The Garden Lodge by Willa Cather
When Caroline Noble's friends learned that Raymond d'Esquerre was to spend
a month at her place on the Sound before he sailed to fill his engagement
for the London opera season, they considered it another striking instance
of the perversity of things. That the month was May, and the most mild and
florescent of all the blue-and-white Mays the middle coast had known in
years, but added to their sense of wrong. D'Esquerre, they learned, was
ensconced in the lodge in the apple orchard, just beyond Caroline's
glorious garden, and report went that at almost any hour the sound of the
tenor's voice and of Caroline's crashing accompaniment could be heard
floating through the open windows, out among the snowy apple boughs. The
Sound, steel-blue and dotted with white sails, was splendidly seen from
the windows of the lodge. The garden to the left and the orchard to the
right had never been so riotous with spring, and had burst into
impassioned bloom, as if to accommodate Caroline, though she was certainly
the last woman to whom the witchery of Freya could be attributed; the last
woman, as her friends affirmed, to at all adequately appreciate and make
the most of such a setting for the great tenor.
Of course, they admitted, Caroline was musical—well, she ought to
be!—but in that, as in everything, she was paramountly cool-headed,
slow of impulse, and disgustingly practical; in that, as in everything
else, she had herself so provokingly well in hand. Of course, it would be
she, always mistress of herself in any situation, she, who would never be
lifted one inch from the ground by it, and who would go on superintending
her gardeners and workmen as usual—it would be she who got him.
Perhaps some of them suspected that this was exactly why she did get him,
and it but nettled them the more.
Caroline's coolness, her capableness, her general success, especially
exasperated people because they felt that, for the most part, she had made
herself what she was; that she had cold-bloodedly set about complying with
the demands of life and making her position comfortable and masterful.
That was why, everyone said, she had married Howard Noble. Women who did
not get through life so well as Caroline, who could not make such good
terms either with fortune or their husbands, who did not find their health
so unfailingly good, or hold their looks so well, or manage their children
so easily, or give such distinction to all they did, were fond of stamping
Caroline as a materialist, and called her hard.
The impression of cold calculation, of having a definite policy, which
Caroline gave, was far from a false one; but there was this to be said for
her—that there were extenuating circumstances which her friends
could not know.
If Caroline held determinedly to the middle course, if she was apt to
regard with distrust everything which inclined toward extravagance, it was
not because she was unacquainted with other standards than her own, or had
never seen another side of life. She had grown up in Brooklyn, in a shabby
little house under the vacillating administration of her father, a music
teacher who usually neglected his duties to write orchestral compositions
for which the world seemed to have no especial need. His spirit was warped
by bitter vindictiveness and puerile self-commiseration, and he spent his
days in scorn of the labor that brought him bread and in pitiful devotion
to the labor that brought him only disappointment, writing interminable
scores which demanded of the orchestra everything under heaven except
It was not a cheerful home for a girl to grow up in. The mother, who
idolized her husband as the music lord of the future, was left to a
lifelong battle with broom and dustpan, to neverending conciliatory
overtures to the butcher and grocer, to the making of her own gowns and of
Caroline's, and to the delicate task of mollifying Auguste's neglected
The son, Heinrich, a painter, Caroline's only brother, had inherited all
his father's vindictive sensitiveness without his capacity for slavish
application. His little studio on the third floor had been much frequented
by young men as unsuccessful as himself, who met there to give themselves
over to contemptuous derision of this or that artist whose industry and
stupidity had won him recognition. Heinrich, when he worked at all, did
newspaper sketches at twenty-five dollars a week. He was too indolent and
vacillating to set himself seriously to his art, too irascible and
poignantly self-conscious to make a living, too much addicted to lying
late in bed, to the incontinent reading of poetry, and to the use of
chloral to be anything very positive except painful. At twenty-six he shot
himself in a frenzy, and the whole wretched affair had effectually
shattered his mother's health and brought on the decline of which she
died. Caroline had been fond of him, but she felt a certain relief when he
no longer wandered about the little house, commenting ironically upon its
shabbiness, a Turkish cap on his head and a cigarette hanging from between
his long, tremulous fingers.
After her mother's death Caroline assumed the management of that bankrupt
establishment. The funeral expenses were unpaid, and Auguste's pupils had
been frightened away by the shock of successive disasters and the general
atmosphere of wretchedness that pervaded the house. Auguste himself was
writing a symphonic poem, Icarus, dedicated to the memory of his son.
