TODAY (Dec. 7) is the birthday of Willa Cather, one of the greatest fiction writers of the twentieth century!
In honor of her life and work, we offer five Willa Cather short stories that can be read in full…
Willa Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) was an American writer who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), a novel set during World War I. (via Wikipedia)
The Sculptor’s Funeral
A GROUP of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue. The snow had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky. The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly, seeming uncertain as to what was expected of them. There was but one of the company who looked as though he knew exactly why he was there, and he kept conspicuously apart, walking to the far end of the platform, returning to the station door, then pacing up the track again, his chin sunk in the high collar of his overcoat, his burly shoulders drooping forward, his gait heavy and dogged. Presently he was approached by a tall, spare, grizzled man clad in a faded Grand Army suit, who shuffled out from the group and advanced with a certain deference, craning his neck forward until his back made the angle of a jack-knife three-quarters open.
“I reckon she’s a-goin’ to be pretty late agin to-night, Jim,” he remarked in a squeaky falsetto. “S’pose it’s the snow?”
“I don’t know,” responded the other man with a shade of annoyance, speaking from out an astonishing cataract of red beard which grew fiercely and thickly in all directions.
The spare man shifted the quill toothpick he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “It ain’t likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse, I s’pose?” he went on reflectively.
“I don’t know,” responded the other, more curtly than before.
“It’s too bad he didn’t belong to some lodge or other. I like an order funeral myself. They seem more appropriate for people of some repytation,” the spare man continued, with an ingratiating concession in his shrill voice, as he carefully placed his toothpick in his vest pocket. He always carried the flag at the G.A.R. funerals in the town.
The heavy man turned on his heel without replying, and walked up the siding. The spare man shuffled back to the uneasy group. “Jim’s ez full ez a tick, ez ushel,” he commented commiseratingly.
Just then a distant whistle sounded, and there was a shuffling of feet on the platform. A number of lanky boys of all ages appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder; some came from the waiting-room, where they had been warming themselves by the red stove, or half asleep on the slat benches; others uncoiled themselves from baggage trucks or slid out of express wagons. Two clambered down from the driver’s seat of a hearse that stood backed up against the siding. They straightened their stooping shoulders and lifted their heads, and a flash of momentary animation kindled their dull eyes at that cold, vibrant scream, the world-wide call for men. It stirred them like the note of a trumpet; just as it had often stirred in his boyhood the man who was coming home to-night.
The night express shot, red as a rocket, out of the eastward marsh lands, and wound along the river shore under the long lines of shivering poplars that sentineled the meadows, the escaping steam hanging in gray masses against the pale sky and blotting out the Milky Way. In a moment the red glare from the headlight streamed up the snow-covered track before the siding and glittered on the wet, black rails. The burly man with the disheveled red beard walked swiftly up the platform toward the approaching train, uncovering his head as he went. The group of men behind him hesitated, glanced questioningly at one another, and awkwardly followed his example. The train stopped, and the crowd shuffled up to the express car just as the door was thrown open, the spare man in the G.A.R. suit thrusting his head forward with curiosity. The express messenger appeared in the doorway, accompanied by a young man in a long ulster and traveling-cap.
“Are Mr. Merrick’s friends here?” inquired the young man.
The group on the platform swayed and shuffled uneasily. Philip Phelps, the banker, responded with dignity: “We have come to take charge of the body. Mr. Merrick’s father is very feeble and can’t be about.”
“Send the agent out here,” growled the express messenger, “and tell the operator to lend a hand.”
The coffin was got out of its rough box and down on the snowy platform. The townspeople drew back enough to make room for it and then formed a close semicircle about it, looking curiously at the palm-leaf which lay across the black cover. No one said anything. The baggageman stood by his truck, waiting to get at the trunks. The engine panted heavily, and the fireman dodged in and out among the wheels with his yellow torch and long oil-can, snapping the spindle boxes. The young Bostonian, one of the dead sculptor’s pupils, who had come with the body, looked about him helplessly. He turned to the banker, the only one of that black, uneasy, stoop-shouldered group who seemed enough of an individual to be addressed.
“None of Mr. Merrick’s brothers are here?” he asked uncertainly.
The man with the red beard for the first time stepped up and joined the group. “No, they have not come yet; the family is scattered. The body will be taken directly to the house.” He stooped and took hold of one of the handles of the coffin.
