Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLI, 7

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XLI, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XLII, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLI- Chapter 7
A meeting at Schlau – An empty Carlsbad – Hollfeld – Bamberg: the librarian and the young lady – My various Saint Francis’ Days – Proofs of religion – France

From the 29th of September to the 6th of October, 1833.

A carriage was changing horses, at Schlau, at midnight, in front of the post-station. Hearing French spoken, I put my head out of the calash and said: ‘Gentlemen, are you going to Prague? You will not find Charles X there, he has left with Henri V.’ I gave my name, ‘What, he’s left?’ cried several voices together. ‘Go on, coachman, go on!’

My eight compatriots, stopped initially at Eger, had obtained permission to continue their journey, but with a police officer accompanying them. This meeting in 1833 with a band of followers of throne and altar, despatched by the French Legitimacy, under the escort of a sergeant, was strange! In 1822, in Verona, I had seen cages of Carbonari accompanied by gendarmes. What then do sovereigns want? Whom do they recognize as friends? Do they fear too great a crowd of their supporters? Instead of being moved by their loyalty, they treat the men devoted to their crown as propagandists and revolutionaries.

The postmaster at Schlau had invented a new accordion: he sold me one; all night I worked the wheeze-box, whose sound took from me all memory of the world.

Carlsbad (I passed through on the 30th of September) was deserted; an opera house after the music has ceased. At Eger I found the customs man again, who brought me down from where I was: in the June moonlight with a lady of the Roman Campagna.

At Hollfeld, more swifts but no little basket-carrier; I was sad. Such is my nature: I idealise real people and personify dreams, displacing mind and matter. A little girl and a bird now swell the crowd of beings I create, with which my imagination is populated, like those motes that dance in a ray of sunlight. Forgive me, for talking about myself, I realised too late.

Here is Bamberg. Padua made me recall Livy: at Bamberg, Father Horrion discovered the first part of the Roman historian’s thirty-third book. While I ate supper in the country of Joachim Camerarius, and Clavius, the town librarian came to welcome me drawn by my fame, the greatest in the world, according to him which warmed the marrow of my bones. A Bavarian general followed. At the inn-door, a crowd surrounded me as I regained my carriage. A young woman was standing on a milestone, like that Sainte-Beuve who watched the Duc de Guise go by. She smiled: ‘Are you mocking me?’ I asked her. – ‘No,’ she replied in French, with a German accent, ‘it’s because I’m so pleased!’

From the 1st to the 4th of October, I revisited the places I had seen three months previously. On the 4th I reached the border of France. Saint Francis’ day is, each year, one on which I examine my conscience. I turn my gaze on the past; I ask myself where I was, and what I was doing on each preceding anniversary. This year, 1833, Saint Francis’ Day found me wandering, subject to my vagabond destiny. I saw a cross beside the road; it rose from a clump of trees which allowed a few dead leaves to fall, in silence, over the crucified Son of God. Twenty-seven years earlier, I had passed Saint Francis Day at the foot of the real Golgotha.

My patron saint also visited the Holy Tomb. Francis of Assisi, founder of the mendicant Order, by creating that institution, took a considerable step for the Gospel, which has not been sufficiently remarked upon: he brought the reality of the people into religion; by dressing poverty in a monk’s robe, he drove the world towards charity, he raised the beggar in the eyes of the wealthy, and by means of a proletarian Christian militia established a model of the brotherhood of Man that Jesus preached, a brotherhood which will be accomplished by that as yet undeveloped Christian politics without which there will never be complete liberty and justice on this earth.

My patron saint even extended his fraternal tenderness to the animals over which he seemed to have gained that ascendancy, through his innocence, that Man exercised before The Fall: he spoke to them as if they could understand him; he called them his brothers and sisters. Near Bavano, as he passed by, a multitude of birds gathered around him; he welcomed them and said: ‘My winged brothers, love and praise God, for he clothed you in feathers and gave you the power to fly through the sky.’ The birds of Lake Rieti followed him. He was joyful when he met flocks of sheep; he had great compassion for them: ‘My sisters,’ he said, ‘come to me.’ He sometimes bought, for the price of his clothes, a ewe being led to the slaughter; he recalled that gentlest of lambs, illius memor agni mitissimi, crucified for Man’s salvation. A cicada lived on a fig-tree branch near his door in the Portiuncula; he called to it; it came to sit on his hand and he said: ‘Sister Cicada, sing of God your creator.’ He did the same with a nightingale and was vanquished in song by the bird he blessed, which flew away after its victory. He was forced to take little wild creatures that ran to him and sought shelter at his breast, back to the woods. When he wanted to pray in the morning, he ordered the swallows to be silent, and they obeyed. A young man went to sell turtledoves in Siena; the servant of God begged the lad to hand them over to him, so that no one might kill those birds, symbols in Scripture of innocence and inoffensiveness. The saint carried them to his monastery of Ravacciano; he planted his stick at the door of the monastery; the stick was transformed into a tall green oak tree; the saint let the turtledoves go and commanded them to build their nest there, which they did for many years.

Francis, dying, wished to leave the earth as nakedly as he had entered it; he asked that his bare corpse be interred in the place where criminals were executed, in imitation of Christ who was his example. He dictated a testament of the spirit; for he had nothing to leave his fellow-men but poverty and peace; a saintly woman placed him in the grave.

I have been endowed with poverty by my patron, love of the small and humble, and compassion for animals; but my barren stem will not become a green oak tree to protect them.

I ought to have been happy to have trodden the soil of France on my name day; but have I a homeland? In this country have I ever known a moment’s rest? On the 6th of October I re-entered my Infirmary. The gusty wind of St Francis’ Day still reigned. My trees, burgeoning shelter for the poor people gathered in by my wife, bent beneath my patron saint’s wrath. In the evening, through the elm branches on the boulevard, I watched the street-lights flickering, their half-extinguished flames wavering like the little lamp of my life.