Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VII - Chapter 4
Encampment by the Lake of the Onondagas – Arabs – The Indian and the cow



London, April to September 1822.

Monsieur Violet offered me letters of credence for the Onondagas, the remnant of one of the six Iroquois nations. I came first of all to the Lake of the Onondagas. The Dutchman chose a suitable place to pitch camp: a river flowed from the lake; our shelter was set up in the bend of this river. We drove two forked stakes into the ground, six feet apart; we suspended a long pole horizontally in the forks of these stakes. Strips of birch bark, one end resting on the ground, the other on the transverse pole, formed the sloping roof of our palace. Our saddles had to serve as pillows and our cloaks as blankets. We fastened bells to our horses’ necks and turned them loose in the woods near our camp: they did not wander far.

Fifteen years later, when I bivouacked among the sands of the desert of Saba, a few steps from the Jordan, on the edge of the Dead Sea, our horses, those slight offspring of Arabia, looked as though they were listening to tales of the Sheiks, and taking part in the story of Antar or Job’s steed.

It was scarcely four hours after midday when we completed our camp. I took my gun and went to explore the neighbourhood. There were few birds. Only a solitary pair flew up in front of me, like the birds I hunted in my native woods; from the colour of the male I recognised the white sparrow, passer nivalis of the ornithologists. I also heard the osprey, so well characterised by its call. The flight of that exclamator, led me through the woods to a valley hemmed in between bare and rocky heights; half-way up stood a wretched cabin; a lean cow was grazing in a meadow below.

I like such little shelters: ‘A chico pajarillo, chico nidillo: for a little bird a little nest.’ I sat down on the slope facing the hut planted on the opposite slope.

After a few minutes, I heard a voice in the valley: three men were driving five or six fat cows along; they set them to grazing and drove the lean cow off with blows from their switches. An Indian woman came out of the hut, went towards the frightened animal, and called to it. The cow ran towards her stretching out its neck and lowing. The settlers threatened the woman from the distance, as she returned to the cabin. The cow followed her.

I rose, descended the slope on my side, crossed the valley, and climbing the opposite hill, arrived at the hut.

I pronounced the greeting I had been taught: ‘Siegoh! I am come.’ The Indian woman, instead of replying to my greeting by repeating the usual phrase: ‘You are come’, failed to reply at all. Then I stroked the cow: the sad yellow face of the Indian woman showed signs of feeling. I was moved by those mysterious acquaintances in adversity: there is tenderness in grieving over ills which no one else has ever grieved over.

The woman gazed at me for some time with lingering doubt then she came forward and placed her own hand on the brow of her companion in misery and solitude.

Encouraged by this mark of confidence, I said in English, since I had exhausted my Indian: ‘She is very thin!’ The Indian replied in bad English: ‘She eats very little’ – ‘She was badly treated,’ I continued. And the woman replied: ‘We are both accustomed to it; Both.’ I said: ‘This field is not yours then?’ She answered: ‘The field belonged to my dead husband. I have no children, and the pale-skins drive their cattle into my field.’

I had nothing to offer God’s creature. We parted. The woman said many things to me which I could not understand; no doubt wishes for my prosperity; if they were not heard in heaven, it was not the fault of the one who offered them, but the fault of him for whom the prayers were offered. Every soul does not possess an equal capacity for happiness, just as every field does not bear the same harvest.

I returned to my ajoupa (shelter), where a meal of potatoes and maize awaited me. The evening was magnificent; the lake, smooth as an un-silvered mirror, showed never a wrinkle; the river, murmuring, bathed our almost-island that the spice-bushes (calycanthus floridus) perfumed with the scent of apples. The whippoorwill repeated its cry: we heard it, now near, now far away, as the bird altered the location of its amorous calls. It was not my name being called. Weep, poor Will!