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Over Strand and Field(Chapter10)

2006-08-28 23:30

  Chapter X. Saint-Malo.

  Saint-Malo, which is built right on the ocean and is enclosed by ramparts, looks like a crown of stones, the gems of which are the machicolations. The breakers dash against its walls, and when the tide is low they gently unfurl on the sand. Little rocks covered with sea-weed dot the beach and look like black spots on its light surface. The larger ones, which are upright and smooth, support the fortifications, thus making them appear higher than they really are.

  Above this straight line of walls, broken here and there by a tower or the pointed ogive of a door, rise the roofs of the houses with their open garret-windows, their gyrating weather-cocks, and their red chimneys from which issue spirals of bluish smoke that vanishes in the air.

  Around Saint-Malo are a number of little barren islands that have not a tree nor a blade of grass, but only some old crumbling walls, great pieces of which are hurled into the sea by each succeeding storm.

  On the other side of the bay, opposite the city and connected with dry land by a long pier, which separates the port from the ocean, is Saint-Servan, a large, empty, almost deserted locality, which lies peacefully in a marshy meadow. At the entrance to Saint-Servan rise the four towers of the Chateau de Solidor, which are connected by curtains and are perfectly black from top to bottom. These alone are sufficient compensation for having made that extended circuit on the beach, under the broiling July sun, among the dock-yards and tar-pots and fires.

  A walk around the city, over the ramparts, is one of the finest that can be taken. Nobody goes there. You can sit down in the embrasures of the cannons and dangle your feet over the abyss. In front of you lies the mouth of the Rance, which flows between two green hills, the coast, the islands, the rocks, and the ocean. The sentinel marches up and down behind you, and his even footsteps echo on the sonorous stones.

  One evening we remained out for a long time. The night was beautiful, a true summer night, without a moon, but brilliant with stars and perfumed by the sea-breeze. The city was sleeping. One by one the lights went out in the windows, and the lighthouses shone red in the darkness, which was quite blue above us and glittering with myriads of twinkling stars. We could not see the ocean, but we could hear and smell it, and the breakers that lashed the walls flung drops of foam over us through the big apertures of the machicolations.

  In one place, between the wall and the city houses, a quantity of cannon-balls are piled up in a ditch. From that point you can see these words written on the second floor of one of the dwellings: "Chateaubriand was born here."

  Further on, the wall ends at the foot of a tower called Quiquengrogne; like its sister, La Generale, it is high, broad, and imposing, and is swelled in the middle like a hyperbola.

  Though they are as good as new and absolutely intact, these towers would no doubt be improved if they lost some of their battlements in the sea and if ivy spread its kindly leaves over their tops. Indeed, do not monuments grow greater through recollection, like men and like passions? And are they not completed by death?

  We entered the castle. The empty courtyard planted with a few sickly lime-trees was as silent as the courtyard of a monastery. The janitress went and obtained the keys from the commander. When she returned, she was accompanied by a pretty little girl who wished to see the strangers. Her arms were bare and she carried a large bunch of flowers. Her black curls escaped from beneath her dainty little cap, and the lace on her pantalettes rubbed against her kid shoes tied around the ankles with black laces. She ran up stairs in front of us beckoning and calling.

  The staircase is long, for the tower is high. The bright daylight passes through the loop-holes like an arrow. When you put your head through one of these openings, you can see the ocean, which seems to grow wider and wider, and the crude colour of the sky, which seems to grow larger and larger, till you are afraid you will lose yourself in it. Vessels look like launches and their masts like walking-sticks. Eagles must think we look like ants. I wonder whether they really see us. Do they know that we have cities and steeples and triumphal arches?

  When we arrived on the platform, and although the battlement reached to our chest, we could not help experiencing the sensation one always feels at a great height from the earth. It is a sort of voluptuous uneasiness mingled with fear and delight, pride and terror, a battle between one's mind and one's nerves. You feel strangely happy; you would like to jump, fly, spread out in the air and be supported by the wind; but your knees tremble and you dare not go too near the edge.

