“A Death in the Desert” — a short story by Willa Cather
By Nava Atlas | On January 27, 2023 | Comments (0)
Originally published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1903, “A Death in the Desert” is a widely anthologized short story by Willa Cather. The full text of its final, 1920 version is presented here.
Cather had two occasions to self-edit the story. It appeared in her first collection of stories, The Troll Garden (1905), and then in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). All told, she edited it down from about ten thousand words to seven thousand, polishing it to its essence.
“A Death in the Desert” tells of a man named Everett who, at the start of the story, is on a train from Holdrege, Nebraska to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Bearing a strong resemblance to his older brother Adriance, a well-known musician, he is forever burdened by the comparison.
Story of the Week (Library of America) relates a bit of the history of how Cather came to write the story, and her real-life inspirations.
The Jumping Off Place: Facing Death in “A Death in the Desert” by Kari A. Running is one of the most thorough analyses you’ll find. It begins:
… “A Death in the Desert,” like the Browning poem from which it takes its title, raises the question of how to respond to death and thus, how to live. This story, especially in The Troll Garden (1905) text, on which I will draw, is one of Cather’s most densely allusive, crowded with references to art, literature, music, architecture, philosophy, and, as William James would put it, the “varieties of religious experience.”
Make sure to follow the link above if you’re studying this story or wish to delve deeply into its meanings. Here are full texts of two more short stories from Youth and the Bright Medusa you can link to:
- “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” (plus an analysis)
- “A Wagner Matinee”
The following full text of “A Death in the Desert” (which is in the public domain) is the final, 1920 version. Long paragraphs have been broken up to improve the readability, especially on small screens and devices.
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Learn more about Willa Cather
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“A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather
Everett Hilgarde was conscious that the man in the seat across the aisle was looking at him intently. He was a large, florid man, wore a conspicuous diamond solitaire upon his third finger, and Everett judged him to be a traveling salesman of some sort. He had the air of an adaptable fellow who had been about the world and who could keep cool and clean under almost any circumstances.
The “High Line Flyer,” as this train was derisively called among railroad men, was jerking along through the hot afternoon over the monotonous country between Holdredge and Cheyenne.
Besides the blond man and himself the only occupants of the car were two dusty, bedraggled-looking girls who had been to the Exposition at Chicago, and who were earnestly discussing the cost of their first trip out of Colorado.
The four uncomfortable passengers were covered with a sediment of fine, yellow dust which clung to their hair and eyebrows like gold powder. It blew up in clouds from the bleak, lifeless country through which they passed, until they were one color with the sage-brush and sand-hills.
The grey and yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red boxes of station-houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the blue-grass yards made little green reserves fenced off in that confusing wilderness of sand.
As the slanting rays of the sun beat in stronger and stronger through the car-windows, the blond gentleman asked the ladies’ permission to remove his coat, and sat in his lavender striped shirtsleeves, with a black silk handkerchief tucked about his collar. He had seemed interested in Everett since they had boarded the train at Holdredge; kept glancing at him curiously and then looking reflectively out of the window, as though he were trying to recall something.
But wherever Everett went, some one was almost sure to look at him with that curious interest, and it had ceased to embarrass or annoy him. Presently the stranger, seeming satisfied with his observation, leaned back in his seat, half closed his eyes, and began softly to whistle the Spring Song from Proserpine, the cantata that a dozen years before had made its young composer famous in a night.
Everett had heard that air on guitars in Old Mexico, on mandolins at college glees, on cottage organs in New England hamlets, and only two weeks ago he had heard it played on sleigh-bells at a variety theatre in Denver. There was literally no way of escaping his brother’s precocity.
Adriance could live on the other side of the Atlantic, where his youthful indiscretions were forgotten in his mature achievements, but his brother had never been able to outrun Proserpine,—and here he found it again, in the Colorado sand-hills.
Not that Everett was exactly ashamed of Proserpine; only a man of genius could have written it, but it was the sort of thing that a man of genius outgrows as soon as he can.
Everett unbent a trifle, and smiled at his neighbor across the aisle. Immediately the large man rose and coming over dropped into the seat facing Hilgarde, extending his card.
