Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.IV

 

“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.

IV.

Persistently and furiously, at half-past two o’clock of an August morning, Sparicio rang Dr. La Brierre’s night-bell. He had fifty dollars in his pocket, and a letter to deliver. He was to earn another fifty dollars—deposited in Feliu’s hands,—by bringing the Doctor to Viosca’s Point. He had risked his life for that money,—and was terribly in earnest.

Julien descended in his under-clothing, and opened the letter by the light of the hall lamp. It enclosed a check for a larger fee than he had ever before received, and contained an urgent request that he would at once accompany Sparicio to Viosca’s Point,—as the sender was in hourly danger of death. The letter, penned in a long, quavering hand, was signed,—“Henry Edwards.”

His father’s dear old friend! Julien could not refuse to go,—though he feared it was a hopeless case. Angina pectoris,—and a third attack at seventy years of age! Would it even be possible to reach the sufferer’s bedside in time? “Duè giorno,—con vento,”—said Sparicio. Still, he must go; and at once. It was Friday morning;—might reach the Point Saturday night, with a good wind . . . . He roused his house-keeper, gave all needful instructions, prepared his little medicine-chest;—and long before the first rose-gold fire of day had flashed to the city spires, he was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion in the tiny cabin of a fishing-sloop.

. . . . For eleven years Julien had devoted himself, heart and soul, to the exercise of that profession he had first studied rather as a polite accomplishment than as a future calling. In the unselfish pursuit of duty he had found the only possible consolation for his irreparable loss; and when the war came to sweep away his wealth, he entered the struggle valorously, not to strive against men, but to use his science against death. After the passing of that huge shock, which left all the imposing and splendid fabric of Southern feudalism wrecked forever, his profession stood him in good stead;—he found himself not only able to supply those personal wants he cared to satisfy, but also to alleviate the misery of many whom he had known in days of opulence;—the princely misery that never doffed its smiling mask, though living in secret, from week to week, on bread and orange-leaf tea;—the misery that affected condescension in accepting an invitation to dine,—staring at the face of a watch (refused by the Mont-de-Piété) with eyes half-blinded by starvation;—the misery which could afford but one robe for three marriageable daughters,—one plain dress to be worn in turn by each of them, on visiting-days;—the pretty misery—young, brave, sweet,—asking for a “treat” of cakes too jocosely to have its asking answered,—laughing and coquetting with its well-fed wooers, and crying for hunger after they were gone. Often and often, his heart had pleaded against his purse for such as these, and won its case in the silent courts of Self. But ever mysteriously the gift came,—sometimes as if from the hand of a former slave; sometimes as from a remorseful creditor, ashamed to write his name. Only yellow Victorine knew; but the Doctor’s house-keeper never opened those sphinx-lips of hers, until years after the Doctor’s name had disappeared from the City Directory. . . .

He had grown quite thin,—a little gray. The epidemic had burthened him with responsibilities too multifarious and ponderous for his slender strength to bear. The continual nervous strain of abnormally protracted duty, the perpetual interruption of sleep, had almost prostrated even his will. Now he only hoped that, during this brief absence from the city, he might find renewed strength to do his terrible task.

Mosquitoes bit savagely; and the heat became thicker;—and there was yet no wind. Sparicio and his hired boy Carmelo had been walking backward and forward for hours overhead,—urging the vessel yard by yard, with long poles,—through the slime of canals and bayous. With every heavy push, the weary boy would sigh out,—”Santo Antonio!—Santo Antonio!” Sullen Sparicio himself at last burst into vociferations of ill-humor:—“Santo Antonio?—Ah! santissimu e santu diavulu! . . . . Sacramentu poescite vegnu un asidente!—malidittu lu Signuri!” All through the morning they walked and pushed, trudged and sighed and swore; and the minutes dragged by more wearily than the shuffling of their feet. “Managgia Cristo co tutta a croce!” . . . . “Santissimu e santu diavulu!!” . . . .

But as they reached at last the first of the broad bright lakes, the heat lifted, the breeze leaped up, the loose sail flapped and filled; and, bending graciously as a skater, the old San Marco began to shoot in a straight line over the blue flood. Then, while the boy sat at the tiller, Sparicio lighted his tiny charcoal furnace below, and prepared a simple meal,—delicious yellow macaroni, flavored with goats’ cheese; some fried fish, that smelled appetizingly; and rich black coffee, of Oriental fragrance and thickness. Julien ate a little, and lay down to sleep again. This time his rest was undisturbed by the mosquitoes; and when he woke, in the cooling evening, he felt almost refreshed. The San Marco was flying into Barataria Bay. Already the lantern in the lighthouse tower had begun to glow like a little moon; and right on the rim of the sea, a vast and vermilion sun seemed to rest his chin. Gray pelicans came flapping around the mast;—sea-birds sped hurtling by, their white bosoms rose-flushed by the western glow . . . . Again Sparicio’s little furnace was at work,—more fish, more macaroni, more black coffee; also a square-shouldered bottle of gin made its appearance. Julien ate less sparingly at this second meal; and smoked a long time on deck with Sparicio, who suddenly became very good-humored, and chatted volubly in bad Spanish, and in much worse English. Then while the boy took a few hours’ sleep, the Doctor helped delightedly in maneuvering the little vessel. He had been a good yachtsman in other years; and Sparicio declared he would make a good fisherman. By midnight the San Marco began to run with a long, swinging gait;—she had reached deep water. Julien slept soundly; the steady rocking of the sloop seemed to soothe his nerves.