“Take the long hill road up, Thompson; it will be easier on the horses,” called the liveryman, as the undertaker snapped the door of the hearse and prepared to mount to the driver’s seat.
Laird, the red-bearded lawyer, turned again to the stranger: “We didn’t know whether there would be any one with him or not,” he explained. “It’s a long walk, so you’d better go up in the hack.” He pointed to a single battered conveyance, but the young man replied stiffly: “Thank you, but I think I will go up with the hearse. If you don’t object,” turning to the undertaker, “I’ll ride with you.”
They clambered up over the wheels and drove off in the starlight up the long, white hill toward the town. The lamps in the still village were shining from under the low, snow-burdened roofs; and beyond, on every side, the plains reached out into emptiness, peaceful and wide as the soft sky itself, and wrapped in a tangible, white silence.
When the hearse backed up to a wooden sidewalk before a naked, weather-beaten frame house, the same composite, ill-defined group that had stood upon the station siding was huddled about the gate. The front yard was an icy swamp, and a couple of warped planks, extending from the sidewalk to the door, made a sort of rickety foot-bridge. The gate hung on one hinge, and was opened wide with difficulty. Steavens, the young stranger, noticed that something black was tied to the knob of the front door.
The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”
As Steavens turned away and closed his eyes with a shudder of unutterable repulsion, another woman, also tall, but flat and angular, dressed entirely in black, darted out of the house and caught Mrs. Merrick by the shoulders, crying sharply: “Come, come, mother; you musn’t go on like this!” Her tone changed to one of obsequious solemnity as she turned to the banker: “The parlor is ready, Mr. Phelps.”
The bearers carried the coffin along the narrow boards, while the undertaker ran ahead with the coffin-rests. They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a “Rogers group” of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax. Henry Steavens stared about him with the sickening conviction that there had been some horrible mistake, and that he had somehow arrived at the wrong destination. He looked painfully about over the clover-green Brussels, the fat plush upholstery; among the hand-painted china plaques and panels and vases, for some mark of identification, for something that might once conceivably have belonged to Harvey Merrick. It was not until he recognized his friend in the crayon portrait of a little boy in kilts and curls, hanging above the piano, that he felt willing to let any of these people approach the coffin.
“Take the lid off, Mr. Thompson; let me see my boy’s face,” wailed the elder woman between her sobs. This time Steavens looked fearfully, almost beseechingly, into her face, red and swollen under its masses of strong, black, shiny hair. He flushed, dropped his eyes, and then, almost incredulously, looked again. There was a kind of power about her face—a kind of brutal handsomeness, even; but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead, her teeth were large and square, and set far apart—teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water, and even Steavens felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool.
The daughter—the tall, raw-boned woman in crêpe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face—sat stiffly upon the sofa, her hands, conspicuous for their large knuckles, folded in her lap, her mouth and eyes drawn down, solemnly awaiting the opening of the coffin. Near the door stood a mulatto woman, evidently a servant in the house, with a timid bearing and an emaciated face pitifully sad and gentle. She was weeping silently, the corner of her calico apron lifted to her eyes, occasionally suppressing a long, quivering sob. Steavens walked over and stood beside her.
Feeble steps were heard on the stairs, and an old man, tall and frail, odorous of pipe smoke, with shaggy, unkempt gray hair and a dingy beard, tobacco-stained about the mouth, entered uncertainly. He went slowly up to the coffin and stood rolling a blue cotton handkerchief between his hands, seeming so pained and embarrassed by his wife’s orgy of grief that he had no consciousness of anything else.
“There, there, Annie, dear, don’t take on,” he quavered timidly, putting out a shaking hand and awkwardly patting her elbow. She turned with a cry, and sank upon his shoulder with such violence that he tottered a little. He did not even glance toward the coffin, but continued to look at her with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip. His sunken cheeks slowly reddened and burned with miserable shame. When his wife rushed from the room, her daughter strode after her with set lips. The servant stole up to the coffin, bent over it for a moment, and then slipped away to the kitchen, leaving Steavens, the lawyer, and the father to themselves. The old man stood trembling and looking down at his dead son’s face. The sculptor’s splendid head seemed even more noble in its rigid stillness than in life. The dark hair had crept down upon the wide forehead; the face seemed strangely long, but in it there was not that beautiful and chaste repose which we expect to find in the faces of the dead. The brows were so drawn that there were two deep lines above the beaked nose, and the chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once wholly relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace—as though he were still guarding something precious and holy which might even yet be wrested from him.
