Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 9

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 9
A Walk – The Ghost of Combourg

Montboissier, July 1817.

Between the last date on these Memoirs, of January 1814 at the Vallé-aux-Loups, and today at Montboissier, in July 1817, three years and six months have passed. Did you hear the Empire fall? No: nothing has disturbed the peace of this place. Yet the Empire is destroyed; the vast ruin has collapsed while I am alive, like Roman remains tumbling into the bed of an unknown stream. But to one who considers them of no account, events are of little importance: a few years escaping from the hands of the Eternal will render justice to all these alarums with a silence without end.

The previous chapter was written under the dying tyranny of Bonaparte and by the gleam of the last lightning flashes of his glory: I begin the present chapter in the reign of Louis XVIII. I have seen kings close to, and my political illusions have vanished, like those gentler chimeras whose story I continue. Let us speak first of what led me to take up the pen: the human heart is everything’s toy, and one cannot foresee what trivial circumstance may cause its joys and its pains. Montaigne remarked on it: ‘No cause is required to agitate our soul’, he said, ‘a daydream without substance or meaning will rule and agitate it’

I am now at Montboissier, on the borders of La Beauce and Le Perche. The château on this estate belonging to Madame the Comtesse de Colbert-Montboissier, was sold and demolished during the Revolution: there are only two lodges left, separated by a fence and once forming the caretaker’s dwelling. The park, now in the English style, bears traces of its old French regularity: straight alleys, and copses trained into bowers, give it a formal air; it is as pleasing as a ruin.

Yesterday evening I took a solitary walk; the sky resembled an autumn sky; a cold wind often blew. At an opening in a thicket, I stopped to watch the sun: it sank into the clouds above the tower of Alluye, where Gabrielle, who lived in that tower, watched as I did the sun set two hundred years ago. What has become of Henri and Gabrielle? What I will have become, when these Memoirs are published.

I was drawn from my reflections by the song of a thrush perched on the topmost branch of a silver birch. In a moment, its magic brought the family home before my eyes; I forgot the catastrophes I had witnessed, and suddenly transported into the past I revisited those fields where I had so often heard the song of the thrush. When I listened to it then, I was as sad as I am now; but that first sadness was one which is born from a vague desire for happiness, while one still lacks experience; the sadness that I feel now arises from knowledge of things assessed and judged. The song of the bird in the woods of Combourg sustained that bliss in me that I thought to attain; the same song in the park of Montboissier recalled days lost in pursuit of that unachievable bliss. There is nothing more for me to learn; I have travelled faster than others, and made the tour of life. The hours fly past and carry me with them; I have not even the assurance of completing these Memoirs. In how many places have I already continued writing them, and in what place will I finish them? How many times shall I walk the wood’s edge? Let me profit from the few moments that remain to me; let me hasten to portray my youth, while I can still make contact with it: the traveller, leaving an enchanted shore forever, writes his journal in sight of a country that is departing, and will soon be lost.