Catastrophe (part 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, ears, mouth, clothing, of those on deck were full of ashes and hot fragments, and the darkness was so intense, the roaring so powerful, they could not see or hear what was steps ahead of them. Everyone was literally suffocating. For a short time, the scene was appalling…
“Luckily, the firestorm lasted only minutes. The air became a little purer, the breathing freer. Injured and uninjured now had to combat the progress of fires at several points on the ship. The cries of the wounded begging for water were heartrending, their suffering terrible.
“And from the flames, the Roraima could not be saved. She had 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; he was the captain of an Italian vessel, the Orsolina. He had witnessed the start of the eruption. He had seen the Guérin factory engulfed. He had felt the sea, with the swellings of the tide, dance under his ship. Above all, he had seen the ash. His compass ran berserk, always in coincidence with new eruptions. The captain was Neapolitan, familiar with Vesuvius, and he mistrusted this volcano.
On the 7th, he said, “If Vesuvius smoked this way, we would evacuate Naples.” He demanded his papers from the customs officer, so as to raise anchor.
“Impossible!’ came the response. “You haven’t finished unloading your cargo. Your papers aren’t ready.”
“Oh, well. Then I’ll leave without papers.”
They threatened him with strong penalties.
“Who is going to apply them to me?” answered the captain. “You? But tomorrow, you all will 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.
These days, if I remember rightly, he will probably arrive at Nantes. I would like to be there, to hear what he says when they tell him about Saint-Pierre.
And since I am still at this page of my notebook, on captains of ships, themes that could serve writers in the vein of Poe…
My notes return me to the kiosk, under which I took them, where all of Fort-de-France comes to take aperitifs, digestives, and refreshments!
I was introduced to a captain who told a fine tale of horror.
He had helmed a sailing boat to Saint-Pierre, leaving France thirty days past, touching no landing place. He arrived on the 24th, at night. This was a night the volcano did not flash, and the smoke hid itself among the clouds.
There are stories of people who, faced with the unlooked-for, the inconceivable, the impossible, conclude they must be crazy…and sometimes become so.
I don’t know what prodigy could have expected it. To see, as they drew near, a cemetery of ruins, a naked landscape. This captain and his ship’s people, with every reason to believe themselves landing before a city of green expanses, where that town well known to them must be found…
I have passed before Saint-Pierre at night. I know, if I had not struggled against the terror…the terror of a wild animal…
I would have been undone before the inconceivable. And they, this captain and his sailors, knew nothing.
“The hair stands up on my head, when I think about it,” he told me. I wouldn’t dare write he did not tell the truth.
The ship arrived at night. They knew the land. The captain went below, to sleep until the hour for coming into port. He had given orders to keep a little sail, to allow a gentle run. His cabin boy came to wake him, saying on behalf of the quartermaster that they must have been fooled.
They were probably not at Martinique, and certainly not before Saint-Pierre.
“Tell the master he is drunk.”
But the cabin boy returned. The master insisted. The captain mounted to the bridge. In the mists, he recognized the point of the Prêcheur, and that of Carbet. The rest he did not. He saw none of the lights he should have seen at Saint-Pierre. He cursed the people who had let the lighthouse go dark. Then the mists faded, and the land appeared more clearly. The captain no longer asked himself if he was dreaming, but if he had gone mad. The island was known to him; of this, he had no doubt. But in the place that had been Saint-Pierre…there was no Saint-Pierre. A tableau of terrible devastation resolved itself out of the shadow. He saw the ravaged hills, the ruins, the mud.
The mountain began to smoke and roar, and he understood. And he set out for the cape of Fort-de-France, where he arrived, “sick with emotion”.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)