought of Madame de Beaumont had not occurred to put an end to my scruples. Madame de Montmorin’s daughter was dying; the Italian climate, it was claimed, would be beneficial to her; my going to Rome would persuade her to cross the Alps: I sacrificed myself in the hope of saving her. Madame de Chateaubriand prepared to join me; Monsieur Joubert talked of accompanying me, and Madame de Beaumont left for MontDore, so as to further her recovery by the banks of the Tiber.

Monsieur de Talleyrand held the Foreign Ministry; he forwarded me my nomination. I dined with him; thus it has lodged in my mind that he considered himself to be of the first moment. For the rest, his fine manners contrasted with those of the rogues who made up his entourage; his displays of cunning took on unimaginable importance: in the eyes of a ruthless wasp’s nest, his moral corruption appeared as genius, his slightness of wit profundity. The Revolution was too modest; it did not celebrate his superiority sufficiently: it is not the same thing to be above crime as to be beneath it.

I met the ecclesiastics attached to the Cardinal: I singled out the good-humoured Abbé de Bonnevie: once chaplain to the Army of Princes, he was involved in the retreat at Verdun; he had also been chief curate to the Bishop of Châlons, Monsieur de Clermont-Tonnerre, who left after us to claim a pension from the Holy See, in the person of Chiaramonte. Having completed my preparations, I set out: I was required to arrive in Rome before Napoleon’s uncle.