Caroline was barely twenty when she was called upon to face this tangle of
difficulties, but she reviewed the situation candidly. The house had
served its time at the shrine of idealism; vague, distressing, unsatisfied
yearnings had brought it low enough. Her mother, thirty years before, had
eloped and left Germany with her music teacher, to give herself over to
lifelong, drudging bondage at the kitchen range. Ever since Caroline could
remember, the law in the house had been a sort of mystic worship of things
distant, intangible and unattainable. The family had lived in successive
ebullitions of generous enthusiasm, in talk of masters and masterpieces,
only to come down to the cold facts in the case; to boiled mutton and to
the necessity of turning the dining-room carpet. All these emotional
pyrotechnics had ended in petty jealousies, in neglected duties, and in
cowardly fear of the little grocer on the corner.
From her childhood she had hated it, that humiliating and uncertain
existence, with its glib tongue and empty pockets, its poetic ideals and
sordid realities, its indolence and poverty tricked out in paper roses.
Even as a little girl, when vague dreams beset her, when she wanted to lie
late in bed and commune with visions, or to leap and sing because the
sooty little trees along the street were putting out their first pale
leaves in the sunshine, she would clench her hands and go to help her
mother sponge the spots from her father's waistcoat or press Heinrich's
trousers. Her mother never permitted the slightest question concerning
anything Auguste or Heinrich saw fit to do, but from the time Caroline
could reason at all she could not help thinking that many things went
wrong at home. She knew, for example, that her father's pupils ought not
to be kept waiting half an hour while he discussed Schopenhauer with some
bearded socialist over a dish of herrings and a spotted tablecloth. She
knew that Heinrich ought not to give a dinner on Heine's birthday, when
the laundress had not been paid for a month and when he frequently had to
ask his mother for carfare. Certainly Caroline had served her
apprenticeship to idealism and to all the embarrassing inconsistencies
which it sometimes entails, and she decided to deny herself this diffuse,
ineffectual answer to the sharp questions of life.
When she came into the control of herself and the house she refused to
proceed any further with her musical education. Her father, who had
intended to make a concert pianist of her, set this down as another item
in his long list of disappointments and his grievances against the world.
She was young and pretty, and she had worn turned gowns and soiled gloves
and improvised hats all her life. She wanted the luxury of being like
other people, of being honest from her hat to her boots, of having nothing
to hide, not even in the matter of stockings, and she was willing to work
for it. She rented a little studio away from that house of misfortune and
began to give lessons. She managed well and was the sort of girl people
liked to help. The bills were paid and Auguste went on composing, growing
indignant only when she refused to insist that her pupils should study his
compositions for the piano. She began to get engagements in New York to
play accompaniments at song recitals. She dressed well, made herself
agreeable, and gave herself a chance. She never permitted herself to look
further than a step ahead, and set herself with all the strength of her
will to see things as they are and meet them squarely in the broad day.
There were two things she feared even more than poverty: the part of one
that sets up an idol and the part of one that bows down and worships it.
When Caroline was twenty-four she married Howard Noble, then a widower of
forty, who had been for ten years a power in Wall Street. Then, for the
first time, she had paused to take breath. It took a substantialness as
unquestionable as his; his money, his position, his energy, the big vigor
of his robust person, to satisfy her that she was entirely safe. Then she
relaxed a little, feeling that there was a barrier to be counted upon
between her and that world of visions and quagmires and failure.
Caroline had been married for six years when Raymond d'Esquerre came to
stay with them. He came chiefly because Caroline was what she was; because
he, too, felt occasionally the need of getting out of Klingsor's garden,
of dropping down somewhere for a time near a quiet nature, a cool head, a
strong hand. The hours he had spent in the garden lodge were hours of such
concentrated study as, in his fevered life, he seldom got in anywhere. She
had, as he told Noble, a fine appreciation of the seriousness of work.
One evening two weeks after d'Esquerre had sailed, Caroline was in the
library giving her husband an account of the work she had laid out for the
gardeners. She superintended the care of the grounds herself. Her garden,
indeed, had become quite a part of her; a sort of beautiful adjunct, like
gowns or jewels. It was a famous spot, and Noble was very proud of it.
"What do you think, Caroline, of having the garden lodge torn down and
putting a new summer house there at the end of the arbor; a big rustic
affair where you could have tea served in midsummer?" he asked.
"The lodge?" repeated Caroline looking at him quickly. "Why, that seems
almost a shame, doesn't it, after d'Esquerre has used it?"
Noble put down his book with a smile of amusement.
