Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

possible. We spoke of it in the woman's lettuce and guava jelly. They almost hearing as a thing not to be thought of, choked us in the consuming; there was and a glint, reminiscent of that sound something so epochal about it, so proof revelry by night, came into her digiously dramatic, like fiddling at the eyes. Meals, breakfast and dinner, burning of Rome. Strangely enough, in might be hard-won and thankless, neces this "paradise of tropic fruits" the only sary things, but this tea-party of ours visible sign of stress came in the winning became a game.

of the lemon. Once the lemon was quite And we did have our tea, spread on a given up, and then it was the young son balcony above the narrow side-street

of the house who ferreted out a specimen slices of bread as fragile as paper, with and came bearing it to us in triumph.

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors]

MAGIC CHRISTIANSTED TUCKED AWAY ON THE SHORE OF SANTA CRUZ

It was

Afterward, surrounded by the frag- onslaught of two round, pallid eyes and a ments of that indomitable tea-party, we

voice of doom. And now the thing was sat and watched the light go out of the here, and now it was gone, running on world. I have read, and I have heard it its horn alone, one would say, out into told, that there is no real twilight in the

the safer barrens of the square. tropics. And yet I seem to remember a a very small and ever-present sort of car, long hour of dusk that evening, an hour and, judged by its careening gait, not in which the street beneath us filled yet thoroughly set on its shore tires; but slowly to its iron eaves with the crepus it was new--so new that it crackled cular mysteries; the fruitless square and one mulatto man was happy. around the corner emptied itself of sun We had seen the prodigy escaping light by degrees almost imperceptible, with difficulty from the hold of our very and the hills beyond the roof-tops still ship that morning, like one dead of the gave back the glamour of a sky and a dropsy brought home in a pine box; spacious western sea.

had seen it borne shoreward over that As the day died life was born again. incredible water on the back of a scow, The village found a population and a swimming slowly; had glimpsed it for a voice. One could not escape the fancy moment on the pier, half-unveiled, corthat there was some familiar and as uscating and triumphant, surrounded by suaging magic in this hour; that just a pack of shining faces-after the waithere, between the pitiless white day and ing months. the dark night, a moment's truce was For one may

be sure it had been given the beleaguered island. Laughter months, and not a few of them, since came out of the houses. The vender of that letter went down from this pier, bread and yams lighted an oil-flare be- heavy with expectation, out across the hind the corner of the arcade opposite; roadstead, up the side of the waiting its illumination, growing stronger and steamer,

and away over the blue horizon. yellower with the dusk, flowed out over But time is nothing in the Caribbees; the wall beneath the roof, filled with the and, anyhow, it was here now, a chershadows of turbaned heads and vast, ished demon. Or rather it was come and gossiping hands.

gone again, out of the square and our Laborers, men and women returning lives, its horn no louder in the ear than from the cane-fields, came into the far the hunting-song of the mosquito, which, ther end of the street from the hills and let it be said, was loud enough. passed below us, their bare soles tread Time and space returned; the twilight ing so soundlessly on the dust that it

truce was re-established; the dusk deepgave them an illusion of preternatural ened. Women were gathered about a buoyancy, never tired. A rumor of pump in the square, their voices mastication went with them, a continu- mingling with the soft cataract of the ous crunching and tearing and sucking of water which filled their earthen pitchers. the sugar-cane which each one carried, Under the arcade opposite, a large, lean fife-fashion or clarinet-wise, to measure blackamoor sat with his shins crossed and refresh the homeward way. Nor and his bare elbows pointing to the poles, were their voices idle. Banter and gossip consuming his evening meal of bread passed between them and the doorways. and boiled yam. His teeth were strong, A female of the household beneath, in white, and glistening in the light. His visible under our balcony, kept up a run eyes, all the while, were turned with inning fire of pleasantries, not unmelodi terest upon that invisible booth behind ous, but, as wit is apt to be in the Lesser the pillar, and the heads which made the Antilles, frankly fundamental.

shadows we could see on the wall above There came a sudden and disrupting his own. The thing might have been change. Time and space were obliterated staged for our especial edification, one of in a twinkling; riot lifted its head; we those community pageants which have sat appalled. Tumult burst around the become so popular, and one which had by corner two streets to the left; blaring of some mischance got itself started wrong trumpets echoed between the crouching end to; the vanishing monster of civiliwalls; shadows scampered before the zation vomiting clamor and gasolene

[ocr errors][merged small]

Vol. CXXXVI.-No. 816.-104

[ocr errors]

mist—the middle ages of tranquil twi Dominica assured me, I am unprepared light-and then the coming of primitive to say. The colored twine is frankly music.

ornamental, however, as is the case of One of us said, “Music?"

the ribbon on the small end of that dry The rest of us sat up, too, gazed about, and screeching gourd known as the did something analogous to cocking the squash.” And either of the two pieces ears, said, “No," and lay back again. may be had, one would say, at an ex

