Read CHAPTER XIV of Their Pilgrimage , free online book, by Charles Dudley Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

NIAGARA

In the car for Niagara was an Englishman of the receptive, guileless, thin type, inquisitive and overflowing with approval of everything American a type which has now become one of the common features of travel in this country. He had light hair, sandy side-whiskers, a face that looked as if it had been scrubbed with soap and sandpaper, and he wore a sickly yellow traveling-suit. He was accompanied by his wife, a stout, resolute matron, in heavy boots, a sensible stuff gown, with a lot of cotton lace fudged about her neck, and a broad brimmed hat with a vegetable garden on top. The little man was always in pursuit of information, in his guide-book or from his fellow-passengers, and whenever he obtained any he invariably repeated it to his wife, who said “Fancy!” and “Now, really!” in a rising inflection that expressed surprise and expectation.

The conceited American, who commonly draws himself into a shell when he travels, and affects indifference, and seems to be losing all natural curiosity, receptivity, and the power of observation, is pretty certain to undervalue the intelligence of this class of English travelers, and get amusement out of their peculiarities instead of learning from them how to make everyday of life interesting. Even King, who, besides his national crust of exclusiveness, was today wrapped in the gloom of Irene’s letter, was gradually drawn to these simple, unpretending people. He took for granted their ignorance of America ignorance of America being one of the branches taught in the English schools and he soon discovered that they were citizens of the world. They not only knew the Continent very well, but they had spent a winter in Egypt, lived a year in India, and seen something of China and much of Japan. Although they had been scarcely a fortnight in the United States, King doubted if there were ten women in the State of New York, not professional teachers, who knew as much of the flora of the country as this plain-featured, rich-voiced woman. They called King’s attention to a great many features of the landscape he had never noticed before, and asked him a great many questions about farming and stock and wages that he could not answer. It appeared that Mr. Stanley Stubbs, Stoke-Cruden for that was the name and address of the present discoverers of America had a herd of short-horns, and that Mrs. Stubbs was even more familiar with the herd-book than her husband. But before the fact had enabled King to settle the position of his new acquaintance satisfactorily to himself, Mrs. Stubbs upset his estimate by quoting Tennyson.

“Your great English poet is very much read here,” King said, by way of being agreeable.

“So we have heard,” replied Mrs. Stubbs. “Mr. Stubbs reads Tennyson beautifully. He has thought of giving some readings while we are here. We have been told that the Americans are very fond of readings.”

“Yes,” said King, “they are devoted to them, especially readings by Englishmen in their native tongue. There is a great rage now for everything English; at Newport hardly anything else is spoken.”

Mrs. Stubbs looked for a moment as if this might be an American joke; but there was no smile upon King’s face, and she only said, “Fancy! You must make a note of Newport, dear. That is one of the places we must see. Of course Mr. Stubbs has never read in public, you know. But I suppose that would make no difference, the Americans are so kind and so appreciative.”

“Not the least difference,” replied King. “They are used to it.”

“It is a wonderful country,” said Mr. Stubbs.

“Most interesting,” chimed in Mrs. Stubbs; “and so odd!

“You know, Mr. King, we find some of the Americans so clever. We have been surprised, really. It makes us feel quite at home. At the hotels and everywhere, most obliging.”

“Do you make a long stay?”

“Oh, no. We just want to study the people and the government, and see the principal places. We were told that Albany is the capital, instead of New York; it’s so odd, you know. And Washington is another capital. And there is Boston. It must be very confusing.” King began to suspect that he must be talking with the editor of the Saturday Review. Mr. Stubbs continued: “They told us in New York that we ought to go to Paterson on the Island of Jersey, I believe. I suppose it is as interesting as Niagara. We shall visit it on our return. But we came over more to see Niagara than anything else. And from there we shall run over to Chicago and the Yosemite. Now we are here, we could not think of going back without a look at the Yosemite.”

King said that thus far he had existed without seeing the Yosemite, but he believed that next to Chicago it was the most attractive place in the country.

