Monday, April 21, 1902
The city of Saint-Pierre was in a joyous mood. It was the end of the sugar harvest, a time for celebration and revelry. Music and laughter filled the air. The stars lit up the heavens and the moon shone resplendent over the bay where schooners and steamers lulled gently in the breeze. The strains of biguine music could be heard echoing from the cabarets, and the odor of Creole cooking wafted from the cafés that lined the waterfront. No one noticed that on the summit of Mount Pelée, a thick plume of black smoke was rising steadily in the air, growing larger by the minute.
In a villa nestled on the slopes of the mountain, Emilie Dujon could feel the earth trembling. A picture rattled against the wall and a lizard scampered away in fright. A rumbling noise that sounded like distant thunder drowned out the crickets and tree frogs. Startled out of her reverie, she dropped her copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and grabbed her binoculars. Focusing them on the summit her eyes widened in surprise. Smoke and steam were rising from the lower crater, the one they called the Étang Sec. It grew in size and curled outward, like an enormous gray mushroom, before blowing leeward over Saint-Pierre.
She lowered the binoculars and scanned the mountain for several minutes, feeling a clenching pain in her gut. She’d been watching these occurrences almost daily, and now they were becoming more frequent, and by the looks of things, more serious. For years the experts had claimed Mount Pelée was extinct, but if that was the case, why was there so much ash and smoke?
She wrote her findings down in a notebook and sat down in front of her vanity mirror to brush her hair and reflect on the matter. A young woman of eighteen with chestnut hair, amber eyes, and a grave but lovely face, Emilie was by nature very observant. She loved to study the world around her and uncover its mysteries. She spent long hours riding her stallion over the hills and valleys of Mount Pelée; exploring her tropical world was where she felt most at home. She had a good grasp of West Indian geography, having studied it at the convent school of Saint-Joseph de Cluny, and she knew that volcanoes were formed by subterranean fires deep below the earth’s crust. But a piece of the puzzle was still missing. Dead volcanoes do not emit clouds of smoke and ash. She wondered if there was something more to Pelée that the experts were not saying.
At least tonight was supposed to be a happy occasion, a chance to forget her worries and enjoy herself. Her fiancé, Lucien Monplaisir, was taking her to a gala performance of La fille du régiment at the theater and she was thrilled. Normally Lucien had no patience for cultural events, but he was making the sacrifice just for her. Emilie smiled, thinking how strange and wonderful it was to be in love. In the span of a few months it had changed Lucien from a world-weary sugar planter into a refined gentleman.
At eight o’clock, spectators arrived in top hat and tails and long muslin gowns and turbans knotted in the distinct Martinique fashion. While the musicians were warming up their instruments, a murmur of anticipation rose up from the audience to the private box where Emilie sat with Lucien and his younger sister, Violette.
Emilie was brimming with excitement. This was her first trip to the theater in years. It was considered an unnecessary luxury ever since her father’s plantation, “Domaine Solitude”, started to lose money. The concert hall was even more splendid than she remembered. It shimmered like a golden Fabergé egg. The chandelier glowed, spreading warm light over the frescoes that adorned the ceiling. She gazed over at Lucien and her heart swelled with pride. She could scarcely believe how she, the daughter of a modest cocoa planter, had captured the heart of the richest sugar planter in Martinique.
The lights went down and the play began. The audience watched with rapt attention, including Emilie, whose eyes scarcely left the stage. Even Lucien, who normally grew bored after only a few minutes, seemed to be enjoying himself.
In the middle of the third act, Emilie looked up and spied an old school friend, Suzette de Reynal, sitting in the opposite box. She seemed to be gazing over at Lucien. Emilie lifted her opera glass and to her amazement Suzette winked at him. Stunned, she held up her program and saw out of the corner of her eye that Lucien met her gaze and winked back in return. For several minutes she watched the two of them engaged in silent communication. Clearly this was not the first time. Panic spread throughout Emilie’s limbs and her heart pounded. Before long Lucien got up and mumbled something about needing a drink. Emilie could not believe this was happening. Surely it had to be a mistake. She got up and followed him outside, but Lucien was nowhere to be found. She searched for him through the crowd and when she reached a potted palm, she froze. Ensconced behind the plant were Lucien and Suzette, locked in a passionate embrace.
