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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 12462

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


One might almost say that commercial time in St. Pierre is measured by cannon-shots,-by the signal-guns of steamers. Every such report announces an event of extreme importance to the whole population. To the merchant it is a notification that mails, money, and goods have arrived;-to consuls and Government officials it gives notice of fees and dues to be collected;-for the host of lightermen, longshoremen, port laborers of all classes, it promises work and pay;-for all it signifies the arrival of food. The island does not feed itself: cattle, salt meats, hams, lard, flour, cheese, dried fish, all come from abroad,-particularly from America. And in the minds of the colored population the American steamer is so intimately associated with the idea of those great tin cans in which food-stuffs are brought from the United States, that the onomatope applied to the can, because of the sound outgiven by it when tapped,-bom!-is also applied to the ship itself. The English or French or Belgian steamer, however large, is only known as packett-à, batiment-là; but the American steamer is always the "bom-ship"-batiment-bom-à, or, the "food-ship"-batiment-mangé-à.... You hear women and men asking each other, as the shock of the gun flaps through all the town, "Mi! gadé ?a qui là, chè?" And if the answer be, "Mais c'est bom-là, chè,-bom-mangé-à ka rivé" (Why, it is the bom, dear,-the food-bom that has come), great is the exultation.

Again, because of the sound of her whistle, we find a steamer called in this same picturesque idiom, batiment-c?ne,-"the horn-ship." There is even a song, of which the refrain is:-

"Bom-là rivé, chè.-Batiment-c?ne-là rivé."

... But of all the various classes of citizens, those most joyously excited by the coming of a great steamer, whether she be a "bom" or not,-are the 'ti canotié, who swarm out immediately in little canoes of their own manufacture to dive for coins which passengers gladly throw into the water for the pleasure of witnessing the graceful spectacle. No sooner does a steamer drop anchor-unless the water be very rough indeed-than she is surrounded by a fleet of the funniest little boats imaginable, full of naked urchins screaming creole.

These 'ti canotié-these little canoe-boys and professional divers-are, for the most part, sons of boatmen of color, the real canotiers. I cannot find who first invented the 'ti canot: the shape and dimensions of the little canoe are fixed according to a tradition several generations old; and no improvements upon the original model seem to have ever been attempted, with the sole exception of a tiny water-tight box contrived sometimes at one end, in which the palettes, or miniature paddles, and various other trifles may be stowed away. The actual cost of material for a canoe of this kind seldom exceeds twenty-five or thirty cents; and, nevertheless, the number of canoes is not very large-I doubt if there be more than fifteen in the harbor;-as the families of Martinique boatmen are all so poor that twenty-five sous are difficult to spare, in spite of the certainty that the little son can earn fifty times the amount within a month after owning a canoe.

For the manufacture of a Canoe an American lard-box or kerosene-oil box is preferred by reason of its shape; but any well-constructed shipping-case of small size would serve the purpose. The top is removed; the sides and the corners of the bottom are sawn out at certain angles; and the pieces removed are utilized for the sides of the bow and stern,-sometimes also in making the little box for the paddles, or palettes, which are simply thin pieces of tough wood about the form and size of a cigar-box lid. Then the little boat is tarred and varnished: it cannot sink,-though it is quite easily upset. There are no seats. The boys (there are usually two to each canot) simply squat down in the bottom,-facing each other, they can paddle with surprising swiftness over a smooth sea; and it is a very pretty sight to witness one of their prize contests in racing,-which take place every 14th of July....

... It was five o'clock in the afternoon: the horizon beyond the harbor was turning lemon-color;-and a thin warm wind began to come in weak puffs from the south-west,-the first breaths to break the immobility of the tropical air. Sails of vessels becalmed at the entrance of the bay commenced to flap lazily: they might belly after sundown.

The La Guayra was in port, lying well out: her mountainous iron mass rising high above the modest sailing craft moored in her vicinity,-barks and brigantines and brigs and schooners and barkentines. She had lain before the town the whole afternoon, surrounded by the entire squadron of 'ti canots; and the boys were still circling about her flanks, although she had got up steam and was lifting her anchor. They had been very lucky, indeed, that afternoon,-all the little canotiers;-and even many yellow lads, not fortunate enough to own canoes, had swum out to her in hope of sharing the silver shower falling from her saloon-deck. Some of these, tired out, were resting themselves by sitting on the slanting cables of neighboring ships. Perched naked thus,-balancing in the sun, against the blue of sky or water, their slender bodies took such orange from the mellowing light as to seem made of some self-luminous substance,-flesh of sea-fairies....

Suddenly the La Guayra opened her steam-throat and uttered such a moo that all the mornes cried out for at least a minute after;-and the little fellows perched on the cables of the sailing craft tumbled into the sea at the sound and struck out for shore. Then the water all at once burst backward in immense frothing swirls from beneath the stern of the steamer; and there arose such a heaving as made all the little canoes dance. The La Guayra was moving. She moved slowly at first, making a great fuss as she turned round: then she began to settle down to her journey very majestically,-just making the water pitch a little behind her, as the hem of a woman's robe tosses lightly at her heels while she walks.

And, contrary to custom, some of the canoes followed after her. A dark handsome man, wearing an immense Panama hat, and jewelled rin

gs upon his hands, was still throwing money; and still the boys dived for it. But only one of each crew now plunged; for, though the La Guayra was yet moving slowly, it was a severe strain to follow her, and there was no time to be lost.

The captain of the little band-black Maximilien, ten years old, and his comrade Stéphane-nicknamed Ti Chabin, because of his bright hair,-a slim little yellow boy of eleven-led the pursuit, crying always, "Encò, Missié,-encò!"...

