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…
Flavia and Her Artists
As the train neared Tarrytown, Imogen Willard began to wonder why she had consented to be one of Flavia’s house party at all. She had not felt enthusiastic about it since leaving the city, and was experiencing a prolonged ebb of purpose, a current of chilling indecision, under which she vainly sought for the motive which had induced her to accept Flavia’s invitation.
Perhaps it was a vague curiosity to see Flavia’s husband, who had been the magician of her childhood and the hero of innumerable Arabian fairy tales. Perhaps it was a desire to see M. Roux, whom Flavia had announced as the especial attraction of the occasion. Perhaps it was a wish to study that remarkable woman in her own setting.
Imogen admitted a mild curiosity concerning Flavia. She was in the habit of taking people rather seriously, but somehow found it impossible to take Flavia so, because of the very vehemence and insistence with which Flavia demanded it. Submerged in her studies, Imogen had, of late years, seen very little of Flavia; but Flavia, in her hurried visits to New York, between her excursions from studio to studio–her luncheons with this lady who had to play at a matinee, and her dinners with that singer who had an evening concert–had seen enough of her friend’s handsome daughter to conceive for her an inclination of such violence and assurance as only Flavia could afford. The fact that Imogen had shown rather marked capacity in certain esoteric lines of scholarship, and had decided to specialize in a well- sounding branch of philology at the Ecole des Chartes, had fairly placed her in that category of “interesting people” whom Flavia considered her natural affinities, and lawful prey.
When Imogen stepped upon the station platform she was immediately appropriated by her hostess, whose commanding figure and assurance of attire she had recognized from a distance. She was hurried into a high tilbury and Flavia, taking the driver’s cushion beside her, gathered up the reins with an experienced hand.
“My dear girl,” she remarked, as she turned the horses up the street, “I was afraid the train might be late. M. Roux insisted upon coming up by boat and did not arrive until after seven.”
“To think of M. Roux’s being in this part of the world at all, and subject to the vicissitudes of river boats! Why in the world did he come over?” queried Imogen with lively interest. “He is the sort of man who must dissolve and become a shadow outside of Paris.”
“Oh, we have a houseful of the most interesting people,” said Flavia, professionally. “We have actually managed to get Ivan Schemetzkin. He was ill in California at the close of his concert tour, you know, and he is recuperating with us, after his wearing journey from the coast. Then there is Jules Martel, the painter; Signor Donati, the tenor; Professor Schotte, who has dug up Assyria, you know; Restzhoff, the Russian chemist; Alcee Buisson, the philologist; Frank Wellington, the novelist; and Will Maidenwood, the editor of Woman. Then there is my second cousin, Jemima Broadwood, who made such a hit in Pinero’s comedy last winter, and Frau Lichtenfeld. Have you read her?”
Imogen confessed her utter ignorance of Frau Lichtenfeld, and Flavia went on.
“Well, she is a most remarkable person; one of those advanced German women, a militant iconoclast, and this drive will not be long enough to permit of my telling you her history. Such a story! Her novels were the talk of all Germany when I was there last, and several of them have been suppressed–an honor in Germany, I understand. ‘At Whose Door’ has been translated. I am so unfortunate as not to read German.”
“I’m all excitement at the prospect of meeting Miss Broadwood,” said Imogen. “I’ve seen her in nearly everything she does. Her stage personality is delightful. She always reminds me of a nice, clean, pink-and-white boy who has just had his cold bath, and come down all aglow for a run before breakfast.”
“Yes, but isn’t it unfortunate that she will limit herself to those minor comedy parts that are so little appreciated in this country? One ought to be satisfied with nothing less than the best, ought one?” The peculiar, breathy tone in which Flavia always uttered that word “best,” the most worn in her vocabulary, always jarred on Imogen and always made her obdurate.
“I don’t at all agree with you,” she said reservedly. “I thought everyone admitted that the most remarkable thing about Miss Broadwood is her admirable sense of fitness, which is rare enough in her profession.”
Flavia could not endure being contradicted; she always seemed to regard it in the light of a defeat, and usually colored unbecomingly. Now she changed the subject.
“Look, my dear,” she cried, “there is Frau Lichtenfeld now, coming to meet us. Doesn’t she look as if she had just escaped out of Valhalla? She is actually over six feet.”
Imogen saw a woman of immense stature, in a very short skirt and a broad, flapping sun hat, striding down the hillside at a long, swinging gait. The refugee from Valhalla approached, panting. Her heavy, Teutonic features were scarlet from the rigor of her exercise, and her hair, under her flapping sun hat, was tightly befrizzled about her brow. She fixed her sharp little eves upon Imogen and extended both her hands.
“So this is the little friend?” she cried, in a rolling baritone.
Imogen was quite as tall as her hostess; but everything, she reflected, is comparative. After the introduction Flavia apologized.
“I wish I could ask you to drive up with us, Frau Lichtenfeld.”
“Ah, no!” cried the giantess, drooping her head in humorous caricature of a time-honored pose of the heroines of sentimental romances. “It has never been my fate to be fitted into corners. I have never known the sweet privileges of the tiny.”
Laughing, Flavia started the ponies, and the colossal woman, standing in the middle of the dusty road, took off her wide hat and waved them a farewell which, in scope of gesture, recalled the salute of a plumed cavalier.
When they arrived at the house, Imogen looked about her with keen curiosity, for this was veritably the work of Flavia’s hands, the materialization of hopes long deferred. They passed directly into a large, square hall with a gallery on three sides, studio fashion. This opened at one end into a Dutch breakfast room, beyond which was the large dining room. At the other end of the hall was the music room. There was a smoking room, which one entered through the library behind the staircase. On the second floor there was the same general arrangement: a square hall, and, opening from it, the guest chambers, or, as Miss Broadwood termed them, the “cages.”
When Imogen went to her room, the guests had begun to return from their various afternoon excursions. Boys were gliding through the halls with ice water, covered trays, and flowers, colliding with maids and valets who carried shoes and other articles of wearing apparel. Yet, all this was done in response to inaudible bells, on felt soles, and in hushed voices, so that there was very little confusion about it.
