Remembrance of Martinique

THE air all about them was green, soft, heavy with odors, and lifeless. Clouds passing over the bay toward Dominica lost their color and stopped moving. The sky was rigid. Young Andrews folded the extra coat across his arm and sat down on the end of the pier. Alin looked down at his own trousers, which were of faded blue cotton not likely to suffer any damage; then at young Andrews’s white linen suit. He swore softly.

They had chosen the smaller pier because a coastal steamer, the Gouverneur Moutet, was tying up to the larger one. The smoke from her funnel was black and full of cinders. A bell clanged. People began to move in dark procession across the evening — women from St. Pierre walking cleanly with baskets on their heads, men with coconuts and bunches of bananas. Young Andrews was as little concerned with them as he was with his white linen trousers. What mattered was the coat; he wanted to give Alin his blue coat.

Alin had no coat of his own — nothing but a cotton jacket, and in place of a shirt the scrap of madras folded smartly around his bare neck.

At night after young Andrews had finished his dinner at the Pension Gallia he would cross over into the savane where Alin was waiting for him, sometimes on a bench, sometimes walking up and down. From then until bedtime they would talk — young Andrews in bad French, Alin in broken English. Young Andrews was homesick and spoke of Wisconsin night after night; of tamarack swamps, of the bend in the slough where deer came down to drink in the evening, of carp dozing in the creek, of the quail. Alin retaliated with the pleasant horrors of French Guiana — the earth cracking open, the six months’ rain, the fer-de-lance that whistled. When Alin was well they spent their evenings in this way. But once in a while Alin would not be waiting at the edge of the savane, and young Andrews would find him with his face buried in the cool grass. It was the malarial fever, burning inside his skull, in the marrow of his bones. When young Andrews came and stood over him he would sit up, dizzy with pain, and say, ‘I want dead. . . .’

For the fever and for the chill which followed the fever there was no remedy except quinine, which Alin could n’t afford. But if he had a decent coat, young Andrews said to himself, at least he could keep out the dampness which settled upon the island of Martinique as soon as the sun went down.

‘Mon vieux,’ Alin began, in a tone which implied that it was a great pity anyone could afford to wear white trousers and still not have sense enough to take care of them; ‘mon vieux,’ he said disparagingly, ‘vous êtes poète Then he sat down and lay back, full length and completely relaxed, on the pier.

For no particular reason young Andrews was hesitant about offering the coat. Alin was too proud to be touchy, and too amiable. His attitude toward the world, or rather toward the world of Martinique, was always a mild disparagement. It did not seem strange to him, or extremely reprehensible, that dogs should couple on the main bridge over the canal, or that people should lean out of windows to encourage the dogs; that sailors should step drunkenly in and out of the open sewer which ran down either side of the street; that schoolboys should play soccer on every side of the marble Empress Josephine; that the more respectable citizens of Fort-de-France should promenade every night of their island lives over the same two blocks of pavement. It was Martinique, that was all. There was nothing remarkable about Martinique.

In the more sober, gray eyes of young Andrews, Martinique was remarkable, and for one thing particularly: in Martinique Negroes did n’t know their place. It was that which distinguished the island from the United States, more than palm trees and still, painted forests and rivers dropping precipitously to the sea; more even than saffron clouds and inaccessible mountains and the green air at evening. So far as young Andrews could make out after a month in Fort-de-France, it had never occurred to the people of Martinique that they could not help it because they were Negroes. They walked with their heads high; partly to carry bundles, of course, but also because it came natural to them. They looked at him curiously sometimes — there were only three Americans on the island, and tout le monde knew how many times the unscrupulous American Government had tried to buy this island daughter of France — but never with deference. And how, therefore, should he give Alin the blue coat?

In America young Andrews would have known exactly how to go about it. ‘Here’s a coat for you,’ he would have said to old Dyer, who kept the lawn and the garden in order, and did the heavier housework for his mother. ‘If it does n’t fit you give it to somebody,’ he would have said. And old Dyer would have taken the coat. In America that was all there was to it. Old Dyer was a good nigger and he knew his place. But it was doubtful whether Alin who sat beside him — not at the same table, to be sure, but on the end of the same pier and dangling his legs over the same water — would have kept in his place even if he had learned by one accident or another that he had one.

One afternoon during carnival young Andrews had wandered along the malodorous canal listening to the music from the dingy buildings where the less respectable citizens of Fort-de-France had gathered to dance the biguine. He had been to dance pavilions in Wisconsin, but they were in no way comparable to this — the stale heat, the rasping monotonous music, the dancers separating and coming together again in a rhythm that involved feet, hips, thighs, solar plexus, possibly the navel — all with the blandest, most disinterested expression on their dark faces. To get a better view, young Andrews crossed the street and found himself surrounded by a howling half-naked bande de malpropres. They wanted money, and he had left the pension without a sou. In that moment of extreme need, unaccountably and out of nowhere Alin appeared to rescue him. That was three weeks ago, and now between them — one mulatto, the other white — there was an easy feeling, a deep acceptance of each other which young Andrews knew that he could not explain when he got back to Wisconsin.

‘Here,’ he said suddenly, ‘ present for you, Alin — un cadeau.‘

Now that he had said the words he wondered what had been troubling him. It was perfectly simple, after all, except that he could have wished that Alin’s eyes had not grown soft with wonder; and that he had taken the coat casually instead of holding it in his two hands as if it might break.

‘Pas un cadeau,’ Alin said at last; and then, shyly, ‘Un souvenir!

Young Andrews had not thought of it in that way. What he wanted was to give Alin a coat. He had two coats and Alin did n’t have any. It seemed better, therefore, that Alin should have one of them, so that he could keep warm. That was what he had in mind. But he saw now that he should never have put the forty-franc note in the pocket. It was not very much, but it would buy some quinine, and in America it would have been all right. Only that Alin was going to wear the coat, he said, when he was gone, in remembrance of him. Young Andrews turned, hoping to take back his coat before it was too late.

Alin was standing above him with his feet spread apart. The lights of the town shone between his legs and the mountains were luminous behind him. He slipped his arms into the sleeves proudly, as if there were no earthly limit to his pleasure. He put his hands against his sides. He ran his fingers along the edges of the lapels, drawing them closer across his bare chest. Bather than look at him, at his dark kind sensitive face, young Andrews stared past him at the town and the three pointed mountains above the town. The bell clanged, more faintly than before.

‘Mon vieux . . . est-ce que vous avez fait une faute?

It had happened now. Young Andrews knew without looking that it had happened. And something told him that as long as he lived he would remember the shape and position of those three mountains. ‘Pas de faute, Alin,’ he said; and when one moment and another passed with nothing but silence between them, ‘C’est pour la quinine.’

But Alin had already taken the coat off and put the franc note back in the pocket. ‘Je suis très obligé,’ he said with dignity, and laid the coat folded across young Andrews’s knees.

When young Andrews looked up he was not there any longer. The pier was deserted. Clouds were moving over the bay toward Dominica. And the brightness was gone from the air.