Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Devotion of Marcélite
By Grace Elizabeth King (18521932)
[Born in New Orleans, La., 1852. Died there, 1932. Monsieur Motte. 1888.]
THE Externes were radiant in toilettes unmarred by accident or omission; the flattering compliments of their mirrors at home had turned their heads in the direction of perfect self-content. Resignation was the only equivalent the unfortunate Internes could offer in extenuation of the unfinished appearance of their heads.
Not only was the room filled, but an eager audience crowded the yard and peeped in through the windows. The stairways, of course, were filled with the colored servants, an enthusiastic, irrepressible claque. When it was all over, and the last bis and encore had subsided, row after row of girls was gleaned by the parents, proud possessors of such shawlfuls of beauty, talent, and prizes. Maries class, the last to leave, were picked off one by one. She helped the others to put on their wraps, gather up their prizes, and kissed one after another good-by.
Each man that came up was, by a glance, measured and compared with her imaginary standard. He is too young. He is too fat. I hope he is not that cross-looking one. Maybe it is he. What a funny little one that is! Ah, he is very nice-looking! Is it he? No, he is Corinnes father. I feel sure he is that ugly, disagreeable one. Ah, here he is at last! at last! No; he only came to say good-night to Madame. He is afraid of the crowd. He is waiting outside. He is at the gate in a carriage. After all, he has only sent Marcélite. I saw her here on the steps a while ago. She looked at the steps, they were deserted. There was but one person left in the room besides herself; Madame and her suite had gone to partake of their yearly exhibitional refreshments,lemonade and masse-pain, served in the little parlor. Her uncle must be that man. The person walked out after finding a fan he had returned to seek.
She remained standing so by the piano a long while, her gold crown on her head, her prizes in her arms, and a light shawl she had thoughtfully provided to wear home. Home! She looked all around very slowly once more. She heard Jeanne crossing the yard, but before the servant could enter the door the white muslin dress, blue sash, and satin boots had bounded into the darkness of the stairway. The white-veiled beds which the night before had nestled the gay papillotted heads were deserted and silent in the darkness. What a shelter the darkness was! She caught hold of the bedpost, not thinking, but feeling. Then Madame Joubert came tripping across the gallery with a candle, on her way to bed. The prizes and shawl dropped to the floor, and Marie crouched down close behind the bar. Oh, God, she prayed, keep her from seeing me! The teacher after a pause of reflection passed on to her room; the child on the floor gave herself up to the full grief of a disappointment which was not childish in its bitterness. The events of the evening kept slipping away from her while the contents of her previous life were poured out with never-ending detail, and as they lay there, before and all around her, she saw for the first time how bare, how denuded, of pleasure and comfort it had been. What had her weak little body not endured in patient ignorance? But the others were not ignorant,the teachers, Marcélite, her uncle! How had they imposed upon the orphan in their hands! She saw it now, and she felt a womans indignation and pity over it. The maternal instinct in her bosom was roused by the contemplation of her own infancy. Marcélite! Marcélite! she called out, how could you? for you knew, you knew it all! The thought of a mother compelled to leave her baby on such an earth, the betrayal of the confidence of her own mother by her uncle, drew the first tears from her eyes. She leaned her head against the side of her bed and wept, not for herself, but for all women and all orphans. Her hand fell on the lace of her dress, and she could not recall at first what it was. She bounded up, and with eager, trembling fingers tearing open the fastenings, she threw the grotesque masquerade, boots and all, far from her on the floor, and stood clasping her naked arms over her panting breast; she had forgotten the gilt wreath on her head. If she could die then and there! that would hurt her uncle who cared so little for her, Marcélite who had deserted her! Living she had no one; but dead, she felt she had a mother. Before getting into bed, she mechanically fell on her knees, and her lips repeated the formula of a prayer, an uncorrected, rude tradition of her baby days, belonging to the other side of her memory. It consisted of one simple petition for her own welfare, but the blessings of peace, prosperity, and eternal salvation of her uncle and Marcélite were insisted upon with pious determination.
