The Hurricane

THE evening of August 28 was very hot and windless, with light rain. Father G—and O—called, and while we were talking a marine orderly brought a radio message from the weather bureau in San Juan saying that a hurricane was making up in Dominica.

‘That’s funny,’ said Father G-. ‘ I just passed one of my old souls in the garden and she told me there was a bad gale making up in Dominica. How in the world did she know?’

‘She smells it,’ said O—.

Ellis said many of the Cha-Chas had beached their boats that day. He added that while the weather was threatening, the gale, if it made up, would probably shift its course before reaching us.

It rained all night very gently and softly, falling straight down and enclosing us as in a curtained airless room.

At 6 A.M. the phone rang. I heard Ellis talking to the harbor master, a Saba man and an old sailor. Ellis said: ‘Falling barometer and a steady wind? Better hoist the first storm warning.’

It was a white morning of rain and clouds, but a light wind had come up, blowing out of the south. Low mists moved across the mountain tops. 1 leaned over the gallery rail looking into my drowned garden and saw, down at the Fort, a red flag with a black centre being limply hoisted.

I had to go down to the barracks to help the Colonel’s widow pack for the next transport. The Colonel’s quarters are on the sea side of the Fort, close to the water. I moved through the dim, hot rooms with the feeling that my body was dissolving with heat.

No one spoke of the gale, so as not to disturb the poor woman any more than she already was. About noon I went on to the gallery to rest and smoke a cigarette. The harbor was as calm as if all the water in it were oil, but every now and then an almost invisible swell broke in a diffused sound on the rocks below. It was still raining.

From where I sat I could see the signal station at the entrance to the harbor, where approaching boats are signaled and where the storm flag was hoisted as well as over the Fort. Captain Sstood in the doorway talking to me. As he talked the expression of his eyes changed, and, following his look, I saw a second flag being hoisted over the station. We went inside and found Captain Ctalking to the Colonel’s widow. He was telling her that the marines would close up her quarters and she had better come to his house. When I left they were already banging at her hurricane windows. I ran along King’s Wharf. Paymaster Mpicked me up in his Ford, which was in front of the Commissary. We went skidding up the wet hill to our quarters. Already the town had an air of panic. People were running, autos splashed past, doors were being banged. When I reached our door Eleanor waited me, dancing up and down.

‘Are we going to have a hurricane? Are we going to have a hurricane?’ she shouted.

Alfred was driving the iron bolts in the windows and doors to the east. I went out to the gallery and looked over the town. Denmark Hill, across from us, had a blind aspect; most of the hurricane doors and windows were already closed. As I stood there the cannon at the Fort gave the final signal — two shots in rapid succession, a pause, and then two more. In this harbor, walled like a room, it split the air, thundering back and forth.

Ellis came home. He said he had seen an old negro down by the Navy Building who had said to him: ‘You can’t run away from God, sir, you can’t run away from God.’ To him it would be the voice of God speaking out of a whirlwind and he would not be afraid.

All afternoon, as I supervised the taking down of pictures and the stowing of silver and rugs in case we should lose our roof, I tried to decide whether I was really afraid, or just enjoying the idea of being afraid. Pricklings and shudders, almost a physical cramp, passed through my nerves, but it was not really, taken in itself, a disagreeable sensation. After I had all the potted plants brought inside, had covered my piano with mattresses, sent out for laundry and provisions, for some sewing being done by a woman living in a flimsy shack, had all the iron bars and bolts driven in the twenty-eight windows and doors of the house, I was physically tired and it was nearly six o’clock.

There was very little change, apparently. It still rained, it still blew, but not with any unusual violence. The house was so close and swarming with mosquitoes we decided to get a breath of air in the car. Eleanor and I got in and Ellis drove us down Main Street toward the beach. Every door was bolted but that of the apothecary, and there people had gathered, looking anxiously out and discussing possibilities. I noticed in the deserted street, bolted and barred, what beautiful mottled colors the walls were, washed and stained by the rain. The country outside the town was equally deserted; the road was even clear of pigs, fowls, and goats — these precious ones having been gathered to safety.

