Chateaubriand's memoirs, XV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XV- Chapter 4
The death of Madame de Beaumont

Paris, 1838.

The improvement that the air of Rome had produced in Madame de Beaumont, did not last: the signs of an imminent collapse disappeared, it is true; but it seems that the final moment is always delayed in order to deceive us. On two or three occasions I attempted to take the patient for a drive; I tried hard to distract her, by remarking to her on the countryside and the sky: she no longer took an interest in anything. One day, I took her to the Colosseum; it was on of those October days such as one only sees in Rome. She managed to descend from the carriage, and went to sit on a stone, facing one of the altars placed at the perimeter of the building. She raised her eyes; and gazed slowly at those porticoes, dead themselves for so many years, which had seen so much death; the ruins were thick with briars and with columbines yellowed by autumn and bathed in light. The dying woman then lowered her eyes, little by little, to the arena, leaving the sun behind; she fixed them on the altar cross, and said to me: ‘Let us go; I am cold.’ I took her home; she retired to bed and never rose again.

I was put in communication with the Comte de La Luzerne; I sent him from Rome, by each courier, a report on the health of his sister-in-law. When his uncle had been charged by Louis XVI with the diplomatic mission to London, he had taken my brother with him: André Chenier took part in that embassy.

The doctors whom I had gathered together again after our attempt to enjoy a drive, told me that a miracle alone could save Madame de Beaumont. She was taken with the idea that she would not survive the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day; then she remembered that one of her relatives, I do not know which, had died on the 4th of November. I told her that her imagination was disturbed; that she would discover the idleness of her fears; she replied, to console me: ‘Oh! Yes, I shall live longer!’ She saw a few tears that I tried to conceal from her; she took my hand, and said: ‘You are a child; were you not expecting this?’

On the eve of her death, Thursday the 3rd of November, she seemed calmer. She spoke to me about the disposal of her fortune, and told me, in speaking of her will, that everything was settled; but everything was yet to be done, and that she would have liked just two hours to see to it. That evening, the doctor advised me that he felt obliged to warn the patient that it was time for her to think of setting her conscience in order: I had an instant of weakness; the fear of shortening, through a preparation for death, the few moments that Madame Beaumont still had to live, horrified me. I was angry with the doctor then begged him to at least wait until the following day.

My night was a cruel one, with the secret I held in my breast. The patient did not allow me to spend it in her room. I stayed outside, trembling at every noise I heard: when the door was opened a little, I saw the feeble glimmer of a dying light.

On Friday the 4th of November, I entered, followed by the doctor. Madame de Beaumont saw my agitation, and said: ‘Why do you look like that? I have passed a good night.’ The doctor then affected to tell me out loud that he wished to see me in the adjoining room. I went out: when I returned, I no longer knew if I existed. Madame de Beaumont asked me what the doctor had wanted me for. I flung myself down by her bed, dissolved in tears. She did not speak for a moment, looked at me, and said in a firm voice, as if she wanted to give me strength: ‘I did not think that it would happen quite so quickly as this: go, I must say goodbye to you for a moment. Call the Abbé de Bonnevie.’

The Abbé de Bonnevie, having obtained the relevant authority, came to Madame de Beaumont’s house. She told him she had always possessed a profound religious sentiment at heart; but that the unheard-of misfortunes that had struck her during the Revolution had sometimes made her doubt the justice of Providence; that she was ready to admit her errors and commend herself to the eternal mercy; that she hoped the ills she had suffered in this life would shorten her expiation in the next. She made me a sign to retire, and remained alone with her confessor.

I saw him come out an hour afterwards, wiping his eyes, and saying that he had never heard such beautiful language, nor seen such heroism. They sent for the parish priest, to administer the Sacraments. I returned to Madame de Beaumont. On seeing me, she said: ‘Well! Are you pleased with me?’ She was moved by what she deigned to call my kindness to her: ah, if at that moment I could have bought back one of her days by sacrificing all of mine, with what joy I would have done so! Madame de Beaumont’s other friends, who were not present at this scene, at least only had to weep once: while, at the head of that bed of pain where a man hears his last hour strike, each of the dying woman’s smiles gave me life and stole it from me as it faded. A terrible idea overwhelmed me: I realised that Madame de Beaumont had been unsure to this very last breath of the true affection I had for her: she did not cease from showing her surprise and seemed to be dying in both despair and delight. She had considered herself a burden on me, and had wished to depart to set me free.

The priest arrived at eleven: the room filled with that crowd of the curious and the idle that one cannot prevent from following a priest in Rome. Madame de Beaumont watched the formidable solemnity without the least sign of fear. We knelt, and the dying woman received both Communion and the Extreme Unction. When everyone had gone, she made me sit on the edge of her bed and talked to me for half an hour about my work and my plans with the greatest nobility of spirit and the most touching friendship; she urged me above all to be close to Madame de Chateaubriand and Monsieur Joubert; but would Monsieur Joubert go on living?

She begged me to open the window, because she felt stifled. A ray of sunlight lit her bed and seemed to re-kindle her. Then she reminded me of her idea of retiring to the countryside, which we had sometimes talked of together, and she began to cry.

Between two and three in the afternoon, Madame de Beaumont, asked Madame Saint-Germain, an old Spanish lady’s-maid who served her with affection worthy of so good a mistress, to move her to another bed: the doctor opposed this for fear that Madame de Beaumont might die during the transfer. Then she told me she felt the approach of the death-pang. Suddenly, she flung back the coverlet, held out her hand to me, and pressed mine convulsively; her gaze wandering from side to side. With her free hand, she made signs to someone she saw at the foot of the bed; then, returning her hand to her breast she said: ‘It is there!’ Dismayed, I asked her if she recognised me: the ghost of a smile appeared amidst her distraction; she gave me a little nod of the head; her speech was no longer with this world. The convulsions lasted only a few minutes. We supported her in our arms, the doctor, the nurse, and I: one of my hands rested on her heart which throbbed against her fragile bones; it beat rapidly like a clock unwinding, its chain broken. Oh, moment of horror and fear, I felt it stop! We laid on her pillow the woman who had found peace; her head drooped. A few locks of her hair, unwound, fell over her brow; her eyes were closed, eternal night had descended. The doctor held a mirror and a candle to the mouth of the traveller; the mirror was not clouded by a breath of life and the candle remained unmoving. All was over.