Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 6

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XXVI, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVI, 7


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVI, chapter 6
The Park – The Duchess of Cumberland



Berlin has left me with one lasting memory, because the nature of the recreations I found there recalled my childhood and youth; except that real princesses fulfilled the role of my Sylph. The aged crows, my eternal friends, came to perch on the lime trees in front of my window; I threw them food: with unimaginable dexterity, if they seized too large a piece of bread, they would drop it in order to seize a smaller piece; so that they could take another a little larger, and then another in succession till they seized an ultimate piece, which, being at the end of their beak, forced it to remain open, without any of the intervening layers of food falling. Their meal done, the birds sang after their fashion: cantus cornicum ut saecla vetusta: the sound of crows like the centuries past. I wandered through the empty wastes of a frozen Berlin; but I did not hear the lovely voices of young girls rise from its walls as they did from the ancient walls of Rome. Instead of Capuchins with white beards dragging their sandals through the flowers, I met soldiers rolling snowballs.

One day, on a round of the outer walls, Hyacinthe and I found ourselves faced by an east wind so piercing that we were obliged to run through the fields and regain the city half-dead. We crossed fenced ground, and all the guard dogs snapped at our heels and tore after us. The thermometer that day dropped to 22 degrees (Réamur) below freezing. A couple of the sentries at Potsdam were frozen.

On the far side of the park was an old abandoned pheasant covert – the Prussian Princes did not shoot. I crossed a little wooden bridge over a canal running into the Spree, and found myself among trunks of fir trees which formed a portico to the covert. A fox, reminding me of those in the avenue at Combourg, emerged from a hole made in the wall of the reserve, came to ask my news then retreated into his copse.

What they call the park, in Berlin, is a wood of oak-trees, silver birch, beech, lime and Dutch poplars. It is situated at the Charlottenburg Gate and is crossed by the highroad which leads to that Royal residence. On the right of the park, is the Field of Mars; on the left, various little restaurants.

Within the park, which was not at that time pierced by regular alleyways, one discovered meadows, wild places and beech-wood benches on which German youth had formerly etched, with a knife, hearts pierced by daggers: beneath these pierced hearts one read the name Sand. Flocks of crows, living in trees approaching spring, began to call. Animal nature revived before vegetable nature: and the frogs, black all over, were consumed by ducks, in the waters which here and there were free of ice: the nightingales there, announced springtime in the woods of Berlin. However the park did not lack for attractive creatures; squirrels scampered among the branches or played on the ground, waving their tails like flags. When I approached the festivities, the actors fled up the trunks of the oak-trees, halting in a fork to grumble as they watched me pass beneath them. Few strollers frequented the plantation whose uneven ground was lined and cut by canals. Sometimes I encountered a gouty old officer who said to me, warmly in his delight, speaking of the pale ray of sunlight in which I shivered: ‘It’s breaking through!’ From time to time I met the Duke of Cumberland, on horseback and almost blind, halted by a Dutch poplar against which he had just banged his nose. One or two six-horse carriages passed: they carried the Ambassadress of Austria, or the Princess de Radzivill and her daughter, aged fifteen, delightful as one of those nudes with virgin faces which surround Ossian’s moon. The Duchess of Cumberland took the same direction with me almost every day: now she would be off to a cottage to help a poor woman of Spandau, now she would stop to tell me graciously that she had hoped to meet me; a delightful daughter of royalty, descending from her car like the goddess of night to wander through the forests! I also saw her at home; she repeatedly told me that she wished to entrust her son to me, that little George who became the Prince whom his cousin Victoria, they say, would have wished at her side when she became Queen of England.

Princess Frederica, has since walked, in her days on the banks of the Thames, in those gardens at Kew which once witnessed my wanderings, between my two acolytes, illusion and poverty. After my departure from Berlin, she honoured me with her correspondence; she depicted hour by hour the life of an inhabitant of those heaths where Voltaire walked, where Frederick died, where that Mirabeau hid who was to begin the Revolution of which I was a victim. The mind is captivated by perceiving the links which connect so many men who remain unknown to one another.

