Chactas is an old, blind, and wise Indian of the tribe of Natchez, whose hunting ground is in the territory of Louisiana. Because of his great age and deep wisdom gained through countless years of tragic misfortune, Chactas is the patriarch of the tribe. Thus it is that when a young Frenchman named René presents himself for membership in the tribe in the year 1725, it is Chactas who questions him to determine his fitness to join the Natchez nation. Finding René fixed in his determination to become one of the tribe, Chactas accepts him. As the Indians prepare for a beaver hunt, Chactas—even though he is blind—is made the leader of the party. One night as they lie in their canoes, Chactas recites the story of his adventures to René.
When Chactas had lived but seventeen summers, his father was killed in battle and he himself was taken prisoner by the enemy and led away by the Spaniards to St. Augustine. There he was befriended by an old Castilian named Lopez and his sister. The two white people cared for the young man and tried to educate him as their son. After thirty moons had passed, however, Chactas tired of this civilized life and begged Lopez to allow him to return to his people. Lopez, knowing the dangers awaiting a lonely youth in the forests, at first tried to dissuade Chactas. At last, seeing that the youth was firm in his resolve, the old man sent him on his way with his blessing.
The warning given by the good Lopez soon proved correct. Chactas, having lost his way in the woods, was captured by an enemy tribe and taken to their village to await death by burning. Because of his youth and bravery, the women of the tribe took pity on him. One night, as he sat by the campfire, he heard a rustling and then felt the presence of a woman beside him. In low tones, she told him that she was Atala, daughter of the chief and his wife, now dead. She asked Chactas if he was a Christian, and when he told her that he had not forsaken the gods of his father, she departed.
For many days the tribe marched, taking Chactas with them, and each night Atala visited him by the fire. One night, after Chactas was tied to a tree, Atala appeared and told his guard that she would watch the prisoner for a time. Since she was the daughter of the chief, the guard gladly gave her his place. She quickly untied the cords and gave Chactas his freedom, but, just as quickly, he placed the cords in her hand, telling her that he wanted to be chained to her forever. She cried out in anguish that their religions separated them. She also seemed to have some other terrible secret that she feared he would learn. Atala begged him to flee without her, but Chactas said that he would rather die by fire than leave her. Neither would change, and so Atala tied Chactas again, hoping that soon he would change his mind. Each night they slipped off into the woods together, but Chactas did not possess her, for her God helped her to deny her passion for Chactas. She prayed that the young man might give himself to her God so that one barrier to their love would be broken.
One night, her father’s warriors discovered them together. Chactas was returned to the camp and placed under heavy guard. The tribe marched on and came at last to the place where...
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Chactas was to be burned at the stake. Indians gathered from far and near to witness his torture and death at a Feast of the Dead. Chactas was prepared for his ordeal, his body painted and then laid on the ground with guards lying across the ropes so that they might feel the slightest movement of the prisoner’s body. Despite the great precautions, however, Atala again freed him by a ruse, and they made their escape into the forest. Although they were pursued, the Indians were so drunk from celebrating the Feast of the Dead that the pursuit was only halfhearted, and the lovers had little trouble in eluding them.
Nevertheless, the wilderness almost conquered the fugitives, who were ill-prepared for the hardships they now had to endure. Their fates joined, Atala proclaimed her love for Chactas but said that they could never marry. Although she gave their differences in religion as the only reason, Chactas felt that there was more she feared to tell him. At last, upon his urging, she told him her secret. She was not the daughter of the chief, but the illegitimate child of a white man and the chief’s wife. When Chactas learned that the white man was his old friend Lopez, he loved her as a sister as well as a lover. It was through Lopez that she had gained her Christian faith, transmitted to her by her mother.
A terrible storm drove them to the shelter of a tree, and while in that refuge, they saw a dog and an old hermit approaching. The hermit was a missionary, Father Aubry, who took them to his grotto and gave them food and shelter. Chactas feared to go, for he was not a Christian, but Father Aubry said that he was one of God’s children and made him welcome. When he promised to instruct Chactas in Christianity so that he and Atala could be married, the girl paled at his words.
They learned that Father Aubry spent almost his entire life among the natives, although he could have had a more comfortable life in Europe. A good man, he considered it a privilege and not a sacrifice to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness. Atala and Chactas became a part of the little community of Christian natives over whom the good priest presided. After a time, Chactas began to feel the spirit of God in his heart.
One day, returning from a pilgrimage with Father Aubry, Chactas found Atala apparently dying from a mysterious fever. Then they learned what her true secret was. On her deathbed, Atala’s mother took the girl’s vow that she would always remain a virgin. Her own sin made her want to protect her daughter, and Atala, knowing nothing of real love, gave her vow, which could never be broken. When Father Aubry told the lovers that the bishop in Quebec could release her from her vow, Chactas’s heart grew light. In real anguish, Atala then told them that she took poison because she believed Chactas was forever denied to her. There were no remedies for the poison. After receiving the blessing of the priest and the promise of Chactas that he would embrace the Christian religion so that they could be joined in heaven, the poor virgin died. With the priest’s aid, Chactas buried his beloved. Then he said good-bye to Father Aubry and once more began his wanderings. Many years passed before he received baptism in the faith of his beloved Atala.
Many years more pass before the daughter of René, whom Chactas adopted, takes the bones of Atala and Father Aubry and Chactas to the land of the Natchez for burial. Chactas and Father Aubry are killed by enemies. The daughter of René tells a curious traveler that he should not grieve. The three friends are together with God.