Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVII, 6

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XVII, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVIII, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVII - Chapter 6
The death of Madame de Caud (Lucile)



The previous year a grave sorrow had surprised me at Villeneuve. In order to tell you of it, I must go back many months to a point prior to my Swiss journey. I was still living in the house in the Rue Miromesnil, when Madame de Caud came to Paris in the spring of 1804. Madame de Beaumont’s death had finally unsettled my sister’s reason; it was almost the case that she refused to believe in that death, suspecting some mystery in that disappearance, or including Heaven in the number of her enemies who took delight in her misfortunes. She possessed nothing: I had found her an apartment in the Rue Caumartin, deceiving her as to the cost of the place and the arrangements I had her make with a restaurant owner. Like a flame about to fade, her genius shed its brightest light; she was wholly illuminated by it. She would trace a few lines and throw them into the fire, or copy some thoughts in harmony with her spirit, from books. She did not remain in the Rue Caumartin; she went to live with the Augustines de la Congrégation Notre-Dame, in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Étienne: Madame de Navarre, an instructress, was to become the superior of that convent. Earlier when she had stayed with Les Dames de Saint-Michel, Lucile had a little cell overlooking the garden: I noticed that her eyes followed the nuns as they walked in the enclosure around the vegetable plots, with a kind of gloomy longing. One guessed she was envying the saints, and going further, aspired to be an angel. I will sanctify these Memoirs by depositing in them, as relics, these letters of Madame de Caud, written before she took flight for her eternal home.

                                                                               ::‘17th of January.

I rely on you and Madame de Beaumont for my happiness, with that thought I evade my ennui and my sorrows: my whole occupation is to love you. I have spent this night in lengthy reflections on your character and your mode of being. How close you and I always are, I believe it takes time to know me, so many the varied thoughts in my head, so greatly does my timidity and a sort of external weakness contrast with my interior strength! That is more than enough about me. My illustrious brother, receive my most tender thanks for all the kindnesses and marks of friendship you never cease to show me. This is the last letter from me which you will receive this morning. Even if I have told you a few of my thoughts, they are no less complete still within me.’

                                                                             ::::Undated.

‘Do you think I am truly safe, my friend, from any impertinence of Monsieur Chênedollé’s? I am determined not to invite him to continue his visits; I am resigned to Tuesday’s being the last. I no longer wish to trouble his courtesy. I close the book of my destiny forever, and seal it with the seal of reason; I will no longer consult its pages, now, regarding either the trifles or the important concerns of life. I completely renounce my foolish thoughts; I will neither occupy myself nor grieve myself with those of others; I will deliver myself headlong to all the events of my journey through this world. What matter about my attachment and how I am! God can no longer afflict me except regarding yourself. I thank Him for the fine, dear and precious gift of your person that He has granted me, and for having preserved my life without stain; these are all my treasures. I might take as an emblem of my life the moon in a cloud with this device: Often obscured, never tarnished. Adieu, my friend. Perhaps you will be astonished (by the change) in my language since yesterday morning. Since seeing you, my heart has raised itself towards God once more, and I have placed it wholly at the foot of the cross, its only true situation.’

                                                                               ::‘Thursday.

Good day, my friend. What is the flavour of your ideas this morning? For myself, I recall that the only person who could reassure me when I feared for Madame de Farcy’s life was the lady who said to me: “But it is in the nature of the possible that you will die before her.” Could any reply be more just? There is nothing, my friend, like the idea of death to rid us of the future. I hasten to rid you of myself this morning, since I feel myself to be in too good spirits for saying beautiful things. Good day, my poor brother. Joy to you.’

                                                                               ::Undated. 

‘When Madame de Farcy was alive, always being close to her, I did not see myself as needing to share my thoughts with anyone. I possessed that good without ever doubting it. But since we have lost that friend and circumstances have separated me from you, I have known the torment of being unable to relieve and revive its spirit in conversation with someone; I feel that my ideas are bad for me when I cannot rid myself of them; that is surely due to my poor constitution. However I am happy enough, since yesterday, with my courage. I pay no attention to my sorrow, and a sort of internal weakness that I experience. I am forsaken. Continue to be kind to me, always: it reveals your compassion these days. Good day, my friend. I will see you soon, I hope.’

                                                                               ::Undated.

‘Rest easy, my friend; my health is restored in the blink of an eye. I often ask myself why I have such need for support. I am like a mad woman who builds a fortress in the midst of a desert. Adieu, my poor brother.’

                                                                               ::Undated.

‘As I am suffering from a severe headache this evening, I am just going to write down quite simply, at random, some of Fénelon’s thoughts for you in order to discharge my duty to you:

– “One is truly narrow when one withdraws within oneself. On the other hand, one is truly expansive when one quits that prison in order to enter into God’s immensity.”

– “We will soon find again what we have lost. We approach it every day at great pace. A little while and there will be nothing to weep over. It is we who die: what we love lives and dies not.”

– “You are granted deceptive powers, such as an ardent fever grants during an illness. For days, you reveal a convulsive movement by means of which you demonstrate courage and gaiety, with a wealth of suffering.”

This is all my head and my sorry pen allow me to write this evening. If you wish, I will begin again tomorrow and perhaps copy more for you. Good evening, my friend. I will never cease to tell you how my heart bows before that of Fénelon, whose tenderness seems so profound to me, his virtue so elevated. Good day, my friend.’

‘I send you on waking a thousand tender thoughts and grant you a hundred blessings. I feel well this morning, and am anxious as to whether you will be able to write to me, and whether those thoughts of Fénelon will seem well-chosen to you. I fear lest my mind might be too disturbed.’

                                                                               ::Undated.

‘Would you imagine that I have occupied myself foolishly since yesterday correcting your work? The Blossacs, in greatest secrecy, have entrusted me with a novel of yours. Since I do not think you have turned your ideas to good advantage in this novel, I am amusing myself by trying to render them in all their power. Could one show greater audacity? Pardon me, great man, and recollect that I am your sister, and it is allowable for me to misuse your riches a little.’

                                                                               ::‘Saint-Michel.

I shall no longer speak to you: Do not come to me any more – because only having a few days left in Paris now, I feel that your presence is essential to me. Only come to me this afternoon at four; I expect to be out until then. My friend, I have in my head a thousand contradictory thoughts about things which seem to exist for me and not exist, which for me have the effect of objects that may merely be presenting themselves to me in a mirror, so that, in consequence, one cannot be certain exactly what one has seen. I do not wish to concern myself with all that; from this moment, I surrender myself. I have not, as you have, the ability to change shores, but I feel brave enough to attach no importance to people and things on the bank, and to concentrate entirely, irrevocably, on the Creator of all justice, and all truth. There is only one disagreeable thing which I fear makes dying difficult, that is to harm in passing, without wishing to, the destiny of another, not because of the interest that they might take in me; I am not foolish enough for that.’

                                                                               ::‘Saint-Michel. 

My friend, the sound of your voice has never given me so much pleasure as when I heard it yesterday on my stair. My thoughts, then, sought to mount upon my courage. I was seized by a feeling of comfort at feeling you so near me; you appeared and all my inner self returned to a state of order. Sometimes I experience a great repugnance at heart when drinking of my chalice. How can that heart, which occupies so small a space, contain so much existence and so much sorrow? I am very dissatisfied with myself, very dissatisfied. My tasks and my thoughts drag me along; I hardly occupy myself with God any more, and yet I content myself with saying to Him a hundred times a day: – Lord, hasten to grant me peace, for my spirit has plunged into weariness.’


                                                                               ::Undated.


‘My brother, do not grow weary of my letters, or my company; consider that you will soon be free forever of my importunities. My life is shedding its last glow, a lamp that is expiring in the darkness of a long night, and that sees the dawn breaking in which it will die. I beg you, my brother, cast one glance back towards those first moments of our existence; remember that we have often been dandled on the same lap, and hugged together to the same breast; that you have already added your tears to mine, that from the earliest days of your life you have protected and defended my fragile existence, that our games united us and I shared your first studies. I will not speak to you of our adolescence, of the innocence of our thoughts and joys, of our mutual need to see each other unceasingly. If I retrace the past, I freely confess, my brother, it is to make myself live more deeply in your heart. When you left France for a second time, you entrusted your wife to me, you made me promise never to separate from her. Faithful to that dear duty, I held out my hands voluntarily to be manacled, and entered those prisons destined only for victims condemned to death. In those places, I felt no anxiety except as to your fate; I consulted the presentiments of my heart, endlessly. When I had recovered my freedom, in the midst of misfortunes that overwhelmed me, only the thought of our reunion sustained me. Now that I have lost forever the hope of spending my life at your side, suffer my sorrows. I will resign myself to my destiny, and it is only because I am still struggling with it, that I experience such cruel anguish; but when I have submitted to my fate…..And what a fate! Where are my friends, protectors, wealth! To whom does my existence matter: this existence abandoned by all, and which depends entirely on itself? My God! Are my present misfortunes not sufficient for my strength, without adding to them fear for the future? Forgive me, dear friend, I will resign myself; I will plunge in a deathlike sleep into my destiny. But during the few days that I have business in this city, let me seek my last solace in you; let me believe my company is dear to you. Believe that along the loving hearts, none approaches the sincerity and tenderness of my powerless friendship for you. Fill my memory with pleasant reminiscences that prolong my existence in proximity to you. Yesterday, when you spoke of my coming to your house, you seemed troubled and serious, though your words were affectionate. My brother, what if I should also be a subject of estrangement and tedium for you? You know it is not I who proposed to you the pleasant distraction of coming to see you, that I promised you never to abuse it; but if you have changed your mind, have you failed to be frank with me? I have no courage to oppose your courtesy. In the past, you distinguished me from the crowd somewhat, and rendered me more justice. Since you count on seeing me today, I will come and see you now at eleven. We shall decide together what will best suit us for the future. I have written to you, certain that I would not have had the courage to speak a single word to you of what this letter contains.’

