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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8184

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... Two crosses are planted nearly at the verge of the precipice; a small one of iron; and a large one of wood-probably the same put up by the Abbé Lespinasse during the panic of 1851, after the eruption. This has been splintered to pieces by a flash of lightning; and the fragments are clumsily united with cord. There is also a little tin plate let into a slit in a black post: it bears a date,-8 Avril, 1867.... The volcanic vents, which were active in 1851, are not visible from the peak: they are in the gorge descending from it, at a point nearly on a level with the étang Sec.

The ground gives out a peculiar hollow sound when tapped, and is covered with a singular lichen,-all composed of round overlapping leaves about one-eighth of an inch in diameter, pale green, and tough as fish-scales. Here and there one sees a beautiful branching growth, like a mass of green coral: it is a gigantic moss. Cabane-Jésus ("bed of-Jesus") the patois name is: at Christmas-time, in all the churches, those decorated cribs in which the image of the Child-Saviour is laid are filled with it. The creeping crimson violet is also here. Fire-flies with bronze-green bodies are crawling about;-I notice also small frogs, large gray crickets, and a species of snail with a black shell. A solitary humming-bird passes, with a beautiful blue head, flaming like sapphire. All at once the peak vibrates to a tremendous sound from somewhere below.... It is only a peal of thunder; but it startled at first, because the mountain rumbles and grumbles occasionally.... From the wilderness of ferns about the lake a sweet long low whistle comes-three times;-a siffleur-de-montagne has its nest there. There is a rain-storm over the woods beneath us: clouds now hide everything but the point on which we rest; the crater of the Palmistes becomes invisible. But it is only for a little while that we are thus befogged: a wind comes, blows the clouds over us, lifts them up and folds them like a drapery, and slowly whirls them away northward. And for the first time the view is clear over the intervening gorge,-now spanned by the rocket-leap of a perfect rainbow.

... Valleys and mornes, peaks and ravines,-succeeding each other swiftly as surge succeeds surge in a storm,-a weirdly tossed world, but beautiful as it is weird: all green the foreground, with all tints of green, shadowing off to billowy distances of purest blue. The sea-line remains invisible as ever: you know where it is only by the zone of pale light ringing the double sphericity of sky and ocean. And in this double blue void the island seems to hang suspended: far peaks seem to come up from nowhere, to rest on nothing-like forms of mirage. Useless to attempt photography;-distances take the same color as the sea. Vauclin's truncated mass is recognizable only by the shape of its indigo shadows. All is vague, vertiginous;-the land still seems to quiver with the prodigious forces that up-heaved it.

High over all this billowing and peaking tower the Pitons of Carbet, gem-violet through the vapored miles,-the tallest one filleted with a single soft white band of cloud. Through all the wonderful chain of the Antilles you might seek in vain for other peaks exquisite of form as these. Their beauty no less surprises the traveller today than it did Columbus three hundred and eighty-six years ago, when-on the thirteenth day of June, 1502-his caravel first sailed into sight of them, and he asked his Indian guide the name of the unknown land, and the names of those marvellous shapes. Then, according to Pedro Martyr de Anghiera, the Indian answered that the name of the island was Madiana; that those peaks had been venerated from immemorial time by the ancient peoples of the archipelago as the birthplace of the human race; and that the first brown habitants of Madiana, having been driven from their natural heritage by the man-eating pirates of the south-the cannibal Caribs,-remembered and mourned for their sacred mountains, and gave the names of them, for a memory, to the loftiest summits of their new home,-Hayti....

Surely never was fairer spot hallowed by the legend of man's nursing-place than the valley blue-shadowed by those peaks,-worthy, for their gracious femininity of shape, to seem the visible breasts of the All-nourishing Mother,-dreaming under this tropic sun.

Touching the zone of pale light north-east, appears a beautiful peaked silhouette,-Dominica. We had hoped to perceive Saint Lucia; but the atmosphere is too heavily charged with vapor to-day. How magnificent must be the view on certain extraordinary days, when it reaches from Antigua to the Grenadines-over a range of three hundred miles! But the atmospheric conditions which allow of such a spectacle are rare indeed. As a general rule, even in the most unclouded West Indian weather, the loftiest peaks fade into the light at a distance of one hundred miles.

A sharp ridge covered with fern cuts off the view of the northern slopes: one must climb it to look down upon Macouba. Macouba occupies the steepest slope of Pelée, and the grimmest part of the coast: its little chef-lieu is industrially famous for the manufacture of native tobacco, and historically for the ministrations of Père Labat, who rebuilt its church. Little change has taken place in the parish since his time. "Do you know Macouba?" asks a native writer;-"it is not Pelion upon Ossa, but ten or twelve Pelions side by side with ten or twelve Ossae, interseparated by prodigious ravines. Men can speak to each other from places whence, by rapid walking, it would require hours to meet;-to travel there is to experience on dry land the sensation of the sea."

With the diminution of the warmth provoked by the exertion of climbing, you begin to notice how cool it feels;-you could almost doubt the testimony of your latitude. Directly east is Senegambia: we are well south of Timbuctoo and the Sahara,-on a line with southern India. The ocean has cooled the winds; at this altitude the rarity of the air is northern; but in the valleys below the vegetation is African. The best alimentary plants, the best forage, the flowers of the gardens, are of Guinea;-the graceful date-palms are from the Atlas region: those tamarinds, whose thick shade stifles all other vegetal life beneath it, are from Senegal. Only, in the touch of the air, the vapory colors of distance, the shapes of the hills, there is a something not of Africa: that strange fascination which has given to the island its poetic creole name,-le Pays de Revenants. And the charm is as puissant in our own day as it was more than two hundred years ago, when Père Dutertre wrote:-"I have never met one single man, nor one single woman, of all those who came back therefrom, in whom I have not remarked a most passionate desire to return thereunto."

Time and familiarity do not weaken the charm, either for those born among these scenes who never voyaged beyond their native island, or for those to whom the streets of Paris and the streets of St. Pierre are equally well known. Even at a time when Martinique had been forsaken by hundreds of her ruined planters, and the paradise-life of the old days had become only a memory to embitter exile,-a Creole writes:-

"Let there suddenly open before you one of those vistas, or anses, with colonnades of cocoa-palm-at the end of which you see smoking the chimney of a sugar-mill, and catch a glimpse of the hamlet of negro cabins (cases);-or merely picture to yourself one of the most ordinary, most trivial scenes: nets being hauled by two ranks of fishermen; a canot waiting for the embellie to make a dash for the beach; even a negro bending under the weight of a basket of fruits, and running along the shore to get to market;-and illuminate that with the light of our sun! What landscapes!-O Salvator Rosa! 0 Claude Lorrain,-if I had your pencil!... Well do I remember the day on which, after twenty years of absence, I found myself again in presence of these wonders;-I feel once more the thrill of delight that made all my body tremble, the tears that came to my eyes. It was my land, my own land, that appeared so beautiful."... [34]

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