My Mortal Enemy, by Willa Cather

Part II

I

Ten years after that visit to New York I happened to be in a sprawling overgrown West-coast city which was in the throes of rapid development — it ran about the shore, stumbling all over itself and finally tumbled untidily into the sea. Every hotel and boarding-house was overcrowded, and I was very poor. Things had gone badly with my family and with me. I had come West in the middle of the year to take a position in a college — a college that was as experimental and unsubstantial as everything else in the place. I found lodgings in an apartment-hotel, wretchedly built and already falling to pieces, although it was new. I moved in on a Sunday morning, and while I was unpacking my trunk, I heard, through the thin walls, my neighbour stirring about; a man, and, from the huskiness of his cough and something measured in his movements, not a young man. The caution of his step, the guarded consideration of his activities, let me know that he did not wish to thrust the details of his housekeeping upon other people any more than he could help.

Presently I detected the ugly smell of gasolene in the air, heard a sound of silk being snapped and shaken, and then a voice humming very low an old German air — yes, Schubert’s Frühlings-glaube; ta ta te-ta | ta-ta ta-ta ta-ta | ta. In a moment I saw the ends of dark neckties fluttering out of the window next mine.

All this made me melancholy — more than the dreariness of my own case. I was young, and it didn’t matter so much about me; for youth there is always the hope, the certainty, of better things. But an old man, a gentleman, living in this shabby, comfortless place, cleaning his neckties of a Sunday morning and humming to himself . . . it depressed me unreasonably. I was glad when his outer door shut softly and I heard no more of him.

There was an indifferent restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel. As I was going down to my dinner that evening, I met, at the head of the stairs, a man coming up and carrying a large black tin tray. His head was bent, and his eyes were lowered. As he drew aside to let me pass, in spite of his thin white hair and stooped shoulders, I recognised Oswald Henshawe, whom I had not seen for so many years — not, indeed, since that afternoon when he took me to see Sarah Bernhardt play Hamlet.

When I called his name he started, looked at me, and rested the tray on the sill of the blindless window that lighted the naked stairway. “Nellie! Nellie Birdseye! Can it be?” His voice was quite uncertain. He seemed deeply shaken, and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. “But, Nellie, you have grown up! I would not know you. What good fortune for Myra! She will hardly believe it when I tell her. She is ill, my poor Myra. Oh, very ill! But we must not speak of that, nor seem to know it. What it will mean to her to see you again! Her friends always were so much to her, you remember? Will you stop and see us as you come up? Her room is thirty-two; rap gently, and I’ll be waiting for you. Now I must take her dinner. Oh, I hope for her sake you are staying some time. She has no one here.”

He took up the tray and went softly along the uncarpeted hall. I felt little zest for the canned vegetables and hard meat the waitress put before me. I had known that the Henshawes had come on evil days, and were wandering about among the cities of the Pacific coast. But Myra had stopped writing to Aunt Lydia, beyond a word of greeting at Christmas and on her birthday. She had ceased to give us any information about their way of life. We knew that several years after my memorable visit in New York, the railroad to whose president Oswald had long been private secretary, was put into the hands of a receiver, and the retiring president went abroad to live. Henshawe had remained with the new management, but very soon the road was taken over by one of the great trunk lines, and the office staff was cut in two. In the reorganization Henshawe was offered a small position, which he indignantly refused — his wife wouldn’t let him think of accepting it. He went to San Francisco as manager of a commission house; the business failed, and what had happened to them since I did not know.

I lingered long over my dismal dinner. I had not the courage to go up-stairs. Henshawe was not more than sixty, but he looked much older. He had the tired, tired face of one who has utterly lost hope.

Oswald had got his wife up out of bed to receive me. When I entered she was sitting in a wheel-chair by an open window, wrapped in a Chinese dressing-gown, with a bright shawl over her feet. She threw out both arms to me, and as she hugged me, flashed into her old gay laugh.

