"A Death in the Desert" by Willa Cather
Everett Hilgarde was conscious that the man in the seat across the aisle
was looking at him intently. He was a large, florid man, wore a
conspicuous diamond solitaire upon his third finger, and Everett judged
him to be a traveling salesman of some sort. He had the air of an
adaptable fellow who had been about the world and who could keep cool and
clean under almost any circumstances.
The "High Line Flyer," as this train was derisively called among railroad
men, was jerking along through the hot afternoon over the monotonous
country between Holdridge and Cheyenne. Besides the blond man and himself
the only occupants of the car were two dusty, bedraggled-looking girls who
had been to the Exposition at Chicago, and who were earnestly discussing
the cost of their first trip out of Colorado. The four uncomfortable
passengers were covered with a sediment of fine, yellow dust which clung
to their hair and eyebrows like gold powder. It blew up in clouds from the
bleak, lifeless country through which they passed, until they were one
color with the sagebrush and sandhills. The gray-and-yellow desert was
varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red
boxes of station houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the
bluegrass yards made little green reserves fenced off in that confusing
wilderness of sand.
As the slanting rays of the sun beat in stronger and stronger through the
car windows, the blond gentleman asked the ladies' permission to remove
his coat, and sat in his lavender striped shirt sleeves, with a black silk
handkerchief tucked carefully about his collar. He had seemed interested
in Everett since they had boarded the train at Holdridge, and kept
glancing at him curiously and then looking reflectively out of the window,
as though he were trying to recall something. But wherever Everett went
someone was almost sure to look at him with that curious interest, and it
had ceased to embarrass or annoy him. Presently the stranger, seeming
satisfied with his observation, leaned back in his seat, half-closed his
eyes, and began softly to whistle the "Spring Song" from Proserpine,
the cantata that a dozen years before had made its young composer famous
in a night. Everett had heard that air on guitars in Old Mexico, on
mandolins at college glees, on cottage organs in New England hamlets, and
only two weeks ago he had heard it played on sleighbells at a variety
theater in Denver. There was literally no way of escaping his brother's
precocity. Adriance could live on the other side of the Atlantic, where
his youthful indiscretions were forgotten in his mature achievements, but
his brother had never been able to outrun Proserpine, and here he
found it again in the Colorado sand hills. Not that Everett was exactly
ashamed of Proserpine; only a man of genius could have written it,
but it was the sort of thing that a man of genius outgrows as soon as he
Everett unbent a trifle and smiled at his neighbor across the aisle.
Immediately the large man rose and, coming over, dropped into the seat
facing Hilgarde, extending his card.
"Dusty ride, isn't it? I don't mind it myself; I'm used to it. Born and
bred in de briar patch, like Br'er Rabbit. I've been trying to place you
for a long time; I think I must have met you before."
"Thank you," said Everett, taking the card; "my name is Hilgarde. You've
probably met my brother, Adriance; people often mistake me for him."
The traveling man brought his hand down upon his knee with such vehemence
that the solitaire blazed.
"So I was right after all, and if you're not Adriance Hilgarde, you're his
double. I thought I couldn't be mistaken. Seen him? Well, I guess! I never
missed one of his recitals at the Auditorium, and he played the piano
score of Proserpine through to us once at the Chicago Press Club. I
used to be on the Commercial there before I began to
travel for the publishing department of the concern. So you're Hilgarde's
brother, and here I've run into you at the jumping-off place. Sounds like
a newspaper yarn, doesn't it?"
The traveling man laughed and offered Everett a cigar, and plied him with
questions on the only subject that people ever seemed to care to talk to
Everett about. At length the salesman and the two girls alighted at a
Colorado way station, and Everett went on to Cheyenne alone.
The train pulled into Cheyenne at nine o'clock, late by a matter of four
hours or so; but no one seemed particularly concerned at its tardiness
except the station agent, who grumbled at being kept in the office
overtime on a summer night. When Everett alighted from the train he walked
down the platform and stopped at the track crossing, uncertain as to what
direction he should take to reach a hotel. A phaeton stood near the
crossing, and a woman held the reins. She was dressed in white, and her
figure was clearly silhouetted against the cushions, though it was too
dark to see her face. Everett had scarcely noticed her, when the switch
engine came puffing up from the opposite direction, and the headlight
threw a strong glare of light on his face. Suddenly the woman in the
phaeton uttered a low cry and dropped the reins. Everett started forward
and caught the horse's head, but the animal only lifted its ears and
whisked its tail in impatient surprise. The woman sat perfectly still, her
head sunk between her shoulders and her handkerchief pressed to her face.
Another woman came out of the depot and hurried toward the phaeton,
crying, "Katharine, dear, what is the matter?"
