Her body had never been found. They’d searched and searched, believing that she couldn’t have gone far, believing that she was so poor a swimmer that she could not have gone far, and when that hadn’t worked they sent word along land in case she’d been picked up by some passing fisherman or had by chance swam along the shoreline and ended up in someplace foreign to her (but to walk along the streets in nothing? No, that wasn’t like her. That wasn’t like her at all. Though, neither was this). No such luck.
They tried to come up with explanations for what had happened. Perhaps she’d overestimated her skill and didn’t realize the fact until it was too late. Perhaps she’d gone too far for such a poor swimmer and had been caught by a current, doomed to die. There was one other theory, one that plagued their minds daily, but no one dared to speak it. Besides, it was too unlikely. Not like her at all. Not like her at all.
Some tried their hardest to lie to themselves.
A memorial service was held when they had come to the conclusion that she was, in fact, dead. It was held in a large church filled with family, friends, and those who wished to pay their respects, but the crowd was a grand lie. She had only kept in touch with her father and sisters, yet it seemed her whole family had shown. Few people were counted amongst her closest friends, yet those for whom she had worn a plastic smile were packed inside, the ladies dabbing at their eyes and the men looking stoic at their sides. The others? They worked with her husband. She’d never met them.
Her husband sat in the front pew, his sons at his right and his in-laws on his left. He was one of the first to give a eulogy (after her family, of course), and afterward sat and watched on with a stony expression to match his father-in-law’s. It couldn’t be said that he was sad during the whole thing. It was a wonder if he’d even been sad during his wife’s disappearance. When he’d found out, it was more disbelief. He’d though a joke was being pulled on him – not out of the ordinary given the circumstances. She’d been acting so oddly as of late! He figured it was all an elaborate prank! But she never returned, and no one smiled.
The heaviness of it all began to settle in and he became confused. His wife? Disappeared? She wouldn’t have. She couldn’t have. Why would she? He couldn’t understand it.
Then, towards the end of the search, bitterness took root. Despite saying that she may have just made a mistake and that her death was an accident, he thought differently. It wasn’t a mistake. That she’d gone to the Isle was enough to tell him that it was far from a mistake. He tried to lie to himself, but as the days went by his bitterness grew and grew.
He didn’t understand it. Why would she have killed herself? Did she not have a good life? Had he not been a good husband? He’d provided everything she needed, and everything she could ever possibly want! He’d sent her gifts when he was traveling so she knew that he hadn’t forgotten about her yet and she ought not to forget about him (because women needed to be reminded of these things, especially when they were left alone). He’d trusted her enough to leave her alone rather than subject her to boring meetings and endless travel. He’d gotten a quadroon to help with the boys since she’d seemed to have difficulties handling them. He’d endured her antics when she’d began to behave so oddly. Hadn’t he stayed with her when she’d wanted to spend a night outside? Hadn’t he allowed her to move into another house despite not getting his approval beforehand (and which was paid with his money)? Hadn’t he fabricated a story to keep others from thinking poorly of her? Hadn’t he tried to have a doctor help her pull herself from this odd behavior? She’d had everything a woman could want.
His two sons sat beside him, sniveling and doing their best to contain their sobs. The quadroon sat with them, hushing them every now and again when one became too loud. They didn’t understand what was going on, not fully. How could they? Their mother had died and they didn’t know why. Sugarcoated answers were barely enough to sate their curiosity, and didn’t seem to make it any better. Raoul’s nose was running. The quadroon wiped it with a handkerchief.
Mr. Pontellier frowned. His wife should have been doing that instead of hired help, yet she had disappeared, selfishly leaving her sons without a mother. He had thought her a poor mother, but never to this extent. What kind of mother abandoned her children?
Behind him there was a whimper that was quickly cut short by a series of shushes. He glanced over his shoulder to see Madame Ratignolle gently bouncing her newest baby in her arms. The rest of the Ratignolles sat at her side, the children squashed in the middle so their parents could keep a good eye on them. Madame Ratignolle multitasked during the service, quietly and efficiently tending to the children when they began to fuss while keeping her attention on the speakers, and she took care not to interrupt anyone. This, Mr. Pontellier thought, was what his wife should have been.
Madame Ratignolle took her baby with her when it was her turn to speak. Her arms were tired and the baby had been quite fussy today, as had the other children, but she didn’t show any exhaustion. Practice had made perfect. When she spoke of her friend, she only had good things to say. Her friend had been a good woman and adorably naïve, and she would miss her dearly. Her soul had surely made it to heaven, she thought. It was easier for her to dismiss the idea of her friend purposely drowning herself simply because she couldn’t imagine it! Why would she do such a thing? Nothing was wrong. Sure, her friend was unlike everyone else in the community, but it couldn’t be helped; she came from a different world, after all. It had never seemed to bother her before. That couldn’t have been it. She couldn’t understand.
Madame Ratignolle sat in the pew once she’d said all she had to. She stopped her children from bothering the Pontellier boys, saying that this wasn’t the time nor place and that the Pontellier boys ought to be left alone. They probably didn’t want to speak at all – or, rather, they wouldn’t be able to. They were crying so badly, and the quadroon could only do so much. Oh, she pitied the poor boys. It must have been hard, especially for children so young.
The thought made Madame Ratignolle turn to her children in alarm. They had turned their attention to the next speaker, one of them squirming when they’d gotten uncomfortable in their seat again. Her baby squirmed in her arms, but settled down just as quickly. The eldest had a hair sticking out of place, so she automatically reached over to pat it down.
