Mark Twain | Niagara

Publicat deMadalina Marcu

From “Sketches New and Old”, Copyright 1903, Samuel Clemens.
This text is placed in the Public Domain (May 1993).

(Written about 1871.)

Niagara

NIAGARA FALLS is a most enjoyable place of
resort. The hotels are excellent, and the
prices not at all exorbitant. The opportunities for
fishing are not surpassed in the country; in fact,
they are not even equaled elsewhere. Because, in
other localities, certain places in the streams are
much better than others; but at Niagara one place
is just as good as another, for the reason that the
fish do not bite anywhere, and so there is no use in
your walking five miles to fish, when you can de-
pend on being just as unsuccessful nearer home.
The advantages of this state of things have never
heretofore been properly placed before the public.

The weather is cool in summer, and the walks and
drives are all pleasant and none of them fatiguing.
When you start out to “do” the Falls you first
drive down about a mile, and pay a small sum for
the privilege of looking down from a precipice into
the narrowest part of the Niagara river. A rail-
way “cut” through a hill would be as comely if it
had the angry river tumbling and foaming through
its bottom. You can descend a staircase here a
hundred and fifty feet down, and stand at the edge
of the water. After you have done it, you will
wonder why you did it; but you will then be too late.

The guide will explain to you, in his blood-
curdling way, how he saw the little steamer, Maid
of the Mist, descend the fearful rapids– how first
one paddle-box was out of sight behind the raging
billows and then the other, and at what point it was
that her smokestack toppled overboard, and where
her planking began to break and part asunder–
and how she did finally live through the trip, after
accomplishing the incredible feat of traveling seven-
teen miles in six minutes, or six miles in seventeen
minutes, I have really forgotten which. But it was
very extraordinary, anyhow. It is worth the price
of admission to hear the guide tell the story nine
times in succession to different parties, and never
miss a word or alter a sentence or a gesture.

Then you drive over to Suspension Bridge, and
divide your misery between the chances of smashing
down two hundred feet into the river below, and the
chances of having the railway train overhead smash-
ing down on to you. Either possibility is discom-
forting taken by itself, but, mixed together, they
amount in the aggregate to positive unhappiness.

On the Canada side you drive along the chasm
between long ranks of photographers standing guard
behind their cameras, ready to make an ostentatious
frontispiece of you and your decaying ambulance,
and your solemn crate with a hide on it, which you
are expected to regard in the light of a horse, and a
diminished and unimportant background of sublime
Niagara; and a great many people have the incredi-
ble effrontery or the native depravity to aid and abet
this sort of crime.

Any day, in the hands of these photographers,
you may see stately pictures of papa and mamma,
Johnny and Bub and Sis, or a couple of country
cousins, all smiling vacantly, and all disposed in
studied and uncomfortable attitudes in their carriage,
and all looming up in their awe-inspiring imbecility
before the snubbed and diminished presentment of
that majestic presence whose ministering spirits are
the rainbows, whose voice is the thunder, whose
awful front is veiled in clouds, who was monarch
here dead and forgotten ages before this hackful of
small reptiles was deemed temporarily necessary to
fill a crack in the world’s unnoted myriads, and will
still be monarch here ages and decades of ages after
they shall have gathered themselves to their blood
relations, the other worms, and been mingled with
the unremembering dust.

There is no actual harm in making Niagara a
background whereon to display one’s marvelous
insignificance in a good strong light, but it requires
a sort of superhuman self-complacency to enable
one to do it.

When you have examined the stupendous Horse-
shoe Fall till you are satisfied you cannot improve
on it, you return to America by the new Suspension
Bridge, and follow up the bank to where they ex-
hibit the Cave of the Winds.

Here I followed instructions, and divested myself
of all my clothing, and put on a waterproof jacket
and overalls. This costume is picturesque, but not
beautiful. A guide, similarly dressed, led the way
down a flight of winding stairs, which wound and
wound, and still kept on winding long after the
thing ceased to be a novelty, and then terminated
long before it had begun to be a pleasure. We
were then well down under the precipice, but still
considerably above the level of the river.

