Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVIII - Chapter 5
The Years 1807, 1808, 1809 and 1810 – An article in the Mercury, June 1807 – I buy the Vallée-Aux-Loups and retreat there



Madame de Chateaubriand had been very ill during my voyage; my friends several times thought me lost. In letters which Monsieur de Clausel wrote to his children and which he has kindly allowed me to read, I find this passage:

‘Monsieur de Chateaubriand left on his voyage to Jerusalem in the month of July 1806: during his absence I went to Madame de Chateaubriand’s house every day. Our traveller did me the kindness to write to me a lengthy letter, from Constantinople, which you will find in the drawer in our library at Coussergues. During the winter of 1806 and 1807, we knew that Monsieur de Chateaubriand was at sea returning to Europe; one day, I was walking in the TuileriesGardens with Monsieur de Fontanes in the teeth of a dreadful westerly wind; we were sheltering beneath the terrace by the water’s edge. Monsieur de Fontanes said to me: – Perhaps at this very moment, a gust from this terrible storm will cause his shipwreck. We have since learnt that this presentiment failed to be realised. I note this to express the lively friendship, the interest in Monsieur de Chateaubriand’s literary glory, which was bound to increase with that voyage; the noble, the profound and rare sentiments which animated Monsieur de Fontanes, that excellent man from whom I too have had great service, and whom I recommend you to remember before God.’

If I had been certain to survive, and if I could have perpetuated in my works those people who are dear to me, with what pleasure I would have taken my friends along with me!

Full of hope, I carried my handful of gleanings back home; my peace and quiet was not of long duration.

After a series of agreements, I became sole proprietor of the Mercure.

Towards the end of June 1807, Monsieur Alexandre de Laborde published his travels in Spain; in July, I published the article in the Mercury from which I have quoted various passages in speaking of the Duc d’Enghien’s death: When in the silence of abjection, etc. Bonaparte’s successes, far from subduing me, had provoked me; I had gained fresh energy from my feelings and the tempests. My face had not been bronzed by the sun in vain, nor had I exposed myself to the wrath of the heavens in order to tremble sad-browed before a merely human anger. If Napoleon had done with kings, he had not done with me. My article, appearing in the midst of his successes and triumphs, stirred France: innumerable copies were made by hand; several subscribers to the Mercure cut out the article and had it bound separately; it was read in the salons and hawked from house to house. One has to have lived at that moment to gain any idea of the effect produced by a lone voice ringing out amongst the silence of the world. Noble feelings, buried in the depths of men’s hearts, revived. Napoleon was furious: one is less irritated by the criticism made than by its attack on one’s self-image. What! To scorn even his glory; for a second time, to brave the anger of one at whose feet the world had fallen, prostrate! ‘Does Chateaubriand think I am an imbecile: that I don’t comprehend him? I’ll have him cut down on the steps of the Tuileries!’ He gave orders to suppress the Mercure, and for my arrest. My property was lost; my person escaped by a miracle: Bonaparte was pre-occupied by the wider world; he forgot me, but I remained weighed down by menace.

My situation was deplorable: while I felt I had to act according to my sense of honour, I found myself burdened with personal responsibilities, and the anxieties I was causing my wife. Her courage was great, but she none the less suffered, and these storms falling in succession on my head troubled her life. She had suffered so much on my behalf during the Revolution! It was natural that she longed for a little peace. The more so in that Madame de Chateaubriand admired Bonaparte without reservation; she had no illusions about the Legitimacy; she was forever predicting what would happen to me if the Bourbons returned.

The first chapter of these Memoirs is dated the 4th of October 1811, at the Vallée-aux-Loups: there will be found my description of the little retreat which I purchased to hide myself in, at that time. Leaving our apartment at Madame de Coislin’s, we went to live in the Rue des Saints-Pères, in the Hôtel de Lavalette, which took its name from the owners of the place.

Monsieur de Lavalette, stocky, dressed in a violet-coloured morning-coat, and carrying a gold-knobbed cane, had become my business manager, if indeed I have ever had any business. He had been a cup-bearer in the Royal household, and what I did not eat, he drank.

Towards the end of November, seeing that the repairs to my cottage were making no progress, I decided to go and supervise them. We arrived at the Vallée in the evening. We did not take the usual road; we entered through the gate at the end of the garden. The soil in the drives, soaked with rain, prevented the horses from going on; the carriage overturned. The plaster bust of Homer, placed beside Madame de Chateaubriand, was thrown through the window, and shattered its neck: a bad omen for Les Martyrs on which I was then working.

