A Matter of Prejudice
by Kate Chopin
MADAME Carambeau wanted it strictly understood that she was not to be disturbed by Gustave’s birthday party. They carried her big rocking-chair from the back gallery, that looked out upon the garden where the children were going to play, around to the front gallery, which closely faced the green levee bank and the Mississippi coursing almost flush with the top of it.
The house – an old Spanish one, broad, low and completely encircled by a wide gallery – was far down in the French quarter of New Orleans. It stood upon a square of ground that was covered thick with a semi-tropical growth of plants and flowers. An impenetrable board fence, edged with a formidable row of iron spikes, shielded the garden from the prying glances of the occasional passer-by.
Madame Carambeau’s widowed daughter, Madame Cécile Lalonde, lived with her. This annual party, given to her little son, Gustave, was the one defiant act of Madame Lalonde’s existence. She persisted in it, to her own astonishment and the wonder of those who knew her and her mother.
For old Madame Carambeau was a woman of many prejudices – so many, in fact, that it would be difficult to name them all. She detested dogs, cats, organ-grinders, white servants and children’s noises. She despised Americans, Germans and all people of a different faith from her own. Anything not French had, in her opinion, little right to existence.
She had not spoken to her son Henri for ten years because he had married an American girl from Prytania street. She would not permit green tea to be introduced into her house, and those who could not or would not drink coffee might drink tisane of fleur de Laurier for all she cared.
Nevertheless, the children seemed to be having it all their own way that day, and the organ-grinders were let loose. Old madame, in her retired corner, could hear the screams, the laughter and the music far more distinctly than she liked. She rocked herself noisily, and hummed “Partant pour la Syrie.”
She was straight and slender. Her hair was white, and she wore it in puffs on the temples. Her skin was fair and her eyes blue and cold.
Suddenly she became aware that footsteps were approaching, and threatening to invade her privacy – not only footsteps, but screams! Then two little children, one in hot pursuit of the other, darted wildly around the corner near which she sat.
The child in advance, a pretty little girl, sprang excitedly into Madame Carambeau’s lap, and threw her arms convulsively around the old lady’s neck. Her companion lightly struck her a “last tag,” and ran laughing gleefully away.
The most natural thing for the child to do then would have been to wriggle down from madame’s lap, without a “thank you” or a “by your leave,” after the manner of small and thoughtless children. But she did not do this. She stayed there, panting and fluttering, like a frightened bird.
Madame was greatly annoyed. She moved as if to put the child away from her, and scolded her sharply for being boisterous and rude. The little one, who did not understand French, was not disturbed by the reprimand, and stayed on in madame’s lap. She rested her plump little cheek, that was hot and flushed, against the soft white linen of the old lady’s gown.
Her cheek was very hot and very flushed. It was dry, too, and so were her hands. The child’s breathing was quick and irregular. Madame was not long in detecting these signs of disturbance.
Though she was a creature of prejudice, she was nevertheless a skillful and accomplished nurse, and a connoisseur in all matters pertaining to health. She prided herself upon this talent, and never lost an opportunity of exercising it. She would have treated an organ-grinder with tender consideration if one had presented himself in the character of an invalid.
Madame’s manner toward the little one changed immediately. Her arms and her lap were at once adjusted so as to become the most comfortable of resting places. She rocked very gently to and fro. She fanned the child softly with her palm leaf fan, and sang “Partant pour la Syrie” in a low and agreeable tone.
The child was perfectly content to lie still and prattle a little in that language which madame thought hideous. But the brown eyes were soon swimming in drowsiness, and the little body grew heavy with sleep in madame’s clasp.
When the little girl slept Madame Carambeau arose, and treading carefully and deliberately, entered her room, that opened near at hand upon the gallery. The room was large, airy and inviting, with its cool matting upon the floor, and its heavy, old, polished mahogany furniture. Madame, with the child still in her arms, pulled a bell-cord; then she stood waiting, swaying gently back and forth. Presently an old black woman answered the summons. She wore gold hoops in her ears, and a bright bandanna knotted fantastically on her head.
