A Point at Issue!
by Kate Chopin
Married – On Tuesday, May 11, Eleanor Gail to Charles Faraday.
Nothing bearing the shape of a wedding announcement could have been less obtrusive than the foregoing hidden in a remote corner of the Plymdale Promulgator, clothed in the palest and smallest of type, and modestly wedged in between the big, black-lettered offer of the Promulgator to mail itself free of extra charge to subscribers leaving home for the summer months, and an equally somber-clad notice (doubtless astray as to place and application) that Hammersmith & Co. were carrying a large and varied assortment of marble and granite monuments!
Yet notwithstanding its sandwiched condition, that little marriage announcement seemed to Eleanor to parade the whole street.
Whichever way she turned her eyes, it glowered at her with scornful reproach.
She felt it to be an indelicate thrusting of herself upon the public notice; and at the sight she was plunged in regret at having made to the properties the concession of permitting it.
She hoped now that the period for making concessions was ended. She had endured long and patiently the trials that beset her path when she chose to diverge from the beaten walks of female Plymdaledom. Had stood stoically enough the questionable distinction of being relegated to a place amid that large and ill-assorted family of “cranks,” feeling the discomfit and attending opprobrium to be far outbalanced by the satisfying consciousness of roaming the heights of free thought, and tasting the sweets of a spiritual emancipation.
The closing act of Eleanor’s young ladyhood, when she chose to be married without pre-announcement, without the paraphernalia of accessories so dear to a curious public – had been in keeping with previous methods distinguishing her career. The disappointed public cheated of its entertainment, was forced to seek such compensation for the loss as was offered in reflections that while condemning her present, were unsparing of her past, and full with damning prognostic of her future.
Charles Faraday, who added to his unembellished title that of Professor of Mathematics of the Plymdale University, had found in Eleanor Gail his ideal woman.
Indeed, she rather surpassed that ideal, which had of necessity been but an adorned picture of woman as he had known her. A mild emphasizing of her merits, a soft toning down of her defects had served to offer to his fancy a prototype of that bequoted creature.
“Not too good for human nature’s daily food,” yet so good that he had cherished no hope of beholding such a one in the flesh. Until Eleanor had come, supplanting his ideal, and making of that fanciful creation a very simpleton by contrast. In the beginning he had found her extremely good to look at, with her combination of graceful womanly charms, unmarred by self-conscious mannerisms that was as rare as it was engaging. Talking with her, he had caught a look from her eyes into his that he recognized at once as a free masonry of intellect. And the longer he knew her, the greater grew his wonder at the beautiful revelations of her mind that unfurled itself to his, like the curling petals of some hardy blossom that opens to the inviting warmth of the sun. It was not that Eleanor knew many things. According to her own modest estimate of herself, she knew nothing. There were school girls in Plymdale who surpassed her in the amount of their positive knowledge. But she was possessed of a clear intellect: sharp in its reasoning, strong and unprejudiced in its outlook. She was that rara avis, a logical woman – something which Faraday had not encountered in his life before. True, he was not hoary with age. At 30 the types of women he had met with were not legion; but he felt safe in doubting that the hedges of the future would grow logical women for him, more than they had borne such prodigies in the past.
He found Eleanor ready to take broad views of life and humanity; able to grasp a question and anticipate conclusions by a quick intuition which he himself reached by the slower, consecutive steps of reason.
During the months that shaped themselves into the cycle of a year these two dwelt together in the harmony of a united purpose.
Together they went looking for the good things of life, knocking at the closed doors of philosophy; venturing into the open fields of science, she, with uncertain steps, made steady by his help.
Whithersoever he led she followed, oftentimes in her eagerness taking the lead into unfamiliar ways in which he, weighted with a lingering conservatism, had hesitated to venture.
So did they grow in their oneness of thought to belong each so absolutely to the other that the idea seemed not to have come to them that this union might be made faster by marriage. Until one day it broke upon Faraday, like a revelation from the unknown, the possibility of making her his wife.
