Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 4
My arrest

Paris, Rue d’Enfer, the end of July 1832.

An old Scottish friend of mine, Mr Frisell, had just lost his only daughter, of seventeen, at Passy. On the 15th of June I went to the funeral of poor Élisa, whose portrait pretty Madame Delessert was finishing when death set there the last mark of the brush. Returning to my solitude, in the Rue d’Enfer, I retired to bed full of melancholy thoughts arising from the conjunction of youth, beauty and the grave. On the 16th of June, at four in the morning, Baptiste, who had been many years in my service, approached my bed and said: ‘Sir, the courtyard is full of men placed at all the doors who forced Desbrosses to open the wicket, and there are three gentlemen who wish to speak to you.’ As he finished speaking, the gentlemen entered, and their leader, very politely approaching my bed told me he had orders to arrest me and take me to the Police Prefecture. I asked him if the sun had yet risen, as the law required, and if he carried a legal order: he did not reply in regard to the sun, but he showed me the following document:

By command of the King;
We, a Councillor of State, and Prefect of Police,
Acting on information received;
In virtue of Article 10 of the Criminal Code;
Require the Superintendent, or another if he is unavailable, to go to Monsieur le Vicomte de Chateaubriand’s, or anywhere else as needs be, to prevent a plot against the State, with the aim of making of a search there and seizing all papers, correspondence, and writings containing incitements to crime or offences against the public peace, where open to examination, as well as all seditious objects or weapons which he may possess.’

While I was reading this declaration of a great plot against the security of the State, of which little I was accused, the police chief said to his subordinates: ‘Gentlemen, do your duty!’ These gentlemen’s duty was to open all the cupboards, to rummage in all my pockets, to seize all my papers, letters and documents, to read them, if they could, and discover all weapons, as required by the terms of the aforesaid order.

After a reading of the document, I addressed myself to the respectable leader of these takers of men and freedom: ‘You know, Sir, that I do not recognise your government, and that I protest against the violence done to me; but as I am not the stronger and have no desire to grapple with you, I will get up and follow you: have the goodness, I beg you, to take a seat.’

I dressed, and taking nothing with me, I said to the venerable Superintendent: ‘Sir, I am at your disposal: are we going on foot? – No, Sir, I have taken the trouble to get you a cab. – That is very good of you: Sir, let us depart; but allow me to say goodbye to Madame de Chateaubriand. Will you allow me to go into my wife’s room alone? – Sir, I will accompany you to the door and wait for you there – Very well, Sir.’ And we descended.

In the street, there were sentries everywhere; they had even placed a cavalry picket on the boulevard, at a little door which opened onto the end of my garden. I said to their chief: ‘These precautions were quite useless; I have not the least intention of fleeing you and escaping.’ The gentlemen had jumbled my papers but not taken anything. My great Mameluke sabre caught their attention; they talked in low voices and ended by leaving the weapon under a heap of dusty folios, in the midst of which lay a crucifix of yellow wood which I had brought from the Holy Land.

This pantomime would have almost roused me to laughter, but I was cruelly tormented in regard of Madame de Chateaubriand. Whoever knows her, also knows the tenderness she shows towards me, her fears, the liveliness of her imagination and the wretched state of her health; the police swoop and my arrest must have given her a great shock. She had already heard the noise and I found her sitting on her bed, listening in fear, when I entered her room at that extraordinary hour.

‘Oh, dear God!’ she cried: ‘are you ill? Oh, dear God, what is it? What is it?’ And she took to trembling. I embraced her, barely restraining my tears, and said: ‘It is nothing, they have sent for me to take my statement as a witness to some business concerning a censorship trial. It will all be finished in a few hours, and I will return to dine with you.’

The agent had remained by the open door; he saw this scene, and as I placed myself in his hands once more, I said: ‘You see, Sir, the effects of your morning visit.’ I crossed the courtyard with my escort; three of them climbed into the cab with me, the rest of the squad accompanied the prisoner on foot and we arrived without delay in the courtyard of the Prefecture of Police.

