The Violins of Saint-Jacques
A wandering Englishman whose gift of languages and whose audacity remind one of Lawrence of Arabia, PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR was the British Commando who during the war commanded the operation which ambushed, captured, and evacuated General Kreipe, German Commander of the Sebastopol Division in Crete. His book, The Traveller’s Tree, a journey through the Caribbean Islands, was awarded the Heinemann Foundation Prize for 1950 and a Kemsley Prize. Now from that same rich and storied background comes this short novel, of which this is the concluding installment.
by PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR
SUMMARY. — Mademoiselle Berthe de Rennes is in her seventies and in a reminiscent mood when she tells the story of Saint-Jacques, a rich, fabulous little island in the Caribbean, where in the 1890s she had gone to serve as governess to the children of the Count de Seritidan.
Berthe was twenty-four at the time of the Serindans’ Shrove Tuesday Ball, the climax of the carnival season and the social function of the year. The Count, who was the leader of the rich creole landowners, had been waging a long and successful feud against the vulgar politician, Valentin Sciocca, the Governor of the island, but for the sake of peace he had been persuaded to invite the Governor and his flashy wife to the ball. The Count would not have been in so festive and forgiving a frame of mind had he known that his eighteen-year-old daughter Josephine was passionately in love with Marcel Sciocca, the Governor’s brutish son. Josephine has confided all this to Berthe, who has been keeping an eye on the lovers while the ball is in progress.
But on the surface all goes well. Everyone dances with everyone else; the delicious supper is enjoyed by all; and so too the one-act play that the Count has written especially for the occasion. Only Josephine seems moody and tearful, a danger signal which Berthe detects. Then shortly after three o’clock the butler hastens to Berthe with a smudged message which tells her that Josephine and Marcel have eloped.
BERTHE felt, her heart beating fast. Looking at the clock she saw that it was twenty past three. She pushed the letter into the front of her dress and, seizing the butler’s arm, said, “Quick, Gcntilien! There may still be lime,” They ran along the passage and up the back stairs. Josephine’s room was empty. Her while ball dress was thrown across a chair. The white satin shoes lay beside it and the carpet was scattered with a constellation of gardenias. The sheets and the pillows under the drawn mosquito net were rumpled to look as though Josephine were asleep inside. But the dressing table had been pulled away from the window, and running over to it Berthe saw a narrow footmark of French chalk from the ballroom floor printed on the polished sill. Outside, the branches of an immense ceiba tree almost touched the wall.
“ It was a way down,” Berthe said, “that we had often used together — more for the excitement of it than from any real need for secrecy. It was only a hop from the window onto the nearest branch; then you climbed from one branch to another almost as easily as walking downstairs and slid down the ropes of a swing onto the grass. Where would they hide, I wondered, in so small an island? There wasn’t a boat for over a week. . . . Then the whole thing suddenly became clear. That light out in the bay! I ran across the landing and looked out of the front window. It was still there. There was no time to lose. ‘ If only Monsieur Sosthène were in!’ I said out loud.
“ ‘Monsieur Sosthène? But I saw him come in about ten minutes ago. Perhaps he is in his room.’ Gentilien picked up the petrol lamp and we went down the passage. No light showed under the door and there was no answer to Gentilien’s knocking and his cries of ‘Monsieur Sosthène!’ Remembering Sosthène’s threats, in a sudden access of alarm I told him to go in. The door was unlocked and I followed him inside. Sosthène was lying with his face to the wall. I opened the mosquito net and put my hand on his shoulder. Without moving he said: ‘Leave me alone, Gentilien, can’t you?' When he heard my voice he turned over in surprise and sat up. He was covered with ash, his uniform was torn and soaking with dew, and one leg was covered up to the knee with marsh slime. He must have been wandering about in the forest ever since he had run away from me at the kiosk in the garden. He was the very picture of misery. Before he could say anything I sat down beside him and told him in a few seconds what was happening. He jumped to the floor and, shouting for Gentilien to follow, took my hand and ran downstairs. They could not have left the house more than half an hour ago and if we made haste there was a good chance of overtaking them. Obviously, he said, the ship was waiting out there to pick them up. What would an island boat be doing out to sea on Shrove Tuesday? He and Gentilien decided that the main street through Plessis running down to the Place Hercule and the Mouillage (as the harbor was called) would be blocked with merrymakers; so we determined to follow the path through the forest.
Copyriyht 1954, by John Murray, Ltd.