“Dusty ride, isn’t it? I don’t mind it myself; I’m used to it. Born and bred in de briar patch, like Br’er Rabbit. I’ve been trying to place you for a long time; I think I must have met you before.”
“Thank you,” said Everett, taking the card; “my name is Hilgarde. You’ve probably met my brother, Adriance; people often mistake me for him.”
The traveling-man brought his hand down upon his knee with such vehemence that the solitaire blazed.
“So I was right after all, and if you’re not Adriance Hilgarde you’re his double. I thought I couldn’t be mistaken. Seen him? Well, I guess! I never missed one of his recitals at the Auditorium, and he played the piano score of Proserpine through to us once at the Chicago Press Club. I used to be on the Commercial there before I began to travel for the publishing department of the concern. So you’re Hilgarde’s brother, and here I’ve run into you at the jumping-off place. Sounds like a newspaper yarn, doesn’t it?”
The traveling-man laughed and offering Everett a cigar plied him with questions on the only subject that people ever seemed to care to talk to him about. At length the salesman and the two girls alighted at a Colorado way station, and Everett went on to Cheyenne alone.
The train pulled into Cheyenne at nine o’clock, late by a matter of four hours or so; but no one seemed particularly concerned at its tardiness except the station agent, who grumbled at being kept in the office over time on a summer night.
When Everett alighted from the train he walked down the platform and stopped at the track crossing, uncertain as to what direction he should take to reach a hotel. A phaeton stood near the crossing and a woman held the reins. She was dressed in white, and her figure was clearly silhouetted against the cushions, though it was too dark to see her face.
Everett had scarcely noticed her, when the switch-engine came puffing up from the opposite direction, and the head-light threw a strong glare of light on his face. The woman in the phaeton uttered a low cry and dropped the reins. Everett started forward and caught the horse’s head, but the animal only lifted its ears and whisked its tail in impatient surprise.
The woman sat perfectly still, her head sunk between her shoulders and her handkerchief pressed to her face. Another woman came out of the depot and hurried toward the phaeton, crying, “Katharine, dear, what is the matter?”
Everett hesitated a moment in painful embarrassment, then lifted his hat and passed on. He was accustomed to sudden recognitions in the most impossible places, especially from women.
While he was breakfasting the next morning, the head waiter leaned over his chair to murmur that there was a gentleman waiting to see him in the parlor. Everett finished his coffee, and went in the direction indicated, where he found his visitor restlessly pacing the floor. His whole manner betrayed a high degree of agitation, though his physique was not that of a man whose nerves lie near the surface.
He was something below medium height, square-shouldered and solidly built. His thick, closely cut hair was beginning to show grey about the ears, and his bronzed face was heavily lined. His square brown hands were locked behind him, and he held his shoulders like a man conscious of responsibilities, yet, as he turned to greet Everett, there was an incongruous diffidence in his address.
“Good-morning, Mr. Hilgarde,” he said, extending his hand; “I found your name on the hotel register. My name is Gaylord. I’m afraid my sister startled you at the station last night, and I’ve come around to explain.”
“Ah! the young lady in the phaeton? I’m sure I didn’t know whether I had anything to do with her alarm or not. If I did, it is I who owe an apology.”
The man colored a little under the dark brown of his face.
“Oh, it’s nothing you could help, sir, I fully understand that. You see, my sister used to be a pupil of your brother’s, and it seems you favor him; when the switch-engine threw a light on your face, it startled her.”
Everett wheeled about in his chair. “Oh! Katharine Gaylord! Is it possible! Why, I used to know her when I was a boy. What on earth —“
“Is she doing here?” Gaylord grimly filled out the pause. “You’ve got at the heart of the matter. You know my sister had been in bad health for a long time?”
“No. The last I knew of her she was singing in London. My brother and I correspond infrequently, and seldom get beyond family matters. I am deeply sorry to hear this.”
The lines in Charley Gaylord’s brow relaxed a little.
“What I’m trying to say, Mr. Hilgarde, is that she wants to see you. She’s set on it. We live several miles out of town, but my rig’s below, and I can take you out any time you can go.”
