Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 1

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III, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> III, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book III - Chapter 1
Life at Combourg – Days and Evenings

Montboissier, July 1817. (Revised December 1846)

After my return from Brest, four masters (my father, mother, sister and I) inhabited the château of Combourg. A cook, a chambermaid, two footmen and a coachman comprised the whole domestic staff: a hunting dog and two old mares were hidden away in a corner of the stable. These twelve living beings were swallowed up by a manor house where one might not have noticed a hundred knights, their ladies, squires and varlets, with King Dagobert’s chargers and hounds.

In the course of a year never a stranger presented themselves at the château, except for a few noblemen, such as the Marquis de Montlouet, or the Comte de Goyon-Beaufort, who sought hospitality on their way to plead at the High Court. They arrived in winter, on horseback, pistols at their saddle-bows, hunting-knives at their sides, followed by a man-servant also on horseback, with a big livery trunk behind him.

My father, always very formal, would receive them, bare-headed, on the steps, in the midst of wind and rain. These country gentlemen, once inside, would talk about their Hanoverian campaigns, family affairs and the progress of their law-suits. At night they were shown to the north tower, to Queen Christina’s chamber, a guest room occupied by a seven foot square bed, with two sets of curtains in green muslin and crimson silk, and supported by four gilt Cupids. Next morning, when I descended to the great hall, and looked out of the windows at the countryside, inundated, or blanketed with frost, all I would see were two or three travellers on the lonely road beside the pond: they would be our guests riding towards Rennes.

These strangers knew little of the affairs of life; nevertheless our view was extended, because of them, for a few miles beyond the horizon of our woods. When they had left we were reduced on weekdays to family conversation, and on Sundays to the society of the village notables and the local gentry.

On Sundays, if the weather was fine, my mother, Lucile, and I went to the parish church through the Little Mall, and along a country lane; when it rained we used the abominable Rue de Combourg. We were not carried, like the Abbé de Marolles, in a light chariot drawn by four white horses, captured from the Turks in Hungary. My father only attended church once a year to perform his Easter duties; for the rest of the year he heard Mass in the chapel of the château. Sitting in the lord of the manor’s pew, we received the incense and prayers in front of the black marble tomb of Renée de Rohan, next to the altar: a symbol of mortal honours; a few grains of incense in front of a sepulchre!

These Sunday entertainments expired with the day: they were not even guaranteed. During the worst of the seasons, whole months passed by without a single human creature knocking on our castle door. If the gloom was great on the heaths round Combourg, it was greater still in the château: one experienced, penetrating its vaults, the same sensation as on entering the Charterhouse at Grenoble. When I visited it in 1805, I traversed a wasteland which was perpetually in growth; I thought it would terminate at the monastery; but they then showed me, within the sacred walls, the gardens of the Charterhouse which were even more overgrown than the woods. Finally, at the centre of the monument, enveloped in the shrouds of all those solitudes, I found the ancient cemetery of the coenobites; a sanctuary where eternal silence, the divinity of the place, extended its power over the mountains and forests around.

The bleak tranquillity of the Château of Combourg was increased by my father’s taciturn and unsociable nature. Instead of gathering his family and servants around him, he had scattered them to every corner of the building. His bedroom was situated in the small east tower, and his study in the small west tower. The furniture in this study consisted of three chairs in black leather, and a table covered with title-deeds and parchments. A genealogical tree of the Chateaubriand family hung over the chimney-piece, and in one window-corner one could see all sorts of fire-arms from pistol to blunderbuss. My mother’s room was above the great hall, between the two small towers: it had a parquet floor and was decorated with faceted Venetian mirrors. My sister occupied a closet adjoining my mother’s room. The chambermaid slept a long way off, in the main building between the two large towers. As for myself, I was tucked away in a sort of isolated cell, at the top of the staircase turret which connected the inner courtyard with the various parts of the château. At the foot of this staircase, my father’s valet and manservant slept in vaulted cellars, while the cook was garrisoned in the great west tower.