“I stopped and looked down from the landing on the way, in the wild hope that perhaps Sciocca — or even Josephine—might suddenly appear in the ballroom below, but, of course, neither of them was there. I could only have stayed a few seconds but the details remain in my mind as indelibly as a photograph. The scene had never been more animated. Beyond the three great intervening chandeliers that hung below like so many glittering cocoons of revolving insects lay the whole brilliant apparatus of the ball. There seemed no room to move and yet round and round swung the couples in a great tangle of interweaving eddies, and waves of laughter and music and heat rose from the dancers almost visibly.
“No stranger, looking down, as I was, could have suspected that the house was at that very moment beset by the prospect of a duel, by the start of a lasting feud that would split the island irreconcilably, by the threat of the suicide of the son and heir, and by the elopement and possibly the bigamous marriage of the eldest daughter. I felt a kind of melancholy omniscience as I gazed down, a dismal certainty that I was the only person aware of all the hazards and sorrows ahead, and the memory of those few moments is still so startlingly clear in all its details that it might have been the result of a long scrutiny, consciously pursued with the purpose of printing on my memory the family and the house and the friends and the life that had become my own. It was as though I knew that I would never see any of it again.
“I joined Sosthène and Gentilien at the bottom of the back stairs. They had both taken cutlasses for the undergrowth and as we passed the yard, which was now as white with flakes as Spitzbergen, the carriages were beginning to assemble once more for the eventual departure of the guests. Gentilien slid two coach lamps from their brackets on a waiting victoria and handed one of them to Sosthène.
IT WAS almost hotter out than indoors, and as we ran over the lawns to the two stone nymphs where the little-used path through the forest began, the flakes were falling so thick that it was hard to see. But once under the branches, the air cleared and not a flake penetrated the thick roof of leaves. The path led away westward from Plessis, round the shoulder of a hill and down a ravine. The music of the ball and of the drums of Plessis soon fell silent, but the stillness of the forest was broken by the startled noises of the birds stirring overhead — an alarmed and unusual chorus of whistling and chattering. The rhythmic croaking of thousands of frogs sounded through the trees, but all the forest noises were dominated by the unbroken, high-pitched, and metallic cry of the Jacobean cricket which, with the shrill urgency of a stop watch, seemed to say Make haste!
“The narrow track went steeply down, turning and turning on itself like a winding staircase, so that the dancing coach lamps revolved through the leaves and the ferns ahead of me in erratic descending circles. Holding the lamps high overhead, Sosthène and Gentilien only halted a moment in their course to slash with their cutlasses through a hindering loop of convolvulus or wild vine. I soon threw my shoes away and, catching up my enormous skirt, pursued the men over the damp humus of the path in stockinged feet. Outside the radius of the two lumps all was black except for the polygonal darlings of millions of fireflies. A sudden flare from the crater of the Salpêtrière would sometimes turn the sky beyond the treetops deep red and, for a few flickering moments, light the enormous liana-tangled architecture of the forest with a faint and infernal glare. Tripping at a turn in the path over what I thought was a stone, I fell full length. When they stopped to help me up, my stumbling block proved to be an armadillo which had rolled itself into a tighl ball. Overhead, thick flights of pigeons and blue parrots, and even siffleurs montagnes, were on the move in flight from the growing heat in the chaudières higher up the mountain’s flank. Gentilien’s eyes in the lamplight were two emblems of alarm. He crossed himself and muttered, ‘Je n’aime pas ça!'
“Our breakneck descent continued,” Berthe said. “To the right of the path the forest sloped to a narrow creek that was thickly choked by mangroves and then, curling round the foot of the hill, it led to a small lagoon separated by a tongue of land from the Mouillage. The Serindan boathouse, the starting point for so many happy bathing parties in the past, was built out here on piles among the arching mangrove trunks. They broke open the lock with their cutlasses. We all climbed into the little skiff; the two men put out their lamps and shoved out into the sea with their oars.
“In the darkness of the bay, the ship’s light was still burning. It shed a still, red line of light across the windless water. It was no longer snowing, and apart from the splash of the oar blades and the creaking of the rowlocks, all was silent. As we drew level with the cape that separated the little lagoon from Plessis and the Mouillage, the glow of carnival lamps began to reappear through the palm-tree stems along the headland, and the sounds of rejoicing once more sounded in our ears.
“I don’t think any of us had a clear idea of what we would say and do if we succeeded in overtaking the runaways. Everything had happened so quickly and we had set offal such speed that there had been no time for a definite plan. I felt sure, however, that it would not have been difficult to persuade Josephine of the madness of continuing her flight. Her letter, I thought, showed the state of turmoil in her mind. We could always tax Sciocca with running away from a duel and, still more pertinently, with having a wife in France — a fact which, still judging by Josephine’s letter, he had not disclosed to her.