“Louise, turn down the bed,” commanded madame. “Place that small, soft pillow below the bolster. Here is a poor little unfortunate creature whom Providence must have driven into my arms.” She laid the child carefully down.
“Ah, those Americans! Do they deserve to have children? Understanding as little as they do how to take care of them!” said madame, while Louise was mumbling an accompanying assent that would have been unintelligible to any one unacquainted with the negro patois.
“There, you see, Louise, she is burning up,” remarked madame; “she is consumed. Unfasten the little bodice while I lift her. Ah, talk to me of such parents! So stupid as not to perceive a fever like that coming on, but they must dress their child up like a monkey to go play and dance to the music of organ- grinders.
“Haven’t you better sense, Louise, than to take off a child’s shoe as if you were removing the boot from the leg of a cavalry officer?” Madame would have required fairy fingers to minister to the sick. “Now go to Mamzelle Cécile, and tell her to send me one of those old, soft, thin nightgowns that Gustave wore two summers ago.”
When the woman retired, madame busied herself with concocting a cooling pitcher of orange-flower water, and mixing a fresh supply of eau sédative with which agreeably to sponge the little invalid.
Madame Lalonde came herself with the old, soft nightgown. She was a pretty, blonde, plump little woman, with the deprecatory air of one whose will has become flaccid from want of use. She was mildly distressed at what her mother had done.
“But, mamma! But, mamma, the child’s parents will be sending the carriage for her in a little while. Really, there was no use. Oh dear! oh dear!”
If the bedpost had spoken to Madame Carambeau, she would have paid more attention, for speech from such a source would have been at least surprising if not convincing. Madame Lalonde did not possess the faculty of either surprising or convincing her mother.
“Yes, the little one will be quite comfortable in this,” said the old lady, taking the garment from her daughter’s irresolute hands.
“But, mamma! What shall I say, what shall I do when they send? Oh, dear; oh, dear!”
“That is your business,” replied madame, with lofty indifference. “My concern is solely with a sick child that happens to be under my roof. I think I know my duty at this time of life, Cécile.”
As Madame Lalonde predicted, the carriage soon came, with a stiff English coachman driving it, and a red-checked Irish nurse-maid seated inside. Madame would not even permit the maid to see her little charge. She had an original theory that the Irish voice is distressing to the sick.
Madame Lalonde sent the girl away with a long letter of explanation that must have satisfied the parents; for the child was left undisturbed in Madame Carambeau’s care. She was a sweet child, gentle and affectionate. And, though she cried and fretted a little throughout the night for her mother, she seemed, after all, to take kindly to madame’s gentle nursing. It was not much of a fever that afflicted her, and after two days she was well enough to be sent back to her parents.
Madame, in all her varied experience with the sick, had never before nursed so objectionable a character as an American child. But the trouble was that after the little one went away, she could think of nothing really objectionable against her except the accident of her birth, which was, after all, her misfortune; and her ignorance of the French language, which was not her fault.
But the touch of the caressing baby arms; the pressure of the soft little body in the night; the tones of the voice, and the feeling of the hot lips when the child kissed her, believing herself to be with her mother, were impressions that had sunk through the crust of madame’s prejudice and reached her heart.
She often walked the length of the gallery, looking out across the wide, majestic river. Sometimes she trod the mazes of her garden where the solitude was almost that of a tropical jungle. It was during such moments that the seed began to work in her soul – the seed planted by the innocent and undesigning hands of a little child.
The first shoot that it sent forth was Doubt. Madame plucked it away once or twice. But it sprouted again, and with it Mistrust and Dissatisfaction. Then from the heart of the seed, and amid the shoots of Doubt and Misgiving, came the flower of Truth. It was a very beautiful flower, and it bloomed on Christmas morning.
As Madame Carambeau and her daughter were about to enter her carriage on that Christmas morning, to be driven to church, the old lady stopped to give an order to her black coachman, François. François had been driving these ladies every Sunday morning to the French Cathedral for so many years – he had forgotten exactly how many, but ever since he had entered their service, when Madame Lalonde was a little girl. His astonishment may therefore be imagined when Madame Carambeau said to him:
“François, to-day you will drive us to one of the American churches.”