“Now wasn’t it clever of you to find us, Nellie? And we so safely hidden — in earth, like a pair of old foxes! But it was in the cards that we should meet again. Now I understand; a wise woman has been coming to read my fortune for me, and the queen of hearts has been coming up out of the pack when she had no business to; a beloved friend coming out of the past. Well, Nellie, dear, I couldn’t think of any old friends that weren’t better away, for one reason or another, while we are in temporary eclipse. I gain strength faster if I haven’t people on my mind. But you, Nellie . . . that’s different.” She put my two hands to her cheeks, making a frame for her face. “That’s different. Somebody young, and clear-eyed, chock-full of opinions, and without a past. But you may have a past, already? The darkest ones come early.”

I was delighted. She was . . . she was herself, Myra Henshawe! I hadn’t expected anything so good. The electric bulbs in the room were shrouded and muffled with coloured scarfs, and in that light she looked much less changed than Oswald. The corners of her mouth had relaxed a little, but they could still curl very scornfully upon occasion; her nose was the same sniffy little nose, with its restless, arched nostrils, and her double chin, though softer, was no fuller. A strong cable of grey-black hair was wound on the top of her head, which, as she once remarked, “was no head for a woman at all, but would have graced one of the wickedest of the Roman emperors.”

Her bed was in the alcove behind her. In the shadowy dimness of the room I recognised some of the rugs from their New York apartment, some of the old pictures, with frames peeling and glass cracked. Here was Myra’s little inlaid tea-table, and the desk at which Oswald had been writing that day when I dropped in upon their quarrel. At the windows were the dear, plum-coloured curtains, their cream lining streaked and faded — but the sight of them rejoiced me more than I could tell the Henshawes.

“And where did you come from, Nellie? What are you doing here, in heaven’s name?”

While I explained myself she listened intently, holding my wrist with one of her beautiful little hands, which were so inexplicably mischievous in their outline, and which, I noticed, were still white and well cared for.

“Ah, but teaching, Nellie! I don’t like that, not even for a temporary expedient. It’s a cul-desac. Generous young people use themselves all up at it; they have no sense. Only the stupid and the phlegmatic should teach.”

“But won’t you allow me, too, a temporary eclipse?”

She laughed and squeezed my hand. “Ah, WE wouldn’t be hiding in the shadow, if we were five-and-twenty! We were throwing off sparks like a pair of shooting stars, weren’t we, Oswald? No, I can’t bear teaching for you, Nellie. Why not journalism? You could always make your way easily there.”

“Because I hate journalism. I know what I want to do, and I’ll work my way out yet, if only you’ll give me time.”

“Very well, dear.” She sighed. “But I’m ambitious for you. I’ve no patience with young people when they drift. I wish I could live their lives for them; I’d know how! But there it is; by the time you’ve learned the short cuts, your feet puff up so that you can’t take the road at all. Now tell me about your mother and my Lydia.”

I had hardly begun when she lifted one finger and sniffed the air. “Do you get it? That bitter smell of the sea? It’s apt to come in on the night wind. I live on it. Sometimes I can still take a drive along the shore. Go on; you say that Lydia and your mother are at present in disputation about the possession of your late grandfather’s portrait. Why don’t you cut it in two for them, Nellie? I remember it perfectly, and half of it would be enough for anybody!”

While I told her any amusing gossip I could remember about my family, she sat crippled but powerful in her brilliant wrappings. She looked strong and broken, generous and tyrannical, a witty and rather wicked old woman, who hated life for its defeats, and loved it for its absurdities. I recalled her angry laugh, and how she had always greeted shock or sorrow with that dry, exultant chuckle which seemed to say: “Ah-ha, I have one more piece of evidence, one more, against the hideous injustice God permits in this world!”

While we were talking, the silence of the strangely balmy February evening was rudely disturbed by the sound of doors slamming and heavy tramping overhead. Mrs. Henshawe winced, a look of apprehension and helplessness, a tortured expression, came over her face. She turned sharply to her husband, who was resting peacefully in one of their old, deep chairs, over by the muffled light. “There they are, those animals!”

He sat up. “They have just come back from church,” he said in a troubled voice.