“The more I thought of it, the more certain I became that Sciocca had virtually cast a spell over Josephine. It was obvious that the elopement had been planned some time ago, and the reason for Josephine’s insistence on the change of parts in the play became apparent at once. I suddenly understood something of her curious state the last few weeks. The poor darling wretch had been wandering about with her enormous and guilty secret in a sort of trance, a condition from which she only emerged to break into semi-hysterical tears, or behavior that was very close to real folly. I am afraid I have made her appear a terrible crybaby. Very often she had seemed to be on the point of telling me something, and each time something had stopped her, and when we were in the same room, whenever I looked up, I had found her eyes gazing at me with a sort of pathetic questioning fixity. And now, here she was, in the thick of a tenth-rate melodrama with unlimited possibilities of unhappiness and squalor — a mess that might well mean the destruction of her whole life just as it was about to begin. Apart from any other defects that Sciocca may have possessed, the fact that he could consciously involve so young and beautiful and vulnerable a creature in such a program of inevitable sordidness was an apt measure of his vanity and his lack of sensibility.” Such were the thoughts that revolved in the mind of Berthe as she sat at the tiller of the skiff.
The old fort on the headland, and then the revolving glow of the lighthouse at the end of the mole, were soon behind them; and as they advanced at a slant across the bay toward the faraway point where the ship’s light still beckoned them, the Mouillage, with its shoal of canoes and fishing boats and the long lantern-hung tangle of the masts of the sloops anti the Leeward Island schooners, lengthened with each stroke of the oars. The long waiterfront expanded. The distances widened between the statues posturing along the quay and spaced out the while balloons of the gasoliers. The little skiff reached the causeway — which was marked by two buoys at the ends of the coral reefs enclosing the harbor’s entrance — exactly opposite the center of the town; and the procession of the glowing waterfront pillars, linked by the spans of arches diminishing along an oblique vista in the lessening trajectories of a bouncing ball, slowly readjusted itself into symmetry. Above this arcade the steep and shining amphitheater of Plessis climbed in an acute-angled triangle of houses that was veined and split up by the streets — all of them choked, as though brilliant insects thronged them, by the heaving and torch-bearing revelers. Every roof and ledge and lintel was deep in the saltpeter snow, and, in the lamplight, everything flashed white and gold.
As the little boat drew further off into the night, an exact reflection of the magical and triangular city hung in the still water like a bright honeycomb. Joining along the bright line of the waterfront, the two towns grew together in a golden lozenge. The structure of the submarine city swayed for a few moments in the ripples left by the oars and then, as the soft dislocation subsided, cohered once more in silent and shining congruency.
AFTER an hour’s silent rowing the light ahead began slowly to grow a little larger and the ship began to appear with more distinctness. The port lantern hanging in the shrouds revealed that she was a schooner of considerable size. Her bowsprit, supported by a golden mermaid, pointed south. But the lack of wind had removed all hazard from the chase, and halting a minute, Sosthène and Berthe and Gentilien discussed their tactics.
If they were denied permission to board they would shout to Josephine and try to persuade her to return. If this should fail, or if Josephine were not allowed to talk to them, which could hardly be possible, they would row astern, learn the name of the schooner, and severely harangue the captain and the crew; inform them of the guilty transaction to which — no doubt in all innocence!—they were accomplices; roundly summon them to surrender Joscphinc, after which, if they chose, they could sail away to the devil with the precious Sciocea. Failing this (they would shout), the pursuers could return to Plessis and follow them the moment the wind rose in the Count’s cutter, and chase them wherever they went. If the calm lasted until they got to the shore they would return at once with a posse of police and, if necessary, with the entire population of Plessis; seize Josephine from their midst, put every man jack aboard under arrest, and impound the schooner — that is, if they could hold the population back from setting her on fire outright. In all these deliberations it was Sosthène who look the initiative; and when they stooped over their oars again, Berthe could see, by the distant glow of Plessis, that his face had kindled with anticipation. When, almost alongside, he leaned forward, touched her on the knee, and said, “On y va!” she saw that his teeth were bared in a smile.
