Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 1

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XXI, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter 1
The ills of France – Forced celebrations – A sojourn in my Valley – The Legitimacy awakes



When Bonaparte arrived, preceded by his bulletin, there was general consternation. ‘The Empire,’ says Monsieur Ségur, ‘could only count on men aged by time or war, and children! Almost all the mature men, where were they? Women’s tears, mothers’ cries, spoke clearly enough! Bowed laboriously over the land, which without them would have remained untilled, they cursed the war he personified.’

Returning from the Berezina, there was no less of a requirement to dance: that is what one learns from the Souvenirs pour servir à l’histoire, of Queen Hortense. One was forced to go to the ball, death in one’s heart, weeping inwardly for relatives or friends. Such was the dishonour to which despotism had condemned France: one saw in the salons what one met with in the streets, creatures distracting themselves from their own lives by singing out their misery to divert the passers-by.

For three years I had been in retirement at Aulnay: from my pine-clad hill, in 1811, I had followed with my eyes the comet which during the night fled towards the wooded horizon; she was beautiful and melancholy, and, like a queen, drew her long train behind her. Whom did she seek, that lost stranger to our world? Towards whom did she make her way through the wastes of the sky?

On the 23rd of October 1812, sheltering for a moment in Paris, on the Rue des Saints-Pères, at the Hôtel Lavalette, Madame Lavalette, my hostess, being deaf and furnished with her long ear-trumpet, roused me: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Bonaparte is dead! General Malet has killed Hulin. All the powers that be are changed. The Revolution is over.’

Bonaparte was so beloved that for a while Paris was in a state of joy, except for the authorities who were left in an absurd limbo. A rumour had almost toppled the Empire. Escaping from prison at midnight a soldier was master of the world at daybreak; a fantasy was close to carrying off a formidable reality. The most moderate said: ‘If Napoleon is not dead, he will return chastened by his mistakes and reverses; he will make peace with Europe, and our remaining children will be saved.’ Two hours after his wife had spoken to me, Monsieur Lavelette entered to inform me of Malet’s arrest: it was no secret (that was his habitual phrase) that all was over. Day and night occurred simultaneously. I have related how Bonaparte received the news in a snowy field near Smolensk. The Senatus Consulte (of 12th of January 1813) put at the disposal of the returning Napoleon two hundred and fifty thousand men; inexhaustible France saw flow, from its blood through its wounds, fresh soldiers. Then a long-forgotten voice was heard; a few aged French ears thought they recognised the sound: it was the voice of Louis XVIII; it rose from the depths of exile. Louis XVI’s brother proclaimed the principles to be established one day by constitutional charter; the first aspiration towards liberty that emanated from our former kings.

Alexander, having entered Warsaw, addressed a proclamation to Europe: ……………………………………………………………………...

‘If the North will imitate the sublime example set by the Castilians, the world’s period of mourning is over. Europe, on the verge of falling prey to a monster, will recover its freedom and tranquillity. Let this blood-stained colossus who has menaced the continent with his endless criminality remain in the end merely a distant memory of horror and pity!’
That monster, that blood-stained colossus who menaced the continent with his endless criminality, had learnt so little from misfortune that barely escaped from the Cossacks he flung himself upon an old man whom he still held prisoner.