Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXI, 2

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XXXI, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXI, 3

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXI, chapter 2
Polignac’s Ministry – My dismay – I return to Paris

Rumours of ministerial changes had reached our pine-woods. Well-informed people went so far as to speak of the Prince de Polignac; but I was completely incredulous. Finally, the newspapers arrived: I opened them and my eyes fell on the official decree which confirmed the previous rumours. I had experienced a good many changes of fortune since I had entered the world, but I had never received so great a shock. My destiny had once more put paid to my dreams; this breath of fate not only extinguished my illusions, it swept away the monarchy. This blow made me dreadfully ill; I felt momentary despair, since my mind was instantly made up, I felt I must resign. The post brought a shoal of letters; all urged me to send in my resignation. Even people I barely knew thought themselves obliged to suggest my retirement.

I was shocked by this officious interest in my reputation. Thank heaven, I have never needed advice concerning matters of honour; my life has been a series of sacrifices which have never been dictated by anyone else; regarding questions of duty I act spontaneously. A fall from office spells ruin for me, since I own nothing but debts, debts which I contract in places where I do not live long enough to repay them; so that every time I retire from public life, I am reduced to working for a bookseller for hire. Some of those, proud, obliging people, who preached honour and liberty to me via the post, and who preached them still more loudly to me when I arrived in Paris, resigned from the Council of State; but some were rich, and the rest took care not to resign the lesser offices they held, which guaranteed them the means of existence. They were like the Protestants, who reject various parts of the Catholic dogma and retain others which are just as difficult to believe in. There was nothing total about these sacrifices; nothing of real sincerity: they surrendered an income of ten or fifteen thousand livres it is true, but they returned home rich in patrimonies, or at least provided with the daily bread they had prudently retained. In my case, there was no quibbling; they were full of self-abnegation on my behalf, they could not strip themselves sufficiently, on my behalf, of all I possessed: ‘Come now, Georges Dandin, pluck up your courage; confound it, son-in-law, don’t let us down; off with your coat! Throw two hundred thousand livres a year out the window, a position you find agreeable, an exalted and dignified post, the empire of the Arts in Rome, the happiness of finally receiving the reward for your long laborious struggle. Such is our good pleasure. At that price, you will enjoy our esteem. Just as we have taken off our cloaks, beneath which we are wearing good flannel waistcoats, throw off your velvet cloak, so you are naked. There you have perfect equality, an accord between the altar and the sacrifice.’

And, strange to relate, in their generous eagerness to push me out, the men who signified their desire to me were neither my true friends nor the co-supporters of my political opinions. I was to destroy myself on the spot for Liberalism, for a doctrine which had constantly attacked me; I was to run the risk of rocking the legitimate throne, in order to win the praises of a few cowardly enemies, who had not enough courage to go hungry.

I was to find myself swamped by my long embassy; the dinners I had given had ruined me, I had not covered the expenses of my initial establishment. But what broke my heart was the loss, for the rest of my days, of that happiness I had promised myself.

I was not obliged to reproach myself in any way with having taken that advice of a Cato, which impoverishes those who accept it not those who give it: quite convinced that such advice is useless anyway to the man who lacks depth of feeling. From the first moment, I say, my decision was made; it cost me little to make, but it was miserable to execute. When at Lourdes, instead of turning south and heading for Italy, I took the road to Pau, my eyes filled with tears, I confess my weakness. What matter that I had indeed accepted and supported the coalition which brought me my good fortune? I chose not to return quickly, so as to let time go by. I slowly unwound the thread of my journey that I had gathered up with such joy only a few weeks previously.

The Prince de Polignac feared my resignation. He felt that in leaving the Chamber I would take Royalist votes with me, and that I would question the existence of his Ministry. The thought was suggested to him of sending a despatch rider to me in the Pyrenees with an order from the King that I should go to Rome immediately, to welcome the King and Queen of Naples who had just seen their daughter married in Spain. I would have been highly embarrassed to have received such an order. Perhaps I would have considered myself forced to obey it, even if it meant giving in my resignation after it had been fulfilled. But, once in Rome, what would have happened? I would perhaps have been too late; the fatal days to come would have surprised me on the Capitol. Perhaps too the state of indecision I might have been placed in might have given Monsieur de Polignac a parliamentary majority, which he only lacked by a few votes. Then the fatal speech would not have occurred; the decrees, resulting from that speech, would not perhaps have seemed necessary to their unfortunate authors: Dis aliter visum: the gods decided otherwise.