But, instead of hostility, they were hailed by friendly greetings from a row of dark figures leaning over the side. The rope ladder was down and, as it had been preconcerted, Sosthène, followed by Gentilien and then by Berthe, sped up the wooden steps. A newly lighted lantern, hung from the mast to supplement the port and starboard lights, revealed a schooner as white with saltpeter snow as though she were made of icing sugar and rigged with a web of rock crystal. Gripping the shrouds — the sudden pressure shaking out clouds of snow from the ropes — they hoisted themselves over the bulwarks and jumped down to the schooner’s deck,
“These three figures,” Berthe said, “a French officer of oddly juvenile appearance with his uniform in rags, an elderly Negro with powdered hair, dressed in black velvet, and gold lace and silver buckles like a Haitian king, and, lastly, a fairhaired young woman in an elaborate green taffeta ball dress and bare feet, suddenly materializing out of the night and alighting one after the other on the planks — the first two grasping cutlasses like a boarding party at the battle of Lepanto — struck wonder and bewilderment that were obviously unfeigned into the hearts of the little community that had formed a semicircle in the lantern light.
“They were all Negroes, and at their center, with steel-rimmed spectacles shining on his long bony face, stood one of the tallest men I have ever seen. Behind him was standing a smaller man with a stone jar under his arm and three glasses clenched between the fingers of his outstretched hand in a gesture of welcome. There was a long silence. The tall figure in spectacles was the first to recover. He raised a broad-brimmed hat and shook hands with us in turn, bidding us gravely welcome in English to the schooner Edith Fan of Carriacou in the Grenadines, of which he, Roderick Graham, was captain.
“It took less than two minutes’ talk and a freely granted permission to look all over the ship to prove that nobody on board had the faintest idea of the matter in hand. The Edith Fan was on her way back from Basseterre in St. Kitts, where she had taken a cargo of the ponies that Captain Graham’s brother, a Seventh Day Adventist like himself, bred in Carriacou. They had taken on a cargo of grain in Antigua on the return trip and had run into a dead calm ns they passed Saint-Jacques a few hours earlier; and when we came on board, they were waiting for the wind that often blows up an hour or two before daybreak. All the captain said was quite plainly the truth. We believed him at once and our hearts sank.
“What, then, had happened to Josephine? She could not possibly hide in the island, so Sciocca must have planned some other way out. I remembered all of a sudden the light I had seen moving through the forest heading for the windward side. Of course! I caught hold of Sosthène and Gentilien and, leading them to the bulwarks, pointed to the black mountainside where the same light, considerably higher now, but still with a long climb to the watershed ahead of it, faintly glimmered — a far remoter will-o’-the-wisp, it immediately struck me, even than the schooner’s lantern had first seemed through the fan-topped window in Plessis.
“The high spirits that I thought I had divined in Sosthène just before we boarded the schooner, which had, rather naturally, subsided for a moment at the total failure of our expedition, suddenly, and to me inexplicably at first, revived at this sudden sharp twist in our affairs. The plan of elopement became as plain as daylight as Sosthène explained it, and Gentilien and I nodded in agreement as his eager voice reconstructed the flight. The Governor had a summer holiday house on windward side at Anse Caraïbe, which is exactly where the watershed path led. It was here that the Government House yacht, the Felix Faure, lay permanently at anchor in the only natural harbor on the Atlantic coast of Saint-Jacques. He must have arranged for horses to be waiting at some distance outside the town soon after three o’clock, where he had appointed a rendezvous. Just over the watershed at the Etang du Cacique — a hamlet on the edge of a bottomless tarn below the chaudières — a change of horses would be waiting, or a pony trap a league and a half further on, where the mountain path rejoined the coast road that looped all the way — too long to cover during the hours of nighttime — round the south of the island. And from there it was only one and a half hours to where they could weigh anchor and be off. Once out of the Leeward or the Windward Islands, they were lost.
“ ‘ We must, stop them before they leave Jacobean waters,’ Sosthène urged. ‘And we can. With any luck I’ll reach Anse Caraibe by the Piton d’Esnambuc path before the wind rises; and if not, I will chase them in one of the fishing boats there. Gentilien, you must come ashore with me and take a horse north to Cap d’Ivry and get one of the sloops to put to sea to watch the northern route. He turned to me and said, ‘And the southern route, Berthe, is yours.’ Before I could speak he had led us both over to the coil of rope where Captain Graham was sitting. Avoiding unnecessary details, he told him what was afoot and said that, though none of us had a centime with us, if he would trust us, his help would be well rewarded. The help we needed was this: Would he, when the wind rose, sail the Edith Fan down to Cap d’Estaing, the southernmost point on the island, with me, and intercept the Felix Faure or any craft heading down the east coast for the Windwards?
