Chateaubriand's memoirs, VI, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VI - Chapter 6
Ocean customs – The Island of Saint-Pierre



London, April to September 1822.

After taking on provisions and replacing the anchor lost at Graciosa, we left Saint-Pierre. Sailing south, we reached 38 degrees latitude. We were becalmed not far off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. The misty skies of the northern regions had been succeeded by the clearest of skies; we could not see land, but the odour of the pine-forests reached us. Daybreak and dawn, sunrise and sunset, dusk and nightfall were all admirable. I was never weary of gazing at Venus, whose rays seemed to envelop me as my sylph’s tresses had long ago.

One evening, I was reading in the captain’s cabin; the bell sounded for prayers: I went to add my vows to those of my companions. The officers occupied the poop with the passengers; the chaplain, book in hand, was a little way from us near the tiller: we were standing, facing the prow of the vessel. All the sails were furled.

The sun’s disc, ready to plunge into the waves, appeared amongst the rigging in the midst of boundless space: one would have said, because of the motion of the ship, that the radiant star altered its relationship to the horizon each instant. When I drew this picture, which you can re-read in its entirety, in Le Génie du Christianisme, my religious sentiments were in harmony with the scene; but, alas, when I was there in person, the unconverted man was alive in me! It was not God alone whom I contemplated above the waves in the magnificence of his works. I saw an unknown woman and the miracle of her smile; the beauties of the heavens seemed born from her breath; I would have given eternity for one of her caresses. I imagined that she was throbbing behind that veil of the universe which hid her from my eyes. Oh! If it had only been in my power to tear away that curtain and press that ideal woman to my heart, and be consumed on her breast in that love, the source of my inspiration, my despair and my existence! While I was indulging in these impulses so fitting to my future career as a trapper, it nearly happened that an accident put an end to my dreams and plans.

The heat was overpowering; the vessel, in a dead calm, and weighed down by its masts, was rolling heavily: roasting on deck and wearied by the motion of the ship I decide to bathe, and though we had no boat out, I dived from the bowsprit into the sea. All went well to begin with, and several passengers followed my example. I swam about without glancing at the ship; but when I chanced to turn my head, I saw that the current had carried her some way off. The sailors, alarmed by this, had thrown a rope to the other swimmers. Sharks appeared in the ship’s wake, and shots were fired at them to scare them off. The swell was so heavy, that it prevented my return, while exhausting my strength. There was a whirlpool beneath me, and at any moment the sharks might have made off with an arm or a leg. On board, the boatswain tried to lower a boat into the sea, but the tackle had to be rigged first, and this took a considerable time.

By the greatest good luck, an almost imperceptible breeze sprang up; the ship, answering a little to the helm, approached me; I was able to catch the end of the rope; but my companions in foolhardiness were already clinging to it; when we were dragged to the ship’s side, I was at the end of the line, and they bore down on me with all their weight. They fished us up in this way one by one, which took a long time. The rolling continued; at every alternate roll, we plunged six or seven feet in the water, or were suspended as many feet in the air, like fish on the end of a line: at the last immersion I felt as I were about to faint; one more roll, and it would have been all over. I was hoisted on deck half-dead: if I had been drowned, what good riddance for me and everyone else!

Two days after this incident, we were in sight of land. My heart beat wildly when the captain pointed it out to me: America! It was barely indicated by the tops of a few maple trees above the horizon. The palm-trees at the mouth of the Nile have indicated the shores of Egypt to me since, in the same way. A pilot came on board; we entered Chesapeake Bay. That evening a boat was sent ashore to obtain fresh provisions. I joined the party and soon trod American soil.

Casting my gaze around me, I remained motionless for a few moments. This continent, possibly unknown to both ancient times and a series of modern centuries; the first savage destiny of that continent, and its second destiny since the arrival of Christopher Columbus; the supremacy of the European monarchies shaken by this new world; an old social order ending in this young America; a republic of a new kind announcing a change in the human spirit; the part my country had played in these events; the seas and shores owing their independence in part to French blood and the French flag; a great man issuing from the midst of wilderness and discord; Washington at home in a flourishing city, on the same spot where William Penn had bought a patch of forest; the United States passing to France that Revolution which France had supported with her arms; lastly my own plans, the virgin muse I had come here to deliver to the passion of a new Nature; the discoveries I hoped to make in the deserts that still extended their vast kingdom behind the limited rule of a foreign civilisation: such were the thoughts that revolved in my mind.

We walked towards a house. Woods of balsam and Virginian cedar, mocking-birds and cardinal tanagers proclaimed, by their shade and appearance, their song and colour, another clime. The house, which we reached after half-an-hour, was a mixture of English farm house and Creole hut. Herds of European cattle grazed in pasture land enclosed by fencing on which striped squirrels were playing. Black people were sawing timber, whites were tending tobacco plants. A Negress, thirteen of fourteen years old, almost naked and singularly beautiful, opened the gate of the enclosure for us like a young Night. We bought some maize cakes, chickens, eggs and milk, and returned to the ship with our baskets and demijohns. I gave my silk handkerchief to the little African girl: it was a slave who welcomed me to the land of liberty.

We weighed anchor to head for the roads and port of Baltimore: approaching them the waters narrowed; they were smooth and still; we seemed to be sailing up an indolent river lined with Avenues. Baltimore appeared as if it lay at the far end of a lake. Facing the town was a wooded hill, at the foot of which they were beginning to build. We moored alongside the quay. I slept on board and did not go ashore till the next day. I went with my luggage to the inn; the seminarists retired to the establishment prepared for them, from which they have since scattered throughout America.

What became of Francis Tulloch? The following letter was delivered to me in London, on the 12th of April 1822:

‘Thirty years have passed, my dear Viscount, since the era of our voyage to Baltimore, and its quite possible you have even forgotten my name; but if I trust to the sentiments of my heart, which have always remained loyal and true to you, it is not so, and I flatter myself you would not be unhappy at seeing me once more. Though we live opposite one another (as you will see from the address of my letter), I am only too well aware how many things separate us. But witness the least desire to see me, and I will be happy to prove to you, as far as I can, that I am still as I have always been, your faithful and devoted,

Francis Tulloch’

P.S. The distinguished rank you have achieved and which has conferred on you so many titles is before my eyes; but the memory of the Chevalier de Chateaubriand is so dear to me, that I cannot write to you (at least on this occasion) as Ambassador etc.,etc. So, forgive the style for the sake of our old friendship.

Friday 12th April,
Portland Place, No. 30’

So Tulloch was in London; he did not become a priest at all, he is married; his adventures have ended like mine. The letter weighs in favour of the truth of my Memoirs and the accuracy of my memories. Who could have evidenced an alliance and friendship formed thirty years ago at sea, if the other party had not re-appeared? And what a sad backward perspective this letter unrolls! Tulloch, in 1822, lived in the same city as me, in the very same street; the door of his house faced mine, just as we met on the same vessel, on the same deck, our cabins facing one another. How many other friends of mine I shall never see again! Every night as he goes to his rest, a man can count his losses: only his years never leave him, even though they pass; when he reviews them and calls their numbers, they reply: ‘Present!’ Not one fails the call.