Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VIII - Chapter 4
Two Floridian Women

London, April to September 1822.

What a delightful mother Earth is; we issue from her womb: in childhood, she holds us to her breasts swollen with milk and honey; in youth and maturity, she lavishes on us her cool waters, harvests and fruits; she offers us everywhere shade, a bath, a table, a bed; at our death, she opens her womb to us again, throwing a covering of grass and flowers over our remains, while she secretly transmutes us into her own substance, to recreate us in some graceful form. That is what I said to myself on waking, as my first glance met the sky, the canopy above my resting place.

The hunters had left for their day’s work, and I was left behind with the women and children. I never strayed far from my two wood-nymphs: the one was proud, the other sad. I understood not a word of what they said to me, nor did they understand me; but I went to fetch water for them to drink, twigs for their fire, and moss for their bed. They wore the short skirts and wide slashed sleeves of Spanish women, with Indian bodices and cloaks. Their bare legs were criss-crossed in lozenge shapes with strips of birch. They plaited their hair with garlands of flowers or threaded rushes; they strung themselves with chain and glass necklaces. In their ears hung crimson berries; they had a pretty talking parrot: the bird of Armida; they fastened it on their shoulder like an emerald, or carried it hooded at their wrist as the great ladies of the tenth century carried their hawks. To firm up their breasts and arms, they rubbed themselves with apoya or American sedge. The dancing-girls of Bengal, the bayadères, chew betel-nut, while those of the Levant, the Egyptian almes, suck the gum mastic of Chios; the Floridian women crushed, between their bluish-white teeth, tears of liquidambar and roots of libanis (alkanet), which combined the fragrances of angelica, citron, and vanilla. They lived in a perfumed atmosphere that originated from them, as orange trees and flowers do in the pure emanations of their leaves and buds. I amused myself by placing little adornments in their hair: they submitted, though slightly alarmed; sorceresses themselves, they thought I was casting a spell on them. One of them, the proud one, prayed frequently; she seemed half-Christianised to me. The other sang in a velvet voice, ending each musical phrase with a moving cry. Sometimes, they spoke sharply to each other: I thought I detected the accents of jealousy, but the sad one wept, and silence was restored.

Affected, as I was, I sought examples of affection to cheer myself. Had not Camoëns, in the Indies, loved a black slave of Barbary, and could not I in America offer homage to two young yellow-skinned Sultanas? Had not Camoëns addressed his Endechas, or lyric songs, to Barbara esclava (a barbarian slave-girl)? Did he not write?

‘A quella captiva,
Que me tem captivo,
Porque nella vivo,
Já naõ quer que viva.
Eu nunqua vi rosa
Em soaves mõlhos,
Que para meus olhos
Fosse mais formosa.
Pretidaõ de amor,
Taõ doce a figura,
Que a neve lhe jura
Que trocára a cõr.
Léda mansidaõ,
Que o siso acompanha:
Bem parece estranha,
Mas Barbara naõ.

‘This slave, who enslaves me, since I live for her, spares not my life. Never a rose in the sweetest bouquet, struck my eyes as more charming. Her dark hair inspires love; her face is so lovely the snow desires to exchange its colour with her; her gaiety is accompanied by restraint: she is a foreigner: but a barbarian, no.’

A fishing party was organised. The sun had almost set. In the foreground were sassafras, tulip-trees, catalpas, and oaks from whose boughs hung skeins of white moss. In the near background rose the most delightful of trees, the papaw, that might have been taken for a stylus of chased silver, topped by a Corinthian urn. In the far background balsam-trees, magnolias and liquidambars proliferated.

The sun sank behind this scene: a ray fell across the domed crown of a group of tall trees, shedding its glow like a mounted ruby through the sombre foliage; the light spread among the trees and branches, throwing divergent columns and mobile arabesques on the grass. Below, were lilacs, azaleas, annulated creepers, in gigantic sprays; above, clouds, some stationary promontories or ancient turrets, others floating by, as pink smoke or silken flakes. In successive transformations, one saw furnaces gape open in these clouds, heaped piles of embers, flowing rivers of lava: all was brilliant, radiant, gilded, opulent, and saturated with light.

