Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 17

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XXIV, 16 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXV, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 17
My visit to Cannes.

In Europe I have visited the place where Bonaparte landed after breaking his exile on Elba. I alighted at the inn at Cannes at the very moment when the guns were firing in commemoration of the 29th of July; one of the results of the Emperor’s excursion which he doubtless did not foresee. Night had fallen when I arrived at Golfe-Juan; I stayed at an isolated house beside the highroad. Jacquemin, potter and inn-keeper, the owner of the house, led me towards the sea. We went by way of sunken roads between olive-trees beneath which Bonaparte had bivouacked: to the left on a side-path stood a sort of shed: Napoleon, invading France on his own, had deposited the luggage that had landed with him in this shed.

Reaching the shore, I saw a tranquil sea unruffled by the slightest breath; the swell, as thin as gauze, rolled across the sand without noise or foam. A splendid sky, resplendent with myriad constellations, hung above my head. The crescent moon soon sank and concealed itself behind a mountain. There was only a single yacht, and two boats at anchor, throughout the whole Gulf: on the left the lighthouse at Antibes could be seen; on the right the Lérin Isles; before me, the open sea stretched away south towards that Rome to which Bonaparte had first sent me.

The Lérin Isles, now called the Sainte-Marguerite Isles, once sheltered a few Christians fleeing from the Barbarians. St Honoratus coming from Hungary landed on one of these rocks: he climbed a palm-tree, made the sign of the cross, and all the serpents died, that is to say Paganism vanished, and a new civilisation was born in the West.

Fourteen hundred years later, Bonaparte came to put an end to that civilisation in the very spot where the saint had begun it. The last solitary to inhabit a cell there was the Iron Mask, if the Iron Mask ever existed. From the silence of Golfe-Juan, from the peace of those islands inhabited by the anchorites of old, emerged the thunder of Waterloo, which crossed the Atlantic, to die away on St Helena.

Between memories of two societies, between an extinct world and a world bordering on extinction, on that deserted shore at night, conceive what I felt. I left the beach in a sort of religious consternation, leaving the waves to pass to and fro, over the traces of Bonaparte’s penultimate footsteps, without erasing them.

At the end of each great age, some voice, mournful with regret for the past, can be heard sounding a curfew: Thus they moaned who saw Charlemagne vanish, St Louis, Francis I, Henri IV and Louis XIV. What can I not add in turn, eyewitness as I am to two or three past worlds? When, like me, you have met a Washington, a Bonaparte, what is there left to gaze at after the plough of the American Cincinnatus, and the tomb at St Helena? Why have I outlived an epoch and the men among whom I belong according to my birth date? Why did I not fall with my contemporaries, the last of an exhausted race? Why am I left alone to seek their bones in the dust and dark of a crowded catacomb? I am weary of my survival. Oh, if only I possessed the indifference of one of those old long-shore Arabs, whom I met in Africa! Sitting cross-legged on a little rope mat, their heads wrapped in a burnous, they while away their last hours following with their eyes, in the sky’s azure, the beautiful flamingo flying over the ruins of Carthage; lulled by the murmur of the waves, they half-forget their own existence and sing in a low voice a song of the sea: they are about to die