MoboReader> Literature > Two Years in the French West Indies

   Chapter 32 No.32

Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8096

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... We steam very slowly into the harbor of St. George, Grenada, in dead silence. No cannon-signal allowed here.... Some one suggests that the violence of the echoes in this harbor renders the firing of cannon dangerous; somebody else says the town is in so ruinous a condition that the report of a gun would shake it down.

... There are heavy damp smells in the warm air as of mould, or of wet clay freshly upturned.

This harbor is a deep clear basin, surrounded and shadowed by immense volcanic hills, all green. The opening by which we entered is cut off from sight by a promontory, and hill shapes beyond the promontory;-we seem to be in the innermost ring of a double crater. There is a continuous shimmering and plashing of leaping fish in the shadow of the loftiest height, which reaches half across the water.

As it climbs up the base of the huge hill at a precipitous angle, the city can be seen from the steamer's deck almost as in a bird's-eye view. A senescent city; mostly antiquated Spanish architecture,-ponderous archways and earthquake-proof walls. The yellow buildings fronting us beyond the wharf seem half decayed; they are strangely streaked with green, look as if they had been long under water. We row ashore, land in a crowd of lazy-looking, silent blacks.

... What a quaint, dawdling, sleepy place it is! All these narrow streets are falling into ruin; everywhere the same green stains upon the walls, as of slime left by a flood; everywhere disjointed brickwork, crumbling roofs, pungent odors of mould. Yet this Spanish architecture was built to endure; those yellow, blue, or green walls were constructed with the solidity of fortress-work; the very stairs are stone; the balustrades and the railings were made of good wrought iron. In a Northern clime such edifices would resist the wear and tear of five hundred years. But here the powers of disintegration are extraordinary, and the very air would seem to have the devouring force of an acid. All surfaces and angles are yielding to the attacks of time, weather, and microscopic organisms; paint peels, stucco falls, tiles tumble, stones slip out of place, and in every chink tiny green things nestle, propagating themselves through the jointures and dislocating the masonry. There is an appalling mouldiness, an exaggerated mossiness-the mystery and the melancholy of a city deserted. Old warehouses without signs, huge and void, are opened regularly every day for so many hours; yet the business of the aged merchants within seems to be a problem;-you might fancy those gray men were always waiting for ships that sailed away a generation ago, and will never return. You see no customers entering the stores, but only a black mendicant from time to time. And high above all this, overlooking streets too steep for any vehicle, slope the red walls of the mouldering fort, patched with the viridescence of ruin.

By a road leading up beyond the city, you reach the cemetery. The staggering iron gates by which you enter it are almost rusted from their hinges, and the low wall enclosing it is nearly all verdant. Within, you see a wilderness of strange weeds, vines, creepers, fantastic shrubs run mad, with a few palms mounting above the green confusion;-only here and there a gleam of slabs with inscriptions half erased. Such as you can read are epitaphs of seamen, dating back to the years 1800, 1802, 1812. Over these lizards are running; undulations in the weeds warn you to beware of snakes; toads leap away as you proceed; and you observe everywhere crickets perched-grass-colored creatures with two ruby specks for eyes. They make a sound shrill as the scream of machinery beveling marble. At the farther end of the cemetery is a heavy ruin that would seem to have once been part of a church: it is so covered with creeping weeds now that you only distinguish the masonry on close approach, and high trees are growing within it. There is something in tropical ruin peculiarly and terribly impressive: this luxuriant, evergreen, ever-splendid Na

ture consumes the results of human endeavor so swiftly, buries memories so profoundly, distorts the labors of generations so grotesquely, that one feels here, as nowhere else, how ephemeral man is, how intense and how tireless the effort necessary to preserve his frail creations even a little while from the vast unconscious forces antagonistic to all stability, to all factitious equilibrium.

... A gloomy road winds high around one cliff overlooking the hollow of the bay, Following it, you pass under extraordinarily dark shadows of foliage, and over a blackish soil strewn with pretty bright green fruit that has fallen from above. Do not touch them even with the tip of your finger! Those are manchineel apples; with their milky juice the old Caribs were wont to poison the barbs of their parrot-feathered arrows. Over the mould, swarming among the venomous fruit, innumerable crabs make a sound almost like the murmuring of water. Some are very large, with prodigious stalked eyes, and claws white as ivory, and a red cuirass; others, very small and very swift in their movements, are raspberry-colored; others, again, are apple-green, with queer mottlings of black and white. There is an unpleasant odor of decay in the air-vegetable decay.

Emerging from the shadow of the manchineel-trees, you may follow the road up, up, up, under beetling cliffs of plutonian rock that seem about to topple down upon the path-way. The rock is naked and black near the road; higher, it is veiled by a heavy green drapery of lianas, curling creepers, unfamiliar vines. All around you are sounds of crawling, dull echoes of dropping; the thick growths far up waver in the breathless air as if something were moving sinuously through them. And always the odor of humid decomposition. Farther on, the road looks wilder, sloping between black rocks, through strange vaultings of foliage and night-black shadows. Its lonesomeness oppresses; one returns without regret, by rusting gate-ways and tottering walls, back to the old West Indian city rotting in the sun.

... Yet Grenada, despite the dilapidation of her capital and the seeming desolation of its environs, is not the least prosperous of the Antilles. Other islands have been less fortunate: the era of depression has almost passed for Grenada; through the rapid development of her secondary cultures-coffee and cocoa-she hopes with good reason to repair some of the vast losses involved by the decay of the sugar industry.

Still, in this silence of mouldering streets, this melancholy of abandoned dwellings, this invasion of vegetation, there is a suggestion of what any West Indian port might become when the resources of the island had been exhausted, and its commerce ruined. After all persons of means and energy enough to seek other fields of industry and enterprise had taken their departure, and the plantations had been abandoned, and the warehouses closed up forever, and the voiceless wharves left to rot down into the green water, Nature would soon so veil the place as to obliterate every outward visible sign of the past. In scarcely more than a generation from the time that the last merchant steamer had taken her departure some traveller might look for the once populous and busy mart in vain: vegetation would have devoured it.

... In the mixed English and creole speech of the black population one can discern evidence of a linguistic transition. The original French patois is being rapidly forgotten or transformed irrecognizably.

Now, in almost every island the negro idiom is different. So often have some of the Antilles changed owners, moreover, that in them the negro has never been able to form a true patois. He had scarcely acquired some idea of the language of his first masters, when other rulers and another tongue were thrust upon him,-and this may have occurred three or four times! The result is a totally incoherent agglomeration of speech-forms-a baragouin fantastic and unintelligible beyond the power of anyone to imagine who has not heard it....

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares