Saturday, October 13, 2007


CHITA : A Memory of Last Island by Lafcadio Hearn

CHITA : A Memory of Last Island
by Lafcadio Hearn
"But Nature whistled with all her winds,
Did as she pleased, and went her way."
To my friend
Dr. Rodolfo Matas of New Orleans
The Legend of L'Ile Derniere
Travelling south from New Orleans to the Islands, you pass
through a strange land into a strange sea, by various winding
waterways. You can journey to the Gulf by lugger if you please;
but the trip may be made much more rapidly and agreeably on some
one of those light, narrow steamers, built especially for
bayou-travel, which usually receive passengers at a point not far
from the foot of old Saint-Louis Street, hard by the
sugar-landing, where there is ever a pushing and flocking of
steam craft--all striving for place to rest their white breasts
against the levee, side by side,--like great weary swans. But
the miniature steamboat on which you engage passage to the Gulf
never lingers long in the Mississippi: she crosses the river,
slips into some canal-mouth, labors along the artificial channel
awhile, and then leaves it with a scream of joy, to puff her free
way down many a league of heavily shadowed bayou. Perhaps
thereafter she may bear you through the immense silence of
drenched rice-fields, where the yellow-green level is broken at
long intervals by the black silhouette of some irrigating
machine;--but, whichever of the five different routes be pursued,
you will find yourself more than once floating through sombre
mazes of swamp-forest,--past assemblages of cypresses all hoary
with the parasitic tillandsia, and grotesque as gatherings of
fetich-gods. Ever from river or from lakelet the steamer glides
again into canal or bayou,--from bayou or canal once more into
lake or bay; and sometimes the swamp-forest visibly thins away
from these shores into wastes of reedy morass where, even of
breathless nights, the quaggy soil trembles to a sound like
thunder of breakers on a coast: the storm-roar of billions of
reptile voices chanting in cadence,--rhythmically surging in
stupendous crescendo and diminuendo,--a monstrous and appalling
chorus of frogs! ....
Panting, screaming, scraping her bottom over the sand-bars,--all
day the little steamer strives to reach the grand blaze of blue
open water below the marsh-lands; and perhaps she may be
fortunate enough to enter the Gulf about the time of sunset. For
the sake of passengers, she travels by day only; but there are
other vessels which make the journey also by night--threading the
bayou-labyrinths winter and summer: sometimes steering by the
North Star,--sometimes feeling the way with poles in the white
season of fogs,--sometimes, again, steering by that Star of
Evening which in our sky glows like another moon, and drops over
the silent lakes as she passes a quivering trail of silver fire.
Shadows lengthen; and at last the woods dwindle away behind you
into thin bluish lines;--land and water alike take more luminous
color;--bayous open into broad passes;--lakes link themselves
with sea-bays;--and the ocean-wind bursts upon you,--keen, cool,
and full of light. For the first time the vessel begins to
swing,--rocking to the great living pulse of the tides. And
gazing from the deck around you, with no forest walls to break
the view, it will seem to you that the low land must have once
been rent asunder by the sea, and strewn about the Gulf in
fantastic tatters....
Sometimes above a waste of wind-blown prairie-cane you see an
oasis emerging,--a ridge or hillock heavily umbraged with the
rounded foliage of evergreen oaks:--a cheniere. And from the
shining flood also kindred green knolls arise,--pretty islets,
each with its beach-girdle of dazzling sand and shells,
yellow-white,--and all radiant with semi-tropical foliage, myrtle
and palmetto, orange and magnolia. Under their emerald shadows
curious little villages of palmetto huts are drowsing, where
dwell a swarthy population of Orientals,--Malay fishermen, who
speak the Spanish-Creole of the Philippines as well as their own
Tagal, and perpetuate in Louisiana the Catholic traditions of the
Indies. There are girls in those unfamiliar villages worthy to
inspire any statuary,--beautiful with the beauty of ruddy
bronze,--gracile as the palmettoes that sway above them....
Further seaward you may also pass a Chinese settlement: some
queer camp of wooden dwellings clustering around a vast platform
that stands above the water upon a thousand piles;--over the
miniature wharf you can scarcely fail to observe a white
sign-board painted with crimson ideographs. The great platform
is used for drying fish in the sun; and the fantastic characters
of the sign, literally translated, mean: "Heap--Shrimp--Plenty."
... And finally all the land melts down into desolations of
sea-marsh, whose stillness is seldom broken, except by the
melancholy cry of long-legged birds, and in wild seasons by that
sound which shakes all shores when the weird Musician of the Sea
touches the bass keys of his mighty organ....
Beyond the sea-marshes a curious archipelago lies. If you travel
by steamer to the sea-islands to-day, you are tolerably certain
to enter the Gulf by Grande Pass--skirting Grande Terre, the most
familiar island of all, not so much because of its proximity as
because of its great crumbling fort and its graceful pharos: the
stationary White-Light of Barataria. Otherwise the place is
bleakly uninteresting: a wilderness of wind-swept grasses and
sinewy weeds waving away from a thin beach ever speckled with
drift and decaying things,--worm-riddled timbers, dead porpoises.
Eastward the russet level is broken by the columnar silhouette of
the light house, and again, beyond it, by some puny scrub timber,
above which rises the angular ruddy mass of the old brick fort,
whose ditches swarm with crabs, and whose sluiceways are half
choked by obsolete cannon-shot, now thickly covered with
incrustation of oyster shells.... Around all the gray circling of
a shark-haunted sea...
Sometimes of autumn evenings there, when the hollow of heaven
flames like the interior of a chalice, and waves and clouds are
flying in one wild rout of broken gold,--you may see the tawny
grasses all covered with something like husks,--wheat-colored
husks,--large, flat, and disposed evenly along the lee-side of
each swaying stalk, so as to present only their edges to the
wind. But, if you approach, those pale husks all break open to
display strange splendors of scarlet and seal-brown, with
arabesque mottlings in white and black: they change into
wondrous living blossoms, which detach themselves before your
eyes and rise in air, and flutter away by thousands to settle
down farther off, and turn into wheat-colored husks once more ...
a whirling flower-drift of sleepy butterflies!
Southwest, across the pass, gleams beautiful Grande Isle:
primitively a wilderness of palmetto (latanier);--then drained,
diked, and cultivated by Spanish sugar-planters; and now familiar
chiefly as a bathing-resort. Since the war the ocean reclaimed
its own;--the cane-fields have degenerated into sandy plains,
over which tramways wind to the smooth beach;--the
plantation-residences have been converted into rustic hotels, and
the negro-quarters remodelled into villages of cozy cottages for
the reception of guests. But with its imposing groves of oak,
its golden wealth of orange-trees, its odorous lanes of oleander.
its broad grazing-meadows yellow-starred with wild camomile,
Grande Isle remains the prettiest island of the Gulf; and its
loveliness is exceptional. For the bleakness of Grand Terre is
reiterated by most of the other islands,--Caillou, Cassetete,
Calumet, Wine Island, the twin Timbaliers, Gull Island, and the
many islets haunted by the gray pelican,--all of which are little
more than sand-bars covered with wiry grasses, prairie-cane, and
scrub-timber. Last Island (L'Ile Derniere),--well worthy a long
visit in other years, in spite of its remoteness, is now a
ghastly desolation twenty-five miles long. Lying nearly forty
miles west of Grande Isle, it was nevertheless far more populated
a generation ago: it was not only the most celebrated island of
the group, but also the most fashionable watering-place of the
aristocratic South;--to-day it is visited by fishermen only, at
long intervals. Its admirable beach in many respects resembled
that of Grande Isle to-day; the accommodations also were much
similar, although finer: a charming village of cottages facing
the Gulf near the western end. The hotel itself was a massive
two-story construction of timber, containing many apartments,
together with a large dining-room and dancing-hall. In rear of
the hotel was a bayou, where passengers landed--"Village Bayou"
it is still called by seamen;--but the deep channel which now
cuts the island in two a little eastwardly did not exist while
the village remained. The sea tore it out in one night--the same
night when trees, fields, dwellings, all vanished into the Gulf,
leaving no vestige of former human habitation except a few of
those strong brick props and foundations upon which the frame
houses and cisterns had been raised. One living creature was
found there after the cataclysm--a cow! But how that solitary
cow survived the fury of a storm-flood that actually rent the
island in twain has ever remained a mystery ...
On the Gulf side of these islands you may observe that the
trees--when there are any trees--all bend away from the sea; and,
even of bright, hot days when the wind sleeps, there is something
grotesquely pathetic in their look of agonized terror. A group
of oaks at Grande Isle I remember as especially suggestive: five
stooping silhouettes in line against the horizon, like fleeing
women with streaming garments and wind-blown hair,--bowing
grievously and thrusting out arms desperately northward as to
save themselves from falling. And they are being pursued
indeed;--for the sea is devouring the land. Many and many a mile
of ground has yielded to the tireless charging of Ocean's
cavalry: far out you can see, through a good glass, the
porpoises at play where of old the sugar-cane shook out its
million bannerets; and shark-fins now seam deep water above a
site where pigeons used to coo. Men build dikes; but the
besieging tides bring up their battering-rams--whole forests of
drift--huge trunks of water-oak and weighty cypress. Forever the
yellow Mississippi strives to build; forever the sea struggles to
destroy;--and amid their eternal strife the islands and the
promontories change shape, more slowly, but not less
fantastically, than the clouds of heaven.
And worthy of study are those wan battle-grounds where the woods
made their last brave stand against the irresistible
invasion,--usually at some long point of sea-marsh, widely
fringed with billowing sand. Just where the waves curl beyond
such a point you may discern a multitude of blackened, snaggy
shapes protruding above the water,--some high enough to resemble
ruined chimneys, others bearing a startling likeness to enormous
skeleton-feet and skeleton-hands,--with crustaceous white growths
clinging to them here and there like remnants of integument.
These are bodies and limbs of drowned oaks,--so long drowned that
the shell-scurf is inch-thick upon parts of them. Farther in
upon the beach immense trunks lie overthrown. Some look like
vast broken columns; some suggest colossal torsos imbedded, and
seem to reach out mutilated stumps in despair from their
deepening graves;--and beside these are others which have kept
their feet with astounding obstinacy, although the barbarian
tides have been charging them for twenty years, and gradually
torn away the soil above and beneath their roots. The sand
around,--soft beneath and thinly crusted upon the surface,--is
everywhere pierced with holes made by a beautifully mottled and
semi-diaphanous crab, with hairy legs, big staring eyes, and
milk-white claws;--while in the green sedges beyond there is a
perpetual rustling, as of some strong wind beating among reeds:
a marvellous creeping of "fiddlers," which the inexperienced
visitor might at first mistake for so many peculiar beetles, as
they run about sideways, each with his huge single claw folded
upon his body like a wing-case. Year by year that rustling strip
of green land grows narrower; the sand spreads and sinks,
shuddering and wrinkling like a living brown skin; and the last
standing corpses of the oaks, ever clinging with naked, dead feet
to the sliding beach, lean more and more out of the
perpendicular. As the sands subside, the stumps appear to creep;
their intertwisted masses of snakish roots seem to crawl, to
writhe,--like the reaching arms of cephalopods....
... Grande Terre is going: the sea mines her fort, and will
before many years carry the ramparts by storm. Grande Isle is
going,--slowly but surely: the Gulf has eaten three miles into
her meadowed land. Last Island has gone! How it went I first
heard from the lips of a veteran pilot, while we sat one evening
together on the trunk of a drifted cypress which some high tide
had pressed deeply into the Grande Isle beach. The day had been
tropically warm; we had sought the shore for a breath of living
air. Sunset came, and with it the ponderous heat lifted,--a
sudden breeze blew,--lightnings flickered in the darkening
horizon,--wind and water began to strive together,--and soon all
the low coast boomed. Then my companion began his story; perhaps
the coming of the storm inspired him to speak! And as I listened
to him, listening also to the clamoring of the coast, there
flashed back to me recollection of a singular Breton fancy: that
the Voice of the Sea is never one voice, but a tumult of many
voices--voices of drowned men,--the muttering of multitudinous
dead,--the moaning of innumerable ghosts, all rising, to rage
against the living, at the great Witch call of storms....
The charm of a single summer day on these island shores is
something impossible to express, never to be forgotten. Rarely,
in the paler zones, do earth and heaven take such luminosity:
those will best understand me who have seen the splendor of a
West Indian sky. And yet there is a tenderness of tint, a caress
of color, in these Gulf-days which is not of the Antilles,--a
spirituality, as of eternal tropical spring. It must have been
to even such a sky that Xenophanes lifted up his eyes of old when
he vowed the Infinite Blue was God;--it was indeed under such a
sky that De Soto named the vastest and grandest of Southern
havens Espiritu Santo,--the Bay of the Holy Ghost. There is a
something unutterable in this bright Gulf-air that compels
awe,--something vital, something holy, something pantheistic:
and reverentially the mind asks itself if what the eye beholds is
not the Pneuma indeed, the Infinite Breath, the Divine Ghost, the
great Blue Soul of the Unknown. All, all is blue in the
calm,--save the low land under your feet, which you almost
forget, since it seems only as a tiny green flake afloat in the
liquid eternity of day. Then slowly, caressingly, irresistibly,
the witchery of the Infinite grows upon you: out of Time and
Space you begin to dream with open eyes,--to drift into delicious
oblivion of facts,--to forget the past, the present, the
substantial,--to comprehend nothing but the existence of that
infinite Blue Ghost as something into which you would wish to
melt utterly away forever....
And this day-magic of azure endures sometimes for months
together. Cloudlessly the dawn reddens up through a violet east:
there is no speck upon the blossoming of its Mystical
Rose,--unless it be the silhouette of some passing gull, whirling
his sickle-wings against the crimsoning. Ever, as the sun floats
higher, the flood shifts its color. Sometimes smooth and gray,
yet flickering with the morning gold, it is the vision of
John,--the apocalyptic Sea of Glass mixed with fire;--again, with
the growing breeze, it takes that incredible purple tint familiar
mostly to painters of West Indian scenery;--once more, under the
blaze of noon, it changes to a waste of broken emerald. With
evening, the horizon assumes tints of inexpressible
sweetness,--pearl-lights, opaline colors of milk and fire; and in
the west are topaz-glowings and wondrous flushings as of nacre.
Then, if the sea sleeps, it dreams of all these,--faintly,
weirdly,--shadowing them even to the verge of heaven.
Beautiful, too, are those white phantasmagoria which, at the
approach of equinoctial days, mark the coming of the winds. Over
the rim of the sea a bright cloud gently pushes up its head. It
rises; and others rise with it, to right and left--slowly at
first; then more swiftly. All are brilliantly white and
flocculent, like loose new cotton. Gradually they mount in
enormous line high above the Gulf, rolling and wreathing into an
arch that expands and advances,--bending from horizon to horizon.
A clear, cold breath accompanies its coming. Reaching the
zenith, it seems there to hang poised awhile,--a ghostly bridge
arching the empyrean,--upreaching its measureless span from
either underside of the world. Then the colossal phantom begins
to turn, as on a pivot of air,--always preserving its curvilinear
symmetry, but moving its unseen ends beyond and below the
sky-circle. And at last it floats away unbroken beyond the blue
sweep of the world, with a wind following after. Day after day,
almost at the same hour, the white arc rises, wheels, and passes
... Never a glimpse of rock on these low shores;--only long
sloping beaches and bars of smooth tawny sand. Sand and sea teem
with vitality;--over all the dunes there is a constant
susurration, a blattering and swarming of crustacea;--through all
the sea there is a ceaseless play of silver lightning,--flashing
of myriad fish. Sometimes the shallows are thickened with
minute, transparent, crab-like organisms,--all colorless as
gelatine. There are days also when countless medusae drift
in--beautiful veined creatures that throb like hearts, with
perpetual systole and diastole of their diaphanous envelops:
some, of translucent azure or rose, seem in the flood the shadows
or ghosts of huge campanulate flowers;--others have the semblance
of strange living vegetables,--great milky tubers, just beginning
to sprout. But woe to the human skin grazed by those shadowy
sproutings and spectral stamens!--the touch of glowing iron is
not more painful... Within an hour or two after their appearance
all these tremulous jellies vanish mysteriously as they came.
Perhaps, if a bold swimmer, you may venture out alone a long
way--once! Not twice!--even in company. As the water deepens
beneath you, and you feel those ascending wave-currents of
coldness arising which bespeak profundity, you will also begin to
feel innumerable touches, as of groping fingers--touches of the
bodies of fish, innumerable fish, fleeing towards shore. The
farther you advance, the more thickly you will feel them come;
and above you and around you, to right and left, others will leap
and fall so swiftly as to daze the sight, like intercrossing
fountain-jets of fluid silver. The gulls fly lower about you,
circling with sinister squeaking cries;--perhaps for an instant
your feet touch in the deep something heavy, swift, lithe, that
rushes past with a swirling shock. Then the fear of the Abyss,
the vast and voiceless Nightmare of the Sea, will come upon you;
the silent panic of all those opaline millions that flee
glimmering by will enter into you also...
From what do they flee thus perpetually? Is it from the giant
sawfish or the ravening shark?--from the herds of the porpoises,
or from the grande-ecaille,--that splendid monster whom no net
may hold,--all helmed and armored in argent plate-mail?--or from
the hideous devilfish of the Gulf,--gigantic, flat-bodied, black,
with immense side-fins ever outspread like the pinions of a
bat,--the terror of luggermen, the uprooter of anchors? From all
these, perhaps, and from other monsters likewise--goblin shapes
evolved by Nature as destroyers, as equilibrists, as
counterchecks to that prodigious fecundity, which, unhindered,
would thicken the deep into one measureless and waveless ferment
of being... But when there are many bathers these perils are
forgotten,--numbers give courage,--one can abandon one's self,
without fear of the invisible, to the long, quivering, electrical
caresses of the sea ...
Thirty years ago, Last Island lay steeped in the enormous light
of even such magical days. July was dying;--for weeks no fleck
of cloud had broken the heaven's blue dream of eternity; winds
held their breath; slow waveless caressed the bland brown beach
with a sound as of kisses and whispers. To one who found himself
alone, beyond the limits of the village and beyond the hearing of
its voices,--the vast silence, the vast light, seemed full of
weirdness. And these hushes, these transparencies, do not always
inspire a causeless apprehension: they are omens
sometimes--omens of coming tempest. Nature,--incomprehensible
Sphinx!--before her mightiest bursts of rage, ever puts forth her
divinest witchery, makes more manifest her awful beauty ...
But in that forgotten summer the witchery lasted many long
days,--days born in rose-light, buried in gold. It was the
height of the season. The long myrtle-shadowed village was
thronged with its summer population;--the big hotel could hardly
accommodate all its guests;--the bathing-houses were too few for
the crowds who flocked to the water morning and evening. There
were diversions for all,--hunting and fishing parties, yachting
excursions, rides, music, games, promenades. Carriage wheels
whirled flickering along the beach, seaming its smoothness
noiselessly, as if muffled. Love wrote its dreams upon the sand
... Then one great noon, when the blue abyss of day seemed to
yawn over the world more deeply than ever before, a sudden change
touched the quicksilver smoothness of the waters--the swaying
shadow of a vast motion. First the whole sea-circle appeared to
rise up bodily at the sky; the horizon-curve lifted to a straight
line; the line darkened and approached,--a monstrous wrinkle, an
immeasurable fold of green water, moving swift as a cloud-shadow
pursued by sunlight. But it had looked formidable only by
startling contrast with the previous placidity of the open: it
was scarcely two feet high;--it curled slowly as it neared the
beach, and combed itself out in sheets of woolly foam with a low,
rich roll of whispered thunder. Swift in pursuit another
followed--a third--a feebler fourth; then the sea only swayed a
little, and stilled again. Minutes passed, and the immeasurable
heaving recommenced--one, two, three, four ... seven long swells
this time;--and the Gulf smoothed itself once more. Irregularly
the phenomenon continued to repeat itself, each time with heavier
billowing and briefer intervals of quiet--until at last the whole
sea grew restless and shifted color and flickered green;--the
swells became shorter and changed form. Then from horizon to
shore ran one uninterrupted heaving--one vast green swarming of
snaky shapes, rolling in to hiss and flatten upon the sand. Yet
no single cirrus-speck revealed itself through all the violet
heights: there was no wind!--you might have fancied the sea had
been upheaved from beneath ...
And indeed the fancy of a seismic origin for a windless surge
would not appear in these latitudes to be utterly without
foundation. On the fairest days a southeast breeze may bear you
an odor singular enough to startle you from sleep,--a strong,
sharp smell as of fish-oil; and gazing at the sea you might be
still more startled at the sudden apparition of great oleaginous
patches spreading over the water, sheeting over the swells. That
is, if you had never heard of the mysterious submarine oil-wells,
the volcanic fountains, unexplored, that well up with the eternal
pulsing of the Gulf-Stream ...
But the pleasure-seekers of Last Island knew there must have been
a "great blow" somewhere that day. Still the sea swelled; and a
splendid surf made the evening bath delightful. Then, just at
sundown, a beautiful cloud-bridge grew up and arched the sky with
a single span of cottony pink vapor, that changed and deepened
color with the dying of the iridescent day. And the cloud-bridge
approached, stretched, strained, and swung round at last to make
way for the coming of the gale,--even as the light bridges that
traverse the dreamy Teche swing open when luggermen sound through
their conch-shells the long, bellowing signal of approach.
Then the wind began to blow, with the passing of July. It blew
from the northeast, clear, cool. It blew in enormous sighs,
dying away at regular intervals, as if pausing to draw breath.
All night it blew; and in each pause could be heard the answering
moan of the rising surf,--as if the rhythm of the sea moulded
itself after the rhythm of the air,--as if the waving of the
water responded precisely to the waving of the wind,--a billow
for every puff, a surge for every sigh.
The August morning broke in a bright sky;--the breeze still came
cool and clear from the northeast. The waves were running now at
a sharp angle to the shore: they began to carry fleeces, an
innumerable flock of vague green shapes, wind-driven to be
despoiled of their ghostly wool. Far as the eye could follow the
line of the beach, all the slope was white with the great
shearing of them. Clouds came, flew as in a panic against the
face of the sun, and passed. All that day and through the night
and into the morning again the breeze continued from the north.
east, blowing like an equinoctial gale ...
Then day by day the vast breath freshened steadily, and the
waters heightened. A week later sea-bathing had become perilous:
colossal breakers were herding in, like moving leviathan-backs,
twice the height of a man. Still the gale grew, and the
billowing waxed mightier, and faster and faster overhead flew the
tatters of torn cloud. The gray morning of the 9th wanly lighted
a surf that appalled the best swimmers: the sea was one wild
agony of foam, the gale was rending off the heads of the waves
and veiling the horizon with a fog of salt spray. Shadowless and
gray the day remained; there were mad bursts of lashing rain.
Evening brought with it a sinister apparition, looming through a
cloud-rent in the west--a scarlet sun in a green sky. His
sanguine disk, enormously magnified, seemed barred like the body
of a belted planet. A moment, and the crimson spectre vanished;
and the moonless night came.
Then the Wind grew weird. It ceased being a breath; it became a
Voice moaning across the world,--hooting,--uttering nightmare
sounds,--Whoo!--whoo!--whoo!--and with each stupendous owl-cry
the mooing of the waters seemed to deepen, more and more
abysmally, through all the hours of darkness. From the northwest
the breakers of the bay began to roll high over the sandy slope,
into the salines;--the village bayou broadened to a bellowing
flood ... So the tumult swelled and the turmoil heightened until
morning,--a morning of gray gloom and whistling rain. Rain of
bursting clouds and rain of wind-blown brine from the great
spuming agony of the sea.
The steamer Star was due from St. Mary's that fearful morning.
Could she come? No one really believed it,--no one. And
nevertheless men struggled to the roaring beach to look for her,
because hope is stronger than reason ...
Even today, in these Creole islands, the advent of the steamer is
the great event of the week. There are no telegraph lines, no
telephones: the mail-packet is the only trustworthy medium of
communication with the outer world, bringing friends, news,
letters. The magic of steam has placed New Orleans nearer to New
York than to the Timbaliers, nearer to Washington than to Wine
Island, nearer to Chicago than to Barataria Bay. And even during
the deepest sleep of waves and winds there will come betimes to
sojourners in this unfamiliar archipelago a feeling of
lonesomeness that is a fear, a feeling of isolation from the
world of men,--totally unlike that sense of solitude which haunts
one in the silence of mountain-heights, or amid the eternal
tumult of lofty granitic coasts: a sense of helpless insecurity.
