ATHÉNAÏSE reached her destination sound of skin and limb, but a good deal flustered, a little frightened, and altogether excited and interested by her unusual experiences.
Her destination was the house of Sylvie, on Dauphine Street, in New Orleans, — a three-story gray brick, standing directly on the banquette, with three broad stone steps leading to the deep front entrance. From the second-story balcony swung a small sign, conveying to passers-by the intelligence that within were ” chambres garnies.”
It was one morning in the last week of April that Athénaïse presented herself at the Dauphine Street house. Sylvie was expecting her, and introduced her at once to her apartment, which was in the second story of the back ell, and accessible by an open, outside gallery. There was a yard below, paved with broad stone flagging; many fragrant flowering shrubs and plants grew in a bed along the side of the opposite wall, and others were distributed about in tubs and green boxes.
It was a plain but large enough room into which Athénaïse was ushered, with matting on the floor, green shades and Nottingham-lace curtains at the windows that looked out on the gallery, and furnished with a cheap walnut suit. But everything looked exquisitely clean, and the whole place smelled of cleanliness.
Athénaïse at once fell into the rocking-chair, with the air of exhaustion and intense relief of one who has come to the end of her troubles. Sylvie, entering behind her, laid the big traveling-bag on the floor and deposited the jacket on the bed.
She was a portly quadroon of fifty or thereabout, clad in an ample volant of the old-fashioned purple calico so much affected by her class. She wore large golden hoop-earrings, and her hair was combed plainly, with every appearance of effort to smooth out the kinks. She had broad, coarse features, with a nose that turned up, exposing the wide nostrils, and that seemed to emphasize the loftiness and command of her bearing, — a dignity that in the presence of white people assumed a character of respectfulness, but never of obsequiousness. Sylvie believed firmly in maintaining the color-line, and would not suffer a white person, even a child, to call her “ Madame Sylvie,” — a title which she exacted religiously, however, from those of her own race.
“ I hope you be please’ wid yo’ room, madame,” she observed amiably. “ Dat’s de same room w’at yo’ brother, M’sieur Miché, all time like w’en he come to New Orlean’. He well, M’sieur Miché? I receive’ his letter las’ week, an’ dat same day a gent’man want I give ’im dat room. I say, ’No, dat room already ingage’.’ Ev’body like dat room on ’count it so quite [quiet]. M’sieur Gouvernail, dere in nax’ room, you can’t pay ’im ! He been stay t’ree year’ in dat room ; but all fix’ up fine wid his own furn’ture an’ books, ’tel you can’t see ! I say to ’im plenty time’, ‘ M’sieur Gouvernail, w’y you don’ take dat t’ree-story front, now, long it’s empty ? ’ He tell me, ‘ Leave me ’lone, Sylvie ; I know a good room w’en I fine it, me.’ ”
She had been moving slowly and majestically about the apartment, straightening and smoothing down bed and pillows, peering into ewer and basin, evidently casting an eye around to make sure that everything was as it should be.
“ I sen’ you some fresh water, madame,” she offered upon retiring from the room. “ An’ w’en you want an’t’ing, you jus’ go out on de gall’ry an’ call Pousette: she year you plain, — she right down dere in de kitchen.”
Athénaïse was really not so exhausted as she had every reason to be after that interminable and circuitous way by which Montéclin had seen fit to have her conveyed to the city.
Would she ever forget that dark and truly dangerous midnight ride along the “ coast ” to the mouth of Cane River ! There Montéclin had parted with her, after seeing her aboard the St. Louis and Shreveport packet which he knew would pass there before dawn. She had received instructions to disembark at the mouth of Red River, and there transfer to the first south-bound steamer for New Orleans : all of which instructions she had followed implicitly, even to making her way at once to Sylvie’s upon her arrival in the city. Montdclin had enjoined secrecy and much caution ; the clandestine nature of the affair gave it a savor of adventure which was highly pleasing to him. Eloping with his sister was only a little less engaging than eloping with some one else’s sister.
But Montéclin did not do the grand seigneur by halves. He had paid Sylvie a whole month in advance for Athénaïse’s board and lodging. Part of the sum he had been forced to borrow, it is true, but he was not niggardly.
Athénaïse was to take her meals in the house, which none of the other lodgers did ; the one exception being that Mr. Gouvernail was served with breakfast on Sunday mornings.
