Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 18

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 18
Zurich – Constance – Madame Récamier

Geneva, September 1832.

In travelling from Lucerne to Constance, you pass through Zurich and Winterthur. Nothing pleased me in Zurich except memories of Lavater and Gessner, the trees on an esplanade that overlooks the lake, the course of the Limath, an old crow and an old elm-tree; I prefer that to all the past history of Zurich, not even taking pleasure in the Battle of Zurich. Napoleon and his generals, with victory after victory, led the Russians to Paris.

Winterthur is a new industrial town, or rather a long tidy street. Constance looks as though it belongs to no one; it is open to everyone. I arrived on the 27th of August, without seeing a customs man or a soldier, and without anyone asking for my passport.

Madame Récamier arrived two days ago, on a visit to the Queen of Holland. I was waiting for Madame de Chateaubriand, who was due to join me at Lucerne. I proposed to discover whether it would be preferable to stay in Swabia first, before descending into Italy.

In the dilapidated town of Constance, our inn was very pleasant; they were preparing for a wedding. The day after I arrived, Madame Récamier wanted to join in our hosts’ joy: we embarked on the lake, and crossing the stretch of water from which the Rhine emerges to form a river, we touched at the shores of a park.

Having set foot on land, we crossed a belt of willows, on the other side of which we found a sandy path winding among clusters of shrubs, clumps of trees, and grassy carpets. A summer-house rose in the middle of the gardens, and an elegant villa pressed against the forest. I noticed autumn crocuses in the grass, which always make me melancholy with the reminiscences of my many and varied autumns. We walked about at random then sat on a bench beside the water. From the summer-house among the fields drifted the music of harp and horn which died away just as, surprised and delighted, we had begun to listen: it was a scene from a fairy-tale. The harmonies did not recommence, I read Madame Récamier my description of Saint-Gothard; she begged me to write something in her diary already half-filled with details of the death of Jean-Jaques Rousseau. Beneath these last words of the author of Héloïse: ‘Open the window, dear wife, so I may see the sun again’ I traced these words in pencil: What I wished for on Lake Lucerne, I found on Lake Constance, beauty’s charm and intelligence. I do not wish to die like Rousseau; I wish to see the sun for a long while still, if I am allowed to end my life beside you. Let my days expire at your feet, like these waves whose murmur you love. – 28th of August, 1832.

The azure lake flickered through the foliage; on the southern horizon were piled the Alpine summits of the Grisons; a breeze rose and fell among the willows in harmony with the ebb and flow of the waves: we saw no one; we no longer knew where we were.