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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8334

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... More finely than any term in our tongue does the French word frisson express that faint shiver-as of a ghostly touch thrilling from hair to feet-which intense pleasure sometimes gives, and which is felt most often and most strongly in childhood, when the imagination is still so sensitive and so powerful that one's whole being trembles to the vibration of a fancy. And this electric word best expresses, I think, that long thrill of amazed delight inspired by the first knowledge of the tropic world,-a sensation of weirdness in beauty, like the effect, in child-days, of fairy tales and stories of phantom isles.

For all unreal seems the vision of it. The transfiguration of all things by the stupendous light and the strange vapors of the West Indian sea,-the interorbing of flood and sky in blinding azure,-the sudden spirings of gem-tinted coast from the ocean,-the iris-colors and astounding shapes of the hills,-the unimaginable magnificence of palms,-the high woods veiled and swathed in vines that blaze like emerald: all remind you in some queer way of things half forgotten,-the fables of enchantment. Enchantment it is indeed-but only the enchantment of that Great Wizard, the Sun, whose power you are scarcely beginning to know.

And into the life of the tropical city you enter as in dreams one enters into the life of a dead century. In all the quaint streets-over whose luminous yellow fa?ades the beautiful burning violet of the sky appears as if but a few feet away-you see youth good to look upon as ripe fruit; and the speech of the people is soft as a coo; and eyes of brown girls caress you with a passing look.... Love's world, you may have heard, has few restraints here, where Nature ever seems to cry out, like the swart seller of corossoles:-"?a qui le doudoux?"...

How often in some passing figure does one discern an ideal almost realized, and forbear to follow it with untired gaze only when another, another, and yet another, come to provoke the same aesthetic fancy,-to win the same unspoken praise! How often does one long for artist's power to fix the fleeting lines, to catch the color, to seize the whole exotic charm of some special type!... One finds a strange charm even in the timbre of these voices,-these half-breed voices, always with a tendency to contralto, and vibrant as ringing silver. What is that mysterious quality in a voice which has power to make the pulse beat faster, even when the singer is unseen?... do only the birds know?

... It seems to you that you could never weary of watching this picturesque life,-of studying the costumes, brilliant with butterfly colors,-and the statuesque semi-nudity of laboring hundreds,-and the untaught grace of attitudes,-and the simplicity of manners. Each day brings some new pleasure of surprise;-even from the window of your lodging you are ever noting something novel, something to delight the sense of oddity or beauty.... Even in your room everything interests you, because of its queerness or quaintness: you become fond of the objects about you,-the great noiseless rocking-chairs that lull to sleep;-the immense bed (lit-à-bateau) of heavy polished wood, with its richly carven sides reaching down to the very floor;-and its invariable companion, the little couch or sopha, similarly shaped but much narrower, used only for the siesta;-and the thick red earthen vessels (dobannes) which keep your drinking-water cool on the hottest days, but which are always filled thrice between sunrise and sunset with clear water from the mountain,-dleau toutt vivant, "all alive";-and the verrines, tall glass vases with stems of bronze in which your candle will burn steadily despite a draught;-and even those funny little angels and Virgins which look at you from their bracket in the corner, over the oil lamp you are presumed to kindle nightly in their honor, however great a heretic you may be.... You adopt at once, and without reservation, those creole home habits which are the result of centuries of experience with climate,-abstention from solid food before the middle of the day, repose after the noon meal;-and you find each repast an experience as c

urious as it is agreeable. It is not at all difficult to accustom oneself to green pease stewed with sugar, eggs mixed with tomatoes, salt fish stewed in milk, palmiste pith made into salad, grated cocoa formed into rich cakes, and dishes of titiri cooked in oil,-the minuscule fish, of which a thousand will scarcely fill a saucer. Above all, you are astonished by the endless variety of vegetables and fruits, of all conceivable shapes and inconceivable flavors.

And it does not seem possible that even the simplest little recurrences of this antiquated, gentle home-life could ever prove wearisome by daily repetition through the months and years. The musical greeting of the colored child, tapping at your door before sunrise,-"Bonjou', Missié,"-as she brings your cup of black hot coffee and slice of corossole;-the smile of the silent brown girl who carries your meals up-stairs in a tray poised upon her brightly coiffed head, and who stands by while you dine, watching every chance to serve, treading quite silently with her pretty bare feet;-the pleasant manners of the màchanne who brings your fruit, the porteuse who delivers your bread, the blanchisseuse who washes your linen at the river,-and all the kindly folk who circle about your existence, with their trays and turbans, their foulards and douillettes, their primitive grace and creole chatter: these can never cease to have a charm for you. You cannot fail to be touched also by the amusing solicitude of these good people for your health, because you are a stranger: their advice about hours to go out and hours to stay at home,-about roads to follow and paths to avoid on account of snakes,-about removing your hat and coat, or drinking while warm.... Should you fall ill, this solicitude intensifies to devotion; you are tirelessly tended;-the good people will exhaust their wonderful knowledge of herbs to get you well,-will climb the mornes even at midnight, in spite of the risk of snakes and fear of zombis, to gather strange plants by the light of a lantern. Natural joyousness, natural kindliness, heart-felt desire to please, childish capacity of being delighted with trifles,-seem characteristic of all this colored population. It is turning its best side towards you, no doubt; but the side of the nature made visible appears none the less agreeable because you suspect there is another which you have not seen. What kindly inventiveness is displayed in contriving surprises for you, or in finding some queer thing to show you,-some fantastic plant, or grotesque fish, or singular bird! What apparent pleasure in taking trouble to gratify,-what innocent frankness of sympathy!... Childishly beautiful seems the readiness of this tinted race to compassionate: you do not reflect that it is also a savage trait, while the charm of its novelty is yet upon you. No one is ashamed to shed tears for the death of a pet animal; any mishap to a child creates excitement, and evokes an immediate volunteering of services. And this compassionate sentiment is often extended, in a semi-poetical way, even to inanimate objects. One June morning, I remember, a three-masted schooner lying in the bay took fire, and had to be set adrift. An immense crowd gathered on the wharves; and I saw many curious manifestations of grief,-such grief, perhaps, as an infant feels for the misfortune of a toy it imagines to possess feeling, but not the less sincere because unreasoning. As the flames climbed the rigging, and the masts fell, the crowd moaned as though looking upon some human tragedy; and everywhere one could hear such strange cries of pity as, "Pauv' malhérè!" (poor unfortunate), "pauv' diabe!"... "Toutt bagga?e-y pou allé, casse!" (All its things-to-go-with are broken!) sobbed a girl, with tears streaming down her cheeks.... She seemed to believe it was alive....

... And day by day the artlessness of this exotic humanity touches you more;-day by day this savage, somnolent, splendid Nature-delighting in furious color-bewitches you more. Already the anticipated necessity of having to leave it all some day-the far-seen pain of bidding it farewell-weighs upon you, even in dreams.

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