Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIV, chapter 2
Departure from Malmaison – Rambouillet – Rochefort



Napoleon left Malmaison accompanied by Generals Bertrand, Rovigo, and Beker, the latter acting in the capacity of warder or commissary. On the way, he was seized with a desire to stop at Rambouillet. He left it, to embark at Rochefort, as Charles X had, to embark at Cherbourg; Rambouillet, the inglorious retreat where all that was greatest in men or their race was eclipsed; the fatal place where Francois I died; where Henri III, escaping from the barricades, slept booted and spurred; where Louis XVI left his shadow behind! How fortunate Louis, Napoleon, and Charles would have been, if they had merely been humble shepherds of the flocks at Rambouillet!

Arriving in Rochefort, Napoleon hesitated: the Executive commission sent out peremptory orders: ‘The garrisons of Rochefort and La Rochelle,’ said these despatches, ‘must use main force to ensure Napoleon takes ship…make him go…his services cannot be accepted.’

Napoleon’s services could not be accepted! And had you not accepted his gifts and his chains? Napoleon did not go away; he was driven off: and by whom?

Bonaparte had only believed in good fortune; he gave no thought to misfortune; he absolved the ungrateful in advance: a just retribution made him submit to his own system. When success ceased to animate his person and became incarnate in another individual, the disciples abandoned the master to follow the school. If I, who believe in the legitimacy of gifts and the sovereignty of misfortune, had served Bonaparte, I would not have left him; I would have proved to him, by my loyalty, the falsity of his political principles; while sharing his disgrace, I would have remained at his side, a living contradiction to his sterile doctrines and the worthlessness of the rule of prosperity.

Since the 1st of July, frigates had been waiting for him in the Rochefort roads: hopes which never die, memories inseparable from a final farewell, detained him. How he must have regretted his childhood days when his serene gaze had not yet seen the first raindrops fall! He gave the English fleet time to approach. He could still have embarked on one of two luggers which were due to join a Danish ship at sea (this was the course adopted by his brother Joseph); but his resolution failed him as he gazed at the coast of France. He had an aversion for Republics; the liberty and equality espoused by the United States was repugnant to him. He was inclined to demand asylum of the English: ‘What disadvantage do you see in that course?’ he asked those he consulted. – ‘The disadvantage of dishonouring you’, a naval officer replied: ‘You must not fall into the hands of the English, dead or alive. They will have you stuffed and exhibit you at a shilling a head.’