For a moment, she wondered what would happen to her children if she ended up the same way as her friend. She loved her husband dearly, but he could barely handle taking care of one child on his own, much less four. A nanny would help, certainly, but she couldn’t stand the idea of her children growing up with a nanny being the closest thing they had to a mother! And she couldn’t stand the idea of the Pontellier boys growing up with a quadroon acting almost as a replacement for their mother! Mr. Pontellier was a good man, he was, but he was like her husband: utterly hopeless when it came to children. Only a mother would know.
It was at that moment that Madame Ratignolle decided that she would treat the Pontellier boys as her own. They needed a proper mother, and unless their father remarried, she was the closest they would get to one. Besides, it was the least she could do for her friend. After all, she had told her to think of the children.
…Had she listened?
The speaker finished. She jumped, surprised that she’d missed the entire thing. Her eyes followed Robert Lebrun as he walked back to his pew on the other side of the room. Robert looked disheartened as he sat, shoulders slumped in what looked like an attempt to curl himself up, and she wondered if he had listened to her either when she’d warned him away ffrom their friend.
He hadn’t, of course, and he cursed himself for it daily. Robert pinched the bridge of his nose. Going to speak had been hard, and locking eyes with Mr. Pontellier had been even harder. By God, what was he doing here? He didn’t deserve to be at her funeral, not after what he’d done to her. Hell, he may have even killed her! She’d been so lively and beautiful when he’d last seen her, then he left and…and this happened.
He didn’t believe her death was an accident, not one bit. The signs were too obvious. There was no other reason to go to the Grand Isle, there was no other reason to go to the water. She’d even gone naked! She planned to not return, hadn’t she? He didn’t understand why, though, but he thought it was because of him. It had to be because of him, because of how he’d treated her since the last summer. God, he’d been so cruel to fall in love with her and drag her down with him. Adele had told him not to, and he hadn’t listened. Couldn’t say he’d expected her to not fall for him – he’d hoped for it! Then once he’d gotten what he wanted, he left. It was to save her the shame, he reasoned, and to keep her from pursuing him. Of course that was it. He didn’t write for the same reason. To encourage her was a bad idea.
He’d been doing so well, too. Things had gotten to the point where he didn’t miss her so badly anymore. Then he saw her in Mademoiselle Reisz’s home and everything crumbled at his feet. It took all his willpower to not return to the love-struck young man he had been that summer, but ultimately he failed in that, too. When they had finally kissed, he’d wanted nothing more than to stay with her, marriage or not. When she’d left, he came to his sense.
And here they were.
Robert wouldn’t have come if not for his mother’s insistence. Nor would his brother who also felt as if he’d had a part in her death. To be honest, Robert blamed him, too. He had to blame someone else. It hurt a little less that way. He blamed Mr. Pontellier sometimes, too, for not being a good enough husband, and yet no matter how much he blamed the man, he still cowered when their eyes met, as if Mr. Pontellier would figure out what he’d done. Robert even shrank at Adele’s watchful gaze. In fact, he felt uncomfortable around everyone, afraid that they’d all uncover his secret and join him in blaming himself.
He thought he’d been in the right by leaving her. Hadn’t he? He saved her a guilty conscience, and there was no chance of them being discovered if there wasn’t a ‘them’ in the first place. Hadn’t he been right?
Looking over at her sons made him question himself even further. Maybe he hadn’t. If he’d just continued on with the affair then she’d still be alive, and he wouldn’t be responsible for taking a mother away from her children.
Of all the people there, there was only one person who wasn’t confused, wasn’t guilty, and wasn’t angry. Sad, yes, but understanding: Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz had always felt a connection to Edna. In fact, Edna reminded her of her! Edna felt almost like a daughter to her, even if Reisz hadn’t shown it properly, and was one of the few people Reisz thought worth her time. Edna was the only person who would have appreciated and benefited from it.
She had recognized her likeness in Edna right away, and it had only grown stronger over the past year. Like Edna, Reisz hadn’t been happy in her life, and it was only until she was free from society’s restraints that she began to realize how to enjoy it, though that had taken years. It wouldn’t have worked the same for Edna the way she’d been going. Besides, it was easier for older women to go against the grain. Younger women? Not so much.
Edna, of course, hadn’t been exactly like her. Edna was weaker then Reisz (though age did tend to toughen skin). She wasn’t strong enough to completely break away from the restraints, nor was she strong enough to be able to handle what happened once they were gone. She was too imaginative as well, always stuck in her silly fairytales about how she and Robert would end up finding their happily ever after (‘course, Reisz had encouraged it rather than warning Edna away from the relationship). And once the fairytale had been shattered to pieces? She hadn’t been strong enough to handle that, either.
If Reisz regretted anything, it was that she hadn’t warned Edna. She was so stuck in encouraging the girl that warning her about the consequences of acting too hasty or too brash might have been too much for Edna to handle. She should have led Edna in more of the direction that would have kept her from falling into dangerous mistakes. She should have taught instead of waiting to see what would happen.
Her death was a tragedy, and it could even be said as selfish (Mademoiselle Reisz didn’t care to lie to herself over how Edna died), but at least she was free. It was a comforting thought, one that only she would have, and one that she would keep to herself. If anyone else were to hear it, they’d call her a madwoman.
At least Edna was free.