Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 10

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X, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> X, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 10
Return to London

London, April to September 1822.

Returning to London, I found no peace: I had fled from my fate like a malefactor from his crime. How painful it must have been to a family so worthy of homage, respect and gratitude, to experience a species of rejection by the unknown they had welcomed, to whom they had offered a new home with a naturalness, an absence of suspicion, or precaution, patriarchal in character! I imagined Charlotte’s grief, the deserved reproaches that they could and would heap upon me: since I had after all been ready to abandon myself to an inclination which I knew was unquestionably wrong. Had I made a confused attempt at seduction, without taking account of the blame that would accrue to my conduct? But whether by halting, as I did, in order to remain a man of integrity, or by ignoring all obstacles in order to satisfy a desire already condemned by my conduct, I could only succeed in plunging the object of that seduction into regret or sorrow.

I allowed my mind to turn from these bitter reflections to other thoughts no less filled with bitterness: I cursed my marriage, which, contracted according to the false perceptions of my then disturbed mind, had thrown me off course, and robbed me of happiness. I did not realise that because of the innate malaise from which I suffered and the romantic notions of liberty I nourished, marriage with Miss Ives would have been just as painful to me as a freer union.

One thing pure and delightful, though profoundly sad, remained with me: the image of Charlotte; that image finally prevailed over my rebellion against my fate. I was tempted, a hundred times, to return to Bungay, not to present myself before the troubled family, but to conceal myself by the roadside to see Charlotte pass by, to follow her to the church where we had the same God, if not the same altar in common, to offer that girl, through the medium of Heaven, the inexpressible ardour of my vows, and to pronounce, at least in thought, the prayer from the marriage blessing that I might have heard from a clergyman’s lips in that church.

‘O, God, be pleased to join together the spirits of these two married people, and fill their hearts with true friendship. Look favourably upon your servant. Make their yoke one of love and peace, so that they may enjoy a happy fecundity; Lord, let these married people see before them their children and their children’s children to the third and fourth generation, and let them reach a happy old age.’

Drifting from resolution to resolution, I wrote Charlotte long letters which I destroyed. Each insignificant note I had received from her, served as a talisman; attached by my thought to my very steps, Charlotte, gracious, tender, followed me, in purifying them, along the paths of the sylph. She absorbed my faculties; she was the centre through which my intellect plunged, as blood passes through the heart; she made me disgusted with all other things, since I made of them perpetual objects of comparison, favourable to her. A true and blighted passion is a poisoned leaven that occupies the depths of the soul and spoils the bread of angels.

The places where I had been, the hours and words I had shared with Charlotte, were engraved in my memory: I saw the smile of the spouse who had been destined for me; I touched her black tresses, respectfully; I pressed her beautiful arms to my breast like a chain of lilies which I might have worn about my neck. I was no sooner in some secluded spot, than Charlotte of the white hands, came to sit at my side. I divined her presence, as one breathes, at night, the perfume of flowers which one cannot see.

Deprived of Hingant’s company, my walks, more solitary than ever, left me free to take with me Charlotte’s image. There is not a heath, road, or church within thirty miles of London that I have not visited. The most deserted places, a patch of nettles, a gap full of thistles, anything neglected by men, became favourite spots for me, and in those spots Byron already breathed. Head resting on my hand, I gazed at those places men scorned; when their painful impression affected me too deeply, the memory of Charlotte came to delight me: I was like the pilgrim, then, who reaching a desert solitude in sight of the rocks of Mount Sinai, had heard a nightingale sing.

In London, people were surprised at my behaviour. I looked at no one, I failed to reply, I did not understand what was said to me: my old friends considered me touched by madness.