Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 2.V

 

“Chita:  A Memory of Last Island:  A Novelete” by Lafcadio Hearn
Originally published April 1888 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

 

Last Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico south of Dulac, Louisiana, was a popular resort for rich Southerners in the 1800s.
The Last Island Village included a resort hotel, several gambling establishments, and approximately one hundred houses.   In the Fall of 1856, a hurricane hit Last Island—not a building was left standing and over 200 people died in the storm.  Last Island and the hurricane are described in Lafcadio Hearn’s novella, Chita: A Memory of Last Island.

 

II. — OUT OF THE SEA’S STRENGTH

V.

Ten days later, a lugger full of armed men entered the bayou, and moored at Viosca’s wharf. The visitors were, for the most part, country gentlemen,—residents of Franklin and neighboring towns, or planters from the Teche country,—forming one of the numerous expeditions organized for the purpose of finding the bodies of relatives or friends lost in the great hurricane, and of punishing the robbers of the dead. They had searched numberless nooks of the coast, had given sepulture to many corpses, had recovered a large amount of jewelry, and—as Feliu afterward learned,—had summarily tried and executed several of the most abandoned class of wreckers found with ill-gotten valuables in their possession, and convicted of having mutilated the drowned. But they came to Viosca’s landing only to obtain information;—he was too well known and liked to be a subject for suspicion; and, moreover, he had one good friend in the crowd,—Captain Harris of New Orleans, a veteran steamboat man, and a market-contractor, to whom he had disposed of many a cargo of fresh pompano, sheep’s-head, and Spanish-mackerel . . . . Harris was the first to step to land;—some ten of the party followed him. Nearly all had lost some relative or friend in the great catastrophe;—the gathering was serious, silent,—almost grim,—which formed about Feliu.

Mateo, who had come to the country while a boy, spoke English better than the rest of the chénière people;—he acted as interpreter whenever Feliu found any difficulty in comprehending or answering questions; and he told them of the child rescued that wild morning, and of Feliu’s swim. His recital evoked a murmur of interest and excitement, followed by a confusion of questions. Well, they could see for themselves, Feliu said; but he hoped they would have a little patience;—the child was still weak;—it might be dangerous to startle her. “We’ll arrange it just as you like,” responded the captain;—”go ahead, Feliu!” . . . .

All proceeded to the house, under the great trees; Feliu and Captain Harris leading the way. It was sultry and bright;—even the sea-breeze was warm; there were pleasant odors in the shade, and a soporific murmur made of leaf-speech and the hum of gnats. Only the captain entered the house with Feliu; the rest remained without—some taking seats on a rude plank bench under the oaks—others flinging themselves down upon the weeds—a few stood still, leaning upon their rifles. Then Carmen came out to them with gourds and a bucket of fresh water, which all were glad to drink of.

They waited many minutes. Perhaps it was the cool peace of the place that made them all feel how hot and tired they were: conversation flagged; and the general languor finally betrayed itself in a silence so absolute that every leaf-whisper seemed to become separately audible.

It was broken at last by the guttural voice of the old captain emerging from the cottage, leading the child by the hand, and followed by Carmen and Feliu. All who had been resting rose up and looked at the child.

Standing in a lighted space, with one tiny hand enveloped by the captain’s great brown fist, she looked so lovely that a general exclamation of surprise went up. Her bright hair, loose and steeped in the sun-flame, illuminated her like a halo; and her large dark eyes, gentle and melancholy as a deer’s, watched the strange faces before her with shy curiosity. She wore the same dress in which Feliu had found her—a soft white fabric of muslin, with trimmings of ribbon that had once been blue; and the now discolored silken scarf, which had twice done her such brave service, was thrown over her shoulders. Carmen had washed and repaired the dress very creditably; but the tiny slim feet were bare; the brine-soaked shoes she wore that fearful night had fallen into shreds at the first attempt to remove them.

—”Gentlemen,” said Captain Harris,—”we can find no clew to the identity of this child. There is no mark upon her clothing; and she wore nothing in the shape of jewelry—except this string of coral beads. We are nearly all Americans here; and she does not speak any English . . . . Does any one here know anything about her?”

Carmen felt a great sinking at her heart: was her new-found darling to be taken so soon from her? But no answer came to the captain’s query. No one of the expedition had ever seen that child before. The coral beads were passed from hand to hand; the scarf was minutely scrutinized without avail. Somebody asked if the child could not talk German, or Italian.

—”Italiano? No!” said Feliu, shaking his head. . . . One of his luggermen, Gioachino Sparicio, who, though a Sicilian, could speak several Italian idioms besides his own, had already essayed.

—”She speaks something or other,” answered the captain—”but no English. I couldn’t make her understand me; and Feliu, who talks nearly all the infernal languages spoken down this way, says he can’t make her understand him. Suppose some of you who know French talk to her a bit . . . . Laroussel, why don’t you try?”

The young man addressed did not at first seem to notice the captain’s suggestion. He was a tall lithe fellow, with a dark positive face: he had never removed his black gaze from the child since the moment of her appearance. Her eyes, too, seemed to be all for him—to return his scrutiny with a sort of vague pleasure, a half-savage confidence . . . . Was it the first embryonic feeling of race-affinity quickening in the little brain?—some intuitive, inexplicable sense of kindred? She shrank from Doctor Hecker, who addressed her in German, shook her head at Lawyer Solari, who tried to make her answer in Italian; and her look always went back plaintively to the dark sinister face of Laroussel,—Laroussel who had calmly taken a human life, a wicked human life, only the evening before.

