Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 3
Holidays again at Combourg – The Conti Regiment – Camp at Saint-Malo – An Abbey – The Theatre – My two eldest sisters’ marriages – Return to school – A revolution begins in my ideas.

Dieppe, October 1812.

I returned to Dol, much to my regret. The following year there was a campaign to make a landing on Jersey, and a camp was established near Saint-Malo. Troops were billeted at Combourg; Monsieur de Chateaubriand, out of courtesy, successively provided lodging for the colonels of the Touraine and Conti Regiments; one was the Duc de Saint-Simon, and the other the Marquis de Causans. (I have experienced a real pleasure in again meeting this gallant gentleman, distinguished for his loyalty and Christian virtues, since the Restoration. Note: Geneva, 1831). A score of officers were invited to my father’s table every day. The pleasantries of these officers displeased me; their walks disturbed the peace of my woodlands. It was through seeing the lieutenant-colonel of the Conti Regiment, the Marquis de Wignacourt galloping beneath the trees, that the idea of travel entered my head for the first time.

When I heard our guests talking of Paris and the Court, I was saddened; I tried to guess what Society was like: I imagined something vague and far-off; but soon became confused. Gazing at the world from the tranquil regions of innocence, I felt giddy, as one does when looking at the earth from the height of one of those towers lost in the heavens.

One thing however charmed me, the parade. Each day, the new guard, led by the drummer and band, would file past the foot of the staircase in the Green Court. Monsieur de Causans proposed showing me the camp on the coast: my father consented.

I was accompanied to Saint-Malo by Monsieur de La Morandais, a gentleman of good family, whom poverty had reduced to being the steward of the Combourg estate. He wore a coat of grey camlet, with a little silver band at the collar, and a cap or headpiece of grey felt with earflaps, with a peak in front. He put me behind him on the crupper of his mare Isabelle. I held on to the belt that carried his hunting knife, attached to the outside of his coat: I was delighted. When Claude de Bullion, and President de Lamoignon’s father, travelled to the country, as children: ‘They were both carried by the same donkey, in the panniers, one on one side, and one on the other, and they packed a loaf of bread next to Lamoignon, since he was lighter than his friend, to act as a counterweight.’ (Memoirs of President de Lamoignon)

Monsieur de La Morandais took shortcuts:
Gladly, in a noble manner,
On he rode by wood and river:
For no one rode more cheerfully
Than François beneath the tree.

We stopped for dinner at a Benedictine Abbey, which, for lack of a sufficient number of monks had been incorporated in a leading community of the order. We only found the bursar there, who had been charged with disposing of the furnishings, and selling the timber. He served us an excellent meal without meat, in what had been the Prior’s library: we ate a quantity of new-laid eggs with some carp and huge pike. Through the arches of a cloister I could see tall sycamores, bordering a pond. An axe struck at the foot of each tree, its crown trembled in the air, and it fell, providing us with a show. Carpenters from Saint-Malo were sawing off green branches as one trims hair on a young head, or squaring off the fallen trunks. My heart bled at the sight of those decimated woods and that deserted monastery. The general sack of religious houses has reminded me since of the despoliation of the abbey, which was for me a portent.

Arriving at Saint-Malo, I met the Marquis de Causans; under his escort I traversed the avenues of the camp. The tents, the stacks of weapons, the tethered horses, made an attractive scene together with the sea and its vessels, and the high walls and distant steeples of the town. I saw pass by, on a barb at full gallop, one of those men with whom a world draws to an end, the Duc de Lauzun. The Prince de Carignan, having joined the camp married Monsieur de Boisgarin’s daughter, charming though a little lame: it caused a great row and led to a legal case that Monsieur Lacretelle the Elder is even now defending. But what relationship do these events have to my life? ‘In proportion as the memory of my intimate friends gives them a complete view of their subject,’ says Montaigne, ‘so they push their narrative into the past, so that if the story is a good one they smother its virtues, if it is not you curse their fortunate powers of memory or their unfortunate lack of judgement…..I have known some very amusing tales become most tiresome in the mouth of a certain gentleman.’ I am afraid of being that gentleman.

