Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 26

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XXII, 25 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter26
The Island of Elba



Bonaparte had refused to embark in a French ship, only setting store at that time by the English Navy, because it was victorious; he had forgotten his hatred, the slanders, the insults which he had heaped on perfidious Albion; he saw no one worthy of his admiration save the winning party, and it was the Undaunted which took him to the place of his first exile; he was not without anxiety as to the manner in which he would be received: would the French Garrison hand the territory they guarded over to him? Of the Italian islanders, some wanted to bring in the English, others to remain free of all masters; the tricolour and the white banner waved on opposing headlands. Nevertheless everything was arranged satisfactorily. When they realised that Bonaparte was bringing millions of francs with him, public opinion decided generously to welcome the ‘august victim’. The civil and religious authorities were brought round to the same conviction. Joseph-Philippe Arrighi, the Vicar-General, issued a pastoral letter: ‘Divine Providence,’ the pious injunction read, ‘has decreed that in future we shall be the subjects of Napoleon the Great. The Isle of Elba, elevated to so sublime an honour, receives the Lord’s Anointed in its bosom. We order a solemn Te Deum to be sung by way of thanksgiving etc.’

The Emperor had written to General Dalesme, the commander of the French garrison, to say that he should let the people of Elba know that he had chosen their island for his stay, because of the gentleness of their manners and their climate. He landed at Porto-Ferrajo, to the sound of a double salute, from the English frigate which had brought him and from the batteries on shore. From there, he was conducted beneath the parish canopy to the church where the Te Deum was sung. The beadle, as master of ceremonies, was a short, fat man, who was unable to clasp his hands across his body. Napoleon was then taken to the town hall; there his lodgings had been prepared. The new Imperial standard was unfurled: a white ground crossed by a red stripe powdered with three gold bees. Three violins and two basses followed him with lively scraping sounds. The throne, hastily erected in the public ballroom, was decorated with gold paper and scarlet rags. These arrangements appealed to the theatrical side of the prisoner’s nature: Napoleon played along, just as he used to amuse his Court with old-fashioned games in his palace at the Tuileries, before going off to kill men as a pastime. He ordered his household: it was composed of four chamberlains, three orderlies, and two stewards. He declared that ladies would be received twice a week, at eight in the evening. He gave a ball. He commandeered, as his own residence, a building intended for the engineer corps. Bonaparte was forever encountering in his life the two sources from which it had sprung, democracy and royal power; his strength was derived from the masses, his rank from his genius; that is why he passed effortlessly from the market-place to the throne, from the kings and queens who crowded round him at Erfurt, to the grocers and bakers who danced in his barn at Porto-Ferrajo. Among princes he was of the people, and among the people, a prince. At five in the morning, in silk stockings and shoes with buckles, he presided over his bricklayers on the Isle of Elba.

Installed in his empire, its iron workings producing an inexhaustible flow since Virgil’s day – ‘Insula inexhaustis Chalybum generosa metallis’ –

Bonaparte had not forgotten the insults to which he had recently been subjected; he had not renounced his intention of ripping away his shroud; but it suited him to seem as if buried, while making a few ghostly visitations round his grave. That is why, looking as though he thought of nothing else, he lost no time in visiting his iron quarries, with their crystalline and magnetic ore; one might have taken him for the former Inspector of Mines of his erstwhile States. He regretted having previously dedicated the revenue of the Elban forges to the Legion of Honour: five hundred thousand francs now seemed to him worth more than the blood-stained crosses on his grenadiers’ chests. ‘What was I thinking of?’ he said; ‘though I issued several stupid decrees of that sort.’ He concluded a commercial treaty with Leghorn, and proposed to conclude another with Genoa. He began to build, somewhat haphazardly, five or six furlongs of highroad and planned the sites of four large towns, just as Dido marked out the limits of Carthage. A philosopher, sated with human grandeur, he declared that henceforth he intended to live like a Justice of the Peace in an English county: and yet, climbing a hill which overlooked Porto-Ferrajo, in sight of the sea which lapped against the foot of the cliffs on every side, these words escaped him: ‘Devil take it! It must be confessed, my island is very small.’ Within a few hours, he had visited his whole domain; he wished to join to it a rock named Pianosa. ‘Europe,’ he said with a smile, ‘will accuse me of already achieving a conquest.’ The Allied Powers amused themselves at the thought of having left him, derisively, four hundred soldiers; he needed no more to bring all of them back to the flag.

