Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 7

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XXXV, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 8


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXV, chapter 7
My life at Monsieur Gisquet’s – I am set at liberty



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

Madame Récamier, to whom so many prisoners have owed consolation and deliverance, was brought to my new retreat. Monsieur de Béranger came over from Passy to tell me in song, during his friends’ rule, what it was like to be in gaol during that of mine: he could not have thrown the Restoration in my face more harshly. My great friend Monsieur Bertin came to administer the ministerial sacraments; an enthusiastic lady hastened from Beauvais in order to admire my glory; Monsieur Villemain performed a courageous action; Monsieur Dubois, Monsieur Ampère, Monsieur Lenormant, my wise and generous young friends, did not forget me; the Republican defence lawyer, Monsieur Charles Ledru, did not forsake me: in hopes of a trial, he exaggerated the affair, and would have foregone all his fees to have had the pleasure of defending me.

Monsieur Gisquet had made me free of all of his rooms, as I mentioned; but I did not abuse the privilege. Only on a single evening did I descend to listen, while seated between him and his wife, to Mademoiselle Gisquet playing the piano. Her father scolded her and pretended that she had not played the sonata as well as usual. This little concert given by my host, en famille, with only myself as audience, was quite singular. While this pastoral scene was played out in fireside intimacy, police officers kept me away from my colleagues with blows from rifle butts and steel-tipped batons; yet what peace and harmony reigned in the policemen’s hearts!

I had the happiness of being able to enlist a favour, the favour of prison, similar to the one which I enjoyed, on behalf of Monsieur Charles Philippon; condemned for his talent to some months in detention, he was spending them in a sanatorium at Chaillot; summoned to Paris as a trial witness, he profited from the occasion and did not return to his lodgings; but he repented of it: in his hiding place, he was no longer free to see his child whom he loved: he regretted his prison, and not knowing how to return to it, he wrote me the following letter begging me to negotiate the thing with my host:

‘Sir,
You are a prisoner and will understand, or you would not be Chateaubriand…I am a prisoner too, a voluntary prisoner, since placing myself in a state of siege at a friend’s house, a poor artist like myself. I wished to flee the justice of the military tribunal with which I was threatened by the seizure of my newspaper on the 9th of this month. But, in order to remain in hiding, I have foregone the embraces of a child I idolize, an adopted daughter aged five, my joy and delight. This deprivation is a torment which I cannot long endure, it is death to me! I will give myself up, and they will throw me in Sainte-Pélagie, where I can only see my poor child infrequently, if they will still allow it, and only at set times, and where I will tremble for her health, and die of anxiety, if I cannot see her every day.
I, a whole-hearted Republican, address myself to you, Sir, a Legitimist, a serious man and a parliamentarian, I a caricaturist and a partisan of the most incisive political character, address you whom I do not know and who are a prisoner like myself, begging you to ask the Prefect of Police if he will let me return to the sanatorium to which they transferred me. I engage on my honour to present myself whenever I am required and I renounce any attempt to escape whatever tribunal there may be, if they will leave my poor child with me.
You will believe me, Sir, when I speak of honour and swear not to flee, and I am sure you will be my advocate, though the deepest politicians might see there a fresh proof of alliance between Legitimist and Republicans, men whose opinions match so well.
If my request is refused to such a guest, such an advocate, I will know I have nothing more to hope, and that I must be separated from my poor Emma for nine months.
Whatever, Sir, may be the result of your generous intervention, my thanks will be no less eternal, since I have no doubts of the urgent solicitations which your heart will suggest to you.
Accept, Sir, the expression of my sincere admiration and believe me your very humble and very devoted servant.
CH. PHILIPPON,
Proprietor of La Caricature (journal),
condemned to thirteen months in prison.
Paris, the 21st of June 1832.’


I obtained the favour Monsieur Philippon asked for: he thanked me in a note which demonstrates, not the magnitude of the service (which reduced to my client being watched over at Chaillot by a gendarme), but the hidden delights of love, which cannot be truly understood except by those who have felt them.

