Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 4
The adventure of the magpie – Three holidays at Combourg – The charlatan – Return to school

Dieppe, End of October 1812.

What one says of our misfortunes, that they never arrive singly, one can say of the passions: they appear together, like the Muses or the Furies. Accompanying the propensity which began to torment me, the sense of honour arose in me; spiritual exaltation, that renders the heart incorruptible in the midst of corruption; a kind of principle of reclamation set against one of destruction, like the inexhaustible fount of wonders that love asks of youth, and of the sacrifices which it demands.

When the weather was fine, the school boarders were allowed out on Thursdays and Sundays. We often headed for Mont-Dol, on the summit of which stood some Gallo-Roman ruins: from the heights of this isolated hill the eye glided over the sea, and over the marshes where will-o’-the-wisps flickered at night, witches’ lights that burn today in our lamps. Another objective of our walks was the meadows surrounding a Seminary of Eudists, the name deriving from Eudes, the brother of the historian Mézeray, the founder of their congregation.

One day in May, the Abbé Égault, prefect for the week, led us to the seminary: we were allowed great freedom in our games, but were expressly forbidden to climb trees. The master, having set us on a grassy path, moved off to recite his breviary.

Elms bordered the path; right at the top of the tallest a magpie’s nest glowed: we were lost in admiration, the mother-bird sitting on her eggs visible to all of us, and we were seized by a strong desire to gain that magnificent prize. But who would dare attempt the adventure? The rule was so strict, the master so near, the tree so tall! All hope rested on me; I climbed like a cat. I hesitated: then glory inspired me: I shed my coat, I grasped the elm, and began to climb. The trunk was free of branches for two thirds of its height: there it forked, one of the limbs bearing the nest.

My friends, gathered under the tree, hailed my efforts, watching me, watching the place from which the prefect might appear, quivering with joy in hope of the eggs, dying with fear in expectation of punishment. I reached the nest; the magpie flew off; I snatched the eggs, put them inside my shirt and descended. Unfortunately I allowed myself to slip between the twin trunks, and hung astride the fork. The tree had been trimmed, I was unable to gain support for my feet on the right or left in order to raise myself and regain the outer edge: I was left hanging fifty feet in the air.

Suddenly there was a shout: ‘The prefect is coming!’ and I found myself abandoned immediately by my friends, as is customary. Only one, named Le Gobbien, tried to help me, but was soon obliged to renounce his generous attempt. There was only one way to escape my unfortunate situation; that was to hang by my hands from one of the two limbs of the fork, and try to grip the tree-trunk below the fork with my feet. I executed the manoeuvre at the risk of my life. In the midst of my tribulations, I had not let go of my treasure; though I would have been better off letting go of it, as I have since let go of many another. Sliding down the trunk I scorched my hands, scraped my legs and chest, and crushed the eggs: it was that which gave me away. The master had not seen me up the tree; I hid the scratches from him easily enough, but there was no way of concealing the bright yellow colour with which I was stained. ‘Come, Monsieur,’ he said, ‘you shall be whipped.’

If that gentleman had announced to me that he would commute the punishment to one of death, I would have experienced a feeling of joy. The idea of shame had not yet been part of my wild education: at every period of my life there has been no torture I would not have preferred to the horror of having to blush before a living creature. Indignation rose in my heart; I replied to the Abbé Égault, in a tone that was not that of a child, but that of a man, that neither he nor anyone else would ever lay a hand on me. This reply roused him; he called me a rebel, and promised to make an example of me. ‘We will see,’ I answered, and started playing ball with a sang-froid that astonished him.

