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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 12696

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


From St. Pierre, trips to Pelée can be made by several routes;-the most popular is that by way of Morne Rouge and the Calebasse; but the summit can be reached in much less time by making the ascent from different points along the coast-road to Au Prêcheur,-such as the Morne St. Martin, or a well-known path further north, passing near the celebrated hot springs (Fontaines Chaudes). You drive towards Au Prêcheur, and begin the ascent on foot, through cane-plantations.... The road by which you follow the north-west coast round the skirts of Pelée is very picturesque:-you cross the Roxelane, the Rivière des Pères, the Rivière Sèche (whose bed is now occupied only by a motionless torrent of rocks);-passing first by the suburb of Fond-Corré, with its cocoa groves, and broad beach of iron-gray sand,-a bathing resort;-then Pointe Prince, and the Fond de Canonville, somnolent villages that occupy wrinkles in the hem of Pelée's lava robe. The drive ultimately rises and lowers over the undulations of the cliff, and is well shadowed along the greater part of its course: you will admire many huge fromagers, or silk-cotton trees, various heavy lines of tamarinds, and groups of flamboyants with thick dark feathery foliage, and cassia-trees with long pods pending and blackening from every branch, and hedges of campêche, or logwood, and calabash-trees, and multitudes of the pretty shrubs bearing the fruit called in creole raisins-bò-lanmè, or "sea-side grapes." Then you reach Au Prêcheur: a very antiquated village, which boasts a stone church and a little public square with a fountain in it. If you have time to cross the Rivière du Prêcheur, a little further on, you can obtain a fine view of the coast, which, rising suddenly to a grand altitude, sweeps round in a semicircle over the Village of the Abysses (Aux Abymes),-whose name was doubtless suggested by the immense depth of the sea at that point.... It was under the shadow of those cliffs that the Confederate cruiser Alabama once hid herself, as a fish hides in the shadow of a rock, and escaped from her pursuer, the Iroquois. She had long been blockaded in the harbor of St. Pierre by the Northern man-of-war,-anxiously awaiting a chance to pounce upon her the instant she should leave French waters;-and various Yankee vessels in port were to send up rocket-signals should the Alabama attempt to escape under cover of darkness. But one night the privateer took a creole pilot on board, and steamed out southward, with all her lights masked, and her chimneys so arranged that neither smoke nor sparks could betray her to the enemy in the offing. However, some Yankee vessels near enough to discern her movements through the darkness at once shot rockets south; and the Iroquois gave chase. The Alabama hugged the high shore as far as Carbet, remaining quite invisible in the shadow of it: then she suddenly turned and recrossed the harbor. Again Yankee rockets betrayed her manreuvre to the Iroquois; but she gained Aux Abymes, laid herself close to the enormous black cliff, and there remained indistinguishable; the Iroquois steamed by north without seeing her. Once the Confederate cruiser found her enemy well out of sight, she put her pilot ashore and escaped into the Dominica channel. The pilot was a poor mulatto, who thought himself well paid with five hundred francs!

... The more popular route to Pelée by way of Morne Rouge is otherwise interesting... Anybody not too much afraid of the tropic sun must find it a delightful experience to follow the mountain roads leading to the interior from the city, as all the mornes traversed by them command landscapes of extraordinary beauty. According to the zigzags of the way, the scenery shifts panoramically. At one moment you are looking down into valleys a thousand feet below, at another, over luminous leagues of meadow or cane-field, you see some far crowding of cones and cratered shapes;-sharp as the teeth of a saw, and blue as sapphire,-with further eminences ranging away through pearline color to high-peaked remotenesses of vapory gold. As you follow the windings of such a way as the road of the Morne Labelle, or the Morne d'Orange, the city disappears and reappears many times,-always diminishing, till at last it looks no bigger than a chess-board. Simultaneously distant mountain shapes appear to unfold and lengthen;-and always, always the sea rises with your rising. Viewed at first from the bulwark (boulevard) commanding the roofs of the town, its horizon-line seemed straight and keen as a knife-edge;-but as you mount higher, it elongates, begins to curve; and gradually the whole azure expanse of water broadens out roundly like a disk. From certain very lofty summits further inland you behold the immense blue circle touching the sky all round you,-except where a still greater altitude, like that of Pelée or the Pitons, breaks the ring; and this high vision of the sea has a phantasmal effect hard to describe, and due to vapory conditions of the atmosphere. There are bright cloudless days when, even as seen from the city, the ocean-verge has a spectral vagueness; but on any day, in any season, that you ascend to a point dominating the sea by a thousand feet, the rim of the visible world takes a ghostliness that startles,-because the prodigious light gives to all near shapes such intense sharpness of outline and vividness of color.