It was dark when they came into the station at Niagara dark and silent. Our American tourists, who were accustomed to the clamor of the hackmen here, and expected to be assaulted by a horde of wild Comanches in plain clothes, and torn limb from baggage, if not limb from limb, were unable to account for this silence, and the absence of the common highwaymen, until they remembered that the State had bought the Falls, and the agents of the government had suppressed many of the old nuisances. It was possible now to hear the roar of the cataract.

This unaccustomed human stillness was ominous to King. He would have welcomed a Niagara of importunity and imprecations; he was bursting with impatience to express himself; it seemed as if he would die if he were silent an hour longer under that letter. Of course the usual American relief of irritability and impatience suggested itself. He would telegraph; only electricity was quick enough and fiery enough for his mood. But what should he telegraph? The telegraph was not invented for love-making, and is not adapted to it. It is ridiculous to make love by wire. How was it possible to frame a message that should be commercial on its face, and yet convey the deepest agony and devotion of the sender’s heart? King stood at the little telegraph window, looking at the despatcher who was to send it, and thought of this. Depressed and intent as he was, the whimsicality of the situation struck him. What could he say? It illustrates our sheeplike habit of expressing ourselves in the familiar phrase or popular slang of the day that at the instant the only thing King could think of to send was this: “Hold the fort, for I am coming.” The incongruity of this made him smile, and he did not write it. Finally he composed this message, which seemed to him to have a businesslike and innocent aspect: “Too late. Impossible for me to change. Have invested everything. Expect letter.” Mechanically he counted the words when he had written this. On the fair presumption that the company would send “everything” as one word, there were still two more than the conventional ten, and, from force of habit, he struck out the words “for me.” But he had no sooner done this than he felt a sense of shame. It was contemptible for a man in love to count his words, and it was intolerable to be haggling with himself at such a crisis over the expense of a despatch. He got cold over the thought that Irene might also count them, and see that the cost of this message of passion had been calculated. And with recklessness he added: “We reach the Profile House next week, and I am sure I can convince you I am right.”

King found Niagara pitched to the key of his lacerated and tumultuous feelings. There were few people at the Cataract House, and either the bridal season had not set in, or in America a bride has been evolved who does not show any consciousness of her new position. In his present mood the place seemed deserted, the figures of the few visitors gliding about as in a dream, as if they too had been subdued by the recent commission which had silenced the drivers, and stopped the mills, and made the park free, and was tearing down the presumptuous structures along the bank. In this silence, which emphasized the quaking of the earth and air, there was a sense of unknown, impending disaster. It was not to be borne indoors, and the two friends went out into the night.

