Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 8

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XIII, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIII, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 8
The year 1801 – Summer at Savigny

Paris, 1837

The success of Atala having persuaded me to continue Le Génie du Christianisme, two volumes of which were already in print, Madame de Beaumont offered me a room in the country in a house she had just rented, at Savigny. I spent six months in this retreat of hers, with Monsieur Joubert and other friends.

The house was situated at the entrance to the village, on the Paris side, near an old highway known there as the Chemin de Henri IV; it had its back to a vine-covered slope, and its face to SavignyPark, which ended in a screen of trees, and was crossed by the little River Orge. On the left, the Plain of Viry stretched away as far as the springs of Juvisy. All round this countryside, were valleys, which we visited in the evenings in search of fresh walks.

In the mornings, we breakfasted together; after breakfast, I retired to my work; Madame de Beaumont had the goodness to copy out sections which I indicated to her. This noble woman offered me shelter when I had none: without the peace she granted me, perhaps I would never have finished a work I had been unable to complete during my times of hardship.

I will remember forever certain evenings spent in this friendly refuge; returning from our walks, we would gather together by a clear-water pond, in the middle of a lawn in the kitchen garden; Madame Joubert, Madame de Beaumont and I, would sit on a bench; Madame Joubert’s son rolled on the grass at our feet; that child has already vanished. Monsieur Joubert walked by himself down a gravel path; two guard dogs and a cat played round us, while pigeons cooed in the eaves. What happiness for a man newly returned from exile, after spending eight years in profound isolation, except for a few days swiftly flown! It was usually on such evenings that my friends made me tell them about my travels; I have never described the wildernesses of the New World as well as then. At night, when the windows of our country salon were open, Madame de Beaumont would point out various constellations, saying one day I would remember her teaching me to recognise them; since I have lost her, I have, several times, not far from her grave in Rome, searched for those stars she named, in the firmament; I have seen them gleaming above the Sabine Hills; the rays of light projected from those stars struck the Tiber’s surface in their fall. The place from which I saw them above the woods of Savigny, and the places where I saw them once more; my unsettled fate; the sign left behind in the sky by a woman, one by which I was to remember her, all this broke my heart. By what miracle does man consent to do what he does on this earth, he who must die?

One evening, we saw someone climb surreptitiously through one window and leave by another; it was Monsieur Laborie; he was fleeing from Bonaparte’s clutches. Shortly afterwards there appeared one of those souls in pain who are of a different species to other souls, and who merge, in passing, their obscure unhappiness with the vulgar sufferings of the human species: it was Lucile, my sister.

After my arrival in France, I had written to my family to tell them of my return. Madame la Comtesse de Marigny, my elder sister, first to seek me, mistook the street, and met with five Monsieur Lassagnes, the last of whom emerged from a cobbler’s trap-door to answer to his name. Madame de Chateaubriand arrived in turn: she was delightful, and filled with all the qualities fitted to grant me the happiness I have found with her, since we have been reunited. Madame la Comtesse de Caud, Lucile, presented herself next. Monsieur Joubert and Madame de Beaumont conceived a passionate fondness and tender pity for her. A correspondence began then between them, which only ended with the death of the two women who inclined to each other like two flowers of a similar nature on the point of fading away. Madame Lucile, having stopped at Versailles, on the 30th of September 1801, I received this note from her: ‘I write to beg you to thank Madame de Beaumont for me, for the invitation to Savigny she sends me. I hope to have that pleasure of visiting, in about a fortnight’s time, as long as there is no impediment on Madame de Beaumont’s side.’ Madame de Caud came to Savigny as she had promised.

I have told you how, in my youth, my sister, a canoness of the Chapter of Argentière, and destined for that of Remiremont, had conceived an attachment for Monsieur de Malfilâtre, a counsellor at the High Court of Brittany, an attachment which, locked in her breast, had added to her innate melancholy. During the Revolution, she married Monsieur le Comte de Caud, and lost him after fifteen months of marriage. The death of Madame la Comtesse de Farcy, a sister whom she loved tenderly, increased Madame de Caud’s sadness. She then attached herself to my wife, Madame de Chateaubriand; and gained an ascendancy over her which became tiresome, since Lucile was forceful, imperious, unreasonable, and Madame de Chateaubriand, subject to her whims, in order to render her the services which a wealthier friend may to a sensitive and less fortunate one, hid those services from her.

Lucile’s genius and her deep nature had almost brought her to Rousseau’s state of madness; she thought she was exposed to secret enemies: she gave Madame de Beaumont, Monsieur Joubert, and myself, false addresses at which we might write to her, she examined the seals of her letters, looking to ensure that they had not been broken; she wandered from house to house, unable to stay with my sisters or my wife; she had conceived an antipathy for them, and Madame de Chateaubriand, after having been devoted to her beyond anything one might conceive, had finally been overwhelmed by the burden of so cruel an attachment.

Another fatality struck Lucile: Monsieur de Chênedollé, living near Vire, had gone to see her at Fougères; soon there was question of a marriage, which fell through. Everything eluded my sister at once, and left to herself she had not the strength to endure it. This plaintive spectre sat for a moment on a stone, in the smiling solitude of Savigny: so many hearts had welcomed her there with joy! They would have been more than happy to restore her to the sweet realities of existence! But Lucile’s heart could only beat in an atmosphere made expressly for herself, which no one else had ever breathed. She consumed the days swiftly in that isolated world in which heaven had placed her. Why had God created a being destined only to suffer? What mysterious connection can there be between a tormented nature and an eternal principle?

My sister had not altered; she had only taken on the fixed expression produced by her ills: her head was a little bowed, like one on whom the hours have weighed. She reminded me of my parents; those first family memories, summoned by the grave, surrounded me like moths rushing to burn themselves at night in the dying flames of a funeral pyre. In contemplating her, I thought I saw all my childhood in Lucile, gazing at me a little lost from behind her eyes.

The vision of grief had vanished: this woman, burdened with life, seemed to have come seeking the other dispirited woman whom she was obliged to carry away.