Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 7

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Chapter 7
Departure for Combourg – A description of the Château

I was to accompany my sisters to Combourg: we set off on our journey in the first fortnight of May. We left Saint-Malo at sunrise, my mother, my fours sisters and I, in a huge old-fashioned Berlin, with lavishly gilded panels, exterior footboards, and with purple tassels at the four corners of the canopy. Eight horses, decked out like Spanish mules, bells round their necks and smaller ones on their bridles, with housings and woollen fringes in various colours, drew us along. While my mother sighed, and my sisters talked breathlessly, I gazed with both eyes, listened with both ears, and marvelled at every turn of the wheels: the first journey of a Wandering Jew who would never find rest. It would be fine if a man only changed place! But his days and his heart change too.

Our horses were rested at a fishing village on the Cancale shore. Afterwards we travelled through the marshes, and the busy town of Dol: passing the door of the college to which I would soon return, we drove deeper into the countryside.

For ten mortal miles we saw nothing but heath land encircled by woods, fallow tracts barely cleared, fields of sparse, stunted black corn, and scanty oats. Charcoal burners led strings of ponies with lank, tangled manes; long-haired peasants in goatskin tunics drove gaunt oxen with shrill cries or walked behind heavy ploughs, like labouring fauns. Finally we discovered a valley at the end of which not far from a pond rose the spire of a village church. At the western extremity of this village the turrets of a feudal château lifted above the tall trees of a wood lit by the setting sun.

I have been obliged to pause: my heart was beating to the point of shaking the table on which I write. The memories that awaken in my mind overwhelm me with their multiplicity and force: and yet what do they signify to the rest of the world?

Descending the hill we forded a stream; after a half-hour drive we left the main road, and the carriage rolled along beside a quincunx, in an avenue of trees whose summits met above our heads: I can still remember the moment when I entered that shade, and the fearful joy I experienced.

Leaving the darkness of the wood, we crossed a forecourt planted with walnut-trees, adjoining the steward’s house and garden; from there we emerged through a gateway into a grassy court, known as the Green Court. On the right were a run of stables and a clump of chestnut-trees. At the end of the courtyard whose ground rose imperceptibly, the château stood between two stands of trees. Its severe, gloomy façade displayed a curtain wall surmounted by a machicolated covered gallery. The curtain wall linked two towers of differing periods, material, height and thickness, the towers ending in crenellations surmounted by a pointed roof, like a bonnet set on top of a Gothic crown.

Here and there barred windows showed in the bare walls. A wide staircase, straight and steep, of twenty two steps, without banisters or parapet, crossed the filled-in moat, in place of the old drawbridge; it led to the doorway of the château, cut in the centre of the façade. Over this doorway one saw the arms of the Lords of Combourg, and the slits through which the beams and chains of the drawbridge once passed.

The carriage stopped at the foot of the staircase; my father came forward to greet us. The family reunion momentarily softened his mood, so much so that he behaved very graciously to us. We climbed the stairs; we penetrated an echoing hallway, with ribbed vaulting, and from this hallway a little inner court.

From this court we entered the main building which looked south over the pond, and linked two little towers. The whole chateau had the shape of a four-wheeled carriage. We found ourselves on a level with a room once known as the Guardroom. A window opened out at each of its extremities; two others pierced its lateral lines. To increase the size of these four windows it had been necessary to cut through eight to ten foot thick walls. Two corridors with a sloping incline like that of the Great Pyramid led from the two outer corners of the room to the little towers. A spiral staircase winding up one of these towers established a connection between the Guardroom and the upper storey: such was the structure of this building.

That of the façade with its tall and thick towers, facing north, over the Green Court, consisted of a kind of square, sombre dormitory, used as a kitchen; to this was added the entrance-hall, the staircase and a chapel. Over these rooms, was the room of the Archives, or Arms, or Birds, or Knights: so named from its ceiling decorated with coloured escutcheons and paintings of birds. The recesses of the narrow trefoiled windows were so deep they formed little rooms round each of which ran a bench of granite. Add to this, in various parts of the edifice, secret stairs and passageways, dungeons and keeps, a labyrinth of open and covered galleries, walled-up cellars whose ramifications were unknown; everywhere silence; darkness and a visage of stone: behold the château of Combourg.

A supper served in the Guardroom, which I ate cheerfully, brought an end for me to the first joyous day of my life. True happiness costs little; if it is expensive, it is not of a superior kind.

I was scarcely awake the next morning before I was off to explore the grounds of the château, and celebrate my entrance into solitude. The staircase faced north-west. Sitting at the head of this staircase you had the Green Court before you, and beyond that courtyard a kitchen garden between two groves of tall trees: the one on the right (the quincunx through which we had driven) was called the Little Mall; the other, on the left, the Great Mall: this was a wood of oak, beech, sycamore, elm and chestnut. Madame de Sévigné in her time spoke highly of these ancient shade-givers; since that age, a hundred and forty years have been added to their beauty.

On the opposite side, to the south and east, the countryside presented a very different picture: from the windows of the great hall, you could see the houses of Combourg, a pond, the causeway beside the pond along which the highroad to Rennes passed, a water-mill, and a meadow filled with herds of cows, separated from the pond by the causeway. Alongside this meadow stretched a hamlet attached to a priory founded by Rivallon, Lord of Combourg, in 1149, where one could see his mortuary statue, lying on its back in knightly armour. From the pond, the land rose gradually, forming an amphitheatre of trees, from which projected village spires and the turrets of manor-houses. On the far horizon, between south and west, the heights of Bécherel were silhouetted. A terrace bordered by large ornamental box-trees encircled the foot of the château on that side, passed behind the stables and ran with various twists and turns to rejoin the garden that communicated with the Grand Mall.

If following this over-lengthy description a painter were to take up his brush would he produce a sketch resembling the château? I don’t know; and yet my memory sees the object as if it were before my eyes; such is the impotence of words and the power of memory over material things! By starting to speak of Combourg I am reciting the first couplets of a plaintive ballad which has charm only for myself; ask the goat-herd of the Tyrol why he loves the two or three notes he repeats to his flock, sounds of the mountain, throwing off echo after echo in order to resound from one side of a torrent to the other?

My first stay at Combourg was of short duration. Scarcely a fortnight had passed before I witnessed the arrival of Abbé Portier, the principal of Dol College; I was delivered into his hands, and followed him despite my tears.