This letter so poignant and so wholly admirable is the last I received; it alarmed me by the deeper sadness with which it is imprinted. I hurried to see her; my sister was walking in the garden with Madame de Navarre; she came in again when she was told that I had gone up to her room. She made a visible effort to compose her ideas and at intervals she gave a slight convulsive movement of her lips. I begged her to be reasonable, not to write such unjust and heart-rending things to me, and to cease thinking that I could ever grow weary of her. She seemed to grow a little calmer at the words which I repeated to comfort and console her. She told me that she thought the convent was bad for her, that she would feel better in solitary lodgings, near the Jardin des Plantes, where she could see the doctors and go for walks. I urged her to follow her own wishes, adding that I would let her have old Saint-Germain, to help Virginie her maid. This proposition seemed to give her great pleasure, as a reminder of Madame de Beaumont, and she assured me that she would attend to finding herself new lodgings. She asked me what I intended to do that summer: I told her that I would be going to Vichy to re-join my wife, then to Monsieur Joubert at Villeneuve, before returning to Paris. I suggested she might come with us. She replied that she wished to spend the summer alone, and that she was even going to send Virginie back to Fougères. I left her; she was calmer.

Madame de Chateaubriand left for Vichy, and I prepared to follow her. Before quitting Paris, I went to see Lucile once more. She was affectionate; she spoke to me about her writings, beautiful fragments of which you have seen, in the third book of these Memoirs. I encouraged the great poet to work on them; she kissed me, wished me a safe journey, and made me promise to return soon. She saw me to the staircase landing, leant over the banisters, and quietly watched me descend. When I was down, I stopped, and raising my head, I called out to the unhappy woman who was still watching me: ‘Adieu, dear sister! I will see you soon! Take good care of yourself. Write to me at Villeneuve. I will write to you. I hope you will agree to live with us, next winter.’

That evening, I saw the worthy Saint-Germain; I gave him his instructions and some money so that he could secretly reduce the cost of anything she might need. I committed him to keeping me informed of everything, and not to fail in calling me back if he had business with me. Three months elapsed. Arriving at Villeneuve, I found two quite reassuring notes concerning Madame de Caud’s health; but Saint-Germain forgot to tell me of my sister’s new lodging arrangements. I had begun to write a long letter to her, when Madame de Chateaubriand suddenly fell dangerously ill; I was at her bedside when I was brought a fresh letter from Saint-Germain; I opened it: a horrifying line told me of Lucile’s sudden death.

I have cared for many graves in my life, but it was my fate and my sister’s destiny to have her ashes committed to the will of Heaven. I was not in Paris at the moment of her death; I had no relatives there; forced to remain at Villeneuve by my wife’s perilous condition, I could not attend to those sacred remains; and instructions from afar arrived too late to prevent a common burial. Lucile knew no one and had not a single friend; she was known only to Madame de Beaumont’s old servant, as if he had been charged with linking their two fates. He alone followed the forsaken coffin, and he had died himself before Madame de Chateaubriand’s sufferings allowed me to conduct her back to Paris.

My sister was buried among the poor: in which cemetery was she laid to rest? By what motionless wave of the ocean of dead was she engulfed? In what house did she die after leaving the convent? If by making enquiries, if in examining the municipal archives, and parish registers, I meet with my sister’s name, what will that avail me? Would I find the same cemetery keeper? Will I discover the man who dug a grave that was left nameless and unrecorded? Would the rough hands that last touched such pure clay retain the memory? What nomenclature among the shades would show me the obliterated grave? Might he not be in error? Since Heaven has willed it so, let Lucile be lost forever! I find in this absence of knowledge of the place a distinction between it and the burial of my other friends. My predecessor, in this world and the next, is interceding for me with the Redeemer; she is praying to Him from among the remains of paupers with whom her own are mingled: so, her remains lost, Lucile’s mother and mine reposes, among the preferred of Jesus Christ. God will have recognised my sister; and she, who thought little of this world, was bound to leave no trace behind. She has left me, that saintly genius. I have not spent a day without weeping for her. Lucile loved to hide; I have made, for her, a solitary place in my heart: she will leave it only when I have ceased to live.

These are the true, the only events of my real life! At the moment when I lost my sister, what did the thousands of soldiers falling on the field of battle mean to me, the crumbling of thrones, or the altering face of the world?

Lucile’s death struck at the roots of my soul: my childhood at the heart of my family, the first vestiges of my existence, it was they that were vanishing. Our lives resemble those fragile buildings, shored up in the air by those flying-buttresses that do not crumble all at once, but collapse in succession; they continue to support some gallery when they have already failed the sanctuary or the cradle of the edifice. Madame de Chateaubriand, still wounded by Lucile’s imperious whims, saw only deliverance for the Christian woman, finding peace with her Lord. Let us be gentle, if we would be regretted: great genius and superior qualities are mourned only by the angels. But I was unable to share Madame de Chateaubriand’s consolation.