“At once, then. I’ll get my hat and be with you in a moment.”
When he came downstairs Everett found a cart at the door, and Charley Gaylord drew a long sigh of relief as he gathered up the reins and settled back into his own element.
“I think I’d better tell you something about my sister before you see her, and I don’t know just where to begin. She travelled in Europe with your brother and his wife, and sang at a lot of his concerts; but I don’t know just how much you know about her.”
“Very little, except that my brother always thought her the most gifted of his pupils. When I knew her she was very young and very beautiful, and quite turned my head for a while.”
Everett saw that Gaylord’s mind was entirely taken up by his grief. “That’s the whole thing,” he went on, flecking his horses with the whip.
“She was a great woman, as you say, and she didn’t come of a great family. She had to fight her own way from the first. She got to Chicago, and then to New York, and then to Europe, and got a taste for it all; and now she’s dying here like a rat in a hole, out of her own world, and she can’t fall back into ours. We’ve grown apart, some way—miles and miles apart—and I’m afraid she’s fearfully unhappy.”
“It’s a tragic story you’re telling me, Gaylord,” said Everett. They were well out into the country now, spinning along over the dusty plains of red grass, with the ragged blue outline of the mountains before them.
“Tragic!” cried Gaylord, starting up in his seat, “my God, nobody will ever know how tragic! It’s a tragedy I live with and eat with and sleep with, until I’ve lost my grip on everything. You see she had made a good bit of money, but she spent it all going to health resorts. It’s her lungs. I’ve got money enough to send her anywhere, but the doctors all say it’s no use.
She hasn’t the ghost of a chance. It’s just getting through the days now. I had no notion she was half so bad before she came to me. She just wrote that she was run down. Now that she’s here, I think she’d be happier anywhere under the sun, but she won’t leave.
She says it’s easier to let go of life here. There was a time when I was a brakeman with a run out of Bird City, Iowa, and she was a little thing I could carry on my shoulder, when I could get her everything on earth she wanted, and she hadn’t a wish my $80 a month didn’t cover; and now, when I’ve got a little property together, I can’t buy her a night’s sleep!”
Everett saw that, whatever Charley Gaylord’s present status in the world might be, he had brought the brakeman’s heart up the ladder with him.
The reins slackened in Gaylord’s hand as they drew up before a showily painted house with many gables and a round tower. “Here we are,” he said, turning to Everett, “and I guess we understand each other.”
They were met at the door by a thin, colorless woman, whom Gaylord introduced as “My sister, Maggie.” She asked her brother to show Mr. Hilgarde into the music-room, where Katharine would join him.
When Everett entered the music-room he gave a little start of surprise, feeling that he had stepped from the glaring Wyoming sunlight into some New York studio that he had always known. He looked incredulously out of the window at the grey plain that ended in the great upheaval of the Rockies.
The haunting air of familiarity perplexed him. Suddenly his eye fell upon a large photograph of his brother above the piano. Then it all became clear enough: this was veritably his brother’s room.
If it were not an exact copy of one of the many studios that Adriance had fitted up in various parts of the world, wearying of them and leaving almost before the renovator’s varnish had dried, it was at least in the same tone. In every detail Adriance’s taste was so manifest that the room seemed to exhale his personality.
Among the photographs on the wall there was one of Katharine Gaylord, taken in the days when Everett had known her, and when the flash of her eye or the flutter of her skirt was enough to set his boyish heart in a tumult. Even now, he stood before the portrait with a certain degree of embarrassment.
It was the face of a woman already old in her first youth, a trifle hard, and it told of what her brother had called her fight. The camaraderie of her frank, confident eyes was qualified by the deep lines about her mouth and the curve of the lips, which was both sad and cynical. Certainly she had more good-will than confidence toward the world.
The chief charm of the woman, as Everett had known her, lay in her superb figure and in her eyes, which possessed a warm, life-giving quality like the sunlight; eyes which glowed with a perpetual salutat to the world.
