Chateaubriand's memoirs, IV, 8

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IV - Chapter 8
My solitary life in Paris

Berlin, March 1821.

I entered Paris by the same route I had followed the first time; I went to the same hotel, in the Rue du Mail: it was the only one I knew. I was lodged near my old room, but in a slightly larger apartment overlooking the street.

My brother, either because he was embarrassed by my manners, or because he took pity on my shyness, did not take me into society and did not force me to make anyone’s acquaintance. He lived in the Rue des Fossés-Montmartre; I would go there to dine with him every day at three o’clock; we parted afterwards and did not meet again until the next day. My fat cousin Moreau was no longer in Paris. I walked past Madame de Chastenay’s house two or three times, without daring to ask the porter what had become of her.

Autumn commenced. I rose at six; I went to the riding-school; I breakfasted. Fortunately I had a passion for Greek at that time: I translated the Odyssey and the Cyropaedia until two, interspersing my labours with historical studies. At two I dressed and went to my brother’s; he would ask me what I had been doing; I replied: ‘Nothing.’ He shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on me.

One day there was a noise outside, my brother ran to the window, and called me over: I refused to quit the armchair in which I was sprawling at the back of the room. My poor brother prophesied that I would die unknown, useless to myself or my family.

At four, I returned to the hotel: I sat at my casement. Two young girls of fifteen or sixteen would come and sketch at that hour at the window of a house opposite, across the street. They had noticed my punctuality, as I had theirs. From time to time they raised their heads to look at their neighbour: they were my only company in Paris.

At nightfall I went to some play or other: the desert of the crowd pleased me, though it always cost me a little effort to buy my ticket at the door and mix with mankind. I revised my idea of the theatre formed in Saint-Malo. I saw Madame Saint-Huberty in the role of Armida, I felt there had been something lacking in the sorceress of my imagination. When I failed to imprison myself in the Opera House or the Français, I would wander from street to street or along the embankments until ten or twelve at night. I cannot see the row of streetlamps from the Place Louis XV to the Barrière des Bons-Hommes, to this day, without remembering the agonies I went through as I took that route to reach Versailles for my presentation.

Returning to my lodgings, I spent part of the night with my face turned to the fire, which spoke not a word to me: I had not, as the Persians have, a rich enough imagination to liken the flame to an anemone, and its embers to a pomegranate. I heard the carriages coming and going and passing each other; their distant rumble was like the murmur of the sea on my Breton shores, or the wind in my woods at Combourg. These worldly noises which recalled those of solitude woke my regrets; I called to mind my old malady, whereby my imagination easily invented the tale of those whom the vehicles carried: I saw radiant salons, balls, love-affairs, conquests. Soon, falling back upon myself, I found myself once more abandoned to a hotel, gazing at the world through the window, and hearing it in the echoes of my abode.

Rousseau thinks he owes to his sincerity, as to the education of mankind, the confession of his life’s dubious pleasures; he even supposes that he is being interrogated gravely and asked for an account of his sins with dangerous women, the donne pericolanti, of Venice. If I had whored among the Parisian courtesans, I would not have felt obliged to tell posterity about it: but I was too shy on the one hand, too exalted on the other, to allow myself to be seduced by prostitutes. When I met a crowd of those wretched women accosting passers-by in order to drag them upstairs, as Saint-Cloud cabmen try to entice travellers into their cabs, I was seized by horror and disgust. The pleasures of adventure would not have suited me as in times past.

In the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an imperfect civilisation, superstitious beliefs, alien and semi-barbarous customs, are met with everywhere in story: the characters are noble, imagination powerful, existence secret and mysterious. At night, round the high walls of cemeteries and convents, beneath the deserted town ramparts, in the channels and ditches of the market-places, at the edges of fenced areas, in the narrow noiseless streets, where thieves and assassins set up ambushes, where meetings took place now by the light of torches, now among dense shadows, one sought out the rendezvous appointed by some Héloïse at peril of one’s life. To give oneself over to disorder, it is necessary to truly love: to violate the common morality, it is necessary to make great sacrifices. It is not merely a question of confronting chance perils, and braving the blade of the law, but one is required to conquer in oneself the influence of customary habit, family authority; the tyranny of domestic custom, the opposition of one’s conscience, the terrors and obligations of a Christian. All these obstacles increase the energy of the passions.

In 1788 I would not have followed a starving wretch who tried to drag me into her hovel under the watching eye of the police; while in 1606 I would probably have pursued to the end such an adventure as Bassompierre tells so well.

‘For five or six months,’ the Marshal writes, ‘every time I crossed the Petit-Point (since at that time the Pont-Neuf had not yet been built) a lovely woman, a laundry girl at the sign of the Two Angels, made me a deep curtsey and followed me with her eyes as long as she could; and as I was wary of her actions, I glanced at her too and saluted her with care.

