Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 13

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter13
The Allies enter Paris.



God had uttered one of those words which at rare intervals shatter the silence of eternity. Now, for the present generation, the hammer that Paris had only heard sound once before, rose to strike the hour; on the 25th of December 496, Rheims proclaimed the baptism of Clovis, and the gates of Lutetia opened to the Franks; on the 30th of March 1814, after the blood-stained baptism of Louis XVI, the old hammer, motionless for so long, rose anew in the belfry of the ancient monarchy; a second stroke rang out, and the Tartars entered Paris. In the intervening one thousand three hundred and eighteen years, foreigners had damaged the walls of our Empire’s capital without ever finding the means to enter, save when they slipped in, summoned by our own divisions. The Normans besieged the city of the Parisii; the Parisii jeered at the sparrow-hawks they bore on their fists; Odo, child of Paris and future king, rex futurus, says Abbo, drove back the pirates from the North: the Parisiens let slip their eagles in 1814; the Allies entered the Louvre.

Bonaparte had waged war unjustly against Alexander, his admirer, who had begged for peace on his knees; Bonaparte had ordered the carnage at Borodino; he had forced the Russians to set fire to Moscow themselves; Bonaparte had plundered Berlin; humiliated its King, insulted its Queen: what reprisals were we then to expect? You shall see.

In the Floridas, I had wandered round nameless monuments, devastated long ago by conquerors of whom no trace remains, and had lived to see the Caucasian hordes encamped in the courtyard of the Louvre. In those events of history which, according to Montaigne: ‘are feeble testimony to our worth and capacity’, my tongue cleaves to my palate:

‘Adhaeret lingua mea faucibus meis’

The Allied Army entered Paris at midday on the 31st of March 1814, only ten days after the anniversary of the death of the Duc d’Enghien, on the 21st of March 1804. Was it worth Bonaparte’s while to commit a deed so long remembered for the sake of so short a reign? The Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia rode at the head of their troops. I watched them marching along the boulevards. Stupefied and inwardly amazed, as if someone had torn from me my French identity and substituted a number by which I would henceforth be known in the mines of Siberia, at the same time I felt my exasperation with that man, whose glory had reduced us to this shame, increase.

However, this first invasion of the Allies remains unparalleled in the history of the world: peace, order, and moderation reigned everywhere; the shops re-opened; Russian guardsmen, six feet tall, were guided through the streets by little French urchins who laughed at them, as if they were wooden puppets or carnival mummers. The conquered might have been taken for conquerors; the latter, trembling at their success, had an apologetic air. The National Guard alone garrisoned the interior of Paris, with the exception of the houses in which foreign kings and princes lodged. On the 31st of March 1814, countless armies were occupying France; a few months later, all those troops re-crossed the frontier, without firing a shot, without shedding a drop of blood, after the return of the Bourbons. The former France found herself augmented on some of her frontiers; the ships and warehouses of Antwerp were shared with her; three hundred thousand prisoners scattered throughout the countries where victory or defeat had left them, were restored to her. After twenty years of fighting, the sound of weapons ceased from one end of Europe to the other; Alexander departed, leaving us the looted masterpieces and the freedom enshrined in the Charter, freedom which we owed as much to his enlightenment as his influence. The head of the two supreme authorities, autocrat by means of both the sword and religion, he alone of all the sovereigns of Europe had understood that at the stage of civilisation which France had attained, she could only be governed by virtue of a free constitution.

In our quite natural hostility towards foreigners, we have confused the invasions of 1814 and 1815, which were in no sense alike.

Alexander considered himself merely an instrument of Providence and took no credit himself. Madame de Staël complimenting him on the good fortune which his subjects, lacking a constitution, enjoyed in being governed by him, he made his well known reply: ‘I am merely a happy accident.’

A young man, in a Paris street, expressed to him his admiration at the affability with which he greeted the humblest citizens; he replied: ‘Are sovereigns not made for that?’ He had no wish to inhabit the Tuileries, remembering that Bonaparte had taken his pleasure in the palaces of Vienna, Berlin and Moscow.

Gazing at the statue of Napoleon on the column in the Place Vendôme, he remarked: ‘If I were as high up as that, I would be afraid of vertigo.’

When he was touring the Tuileries Palace, he was shown the Salon de la Paix: ‘What use,’ he said laughing, ‘was this room to Bonaparte?’

On the day Louis XVIII entered Paris, Alexander hid behind a window, wearing no mark of distinction, to watch the procession pass.

He frequently displayed elegant and charming manners. Visiting a madhouse, he asked a woman if the number who had gone mad with love was considerable: ‘Not until now,’ she replied, ‘but it is to be feared it will increase from the time of Your Majesty’s entering Paris.’

One of Napoleon’s grand dignitaries said to the Tsar: ‘We have been waiting and hoping here for your arrival, for a long time, Sire.’ – ‘I would have come sooner,’ he replied, ‘blame French valour alone for my delay.’ it is known that when crossing the Rhine he had regretted not being able to return peacefully to his family.

At the Hôtel des Invalides, he found the maimed soldiers who had defeated him at Austerlitz: they were silent and sombre; only the sound of their wooden legs echoed in the empty courtyards and denuded church; Alexander was moved by this sound made by brave men: he ordered that twelve Russian cannon should be given to them.

A proposal to change the name of the Pont d’Austerlitz was made to him: ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is enough for me to have crossed that bridge with my army.’

Alexander had something calm and sorrowful about him: he went about Paris, on horseback or on foot, without his suite and without affectation. He seemed surprised at his triumph; his almost tender gaze wandered over a population whom he seemed to consider superior to himself: one would have said that he found himself a barbarian among us, as a Roman would have felt ashamed in Athens. Perhaps he also reflected that these same Frenchmen had appeared in his burnt-out capital; that his soldiers were in turn masters of Paris where he might have found some of the extinguished torches by which Moscow was freed and consumed. This sense of destiny, of changing fortunes, of the common suffering of nations and kings, must have struck a mind as religious as his profoundly.