Sylvie’s clientèle came chiefly from the southern parishes ; for the most part, people spending but a few days in the city. She prided herself upon the quality and highly respectable character of her patrons, who came and went unobtrusively.
The large parlor opening upon the front balcony was seldom used. Her guests were permitted to entertain in this sanctuary of elegance, — but they never did. She often rented it for the night to parties of respectable and discreet gentlemen desiring to enjoy a quiet game of cards outside the bosom of their families. The second-story hall also led by a long window out on the balcony. And Sylvie advised Athénaïse, when she grew weary of her back room, to go and sit on the front balcony, which was shady in the afternoon, and where she might find diversion in the sounds and sights of the street below.
Athénaïse refreshed herself with a bath, and was soon unpacking her few belongings, which she ranged neatly away in the bureau drawers and the armoire.
She had revolved certain plans in her mind during the past hour or so. Her present intention was to live on indefinitely in this big, cool, clean back room on Dauphine Street. She had thought seriously, for moments, of the convent, with all readiness to embrace the vows of poverty and chastity; but what about obedience ? Later, she intended, in some roundabout way, to give her parents and her husband the assurance of her safety and welfare; reserving the right to remain unmolested and lost to them. To live on at the expense of Montéclin’s generosity was wholly out of the question, and Athénaïse meant to look about for some suitable and agreeable employment.
The imperative thing to be done at present, however, was to go out in search of material for an inexpensive gown or two ; for she found herself in the painful predicament of a young woman having almost literally nothing to wear. She decided upon pure white for one, and some sort of a sprigged muslin for the other.
On Sunday morning, two days after Athénaïse’s arrival in the city, she went in to breakfast somewhat later than usual, to find two covers laid at table instead of the one to which she was accustomed. She had been to mass, and did not remove her hat, but put her fan, parasol, and prayer-book aside. The dining-room was situated just beneath her own apartment, and, like all the rooms of the house, was large and airy ; the floor was covered with a glistening oil-cloth.
The small, round table, immaculately set, was drawn near the open window. There were some tall plants in boxes on the gallery outside ; and Pousette, a little, old, intensely black woman, was splashing and dashing buckets of water on the flagging, and talking loud in her creole patois to no one in particular.
A dish piled with delicate river-shrimps and crushed ice was on the table ; a caraffe of crystal - clear water, a few hors d’œeuvres, beside a small golden-brown crusty loaf of French bread at each plate. A half-bottle of wine and the morning paper were set at the place opposite Athénaïse.
She had almost completed her breakfast when Gouvernail came in and seated himself at table. He felt annoyed at finding his cherished privacy invaded. Sylvie was removing the remains of a mutton-chop from before Athénaïse, and serving her with a cup of café au lait.
“ M’sieur Gouvernail,” offered Sylvie in her most insinuating and impressive manner, “ you please leave me make you acquaint’ wid Madame Cazeau. Dat’s M’sieur Miché’s sister ; you meet ’im two t’ree time’, you rec’lec’, an’ you been one day to de race wid ’im. Madame Cazeau, you please leave me make you acquaint’ wid M’sieur Gouvernail.”
Gouvernail expressed himself greatly pleased to meet the sister of Monsieur Miché, of whom he had not the slightest recollection. He inquired after Monsieur Miché’s health, and politely offered Athénaïse a part of his newspaper, — the part which contained the Woman’s Page and the social gossip.
Athénaïse faintly remembered that Sylvie had spoken of a Monsieur Gouvernail occupying the room adjoining hers, living amid luxurious surroundings and a multitude of books. She had not thought of him further than to picture him a stout, middle-aged gentleman, with a bushy beard turning gray, wearing large gold-rimmed spectacles, and stooping somewhat from much bending over books and writing material. She had confused him in her mind with the likeness of some literary celebrity that she had run across in the advertising pages of a magazine.
Gouvernail’s appearance was, in truth, in no sense striking. He looked older than thirty and younger than forty, was of medium height and weight, with a quiet, unobtrusive manner which seemed to ask that he be let alone. His hair was light brown, brushed carefully and parted in the middle. His mustache was brown, and so were his eyes, which had a mild, penetrating quality. He was neatly dressed in the fashion of the day ; and his hands seemed to Athénaïse remarkably white and soft for a man s.
