Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.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.

 

III. — THE SHADOW OF THE TIDE.

V.

So there was nothing to do at Viosca’s Point except to rest. Feliu and all his men were going to Barataria in the morning on business;—the Doctor could accompany them there, and take the Grand Island steamer Monday for New Orleans. With this intention Julien retired,—not sorry for being able to stretch himself at full length on the good bed prepared for him, in one of the unoccupied cabins. But he woke before day with a feeling of intense prostration, a violent headache, and such an aversion for the mere idea of food, that Feliu’s invitation to breakfast at five o’clock gave him an internal qualm. Perhaps a touch of malaria. In any case he felt it would be both dangerous and useless to return to town unwell; and Feliu, observing his condition, himself advised against the journey. Wednesday he would have another opportunity to leave; and in the mean while Carmen would take good care of him . . . . The boats departed, and Julien slept again.

The sun was high when he rose up and dressed himself, feeling no better. He would have liked to walk about the place, but felt nervously afraid of the sun. He did not remember having ever felt so broken down before. He pulled a rocking-chair to the window, tried to smoke a cigar. It commenced to make him feel still sicker, and he flung it away. It seemed to him the cabin was swaying, as the San Marco swayed when she first reached the deep water.

A light rustling sound approached,—a sound of quick feet treading the grass: then a shadow slanted over the threshold. In the glow of the open doorway stood a young girl,—gracile, tall,—with singularly splendid eyes,—brown eyes peeping at him from beneath a golden riot of loose hair.

—”M’sieu-le-Docteur, maman d’mande si vous n’avez bisoin d’que’que chose?” . . . . She spoke the rude French of the fishing villages, where the language lives chiefly as a baragouin, mingled often with words and forms belonging to many other tongues. She wore a loose-falling dress of some light stuff, steel-gray in color;—boys’ shoes were on her feet.

He did not reply;—and her large eyes grew larger for wonder at the strange fixed gaze of the physician, whose face had visibly bleached,—blanched to corpse-pallor. Silent seconds passed; and still the eyes stared—flamed as if the life of the man had centralized and focussed within them.

His voice had risen to a cry in his throat, quivered and swelled one passionate instant, and failed—as in a dream when one strives to call, and yet can only moan . . . . She! Her unforgotten eyes, her brows, her lips!—the oval of her face!—the dawn-light of her hair! . . . . Adèle’s own poise,—her own grace!—even the very turn of her neck,—even the bird-tone of her speech! . . . . Had the grave sent forth a Shadow to haunt him?—could the perfidious Sea have yielded up its dead? For one terrible fraction of a minute, memories, doubts, fears, mad fancies, went pulsing through his brain with a rush like the rhythmic throbbing of an electric stream;—then the shock passed, the Reason spoke:—”Fool!—count the long years since you first saw her thus!—count the years that have gone since you looked upon her last! And Time has never halted, silly heart!—neither has Death stood still!”

. . . . “Plait-il?”—the clear voice of the young girl asked. She thought he had made some response she could not distinctly hear.

Mastering himself an instant, as the heart faltered back to its duty, and the color remounted to his lips, he answered her in French:—

“Pardon me!—I did not hear . . . . you gave me such a start!”  But even then another extraordinary fancy flashed through his thought;—and with the tutoiement of a parent to a child, with an irresistible outburst of such tenderness as almost frightened her, he cried: “Oh! merciful God!—how like her! . . . . Tell me, darling, your name; . . . . tell me who you are?” (Dis-moi qui tu es, mignonne;—dis-moi ton nom.)

. . . . Who was it had asked her the same question, in another idiom—ever so long ago? The man with the black eyes and nose like an eagle’s beak,—the one who gave her the compass. Not this man—no!

She answered, with the timid gravity of surprise:—

—”Chita Viosca”

He still watched her face, and repeated the name slowly,—reiterated it in a tone of wonderment:—”Chita Viosca?—Chita Viosca!”

—”C’est a dire . . . .” she said, looking down at her feet,—”Concha—Conchita.” His strange solemnity made her smile,—the smile of shyness that knows not what else to do. But it was the smile of dead Adèle.

—”Thanks, my child,” he exclaimed of a sudden,—in a quick, hoarse, changed tone. (He felt that his emotion would break loose in some wild way, if he looked upon her longer.) “I would like to see your mother this evening; but I now feel too ill to go out. I am going to try to rest a little.”

—”Nothing I can bring you?” she asked,—”some fresh milk?”

—”Nothing now, dear: if I need anything later, I will tell your mother when she comes.”

