Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 1

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XXIII, 20 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIII, chapter 1
Bonaparte at Malmaison – Universal desertion



If a man were suddenly transported from life’s most clamorous scenes to the silent shores of the icy ocean, he would experience what I experience beside Napoleon’s tomb, since we are now, in an instant, beside that tomb.

Leaving Paris on the 25th of June, Napoleon awaited at Malmaison the moment of his departure from France. I return to him there: I shall not leave him, revisiting past days, and anticipating the future, until after his death.

Malmaison, where the Emperor stayed, was empty. Joséphine was dead; Bonaparte found himself alone in that retreat. There his good fortune had begun; there he had been happy; there he had become intoxicated with the incense of the world; there, from the heart of that tomb, had issued orders which shook the world. In those gardens, where the feet of the mob had once scarred the sandy paths, grass and brambles grew green; I discovered this when walking there. Already, for want of attention, the exotic trees were pining away; the black Australian swans no longer glided along the canals; the aviary no longer caged its tropical birds: they had flown away to await their host in their native land.

Bonaparte was able to find matter for consolation however in turning his gaze back on his early days: fallen kings grieve above all because they still perceive the hereditary splendour and the pomp of their cradles that preceded their fall: but what could Napoleon discover ante-dating his prosperity: a nursery crib in a Corsican village? Grown more magnanimous in doffing his purple mantle, he should have donned with pride the goatherd’s smock; but men never conceive of themselves in the humble surroundings from which they originated; it seems that an unjust heaven deprives them of their patrimony when the lottery of fate forces them to lose what they have gained, and moreover Napoleon’s grandeur arose from what issued from himself: none of his race had preceded him in preparing the road to power.

At the sight of those abandoned gardens, those uninhabited rooms, those galleries faded from entertainments, those rooms in which music and song had ceased, Napoleon could review his career: he could ask himself whether a little more moderation might have maintained his happiness. They were not foreigners and enemies who were banishing him now; he was not going away a quasi-victor, leaving the nations lost in admiration of his passage, after that prodigious campaign of 1814; he was retiring defeated. Frenchmen, his friends, were urging his immediate abdication, pressing him to depart, not desiring him to remain even as a general, sending him courier after courier, obliging him to quit the soil over which he had poured glory as much as suffering.

To this harsh lesson were added other warnings: the Prussians were on the prowl in the neighbourhood of Malmaison: Blücher, reeling about drunkenly, ordered them to seize and hang that conqueror who had dared to set his foot on the necks of kings. The rising fortunes, vulgarity of manners, speed of elevation, and degree of abasement of modern men will, I fear, deny our times the nobility we find in history: Greece and Rome did not talk of hanging Alexander or Caesar.

The scenes which had taken place in 1814 were repeated in 1815, but with something more offensive about them, because the ingrates were moved by fear: they had to get rid of Napoleon quickly; the Allies were arriving; Alexander was not there initially, to temper the sense of triumph and curb the insolence of victory; Paris was no longer adorned with its sacred inviolability, that first invasion had profaned the sanctuary; it was no longer God’s wrath that was falling upon us, it was Heaven’s scorn: the lightning-bolt had extinguished itself.

All the cowards had acquired a fresh degree of malignity during the Hundred Days; affecting, through love of country, to rise above personal attachments, they cried out that Bonaparte had been only too criminal in violating the treaties of 1814. But the true culprits, were they not those who had supported his plans? If, in 1815, having deserted him once and in order to desert him again, instead of re-creating his armies, they had said to him, after he had taken up residence in the Tuileries: ‘Your genius is in error; opinion is no longer with you; take pity on France. Retire, after this last visit to our soil; go and live among Washington’s citizens. Who knows if the Bourbons will not prove to be a mistake? Who knows if one day France will not turn its gaze towards you, at a time when, in the school of liberty, you shall have learnt respect for its laws? You may return them, not as a raptor swooping on its prey, but as a great citizen, the pacifier of his country.’

They did not use that language to him: they gave full reign to their passions; they helped to blind him, certain they would profit from his victory or his defeat. His soldiers alone died for Napoleon with an admirable sincerity; the rest were no more than a grazing herd, fattening themselves to right and left. If only the Viziers of the despoiled Caliph had been content to turn their back on him! But no: they profited from his final moments; they overwhelmed him with sordid demands; all wished to make money out of his poverty.

There was never such a complete desertion; Bonaparte was responsible for it: insensible to others’ troubles, the world repaid him with indifference for indifference. Like most despots, he was good to his servants; at heart he cared for no one: a solitary man, he was self-sufficient; misfortune merely returned him to the wilderness that was his life.

When I gather my memories together, when I recall having seen Washington in his little house in Philadelphia, and Bonaparte in his palace, it seems to me that Washington, retiring to the fields of Virginia, cannot have experienced the regrets that Bonaparte experienced, awaiting exile in the gardens at Malmaison. Nothing had changed in the life of the former; he returned to his modest habits; he had not elevated himself above the happiness of the ploughmen he had liberated; but everything in the life of the latter was overthrown.