Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLI, 1

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XL, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XLI, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLI- Chapter 1
JOURNAL FROM PADUA TO PRAGUE, 20TH TO 26TH SEPTEMBER 1833: – Conegliano – A translation of Le Dernier Abencérage – Udine – The Countess Samoilova – Monsieur de La Ferronays – A priest – Carinthia – The Drava – A little peasant – Forges – Lunch at the Hamlet of St Michael

I was sorry, on passing Mestre towards the end of the night, that I was unable to visit the shore: perhaps a distant lighthouse among the last lagoons might have indicated the loveliest island of the ancient world, as a little fire revealed the first islands of the New World to Christopher Columbus. It was at Mestre that I embarked for Venice on my first visit in1806: fugit aetas: time flies.

I lunched at Conegliano: there I was complimented by the friends of a lady who had translated L’Abencérage, and indeed resembled Blanca: ‘He saw a young woman emerge, dressed almost like the Gothic queens carved on the monuments in our ancient abbeys…a black mantilla was thrown over her head; with her left hand she held it tightly beneath her chin like a hood, so that nothing could be seen of her face but her large eyes and rosy mouth.’ I am repaying my debt to the translator of my Spanish reveries, by reproducing her portrait here.

While I regained my carriage, a priest harangued me regarding Le Génie du Christianisme. I traversed the theatre of victories which led Bonaparte to invade our freedoms.

Udine is a fine town: I saw a portico there which imitated the Doge’s Palace. I dined at the inn, in the room which had just been occupied by Countess Samoilova; it was still in a complete state of disarray. Is that niece of Princess Bagration, another victim of time’s injuries, still as lovely as she was in Rome in 1829, when she sang so beautifully at my concerts? What breeze blew this flower once more beneath my footsteps? What breath disturbs that cloud? Daughter of the North, you delight in life; hasten: the melodies that charmed you are already fading; your days are shorter than the Polar day.

In the hotel register I found the name of my noble friend, the Comte de La Ferronays, returning from Prague to Naples while I was journeying from Padua to Prague. The Comte de La Ferronays, my compatriot twice over since he is both a Breton and from Saint Malo, entwined his political destiny with mine: he was ambassador to St Petersburg when I was Foreign Minister in Paris; he occupied the latter role, when I became an ambassador under his direction. Sent to Rome, I gave in my resignation on the advent of Polignac’s ministry, and La Ferronays inherited my embassy. Monsieur de Blacas’ brother-in-law, he is as poor as the former is rich; he has left the Peerage and abandoned his diplomatic career since the July Revolution; everyone esteems him, and no one hates him, because his character is pure and his spirit temperate. In his latest negotiations in Prague, he allowed himself to be taken by surprise by Charles X, who is at the end of his life. Old people delight in secrecy, having nothing of value to display. Except for my old King, I think they should drown those who are no longer young, starting indeed with me, and a dozen of my friends.

From Udine, I took the Villach road: I travelled to Bohemia via Salzburg and Linz. Before attacking the Alps, I heard the sound of bells and saw an illuminated bell-tower in the plain. I interrogated the coachman with the help of a German from Strasbourg, working as an Italian-speaking guide in Venice, whom Hyacinthe had acquired to interpret Slavic in Prague. The celebrations I was enquiring about were due to a priest who had newly entered Holy Orders; he was to say his first Mass the following day. How many times would those bells, which today proclaimed the indissoluble union of man with God, call that man to the sanctuary and at what hour would those same bells ring out above his coffin?

22nd of September.

I slept almost all night, to the roar of torrents, and woke at daybreak, on the 22nd, among the mountains. The valleys of Carinthia are pleasant, but lack character: the peasants do not dress in national costume; some of the women wear furs like Hungarians; others have white headdresses on the back of their heads, or a blue woollen bonnet padded at the sides, somewhere between an Ottoman turban and the buttoned hat of a Talapoin Buddhist monk.

I changed horses at Villach. On leaving the post-station, I followed a large valley beside the Drava, a new acquaintance for me: by dint of crossing rivers I will at last reach my final shore. Lander has just explored the Niger Delta; that resilient traveller has vanished into eternity at the very moment of ascertaining for us that the mysterious African river merges its waves with the Ocean.