The gaoler who ought to have admitted me to a holding cell was not up yet; they woke him by knocking on his wicket, and he went off to prepare my residence. While he was occupied with his work, I walked to and fro in the yard with Monsieur Léotaud who was guarding me. He spoke to me amicably, since he was very honest, saying: ‘Monsieur le Vicomte, it is a great honour to meet you; I presented arms before you several times when you were a Minister and you came to see the King: I served in the Bodyguards: but there it is! I have a wife and children; one must live! – You are right, Monsieur Leotard: how much does it bring in? – Ah! Monsieur le Vicomte, that depends on the prisoners…There are bonuses, sometimes good, sometimes poor, as in war.’

During my stroll, I saw agents in various disguises like maskers on Ash Wednesday on the slopes of the Courtille: they came to give their account of their deeds during the night. Some were dressed as greengrocers, street criers, coal vendors, market porters, traders in second-hand clothes, rag and bone men, and organ-grinders; others were wearing wigs, from beneath which poked hair of a different colour; others had beards, moustaches and false sideburns; others limped along as respectable cripples wearing a bright red ribbon in their buttonholes. They vanished into a little courtyard, and soon re-appeared in different costume, without moustaches, beards, sideburns, wigs, baskets, wooden legs, and arms in slings; this whole flock of police birds flew off at dawn and vanished with the rising sun. My cell was ready, the gaoler came to tell us so, and Monsieur Léotaud, doffing his hat, led me to the door of my honest lodging and, as he left me in the hands of the gaoler and his helpers, said: ‘Monsieur le Vicomte, I have been honoured in welcoming you: till we meet again.’ The door closed behind me. Preceded by the gaoler who carried the keys and his two lads who followed me to prevent me turning back, I reached the second floor by a narrow stairway. A dark little corridor led me to a door; the keeper opened it: I followed him into my cell. He asked me if I needed anything: I replied that I would like breakfast in an hour. He advised me there was a kitchen which furnished prisoners with all they could wish, at a price. I asked my gaoler to have me sent some tea, and if possible, hot and cold water and napkins. I gave him twenty francs in advance: he withdrew respectfully promising to return.

Left alone, I inspected my prison: it was a little longer than it was wide, and its height was seven or eight feet. The walls, discoloured and bare, were sprinkled with prose and verse by my predecessors and especially with scribbles by a woman who gave the ‘Centre Ground’ plenty of abuse. A pallet with dirty sheets occupied half the lodging; a plank, supported by two wooden brackets, set against the wall, two feet above the bed, served as a wardrobe for the detainee’s linen, boots and shoes; a chair and a vile appurtenance comprised the rest of the furnishings.

My faithful guard brought me the napkins and jugs of water I had asked for; I begged him to take away the dirty sheets, the blanket of yellow wool, to remove the bucket whose smell was choking me, and to sweep out my cell after swilling it down. All the works of the ‘Centre Ground’ having departed, I shaved; I washed myself with water from my jug, and changed my linen, Madame de Chateaubriand having given me a small supply; I laid out all my possessions on the plank above the bed, as in a cabin on board ship. When that was done, my breakfast arrived and I took my tea at my well-scrubbed table which I covered with a white napkin. Someone arrived shortly to remove the utensils from my morning feast and left me alone duly imprisoned.

My cell was lit only by a window-grill which opened at a height; I placed my table beneath this grill and climbed on the table to get some air and enjoy the light. Through the bars of my thief’s cage I could see a courtyard or rather a narrow shadowy passage, the darkened buildings around it aquiver with bats. I heard the clinking of keys and chains, the sound of policemen and spies, the tread of soldiers, the movement of weapons, shouts, laughter, the wild songs of my fellow prisoners, curses from Benoît, condemned to death for murdering his mother and his lover. I distinguished these words of Benoit’s among his confused cries of fear and repentance: ‘Oh My mother, my poor mother!’ I saw the reverse side of society, the pleas of humanity, and the hideous machines that move the world.

