Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 1

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XV, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVI, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVI- Chapter 1
The year 1804 – The Valais Republic – A visit to the TuileriesPalace – The Hôtel de Montmorin – I hear of the death of the Duc d’Enghien – I hand in my resignation

Paris, 1838 (Revised the 22nd February 1845)

It not being my intention to remain in Paris, I stayed at the Hôtel de France, in the Rue de Beaune, where Madame de Chateaubriand was to join me, to travel with me to the Valais. My former circle, already half-scattered, had broken the ties which bound it.

Bonaparte marched on towards Empire; his genius rose to meet escalating events: he could, like gunpowder exploding, carry a world before him; already vast, and yet not considering himself to have attained his peak, his powers tormented him; he was feeling his way, he appeared to be searching for his path: when I arrived in Paris, it lay via Pichegru and Moreau: with a mean motivation he had consented to accept them as rivals: Moreau, Pichegru and Georges Cadoudal, who was greatly their superior, were arrested.

This mundane series of intrigues that one meets in all the affairs of life, corresponded to nothing in my nature, and I was happy to flee into the mountains.

The town Council of Sion wrote to me. The naivety of this dispatch makes it for me a document to treasure; I entered politics through religion: Le Génie du Christianisme opened doors for me.


Sion, the 20th of February 1804.
To Monsieur Chateaubriand,
Secretary to the Legation pf the French Republic in Rome.
By an official letter, from our Grand Bailiff, we have been apprised of your appointment to the position of Minister of France to our Republic. We hasten to testify to you the enormous pleasure this choice has given us. We see in this nomination a precious token of the First Consul’s benevolence towards our Republic, and we congratulate ourselves on the honour of welcoming you within our walls: we derive from it the happiest auguries of advantage to our country and our town. To bear witness to you of our feelings, we have decided to have temporary accommodation prepared for you, worthy to receive you, equipped with furniture and effects suitable for your use, inasmuch as the location and circumstances permit, expecting that you will be making your own arrangements at your own convenience.
Please accept this offer, Sir, as a proof of our sincere intent to honour the French Government in the person of its employee, the choice of whom must give particular pleasure to a religious nation. We beg you to give us sufficient notice of your arrival in our town.
Accept, Sir, assurances of our respectful consideration.
The President of the Council of the town of Sion.
                                                                               DE RIEDMATTEN.
For the Town Council:
The Secretary of the Council,
                                                                               DE TORRENTE.’

Two days before the 21st of March, I dressed formally to go and take leave of Bonaparte at the Tuileries; I had not seen him since the time when he had spoken to me at Lucien’s. The gallery in which he was receiving visits was full; he was accompanied by Murat and a principal aide-de-camp; he strode along almost without stopping. As he reached me, I was struck by the alteration in his face: his cheeks were hollow and livid, his eyes burning, his complexion pale and blotchy; his expression sombre and fierce. The attraction he had previously possessed for me, ceased; instead of standing in his path, I made a movement as if to avoid him. He threw me a glance as if he was trying to recognise me, took a few paces towards me, then turned and walked away. Had I seemed to him like a warning? His aide-de-camp noticed me; when the crowd hid me, this aide-de-camp tried to catch sight of me between the people standing in front of me, and redirected the Consul towards me. This game continued for about a quarter of an hour, I forever retreating, Napoleon forever following me unawares. I have never known what motivated the aide-de-camp. Did he take me for a suspicious person whom he did not know? If he knew who I was, did he want to press Bonaparte into speaking to me? Whatever may have been the reason, Napoleon went on into another room. Satisfied at having done my duty by presenting myself at the Tuileries, I withdrew. Given the joy I always felt at leaving palaces, it is clear I was never made for entering them.

Returning to the Hôtel de France, I told my friends: ‘Something strange must be happening that we know nothing of, since Bonaparte can not have changed as much as this without being ill.’ Monsieur Bourrienne knew of my singular prescience, he has only confused the dates: here is his comment: ‘On returning from seeing the First Consul, Monsieur de Chateaubriand told his friends that he had noticed a great change in the First Consul, and something sinister in his glance.’

Yes, I noticed it: a superior intelligence does not produce evil without pain, because it is not its natural fruit, and it ought not to bear it.

Two days later, on the 21st March, I rose early, for the sake of a memory sad and dear to me. Monsieur de Montmorin had built himself a house at the corner of the Rue Plumet, on the new Boulevard des Invalides. In the garden of this house, which was sold during the Revolution, Madame de Beaumont, when little more than a child, had planted a cypress tree, which she had occasionally taken pleasure in showing me as we passed: it was to this cypress, whose origin and history I alone knew, that I was going, to say my farewells. It still exists, but is languishing and scarcely rises as far as the window beneath which her vanished hand used to tend it. I can distinguish that poor tree from among three or four others of the same species; it seems to know me and rejoice when I approach; melancholy breezes bend its yellowed head somewhat towards me, and it murmurs at the window of the deserted room: a mysterious understanding between us, that will cease when one or the other of us falls.

My pious tribute made, I descended the Boulevard, crossed the Esplanade des Invalides, the Pont Louis XVI and the Tuileries Gardens, which I left by the gate, near the Pavilion Marsan, which now leads into the Rue de Rivoli. There, between eleven and twelve o’clock, I heard a man and a woman shouting out official news; passers-by were stopping, suddenly petrified at the words: ‘Verdict of the special military commission convened at Vincennes, sentencing to death THE MAN NAMED LOUIS-ANTOINE-HENRI DE BOURBON, BORN THE 2ND AUGUST 1772 AT CHANTILLY.’

