Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 12

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book III - Chapter 12

Soon, unable to rest in my tower, I descended through the shadows, opened the stairway door furtively like a murderer, and went off to wander in the great wood.

Having marched towards adventure, throwing my arms about, grasping the breezes that escaped me like the shade that was the object of my pursuit, I leant against the trunk of a beech-tree: I watched the crows that I forced to fly from one tree to settle on another, or the moon moving through the naked heights of the plantation: I should have liked to inhabit that dead world, which mirrored the pallor of a sepulchre. I felt neither the chill, nor the moisture of the night; not even dawn’s glacial breath would have dragged me from my thoughts, if the village clock had not made itself heard at that moment.

In most of the villages of Brittany, it is usual to ring the chimes for the dead at daybreak. This peal, of three repeated notes, creates a little monotonous air, rural and melancholy. Nothing was better suited to my sick and wounded soul, than to be returned to the tribulations of existence by the bell which announced its end. I pictured to myself the shepherd expiring in his un-regarded hut, then buried in a cemetery no less unknown. What had he achieved on this earth? What had I myself done in this world? Since I must vanish at last, would it not be better to depart in the freshness of morning, and arrive in good time, than make the voyage under the burden and in the heat of the day? The blush of desire mounted to my face; the idea of no longer being seized my heart in the manner of a sudden joy. In my times of youthful error, I had often wished not to survive happiness: there is in first success a degree of felicity that made me long for destruction.

Bound ever more tightly to my phantom, unable to enjoy what did not exist, I was like those mutilated men who dream of bliss unattainable by them, and who conjure a dream whose pleasures equal the torments of hell. Moreover I had a presentiment of the wretchedness of my future fate: ingenious in contriving suffering for myself, I had placed myself between two sources of despair; sometimes I considered myself no more than a cipher, incapable of rising above the common herd; sometimes I seemed to detect in myself qualities which would never be appreciated. A secret instinct warned me that in making my way in the world I would find nothing of what I sought.

Everything nourished the bitterness of my self-disgust: Lucile was unhappy; my mother did not console me; my father made me aware of the horrors of life. His gloominess increased with the years; age stiffened his soul as it did his body; he spied on me ceaselessly in order to reprimand me. When I returned from my wild excursions and saw him sitting on the steps, I would rather have died than enter the château. But this would only serve to delay my torture: obliged to appear at supper, I would sit guiltily on the edge of my chair, my cheeks wet with rain, my hair tangled. Under my father’s gaze, I sat motionless with sweat bathing my brow: the last glimmer of reason left me.

Now I come to a moment when I need strength to confess my weakness. The man who attempts his own life shows the feebleness of his character rather than the power of his soul.

I owned a hunting rifle whose worn trigger often fired when un-cocked. I charged this gun with three bullets, and went to a remote part of the Great Mall. I cocked the weapon, placed the muzzle in my mouth, and struck the butt on the ground: I repeated the attempt several times: the gun did not fire; the appearance of a gamekeeper altered my resolution. An unconscious and involuntary fatalist, I concluded my hour had not yet come, and I deferred the execution of my plan to another day. If I had killed myself, all I have achieved would have been buried with me; nothing would have been known of the tale which led to my catastrophe; I would have swelled the crowd of nameless unfortunates, I would not have induced anyone to follow the trail of my sorrows, as a wounded man leaves a trail of blood.

Those who might be troubled by these scenes, and be tempted to imitate these follies, those who might attach themselves to my memory by means of my illusions, must remember that they hear only a dead man’s voice. Reader, whom I shall never know, nothing remains: nothing is left of me but that which I am in the hands of the living God who has judged me.