And we will linger no longer, discussing the improbable, the screamingly impossible. For me Auguste Sybaris produced, simply, the impression of a pillager surprised by fire, at work on a bit of premature safecracking. He had wanted to explain his burns, to put one over on his peers, and his negro imagination made from whole cloth the extraordinary story that we came to read, as told to me by M. Clerc, and many others…
The imaginations of the whites, meanwhile, cede nothing to that of the negro. Publishing all the howlers repeated to me would make a fat tome. But one with a single interest, to prove that human credulity has no limits. I will file these away.
However, one has made too much noise, been swallowed by too many people, even officials—for whom I hardly have words.
This is the miraculous adventure of the two soldiers…the sort, you may know, who in the style of the barracks are called practical. This is the heroic odyssey of the two cannoneers, the citizens Vaillant, and Tribut. They were on duty at the camp of Colson, from where they had seen the eruption above the mountain. But they knew nothing. The town secretary of Fond-Saint-Denis, passing on horseback a while later, announced that Saint-Pierre was destroyed. The men were forbidden to go out from the camp. Longing, no doubt, to see the spectacle up close, Vaillant and Tribut bore up under the order, but they were at the edge.
At three o’clock, ordered by telephone from Fort-de-France, the camp commander sent a brigadier and mounted guide, to learn the situation at Saint-Pierre, as they had no news of the city. The two riders reached the heights and saw the burned ruins, but could not approach within 400 meters. The heat and ash-cover were too great. They retraced their path. They encountered no one on the way. But distant enough from Saint-Pierre, they found Vaillant and Tribut, by the roadside with an injured sailor. They escorted them all to the 30 kilometer post, where they slept, returning next morning to the camp.
This is the report of an under-officer. This is certain.
Here, the uncertain:
Vaillant, whom they were preparing to lock in a cell, protested energetically and swore himself driven to Saint-Pierre by a duty to humanity; that he had explored the ruins, found injured people still alive, notably a family of whites, eight persons with an old negro woman. He had given them the contents of his canteen, and that of Tribut, had promised to come back and find them…a duty he would fulfill at any cost. Many other people were still alive in the city, for he had heard many cries. He did not pursue his investigations, but hastened to search for help, and return with it.
As at the camp of Colson, the story did not take at all. Vaillant insisted he be authorized to visit Fort-de-France, to tell the commander of artillery, and the governor, what he’d seen.
He visited Fort-de-France, and was conducted to the governor, who was found with the captain of the Suchet. He, for having landed on the place du Bertin, in company with the public prosecutor, and for seeing all the city destroyed by fire, said it was his conviction no one was alive in Saint-Pierre.
M. Muller, who witnessed the scene, told me this.
Vaillant insisted. He had already convinced others. He managed to return to Saint-Pierre, on board a steamer that carried M. Lyautier. When the steamer, after many hours at the harborfront, blew the whistle to go back, Vaillant arrived with an old negro woman, burned. He embarked in triumph, saying, “You see I’m not a liar. I’ve found it at last, the house with the eight unfortunates… But, I wasn’t allowed to come back soon enough. They are dead. No one alive but this poor old woman. She recalls I’d given her water. Is it true I gave you water?” he added, speaking to the unlucky woman, who, grievously burned, stupefied, bewildered, made with her head signs of distress that might pass for a “yes”.
She died at the hospital, where they had taken her on disembarking at Fort-de-France.
And there it is, that upon which the legend rests. Of survivors of Saint-Pierre, whose cries of distress were heard by the gunner Vaillant, on the day of the disaster; on his having found in the ruins, two days after, this old negro woman who moved her head and died, unable to answer the questions he posed, other than in frightened monosyllables—
Which cannot not be admitted as proof Vaillant spoke the truth.
The old woman was not in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the cataclysm.
The doctor Lherminier, who thinks of the story what everyone gifted with the critical sense thinks, knowing it for deceit, told me the old woman was one of the mad, from the asylum at Saint-Pierre. The asylum kept a separate campus near the Litte, where the quietest inmates were interned. In the disarray of the eruption, although the fire would not have reached this branch of the Litte, the inmates fled. Hence this poor old woman, found at liberty. Directed by what impulse I don’t know, she had returned to Saint-Pierre, burned herself wandering the ruins. Vaillant found her and brought her back.
That is the truth.
La Catastrophe de la Martinque
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinque; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)