We can therefore take it for granted, without losing ourselves in genealogies without interest, that Mlle. de Chastenay was of the purest aristocratic class or set. Her father was an officer of dragoons. At the age of fourteen she was named Canoness of Epinal (her aunt was Abbess of Epinal). The proofs had been made according to rule, a paternal filiation of eight nobles d'epee,and the same number on the maternal side:
"I remember that at vespers the whole chapter (there were twenty ladies in all) came to take me from my aunt's house. I had a black gown. One of the knights of the chapter gave me his hand; the garrison band preceded us. When we arrived in the choir of the church, I kneeled; the abbess said to me. 'What do you ask my daughter?' Answer: 'The bread and the wine of Saint Goery (the patron of the chapter), to serve God and the holy Virgin.' I had to eat some biscuit, to wet my lips in a cup; they put me on a great blue cordon, with a hanging cross, a long mantle fringed with ermine, a black veil. A Te-Deum was sung, the procession returned in the same order, and a ball began at my aunt's. I amused myself much at this ball, as well as at those which suceeded during the five days of my stay at Epinal. I had wept during the ceremony, but the dance consoled me very rapidly."
Mlle. de Chastenay was eighteen years old in 1789; she was very intelligent and quite capable of understanding all the questions which agitated the country before the Revolution. She was reading Montesquieu, Locke, Mably, and a thousand political productions of the time. "I loved liberty," she says with a rare candor. "I was, in the fullest sense of the term, a very 'exalted' person." When the election to the States-General took place, her father was elected by the nobility of the bailiwick of Chatillon in Burgandy. Mlle. de Chastenay analyzes very well the sentiments which animated the order of the nobility at the States-General. In the elections, the question at issue between the candidates was the vote per caput or the vote by order. The vote per caput implied the principle of popular representation in which the three orders were to be merged; the vote by order implied the political distinction of the ancient orders of the nobility, the clergy, and the Tiers-Etat. At Versailles the order of the nobility divided promptly. The majority was formed of the nobles who from this moment were called aristocrats - chiefly provincial nobles, who had not lived at court, and who had lived on their estates. The minority was liberal; it comprised the most brilliant young men, whose families were accustomed to live at court, the leaders of fashion, the young officers who had fought in the American war. The Duke of Orleans, a prince of the blood, belonged to this minority. The members of the majority meant to maintain the privileges of their order, with the exception of the pecuniary privileges, which they were willing to sacrifice, and to preserve the prerogative of the Crown. The minority was prepared to make all needful sacrifices to work in harmony with the Tiers-Etat.
Mlle. de Chastenay was like her father an ardent admirer of the reformers. "I was," she says, "dans le delire." She tells us the story of the first events of the Revolution in a graphic manner. Her delire received great shocks when she saw an "odious multitude" take Louis XVI back from Versailles to Paris. "Some men had loaves of bread on their pikes or their bayonets; but, what people will find difficult of belief, the heads of the murdered Guards preceded, borne in triumph, and, by a horrible refinement, they had their bloody hair frise at Sevres. The National Guard marched behind these horrible banners." Mlle. de Chastenay remained in Burgundy during the winter of 1789-1790; she returned to Paris in the spring, and found the tide of emigration in full force, and society having for its mot d'ordre, "The King is captive and all his acts are forced." She spent the worst times of the Terror in Rouen, and nothing can be more interesting than her narrative of the life which she led in the capital of Normandy during this terrible period. There is realism in her account which transcends in its eloquence the declamation of many writers:
"The life which we led was of great simplicity and of profound obscuritty. The art of the time was to isolate one's self. . . We had no illusions; we said to each other, my brother and myself, when walking in the evening in the delicious vales round Rouen, that within six months we should all fall under the axe of the Revolution. Still, the flowers charmed us, we made drawings, we indulged in music, we read novels, we had our moments of pleasure; and after out violent and sudden emotions we experienced every day those movements of joy which resemble hope. The days succeeded each other. Mamma had heroic courage; and we had been forbidden to hear the horrible reading of the papers. . . A complete famine, an absolute poverty, added to the misery of the times; the maximum made it complete. A deputy named Siblot appeared in Rouen, and, as meat was becoming scarce, he gave orders that not a pound of it should be sold. . . People had to form in queue at the baker's; a few pounds of rice would have been called a monopoly. . . A ring at the doorbell caused us horrible pains and a cold sweat."
A member of the Convention named Alquier was sent to Rouen on a mission. He knew the father of Mlle. de Chastenay, and was able to protect him.
