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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 5910

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... Slowly the knowledge comes.... For months the vitality of a strong European (the American constitution bears the test even better) may resist the debilitating climate: perhaps the stranger will flatter himself that, like men habituated to heavy labor in stifling warmth,-those toiling in mines, in founderies in engine-rooms of ships, at iron-furnaces,-so he too may become accustomed, without losing his strength to the continuous draining of the pores, to the exhausting force of this strange motionless heat which compels change of clothing many times a day. But gradually he finds that it is not heat alone which is debilitating him, but the weight and septic nature of an atmosphere charged with vapor, with electricity, with unknown agents not less inimical to human existence than propitious to vegetal luxuriance. If he has learned those rules of careful living which served him well in a temperate climate, he will not be likely to abandon them among his new surroundings; and they will help him; no doubt,-particularly if he be prudent enough to avoid the sea-coast at night, and all exposure to dews or early morning mists, and all severe physical strain. Nevertheless, he becomes slowly conscious of changes extraordinary going on within him,-in especial, a continual sensation of weight in the brain, daily growing, and compelling frequent repose;-also a curious heightening of nervous sensibility to atmospheric changes, to tastes and odors, to pleasure and pain. Total loss of appetite soon teaches him to follow the local custom of eating nothing solid before mid-day, and enables him to divine how largely the necessity for caloric enters into the food-consumption of northern races. He becomes abstemious, eats sparingly, and discovers his palate to have become oddly exacting-finds that certain fruits and drinks are indeed, as the creoles assert, appropriate only to particular physical conditions corresponding with particular hours of the day. Corossole is only to be eaten in the morning, after black coffee;-vermouth is good to drink only between the hours of nine and half-past ten;-rum or other strong liquor only before meals or after fatigue;-claret or wine only during a repast, and then very sparingly,-for, strangely enough, wine is found to be injurious in a country where stronger liquors are considered among the prime necessaries of existence.

And he expected, at the worst, to feel lazy, to lose some physical energy! But this is no mere languor which now begins to oppress him;-it is a sense of vital exhaustion painful as the misery of convalescence: the least effort provokes a perspiration profuse enough to saturate clothing, and the limbs ache as from muscular overstrain;-the lightest attire feels almost insupportable;-the idea of sleeping even under a sheet is torture, for the weight of a silken handkerchief is discomfort. One wishes one could live as a savage,-naked in the heat. One burns with a thi

rst impossible to assuage-feels a desire for stimulants, a sense of difficulty in breathing, occasional quickenings of the heart's action so violent as to alarm. Then comes at last the absolute dread of physical exertion. Some slight relief might be obtained, no doubt, by resigning oneself forthwith to adopt the gentle indolent manners of the white creoles, who do not walk when it is possible to ride, and never ride if it is equally convenient to drive;-but the northern nature generally refuses to accept this ultimate necessity without a protracted and painful struggle.

... Not even then has the stranger fully divined the evil power of this tropical climate, which remodels the characters of races within a couple of generations,-changing the shape of the skeleton,-deepening the cavities of the orbits to protect the eye from the flood of light,-transforming the blood,-darkening the skin. Following upon the nervous modifications of the first few months come modifications and changes of a yet graver kind;-with the loss of bodily energy ensues a more than corresponding loss of mental activity and strength. The whole range of thought diminishes, contracts,-shrinks to that narrowest of circles which surrounds the physical sell, the inner ring of merely material sensation: the memory weakens appallingly;-the mind operates faintly, slowly, incoherently,-almost as in dreams. Serious reading, vigorous thinking, become impossible. You doze over the most important project;-you fall fast asleep over the most fascinating of books.

Then comes the vain revolt, the fruitless desperate striving with this occult power which numbs the memory and enchants the will. Against the set resolve to think, to act, to study, there is a hostile rush of unfamiliar pain to the temples, to the eyes, to the nerve centres of the brain; and a great weight is somewhere in the head, always growing heavier: then comes a drowsiness that overpowers and stupefies, like the effect of a narcotic. And this obligation to sleep, to sink into coma, will impose itself just so surely as you venture to attempt any mental work in leisure hours, after the noon repast, or during the heat of the afternoon. Yet at night you can scarcely sleep. Repose is made feverish by a still heat that keeps the skin drenched with thick sweat, or by a perpetual, unaccountable, tingling and prickling of the whole body-surface. With the approach of morning the air grows cooler, and slumber comes,-a slumber of exhaustion, dreamless and sickly; and perhaps when you would rise with the sun you feel such a dizziness, such a numbness, such a torpor, that only by the most intense effort can you keep your feet for the first five minutes. You experience a sensation that recalls the poet's fancy of death-in-life, or old stories of sudden rising from the grave: it is as though all the electricity of will had ebbed away,-all the vital force evaporated, in the heat of the night....

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