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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

“Sans Vie, Sans Amour”

By Thomas Russell Sullivan (1849–1916)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1849. Died there, 1916. Roses of Shadow. A Novel. 1885.]

THE WALK was enchanting. The air was clear and fresh with just a touch of frost in it, cool in the shadow, but very warm in the sun. In a little patch of garden before the one house upon the island, the clumps of crimson and yellow dahlias had just reached perfection. A collie dog had stretched himself out in the porch. Near by stood a middle-aged woman picking grapes from a trellis. She had in her face that same placid, saint-like expression—the look of Sister Félicienne. “It is the place,” thought Miss Gérard, and she longed to talk with her. But the woman looked at her shyly and did not speak. She walked on. The sumachs were blood-red, the maples were pink and gold; at her feet the ground was purple with great beds of wild asters. The little wood-paths running off into the wilderness were ankle-deep with fallen leaves, through which the squirrels scurried away at the sound of her step. She met no one. The rush of summer travel was over; the world and his wife had taken themselves off, and the wonderful island in all its tangled beauty was hers to enjoy alone. All around her, through the flickering leaves, the rapids leaped and shone and sung to the eternal drum, drum, drum of the cataract that thrilled her with its invisible presence. All that she could see delighted and exhilarated her. She gave herself up to this mysterious charm, lingering at every turn to draw long breaths, and to study the book that is open to all men, that no man ever learns. There was an old tree cut all over with names and dates—long-forgotten challenges to Time, some of them already blotted out by his reproving fingers. One name, high above the others, interested her. “Kenyon, 1821.” A good name, an uncommon one; she remembered it in an old romance of Hawthorne. Perhaps he had first seen it there, and had stopped in that very place to write it down. “1821.” It must have been deeply cut to endure so long. She wondered if Kenyon were still living and who he was.

She wandered down to a reedy spot on the shore, where the rapid, none the less swift for being shallow, went gliding along with hardly a ripple. For some time she watched its glassy surface and the smooth pebbles lying there just out of reach; then, turning away, she stumbled and almost fell over a rock half hidden in the yellow grass. Her eyes caught some lettering upon the stone, and she knelt down to read it. Many winters had dealt rudely with it—it was almost gone. There was no name; no date; but at last she made out these words:

  • She pondered long over this strange inscription. She had never heard of it before. Whose work was it? The old story of the hermit of the falls came back to her; if that were true, he had built his rough shelter within a stone’s throw; and but a few yards off he had gone to his death in the river, under the American Fall. Had he carved here at his own gravestone? Or had some hermit of a day, like this of hers, devoted himself to this memorial? No; the man who did that knew the ground well, and loved it as one loves a dear relation. The words would not go from her mind. “Eternal Progress!” The whole spirit of the place was there.

    She followed the path again to the outer shore of the island, till far off upon the Canadian side the familiar lines of the convent came out against the sky. At last she stood in sight of home, yet parted from it by the wide river at its fiercest point—by that scene which is the despair of all who try to paint it, either in colors or in words. There was the broken verge of the great Horseshoe, along which the water waited, as if in wonder at its own recklessness, with the shining stretch of unbroken green in it, down which nothing seemed to move. There, too, almost in the centre of the fall, and on its very edge, was the flat rock that the water never covers, even for an instant. As a child, she had often longed for the power to stand there and look down. She had known the Horseshoe well, but never well enough. For the greater fall, unlike its American fellow, permits no one to enter upon intimate relations with it, but holds itself aloof, as Jove did from Semele. From many points upon the shore it is possible to get glimpses of its far-off grandeur. At either end one may draw nearer, and lose one half of it in peering over at the other. But no man has ever seen it all and lived.

    Leaving behind her all this tumult of the waters, Miss Gérard turned off into the quiet woods, among the startled squirrels, through the thickly-strewn leaves, and over mossy logs that crumbled when she stepped upon them. Here there were no paths; but she pushed on, until she came out upon another shore, at the southern end of the island. Here a triangular shoal stretches away for a long distance, to a vanishing point where the river divides into two branches that form the American and Canadian Rapids, between which Goat Island lies. This reach of still water, hardly three feet in depth, is smooth as the water of a lake—so smooth that on that day it only lapped gently the grassy bank upon which Miss Gérard sat down to rest. There was little here to attract the eye or to divert the mind. It was a quiet nook, where one might easily drowse away an hour in a waking dream. And before long such a dream began to steal in upon Miss Gérard—a dream of her past life, in which, one by one, came trooping back, unbidden, a host of recollections, some sad, some bright; all its great events, and others so slight that they had been long forgotten….

    To-day all these forgotten things came back with strange vividness as she sat alone in sight of the very spot where her career of ingratitude had begun. An hour passed and left her still absorbed, struggling against herself in her own defence, this time with indifferent success. At last she forced herself to think of other things. She looked out over the quiet shoal to the point beyond it, where the rapid changed its course and broke into two streams; beyond that still to the distant river, that looked as calm as the water at her feet. She could see the white sail of a boat there miles away. She wondered how near the rapid it would be safe for the boat to come. What if it should venture too near and be drawn down beyond the reach of help? It would not take long. From that place to the great fall could hardly be a minute’s journey, by the river.

    The shadows were growing longer. Just one look at another place close by, and she would turn back to the hotel, and then to the ferry. It was time to go on.