Emilie’s face burned in anger. Time seemed to stand still. She took a few steps backwards and fled to the safety of her seat. Tears welled in her eyes. How could she have been so blind? How could she have been so naive? She blamed her own trusting nature. She was sure she had failed to see the clues that were there all along.
When Lucien returned to his seat, he put his hand on Emilie’s shoulder, but she stiffened at his touch. All at once she lost interest in the play. She lost all interest in Lucien. And then a great feeling of dread came over her when she realized that the wedding invitations had already been sent out. She tried fanning herself but nothing could quell the anxiety that had taken hold of her.
In the midst of her turmoil, a great rumbling noise filled the hall. The chandelier swayed and the entire theater shook. Panic erupted in the audience. The rumbling noise grew louder and the shaking intensified. The actors on stage looked around in confusion. When a piece of scenery fell mid-stage, they shrieked and ran back-stage in terror. And then, to everyone’s horror, a marble statue fell into the audience, giving rise to mass panic.
Emilie gasped in fright. Someone yelled “Earthquake!” and all at once everyone jumped out of their seats and raced toward the exits. The musicians fled the orchestra pit like wasps from a burning nest and the once cheerful hall turned into mass hysteria. People were shouting and jostling each other in their haste to escape. An old woman cried out and an elderly man in a black suit and tails struggled to protect her as they were shoved aside in the melee.
Lucien grabbed Emilie’s hand and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” He pulled her and Violette through the crowd and they raced down the marble staircase. They hurried through the courtyard to the Rue Victor Hugo where the carriages were waiting. After climbing inside, the driver proceeded north on the Rue Victor Hugo, dodging frightened residents and spooked horses. Boom! An explosion like cannon-fire rocked the carriage. In the distance, the mountain appeared to be glowing. The blast was followed by a loud rumbling noise and tremors that shook the earth. The horses whinnied and reared and the elderly West Indian driver struggled to control them. “Ho! Ho!” he cried, pulling on the reins. Emilie feared the ground would split open beneath them, swallowing them up. Even Lucien looked terrified. The gas lamps swayed and roof tiles smashed to the ground. A swarm of people hurried past their carriage on their way to the cathedral, crossing themselves and uttering prayers out loud.
Emilie’s muslin dress was soaked with sweat. Heat and humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket. She glanced over at Lucien, but he was staring at the smoldering volcano with a mixture of fear and awe. Dear God, she prayed, please don’t let me die together with Lucien. Not here, not now. Shutters flew open as fearful residents peered out into the darkness. A few horses broke free of their reins and were galloping down the street, chased by their furious owners. How quickly panic took over the frightened residents.
The carriage ground to a halt. Emilie pushed the carriage door open and scrambled outside. Lucien and Violette joined her and they stood by the side of the road, watching the scene unfold before them like spectators to a disaster. Ash and volcanic dust rained down on their heads while the ground continued to shake.
“We really must get out of here,” said Lucien.
The driver cracked his whip and the horses trotted across the stone bridge that crossed the Rivière Roxelane, and then proceeded north for several miles along the coast before turning east onto a dirt road bounded by coconut palms and bamboo that led to the tiny hamlet of Saint-Philomène where Emilie’s plantation was located. As they climbed the western slopes of Mount Pelée, an ominous smell filled the air. It was not a burning kind of smell, like the occasional fumes that drifted down from the Guérin Sugar Factory across the savannah, but a different kind of smell, like rotten eggs. Emilie pressed her handkerchief to her nose and mouth. Lucien slipped his arm over her shoulders but she stiffened at his touch. As the carriage made its way down the dirt road an uncomfortable silence followed during which time Emilie pondered her dilemma. She had to find a way to break off her engagement without causing a scandal. But it would not be easy. No young woman of her social class had ever broken an engagement and survived the resulting gossip and slander. The scandal would crush her parents and brand her a social outcast. Her mind raced as she searched for a solution, but it seemed hopeless. She gazed up at the summit of Mount Pelée, but an ominous film of clouds blotted out the moon, reducing her world to utter darkness.