Everett was still standing before the picture, his hands behind him and his head inclined, when he heard the door open. A tall woman advanced toward him, holding out her hand. As she started to speak she coughed slightly, then, laughing, said, in a low, rich voice, a trifle husky: “You see I make the traditional Camille entrance. How good of you to come, Mr. Hilgarde.”
Everett was acutely conscious that while addressing him she was not looking at him at all, and, as he assured her of his pleasure in coming, he was glad to have an opportunity to collect himself. He had not reckoned upon the ravages of a long illness.
The long, loose folds of her white gown had been especially designed to conceal the sharp outlines of her body, but the stamp of her disease was there; simple and ugly and obtrusive, a pitiless fact that could not be disguised or evaded.
The splendid shoulders were stooped, there was a swaying unevenness in her gait, her arms seemed disproportionately long, and her hands were transparently white, and cold to the touch. The changes in her face were less obvious; the proud carriage of the head, the warm, clear eyes, even the delicate flush of color in her cheeks, all defiantly remained, though they were all in a lower key—older, sadder, softer.
She sat down upon the divan and began nervously to arrange the pillows. “Of course I’m ill, and I look it, but you must be quite frank and sensible about that and get used to it at once, for we’ve no time to lose. And if I’m a trifle irritable you won’t mind?—for I’m more than usually nervous.”
“Don’t bother with me this morning, if you are tired,” urged Everett. “I can come quite as well tomorrow.”
“Gracious, no!” she protested, with a flash of that quick, keen humour that he remembered as a part of her.
“It’s solitude that I’m tired to death of—solitude and the wrong kind of people. You see, the minister called on me this morning. He happened to be riding by on his bicycle and felt it his duty to stop.
The funniest feature of his conversation is that he is always excusing my own profession to me. But how we are losing time! Do tell me about New York; Charley says you’re just on from there. How does it look and taste and smell just now? I think a whiff of the Jersey ferry would be as flagons of cod-liver oil to me. Are the trees still green in Madison Square, or have they grown brown and dusty?
Does the chaste Diana still keep her vows through all the exasperating changes of weather? Who has your brother’s old studio now, and what misguided aspirants practice their scales in the rookeries about Carnegie Hall? What do people go to see at the theatres, and what do they eat and drink in the world nowadays? Oh, let me die in Harlem!”
She was interrupted by a violent attack of coughing, and Everett, embarrassed by her discomfort, plunged into gossip about the professional people he had met in town during the summer, and the musical outlook for the winter.
He was diagramming with his pencil some new mechanical device to be used at the Metropolitan in the production of the Rheingold, when he became conscious that she was looking at him intently, and that he was talking to the four walls.
Katharine was lying back among the pillows, watching him through half-closed eyes, as a painter looks at a picture. He finished his explanation vaguely enough and put the pencil back in his pocket. As he did so, she said, quietly: “How wonderfully like Adriance you are!”
He laughed, looking up at her with a touch of pride in his eyes that made them seem quite boyish. “Yes, isn’t it absurd? It’s almost as awkward as looking like Napoleon—But, after all, there are some advantages. It has made some of his friends like me, and I hope it will make you.”
Katharine gave him a quick, meaning glance from under her lashes. “Oh, it did that long ago. What a haughty, reserved youth you were then, and how you used to stare at people, and then blush and look cross. Do you remember that night you took me home from a rehearsal, and scarcely spoke a word to me?”
“It was the silence of admiration,” protested Everett, “very crude and boyish, but certainly sincere. Perhaps you suspected something of the sort?”
“I believe I suspected a pose; the one that boys often affect with singers. But it rather surprised me in you, for you must have seen a good deal of your brother’s pupils.”
Everett shook his head. “I saw my brother’s pupils come and go. Sometimes I was called on to play accompaniments, or to fill out a vacancy at a rehearsal, or to order a carriage for an infuriated soprano who had thrown up her part. But they never spent any time on me, unless it was to notice the resemblance you speak of.”
“Yes,” observed Katharine, thoughtfully, “I noticed it then, too; but it has grown as you have grown older. That is rather strange, when you have lived such different lives. It’s not merely an ordinary family likeness of features, you know, but the suggestion of the other man’s personality in your face—like an air transposed to another key. But I’m not attempting to define it; it’s beyond me; something altogether unusual and a trifle—well, uncanny,” she finished, laughing.