I thank the men of letters, the great partisans of freedom of the Press, who formerly took me as their leader and fought under my command; without them, I would have ended my life without knowing what prison was like, and would have missed the experience. I recognise in that delicate attention the genius, goodness, generosity, honour and bravery of the leading writers. But after all, what did this brief trial amount to? Tasso spent years in a dungeon, yet I complain! No; I have not the pride or foolishness to compare my few hours of discomfort with the lengthy sacrifices of those immortal victims whose names history has preserved.

Moreover, I was not at all unhappy; the spirit of greatness past and a glory thirty years old never troubled me; but my Muse of yesteryear, all poor and unknown, came shining to embrace me through the window: she was charmed by my residence and inspired; she found me as she had seen me in my London poverty, when the first idea of René entered my mind. What should we create, that solitary from Pindus and I? A song on the lines of that of the unfortunate poet Lovelace who, in the prisons of the EnglishCommonwealth, sang of King Charles I, his master? No; a prisoner’s voice would have seemed a poor augury for my little King Henri V: hymns to misfortune should be addressed from the foot of the altar. So I did not sing of the crown fallen from an innocent brow; I contented myself with speaking of another crown, also pale, placed on a young girl’s coffin; I remembered Élisa Frisell, whose funeral I had seen the previous day in Passy cemetery. I began some elegiac verses of a Latin epitaph; but then the correct quantity of a word baffled me; quickly I leapt down from the table on which I had been perched, leaning against the bars of the window, and ran to the door on which I beat heavily. The caverns round about echoed; the terrified gaoler ascended followed by two gendarmes; he opened my wicket and I shouted as Santeuil would have done: ‘A Gradus! A Gradus!’ The gaoler stared wide-eyed, the gendarmes thought I was revealing the name of one of my accomplices; they would willingly have handcuffed me; I explained; I gave them money to buy the book, and they went off to ask a Gradus ad Parnassum of the astonished police.

While they were occupied with my commission, I climbed on my table again, and inspired afresh by my tripod, I set to composing verses for Elisa; but in the midst of my inspired flight, about three o’clock, here came the bailiffs into my cell and apprehended my body on the banks of Permessus: they led me before the examining magistrate who drew up his documents in an obscure office, facing my gaol, on the other side of the courtyard. The magistrate, a young robe, well-fed and conceited, asked me the usual questions as to my name, forenames, age, and place of residence. I refused to reply or sign anything, not recognising the political authority of a government which had on its side neither hereditary right nor popular election, since France had not been consulted and there had been no gathering of any national congress. I was led back to my cell.

At six they brought me my dinner, and I continued to work and re-work the lines of my stanzas in my head, improvising at the same time an air which seemed to me to be quite charming. Madame de Chateaubriand sent me a mattress, bolster, sheets, a cotton blanket, candles and the books I like to read at night. I made my bed singing all the while:

                    The coffin is lowered, the roses without stain,

my romance of the sweet girl and the sweet flower composed itself:

                   The coffin is lowered, the roses without stain
                    A father placed there, a tribute to his grief;
                    Earth, you bore them, hide them now, again,
                              Sweet girl, sweet flower.
                    Oh! Do not return them to this world of pain,
                    This world, profane, of sorrow and despair;
                    Wind will wither them; sun will make them fade,
                              Sweet girl, sweet flower.
                    You sleep, my poor Élisa, so tender of years,
                    No longer burdened by the heat of day!
                    You discover a fresher morning here,
                              Sweet girl, sweet flower.
                    But Élisa, your father bends towards your grave;
                    From your brow to his the pallor ascends.
                    Old oak tree! ...Time uproots the strong and brave,
                              Sweet girl, sweet flower!