My father rose at four in the morning, winter and summer alike: he went into the inner courtyard to call for, and wake, his valet, at the entrance to the turret staircase. A small coffee was brought to him at five: he then worked in his study until midday. My mother and sister each breakfasted in their rooms, at eight. I had no fixed time, for rising or breakfasting; I was supposed to study till noon: most of the time I did nothing.

At half past eleven, the bell rang for dinner which was served at midday. The great hall acted as both dining and drawing room: we dined and supped at one end of the east side; after the meal we went and sat at the other end of the west side, in front of an enormous fireplace. The great hall was wainscoted, painted in pale grey and decorated with old portraits from the reigns of François I to Louis XIV; among the portraits one could make out those of Condé and Turenne: a painting, representing Hector, slain by Achilles beneath the walls of Troy, hung over the chimney-piece.

Dinner over, we stayed together till two. Then, if it was summer, my father entertained himself fishing, inspected his kitchen-gardens, or took a walk ‘to the extent of a capon’s flight’; if it was autumn or winter he went hunting, and my mother retired to the chapel where she spent several hours in prayer. This chapel was a sombre oratory, embellished with fine paintings by the greatest masters, which one hardly expected to find in a feudal castle, in the depths of Brittany. I have in my possession today a Holy Family by Albani, painted on copper, taken from this chapel: it is all that remains to me of Combourg.

Once my father had set out, and my mother was at her prayers, Lucile shut herself in her room; I returned to my cell, or went off to roam the fields.

At eight, the bell rang for supper. After supper, on fine days, we sat out on the steps. My father, armed with a shotgun, fired at the owls that flew from the battlements as night fell. My mother, Lucile, and I, gazed at the sky, the woods, the dying rays of the sun, the first stars. At ten we went in to sleep.

Autumn and winter evenings had a different character. Supper over, and the four diners having moved from table to fire-place, my mother sank, sighing, onto an old day-bed covered with Siam; a little table with a candle was placed before her. I sat near the fire with Lucile; the servants cleared the table and withdrew. My father then set off on a walk which lasted till he retired to bed. He was dressed in a thick white woollen robe, or rather a sort of cloak, that I have never seen on anyone else. His head, which was half-bald, was covered with a big white bonnet which stood upright. When, while walking, he strayed far from the fire-place, the vast hall was so badly lit by a single candle that he could not be seen; he could only be heard walking among the shadows; then he returned slowly towards the light and emerged little by little from the darkness, like a spectre, with his white robe, white bonnet, and long pale face. Lucile and I would exchange a few words in a low voice, while he was at the other end of the hall; we fell silent as he approached us. He would say in passing: ‘What are you talking about?’ Seized by terror we could not reply; he would continue his walk. For the rest of the evening, nothing met the ear but the measured sound of his steps, my mother’s sighs, and the murmur of the wind.

Ten o’clock sounded on the château clock: my father would stop; the same spring which had raised the hammer of the clock seemed to have suspended his steps. He pulled out his watch, wound it, took a large silver candlestick holding a tall candle, went into the small west tower for a moment, then returned, candle in hand, and headed for his bedroom, adjoining the small east tower. Lucile and I stood in his way; we kissed him and wished him goodnight. He offered us his dry, hollow cheek without replying, walked on, and withdrew into the depths of the tower, the doors of which we heard closing behind him.

The spell was broken; my mother, my sister and I, transformed to statues by my father’s presence, recovered the functions of life. The first effect of our disenchantment revealed itself in a torrent of words: if silence had oppressed us, we made it pay dearly.

The flow having ceased, I would call the chambermaid, and escort my mother and sister to their rooms. Before I left, they made me look under the beds, up the chimneys and behind the doors and inspect the stairs, passages and neighbouring corridors. All the traditions of the château, of robbers and ghosts, returned to their thoughts. The servants were convinced that a particular Comte de Combourg, with a wooden leg, three centuries dead, appeared at certain times, and that he had been met with on the great staircase of the turret; and sometimes his wooden leg walked, by itself, accompanied by a black cat.