“René,” by Françoise-René Chateaubriand; translated by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (from the Connecticut Spectator [Middletown, CT], 1814)
(April 20, 1814; p. 4, col 2-4)
René,* a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
[Notice of the Translator.—The subsequent columns are not intended as a perfect translation of René. M. Chateaubriand was so singularly fond of flight that he often attempted an elevation when his subject absolutely forbade it; thus exhibiting himself plying his pinions for a soar whilst his feet remained fixed on the earth. In René, perhaps more frequently than in any other of Chateaubriand’s works, these instances occur. On this account, considerable retrenchments have been made. My reverence for the author of “Travels in Greece, Egypt, Palestine, and Barbary,” would restrain my hand from spreading the faults he may have committed in fugitive production of his pen.
Other abridgements have been made only for the purpose of abbreviation.
For myself, though perfectly aware that the beauties of René have been soiled by passing through my hands, I have no apologies to make or lenity to ask. I have but to inform my readers that they are in possession of what they would have never seen, had it not been drawn from me by circumstances which I could not well resist; and that, as their opinion of my labours cannot alter my own, it is equally indifferent to me whether they applaud or condemn.]
On his arrival among the Natches, René had been obliged to take a wife, in order to conform to the manners of the Indians,—but he did not live with her. A melancholy disposition drove him into the depths of the forests, where he spent whole days in gloomy reveries. Except that of Chactas and father Souel, a missionary, at fort Rosalie, he had renounced the society of men. These aged persons had assumed an absolute dominion over
* This novel is supplementary to Atala, or, the Amours of two savages in the desert. See the latter part of that work.
his heart; the one by the most amiable gentleness, the other by an excessive severity.
Since the hunt of the beaver, when the blind Sachem recounted his adventures, René, though often solicited, would never speak of his own. But Chactas and the Missionary had a strong desire to know what misfortune could have induced an European of noble birth, to banish himself to the deserts of Louisiana. René, however, could not be prevailed upon to give a recital of his history, urging, as the reason for his refusal, the want of interest in the incidents of his life. “As to the event” said he, “which determined me to come to America, I ought to bury it in eternal oblivion.”
At length, a letter which he received from Europe so much increased his wretchedness that he fled with emotion to his friends. They now more ardently pressed him to open his heart to them.—This they did with so much discretion, gentleness, and authority, that he was forced to comply. He then chose a day to relate to them not the adventures of his life, for he had never experienced any, but the secret history of his heart.
On the 21st of that month, which the savages call the “moon of flowers” René went to the hut of Chactas. He gave the blind sachem his arm, and conducted him beneath the boughs of a sassifras tree, on the bank of the Missisippi [sic], where father Souel soon after arrived. Aurora now appeared: at some distance in the plain was seen the village of Natches, with its groves of mulberry trees, and its cabins which resembled the hives of bees. The French Colony and fort Rosalie, appeared upon the right along the border of the river. Tents, houses half built, fortresses begun, groupes [sic] of whites and of Indians presented the contrast of savage and social manners. Beyond this perspective towards the east, the sun began to appear between the rifted tops of the Apalachians, which were described in multifarious shapes in the gilded horizon. On the west, the Missisippi rolled in silent magnificence its tide, and formed the border of the picture with inconceivable grandeur.
René and the Missionary admired, for some time, the beautiful scenery, and commisserated [sic] the blind sachem who could not enjoy it. At length the Missionary and the sachem seated themselves upon the turf at the foot of a tree. René took his place between them; and, after a moment of silence and recollection, he thus addressed his aged friends:—
“I cannot in beginning my recital but feel an emotion of shame. The calmness of nature around me, and a thought of the peacefulness of your minds, make me blush for the agitation of my own. What will you think of a young man destitute of fortitude and virtue, who finds his torment within his breast, and who can scarce complain of other evils than those he has caused himself. Oh, condemn him not, he has but too severly [sic] suffered!
“In coming into the world, I cost my mother her life. I had but one brother, which my father blessed because he was his eldest son. But for me, early abandoned to strange hands, I was brought up far from the paternal roof. I had, however, a happy memory, and made rapid progress in my studies. But my disposition was impetuous, and my character unsteady; by turns boisterous and cheerful, taciturn and sad: sometimes gathering around me my youthful companions, I would suddenly quit them to give myself up to solitary pastime.
