Beyond the Bayou
A Pair of Silk Stockings
Kate Chopin, born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri on February 8, 1850, is considered one of the first feminist authors of the 20th century. She was following a rather conventional path as a housewife until an unfortunate tragedy — the untimely death of her husband — altered the course of her life.
Beyond the Bayou
The bayou curved like a crescent around the point of land on which La Folle’s cabin stood. Between the stream and the hut lay a big abandoned field, where cattle were pastured when the bayou supplied them with water enough. Through the woods that spread back into unknown regions the woman had drawn an imaginary line, and past this circle she never stepped. This was the form of her only mania.
She was now a large, gaunt black woman, past thirty-five. Her real name was Jacqueline, but every one on the plantation called her La Folle, because in childhood she had been frightened literally “out of her senses,” and had never wholly regained them.
It was when there had been skirmishing and sharpshooting all day in the woods. Evening was near when P’tit Maitre, black with powder and crimson with blood, had staggered into the cabin of Jacqueline’s mother, his pursuers close at his heels. The sight had stunned her childish reason.
She dwelt alone in her solitary cabin, for the rest of the quarters had long since been removed beyond her sight and knowledge. She had more physical strength than most men, and made her patch of cotton and corn and tobacco like the best of them. But of the world beyond the bayou she had long known nothing, save what her morbid fancy conceived.
People at Bellissime had grown used to her and her way, and they thought nothing of it. Even when “Old Mis'” died, they did not wonder that La Folle had not crossed the bayou, but had stood upon her side of it, wailing and lamenting.
P’tit Maitre was now the owner of Bellissime. He was a middle-aged man, with a family of beautiful daughters about him, and a little son whom La Folle loved as if he had been her own. She called him Cheri, and so did every one else because she did.
None of the girls had ever been to her what Cheri was. They had each and all loved to be with her, and to listen to her wondrous stories of things that always happened “yonda, beyon’ de bayou.”
But none of them had stroked her black hand quite as Cheri did, nor rested their heads against her knee so confidingly, nor fallen asleep in her arms as he used to do. For Cheri hardly did such things now, since he had become the proud possessor of a gun, and had had his black curls cut off.
That summer–the summer Cheri gave La Folle two black curls tied with a knot of red ribbon–the water ran so low in the bayou that even the little children at Bellissime were able to cross it on foot, and the cattle were sent to pasture down by the river. La Folle was sorry when they were gone, for she loved these dumb companions well, and liked to feel that they were there, and to hear them browsing by night up to her own enclosure.
It was Saturday afternoon, when the fields were deserted. The men had flocked to a neighboring village to do their week’s trading, and the women were occupied with household affairs,–La Folle as well as the others. It was then she mended and washed her handful of clothes, scoured her house, and did her baking.
In this last employment she never forgot Cheri. To-day she had fashioned croquignoles of the most fantastic and alluring shapes for him. So when she saw the boy come trudging across the old field with his gleaming little new rifle on his shoulder, she called out gayly to him, “Cheri! Cheri!”
But Cheri did not need the summons, for he was coming straight to her. His pockets all bulged out with almonds and raisins and an orange that he had secured for her from the very fine dinner which had been given that day up at his father’s house.
He was a sunny-faced youngster of ten. When he had emptied his pockets, La Folle patted his round red cheek, wiped his soiled hands on her apron, and smoothed his hair. Then she watched him as, with his cakes in his hand, he crossed her strip of cotton back of the cabin, and disappeared into the wood.
He had boasted of the things he was going to do with his gun out there.
“You think they got plenty deer in the wood, La Folle?” he had inquired, with the calculating air of an experienced hunter.
“Non, non!” the woman laughed. “Don’t you look fo’ no deer, Cheri. Dat’s too big. But you bring La Folle one good fat squirrel fo’ her dinner to-morrow, an’ she goin’ be satisfi’.”
