THE most terrible day in the annals of Barbados was a certain Sunday of May in the year 1812. The night had been intensely dark, no star had been visible, while those who were unable to sleep heard mysterious sounds as of distant thunder or of the firing of cannon. The many who were restless or apprehensive that night were consoled by the thought that at six the sun would rise, and that with the daylight all uneasiness would vanish.
The clocks at last struck six but there was not a sign of dawn. The sky was still as black as a pall. The darkness was impenetrable. The white man crept out of his house and the negro out of his hut, full of fear and anxiously curious, yet hugging the thought that the clocks must be wrong, that it was really about midnight and that they would go back to bed again and laugh over the escapade in the morning.
The village street, however, was soon full of people feeling their way about in the gloom, moving nervously from cabin to cabin. When one man stumbled against another he would clutch at him and ask in a whisper what all this meant. Neighbours called by name to those they knew should be near, but in subdued voices. The white man groped his way to the verandah and down the steps into the garden, where, with arms outstretched, he felt about for familiar trees, stooping forward like a blindfolded man. The children were early awake and crying. The women lit candles in their cabins, but the glimmer made the murk more awful. The goat and the pig, that from habit had been let loose at six, crept into the welcome light and hid in the shadows of the small room.
Seven o’clock came but there was no sign of the sun. A sickening panic fell upon the distracted folk in the road. They had become aware that two other hideous things were added to the mysterious darkness. The trade windwhich never failed had ceased to blow. There was a blank calm, a breathless stillness. The sound, too, of the surf on the reef had ceased as if awed into silence. More than that, something dreadful was falling out of the air. It fell without sound, a fine soft dust, that was already so thick upon the ground as to make the road unfamiliar to the bare foot, while the patter of men’s steps sounded as if far away. It fell invisibly upon the outstretched hand, upon the woolly head ; it clung to the brow ; it dried the clammy lips ; it clogged the staring eyes.
A man, silly with dread, began to joke aloud and to ask why they had all taken to getting up at midnight? Had they come to see the old year out ? Before the poor gibe had died upon the fool’s lips the meaning of the unutterable horror was realised. The jester had supplied the clue. To see the old year out? Was not this the last moment of all the years, the end of time, the last day ?
Men no longer spoke in whispers. The silence was too unbearable. A woman’s scream rent the air, ” Oh God ! Have mercy upon us.” All restraint vanished. All now knew what the signs in the heavens meant. The end of all things had come. The sun would never rise again. This was the lull before the awful opening of the Day of Judgment. In a moment the sky would crack apart, there would be the brazen blast of the last trump, and God and his avenging angels would appear in the dome of heaven.
There came back to many the words of the hymn,
Lo ! He comes with clouds descending, Robed in dreadful majesty.
Here were the very clouds crushing down upon them. The sky touched the earth. They could feel the weight of it. Had not the Bible said, too, ” He shall come as a thief in the night “?
Men and women rushed to and fro without purpose or control. The highway was filled with shrieking, crazy folk. They wrung their hands. They clung to one another aimlessly. They threw themselves down upon their knees and prayed. In the quaint language of the negro, in bursts and sobs, in yells and screams of terror, supplications were hurled against the sullen heaven. The black man is superstitious, he is emotional and excitable. His religion is very rugged, and daubed on his mind in crude colours. He called out to God as he would to the overseer standing above him with a whip. He was a sinner. He was to be scourged and damned. The flames of Hell were in sight. The appalling pictures of the Judgment Seat shown at the Sunday-school came to his mind. The devil with his horns and his pronged fork was waiting for him. He yelled, he clamoured, he whined for mercy.
Women broke out into fragments of hymns, and sung as sick folk sing in their delirium. Men dropped face downwards in the dust of the road gasping, ” I am a sinner ! I am a sinner ! Have pity ! Have pity ! ” Others, standing erect, held up their hands to the black cloud, and, as the tears made streaks of mud down their faces, called to God to spare them. How they abased them-selves and grovelled ! How they promised never to do wrong again ! How they simpered and wept and howled !
The coward husband clung to the wife, believing that she would be saved, and that if he held on to her he might escape Hell when the sheep came to be parted from the goats.
