Chateaubriand's memoirs, X, 6

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X, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> X, 7


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book X - Chapter 6
PDistress – Unforeseen help – A lodging over a cemetery – New friends in misfortune – Our pleasures – My cousin La Bouëtardais



London, April to September 1822.

I amused Hingant with the tale of my adventure, and we decided to make a retreat at Westminster; but our poverty summoned us among the dead in a less poetic way.

My funds were running out: Baylis and Deboffe, in return for a written promise of reimbursement in case of poor sales, ventured to begin printing the Essai; it was the end of their generosity, and that was only natural; I was more surprised at their daring. No more translation work arrived: Peltier, being a man dedicated to pleasure, grew weary of his prolonged kindness to me. He would willingly have given me what he had, if he had not preferred spending it; but hunting for work here and there, and doing a good deed patiently, were impossibilities, to him. Hingant too saw his resources diminishing; between the two of us, we possessed only sixty francs. We cut down on our rations, as if on a prolonged voyage aboard ship. Instead of a shilling a head, we only spent sixpence on dinner. With our morning tea, we halved the amount of bread, and gave up butter. This abstinence frayed my friend’s nerves. It crazed him; he would prick up his ears as if he were listening for someone; then, as if in response, start laughing, or burst into tears. Hingant believed in magnetism, and confused his brain with Swedenborg’s gibberish. In the morning he would tell me of being disturbed by noises during the night; he grew angry if I ridiculed his imaginings. The anxiety he caused me prevented me from feeling my own sufferings.

They were significant, nevertheless: the rigorous diet, and my work, inflamed my diseased chest; I began to find difficulty in walking, yet I spent my days and part of my nights out of doors, so no one would be aware of my poverty. Down to our last shilling, my friend and I agreed to employ it to provide a semblance of breakfasting. We decided to buy a penny roll; and would allow the hot water and teapot to be brought as usual; we would not put the tea in, we would eat no bread, but we would drink the hot water, with a few of the small grains of sugar left at the bottom of the sugar-bowl.

Five days passed like this. Hunger consumed me; I was feverish; sleep deserted me; I sucked pieces of linen soaked in water; I chewed grass and paper. When I passed the bakers’ shops, the torment was terrible. One bitter wintry night, I stood for two hours outside a shop which sold dried fruit and smoked meat, devouring everything I saw with my eyes: I could have eaten not merely the food, but the boxes, baskets and trays.

On the morning of the fifth day, fainting from inanition, I dragged myself to Hingant’s room; I knocked at the door, it was locked; I called out, Hingant did not reply for a while; at last he got up and opened the door. He was laughing in an odd manner; his frock coat was buttoned up: he sat down at the tea table: ‘Our breakfast is on its way,’ he said, in a strange voice. I though I could see spots of blood on his shirt; I unbuttoned his coat swiftly: he had given himself a stab-wound, two inches deep, low on his left breast. I shouted for help. The maidservant ran for a surgeon. The wound was dangerous.

This new misfortune forced me to take action. Hingant, a counsellor at the High Court of Brittany, had refused to accept the payment that the British Government granted to French magistrates, just as I had declined the alms of a shilling a day for émigrés: I wrote to Monsieur de Barentin and explained my friend’s situation to him. Hingant’s relatives rushed to his side and took him off to the country. At that very moment, my uncle Bedée sent me forty crowns, a touching gift from my persecuted family; it seemed like all the gold of Peru to me: the gift of those prisoners of France supported the exiled Frenchman.

My poverty had become an obstacle to working. Since I no longer provided copy, printing had been suspended. Deprived of Hingant’s company, I relinquished my guinea-a-month lodging with Baylis; I paid the outstanding rent and left. Lower still than the needy émigrés who had proved my first patrons in London, were others, needier still. There are levels among the poor as among the rich; one can descend from the man who huddles with his dog against the winter cold, to the man who shivers in tattered rags. My friends found me a room better suited to my diminishing fortune (one is not always at the height of prosperity); they installed me near Marylebone Street, in a garret, its window overlooking a cemetery: each night the watchman’s rattle alerted me to the presence of body-snatchers. I had the consolation of knowing that Hingant was out of danger.

Friends visited my attic. Given our freedom and our poverty, we might have been taken for painters among the ruins of Rome: we were artists in destitution among the ruins of France. My figure served as a model and my bed as a seat for my pupils. This bed consisted of a mattress and a blanket. I had no sheets; in cold weather, a chair, my clothes, and the blanket, rendered me warm. Too weak to move my bed, it remained where God had placed it.

My cousin La Bouëtardais, hounded from an Irish hovel for failing to pay his rent, though he had left his violin as a pledge, came to me seeking shelter from the bailiff; a curate from southern Brittany loaned him a camp-bed. La Bouëtardais was, like Hingant, a counsellor at the High Court of Brittany; he had not a handkerchief to call his own; but he had deserted with bag and baggage, that is to say he had carried off his mitre-board and his red robe, and he slept beneath the purple by my side. When we could not sleep, being high-spirited and a good musician, with a fine voice, he would sit quite naked on his camp-bed, wearing his mitre-board, and singing ballads, accompanying himself on a guitar with only three strings. One night as the poor lad was humming the Hymn to Venus by Metastasio: Scendi propizia, he had a stroke, and his mouth became twisted: he eventually died of one, years later: thinking it the effect of a cold draught, I merely rubbed his cheeks, energetically. We would take council in our high chamber, we would discuss politics; we would fill our time with émigré gossip. In the evenings, we would go and dance at our aunts’ and cousins’ houses, fashionably beribboned, with our hats done up.