He had been buried in the contents of his newspaper, when he suddenly realized that some further little attention might be due to Miché’s sister. He started to offer her a glass of wine, when he was surprised and relieved to find that she had quietly slipped away while he was absorbed in his own editorial on Corrupt Legislation.
Gouvernail finished his paper and smoked his cigar out on the gallery. He lounged about, gathered a rose for his buttonhole, and had his regular Sundaymorning confab with Pousette, to whom he paid a weekly stipend for brushing his shoes and clothes. He made a great pretense of haggling over the transaction, only to enjoy her uneasiness and garrulous excitement.
He worked or read in his room for a few hours, and when he quitted the house, at three in the afternoon, it was to return no more till late in the night. It was his almost invariable custom to spend Sunday evenings out in the American quarter, among a congenial set of men and women, — des esprits forts, all of them, whose lives were irreproachable, yet whose opinions would startle even the traditional “ sapeur,” for whom “ nothing is sacred.” But for all his “ advanced ” opinions, Gouvernail was a liberal-minded fellow; a man or woman lost nothing of his respect by being married.
When he left the house in the afternoon, Athénaïse had already ensconced herself on the front balcony. He could see her through the jalousies when he passed on his way to the front entrance. She had not yet grown lonesome or homesick ; the newness of her surroundings made them sufficiently entertaining. She found it diverting to sit there on the front balcony watching people pass by, even though there was no one to talk to. And then the comforting, comfortable sense of not being married !
She watched Gouvernail walk down the street, and could find no fault with his bearing. He could hear the sound of her rockers for some little distance. He wondered what the “ poor little thing ” was doing in the city, and meant to ask Sylvie about her when he should happen to think of it.
The following morning, towards noon, when Gouvernail quitted his room, he was confronted by Athénaïse, exhibiting some confusion and trepidation at being forced to request a favor of him at so early a stage of their acquaintance. She stood in her doorway, and had evidently been sewing, as the thimble on her finger testified, as well as a long-threaded needle thrust in the bosom of her gown ; and she held a stamped but unaddressed letter in her hand.
And would Mr. Gouvernail be so kind as to address the letter to her brother, Mr. Montéclin Miché ? She would hate to detain him with explanations this morning, — another time, perhaps, — but now she begged that he would give himself the trouble.
He assured her that it made no difference, that it was no trouble whatever; and he drew a fountain pen from his pocket and addressed the letter at her dictation, resting it on the inverted rim of his straw hat. She wondered a little at a man of his supposed erudition stumbling over the spelling of “ Montéclin ” and “ Miché.”
She demurred at overwhelming him with the additional trouble of posting it, but he succeeded in convincing her that so simple a task as the posting of a letter would not add an iota to the burden of the day. Moreover, he promised to carry it in his hand, and thus avoid any possible risk of forgetting it in his pocket.
After that, and after a second repetition of the favor, when she had told him that she had had a letter from Montéclin, and looked as if she wanted to tell him more, he felt that he knew her better. He felt that he knew her well enough to join her out on the balcony, one night, when he found her sitting there alone. He was not one who deliberately sought the society of women, but he was not wholly a bear. A little commiseration for Athénaïse’s aloneness, perhaps some curiosity to know further what manner of woman she was, and the natural influence of her feminine charm were equal unconfessed factors in turning his steps towards the balcony when he discovered the shimmer of her white gown through the open hall window.
It was already quite late, but the day had been intensely hot, and neighboring balconies and doorways were occupied by chattering groups of humanity, loath to abandon the grateful freshness of the outer air. The voices about her served to reveal to Athénaïse the feeling of loneliness that was gradually coming over her. Notwithstanding certain dormant impulses, she craved human sympathy and companionship.
She shook hands impulsively with Gouvernail, and told him how glad she was to see him. He was not prepared for such an admission, but it pleased him immensely, detecting as he did that the expression was as sincere as it was outspoken. He drew a chair up within comfortable conversational distance of Athénaïse, though he had no intention of talking more than was barely necessary to encourage Madame — He had actually forgotten her name!
He leaned an elbow on the balcony rail, and would have offered an opening remark about the oppressive heat of the day, but Athénaïse did not give him the opportunity. How glad she was to talk to some one, and how she talked !
