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   Chapter 9 No.9

Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 10290

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Viewed from the bay, under the green shadow of the hills overlooking it, Frederiksted has the appearance of a beautiful Spanish town, with its Romanesque piazzas, churches, many arched buildings peeping through breaks in a line of mahogany, bread-fruit, mango, tamarind, and palm trees,-an irregular mass of at least fifty different tints, from a fiery emerald to a sombre bluish-green. But on entering the streets the illusion of beauty passes: you find yourself in a crumbling, decaying town, with buildings only two stories high. The lower part, of arched Spanish design, is usually of lava rock or of brick, painted a light, warm yellow; the upper stories are most commonly left unpainted, and are rudely constructed of light timber. There are many heavy arcades and courts opening on the streets with large archways. Lava blocks have been used in paving as well as in building; and more than one of the narrow streets, as it slopes up the hill through the great light, is seen to cut its way through craggy masses of volcanic stone.

But all the buildings look dilapidated; the stucco and paint is falling or peeling everywhere; there are fissures in the walls, crumbling fa?ades, tumbling roofs. The first stories, built with solidity worthy of an earthquake region, seem extravagantly heavy by contrast with the frail wooden superstructures. One reason may be that the city was burned and sacked during a negro revolt in 1878;-the Spanish basements resisted the fire well, and it was found necessary to rebuild only the second stories of the buildings; but the work was done cheaply and flimsily, not massively and enduringly, as by the first colonial builders.

There is great wealth of verdure. Cabbage and cocoa palms overlook all the streets, bending above almost every structure, whether hut or public building;-everywhere you see the splitted green of banana leaves. In the court-yards you may occasionally catch sight of some splendid palm with silver-gray stem so barred as to look jointed, like the body of an annelid.

In the market-place-a broad paved square, crossed by two rows of tamarind-trees, and bounded on one side by a Spanish piazza-you can study a spectacle of savage picturesqueness. There are no benches, no stalls, no booths; the dealers stand, sit, or squat upon the ground under the sun, or upon the steps of the neighboring arcade. Their wares are piled up at their feet, for the most part. Some few have little tables, but as a rule the eatables are simply laid on the dusty ground or heaped upon the steps of the piazza-reddish-yellow mangoes, that look like great apples squeezed out of shape, bunches of bananas, pyramids of bright-green cocoanuts, immense golden-green oranges, and various other fruits and vegetables totally unfamiliar to Northern eyes.... It is no use to ask questions-the black dealers speak no dialect comprehensible outside of the Antilles: it is a negro-English that sounds like some African tongue,-a rolling current of vowels and consonants, pouring so rapidly that the inexperienced ear cannot detach one intelligible word, A friendly white coming up enabled me to learn one phrase: "Massa, youwancocknerfoobuy?" (Master, do you want to buy a cocoanut?)

The market is quite crowded,-full of bright color under the tremendous noon light. Buyers and dealers are generally black;-very few yellow or brown people are visible in the gathering. The greater number present are women; they are very simply, almost savagely, garbed-only a skirt or petticoat, over which is worn a sort of calico short dress, which scarcely descends two inches below the hips, and is confined about the waist with a belt or a string. The skirt bells out like the skirt of a dancer, leaving the feet and bare legs well exposed; and the head is covered with a white handkerchief, twisted so as to look like a turban. Multitudes of these barelegged black women are walking past us,-carrying bundles or baskets upon their heads, and smoking very long cigars.

They are generally short and thick-set, and walk with surprising erectness, and with long, firm steps, carrying the bosom well forward. Their limbs are strong and finely rounded. Whether walking or standing, their poise is admirable,-might be called graceful, were it not for the absence of real grace of form in such compact, powerful little figures. All wear brightly colored cottonade stuffs, and the general effect of the costume in a large gathering is very agreeable, the dominant hues being pink, white, and blue. Half the women are smoking. All chatter loudly, speaking their English jargon with a pitch of voice totally unlike the English timbre: it sometimes sounds as if they were trying to pronounce English rapidly according to French pronunciation and pitch of voice.

These green oranges have a delicious scent and amazing juiciness. Peeling one of them is sufficient to perfume the skin of the hands for the rest of the day, however often one may use soap and water.... We smoke Porto Rico cigars, and drink West Indian lemonades, strongly flavored with rum. The tobacco has a rich, sweet taste; the rum is velvety, sugar

y, with a pleasant, soothing effect: both have a rich aroma. There is a wholesome originality about the flavor of these products, a uniqueness which certifies to their naif purity: something as opulent and frank as the juices and odors of tropical fruits and flowers.

