Imaginary Conversations and Poems, by Walter Savage Landor

Louis xviii and Talleyrand

Louis. M. Talleyrand! in common with all my family, all France, all Europe, I entertain the highest opinion of your abilities and integrity. You have convinced me that your heart, throughout the storms of the revolution, leaned constantly toward royalty; and that you permitted and even encouraged the caresses of the usurper, merely that you might strangle the more certainly and the more easily his new-born empire. After this, it is impossible to withhold my confidence from you.

Talleyrand. Conscious of the ridicule his arrogance and presumption would incur, the usurper attempted to silence and stifle it with other and far different emotions. Half his cruelties were perpetrated that his vanity might not be wounded: for scorn is superseded by horror. Whenever he committed an action or uttered a sentiment which would render him an object of derision, he instantly gave vent to another which paralysed by its enormous wickedness. He would extirpate a nation to extinguish a smile. No man alive could deceive your majesty: the extremely few who would wish to do it, lie under that vigilant and piercing eye, which discerned in perspective from the gardens of Hartwell those of the Tuileries and Versailles. As joy arises from calamity, so spring arises from the bosom of winter, purely to receive your majesty, inviting the august descendant of their glorious founder to adorn and animate them again with his beneficent and gracious presence. The waters murmur, in voices half-suppressed, the reverential hymn of peace restored: the woods bow their heads. . . .

Louis. Talking of woods, I am apprehensive all the game has been woefully killed up in my forests.

Talleyrand. A single year will replenish them.

Louis. Meanwhile! M. Talleyrand! meanwhile!

Talleyrand. Honest and active and watchful gamekeepers, in sufficient number, must be sought; and immediately.

Louis. Alas! if the children of my nobility had been educated like the children of the English, I might have promoted some hundreds of them in this department. But their talents lie totally within the binding of their breviaries. Those of them who shoot, can shoot only with pistols; which accomplishment they acquired in England, that they might challenge any of the islanders who should happen to look with surprise or displeasure in their faces, expecting to be noticed by them in Paris, for the little hospitalities the proud young gentlemen, and their prouder fathers, were permitted to offer them in London and at their country-seats. What we call reconnaissance, they call gratitude, treating a recollector like a debtor. This is a want of courtesy, a defect in civilization, which it behoves us to supply. Our memories are as tenacious as theirs, and rather more eclectic.

Since my return to my kingdom I have undergone great indignities from this unreflecting people. One Canova, a sculptor at Rome, visited Paris in the name of the Pope, and in quality of his envoy, and insisted on the cession of those statues and pictures which were brought into France by the French armies. He began to remove them out of the gallery: I told him I would never give my consent: he replied, he thought it sufficient that he had Wellington’s. Therefore, the next time Wellington presented himself at the Tuileries, I turned my back upon him before the whole court. Let the English and their allies be aware, that I owe my restoration not to them, but partly to God and partly to Saint Louis. They and their armies are only brute instruments in the hands of my progenitor and intercessor.

Talleyrand. Fortunate, that the conqueror of France bears no resemblance to the conqueror of Spain. Peterborough (I shudder at the idea) would have ordered a file of soldiers to seat your Majesty in your travelling carriage, and would have reinstalled you at Hartwell. The English people are so barbarous, that he would have done it not only with impunity, but with applause.

Louis. But the sovereign of his country . . . would the sovereign suffer it?

Talleyrand. Alas! sire! Confronted with such men, what are sovereigns, when the people are the judges? Wellington can drill armies: Peterborough could marshal nations.

Louis. Thank God! we have no longer any such pests on earth. The most consummate general of our days (such is Wellington) sees nothing one single inch beyond the field of battle; and he is so observant of discipline, that if I ordered him to be flogged in the presence of the allied armies, he would not utter a complaint nor shrug a shoulder; he would only write a dispatch.

Talleyrand. But his soldiers would execute the Duke of Brunswick’s manifesto, and Paris would sink into her catacombs. No man so little beloved was ever so well obeyed: and there is not a man in England, of either party, citizen or soldier, who would not rather die than see him disgraced. His firmness, his moderation, his probity, place him more opposite to Napoleon than he stood in the field of Waterloo. These are his lofty lines of Torres Vedras, which no enemy dares assail throughout their whole extent.

Louis. M. Talleyrand! is it quite right to extol an enemy and an Englishman in this manner?

Talleyrand. Pardon! Sire! I stand corrected. Forgive me a momentary fit of enthusiasm, in favour of those qualities by which, although an Englishman’s, I am placed again in your majesty’s service.

