Tour Of The Caribbean - The Last Night in St. Pierre
( Originally Published 1925 )
WHEN visiting St. Pierre I found among the ruins of a small house on the seaward side of Rue Victor Hugo a very homely object, buried under much dust and miscellaneous debris—a bedroom candlestick. It was of enamelled iron, white, and lacking in all pretension.
One may imagine (and there is none living to gainsay the conceit) that it belonged to some fille de couleur, some 'ti Marie whose madras and shoulder scarf once helped to make bright the streets of St. Pierre. It may be supposed that the candle was lit early on the night of May 7, for it would be dark by seven, and the electric light upon which the town depended had failed.
Marie—it would be safe to guess—has lost her buoyant gaiety, There is something solemn and portentous in the air. She opens the casement and looks out into the street. All the laughter and sparkle seem to have left the debonair city. It is strangely silent. To-morrow is a holiday, the fete of the Ascension, and the Grande Rue should be thronged at this time of the evening. The whole roadway is covered deep in dust. A light streaming from an open doorway shows that it has the colour of ashes. The carriages that pass by move without noise. The sound of the horses' feet is as if they trod upon turf. An old country waggon crawls along with a cheerful creaking of its unsteady wheels, a noise that breaks pleasantly upon the silence. Many of the chief shops have for days been closed to customers, as is announced in Les Colonies, the daily paper of St. Pierre. There are lights in the cabarets, but the men who sit there are very quiet, the sound of their feet on the ash-covered floor is harsh, and the rings of beer left by their mugs on the white tables are turned into rings of mud.
Suddenly there comes a hideous rumbling sound that makes a score of people rush out into the road. The plates in the kitchen rattle, and as 'ti Marie looks back into her room she sees that the china image of the Virgin is rocking on its shelf. A puff of hot suffocating wind blows down the narrow way. It brings with it a smell of sulphur so pungent that the girl holds her handkerchief to her mouth. It sweeps the ashes from the roofs and awnings in gusts, so that men passing by turn up coat collars, while women draw their scarves over their heads.
Ashes still are falling ; some are large enough to make a patter on the balcony roofs. The dust covers everything, the girl's arms and hair, her neck, the sill upon which she leans. The candle, powdered with fine ash, splutters and burns feebly. One thing that makes the watcher at the window uneasy is the spectacle of people moving out of the town, on their way to the Fort de France road. They carry with them boxes and bundles. The quiet light in 'ti Marie's room seems to chide them for leaving their homes, and those who know her look up at the window and bid her " bon soir "—a last good night.
The night of May 7 was suffocating and intensely hot. This we know from the diary of a M. Roux who left St. Pierre at 5 P.M. on the 7th and spent the night on a distant hill, from which point he witnessed next morning the destruction of the city.
It may be imagined that Marie slept little and that the candle was kept burning all night. Early in the evening she would have heard a steamer leaving the harbour, would have noticed the sound of the bell on the bridge, the shouts of the men and the rattle of the anchor chain coming in through the hawse pipe. This was the Italian ship Orsolina. The captain knew Naples, " knew what Vesuvius was, but felt that La Pelee was much that Vesuvius was not." So, although he had only half his cargo on board and although the agents swore, protested, stamped and threatened, he hauled up his anchor and, with a sigh of relief, sought his way into the open sea.
At daybreak next morning any who were awake would have heard a steamer come in, whistle cheerfully and drop her anchor, with the noisy satisfaction of having reached her port with " all well." This was a steamer of the Quebec line, the Roraima. In less than two hours she was charred and gutted and burnt to the water's edge.
Possibly during this fevered, stifling night 'ti Marie may have consoled herself by reading the local newspaper published that morning. It contained much information about volcanoes that the. reader may have skipped, but she would have gained great comfort and assurance from this editorial utterance : " La Montagne Pelee n'offre pas plus de danger pour les habitants de St.-Pierre que le Vesuve pour ceux de Naples." The editor, moreover, in discussing the exodus from the city, remarks with some disdain : " Nous avouons ne rien comprendre a cette panique. Ou peut-on etre mieux qu'a St.-Pierre?" Where could one be better than at St. Pierre !
Possibly 'ti Marie fell asleep towards the morning, after the candle had long burned down. She would be awakened at eight by a sound as of the bursting of a mine. The outer sun-shutter that closed the window would, untouched, release itself from its fastenings and swing open. A savage blast of flame would dart in, and in a second the soft, palpitating body of the little maid would be a curled up thing of damp ash.
One other relic of the last days of St. Pierre in my possession is a silver watch. I obtained it from a man at Fort de France who, when visiting the ruins, had found it under the corpse of a man in one of the side streets. The outer case of the watch has been turned to a leaden black colour. The silver has been so melted by the heat that the pattern engraved upon the back is smeared out as if with a red-hot thumb. The glass is, of course, cracked and is partly fused to the white enamel of the face, yet it is still possible to read the time—8.22.
The exact moment of the destruction of the city was 7.52 A.M., as shown by the clock left standing over the military hospital. The awful suddenness with which the blow fell can best be judged from the following incident. At a moment corresponding to the above time a message came over the wire from St. Pierre to Fort de France. It consisted of one single word " Allez "—a remarkable utterance in view of what happened. It was the last word ever spoken by the city. It is said to have embodied the request that a message then in transit to St. Pierre should be completed. Almost by the time that the clipped sentence reached Fort de France the office, the instrument, the operator, the very wires were a mass of cinders.
The owner of the watch may have been preparing to start for the cathedral, dressed in his best, when the heavens were rent by the crack of doom. Rushing into the street, he would have been met by a scud of furnace-hot dust, by a red blizzard of glowing ash. He would be struck down by the sulphurous hurricane, and hurled along the road together with fragments of falling houses, flying tiles and stones, window shutters and balcony railings. His clothes would be stripped from his back as if they were made of dust, and he would lie among the cinders bare, a charred image of a man.
If the watch were sentient it would have felt the death-discerning flutter of the heart and then the stopping of its beat. Protected by the smouldering body, the watch must have ticked against the now impassive ribs for some thirty minutes, until the heat had reached its own heart and stopped that too.