At the fall of night, we were almost halted at the village of Paternion: after greasing the wheels, a peasant tightened a wheel-nut in the wrong direction, with such force that it was impossible to free it. All the able men in the village, led by the blacksmith, failed in their attempts. A lad of fourteen or fifteen left the crowd then returned with a pair of pliers, pushed aside the workers, wound a brass wire round the nut, gripped it with his pliers, and turning it in the direction of the thread removed the nut with a minimum of effort: there was a universal vivat. Was the boy not a kind of Archimedes? The queen of a tribe of Eskimos, that woman who drew a chart of the Polar Regions for Captain Parry, watched his sailors welding pieces of iron on a forge with great attention, and through her intellect advanced the development of her race.

During the night of the 22nd and 23rd, I traversed a dense mass of mountains; they continued to loom in front of me as far as Salzburg: and yet those ramparts did not protect the Roman Empire. The author of the Essais, speaking of the Tyrol, says, with his usual lively imagination: ‘It was like a robe that we only saw folded, that, if it had been spread out, would have formed a large country.’ The hills among which I wound were like rock-falls from the higher chain, which, if covering a vast terrain would have created little Alps displaying various features of the great ones.

Cascades descended all about us, leaping over their stony beds, like Pyrenean mountain streams. The road passed through gorges barely navigable by a calash. Near Gemünd, water-driven forges joined the noise of their hammers to that of the sluices; streams of sparks escaped from their chimneys into the black pine forests and the night.

At each breath of the bellows over the coals, the exposed roofs of the building were suddenly illuminated, like the cupola of St Peter’s Rome on a feast day. In the Karch range, three pairs of oxen were added to our team of horses. Our long train looked like a mobile bridge over the flowing torrents and inundated ravines: the Tauern range opposite was cloaked in snow.

On the 23rd, at nine in the morning, I arrived in the pretty hamlet of St Michael, at the end of a valley. Tall and lovely daughters of Austria served me a proper breakfast in a little two-windowed room looking out on meadows and the village church. The cemetery, surrounding the church, was only separated from me by a rustic courtyard. Wooden crosses, set in a semicircle, from which were hung holy water stoups, rose from the lawn with its old tombs: five graves with no grass growing on them indicated five new sleepers. A few ditches, like the beds in a vegetable garden were decorated with marigolds in full flower; wagtails chased grasshoppers in this garden of the dead. A very old crippled woman, leaning on her crutch, crossed the cemetery and brought back a broken cross; perhaps the law allowed her to take the cross for her own grave; dead wood, in the forests, belongs to whoever gathers it.

‘There do inglorious poets sleep unknown,
Mute orators, conquerors without a throne.’

Would not the child in Prague sleep more soundly here, without his crown, than in the chamber of the Louvre where his father’s body was laid?

My solitary breakfast, in the company of those travellers lying at rest beneath my window, would have been to my taste if a recent death had not troubled me: I had heard cries from the bird served up for my meal. Poor chick! She had been so happy five minutes before my arrival! She had pecked about amongst the grass, vegetables and flowers; she had scurried about among the flocks of goats down from the mountain; this evening she would have slept at sunset, still young enough to rest beneath her mother’s wing.

The horses hitched, I climbed into my calash again, surrounded by the girls, and accompanied by the lads, from the inn; they seemed happy to have met me, though they had no idea who I was and would never see me again: they sent so many blessings after me! I never weary of this Germanic cordiality. Every peasant you meet raises his hat to you and wishes you a hundred fine things: in France they do not even salute the dead; liberty and equality are renowned for their insolence; there is no empathy between individuals; to envy whoever travels with a modicum of style, and be ready, arms akimbo, to fight anyone wearing a new frock-coat or a clean shirt, that is the characteristic mark of our national freedom: of course we spend our days in antechambers suffering rebuffs from some upstart peasant. That does not inhibit our powers of intellect, or prevent us conquering weapons in hand; but ways of life are not created a priori: we have been a great military nation for eight centuries; fifty years cannot alter that; we cannot lose the true love of liberty. As soon as we pause for a moment under some transitory government, the old monarchy springs again from its stock, the old spirit of France reappears: we are courtiers and soldiers, nothing more.