Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIV, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIV- Chapter 6
The year 1803 – Journey from Paris to the Savoy Alps



Paris, 1838

At Lyons, I met my friend Monsieur Ballanche once more. I was a witness to the renewed celebration of Corpus-Christi; I considered I had played a part in those flowery wreaths, in that heavenly joy that I had recalled to earth.

I continued my journey; a cordial reception awaited me everywhere; my name was associated with the re-establishment of the altars. The greatest pleasure I have known is to have felt myself honoured in France and noted with serious interest abroad. It sometimes happened, as I was resting in a village inn, that I would see a father and mother enter with their son: they would tell me they had brought their child along to thank me. Was it self-esteem then which granted me the pleasure of which I speak? What did it matter to my vanity that unknown and honest people testified to their happiness on a public highway, in a place where no one could hear them? What moved me, at least I dare to think so, was my having done a little good, consoled the distressed, caused the rebirth in the depths of a mother’s heart of the hope of raising her son a Christian, that is to say an obedient son, respectful, attached to his parents. Would I have tasted that pure joy if I had written a book whose morals and religion raised groans?

The road from Lyons is fairly gloomy: from Tour-du-Pin to Pont-de-Beauvoisin, it is cool and wooded.

At Chambéry, where Bayard’s chivalrous soul displayed itself so admirably, a man was welcomed by a woman, and as payment for the hospitality he had received, he considered himself philosophically obliged to dishonour her. Such is the danger of literature; the desire for fame overcomes generosity of feeling: if Rousseau had never become a celebrated writer, he would have buried the frailties of the woman who had nurtured him among the valleys of Savoy; he would have been subject to the same faults as his friend; he would have helped her in old age, instead of contenting himself with giving her a snuffbox, and vanishing. Ah! Never may the voice of friendship betrayed be raised against our tomb!

Having passed Chambéry, the Isère’s channel appears. Everywhere in these valleys one meets with crosses at the roadsides, and madonnas among the pine woods. The little churches, surrounded by trees, provide a moving contrast with the high mountains. When winter storms blow down from those ice-crowned summits, the Savoyard takes shelter in his rural temple and prays.

The valleys one enters above Montmélian are bordered by hills of various shapes, sometimes half-naked, sometimes clothed with forest.

Aiguebelle seems close to the Alps; but turning the corner of some isolated rock, fallen across the road, you see fresh valleys along the course of the River Arc.

The hills stand high on both sides; their flanks become perpendicular; their sterile summits begin to reveal glaciers: torrents fall to swell the Arc which flows wildly. In the midst of the tumult of waters, you find a careless waterfall falling with infinite grace beneath a curtain of willows.

Passing Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and arriving towards sunset at Saint-Michel, I failed to find a horse: obliged to halt, I took a walk beyond the village. The air over the mountain crests became translucent; their indentations were drawn with extraordinary clarity, while a deep shadow emerging from their feet climbed towards their summits. The nightingale’s voice sounded from below, the eagle’s cry from above; service-trees flowered in the valley, white snow on the mountain. A castle, the work of Carthaginians, according to popular tradition, was visible on an outcrop cut sheer from the cliff. There, one man’s hatred, more powerful than any obstacle, was enshrined in stone. The vengeance of a race which could only rise to greatness through slavery and the blood of the rest of the world, weighed on a free people.

I left at daybreak and arrived, towards two in the afternoon, at Lans-le-bourg, at the foot of Mont Cenis. Entering the village, I saw a peasant grasping an eaglet by its feet; a pitiless throng were striking at the young king, insulted in the weakness of his youth and fallen majesty; the father and mother of the noble orphan had been killed: they suggested I buy him; he died of the harsh treatment they had subjected him to before I could rescue him. I was reminded then of poor little Louis XVII; I think today of Henri V: how swiftly fall and misfortune come!

Here, one begins the ascent of Mont Cenis, leaving behind the little river Arc, which leads you to the foot of the mountain. On the far side of Mont Cenis, the Doria opens the gate of Italy to you. Rivers are not merely great flowing roads, as Pascal called them, they even trace out the route for men.

When I found myself on the crest of the Alps for the first time, a strange emotion gripped me; I was like that skylark which, at the same moment as myself, crossed the frozen plateau, and having sung its little song of the plain, fell among the snow, instead of descending to the fields. The stanzas these mountains inspired in me in 1822 evoke perfectly the feelings they stirred in me in 1803 at the same spot:

‘Alps, you have never suffered my fate!
You are unchanged by time;
Lightly, your foreheads carry those days
Weighing heavily on mine.
When, for that first time, filled with hope,
I crossed your battlements,
An immense future, the horizon, opened
To my sight and sense.
Italy beneath my feet, before me, the world!’

Did I really penetrate that world, then? Christopher Columbus had a vision which revealed to him the world of his daydreams, before he had discovered it; Vasco de Gama met the giant of the storms on the road: which of those two great men foreshadowed my future? What I would have liked before all else would have been a life made glorious by a brilliant end, but by its very nature obscure. Do you know whose the first remains were to rest in America? Those of Biorn the Scandinavian: he died in sight of Vinland, and was buried on a promontory by his companions. Who remembers that? Who knows of him whose sail preceded the Genoese captain’s ship to the New World? Biorn sleeps on the headland of an unknown cape, and his name has been transmitted to us for a thousand years only through the poetic sagas, in a language that no one now speaks.