Francois René de Chateaubriand ~ Atala

DGG fur DMdJI. The Song of Death

“It is surely a singular fate,” said the old, blind Red Indian chief to the young Frenchman, “which has brought us together from the ends of the earth. I see in you a civilised man, who, for some strange reason, wishes to become a savage. You see in me a savage, who, also for some strange reason, has tried to become a civilised man. Though we have entered on life from two opposite points, here we are, sitting side by side. And I, a childless man, have sworn to be a father to you, and you, a fatherless boy, have sworn to be a son to me.”

Chactas, the chief of the Natchez, and René, the Frenchman, whom he had adopted into his tribe, were sitting at the prow of a pirogue, which, with its sail of sewn skins outstretched to the night wind, was gliding down the moonlit waters of the Ohio, amid the magnificent desert of Kentucky. Behind them was a fleet of pirogues, which René was piloting on a hunting foray. Seeing that all the Indians were sleeping, Chactas went on talking to his adopted son.

“How little, even now, we know of each other, René. You never told me what it was that made you leave France in 1725, and come to Louisiana, and ask to be admitted to our tribe. I have never told you why I have not married and got children to succeed me, and help me in my old age to govern my people.

“It is now seventy-three years since my mother brought me into the world on the banks of the Mississippi. In 1652 there were a few Spaniards settled in the bay of Pensacola, but no white man was then seen in Louisiana. I was scarcely seventeen years old when I fought with my father, the famous warrior Outalissi, against the Creeks of Florida. We were then allied with the Spaniards, but, in spite of the help they gave us, we were defeated. My father was killed, and I was grievously wounded. Oh, why did I then not descend into the land of the dead? Happy indeed should I have been had I thus escaped from the fate which was waiting for me on earth!

“But one of our allies, an old Castilian, named Lopez, moved by my youth and simplicity, rescued me in the battle and led me to the town of St. Augustin, which his countrymen had recently built. My benefactor took me to his home, and he and his sister adopted me as their son, and tried to teach me their knowledge and religion. But after passing thirteen months at St. Augustin I was seized with a disgust for town life. The city seemed to me a prison, and I longed to get back to the wild life of my fathers. At last I resolved to return to my tribe, and one morning I came to Lopez, clad in the dress of the Natchez, with bow and arrows in one hand, and a tomahawk in the other.

“‘Oh, my father,’ I said to him, my face streaming with tears, ‘I shall die if I stay in this city. I am an Indian, and I must live like an Indian.’

“Lopez tried to detain me by pointing out the peril I was running. But I already knew that in order to join the Natchez I should have to pass through the country of the Creeks, and might fall into the hands of our old enemies; and this did not deter me. At last, Lopez, seeing how resolute I was, said, ‘Go, my boy, and God be with you! Were I only younger, I, too, would return with you to the wilderness, where the happiest part of my life was spent. But when you get back to the forest, think sometimes of the old Spaniard of St. Augustin, and if ever a white man falls into your hands, treat him, my son, as I have treated you.’

“It was not long, René, before I was punished for my ingratitude in running away from my protector. I had forgotten in the city my knowledge of wood-craft, and I lost my way in the great forest, and was captured by a band of Creeks. My costume and the feathers in my hair proclaimed me one of the Natchez, and when Simaghan, the chief of the band, bound me, and demanded who I was, I proudly answered. ‘I am Chactas, the son of the Outalissi who took more than a hundred scalps from the warriors of the Creeks.’

“‘Chactas, son of Outalissi,’ said Simaghan, ‘rejoice! We will burn you before our wig-wams.’

“‘That is good news,’ I said, and thereupon I sang my song of death.

“Although the Creeks were my enemies, I could not help admiring them. They were fine, handsome men of a merry and open nature, and their women were beautiful, and full of pity towards me. One night, while I was lying sleepless beside their camp fire, one of their maidens came and sat by my side. Her face was strangely lovely; her eyes shone with tears; and a little golden crucifix on her bosom glittered as the firelight played upon it.