It so happened that whenever I arrived in Paris from Fontainebleau, crossing the Petit-Pont, as soon as she saw me coming, she would stand in the entrance to her shop, and say, as I passed: “Monsieur, I am your servant.” I returned her greeting, and glancing back from time to time, I saw that she followed me with her eyes as long as she could.’ Bassompierre obtained an assignation: ‘I found there,’ he says, ‘a very lovely girl, of twenty years of age, her hair arranged for bed, clothed in nothing but a very thin chemise and a little skirt of green material, slippers on her feet, and her robe round her. She pleased me greatly. I asked her if I might see her again. “If you wish to see me again,” she said, “it shall be at my aunt’s house, she lives in the Rue Bourg-l’Abbé, close to Les Halles, near to the Rue aux Ours, behind the third door towards the Rue Saint-Martin; I will wait for you there from six till midnight, or even later; I will leave the door unlocked. At the entrance there is a little path you must pass quickly, since my aunt’s room leads off it, and you will find a stair that will take you to the second floor.” I arrived at ten, and found the door she had signified to me, with a bright light shining, not only on the second floor, but the third and first too; but the door was locked. I knocked to warn her of my arrival; but I heard a man’s voice demanding who I was. I had returned to the Rue aux Ours, and was returning a second time, when I found the door open, and climbed to the second floor, where I found that the light came from a bed of straw that had been set alight, and that there were two naked bodies laid out on a table in the room. Then I retired, completely dumbfounded, and in leaving encountered the crows (buriers of the dead) who asked me what I wanted; I, to push them aside, took my sword in hand, and ignoring them, returned to my lodgings, somewhat disturbed by the unexpected sight.’

I went in turn to find the address Bassompiere had given, two hundred and forty years later. I crossed the Petit-Pont, traversed Les Halles, and followed the Rue Saint-Denis to the Rue aux Ours on the right; the first street on the left after the Rue aux Ours is the Rue Bourg-l’Abbé. Its sign, blackened as if by time and flames, inspired me with hope. I found the third little door towards the Rue Saint Martin, to that extent the historian’s information was correct. There, unfortunately, the two and a half centuries that I thought still cloaked the street, vanished. The façade of the house was modern; no light shone from the first, second or third floor. In the attic windows, under the roof, a tangle of nasturtiums and sweet-peas flowered: on the ground floor a hairdresser’s salon offered a host of wigs, displayed behind the glass.

Disappointed, I entered this Museum of Éponine: since the Roman conquest, the Gauls have always sold their blonde tresses to those with less favoured heads: my Breton compatriots still cut their hair on certain feast days, and barter their natural covering for an Indian handkerchief. Addressing myself to the hairdresser, who was drawing a wig over an iron comb: ‘Monsieur, have you purchased the hair of a young laundry-girl, who lives at the sign of the Two Angels, near the Petit-Pont?’ He stooped, amazed, unable to say yes or no. I retired, with a thousand apologies, through a labyrinth of toupees.

I wandered afterwards from door to door; no twenty-year old washerwoman made me a deep curtsey; no young girl, candid, selfless, passionate, her hair arranged for bed, clothed in nothing but a very thin chemise and a little skirt of green material, slippers on her feet, and her robe round her. A grumpy old woman, ready to rejoin her teeth in the tomb, decided to beat me with her crutch: perhaps it was the aunt of that rendezvous.

What a lovely story that story of Bassompierre’s! It helps if one understands one of the reasons why he was loved so resolutely. At that time, the French were still divided into two distinct classes, one dominant, the other subservient. The laundry-girl clasped Bassompierre in her arms, as if he were a demi-god descending to the breast of a slave: he gave her the illusion of glory, and French girls, along among women, are capable of being intoxicated by that illusion.

But who can reveal the unknown cause of the catastrophe to us? Was it that kind little working class girl of the Two Angels whose body lay on the table with some other? Whose was the other corpse? Her husband’s or the man whose voice Bassompierre heard? Did plague (since there was plague in Paris) or jealousy rush down the Rue Bourg-l’Abbé ahead of love? The imagination easily exercises itself over such a subject. Mingle with the inventions of the poet of popular opera, the gravediggers arrival, the crows meeting Bassompierre’s sword, and a superb melodrama would be produced from the affair.

You may admire too the chastity and self-restraint of my youthful days in Paris: in that capital, it would have been permissible for me to have surrendered myself to my every whim, as in the Abbey of Thélème, where everyone did as he wished; nevertheless I did not abuse my independence: I only had commerce with a two hundred and sixteen year old courtesan, loved long ago by a Marshal of France, the rival of the Béarnais in the matter of Mademoiselle de Montmorency, and lover of Mademoiselle d’Entragues, sister of the Marquise de Verneuil, who spoke so ill of Henri IV. Louis XVI who I was going to meet, would not have suspected my secret connection with his family.