"Regicide through fear, he yet voted for the appeal to the people, and hoped thus to save his own life and not to commit a crime. I know how this mixture of acts and sentiments will seem odious to persons fortunate enough never to have sinned, perhaps because they never had occasion to do so. We were under the greatest obligations to M. Alquier. . . We had also in the committee a very obliging protector, M. Godebin, a dyer, who was not a bad man, but whose manners and tone, without being inspired by the great wrath of the Pere Duchesne, were far from mild. My father, towards five o'clock in the morning, paid him short visits, and received from him rules of conduct; in no way to attract attention was the primary lesson. My father ordered, by his advice, a coat styled carmagnole, so as to appear on the street dressed like everybody else."
A law of April 16, 1794, directed against suspected persons and the nobles, forbade the latter to remain in Paris or in the maritime cities. Mlle. de Chastenay had to return with her father and mother to Chatillon. They had to pass round Paris by Saint Denis and Charenton; it was on the day when Mme. Elizabeth ascended the guillotine. The poor travelers met with constant and touching pity among the people in their difficult journey. "My brother having left the carriage while the postillion was mending something, they remained for a few minutes together, sad and silent; 'So you are a nobleman,' at last said the postillion. 'Yes,' answered my brother. 'Oh God!' said the postillion with a great sigh, and remounted his horse." It was so everywhere along the road; at Chatillon they found the Terror in full force. By an unfortunate mistake, the name of M. de Chastenay had been placed, in his absence, on the list of the emigres, and he had to hide himself. Mlle. de Chastenay was imprisoned. We learn from her what a provincial prison was in 1794. She had to live in the same room as the consierge, his wife, several children and several prisoners. Her father was arrested, taken to Dijon, and from Dijon to Paris. The 9th Thermidor saved him; he had had the good fortune to be defended before the tribunal by Real, who was to play an important part in Mlle. de Chastenay's life. Real was a lawyer and gave himself up to the defence of the accused. "Witty, animated, with a shining talent; good, natural, full of sensibility, he espoused my father's cause with enthusiasm." The admiration thus expressed for the man who saved her father's life was the beginning of a liaison which lasted nearly all her life.
Mlle. de Chastenay behaved very courageously before the municipality of Chatillon; she was set free, but the times were still very troubled. The 9th Thermidor had not put an immediate end to the Terror. "The day which followed the acquittal of my father was," she says, "marked in Paris by the apotheosis of Marat - that is to say, by the transfer of his remains to the Pantheon." Mlle. de Chastenay spent the autumn of 1794 in Dijon; she was at Chatillon in 1795, and had occasion to see there an officer of artillery, Marmont (who became Marshal Marmont). "The young officer had just come from the army of Provence, then called the army of Italy; he was accompanied by General Bonaparte, a general of artillery, who was on his way to Nantes, where he was to take command of the army of the West. M. de Marmont was his friend, but not his aide de-camp. The General, who was then twenty-six years old, had been educated at the Military School with a cousin of M. de Marmont." General Bonaparte was accompanied by his brother Louis, who was then sixteen years old, and was himself getting his education. Mlle. de Chastenay made the acquaintance of Bonaparte; her face had struck him. She had with him a conversation which lasted four hours after dinner (people dined then at two o'clock).
"I am sorry not to have written down our conversation; there are only fragments of it in my mind. . . I soon discovered that the General had no republican faith or maxims. I was surprised, but he was absolutely frank on the subject. He spoke of the resistance which the Revolution had met; the resistance was not over, and success was impossible. . . The General told me, what was true, that the mass of the army was wholly alien to the bloody events of which France had been the theatre; it ignored them completely, and he seemed to believe that the army, always in the hands of the de facto authority, would not interfere with parties, and would take on no special color. Bonaparte spoke of the poems of Ossian, whom he admired, of 'Paul and Virginia'; he spoke of happiness. He said that for a man it ought to consist in the highest development of his faculties.
"At the time when this conversation, memorable for me, took place, I had the intimate conviction that whoever should offer a centre to opinion would seize the helm which was in nobody's hand, would dare to call himself, and would in effect become, chief and king, and would find no obstacle, because nothing was established, and no man fixed the confidence or even the attention of all. I think that I said so, and it would be singular that I should thus have been his prophetess. I know positively that, preoccupied with this idea, I spoke of it to everybody. . . My memory does not give me any assurance of having laid this idea before Bonaparte. However, he always remembered our conversation, and I do not think that it was because I spoke to him of Virginia and of Ossian." (Nation June 11, 1896)