"Remember the Maine"
(Chapter 1 of the Novel)
Having set sail, the Némésis caught the wind and briskly moved away from the docks. The moon had not yet risen, and in the darkness, the three-master would pass near the Havana Yacht Club brightly illuminated by electric lights, a luxury the wealthy Cuban capital could afford. On the terrace, an orchestra was playing to a large audience, women in colorful gowns, and men in dark tuxedos despite the tropical winter heat. The captain gave in to the temptation of deflecting the ship to approach the festivities. With just a light breeze blowing, he wasn’t taking a risk, and he would please the crew: a departure is always a moment of pride.
Guided by the Morro lighthouse marking the port exit, the Némésis entered a narrow passage left open by the ships anchored in front of the city. Morvan, the ship's boy, was next to the man at the helm, ready to respond to any order given by a senior crewmember. He liked that the captain gave him this spot, for it afforded him an overall view of the steerage. In front of the Yacht Club, between the royal palm trees and the shore, he noticed a man, dressed in a tightly fitting outfit of multi-colored diamond shapes, a Harlequin. He was dancing to the rhythm of the most popular song of the season. His face was hidden by a mask with a white and gray pointed nose, which left the bottom half of his face visible. A cocked hat, worn squarely across his head, gave him huge black ears. With slow gestures, he approached a woman wearing a pale blue gown. Her light brown hair, worn up in a slightly eccentric chignon, cascaded down in curls mixed with white downy feathers. A grenadine velvet domino cloak and mask, complemented by a fan of woven palm she held in front of her mouth, hid her features. Under her bosom she wore a pearl-colored silk ribbon... The young woman played along with Harlequin, answering with curtseys to the man’s bows. When her movements made the lace on her sleeves flutter, the jewels on her wrists reflected the sparkle of the electric lights, or perhaps the colors of her companion’s disguise. As they continued their performance to the rhythm of the orchestra, the partners went past the lawn extending the terrace and approached the sea. They climbed up on the stone parapet running along the quay and their pattern of movements on this narrow dance floor, barely maintaining balance. On board the Némésis, the sailors were fascinated by the couple’s ballet whose display seemed intended for them. Might it have been a mistake to leave the city the first night of Carnival?
As the ship moved away, the two dancers slowly waved their arms in accompaniment, as though mimicking a cruise departure. A white feather fell from the young woman’s hair, and for an instant, lightly brushed against her cleavage. The breeze picked it up and brought it to the sea where it disappeared in the waves.
The musicians hit the last chords of There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town, Tonight. And the devil knows how hot it was in Havana the night of February 15, 1898, the last day of peace for the Spanish colony.
From the port side, Morvan saw the geometric shapes of the warehouses unfold whence parallel streets departed and climbed up to the Albear Plaza and the Inglaterra Hotel. From starboard, the obscure mass of four warships was outlined against the faraway lights of the Regla Arsenal, the two Spanish warships on one side, the small City of Washington on the other, and in the middle, the most awesome of the American battleships, the formidable Maine. Despite his inexperience – he wasn’t even of age for military service – the ship’s boy noticed the tension prevailing on the warships: abrupt orders, scant lighting, sentinels pacing on the decks. No one was at war, but caution dictated bypassing this floating fortress. Could Morvan possibly imagine a force capable of defying such a combination of deadly weapons and protective armor?
Aboard the Némésis, the sound of a crash diverted attention to starboard. Since it was not accompanied by a shaking of the frame, the apprentice understood the ship was not in immediate danger. The crack had been sharp and quick, like that of a gunshot fired from afar. In an instant, Morvan saw the first ship, the Alfonso XII, radiating with an incandescent glow. The light emanated from the Maine, yet he could not distinguish its source, which remained hidden by the superstructures. Barely a second later, a gigantic flare appeared in the middle of the battleship, followed by another detonation. With his attention directed towards that spot, Morvan perfectly appreciated the interval between the instantaneous flash and the sound that took almost a second to materialize. The second explosion seemed longer and more muted to him, like thunder in summer rebounding in pursuit of its echo. The Némésis had already bypassed the battleship, yet in spite of the distance, the shock wave jounced the wooden ship as if it had hit a reef. While the hull was still vibrating, a fleeting yet blazing rush of hot air flooded the sailboat. Morvan had experienced the same feeling at his sister’s wedding in Saint-Renan, when the photographer had set off the magnesium flash, but tonight the glare was much more intense.
Partially blinded by the flare’s brilliance, Morvan thought he saw the Maine waver, then rise up above the waters. The mass of seven thousand tons of steel tore in two. At its center, a white fireball began to project towards the sky a mixture of black and incandescent debris: straight, twisted, twirling, inert. While both halves of the ship landed in a boiling foam, the volcano persisted in its mad, chaotic discharges. The thunderous sound transformed into a sputtering when the iron-hot metal caused the sea to boil. The racket was too deafening to make out the human cries from those who could still yell, though their eyes saw the crudeness all too well. Whole bodies, or chunks of them, were sent hurtling by the blast. Morvan observed their silhouettes over the fiery geyser. They fell back down in the tide or atop the sharp irons of the masts, cannons, and bulkheads. For several long minutes, the stares of the crew remained fixated on an unimaginable sight: the agonizing, death-stricken battleship in front of them, with three hundred and fifty men on board.
A relative stillness then settled in: the calm of astonishment. The front of the ship sunk within a few moments, although it did not vanish. It landed on the bottom, allowing the tip of its dead-works to emerge. Human figures continued to bustle about until disappearing, drowned, burnt, or perhaps saved through coincidences of the disaster. The back was still afloat, now illuminated by the spread of the fire. As they moved away from the blaze, large clouds of smoke rose and vanished in the dark night. More explosions were heard every time the fire reached another ammunition hold, but in the wake of the initial, colossal detonation, they seemed almost harmless. Still, they would keep killing all that was alive on board, just like the aftershocks of an earthquake complete the destruction wrought by the initial convulsion. Likewise, the foremast crashed down onto a group of survivors who had found temporary salvation in a life raft, demonstrating that Death had not yet had its fill of corpses.
(Translated from the French by Jane Singleton Paul and John Xavier Paul)