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The Awakening
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Chapters VI–IX

 

Part IX

Every light in the hall was ablaze; every lamp turned as high
as it could be without smoking the chimney or threatening explosion.
The lamps were fixed at intervals against the wall, encircling the whole room.
Some one had gathered orange and lemon branches, and with these fashioned
graceful festoons between. The dark green of the branches stood out
and glistened against the white muslin curtains which draped the windows,
and which puffed, floated, and flapped at the capricious will of a stiff
breeze that swept up from the Gulf.
It was Saturday night a few weeks after the intimate
conversation held between Robert and Madame Ratignolle on their way
from the beach. An unusual number of husbands, fathers, and
friends had come down to stay over Sunday; and they were being
suitably entertained by their families, with the material help of
Madame Lebrun. The dining tables had all been removed to one end
of the hall, and the chairs ranged about in rows and in clusters.
Each little family group had had its say and exchanged its domestic
gossip earlier in the evening. There was now an apparent
disposition to relax; to widen the circle of confidences and give
a more general tone to the conversation.
Many of the children had been permitted to sit up beyond their
usual bedtime. A small band of them were lying on their stomachs
on the floor looking at the colored sheets of the comic papers
which Mr. Pontellier had brought down. The little Pontellier boys
were permitting them to do so, and making their authority felt.
Music, dancing, and a recitation or two were the
entertainments furnished, or rather, offered. But there was nothing
systematic about the programme, no appearance of prearrangement nor
even premeditation.
At an early hour in the evening the Farival twins were
prevailed upon to play the piano. They were girls of fourteen,
always clad in the Virgin's colors, blue and white, having been
dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism. They played a
duet from "Zampa," and at the earnest solicitation of every one
present followed it with the overture to "The Poet and the
Peasant."
"Allez vous-en! Sapristi!" shrieked the parrot outside the
door. He was the only being present who possessed sufficient
candor to admit that he was not listening to these gracious
performances for the first time that summer. Old Monsieur Farival,
grandfather of the twins, grew indignant over the interruption,
and insisted upon having the bird removed and consigned
to regions of darkness. Victor Lebrun objected;
and his decrees were as immutable as those of Fate.
The parrot fortunately offered no further interruption
to the entertainment, the whole venom of his nature
apparently having been cherished up and hurled against
the twins in that one impetuous outburst.
Later a young brother and sister gave recitations, which every
one present had heard many times at winter evening entertainments
in the city.
A little girl performed a skirt dance in the center of the
floor. The mother played her accompaniments and at the same time
watched her daughter with greedy admiration and nervous
apprehension. She need have had no apprehension. The child was
mistress of the situation. She had been properly dressed for the
occasion in black tulle and black silk tights. Her little neck and
arms were bare, and her hair, artificially crimped, stood out like
fluffy black plumes over her head. Her poses were full of grace,
and her little black-shod toes twinkled as they shot out and upward
with a rapidity and suddenness which were bewildering.
But there was no reason why every one should not dance.
Madame Ratignolle could not, so it was she who gaily consented to
play for the others. She played very well, keeping excellent waltz
time and infusing an expression into the strains which was indeed
inspiring. She was keeping up her music on account of the
children, she said; because she and her husband both considered it
a means of brightening the home and making it attractive.
Almost every one danced but the twins, who could not be
induced to separate during the brief period when one or the other
should be whirling around the room in the arms of a man. They
might have danced together, but they did not think of it.
The children were sent to bed. Some went submissively;
others with shrieks and protests as they were dragged away.
They had been permitted to sit up till after the ice-cream,
which naturally marked the limit of human indulgence.
The ice-cream was passed around with cake—gold and silver
cake arranged on platters in alternate slices; it had been made and
frozen during the afternoon back of the kitchen by two black women,
under the supervision of Victor. It was pronounced a great
success—excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla
or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and
if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it. Victor was
proud of his achievement, and went about recommending it and urging
every one to partake of it to excess.
After Mrs. Pontellier had danced twice with her husband, once
with Robert, and once with Monsieur Ratignolle, who was thin and
tall and swayed like a reed in the wind when he danced, she went
out on the gallery and seated herself on the low window-sill, where
she commanded a view of all that went on in the hall and could look
out toward the Gulf. There was a soft effulgence in the east. The
moon was coming up, and its mystic shimmer was casting a million
lights across the distant, restless water.
"Would you like to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play?" asked
Robert, coming out on the porch where she was. Of course Edna
would like to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play; but she feared it would
be useless to entreat her.
"I'll ask her," he said. "I'll tell her that you want to hear
her. She likes you. She will come." He turned and hurried away to
one of the far cottages, where Mademoiselle Reisz was shuffling
away. She was dragging a chair in and out of her room, and at
intervals objecting to the crying of a baby, which a nurse in the
adjoining cottage was endeavoring to put to sleep. She was a
disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with
almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a
disposition to trample upon the rights of others. Robert prevailed
upon her without any too great difficulty.
She entered the hall with him during a lull in the dance. She
made an awkward, imperious little bow as she went in. She was a
homely woman, with a small weazened face and body and eyes that
glowed. She had absolutely no taste in dress, and wore a batch of
rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets pinned to the
side of her hair.
"Ask Mrs. Pontellier what she would like to hear me play," she
requested of Robert. She sat perfectly still before the piano, not
touching the keys, while Robert carried her message to Edna at the
window. A general air of surprise and genuine satisfaction fell
upon every one as they saw the pianist enter. There was a settling
down, and a prevailing air of expectancy everywhere. Edna was a
trifle embarrassed at being thus signaled out for the imperious
little woman's favor. She would not dare to choose, and begged
that Mademoiselle Reisz would please herself in her selections.
Edna was what she herself called very fond of music. Musical
strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.
She sometimes liked to sit in the room of mornings when Madame
Ratignolle played or practiced. One piece which that lady played
Edna had entitled "Solitude." It was a short, plaintive, minor
strain. The name of the piece was something else, but she called
it "Solitude." When she heard it there came before her imagination
the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the
seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless
resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight
away from him.
Another piece called to her mind a dainty young woman clad in
an Empire gown, taking mincing dancing steps as she came down a
long avenue between tall hedges. Again, another reminded her of
children at play, and still another of nothing on earth but a
demure lady stroking a cat.
The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the
piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column. It
was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano.
Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time
her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.
She waited for the material pictures which she thought would
gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She
saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair.
But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul,
swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid
body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.
Mademoiselle had finished. She arose, and bowing her stiff,
lofty bow, she went away, stopping for neither, thanks nor
applause. As she passed along the gallery she patted Edna upon the
shoulder.
"Well, how did you like my music?" she asked. The young woman
was unable to answer; she pressed the hand of the pianist
convulsively. Mademoiselle Reisz perceived her agitation and even
her tears. She patted her again upon the shoulder as she said:
"You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah!"
and she went shuffling and sidling on down the gallery toward her
room.
But she was mistaken about "those others." Her playing had
aroused a fever of enthusiasm. "What passion!" "What an artist!"
"I have always said no one could play Chopin like Mademoiselle
Reisz!" "That last prelude! Bon Dieu! It shakes a man!"
It was growing late, and there was a general disposition to
disband. But some one, perhaps it was Robert, thought of a bath at
that mystic hour and under that mystic moon.
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