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Short stories : A Family Affair by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin-5

A Family Affair
by Kate Chopin

The moment that the wagon rattled out of the yard away to the station, Madame Solisainte settled herself into a state of nervous expectancy.

She was superabundantly fat; and her body accommodated itself to the huge chair in which she sat, filling up curves and crevices like water poured into a mould. She was clad in an ample muslin peignoir sprigged with brown. Her cheeks were flabby, her mouth thin-lipped and decisive. Her eyes were small, watchful, and at the same time timid. Her brown hair, streaked with gray, was arranged in a bygone fashion, a narrow mesh being drawn back from the centre of the forehead to conceal a bald spot, and the sides plastered down smooth over her small, close ears.

The room in which she sat was large and uncarpeted. There were handsome and massive pieces of furniture decorating the apartment, and a magnificent brass clock stood on the mantelpiece.

Madame Solisainte sat at a back window which overlooked the yard, the brick kitchen – a little removed from the house – and the field road which led down to the negro quarters. She was unable to leave her chair. It was an affair of importance to get her out of bed in the morning, and an equally arduous task to put her back there at night.

It was a sore affliction to the old woman to be thus incapacitated during her latter years, and rendered unable to watch and control her household affairs. She was sure that she was being robbed continuously and on all sides. This conviction was nourished and kept alive by her confidential servant Dimple, a very black girl of sixteen, who trod softly about on her bare feet and had thereby made her self unpopular in the kitchen and down at the quarters.

The notion had entered Madame Solisainte’s head to have one of her neices come up from New Orleans and stay with her. She thought it would be doing the niece and her family a great kindness, and would furthermore be an incalculable saving to herself in many ways, and far cheaper than hiring a housekeeper.

There were four nieces, not too well off, with whom she was indifferently acquainted. In selecting one of these to make her home on the plantation she exercised no choice, leaving that matter to her sister and the girls, to be settled among them.

It was Bosey who consented to go to her aunt. Her mother spelled her name Bosé. She herself spelled it Bosey. But as often as not she was called plain Bose. It was she who was sent, because, as her mother wrote to Madame Solisainte, Bosé was a splendid manager, a most excellent housekeeper, and moreover possessed a tempermant of such rare amiablilty that none could help being cheered and enlivened by her presence.

What she did not write was that none of the other girls would entertain the notion for an instant of making even a temporary abiding place with their Tante Félicie. And Bosey’s consent was only wrung from her with the understanding that the undertaking was purely experimental, and that she bound herself by no cast-iron obligations.

Madame Solisainte had sent the wagon to the station for her neice, and was impatiently awaiting its return. “It’s no sign of the wagon yet, Dimple? You don’t see it? You don’t year it coming?”

“No’um; ‘tain’t no sign. De train des ‘bout lef’ de station. I yeard it w’istle.” Dimple stood on the back porch beside her mistress’ open window. She wore a calico dress so skimp and inadequate that her growing figure was bursting through the rents and apertures. She was constantly pinning it at the back of the waist with a bent safety-pin which was forever giving way. The task of pinning her dress and biting the old brass safety-pin into shape occupied a great deal of her time.

“It’s true,” Madame said. “I recommend to Daniel to drive those mule’ very slow in this how weather. They are not strong, those mule’.”

“He drive ‘em slow ‘nough long’s he’s in the fiel’ road!” exclaimed Dimple. “Time he git roun’in de big road whar you kain’t see ‘im – uh! uh! he make’ dem mule’ fa’r’ lope!”

Madame tightened her lips and blinked her eyes. She rarely replied otherwise to these disclosures of Dimple, but they sank into her soul and festered there.

The cook – in reality a big-boned field hand – came in with pans and pails to get out the things for supper. Madame kept her provisions right there under her nose in a large closet, or cupboard, which she had had built in the side of the room. A small supply of butter was in a jar that stood on the hearth, and the eggs were kept in a basket that hung on a peg near by.

Dimple came in and unlocked the cupboard, taking the keys from her mistress’ bag. She gave out a little flour, a little meal, a cupful of coffee, some sugar and a piece of bacon. Four eggs were wanted for a pudding, but Madame thought that two would be enough, finally compromising, however, upon three.

