Charlie by Kate Chopin — full text of a 1900 short story
By Taylor Jasmine | On January 22, 2021 | Updated May 29, 2021 | Comments (0)
Kate Chopin’s long short story (very nearly a novella) “Charlie” was written in 1900 but wasn’t published until 1969, when it appeared in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, edited by Per Seyersted (Louisiana State University Press).
Published the year following The Awakening (which at the time was deemed scandalous), Chopin sent “Charlie” to Youth’s Companion, a magazine that had published other stories by her, but it was rejected. It seems that she decided not to send it out again.
In his analysis of “Charlie,” Francis Booth (excerpted from his book Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction) writes:
With her gender-neutral name, her masculine interests and her many sisters, Kate Chopin’s Charlie Laborde is in many respects Jo March’s immediate successor. And in her fondness for and friendliness with the black servants on her father’s estate in New Orleans, she is a precursor to Carson McCullers’ Frankie Addams of A Member of the Wedding.
And, like many of her successors, she loves her father above anyone else in the world. In turn, her father is proud of her, in her role as his only – substitute – son. ‘Charlie could ride and shoot and fish; she was untiring and fearless. In many ways she filled the place of that ideal son he had always hope for and that had never come.’
In the space of this short story/novella, Charlie, who is seventeen at the beginning, does come of age, moving from tomboy to lady to mistress of her father’s estate.”
See another full analysis of “Charlie” at KateChopin.org.
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Charlie by Kate Chopin
Six of Mr. Laborde’s charming daughters had been assembled for the past half hour in the study room. The seventh, Charlotte, or Charlie as she was commonly called, had not yet made her appearance. The study was a very large comer room with openings leading out upon the broad upper gallery.
Hundreds of birds were singing out in the autumn foliage. A little stem-wheeler was puffing and sputtering, making more commotion than a man-o’-war as she rounded the bend. The river was almost under the window — just on the other side of the high green levee.
At one of the windows, seated before a low table covered with kindergarten paraphernalia were the twins, nearing six, Paula and Pauline, who were but a few weeks old when their mother died.
They were round-faced youngsters with white pinafores and chubby hands. They peeped out at the little snorting stem-wheeler and whispered to each other about it. The eldest sister, Julia, a slender girl of nineteen, rapped upon her desk. She was diligently reading her English Literature.
Her hands were as white as lilies and she wore a blue ring and a soft white gown. The other sisters were Charlotte, the absentee, just past her seventeenth birthday, Amanda, Irene and Fidelia; girls of sixteen, fourteen and ten who looked neat and trim in their ginghams; with shining hair plaited on either side and tied with large bows of ribbon.
Each girl occupied a separate desk. There was a broad table at one end of the room before which Miss Melvern the governess seated herself when she entered. She was tall, with a refined though determined expression. The “Grandfather’s Clock” pointed to a quarter of nine as she came in. Her pupils continued to work in silence while she busied herself in arranging the contents of the table.
The little stern-wheeler had passed out of sight though not out of hearing. But again the attention of the twins was engaged with something outside and again their curly heads met across the table.
“Paula,” called Miss Melvern, “I don’t think it is quite nice to whisper in that way and interrupt your sisters at their work What are you two looking at out of the window?”
“Looking at Charlie,” spoke Paula quite bravely while Pauline glanced down timidly and picked her fingers. At the mention of Charlie, Miss Melvern’s face assumed a severe expression and she cautioned the little girls to confine their attention to the task before them.
The sight of Charlie galloping along the green levee summit on a big black horse, as if pursued by demons, was surely enough to distract the attention of any one from any thing.
Presently there was a clatter of hoofs upon the ground below, the voice of a girl pitched rather high was heard and the apologetic, complaining whine of a young negro.
“I didn’ have no time, Miss Charlie. It’s hones’, I never had no time. I tole Marse Laborde you gwine git mad an’ fuss. You c’n ax Aleck.”
“Get mad and fuss! Didn’t have time! Look at that horse’s back — look at it. I’ll give you time and something else in the bargain. Just let me catch Tim’s back looking like that again, sir.”
The twins were plainly agitated, and kept looking alternately at Miss Melvem’s imperturbable face and at the door through which they expected their sister to enter.
A quick footstep sounded along the corridor, the door was thrown hurriedly open, and in came Charlie. She looked right up at the clock, uttered an exclamation of disgust, jerked off her little cloth cap and started toward her desk. She was robust and pretty well grown for her age.
Her hair was cut short and was so damp with perspiration that it clung to her head and looked almost black. Her face was red and overheated at the moment. She wore a costume of her own devising, something between bloomers and a divided skirt which she called her “trouserlets.” Canvas leggings, dusty boots and a single spur completed her costume.
“Charlotte!” called Miss Melvern arresting the girl. Charlie stood still and faced the governess. She felt in both side pockets of her trouserlets for a handkerchief which she finally abstracted from a hip pocket. It was not a very white or fresh looking handkerchief; nevertheless she wiped her face with it.
“If you remember,” said Miss Melvern, “the last time you came in late to study — which was only the day before yesterday — I told you that if it occurred again I should have to speak to your father. It’s getting to be an almost every day affair, and I cannot consent to have your sisters repeatedly interrupted in this way. Take your books and go elsewhere to study until I can see your father.”
Charlie was gazing dejectedly at the polished floor and continuing to mop her face with the soiled handkerchief. She started to blurt out an apology, checked herself and crossing over to her desk provided herself with a few books and some scraps of paper.
“I’d rather you wouldn’t speak to father this once,” she appealed, but Miss Melvern only motioned with her head toward the door and the girl went out; not sullenly, but lugubriously. The twins looked at each other with serious eyes while Irene frowned savagely behind the pages of her geography.
It was not many moments before a young black girl came and thrust her head in at the door, rolling two great eyes which she had under very poor control.
“Miss Charlie ‘low, please sen’ her pencil w’at she lef behine; an’ if Miss Julia wants to give her some dem smove sheets o’ paper; an’ she be obleege if Miss Irene len’ her de fountain pen, des dis once.”
Irene darted forward, but subsided at a glance from Miss Melvern. That lady handed the black emissary a pencil and tablet from the table.
Before very long she was back again interrupting the exercises to lay a bulky wad before the governess. It was an elaborate description of the unavoidable adventures which had retarded Charlie’s appearance in the study room.
“That will do, Blossom,” said Miss Melvern severely, motioning the girl to be gone.
“She wants me to wait fo’ an’ answer,” responded Blossom settling herself comfortably against the doorjamb.
“That will do, Blossom,” with distinct emphasis, whereupon Blossom reluctantly took her leave. But before long she was back again, nothing daunted and solemnly placed in Miss Melvern’s unwilling hand a single folded sheet. Whereupon she retired with a slow dignity’ which convinced the twins that a telling and important strike had been accomplished by the absent Charlie. This time it was a poem — an original poem, and it began:
“Relentless Fate, and thou, relentless Friend!”
Its composition had cost Charlie much laborious breathing and some hard wrung drops from her perspiring brow. Charlie had a way, when strongly moved, of expressing herself in verse. She was greatly celebrated for two notable achievements in her life. One was the writing of a lengthy ode upon the occasion of her Grandmother’s seventieth birthday; but she was perhaps more distinguished for having once saved the levee during a time of perilous overflow when her father was away. It was a story in which an unloaded revolver played a part, demoralized negroes and earth-filled gunny sacks. It got into the papers and made a heroine of her for a week or two.
On the other hand, it would be difficult to enumerate Charlie’s shortcomings. She never seemed to do anything that anyone except her father approved of. Yet she was popularly described as not having a mean bone in her body.
Charlie was seated in a tilted chair, her heels on the rung, and in the intervals of composition her attention was greatly distracted by her surroundings. She sat outside on the brick or “false gallery” that formed a sort of long corridor at the back of the house. There was always a good deal going on out there.
The kitchen was a little removed from the house. There was a huge five oak under whose spreading branches a few negro children were always playing — a few clucking chickens always scratching in the dust. People who rode in from the field always fastened their horses there. A young negro was under the tree, sharpening his axe at the grindstone while the big fat cook stood in the kitchen door abusing him in unmeasured terms. He was her own child, so she enjoyed the privilege of dealing with him as harshly as the law allowed.