Everett sat looking out under the red window-blind which was raised just a little. As it swung back and forth in the wind it revealed the glaring panorama of the desert—a blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here and there with deep purple shadows; and, beyond, the ragged blue outline of the mountains and the peaks of snow, white as the white clouds.
“I remember, when I was a child I used to be very sensitive about it. I don’t think it exactly displeased me, or that I would have had it otherwise, but it seemed like a birthmark, or something not to be lightly spoken of. It came into even my relations with my mother.
Ad went abroad to study when he was very young, and mother was all broken up over it. She did her whole duty by each of us, but it was generally understood among us that she’d have made burnt-offerings of us all for him any day.
I was a little fellow then, and when she sat alone on the porch on summer evenings, she used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face up in the light that streamed out through the shutters and kiss me, and then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance.”
“Poor little chap,” said Katharine, in her husky voice. “How fond people have always been of Adriance! Tell me the latest news of him. I haven’t heard, except through the press, for a year or more.
He was in Algiers then, in the valley of the Chelif, riding horseback, and he had quite made up his mind to adopt the Mahometan faith and become an Arab. How many countries and faiths has he adopted, I wonder?”
“Oh, that’s Adriance,” chuckled Everett. “He is himself barely long enough to write checks and be measured for his clothes. I didn’t hear from him while he was an Arab; I missed that.”
“He was writing an Algerian suite for the piano then; it must be in the publisher’s hands by this time. I have been too ill to answer his letter, and have lost touch with him.”
Everett drew an envelope from his pocket. “This came a month ago. Read it at your leisure.”
“Thanks. I shall keep it as a hostage. Now I want you to play for me. Whatever you like; but if there is anything new in the world, in mercy let me hear it.”
He sat down at the piano, and Katharine sat near him, absorbed in his remarkable physical likeness to his brother, and trying to discover in just what it consisted. He was of a larger build than Adriance, and much heavier.
His face was of the same oval mould, but it was grey, and darkened about the mouth by continual shaving. His eyes were of the same inconstant April colour, but they were reflective and rather dull; while Adriance’s were always points of high light, and always meaning another thing than the thing they meant yesterday.
It was hard to see why this earnest man should so continually suggest that lyric, youthful face, as gay as his was grave. For Adriance, though he was ten years the elder, and though his hair was streaked with silver, had the face of a boy of twenty, so mobile that it told his thoughts before he could put them into words. A contralto, famous for the extravagance of her vocal methods and of her affections, once said that the shepherd-boys who sang in the Vale of Tempe must certainly have looked like young Hilgarde.
Everett sat smoking on the veranda of the Inter-Ocean House that night, the victim of mournful recollections. His infatuation for Katharine Gaylord, visionary as it was, had been the most serious of his boyish love-affairs. The fact that it was all so done and dead and far behind him, and that the woman had lived her life out since then, gave him an oppressive sense of age and loss.
He remembered how bitter and morose he had grown during his stay at his brother’s studio when Katharine Gaylord was working there, and how he had wounded Adriance on the night of his last concert in New York. He had sat there in the box—while his brother and Katherine were called back again and again, and the flowers went up over the footlights until they were stacked half as high as the piano—brooding in his sullen boy’s heart upon the pride those two felt in each other’s work—spurring each other to their best and beautifully contending in song. The footlights had seemed a hard, glittering line drawn sharply between their life and his. He walked back to his hotel alone, and sat in his window staring out on Madison Square until long after midnight, resolved to beat no more at doors that he could never enter.
