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 Ma'ame Pelagie

by Kate Chopin

When the war began, there stood on Cote Joyeuse an imposing
mansion of red brick, shaped like the Pantheon. A grove of
majestic live-oaks surrounded it.
Thirty years later, only the thick walls were standing, with
the dull red brick showing here and there through a matted growth
of clinging vines. The huge round pillars were intact; so to some
extent was the stone flagging of hall and portico. There had been
no home so stately along the whole stretch of Cote Joyeuse. Every
one knew that, as they knew it had cost Philippe Valmet sixty
thousand dollars to build, away back in 1840. No one was in danger
of forgetting that fact, so long as his daughter Pelagie survived.
She was a queenly, white-haired woman of fifty. "Ma'ame Pelagie,"
they called her, though she was unmarried, as was her sister
Pauline, a child in Ma'ame Pelagie's eyes; a child of thirty-five.
The two lived alone in a three-roomed cabin, almost within the
shadow of the ruin. They lived for a dream, for Ma'ame Pelagie's
dream, which was to rebuild the old home.
It would be pitiful to tell how their days were spent to
accomplish this end; how the dollars had been saved for thirty
years and the picayunes hoarded; and yet, not half enough gathered!
But Ma'ame Pelagie felt sure of twenty years of life before her,
and counted upon as many more for her sister. And what could not
come to pass in twenty--in forty--years?
Often, of pleasant afternoons, the two would drink their black
coffee, seated upon the stone-flagged portico whose canopy was the
blue sky of Louisiana. They loved to sit there in the silence,
with only each other and the sheeny, prying lizards for company,
talking of the old times and planning for the new; while light
breezes stirred the tattered vines high up among the columns, where
owls nested.
"We can never hope to have all just as it was, Pauline,"
Ma'ame Pelagie would say; "perhaps the marble pillars of the salon
will have to be replaced by wooden ones, and the crystal candelabra
left out. Should you be willing, Pauline?"
"Oh, yes Sesoeur, I shall be willing." It was always, "Yes,
Sesoeur," or "No, Sesoeur," "Just as you please, Sesoeur," with
poor little Mam'selle Pauline. For what did she remember of that
old life and that old spendor? Only a faint gleam here and there;
the half-consciousness of a young, uneventful existence; and then
a great crash. That meant the nearness of war; the revolt of
slaves; confusion ending in fire and flame through which she was
borne safely in the strong arms of Pelagie, and carried to the log
cabin which was still their home. Their brother, Leandre, had
known more of it all than Pauline, and not so much as Pelagie. He
had left the management of the big plantation with all its memories
and traditions to his older sister, and had gone away to dwell in
cities. That was many years ago. Now, Leandre's business called
him frequently and upon long journeys from home, and his motherless
daughter was coming to stay with her aunts at Cote Joyeuse.
They talked about it, sipping their coffee on the ruined
portico. Mam'selle Pauline was terribly excited; the flush that
throbbed into her pale, nervous face showed it; and she locked her
thin fingers in and out incessantly.
"But what shall we do with La Petite, Sesoeur? Where shall we
put her? How shall we amuse her? Ah, Seigneur!"
"She will sleep upon a cot in the room next to ours,"
responded Ma'ame Pelagie, "and live as we do. She knows how we
live, and why we live; her father has told her. She knows we have
money and could squander it if we chose. Do not fret, Pauline; let
us hope La Petite is a true Valmet."
Then Ma'ame Pelagie rose with stately deliberation and went to
saddle her horse, for she had yet to make her last daily round
through the fields; and Mam'selle Pauline threaded her way slowly
among the tangled grasses toward the cabin.
The coming of La Petite, bringing with her as she did the
pungent atmosphere of an outside and dimly known world, was a shock
to these two, living their dream-life. The girl was quite as tall
as her aunt Pelagie, with dark eyes that reflected joy as a still
pool reflects the light of stars; and her rounded cheek was tinged
like the pink crepe myrtle. Mam'selle Pauline kissed her and
trembled. Ma'ame Pelagie looked into her eyes with a searching
gaze, which seemed to seek a likeness of the past in the living
And they made room between them for this young life.
La Petite had determined upon trying to fit herself to the
strange, narrow existence which she knew awaited her at Cote
Joyeuse. It went well enough at first. Sometimes she followed
Ma'ame Pelagie into the fields to note how the cotton was opening,
ripe and white; or to count the ears of corn upon the hardy stalks.
But oftener she was with her aunt Pauline, assisting in household
offices, chattering of her brief past, or walking with the older
woman arm-in-arm under the trailing moss of the giant oaks.
Mam'selle Pauline's steps grew very buoyant that summer, and
her eyes were sometimes as bright as a bird's, unless La Petite
were away from her side, when they would lose all other light but
one of uneasy expectancy. The girl seemed to love her well in
return, and called her endearingly Tan'tante. But as the time went
by, La Petite became very quiet,--not listless, but thoughtful, and
slow in her movements. Then her cheeks began to pale, till they
were tinged like the creamy plumes of the white crepe myrtle that
grew in the ruin.
