Catastrophe Extra


From the Sheffield [England] Weekly Telegraph of May 4, 1918, is a curiosity worth preserving—a fictionalized and romanticized version of the “miraculous prisoner”, with a love interest added, and the race of the participants obscured. It’s interesting to imagine the closing months of WWI, an editor thinking about what will entertain his readers, possibly (with an appeal to schadenfreude) comfort them…






Transcribed with all its eccentricities:
The Only Survivor of Forty Thousand
(Author Unknown)


As I sat one May evening in 1902 with my sweetheart in the Plaza restaurant at St. Pierre, in Martinique, I little dreamt of the horror that was soon to plunge the gay city in tragedy—that of all its forty thousand inhabitants I alone should be left to see the light of another day; or under what terrible conditions I should see it. Well, indeed, it is that the future is so inscrutably hidden from us mortals!

Never, indeed, had the world looked fairer. It was an evening of glory, of blue, cloudless sky, of cool, fragrant breezes. The day’s work over, St. Pierre had abandoned herself to rest and gaiety; everywhere I glanced about me I saw smiling faces, and heard the ripple of merry laughter. It was, indeed, a beautiful world to live in; and its crowning glory was mine, for I was in love—deeply, fiercely in love with the girl by my side, the most beautiful girl in Martinique.

If I close my eyes I can see her as vividly as I saw her then—the flash of her dark eyes, the ravishing play of her dimples, the gleam of pearly teeth as her red lips parted in smiles; the sheen of her raven hair, the proud tossing of her dainty head.

Unfortunately, Julie was as vain as she was lovely. Admiration was the breath of life to her; and at times she made me suffer the tortures of the lost from jealousy. This evening she was in the most tantalising mood. She would scarcely speak a word to me, so absorbed was she in challenging the admiring eyes that were focussed on her. For a time, I bore it patiently; but at last my anger began to rise and I remonstrated with her—gently at first, then more forcibly.


A Vain Coquette


But to all my pleading and protests, she only answered a defiant smile or taunt. “I was not her master,” she said; “she would do as she pleased. I was a fool to be jealous.” So she answered me until at last my pent-up anger broke into fierce flame. I completely lost my head, and gave her a smart slap on the face. She gave a loud shriek and burst into tears. In an instant the whole place was in commotion. Men and women sprang from their seats and crowded round us with angry looks and words. One man to whom Julie had been making eyes, strode up to me and without a moment’s warning struck me a heavy blow on the head which sent me sprawling on the floor. The next moment I was on my feet, mad with rage. I seized a bottle from the table, and brought it down with terrible force on my assailant’s head, dashing him senseless to the floor.

As the man fell there was a loud outcry of rage and threats. The crowd began to close menacingly around me. I was prepared to defend myself, to the death if need be. But before a blow could be struck, fresh shouts drew all eyes to the door. I saw two policemen enter; they were conducted to me, and a minute later, I was being led away, a constable holding each arm, to prison. I went without a word—thankful indeed to escape the fury of the crowd in the restaurant—and within a few minutes found myself lodged in a cell, deep below the adjacent City Hall.

As the door of my cell clanged to, I flung myself down on the straw on the floor and tried to collect my scattered senses for I was dazed by the swift succession of experiences I had gone through. I could only recall them vaguely as one recalls a dream. Two things, however, came vividly back to me—in my insane outburst of jealousy (for such it was), I had struck the girl I loved better than all the world, and I had killed a man—for that he was dead I had no shadow of a doubt. I also recalled my last glimpse of Julie, the poor girl weeping in a corner as if her heart would break. Such were the torturing memories that filled my brain in the dark solitude of my cell and drove me almost mad with remorse and fear.

It was not long, however, before, overcome by exhaustion, I fell asleep. How long I was steeped in the blessed oblivion I know not: I only know that I awoke with a start, to feel the floor of my cell rocking under me and to hear the sounds of distant thunder. What could it mean? I asked myself dazedly. Then in a flash of recollection I remembered that while Julie and I were sitting in the restaurant the evening before, there had been similar rumblings and quaking—much slighter, but quite perceptible.

We laughed at them. It was only “Old Pelée” (as we dubbed the neighbouring volcano of Mount Pelée) at his old tricks. For days he had been restless, emitting clouds of dust which floated like mist over the city. Could he have broken out in earnest, I wondered? I was soon to know, to my terror!


An Agony of Torture


Meanwhile, I had something else to think of. My old, torturing thoughts came back in renewed force. In the darkness of my cell I saw Julie’s sweet face, the tears streaming over the red patch on her cheek where I had struck her that cowardly blow. Would to God I could have cut off the arm that had done this brutal deed! I saw, too, the strange man lying huddled on the floor, the blood streaming from his head; the angry faces of the crowd that closed threateningly around me—nearer and nearer. There was murder in their eyes; they meant to kill me. And I deserved nothing better.

Again, in my exhaustion, I mercifully dropped asleep; and again I awoke with a sudden start. Once more I felt my cell floor rock beneath me, much more violently than before. It was as if I were at sea. I heard the sound of running feet outside my door—running feet and shouts of alarm receding swiftly; and above all a tumult of sounds, like the reverberating roll of thunder and crashing of buildings. I could not see my hand before me; I was encompassed by the blackness of the blackest night. And more terrifying than all—my cell seemed to be filled with air, hot as the blast from a furnace mouth. It scorched my eyes, my nostrils, my lips, as with a breath from the lower regions; it seared my lungs, like molten iron, with every agonizing breath I drew.