“There was something very urgent and convincing in Sosthène’s manner, but nevertheless I was astonished when the captain nodded his long spectacled head and consented. Three of the crew were Jacobeans and the sailor who had offered us the rum as we boarded turned out to be one of the Count’s numerous godsons, fittingly named Agénor. He had not seen Sosthene for years and, though he had wondered all along if it were he, had hesitated to ask. After joyful recognitions, Sosthène and Gentilien prepared to set off. Captain Graham was even persuaded to let them have Agénor and the two other Jacobeans to help row the skiff back more quickly to the Mouillage.
“The three sailors and Gentilien were soon down the ladder. I embraced Sosthène, who followed them at once into the boat. The face that looked back over the tiller was transfigured with ardor. Swift strokes carried the skiff out of the lantern’s range. Cheerful shouts and the valedictory gleam of a flourished cutlass answered our cries of ‘Good luck!’ as the darkness hid them.
“The second journey, with twice the number of oarsmen on board, was much faster than the first; but it seemed to last an eternity as I leaned over the bulwarks. Although the schooner was some way out to sea, the beat of drums anti the sound of violins from the ballroom floated clearly across the water. Through the captain’s spyglass I followed the itinerary of the lantern on the mountainside. The footpath climbed in a long zigzag to a point where the forest ended in a stony ridge of pumice and basalt scree between the crater of the Salpêtrière and Morne d’Esnambuc. There was still a long climb ahead. The road Sosthène prepared to take to Anse Caraïbe lay along a tortuous ledge hacked out of the tufa which overhung a deep and dangerous canyon: a journey full of hazards on foot, still more perilous in the dark on the back of Haïdouk, the fast Cuban horse he planned to take from the stables. Just as the lantern turned the last angle of its climb the small, dark silhouette of the boat appeared in the gold triangle under Plessis and broke the reflected town. I saw them land at the Mouillage and plunge uphill into the frenzied rigadoon with which the whole town was blocked, and begin to fight their way through the revolving wings and antlers in the Place Hercule. In a few moments they had vanished.”
AS Berthe watched, the dim disk at the far end of the spyglass was suddenly turned into a blinding and incandescent ball of light. She felt the alarmed grip of Captain Graham’s hand on her shoulder and then two seconds later came a deafening clap of thunder as though the world had been blown in two. The night had vanished. Everything was suddenly brighter than noonday, and from the crater of the Salpêtrière a broad pillar of red and white flame, thickly streaked with black, was shooting into the sky like the fire from a cannon’s mouth. It climbed higher every second until it had reached a fierce zenith miles up in the air, and the roar that accompanied its journey was interrupted by hoarse thunderclaps that almost broke the eardrum. A great wave of heat, as though an oven door had been opened, swept over the watchers on the schooner, and the sea, reflecting the conflagration, leaped from the darkness in a smooth and vivid desert. The neighboring islands of Marie Galante, the Saints, Guadeloupe, and Dominica, thus strangely lit up and towering all at once across the intervening leagues, looked almost within touching distance. Fiery fragments from the center of the earth were flying through the sky, and missiles like jagged lumps of fire, coming apart in their flight as liquidly as scaling wax, fell dripping to the water, whose smooth surface was broken up in a moment with a forest, of waterspouts and plumes of steam. One of them, about the size, Berthe said, of a hayrick, fell about fifty yards to starboard and set the schooner rocking in a hot cloud of vapor. In a few seconds the blast that held this great flame as rigid as a plumb line from the sky to the overflowing crater must have slackened, for the fiery column began to waver and its summit sank swelling and spreading in broad subsiding coils.
The forests and the canefields were burning savagely in a score of places, and five great fires had broken out in Plessis itself. In the streets, all was panic and turmoil. Antlered and horned figures were leaping into the water and swarming aboard the sloops, and the terraces round the Scrindan house were black with dancers in flight. Paralyzed with horror, Berthe thought of the horses rearing and whinnying, of Josephine, still dressed as a black hidalgo, flung this way and that in the heaving saddle among the crackling and blazing trunks, while the flames, tempestuously traveling, roared through the labyrinthine debris of those combustible woods. . . .
The great column had sunk almost level with the crater, and the daylight radiance dwindled to a ghastly crimson glow as the flames curled from the volcano’s lip in a shrinking cauliflower of fire. Some of the crater’s wall must have fallen in and blocked the channel. It looked as if the eruption were over.
