Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 15

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XXIV, 14 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 16

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 15
St Helena since Napoleon’s death.

As the Napoleonic world was fading, I made enquiries about the place where Napoleon himself had vanished. The burial site on St Helena has already consumed one of the willows contemporary with him: the decrepit fallen tree is mutilated every day by pilgrims. The sepulchre is surrounded by a cast-iron railing; three flagstones have been laid in the form of a cross over the grave; a few irises are growing at the head and foot; the valley spring still flows where a prodigious life ran dry. Travellers carried there by storms consider themselves obliged to record their obscurity on the illustrious tomb. An old woman has established herself nearby and makes a living from the shadow of a memory; a pensioner mounts guard in a sentry-box.

The old Longwood, two hundred paces from the new, has been abandoned. Crossing a yard filled with manure, one arrives at a stable; it used to be Bonaparte’s bedroom. A Negro shows a kind of passage occupied by a hand-mill and tells one: ‘Here he died.’ The room where Napoleon first saw the light of day was in all likelihood no larger or more luxurious.

At the new Longwood, Plantation House, where the Governor resides, one can view a portrait of the Duke of Wellington and paintings of his battles. A glass-fronted cupboard contains a piece from the tree beside which the English general stood at Waterloo; the relic is placed between an olive-branch from the Garden of Olives, and the ornaments of SouthSea savages: a curious association presented by the abusers of the waves. In vain the vanquisher substitutes himself here for the vanquished, protected by a branch from the Holy Land and a memory of Cook; it suffices that at St Helena one may discover solitude, the Ocean and Napoleon.

If one researched the history of shores made famous by tombs, birthplaces, or palaces, what a variety of things and fates one would find, since such strange metamorphoses take place even in the obscure dwellings to which our petty lives are attached! In what hut was Clovis born? In what chariot did Attila see the light of day? What stretch of torrent covers Alaric’s burial place? What jackal stands over the site of Alexander’s gold or crystal coffin? How many times has this dust changed place? And all the mausoleums of Egypt and India: to whom do they belong? Only God knows the reason for these changes linked to the mysteries of the future: there are truths hidden from men in the depths of time; they are made manifest only with the help of the centuries, just as there are stars so far from earth their light has not yet reached us.