On the edge of the rapids, above the hotel, the old bath-house was in process of demolition, its shaking piazza almost overhanging the flood. Not much could be seen from it, but it was in the midst of an elemental uproar. Some electric lamps shining through the trees made high lights on the crests of the rapids, while the others near were in shadow and dark. The black mass of Goat Island appeared under the lightning flashes in the northwest sky, and whenever these quick gleams pierced the gloom the frail bridge to the island was outlined for a moment, and then vanished as if it had been swept away, and there could only be seen sparks of light in the houses on the Canadian shore, which seemed very near. In this unknown, which was rather felt than seen, there was a sense of power and of mystery which overcame the mind; and in the black night the roar, the cruel haste of the rapids, tossing white gleams and hurrying to the fatal plunge, begat a sort of terror in the spectators. It was a power implacable, vengeful, not to be measured. They strolled down to Prospect Park. The gate was closed; it had been the scene of an awful tragedy but a few minutes before. They did not know it, but they knew that the air shuddered, and as they skirted the grounds along the way to the foot-bridge the roar grew in their stunned ears. There, projected out into the night, were the cables of steel holding the frail platform over the abyss of night and terror. Beyond was Canada. There was light enough in the sky to reveal, but not to dissipate, the appalling insecurity. What an impious thing it seemed to them, this trembling structure across the chasm! They advanced upon it. There were gleams on the mill cascades below, and on the mass of the American Fall. Below, down in the gloom, were patches of foam, slowly circling around in the eddy no haste now, just sullen and black satisfaction in the awful tragedy of the fall. The whole was vague, fearful. Always the roar, the shuddering of the air. I think that a man placed on this bridge at night, and ignorant of the cause of the aerial agitation and the wild uproar, could almost lose his reason in the panic of the scene. They walked on; they set foot on Her Majesty’s dominions; they entered the Clifton House quite American, you know, with its new bar and office. A subdued air about everybody here also, and the same quaking, shivering, and impending sense of irresponsible force. Even “two fingers,” said the artist, standing at the bar, had little effect in allaying the impression of the terror out there. When they returned the moon was coming up, rising and struggling and making its way slowly through ragged masses of colored clouds. The river could be plainly seen now, smooth, deep, treacherous; the falls on the American side showed fitfully like patches of light and foam; the Horseshoe, mostly hidden by a cold silver mist, occasionally loomed up a white and ghostly mass. They stood for a long time looking down at the foot of the American Fall, the moon now showing clearly the plunge of the heavy column a column as stiff as if it were melted silver-hushed and frightened by the weird and appalling scene. They did not know at that moment that there where their eyes were riveted, there at the base of the fall, a man’s body was churning about, plunged down and cast up, and beaten and whirled, imprisoned in the refluent eddy. But a body was there. In the morning a man’s overcoat was found on the parapet at the angle of the fall. Someone then remembered that in the evening, just before the park gate closed, he had seen a man approach the angle of the wall where the overcoat was found. The man was never seen after that. Night first, and then the hungry water, swallowed him. One pictures the fearful leap into the dark, the midway repentance, perhaps, the despair of the plunge. A body cast in here is likely to tarry for days, eddying round and round, and tossed in that terrible maelstrom, before a chance current ejects it, and sends it down the fierce rapids below. King went back to the hotel in a terror of the place, which did not leave him so long as he remained. His room quivered, the roar filled all the air. Is not life real and terrible enough, he asked himself, but that brides must cast this experience also into their honeymoon?

The morning light did not efface the impressions of the night, the dominating presence of a gigantic, pitiless force, a blind passion of nature, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Shut the windows and lock the door, you could not shut out the terror of it. The town did not seem safe; the bridges, the buildings on the edge of the precipices with their shaking casements, the islands, might at any moment be engulfed and disappear. It was a thing to flee from.

I suspect King was in a very sensitive mood; the world seemed for the moment devoid of human sympathy, and the savageness and turmoil played upon his bare nerves. The artist himself shrank from contact with this overpowering display, and said that he could not endure more than a day or two of it. It needed all the sunshine in the face of Miss Lamont and the serenity of her cheerful nature to make the situation tolerable, and even her sprightliness was somewhat subdued. It was a day of big, broken, high-sailing clouds, with a deep blue sky and strong sunlight. The slight bridge to Goat Island appeared more presumptuous by daylight, and the sharp slope of the rapids above it gave a new sense of the impetuosity of the torrent. As they walked slowly on, past the now abandoned paper-mills and the other human impertinences, the elemental turmoil increased, and they seemed entering a world the foundations of which were broken up. This must have been a good deal a matter of impression, for other parties of sightseers were coming and going, apparently unawed, and intent simply on visiting every point spoken of in the guide-book, and probably unconscious of the all-pervading terror. But King could not escape it, even in the throng descending and ascending the stairway to Luna Island. Standing upon the platform at the top, he realized for the first time the immense might of the downpour of the American Fall, and noted the pale green color, with here and there a violet tone, and the white cloud mass spurting out from the solid color. On the foam-crested river lay a rainbow forming nearly a complete circle. The little steamer Maid of the Mist was coming up, riding the waves, dashed here and there by conflicting currents, but resolutely steaming on such is the audacity of man and poking her venturesome nose into the boiling foam under the Horseshoe. On the deck are pigmy passengers in oil-skin suits, clumsy figures, like arctic explorers. The boat tosses about like a chip, it hesitates and quivers, and then, slowly swinging, darts away down the current, fleeing from the wrath of the waters, and pursued by the angry roar.