And yet there was something, some tremely moderate outlay. where, a fine thread of sound, a mean In the United States, or in any Latin dering and unsubstantial whine. And

country, the populace would have been it was not a mosquito, even if one had at their heels, men, women, and especialthe musuclar impulse to slap. It grew ly children, following the music. But louder by degrees; when we observed here none moved, not even the children. those in the street beneath beginning to We wondered if it were “not the thing to crane their heads all the same way, we do” in Caribbean society. Certainly decided that it must be so, and over in they seemed interested enough, amused, that direction. A rhythm established if not edified, but it was only their eyes itself, a barbaric beat, the essential music that followed the music-makers, coming of the tom-tom, done on something that and going in that singular isolation, fadwas not a tom-tom. It came into our ing away along the street, till they vanstreet.

ished under the encroaching night and There were five of them in that most only their wandering song came back to singular band, all erect with dignity, all us, like the voice of the mosquito again. wearing straw hats of varying ages, all But who were they? What was it all bare of foot save the tallest one in the about? We inquired of our hostess, who middle of the rank, who had on tan had come to stand in the doorway beOxfords innocent of laces. One played hind us. She did not know, but she a mandolin, and one a fife. One beat would ask. A moment later we heard with a stick upon a metal triangle done her voice below, and a fragment of by the local blacksmith. One scratched answer cut short by a banging door: a squash with a wooden pick, and one, Them Bassin peoplethe blackest, shiniest, awkwardest, and They were from Christiansted, then; altogether the most elemental and the from Bassin, that little town on the least presentable heathen of the lot, windward side of the island of which we made hoarse coughing sounds into a

had heard in such pitying or contemptusection of gutter-pipe, bent in the middle ous terms all day. I think we had gathat an angle of thirty degrees, and wound ered the impression that the thing which at intervals with colored twine.

alone kept Frederiksted alive was this The last two instruments, let it be superior contemplation of its neighbor's said, seem to be in the highest vogue still meaner state. among the musicians of the Caribbees “There's a society from over there and there are points to be made in their going to give an entertainment in the favor. As a race, the West-Indian ne Hall to-night," our hostess told us upon groes are not given to anything like

her return. “The band's just to let profundity in the gentler arts; and the folks know." technique of the gutter-pipe bass, for It came as rather a shock to learn that instance, should not be difficult to grasp; contemptible Bassin possessed such a indeed, as in the present case, its chiefest thing as a “society”; worse still, that exponents seem to be artists of the very they should have the presumption to lowest intellectual type. No attempt is “entertain” this regal West End. But made to harmonize this bass with the air perhaps we could understand now why of the lighter pieces (if there be an air), people had not followed the band. or to distract the stately monotony of Night established itself. A vast conthe measure with any rhythmical elabo flagration on the summit of a hill ration. Whether it be true that the bend turned out, after moments, to be the in the middle of the instrument really rising moon, and a sound of roaring was "enriches the tune,” as a devotee in heard within the house. Captain Quinn,

a

after his twenty-eight disastrous days of Two lights were burning in all the sea air, had tasted of the juice of the town behind us; one, very dim and yelcane, and was calling for the pianoforte low, in a shore-side café, a desolate hole and the dulcet intervals of “Home, in the wall, kept by a colored man who Sweet Home.”

had "lived in Chelsea, Mass.;" the

other in the second story of the West I shall always remember that night, End Club, abreast of the landing, It my first ashore in the tropics, as a night must have been fifty yards away from of sleepless silence filled with little where we sat, but in that perfection of sounds, of a heat oppressive and at the silence we heard the cannoning of bilsame time strangely electric, and of a liard-balls and the clink of the players' white moonlight filling the chinks in all · glasses as if we had been in the room. the blinds.

The trade-wind, here in the lee of the I retired quite early, overpowered by island, barely moved the fronds of the drowsiness, and there I lay for hours palm-trees overhead, still ragged with under a hanging sword of nervousness, last year's hurricane, and the water bathed in perspiration, listening and was asleep on the white beach. listening. The night hush became or I wish I might describe the beauty chestral; there seemed almost an inten of the sea as I saw it that night, under tion in the play of its several voices- that moon. There is something curious the telling of the hours on a cracked bell about the moon in these islands, a qualin a church-tower somewhere; the wax ity I have never noticed anywhere else. ing and waning footfalls of a passer-by, More generous than the pale blanket of furtive as a ghost's on the cloak of dust; our Northern nights which silvers everythe interminable rustling of “women's thing alike, here colors can still live, or tongues” beyond the gallery.