Everett hesitated a moment in painful embarrassment, then lifted his hat
and passed on. He was accustomed to sudden recognitions in the most
impossible places, especially by women, but this cry out of the night had
While Everett was breakfasting the next morning, the headwaiter leaned
over his chair to murmur that there was a gentleman waiting to see him in
the parlor. Everett finished his coffee and went in the direction
indicated, where he found his visitor restlessly pacing the floor. His
whole manner betrayed a high degree of agitation, though his physique was
not that of a man whose nerves lie near the surface. He was something
below medium height, square-shouldered and solidly built. His thick,
closely cut hair was beginning to show gray about the ears, and his
bronzed face was heavily lined. His square brown hands were locked behind
him, and he held his shoulders like a man conscious of responsibilities;
yet, as he turned to greet Everett, there was an incongruous diffidence in
"Good morning, Mr. Hilgarde," he said, extending his hand; "I found your
name on the hotel register. My name is Gaylord. I'm afraid my sister
startled you at the station last night, Mr. Hilgarde, and I've come around
"Ah! The young lady in the phaeton? I'm sure I didn't know whether I had
anything to do with her alarm or not. If I did, it is I who owe the
The man colored a little under the dark brown of his face.
"Oh, it's nothing you could help, sir, I fully understand that. You see,
my sister used to be a pupil of your brother's, and it seems you favor
him; and when the switch engine threw a light on your face it startled
Everett wheeled about in his chair. "Oh! Katharine Gaylord! Is it
possible! Now it's you who have given me a turn. Why, I used to know her
when I was a boy. What on earth—"
"Is she doing here?" said Gaylord, grimly filling out the pause. "You've
got at the heart of the matter. You knew my sister had been in bad health
for a long time?"
"No, I had never heard a word of that. The last I knew of her she was
singing in London. My brother and I correspond infrequently and seldom get
beyond family matters. I am deeply sorry to hear this. There are more
reasons why I am concerned than I can tell you."
The lines in Charley Gaylord's brow relaxed a little.
"What I'm trying to say, Mr. Hilgarde, is that she wants to see you. I
hate to ask you, but she's so set on it. We live several miles out of
town, but my rig's below, and I can take you out anytime you can go."
"I can go now, and it will give me real pleasure to do so," said Everett,
quickly. "I'll get my hat and be with you in a moment."
When he came downstairs Everett found a cart at the door, and Charley
Gaylord drew a long sigh of relief as he gathered up the reins and settled
back into his own element.
"You see, I think I'd better tell you something about my sister before you
see her, and I don't know just where to begin. She traveled in Europe with
your brother and his wife, and sang at a lot of his concerts; but I don't
know just how much you know about her."
"Very little, except that my brother always thought her the most gifted of
his pupils, and that when I knew her she was very young and very beautiful
and turned my head sadly for a while."
Everett saw that Gaylord's mind was quite engrossed by his grief. He was
wrought up to the point where his reserve and sense of proportion had
quite left him, and his trouble was the one vital thing in the world.
"That's the whole thing," he went on, flicking his horses with the whip.
"She was a great woman, as you say, and she didn't come of a great family.
She had to fight her own way from the first. She got to Chicago, and then
to New York, and then to Europe, where she went up like lightning, and got
a taste for it all; and now she's dying here like a rat in a hole, out of
her own world, and she can't fall back into ours. We've grown apart, some
way—miles and miles apart—and I'm afraid she's fearfully
"It's a very tragic story that you are telling me, Gaylord," said Everett.
They were well out into the country now, spinning along over the dusty
plains of red grass, with the ragged-blue outline of the mountains before
"Tragic!" cried Gaylord, starting up in his seat, "my God, man, nobody
will ever know how tragic. It's a tragedy I live with and eat with and
sleep with, until I've lost my grip on everything. You see she had made a
good bit of money, but she spent it all going to health resorts. It's her
lungs, you know. I've got money enough to send her anywhere, but the
doctors all say it's no use. She hasn't the ghost of a chance. It's just
getting through the days now. I had no notion she was half so bad before
she came to me. She just wrote that she was all run down. Now that she's
here, I think she'd be happier anywhere under the sun, but she won't
leave. She says it's easier to let go of life here, and that to go East
would be dying twice. There was a time when I was a brakeman with a run
out of Bird City, Iowa, and she was a little thing I could carry on my
shoulder, when I could get her everything on earth she wanted, and she
hadn't a wish my $80 a month didn't cover; and now, when I've got a little
property together, I can't buy her a night's sleep!"
Everett saw that, whatever Charley Gaylord's present status in the world
might be, he had brought the brakeman's heart up the ladder with him, and
the brakeman's frank avowal of sentiment. Presently Gaylord went on:
"You can understand how she has outgrown her family. We're all a pretty
common sort, railroaders from away back. My father was a conductor. He
died when we were kids. Maggie, my other sister, who lives with me, was a
telegraph operator here while I was getting my grip on things. We had no
education to speak of. I have to hire a stenographer because I can't spell
straight—the Almighty couldn't teach me to spell. The things that
make up life to Kate are all Greek to me, and there's scarcely a point
where we touch any more, except in our recollections of the old times when
we were all young and happy together, and Kate sang in a church choir in
Bird City. But I believe, Mr. Hilgarde, that if she can see just one
person like you, who knows about the things and people she's interested
in, it will give her about the only comfort she can have now."