“W’at you did wid dat gode (gourd) you, Demins! You kiar water to de grine stone wid it! I tell you, boy, dey be kiarrin’ water in yo’ skull time I git tho’ wid you. Fetch dat gode back heah whar it biongs. I gwine break eve’y bone in yo’ body, an’ I gwine tu’n you over to yo’ pa: he make jelly outen yo’ hide an taller.”
The fat woman’s vituperations were interrupted by the shock of a well-aimed missile squarely striking her broad body.
“If there are going to be any bones broken around here, I’ll take a hand in it and I’ll begin with you, Aunt Maryllis. What do you mean by making such a racket when you see me studying out here?”
“I gwine tell yo’ pa, Miss Charlie. Dis time I gwine tell ‘im sho’. Marse Laborde ain’ gwine let you keep on cripplin’ his han’s scand’lous like you does. You, Demins! run ‘long to de cabin, honey, an’ fetch yo’ mammy de spirits o’ camphire.” She turned back in the kitchen bent almost double, holding her hand sprawled over her ponderous side.
It was indeed very trying to Charlie to be thus interrupted in her second stanza as she was vainly striving after a suitable rhyme for “persecution.” And again there was Aurendele, the ‘Cadian girl, stalking across the yard with a brace of chickens to sell. She had them tied together at the legs with a strip of cotton cloth and they hung from her hand head downward motionless.
“He! what do you want? Aurendele!” Charlie called out. The girl piped shrilly back from the depths of a gingham sunbonnet.
“I lookin’ fo’ Ma’me Philomel, see if she want buy couple fine pullets. They fine, yes,” she reiterated holding them out for Charlie’s inspection. “We raise ‘em from that Plymouth Rock. They ain’t no Creole chicken, them, they good breed, you c’n see fo’ yo’se’f.”
“Plymouth fiddlesticks! You’d better hold on to them and try to sell them to the circus as curiosities: ‘The feathered skeletons.’ Here, Demins! turn these martyrs loose. Give them water and corn and rub some oil on their legs …
“No, Aurendele, I was only joking. I don’t know how you can part with those Plymouth Rocks; you’ll feel the separation and it’ll go hard with your mother and the children. What do you want for them?”
Aurendele only wanted a little coffee and flour, a piece of fine soap, some blue ribbon such as her sister Odelia had bought at the store and a yard of “cross-bars” for a sunbonnet for Nannouche.
Charlie directed the girl to Ma’me Philomel. “And you ought to know better,” she added, “than to stand here talking when you see I’m busy with my lessons.”
“You please escuse me, Miss Charlie, I didn’ know you was busy. Were you say I c’n fine Ma’me Philomel?”
And Charlie went back to the closing stanza which was something of an exhortation: “Let me not look again upon thy face While frowning mood, of joy usurps the place.”
The poem being finished, signed and duly delivered by Blossom, the sister of Demins, Charlie felt that she had brought her intellectual labors to a fitting close.
A moment before, a negro had wheeled into the yard on a hand-cart Charlie’s new bicycle. It had been deposited at the landing by the little stem-wheeler earlier in the morning, and to witness and superintend its debarkation had been the cause of Charlie’s tardiness in the class room. Now, with the assistance of Demins and Blossom the wheel was unpacked and adjusted under the live oak. It was a beauty, of very latest construction.
Charlie had traded her old wheel with Uncle Ruben for an afflicted pony which she had great hope of saving and training for speed. The discarded bicycle was intended as a gift for Uncle Ruben’s bride. Since its presentation the bride had not been seen in public.
Charlie mounted and gave an exhibition of her skill to a delighted audience of negroes, chickens and a few dogs. Then she decided that she would ride out in search of her father. It was not on her own account that she had entreated Miss Melvern’s silence, it was on his. She realized that she was a difficult and perhaps annoying problem for him, and did not relish the idea of adding to his perplexity.
As Charlie wheeled past the kitchen she peeped furtively in at the window. Aunt Maryllis was kneading a lump of dough with one hand while the other was still clapped to her side. Charlie felt remorseful and wondered whether Aunt Maryllis would rather have fifty cents or a new bandana! But the gate was open, and away she went, down the long inviting level road that led to the sugar mill.
Miss Melvern in a moment of exasperation had once asked Charlie if she were wholly devoid of a moral sense. The expression was rather cruelly forceful, but the provocation had been unusually trying. And Charlie was so far devoid of the sense in question as not to be stung by the implication. She really felt that nothing made much difference so long as her father was happy.
Her actions were reprehensible in her own eyes only so far as they interfered with his peace of mind. Therefore a great part of her time was employed in apologetic atonement and the framing of vast and unattainable resolutions.
An easy solution would have been to send Charlie away to boarding school. But upon the point of separation from any of his daughters, Mr. Laborde had set his heart with stubborn determination. He had once vaguely entertained the expedient of a second marriage, but was quite willing to abandon the idea on the strength of a touching petition framed by Charlie and signed by the seven sisters — the twins setting down their marks with heavy’ emphasis. And then Charlie could ride and shoot and fish; she was untiring and fearless. In many way’s she filled the place of that ideal son he had always hoped for and that had never come.
He was standing at the mill holding the bridle of his horse and watching Charlie’s approach with complicated interest. He was preposterously young looking — slender, with a clean shaved face and deep set blue eyes like Charlie’s, and dark brown hair. The gray hairs on his temples might have been counted and often were, by the twins, perched on either arm of his chair.
“Well, Dad, how do you like it? Isn’t it a beaut!” Charlie exclaimed as she flung herself off her wheel and wiped her steaming face with her bended arm. Mr. Laborde took a fresh linen handkerchief from his pocket and passed it over her face as if she had been a little child.
“If I hadn’t been down at the landing this morning, goodness knows what they would have done with it. What do you suppose? That idiot of a Lulin swore it wasn’t aboard. If I hadn’t gone aboard myself and found it — well — that’s why I happened to be late again. Miss Melvern is going to speak to you.” A grieved and troubled look swept into his face, and was more stinging than if he had upbraided her. This way there was no excuse — no denial that she could make.
“And what are you doing out here now? Why aren’t you in with the others at work?” he questioned.
“She sent me away — she’s getting tired.” Charlie’s face was a picture of impotent regret as she looked down and uprooted a clump of grass with the toe of her clumsy boot. “I worked some, though, and then I just had to see about the wheel. I couldn’t have trusted Demins.”
It was one of the occasions when she regretted that her father was not a more talkative man. His silences gave her no opportunity to defend herself. When he rode away and left her there she noticed that he did not hold his chin in the air with his glance directed across the fields as usual, but looked meditatively between his horse’s ears. Then she knew that he was perplexed again.
Charlie just wished that Miss Melvern with her rules and regulations was back in Pennsylvania where she came from. What was the use of learning tasks one week only to forget them the next? What was the use of hammering a lot of dates and figures into her head beclouding her intelligence and imagination? Wasn’t it enough to have six well educated daughters!
But troubled thoughts, doubts, misgivings found no refuge in Charlie’s bosom and they glanced away from her as lightly as winged messengers. Her father was plainly hurt and had not invited her to join him as he sometimes did. Miss Melvern had declined to entertain her apologies and, she knew, would not admit her into the class room. Anyway she felt that God must have intended people to be out of doors on a day like that, or why should he have given it to them? Like many older and more intelligent than herself, Charlie sometimes aspired to a knowledge of God’s ways.
Far down the lane on the edge of a field was the Bichous’ cabin — the parents of Aurendele, from whom Charlie had that morning purchased the chickens. Youngsters were swarming to their noontide meal and the odor within of frying bacon made Charlie sensible of the fact that she was hungry. She rode into the enclosure with an air of proprietorship which no one ever dreamed of resenting, and informed the Bichou family that she had come to dine with them.
“I thought you was so busy, Miss Charlie,” remarked Aurendele with fine sarcasm.
“You mustn’t think so hard, Aurendele. That’s what Tinette’s baby died of last week.”
Aurendele had obtained the yard of “cross-bar” and was cutting out the sun bonnet for Nannouche who happened to have a good complexion which her relatives thought it expedient to preserve.
“Tinette’s baby died o’ the measles!” screamed Nannouche who knew everything.
“That’s what I said. If she had only thought she didn’t have the measles instead of thinking so hard that she did, she wouldn’t have died. That’s a new religion; but you haven’t got sense enough to understand it. You haven’t an idea above com bread and molasses.”
