Catastrophe (part seven)
I have rediscovered an old and very dear friend, a friend of my young years. We go out to dinner, to a place for admiring the scene of apocalypse, which the sky—if you prefer, the atmosphere—offers us in magnificent spectacle.
We look at each other, and smile.
“It would be truly ironic…”
But it is not irony, it is a panic…of others. A rush of fear, of packs of men, troops of women. Hysterics. Shrieks.
“The fire, the fire of the volcano is on us. We are lost!”
And along the shore, in the dark, it was desolation, lamentation. Then, a gust of wind…violent and sudden as it had come, the cloud climbed again towards the north, vanished, disappeared; the stars rekindled…
It was newly calm. A heavy calm.
The restlessness had not ended. For hours I saw groups wandering, frenzied unfortunates going, they did not know where…mute, and holding hands.
* This same friend, that the panicking crowd had separated from me, returning to the kiosk in the evening, mentioned a curious effect of the fear on women, or, to speak more precisely, on certain women. “I was at the end of the Savane [a public park], between the carénage [literally “fairing”; a traffic zone along the harbor front, outside the park] and the fort… No electricity. You know that the population believes the electric lighting attracts the volcano… So, no lights. Shadow. A young woman falls into my arms: ‘Save me, monsieur! I can’t take any more…” We were near a bench. I made her sit down. I tried to give her courage with a few words… She needed… I still don’t know if I dream… But this was fearfully mad…”
One of the frightened characters who drank near us launched an anathema on my friend: “You are a débauché and blasphemer. Monsieur (he cries to him), it is people like you who have made the anger of the Lord fall on the others, on the innocents…”
And the heat was overpowering, and the thirst. At the kiosk of the hotel, on the Savane, we drank; we discussed. Also we searched, in the alcohol, for a night’s sleep. Everyone had at the corners of their eyelids a new crease…in the eyes a new glaze, in the voice, a new timbre…of nervousness.
We have the fault of belief that only the black Martiniquais, mulattos or creoles, cede to panic, are free with those manifestations of fear, somewhat exaggerated…
Panic is an evil that strikes men without regard for race, like the smallpox.
The placid Anglo-Saxon is subject to it, as the nervous Spaniard, and the timorous African. One of the most delightful stories in the order of events (if, however, we are allowed to speak of delights in such mourning), is that of an American globetrotter and reporter.
This intrepid man, sent no doubt by the papers of his country—by friends who exalted his intrepidity—to uncover new impressions closer to the volcano, was taking lodgings in the hotel when I came down.
Arriving, his first care was to demand the hotel vault, to deposit his valise and notes, and to deposit himself, in case of a new eruption.
He was disappointed, heartbroken, on grasping that there was no hotel vault, but was consoled the next day, the 20th, when Providence heaped upon him sight of all the thrills and great spectacles he had come to research.
At five o’clock, he is roused by the people fleeing before the “fire of the mountain”.
He dresses himself, seizes his photographic apparatus, and descends to the park. He looks. He admires. He photographs the groups. He searches for pretty women a little undressed, for the sake of conserving their features. He is calm. He takes snapshots of clouds. He beams. It is so beautiful!
“Very beautiful!” he cries. “I would not give my ‘films’ for five thousand dollars.” But, the phenomenon builds on itself suddenly. The odor of sulphur falls, the ash falls, the pebbles fall.
“Aoh!” And the intrepid Anglo-Saxon shows that he runs very fast, precipitating himself fleet as a deer towards the shoreline. He goes straight to the extremity of the wharf. He sets his apparatus on the boards…his watch, his hat, his vest…and dives headfirst into the waves. He swims well. A half-hour later, he returns to land. His bundle had naturally disappeared in the hurly-burly.
He retreats to the hotel, murmuring this time, no more, “beautiful!”, but “very bad, very bad”, and takes the first boat leaving. The emotions of the country were too strong for his nerves, however solid…being that they were Anglo-Saxon nerves.
The other Americans showed in equally striking manner the superiority of Anglo-Saxon legs for running. They had projected making an ascent of Mt. Pelée and going to contemplate the “monster face to face”. For Americans with self-respect, for Americans who are true Americans, such enterprise is child’s play. There is not one American come to Fort-de-France, who hasn’t downed his split of champagne at the edge of the fuming crater; or at least does not say so, and no doubt prints it…
These farceurs are truly admirable, and most humbly I bow before their superiority. I confess most piteously that I did not dare attempt the ascent, so innocuous, so easy…
From the New York Tribune of 8 June 1902.
Click the screenshot, left, to read an example of the American coverage, in its entirety. Location: Library of Congress, United States.
The visitors had not seen half the places they intended to see, when a hoarse shriek from the siren of the Potomac called all to the boat. The expected had happened. Without a shock or a detonation loud enough to disturb the deep silence of the city of the dead, Pelée was again in eruption.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)