The reins slackened in Charley Gaylord's hand as they drew up before a
showily painted house with many gables and a round tower. "Here we are,"
he said, turning to Everett, "and I guess we understand each other."
They were met at the door by a thin, colorless woman, whom Gaylord
introduced as "my sister, Maggie." She asked her brother to show Mr.
Hilgarde into the music room, where Katharine wished to see him alone.
When Everett entered the music room he gave a little start of surprise,
feeling that he had stepped from the glaring Wyoming sunlight into some
New York studio that he had always known. He wondered which it was of
those countless studios, high up under the roofs, over banks and shops and
wholesale houses, that this room resembled, and he looked incredulously
out of the window at the gray plain that ended in the great upheaval of
The haunting air of familiarity about the room perplexed him. Was it a
copy of some particular studio he knew, or was it merely the studio
atmosphere that seemed so individual and poignantly reminiscent here in
Wyoming? He sat down in a reading chair and looked keenly about him.
Suddenly his eye fell upon a large photograph of his brother above the
piano. Then it all became clear to him: this was veritably his brother's
room. If it were not an exact copy of one of the many studios that
Adriance had fitted up in various parts of the world, wearying of them and
leaving almost before the renovator's varnish had dried, it was at least
in the same tone. In every detail Adriance's taste was so manifest that
the room seemed to exhale his personality.
Among the photographs on the wall there was one of Katharine Gaylord,
taken in the days when Everett had known her, and when the flash of her
eye or the flutter of her skirt was enough to set his boyish heart in a
tumult. Even now, he stood before the portrait with a certain degree of
embarrassment. It was the face of a woman already old in her first youth,
thoroughly sophisticated and a trifle hard, and it told of what her
brother had called her fight. The camaraderie of her frank, confident eyes
was qualified by the deep lines about her mouth and the curve of the lips,
which was both sad and cynical. Certainly she had more good will than
confidence toward the world, and the bravado of her smile could not
conceal the shadow of an unrest that was almost discontent. The chief
charm of the woman, as Everett had known her, lay in her superb figure and
in her eyes, which possessed a warm, lifegiving quality like the sunlight;
eyes which glowed with a sort of perpetual salutat to the world.
Her head, Everett remembered as peculiarly well-shaped and proudly poised.
There had been always a little of the imperatrix about her, and her pose
in the photograph revived all his old impressions of her unattachedness,
of how absolutely and valiantly she stood alone.
Everett was still standing before the picture, his hands behind him and
his head inclined, when he heard the door open. A very tall woman advanced
toward him, holding out her hand. As she started to speak, she coughed
slightly; then, laughing, said, in a low, rich voice, a trifle husky: "You
see I make the traditional Camille entrance—with the cough. How good
of you to come, Mr. Hilgarde."
Everett was acutely conscious that while addressing him she was not
looking at him at all, and, as he assured her of his pleasure in coming,
he was glad to have an opportunity to collect himself. He had not reckoned
upon the ravages of a long illness. The long, loose folds of her white
gown had been especially designed to conceal the sharp outlines of her
emaciated body, but the stamp of her disease was there; simple and ugly
and obtrusive, a pitiless fact that could not be disguised or evaded. The
splendid shoulders were stooped, there was a swaying unevenness in her
gait, her arms seemed disproportionately long, and her hands were
transparently white and cold to the touch. The changes in her face were
less obvious; the proud carriage of the head, the warm, clear eyes, even
the delicate flush of color in her cheeks, all defiantly remained, though
they were all in a lower key—older, sadder, softer.
She sat down upon the divan and began nervously to arrange the pillows. "I
know I'm not an inspiring object to look upon, but you must be quite frank
and sensible about that and get used to it at once, for we've no time to
lose. And if I'm a trifle irritable you won't mind?—for I'm more
than usually nervous."
"Don't bother with me this morning, if you are tired," urged Everett. "I
can come quite as well tomorrow."
"Gracious, no!" she protested, with a flash of that quick, keen humor that
he remembered as a part of her. "It's solitude that I'm tired to death of—solitude
and the wrong kind of people. You see, the minister, not content with
reading the prayers for the sick, called on me this morning. He happened
to be riding by on his bicycle and felt it his duty to stop. Of course, he
disapproves of my profession, and I think he takes it for granted that I
have a dark past. The funniest feature of his conversation is that he is
always excusing my own vocation to me—condoning it, you know—and
trying to patch up my peace with my conscience by suggesting possible
noble uses for what he kindly calls my talent."
Everett laughed. "Oh! I'm afraid I'm not the person to call after such a
serious gentleman—I can't sustain the situation. At my best I don't
reach higher than low comedy. Have you decided to which one of the noble
uses you will devote yourself?"
