Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VII - Chapter 2
The Hudson River – A passenger’s recital – Mr Swift – Departure for Niagara Falls with a Dutch guide – Monsieur Violet



London, April to September 1822.

At New-York I embarked on the packet sailing for Albany, on the upper reaches of the Hudson River. The company was numerous. Towards evening on the first day, we were served a collation of fruit and milk; the women sat on the benches and the men on the deck, at their feet. Conversation was not long maintained: at the sight of a beautiful natural picture one involuntarily falls silent. Suddenly someone called out: ‘There is the place where Asgill was captured.’ They asked a Quaker girl from Philadelphia to recite the ballad called Asgill. We were among the mountains; the passenger’s voice was lost over the waters, or it swelled in volume when we sailed closer to the shore. The fate of a young soldier, a brave and poetic lover, honoured by Washington’s interest, and the generous intervention of an unfortunate Queen, added a romantic charm to the scene. The friend I lost, Monsieur de Fontanes, let fall courageous words in memory of Asgill, when Bonaparte was about to ascend the throne on which Marie-Antoinette had sat. The American officers seemed moved by the Pennsylvanian ballad: the memory of their country’s past troubles made them more aware of the calm of the present moment. They contemplated, with emotion, those places formerly swarming with soldiers, ringing with the sound of warfare, buried now in profound peace; those places gilded by the last light of day, alive with the whistling of redbirds, the cooing of blue wood-pigeons, the song of the mocking-birds, and whose inhabitants resting their arms on the fences of their enclosures, fringed with cross-vines, watched our boat pass by.

Arriving at Albany, I went to find Mr Swift, for whom I had a letter of introduction. This Mr Swift traded fur with the Indian tribes in the territory ceded to the United States by England; for the civilised powers, both republican and monarchist, unceremoniously apportion land in America between themselves which does not belong to them. After listening to me, Mr Swift raised some very reasonable objections. He told me that I could not undertake a journey of this importance on the spur of the moment, alone, without help, without support, and without letters of recommendation for the English, American, and Spanish posts through which I was forced to pass; that, if I had the good luck to cross such desolate wastes, I would reach frozen regions where I would die from cold and hunger: he advised me to begin by acclimatising myself, urging me to learn the Sioux, Iroquois, and Eskimo languages, to live with the trappers in the woods and the agents of the Hudson Bay Company. With this preliminary experience gained, I might then, in four or five years’ time, with the assistance of the French Government, proceed on my hazardous mission.

This advice, whose validity I inwardly recognised, annoyed me. If I had believed in myself, I should have left for the Pole right away, as one sets off from Paris for Pontoise. I hid my displeasure from Mr Swift; I asked him to find me a guide and some horses to take me to Niagara and Pittsburg: from Pittsburg, I would descend the Ohio and gather useful ideas for future projects. I had my original route plan always in mind.

Mr Swift engaged a Dutchman for me who spoke several Indian dialects. I bought a pair of horses and left Albany.

The whole stretch of country between that town and Niagara is now cleared and inhabited; the New York canal crosses it; but then a large part of the territory was wilderness.

When the Mohawk had been crossed, and I had entered woods where no trees had ever been felled, I was seized with a sort of intoxication if freedom: I went from tree to tree, left and right, saying to myself: ‘Here there are no more roads, no more towns, no monarchies, no republics, no presidents, no kings, no human beings.’ And, to see if I was truly re-possessed of my original rights, I indulged in wild antics which enraged my guide, who in his heart, thought me mad.

Alas! I thought I was alone in that forest where I held my head so high! Suddenly, I almost bruised my nose on the side of a shelter. Once beneath it, I set astonished eyes on the first savages I had ever seen. There were a score of them, men and women, painted like sorcerers, bodies half-naked, ears slit, crows’ feathers on their heads, and rings through their noses. A little Frenchman, hair curled and powdered, in an apple-green coat, a woollen jacket, and a muslin shirt-frill and ruffles, was scraping a pocket-fiddle, and making the Iroquois dance to Madelon Friquet. Monsieur Violet (for so he was called) was dancing-master to these savages. They paid for his lessons in beaver skins and bears’ hams. He had been a scullion in the service of General Rochambeau, during the American War. Remaining in New York, after the departure of our army, he had resolved to instruct the Americans in the fine arts. His ambition had grown with his success, and the new Orpheus was carrying civilisation to the savage hordes of the New World. Speaking to me of the Indians, he always said to me: ‘These savage ladies and gentlemen.’ He took great pride in the agility of his pupils; indeed I have never seen such capering. Monsieur Violet, holding his little violin between chest and chin, would tune the fatal instrument and call to the Iroquois: ‘Take your places!’ And the whole troop would leap about like a band of demons.

Was it not a devastating experience for a disciple of Rousseau, this introduction to savage life via a dancing-lesson given to the Iroquois by General Rochambeau’s scullion? I was greatly tempted to laugh, though I felt cruelly humiliated.