An hour later she had gone to her room, and Gouvernail stayed smoking on the balcony. He knew her quite well after that hour’s talk. It was not so much what she had said as what her half saying had revealed to his quick intelligence. He knew that she adored Montéclin, and he suspected that she adored Cazeau without being herself aware of it. He had gathered that she was self-willed, impulsive, innocent, ignorant, unsatisfied, dissatisfied ; for had she not complained that things seemed all wrongly arranged in this world, and no one was permitted to be happy in his own way ? And he told her he was sorry she had discovered that primordial fact of existence so early in life.
Pie commiserated her loneliness, and scanned his bookshelves next morning for something to lend her to read, rejecting everything that offered itself to his view. Philosophy was out of the question, and so was poetry; that is, such poetry as he possessed. He had not sounded her literary tastes, and strongly suspected she had none ; that she would have rejected The Duchess as readily as Mrs. Humphry Ward. He compromised on a magazine. It had entertained her passably, she admitted, upon returning it. A New England story had puzzled her, it was true, and a creole tale had offended her, but the pictures had pleased her greatly, especially one which had reminded her so strongly of Montéclin after a hard day’s ride that she was loath to give it up. It was one of Remington’s Cowboys, and Gouvernail insisted upon her keeping it, — keeping the magazine.
He spoke to her daily after that, and was always eager to render her some service or to do something towards her entertainment.
One afternoon he took her out to the lake end. She had been there once, some years before, but in winter, so the trip was comparatively new and strange to her. The large expanse of water studded with pleasure-boats, the sight of children playing merrily along the grassy palisades, the music, all enchanted her. Gouvernail thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Even her gown — the sprigged muslin — appeared to him the most charming one imaginable. Nor could anything be more becoming than the arrangement of her brown hair under the white sailor hat, all rolled back in a soft puff from her radiant face. And she carried her parasol and lifted her skirts and used her fan in ways that seemed quite unique and peculiar to herself, and which he considered almost worthy of study and imitation.
They did not dine out there at the water’s edge, as they might have done, butreturned early to the city to avoid the crowd. Athénaïse wanted to go home, for she said Sylvie would have dinner prepared and would be expecting her. But it was not difficult to persuade her to dine instead in the quiet little restaurant that he knew and liked, with its sanded floor, its secluded atmosphere, its delicious menu, and its obsequious waiter wanting to know what he might have the honor of serving to “ monsieur et madame.” No wonder he made the mistake, with Gouvernail assuming such an air of proprietorship. But Athénaïse was very tired after it all; the sparkle went out of her face, and she hung draggingly on his arm in walking home.
He was reluctant to part from her when she bade him good-night at her door and thanked him for the agreeable evening. He had hoped she would sit outside until it was time for him to regain the newspaper office. He knew that she would undress and get into her peignoir and lie upon her bed; and what he wanted to do, what he would have given much to do, was to go and sit beside her, read to her something restful, soothe her, do her bidding, whatever it might be. Of course there was no use in thinking of that. But he was surprised at his growing desire to be serving her. She gave him an opportunity sooner than he looked for.
“Mr. Gouvernail,” she called from her room, “ will you be so kine as to call Pousette an’ tell her she fo’got to bring my ice-water ? ”
He was indignant at Pousette’s negligence, and called severely to her over the banisters. He was sitting before his own door, smoking. He knew that Athénaïse had gone to bed, for her room was dark, and she had opened the slats of the door and windows. Her bed was near a window.
Pousette came flopping up with the ice-water, and with a hundred excuses: “ Mo pa oua vou à tab c’te lanuite, mo cri vou pé gagni déja là-bas ; parole! Vou pas cri conté ça Madame Sylvie? ” She had not seen Athénaïse at table, and thought she was gone. She swore to this, and hoped Madame Sylvie would not be informed of her remissness.
A little later Athénaïse lifted her voice again: “ Mr. Gouvernail, did you remark that young man sitting on the opposite side from us, coming in, with a gray coat an’ a blue ban’ aroun’ his hat ? ”
Of course Gouvernail had not noticed any such individual, but he assured Athénaïse that he had observed the young fellow particularly.
“ Don’t you think he looked something,— not very much, of co’se, — but don’t you think he had a little faux-air of Montéclin ? ”
“ I think he looked strikingly like Montéclin,” asserted Gouvernail, with the one idea of prolonging the conversation. “ I meant to call your attention to the resemblance, and something drove it out of my head.”