One day when she sat within its shadow, between her aunts,
holding a hand of each, she said: "Tante Pelagie, I must tell you
something, you and Tan'tante." She spoke low, but clearly and firmly.
"I love you both,--please remember that I love you both. But I must go
away from you. I can't live any longer here at Cote Joyeuse. "
A spasm passed through Mam'selle Pauline's delicate frame. La Petite
could feel the twitch of it in the wiry fingers that were intertwined
with her own. Ma'ame Pelagie remained unchanged and motionless.
No human eye could penetrate so deep as to see the satisfaction
which her soul felt. She said: "What do you mean, Petite?
Your father has sent you to us, and I am sure it is his wish that you remain."
"My father loves me, tante Pelagie, and such will not be his
wish when he knows. Oh!" she continued with a restless, movement,
"it is as though a weight were pressing me backward here. I must
live another life; the life I lived before. I want to know things
that are happening from day to day over the world, and hear them
talked about. I want my music, my books, my companions. If I had
known no other life but this one of privation, I suppose it would
be different. If I had to live this life, I should make the best
of it. But I do not have to; and you know, tante Pelagie, you do
not need to. It seems to me," she added in a whisper, "that it is
a sin against myself. Ah, Tan'tante!--what is the matter with
It was nothing; only a slight feeling of faintness, that would
soon pass. She entreated them to take no notice; but they brought
her some water and fanned her with a palmetto leaf.
But that night, in the stillness of the room, Mam'selle
Pauline sobbed and would not be comforted. Ma'ame Pelagie took her
in her arms.
"Pauline, my little sister Pauline," she entreated, "I never
have seen you like this before. Do you no longer love me?
Have we not been happy together, you and I?"
"Oh, yes, Sesoeur."
"Is it because La Petite is going away?"
"Yes, Sesoeur."
"Then she is dearer to you than I!" spoke Ma'ame Pelagie with
sharp resentment. "Than I, who held you and warmed you in my arms
the day you were born; than I, your mother, father, sister,
everything that could cherish you. Pauline, don't tell me that."
Mam'selle Pauline tried to talk through her sobs.
"I can't explain it to you, Sesoeur. I don't understand it
myself. I love you as I have always loved you; next to God. But if
La Petite goes away I shall die. I can't understand,--help me,
Sesoeur. She seems--she seems like a saviour; like one who had
come and taken me by the hand and was leading me
somewhere-somewhere I want to go."
Ma'ame Pelagie had been sitting beside the bed in her peignoir
and slippers. She held the hand of her sister who lay there, and
smoothed down the woman's soft brown hair. She said not a word,
and the silence was broken only by Mam'selle Pauline's continued
sobs. Once Ma'ame Pelagie arose to mix a drink of orange-flower
water, which she gave to her sister, as she would have offered it
to a nervous, fretful child. Almost an hour passed before Ma'ame
Pelagie spoke again. Then she said:--
"Pauline, you must cease that sobbing, now, and sleep. You will
make yourself ill. La Petite will not go away. Do you hear me?
Do you understand? She will stay, I promise you."
Mam'selle Pauline could not clearly comprehend, but she had
great faith in the word of her sister, and soothed by the promise
and the touch of Ma'ame Pelagie's strong, gentle hand, she fell asleep.
Ma'ame Pelagie, when she saw that her sister slept, arose
noiselessly and stepped outside upon the low-roofed narrow gallery.
She did not linger there, but with a step that was hurried and agitated,
she crossed the distance that divided her cabin from the ruin.
The night was not a dark one, for the sky was clear and the
moon resplendent. But light or dark would have made no difference
to Ma'ame Pelagie. It was not the first time she had stolen away
to the ruin at night-time, when the whole plantation slept; but she
never before had been there with a heart so nearly broken. She was
going there for the last time to dream her dreams; to see the
visions that hitherto had crowded her days and nights, and to bid
them farewell.
There was the first of them, awaiting her upon the very
portal; a robust old white-haired man, chiding her for returning
home so late. There are guests to be entertained. Does she not
know it? Guests from the city and from the near plantations. Yes,
she knows it is late. She had been abroad with Felix, and they did
not notice how the time was speeding. Felix is there; he will
explain it all. He is there beside her, but she does not want to
hear what he will tell her father.
Ma'ame Pelagie had sunk upon the bench where she and her
sister so often came to sit. Turning, she gazed in through the
gaping chasm of the window at her side. The interior of the ruin
is ablaze. Not with the moonlight, for that is faint beside the
other one--the sparkle from the crystal candelabra, which negroes,
moving noiselessly and respectfully about, are lighting, one after
the other. How the gleam of them reflects and glances from the
polished marble pillars!
The room holds a number of guests. There is old Monsieur
Lucien Santien, leaning against one of the pillars, and laughing at
something which Monsieur Lafirme is telling him, till his fat
shoulders shake. His son Jules is with him--Jules, who wants to
marry her. She laughs. She wonders if Felix has told her father
yet. There is young Jerome Lafirme playing at checkers upon the
sofa with Leandre. Little Pauline stands annoying them and
disturbing the game. Leandre reproves her. She begins to cry, and
old black Clementine, her nurse, who is not far off, limps across
the room to pick her up and carry her away. How sensitive the
little one is! But she trots about and takes care of herself
better than she did a year or two ago, when she fell upon
the stone hall floor and raised a great "bo-bo" on her forehead.