“Every year I went to my father’s seat, which was situated in a distant province on the border of a beautiful lake, surrounded with forests. But timid, and under constraint in my father’s presence, I found no pleasure or contentment except in the society of my sister Amelia. A sweet conformity of temper and of taste, strongly attached me to this sister, who was a little older than myself. We loved to climb the hills together; to sail upon the lake; to make excursions in the woods, when the leaves were falling: excursions, the remembrance of which still fills my soul with delight! Oh, illusions of my infancy and of my country, may you never lose your sweetness! Sometimes we walked quite pensive, listening to the silence of autumn: sometimes we would compose and sing verses, in which we endeavoured to paint the beauties of nature. When young, I cultivated the muses: there is nothing more poetic than a mind of sixteen years in the spring of passion. The morning of life is like the morning of the day; pure, and full of images and harmony.
“On sabbaths and days of festival, I have often heard, while in the forest, the sound of the distant bell which calls the husbandman to the church. Leaning against the trunk of an elm, I have listened in silence to the pious murmur. Every peal excited in my mind ideas of the innocence of rustic manners, the sweet calm of solitude, the charms of religion, and a delectable melancholy which tinged the reveries of my youth.—Amelia and myself, indulged, far more than others, these gloomy fancies, for both of us had a slight shade of sadness in our natures.
“About this time my father was seized with an illness which soon conducted him to the tomb. He died in my arms; and I became acquainted with death upon the lips of him who had given me life. This impression was deep, and still remains. Now, for the first time, was the
immortality of the soul clearly presented to my mind. I could not imagine that this inanimate body was in me the author of thought. I felt that it must be derived from another source, and in a hallowed grief, which approached to joy I hoped one day to join the spirit of my father.
“Amelia, overwhelmed with sorrow, had retired to a tower where she heard the chants of the priests of the procession, beneath the vaults of the gothic castle, and the sounds of the funeral bell. I accompanied my father to his dernier asylum—the earth closed upon his remains; eternity and oblivion pressed upon him; even the night was indifferent and overspread his tomb; except for his daughter and his son, all was as if he had never been.
(To be Continued.)
(April 27, 1814; p. 4, col 2-3)
René, a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
“It was now necessary to quit the paternal mansion, henceforth the heritage of my brother. Amelia and myself went to reside with some old relations. Arrested at the commencement of the deceptive journey of life, I contemplated it without daring to pursue it. Amelia often discoursed to me of the happiness of a religious life; she told me that I was the only tie that attached her to the world; and her eyes rested upon me with tr[u]stful attention. These conversations touched me; I went to indulge my reveries in a monastery, not far from my new residence: For a moment I thought of becoming a recluse. Happy they who have finished their voyage without having quitted the port, and who have not like myself spent useless days in the world!
The restless Europeans are obliged to build themselves places of seclusion. The more agitated and tumultuous are our hearts, the more strongly are we attracted by calmness and solitude. Those convents of my country open for the reception of the wretched and feeble are often situated in lonely villages which bear to the mind a vague sentiment of misfortune, and the hope of shelter from the storms of life. Sometimes they are seen raised on lofty cities, whence the religious soul like the aromatic plant of the mountain, seems to elevate itself toward heaven to offer its perfume.
In imagination I still see the majestic assemblage of waters and of woods which environ the ancient abbey in which I once designed to shut myself up from the caprices of the world: I still wander at the close of the day in those solemn cloisters. When the moon half illumined the columns of the arcades, and described their shadows upon the opposite wall, I stopped to contemplate the crucifix which pointed out the grave yard, and the slender herbs which grew between the stones of the tombs. Oh mortals! who having lived secluded from the world have passed from the silence of life to the silence of death! what melancholy sentiments do your tombs awake in my breast.
But either from prejudice against the monastick life or from natural inconstancy I changed my design and resolved to travel. I bade adieu to my sister: she embraced me with emotion, but as if she was happy to see me leave her; it seemed the emotion of joy. I could not but make some bitter reflections upon the inconsequence of human friendship.
However, full or ardor, I embarqued upon the stormy ocean of the world of which I knew neither the ports nor the rocks. I first visited the countries of those nations which are now no more. I sat down upon the ruins of Rome and of Greece: Countries of noble and ingenious memory, where the palaces of kings are buried in the dust and where the mausoleums of princes are shaded by the briar. The same sun which saw the foundations of these cities laid I saw set majestically upon their ruins. On a night when not a cloud obscured the heavens, the moon shewed me, between two half dilapidated urns, the lurid tombs: Often by the faint rays of that luminary, I have imagined that I saw the genius of recollection seated pensively by my side.
From dreams of races vanished, I returned to the illusions of generations living. As once I was walking in a great city I perceived in a deserted court a statue which pointed out a place famous for a sacrifice*. I wa struck with the silence which reigned around. Some lapidaries were sitting with indifference at the foot of the statue, and whistled as they wrought. I enquired the meaning of the monument. Some could scarcely tell me; and others were altogether ignorant of the great catastrophe which it commemorated. Nothing could have taught me more justly to estimate the events of human life, and the insignificance of man. Where now those persons who have made so much noise in the world? Time has plyed his wing and the face of the earth has been renovated!