Tuesday, April 22
The next morning Emilie awoke to the voices of the field workers reverberating through the jalousies. There was a clattering of dishes from the outside kitchen and a rooster crowed in the hen house. A memory of the previous night’s fiasco flitted through her mind and it all came flooding back. Pain gripped her and a lump formed in her throat. In one fateful moment her entire world collapsed. She glanced over at the clock and groaned. Already 7 o’clock. Her brother Maurice was waiting for her out in the fields.
Downstairs she found a copy of Les Colonies lying on the dining room table and leafed through the pages. Oddly, the newspaper seemed to be making light of the previous night’s disturbance, as if it had been a burlesque performance gone wrong. The editor, Marius Hurard, wrote that “the trembling in the theater served to heighten the dramatic tension on the stage” and “the flashes of light on top of the mountain were more reminiscent of a Bastille Day celebration than an actual volcanic eruption” and “the only thing missing to make the evening more celebratory was the municipal band playing the Marsellaise”. Emilie furrowed her brow. Why no mention of the tremors? Why no mention of the ash cloud? Why no mention of the panic in the streets? What were they hiding? She threw the newspaper down in disgust.
Behind her she heard a shuffling noise. Her old nurse, Da Rosette, came hobbling into the dining room bearing a breakfast tray and a pot of coffee. She was wearing her usual bright madras skirt over a white chemise, and on her head a yellow turban. Rosette Desrivières, or Da Rosette as she was called, had worked for the Dujon family for more than fifty years. She was the mainstay of the household. Rising in rank from cook to house servant to nanny, she had almost single-handedly raised two generations of Dujon children. Though she was getting on in years, and needed a cane to walk, her hearing was still acute and few details escaped her sharp eyes. It was almost impossible to keep a secret from Da Rosette. It pained Emilie that she would have to tell her nurse the truth about Lucien.
“What happened, doudou?” said Da Rosette, placing the tray down on the table. “You look like you have seen a zombie.”
“Something terrible happened last night.”
“You mean the tremors?”
“Yes, it was scary. I saw fire on the mountain.”
Da Rosette frowned. “All that drinking and carousing makes Father Pelée angry. But don’t worry, cocotte, soon he will go back to sleep. Pelée is our protector, not our destroyer.” She picked up a papaya and began to carve it with a pearl-handled knife. “The spirits dance a caleinda and play the tam-tam and drink too much rum, and the Bon Dieu gets angry.”
“That’s just superstition,” said Emilie. “There has to be a scientific reason for what happened. It’s not the spirits that are making fire on the mountain, but something much worse. And that’s not all that happened...”
“Why the long face?” said Da Rosette. “Soon you will be the happiest bride in all of Madinina. When the time comes I’ll take out the best linen and china and you’ll wear your grandmother’s lace dress and pearls. Grandma Loulou would be so proud of you.”
Emilie stared at her nurse. “Da, there’s something I have to tell you. I found out Lucien has another doudou.”
The old woman looked shocked.
“Da, do you remember the old saying, Even if you paid him all the money in the world, a monkey has enough sense not to climb a thorny tree?”
The elderly woman put down the papaya. “Monsieur Monplaisir is rich. He will make a wonderful husband for you. Don’t talk such foolishness!”
Emilie shook her head. “I can’t marry Lucien when I know he’s in love with someone else. It would be a terrible mistake.”
The old woman grabbed her wrist. “Shh! don’t talk like that! Of course Lucien loves you. No man is perfect, but a good wife always looks away from her husband’s faults. Does the crab expect the mouse to soar like an eagle? The Bon Dieu has done you a great favor in giving you a rich husband. You should be thankful or you will bring a terrible curse on your head. Do you want to end up marrying a zombie?”
Feeling vindicated, Da Rosette got up and began sweeping the floor, banging into furniture, clattering the dishes, and making a ruckus to show her displeasure. Her thin, bony hands clutched the broom like the claws of a raven. When she opened the door to sweep the dirt outside she uttered a terrifying shriek.