“ The same with me,” returned Athénaïse. “ Ah, my dear Montéclin ! I wonder w’at he is doing now ? ”
“ Did you receive any news, any letter from him to-day ? ” asked Gouvernail, determined that if the conversation ceased it should not be through lack of effort on his part to sustain it.
“ Not to-day, but yesterday. He tells me that maman was so distracted with uneasiness that finally, to pacify her, he was fo’ced to confess that he knew w’ere I was, but that he was boun’ by a vow of secrecy not to reveal it. But Cazeau has not noticed him or spoken to him since he threaten’ to throw po’ Montéclin in Cane River. You know Cazeau wrote me a letter the morning I lef’, thinking I had gone to the rigolet. An’ maman opened it, an’ said it was full of the mos’ noble sentiments, an’ she wanted Montéclin to sen’ it to me ; but Montéclin refuse’ poin’blank, so he wrote to me.”
Gouvernail preferred to talk of Montéclin. He pictured Cazeau as unbearable, and did not like to think of him.
A little later Athénaïse called out, “ Good-night, Mr. Gouvernail.”
“ Good-night,” he returned reluctantly. And when he thought that she was sleeping, he got up and went away to the midnight pandemonium of his newspaper office.
Athénaïse could not have held out through the month had it not been for Gouvernail. With the need of caution and secrecy always uppermost in her mind, she made no new acquaintances, and she did not seek out persons already known to her ; however, she knew so few, it required little effort to keep out of their way. As for Sylvie, almost every moment of her time was occupied in looking after her house ; and, moreover, her deferential attitude towards her lodgers forbade anything like the gossipy chats in which Athénaïse might have condescended sometimes to indulge with her landlady. The transient lodgers, who came and went, she never had occasion to meet. Hence she was entirely dependent upon Gouvernail for company.
He appreciated the situation fully; and every moment that he could spare from his work he devoted to her entertainment. She liked to be out of doors, and they strolled together in the summer twilight through the mazes of the old French quarter. They went again to the lake end, and stayed for hours on the water ; returning so late that the streets through which they passed were silent and deserted. On Sunday morning he arose at an unconscionable hour to take her to the French market, knowing that the sights and sounds there would interest her. And he did not join the intellectual coterie in the afternoon, as he usually did, but placed himself all day at the disposition and service of Athénaïse.
Notwithstanding all, his manner toward her was tactful, and evinced intelligence and a deep knowledge of her character, surprising upon so brief an acquaintance. For the time he was everything to her that she would have him ; he replaced home and friends. Sometimes she wondered if he had ever loved a woman. She could not fancy him loving any one passionately, rudely, offensively, as Cazeau loved her. Once she was so naïve as to ask him outright if he had ever been in love, and he assured her promptly that he had not. She thought it an admirable trait in his character, and esteemed him greatly therefor.
He found her crying one night, not openly or violently. She was leaningover the gallery rail, watching the toads that hopped about in the moonlight, down on the damp flagstones of the courtyard. There was an oppressively sweet odor rising from the cape jessamine. Pousette was down there, mumbling and quarreling with some one, and seeming to be having it all her own way,—as well she might, when her companion was only a black cat that had come in from a neighboring yard to keep her company.
Athénaïse did admit feeling heart-sick, body-sick, when he questioned her ; she supposed it was nothing but homesick. A letter from Montéclin had stirred her all up. She longed for her mother, for Montéclin ; she was sick for a sight of the cotton-fields, the scent of the ploughed earth, for the dim, mysterious charm of the woods, and the old tumble-down home on the Bon Dieu.
As Gouvernail listened to her, a wave of pity and tenderness swept through him. He took her hands and pressed them against him. He wondered what would happen if he were to put his arms around her.
He was hardly prepared for what happened, but he stood it courageously. She twined her arms around his neck and wept outright on his shoulder ; the hot tears scalding his cheek and neck, and her whole body shaken in his arms. The impulse was powerful to strain her to him ; the temptation was fierce to seek her lips ; but he did neither.
He understood a thousand times better than she herself understood it that he was acting as substitute for Montéclin. Bitter as the conviction was, he accepted it. He was patient; he could wait. He hoped some day to hold her with a lover’s arms. That she was married made no particle of difference to Gouvernail. He could not conceive or dream of its making a difference. When the time came that she wanted him, — as he hoped and believed it would come, — he felt he would have a right to her. So long as she did not want him, he had no right to her, — no more than her husband had. It was very hard to feel her warm breath and tears upon his cheek, and her struggling bosom pressed against him, and her soft arms clinging to him, and his whole body and soul aching for her, and yet to make no sign.