The land seems but an undulation of the sea-bed: its highest
ridges do not rise more than the height of a man above the
salines on either side;--the salines themselves lie almost level
with the level of the flood-tides;--the tides are variable,
treacherous, mysterious. But when all around and above these
ever-changing shores the twin vastnesses of heaven and sea begin
to utter the tremendous revelation of themselves as infinite
forces in contention, then indeed this sense of separation from
humanity appalls ... Perhaps it was such a feeling which forced
men, on the tenth day of August, eighteen hundred and fifty-six,
to hope against hope for the coming of the Star, and to strain
their eyes towards far-off Terrebonne. "It was a wind you could
lie down on," said my friend the pilot.
... "Great God!" shrieked a voice above the shouting of the
storm,--"she is coming!" ... It was true. Down the Atchafalaya,
and thence through strange mazes of bayou, lakelet, and pass, by
a rear route familiar only to the best of pilots, the frail
river-craft had toiled into Caillou Bay, running close to the
main shore;--and now she was heading right for the island, with
the wind aft, over the monstrous sea. On she came, swaying,
rocking, plunging,--with a great whiteness wrapping her about
like a cloud, and moving with her moving,--a tempest-whirl of
spray;--ghost-white and like a ghost she came, for her
smoke-stacks exhaled no visible smoke--the wind devoured it! The
excitement on shore became wild;--men shouted themselves hoarse;
women laughed and cried. Every telescope and opera-glass was
directed upon the coming apparition; all wondered how the pilot
kept his feet; all marvelled at the madness of the captain.
But Captain Abraham Smith was not mad. A veteran American
sailor, he had learned to know the great Gulf as scholars know
deep books by heart: he knew the birthplace of its tempests, the
mystery of its tides, the omens of its hurricanes. While lying
at Brashear City he felt the storm had not yet reached its
highest, vaguely foresaw a mighty peril, and resolved to wait no
longer for a lull. "Boys," he said, "we've got to take her out
in spite of Hell!" And they "took her out." Through all the
peril, his men stayed by him and obeyed him. By midmorning the
wind had deepened to a roar,--lowering sometimes to a rumble,
sometimes bursting upon the ears like a measureless and deafening
crash. Then the captain knew the Star was running a race with
Death. "She'll win it," he muttered;--"she'll stand it ...
Perhaps they'll have need of me to-night."
She won! With a sonorous steam-chant of triumph the brave little
vessel rode at last into the bayou, and anchored hard by her
accustomed resting-place, in full view of the hotel, though not
near enough to shore to lower her gang-plank.... But she had sung
her swan-song. Gathering in from the northeast, the waters of
the bay were already marbling over the salines and half across
the island; and still the wind increased its paroxysmal power.
Cottages began to rock. Some slid away from the solid props upon
which they rested. A chimney fumbled. Shutters were wrenched
off; verandas demolished. Light roofs lifted, dropped again, and
flapped into ruin. Trees bent their heads to the earth. And
still the storm grew louder and blacker with every passing hour.
The Star rose with the rising of the waters, dragging her anchor.
Two more anchors were put out, and still she dragged--dragged in
with the flood,--twisting, shuddering, careening in her agony.
Evening fell; the sand began to move with the wind, stinging
faces like a continuous fire of fine shot; and frenzied blasts
came to buffet the steamer forward, sideward. Then one of her
hog-chains parted with a clang like the boom of a big bell. Then
another! ... Then the captain bade his men to cut away all her
upper works, clean to the deck. Overboard into the seething went
her stacks, her pilot-house, her cabins,--and whirled away. And
the naked hull of the Star, still dragging her three anchors,
labored on through the darkness, nearer and nearer to the immense
silhouette of the hotel, whose hundred windows were now all
aflame. The vast timber building seemed to defy the storm. The
wind, roaring round its broad verandas,--hissing through every
crevice with the sound and force of steam,--appeared to waste its
rage. And in the half-lull between two terrible gusts there came
to the captain's ears a sound that seemed strange in that night
of multitudinous terrors ... a sound of music!
... Almost every evening throughout the season there had been
dancing in the great hall;--there was dancing that night also.
The population of the hotel had been augmented by the advent of
families from other parts of the island, who found their summer
cottages insecure places of shelter: there were nearly four
hundred guests assembled. Perhaps it was for this reason that
the entertainment had been prepared upon a grander plan than
usual, that it assumed the form of a fashionable ball. And all
those pleasure seekers,--representing the wealth and beauty of
the Creole parishes,--whether from Ascension or Assumption, St.
Mary's or St. Landry's, Iberville or Terrebonne, whether
inhabitants of the multi-colored and many-balconied Creole
quarter of the quaint metropolis, or dwellers in the dreamy
paradises of the Teche,--mingled joyously, knowing each other,
feeling in some sort akin--whether affiliated by blood,
connaturalized by caste, or simply interassociated by traditional
sympathies of class sentiment and class interest. Perhaps in the
more than ordinary merriment of that evening something of nervous
exaltation might have been discerned,--something like a feverish
resolve to oppose apprehension with gayety, to combat uneasiness
by diversion. But the hours passed in mirthfulness; the first
general feeling of depression began to weigh less and less upon
the guests; they had found reason to confide in the solidity of
the massive building; there were no positive terrors, no
outspoken fears; and the new conviction of all had found
expression in the words of the host himself,--"Il n'y a rien de
mieux a faire que de s'amuser!" Of what avail to lament the
prospective devastation of cane-fields,--to discuss the possible
ruin of crops? Better to seek solace in choregraphic harmonies,
in the rhythm of gracious motion and of perfect melody, than
hearken to the discords of the wild orchestra of storms;--wiser
to admire the grace of Parisian toilets, the eddy of trailing
robes with its fairy-foam of lace, the ivorine loveliness of
glossy shoulders and jewelled throats, the glimmering of
satin-slippered feet,--than to watch the raging of the flood
without, or the flying of the wrack ...
So the music and the mirth went on: they made joy for
themselves--those elegant guests;--they jested and sipped rich
wines;--they pledged, and hoped, and loved, and promised, with
never a thought of the morrow, on the night of the tenth of
August, eighteen hundred and fifty-six. Observant parents were
there, planning for the future bliss of their nearest and
dearest;--mothers and fathers of handsome lads, lithe and elegant
as young pines, and fresh from the polish of foreign university
training;--mothers and fathers of splendid girls whose simplest
attitudes were witcheries. Young cheeks flushed, young hearts
fluttered with an emotion more puissant than the excitement of
the dance;--young eyes betrayed the happy secret discreeter lips
would have preserved. Slave-servants circled through the
aristocratic press, bearing dainties and wines, praying
permission to pass in terms at once humble and officious,--always
in the excellent French which well-trained house-servants were
taught to use on such occasions.
... Night wore on: still the shining floor palpitated to the
feet of the dancers; still the piano-forte pealed, and still the
violins sang,--and the sound of their singing shrilled through
the darkness, in gasps of the gale, to the ears of Captain Smith,
as he strove to keep his footing on the spray-drenched deck of
the Star.
--"Christ!" he muttered,--"a dance! If that wind whips round
south, there'll be another dance! ... But I guess the Star will
stay." ...
Half an hour might have passed; still the lights flamed calmly,
and the violins trilled, and the perfumed whirl went on ... And
suddenly the wind veered!
Again the Star reeled, and shuddered, and turned, and began to
drag all her anchors. But she now dragged away from the great
building and its lights,--away from the voluptuous thunder of the
grand piano, even at that moment outpouring the great joy of
Weber's melody orchestrated by Berlioz: l'Invitation a la
Valse,--with its marvellous musical swing!
--"Waltzing!" cried the captain. "God help them!--God help us
all now! ... The Wind waltzes to-night, with the Sea for his
partner!" ...
O the stupendous Valse-Tourbillon! O the mighty Dancer!
One--two--three! From northeast to east, from east to southeast,
from southeast to south: then from the south he came, whirling
the Sea in his arms ...
... Some one shrieked in the midst of the revels;--some girl who
found her pretty slippers wet. What could it be? Thin streams
of water were spreading over the level planking,--curling about
the feet of the dancers ... What could it be? All the land had
begun to quake, even as, but a moment before, the polished floor
was trembling to the pressure of circling steps;--all the
building shook now; every beam uttered its groan. What could it
be? ...
There was a clamor, a panic, a rush to the windy night. Infinite
darkness above and beyond; but the lantern-beams danced far out
over an unbroken circle of heaving and swirling black water.
Stealthily, swiftly, the measureless sea-flood was rising.
--" Messieurs--mesdames, ce n'est rien. Nothing serious, ladies,
I assure you ... Mais nous en avons vu bien souvent, les
inondations comme celle-ci; ca passe vite! The water will go down
in a few hours, ladies;--it never rises higher than this; il n'y
a pas le moindre danger, je vous dis! Allons! il n'y a--My God!
what is that?" ...
For a moment there was a ghastly hush of voices. And through
that hush there burst upon the ears of all a fearful and
unfamiliar sound, as of a colossal cannonade rolling up from the
south, with volleying lightnings. Vastly and swiftly, nearer and
nearer it came,--a ponderous and unbroken thunder-roll, terrible
as the long muttering of an earthquake.
The nearest mainland,--across mad Caillou Bay to the
sea-marshes,--lay twelve miles north; west, by the Gulf, the
nearest solid ground was twenty miles distant. There were boats,
yes!--but the stoutest swimmer might never reach them now!
Then rose a frightful cry,--the hoarse, hideous, indescribable
cry of hopeless fear,--the despairing animal-cry man utters when
suddenly brought face to face with Nothingness, without
preparation, without consolation, without possibility of respite
... Sauve qui peut! Some wrenched down the doors; some clung to
the heavy banquet-tables, to the sofas, to the billiard.
tables:--during one terrible instant,--against fruitless
heroisms, against futile generosities,--raged all the frenzy of
selfishness, all the brutalities of panic. And then--then came,
thundering through the blackness, the giant swells, boom on boom!
... One crash!--the huge frame building rocks like a cradle,
seesaws, crackles. What are human shrieks now?--the tornado is
shrieking! Another!--chandeliers splinter; lights are dashed out;
a sweeping cataract hurls in: the immense hall
rises,--oscillates,--twirls as upon a
pivot,--crepitates,--crumbles into ruin. Crash again!--the
swirling wreck dissolves into the wallowing of another monster
billow; and a hundred cottages overturn, spin in sudden eddies,
quiver, disjoint, and melt into the seething.
... So the hurricane passed,--tearing off the heads of the
prodigious waves, to hurl them a hundred feet in air,--heaping up
the ocean against the land,--upturning the woods. Bays and
passes were swollen to abysses; rivers regorged; the sea-marshes
were changed to raging wastes of water. Before New Orleans the
flood of the mile-broad Mississippi rose six feet above highest
water-mark. One hundred and ten miles away, Donaldsonville
trembled at the towering tide of the Lafourche. Lakes strove to
burst their boundaries. Far-off river steamers tugged wildly at
their cables,--shivering like tethered creatures that hear by
night the approaching howl of destroyers. Smoke-stacks were
hurled overboard, pilot-houses torn away, cabins blown to
And over roaring Kaimbuck Pass,--over the agony of Caillou
Bay,--the billowing tide rushed unresisted from the
Gulf,--tearing and swallowing the land in its course,--ploughing
out deep-sea channels where sleek herds had been grazing but a
few hours before,--rending islands in twain,--and ever bearing
with it, through the night, enormous vortex of wreck and vast wan
drift of corpses ...
But the Star remained. And Captain Abraham Smith, with a long,
good rope about his waist, dashed again and again into that awful
surging to snatch victims from death,--clutching at passing
hands, heads, garments, in the cataract-sweep of the
seas,--saving, aiding, cheering, though blinded by spray and
battered by drifting wreck, until his strength failed in the
unequal struggle at last, and his men drew him aboard senseless,
with some beautiful half-drowned girl safe in his arms. But
well-nigh twoscore souls had been rescued by him; and the Star
stayed on through it all.
Long years after, the weed-grown ribs of her graceful skeleton
could still be seen, curving up from the sand-dunes of Last
Island, in valiant witness of how well she stayed.
Day breaks through the flying wrack, over the infinite heaving of
the sea, over the low land made vast with desolation. It is a
spectral dawn: a wan light, like the light of a dying sun.