Emilie rushed to her side. Outside, a huge crab with one leg missing was scampering down the path, trying to escape. Emilie felt instant pity for the creature. It had probably escaped from one of the worker’s barrels. The field hands had a custom of fattening up their crabs by feeding them mangoes, green peppers, and maize before boiling them alive and stewing them in their favorite dish, Matoutou de Crabe, an island specialty.
Before Emilie could stop her, Da Rosette lifted up the broom and began to beat the crab without mercy until the poor creature scurried away into the bush.
“Go away, wretched beast!” cried Da Rosette, shaking her fist at it.
“Da, why did you treat the crab so cruelly?”
“That was no crab,” said her nurse. “It was a little zombie. Tonight I will burn a candle to ward it away and to scare the others away.”
Emilie grabbed the broom out of her hands. “Da, sometimes a crab is just a crab. Leave it alone!”
But the old woman would not listen. She waved her off and began rearranging the dishes, singing one of her spirituals with renewed fervor. It was Da Rosette’s way of shutting out all conversation. Emilie hated when she was like that; it was impossible to talk to her. Anyway, she would never see things Emilie’s way, especially about Lucien. Although Da Rosette’s heart was pure, she lived in a world of superstition, fear, and irrational beliefs tied to voodoo. It affected everything she did. When Emilie was little, her nurse would fill her head with all sorts of stories about voodoo and spirits. Whenever she would stumble across strange voodoo items such as a toad with its mouth chained shut, slaughtered chickens, or miniature black coffins filled with graveyard dirt. Da Rosette would always jerk her away while crossing herself, warning her that she must never step over a quimbois (as voodoo was called in Martinique) or it would bring trouble. To Da Rosette, cancelling a wedding was tantamount to bringing a curse. It was simply not done. Emilie looked at her beloved nurse with pity, resigning herself to the fact that in the matter of Lucien Monplaisir, she was entirely alone.
After breakfast Emilie grabbed her straw hat and gave Da Rosette an obligatory peck on the cheek, and then she ran outside to find Maurice, grateful for the chance to be out in the sunshine. She needed time to think; time to clear her head, time to plan her next course of action. She was determined to end their engagement but it had to be handled delicately. Any rash action on her part could end in disaster.
As she made her way through the fields the workers called out to her and waved. Most of them had known her since she was a baby. The Dujons were békés, white French Creoles who could trace their lineage back to the first French settlers of Martinique. ‘Domaine Solitude’, the Dujon family plantation, was sprawled across five hundred acres of the richest volcanic soil on the island. The plantation represented the only world Emilie knew and the only world she loved. Five generations of Dujons had grown up on the plantation, but it was her father, Georges, who had made the decision to switch from sugar cane to cocoa, believing that chocolate would one day become a prized commodity.
Although it was still morning, it was already hot and muggy. Soon it would be too hot even for the workers to labor outside. When the sun reached its zenith, they would clamber inside their thatched huts for their midday meal which consisted of manioc, breadfruit, plantains, and black peas, after which they would lay down for their afternoon sieste. To sustain their bodies they drank copious amounts of tafia, white rum mixed with spring water, and to sustain their spirits they filled the church pews every Sunday. But Martinique was not, according to the strictest definition, a Catholic country. In an island steeped in voodoo, witch doctors, called quimboiseurs, yielded enormous power over the people and were not to be taken lightly.
Although life in Martinique was hard, it was punctuated by celebrations like Carnival followed by a rousing Mardi Gras, when the people from the countryside would crowd into St. Pierre and engage in festive dances like the bamboula and caleinda, and sing satirical songs while they paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of musicians on the ka drum, beating out African rhythms that stirred the crowd to a frenzy. Although Carnival drew many visitors from around the world, some aspects of it were morbid and frightening.
Every year as Carnival drew to a close, the Red Devil, whom they called Papa Djab, would make his appearance at night and always under cover of darkness. From a dark alleyway, the Red Devil would emerge under the glow of the oil lamps, clad all in red, with a skull face and cow horns. Only his eyes were visible, and on his head he wore a wig made of horse hair upon which he would place a shining lantern. Papa Djab was so terrifying and sinister he could make even the bravest man climb a breadfruit tree.
