Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book X - Chapter 3
Ostend – The crossing to Jersey – I am landed on Guernsey –The pilot’s wife – Jersey – My uncle De Bedée and his family – A description of the island – The Duc de Berry – Friends and relatives lost – The misfortune of growing old – I cross to England – My last meeting with Gesril



London, April to September 1822.

The doctor could net get over his astonishment: he considered this fluctuating smallpox that failed to kill me, and did not develop to a natural crisis, as a phenomenon for which medicine offered no precedent. As for my wound, gangrene had set in: the wound was dressed with cinchona. Having obtained this first aid, I insisted in leaving for Ostend. Brussels was odious to me; I was keen to get away; it was filling once more with those heroes of domesticity, returning from Verdun in their carriages, whom I did not see, in that same Brussels, when I accompanied the King during the Hundred Days.

I reached Ostend slowly via the canals: there I found several Bretons, my companions in arms. We chartered a decked boat and sailed down the Channel. We slept in the hold, on the shingle that served as ballast. My physical strength was exhausted. I could no longer speak; the swell of a rough sea brought me to the point of collapse. I could barely swallow a few drops of lemon water, and when bad weather forced us to put into Guernsey, they thought I was about to expire; an emigrant priest read me the prayers for the dying. The captain, not wishing me to do so, on board, ordered them to set me down on the quay: they sat me in the sun, back against a wall, head turned towards the open sea, facing the island of Alderney, where eight months or so previously I had faced death in another form.

Apparently I was fated to arouse pity. The wife of an English pilot happened to be passing; she was moved, and called her husband who, aided by two or three sailors, carried me, a friend of the waves, into a fisherman’s cottage; they laid me on a comfortable bed, between the whitest sheets. The young woman took every possible care of the stranger: I owe her my life. The next day I was taken back on board. My hostess almost wept on parting from her patient; women have a heaven-sent instinct regarding misfortune. My lovely, fair-haired guardian, who resembled a figure from some old English print, pressed my swollen, burning hands between her long, cool ones: I was ashamed to bring such ugliness close to such beauty.

We set sail, and reached the westernmost point of Jersey. Monsieur de Tilleul, one of my companions, went to St Helier, to my uncle. Next day, Monsieur de Bedée came in a carriage to fetch me. We crossed the whole island: though I felt quite deathly, I was still charmed by its hedged fields: but babbled nothing but nonsense about them, having fallen into a delirium.

I lay for four months between life and death. My uncle, his wife, his son, and three daughters, took turns beside my bed. I occupied an apartment in one of the houses they had begun to build along the foreshore: my bedroom windows reached the floor, and beyond the end of my bed I could see the sea. The doctor, Monsieur Delattre, had forbidden any talk of serious matters, especially politics, with me. Towards the end of January 1793, seeing my uncle enter my room in full mourning, I trembled, thinking we had lost a member of the family: he informed me of the death of Louis XVI. I was not surprised; I had foreseen it. I asked for news of my relatives; my sisters and my wife had returned to Brittany briefly after the September Massacres; they had found considerable difficulty in leaving Paris. My brother, on his return to France, was living quietly with Monsieur Malesherbes.

I began to leave my bed; the smallpox had vanished; but I felt pain in my chest, and a weakness remained which stayed with me for a long time.

Jersey, the Caesarea of the Antonine itinerary, was subject to the English crown from the death of Robert, Duke of Normandy; we have attempted to recapture it on several occasions, but always without success. The island is a relic of our ancient history. Saints, who came from Hibernia and Albion to Brittany-Armorica, broke their journey at Jersey.

St Helier, solitary, is sited among the rocks of Caesarea; the Vandals committed massacres there. On Jersey one finds a sample of ancient Normans; one might think one was hearing William the Bastard speaking, or the author of the Roman du Rou.

The island is fertile; it has two towns and twelve parishes; it is covered with country houses and herds. The ocean breeze, which seems to forego its harshness, allows Jersey to produce exquisite honey, extremely soft cream, and butter of a rich yellow colour that smells of violets. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre presumes that apple-trees came to us from Jersey; he is wrong: we obtained the apple and pear from Greece, as we owe the peach to Persia, the lemon to the Medes, the plum to Syria, the cherry to Cerasonte (Turkey), the chestnut to Castania (Pontus or Thessaly), the quince to Cydon (Crete), and the pomegranate to Cyprus.

I took great pleasure in going about during the first few days of May. Spring retains all its freshness on Jersey; one might still call it primavera as long ago, a name which while growing old, has left behind a daughter, the primrose, the first flower with which it garlands itself.

Here I will transcribe two pages for you from my life of the Duc de Berry, which is no less to tell you of mine:

‘After twenty-two years of struggle, the barrier of bronze which enclosed France had been forced: the hour of the Restoration neared; our Princes left their retreats. Each of them made for different points on the various frontiers, like travellers who seek, on peril of their life, to penetrate a country of which wonders are told. Monsieur headed for the Swiss, Monseigneur le Duc d’Angouleme for the Spanish, and his brother for Jersey. In that island, where several of Charles I’s judges died, ignored by the world, Monseigneur le Duc de Berry met French royalists, aged by exile, their virtues forgotten, as formerly had been the English regicides’ crime. He met old priests, now consecrated to solitude; he recognised in them the character invented by the poet who wrote of a Bourbon setting foot on Jersey, after a storm. Just such a confessor and martyr might have said to the heir of Henry IV, as the hermit of Jersey said to that great King:

‘Far then from the Court, in this obscure place,
I come to bewail the injury to my faith.’ (Henriade)

Monseigneur le Duc de Berry spent several months in Jersey; the sea, the wind, and politics kept him there. All of them ran counter to his impatient wishes; he found himself on the point of renouncing his enterprise, and embarking for Bordeaux. A letter from him to Madame la Maréchale Moreau, vividly displays his pre-occupation, on his rocky isle:

8th of February 1814.

