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In trembling prayer she raised, that He, who saved
A better portion? Whence that voice of joy,
THE HERMIT OF NIAGARA.
ABOUT fifteen years since, in the glow of early summer, a young stranger, of pleasing countenance and person, made his appearance at Niagara. It was at first conjectured that he might be an artist, as a large portfolio, and books and musical instruments, were observed among his baggage. deeply impressed by the majesty and sublimity of the cataract and its surrounding scenery, and expressed an intention to remain a week, that he might examine it accurately. But the fascination which all minds of sensibility feel in the presence of that glorious work of the Creator, grew strongly upon him, and he was heard to say, that six weeks were inadequate to become acquainted with its outlines.
At the end of that period, he was still unable to tear himself away, and desired to "build there a tabernacle," that he might indulge both in his love of solitary musings, and of nature's sublimity. He applied for a spot upon the island of the "Three Sisters," where he might construct a cottage after his own model, which comprised, among other peculiarities, isolation, by means of a drawbridge. Circumstances forbidding a
compliance with his request, he took up his residence in an old house upon Iris Island, which he rendered as comfortable as the state of the case would admit. Here he continued about twenty months, until the intrusion of a family interrupted his recluse habits. He then quietly withdrew, and reared for himself a less commodious shelter, near Prospect Point. His simple and favorite fare of bread and milk, was readily purchased, and whenever he required other food, he preferred to prepare it with his own hands.
When bleak winter came, a cheerful fire of wood blazed upon his hearth, and by his evening lamp he beguiled the hours with the perusal of books in various languages, and with sweet music. It was almost surprising to hear, in such depth of solitude, the long-drawn, thrilling tones of the viol, or the softest melodies of the flute, gushing forth from that lowbrowed hut, or the guitar, breathing out so lightly amid the rush and thunder of the never-slumbering torrent.
Yet, though the world of letters was familiar to his mind, and the living world to his observation, for he had traveled widely, both in his native Europe and the East, he sought not association with mankind, to unfold or to increase his stores of knowledge. Those who had heard him converse, spoke with surprise and admiration of his colloquial powers, his command of language, and the spirit of eloquence that flowed from his lips. But he seldom, and sparingly, admitted this intercourse, studiously avoiding society, though there seemed in his nature nothing of moroseness or misanthropy. On the contrary, he showed kindness to even the humblest animal. Birds instinctively learned it, and freely entered his dwelling, to receive from his hands crums or seeds.
But the absorbing delight of his existence was communion with the mighty Niagara. Here, at every hour of the day or night, he might be seen, a fervent worshiper. At gray dawn he went to visit it in its fleecy vail: at high noon he banqueted on the full splendor of its glory; beneath the soft tinting of the lunar bow, he lingered, looking for the angel's wing whose pencil had painted it; and at solemn midnight, he knelt, soulsubdued, as on the footstool of Jehovah. Neither storms, nor the piercing cold of winter, prevented his visits to this great temple of his adoration.
When the frozen mists, gathering upon the lofty trees, seemed to have transmuted them to columns of alabaster; when every branch, and shrub, and spray, glittering with transparent ice, waved in the sun-beam its coronet of diamonds, he gazed, unconscious of the keen atmosphere, charmed and chained by the rainbow-cinctured cataract. His feet had worn a beaten path from his cottage thither. There was, at that time, an extension of the Terrapin Bridge, by a single shaft of timber, carried out ten feet over the fathomless abyss, where it hung tremulously, guarded only by a rude parapet. To this point he often passed and repassed, amid the darkness of night. He even took pleasure in grasping it with his hands, and thus suspending himself over the awful gulf; so much had his morbid enthusiasm learned to feel, and even to revel amid the terribly sublime.
Among his favorite daily gratifications was that of bathing. The few who interested themselves in his welfare, supposed that he pursued it to excess, and protracted it after the severity of the weather rendered it hazardous to health. He scooped out, and arranged for himself, a secluded and romantic bath, between Moss and Iris Islands. Afterward, he formed the habit of bathing below the principal fall. One bright, but rather chill day, in the month of June, 1831, a man employed about the ferry saw him go into the water, and, a long time after, observed his clothes to be still lying upon the bank.
Inquiry was made. The anxiety was but too well founded. The poor hermit had indeed taken his last bath. It was supposed that cramp might have been induced by the unwonted chill of the atmosphere or water. Still the body was not found; the depth and force of the current just below being exceedingly great. In the course of their search, they passed onward to the whirlpool. There, amid those boiling eddies, was the pallid corpse, making fearful and rapid gyrations upon the face of the black waters. At some point of suction, it suddenly plunged and disappeared. Again emerging, it was fearful to see it leap half its length above the flood, and with a face so deadly pale, play among the tossing billows, then float motionless, as if exhausted, and anon, returning to the encounter, spring, struggle, and contend, like a maniac battling with mortal foes. It was strangely painful to think that he was not permitted
to find a grave, even beneath the waters he had loved; that all the gentleness and charity of his nature should be changed by death to the fury of a madman; and that the king of terrors, who brings repose to the despot and the man of blood, should teach warfare to him who had ever worn the meekness of the lamb. For days and nights this terrible purgatory was prolonged. It was on the 21st of June that, after many efforts, they were enabled to bear the weary dead back to his desolate cottage.
There they found his faithful dog guarding the door. Heavily must the long period have worn away, while he watched for his only friend, and wondered why he delayed his coming. He scrutinized the approaching group suspiciously, and would not willingly have given them admittance, save that a low, stifled wail at length announced his intuitive knowledge of the master, whom the work of death had effectually disguised from the eyes of men.
In his chair lay the guitar, whose melody was probably the last that his ear heard on earth. There were, also, his flute and violin, his portfolio and books, scattered and open, as if recently used. On the spread table was the untasted meal for noon, which he had prepared against his return from that bath which had proved so fatal. It was a touching sight, -the dead hermit mourned by his humble retainers, the poor animals who loved him, and ready to be laid by stranger hands in a foreign grave.
So fell this singular and accomplished being, at the early age of twenty-eight. Learned in the languages, in the arts and sciences, improved by extensive travel, gifted with personal beauty, and a feeling heart, the motives for this estrangement from his kind are still enveloped in mystery. It was, however, known that he was a native of England, where his father was a clergyman; that he received from thence ample remittances for his comfort; and that his name was Francis Abbot. These facts had been previously ascertained; but no written papers were found in his cell, to throw additional light upon the obscurity in which he had so effectually wrapped the history of his pilgrimage.
APOSTROPHE TO NIAGARA.
FLOW on forever, in thy glorious robe
And who can dare
To lift the insect trump of earthly hope,
Dost rest not night or day.
The morning stars,
When first they sang o'er young creation's birth,
Lo! yon birds
Do venture boldly near, bathing their wing