Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXI, 1

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XXX, 15 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXI, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXI, chapter 1
Return to Paris from Rome – My plans – The King and his arrangements – Monsieur Portalis – Monsieur de Martignac – Departure for Rome – The Pyrenees – Adventure



Paris, August and September 1830, Rue d’Enfer

I took great pleasure in seeing my friends once more; I dreamt only of the pleasure of carrying them off with me, and ending my days in Rome. I had written to reassure myself regarding the little Caffarelli Palace on the Capitoline which I hoped to rent, and the cell which I had applied for at Sant’ Onofrio. I bought English horses and sent them off to the prairies of Evander. I had already said my farewells to my homeland, in my thoughts, with a joy that deserved to be punished. When one has voyaged in one’s youth and spent many years away from one’s country, one is accustomed to seeing one’s grave everywhere: traversing the seas of Greece, it seemed to me that the monuments on all the promontories I saw were hostelries where a bed was awaiting me.

I went to pay my court to the King at Saint-Cloud: he asked me when I was returning to Rome. He was convinced that I had a kind heart but poor judgement. The fact is that I am precisely the opposite of what Charles X thought me: I have a very cool and sound mind, but a questionable heart as far as nine-tenths of mankind are concerned.

I found the King in a very bad mood with regard to his Ministry: he allowed it to be attacked by certain royalist journalists, or rather, when the editors of their papers went to ask him if he found them overly hostile, he said: ‘No, no, carry on.’ When Monsieur de Martignac had spoken: ‘Well,’ said Charles X, ‘have you listened to our Pasta.’ Monsieur Hyde de Neuville’s liberal opinions were antipathetic to him; he found a greater readiness to oblige in Monsieur Portalis, the Federalist, who revealed his greed in his face: it is to Monsieur Portalis that France owes its misfortunes. When I saw him at Passy, I was aware of what I had partly guessed: the Keeper of the Seals, while claiming to hold the Foreign Ministry only for the interim, was dying to retain it, even though he had been granted the position of President of the Court of Cassation. When it came to the question of the King disposing of the Foreign Ministry, he stated: ‘I do not say Chateaubriand will not be my Minister; I only say not yet.’ The Prince de Laval had refused it; Monsieur de La Ferronays could no longer turn in a consistent performance. In the hope that weary of conflict the portfolio would remain with him, Monsieur Portalis did nothing to help the King decide.

Filled with thoughts of the delights of Rome still to come, I allowed myself to drift, without sounding out the future; it suited me for Monsieur Portalis to look after the interim under cover of which my political situation remained unchanged. I never considered for a moment that Monsieur de Polignac might be invested with power: his narrow opinions, ardent and fixed, his unpopular and fateful name, his obstinacy, his religious opinions exalted almost to fanaticism, seemed to me reasons for continuing to neglect him. He had, it is true, suffered on behalf of the King; but he had been largely recompensed by his master’s friendship and the important London Embassy which I had granted him during my Ministry, despite Monsieur de Villèle’s opposition.

Not one of the Ministers I found in place in Paris, with the exception of Monsieur Hyde de Neuville, pleased me: I felt a lack of ability in them which caused me anxiety while they remained in power. Monsieur de Martignac, with a pleasing talent for speech, had a soft and gentle voice like that of a man to whom the women have lent something of their seductiveness and frailty! Pythagoras remembered having been a delightful courtesan named Alcea. Abbé Sieyès’ former Secretary to the Embassy also possessed a restrained arrogance, a cool mind with a trace of envy. In 1823, I had sent him to Spain in a significant and independent capacity, but he wanted to be Ambassador. He was upset at not receiving a post which he believed was worthy of him.

My likes and dislikes were of little consequence. The Chamber committed an error in toppling a government it should have preserved at all costs. That moderate ministry served as a rail above the abyss; it was easy to overthrow it, since it stood for nothing and the King was inimical towards it; all the more reason for not picking a quarrel with those men, and for granting them a majority with the aid of which they might have survived and given way one day, barring accident, to a stronger government. In France, they know nothing about patience; they have a horror of everything that has the semblance of power, until they possess it. Moreover, Monsieur de Martignac has nobly refuted accusations of weakness by spending the rest of his life courageously defending Monsieur de Polignac. My feet itched in Paris; I could not get used to the grey and melancholy skies of France, my fatherland; what then would I have thought of the skies of Brittany, my motherland, as the Greeks have it? But there, at least, there are sea breezes and calms: Tumidis albens fluctibus or venti posuere: whitening with swelling waves or the winds dying down. I gave orders to have changes and additions made to my house and garden in the Rue d’Enfer, necessary in order that at my death a finer house could be left, as a legacy, to Madame de Chateaubriand’s Infirmary. I intended the property as a retreat for artists and men of letters who were suffering from illness. I gazed at the pale sun and said to it: ‘I will go soon, and find your brighter face once more, and we will not part again.’