—”Mamma does not understand French very well.”

—”No importa, Conchita;—le hablaré en Español.”

—”Bien, entonces!” she responded, with the same exquisite smile. “Adios, señor!” . . . .

But as she turned in going, his piercing eye discerned a little brown speck below the pretty lobe of her right ear,—just in the peachy curve between neck and cheek. . . . His own little Zouzoune had a birthmark like that!—he remembered the faint pink trace left by his fingers above and below it the day he had slapped her for overturning his ink bottle . . . . “To laimin moin?—to batté moin!”

“Chita!—Chita!”

She did not hear . . . . After all, what a mistake he might have made! Were not Nature’s coincidences more wonderful than fiction? Better to wait,—to question the mother first, and thus make sure.

Still—there were so many coincidences! The face, the smile, the eyes, the voice, the whole charm;—then that mark,—and the fair hair. Zouzoune had always resembled Adèle so strangely! That golden hair was a Scandinavian bequest to the Florane family;—the tall daughter of a Norwegian sea-captain had once become the wife of a Florane. Viosca?—who ever knew a Viosca with such hair? Yet again, these Spanish emigrants sometimes married blonde German girls . . . . Might be a case of atavism, too. Who was this Viosca? If that was his wife,—the little brown Carmen,—whence Chita’s sunny hair? . . . .

And this was part of that same desolate shore whither the Last Island dead had been drifted by that tremendous surge! On a clear day, with a good glass, one might discern from here the long blue streak of that far ghastly coast.  Somewhere—between here and there . . . . Merciful God! . . . .

. . . . But again! That bivouac-night before the fight at Chancellorsville, Laroussel had begun to tell him such a singular story . . . . Chance had brought them,—the old enemies,—together; made them dear friends in the face of Death. How little he had comprehended the man!—what a brave, true, simple soul went up that day to the Lord of Battles! . . . . What was it—that story about the little Creole girl, saved from Last Island,—that story which was never finished? . . . . Eh! what a pain!

Evidently he had worked too much, slept too little. A decided case of nervous prostration. He must lie down, and try to sleep.  These pains in the head and back were becoming unbearable. Nothing but rest could avail him now.

He stretched himself under the mosquito curtain. It was very still, breathless, hot! The venomous insects were thick;—they filled the room with a continuous ebullient sound, as if invisible kettles were boiling overhead. A sign of storm. . . . Still, it was strange!—he could not perspire . . . .

Then it seemed to him that Laroussel was bending over him—Laroussel in his cavalry uniform. “Bonjour, camarade!—nous allons avoir un bien mauvais temps, mon pauvre Julien.” How! bad weather?—“Comment un mauvais temps?” . . . . He looked in Laroussel’s face. There was something so singular in his smile. Ah! yes,—he remembered now: it was the wound! . . . . “Un vilain temps!” whispered Laroussel. Then he was gone . . . . Whither?

—”Chéri!”

The whisper roused him with a fearful start . . . . Adèle’s whisper! So she was wont to rouse him sometimes in the old sweet nights,—to crave some little attention for ailing Eulalie,—to make some little confidence she had forgotten to utter during the happy evening . . . . No, no! It was only the trees. The sky was clouding over. The wind was rising . . . . How his heart beat! how his temples pulsed! Why, this was fever! Such pains in the back and head!

Still his skin was dry,—dry as parchment,—burning. He rose up; and a bursting weight of pain at the base of the skull made him reel like a drunken man. He staggered to the little mirror nailed upon the wall, and looked. How his eyes glowed;—and there was blood in his mouth! He felt his pulse—spasmodic, terribly rapid. Could it possibly—? . . . . No: this must be some pernicious malarial fever! The Creole does not easily fall a prey to the great tropical malady,—unless after a long absence in other climates. True! he had been four years in the army? But this was 1867 . . . . He hesitated a moment;—then, opening his medicine-chest, he measured out and swallowed thirty grains of quinine.

Then he lay down again. His head pained more and more;—it seemed as if the cervical vertebrae were filled with fluid iron. And still his skin remained dry as if tanned. Then the anguish grew so intense as to force a groan with almost every aspiration . . . . Nausea,—and the stinging bitterness of quinine rising in his throat;—dizziness, and a brutal wrenching within his stomach. Everything began to look pink;—the light was rose-colored. It darkened more,—kindled with deepening tint. Something kept sparkling and spinning before his sight, like a firework . . . . Then a burst of blood mixed with chemical bitterness filled his mouth; the light became scarlet as claret . . . . This—this was . . . . not malaria . . . .