Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 8

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VII, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> VII, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VII - Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Niagara Falls – A rattlesnake – I fall over the edge of the gorge

London, April to September 1822.

I spent two days in the Indian village, from which I wrote another letter to Monsieur Malesherbes. The Indian women occupied themselves in various tasks; their babies were slung in nets from the branches of a large copper beech. The grass was covered with dew, the breeze emerged from the forest all scented, and the cotton plants, their bolls inverted, resembled white rose-bushes. The breeze rocked the aerial cradles with an almost imperceptible motion; the mothers rose from time to time to see that their children were asleep, and had not been woken by the birds. It was ten miles or so from the Indian village to the falls: it took me and my guide half as many hours to reach them. Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror on entering the wood which hid from view one of the greatest spectacles that Nature has offered mankind.

We dismounted. Leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way through heaths and copses, to the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the falls. As I was still going forward, the guide seized my arm; he arrested my course at the very edge of the water, which swept by with the speed of an arrow. It did not foam, it glided in a solid mass over the rocky slope; its silence prior to falling contrasted with the fall itself. Scripture often compares a nation to mighty waters; this was a dying nation, which robbed by agony of its voice, was hurling itself into the abyss of eternity.

The guide held me fast, for I felt drawn, so to speak, towards the flood, and had an involuntary desire to hurl myself into it. Now I gazed at the river banks upstream, now downstream at an island that separated the waters, and the point where those waters suddenly ceased, as if they had been cut off in mid-air.

After a quarter of an hour of perplexity, and an indefinable admiration, I went on to the falls. You can find the two descriptions of them I have given, in the Essai sur les révolutions, and in Atala. Today, wide highways lead to the cataract; there are inns on the American side, and the British, and mills and factories below the chasm.

I cannot convey the thoughts that stirred in me at the sight of such sublime disorder. In the wildernesses of my early existence, I was forced to invent people to adorn them; I drew from my own substance beings I found nowhere else, that I carried within me. So I placed the remembrances of Atala and René beside Niagara Falls, as if they were an expression of its sadness. What is a cataract, falling eternally beneath the senseless gaze of earth and sky, if human nature is not there with its misfortunes and destiny? To sink into that solitude of water and mountains, and know not whom to tell of that great spectacle! The waves, rocks, woods, torrents there for itself alone! Give the soul a companion, and the smiling finery of the hills, the breath of fresh air from the flood, becomes wholly delightful: the day’s travels, the sweetest of rests at the end of the journey, the passage of the waves, sleep on a bed of moss, elicit the deepest tenderness from the heart. I seated Velléda on Armorica’s shores; Cymodocée under Athenian porticos; Blanca in the Alhambra’s halls. Alexander created cities everywhere he passed: I have left dreams everywhere I have trailed my life.

I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois, and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not ascended high enough up the Nile to view its cataracts, which are merely rapids; and I say naught of the azure zones of Terni and Tivoli, elegant settings for ruins, or subjects for the poet’s song:

Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus:
And swift Anio and the sacred groves of Tibur

Niagara eclipses them all. I considered this cataract which was revealed to the old world, not by feeble travellers of my sort, but by missionaries, who, searching the solitude for God, threw themselves on their knees at the sight of some wonder of nature, and accepted martyrdom as they ended their hymn of praise. Our priests saluted the beautiful landscapes of America, and consecrated them with their blood; our soldiers clapped their hands at the ruins of Thebes and presented arms to Andalusia: all the genius of France is in its twin militia of camp and altar.

I was holding my horse’s bridle twisted round my arm; a rattlesnake started rustling among the bushes. The frightened horse reared and backed towards the falls. I could not free my arm from the reins; the horse ever more terrified, dragged me with him. His forefeet already off the ground, on his haunches at the edge of the abyss, he held position only by the strength of his loins. It was all over with me, when the animal himself astonished by his new peril, pirouetted backwards to safety. Dying in the Canadian woods, would my soul have borne, to the supreme tribunal, sacrifices, good works, virtues like those of Père Jogues and Père Lallemand, or wasted days and wretched fantasies?

This was not the only danger I ran at Niagara: a ladder of creepers allowed the savages to climb down to the lower basin; it was broken. Wishing to view the falls from below, I ventured, despite my guide’s protests, onto the flank of an almost perpendicular rock. In spite of the roar of the water foaming below me, I kept my head and got to within forty feet of the bottom. At that point, the stone being bare and vertical, offered me no foothold; I remained clutching a last root with one hand, feeling my fingers opening under the weight of my body: few men have spent two minutes such as I counted then. My weary hand let go: I fell. By extraordinary good luck, I found myself on the edge of a rock, on which I should have been smashed to a thousand pieces, without feeling myself greatly injured; I was a few inches from the abyss, and had not rolled into it; but when the cold and damp began to penetrate I saw that I had not escaped so lightly: I had broken my left arm above the elbow. The guide, who could see me from above and to whom I made signs of distress, ran to find the savages. They hoisted me up with ropes by an otters’ path, and carried me to their village. I had only a simple fracture: a pair of splints, a bandage, and a sling, was sufficient for my cure.