Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXV, chapter 5
The journey from my thief’s lodging to Mademoiselle Gisquet’s dressing-room – Achille de Harlay



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

I began to undress; the sound of voices was heard; my door opened and the Prefect of Police accompanied by Monsieur Nay, appeared. He made me a thousand excuses for the length of my detention at the station; he informed me that my friends, the Duke of Fitz-James and Baron Hyde de Neuville had been arrested as I had and that, with the log-jam in the Prefecture, no one knew where the people with whom justice was occupied had been placed. ‘But,’ he added, ‘you must come home with me, Monsieur le Vicomte, and choose which room will best suit you.’

I thanked him and begged him to leave me in my hole; I was already quite charmed by it, as if it were a monk’s cell. The Prefect refused my entreaties and was forced to unearth me. I saw those rooms again which I had not seen since the day when Bonaparte’s Prefect of Police had asked me to visit so he could invite me to leave Paris. Monsieur and Madame Gisquet opened up all their rooms while begging me to say which one I would occupy. Monsieur Nay proposed to yield me his. I was embarrassed by so much politeness; I accepted a little out-of-the-way room looking onto the garden and which, I think, served as a dressing room for Mademoiselle Gisquet; I was allowed to retain my servant who slept on a mattress outside my door, at the entrance to a narrow stairway down to Madame Gisquet’s grand apartment. Another stairway led to the garden; but the latter was forbidden me, and every evening a sentry was posted below by the railing separating the garden from the quay. Madame Gisquet is the nicest woman on earth, and Mademoiselle Gisquet is very pretty and a very competent musician. I had nothing but praise for my hosts’ care: they seemed to wish to recompense me for the twelve hours of my initial imprisonment.

The morning after my taking up residence in Mademoiselle Gisquet’s dressing room, I rose quite contented, remembering Anacreon’s poem on the young Greek girl; I stuck my head out of the window: I could see a little garden, full of greenery, and a high wall hidden by Japanese lacquer-work; on the right, at the end of the garden, were offices where pleasant clerks of the police service could be glimpsed, like lovely nymphs among the lilacs; on the left, the banks of the Seine, the river, and an ancient corner of Paris, in the parish of Saint-André-des-Arts. The sound of Mademoiselle Gisquet’s piano reached me mixed with the voices of agents asking for the divisional heads in order to make their reports.

How the whole world changes! This little romantic English garden assigned to the police was a tiny winding fragment of the French garden, its arbours closely pruned, that belonged to the first President of the Parliament of Paris. This ancient garden occupied the site of that parcel of houses which limits the view to the north and west, and extended to the banks of the Seine. It was here after the day of the barricades, that the Duc de Guise came to visit Achille de Harlay: ‘He found the first President walking in his garden, who was so little astonished by his arrival that he deigned neither to turn his head nor discontinue the walk he had begun, which being achieved, and he being at the end of the path, he returned, and on returning saw the Duc de Guise advancing towards him; then that grave magistrate, raising his voice, said: ‘It is a great pity that the valet has chased his master away; as for the rest, my soul is God’s, my heart is my King’s, and my body is in the hands of rogues; let them do what they will.’ The Achille d’Harlay who walks in the garden today is Monsieur Vidocq, and the Duc de Guise is Coco Lacour; we have exchanged great men for great principles. How free we are these days! Above all how free I was at my window, witness the fine gendarme at the foot of my stairs who was ready to shoot me in flight if I had spread my wings! There were no nightingales in my garden, but there were plenty of lively sparrows, cheeky and quarrelsome, found everywhere, in town and country, palaces and prisons, perching as cheerfully on the instruments of death as on a rose-bush: to those who can fly, what do the sufferings of the earth matter!