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…
A Gold Slipper
Marshall McKann followed his wife and her friend Mrs. Post down the aisle and up the steps to the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall with an ill-concealed feeling of grievance. Heaven knew he never went to concerts, and to be mounted upon the stage in this fashion, as if he were a crank from Sewickley, or some unfortunate with a musical wife, was ludicrous. A man went to concerts when he was courting, while he was a junior partner. When he became a person of substance he stopped that sort of nonsense. His wife, too, was a sensible person, the daughter of an old Pittsburg family as solid and well-rooted as the McKanns. She would never have bothered him about this concert had not the meddlesome Mrs. Post arrived to pay her a visit. Mrs. Post was an old school friend of Mrs. McKann, and because she lived in Cincinnati she was always keeping up with the world and talking about things in which no one else was interested, music among them. She was an aggressive lady, with weighty opinions, and a deep voice like a jovial bassoon. She had arrived only last night, and at dinner she brought it out that she could on no account miss Kitty Ayrshire’s recital; it was, she said, the sort of thing one couldn’t afford to miss.
When McKann went into town in the morning he found that every seat in the music-hall was sold. He telephoned his wife to that effect, and, thinking he had settled the matter, made his reservation on the 11.25 train for New York. He was unable to get a drawing-room because this same Kitty Ayrshire had taken the last one. He had not intended going to New York until the following week, but he preferred to be absent during Mrs. Post’s incumbency.
In the middle of the morning, when he was deep in his correspondence, his wife called him up to say the enterprising Mrs. Post had telephoned some musical friends in Sewickley and had found that two hundred folding-chairs were to be placed on the stage of the concert-hall, behind the piano, and that they would be on sale at noon. Would he please get seats in the front row? McKann asked if they would not excuse him, since he was going over to New York on the late train, would be tired, and would not have time to dress, etc. No, not at all. It would be foolish for two women to trail up to the stage unattended. Mrs. Post’s husband always accompanied her to concerts, and she expected that much attention from her host. He needn’t dress, and he could take a taxi from the concert-hall to the East Liberty station.
The outcome of it all was that, though his bag was at the station, here was McKann, in the worst possible humor, facing the large audience to which he was well known, and sitting among a lot of music students and excitable old maids. Only the desperately zealous or the morbidly curious would endure two hours in those wooden chairs, and he sat in the front row of this hectic body, somehow made a party to a transaction for which he had the utmost contempt.
When McKann had been in Paris, Kitty Ayrshire was singing at the Comique, and he wouldn’t go to hear her—even there, where one found so little that was better to do. She was too much talked about, too much advertised; always being thrust in an American’s face as if she were something to be proud of. Perfumes and petticoats and cutlets were named for her. Some one had pointed Kitty out to him one afternoon when she was driving in the Bois with a French composer—old enough, he judged, to be her father—who was said to be infatuated, overwhelmed with her, and had told him that this was one of the historic passions of old age. McKann had looked at her, but she was so befrilled and befeathered that he caught nothing but a graceful outline and a small, dark head above a white ostrich boa. He noted with disgust the stooped shoulders and white imperial of the silk-hatted man beside her, and the senescent line of his back. McKann had told his wife about this unpleasing sight the night before, while he was undressing, when he was making every possible effort to avert this concert party. But Bessie only looked superior and said she wished to hear Kitty Ayrshire sing, and that her “private life” was something in which she had no interest.
