Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 21

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XXII, 20 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 22


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter21
Louis XVIII at Compiègne – His entry into Paris – The Old Guard – An Irreparable Fault – The Declaration of Saint-Ouen – The Treaty of Paris – The Charter – Departure of the Allies



While Bonaparte, known to the whole world, fled France in a shower of curses, Louis XVIII, forgotten by all, left London under a cloud of white banners and garlands. Napoleon, landing on the Isle of Elba, recovered his strength. Louis XVIII, landing at Calais, might well have seen Louvel; he did meet General Maison, charged, sixteen years later, with escorting Charles X aboard at Cherbourg. Charles X, had given Monsieur Maison the baton of a Marshal of France, apparently to render him worthy of his future mission, just as a knight, before an encounter, would confer knighthood on a man of lesser rank with whom he deigned to cross swords.

I feared the effects of Louis XVIII’s appearance. I hastened to arrive before him at that Royal residence where Joan of Arc fell into English hands and where they showed me a volume struck by one of the cannonballs fired at Bonaparte. What was one to think at the sight of the Royal invalid replacing the horseman, who might have said as Attila did: ‘The grass no longer grows where my horse has passed?’ Without the taste for it, and without being asked, I undertook (having been cursed with it) somewhat of a difficult task, namely to depict The Arrival at Compiègne, to portray the descendant of Saint Louis such as I have idealised him with the aid of the Muses. I expressed myself thus:

‘The King’s coach was preceded by Generals and Marshals of France, who had left before His Majesty. The cries of “Long live the King!” had given way to confused sounds in which nothing could be distinguished but the accents of joy and emotion. The King wore a blue coat, decorated only by a medal and epaulettes; his legs were encased in long boots of red velvet, edged with fine gold cord. When he was sitting in his armchair, with his old-style boots, holding his cane between his legs, one might have been looking at Louis XIV at fifty……………………………………………

…Marshals Macdonald, Ney, Moncey, Sérurier, and Brune, and the Prince de Neuchâtel, all the generals, all the people present, received the most affectionate words from the King, without exception. Such is the power of the legitimate sovereign in France; that magic associated with the name of king. A man arrives alone from exile, despoiled of everything, without followers, without bodyguards, without wealth; he has nothing to give, almost nothing to promise. He descends from his carriage, leaning on the arm of a young woman; he shows himself to officers who have never seen him before, to grenadiers who scarcely know his name. Who is this man? It is the King! Everybody falls at his feet.’

What I said therein about the military, for the purposes which I intended, was true as far as the leaders were concerned; but I lied in regard to the soldiers. I have present in memory, as if I saw it still, the spectacle I witnessed when Louis XVIII, entering Paris on the 3rd of May, went to visit Notre-Dame: they wished to spare the King the sight of foreign troops; so a regiment of the old Foot-guards lined the route from the Pont-Neuf to Notre-Dame, along the Quai des Orfèvres. I doubt that human faces ever wore so terrible and threatening an expression. Those battle-scarred grenadiers, the conquerors of Europe, who had seen so many thousand of cannonballs pass over their heads, who smelt of flame and powder; those same men, robbed of their leader, were obliged to salute an old king, disabled by time not war, watched as they were by an army of Russians, Austrians and Prussians, in Napoleon’s occupied capital. Some, wrinkling the skin of their foreheads, brought their great busbies down over their eyes so as not to see; others turned down the corners of their mouths in angry contempt; others again bared their teeth between their moustaches, like tigers. When they presented arms, it was with a furious movement, and the sound of those arms made one tremble. Never, it must be confessed, have men been put to so great a test or suffered such torment. If they had been called upon to exact vengeance at that moment, it would have been necessary to exterminate every last one of them, or they would have devoured the earth.

At the end of the line was a young hussar, on horseback; he held a naked sword, and made it leap and dance as it were with a convulsive movement of anger. He was pale; his eyes rolled in their sockets; he kept opening and closing his mouth, clashing his teeth, and stifling cries of which only the first sound could be heard. He caught sight of a Russian officer: the look he gave him cannot be described. When the King’s carriage passed before him, he made his horse rear, and he must have been tempted to hurl himself at the King.