Surely it is an island of magic, unsubstantial, liable to go adrift and plunge into the canon. Even in the forest path, where the great tree trunks assure one of stability and long immunity, this feeling cannot be shaken off. Our party descended the winding staircase in the tower, and walked on the shelf under the mighty ledge to the entrance of the Cave of the Winds. The curtain of water covering this entrance was blown back and forth by the wind, now leaving the platform dry and now deluging it. A woman in the pathway was beckoning frantically and calling to a man who stood on the platform, entirely unconscious of danger, looking up to the green curtain and down into the boiling mist. It was Mrs. Stubbs; but she was shouting against Niagara, and her husband mistook her pantomime for gestures of wonder and admiration. Some moments passed, and then the curtain swung in, and tons of water drenched the Englishman, and for an instant hid him from sight. Then, as the curtain swung back, he was seen clinging to the handrail, sputtering and astonished at such treatment. He came up the bank dripping, and declaring that it was extraordinary, most extraordinary, but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. From this platform one looks down the narrow, slippery stairs that are lost in the boiling mist, and wonders at the daring that built these steps down into that hell, and carried the frail walk of planks over the bowlders outside the fall. A party in oil-skins, making their way there, looked like lost men and women in a Dante Inferno. The turbulent waters dashed all about them; the mist occasionally wrapped them from sight; they clung to the rails, they tried to speak to each other; their gestures seemed motions of despair. Could that be Eurydice whom the rough guide was tenderly dragging out of the hell of waters, up the stony path, that singular figure in oil-skin trousers, who disclosed a pretty face inside her hood as she emerged? One might venture into the infernal regions to rescue such a woman; but why take her there? The group of adventurers stopped a moment on the platform, with the opening into the misty cavern for a background, and the artist said that the picture was, beyond all power of the pencil, strange and fantastic. There is nothing, after all, that the human race will not dare for a new sensation.

The walk around Goat Island is probably unsurpassed in the world for wonder and beauty. The Americans have every reason to be satisfied with their share of the fall; they get nowhere one single grand view like that from the Canada side, but infinitely the deepest impression of majesty and power is obtained on Goat Island. There the spectator is in the midst of the war of nature. From the point over the Horseshoe Fall our friends, speaking not much, but more and more deeply moved, strolled along in the lovely forest, in a rural solemnity, in a local calm, almost a seclusion, except for the ever-present shuddering roar in the air. On the shore above the Horseshoe they first comprehended the breadth, the great sweep, of the rapids. The white crests of the waves in the west were coming out from under a black, lowering sky; all the foreground was in bright sunlight, dancing, sparkling, leaping, hurrying on, converging to the angle where the water becomes a deep emerald at the break and plunge. The rapids above are a series of shelves, bristling with jutting rocks and lodged trunks of trees, and the wildness of the scene is intensified by the ragged fringe of evergreens on the opposite shore.

Over the whole island the mist, rising from the caldron, drifts in spray when the wind is râble; but on this day the forest was bright and cheerful, and as the strollers went farther away from the Great Fall; the beauty of the scene began to steal away its terror. The roar was still dominant, but far off and softened, and did not crush the ear. The triple islands, the Three Sisters, in their picturesque wildness appeared like playful freaks of nature in a momentary relaxation of the savage mood. Here is the finest view of the river; to one standing on the outermost island the great flood seems tumbling out of the sky. They continued along the bank of the river. The shallow stream races by headlong, but close to the edge are numerous eddies, and places where one might step in and not be swept away. At length they reached the point where the river divides, and the water stands for an instant almost still, hesitating whether to take the Canadian or American plunge. Out a little way from the shore the waves leap and tumble, and the two currents are like race-horses parted on two ways to the goal. Just at this point the water swirls and lingers; having lost all its fierceness and haste, and spreads itself out placidly, dimpling in the sun. It may be a treacherous pause, this water may be as cruel as that which rages below and exults in catching a boat or a man and bounding with the victim over the cataract; but the calm was very grateful to the stunned and buffeted visitors; upon their jarred nerves it was like the peace of God.