I know I shall not sleep; I cannot sleep. Even with the words she sank into the oblivion of tired nature at seventeen years; an oblivion which blotted out everything,toilette, prizes scattered on the floor, graduation, disappointment, and discomfort from the gilt-paper crown still encircling her black plaits.
Its a shame of that negress! She ought to be punished well for it, too, ha! Not to come for that poor young lady last night; to leave her in that big dormitory all by herself; and all the other young ladies to go home and have their pleasure, and she all by herself, just because she is an orphan. You think she doesnt feel that, hein? If I had known it I would have helped her undress, and stayed with her, too; I would have slept on the floor,a delicate little nervous thing like that; and a great, big, fat, lazy, good-for-nothing quadroon like Marcélite. Mais cest infâme! It is enough to give her des crises. Oh, I would not have done that! tenez, not to go back to France would I have done that. And when I got up this morning, and saw her sitting in the arbor, so pale, I was frightened myselfI
What is all this you are telling me? Jeanne, Jeanne, go immediately; run, I tell yourun and fetch that poor child here. Ah, mon Dieu! egoist that I am to forget her! Pauvre petite chatte! What must she think of me?
Mais quest-ce que cest donc, mon enfant? Do not cry so! What is one night more in your old school? It is all my fault; the idea that I should forget you,leave you all alone while we were enjoying our lemonade and masse-pain! But why did you not come to me? Oh! oh! if you cry so, I shall think you are sorry not to leave me; besides, it will spoil your pretty eyes.
Ah, my dear! do not speak of her! do not mention her name to me. We are quittes from this day; you hear me? We are quittes. But Marie, my child, you will make yourself ill if you cry so. Really, you must try and compose yourself. What is it that troubles you so? Come here, come sit by me; let me confess you. I shall play that I am your maman. There, there, put your head here, my bébé, so. Oh, I know how you feel. I have known what disappointment was; but enfin, my child, that will all pass; and one day, when you are old and gray-headed like me, you will laugh well over it.
The tender words, the caresses, the enfolding arms, the tears that she saw standing in the august schoolmistresss eyes, the sympathetic movement of the soft, warm bosom,her idea of a mother was not a vain imagining. This was it; this was what she had longed for all her life. And she did confess to her,confessed it all, from the first childish trouble to the last disappointment. Oh, the delicious relief of complete, entire confession to a sympathetic ear!
The noble heart of Madame, which had frittered itself away over puny distributions of prizes and deceiving cosmetics, beat young, fresh, and impulsive as in the days when the gray hairs were chatains clair and the cheeks bloomed natural roses. Tears fell from her eyes on the little black head lying so truthful, so confiding on her bosom. Grand Dieu! and they had been living thirteen years under the same roof,the poor, insignificant, abandoned, suffering little Marie, and the gay, beautiful, rich, envied Madame Lareveillère! This was their first moment of confidence. Would God ever forgive her? Could she ever forgive herself? How good it feels to have a child in your arms! so. She went to the stand by her bed and filled a small gilded glass with eau des carmes and water.
There, drink that, my child; it will compose you. I must make my toilette; it is breakfast-time. You see, ma fille, this is a lesson. You must not expect too much of the men; they are not like us. Oh, I know them well. They are all égoïstes. They take a great deal of trouble for you when you do not want it, if it suits them; and then they refuse to raise their little finger for you, though you get down on your knees to them. Now, theres your uncle. You see he has sent you to the best and most expensive school in the city, and he has dressed you well,oh, yes, very well; look at your toilette last night! real lace; I remarked it. Yet he would not come for you and take you home, and spare you this disappointment. I wrote him a note myself and sent it by Marcélite.
Ah, bah! Plus les hommes sont vieux plus ils sont méchants. Oh, I have done that so often; I said, If you do not do this, I will not do that. And what was the result? They did not do this, and I had tout simplement et bonnement to do that. I write to Monsieur Motte, Your niece shall not leave the Pension until you come for her; he does not come, and I take her to him. Voilà la politique féminine.