Pelagie was hurt and angry enough about it; and she ordered rugs
and buffalo robes to be brought and laid thick upon the tiles, till
the little one's steps were surer.
"Il ne faut pas faire mal a Pauline." She was saying it aloud
--"faire mal a Pauline."
But she gazes beyond the salon, back into the big dining hall,
where the white crepe myrtle grows. Ha! how low that bat has
circled. It has struck Ma'ame Pelagie full on the breast. She
does not know it. She is beyond there in the dining hall, where
her father sits with a group of friends over their wine. As usual
they are talking politics. How tiresome! She has heard them say
"la guerre" oftener than once. La guerre. Bah! She and Felix have
something pleasanter to talk about, out under the oaks, or back in
the shadow of the oleanders.
But they were right! The sound of a cannon, shot at Sumter,
has rolled across the Southern States, and its echo is heard along
the whole stretch of Cote Joyeuse.
Yet Pelagie does not believe it. Not till La Ricaneuse stands
before her with bare, black arms akimbo, uttering a volley of vile
abuse and of brazen impudence. Pelagie wants to kill her. But yet
she will not believe. Not till Felix comes to her in the chamber
above the dining hall--there where that trumpet vine hangs--comes
to say good-by to her. The hurt which the big brass buttons of his
new gray uniform pressed into the tender flesh of her bosom has
never left it. She sits upon the sofa, and he beside her, both
speechless with pain. That room would not have been altered. Even
the sofa would have been there in the same spot, and Ma'ame Pelagie
had meant all along, for thirty years, all along, to lie there upon
it some day when the time came to die.
But there is no time to weep, with the enemy at the door. The
door has been no barrier. They are clattering through the halls
now, drinking the wines, shattering the crystal and glass, slashing
the portraits.
One of them stands before her and tells her to leave the
house. She slaps his face. How the stigma stands out red as blood
upon his blanched cheek!
Now there is a roar of fire and the flames are bearing down
upon her motionless figure. She wants to show them how a daughter
of Louisiana can perish before her conquerors. But little Pauline
clings to her knees in an agony of terror. Little Pauline must be
"Il ne faut pas faire mal a Pauline." Again she is saying it
aloud--"faire mal a Pauline."
The night was nearly spent; Ma'ame Pelagie had glided from the
bench upon which she had rested, and for hours lay prone upon the
stone flagging, motionless. When she dragged herself to her feet
it was to walk like one in a dream. About the great, solemn
pillars, one after the other, she reached her arms, and pressed her
cheek and her lips upon the senseless brick.
"Adieu, adieu!" whispered Ma'ame Pelagie.
There was no longer the moon to guide her steps across the
familiar pathway to the cabin. The brightest light in the sky was
Venus, that swung low in the east. The bats had ceased to beat
their wings about the ruin. Even the mocking-bird that had warbled
for hours in the old mulberry-tree had sung himself asleep. That
darkest hour before the day was mantling the earth. Ma'ame Pelagie
hurried through the wet, clinging grass, beating aside the heavy
moss that swept across her face, walking on toward the cabin-toward
Pauline. Not once did she look back upon the ruin that brooded
like a huge monster--a black spot in the darkness that enveloped
Little more than a year later the transformation which the old
Valmet place had undergone was the talk and wonder of Cote Joyeuse.
One would have looked in vain for the ruin; it was no longer there;
neither was the log cabin. But out in the open, where the sun
shone upon it, and the breezes blew about it, was a shapely
structure fashioned from woods that the forests of the State had
furnished. It rested upon a solid foundation of brick.
Upon a corner of the pleasant gallery sat Leandre smoking his
afternoon cigar, and chatting with neighbors who had called. This
was to be his pied a terre now; the home where his sisters and
his daughter dwelt. The laughter of young people was heard out
under the trees, and within the house where La Petite was playing
upon the piano. With the enthusiasm of a young artist she drew
from the keys strains that seemed marvelously beautiful to
Mam'selle Pauline, who stood enraptured near her. Mam'selle
Pauline had been touched by the re-creation of Valmet. Her cheek
was as full and almost as flushed as La Petite's. The years were
falling away from her.
Ma'ame Pelagie had been conversing with her brother and his
friends. Then she turned and walked away; stopping to listen
awhile to the music which La Petite was making. But it was only
for a moment. She went on around the curve of the veranda, where
she found herself alone. She stayed there, erect, holding to the
banister rail and looking out calmly in the distance across the
She was dressed in black, with the white kerchief she always wore
folded across her bosom. Her thick, glossy hair rose like a silver
diadem from her brow. In her deep, dark eyes smouldered the light
of fires that would never flame. She had grown very old.
Years instead of months seemed to have passed over her
since the night she bade farewell to her visions.
Poor Ma'ame Pelagie! How could it be different! While the
outward pressure of a young and joyous existence had forced her
footsteps into the light, her soul had stayed in the shadow of the
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