Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 13

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XXXIV, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIV, 14


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIV, chapter 13
The conspiracy of the Rue des Prouvaires



Paris, Rue d’Enfer, the end of March.

The year 1831 ended for me in these travels and contests: as 1832 began there was further trouble.

The July Revolution had left the streets of Paris filled with a crowd of Swiss, with Bodyguards, with men of all stations dependent on the Court, now dying of hunger, whom fine monarchical minds, young and foolish beneath their grey hairs, thought to recruit to aid them.

In this tremendous plot, there was no lack of grave, pallid, thin, transparent, bowed personages, their faces noble, their eyes still flashing, and their hair white; this past world seemed like Honour revived in order to attempt to re-establish, with shadowy hands, a family it could not protect with its living ones. Often men with crutches try to prop up falling monarchies; but in this era of society, the restoration of a monument from the Middle Ages is impossible, because the spirit that animated that architecture is dead: one merely imitates the old while thinking to create the Gothic.

On the other side, the heroes of July, whom the happy-medium had robbed of a Republic, asked nothing better than to enter into an accord with the Carlists to take vengeance on a common enemy, even if it meant going on murdering after their victory. Monsieur Thiers having advocated the system of 1793 as a work of liberty, victory and genius, young minds were set alight at the flame of a fire of which they saw only a distant reflection; they were filled with the poetry of the Terror: a terrible and foolish parody which turns back the clock of freedom. It misjudges at the same time the age, history and humanity; it obliges the world to revert to the overseer’s whip in order to save itself from the fanatics of the scaffold.

Money was needed to feed all these malcontents, heroes of July who had been dismissed or servants without places to go to: contributions were collected. Carlist and Republican discussions took place in every corner of Paris, and the police, in touch with everything, sent spies to preach equality and legitimacy from club to garret. I was told of this conduct which I opposed. The two parties wanted to declare me their leader in the moment of certain triumph: a Republican club asked me if I would accept the Presidency of the Republic; I replied: ‘Yes, certainly; but only after Monsieur Lafayette’ which they found modest and fitting. General Lafayette sometimes visited Madame Récamier’s; I poked a little fun at his best of republics: I asked him if he would not have been better to acknowledge Henri V and be the real President of France during the royal child’s minority. He admitted it and took the pleasantry well, being good company. Every time we met, he said: ‘Oh, you are going to quarrel with me again!’ I got him to admit that no one had ever tricked him more than his good friend Philippe.

In the midst of this disturbance and these extravagant conspiracies, a man arrived at my house, in disguise, a couch-grass wig on his occiput, green-glass spectacles on his nose, shading eyes which saw quite well without spectacles. He had pockets full of bills of exchange which he showed around; and immediately on being informed I wished to sell my house and settle my affairs, he offered me his services; I could not help laughing at this gentleman (a man of spirit and resource moreover) who considered himself obliged to buy me for the Legitimacy. His offers became too pressing, he saw on my lips a disdain which forced him to retreat, and he wrote my secretary this little note which I kept:

‘Sir,
Yesterday evening I had the honour to meet Monsieur le Vicomte de Chateaubriand, who received me with his usual kindness; nevertheless I thought I noticed that he lacked his customary openness. Tell me, I beg you, what would re-establish his trust in me which I esteem more than everything; if he has heard any malicious gossip about me, I am not afraid of exposing my conduct to the light of day, and I am ready to reply to anything that may have been said; he knows the mendacity of intriguers too well to condemn me without a hearing. There are cowards who do so too; but one must hope that the day will arrive when the truly devoted people are recognised. He told me that it would be useless for me to become involved in his affairs; I am sorry for it; since I like to think they would have been arranged as he desires. I suspect I probably know the person who has influenced him in the matter; if I had been less discreet at the time, it would not have done me any harm with your excellent patron. Well, I am no less devoted to him, and you may tell him so in presenting my respectful homage. I dare to hope that the day will come when he will know and understand me.
Accept, I beg you, Sir, etc.’

Hyacinthe wrote this reply which I dictated to him:

‘My patron has nothing at all against the person who has written; but he wishes to live in private, and does not wish to accept any assistance.’

Soon after this, trouble occurred.

