Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 5

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Chapter 5
Gesril – Hervine Magon – The fight with the two ship’s boys

La Vallée-aux-Loups, June 1812.

I have said how my precocious rebellion against Lucile’s mistresses engendered my evil reputation; a playmate completed it.

My uncle, Monsieur de Chateaubriand du Plessis, who lived at Saint-Malo like his brother, had, like him, four daughters and two sons. Of my two cousins (Pierre and Armand) who formed my first ‘society’, Pierre became a page to the Queen, while Armand was sent to college as one destined for the religious state. Pierre, ceasing to be a page, entered the Navy and was drowned off the coast of Africa. Armand, immured in his college for years, left France in 1790, served throughout the Emigration, made a score of intrepid journeys to the coast of Brittany in a longboat, and at last came to die for the King on the Plain of Grenelle, on Good Friday 1809, as I have already said, and as I will mention again when I come to tell of his downfall.

Deprived of the society of my two cousins, I replaced it with a new friendship.

On the second floor of the hotel where we lived, a gentleman of the name of Gesril was staying: he had a son and two daughters. The son was brought up differently from me; a spoilt child, whatever he did was considered charming: he loved nothing more than fighting, and above all stirring up quarrels of which he established himself as the arbitrator. Playing naughty tricks on the maids taking children for their walks there was scarcely talk of anything else but his escapades, transformed into the darkest of crimes. His father laughed at it all, and Joson, was only loved the more. Gesril became my close friend and gained an incredible ascendancy over me: I benefited from such a leader, though my character was entirely the opposite of his own. I loved solitary games, and never sought quarrels with anyone: Gesril was wild for the delights of the crowd, and exulted in the midst of brawling children. When some urchin spoke to me, Gesril would say to me: ‘You allow that?’ At this I imagined my honour was compromised and I would fly in the face of the impudent lad; his height and age were of no consequence. A spectator of the fight, my friend would applaud my courage, but did nothing to help me. Sometimes he raised an army from all the lads he met, divided his conscripts into two gangs, and we skirmished on the shore with stones.

Another game, invented by Gesril, appeared still more dangerous: when the tide was high and stormy, the waves, whipped up at the foot of the château above the main beach, reached the openings in the towers. Twenty feet above the base of one of these towers, a granite parapet held sway, narrow, slippery, sloping, by which one reached the outworks that defended the moat: it was necessary to seize the moment between two breakers to cross the perilous gap, before the wave broke and covered the tower. A mountain of water arrived with an advancing roar which, if you hesitated a moment, could carry you off or crush you against the wall. Not one of us refused the challenge, but I have seen children turn pale before the attempt.

This tendency to push others into adventures, of which he remained a spectator, might lead one to think that Gesril would not reveal a very generous character in later life: nevertheless it was he, who on a much smaller stage, possibly surpassed Regulus in heroism: he only lacked Rome and Titus Livy to ensure his fame. Having become a naval officer he was captured in the Quiberon landing; the action having finished and the English continuing to bombard the Republican army, Gesril threw himself into the sea, swam to the ships, called to the English to cease fire, and told them of the sad state of the émigrés, and their surrender. They wanted to save him, throwing him a rope, and urging him to climb aboard: ‘I am a prisoner on parole,’ he shouted from the midst of the waves, and he swam back to land: he was shot with Sombreuil and his companions.

Gesril was my first friend; both of us misjudged in our childhood, we were allied by an instinct of what we might become one day.

Two adventures brought an end to this first part of my story, and produced a significant change in the manner of my education.

We were on the beach one Sunday, beyond the Porte Saint-Thomas, as the tide rose. At the foot of the chateau and along Le Sillon, large stakes driven into the sand protected the walls against the swell. We used to scramble on top of these stakes to see the first undulations of the flow pas beneath us. The places were occupied as usual; there were several little girls among the boys. I was the farthest lad out to sea, having no one in front of me but a pretty little thing called Hervine Magon, who was laughing with pleasure and crying with fear. Gesril was at the other end near the shore. The wave arrived, the wind blew; already the maids and servants were calling out: ‘Come down, Mademoiselle! Come down, Monsieur!’ Gesril waited for a big wave: when it swept in between the piles he gave the child sitting next to him a shove; he fell against another: and he onto the next: the whole line collapsed like a row of cards, but each one was supported by his neighbour; there was only the little girl at the end of the line on whom I leant, and who unsupported by anyone, fell. The ebb swept her away; a host of shrieks ensued, all the maids hitched up their skirts and waded into the sea, each one seizing her charge, and boxing its ears. Hervine was fished out, but declared that François had pushed her in. The maids descended on me; I escaped; I ran home to barricade myself in the cellar: the female army pursued me. Fortunately my mother and father were away. La Villeneuve defended the door valiantly and struck at the enemy’s vanguard. The true originator of the trouble, Gesril, lent his assistance: he climbed to his room, and with his two sisters threw jugs of water and baked apples at the assailants. At nightfall they raised the siege; but the tale went round the town, and the Chevalier de Chateaubriand, aged nine, passed for a desperate character, descended from those pirates whom Saint Aaron had purged from his rock.