—”After all,” he thought to himself, as he rose from his little bunk next morning,—”something like this is just what I needed.” . . . . The pleasant scent of hot coffee greeted him;—Carmelo was handing him the tin cup containing it, down through the hatchway. After drinking it he felt really hungry;—he ate more macaroni than he had ever eaten before. Then while Sparicio slept, he aided Carmelo; and during the middle of the day, he rested again. He had not had so much uninterrupted repose for many a week. He fancied he could feel himself getting strong. At supper-time, it seemed to him he could not get enough to eat,—although there was plenty for everybody.

All day long there had been exactly the same wave-crease distorting the white shadow of the San Marco’s sail upon the blue water;—all day long they had been skimming over the liquid level of a world so jewel-blue, that the low green ribbon-strips of marsh land, the far-off fleeing lines of pine-yellow sand beach, seemed flaws or breaks in the perfected color of the universe;—all day long had the cloudless sky revealed through all its exquisite transparency that inexpressible tenderness which no painter and no poet can ever re-image,—that unutterable sweetness which no art of man may ever shadow forth, and which none may ever comprehend,—though we feel it to be in some strange way akin to the luminous and unspeakable charm that makes us wonder at the eyes of a woman when she loves.

Evening came; and the great dominant celestial tone deepened;—the circling horizon filled with ghostly tints,—spectral greens and grays, and pearl-lights and fish-colors . . . . Carmelo, as he crouched at the tiller, was singing in a low, clear alto, some tristful little melody. Over the sea, behind them, lay, black-stretching, a long low arm of island-shore;—before them flamed the splendor of sun-death; they were sailing into a mighty glory,—into a vast and awful light of gold.

Shading his vision with his fingers, Sparicio pointed to the long lean limb of land from which they were fleeing, and said to La Brierre:—

—”Look-a, Doct-a! Last-a Islan’!

Julien knew it;—he only nodded his head in reply, and looked the other way,—into the glory of God. Then, wishing to divert the fisherman’s attention to another theme, he asked what was Carmelo singing. Sparicio at once shouted to the lad:—

—”Ha! . . . . ho! Carmelo!—Santu diavulu! . . . . Sing-a loud-a! Doct-a lik-a! Sing-a! sing!!” . . . . “He sing-a nicee,”—added the boatman, with his peculiar dark smile. And then Carmelo sang, loud and clearly, the song he had been singing before,—one of those artless Mediterranean ballads, full of caressing vowel-sounds, and young passion, and melancholy beauty:—

M’ama ancor, beltà fulgente,

Come tu m’amasti allor;—

Ascoltar non dei gente,

Solo interroga il tuo cor. . . .

 

—”He sing-a nicee,—mucha bueno!” murmured the fisherman. And then, suddenly,—with a rich and splendid basso that seemed to thrill every fibre of the planking,—Sparicio joined in the song:—

M’ama pur d’amore eterno,

Nè deilitto sembri a te;

T’ assicuro che l’ inferno

Una favola sol è. . . .

 

All the roughness of the man was gone! To Julien’s startled fancy, the fishers had ceased to be;—lo! Carmelo was a princely page; Sparicio, a king! How perfectly their voices married together!—they sang with passion, with power, with truth, with that wondrous natural art which is the birthright of the rudest Italian soul. And the stars throbbed out in the heaven; and the glory died in the west; and the night opened its heart; and the splendor of the eternities fell all about them. Still they sang; and the San Marco sped on through the soft gloom, ever slightly swerved by the steady blowing of the southeast wind in her sail;—always wearing the same crimpling-frill of wave-spray about her prow,—always accompanied by the same smooth-backed swells,—always spinning out behind her the same long trail of interwoven foam. And Julien looked up. Ever the night thrilled more and more with silent twinklings;—more and more multitudinously lights pointed in the eternities;—the Evening Star quivered like a great drop of liquid white fire ready to fall;—Vega flamed as a pharos lighting the courses of heaven,—to guide the sailing of the suns, and the swarming of fleets of worlds. Then the vast sweetness of that violet night entered into his blood,—filled him with that awful joy, so near akin to sadness, which the sense of the Infinite brings,—when one feels the poetry of the Most Ancient and Most Excellent of Poets, and then is smitten at once with the contrast-thought of the sickliness and selfishness of Man,—of the blindness and brutality of cities, whereinto the divine blue light never purely comes, wherefrom the gates of heaven are walled away and the sanctification of the Silences is forever unknown . . . . Oh! if one could only sail on thus always, always through such a night—through such a star-sprinkled violet light, and hear Sparicio and Carmelo sing, even though it were the same melody always, always the same song!

. . . . “Scuza, Doct-a!—look-a out!” Julien bent down, as the big boom, loosened, swung over his head. The San Marco was rounding into shore,—heading for her home. Sparicio lifted a huge conch-shell from the deck, put it to his lips, filled his deep lungs, and flung out into the night—thrice—a profound, mellifluent, booming horn-tone. A minute passed. Then, ghostly faint, as an echo from very far away, a triple boom responded. . . .

And a long purple mass loomed and swelled into sight, heightened, approached—land and trees black-shadowing, and lights that swung . . . . The San Marco glided into a bayou,—under a high wharfing of timbers, where a bearded fisherman waited, and a woman. Sparicio flung up a rope.

The bearded man caught it by the lantern-light, and tethered the San Marco to her place. Then he asked, in a deep voice:

—”Has traido el Doctor?”

—”Si, si!” answered Sparicio. . . . “Y el Viejo?”

—”Aye! Pobre,” responded Feliu,—“hace tres dias que esta muerto.”

Henry Edwards was dead!

He had died very suddenly, without a cry or a word, while resting in his rocking-chair,—the very day after Sparicio had sailed. They had made him a grave in the marsh,—among the high weeds, not far from the ruined tomb of the Spanish fisherman. But Sparicio had fairly earned his hundred dollars.