Do you know the Rue des Prouvaires, a narrow, dirty and busy street near Saint-Eustache and Les Halles? It was there that a famous supper was held during the third Restoration. The guests were armed with pistols, daggers, and iron bars; after the drinks, they were going to enter the Louvre Gallery, and passing between two rows of masterpieces at midnight, strike the usurping monster in the midst of a reception. The conception was romantic; the sixteenth century had returned, and one might have believed it was the age among men of the Borgias, the Medicis of Florence, and the Medicis of Paris.

On the 1st of February, at nine in the evening, I was going to bed, when an extremist, and the individual with the bills of exchange, knocked on my door, in the Rue d’Enfer, to tell me all was ready, that in two hours Louis-Philippe would be no more; they came to discover whether they could declare me leader of the provisional government, and whether I would consent to take the reins, in a Regency Council, of that provisional government, in the name of Henri V. They confessed that the matter was dangerous, but that I could not win more glory, and that, as I suited all parties, I was the only man in France in a position to play the role. I was close pressed: two hours were allowed for me to decide on my coronation! Two hours to sharpen the mighty Mameluke sabre I had bought in Cairo in 1806! Yet I found no difficulty in saying to them: ‘Gentlemen, you know I have never approved of this enterprise, which seems foolish to me. If I had chosen to be involved, I would have shared the risk, not waited for your victory in order to accept the reward for the danger you run. You know I love liberty deeply, and it is obvious to me, from the leadership of this whole affair, that they do not want liberty, that they will begin, as masters of the field of battle, to impose arbitrary rule. They would find no one, I especially, to support them in that project; their success would lead to total anarchy, and foreign powers, profiting from our discord, would dismember France. I cannot therefore be involved in all that. I admire your devotion, but mine is not of a like nature. I am going to bed; I advise you to do the same, and I have great fears of learning of your friends’ misfortunes tomorrow.’

The supper took place; the host, who had prepared it with official consent, knew what was going on. Informers at the table clinked their glasses loudest, in drinking Henri V’s health; the police sergeants arrived, seized the guests and yet again overthrew the royalist legitimacy’s coup. The Rinaldo of the royalist adventurers was a cobbler from the Rue de Seine, decorated in July, who had fought valiantly during the Three Days, and who grievously wounded one of Louis-Philippe’s police agents, on behalf of Henri V, as he had killed guardsmen to oust that same Henri V and the two elder kings.

During this affair I received a note from Madame la Duchesse de Berry nominating me as a member of a secret government she had established in her name, as Regent of France. I took the opportunity to write the Princess the following letter:

