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Over Strand and Field(Chapter12)

2006-08-28 23:31

  Chapter XII. Combourg.

  A letter from the Viscount Vesin was to gain us entrance to the castle. So as soon as we arrived, we called on the steward, M. Corvesier. They ushered us into a large kitchen where a young lady in black, marked by smallpox and wearing horn spectacles over her prominent eyes, was stemming currants. The kettle was on the fire and they were crushing sugar with bottles. It was evident that we were intruding. After several minutes had elapsed, we were informed that M. Corvesier was confined to his bed with a fever and was very sorry that he could not be of any service to us, but sent us his regards. In the meantime, his clerk, who had just come in from an errand, and who was lunching on a glass of cider and a piece of buttered bread, offered to show us the castle. He put his napkin down, sucked his teeth, lighted his pipe, took a bunch of keys from the wall and started ahead of us through the village.

  After following a long wall, we entered through an old door into a silent farm-yard. Silica here and there shows through the beaten ground, on which grows a little grass soiled by manure. There was nobody around and the stable was empty. In the barns some chickens were roosting on the poles of the wagons, with their heads under their wings. Around the buildings, the sound of our footsteps was deadened by the dust accumulated from the straw in the lofts.

  Four large towers connected by curtains showed battlements beneath their pointed roofs; the openings in the towers, like those in the main part of the castle, are small, irregular windows, which form uneven black squares on the grey stones. A broad stoop, comprising about thirty steps, reaches to the first floor, which has become the ground-floor of the interior apartments, since the trenches have been filled up.

  The yellow wall-flower does not grow here, but instead, one finds nettles and lentisks, greenish moss and lichens. To the left, next to the turret, is a cluster of chestnut-trees reaching up to the roof and shading it.

  After the key had been turned in the lock and the door pushed open with kicks, we entered a dark hallway filled with boards and ladders and wheelbarrows.

  This passage led into a little yard enclosed by the thick interior walls of the castle. It was lighted from the top like a prison yard. In the corners, drops of humidity dripped from the stones. We opened another door. It led into a large, empty, sonorous hall; the floor was cracked in a hundred places, but there was fresh paint on the wainscoting.

  The green forest opposite sheds a vivid reflection on the white walls, through the large windows of the castle. There is a lake and underneath the windows were clusters of lilacs, petunia-blossoms and acacias, which have grown pell-mell in the former parterre, and cover the hill that slopes gradually to the road, following the banks of the lake and then continuing through the woods.

  The great, deserted hall, where the child who afterwards wrote Rene, used to sit and gaze out of the windows, was silent. The clerk smoked his pipe and expectorated on the floor. His dog, which had followed him, hunted for mice, and its nails clicked on the pavement.

  We walked up the winding stairs. Moss covers the worn stone steps. Sometimes a ray of light, passing through a crack in the walls, strikes a green blade and makes it gleam in the dark like a star.

  We wandered through the halls, through the towers, and over the narrow curtain with its gaping machicolations, which attract the eye irresistibly to the abyss below.

  On the second floor is a small room which looks out into the inside courtyard and has a massive oak door that closes with a latch. The beams of the ceiling (you can touch them), are rotten from age; the whitewashed walls show their lattice-work and are covered with big spots; the window-panes are obscured by cobwebs and their frames are buried in dust. This used to be Chateaubriand's room. It faces the West, towards the setting sun.

  We continued; when we passed in front of a window or a loop-hole, we warmed ourselves in the warm air coming from without, and this sudden transition rendered the ruins all the more melancholy and cheerless. The floors of the apartments are rotting away, and daylight enters through the fireplaces along the blackened slab where rain has left long green streaks. The golden flowers on the drawing-room ceiling are falling off, and the shield that surmounts the mantelpiece is broken into bits. While we were looking around, a flight of birds entered, flew around for a few minutes and passed out through the chimney.

  In the evening, we went to the lake. The meadow has encroached upon it and will soon cover it entirely, and wheat will grow in the place of pond-lilies. Night was falling. The castle, flanked by its four turrets and framed by masses of green foliage, cast a dark shadow over the village. The setting sun made the great mass appear black; the dying rays touched the surface of the lake and then melted in the mist on the purplish top of the silent forest.

  We sat down at the foot of an oak and opened Rene. We faced the lake where he had often watched the nimble swallow on the bending reeds; we sat in the shadow of the forest where he had often pursued rainbows over the dripping hills; we harkened to the rustling of the leaves and the whisperings of the water that had added their murmur to the sad melody of his youth. As the darkness gathered on the pages of the book, the bitterness of its words went to our hearts, and we experienced a sensation of mingled melancholy and sweetness.