at least the ghosts of colors; a wall pink A dog bayed of a sudden; another and in the sunlight is pink again under the another took it up; it went away like

moon;

the hibiscus blooms a faint tocsin across the huddled roofs. And magenta at midnight, and the shallows then it was a sow, far off, threatened of the Caribbean are still painted like a perhaps by a phantom cleaver, and all phantom peacock's breast. the swine were waking. Silence returned I cannot say how long we talked again, ruffled only by those whispering there; at any rate, the café and the "women's tongues.” A mosquito had club had closed their eyes before we found that rip in the bed-net, and all turned our steps back through that one could do was wait under that wind queer-colored town. And even then we ing, hideous song till it came to rest hated to go in, and so we stood before on the cheek and was done for. The the house and talked, leaning our elbows clock in the tower told another half. on the little railing around that leafless Another mosquito was in. Or was it a exile. We wondered about it; we made mosquito? Or was it that band from stories about it, comedies and tragedies. Bassin? It seemed to come and go, Ferguson reached out to touch it; it winding the air. It was the band. The fell away under his hand and lay across "entertainment” was over. The itching the lowest rung of the iron pipe, a dry rhythm passed away through a near-by and hollow skeleton of bark. I wonder street, and across the square beyond my how long a time it had been dead in that blinds there was wafted a troop of soles, foreign land. weightless, like a laggard night wind. None of us said anything after that. A dog howled-all the dogs—and the Like a company of murderers we filed "women's tongues" were at me again. in through the shadowy wicket, up the

I got up, dressed myself, and went stair and to our rooms and our several out of doors. The Draftsman was al- beds, our mosquitos and dogs and bedevready abroad. I found him sitting on iled swine and night prowlers and steeple the beach under the cocoa palms, talk bells, and to the ceaseless dry gossiping ing with Ferguson, a young newspaper of the pods in that tree they call the man we had picked up at St. Thomas, a

women's tongues. most delightful and entertaining fellow. Next morning the three of us went

we

forth to find Christiansted, driving in despised Bassin broke about us, a sudno other than that very new and shin den miracle, pelting us with the colors ing car. Ferguson took his bags along, and fragrance of flowers. for he planned to catch a mail-sloop Had we, as wise travelers, consulted there, sailing back for Charlotte Amalia; the pages of our red West-Indian guidebut with the Draftsman and myself it book before we came ashore yesterday, was a matter of slumming, pure and we should not, perhaps, have listened simple-an expedition into the depths. with so long an ear to that plainer sister

“Now,” we said to ourselves, at the doorway of the island. We should have just time enough before our have sniffed a little more, I think, at the steamer sails to take one peep at the communal wood-pile, wondering vaguely dregs of the Caribbees.” And although • how ever this Bassin of her dark revelaI failed to notice it at the time, I think, tions came to be the seat of government as we lifted into the hilis behind West for the possessions of Denmark. but End, that the crouching town must have even the West-Indian guide-book would cast after us a thwarted and malignant not have told us that this Christiansted, glare.

tucked away on the windward shore of It is fifteen miles from West End to Santa Cruz, came nearer to one's dream Bassin, the length of the island-fifteen than any other of the little cities of the miles of fine road fringed with cabbage Caribbees. palms, winding across a rolling plain of It would not have told us of this sugar-cane. In so sharp a contrast with different sea, lurking for the eye in every St. Thomas and her wasted downs, and break of the walls, an artful painting, the forest silences of St. John, Santa with a chalk-mark of reef high up near Cruz is rich to the very crests of her hills. the horizon, and beneath it daring brushThe tender green of cane sweeps away

strokes of apple green and lilac and unbroken to the sky-line, wonderful indigo, alive in the never-ceasing wind. where it strikes against the blue; and It would not have told us of the red and on all the little hummocks of the horizon pink and yellow buildings, so thick and stand broken old towers, ruinous senti- ancient, and so chinked and overhung nels. They had sails when the Dutch with flowered foliage; of the archways men built them many years ago, and the leading into storied courtyards; of the trade-wind ground the cane. But now bright-red fort at the quay-side, built the sails are gone, and the Dutchmen; there, one would say, for wooden soldiers and the fat red factories of syndicates that never grow old; or of the tiny squatting on the lowlands, do for all the island in the ineffectual harbor, a green island.

jewel done by a craftsman, with a narThe pink villas of resident managers row pedestal of surf and the house of

the debris of ancient masonry, the harbor-master half-hidden in its crumbling hamlets going back to the trees. I have never wanted to be a mother dust. Once we saw a rusted policeman; I have had periods of looking wheel on a hill, as wide as five men's forward to the Presidency; but, standoutspread arms, casting its shadow over ing on the quay that day, there was rea lizard's wall. Cows were stabled be- vealed to me the fairest ambition of any neath an arch fit for an emperor's hall. man-to die the harbor-master of ChrisAnd neither the black men staring at us

tiansted. blank-eyed from the wains of cane, nor There ought to have been music to go the resident managers in their puttees with this place. We wanted something and snowy helmets, could tell us what of strings, exotic, cloying; and we came were the names of these old places, or upon a propitious figure leaning against why they were there, or when they had a pillar of the Bassin

Club in the square, died.

a willowy mulatto man fondling a guitar. We had our glimpse of Christiansted, We gave him a shilling and told him to and that was all. At the end of those set about it. His brow, which had been fifteen miles, done to a continuous and so soft, lost its tranquillity. He tried to horrific accompaniment of our horn, the tell us something, but we could not unsea came up to meet us over a hill, and derstand. He was anxious, troubled. He

sit among

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »