Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IV - Chapter 4
Cambrai – The Navarre Regiment – La Martinière

Berlin, March 1821.

The mail-coach took me to my garrison town. One of my brothers-in-law, the Vicomte de Châteaubourg, (he had married my sister Bénigne, the widow of the Comte de Québriac) had given me letters of recommendation to the officers in my regiment. The Chevalier de Guénan, a man who kept very good company, introduced me to a mess where a number of officers dined who were noted for their talents, Messieurs Achard, Des Maillis and La Martinière. The Marqis de Mortemarte was colonel of the regiment, the Comte d’Andrezel, major: I was placed under the special protection of the latter. I met both of them in later years: the former became my colleague in the Chamber of Peers; the other requested of me certain services which I was happy to render him. There is a melancholy pleasure in meeting again with those we have known at different periods of our life, and in considering the changes that have occurred in their existence and ours. Like markers left behind us, they trace the path we have followed through the desert of the past.

Joining the regiment in civilian clothes, I had donned a soldier’s garb within twenty-four hours; I felt as if I had worn it always. My uniform was blue and white, like the clothes of my vow years ago: I marched under the same colours, as a child and as a young man. I was submitted to none of the trials which the second-lieutenants were in the habit of inflicting on new recruits; I have no idea why they did not venture to indulge in their military horseplay with me. I was with the regiment scarcely a fortnight before I Was treated as an ‘old hand’. I learnt the theory and practice of fire-arms readily; I passed through the grades of corporal and sergeant to the plaudits of my instructors. My room became the meeting-place for old captains and young second-lieutenants alike: the former went over their campaigns with me; the latter confided their love-affairs.

La Martinière would seek me out to accompany him past the door of one of Cambrai’s beauties whom he adored; this occurred five or six times a day. He was very ugly and his face was pitted with pock-marks. He would tell me of his passion while drinking large glasses of red-currant syrup, which I sometimes paid for.

Everything would have been fine but for my foolish addiction to clothes; the army then affected the severity of Prussian dress: a small cap, little curls worn close to the head, a tightly tied pig-tail, and a carefully buttoned coat. It displeased me greatly; I submitted to these shackles in the morning, but in the evening, when I hoped not to be seen by my superiors, I decked myself out in a much larger hat; the barber brushed out my curls and loosened my pig-tail; I unbuttoned and turned back the facings of my coat; and in this amorous undress I would go courting on La Martinière’s behalf, under the window of his cruel Flemish lady. Then one day I came face to face with Monsieur d’Andrezel: ‘What is this, Sir?’ said the terrible major: ‘Consider yourself under arrest for three days.’ I was humiliated somewhat; but I recognised the truth of the proverb, that every evil contains some good; it delivered me from my friend’s love-affair.

Beside Fénelon’s tomb I re-read Télémaque: I was not really in the mood for the story of the cow and the bishop.

These memories of the start of my career amuse me. Passing through Cambrai with the King, after the Hundred Days, I looked for the place where I once lived, and the coffee-house I used to frequent: I could not find them; everything had vanished, men and monuments.