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The Awakening
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Chapters XV–XIX

 

Part XVII

The Pontelliers possessed a very charming home on Esplanade
Street in New Orleans. It was a large, double cottage, with a
broad front veranda, whose round, fluted columns supported the
sloping roof. The house was painted a dazzling white; the outside
shutters, or jalousies, were green. In the yard, which was kept
scrupulously neat, were flowers and plants of every description
which flourishes in South Louisiana. Within doors the appointments
were perfect after the conventional type. The softest carpets and
rugs covered the floors; rich and tasteful draperies hung at doors
and windows. There were paintings, selected with judgment and
discrimination, upon the walls. The cut glass, the silver, the
heavy damask which daily appeared upon the table were the envy of
many women whose husbands were less generous than Mr. Pontellier.
Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house
examining its various appointments and details, to see that nothing
was amiss. He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they
were his, and derived genuine pleasure from contemplating a
painting, a statuette, a rare lace curtain—no matter what—after
he had bought it and placed it among his household gods.
On Tuesday afternoons—Tuesday being Mrs. Pontellier's
reception day—there was a constant stream of callers—women who
came in carriages or in the street cars, or walked when the air was
soft and distance permitted. A light-colored mulatto boy,
in dress coat and bearing a diminutive silver tray
for the reception of cards, admitted them. A maid,
in white fluted cap, offered the callers liqueur, coffee,
or chocolate, as they might desire. Mrs. Pontellier, attired in a
handsome reception gown, remained in the drawing-room the entire
afternoon receiving her visitors. Men sometimes called in the
evening with their wives.
This had been the programme which Mrs. Pontellier had
religiously followed since her marriage, six years before. Certain
evenings during the week she and her husband attended the opera or
sometimes the play.
Mr. Pontellier left his home in the mornings between nine and
ten o'clock, and rarely returned before half-past six or seven in
the evening—dinner being served at half-past seven.
He and his wife seated themselves at table one Tuesday
evening, a few weeks after their return from Grand Isle. They were
alone together. The boys were being put to bed; the patter of
their bare, escaping feet could be heard occasionally, as well as
the pursuing voice of the quadroon, lifted in mild protest and
entreaty. Mrs. Pontellier did not wear her usual Tuesday reception
gown; she was in ordinary house dress. Mr. Pontellier, who was
observant about such things, noticed it, as he served the soup and
handed it to the boy in waiting.
"Tired out, Edna? Whom did you have? Many callers?" he asked.
He tasted his soup and began to season it with pepper, salt,
vinegar, mustard—everything within reach.
"There were a good many," replied Edna, who was eating her
soup with evident satisfaction. "I found their cards when I got
home; I was out."
"Out!" exclaimed her husband, with something like genuine
consternation in his voice as he laid down the vinegar cruet and
looked at her through his glasses. "Why, what could have taken you
out on Tuesday? What did you have to do?"
"Nothing. I simply felt like going out, and I went out."
"Well, I hope you left some suitable excuse," said her husband,
somewhat appeased, as he added a dash of cayenne pepper to the soup.
"No, I left no excuse. I told Joe to say I was out, that was all."
"Why, my dear, I should think you'd understand by this time
that people don't do such things; we've got to observe les
convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the
procession. If you felt that you had to leave home this afternoon,
you should have left some suitable explanation for your absence.
"This soup is really impossible; it's strange that woman
hasn't learned yet to make a decent soup. Any free-lunch stand in
town serves a better one. Was Mrs. Belthrop here?"
"Bring the tray with the cards, Joe. I don't remember who was here."
The boy retired and returned after a moment, bringing the tiny
silver tray, which was covered with ladies' visiting cards. He
handed it to Mrs. Pontellier.
"Give it to Mr. Pontellier," she said.
Joe offered the tray to Mr. Pontellier, and removed the soup.
Mr. Pontellier scanned the names of his wife's callers,
reading some of them aloud, with comments as he read.
"`The Misses Delasidas.' I worked a big deal in futures for
their father this morning; nice girls; it's time they were getting
married. `Mrs. Belthrop.' I tell you what it is, Edna; you can't
afford to snub Mrs. Belthrop. Why, Belthrop could buy and sell us
ten times over. His business is worth a good, round sum to me.
You'd better write her a note. `Mrs. James Highcamp.' Hugh! the
less you have to do with Mrs. Highcamp, the better. `Madame
Laforce.' Came all the way from Carrolton, too, poor old soul.
'Miss Wiggs,' `Mrs. Eleanor Boltons.'" He pushed the cards aside.
"Mercy!" exclaimed Edna, who had been fuming. "Why are you
taking the thing so seriously and making such a fuss over it?"
"I'm not making any fuss over it. But it's just such seeming trifles
that we've got to take seriously; such things count."
The fish was scorched. Mr. Pontellier would not touch it.
Edna said she did not mind a little scorched taste. The roast was
in some way not to his fancy, and he did not like the manner in
which the vegetables were served.
"It seems to me," he said, "we spend money enough in this
house to procure at least one meal a day which a man could eat and
retain his self-respect."
"You used to think the cook was a treasure," returned Edna,
indifferently.
"Perhaps she was when she first came; but cooks are only
human. They need looking after, like any other class of persons
that you employ. Suppose I didn't look after the clerks in my
office, just let them run things their own way; they'd soon make a
nice mess of me and my business."
"Where are you going?" asked Edna, seeing that her husband
arose from table without having eaten a morsel except a taste of
the highly-seasoned soup.
"I'm going to get my dinner at the club. Good night." He went
into the hall, took his hat and stick from the stand, and left the
house.
She was somewhat familiar with such scenes. They had often
made her very unhappy. On a few previous occasions she had been
completely deprived of any desire to finish her dinner. Sometimes
she had gone into the kitchen to administer a tardy rebuke to the
cook. Once she went to her room and studied the cookbook during an
entire evening, finally writing out a menu for the week, which left
her harassed with a feeling that, after all, she had accomplished
no good that was worth the name.
But that evening Edna finished her dinner alone, with forced
deliberation. Her face was flushed and her eyes flamed with some
inward fire that lighted them. After finishing her dinner she went
to her room, having instructed the boy to tell any other callers
that she was indisposed.
It was a large, beautiful room, rich and picturesque in
the soft, dim light which the maid had turned low. She went
and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle
of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night
seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky
and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking
herself and finding herself in just such sweet, half-darkness which
met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her
from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and
sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She
turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro down its
whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in
her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled
into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off
her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying
there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her
small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the
little glittering circlet.
In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table
and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy
something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear.
A maid, alarmed at the din of breaking glass, entered the room
to discover what was the matter.
"A vase fell upon the hearth," said Edna. "Never mind; leave
it till morning."
"Oh! you might get some of the glass in your feet, ma'am,"
insisted the young woman, picking up bits of the broken vase that
were scattered upon the carpet. "And here's your ring, ma'am,
under the chair."
Edna held out her hand, and taking the ring, slipped it upon
her finger.
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