When he spoke, eager with the new awakened impulse, she laughingly replied:
“Why not?” She had thought of it long ago.
In entering upon their new life they decided to be governed by no precedential methods. Marriage was to be a form, that while fixing legally their relation to each other, was in no wise to touch the individuality of either; that was to be preserved intact. Each was to remain a free integral of humanity, responsible to no dominating exactions of so-called marriage laws. And the element that was to make possible such a union was trust in each other’s love, honor, courtesy, tempered by the reserving clause of readiness to meet the consequences of reciprocal liberty.
Faraday appreciated the need of offering to his wife advantages for culture which had been of impossible attainment during her girlhood.
Marriage, which marks too often the closing period of a woman’s intellectual existence, was to be in her case the open portal through which she might seek the embellishments that her strong, graceful mentality deserved.
An urgent desire with Eleanor was to acquire a thorough speaking knowledge of the French language. They agreed that a lengthy sojourn in Paris could be the only practical and reliable means of accomplishing such an end.
Faraday’s three months of vacation were to be spent by them in the idle happiness of a loitering honeymoon through the continent of Europe, then he would leave his wife in the French capital for a stay that might extend indefinitely – two, three years – as long as should be found needful, he returning to join her with the advent of each summer, to renew their love in a fresh and re-strengthened union.
And so, in May, they were married, and in September we find Eleanor established in the pension of the old couple Clairegobeau and comfortably ensconced in her pretty room that opened on to the Rue Rivoli, her heart full of sweet memories that were to cheer her coming solitude.
On the wall, looking always down at her with his quiet, kind glance, hung the portrait of her husband. Beneath it stood the fanciful little desk at which she hoped to spend many happy hours.
Books were everywhere, giving character to the graceful furnishings which their united taste had evolved from the paucity of the Clairegobeau germ, and out of the window was Paris!
Eleanor was supremely satisfied amid her new and attractive surroundings. The pang of parting from her husband seeming to lend sharp zest to a situation that offered the fulfillment of a cherished purpose.
Faraday, with the stronger man-nature, felt more keenly the discomfit of giving up a companionship that in its brief duration had been replete with the duality of accomplished delight and growing promise.
But to him also was the situation made acceptable by its involving a principle which he felt it incumbent upon him to uphold. He returned to Plymdale and to his duties at the university, and resumed his bachelor existence as quietly as though it had been interrupted but by the interval of a day.
The small public with which he had acquaintance, and which had forgotten his existence during the past few months, was fired anew with indignant astonishment at the effrontery of the situation which his singular coming back offered to their contemplation.
That two young people should presume to introduce such innovations into matrimony!
It was uncalled for!
It was improper!
It was indecent!
He must have already tired of her idiosyncrasies, since he had left her in Paris.
And in Paris, of all places, to leave a young woman alone! Why not at once in Hades?
She had been left in Paris forsooth to learn French. And since when was Mme. Belaire’s French, as it had been taught to select generations of Plymdalions, considered insufficient for the practical needs of existence as related by that foreign tongue?
But Faraday’s life was full with occupation and his brief moments of leisure were too precious to give to heeding the idle gossip that floated to his hearing and away again without holding his thoughts an instant.
He lived uninterruptedly a certain existence with his wife through the medium of letters. True, an inadequate substitute for her actual presence, but there was much satisfaction in this constant communion of thought between them.
They told such details of their daily lives as they thought worth the telling.
Their readings were discussed. Opinions exchanged. Newspaper cuttings sent back and forth, bearing upon questions that interested them. And what did not interest them?
Nothing was so large that they dared not look at it. Happenings, small in themselves, but big in their psychological comprehensiveness, held them with strange fascination. Her earnestness and intensity in such matters were extreme; but, happily, Faraday brought to this union humorous instincts, and an optimism that saved it from a too monotonous sombreness.
The young man had his friends in Plymdale. Certainly none that ever remotely approached the position which Eleanor held in that regard. She stood pre-eminent. She was himself.