“‘Maiden,’ I said, ‘your beauty is too great to be wasted on a dying man. Let me die without tasting the delights of love. They would only make death more bitter to me. You are worthy to be the squaw of a great chief. Wait till you can find a lover with whom you can live in joy and happiness all your life.’

“‘Are you a Christian?’ asked the maiden.

“‘No,’ I replied. ‘I have not betrayed the faith of my forefathers.’

“‘Oh, you are only a wicked heathen,’ she exclaimed, covering her face with her hands and weeping. ‘I have been baptised by my mother. I am Atala, daughter of Simaghan of the golden bracelets, and the chief of this band. We are going to Cuscowilla, where you will be burnt.’

“And with a look of anger, Atala rose up and went away.”

Here Chactas for a moment became silent. Tears rolled from his blind eyes down his withered cheeks.

“Oh René, my son,” he said, “you see that Chactas is very foolish in spite of his reputation for wisdom! Why do men still weep, even when age has blinded their eyes? Every night Atala came to see me, and a strange love for her was born in my heart. After marching for seventeen days, my captors brought me to the great savannah of Alachua, and camped in a valley not far from Cuscowilla, the capital of the Creeks. I was bound to the foot of a tree outside the town, and a warrior was set to watch over me.

“But in the evening Atala came, and said to him, ‘If you would like to go hunting, I will look after the prisoner.’

“The young warrior leaped up, full of joy at being relieved by the daughter of his chief, and when he had gone, Atala released me.

“‘Now, Chactas,’ she murmured, turning her face away from me, ‘you can escape.’

“‘I do not want to escape,’ I cried, ‘unless I can escape with you!’

“‘But they will burn you,’ she said. ‘They will burn you to-morrow!’

“‘What does it matter,’ I exclaimed, ‘if you do not love me?’

“‘But I do love you,’ said Atala, and she bent over and kissed me.

“Then with a wild look of terror, she pushed me away from her, and staggering up to the tree, she covered her face with her hands, and sobbed, rocking herself to and fro in her grief.

“‘Oh, my mother, my mother!’ she sobbed. ‘I have forgotten my vow. I cannot follow you,’ she said, turning to me. ‘You are not a Christian.’

“‘But I will be a Christian,’ I cried. ‘Only come with me, Atala, and I will be baptised by the first priest that we meet. There are several missionaries among the Natchez.’

“To my utter astonishment, instead of this comforting Atala, it only made her weep more passionately. Her body shook with sobs as I took her up in my arms and carried her away from the town into the great forest. At last she grew calmer, and asked me to set her down, and, striking a narrow track between the dark trees, we marched along silently and quickly, stopping now and then to listen if we were being followed. We heard nothing but the crackling tread of some nocturnal beast of prey, or the cry of some animal in the agony of death. On coming to an opening in the forest I made a shelter for the night. Atala then threw herself at my feet, and clasped my knees, and again begged me to leave her. But I swore that, if she returned to the camp, I would follow her, and give myself up. As we were talking, the cry of death rang through the forest, and four warriors fell upon me and bound me. Our flight had been discovered, and Simaghan had set out in pursuit with all his band.

“In vain did Atala plead for me; I was condemned to be burnt. Happily, the Feast of Souls was being held, and no tribe dares to kill a captive during the days consecrated to this solemn ceremony. But after the feast I was bound down on the ground before the sacred totem pillars, and all the maidens and warriors of the Creek nation danced around me, chanting songs of triumph. Again I sang my song of death.

“‘I do not fear your torments! For I am brave! I defy you, for you are all weaker than women. My father, Outalissi, has drunk from the skulls of your bravest warriors. Burn me! Torture me! But you will not make me groan; you will not make me sigh.’

“Angered by my song, a Creek warrior stabbed me in the arm. ‘Thank you,’ I said.

“To make sure that I should not again escape, they bound cords around my neck and feet and arms; the ends of these cords were fastened in the earth by means of pegs, and a band of warriors set to watch over me laid down on the cords, so that I could not make a single movement of which they were not aware. The songs and dances gradually ceased as night came on, and the camp fires burnt low and red, and, in spite of my pain, I, too, fell asleep. I dreamt that someone was setting me free, and I seemed to feel that sharp anguish which shoots along the nerves when ropes, which are bound so tightly as to stop the flow of blood, are suddenly cut from the numbed limbs. The pain became so keen that it made me open my eyes. A tall, white figure was bending over me, silently cutting my cords. It was Atala. I rose up and followed her through the sleeping camp.