All these events had happened in the space of seconds and Berthe was still gazing petrified at the dark patch in the burning forest, where she prayed that Josephine might still be alive, when a second blinding flash burst from exactly that place, folio wed by something which seemed for a moment, by contrast, pitch darkness. For a black cloud had burst out of the volcano’s flank far below the crater. The fires inside the mountain had blown a new rift which spread upward toward the streaming chaudières. This jagged growing tear revealed the inside of the mountain for a blazing fraction of a second before it was obscured by the rapidly swelling volume of a cloud that came rolling and billowing down toward the town, setting fire to everything in its track. There was a heavy and pillowsoft inevitability in the movements of these oily black convolutions, and now and then, as they rolled forward, they seemed to hang like the folds of a curtain, with a satanic light flickering in the changing pleats. Then it moved onward again, heavy and swelling, and sometimes breaking open for a second or two to show the white and orange whorls of fire that raged inside.
A deep rumbling groan accompanied this journey of destruction. Now and again the dark mass would kindle from inside, and the black sails of smoke glowed crimson and scarlet and then changed to a soft pink without the seething interior flames once breaking through the containing folds, which momentarily appeared as thin and transparent as the surface of a balloon. At last the entire cloud was growing from the island’s side in a great unfolding rose. It slowly faded again into fire-rimmed blackness and all was opaque and impenetrable. Gently it settled over the town and enfolded the houses and spires.
The streets had fallen silent. The citizens had been halted in their flight and their laid low in swathes, as though one invisible sweep of a sickle had reaped them all, by the descending gas which had invaded the capital the moment the mountainside opened. The flaming Serindan house was the first to disappear, and then the black tide flowed wreathing and eddying over the roofs and down the alleyways. Long before it reached the waterfront, Berthe could see the slender dolphin lampposts drooping like dying flowers before they finally melted away. The ships caught fire and the burning masts and hulls glowed redly for a moment through the cloud as it rolled out over the bay.
Soon the whole island was obscured in the black and all-enveloping volume which, now fed ceaselessly from behind by the widening rent in the side of Saint-Jacques, rose high in the air in a dark flickering wall. Hot black ash as fine as soot had begun to rain over the schooner, and an overpowering smell of sulphur filled the variable twilight . The captain and the sailors and Berthe had fallen to their knees long ago, and against the crackling and groaning of the hidden conflagration she could hear their deep-voiced wavering prayers.
Berthe sank into silence at this point in her story. “It is hard to convey,” she finally went on, “the speed with which all these things happened. It takes a long while to tell and it seemed to last an eternity at the time, but I don’t think that more than half an hour can have passed between the first perpendicular uprush of fire and this mobile semidarkness. We watched the black shape in a state of stunned powerlessness. The whole of Saint-Jacques was in dissolution and our only course was to wait until the growing circumference of this terrible cloud should swallow up the Edith Fan and its shipload of mercifully asphyxiated corpses. For the sulphurous reek was growing stronger every minute and the volcanic dust kept raining down. Until we bandaged our mouths and noses in cloths dipped in brine, it seemed likely to choke us. It appeared inevitable that the cloud should overtake us, and when a new and strange commotion — a sound of rushing and whirling—began in the air above us we thought the moment had come. The captain’s prayers (‘O Lord, look down on thy children of Israel, shed Thy mercy on them and save them from the flames’) rose in a long cry of despair. But the air began to lose its fearful heat and the fall of burning soot grew thinner. The cloud’s soft progress over the water halted and its edges began to creep backward again as though the ghostly mass were drawing in its skirts. It lifted from the sea; and flowing back on itself in an immense and uniformly evolving coil encompassing the island, the entire shadowy mass, spiked with lightning and accompanied by claps of thunder, rolled into the sky and joined the rain clouds which had hung motionless there for days.
“All was suddenly light again. The sea was a brilliant disk and the surrounding archipelago reappeared. From the shore to the crest of the Salpêtriere, the island was ablaze. The sudden uprush of wind gathered and combed the flames into a roaring scarlet shock of hair streaked with black tresses of soot from half a dozen new holes torn in the sides of the mountain. A cool breath of wind from the open sea crossed the schooner’s deck in the direction of the island and then, growing in strength every second, broke up the sea into great waves. One of them lifted the vessel skyward and sent her with a lurch into a hollow and then to the top of another tall hill of water. We had all risen from our knees to grasp the shrouds or the bulwarks for support. At that moment the groaning of the fires from the island grew to a fierce crackling roar and the huge tangle of flames fanned over to one side and stretched away southwest.