The La Guayra had gained fully two hundred yards when the handsome passenger made his final largess,-proving himself quite an expert in flinging coin. The piece fell far short of the boys, but near enough to distinctly betray a yellow shimmer as it twirled to the water. That was gold!

In another minute the leading canoe had reached the spot, the other canotiers voluntarily abandoning the quest,-for it was little use to contend against Maximilien and Stéphane, who had won all the canoe contests last 14th of July. Stéphane, who was the better diver, plunged.

He was much longer below than usual, came up at quite a distance, panted as he regained the canoe, and rested his arms upon it. The water was so deep there, he could not reach the coin the first time, though he could see it: he was going to try again,-it was gold, sure enough.

-"Fouinq! ?a fond i?itt!" he gasped.

Maximilien felt all at once uneasy. Very deep water, and perhaps sharks. And sunset not far off! The La Guayra was diminishing in the offing.

-"Boug-là 'lé fai nou néyé!-laissé y, Stéphane!" he cried. (The fellow wants to drown us. Laissé-leave it alone.)

But Stéphane had recovered breath, and was evidently resolved to try again. It was gold!

-"Mais ?a c'est lò!"

-"Assez, non!" screamed Maximilien. "Pa plongé 'ncò, moin ka di ou! Ah! foute!"...

Stéphane had dived again!

... And where were the others? "Bon-Dié, gadé oti yo yé!" They were almost out of sight,-tiny specks moving shoreward.... The La Guayra now seemed no bigger than the little packet running between St. Pierre and Fort-de-France.

Up came Stéphane again, at a still greater distance than before,-holding high the yellow coin in one hand. He made for the canoe, and Maximilien paddled towards him and helped him in. Blood was streaming from the little diver's nostrils, and blood colored the water he spat from his mouth.

-"Ah! moin té ka di ou laissé y!" cried Maximilien, in anger and alarm.... "Gàdé, gàdé sang-à ka coulé nans nez ou,-nans bouche ou!...Mi oti Iézautt!"

Lèzautt, the rest, were no longer visible.

-"Et mi oti nou yé!" cried Maximilien again. They had never ventured so far from shore.

But Stéphane answered only, "C'est lò!" For the first time in his life he held a piece of gold in his fingers. He tied it up in a little rag attached to the string fastened about his waist,-a purse of his own invention,-and took up his paddles, coughing the while and spitting crimson.

-"Mi! mi!-mi oti nou yé!" reiterated Maximilien. "Bon-Dié! look where we are!"

The Place had become indistinct;-the light-house, directly behind half an hour earlier, now lay well south: the red light had just been kindled. Seaward, in advance of the sinking orange disk of the sun, was the La Guayra, passing to the horizon. There was no sound from the shore: about them a great silence had gathered,-the Silence of seas, which is a fear. Panic seized them: they began to paddle furiously.

But St. Pierre did not appear to draw any nearer. Was it only an effect of the dying light, or were they actually moving towards the semicircular cliffs of Fond Corré?... Maximilien began to cry. The little chabin paddled on,-though the blood was still trickling over his breast.

Maximilien screamed out to him:-

-"Ou pa ka pagayé,-anh?-ou ni bousoin dòmi?" (Thou dost not paddle, eh?-thou wouldst go to sleep?)

-"Si! moin ka pagayé,-epi fò!" (I am paddling, and hard, too!) responded Stéphane....

-"Ou ka pagayé!-ou ka menti!" (Thou art paddling!-thou liest!) vociferated Maximilien.... "And the fault is all thine. I cannot, all by myself, make the canoe to go in water like this! The fault is all thine: I told thee not to dive, thou stupid!"

-"Ou fou!" cried Stéphane, becoming angry. "Moin ka pagayé!" (I am paddling.)

-"Beast! never may we get home so! Paddle, thou lazy!-paddle, thou nasty!"

-"Macaque thou!-monkey!"

-"Chabin!-must be chabin, for to be stupid so!"

-"Thou black monkey!-thou species of ouistiti!"

-"Thou tortoise-of-the-land!-thou slothful more than molocoye!"

-"Why, thou cursed monkey, if thou sayest I do not paddle, thou dost not know how to paddle!"...

... But Maximilien's whole expression changed: he suddenly stopped paddling, and stared before him and behind him at a great violet band broadening across the sea northward out of sight; and his eyes were big with terror as he cried out:-

-"Mais ni qui chose qui dou?le i?itt!... There is something queer, Stéphane; there is something queer."...

-"Ah! you begin to see now, Maximilien!-it is the current!"

-"A devil-current, Stéphane.... We are drifting: we will go to the horizon!"...

To the horizon-"nou kallé lhorizon!"-a phrase of terrible picturesqueness.... In the creole tongue, "to the horizon" signifies to the Great Open-into the measureless sea.

-"C'est pa lapeine pagayé atouèlement" (It is no use to paddle now), sobbed Maximilien, laying down his palettes.

-"Si! si!" said Stéphane, reversing the motion: "paddle with the current."

-"With the current! It runs to La Dominique!"

-"Pouloss," phlegmatically returned Stéphane,-"ennou!-let us make for La Dominique!"

-"Thou fool!-it is more than past forty kilometres.... Stéphane, mi! gadé!-mi quz" gou?s requ'em!"

A long black fin cut the water almost beside them, passed, and vanished,-a requin indeed! But, in his patois, the boy almost re-echoed the name as uttered by quaint Père Dutertre, who, writing of strange fishes more than two hundred years ago, says it is called REQUIEM, because for the man who findeth himself alone with it in the midst of the sea, surely a requiem must be sung.

-"Do not paddle, Stéphane!-do not put thy hand in the water again!"

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