Flavia had at last built her house and hewn out her seven pillars; there could be no doubt, now, that the asylum for talent, the sanatorium of the arts, so long projected, was an accomplished fact. Her ambition had long ago outgrown the dimensions of her house on Prairie Avenue; besides, she had bitterly complained that in Chicago traditions were against her. Her project had been delayed by Arthur’s doggedly standing out for the Michigan woods, but Flavia knew well enough that certain of the rarae aves–“the best”–could not be lured so far away from the seaport, so she declared herself for the historic Hudson and knew no retreat. The establishing of a New York office had at length overthrown Arthur’s last valid objection to quitting the lake country for three months of the year; and Arthur could be wearied into anything, as those who knew him knew.
Flavia’s house was the mirror of her exultation; it was a temple to the gods of Victory, a sort of triumphal arch. In her earlier days she had swallowed experiences that would have unmanned one of less torrential enthusiasm or blind pertinacity. But, of late years, her determination had told; she saw less and less of those mysterious persons with mysterious obstacles in their path and mysterious grievances against the world, who had once frequented her house on Prairie Avenue. In the stead of this multitude of the unarrived, she had now the few, the select, “the best.” Of all that band of indigent retainers who had once fed at her board like the suitors in the halls of Penelope, only Alcee Buisson still retained his right of entree. He alone had remembered that ambition hath a knapsack at his back, wherein he puts alms to oblivion, and he alone had been considerate enough to do what Flavia had expected of him, and give his name a current value in the world. Then, as Miss Broadwood put it, “he was her first real one,”–and Flavia, like Mohammed, could remember her first believer.
“The House of Song,” as Miss Broadwood had called it, was the outcome of Flavia’s more exalted strategies. A woman who made less a point of sympathizing with their delicate organisms, might have sought to plunge these phosphorescent pieces into the tepid bath of domestic life; but Flavia’s discernment was deeper. This must be a refuge where the shrinking soul, the sensitive brain, should be unconstrained; where the caprice of fancy should outweigh the civil code, if necessary. She considered that this much Arthur owed her; for she, in her turn, had made concessions. Flavia had, indeed, quite an equipment of epigrams to the effect that our century creates the iron genii which evolve its fairy tales: but the fact that her husband’s name was annually painted upon some ten thousand threshing machines in reality contributed very little to her happiness.
Arthur Hamilton was born and had spent his boyhood in the West Indies, and physically he had never lost the brand of the tropics. His father, after inventing the machine which bore his name, had returned to the States to patent and manufacture it. After leaving college, Arthur had spent five years ranching in the West and traveling abroad. Upon his father’s death he had returned to Chicago and, to the astonishment of all his friends, had taken up the business–without any demonstration of enthusiasm, but with quiet perseverance, marked ability, and amazing industry. Why or how a self-sufficient, rather ascetic man of thirty, indifferent in manner, wholly negative in all other personal relations, should have doggedly wooed and finally married Flavia Malcolm was a problem that had vexed older heads than Imogen’s.
While Imogen was dressing she heard a knock at her door, and a young woman entered whom she at once recognized as Jemima Broadwood–“Jimmy” Broadwood she was called by people in her own profession. While there was something unmistakably professional in her frank savoir-faire, “Jimmy’s” was one of those faces to which the rouge never seems to stick. Her eyes were keen and gray as a windy April sky, and so far from having been seared by calcium lights, you might have fancied they had never looked on anything less bucolic than growing fields and country fairs. She wore her thick, brown hair short and parted at the side; and, rather than hinting at freakishness, this seemed admirably in keeping with her fresh, boyish countenance. She extended to Imogen a large, well-shaped hand which it was a pleasure to clasp.
“Ah! You are Miss Willard, and I see I need not introduce myself. Flavia said you were kind enough to express a wish to meet me, and I preferred to meet you alone. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Why, certainly not,” said Imogen, somewhat disconcerted and looking hurriedly about for matches.
“There, be calm, I’m always prepared,” said Miss Broadwood, checking Imogen’s flurry with a soothing gesture, and producing an oddly fashioned silver match-case from some mysterious recess in her dinner gown. She sat down in a deep chair, crossed her patent-leather Oxfords, and lit her cigarette. “This matchbox,” she went on meditatively, “once belonged to a Prussian officer. He shot himself in his bathtub, and I bought it at the sale of his effects.”
Imogen had not yet found any suitable reply to make to this rather irrelevant confidence, when Miss Broadwood turned to her cordially: “I’m awfully glad you’ve come, Miss Willard, though I’ve not quite decided why you did it. I wanted very much to meet you. Flavia gave me your thesis to read.”
“Why, how funny!” ejaculated Imogen.
“On the contrary,” remarked Miss Broadwood. “I thought it decidedly lacked humor.”
“I meant,” stammered Imogen, beginning to feel very much like Alice in Wonderland, “I meant that I thought it rather strange Mrs. Hamilton should fancy you would be interested.”
Miss Broadwood laughed heartily. “Now, don’t let my rudeness frighten you. Really, I found it very interesting, and no end impressive. You see, most people in my profession are good for absolutely nothing else, and, therefore, they have a deep and abiding conviction that in some other line they might have shone. Strange to say, scholarship is the object of our envious and particular admiration. Anything in type impresses us greatly; that’s why so many of us marry authors or newspapermen and lead miserable lives.” Miss Broadwood saw that she had rather disconcerted Imogen, and blithely tacked in another direction. “You see,” she went on, tossing aside her half-consumed cigarette, “some years ago Flavia would not have deemed me worthy to open the pages of your thesis–nor to be one of her house party of the chosen, for that matter. I’ve Pinero to thank for both pleasures. It all depends on the class of business I’m playing whether I’m in favor or not. Flavia is my second cousin, you know, so I can say whatever disagreeable things I choose with perfect good grace. I’m quite desperate for someone to laugh with, so I’m going to fasten myself upon you–for, of course, one can’t expect any of these gypsy-dago people to see anything funny. I don’t intend you shall lose the humor of the situation. What do you think of Flavia’s infirmary for the arts, anyway?”
“Well, it’s rather too soon for me to have any opinion at all,” said Imogen, as she again turned to her dressing. “So far, you are the only one of the artists I’ve met.”
“One of them?” echoed Miss Broadwood. “One of the artists? My offense may be rank, my dear, but I really don’t deserve that. Come, now, whatever badges of my tribe I may bear upon me, just let me divest you of any notion that I take myself seriously.”