Katharine lifted her hands in a gesture of renunciation and exclaimed:
"I'm not equal to any of them, not even the least noble. I didn't study
She laughed and went on nervously: "The parson's not so bad. His English
never offends me, and he has read Gibbon's Decline and Fall, all
five volumes, and that's something. Then, he has been to New York, and
that's a great deal. But how we are losing time! Do tell me about New
York; Charley says you're just on from there. How does it look and taste
and smell just now? I think a whiff of the Jersey ferry would be as
flagons of cod-liver oil to me. Who conspicuously walks the Rialto now,
and what does he or she wear? Are the trees still green in Madison Square,
or have they grown brown and dusty? Does the chaste Diana on the Garden
Theatre still keep her vestal vows through all the exasperating changes of
weather? Who has your brother's old studio now, and what misguided
aspirants practice their scales in the rookeries about Carnegie Hall? What
do people go to see at the theaters, and what do they eat and drink there
in the world nowadays? You see, I'm homesick for it all, from the Battery
to Riverside. Oh, let me die in Harlem!" She was interrupted by a violent
attack of coughing, and Everett, embarrassed by her discomfort, plunged
into gossip about the professional people he had met in town during the
summer and the musical outlook for the winter. He was diagraming with his
pencil, on the back of an old envelope he found in his pocket, some new
mechanical device to be used at the Metropolitan in the production of the
Rheingold, when he became conscious that she was looking at him
intently, and that he was talking to the four walls.
Katharine was lying back among the pillows, watching him through
half-closed eyes, as a painter looks at a picture. He finished his
explanation vaguely enough and put the envelope back in his pocket. As he
did so she said, quietly: "How wonderfully like Adriance you are!" and he
felt as though a crisis of some sort had been met and tided over.
He laughed, looking up at her with a touch of pride in his eyes that made
them seem quite boyish. "Yes, isn't it absurd? It's almost as awkward as
looking like Napoleon—but, after all, there are some advantages. It
has made some of his friends like me, and I hope it will make you."
Katharine smiled and gave him a quick, meaning glance from under her
lashes. "Oh, it did that long ago. What a haughty, reserved youth you were
then, and how you used to stare at people and then blush and look cross if
they paid you back in your own coin. Do you remember that night when you
took me home from a rehearsal and scarcely spoke a word to me?"
"It was the silence of admiration," protested Everett, "very crude and
boyish, but very sincere and not a little painful. Perhaps you suspected
something of the sort? I remember you saw fit to be very grown-up and
"I believe I suspected a pose; the one that college boys usually affect
with singers—'an earthen vessel in love with a star,' you know. But
it rather surprised me in you, for you must have seen a good deal of your
brother's pupils. Or had you an omnivorous capacity, and elasticity that
always met the occasion?"
"Don't ask a man to confess the follies of his youth," said Everett,
smiling a little sadly; "I am sensitive about some of them even now. But I
was not so sophisticated as you imagined. I saw my brother's pupils come
and go, but that was about all. Sometimes I was called on to play
accompaniments, or to fill out a vacancy at a rehearsal, or to order a
carriage for an infuriated soprano who had thrown up her part. But they
never spent any time on me, unless it was to notice the resemblance you
"Yes", observed Katharine, thoughtfully, "I noticed it then, too; but it
has grown as you have grown older. That is rather strange, when you have
lived such different lives. It's not merely an ordinary family likeness of
feature, you know, but a sort of interchangeable individuality; the
suggestion of the other man's personality in your face like an air
transposed to another key. But I'm not attempting to define it; it's
beyond me; something altogether unusual and a trifle—well, uncanny,"
she finished, laughing.
"I remember," Everett said seriously, twirling the pencil between his
fingers and looking, as he sat with his head thrown back, out under the
red window blind which was raised just a little, and as it swung back and
forth in the wind revealed the glaring panorama of the desert—a
blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here
and there with deep purple shadows; and, beyond, the ragged-blue outline
of the mountains and the peaks of snow, white as the white clouds—"I
remember, when I was a little fellow I used to be very sensitive about it.
I don't think it exactly displeased me, or that I would have had it
otherwise if I could, but it seemed to me like a birthmark, or something
not to be lightly spoken of. People were naturally always fonder of Ad
than of me, and I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often.
It came into even my relations with my mother. Ad went abroad to study
when he was absurdly young, you know, and mother was all broken up over
it. She did her whole duty by each of us, but it was sort of generally
understood among us that she'd have made burnt offerings of us all for Ad
any day. I was a little fellow then, and when she sat alone on the porch
in the summer dusk she used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face
up in the light that streamed out through the shutters and kiss me, and
then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance."
"Poor little chap," said Katharine, and her tone was a trifle huskier than
usual. "How fond people have always been of Adriance! Now tell me the
latest news of him. I haven't heard, except through the press, for a year
or more. He was in Algeria then, in the valley of the Chelif, riding
horseback night and day in an Arabian costume, and in his usual
enthusiastic fashion he had quite made up his mind to adopt the Mohammedan
faith and become as nearly an Arab as possible. How many countries and
faiths has he adopted, I wonder? Probably he was playing Arab to himself
all the time. I remember he was a sixteenth-century duke in Florence once
for weeks together."
