Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVIII - Chapter 7
Armand de Chateaubriand



Armand de Chateaubriand whom you have seen as a companion of my childhood and met again in the Army of the Princes, with the deaf and dumb girl Libba, had remained in England. Married in Jersey, he was charged with the Princes’ correspondence. Leaving on the 25th of September 1808, he was landed on the Breton coast, on the same day, at eleven at night, near Saint-Cast. The boat’s crew comprised eleven men; only two were French, Roussel and Quintal.

Armand arrived at the house of Monsieur Delaunay-Boisé-Lucas, the elder, who lived in the village of Saint-Cast, where the English were once forced to re-embark: his host advised him to leave again; but the boat was already on course for Jersey once more. Armand, having so agreed with Monsieur Boisé-Lucas’ son, gave him the packets entrusted to him by Monsieur Henri Larivière, the Princes’ agent.

‘I returned to the coast on the 29th of September,’ he says during one of his interrogations, ‘where I remained for two nights without seeing the boat. The moon being very full, I left again and came back on the 14th or 15th of October. I stayed there till the 24th. I spent each night amongst the rocks, but to no avail; since my boat did not arrive, and, during the day I went back to the Boisé-Lucas’ house. The same boat with the same crew, including Roussel and Quintal, was supposed to fetch me. As for precautions taken in conjunction with Monsieur Boisé-Lucas the elder, there were none apart from those I have already detailed.’

The intrepid Armand, landing a few steps from his paternal home, as if on the inhospitable shores of the Crimea, gazed at the waves, searching in vain by moonlight for the vessel that might have rescued him. Long ago, when I had already left Combourg and was preparing to voyage to India, I had cast melancholy eyes on those same waves. Near the rocks of Saint-Cast where Armand lay, near the Pointe de la Varde where I had sat, a few miles of sea, crossed by our opposing gazes, witnessed the cares and separated the destinies of two men united by blood and name. It was in the midst of those waves too that I met Gesril for the last time. It often happens that in my dreams I see Gesril and Armand bathing the wounds in their brows in the depths, while the water in which we used to play in our childhood laps blood-red at my feet. (Note: The original transcripts of Armand’s trial have been sent to me by an unknown and generous hand.)

Armand succeeded in embarking on a boat purchased at Saint-Malo; but driven back by a north-westerly wind he was obliged to put in once more. At last, on the 6th of January, aided by a sailor called Jean Brien, he launched a little stranded dinghy, and seized another which was afloat. He describes his voyage, which recalls my own fate and adventures, in his interrogation of the 18th of March:

‘From nine in the evening when we embarked, until about two in the morning, the weather was favourable. Judging that we were then not far from the rocks called Les Mainquiers, we anchored with the intention of waiting for daylight; but the wind having freshened, and fearing it would strengthen, we continued our course. A few minutes later, the sea became very rough, and our compass having been shattered by a wave, we remained unsure of the direction we were heading. The first land we had knowledge of on the 7th (it may have been about noon then) was the Normandy coast, which forced us to put about and we returned again and anchored near some rocks called Les Écrehous, situated between the Normandy coast and Jersey. The strong contrary winds obliged us to remain in that situation for the rest of the day and the 8th. On the morning of the 9th, as soon as it was light, I said to Depagne that the wind seemed to have lessened, seeing that our boat was not labouring much, and told him to check the direction of the wind. He said he could no longer see the rocks near which we had anchored. I realised then that we were adrift and had lost our anchor. The violence of the storm left us no choice but to make for the coast. As we could not see land, I did not know how far away from it we were. It was at that moment that I threw my papers into the sea, after taking the precaution of weighting them with a stone. We then ran before the wind and made the coast at about nine in the morning, at Bretteville-sur-Ay, in Normandy.

We were met on the coast by the customs officers, who took me out of my boat half-dead, my feet and legs being frozen. They lodged us both at the house of the lieutenant of the Bretteville brigade. Two days later, Depagne was taken to the prison at Coutances, and since then, I have not seen him. A few days afterwards, I was myself transferred to the gaol in that town; on the next day I was taken to Saint-Lô by the sergeant, where I remained for eight days with the said sergeant. I appeared once before the Prefect of the department, and, on the 26th of January, I left with the captain, and sergeant of the constabulary, for Paris, where I arrived on the 28th. They took me to the office of Monsieur Desmarest, at the Police Ministry, and from there to the prison of La Grande-Force.

Armand had the winds, the waves and the Imperial police against him; Bonaparte was in league with the storms. The gods indulged in a large expenditure of anger against one puny human life.

The packet Armand threw into the sea was cast up on the beach at Notre-Dame-d’Alloue, near Valognes. The documents enclosed in this packet served as evidence in his conviction; there were thirty-two of them. Quintal, returning in his boat to the Breton beaches to take Armand off, had also been shipwrecked, by the perversity of fate, in Normandy waters, a few days before my cousin. The crew of Quintal’s boat had talked; the Prefect of Saint-Lô had learnt that Monsieur de Chateaubriand was leader of the Princes’ enterprises. When he heard that a vessel crewed by only two men had run aground, he had no doubt that Armand was one of the two, since all the fishermen spoke of him as the most fearless man they had ever seen at sea.