But his nature was genial. He invited companionship from his fellow beings, who, however short that companionship might be, carried always a gratifying consciousness of having made their personalities felt.
The society in Plymdale which he most frequented was that of the Beatons.
Beaton père was a fellow professor, many years older than Faraday, but one of those men with whom time, after putting its customary stamp upon his outward being, took no further care.
The spirit of his youth had remained untouched, and formed the nucleus around which the family gathered, drawing the light of their own cheerfulness.
Mrs. Beaton was a woman whose aspirations went not further than the desire for her family’s good, and her bearing announced in its every feature, the satisfaction of completed hopes.
Of the daughters, Margaret, the eldest, was looked upon as slightly erratic, owing to a timid leaning in the direction of Woman’s Suffrage.
Her activity in that regard, taking the form of a desultory correspondence with members of a certain society of protest; the fashioning and donning of garments of mysterious shape, which, while stamping their wearer with the distinction of a quasi-emancipation, defeated the ultimate purpose of their construction by inflicting a personal discomfort that extended beyond the powers of long endurance. Miss Kitty Beaton, the youngest daughter, and just returned from boarding school, while clamoring for no priviledges doubtful of attainment and of remote and questionable benefit, with a Napoleonic grip, possessed herself of such rights as were at hand and exercised them in keeping the household under her capricious command.
She was at that age of blissful illusion when a girl is in love with her own youth and beauty and happiness. That age which heeds no purpose in the scope of creation further than may touch her majesty’s enjoyment. Who would not smilingly endure with that charming selfishness of youth, knowing that the rough hand of experience is inevitably descending to disturb the short-lived dream?
They were all clever people, bright and interesting, and in this family circle Faraday found an acceptable relaxation from work and enforced solitude.
If they ever doubted the wisdom or expediency of his domestic relations, courtesy withheld the expression of any such doubts. Their welcome was always complete in its friendliness, and the interest which they evinced in the absent Eleanor proved that she was held in the highest esteem.
With Beaton Faraday enjoyed that pleasant intercourse which may exist between men whose ways, while not too divergent, are yet divided by an appreciable interval.
But it remained for Kitty to touch him with her girlish charms in a way, which, though not too usual with Faraday, meant so little to the man that he did not take the trouble to resent it.
Her laughter and song, the restless motions of her bubbling happiness, he watched with the casual pleasure that one follows the playful gambols of a graceful kitten.
He liked the soft shining light of her eyes. When she was near him the velvet smoothness of her pink cheeks stirred him with a feeling that could have found satisfying expression in a kiss.
It is idle to suppose that even the most exemplary men go through life with their eyes closed to woman’s beauty and their senses steeled against its charm.
Faraday thought little of this feeling (and so should we if it were not outspoken).
In writing one day to his wife, with the cold-blooded impartiality of choosing a subject which he thought of neither more nor less prominence than the next, he descanted at some length upon the interesting emotions which Miss Kitty’s pretty femininity aroused in him.
If he had given serious thought to the expediency of touching upon such a theme with one’s wife, he still would not have been deterred. Was not Eleanor’s large comprehensiveness far above the littleness of ordinary women?
Did it not enter into the scheme of their lives, to keep free from prejudices that hold their sway over the masses?
But he thought not of that, for, after all, his interest in Kitty and his interest in his university class bore about an equal reference to Eleanor and his love for her.
His letter was sent, and he gave no second thought to the matter of its contents.
The months went by for Faraday with few distinctive features to mark them outside the enduring desire for his wife’s presence.
There had been a visit of sharp disturbance once when her customary letter failed him, and the tardy missive coming, carried an inexplicable coldness that dealt him a pain which, however, did not long survive a little judicious reflection and a very deluge of letters from Paris that shook him with their unusual ardor.
May had come again, and at its approach Faraday with the impatience of a hundred lovers hastened across the seas to join his Eleanor.