“One squirrel ain’t a bite. I’ll bring you mo’ ‘an one, La Folle,” he had boasted pompously as he went away.
When the woman, an hour later, heard the report of the boy’s rifle close to the wood’s edge, she would have thought nothing of it if a sharp cry of distress had not followed the sound.
She withdrew her arms from the tub of suds in which they had been plunged, dried them upon her apron, and as quickly as her trembling limbs would bear her, hurried to the spot whence the ominous report had come.
It was as she feared. There she found Cheri stretched upon the ground, with his rifle beside him. He moaned piteously:–
“I’m dead, La Folle! I’m dead! I’m gone!”
“Non, non!” she exclaimed resolutely, as she knelt beside him. “Put you’ arm ‘roun’ La Folle’s nake, Cheri. Dat’s nuttin’; dat goin’ be nuttin’.” She lifted him in her powerful arms.
Cheri had carried his gun muzzle-downward. He had stumbled,–he did not know how. He only knew that he had a ball lodged somewhere in his leg, and he thought that his end was at hand. Now, with his head upon the woman’s shoulder, he moaned and wept with pain and fright.
“Oh, La Folle! La Folle! it hurt so bad! I can’ stan’ it, La Folle!”
“Don’t cry, mon bebe, mon bebe, mon Cheri!” the woman spoke soothingly as she covered the ground with long strides. “La Folle goin’ mine you; Doctor Bonfils goin’ come make mon Cheri well agin.”
She had reached the abandoned field. As she crossed it with her precious burden, she looked constantly and restlessly from side to side. A terrible fear was upon her, –the fear of the world beyond the bayou, the morbid and insane dread she had been under since childhood.
When she was at the bayou’s edge she stood there, and shouted for help as if a life depended upon it:–
“Oh, P’tit Maitre! P’tit Maitre! Venez donc! Au secours! Au secours!”
No voice responded. Cheri’s hot tears were scalding her neck. She called for each and every one upon the place, and still no answer came.
She shouted, she wailed; but whether her voice remained unheard or unheeded, no reply came to her frenzied cries. And all the while Cheri moaned and wept and entreated to be taken home to his mother.
La Folle gave a last despairing look around her. Extreme terror was upon her. She clasped the child close against her breast, where he could feel her heart beat like a muffled hammer. Then shutting her eyes, she ran suddenly down the shallow bank of the bayou, and never stopped till she had climbed the opposite shore.
She stood there quivering an instant as she opened her eyes. Then she plunged into the footpath through the trees.
She spoke no more to Cheri, but muttered constantly, “Bon Dieu, ayez pitie La Folle! Bon Dieu, ayez pitie moi!”
Instinct seemed to guide her. When the pathway spread clear and smooth enough before her, she again closed her eyes tightly against the sight of that unknown and terrifying world.
A child, playing in some weeds, caught sight of her as she neared the quarters. The little one uttered a cry of dismay.
“La Folle!” she screamed, in her piercing treble. “La Folle done cross de bayer!”
Quickly the cry passed down the line of cabins.
“Yonda, La Folle done cross de bayou!”
Children, old men, old women, young ones with infants in their arms, flocked to doors and windows to see this awe-inspiring spectacle. Most of them shuddered with superstitious dread of what it might portend. “She totin’ Cheri!” some of them shouted.
Some of the more daring gathered about her, and followed at her heels, only to fall back with new terror when she turned her distorted face upon them. Her eyes were bloodshot and the saliva had gathered in a white foam on her black lips.
Some one had run ahead of her to where P’tit Maitre sat with his family and guests upon the gallery.
“P’tit Maitre! La Folle done cross de bayou! Look her! Look her yonda totin’ Cheri!” This startling intimation was the first which they had of the woman’s approach.
She was now near at hand. She walked with long strides. Her eyes were fixed desperately before her, and she breathed heavily, as a tired ox.
At the foot of the stairway, which she could not have mounted, she laid the boy in his father’s arms. Then the world that had looked red to La Folle suddenly turned black,–like that day she had seen powder and blood.