Louis. We will now then go seriously to business. Wellington and the allied armies have interrupted and occupied us. I will instantly write, with my own hand, to the Marquis of Buckingham, desiring him to send me five hundred pheasants’ eggs. I am restored to my throne, M. Talleyrand! but in what a condition! Not a pheasant on the table! I must throw myself on the mercy of foreigners, even for a pheasant! When I have written my letter, I shall be ready to converse with you on the business on which I desired your presence. [Writes.] Here; read it. Give me your opinion: is not the note a model?

Talleyrand. If the charms of language could be copied, it would be. But what is intended for delight may terminate in despair: and there are words which, unapproachable by distance and sublimity, may wither the laurels on the most exalted of literary brows.

Louis. There is grace in that expression of yours, M. Talleyrand! there is really no inconsiderable grace in it. Seal my letter: direct it to the Marquis of Buckingham at Stowe. Wait: open it again: no, no: write another in your own name: instruct him how sure you are it will be agreeable to me, if he sends at the same time fifty or a hundred brace of the birds as well as the eggs. At present I am desolate. My heart is torn, M. Talleyrand! it is almost plucked out of my bosom. I have no other care, no other thought, day or night, but the happiness of my people. The allies, who have most shamefully overlooked the destitution of my kitchen, seem resolved to turn a deaf ear to its cries evermore; nay, even to render them shriller and shriller. The allies, I suspect, are resolved to execute the design of the mischievous Pitt.

Talleyrand. May it please your majesty to inform me which of them; for he formed a thousand, all mischievous, but greatly more mischievous to England than to France. Resolved to seize the sword, in his drunkenness, he seized it by the edge, and struck at us with the hilt, until he broke it off and until he himself was exhausted by loss of breath and of blood. We owe alike to him the energy of our armies, the bloody scaffolds of public safety, the Reign of Terror, the empire of usurpation, and finally, as the calm is successor to the tempest, and sweet fruit to bitter kernel, the blessing of your majesty’s restoration. Excepting in this one event, he was mischievous to our country; but in all events, and in all undertakings, he was pernicious to his own. No man ever brought into the world such enduring evil; few men such extensive.

Louis. His king ordered it. George III loved battles and blood.

Talleyrand. But he was prudent in his appetite for them.

Louis. He talked of peppering his people as I would talk of peppering a capon.

Talleyrand. Having split it. His subjects cut up by his subjects were only capers to his leg of mutton. From none of his palaces and parks was there any view so rural, so composing to his spirits, as the shambles. When these were not fresh, the gibbet would do.

I wish better luck to the pheasants’ eggs than befell Mr. Pitt’s designs. Not one brought forth anything.

Louis. No: but he declared in the face of his Parliament, and of Europe, that he would insist on indemnity for the past and security for the future. These were his words. Now, all the money and other wealth the French armies levied in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and everywhere else, would scarcely be sufficient for this indemnity.

Talleyrand. England shall never receive from us a tithe of that amount.

Louis. A tithe of it! She may demand a quarter or a third, and leave us wondering at her moderation and forbearance.

Talleyrand. The matter must be arranged immediately, before she has time for calculation or reflection. A new peace maddens England to the same paroxysm as a new war maddens France. She hath sent over hither her minister . . . or rather her prime minister himself is come to transact all the business . . . the most ignorant and most shortsighted man to be found in any station of any public office throughout the whole of Europe. He must be treated as her arbiter: we must talk to him of restoring her, of regenerating her, of preserving her, of guiding her, which (we must protest with our hands within our frills) he alone is capable of doing. We must enlarge on his generosity (and generous he indeed is), and there is nothing he will not concede.

Louis. But if they do not come over in a week, we shall lose the season. I ought to be eating a pheasant-poult by the middle of July. Oh, but you were talking to me about the other matter, and perhaps the weightier of the two; ay, certainly. If this indemnity is paid to England, what becomes of our civil list, the dignity of my family and household?

Talleyrand. I do assure your majesty, England shall never receive . . . did I say a tithe? . . . I say she shall never receive a fiftieth of what she expended in the war against us. It would be out of all reason, and out of all custom in her to expect it. Indeed it would place her in almost as good a condition as ourselves. Even if she were beaten she could hardly hope that: she never in the last three centuries has demanded it when she was victorious. Of all the sufferers by the war, we shall be the best off.

Louis. The English are calculators and traders.

Talleyrand. Wild speculators, gamblers in trade, who hazard more ventures than their books can register. It will take England some years to cast up the amount of her losses.

