Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVI- Chapter 4
General Hulin



Chantilly, November 1837

After the grand legal expert, here comes a blind veteran: he commanded grenadiers of the Old Guard; enough said, to the brave. His final wound in the jaw he received from Malet, whose ineffectual lead was left embedded in a visage that did not flinch from the bullet. Afflicted by blindness, retired from society, having only family cares for consolation (these are his very words), the Duc d’Enghien’s judge seems to rise from the grave at the command of the Sovereign Judge; he pleads his cause without deceit or excuses:

‘Let no one be mistaken,’ he says, ‘regarding my intentions. I am not writing out of fear, since my person is protected by laws issuing from the throne itself, and under the government of a just king, I am not apprehensive of arbitrary violence. I am writing in order to speak the truth, even regarding things which may work against me. So, I do not seek to justify either the form or content of the judgement, but to show that it was rendered under the Empire and in the midst of a fatal combination of circumstances; I wish to distance my colleagues and myself from the idea that we were motivated by party. If we are still to be blamed for it, I would like them also to say of us: “They were most unfortunate!”

General Hulin confirms that, named as President of the military commission, he did not know its aim; that he arrived at Vincennes, still ignorant of it; that the other members of the commission were equally in ignorance; that the Governor of the château, Monsieur Harel, on being asked, replied that he himself knew nothing, adding these words: “What would you have? I am nothing here. All is done without my orders or involvement: it is another who commands here.”’

It was ten o’clock in the evening when General Hulin was freed from his uncertainty by the communication of documentary information to him.

– The interview was over by midnight, when the examination of the prisoner by the Recording-Officer was complete. “Reading over the documents, ‘said the President of the commission, ‘gave rise to an incident. We remarked that at the end of the interrogation conducted before the Reporting-Officer, the Prince, before signing, traced, with his own hand, some lines in which he expressed his desire to have a meeting with the First Consul. One member of the commission proposed that this demand should be transmitted to the government. The commission had decided to refer the matter; but at that very moment, the general, who had just come to stand behind my chair, suggested that the request would be inopportune. Moreover, we found no legal arrangement which authorised us to defer judgement. The commission then passed on, setting aside time, after the discussions, to consider the prisoner’s wish.’

That is what General Hulin recounts. Now one can also read this passage in the Duc de Rovigo’s pamphlet: ‘There were sufficient persons there to make it difficult for me, arriving last, to get behind the President’s seat where I managed to place myself.’

Was it the Duc de Rovigo then who was standing behind the chair occupied by the President? But what right had he, or any other, having no role on the commission, to intervene in the discussions of that commission and suggest that a request was inopportune?

Let us hear the commander of grenadiers of the Old Guard speak of the courage of Condé’s young son; he knew about such things:

‘I proceeded to interrogate the accused; I have to say, he appeared before us with noble assurance, rejecting totally any involvement directly or indirectly in a plot to assassinate the First Consul; but he did confess also to having borne arms against France, saying, with a courage and pride which did not allow for our varying the point, even in his own interest: “That he had maintained the rights of his family, and that a Condé could never return to France except under arms. My birth, my opinions,” he added, “will render me forever an enemy to your government.”

         The firmness of his confession was the despair of his judges. A dozen times we set him a course towards revising his statements, always he persisted in an unshakeable manner: “I recognise,” he said at intervals, “the honourable intentions of the members of the commission, but I can by no means take advantage of what they offer me.” And regarding the warning that the military commission’s judgement was final: “I know,” he replied to me, “and I do not deceive myself as to the danger I court; I only wish for an interview with the First Consul.”’

Is there a more moving page of our history? New France judging the former France, rendering it homage, presenting arms to it, saluting it with the flag while condemning it; the tribunal established in the fortress where the Great Condé, as a prisoner, cultivated flowers: the general of grenadiers in Bonaparte’s Guard, sitting opposite the last descendant of the victor of Rocroi, moved with admiration for the defenceless accused, a man forsaken on this earth, interrogating him while the sound of the gravedigger digging the grave mingled with the assured replies of the young soldier! A few days after the execution, General Hulin exclaimed: ‘Oh what a brave young man! What courage! I would hope to die like him!’

General Hulin, after speaking about the minutes, and the second version of the judgement, says: ‘As for the second version, the sole truth is, since it did not contain the order for immediate execution, but only the immediate reading of the sentence to the condemned man, that the immediate execution was not the commission’s doing, but solely those who took it upon their own responsibility to hasten that fatal deed.

Alas, we had many second thoughts! The judgement was barely signed before I sent a letter in which, rendering myself interpreter of the commission’s unanimous wish, I wrote to the First Consul to make him aware of the wish that the Prince had expressed to have an interview with him, and also to entreat him to ease the difficulty which the constraints of our situation had not enabled us to evade.

It was at that moment that a man spoke, who was constantly present in the judgement chamber, and whom I would name in an instant, if I did not consider that, even though defending myself, I ought not to accuse him… – What are you doing? He asked me, drawing close to me. – I am writing to the First Consul, I replied, to express to him the wishes of the council and those of the condemned man. – Your business is done with, he said to me taking away the pen: now it is my concern.

I swear that I thought, and several of my colleagues did also, that he meant: It is my concern to advise the First Consul. The reply, taken in that sense, allowed us to hope that the request would be transmitted none the less. And how should we arrive at the idea that whoever it was who was with us, had been ordered to ignore the formalities the law requires?’

The whole secret of that sad catastrophe is in this deposition. The old soldier, who, always prepared to die on the field of battle, had learnt from death the language of truth, concludes with these words:

‘I have spoken about what passed in the hallway next to the meeting room. Private conversations took place; I was waiting for my carriage, which being unable to enter the inner courtyard, like those of other members, delayed my departure and theirs; we were ourselves locked in, without anyone being able to communicate from outside, when there was an explosion: a terrible noise which echoed in the depths of our souls and froze them with fear and dread.

Yes, I swear, in the name of all my colleagues, that execution was not authorised by us: our judgement stated that it would be sent by despatch to the Minister of War, the Chief Justice, and the Governor-General of Paris.

The order of execution could not have been properly decreed except by the latter; the copies had not yet been despatched; they could not reach their destination before some part of the day had passed. Returning to Paris, if I had sought out the Governor, the First Consul, what did I know? And all at once a fearful noise had just revealed to us that the Prince no longer existed!

We did not know if he who had hastened that sad execution, so cruelly, had orders to do so: if he had not, he alone was responsible; if he had, the commission, not privy to the orders, the commission, set up privately, the commission, whose first wish was for the health of the Prince, could have done nothing to prevent, or evade the outcome. One cannot accuse it of causing that event.

The twenty years that have passed since have not lessened the bitterness of my regrets. Let them accuse me of ignorance, of error, I agree; let them reproach me with obedience to that which I would well know how to evade today, in similar circumstances; my attachment to a man whom I thought destined to work the good of my country; my loyalty to a government which I thought legitimate then and which had received my pledge; but let them take account of the fact that I, and my colleagues, had been summoned to pronounce judgement in the midst of fatal circumstances.’

The defence is weak, but you repent General: may peace be with you! If your judgement acted as the last Condé’s order to depart, you will march, in the vanguard of the dead, to rejoin that last conscript of our former country. The young soldier will take pleasure in sharing his slumber with the grenadier of the Old Guard; the France of Fribourg and the France of Marengo will rest together.