Charlie seemed not to have many ideas above com bread and molasses herself when she sat down to dine with the Bichous. She shared the children’s couche couche in the homely little yellow bowl like the rest of them — and did not disdain to partake of a goodly share of salt pork and greens with winch Father Bichou regaled himself. His wife stood up at the head of the table serving ever}’ one with her long bare arms that had a tremendous reach.
Charlie made herself exceedingly entertaining by furnishing a condensed chronicle of the news in the great world, colored by her own lively imagination. They had a way of believing everything she said — which was a powerful temptation that many a sterner spirit would have found difficult to resist.
She was on the most intimate and friendly terms with the children and it was Xenophore who procured a fine hickory stick for her when, after dinner she expressed a desire to have one. She trimmed it down to her liking, seated on the porch rail.
“There are lots of bears where I’m going; maybe tigers,” she threw off indifferently as she whittled away.
“Were you goin’?” demanded Xenophore with round eyed credulity.
“Yonder in the woods.”
“I never yeared they any tigers in the wood. Bears, yes. Mr. Gail killed one w’en I been a baby.”
“When you ‘been a baby,’ what do you call yourself now? But tigers or bears, it’s all the same to me. I haven’t killed quite as many tigers; but tigers die harder. And then if the stick goes back on me, why, I have my diamond ring.”
“Yo’ diamon’ ring!” echoed Xenophore fixing his eyes solemnly on a shining cluster that adorned Charlie’s middle finger.
“You see if I find myself in a tight place all I have to do is to turn the ring three times, repeat a Latin verse, and presto! I disappear like smoke. A tiger wouldn’t know me from a hickory sapling.”
She got down off the rail, brandished the stick around to test its quality, buckled her belt a bit tighter and announced that she would be off. She asked the Bichous to look after her wheel.
“And don’t you attempt to ride it, Aurendele,” she cautioned. “You might break your head and you’d be sure to break the wheel.”
“I got plenty to do, me, let alone ridin’ yo’ bicyc’,” retorted the girl with lofty indifference.
“It wouldn’t matter so much about the head — there are plenty to spare around here — but there isn’t another wheel like that in America; and I reckon you heard about Ruben’s bride.”
“W’at about Ruben’s bride?”
“Well, never mind about what, but you keep off that wheel.”
Charlie started off down the lane with a brisk step.
“W’ere she goin’?” demanded Mother Bichou looking after her. “My! my! she’s a piece, that Charlie! W’ere she goin’?”
“She goin’ yonder in the wood,” replied Xenophore from the abundance of his knowledge. Ma’me Bichou still gazed after the retreating figure of the girl.
“You better go ‘long behine her, you, Xenophore.”
Xenophore did not wait to be told twice. In three seconds he was off, after Charlie; his little blue-jeaned legs and brown feet moving rapidly beneath the shade thrown by the circle of his enormous straw hat.
The strip of wood toward which Charlie was directing her steps was by no means of the wild and gloomy character of other woods further away. It was hardly more than a breathing spot, a solemn, shady grove inviting dreams and repose. Along its edge there was a road which led to the station. Charlie had reached the wood before she perceived that Xenophore was at her heels.
She turned and seized the youngster by the shoulder giving him a vigorous shake.
“What do you mean by following me? If I was anxious for your company I would have invited you, or I could have stayed at the cabin and enjoyed your society. Speak up, why are you tagging along after me like this?”
“Maman sen’ me, it’s her sen’ me behine you.”
“Oh, I see; for an escort, a protector. But tell the truth, Xenophore, you came to see me kill the tigers and bears; own up. And just to punish you I’m not going to disturb them. I’m not even going in the direction where they stay.”
Xenophore’s face clouded, but he continued to follow, confident that despite her disappointing resolutions in regard to the wild beasts, Charlie would furnish diversion of some sort or other. They walked on for a while in silence and when they came to a fallen tree, Charlie sat herself down and Xenophore flopped himself beside her, his brown little hands folded over the blue jeans, and peeping up at her from under the brim of his enormous hat.
“I tell you what it is Xenophore, usually, when I come in the woods, after slaving a panther or so, I sit down and write a poem or two. That’s why I came out here to day — to write a poem. There are lots of things troubling me, and nothing comforts me like that. But Tennyson himself couldn’t write poetry with a little impish ‘Cadian staring at him like this. I tell you what let’s do, Xenophore,” and she pulled a pad of paper from some depths of her trouserlets. “I think I’ll practise my shooting; I’m getting a little rusty; only hit nine alligators out of ten last week in bayou Bonfils.”
“It’s pretty’ good, nine out o’ ten,” proclaimed Xenophore with an appreciative bob.
“Do you think so?” in amazement, “why I never think about the nine, only about the one I missed,” and she proceeded to tear into little squares portions of the tablet Miss Melvern had sent her by Blossom in the morning. Handing a slip to Xenophore:
“Go stick this to that big tree yonder, as high as you can reach, and come back here.” The youngster obeyed with alacrity. Charlie, taking from her back pocket a small pistol which no one on earth knew she possessed except her sister Irene, began to shoot at the mark, keeping Xenophore trotting back and forth to report results. Some of the shots were wide of the mark, and it was with the utmost reluctance that Xenophore admitted these failures.
There was a sudden loud, peremptory cry uttered near at hand.
“Stop that shooting, you idiots!” A young man came stalking through the bushes as if he had popped out of the ground.
“You young scamp! I’ll thrash the life out of you,” he exclaimed, mistaking Charlie for a boy at first. “Oh! I beg pardon. This is great sport for a girl, I must say. Don’t you know you might have killed me? That last ball passed so near that — that—”
“That it hit you!” cried Charlie perceiving with her quick and practised glance a red blotch on the sleeve of his white shirt, above the elbow. He had been walking briskly and carried his coat across his arm. At her exclamation he looked down, turned pale, and then foolishly laughed at the idea of being wounded and not knowing it, or else in appreciation of his deliverance from an untimely death.
“It’s no laughing matter,” she said with a proffered motion to be of some assistance.
“It might have been worse,” he cheerfully admitted, reaching for his handkerchief. With Charlie’s help he bound the ugly gash, for the ball had plowed pretty deep into the flesh.
The girl was conscience stricken and too embarrassed to say much. But she invited the victim of her folly to accompany her to Les Palmiers.
That was precisely his original destination, he was pleased to tell her. He was on a business mission from a New Orleans firm. The beauty of the day had tempted him to take a short cut through the woods.
His name was Walton — Firman Walton, which information, together with his business card he conveyed to Charlie as they walked along. Xenophore kept well abreast, his little heart fluttering with excitement over the stirring adventure.
Charlie glanced absently at the card, as though it had nothing to do with the situation, and proceeded to roll it into a narrow cylinder while a troubled look spread over her face.
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she said. “I’m always getting into trouble, no matter what I do. I don’t know what father’ll say this time — about the gun, and hitting you and all that. He won’t forgive me this time!” Her expression was one of abject wretchedness. He glanced down at her with amused astonishment.
“The hurt wasn’t anything,” he said. “I shall say nothing about it — absolutely nothing; and we’ll give this young man a quarter to hold his tongue.” She shook her head hopelessly.
“It’ll have to be dressed and looked after.”
“Please don’t think of it,” he entreated, “and say nothing more about it.”
At half past one the family assembled at dinner. It was always Julia who presided at table. She looked very womanly with her long braid of light-brown hair wound round and round till it formed a coil as large as a dessert plate. Her father sat at the opposite end of the table and the children, the governess and Madame Philomel were dispersed on either side. There were always a few extra places set for unexpected guests. Uncle Ruben, in a white linen apron served the soup and carved the meats at a side table while the plates and dishes were passed around by Demins and a young mulatto girl.
The dining room was on the ground floor and opened upon the false gallery where Charlie had spent a portion of her morning in composition. The absence of that young person from her accustomed place at table was immediately observed and commented upon by her father.
“Where’s Charlie” he asked, of everybody — of nobody in particular.
Julia looked a little helpless, the others nonplussed, while Pauline picked her fingers in painful embarrassment. Madame Philomel, who was fat and old fashioned, thought that the new bicycle would easily account for her absence.