The wind has waned and veered; the flood sinks slowly back to its
abysses--abandoning its plunder,--scattering its piteous waifs
over bar and dune, over shoal and marsh, among the silences of
the mango-swamps, over the long low reaches of sand-grasses and
drowned weeds, for more than a hundred miles. From the
shell-reefs of Pointe-au-Fer to the shallows of Pelto Bay the
dead lie mingled with the high-heaped drift;--from their cypress
groves the vultures rise to dispute a share of the feast with the
shrieking frigate-birds and squeaking gulls. And as the
tremendous tide withdraws its plunging waters, all the pirates of
air follow the great white-gleaming retreat: a storm of
billowing wings and screaming throats.
And swift in the wake of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come,
the Spoilers of the dead,--savage skimmers of the
sea,--hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pinions in the
face of storms; Sicilian and Corsican outlaws, Manila-men from
the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners,
refugees of a hundred nationalities,--fishers and shrimpers by
name, smugglers by opportunity,--wild channel-finders from
obscure bayous and unfamiliar chenieres, all skilled in the
mysteries of these mysterious waters beyond the comprehension of
the oldest licensed pilot ...
There is plunder for all--birds and men. There are drowned sheep
in multitude, heaped carcasses of kine. There are casks of
claret and kegs of brandy and legions of bottles bobbing in the
surf. There are billiard-tables overturned upon the sand;--there
are sofas, pianos, footstools and music-stools, luxurious chairs,
lounges of bamboo. There are chests of cedar, and toilet-tables
of rosewood, and trunks of fine stamped leather stored with
precious apparel. There are objets de luxe innumerable. There
are children's playthings: French dolls in marvellous toilets,
and toy carts, and wooden horses, and wooden spades, and brave
little wooden ships that rode out the gale in which the great
Nautilus went down. There is money in notes and in coin--in
purses, in pocketbooks, and in pockets: plenty of it! There are
silks, satins, laces, and fine linen to be stripped from the
bodies of the drowned,--and necklaces, bracelets, watches,
finger-rings and fine chains, brooches and trinkets ... "Chi
bidizza!--Oh! chi bedda mughieri! Eccu, la bidizza!" That
ball-dress was made in Paris by--But you never heard of him,
Sicilian Vicenzu ... "Che bella sposina!" Her betrothal ring
will not come off, Giuseppe; but the delicate bone snaps easily:
your oyster-knife can sever the tendon ... "Guardate! chi bedda
picciota!" Over her heart you will find it, Valentino--the
locket held by that fine Swiss chain of woven hair--"Caya manan!"
And it is not your quadroon bondsmaid, sweet lady, who now
disrobes you so roughly; those Malay hands are less deft than
hers,--but she slumbers very far away from you, and may not be
aroused from her sleep. "Na quita mo! dalaga!--na quita
maganda!" ... Juan, the fastenings of those diamond ear-drops are
much too complicated for your peon fingers: tear them
out!--"Dispense, chulita!" ...
... Suddenly a long, mighty silver trilling fills the ears of
all: there is a wild hurrying and scurrying; swiftly, one after
another, the overburdened luggers spread wings and flutter away.
Thrice the great cry rings rippling through the gray air, and
over the green sea, and over the far-flooded shell-reefs, where
the huge white flashes are,--sheet-lightning of breakers,--and
over the weird wash of corpses coming in.
It is the steam-call of the relief-boat, hastening to rescue the
living, to gather in the dead.
The tremendous tragedy is over!
Out of the Sea's Strength
There are regions of Louisiana coast whose aspect seems not of
the present, but of the immemorial past--of that epoch when low
flat reaches of primordial continent first rose into form above a
Silurian Sea. To indulge this geologic dream, any fervid and
breezeless day there, it is only necessary to ignore the
evolutional protests of a few blue asters or a few composite
flowers of the coryopsis sort, which contrive to display their
rare flashes of color through the general waving of cat-heads,
blood-weeds, wild cane, and marsh grasses. For, at a hasty
glance, the general appearance of this marsh verdure is vague
enough, as it ranges away towards the sand, to convey the idea of
amphibious vegetation,--a primitive flora as yet undecided
whether to retain marine habits and forms, or to assume
terrestrial ones;--and the occasional inspection of surprising
shapes might strengthen this fancy. Queer flat-lying and
many-branching things, which resemble sea-weeds in juiciness and
color and consistency, crackle under your feet from time to time;
the moist and weighty air seems heated rather from below than
from above,--less by the sun than by the radiation of a cooling
world; and the mists of morning or evening appear to simulate the
vapory exhalation of volcanic forces,--latent, but only dozing,
and uncomfortably close to the surface. And indeed geologists
have actually averred that those rare elevations of the
soil,--which, with their heavy coronets of evergreen foliage, not
only look like islands, but are so called in the French
nomenclature of the coast,--have been prominences created by
ancient mud volcanoes.
The family of a Spanish fisherman, Feliu Viosca, once occupied
and gave its name to such an islet, quite close to the
Gulf-shore,--the loftiest bit of land along fourteen miles of
just such marshy coast as I have spoken of. Landward, it
dominated a desolation that wearied the eye to look at, a
wilderness of reedy sloughs, patched at intervals with ranges of
bitter-weed, tufts of elbow-bushes, and broad reaches of
saw-grass, stretching away to a bluish-green line of woods that
closed the horizon, and imperfectly drained in the driest season
by a slimy little bayou that continually vomited foul water into
the sea. The point had been much discussed by geologists; it
proved a godsend to United States surveyors weary of attempting
to take observations among quagmires, moccasins, and arborescent
weeds from fifteen to twenty feet high. Savage fishermen, at
some unrecorded time, had heaped upon the eminence a hill of
clam-shells,--refuse of a million feasts; earth again had been
formed over these, perhaps by the blind agency of worms working
through centuries unnumbered; and the new soil had given birth to
a luxuriant vegetation. Millennial oaks interknotted their roots
below its surface, and vouchsafed protection to many a frailer
growth of shrub or tree,--wild orange, water-willow, palmetto,
locust, pomegranate, and many trailing tendrilled things, both
green and gray. Then,--perhaps about half a century ago,--a few
white fishermen cleared a place for themselves in this grove, and
built a few palmetto cottages, with boat-houses and a wharf,
facing the bayou. Later on this temporary fishing station became
a permanent settlement: homes constructed of heavy timber and
plaster mixed with the trailing moss of the oaks and cypresses
took the places of the frail and fragrant huts of palmetto.
Still the population itself retained a floating character: it
ebbed and came, according to season and circumstances, according
to luck or loss in the tilling of the sea. Viosca, the founder
of the settlement, always remained; he always managed to do well.
He owned several luggers and sloops, which were hired out upon
excellent terms; he could make large and profitable contracts
with New Orleans fish-dealers; and he was vaguely suspected of
possessing more occult resources. There were some confused
stories current about his having once been a daring smuggler, and
having only been reformed by the pleadings of his wife Carmen,--a
little brown woman who had followed him from Barcelona to share
his fortunes in the western world.
On hot days, when the shade was full of thin sweet scents, the
place had a tropical charm, a drowsy peace. Nothing except the
peculiar appearance of the line of oaks facing the Gulf could
have conveyed to the visitor any suggestion of days in which the
trilling of crickets and the fluting of birds had ceased, of
nights when the voices of the marsh had been hushed for fear. In
one enormous rank the veteran trees stood shoulder to shoulder,
but in the attitude of giants over mastered,--forced backward
towards the marsh,--made to recoil by the might of the ghostly
enemy with whom they had striven a thousand years,--the Shrieker,
the Sky-Sweeper, the awful Sea-Wind!
Never had he given them so terrible a wrestle as on the night of
the tenth of August, eighteen hundred and fifty-six. All the
waves of the excited Gulf thronged in as if to see, and lifted up
their voices, and pushed, and roared, until the cheniere was
islanded by such a billowing as no white man's eyes had ever
looked upon before. Grandly the oaks bore themselves, but every
fibre of their knotted thews was strained in the unequal contest,
and two of the giants were overthrown, upturning, as they fell,
roots coiled and huge as the serpent-limbs of Titans. Moved to
its entrails, all the islet trembled, while the sea magnified its
menace, and reached out whitely to the prostrate trees; but the
rest of the oaks stood on, and strove in line, and saved the
habitations defended by them ...
Before a little waxen image of the Mother and Child,--an odd
little Virgin with an Indian face, brought home by Feliu as a
gift after one of his Mexican voyages,--Carmen Viosca had burned
candles and prayed; sometimes telling her beads; sometimes
murmuring the litanies she knew by heart; sometimes also reading
from a prayer-book worn and greasy as a long-used pack of cards.
It was particularly stained at one page, a page on which her
tears had fallen many a lonely night--a page with a clumsy wood
cut representing a celestial lamp, a symbolic radiance, shining
through darkness, and on either side a kneeling angel with folded
wings. And beneath this rudely wrought symbol of the Perpetual
Calm appeared in big, coarse type the title of a prayer that has
been offered up through many a century, doubtless, by wives of
Spanish mariners,--Contra las Tempestades.
Once she became very much frightened. After a partial lull the
storm had suddenly redoubled its force: the ground shook; the
house quivered and creaked; the wind brayed and screamed and
pushed and scuffled at the door; and the water, which had been
whipping in through every crevice, all at once rose over the
threshold and flooded the dwelling. Carmen dipped her finger in
the water and tasted it. It was salt!
And none of Feliu's boats had yet come in;--doubtless they had
been driven into some far-away bayous by the storm. The only
boat at the settlement, the Carmencita, had been almost wrecked
by running upon a snag three days before;--there was at least a
fortnight's work for the ship-carpenter of Dead Cypress Point.
And Feliu was sleeping as if nothing unusual had happened--the
heavy sleep of a sailor, heedless of commotions and voices. And
his men, Miguel and Mateo, were at the other end of the cheniere.
With a scream Carmen aroused Feliu. He raised himself upon his
elbow, rubbed his eyes, and asked her, with exasperating
calmness, "Que tienes? que tienes?" (What ails thee?)
--"Oh, Feliu! the sea is coming upon us!" she answered, in the
same tongue. But she screamed out a word inspired by her fear:
she did not cry, "Se nos viene el mar encima!" but "Se nos viene
LA ALTURA!"--the name that conveys the terrible thought of depth
swallowed up in height,--the height of the high sea.
"No lo creo!" muttered Feliu, looking at the floor; then in a
quiet, deep voice he said, pointing to an oar in the corner of
the room, "Echame ese remo."
She gave it to him. Still reclining upon one elbow, Feliu
measured the depth of the water with his thumb nail upon the
blade of the oar, and then bade Carmen light his pipe for him.
His calmness reassured her. For half an hour more, undismayed by
the clamoring of the wind or the calling of the sea, Feliu
silently smoked his pipe and watched his oar. The water rose a
little higher, and he made another mark;--then it climbed a
little more, but not so rapidly; and he smiled at Carmen as he
made a third mark. "Como creia!" he exclaimed, "no hay porque
asustarse: el agua baja!" And as Carmen would have continued to
pray, he rebuked her fears, and bade her try to obtain some rest:
"Basta ya de plegarios, querida!--vete y duerme." His tone,
though kindly, was imperative; and Carmen, accustomed to obey
him, laid herself down by his side, and soon, for very weariness,
It was a feverish sleep, nevertheless, shattered at brief
intervals by terrible sounds, sounds magnified by her nervous
condition--a sleep visited by dreams that mingled in a strange
way with the impressions of the storm, and more than once made
her heart stop, and start again at its own stopping. One of
these fancies she never could forget--a dream about little
Concha,--Conchita, her firstborn, who now slept far away in the
old churchyard at Barcelona. She had tried to become
resigned,--not to think. But the child would come back night
after night, though the earth lay heavy upon her--night after
night, through long distances of Time and Space. Oh! the fancied
clinging of infant-lips!--the thrilling touch of little ghostly
hands!--those phantom-caresses that torture mothers' hearts! ...
Night after night, through many a month of pain. Then for a time
the gentle presence ceased to haunt her,--seemed to have lain
down to sleep forever under the high bright grass and yellow
flowers. Why did it return, that night of all nights, to kiss
her, to cling to her, to nestle in her arms?
For in her dream she thought herself still kneeling before the
waxen Image, while the terrors of the tempest were ever deepening
about her,--raving of winds and booming of waters and a shaking
of the land. And before her, even as she prayed her
dream-prayer, the waxen Virgin became tall as a woman, and
taller,--rising to the roof and smiling as she grew. Then Carmen
would have cried out for fear, but that something smothered her
voice,--paralyzed her tongue. And the Virgin silently stooped
above her, and placed in her arms the Child,--the brown Child
with the Indian face. And the Child whitened in her hands and
changed,--seeming as it changed to send a sharp pain through her
heart: an old pain linked somehow with memories of bright windy
Spanish hills, and summer scent of olive groves, and all the
luminous Past;--it looked into her face with the soft dark gaze,
with the unforgotten smile of ... dead Conchita!