As the crowd cheered, Papa Djab would parade down the Rue Victor Hugo, dancing in time to the music as he chanted incantations meant to raise the dead: “Bimbolo! Zimbolo!” While behind him a devilish chorus all dressed in red would ring out, “Bimbolo! Zimbolo! The Devil and the zombies sleep anywhere and everywhere!” After a while a hush would descend on the crowd while everyone waited to see what Papa Djab would do next. When she was little, Emilie would always hide behind Da Rosette's skirts, too fearful to face the Red Devil up close.
Over the years Emilie had heard rumors that Papa Djab was really the Grand Zamy, a quimboiseur who kept an herbal store in the mulatto quarter of Saint-Pierre. During the day, he wore a stylish European suit and waistcoat with a gold watch chain, and on his head an authoritative pith helmet. Like all proper Frenchman, he was baptized and given the name Gaston Faustin Jacquet, but to the people of Martinique he was the Grand Zamy, a man to be feared, a man to be respected, a man whose Voodoo spells often resulted in sudden and inexplicable deaths.
She found Maurice at the edge of the field. Tall, gentle, and easy-going to a fault, Maurice was a younger version of their father with his sandy blond hair and blue eyes. He was loading baskets of cacao pods into a waiting donkey cart to be transported to the drying shack. All around, workers in their bakouas, wide-brimmed straw hats, were using their cutlasses to slash off the ripened pods from the barks of the trees. When the pods were too high, they would pull them down using poles fitted with a cutter at the end. Other field-hands were weaving through the fields, collecting fallen pods from the ground and putting them into burlap bags. Piles of yellow cacao pods began to collect under the trees to the constant chop-chop that reverberated across the fields.
Maurice was hard at work, but despite his youth he looked tired and worn out. Clad in a white linen shirt and khaki trousers, his blond hair was streaked back from sweat and his face was red from the heat. With each passing day he grew thinner and more listless, his features more gaunt. Ever since Maurice had contracted consumption, he had fought a constant battle for his life. He refused to give in to the ravages of his disease, and often pushed himself beyond his limits, even if it meant putting his own life at risk. Yet, despite his constant pain, his blue eyes shone with mischief. He would never give up an opportunity to tease his sister. In this manner he was relentless.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” he said, grinning. “Did you get enough beauty sleep? We must look ravishing for our wedding day.” Emilie frowned. “Not you too! That’s all I hear from Da Rosette. It seems as if no one cares that last night the mountain was rumbling and spewing out fire and ash.”
“I think I slept through it,” said Maurice. “I don't remember a thing. And there was no mention of it in the newspaper this morning.”
“It’s almost as if they’re hiding something.” Emilie paused for a moment and added, “But something else happened last night. I found out Lucien is in love with another girl.”
“That’s impossible,” said Maurice. “He’s quite smitten with you.”
She brushed a tear from her face. “I saw it with my own eyes. I found him with Suzette de Reynal in a most uncompromising position. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“I think you’re actually serious,” he said, staring at his sister.
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. I’ve been such a fool!”
Maurice bent down to load another basket on the wagon. “It must be a mistake. Everyone gets cold feet before their wedding. Lucien’s an odd bird, but he’s a good man. I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. I can’t believe he would deceive you like that. Hey, grab me some of that water, will you?”
From a nearby bucket Emilie spooned out a ladle of water and handed it to Maurice. He drank it in gulps and then poured the rest over his head, after which he wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
“I know one thing for certain,” said Maurice. “Lucien’s as rich as Croesus so you’ll never lack for anything. I know he acts strange sometimes, but he’s not a bad sort. I’m sure he would never intentionally hurt you. I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding...”
Before Emilie could respond, they heard a voice calling from across the field. Julien, their foreman, was heading toward them. Tall, handsome, and confident, Julien was her father’s right hand. The descendant of Hindu laborers who married mulatto women to create a unique West Indian blend of African, Indian, and European, he was long-limbed, lean, and swarthy, and spoke the local Creole patois as if it was a musical sonata.
