Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 14

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XXIX, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 14
Letters to Madame Récamier

‘Tuesday, Rome, this 9th of December 1828.
I have been to the Accademia Tiberina of which I have the honour to be a member. I listened to some very witty speeches and some very fine verse. What a waste of intellect! This evening I hold my grand ricevimento (inaugural reception); I am filled with dismay, as I write.’
‘11th of December.
The grand ricevimento passed off marvellously well. Madame de Chateaubriand is delighted, because we had all the Cardinals in the world. All Europe in Rome was there, with Rome. Since I am condemned to this profession for some time, I like to do it as well as any other ambassador might. One’s enemies hate any kind of success, even the most wretched, and it punishes them if one succeeds in an area in which they consider themselves unequalled. Next Saturday I transform myself into a Canon of St John Lateran, and on Sunday I dine with my colleagues. A more congenial reunion is that which takes place today: I dine with Monsieur Guérin and all the artists, and we are going to decide on your monument to Poussin. A young student full of talent, Monsieur Desprez, will execute a bas-relief taken from a painting by the great painter, and Monsieur Lemoyne will do the bust. Only French hands are involved in this.
To complete my tale of Rome, Madame de Castries has arrived. She is another of those little girls I used to bounce on my knee like Césarine (Madame de Barante). The poor woman is very much altered; her eyes filled with tears when I recalled her childhood at Lormois. Enchantment seems to have deserted that fair voyager’s house. What isolation, and for what! What would be better, you see, would be to come and find you again as soon as possible. If my Moses descends from the mountain satisfactorily, I will borrow one of his divine rays, in order to appear more brilliant and young in your eyes.’
‘Saturday, 13th.
My dinner at the Accademia went wonderfully well. The young men were satisfied: an Ambassador dined with them for the very first time. I told them about the monument to Poussin: it was as if I had already honoured their ashes.’
‘Thursday, the 18th of December 1828.
Instead of wasting my time and yours relating to you the deeds and gestures of my life, I prefer to send you everything recorded in the Rome newspaper. Here are twelve months more which have descended on my brow. When can I rest? When can I cease wasting my days on the highroads, days lent to me to achieve better things? I have spent, without realising how rich I was; I thought the treasure inexhaustible. Now, seeing how it has diminished and how little time is left to spend at your feet, it makes my heart ache. But is there not a long existence after this one on earth? A poor and humble Christian, I tremble before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; I do not know where I shall go, yet everywhere you are not I will be most unhappy. I have told you of my projects and my future a hundred times. Ruins, health, the loss of all illusions, all say to me: “Go; retire; make an end.” I find at the end of my journey only you. You have wished me to mark my passage through Rome, it is done: Poussin’s tomb will remain. It will bear this inscription: F.-A. de Ch. to Nicholas Poussin, for the glory of art and the honour of France. What have I left to do here now? Nothing, especially after having subscribed to the tune of a hundred ducats for the monument to a man whom you love most, you say, next to me: Tasso.’
‘Rome, Saturday the 3rd of January 1829.
‘I recommence my New Year wishes: may Heaven accord you health and long life! Do not forget me: I have hopes, since you remember Monsieur de Montmorency and Madame de Staël so well, that your memory is as good as your heart. I said yesterday to Madame Salvage that I knew nothing in the world as beautiful as, or better than, you.
I spent an hour yesterday with the Pope. We spoke about everything, on subjects both noble and serious. He is a very distinguished and enlightened individual, and a Prince full of dignity. The adventures of my political existence only lacked a relationship with a sovereign Pontiff; it rounds off my career.
Do you wish to know exactly what I am doing? I rise at half past five, I breakfast at seven; at eight I return to my office; I write to you or I execute some business when there is any (the details regarding the French establishments and the French poor are onerous enough); at noon I go and wander among the ruins for two or three hours, or to St Peter’s, or to the Vatican. Sometimes I make an obligatory visit before or after my walk; at five I return; I dress for the evening; I dine at six; at seven thirty I go to a soirée with Madame de Chateaubriand or I receive a few people at my residence. About eleven I go to bed, or I go out into the country despite the thieves and the malaria: what do I do there? Nothing; I listen to the silence, and watch my shadow move from arch to arch, along aqueducts lit by the moon.
The Romans are so accustomed to my methodical existence, that I serve them as a timepiece. Let them be quick; I will soon have finished my circuit of the dial.’
‘Rome, Thursday the 8th of January 1829.
‘I am very wretched; from the best weather in the world we have passed to rain, such that I cannot take my walks. Yet they were the only good times during my day. I would go along thinking of you in this deserted countryside; they could interpret the future and the past from my sentiments, since I used to take the same walks in former times. Once or twice a week I go to the place where the English girl drowned: who today remembers that poor young lady, Miss Bathurst? Her compatriots gallop the length of the river without thinking of her. The Tiber, which has seen so much, is not burdened by it at all. Besides, its waves are ever renewed: they are as pallid and tranquil as when they passed over that creature full of hope, beauty, and life.
There, I have become quite grave without noticing it. Forgive a poor hare, wet and penned in his form. I must tell you a little story about last Tuesday. There was an immense crowd at the Embassy: I was leaning backwards against a marble table, saluting the people as they came and went. An Englishwoman, whose face and name I did not know, approached me, looked me between the eyes, and said in a tone of voice you know: “Monsieur de Chateaubriand, you are very unhappy!” Astonished at the comment and her manner of starting a conversation, I asked her what she meant. She replied: “I mean that I am sorry for you.” With that she linked arms with another Englishwoman, and vanished in the crowd, and I did not see her again the rest of the evening. This curious stranger was neither young nor pretty; yet I am grateful for her mysterious words.
Your newspapers continue to go on about me. I am not sure what fly is biting them. I had thought myself forgotten as I wish to be.
I am writing to Monsieur Thierry by courier. He is at Hyères, and very ill. Not a word of reply from Monsieur de La Bouillerie.’
‘Rome, this 8th of January 1829.
I was very moved, Sir, to receive the new edition of your Lettres sur l’histoire de France with words that prove you have been thinking of me. If those words were from your own hand, I would hope for my country’s sake that your sight has returned to the studies which your talent draws on so wonderfully. I read, or rather re-read with avidity what is only-too-short a work. I dog-ear every page, in order to better recall the passages I wish to note. I will often quote you, Sir, in the work I have been preparing for so many years on our two earliest races. My ideas and researches will take shelter beneath your noble authority; I will frequently adopt your reform of the names; and finally I shall take pleasure in always being close to your opinion, in separating myself, doubtless despite myself, from the system proposed by Monsieur Guizot; but I cannot, with that ingenious writer, overturn the most authentic memorials, making all the Franks nobles and freemen, and all the Gallo-Romans slaves of the Franks. Salic law and Ripuary law have a host of rules founded on differences in status among the Franks; “Si quis ingenuus ingenuum ripuarium extra solum vendiderit: if a free man sells a free Ripuarian outside his territory, etc etc.”
You know Sir that I strongly wish you to live in Rome. We would be seated among ruins; there you would teach me history; an old disciple, I would listen to my young master only regretting that I no longer have enough years ahead of me to profit from his lessons:
“Such is the fate of man: he learns with age.
But what’s the use of being a sage
When the end’s so near?”
That verse is from an unpublished ode by a man who is no more, by my dear old friend Fontanes. So, among the ruins of Rome, Sir, everything warns me of what I have lost, of what little time remains to me, and of the brevity of our hopes which once seemed so enduring: Spem longam.
Sir, believe that no one admires you or is more devoted to you than your servant.’