And Carmen wished to thank; the smiling Virgin for that priceless
bliss, and lifted up her eyes, but the sickness of ghostly fear
returned upon her when she looked; for now the Mother seemed as a
woman long dead, and the smile was the smile of fleshlessness,
and the places of the eyes were voids and darknesses ... And the
sea sent up so vast a roar that the dwelling rocked.
Carmen started from sleep to find her heart throbbing so that the
couch shook with it. Night was growing gray; the door had just
been opened and slammed again. Through the rain-whipped panes
she discerned the passing shape of Feliu, making for the beach--a
broad and bearded silhouette, bending against the wind. Still
the waxen Virgin smiled her Mexican smile,--but now she was only
seven inches high; and her bead-glass eyes seemed to twinkle with
kindliness while the flame of the last expiring taper struggled
for life in the earthen socket at her feet.
Rain and a blind sky and a bursting sea Feliu and his men, Miguel
and Mateo, looked out upon the thundering and flashing of the
monstrous tide. The wind had fallen, and the gray air was full
of gulls. Behind the cheniere, back to the cloudy line of low
woods many miles away, stretched a wash of lead-colored water,
with a green point piercing it here and there--elbow-bushes or
wild cane tall enough to keep their heads above the flood. But
the inundation was visibly decreasing;--with the passing of each
hour more and more green patches and points had been showing
themselves: by degrees the course of the bayou had become
defined--two parallel winding lines of dwarf-timber and bushy
shrubs traversing the water toward the distant cypress-swamps.
Before the cheniere all the shell-beach slope was piled with
wreck--uptorn trees with the foliage still fresh upon them,
splintered timbers of mysterious origin, and logs in multitude,
scarred with gashes of the axe. Feliu and his comrades had saved
wood enough to build a little town,--working up to their waists
in the surf, with ropes, poles, and boat-hooks. The whole sea
was full of flotsam. Voto a Cristo!--what a wrecking there must
have been! And to think the Carmencita could not be taken out!
They had seen other luggers making eastward during the
morning--could recognize some by their sails, others by their
gait,--exaggerated in their struggle with the pitching of the
sea: the San Pablo, the Gasparina, the Enriqueta, the Agueda,
the Constanza. Ugly water, yes!--but what a chance for wreckers!
... Some great ship must have gone to pieces;--scores of casks
were rolling in the trough,--casks of wine. Perhaps it was the
Manila,--perhaps the Nautilus!
A dead cow floated near enough for Mateo to throw his rope over
one horn; and they all helped to get it out. It was a milch cow
of some expensive breed; and the owner's brand had been burned
upon the horns:--a monographic combination of the letters A and
P. Feliu said he knew that brand: Old-man Preaulx, of
Belle-Isle, who kept a sort of dairy at Last Island during the
summer season, used to mark all his cows that way. Strange!
But, as they worked on, they began to see stranger things,--white
dead faces and dead hands, which did not look like the hands or
the faces of drowned sailors: the ebb was beginning to run
strongly, and these were passing out with it on the other side of
the mouth of the bayou;--perhaps they had been washed into the
marsh during the night, when the great rush of the sea came.
Then the three men left the water, and retired to higher ground
to scan the furrowed Gulf;--their practiced eyes began to search
the courses of the sea-currents,--keen as the gaze of birds that
watch the wake of the plough. And soon the casks and the drift
were forgotten; for it seemed to them that the tide was heavy
with human dead--passing out, processionally, to the great open.
Very far, where the huge pitching of the swells was diminished by
distance into a mere fluttering of ripples, the water appeared as
if sprinkled with them;--they vanished and became visible again
at irregular intervals, here and there--floating most thickly
eastward!--tossing, swaying patches of white or pink or blue or
black each with its tiny speck of flesh-color showing as the sea
lifted or lowered the body. Nearer to shore there were few; but
of these two were close enough to be almost recognizable: Miguel
first discerned them. They were rising and falling where the
water was deepest--well out in front of the mouth of the bayou,
beyond the flooded sand-bars, and moving toward the shell-reef
westward. They were drifting almost side by side. One was that
of a negro, apparently well attired, and wearing a white
apron;--the other seemed to be a young colored girl, clad in a
blue dress; she was floating upon her face; they could observe
that she had nearly straight hair, braided and tied with a red
ribbon. These were evidently house-servants,--slaves. But from
whence? Nothing could be learned until the luggers should
return; and none of them was yet in sight. Still Feliu was not
anxious as to the fate of his boats, manned by the best sailors
of the coast. Rarely are these Louisiana fishermen lost in
sudden storms; even when to other eyes the appearances are most
pacific and the skies most splendidly blue, they divine some
far-off danger, like the gulls; and like the gulls also, you see
their light vessels fleeing landward. These men seem living
barometers, exquisitely sensitive to all the invisible changes of
atmospheric expansion and compression; they are not easily caught
in those awful dead calms which suddenly paralyze the wings of a
bark, and hold her helpless in their charmed circle, as in a
nightmare, until the blackness overtakes her, and the
long-sleeping sea leaps up foaming to devour her.
The word all at once bursts from Feliu's mouth, with that
peculiar guttural snarl of the "r" betokening strong
excitement,--while he points to something rocking in the ebb,
beyond the foaming of the shell-reef, under a circling of gulls.
More dead? Yes--but something too that lives and moves, like a
quivering speck of gold; and Mateo also perceives it, a gleam of
bright hair,--and Miguel likewise, after a moment's gazing. A
living child;--a lifeless mother. Pobrecita! No boat within
reach, and only a mighty surf-wrestler could hope to swim thither
and return!
But already, without a word, brown Feliu has stripped for the
struggle;--another second, and he is shooting through the surf,
head and hands tunnelling the foam hills.... One--two--three
lines passed!--four!--that is where they first begin to crumble
white from the summit,--five!--that he can ride fearlessly! ...
Then swiftly, easily, he advances, with a long, powerful
breast-stroke,--keeping his bearded head well up to watch for
drift,--seeming to slide with a swing from swell to
swell,--ascending, sinking,--alternately presenting breast or
shoulder to the wave; always diminishing more and more to the
eyes of Mateo and Miguel,--till he becomes a moving speck,
occasionally hard to follow through the confusion of heaping
waters ... You are not afraid of the sharks, Feliu!--no: they
are afraid of you; right and left they slunk away from your
coming that morning you swam for life in West-Indian waters, with
your knife in your teeth, while the balls of the Cuban
coast-guard were purring all around you. That day the swarming
sea was warm,--warm like soup--and clear, with an emerald flash
in every ripple,--not opaque and clamorous like the Gulf today
... Miguel and his comrade are anxious. Ropes are unrolled and
inter-knotted into a line. Miguel remains on the beach; but
Mateo, bearing the end of the line, fights his way out,--swimming
and wading by turns, to the further sandbar, where the water is
shallow enough to stand in,--if you know how to jump when the
breaker comes.
But Feliu, nearing the flooded shell-bank, watches the white
flashings,--knows when the time comes to keep flat and take a
long, long breath. One heavy volleying of foam,--darkness and
hissing as of a steam-burst; a vibrant lifting up; a rush into
light,--and again the volleying and the seething darkness. Once
more,--and the fight is won! He feels the upcoming chill of
deeper water,--sees before him the green quaking of unbroken
swells,--and far beyond him Mateo leaping on the bar,--and beside
him, almost within arm's reach, a great billiard-table swaying,
and a dead woman clinging there, and ... the child.
A moment more, and Feliu has lifted himself beside the waifs ...
How fast the dead woman clings, as if with the one power which is
strong as death,--the desperate force of love! Not in vain; for
the frail creature bound to the mother's corpse with a silken
scarf has still the strength to cry out:--"Maman! maman!" But
time is life now; and the tiny hands must be pulled away from the
fair dead neck, and the scarf taken to bind the infant firmly to
Feliu's broad shoulders,--quickly, roughly; for the ebb will not
wait ...
And now Feliu has a burden; but his style of swimming has totally
changed;--he rises from the water like a Triton, and his powerful
arms seem to spin in circles, like the spokes of a flying wheel.
For now is the wrestle indeed!--after each passing swell comes a
prodigious pulling from beneath,--the sea clutching for its prey.
But the reef is gained, is passed;--the wild horses of the deep
seem to know the swimmer who has learned to ride them so well.
And still the brown arms spin in an ever-nearing mist of spray;
and the outer sand-bar is not far off,--and there is shouting
Mateo, leaping in the surf, swinging something about his head, as
a vaquero swings his noose! ... Sough! splash!--it struggles in
the trough beside Feliu, and the sinewy hand descends upon it.
Tiene!--tira, Miguel! And their feet touch land again! ...
She is very cold, the child, and very still, with eyes closed.
--"Esta muerta, Feliu?" asks Mateo.
--"No!" the panting swimmer makes answer, emerging, while the
waves reach whitely up the sand as in pursuit,--"no; vive!
respira todavia!"
Behind him the deep lifts up its million hands, and thunders as
in acclaim.
--"Madre de Dios!--mi sueno!" screamed Carmen, abandoning her
preparations for the morning meal, as Feliu, nude, like a marine
god, rushed in and held out to her a dripping and gasping
baby-girl,--"Mother of God! my dream!" But there was no time
then to tell of dreams; the child might die. In one instant
Carmen's quick, deft hands had stripped the slender little body;
and while Mateo and Feliu were finding dry clothing and
stimulants, and Miguel telling how it all happened--quickly,
passionately, with furious gesture,--the kind and vigorous woman
exerted all her skill to revive the flickering life. Soon Feliu
came to aid her, while his men set to work completing the
interrupted preparation of the breakfast. Flannels were heated
for the friction of the frail limbs; and brandy-and-water warmed,
which Carmen administered by the spoonful, skilfully as any
physician,--until, at last, the little creature opened her eyes
and began to sob. Sobbing still, she was laid in Carmen's warm
feather-bed, well swathed in woollen wrappings. The immediate
danger, at least, was over; and Feliu smiled with pride and
Then Carmen first ventured to relate her dream; and his face
became grave again. Husband and wife gazed a moment into each
other's eyes, feeling together the same strange thrill--that
mysterious faint creeping, as of a wind passing, which is the awe
of the Unknowable. Then they looked at the child, lying there,
pink checked with the flush of the blood returning; and such a
sudden tenderness touched them as they had known long years
before, while together bending above the slumbering loveliness of
lost Conchita.
--"Que ojos!" murmured Feliu, as he turned away,--feigning hunger
... (He was not hungry; but his sight had grown a little dim, as
with a mist.) Que ojos! They were singular eyes, large, dark, and
wonderfully fringed. The child's hair was yellow--it was the
flash of it that had saved her; yet her eyes and brows were
beautifully black. She was comely, but with such a curious,
delicate comeliness--totally unlike the robust beauty of Concha
... At intervals she would moan a little between her sobs; and at
last cried out, with a thin, shrill cry: "Maman!--oh! maman!"
Then Carmen lifted her from the bed to her lap, and caressed her,
and rocked her gently to and fro, as she had done many a night
for Concha,--murmuring,--"Yo sere tu madre, angel mio, dulzura
mia;--sere tu madrecita, palomita mia!" (I will be thy mother, my
angel, my sweet;--I will be thy little mother, my doveling.) And
the long silk fringes of the child's eyes overlapped, shadowed
her little cheeks; and she slept--just as Conchita had slept long
ago,--with her head on Carmen's bosom.
Feliu re-appeared at the inner door: at a sign, he approached
cautiously, without noise, and looked.
--"She can talk," whispered Carmen in Spanish: "she called her
mother"--ha llamado a su madre.
--"Y Dios tambien la ha llamado," responded Feliu, with rude
pathos;--"And God also called her."
--"But the Virgin sent us the child, Feliu,--sent us the child
for Concha's sake."
He did not answer at once; he seemed to be thinking very
deeply;--Carmen anxiously scanned his impassive face.
--"Who knows?" he answered, at last;--"who knows? Perhaps she
has ceased to belong to any one else."
One after another, Feliu's luggers fluttered in,--bearing with
them news of the immense calamity. And all the fishermen, in
turn, looked at the child. Not one had ever seen her before.