“Plessis, clear all at once of the smoke and the obscuring wall of flames, was unrecognizable. Only the scarlet bones of the Serindan house remained, a few broken walls of Government House, two gutted belfries, the round bastions and the lighthouse and one or two of the statues. The rest had vanished. The streets were choked with a burning igneous rubble or they had become rivers of lava which flowed streaming and hissing into the sea. Every valley had turned into one of these sluggish streams of fire and the shape of the island itself appeared to have changed. Even the rocks, those great bare shoulders of tufa and basalt jutting through the flattened blaze of the forests, shone red-hot.
“Watching the steady horizontal drift of the flames, the sailors realized what had happened long before I did. ‘Praise the Lord!' the captain shouted. The sailors were flying up the rigging and their voices sounded from mast to mast as they moved along the spars. The sails were flung free and each expanse of canvas filled with a smack until the red night overhead was crowded with canvas that flapped for a moment and then bellied taut. The captain was twirling the wheel and bringing the bowsprit round till it pointed due west. The swinging booms were made fast and the Edith Fan bounded across the waves. For the Trade Winds had revived.
“The flames, meanwhile, were all driving southwest ward, and as the schooner drew away, we could see the great barrier of smoke stretching from the leaning bonfire across bright miles of sea in the direction of the windward slopes of Dominica. As I gazed back over the poop through the spyglass, the island itself appeared all at once to be moving. The southern side was slipping lower in a smooth white-hot subsidence, until, accompanied by a long rumble of fire and falling rock, the entire mass of Morne d’Esnambuc — the forested peak where we had so often picnicked — began to fall away. Used as my eyes had become that night to strangeness and horror, I thought that they or my mind must have been affected. Put the cries of the sailors proved that it was no illusion. The island was coming apart. The fissure that had spread from the watershed between the Morne and the Salpêtrière was opening in a fiery yawn. As the jaws widened a long orange tongue of flame curled out and lazily upward and then twisted away into the current of the Trade Winds. Morne d’Esnambuc, split now from the watershed to the sea, tilted outward. Its base was giving. Slowly the overhanging peak broke away and overturned with a shattering detonation and an avalanche of many million tons of red-hot mineral. Immense burning bits detached themselves and rolled thundering through the forests or bounded far from the island while the main body of the mountain turned through a slow are of ninety degrees and collapsed into the sea in the heart of an enormous rising palisade of water and steam.
“A tidal wave threw the schooner this way and that with a violence that threatened to break her timbers apart, then fled away toward the horizon in a widening ring. The steady drive of the Trade Minds carried us further off and everything began changing fast. Flames were pouring from the exposed heart of the mountain; a wall of vapor now surrounded the broken island, and the hiss of steam was almost as loud as the roar and the crackle of the flames. As the distance increased and the blur of steam grew thicker it got harder to see the details of what was happening. Saint-Jacques was nowreduced to a steep red triangle growing rapidly smaller; more rapidly, in fact, than seemed natural until I realized that Saint-Jacques was sinking into the ocean.
“Every few minutes the sea was plowed up into ravinesof water that looked ready to engulf the ship. Then the sea would lift her, shaking and flooded, to the summit of another great wave. Once she was drawn into a hollow that turned her three times round on herself in a whirlpool before a heavier onrush of water from the east came and lifted her free. Less of the island was visible through the spyglass at the end of each of these contests. Soon only the cone of the Salpêtrière remained above the water, which had now grown unnaturally still. A long fierce flame curling from the crater proved that one channel had remained free of the encroaching salt water, which had sealed the others one by one with hissing explosions of steam. At last only the crater’s rim remained above sea level. Then, as we all gazed at the distant red circle and its immense plume of fire, the crater tilted over slowly on its side and the water flowed in and snuffed it almost in silence; and, of course, forever.
“The waves from this last motion of the distant submarine earthquake shook the sea all round us into a storm again and the schooner plunged in the darkness. High overhead and ns remote as the Milky Way, the sky was covered by a faint red confetti of small drifting cinders. This was all that remained of the island of Saint-Jacques des Alizés, its mountains and its forests, its beautiful town and the forty-two thousand souls that had lived there till an hour ago. The world had come to an end. Solvet saeclum in favilla!”
THE silence that followed Berthe’s last words was unusually long. “What happened,” I asked her finally, “in the end?”
“Oh,” her voice sounded very tired. “It’s not very interesting. We sailed on in the dark. There was a great wind and at last, though it cannot have been above an hour after the last flame had disappeared, dawn began to break. It was a crimson and violet blur in the east, brightening through the falling soot and cinders into all the colors of the spectrum, though the light was as dim as that in midwinter in northern Europe. The sea was discolored with soot and mud and afloat with branches and debris and sargasso weed and with hundreds of dead fish and dead or tired birds.
