Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 14

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III, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> III, 14


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book III - Chapter 14
A moment in my native town – Memory of La Villeneuve and the tribulations of my childhood – I am recalled to Combourg – Last interview with my father – I enter the service -Farewell to Combourg



Two months rolled by: I found myself alone again in my native isle; La Villeneuve had just died there. On going to weep for her beside the poor empty bed where she had expired, I noticed the little wicker go-cart in which I had learned to stand upright on this sad globe. I pictured my old nurse, fixing her feeble gaze on that wheeled basket at the foot of her bed: this first memorial of my life facing the last memorial of the life of my second mother, the thought of the prayers for her charge that dear Villeneuve addressed to heaven on leaving this world, that proof of an attachment so constant, so disinterested, so pure, moved my heart with tenderness, regret, and gratitude.

There was nothing else of my past in Saint-Malo: I searched the harbour in vain for the boats in whose rigging I had played; they had gone or been dismantled; in the town the house where I had been born had been transformed into an inn. I had scarcely left my cradle and already a whole world had vanished. A stranger in my childhood haunts, those who met me asked who I was, for the sole reason that my head had had risen a few inches higher from the ground towards which it will bow again in a few years. How swiftly and how frequently we change our existence and our illusions! Friends leave us, others take their place; our relationships alter: there is always a time when we possessed nothing of what we possess, and a time when we have nothing of what we had. Man does not have a single, consistent life; he has several laid end to end, and that is his misfortune.

Now without a companion, I explored the arena that once saw my castles of sand: campos ubi Troia fuit: the fields where Troy once stood. I walked along the empty sea-shore. The beaches abandoned by the tide offered me the image of desolate spaces that illusions leave around us when they fade. My compatriot Abelard gazed at the waves as I did, eight hundred years ago, remembering Héloïse; as I did he watched the vessels flee (ad horizontis undas: to the horizon’s waters) and his ear was lulled like mine by the harmony of the waves. I exposed myself to the breakers while giving myself up to the gloomy fancies that I had brought from the woods of Combourg. A headland, named Lavarde, put an end to my wanderings: sitting on the point of this headland, lost in the bitterest thoughts, I remembered that these same rocks had served to hide me in my childhood, at times of festivity; I swallowed my tears there, while my friends were drunk with joy. I felt myself no more loved or happy now. Soon I would leave my homeland to eke out my days in varied climes. These thoughts sickened me to death, and I was tempted to throw myself into the waves.

A letter recalled me to Combourg: I arrived, I supped with my family; my father did not utter a word, my mother sighed, Lucile looked dismayed; at ten we retired to bed. I questioned my sister; she knew nothing. Next morning at eight I was sent for. I descended: my father was waiting for me in his study.

‘Monsieur le Chevalier,’ he said to me: ‘you must renounce your follies. Your brother has obtained a second-lieutenant’s commission for you in the Navarre Regiment. You are to go to Rennes and from there to Cambrai. Here are a hundred louis; be careful with them. I am old and ill; I have not long to live. Conduct yourself like a man of honour, and never disgrace your name.’

He kissed me. I felt that stern and wrinkled face press tenderly against mine: it was the last paternal embrace I received.

The Comte de Chateaubriand, a man so formidable in my eyes, appeared at that moment simply as a father completely worthy of my affection. I seized his emaciated hand and wept. He was beginning to suffer from paralysis; it brought him to his grave. His left hand would jerk convulsively and he was obliged to restrain it with his right. It was holding his arm in this way, and having handed me his old sword, that without giving me time to recover, he led me to the cabriolet which was waiting for me in the Green Court. He made me get up, in front of him. The postilion drove off, while I said farewell with my eyes to my mother and sister, dissolved in tears on the steps.

I drove along the causeway by the pond; I saw the reeds inhabited by my swallows, the mill-stream and the meadow; I cast a look at the château. Then, like Adam after sinning, I went out into an unknown land: ‘and the world was all before him’.

Since that day, I have only seen Combourg three times: after my father’s death, we all met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say adieu. On another occasion I accompanied my mother to Combourg; she was concerned with furnishing the chateau; she expected my brother there, who was bringing my sister-in-law to Brittany. My brother never arrived; with his young wife, he was soon to receive, at the executioner’s hands, a different support for his head than the pillow my mother’s hands had prepared. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on the way to Saint-Malo to embark for America. The château was deserted; I was obliged to go down to the steward’s lodge. When, wandering down the Great Mall, I saw, at the end of a dark alley, the empty steps, the closed doors and windows, I felt ill. With difficulty, I made my way back to the village; I sent for my horses, and left in the middle of the night.

After fifteen years absence, before leaving France again to travel to the Holy Land, I went to Fougères to embrace what was left of my family. I had not the heart to make a pilgrimage to the fields with which the most vital part of my existence is connected. It was in the woods of Combourg that I became what I am, that I began to feel the first assault of that ennui which I have dragged with me through life, of that sadness which has been my torment and my bliss. There, I searched for a heart that could understand mine; there, I saw my family reunite, then disperse. My father dreamt there of seeing his name re-established, the fortunes of his house revived: another illusion which time and revolution have dispelled. Of the six children we were, there are now only three: my brother, Julie and Lucile are no more, my mother has died of grief; my father’s ashes have been snatched from his grave.

If my works survive me, if I am to leave a name behind, perhaps one day, guided by these Memoirs, some traveller will visit the places I have described. He might recognise the château; but he would search in vain for the great wood: the cradle of my dreams has vanished like those dreams. Left standing alone on its rock, the ancient keep mourns the oaks, old companions which surrounded it, and protected it against the tempest. Solitary, like that keep, I too have seen the family that adorned my days and lent me its shelter fall around me: happily my life is not founded on earth as solidly as those towers where I spent my youth, and man resists the storm less strongly than the monuments raised by his hands.