She reeled for an instant. Before a sustaining arm could reach her, she fell heavily to the ground.
When La Folle regained consciousness, she was at home again, in her own cabin and upon her own bed. The moon rays, streaming in through the open door and windows, gave what light was needed to the old black mammy who stood at the table concocting a tisane of fragrant herbs. It was very late.
Others who had come, and found that the stupor clung to her, had gone again. P’tit Maitre had been there, and with him Doctor Bonfils, who said that La Folle might die.
But death had passed her by. The voice was very clear and steady with which she spoke to Tante Lizette, brewing her tisane there in a corner.
“Ef you will give me one good drink tisane, Tante Lizette, I b’lieve I’m goin’ sleep, me.”
And she did sleep; so soundly, so healthfully, that old Lizette without compunction stole softly away, to creep back through the moonlit fields to her own cabin in the new quarters.
The first touch of the cool gray morning awoke La Folle. She arose, calmly, as if no tempest had shaken and threatened her existence but yesterday.
She donned her new blue cottonade and white apron, for she remembered that this was Sunday. When she had made for herself a cup of strong black coffee, and drunk it with relish, she quitted the cabin and walked across the old familiar field to the bayou’s edge again.
She did not stop there as she had always done before, but crossed with a long, steady stride as if she had done this all her life.
When she had made her way through the brush and scrub cottonwood-trees that lined the opposite bank, she found herself upon the border of a field where the white, bursting cotton, with the dew upon it, gleamed for acres and acres like frosted silver in the early dawn.
La Folle drew a long, deep breath as she gazed across the country. She walked slowly and uncertainly, like one who hardly knows how, looking about her as she went.
The cabins, that yesterday had sent a clamor of voices to pursue her, were quiet now. No one was yet astir at Bellissime. Only the birds that darted here and there from hedges were awake, and singing their matins.
When La Folle came to the broad stretch of velvety lawn that surrounded the house, she moved slowly and with delight over the springy turf, that was delicious beneath her tread.
She stopped to find whence came those perfumes that were assailing her senses with memories from a time far gone.
There they were, stealing up to her from the thousand blue violets that peeped out from green, luxuriant beds. There they were, showering down from the big waxen bells of the magnolias far above her head, and from the jessamine clumps around her.
There were roses, too, without number. To right and left palms spread in broad and graceful curves. It all looked like enchantment beneath the sparkling sheen of dew.
When La Folle had slowly and cautiously mounted the many steps that led up to the veranda, she turned to look back at the perilous ascent she had made. Then she caught sight of the river, bending like a silver bow at the foot of Bellissime. Exultation possessed her soul.
La Folle rapped softly upon a door near at hand. Cheri’s mother soon cautiously opened it. Quickly and cleverly she dissembled the astonishment she felt at seeing La Folle.
“Ah, La Folle! Is it you, so early?”
“Oui, madame. I come ax how my po’ li’le Cheri do, ‘s mo’nin’.”
“He is feeling easier, thank you, La Folle. Dr. Bonfils says it will be nothing serious. He’s sleeping now. Will you come back when he awakes?”
“Non, madame. I’m goin’ wait yair tell Cheri wake up.” La Folle seated herself upon the topmost step of the veranda.
A look of wonder and deep content crept into her face as she watched for the first time the sun rise upon the new, the beautiful world beyond the bayou.
It was still quite light out of doors, but inside with the curtains drawn and the smouldering fire sending out a dim, uncertain glow, the room was full of deep shadows.
Brantain sat in one of these shadows; it had overtaken him and he did not mind. The obscurity lent him courage to keep his eves fastened as ardently as he liked upon the girl who sat in the firelight.
