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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8367

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... We enter the upper belt of woods-green twilight again. There are as many lianas as ever: but they are less massive in stem;-the trees, which are stunted, stand closer together; and the web-work of roots is finer and more thickly spun. These are called the petits-bois (little woods), in contradistinction to the grands-bois, or high woods. Multitudes of balisiers, dwarf-palms, arborescent ferns, wild guavas, mingle with the lower growths on either side of the path, which has narrowed to the breadth of a wheel-rut, and is nearly concealed by protruding grasses and fern leaves. Never does the sole of the foot press upon a surface large as itself,-always the slippery backs of roots crossing at all angles, like loop-traps, over sharp fragments of volcanic rock or pumice-stone. There are abrupt descents, sudden acclivities, mud-holes, and fissures;-one grasps at the ferns on both sides to keep from falling; and some ferns are spiked sometimes on the under surface, and tear the hands. But the barefooted guides stride on rapidly, erect as ever under their loads,-chopping off with their cutlasses any branches that hang too low. There are beautiful flowers here,-various unfamiliar species of lobelia;-pretty red and yellow blossoms belonging to plants which the creole physician calls Bromeliacoe; and a plant like the Guy Lussacia of Brazil, with violet-red petals. There is an indescribable multitude of ferns,-a very museum of ferns! The doctor, who is a great woodsman, says that he never makes a trip to the hills without finding some new kind of fern; and he had already a collection of several hundred.

The route is continually growing steeper, and makes a number of turns and windings: we reach another bit of savane, where we have to walk over black-pointed stones that resemble slag;-then more petits-bois, still more dwarfed, then another opening. The naked crest of the volcano appears like a peaked precipice, dark-red, with streaks of green, over a narrow but terrific chasm on the left: we are almost on a level with the crater, but must make a long circuit to reach it, through a wilderness of stunted timber and bush. The creoles call this undergrowth razié: it is really only a prolongation of the low jungle which carpets the high forests below, with this difference, that there are fewer creepers and much more fern.... Suddenly we reach a black gap in the path about thirty inches wide-half hidden by the tangle of leaves,-La Fente. It is a volcanic fissure which divides the whole ridge, and is said to have no bottom: for fear of a possible slip, the guides insist upon holding our hands while we cross it. Happily there are no more such clefts; but there are mud-holes, snags, roots, and loose rocks beyond counting. Least disagreeable are the bourbiers, in which you sink to your knees in black or gray slime. Then the path descends into open light again;-and we find ourselves at the étang,-in the dead Crater of the Three Palmistes.

An immense pool, completely encircled by high green walls of rock, which shut out all further view, and shoot up, here and there, into cones, or rise into queer lofty humps and knobs. One of these elevations at the opposite side has almost the shape of a blunt horn: it is the Morne de la Croix. The scenery is at once imposing and sinister: the shapes towering above the lake and reflected in its still surface have the weirdness of things seen in photographs of the moon. Clouds are circling above them and between them;-one descends to the water, haunts us a moment, blurring everything; then rises again. We have travelled too slow; the clouds have had time to gather.

I look in vain for the Three Palmistes which gave the crater a name: they were destroyed long ago. But there are numbers of young ones scattered through the dense ferny covering of the lake-slopes,-just showing their heads like bunches of great dark-green feathers.

-The estimate of Dr. Rufz, made in 1851, and the estimate of the last "Annuaire" regarding the circumference of the lake, are evidently both at fault. That of the "Annuaire," 150 metres, is a gross error: the writer must have meant the diameter,-following Rufz,

who estimated the circumference at something over 300 paces. As we find it, the étang, which is nearly circular, must measure 200 yards across;-perhaps it has been greatly swollen by the extraordinary rains of this summer. Our guides say that the little iron cross projecting from the water about two yards off was high and dry on the shore last season. At present there is only one narrow patch of grassy bank on which we can rest, between the water and the walls of the crater.

The lake is perfectly clear, with a bottom of yellowish shallow mud, which rests-according to investigations made in 1851-upon a mass of pumice-stone mixed in places with ferruginous sand; and the yellow mud itself is a detritus of pumice-stone. We strip for a swim.

Though at an elevation of nearly 5000 feet, this water is not so cold as that of the Roxelane, nor of other rivers of the north-west and north-east coasts. It has an agreeable fresh taste, like dew. Looking down into it, I see many larvae of the maringouin, or large mosquito: no fish. The maringouins themselves are troublesome,-whirring around us and stinging. On striking out for the middle, one is surprised to feel the water growing slightly warmer. The committee of investigation in 1851 found the temperature of the lake, in spite of a north wind, 20.5 Centigrade, while that of the air was but 19 (about 69 F. for the water, and 66.2 for the air). The depth in the centre is over six feet; the average is scarcely four.

Regaining the bank, we prepare to ascend the Morne de la Croix. The circular path by which it is commonly reached is now under water; and we have to wade up to our waists. All the while clouds keep passing over us in great slow whirls. Some are white and half-transparent; others opaque and dark gray;-a dark cloud passing through; a white one looks like a goblin. Gaining the opposite shore, we find a very rough path over splintered stone, ascending between the thickest fern-growths possible to imagine. The general tone of this fern is dark green; but there are paler cloudings of yellow and pink,-due to the varying age of the leaves, which are pressed into a cushion three or four feet high, and almost solid enough to sit upon. About two hundred and fifty yards from the crater edge, the path rises above this tangle, and zigzags up the morne, which now appears twice as lofty as from the lake, where we had a curiously foreshortened view of it. It then looked scarcely a hundred feet high; it is more than double that. The cone is green to the top with moss, low grasses, small fern, and creeping pretty plants, like violets, with big carmine flowers. The path is a black line: the rock laid bare by it looks as if burned to the core. We have now to use our hands in climbing; but the low thick ferns give a good hold. Out of breath, and drenched in perspiration, we reach the apex,-the highest point of the island. But we are curtained about with clouds,-moving in dense white and gray masses: we cannot see fifty feet away.

The top of the peak has a slightly slanting surface of perhaps twenty square yards, very irregular in outline;-southwardly the morne pitches sheer into a frightful chasm, between the converging of two of those long corrugated ridges already described as buttressing the volcano on all sides. Through a cloud-rift we can see another crater-lake twelve hundred feet below-said to be five times larger than the étang we have just left: it is also of more irregular outline. This is called the étang Sec, or "Dry Pool," because dry in less rainy seasons. It occupies a more ancient crater, and is very rarely visited: the path leading to it is difficult and dangerous,-a natural ladder of roots and lianas over a series of precipices. Behind us the Crater of the Three Palmistes now looks no larger than the surface on which we stand;-over its further boundary we can see the wall of another gorge, in which there is a third crater-lake. West and north are green peakings, ridges, and high lava walls steep as fortifications. All this we can only note in the intervals between passing of clouds. As yet there is no landscape visible southward;-we sit down and wait.

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