Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 7

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II, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> II, 8

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 7
Mission at Combourg – RennesCollege – I meet Gesril again – Moreau – Limoëlan – My third sister’s marriage

Vallée-aux-Loups, End of December 1813.

At Combourg I found food for my piety, a mission; I followed its exercises. I received the sacrament of Confirmation on the steps of the manor, with the peasant boys and girls, from the Bishop of Saint-Malo’s hand. Afterwards, a cross was erected; I helped to support it while it was being fixed on its base. It still exists: it stands in front of the tower in which my father died. For thirty years it has seen no-one appear at the windows of that tower; it is no longer saluted by the children of the château; each spring it waits for them in vain; it only sees the swallows return, the companions of my childhood, more loyal to their nest than man to his home. How happy I would have been if my life had been spent at the foot of the mission cross, if my hair had only been whitened by the years that have covered the arms of that cross with lichen!

I did not wait long before leaving for Rennes. I was to continue my studies and complete my mathematics course in preparation for my examination as a Naval Guard at Brest.

Monsieur de Fayolle was the principal of Rennes College. In this Breton ‘Juilly’ there were three distinguished teachers, the Abbé de Chateaugiron for the humanities, the Abbé Germé for rhetoric, and the Abbé Marchand for physics. Both boarders and day-pupils were numerous, the classes hard. Later, Geoffroy and Ginguené, who graduated from this college, would have brought honour to Sainte-Barbe or Plessis. The Chevalier de Parny also studied at Rennes; I inherited his bed in the room I was assigned.

Rennes seemed like a Babylon to me, the school a world. The multitude of masters and boys, the extent of the buildings, gardens and playground struck me as immense; I grew used to it however. On the Principal’s name day we were given a few days off; we sang magnificent couplets of our own, at the tops of our voices, in his praise, or we recited:

O Terpsichore, O Polyhymnia,
Come, come inspire our voices;
Reason itself invites you here.

I acquired over my new schoolmates the same ascendancy I had exercised over my old companions at Dol: it cost me a few blows. Breton scamps are quarrelsome; on half-holidays we exchanged invitations to fight in the shrubberies of the Benedictines’ garden, called the Thabor: we used mathematical compasses fixed to the end of a cane, or we fought hand to hand more or less treacherously or courteously according to the gravity of the challenge. There were umpires who decided whether a forfeit was due, and in what ways the champions could use their hands. The combat did not end until one of the two contestants acknowledged himself vanquished. I found my old friend Gesril here, presiding, as at Saint-Malo, over these engagements. He wanted to be my second in an affair that I had with Saint-Riveul, a young nobleman who became the first victim of the Revolution. I fell beneath my adversary, refused to surrender, and paid dearly for my pride. Like Jean Desmarets on his way to the scaffold, I said: ‘I cry mercy to God alone.’

At the College I met two men who have since become famous in different ways: Moreau, the general, and Limoëlan, creator of the infernal machine, who is now a priest in America. There is only one portrait of Lucile in existence and this poor miniature was created by Limoëlan, who turned portrait painter during the revolutionary troubles. Moreau was a day-boy, Limoëlan a boarder. Such singular destinies have rarely been found together at the same moment, in the same province, in the same small town, in the same educational establishment. I can’t help recounting a school prank that my friend Limoëlan played on the prefect for the week.

The prefect used to make his round of the corridors after lights out to see if all was well: to achieve this he would look through a hole cut in each of the doors. Limoëlan, Gesril, Saint-Riveul and I slept in the same room:

Of evil creatures it made a very good dish.

We had stopped the holes with paper on several occasions, in vain; the prefect poked the paper out and caught us jumping on our beds and breaking chairs.

One evening, Limoëlan, without telling us his plan, persuaded us to go to bed and douse the light. Soon we heard him get up, go to the door, and then return to bed. A quarter of an hour passed, and here came the prefect on tiptoe. Since we were suspects of his, for sound reasons, he stopped at our door, listened, looked, saw no light at all, thought the hole blocked and imprudently stuck his finger in…imagine his anger! ‘Who’s done this?’ he shouted rushing into the room. Limoëlan was choking with laughter, and Gesril asked in a nasal voice, in his half innocent half mocking way: ‘What is it, Monsieur le Prefect? Thereupon, Saint-Riveul and I, laughing like Limoëlan, hid our heads under the bedclothes.

They could get nothing out of us: we were heroic. We were all four imprisoned in the vaults: Saint-Riveul dug out the earth beneath a door that led to the farmyard; he stuck his head into this mole-hill, and a pig ran up and made as if to eat his brains; Gesril slid into the College cellars and set a barrel of wine flowing; Limoëlan demolished a wall, while I, a new Perrin Dandin, climbing to a ventilator, stirred the mob in the street with my harangues. The fearful creator of the infernal machine, playing this school prank on a college prefect, recalls the young Cromwell, inking the face of another regicide who signed Charles I’s death warrant after him.

Though the regime at Rennes College was very religious, my fervour abated: the multitude of masters and school friends multiplied the occasions for distraction. I made progress in my language studies; I became strong in mathematics, for which I have always had a decided leaning: I would have made a good naval officer or engineer. All in all, I was born with a ready disposition: alert to serious as well as pleasant things, I began with poetry, before arriving at prose: the arts enraptured me; I have loved music and architecture passionately. Though quick to become bored by everything, I have been capable of plenty of fine detail; having been endowed with patience for every trial, though weary of the aim that possesses me, my persistence is greater than my distaste. I have never abandoned any matter that has been worth the effort of completion; there are things in my life I have pursued for fifteen or twenty years, as full of ardour on the last day as on the first.

This mental flexibility appeared in secondary matters. I was good at chess, skilful at billiards, hunting and fencing; I drew passably well; I would have sung well, if my voice had been trained. All this, combined with the way I was educated, and the life of a soldier and traveller, ensured I have never considered myself a pedant, have never displayed a dull or conceited manner, the awkwardness, the slovenly habits of previous men of letters, still less the arrogance and self-assurance, the envy and blustering vanity of the new authors.

I spent two years at Rennes College; Gesril left eighteen months before me. He entered the Navy. Julie, my third sister, was married in the course of those two years: she wedded the Comte de Farcy, a captain in the Condé Regiment, and settled at Fougères with her husband, where my two elder sisters, Mesdames de Marigny and de Québriac were already living. Julie’s marriage took place at Combourg, and I assisted at the wedding. There I met that Comtesse de Trojolif who was noted for her courage on the scaffold: a cousin and close friend of the Marquis de La Rouërie, she was involved in his conspiracy. I had not seen beauty until then, except in my own family; I was confused at finding it in the face of this stranger. Every step in my life opened a new perspective; I heard the distant seductive voice of the passions approaching me; I hurried towards those Sirens, drawn by an unfamiliar music. It so happened that like the High Priest at Eleusis I had different incense for each deity. But could the hymns I sang, while burning this incense, be called Perfumes, like the poems of the hierophant?