‘Here I am then, like Tantalus, in sight of that unhappy France which has so much trouble breaking free of its chains. You whose soul is so fine, so French, reflect on all that I experience; on what it costs me to be far from those shores that it would only take me two hours to reach! When the sun illuminates them, I climb the highest cliff, and, telescope in hand, I possess the whole coastline; I see the cliffs of Coutances. My imagination is exalted, I see myself leaping to earth, surrounded by the French, with white cockades in their hats: I hear the cry of: ‘Long live the King!’ that cry which the French can never hear unmoved; the most beautiful lady of the province drapes a white scarf around me, since love and glory are always found together. We march on Cherbourg; some villainous army, with a garrison of foreigners, tries to defend it: we carry it by assault, and a vessel leaves to go and bring the King, under the white banner which recalls days of glory and happiness for France! Ah! Madame, when one is only a few hours away from a dream so achievable, how can one think of going further away?’

It is three years since I wrote these pages in Paris; My presence in Jersey, that island of exile, had preceded Monsieur le Duc de Berry’s by twenty-two years; I was obliged to leave my name there, since Armand de Chateaubriand married there and his son Frédérick was born there.

Gaiety had not abandoned my uncle Bedée’s family; my aunt kept a large and cherished dog descended from those whose virtues I have recounted; as he bit everyone and was mangy, my cousins secretly had him put down, despite his nobility. Madame de Bedée was persuaded that the English officers, charmed by the beauty of Azor, had stolen him, and that he lived full of honours and dinners, in the richest castle of the three kingdoms. Alas! Our present hilarity was only composed of our past gaiety. In retracing scenes from Monchoix, we found the means to generate laughter in Jersey. That is rare enough, for in the human heart, pleasures do not maintain the same relationship between themselves that sorrows preserve there: new joys do not recreate former joys, but recent sorrows revive old sorrows.

One more thing, the émigrés excited general sympathy at that time; our cause seemed the cause of the European orders: honourable adversity is something, and ours was such.

Monsieur de Bouillon was the protector of the French refugees in Jersey: he dissuaded me from my plan to cross to Brittany, unfit as I was to endure an existence in caves and forests; he advised me to head for England and look for an opportunity there of entering the regular service. My uncle, ill provided with money, began to feel uneasy given his large family; he found himself obliged to send his son to London to feed himself on poverty and hope. Fearing to be a burden on Monsieur de Bedée, I decided to relieve him of my person.

Thirty louis brought to me by a Saint-Malo smuggler, enabled me to execute my plan and I booked a berth on the Southampton packet. On saying farewell to my uncle, I was deeply moved; he had cared for me with a father’s affection; the few happy moments of my childhood were associated with him; he knew all that was dear to me; I saw a certain resemblance to my mother in his features. I had left that excellent mother behind, and I would not see her again; I had left my sister Julie and my brother, and was doomed to meet them no more; I was leaving my uncle, and his beaming countenance would never again gladden my eyes. A few months had sufficed to bring about all these losses, for the death of our friends is not to be reckoned from the moment when they die, but from that when we cease to live with them.

If one could say to Time: ‘All is fair!’ one could arrest it at the moment of delight; but since one cannot, let us not linger down here; let us depart, before we have seen our friends vanish, and those years which the poet found alone worthy of life: Vita dignior aetas. What enchants us at the age for liaisons becomes a matter of pain and regret at the age of detachment. One no longer wishes for the return of the smiling seasons; rather one fears it: the birds, the flowers, a lovely evening at the end of April, a lovely night beginning at dusk with the first nightingale, completed at dawn by the first swallow, those things which stir the need and desire for happiness, you extinguish. Other charms, you still feel them, but they are not for you: youth which tastes them at your side and which you gaze at disdainfully, renders you jealous and makes you understand the depth of your loss. The freshness and grace of Nature, in reminding you of past joys, increases the ugliness of your woes. You are no more than a blemish on Nature: you spoil the harmony and sweetness by your presence, by your words, and even by the sentiments which you dare to express. You could love, but you can no longer be an object of love. The fountain of spring has renewed its waters without giving you back your youth, and the sight of everything that is reborn, everything joyful, limits you to the painful memory of your pleasures.

The packet I embarked on was crowded with émigré families. There I made the acquaintance of Monsieur Hingant, a former colleague of my brother’s at the High Court of Brittany, a man of taste and intelligence of whom I shall have much to say. A naval officer was playing chess in the captain’s cabin; he did not recognise my face, I was so changed; but I remembered Gesril. We had not seen each other since Brest; we were destined to part at Southampton. I told him about my travels, he told me of his. This young man, born near me among the waves, embraced his first friend for the last time in the midst of those waves which would soon bear witness to his glorious death. Lamba Doria, the Genoese Admiral, having overcome the Venetian fleet, learnt that his son had been killed: Give him to the sea, said the father, in the manner of the ancient Romans, as if he had said: ‘Give him to glory.’ Gesril only left the waves into which he threw himself, voluntarily, in order to better reveal to them his glory on their shore.

I have already given, at the beginning of the sixth book of these Memoirs, the certificate of my disembarkation from Jersey at Southampton. Here then, after my journeys through the woods of America, and the army camps of Germany, I came in 1793, as a poor émigré, to the country in which, in 1822, I write all this, and to which I am now the glorious ambassador.