"Are you going to be sentimental about it? Why, I'd sacrifice the whole
place to see that come to pass. But I don't believe you could do it for an
"I don't believe so, either," said his wife, smiling.
Noble took up his book again and Caroline went into the music room to
practice. She was not ready to have the lodge torn down. She had gone
there for a quiet hour every day during the two weeks since d'Esquerre had
left them. It was the sheerest sentiment she had ever permitted herself.
She was ashamed of it, but she was childishly unwilling to let it go.
Caroline went to bed soon after her husband, but she was not able to
sleep. The night was close and warm, presaging storm. The wind had fallen,
and the water slept, fixed and motionless as the sand. She rose and thrust
her feet into slippers and, putting a dressing gown over her shoulders,
opened the door of her husband's room; he was sleeping soundly. She went
into the hall and down the stairs; then, leaving the house through a side
door, stepped into the vine-covered arbor that led to the garden lodge.
The scent of the June roses was heavy in the still air, and the stones
that paved the path felt pleasantly cool through the thin soles of her
slippers. Heat-lightning flashed continuously from the bank of clouds that
had gathered over the sea, but the shore was flooded with moonlight and,
beyond, the rim of the Sound lay smooth and shining. Caroline had the key
of the lodge, and the door creaked as she opened it. She stepped into the
long, low room radiant with the moonlight which streamed through the bow
window and lay in a silvery pool along the waxed floor. Even that part of
the room which lay in the shadow was vaguely illuminated; the piano, the
tall candlesticks, the picture frames and white casts standing out as
clearly in the half-light as did the sycamores and black poplars of the
garden against the still, expectant night sky. Caroline sat down to think
it all over. She had come here to do just that every day of the two weeks
since d'Esquerre's departure, but, far from ever having reached a
conclusion, she had succeeded only in losing her way in a maze of memories—sometimes
bewilderingly confused, sometimes too acutely distinct—where there
was neither path, nor clue, nor any hope of finality. She had, she
realized, defeated a lifelong regimen; completely confounded herself by
falling unaware and incontinently into that luxury of reverie which, even
as a little girl, she had so determinedly denied herself, she had been
developing with alarming celerity that part of one which sets up an idol
and that part of one which bows down and worships it.
It was a mistake, she felt, ever to have asked d'Esquerre to come at all.
She had an angry feeling that she had done it rather in self-defiance, to
rid herself finally of that instinctive fear of him which had always
troubled and perplexed her. She knew that she had reckoned with herself
before he came; but she had been equal to so much that she had never
really doubted she would be equal to this. She had come to believe,
indeed, almost arrogantly in her own malleability and endurance; she had
done so much with herself that she had come to think that there was
nothing which she could not do; like swimmers, overbold, who reckon upon
their strength and their power to hoard it, forgetting the ever-changing
moods of their adversary, the sea.
And d'Esquerre was a man to reckon with. Caroline did not deceive herself
now upon that score. She admitted it humbly enough, and since she had said
good-by to him she had not been free for a moment from the sense of his
formidable power. It formed the undercurrent of her consciousness;
whatever she might be doing or thinking, it went on, involuntarily, like
her breathing, sometimes welling up until suddenly she found herself
suffocating. There was a moment of this tonight, and Caroline rose and
stood shuddering, looking about her in the blue duskiness of the silent
room. She had not been here at night before, and the spirit of the place
seemed more troubled and insistent than ever it had in the quiet of the
afternoons. Caroline brushed her hair back from her damp forehead and went
over to the bow window. After raising it she sat down upon the low seat.
Leaning her head against the sill, and loosening her nightgown at the
throat, she half-closed her eyes and looked off into the troubled night,
watching the play of the heat-lightning upon the massing clouds between
the pointed tops of the poplars.
Yes, she knew, she knew well enough, of what absurdities this spell was
woven; she mocked, even while she winced. His power, she knew, lay not so
much in anything that he actually had—though he had so much—or
in anything that he actually was, but in what he suggested, in what he
seemed picturesque enough to have or be and that was just anything that
one chose to believe or to desire. His appeal was all the more persuasive
and alluring in that it was to the imagination alone, in that it was as
indefinite and impersonal as those cults of idealism which so have their
way with women. What he had was that, in his mere personality, he
quickened and in a measure gratified that something without which—to
women—life is no better than sawdust, and to the desire for which
most of their mistakes and tragedies and astonishingly poor bargains are
D'Esquerre had become the center of a movement, and the Metropolitan had
become the temple of a cult. When he could be induced to cross the
Atlantic, the opera season in New York was successful; when he could not,
the management lost money; so much everyone knew. It was understood, too,
that his superb art had disproportionately little to do with his peculiar
position. Women swayed the balance this way or that; the opera, the
orchestra, even his own glorious art, achieved at such a cost, were but
the accessories of himself; like the scenery and costumes and even the
soprano, they all went to produce atmosphere, were the mere mechanics of
the beautiful illusion.