Imogen turned from the mirror in blank astonishment and sat down on the arm of a chair, facing her visitor. “I can’t fathom you at all, Miss Broadwood,” she said frankly. “Why shouldn’t you take yourself seriously? What’s the use of beating about the bush? Surely you know that you are one of the few players on this side of the water who have at all the spirit of natural or ingenuous comedy?”
“Thank you, my dear. Now we are quite even about the thesis, aren’t we? Oh, did you mean it? Well, you are a clever girl. But you see it doesn’t do to permit oneself to look at it in that light. If we do, we always go to pieces and waste our substance astarring as the unhappy daughter of the Capulets. But there, I hear Flavia coming to take you down; and just remember I’m not one of them–the artists, I mean.”
Flavia conducted Imogen and Miss Broadwood downstairs. As they reached the lower hall they heard voices from the music room, and dim figures were lurking in the shadows under the gallery, but their hostess led straight to the smoking room. The June evening was chilly, and a fire had been lighted in the fireplace. Through the deepening dusk, the firelight flickered upon the pipes and curious weapons on the wall and threw an orange glow over the Turkish hangings. One side of the smoking room was entirely of glass, separating it from the conservatory, which was flooded with white light from the electric bulbs. There was about the darkened room some suggestion of certain chambers in the Arabian Nights, opening on a court of palms. Perhaps it was partially this memory-evoking suggestion that caused Imogen to start so violently when she saw dimly, in a blur of shadow, the figure of a man, who sat smoking in a low, deep chair before the fire. He was long, and thin, and brown. His long, nerveless hands drooped from the arms of his chair. A brown mustache shaded his mouth, and his eyes were sleepy and apathetic. When Imogen entered he rose indolently and gave her his hand, his manner barely courteous.
“I am glad you arrived promptly, Miss Willard,” he said with an indifferent drawl. “Flavia was afraid you might be late. You had a pleasant ride up, I hope?”
“Oh, very, thank you, Mr. Hamilton,” she replied, feeling that he did not particularly care whether she replied at all.
Flavia explained that she had not yet had time to dress for dinner, as she had been attending to Mr. Will Maidenwood, who had become faint after hurting his finger in an obdurate window, and immediately excused herself As she left, Hamilton turned to Miss Broadwood with a rather spiritless smile.
“Well, Jimmy,” he remarked, “I brought up a piano box full of fireworks for the boys. How do you suppose we’ll manage to keep them until the Fourth?”
“We can’t, unless we steel ourselves to deny there are any on the premises,” said Miss Broadwood, seating herself on a low stool by Hamilton’s chair and leaning back against the mantel. “Have you seen Helen, and has she told you the tragedy of the tooth?”
“She met me at the station, with her tooth wrapped up in tissue paper. I had tea with her an hour ago. Better sit down, Miss Willard;” he rose and pushed a chair toward Imogen, who was standing peering into the conservatory. “We are scheduled to dine at seven, but they seldom get around before eight.”
By this time Imogen had made out that here the plural pronoun, third person, always referred to the artists. As Hamilton’s manner did not spur one to cordial intercourse, and as his attention seemed directed to Miss Broadwood, insofar as it could be said to be directed to anyone, she sat down facing the conservatory and watched him, unable to decide in how far he was identical with the man who had first met Flavia Malcolm in her mother’s house, twelve years ago. Did he at all remember having known her as a little girl, and why did his indifference hurt her so, after all these years? Had some remnant of her childish affection for him gone on living, somewhere down in the sealed caves of her consciousness, and had she really expected to find it possible to be fond of him again? Suddenly she saw a light in the man’s sleepy eyes, an unmistakable expression of interest and pleasure that fairly startled her. She turned quickly in the direction of his glance, and saw Flavia, just entering, dressed for dinner and lit by the effulgence of her most radiant manner. Most people considered Flavia handsome, and there was no gainsaying that she carried her five-and-thirty years splendidly. Her figure had never grown matronly, and her face was of the sort that does not show wear. Its blond tints were as fresh and enduring as enamel–and quite as hard. Its usual expression was one of tense, often strained, animation, which compressed her lips nervously. A perfect scream of animation, Miss Broadwood had called it, created and maintained by sheer, indomitable force of will. Flavia’s appearance on any scene whatever made a ripple, caused a certain agitation and recognition, and, among impressionable people, a certain uneasiness, For all her sparkling assurance of manner, Flavia was certainly always ill at ease and, even more certainly, anxious. She seemed not convinced of the established order of material things, seemed always trying to conceal her feeling that walls might crumble, chasms open, or the fabric of her life fly to the winds in irretrievable entanglement. At least this was the impression Imogen got from that note in Flavia which was so manifestly false.
Hamilton’s keen, quick, satisfied glance at his wife had recalled to Imogen all her inventory of speculations about them. She looked at him with compassionate surprise. As a child she had never permitted herself to believe that Hamilton cared at all for the woman who had taken him away from her; and since she had begun to think about them again, it had never occurred to her that anyone could become attached to Flavia in that deeply personal and exclusive sense. It seemed quite as irrational as trying to possess oneself of Broadway at noon.
When they went out to dinner Imogen realized the completeness of Flavia’s triumph. They were people of one name, mostly, like kings; people whose names stirred the imagination like a romance or a melody. With the notable exception of M. Roux, Imogen had seen most of them before, either in concert halls or lecture rooms; but they looked noticeably older and dimmer than she remembered them.
Opposite her sat Schemetzkin, the Russian pianist, a short, corpulent man, with an apoplectic face and purplish skin, his thick, iron-gray hair tossed back from his forehead. Next to the German giantess sat the Italian tenor –the tiniest of men–pale, with soft, light hair, much in disorder, very red lips, and fingers yellowed by cigarettes. Frau Lichtenfeld shone in a gown of emerald green, fitting so closely as to enhance her natural floridness. However, to do the good lady justice, let her attire be never so modest, it gave an effect of barbaric splendor. At her left sat Herr Schotte, the Assyriologist, whose features were effectually concealed by the convergence of his hair and beard, and whose glasses were continually falling into his plate. This gentleman had removed more tons of earth in the course of his explorations than had any of his confreres, and his vigorous attack upon his food seemed to suggest the strenuous nature of his accustomed toil. His eyes were small and deeply set, and his forehead bulged fiercely above his eves in a bony ridge. His heavy brows completed the leonine suggestion of his face. Even to Imogen, who knew something of his work and greatly respected it, he was entirely too reminiscent of the Stone Age to be altogether an agreeable dinner companion. He seemed, indeed, to have absorbed something of the savagery of those early types of life which he continually studied.