  A wagon passed in the road, and the wheels sank in the deep tracks. A smell of new-mown hay pervaded the air. The frogs were croaking in the marshes. We went back.

  The sky was heavy and a storm raged all night. The front of a neighbouring house was illumined and flared like a bonfire at every flash of lightning. Gasping, and tired of tossing on my bed, I arose, lighted a candle, opened the window and leaned out.

  The night was dark, and as silent as slumber. The lighted candle threw my huge shadow on the opposite wall. From time to time a flash of lightning blinded me.

  I thought of the man whose early life was spent here and who filled half a century with the clamouring of his grief.

  I thought of him first in these quiet streets, playing with the village boys and looking for nests in the church-steeple and in the woods. I imagined him in his little room, leaning his elbows on the table, and watching the rain beating on the window-panes and the clouds passing above the curtain, while his dreams flew away. I thought of the bitter loneliness of youth, with its intoxications, its nausea, and its bursts of love that sicken the heart. Is it not here that our own grief was nourished, is this not the very Golgotha where the genius that fed us suffered its anguish?

  Nothing can express the gestation of the mind or the thrills which future great works impart to those who carry them; but we love to see the spot where we know they were conceived and lived, as if it had retained something of the unknown ideal which once vibrated there.

  His room! his room! his childhood's poor little room! It was here that he was tormented by vague phantoms which beckoned to him and clamoured for birth: Attala shaking the magnolias out of her hair in the soft breeze of Florida, Velleda running through the woods in the moonlight, Cymodocee protecting her white bosom from the claws of the leopards, and frail Amelie and pale Rene!

  One day, however, he tears himself away from the old feudal homestead, never to return. Now he is lost in the whirl of Paris and mingles with his fellow-men; and then he feels an impulse to travel and he starts off.

  I can see him leaning over the side of the ship, I can see him looking for a new world and weeping over the country he has left. He lands; he listens to the waterfalls and the songs of the Natchez; he watches the flowing rivers and the bright scales of the snakes and the eyes of the savages. He allows his soul to be fascinated by the languor of the Savannah. They tell each other of their native melancholy and he exhausts its pleasures as he exhausted those of love. He returns, writes, and everyone is carried away by the charm of his magnificent style with its royal sweep and its supple, coloured, undulating phrase, as stormy as the winds that sweep over virgin forests, as brilliant as the neck of a humming-bird, and as soft as the light of the moon shining through the windows of a chapel.

  He travels again; this time he goes to ancient shores; he sits down at Thermoplyae and cries: Leonidas! Leonidas! visits the tomb of Achilles, Lacedaemon, and Carthage, and, like the sleepy shepherd who raises his head to watch the passing caravans, all those great places awake when he passes through them.

  Banished, exiled, laden with honours, this man who had starved in the streets will dine at the table of kings; he will be an ambassador and a minister, will try to save the tottering monarchy, and after seeing the ruin of all his beliefs, he will witness his own glorification as if he were already counted among the dead.

  Born during the decline of one period and at the dawn of another, he was to be its transition and the guardian of its memories and hopes. He was the embalmer of Catholicism and the proclaimer of liberty. Although he was a man of old traditions and illusions, he was constitutional in politics and revolutionary in literature. Religious by instinct and education, it is he, who, in advance of everyone else, in advance of Byron, gave vent to the most savage pride and frightful despair.

  He was an artist, and had this in common with the artists of the eighteenth century: he was always hampered by narrow laws which, however, were always broken by the power of his genius. As a man, he shared the misery of his fellow-men of the nineteenth century. He had the same turbulent preoccupations and futile gravity. Not satisfied with being great, he wished to appear grandiose, and it seems that this conceited mania did not in the least efface his real grandeur. He certainly does not belong to the race of dreamers who have made no incursion into life, masters with calm brows who have had neither period, nor country nor family. But this man cannot be separated from the passions of his time; they made him what he was, and he in turn created a number of them. Perhaps the future will not give him credit for his heroic stubbornness and no doubt it will be the episodes of his books that will immortalise their titles with the names of the causes they upheld.

  I stayed at the window enjoying the night and feeling with delight the cold morning air on my lids. Little by little the day dawned; the wick of the candle grew longer and longer and its flame slowly faded away. The roof of the market appeared in the distance and a cock crowed; the storm had passed; a few drops of water remained in the dust of the road and made large round spots on it. As I was very tired, I went back to bed and slept.

  We felt very sad on leaving Combourg, and besides, the end of our journey was at hand. Soon this delightful trip which we had enjoyed for three months would be over. The return, like the leave-taking, produces an anticipated sadness, which gives one a proof of the insipid life we lead.

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