Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.VI

 

“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.

VI.

. . . . Carmen knew what it was; but the brave little woman was not afraid of it. Many a time before she had met it face to face, in Havanese summers; she knew how to wrestle with it;—she had torn Feliu’s life away from its yellow clutch, after one of those long struggles that strain even the strength of love. Now she feared mostly for Chita. She had ordered the girl under no circumstances to approach the cabin.

Julien felt that blankets had been heaped upon him,—that some gentle hand was bathing his scorching face with vinegar and water. Vaguely also there came to him the idea that it was night. He saw the shadow-shape of a woman moving against the red light upon the wall;—he saw there was a lamp burning.

Then the delirium seized him: he moaned, sobbed, cried like a child,—talked wildly at intervals in French, in English, in Spanish.

—”Mentira!—you could not be her mother . . . . Still, if you were—And she must not come in here,—jamas! . . . . Carmen, did you know Adèle,—Adèle Florane? So like her,—so like,—God only knows how like! . . . . Perhaps I think I know;—but I do not—do not know justly, fully—how like! . . . . Si! si!—es el vómito!—yo lo conosco, Carmen! . . . . She must not die twice . . . . I died twice . . . . I am going to die again. She only once. Till the heavens be no more she will not rise . . . . Moi, au contraire, il faut que je me lève toujours! They need me so much;—the slate is always full; the bell will never stop. They will ring that bell for me when I am dead . . . . So will I rise again!—resurgam! . . . . How could I save him?—could not save myself. It was a bad case,—at seventy years! . . . . There! Qui cà?” . . . .

He saw Laroussel again,—reaching out a hand to him through a whirl of red smoke. He tried to grasp it, and could not . . . . “N’importe, mon ami,” said Laroussel,—“tu vas la voir bientôt.” Who was he to see soon?—“qui donc, Laroussel?” But Laroussel did not answer. Through the red mist he seemed to smile;—then passed.

For some hours Carmen had trusted she could save her patient,—desperate as the case appeared to be. His was one of those rapid and violent attacks, such as often despatch their victims in a single day. In the Cuban hospitals she had seen many and many terrible examples: strong young men,—soldiers fresh from Spain,—carried panting to the fever wards at sunrise; carried to the cemeteries at sunset. Even troopers riddled with revolutionary bullets had lingered longer . . . . Still, she had believed she might save Julien’s life: the burning forehead once began to bead, the burning hands grew moist.

But now the wind was moaning;—the air had become lighter, thinner, cooler. A storm was gathering in the east; and to the fever-stricken man the change meant death . . . . Impossible to bring the priest of the Caminada now; and there was no other within a day’s sail. She could only pray;—she had lost all hope in her own power to save.

Still the sick man raved; but he talked to himself at longer intervals, and with longer pauses between his words;—his voice was growing more feeble, his speech more incoherent. His thought vacillated and distorted, like flame in a wind.

Weirdly the past became confounded with the present; impressions of sight and of sound interlinked in fastastic affinity,—the face of Chita Viosca, the murmur of the rising storm. Then flickers of spectral lightning passed through his eyes, through his brain, with every throb of the burning arteries; then utter darkness came,—a darkness that surged and moaned, as the circumfluence of a shadowed sea. And through and over the moaning pealed one multitudinous human cry, one hideous interblending of shoutings and shriekings . . . . A woman’s hand was locked in his own . . . . “Tighter,” he muttered, “tighter still, darling! hold as long as you can!” It was the tenth night of August, eighteen hundred and fifty-six . . . .

—”Chéri!”. . . .

Again the mysterious whisper startled him to consciousness,—the dim knowledge of a room filled with ruby- colored light,—the sharp odor of vinegar. The house swung round slowly;—the crimson flame of the lamp lengthened and broadened by turns;—then everything turned dizzily fast,—whirled as if spinning in a vortex. Nausea unutterable; and a frightful anguish as of teeth devouring him within,—tearing more and more furiously at his breast. Then one atrocious wrenching, rending, burning,—and the gush of blood burst from lips and nostrils in a smothering deluge. Again the vision of lightnings, the swaying, and the darkness of long ago. “Quick!—quick!—hold fast to the table, Adèle!—never let go!” . . . .

… Up,—up,—up!—what! higher yet? Up to the red sky! Red—black-red . . . . heated iron when its vermilion dies. So, too, the frightful flood! And noiseless. Noiseless because heavy, clammy,—thick, warm, sickening . . . . blood? Well might the land quake for the weight of such a tide! . . . . Why did Adèle speak Spanish? Who prayed for him? . . . .

—”Alma de Cristo santísima, santifícame!

“Sangre de Cristo, embriágame!

“O buen Jesus, oye me!” . . . .

Out of the darkness into—such a light! An azure haze! Ah!—the delicious frost! . . . . All the streets were filled with the sweet blue mist . . . . Voiceless the City and white;—crooked and weed-grown its narrow ways! . . . . Old streets of tombs, these . . . . Eh! How odd a custom!—a Night-bell at every door. Yes, of course!—a night-bell!—the Dead are Physicians of Souls: they may be summoned only by night,—called up from the darkness and silence . . . . Yet she?—might he not dare to ring for her even by day? . . . . Strange he had deemed it day!—why, it was black, starless . . . . And it was growing queerly cold.  How should he ever find her now? It was so black . . . . so cold! . . . .

—”Chéri!”

All the dwelling quivered with the mighty whisper.

Outside, the great oaks were trembling to their roots;—all the shore shook and blanched before the calling of the sea.

And Carmen, kneeling at the feet of the dead, cried out, alone in the night:—

—”O Jesus misericordioso!—tened compasion de él!”