Frank Wellington, the young Kansas man who had been two years out of Harvard and had published three historical novels, sat next to Mr. Will Maidenwood, who was still pale from his recent sufferings and carried his hand bandaged. They took little part in the general conversation, but, like the lion and the unicorn, were always at it, discussing, every time they met, whether there were or were not passages in Mr. Wellington’s works which should be eliminated, out of consideration for the Young Person. Wellington had fallen into the hands of a great American syndicate which most effectually befriended struggling authors whose struggles were in the right direction, and which had guaranteed to make him famous before he was thirty. Feeling the security of his position he stoutly defended those passages which jarred upon the sensitive nerves of the young editor of Woman. Maidenwood, in the smoothest of voices, urged the necessity of the author’s recognizing certain restrictions at the outset, and Miss Broadwood, who joined the argument quite without invitation or encouragement, seconded him with pointed and malicious remarks which caused the young editor manifest discomfort. Restzhoff, the chemist, demanded the attention of the entire company for his exposition of his devices for manufacturing ice cream from vegetable oils and for administering drugs in bonbons.
Flavia, always noticeably restless at dinner, was somewhat apathetic toward the advocate of peptonized chocolate and was plainly concerned about the sudden departure of M. Roux, who had announced that it would be necessary for him to leave tomorrow. M. Emile Roux, who sat at Flavia’s right, was a man in middle life and quite bald, clearly without personal vanity, though his publishers preferred to circulate only those of his portraits taken in his ambrosial youth. Imogen was considerably shocked at his unlikeness to the slender, black-stocked Rolla he had looked at twenty. He had declined into the florid, settled heaviness of indifference and approaching age. There was, however, a certain look of durability and solidity about him; the look of a man who has earned the right to be fat and bald, and even silent at dinner if he chooses.
Throughout the discussion between Wellington and Will Maidenwood, though they invited his participation, he remained silent, betraying no sign either of interest or contempt. Since his arrival he had directed most of his conversation to Hamilton, who had never read one of his twelve great novels. This perplexed and troubled Flavia. On the night of his arrival Jules Martel had enthusiastically declared, “There are schools and schools, manners and manners; but Roux is Roux, and Paris sets its watches by his clock.” Flavia bad already repeated this remark to Imogen. It haunted her, and each time she quoted it she was impressed anew.
Flavia shifted the conversation uneasily, evidently exasperated and excited by her repeated failures to draw the novelist out. “Monsieur Roux,” she began abruptly, with her most animated smile, “I remember so well a statement I read some years ago in your ‘Mes Etudes des Femmes’ to the effect that you had never met a really intellectual woman. May I ask, without being impertinent, whether that assertion still represents your experience?”
“I meant, madam,” said the novelist conservatively, “intellectual in a sense very special, as we say of men in whom the purely intellectual functions seem almost independent.”
“And you still think a woman so constituted a mythical personage?” persisted Flavia, nodding her head encouragingly.
“Une Meduse, madam, who, if she were discovered, would transmute us all into stone,” said the novelist, bowing gravely. “If she existed at all,” he added deliberately, “it was my business to find her, and she has cost me many a vain pilgrimage. Like Rudel of Tripoli, I have crossed seas and penetrated deserts to seek her out. I have, indeed, encountered women of learning whose industry I have been compelled to respect; many who have possessed beauty and charm and perplexing cleverness; a few with remarkable information and a sort of fatal facility.”
“And Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, and your own Mme. Dudevant?” queried Flavia with that fervid enthusiasm with which she could, on occasion, utter things simply incomprehensible for their banality–at her feats of this sort Miss Broadwood was wont to sit breathless with admiration.
“Madam, while the intellect was undeniably present in the performances of those women, it was only the stick of the rocket. Although this woman has eluded me I have studied her conditions and perturbances as astronomers conjecture the orbits of planets they have never seen. if she exists, she is probably neither an artist nor a woman with a mission, but an obscure personage, with imperative intellectual needs, who absorbs rather than produces.”
Flavia, still nodding nervously, fixed a strained glance of interrogation upon M. Roux. “Then you think she would be a woman whose first necessity would be to know, whose instincts would be satisfied only with the best, who could draw from others; appreciative, merely?”
The novelist lifted his dull eyes to his interlocutress with an untranslatable smile and a slight inclination of his shoulders. “Exactly so; you are really remarkable, madam,” he added, in a tone of cold astonishment.
After dinner the guests took their coffee in the music room, where Schemetzkin sat down at the piano to drum ragtime, and give his celebrated imitation of the boardingschool girl’s execution of Chopin. He flatly refused to play anything more serious, and would practice only in the morning, when he had the music room to himself. Hamilton and M. Roux repaired to the smoking room to discuss the necessity of extending the tax on manufactured articles in France–one of those conversations which particularly exasperated Flavia.
After Schemetzkin had grimaced and tortured the keyboard with malicious vulgarities for half an hour, Signor Donati, to put an end to his torture, consented to sing, and Flavia and Imogen went to fetch Arthur to play his accompaniments. Hamilton rose with an annoyed look and placed his cigarette on the mantel. “Why yes, Flavia, I’ll accompany him, provided he sings something with a melody, Italian arias or ballads, and provided the recital is not interminable.”
“You will join us, M. Roux?”
“Thank you, but I have some letters to write,” replied the novelist, bowing.
As Flavia had remarked to Imogen, “Arthur really played accompaniments remarkably well.” To hear him recalled vividly the days of her childhood, when he always used to spend his business vacations at her mother’s home in Maine. He had possessed for her that almost hypnotic influence which young men sometimes exert upon little girls. It was a sort of phantom love affair, subjective and fanciful, a precocity of instinct, like that tender and maternal concern which some little girls feel for their dolls. Yet this childish infatuation is capable of all the depressions and exaltations of love itself, it has its bitter jealousies, cruel disappointments, its exacting caprices.
