Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 21

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XXXV, 20 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 22

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 21
Coppet –Madame de Staël’s tomb

Geneva, October 1832.

I have started to set to work seriously once more; I write in the mornings and walk in the evenings. Yesterday I visited Coppet. The château was closed; they opened the doors for me; I wandered through the empty rooms. My companion on this pilgrimage recognised all the places where she still imagined she saw her friend, sitting at the piano, flitting in and out, chatting on the terrace which borders the gallery; Madame Récamier saw the room she had occupied once more; lost days appeared before her: it was almost a repetition of the scene I depicted in René: ‘I traversed the sonorous apartments where only the sound of my steps was heard… Everywhere the rooms were untended, and spiders spun their webs over the abandoned couches… How sweet but how fleeting are the moments brothers and sisters spend together in their youth, gathered beneath the wings of their aged parents! The family of man endures but a day; a breath from God disperses it like smoke. The son has scarcely come to know the father, the father his son, the brother his sister, the sister her brother! The oak tree sees its fruit germinate around it, it is not thus with the children of men!’

I recall too what I said in my Memoirs concerning my last visit to Combourg, on leaving for America. We occupy two diverse worlds, but bound by a secret empathy, Madame Récamier and I. Alas! These isolated worlds: each of us bears them within us; for who are those who have lived so long together they do not possess different memories? From the château we entered the park; autumn was in its first blush and a few leaves had fallen; the wind abated by degrees and allowed the sound of a mill-stream to be heard. Following the paths she used to trace with Madame de Stael, Madame Récamier wished to salute her grave. Some distance from the park is a copse of very tall varied trees, surrounded by a damp and broken wall. This copse resembles those clumps of woodland in the midst of plains that hunters call coverts; into them death drives its prey and surrounds its victims.

A tomb had been built in these woods to receive the remains of Monsieur and Madame Necker, and Madame de Staël; when the latter had been placed in the crypt, the door had been sealed. Auguste de Stael’s son lies outside it, and Auguste himself, dying shortly before his child, was placed beneath a stone at his parent’s feet. On the stone are engraved these words from Scripture: ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ I did not enter the woods; Madame Récamier alone had obtained permission to penetrate there. I remained seated on a bench before the surrounding wall, I turned my back on France and my gaze was fixed, now on the summit of Mont Blanc, now on Lake Geneva: golden clouds covered the horizon behind the sombre line of the Jura; one might have likened it to a glory rising over a long coffin. I could see Lord Byron’s house on the far side of the lake, its rooftop lit by a ray of the setting sun; Rousseau was no longer there to admire the spectacle, while Voltaire, also gone, never cared for it. It was at the foot of Madame de Stael’s tomb that so many of the illustrious dead, absent from this very shore, presented themselves to my memory: they seemed to come seeking their peer to fly to heaven with her, forming her cortege through the night. At that moment, Madame Récamier, pale and in tears, emerged from the funereal grove, almost like a shade herself. If I have ever felt at once the vanity and the reality of life and glory, it was at the entrance to those woods, silent, dark, anonymous, where she who possessed so much brilliance and fame slept, and in seeing what it is to be truly loved.