Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 9

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XXIII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 10


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIII, chapter 9
THE HUNDRED DAYS IN GHENT, CONTINUED – Historical memories in Ghent – Madame the Duchesse d’Angouleme arrives in Ghent – Monsieur de Sèze – Madame the Duchesse de Lévis



I took solitary walks in Ghent, as I do everywhere. The small boats slipped down the narrow canals, forced to traverse thirty or forty miles of meadows to reach the sea, as if they were sailing over the grass; they reminded me of the canals in the savage swamps among the wild grains of Missouri. Halting at the edge of the water, as the patches of white canvas sank below the skyline, my eyes wandered to the city steeples; history appeared in the clouds of the sky.

The inhabitants of Ghent rise against Henri de Châtillon, the French Governor; the wife of Edward III brings John of Gaunt into the world, root of the House of Lancaster; Artevelde exercises popular rule: ‘Good people, who is attacking you? Why are you so unhappy with me? How have I angered you? – You must die!’ shout the people: it is what the age always shouts at us. Then later I see the Dukes of Burgundy; the Spaniards arrive: then come the pacification, the sieges, and the taking of Ghent.

When I had dreamt my way through the centuries, the sound of a bugle or Scottish bagpipes woke me. I saw live soldiers hastening to rejoin their battalions buried deeper in Batavia: always destruction, power brought down; and, in the end, vanishing shades and past names.

Maritime Flanders was one of the first areas occupied by the companions of Clodion and Clovis. Ghent, Bruges, and their surrounding countryside provided almost a tenth of the grenadiers of the Old Guard: that feared militia was drawn in part from the cradle of our forefathers, and it ended up being wiped out near to that cradle. Has not the Lys given its flower to our Kings’ armies?

Spanish style has left its imprint: the buildings in Ghent conjured for me those of Granada, lacking the skies of the Vega. A great city, almost without inhabitants, deserted streets, canals as deserted as the streets…twenty six islands created by canals, which are not those of Venice, an enormous artillery piece from the middle ages, these are what, in Ghent, replace the city of the Zegris, the Darro and the Xenil, the Generalife and the Alhambra: my old dreams, shall I never see you again?

Madame the Duchesse d’Angoulême, embarking in the Gironde, reached us via England with General Donnadieu and Monsieur de Sèze, who had crossed the sea, his blue ribbon outside his coat. The Duke and Duchess of Lévis had followed the Princess: they threw themselves into the stagecoach and fled Paris by the Bordeaux road. The travellers and their companions talked politics: ‘That rascal, Chateaubriand, ‘said one of them, ‘is no fool! For three days, his carriage sat there, loaded up, in the courtyard: the bird has flown. It wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Napoleon had caught him!...’

Madame the Duchess of Lévis was a very beautiful, very fine person, as calm in spirit as Madame the Duchess de Duras was agitated. She never left Madame de Chateaubriand’s side; she was our assiduous companion in Ghent. No one has brought more peace to my life, something which I need greatly. The least troubled moments of my life are those I spent at Noisiel, at the home of that lady whose words and feelings only entered one’s soul to bring it serenity. I remember them with regret, those moments spent beneath the great chestnut-trees of Noisier! My mind soothed, my heart eased, I gazed at the ruins of the Abbey of Chelles, and the little lights of the boats moored among the willows by the Marne. The memory of Madame de Lévis is, for me, one of autumnal evening silence.

She died a few years later; she is mingled with the dead, as with the source of all rest. I saw her lowered silently into her grave in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise; she was placed higher than Monsieur de Fontanes, where he sleeps by his son Saint-Marcellin, killed in a duel. Thus, in bowing before the tomb of Madame de Lévis, I encounter two other sepulchres; a man cannot waken one grief without waking another: during the night, diverse flowers bloom, which only open in the dark.

To the affectionate goodness of Madame de Lévis towards me was joined the friendship of Monsieur the Duke de Lévis, the father: in future I ought only to count in generations. Monsieur de Levis was a fine writer; he had a copious and fecund imagination that felt for his noble race, seen at Quiberon, its ranks spread over the shore.

All shall not end there; it was an impulse of friendship which passed to the second generation. Monsieur the Duke de Lévis, the son, today attached to Monsieur the Comte de Chambord, is close to me; my hereditary affection to him is no less than my fidelity to his august father. The new, delightful, Duchesse de Lévis, his wife, unites with the great name of Aubusson the most brilliant qualities of mind and feeling: it is something to have lived where the graces imprint history with the passage of their un-wearying wings!