Well, here he was, hot and uncomfortable, in a chair much too small for him, with a row of blinding footlights glaring in his eyes. Suddenly the door at his right elbow opened. Their seats were at one end of the front row; he had thought they would be less conspicuous there than in the center, and he had not foreseen that the singer would walk over him every time she came upon the stage. Her velvet train brushed against his trousers as she passed him. The applause which greeted her was neither overwhelming nor prolonged. Her conservative audience did not know exactly how to accept her toilette. They were accustomed to dignified concert gowns, like those which Pittsburg matrons wore at their daughters’ coming-out tea. Kitty’s gown that evening was really quite outrageous—the repartee of a conscienceless Parisian designer who took her hint that she wished something that would be entirely novel in the States. To-day, after we have all of us, even in the uttermost provinces, been educated by Baskt and the various Ballets Russes, we would accept such a gown without distrust; but then it was a little disconcerting, even to the well-disposed. It was constructed of a yard or two of green velvet—a reviling, shrieking green which would have made a fright of any woman who had not inextinguishable beauty—and it was made without armholes, a device to which we were then so unaccustomed that it was nothing less than alarming. The velvet skirt split back from a transparent gold-lace petticoat, gold stockings, gold slippers. The narrow train was, apparently, looped to both ankles, and it kept curling about her feet like a serpent’s tail, turning up its gold lining as if it were squirming over on its back. It was not, we felt, a costume in which to sing Mozart and Handel and Beethoven. Kitty felt the chill in the air, and it amused her. She liked to be thought a brilliant artist by other artists, but by the world at large she liked to be thought a daring creature. She had every reason to believe, from experience and from example, that to shock the great crowd was the surest way to get its money and to make her name a household word. Nobody ever became a household word by being an artist, surely, and you were not a thoroughly paying proposition until your name meant something on the sidewalk and in the barber-shop. Kitty studied her audience with an appraising eye. She liked the stimulus of this disapprobation. There was some zest about getting through to a hard-shelled public. She felt keen and interested; she knew that she would give such a recital as cannot often be heard for money. She nodded gaily to the young man at the piano, fell into an attitude of seriousness, and began the group of Beethoven and Mozart songs.
Though McKann would not have admitted it, there were really a great many people in the concert-hall who knew what the prodigal daughter of their country was singing, and how well she was doing it. They thawed gradually under the beauty of her voice and the subtlety of her interpretation. She had sung seldom in concert then, and they had supposed her very dependent upon the accessories of opera. Clean singing, finished artistry, were not what they expected from her. They began to feel, even, the wayward charm of her personality.
McKann, who stared coldly up at the balconies during her first song, during the second began to glance cautiously at the green apparition before him. He was vexed with her for having retained a débutante figure. He comfortably classed all singers—especially operatic singers—as “fat Dutchwomen” or “shifty Sadies,” and Kitty would not fit into his clever generalization. She dis- played, under his nose, the only kind of figure he considered worth looking at—that of a very young girl, supple and sinuous and quicksilverish; thin, eager shoulders, polished white arms that were nowhere too fat and nowhere too thin. McKann found it agreeable to look at Kitty, but when he saw that the authoritative Mrs. Post, red as a turkey-cock with opinions she was bursting to impart, was studying and appraising the singer through her lorgnette, he looked indifferently out into the house again. He felt for his watch, but his wife touched him warningly with her elbow—which he noticed was not at all like Kitty’s.
When Miss Ayrshire finished her first group of songs, her audience expressed its approval positively, but guardedly. She smiled bewitchingly upon the people in front of her, glanced up at the balconies, and then turned to the company huddled on the stage behind her. After her gay and careless bows, she retreated toward the stage door. As she passed McKann, she again brushed lightly against him, and this time she paused long enough to glance down at him and murmur, “Pardon.” In the moment her bright, curious eyes rested upon him McKann seemed to see himself as if she were holding a mirror up before him. He beheld himself a heavy, solid figure, unsuitably clad for the time and place, with a florid, square face, well-vizored with good living and sane opinions—an inexpressive countenance. Not a rock face, exactly, but a kind of pressed-brick-and-cement face, a “business” face upon which years and feelings had made no mark—in which cocktails might eventually blast out a few hollows. He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did in that instant when Kitty Ayrshire’s liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person. When her prehensile train curled over his boot and she was gone, his wife turned to him and said in the tone of approbation one uses when an infant manifests its groping intelligence, “Very gracious of her, I’m sure.” Mrs. Post nodded oracularly. McKann grunted.
Kitty began her second number, a group of romantic German songs which were altogether more her affair than her first number. When she turned once to acknowledge the applause behind her, she caught McKann in the act of yawning behind his hand—he of course wore no gloves—and he thought she frowned a little. This did not embarrass him, but it somehow made him feel important. When she retired after the second part of the programme, she again looked him over curiously as she passed, and she took marked precaution that her dress did not touch him. Mrs. Post and his wife again remarked upon her consideration.
The final number was made up of modern French songs which Kitty sang enchantingly, and at last had her way with her frigid public. While she was coming back again and again to smile and curtsy, McKann whispered to his wife that if there were to be encores he had better make a dash for his train.
