Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 5

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XXIII, 4 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 6

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIII, chapter 5
THE HUNDRED DAYS IN GHENT – The King and his council – I become interim Minister of the Interieur – Monsieur de Lallay-Tollendal – Madame the Duchesse de Duras – Marshal Victor– The Abbé Louis and Comte Beugnot – The Abbé Montesquiou – Dining on white fish: guests

I was given a billet which I did not take advantage of: a Baroness whose name I forget sought out Madame de Chateaubriand at the inn and offered us a room at her house: she begged us to accept it with such good grace! ‘Pay no attention,’ she said, ‘to what my husband tells you: he has a problem with his mind…you understand? My daughter is also a bit strange; she has terrible fits, poor child! But the rest of the time she is gentle as a lamb. Alas! It is not she who causes me the most grief it is my son Louis, the youngest of my children: if God does not help him, he will be worse than his father.’ Madame de Chateaubriand refused politely to go and live among such reasonable people.

The King, comfortably lodged, having his servants and his guards around him, formed his council. The empire of this great monarch comprised a palace of the Kingdom of the Low Countries, which palace was situated in a city which, though it was the city that saw Charles V’s birth, had been the headquarters of one of Bonaparte’s prefectures: those two names between them covered a good number of events and centuries.

The Abbé de Montesquiou being in London, Louis XVIII named me as Minister of the Interior for the interim. My correspondence with the regions did not require much effort; I kept my correspondence with the prefects, sub-prefects, mayors and deputies of the fine towns within our frontiers up to date quite easily; I did not repair many roads and I let the church-towers crumble; my budget scarcely increased my wealth; I had no private funds; only, by a glaring abuse, I drew concurrent salaries; I was still Minister plenipotentiary of His Majesty to the King of Sweden, who, like his compatriot, Henri IV, reigned by right of conquest, rather than by right of birth. We spoke round a table covered with green velvet in the King’s study. Monsieur de Lally-Tollendal who was, I think, Minister for Public Instruction, gave extensive speeches, with more flesh on them than his person: he cited his illustrious ancestors the Kings of Ireland and muddled his father’s trial with those of Charles I and Louis XVI. At night he recovered from the tears, sweat and speeches he had poured out in council, with a lady who had hastened from Paris carried along by enthusiasm for his genius; he sought virtuously to cure her of her disease, but his eloquence triumphed over his virtue and only drove the poison deeper.

Madame the Duchesse de Duras came to rejoin Monsieur the Duc de Duras among the exiles. I will speak no more of the evils of adversity, since I spent three months with this excellent woman, conversing of all that minds and true hearts can find in an agreement of tastes, ideas, principles and feelings. Madame de Duras was ambitious for me: she alone knew from the start what value I might have politically; she was continually disappointed by the envy and blindness that distanced me from the King’s Council; but she was yet more disappointed by the obstacles that my character placed in the way of my fortunes: she scolded me, she wanted to cure me of my casual attitude, my frankness, my naivety, and make me adopt the methods of the courtiers, which she herself could not stand. Nothing perhaps serves more to cement attachment and gratitude than to feel yourself under the patronage of a superior friendship, which by virtue of its social influence, makes your faults pass for qualities, your imperfections for charms. A man assists you for what it is worth to him, a woman because of what you are worth: which is why of the two empires the first is so hateful, the second so sweet.

Since I lost that most generous individual, of so noble a soul, a mind which united something of the powers of intellect of Madame de Staël with the grace of Madame de Lafayette’s talent, I have not ceased, while weeping, to reproach myself for the changeability with which I may have occasionally distressed those hearts devoted to me. Let us have particular regard to character! Let us consider that we can, despite a profound relationship, nevertheless poison days that we would buy back at the cost of all our blood. When our friends have descended into the grave, what means have we of repairing our mistakes? Are our useless regrets, our vain repentance a remedy for the pain we have given them? They would have loved a smile from us while they were alive more than all our tears for them after their death.

The delightful Clara (Madame the Duchesse de Rauzan) was in Ghent with her mother. Between us, we made terrible couplets to the air of La Tyrolienne. I have held on my lap plenty of pretty little girls who are young grandmothers today. When you leave a woman behind you, married before you at sixteen, and you return sixteen years later, you will find she is still the same age: ‘Ah, Madame, you have not aged a day!’ Doubtless: but you say that to the young girl, to the young girl you again lead to the altar. But you, sad witness of her two marriages, you close away the sixteen years you have received at each union: wedding gifts which will hasten your own marriage to a pale lady, a little on the thin side.

