Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXV, 11

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XXV, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXV, 12

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXV, chapter 11
My life in 1820 – The death of the Duc de Berry

I was retiring to bed on the evening of the 13th of February, when the Marquis de Vibraye arrived to tell me of the assassination of the Duc de Berry. In his hurry, he forgot to tell me where the event had occurred. I rose in haste and climbed into Monsieur de Vibraye’s carriage. I was surprised to see the coachman take the Rue de Richelieu, and more astonished still when he stopped at the Opéra: the crowd outside was immense. We ascended, between two lines of soldiers, by the side entrance on the left, and, as we were dressed as Peers, we were allowed to pass. We arrived at a kind of little antechamber: this space was crammed with everyone from the palace. I edged my way to the door of a box and found myself face to face with Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans. I was struck by the ill-concealed expression of jubilation in his eyes, though he imposed on himself an almost apologetic countenance: he saw himself closer to the throne. My gaze embarrassed him; he left the box and turned his back on me. Around me the details of the hideous crime were being recounted, the name of the perpetrator, the conjectures of various people involved in his arrest; everyone was agitated, busied: men love a spectacle, especially one involving death, when that death involves the great. Everyone who emerged from the blood-stained laboratory was asked for news. General Alexandre de Girardin was heard to tell of how he had been left for dead on the field of battle, and was not in the least recovered from his wounds: he hoped for such and such, consoled himself with such and such, grieved at such and such. Soon silence overcame the crowd; a hush fell; from the interior of the box issued a slight sound: I put my ear to the door; I made out a groaning noise; the noise ceased: the royal family had arrived to receive the last sigh of a scion of Louis XIV! I entered immediately.

Imagine an empty theatre, after a tragic disaster: the curtain raised, the orchestra pit deserted, the lights extinguished, the machinery still, the scenery motionless and shadowy, the actors, singers, dancers vanished through their trapdoors and secret passages! The royal line of St Louis expired behind a mask, in a place that incurred the Church’s wrath, among carnival debauchery.

In another work I have presented the life and death of Monsieur le Duc de Berry. My reflections, then, are still valid today:

‘A descendant of St Louis, last shoot of the ancient branch, escapes from long exile and returns to his own land; he begins to taste some happiness; he flatters himself in imagining himself reborn, in imagining the monarchy reborn also, in the children God has promised him: suddenly he is struck down in the midst of those hopes, almost in his wife’s arms. He is to die, and he is still young! Should he not accuse Heaven, demanding of it why it treats him with such harshness? Ah, it would be pardonable in him to complain of his fate! For what evil has he done, indeed? He has lived informally among us in perfect simplicity; he has joined in our pleasures and eased our pains; six of his relatives have perished already; why murder him now, why seek him out, innocent as he is, so far from the throne, twenty-seven years after the death of Louis XVI? Let us understand the heart of this Bourbon more deeply! That heart, pierced by a dagger, has never raised a single murmur against us: not one regret regarding his life; not one bitter word has been pronounced by this Prince. Husband, son, father and brother, prey to all the agonies of the soul, all the sufferings of the flesh, he has never ceased asking pardon for the man, whom he will not even call his assassin! The most impetuous of characters suddenly becomes the most gentle. A man bound to life by all the heart’s ties; a prince in the flower of his years; an heir to the finest earthly kingdom is dying, and you might call him unfortunate indeed who has nothing to lose down here.’

The murderer Louvel was a young man of sly and unpleasant aspect, such as you see in their thousands in the streets of Paris. He was ill-tempered; he had an aggressive and solitary manner. It is probable that Louvel belonged to no secret society; he was a sectarian not a plotter; he belonged to one of those idealistic conspiracies, whose members may sometimes meet, but often act alone, pursuing their own individual motives. His mind nourished a single idea, like a heart intoxicated with one sole passion. His action was a consequence of his principles: he wished to destroy the whole royal race at a single blow. Louvel has his admirers just as Robespierre does. Our material society, an accomplice in every material enterprise, has quickly destroyed the chapel created in expiation of that crime. We have a horror of moral feeling, because within it the enemy and the accuser are revealed: tears would seem like a recrimination; they hastened to take away the cross from some Christians because of their weeping.

On the 18th of February 1820, the Conservateur paid its tribute of regret in memory of Monsieur le Duc de Berry. The article ended with this line from Racine:

If only some drop of our royal blood has escaped!

Alas! That drop of blood has fallen onto foreign soil!

Monsieur Decazes fell from office. Censorship returned, and despite the assassination of the Duc de Berry, I voted against it: not wishing it to tarnish the reputation of the Conservateur, that journal effectively ended with this apostrophe on the Duc de Berry.

‘Christian Prince! Worthy scion of St Louis! Illustrious offspring of so many monarchs, before you descend to your last resting place, receive our last homage. You read and enjoyed a publication that the censor is about to destroy. You told us several times that its publication saved the throne: alas, we were unable to save your life! We are ceasing to write at the moment when you have ceased to exist: we have the sad consolation of marking the end of our labours with the ending of your life.’