Everett’s week in Cheyenne stretched to three, and he saw no prospect of release except through the thing he dreaded. The bright, windy days of the Wyoming autumn passed swiftly. Letters and telegrams came urging him to hasten his trip to the coast, but he resolutely postponed his business engagements. The mornings he spent on one of Charley Gaylord’s ponies, or fishing in the mountains. In the afternoon he was usually at his post of duty. Destiny, he reflected, seems to have very positive notions about the sort of parts we are fitted to play. The scene changes and the compensation varies, but in the end we usually find that we have played the same class of business from first to last. Everett had been a stop-gap all his life. He remembered going through a looking-glass labyrinth when he was a boy, and trying gallery after gallery, only at every turn to bump his nose against his own face—which, indeed, was not his own, but his brother’s. No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother’s business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde’s. It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother’s imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten. He made no attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. Day by day he felt her need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her, his own individuality played a smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort lay solely in his link with his brother’s life. He knew that she sat by him always watching for some trick of gesture, some familiar play of expression, some illusion of light and shadow, in which he should seem wholly Adriance. He knew that she lived upon this, and that in the exhaustion which followed this turmoil of her dying senses, she slept deep and sweet, and dreamed of youth and art and days in a certain old Florentine garden, and not of bitterness and death.
A few days after his first meeting with Katharine Gaylord, he had cabled his brother to write her. He merely said that she was mortally ill; he could depend on Adriance to say the right thing—that was a part of his gift. Adriance always said not only the right thing, but the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing. He caught the lyric essence of the moment, the poetic suggestion of every situation. Moreover, he usually did the right thing,—except, when he did very cruel things—bent upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, all the homage of the poet and troubadour, and, when they were no longer near, forgetting—for that also was a part of Adriance’s gift.
Three weeks after Everett had sent his cable, when he made his daily call at the gaily painted ranch-house, he found Katharine laughing like a girl. “Have you ever thought,” she said, as he entered the music-room, “how much these séances of ours are like Heine’s ‘Florentine Nights,’ except that I don’t give you an opportunity to monopolize the conversation?” She held his hand longer than usual as she greeted him. “You are the kindest man living, the kindest,” she added, softly.
Everett’s grey face colored faintly as he drew his hand away, for he felt that this time she was looking at him, and not at a whimsical caricature of his brother.
She drew a letter with a foreign postmark from between the leaves of a book and held it out, smiling. “You got him to write it. Don’t say you didn’t, for it came direct, you see, and the last address I gave him was a place in Florida. This deed shall be remembered of you when I am with the just in Paradise. But one thing you did not ask him to do, for you didn’t know about it. He has sent me his latest work, the new sonata, and you are to play it for me directly. But first for the letter; I think you would better read it aloud to me.”
Everett sat down in a low chair facing the window-seat in which she reclined with a barricade of pillows behind her. He opened the letter, his lashes half-veiling his kind eyes, and saw to his satisfaction that it was a long one; wonderfully tactful and tender, even for Adriance, who was tender with his valet and his stable-boy, with his old gondolier and the beggar-women who prayed to the saints for him.
The letter was from Granada, written in the Alhambra, as he sat by the fountain of the Patio di Lindaraxa. The air was heavy with the warm fragrance of the South and full of the sound of splashing, running water, as it had been in a certain old garden in Florence, long ago. The sky was one great turquoise, heated until it glowed. The wonderful Moorish arches threw graceful blue shadows all about him. He had sketched an outline of them on the margin of his note-paper. The letter was full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship.
As Everett folded it he felt that Adriance had divined the thing needed and had risen to it in his own wonderful way. The letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted. A strong realization of his brother’s charm and intensity and power came over him; he felt the breath of that whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path, and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others. Then he looked down at this white, burnt-out brand that lay before him.
“Like him, isn’t it?” she said, quietly. “I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but when you see him next you can do that for me. I want you to tell him many things for me, yet they can all be summed up in this: I want him to grow wholly into his best and greatest self, even at the cost of what is half his charm to you and me. Do you understand me?”
“I know perfectly well what you mean,” answered Everett, thoughtfully. “And yet it’s difficult to prescribe for those fellows; so little makes, so little mars.”
Katharine raised herself upon her elbow, and her face flushed with feverish earnestness. “Ah, but it is the waste of himself that I mean; his lashing himself out on stupid and uncomprehending people until they take him at their own estimate.”
“Come, come,” expostulated Everett, now alarmed at her excitement. “Where is the new sonata? Let him speak for himself.”
