Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book X - Chapter 5
Peltier – Literary effort – My friendship with Hingant – Our walks – A night in Westminster Cathedral



London, April to September 1822.

Peltier, author of Domine salvum fac Regem (God Save the King) and editor-in-chief of the Actes des Apôtres, continued his Parisian enterprises in London. He was not exactly prone to vice; but he was eaten by vermin, small faults of which he could not be purged: a libertine, a rebellious subject, making plenty of money and consuming the same, at once servant of the legitimacy and ambassador to George III for the Negro King Christophe, diplomatic correspond for Monsieur le Comte de Limonade, drinking as champagne the appointments for which he was paid in sugar. A kind of Monsieur Violet playing the fine tunes of the Revolution on a pocket violin, he came to see me, and offered me his services, as a Breton. I spoke to him of my idea for the Essai; he strongly approved: ‘That would be superb!’ he cried, and suggested a room at the house of his printer Baylis, who would print the work as it was created. Deboffe’s bookshop would handle the sale of it; he, Peltier, would trumpet it in his journal, while it could be inserted in the Courrier Français de Londres, whose editorship later passed to Monsieur de Montlosier. Peltier had no misgivings: he talked of getting me the Cross of Saint-Louis for my efforts at the siege of Thionville. My Gil Blas, tall, thin, difficult, with powdered hair and balding forehead, forever shouting and laughing, tipped his round hat over one ear, took me by the arm and led me to the printer, Baylis, where without any fuss he rented me a room, at the price of a guinea a month.

I was on the brink of a golden future; but as for the present, over what plank could I cross it? Peltier found work for me translating from Latin and English: during the day I laboured at these translations, at night on the Essai historique in sections of which I included my travels and my daydreams. Baylis provided me with books, and I employed a few shillings badly in buying others from the bookstalls.

Hingant whom I had met on the Jersey packet, became a close friend. He cultivated literary matters, was knowledgeable, and wrote novels secretly the pages of which he read to me. He lodged not far from Baylis, at the end of a street leading into Holborn. Every morning, at ten, I breakfasted with him; we talked about politics and above all about my work. I would tell him how much of my nocturnal edifice, the Essai, I had constructed; then I would return to my day’s work, translation. We met for dinner, at a shilling a head, in a public house; from there, we made for the fields. Often too we would go for walks alone, since the two of us were fond of musing.

I would make my way, in those days, towards Kensington or Westminster. Kensington pleased me; I would walk in the secluded part, while the part adjacent to Hyde Park was filled by a brilliant multitude. The contrast between my poverty and their wealth, my isolation and the crowd, suited me. With that confused longing with which my sylph used to afflict me, when having decked her out in all my follies I scarcely dared to raise my eyes to my handiwork, I would watch young Englishmen going by in the distance. Death, which I thought myself to be approaching, added mystery to this vision of a world which I had almost left. Did anyone cast an eye on the foreigner sitting at the foot of a pine-tree? Did some lovely woman divine the unknown presence of René?

At Westminster I had another pastime: in that labyrinth of tombs, I thought of my own, ready to open. The bust of an insignificant man like me would never have a place amongst these illustrious effigies. Then the royal sepulchres would loom: Charles I was not there and Cromwell was no longer there. The ashes of a traitor, Robert d’Artois, lay beneath the flagstones that I trod with loyal steps. The fate of Charles I had just been extended to Louis XVI; every day the steel reaped its harvest, in France, and the graves of my relatives had already been dug.

The singing of the choir and the conversation of visitors interrupted my reflections. I could not visit frequently, since it obliged me to give the wardens of those no longer living the shilling which I needed in order to stay alive. But instead I would circle the Abbey with the rooks, or stop to gaze at the towers, twins that appeared of unequal size, which the setting sun lit with its blood-red fires against the black backcloth of City smoke.

One day, however, it so happened that wishing to contemplate the interior of the basilica, I was lost, at evening, in admiration of that bold, capricious architecture. Overcome by the feeling of the sombre immensity of Christian churches (Montaigne), I wandered about with slow steps, and was benighted: the doors were closed. I tried to find an exit; I called for the usher, and rattled the gates: all this noise, spreading and fading in the silence, was lost; I had to resign myself to sleeping among the dead.

After hesitating in my choice of bed, I stopped by the mausoleum of Lord Chatham, at the foot of the rood screen, and the double flight of steps to the Chapel of the Knights and of Henry VII. At the entrance to these stairs, these aisles closed by grills, a tomb built into the wall, facing a marble statue of Death armed with a spear, offered me shelter. The folds of a shroud, equally of marble, provided a niche: following Charles Quint’s example, I accustomed myself to my interment. I was lodged perfectly for seeing the world as it truly is. What heaps of grandeur are enclosed by those vaults! What remains of us? Our sorrows are no less vain than our joys; the unfortunate Jane Grey is no different from the happy Alys of Salisbury; only her skeleton is less dreadful, since it lacks a head; her carcass improved by her fate and the absence of that which gave her beauty. The tournaments of the victor of Crécy, the entertainments of Henry VIII’s Field of the Cloth of Gold, will not continue in this chamber of funereal sights. Bacon, Newton, Milton are as deeply buried, as eternally past, as their more obscure contemporaries. I, a poor, wandering, exile, would I consent to be no longer the little, sad neglected thing I was, in order to have been one of these famous dead, powerful and sated with pleasure? Oh, life is not about all that! If from the shores of this world we fail to see divine things clearly, let us not be surprised: time is a veil interposed between God and ourselves, as our eyelid is between our eye and the light.

Concealed beneath my marble cloak, I lapsed from these lofty thoughts into my naïve impressions of place and time. My anxiety mixed with pleasure, was similar to that which I experienced in winter in my tower at Combourg, when I listened to the wind: a sigh and a shade are of like nature.

Gradually, I accustomed myself to the darkness, and made out the statues placed on the tombs. I gazed at the corbelled vaulting of the English Saint-Denis, from which one would have said past events and vanished years hung in a Gothic light: the whole edifice was like a monolithic temple of petrified centuries.

I counted ten hours, eleven by the clock; the hammer which rose and fell, on the bronze, was the only ‘living’ thing beside me in the place. Outside, a vehicle passing by, the cry of a watchman, that was all: those distant sounds of earth reached me in a world within a world. The Thames fog, and the smoke from the chimneys, infiltrated the basilica, and spread secondary shadows.

At last, a pre-dawn glow blossomed in a corner of dullest gloom: I gazed fixedly at the progressive growth of the light; did it emanate from the two sons of Edward IV, murdered by their uncle? ‘O, thus lay the gentle babes’, says the great tragedian, ‘…girdling one another within their alabaster innocent arms. Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, and in their summer beauty kiss’d each other.’ God did not send me those sad and tender souls; but the slender phantom of a barely adolescent girl carrying a light sheltered by a leaf of paper twisted like a shell: it was the little bell-ringer. I heard the sound of a kiss, and the bell rang for daybreak. The bell-ringer was utterly terrified when I exited with her through the cloister door. I told her my tale; she explained that she was there to carry out her father’s task because he was ill; we did not speak of the kiss.