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A short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My Visit To Niagara

Title:     My Visit To Niagara
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne [More Titles by Hawthorne]

Never did a pilgrim approach Niagara with deeper enthusiasm than mine.
I had lingered away from it, and wandered to other scenes, because my
treasury of anticipated enjoyments, comprising all the wonders of the
world, had nothing else so magnificent, and I was loath to exchange the
pleasures of hope for those of memory so soon. At length the day came.
The stage-coach, with a Frenchman and myself on the back seat, had
already left Lewiston, and in less than an hour would set us down in
Manchester. I began to listen for the roar of the cataract, and
trembled with a sensation like dread, as the moment drew nigh, when its
voice of ages must roll, for the first time, on my ear. The French
gentleman stretched himself from the window, and expressed loud
admiration, while, by a sudden impulse, I threw myself back and closed
my eyes. When the scene shut in, I was glad to think, that for me the
whole burst of Niagara was yet in futurity. We rolled on, and entered
the village of Manchester, bordering on the falls.

I am quite ashamed of myself here. Not that I ran, like a madman to the
falls, and plunged into the thickest of the spray,--never stopping to
breathe, till breathing was impossible: not that I committed this, or
any other suitable extravagance. On the contrary, I alighted with
perfect decency and composure, gave my cloak to the black waiter,
pointed out my baggage, and inquired, not the nearest way to the
cataract, but about the dinner-hour. The interval was spent in
arranging my dress. Within the last fifteen minutes, my mind had grown
strangely benumbed, and my spirits apathetic, with a slight depression,
not decided enough to be termed sadness. My enthusiasm was in a
deathlike slumber. Without aspiring to immortality, as he did, I could
have imitated that English traveller, who turned back from the point
where he first heard the thunder of Niagara, after crossing the ocean to
behold it. Many a Western trader, by the by, has performed a similar
act of heroism with more heroic simplicity, deeming it no such wonderful
feat to dine at the hotel and resume his route to Buffalo or Lewiston,
while the cataract was roaring unseen.

Such has often been my apathy, when objects, long sought, and earnestly
desired, were placed within my reach. After dinner--at which an
unwonted and perverse epicurism detained me longer than usual--I lighted
a cigar and paced the piazza, minutely attentive to the aspect and
business of a very ordinary village. Finally, with reluctant step, and
the feeling of an intruder, I walked towards Goat Island. At the
tollhouse, there were further excuses for delaying the inevitable
moment. My signature was required in a huge ledger, containing similar
records innumerable, many of which I read. The skin of a great
sturgeon, and other fishes, beasts, and reptiles; a collection of
minerals, such as lie in heaps near the falls; some Indian moccasins,
and other trifles, made of deer-skin and embroidered with beads; several
newspapers from Montreal, New York, and Boston;--all attracted me in
turn. Out of a number of twisted sticks, the manufacture of a Tuscarora
Indian, I selected one of curled maple, curiously convoluted, and
adorned with the carved images of a snake and a fish. Using this as my
pilgrim's staff, I crossed the bridge. Above and below me were the
rapids, a river of impetuous snow, with here and there a dark rock amid
its whiteness, resisting all the physical fury, as any cold spirit did
the moral influences of the scene. On reaching Goat Island, which
separates the two great segments of the falls, I chose the right-hand
path, and followed it to the edge of the American cascade. There, while
the falling sheet was yet invisible, I saw the vapor that never
vanishes, and the Eternal Rainbow of Niagara.

It was an afternoon of glorious sunshine, without a cloud, save those of
the cataracts. I gained an insulated rock, and beheld a broad sheet of
brilliant and unbroken foam, not shooting in a curved line from the top
of the precipice, but falling headlong down from height to depth. A
narrow stream diverged from the main branch, and hurried over the crag
by a channel of its own, leaving a little pine-clad island and a streak
of precipice, between itself and the larger sheet. Below arose the
mist, on which was painted a dazzling sun-bow with two concentric
shadows,--one, almost as perfect as the original brightness; and the
other, drawn faintly round the broken edge of the cloud.

