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   Chapter 12 No.12

Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 10143

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


... Morning. A gold sunrise over an indigo sea. The wind is a great warm caress; the sky a spotless blue. We are steaming on Dominica,-the loftiest of the lesser Antilles. While the silhouette is yet all violet in distance nothing more solemnly beautiful can well be imagined: a vast cathedral shape, whose spires are mountain peaks, towering in the horizon, sheer up from the sea.

We stay at Roseau only long enough to land the mails, and wonder at the loveliness of the island. A beautifully wrinkled mass of green and blue and gray;-a strangely abrupt peaking and heaping of the land. Behind the green heights loom the blues; behind these the grays-all pinnacled against the sky-glow-thrusting up through gaps or behind promontories. Indescribably exquisite the foldings and hollowings of the emerald coast. In glen and vale the color of cane-fields shines like a pooling of fluid bronze, as if the luminous essence of the hill tints had been dripping down and clarifying there. Far to our left, a bright green spur pierces into the now turquoise sea; and beyond it, a beautiful mountain form, blue and curved like a hip, slopes seaward, showing lighted wrinkles here and there, of green. And from the foreground, against the blue of the softly outlined shape, cocoa-palms are curving,-all sharp and shining in the sun.

... Another hour; and Martinique looms before us. At first it appears all gray, a vapory gray; then it becomes bluish-gray; then all green.

It is another of the beautiful volcanic family: it owns the same hill shapes with which we have already become acquainted; its uppermost height is hooded with the familiar cloud; we see the same gold-yellow plains, the same wonderful varieties of verdancy, the same long green spurs reaching out into the sea,-doubtless formed by old lava torrents. But all this is now repeated for us more imposingly, more grandiosely;-it is wrought upon a larger scale than anything we have yet seen. The semicircular sweep of the harbor, dominated by the eternally veiled summit of the Montagne Pelee (misnamed, since it is green to the very clouds), from which the land slopes down on either hand to the sea by gigantic undulations, is one of the fairest sights that human eye can gaze upon. Thus viewed, the whole island shape is a mass of green, with purplish streaks and shadowings here and there: glooms of forest-hollows, or moving umbrages of cloud. The city of St. Pierre, on the edge of the land, looks as if it had slided down the hill behind it, so strangely do the streets come tumbling to the port in cascades of masonry,-with a red billowing of tiled roofs over all, and enormous palms poking up through it,-higher even than the creamy white twin towers of its cathedral.

We anchor in limpid blue water; the cannon-shot is answered by a prolonged thunder-clapping of mountain echo.

Then from the shore a curious flotilla bears down upon us. There is one boat, two or three canoes; but the bulk of the craft are simply wooden frames,-flat-bottomed structures, made from shipping-cases or lard-boxes, with triangular ends. In these sit naked boys,-boys between ten and fourteen years of age,-varying in color from a fine clear yellow to a deep reddish-brown or chocolate tint. They row with two little square, flat pieces of wood for paddles, clutched in each hand; and these lid-shaped things are dipped into the water on either side with absolute precision, in perfect time,-all the pairs of little naked arms seeming moved by a single impulse. There is much unconscious grace in this paddling, as well as skill. Then all about the ship these ridiculous little boats begin to describe circles,-crossing and intercrossing so closely as almost to bring them into collision, yet never touching. The boys have simply come out to dive for coins they expect passengers to fling to them. All are chattering creole, laughing and screaming shrilly; every eye, quick and bright as a bird's, watches the faces of the passengers on deck. "'Tention-là!" shriek a dozen soprani. Some passenger's fingers have entered his vest-pocket, and the boys are on the alert. Through the air, twirling and glittering, tumbles an English shilling, and drops into the deep water beyond the little fleet. Instantly all the lads leap, scramble, topple head-foremost out of their little tubs, and dive in pursuit. In the blue water their lithe figures look perfectly red,-all but the soles of their upturned feet, which show nearly white. Almost immediately they all rise again: one holds up at arm's-length above the water the recovered coin, and then puts it into his mouth for safe-keeping; Coin after coin is thrown in, and as speedily brought up; a shower of small silver follows, and not a piece is lost. These lads move through the water without apparent effort, with the suppleness of fishes. Most are decidedly fine-looking boys, with admirably rounded limbs, delicately formed extremities. The best diver and swiftest swimmer, however, is a red lad;-his face is rather commonplace, but his slim body has the grace

of an antique bronze.