On the 20th of January 1809, the Prefect of La Manche, sent his account of Armand’s arrest to the Ministry of Police. His letter began thus:

‘My conjectures are completely vindicated: Chateaubriand is here; it is he who landed on the coast at Bretteville and who has assumed the name John Fall.

Anxious, despite the extremely precise orders I had given, that John Fall had not yet arrived at Saint-Lô, I charged the sergeant of the gendarmerie Mauduit, a reliable and very active individual, to go and find John Fall wherever he was, and bring him to me, in whatever state he might be. He found him at Coutances, at the moment when it had been arranged for him to be transferred to the hospital, to treat his legs which had been frost-bitten.

Fall appeared before me today. I had Lelièvre placed in a separate room, from which he could see John Fall’s arrival without being perceived. When Lelièvre saw him climbing the stairs near this room, he cried out, striking his hands together and changing colour: “It is Chateaubriand! How has he been taken?”

Lelièvre was not pre-warned at all. This exclamation had been drawn from him by his surprise. He begged me later not to say that he had named Chateaubriand, or he would be lost.

I kept John Fall ignorant of the fact that I knew who he was.’

Taken to Paris, and imprisoned in La Force, Armand endured secret interrogation at the military gaol of the Abbaye. Bertrand, of the first demi-brigade of veterans, had been nominated by General Hulin, who had been appointed Military Commandant of Paris, judge-advocate of the military commission charged, by a decree of the 25th of February, to investigate Armand’s case.

The people implicated were Monsieur de Goyon, whom Armand had sent to Brest, and Monsieur de Boisé-Lucas, the younger, whom he had charged with transmitting letters from Henri de Larivière to Messieurs Laya and Sicard in Paris.

In a letter of the 13th of March, addressed to Fouché, Armand wrote: ‘May the Emperor deign to restore the liberty of men who now languish in prison for having shown me too much friendship. At all events, let their freedom be restored, in equal measure. I commend my unfortunate family to the Emperor’s generosity.’

The error, in a man of human feelings addressing himself to a hyena, is painful to witness. Nor was Bonaparte the Florentine lion; he did not give up the child because of the mother’s tears. I had written to ask Fouché for an interview; he granted it, and assured me, with all the coolness displayed by revolutionary indifference, ‘that he had seen Armand and I could be tranquil; that Armand had said he would die well, and that indeed he showed a very resolute air.’ If I had suggested to Fouché that he was to die, would he have preserved that deliberate tone and superb nonchalance with regard to himself?

I applied to Madame de Rémusat, begging her to deliver a letter to the Empress asking the Emperor for justice and mercy. Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu told me, at Arenenberg, of the fate of my letter: Joséphine gave it to the Emperor; he appeared to hesitate as he read it, then, found some phrase that annoyed him and flung it impatiently into the fire. I had forgotten that one should only show pride on one’s own behalf.

Monsieur de Goyon, condemned with Armand, suffered his sentence. Yet Madame la Baronne-Duchesse de Montmorency, the daughter of Madame de Matignon, to whom the Goyons were allied, was pressed to intervene on his behalf. A Montmorency in service should have been able to obtain anything, if it were enough to prostitute a name to convert an old monarchy into a new power. Madame de Goyon, who was unable to save her husband, did save young Boisé-Lucas. Everything contributed to this misfortune, which struck down mere unknowns; one would have said the end of the world was at hand: with storms afloat, ambushes on land, Bonaparte, the sea, Louis XIV’s murderers, and the presence of some unknown passion perhaps, the mysterious spirit of earthly catastrophe. No one else perceived these things; it was only I who was struck by them all, and they lived on in my memory alone. What did they matter to Napoleon, these insects crushed by his hand on the crown?

On the day of execution, I wanted to accompany my comrade onto his last field of battle; I could find not a single carriage, and hurried on foot to the Grenelle Plain. I arrived, drenched in sweat, a moment too late: Armand had been shot against the outer wall of Paris. His skull was shattered; a butcher’s dog was licking his blood and brains. I followed the cart which carried the bodies of Armand and his two companions, plebeian and noble, Quintal and Goyon, to the Vaugirard cemetery where I had buried Monsieur de Laharpe. I saw my cousin for the last time, without being able to recognise him: the bullets had disfigured him, he had no face left; I could not see the ravages of time there, nor even see death there within that shapeless, bleeding orb; he remained youthful in my mind as at the time of Libba and Thionville. He was shot on Good Friday: the Crucified One appears to me at the end of all my ills. When I walk along the ramparts of the Grenelle Plain, I stop to look at the bullet marks, still visible on the wall. If Bonaparte’s lead had left no other traces, he would no longer be spoken of.

A strange linkage of destinies! General Hulin, the Military Commandant of Paris, named the commission which blew out Armand’s brains; he had been, in the past, named as President of the commission which shattered the Duc d’Enghien’s skull. After that first misfortune, ought he not to have abstained completely from councils of war? And I, I spoke of the death of the Great Condé’s descendant without mentioning General Hulin’s part in the execution of an unknown soldier, my relative. For judging the judges of that tribunal at Vincennes, I have doubtless, in turn, received my commission from Heaven.