Summer after summer she had awaited his coming and wept at his departure, indifferent to the gayer young men who had called her their sweetheart and laughed at everything she said. Although Hamilton never said so, she had been always quite sure that he was fond of her. When he pulled her up the river to hunt for fairy knolls shut about by low, hanging willows, he was often silent for an hour at a time, yet she never felt he was bored or was neglecting her. He would lie in the sand smoking, his eyes half-closed, watching her play, and she was always conscious that she was entertaining him. Sometimes he would take a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” in his pocket, and no one could read it as he could, laughing at her with his dark eyes, when anything amused him. No one else could laugh so, with just their eyes, and without moving a muscle of their face. Though he usually smiled at passages that seemed not at all funny to the child, she always laughed gleefully, because he was so seldom moved to mirth that any such demonstration delighted her and she took the credit of it entirely to herself Her own inclination had been for serious stories, with sad endings, like the Little Mermaid, which he had once told her in an unguarded moment when she had a cold, and was put to bed early on her birthday night and cried because she could not have her party. But he highly disapproved of this preference, and had called it a morbid taste, and always shook his finger at her when she asked for the story. When she had been particularly good, or particularly neglected by other people, then he would sometimes melt and tell her the story, and never laugh at her if she enjoyed the “sad ending” even to tears. When Flavia had taken him away and he came no more, she wept inconsolably for the space of two weeks, and refused to learn her lessons. Then she found the story of the Little Mermaid herself, and forgot him.
Imogen had discovered at dinner that he could still smile at one secretly, out of his eyes, and that he had the old manner of outwardly seeming bored, but letting you know that he was not. She was intensely curious about his exact state of feeling toward his wife, and more curious still to catch a sense of his final adjustment to the conditions of life in general. This, she could not help feeling, she might get again–if she could have him alone for an hour, in some place where there was a little river and a sandy cove bordered by drooping willows, and a blue sky seen through white sycamore boughs.
That evening, before retiring, Flavia entered her husband’s room, where be sat in his smoking jacket, in one of his favorite low chairs.
“I suppose it’s a grave responsibility to bring an ardent, serious young thing like Imogen here among all these fascinating personages,” she remarked reflectively. “But, after all, one can never tell. These grave, silent girls have their own charm, even for facile people.”
“Oh, so that is your plan?” queried her husband dryly. “I was wondering why you got her up here. She doesn’t seem to mix well with the faciles. At least, so it struck me.”
Flavia paid no heed to this jeering remark, but repeated, “No, after all, it may not be a bad thing.”
“Then do consign her to that shaken reed, the tenor,” said her husband yawning. “I remember she used to have a taste for the pathetic.”
“And then,” remarked Flavia coquettishly, “after all, I owe her mother a return in kind. She was not afraid to trifle with destiny.”
But Hamilton was asleep in his chair.
Next morning Imogen found only Miss Broadwood in the breakfast room.
“Good morning, my dear girl, whatever are you doing up so early? They never breakfast before eleven. Most of them take their coffee in their room. Take this place by me.”
Miss Broadwood looked particularly fresh and encouraging in her blue serge walking skirt, her open jacket displaying an expanse of stiff, white shirt bosom, dotted with some almost imperceptible figure, and a dark blue-and-white necktie, neatly knotted under her wide, rolling collar. She wore a white rosebud in the lapel of her coat, and decidedly she seemed more than ever like a nice, clean boy on his holiday. Imogen was just hoping that they would breakfast alone when Miss Broadwood exclaimed, “Ah, there comes Arthur with the children. That’s the reward of early rising in this house; you never get to see the youngsters at any other time.”
Hamilton entered, followed by two dark, handsome little boys. The girl, who was very tiny, blonde like her mother, and exceedingly frail, he carried in his arms. The boys came up and said good morning with an ease and cheerfulness uncommon, even in well-bred children, but the little girl hid her face on her father’s shoulder.
“She’s a shy little lady,” he explained as he put her gently down in her chair. “I’m afraid she’s like her father; she can’t seem to get used to meeting people. And you, Miss Willard, did you dream of the White Rabbit or the Little Mermaid?”
“Oh, I dreamed of them all! All the personages of that buried civilization,” cried Imogen, delighted that his estranged manner of the night before had entirely vanished and feeling that, somehow, the old confidential relations had been restored during the night.
“Come, William,” said Miss Broadwood, turning to the younger of the two boys, “and what did you dream about?”
“We dreamed,” said William gravely–he was the more assertive of the two and always spoke for both–“we dreamed that there were fireworks hidden in the basement of the carriage house; lots and lots of fireworks.”
His elder brother looked up at him with apprehensive astonishment, while Miss Broadwood hastily put her napkin to her lips and Hamilton dropped his eyes. “If little boys dream things, they are so apt not to come true,” he reflected sadly. This shook even the redoubtable William, and he glanced nervously at his brother. “But do things vanish just because they have been dreamed?” he objected.
“Generally that is the very best reason for their vanishing,” said Arthur gravely.
“But, Father, people can’t help what they dream,” remonstrated Edward gently.
“Oh, come! You’re making these children talk like a Maeterlinck dialogue,” laughed Miss Broadwood.
Flavia presently entered, a book in her hand, and bade them all good morning. “Come, little people, which story shall it be this morning?” she asked winningly. Greatly excited, the children followed her into the garden. “She does then, sometimes,” murmured Imogen as they left the breakfast room.
“Oh, yes, to be sure,” said Miss Broadwood cheerfully. “She reads a story to them every morning in the most picturesque part of the garden. The mother of the Gracchi, you know. She does so long, she says, for the time when they will be intellectual companions for her. What do you say to a walk over the hills?”
As they left the house they met Frau Lichtenfeld and the bushy Herr Schotte–the professor cut an astonishing figure in golf stockings–returning from a walk and engaged in an animated conversation on the tendencies of German fiction.
“Aren’t they the most attractive little children,” exclaimed Imogen as they wound down the road toward the river.
“Yes, and you must not fail to tell Flavia that you think so. She will look at you in a sort of startled way and say, ‘Yes, aren’t they?’ and maybe she will go off and hunt them up and have tea with them, to fully appreciate them. She is awfully afraid of missing anything good, is Flavia. The way those youngsters manage to conceal their guilty presence in the House of Song is a wonder.”
“But don’t any of the artist-folk fancy children?” asked Imogen.
“Yes, they just fancy them and no more. The chemist remarked the other day that children are like certain salts which need not be actualized because the formulae are quite sufficient for practical purposes. I don’t see how even Flavia can endure to have that man about.”
