St. Pierre, the principal city of the French island of Martinique, in the West Indies, lies for the length of about a mile along the island coast, with high cliffs hemming it in, its houses climbing the slope, tier upon tier. At one place where a river breaks through the cliffs, the city creeps further up towards the mountains. As seen from the bay, its appearance is picturesque and charming, with the soft tints of its tiles, the grey of its walls, the clumps of verdure in its midst, and the wall of green in the rear. Seen from its streets this beauty disappears, and the chief attraction of the town is gone.
Back from the three miles of hills which sweep in an arc round the town, is the noble Montagne Pelee lying several miles to the north of the city, a mass of dark rock some four thousand feet high, with jagged outline, and cleft with gorges and ravines, down which flow numerous streams, gushing from the crater lake of the great volcano.
Though known to be a volcano, it was looked upon as practically extinct, though as late as August, 1856, it had been in eruption. No lava at that time came from its crater, but it hurled out great quantities of ashes and mud, with strong sulphurous odor. Then it went to rest again, and slept till 1902.
The people had long ceased to fear it. No one expected that grand old Mount Pelee, the slumbering (so it was thought) tranquil old hill, would ever spurt forth fire and death. This was entirely unlooked for. Mont Pelee was regarded by the natives as a sort of protector; they had an almost superstitious affection for it. From the outskirts of the city it rose gradually, its sides grown thick with rich grass, and dotted here and there with spreading shrubbery and drooping trees. There was no pleasanter outing for an afternoon than a journey up the green, velvet-like sides of the towering mountain and a view of the quaint, picturesque city slumbering at its base.
There were no rocky cliffs, no crags, no protruding boulders. The mountain was peace itself. It seemed to promise perpetual protection. The poetic natives relied upon it to keep back storms from the land and frighten, with its stern brow, the tempests from the sea. They pointed to it with profoundest pride as one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
Children played in its bowers and arbors; families picnicked there day after day during the balmy weather; hundreds of tourists ascended to the summit and looked with pleasure at the beautiful crystal lake which sparkled and glinted in the sunshine. Mont Pelee was the place of enjoyment of the people of St. Pierre. I can hear the placid natives say: “Old Father Pelee is our protector—not our destroyer.”
Not until two weeks before the eruption did the slumbering mountain show signs of waking to death and disaster. On the 23d of April it first displayed symptoms of internal disquiet. A great column of smoke began to rise from it, and was accompanied from time to time by showers of ashes and cinders.