“Day broke only just in time, for our many gyrations had driven the Edith Fan off her course and carried her within a mile of the northern rocks of Dominica, under a capo called Pointe Baptiste. Another half an hour of darkness would have wrecked her there. I asked to be put ashore, so Captain Graham sailed in close and landed me in a dinghy which they lowered from the deck. A crowd of creole-speaking Negroes helped me ashore, and the schooner sailed away. The Negroes surrounded me and I had to answer a hundred questions, for the events of the night had filled all the neighboring islands with terror and dismay. The horizon where Saint-Jacques had been the nearest landmark was now an empty sweep of sea disfigured by an enormous day-colored smear.”
For the inhabitants of these wild northern reaches of Dominica, it occurred to me, the descent of this fair-haired girl, barefoot in a tattered ball dress, soaking and smeared with soot, and without a possession in the world, alone among strangers on this strange morning, must have seemed an event almost as untoward. An old Negress called Victoria took pity on her, put her arm round her shoulders, and carried her to her hut out of range of the questioners. Putting her on a bed of palm branches, she gave her a long drink of coconut milk. Then, laying one hand on Berthe’s forehead, and taking one of Berthe’s hands with the other, she told her gently to go to sleep.
“Victoria looked after me,” Berthe said, “for a whole month and nursed me through a terrible fever. I used to lie all day long in a hammock strung up between the pimento trees on the headland by her hut at Pointe Baptiste. It overlooked a sandy bay and coral reefs littered with conch shells and the waste of water, which gradually cleared as the days went by, where the mountains of Saint-Jacques had once floated. In the end, Victoria gave me some clothes and took me to the little harbor of Portsmouth and then accompanied me on the boat to the island capital of Roseau. The French Consulate and the British Administrator and the nuns were very kind to me. There was no news of a single survivor from Saint-Jacques. Every soul had perished except me. Ships sailing over the point had found no traces of the island, and repeated soundings proved that it must have sunk to a very great depth.
“With the help of these new friends I made my way to Martinique and French Guiana and finally to Brazil, where I joined a Sisterhood of Poor Clares as an oblate. I stayed with them, working in the slums of Bahia and at various towns up the Amazon, for nearly ten years. I loved this hard work with the nuns. But I grew restless. So I left them in the end and began giving lessons in Rio. But I longed to live on an island again, so I made my way to the South Seas and then back to Europe and the Mediterranean islands — I seem to have worked through them all in my time. I got a job as a nurse in France during the first war. Finally I settled here. I hope I shall never live anywhere else. A few years before the last war I inherited a small sum of money — just enough to see me out, I think. So I only give lessons for pleasure now — I have always enjoyed teaching. And here I am still.”
Her voice sounded tired out. “How strange it is,” she said, as we stood up, stretching our limbs, “that a whole island and all the lives on it Can vanish without a trace.”
“Not quite without a trace,” I said.
“How do you mean?” Berthe asked.
“Last year when I was in Dominica and Guadeloupe, fishermen told me that anyone crossing the eastern channel between the islands in carnival time can hear the sound of violins coming up through the water. As though a ball were in full swing at the bottom of the sea.”
“Do they?” Berthe’s voice had changed entirely. There was a note of surprise and of almost girlish excitement in her voice. In that fainting moonlight the ravaged and magnificent features appeared transfigured, and those gray eyes were suddenly faceted and sparkling under their heavy brows, which, usually frowning, had all at once unknit in two youthful arcs of astonishment and pleasure. “Do they really say that?”
“Yes. They are called the ‘violins of SaintJacques’ or just ‘The Count’s violins.’ Very little is known of the story now and it is seldom connected with the eruption; and to judge from the way they speak, it might all have happened centuries ago. They say they are the fiddles that were played once at a great ball long ago given by a Count in honor of his beautiful daughter.”
Berthe scorned too moved to speak. At last she said, “Thank you. Thank you so much for telling me that.” I felt certain that if I could have seen her eyes they would have been full of tears. In a few moments she hold out her hand under the shadows of an olive tree to say good night and turned away to the path that led to the camp bed where she slept out in summer under the vine trellis. I took the pathway through the olives that led to the cliff’s edge. Turning back, I could see her tall solitary figure standing by an ilex among the vines. She lifted her hand and waved, and I climbed down the cliff through the arbutus and tamarisk to the glimmering seashore. The moon, in dying, had revived the faint radiance of the stars, but by the time I reached the town they too were fading, and a faint golden wing of light in the east was darkening the intervening mountaintops of Asia Minor.