Madame Célestin always wore a neat and snugly fitting calico wrapper when she went out in the morning to sweep her small gallery. Lawyer Paxton thought she looked very pretty in the gray one that was made with a graceful Watteau fold at the back: and with which she invariably wore a bow of pink ribbon at the throat. She was always sweeping her gallery when lawyer Paxton passed by in the morning on his way to his office in St. Denis Street.
A woman contemplating divorce piques the interest of a local judge.
Kate Chopin’s story appears in her collection Bayou Folk, hosted at Project Gutenberg.
Sometimes he stopped and leaned over the fence to say good-morning at his ease; to criticise or admire her rosebushes; or, when he had time enough, to hear what she had to say. Madame Célestin usually had a good deal to say. She would gather up the train of her calico wrapper in one hand, and balancing the broom gracefully in the other, would go tripping down to where the lawyer leaned, as comfortably as he could, over her picket fence.
Of course she had talked to him of her troubles. Everyone knew Madame Célestin’s troubles.
“Really, madame,” he told her once, in his deliberate, calculating, lawyer—tone, “it’s more than human nature—woman’s nature—should be called upon to endure. Here you are, working your fingers off”—she glanced down at two rosy finger-tips that showed through the rents in her baggy doe-skin gloves—”taking in sewing; giving music lessons; doing God knows what in the way of manual labor to support yourself and those two little ones”—Madame Célestin’s pretty face beamed with satisfaction at this enumeration of her trials.
“You right, Judge. Not a picayune, not one, not one, have I lay my eyes on in the pas’ fo’ months that I can say Célestin give it to me or sen’ it to me.”
“The scoundrel!” muttered lawyer Paxton in his beard.
“An’ pourtant,” she resumed, “they say he’s making money down roun’ Alexandria w’en he wants to work.”
“I dare say you have n’t seen him for months?” suggested the lawyer.
“It’s good six month’ since I see a sight of Célestin,” she admitted.
“That’s it, that’s what I say; he has practically deserted you; fails to support you. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that he has ill treated you.”
“Well, you know, Judge,” with an evasive cough, “a man that drinks—w’at can you expec’? An’ if you would know the promises he has made me! Ah, if I had as many dolla’ as I had promise from Célestin, I would n’ have to work, je vous garantis.”
“And in my opinion, madame, you would be a foolish woman to endure it longer, when the divorce court is there to offer you redress.”
“You spoke about that befo’, Judge; I’m goin’ think about that divo’ce. I believe you right.”
Madame Célestin thought about the divorce and talked about it, too; and lawyer Paxton grew deeply interested in the theme.
“You know, about that divo’ce, Judge,” Madame Célestin was waiting for him that morning, “I been talking to my family an’ my frien’s, an’ it’s me that tells you, they all plumb agains’ that divo’ce.”
“Certainly, to be sure; that’s to be expected, madame, in this community of Creoles. I warned you that you would meet with opposition, and would have to face it and brave it.”
“Oh, don’t fear, I’m going to face it! Maman says it’s a disgrace like it’s neva been in the family. But it’s good for Maman to talk, her. W’at trouble she ever had? She says I mus’ go by all means consult with Père Duchéron—it’s my confessor, you undastan’—Well, I’ll go, Judge, to please Maman. But all the confessor’ in the worl’ ent goin’ make me put up with that conduc’ of Célestin any longa.”
A day or two later, she was there waiting for him again. “You know, Judge, about that divo’ce.”
“Yes, yes,” responded the lawyer, well pleased to trace a new determination in her brown eyes and in the curves of her pretty mouth. “I suppose you saw Père Duchéron and had to brave it out with him, too.”
“Oh, fo’ that, a perfec’ sermon, I assho you. A talk of giving scandal an’ bad example that I thought would neva en’! He says, fo’ him, he wash’ his hands; I mus’ go see the bishop.”
“You won’t let the bishop dissuade you, I trust,” stammered the lawyer more anxiously than he could well understand.
“You don’t know me yet, Judge,” laughed Madame Célestin with a turn of the head and a flirt of the broom which indicated that the interview was at an end.
“Well, Madame Célestin! And the bishop!” Lawyer Paxton was standing there holding to a couple of the shaky pickets. She had not seen him. “Oh, it’s you, Judge?” and she hastened towards him with an empressement that could not but have been flattering.
“Yes, I saw Monseigneur,” she began. The lawyer had already gathered from her expressive countenance that she had not wavered in her determination. “Ah, he’s a eloquent man. It’s not a mo’ eloquent man in Natchitoches parish. I was fo’ced to cry, the way he talked to me about my troubles; how he undastan’s them, an’ feels for me. It would move even you, Judge, to hear how he talk’ about that step I want to take; its danga, its temptation. How it is the duty of a Catholic to stan’ everything till the las’ extreme. An’ that life of retirement an’ self-denial I would have to lead,—he tole me all that.”
“But he has n’t turned you from your resolve, I see,” laughed the lawyer complacently.
“For that, no,” she returned emphatically. “The bishop don’t know w’at it is to be married to a man like Célestin, an’ have to endu’ that conduc’ like I have to endu’ it. The Pope himse’f can’t make me stan’ that any longer, if you say I got the right in the law to sen’ Célestin sailing.”
A noticeable change had come over lawyer Paxton. He discarded his work-day coat and began to wear his Sunday one to the office. He grew solicitous as to the shine of his boots, his collar, and the set of his tie. He brushed and trimmed his whiskers with a care that had not before been apparent. Then he fell into a stupid habit of dreaming as he walked the streets of the old town. It would be very good to take unto himself a wife, he dreamed. And he could dream of no other than pretty Madame Célestin filling that sweet and sacred office as she filled his thoughts, now. Old Natchitoches would not hold them comfortably, perhaps; but the world was surely wide enough to live in, outside of Natchitoches town.
His heart beat in a strangely irregular manner as he neared Madame Célestin’s house one morning, and discovered her behind the rosebushes, as usual plying her broom. She had finished the gallery and steps and was sweeping the little brick walk along the edge of the violet border.
“Good-morning, Madame Célestin.” “Ah, it’s you, Judge? Good-morning.” He waited. She seemed to be doing the same. Then she ventured, with some hesitancy, “You know, Judge, about that divo’ce. I been thinking,—I reckon you betta neva mine about that divo’ce.” She was making deep rings in the palm of her gloved hand with the end of the broom-handle, and looking at them critically. Her face seemed to the lawyer to be unusually rosy; but maybe it was only the reflection of the pink bow at the throat. “Yes, I reckon you need n’ mine. You see, Judge, Célestin came home las’ night. An’ he’s promise me on his word an’ honor he’s going to turn ova a new leaf.”