After the insurrection in the Morea in 1770, families of Greeks fled to Florida: they might have believed themselves still in that Ionian climate, which seems to be softened by human passions: at Smyrna, in the evening, nature sleeps like a courtesan wearied by love.

To our right were ruins belonging to the great fortified mounds found on the Ohio, to our left an ancient camp of savages; the island on which we stood, fixed in the water, and reproduced by a mirage, hovered before us in double perspective. In the east, the moon rested on distant hills; in the west the sky’s vault had melted into a sea of diamonds and sapphires, in which the sun half-buried, seemed to dissolve. The creatures of creation kept watch; the earth in adoration seemed to scatter incense over the sky, and the perfume of ambergris she exhaled from her breast fell back towards her as dew, as prayers descend again over those who pray.

Abandoned by my companions, I rested beside a mass of trees: its shadows, glazed with light, formed a penumbra in which I sat. Fireflies shone among the dark shrubs, and were eclipsed when they passed through the moonbeams. The sound of the lake ebbing and flowing could be heard, the golden fish leaping, and the occasional cry of a diving-bird. My gaze was fixed on the water; I gradually slid into that drowsiness familiar to those who travel the world’s highways: I lost all clarity of recollection; I felt myself to be living and vegetating with nature in a kind of pantheism. I leant against the trunk of a magnolia tree and fell asleep; my repose floated on some vague depth of hope.

When I emerged from this Lethe, I found myself between two women; the odalisques had returned; they had not wished to wake me, and had seated themselves silently by my side; then either feigning sleep, or really falling into a doze, their heads had drooped onto my shoulders.

A breeze blew through the grove and deluged us with a shower of magnolia petals. Then the younger of the Seminoles began to sing: if a man is unsure of himself he should never allow himself to be exposed to such temptation! One cannot say what passion may penetrate his heart with the melody. A harsh jealous voice responded to this voice: a Burnt-wood called to the two cousins; they started, and rose: dawn was beginning to break.

Though lacking Aspasia, I have often repeated this scene on the shores of Greece: climbing at dawn to the colonnade of the Parthenon, I have seen Mount Cithaeron, Mount Hymettus, the Acropolis of Corinth, the tombs and ruins bathed in a golden dewy light, transparent and shimmering, reflected by the waters, and wafted on the breezes from Salamis and Delos like perfume.

We finished our wordless voyage on the bank. At noon, we struck camp to visit and examine the horses that the Creeks wished to sell and the traders to buy. Women and children, all were summoned as witnesses, according to the custom of these solemn transactions. Stallions of every age and colour, foals and mares, and also bulls, cows and heifers, began racing and galloping around us. In the confusion, I was separated from the Creeks. A dense crowd of men and horses collected at the edge of a wood. Suddenly, I recognised my two Floridians amongst them; vigorous arms were seating them on the cruppers of two Barbary horses ridden bareback by a Burnt-Wood and a Seminole. O Cid! If only I had possessed your swift Babieca to rejoin them! The mares took flight, and the vast squadron followed suit. The horses galloped, reared and bounded, neighing among the horns of bulls and buffalos, their hoofs clashing in mid-air, bloodstained manes and tails flying. A whirlwind of ravenous insects enveloped this wild cavalry circle. My Floridians disappeared from view, as Ceres’ daughter vanished, snatched away by the god of the underworld.

That is how everything in my life proves abortive, and why nothing is left to me but images of what has flashed by: I will descend to the Elysian Fields with more shades than any man has ever taken with him. The fault lies in my character: I do not know how to profit from good fortune; I am not interested in anything which interests others. Except in religion, I have no beliefs. Shepherd or king, what would I have done with a sceptre or a crook? I would have grown equally tired of glory or genius, work or leisure, prosperity or misfortune. Everything wearies me: I can scarcely drag my ennui through the days, and everywhere I go I yawn away my life.