I particularly sought in my travels those bards who sing upon the lyre the happiness of those who honor the laws, religion, and the tombs. Upon the mountains of Caledonia the last Minstrel that has been heard in those wilds sung to me the poems with which an ancient hero consoled himself in the imbecility of age. We were seated upon stones covered with
* At London, back of White-hall, the statue of Charles II.
moss; a rivulet murmured at our feet: the goat was feeding at a distance on the ruins of a tower; and the wind of the desert whistled over the heath of Cona. The Christian [r]eligion, a daughter of the lofty mountains has planted the crucifix over the monuments of the heroes of Morven and touched the harp of David on the border of the stream where sighed the lyre of Ossian. As peaceful as the divinities of Selma were war-like, she guards her flocks where Fingal waged war and has spread the angels of peace in the clouds which were inhabited by the phantoms of homicide.
Ancient and smiling Italy presented me her part of chef-dvres. With what a hallowed and poetic awe did I wander in those vast edifices consecrated by the arts to religion. What a labyrinth of columns, what a succession of arches! The architect, thus to speak, has built the ideas of the poet, and made them touch the sense as the other touches the soul.
But what have I learned by so much fatigue? Nothing certain among the ancients, and nothing beautiful among the moderns. The past and the present are two unfinished statues; the one has been drawn quite mutilated from the wreck of ages; the other has not yet received its perfection from the future.
Perhaps my honored friends, and you particularly sage Chactas, wonder that I speak not of the monuments of nature.
I one day stood upon the summit of Etna. I saw the sun rise in the unbounded horizon beneath me: Sicily contracted to a point at my feet; and the sea in vast expanse below. In this perpendicular view of the picture I could scarce discern the rivers, which appeared like the geographic lines of a map. But while on one hand these objects were presented to my view, on the other I cast a look into the crater of Etna; and beheld its burning entrails between volumes of black vapour.
A young man, full of sensibility, seated at the mouth of a volcano commiserating the wretched mortals whose narrow mansions he views at his feet, virtuous fathers, is an object worthy of you pity. But however you may think of René this picture affords you a lively image of his character and miserable existence.
In pronouncing these last words the voice of René died upon his lips. Father Souel was in profound astonishment; and the blind Sachem hearing no longer the speech of the young man, knew not what to think of the silence. But René had his eyes fixed upon a group of Indians that passed gaily across the plain. His countenance at once shewed signs of some tender emotions of the heart; tears trembled in his eyes, and he exclaimed:—
“Oh happy savages, why do I not enjoy the peace which every where attends you? While I, with so little benefit, voyaged in so many countries, you tranquilly seated beneath the branches of an oak, permitted your days to glide away uncounted. If that light melancholy engendered by excess of fruition sometimes shades your minds, you are soon released from this transient misery, and with eyes raised to heaven you seek with affected hearts that unknown Being which takes pity upon the savage.”
Here again the voice of René expired, and his head rested upon his breast. Chactas extended his hand and taking his arm exclaimed in a tone of affection, “My son! My dear son!”
At these accents the brother of Amelia coming to himself, blushed for his agitation and begged the pardon of his father. The aged savage with a perfect gentleness then addressed him: “My young friend the movements of a heart like thine cannot be equalled: endeavour only to moderate that ardour of character which has wrought you so much evil. Continue your recital. You have made us travel over Europe; let us now know something of your own country. You know that I have myself seen France, and what ties attached me there. I should like much to hear some account of that great monarch who is now no more, and whose superb palace I have visited. My dear child I no longer see except by remembrance. An old man with his recollections resembles the decripid [sic] oak of the forest which no longer decks itself in its own foliage but which is covered with borrowed plants which vegetate upon its branches.”
Calmed by these pacific words the brother of Amelia thus continued the secret history of his heart.
(To be Continued.)
(May 4, 1814; p. 4, col 2-4)
René, a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
“I cannot, my father, entertain you on that grand epoch of which I saw but the commencement in my youth, and which was no longer when I returned to my country. Never was a change so sudden, and so astonishing, wrought in any nation. From the heighth of genius, respect for religion, and sobriety of manners, all was suddenly sunk into suppleness of spirit, impiety, and corruption.
I had, therefore, vainly hoped to find again in my country, something to soothe that vague inquietude, that vehemence of desire which every where had haunted me: The study of the world had taught me nothing and I had now no longer the advantage of ignorance. My sister, by an inexplicable conduct seemed to find a pleasure in augmenting my distress. She had left Paris some days before my arrival: I wrote to her that I intended to visit her. She hastily wrote me to give up my intention, under the pretext that she did not know where her business would call her. O what melancholy reflections did I not then make upon friendship! which intercourse cools, and which absence effaces; which resists not misfortune, and still less prosperity.