Louis. But she, in common with her allies, will insist on our ceding those provinces which my predecessor Louis XIV annexed to his kingdom. Be quite certain that nothing short of Alsace, Lorraine, and Franc Comté, will satisfy the German princes. They must restore the German language in those provinces: for languages are the only true boundaries of nations, and there will always be dissension where there is difference of tongue. We must likewise be prepared to surrender the remainder of the Netherlands; not indeed to England, who refused them in the reign of Elizabeth: she wants only Dunkirk, and Dunkirk she will have.

Talleyrand. This seems reasonable: for which reason it must never be. Diplomacy, when she yields to such simple arguments as plain reason urges against her, loses her office, her efficacy, and her name.

Louis. I would not surrender our conquests in Germany, if I could help it.

Talleyrand. Nothing more easy. The Emperor Alexander may be persuaded that Germany united and entire, as she would then become, must be a dangerous rival to Russia.

Louis. It appears to me that Poland will be more so, with her free institutions.

Talleyrand. There is only one statesman in the whole number of those assembled at Paris, who believes that her institutions will continue free; and he would rather they did not; but he stipulates for it, to gratify and mystify the people of England.

Louis. I see this clearly. I have a great mind to send Blacas over to Stowe. I can trust to him to look to the crates and coops, and to see that the pheasants have enough of air and water, and that the Governor of Calais finds a commodious place for them to roost in, forbidding the drums to beat and disturb them, evening or morning. The next night, according to my calculation, they repose at Montreuil. I must look at them before they are let loose. I cannot well imagine why the public men employed by England are usually, indeed constantly so inferior in abilities to those of France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. What say you, M. Talleyrand? I do not mean about the pheasants; I mean about the envoys.

Talleyrand. It can only be that I have considered the subject more frequently and attentively than suited the avocations of your majesty, that the reason comes out before me clearly and distinctly. The prime ministers, in all these countries, are independent, and uncontrolled in the choice of agents. A prime minister in France may perhaps be willing to promote the interests of his own family; and hence he may appoint from it one unworthy of the place. In regard to other families, he cares little or nothing about them, knowing that his power lies in the palace, and not in the club-room. Whereas in England he must conciliate the great families, the hereditary dependants of his faction, Whig or Tory. Hence even the highest commands have been conferred on such ignorant and worthless men as the Duke of York and the Earl of Chatham, although the minister was fully aware that the honour of his nation was tarnished, and that its safety was in jeopardy, by such appointments. Meanwhile he kept his seat however, and fed from it his tame creatures in the cub.

Louis. Do you apprehend any danger (talking of cubs) that my pheasants will be bruised against the wooden bars, or suffer by sea-sickness? I would not command my bishops to offer up public prayers against such contingencies: for people must never have positive evidence that the prayers of the Church can possibly be ineffectual: and we cannot pray for pheasants as we pray for fine weather, by the barometer. We must drop it. Now go on with the others, if you have done with England.

Talleyrand. A succession of intelligent men rules Prussia, Russia, and Austria; because these three are economical, and must get their bread by creeping, day after day, through the hedges next to them, and by filching a sheaf or two, early and late, from cottager or small farmer; that is to say, from free states and petty princes. Prussia, like a mongrel, would fly at the legs of Austria and Russia, catching them with the sack upon their shoulders, unless they untied it and tossed a morsel to her. These great powers take especial care to impose a protective duty on intellect; to let none enter the country, and none leave it, without a passport. Their diplomatists are as clever and conciliatory as those of England are ignorant and repulsive, who, while they offer an uncounted sum of secret-service money with the left hand, give a sounding slap on the face with the right.

Louis. We, by adopting a contrary policy, gain more information, raise more respect, inspire more awe, and exercise more authority. The weightiest of our disbursements are smiles and flatteries, with a ribbon and a cross at the end of them.

But, between the Duke of York and the Earl of Chatham, I must confess, I find very little difference.

Talleyrand. Some, however. The one was only drunk all the evening and all the night; the other was only asleep all the day. The accumulated fogs of Walcheren seemed to concentrate in his brain, puffing out at intervals just sufficient to affect with typhus and blindness four thousand soldiers. A cake of powder rusted their musket-pans, which they were too weak to open and wipe. Turning round upon their scanty and mouldy straw, they beheld their bayonets piled together against the green dripping wall of the chamber, which neither bayonet nor soldier was ever to leave again.

Louis. We suffer by the presence of the allied armies in our capital: but we shall soon be avenged: for the English minister in another fortnight will return and remain at home.

Talleyrand. England was once so infatuated as to give up Malta to us, although fifty Gibraltars would be of inferior value to her. Napoleon laughed at her: she was angry: she began to suspect she had been duped and befooled: and she broke her faith.