‘Sir,
I leave for Chaillot with my darling child.
I wish to thank you, but I feel words are too cold to express the gratitude I feel; I have reason to believe, Sir, that your own heart will suggest some eloquent phrases. I am sure I will not be mistaken in thinking it will inform you that I am not ungrateful, and will portray for you better than I can the storm of happiness in which your goodness has placed me.
Accept, I beg you, Sir, my sincerest thanks and deign to regard me as your servant, and the most affectionate of your servants.
CHARLES PHILIPPON.’

To this singular mark of my credit, I will add this strange witness to my fame: a young employee in Monsieur Gisquet’s office addressed some fine verse to me which was passed on to me by Monsieur Gisquet himself; since in the end justice was demanded: if a literate government attacked me nobly, the Muses defended me nobly. Monsieur Villemain courageously pronounced in my favour and in the Journal des Débats itself my great friend Bertin protested, signing an article against my arrest. Here is what the poet, who signed himself J. Chopin, office-worker wrote to me:

TO MONSIEUR DE CHATEAUBRIAND
AT THE POLICEPREFECTURE.
Bowing to your genius, I dare
To dedicate my lines to thee
And bear, a streamlet flowing to the sea,
This tribute to the god of metre there.
Misfortune now has fallen on your brow
Serene as ever in the tempest’s blast.
What cares the poet for this fleeting Now?
Your glory will remain…our hatreds pass.
Gracious enemy, your voice, its power,
Have even lent a charm to error,
Yet your eloquence at such an hour
Absolves your heart of it forever.
A King struck once before at your freedom;
You showed, at his severity,
Your greatness: he fell: and is gone,
Yet you see only his misery!
Oh, who could sound your endless loyalty
And force the tide to turn aside again?
But while one party may applaud your zeal,
Your glory is for all...take back your pen.
J. CHOPIN,
Office-worker.

Mademoiselle Naomi (I think that is Mademoiselle Gisquet’s Christian name) often walked alone in the little garden book in hand. She would steal a glance towards my window. How sweet to have been delivered from my chains, as in Cervantes, by my gaoler’s daughter! While I was taking the romantic air, young and handsome Monsieur Nay came to dissipate my dream. I saw him talking with Mademoiselle Gisquet in that manner which cannot deceive us, we creatures of other sylphs. I fell from my clouds, closed the window and abandoned the idea of letting my white moustaches be blown about by the winds of adversity.

After a fortnight, a decree dismissing the case set me at liberty on the 30th of June, to Madame de Chateaubriand’s great happiness: she would have died, I fear, if my detention had continued. She came in a cab to fetch me; I filled it with my bit of luggage so swiftly that I was already leaving the Ministry, and I returned to the Rue d’Enfer with that something achieved which misfortune grants to virtue.

If Monsieur Gisquet is known to posterity through history, perhaps he has arrived there in a sorry enough state; I desire what I have just written about him to serve as a counter-balance on behalf of a renowned enemy. I have nothing but praise for his kind attentions: Doubtless, if I had been condemned he would not have let me escape, but he and his family treated me with the propriety, the good grace, the sense of my position, of who I was and had been, that an educated administration had not shown, nor lawyers all the more brutal in that they acted against the weak and showed no fear.

Of all the governments which France has suffered in forty years, that of Philippe is the only one that has thrown me in gaol; it placed its hand on my head, on a head respected even by an angry conqueror; Napoleon lifted his arm but did not strike. And why that anger? I will tell you: I dared to protest in favour of right, against the tide of events, in a country in which I demanded liberty under the Empire, and glory under the Restoration; in a country where I alone take account not of brothers, sisters, children, joys, pleasures, but of graves. The recent political changes have parted me from my friends: some have gone on to make their fortunes, and they pass by my poverty swollen with dishonour; others have abandoned their homes exposed to insult. The generation so greatly in love with freedom has been sold: mean in their conduct, intolerable in their pride, mediocre or foolish in their writings, I expect nothing but disdain from that generation and I return it in kind; they have nothing about them that I understand, they know nothing of loyalty to a given oath, love of generous institutions, respect for one’s own opinion, scorn of success or gold, the felicity of sacrifice, the religion of weakness and misfortune.