“If Charlotte appears befo’ sundown, it will be a subjec’ of astonishment,” she said with an air of conviction and irresponsibility. Every one assumed an air of irresponsibility in regard to Charlie which was annoying to Mr. Laborde as it implied that the whole burden of responsibility lay upon his own shoulders, and he was conscious of not bearing it gracefully. He had spent the half hour before dinner in consultation with Miss Melvern, who prided herself upon her firmness — as if firmness were heaven’s first law.
Mr. Laborde was in a position to convey to her Charlie’s latest resolutions, in which Miss Melvern placed but a small degree of faith. Mr. Laborde himself believed firmly in the ultimate integrity of his daughter’s intentions. Miss Melvern’s strongest point of objection was the pernicious example which Charlie furnished to her well-meaning sisters, and the interruptions occasioned by her misdirected impulses.
Her tardiness of the morning, though not a great fault in itself, was the culmination of a long line of offenses. It might in fact be said that it was the last straw but one. Miss Melvern was inclined to think it was the last straw. But as hers was not the back which bore the brunt of the burden, she was not wholly qualified to judge. Mr. Laborde began to perceive that there might be a last straw.
Blossom, who assumed the role of a privileged character — the velvet footed Blossom stepped softly into the dining room and spoke, while her glance revolved and fixed itself upon the ceiling.
“Yonder Miss Charlie comin’ ‘long de fiel’ road wid a young gent’man. Nary one ain’t ridin’ de bicycle — des steppin’ out slow a-shovin’ it ‘long. ‘Tain’t Mr. Gus an’ ‘tain’t Mr. Joe Slocum. ‘Tain’t nobody we all knows.”
Whereupon Blossom withdrew, being less anxious to witness the effect of her announcement than to assist at the arrival of Charlie, the gentleman and the bicycle.
Though accustomed to face situations, this young gentleman exhibited some natural trepidation at being ushered unexpectedly into the bosom of a dining family. He was good looking, intelligent looking. His appearance in itself was a guarantee of his respectability.
“This is Mr. Walton, dad,” announced Charlie without preliminary, “he was coming to see you anyhow. He took a short cut through the woods and — and I shot him by mistake in the arm. Better have some antiseptic and stuff on it before he sits down. I had my dinner with the Bichous.”
There seemed to be a universal, tacit understanding that Charlie was in disgrace, that she herself had deposited the last straw and that there would be results. The silence and outward calm with which her father had met this latest offense were ominous. She was made to stand and deliver her firearm together with her ammunition.
“Take care, father, it’s loaded,” she cautioned as she placed it upon his writing table.
She was informed that she would not be expected to join the others in the class room and was instructed to go and get her wardrobe in order and to discard her trouserlets as soon as possible.
Mr. Walton was not taken into the family confidence, but he realized that his coming was in the nature of a catastrophe. Having dispatched the business which brought him he would have continued on his way, but the scratch on his arm was rather painful, and that night he had some fever. Mr. Laborde insisted upon his remaining a few days. He knew the young man’s people in New Orleans and did business with the firm which he represented.
To young Walton the place seemed charming — like a young ladies’ Seminary. And well it might. Madame Philomel taught the girls music and drawing; accomplishments which she had herself acquired at the Ursulines in her youth. During the afternoon hour there was nearly always to be heard the sound of the piano: exercises and scales, interspersed with variations upon the Operas.
“Who is playing the piano?” asked Walton. He leaned against a pillar of the portico, his arm in a sling, and caressing a big dog with the other hand. Charlie sat dejectedly on the step. She still wore the trouserlets, having been unable to procure at so short notice anything that she considered suitable.
“The piano?” she echoed, looking up. “Fidelia, I suppose. It all sounds alike to me except that Fidelia plays the loudest. She’s so clumsy and heavy-handed.”
Fidelia in fact was thickwaisted and breathed hard. She was given over to afflictions of the throat and made to take exercise which, being lazy, she did not like to do.
“What a lot of you there are,” said the young fellow. “Your eldest sister is beautiful, isn’t she! It seems to me she’s the most beautiful girl I almost ever saw.”
“She has a right to be beautiful. She looks like dad and has a character like Aunt Clementine. Aunt Clementine is a perfect angel. If ever there was a saint on earth — Hi, Pitts! catch ‘im! catch ‘im Pitts!” The dog bounded away after a pig that had mysteriously escaped from its pen and made its way around to the front, prospecting.
Julia, with Amanda and Irene had driven away a while before in the ample barouche. Nothing could have been daintier than Julia in a soft blue “jaconette” that brightened her color and brought out the blue of her eyes.
“Why didn’t you go along driving?” asked Walton when the dog had darted away and he seated himself beside Charlie on the step.
“They’re going over to Colimarts to take a dancing lesson.”
“Don’t you like to dance?”
“I haven’t time. Maybe if I liked to, I’d find time. Madame Philomel made a row about me not taking dancing and music and all that, and Dad said I might do as I liked about it. So Ma’me Philo stopped interfering. ‘I ‘ave nothing to say!’ that’s her attitude now towards poor me.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” said the young man earnestly.
“Sorry! about the dancing? pshaw! what difference—”
“No — no, sorry about the accident of the other day. I’m afraid, perhaps it’s going to get you into trouble.”
“It’ll get me into trouble all right; I see it coming.”
“I hope you’ll forgive me,” he asked persistently, as though he had been the offender.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said with condescension. “If it hadn’t been that it would have been something else. I don’t know what’s going to happen; boarding school I’m afraid.”
A small figure came gliding around the comer of the house. It was Xenophore, blue jeans, legs, hat and all. He came quietly and seated himself on a step at some little distance.
“What do you want?” she asked in French.
They both laughed at the youngster. Far from being offended he smiled and peered slyly up from under his hat.
“Mr. Gus sen’ word howdy,” piped Xenophore a little later apropos of nothing, breaking right into the conversation.
“Were you saw Mr. Gus?” asked Charlie, falling into the ‘Cadian speech as she sometimes did when talking to the Bichous.
“He pass yonder by de house on ‘is ho’se. He say ‘How you come on, Xenophore; w’en you see Miss Charlie?’ I say, ‘I see Miss Charlie to s’mornin’ an’ he say ‘Tell Miss Charlie howdy fo’ me.’”
Then Xenophore arose and turning mechanically, glided noiselessly around the corner of the house.
It was dusk and the moon was already shining in the river and breaking with a pale glow through the magnolia leaves when the girls came home from their dancing lesson. It was nearing the supper hour so they did not linger, and Charlie went with them into the house, bent upon making a bit of toilet for the evening. She was secretly in hopes that Amanda would lend her a dress. Julia’s gowns ware quite too young-ladified; they touched the ground, often with a graceful sweep. One of Amanda’s would have done nicely. But Amanda looked sidewise from her long, narrow, dark eyes when Charlie approached her with the request and blankly refused. Irene grew excited and indignant.
“Don’t ask her, Charlie; why do you ask her? She thinks her clothes are made of diamonds and pearls, too good for Queen Victoria! What about my pink gingham if I ripped out the tucks?”
“Oh! it’s no use,” wailed Charlie. “There isn’t time to rip anything and I could never get into it.”
They were in Amanda’s room, Irene and Charlie seated on a box lounge and Amanda decorating herself before the mirror. She had laid her own evening toilet on the bed and carefully locked closet, wardrobe and bureau drawers. She always kept things locked and had an ostentatious way of carrying her highly polished keys that were on a ring. Charlie gazed at her sister’s reflected image with a sort of despair but with no trace of malice.
“If there’s a thing I hate, it’s to have people sit and stare when I’m dressing,” remarked Amanda. The two girls got up and went out and Amanda locked the door behind them.
“Why not wear your Sunday dress, Charlie?” offered Irene as they walked down the long hall, arm in arm.
“You know what Julia said about its being so short and the sleeves so old fashioned and she wouldn’t be seen at church with me if I wore it again. So I gave it to Aurendele the other day.”
But it was Julia who came to the rescue. She fastened and pinned and tucked up one of her own gowns on Charlie and the effect, if not completely happy, could not have been called a distinct failure.
No one remarked upon the metamorphosis when she appeared thus arrayed at table. Miss Melvern and Madame Philomel were far too polite to seem to notice. The twins only beamed their approval and astonishment. Fidelia gasped and stared, closed her lips tight and sought Miss Melvern’s glance for direction. Blossom alone expressed herself in a smothered explosion in the door way, and went outside and clung to a post for support.