Yet wonderful as are the perspective beauties of those mountain routes from which one can keep St. Pierre in view, the road to Morne Rouge surpasses them, notwithstanding that it almost immediately leaves the city behind, and out of sight. Excepting only La Trace,-the long route winding over mountain ridges and between primitive forests south to Fort-de-France,-there is probably no section of national highway in the island more remarkable than the Morne Rouge road. Leaving the Grande Rue by the public conveyance, you drive out through the Savane du Fort, with its immense mango and tamarind trees, skirting the Roxelane. Then reaching the boulevard, you pass high Morne Labelle,-and then the Jardin des Plantes on the right, where white-stemmed palms are lifting their heads two hundred feet,-and beautiful Parnasse, heavily timbered to the top;-while on your left the valley of the Roxelane shallows up, and Pelée shows less and less of

its tremendous base. Then you pass through the sleepy, palmy, pretty Village of the Three Bridges (Trois Ponts),-where a Fahrenheit thermometer shows already three degrees of temperature lower than at St. Pierre;-and the national road, making a sharp turn to the right, becomes all at once very steep-so steep that the horses can mount only at a walk. Around and between the wooded hills it ascends by zigzags,-occasionally overlooking the sea,-sometimes following the verges of ravines. Now and then you catch glimpses of the road over which you passed half an hour before undulating far below, looking narrow as a tape-line,-and of the gorge of the Roxelane,-and of Pelée, always higher, now thrusting out long spurs of green and purple land into the sea. You drive under cool shadowing of mountain woods-under waving bamboos like enormous ostrich feathers dyed green,-and exquisite tree-ferns thirty to forty feet high,-and imposing ceibas, with strangely buttressed trunks,-and all sorts of broad-leaved forms: cachibous, balisiers, bananiers.... Then you reach a plateau covered with cane, whose yellow expanse is bounded on the right by a demilune of hills sharply angled as crystals;-on the left it dips seaward; and before you Pelée's head towers over the shoulders of intervening mornes. A strong cool wind is blowing; and the horses can trot a while. Twenty minutes, and the road, leaving the plateau, becomes steep again;-you are approaching the volcano over the ridge of a colossal spur. The way turns in a semicircle,-zigzags,-once more touches the edge of a valley,-where the clear fall might be nearly fifteen hundred feet. But narrowing more and more, the valley becomes an ascending gorge; and across its chasm, upon the brow of the opposite cliff, you catch sight of houses and a spire seemingly perched on the verge, like so many birds'-nests,-the village of Morne Rouge. It is two thousand feet above the sea; and Pelée, although looming high over it, looks a trifle less lofty now.

One's first impression of Morne Rouge is that of a single straggling street of gray-painted cottages and shops (or rather booths), dominated by a plain church, with four pursy-bodied palmistes facing the main porch. Nevertheless, Morne Rouge is not a small place, considering its situation;-there are nearly five thousand inhabitants; but in order to find out where they live, you must leave the public road, which is on a ridge, and explore the high-hedged lanes leading down from it on either side. Then you will find a veritable city of little wooden cottages,-each screened about with banana-trees, Indian-reeds, and pommiers-roses. You will also see a number of handsome private residences-country-houses of wealthy merchants; and you will find that the church, though uninteresting exteriorly, is rich and impressive within: it is a famous shrine, where miracles are alleged to have been wrought. Immense processions periodically wend their way to it from St. Pierre,-starting at three or four o'clock in the morning, so as to arrive before the sun is well up.... But there are no woods here,-only fields. An odd tone is given to the lanes by a local custom of planting hedges of what are termed roseaux d' Inde, having a dark-red foliage; and there is a visible fondness for ornamental plants with crimson leaves. Otherwise the mountain summit is somewhat bare; trees have a scrubby aspect. You must have noticed while ascending that the palmistes became smaller as they were situated higher: at Morne Rouge they are dwarfed,-having a short stature, and very thick trunks.

In spite of the fine views of the sea, the mountain-heights, and the valley-reaches, obtainable from Morne Rouge, the place has a somewhat bleak look. Perhaps this is largely owing to the universal slate-gray tint of the buildings,-very melancholy by comparison with the apricot and banana yellows tinting the walls of St. Pierre. But this cheerless gray is the only color which can resist the climate of Morne Rouge, where people are literally dwelling in the clouds. Rolling down like white smoke from Pelée, these often create a dismal fog; and Morne Rouge is certainly one of the rainiest places in the world. When it is dry everywhere else, it rains at Morne Rouge. It rains at least three hundred and sixty days and three hundred and sixty nights of the year. It rains almost invariably once in every twenty-four hours; but oftener five or six times. The dampness is phenomenal. All mirrors become patchy; linen moulds in one day; leather turns while woollen goods feel as if saturated with moisture; new brass becomes green; steel crumbles into red powder; wood-work rots with astonishing rapidity; salt is quickly transformed into brine; and matches, unless kept in a very warm place, refuse to light. Everything moulders and peels and decomposes; even the frescos of the church-interior lump out in immense blisters; and a microscopic vegetation, green or brown, attacks all exposed surfaces of timber or stone. At night it is often really cold;-and it is hard to understand how, with all this dampness and coolness and mouldiness, Morne Rouge can be a healthy place. But it is so, beyond any question: it is the great Martinique resort for invalids; strangers debilitated by the climate of Trinidad or Cayenne come to it for recuperation.

Leaving the village by the still uprising road, you will be surprised, after a walk of twenty minutes northward, by a magnificent view,-the vast valley of the Champ-Flore, watered by many torrents, and bounded south and west by double, triple, and quadruple surging of mountains,-mountains broken, peaked, tormented-looking, and tinted (irisées, as the creoles say) with all those gem-tones distance gives in a West Indian atmosphere. Particularly impressive is the beauty of one purple cone in the midst of this many-colored chain: the Piton Gélé. All the valley-expanse of rich land is checkered with alternations of meadow and cane and cacao,-except northwestwardly, where woods billow out of sight beyond a curve. Facing this landscape, on your left, are mornes of various heights,-among which you will notice La Calebasse, overtopping everything but Pelée shadowing behind it;-and a grass-grown road leads up westward from the national highway towards the volcano. This is the Calebasse route to Pelée.

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