At John Brewer’s Bay enormous waves broke all up and down the coast. The sky seemed very close. Ellis got out to get our bath suits from the bathhouse, but when he tried to start the car again the engine was wet and it refused duty. For the first time the wind began to come in sharp gusts, quite violent and with a sort of terrifying rhythm. We finally got the car started and blew a tire. While Ellis laboriously changed it I felt myself growing intensely irritable. We were three miles from town and I had visions of carrying Eleanor to the Moravian Mission of Nisky, a mile away. But the tire was changed at last and we started for home.

The town was dark by now. We drove up to Father G-’s house, which was bolted. He came out, sat in our car a moment, and smoked a cigarette with us. I noticed his hands shook ever so little. In his house were eighteen of his oldest parishioners, — black, of course, — telling tales of former hurricanes. He said that about half an hour earlier a long level sun ray had come through the clouds and they had all given themselves up for lost. They said it was a sign. A woman wrapped in sacking, carrying a child, passed us on her way to the parish hall. All the hovels were being abandoned for the churches, Fort, and stronger buildings.

‘What will happen to the ChaCha settlement on the North Shore?’ asked Father G-.

Ellis replied that the always faithful and dependable Kjeldsen, an employee of the Public Works and an old Danish ex-sergeant, had ridden on horseback to warn the people there. He was certainly the man for it. A smoke signal had been lit on Castle Hill to warn St. John and Tortola and the Kays between, but because of the rain the fire had repeatedly gone out. We talked until the wind became too strong, and then drove home.

After dinner, about nine o’clock, Father Gphoned. While Ellis shouted at him all the lights went out. We lit the hurricane lanterns. I tried to persuade the servants to stay in our solidly built house, but they all went home, even old Maria, who had a bedridden sister to look after. Alfred led the procession with a hurricane lantern we let him have. Though they could scarcely stand up, he was shouting with joy, singing a sort of chant: ‘Oh, de big gale, de big gale!’

We left one door on the lee side open, the one on the western gallery. The town, seen from this door, was a solid wall of darkness. The flicker of our lantern showed only the sharp lines of rain. We finally had to close this door. I looked through the tiny pane of glass, just big enough for an eye, in one of the doors on the harbor side and saw a few lights from the ships. They were moored to buoys and had full steam up to ride it out.

Our last phone call was from the harbor master. He said the barometer was falling and water was coming up over the harbor building. I tried to read Gertrude Atherton’s description of a hurricane in The Conqueror, but the noise was becoming too terrible. In fact, while I tried to shut it out, it gradually filled all my consciousness. It was impossible to think of anything else. It still came in rhythmical gusts which seemed to break over us like tremendous waves. We put out the lanterns and lay down, dressed, on the bed. I took Eleanor, who was wide awake, by me, and Ellis, to my disgust, fell asleep. From years of watchkeeping, I suppose, he can fall asleep at any time it seems desirable to him to do so. But this was beyond me. I found I could only concentrate on the noise, trying to burrow into the centre of this fear, to be inside of it somehow and so no longer feel it. It was impossible to wait those gusts in the dark. I lit a candle by the bed. I began to distinguish other sounds along with the wind — the falling of walls, trees, light and telephone poles, and the shrieking of galvanized roofing torn loose and driven across our roof. Every time these sheets struck our roof, it sounded as if it must be going. But Eleanor derived great comfort from this. She would cry, ‘Mama, is that the garvanize? ’ and, on being told that it was, was mysteriously consoled.

About two in the morning a shudder passed over us in the house, in the earth, in the air, in my own nerves. I could not tell, but many people told me afterward that they felt an earthquake at that hour.

The only steady thing in the world seemed the flame of my candle beside the bed. For Eleanor’s amusement I made, with my fingers held up to the light, absurd shadows of beasts and bogies on the walls. While I was doing this, we both must have gone to sleep.

When I woke, the candle was out; it was black and hot enough to choke. Someone was pounding on our door. I opened it. The street was filled with ashy, green light like under-sea light, and I looked out on a mutilated, distorted world. The wind still blew, but not intolerably, and no rain fell. Outside stood Estella. She comes every morning at seven-thirty and she was here now. It was seven-thirty.