To Mr. Laborde there was something poignant in the sight of his beloved daughter in this unfamiliar garb. It seemed a dismal part of the unhappy situation winch had given him such heartache to solve — for he had solved it. He avoided looking at Charlie and wore an expression which reminded them all of the time he heard of his brother’s death in Old Mexico.
Mr. Laborde had that evening reached a conclusion which was communicated to Charlie directly after supper when the others strolled out upon the veranda and she went with him to his study.
She was to go to New Orleans and enter a private school noted for its excellent discipline. Two weeks at Aunt Clementine’s would enable her to be fitted out as became her age, sex and condition in life. Julia was to go to the city with her, to see that she was properly equipped and later her father would join her and accompany her to the Young Ladies’ Seminary.
She fingered the lace ruffle on Julia’s sleeve as she looked down and listened to her father’s admonitions.
“I’m sorry to give you all this worry, dad,” she said, “but I’m not going to make any more promises; it’s a farce, the way I’ve persistently broken them. I hope I shan’t give you any more trouble.” He took her in his arms, and kissed her fervently. Charlie was exceedingly astonished to discover that the arrangement planned by her father was not so distasteful as it would have seemed a while ago. It was not at all distasteful and she secretly marveled.
When she and her father rejoined the others on the veranda they found that a visitor had arrived, Mr. Gus Bradley, the son of a neighboring planter and an intimate friend of the family. He had been painfully disconcerted at finding a stranger when he had expected to meet only familiar faces and the effect was not happy. Mr. Gus was so shy that it had never yet been discovered whom his visits at Les Palmiers were intended for.
It was, however, generally believed that he favored Charlie on account of the messages which he so often sent her through Xenophore and others. He had given her a fine dog and a riding whip. But he had also made the twins a present of a gentle Shetland pony, and he had sent Amanda his photograph! He was a big fellow and awkward only from shyness and when in company, for in the saddle or out in the road or the fields he had a fine, free carriage. His hair was light and fine and his face smooth and looked as if it belonged to a far earlier period of society and had no connection with the fevered and modern present day.
The moon sent a great flood of light in upon the group — the only shadows were cast by the big round pillars and the fantastic quivering vines. Amanda sat by herself, tip toeing in a hammock and picking a tune on the mandolin. Madame Philomel was telling the twins a marvelous story in French about Croque Mitaine.
Fidelia was drinking in words of wisdom at Miss Melvern’s feet. It was Irene who was entertaining Mr. Gus and endeavoring to account to him in veiled whispers for young Walton’s presence on the scene. She might have spoken as loud as she liked for the young gentleman in question was entirely absorbed in Julia’s conversation and had ears for nothing else.
“I’m not going to stay,” said Mr. Gus, almost apologetically. “I only rode over for a minute. I wanted to see your sister Charlie. I had something important to tell her.”
“She’ll be out pretty soon; she’s inside talking to father.”
When Charlie came out she went and seated herself beside Irene on the long bench that stood by the railing. Mr. Gus was near by in a camp chair. He was so flustered at seeing Charlie in frills and furbelows that he could scarcely articulate.
“I didn’t know you,” he blurted.
“Oh, well, I have to begin some time.”
Irene got up and left them alone, remembering Mr. Gus’s admission of an important communication for Charlie’s ears alone.
“I haven’t long to stay,” he began. “I heard about Tim’s shoulder and brought you a recipe for gall. It’s the finest thing ever was. You’ll find all the ingredients in your fathers workshop, and you’d better mix it yourself; don’t trust any one else. If you’d like, I’ll put it up myself and bring it around tomorrow.”
Irene off in the distance was positively agitated. She firmly believed Charlie was receiving her first proposal.
“Thank you, Mr. Gus, but it’s no use,” said Charlie. “Some one else is going to look after Tim from now on; I’m going away.”
Wes, going to the Seminary in the city. Dad thinks it’s best; I suppose it is.”
He found absolutely nothing to say, but his mobile face took on a crestfallen look that the moonlight made pathetic; and Irene from her comer of observation, concluded that he had been rejected as she knew he would.
“I’ll send dear old Pitts back You keep him for me. I reckon they wouldn’t let me have him in the Seminary.”
“I’ll come for him tomorrow,” responded Mr. Gus with dream eagerness. “When do you go?”
“In a day or two. The sooner the better as long as there’s no getting out of it.”
Two days later Charlie left the plantation accompanied by her sister Julia, young Walton and Madame Philomel. They boarded the little sputtering stern-wheeler about nine in the morning. It seemed as if the whole plantation, blacks and whites, had turned out to bid her bon voyage. The sisters were in tears. Even Amanda seemed moved and Irene was frankly hysterical.
Miss Melvern was under a big sunshade with Fidelia, and the twins held their fathers hands. All the Bichous had come; Aurendele in Charlie’s “Sunday dress,” Xenophore, round eyed, serious, unable to cry, unable to laugh, apprehending calamity. Mr. Gus galloped up with a huge bouquet of flowers, striving to appear as if it were wholly by accident.
Charlie was completely overcome. She would not go up to the cabin but stayed dejectedly seated on a cotton bale, alternately wiping her eyes and weaving her handkerchief until it was too limp to flutter.
The change, or rather the revolution in Charlie’s character at this period was so violent and pronounced that for a while it rendered Julia helpless. The trouble which Julia had anticipated w:as entirely of an opposite nature from the one which confronted her and it took her some time to realize the situation and adjust herself to it. As it happened, the combined efforts of both Aunt
Clementine and Julia were insufficient to keep Charlie within bounds; to give her a proper appreciation of values after the feminine instinct had been aroused in her.
The diamond ring she had always with her. It was her mother’s engagement ring. Hitherto she had worn it for the tender associations winch made her love the bauble. Now she began to look upon it as an adornment. She possessed a round gold locket containing her mother’s and father’s pictures. This she suspended from her neck by a long thin gold chain.
Such family jewels as had by inheritance descended to her, seemed to the young thing insufficient to proclaim the gentle quality of sex. She would have cajoled her father into extravagances. She wanted lace and embroideries upon her garments; and she longed to bedeck herself with ribbons and passementeries which the shops displayed in such tempting array.
Her short cropped hair was a sore grievance to Charlie when she viewed herself in the mirror and she resorted to the disfiguring curling irons with results which were, to say the least, appalling to Julia who came in one afternoon and discovered her entertaining young Walton with her head looking like a prize chrysanthemum.
“I can’t understand her, Aunt,” Julia confided to her Aunt Clementine with tears in her blue eyes.
“It’s bad enough as it is, but just imagine what a spectacle she would make of herself if we permitted it. I’m afraid she’s a little out of her senses. I’d almost rather think that than to believe she could develop such vulgar instincts.”
Aunt Clementine would do no more than shrug her shoulders and look placidly and blamelessly perplexed. She was quite sure that Charlie did not take after any member of her side of the family; so the blame of heredity, if any, had naturally to be traced to other sides of the family.
Through mild and firm coercion Charlie was brought to understand that such excessive ornamentation as she favored would not for a moment be tolerated by the disciplinarians at the Seminary. When finally that young person was admitted to the refined precincts — save for the diamond ring and the locket, in the matter of which she had taken a stubborn stand — no fault could have been found with her appearance which was in every way consistent with that of the well mannered girl of seventeen.
She had spent a delightful fortnight. Aunt Clementine who was at once a lady of fashion and a person of gentle refinement had provided entertainment such as Charlie had not yet encountered outside of novels of high life: her Aunt Clementine’s ménage having not before been to her liking.
They drove, they visited and received calls, dined and went to the opera. There was much shopping, perambulating and trying on of gowns and hats. There was a perpetual flutter, and indescribable excitement awaiting her at every turn. Young Walton was persistent in his attentions to the sisters, but as there were other and many claims upon Julia it was oftener Charlie who entertained him, walked abroad with him and even accompanied him on one occasion to Church.
The first moment that Charlie found herself alone in the privacy of her own room at the Seminary, she devoted that moment to unburdening her soul. She sat beside the window and looked out a while. There was not much inspiration to be gathered from the big red brick building opposite. But her inspiration was not dependent upon anything extraneous; it was bubbling up inside of her and generating an energy that found a vent in its natural channel.