The old man’s lips were working under his stained beard. He turned to the lawyer with timid deference: “Phelps and the rest are comin’ back to set up with Harve, ain’t they?” he asked. “Thank ‘ee, Jim, thank ‘ee.” He brushed the hair back gently from his son’s forehead. “He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of ’em all—only we didn’t none of us ever onderstand him.” The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor’s coat.
“Martin, Martin—Oh, Martin! come here,” his wife wailed from the top of the stairs. The old man started timorously: “Yes, Annie, I’m coming.” He turned away, hesitated, stood for a moment in miserable indecision; then reached back and patted the dead man’s hair softly, and stumbled from the room.
“Poor old man, I didn’t think he had any tears left. Seems as if his eyes would have gone dry long ago. At his age nothing cuts very deep,” remarked the lawyer.
Something in his tone made Steavens glance up. While the mother had been in the room the young man had scarcely seen any one else; but now, from the moment he first glanced into Jim Laird’s florid face and blood-shot eyes, he knew that he had found what he had been heart-sick at not finding before—the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in some one, even here.
The man was red as his beard, with features swollen and blurred by dissipation, and a hot, blazing blue eye. His face was strained—that of a man who is controlling himself with difficulty—and he kept plucking at his beard with a sort of fierce resentment. Steavens, sitting by the window, watched him turn down the glaring lamp, still its jangling pendants with an angry gesture, and then stand with his hands locked behind him, staring down into the master’s face. He could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel and so sooty a lump of potter’s clay.
From the kitchen an uproar was sounding; when the dining-room door opened, the import of it was clear. The mother was abusing the maid for having forgotten to make the dressing for the chicken salad which had been prepared for the watchers. Steavens had never heard anything in the least like it; it was injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty, as violent and unrestrained as had been her grief of twenty minutes before. With a shudder of disgust, the lawyer went into the dining-room and closed the door into the kitchen.
“Poor Roxy’s getting it now,” he remarked when he came back. “The Merricks took her out of the poor-house years ago; and if her loyalty would let her, I guess the poor old thing could tell tales that would curdle your blood. She’s the mulatto woman who was standing in here a while ago, with her apron to her eyes. The old woman is a fury; there never was anybody like her for demonstrative piety and ingenious cruelty. She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home; he was so sick ashamed of it. I never could see how he kept himself so sweet.”
“He was wonderful,” said Steavens slowly, “wonderful; but until to-night I have never known how wonderful.”
“That is the true and eternal wonder of it, anyway; that it can come even from such a dung-heap as this,” the lawyer cried, with a sweeping gesture which seemed to indicate much more than the four walls within which they stood.
“I think I’ll see whether I can get a little air. The room is so close I am beginning to feel rather faint,” murmured Steavens, struggling with one of the windows. The sash was stuck, however, and would not yield, so he sat down dejectedly and began pulling at his collar. The lawyer came over, loosened the sash with one blow of his red fist, and sent the window up a few inches. Steavens thanked him, but the nausea which had been gradually climbing into his throat for the last half hour left him with but one desire—a desperate feeling that he must get away from this place with what was left of Harvey Merrick. Oh, he comprehended well enough now the gentle bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master’s lips!
He remembered that once, when Merrick returned from a visit home, he brought with him a singularly feeling and suggestive bas-relief of a thin, faded old woman, sitting and sewing something pinned to her knee; while a full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers sustained by a single gallows, stood beside her impatiently twitching her gown to call her attention to a butterfly he had caught. Steavens, impressed by the tender and delicate modelling of the thin, tired face, had asked him if it were his mother. He remembered the dull flush that had burned up in the sculptor’s face.
The lawyer was sitting in a rocking-chair beside the coffin, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Steavens looked at him earnestly, puzzled at the line of the chin, and wondering why a man should conceal a feature of such distinction under that disfiguring shock of beard. Suddenly, as though he felt the young sculptor’s keen glance, he opened his eyes.
“Was he always a good deal of an oyster?” he asked abruptly. “He was terribly shy as a boy.”