We now began to creep along flimsy bridges of a
single plank, our persons shielded from destruction
by a crazy wooden railing, to which I clung with
both hands– not because I was afraid, but because
I wanted to. Presently the descent became steeper,
and the bridge flimsier, and sprays from the Ameri-
can Fall began to rain down on us in fast increasing
sheets that soon became blinding, and after that our
progress was mostly in the nature of groping. Now
a furious wind began to rush out from behind the
waterfall, which seemed determined to sweep us
from the bridge, and scatter us on the rocks and
among the torrents below. I remarked that I wanted
to go home; but it was too late. We were almost
under the monstrous wall of water thundering down
from above, and speech was in vain in the midst of
such a pitiless crash of sound.

In another moment the guide disappeared be-
hind the deluge, and, bewildered by the thunder,
driven helplessly by the wind, and smitten by the
arrowy tempest of rain, I followed. All was dark-
ness. Such a mad storming, roaring, and bellowing
of warring wind and water never crazed my ears be-
fore. I bent my head, and seemed to receive the
Atlantic on my back. The world seemed going to de-
struction. I could not see anything, the flood poured
down so savagely. I raised my head, with open
mouth, and the most of the American cataract went
down my throat. If I had sprung a leak now I had
been lost. And at this moment I discovered that
the bridge had ceased, and we must trust for a foot-
hold to the slippery and precipitous rocks. I never
was so scared before and survived it. But we got
through at last, and emerged into the open day,
where we could stand in front of the laced and
frothy and seething world of descending water, and
look at it. When I saw how much of it there was,
and how fearfully in earnest it was, I was sorry I
had gone behind it.

The noble Red Man has always been a friend and
darling of mine. I love to read about him in tales
and legends and romances. I love to read of his
inspired sagacity, and his love of the wild free life
of mountain and forest, and his general nobility of
character, and his stately metaphorical manner of
speech, and his chivalrous love for the dusky
maiden, and the picturesque pomp of his dress and
accoutrements. Especially the picturesque pomp of
his dress and accoutrements. When I found the
shops at Niagara Falls full of dainty Indian bead-
work, and stunning moccasins, and equally stunning
toy figures representing human beings who carried
their weapons in holes bored through their arms and
bodies, and had feet shaped like a pie, I was filled
with emotion. I knew that now, at last, I was going
to come face to face with the noble Red Man.

A lady clerk in a shop told me, indeed, that all
her grand array of curiosities were made by the
Indians, and that they were plenty about the Falls,
and that they were friendly, and it would not be
dangerous to speak to them. And sure enough, as
I approached the bridge leading over to Luna Island,
I came upon a noble Son of the Forest sitting under
a tree, diligently at work on a bead reticule. He
wore a slouch hat and brogans, and had a short
black pipe in his mouth. Thus does the baneful
contact with our effeminate civilization dilute the
picturesque pomp which is so natural to the Indian
when far removed from us in his native haunts. I
addressed the relic as follows:

“Is the Wawhoo-Wang-Wang of the Whack-a-
Whack happy? Does the great Speckled Thunder
sigh for the warpath, or is his heart contented with
dreaming of the dusky maiden, the Pride of the
Forest? Does the mighty Sachem yearn to drink
the blood of his enemies, or is he satisfied to make
bead reticules for the pappooses of the paleface?
Speak, sublime relic of bygone grandeur– vener-
able ruin, speak!’

The relic said:

“An’ is it mesilf, Dennis Hooligan, that ye’d be
takin’ for a dirty Injin, ye drawlin’, lanternjawed,
spider-legged divil! By the piper that played be-
fore Moses, I’ll ate ye!”

I went away from there.

By and by, in the neighborhood of the Terrapin
Tower, I came upon a gentle daughter of the
aborigines in fringed and beaded buckskin moccasins
and leggins, seated on a bench with her pretty wares
about her. She had just carved out a wooden chief
that had a strong family resemblance to a clothes-
pin, and was now boring a hole through his abdomen
to put his bow through. I hesitated a moment,
and then addressed her:

“Is the heart of the forest maiden heavy? Is
the Laughing Tadpole lonely? Does she mourn
over the extinguished council-fires of her race, and
the vanished glory of her ancestors? Or does her
sad spirit wander afar toward the hunting-grounds
whither her brave Gobbler-of-the-Lightnings is gone?
Why is my daughter silent? Has she aught against
the paleface stranger?”

The maiden said:

“Faix, an’ is it Biddy Malone ye dare to be
callin’ names? Lave this, or I’ll shy your lean
carcass over the cataract, ye sniveling blaggard!”