I found myself more isolated in my country than I had ever been in the land of strangers. Often I wished to cast myself into the earth which told me nothing, and which would not listen to me. My heart, unworn by passion, sought some object of attachment. I soon perceived that I gave more than I received; that it was neither elevated language or profound sentiment that was demanded of me. I therefore employed myself in reducing my life to the level of society. Treated every where as a visionary, ashamed of the part I acted, disgusted more and more with men and things, I retired to a suburb where I lived wholly unknown.
Often seated in a church not much frequented, I passed hours in meditation. I here saw poor women prostrate themselves before the Most High, and miserable sinners bend the knee at the tribunal of penitence. No one went from this place without greater serenity of countenance; and the loud clamours which were heard without, seemed the billows of passion and the storms of the world which came to expire at the foot of the temple of the Lord. Great God! who saw my tears flow in secret in that sacred retreat, thou knowest how often I threw myself at thy feet to supplicate a discharge from the weight of existence, or a renovation of heart. Ah, who has not sometimes felt the need of regeneration, of being washed in the fountain of life!
The life which at first had charmed me soon became insupportable. I was wearied with a repetition of the same scenes and the same ideas. I put myself upon searching my heart that I might discover what I desired. I knew not, but the thought struck me that the woods would be enchanting. See me then, resolved to atchieve [sic] in rural exile, a career which was scarce commenced and in which I had already consumed ages.
Absolute solitude, and the inspiring scenes of nature plunged me into a state almost impossible to describe. Without relations or friends—alone upon the earth, having never loved, yet seeking to love, I was burdened with a repletion of life. Sometimes a sudden blush was painted upon my face, and I felt flowing in my breast a river of burning lava; often I raised involuntary exclamations, and at night was equally agitated in my dreams and my vigils. Something was wanting to fill up the void of my existence; I descended into the valleys, I clambered to the heights of the mountains, calling with all the force of my desires this ideal ob-
ject of future passion: I embraced it in the winds; I grasped it in the sighs of the river: every thing seemed this imaginary fantom.
However my state of alternate calmness and agitation was not without its charms. I loved the reveries into which it plunged me, even while wearing out the springs of life.
I one day amused myself by casting the leaves of a branch of willow into a rivulet, and attaching some idea to every leaf that was borne down the current. A prince who fears the loss of his crown by some sudden revolution, does not feel a livlier [sic] mental anguish than mine for every accident that happened to the fragments of my bough of willow. O weakness of mortals, to what a degree of puerility your superb reason may descend! And yet it is true that many attach their destiny to things as frail as my leaves of willow.
I entered with rapture upon the sombre months of storms. I saw the herdsman warming his hands at a humble brushwood fire which he had lighted in a corner of a wood, and I envied his lot. I listened to his melancholy songs which reminded me that the natural song man in every country, is melancholy, even while it expresses happiness. The heart is an incomplete instrument, a lyre which wants some chords—We must raise the accents of joy upon the notes consecrated to grief.
During the day, I wandered over extensive heaths, which were bounded by forests. Few subjects of reverie were wanting; the withered leaf which the wind drove before me; a hut whose smoke curled over the tops of the trees; the moss on the boughs of the aged oak which trembled in the northern gale; and the village spire which rose at a distance in a solitary valley, have often attracted my attention. I followed with my eyes the birds of passage which flew above my head; I figured to myself those unknown regions, those distant climes to which they were speeding. I could have wished myself upon their wings: a secret sentiment arose to torment me—I felt that I was myself but a passenger; and a voice from heaven seemed to address me: “Man the hour of thy migration is not yet to come; wait till the gale of death arises, then thou mayest spread thy wing toward those unknown realms which thy heart demands.”
“Arise quickly, oh ye desired winds, which shall waft René into the regions of another life!” Speaking thus I walked with hasty strides, my countenance inflamed, the wind whistling in my hair, regardless of the storm; and the frost, enchanted and tormented as if possessed by the demon of my heart. In the night when the north wind shook my cottage; when the rain poured in torrents upon my roof; when through my window I saw the moon plough the coacervated clouds, like a ship which labours with the waves, it seemed that life redoubled; that I had the power to create worlds. O could I then have shared with another the transports which I felt! Oh God! hadst thou then given me a woman agreeable to my heart!—Celestial Beauty. I would have prostrated myself before thee, and taking thee in my arms besought the Eternal to give thee the remainder of my life!