Caroline understood all this; tonight was not the first time that she had
put it to herself so. She had seen the same feeling in other people,
watched for it in her friends, studied it in the house night after night
when he sang, candidly putting herself among a thousand others.
D'Esquerre's arrival in the early winter was the signal for a feminine
hegira toward New York. On the nights when he sang women flocked to the
Metropolitan from mansions and hotels, from typewriter desks, schoolrooms,
shops, and fitting rooms. They were of all conditions and complexions.
Women of the world who accepted him knowingly as they sometimes took
champagne for its agreeable effect; sisters of charity and overworked
shopgirls, who received him devoutly; withered women who had taken
doctorate degrees and who worshipped furtively through prism spectacles;
business women and women of affairs, the Amazons who dwelt afar from men
in the stony fastnesses of apartment houses. They all entered into the
same romance; dreamed, in terms as various as the hues of fantasy, the
same dream; drew the same quick breath when he stepped upon the stage,
and, at his exit, felt the same dull pain of shouldering the pack again.
There were the maimed, even; those who came on crutches, who were pitted
by smallpox or grotesquely painted by cruel birth stains. These, too,
entered with him into enchantment. Stout matrons became slender girls
again; worn spinsters felt their cheeks flush with the tenderness of their
lost youth. Young and old, however hideous, however fair, they yielded up
their heat—whether quick or latent—sat hungering for the
mystic bread wherewith he fed them at this eucharist of sentiment.
Sometimes, when the house was crowded from the orchestra to the last row
of the gallery, when the air was charged with this ecstasy of fancy, he
himself was the victim of the burning reflection of his power. They acted
upon him in turn; he felt their fervent and despairing appeal to him; it
stirred him as the spring drives the sap up into an old tree; he, too,
burst into bloom. For the moment he, too, believed again, desired again,
he knew not what, but something.
But it was not in these exalted moments that Caroline had learned to fear
him most. It was in the quiet, tired reserve, the dullness, even, that
kept him company between these outbursts that she found that exhausting
drain upon her sympathies which was the very pith and substance of their
alliance. It was the tacit admission of disappointment under all this
glamour of success—the helplessness of the enchanter to at all
enchant himself—that awoke in her an illogical, womanish desire to
in some way compensate, to make it up to him.
She had observed drastically to herself that it was her eighteenth year he
awoke in her—those hard years she had spent in turning gowns and
placating tradesmen, and which she had never had time to live. After all,
she reflected, it was better to allow one's self a little youth—to
dance a little at the carnival and to live these things when they are
natural and lovely, not to have them coming back on one and demanding
arrears when they are humiliating and impossible. She went over tonight
all the catalogue of her self-deprivations; recalled how, in the light of
her father's example, she had even refused to humor her innocent taste for
improvising at the piano; how, when she began to teach, after her mother's
death, she had struck out one little indulgence after another, reducing
her life to a relentless routine, unvarying as clockwork. It seemed to her
that ever since d'Esquerre first came into the house she had been haunted
by an imploring little girlish ghost that followed her about, wringing its
hands and entreating for an hour of life.
The storm had held off unconscionably long; the air within the lodge was
stifling, and without the garden waited, breathless. Everything seemed
pervaded by a poignant distress; the hush of feverish, intolerable
expectation. The still earth, the heavy flowers, even the growing
darkness, breathed the exhaustion of protracted waiting. Caroline felt
that she ought to go; that it was wrong to stay; that the hour and the
place were as treacherous as her own reflections. She rose and began to
pace the floor, stepping softly, as though in fear of awakening someone,
her figure, in its thin drapery, diaphanously vague and white. Still
unable to shake off the obsession of the intense stillness, she sat down
at the piano and began to run over the first act of the Walkure,
the last of his roles they had practiced together; playing listlessly and
absently at first, but with gradually increasing seriousness. Perhaps it
was the still heat of the summer night, perhaps it was the heavy odors
from the garden that came in through the open windows; but as she played
there grew and grew the feeling that he was there, beside her, standing in
his accustomed place. In the duet at the end of the first act she heard
him clearly: "Thou art the Spring for which I sighed in Winter's cold
embraces." Once as he sang it, he had put his arm about her, his one
hand under her heart, while with the other he took her right from the
keyboard, holding her as he always held Sieglinde when he drew her
toward the window. She had been wonderfully the mistress of herself at the
time; neither repellent nor acquiescent. She remembered that she had
rather exulted, then, in her self-control—which he had seemed to
take for granted, though there was perhaps the whisper of a question from
the hand under her heart. "Thou art the Spring for which I sighed in
Winter's cold embraces." Caroline lifted her hands quickly from the
keyboard, and she bowed her head in them, sobbing.
