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 Desiree's Baby

by Kate Chopin


As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmonde drove over to L'Abri
to see Desiree and the baby.
It made her laugh to think of Desiree with a baby. Why, it
seemed but yesterday that Desiree was little more than a baby
herself; when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmonde
had 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 she
might have strayed there of her own accord, for she was of the
toddling age. The prevailing belief was that she had been
purposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon,
late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Mais kept, just
below the plantation. In time Madame Valmonde abandoned every
speculation but the one that Desiree had been sent to her by a
beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing that
she was without child of the flesh. For the girl grew to be
beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,--the idol of Valmonde.
It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone
pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before,
that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in
love 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 not
loved her before; for he had known her since his father brought
him 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 like
anything 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 eyes
and did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless.
What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the
oldest and proudest in Louisiana? He ordered the corbeille from
Paris, and contained himself with what patience he could until it
arrived; then they were married.
Madame Valmonde had not seen Desiree and the baby for four
weeks. When she reached L'Abri she shuddered at the first sight of
it, as she always did. It was a sad looking place, which for many
years had not known the gentle presence of a mistress, old Monsieur
Aubigny having married and buried his wife in France, and she
having loved her own land too well ever to leave it. The roof came
down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide
galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn
oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching
branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny's rule was a
strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be
gay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going and
indulgent lifetime.
The young mother was recovering slowly, and lay full length,
in her soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch. The baby was
beside her, upon her arm, where he had fallen asleep, at her
breast. The yellow nurse woman sat beside a window fanning
Madame Valmonde bent her portly figure over Desiree and kissed
her, holding her an instant tenderly in her arms. Then she turned
to 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 way
he has grown. The little cochon de lait! Look at his legs,
mamma, and his hands and fingernails,--real finger-nails. Zandrine
had 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 was
lightest. She scanned the baby narrowly, then looked as
searchingly at Zandrine, whose face was turned to gaze across the
"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 says
not,--that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't
true. I know he says that to please me. And mamma," she added,
drawing Madame Valmonde's head down to her, and speaking in a
whisper, "he hasn't punished one of them--not one of them--since
baby is born. Even Negrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg
that he might rest from work--he only laughed, and said Negrillon
was a great scamp. oh, mamma, I'm so happy; it frightens me."
What Desiree said was true. Marriage, and later the birth of
his son had softened Armand Aubigny's imperious and exacting nature
greatly. This was what made the gentle Desiree so happy, for she
loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved
him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.
But Armand's dark, handsome face had not often been disfigured
by frowns since the day he fell in love with her.
When the baby was about three months old, Desiree awoke one
day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing
her peace. It was at first too subtle to grasp. It had only been
a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks;
unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account
for their coming. Then a strange, an awful change in her husband's
manner, which she dared not ask him to explain. When he spoke to
her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed
to have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there,
avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse. And
the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his
dealings 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, half
naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a
sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy. One of La
Blanche's little quadroon boys--half naked too--stood fanning the
child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers. Desiree's eyes had
been fixed absently and sadly upon the baby, while she was striving
to penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about her.
She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and back
again; over and over. "Ah!" It was a cry that she could not help;
which she was not conscious of having uttered. The blood turned
like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face.
She tried to speak to the little quadroon boy; but no sound
would come, at first. When he heard his name uttered, he looked
up, and his mistress was pointing to the door. He laid aside the
great, soft fan, and obediently stole away, over the polished
floor, on his bare tiptoes.
She stayed motionless, with gaze riveted upon her child, and
her face the picture of fright.
Presently her husband entered the room, and without noticing
her, went to a table and began to search among some papers which
covered it.
"Armand," she called to him, in a voice which must have
stabbed 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. What
does it mean? tell me."
He coldly but gently loosened her fingers from about his arm
and 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 her
nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. "It is a lie; it is
not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes
are 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 away
leaving her alone with their child.
When she could hold a pen in her hand, she sent a despairing
letter to Madame Valmonde.
"My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told me
I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true. You must
know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so
unhappy, and live."
The answer that came was brief:
"My own Desiree: Come home to Valmonde; back to your mother
who loves you. Come with your child."
When the letter reached Desiree she went with it to her
husband's study, and laid it open upon the desk before which he
sat. She was like a stone image: silent, white, motionless after
she 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 sharp
with agonized suspense.
"Yes, go."
"Do you want me to go?"
"Yes, I want you to go."
He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with
him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he
stabbed thus into his wife's soul. Moreover he no longer loved
her, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his
home and his name.
She turned away like one stunned by a blow, and walked slowly
towards 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 the
sombre gallery with it. She took the little one from the nurse's
arms with no word of explanation, and descending the steps, walked
away, under the live-oak branches.
It was an October afternoon; the sun was just sinking. Out in
the still fields the negroes were picking cotton.
Desiree had not changed the thin white garment nor the
slippers which she wore. Her hair was uncovered and the sun's rays
brought a golden gleam from its brown meshes. She did not take the
broad, beaten road which led to the far-off plantation of Valmonde.
She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her
tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds.
She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick
along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come
back 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 the
spectacle; and it was he who dealt out to a half dozen negroes the
material 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 the
richness of a priceless layette. Then there were silk gowns,
and velvet and satin ones added to these; laces, too, and
embroideries; bonnets and gloves; for the corbeille had been of
rare quality.
The last thing to go was a tiny bundle of letters; innocent
little scribblings that Desiree had sent to him during the days of
their espousal. There was the remnant of one back in the drawer
from which he took them. But it was not Desiree's; it was part of
an old letter from his mother to his father. He read it. She was
thanking God for the blessing of her husband's love:--
"But above all," she wrote, "night and day, I thank the good
God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will
never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race
that is cursed with the brand of slavery."

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