"Oh, that's Adriance," chuckled Everett. "He is himself barely long enough
to write checks and be measured for his clothes. I didn't hear from him
while he was an Arab; I missed that."
"He was writing an Algerian suite for the piano then; it must be in the
publisher's hands by this time. I have been too ill to answer his letter,
and have lost touch with him."
Everett drew a letter from his pocket. "This came about a month ago. It's
chiefly about his new opera, which is to be brought out in London next
winter. Read it at your leisure."
"I think I shall keep it as a hostage, so that I may be sure you will come
again. Now I want you to play for me. Whatever you like; but if there is
anything new in the world, in mercy let me hear it. For nine months I have
heard nothing but 'The Baggage Coach Ahead' and 'She Is My Baby's
He sat down at the piano, and Katharine sat near him, absorbed in his
remarkable physical likeness to his brother and trying to discover in just
what it consisted. She told herself that it was very much as though a
sculptor's finished work had been rudely copied in wood. He was of a
larger build than Adriance, and his shoulders were broad and heavy, while
those of his brother were slender and rather girlish. His face was of the
same oval mold, but it was gray and darkened about the mouth by continual
shaving. His eyes were of the same inconstant April color, but they were
reflective and rather dull; while Adriance's were always points of
highlight, and always meaning another thing than the thing they meant
yesterday. But it was hard to see why this earnest man should so
continually suggest that lyric, youthful face that was as gay as his was
grave. For Adriance, though he was ten years the elder, and though his
hair was streaked with silver, had the face of a boy of twenty, so mobile
that it told his thoughts before he could put them into words. A
contralto, famous for the extravagance of her vocal methods and of her
affections, had once said to him that the shepherd boys who sang in the
Vale of Tempe must certainly have looked like young Hilgarde; and the
comparison had been appropriated by a hundred shyer women who preferred to
As Everett sat smoking on the veranda of the Inter-Ocean House that night,
he was a victim to random recollections. His infatuation for Katharine
Gaylord, visionary as it was, had been the most serious of his boyish love
affairs, and had long disturbed his bachelor dreams. He was painfully
timid in everything relating to the emotions, and his hurt had withdrawn
him from the society of women. The fact that it was all so done and dead
and far behind him, and that the woman had lived her life out since then,
gave him an oppressive sense of age and loss. He bethought himself of
something he had read about "sitting by the hearth and remembering the
faces of women without desire," and felt himself an octogenarian.
He remembered how bitter and morose he had grown during his stay at his
brother's studio when Katharine Gaylord was working there, and how he had
wounded Adriance on the night of his last concert in New York. He had sat
there in the box while his brother and Katharine were called back again
and again after the last number, watching the roses go up over the
footlights until they were stacked half as high as the piano, brooding, in
his sullen boy's heart, upon the pride those two felt in each other's work—spurring
each other to their best and beautifully contending in song. The
footlights had seemed a hard, glittering line drawn sharply between their
life and his; a circle of flame set about those splendid children of
genius. He walked back to his hotel alone and sat in his window staring
out on Madison Square until long after midnight, resolving to beat no more
at doors that he could never enter and realizing more keenly than ever
before how far this glorious world of beautiful creations lay from the
paths of men like himself. He told himself that he had in common with this
woman only the baser uses of life.
Everett's week in Cheyenne stretched to three, and he saw no prospect of
release except through the thing he dreaded. The bright, windy days of the
Wyoming autumn passed swiftly. Letters and telegrams came urging him to
hasten his trip to the coast, but he resolutely postponed his business
engagements. The mornings he spent on one of Charley Gaylord's ponies, or
fishing in the mountains, and in the evenings he sat in his room writing
letters or reading. In the afternoon he was usually at his post of duty.
Destiny, he reflected, seems to have very positive notions about the sort
of parts we are fitted to play. The scene changes and the compensation
varies, but in the end we usually find that we have played the same class
of business from first to last. Everett had been a stopgap all his life.
He remembered going through a looking glass labyrinth when he was a boy
and trying gallery after gallery, only at every turn to bump his nose
against his own face—which, indeed, was not his own, but his
brother's. No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he
was sure to find himself employed in his brother's business, one of the
tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance
Hilgarde's. It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort,
as best he could, one of the broken things his brother's imperious speed
had cast aside and forgotten. He made no attempt to analyze the situation
or to state it in exact terms; but he felt Katharine Gaylord's need for
him, and he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this
woman to die. Day by day he felt her demands on him grow more imperious,
her need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that
in his peculiar relation to her his own individuality played a smaller and
smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort, he saw, lay solely in
his link with his brother's life. He understood all that his physical
resemblance meant to her. He knew that she sat by him always watching for
some common trick of gesture, some familiar play of expression, some
illusion of light and shadow, in which he should seem wholly Adriance. He
knew that she lived upon this and that her disease fed upon it; that it
sent shudders of remembrance through her and that in the exhaustion which
followed this turmoil of her dying senses, she slept deep and sweet and
dreamed of youth and art and days in a certain old Florentine garden, and
not of bitterness and death.