“When we were out of ear-shot she told me that she had bribed the medicine man of her tribe, and brought some barrels of fire-water into the camp and made all the warriors drunk with it. Drunkenness, no doubt, prevented the Creeks from following us for a day or two. And if afterwards they pursued us, they probably turned to the west, thinking that we had set out in the direction of the country of Natchez. But we had gone north, tracking our way by the moss growing on the trunks of the trees.”

II. The Magic of the Forest

“The Creeks had stripped me almost naked, but Atala made me a dress out of the inner bark of the ash-tree and sewed some rat-skins into moccasins. I, in turn, wove garlands of flowers for her head as we tramped along through the great forests of Florida. Oh, how wildly beautiful the scenes were through which we passed. Nearly all the trees in Florida are covered with a white moss which hangs from their branches to the ground. At night-time, when the moonlight falls, pearly grey, on the indeterminate crest of the forests, the trees look like an army of phantoms in long, trailing veils. In the daytime a crowd of large, beautiful butterflies, brilliant humming birds, and blue-winged jays and parroquets come and cling to the moss, which then resembles a white tapestry embroidered with splendid and varied hues.

“Every evening we made a great fire and built a shelter out of a large hollow piece of bark, fixed on four stakes. The forests were full of game, which I easily brought down with the bow and arrows I took when we fled from the camp, and as it was now autumn, the forests were hung with fruit. Every day I became more and more joyful, but Atala was strangely quiet. Sometimes, as I suddenly turned my head to see why she was so silent, I would find her gazing at me, her eyes burning with passion. Sometimes she would kneel down, and clasp her hands in prayer and weep like a woman with a broken heart. What frightened me above all was the secret thought that she tried to conceal in the depths of her soul, but, now and then, half revealed in her wild, sorrowful, and lovely eyes. Oh, how many times did she tell me:

“‘Yes, I love you, Chactas, I love you! But I can never be your wife!’

“I could not understand her. One minute she would cling round my neck and kiss me; another, when I wished in turn to caress her, she would repulse me.

“‘But as I intend, Atala, to become a Christian, what is there to prevent us marrying?’ I said, again and again.

“And every time I asked this question she burst into tears and would not answer. But the wild loneliness, the continual presence of my beloved, yes, even the hardships of our wandering life, increased the force of my longing. A hundred times I was ready to fold Atala to my breast. A hundred times I proposed to build her a hut in the wide, uninhabited wilderness, and live my life out there by her side.

“Oh, René, my son, if your heart is ever deeply troubled by love, beware of loneliness. Great passions are wild and solitary things; by transporting them into the wilderness you give them full power over your soul. But in spite of this, Atala and I lived together in the great forests like brother and sister. On and on we marched, through vaults of flowery smilax, where lianas with strange and gorgeous blossoms snared our feet in their twining ropy stems. Enormous bats fluttered in our faces, rattlesnakes rattled around us, and bears and carcajous–those little tigers that crouch on the branches of trees, and leap without warning on their prey–made the latter part of our journey full of strange perils and difficulties. For after travelling for twenty-seven days, we crossed the Alleghany mountains, and got into a tract of swampy, wooded ground.

“At sunset a tempest arose and darkened all the heavens. Then the sky opened, and the noise of the tempestuous forest was drowned in long, rolling detonations of thunder, and the wild lightning flamed down upon us, and set the forest on fire. Crouching down under the bent trunk of a birch-tree, with my beloved on my lap, I sheltered her from the streaming rain, and warmed her naked feet in my hands. What cared I, though the very heavens broke above me, and the earth rocked to its foundations? The soft, warm arms of Atala were around my neck, her breast lay against my breast, and I felt her heart beating as wildly as my own.

“‘O my beloved,’ I said, ‘open your heart to me, and tell me the secret that makes you so sorrowful. Do you weep at leaving your native land?’