Miss Bosey Brantonniere arrived at her aunt’s house with three trunks, a large, circular, tin bathtub, a bundle of umbrellas and sunshades, and a small dog. She was a pretty, energetic-looking girl, with her chin in the air, tastefully dressed in the latest fashion, and dispersing an atmosphere of bustle and importance about her. Daniel had driven her up the field road, depositing her at the back entrance, where Madame, from her window, commanded a complete view of her arrival.

“I thought you would have sent the carriage for me, Tante Félicie, but Daniel tells me you have no carriage,” said the girl after the first greetings were over. She had had her trunks taken to her room, the tub slipped under the bed, and now she sat fondling the dog and talking to Tante Félicie.

The old lady shook her head dismally and her lips curled into a disparaging smile.

“Oh! no, no! The ol’ carriage ‘as been sol’ ages ago to Zéphire Lablatte. It was falling to piece’ in the shed. Me – I never stir f’um w’ere you see me; it is good two year’ since ‘ave been inside the church, let alone to go en promenade.”

“Well, I’m going to take all care and bother off your shoulders, Tante Félicie,” uttered the girl cheerfully. “I’m going to brighten things up for you, and we’ll see how quickly you’ll improve. Why, in less than two months I’ll have you on your feet, going about as spry as anybody.”

Madame was far less hopeful. “My ol’ mother was the same,” she replied with dejected resignation. “Nothing could ‘elp her. She lived many year’ like you see me; your mamma mus’ ‘ave often tol’ you.”

Mrs. Brantonniere had never related to the girls anything disparaging concerning their Aunt Félicie, but other members of the family had been less considerate, and Bosey had often been told of her aunt’s avarice and grasping ways. How she had laid her clutch upon her mother’s belongings, taking undisputed possession by the force of audacity alone. The girl could not help thinking it must have been while her grandmother sat so helpless in her huge chair that Tante Félicie had made herself mistress of the situation. But she was not one to harbor malice. She felt very sorry for Tante Félicie, so afflicted in her childless old age.

Madame lay long awake that night troubled someway over the advent of this niece from New Orleans, who was not precisely what she had expected. She did not like the excess of trunks, the bathtub and the dog, all of which indicated determination and promised trouble. Dimple was warned next morning to say nothing to her mistress concerning a surprise which Miss Bosey had in store for her. This surprise was that, instead of being deposited in her accustomed place at the back window, where she could keep an eye upon her people, Madame was installed at the front-room window that looked out toward the live oaks and along a leafy, sleepy road that was seldom used.

“Jamais! Jamais! it will never do! Pas possible!” cried out the old lady with helpless excitement when she perceived what was about to be done to her.

“You’ll do just as I say, Tante Félicie,” said Bosey, with sprightly determination. “I’m here to take care of you and make you comfortable, and I’m going to do it. Now, instead of looking out on that hideous back yard, full of dirty little darkies, and pigs and chickens wallowing round, here you have this sweet, peaceful view whenever you look out of the window. Now, here comes Dimple with the magazines and things. Bring them right here, Dimple, and lay them on the table beside Ma’me Félicie. I brought these up from the city expressly for you, Tante, and I have a whole trunkful more when you are through with them.”

Dimple was entering, staggering with arms full of books and periodicals of all sizes, shapes and colors. The strain of carrying the weight of literature had caused the safety-pin to give way, and Dimple feared it might have fallen and been lost.

“So, Tante Félicie, you’ll have nothing to do but read and enjoy yourself. Here are some French books mamma sent you, something by Daudet, something by Maupassant and a lot more. Here, let me brighten up your spectacles.” She brightened the old lady’s glasses with a piece of thin tissue paper which fell from one of the books.

“And now, Madame Solisainte, you give me all the keys! Turn them right over, and I’ll go out and make myself thoroughly acquainted with everything.” Madame spasmodically clutched the bag that swung to the arm of her chair.

“Oh! a whole bagful!” exclaimed the girl, gently but firmly disengaging it from her aunt’s claw-like fingers. “My, what an undertaking I have before me! Dimple had better show me round this morning until I get thoroughly acquainted. You can knock on the door with your stick when you want her. Come along, Dimple. Fasten your dress.” The girl was scanning the floor for the safety-pin, which she found out in the hall.

