Chateaubriand's memoirs, III, 2

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III, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> III, 3

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book III - Chapter 2
My keep

Montboissier, August 1817.

These stories occupied all the time my mother and sister spent preparing for bed: they climbed into bed dying of fright; I retired to the heights of my turret; the cook returned to the great tower, and the servants descended to their vaults.

The window of my keep opened on the inner court; by day, I had a view of the battlements opposite, where hart’s-tongue ferns flourished and a wild plum-tree grew. The martins which, during the summer, dived with shrill cries into holes in the walls were my sole companions. By night I could only see a little patch of sky and a few stars. When the moon was shining, sinking in the west, I knew it by the rays that shone through the diamond-shaped window panes onto my bed. Screech-owls, gliding from one tower to the other, passed to and fro between the moon and I, casting the moving shadow of their wings on my curtains. Banished to the loneliest corner, at the entrance to the galleries, I did not lose a murmur among the shadows. Sometimes the wind seem to scamper lightly; sometimes it let groans escape; suddenly my door would be shaken violently, the cellars gave out bellowing sounds, then the noises would die away only to commence again. At four in the morning, the voice of the master of the château, calling his valet at the entrance to the ancient vaults, echoed like the voice of night’s last phantom. That voice for me took the place of the sweet harmony of sounds with which Montaigne’s father woke his son.

The Comte de Chateaubriand’s insistence on making a child sleep alone at the top of a tower may have had its inconveniences; but it worked to my advantage. This harsh manner of treating me gave me a manly courage without destroying that liveliness of imagination of which nowadays they try to deprive youth. Instead of trying to convince me that ghosts did not exist, I was forced to confront them. When my father, with an ironic smile, said: ‘Is Monsieur the Chevalier afraid?’ he could have made me sleep with the dead. When my excellent mother said: ‘My child, nothing happens without God’s permission: you have nothing to fear from evil spirits, as long as you are a good Christian’, I was more reassured than by all the arguments of philosophy. My success was so complete that the night winds in my lonely tower, served merely as playthings for my fancies, and wings for my dreams. My imagination was kindled, and spreading to embrace everything, failed to find adequate nourishment anywhere and would have devoured heaven and earth. It is that moral state which I must now describe. Immersed again in my youth, I am going to try and capture my past self, to show myself as I was, such as perhaps I regret no longer being, despite the torments I endured.