Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.III

 

“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.

 

III. — THE SHADOW OF THE TIDE.

III

. . . . Eighteen hundred and sixty-seven;—midsummer in the pest-smitten city of New Orleans.

Heat motionless and ponderous. The steel-blue of the sky bleached from the furnace-circle of the horizon;—the lukewarm river ran yellow and noiseless as a torrent of fluid wax. Even sounds seemed blunted by the heaviness of the air;—the rumbling of wheels, the reverberation of footsteps, fell half-toned upon the ear, like sounds that visit a dozing brain.

Daily, almost at the same hour, the continuous sense of atmospheric oppression became thickened;—a packed herd of low-bellying clouds lumbered up from the Gulf; crowded blackly against the sun; flickered, thundered, and burst in torrential rain—tepid, perpendicular—and vanished utterly away. Then, more furiously than before, the sun flamed down;—roofs and pavements steamed; the streets seemed to smoke; the air grew suffocating with vapor; and the luminous city filled with a faint, sickly odor,—a stale smell, as of dead leaves suddenly disinterred from wet mould,—as of grasses decomposing after a flood. Something saffron speckled the slimy water of the gutters;—sulphur some called it; others feared even to give it a name! Was it only the wind-blown pollen of some innocuous plant?  I do not know; but to many it seemed as if the Invisible Destruction were scattering visible seed! . . . . Such were the days; and each day the terror-stricken city offered up its hecatomb to Death; and the faces of all the dead were yellow as flame!

“DÉCÉDÉ—”; ” DÉCÉDÉE—”; “FALLECIÓ;”—”DIED.” . . . . On the door-posts, the telegraph-poles, the pillars of verandas, the lamps,—over the government letter-boxes,—everywhere glimmered the white annunciations of death. All the city was spotted with them. And lime was poured into the gutters; and huge purifying fires were kindled after sunset.

The nights began with a black heat;—there were hours when the acrid air seemed to ferment for stagnation, and to burn the bronchial tubing;—then, toward morning, it would grow chill with venomous vapors, with morbific dews,—till the sun came up to lift the torpid moisture, and to fill the buildings with oven-heat. And the interminable procession of mourners and hearses and carriages again began to circulate between the centres of life and of death;—and long trains and steam-ships rushed from the port, with heavy burden of fugitives.

Wealth might flee; yet even in flight there was peril. Men, who might have been saved by the craft of experienced nurses at home, hurriedly departed in apparent health, unconsciously carrying in their blood the toxic principle of a malady unfamiliar to physicians of the West and North;—and they died upon their way, by the road-side, by the river-banks, in woods, in deserted stations, on the cots of quarantine hospitals. Wiser those who sought refuge in the purity of the pine forests, or in those near Gulf islands, whence the bright sea-breath kept ever sweeping back the expanding poison into the funereal swamps, into the misty lowlands. The watering-resorts became overcrowded;—then the fishing villages were thronged,—at least all which were easy to reach by steam-boat or by lugger. And at last, even Viosca’s Point,—remote and unfamiliar as it was,—had a stranger to shelter: a good old gentleman named Edwards, rather broken down in health,—who came as much for quiet as for sea-air, and who had been warmly recommended to Feliu by Captain Harris. For some years he had been troubled by a disease of the heart.

Certainly the old invalid could not have found a more suitable place so far as rest and quiet were concerned. The season had early given such little promise that several men of the Point betook themselves elsewhere; and the aged visitor had two or three vacant cabins from among which to select a dwelling-place. He chose to occupy the most remote of all, which Carmen furnished for him with a cool moss bed and some necessary furniture,—including a big wooden rocking-chair. It seemed to him very comfortable thus. He took his meals with the family, spent most of the day in his own quarters, spoke very little, and lived so unobtrusively and inconspicuously that his presence in the settlement was felt scarcely more than that of some dumb creature,—some domestic animal,—some humble pet whose relation to the family is only fully comprehended after it has failed to appear for several days in its accustomed place of patient waiting,—and we know that it is dead.