The streets leading from the plaza glare violently in the strong sunlight;-the ground, almost dead-white, dazzles the eyes.... There are few comely faces visible,-in the streets all are black who pass. But through open shop-doors one occasionally catches glimpses of a pretty quadroon face,-with immense black eyes,-a face yellow like a ripe banana.

... It is now after mid-day. Looking up to the hills, or along sloping streets towards the shore, wonderful variations of foliage-color meet the eye: gold-greens, sap-greens, bluish and metallic greens of many tints, reddish-greens, yellowish-greens. The cane-fields are broad sheets of beautiful gold-green; and nearly as bright are the masses of pomme-cannelle frondescence, the groves of lemon and orange; while tamarind and mahoganies are heavily sombre. Everywhere palm-crests soar above the wood-lines, and tremble with a metallic shimmering in the blue light. Up through a ponderous thickness of tamarind rises the spire of the church; a skeleton of open stone-work, without glasses or lattices or shutters of any sort for its naked apertures: it is all open to the winds of heaven; it seems to be gasping with all its granite mouths for breath-panting in this azure heat. In the bay the water looks greener than ever: it is so clear that the light passes under every boat and ship to the very bottom; the vessels only cast very thin green shadows,-so transparent that fish can be distinctly seen passing through from sunlight to sunlight.

The sunset offers a splendid spectacle of pure color; there is only an immense yellow glow in the west,-a lemon-colored blaze; but when it melts into the blue there is an exquisite green light.... We leave to-morrow.

... Morning: the green hills are looming in a bluish vapor: the long faint-yellow slope of beach to the left of the town, under the mangoes and tamarinds, is already thronged with bathers,-all men or boys, and all naked: black, brown, yellow, and white. The white bathers are Danish soldiers from the barracks; the Northern brightness of their skins forms an almost startling contrast with the deep colors of the nature about them, and with the dark complexions of the natives. Some very slender, graceful brown lads are bathing with them,-lightly built as deer: these are probably creoles. Some of the black bathers are clumsy-looking, and have astonishingly long legs.... Then little boys come down, leading horses;-they strip, leap naked on the animals' backs, and ride into the sea,-yelling, screaming, splashing, in the morning light. Some are a fine brown color, like old bronze. Nothing could-be more statuesque than the unconscious attitudes of these bronze bodies in leaping, wrestling, running, pitching shells. Their simple grace is in admirable harmony with that of Nature's green creations about them,-rhymes faultlessly with the perfect self-balance of the palms that poise along the shore....

Boom! and a thunder-rolling of echoes. We move slowly out of the harbor, then swiftly towards the southeast.... The island seems to turn slowly half round; then to retreat from us. Across our way appears a long band of green light, reaching over the sea like a thin protraction of color from the extended spur of verdure in which the western end of the island terminates. That is a sunken reef, and a dangerous one. Lying high upon it, in very sharp relief against the blue light, is a wrecked vessel on her beam-ends,-the carcass of a brig. Her decks have been broken in; the roofs of her cabins are gone; her masts are splintered off short; her empty hold yawns naked to the sun; all her upper parts have taken a yellowish-white color,-the color of sun-bleached bone.

Behind us the mountains still float back. Their shining green has changed to a less vivid hue; they are taking bluish tones here and there; but their outlines are still sharp, and along their high soft slopes there are white specklings, which are villages and towns. These white specks diminish swiftly,-dwindle to the dimensions of salt-grains,-finally vanish. Then the island grows uniformly bluish; it becomes cloudy, vague as a dream of mountains;-it turns at last gray as smoke, and then melts into the horizon-light like a mirage.

Another yellow sunset, made weird by extraordinary black, dense, fantastic shapes of cloud. Night darkens, and again the Southern Cross glimmers before our prow, and the two Milky Ways reveal themselves,-that of the Cosmos and that ghostlier one which stretches over the black deep behind us. This alternately broadens and narrows at regular intervals, concomitantly with the rhythmical swing of the steamer, Before us the bows spout: fire; behind us there is a flaming and roaring as of Phlegethon; and the voices of wind and sea become so loud that we cannot talk to one another,-cannot make our words heard even by shouting.

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