“I have always been rather curious to know what Arthur thinks of it all,” remarked Imogen cautiously.
“Thinks of it!” ejaculated Miss Broadwood. “Why, my dear, what would any man think of having his house turned into an hotel, habited by freaks who discharge his servants, borrow his money, and insult his neighbors? This place is shunned like a lazaretto!”
Well, then, why does he–why does he–” persisted Imogen.
“Bah!” interrupted Miss Broadwood impatiently, “why did he in the first place? That’s the question.”
“Marry her, you mean?” said Imogen coloring.
“Exactly so,” said Miss Broadwood sharply, as she snapped the lid of her matchbox.
“I suppose that is a question rather beyond us, and certainly one which we cannot discuss,” said Imogen. “But his toleration on this one point puzzles me, quite apart from other complications.”
“Toleration? Why this point, as you call it, simply is Flavia. Who could conceive of her without it? I don’t know where it’s all going to end, I’m sure, and I’m equally sure that, if it were not for Arthur, I shouldn’t care,” declared Miss Broadwood, drawing her shoulders together.
“But will it end at all, now?”
“Such an absurd state of things can’t go on indefinitely. A man isn’t going to see his wife make a guy of herself forever, is he? Chaos has already begun in the servants’ quarters. There are six different languages spoken there now. You see, it’s all on an entirely false basis. Flavia hasn’t the slightest notion of what these people are really like, their good and their bad alike escape her. They, on the other hand, can’t imagine what she is driving at. Now, Arthur is worse off than either faction; he is not in the fairy story in that he sees these people exactly as they are, but he is utterly unable to see Flavia as they see her. There you have the situation. Why can’t he see her as we do? My dear, that has kept me awake o’ nights. This man who has thought so much and lived so much, who is naturally a critic, really takes Flavia at very nearly her own estimate. But now I am entering upon a wilderness. From a brief acquaintance with her you can know nothing of the icy fastnesses of Flavia’s self- esteem. It’s like St. Peter’s; you can’t realize its magnitude at once. You have to grow into a sense of it by living under its shadow. It has perplexed even Emile Roux, that merciless dissector of egoism. She has puzzled him the more because be saw at a glance what some of them do not perceive at once, and what will be mercifully concealed from Arthur until the trump sounds; namely, that all Flavia’s artists have done or ever will do means exactly as much to her as a symphony means to an oyster; that there is no bridge by which the significance of any work of art could be conveyed to her.”
“Then, in the name of goodness, why does she bother?” gasped Imogen. “She is pretty, wealthy, well-established; why should she bother?”
“That’s what M. Roux has kept asking himself. I can’t pretend to analyze it. She reads papers on the Literary Landmarks of Paris, the Loves of the Poets, and that sort of thing, to clubs out in Chicago. To Flavia it is more necessary to be called clever than to breathe. I would give a good deal to know that glum Frenchman’s diagnosis. He has been watching her out of those fishy eyes of his as a biologist watches a hemisphereless frog.”
For several days after M. Roux’s departure Flavia gave an embarrassing share of her attention to Imogen. Embarrassing, because Imogen had the feeling of being energetically and futilely explored, she knew not for what. She felt herself under the globe of an air pump, expected to yield up something. When she confined the conversation to matters of general interest Flavia conveyed to her with some pique that her one endeavor in life had been to fit herself to converse with her friends upon those things which vitally interested them. “One has no right to accept their best from people unless one gives, isn’t it so? I want to be able to give–!” she declared vaguely. Yet whenever Imogen strove to pay her tithes and plunged bravely into her plans for study next winter, Flavia grew absent-minded and interrupted her by amazing generalizations or by such embarrassing questions as, “And these grim studies really have charm for you; you are quite buried in them; they make other things seem light and ephemeral?”
“I rather feel as though I had got in here under false pretenses,” Imogen confided to Miss Broadwood. “I’m sure I don’t know what it is that she wants of me.”
“Ah,” chuckled Jemima, “you are not equal to these heart to heart talks with Flavia. You utterly fail to communicate to her the atmosphere of that untroubled joy in which you dwell. You must remember that she gets no feeling out of things herself, and she demands that you impart yours to her by some process of psychic transmission. I once met a blind girl, blind from birth, who could discuss the peculiarities of the Barbizon school with just Flavia’s glibness and enthusiasm. Ordinarily Flavia knows how to get what she wants from people, and her memory is wonderful. One evening I heard her giving Frau Lichtenfeld some random impressions about Hedda Gabler which she extracted from me five years ago; giving them with an impassioned conviction of which I was never guilty. But I have known other people who could appropriate your stories and opinions; Flavia is infinitely more subtle than that; she can soak up the very thrash and drift of your daydreams, and take the very thrills off your back, as it were.”
After some days of unsuccessful effort, Flavia withdrew herself, and Imogen found Hamilton ready to catch her when she was tossed afield. He seemed only to have been awaiting this crisis, and at once their old intimacy reestablished itself as a thing inevitable and beautifully prepared for. She convinced herself that she had not been mistaken in him, despite all the doubts that had come up in later years, and this renewal of faith set more than one question thumping in her brain. “How did he, how can he?” she kept repeating with a tinge of her childish resentment, “what right had he to waste anything so fine?”
When Imogen and Arthur were returning from a walk before luncheon one morning about a week after M. Roux’s departure, they noticed an absorbed group before one of the hall windows. Herr Schotte and Restzhoff sat on the window seat with a newspaper between them, while Wellington, Schemetzkin, and Will Maidenwood looked over their shoulders. They seemed intensely interested, Herr Schotte occasionally pounding his knees with his fists in ebullitions of barbaric glee. When imogen entered the hall, however, the men were all sauntering toward the breakfast room and the paper was lying innocently on the divan. During luncheon the personnel of that window group were unwontedly animated and agreeable all save Schemetzkin, whose stare was blanker than ever, as though Roux’s mantle of insulting indifference had fallen upon him, in addition to his own oblivious self- absorption. Will Maidenwood seemed embarrassed and annoyed; the chemist employed himself with making polite speeches to Hamilton. Flavia did not come down to lunch–and there was a malicious gleam under Herr Schotte’s eyebrows. Frank Wellington announced nervously that an imperative letter from his protecting syndicate summoned him to the city.