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
Mateo, who had come to the country while a boy, spoke English
better than the rest of the cheniere 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
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
--"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
--"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, chere."
Then, for the first time, she spoke, answering in her argent
All held their breath. Captain Harris lifted his finger to his
lips to command silence.
--"Zouzoune? Zouzoune qui, chere?"
--"Zouzoune, a c'est moin, Lili!"
--"C'est pas tout to nom, Lili;--dis moin, chere, to laut nom."
--"Mo pas connin laut nom. "
--"Comment ye te pele to maman, piti?"
--"Maman,--Maman 'Dele."
--"Et comment ye te pele to papa, chere?"
--"Papa Zulien."
--"Bon! Et comment to maman te pele to papa?--dis ca a moin,
The child looked down, put a finger in her mouth, thought a
moment, and replied:--
--"Li pele li, 'Cheri'; li pele li, 'Papoute.'"
--"Aie, aie!--c'est tout, ca?--to maman te jamain pele li daut'
--"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 oule ca! Donnin ca a moin."
He took all possible advantage of the situation, and replied at
-- "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 oule;
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 Adele, 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" (Cheri),--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
--"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 ...
But it seemed fated that Feliu's waif should never be
identified;--diligent inquiry and printed announcements alike
proved fruitless. Sea and sand had either hidden or effaced all
the records of the little world they had engulfed: the
annihilation of whole families, the extinction of races, had, in
more than one instance, rendered vain all efforts to recognize
the dead. It required the subtle perception of long intimacy to
name remains tumefied and discolored by corruption and exposure,
mangled and gnawed by fishes, by reptiles, and by birds;--it
demanded the great courage of love to look upon the eyeless faces
found sweltering in the blackness of cypress-shadows, under the
low palmettoes of the swamps,--where gorged buzzards started from
sleep, or cottonmouths uncoiled, hissing, at the coming of the
searchers. And sometimes all who had loved the lost were
themselves among the missing. The full roll call of names could
never be made out; extraordinary mistakes were committed. Men
whom the world deemed dead and buried came back, like ghosts,--to
read their own epitaphs.
... Almost at the same hour that Laroussel was questioning the
child in Creole patois, another expedition, searching for bodies
along the coast, discovered on the beach of a low islet famed as
a haunt of pelicans, the corpse of a child. Some locks of bright
hair still adhering to the skull, a string of red beads, a white
muslin dress, a handkerchief broidered with the initials
"A.L.B.,"--were secured as clews; and the little body was
interred where it had been found.
And, several days before, Captain Hotard, of the relief-boat
Estelle Brousseaux, had found, drifting in the open Gulf
(latitude 26 degrees 43 minutes; longitude 88 degrees 17
minutes),--the corpse of a fair-haired woman, clinging to a
table. The body was disfigured beyond recognition: even the
slender bones of the hands had been stripped by the nibs of the
sea-birds-except one finger, the third of the left, which seemed
to have been protected by a ring of gold, as by a charm. Graven
within the plain yellow circlet was a date,--"JUILLET--1851" ;
and the names,--"ADELE + JULIEN,"--separated by a cross. The
Estelle carried coffins that day: most of them were already
full; but there was one for Adele.
Who was she?--who was her Julien? ... When the Estelle and many
other vessels had discharged their ghastly cargoes;--when the
bereaved of the land had assembled as hastily as they might for
the du y of identification;--when memories were strained almost
to madness in research of names, dates, incidents--for the
evocation of dead words, resurrection of vanished days,
recollection of dear promises,--then, in the confusion, it was
believed and declared that the little corpse found on the pelican
island was the daughter of the wearer of the wedding ring: Adele
La Brierre, nee Florane, wife of Dr. Julien La Brierre, of New
Orleans, who was numbered among the missing.
And they brought dead Adele back,--up shadowy river windings,
over linked brightnesses of lake and lakelet, through many a
green glimmering bayou,--to the Creole city, and laid her to rest
somewhere in the old Saint-Louis Cemetery. And upon the tablet
recording her name were also graven the words--
Aussi a la memoire de
son mari;
ne a la paroisse St. Landry,
et de leur fille,
agee de 4 as et 5 mois,--
Qui tous perirent
dans la grande tempete qui
balaya L'Ile Derniere, le
..... + .....
Priez pour eux!
Yet six months afterward the face of Julien La Brierre was seen
again upon the streets of New Orleans. Men started at the sight
of him, as at a spectre standing in the sun. And nevertheless
the apparition cast a shadow. People paused, approached, half
extended a hand through old habit, suddenly checked themselves
and passed on,--wondering they should have forgotten, asking
themselves why they had so nearly made an absurd mistake.
It was a February day,--one of those crystalline days of our
snowless Southern winter, when the air is clear and cool, and
outlines sharpen in the light as if viewed through the focus of a
diamond glass;--and in that brightness Julien La Brierre perused
his own brief epitaph, and gazed upon the sculptured name of
drowned Adele. Only half a year had passed since she was laid
away in the high wall of tombs,--in that strange colonial
columbarium where the dead slept in rows, behind squared marbles
lettered in black or bronze. Yet her resting-place,--in the
highest range,--already seemed old. Under our Southern sun, the
vegetation of cemeteries seems to spring into being
spontaneously--to leap all suddenly into luxuriant life!
Microscopic mossy growths had begun to mottle the slab that
closed her in;--over its face some singular creeper was crawling,
planting tiny reptile-feet into the chiselled letters of the
inscription; and from the moist soil below speckled euphorbias
were growing up to her,--and morning glories,--and beautiful
green tangled things of which he did not know the name.
And the sight of the pretty lizards, puffing their crimson
pouches in the sun, or undulating athwart epitaphs, and shifting
their color when approached, from emerald to ashen-gray;--the
caravans of the ants, journeying to and from tiny chinks in the
masonry;--the bees gathering honey from the crimson blossoms of
the crete-de-coq, whose radicles sought sustenance, perhaps from
human dust, in the decay of generations:--all that rich life of
graves summoned up fancies of Resurrection, Nature's
resurrection-work--wondrous transformations of flesh, marvellous
bans migration of souls! ... From some forgotten crevice of that
tomb roof, which alone intervened between her and the vast light,
a sturdy weed was growing. He knew that plant, as it quivered
against the blue,--the chou-gras, as Creole children call it:
its dark berries form the mockingbird's favorite food ... Might
not its roots, exploring darkness, have found some unfamiliar
nutriment within?--might it not be that something of the dead
heart had risen to purple and emerald life--in the sap of
translucent leaves, in the wine of the savage berries,--to blend
with the blood of the Wizard Singer,--to lend a strange sweetness
to the melody of his wooing? ...
... Seldom, indeed, does it happen that a man in the prime of
youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and
the elegances of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his
true relation to the human aggregate,---how insignificant his
part as one living atom of the social organism. Seldom, at the
age of twenty-eight, has one been made able to comprehend,
through experience alone, that in the vast and complex Stream of
Being he counts for less than a drop; and that, even as the blood
loses and replaces its corpuscles, without a variance in the
volume and vigor of its current, so are individual existences
eliminated and replaced in the pulsing of a people's life, with
never a pause in its mighty murmur. But all this, and much more,
Julien had learned in seven merciless days--seven successive and
terrible shocks of experience. The enormous world had not missed
him; and his place therein was not void--society had simply
forgotten him. So long as he had moved among them, all he knew
for friends had performed their petty altruistic roles,--had
discharged their small human obligations,--had kept turned toward
him the least selfish side of their natures,--had made with him a
tolerably equitable exchange of ideas and of favors; and after
his disappearance from their midst, they had duly mourned for his
loss--to themselves! They had played out the final act in the
unimportant drama of his life: it was really asking too much to
demand a repetition ... Impossible to deceive himself as to the
feeling his unanticipated return had aroused:--feigned pity where
he had looked for sympathetic welcome; dismay where he had
expected surprised delight; and, oftener, airs of resignation, or
disappointment ill disguised,--always insincerity, politely
masked or coldly bare. He had come back to find strangers in his
home, relatives at law concerning his estate, and himself
regarded as an intruder among the living,--an unlucky guest, a
revenant ... How hollow and selfish a world it seemed! And yet
there was love in it; he had been loved in it, unselfishly,
passionately, with the love of father and of mother, of wife and
child ... All buried!--all lost forever! ... Oh! would to God the
story of that stone were not a lie!--would to kind God he also
were dead! ...
Evening shadowed: the violet deepened and prickled itself with
stars;---the sun passed below the west, leaving in his wake a
momentary splendor of vermilion ... our Southern day is not
prolonged by gloaming. And Julien's thoughts darkened with the
darkening, and as swiftly. For while there was yet light to see,
he read another name that he used to know--the name of RAMIREZ
... Nacio en Cienfuegos, isla de Cuba ... Wherefore born?--for
what eternal purpose, Ramirez,--in the City of a Hundred Fires?
He had blown out his brains before the sepulchre of his young
wife ... It was a detached double vault, shaped like a huge
chest, and much dilapidated already:--under the continuous
burrowing of the crawfish it had sunk greatly on one side,
tilting as if about to fall. Out from its zigzag fissurings of
brick and plaster, a sinister voice seemed to come:--"Go thou and
do likewise! ... Earth groans with her burthen even now,--the
burthen of Man: she holds no place for thee!"
... That voice pursued him into the darkness of his chilly
room,--haunted him in the silence of his lodging. And then began
within the man that ghostly struggle between courage and despair,
between patient reason and mad revolt, between weakness and
force, between darkness and light, which all sensitive and
generous natures must wage in their own souls at least
once--perhaps many times--in their lives. Memory, in such
moments, plays like an electric storm;--all involuntarily he
found himself reviewing his life.
Incidents long forgotten came back with singular vividness: he
saw the Past as he had not seen it while it was the
Present;--remembrances of home, recollections of infancy,
recurred to him with terrible intensity,--the artless pleasures
and the trifling griefs, the little hurts and the tender
pettings, the hopes and the anxieties of those who loved him, the
smiles and tears of slaves ... And his first Creole pony, a
present from his father the day after he had proved himself able
to recite his prayers correctly in French, without one
mispronunciation--without saying crasse for grace,--and yellow
Michel, who taught him to swim and to fish and to paddle a
pirogue;--and the bayou, with its wonder-world of turtles and
birds and creeping things;--and his German tutor, who could not
pronounce the j;--and the songs of the cane-fields,--strangely
pleasing, full of quaverings and long plaintive notes, like the
call of the cranes ... Tou', tou' pays blanc! ... Afterward
Camaniere had leased the place;--everything must have been
changed; even the songs could not be the same. Tou', tou' pays
blare!--Danie qui commande ...
And then Paris; and the university, with its wild
under-life,--some debts, some follies; and the frequent fond
letters from home to which he might have replied so much
oftener;--Paris, where talent is mediocrity; Paris, with its
thunders and its splendors and its seething of passion;--Paris,
supreme focus of human endeavor, with its madnesses of art, its
frenzied striving to express the Inexpressible, its spasmodic
strainings to clutch the Unattainable, its soarings of soul-fire
to the heaven of the Impossible ...
What a rejoicing there was at his return!--how radiant and level
the long Road of the Future seemed to open before him!
--everywhere friends, prospects, felicitations. Then his first
serious love;--and the night of the ball at St. Martinsville,
--the vision of light! Gracile as a palm, and robed at once so
simply, so exquisitely in white, she had seemed to him the
supreme realization of all possible dreams of beauty ... And his
passionate jealousy; and the slap from Laroussel; and the
humiliating two-minute duel with rapiers in which he learned that
he had found his master. The scar was deep. Why had not
Laroussel killed him then? ... Not evil-hearted, Laroussel,
--they used to salute each other afterward when they met; and
Laroussel's smile was kindly. Why had he refrained from
returning it? Where was Laroussel now?
For the death of his generous father, who had sacrificed so much
to reform him; for the death, only a short while after, of his
all-forgiving mother, he had found one sweet woman to console him
with her tender words, her loving lips, her delicious caress.
She had given him Zouzoune, the darling link between their
lives,--Zouzoune, who waited each evening with black Eglantine at
the gate to watch for his coming, and to cry through all the
house like a bird, "Papa, lape vini!--papa Zulien ape vini!" ...
And once that she had made him very angry by upsetting the ink
over a mass of business papers, and he had slapped her (could he
ever forgive himself?)--she had cried, through her sobs of
astonishment and pain:--"To laimin moin?--to batte moin!" (Thou
lovest me?--thou beatest me!) Next month she would have been five
years old. To laimin moin?--to batte moin! ...
