As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmonde drove over to L'Abrito see Desiree and the baby.
It made her laugh to think of Desiree with a baby. Why, itseemed but yesterday that Desiree was little more than a babyherself; when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmondehad found her lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar.
The little one awoke in his arms and began to cry for "Dada."That was as much as she could do or say. Some people thought shemight have strayed there of her own accord, for she was of thetoddling age. The prevailing belief was that she had beenpurposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon,late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Mais kept, justbelow the plantation. In time Madame Valmonde abandoned everyspeculation but the one that Desiree had been sent to her by abeneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing thatshe was without child of the flesh. For the girl grew to bebeautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,--the idol of Valmonde.
It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stonepillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before,that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen inlove with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love,as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had notloved her before; for he had known her since his father broughthim home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there.The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate,swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or likeanything that drives headlong over all obstacles.
Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered:that is, the girl's obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyesand did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless.What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of theoldest and proudest in Louisiana? He ordered the corbeille fromParis, and contained himself with what patience he could until itarrived; then they were married.
Madame Valmonde had not seen Desiree and the baby for fourweeks. When she reached L'Abri she shuddered at the first sight ofit, as she always did. It was a sad looking place, which for manyyears had not known the gentle presence of a mistress, old MonsieurAubigny having married and buried his wife in France, and shehaving loved her own land too well ever to leave it. The roof camedown steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the widegalleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemnoaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reachingbranches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny's rule was astrict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to begay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going andindulgent lifetime.
The young mother was recovering slowly, and lay full length,in her soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch. The baby wasbeside her, upon her arm, where he had fallen asleep, at herbreast. The yellow nurse woman sat beside a window fanningherself.
Madame Valmonde bent her portly figure over Desiree and kissedher, holding her an instant tenderly in her arms. Then she turnedto the child.
"This is not the baby!" she exclaimed, in startled tones.French was the language spoken at Valmonde in those days.
"I knew you would be astonished," laughed Desiree, "at the wayhe has grown. The little cochon de lait! Look at his legs,mamma, and his hands and fingernails,--real finger-nails. Zandrinehad to cut them this morning. Isn't it true, Zandrine?"
The woman bowed her turbaned head majestically, "Mais si, Madame."
"And the way he cries," went on Desiree, "is deafening.Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin."
Madame Valmonde had never removed her eyes from the child.She lifted it and walked with it over to the window that waslightest. She scanned the baby narrowly, then looked assearchingly at Zandrine, whose face was turned to gaze across thefields.
"Yes, the child has grown, has changed," said Madame Valmonde,slowly, as she replaced it beside its mother. "What does Armand say?"
Desiree's face became suffused with a glow that was happiness itself.
"Oh, Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe,chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he saysnot,--that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn'ttrue. I know he says that to please me. And mamma," she added,drawing Madame Valmonde's head down to her, and speaking in awhisper, "he hasn't punished one of them--not one of them--sincebaby is born. Even Negrillon, who pretended to have burnt his legthat he might rest from work--he only laughed, and said Negrillonwas a great scamp. oh, mamma, I'm so happy; it frightens me."
What Desiree said was true. Marriage, and later the birth ofhis son had softened Armand Aubigny's imperious and exacting naturegreatly. This was what made the gentle Desiree so happy, for sheloved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but lovedhim. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.But Armand's dark, handsome face had not often been disfiguredby frowns since the day he fell in love with her.
When the baby was about three months old, Desiree awoke oneday to the conviction that there was something in the air menacingher peace. It was at first too subtle to grasp. It had only beena disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks;unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly accountfor their coming. Then a strange, an awful change in her husband'smanner, which she dared not ask him to explain. When he spoke toher, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemedto have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there,avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse. Andthe very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in hisdealings with the slaves. Desiree was miserable enough to die.
