Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 7

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XXIII, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 8

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIII, chapter 7
THE HUNDRED DAYS IN GHENT, CONTINUED – The Beguinage – How I was received – A grand dinner – Madame de Chateaubriand’s trip to Ostend – My life’s echoes – Anvers – A Stammerer– Death of a young English girl

In Ghent, I avoided as much as I could, those intrigues antipathetic to my nature and wretched to witness; since, at heart, in our petty disaster I perceived social disaster. My refuge, among the idlers and wastrels, was the Beguinage Close: I wandered around this little world of women, veiled or wimpled, devoted to various Christian works; a region of calm sited, like the African Syrtes, at the edge of the storms. There, nothing disparate jarred my thoughts, since the religious atmosphere is so elevated, that it is never alien to the most serious resolutions: the solitaries of the Thebaid and those Barbarians who destroyed the Roman world were not in fact discordant or mutually exclusive.

I was received graciously in that Close as the author of Le Génie du Christianisme; everywhere I go, among Christians, priests come to meet me; then the mothers bring their children; the latter recite my chapter on First Communion. Then unfortunates present themselves who tell me the good I have been happy enough to bring them. My passage through a Catholic town is announced like that of the missionary and the doctor. I am moved by this dual reputation: it is the only pleasant memory of self that I preserve; the rest of my personality and my fame displease me.

I was frequently invited to dinners with the family of Monsieur and Madame d’Ops, a venerable father and mother surrounded by thirty or so children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. At Mr Coppens’ house, a gala dinner, which I was prevailed upon to attend, lasted from one in the afternoon to eight in the evening. I counted nine courses: they began with preserves and ended with mutton chops. Only the French know how to dine to a plan, as they are the only ones who know how to structure a book.

My Ministry kept me in Ghent; Madame de Chateaubriand, less pre-occupied, went off to visit Ostend, where I had embarked for Jersey in 1792. I had sailed down those same canals, exiled and at death’s door, that I walked now, still an exile, though in perfect health: always these echoes in my life! The sorrows and joys of my first emigration wakened in my thoughts; I saw England once more, my companions in misfortune, and Charlotte whom I was obliged to view again. No one is as guilty as I am of creating a real world by evoking shadows; it works in such a way that my remembered life takes on the feel of my present life. Even people I have never been involved with, when they die, invade my memory: one might almost say that no one can be my companion until they have entered the grave, which leads me to me believe I am myself one with the dead. Where others find eternal separation, I find eternal reunion; let one of my friends leave this earth, and it is as if he comes to stay with me; he leaves me no more. As the present world fades, the past world returns to me. If the current generations scorn the older generations, their contempt loses its force, in regard to me: I do not even perceive their existence.

My insignia of the Golden Fleece was not yet at Bruges, Madame de Chateaubriand could not bring it to me. At Bruges in 1426, there was a man whose name was John, who invented or perfected oil painting: let us give thanks to Jan van Eyck of Bruges; without the adoption of his method, Raphael’s masterpieces would have faded by now. Where did the Flemish painters steal the light which illuminates their paintings? What ray of Greek sunlight strayed to the shores of Batavia?

After her trip to Ostend, Madame de Chateaubriand set out for Anvers. In a cemetery there, she saw souls in Purgatory done in plaster daubed with soot and flames. At Louvain she recruited a gentleman who stammered at me, a knowledgeable professor who came to Ghent expressly to see so extraordinary a man as my wife’s husband. He addressed me: ‘Illus…ttt…rr…’ his speech detracted from his admiration, and I asked him to dine. When the Hellenist had drunk some curaçao, his tongue was freed. We started on the merits of Thucydides, whom the wine rendered clear as crystal to us. In order to contend with my guest, I ended up, I believe, talking Dutch; at least I no longer understood what I was saying.

Madame de Chateaubriand endured a sad night in the inn at Anvers: a young English girl, who had just given birth, died; for two hours she uttered her moans; then her voice grew weak, and her last groan, which scarcely reached the stranger’s ear died into eternal silence. The cries of that traveller, lonely and deserted, seemed a prelude to the thousand dying voices about to call out at Waterloo.