This cry in the street struck me like a bolt of lightning; it changed my life, as it changed that of Napoleon. I went home; I said to Madame de Chateaubriand: ‘The Duc d’Enghien has just been shot.’ I sat at the table, and began writing my letter of resignation. Madame de Chateaubriand did not oppose my decision, and with great courage watched me write it. She was not deceived as to the risk: Generals Moreau and Cadoudal were being tried; the lion had tasted blood, this was not the moment to annoy him.

Monsieur Clausel de Coussergues arrived at this juncture; he too had heard the verdict shouted out. He found me pen in hand; my letter, some angry phrases of which he made me omit, out of consideration for Madame de Chateaubriand, was dispatched; it was addressed to the Foreign Minister. The wording mattered little: the expression of my opinion, and my crime lay in the fact of my resignation: Bonaparte would make no mistake there. Madame Bacciochi shrieked loudly when she learned of what she called my defection; she sent for me and reproached me in a vigorous manner. Monsieur de Fontanes, was almost mad with fear initially, and then acted with fearless friendship; he regarded me as already as good as executed, along with everyone attached to me. For several days, my friends were afraid of my being taken away by the police; they appeared at my house from time to time, always trembling as they reached the porter’s lodge. Monsieur Pasquier came to embrace me the day after my resignation, saying how happy a thing it was to have such a friend. He stayed quite some considerable time indulging in an honourable and impartial analysis of position and power.

Nevertheless, these expressions of sympathy, which swept us along in their praise of a generous action, ceased. I had accepted, because of religion, an appointment outside France, an appointment conferred on me by a powerful genius, who had conquered anarchy, a leader who had emerged on the basis of popular principle, the consul of a republic, and not a king continuing the line of a usurped monarchy; thus, I was isolated in my opinions, because I was strictly logical in my actions; I resigned when the conditions to which I could subscribe altered; yet, immediately the hero turned murderer, others hastened into his ante-chambers. Six months after the 21st March, one might have thought there had only been one opinion in the upper echelons of society, except for a few nasty jibes allowed behind closed doors. Those who had fallen claimed to have been forced out, and people said that only those of significant lineage or great importance had been forced out, and that each, as proof of their importance or their lineage, had ensured they would be forced out by dint of asking for it to happen.

Those, who had applauded my action most, distanced themselves; my presence was a reproach to them: prudent men find those who yield to a point of honour imprudent. There are times when nobility of soul is a positive handicap; no one understands it; it is treated as proof of limited intellect, a result of prejudice, a whim, a fault which prevents you from judging correctly; an imbecility that is worthy perhaps, they might say, but still a stupid helotism. What intelligence is to be found in seeing nothing, in living divorced from the march of the century, the swirl of ideas, the transformation of our way of life, the progress of society? Is it not a deplorable mistake to attach an importance to events which they do not possess? Barricaded within your narrow principles, lacking in wit as well as judgement, you are like a man lodged in the rear of a building, looking out on only a tiny courtyard, unaware of what is passing in the street, and what the noises are outside. See how a little independence cuts you down to size, object of pity to mediocrities that you are: as for great spirits with their affected pride and sublime eyes, oculos sublimes, their merciful disdain forgives you because they know that you cannot understand. So I retreated humbly into my literary career; a poor Pindar destined in the first Olympian to sing of the excellence of water, leaving wine to happier men.

Friendship heartily requited Monsieur de Fontanes; Madame Bacciochi kindly placed herself between her brother’s anger and my decision; Monsieur de Talleyrand, through indifference or calculation, kept my letter of resignation for several days before mentioning it: when he told Bonaparte of it, the latter had already spent time in reflection. Receiving from me the only direct token of blame, from an honest man who did not hesitate to defy him, he only pronounced these two words: ‘That’s fine.’ Later he said to his sister: ‘You were quite fearful for your friend.’ Long afterwards, in conversation with Monsieur de Fontanes, he confessed to him that my resignation was one of the things that most impressed him. Monsieur de Talleyrand had an official letter sent to me, in which he reproached me graciously for depriving his department of my talents and services. I returned the cost of my installation, and everything was over it would seem. But by daring to turn my back on Bonaparte, I had set myself on a par with him, and he was opposed to me in all perfidy, as I was opposed to him in all loyalty. Until he fell, he held a sword suspended above my head; he turned to me sometimes through a natural inclination, and tried to engulf me in his fatal prosperity; sometimes I inclined towards him through the admiration with which he inspired me, through the idea that I was assisting in a social transformation, not merely a change of dynasty: but antipathetic despite our many empathies, our two natures reasserted themselves, and if he would willingly have had me shot, I would have felt no great compunction in killing him.

Death makes or unmakes a great man; it halts him on the step from which he was about to descend, or at the level from which he was about to ascend: it represents a destiny accomplished or foregone; in the first case, one is concerned with what has happened; in the second with conjectures about what might have happened.

If I had been carrying out an exercise with a view to my long term ambitions, I would have been in error. Charles X only learnt in Prague of what I had done in 1804: he had reclaimed the monarchy. ‘Chateaubriand,’ he asked me in the Castle of Hradschin, ‘did you serve Bonaparte? – Yes, Sire – Did you resign on the death of Monsieur le Duc d’Enghien? – Yes, Sire.’ Misfortune instructs or erases the memory. I have told you how, once, in London, having taken refuge with Monsieur de Fontanes in a drive-way during a shower, Monsieur le Duc de Bourbon happened to share the same shelter: in France, his gallant father and himself, who thanked so politely whoever wrote the funeral oration for Monsieur le Duc d’Enghien, gave me not a thought: they also doubtless were ignorant of my action: it is true that I had never spoken of it to them.