“Why should I have to know when they come back from church? Why should I have the details of their stupid, messy existence thrust upon me all day long, and half the night?” she broke out bitterly. Her features became tense, as from an attack of pain, and I realised how unable she was to bear things.

“We are unfortunate in the people who live over us,” Oswald explained. “They annoy us a great deal. These new houses are poorly built, and every sound carries.”

“Couldn’t you ask them to walk more quietly?” I suggested.

He smiled and shook his head. “We have, but it seems to make them worse. They are that kind of people.”

His wife broke in. “The palavery kind of Southerners; all that slushy gush on the surface, and no sensibilities whatever — a race without consonants and without delicacy. They tramp up there all day long like cattle. The stalled ox would have trod softer. Their energy isn’t worth anything, so they use it up gabbling and running about, beating my brains into a jelly.”

She had scarcely stopped for breath when I heard a telephone ring overhead, then shrieks of laughter, and two people ran across the floor as if they were running a foot-race.

“You hear?” Mrs. Henshawe looked at me triumphantly. “Those two silly old hens race each other to the telephone as if they had a sweetheart at the other end of it. While I could still climb stairs, I hobbled up to that woman and implored her, and she began gushing about ‘mah sistah’ and ‘mah son,’ and what ‘rahfined’ people they were. . . . Oh, that’s the cruelty of being poor; it leaves you at the mercy of such pigs! Money is a protection, a cloak; it can buy one quiet, and some sort of dignity.” She leaned back, exhausted, and shut her eyes.

“Come, Nellie,” said Oswald, softly. He walked down the hall to my door with me. “I’m sorry the disturbance began while you were there. Sometimes they go to the movies, and stay out later,” he said mournfully. “I’ve talked to that woman and to her son, but they are very unfeeling people.”

“But wouldn’t the management interfere in a case of sickness?”

Again he shook his head. “No, they pay a higher rent than we do — occupy more rooms. And we are somewhat under obligation to the management.”

II

I soon discovered the facts about the Henshawes’ present existence. Oswald had a humble position, poorly paid, with the city traction company. He had to be at his desk at nine o’clock every day except Sunday. He rose at five in the morning, put on an old duck suit (it happened to be a very smart one, with frogs and a military collar, left over from prosperous times), went to his wife’s room and gave her her bath, made her bed, arranged her things, and then got their breakfast. He made the coffee on a spirit lamp, the toast on an electric toaster. This was the only meal of the day they could have together, and as they had it long before the ruthless Poindexters overhead began to tramp, it was usually a cheerful occasion.

After breakfast Oswald washed the dishes. Their one luxury was a private bath, with a large cupboard, which he called his kitchen. Everything else done, he went back to his own room, put it in order, and then dressed for the office. He still dressed very neatly, though how he managed to do it with the few clothes he had, I could not see. He was the only man staying in that shabby hotel who looked well-groomed. As a special favour from his company he was allowed to take two hours at noon, on account of his sick wife. He came home, brought her her lunch from below, then hurried back to his office.

Myra made her own tea every afternoon, getting about in her wheel-chair or with the aid of a cane. I found that one of the kindest things I could do for her was to bring her some little sandwiches or cakes from the Swedish bakery to vary her tinned biscuit. She took great pains to get her tea nicely; it made her feel less shabby to use her own silver tea things and the three glossy English cups she had carried about with her in her trunk. I used often to go in and join her, and we spent some of our pleasantest hours at that time of the day, when the people overhead were usually out. When they were in, and active, it was too painful to witness Mrs. Henshawe’s suffering. She was acutely sensitive to sound and light, and the Poindexters did tramp like cattle — except that their brutal thumping hadn’t the measured dignity which the step of animals always has. Mrs. Henshawe got great pleasure from flowers, too, and during the late winter months my chief extravagance and my chief pleasure was in taking them to her.

One warm Saturday afternoon, early in April, we went for a drive along the shore. I had hired a low carriage with a kindly Negro driver. Supported on his arm and mine, Mrs. Henshawe managed to get downstairs. She looked much older and more ill in her black broadcloth coat and a black taffeta hat that had once been smart. We took with us her furs and an old steamer blanket. It was a beautiful, soft spring day. The road, unfortunately, kept winding away from the sea. At last we came out on a bare headland, with only one old twisted tree upon it, and the sea beneath.

