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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 6147

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Whoever stops for a few months in St. Pierre is certain, sooner or later, to pass an idle half-hour in that charming place of Martinique idlers,-the beautiful Savane du Fort,-and, once there, is equally certain to lean a little while over the mossy parapet of the river-wall to watch the blanchisseuses at work. It has a curious interest, this spectacle of primitive toil: the deep channel of the Roxelane winding under the palm-crowned heights of the Fort; the blinding whiteness of linen laid out to bleach for miles upon the huge bowlders of porphyry and prismatic basalt; and the dark bronze-limbed women, with faces hidden under immense straw hats, and knees in the rushing torrent,-all form a scene that makes one think of the earliest civilizations. Even here, in this modern colony, it is nearly three centuries old; and it will probably continue thus at the Rivière des Blanchisseuses for fully another three hundred years. Quaint as certain weird Breton legends whereof it reminds you,-especially if you watch it before daybreak while the city still sleeps,-this fashion of washing is not likely to change. There is a local prejudice against new methods, new inventions, new ideas;-several efforts at introducing a less savage style of washing proved unsuccessful; and an attempt to establish a steam-laundry resulted in failure. The public were quite contented with the old ways of laundrying, and saw no benefits to be gained by forsaking them;-while the washers and ironers engaged by the laundry proprietor at higher rates than they had ever obtained before soon wearied of in-door work, abandoned their situations, and returned with a sense of relief to their ancient way of working out in the blue air and the wind of the hills, with their feet in the mountain-water and their heads in the awful sun.

... It is one of the sights of St. Pierre,-this daily scene at the River of the Washerwomen: everybody likes to watch it;-the men, because among the blanchisseuses there are not a few decidedly handsome girls; the wormen, probably because a woman feels always interested in woman's work. All the white bridges of the Roxelane are dotted with lookers-on during fine days, and particularly in the morning, when every bonne on her way to and from the market stops a moment to observe or to greet those blanchisseuses whom she knows. Then one hears such a calling and clamoring,-such an intercrossing of cries from the bridge to the river, and the river to the bridge.... "Ouill! Noémi!"... "Coument ou yé, chè?"... "Eh! Pascaline!",..."Bonjou', Youtte!-Dede!-Fifi!-Henrillia!"... "Coument ou kallé, Cyrillia?"... "Toutt douce, chè!-et Ti Mémé?"... "Y bien;-oti Ninotte?"... "Bo ti manmaille pou moin, chè-ou tanne?"... But the bridge leading to the market of the Fort is the poorest point of view; for the better classes of blanchisseuses are not there: only the lazy, the weak, or non-professionals-house-servants, who do washing at the river two or three times a month as part of their family-service-are apt to get so far down. The experienced profession

als and early risers secure the best places and choice of rocks; and among the hundreds at work you can discern something like a physical gradation. At the next bridge the women look better, stronger; more young faces appear; and the further you follow the river-course towards the Jardin des Plantes, the more the appearance of the blanchisseuses improves,-so that within the space of a mile you can see well exemplified one natural law of life's struggle,-the best chances to the best constitutions.

You might also observe, if you watch long enough, that among the blanchisseuses there are few sufficiently light of color to be classed as bright mulatresses;-the majority are black or of that dark copper-red race which is perhaps superior to the black creole in strength and bulk; for it requires a skin insensible to sun as well as the toughest of constitutions to be a blanchisseuse. A porteuse can begin to make long trips at nine or ten years; but no girl is strong enough to learn the washing-trade until she is past twelve. The blanchisseuse is the hardest worker among the whole population;-her daily labor is rarely less than thirteen hours; and during the greater part of that time she is working in the sun, and standing up to her knees in water that descends quite cold from the mountain peaks. Her labor makes her perspire profusely and she can never venture to cool herself by further immersion without serious danger of pleurisy. The trade is said to kill all who continue at it beyond a certain number of years:-"Nou ka mò toutt dleau" (we all die of the water), one told me, replying to a question. No feeble or light-skinned person can attempt to do a single day's work of this kind without danger; and a weak girl, driven by necessity to do her own washing, seldom ventures to go to the river. Yet I saw an instance of such rashness one day. A pretty sang-mêlée, perhaps about eighteen or nineteen years old,-whom I afterwards learned had just lost her mother and found herself thus absolutely destitute,-began to descend one of the flights of stone steps leading to the river, with a small bundle upon her head; and two or three of the blanchisseuses stopped their work to look at her. A tall capresse inquired mischievously:-

-"Ou vini pou pouend yon bain?" (Coming to take a bath?) For the river is a great bathing-place.

-"Non; moin vini lavé." (No; I am coming to wash.)

-"A?e! a?e! a?e!-y vini lavé!"... And all within hearing laughed together. "Are you crazy, girl?-ess ou fou?" The tall capresse snatched the bundle from her, opened it, threw a garment to her nearest neighbor, another to the next one, dividing the work among a little circle of friends, and said to the stranger, "Non ké lavé toutt ?a ba ou bien vite, chè,-va, amisé ou!" (We'll wash this for you very quickly, dear-go and amuse yourself!) These kind women even did more for the poor girl;-they subscribed to buy her a good breakfast, when the food-seller-the màchanne-mangé-made her regular round among them, with fried fish and eggs and manioc flour and bananas.

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