She sat in her room, one hot afternoon, in her peignoir,listlessly drawing through her fingers the strands of her long,silky brown hair that hung about her shoulders. The baby, halfnaked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like asumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy. One of LaBlanche's little quadroon boys--half naked too--stood fanning thechild slowly with a fan of peacock feathers. Desiree's eyes hadbeen fixed absently and sadly upon the baby, while she was strivingto penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about her.She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and backagain; over and over. "Ah!" It was a cry that she could not help;which she was not conscious of having uttered. The blood turnedlike ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face.
She tried to speak to the little quadroon boy; but no soundwould come, at first. When he heard his name uttered, he lookedup, and his mistress was pointing to the door. He laid aside thegreat, soft fan, and obediently stole away, over the polishedfloor, on his bare tiptoes.
She stayed motionless, with gaze riveted upon her child, andher face the picture of fright.
Presently her husband entered the room, and without noticingher, went to a table and began to search among some papers whichcovered it.
"Armand," she called to him, in a voice which must havestabbed him, if he was human. But he did not notice. "Armand,"she said again. Then she rose and tottered towards him. "Armand,"she panted once more, clutching his arm, "look at our child. Whatdoes it mean? tell me."
He coldly but gently loosened her fingers from about his armand thrust the hand away from him. "Tell me what it means!"she cried despairingly.
"It means," he answered lightly, "that the child is not white;it means that you are not white."
A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for hernerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. "It is a lie; it isnot true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyesare gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,"seizing his wrist. "Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,"she laughed hysterically.
"As white as La Blanche's," he returned cruelly; and went awayleaving her alone with their child.
When she could hold a pen in her hand, she sent a despairingletter to Madame Valmonde.
"My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told meI am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true. You mustknow it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be sounhappy, and live."
The answer that came was brief:
"My own Desiree: Come home to Valmonde; back to your motherwho loves you. Come with your child."
When the letter reached Desiree she went with it to herhusband's study, and laid it open upon the desk before which hesat. She was like a stone image: silent, white, motionless aftershe placed it there.
In silence he ran his cold eyes over the written words.
He said nothing. "Shall I go, Armand?" she asked in tones sharpwith agonized suspense.
"Do you want me to go?"
"Yes, I want you to go."
He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly withhim; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when hestabbed thus into his wife's soul. Moreover he no longer lovedher, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon hishome and his name.
She turned away like one stunned by a blow, and walked slowlytowards the door, hoping he would call her back.
"Good-by, Armand," she moaned.
He did not answer her. That was his last blow at fate.
Desiree went in search of her child. Zandrine was pacing thesombre gallery with it. She took the little one from the nurse'sarms with no word of explanation, and descending the steps, walkedaway, under the live-oak branches.
It was an October afternoon; the sun was just sinking. Out inthe still fields the negroes were picking cotton.
Desiree had not changed the thin white garment nor theslippers which she wore. Her hair was uncovered and the sun's raysbrought a golden gleam from its brown meshes. She did not take thebroad, beaten road which led to the far-off plantation of Valmonde.She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised hertender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds.
She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thickalong the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not comeback again.
Some weeks later there was a curious scene enacted at L'Abri.In the centre of the smoothly swept back yard was a great bonfire.Armand Aubigny sat in the wide hallway that commanded a view of thespectacle; and it was he who dealt out to a half dozen negroes thematerial which kept this fire ablaze.
A graceful cradle of willow, with all its dainty furbishings,was laid upon the pyre, which had already been fed with therichness of a priceless layette. Then there were silk gowns,and velvet and satin ones added to these; laces, too, andembroideries; bonnets and gloves; for the corbeille had been ofrare quality.
The last thing to go was a tiny bundle of letters; innocentlittle scribblings that Desiree had sent to him during the days oftheir espousal. There was the remnant of one back in the drawerfrom which he took them. But it was not Desiree's; it was part ofan old letter from his mother to his father. He read it. She wasthanking God for the blessing of her husband's love:--
"But above all," she wrote, "night and day, I thank the goodGod for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand willnever know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the racethat is cursed with the brand of slavery."
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