This was the other adventure:

I went to Saint-Servan with Gesril, a suburb separated from Saint-Malo by the trading port. To reach it at low tide, you cross the water-course on narrow bridges of flat stones that the rising tide covers. The servants accompanying us had been left far behind us. At the end of one of these bridges we saw two ship’s boys coming towards us; Gesril said: ‘Are we going to let these beggars past?’ and immediately shouted at them: ‘Into the water, you ducks!’ They, in their role of ship’s boys, refused to understand the jest; Gesril retreated; we took up position at the end of the bridge, and snatching up pebbles flung them at the lads’ heads. They descended on us, forcing us to give ground, armed themselves with stones, and drove us back on our reserve corps, that is to say our servants. I was not wounded in the eye, like Horatius: a stone struck me so hard that my left ear, almost detached, hung on my shoulder.

I thought no more of my injury, but only of my return home. When my friend returned from his excursion with a black eye, a torn coat, he was comforted, caressed, coddled, and given a change of clothes: in a similar circumstance, I would be made to do penance. The blow I had received was dangerous, but nothing La France could say would persuade me to go home, I was so afraid I ran and hid on the second floor of Gesril’s house, and he bound up my head in a towel. The towel put him in good spirits: it looked to him like a mitre; he transformed me into a bishop, and made me recite the High Mass with him and his sisters until supper time. The pontiff was then obliged to go downstairs: my heart was beating. Surprised by my appearance, bruised and daubed with blood, my father said not a word; my mother let out a shriek; La France explained my pitiful state, and made excuses for me; I received no less of a dressing down. My ear was patched up, and Monsieur and Madame Chateaubriand resolved to separate me from Gesril as quickly as possible. (I have already spoken of Gesril in my works. One of his sisters, Angélique Gesril de la Trochardais, wrote to me in 1818, asking me to obtain permission for Gesril’s surname to be joined with that of her husband, and her sister’s husband: I failed in my negotiations.)

I am not sure if it wasn’t that year that the Comte d’Artois came to Saint-Malo: he was treated to the spectacle of a naval battle. From the heights of the bastion of the powder-magazine, I saw the young prince in the crowd by the sea-shore: in his glory and my obscurity, what unknown workings of destiny! So, unless my memory errs, Saint-Malo has only seen two Kings of France, Charles IX and Charles X.

Such is the picture of my childhood. I do not know if the harsh education I received is good in principle, but it was adopted by my family without design, and as a natural consequence of their temperaments. What is certain is that it made my ideas less like those of other men; what is even more certain is that it marked my sentiments with a melancholy character born in me from the habit of suffering at a tender age, heedlessness and joy.

You might think that this manner of upbringing would lead to my detesting my parents? Not at all; the memory of their strictness is almost dear to me; I prize and honour their great qualities. When my father died, my comrades in the Navarre Regiment witnessed my grief. To my mother I owe the solace of my life, since from her I acquired religion; I listened to the Christian truths that issued from her mouth, as Pierre de Langres would study at night in church, by the light of the lamp burning before the Blessed Sacrament. Would my mind have been better developed by launching me into my studies earlier? I doubt it: those waves, those winds, that solitude, that were my first masters were perhaps better suited to my natural disposition; perhaps I owe to these savage instructors virtues I would have lacked. The truth is that no system of education is in itself preferable to any other: do the children of today love their parents more because they address them as tu, and no longer fear them? Gesril was spoilt in the house where I was scolded: we both became honest men, and affectionate and respectful sons. Something you think bad brings out your child’s talents; something that seems good stifles those same talents. God does well whatever he does; it is Providence that guides us, when it destines us to play a role on the world’s stage.