Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 1

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XII, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIII, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 1
The Ardennes

Dieppe, 1836 (Revised in December 1846)

You know that I have changed my place of residence many times during the writing of these Memoirs; that I often describe these places, having spoken of the feelings they inspired in me, and retrace my memories, so as to merge the history of my thoughts and my various homes with the story of my life.

You will discover where I am now. Walking this morning on the cliffs, behind Dieppe castle, I noticed the postern which communicates with the cliffs by means of a bridge flung over a moat: Madame de Longueville fled across it to reach Queen Anne of Austria; taking ship at Le Havre, landing at Rotterdam, she returned to Stenay, and the Marshal de Turenne. The great captain’s laurels were no longer unstained, and she, the scornful exile, no longer treated the guilty party with much consideration.

Madame de Longueville, who enhanced the Hotel Rambouillet, the throne of Versailles, and the municipality of Paris, acquired a passion for the author of the Maxims, and was faithful to him for as long as she could be. He in turn thought less of his pensées than of his friendship with Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné, the verse of La Fontaine and the love of Madame de Longueville: such is the power of illustrious attachments.

The Princesse de Condé, near to death, said to Madame de Brienne: ‘My dear friend, tell that poor wretch, at Stenay, the state you see me in, and to learn how to die.’ Fine words; but the Princess forgot that she herself had been loved by Henri IV, and that escorted from Brussels by her husband she had wished to rejoin the Béarnais, to escape at night, through the window, and then ride twenty or thirty leagues on horseback; she was then a poor wretch of seventeen.

Descending the cliffs, I found myself on the main Paris road; it climbed quickly on leaving Dieppe. On the right, on the ascending line of a bank, a cemetery wall rose; alongside this wall was fixed a wheel for winding rope. Two rope-makers, walking backwards in parallel and putting their weight on each leg in turn, sang together quietly. I listened; they had reached these lines of Le Vieux Caporal: that fine poetic falsity, which has brought us where we are.

‘Who is gazing and weeping there?
Ah! It’s the drummer’s widow,’ etc.

The men sang the refrain: Conscripts, fall in; don’t weep…march in step, in step…in so sad and manly a tone that tears sprang to my eyes. In marking the steps themselves, while winding the hemp, they looked as though they were shadowing the last movements of the old lance-corporal: I would not have been able to say what part of this fineness, revealed solely by two sailors in sight of the sea singing the death of a soldier, was due to Béranger.

The cliff had called up for me monarchist grandeur, the road plebeian celebrity; I compared in my mind people at either extreme of society; I asked myself to which of those two eras I would have preferred to belong. When the present has disappeared like the past, which of those two names will most attract the gaze of posterity?

Moreover, if facts are everything, if, in history, the value of a name does not outweigh the value of an event, what is the difference between my times and the times which unrolled from the death of Henri IV to that of Mazarin! What are the troubles of 1648 compared to that Revolution, which has consumed the previous world, of which perhaps it will die, by leaving neither an old nor a new society behind it? Have I not depicted in my Memoirs scenes of vastly greater importance than those revealed by the Duc de Rochefoucauld? Even at Dieppe, what is that cool and voluptuous idol of Paris, seductive and rebellious, beside Madame la Duchesse de Berry? The cannon fire that announced the royal widow’s presence here, no longer sounds; the tribute of smoke and powder has left nothing behind on the shore but the moaning of the waves.

Those two Bourbon daughters, Anne-Geneviève and Marie-Caroline, are gone; the two sailors and the song of the plebeian poet are engulfed; Dieppe is emptied of me; it was another I, an I of my lost early years, who once lived in these places, and that I is dead, since our days die before us. Here you have seen a second-lieutenant in the Navarre Regiment, exercising recruits on the shingle; you have seen me exiled under Bonaparte; you will meet me when July days find me here once more. Here I am still; I take up my pen again to continue my Confessions.

In order to recognise where we are up to, it is useful to cast a glance at the progress of my Memoirs.