Equipped with a very fine pen point and the filmiest sheet of filmy writing paper, Charlie wrote some fines of poetry in the smallest possible cramped hand. She did not hesitate or bite her pen or frown, seeking for words and rhymes. She had made it all up beforehand and its rhythm kept time with the beating of her heart. Poor little thing! Let her alone. It would be cruel to tell the whole story.
When the lines were written she folded the sheet over and over and over, making it as flat and thin as possible. Then with her hat pin she picked out the little glass frame that contained her mother’s picture in the locket, and laying the scrap of poetry in the cover, replaced the picture.
As the young girls at the Seminary were all of gentle breeding they gave no pronounced exhibition of their astonishment at Charlie’s lack of accomplishments. She herself felt her shortcomings keenly and read their guarded wonder. With dogged determination she had made up her mind to transform herself from a hoyden to a fascinating young lady, if persistence and hard work could do it.
As for hard work, there was enough of it! Hoeing, or chopping cane seemed child’s play compared with the excruciating intricacies which the piano offered her. She began to have some respect for Fidelia’s ponderous talent and even wandered at the twins. After some lessons in drawing, the instructor disinterestedly advised her to save her money. He was gloomy about it.
The spirit of commercialism, he said, had not touched him to the crass extent of countenancing robbery. With some sinking of heart, Charlie let the drawing go, but when it came to dancing, she would yield not an inch. She practiced the steps in the narrow confines of her room, and when opportunity favored her, she waltzed and two-stepped up and down the long corridors. Some of the girls took pity and gave her private instructions, for which she offered tempting inducements to their cupidity in the shape of chocolate bon-bons and stick-pins.
She was immensely liked, though they had small respect for her abilities until one day it fell upon them with the startling bewilderment of lightning from a clear sky that Charlie was a poet. It happened in this wise: The fête of the foundress of the Seminary was to be celebrated and the young ladies were desired to write addresses in her honor, the worthiest of these addresses to be selected and delivered in the venerable lady’s presence upon the date in question.
It was so much easier for Charlie to write twenty or fifty lines of verse than pages and pages of prose.
When the announcement of the award was made in a most flattering little speech to the assembled classes by the lady directress, the girls were stupefied, and Charlie herself almost as well pleased as if she had been able to play a minuet upon the piano or go through the figures of a dance without blundering.
“Did you ever!”
“Well, I knew there was something in her!”
“I told you she wasn’t as stupid as she looks!”
“Why didn’t she say so!” were a few of the comments passed upon Charlie’s suddenly unearthed talent.
A group besieged her in her room that afternoon.
“Out with them!” cried the spokesman, armed with a box of chocolate creams, “every last of them. Where do you keep them? Hand over the key of that desk. You’re a barefaced impostor, if you want to know it.”
They seated themselves on chairs, stools, the lounge, the floor and the bed — as many as could crowd in a row, and awaited with the pleased expectancy of girls ready to extract entertainment from any situation that presents itself.
Charlie had no thought of reluctance. She brought forth the mass of manuscript and delivered it over to the chocolate bearer who had a sonorous voice and a reputation as an elocutionist.
One by one the poems were read, with fictitious fire, with melting pathos as the occasion called for, while silently the chocolates were passed around and around.
Charlie rocked violently and tried to look indifferent. Her hair was long enough to tie back now with a bow of ribbon. On her forehead she wore a few little curls made with the curling irons, and as she glanced in the mirror while she rocked she wondered if her face would ever get beautiful and silky white. Charlie took no part in the athletic sports such as tennis and basket ball, though urged to do so. She was given over to putting some kind of greasy stuff on her hands at night and slept in a pair of her father’s old gloves.
“Well,” commented the reader, laying down the leaves.
“Moonlight on the Mississippi.”
“This is the finest thing I ever read. I wish you’d give me this, I’d like to send it to mother. And all I’ve got to say for you is that you are a large sized goose. The idea of keeping such poetry as that cooped up here! Why don’t you go to work and publish those things in the Magazines, I’d like to know. I tell you, they’d jump at the — well! I like this! Empty! where are all those chocolates gone? The next time I go halves in a box of chocolates you people’ll know it!”
It need not be supposed that Charlie saw nothing of her home folks dining her stay at the Seminary. They came in squads and detachments. Julia must have been spending much time with her Aunt Clementine, for the two not infrequently drove around in Aunt Clementine’s victoria upon which occasions Charlie was very proud of her sister’s beauty and air of distinction which the other girls did not fail to observe and rave over.
Amanda and Irene came down from the plantation with their father expressly to see her. The girls who caught a glimpse of them did not hesitate to pronounce Mr. Laborde the handsomest man they had ever set eyes upon; Amanda a most striking and fascinating personality. But of Irene they held their estimate in reserve, as the poor girl had seemed demented, laughing in the midst of tears, weeping to an accompaniment of laughter.
Once Miss Melvern made her appearance with Fidelia. It was a great pleasure to introduce the governess to the faculty and the methods, while Fidelia trod heavily and seriously at her side, crimson under the scrutiny of so many strange eyes.
Last came Madame Philomel one morning with the twins and whom beside but Aurendele and Xenophore! She wore a beautiful new bonnet, a sprigged challie dress with a black mantilla and kid gloves. The young ladies who were growing more and more interested in Charlie’s family with every fresh installment, to quote them literally, lost their minds over the twins who were like two chubby rosy-cheeked angels in spotless white.
“It’s positively paralyzing!”
“How do you tell them apart?”
“I must have a sketch of them.”
“How do they know themselves, which is which?”
“Oh! we know them of course,” said Charlie with laudable pride, “but strangers can tell by their difference of manner: Pauline is timid and Paula dreadfully mischievous. Would you believe it? She fooled dad one day by hanging her head and picking her fingers when he asked her an embarrassing question. There was no trouble at this juncture in discovering which was which.”
Aurendele, still wearing Charlie’s “Sunday dress” which was getting sadly small for her and a sailor hat of Irene’s, was alert, but overawed and unable to remember the multitude of things she had stored up in her brain to communicate to Charlie.
And as for Xenophore, he felt there had been a convulsion of nature and he was powerless to place the responsibility. To be sitting there in “store clothes,” brogans, twirling in his hands a little felt hat no bigger than a plate, Miss Charlie in hair ribbons and dressed like a girl! He was speechless. It was only toward the close of the visit that he uttered his first word.
“Mr. Gus sen’ word ‘howdy.’”
“W’en you saw Mr. Gus?” asked Charlie laughing.
“He pass by the house an’ he say, ‘How you come on, Xenophore! w’at you all year f’om Miss Charlie?’ I tell ‘im I’m goin’ to the city to see you an’ he say, Tell Miss Charlie howdy fo’ me.’”
But when her father came alone one morning quite early — he had remained over night in the city that he might be early — and carried her off with him for the day, her delight knew no bounds. He did not tell her in so many words how hungry he was for her, but he showed it in a hundred ways. He was like a school boy on a holiday; it was like a conspiracy; there was a flavor of secrecy about it too.
They did not go near Aunt Clementine’s. They saw no one they knew except Young Walton who was busy over accounts in the commission office where Mr. Laborde stopped to supply himself with money enough to pay his way. The young fellow turned crimson with unexpected pleasure when he saw them. He was eager to know if any other members of the family were in the city.
He showed a disposition to be excused from the office and to join them, a suggestion which Mr. Laborde did not favor, which rather alarmed him and hurried his departure. Moreover he could see that Charlie did not like the young man, and he could not blame her for that, all things considered! She gave her whole attention to her gloves and the clasp of her parasol while there.
It was well they provided themselves with money.
Charlie needed every thing she could think of and what she forgot her father remembered. He carried her jacket and assisted her over the crossings like an experienced cavalier. He helped her to select a new sailor hat and saw that she put it on straight. Not approving of her hat pin he bought her another, besides handkerchiefs, a fan, stick pins, presents for the girls and the favorite teachers, books of poetry, and the latest novels. The maid at the Seminary was kept busy all afternoon carrying in bundles.
They went to the lake to eat breakfast; a second breakfast to be sure, but such exceedingly young persons could not be expected to restrict themselves to the conventional order in the matter of refreshment. It was a great delight to be abroad: the air was soft and moist and the warm sun of early March brought out the scent of the earth and of distant gardens and the weedy smell from the still pools.