One silent man was creeping towards the beach. He had stolen a knife some weeks ago. He held it in his hand. It must be thrown into the sea. It must not be found upon him when the Great Judge came.
An old woman was feeling her way to the graveyard. She reached the dust-clogged gate, opened it and went in. She sat down to wait. She knew that in a while the graves would open and that the earth would give up its dead. She was speechless with expectation, for all she held dear lay within these silent walls. She would see her husband again, face to face, and her sons and her little girl. She thought over the many things she had to say to them all.
With the greater number the impulse was to hide, to run away, to be lost. They called upon the hills to cover them. They rushed into the thickets of cane, and casting themselves headlong among the great stalks put their fingers into their ears to keep out the sound of the trumpet call, all the while muttering prayers with their lips to the earth.
The velvety powder continued to fall. Many began to feel that they were being suffocated. There was no air. The dust stifled them. They tore the raiment from their throats and rushed about gasping, fighting with their hands the deepening cloud as drowning men battle with the waves.
Now and then there was a crash that made every heart stop and for a moment silenced every scream. It was a branch of a tree falling that had been bent to breaking by the weight of dust upon it.
Worse than that, dreadful birds flew by in the dark, and almost touched the shrinking crowd with their wings. Were these awful shapes portends and heralds of the Coming? They were great sea-birds whose wings and backs were so laden with dust that they could scarcely flutter. They had come in from over the sea, moving ever more and more languidly until their pinions were as pinions of lead.
The hours as they passed were struck upon the clock, but the tones were becoming huskier for the bells were covered deep with dust.
There was still the same impenetrable night, the same dead atmosphere, the pitiless silence, the falling film, the slowly-moving wearied birds.
At last, about the hour of one, those who looked towards the south saw a faint glow in the sky. It widened into a blood-red gap of light that stained the sea with blood and lit the clouds as smoke is illumined by flame. The horror, intensified by the rack of suspense, became inexpressible. The sky was opening !
The dread Appearance was at hand ! In a moment the blast of the trumpet would shake the heavens and herald the Last Judgment. Those who saw the awful sight fled or hid their faces in the dust. Whether they ran or whether they fell where they stood, they pressed their hands over their ears in expectation of the coming sound.
But the silence remained unbroken. The crimson glare melted into kindly light. The darkness gathered itself up into a black cloud that hung suspended, like a clot, over the fields it almost touched. In a while it faded into a disc of grey and then vanished, leaving the island once more flooded by the sunlight of a summer afternoon. The trade wind blew again from out of the east, while upon the ear there fell once more the sound of
The league-long roller thundering on the reef.
The island was changed. The whole country was covered, to the depth of one and a half inches, by a soft grey powder, some of which can be seen to this day in the museum of Codrington College. A like dust lay thick upon leaf and bough, upon palm branch and cabin roof, upon the terrace of the great house and the deck of the brig in the haven. The sun had set over an island of green, it had risen on a land of ashes.
The people looked at one another shyly at first. Some laughed, since all their heads were grey and their faces powdered. Those who had hidden among the canes crept out and swaggered along the road to the village as if they were returning from a morning stroll. Some ventured to say how amused they had been, forgetting that the marks of tears were fresh upon their cheeks. Others were thankful that they had not made fools of themselves, until they caught sight of the patches of mud upon their knees and the weeds of the ditch in their hair.
The man who had thrown the knife into the sea repented of the act and resolved to dive for it at his leisure. The old woman hobbled back stiffly from the graveyard with the sense of a grievance in her mind and some mutterings of disappointment on her lips. The sea-birdsafter eluding the cudgels of shouting boys who were still hoarse with prayersailed away across the water with cries of thankfulness.
In the course of time a schooner cast anchor in Carlisle Bay bringing the news that on the day the sun stood still over Barbados there had been an unparalleled eruption of Mount Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent. Now, Barbados is ninety-five miles to the windward of St. Vincent, yet thousands of tons of dust had been carried noiselessly all that distance and had been dropped upon the palpitating colony.
The dust produced two effectsa temporary religious revival, and a permanent improvement in the soil of the fields, because it is said to have had good fertilising qualities.