Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 11

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XXII, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 12

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXII, chapter11
War at the gates of Paris – The appearance of Paris – Battle at Belleville – The Flight of Marie-Louise and the Regency – Monsieur de Talleyrand remains in Paris

The circle was tightening round the capital: every instant we learnt of the enemy’s progress. Russian prisoners and wounded Frenchmen were carried pell-mell through the gates in carts; some, half-dead, fell beneath the wheels which they stained with blood. Conscripts, called-up from the interior, crossed the capital in long files, to join the army. At night, you could hear artillery trains passing along the outer boulevards, and no one knew if the distant explosions proclaimed decisive victory or final defeat.

The war finally reached the gates of Paris. From the towers of Notre-Dame you could see the heads of the Russian columns appearing, like the first undulations of a tidal-wave on the beach. I felt as a Roman must have felt, on the summit of the Capitol, with Alaric’s soldiers and the ancient city of the Latins at his feet, just as I had Russian soldiers at my feet and the ancient city of the Gauls. Farewell then, paternal Lares, hearths which preserved national traditions, roofs beneath which breathed both Virginia sacrificed by her father to modesty and freedom, and that Héloïse consecrated by love to letters and religion.

For centuries Paris had not seen the smoke of enemy camp-fires, and it was Bonaparte, passing from triumph to triumph, who had given the Thebans sight of the women of Sparta. Paris was the marker from which he left to roam the earth: he returned leaving behind him the vast conflagration of his vain conquests.

People rushed to the Jardin des Plantes which the fortified abbey of Saint-Victor might once have been able to protect: the little world of swans and plantain-trees, to which our power had promised eternal peace, was troubled. From the summit of the maze, above the great cedar, over the granaries which Bonaparte had not had time to complete, beyond the site of the Bastille and the keep of Vincennes (places which tell of our historical development), the crowd could see the infantry-fire of the fight at Belleville. Montmartre was taken; cannonballs fell as far as the Boulevard du Temple. A few companies of the National Guard made a sortie and lost three hundred men in the fields around the ‘tomb of the martyrs’. Never did military France shine more brightly in the midst of her reverses: the ultimate heroes were the hundred and fifty young men of the École Polytechnique, transformed into artillery-men in the redoubts of the Chemin de Vincennes. Surrounded by the enemy, they refused to surrender; they had to be dragged from their guns: the Russian Grenadier seized them blackened with powder and covered with wounds; while they struggled in his arms, he lifted those young French palm branches in the air with cries of triumph and admiration, and restored them blood-stained to their mothers.

At that time Cambacérès had fled with Marie-Louise, the King of Rome and the Regency. On the walls you could read the following proclamation:

King Joseph, Lieutenant-General of the Emperor
Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard.
‘Citizens of Paris,
The Regency Council has provided for the safety of the Empress and the King of Rome: I remain here with you. Let us arm ourselves to defend our city, its monuments, its riches, our women, our children, and all that is dear to us. Let this vast city become a fortified camp for a while, and let the enemy find shame beneath her walls which he hopes to enter in triumph.’

Rostopchin had not tried to defend Moscow; he set fire to it. Joseph announced that he would never abandon the Parisians, and decamped quietly, leaving us his brave words posted on the street corners.

Monsieur de Talleyrand was nominated as a member of the Regency by Napoleon. From the moment that the Bishop of Autun ceased to be Minister for Foreign Affairs, under the Empire, he only dreamt of one thing, Bonaparte’s disappearance, followed by the Regency of Marie-Louise; a Regency of which he, the Prince of Benevento, would be the head. Bonaparte, in naming him a member of the provisional Regency in 1814, seemed to have favoured his secret wishes. Napoleon’s death had not yet happened; it remained only for Monsieur de Talleyrand to hobble at the feet of the colossus he could not overthrow, and take advantage of the moment in his own interests: his savoir-faire was the genius of that man of bargains and compromise. The situation was difficult: to remain in the capital was what was indicated; but if Bonaparte returned, the Prince separated from the fugitive Regency, the tardy Prince, ran the risk of being shot; on the other hand, how could he abandon Paris at the moment when the Allies might enter? Would that not be to renounce the benefits of success, betray that dawn of events, for which Monsieur de Talleyrand had been created? Far from siding with the Bourbons, he feared them because of their sundry apostasies. However, since they stood a chance of power, Monsieur de Vitrolles, with the consent of the married priest, went furtively to the Congress of Châtillon, as the unacknowledged go-between with the Legitimacy. That precaution taken, the Prince, in order to extract himself from his Paris difficulty, had recourse to one of those tricks of which he was past master.

Monsieur Laborie, who a little later became, under Monsieur Dupont de Nemours, Private Secretary to the Provisional Government, went to find Monsieur de Laborde, attaché to the National Guard; he told him of Monsieur de Talleyrand’s departure: ‘He is disposed,’ he said, ‘to follow the Regency; it may appear necessary to you to prevent him, in order for him to be in a position to negotiate with the Allies, if needs be.’ The comedy was played to perfection. The Prince’s carriages were loaded up, with great commotion; he set out at high noon, on the 30th of March: arriving at the Barrière d’Enfer, he was inexorably returned to his residence, despite his protestations. In case of Napoleon’s miraculous return, the evidence was there, witnessing that the former Minister had wished to join Marie-Louise and that armed force had refused him passage.