Alas, I was alone upon the earth! A secret languor seized upon my frame; that disgust of life which I had early felt, now arose with augmented vigour. My heart no longer furnished aliment for my mind, and I perceived my existence but by a profound sentiment of wretchedness. For some time I combatted my disorder, but with listlessness, and without a firm resolution to subdue it. At length, being unable to find a remedy for this strange disease of the mind, which, though undefined, pursued me every where. I resolved to bid adieu to the world. Priest of the most high, pardon a wretch whom heaven had almost deprived of reason. All had failed me—friendship, society, and solitude. Abandoned by Amelia, repulsed by the world, when the last was found insufficient, what resort remained? It was the last plank upon which I hoped to save myself, and I perceived that sinking in the waves.
Determined therefore to release myself from the burden of existence, I resolved to employ all my reason in this act of insanity. Nothing immediately pressed me, so I did not fix the moment of departure, that I might taste with heightened gust the last moments of existence, and summon all my powers, after the example of an ancient, to perceive the escape of my soul. It became necessary for me to make some arrangements concerning my fortune; I was therefore obliged to write to Amelia. Some complaints of her forgetfulness escaped me, and she undoubtedly perceived the tenderness which gradually arose in my breast. I thought however I had well veiled my secret, but Amelia, accustomed to read into the very recesses of my heart, easily divined it. She was alarmed at the appearance of constraint which prevailed in my letter, and by my questions upon affairs which had never before engaged my attention. Instead of answering me she came immediately to surprise me in my solitude.
Justly to apprehend, my dear friends, what was my transport on again seeing Amelia, and what must have been the bitterness of my subsequent grief, you must reflect that she was the only person
on the earth whom I had ever loved; that all my affections rushed to entwine around her with the sweetness of recollections of infancy. I therefore received Amelia with rapture, so long had it been since I had found any one to listen to me, and to whom I could open my heart. Amelia, throwing herself within my arms, spoke, while tears flowed down her cheeks: “Ah! ungrateful brother! you wish to leave the earth, whilst your sister lives? you suspect my heart; attempt not to explain or excuse; I have comprehended all. And is it me that you intended to deceive! me, who saw the springing of the first sentiments of your life? Oh look at your wretched character, your disgusts and your injustice! Swear, whilst I press you to my bosom, swear never to abandon yourself again to such madness, and pledge your oath never to attempt your life.”
(To be Continued.)
(May 11, 1814; p. 4, col 2-3)
René, a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
In pronouncing these words Amelia regarded me with compassion and tenderness, and covered my brow with kisses. Alas! my heart again opened itself to joy; I ceded all to the empire of Amelia: she required a solemn oath—I gave it without hesitation, not deeming that henceforth I could be unhappy. We were more than a month in habituating ourselves to the enchantment of being together. In the morning, when, instead of waking to solitude, I heard the voice of my sister; I felt a thrill of joy. Amelia had received from nature something almost divine; her mind had all the innocent graces of her person; she had an ineffable sweetness of sentiment: there was nothing but suavity and a slight shade of melancholy in her soul. One would have said that her heart, her thoughts, and her voice, sighed in concert.
But the time was come when I was to expiate the follies of my life. In my delirium I had even desired to experience misfortune that I might at least have some real cause of suffering: a dreadful wish, which God in his wrath never fails to grant. But O what am I going to relate to you my honoured friends! You see the tears which flow from my eyes;—can I ever—there are hours when nothing could wrest from me the secret—but now it is determined.
My revered fathers, let this history be forever buried in silence; remember that it has never been recounted but under the tree of the desert.
The winter terminated as I perceived that Amelia in her turn began to loose [sic] repose and health, which she had begun to restore to me. She grew thin, her eyes were sunken, her step was languid, and her voice faltering. I one day found her in tears at the foot of a crucifix. The night and the day, society and solitude, my presence and my absence, all seemed to agitate her. Involuntary sighs
expired upoon her lips; sometimes she sustained, without fatigue, a distant walk: at others, she drew herself along with difficulty; opened a book without being able to read, begun a phrase which she did not finish, burst into tears and hastily retired. In vain did I endeavour to discover her secret; when I interrogated her, and pressed her in my arms, she answered, with a smile, that she was like myself—she knew not her disorder.
Three months thus passed away, and her condition daily became worse. A mysterious correspondence seemed to me the source of her tears; for she was either more tranquil or more moved after the receipt of her letters. At length on a morning when the hour at which we breakfasted together was passed, I went up to her apartment. I knocked, but no one replied; I half opened the door, but Amelia was not there. I observed upon the mantle piece a packet addressed to me. Trembling, I took it—I opened it and read this letter, which I have kept to prevent me, for the future, from every emotion of joy:
“Heaven, dear brother, is my witness that I would give a thousand times my life to spare you a moment of pain; but so unfortunate am I that I can do nothing for your happiness. You will pardon me then for having clandestinely withdrawn myself from you like a criminal; I should not have been able to resist your prayers though it was absolutely necessary that we part.—
You know, my brother, that I have always had an inclination for the monastick life; it is time that I profit by the warnings of heaven. Why have I delayed as long?—God punishes me—I remained for you in the world—pardon me—I am agitated with the thought of leaving you—
I now feel strongly the necessity of those asylums against which I have often heard you declaim. Believe me, these are misfortunes which separate us forever from men! What would become of poor wretches—I am persuaded, my brother, that you would yourself find repose in the retreats of religion. The world offers nothing worthy of you.
