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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 7176

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


At five o'clock of a September morning, warm and starry, I leave St. Pierre in a carriage with several friends, to make the ascent by the shortest route of all,-that of the Morne St. Martin, one of Pelée's western counterforts. We drive north along the shore for about half an hour; then, leaving the coast behind, pursue a winding mountain road, leading to the upper plantations, between leagues of cane. The sky begins to brighten as we ascend, and a steely glow announces that day has begun on the other side of the island. Miles up, the crest of the volcano cuts sharp as a saw-edge against the growing light: there is not a cloud visible. Then the light slowly yellows behind the vast cone; and one of the most beautiful dawns I ever saw reveals on our right an immense valley through which three rivers flow. This deepens very quickly as we drive; the mornes about St. Pierre, beginning to catch the light, sink below us in distance; and above them, southwardly, an amazing silouette begins to rise,-all blue,-a mountain wall capped with cusps and cones, seeming high as Pelée itself in the middle, but sinking down to the sea-level westward. There are a number of extraordinary acuminations; but the most impressive shape is the nearest,-a tremendous conoidal mass crowned with a group of peaks, of which two, taller than the rest, tell their name at once by the beauty of their forms,-the Pitons of Carbet. They wear their girdles of cloud, though Pelée is naked to-day. All this is blue: the growing light only deepens the color, does not dissipate it;-but in the nearer valleys gleams of tender yellowish green begin to appear. Still the sun has not been able to show himself;-it will take him some time yet to climb Pelée.

Reaching the last plantation, we draw rein in a village of small wooden cottages,-the quarters of the field hands,-and receive from the proprietor, a personal friend of my friends, the kindest welcome. At his house we change clothing and prepare for the journey;-he provides for our horses, and secures experienced guides for us,-two young colored men belonging to the plantation. Then we begin the ascent. The guides walk before, barefoot, each carrying a cutlass in his hand and a package on his head-our provisions, photographic instruments, etc.

The mountain is cultivated in spots up to twenty-five hundred feet; and for three-quarters of an hour after leaving the planter's residence we still traverse fields of cane and of manioc. The light is now strong in the valley; but we are in the shadow of Pelée. Cultivated fields end at last; the ascending path is through wild cane, wild guavas, guinea-grass run mad, and other tough growths, some bearing pretty pink blossoms. The forest is before us. Startled by our approach, a tiny fer-de-lance glides out from a bunch of dead wild-cane, almost under the bare feet of our foremost guide, who as instantly decapitates it with a touch of his cutlass. It is not quite fifteen inches long, and almost the color of the yellowish leaves under which it had been hiding.... The conversation turns on snakes as we make our first halt at the verge of the woods.

Hundreds may be hiding around us; but a snake never shows himself by daylight except under the pressure of sudden alarm. We are not likely, in the opinion of all present, to meet with another. Every one in the party, except myself, has some curious experience to relate. I hear for the first time, about the alleged inability of the trigonocephalus to wound except at a distance from his enemy of not less than one-third of his length;-ab

out M. A-, a former director of the Jardin des Plantes, who used to boldly thrust his arm into holes where he knew snakes were, and pull them out,-catching them just behind the head and wrapping the tail round his arm,-and place them alive in a cage without ever getting bitten;-about M. B-, who, while hunting one day, tripped in the coils of an immense trigonocephalus, and ran so fast in his fright that the serpent, entangled round his leg, could not bite him;-about M. C-, who could catch a fer-de-lance by the tail, and "crack it like a whip" until the head would fly off;-about an old white man living in the Champ-Flore, whose diet was snake-meat, and who always kept in his ajoupa "a keg of salted serpents" (yon ka sèpent-salé);-about a monster eight feet long which killed, near Morne Rouge, M. Charles Fabre's white cat, but was also killed by the cat after she had been caught in the folds of the reptile;-about the value of snakes as protectors of the sugar-cane and cocoa-shrub against rats;-about an unsuccessful effort made, during a plague of rats in Guadeloupe, to introduce the fer-de-lance there;-about the alleged power of a monstrous toad, the crapaud-ladre, to cause the death of the snake that swallows it;-and, finally, about the total absence of the idyllic and pastoral elements in Martinique literature, as due to the presence of reptiles everywhere. "Even the flora and fauna of the country remain to a large extent unknown,"-adds the last speaker, an amiable old physician of St. Pierre,-"because the existence of the fer-de-lance renders all serious research dangerous in the extreme."

My own experiences do not justify my taking part in such a conversation;-I never saw alive but two very small specimens of the trigonocephalus. People who have passed even a considerable time in Martinique may have never seen a fer-de-lance except in a jar of alcohol, or as exhibited by negro snake-catchers, tied fast to a bamboo, But this is only because strangers rarely travel much in the interior of the country, or find themselves on country roads after sundown. It is not correct to suppose that snakes are uncommon even in the neighborhood of St. Pierre: they are often killed on the bulwarks behind the city and on the verge of the Savane; they have been often washed into the streets by heavy rains; and many washer-women at the Roxelane have been bitten by them. It is considered very dangerous to walk about the bulwarks after dark;-for the snakes, which travel only at night, then descend from the mornes towards the river, The Jardin des Plantes shelters great numbers of the reptiles; and only a few days prior to the writing of these lines a colored laborer in the garden was stricken and killed by a fer-de-lance measuring one metre and sixty-seven centimetres in length. In the interior much larger reptiles are sometimes seen: I saw one freshly killed measuring six feet five inches, and thick as a man's leg in the middle. There are few planters in the island who have not some of their hands bitten during the cane-cutting and cocoa-gathering seasons;-the average annual mortality among the class of travailleurs from serpent bite alone is probably fifty, [31]-always fine young men or women in the prime of life. Even among the wealthy whites deaths from this cause are less rare than might be supposed: I know one gentleman, a rich citizen of St, Pierre, who in ten years lost three relatives by the trigonocephalus,-the wound having in each case been received in the neighborhood of a vein. When the vein has been pierced, cure is impossible.

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