... We are ashore in St. Pierre, the quaintest, queerest, and the prettiest withal, among West Indian cities: all stone-built and stone-flagged, with very narrow streets, wooden or zinc awnings, and peaked roofs of red tile, pierced by gabled dormers. Most of the buildings are painted in a clear yellow tone, which contrasts delightfully with the burning blue ribbon of tropical sky above; and no street is absolutely level; nearly all of them climb hills, descend into hollows, curve, twist, describe sudden angles. There is everywhere a loud murmur of running water,-pouring through the deep gutters contrived between the paved thoroughfare and the absurd little sidewalks, varying in width from one to three feet. The architecture is quite old: it is seventeenth century, probably; and it reminds one a great deal of that characterizing the antiquated French quarter of New Orleans. All the tints, the forms, the vistas, would seem to have been especially selected or designed for aquarelle studies,-just to please the whim of some extravagant artist. The windows are frameless openings without glass; some have iron bars; all have heavy wooden shutters with movable slats, through which light and air can enter as through Venetian blinds. These are usually painted green or bright bluish-gray.

So steep are the streets descending to the harbor,-by flights of old mossy stone steps,-that looking down them to the azure water you have the sensation of gazing from a cliff. From certain openings in the main street-the Rue Victor Hugo-you can get something like a bird's-eye view of the harbor with its shipping. The roofs of the street below are under your feet, and other streets are rising behind you to meet the mountain roads. They climb at a very steep angle, occasionally breaking into stairs of lava rock, all grass-tufted and moss-lined.

The town has an aspect of great solidity: it is a creation of crag-looks almost as if it had been hewn out of one mountain fragment, instead of having been constructed stone by stone. Although commonly consisting of two stories and an attic only, the dwellings have walls three feet in thickness;-on one street, facing the sea, they are even heavier, and slope outward like ramparts, so that the perpendicular recesses of windows and doors have the appearance of being opened between buttresses. It may have been partly as a precaution against earthquakes, and partly for the sake of coolness, that the early colonial architects built thus;-giving the city a physiognomy so well worthy of its name,-the name of the Saint of the Rock.

And everywhere rushes mountain water,-cool and crystal clear, washing the streets;-from time to time you come to some public fountain flinging a silvery column to the sun, or showering bright spray over a group of black bronze tritons or bronze swans. The Tritons on the Place Bertin you will not readily forget;-their curving torsos might have been modelled from the forms of those ebon men who toil there tirelessly all day in the great heat, rolling hogsheads of sugar or casks of rum. And often you will note, in the course of a walk, little drinking-fountains contrived at the angle of a building, or in the thick walls bordering the bulwarks or enclosing public squares: glittering threads of water spurting through lion-lips of stone. Some mountain torrent, skilfully directed and divided, is thus perpetually refreshing the city,-supplying its fountains and cooling its courts.... This is called the Gouyave water: it is not the same stream which sweeps and purifies the streets.

Picturesqueness and color: these are the particular and the unrivalled charms of St. Pierre. As you pursue the Grande Rue, or Rue Victor Hugo,-which traverses the town through all its length, undulating over hill-slopes and into hollows and over a bridge,-you become more and more enchanted by the contrast of the yellow-glowing walls to right and left with the jagged strip of gentian-blue sky overhead. Charming also it is to watch the cross-streets climbing up to the fiery green of the mountains behind the town. On the lower side of the main thoroughfare other streets open in wonderful bursts of blue-warm blue of horizon and sea. The steps by which these ways descend towards the bay are black with age, and slightly mossed close to the wall on either side: they have an alarming steepness,-one might easily stumble from the upper into the lower street. Looking towards the water through these openings from the Grande Rue, you will notice that the sea-line cuts across the blue space just at the level of the upper story of the house on the lower street-corner. Sometimes, a hundred feet below, you see a ship resting in the azure aperture,-seemingly suspended there in sky-color, floating in blue light. And everywhere and always, through sunshine or shadow, comes to you the scent of the city,-the characteristic odor of St. Pierre;-a compound odor suggesting the intermingling of sugar and garlic in those strange tropical dishes which creoles love....

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