Julien doffed his straw hat.
“Bonjour, Mam’selle Emilie,” said Julien, bowing slightly in her direction.
“How’s everything going, Julien?” said Maurice, fanning himself with his hat.
“Very good, sah. The harvest is even better than last season. Come over here, there’s something I want to show you.”
The two siblings followed Julien across the field, past cacao and coffee trees, banana trees, mango and papaya trees until they came to a clearing. Lying on the ground were two dead birds, a fine powdery ash covering their bodies.
“What happened?” said Maurice.
“They fell down from the mountain, sah.”
“That’s strange," said Maurice. “They appear to be covered in ash.”
“Last night ash was rising from the top of Pelée.” said Julien. “They must have suffocated and fallen from the sky. Take them to your father so he can see.” He placed the dead birds in a burlap sack which he handed to Maurice.
“Go now, sah. I take over for you.” Julien gave a confident nod but underneath his cool exterior Emilie detected a hint of urgency.
Maurice grabbed his horse and mounted it. He pulled Emilie up behind him and together they rode back to the house. After they left the horse with a stable boy, they went inside to look for their father. Aside from a few chattering servants polishing the silverware, the house was quiet. They passed the salon and the dining room and went straight to the office of Georges Dujon.
Their father was sitting at his desk, typing a letter deep in concentration. Bleary-eyed and sweaty, his gray hair clung to his forehead like a damp mop. Each time he tapped out a letter a look of supreme discomfort would cross his face, as if in great pain. Though still handsome, Georges Dujon was beginning to show the effects of age. His face bore the signs of worry and drink, his red beard was flecked with gray, and his hands were calloused from years of hard work. He was the quintessential West Indian planter, a Creole who could trace his lineage back to the first French settlers of Martinique. On his desk, a steaming mug of coffee sat beside an open flask of rum, while scattered about were a hodgepodge of invoices, telegrams, fountain pens, and paper clips. A palm frond peeked in through an open window and Mount Pelée loomed behind him, its summit veiled in silvery white clouds.
“What are you two up to?” said Georges, looking up from his typewriter.
Maurice opened the sack. “Papa, I have something to show you. Julien found these out in the field. Have a look.”
He laid the dead birds out on his father’s desk. Georges reached out and picked up a bird, turning over its ashen body several times as he inspected it. His brow furrowed into deep ridges.
“Strange,” said Georges. “Their wings appear to be covered with ash, as if they flew into an oven. The poor wretches suffocated to death.”
“Julien said the ash fumes from Pelée killed them,” said Maurice.
Georges scoffed. “The old Devil’s air vent, eh? That’s just superstitious nonsense tied up with voodoo and black magic. Everyone knows the volcano is extinct.”
“Papa,” said Emilie. “Last night there were tremors and ash was shooting out of the crater.”
“The old volcano is just settling down,” said Georges. “It’s extinct. That’s a scientific fact.”
“According to whom?” she said.
“According to every geologist in the world,” said Georges. “The West Indies is a known region of volcanic instability so it’s only natural there will be occasional tremors. Anyway the volcano is quiet now so there’s no need to get all worked up. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the dead birds…perhaps they were struck by lightning. I suggest you two get back to work. We have to make our sailing date.”
“What about the rotten egg smell?” said Maurice.
“My boy, that is just sulfur, also known as sulphureted hydrogen, a harmless emission from deep within the earth,” said Georges. “I hear in Guadeloupe they use it to warm their coffee pots. Now, is there something else you’d like to discuss or are you quite finished?”
Emilie glanced over at Maurice, but he looked tongue-tied. She decided to switch tack.
“Papa, this is not about the money,” she said. “Our lives might be in danger. Didn’t Pelée erupt only fifty years ago?”
“It was a partial eruption at best,” said Georges. "As I recall your grandfather said the ash did a remarkable job of fertilizing the crops, which brings us back to business.” He pointed to a calendar on the wall. “The cocoa beans have to be packed and ready to sail three weeks from today. My customers send me urgent telegrams every day demanding to know the sailing date. If we miss the sailing, we’ll be out of business.”
