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The Awakening
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Chapters XX–XXIV

 

Part XXIII

Edna's father was in the city, and had been with them several
days. She was not very warmly or deeply attached to him, but they
had certain tastes in common, and when together they were
companionable. His coming was in the nature of a welcome
disturbance; it seemed to furnish a new direction for her emotions.
He had come to purchase a wedding gift for his daughter,
Janet, and an outfit for himself in which he might make a
creditable appearance at her marriage. Mr. Pontellier had selected
the bridal gift, as every one immediately connected with him always
deferred to his taste in such matters. And his suggestions on the
question of dress—which too often assumes the nature of a
problemwere of inestimable value to his father-in-law. But for the past
few days the old gentleman had been upon Edna's hands, and in his
society she was becoming acquainted with a new set of sensations.
He had been a colonel in the Confederate army, and still
maintained, with the title, the military bearing which had always
accompanied it. His hair and mustache were white and silky,
emphasizing the rugged bronze of his face. He was tall and thin, and
wore his coats padded, which gave a fictitious breadth and depth to
his shoulders and chest. Edna and her father looked very
distinguished together, and excited a good deal of notice during
their perambulations. Upon his arrival she began by introducing
him to her atelier and making a sketch of him. He took the whole
matter very seriously. If her talent had been ten-fold greater
than it was, it would not have surprised him, convinced as he was
that he had bequeathed to all of his daughters the germs of a
masterful capability, which only depended upon their own efforts
to be directed toward successful achievement.
Before her pencil he sat rigid and unflinching, as he had
faced the cannon's mouth in days gone by. He resented the
intrusion of the children, who gaped with wondering eyes at him,
sitting so stiff up there in their mother's bright atelier. When
they drew near he motioned them away with an expressive action of
the foot, loath to disturb the fixed lines of his countenance, his
arms, or his rigid shoulders.
Edna, anxious to entertain him, invited Mademoiselle Reisz to
meet him, having promised him a treat in her piano playing; but
Mademoiselle declined the invitation. So together they attended a
soiree musicale at the Ratignolles'. Monsieur and Madame
Ratignolle made much of the Colonel, installing him as the guest of
honor and engaging him at once to dine with them the following
Sunday, or any day which he might select. Madame coquetted with
him in the most captivating and naive manner, with eyes, gestures,
and a profusion of compliments, till the Colonel's old head felt
thirty years younger on his padded shoulders. Edna marveled, not
comprehending. She herself was almost devoid of coquetry.
There were one or two men whom she observed at the soiree
musicale; but she would never have felt moved to any kittenish
display to attract their notice—to any feline or feminine wiles to
express herself toward them. Their personality attracted her in an
agreeable way. Her fancy selected them, and she was glad when a
lull in the music gave them an opportunity to meet her and talk
with her. Often on the street the glance of strange eyes had
lingered in her memory, and sometimes had disturbed her.
Mr. Pontellier did not attend these soirees musicales.
He considered them bourgeois, and found more diversion at the club.
To Madame Ratignolle he said the music dispensed at her soirees
was too "heavy," too far beyond his untrained comprehension. His
excuse flattered her. But she disapproved of Mr. Pontellier's
club, and she was frank enough to tell Edna so.
"It's a pity Mr. Pontellier doesn't stay home more in the
evenings. I think you would be more—well, if you don't mind my
saying it—more united, if he did."
"Oh! dear no!" said Edna, with a blank look in her eyes.
"What should I do if he stayed home? We wouldn't have anything to
say to each other."
She had not much of anything to say to her father, for that
matter; but he did not antagonize her. She discovered that he
interested her, though she realized that he might not interest her
long; and for the first time in her life she felt as if she were
thoroughly acquainted with him. He kept her busy serving him and
ministering to his wants. It amused her to do so. She would not
permit a servant or one of the children to do anything for him
which she might do herself. Her husband noticed, and thought it
was the expression of a deep filial attachment which he had never
suspected.
The Colonel drank numerous "toddies" during the course of the
day, which left him, however, imperturbed. He was an expert at
