Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 1

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XXXIV, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV - Chapter 1
Madame la Duchesse de Berry’s 12000 francs

Paris, Rue d’Enfer, May 1832.

Madame de Berry had her little group of advisers in Paris, as Charles X had his: they received small sums of money in her name to assist poverty-stricken royalists. I proposed to distribute a sum of twelve thousand francs to the cholera victims on behalf of Henri V’s mother. They wrote to Massa, and not only did the Princess approve the distribution of funds, but she wished it could be a more considerable amount: her letter agreeing this arrived on the same day that I sent the money to the mayoralties. Thus, everything I said about the exile’s gift is strictly correct. On the 14th of April I sent the Prefect of the Seine the full amount to be distributed to the poorest section of the population of Paris afflicted by contagion. Monsieur de Bondy was not at the Hotel de Ville when my letter was delivered to him. The Secretary General opened my missive, but did not consider himself authorised to accept the money. Three days passed. Monsieur de Bondy at last replied to me saying that he could not accept the twelve thousand francs because in the guise of charity it was evidently a political device, which the whole population of Paris would protest against, by its refusal. My secretary then approached the twelve district mayors. Of the five mayors present, four accepted the gift of a thousand francs; one refused. Of the seven mayors not present, five maintained their silence: two refused.

I was immediately besieged by an army of indigents: charitable foundations, workers of all kinds, women and children. Italian and Polish exiles, writers, artists, soldiers, all wrote, and all claimed a part of the donation. If I had possessed a million, it would have gone in a few hours. Monsieur de Bondy was wrong in saying that the whole population of Paris would protest by its refusal: the population of Paris will accept money from anyone. The government’s agitation was laughable; one would have thought this treacherous legitimist cash would cause an uprising among the cholera victims, and excite an insurrection of the dying in the hospitals, who would march to assault the Tuileries, beating their coffins, tolling the death-knell, deployed in their shrouds under the command of Death. My correspondence with the mayors was lengthened by the complication caused by the Prefect of Paris’ refusal. Some of them wrote to me to return my money or to ask me for a receipt regarding the return of Madame la Duchess de Berry’s gift. I duly sent them and delivered this acknowledgement to the Mayor of the twelfth district: ‘I have received from the Mayor of the twelfth arrondissement the sum of one thousand francs which he had previously accepted and which he has returned to me by order of the Prefect of the Seine.

Paris, this 22nd of April 1832.’

The Mayor of the ninth district, Monsieur Cronier, was more courageous: he kept the thousand francs and was relieved of his duties. I wrote him this note:

‘29th of April 1832.
I learn with distress of your dismissal, of which Madame la Duchesse de Berry’s gift was the cause, or for which it was the pretext. You have for consolation the public’s esteem, your feelings of independence and the knowledge of your self-sacrifice in the victims’ cause.
I have the honour, etc, etc.’

The Mayor of the fourth district was quite another sort: Monsieur Cadet de Gassicourt, the poet-pharmacist, maker of little verses, creating in his age, the age of liberty and Empire, a pleasantly classical statement opposing my romantic prose and that of Madame de Staël, was the hero who took by assault the cross from above the porch of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and who, in a proclamation regarding the cholera, stated that the wicked Carlists may well have been those who poisoned the wine, to whom the people had already meted out justice. The illustrious champion then wrote me the following letter:

‘Paris, the 18th of March 1832.
I was absent from the city hall when the person you sent presented himself: that will explain my delay in replying.
Monsieur le Préfet de la Seine, having refused to accept the money which you were charged with offering him, seems to me to have laid down the mode of conduct which the Members of the Municipal Council should adopt. I follow Monsieur le Préfet’s example even more strongly in that I believe in and share entirely the sentiments which led him to refuse.
I will merely mention in passing the title Royal Highness bestowed with affection on the person of whom you are appointed agent: the daughter-in-law of Charles X is no more a Royal Highness in France, than her father-in-law is king! Yet, Sir, there is no one who is not morally convinced that this lady is an active agitator, and expends sums much more considerable than those she has trusted you to employ, in stirring up trouble in our country and instigating civil war. The alms which she has the pretension to bestow are merely a means of attracting attention to herself and her party and are a kindness which her intentions are far from justifying. You will not find it strange then that a magistrate firmly attached to the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe should refuse help which comes from such a source, and will find, among true citizens, purer acts of generosity addressed with sincerity to humanity and our country.
I am, with the greatest respect, Sir, etc.

This attack of Monsieur Cadet de Gassicourt’s on the lady and her father-in-law displays great pride: what progress enlightenment and philosophy have made! What an invincible show of independence! Messieurs Fleurant and Purgon would only have dared gaze at people on their knees; to them, Monsieur Cadet says like the Cid: …Let us rise then! His liberty is all the more courageous in that this father-in-law (otherwise a descendant of Saint Louis) is proscribed. Monsieur de Gassicourt is above all that; he scorns the nobility and the misfortunes of the age equally. It is with the same disdain for aristocratic prejudices that he misses out my de in addressing me, and takes it as a victory over the gentry. Yet, was there not some ancient rivalry, some ancient historic dispute between the House of Cadet and the House of Capet?

Henri IV, ancestor of this father-in-law who is no more king than the lady is a Royal Highness, was traversing the forest of Saint-Germain one day; eight Leaguers lay in ambush to murder the Béarnais; they were seized. ‘One of these gallants,’ says L’Estoile, ‘was an apothecary who demanded to speak to the King, and on His Majesty enquiring of what rank he was, he replied that he was an apothecary. “What!” said the King, “is there a rank of apothecary round here? Do you lie in wait for passers-by to give them enemas?”’ Henri IV was a soldier, immodest speech scarcely bothered him, and he no more retreated from a word than from an enemy.