The storm broke and the rain beat in, spattering her nightdress until she
rose and lowered the windows. She dropped upon the couch and began
fighting over again the battles of other days, while the ghosts of the
slain rose as from a sowing of dragon's teeth, The shadows of things,
always so scorned and flouted, bore down upon her merciless and
triumphant. It was not enough; this happy, useful, well-ordered life was
not enough. It did not satisfy, it was not even real. No, the other
things, the shadows-they were the realities. Her father, poor Heinrich,
even her mother, who had been able to sustain her poor romance and keep
her little illusions amid the tasks of a scullion, were nearer happiness
than she. Her sure foundation was but made ground, after all, and the
people in Klingsor's garden were more fortunate, however barren the sands
from which they conjured their paradise.
The lodge was still and silent; her fit of weeping over, Caroline made no
sound, and within the room, as without in the garden, was the blackness of
storm. Only now and then a flash of lightning showed a woman's slender
figure rigid on the couch, her face buried in her hands.
Toward morning, when the occasional rumbling of thunder was heard no more
and the beat of the raindrops upon the orchard leaves was steadier, she
fell asleep and did not waken until the first red streaks of dawn shone
through the twisted boughs of the apple trees. There was a moment between
world and world, when, neither asleep nor awake, she felt her dream grow
thin, melting away from her, felt the warmth under her heart growing cold.
Something seemed to slip from the clinging hold of her arms, and she
groaned protestingly through her parted lips, following it a little way
with fluttering hands. Then her eyes opened wide and she sprang up and sat
holding dizzily to the cushions of the couch, staring down at her bare,
cold feet, at her laboring breast, rising and falling under her open
The dream was gone, but the feverish reality of it still pervaded her and
she held it as the vibrating string holds a tone. In the last hour the
shadows had had their way with Caroline. They had shown her the
nothingness of time and space, of system and discipline, of closed doors
and broad waters. Shuddering, she thought of the Arabian fairy tale in
which the genie brought the princess of China to the sleeping prince of
Damascus and carried her through the air back to her palace at dawn.
Caroline closed her eyes and dropped her elbows weakly upon her knees, her
shoulders sinking together. The horror was that it had not come from
without, but from within. The dream was no blind chance; it was the
expression of something she had kept so close a prisoner that she had
never seen it herself, it was the wail from the donjon deeps when the
watch slept. Only as the outcome of such a night of sorcery could the
thing have been loosed to straighten its limbs and measure itself with
her; so heavy were the chains upon it, so many a fathom deep, it was
crushed down into darkness. The fact that d'Esquerre happened to be on the
other side of the world meant nothing; had he been here, beside her, it
could scarcely have hurt her self-respect so much. As it was, she was
without even the extenuation of an outer impulse, and she could scarcely
have despised herself more had she come to him here in the night three
weeks ago and thrown herself down upon the stone slab at the door there.
Caroline rose unsteadily and crept guiltily from the lodge and along the
path under the arbor, terrified lest the servants should be stirring,
trembling with the chill air, while the wet shrubbery, brushing against
her, drenched her nightdress until it clung about her limbs.
At breakfast her husband looked across the table at her with concern. "It
seems to me that you are looking rather fagged, Caroline. It was a beastly
night to sleep. Why don't you go up to the mountains until this hot
weather is over? By the way, were you in earnest about letting the lodge
Caroline laughed quietly. "No, I find I was not very serious. I haven't
sentiment enough to forego a summer house. Will you tell Baker to come
tomorrow to talk it over with me? If we are to have a house party, I
should like to put him to work on it at once."
Noble gave her a glance, half-humorous, half-vexed. "Do you know I am
rather disappointed?" he said. "I had almost hoped that, just for once,
you know, you would be a little bit foolish."
"Not now that I've slept over it," replied Caroline, and they both rose
from the table, laughing.