“Why, Nellie!” she exclaimed, “it’s like the cliff in Lear, Gloucester’s cliff, so it is! Can’t we stay here? I believe this nice darkey man would fix me up under the tree there and come back for us later.”

We wrapped her in the rug, and she declared that the trunk of the old cedar, bending away from the sea, made a comfortable back for her. The Negro drove away, and I went for a walk up the shore because I knew she wanted to be alone. From a distance I could see her leaning against her tree and looking off to sea, as if she were waiting for something. A few steamers passed below her, and the gulls dipped and darted about the headland, the soft shine of the sun on their wings. The afternoon light, at first wide and watery-pale, grew stronger and yellower, and when I went back to Myra it was beating from the west on her cliff as if thrown by a burning-glass.

She looked up at me with a soft smile — her face could still be very lovely in a tender moment. “I’ve had such a beautiful hour, dear; or has it been longer? Light and silence: they heal all one’s wounds — all but one, and that is healed by dark and silence. I find I don’t miss clever talk, the kind I always used to have about me, when I can have silence. It’s like cold water poured over fever.”

I sat down beside her, and we watched the sun dropping lower toward his final plunge into the Pacific. “I’d love to see this place at dawn,” Myra said suddenly. “That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution. You know how the great sinners always came home to die in some religious house, and the abbot or the abbess went out and received them with a kiss?”

When we got home she was, of course, very tired. Oswald was waiting for us, and he and the driver carried her upstairs. While we were getting her into bed, the noise overhead broke out — tramp, tramp, bang! Myra began to cry.

“Oh, I’ve come back to it, to be tormented again! I’ve two fatal maladies, but it’s those coarse creatures I shall die of. Why didn’t you leave me out there, Nellie, in the wind and night? You ought to get me away from this, Oswald. If I were on my feet, and you laid low, I wouldn’t let you be despised and trampled upon.”

“I’ll go up and see those people tomorrow, Mrs. Henshawe,” I promised. “I’m sure I can do something.”

“Oh, don’t, Nellie!” she looked up at me in affright. “She’d turn a deaf ear to you. You know the Bible says the wicked are deaf like the adder. And, Nellie, she has the wrinkled, white throat of an adder, that woman, and the hard eyes of one. Don’t go near her!”

(I went to see Mrs. Poindexter the next day, and she had just such a throat and just such eyes. She smiled, and said that the sick woman underneath was an old story, and she ought to have been sent to a sanatorium long ago.)

“Never mind, Myra. I’ll get you away from it yet. I’ll manage,” Oswald promised as he settled the pillows under her.

She smoothed his hair. “No, my poor Oswald, you’ll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew!” She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. “It’s been the ruin of us both. We’ve destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We’ve thrown our lives away.”

“Come, Myra, don’t talk so before Nellie. You don’t mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this.”

“We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I’m old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I’d still have my circle; I’d have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!” She turned her face to the wall and covered her head.

We stepped into the hall, and the moment we closed the door we heard the bolt slip behind us. She must have sprung up very quickly. Oswald walked with me to my room. “It’s apt to be like this, when she has enjoyed something and gone beyond her strength. There are times when she can’t have anyone near her. It was worse before you came.”

I persuaded him to come into my room and sit down and drink a glass of cordial.

“Sometimes she has locked me out for days together,” he said. “It seems strange — a woman of such generous friendships. It’s as if she had used up that part of herself. It’s a great strain on me when she shuts herself up like that. I’m afraid she’ll harm herself in some way.”

“But people don’t do things like that,” I said hopelessly.

He smiled and straightened his shoulders. “Ah, but she isn’t people! She’s Molly Driscoll, and there was never anybody else like her. She can’t endure, but she has enough desperate courage for a regiment.”

