Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 8

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II, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> II, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 8
I am sent to Brest to take the Navy examination – The Port of Brest – I meet Gesril again – La Pérouse – I return to Combourg

Vallée-aux-Loups, January 1814.

After Julie’s wedding I set out for Brest. I did not feel the same regret on quitting the great College of Rennes that I experienced on leaving the little College of Dol; perhaps I no longer possessed that innocence that makes everything seem attractive to us: my youth was no longer in bud, time was beginning to unfurl it. In my new position I had as mentor one of my maternal uncles, the Comte Ravenel de Boisteilleul, commander of a squadron, one of whose sons, a highly distinguished artillery officer in Bonaparte’s armies, married the only daughter of my sister the Comtesse de Farcy.

Arriving at Brest, I failed to find my cadet’s commission waiting; some accident had delayed it. I remained what was known as an aspirant, and as such was exempt from the usual studies. My uncle put me to board in the Rue de Siam, at a cadets’ hostel, and introduced me to the Naval Commander, Comte d’Hector.

Left to my own devices for the first time, instead of making friends with my future messmates, I retreated into my customary solitude. My habitual society was confined to my masters in fencing, drawing and mathematics.

At Brest, that sea which I was to meet with on so many coasts washed the tip of the Armorican peninsula: beyond this prominent cape, there lay only a boundless ocean and unknown worlds; my imagination delighted in those deeps. Often, sitting on some mast laid along the Quai de Recouvrance, I watched the movements of the crowd: shipwrights, sailors, soldiers, customs-men, and convicts passed to and fro in front of me. Voyagers embarked and disembarked, pilots controlled some manoeuvre, carpenters planed blocks of wood, rope-makers spun their cables, ship’s-boys lit fires under coppers which gave off clouds of smoke and the healthy smell of tar. Bales of merchandise; sacks of victuals; trains of artillery were carried up, carried down, rolled along from sea to magazine and magazine to sea. Here carts backed into the water to receive their cargo; there hoists lifted loads, while cranes lowered stones, and dredging machines dug out silt. Forts repeated signals, launches came and went, and vessels cast off or anchored in the docks.

My spirit was full of vague ideas regarding society, its virtues and faults. Some malaise overcame me; I left the mast on which I had been sitting; I climbed back up along the River Penfeld that flowed into the harbour; I reached a bend where the harbour vanished. There, with nothing to see but a peaty valley, but still hearing the confused murmur of the see and the voices of men, I lay down on the brink of the little river. Now watching the water flow, now following with my eyes the flight of a chough, enjoying the silence around me, or listening to the blows of the caulking hammers, I fell into the profoundest reverie. In the midst of it, if the wind brought me the sound of a canon fired by some vessel setting sail, I would shiver and tears would fill my eyes.

One day, I had set out to walk to the far end of the harbour, towards the sea: it was warm; I lay down on the beach and fell asleep. Suddenly I was woken by a tremendous noise: I opened my eyes, as Augustus did seeing the triremes in the anchorage of Sicily, after the victory over Sextus Pompey; the reports of guns followed; the roads were crowded with ships: the great French squadron was returning after the signing of peace. The ships manoeuvred under sail, hoisted their lights, showed their colours, presented their sterns, bows or broadsides to the shore, stopped short by dropping anchor in mid-course, or continued to skim the waves. Nothing has ever given me a more exalted idea of the human spirit; man seemed at that moment to have borrowed something from Him who said to the sea: ‘You shall go no further. Non procedes amplius.’

All Brest hurried to the harbour. Launches detached themselves from the fleet and came alongside the mole. The officers with which they were crowded, faces bronzed by the sun, had that foreign look one brings back from another hemisphere and an ineffable air of gaiety, pride and daring, as befitted men who had come from restoring the honour of the national ensign. This naval corps, so worthy and illustrious, companions of Suffren, La Motte-Picquet, Couëdic and D’Estaing, having escaped from enemy fire, were destined to fall to that of Frenchmen!

I was watching the brave troops file by, when one of the officers left his comrades and fell upon my neck: it was Gesril. He seemed taller, but was weak and ailing from a sword-thrust he had taken in the chest. He left Brest the same evening to rejoin his family. I saw him only once more, shortly before his heroic death; I will explain the circumstances later. Gesril’s appearance and sudden departure led me to take a decision which changed the course of my life: it was written that this young man should exert an absolute influence on my destiny.

Once can see how my character was shaping, what turn my ideas were taking, what the first symptoms of my genius were, since I can speak of it as an illness, whatever it may have been, rare or common, worthy or unworthy of the name I give it, for lack of another word that might express it better. I would have been happier if I had been more like other men: anyone who, without destroying my spirit, could have managed to kill what is called my talent would have done me a friendly service.

When the Comte de Boisteilleul took me to meet Monsieur Hector, I heard sailors, young and old, recounting their campaigns, and speaking of the countries they had visited: one had arrived from India, another from America; this one had to set sail for a round the world trip, that one was off to rejoin his Mediterranean station, to visit the shores of Greece. My uncle pointed out La Pérouse to me in the crowd, a new Cook, whose fate is a secret kept by the storms. I heard it all, and saw it all, without uttering a word; but there was no sleep for me that night: I spent it deep in imaginary battles, or discovering vast worlds.

Be that as it may, on seeing Gesril about to return to his parents, I decided that there was nothing to stop me going home to mine. I would have truly liked serving in the Navy, if my spirit of independence had not made me unfit for service of any kind: I have within me an inability to obey. Travel tempted me, but I felt I could only enjoy it alone, following my own whim. At last, showing the first evidence of my inconstancy, without telling my uncle Ravenel, without writing to my parents, without asking anyone’s permission, without waiting for my cadet’s commission, I left one morning for Combourg, where I arrived as if I had dropped from the sky.

I am still astonished today that given the terror my father inspired in me, I should have dared to take such a step, and what is just as astonishing is the manner in which I was received. I ought to have expected transports of violent anger, I was welcomed tenderly. My father contented himself with shaking his head as if to say: ‘Here’s a fine to-do!’ My mother kissed me, with a full heart, grumbling at the same time, my Lucile in an ecstasy of joy.