by Kate Chopin
When Miss Georgie McEnders had finished an elaborately simple toilet of gray and black, she divested herself completely of rings, bangles, brooches – everything to suggest that she stood in friendly relations with fortune. For Georgie was going to read a paper upon “The Dignity of Labor” before the Woman’s Reform Club; and if she was blessed with the abundance of wealth, she possessed a no less amount of good taste.
Before entering the neat Victoria that stood at her father’s too-sumptuous door – and that was her special property – she turned to give certain directions to the coachman. First upon the list from which she read was inscribed: “Look up Mademoiselle Salambre.”
“James,” said Georgie, flushing a pretty pink, as she always did with the slightest effort of speech, “we want to look up a person named Mademoiselle Salambre, in the southern part of town, on Arsenal street,” indicating a certain number and locality. Then she seated herself in the carriage, and as it drove away proceeded to study her engagement list further and to knit her pretty brows in deep and complex thought.
“Two o’clock – look up M. Salambre,” said the list. “Three-thirty – read paper before Woman’s Ref. Club. Four-thirty – “and here followed cabalistic abbreviations which meant: “Join committee of ladies to investigate moral condition of St. Louis factory-girls. Six o’clock – dine with papa. Eight o’clock – hear Henry George’s lecture on Single Tax.”
So far, Mademoiselle Salambre was only a name to Georgie McEnders, one of several submitted to her at her own request by her furnishers, Push and Prodem, an enterprising firm charged with the construction of Miss McEnders’ very elaborate trosseau. Georgie liked to know the people who worked for her, as far as she could.
She was a charming young woman of twenty-five, though almost too white-souled for a creature of flesh and blood. She possessed ample wealth and time to squander, and a burning desire to do good – to elevate the human race, and start the world over again on a comfortable footing for everybody.
When Georgie had pushed open the very high gate of a very small yard she stood confronting a robust German woman who, with dress tucked carefully between her knees, was in the act of noisily “redding” the bricks.
“Does M’selle Salambre live here?” Georgie’s tall, slim figure was very erect. Her face suggested a sweet peach blossom, and she held a severely simple lorgnon up to her short-sighted blue eyes.
“Ya! Ya! Aber oop stairs!” cried the woman brusquely and impatiently. But Georgie did not mind. She was used to greetings that lacked the ring of cordiality.
When she had ascended the stairs that led to an upper porch she knocked at the first door that presented itself, and was told to enter by Mlle. Salambre herself.
The woman sat at an opposite window, bending over a bundle of misty white goods that lay in a fluffy heap in her lap. She was not young. She might have been thirty, or she might have been forty. There were lines about her round, piquante face that denoted close acquaintance with struggles, hardships and all manner of unkind experiences.
Georgie had heard a whisper here and there touching the private character of Mlle. Salambre which had determined her to go in person and make the acquaintance of the woman and her surroundings; which latter were poor and simple enough, and not too neat. There was a little child at play upon the floor.
Mlle. Salambre had not expected so unlooked-for an apparition as Miss McEnders, and seeing the girl standing there in the door she removed the eye-glasses that had assisted her in the delicate work, and stood up also.
“Mlle. Salambre, I suppose?” said Georgie, with a courteous inclination.
“Ah! Mees McEndairs! What an agree’ble surprise! Will you be so kind to take a chair.” Mademoiselle had lived many years in the city, in various capacities, which brought her in touch with the fashionable set. There were few people in polite society whom Mademoiselle did not know – by sight, at least; and their private histories were as familiar to her as her own.
“You ‘ave come to see your the work?” the woman went on with a smile that quite brightened her face. “It is a pleasure to handle such fine, such delicate quality of goods, Mees,” and she went and laid several pieces of her handiwork upon the table beside Georgie, at the same time indicating such details as she hoped would call forth her visitor’s approval.
There was something about the woman and her surroundings, and the atmosphere of the place, that affected the girl unpleasantly. She shrank instinctively, drawing her invisible mantle of chastity closely about her. Mademoiselle saw that her visitor’s attention was divided between the lingerie and the child upon the floor, who was engaged in battering a doll’s unyielding head against the unyielding floor.
“The child of my neighbor down-stairs,” said Mademoiselle, with a wave of the hand which expressed volumes of unutterable ennui. But at that instant the little one, with instinctive mistrust, and in seeming defiance of the repudiation, climbed to her feet and went rolling and toddling towards her mother, clasping the woman about the knees, and calling her by the endearing title which was her own small right.
A spasm of annoyance passed over Mademoiselle’s face, but still she called the child “Chene,” as she grasped its arm to keep it from falling. Miss McEnders turned every shade of carmine.
“Why did you tell me an untruth?” she asked, looking indignantly into the woman’s lowered face. “Why do you call yourself ‘Mademoiselle’ if this child is yours?”
