Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVII - Chapter 5
Trip to the Grande-Chartreuse



We dragged ourselves away from Capuan luxuries to go and see La Chartreuse, still accompanied by Monsieur Ballanche. We hired a carriage whose decrepit wheels made a lamentable noise. Arriving at Voreppe, we stayed in an inn at the top of the village. Next day at daybreak, we mounted horses and departed, preceded by a guide. At the village of Saint-Laurent, at the foot of the Grand-Chartreuse, we entered the gateway to the valley, and followed the track, flanked by rock on both sides, which climbed up to the monastery. I have spoken, regarding Combourg, of what I experienced here. The deserted buildings crumbed away beneath the gaze of a sort of keeper of ruins. A lay brother had been installed there, to take care of an infirm solitary who had gone there to die: religion had taxed friendship with loyalty and obedience. We came upon the narrow grave which had been newly filled: Napoleon, at this moment, was off to dig an immense grave at Austerlitz. We were shown the monastery wall, the cells, each with a garden and a workshop, where the carpentry benches and wood-turners’ lathes were pointed out to us: the chisel had fallen from the hand. A gallery offered portraits of the superiors of Chartreuse. The DucalPalace at Venice holds the rest of the ritratti (portraits) of the Doges; places and relics far apart! Some distance higher up, we were conducted to the chapel of Le Sueur’s immortal recluse.

After dining in a vast kitchen, we set off again and met Monsieur Chaptal, carried in a palanquin like a rajah, he was a former apothecary, then senator, afterwards owner of Chanteloupe and inventor of sugar-beet processing, eager heir of the sweet ‘Indian reeds’ of Sicily, perfected by the sun of Tahiti. Descending through the woods, I thought about the former coenobites; through the centuries, they carried fir saplings and a little earth in a fold of their robes, which became trees among the rocks. Happy, O you who journey silently through the world, and never turn your heads as you go by!

We had no sooner reached the entrance to the valley when a storm broke; a deluge fell, and raging torrents hurtled roaring from every ravine. Madame de Chateaubriand, rendered intrepid by the strength of her fear, galloped through water, stones and lightning flashes. She had thrown away her umbrella in order to hear the thunder better; the guide shouted: ‘Commend your souls to God, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!’ We arrived at Voreppe to the sound of the alarm bell; the scattered remains of the storm arrived before us. Far off among the fields you could see fire in a village, and the moon showed the upper part of its disc above the clouds, like the bald and pallid head of Saint Bruno, founder of the silent Order. Monsieur Ballanche, disgustingly wet with rain, said, with his unalterable placidity: ‘I am like a fish underwater.’ I have just revisited Voreppe this year, 1838; there was no thunderstorm; but two witnesses of it remain, Madame de Chateaubriand and Monsieur Ballanche. I make the observation, because I have so often in these Memoirs noted those who are missing.

Returning to Lyons, we left our companion and travelled to Villeneuve. I have recounted to you what that little town was like, my walks and my regrets beside the Yonne with Monsieur Joubert. There, lived three old ladies, the Mesdemoiselles Piat; they reminded me of my grandmother’s three friends at Plancoët, unlike, except in social position. The virgins of Villeneuve died, one after another, and I was reminded of them by a flight of grassy steps, which rose outside their deserted house. What did they talk of when they were alive, those village maidens? They spoke about their dog, about a muff their father had once bought at the fair in Sens. It interested me as much as did the Council in that very same town, at which Saint Bernard condemned my compatriot Abelard. Perhaps the virgins of the muff were Héloïses; perhaps they had loved, and their letters discovered one day will enchant posterity. Who knows? Perhaps they too wrote to their master, also their father, also their brother, also their husband: domino suo, imo patri, etc. that they felt honoured by the name of friend, of mistress or courtesan, concubinae vel scorti (concubine or whore). ‘Despite his knowledge,’ a learned doctor says, ‘I find that Abelard possessed an admirable inclination to folly, when he seduced Héloïse his pupil.’