    Stretching from the south shore of Goat Island straight out into the heart of the boiling rapid are three wonders of Niagara, that till lately were inaccessible—three feathery islands, known as the Three Sisters, separated from their huge brother by three chasms, over which light bridges have been thrown. Through these channels, that it is always wearing deeper, the river plunges in three sister torrents, all beautiful, yet resembling each other only faintly as sisters are wont to do. The first stream, that falls over its black rocks like a net-work of jewels, is comparatively shallow, yet it would be unsafe to set foot in it. The first island, like the others, is a jungle of pine and birch and swamp-maple, struggling up between mossy rocks and the decayed stumps of older growth. Miss Gérard did not wait here long, for just at the end of the bridge she found an artist sketching. She remembered his face at the hotel, and perhaps he remembered hers, for he eyed it curiously over his easel. She went on over the second torrent, which breaks into a bar of foam above the bridge and tumbles all in a heap below. Queer little bits of rainbow play about the foaming places, but if looked for twice are not to be found. She watched for them a moment or two, and then followed the path along over the middle isle to its farther shore, where some wooden steps lead down to the rocks below the last bridge. She was well out into the river, and this was the point she wanted. Here she seated herself close upon the brink of the third torrent, which is deeper and wider and wilder than the others. As she looked up at it, the water formed for her its broken horizon line against the sky, and seemed to come tearing down out of the blue distance, as if all the evil spirits of Baron Fouqué were struggling and snarling in it for the mastery. It was of all colors from bottle-green to black; and, at its lowest point, the water was lashed into showers of drops, tossed high into the air and glittering like bits of ice. The gulf is perhaps thirty yards in width, and beyond it lies the narrow strip of the outer island; beyond that, the great Canadian Rapid stretches away like the sea, but more terrible than the sea, because of its reckless onward movement that never slackens, that no human force can stem or resist even for a single instant. Far out in this fearful current, a great, broken globe of foam rises and falls incessantly above the highest waves. This column of water, which has been named the Leaping Rock, seems to nod and beckon with uncouth gestures, as though there were life imprisoned in it. To Miss Gérard, in childhood, it had been the embodiment of Kühleborn, the evil genius of the story of Undine. She had watched it often from her window; it had been a real thing to her then, and she half believed that its frantic motions had some hidden meaning in them that could be learned. To-day, she looked at it again and shuddered.

    All around her the noise was deafening. The water at her feet was of the purest green, so beautiful that it was hard to believe death lurked in it. Down the river, a few hundred yards to the north, this same color repeated itself in a clear, glassy line—the brink of the Horseshoe—where all this rush and roar of water seemed to end quietly without a murmur or a ripple. And the convent had come in sight again; it made a dark blot there on the western sky. That was her goal. It looked not unlike a prison. It was a grim rest, after all, that awaited her behind those stone walls. Was it worth while to come so far and gain so little? She shook her head and sighed.

    Then the past came rushing back with all its bitter memories, its charges that she knew were just. They could not be denied, they would not be forgotten. The cross! Ah, the cross! If she had only not stolen it; if, having stolen it, she had only sent it back in answer to her sister’s letter! And her course with Mr. Musgrave—how she had deceived him! She had been false as the water there—as cold and cruel and heartless as that smiling rapid. How she had lied over and over again to him and to Gilbert Marvin! Marvin! Ah, there was a despairing thought! She had been so near to real happiness. In another moment she believed he would have spoken. Then all these wrongs might have been set right. Her love for him was so far above all other influences she had ever known, that in time it must have changed her nature, and given her the power to make atonement for every sin she had committed. How, she did not know; but in that way peace of mind would have surely come. And now she had shut the door upon the world. Well, it had treated her harshly. Why had she been made to suffer and endure so much? She had not asked for life—it was all a mistake; and yet, perhaps, she had fifty years to live.

    A white sea-gull soared along overhead. How strange to see him there so far from home! She watched him as he flew northward toward Lake Ontario. “He will drop down there,” she thought, “upon some gentle wave, fold his wings and rest.” And for her there was no rest. She could never stay in the convent. While life lasted, through all those fifty years, the eternal struggle must go on. She was like the rapid.

    She looked down at it; the spray was flying over her, the water was within reach of her hand. She knew every turn of it well. It had a dreadful beauty, like that of Medusa and the Sirens; their danger, too. To watch and listen there gave one a longing to leap into it. It held her now with an impression of enchanting loveliness, of power and of cruelty. It was merciless, irresistible.

    “Sans vie, sans amour!” Yes, she was like the rapid. Then, why not one with it? Why not yield to this new impulse, make the plunge, and become a part of that inexorable force that seemed to draw her down? One little moment would spare her all the weariness of living. “It is only putting one’s foot into cold water,” she thought. She caught up a twig and tossed it into the foam. “Just there—it would be just there!” she said aloud; and before she spoke the twig was out of sight.

    An old tree grew on the very edge, throwing one great lower limb out over the water. She leaped up and ran along it, ready to throw herself headlong. She waited a second too long and could not do it. “No, I dare not,” she cried; “I am not fit to die so. I must live—live and pray!” She started back along the branch; there came a crash, and she knew that it had broken. Then, with a wild shriek that her own ears hardly caught above the mocking uproar that surrounded her, she fell through the shining water-drops—and was gone.

    They never found her. Hours afterward, when she was missed, the artist remembered that she had passed him on the way to the outer islands, and that he had not noticed her return. A search revealed the broken branch and a footprint or two, from which her death and the manner of it were surmised. The story passed into the folk-lore of the place; and to this day the queer, amphibious guides to the ledge below the Horseshoe whisper of a sunless cavern, where her bones are said to lie with the water dripping over them, turned into stone so hard that not Niagara itself can ever soften it or wear it away. And on through all the years go those foaming ridges, howling like fiends, lashing the dark cliffs, sweeping round the great whirlpool and still pressing forward in eternal progress.

    Eternal Progress! Yes. But it leads on through an Eternal Peace in the depths of the great lake, where the white-winged sea-gull settled down. And the waters there are as blue as the wide arch of Heaven.