After luncheon the men went to the golf links, and Imogen, at the first opportunity, possessed herself of the newspaper which had been left on the divan. One of the first things that caught her eye was an article headed “Roux on Tuft Hunters; The Advanced American Woman as He Sees Her; Aggressive, Superficial, and Insincere.” The entire interview was nothing more nor less than a satiric characterization of Flavia, aquiver with irritation and vitriolic malice. No one could mistake it; it was done with all his deftness of portraiture. Imogen had not finished the article when she heard a footstep, and clutching the paper she started precipitately toward the stairway as Arthur entered. He put out his hand, looking critically at her distressed face.
“Wait a moment, Miss Willard,” he said peremptorily, “I want to see whether we can find what it was that so interested our friends this morning. Give me the paper, please.”
Imogen grew quite white as he opened the journal. She reached forward and crumpled it with her hands. “Please don’t, please don’t,” she pleaded; “it’s something I don’t want you to see. Oh, why will you? it’s just something low and despicable that you can’t notice.”
Arthur had gently loosed her hands, and he pointed her to a chair. He lit a cigar and read the article through without comment. When he had finished it he walked to the fireplace, struck a match, and tossed the flaming journal between the brass andirons.
“You are right,” he remarked as he came back, dusting his hands with his handkerchief. “It’s quite impossible to comment. There are extremes of blackguardism for which we have no name. The only thing necessary is to see that Flavia gets no wind of this. This seems to be my cue to act; poor girl.”
Imogen looked at him tearfully; she could only murmur, “Oh, why did you read it!”
Hamilton laughed spiritlessly. “Come, don’t you worry about it. You always took other people’s troubles too seriously. When you were little and all the world was gay and everybody happy, you must needs get the Little Mermaid’s troubles to grieve over. Come with me into the music room. You remember the musical setting I once made you for the Lay of the Jabberwock? I was trying it over the other night, long after you were in bed, and I decided it was quite as fine as the Erl-King music. How I wish I could give you some of the cake that Alice ate and make you a little girl again. Then, when you had got through the glass door into the little garden, you could call to me, perhaps, and tell me all the fine things that were going on there. What a pity it is that you ever grew up!” he added, laughing; and Imogen, too, was thinking just that.
At dinner that evening, Flavia, with fatal persistence, insisted upon turning the conversation to M. Roux. She had been reading one of his novels and had remembered anew that Paris set its watches by his clock. Imogen surmised that she was tortured by a feeling that she had not sufficiently appreciated him while she had had him. When she first mentioned his name she was answered only by the pall of silence that fell over the company. Then everyone began to talk at once, as though to correct a false position. They spoke of him with a fervid, defiant admiration, with the sort of hot praise that covers a double purpose. Imogen fancied she could see that they felt a kind of relief at what the man had done, even those who despised him for doing it; that they felt a spiteful hate against Flavia, as though she had tricked them, and a certain contempt for themselves that they had been beguiled. She was reminded of the fury of the crowd in the fairy tale, when once the child had called out that the king was in his night clothes. Surely these people knew no more about Flavia than they had known before, but the mere fact that the thing had been said altered the situation. Flavia, meanwhile, sat chattering amiably, pathetically unconscious of her nakedness.
Hamilton lounged, fingering the stem of his wineglass, gazing down the table at one face after another and studying the various degrees of self-consciousness they exhibited. Imogen’s eyes followed his, fearfully. When a lull came in the spasmodic flow of conversation, Arthur, leaning back in his chair, remarked deliberately, “As for M. Roux, his very profession places him in that class of men whom society has never been able to accept unconditionally because it has never been able to assume that they have any ordered notion of taste. He and his ilk remain, with the mountebanks and snake charmers, people indispensable to our civilization, but wholly unreclaimed by it; people whom we receive, but whose invitations we do not accept.”
Fortunately for Flavia, this mine was not exploded until just before the coffee was brought. Her laughter was pitiful to hear; it echoed through the silent room as in a vault, while she made some tremulously light remark about her husband’s drollery, grim as a jest from the dying. No one responded and she sat nodding her head like a mechanical toy and smiling her white, set smile through her teeth, until Alcee Buisson and Frau Lichtenfeld came to her support.
After dinner the guests retired immediately to their rooms, and Imogen went upstairs on tiptoe, feeling the echo of breakage and the dust of crumbling in the air. She wondered whether Flavia’s habitual note of uneasiness were not, in a manner, prophetic, and a sort of unconscious premonition, after all. She sat down to write a letter, but she found herself so nervous, her head so hot and her hands so cold, that she soon abandoned the effort. just as she was about to seek Miss Broadwood, Flavia entered and embraced her hysterically.
“My dearest girl,” she began, “was there ever such an unfortunate and incomprehensible speech made before? Of course it is scarcely necessary to explain to you poor Arthur’s lack of tact, and that he meant nothing. But they! Can they be expected to understand? He will feel wretchedly about it when he realizes what he has done, but in the meantime? And M. Roux, of all men! When we were so fortunate as to get him, and he made himself so unreservedly agreeable, and I fancied that, in his way, Arthur quite admired him. My dear, you have no idea what that speech has done. Schemetzkin and Herr Schotte have already sent me word that they must leave us tomorrow. Such a thing from a host!” Flavia paused, choked by tears of vexation and despair.
Imogen was thoroughly disconcerted; this was the first time she had ever seen Flavia betray any personal emotion which was indubitably genuine. She replied with what consolation she could. “Need they take it personally at all? It was a mere observation upon a class of people–“
“Which he knows nothing whatever about, and with whom he has no sympathy,” interrupted Flavia. “Ah, my dear, you could not be expected to understand. You can’t realize, knowing Arthur as you do, his entire lack of any aesthetic sense whatever. He is absolutely nil, stone deaf and stark blind, on that side. He doesn’t mean to be brutal, it is just the brutality of utter ignorance. They always feel it–they are so sensitive to unsympathetic influences, you know; they know it the moment they come into the house. I have spent my life apologizing for him and struggling to conceal it; but in spite of me, he wounds them; his very attitude, even in silence, offends them. Heavens! Do I not know? Is it not perpetually and forever wounding me? But there has never been anything so dreadful as this–never! If I could conceive of any possible motive, even!”
“But, surely, Mrs. Hamilton, it was, after all, a mere expression of opinion, such as we are any of us likely to venture upon any subject whatever. It was neither more personal nor more extravagant than many of M. Roux’s remarks.”