During all of Madame Solisainte’s days no one had ever spoken to her with the authority which this young woman assumed. She did not know what to make of it. She felt that she should have revolted at once against being thus banished to the front room. She should have spoken out and maintained possession of her keys when demanded, with the spirit of a highway robber, to give them up. She pounded her stick on the floor with loud and sudden energy. Dimple appeared with inquisitive eyes.

“Dimple,” said Madame, “tell Miss Bosé to please ‘ave the kin’ness an sen’me back my bag of key’.”

Dimple vanished and returned almost on the instant.

“Miss Bosey ‘low don’t you bodda. Des you go on lookin’ at de picters. She ain’ gwine let nuttin’ happen to de keys.”

After an uneasy interval Madame recalled the girl.

“Dimple, if you could look in the bag an’ bring me my armoire key – you know it – the brass one. Do not let on as though I would want that key in partic’lar.”

“De bag hangin’ on her arm. She got de string twis’ roun’ her wris’,” reported Dimple presently. Madame Félicie inwardly fumed with impotent rage.

“W’at is she doing, Dimple?” she asked uneasily.

“She got de cubbud do’s fling wide open. She standin’ on a cha’r lookin’ in de corners an’ behin’ eve’ything.”

“Dimple!” called out Bosey from the far room. And away flew Dimple, who had not been so pleasingly agitated since the previous Christmas.

After a little while, of her own accord she stole noiselessly back into the room where Madame Félicie sat in speechless wrath beside the table of books. She closed the door behind her, rolled her eyes, and spoke in a hoarse whisper:

“She done fling ‘way de barrel o’ meal; ‘low it all fill up wid weevils.”

“Weevil’!” cried out her mistress.

“Yas’um, weevils; ‘low it plumb sp’ilt. ‘Low it on’y fitten fo’ de chickens an’ hogs; ‘tain’t fitten fo’ folks. She done make Dan’el roll it out on de gal’ry.”

“Weevil’!” reiterated Madame Félicie, tremulous with suppressed excitement. “Bring me some of that meal in a saucer, Dimple. Don’t let on anything.”

She and Dimple bent over the cup of meal which the girl brought concealed under her skirt.

“Do you see any weevil’, you, Dimple?”

“No’um.” Dimple smelled it, and Madame felt the sample of meal and rolled a pinch or two between her fingers. It was lumpy, musty and old.

“She got Susan out dah helpin’ her,” insinuated Dimple, “an’ Sam an’ Dan’el; all helpin’ her.”

“Bon Dieu! It won’t be a grain of sugar left, a bar of soap – nothing! nothing! Go watch, Dimple. Don’t stan’ there like a stick.”

“She ‘low she gwine sen’ Susan back to wuk in de fiel’,” went on Dimple, heedless of her mistress’ admonition. “She ‘low Susan don’ know how to cook. Susan say she willin’ to go back, her. An’ Miss Bosey, she ax Dan’el ef he know a fus’-class cook, w’at kin brile chicken an’ steak an’ make good soup, an’ waffles, an’ rolls, an fricassee, an’ dessert, an’ custud, an sich.”

She passed her tongue over a slobbering lip. “Dan’el say his wife Mandy done cook fo’ de pa’tic’lest people in town, but she don’ wuk cheap ‘nough fo’ Ma’me Félicie. An’ Miss Bosey, she ‘low it don’ make no odd’ ‘bout de price, ‘long she git hole somebody w’at know how to cook.”

Madame’s fingers worked nervously at the illuminated cover of a magazine. She said nothing. Only tightened her lips and blinked her small eyes.

When Bosey thrust her head in at the door to inquire how “Tantine” was getting on, the old lady fumbled at the books with a pretense of having been occupied with looking at them.

“That’s right, Tante Félicie! You look as comfortable as can be. I wanted to make you a nice glass of lemonade, but Susan tells me there isn’t a lemon on the place. I told Fannie’s boy to bring up half a box of lemons from Lablatte’s store in the handcart. There’s nothing healthier than lemonade in summer. And he’s going to bring a chunk of ice, too. We’ll have to order ice from town after this.” She had on a white apron over her gingham dress, and her sleeves were rolled to the elbows.