The question which most perplexed him was, "How much shall I know? How
much does she wish me to know?" A few days after his first meeting with
Katharine Gaylord, he had cabled his brother to write her. He had merely
said that she was mortally ill; he could depend on Adriance to say the
right thing—that was a part of his gift. Adriance always said not
only the right thing, but the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing. His
phrases took the color of the moment and the then-present condition, so
that they never savored of perfunctory compliment or frequent usage. He
always caught the lyric essence of the moment, the poetic suggestion of
every situation. Moreover, he usually did the right thing, the opportune,
graceful, exquisite thing—except, when he did very cruel things—bent
upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he
insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon
those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, all the
homage of the poet and troubadour, and, when they were no longer near,
forgetting—for that also was a part of Adriance's gift.
Three weeks after Everett had sent his cable, when he made his daily call
at the gaily painted ranch house, he found Katharine laughing like a
schoolgirl. "Have you ever thought," she said, as he entered the music
room, "how much these seances of ours are like Heine's 'Florentine
Nights,' except that I don't give you an opportunity to monopolize the
conversation as Heine did?" She held his hand longer than usual, as she
greeted him, and looked searchingly up into his face. "You are the kindest
man living; the kindest," she added, softly.
Everett's gray face colored faintly as he drew his hand away, for he felt
that this time she was looking at him and not at a whimsical caricature of
his brother. "Why, what have I done now?" he asked, lamely. "I can't
remember having sent you any stale candy or champagne since yesterday."
She drew a letter with a foreign postmark from between the leaves of a
book and held it out, smiling. "You got him to write it. Don't say you
didn't, for it came direct, you see, and the last address I gave him was a
place in Florida. This deed shall be remembered of you when I am with the
just in Paradise. But one thing you did not ask him to do, for you didn't
know about it. He has sent me his latest work, the new sonata, the most
ambitious thing he has ever done, and you are to play it for me directly,
though it looks horribly intricate. But first for the letter; I think you
would better read it aloud to me."
Everett sat down in a low chair facing the window seat in which she
reclined with a barricade of pillows behind her. He opened the letter, his
lashes half-veiling his kind eyes, and saw to his satisfaction that it was
a long one—wonderfully tactful and tender, even for Adriance, who
was tender with his valet and his stable boy, with his old gondolier and
the beggar-women who prayed to the saints for him.
The letter was from Granada, written in the Alhambra, as he sat by the
fountain of the Patio di Lindaraxa. The air was heavy, with the warm
fragrance of the South and full of the sound of splashing, running water,
as it had been in a certain old garden in Florence, long ago. The sky was
one great turquoise, heated until it glowed. The wonderful Moorish arches
threw graceful blue shadows all about him. He had sketched an outline of
them on the margin of his notepaper. The subtleties of Arabic decoration
had cast an unholy spell over him, and the brutal exaggerations of Gothic
art were a bad dream, easily forgotten. The Alhambra itself had, from the
first, seemed perfectly familiar to him, and he knew that he must have
trod that court, sleek and brown and obsequious, centuries before
Ferdinand rode into Andalusia. The letter was full of confidences about
his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and
comradeship, and of her own work, still so warmly remembered and
appreciatively discussed everywhere he went.
As Everett folded the letter he felt that Adriance had divined the thing
needed and had risen to it in his own wonderful way. The letter was
consistently egotistical and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet
it was just what she had wanted. A strong realization of his brother's
charm and intensity and power came over him; he felt the breath of that
whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path,
and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others. Then he looked
down at this white, burnt-out brand that lay before him. "Like him, isn't
it?" she said, quietly.
"I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but when you see him next you
can do that for me. I want you to tell him many things for me, yet they
can all be summed up in this: I want him to grow wholly into his best and
greatest self, even at the cost of the dear boyishness that is half his
charm to you and me. Do you understand me?"
"I know perfectly well what you mean," answered Everett, thoughtfully. "I
have often felt so about him myself. And yet it's difficult to prescribe
for those fellows; so little makes, so little mars."
Katharine raised herself upon her elbow, and her face flushed with
feverish earnestness. "Ah, but it is the waste of himself that I mean; his
lashing himself out on stupid and uncomprehending people until they take
him at their own estimate. He can kindle marble, strike fire from putty,
but is it worth what it costs him?"
"Come, come," expostulated Everett, alarmed at her excitement. "Where is
the new sonata? Let him speak for himself."
He sat down at the piano and began playing the first movement, which was
indeed the voice of Adriance, his proper speech. The sonata was the most
ambitious work he had done up to that time and marked the transition from
his purely lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style. Everett played
intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar
to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in
particular. When he had finished he turned to Katharine.