He sat down at the piano and began playing the first movement, which was indeed the voice of Adriance, his proper speech. The sonata was the most ambitious work he had done up to that time, and marked the transition from his early lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style. Everett played intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in particular. When he had finished he turned to Katharine.
“How he has grown!” she cried. “What the three last years have done for him! He used to write only the tragedies of passion; but this is the tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell. This is my tragedy, as I lie here, listening to the feet of the runners as they pass me—ah, God! the swift feet of the runners!”
She turned her face away and covered it with her hands. Everett crossed over to her and knelt beside her. In all the days he had known her she had never before, beyond an occasional ironical jest, given voice to the bitterness of her own defeat. Her courage had become a point of pride with him.
“Don’t do it,” he gasped. “I can’t stand it, I really can’t, I feel it too much.”
When she turned her face back to him there was a ghost of the old, brave, cynical smile on it, more bitter than the tears she could not shed.
“No, I won’t; I will save that for the night, when I have no better company. Run over that theme at the beginning again, will you? It was running in his head when we were in Venice years ago, and he used to drum it on his glass at the dinner-table.
He had just begun to work it out when the late autumn came on, and he decided to go to Florence for the winter. He lost touch with his idea, I suppose, during his illness. Do you remember those frightful days? All the people who have loved him are not strong enough to save him from himself!
When I got word from Florence that he had been ill, I was singing at Monte Carlo. His wife was hurrying to him from Paris, but I reached him first. I arrived at dusk, in a terrific storm. They had taken an old palace there for the winter, and I found him in the library—a long, dark room full of old Latin books and heavy furniture and bronzes.
He was sitting by a wood fire at one end of the room, looking, oh, so worn and pale!—as he always does when he is ill, you know. Ah, it is so good that you do know! Even his red smoking-jacket lent no color to his face.
His first words were not to tell me how ill he had been, but that that morning he had been well enough to put the last strokes to the score of his ‘Souvenirs d’ Automne,’ and he was as I most like to remember him; calm and happy, and tired with that heavenly tiredness that comes after a good work done at last.
Outside, the rain poured down in torrents, and the wind moaned and sobbed in the garden and about the walls of that desolated old palace. How that night comes back to me! There were no lights in the room, only the wood fire. It glowed on the black walls and floor like the reflection of purgatorial flame.
Beyond us it scarcely penetrated the gloom at all. Adriance sat staring at the fire with the weariness of all his life in his eyes, and of all the other lives that must aspire and suffer to make up one such life as his.
Somehow the wind with all its world-pain had got into the room, and the cold rain was in our eyes, and the wave came up in both of us at once—that awful vague, universal pain, that cold fear of life and death and God and hope—and we were like two clinging together on a spar in mid-ocean after the shipwreck of everything.
Then we heard the front door open with a great gust of wind that shook even the walls, and the servants came running with lights, announcing that Madame had returned, ‘and in the book we read no more that night.'”
She gave the old line with a certain bitter humor, and with the hard, bright smile in which of old she had wrapped her weakness as in a glittering garment. That ironical smile, worn through so many years, had gradually changed the lines of her face, and when she looked in the mirror she saw not herself, but the scathing critic, the amused observer and satirist of herself.
Everett dropped his head upon his hand. “How much you have cared!” he said.
“Ah, yes, I cared,” she replied, closing her eyes. “You can’t imagine what a comfort it is to have you know how I cared, what a relief it is to be able to tell it to some one.”
Everett continued to look helplessly at the floor. “I was not sure how much you wanted me to know,” he said.
“Oh, I intended you should know from the first time I looked into your face, when you came that day with Charley. You are so like him, that it is almost like telling him himself. At least, I feel now that he will know some day, and then I will be quite sacred from his compassion.”
“And has he never known at all?” asked Everett, in a thick voice.
“Oh! never at all in the way that you mean. Of course, he is accustomed to looking into the eyes of women and finding love there; when he doesn’t find it there he thinks he must have been guilty of some discourtesy. He has a genuine fondness for every woman who is not stupid or gloomy, or old or preternaturally ugly.