She was very handsome, with a certain fine, rich coloring that belongs to the healthy brune type. She was quite composed, as she idly stroked the satiny coat of the cat that lay curled in her lap, and she occasionally sent a slow glance into the shadow where her companion sat. They were talking low, of indifferent things which plainly were not the things that occupied their thoughts. She knew that he loved her–a frank, blustering fellow without guile enough to conceal his feelings, and no desire to do so. For two weeks past he had sought her society eagerly and persistently. She was confidently waiting for him to declare himself and she meant to accept him. The rather insignificant and unattractive Brantain was enormously rich; and she liked and required the entourage which wealth could give her.
During one of the pauses between their talk of the last tea and the next reception the door opened and a young man entered whom Brantain knew quite well. The girl turned her face toward him. A stride or two brought him to her side, and bending over her chair–before she could suspect his intention, for she did not realize that he had not seen her visitor–he pressed an ardent, lingering kiss upon her lips.
Brantain slowly arose; so did the girl arise, but quickly, and the newcomer stood between them, a little amusement and some defiance struggling with the confusion in his face.
“I believe,” stammered Brantain, “I see that I have stayed too long. I–I had no idea–that is, I must wish you good-by.” He was clutching his hat with both hands, and probably did not perceive that she was extending her hand to him, her presence of mind had not completely deserted her; but she could not have trusted herself to speak.
“Hang me if I saw him sitting there, Nattie! I know it’s deuced awkward for you. But I hope you’ll forgive me this once–this very first break. Why, what’s the matter?”
“Don’t touch me; don’t come near me,” she returned angrily. “What do you mean by entering the house without ringing?”
“I came in with your brother, as I often do,” he answered coldly, in self-justification. “We came in the side way. He went upstairs and I came in here hoping to find you. The explanation is simple enough and ought to satisfy you that the misadventure was unavoidable. But do say that you forgive me, Nathalie,” he entreated, softening.
“Forgive you! You don’t know what you are talking about. Let me pass. It depends upon–a good deal whether I ever forgive you.”
At that next reception which she and Brantain had been talking about she approached the young man with a delicious frankness of manner when she saw him there.
“Will you let me speak to you a moment or two, Mr. Brantain?” she asked with an engaging but perturbed smile. He seemed extremely unhappy; but when she took his arm and walked away with him, seeking a retired corner, a ray of hope mingled with the almost comical misery of his expression. She was apparently very outspoken.
“Perhaps I should not have sought this interview, Mr. Brantain; but–but, oh, I have been very uncomfortable, almost miserable since that little encounter the other afternoon. When I thought how you might have misinterpreted it, and believed things” –hope was plainly gaining the ascendancy over misery in Brantain’s round, guileless face–“Of course, I know it is nothing to you, but for my own sake I do want you to understand that Mr. Harvy is an intimate friend of long standing. Why, we have always been like cousins–like brother and sister, I may say. He is my brother’s most intimate associate and often fancies that he is entitled to the same privileges as the family. Oh, I know it is absurd, uncalled for, to tell you this; undignified even,” she was almost weeping, “but it makes so much difference to me what you think of–of me.” Her voice had grown very low and agitated. The misery had all disappeared from Brantain’s face.
“Then you do really care what I think, Miss Nathalie? May I call you Miss Nathalie?” They turned into a long, dim corridor that was lined on either side with tall, graceful plants. They walked slowly to the very end of it. When they turned to retrace their steps Brantain’s face was radiant and hers was triumphant.
Harvy was among the guests at the wedding; and he sought her out in a rare moment when she stood alone.
“Your husband,” he said, smiling, “has sent me over to kiss you. “
A quick blush suffused her face and round polished throat. “I suppose it’s natural for a man to feel and act generously on an occasion of this kind. He tells me he doesn’t want his marriage to interrupt wholly that pleasant intimacy which has existed between you and me. I don’t know what you’ve been telling him,” with an insolent smile, “but he has sent me here to kiss you.”
She felt like a chess player who, by the clever handling of his pieces, sees the game taking the course intended. Her eyes were bright and tender with a smile as they glanced up into his; and her lips looked hungry for the kiss which they invited.
