La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-eight
And we will linger no longer in discussing the improbabilities, the crying impossibilities. Auguste Sybaris produced for me, simply, the effect of a pillager who, surprised by fire while at work prematurely on a bit of safe-cracking, had wanted to explain his burns, while scoring off his contemporaries, and whose negro imagination made from whole cloth the extraordinary story that we came to read, and that had been told to me by M. Clerc…and many others…
The imaginations of the whites, meanwhile, cede nothing to that of the negroes. We would make a great volume, publishing all the howlers that were repeated to me… But they have only the one interest, in proving that human credulity is without limits. I will shut them away, then. There is one, however, which has made too much noise, and has been swallowed by too many people… officials, for whom I hardly have words. It is the miraculous adventure of the two soldiers. You know, those who in the style of the barracks, we call practical.
This is the heroic odyssey of two cannoneers, the citizens Vaillant, and Tribut. These two cannoneers were on duty at the camp of Colson. From the camp they had seen that morning the eruption in the sky, above the mountain…but, they knew nothing. It was the secretary of the town hall of Fond-Saint-Denis who, passing on horseback rather late, announced that Saint-Pierre was destroyed. The men had been forbidden to go out from the camp. Desirous, no doubt, of seeing the spectacle up close, Vaillant and Tribut had long borne up under the order. They were on edge.
At three o’clock, commanded by telephone from Fort-de-France, the chief of the camp sent a brigadier and a mounted guide, to inform themselves on the situation at Saint-Pierre, as they were without news of the city. The two riders arrived at the heights and saw the burned ruins of Saint-Pierre, but could not approach within 400 meters. The heat was too great, there were ashes. They retraced their path. They encountered no one on the way. But coming back far enough from Saint-Pierre, they found along the road Vaillant and Tribut, and a wounded sailor. They brought them to the 30 kilometer post, where they all slept. And they returned next morning to the camp.
This is the report of an under-officer. This is certain.
Here is that which is uncertain.
Vaillant, whom they were preparing to lock in a cell, protested energetically and swore that he had been driven to Saint-Pierre by a duty to humanity, that he had explored the ruins, that he had found wounded people still alive, notably a family of whites, eight people with an old negro woman; he had given them the contents of his canteen to drink, and that of Tribut, and had promised to come back and find them… It was a duty he would fulfill at any cost. There were still many other people alive in the city, for he had heard many cries. But he had not pursued his investigations. He had hastened to search for help, and to bring it back.
As at the camp of Colson, the story did not take at all. He insisted on being authorized to go down to Fort-de-France, to tell the commander of artillery and the governor what he had seen.
He went to Fort-de-France, and was conducted to the governor, with whom was found the captain of the Suchet; he, for having landed on the place du Bertin with the public prosecutor, and seeing there all the city destroyed by fire, said it was his conviction no one was alive in Saint-Pierre.
M. Muller, who assisted at the scene, told me this.
Vaillant insisted. He had already convinced other people. He managed to return to Saint-Pierre. He returned on board a steamer that brought M. Lyautier. When the steamer, after many hours sojourn at the harborfront, blew the whistle for going back, Vaillant came with an old negro woman, burned. He embarked in triumph, saying, “You see that I am not a liar. I have at last found it, the house with the eight unfortunates… But, I was not allowed to come back soon enough. They are dead. None alive but this poor old woman. And she recalls that I had given her water. “Is it not true that I gave you water?” added he, in speaking to this unlucky woman, who, grievously burned, stupefied, bewildered, made with her head signs of distress which could pass for a “yes”. She died at the hospital, where they had taken her on disembarking at Fort-de-France.
And there it is, that upon which the legend rests, of survivors of Saint-Pierre, whose cries of distress had been heard by the gunner Vaillant, the day of the disaster. Having found, two days after, in the ruins, this old negro woman, who moved her head and died, without being able to answer to the questions he posed, anything other than frightened monosyllables, which cannot not be admitted as proof Vaillant spoke truly.
The old woman was not in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the cataclysm.
The doctor Lherminier, who has studied all this history, and who thinks what all people gifted with the critical sense think, knowing it for a trickery, told me that the old woman was one of the mad, at the asylum of Saint-Pierre. The asylum possessed, near the Litte, a branch campus where the quietest inmates were interned. In the disarray of the eruption, although the fire would not have reached this branch of the Litte, those who lived there fled. Thus, the poor old woman, found at liberty. Directed by what impulse I don’t know, she had returned to Saint-Pierre, burned herself there in wandering the ruins, where Vaillant found her and brought her back.
That is the truth.
La Catastrophe de la Martinque
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinque; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)