"A Death in the Desert"
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
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 can.
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
"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 146 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 shaken him.
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 his address.
"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 to apologize."
"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 apology."
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 her."
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
"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 unhappy."
"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 them.
"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 Rockies.
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
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,
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 that method."
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 worldly.
"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
"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 be 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
"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 Mother.'"
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 quote.
As Everett sat smoking on the veranda of the InterOcean
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 eves, 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!" he said.
"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 is."
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
"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
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 went out.
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 farewell.
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.
Willa Cather's short story: "A Death in the Desert"
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