Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882
Southward from New Orleans, one passes settlements of many nationalities and races. Beyond lie the islands of Grande Pass, Grande Terre, and Barataria, and farther south still is the modern resort of Grande Isle. On the northwest side of each island are signs of the incessant action of the wind and sea, for the trees all bend away from the water. The coast and island beaches all exhibit the evidence of hurricanes—broken tree trunks and skeletons of toppled buildings.
Forty miles west of Grande Isle lies desolate Last Island, once the most popular of the group, and a fashionable resort. Its hotel had been a two-story timber structure with many apartments, a dining room, and a ballroom. One night, years before, the sea destroyed the hotel. Thanks to a veteran ship’s pilot, the narrator hears the story one evening on Grande Isle and relates it in turn.
It has been an unusually lovely summer, and the breathless charm of the season has lingered. One afternoon, however, the ocean begins to stir, and great waves hurl themselves over the beaches, suggesting that a hurricane is brewing. The wind rises. The steamer Star is due, but the residents of Last Island fear that it will not arrive. Nevertheless, Captain Abraham Smith has chosen to sail the Star to the island; he sees the storm rising as he approaches. The hotel guests, heedless of the approaching calamity, continue to dance until the water runs over their feet and the waves begin to buffet the building. Smith spends the night rescuing as many people as he can, but the destruction is total, and by daybreak countless corpses float on the stormy sea.
Fisherman Feliu Viosca and his wife, Carmen, live on a tiny island. On the night of the terrible storm, Carmen is awakened by the noise. Afraid, she rouses her husband, whose calmness comforts her, and he tells her to return to sleep. In her dreams, her dead child—dark-eyed Conchita—comes to her.
The next day, fishermen gather along the shore to see the wreckage and the floating bodies. A flash of yellow catches Feliu’s eye, and he strips and swims out toward a child, still alive, clinging to her drowned mother. Feliu manages to rescue the girl and swim back to shore. The half-drowned child is taken to Carmen, whose skillful hands and maternal instincts nurse the little girl into a warm, sound sleep. The girl’s yellow hair had saved her, for it was the flash of sun on her tresses that had caught Feliu’s eye.
Along with several other men, Captain Harris of New Orleans is sailing up and down the coast in search of the missing, the dead, or those still alive after the storm. Ten days after the rescue of the girl, Harris comes to Feliu’s wharf. Hardly able to communicate with the men, Feliu tells them the story of his heroism but cautions them that if they wish to question the child, they must proceed gently, because she is not fully recovered from shock.
The child’s Creole dialect is incomprehensible, until a Creole named Laroussel begins to question her. She tells him that although her Creole name is Zouzoune, her real name is Lili. Her mother was Adèle and her father was Julien. Realizing that the child’s relatives may never be found, Harris decides to leave her with Feliu and Carmen, who promise to care for her. Meanwhile, near another island, a body has been recovered. Returned to New Orleans, it is identified as that of Adèle, the wife of Dr. Julien Raymond La Brierre and mother of Eulalie. The epitaph on Adèle’s grave also announces the death of the doctor and Eulalie. However, the doctor had survived the storm, and six months later is dumfounded to read the epitaph.
The shock forces La Brierre to recall his past. He had grown up in New Orleans and, to please his father, had studied medicine in Paris. After his return to New Orleans, he had fallen in love and had been wounded in a duel with a rival named Laroussel. Following the death of his father and mother, the doctor had married Adèle, and their child Zouzoune was born.
Meanwhile, the child, now called Chita (for the deceased Conchita), has become a member of the Viosca family. She has gradually adapted herself to the ways of her foster parents and the lonely but fascinating life of the island.
Years later, La Brierre is practicing in New Orleans as a lonely and kindly physician. Then an elderly patient of his, named Edwards, goes to Viosca’s island, which Captain Harris has recommended for the sick man’s recovery. While there, Edwards suffers a stroke. La Brierre is summoned, but arrives too late to save his patient.
Before the doctor can set out for home, he, too, becomes ill. Carmen nurses him. In the vague consciousness that accompanies his malady, the doctor sees Chita, whose resemblance to his dead wife greatly excites him. In his delirium, he calls out to Zouzoune and Adèle, while Carmen tries to calm him. Reliving the horror of the hurricane that had taken Adèle and Zouzoune from him, the sick man dies.
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