‘Madame,
It is with the deepest gratitude that I received the witness of your confidence and esteem with which you have been so kind as to honour me; it imposes on my loyalty the duty of redoubling my zeal, in laying before your Royal Highness’ eyes the truth as it appears to me.
I will speak first of the so called conspiracy, rumours of which will perhaps have reached Your Royal Highness. It is claimed that it was fabricated or provoked by the police. Leaving that to one side and without insisting on whether the conspiracy (real or imagined) had anything reprehensible about it, I will content myself with remarking that our national character is at the same time too superficial and too open for such things to succeed. For forty years these kinds of criminal enterprise have continually failed. There is nothing extraordinary in hearing a French person boasting publicly that they are part of a plot; they will tell all the details, without forgetting the date, place and hour, to any spy they take for a colleague; they say aloud, or rather shout to the passers-by: “We have forty thousand men all told, we have sixty million cartridges, such and such a street, at this number, in the house at the corner.” And then this Catiline will dance around smiling.
Secret societies alone have wide scope, because they proceed by revolution and not by conspiracy; they aim to change doctrines, ideas and morals before changing men and things; their progress is slow, but the results assured. The publicity given to their thought destroys the influence of secret societies; public opinion now achieves in France what hidden gatherings accomplish among nations that are not yet emancipated.
The regions of the West and South, which they seem to want to push to the limits of endurance, by arbitrary violence, retain that spirit of loyalty which distinguishes past morality; but that section of France will not conspire in the strict sense of the word: it is a kind of armed camp in waiting. Admirable as a reserve for the Legitimacy, it would be insufficient as a vanguard and could never be successful in taking the offensive. Civilisation has made too much progress for civil war to break out with any great result, a recourse and scourge of centuries which is at the same time most Christian and least enlightened.
What exists in France is not a monarchy, it is a republic; in truth, of the worst kind. This republic is protected by royalty, like a breastplate which receives the blows and prevents them striking the government itself.
Moreover, if the Legitimacy is a considerable force, election is also a dominating power, even when it is only a fiction, especially in this country where we see only vanity: the French passion for equality prides itself on elections.
Louis-Philippe’s government indulges in excesses of both arbitrary power and obsequiousness of which Charles X’s government never dreamed. Why is such excess tolerated? Because the people more easily support the tyranny of a government they have created than the legal rigour of institutions which are not their work.
Forty years of trial have broken the firmest hearts; apathy is prevalent, egotism is rife; people shrink inwards to escape danger, to keep what they have, to struggle along in peace. After a revolution there are gangrened casualties who communicate their sickness to all, as after a battle corpses are left to pollute the air. If Henri V could be transported to the Tuileries without trouble, without a tremor, without compromising the least interest, we would be in sight of a Restoration; but if only one sleepless night is needed to achieve it, the chances diminish.
The result of those days of July has produced no benefit to the people, no honour for the army, no advantage to literature, the arts, commerce or industry. The State has become the prey of professional politicians and of that class which sees the country as its cooking pot and public affairs as its kitchen: it is difficult, Madame, for you to understand from afar what is now called the happy-medium; that His Royal Highness presents a figure completely devoid of elevation of soul, nobility of feeling, dignity of character; that he represents people inflated with their own importance, enchanted with their jobs, panicky about money, ready to die for their pensions: nothing will pry them free; it is a matter of life or death to them; they are wedded to it all, as the Gauls were to their weapons, knights to the Oriflamme, Huguenots to Henri IV’s white banner, and Napoleon’s soldiers to the tricolour flag; they will die only of exhaustion from swearing oaths to every regime, after spilling the last drop of their blood in a last battle. These eunuchs of the quasi-legitimacy dogmatize about freedom while assaulting citizens in the streets and throwing writers in gaol; they intone songs of victory while evacuating Belgium on the orders of an English Minister, and soon Ancona on the orders of an Austrian corporal. They slope between the gates of Saint-Pélagie prison and the doors of the Cabinets of Europe, stiff with liberty and encrusted with glory.
What I say regarding the state of France should not discourage Your Royal Highness; but I wish you to gain a better understanding of the path that leads to Henri V’s throne.
You know my thoughts concerning the education of my young king: my sentiments are expressed at the end of the pamphlet which I set at Your Royal Highness’ feet: I can only repeat it. Let Henri V be raised for his century, with and for men of his century; those two phrases sum up my whole policy. Above all, let him not be raised to be king. He may reign tomorrow, he may reign in ten years time, or he may never reign: for though the Legitimacy may have several opportunities to return which I will soon develop further, nevertheless the edifice may actually fall without the Legitimacy emerging from its ruins. You have a strong enough spirit, Madame, to imagine, without allowing yourself to be overcome, a judgement from God which would plunge your illustrious race back into the common stock; just as you have a heart great enough to nourish real hopes without allowing yourself to become intoxicated with them. I should now present you with the other side of the picture.
Your Royal Highness can defy everything, and brave everything at your age; you have as many years left to run as have passed since the start of the Revolution. Now, what can one not see happening in those years? When the Republic, the Empire, and the Legitimacy have passed, shall the amphibious happy-medium not pass away also! What! Was it to arrive at the present wretchedness of men and things that we traversed and expended so much criminality, so much evil, talent, liberty and glory! What! Europe overthrown, thrones crumbling, generations hurled into the ditch with daggers in their chests, the world in travail for half a century, all that to give birth to a quasi-legitimacy! One could conceive of a great republic emerging from that social cataclysm; that at least would be skilful in utilising the inheritance won by the Revolution, namely, political freedom, the freedom of the Press and of thought, the levelling of social class, admission to all posts, equality of all before the law, and the election of a popular monarchy. But how could one imagine that a gang of sordid mediocrities rescued from shipwreck could employ such principles? To what proportions have they already reduced them! They detest them and only sigh after the laws of ‘exception’; they would lock away all freedoms behind the crown they have forged, as if behind a trap-door; then they talk rapturous nonsense about canals, railroads, fiddling with the arts, sorting out literature; a world of machines, chatter and self-importance called a model society. Bad luck on all superiority, on any man of genius ambitious for advancement, for glory and pleasure, sacrifice and fame, aspiring to triumph at the rostrum, with the lyre or with arms, who might raise himself one day above that universal ennui!
There is only one reason, Madame, why the quasi-legitimacy might continue to stagnate: that is if the present state of society were the natural state of that society in the era in which we now live. If an aged nation found itself in accord with its decrepit government; if between governors and governed there was a harmony of infirmity and weakness, then, Madame, all would be over for Your Royal Highness, as for the rest of us French. But if we have not yet arrived at our national dotage, if a Republic is immediately possible, then it is the Legitimacy which seems called upon to revive it. Live your youth, Madame, and you will inherit the royal tatters of that poor thing called the July Monarchy. Say to your enemies what your ancestress, Queen Blanche, said to hers during the minority of Saint-Louis: “Waiting does not bother me.” The best years of life have been granted you in compensation for your misfortunes, and the future will bring you as many joys as the present has robbed you of years.
The first reason which militates in your favour, Madame, is the justice of your cause and your son’s innocence. Events are not all against true right.’

