Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 8

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter 8
The Pope set at liberty



A few days before, the Pope had regained his freedom; the hand that went to him bearing chains was forced to break those irons he had bestowed: Providence had altered their fates, and the wind which blew in Napoleon’s face drove the allies towards Paris.

Pius VII, informed of his deliverance, hastened to make a brief prayer in the chapel of Francis I; he climbed into a carriage and traversed that forest in which, according to popular tradition, the great hunter Death could be seen when a king was about to visit Saint Denis.

The Pope travelled under the surveillance of an officer of the gendarmerie who followed him in a second carriage. At Orléans, he learnt the name of the town he was entering.

He followed the Southern route to the acclamations of the people of those provinces which Napoleon would soon pass through, scarcely feeling safe despite the guardianship of foreign officers. His Holiness was delayed in his journey by his oppressor’s very fall: the authorities had ceased to function; no one was obeyed; an order penned by Bonaparte, an order which twenty-four hours earlier would have bowed the noblest head and made a kingdom topple, was worthless paper: Napoleon lacked those remaining moments of power in which to protect the captive his power had persecuted. A provisional mandate of the Bourbons was needed to ensure that Pontiff was set free who had placed their crown on an alien head: what a confusion of destinies!

Pius VII travelled among hymns and tears, to the sound of bells, to cries of: ‘Long live the Pope! Long live the Head of the Church!’ They brought him, not the keys of towns, capitulations drenched with blood and obtained by murder, rather they brought to the sides of his carriage the sick for him to heal, and newly married couples for him to bless; he said to the former: ‘May God console you!’ He extended his peace-giving hands over the latter; he touched little children in their mother’s arms. Only those unable to walk remained in the towns. The pilgrims spent the night in the fields to await the arrival of an old freed priest. The peasants, in their simplicity, thought that the Holy Father resembled Our Lord; Protestants, moved, said: ‘There is the greatest man of his century. Such is the grandeur of a truly Christian society, where God ceaselessly mingles with men; such is the superiority over the power of the sword and the sceptre of the power of humility, sustained by religion and misfortune.

Pius VII passed through Carcassonne, Béziers, Montpellier and Nîmes, to reach Italy once more. On the banks of the Rhine, it seemed as if the innumerable crusaders of Raymond of Toulouse were still passing in revue at Saint-Rémy. The Pope saw Nice again, Savona, Imola, witness of his fresh afflictions and the first mortifications of his life: one likes to weep where one has wept. In commonplace moments one remembers places or times of happiness. Pius VII travelled again his virtuous hours and his sufferings, as a man in memory reviews his faded passions.

At Bologna, the Pope was left in the hands of the Austrian authorities. Murat, Joachim-Napoléon, King of Naples, wrote to him on the 4th of April 1814:

‘Most Holy Father, the fortunes of war having rendered me master of the States which you possessed when you were forced to leave Rome, I do not hesitate to return them to your authority, renouncing all my rights of conquest over these lands, in your favour.’

What remained to Joachim and Napoleon at their deaths?

The Pope no sooner arrived in Rome than he offered refuge to Napoleon’s mother. The legates had retaken possession of the EternalCity. On the 23rd of May, in the fullness of spring, Pius VII saw the dome of Saint-Peter’s. He has told of shedding tears on seeing the sacred dome again. Preparing to enter the Porta del Populo, the Pontiff halted: twenty-two orphans dressed in white robes, and forty-five young girls carrying large gilded palm-leaves came forward singing hymns. The crowd shouted: ‘Hosanna!’ Pignatelli who had commanded the troops on the Quirinal when Radet took Pius VII’s Garden of Olives by assault, now led the procession of palms. At the same time that Pignatelli was changing roles, various noble perjurers, in Paris, were once more taking up their functions as grand-domestics, behind Louis XVIII’s armchair: prosperity was handed to us with slavery, as in former times a seigniorial estate was sold with its serfs.