“I detes’ lemonade; it is bad for mon estomac,” interposed Madame vehemently. “We ‘ave no use in the worl’ for lemon’, an’ there is no place vere to keep ice. Tell Fannie’s boy never min’ about lemon’ an’ ice.”

“Oh, he’s gone long ago! And as for the ice, why, Daniel says he can make me a box lined with sawdust – he made one for Doctor Godfrey. We can keep it under the back porch.” And away she went, the embodiment of the throughgoing, bustling little housewife. Somewhat past noon, Dimple came in with an air of importance, removed the books, and spread a white damask cloth upon the table. It was like spreading a red cloth before a sullen bull. Madame’s eyes glared at the cloth.

“W’ere did you get that?” she asked as if she would have annihilated Dimple on the spot.

“Miss Bosey, she tuck it out de big press; tuck some mo’ out; ‘low she kain’t eat on dat meal-sack w’at we alls calls de table-clot’e.” The damask cloth bore the initials of Madame’s mother, embroidered in a corner.

“She done kilt two dem young pullets in de basse-cour,” went on Dimple, like a croaking raven. “Mandy come lopin’ up f’om de quarters time Dan’el told ‘er. She yonder, rarin’ roun’ in de kitchen. Dey done sent fo’ some sto’ lard an’ bakin’ powders down to Lablatte’s. Fannie’s boy, he ben totin’ all mornin’. De cubbad done look lak a sto’.”

“Dimple!” called Bosey in the distance.

When she returned it was with a pompous air, her head uplifted, and stepping carefully like a fat chicken. She bore a tray weighted with a repast such as she had never before in her life served to Madame Solisainte.

Mandy had outdone herself. She had broiled the breast of a pullet to a turn. She had fried the potatoes after a New Orleans receipt, and had made a pudding of richest ingredients of her own invention which had given her a name in the parish. There were two milky-looking poached eggs, and the biscuits were as light as snowflakes and the color of gold. The forks and spoons were of massive silver, also bearing the initials of Madame’s mother. They had been reclaimed from the press with the table linen.

Under this new, strange influence Madame Solisainte seemed to have been deprived of the power of asserting her will. There was an occasional outburst like the flare of a smouldering fire, but she was outwardly timid and submissive. Only when she was alone with her young handmaid did she speak her mind.

Bosey took special care in arranging her aunt’s toilet one morning not long after her arrival. She fastened a sheer white ‘kerchief (which she found in the press) about the old lady’s neck. She powdered her face from her own box of duvet de cygnet; and she gave her a fine linen handkerchief (which she also found in the press), sprinkling it from the bottle of cologne water which she had brought from New Orleans. She filled the vase upon the table with fresh flowers, and dusted and rearranged the books there.

Madame had been moving forward the bookmark in the novel to pretend that she was reading it.

These unusual preparations were explained an hour or two later, when Bosey introduced into Madame Solisainte’s presence their neighbor, Doctor Godfrey. He was a youngish, good-looking man, with a loud, cheery voice and a super-abundance of animal spirits. He seemed to carry about with him the very atmosphere of health and to dispense it broadcast in invisible waves.

“Do you see, Tante Félicie, how I think of everything? When I saw, last night, the suffering you endured at being put to bed, I decided that you ought to be under a physician’s treatment. So the first thing I did this morning was to send a messenger for Doctor Godfrey, and here he is!”

Madame glared at him as he drew up a chair on the opposite side of the table and began to talk about how long it was since he had seen her. “I do not need a physician!” she cried in tones of exasperation, looking from one to the other. “All the physician’ in the worl’ cannot ‘elp me. My mother was the same; she try all the physician’ of the parish. She went to the ‘ot spring’, to la Nouvelle Orleans, an’ she die at las’ in this chair. Nothing will ‘elp me.”

“That is for me to say, Madame Solisainte,” said the Doctor with cheerful assurance. “It is a good idea of your niece’s that you should place yourself under a physician’s care. I don’t say mine, understand – there are many excellent physicians in the parish – but some one ought to look after you, if it is only to keep you in comfortable condition.”

Madame blinked at him under lowered brows. She was thinking of his bill for this visit, and determined that he should not make a second one. She saw ruin staring her in the face, and felt as if she were being borne along on a raging torrent of extravagance to meet it.