A furious paroxysm of grief convulsed him, suffocated him; it
seemed to him that something within must burst, must break. He
flung himself down upon his bed, biting the coverings in order to
stifle his outcry, to smother the sounds of his despair. What
crime had he ever done, oh God! that he should be made to suffer
thus?--was it for this he had been permitted to live? had been
rescued from the sea and carried round all the world unscathed?
Why should he live to remember, to suffer, to agonize? Was not
Ramirez wiser?
How long the contest within him lasted, he never knew; but ere it
was done, he had become, in more ways than one, a changed man.
For the first,--though not indeed for the last time,--something
of the deeper and nobler comprehension of human weakness and of
human suffering had been revealed to him,--something of that
larger knowledge without which the sense of duty can never be
fully acquired, nor the understanding of unselfish goodness, nor
the spirit of tenderness. The suicide is not a coward; he is an
A ray of sunlight touched his wet pillow,--awoke him. He rushed
to the window, flung the latticed shutters apart, and looked out.
Something beautiful and ghostly filled all the
vistas,--frost-haze; and in some queer way the mist had
momentarily caught and held the very color of the sky. An azure
fog! Through it the quaint and checkered street--as yet but half
illumined by the sun,--took tones of impossible color; the view
paled away through faint bluish tints into transparent
purples;--all the shadows were indigo. How sweet the
morning!--how well life seemed worth living! Because the sun had
shown his face through a fairy veil of frost! ...
Who was the ancient thinker?--was it Hermes?--who said:--
"The Sun is Laughter; for 'tis He who maketh joyous the thoughts
of men, and gladdeneth the infinite world." ...
The Shadow of the Tide.
Carmen found that her little pet had been taught how to pray; for
each night and morning when the devout woman began to make her
orisons, the child would kneel beside her, with little hands
joined, and in a voice sweet and clear murmur something she had
learned by heart. Much as this pleased Carmen, it seemed to her
that the child's prayers could not be wholly valid unless uttered
in Spanish;--for Spanish was heaven's own tongue,--la lengua de
Dios, el idioma de Dios; and she resolved to teach her to say the
Salve Maria and the Padre Nuestro in Castilian--also, her own
favorite prayer to the Virgin, beginning with the words, "Madre
santisima, toda dulce y hermosa." . . .
So Conchita--for a new name had been given to her with that
terrible sea christening--received her first lessons in Spanish;
and she proved a most intelligent pupil. Before long she could
prattle to Feliu;--she would watch for his return of evenings,
and announce his coming with "Aqui viene mi papacito?"--she
learned, too, from Carmen, many little caresses of speech to
greet him with. Feliu's was not a joyous nature; he had his dark
hours, his sombre days; yet it was rarely that he felt too sullen
to yield to the little one's petting, when she would leap up to
reach his neck and to coax his kiss, with--"Dame un beso,
papa!--asi;--y otro! otro! otro!" He grew to love her like his
own;--was she not indeed his own, since he had won her from
death? And none had yet come to dispute his claim. More and
more, with the passing of weeks, months, seasons, she became a
portion of his life--a part of all that he wrought for. At the
first, he had had a half-formed hope that the little one might be
reclaimed by relatives generous and rich enough to insist upon
his acceptance of a handsome compensation; and that Carmen could
find some solace in a pleasant visit to Barceloneta. But now he
felt that no possible generosity could requite him for her loss;
and with the unconscious selfishness of affection, he commenced
to dread her identification as a great calamity.
It was evident that she had been brought up nicely. She had
pretty prim ways of drinking and eating, queer little fashions of
sitting in company, and of addressing people. She had peculiar
notions about colors in dress, about wearing her hair; and she
seemed to have already imbibed a small stock of social prejudices
not altogether in harmony with the republicanism of Viosca's
Point. Occasional swarthy visitors,--men of the Manilla
settlements,--she spoke of contemptuously as negues-marrons; and
once she shocked Carmen inexpressibly by stopping in the middle
of her evening prayer, declaring that she wanted to say her
prayers to a white Virgin; Carmen's Senora de Guadalupe was only
a negra! Then, for the first time, Carmen spoke so crossly to
the child as to frighten her. But the pious woman's heart smote
her the next moment for that first harsh word;--and she caressed
the motherless one, consoled her, cheered her, and at last
explained to her--I know not how--something very wonderful about
the little figurine, something that made Chita's eyes big with
awe. Thereafter she always regarded the Virgin of Wax as an
object mysterious and holy.
And, one by one, most of Chita's little eccentricities were
gradually eliminated from her developing life and thought. More
rapidly than ordinary children, because singularly intelligent,
she learned to adapt herself to all the changes of her new
environment,--retaining only that indescribable something which
to an experienced eye tells of hereditary refinement of habit and
of mind:--a natural grace, a thorough-bred ease and elegance of
movement, a quickness and delicacy of perception.
She became strong again and active--active enough to play a great
deal on the beach, when the sun was not too fierce; and Carmen
made a canvas bonnet to shield her head and face. Never had she
been allowed to play so much in the sun before; and it seemed to
do her good, though her little bare feet and hands became brown
as copper. At first, it must be confessed, she worried her
foster-mother a great deal by various queer misfortunes and
extraordinary freaks;--getting bitten by crabs, falling into the
bayou while in pursuit of "fiddlers," or losing herself at the
conclusion of desperate efforts to run races at night with the
moon, or to walk to the "end of the world." If she could only
once get to the edge of the sky, she said, she "could climb up."
She wanted to see the stars, which were the souls of good little
children; and she knew that God would let her climb up. "Just
what I am afraid of!"--thought Carmen to herself;--"He might let
her climb up,--a little ghost!" But one day naughty Chita
received a terrible lesson,--a lasting lesson,--which taught her
the value of obedience.
She had been particularly cautioned not to venture into a certain
part of the swamp in the rear of the grove, where the weeds were
very tall; for Carmen was afraid some snake might bite the child.
But Chita's bird-bright eye had discerned a gleam of white in
that direction; and she wanted to know what it was. The white
could only be seen from one point, behind the furthest house,
where the ground was high. "Never go there," said Carmen; "there
is a Dead Man there,--will bite you!" And yet, one day, while
Carmen was unusually busy, Chita went there.
In the early days of the settlement, a Spanish fisherman had
died; and his comrades had built him a little tomb with the
surplus of the same bricks and other material brought down the
bayou for the construction of Viosca's cottages. But no one,
except perhaps some wandering duck hunter, had approached the
sepulchre for years. High weeds and grasses wrestled together
all about it, and rendered it totally invisible from the
surrounding level of the marsh.
Fiddlers swarmed away as Chita advanced over the moist soil, each
uplifting its single huge claw as it sidled off;--then frogs
began to leap before her as she reached the thicker grass;--and
long-legged brown insects sprang showering to right and left as
she parted the tufts of the thickening verdure. As she went on,
the bitter-weeds disappeared;--jointed grasses and sinewy dark
plants of a taller growth rose above her head: she was almost
deafened by the storm of insect shrilling, and the mosquitoes
became very wicked. All at once something long and black and
heavy wriggled almost from under her naked feet,--squirming so
horribly that for a minute or two she could not move for fright.
But it slunk away somewhere, and hid itself; the weeds it had
shaken ceased to tremble in its wake; and her courage returned.
She felt such an exquisite and fearful pleasure in the
gratification of that naughty curiosity! Then, quite
unexpectedly--oh! what a start it gave her!--the solitary white
object burst upon her view, leprous and ghastly as the yawn of a
cotton-mouth. Tombs ruin soon in Louisiana;--the one Chita
looked upon seemed ready to topple down. There was a great
ragged hole at one end, where wind and rain, and perhaps also the
burrowing of crawfish and of worms, had loosened the bricks, and
caused them to slide out of place. It seemed very black inside;
but Chita wanted to know what was there. She pushed her way
through a gap in the thin and rotten line of pickets, and through
some tall weeds with big coarse pink flowers;--then she crouched
down on hands and knees before the black hole, and peered in. It
was not so black inside as she had thought; for a sunbeam slanted
down through a chink in the roof; and she could see!
A brown head--without hair, without eyes, but with teeth, ever so
many teeth!--seemed to laugh at her; and close to it sat a Toad,
the hugest she had ever seen; and the white skin of his throat
kept puffing out and going in. And Chita screamed and screamed,
and fled in wild terror,--screaming all the way, till Carmen ran
out to meet her and carry her home. Even when safe in her
adopted mother's arms, she sobbed with fright. To the vivid
fancy of the child there seemed to be some hideous relation
between the staring reptile and the brown death's-head, with its
empty eyes, and its nightmare-smile.
The shock brought on a fever,--a fever that lasted several days,
and left her very weak. But the experience taught her to obey,
taught her that Carmen knew best what was for her good. It also
caused her to think a great deal. Carmen had told her that the
dead people never frightened good little girls who stayed at
--"Madrecita Carmen," she asked, "is my mamma dead?"
--"Pobrecita! .... Yes, my angel. God called her to Him,--your
darling mother."
--"Madrecita," she asked again,--her young eyes growing vast
with horror,--"is my own mamma now like That?" ... She pointed
toward the place of the white gleam, behind the great trees.
--"No, no, no! my darling!" cried Carmen, appalled herself by
the ghastly question,--"your mamma is with the dear, good,
loving God, who lives in the beautiful sky, above the clouds, my
darling, beyond the sun!"
But Carmen's kind eyes were full of tears; and the child read
their meaning. He who teareth off the Mask of the Flesh had
looked into her face one unutterable moment:--she had seen the
brutal Truth, naked to the bone!
Yet there came to her a little thrill of consolation, caused by
the words of the tender falsehood; for that which she had
discerned by day could not explain to her that which she saw
almost nightly in her slumber. The face, the voice, the form
of her loving mother still lived somewhere,--could not have
utterly passed away; since the sweet presence came to her in
dreams, bending and smiling over her, caressing her, speaking to
her,--sometimes gently chiding, but always chiding with a kiss.
And then the child would laugh in her sleep, and prattle in
Creole,--talking to the luminous shadow, telling the dead mother
all the little deeds and thoughts of the day.... Why would God
only let her come at night?
... Her idea of God had been first defined by the sight of a
quaint French picture of the Creation,--an engraving which
represented a shoreless sea under a black sky, and out of the
blackness a solemn and bearded gray head emerging, and a cloudy
hand through which stars glimmered. God was like old Doctor de
Coulanges, who used to visit the house, and talk in a voice like
a low roll of thunder.... At a later day, when Chita had been
told that God was "everywhere at the same time "--without and
within, beneath and above all things,--this idea became somewhat
changed. The awful bearded face, the huge shadowy hand, did not
fade from her thought; but they became fantastically blended with
the larger and vaguer notion of something that filled the world
and reached to the stars,--something diaphanous and
incomprehensible like the invisible air, omnipresent and
everlasting like the high blue of heaven ....
... She began to learn the life of the coast.
With her acquisition of another tongue, there came to her also
the understanding of many things relating to the world of the sea
She memorized with novel delight much that was told her day by
day concerning the nature surrounding her,--many secrets of the
air, many of those signs of heaven which the dwellers in cities
cannot comprehend because the atmosphere is thickened and made
stagnant above them--cannot even watch because the horizon is
hidden from their eyes by walls, and by weary avenues of trees
with whitewashed trunks. She learned, by listening, by asking,
by observing also, how to know the signs that foretell wild
weather:--tremendous sunsets, scuddings and bridgings of
cloud,--sharpening and darkening of the sea-line,--and the shriek
of gulls flashing to land in level flight, out of a still
transparent sky,--and halos about the moon.
She learned where the sea-birds, with white bosoms and brown
wings, made their hidden nests of sand,--and where the cranes
waded for their prey,--and where the beautiful wild-ducks,
plumaged in satiny lilac and silken green, found their food,--and
where the best reeds grew to furnish stems for Feliu's red-clay
pipe,--and where the ruddy sea-beans were most often tossed upon
the shore,--and how the gray pelicans fished all together, like
men--moving in far-extending semicircles, beating the flood with
their wings to drive the fish before them.
And from Carmen she learned the fables and the sayings of the
sea,--the proverbs about its deafness, its avarice, its
treachery, its terrific power,--especially one that haunted her
for all time thereafter: Si quieres aprender a orar, entra en el
mar (If thou wouldst learn to pray, go to the sea). She learned
why the sea is salt,--how "the tears of women made the waves of
the sea,"--and how the sea has ii no friends,"--and how the
cat's eyes change with the tides.