Still I had not half seen Niagara. Following the verge of the island,
the path led me to the Horseshoe, where the real, broad St. Lawrence,
rushing along on a level with its banks, pours its whole breadth over a
concave line of precipice, and thence pursues its course between lofty
crags towards Ontario. A sort of bridge, two or three feet wide,
stretches out along the edge of the descending sheet, and hangs upon the
rising mist, as if that were the foundation of the frail structure.
Here I stationed myself in the blast of wind, which the rushing river
bore along with it. The bridge was tremulous beneath me, and marked the
tremor of the solid earth. I looked along the whitening rapids, and
endeavored to distinguish a mass of water far above the falls, to follow
it to their verge, and go down with it, in fancy, to the abyss of clouds
and storm. Casting my eyes across the river, and every side, I took in
the whole scene at a glance, and tried to comprehend it in one vast
idea. After an hour thus spent, I left the bridge, and, by a staircase,
winding almost interminably round a post, descended to the base of the
precipice. From that point, my path lay over slippery stones, and among
great fragments of the cliff, to the edge of the cataract, where the
wind at once enveloped me in spray, and perhaps dashed the rainbow round
me. Were my long desires fulfilled? And had I seen Niagara?

O that I had never heard of Niagara till I beheld it! Blessed were the
wanderers of old, who heard its deep roar, sounding through the woods,
as the summons to an unknown wonder, and approached its awful brink, in
all the freshness of native feeling. Had its own mysterious voice been
the first to warn me of its existence, then, indeed, I might have knelt
down and worshipped. But I had come thither, haunted with a vision of
foam and fury, and dizzy cliffs, and an ocean tumbling down out of the
sky,--a scene, in short, which nature had too much good taste and calm
simplicity to realize. My mind had struggled to adapt these false
conceptions to the reality, and finding the effort vain, a wretched
sense of disappointment weighed me down. I climbed the precipice, and
threw myself on the earth, feeling that I was unworthy to look at the
Great Falls, and careless about beholding them again.

All that night, as there has been and will be, for ages past and to
come, a rushing sound was heard, as if a great tempest were sweeping
through the air. It mingled with my dreams, and made them full of storm
and whirlwind. Whenever I awoke, and heard this dread sound in the air,
and the windows rattling as with a mighty blast, I could not rest again,
till looking forth, I saw how bright the stars were, and that every leaf
in the garden was motionless. Never was a summer night more calm to the
eye, nor a gale of autumn louder to the ear. The rushing sound proceeds
from the rapids, and the rattling of the casements is but an effect of
the vibration of the whole house, shaken by the jar of the cataract.
The noise of the rapids draws the attention from the true voice of
Niagara, which is a dull, muffed thunder, resounding between the cliffs.
I spent a wakeful hour at midnight, in distinguishing its
reverberations, and rejoiced to find that my former awe and enthusiasm
were reviving.

Gradually, and after much contemplation, I came to know, by my own
feelings, that Niagara is indeed a wonder of the world, and not the less
wonderful, because time and thought must be employed in comprehending
it. Casting aside all preconceived notions, and preparation to be dire-
struck or delighted, the beholder must stand beside it in the simplicity
of his heart, suffering the mighty scene to work its own impression.
Night after night, I dreamed of it, and was gladdened every morning by
the consciousness of a growing capacity to enjoy it. Yet I will not
pretend to the all-absorbing enthusiasm of some more fortunate
spectators, nor deny that very trifling causes would draw my eyes and
thoughts from the cataract.

The last day that I was to spend at Niagara, before my departure for the
Far West, I sat upon the Table Rock. This celebrated station did not
now, as of old, project fifty feet beyond the line of the precipice, but
was shattered by the fall of an immense fragment, which lay distant on
the shore below. Still, on the utmost verge of the rock, with my feet
hanging over it, I felt as if suspended in the open air. Never before
had my mind been in such perfect unison with the scene. There were
intervals, when I was conscious of nothing but the great river, rolling
calmly into the abyss, rather descending than precipitating itself, and
acquiring tenfold majesty from its unhurried motion. It came like the
march of Destiny. It was not taken by surprise, but seemed to have
anticipated, in all its course through the broad lakes, that it must
pour their collected waters down this height. The perfect foam of the
river, after its descent, and the ever-varying shapes of mist, rising
up, to become clouds in the sky, would be the very picture of confusion,
were it merely transient, like the rage of a tempest. But when the
beholder has stood awhile, and perceives no lull in the storm, and
considers that the vapor and the foam are as everlasting as the rocks
which produce them, all this turmoil assumes a sort of calmness. It
soothes, while it awes the mind.