We returned to school; the master made me go to his room, and ordered me to submit. My exalted sentiments gave way to a flood of tears. I reminded the Abbé Égault that he had taught me Latin; that I was his pupil, his disciple, his child; that he would not wish to dishonour his pupil, and make the sight of my friends insupportable to me; that he could put me in prison, on bread and water, deprive me of my amusements, set me tasks, pensums; that I would be grateful to him for his clemency and would love him the more for it. I fell at his feet; I clasped my hands; I begged him to spare me for Jesus Christ’s sake: he remained deaf to my pleas. I rose up, full of anger, and lashed out at his legs so wildly that he let out a cry. He ran to close the door of his room, double-locked it and returned to me. I took refuge behind his bed; he laid into it with blows from his iron ruler. I twisted about in my hiding place and rousing myself to combat, I cried out:

Macte animo, generose puer! Bless your courage, noble child!

This comical erudition made my enemy laugh despite himself: he spoke of armistice: we concluded a treaty; I agreed to submit to the principal’s judgement. Without deciding in my favour, the principal still wished me to escape the punishment I had resisted. When the excellent priest pronounced my acquittal, I kissed the hem of his robe with such a show of feeling and gratitude, that he could not resist giving me his blessing. So ended the first struggle that made me render homage to what became the idol of my life, and to which on so many occasions I have sacrificed peace, pleasure and fortune.

The holidays during which I entered on my twelfth year were sad ones; the Abbé Leprince accompanied me to Combourg. I never went out except with my tutor; we went for long aimless walks together. He was dying of consumption; he was melancholy and silent; I was scarcely any happier. We walked for hours, one behind the other, without speaking a word. One day we lost our way in the woods; Monsieur Leprince turned to me and said: ‘Which path shall we take?’ I replied without hesitating: ‘the sun is setting; at this moment it is striking the window of the great tower: let us go that way.’ Monsieur Leprince told my father of it that evening: the future traveller revealed himself in my decision. Many a time, seeing the sun set in the forests of America, I recalled the woods of Combourg: my memories echo one another.

The Abbé Leprince wished for me to be given a horse; but in my father’s opinion a naval officer only needed to know how to handle a boat. I was reduced to riding two fat coach-horses or a big piebald, in secret. The latter was not, like Turenne’s Pie, one of those war-horses that the Romans called desultorios equos: circus horses, trained to help their masters; it was a temperamental Pegasus whose hooves knocked together when it trotted, and who bit my legs when I set it at a ditch. I have never cared much for horses, though I have led the life of a Tartar: and contrary to the effect that my early training should have produced, I ride with more elegance than soundness.

The tertian fever, the germs of which I had brought from the marshes of Dol, relieved me of Monsieur Leprince. A seller of remedies passed through the village; my father, who had no faith in doctors, believed in charlatans: he sent for the quack who swore he would cure me in twenty-four hours. He returned the following day in a green coat trimmed with gold braid, a large powdered wig, huge ruffles of dirty muslin, false gems on his fingers, worn black satin breeches, bluish-white silk stockings, and shoes with enormous buckles.

He opened my bed-curtains, felt my pulse, made me put out my tongue, spoke a few words of broken Italian regarding the necessity of purging me, and gave me a little piece of caramel to eat. My father approved of all this, since he maintained that all illness arose from indigestion, and for every kind of malady it was essential to purge a patient till he bled.

Half an hour after swallowing the caramel, I was seized with terrible vomiting; Monsieur de Chateaubriand was told, and wished to hurl the poor devil from the window of the tower. The latter, terrified, took off his coat, and rolled up his sleeves, making the most grotesque gestures imaginable. With every movement, his wig swung about in all directions; he echoed my cries adding after each: ‘Che? Monsou Lavandier?’ This Monsieur Lavandier was the village pharmacist, who had been called in to assist. I could scarcely tell, in the midst of my pain, whether I would die from the man’s medicines or from the bursts of laughter he drew from me.

The effects of this overdose of emetic were countered, and I was set on my feet again. All our life is spent wandering around our grave; our various maladies are so many puffs of wind that carry us nearer to or further from harbour. The first dead person I saw was a canon of Saint-Malo; he lay lifeless on a bed, his face distorted by his last convulsions. Death is beautiful, she is our friend, yet we do not recognise her, because she appears masked to us, and because her mask terrifies us.

I was sent back to school at the end of the autumn.