“And if the volcano erupts, we’ll be dead,” said Emilie.
“Neither one of you is a geologist,” said Georges. “All the experts say Pelée is nothing more than an oddity of nature. Now, are there any more questions or are we going to stand here all day chatting?” Emilie opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. “Good, now get moving,” he boomed.
Emilie looked at Maurice and frowned. There was no point in arguing with the old man.
Tuesday, April 22
Jules Coppet pushed open the door to the telegraph office while it was still dark. He poured himself a cup of coffee and changed places with the overnight operator. When he eyed the basket full of messages, he let out a groan.
“Busy night, eh?”
“No, it's been slow,” said the night operator, putting on his cap.
“Then why are there so many backed-up messages?”
“Don't get testy. I've been working on them for hours. Couldn’t get a single message through to Guadeloupe. It’s as if the whole island’s been shut down. These messages are left over from yesterday. I think you’ll have a busy day ahead of you.”
Coppet’s brow furrowed. He picked up the first message and tapped it out in Morse code. It was a routine commercial transaction involving 200 hogsheads of sugar that were to be shipped on the steamer Versailles later that week. Simple enough. He sat back and took a satisfying sip of his coffee, waiting for a response. After a couple of minutes, he grew annoyed. After ten minutes his annoyance turned to exasperation. Five minutes more and his annoyance turned to anger. He tapped out the message again, this time with more vigor, but still there was no response.
Coppet shook his head. “Damn! I think the line is dead.”
“What?” said the night operator with a bewildered expression.
“It’s either that or they shut down the whole island of Guadeloupe. The undersea cable must have snapped somewhere out on the sea floor. Send a message down to the cable office at once. Tell them to dispatch a cable repair ship to check on the damaged line right away. Until then, there will be no telegraph service to Guadeloupe.”
Wednesday, April 23
The next day Emilie was in the outside kitchen when Victorine the cook told her a rumor that Lucien was spotted recently with a woman from Carbet, and the woman was expecting his child. Hearing this, Emilie’s face blanched. She dropped the knife she was holding and stared at the cook in disbelief. But the gravity in the woman’s eyes told her it was true. Emilie’s mouth went dry and she felt numb. She took a few steps backwards as the full weight of her words came crashing down.
She fled the kitchen, tears stinging her eyes, and ran to the drying shack where she knew she would find Maurice. Once there she joined in the work of turning over the cocoa beans with a wooden panel and then covering them up with banana leaves for the fermentation process. It was hot, sweaty work, but at least it took her mind off her problems. Maurice looked up and smiled when he saw her, but his appearance shocked her. He looked as if he was deteriorating by the day. His face was red and swollen and he looked near collapse.
Maurice erupted in a violent coughing fit. Listless, he slumped to the ground. Dropping everything, Emilie ran to his side. She looked in horror as a streak of blood dripped from his mouth down to his shirt. Thinking quickly she dipped her handkerchief in a bucket of water and smoothed it over his forehead.
“Maurice, you’re very ill,” she said, her voice tinged with fear. “You must go inside.”
Maurice winced. “I’ll be fine. I just need a little rest.”
She felt his forehead. Maurice was burning up with fever. How long had he been hiding his illness? He was so thin, she hardly recognized him. When did he get so sick? How much longer would he be able to bear the heat and humidity before he completely collapsed? She longed to spare Maurice the rigors of plantation work yet she wanted to spare his masculine pride. But Maurice had to face the truth; if he was going to recover from consumption he needed rest and proper medical care. Without it he would surely die.
Emilie unbuttoned his shirt and shuddered when she saw how thin he was. My God, he’s wasting away! How could I have been so consumed with my own problems that I neglected my own brother’s health? She swallowed hard and forced herself to put on a brave face. “Maurice, I think you’ve had enough for one day. Da Rosette made me promise to send you back if you got tired. Please don’t force me to lie to her.”
“I’m fine…” He winced. “Just give me a few minutes…”