—”Laroussel, you’re the only Creole in this crowd,” said the captain; “talk to her! Talk gumbo to her! . . . . I’ve no doubt this child knows German very well, and Italian too,”—he added, maliciously—”but not in the way you gentlemen pronounce it!”

Laroussel handed his rifle to a friend, crouched down before the little girl, and looked into her face, and smiled. Her great sweet orbs shone into his one moment, seriously, as if searching; and then . . . . she returned his smile. It seemed to touch something latent within the man, something rare; for his whole expression changed; and there was a caress in his look and voice none of the men could have believed possible—as he exclaimed:—

—”Fais moin bo, piti.”

She pouted up her pretty lips and kissed his black moustache.

He spoke to her again:—

—”Dis moin to nom, piti;—dis moin to nom, chère.”

Then, for the first time, she spoke, answering in her argent treble:

—”Zouzoune.”

All held their breath. Captain Harris lifted his finger to his lips to command silence.

—”Zouzoune? Zouzoune qui, chère?”

—”Zouzoune, ca c’est moin, Lili!”

—”C’est pas tout to nom, Lili;—dis moin, chère, to laut nom.”

—”Mo pas connin laut nom.”

—”Comment yé té pélè to maman, piti?”

—”Maman,—Maman ‘Dèle.”

—”Et comment yé té pélè to papa, chère?”

—”Papa Zulien.”

—”Bon! Et comment to maman té pélè to papa?—dis ca à moin, chère?”

The child looked down, put a finger in her mouth, thought a moment, and replied:—

—”Li pélè li, ‘Chèri’; li pélè li, ‘Papoute.'”

—”Aïe, aïe!—c’est tout, ca?—to maman té jamain pélè li daut’ chose?”

—”Mo pas connin, moin.”

She began to play with some trinkets attached to his watch chain;—a very small gold compass especially impressed her fancy by the trembling and flashing of its tiny needle, and she murmured, coaxingly:—

—”Mo oulé ca! Donnin ca à moin.”

He took all possible advantage of the situation, and replied at once:—

—”Oui! mo va donnin toi ca si to di moin to laut nom.”

The splendid bribe evidently impressed her greatly; for tears rose to the brown eyes as she answered:

—”Mo pas capab di’ ca;—mo pas capab di’ laut nom . . . . Mo oulé; mo pas capab!”

Laroussel explained. The child’s name was Lili,—perhaps a contraction of Eulalie; and her pet Creole name Zouzoune. He thought she must be the daughter of wealthy people; but she could not, for some reason or other, tell her family name. Perhaps she could not pronounce it well, and was afraid of being laughed at; some of the old French names were very hard for Creole children to pronounce, so long as the little ones were indulged in the habit of talking the patois; and after a certain age their mispronunciations would be made fun of in order to accustom them to abandon the idiom of the slave-nurses, and to speak only French. Perhaps, again, she was really unable to recall the name: certain memories might have been blurred in the delicate brain by the shock of that terrible night. She said her mother’s name was Adèle, and her father’s Julien; but these were very common names in Louisiana,—and could afford scarcely any better clew than the innocent statement that her mother used to address her father as “dear” (Chéri),—or with the Creole diminutive “little papa” (Papoute). Then Laroussel tried to reach a clew in other ways, without success. He asked her about where she lived,—what the place was like; and she told him about fig-trees in a court, and galleries, and banquettes, and spoke of a faubou’,—without being able to name any street. He asked her what her father used to do, and was assured that he did everything—that there was nothing he could not do. Divine absurdity of childish faith!—infinite artlessness of childish love! . . . . Probably the little girl’s parents had been residents of New Orleans—dwellers of the old colonial quarter,—the faubourg, the faubou’.

—”Well, gentlemen,” said Captain Harris, as Laroussel abandoned his cross-examination in despair,—”all we can do now is to make inquiries. I suppose we’d better leave the child here. She is very weak yet, and in no condition to be taken to the city, right in the middle of the hot season; and nobody could care for her any better than she’s being cared for here. Then, again, seems to me that as Feliu saved her life,—and that at the risk of his own,—he’s got the prior claim, anyhow; and his wife is just crazy about the child—wants to adopt her. If we can find her relatives, so much the better; but I say, gentlemen, let them come right here to Feliu, themselves, and thank him as he ought to be thanked, by God! That’s just what I think about it.”

Carmen understood the little speech;—all the Spanish charm of her youth had faded out years before: but in the one swift look of gratitude she turned upon the captain, it seemed to blossom again;—for that quick moment, she was beautiful.

“The captain is quite right,” observed Dr. Hecker: “it would be very dangerous to take the child away just now.” There was no dissent.

—”All correct, boys?” asked the captain . . . . “Well, we’ve got to be going. By-by, Zouzoune!”

But Zouzoune burst into tears. Laroussel was going too!

—”Give her the thing, Laroussel:  she gave you a kiss, anyhow—more than she’d do for me,” cried the captain.

Laroussel turned, detached the little compass from his watch chain, and gave it to her. She held up her pretty face for his farewell kiss . . . .