III

The next morning I saw Henshawe breakfasting in the restaurant, against his custom, so I judged that his wife was still in retreat. I was glad to see that he was not alone, but was talking, with evident pleasure, to a young girl who lived with her mother at this hotel. I had noticed her respectful admiration for Henshawe on other occasions. She worked on a newspaper, was intelligent and, Oswald thought, promising. We enjoyed talking with her at lunch or dinner. She was perhaps eighteen, overgrown and awkward, with short hair and a rather heavy face; but there was something unusual about her clear, honest eyes that made one wonder. She was always on the watch to catch a moment with Oswald, to get him to talk to her about music, or German poetry, or about the actors and writers he had known. He called her his little chum, and her admiration was undoubtedly a help to him. It was very pretty and naïve. Perhaps that was one of the things that kept him up to the mark in his dress and manner. Among people he never looked apologetic or crushed. He still wore his topaz sleeve-buttons.

On Monday, as I came home from school, I saw that the door of Mrs. Henshawe’s room was slightly ajar. She knew my step and called to me: “Can you come in, Nellie?”

She was staying in bed that afternoon, but she had on her best dressing-gown, and she was manicuring her neat little hands — a good sign, I thought.

“Could you stop and have tea with me, and talk? I’ll be good today, I promise you. I wakened up in the night crying, and it did me good. You see, I was crying about things I never feel now; I’d been dreaming I was young, and the sorrows of youth had set me crying!” She took my hand as I sat down beside her. “Do you know that poem of Heine’s, about how he found in his eye a tear that was not of the present, an old one, left over from the kind he used to weep? A tear that belonged to a long dead time of his life and was an anachronism. He couldn’t account for it, yet there it was, and he addresses it so prettily: ‘Thou old, lonesome tear!’ Would you read it for me? There’s my little Heine, on the shelf over the sofa. You can easily find the verse, Du alte, einsame Thräne!”

I ran through the volume, reading a poem here and there where a leaf had been turned down, or where I saw a line I knew well. It was a fat old book, with yellow pages, bound in tooled leather, and on the fly-leaf, in faint violet ink, was an inscription, “To Myra Driscoll from Oswald,” dated 1876.

My friend lay still, with her eyes closed, and occasionally one of those anachronistic tears gathered on her lashes and fell on the pillow, making a little grey spot. Often she took the verse out of my mouth and finished it herself.

“Look for a little short one, about the flower that grows on the suicide’s grave, die Armesünderblum’, the poor-sinner’s-flower. Oh, that’s the flower for me, Nellie; die Arme — sünder — blum’!” She drew the word out until it was a poem in itself.

“Come, dear,” she said presently, when I put down the book, “you don’t really like this new verse that’s going round, ugly lines about ugly people and common feelings — you don’t really?”

When I reminded her that she liked Walt Whitman, she chuckled slyly. “Does that save me? Can I get into your new Parnassus on that dirty old man? I suppose I ought to be glad of any sort of ticket at my age! I like naughty rhymes, when they don’t try to be pompous. I like the kind bad boys write on fences. My uncle had a rare collection of such rhymes in his head that he’d picked off fences and out-buildings. I wish I’d taken them down; I might become a poet of note! My uncle was a very unusual man. Did they ever tell you much about him at home? Yes, he had violent prejudices; but that’s rather good to remember in these days when so few people have any real passions, either of love or hate. He would help a friend, no matter what it cost him, and over and over again he risked ruining himself to crush an enemy. But he never did ruin himself. Men who hate like that usually have the fist-power to back it up, you’ll notice. He gave me fair warning, and then he kept his word. I knew he would; we were enough alike for that. He left his money wisely; part of it went to establish a home for aged and destitute women in Chicago, where it was needed.”

While we were talking about this institution and some of the refugees it sheltered, Myra said suddenly: “I wonder if you know about a clause concerning me in that foundation? It states that at any time the founder’s niece, Myra Driscoll Henshawe, is to be received into the institution, kept without charge, and paid an allowance of ten dollars a week for pocket money until the time of her death. How like the old Satan that was! Be sure when he dictated that provision to his lawyer, he thought to himself: ‘She’d roll herself into the river first, the brach!’ And then he probably thought better of me, and maybe died with some decent feeling for me in his heart. We were very proud of each other, and if he’d lived till now, I’d go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forbears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton.”