“But, Imogen, certainly M. Roux has the right. It is a part of his art, and that is altogether another matter. Oh, this is not the only instance!” continued Flavia passionately, “I’ve always had that narrow, bigoted prejudice to contend with. It has always held me back. But this–!”
“I think you mistake his attitude,” replied Imogen, feeling a flush that made her ears tingle. “That is, I fancy he is more appreciative than he seems. A man can’t be very demonstrative about those things–not if he is a real man. I should not think you would care much about saving the feelings of people who are too narrow to admit of any other point of view than their own.” She stopped, finding herself in the impossible position of attempting to explain Hamilton to his wife; a task which, if once begun, would necessitate an entire course of enlightenment which she doubted Flavia’s ability to receive, and which she could offer only with very poor grace.
“That’s just where it stings most”–here Flavia began pacing the floor–“it is just because they have all shown such tolerance and have treated Arthur with such unfailing consideration that I can find no reasonable pretext for his rancor. How can he fail to see the value of such friendships on the children’s account, if for nothing else! What an advantage for them to grow up among such associations! Even though he cares nothing about these things himself he might realize that. Is there nothing I could say by way of explanation? To them, I mean? If someone were to explain to them how unfortunately limited he is in these things–“
“I’m afraid I cannot advise you,” said Imogen decidedly, “but that, at least, seems to me impossible.”
Flavia took her hand and glanced at her affectionately, nodding nervously. “Of course, dear girl, I can’t ask you to be quite frank with me. Poor child, you are trembling and your hands are icy. Poor Arthur! But you must not judge him by this altogether; think how much he misses in life. What a cruel shock you’ve had. I’ll send you some sherry, Good night, my dear.”
When Flavia shut the door Imogen burst into a fit of nervous weeping.
Next morning she awoke after a troubled and restless night. At eight o’clock Miss Broadwood entered in a red and white striped bathrobe.
“Up, up, and see the great doom’s image!” she cried, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “The hall is full of trunks, they are packing. What bolt has fallen? It’s you, ma cherie, you’ve brought Ulysses home again and the slaughter has begun!” she blew a cloud of smoke triumphantly from her lips and threw herself into a chair beside the bed.
Imogen, rising on her elbow, plunged excitedly into the story of the Roux interview, which Miss Broadwood heard with the keenest interest, frequently interrupting her with exclamations of delight. When Imogen reached the dramatic scene which terminated in the destruction of the newspaper, Miss Broadwood rose and took a turn about the room, violently switching the tasselled cords of her bathrobe.
“Stop a moment,” she cried, “you mean to tell me that he had such a heaven-sent means to bring her to her senses and didn’t use it–that he held such a weapon and threw it away?”
“Use it?” cried Imogen unsteadily. “Of course he didn’t! He bared his back to the tormentor, signed himself over to punishment in that speech he made at dinner, which everyone understands but Flavia. She was here for an hour last night and disregarded every limit of taste in her maledictions.”
“My dear!” cried Miss Broadwood, catching her hand in inordinate delight at the situation, “do you see what he has done? There’ll be no end to it. Why he has sacrificed himself to spare the very vanity that devours him, put rancors in the vessels of his peace, and his eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man, to make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! He is magnificent!”
“Isn’t he always that?” cried Imogen hotly. “He’s like a pillar of sanity and law in this house of shams and swollen vanities, where people stalk about with a sort of madhouse dignity, each one fancying himself a king or a pope. If you could have heard that woman talk of him! Why, she thinks him stupid, bigoted, blinded by middleclass prejudices. She talked about his having no aesthetic sense and insisted that her artists had always shown him tolerance. I don’t know why it should get on my nerves so, I’m sure, but her stupidity and assurance are enough to drive one to the brink of collapse.”
“Yes, as opposed to his singular fineness, they are calculated to do just that,” said Miss Broadwood gravely, wisely ignoring Imogen’s tears. “But what has been is nothing to what will be. Just wait until Flavia’s black swans have flown! You ought not to try to stick it out; that would only make it harder for everyone. Suppose you let me telephone your mother to wire you to come home by the evening train?”
“Anything, rather than have her come at me like that again. It puts me in a perfectly impossible position, and he is so fine!”
“Of course it does,” said Miss Broadwood sympathetically, “and there is no good to be got from facing it. I will stay because such things interest me, and Frau Lichtenfeld will stay because she has no money to get away, and Buisson will stay because he feels somewhat responsible. These complications are interesting enough to cold-blooded folk like myself who have an eye for the dramatic element, but they are distracting and demoralizing to young people with any serious purpose in life.”
Miss Broadwood’s counsel was all the more generous seeing that, for her, the most interesting element of this denouement would be eliminated by Imogen’s departure. “If she goes now, she’ll get over it,” soliloquized Miss Broadwood. “If she stays, she’ll be wrung for him and the hurt may go deep enough to last. I haven’t the heart to see her spoiling things for herself.” She telephoned Mrs. Willard and helped Imogen to pack. She even took it upon herself to break the news of Imogen’s going to Arthur, who remarked, as he rolled a cigarette in his nerveless fingers:
“Right enough, too. What should she do here with old cynics like you and me, Jimmy? Seeing that she is brim full of dates and formulae and other positivisms, and is so girt about with illusions that she still casts a shadow in the sun. You’ve been very tender of her, haven’t you? I’ve watched you. And to think it may all be gone when we see her next. ‘The common fate of all things rare,’ you know. What a good fellow you are, anyway, Jimmy,” he added, putting his hands affectionately on her shoulders.
Arthur went with them to the station. Flavia was so prostrated by the concerted action of her guests that she was able to see Imogen only for a moment in her darkened sleeping chamber, where she kissed her hysterically, without lifting her head, bandaged in aromatic vinegar. On the way to the station both Arthur and Imogen threw the burden of keeping up appearances entirely upon Miss Broadwood, who blithely rose to the occasion. When Hamilton carried Imogen’s bag into the car, Miss Broadwood detained her for a moment, whispering as she gave her a large, warm handclasp, “I’ll come to see you when I get back to town; and, in the meantime, if you meet any of our artists, tell them you have left Caius Marius among the ruins of Carthage.”
*** What are your favorite Willa Cather short stories ?
Willa Cather Short Stories
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