My brother was at Saint-Malo, when Monsieur de La Morandais deposited me there. One evening he said: ‘I’m taking you to the theatre: get your hat.’ I lost my head and went straight to the cellar to find my hat which was in the attic. A troupe of strolling players had just arrived. I had seen marionettes; I imagined that at the theatre one saw puppets much superior to those in the street.

I arrive with beating heart at a wooden building on a deserted road. I entered through dark corridors, not without a certain feeling of apprehension. A little door was opened, and there I was with my brother in a box half-full of people.

The curtain had risen, the play began: they were performing Diderot’s Le Père de famille. I saw two men walking about the stage and talking, while everybody looked at them. I took them for the managers of the puppet-show, chatting outside the Old Woman’s hut, waiting for the audience to arrive: I was surprised only by the fact that they talked so loudly of their affairs, and were listened to in silence. My astonishment grew when other people arriving on stage started waving their arms about and weeping, and everyone started weeping in sympathy. The curtain fell without my understanding anything of this. My brother went downstairs to the foyer between the two plays. Left in the box among strangers, a situation which my shyness rendered a torment, I would have preferred to be in the haven of my school. Such was the first impression I gained of the art of Sophocles and Molière.

The third year of my life at Dol was marked by the marriage of my two eldest sisters: Marianne to the Comte de Marigny, Bénigne to the Comte de Québriac. They accompanied their husbands to Fougères, a signal for the dispersal of a family whose members were destined soon to separate. My sisters received the nuptial blessing at Combourg on the same day, at the same time, at the same altar, in the chapel of the château. They wept, my mother wept; I was astonished by this sadness: I understand it today. I never attend a baptism or a wedding without smiling bitterly or experiencing a contraction of my heart. After the misfortune of being born, I know none greater than that of giving birth to a human being.

That same year saw a revolution in my person as in my family. Chance caused two very different books to fall into my hands, an unexpurgated Horace and a history of Painful Confessions. The mental upheaval that these two books produced in me is unbelievable: a new world came into being around me. On the one hand, I suspected secrets incomprehensible to one of my age, an existence different from my own, pleasures beyond my games, charms of an unknown nature in a sex of which I had seen only a mother and sisters; on the other, spectres dragging chains along and vomiting flames announced eternal punishment for a single concealed sin. I lost sleep; at night I thought I could see black hands and white hands passing in turn across my curtains: I came to imagine that the latter hands were cursed by religion, and this idea added to my horror of the infernal shades. I searched in vain in heaven and hell for an explanation of a double mystery. Assaulted suddenly both morally and physically, I continued to struggle in my innocence against the storms of premature passion and the terrors of superstition.

From then on I felt several sparks fly from that fire which is the transmission of life. I analysed the fourth book of the Aeneid and read Télémaque: all at once I discovered in Dido and in Eucharis beauties that ravished me; I became aware of the music of those marvellous verses and of classical prose. One day I translated impromptu the Aeneadum genitrix, hominum divumque voluptas: Mother of Aeneas, delight of men and gods of Lucretius with so much liveliness that Monsieur Égault tore up the poem, and set me to work on Greek roots. I stole a Tibullus: when I reached Quam juvat immites ventos audire cubantem: What joy to hear the raging winds as I lie there, those feelings of sensual delight and melancholy showed me my true nature. The volumes by Massillon containing the sermons of the Adulteress and the Prodigal Son never left my side. I was not allowed to leaf through books since there were few doubts as to what I might discover. I would steal little bits of candle from the chapel to read, at night, those seductive descriptions of the disorders of the soul. I would fall asleep stammering incoherent phrases, in which I would try to capture the sweetness, meter, and grace of the writer who had best conveyed the Racinian euphony in prose.

If, since that time, I have depicted with some degree of truth the movements of the heart mingled with Christian remorse, I am persuaded that I have owed that success to chance, which at the same moment led me to comprehend two inimical empires. The ravages that a doubtful book inflicted on my imagination were compensated for by the terrors that another book inspired in me, and these were softened to some extent in turn by the tender thoughts which certain unveiled pictures had left with me.