It was evening and Eleanor paced to and fro in her room, making the last of a series of efforts that she had been putting forth all day to fight down a misery of the heart, against which her reason was in armed rebellion. She had tried the strategy of simply ignoring its presence, but the attempt had failed utterly. During her daily walk it had embodied itself in every object that her eyes rested upon. It had enveloped her like a smoke mist, through which Paris looked more dull than the desolation of Sahara.
She had thought to displace it with work, but, like the disturbing element in the chemist’s crucible, it rose again and again overspreading the surface of her labor.
Alone in her room, the hour had come when she meant to succeed by the unaided force of reason – proceeding first to make herself bodily comfortable in the folds of a majestic flowing gown, in which she looked a distressed goddess.
Her hair hung heavy and free about her shoulders, for those reasoning powers were to be spurred by a plunging of white fingers into the golden mass.
In this disheveled state Eleanor’s presence seemed too large for the room and its delicate furnishings. The place fitted well an Eleanor in repose but not an Eleanor who swept the narrow confines like an incipient cyclone.
Reason did good work and stood its ground bravely, but against it were the too great odds of a woman’s heart, backed by the soft prejudices of a far-reaching heredity.
She finally sank into a chair before her pretty writing desk. The golden head fell upon the outspread arms waiting to receive it, and she burst into a storm of sobs and tears. It was the signal of surrender.
It is a gratifying privilege to be permitted to ignore the reason of such unusual disturbance in a woman of Eleanor’s high qualifications. The cause of that abandonment of grief will never be learned unless she chooses to disclose it herself.
When Faraday first folded his wife in his arms he saw but the Eleanor of his constant dreams. But he soon began to perceive how more beautiful she had grown; with a richness of coloring and fullness of health that Plymdale had never been able to bestow. And the object of her stay in Paris was gaining fast to accomplishment, for she had already acquired a knowledge of French that would not require much longer to perfect.
They sat together in her room discussing plans for the summer, when a timid knock at the door caused Eleanor to look up, to see the little housemaid eyeing her with the glance of a fellow conspirator and holding in her hand a card that she suffered to be but partly visible.
Eleanor hastily approached her, and reading the name upon the card thrust it into her pocket, exchanging some whispered words with the girl, among which were audible, “excuse me,” “engaged,” “another time.” She came back to her husband looking a little flustered, to resume the conversation where it had been interrupted and he offered no inquires about her mysterious caller.
Entering the salon not many days later he found that in doing so he interrupted a conversation between his wife and a very striking looking gentleman who seemed on the point of taking his leave.
They were both disconcerted; she especially, in bowing, almost thrusting him out, had the appearance of wanting to run away; to do any thing but meet her husband’s glance.
He asked with assumed indifference who her friend might be.
“Oh, no one special,” with a hopeless attempt at brazenness.
He accepted the situation without protest, only indulging the reflection that Eleanor was losing something of her frankness.
But when his wife asked him on another occasion to dispense with her company for a whole afternoon, saying that she had an urgent call upon her time, he began to wonder if there might not be modifications to this marital liberty of which he was so staunch an advocate.
She left him with a hundred little endearments that she seemed to have acquired with her French.
He forced himself to the writing of a few urgent letters, but his restlessness did not permit him to do more.
It drove him to ugly thoughts, then to the means of dispelling them.
He gazed out of the window, wondered why he was remaining indoors, and followed up the reflection by seizing his hat and plunging out into the street.
The Paris boulevards of a day in early summer are calculated to dispel almost any ache but one of that nature, which was making itself incipiently felt with Faraday.
It was at that stage when it moves a man to take exception at the inadequacy of every thing that is offered to his contemplation or entertainment.
The sun was too hot.
The shop windows were vulgar; lacking artistic detail in their make-up.
How could he ever have found the Paris women attractive? They had lost their chic. Most of them were scrawny – not worth looking at.
He thought to go and stroll through the galleries of art. He knew Eleanor would wish to be with him; then he was tempted to go alone.
Finally, more tired from inward than outward restlessness, he took refuge at one of the small tables of a café, called for a “Mazarin,” and, so seated for an unheeded time, let the panorama of Paris pass before his indifferent eyes.
