La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty
Mr. Thompson said that he flew into his chamber, while the steamer was heaving, and the masts and stacks were falling into the water.
“The eyes, the ears, the mouth, the clothing, of those who’d been on deck were full of ashes and lava, and the darkness so intense, the roaring so powerful, they could neither see nor hear what was only a few steps ahead of them. And everyone was literally suffocating. The scene was appalling, for a moment’s duration…
“The hurricane of fire, happily, did not last longer than a few minutes. The atmosphere became a little more pure, and breathing freer. The injured and the uninjured had now to combat the progress of fires at several points on the ship. Especially, the cries of the wounded, begging for water, were heartrending, their suffering terrible.
“And from the flames, the Roraima could not be saved. She’d lost the greater part of her passengers and crew. Some few were rescued by the Suchet, which arrived in the afternoon around three o’clock.”
Not all the captains in the harbor were surprised or killed by the disaster. One had a miraculous flash of insight; this was the captain of an Italian vessel, the Orsolina. He had been witness to the beginning of the eruption. He had seen the Guérin factory engulfed. He had felt the sea dance under his ship with the swellings of the tide. And above all, he had received the ashes. More, he’d had a compass running veritably berserk, always coinciding with resurgent eruptions of the crater. He was Neapolitan, familiar with Vesuvius, and he mistrusted this volcano.
On the 7th, he said, “If Vesuvius smoked this way, we would evacuate Naples.” And from the customs officer he demanded his papers, so as to raise anchor.
“Impossible!’ was the response. “You have not finished unloading your cargo. Your papers are not ready…”
“Oh, well. I will leave without papers.”
They threatened him with mighty penalties.
“Who is going to apply these to me?” answered the captain. “You? But tomorrow, you will all be dead!”
He left in the night, between the 7th and the 8th, carrying off, it has been affirmed to me, the customs officer who was on board.
It is at Nantes, these days, if I remember right, that he will probably arrive. I would like to be there to hear what he will say when they apprise him of Saint-Pierre.
And since I am in the section on captains of ships, still on this page of my notebook whose themes could serve writers wishing to work at the specialty of Poe and company…
They have shown me to the kiosk (the kiosk under which I have taken notes, where all of Fort-de-France comes to take aperitifs, digestives, and refreshments!)…
They introduce to me a captain who tells me a fine tale of terror.
He was helming a sailing boat to Saint-Pierre. He had left France thirty days since. He had touched no landing place. He knew nothing. He arrived on the 24th before Saint-Pierre…at night. A night when the volcano did not flash…when the smoke hid itself among the clouds.
There are in the literature, many stories of people who, before an unexpected phenomenon, unlooked for, inconceivable, impossible, suppose that they must be crazy…and sometimes become so.
I don’t know who the heroes might be who could think this, with all the reasons had by this captain and the people of his ship, that at the hour where, believing to land in a port before a city of green expanses…a place where must be found that town well known to them all…they would see, as they drew nigh, a cemetery of ruins, a landscape naked…
I have passed before Saint-Pierre at night. I know, however, had I not fought back, struggling, the terror…the terror of a beast…would have undone me before this inconceivable spectacle.
And he, this captain, they, his sailors, they knew nothing…
“The hair stands up on my head, when I think about it,” he told me.
And I would not dare to write he did not speak truth.
They arrived at night. They recognized the land. Then the captain went to bed, to sleep while awaiting the hour for coming into port. He had given the order to keep a little sail, to allow a gentle run. He was sleeping, when his cabin boy came to wake him, saying to him, on behalf of the quartermaster, that they must have been fooled.
They were probably not in Martinique, and certainly not before Saint-Pierre.
“Tell the master he is drunk.”
But the cabin boy returns. The master insists. The captain, then, mounts to the bridge. And he also asks himself if he is dreaming. In the mists, he recognizes well the point of the Prêcheur, well that of Carbet… But the rest, he does not recognize. The lights he should have seen at Saint-Pierre, he cannot see them. And he curses the people who let the lighthouse go dark. The mists diminish. The land appears more clearly. Then the captain no longer asks himself if he is dreaming, but if he has gone mad. The point of the island he recognizes, of this, he has no doubt. But, in the place that was Saint-Pierre…there is no more Saint-Pierre. And the tableau of a terrible devastation resolves itself out of the shadow. He sees the ravaged hills. He sees the ruins. He sees the mud. And the mountain begins to smoke, and to roar, and he understands. And he sets out for the cape of Fort-de-France, where he arrives, “sick with emotion”.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)