The Tour Of Prince Napoleon


The country we are crossing for 130 leagues and twelve hours would be completely monotonous, if uniformity—on such a large scale and in these huge proportions—were not full of grandeur. It is a smooth steppe, completely flat, such as undoubtedly exists in no other part of the world. It is the horizon on the sea, the line which we are forever pursuing without ever reaching it, as it always seems to withdraw in front of you. On both sides for a certain distance—sometimes small enough for us to encompass it—the soil shows traces of men’s works; beyond, we only see the tall grass, the wild grass, the pasture of the few buffaloes still left on the left bank of the river. These buffaloes are the rearguard of the innumerable herd which men always push further west, and which, for the last twenty years, has not been seen near the Great Lakes. In the poetic dreams of the American, as well as in his dreams of speculation and wealth, the prairie has taken over the forest. The prairie is now the stage of the novelists’ plots. There he has his pioneer build his log cabin—formerly hidden in the thick of the forest.

Only two or three of the centers we passed deserve the name of cities: Talono, Mattoon, Pana. Very small houses, mostly of wood, scattered over a large area, spreading at ease on a land which costs nothing, a few cheap-looking hotels, railroad repair garages, some cheap stores. The inhabitants, mostly of Irish and German stock, are farmers, almost unbelievably rough in appearance. Such are the villages and hamlets of Illinois. They are still very young and have not yet gone through the “age of wood.” Yet, be reassured, the “age of stone,” the age of cyclopean constructions, is not far in the future.

These people till the land wherever the railroad drew them, where they stopped for the first time after their departure from Ireland or W’fcrttemberg. Most of them are very poor; at most they own twenty to thirty hectares [2.471 acres per hectare]. Those who had but their arms to start with, cultivate corn. In two months corn is planted and can be eaten. True, it is a poor food, but it allows them to save money to buy wheat and ploughs. Then, they turn to wheat, and with it comes wealth. Not because it is expensive! It sells now for sixty cents for twenty kilos [2.2 pounds per kilo] on the spot—less than coal. But the ground is so fertile, and railroad communications so convenient and fast that the country quickly sees the wheat come back as dollars.

Right now, the exploitation of this unbelievable wealth is only in its infancy. Man power is very expensive. A laborer is paid eleven dollars daily. They do not even speak of regular fertilizing. It is true that they do not need it now, since the vegetable land is as much as 3, 5 and even 10 meters thick. Yet water is lacking in this area. They use the system of artesian wells, like the Sahara desert. Finally, cattle raising- the indispensable corollary of agriculture—is only beginning. Natural hay is excellent; it changes in nature as soon as the buffaloes disappear, and takes on the qualities required for our own domestic species as soon as their teeth and feet have trodden it.

From time to time, the Prince asked for the train to be stopped, and for a while we walked alongside the tracks. The engine followed slowly just like the carriages following the walkers at Boulogne. We then breathed fully the air loaded with the aroma of wild grass, while our eyes were lost in the light fog slowly disappearing in the distance with the sun.

We let ourselves be impregnated with this poetry of immobility, of the silence and the immensity characteristic of the prairie, a poetry full of melancholic grandeur and which American novelists—following in the tracks of Cooper—understand fully and describe admirably. Sometimes a half-wild Irishman comes out of his cabin; he is told that Prince Napoleon is visiting the country; he approaches him and shakes his hand. His smile suggests all that the mention of this name awakens in him of the hatreds and wars of another age against a detested race.

We reach the bank of the Mississippi at night. Saint Louis is in front of us, on the other bank. We enter the station amidst a large number of curious people, not knowing exactly what there is to do here. A gentleman opens for the Prince the door of a princely carriage. S. A. I. gets in it to escape the crowd and we follow him without even asking where we are being taken. The carriage climbs aboard a ferry; a whistle and we leave. We are soon in the middle of the river, as wide as a bay.

The waters of the river, still illuminated by the last rays of sunset, look like a huge tablecloth spread between us and the opposite bank. The bank in front of us is flat and low. There is no relief but the houses of Saint Louis. The city, caught between the two dark colors of the water and the sky, resembles a narrow, jagged, black ribbon over a pearly-grey background. The light looks like a spray of dust of rubies. I remember seeing a spectacle exactly similar on the Po river, in front of Cremona, the day after Solferino. I was crossing the river in order to obtain some news about the great battle which we knew had been fought, but the outcome of which was not known on the right bank.