“For the reason that it is more easy to obtain employment. For reasons that you would not understand,” she continued, with a shrug of the shoulders that expressed some defiance and a sudden disregard for consequences. “Life is not all couleur de rose, Mees McEndairs; you do not know what life is, you!” And drawing a handkerchief from an apron pocket she mopped an imaginary tear from the corner of her eye, and blew her nose till it glowed again.
Georgie could hardly recall the words or actions with which she quitted Mademoiselle’s presence. As much as she wanted to, it had been impossible to stand and read the woman a moral lecture. She had simply thrown what disapproval she could into her hasty leave-taking, and that was all for the moment. But as she drove away, a more practical form of rebuke suggested itself to her not too nimble intelligence – one that she promised herself to act upon as soon as her home was reached.
When she was alone in her room, during an interval between her many engagements, she then attended to the affair of Mlle. Salambre.
Georgie believed in discipline. She hated unrighteousness. When it pleased God to place the lash in her hand she did not hesitate to apply it. Here was this Mlle. Salambre living in her sin. Not as one who is young and blinded by the glamour of pleasure, but with cool and deliberate intention. Since she chose to transgress, she ought to suffer, and be made to feel that her ways were iniquitous and invited rebuke. It lay in Georgie’s power to mete out a small dose of that chastisement which the woman deserved, and she was glad that the opportunity was hers.
She seated herself forthwith at her writing table, and penned the following note to her furnishers:
“MESSERS. PUSH & PRODEM.
“Gentlemen – Please withdraw from Mademoiselle Salambre all work of mine, and return same to me at once – finished or unfinished.
On the second day following this summary proceeding, Georgie sat at her writing-table, looking prettier and pinker than ever, in a luxurious and soft-toned robe de chamber that suited her own delicate coloring, and fitted the pale amber tints of her room decorations.
There were books, pamphlets, and writing material set neatly upon the table before her. In the midst of them were two framed photographs, which she polished one after another with a silken scarf that was near.
One of these was a picture of her father, who looked like an Englishman, with his clean-shaved mouth and chin, and closely-cropped side-whiskers, just turning grey. A good-humored shrewdness shone in his eyes. From the set of his thin, firm lips one might guess that he was in the foremost rank in the interesting game of “push” that occupies mankind. One might further guess that his cleverness in using opportunities had brought him there, and that a dexterous management of elbows had served him no less. The other picture was that of Georgie’s fiancé, Mr. Meredith Holt, approaching more closely than he liked to his forty-fifth year and an unbecoming corpulence. Only one who knew beforehand that he was a viveur could have detected evidence of such in his face, which told little more than that he was a good-looking and amiable man of the world, who might be counted on to do the gentlemanly thing always. Georgie was going to marry him because his personality pleased her; because his easy knowledge of life – such as she apprehended it – commended itself to her approval; because he was likely to interfere in no way with her “work”. Yet she might not have given any of these reasons if asked for one. Mr. Meredith Holt was simply an eligible man, whom almost any girl in her set would have accepted for a husband.
Georgie had just discovered that she had yet an hour to spare before starting out with the committee of four to further investigate the moral condition of the factory-girl, when a maid appeared with the announcement that a person was below who wished to see her.
“A person? Surely not a visitor at this hour?”
“I left her in the hall, miss, and she says her name is Mademoiselle Sal-Sal-“
“Oh, yes! Ask her to kindly walk up to my room, and show her the way, please, Hannah.”
Mademoiselle Salambre came in with a sweep of skirts that bristled defiance, and a poise of the head that was aggressive in its backward tilt. She seated herself, and with an air of challenge waited to be questioned or addressed.
Georgie felt at ease amid her own familiar surroundings. While she made some idle tracings with a pencil upon a discarded envelope, she half turned to say:
“This visit of yours is very surprising, madam, and wholly useless. I suppose you guess my motive in recalling my work, as I have done.”
“Maybe I do, and maybe I do not, Mees McEndairs,” replied the woman, with an impertinent uplifting of the eyebrows.
Georgie felt the same shrinking which had overtaken her before in the woman’s presence. But she knew her duty, and from that there was no shrinking.
“You must be made to understand, madam, that there is a right way to live, and that there is a wrong way,” said Georgie with more condescension than she knew. “We cannot defy God’s laws with impunity, and without incurring His displeasure. But in His infinite justice and mercy He offers forgiveness, love and protection to those who turn away from evil and repent. It is for each of us to follow the divine way as well as may be. And I am only humbly striving to do His will.”
“A most charming sermon, Mees McEndairs!” mademoiselle interrupted with a nervous laugh; “it seems a great pity to waste it upon so small an audience. And it grieves me, I cannot express, that I have not the time to remain and listen to its close.”
She arose and began to talk volubly, swiftly, in a jumble of French and English, and with a wealth of expression and gesture which Georgie could hardly believe was natural, and not something acquired and rehearsed.
