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JIM TEDDER: Now, the VOA Special English program AMERICAN STORIES.
Our story today is called "Athenaise." It was written by Kate Chopin. Here is Barbara Klein with the story.
BARBARA KLEIN: Athenaise went away one morning to visit her parents, ten miles back on the Bon Dieu River in Louisiana. She did not return in the evening, and Cazeau, her husband, was worried.
Cazeau expressed his worries to his servant, Félicité, who served him dinner.
He ate alone by the light of a coal-oil lamp. Félicité stood nearby like a restless shadow.
“Only married two months and she has her head turned already to leave! It is not right!” she said.
Cazeau shrugged his shoulders. Félicité’s opinion of his wife’s behavior after two months of marriage did not matter to him. He was used to being alone and did not mind a night or two of it. Cazeau stood up and walked outside.
The night was beginning to deepen and gather black around the groups of trees in the yard. Far away, he could hear the sound of someone playing an accordion. Nearby, a baby was crying.
Cazeau’s horse was waiting, saddled. He still had much farm work to do before bed time. He did not have time to think about Athenaise. But he felt her absence like a deep pain.
Before he slept that night Cazeau was visited by an image of Athenaise’s pale, young face with its soft lips and sensual eyes. The marriage had been a mistake. He had only to look into her eyes to feel that, to sense her growing dislike of him. But, the marriage could not be undone. And he was ready to make the best of it and expected the same effort from her.
These sad thoughts kept Cazeau awake far into the night. The moon was shining and its pale light reached into the room. It was still outside, with no sound except the distant notes of the accordion.
Athenaise did not return the next day, although her husband sent a message to do so through her brother, Montéclin. On the third day, Cazeau prepared his horse and went himself in search of her.
Athenaise’s parents, the Michés, lived in a large home owned by a trader who lived in town. The house was far too big for their use. Upstairs, the rooms were so large and empty that they were used for parties. A dance at the Miché home and a plate of Madame Miché’s gumbo were pleasures not to be missed.
Madame Miché was sitting on the porch outside the house. She stood up to greet Cazeau. She was short and fat with a cheery face. But she was clearly tense as Cazeau arrived.
Montéclin was there too. But he was not uneasy. He made no effort to hide his dislike of Cazeau.
“Dirty pig!” He said under his breath as Cazeau climbed the stairs to the porch. Montéclin disliked Cazeau for refusing to lend him money long ago. Now that this man was his sister’s husband, he disliked him even more.
Miché and his oldest son were away. They both respected Cazeau and talked highly of him.
Cazeau shook hands with Madame Miché who offered him a chair. Athénaise had shut herself in her room.
“You know, nothing would do last night,” Madame Miché said. “Athenaise just had to stay for a little dance. The boys would not let their sister leave!”
Cazeau shrugged his shoulders to show he knew nothing about last night.
“Didn’t Montéclin tell you we were going to keep Athenaise?” she asked. But Montéclin had told him nothing.
“And how about the night before?” asked Cazeau. “And last night? Do you have dances every night?”
Madame Miché laughed and told her son to go tell Athenaise her husband had arrived. Montéclin did not move.
“You know as well as I do that it is no use to tell Athenaise anything,” said Montéclin. “You and pa have been talking to her since Monday. When Athenaise said she was not returning to Cazeau she meant it.”
Two fiery red spots rose to Cazeau’s cheeks. What Montéclin said was true.
Upon arriving home, Athenaise had announced she was there to stay. It was difficult for her to understand why she had married. Girls were just expected to get married. And she did like Cazeau.
Montéclin had asked Athenaise to explain herself. He had asked her if Cazeau abused her, or if he drank too much.
“No!” Athenaise had said. “It is just being married that I hate. I do not like being Missus Cazeau. I want to be Athenaise Miché again. I do not like living with a man, all his clothing everywhere and his ugly bare feet.”
At the time, Montéclin had been sorry his sister had no serious evidence to use against Cazeau.
And now, there was Cazeau himself looking like he wanted to hit Montéclin.
Cazeau stood up and went inside the house to his wife’s room.
“Athenaise, get ready,” he said quietly. “It is late and we do not have time to lose.”
Athenaise was not prepared for his calm request. She felt a sense of hopelessness about continuing to rebel against the idea of marriage. She gathered her hat and gloves. Then, she walked downstairs past her brother and mother, got on her horse and rode away. Cazeau followed behind her.
It was late when they reached home. Cazeau once more ate dinner alone. Athenaise sat in her room crying.
Athenaise’s parents had hoped that marriage would bring a sense of responsibility so deeply lacking in her character. No one could understand why she so hated her role as wife. Cazeau had never spoken angrily to her or called her names or failed to give her everything she wanted. His main offense seemed to be that he loved her.
And Athenaise was not a woman to be loved against her will.
At breakfast, Athenaise complained to her husband.
“Why did you have to marry me when there were so many other girls to choose from?” she asked. “And, it is strange that if you hate my brother so much, you would marry his sister!”
“I do not know what any of them have to do with it,” Cazeau said. “I married you because I loved you. I guess I was a fool to think I could make you happy. I do not know what else to do but make the best of a bad deal and shake hands over it.”
It now seemed to Athenaise that her brother was the only friend left to her in the world. Her parents had turned from her and her friends laughed at her. But Montéclin had an idea for securing his sister’s freedom. After some thought, Athenaise agreed to his plan.
The next morning, Cazeau woke up to find his wife was gone. She had packed her belongings and left in the night.
Cazeau felt a terrible sense of loss. It was not new; he had felt it for weeks.
He realized he had missed his chance for happiness. He could not think of loving any other woman, and could not imagine Athenaise ever caring for him. He wrote her a letter stating that he did not want her back unless she returned of her own free will.
Athenaise had escaped to the big city of New Orleans. She was staying at a private hotel that Montéclin had chosen and paid to rent for a month. A woman named Sylvie owned the hotel and took good care of Athenaise.
Athenaise soon became friends with Mister Gouvernail who was also staying at the hotel. This friendship helped her feel less lonely about missing her family. But Mister Gouvernail soon started to fall in love with Athenaise. He knew she was uninformed, unsatisfied and strong-willed. But he also suspected that she loved her husband, although she did not know it. Bitter as this belief was, he accepted it.
Athenaise’s last week in the city was coming to an end. She had not found a job and was too homesick to stay any longer. Also, she had not been feeling well. She complained in detail about her sickness to Sylvie. Sylvie was very wise, and Athenaise was very stupid. Sylvie very calmly explained to Athenaise that she was feeling sick because she was pregnant.
Athenaise sat very still for a long time thinking about this new information. Her whole being was overcome with a wave of happiness. Then, she stood up, ready to take action.
She had to tell her mother! And Cazeau! As she thought of him, a whole new sense of life swept over her. She could not wait to return to him.
The next day Athenaise spent travelling home. When she arrived at Cazeau’s, he lifted her out of the horse carriage and they held each other tight. The country night was warm and still except for a baby crying in the distance.
“Listen, Cazeau!” said Athenaise. “How Juliette’s baby is crying! Poor darling, I wonder what is the matter with it?”
JIM TEDDER: You have heard the story “Athenaise” by Kate Chopin. Your storyteller was Barbara Klein. This story was adapted and produced by Dana Demange. Listen again next week for another American Story in VOA Special English.