The Restoration, at its inception, committed an irreparable fault: it should have dismissed the army while retaining the marshals, generals, military governors, and officers, with their pensions, honours and rank; the soldiers could then have been re-admitted in succession to the reconstituted army, as they since have been into the Royal Guard: for one thing the Legitimacy would not have experienced the opposition of those soldiers of the Empire, organised, recruited into brigades, designated as they were in the days of their glory, chattering endlessly amongst themselves about the past, nourishing regrets and hostile feelings towards their new master.

The wretched resurrection of the Maison-Rouge, that mixture of military men of the old monarchy and soldiers of the new empire, added to the problem: to believe that the illustrious veterans of a thousand battlefields would not be shocked to see young men, brave doubtless, but for the most part new to the profession of arms, to see them wear, without having won them, the insignia of high military rank, would be to reveal ignorance of human nature.

During the stay Louis XVIII had made at Compiègne, Alexander came to visit him. Louis XVIII offended him by his vanity: the declaration of the 2nd of May, at Saint-Ouen was the result of that meeting. The King said: that he was resolved to grant as the basis of the constitution his intention to make his people the following guarantees: representative government organised in two chambers, free consent to taxation, public and individual liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the inviolability and sacredness of property, the irrevocability of the sale of national possessions, responsible ministers, permanent judges with independent judicial power, all French people admissible for all positions, etc. etc.

This declaration, though it suited Louis XVIII’s temperament, nevertheless owed nothing to him or his councillors; it was quite simply the age waking from sleep: its wings had been furled, its flight suspended since 1792: it took its course through the air once more. The excesses of the Terror, the tyranny of Bonaparte, had stemmed the flow of ideas; but, as soon as the obstacles which thwarted them had been destroyed, they poured once more through the channel they were immediately obliged to follow and deepen. Things resumed from the point where they had halted; what was past was if it had not happened: human expectations, postponed at the start of the Revolution, had merely lost twenty years of life; now what is twenty years in the life of a society? That lacuna has vanished while the severed segments of time have been re-joined.

On the 30th of May 1814 the Treaty of Paris between France and the Allies was concluded. It was agreed that within two months the powers which had been engaged on one or other side during the recent war would send plenipotentiaries to Vienna to a general Congress to determine the final arrangements.

On the 4th of June, Louis XVIII appeared at a Royal session of the assembled members of the Legislature and a section of the Senate. He gave a fine speech; aged, faded, worn, these fastidious details only serve as a historical record.

The Charter, for the majority of the nation, had the disadvantage of being granted: which rekindled, by an unhelpful word, the burning question of whether it was to be a sovereign or a popular monarchy. Louis XVIII also dated his benefaction according to the year of his reign, treating Bonaparte as if he had not occurred, just as Charles II had played leapfrog with Cromwell: it acted as a kind of insult towards those sovereigns who had all recognised Napoleon, and who happened at the time to be in Paris. That outmoded language and those pretensions of the former monarchy added nothing to the rights of the Legitimacy and were merely puerile anachronisms. Other than the fact that the Charter in replacing despotism brought us legal freedom, it had done nothing to satisfy men of conscience. Nevertheless, the Royalists who won much advantage from it, emerging from their villages, or wretched hearths, or other obscure places where they had existed during the Empire, after being summoned to high public office, merely received the benefaction with mutterings; the liberals, who had cheerfully adjusted to Bonaparte’s tyranny, considered the Charter a veritable code of slavery. We returned to the time of Babel; but we no longer worked on a public monument in the confusion: each built their tower to their own height, according to their strength and stature. Moreover, if the Charter seemed defective, it was because the Revolution was not yet at an end; the principle of equality and democracy was in people’s minds and worked in a contrary direction to monarchical order.

The Allied princes did not wait to leave Paris: Alexander, before his departure had celebrated mass in the Place de la Concorde. An altar was raised on the spot where Louis XVI’s scaffold had been erected. Seven Muscovite priests performed the rite, and the foreign troops filed in front of the altar. The Te Deum was sung to one of the lovely melodies of ancient Greek music. The soldiers and sovereigns knelt on the ground to receive the benediction. French thoughts returned to 1793 and 1794, when the oxen refused to cross pavements which the smell of blood rendered obnoxious to them. What hand had led these men from every country to this service of expiation, these descendants of the ancient barbarian incursions, these Tartars, some of whom had dwelt in sheepskin tents at the foot of the Great Wall of China? These are sights that the feeble generations who will follow my age will no longer witness.