“Plait-il, madame?” the negro stammered, doubting the evidence of his hearing.
“I say, you will drive us to one of the American churches. Any one of them,” she added, with a sweep of her hand. “I suppose they are all alike,” and she followed her daughter into the carriage.
Madame Lalonde’s surprise and agitation were painful to see, and they deprived her of the ability to question, even if she had possessed the courage to do so.
François, left to his fancy, drove them to St. Patrick’s Church on Camp street. Madame Lalonde looked and felt like the proverbial fish out of its element as they entered the edifice. Madame Carambeau, on the contrary, looked as if she had been attending St. Patrick’s church all her life. She sat with unruffled calm through the long service and through a lengthy English sermon, of which she did not understand a word.
When the mass was ended and they were about to enter the carriage again, Madame Carambeau turned, as she had done before, to the coachman.
“François,” she said, coolly, “you will now drive us to the residence of my son, M. Henri Carambeau. No doubt Mamzelle Cécile can inform you where it is,” she added, with a sharply penetrating glance that caused Madame Lalonde to wince.
Yes, her daughter Cécile knew, and so did François, for that matter. They drove out St. Charles avenue – very far out. It was like a strange city to old madame, who had not been in the American quarter since the town had taken on this new and splendid growth.
The morning was a delicious one, soft and mild; and the roses were all in bloom. They were not hidden behind spiked fences. Madame appeared not to notice them, or the beautiful and striking residences that lined the avenue along which they drove. She held a bottle of smelling-salts to her nostrils, as though she were passing through the most unsavory instead of the most beautiful quarter of New Orleans.
Henri’s house was a very modern and very handsome one, standing a little distance away from the street. A well-kept lawn, studded with rare and charming plants, surrounded it. The ladies, dismounting, rang the bell, and stood out upon the banquette, waiting for the iron gate to be opened.
A white maid-servant admitted them. Madame did not seem to mind. She handed her a card with all proper ceremony, and followed with her daughter to the house.
Not once did she show a sign of weakness; not even when her son, Henri, came and took her in his arms and sobbed and wept upon her neck as only a warm-hearted Creole could. He was a big, good-looking, honest-faced man, with tender brown eyes like his dead father’s and a firm mouth like his mother’s.
Young Mrs. Carambeau came, too, her sweet, fresh face transfigured with happiness. She led by the hand her little daughter, the “American child” whom madame had nursed so tenderly a month before, never suspecting the little one to be other than an alien to her.
“What a lucky chance was that fever! What a happy accident!” gurgled Madame Lalonde.
“Cécile, it was no accident, I tell you; it was Providence,” spoke madame, reprovingly, and no one contradicted her.
They all drove back together to eat Christmas dinner in the old house by the river. Madame held her little granddaughter upon her lap; her son Henri sat facing her, and beside her was her daughter-in-law.
Henri sat back in the carriage and could not speak. His soul was possessed by a pathetic joy that would not admit of speech. He was going back again to the home where he was born, after a banishment of ten long years.
He would hear again the water beat against the green levee-bank with a sound that was not quite like any other that he could remember. He would sit within the sweet and solemn shadow of the deep and overhanging roof; and roam through the wild, rich solitude of the old garden, where he had played his pranks of boyhood and dreamed his dreams of youth. He would listen to his mother’s voice calling him, “mon fils,” as it had always done before that day he had had to choose between mother and wife. No; he could not speak.
But his wife chatted much and pleasantly – in a French, however, that must have been trying to old madame to listen to.
“I am so sorry, ma mère,” she said, “that our little one does not speak French. It is not my fault, I assure you,” and she flushed and hesitated a little. “It – it was Henri who would not permit it.”
“That is nothing,” replied madame, amiably, drawing the child close to her. “Her grandmother will teach her French; and she will teach her grandmother English. You see, I have no prejudices. I am not like my son. Henri was always a stubborn boy. Heaven only knows how he came by such a character!”