Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVIII, 1

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XXVII, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVII, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXVIII, chapter 1
The deliverance of the King of Spain – My dismissal

Here in its place in time comes Le Congrès de Vérone which I published in two volumes. If anyone should wish to read it again, they will find it everywhere. My Spanish War, the great political event of my life, was an immense undertaking. For the first time, the Legitimacy was going to burn powder under the white banner, to fire its first cannon after that cannon-fire of the Empire that will echo to all posterity. To bestride Spain with a single step, to succeed on the same soil where the man of history’s armies had formerly met defeat, to do in six months what he failed to do in seven years, who could have aspired to so prodigious an outcome? Yet that is what I achieved; though how many curses fell on my head at the gaming-table where the Restoration had seated me! I had before me a France hostile to the Bourbons and two great Foreign Ministers, Prince von Metternich and Mr Canning. Not a day passed without my receiving letters prophesying disaster since the war with Spain was not at all popular in France, or in Europe. Indeed, after my success in the Peninsula, my downfall was not long in coming.

In our joy over the telegraph message which announced the King of Spain’s release, we Ministers hastened to the palace. There I had a presentiment of my fall: I met with a bucket of cold-water over my head which restored me to my usual humility. The King and Monsieur did not notice us. Madame la Duchesse d’Angoulême, overjoyed by her husband’s triumph, had eyes for nobody. That immortal victim wrote a letter of Ferdinand’s deliverance ending with this exclamation, a sublime one issuing from the mouth of Louis XVI’s daughter: ‘So here is the proof that one can save an unfortunate king!’

On the Sunday, I returned before the meeting of the council to pay my court to the Royal Family; the august Princess gave each of my colleagues a pleasant word: to me she addressed no comment. I did not merit, it is true, such an honour. Silence from the Orphan of the Temple, can never be deemed ingratitude: Heaven has a right to the earth’s worship and owes nothing to anyone.

I hung on, after that, till Whitsuntide; yet my friends were not without their anxieties; they often said to me: ‘You will be fired tomorrow. – Straight away if you like,’ I would reply. On Whit Sunday, the 6th of June 1824, I made my way to Monsieur’s outer rooms: an usher came to tell me that I was required. It was Hyacinthe, my secretary. He told me on seeing me that I was no longer the Minister. I opened the envelope he presented to me; there I found this note from Monsieur de Villèle:

‘Monsieur le Vicomte,
I am obeying the King’s command in at once communicating to Your Excellency an order His Majesty has just issued.
“The Sieur Comte de Villèle, President of our Council of Ministers, is entrusted for the interim with the Foreign Affairs portfolio, replacing the Sieur Vicomte de Chateaubriand.”’

This order was in Monsieur de Rainneville’s handwriting, he who is so good as to be embarrassed by it still, when he meets me. Ah! Goodness me! Do I know Monsieur de Rainneville? Have I ever given him a thought? I encounter him often enough. Has he ever perceived my knowledge of his handwriting on the ordinance which erased me from the list of Ministers?

And yet, what had I done? Where were my supposed intrigues and ambitions? Did I go for secret solitary walks in the depths of the Bois de Boulogne because I desired Monsieur de Villèle’s place? It was that strange life of mine that ruined me. I was foolish enough to remain as Heaven has made me, and, since I wished for nothing, they thought I desired everything. Today I am well aware that my isolated life was a great mistake. ‘What! You don’t wish to be anything! Off with you, then! We don’t like it when a man despises what we adore, and thinks himself entitled to scorn the mediocrity of our lives.’

The problems of wealth and the inconveniences of poverty followed me to my lodgings in the Rue de l’Université: on the day of my dismissal, I had an immense dinner booked at the Ministry; I had to send my apologies to the guests, and squeeze three vast courses for forty persons into my little kitchen for two. Montmirel and his staff set to work, and cramming dripping-pans, saucepans, and bowls into every corner, he found shelter for his re-heated masterpiece. An old friend came to share my first meal as a marooned sailor. Town and Court hastened to me, since there was an outcry at the brutality of my dismissal, after the service I had just rendered; they were convinced my disgrace would be of short duration; they adopted liberal airs in consoling me for my few days bad luck, at the end of which they would be able to provide a fruitful reminder to the unfortunate man on his return to power that they had not abandoned him.

They were wrong; their courage was wasted on me: they had counted on my being commonplace, on my snivelling, on my possessing the ambition of a lap-dog, on my willingness to confess myself at fault, to go stalking after those who had chased me away: that was to comprehend me badly. I departed, without even claiming the salary that was due to me, without accepting a single favour or a single farthing from the Court; I shut my door on those who had betrayed me; I spurned the crowd’s condolences and took up weapons. Then they all dispersed; universal condemnation erupted, and my stance, which had appeared admirable at first to the salons and ante-chambers, seemed appalling.

After my dismissal, would it not have been better to keep silent? Had not the brutality of the proceedings rallied the public to me? Monsieur de Villèle has repeatedly said that the letter of dismissal was delayed; because of this accident, it had unfortunately been handed to me at the Palace; perhaps it was so; but when one plays a game, one should take account of chance; above all one should not write, to a friend that one values, a letter of the sort one would be ashamed to address to a guilty valet, whom one would kick out onto the pavement, without ceremony or remorse. The Villèle party’s irritation with me was all the greater in that they wanted to appropriate my success, and because I had displayed a grasp of matters about which I was supposed to know nothing.

No doubt (as they said at the time) with silence and moderation I would have won praise from that species that lives in perpetual adoration of the portfolio; by doing penance for my innocence, I would have prepared my way for re-joining the Council. It would have been better in a commonplace way; but that was to take me for what I am not; it assumed a desire to grasp the helm of State once more, a wish to make my way; a desire and a wish that would not have occurred to me in a thousand years.

The idea I had of representative government led to my joining the opposition; systematic opposition seems to me the only kind suitable for that kind of government; the opposition called that of conscience is powerless. Conscience can judge a moral issue, but not an intellectual one. There is no choice but to place oneself under a leader, one who can distinguish between good and bad law. If not, then a representative may mistake his own stupidity for conscience, and vote accordingly. The opposition called that of conscience consists in drifting between parties, gnawing at the leash, even voting, according to circumstance, for the government, being magnanimous in one’s rage; an opposition of mischievous mutiny among soldiers, of calculated ambition among leaders. To the extent that England has remained healthy, it never had other than a systematic opposition: one entered and left it with one’s friends; on relinquishing the portfolio one went to sit on the opposition benches. Since one was assumed to have been removed for not wishing to accept a system, that system, remaining vested in the crown, had of necessity to be opposed. Now, the men merely representing principles, systematic opposition only sought to change the principles, while handing over the attack on them to men.