They were almost alone at the lake end save for the habitual fishermen and sportsmen, the restaurateurs and lazy looking gargons. Their small table was out where the capricious breeze beat about them, and they sat looking across the glistening water, watching the slow sails and feeling like a couple of bees in clover.
Charlie drew off a glove, looked at her hand and silently held it out for her father’s inspection, right under his eyes.
“What do you think of that, dad?” she asked finally. He gazed at the hand and rubbed his cheek, meditatively, as he would have pulled his mustache if he had had one.
“Just take a good look at it. Notice anything?” He took her hand, scrutinizing the ring.
“No stones missing, are there?”
“I don’t mean the ring, but the hand,” turning her palm uppermost. “Feel that. You know what it used to be. Ever feel anything softer than that?”
He held the hand fondly in both of his, but she withdrew it, holding it at arm’s length.
“Now, dad, I want your candid opinion; don’t say anything you don’t believe; but do you think it’s as white as — Juba’s, for instance?”
He narrowed his eyes, surveying the little hand that gleamed in the sun, like a connoisseur sizing up a picture.
“I don’t want to be hasty,” he said quizzically. “I’m not too sure that I remember, and I shouldn’t like to do Julia’s hand an injustice, but my opinion is that yours is whiter.”
She threw an arm around his neck and hugged him, to the astonishment of a lame oysterman and a little Brazilian monkey that squealed in his cage with amusement.
“It’s all right, Charlie dear, but you know you mustn’t think too much about the hands and all that. Take care of the head, too, and the temper.”
“Don’t fret, dad,” tapping her forehead under the rim of the ‘sailor,’ “the head’s coming right up to the front: history, literature, elegies, everything but dates and figures; getting right in here; consumed with ambition. And the girls didn’t think I’d ever learn to dance until I gave them a double shuffle and a Coonpine! Now I’m giving lessons. Never mind! some of these days they’ll be asking your permission to make me queen of the Carnival. And as for temper! Why, it’s ridiculous, dad. I’m beginning to — to bleat!”
Well, it was a day full to the brim. In the afternoon they heard a wonderful pianist play. It gave Charlie a feeling of exaltation, a new insight; the music somehow filled her soul with its power.
It was nearly dark when she embraced her father and bade him good bye. For weeks the memory of that day lasted.
It was in the full flush of April that a telegram came summoning Charlie home at once. Terror seized her like some tangible thing. She feared some one was dead.
Her father had been injured, they told her. Not fatally, but he wanted her.
It was one of those terrible catastrophes which seem so impossible, so uncalled for when they come home to us, that stupefy with grief and regret; an accident at the sugar mill; a bit of perilous repairing in which he chose to assume the risk rather than expose others to danger. It was hard to say what had happened to him. He was alive; that was all, but tom, maimed and unconscious. The surgeon, who was coming as fast as steam and the iron wheels could bring him, would tell them more of it. The surgeon was on the train with Charlie and so was the professional nurse. They seemed to her like monsters; because he read a newspaper and conversed with the conductor about crops and the weather; and the other, demure in her grey dress and close bonnet, displayed an interest in a group of children who were traveling with their mother.
Charlie could not speak. Her brain was confused with horror and her thoughts were beyond control. Every’ thing had lost significance but her grief and nothing was real but her despair. Emotion stupefied her when she thought that he would not be there at the station waiting for her with outstretched arms and beaming visage; that she would perhaps never see him again as he had been that day at the lake, robust and beautiful, clasping her with loving arms when he said good bye in the soft twilight.
She became keenly conscious of the rhythm of the iron wheels that seemed to mock her and keep time to the throbbing in her head and bosom. There was a hush upon the whole plantation. Silent embraces; serious faces and tearful eyes greeted her. It seemed inexpressibly hard that she should be kept from him while the surgeon and the nurse were hurried to his side. A physician was already there, and so was Mr. Gus.
During the hour or more that followed, Charlie sat alone on the upper gallery. Madame Philomel with Julia and Amanda were indoors praying upon their knees. The others were speechless with anxiety. Charlie alone was quiet and dull. It had rained and there was a delicious freshness in the air, the birds were mad with joy among the dripping leaves that glistened with the filtering rays of the setting sun. She sat and stared at the water still pouring from a tin spout.
The twins came and leaned their heads against her. She took Pauline into her lap and fastened the child’s shoestring that had come untied. She stared at them both with absent-minded eyes. Then Irene came and led them away. The water had stopped flowing from the spout and Charlie fixed her eyes upon the peacock that moved with low trailing plumage over the wet grass.
There was a sweet, sickening odor stealing from the house, more penetrating than the scent of the rain-washed flowers. She groaned as the fumes of the anesthetic reached her. She leaned her elbows upon the rail and with her head clasped in her hands, stared down at the gravel before the steps.
Someone came out upon the porch and stood beside her; it was Mr. Gus, all his shyness submerged for the moment in quick sympathy.
“Poor old Charlie,” he said softly and took her hand.
“Is he dead, Mr. Gus? have they killed him?” she asked dully.
“He isn’t dead. He won’t die if he can help it.”
“What have they done to him?”
“Never mind now, Charlie; just thank God that he is left to us.”
A deep prayer of thankfulness went up from every heart. The crushing pressure was lifted, and they rejoiced that it was to be life rather than death — life at any price.
With the changed conditions that so soon make themselves familiar, a new character was stamped upon the family life at Les Palmiers. There was a quiet and unconscious readjustment. The center of responsibility shifted and sought as it were to find lodgment for a time in every individual breast. The family took turns in watching at the bedside after the quiet woman in grey had gone. Then it was that even Demins showed fine mettle in those days. Money might have paid his services, it could never balance his devotion.
Charlie forgot that she was young and that the sun was shining out of doors and the voices of the woods and fields awaited her. But between sick-watches she took again to the task of beautifying her outward and inward being. She sought after becoming arrangements of her hair; over the kitchen fire she mixed ointments for the whitening of her skin; and while committing to memory tasks that filled her sisters with admiration, she polished her pointed nails till they rivaled the pearly rose of the conch-shells which Mme. Philomel kept upon either side of her hearth.
It was getting pretty warm and systematic work in the class room had been abandoned. Miss Melvern went away on her annual home visit and Aunt Clementine came up to the plantation to condole and to read the riot-act.
Her brother was sufficiently recovered to be scolded, to listen to the truth as Aunt Clementine defined her plain talk. It was high time he gave over thinking he might keep his daughters always like a bouquet of flowers, in a bunch, as it were, on the family hearth. He was not quite equal to the task of disagreeing with her. She had plans for separating these blossoms so that they might disseminate their sweetness even across the seas. Julia and Amanda should accompany her abroad in the Autumn.
A winter in Paris and Rome, not to mention Florence, would accomplish more for them than years in the class room. Aunt Clementine saw great possibilities of a fine lady in Amanda. The girl presented more crude, promising material than Julia even. A year at the Seminary for Irene, and Charlie —
“Please leave me out of your calculations, Aunt,” said Charlie with a flash of her old rebellious nature. “Dad’ll have something to say when he’s able to bother about it, and in the meantime I propose to take care of myself and the youngsters and of Dad, and this meeting’s got to end right here. When he is strong enough to talk back, Aunt Clementine, you may come and have it out with him.” Aunt Clementine had always considered the girl coarse and she surveyed the girl with compassion.
“Charlie, remember to whom you are speaking,” said Julia with gentle rebuke. But they all filed out of the sick room, Amanda with a calm exultation in her face — and left Charlie to smoothe the pillow and quiet the nerves of the convalescent.
Julia seemed to be always more than ready to accept an imitation from her aunt. Life in the country began apparently to weary her, and, without too much urging she accompanied Aunt Clementine back to the city.
Young Walton had been up to Les Palmiers on a visit of sympathy and had had a conversation alone with Mr. Laborde which had been to the last degree satisfactory. Charlie wore her pink organdie and her grandmother’s pearls during his visit and puffed her hair.
It was a week or so after Julia’s departure for the city that the remaining sisters were all assembled on the false gallery one forenoon awaiting the return of Demins with the mail. Twice a day it was Demins’ duty to fetch and carry the family mail from and to the station. Amanda’s familiarity with keys seemed to entitle her to the office of locking and unlocking the canvas bag and it was she who distributed the mail.