Leaning over the cliff, I saw the guide conducting two adventurers
behind the falls. It was pleasant, from that high seat in the sunshine,
to observe them struggling against the eternal storm of the lower
regions, with heads bent down, now faltering, now pressing forward, and
finally swallowed up in their victory. After their disappearance, a
blast rushed out with an old hat, which it had swept from one of their
heads. The rock, to which they were directing their unseen course, is
marked, at a fearful distance on the exterior of the sheet, by a jet of
foam. The attempt to reach it appears both poetical and perilous to a
looker-on, but may be accomplished without much more difficulty or
hazard, than in stemming a violent northeaster. In a few moments, forth
came the children of the mist. Dripping and breathless, they crept
along the base of the cliff, ascended to the guide's cottage, and
received, I presume, a certificate of their achievement, with three
verses of sublime poetry on the back.

My contemplations were often interrupted by strangers, who came down
from Forsyth's to take their first view of the falls. A short, ruddy,
middle-aged gentleman, fresh from Old England, peeped over the rock, and
evinced his approbation by a broad grin. His spouse, a very robust
lady, afforded a sweet example of maternal solicitude, being so intent
on the safety of her little boy that she did not even glance at Niagara.
As for the child, he gave himself wholly to the enjoyment of a stick of
candy. Another traveller, a native American, and no rare character
among us, produced a volume of Captain Hall's tour, and labored
earnestly to adjust Niagara to the captain's description, departing, at
last, without one new idea or sensation of his own. The next comer was
provided, not with a printed book, but with a blank sheet of foolscap,
from top to bottom of which, by means of an ever-pointed pencil, the
cataract was made to thunder. In a little talk, which we had together,
he awarded his approbation to the general view, but censured the
position of Goat Island, observing that it should have been thrown
farther to the right, so as to widen the American falls, and contract
those of the Horseshoe. Next appeared two traders of Michigan, who
declared, that, upon the whole, the sight was worth looking at, there
certainly was an immense water-power here; but that, after all, they
would go twice as far to see the noble stone-works of Lockport, where
the Grand Canal is locked down a descent of sixty feet. They were
succeeded by a young fellow, in a homespun cotton dress, with a staff in
his hand, and a pack over his shoulders. He advanced close to the edge
of the rock, where his attention, at first wavering among the different
components of the scene, finally became fixed in the angle of the Horse
shoe falls, which is, indeed, the central point of interest. His whole
soul seemed to go forth and be transported thither, till the staff
slipped from his relaxed grasp, and falling down--down--down--struck
upon the fragment of the Table Rock.

In this manner I spent some hours, watching the varied impression, made
by the cataract, on those who disturbed me, and returning to unwearied
contemplation, when left alone. At length my time came to depart.
There is a grassy footpath, through the woods, along the summit of the
bank, to a point whence a causeway, hewn in the side of the precipice,
goes winding down to the Ferry, about half a mile below the Table Rock.
The sun was near setting, when I emerged from the shadow of the trees,
and began the descent. The indirectness of my downward road continually
changed the point of view, and showed me, in rich and repeated
succession, now, the whitening rapids and majestic leap of the main
river, which appeared more deeply massive as the light departed; now,
the lovelier picture, yet still sublime, of Goat Island, with its rocks
and grove, and the lesser falls, tumbling over the right bank of the St.
Lawrence, like a tributary stream; now, the long vista of the river, as
it eddied and whirled between the cliffs, to pass through Ontario toward
the sea, and everywhere to be wondered at, for this one unrivalled
scene. The golden sunshine tinged the sheet of the American cascade,
and painted on its heaving spray the broken semicircle of a rainbow,
heaven's own beauty crowning earth's sublimity. My steps were slow, and
I paused long at every turn of the descent, as one lingers and pauses,
who discerns a brighter and brightening excellence in what he must soon
behold no more. The solitude of the old wilderness now reigned over the
whole vicinity of the falls. My enjoyment became the more rapturous,
because no poet shared it, nor wretch devoid of poetry profaned it; but
the spot so famous through the world was all my own!

[The end]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story: My Visit To Niagara