I shared with the rest; shared the smiles and the gallantries and the droll little sermons. It was quite like a Sunday-school picnic; we wore our best clothes and a smile and took our turns. It was his kindness that was hardest.”
“Don’t; you’ll make me hate him,” groaned Everett.
Katherine laughed and began to play nervously with her fan. “It wasn’t in the slightest degree his fault; that is the most grotesque part of it. Why, it had really begun before I ever met him. I fought my way to him, and I drank my doom greedily enough.”
Everett rose and stood hesitating. “I think I must go. You ought to be quiet, and I don’t think I can hear any more just now.”
She put out her hand and took his playfully.
“You’ve put in three weeks at this sort of thing, haven’t you? Well, it ought to square accounts for a much worse life than yours will ever be.”
He knelt beside her, saying, brokenly: “I stayed because I wanted to be with you, that’s all. I have never cared about other women since I knew you in New York when I was a lad. You are a part of my destiny, and I could not leave you if I would.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and shook her head. “No, no; don’t tell me that. I have seen enough tragedy. It was only a boy’s fancy, and your divine pity and my utter pitiableness have recalled it for a moment.
One does not love the dying, dear friend. Now go, and you will come again tomorrow, as long as there are tomorrows.” She took his hand with a smile that was both courage and despair, and full of infinite loyalty and tenderness, as she said softly:
“For ever and for ever, farewell, Cassius; If we do meet again, why, we shall smile; If not, why then, this parting was well made.”
The courage in her eyes was like the clear light of a star to him as he went out.
On the night of Adriance Hilgarde’s opening concert in Paris, Everett sat by the bed in the ranch-house in Wyoming, watching over the last battle that we have with the flesh before we are done with it and free of it for ever.
At times it seemed that the serene soul of her must have left already and found some refuge from the storm, and only the tenacious animal life were left to do battle with death. She labored under a delusion at once pitiful and merciful, thinking that she was in the Pullman on her way to New York, going back to her life and her work.
When she roused from her stupor, it was only to ask the porter to waken her half an hour out of Jersey City, or to remonstrate about the delays and the roughness of the road. At midnight Everett and the nurse were left alone with her. Poor Charley Gaylord had lain down on a couch outside the door.
Everett sat looking at the sputtering night-lamp until it made his eyes ache. His head dropped forward, and he sank into heavy, distressful slumber. He was dreaming of Adriance’s concert in Paris, and of Adriance, the troubadour.
He heard the applause and he saw the flowers going up over the footlights until they were stacked half as high as the piano, and the petals fell and scattered, making crimson splotches on the floor. Down this crimson pathway came Adriance with his youthful step, leading his singer by the hand; a dark woman this time, with Spanish eyes.
The nurse touched him on the shoulder, he started and awoke. She screened the lamp with her hand. Everett saw that Katharine was awake and conscious, and struggling a little. He lifted her gently on his arm and began to fan her.
She looked into his face with eyes that seemed never to have wept or doubted. “Ah, dear Adriance, dear, dear!” she whispered.
Everett went to call her brother, but when they came back the madness of art was over for Katharine.
Two days later Everett was pacing the station siding, waiting for the west-bound train. Charley Gaylord walked beside him, but the two men had nothing to say to each other.
Everett’s bags were piled on the truck, and his step was hurried and his eyes were full of impatience, as he gazed again and again up the track, watching for the train.
Gaylord’s impatience was not less than his own; these two, who had grown so close, had now become painful and impossible to each other, and longed for the wrench of farewell.
As the train pulled in, Everett wrung Gaylord’s hand among the crowd of alighting passengers. The people of a German opera company, en route for the coast, rushed by them in frantic haste to snatch their breakfast during the stop.
Everett heard an exclamation, and a stout woman rushed up to him, glowing with joyful surprise and caught his coat-sleeve with her tightly gloved hands.
“Herr Gott, Adriance, lieber Freund,” she cried.
Everett lifted his hat, blushing. “Pardon me, madame, I see that you have mistaken me for Adriance Hilgarde. I am his brother.” Turning from the crestfallen singer he hurried into the car.
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