  Still, one night, in olden times, men climbed this tower with ropes. But then, it is not astonishing for those times, for that wonderful sixteenth century, the epoch of fierce convictions and frantic loves! How the human instrument vibrated then in all its chords! How liberal-minded, productive, and active men were! Does not this phrase of Fenelon apply wonderfully well to that period: "A sight well calculated to delight the eye?" For, without making any reference to the foreground of the picture,——beliefs crumbling at their foundation like tottering mountains, newly discovered worlds, lost worlds brought to light again, Michael-Angelo beneath his dome, laughing Rabelais, observant Shakespeare, pensive Montaigne,——where can be found a greater development in passions, a greater violence in courage, a greater determination in willpower, in fine, a more complete expansion of liberty struggling against all native fatalities? And with what a bold relief the episode stands out in history, and still, how wonderfully well it fits in, thereby giving a glimpse of the dazzling brightness and broad horizons of the period. Faces, living faces, pass before your eyes. You meet them only once; but you think of them long afterwards, and endeavour to contemplate them in order that they may be impressed more deeply upon your mind. Was not the type of the old soldiers whose race disappeared around 1598, at the taking of Vervins, fine and terrible? It was a type represented by men like Lamouche, Heurtand de Saint-Offange, and La Tremblaye, who came back holding the heads of his enemies in his hand; also La Fontenelle, of whom so much has been said. They were men of iron, whose hearts were no softer than their swords, and who, attracting hundreds of energies which they directed with their own, entered towns at night, galloping madly at the heads of their companies, equipped corsairs, burned villages, and were dealt with like kings! Who has thought of depicting those violent governors of the provinces, who slaughtered the people recklessly, committed rapes and swept in gold, like D'Epernon, an atrocious tyrant in Provence and a perfumed courtier at the Louvre; like Montluc, who strangled Huguenots with his own hands, or Baligui, the king of Cambrai, who read Machiavel in order to copy the Valentinois, and whose wife went to war on horseback, wearing a helmet and a cuirass.

  One of the forgotten men of the period, or at least one of those whom most historians mention only slightly, is the Duke of Mercoeur, the intrepid enemy of Henri IV, who defied him longer than Mayenne, the Ligue, and Philip II. Finally he was disarmed, that is, won over and appeased (by terms that were such that twenty-three articles of the treaty were not disclosed); then, not knowing what to do, he enlisted in the Hungarian army and fought the Turks. One day, with five thousand men, he attacked a whole army, and, beaten again, returned to France and died of the fever in Nuremberg, at the age of forty-four.

  Saint-Malo put me in mind of him. He always tried to get it, but he never could succeed in making it his subject or his ally. They wished to fight on their own account, and to do business through their own resources, and although they were really ligueurs, they spurned the duke as well as the Bearnais.

  When De Fontaines, the governor of the city, informed them of the death of Henri III, they refused to recognize the King of Navarre. They armed themselves and erected barricades; De Fontaines intrenched himself in the castle and everybody kept upon the defensive. Little by little, the people encroached upon him; first, they requested him to declare that he was willing to maintain their franchises. De Fontaines complied in the hope of gaining time. The following year (1589), they chose four generals who were independent of the governor. A year later, they obtained permission to stretch chains. De Fontaines acceded to everything. The king was at Laval and he was waiting for him. The time was close at hand when he would be able to take revenge for all the humiliations he had suffered, and all the concessions he had been forced to make. But he precipitated matters and was discovered. When the people of Saint-Malo reminded him of his promises, he replied that if the king presented himself, he (De Fontaines) would let him enter the city. When they learned this, they decided to act.

  The castle had four towers. It was the highest one, La Generale, the one on which De Fontaines relied the most, which they climbed. These bold attempts were not infrequent, as proved by the ascension of the cliffs of Fecamp by Bois-Rose, and the attack of the Chateau de Blein, by Guebriant.

  The rebels connived and assembled during several evenings at the place of a certain man named Frotet, sieur de La Lanbelle; they entered into an understanding with a Scotch gunner, and one dark night they armed themselves, went out to the rampart, let themselves down with ropes and approached the foot of La Generale.

  There they waited. Soon a rustling sound was heard on the wall, and a ball of thread was lowered, to which they fastened their rope ladder. The ladder was then hoisted to the top of the tower and attached to the end of a culverin which was levelled in an embrasure of the battlement.

  Michel Frotet was the first to ascend, and after him came Charles Anselin, La Blissais and the others. The night was dark and the wind whistled; they had to climb slowly, to hold their daggers between their teeth and feel for the rungs of the ladder with their hands and feet. Suddenly (they were midway between the ground and the top), they felt themselves going down; the rope had slipped. But they did not utter a sound; they remained motionless. Their weight had caused the culverin to tip forward; it stopped on the edge of the embrasure and they slowly resumed their ascension and arrived one after another on the platform of the tower.