“Yes, he was an oyster, since you put it so,” rejoined Steavens. “Although he could be very fond of people, he always gave one the impression of being detached. He disliked violent emotion; he was reflective, and rather distrustful of himself—except, of course, as regarded his work. He was sure-footed enough there. He distrusted men pretty thoroughly, and women even more, yet somehow without believing ill of them. He was determined, indeed, to believe the best, but he seemed afraid to investigate.”
“A burnt dog dreads the fire,” said the lawyer grimly, and closed his eyes.
Steavens went on and on, reconstructing that whole miserable boyhood. All this raw, biting ugliness had been the portion of the man whose tastes were refined beyond the limits of the reasonable—whose mind was an exhaustless gallery of beautiful impressions, and so sensitive that the mere shadow of a poplar leaf flickering against a sunny wall would be etched and held there forever. Surely, if ever a man had the magic wand in his finger-tips, it was Merrick. Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress, spell for spell. Upon whatever he had come in contact with, he had left a beautiful record of the experience—a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own.
Steavens understood now the real tragedy of his master’s life; neither love nor wine, as many had conjectured, but a blow which had fallen earlier and cut deeper than these could have done—a shame not his, and yet so unescapably his, to hide in his heart from his very boyhood. And without, the frontier warfare; the yearning of a boy, cast ashore upon a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.
At eleven o’clock the tall, flat woman in black crêpe entered and announced that the watchers were arriving, and asked them “to step into the dining-room.” As Steavens rose, the lawyer said dryly: “You go on—it’ll be a good experience for you, doubtless; as for me, I’m not equal to that crowd to-night; I’ve had twenty years of them.”
As Steavens closed the door after him, he glanced back at the lawyer, sitting by the coffin in the dim light, with his chin resting on his hand.
The same misty group that had stood before the door of the express-car shuffled into the room. In the light of the kerosene lamp they separated and became individuals. The minister, a pale, feeble-looking man with white hair and blond chin-whiskers, took his seat beside a small side table, and placed his Bible upon it. The Grand Army man took a seat behind the stove and tilted his chair back comfortably against the wall, fishing his quill toothpick from his waistcoat pocket. The two bankers, Phelps and Elder, sat off in a corner behind the dinner-table, where they could finish their discussion of the new usury law and its effect on chattel security loans. The real estate agent, an old man with a smiling, hypocritical face, soon joined them. The coal and lumber dealer and the cattle shipper sat on opposite sides of the hard coal burner, their feet on the nickel-work. Steavens took a book from his pocket and began to read. The talk around him ranged through various topics of local interest while the house was quieting down. When it was clear that the members of the family were in bed, the Grand Army man hitched his shoulders, and untangling his long legs, caught his heels on the rounds of his chair.
“S’pose there’ll be a will, Phelps?” he queried in his weak falsetto.
The banker laughed disagreeably, and began trimming his nails with a pearl-handled pocket-knife.
“There’ll scarcely be any need for one, will there?” he queried in his turn.
The restless Grand Army man shifted his position again, getting his knees still nearer his chin. “Why, the ole man says Harve’s done right well lately,” he chirped.
The other banker spoke up. “I reckon he means by that Harve ain’t asked him to mortgage any more farms lately so as he could go on with his education.”
“Seems like my mind don’t reach back to a time when Harve wasn’t bein’ edycated,” tittered the Grand Army man.
There was a general chuckle. The minister took out his handkerchief and blew his nose sonorously. Banker Phelps closed his knife with a snap. “It’s too bad the old man’s sons didn’t turn out better,” he remarked, with reflective authority. “They never hung together. He spent money enough on Harve to stock a dozen cattle-farms, and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek. If Harve had stayed at home and helped nurse what little they had, and gone into stock on the old man’s bottom farm, they might all have been well fixed. But the old man had to trust everything to tenants and was cheated right and left.”
“Harve never could have handled stock none,” interposed the cattleman. “He hadn’t it in him to be sharp. Do you remember when he bought Sander’s mules for eight-year olds, when everybody in town knew that Sander’s father-in-law give ’em to his wife for a wedding present eighteen years before, an’ they was full-grown mules then.”
Everyone chuckled, and the Grand Army man rubbed his knees with a spasm of childish delight.
