Sunday, 1 February 2015

I. Ghost stories

The following excerpts, arranged in chronological order, come from the early chapters of Tome I. Since they are quite short by themselves and are all linked by a common theme, I figured it was easier to ignore continuity and gather them here. For the sake of giving some context, I included some text that was already translated by Arthur John Butler.

My first clear memory dates back from 1772 and evokes a wall being destroyed. Destruction is always made to stir children’s enthusiasm; a continuous activity may catch their attention, but what is sudden, noisy, quick and moving always strikes them the most; it is to the point that they would be less interested in the building of the Vatican than in the destruction of a hovel. Indeed, it feels like destruction is Man’s natural vocation, and when I consider all the upheavals I have witnessed, I see a sort of omen in that first clear memory of my life. Although this moment was fifty-five years ago1, I can still see the two masons at work; I see their tools and the layers of plaster they tore off, falling noisily and leaving bare the wooden skeleton that supported them. But there is nothing more beyond that. Without even knowing how that frame later fell, I reach my fifth or sixth year without finding any luminous spot in this dark night that surrounds my childhood memories.
After this vague time, or rather, blending with it, I find the memory of these ridiculous ghost stories that were done away with over the century; fifty years ago, every maid had her own to tell, attacking the children’s judgement and common sense at the root, so to speak, turning their ideas upside down, firing up their imaginations, making them vulnerable to a thousand fears and leaving deep marks which only weakened over the years. I did not know if there is any country where this sort of superstition was taken as far as it was in Prussia; at least it is truthful to say that some of these stories were entirely veridical in the people’s eyes. I remember, among other things, the pains my mother took to make me understand how absurd and even irreligious it was to believe for instance that the marène, a very small and delicate fish, perhaps the most delicate in existence, which is found only in one lake near Berlin, was only brought into existence there because of a pact, through which some former owner of the lake had given his soul to the devil in exchange for these fishes that bring about wealth and excite gluttony.


I met many young people in Berlin, (...) but one of those I was closest to was Prince Serge Dolgorouki, the nephew of Prince Dolgorouki, the Russian ambassador in Berlin.
This Prince Serge came almost every evening along with his governor, to dine with my father. We often went on walks together. Thus we were truly intimate when he left Berlin one year before me. I met him again in Brunswick when my father and I came back from France in 1784. He received me with great friendliness and showed me the most interesting sights of this city. He even gave me a medal with Pius VI’s profile, that had been made for him. He later became a general in the Russian army; one feat earned him a golden sword from Catherine II and for a long time, he was the Russian envoy in Naples. I had been without news of him for years when, as I was at M. Denon’s with my daughters in 1822, Prince Serge Dolgorouki was announced. It had been thirty-eight years since we last saw each other, and he did not recognise me any more than I would have recognised him had he not been named. I even doubted that it was the Prince Serge I had met in my youth. Thus I requested M. Denon to ask him a question, and, since his answer left no room for doubt, I gave him my name; he embraced me, asked me about my sister’s health and seemed very pleased to meet me again; but he did not go any further. “Diplomacy”, I thought to myself, “must have hardened his feelings to the point that he is now indifferent to his early friends; or is it that his pride is hurt that I am now a lieutenant general like him?” I was floating amidst these uncertainties when I learnt that, having caused grief to a high-ranking married woman, he had become devoted to her, had left the diplomatic world, had settled with this lady in Paris, and that he now lived more or less in hiding; to avoid revealing his name and rank, he had almost become a recluse. I pitied him with all my heart, yet I found it satisfying to think that I could blame on his position what I would have hated to blame on his heart.


