Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 9

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XLII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XLII, Conclusion

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLII- Chapter 9
Monsieur de Talleyrand

Paris, 1839

When I was in Prague in 1833, Charles X said to me: ‘Is old Talleyrand still alive then?’ And yet Charles X left this life two years before Monsieur de Talleyrand; the private and Christian death of the monarch contrasted with the public death of the apostate bishop, dragged recalcitrant to the feet of divine incorruptibility.

On the 3rd of October 1836 I wrote the following letter to Madame la Duchesse de Berry and added a postscript on the 15th November of that year:

Monsieur Walsh has sent me the letter with which you choose to honour me. I would be ready to obey Your Royal Highness’ wishes, if writing could achieve anything at present; but public opinion has fallen into such a state of apathy that the greatest events would scarcely rouse it. You have allowed me, Madame, to speak to you with a freedom that my devotion alone might excuse: Your Royal Highness knows I have been opposed to almost everything that has been done; I even dared to disagree with your trip to Prague. Henri V is no longer a child; he will soon enter society with an education which has taught him nothing of the century in which we live. Who will be his guide, who will show him courts and men? Who will make him understand how to present himself to France from afar? Important questions which, probably and unfortunately, will be resolved in the same way as all the others have been. Be that as it may, the remainder of my life belongs to my young king and his august mother. My predictions as to the future will never make me forget my duty.
Madame de Chateaubriand begs permission to lay her respects at Your Majesty’s feet. I offer all my prayers to Heaven for the glory and prosperity of Henri V’s mother and I am with profound respect,
Your Royal Highness’ very humble and obedient servant,
P.S. This letter has been waiting a month for an opportunity to send it to Madame securely. Today I learnt of the death of Henri’s august grand-father. Will that sad news bring any change in Your Royal Highness’ fate? May I dare to beg Madame to permit me to share in all the feelings of sorrow that she must be experiencing, and to offer the respectful tribute of my grief to Monsieur le Dauphin and Madame la Dauphine?
15th November.’

Charles X is no more.

Sixty years of misfortune adorned the victim!

Thirty years of exile; death at seventy-nine in a foreign land! So that none might doubt the unfortunate fate with which Heaven had charged the Prince in this world, the scourge came seeking him.

Charles X at his last hour found the peace and equanimity of spirit which he sometimes lacked in his long career. When he learnt of the danger threatening him, he contented himself with saying: ‘I did not think this illness would end so quickly.’ When Louis XVI departed for the scaffold, the officer in charge refused to accept the condemned man’s last testament because time was short, and he, the officer, had to conduct the King to his execution: the King replied: ‘That is only right.’ If Charles X, at other times of danger, had treated his life with such indifference, what miseries he would have been spared! It seems the Bourbons believe in a religion which renders them noble in their final hour: Louis IX, blessing his descendants, sends his saintly courage to await them at the edge of the grave. That race indeed knows how to die: true, it has had more than eight centuries to learn death.

Charles X died persuaded that he was not mistaken: if he hoped for divine mercy, it is because of the sacrifice he believed he had made of his throne for what he considered to be the duty of his conscience and the good of his nation: conviction is too rare to be dismissed. Charles X was able in that way to bear witness that the reign of his two brothers and his own had not lacked freedom or glory: under the martyred king, America’s enfranchisement and France’s emancipation; under Louis XVIII, representative government for our country, and the re-establishment of a working monarchy in Spain; under Charles X, Greek independence achieved at Navarino, Africa left to us in compensation for the territory lost along with the conquests of the Republic and Empire: those are the results which still speak of our splendour despite stupid jealousies and vain enmities. Those results will become more glaring the deeper we sink in the abasement of the July Monarchy. But it is to be feared that those priceless ornaments will only redound to the glory of vanished days, as the chaplet of flowers on Homer’s brow was respectfully banished from Plato’s Republic. The Legitimacy seems now to have no desire to continue; it appears to have accepted its fall.

The death of Charles X would be a significant event if it put an end to the deplorable struggle over the crown and set a new direction for Henri V’s education: now, it is to be feared that the exiled crown will always be in dispute; that his education will be completed virtually without change. Perhaps, by sparing himself the pain of involvement, he will slumber among those habits dear to powerlessness, kind to family life, soothing to the lassitude that succeeds lengthy suffering. Misfortune when perpetuated produces the effect of old age on the body: one cannot stir: one rests. Misfortune even seems the executor of Heaven’s high justice: it strips the condemned man of everything, snatches away the king’s sceptre, and the officer’s sword; it robs the nobleman of his propriety, the soldier of his courage, and pushes them degraded into the crowd.