It had grown quite dusk while we talked. When I rose and turned on one of the shrouded lights, Mrs. Henshawe looked up at me and smiled drolly. “We’ve had a fine afternoon, and Biddy forgetting her ails. How the great poets do shine on, Nellie! Into all the dark corners of the world. They have no night.”

They shone for her, certainly. Miss Stirling, “a nice young person from the library,” as Myra called her, ran in occasionally with new books, but Myra’s eyes tired quickly, and she used to shut a new book and lie back and repeat the old ones she knew by heart, the long declamations from Richard II or King John. As I passed her door I would hear her murmuring at the very bottom of her rich Irish voice:

Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lan-cas-ter. . .

IV

One afternoon when I got home from school I found a note from Mrs. Henshawe under my door, and went to her at once. She greeted me and kissed me with unusual gravity.

“Nellie, dear, will you do a very special favour for me tomorrow? It is the fifteenth of April, the anniversary of Madame Modjeska’s death.” She gave me a key and asked me to open an old trunk in the corner. “Lift the tray, and in the bottom, at one end, you will find an old pair of long kid gloves, tied up like sacks. Please give them to me.”

I burrowed down under old evening wraps and dinner dresses and came upon the gloves, yellow with age and tied at both ends with corset lacings; they contained something heavy that jingled. Myra was watching my face and chuckled. “Is she thinking they are my wedding gloves, piously preserved? No, my dear; I went before a justice of the peace, and married without gloves, so to speak!” Untying the string, she shook out a little rain of ten — and twenty-dollar gold pieces.

“All old Irish women hide away a bit of money.” She took up a coin and gave it to me. “Will you go to St. Joseph’s Church and inquire for Father Fay; tell him you are from me, and ask him to celebrate a mass tomorrow for the repose of the soul of Helena Modjeska, Countess Bozenta–Chlapowska. He will remember; last year I hobbled there myself. You are surprised, Nellie? Yes, I broke with the Church when I broke with everything else and ran away with a German free-thinker; but I believe in holy words and holy rites all the same. It is a solace to me to know that tomorrow a mass will be said here in heathendom for the spirit of that noble artist, that beautiful and gracious woman.”

When I put the gold back into the trunk and started making the tea, she said: “Oswald, of course, doesn’t know the extent of my resources. We’ve often needed a hundred dollars or two so bitter bad; he wouldn’t understand. But that is money I keep for unearthly purposes; the needs of this world don’t touch it.”

As I was leaving she called me back: “Oh, Nellie, can’t we go to Gloucester’s cliff on Saturday, if it’s fine? I do long to!”

We went again, and again. Nothing else seemed to give her so much pleasure. But the third time I stopped for her, she declared she was not equal to it. I found her sitting in her chair, trying to write to an old friend, an Irish actress I had met at her apartment in New York, one of the guests at that New Year’s Eve party. Her son, a young actor, had shot himself in Chicago because of some sordid love affair. I had seen an account of it in the morning paper.

“It touches me very nearly,” Mrs. Henshawe told me. “Why, I used to keep Billy with me for weeks together when his mother was off on tour. He was the most truthful, noble-hearted little fellow. I had so hoped he would be happy. You remember his mother?”

I remembered her very well — large and jovial and hearty she was. Myra began telling me about her, and the son, whom she had not seen since he was sixteen.

“To throw his youth away like that, and shoot himself at twenty-three! People are always talking about the joys of youth — but, oh, how youth can suffer! I’ve not forgotten; those hot southern Illinois nights, when Oswald was in New York, and I had no word from him except through Liddy, and I used to lie on the floor all night and listen to the express trains go by. I’ve not forgotten.”

“Then I wonder why you are sometimes so hard on him now,” I murmured.

Mrs. Henshawe did not reply to me at once. The corners of her mouth trembled, then drew tight, and she sat with her eyes closed as if she were gathering herself for something.