“The preacher might moralize here,” said King. “Here is the parting of the ways for the young man; here is a moment of calm in which he can decide which course he will take. See, with my hand I can turn the water to Canada or to America! So momentous is the easy decision of the moment.”

“Yes,” said the artist, “your figure is perfect. Whichever side the young man takes, he goes to destruction.”

“Or,” continued King, appealing to Miss Lamont against this illogical construction, “this is the maiden at the crucial instant of choosing between two impetuous suitors.”

“You mean she will be sorry, whichever she chooses?”

“You two practical people would spoil any illustration in the world. You would divest the impressive drop of water on the mountain summit, which might go to the Atlantic or to the Pacific, of all moral character by saying that it makes no difference which ocean it falls into.”

The relief from the dread of Niagara felt at this point of peace was only temporary. The dread returned when the party approached again the turmoil of the American Fall, and fell again under the influence of the merciless haste of the flood. And there every islet, every rock, every point, has its legend of terror; here a boat lodged with a man in it, and after a day and night of vain attempts to rescue him, thousands of people saw him take the frightful leap, throwing up his arms as he went over; here a young woman slipped, and was instantly whirled away out of life; and from that point more than one dazed or frantic visitor had taken the suicidal leap. Death was so near here and so easy!

One seems in less personal peril on the Canadian side, and has more the feeling of a spectator and less that of a participant in the wild uproar. Perhaps there is more sense of force, but the majesty of the scene is relieved by a hundred shifting effects of light and color. In the afternoon, under a broken sky, the rapids above the Horseshoe reminded one of the seashore on a very stormy day. Impeded by the rocks, the flood hesitated and even ran back, as if reluctant to take the final plunge! The sienna color of the water on the table contrasted sharply with the emerald at the break of the fall. A rainbow springing out of the centre of the caldron arched clear over the American cataract, and was one moment bright and the next dimly seen through the mist, which boiled up out of the foam of waters and swayed in the wind. Through this veil darted adventurous birds, flashing their wings in the prismatic colors, and circling about as if fascinated by the awful rush and thunder. With the shifting wind and the passing clouds the scene was in perpetual change; now the American Fall was creamy white, and the mist below dark, and again the heavy mass was gray and sullen, and the mist like silver spray. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the force of nature so overpowering to the mind, and as the eye wanders from the chaos of the fall to the far horizon, where the vast rivers of rapids are poured out of the sky, one feels that this force is inexhaustible and eternal.

If our travelers expected to escape the impression they were under by driving down to the rapids and whirlpool below, they were mistaken. Nowhere is the river so terrible as where it rushes, as if maddened by its narrow bondage, through the canon. Flung down the precipice and forced into this contracted space, it fumes and tosses and rages with vindictive fury, driving on in a passion that has almost a human quality in it. Restrained by the walls of stone from being destructive, it seems to rave at its own impotence, and when it reaches the whirlpool it is like a hungry animal, returning and licking the shore for the prey it has missed. But it has not always wanted a prey. Now and again it has a wreck or a dead body to toss and fling about. Although it does not need the human element of disaster to make this canon grewsome, the keepers of the show places make the most of the late Captain Webb. So vivid were their narratives that our sympathetic party felt his presence continually, saw the strong swimmer tossed like a chip, saw him throw up his hands, saw the agony in his face at the spot where he was last seen. There are several places where he disappeared, each vouched for by credible witnesses, so that the horror of the scene is multiplied for the tourist. The late afternoon had turned gray and cold, and dashes of rain fell as our party descended to the whirlpool. As they looked over the heaped-up and foaming waters in this eddy they almost expected to see Captain Webb or the suicide of the night before circling round in the maelstrom. They came up out of the gorge silent, and drove back to the hotel full of nervous apprehension.

King found no telegram from Irene, and the place seemed to him intolerable. The artist was quite ready to go on in the morning; indeed, the whole party, although they said it was unreasonable, confessed that they were almost afraid to stay longer; the roar, the trembling, the pervading sense of a blind force and rage, inspired a nameless dread. The artist said, the next morning at the station, that he understood the feelings of Lot.