concocting strong drinks. He had even invented some, to which he
had given fantastic names, and for whose manufacture he required
diverse ingredients that it devolved upon Edna to procure for him.
When Doctor Mandelet dined with the Pontelliers on Thursday he
could discern in Mrs. Pontellier no trace of that morbid condition
which her husband had reported to him. She was excited and in a
manner radiant. She and her father had been to the race course,
and their thoughts when they seated themselves at table were still
occupied with the events of the afternoon, and their talk was still
of the track. The Doctor had not kept pace with turf affairs. He
had certain recollections of racing in what he called "the good old
times" when the Lecompte stables flourished, and he drew upon this
fund of memories so that he might not be left out and seem wholly
devoid of the modern spirit. But he failed to impose upon the
Colonel, and was even far from impressing him with this trumped-up
knowledge of bygone days. Edna had staked her father on his last
venture, with the most gratifying results to both of them.
Besides, they had met some very charming people, according
to the Colonel's impressions. Mrs. Mortimer Merriman and
Mrs. James Highcamp, who were there with Alcee Arobin,
had joined them and had enlivened the hours in a fashion
that warmed him to think of.
Mr. Pontellier himself had no particular leaning toward
horseracing, and was even rather inclined to discourage it as a pastime,
especially when he considered the fate of that blue-grass farm in
Kentucky. He endeavored, in a general way, to express a particular
disapproval, and only succeeded in arousing the ire and opposition
of his father-in-law. A pretty dispute followed, in which Edna
warmly espoused her father's cause and the Doctor remained neutral.
He observed his hostess attentively from under his shaggy
brows, and noted a subtle change which had transformed her from the
listless woman he had known into a being who, for the moment,
seemed palpitant with the forces of life. Her speech was warm and
energetic. There was no repression in her glance or gesture. She
reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.
The dinner was excellent. The claret was warm and the
champagne was cold, and under their beneficent influence the
threatened unpleasantness melted and vanished with the fumes of the
wine.
Mr. Pontellier warmed up and grew reminiscent. He told some
amusing plantation experiences, recollections of old Iberville and
his youth, when he hunted `possum in company with some friendly
darky; thrashed the pecan trees, shot the grosbec, and roamed the
woods and fields in mischievous idleness.
The Colonel, with little sense of humor and of the fitness of
things, related a somber episode of those dark and bitter days, in
which he had acted a conspicuous part and always formed a central
figure. Nor was the Doctor happier in his selection, when he told
the old, ever new and curious story of the waning of a woman's love,
seeking strange, new channels, only to return to its legitimate source
after days of fierce unrest. It was one of the many little human
documents which had been unfolded to him during his long career as
a physician. The story did not seem especially to impress Edna.
She had one of her own to tell, of a woman who paddled away with
her lover one night in a pirogue and never came back. They were
lost amid the Baratarian Islands, and no one ever heard of them or
found trace of them from that day to this. It was a pure
invention. She said that Madame Antoine had related it to her.
That, also, was an invention. Perhaps it was a dream she had had.
But every glowing word seemed real to those who listened. They
could feel the hot breath of the Southern night; they could hear
the long sweep of the pirogue through the glistening moonlit water,
the beating of birds' wings, rising startled from among the reeds
in the salt-water pools; they could see the faces of the lovers,
pale, close together, rapt in oblivious forgetfulness, drifting
into the unknown.
The champagne was cold, and its subtle fumes played fantastic
tricks with Edna's memory that night.
Outside, away from the glow of the fire and the soft
lamplight, the night was chill and murky. The Doctor doubled his
old-fashioned cloak across his breast as he strode home through the
darkness. He knew his fellow-creatures better than most men; knew
that inner life which so seldom unfolds itself to unanointed* eyes.
He was sorry he had accepted Pontellier's invitation. He was
growing old, and beginning to need rest and an imperturbed spirit.
He did not want the secrets of other lives thrust upon him.
"I hope it isn't Arobin," he muttered to himself as he walked.
"I hope to heaven it isn't Alcee Arobin."
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