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La Vallée-aux-Loups, January, 1814,
I AM SENT TO BREST TO UNDERGO THE EXAMINATION FOR A NAVAL
CADET -THE HARBOUR OF BREST-ANOTHER MEETING WITH GESRIL
-LA PEROUSE-RETURN TO COMBOURG.
AFTER the marriage of Julie, I set out for Brest. On quitting the large College of Rennes, I did not feel the regret which I experienced on leaving the little College of Dol. Perhaps I had no longer that innocence which flings a charm over all; time had begun to remove its defences. My Mentor, in my new position, was one of my maternal uncles, the Count Ravenel de Boisteilleul, chief of the squadron, one of whose sons, a very distinguished officer of artillery in the army of Buonaparte, is married to the only daughter of my sister Julie, the Countess de Farcy.
On my arrival at Brest, I did not find my “Brevet d'aspirant;' I know not what accident had delayed it. I was, therefore, what is called “Soupirant," and, as such, exempt from regular study. My uncle boarded me in La Rue de Siam, at a Table d'hôte of Aspirants, and presented me to Count Hector, the Commandant of the navy.
Left to myself for the first time, instead of joining my future comrades, I shut myself up in my instinctive solitude. My ordinary society was confined to my fencing, writing, and mathematical masters.
The ocean which I was to meet with on many shores, bathed at Brest the extremity of the Amoricaine Peninsula. Beyond this foreland, there was nothing but a boundless sea and unknown worlds. My imagination revelled in this illimit
Often, when seated on the Quay de RecouVrance, have I watched the movements of the crowd; shipbuilders, sailors, soldiers, douaniers and galley-slaves, passing and repassing before me. Voyagers embarked and disembarked ; pilots issued their directions ; carpenters squared pieces of timber; rope-makers twisted cables; sailor-boys
lighted fires under huge coppers, whence issued a thick smoke of the sanitary odour of tar. Loads were being carried backwards and forwards, from the vessels to the warehouses, and from the warehouses to the vessels : bales of merchandise, sacks of provisions, trains of artillery. Carts were going into the water, or returning to receive fresh loads ; tackles were raising heavy burdens, while the cranes were letting down huge stones, and the mud-suckers were removing the slough. The forts made reiterated signals, sloops went and came, and vessels were getting under weigh, or entering the basins.
My mind was full of vague ideas of society; its advantages and its evils. I know not what fit of melancholy seized me; I quitted the mast where I was seated, and, ascending by the Penfeld, which empties itself into the harbour, reached a point where I lost sight of the port. No longer able to see anything but a greensward valley, though still hearing confused murmur of the sea, and the voices of men, I threw myself down on the banks of this little river. Now watching the running water, now following with my eyes the flight of the sea-gull, enjoying the silence that reigned around me, or listening to the blows of the caulker's hammer, I fell into a profound reverie. If in the midst of this reverie, the wind carried the sound of some gun of a vessel getting under sail, I trembled at every limb, and my cheeks were bedewed with
One day I had wandered to the verge of the river on the sea-side. It was extremely hot, and I stretched myself on the shore and fell asleep Suddenly, I was awakened by a magnificent sound. I opened my eyes, like Augustus, to see the Triremes in the anchorage of Sicily, after the victory over Pompus Sextus ; volleys of artillery rapidly succeeded each other; the roadstead was covered with ships ; the French squadron sailed in after the signature of the peace. The vessels mancuvred under sail, enveloped themselves in fire and smoke, hoisted their flags, presented the poop, the prow, the flank, and stopped short in the midst of their course by throwing out the anchor, or continued to fly over the buoyant
Nothing ever before gave me such an exalted idea of the human mind; man seemed to borrow, at this moment, something of the greatness of Him who said to the sea, Non procedes amplius.
All Brest hurried to the shore. Sloops detached themselves from the fleet, and landed their crews at the Quay. The officers with whom they were crowded, and whose faces were bronzed by the sun, had that foreign air which is contracted in another hemisphere ; the je ne sais quoi of gaiety, pride, and boldness of men who had returned from re-establishing the honour of the national flag. This naval corps so meritorious, so illustrious, these companions of the Lamothe-Piquets, the Suffrens, the Dukes De Couëdies, the Estaings, who had escaped from the fire of their enemies, were to fall beneath that of the French.