The house, filled with laughing, singing, hammering workmen, was warmed by a fire of wood-shavings and lit by candle-ends: it resembled a hermitage in the woods illuminated at night by pilgrims. Delighted to find two rooms quite passable, in one of which a table had been laid, we sat down to dine. Next day, awakened by the noise of hammering, and the songs of the colonists, I watched the sun rise with less anxiety than that master of the Tuileries.

I was surrounded by endless enchantments; though no Madame de Sévigné, I went out, furnished with a pair of clogs, to plant trees in the mud, traverse the same walks over and over, look once and again into every little corner, conceal myself wherever there was a clump of bushes, imagining what my park would be like in the future, since then the future was uncompromised. Searching, today, to re-open that vista which has closed, I no longer find that same one indeed, though I meet with others. I lose myself among vanished memories; perhaps the illusions I come across are as lovely as those earlier ones; only they are not as youthful; what I saw in the splendour of noon, I perceive in the glow of evening. – If only I might cease to be plagued by dreams! Bayard, ordered to relinquish a position, replied: ‘See, I have made a bridge of corpses, in order to cross over it to the garrison.’ I fear that in order to depart, I must pass over the bodies of my illusions.

My trees, being still quite small, were not filled with the sound of the autumn winds; but, in spring, the breezes that breathed the flowery fragrance of the neighbouring fields held their breath, and released it over my valley.

I made a few additions to my cottage; I embellished its brick wall with a portico supported by two black marble columns and two white marble caryatids: I remembered I had been to Athens. My plan was to add a tower to the end of the building; in the meantime, I simulated battlements along the wall that bordered the road: thus I anticipated the obsession regarding the Middle Ages which currently stupifies us. Of all the possessions I have lost, the Vallée-aux-Loups is the only one I regret; it is written that nothing will remain to me. After my Valley was lost, I planted out the Marie-Thérèse Infirmary, and I have just left that too. I defy fate to attach me to the smallest plot of earth now; henceforth, I will only have as my garden those avenues, honoured with such fine names, around the Invalides, where I walk with my lame and one-armed colleagues. Not far from these walks, Madame de Beaumont’s cypress lifts its head; in these deserted spaces, the great, light-hearted Duchesse de Châtillon once leant on my arm. I only give my arm to time, now: who is heavy enough!

I worked at my Memoirs with pleasure, and Les Martyrs progressed; I had already read several chapters to Monsieur de Fontanes. I was established amongst my memories as in a vast library: I consulted here, and then there and finally closed the volume with a sigh, when I perceived that the light, by penetrating, destroyed the mystery. Shed light on the days of your life, and they will no longer be as they were.

In July 1808, I fell ill, and was obliged to return to Paris. The doctors rendered the illness dangerous. While Hippocrates was living, there was a lack of dead spirits in Hades, says the epigram: thanks to our modern Hippocrates, there is no shortage today.

That was perhaps the only time when, near to death, I longed for life. When I felt myself to be weaker, which often happened, I would say to Madame de Chateaubriand: ‘Don’t worry; I will recover.’ I would lose consciousness, but with a mounting impatience within, since I was holding on, God knows to what. Also I was possessed with desire to complete what I thought, and still think, to be my most perfect work. I was reaping the reward for the fatigue I had often experienced during my travels in the Levant.

Girodet had given the last touches to my portrait. He made it melancholy, as I then was; but he filled it with his genius. Monsieur Denon accepted the masterpiece for the Salon; as a noble courtier he placed it prudently out of the way. When Bonaparte arrived to review the gallery, he looked at the paintings and then asked: ‘Where is the portrait of Chateaubriand?’ He knew it must be there: they were obliged to lift the curtain on its hiding place. Bonaparte, exhaling a fulsome breath, said, on gazing at the portrait: ‘He has the air of a conspirator who has come down the chimney.’

On returning to the Vallée alone one day, Benjamin, the gardener, told me that a large foreign gentleman had come asking for me; that on finding me not there, he had declared his intention of waiting for me; that he had ordered an omelette and had then laid himself down on my bed. I walked upstairs, entered my bedroom, and saw something huge asleep; shaking this mass, I shouted: ‘Hey! Hey! Who is this?’ The mass quivered and sat up. Its head was covered with a hairy bonnet, it wore a matching jersey and trousers of flecked wool, its face was stained with snuff and its tongue was sticking out. It was my cousin Moreau! I had not seen him since camp at Thionville. He was back from Russia and wished to enter public service. My old cicerone in Paris was off to die at Nantes. So there vanished one of the principal characters in my Memoirs. I hope that, extended on a bed of asphodel, he still speaks of my verses, to Madame de Chastenay, if that delightful shade has descended to the Elysian Fields.