He tried to think what Montéclin would have said and done, and to act accordingly. He stroked her hair, and held her in a gentle embrace, until the tears dried and the sobs ended. Before releasing herself she kissed him against the neck ; she had to love somebody in her own way ! Even that he endured like a stoic. But it was well lie left her, to plunge into the thick of rapid, breathless, exacting work till nearly dawn.
Athénaïse was greatly soothed, and slept well. The touch of friendly hands and caressing arms had been very grateful. Henceforward she would not be lonely and unhappy, with Gouvernail there to comfort her.
The fourth week of Athénaïse’s stay in the city was drawing to a close. Keeping in view the intention which she had of finding some suitable and agreeable employment, she had made a few tentatives in that direction. But with the exception of two little girls who had promised to take piano lessons at a price that it would be embarrassing to mention, these attempts had been fruitless. Moreover, the homesickness kept coming back, and Gouvernail was not always there to drive it away.
She spent much of her time weeding and pottering among the flowers down in the courtyard. She tried to take an interest in the black cat, and a mockingbird that hung in a cage outside the kitchen door, and a disreputable parrot that belonged to the cook next door, and swore hoarsely all day long in bad French.
Beside, she was not well; she was not herself, as she told Sylvie. The climate of New Orleans did not agree with her. Sylvie was distressed to learn this, as she felt in some measure responsible for the health and well-being of Monsieur Miehé’s sister ; and she made it her duty to inquire closely into the nature and character of Athénaïse’s malaise.
Sylvie was very wise, and Athénaïse was very ignorant. The extent of her ignorance and the depth of her subsequent enlightenment were bewildering. She stayed a long, long time quite still, quite stunned, except for the short, uneven breathing that ruffled her bosom. Her whole being was steeped in a wave of ecstasy. When she finally arose from the chair in which she had been seated, and looked at herself in the mirror, a face met hers which she seemed to see for the first time, so transfigured was it with wonder and rapture.
One mood quickly followed another, in this new turmoil of her senses, and the need of action became uppermost. Her mother must know at once, and her mother must tell Montéclin. And Cazeau must know. As she thought of him, the first purely sensuous tremor of her life swept over her. She half whispered his name, and the sound of it brought red blotches into her cheeks. She spoke it over and over, as if it were some new, sweet sound born out of darkness and confusion, and reaching her for the first time. She was impatient to be with him. Her whole passionate nature was aroused as if by a miracle.
She seated herself to write to her husband. The letter he would get in the morning, and she would be with him at night. What would he say ? How would he act ? She knew that he would forgive her, for had he not written a letter ? — and a pang of resentment toward Montéclin shot through her. What did he mean by withholding that letter ? How dared he not have sent it ?
Athénaïse attired herself for the street, and went out to post the letter which she had penned with a single thought, a spontaneous impulse. It would have seemed incoherent to most people, but Cazeau would understand.
She walked along the street as if she had fallen heir to some magnificent inheritance. On her face was a look of pride and satisfaction that passers-by noticed and admired. She wanted to talk to some one, to tell some person ; and she stopped at the corner and told the oyster-woman, who was Irish, and who God-blessed her, and wished prosperity to the race of Cazeaus for generations to come. She held the oyster-woman’s fat, dirty little baby in her arms and scanned it curiously and observingly, as if a baby were a phenomenon that she encountered for the first time in life. She even kissed it!
Then what a relief it was to Athénaïse to walk the streets without dread of being seen and recognized by some chance acquaintance from Red River ! No one could have said now that she did not know her own mind.
She went directly from the oysterwoman’s to the office of Harding & Offdean, her husband’s merchants; and it was with such an air of partnership, almost proprietorship, that she demanded a sum of money on her husband’s account, they gave it to her as unhesitatingly as they would have handed it over to Cazeau himself. When Mr. Harding, who knew her, asked politely after her health, she turned so rosy and looked so conscious, he thought it a great pity for so pretty a woman to be such a little goose.
Athénaïse entered a dry-goods store and bought all manner of things, —little presents for nearly everybody she knew. She bought whole bolts of sheerest, softest, downiest white stuff ; and when the clerk, in trying to meet her wishes, asked if she intended it for infant’s use, she could have sunk through the floor, and wondered how he might have suspected it.