  The sleepy sentinels did not have time to give the alarm. The garrison was either asleep or playing dice on the drums. A panic seized the soldiers and they fled to the dungeon. The conspirators pursued them and attacked them in the hallways, on the staircase, and in the rooms, crushing them between the doors and slaughtering them mercilessly. Meanwhile the townspeople arrived to lend assistance; some put up ladders, and entered the tower without encountering any resistance and plundered it. La Perandiere, lieutenant of the castle, perceiving La Blissais, said to him: "This, sir, is a most miserable night." But La Blissais impressed upon him that this was not the time for conversation. The Count of Fontaines had not made his appearance. They went in search of him, and found him lying dead across the threshold of his chamber, pierced by a shot from an arquebuse that one of the townspeople had fired at him, as he was about to go out, escorted by a servant bearing a light. "Instead of rushing to face the danger," says the author of this account, "he had dressed as leisurely as if he were going to a wedding, without leaving one shoulder-knot untied."

  This outbreak in Saint-Malo, which so greatly harmed the king, did not in the least benefit the Duke de Mercoeur. He had hoped that the people would accept a governor from his hands, his son, for example, a mere child, for that would have meant himself, but they obstinately refused to listen to it. He sent troops to protect them, but they refused to let them enter, and the soldiers were compelled to take lodgings outside of the city.

  Still, in spite of all this, they had not become more royalist, for some time later, having arrested the Marquis of La Noussaie and the Viscount of Denoual, it cost the former twelve thousand crowns to get out of prison and the latter two thousand.

  Then, fearing that Pont-Brient would interrupt commercial relations with Dinan and the other cities in the Ligue, they attacked and subjected it.

  Presuming that their bishop, who was the temporal master of the city, might be likely to deprive them of the freedom they had just acquired, they put him in prison and kept him there for a year.

  The conditions at which they finally accepted Henri IV are well-known: they were to take care of themselves, not be obliged to receive any garrison, be exempt from taxes for six years, etc.

  Situated between Brittany and Normandy, this little people seems to have the tenacity and granite-like resistance of the former and the impulses and dash of the latter. Whether they are sailors, writers, or travellers on foreign seas, their predominant trait is audacity; they have violent natures which are almost poetical in their brutality, and often narrow in their obstinacy. There is this resemblance between these two sons of Saint-Malo, Lamennais and Broussais: they were always equally extreme in their systems and employed their latter years in fighting what they had upheld in the earlier part of their life.

  In the city itself are little tortuous streets edged with high houses and dirty fishmongers' shops. There are no carriages or luxuries of any description; everything is as black and reeking as the hold of a ship. A sort of musty smell, reminiscent of Newfoundland, salt meat, and long sea voyages pervades the air.

  "The watch and the round are made every night with big English dogs, which are let loose outside of the city by the man who is in charge of them, and it is better not to be in their vicinity at that time. But when morning comes, they are led back to a place in the city where they shed all their ferocity which, at night, is so great."

  Barring the disappearance of this four-legged police which at one time devoured M. du Mollet, the existence of which is confirmed by a contemporaneous text, the exterior of things has changed but little, no doubt, and even the civilized people living in Saint-Malo admit that it is very much behind the times.

  The only picture we noticed in the church is a large canvas that represents the battle of Lepante and is dedicated to Notre-Dame des Victoires, who can be seen floating above the clouds. In the foreground, all Christianity, together with crowned kings and princesses, is kneeling. The two armies can be seen in the background. The Turks are being hurled into the sea and the Christians stretch their arms towards heaven.

  The church is ugly, has no ornamentation, and looks almost like a Protestant house of worship. I noticed very few votive offerings, a fact that struck me as being rather peculiar in this place of sea perils. There are no flowers nor candles in the chapels, no bleeding hearts nor bedecked Virgin, nothing, in fact, of all that which causes M. Michelet to wax indignant.

  Opposite the ramparts, at a stone's throw from the city, rises the little island of Grand-Bay. There, can be found the tomb of Chateaubriand; that white spot cut in the rock is the place he has designated for his body.

  We went there one evening when the tide was low and the sun setting in the west. The water was still trickling over the sand. At the foot of the island, the dripping sea-weed spread out like the hair of antique women over a tomb.

  The island is deserted; sparse grass grows in spots, mingled here and there with tufts of purple flowers and nettles. On the summit is a dilapidated casemate, with a courtyard enclosed by crumbling walls. Beneath this ruin, and half-way up the hill, is a space about ten feet square, in the middle of which rises a granite slab surmounted by a Latin cross. The tomb comprises three pieces: one for the socle, one for the slab, and another for the cross.

  Chateaubriand will rest beneath it, with his head turned towards the sea; in this grave, built on a rock, his immortality will be like his life——deserted and surrounded by tempests. The centuries and the breakers will murmur a long time around his great memory; the breakers will dash against his tomb during storms, or on summer mornings, when the white sails unfold and the swallow arrives from across the seas; they will bring him the melancholy voluptuousness of far-away horizons and the caressing touch of the sea-breeze. And while time passes and the waves of his native strand swing back and forth between his cradle and his grave, the great heart of Rene, grown cold, will slowly crumble to dust to the eternal rhythm of this never-ceasing music.

