Chateaubriand's memoirs, XV, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XV- Chapter 2
Madame de Beaumont’s arrival in Rome – A letter from my sister

Paris, 1837

A letter from Monsieur Ballanche dated the 30th Fructidor (the 17th of September), told me of the pending arrival of Madame de Beaumont, who had travelled from Mont Dore to Lyons on her way to Italy. He told me not to fear the misfortune I dreaded, and that the patient’s health appeared to be improving. Madame de Beaumont, reaching Milan, came upon Monsieur Bertin whom business affairs had summoned there: he had the kindness to take charge of the poor traveller, and escorted her to Florence where I had gone to meet her. I was shocked on seeing her; she had strength enough only to smile. After a few days’ rest, we set out for Rome, travelling at walking pace to avoid jolting her. Madame de Beaumont received careful attention everywhere: this kindly woman attracted interest, so ill and forlorn, the only one left of all her family. The very maids at the inns gave way to gentle commiseration.

What I felt can be imagined: one has conducted friends to the grave, but they were mute, and no shadow of vague hope remained to render one’s grief more poignant. I no longer saw the lovely countryside through which we passed; I had followed La Pérouse’s road: what did Italy signify to me? I still found the climate too fierce, and if the wind blew a little, the breezes seemed like tempests to me.

At Terni, Madame de Beaumont wished to see the falls; after making the effort to lean on my arm, she sat down again, saying: ‘We must let the waters go.’ I had rented a secluded house for her in Rome near the Piazza d’Espagna, at the foot of Monte Pincio; it had a little garden with espalier oranges, and a courtyard with a fig-tree. There I deposited the dying woman. It had been difficult for me to secure this retreat, since there is a prejudice in Rome against diseases of the chest, which are regarded as contagious.

At that period of social renewal, everything appertaining to the old monarchy was sought after: the Pope sent for news of Monsieur de Montmorin’s daughter; Cardinal Consalvi and the members of the Sacred College followed His Holiness’ example; Cardinal Fesch himself showed Madame de Beaumont, till the day of her death, marks of deference and respect which I would not have expected from him, and made me forget the wretched divisions of my first days in Rome. I had written to Monsieur Joubert concerning the anxieties with which I was tormented, before Madame de Beaumont’s arrival: ‘Our friend writes letters to me from Mont Dore,’ I told him, ‘that break my heart: she says that she feels there is no more oil in the lamp; she speaks of the last tremors of her heart. Why have you left her to journey alone? Why have you not written to her? What will become of us if we lose her? Who will console us for her? We do not feel the worth of our friends until the moment when we are threatened with their loss. We are even mad enough when things are going well to imagine that we can distance ourselves from them with impunity: the heavens punish us for it; they remove them from us and we are terrified by the solitude it leaves around us. Pardon me, my dear Joubert; I feel my heart today is only twenty years old; this Italy has rejuvenated me; I love everything that is dear to me with the same force as in my youth. Sorrow is my element: I only find myself again when I am unhappy. My friends are of so rare a species at present, that merely the fear of seeing them taken from me freezes my blood. Forgive my lamentations: I am sure you are as unhappy as I am. Write to me, and write to that other unfortunate Breton too.’

At first, Madame de Beaumont experienced some relief. The patient herself began to believe in her recovery. I had the satisfaction of believing, at least, that Madame de Beaumont would no longer leave me: I counted on taking her to Naples in the spring, and from there, sending in my resignation to the Foreign Minister. Monsieur d’Agincourt, that true philosopher, came to see the fragile bird of passage which had perched in Rome before leaving for an unknown land; Monsieur Boguet, already the most senior of our painters, presented himself. These reinforcements to hope sustained the patient, and soothed her with an illusion which in her heart’s depths she no longer subscribed to. Letters, which were painful to read, arrived for me from all directions, expressing fear and hope. On the 4th of October, Lucile wrote to me from Rennes:

‘I started a letter to you the other day; I have just been searching for it in vain; I spoke to you there of Madame de Beaumont, and I complained of her silence in my regard. My friend, what a strange sad life I lead these many months! Also these words of the prophet revolve endlessly in my mind: ‘The Lord will crown thee with suffering, and hurl thee away like a ball.’ But let us leave my troubles and speak of your worries. I cannot convince myself they are well-founded: I always see Madame de Beaumont as full of life and youth, and almost non-material: nothing gloomy can fill my heart, on that subject. Heaven, which knows our feelings for her, will certainly preserve her. My friend, we will not lose her; I feel that certainty within me. I cheer myself by thinking that, by the time you receive my letter, your anxiety will have passed. Convey to her, for my part, all the true and tender interest I take in her; tell her that the memory of her is one of the loveliest things in life to me. Keep your promise and don’t fail to give me news whenever you can. Ah, what a long space of time must pass before I receive a reply to this letter! How cruel a thing separation is! When will you tell me of your return to France? If you seek to delude me, you wrong me. In the midst of my sorrows, a sweet thought rises in me, that of your friendship and that I exist in your memory such as god has pleased to form me. My friend, I can no longer see any sure refuge for me on earth except your heart; I am a stranger and unknown to all the rest. Farewell, my poor brother! Will I see you again? That idea does not offer itself to me in a distinct enough manner. If you see me again, I fear lest you find me completely insane. Farewell, you to whom I owe so much! Farewell, my unmixed blessing! O memory of my happier days, can you not now lighten my sorrowful days a little?

I am not one of those who exhaust their grief in the moment of separation; each day adds to the sadness I feel due to your absence, and were you a hundred years in Rome, you could not come to the end of that sadness. In order to make the distance seem an illusion, I do not pass a day without reading a few pages of your works: I make every effort to believe I hear you speaking. The friendship I have for you is only natural; from childhood you have been my defender and my friend; all your life you have tried to shed your charm over mine; you have never caused me a tear, and have never made a friend who has not been a friend to me. My kind brother, heaven which has been pleased to toy with all my other joys, wishes me to find my happiness completely in you, and entrust myself to your heart. Send me news quickly of Madame de Beaumont. Address your letters for me to Mademoiselle Lamotte, since I do not know how long I shall be able to stay here. Since our last separation, I am always, in regard to my habitation, as if subject to a quicksand that sinks under my feet: it is surely the case that for those who do not know me, I must appear inexplicable; however I only vary outwardly, since the depths are forever the same.’

The voice of a swan preparing to die was transmitted, through me, to a dying swan: I was the echo of those last ineffable tones!