Having mentioned Prince Dolgorouki as I talked about his nephew Serge, I will relate an anecdote involving him. My father witnessed it, but I could not get him to insert it in his Recollections, even though he told it a hundred times. Besides, the story was confirmed by Mme de Kameke and various other people, including Prince Dolgorouki himself, who said one day as someone had brought up the subject:
“It is not in my character to ridicule myself; and my position in this country gives me a duty not to do so. Yet, as for the story in question, while I see it as nothing more than an extraordinary coincidence, you can name and even quote me, given that there are forty living witnesses.”
After this preamble, I will tell the story literally, without personal comments or additions.
Mme de Kameke’s merits and qualities, along with her rank and wealth, had turned her house into the meeting point of the finest Berlinese society, and when she lived at her estate of “Mon choix” in summer, she invited her favourite people from Berlin for prolonged stays. Prince Dolgorouki was among them.
One morning as the Prince entered the parlour around lunch hour, those present—the ladies and a few other people, among whom was my father—noticed his tired and preoccupied air, and they asked him about his health with more solicitude than usual. The embarrassment apparent in his answers made them insist; at last, yielding to his own need to talk, he answered: “If, after more than twenty years among you, I had any doubt about the way I am judged in this country, I admit I would be pained to tell you what has been troubling my sleep; but being sure that I will have to face no false interpretations, I will speak:
‘I have a brother, whom I love very tenderly and who loves me back. Having spent part of our youth in close proximity, we truly despaired at the thought of being separated.
‘You would hardly believe the details of the last moments we spent together. What I can tell you is that our exaltation was such that as we parted, we swore than, should one of us die before seeing the other again, he would bid him farewell. Well! Madame,” he pursued, turning towards Countess von Kameke, “last night, around one o’clock, I was woken up by my brother’s voice, and I very distinctly heard him calling out to me and saying farewell. I must admit I felt a very strong emotion then. However, I managed to rein in my senses, to convince myself that this could only be a sort of delusion, and to go back to sleep; but having heard the same voice and the same farewells one more time, I could not close my eyes again for the rest of the night.”
Everybody protested. Reminding the Prince of the good news they had recently received of his brother, they recalled the anecdotes most likely to reassure him; they argued on the impossibility of the fact itself, and they blamed everything on bad dispositions and digestive troubles, concluding that the Prince should drive all manner of doubt and apprehension away from his mind and forget what they called his bad dream.
But fifteen or twenty days later, he received news that his brother, a lieutenant general in the Russian Army, having swum through a river on his horse as he marched with the troops he led, was seized by pneumonia and died within the same night and at the same hour that the Prince heard his farewell.
A second story of the same nature seems to fit here; it dates back from the same time, and I am equally certain of its authenticity; like the previous one, my father witnessed it and told it a hundred times. Although I could never believe in such tales, those are the only two which I cannot disprove.
In his Recollections, my father makes a mention of Colonel du Troussel’s suicide; he gave two possible causes for this worthy man’s act of despair; but the one he favours is his wife’s conduct, whereas this seems to me the most unlikely. While he might have been absolutely determined not to go home, at the onset of a war, an officer of M. du Troussel’s rank and character could not renounce to fighting and dying in a blaze of glory. For instance, Prince Guillaume of Brunswick, having resolved to die and having the choice between suicide and a glorious death, got himself killed in the first battle Romanshoff fought against the Turks, having enlisted as a volunteer.
Thus M. du Troussel ended his career for other reasons than those relating to his wife, for reasons that brooked no respite.
From the moment he had asked for an authorisation to divorce his wife, which he could not obtain, his relationship with the King had been strained, and it became even more so when he was reorganising Prince Henri’s artillery in Magdebourg. These reproaches weighed on him so much that he could not resist the need to pour his heart out, which he did in a letter to Prince Henri in which he recapped and developed his grievances against Frederick, while at the same time writing a purely military letter to the monarch. Having composed the two letters, he sent them. The Prince, who was only a few leagues away, received the package bearing his address in a matter of hours, and, having found inside the letter to the King, he sent it back to M. du Troussel along with a note starting with these words: “My dear friend, what have you done?...”
There was no doubt left. In a fatal mistake, caused by the resemblance between the two sheets of paper, the letter destined to the Prince had ended up in the King’s hands. This letter, written without restraint, was a crime, and Frederick’s character made it unforgivable. But the most cruel aspect of that situation was that this letter compromised both M. du Troussel and the Prince, for M. du Troussel could only have written to Prince Henri knowing that this would not displease him. As he pondered this, M. du Troussel realised that he had denounced his benefactor, and in his despair, he resolved to die immediately. He spent a few hours writing farewell letters, and, at three in the morning, he blew his brains out.
Now, Mme du Troussel had had three daughters from her first marriage with a M. de Kleist. The youngest, whom her stepfather loved tenderly, was called Minette.
Just as M. du Troussel killed himself in Magdebourg, Minette, who slept in the same room as her two sisters in Berlin, woke up with horrible screams. Her sisters tried to ask her what was wrong and to snap her out of this, but Minette did not listen to them, only repeating in a frightened voice: “I can see my father, he is covered in blood... There he is... There he is...” The two sisters left their beds, lit a candle, examined the room, found nothing, and yet they could neither reassure Minette nor calm her down.
Mme du Troussel was told this as soon as she woke up; on that day, she was entertaining a large company. At the end of the dinner, the conversation turned towards Minette’s extravagances; she was severely scolded and cried much, but on the next morning, they learnt the death of M. du Troussel, a death whose date, hour and main circumstance coincided eerily with Minette’s vision.
My father once told these anecdotes do Mme de Genlis, who, far from looking surprised, countered with several of the same kind and claimed, among other things, that at the very moment her only son died, she was in bed and she distinctly saw him hovering over her head in the shape of a blue-winged angel. Those were her own expressions.
What can I add about these stories, no less bizarre than their subject? … Only one word. Born with as much imagination and sensitivity as anyone in the world, twice in my life, at times where I was distraught by my pain, I tried to summon such apparitions with all the exaltation and willpower I could muster; thus I went at night on the places of my misfortunes; I went after dusk to perform evocations over tombs, and, as you can imagine, I never heard or saw anything; which, under the double effect of painful experience and common sense, irrevocably reduced such undeniable facts, in my mind, to illusions of the senses or extraordinary coincidences, less extraordinary however than such stories could be.

1This first part of the Mémoires was written in 1822.

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