Catastrophe (part twenty-seven)
The miraculous prisoner and the two gunners
Here is an extraordinary story—that of the prisoner, Auguste Sybaris.
But I do not suppose M. Clerc believes it true, for M. Clerc is not…an American. M. Clerc has seen the said Auguste, at the Morne-Rouge home of the priest. On the 8th, Auguste, having had what in Corsica is called an accident (his knife put by chance into the belly of an enemy), had been shut in the prison of Saint-Pierre, given lodgings in an underground cell.
Up to then, nothing but the very normal. Here is where it becomes less so. On the 12th, five people of the Morne-Rouge, including a municipal councillor, were walking among the ruins of Saint-Pierre. Not, as it seems, for contemplation, but with the aim of safeguarding the vault. Whatever their intention, it appears the five electors passed near the rubble of the prison.
Emerging from below the piled debris, they heard human cries. They approached, questioning.
Someone responded to them: It’s me.
“A poor prisoner forgotten in his cell, who is dying of hunger and thirst, and burned all over. For pity’s sake, save him!”
All this was in creole. But if, to be wholly natural, I repeated it thus, you would not understand.
The five strollers without hesitation flung to the task, marched to the voice. They pulled apart the ruins. They entered by what had been the walkway. They arrived before a door…padlocked, as are the doors of a prison. They blew it up. They had on hand, by providence, a few of the necessary tools for this sort of operation. Again they met a door, one simply closed by the latch. They pulled at the latch, and discovered in his cell, our Auguste, dying of hunger, dying of thirst, frightfully burned, on the head, the hands, the knees, the feet—
His state did not prevent this energetic man from following them to the Morne-Rouge, by the hard roads. Auguste was received there by the priest, who was stupefied by this miracle. However, the good priest recovered himself quickly… It was a secret known only to Providence, why in a city of forty thousand victims, where so many of the just had perished, the sole survivor was a sinner. The sinner repented of himself. His trial had brought him back to the path. And to the curé who gave him a good bed and good wine, he recounted this prodigy:
On the morning of the 8th, he meditated in his cell.
He was telling himself that, all things weighed, it pays better, far better, to do good than evil, because evil has led you to prison… Suddenly, a diabolical tumult. The end of the world. The devil’s furnace invades his cell. His feet burn; he jumps to the ceiling. Other flames burn his head. He falls back, writhing, jumping, without power to escape the cursed flames, that bite him like burning leeches. They disappear at last. It is dark and silent. The hours pass and no one comes. The unfortunate Auguste calculates a day has slipped away…nothing. Nothing but silence. No one brings him his ration. He trembles. He does not know what this is…what does this silence of the grave mean? Perhaps he has gone mad. He trembles the more. Still, no one brings him anything to eat or drink.
Happily, that morning they had given him a large loaf, and a large jug of water. He economizes. When he has drunk the whole, rain showers flood his cell and his thirst is quenched…a little.
He listens, anxious. He hears steps, a voice. He calls for help. He makes out that the people flee in fear, crying ghost, zombie!
He waits his deliverance until the 12th…! And God had pity on him, saved him from the universal destruction, conducted him after to this good house of a good priest of the Lord…
And this story has stuck!
The asphyxiating gas that flowed on Saint-Pierre, the gas that afterwards exploded, that caused a rarefaction of the atmosphere, then an inferno… All who breathed, all, absolutely all, all who were alive in Saint-Pierre, were killed at once. There was no cell that could have sheltered any being, not a rat, dog, cat, or man, for in all the cellars the gas penetrated…it is a glaring proof…
Well! That did not prevent this joke of Auguste Sybaris being taken seriously, by a mass of serious people. The good priest of the Morne-Rouge wrote to the Attorney General asking that he pardon this precious mystifier, Auguste.
(You’ll note, as everything has been annihilated at the various courts of Saint-Pierre, a farceur can make a fine game of saying he was in prison, etc…)
Now, everyone interests themselves in Auguste. They choose him; they dote on him. He becomes hero and curious animal all at once. They show him to the American reporters, who weep with emotion, listening to his joyous story. How well this will do for their newspapers…! And they photograph his face, his profile…sitting, standing, lying…in bust, in half-bust.
The joyous story of joyous Auguste is a succulent canard to suit the taste of the Americans. Let them keep him. Let them pass him along, even, to Barnum.
Translator’s note: Hess doesn’t believe the story of Auguste Sybaris. Online recountings are not very helpful, since nothing investigative seems done with the given details, and too much time has passed to verify them. You will find only circulations of the legend as told, represented (in the way of tourist attractions) as a fun curiosity, and a depiction of the cell in which the man who changed his name to Ludger Cyparis when traveling with Barnum’s circus, is alleged to have been held. I include here a link to an article on the WWII bombing of Dresden, and what British POWs, imprisoned there and forced into recovery work, discovered (warning: very gruesome details!) as to the survivability of a superheated inferno.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)