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The Awakening
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Part V

They formed a congenial group sitting there that summer
afternoon—Madame Ratignolle sewing away, often stopping to relate
a story or incident with much expressive gesture of her perfect
hands; Robert and Mrs. Pontellier sitting idle, exchanging
occasional words, glances or smiles which indicated a certain
advanced stage of intimacy and camaraderie.
He had lived in her shadow during the past month. No one
thought anything of it. Many had predicted that Robert would
devote himself to Mrs. Pontellier when he arrived. Since the age
of fifteen, which was eleven years before, Robert each summer at
Grand Isle had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some
fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow;
but as often as not it was some interesting married woman.
For two consecutive seasons he lived in the sunlight of
Mademoiselle Duvigne's presence. But she died between summers;
then Robert posed as an inconsolable, prostrating himself at the
feet of Madame Ratignolle for whatever crumbs of sympathy and
comfort she might be pleased to vouchsafe.
Mrs. Pontellier liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as
she might look upon a faultless Madonna.
"Could any one fathom the cruelty beneath that fair exterior?"
murmured Robert. "She knew that I adored her once, and she let me
adore her. It was `Robert, come; go; stand up; sit down; do this;
do that; see if the baby sleeps; my thimble, please, that I left
God knows where. Come and read Daudet to me while I sew.'"
"Par exemple! I never had to ask. You were always there
under my feet, like a troublesome cat."
"You mean like an adoring dog. And just as soon as Ratignolle
appeared on the scene, then it WAS like a dog. `Passez! Adieu!
Allez vous-en!'"
"Perhaps I feared to make Alphonse jealous," she interjoined, with
excessive naivete. That made them all laugh. The right hand
jealous of the left! The heart jealous of the soul! But for that
matter, the Creole husband is never jealous; with him the gangrene
passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse.
Meanwhile Robert, addressing Mrs Pontellier, continued to tell
of his one time hopeless passion for Madame Ratignolle; of
sleepless nights, of consuming flames till the very sea sizzled
when he took his daily plunge. While the lady at the needle kept
up a little running, contemptuous comment:
"Blagueur—farceur—gros bete, va!"
He never assumed this seriocomic tone when alone with Mrs.
Pontellier. She never knew precisely what to make of it; at that
moment it was impossible for her to guess how much of it was jest
and what proportion was earnest. It was understood that he had
often spoken words of love to Madame Ratignolle, without any
thought of being taken seriously. Mrs. Pontellier was glad he had
not assumed a similar role toward herself. It would have been
unacceptable and annoying.
Mrs. Pontellier had brought her sketching materials, which she
sometimes dabbled with in an unprofessional way. She liked the
dabbling. She felt in it satisfaction of a kind which no other
employment afforded her.
She had long wished to try herself on Madame Ratignolle.
Never had that lady seemed a more tempting subject than at that
moment, seated there like some sensuous Madonna, with the gleam of
the fading day enriching her splendid color.
Robert crossed over and seated himself upon the step below
Mrs. Pontellier, that he might watch her work. She handled her
brushes with a certain ease and freedom which came, not from long
and close acquaintance with them, but from a natural aptitude.
Robert followed her work with close attention, giving forth little
ejaculatory expressions of appreciation in French, which he addressed to
Madame Ratignolle.
"Mais ce n'est pas mal! Elle s'y connait, elle a de la force, oui."
During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head
against Mrs. Pontellier's arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once
again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be
thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should
submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him
quietly but firmly. He offered no apology.
The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle.
She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her.
But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects
Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying
the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its
surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.
The youngsters came tumbling up the steps, the quadroon
following at the respectful distance which they required her to
observe. Mrs. Pontellier made them carry her paints and things
into the house. She sought to detain them for a little talk and
some pleasantry. But they were greatly in earnest. They had only
come to investigate the contents of the bonbon box. They accepted
without murmuring what she chose to give them, each holding out two
chubby hands scoop-like, in the vain hope that they might be
filled; and then away they went.
The sun was low in the west, and the breeze soft and
languorous that came up from the south, charged with the seductive
odor of the sea. Children freshly befurbelowed, were gathering for
their games under the oaks. Their voices were high and
Madame Ratignolle folded her sewing, placing thimble,
scissors, and thread all neatly together in the roll, which she
pinned securely. She complained of faintness. Mrs. Pontellier
flew for the cologne water and a fan. She bathed Madame Ratignolle's
face with cologne, while Robert plied the fan with unnecessary vigor.
The spell was soon over, and Mrs. Pontellier could not help
wondering if there were not a little imagination responsible for
its origin, for the rose tint had never faded from her friend's face.
She stood watching the fair woman walk down the long line of
galleries with the grace and majesty which queens are sometimes
supposed to possess. Her little ones ran to meet her. Two of them
clung about her white skirts, the third she took from its nurse and
with a thousand endearments bore it along in her own fond,
encircling arms. Though, as everybody well knew, the doctor had
forbidden her to lift so much as a pin!
"Are you going bathing?" asked Robert of Mrs. Pontellier. It
was not so much a question as a reminder.
"Oh, no," she answered, with a tone of indecision. "I'm
tired; I think not." Her glance wandered from his face away toward
the Gulf, whose sonorous murmur reached her like a loving but
imperative entreaty.
"Oh, come!" he insisted. "You mustn't miss your bath. Come
on. The water must be delicious; it will not hurt you. Come."
He reached up for her big, rough straw hat that hung on a peg
outside the door, and put it on her head. They descended the
steps, and walked away together toward the beach. The sun was low
in the west and the breeze was soft and warm.
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