There was a letter from Julia for each one of the sisters, under separate cover; even the twins got one between them. A proceeding so unfamiliar on the part of the undemonstrative Julia caused more than a flutter of wonder and comment. Envelopes were torn open, exclamations followed: rejoicing, dismay, elation, consternation! Engaged! Julia engaged! and the sky still in its place overhead and not crumbling about their ears!
Charlie alone said nothing at first, then in a voice hideous with anger:
“She’s a deceitful hypocrite, she’s no sister of mine, I hate her!” She turned and went into the house leaving Julia’s letter lying upon the bricks. Pauline began to utter little choking sobs at once. Fidelia grew red with indecision and dismay.
“She can’t bear him,” said Irene with shame-faced apology.
“Charlie’s a goose,” remarked Amanda picking up the letter and folding it back into its envelope, “let’s go and hear what father has to say.”
A little later Charlie in her trouserlets, boots and leggings, mounted black Tim and galloped madly away, no one knew where.
“Look like ol’ Nick took hol’ o’ Miss Charlie again,” commented Aunt Maryllis leaning from the kitchen window.
“She mad ‘cause Miss Julia g’in git ma’rid to de young man w’at she shot,” said Blossom. “I yeard ‘em. Miss Irene ‘low Miss Charlie for hate dat man like pizen.”
At the sound of Tim’s pounding hoofs upon the road, Xenophore darted from the cabin door. And at sight of Charlie rushing past in the old familiar guise of a whirlwind, the youngster threw himself flat down and rolled in the dust with glee, even though he knew his mother would whip the dust from his jeans without the trouble of removing them from his small person.
No one ever knew where Charlie ate her dinner that day. She did not quite kill Tim but it took days of care to set him on his accustomed legs again. She did not join the family at the evening meal and remained apart in her own room, refusing admittance to those who sought to reach her.
In her mad ride Charlie had thrown off the savage impulse which had betrayed itself in such bitter denunciation of her sister.
Shame and regret had followed and now she was steeped in humiliation such as she had never felt before. She did not feel worthy to approach her father or her sisters. The girlish infatuation which had blinded her was swept away in the torrents of a deeper emotion, and left her a woman.
It was trivial, perhaps, for her to take the little poem from the back of her mother’s miniature and holding it on the point of a hat pin, consume it in the flame of a match. During the stillness of the night when she could not sleep, she crept out of bed and lit her lamp, shading it so that its glimmer could not be detected from without.
Removing the precious diamond ring from her finger she began to polish and brighten it till the glittering stones were scintillant in their dazzling whiteness. The task over, she put the ring in a little blue velvet cover which she took from her bureau drawer and laid it upon the pin cushion.
Then Charlie went back to bed and slept till the sun was high in the heavens.
She had little to say at breakfast the next morning and there was no one who felt privileged to question her. With the others she gathered on the false gallery to wait for the mail as she had done the day before. When her letters were handed to her she also took her father’s mail and turned to go with it.
“Girls,” she said bravely, half turning. “I want to tell you I am ashamed of what I said yesterday. I hope you’ll forget it. I mean to try to make you forget it.” That was all. She went on up to her father.
He was stretched upon a cot near the window, like a pale shadow of himself.
“Where have you been all this time, Charlie?” he asked, with reproachful eyes. She stood over his cot couch for a moment silent.
“I’ve been climbing a high mountain, dad.” He was used to her flights of speech when they were alone.
“And what did you see from the top, little girl?” he questioned with a smile.
“I saw the new moon. But here are your letters, dad.” She drew a low chair and sat close, close to his bed.
“Isn’t Gus coming up?” he asked. Mr. Gus came each morning to offer his services in reading or answering letters.
“I’m jealous of Mr. Gus,” she said. “I know as much as he, more perhaps when it comes to writing letters. I know as much about the plantation as you do, dad; you know I do. And from now on I’m going to be — to be your right hand — your poor right hand,” she almost sobbed sinking her face in the pillow. The arm that was left to him he folded around her and pressed his lips to her brow.
“Look, Dad,” she exclaimed, cheerfully recovering herself and plunging her hand in her pocket. “What do you think of this for a wedding present for Julia?” She held the open blue velvet case before his eyes.
“You rave! nonsense. I thought you prized it more than any of your possessions; more than Tim even.”
“I do. That’s why I give it. There’d be no value in giving a thing I didn’t prize,” she said inconsequentially.
While she was writing out the card of presentation at the table, Mr. Gus came in and Charlie joined him at the bed side.
“This little woman has an idea she can run the plantation, Gus, till I get on my feet,” said Mr. Laborde more cheerfully than he had spoken since his accident. “What do you think about it?”
Mr. Gus turned a fine pink under his burned skin.
“If she says so, I don’t doubt it,” he agreed, “and I’m always ready to lend a hand; you know that. I’m going towards the mill now, and if Charlie cares — I see her horse saddled out there,” peering from the window as if the sight of the horse saddled, awaiting its rider, was something he had not perceived before.
“Here are your letters, dad. One of the girls will come up and get them ready for you and when I come back I’ll answer them. I’ll save Mr. Gus that much.”
From his window Mr. Laborde watched the two mount their horses under the live oak tree.
Aunt Maryllis was standing in the kitchen door holding a small tin cup.
“Miss Charlie,” she called out, “heah dis heah grease you mix’ up fo’ yo’ han’s; w’at I gwine do wid it?”
“Throw it away, Aunt Maryllis,” cried Charlie over her shoulder.
The old woman sniffed at the cup. It smelled good. She thrust the tip of a knotty black finger into the creamy white mixture and rubbed it on her hand. Then she deliberately hid the tin in a piece of newspaper and set it away on the chimney shelf.
There is no telling what would have become of Les Palmiers that summer if it had not been for Charlie and Mr. Gus. It was precisely a year since Charlie had been hustled away to the boarding school in a state of semi-disgrace. Now, with all the dignity and grace which the term implied, she was mistress of Les Palmiers.
Julia was married and away on her wedding journey prior to making her home in the city. Amanda was qualifying in Paris under the tutelage of Aunt Clementine to enter the lists as a fine lady of fashion. The others were back in the class room with Miss Melvern in her old place. Mr. Laborde had recuperated slowly from the terrible shock to his nervous system six months before; and though he was getting about, he spent much time reclining in the long lounge in the upper hall.
It was a moonlight night and very quiet. He could sometimes faintly hear the lap of the great river, and he caught the low hum of voices below. It was Mr. Gus and Charlie conversing in the lower veranda. Mr. Gus was stripping a long, thin branch of its thorns and leaves and tangling his speech into incoherence.
“There’s no hurry. I just mentioned it, Charlie, because I — couldn’t help it.”
“No, there’s no hurry,” agreed Charlie leaning back against a pillar and gazing up at the sky. “I couldn’t dream of leaving Dad without a right arm.”
“Of course not; I couldn’t expect it. But then couldn’t he have two right arms!” “And then the twins. I’ve come to be a sort of mother to them rather than a sister; and you see I’d have to wait till they grew up.”
“Yes, I suppose so. About how old are the twins now?”
“Nearly seven. But we’ll talk of all that some other time. Didn’t you hear Dad cough? That’s a sly way he has of attracting my attention. He doesn’t like to call me outright.” Mr. Gus was beating the switch upon the gravel.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you.”
“I know. You want to ask me not to call you ‘Mr.’ Gus any more.”
“How did you know?”
“I am a clairvoyant. And besides you want to ask me if I like you pretty’ well.”
“You are a clairvoyant!”
“It seems to me I’ve always liked you better than any one, and that I’ll keep on liking you more and more. So there! Good night.” She ran lightly away into the house and left him in an ecstasy in the moonlight.
“Is that you, Charlie?” asked her father at the sound of her light footfall. She came and took his hand, leaning fondly over him as he lay in the soft, dim light.
“Did you want anything, Dad?”
“I only wanted to know if you were there.”
More full texts of Chopin’s works on this site
- Désirée’s Baby (1893) – short story
- The Story of an Hour (1894) – short story
- A Matter of Prejudice (1897) – short story
- The Storm (1898) – short story
- The Awakening (1899) – novella