Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VII - Chapter 7
Chapter 7: An Indian Family – Night in the forest – The family departs – The savages of Niagara Falls – Captain Gordon – Jerusalem



London, April to September 1822.

We rode on to Niagara. We were no more than twenty miles or so distant, when we saw, in an oak-grove, the camp-fire of some savages who had halted beside a stream, where we ourselves thought of bivouacking. We profited from their prior efforts: after grooming the horses, and preparing for night, we approached the group. Legs crossed in the manner of tailors, we seated ourselves among the Indians, round the fire, to roast our maize-cakes.

The family comprised two women, two infants at the breast, and three braves. The conversation became general that is to say a great many gestures were interspersed with a few words from me; later they all fell asleep where they were sitting. The only one left awake, I went to sit by myself on a tree root which stretched alongside the stream.

The moon showed above the treetops; a balmy breeze, which that Queen of the Night brought with her from the Orient, seemed to precede her through the forest, as if it were her cool breath. The solitary light rose higher and higher in the sky: now following her course, now traversing banks of cloud that resembled the summits of some snow-crowned mountain chain. All would have been silence and peace, but for the fall of a few leaves, the passage of a sudden breeze, the hooting of a tawny owl; far off, the dull roar of Niagara Falls could be heard, echoing from wild to wild, in the still of night, before dying away among the lonely forests. It was in nights like these that a previously unknown Muse appeared to me; I gathered some of her inflections; I noted them in my book, by starlight, as a commonplace musician might transcribe the notes dictated to him by a great master of harmonies.

Next day, the Indians armed themselves, while the women collected the baggage. I distributed a little gunpowder and some vermilion amongst my hosts. We parted, touching our foreheads and chests. The braves gave out a cry as a signal to march, and set off in front; the women walked behind, carrying children, who, slung in furs from their mothers’ backs, turned their heads to look at us. I followed their departure with my eyes, until the whole troupe vanished among the forest trees.

The savages of Niagara Falls in the English dependency were charged with policing that side of the frontier. This bizarre constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from crossing. I was obliged to send the Dutchman to FortNiagara for a permit to enter the British Government’s area of control. This saddened my heart somewhat, when I remembered that France had once controlled Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it, signed: Captain Gordon. Is it not singular that I discovered the same British name on the door of my cell in Jerusalem? ‘Thirteen pilgrims had inscribed their names on the room’s door and walls: the first was Charles Lombard, and he visited Jerusalem in 1669; the last was John Gordon, and the date of his stay was 1804.’