I adjourned from there also.

“Confound these Indians!” I said. “They told
me they were tame; but, if appearances go for
anything, I should say they were all on the war-
path.”

I made one more attempt to fraternize with them,
and only one. I came upon a camp of them
gathered in the shade of a great tree, making wam-
pum and moccasins, and addressed them in the
language of friendship:

“Noble Red Men, Braves, Grand Sachems, War
Chiefs, Squaws, and High Muck-a-Mucks, the pale-
face from the land of the setting sun greets you!
You, Beneficent Polecat– you, Devourer of Moun-
tains– you, Roaring Thundergust– you, Bully
Boy with a Glass eye– the paleface from beyond
the great waters greets you all! War and pestilence
have thinned your ranks and destroyed your once
proud nation. Poker and seven-up, and a vain
modern expense for soap, unknown to your glorious
ancestors, have depleted your purses. Appropriat-
ing, in your simplicity, the property of others has
gotten you into trouble. Misrepresenting facts, in
your simple innocence, has damaged your reputa-
tion with the soulless usurper. Trading for forty-
rod whisky, to enable you to get drunk and happy
and tomahawk your families, has played the ever-
lasting mischief with the picturesque pomp of your
dress, and here you are, in the broad light of the
nineteenth century, gotten up like the ragtag and
bobtail of the purlieus of New York. For shame!
Remember your ancestors! Recall their mighty
deeds! Remember Uncas!– and Red Jacket!–
and Hole in the Day!– and Whoopdedoodledo!
Emulate their achievements! Unfurl yourselves
under my banner, noble savages, illustrious gutter-
snipes–“

“Down wid him!” “Scoop the blaggard!”
“Burn him!” “Hang him!” “Dhround him!”

It was the quickest operation that ever was. I
simply saw a sudden flash in the air of clubs, brick-
bats, fists, bead-baskets, and moccasins– a single
flash, and they all appeared to hit me at once, and
no two of them in the same place. In the next
instant the entire tribe was upon me. They tore half
the clothes off me; they broke my arms and legs;
they gave me a thump that dented the top of my
head till it would hold coffee like a saucer; and, to
crown their disgraceful proceedings and add insult
to injury, they threw me over the Niagara Falls, and
I got wet.

About ninety or a hundred feet from the top, the
remains of my vest caught on a projecting rock, and
I was almost drowned before I could get loose. I
finally fell, and brought up in a world of white foam
at the foot of the Fall, whose celled and bubbly
masses towered up several inches above my head.
Of course I got into the eddy. I sailed round and
round in it forty-four times — chasing a chip and
gaining on it — each round trip a half mile — reach-
ing for the same bush on the bank forty-four times,
and just exactly missing it by a hair’s-breadth every
time.

At last a man walked down and sat down close to
that bush, and put a pipe in his mouth, and lit a
match, and followed me with one eye and kept the
other on the match, while he sheltered it in his
hands from the wind. Presently a puff of wind
blew it out. The next time I swept around he said:

“Got a match?”

“Yes; in my other vest. Help me out, please.”

“Not for Joe.”

When I came round again, I said:

“Excuse the seemingly impertinent curiosity of a
drowning man, but will you explain this singular
conduct of yours?”

“With pleasure. I am the coroner. Don’t hurry
on my account. I can wait for you. But I wish I
had a match.”

I said: “Take my place, and I’ll go and get you
one.

He declined. This lack of confidence on his part
created a coldness between us, and from that time
forward I avoided him. It was my idea, in case
anything happened to me, to so time the occurrence
as to throw my custom into the hands of the oppo-
sition coroner over on the American side.

At last a policeman came along, and arrested
me for disturbing the peace by yelling at people
on shore for help. The judge fined me, but I
had the advantage of him. My money was with
my pantaloons and my pantaloons were with the
Indians.

Thus I escaped. I am now lying in a very critical
condition. At least I am lying anyway– critical
or not critical. I am hurt all over, but I cannot tell
the full extent yet, because the doctor is not done
taking inventory. He will make out my manifest
this evening. However, thus far he thinks only
sixteen of my wounds are fatal. I don’t mind the
others.

Upon regaining my right mind, I said:

“It is an awful savage tribe of Indians that do
the bead work and moccasins for Niagara Falls,
doctor. Where are they from?”

“Limerick, my son.”

END.

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