"How he has grown!" she cried. "What the three last years have done for
him! He used to write only the tragedies of passion; but this is the
tragedy of the soul, the shadow coexistent with the soul. This is the
tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell. This is my
tragedy, as I lie here spent by the racecourse, listening to the feet of
the runners as they pass me. Ah, God! The swift feet of the runners!"
She turned her face away and covered it with her straining hands. Everett
crossed over to her quickly and knelt beside her. In all the days he had
known her she had never before, beyond an occasional ironical jest, given
voice to the bitterness of her own defeat. Her courage had become a point
of pride with him, and to see it going sickened him.
"Don't do it," he gasped. "I can't stand it, I really can't, I feel it too
much. We mustn't speak of that; it's too tragic and too vast."
When she turned her face back to him there was a ghost of the old, brave,
cynical smile on it, more bitter than the tears she could not shed. "No, I
won't be so ungenerous; I will save that for the watches of the night when
I have no better company. Now you may mix me another drink of some sort.
Formerly, when it was not if I should ever sing Brunnhilde, but
quite simply when I should sing Brunnhilde, I was always starving
myself and thinking what I might drink and what I might not. But broken
music boxes may drink whatsoever they list, and no one cares whether they
lose their figure. Run over that theme at the beginning again. That, at
least, is not new. It was running in his head when we were in Venice years
ago, and he used to drum it on his glass at the dinner table. He had just
begun to work it out when the late autumn came on, and the paleness of the
Adriatic oppressed him, and he decided to go to Florence for the winter,
and lost touch with the theme during his illness. Do you remember those
frightful days? All the people who have loved him are not strong enough to
save him from himself! When I got word from Florence that he had been ill
I was in Nice filling a concert engagement. His wife was hurrying to him
from Paris, but I reached him first. I arrived at dusk, in a terrific
storm. They had taken an old palace there for the winter, and I found him
in the library—a long, dark room full of old Latin books and heavy
furniture and bronzes. He was sitting by a wood fire at one end of the
room, looking, oh, so worn and pale!—as he always does when he is
ill, you know. Ah, it is so good that you do know! Even his red
smoking jacket lent no color to his face. His first words were not to tell
me how ill he had been, but that that morning he had been well enough to
put the last strokes to the score of his Souvenirs d'Automne. He
was as I most like to remember him: so calm and happy and tired; not gay,
as he usually is, but just contented and tired with that heavenly
tiredness that comes after a good work done at last. Outside, the rain
poured down in torrents, and the wind moaned for the pain of all the world
and sobbed in the branches of the shivering olives and about the walls of
that desolated old palace. How that night comes back to me! There were no
lights in the room, only the wood fire which glowed upon the hard features
of the bronze Dante, like the reflection of purgatorial flames, and threw
long black shadows about us; beyond us it scarcely penetrated the gloom at
all, Adriance sat staring at the fire with the weariness of all his life
in his eyes, and of all the other lives that must aspire and suffer to
make up one such life as his. Somehow the wind with all its world-pain had
got into the room, and the cold rain was in our eyes, and the wave came up
in both of us at once—that awful, vague, universal pain, that cold
fear of life and death and God and hope—and we were like two
clinging together on a spar in midocean after the shipwreck of everything.
Then we heard the front door open with a great gust of wind that shook
even the walls, and the servants came running with lights, announcing that
Madam had returned, 'and in the book we read no more that night.'"
She gave the old line with a certain bitter humor, and with the hard,
bright smile in which of old she had wrapped her weakness as in a
glittering garment. That ironical smile, worn like a mask through so many
years, had gradually changed even the lines of her face completely, and
when she looked in the mirror she saw not herself, but the scathing
critic, the amused observer and satirist of herself. Everett dropped his
head upon his hand and sat looking at the rug. "How much you have cared!"
"Ah, yes, I cared," she replied, closing her eyes with a long-drawn sigh
of relief; and lying perfectly still, she went on: "You can't imagine what
a comfort it is to have you know how I cared, what a relief it is to be
able to tell it to someone. I used to want to shriek it out to the world
in the long nights when I could not sleep. It seemed to me that I could
not die with it. It demanded some sort of expression. And now that you
know, you would scarcely believe how much less sharp the anguish of it
Everett continued to look helplessly at the floor. "I was not sure how
much you wanted me to know," he said.
"Oh, I intended you should know from the first time I looked into your
face, when you came that day with Charley. I flatter myself that I have
been able to conceal it when I chose, though I suppose women always think
that. The more observing ones may have seen, but discerning people are
usually discreet and often kind, for we usually bleed a little before we
begin to discern. But I wanted you to know; you are so like him that it is
almost like telling him himself. At least, I feel now that he will know
some day, and then I will be quite sacred from his compassion, for we none
of us dare pity the dead. Since it was what my life has chiefly meant, I
should like him to know. On the whole I am not ashamed of it. I have
fought a good fight."
"And has he never known at all?" asked Everett, in a thick voice.