“Not at all,” put in Mrs. Post. “Kitty is going on the same train. She sings in ‘Faust’ at the opera to-morrow night, so she’ll take no chances.”
McKann once more told himself how sorry he felt for Post. At last Miss Ayrshire returned, escorted by her accompanist, and gave the people what she of course knew they wanted, the most popular aria from the French opera of which the title-rôle had become synonymous with her name—an opera written for her and to her and round about her by the veteran French composer who so much admired her, the last and not the palest flash of his creative fire. This brought her audience all the way. They clamored for more of it, but she was not to be coerced. She had been unyielding through storms to which this was a summer breeze. She came on once more, shrugged her shoulders, blew them a kiss, and was gone. Her last smile was for that uncomfortable part of her audience seated behind her, and she looked with recognition at McKann and his ladies as she nodded good night to the wooden chairs.
McKann hurried his charges into the foyer by the nearest exit and put them into his motor. Then he went over to the Schenley to have a glass of beer and a rarebit before train time. He had not, he admitted to himself, been so much bored as he pretended. The minx herself was well enough, but it was absurd in his fellow-townsmen to look owlish and uplifted about her. He had no rooted dislike for pretty women; he even didn’t deny that gay girls had their place in the world, but they ought to be kept in their place. He was born a Presbyterian, just as he was born a McKann. He sat in his pew in the First Church every Sunday, and he never missed a presbytery meeting when he was in town. His religion was not very spiritual, certainly, but it was substantial and concrete, made up of good, hard convictions and opinions. It had something to do with citizenship, with whom one ought to marry, with the coal business, in which his own name was powerful, with the Republican party, and with all majorities and established precedents. He was hostile to fads, to enthusiasms, to individualism, to all changes except in mining machinery and in methods of transportation.
His equanimity restored by his lunch at the Schenley, McKann lit a big cigar, got into his taxi, and bowled off through the sleet. There was not a sound to be heard or a light to be seen. The ice glittered on the pavement and on the naked trees. No restless feet were abroad. At eleven o’clock the rows of small, comfortable houses looked as empty of the troublesome bubble of life as the Allegheny cemetery itself. Suddenly the cab stopped, and McKann thrust his head out of the window. A woman was standing in the middle of the street addressing his driver in a tone of excitement. Over against the curb a lone electric stood despondent in the storm. The young woman, her cloak blowing about her, turned from the driver to McKann himself, speaking rapidly and somewhat incoherently.
“Could you not be so kind as to help us? It is Mees Ayrshire, the singer. The juice is gone out and we cannot move. We must get to the station. Mademoiselle cannot miss the train; she sings to-morrow night in New York. It is very important. Could you not take us to the station at East Liberty?”
McKann opened the door. “That’s all right, but you’ll have to hurry. It’s eleven-ten now. You’ve only got fifteen minutes to make the train. Tell her to come along.”
The maid drew back and looked up at him in amazement. “But, the hand-luggage to carry, and Mademoiselle to walk! The street is like glass!”
McKann threw away his cigar and followed her. He stood silent by the door of the derelict, while the maid explained that she had found help. Miss Ayrshire seemed not at all apprehensive; she had not doubted that a rescuer would be forthcoming. She moved deliberately; out of a whirl of skirts she thrust one fur-topped shoe—McKann saw the flash of the gold stocking above it by the street lamp—and alighted. “So kind of you! So fortunate for us!” she murmured. One hand she placed upon his sleeve, and with the other she guarded an armful of roses that had been sent up to the concert stage. The petals showered upon the sooty, sleety pavement as she picked her way along. They would be lying there to-morrow morning, and the children in those houses would wonder if there had been a funeral. The maid followed with two leather bags. As soon as he had lifted Kitty into his cab she exclaimed:
“My jewel-case! I have forgotten it. It is on the back seat, please. I am so careless!”
He dashed back, ran his hand along the cushions, and discovered a small leather bag. When he returned he found the maid and the luggage bestowed on the front seat, and a place left for him on the back seat beside Kitty and her flowers.
“Shall we be taking you far out of your way?” she asked, sweetly. “I haven’t an idea where the station is. I’m not even sure about the name. Céline thinks it is East Liberty, but I think it is West Liberty. An odd name, anyway. It is a Bohemian quarter, perhaps? A district where the law relaxes a trifle?”
McKann replied grimly that he didn’t think the name referred to that kind of liberty.
