Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXI, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXI, chapter 3
Interview with Monsieur Polignac – I resign from the Rome Embassy



In Paris I found Madame de Chateaubriand quite resigned. She had been thrilled by being the Ambassadress in Rome, and certainly a woman should have at least know that; but in moments of crisis, my wife has never hesitated to approve what she thought correct to maintain consistency in my life, and to enhance my name in public esteem: in that she shows herself finer than others. She loves position, titles and wealth; she hates poverty and thrift; she despises those sensitivities, that excess of loyalty and self-destructiveness which she considers true self-deception for which no one will thank you; she would never have cried: ‘Long live the King, even so’: but when it was a question of myself, all was different, she accepted my disgrace while cursing it with a firm spirit.

I always had to fast, watch and pray for the health of those who took great care to don the hair shirt with which they hastened to adorn me. I was the sacred donkey, the donkey burdened with the arid remains of liberty; remains which they adored with great devotion, so long as they were excused the trouble of bearing them.

The day after my return to Paris, I went to see Monsieur de Polignac. I had written him this letter on my arrival:

‘Paris, this 28th of August 1829.
Prince,
I thought it more fitting as regards our previous friendship, more suited to the noble position with which I have been honoured, and above all more respectful to the King, to come and place my resignation at his feet myself, rather than sending it to you hastily via the post. I ask a last service of you, that of asking the King to be so good as to grant me an audience, and to listen to the reasons which oblige me to renounce the Rome Embassy. Consider, Prince, what it costs me, at the moment when you are attaining power, to abandon that diplomatic career which I had the pleasure of introducing to you.
Accept, I beg you, my assurance of the feelings which I have vowed to you, and the high regard with which I have the honour to be, Prince,
Your very humble and obedient servant,
                                                                          CHATEAUBRIAND.’

In reply to my letter, this note was sent to me from the Foreign Office:

‘The Prince de Polignac has the honour to offer his compliments to Monsieur le Vicomte de Chateaubriand, and requests him to come to the Ministry tomorrow, Sunday, at nine precisely, if that is possible.
Saturday, 4 o’clock.’

I replied immediately with this further note:

‘Paris, this evening of the 29th of August, 1829.
Prince, I have received a letter from your office which invites me to visit the Ministry tomorrow, the 30th, at nine precisely, if that is possible. As this letter does not inform me of the audience with the King which I have begged you to ask of him, I will wait until you have something official to communicate to me regarding the resignation which I desire to lay at His Majesty’s feet.
A thousand warm compliments,
                                                                               CHATEAUBRIAND.’

Monsieur de Polignac then wrote me these words in his own hand:

‘I have received your little note, my dear Vicomte; I will be delighted to see you tomorrow at ten, if that hour suits you.
I renew the assurance of my former sincere attachment.
                                                       LE PRINCE DE POLIGNAC.’

This note seemed to me to augur badly; his diplomatic reserve led me to fear a refusal from the King. I found the Prince de Polignac in the large office which I knew so well. He hastened to me, grasped my hand with a heartfelt warmth which I would have liked to believe was sincere, and then, putting an arm round my shoulders, we began to walk slowly from one end of the office to the other. He told he would not accept my resignation; that the King would not accept it; that I must return to Rome. Each time he repeated this last phrase my heart sank: ‘Why,’ he asked me, ‘are you unwilling to do business with me as you have with La Ferronays and Portalis? Am I not your friend? I will give you all you wish in Rome; in France, you will be more of a Minister than I, and I will listen to your advice. Your resignation can only create new divisions. Do you wish to harm the government? The King will be very annoyed if you persist in your desire to resign. I beg you, dear Vicomte, do not do this foolish thing.’

I replied that it was not a foolishness; that I acted while in full possession of my reason; that his government would be very unpopular; that such prejudices might be unjust, but that they existed nevertheless; that all of France was convinced that he would attack public freedom, and that it was impossible for me, a defender of that freedom, to work with those who passed for being its enemy. I was somewhat embarrassed in my reply, since at heart I had no immediate objection to the new Ministers; I could only attack them over a future scenario whose likelihood they might properly reject. Monsieur de Polignac swore to me that he loved the Charter as much as I did; but he loved it in his own way, he loved it too nearly. Unfortunately the tenderness one shows a girl one has dishonoured served him little.

The conversation carried on in the same manner for almost an hour. Monsieur de Polignac ended by saying that, if I would consent to withdraw my resignation, the King would see me with pleasure and would listen to what I had to say against his Ministry; but that if I insisted on handing in my resignation, His Majesty thought it would be pointless to see me, and that a conversation between us could only be disagreeable.

I replied: ‘Consider my resignation as received then, Prince. I have never retracted anything in my life, and, since it does not suit the King to see his loyal subject, I no longer insist.’ After these words I withdrew. I begged the Prince to grant Monsieur le Duc de Laval the Rome Embassy, if he still desired it, and I recommended my legation staff to him. I then regained on foot, via the Boulevard des Invalides, the street containing my Infirmary, poor casualty that I was. Monsieur de Polignac seemed to me, as I left him, to possess that imperturbable confidence which made of him a mute eminently suited to strangling an Empire.

My resignation as Ambassador to Rome having been handed in, I wrote to the sovereign Pontiff:

‘Most Holy Father,
As Minister for Foreign Affairs in France in 1823, I had the pleasure of being the interpreter of the late King Louis XVIII’s sentiments regarding the wished-for elevation of Your Holiness to the chair of St Peter. As Ambassador of His Majesty Charles X at the court of Rome, I had the much greater pleasure of seeing Your Beatitude raised to the sovereign Pontificate, and of hearing His Holiness address me with those words which will be the glory of my life. In ending the noble commission which I have had the honour to fulfil towards him, I express to him the deep regret with which I shall not cease to be penetrated. It only remains for me, Most Holy Father, to lay my sincere thanks for your kindness at your sacred feet, and to ask your apostolic blessing.
I am, with the greatest veneration and most profound respect, Your Holiness’ very humble and very obedient servant,
                                                                          CHATEAUBRIAND.’

I spent several days in my Utica tearing out my entrails; I wrote letters demolishing the edifice I had so lovingly constructed. As, when a man dies, it is the little details, the familiar domestic actions that move us, so in the death of a dream the small realities that destroy it are the most poignant. Eternal exile among the ruins of Rome had been my imagined goal. Like Dante, I had determined never to return to my native place. These testamentary elucidations cannot hold the interest for the readers of these Memoirs that they hold for me. The old bird falls from the branch where it had taken refuge; it leaves life for death. Caught by the current, it has merely changed streams.