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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 6644

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... A beautiful fantastic shape floats to us through the morning light; first cloudy gold like the horizon, then pearly gray, then varying blue, with growing green lights;-Saint Lucia. Most strangely formed of all this volcanic family;-everywhere mountainings sharp as broken crystals. Far off the Pitons-twin peaks of the high coast-show softer contours, like two black breasts pointing against the sky....

... As we enter the harbor of Castries, the lines of the land seem no less exquisitely odd, in spite of their rich verdure, than when viewed afar off;-they have a particular pitch of angle.... Other of these islands show more or less family resemblance;-you might readily mistake one silhouette for another as seen at a distance, even after several West Indian journeys. But Saint Lucia at once impresses you by its eccentricity.

Castries, drowsing under palm leaves at the edge of its curving harbor,-perhaps an ancient crater,-seems more of a village than a town: streets of low cottages and little tropic gardens. It has a handsome half-breed population: the old French colonial manners have been less changed here by English influence than in Saint Kitt's and elsewhere;-the creole patois is still spoken, though the costumes have changed.... A more beautiful situation could scarcely be imagined,-even in this tropic world. In the massing of green heights about the little town are gaps showing groves of palm beyond; but the peak summits catch the clouds. Behind us the harbor mouth seems spanned by steel-blue bars: these are lines of currents. Away, on either hand, volcanic hills are billowing to vapory distance; and in their nearer hollows are beautiful deepenings of color: ponded shades of diaphanous blue or purplish tone.... I first remarked this extraordinary coloring of shadows in Martinique, where it exists to a degree that tempts one to believe the island has a special atmosphere of its own.... A friend tells me the phenomenon is probably due to inorganic substances floating in the air-each substance in diffusion having its own index of refraction. Substances so held in suspension by vapors would vary according to the nature of soil in different islands, and might thus produce special local effects of atmospheric tinting.

... We remain but half an hour at Castries; then steam along the coast to take in freight at another port. Always the same delicious color-effects as we proceed, with new and surprising visions of hills. The near slopes descending to the sea are a radiant green, with streaks and specklings of darker verdure;-the farther-rising hills faint blue, with green saliencies catching the sun;-and beyond these are upheavals of luminous gray-pearl-gray-sharpened in the silver glow of the horizon.... The general impression of the whole landscape is one of motion suddenly petrified,-of an earthquake surging and tossing suddenly arrested and fixed: a raging of cones and peaks and monstrous truncated shapes.... We approach the Pitons.

Seen afar off, they first appeared twin mammiform peaks,-naked and dark against the sky; but now they begin to brighten a little and show color,-also to change form. They take a lilaceous hue, broken by gray and green lights; and as we draw yet nearer they prove dissimilar both in shape and tint.... Now they separate be

fore us, throwing long pyramidal shadows across the steamer's path. Then, as they open to our coming, between them a sea bay is revealed-a very lovely curving bay, bounded by hollow cliffs of fiery green. At either side of the gap the Pitons rise like monster pylones. And a charming little settlement, a beautiful sugar-plantation, is nestling there between them, on the very edge of the bay.

Out of a bright sea of verdure, speckled with oases of darker foliage, these Pitons from the land side tower in sombre vegetation. Very high up, on the nearer one, amid the wooded slopes, you can see houses perched; and there are bright breaks in the color there-tiny mountain pastures that look like patches of green silk velvet.

... We pass the Pitons, and enter another little craterine harbor, to cast anchor before the village of Choi-seul. It lies on a ledge above the beach and under high hills: we land through a surf, running the boat high up on soft yellowish sand. A delicious saline scent of sea-weed.

It is disappointing, the village: it is merely one cross of brief streets, lined with blackening wooden dwellings there are no buildings worth looking at, except the queer old French church, steep-roofed and bristling with points that look like extinguishers. Over broad reaches of lava rock a shallow river flows by the village to the sea, gurgling under shadows of tamarind foliage. It passes beside the market-place-a market-place without stalls, benches, sheds, or pavements: meats, fruits, and vegetables are simply fastened to the trees. Women are washing and naked children bathing in the stream; they are bronze-skinned, a fine dark color with a faint tint of red in it.... There is little else to look at: steep wooded hills cut off the view towards the interior.

But over the verge of the sea there is something strange growing visible, looming up like a beautiful yellow cloud. It is an island, so lofty, so luminous, so phantom-like, that it seems a vision of the Island of the Seven Cities. It is only the form of St. Vincent, bathed in vapory gold by the sun.

... Evening at La Soufrière: still another semicircular bay in a hollow of green hills. Glens hold bluish shadows ows. The color of the heights is very tender; but there are long streaks and patches of dark green, marking watercourses and very abrupt surfaces. From the western side immense shadows are pitched brokenly across the valley and over half the roofs of the palmy town. There is a little river flowing down to the bay on the left; and west of it a walled cemetery is visible, out of which one monumental palm rises to a sublime height: its crest still bathes in the sun, above the invading shadow. Night approaches; the shade of the hills inundates all the landscape, rises even over the palm-crest. Then, black-towering into the golden glow of sunset, the land loses all its color, all its charm; forms of frondage, variations of tint, become invisible. Saint Lucia is only a monstrous silhouette; all its billowing hills, its volcanic bays, its amphitheatrical valleys, turn black as ebony.

And you behold before you a geological dream, a vision of the primeval sea: the apparition of the land as first brought forth, all peak-tossed and fissured and naked and grim, in the tremendous birth of an archipelago.

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