“So much the better,” sighed Kitty. “I am a Californian, you know; that’s the only part of America I know very well, and out there, when we called a place Liberty Hill or Liberty Hollow— well, we meant it. You will excuse me if I’m uncommunicative, won’t you? I must not talk in this raw air. My throat is sensitive after a long programme.” She lay back in her corner and closed her eyes.
When the cab rolled down the incline at East Liberty station, the New York express was whistling in. A porter opened the door. McKann sprang out, gave him a claim check and his Pullman ticket, and told him to get his bag at the check-stand and rush it on that train.
Miss Ayrshire, having gathered up her flowers, put out her hand to take his arm. “Why, it’s you!” she exclaimed, as she saw his face in the light. “What a coincidence!” She made no further move to alight, but sat smiling as if she had just seated herself in a drawing-room and were ready for talk and a cup of tea.
McKann caught her arm. “You must hurry, Miss Ayrshire, if you mean to catch that train. It stops here only a moment. Can you run?”
“Can I run!” she laughed. “Try me!”
As they raced through the tunnel and up the inside stairway, McKann admitted that he had never before made a dash with feet so quick and sure stepping out beside him. The white-furred boots chased each other like lambs at play, the gold stockings flashed like the spokes of a bicycle wheel in the sun. They reached the door of Miss Ayrshire’s state-room just as the train began to pull out. McKann was ashamed of the way he was panting, for Kitty’s breathing was as soft and regular as when she was reclining on the back seat of his taxi. It had somehow run in his head that all these stage women were a poor lot physically—unsound, overfed creatures, like canaries that are kept in a cage and stuffed with song-restorer. He retreated to escape her thanks. “Good night! Pleasant journey! Pleasant dreams!” He gave a friendly nod in Kitty’s direction and closed the door behind him.
He was somewhat surprised to find his own bag, his Pullman ticket in the strap, on the seat just outside Kitty’s door. But there was nothing strange about it. He had got the last section left on the train, No. 13, next the drawing-room. Every other berth on the train was made up. He was just starting to look for the porter when the door of the state-room opened and Kitty Ayrshire came out. She seated herself carelessly in the front seat beside his bag.
“Please talk to me a little,” she said coaxingly. “I’m always wakeful after I sing, and I have to hunt some one to talk to. Céline and I get so tired of each other. We can speak very low, and we shall not disturb any one.” She crossed her feet and rested her elbow on his Gladstone. Though she still wore her gold slippers and stockings, she did not, he thanked Heaven, have on her concert gown, but a very demure black velvet one with some sort of pearl trimming about the neck. “Wasn’t it funny,” she proceeded, “that it happened to be you who picked me up? I wanted a word with you, anyway.”
McKann smiled in a way that meant he wasn’t being taken in. “Did you? We are not very old acquaintances.”
“No, perhaps not. But you disapproved to-night, and I thought I was singing very well. You are very critical in such matters?”
He had been standing, but now he sat down. “My dear young lady, I am not critical at all. I know nothing about such matters.”
“And care less?” she said for him. “Well, then we know where we are, in so far as that is concerned. What did displease you? My gown, perhaps? It may seem a little outré here, but it’s the sort of thing all the imaginative designers abroad are doing, and somebody has to be a missionary and spread the new idea. You like the English sort of concert gown better?”
“About gowns,” said McKann, “I know even less than about music. If I looked uncomfortable, it was probably because I was uncomfortable. The seats were bad and the lights were annoying.”
Kitty looked up with solicitude. “I was sorry they sold those seats. I don’t like to make people uncomfortable in any way. Did the lights give you a headache? They are very trying. They burn one’s eyes out in the end, I believe.” She paused and waved the porter away with a smile as he came toward them. Half-clad Pittsburgers were tramping up and down the aisle, casting sidelong glances at McKann and his companion. “How much better they look with all their clothes on,” she murmured. Then, turning directly to McKann again: “I saw you were not well seated, but I felt something quite hostile and personal. You were displeased with me. Doubtless many people are, but I so seldom get an opportunity to question them. You would be really generous if you took the trouble to tell me why you were displeased.”
She spoke frankly, pleasantly, without a shadow of challenge or hauteur. She did not seem to be angling for compliments. McKann settled himself in his seat. He thought he would try her out. She had come for it, and he would let her have it. He found, however, that it was harder to formulate the grounds of his disapproval than he would have supposed. Now that he sat face to face with her, now that she was leaning against his bag, he had no wish to hurt her.
“I’m a hard-headed business man,” he said, evasively, “and I don’t much believe in any of you fluffy-ruffles people. I have a sort of natural distrust of them all, the men more than the women.”
She looked thoughtful. “Artists, you mean?” drawing her words slowly. “What is your business?”
“I don’t feel any natural distrust of business men, and I know ever so many. I don’t know any coal-men, but I think I could become very much interested in coal. Am I larger-minded than you?”
McKann laughed. “I don’t think you know when you are interested or when you are not. I don’t believe you know what it feels like to be really interested. There is so much fake about your job. It’s an affectation on both sides. I know a great many of the people who went to hear you to-night, and I know that most of them neither know nor care anything about music. They imagine they do because it’s supposed to be a fine thing.”
Kitty sat upright and looked interested. She was certainly a lovely creature—the only one of her tribe he had ever seen that he would cross the street to see again. Those were remarkable eyes she had—curious, penetrating, restless, somewhat impudent, but not at all dulled by self-conceit. Just now they were rather fierce.
“But isn’t that so in everything?” she cried. “How many of your clerks are honest because of a fine, individual sense of honor? They are honest because it is the accepted rule of good conduct in business. Do you know”—she looked at him squarely—”I thought you would have something quite definite to say to me; but this is funny-paper stuff, the sort of objection I’d expect from your office-boy.”
“Then you don’t think it silly for a lot of people to get together and pretend to enjoy something they know nothing about?”
“Of course I think it silly, but that’s the way God made audiences. Don’t people go to church in exactly the same way? If there were a spiritual-pressure test-machine at the door to test the congregation I suspect not many of you would get to your pews.”
“How do you know I go to church?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, people with these old, ready-made opinions usually go to church. But you can’t evade me like that.” She tapped the edge of his seat with the toe of her gold slipper. “You sat there all evening, glaring at me as if you could eat me alive. Now I give you a chance to state your objections, and you merely criticize my audience. What is it? Is it merely that you happen to dislike my personality? In that case, of course, I won’t press you.”
“No,” McKann frowned, “I perhaps dislike your professional personality. As I told you, I have a natural distrust of your variety.”
“Natural, I wonder?” Kitty murmured. “I don’t see why you should naturally dislike singers any more than I naturally dislike coal-men. I don’t classify people by their jobs. Doubtless I should find some coal-men repulsive, and you may find some singers so. But I have reason to believe that, at least, I’m one of the less repelling.”
“I don’t doubt it,” McKann laughed, “and you’re a shrewd woman to boot. But you are, all of you, according to my standards, light people. You’re brilliant, some of you, but you’ve no depth.”
Kitty seemed to assent, with a dive of her girlish head. “Well, it’s a merit in some things to be heavy, and in others to be light. Some things are meant to go deep, and others to go high. Do you want all the women in the world to be profound, or of cast-iron?”
“You are all,” he went on steadily, watching her with indulgence, “fed on hectic emotions. You are pampered. You don’t help to carry the burdens of the world. You are self-indulgent and appetent.”
“Yes, I am,” she assented, with a candour which he did not expect. “Not all artists are, but I am. Why not? If I could once get a convincing statement as to why I should not be self-indulgent, I might change my ways. As for the burdens of the world—” Kitty rested her chin on her clasped hands and looked thoughtful. “One should give pleasure to others. My dear sir, granting that the great majority of people can’t enjoy anything very keenly, you’ll admit that I give pleasure to many more people than you do. One should help others who are less fortunate; at present I am supporting just eighteen people, besides those I hire. There was never another family in California that had so many cripples and hard-luckers as that into which I had the honor to be born. The only ones who could take care of themselves were ruined by the San Francisco earthquake some time ago. One should make personal sacrifices. I do; I give money and time and effort to talented students. Oh, I give something much more than that! something that you probably have never given to any one. I give, to the really gifted ones, my wish, my desire, my light, if I have any; and that, sometimes, when I am tired to death. That, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, is like giving one’s blood! It’s the kind of thing you prudent people never give. That is what was in the box of precious ointment.” Kitty threw off her fervor with a slight gesture, as if it were a scarf, and leaned back in her seat, tucking her slipper up on the edge of his. “If you saw the houses I keep up,” she sighed, “and the people I employ, and the motor-cars I run—And, after all, I’ve only this to do it with.” She indicated her slender person, which Marshall could almost have broken in two with his bare hands.