Here are a few extracts from the correspondence which commenced between me and the Duchess of Cumberland:

‘19th of April, Thursday.
This morning, when I woke, I was brought the last witness of your memory of me; later I passed by your house, I saw the windows open as usual; all was in its place, except you! I cannot express to you how it afflicted me! I no longer know where to locate you; each instant you are more distant; the only fixed point is the 26th, the day when you expect to arrive, and the memory of you which I retain.
God willing you will find all changed for the better, for you and for the common good! Accustomed to sacrifice, I will even bear that of never seeing you again, if it is for your good and that of France.’
‘22nd.
Since Thursday, I have passed your house every day to go to church; I prayed deeply on your behalf. Your windows are constantly open, that affects me: who is it who has the thoughtfulness to follow your orders and tastes, despite your absence? It makes me think, sometimes, that you have not left; that business detains you, or that you wished to brush away bothersome things in order to finish things at your ease. Do not take that as a reproach: it’s the only way; but if that is the case, confide it to me.’
‘23rd.
Today the heat is so prodigious, even in church, that I could not take my walk at the usual time: it’s all the same to me at present. The dear little wood no longer charms me, everything bores me! This sudden alteration from cold to heat is common in the north; the inhabitants do not take after the climate in their control over their character and feelings.’
‘24th.
Nature is much more beautiful; all the leaves have emerged since your departure: I wish they could have arrived a few days earlier, so that you could have taken away a more radiant image of your stay here.’
‘Berlin, 12th of May 1821.
God be thanked, at last there is a letter from you! I know you could not write to me earlier; but, despite all the calculations my mind made, three weeks, or should I say rather twenty-three days, is a long time for friendship to endure, and to be without news resembles the saddest of exiles: yet memory and hope remained with me.’
‘15th of May.
It is not from the stirrup, like the Grand Turk, but always from my bed that I write to you; but this retreat gives me the time to reflect on the new regime that you wish to insist on regarding Henri V. I am pleased with it; roast lion will only do him good; I merely advise you to start with the heart. You will have to feed lamb to your other pupil (George) so he does not play the devil too much. It is essential that this plan of education be realised and that Georges and Henri become good friends and allies.’

Madame the Duchess of Cumberland continued to write to me of the waters at Ems, then the waters of Schwalbach, and after that Berlin, to which she returned on the 22nd of September 1821. She wrote from Ems: ‘The coronation in England will take place without me; I am upset that the king has decided on the saddest day of my life for his crowning; that on which I saw my beloved sister (the Queen of Prussia) die. Bonaparte’s death has also made me think of the suffering he caused her.’

‘From Berlin, 22nd September.
I have already seen those great solitary alleys again. How indebted I shall be to you, if you send me as you promised the lines you have written on Charlottenburg! I have also made my way once more to the cottage in the wood where you had the goodness to help me in assisting the poor woman of Spandau; how good you are to remember her name! You recall happy times to me. It is nothing new to regret happiness.
At the moment when I was about to send this letter, I learnt that the King has been detained at sea by storms, and probably driven to the Irish coast; he had not arrived at London on the 14th; but you will know of his return before us.
Poor Princess William today received sad news of the death of her mother, the Dowager Landgraf of Hesse-Homburg. You see how I speak to you of all that concerns our family; Heaven send that you have better news to give me!’

Does it not seem when the sister of the lovely Queen of Prussia speaks of our family as if she did me the kindness of speaking about my grandmother, my aunt and my obscure relatives at Plancoët? Did the French Royal family ever honour me with a smile compared with that of this foreign Royal family, who hardly knew me and owed me nothing? I suppress several other affectionate letters: they contain elements of suffering and contentment, resignation and nobility, the familiar and the elevated: they serve to counterbalance whatever I have said, perhaps too harshly, about the race of kings. A thousand years ago, and Princess Frederica as a daughter of Charlemagne would have carried Eginhard at night on her shoulders, so that he might leave no trace on the snow.

I have just re-read this chapter in 1840: I cannot prevent myself from being struck by the continuing romance of my life. So many paths missed! If I had returned to England with little George, the potential heir to the Crown, I should have seen any new dream of changing my country vanish, just as, if I had not married, I would have remained from the very first in the land of Shakespeare and Milton. The young Duke of Cumberland, who has also lost his sight, did not marry his cousin the Queen of England. The Duchess of Cumberland has become the Queen of Hanover: where is she? Is she happy? Where am I? Where is my King? God willing, in a few years time I shall no longer have to cast my eyes over my past life, nor ask myself those questions. But it is impossible for me not to pray Heaven to shed its favour on Princess Frederica’s last years.