Ah, que je suis bête. It is in the other one. This one is only for the last ten years. There, ma fille, get on a chair; can you reach that one? No, not that; the other one. How warm it is! You look it out for me!
Impossible! There must be an address there. True, nothing but Marie Modeste Motte, niece of Monsieur Motte, just like the other one. Now, you see, thats Marcélite again; thats all her fault. It was her duty to give that address thirteen years ago. In thirteen years she has not had the time to do that!
All unmarried women, widows or maids, if put to the torture, would reveal some secret, unsuspected sources of advisory assistance,a subterranean passage for friendship which sometimes offers a retreat into matrimony,and the last possible wrinkle, the last resisting gray hair is added to other female burdens at the death of this secret counsellor or the closing up of the hidden passage. Therefore, how dreadful it is for women to be condemned to a life of such logical exactions where a reason is demanded for everything, even for a statu quo affection of fifteen years or more. Madame Lareveillère did not possess courage enough to defy logic, but her imagination and wit could seriously embarrass its conclusions. The raison dêtre of a Goupilleau in her life had exercised both into athletic proportions.
An old friend, ma mignonne; I look upon him as a father, and he treats me just as if I were his daughter. I go to him as to a confessor. And a great institute like this requires so much advice,oh, so much! He is very old,as old as Monsieur Motte himself. We might just as well take off our things; he will not come before evening. You see, he is so discreet, he would not come in the morning for anything in the world. He is just exactly like a father, I assure you, and very, very old.
The graduate and young lady of a day sat in the rocking-chair, quiet, almost happy. She was not in the home she had looked forward to; but Madames tenderness, the beautiful room in its soothing twilight, and the patronizing majesty of the lit de justice made this a very pleasant abiding place in her journey,the journey so long and so difficult from school to her real home, from girlhood to real young ladyhood. It was nearly two days now since she had seen Marcélite. How she longed for her, and what a scolding she intended to give her when she arrived at her uncles, where, of course, Marcélite was waiting for her. How silly she had acted about the address! But after all, procrastination is so natural. As for Madame, Marie smiled as she thought how easily a reconciliation could be effected between them, quittes though they were.
The prelude of compliments, the tentative flourish to determine in which key the ensuing variation on their little romance should be played, was omitted. Madame came brusquely to the motif, not personal to either of them.
Monsieur Goupilleau, I take pleasure in presenting you to Mademoiselle Marie Motte, one of our young lady graduates. Mon ami, we are in the greatest trouble imaginable. Just imagine, Monsieur Motte, the uncle of mademoiselle could not come for her last night to take her home. He is so old and infirm, added Madame, considerately; so you see mademoiselle could not leave last night. I want to take her home myselfa great pleasure it is, and not a trouble, I assure you, Mariebut we do not know where he lives.
Send for Marcélite! but I have sent for Marcélite at least a dozen times! she is never at her room. Marcélite! ha! my friend, I am done with Marcélite. What do you think? After combing my hair for fifteen years!fifteen years, I tell youshe did not come yesterday at all, not once; and the concert at night! You should have seen our heads last night! we were frightsfrights, I assure you!
Ah, that, no. Mademoiselle has been a pensionnaire at the Institut St. Denis for thirteen years, and she has never been anywhere except to church; she has seen no one without a chaperon; she has received no letter that has not passed through Madame Jouberts hands. Ah! for that I am particular, and it was Monsieur Motte himself who requested it.
The first recognition; the first expression of a fifteen years secret affection! The first thrill (old as he was) of his first passion! But danger called him outside; he unloosed the hands and opened the door.
They did, in painful, questioning surprise. Was this their own clean, neat, brave, honest, handsome Marcélite,this panting, tottering, bedraggled wretch before them, threatening to fall on the floor again, not daring to raise even her eyes?
Her tignon had been dragged from her head. Her calico dress, torn and defaced, showed her skin in naked streaks. Her black woolly hair, always so carefully packed away under her head-kerchief, stood in grotesque masses around her face, scratched and bleeding like her exposed bosom. She jerked herself violently away from Maries clasp.
