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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 9982

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

... A population fantastic, astonishing,-a population of the Arabian Nights. It is many-colored; but the general dominant tint is yellow, like that of the town itself-yellow in the interblending of all the hues characterizing mulatresse, capresse, griffe, quarteronne, métisse, chabine,-a general effect of rich brownish yellow. You are among a people of half-breeds,-the finest mixed race of the West Indies.

Straight as palms, and supple and tall, these colored women and men impress one powerfully by their dignified carriage and easy elegance of movement. They walk without swinging of the shoulders;-the perfectly set torso seems to remain rigid; yet the step is a long full stride, and the whole weight is springily poised on the very tip of the bare foot. All, or nearly all, are without shoes: the treading of many naked feet over the heated pavement makes a continuous whispering sound.

... Perhaps the most novel impression of all is that produced by the singularity and brilliancy of certain of the women's costumes. These were developed, at least a hundred years ago, by some curious sumptuary law regulating the dress of slaves and colored people of free condition,-a law which allowed considerable liberty as to material and tint, prescribing chiefly form. But some of these fashions suggest the Orient: they offer beautiful audacities of color contrast; and the full-dress coiffure, above all, is so strikingly Eastern that one might be tempted to believe it was first introduced into the colony by some Mohammedan slave. It is merely an immense Madras handkerchief, which is folded about the head with admirable art, like a turban;-one bright end pushed through at the top in front, being left sticking up like a plume. Then this turban, always full of bright canary-color, is fastened with golden brooches,-one in front and one at either side. As for the remainder of the dress, it is simple enough: an embroidered, low-cut chemise with sleeves; a skirt or jupe, very long behind, but caught up and fastened in front below the breasts so as to bring the hem everywhere to a level with the end of the long chemise; and finally a foulard, or silken kerchief, thrown over the shoulders. These jupes and foulards, however, are exquisite in pattern and color: bright crimson, bright yellow, bright blue, bright green,-lilac, violet, rose,-sometimes mingled in plaidings or checkerings or stripings: black with orange, sky-blue with purple. And whatever be the colors of the costume, which vary astonishingly, the coiffure must be yellow-brilliant, flashing yellow-the turban is certain to have yellow stripes or yellow squares. To this display add the effect of costly and curious jewellery: immense earrings, each pendant being formed of five gold cylinders joined together (cylinders sometimes two inches long, and an inch at least in circumference);-a necklace of double, triple, quadruple, or quintuple rows of large hollow gold beads (sometimes smooth, but generally ally graven)-the wonderful collier-choux. Now, this glowing jewellery is not a mere imitation of pure metal: the ear-rings are worth one hundred and seventy-five francs a pair; the necklace of a Martinique quadroon may cost five hundred or even one thousand francs.... It may be the gift of her lover, her doudoux, but such articles are usually purchased either on time by small payments, or bead by bead singly until the requisite number is made up.

But few are thus richly attired: the greater number of the women carrying burdens on their heads,-peddling vegetables, cakes, fruit, ready-cooked food, from door to door,-are very simply dressed in a single plain robe of vivid colors (douillette) reaching from neck to feet, and made with a train, but generally girded well up so as to sit close to the figure and leave the lower limbs partly bare and perfectly free. These women can walk all day long up and down hill in the hot sun, without shoes, carrying loads of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds on their heads; and if their little stock sometimes fails to come up to the accustomed weight stones are added to make it heavy enough. Doubtless the habit of carrying everything in this way from childhood has much to do with the remarkable vigor and erectness of the population.... I have seen a grand-piano carried on the heads of four men. With the women the load is very seldom steadied with the hand after having been once placed in position. The head remains almost most motionless; but the black, quick, piercing eyes flash into every window and door-way to watch for a customer's signal. And the creole street-cries, uttered in a sonorous, far-reaching high key, interblend and produce random harmonies very pleasant to hear.

..."?e moune-là, ?a qui lè bel mango?" Her basket of mangoes certainly weighs as much as herself.... "?a qui lè bel avocat?," The alligator-pear-cuts and tastes like beautiful green cheese... "?a qui lè escargot?" Call her, if you like snails.

