As the day was
pleasant, Madame Valmondé
drove over to L'Abri to see Désirée
and the baby.
It made her laugh to think of Désirée
with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday
that Désirée was little more than a baby
herself; when Monsieur in riding through
the gateway of Valmondé had found her
lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone
The little one awoke in his arms and
began to cry for "Dada." That was as
much as she could do or say. Some people
thought she might have strayed there of her
own accord, for she was of the toddling age.
The prevailing belief was that she had been
purposely left by a party of Texans, whose
canvas-covered wagon, late in the day, had
crossed the ferry that Coton Maîs kept, just
below the plantation. In time Madame
Valmondé abandoned every speculation but
the one that Désirée had been sent to her by
a beneficent Providence to be the child of
her affection, seeing that she was without
child of the flesh. For the girl grew to be
beautiful and gentle, affectionate and
sincere, - the idol of Valmondé.
Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia in Zeffirelli's Hamlet
W. G. Simmonds's The Drowning of
It was no wonder, when she stood one day
against the stone pillar in whose shadow she
had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that
Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her
there, had fallen in love with her. That was
the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if
struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was
that he had not loved her before; for he had
known her since his father brought him
home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his
mother died there. The passion that awoke
in him that day, when he saw her at the
gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like
a prairie fire, or like anything that drives
headlong over all obstacles.
Monsieur Valmondé grew practical and
wanted things well considered: that is, the
girl's obscure origin. Armand looked into
her eyes and did not care. He was reminded
that she was nameless. What did it matter
about a name when he could give her one of
the oldest and proudest in Louisiana? He
ordered the corbeille from Paris, and
contained himself with what patience he could
until it arrived; then they were married.
Madame Valmondé had not seen Désirée
and the baby for four weeks. When she
reached L'Abri she shuddered at the first
sight of it, as she always did. It was a sad
looking place, which for many years had not
known the gentle presence of a mistress, old
Monsieur Aubigny having married and buried
his wife in France, and she having loved her
own land too well ever to leave it. The
roof came down steep and black like a cowl,
reaching out beyond the wide galleries that
encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big,
solemn oaks grew close to it, and their
thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it
like a pall. Young Aubigny's rule was a
strict one, too, and under it his negroes had
forgotten how to be gay, as they had been
during the old master's easy-going and
The young mother was recovering slowly,
and lay full length, in her soft white muslins
and laces, upon a couch. The baby was
beside her, upon her arm, where he had
fallen asleep, at her breast. The yellow
nurse woman sat beside a window fanning
Madame Valmondé bent her portly figure
over Désirée and kissed her, holding her an
instant tenderly in her arms. Then she
turned to the child.
"This is not the baby!" she exclaimed,
in startled tones. French was the language
spoken at Valmondé in those days.
"I knew you would be astonished,"
laughed Désirée, "at the way he has grown.
The little cochon de lait! Look at his
legs, mamma, and his hands and fingernails,-- real finger-nails. Zandrine had to
cut them this morning. Is n't it true,
The woman bowed her turbaned head
majestically, "Mais si, Madame."
"And the way he cries," went on Désirée,
"is deafening. Armand heard him the other
day as far away as La Blanche's cabin."
Madame Valmondé had never removed
her eyes from the child. She lifted it and
walked with it over to the window that
was lightest. She scanned the baby
narrowly, then looked as searchingly at
Zandrine, whose face was turned to gaze
across the fields.
"Yes, the child has grown, has changed;"
said Madame Valmondé, slowly, as she replaced it beside its mother. "What does
Désirée's face became suffused with a glow
that was happiness itself.
"Oh, Armand is the proudest father in
the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is
a boy, to bear his name; though he says
not, - that he would have loved a girl as
well. But I know it is n't true. I know he
says that to please me. And mamma," she
added, drawing Madame Valmondé's head
down to her, and speaking in a whisper,
"he has n't punished one of them - not one
of them - since baby is born. Even
Négrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg
that he might rest from work - he only
laughed, and said Négrillon was a great
scamp. Oh, mamma, I 'm so happy; it
What Désirée said was true. Marriage,
and later the birth of his son, had softened
Armand Aubigny's imperious and exacting
nature greatly. This was what made the
gentle Désirée so happy, for she loved him
desperately. When he frowned she trembled,
but loved him. When he smiled, she asked
no greater blessing of God. But Armand's
dark, handsome face had not often been
disfigured by frowns since the day he fell in
love with her.
When the baby was about three months
old, Désirée awoke one day to the conviction
that there was something in the air menacing
her peace. It was at first too subtle to
grasp. It had only been a disquieting
suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks;
unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who
could hardly account for their coming. Then
a strange, an awful change in her husband's
manner, which she dared not ask him to
explain. When he spoke to her, it was with
averted eyes, from which the old love-light
seemed to have gone out. He absented
himself from home; and when there, avoided
her presence and that of her child, without
excuse. And the very spirit of Satan
seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his
dealings with the slaves. Désirée was
miserable enough to die.