“‘No,’ she said. ‘I do not regret leaving the land of palm trees, for my mother is dead, and Simaghan was only my foster father.’

“‘Then who was your father, my beloved?’ I cried in astonishment.

“‘My father was a Spaniard,’ said Atala, ‘but my grandmother threw water in his face, and made him go away, and she then forced my mother to give herself in marriage to Simaghan, who desired her. But she died from grief at being parted from my father, and Simaghan adopted me as his own daughter. I have never seen my father, though my mother, before she died, baptised me, so that his God should be my God. Oh, Chactas, I wish I could see my father before I die!’

“‘What is his name?’ I said. ‘Where does he live?’

“‘He lives at St. Augustin,’ she replied. ‘His name is Philip Lopez.’

“‘O, my beloved,’ I cried, pressing Atala wildly to may breast. ‘Oh, what happiness, what joy! You are the daughter of Lopez, the daughter of my foster father!’

“Atala was frightened at my outburst of passion, but when she knew that it was her father who had rescued me from the Creeks, and brought me up as his own son, she became as wildly joyful as I was. Rising up from my arms, with a strange, fierce, and yet tender light in her eyes, she took something out of her bosom and put in her mouth, and then fell on my breast in an ecstasy of self-surrender. Just as I was about to embrace her, the lightning fell, the sword of God, upon the surging, stormy forest, and made a wild and terrible radiance around us, and shattered a great tree at our feet. We rose up, overcome by a sacred horror, and fled. And then an even more miraculous thing happened. As the rolling thunder died away we heard in the silence and the darkness the sound of a bell. A dog barked, and came running joyfully up to us. Behind him was an old, white-haired priest, carrying a lantern in his hand.

“‘Dear God!’ said the priest. ‘How young they are! Poor children! My dog found you in the forest just before the storm broke, and ran back to my cave to fetch me. I have brought some wine in my calabash. Drink it, it will revive you. Did you not hear the mission bell, which we ring every night so that strangers may find their way?’

“‘Save me, father, save me!’ cried Atala, falling to the ground. ‘I am a Christian, and I do not want to die in mortal sin.’

“What was the matter with her? She was as pale as death, and unable to rise. I bent over her, and so did the missionary.

“‘Oh, Chactas,’ she murmured, ‘I am dying. Just before the lightning struck the tree at our feet, I took some poison. For I felt that I could no longer resist you, my beloved, and I was resolved to save myself in death.’

“‘But here is a priest,’ I said. ‘I will be baptised at once, and we can be married immediately afterwards.’

“‘I could not marry you, even then,’ she said. ‘I was sixteen years old when my mother died, and in order to preserve me from marrying any of the heathen savages among whom my lot was cast, she made me vow, on the image of Mary the Mother of my God, that I would remain all my life a pure, Christian virgin.’

“Oh, René, how I hated the God of the Christians at that moment! I drew my tomahawk, resolved to kill the missionary on the spot. But disregarding me, he bent over Atala, and raised her head upon his knees.

“‘My dear child, your vow does not prevent you from marrying your lover, especially as he is willing to become a Christian. I will write at once to the Bishop of Quebec, who has the power to relieve you of any vow that you have made, and then there will be nothing to prevent your marriage.’

“As he spoke, Atala was seized with a convulsion which shook all her body. In wild agony, she cried: ‘Oh, it is too late, it is too late! I thought my mother’s spirit would come and drag me down to hell if I broke my vow. I took poison with me, Chactas, when I fled with you. I have just swallowed it. There is no remedy. Oh, God! Oh, God!’

“She was dead in my arms. I buried her where she died, and had it not been for the missionary, René, I would have laid down in the grave, by her side, and let the blood well out of all my veins. But I became a Christian, as you know, and then, finding some work in the world to do, I went back to my own tribe, and converted them. I have been to France. I have seen your great king Louis XIV. I have talked with Bishop Bossuet, and it was he who convinced me that I could best serve God by returning to my own people, the Natchez, and trying to form them into a great Christian nation under the guidance of the King of France.”



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