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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 5782

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


It might be stated, I think, with safety, that for a certain class of invalids the effect of the climate is like a powerful stimulant,-a tonic medicine which may produce astonishing results within a fixed time,-but which if taken beyond that time will prove dangerous. After a certain number of months, your first enthusiasm with your new surroundings dies out;-even Nature ceases to affect the senses in the same way: the frisson ceases to come to you. Meanwhile you may have striven to become as much as possible a part of the exotic life into which you have entered,-may have adopted its customs, learned its language. But you cannot mix with it mentally;-You circulate only as an oil-drop in its current. You still feel yourself alone.

The very longest West Indian day is but twelve hours fifty-six minutes;-perhaps your first dissatisfaction was evoked by the brevity of the days. There is no twilight whatever; and all activity ceases with sundown: there is no going outside of the city after dark, because of snakes;-club life here ends at the hour it only begins abroad;-there is no visiting of evenings; after the seven o'clock dinner, everyone prepares to retire. And the foreigner, accustomed to make evening a time for social intercourse, finds no small difficulty in resigning himself to this habit of early retiring. The natural activity of a European or American mind requires some intellectual exercise,-at least some interchange of ideas with sympathetic natures; the hours during the suspension of business after noon, or those following the closing of offices at sunset, are the only ones in which busy men may find time for such relaxation; and these very hours have been always devoted to restorative sleep by the native population ever since the colony began. Naturally, therefore, the stranger dreads the coming of the darkness, the inevitable isolation of long sleepless hours. And if he seek those solaces for loneliness which he was wont to seek at home,-reading, study,-he is made to comprehend, as never before, what the absence of all libraries, lack of books, inaccessibility of all reading-matter, means for the man of the nineteenth century. One must send abroad to obtain even a review, and wait months for its coming. And this mental starvation gnaws at the brain more and more as one feels less inclination and less capacity for effort, and as that single enjoyment, which at first rendered a man indifferent to other pleasures,-the delight of being alone with tropical Nature,-becomes more difficult to indulge. When lethargy has totally mastered habit and purpose, and you must at last confess yourself resigned to view Nature from your chamber, or at best from a carriage window,-then, indeed, the want of all literature proves a positive torture. It is not a consolation to discover that you are an almost solitary sufferer,-from climate as well as

from mental hunger. With amazement and envy you see young girls passing to walk right across the island and back before sunset, under burdens difficult for a strong man to lift to his shoulder;-the same journey on horseback would now weary you for days. You wonder of what flesh and blood can these people be made,-what wonderful vitality lies in those slender woman-bodies, which, under the terrible sun, and despite their astounding expenditure of force, remain cool to the sight and touch as bodies of lizards and serpents! And contrasting this savage strength with your own weakness, you begin to understand better how mighty the working of those powers which temper races and shape race habits in accordance with environment.

... Ultimately, if destined for acclimatation, you will cease to suffer from these special conditions; but ere this can be, a long period of nervous irritability must be endured; and fevers must thin the blood, soften the muscles, transform the Northern tint of health to a dead brown. You will have to learn that intellectual pursuits can be persisted in only at risk of life;-that in this part of the world there is nothing to do but to plant cane and cocoa, and make rum, and cultivate tobacco,-or open a magazine for the sale of Madras handkerchiefs and foulards,-and eat, drink, sleep, perspire. You will understand why the tropics settled by European races produce no sciences, arts, or literature,-why the habits and the thoughts of other centuries still prevail where Time itself moves slowly as though enfeebled by the heat.

And with the compulsory indolence of your life, the long exacerbation of the nervous system, will come the first pain of nostalgia,-the first weariness of the tropics. It is not that Nature can become ever less lovely to your sight; but that the tantalization of her dangerous beauty, which you may enjoy only at a safe distance, exasperates at last. The colors that at first bewitched will vex your eyes by their violence;-the creole life that appeared so simple, so gentle, will reveal dulnesses and discomforts undreamed of. You will ask yourself how much longer can you endure the prodigious light, and the furnace heat of blinding blue days, and the void misery of sleepless nights, and the curse of insects, and the sound of the mandibles of enormous roaches devouring the few books in your possession. You will grow weary of the grace of the palms, of the gemmy colors of the ever-clouded peaks, of the sight of the high woods made impenetrable by lianas and vines and serpents. You will weary even of the tepid sea, because to enjoy it as a swimmer you must rise and go out at hours while the morning air is still chill and heavy with miasma;-you will weary, above all, of tropic fruits, and feel that you would gladly pay a hundred francs for the momentary pleasure of biting into one rosy juicy Northern apple.

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