I will not bid you call to mind your oath; I know the fidelity of your word. You have sworn it, you will live for me. Ah! what is more miserable than to think incessantly of quitting the world. For a man of your character nothing is more easy than to die; but be convinced, it is more difficult to live.
Perhaps you might find marriage an assuager of your wretchedness. A wife and children would occupy your attention: and where is the woman that would not delight to render you happy? The ardor of your soul, the beauty of your genius, your noble and affectionate demeanour; that air so dignified and yet so tender! all will insure to you her fidelity and her love. Ah! with what rapture would she press you in her arms and to her heart! All her regard and all her thoughts would be bent upon you, to anticipate your smallest desires and to mitigate your slightest troubles.
I part for the convent of ——: this monastery, built on the border of the sea, accords with the state of my mind. From the depth of my cell I shall hear at night the murmuring of the waves which lave the walls of the convent: I shall recall to mind those delightful walks which I have made with you, in the midst of forests, when we imagined having heard the roaring of the sea in the agitated tops of the pines. Amiable companion of my infancy, must I indeed never again see you? Scarce older than yourself I swung your cradle.—Ah, if the same tomb might again unite us! but no—I go to sleep alone beneath the cold marble of the sanctuary, where repose those maids who have never loved.
I know not that you can read these lines half effaced by my tears—But, my dear brother, sooner or later, was it not necessary that we should be separated? Why should I discourse to you of the incertitude and futility of life? You recollect young du T—— who died in the Isle of France. When you received his last letter his terrestrial form no more existed; and at the time you began to mourn in Europe his friends had ceased in India. What then is man of whom the remembrance is so soon lost, that one portion of his friends scarce hear of his death before others are consoled. And shall the remembrance of me be so soon effaced?—O my brother—if I wrest myself from you now it is but to be united to you in eternity!
“P. S. I enclose the instrument which gives you my fortune. I hope you will not refuse this mark of my love.”
(May 18, 1814; p. 4, col 2-3; issue misdated May 17)
René, a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
Had a thunder bolt fallen at my feet, it could not [have] caused greater consternation in me than did this letter. What secret did Amelia conceal from me? what forced her so suddenly to take the veil? Had she re-attached me to life by the charm of friendship, but again so hastily to forsake me? Oh! why had she come to turn me from my purpose! a cold sentiment of pity called her to me, but soon wearied with the melancholy duty, she left a wretch who had no object of affection on the earth but herself. Such were my plaints. Then reverting to myself; “ungrateful Amelia,” said I, “had you like myself, been wretched from the void of existence, you had not been abandoned by your brother.”
However, when I again perused her letter, I found I knew not what of sadness and tenderness which melted my heart. Suddenly a thought struck me that excited a hope. I imagined that Amelia had conceived a passion for a man of inferior rank, which she dared not avow on account of the pride of our family. This conjecture seemed to explain her melancholy, her mysterious correspondence, and the impassioned tone which breathed in her letter. I immediately wrote to reproach her with tendernes[s], to solicit her to open her heart to me, and to beseech her not to sacrifice herself to relations which were hardly known to her. Without delay she answered me that she had determined; that she had already obtained the noviciate’s license, and that she was about to pronounce her vows.—She added, in closing, “I have but too much neglected our family; you only have I loved; my friend, God does not approve these preferences, and at this moment he punishes me!
This note gave me an emotion of rage; I was irritated at the obstinacy of Amelia, at the ambiguity of her words, and her want of confidence in my amity. After a moment of hesitation on what plan I should adopt, I resolved to go to B—— designing to retard the sacrifice, if I could not prevent its consummation.