On the other hand, from extreme youth one derives reasons for procrastination: when one has plenty of time to expend one is persuaded one can afford to wait; there are years to gamble on events: ‘It will come to us,’ people say, ‘without us putting ourselves to any trouble; everything has to ripen, the monarchy’s day will arrive of its own accord; in twenty years the prejudice against it will have vanished.’ That calculation might be credible to some extent if generations did not pass and become gradually indifferent; but something may seem essential to one epoch that is not even considered by another.

Alas! How quickly things vanish! Where are the three brothers whose reigns I witnessed in succession? Louis XVIII is at Saint-Denis with the mutilated remains of Louis XVI; Charles X has just been laid to rest at Goritz, in a tomb with three locks.

The remains of that king fallen from on high have troubled his ancestors; they have turned about in their sepulchre; squeezing together they have said: ‘Take your places: here is the last of us.’ Bonaparte made less noise on entering eternal night: the ancient dead did not wake to greet the Emperor of the recent dead. They failed to recognize him. The French monarchy binds the ancient world to the modern. Romulus Augustus relinquished the crown in 476. Five years later, in 481, our first line of kings reigned, with Clovis, over the Gauls.

Charlemagne, in bringing Louis the Debonair to the throne, said: ‘My son, beloved of God, my years flee, and old age itself escapes me; the time of my death approaches. The land of the Franks saw my birth. Christ accorded me that honour. First among the Franks I took the name of Caesar and tied the Empire of the Franks to the race of Romulus.’

Under Hugh Capet, with the third lineage, the elected monarchy became hereditary. Heredity gave birth to legitimacy, permanence, duration.

The Christian Empire of the French may be said to have run its course between the baptismal font of Clovis and the scaffold of Louis XVI. The one religion stood beside those marks: ‘Gentle Sicambrian, bow your head, adore what you once burned: burn what you once adored,’ said the priest who administered baptism by water to Clovis. ‘Scion of Saint Louis, mount to Heaven,’ said the priest who assisted at Louis XVI’s baptism of blood.

When there was only this one ancient house in France, weathered by time whose majesty astonished, we could, by reason of illustrious events, display our superiority over all other nations. The Capets reigned when other European sovereigns were still subject. Our kings’ vassals became kings. Those sovereigns left us their names and titles which posterity has judged authentic: some were called august, saintly, pious, great, courteous, bold, wise, victorious, well-beloved; others father of the nation, father of learning. ‘As it has been maliciously written,’ says an old historian, ‘that all the good kings could easily be portrayed in a ring, the bad kings of France could be portrayed more easily still, so small is their number.’

Under the monarchy, the barbarian darkness was dissipated, the language formed, masterpieces of art and literature were produced, our towns were embellished, monuments raised, roads opened, harbours built, our armies astonished Europe and Asia, our fleets spanned the oceans.

Our pride is irked merely by the exhibition of those magnificent tapestries of the Louvre; ghosts, even embroidered ones, trouble us. Unknown this morning, yet more unknown this evening, we are no less convinced that we outshine what came before us. And yet, every moment, as we vanish, we ask ourselves: ‘What are you?’ and do not know what to reply. Charles X has replied; he has departed along with a whole age of the world; his dust has mingled with the dust of a thousand generations; history salutes him, the centuries kneel beside his tomb; everyone knew his lineage; it did not fail them, it was they who were found wanting.

Exiled king, men were able to proscribe you, but you will not be driven from history, you will sleep your harsh sleep in a monastery, beneath the last plank of a coffin once destined for some Franciscan. No heralds of arms attend your obsequies, only a crowd of ancient years blanched and withered; no great men cast their noble emblems into the vault, they have paid their homage elsewhere. Silent centuries are seated beside your bier: a long procession of past days, their eyes closed, lead the silent mourning round your tomb.

At your side rest your heart and entrails cut from your breast and side, as one places the abortive fruit of her womb that cost her life beside a dead mother. Each year, Christian monarch, a monk after your death, some brother will recite to you the prayers for the Old Year; you will only attract to your eternal resting place those descendants exiled with you: for even the tomb of Mesdames at Trieste is empty; their country has seen their sacred relics once more and you have paid those noble ladies debt to exile, by your exile.

Ah! Why do they not reunite those scattered remains now, as they bring together antiques found in different excavations? The Arc de Triomphe might bear Napoleon’s sarcophagus as a crown, the column of bronze might rise over the immortal remains of motionless victories. And yet the pillar cut by order of Sesostris now buries Louis XVI’s scaffold beneath the weight of centuries. The hour will come when that obelisk from the desert will once again know, in the place where murder was done, the silence and the solitude of Luxor.