Napoleon’s presence off the coast of Italy, which had seen the dawn of his glory and retained his memory, troubled everyone. Murat was his neighbour; his friends, and strangers, came secretly or publicly to his retreat; his mother and his sister, Princess Pauline, visited him; Marie-Louise and his son were expected to arrive soon after. In fact a woman did appear with a child: welcomed with great secrecy, she went to a secluded villa in the remotest corner of the isle: on the shore of Ogygia, Calypso spoke of her love to Ulysses who, instead of listening, thought about how to defend himself against the usurpers. After two days rest, the Swan of the North took to sea once more, to land among the myrtles of Baiae, taking her little one away in her white yawl.

If we had been less trustful it would have been easy for us to recognize the approaching catastrophe. Bonaparte was too near his cradle and his conquests; his fatal island was to be further away and surrounded by the deep. It is hard to explain why the Allies had thought of banishing Napoleon to these rocks, where he was forced to serve his apprenticeship in exile: did they really believe that in sight of the Apennines, smelling the powder of the battlefields of Montenotte, Arcola and Marengo, able to make out Venice, Rome and Naples, his three lovely slaves, his heart would not be seized by irresistible temptation? Had they forgotten he had troubled the earth, and that he had admirers and debtors everywhere, all of them his accomplices? His ambition had been disappointed not extinguished; misfortune and revenge rekindled its flames: when the Prince of Darkness looked on Man and the World from the edge of the newly created universe, he resolved to destroy them.

Before the break-out, the dreaded captive contained himself for a few weeks. In the immense public game of faro whose bank he held, his genius played for a fortune or a kingdom. Fouchés, and Guzmans d’Alfarache, swarmed around. The great actor had long ago created a melodrama for his police force and reserved for himself the finest scene; he diverted himself with common victims who vanished through the trap doors of his theatre.

Bonapartism, in the first year of the Restoration, passed for a simple desire for action, to the extent that his hopes grew and he better understood the feeble nature of the Bourbons. When the plans had been finalised externally, they were finalised internally, and the conspiracy became overt. During the skilful administration of Monsieur Ferrand, Monsieur de Lavalette undertook the correspondence: the couriers of the monarchy carried the dispatches of the Empire. The matter was no longer hidden; caricatures depicted the wished-for return: one saw eagles shown returning through the windows of the Tuileries Palace, from the doors of which a flock of turkeys fled; the Nain Jaune or Vert (The Yellow or Green Dwarf) spoke of ‘plumes de cane’ (duck-feathers, a pun on Cannes). Warnings flooded in from all directions, and no one wanted to believe them. The Swiss Government hastened in vain to warn the Royal Government of the plotting of Joseph Bonaparte, who had retired to the Canton of Vaud. A woman who had arrived from Elba gave the most circumstantial details of what was happening in Porto-Ferrajo, and the police threw her in prison. It was held for certain that Napoleon would dare attempt nothing before the dissolution of the Congress, and that, in any case, his sights were set on Italy. Others, yet more knowing, prayed that the little corporal, the ogre, the prisoner, would land on the French coast: that would be too fortunate; he could be finished off with a single blow! Monsieur Pozzo di Borgo declared in Vienna that the delinquent would be hung from the branch of a tree. If one had access to certain papers, one would find proof there that from 1814 a military conspiracy was under way that ran parallel to the political conspiracy that the Prince de Talleyrand was conducting in Vienna, at Fouché’s instigation. Napoleon’s friends had written to tell him that if he did not hasten to return, he would find his place at the Tuileries taken by the Duc d’Orléans: they imagined that this revelation would serve to initiate the Emperor’s return. I believe these intrigues existed, but I also believe that the determining cause which made Napoleon decide the question was quite simply the nature of his genius.

The conspiracy of Drouet d’Erlon and Lefebvre-Desnouettes came to fruition. Some days before the raising of shields by these generals, I was dining at Marshal Soult’s, he having been made Minister of War on the 3rd of December 1814: some idiot was recounting Louis XVIII’s exile at Hartwell; the Marshal listened; as each circumstance was recalled he replied with these two words: ‘That’s historic.’ – Someone brought His Majesty’s slippers. – ‘That’s historic!’ – The King, on days of abstinence, swallowed three fresh eggs at the start of dinner. – ‘That’s historic!’ The reply struck me. When a government is not firmly established, everyone with whom conscience does not count becomes, according to his greater or lesser energy of character, a quarter, a half, or three quarters a conspirator; he waits for the judgement of fate: events are greater traitors than opinions.