When suddenly one of the scenes in this shifting show struck him with stunning effect.
It was the sight of his wife riding in a fiacre with her caller of a few days back, both conversing and in high spirits.
He remained for a moment enervated, then the blood came tingling back into his veins like fire, making his finger ends twitch with a desire (full worthy of any one of the “prejudiced masses”) to tear the scoundrel from his seat and paint the boulevard red with his villainous blood.
A rush of wild intentions crowded into his brain.
Should he follow and demand an explanation? Leave Paris without ever looking into her face again? and more not worthy of the man.
It is right to say that his better self and better senses came quickly back to him.
That first revolt was like the unwilling protest of the flesh against the surgeon’s knife before a man has steeled himself to its endurance.
Every thing came back to him from their short, common past – their dreams, their large intentions for the shaping of their lives. Here was the first test, and should he be the one to cry out, “I cannot endure it.”
When he returned to the pension, Eleanor was impatiently waiting for him in the entry, radiant with gladness at his coming.
She was under a suppressed excitement that prevented her noting his disturbed appearance.
She took his listless hand and led him into the small drawing-room that adjoined their sleeping chamber.
There stood her companion of the fiacre, smiling as was she at the pleasure of introducing him to another Eleanor disposed on the wall in the best possible light to display the gorgeous radiance of her wonderful beauty and the skill of the man who had portrayed it.
The most sanguine hopes of Eleanor and her artist could not have anticipated anything like the rapture with which Faraday received this surprise.
“Monsieur l’Artiste” went away with his belief in the undemonstrativeness of the American very much shaken; and in his pocket substantial evidence of American appreciation of art.
Then the story was told how the portrait was intended as a surprise for his arrival. How there had been delay in its completion. The artist had required one more sitting, which she gave him that day, and the two had brought the picture home in the fiacre, he to give it the final advantages of a judicious light; to witness its effect upon Mons. Faraday and finally the excusable wish to be presented to the husband of the lady who had captivated his deepest admiration and esteem.
“You shall take it home with you,” said Eleanor.
Both were looking at the lovely creation by the soft light of a reckless expenditure of bougie.
“Yes, dearest,” he answered, with feeble elation at the prospect of returning home with that exquisite piece of inanimation.
“Have you engaged your return passage?” she asked.
She sat at his knee, arrayed in the gown that had one evening clothed such a goddess in distress.
“Oh, no. There’s plenty time for that,” was his answer. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” and after a while:
“Charlie, I think – I mean, don’t you think – I have made wonderful progress in French?”
“You’ve done marvels, Nellie. I find no difference between you French and Mme. Clairegobeau’s, except that yours is far prettier.”
“Yes?” she rejoined, with a little squeeze of the hand.
“I mayn’t be right and I want you to give me your candid opinion. I believe Mme. Belaire – now that I have gone so far – don’t you think – hadn’t you better engage passage for two?”
His answer took the form of a pantomimic rapture of assenting gratefulness, during which each gave speechless assurance of a love that could never more take a second place.
“Nellie,” he asked, looking into the face that nestled in close reach of his warm kisses, “I have often wanted to know, though you needn’t tell it if it doesn’t suit you,” he added, laughing, “why you once failed to write to me, and then sent a letter whose coldness gave me a week’s heart trouble?”
She flushed, and hesitated, but finally answered him bravely, “It was when – when you cared so much for that Kitty Beaton.”
Astonishment for a moment deprived him of speech.
“But Eleanor! In the name of reason! It isn’t possible!”
“I know all you would say,” she replied, “I have been over the whole ground myself, over and over, but it is useless. I have found that there are certain things which a woman can’t philosophize about, any more than she can about death when it touches that which is near to her.”
“But you don’t think-“
“Hush! don’t speak of it ever again. I think nothing!” closing her eyes, and with a little shudder drawing closer to him.
As he kissed his wife with passionate fondness, Faraday thought, “I love her none the less for it, but my Nellie is only a woman, after all.”
With man’s usual inconsistency, he had quite forgotten the episode of the portrait.