“But, you know,” he went on quietly, “I didn’t tell him so, it would have seemed ungrateful, but I can tell you. I’ve stopped kissing women; it’s dangerous.”
Well, she had Brantain and his million left. A person can’t have everything in this world; and it was a little unreasonable of her to expect it.
A Pair of Silk Stockings
Little Mrs. Sommers one day found herself the unexpected possessor of fifteen dollars. It seemed to her a very large amount of money, and the way in which it stuffed and bulged her worn old porte-monnaie gave her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years.
The question of investment was one that occupied her greatly. For a day or two she walked about apparently in a dreamy state, but really absorbed in speculation and calculation. She did not wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterward regret. But it was during the still hours of the night when she lay awake revolving plans in her mind that she seemed to see her way clearly toward a proper and judicious use of the money.
A dollar or two should be added to the price usually paid for Janie’s shoes, which would insure their lasting an appreciable time longer than they usually did. She would buy so and so many yards of percale for new shirt waists for the boys and Janie and Mag. She had intended to make the old ones do by skilful patching. Mag should have another gown. She had seen some beautiful patterns, veritable bargains in the shop windows. And still there would be left enough for new stockings–two pairs apiece–and what darning that would save for a while! She would get caps for the boys and sailor-hats for the girls. The vision of her little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives excited her and made her restless and wakeful with anticipation.
The neighbors sometimes talked of certain “better days” that little Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers. She herself indulged in no such morbid retrospection. She had no time–no second of time to devote to the past. The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily tomorrow never comes.
Mrs. Sommers was one who knew the value of bargains; who could stand for hours making her way inch by inch toward the desired object that was selling below cost. She could elbow her way if need be; she had learned to clutch a piece of goods and hold it and stick to it with persistence and determination till her turn came to be served, no matter when it came.
But that day she was a little faint and tired. She had swallowed a light luncheon–no! when she came to think of it, between getting the children fed and the place righted, and preparing herself for the shopping bout, she had actually forgotten to eat any luncheon at all!
She sat herself upon a revolving stool before a counter that was comparatively deserted, trying to gather strength and courage to charge through an eager multitude that was besieging breastworks of shirting and figured lawn. An all-gone limp feeling had come over her and she rested her hand aimlessly upon the counter. She wore no gloves. By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing, very pleasant to touch. She looked down to see that her hand lay upon a pile of silk stockings. A placard nearby announced that they had been reduced in price from two dollars and fifty cents to one dollar and ninety-eight cents; and a young girl who stood behind the counter asked her if she wished to examine their line of silk hosiery. She smiled, just as if she had been asked to inspect a tiara of diamonds with the ultimate view of purchasing it. But she went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things–with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.
Two hectic blotches came suddenly into her pale cheeks. She looked up at the girl.
“Do you think there are any eights-and-a-half among these?”
There were any number of eights-and-a-half. In fact, there were more of that size than any other. Here was a light-blue pair; there were some lavender, some all black and various shades of tan and gray. Mrs. Sommers selected a black pair and looked at them very long and closely. She pretended to be examining their texture, which the clerk assured her was excellent.
“A dollar and ninety-eight cents,” she mused aloud. “Well, I’ll take this pair.” She handed the girl a five-dollar bill and waited for her change and for her parcel. What a very small parcel it was! It seemed lost in the depths of her shabby old shopping-bag.
Mrs. Sommers after that did not move in the direction of the bargain counter. She took the elevator, which carried her to an upper floor into the region of the ladies’ waiting-rooms. Here, in a retired corner, she exchanged her cotton stockings for the new silk ones which she had just bought. She was not going through any acute mental process or reasoning with herself, nor was she striving to explain to her satisfaction the motive of her action. She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that laborious and fatiguing function and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.
How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh! She felt like lying back in the cushioned chair and revelling for a while in the luxury of it. She did for a little while. Then she replaced her shoes, rolled the cotton stockings together and thrust them into her bag. After doing this she crossed straight over to the shoe department and took her seat to be fitted.