After detailing the reasons for hope which I scarcely nourished myself but which I sought to magnify in order to console the Princess, I continued:

‘Behold, Madame, the precarious state of the quasi-legitimacy at home; abroad its position is no more assured.
If Louis-Philippe’s government had felt that the July Revolution had erased all previous transactions, and that a different national constitution could lead to different political rights and could alter social interests; if it had shown judgement and courage at the outset of its career, it could have re-established for France, without firing a shot, the frontiers which have been taken from her, so ready would have been the consent of the nations, and so great the stupefaction of their kings. The quasi-legitimacy could have paid for its silver crown by an accession of territory, and could have been secure in that farce. Instead of profiting from the republican element to make swift progress, it has shown fear of principle; it dragged itself along on its belly; it has abandoned nations roused by it and for it; it has made them opposed to being the client states which they were; it has extinguished enthusiasm for war, it has changed into a pusillanimous wish for peace the clear desire to re-establish the balance of power between ourselves and neighbouring states, and to at least reclaim from those immoderately swollen states the detached portions of our former country. Through a failure of courage and lack of genius, Louis-Philippe has recognised treaties which are not in character with revolution, treaties which it cannot tolerate, and which the foreign powers themselves have violated.
The happy-medium has left foreign governments the time to take stock and deploy their armies. And as the existence of a democratic monarchy is incompatible with the existence of the continental monarchies, hostilities, despite the protocols, the financial embarrassments, mutual fears, prolonged armistices, graciously-worded despatches, and demonstrations of friendship, hostilities, I say, may be fuelled by that incompatibility. Though our bourgeois royalty is resigned to being insulted, though men dream of peace, events may dictate war.
But whether war breaks out under the quasi-legitimacy or not, I know, Madame, that you will not put your trust in foreign powers; you would prefer Henri V not to reign than to see him do so under the patronage of a European coalition: it is in yourself, it is in your son that hopes lie. In whatever way one considers the decrees they could never affect Henri V; innocent of everything, he has the centuries on his side, and his natal misfortunes. If evil touches us in the solitude of a tomb, it moves us even more when it watches over a cradle; for then it is no longer remembrance of something past, of a wretched creature and one that has ceased to suffer; it is a painful reality; it saddens days which should only see joy; it threatens a life which has done nothing to it, and has not merited its severity.
On your side, Madame, you have a powerful authority derived from your adversities. You, bathed in your husband’s blood, bore in your womb the son that political minds called the child of Europe and religious ones the child of miracle. What influence do you not exercise over public opinion, when you alone are seen to guard, for the exiled orphan, the potent crown that Charles X shook from his whitened head, and of whose weight two other brows were relieved, so charged with sorrow that he permitted them to reject that new burden! Your image presents itself to our minds with those feminine graces that seem to occupy their natural place in occupying a throne. The people nourish no prejudices against you; they grieve for your pain, they admire your courage; they keep the memory of your days of mourning; they are grateful for your having joined in their pleasures later, for having shared their enjoyments and festivals; they find a charm in the vivacity of this foreign Frenchwoman, from a country dear to our glory because of Fornovo, Marignan, Arcola and Marengo. The Muses miss their benefactress born under the lovely skies of Italy, which inspired the love of art in her, which made a descendant of Francis I of a descendant of Henri IV.
France has often changed leaders since the Revolution, and has not yet seen a woman at the tiller of the State. Perhaps God wishes that the reins of this indomitable nation, reins loosed from the greedy hands of the Convention, broken in Bonaparte’s victorious hands, grasped in vain by Louis XVIII and Charles X, should be gathered by a young Princess; she will know how to make them less fragile and at the same time lighter.’

