Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIV, 8

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XIV, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XV, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIV- Chapter 8
Cardinal Fesch’s palace – My tasks

Cardinal Fesch had taken the Lancellotti Palace, quite close to the Tiber; I have since met, in 1828, Princess Lancellotti. I was allotted the highest story of the palace: on entering, such a host of fleas leapt about my legs that my white trousers turned quite black. The Abbé de Bonnevie and I cleaned up our residence as best we could. I thought I was back in my New Road kennel: that remembrance of my poverty did not displease me. One established in this diplomatic office, I began issuing passports and carrying out similar important functions. My hand-writing was an obstacle to my talent, and Cardinal Fesch shrugged his shoulders when he saw my signature. I had almost nothing else to do in my aerial chamber than look across the roofs at some laundry-women who made signs at me from a neighbouring house; an aspiring opera-singer, training his voice, drove me mad with his eternal scales; I was happy when a funeral passed to free me from my boredom! From the heights of my window I saw a young mother’s cortege: she was carried, her face uncovered, between two lines of white-robed pilgrims; her newborn baby, also dead and wreathed in flowers, was laid at her feet.

I made a great mistake: not having been forewarned, I thought I ought to visit various notable people; I went, informally, to pay my respects to the previous King of Sardinia, who had abdicated. A terrible fuss was made over this unusual action; all the diplomats buttoned up tight about it. ‘He is lost! He is lost!’ the carriers of the Pope’s train and the attachés murmured, with the pleasure people kindly take in a man’s misadventures, whoever he may be. There was not a diplomatic clod who did not think himself superior to me in all the elevation of his idiocy. There were high hopes that I was about to fall, though I was nobody and counted for nobody: no matter, somebody was falling, that was the pleasure of it all. In my simplicity, I had no doubt I had done wrong, and, as has happened since, I could not have cared a straw. Kings whom people thought I might have attached such great importance to, were only bringers of misfortune to my eyes. The tale of my appalling foolishness was sent from Rome to Paris: happily I had credit with Napoleon; what should have drowned me, saved me.

However, if at first glance, and after full consideration, becoming First Secretary of the Embassy under a Prince of the Church, and Napoleon’s uncle, seemed something of note, it was nevertheless only as if I had been clerk to a prefecture. Among the problems which arose, I could find things to occupy myself, but I was not initiated into any mysteries. I applied myself conscientiously to the business of the chancery; but what was the point of wasting my time in details within the grasp of any clerk?

After my long walks, and my visits to the shores of the Tiber, I only found, to occupy me on my return, the Cardinal’s parsimonious quibbles, the

Bishop of Châlon’s gentlemanly boasting; and the incredible lies of the future Bishop of Maroc, the Abbé Guillon, who profiting from a similarity of name which sounded like his own to the ear, claimed, after miraculously escaping the massacre of the Carmelite Convent, to have granted absolution to Madame de Lamballe, while in La Force. He boasted of being the author of Robespierre’s address to the Supreme Being. I tried one day to get him to say he had been to Russia: he did not absolutely confess to it, but he did claim, modestly, to have spent several months in St Petersburg.

Monsieur de La Maisonfort, a man of hidden wit, had recourse to me, and soon Monsieur Bertin the Elder, proprietor of Les Débats, assisted me with his friendship in sad circumstances. Exiled to the island of Elba, by the man who returning from Elba in his turn drove him to Ghent, Monsieur Bertin had, in 1803, obtained from the republican Monsieur Briot whom I knew, permission to serve his exile in Italy. I visited the ruins of Rome with him and with him I watched Madame de Beaumont die; two things which have bound his life to mine. A critic of great taste, he, like his brother, gave me excellent advice regarding my work. He would have shown a true talent for words, if he had been called to the rostrum. A long-time legitimist, having undergone the experience of the Temple prison, and deportation to the Island of Elba, his principles, at heart, remained the same. I remained faithful to the friend of my difficult hours; all the political opinions in the world would not be worth the sacrifice of an hour of sincere friendship: suffice it that I am unmoved in my opinions, as I am attached to my memories.

Towards the middle of my stay in Rome, Princesse Borghèse arrived: I was charged with taking her some shoes from Paris. I was presented to her; she completed her toilette in front of me: the fresh pretty shoes which she slipped onto her feet were only required to touch this old earth for an instant.

In the end illness overtook me: it is a resource on which one can always rely.

Revised in December 1846