She was, he thought, very much like any other charming woman, except that she was more so. Her familiarity was natural and simple. She was at ease because she was not afraid of him or of herself, or of certain half-clad acquaintances of his who had been wandering up and down the car oftener than was necessary. Well, he was not afraid, either.
Kitty put her arms over her head and sighed again, feeling the smooth part in her black hair. Her head was small— capable of great agitation, like a bird’s; or of great resignation, like a nun’s. “I can’t see why I shouldn’t be self-indulgent, when I indulge others. I can’t understand your equivocal scheme of ethics. Now I can understand Count Tolstoy’s, perfectly. I had a long talk with him once, about his book What is Art? As nearly as I could get it, he believes that we are a race who can exist only by gratifying appetites; the appetites are evil, and the existence they carry on is evil. We were always sad, he says, without knowing why; even in the stone men. In some miraculous way a divine ideal was disclosed to us, directly at variance with our appetites. It gave us a new craving, which we could only satisfy by starving all the other hungers in us. Happiness lies in ceasing to be and to cause being, because the thing revealed to us is dearer than any existence our appetites can ever get for us. I can understand that. It’s something one often feels in art. It is even the subject of the greatest of all operas, which, because I can never hope to sing it, I love more than all the others.” Kitty pulled herself up. “Perhaps you agree with Tolstoy?” she added languidly.
“No; I think he’s a crank,” said McKann, cheerfully.
“What do you mean by a crank?”
“I mean an extremist.”
Kitty laughed. “Weighty word! You’ll always have a world full of people who keep to the golden mean. Why bother yourself about me and Tolstoy?”
“I don’t, except when you bother me.”
“Poor man! It’s true this isn’t your fault. Still, you did provoke it by glaring at me. Why did you go to the concert?”
“I was dragged.”
“I might have known!” she chuckled, and shook her head. “No, you don’t give me any good reasons. Your morality seems to me the compromise of cowardice, apologetic and sneaking. When righteousness becomes alive and burning, you hate it as much as you do beauty. You want a little of each in your life, perhaps—adulterated, sterilized, with the sting taken out. It’s true enough they are both fearsome things when they get loose in the world; they don’t, often.”
McKann hated tall talk. “My views on women,” he said slowly, “are simple.”
“Doubtless,” Kitty responded, dryly, “but are they consistent? Do you apply them to your stenographers as well as to me? I take it for granted you have unmarried stenographers. Their position, economically, is the same as mine.”
McKann studied the toe of her shoe. “With a woman, everything comes back to one thing.” His manner was judicial.
She laughed indulgently. “So we are getting down to brass tacks, eh? I have beaten you in argument, and now you are leading trumps.” She put her hands behind her head and her lips parted in a half-yawn. “Does everything come back to one thing? I wish I knew. It’s more than likely that, under the same conditions, I should have been very like your stenographers—if they are good ones. Whatever I was, I would have been a good one. I think people are a good deal alike. You are more different than any one I have met for some time, but I know that there are a great many more at home like you. And even you—I believe there is a real creature down under these custom-made prejudices that save you the trouble of thinking. If you and I were shipwrecked on a desert island, I have no doubt that we would come to a simple and natural understanding. I’m neither a coward nor a shirk. You would find, if you had to undertake any enterprise of danger or difficulty with a woman, that there are several qualifications quite as important as the one to which you doubtless refer.”
McKann felt nervously for his watch-chain. “Of course,” he brought out, “I am not laying down any generalizations—” His brows wrinkled.
“Oh, aren’t you?” murmured Kitty. “Then I totally misunderstood. But remember”—holding up a finger—”it is you, not I, who are afraid to pursue this subject further. Now, I’ll tell you something.” She leaned forward and clasped her slim, white hands about her velvet knee. “I am as much a victim of these ineradicable prejudices as you. Your stenographer seems to you a better sort. Well, she does to me. Just because her life is, presumably, grayer than mine, she seems better. My mind tells me that dullness, and a mediocre order of ability, and poverty are not in themselves admirable things. Yet in my heart I always feel that the saleswomen in shops and the working girls in factories are more meritorious than I. Many of them, with my opportunities, would be more selfish than I. Some of them, with their own opportunities, are more selfish. Yet I make this sentimental genuflection before the nun and the charwoman. Tell me, haven’t you any weakness? Isn’t there any foolish natural thing that unbends you a trifle and makes you feel gay?”