Bosey had already explained Madame’s symptoms to the Doctor, and he said he would send or bring over a preparation which Madame Solisainte must take night and morning till he saw fit to alter or discontinue it. Then he glanced at the magazines, while he and the girl engaged in a lively conversation across Madame’s chair. His eyes sparkled with animation as he looked at Bosey, as fresh and sweet in her pink dimity gown as one of the flowers there on the table.

He came very often, and Madame grew sick with apprehension and uncertainty, unable to distinguish between his professional and social visits. At first she refused to take his medicine until Bosey stood over her one evening with a spoonful, gently but firmly expressing a determination to stand there till morning, if necessary, and Madame consented to swallow the mixture. The Doctor took Bosey out driving in his new buggy behind two fast trotters. The first time, after she had driven away, Madam Félicie charged Dimple to go into Miss Bosey’s room and search everywhere for the bag of keys. But they were not to be found.

“She mus’ kiard ‘em wid ‘er. She all time got ‘em twis’ roun’ ‘er arm. I believe she sleep wid’ ‘em twis’ roun’ ‘er arm,” offered Dimple in explanation of her failure.

Unable to find the keys, she turned to examining the young girl’s dainty belongings – such as were not under lock. She crept back into Madame Félicie’s room, carrying a lace-filled parasol which she silently held out for Madame’s inspection. The lace was simple and inexpensive, but the old woman shuddered at sight of it as if it had been the rarest of d’Alençon.

Perceiving the impression created by the gay sunshade, Dimple next brought in a pair of slippers with spangled toes, a fine pair of stockings that hung on the back of a chair, an embroidered petticoat, and finally a silk waist. She brought the articles one by one, with a certain solemnity rendered doubly impressive by her silence.

Dimple was wearing her best dress – a red calico with ruffles and puffed sleeves (Miss Bosey had compelled her to discard the other). As a consequence of this holiday attire Dimple gave herself Sunday airs, and passed her time hanging to the gallery post or doubling her body across the bannister rail.

Bosey grew more and more prolific in devices for her Aunt Félicie’s comfort and entertainment. She invited Madame’s old friends to visit her, singly and in groups; to spend the day – in some instances several days.

She began to have company herself. The young gentlemen and girls of the parish came from miles around to pay their respects. She was of a hospitable turn, and dispensed iced lemonade on such occasions, and sangaree – Lablatte having ordered a case of red wine form the city. There was constant baking of cakes going on in the kitchen, Daniel’s wife surpassing all her former efforts in that direction.

Bosey gave lawn parties, with the Chinese lanterns all festooned among the oaks, with three musicians from the quarters playing the fiddle, the guitar and accordion on the gallery, right under Madame Solisainte’s nose. She gave a ball and dressed Tante Félicie up for the occasion in a silk peignoir which she had had made in the city as a surprise.

The Doctor took Bosey driving or horseback riding every other day. He all but lived at Madame Solisainte’s, and was in danger of losing all his practice, till Bosey, in mercy, promised to marry him.

She kept her engagement a secret from Tante Félicie, pursuing her avocation of the ministering angel up to the very day of her departure for the city to make preparations for her approaching marriage.

A beatitude, a beneficent joy settled upon Madame when Bosey announced her engagement to the Doctor and her intention to leave the plantation that afternoon.

“Oh! You can’t imagine, Tante Félicie, how I regret to leave you – just as I was getting things so comfortably and pleasantly settled about you, too. If you want, perhaps Fifine or sister Adèle would come –“

“No! no!” cried Madame in shrill protest. “Nothing of the kin’! I insist, let them stay w’ere they are. I am ole; I am use’ to my ways. It is not ‘ard for me to be alone. I will not year of it!”

Madame could have sung for very joy as she listened all morning to the bustle of her niece’s packing. She even petted doggie in her exuberance, for she had aimed many a blow at him with her stick when he had had the temerity to trust himself alone with her. The trunks and the bathtub were sent away at noon. The clatter accompanying their departure sounded like sweet music in Madame Solisainte’s ears. It was with almost feeling of affection that she embraced her niece when the girl came and kissed her good-by. The Doctor was going to drive his fiancèe to the station in his buggy.