"Oh! Never at all in the way that you mean. Of course, he is accustomed to
looking into the eyes of women and finding love there; when he doesn't
find it there he thinks he must have been guilty of some discourtesy and
is miserable about it. He has a genuine fondness for everyone who is not
stupid or gloomy, or old or preternaturally ugly. Granted youth and
cheerfulness, and a moderate amount of wit and some tact, and Adriance
will always be glad to see you coming around the corner. I shared with the
rest; shared the smiles and the gallantries and the droll little sermons.
It was quite like a Sunday-school picnic; we wore our best clothes and a
smile and took our turns. It was his kindness that was hardest. I have
pretty well used my life up at standing punishment."
"Don't; you'll make me hate him," groaned Everett.
Katharine laughed and began to play nervously with her fan. "It wasn't in
the slightest degree his fault; that is the most grotesque part of it.
Why, it had really begun before I ever met him. I fought my way to him,
and I drank my doom greedily enough."
Everett rose and stood hesitating. "I think I must go. You ought to be
quiet, and I don't think I can hear any more just now."
She put out her hand and took his playfully. "You've put in three weeks at
this sort of thing, haven't you? Well, it may never be to your glory in
this world, perhaps, but it's been the mercy of heaven to me, and it ought
to square accounts for a much worse life than yours will ever be."
Everett knelt beside her, saying, brokenly: "I stayed because I wanted to
be with you, that's all. I have never cared about other women since I met
you in New York when I was a lad. You are a part of my destiny, and I
could not leave you if I would."
She put her hands on his shoulders and shook her head. "No, no; don't tell
me that. I have seen enough of tragedy, God knows. Don't show me any more
just as the curtain is going down. No, no, it was only a boy's fancy, and
your divine pity and my utter pitiableness have recalled it for a moment.
One does not love the dying, dear friend. If some fancy of that sort had
been left over from boyhood, this would rid you of it, and that were well.
Now go, and you will come again tomorrow, as long as there are tomorrows,
will you not?" She took his hand with a smile that lifted the mask from
her soul, that was both courage and despair, and full of infinite loyalty
and tenderness, as she said softly:
For ever and for ever, farewell, Cassius;
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
The courage in her eyes was like the clear light of a star to him as he
On the night of Adriance Hilgarde's opening concert in Paris Everett sat
by the bed in the ranch house in Wyoming, watching over the last battle
that we have with the flesh before we are done with it and free of it
forever. At times it seemed that the serene soul of her must have left
already and found some refuge from the storm, and only the tenacious
animal life were left to do battle with death. She labored under a
delusion at once pitiful and merciful, thinking that she was in the
Pullman on her way to New York, going back to her life and her work. When
she aroused from her stupor it was only to ask the porter to waken her
half an hour out of Jersey City, or to remonstrate with him about the
delays and the roughness of the road. At midnight Everett and the nurse
were left alone with her. Poor Charley Gaylord had lain down on a couch
outside the door. Everett sat looking at the sputtering night lamp until
it made his eyes ache. His head dropped forward on the foot of the bed,
and he sank into a heavy, distressful slumber. He was dreaming of
Adriance's concert in Paris, and of Adriance, the troubadour, smiling and
debonair, with his boyish face and the touch of silver gray in his hair.
He heard the applause and he saw the roses going up over the footlights
until they were stacked half as high as the piano, and the petals fell and
scattered, making crimson splotches on the floor. Down this crimson
pathway came Adriance with his youthful step, leading his prima donna by
the hand; a dark woman this time, with Spanish eyes.
The nurse touched him on the shoulder; he started and awoke. She screened
the lamp with her hand. Everett saw that Katharine was awake and
conscious, and struggling a little. He lifted her gently on his arm and
began to fan her. She laid her hands lightly on his hair and looked into
his face with eyes that seemed never to have wept or doubted. "Ah, dear
Adriance, dear, dear," she whispered.
Everett went to call her brother, but when they came back the madness of
art was over for Katharine.
Two days later Everett was pacing the station siding, waiting for the
westbound train. Charley Gaylord walked beside him, but the two men had
nothing to say to each other. Everett's bags were piled on the truck, and
his step was hurried and his eyes were full of impatience, as he gazed
again and again up the track, watching for the train. Gaylord's impatience
was not less than his own; these two, who had grown so close, had now
become painful and impossible to each other, and longed for the wrench of
As the train pulled in Everett wrung Gaylord's hand among the crowd of
alighting passengers. The people of a German opera company, en route to
the coast, rushed by them in frantic haste to snatch their breakfast
during the stop. Everett heard an exclamation in a broad German dialect,
and a massive woman whose figure persistently escaped from her stays in
the most improbable places rushed up to him, her blond hair disordered by
the wind, and glowing with joyful surprise she caught his coat sleeve with
her tightly gloved hands.
"Herr Gott, Adriance, lieber Freund," she cried,
Everett quickly withdrew his arm and lifted his hat, blushing. "Pardon me,
madam, but I see that you have mistaken me for Adriance Hilgarde. I am his
brother," he said quietly, and turning from the crestfallen singer, he
hurried into the car.