“I like to go fishing.”
“To see how many fish you can catch?”
“No, I like the woods and the weather. I like to play a fish and work hard for him. I like the pussy-willows and the cold; and the sky, whether it’s blue or gray—night coming on, everything about it.”
He spoke devoutly, and Kitty watched him through half-closed eyes. “And you like to feel that there are light-minded girls like me, who only care about the inside of shops and theaters and hotels, eh? You amuse me, you and your fish! But I mustn’t keep you any longer. Haven’t I given you every opportunity to state your case against me? I thought you would have more to say for yourself. Do you know, I believe it’s not a case you have at all, but a grudge. I believe you are envious; that you’d like to be a tenor, and a perfect lady-killer!” She rose, smiling, and paused with her hand on the door of her state-room. “Anyhow, thank you for a pleasant evening. And, by the way, dream of me to-night, and not of either of those ladies who sat beside you. It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.” She noticed his bricky flush. “You are very naïf, after all, but, oh, so cautious! You are naturally afraid of everything new, just as I naturally want to try everything: new people, new religions—new miseries, even. If only there were more new things—If only you were really new! I might learn something. I’m like the Queen of Sheba—I’m not above learning. But you, my friend, would be afraid to try a breakfast food. It isn’t gravitation that holds the world in place; it’s the lazy, obese cowardice of the people on it. All the same”—taking his hand and smiling encouragingly—”I’m going to haunt you a little. Adios!”
When Kitty entered her state-room, Céline, in her dressing-gown, was nodding by the window.
“Mademoiselle found the fat gentleman interesting?” she asked. “It is nearly one.”
“Negatively interesting. His kind always say the same thing. If I could find one really intelligent man who held his views, I should adopt them.”
“Monsieur did not look like an original,” murmured Céline, as she began to take down her lady’s hair.
McKann slept heavily, as usual, and the porter had to shake him in the morning. He sat up in his berth, and, after composing his hair with his fingers, began to hunt about for his clothes. As he put up the window-blind some bright object in the little hammock over his bed caught the sunlight and glittered. He stared and picked up a delicately turned gold slipper. “Minx! hussy!” he ejaculated. “All that tall talk—! Probably got it from some man who hangs about; learned it off like a parrot. Did she poke this in here herself last night, or did she send that sneak-faced Frenchwoman? It’s outrageous!” He wondered whether he might have been breathing audibly when the intruder thrust her head between his curtains. He was conscious that he did not look a Prince Charming in his sleep. He dressed as fast as he could, and, when he was ready to go to the wash-room, glared at the slipper. If the porter should start to make up his berth in his absence— He caught the slipper, wrapped it in his pajama jacket, and thrust it into his bag. He escaped from the train without seeing his tormentor again.
Later McKann threw the slipper into the waste-basket in his room at the Knickerbocker, but the chambermaid, seeing that it was new and mateless, thought there must be a mistake, and placed it in his clothes-closet. He found it there when he returned from the theater that evening. Considerably mellowed by food and drink and cheerful company, he took the thing in his hand and decided to keep it as a reminder that absurd things could happen to people of the most clocklike deportment. When he got back to Pittsburg, he stuck it in a lock-box in his vault, safe from prying clerks.
McKann has been ill for five years now, poor fellow! He still goes to the office, because it is the only place that interests him, but his partners do most of the work, and his clerks find him sadly changed—”morbid,” they call his state of mind. He has had the pine-trees in his yard cut down because they remind him of cemeteries. On Sundays or holidays, when the office is empty, and he takes his will or his insurance-policies out of his lock-box, he often puts the tarnished gold slipper on his desk and looks at it. Somehow it suggests life to his tired mind, as his pine-trees suggested death—life and youth. When he drops over some day his executors will be puzzled by the slipper.
As for Kitty Ayrshire, she has played so many jokes, practical and impractical, since then, that she has long ago forgotten the night when she threw away a slipper to be a thorn in the side of a just man.
*** What are your favorite Willa Cather short stories ?
Willa Cather Short Stories
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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