As it was Montéclin who had taken her away from her husband, she wanted it to be Montéclin who should take her back to him. So she wrote him a very curt note, — in fact it was a postal card, — asking that he meet her at the train on the evening following. She felt convinced that after what had gone before, Cazeau would await her at their own home ; and she preferred it so.
Then there was the agreeable excitement of getting ready to leave, of packing up her things. Pousette kept coming and going, coming and going; and each time that she quitted the room it was with something that Athénaïise had given her, — a handkerchief, a petticoat, a pair of stockings with two tiny holes at the toes, some broken prayer-beads, and finally a silver dollar.
Next it was Sylvie who came along bearing a gift of what she called “ a set of pattern’,” — things of complicated design which never could have been obtained in any new-fangled bazaar or pattern-store, that Sylvie had acquired of a foreign lady of distinction whom she had nursed years before at the St. Charles Hotel. Athénaïse accepted and handled them with reverence, fully sensible of the great compliment and favor, and laid them religiously away in the trunk which she had lately acquired.
She was greatly fatigued after the day of unusual exertion, and went early to bed and to sleep. All day long she had not once thought of Gouvernail, and only did think of him when aroused for a brief instant by the sound of his footfalls on the gallery, as he passed in going to his room. He had hoped to find her up, waiting for him.
But the next morning he knew. Some one must have told him. There was no subject known to her which Sylvie hesitated to discuss in detail with any man of suitable years and discretion.
Athénaïse found Gouvernail waiting with a carriage to convey her to the railway station. A momentary pang visited her for having forgotten him so completely, when he said to her, “ Sylvie tells me you are going away this morning.”
He was kind, attentive, and amiable, as usual, but respected to the utmost the new dignity and reserve that her manner had developed since yesterday. She kept looking from the carriage window, silent, and embarrassed as Eve after losing her ignorance. He talked of the muddy streets and the murky morning, and of Montéclin. He hoped she would find everything comfortable and pleasant in the country, and trusted she would inform him whenever she came to visit the city again. He talked as if afraid or mistrustful of silence and himself.
At the station she handed him her purse, and he bought her ticket, secured for her a comfortable section, checked her trunk, and got all the bundles and things safely aboard the train. She felt very grateful. He pressed her hand warmly, lifted his hat, and left her. He was a man of intelligence, and took defeat gracefully ; that was all. But as he made his way back to the carriage, he was thinking, “ By Heaven, it hurts, it hurts! ”
Athénaïse spent a day of supreme happiness and expectancy. The fair sight of the country unfolding itself before her was balm to her vision and to her soul. She was charmed with the rather unfamiliar, broad, clean sweep of the sugar plantations, with their monster sugar-houses, their rows of neat cabins like little villages of a single street, and their impressive homes standing apart amid clusters of trees. There were sudden glimpses of a bayou curling between sunny, grassy banks, or creeping sluggishly out from a tangled growth of wood, and brush, and fern, and poison-vines, and palmettos. And passing through the long stretches of monotonous woodlands, she would close her eyes and taste in anticipation the moment of her meeting with Gazeau. She could think of nothing but him.
It was night when she reached her station. There was Montéclin, as she had expected, waiting for her with a twoseated buggy, to which he had hitched his own swift-footed, spirited pony. It was good, he felt, to have her back on any terms; and he had no fault to find since she came of her own choice. He more than suspected the cause of her coming; her eyes and her voice and her foolish little manner went far in revealing the secret that was brimming over in her heart. But after he had deposited her at her own gate, and as he continued his way toward the rigolet, he could not help feeling that the affair had taken a very disappointing, an ordinary, a most commonplace turn, after all. He left her in Cazeau’s keeping.
Her husband lifted her out of the buggy, and neither said a word until they stood together within the shelter of the gallery. Even then they did not speak at first. But Athénaïse turned to him with an appealing gesture. As he clasped her in his arms, he felt the yielding of her whole body against him. He felt her lips for the first time respond to the passion of his own.
The country night was dark and warm and still, save for the distant notes of an accordion which some one was playing in a cabin away off. A little negro baby was crying somewhere. As Athénaïse withdrew from her husband’s embrace, the sound arrested her.
“ Listen, Cazeau ! How Juliette’s baby is crying! Pauvre ti chou, I wonder w’at is the matter with it ? ”
Kate Chopin .