I suspect Monsieur de Gassicourt, given his ill-humour towards Henri IV’s descendant, of being a descendant of that pharmacist Leaguer. The Mayor of the fourth district no doubt wrote to me in the hope that I would cross swords with him; but I do not wish to do battle with Monsieur Cadet: may he forgive me for leaving him a little mark of my remembrance here.

Since those days when I witnessed great revolutions and great revolutionaries, everything has shrivelled. Men who toppled an oak tree, too old to take root if replanted, addressed themselves to me; they demanded a few pounds from the widow in order to buy bread; this letter from the Committee for the July Medal-Winners is a useful document to note for future reference.

‘Paris, the 20th of April 1832.
RSVP, to Monsieur Gibert-Arnaud, Managing-Secretary of the Committee, 3 Rue Saint-Nicaise.
Monsieur le Vicomte,
The Members of our Committee write in confidence to ask you if you would honour them with a gift for the July medal-winners, unfortunate family men; in this time of plague and misery, your kindness would inspire the most sincere gratitude. We dare to hope that you will consent to set your illustrious name beside those of Messieurs le General Bertrand, General Exelmans, General Lamarque, General Lafayette, various Ambassadors, Peers of France, and Deputies.
We beg you to honour us with a word in reply, and if, contrary to our hopes, a refusal follows our request, be good enough to return this note to us.
With the purest of sentiments we beg you, Monsieur le Vicomte, to accept the homage of our respective greetings.
The active Members of the Committee for the July Medal-Winners:
Visiting Member: Faure.
Special Commissioner: Cyprien-Desmaret.
Managing-Secretary: Gibert-Arnaud.
Assistant Member: Tourel.’

I took care not to relinquish the advantage that the July Revolution here granted me over itself. In distinguishing between people, it had created islands of unfortunates, who, because of certain political opinions, were not to be helped. I quickly sent the gentlemen a hundred francs, with this note:

‘Paris, this 22nd of April 1832.
I thank you deeply for contacting me with regard to my coming to the aid of various unfortunate family men. I hasten to send you the sum of one hundred francs; I regret not having a more substantial gift to offer.
I have the honour, etc.

The following receipt was sent to me immediately:

‘Monsieur le Vicomte,
I have the honour to thank you and to acknowledge receipt of one hundred francs which you kindly destine for relief of the July unfortunates.
Salutations and respect.
The Managing-Secretary of the Committee:
23rd of April.’

Thus, Madame la Duchesse de Berry gave alms to those who had pursued her. These transactions lay bare the heart of things. Consider the reality of a country where no one cares for their party’s casualties, where the heroes of yesterday are cast adrift tomorrow, where a little gold attracts a crowd, as farmyard pigeons flock to the hand that throws them grain.

Four thousand francs of the twelve thousand remained. I addressed myself to religion; Monsignor the Archbishop of Paris wrote me this noble letter:

‘Paris, the 26th of April 1832.
Monsieur le Vicomte,
Charity like faith is catholic, a stranger to human passions, independent of their politics: one of the primary characteristics which distinguish it, according to St Paul, is to think no evil: non cogitate malum. She blesses the hand that gives and the hand that receives, without attributing to the generous benefactor any motive other than that of doing a good deed, and without asking from the poor sufferer any condition other than need. She accepts with profound and heart-felt thanks the gift that the august widow has charged you with conferring on her, for the relief of our unfortunate brothers who are victims of the scourge which has afflicted the capital.
She will distribute the four thousand francs you have give me for her with faithful care, and this letter is a fresh receipt, but I will have the honour to inform you of the details of the distribution when the benefactress’ intentions have been fulfilled.
Monsieur le Vicomte, please convey to the Duchesse de Berry the gratitude of a shepherd and father who offers his life to God, every day, on behalf of his lambs and his children, and who calls to everyone for aid sufficient to meet their needs, Her royal heart has doubtless already found within herself recompense for the sacrifice she has made for our unfortunates; religion assures her moreover of the efficacy of the divine promise committed to delivering blessings upon those who show mercy.
A distribution has been carried out immediately among the priests of the twelve main parishes of Paris, to whom I am addressing the letter of which I here enclose a copy.
Accept, Monsieur le Vicomte, the assurance, etc.
Hyacinthe, Archbishop of Paris.’

It is always wonderful to see how religion creates its own style, and gives even to commonplaces a gravity and propriety which one feels at once. It contrasts with the tone of those anonymous letters which were mingled with the letters I have just cited. The orthography of these anonymous letters is correct enough, the writing fine; they are, properly speaking, literary, like the July Revolution. They show the jealousies, hatreds and vanities of hacks protected by the inviolability of a cowardliness which never showing its face cannot be revealed by a slap.

‘Tell us when you grease your moccasins, you old Republican! We can easily find you some Chouan grease, and some of your friends’ blood to write their history with if you like, there’s plenty in the Paris mud, it’s their element.
Ask your rascally and worthy friend Fitz-james, Old Brigand, if the stone he received in the feudal cause gave him pleasure. You pile of scoundrels, we’ll rip your guts out, etc, etc.’

In another missive, can be seen a neatly draw gallows with these words:

‘Get on your knees to a priest, and make contrition, as we want your old head to end its treason.’

Anyway, the cholera is still with us: the reply I might send a known, or unknown, adversary might perhaps arrive when he was dying at the threshold of his house. If on the other hand he was destined to live, where would his reply reach me? Perhaps in that place of rest which no one fears these days, above all we whose lives span the Terror, and the Plague, the first and last of our life’s horizons. Enough: let the coffins go by.