He told Madame Félicie that he felt like an archangel. In reality, he looked demented with happiness and excitement. She was as sauve as honey to him. She was thinking that in the character of a nephew he would not have the indelicacy to present a bill for professional services.

The Doctor hurried out to turn the horses and to get ready the lap-robe to spread over the knees of his divinity. Bosey looked as dainty as the day she had made her appearance, in the same brown linen gown and jaunty traveling hat. There was a fathomless look in her blue eyes.

“And now, Tante Félicie,” she said finally, “here is your bag of keys. You will find everything in perfect order, and I hope you will be satisfied. All the purchases have been entered in the book – you will find Lablatte’s bills and everything correct. But, by the way, Tante Félicie, I want to tell you – I have made an equal division of grandmother’s silver and table linen and jewels which I found in the strong box, and sent them to mamma. You know yourself it was only just; mamma had as much right to them as you. So, good-by, Tante Félicie. You are quite sure you wouldn’t like to have sister Adèle?”

“Voleuse! voleuse! voleuse!” she heard her aunt’s voice lifted after her in a shrill scream. It followed her as far as the leafy road beyond the live oaks.

Madame Solisainte trembled with excitement and agitation. She looked into the bag and counted the keys. They were all there.

“Voleuse!” she kept muttering. She was convinced that Bosey had robbed her of everything she possessed. The jewels were gone, she was sure of it – all gone. Her mother’s watch and chain; bracelets, rings, ear-rings, everything gone. All the silver; the table, the bed linen, her mother’s clothes – ah! that was why she had brought those three trunks!

Madame Solisainte clutched the brass key and glared at it with eyes wild with apprehension. She pounded her stick upon the floor till the rafters rang. But at that time of the afternoon – the hours between dinner and supper – the yard was deserted. And Dimple, still under the delusion created by the red ruffles and puffed sleeves, was strolling leisurely toward the station to see Miss Bosey off.

Madame pounded and called. In her wrath she overturned the table and sent the books and magazines flying in all directions. She sat a while a prey to the most violent agitation, the most turbulent misgivings, that made the pulses throb in her head and the blood course through her body as though the devil himself were at the valve.

“Robbed! Robbed! Robbed!” she repeated. “My gold; the rings; the necklace! I might have known! Oh! fool! Ah! cher maître! pas possible!”

Her head quivered as with a palsy upon its fat bulk. She clutched the arm of her chair and attempted to rise; her effort was fruitless. A second attempt, and she drew herself a few inches out of the chair and fell back again. A third effort, in which her whole big body shook and swayed like a vessel which has sprung a leak, and Madame Solisainte stood upon her feet.

She grasped the cane there at hand and stood helpless, screaming for Dimple. Then she began to walk – or rather drag her feet along the floor, slowly and with painful effort, shaking and leaning heavily upon her stick.

Madame did not think it strange or miraculous that she should be moving thus upon her tottering limbs, which for two years had refused to do their office. Her whole attention was bent upon reaching the press in her bedroom across the hall. She clutched the brass key; she had let all the other keys go, and she said nothing now but “Volè, volè, volè!”

Madame Solisainte managed to reach the room without other assistance than the chairs in her way afforded her, and the walls along which she propped her body as she sidled along. Her first thought upon unlocking the press was for her gold. Yes, there it was, all of it, in little piles as she had so often arranged it. But half the silver was gone; half the jewels and table linen.

When the servants began to congregate in the yard, they discovered Madame Fèlicie standing upon the gallery waiting for them. They uttered exclamations of wonder and consternation. Dimple became hysterical, and began to cry and scream out.

“Go an’ fin’ Richmond,” said Madame to Daniel, and without comment or question he hurried off in search of the overseer.

“I will ‘ave the law! Ah! par example! pas possible! to be rob’ in that way! I will ‘ave the law. Tell Lablatte I will not pay the bills. Mandy, go back the the quarters, an’ sen’ Susan to the kitchen. Dimple! Go an’ carry all those book’ an’ magazine’ up in the attic, an’ put on you’ other dress. Do not let me fin’ you array in those flounce’ again! Pas possible! volé comme ça! I will ‘ave the law!”


Kate Chopin-7


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