  We walked around the tomb and touched it, and looked at it as if it contained its future host, and sat down beside it on the ground.

  The sky was pink, the sea was calm, and there was a lull in the breeze. Not a ripple broke the motionless surface of ocean on which the setting sun shed its golden light. Blue near the coast and mingled with the evening mist, the sea was scarlet everywhere else and deepened into a dark red line on the horizon. The sun had no rays left; they had fallen from its face and drowned their brilliancy in the water, on which they seemed to float. The red disc set slowly, robbing the sky of the pink tinge it had diffused over it, and while both the sun and the delicate color were wearing away, the pale blue shades of night crept over the heavens. Soon the sun touched the ocean and sank into it to the middle. For a moment it appeared cut in two by the horizon; the upper half remained firm, while the under one vacillated and lengthened; then it finally disappeared; and when the reflection died away from the place where the fiery ball had gone down, it seemed as if a sudden gloom had spread over the sea.

  The shore was dark. The light in one of the windows in a city house, which a moment before was bright, presently went out. The silence grew deeper, though sounds could be heard. The breakers dashed against the rocks and fell back with a roar; long-legged gnats sang in our ears and disappeared with a buzzing of their transparent wings, and the indistinct voices of the children bathing at the foot of the ramparts reached us, mingled with their laughter and screams.

  Young boys came out of the water, and, stepping gingerly on the pebbles, ran up the beach to dress. When they attempted to put on their shirts, the moist linen clung to their wet shoulders and we could see their white torsos wriggling with impatience, while their heads and arms remained concealed and the sleeves flapped in the wind like flags.

  A man with his wet hair falling straight around his neck, passed in front of us. His dripping body shone. Drops trickled from his dark, curly beard, and he shook his head so as to let the water run out of his locks. His broad chest was parted by a stubby growth of hair that extended between his powerful muscles. It heaved with the exertion of swimming and imparted an even motion to his flat abdomen, which was as smooth as ivory where it joined the hips. His muscular thighs were set above slender knees and fine legs ending in arched feet, with short heels and spread toes. He walked slowly over the beach.

  How beautiful is the human form when it appears in its original freedom, as it was created in the first day of the world! But where are we to find it, masked as it is and condemned never to reappear. That great word, Nature, which humanity has repeated sometimes with idolatry and sometimes with fear, which philosophers have sounded and poets have sung, how it is being lost and forgotten! If there are still here and there in the world, far from the pushing crowd, some hearts which are tormented by the constant search of beauty, and forever feeling the hopeless need of expressing what cannot be expressed and doing what can only be dreamed, it is to Nature, as to the home of the ideal, that they must turn. But how can they? By what magic will they be able to do so? Man has cut down the forests, has conquered the seas, and the clouds that hover over the cities are produced by the smoke that rises from the chimneys. But, say others, do not his mission and his glory consist in going forward and attacking the work of God, and encroaching upon it? Man denies His work, he ruins it, crushes it, even in his own body, of which he is ashamed and which he conceals like a crime.

  Man having thus become the rarest and most difficult thing in the world to know (I am not speaking of his heart, O moralists!), it follows that the artist ignores his shape as well as the qualities that render it beautiful. Where is the poet, nowadays, even amongst the most brilliant, who knows what a woman is like? Where could the poor fellow ever have seen any? What has he ever been able to learn about them in the salons; could he see through the corset and the crinoline?

  Better than all the rhetoric in the world, the plastic art teaches those who study it the gradation of proportions, the fusion of planes, in a word, harmony. The ancient races, through the very fact of their existence, left the mark of their noble attitudes and pure blood on the works of the masters. In Juvenal, I can hear confusedly the death-rattles of the gladiators; Tacitus has sentences that resemble the drapery of a laticlave, and some of Horace's verses are like the body of a Greek slave, with supple undulations, and short and long syllables that sound like crotala.

  But why bother about these things? Let us not go so far back, and let us be satisfied with what is manufactured. What is wanted nowadays is rather the opposite of nudity, simplicity and truth? Fortune and success will fall to the lot of those who know how to dress and clothe facts! The tailor is the king of the century and the fig-leaf is its symbol; laws, art, politics, all things, appear in tights! Lying freedom, plated furniture, water-colour pictures, why! the public loves this sort of thing! So let us give it all it wants and gorge the fool!

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