Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 20

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XXXV, 19 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 21

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 20
Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu

On the 29th of August I went to dine at Arenenberg.

Arenenberg is situated on a kind of promontory, in a range of steep hills. The Queen of Holland, whom the sword made and the sword un-made, built the château, or, if one prefers, chalet of Arenenberg. It enjoys an extensive, but melancholy, prospect. The view overlooks the lower Lake of Constance, which is merely an expansion of the Rhine over flooded meadows. On the far side of the lake you can see sombre woods, remnants of the Black Forest, and a few white birds fluttering beneath a grey sky, buffeted by an icy wind. There, having been seated on a throne, Queen Hortense came to perch on a rock; below is an island in the lake where, they say, the tomb of Charles the Fat was discovered, and where canaries, set free and vainly seeking the sun of the Canaries, are now dying. Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu was better off in Rome: she has not yet descended relative to her birth and early years; on the contrary she has climbed; her abasement is only in relation to an accident of fate; it was not one of those falls like that of Madame la Dauphine, fallen from the height of the centuries.

Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu’s companions were her son, Madame Salvage, and Madame Parquin. The guests were Madame Récamier, Monsieur Vieillard and I. Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu handled her difficult position as queen and young Beauharnais lady very well.

After dinner, she sat down at her piano with Monsieur Cottereau, a tall and handsome young painter with a moustache, a straw hat, a smock, and a shirt open at the neck, a bizarre costume something between one of Henry III’s ‘darlings’ and a Calabrian shepherd, without affectation, but with that unfortunate manner of the studio somewhere between informal, droll, original, and affected. He hunted, he painted, he sang, he loved, he laughed, was witty, and noisy.

Prince Louis lived in a separate chalet, where I saw weapons, and topographic and military maps; hobbies which made one think, as if at random, of the conqueror’s race without naming him: Prince Louis is an educated young man, full of honour and serious by nature.

Madame la Duchesse de Saint-Leu read me several fragments of her memoirs; she showed me an office filled with Bonaparte’s spoils. I asked myself why this room left me cold; why the little hat which made the bourgeois of Paris happy, that belt, that uniform worn in such and such a battle found me so indifferent; I was no more moved than I am by the sight of generals’ uniforms hanging in the second-hand clothes shops on the Rue de Bac; I was much more disturbed recounting Napoleon’s death on St Helena. The reason is that Napoleon was our contemporary; we all saw and knew him: the man in our memory works against the hero too close still to his glory. In two thousand years it will be another thing. The very form and content of those relics detracts from their effect: we view with respectful curiosity the Macedonian’s breastplate whose ornamentation traces a plan of Alexandria, but what can we do with a worn-out morning-coat? I would prefer the Corsican mountaineer’s jacket that Napoleon had to wear as a child: without us realising it, artistic feeling exercises a great sway over our ideas.

That Madame de Saint-Leu is enthusiastic about this trivia is not surprising; but other visitors need to remember the royal mantles torn by Napoleonic claws. The centuries alone give Alexander’s sweat its amber perfume. Let us wait: for a conqueror, only his sword need be shown.

Bonaparte’s family cannot persuade themselves that they are nobodies. The Bonapartes lack a pedigree; the Bourbons a man: there would be more chance of a Restoration of the latter, since a man might suddenly arise but no one can create a pedigree. Everything ended for Napoleon’s family with the man himself: they can only inherit his fame. The dynasty of Saint Louis was so strengthened by its long history that in falling it tore up a part of the foundations of society with its roots.

I am unable to say why the Imperial world seems to me void of manners, physiognomy, style, and customs; yet is of a different age to the world of the Legitimacy: the latter possesses the decrepitude that time brings; it is blind and deaf, it is weak, ugly and querulous, but it displays its natural air and its crutches suit its age. Imperialists, on the contrary, give a false show of youth; they wish to appear sprightly, but occupy the Invalides; they are not ancient like the Legitimists, they are only old like a spent fashion: they have the look of those divinities of the Opera who have descended to their chariots of gilded cardboard; military suppliers bankrupted by a poor speculation or a battle lost; ruined gamblers who still retain some remains of their borrowed magnificence, bracelets, chains, seals, rings, faded velvet, tired satins, and seamless Point d’Angleterre lace.

Returning to Wolfberg with Madame Récamier, I left for the night: the weather was dark and rainy; the wind sighed in the trees and the owls hooted: a truly Germanic scene.

Madame de Chateaubriand soon arrived in Lucerne: the dampness of the villa worried her, and, Lugano being too dear, we decided on Geneva. We made our way via Sempach; the lake holds a memory of a battle that assured Swiss liberation at a time when the nations this side of the Alps had lost their freedom. Beyond Sempach, we passed the Abbey of Saint-Urbain, dilapidated like all the monuments of Christianity. It is situated in a gloomy place, at the edge of a heath leading to woodland: if I had been alone and free, I would have asked the monks for some hole in their walls, to finish my Memoirs, like an owl; then I might have gone to end my days beneath the lovely relaxing sun of Naples or Palermo: but beautiful countries and the spring have become injurious to me, disastrous, sources of regret.

When we arrived in Bern, we were told that there was a major revolt going on in the city; I looked carefully, the streets were deserted, silence reigned, the terrible revolution had been completed without a word, to the peaceful smoking of pipes, in the depths of some little inn.

Madame Récamier lost no time in joining us in Geneva.