The province where I had been brought up lay in my route. When I beheld those woods where I had spent the only happy moments of my life, I could not restrain my tears; and it was impossible to resist the temptation to bid them a final adieu. My brother had sold the patrinonial estate and the new proprietor did not inhabit it. I arrived at the castle through a long avenue of fir trees; I traversed the deserted courts, I stood in silence to view the windows closed or half broken, the leaves which grew at the foot of the walls, the thistles which were strewed over the thresholds, and the solitary perrow where I had so often seen my father with his faithful servants. The steps were already covered with moss, the yellow wall-
flower grew between the disjointed and tottering stones. An unknown keeper abruptly opened the door; and whilst I hesitated to cross the threshold, he addressed me: “Ah! have you come to do as did the stranger some days since? When she was about to enter, she became pale and trembling, and we were obliged to bear her back to her carriage.” It was easy to recognize this stranger, who had come, like myself, to indulge tears and sighs. Covering my eyes with my handkerchief, I entered the mansion of my ancestors. I surveyed the sounding apartments where nought was heard save the noise of my steps, and which were not illumined, but by the feeble light which penetrated the closed window-shutters. I visited the chamber in which my mother lost her life in bring in me into the world; that which was devoted to the retirement of my father, that in which Ihad slept in my cradle and where friendship first received my vows in the bosom of a sister—Every where the rooms were dismantled, and the spider undisturbed wove his net in the deserted corners. I precipitately fled from these scenes, and without daring to cast back a lingering look, drew myself to a distance from the place. Oh! how sweet, but yet how rapid are those moments which brothers and sisters pass in their youthful years, united under the wings of their parents! The family of man is but of a day; the breath of God di[s]perses it like a vapour. Scarce does the father know the son, or the son the father; the brother the sister, or the sister the brother: the oak sees the acorn germinate by its side; it is not so with the family of man.
On my arrival at B——, I was conducted to the convent; I desired to speak with my sister. ’Twas told me she saw no one. I wrote to her, and she answered me, that upon the point of being consecrated to God, she was not permitted to give a thought to the world; that if I loved her, I would abstain from overwhelming her with sorrow. She added, “However if it is your determination to appear at the alter [sic] the day of my profession, d[ei]gn to stand as my faterh; this part only accords with my friendship and is consistent with my peace.”
This frigid constancy, which was opposed to all the ardor of my friendship, threw me into a violent transport. At one time I resolved to retrace my steps; at another I wished to stay only to disturb the ceremony. Hell incited me even to the thought of poniarding myself in the church and of mingling my last sighs with the vows which tore from me my sister. The superior of the convent gave me notice that a bench was prepared for me in the sanctuary, and she invited me to attend the ceremony, which was to take place the next day.
At dawn I heard the first sound of the bells which commenced the sacrifice. About ten o’clock, in a state of indiscribable agony, I drew myself to the monastery. Nothing can appear tragic after one has assisted at such solemnities, and nothing painful, when one has witnessed such a scene. An immense audience crowded the church. I was conducted to the bench of the sanctuary, almost without knowing what I had resolved. Already the priest attends at the altar; suddenly the mysterious grate is opened, and Amelia advances, decked in all the pomp of the world. There was something so celestial in her countenance, that she excited a universal emotion of admiration and surprize. Astonished by the glorious sorrow of the saint, abashed by the grandeur of religion, all my projects of violence vanished. I felt myself restrained by an omnipotent hand, and instead of blasphemy and menaces, I found in my heart but profound adoration and sighs of humility.
(To be Continued.)
(May 25, 1814; p. 4, col 2-3)
René, a Novel, translated from the French
of F. A. Chateaubriand.
Amelia was placed beneath a canopy prepared for her. The sacrifice commenced at the lighting of an hundred tapers. At the offertory the priest divested himself of his ornaments, reserving but a linen tunic, ascends to the pulpit and in a discourse simple and pathetic, paints the happiness of a religious life, the tribulations of the world and the peace of the virgin who consecrates herself to the Lord. Having finished his discourse, he resumes his vestments, and continues the sacrifice. Amelia supported by two young religious sisters, kneeled on the last step of the altar. I was then sought for to perform the paternal functions. At the sound of my reeling steps Amelia could scarce sustain herself. I was placed at the side of the priest to present to him the scissors. At that moment I felt my transport revive; my fury was just going to break forth when Amelia summoning back her courage darted upon me a glance in which there was so much of reproof and grief, that I was arrested. Religion triumphs! my sister profiting by my agitation, presents boldly her head, and her superb locks fall beneath the consecrated steel. A long robe of tamine* succeeds to the decorations of fashion, without rendering her less engaging; the melancholy of her brow is hidden by a linen fillet and the mysterious veil, the double symbol of virginity and of religion is the sombre ornament of her head.
But Amelia had not yet pronounced her vows, and to die to the world, it was necessary that she should pass through the ceremonies of the tomb. She lays herself down on the marble, the pall is extended over her and four funeral tapers mark its corners. The priest commences the service of the dead—O solemnities of religion! how grand, but yet how awful!—I was constrained to kneel by the side of the tomb; suddenly I heard a low murmuring beneath the sepulchral veil; I incline my head, and these dreadful words strike my ear: “God of mercy, ordain that I never rise from this couch; and load with thy richest blessings a brother who has not reciprocated my criminal passion!”