Marshal Victor came to stand with us, at Ghent, with admirable straightforwardness: he asked for nothing, never bothered the King by being over-eager; one scarcely saw him; I do not know if he was ever accorded the honour and grace of even a single invitation to dine with His Majesty. I subsequently met Marshal Victor; I have been his colleague at the Ministry, and always the same excellent character was on view. In Paris, in 1823, Monsieur le Dauphin was extremely harsh towards this honest soldier: a fine thing: that this Duke of Belluno should receive, in return for his humble devotion, such thoughtless ingratitude! Ingenuousness attracts me and moves me, even though on certain occasions it appears ultimately as an expression of naivety. Thus the Marshal told me of the death of his wife in the language of a soldier, and made me cry: he pronounced coarse words so hastily, and edited them with so much modesty, that one even had to smile at them.

Monsieur de Vaublanc and Monsieur Capelle, rejoined us. The former told us he had a bit of everything in his satchel. Do you want some Montesquieu? He’s here: some Bossuet? Here he is. As soon as the assembly seemed to wish for another face, travellers arrived for us.

The Abbé Louis and Monsieur the Comte Beugnot stayed at the inn where I was lodging. Madame de Chateaubriand had dreadful fits of breathlessness, and I stayed up to watch over her. The two new arrivals installed themselves in a room which was only separated from my wife’s by a thin partition; it was impossible not to hear, unless one stopped one’s ears: between eleven and midnight the occupants raised their voices; the Abbé Louis who spoke wolfishly, and jerkily, said to Monsieur Beugnot: ‘You, a Minister? You won’t be one any longer! You’ve perpetrated nothing but idiocies!’ I could not hear Monsieur the Comte Beugnot’s reply clearly, but he spoke of thirty-three millions left behind in the Royal Treasury. The Abbé pushed a chair over, apparently in anger. Despite the crash, I grasped these words; ‘The Duc de Angoulême? He must buy the National assets at the gate of Paris. I will sell the rest of the State forests. I will fell them all, the elms along the highway, the woods of Boulogne, the Champs-Elysées: what use are they? Hey!’ Monsieur Louis’ brutality was his principal merit; his talent was a stupid love of material interests. If the Finance Minister drew the forests after him, he doubtless possessed a different secret to that of Orpheus, who made the woods follow him by his beautiful music. In the jargon of the time, Monsieur Louis was described as a specialist; his financial speciality had led him to pile up taxpayers’ money in the Treasury, to have it seized by Bonaparte. Good for the Directory at the most, Napoleon had no need of this specialist, who was not at all unique.

The Abbé Louis had come to Ghent to reclaim his Ministry; he was very close to Monsieur de Talleyrand, with whom he had officiated solemnly at the First Federation on the Champ-de-Mars: the Bishop served as priest, the Abbé Louis as deacon, and the Abbé Desrenaudes as sub-deacon. Monsieur de Talleyrand, remembering that amazing profanation, said to Baron Louis: ‘Abbé, you were a very fine deacon on the Champ-de-Mars!’ We endured that shame under Bonaparte’s grand tyranny: had we to endure it again?

The Very-Christian King was protected from all reproach of that kind: he had a married bishop on his Council, Monsieur de Talleyrand; a priest with a concubine, Monsieur Louis; an Abbé who scarcely practised his religion, Monsieur de Montesquiou.

The latter, a man as feverish as a consumptive, with a certain facility in speaking, had a narrow mind adept at denigration, a heart full of hatred, an embittered nature. One day when I had spoken out in favour of the freedom of the press, the descendant of Clovis, passing in front of me, who only derived from the Breton Mormoran, gave me a shove in the leg with his knee, which was not in good taste; I returned it, which was impolite: we played at being the Coadjutor and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. The Abbé de Montesquiou amusingly called Monsieur de Lally-Tollendal ‘a creature after the English manner’.

In the rivers around Ghent, they angled for a very delicate white fish: we would eat, tutti quanti (all and sundry) these fine fish in the restaurant, waiting for the battles which end empires. Monsieur Laborie was always present at the rendezvous: I had met him for the first time at Savigny, when, fleeing from Bonaparte, he entered by way of one of Madame de Beaumont’s windows, and exited through another. Tireless in his efforts, proliferating errands and notes, as pleased at rendering a service as others are at receiving them, he has been slandered: the essence of slander is not the accusation of having been slandered but the slanderer’s reasons. I showed weariness with the promises in which Monsieur Laborie was wealthy; but why? Dreams are like torments: they always pass an hour or two. I have often taken in hand, with a golden bridle, vicious old memories which could no longer stand upright, which I had taken for young and dashing hopes.

I also saw Monsieur Mounier at the white-fish dinners, a man of reason and probity. Monsieur Guizot too deigned to honour us with his presence.