She was fastidious. The clerk could not make her out; he could not reconcile her shoes with her stockings, and she was not too easily pleased. She held back her skirts and turned her feet one way and her head another way as she glanced down at the polished, pointed-tipped boots. Her foot and ankle looked very pretty. She could not realize that they belonged to her and were a part of herself. She wanted an excellent and stylish fit, she told the young fellow who served her, and she did not mind the difference of a dollar or two more in the price so long as she got what she desired.
It was a long time since Mrs. Sommers had been fitted with gloves. On rare occasions when she had bought a pair they were always “bargains,” so cheap that it would have been preposterous and unreasonable to have expected them to be fitted to the hand.
Now she rested her elbow on the cushion of the glove counter, and a pretty, pleasant young creature, delicate and deft of touch, drew a long-wristed “kid” over Mrs. Sommers’s hand. She smoothed it down over the wrist and buttoned it neatly, and both lost themselves for a second or two in admiring contemplation of the little symmetrical gloved hand. But there were other places where money might be spent.
There were books and magazines piled up in the window of a stall a few paces down the street. Mrs. Sommers bought two high-priced magazines such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things. She carried them without wrapping. As well as she could she lifted her skirts at the crossings. Her stockings and boots and well fitting gloves had worked marvels in her bearing–had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude.
She was very hungry. Another time she would have stilled the cravings for food until reaching her own home, where she would have brewed herself a cup of tea and taken a snack of anything that was available. But the impulse that was guiding her would not suffer her to entertain any such thought.
There was a restaurant at the corner. She had never entered its doors; from the outside she had sometimes caught glimpses of spotless damask and shining crystal, and soft-stepping waiters serving people of fashion.
When she entered her appearance created no surprise, no consternation, as she had half feared it might. She seated herself at a small table alone, and an attentive waiter at once approached to take her order. She did not want a profusion; she craved a nice and tasty bite–a half dozen blue-points, a plump chop with cress, a something sweet–a creme-frappee, for instance; a glass of Rhine wine, and after all a small cup of black coffee.
While waiting to be served she removed her gloves very leisurely and laid them beside her. Then she picked up a magazine and glanced through it, cutting the pages with a blunt edge of her knife. It was all very agreeable. The damask was even more spotless than it had seemed through the window, and the crystal more sparkling. There were quiet ladies and gentlemen, who did not notice her, lunching at the small tables like her own. A soft, pleasing strain of music could be heard, and a gentle breeze, was blowing through the window. She tasted a bite, and she read a word or two, and she sipped the amber wine and wiggled her toes in the silk stockings. The price of it made no difference. She counted the money out to the waiter and left an extra coin on his tray, whereupon he bowed before her as before a princess of royal blood.
There was still money in her purse, and her next temptation presented itself in the shape of a matinee poster.
It was a little later when she entered the theatre, the play had begun and the house seemed to her to be packed. But there were vacant seats here and there, and into one of them she was ushered, between brilliantly dressed women who had gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire. There were many others who were there solely for the play and acting. It is safe to say there was no one present who bore quite the attitude which Mrs. Sommers did to her surroundings. She gathered in the whole–stage and players and people in one wide impression, and absorbed it and enjoyed it. She laughed at the comedy and wept–she and the gaudy woman next to her wept over the tragedy. And they talked a little together over it. And the gaudy woman wiped her eyes and sniffled on a tiny square of filmy, perfumed lace and passed little Mrs. Sommers her box of candy.
The play was over, the music ceased, the crowd filed out. It was like a dream ended. People scattered in all directions. Mrs. Sommers went to the corner and waited for the cable car.
A man with keen eyes, who sat opposite to her, seemed to like the study of her small, pale face. It puzzled him to decipher what he saw there. In truth, he saw nothing-unless he were wizard enough to detect a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.