Having taken leave of the King, and hoping to rid him forever of my presence, I entered a calash, and went first to the Pyrenees to take the waters at Cauterets; from there, crossing Languedoc and Provence, I would reach Nice and rejoin Madame de Chateaubriand. We passed along the Corniche together, and arrived at the EternalCity which we traversed without stopping, and after two months at Naples, Tasso’s cradle, we returned to his tomb in Rome. That is the only moment of my life in which I have been completely happy, of which I asked nothing more, in which my existence was complete, from which I saw only a line of peaceful days extending to my last hour. I was reaching harbour; I was entering it under full sail like Palinurus: inopia quies: suddenly drowsy.

My whole journey to the Pyrenees was a series of dreams: I stopped when I wished; my route followed the chronicles of the Middle Ages which it evoked everywhere; in Berry I saw those little hedged lanes which the author of Valentine likens to the trains of dresses, and which recalled Brittany. Richard the Lionheart was slain at Chalus, at the foot of the tower: ‘Peace there, Muslim child! Richard the King is here!’ At Limoges, I doffed my hat, in respect, to Molière; at Périgeux, the partridges in their earthenware tombs no longer uttered varying cries as in Aristotle’s day. I met my old friend Clausel de Cousserges there; he brought with him some written reminisces of my life. At Bergerac, I might have gazed at Cyrano’s nose without being obliged to fight that Guards Cadet: I left him in his own dust with those gods whom man created, who did not create man.

At Auch, I admired the choir-stalls carved according to designs made in Rome, in the great era of artistic achievement. D’Ossat, a predecessor of mine at the Court of St Peter, was born near Auch. The sun already resembled the suns of Italy. At Tarbes, I would have liked to lodge at the Star where Froissart stayed with Messire Espaing de Lyon, ‘a valiant man, a fine and knowledgeable knight’, and where he found ‘excellent hay, good oats, and a lovely river.’

When the Pyrenees appeared on the horizon, my heart quickened: from the depths of twenty-three years emerged memories embellished by those reaches of time: when, on the far side of the range, I discovered the summit of these same mountains, I recalled Palestine and Spain. I am of Madame de Motteville’s opinion; I think that Urgande la Déconnue lived in one of those castles in the Pyrenees. The past is like a museum of antiquities; one tours the vanished hours; everyone finds their own there. One day, walking in a deserted church, I heard footsteps crossing the paving stones, like those of an old man seeking his tomb. I looked around and saw no one; it was I who had been revealed to my own self.

The happier I was in Cauterets, the more the melancholy of what was past charmed me. The narrow, constrained valley is enlivened by a mountain stream; beyond the town and its mineral springs, it divides into two defiles of which one, famous for its beauty spots, ends in glaciers and the bridge into Spain. I took plenty of baths; I completed long walks alone, imagining myself on the heights of the Sabine Hills. I made every effort to be sad and failed. I composed verses about the Pyrenees; I wrote:

‘I’ve seen the waters flee from Athens and Jerusalem,
Seen the shifting sands of Nile and of Ascalon,
Carthage abandoned, with its harbour whitening:
While the gentle breeze of evening filled my sail,
and Venus’ starlight pale
Moist pearl with sunset’s purest gold was mingling.
Seated by the mast of my vessel built for speed,
My eyes sought from afar the Pillars of Hercules,
Where two angry Neptunes brandish their tridents.
Reaching the edge of Hesperia’s ancient shores
Mystery opened wide the doors
Of palaces, of the noble Abencerage, enchanted.
Like a fledgling bee that within the rose has toiled,
My Muse returned again, with her wealth of spoils,
Gathering the finest memories from the flower:
In mountains that Roland cleft by his brilliance,
I set down to his lance
All my proud adventures, undergone for pleasure.
Let us flee those shores, when misfortunes attack,
Of an age abandoned, shores marked with our track,
That make us say of time, in measuring out our ways:
“I had a brother once, a mother, and a friend;
Delights that had to end!
How many of my blood remain to me, how many days?”’

I found it impossible to finish my ode: I had draped my drum with melancholy to beat the recall of the dreams of my vanished nights; but always among my memories were mingled present thoughts whose happy mien defeated the dismal air of their old colleagues.

While poetising I saw a young girl sitting on the bank of a mountain stream; she rose and came straight towards me: she knew, by a rumour at large in the hamlet, that I was in Cauterets. I found that the unknown girl was an Occitanian, who had written to me two years previously without my ever having met her; the mysterious unknown unveiled for me: patuit Dea: the Goddess revealed herself.

I went to pay a respectful visit to the naiad of the torrent. One evening when she was with me as I was about to retire, she wished to follow; I was obliged to carry her back home in my arms. I have never felt so ashamed; to inspire such an attachment at my age seemed to me truly derisory; the more I might have been flattered by this absurdity, the more I was humiliated, treating it rationally as a joke. I would willingly have hidden myself out of shame, among the bears, our neighbours. I was far from saying what Montaigne said of himself: ‘Love restores to me my alertness, my moderation, my grace, and my care for my appearance…’ My poor Michel, you say the most delightful things, but at our age, you know, love does not restore to us what you suggest here. We have only one concern; that is to set ourselves on one side. Instead then of applying myself to sane and wise studies by means of which I may render myself more loveable, I have allowed the fugitive impression of my Clémence Isaure to fade; the mountain breeze soon carried away the flowery caprice; the witty, resolute and delightful stranger of sixteen was grateful for having been dealt with fairly; she is married.