Louis. For the first time, M. Talleyrand, and with a man who never had any.

Talleyrand. We shall now induce her to evacuate Sicily, in violation of her promises to the people of that island. Faith, having lost her virginity, braves public opinion, and never blushes more.

Louis. Sicily is the key to India, Egypt is the lock.

Talleyrand. What, if I induce the minister to restore to us Pondicherry?

Louis. M. Talleyrand! you have done great things, and without boasting. Whenever you do boast, let it be that you will perform only the thing which is possible. The English know well enough what it is to allow us a near standing-place anywhere. If they permit a Frenchman to plant one foot in India, it will upset all Asia before the other touches the ground. It behoves them to prohibit a single one of us from ever landing on those shores. Improbable as it is that a man uniting to the same degree as Hyder–Ali did political and military genius, will appear in the world again for centuries; most of the princes are politic, some are brave, and perhaps no few are credulous. While England is confiding in our loyalty, we might expatiate on her perfidy, and our tears fall copiously on the broken sceptre in the dust of Delhi. Ignorant and stupid as the king’s ministers may be, the East India Company is well-informed on its interests, and alert in maintaining them. I wonder that a republic so wealthy and so wise should be supported on the bosom of royalty. Believe me, her merchants will take alarm, and arouse the nation.

Talleyrand. We must do all we have to do, while the nation is feasting and unsober. It will awaken with sore eyes and stiff limbs.

Louis. Profuse as the English are, they will never cut the bottom of their purses.

Talleyrand. They have already done it. Whenever I look toward the shores of England, I fancy I descry the Danaïds there, toiling at the replenishment of their perforated vases, and all the Nereids leering and laughing at them in the mischievous fullness of their hearts.

Louis. Certainly she can do me little harm at present, and for several years to come: but we must always have an eye upon her, and be ready to assert our superiority.

Talleyrand. We feel it. In fifty years, by abstaining from war, we may discharge our debt and replenish our arsenals. England will never shake off the heavy old man from her shoulders. Overladen and morose, she will be palsied in the hand she unremittingly holds up against Ireland. Proud and perverse, she runs into domestic warfare as blindly as France runs into foreign: and she refuses to her subject what she surrenders to her enemy.

Louis. Her whole policy tends to my security.

Talleyrand. We must now consider how your majesty may enjoy it at home, all the remainder of your reign.

Louis. Indeed you must, M. Talleyrand! Between you and me be it spoken, I trust but little my loyal people; their loyalty being so ebullient, that it often overflows the vessel which should contain it, and is a perquisite of scouts and scullions. I do not wish to offend you.

Talleyrand. Really I can see no other sure method of containing and controlling them, than by bastions and redoubts, the whole circuit of the city.

Louis. M. Talleyrand! I will not doubt your sincerity: I am confident you have reserved the whole of it for my service; and there are large arrears. But M. Talleyrand! such an attempt would be resisted by any people which had ever heard of liberty, and much more by a people which had ever dreamt of enjoying it.

Talleyrand. Forts are built in all directions above Genoa.

Louis. Yes; by her conqueror, not by her king.

Talleyrand. Your majesty comes with both titles, and rules, like your great progenitor,

Et par droit de conquête et par droit de naissance.

Louis. True; my arms have subdued the rebellious; but not without great firmness and great valour on my part, and some assistance (however tardy) on the part of my allies. Conquerors must conciliate: fatherly kings must offer digestible spoon-meat to their ill-conditioned children. There would be sad screaming and kicking were I to swaddle mine in stone-work. No, M. Talleyrand; if ever Paris is surrounded by fortifications to coerce the populace, it must be the work of some democrat, some aspirant to supreme power, who resolves to maintain it, exercising a domination too hazardous for legitimacy. I will only scrape from the chambers the effervescence of superficial letters and corrosive law.

Talleyrand. Sire! under all their governments the good people of Paris have submitted to the octroi. Now, all complaints, physical or political, arise from the stomach. Were it decorous in a subject to ask a question (however humbly) of his king, I would beg permission to inquire of your majesty, in your wisdom, whether a bar across the shoulders is less endurable than a bar across the palate. Sire! the French can bear anything now they have the honour of bowing before your majesty.

Louis. The compliment is in a slight degree (a very slight degree) ambiguous, and (accept in good part my criticism, M. Talleyrand) not turned with your usual grace.

Announce it as my will and pleasure that the Duc de Blacas do superintend the debarkation of the pheasants; and I pray God, M. de Talleyrand, to have you in His holy keeping.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38