... "Ca qui lè titiri?" Minuscule fish, of which a thousand would scarcely fill a tea-cup;-one of the most delicate of Martinique dishes.... "?a qui lè canna?-?a qui lè charbon?-?a qui lè di pain aubè?" (Who wants ducks, charcoal, or pretty little loaves shaped like cucumbers.)... "?a qui lè pain-mi?" A sweet maize cake in the form of a tiny sugar-loaf, wrapped in a piece of banana leaf.... "?a qui lè fromassé" (pharmacie) "lapotécai créole?" She deals in creole roots and herbs, and all the leaves that make tisanes or poultices or medicines: matriquin, feuill-corossol, balai-doux, manioc-chapelle, Marie-Perrine, graine-enba-feuill, bois d'lhomme, zhèbe-gras, bonnet-carré, zhèbe-codeinne, zhèbe-à-femme, zhèbe-à-chatte, canne-dleau, poque, fleu-papillon, lateigne, and a score of others you never saw or heard of before.... "?a qui lè dicaments?" (overalls for laboring-men).... "?é moune-là, si ou pa lè acheté canari-à dans lanmain moin, moin ké crazé y." The vender of red clay cooking-pots;-she has only one left, if you do not buy it she will break it!

"Hé! zenfants-la!-en deho'!" Run out to meet her, little children, if you like the sweet rice-cakes.... "Hé! gens pa' enho', gens pa' enbas, gens di galtas, moin ni bel gouou?s poisson!" Ho! people up-stairs, people down-stairs, and all ye good folks who dwell in the attics,-know that she has very big and very beautiful fish to sell!... "Hé! ?a qui lé mangé yonne?"-those are "akras,"-flat yellow-brown cakes, made of pounded codfish, or beans, or both, seasoned with pepper and fried in butter.... And then comes the pastry-seller, black as ebony, but dressed all in white, and white-aproned and white-capped like a French cook, and chanting half in French, half in creole, with a voice like a clarinet:

"C'est louvouier de la patisserie qui passe,

Qui té ka veillé pou' gagner son existence,

Toujours content,

Toujours joyeux.

Oh, qu'ils sont bons!-Oh, qu'ils sont doux!"

It is the pastryman passing by, who has been up all night to gain his livelihood,-always content,-always happy.... Oh, how good they are (the pies)!-Oh, how sweet they are!

... The quaint stores bordering both sides of the street bear no names and no signs over their huge arched doors;-you must look well inside to know what business is being done. Even then you will scarcely be able to satisfy yourself as to the nature of the commerce;-for they are selling gridirons and frying-pans in the dry goods stores, holy images and rosaries in the notion stores, sweet-cakes and confectionery in the crockery stores, coffee and stationery in the millinery stores, cigars and tobacco in the china stores, cravats and laces and ribbons in the jewellery stores, sugar and guava jelly in the tobacco stores! But of all the objects exposed for sale the most attractive, because the most exotic, is a doll,-the Martinique poupée. There are two kinds,-the poupée-capresse, of which the body is covered with smooth reddish-brown leather, to imitate the tint of the capresse race; and the poupée-négresse, covered with black leather. When dressed, these dolls range in price from eleven to thirty-five francs,-some, dressed to order, may cost even more; and a good poupée-négresse is a delightful curiosity. Both varieties of dolls are attired in the costume of the people; but the négresse is usually dressed the more simply. Each doll has a broidered chemise, a tastefully arranged jupe of bright hues; a silk foulard, a collier-choux, ear-rings of five cylinders (zanneaux-à-clous), and a charming little yellow-banded Madras turban. Such a doll is a perfect costume-model,-a perfect miniature of Martinique fashions, to the smallest details of material and color: it is almost too artistic for a toy.

These old costume-colors of Martinique-always relieved by brilliant yellow stripings or checkerings, except in the special violet dresses worn on certain religious occasions-have an indescribable luminosity,-a wonderful power of bringing out the fine warm tints of this tropical flesh. Such are the hues of those rich costumes Nature gives to her nearest of kin and her dearest,-her honey-lovers-her insects: these are wasp-colors. I do not know whether the fact ever occurred to the childish fancy of this strange race; but there is a creole expression which first suggested it to me;-in the patois, pouend guêpe, "to catch a wasp," signifies making love to a pretty colored girl.... And the more one observes these costumes, the more one feels that only Nature could have taught such rare comprehension of powers and harmonies among colors,-such knowledge of chromatic witchcrafts and chromatic laws.

... This evening, as I write, La Pelée is more heavily coiffed than is her wont. Of purple and lilac cloud the coiffure is,-a magnificent Madras, yellow-banded by the sinking sun. La Pelée is in costume de fête, like a capresse attired for a baptism or a ball; and in her phantom turban one great star glimmers for a brooch.

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