She had come to inform Miss McEnders that she did not want her work; that she would not touch it with the tips of her fingers. And her little, gloved hands recoiled from an imaginary pile of lingerie with unspeakable disgust. Her eyes had traveled nimbly over the room, and had been arrested by the two photographs on the table. Very small, indeed, were her worldly possessions, she informed the young lady; but as Heaven was her witness – not a mouthful of bread that she had not earned. And her parents over yonder in France! As honest as the sunlight! Poor, ah! For that – poor as rats. God only knew how poor; and God only knew how honest. Her eyes remained fixed upon the picture of Horace McEnders. Some people might like fine houses, and servants, and horses, and all the luxury which dishonest wealth brings. Some people might enjoy such surroundings. As for her! – and she drew up her skirts ever so carefully and daintily, as though she feared contamination to her petticoats from the touch of the rich rug upon which she stood.
Georgie’s blue eyes were filled with astonishment as they followed the woman’s gestures. Her face showed aversion and perplexity.
“Please let this interview come to an end at once,” spoke the girl. She would not deign to ask an explanation of the mysterious allusions to ill-gotten wealth. But mademoiselle had not yet said all that she had come there to say.
“If it was only me to say so,” she went on, still looking at the likeness, “but, cher maître! Go, yourself Mees McEndairs, and stand for a while on the street and ask the people passing by how your dear papa has made his money, and see what they will say.”
Then shifting her glance to the photograph of Meredith Holt, she stood in an attitude of amused contemplation, with a smile of commiseration playing about her lips.
“Mr. Meredith Holt!” she pronounced with quiet suppressed emphasis – “ah! C’est un propre, celui la! You know him very well, no doubt, Mees McEndairs. You would not care to have my opinion of Mr. Meredith Holt. It would make no difference to you, Mees McEndairs, to know that he is not fit to be the husband of a self-respecting bar-maid. Oh! You know a good deal, my dear young lady. You can preach sermons in merveille!”
When Georgie was finally alone, there came to her, through all her disgust and indignation, an indefinable uneasiness. There was no misunderstanding the intention of the woman’s utterances in regard to the girl’s fiancé and her father. A sudden, wild, defiant desire came to her to test the suggestion which Mademoiselle Salambre had let fall.
Yes, she would go stand there on the corner and ask the passers-by how Horace McEnders made his money. She could not yet collect her thoughts for calm reflection; and the house stifled her. It was fully time for her to join her committee of four, but she would meddle no further with morals till her own were adjusted, she thought. Then she quitted the house, very pale, even to her lips that were tightly set.
Georgie stationed herself on the opposite side of the street, on the corner, and waited there as though she had appointed to meet some one.
The first to approach her was a kind-looking old gentleman, very much muffled for the pleasant spring day. Georgie did not hesitate an instant to accost him:
“I beg pardon, sir. Will you kindly tell me whose house that is?” pointing to her own domicile across the way.
“That is Mr. Horace McEnders’ residence, Madam,” replied the old gentleman, lifting his hat politely.
“Could you tell me how he made the money with which to build so magnificent a home?”
“You should not ask indiscreet questions, my dear young lady,” answered the mystified old gentleman, as he bowed and walked away.
The girl let one or two persons pass her. Then she stopped a plumber, who was going cheerily along with his bag of tools on his shoulder.
“I beg pardon,” began Georgie again; “but may I ask whose residence that is across the street?”
“Yes’um. That’s the McEnderses.”
“Thank you; and can you tell me how Mr. McEnders made such an immense fortune?”
“Oh, that ain’t my business; but they say he made the biggest pile of it in the Whisky Ring.”
So the truth would come to her somehow! These were the people from whom to seek it – who had not learned to veil their thoughts and opinions in polite subterfuge.
When a careless little news-boy came strolling along, she stopped him with the apparent intention of buying a paper from him.
“Do you know whose house that is?” she asked him, handing him a piece of money and nodding over the way.
“W’y, dats ole MicAndrus’ house.”
“I wonder where he got the money to build such a fine house.”
“He stole it. Dats where he got it. Thank you,” pocketing the change which Georgie declined to take, and he whistled a popular air as he disappeared around the corner.
Georgie had heard enough. Her heart was beating violently now, and her cheeks were flaming. So everybody knew it; even to the street gamins! The men and women who visited her and broke bread at her father’s table, knew it. Her coworkers, who strove with her in Christian endeavor, knew. The very servants who waited upon her doubtless knew this, and had their jests about it.
She shrank within herself as she climbed the stairway to her room.
Upon the table there she found a box of exquisite white spring blossoms that a messenger had brought from Meredith Holt, during her absence. Without an instant’s hesitation, Georgie cast the spotless things into the wide, sooty, fireplace. Then she sank into a chair and wept bitterly.