“Harve never was much account for anything practical, and he shore was never fond of work,” began the coal and lumber dealer. “I mind the last time he was home; the day he left, when the old man was out to the barn helpin’ his hand hitch up to take Harve to the train, and Cal Moots was patchin’ up the fence, Harve, he come out on the step and sings out, in his ladylike voice: ‘Cal Moots, Cal Moots! please come cord my trunk.'”
“That’s Harve for you,” approved the Grand Army man gleefully. “I kin hear him howlin’ yet, when he was a big feller in long pants, and his mother used to whale him with a rawhide in the barn for lettin’ the cows git foundered in the cornfield when he was drivin’ ’em home from pasture. He killed a cow of mine that-a-way onct—a pure Jersey and the best milker I had, an’ the ole man had to put up for her. Harve, he was watchin’ the sun set acrost the marshes when the anamile got away; he argued that sunset was oncommon fine.”
“Where the old man made his mistake was in sending the boy East to school,” said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone. “There was where he got his head full of trapseing to Paris and all such folly. What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.”
The letters were swimming before Steaven’s eyes. Was it possible that these men did not understand, that the palm on the coffin meant nothing to them? The very name of their town would have remained forever buried in the postal guide, had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’s. He remembered what his master had said to him on the day of his death, after the congestion of both lungs had shut off any probability of recovery, and the sculptor had asked his pupil to send his body home. “It’s not a pleasant place to be lying while the world is moving and doing and bettering,” he had said, with a feeble smile: “but it rather seems as though we ought to go back to the place we came from in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say, I shan’t have much to fear from the judgment of God. The wings of the Victory, in there”—with a weak gesture toward his studio— “will not shelter me.”
The cattleman took up the comment. “Forty’s young for a Merrick to cash in; they usually hang on pretty well. Probably he helped it along with whisky.”
“His mother’s people were not long-lived, and Harvey never had a robust constitution,” said the minister mildly. He would have liked to say more. He had been the boy’s Sunday-school teacher, and had been fond of him; but he felt that he was not in a position to speak. His own sons had turned out badly, and it was not a year since one of them had made his last trip home in the express-car, shot in a gambling-house in the Black Hills.
“Nevertheless, there is no disputin’ that Harve frequently looked upon the wine when it was red, also variegated, and it shore made an oncommon fool of him,” moralized the cattleman.
Just then the door leading into the parlor rattled loudly, and everyone started involuntarily, looking relieved when only Jim Laird came out. His red face was convulsed with anger, and the Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, blood-shot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door gently behind him, leaned back against it, and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the court-room, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.
“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” he began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too well satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter, anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Reuben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling-house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies, and go to the pen?”
The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here to-night, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys, worse luck, were young, and raw at the business you put them to; and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones—that’s all the difference. There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he’s a mind to; but he knew Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattle-farms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.
“Old Nimrod, here, thinks Harve drank too much; and this from such as Nimrod and me!
“Brother Elder says Harve was too free with the old man’s money—fell short in filial consideration, maybe. Well, we can all remember the very tone in which brother Elder swore his own father was a liar, in the county court; and we all know that the old man came out of that partnership with his son as bare as a sheared lamb. But maybe I’m getting personal, and I’d better be driving ahead at what I want to say.”
The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even I, and I haven’t lost my sense of humor, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practise, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer—oh, yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent a month and get it collected; old Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real-estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me; and that’s why I’m not afraid to plug the truth home to you this once.
“Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog-wallow, doing his great work, and climbing the big, clean up-grade he’d set for himself.
“And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here to-night is the only tribute any truly great man could ever have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City—upon which town may God have mercy!”
The lawyer thrust out his hand to Steavens as he passed him, caught up his overcoat in the hall, and had left the house before the Grand Army man had found time to lift his ducked head and crane his long neck about at his fellows.
Next day Jim Laird was drunk and unable to attend the funeral services. Steavens called twice at his office, but was compelled to start East without seeing him. He had a presentiment that he would hear from him again, and left his address on the lawyer’s table; but if Laird found it, he never acknowledged it. The thing in him that Harvey Merrick had loved must have gone underground with Harvey Merrick’s coffin; for it never spoke again, and Jim got the cold he died of driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps’s sons, who had got into trouble out there by cutting government timber.
*** What are your favorite Willa Cather short stories ?
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