As these words frightful escaped from the dark cavity of the tomb, the truth shone upon me; my reason is lost, I sink on the winding sheet of death, I stretch my arm toward my sister and exclaim, “chaste daughter of Jesus Christ, receive my last embrace through the cold pressure of the groves which already separates thee forever from thy brother!” My agitation, my exclamation, and my tears disturb the whole ceremony; the priest stops in astonishment, the frighted nuns close the grate; the throng presses toward the altar; I am taken and borne insensibly away. On recovering my reason I learned that the sacrifice was consummated, and that my sister had been seized with a violent fever. She directed that I should be besought not to attempt to see her. Here alas! was the acme of my wretchedness! a sister fears to speak with a brother, and a brother dares not raise his voice to the ears of a sister!
Aware now of the cause of my sister’s disquiet, I figured to myself how much she must have suffered; what conflicts in her breast! what efforts had she made! sometimes wishing to leave me but deprived of the power; solicitous about my life, yet trembling for herself when in my presence. I reproached myself bitterly; and the recollection of my most tender caresses gave me anguish. In again reading her letter I perceived that her humid lips had left other traces than those of tears. An eclaircisement was now afforded me of many circumstances which before I could not comprehend:—That mixture of joy and grief which Amelia had shewn at my departure for travelling; and her solicitude to avoid me on my return; the hope that she might be cured of her unhappy love, had undoubtedly so long deterred her from entering the convent: her plan of retirement and the disposal of her fortune had apparently produced that secret correspondence which served to deceive me.
Oh my friends! I then knew what it was to shed tears for an evil which was not imaginary. My passions which so long had hovered in indecision, were now precipitated upon this first prey with fury. I indeed found an unexpected satisfaction
* A light sort of French stuff, made of either silk or wool.
in the plenitude of my wretchedness: I perceived with a secret sentiment of joy that grief, unlike pleasure is inexhaustible. I had wished to leave the world before the Almighty ordained it; this was a heinous crime. God had sent Amelia both to save and punish me. Thus every guilty thought and every criminal action drew after them misfortune and wo.
I now formed the resolution to come to America. A fleet was equipping in the port of B—— for Louisiana. I made an agreement with a captain of one of the vessels for my passage. I advised Amelia of my determination, and employed myself in preparing to depart. The disposal of the small estate which remained to me, which I ceded to my brother, the tardy preparations of the convoy and contrary winds retained me a long time at B——. I went every morning to enquire of Amelia and I always returned with new occasion of admiration and tears. I incessantly wandered around the monastery. I often perceived at a small grated window which overlooked a desert beach, a nun seated in a pensive posture, with her museful eyes bent upon the ocean, where often appeared some vessel lashing the waves along the border of the shore. Frequently by the light of the moon I have seen the same vestal at the same window; she contemplated the sea illumined by the orb of night, and seemed to listen to the murmuring of the waves which mournfully dashed o’er the solitary beach. While the bell of the monastery, which calls the nuns to their vigils and their prayers, was slowly tolling and while they silently advanced to the altar of the Almighty, I often flew to the foot of the walls: then alone I heard in hallowed extacy the last sounds of the canticles, which mingled with the feeble sighs of the distant billows. This which it should seem would have nourished my misery, served on the contrary to abate its poignancy. My grief indeed, by its extraordinary nature carried with it its own remedy; we enjoy that which is uncommon even though it may be misfortune. My own experience even induced the hope that my sister might become less unhappy.
A letter that I received from her about this time confirmed my hope. Amelia tenderly commiserated my wretchedness, and assured me that time diminished hers. “I do not yet despair,” said she, “of finding happiness. The magnitude of my sacrifice, now it is finished, gives me some peace: the simplicity of my companions, the purity of their vows, the regularity of our lives, spread a balm over my days. When I hear the raging of the storm and when the wearied bird from the ocean beats his pinions against my window, I think how eminently happy I am in having found a shelter from the tempests of the world—.”
The order was given for the departure of the fleet: already several vessels were under way. I had prepared to spend the last night ashore, that I might write a letter of adieu to Amelia. About midnight whilst I was engaged in this melancholy service, and whilst I moistened my paper with my tears; suddenly I hear the roaring winds of a tempest; I listen and amid the noise of the storm I distinguish the reports of cannon, and the peals of the monastic bell. I walk to the shore, where all is desert and where naught is heard save the raging of the waves. I seat myself upon a solitary rock. On one hand extend the scintillating billows; on the other the sombre wall of the monastery arise a mighty mass into the heavens: a small light appears at the grated window: was it thee, O Amelia, who kneeling before the cross, besought the God of heaven to spare thy wretched brother!—
Sun of this new world! Echoes of the American shore! which now repeat the accents of René, it was the morrow of this dreadful night that my native country vanished from my sight forever!”