Heavens! What could it mean? I was frantic with the terror of it all—blind and agonized with pain. And in my agony I shrieked aloud—shrieked until it seemed that my flaming lungs must burst. But to all my cries no answer came. I might have been the only one alive in the great city, with none to hear, none to help.

For a time, I think, I must have been mad, mad with pain and fear. How long I remained in this condition I do not know. Gradually, however, a measure of sanity returned; my brain grew more clear, and I was able to consider my position and its meaning. There could be no doubt, I concluded, that Mount Pelée had broken out into violent eruption. The thunderous sounds, the rocking of my cell, the scorching blast of air, all pointed to it.

If so, I thought, God help St. Pierre—and me! There was an ominous silence now in which I could hear my heart thumping against my ribs. Was I the only one left out of the whole city? It seemed possible; for no faintest sound of life came to my ears.


No Hope of Escape


Such were my thoughts and fears when suddenly Pandemonium broke out again—more fiercely, more terribly than before. My cell rocked like a small boat on a tempestuous sea; my ears were deafened with sounds as of a hundred violent thunderstorms rolled into one, mingling with sounds of shattering and crashing, as if the whole of the earth were being shattered into fragments. Every second I expected the enormous building over my head to fall and bury me in its ruins!

In my terror I tried to call again for help. For a time, in spite of all my efforts, I was unable to emit the least sound; my throat seemed paralysed. And when at last my voice came, it was so thin and feeble, like that of a new-born infant, that it could scarcely penetrate the door of my cell. In my agony and despair I began to rush about my cell like a madman, to beat frantically at door and walls. I bruised my hands terribly, but felt no pain.

Then suddenly came a new and crowning terror. A fierce, burning pain attacked one of my feet and then the other. It darted like flame up my legs. I stooped to feel for the cause, and plunged my fingers into what felt like blazing hot mud. In my unbearable agony I leaped and rushed frantically round and round; but there was no escape. The lava, mud, or whatever it was, became deeper. It reached my ankles. It was flowing into my cell like water! Would it fill my cell? was the horrible thought that set my brain on fire. Was I fated to suffer the tortures of hell, inch by inch; and then to be engulfed in this liquid death?

To add to my suffering, which seemed already greater than mortal man could bear, my cell now became full of fumes of sulphur. Every breath threatened to choke me. My head seemed about to burst; my body was wracked by a thousand scorching pains.

Happily at this stage I became unconscious. Human nature could endure no more. How long I remained in this state I cannot say. But when, at last, I came to my senses, I awoke to a silence as profound as that of the grave. I was lying on the floor of my cell in several inches of mud, which had now become quite cool. My body seemed benumbed, for I felt little of the pain that had so tortured me, though I knew that I had been severely burned. My only physical feeling was of intolerable thirst. My tongue, which seemed to fill my mouth, was dry as a withered leaf. Rising to my feet I began to grope desperately in the darkness for the jug of water, which, with some dry bread, the gaoler had left before my cell door was closed on me. I found it at last, and drained it, with a feeling of ecstasy to the last drop. Never was water so sweet! The bread I could not touch. I had no hunger—only this consuming thirst.

But it was like pouring water on the sands of the Sahara. A few moments later I was again assailed by the terrible thirst. I would gladly have bartered my life, such as it was, for a few drops of liquid; but there was none. Thus, in a new form of agony a few hours passed—how many I could not say, any more than I could say how long I had been in my cell of horror. And to add to my suffering the whole flood of memories came back and surged through my brain, and with them, fearful speculations as to what had become of my beloved Julie. That she could be alive seemed almost impossible.

A few hours of such agony; and again merciful sleep or deep unconsciousness came to my relief; and when I awoke from it I found that I was too weak to rise to my feet.

I was lying awake in a dazed, and what seemed to me a dying condition, when suddenly my heart gave a great leap. I heard, or fancied I heard, a sound of tapping on my cell walls. Was I mad, or was I dreaming? I listened intently, painfully. No, I was neither mad nor dreaming! The sound came again and again. I tried to shout, but my voice refused to come to my aid. I could only lie and wait, hoping against hope that at last I was to be rescued.

Louder and louder grew the noise, as of men breaking through masonry with pickaxes; and with each fall of the pick my heart leaped joyfully within me. At last the light streamed blindingly in through a small hole in the wall. I heard voices; I saw faces; my rescuers had come; and I was saved.

The rest of the story can be told in a few words. I was carried by my rescuers, more dead than alive, to a carriage in which I was taken to Morne Rouge, on the outskirts of St. Pierre, where for two months I lay between life and death, before I began to struggle back to health and strength. And it was there that I learned the terrible truth—that St. Pierre had been utterly destroyed; and that of the forty thousand people who were in it that day I alone survived to tell the strangest story that ever fell from the lips of man, and to carry to the grave in a scarred body a heart full of gratitude to God who so mercifully preserved me. And as long as I draw breath that heart will enshrine the memory of the girl whom I loved so well and treated so ill; and who perished with the tear my brutality had caused still moist on her cheeks.






La Catastrophe de la Martinque

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part one)










(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)




%d bloggers like this: