Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 1

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XXII, 26 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIII, chapter 1
The Commencement of The Hundred Days – The return from Elba

Suddenly the telegraph announced to the soldiers and an incredulous world that the man had disembarked: Monsieur hastened to Lyons with the Duc d’Orléans and Marshal Macdonald; he quickly returned. Marshal Soult, denounced in the Chamber of Deputies, surrendered his office on the 11th of March to the Duc de Feltre. Bonaparte found the general facing him, as Minister of War under Louis XVIII in 1815, who had acted as his last Minister of War in 1814.

The boldness of the enterprise was incredible. From the political viewpoint, it can be regarded as Napoleon’s unpardonable crime and his capital error. He knew that the Princes, still gathered at the Congress, and Europe still under arms, would not permit his return to power; his judgement should have warned him that success, if he obtained it, could not last more than a moment: to his longing to reappear on the world’s stage, he was sacrificing the peace of a nation which had lavished on him its blood and wealth; he was exposing to dismemberment that country from which he had derived everything he had been in the past, and all he might be in the future. In this fantastic undertaking there was a ferocious egoism, and a terrible lack of gratitude and generosity towards France.

All this is true according to practical reason, for a man of heart rather than brain; but for beings of Napoleon’s sort, another kind of reason exists; those creatures of great renown have a way of their own: comets describe tracks which escape precise calculation; they are tied to nothing and seem purposeless; if a sphere appears in their path, they shatter it and vanish into the abyss of the sky; their tracks are known to God alone. Extraordinary individuals are monuments to human intellect; they are not its rule.

Bonaparte, then, was persuaded to his enterprise by the false reports of his friends, rather than his genius being driven to it by necessity: he took up the cross by virtue of the faith within him. For a great man, being born is not everything: he must also die. Was exile on Elba a fitting end for Napoleon? Could he accept the sovereignty of a villa, like Tiberius on Capri, or of a cabbage-patch, like Diocletian at Salona? Would he have had greater chance of success if he had waited until his memory aroused less emotion, his soldiers had left the army, and new social attitudes had been adopted?

Well, he took the world head-on! And, at the beginning, must have believed he had not deceived himself as to the extent of his power.

On the night of the 25th and 26th of February 1815, at the end of a ball at which the Princess Borghèse did the honours, he escaped with success, long his comrade and accomplice; he crossed a sea covered with our ships, meeting two frigates, a vessel of seventy-four guns and the brig Zephyr, which stopped him and interrogated him; he replied to the captain’s questions himself; the sea and the waves saluted him and he pursued his course. The deck of the Inconstant, his little brig, served him as a study and an exercise-yard; he dictated amongst the breezes, and had copies made, on that table, of three proclamations to the army and France; a few feluccas, carrying his companions in fortune, accompanied his flagship, flying a white flag sprinkled with stars. On the 1st of March, at three in the morning, he landed on the coast of France, between Cannes and Antibes, at Golfe-Juan: he landed, strolled along the shore, picked some violets, and bivouacked in an olive-grove. The population, stupefied, concealed themselves. He avoided Antibes, and plunged into the mountains of Grasse, passing through Sernon, Barrême, Digne and Gap. At Sisteron twenty men could have stopped him, and he encountered nobody. He advanced without opposition from the inhabitants who a few months earlier had wanted to cut his throat. When handfuls of soldiers entered the void which formed around his giant shadow, they were seduced irresistibly by the sight of his eagles. His enemies, spellbound, searched for him and failed to find him; he hid himself in his glory, as the lion of the Sahara clothes himself in the sun’s rays to divert the gaze of dazzled hunters. Clothed in a fiery whirlwind, the blood-stained phantoms of Arcola, Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Eylau, Borodino, Lützen and Bautzen, provided an escort for him of a million dead. From the heart of this column of fire and smoke, there issued, at the entrance to every town a few trumpet blasts accompanied by the brandishing of the tricolour standards: and the gates of the town fell. When Napoleon crossed the Niemen at the head of four hundred thousand infantry and a hundred thousand cavalry, to blow up the palace of the Tsars in Moscow, it was less astonishing than when, breaking his ban, and hurling his chains in the faces of kings, he travelled alone, from Cannes to Paris, to sleep peacefully in the Tuileries.