Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 11

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X, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XI, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book X - Chapter 11
An astonishing encounter

London, April to September 1822.

What had happened at Bungay after I left? What became of that family to which I brought joy and grief?

You will bear in mind that I am now Ambassador to George IV, and write in London, in 1822, of what happened in London in 1797.

Official business obliged me, a week ago, to interrupt the narrative I am resuming today. One afternoon between twelve and one, during this interval, my valet came to tell me that a carriage was at the door, and that an English lady asked to speak to me. As I had made it a rule, in my public role, never to refuse to see anyone, I asked that the lady be shown upstairs.

I was in my study; Lady Sutton was announced; I saw a lady dressed in mourning enter, accompanied by two fine boys, also in mourning; one might have been sixteen years old, the other fourteen. I went to meet the stranger; she was so moved she could barely walk. She said to me in a faltering voice: ‘My lord, do you remember me?’ Yes, I recognised Miss Ives! The years which had passed over her head had left only their springtime behind. I took her by the hand: I made her sit, and sat down by her side. I could not speak; my eyes were filled with tears; I gazed at her in silence through those tears; I felt, from what I was experiencing, how deeply I had loved her. At last, I was able to say in turn: ‘And you Madame, do you recognise me?’ She raised her eyes, which she had kept lowered, and for sole response, gave me a smiling but melancholy glance like a long remembrance. Her hand was still between mine. Charlotte said to me: ‘I am in mourning for my mother; my father died some years ago. These are my children.’ Saying this, she withdrew her hand, and sank back into her chair, covering her eyes with her handkerchief.

Shortly she continued: ‘My lord, I am now speaking to you in the language which I practised with you at Bungay. I feel ashamed: forgive me. My children are the sons of Admiral Sutton, whom I married three years after you left England. But today I am not calm enough to enter into details. Permit me to return later.’ I asked for her address and gave her my arm to escort her to her carriage. She trembled, and I pressed her hand against my heart.

I called on Lady Sutton the following day, I found her alone. Then there commenced between us a series of those questions begun with ‘Do you remember?’ that bring back a whole lifetime. At each ‘Do you remember?’ we looked at one another; looking to find in each other’s faces those traces of time which measure so cruelly the distance from the moment of parting and the extent of the road travelled. I said to Charlotte: ‘How did your mother tell you…’ Charlotte blushed and interrupted me quickly: ‘I have come to London to ask if you would do something for Admiral Sutton’s children: the eldest wishes to go to Bombay. Mr Canning, nominated as Governor-General of India, is your friend; he could ensure my son goes out with him. I would be most grateful to you, and I would delight in owing to you the happiness of my first child.’ She emphasised these last words.

‘Ah, Madame,’ I replied, ‘what memories you recall? What a reversal of destinies! You who received a poor exile at your father’s hospitable table; you who did not scorn his sufferings; you who thought, perhaps, of raising him to a glorious and unhoped-for rank, it is you who now ask for his support in your own country! I will see Mr Canning; your son, however much it pains me to call him by that name, your son, shall go to India, if it is in my power. But tell me, Madame, how does my new position strike you? How do you regard me, now? That title of my lord which you employ seems very cold.’

Charlotte replied: ‘I find you unchanged, not even aged. When I spoke about you to my parents in your absence, I always gave you the title of my lord; it seemed to me you should bear it: were you not like a husband to me, my lord and master?’ That gracious woman had something of Milton’s Eve about her, as she spoke those words: she was not born of another woman’s womb; her beauty bore the imprint of the divine hand that had formed it.

I hurried to see Mr Canning and Lord Londonderry; they created as many difficulties about a minor appointment as would have been made in France, but they promised to do what they could, as one promises at Court. I gave Lady Sutton an account of my efforts. I saw her again three times: on my fourth visit, she told me she was returning to Bungay. This last meeting was sorrowful. Charlotte spoke to me once more of our past secret life, our readings, our walks, music, the flowers of yesteryear, the hopes of bygone days. ‘When I knew you,’ she said to me, ‘no one spoke your true name: now, who has not heard of it? Do you know I have a work of yours and several letters in your handwriting? Here they are.’ She handed me a packet. ‘Do not be offended if I choose to retain nothing of yours,’ and she began to cry. ‘Farewell! Farewell!’ she said to me, remember my son. I will never see you again, for you will not come to seek me at Bungay. – ‘I shall,’ I cried: ‘I shall bring you your son’s commission.’ She shook her head doubtfully, and withdrew.

On returning to the Embassy, I closed my door, and opened the packet. It only contained some trifling notes of mine and a plan of study, with comments on the English and Italian poets. I had hoped to find a letter from Charlotte; there was nothing there; but I noticed in the margins of the manuscript some notes in English, French and Latin, whose faded ink and youthful handwriting showed that they had been added to those margins long ago.

That is the story of Miss Ives and I. As I bring it to an end, it seems to me I am losing Charlotte for a second time in the same island where I lost her at first. But between what I feel for her at this moment, and what I may have felt in those moments whose tenderness I recall, lies all the extent of innocence: passions have intervened in those years between Miss Ives and Lady Sutton. I would no longer be offering an artless girl innocent longings, the sweet ingenuousness of love lies on the borders of dream. I wrote then on a wave of melancholy; I am no longer adrift on life’s waves. Ah well, if I have held in my arms, a wife and a mother, she who was destined for me as a virgin bride, it has been with a kind of rage, to wither, to fill with pain and suffocate, those twenty-five years which were given to another, after having been offered to me!

I should have regard for the love I have just recalled, as the first of its kind to enter my heart; yet it was not in tune with my stormy nature, which would have corrupted it, and would have rendered me incapable of savouring those holy joys for long. It was then that embittered by misfortune, already a pilgrim overseas, having begun my solitary voyage, it was then that the wild ideas evoked in that mysterious tale of René, obsessed me and made of me the most tormented of beings on this earth. Be that as it may, the chaste image of Charlotte, in allowing a few rays of true light to penetrate the depths of my heart, first dissipated there a cloud of phantoms: my daemon, like an evil genie, plunged once more into the abyss; she waited for the effects of time before making a fresh appearance.