Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLI, 6

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XLI, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XLI, 7


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLI- Chapter 6
The peasant-girl and the ladder – Dinner at Bustehrad – Madame de Narbonne – Henri V – A game of Whist – Charles X – My incredulity regarding the declaration of majority – A reading fom the newspaper – Scene with the young men in Prague – I leave for France – Bustehrad by night



Prague, the 28th and 29th of September 1833.


I found myself at three with time on my hands: dinner was at six. Not knowing what to do with myself, I walked through alleys of apple trees worthy of Normandy. In a good year the harvest of these false-oranges is worth eighteen thousand francs. The fruit is exported to England. They make no cider from it, the beer monopoly in Bohemia opposing it. According to Tacitus, the Germans had words to express spring, summer and winter; they had no word for autumn, whose name and produce they ignored: nomen ac bona ignorantur. Since Tacitus’ time, Pomona has arrived among them.

Feeling tired, I perched on the rungs of a ladder leaning against the trunk of an apple-tree. There, I was in direct firing line from the château of Bustehrad, and a sling-shot’s throw from the council chamber. Gazing at the roof which was sheltering three generations of the monarchy, I recalled an Arab chant (maoual): ‘Here we have seen the stars we loved to see, beneath the skies of home, flee beneath the horizon.’

Filled with these mournful thoughts, I slept. A sweet voice woke me. A Bohemian peasant girl had come to gather apples; puffing out her chest and raising her head, she gave me a Slavic greeting with the smile of a queen: I almost fell from my perch: I said to her in French: ‘You are very beautiful; I thank you!’ I saw by her manner she had understood me: apples always count for something in my encounters with Bohemian girls. I scrambled down from my ladder like one of those condemned men of feudal times delivered by the presence of a young girl. Thinking of Normandy, Dieppe, Fervaques, and the sea, I took to the paths of this Trianon of Charles X’s old-age.

At table were: the Prince and Princess de Bauffremont, the Duke and Duchess de Narbonne, Monsieur de Blacas, Monsieur Damas, Monsieur O’Hegerty, myself, Monsieur le Dauphin, and Henri V: I would have preferred the young men there rather than myself. Charles X did not dine; he was taking care of himself, in order to be fit to leave the next day. The banquet was noisy thanks to the young Prince’s chatter: he never left off talking about his horse-riding, his horse, his horse’s adventures on grass, his horse’s labouring on plough-land. The conversation was perfectly natural and yet I was bothered; I preferred our former discussions about travel and history.

The king arrived and spoke to me. He complimented me once more on my draft note on the majority; it pleased him because, leaving aside the matter of the abdications as a fait accompli, it required only Henri’s signature, and opened no old wounds. According to Charles X, the declaration would be sent from Vienna to Monsieur Pastoret before my return to France; I bowed with a smile of incredulity, His Majesty, after having tapped me on the shoulder as was his wont said: ‘Chateaubriand, where are you off to now?’ – ‘To Paris sire, foolishly.’ – ‘No, No, not foolishly,’ the King continued, seeking with a kind of anxiety to plumb my thoughts.

The newspapers were brought; the Dauphin seized the English gazettes: suddenly, in the midst of a profound silence, he translated this passage from the Times in a loud voice; ‘Baron de **** is here, four feet tall, aged sixty-six, and as sprightly as he was fifty years ago.’ And Monseigneur fell silent.

The King withdrew; Monsieur de Blacas said to me: ‘You should come to Leoben with us.’ The proposal was not serious. Besides I had no wish to be involved in family affairs; I wished neither to divide relatives, nor become mixed up in risky reconciliations. Whenever I glimpse an opportunity of becoming the favourite of some power or another, I shudder; post-horses hardly seemed swift enough to carry away my potential honours. The shadow of Good-Fortune made me tremble, as Richard’s horse did the Saracens.

Next day, the 28th, I shut myself up in the Hôtel des Bains and wrote my despatch to MADAME. Hyacinthe left with the despatch that same evening.

On the 29th I went to see Count and Countess Choteck; I found them overcome by the hubbub of Charles X’s court. The Grand Burgrave had ended up sending couriers to countermand the instructions halting the young men at the frontier. Moreover, those one saw in the streets of Prague had lost nothing of their French character; a Legitimist and a Republican are, apart from their politics, one and the same: there was noise, tomfoolery, laughter! The visitors came to my hotel to recount their adventures. M*** had visited Frankfurt with a German guide, who was delighted with the French; M*** asked him why, and the guide replied: ‘Die Vrench are come to Frankfurt; they drink der vine and make love to die pretty vives of die pourgeois. General Auchereau impose forty-vun millions of tax on der city of Frankfurt.’ Those are the reasons why they like the French so much in Frankfurt.

A grand luncheon is served in my inn; the rich pay for the poor. Beside the Moldau they drink Champagne to Henri V’s health, who takes to the road with his grandfather for fear of hearing the toasts to his crown. At eight, my business done, I climb into my carriage, hoping never to return to Bohemia.

They say Charles X had the intention of making a religious retreat: there were family precedents for such a plan. Richer, a monk of Senones, and Geoffroy de Beaulieu, Saint Louis’ confessor, reported that the great man had thought of shutting himself in a cloister when his son was old enough to replace him on the throne. Christine de Pisan said of Charles V: ‘The wise king decided that if he lived until his son the Dauphin was of an age to wear the crown he would hand over the kingdom to him…and become a priest.’ If such princes had abandoned the sceptre, they would have been truly missed as advisors to their sons; yet, by remaining kings, did they create successors worthy of themselves? What was Philip the Bold compared with Saint Louis? All Charles V’s wisdom turned to folly in his heir.

I passed Bustehrad at ten at night, riding through a silent countryside, vividly lit by the moon. I saw the vague mass of the villa, the hamlet and the ruin that the Dauphin inhabited: the rest of the Royal Family had left. A profound feeling of isolation gripped me; that man (as I have said already) has his virtues: a political moderate, he nourishes few prejudices; he has only a drop of Saint Louis’ blood, but that he does have; his probity is unparalleled, his word as inviolable as the word of God. Naturally courageous, his filial piety compromised him at Rambouillet. Brave and humane, in Spain, he had the glory to return a relative to that throne while failing to preserve his own. Louis-Antoine, after the July Days, dreamed of seeking refuge in Andalusia: Ferdinand indeed refused him. The husband of Louis XVI’s daughter languished in a Bohemian village; a dog, whose yelp I heard, was the prince’s only guard: Cerberus barked thus at the shades in the regions of death, silence and the night.

I have never been able to revisit my paternal hearth during a long life; I have been unable to settle in Rome, where I wished to die; the many hundreds of miles I have travelled, including my first trip to Bohemia, would have taken me to the finest sites of Greece, Italy and Spain. I have devoured those miles and consumed my last days in order to return to this grey and frozen land: how have I offended Heaven?