What had she lost of life by her swift translation from the dusty
existence of cities to the open immensity of nature's freedom?
What did she gain?
Doubtless she was saved from many of those little bitternesses
and restraints and disappointments which all well-bred city
children must suffer in the course of their training for the more
or less factitious life of society:--obligations to remain very
still with every nimble nerve quivering in dumb revolt;--the
injustice of being found troublesome and being sent to bed early
for the comfort of her elders;--the cruel necessity of straining
her pretty eyes, for many long hours at a time, over grimy desks
in gloomy school-rooms, though birds might twitter and bright
winds flutter in the trees without;--the austere constrains
and heavy drowsiness of warm churches, filled with the droning
echoes of a voice preaching incomprehensible things;--the
progressively augmenting weariness of lessons in deportment, in
dancing, in music, in the impossible art of keeping her dresses
unruffled and unsoiled. Perhaps she never had any reason to
regret all these.
She went to sleep and awakened with the wild birds;--her life
remained as unfettered by formalities as her fine feet by shoes.
Excepting Carmen's old prayer-book,--in which she learned to read
a little,--her childhood passed without books,--also without
pictures, without dainties, without music, without theatrical
amusements. But she saw and heard and felt much of that which,
though old as the heavens and the earth, is yet eternally new and
eternally young with the holiness of beauty,--eternally mystical
and divine,---eternally weird: the unveiled magnificence of
Nature's moods,--the perpetual poem hymned by wind and
surge,--the everlasting splendor of the sky.
She saw the quivering pinkness of waters curled by the breath of
the morning--under the deepening of the dawn--like a far
fluttering and scattering of rose-leaves of fire;--
Saw the shoreless, cloudless, marvellous double-circling azure of
perfect summer days--twin glories of infinite deeps inter.
reflected, while the Soul of the World lay still, suffused with a
jewel-light, as of vaporized sapphire;--
Saw the Sea shift color,--"change sheets,"--when the viewless
Wizard of the Wind breathed upon its face, and made it green;--
Saw the immeasurable panics,--noiseless, scintillant,--which
silver, summer after summer, curved leagues of beach with bodies
of little fish--the yearly massacre of migrating populations,
nations of sea-trout, driven from their element by terror;--and
the winnowing of shark-fins,--and the rushing of porpoises,--and
the rising of the grande-ecaille, like a pillar of flame,--and
the diving and pitching and fighting of the frigates and the
gulls,--and the armored hordes of crabs swarming out to clear the
slope after the carnage and the gorging had been done;--
Saw the Dreams of the Sky,--scudding mockeries of ridged
foam,--and shadowy stratification of capes and coasts and
promontories long-drawn out,--and imageries, multicolored, of
mountain frondage, and sierras whitening above sierras,--and
phantom islands ringed around with lagoons of glory;---
Saw the toppling and smouldering of cloud-worlds after the
enormous conflagration of sunsets,--incandescence ruining into
darkness; and after it a moving and climbing of stars among the
blacknesses,--like searching lamps;--
Saw the deep kindle countless ghostly candles as for mysterious
night-festival,--and a luminous billowing under a black sky, and
effervescences of fire, and the twirling and crawling of
phosphoric foam;--
Saw the mesmerism of the Moon;--saw the enchanted tides
self-heaped in muttering obeisance before her.
Often she heard the Music of the Marsh through the night: an
infinity of flutings and tinklings made by tiny amphibia,--like
the low blowing of numberless little tin horns, the clanking of
billions of little bells;--and, at intervals, profound tones,
vibrant and heavy, as of a bass viol--the orchestra of the great
frogs! And interweaving with it all, one continuous
shrilling,--keen as the steel speech of a saw,--the stridulous
telegraphy of crickets.
But always,--always, dreaming or awake, she heard the huge blind
Sea chanting that mystic and eternal hymn, which none may hear
without awe, which no musician can learn,--
Heard the hoary Preacher,--El Pregonador,--preaching the ancient
Word, the word "as a fire, and as a hammer that breaketh the
rock in pieces,"--the Elohim--Word of the Sea! ...
Unknowingly she came to know the immemorial sympathy of the mind
with the Soul of the World,--the melancholy wrought by its moods
of gray, the reverie responsive to its vagaries of mist, the
exhilaration of its vast exultings--days of windy joy, hours of
transfigured light.
She felt,--even without knowing it,--the weight of the Silences,
the solemnities of sky and sea in these low regions where all
things seem to dream--waters and grasses with their momentary
wavings,--woods gray-webbed with mosses that drip and
drool,--horizons with their delusions of vapor,--cranes
meditating in their marshes,--kites floating in the high blue....
Even the children were singularly quiet; and their play less
noisy--though she could not have learned the difference--than the
play of city children. Hour after hour, the women sewed or wove
in silence. And the brown men,--always barefooted, always
wearing rough blue shirts,--seemed, when they lounged about the
wharf on idle days, as if they had told each other long ago all
they knew or could ever know, and had nothing more to say. They
would stare at the flickering of the current, at the drifting of
clouds and buzzard:--seldom looking at each other, and always
turning their black eyes again, in a weary way, to sky or sea.
Even thus one sees the horses and the cattle of the coast,
seeking the beach to escape the whizzing flies;--all watch the
long waves rolling in, and sometimes turn their heads a moment to
look at one another, but always look back to the waves again, as
if wondering at a mystery....
How often she herself had wondered--wondered at the multiform
changes of each swell as it came in--transformations of tint, of
shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more
subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes,--and
sinister, and spectral. Then they all appeared to move in
order,--according to one law or impulse;--each had its own voice,
yet all sang one and the same everlasting song. Vaguely, as she
watched them and listened to them, there came to her the idea of
a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their
utterance--the idea of one monstrous and complex life! The sea
lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak!--it
only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.
Thenceforward she feared to find herself alone with it. Was it
not at her that it strove to rush, muttering, and showing its
white teeth, ... just because it knew that she was all by
herself? ... Si quieres aprender a orar, entra en el mar! And
Concha had well learned to pray. But the sea seemed to her the
one Power which God could not make to obey Him as He pleased.
Saying the creed one day, she repeated very slowly the opening
words,--"Creo en un Dios, padre todopoderoso, Criador de cielo y
de la tierra,"--and paused and thought. Creator of Heaven and
Earth? "Madrecita Carmen," she asked,--"quien entonces hizo el
mar?" (who then made the sea?).
--"Dios, mi querida," answered Carmen.--"God, my darling....
All things were made by Him" ( todas las cosas fueron hechas por
Even the wicked Sea! And He had said unto it: "Thus far, and no
farther." ... Was that why it had not overtaken and devoured
her when she ran back in fear from the sudden reaching out of its
waves? Thus far....? But there were times when it
disobeyed--when it rushed further, shaking the world! Was it
because God was then asleep--could not hear, did not see, until
too late?
And the tumultuous ocean terrified her more and more: it filled
her sleep with enormous nightmare;--it came upon her in dreams,
mountain-shadowing,--holding her with its spell, smothering her
power of outcry, heaping itself to the stars.
Carmen became alarmed;--she feared that the nervous and delicate
child might die in one of those moaning dreams out of which she
had to arouse her, night after night. But Feliu, answering her
anxiety with one of his favorite proverbs, suggested a heroic
--"The world is like the sea: those who do not know how to swim
in it are drowned;--and the sea is like the world," he added....
"Chita must learn to swim!"
And he found the time to teach her. Each morning, at sunrise, he
took her into the water. She was less terrified the first time
than Carmen thought she would be;--she seemed to feel confidence
in Feliu; although she screamed piteously before her first
ducking at his hands. His teaching was not gentle. He would
carry her out, perched upon his shoulder, until the water rose to
his own neck; and there he would throw her from him, and let her
struggle to reach him again as best she could. The first few
mornings she had to be pulled out almost at once; but after that
Feliu showed her less mercy, and helped her only when he saw she
was really in danger. He attempted no other instruction until
she had learned that in order to save herself from being half
choked by the salt water, she must not scream; and by the time
she became habituated to these austere experiences, she had
already learned by instinct alone how to keep herself afloat for
a while, how to paddle a little with her hands. Then he
commenced to train her to use them,--to lift them well out and
throw them forward as if reaching, to dip them as the blade of an
oar is dipped at an angle, without loud splashing;--and he showed
her also how to use her feet. She learned rapidly and
astonishingly well. In less than two months Feliu felt really
proud at the progress made by his tiny pupil: it was a delight
to watch her lifting her slender arms above the water in swift,
easy curves, with the same fine grace that marked all her other
natural motions. Later on he taught her not to fear the sea even
when it growled a little,--how to ride a swell, how to face a
breaker, how to dive. She only needed practice thereafter; and
Carmen, who could also swim, finding the child's health improving
marvellously under this new discipline, took good care that Chita
should practice whenever the mornings were not too cold, or the
water too rough.
With the first thrill of delight at finding herself able to glide
over the water unassisted, the child's superstitious terror of
the sea passed away. Even for the adult there are few physical
joys keener than the exultation of the swimmer;--how much greater
the same glee as newly felt by an imaginative child,--a child,
whose vivid fancy can lend unutterable value to the most
insignificant trifles, can transform a weed-patch to an Eden! ...
Of her own accord she would ask for her morning bath, as soon as
she opened her eyes;--it even required some severity to prevent
her from remaining in the water too long. The sea appeared to
her as something that had become tame for her sake, something
that loved her in a huge rough way; a tremendous playmate, whom
she no longer feared to see come bounding and barking to lick her
feet. And, little by little, she also learned the wonderful
healing and caressing power of the monster, whose cool embrace at
once dispelled all drowsiness, feverishness, weariness,--even
after the sultriest nights when the air had seemed to burn, and
the mosquitoes had filled the chamber with a sound as of water
boiling in many kettles. And on mornings when the sea was in too
wicked a humor to be played with, how she felt the loss of her
loved sport, and prayed for calm! Her delicate constitution
changed;--the soft, pale flesh became firm and brown, the meagre
limbs rounded into robust symmetry, the thin cheeks grew peachy
with richer life; for the strength of the sea had entered into
her; the sharp breath of the sea had renewed and brightened her
young blood....
... Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath
stricken all mythology dumb;--thou most wrinkled diving Sea, the
millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary
motions;--thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the
monsters and the gods,--whence shine eternal youth? Still do thy
waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded
above their face in the Beginning!--still is thy quickening
breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life,--like the
breath of young girls, like the breath of children, prescribed
for the senescent by magicians of old,--prescribed unto weazened
elders in the books of the Wizards.
... 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
"DECEDE--; "DECEDEE--; "FALLECIO;"--"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-glow. 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 steamships
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 steamboat 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.
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? "Due
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 housekeeper, 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-Piete) 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
housekeeper 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 paescite
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 reimage,--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
Shading his vision with his fingers, Sparicio pointed to the long
lean limb of land from which they were fleeing, and said to La
--"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, belta 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
"M'ama pur d'amore eterno,
Ne deilitto sembri a te;
T'assicuro che l'inferno
Una favola sol e." ...
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 ethereal,--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, and the sanctification of the Silences never descends ...
furious cities, walled away from heaven ... 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 blowing 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 p]ace. Then he asked, in a deep voice:
-"Has traido al 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.
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 meanwhile
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 besoin
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! ... Adele'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!--countthe 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
"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
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 Adele.
--"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 hablare en Espanol."
--"Bien, entonces!" she responded, with the same exquisite
smile. "Adios, senor!" ...
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 batte
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 Adele 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 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, breath. less, 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. "Bon jour,
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?
---"Cheri!" ...
The whisper roused him with a fearful start ... Adele'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 ...
... 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
---"Mentira!---you could not be her mother ... Still, if you
were---And she must not come in here,---jamais! ... Carmen, did
you know Adele,---Adele 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
vomito!---yo lo conozco, 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 leve 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 ca?" ...
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 bientot."
Who was he to see soon?---"qui done, Laroussel?" But Laroussel
did not answer. Through the red mist he seemed to smile;---then
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 stone 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 ...
Again the mysterious whisper startled him to consciousness,---the
dim knowledge of a room filled with ruby colored light,---and 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, Adele!---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 Adele speak
Spanish? Who prayed for him? ...
---"Alma de Cristo santisima santificame!
"Sangre de Cristo, embriagame!
"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! ...
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 el!"

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