Oh, my God! I knew it would kill her! I knew it would! To be supported by a nigger! She knelt by the chair. Speak to me, Mamzelle Marie. Speak to me just once! Pardon me, my little mistress! Pardon me! I did not know what I was doing; I am only a fool nigger, anyhow! I wanted you to go to the finest school with ladies, andandoh! my bébé wont speak to me; she wont even look at me.
Monsieur! Madame! I swear to you its the truth! God in heaven knows it is. I wouldnt lie about that,about my poor dead young mistress. Monsieur! Madame! tell Miss Marie for me; cant you believe me? She shrieked in desperation to Monsieur Goupilleau.
God bless you, master! God bless you for that. Let me tell you; you believe me when my bébé wont. My young mistress, she died; my young master, he had been killed in the war. My young mistress was all alone by herself, with nobody but me, and I didnt take her poor little baby out of her arms till she was dead, as she told me. Mon bébé mon bébé! dont you know thats the truth? Cant you feel thats the truth? You see that; she will never speak to me again. I knew it; I told you so. I heard her last night, in that big room, all by herself, crying for Marcélite. Marcélite! my God! I was afraid to go to her, and I was just under a bed; you think that didnt most kill me? She hid her face in her arms, and swayed her body back and forth.
Marcélite, said Monsieur Goupilleau. The voice of the champion trembled, and his eyes glistened with tears at the distress he had pledged himself to relieve. Marcélite, I believe you, my poor woman; I believe you. Tell me the name of the lady, the mother of mademoiselle.
Ha! her name! I am not ashamed to tell her name before anybody. Her name! I will tell you her name. She sprang to her feet. You ask anybody from the Paroisse St. Jacques if they ever heard the name of Mamzelle Marie Modeste Viel and Monsieur Alphonse Motte. That was the name of her mother and her father, and I am not ashamed of it that I shouldnt tell, ha! Yes, and I am Marcélite Gaulois, and when my mother was sold out the parish, who took me and brought me up, and made me sleep on the foot of her bed, and fed me like her own baby, hein? Mamzelle Marie Viels mother, and Mamzelle was the other baby; and she nursed us like twins, hein? You ask anybody from the Paroisse St. Jacques. They know; they can tell you.
Marcélite, ma fille, do not forget, I have promised to help you. Marcélite, only listen to me a moment. Mademoiselle, do not fear; mademoiselle shall not leave us. I shall protect her; I shall be a father to her
Now, try, Marcélite, continued Monsieur Goupilleau,try to remember somebody, anybody who knows you, who knew your mistress; I want their names. Anybody, anybody will do, my poor Marcélite! Indeed, I believe you; we all believe you; we know you are telling the truth; but is there not a person, even a book, a piece of paper, anything, you can remember?
He stood close to her; his head did not reach above her shoulders, but his eyes plead into her face as if petitioning for his own honor; and then they followed the hands of the woman fumbling, feeling, passing, repassing inside her torn dress-waist. He held his hands out,the kind tender little hands that had rested so gently on her bruised black skin.
If I have not lost it, if I have not dropped it out of my gown since last nightI never have dropped it, and I have carried it round inside my body now for seventeen years; but I was most crazy last night
It was only a little worn-out prayer-book, but all filled with written papers and locks of hair and dates and certificates,frail fluttering scraps that dropped all over the table, but unanswerable champions for the honor of dead men and the purity of dead women.
Par la grâce de Dieu! exclaimed the notary, while the tears fell from his eyes on the precious relics, discolored and worn from bodily contact. Marie sank on her knees by the table, holding Marcélite tight by the hand.
Par la grâce de Dieu! Nothing is wanting here,nothing, nothing except the forgiveness of this good woman, and the assurances of our love and gratitude. And they sayturning to Madame, he hazarded the bold step of taking both her hands in histhey sayrecollecting the tender pressure on his arm, he ventured still furtherthey say, Eugénie, that the days of heroism are past, and they laugh at our romance!