I saw this valorous troop defile before me: suddenly one of the officers quitted his companions, and rushed to embrace me. It was Gesril! He was much grown, but he looked weak and languid, from a sword thrust which he had received in his breast. That same evening he quitted me, for the purpose of visiting his family. Since that time I have seen him only once, and this was shortly before his heroic death. I will afterwards relate the particulars. The sudden apparition and departure of Gesril made me adopt a resolution which changed the whole tenour of my life. It was decreed that this young man should have an absolute empire over my destiny.
It has been seen how my character was formed,—what was the turn of my ideas,—what the first attempts of my genius ; for I must speak of it, as of an evil; for such has been this genius, rare or common, meriting or not meriting the name I have given it, for want of another word to express myself. Had I been more like other men, I should have been happier; and he who could have slain my talent, without robbing me of my mind, would have been my best friend
When the Count de Boisteilleul took me to Count Hector, I heard the officers, old and young, recount their adventures, and talk over the countries which they had traversed. One had arrived from India, another from America; this one had come to equip himself for a voyage round the world ; another was about to return to the Mediterranean, and visit the shores of Greece. My uncle pointed out to me, in the crowd, La Pérouse, that second Cook, whose death is a secret of the storms. I heard all, I saw all, I spoke not a word; but that night I did not close an eye : my imagination revelled in battles, and in the discovery of unknown lands.
Be this as it may, seeing Gesril return to his parents, I resolved that nothing whatever should hinder me from rejoining mine. I should have liked the navy much, had not my spirit of independence unfitted me for service of every kind; for I had within me an invincible impossibility to obey. Travels tempted me excessively, but I thought I should not like them, unless I could go alone, and follow the bent of my own inclinations. In fine, giving the first proof of my inconstancy, without informing my uncle Ravenel, without writing to my parents, without asking permission of any one, without waiting for my brevet, I set out one fine morning for Combourg, where I arrived as unexpectedly as if I had dropped from the clouds.
I am astonished to this day, how, in spite of the terror with which
my father inspired me, I oculd have the audacity to take such a step ; and, more surprising than all was the manner in which I was received. I might have expected transports of rage, but I was welcomed with kindness. My father contented himself with shaking his head, as if to say,
“ Here's a fine affair.” My mother embraced me cordially, but grumbled all all the time; and my Lucile was in an ecstacy of joy.
Montboissier, July 1817.
THE PROMENADE-APPARITION OF COMBOURG.
From the last date of these Memoirs, Vallée-aux-Loups, January 1814, till that of this day, Montboissier, July 1817, three years and six months have passed. Have you heard the
Empire fall? No; nothing has disturbed the quietude of this region. The Empire is crushed, however : the immense ruin has fallen during my life, like Roman remains overturned in the bed of an unknown river. But great events signify little to him who does not depend upon them : a few years issuing from eternity will rectify all these rumours by an interminable silence
The preceding Book was written during the expiring tyranny of Bonaparte, and by the light of the last rays emitted by his glory ; I begin the present Book in the reign of Louis XVIII. I have viewed kings closely, and my political illusions have been dissipated, like these agreeable chimeras of which I continue the recital. Let me say, first of all, why I resume my pen. The human heart is the sport of every thing, and one can never foresee what trifling circumstance may cause its joys or its griefs. Montaigne has remarked this : “A cause is not requisite,” says he, to agitate our minds : a reverie, without cause or subject, can govern and agitate them.”
Meanwhile, here I am at Montboissier, on the confines of La Beauce and Perche. The château on this estate, the property of the Countess of Colbert-Montboissier—was sold and demolished during the Revolution ; there remain only two pavilions, separated by a railing, and formerly occupied by the porter. The park, now à l'Anglaise, retains some traces of its ancient French regularity: straight walks, and copses inclosed by hedges, give it a sombre air ; it pleases the eye like a ruin.
Yesterday evening I was walking alone : the sky was like one in autumn : a cold wind blew at intervals. I stopped at an opening in the wood, to look at the sun ; it was sinking in the clouds, above the tower of Alluye; from whence Gabrielle, then its tenant, had also looked upon the setting sun, two hundred years ago:
Where are now Henry and Gabrielle ? Where I shall be when these Memoirs are published !
I was disturbed in these reflexions by the singing of a thrush from the highest branch of a birch-tree. This magic sound immediately recalled to memory my paternal home; I forgot all the horrors of which I had been the witness, and,