She sat in her room, one hot afternoon, in
her peignoir, listlessly drawing through her
fingers the strands of her long, silky brown
hair that hung about her shoulders. The
baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own
great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous
throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy.
One of La Blanche's little quadroon boys -
half naked too - stood fanning the child
slowly with a fan of peacock feathers.
Désirée's eyes had been fixed absently and sadly
upon the baby, while she was striving to
penetrate the threatening mist that she felt
closing about her. She looked from her
child to the boy who stood beside him, and
back again; over and over. "Ah!" It
was a cry that she could not help; which
she was not conscious of having uttered.
The blood turned like ice in her veins,
and a clammy moisture gathered upon her
She tried to speak to the little quadroon
boy; but no sound would come, at first.
When he heard his name uttered, he looked
up, and his mistress was pointing to the door.
He laid aside the great, soft fan, and
obediently stole away, over the polished floor,
on his bare tiptoes.
She stayed motionless, with gaze riveted
upon her child, and her face the picture of
Presently her husband entered the room,
and without noticing her, went to a table
and began to search among some papers
which covered it.
"Armand," she called to him, in a voice
which must have stabbed him, if he was
human. But he did not notice. "Armand,"
she said again. Then she rose and
tottered towards him. "Armand," she
panted once more, clutching his arm, "look
at our child. What does it mean? tell
He coldly but gently loosened her fingers
from about his arm and thrust the hand
away from him. "Tell me what it means!"
she cried despairingly.
"It means," he answered lightly, "that
the child is not white; it means that you are
A quick conception of all that this
accusation meant for her nerved her with
unwonted courage to deny it. "It is a lie; it
is not true, I am white! Look at my hair,
it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand,
you know they are gray. And my skin is
fair," seizing his wrist. "Look at my hand;
whiter than yours, Armand," she laughed
"As white as La Blanche's," he returned
cruelly; and went away leaving her alone
with their child.
When she could hold a pen in her hand,
she sent a despairing letter to Madame
"My mother, they tell me I am not white.
Armand has told me I am not white. For
God's sake tell them it is not true. You
must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and
The answer that came was as brief:
"My own Désirée: Come home to Valmondé;
back to your mother who loves you
Come with your child."
When the letter reached Désirée she went
with it to her husband's study, and laid it
open upon the desk before which he sat.
She was like a stone image: silent, white,
motionless after she placed it there.
In silence he ran his cold eyes over the
words. He said nothing. "Shall I go, Armand?"
she asked in tones sharp with agonized
"Do you want me to go?"
"Yes, I want you to go."
He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly
and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow,
that he was paying Him back in kind when
he stabbed thus into his wife's soul. Moreover he no longer loved her, because of the
unconscious injury she had brought upon his
home and his name.
She turned away like one stunned by a
blow, and walked slowly towards the door,
hoping he would call her back.
"Good-by, Armand," she moaned.
He did not answer her. That was his last
blow at fate.
Désirée went in search of her child. Zandrine
was pacing the sombre gallery with it.
She took the little one from the nurse's arms
with no word of explanation, and descending
the steps, walked away, under the live-oak
It was an October afternoon; the sun
was just sinking. Out in the still fields the
negroes were picking cotton.
Désirée had not changed the thin white
garment nor the slippers which she wore.
Her hair was uncovered and the sun's rays
brought a golden gleam from its brown
meshes. She did not take the broad, beaten
road which led to the far-off plantation of
Valmondé. She walked across a deserted
field, where the stubble bruised her tender
feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin
gown to shreds.
She disappeared among the reeds and willows
that grew thick along the banks of the
deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come
Some weeks later there was a curious scene
enacted at L'Abri. In the centre of the
smoothly swept back yard was a great
bonfire. Armand Aubigny sat in the wide
hallway that commanded a view of the
spectacle; and it was he who dealt out to a
half dozen negroes the material which kept this
A graceful cradle of willow, with all its
dainty furbishings, was laid upon the pyre,
which had already been fed with the richness
of a priceless layette. Then there were
silk gowns, and velvet and satin ones added
to these; laces, too, and embroideries;
bonnets and gloves; for the corbeille had been
of rare quality.
The last thing to go was a tiny bundle of
letters; innocent little scribblings that
Désirée had sent to him during the days of
their espousal. There was the remnant of
one back in the drawer from which he took
them. But it was not Désirée's; it was
part of an old letter from his mother to his father. He read it. She was thanking God
for the blessing of her husband's love: "But, above all," she wrote,
day, I thank the good God for having so
arranged our lives that our dear Armand
will never know that his mother, who adores
him, belongs to the race that is cursed with
the brand of slavery."
From Chopin, Kate. Bayou Folk. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1894.
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