Finally, reminding Madame that she had chosen to think of my forming part of the secret government, I ended my letter thus:

‘You know, Madame, the range of ideas among which I see the possibility of a Restoration; other permutations would be outside the gates of my spirit; I would confess my inadequacy. It is ostensibly, and by proclaiming myself a man of your party, and in your confidence, that I would gain strength; but, a plenipotentiary Minister of the Night, a Chargé d’Affaires accredited to the Shades, that is something I feel no aptitude for. If Your Royal Highness named me publicly as your Ambassador to the people of the new France, I would inscribe in large letters over my door; The Legation of the Former France. There would be something in that which would please God; but I will hear nothing of secret loyalties; I only know how to be guilty of fidelity, by committing a flagrant offence.
Madame, without refusing Your Royal Highness the services which you have the right to command of me, I beg you to accept the plans I have made to finish my days in retirement. My ideas will not suit those who are in the confidence of the noble exiles of Holyrood; the evil being past, their natural antipathy to my principles and my person would be rekindled with prosperity. I have seen the rejection of plans I have presented for the grandeur of my country, to give France frontiers within which she could exist protected from invasion, to release her from the shameful treaties of Vienna and Paris. I found myself treated as a renegade when I defended religion, a revolutionary when I tried to found the throne on the basis of public freedoms. I would find the same obstacles enhanced by the hatred that the Court faithful, of the city and the provinces, will have conceived from the lesson my conduct on the day of trial inflicted on them. I have too little ambition, too much need for repose to make my attachment to the Crown a burden, and impose upon it my untimely presence. I have fulfilled my duty without for a single moment considering that it might give me some right to the favour of an august family: happy only that it has permitted me to embrace its adversities! I look for nothing beyond that honour; it will be found among the youngest and cleverest. I do not think I am essential, and I think essential men are no longer needed these days: useless at present, I will enter solitude to occupy myself with the past. I hope, Madame, to live long enough to add a glorious chapter to the history of the Restoration, promised to France by your future fate.
I am with the most profound respect, Madame, your Most Royal Highness’s very humble and obedient servant.

\n\n CHATEAUBRIAND.\n

Paris, this 25th of March 1832.’

The letter was obliged to wait for a reliable courier; time marched on and I added this postscript to my despatch:

‘Paris, the 12th of April 1832.
Madame,
Everything dates rapidly in France; every day new political opportunities arise and begin another series of events. We are now involved with Monsieur Périer’s illness and God’s epidemic. I have sent Monsieur le Préfet de la Seine the sum of 12000 francs which the exiled daughter of Saint Louis and Henri IV destined for the relief of unfortunates; what a worthy use for her noble poverty! I will try to be the faithful interpreter of your wishes, Madame. I have never in my life received a mission with which I felt more honoured.
I am with the profoundest respect, etc.’

Before speaking of this matter of 12000 francs for the cholera victims, mentioned in the postscript, I must speak about the cholera itself. During my voyage in the Orient I had not encountered plague, it came to meet me at home; the ‘fortune’ I had run to find was sitting waiting for me at my door; in Lisbon there is a magnificent monument on which this epitaph can be read: Ci git Basco Fuguera contre sa volunté: here Lies Basco Fuguera, against his will. My mausoleum will be modest, and I will not rest there despite myself.