Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 1

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IX, 16 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> X, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 1
The Ardennes

London, April to September 1822. (Revised February 1845)

Leaving Arlon, a farmer’s cart picked me up, and for the sum of four sous deposited me twelve miles off on a pile of stones. Having hopped a few feet with the aid of my crutch, I washed the bandages of my scratch, which had become a wound, in a spring which flowed beside the roadway, which served me very well. The smallpox fever had completely gone, and I felt relieved. I had not abandoned my knapsack though its straps cut my shoulders.

I spent the first night in a barn, with nothing to eat. The wife of the farmer who owned the barn refused payment for my bed; at daybreak she brought me a large bowl of white coffee and a cob of black bread which I found excellent. I took to the road again full of energy, though I often fell. I had been joined by four or five of my comrades who carried my rucksack; they too were quite ill. We met villagers, and riding on cart after cart, we covered enough of the road after five days to reach Attert, Flamizoul and Bellevue. On the sixth day, I found myself alone again. My smallpox swellings had whitened and subsided.

After staggering six miles, which took me six hours, I saw the camp of a gipsy family, with their two goats and a donkey, on the far side of a ditch, around a fire made from undergrowth. I had scarcely arrived before I slumped down and the singular creatures hastened to my aid. A young woman dressed in rags, lively, dark-haired, and mischievous, sang, skipped and span round and round, while holding her child slantwise to her breast, like the hurdy-gurdy which might have enlivened her dancing, then she sat on her heels, opposite me, gazing at me with curiosity in the firelight, and took my feeble hand to read my fortune, while demanding a little sou; it was too expensive. It would be difficult to possess more wisdom, kindness, or be poorer than my sibyl of the Ardennes. I am not sure when the nomads, of whom I should have made a noble son, left me: when, at daybreak, I had shaken off my dullness, I found them no longer there. My fortune-teller had gone taking with her the secret of my fate. In exchange for my petit sou, she had placed an apple beside me that served to refresh my mouth. I was shivering like Jeannot Lapin in the thyme and the dew; but I could neither nibble nor scamper, nor run madly in circles. I rose nevertheless with the intention of paying court to the dawn: she was very beautiful, and I was very ugly; her rosy cheeks proclaimed her good health; she was in better shape than her poor Armorican Cephalus. Though we were both young, we were old friends, and I imagined her tears that morning were for me.

I plunged into the forest: I was not overly saddened; solitude had brought me back to my true nature. I chanted a ballad by the unfortunate Cazotte:

‘Deep in the midst of the Ardennes,
A castle stands on a rocky height’ etc. etc.

Was it not in the keep of this castle full of phantoms, that the King of Spain, Philip II, imprisoned my compatriot, the captain, La Noue, who had a Chateaubriand for a grandmother? Philip consented to the release of his illustrious prisoner, if he would consent to being blinded; La Noue was on the point of accepting this offer, such was his hunger to regain his beloved Brittany. Alas! I was possessed with the same desire, and to lose my sight it would only require the effects of the illness, with which it had pleased God to afflict me, I did not meet with Sir Enguerrand on his way from Spain, but with poor wretches, market stallholders, who, like me, carried their whole fortune on their backs. A woodcutter, with felt knee-pads, entered the wood: he might have taken me for a dead branch and lopped me. Crows, skylarks, and buntings, a species of large finch, hopped in the roadway, or perched motionless on the line of stones, alert to the hawk that glided in circles in the heavens. From time to time, I heard the sound of the swineherd’s horn as he guarded his sows and their young, feeding on acorns. I rested in a shepherd’s hut on wheels; I found no one at home other than a kitten which gave me a thousand graceful caresses. The shepherd was standing far off, in the middle of a track, his dogs stationed round the sheep at various distances; during the day, this shepherd gathered simples, he was a herbalist and a sorcerer; at night he gazed at the stars, he was a Chaldean shepherd.

I was stationed a mile or more higher, in deer-pasture: hunters traversed its boundary. A fountain welled up at my feet; in the depths of this fountain, in this same forest, Orlando, innamorato, not furioso, saw a palace of crystal full of knights and ladies. If the paladin, who met with the shining naiads, had at least left Golden-Bridle beside the spring; if Shakespeare had sent me Rosalind and the exiled Duke, it would have been a great help to me.

Having regained my breath, I continued my journey. My weakened thoughts drifted on a sea which was not without charm; my old phantoms, scarcely possessing the consistency of shadows, three-quarters effaced, surrounded me to wish me farewell. I no longer had the power of memory; I saw in the indefinite distance, mingled with unknown images, the airy forms of my relatives and friends. When I sat down against a milestone, I thought I could see faces smiling at me from the thresholds of far-off huts, in the blue smoke escaping from the roofs of thatched cottages, in the tops of the trees, in the transparent clouds, in the luminous sheaves of the sun drawing its rays over the heather like a golden rake. The apparitions were those of the Muses arriving to assist at the death of a poet: my grave, dug with the lintel of their lyres beneath an oak-tree in the Ardennes, would be as fitting for the soldier as the traveller. Only the hazel grouse, wandering where the hares shelter beneath the privet, and the insects, made a murmur around me; lives as slight, as unknown as mine. I could walk no further; I felt I was in extremities; the small-pox had returned and was suffocating me.

Towards the end of that day, I was lying on my back on the ground, in a ditch, my head supported by the knapsack containing Atala, my crutch beside me, my eyes fixed on the sun, whose gaze was fading with mine. I saluted with utter mildness of thought the star which had lighted my early youth in my native land: we were setting together, he to rise more gloriously, I, in all likelihood, never to wake again. I lapsed into unconsciousness with a religious feeling: the last sound I heard was the fall of a leaf and the whistling of a bullfinch.