At last she sighed, and looked at me wistfully. “It’s a great pity, isn’t it, Nellie, to reach out a grudging hand and try to spoil the past for any one? Yes, it’s a great cruelty. But I can’t help it. He’s a sentimentalist, always was; he can look back on the best of those days when we were young and loved each other, and make himself believe it was all like that. It wasn’t. I was always a grasping, worldly woman; I was never satisfied. All the same, in age, when the flowers are so few, it’s a great unkindness to destroy any that are left in a man’s heart.” The tears rolled down her cheeks, she leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. She had stopped speaking because her voice broke. Presently she began again resolutely. “But I’m made so. People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were. . . . A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can’t forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that’s it. When there are children, that feeling goes through natural changes. But when it remains so personal . . . something gives way in one. In age we lose everything; even the power to love.”

“He hasn’t,” I suggested.

“He has asked you to speak for him, my dear? Then we have destroyed each other indeed!”

“Certainly he hasn’t, Mrs. Myra! But you are hard on him, you know, and when there are so many hard things, it seems a pity.”

“Yes, it’s a great pity.” She drew herself up in her chair. “And I’d rather you didn’t come any more for the time being, Nellie. I’ve been thinking the tea made me nervous.” She was smiling, but her mouth curled like a little snake, as I had seen it do long ago. “Will you be pleased to take your things and go, Mrs. Casey?” She said it with a laugh, but a very meaning one.

As I rose I watched for some sign of relenting, and I said humbly enough: “Forgive me, if I’ve said anything I shouldn’t. You know I love you very dearly.”

She mockingly bowed her tyrant’s head. “It’s owing to me infirmities, dear Mrs. Casey, that I’ll not be able to go as far as me door wid ye.”

V

For days after that episode I did not see Mrs. Henshawe at all. I saw Oswald at dinner in the restaurant every night, and he reported her condition to me as if nothing had happened. The short-haired newspaper girl often came to our table, and the three of us talked together. I could see that he got great refreshment from her. Her questions woke pleasant trains of recollection, and her straightforward affection was dear to him. Once Myra, in telling me that it was a pleasure to him to have me come into their lives again thus, had remarked: “He was always a man to feel women, you know, in every way.” It was true. That crude little girl made all the difference in the world to him. He was generous enough to become quite light-hearted in directing her inexperience and her groping hunger for life. He even read her poor little “specials” and showed her what was worst in them and what was good. She took correction well, he told me.

Early in June Mrs. Henshawe began to grow worse. Her doctors told us a malignant growth in her body had taken hold of a vital organ, and that she would hardly live through the month. She suffered intense pain from pressure on the nerves in her back, and they gave her opiates freely. At first we had two nurses, but Myra hated the night nurse so intensely that we dismissed her, and, as my school was closed for the summer, I took turns with Oswald in watching over her at night. She needed little attention except renewed doses of codeine. She slept deeply for a few hours, and the rest of the night lay awake, murmuring to herself long passages from her old poets.

Myra kept beside her now an ebony crucifix with an ivory Christ. It used to hang on the wall, and I had supposed she carried it about because some friend had given it to her. I felt now that she had it by her for a different reason. Once when I picked it up from her bed to straighten her sheet, she put out her hand quickly and said: “Give it to me. It means nothing to people who haven’t suffered.”

She talked very little after this last stage of her illness began; she no longer complained or lamented, but toward Oswald her manner became strange and dark. She had certain illusions; the noise overhead she now attributed entirely to her husband. “Ah, there’s he’s beginning it again,” she would say. “He’ll wear me down in the end. Oh, let me be buried in the king’s highway!” When Oswald lifted her, or did anything for her now, she was careful to thank him in a guarded, sometimes a cringing tone. “It’s bitter enough that I should have to take service from you — you whom I have loved so well,” I heard her say to him.

When she asked us to use candles for light during our watches, and to have no more of the electric light she hated, she said accusingly, at him rather than to him: “At least let me die by candlelight; that is not too much to ask.”

Father Fay came to see her almost daily now. His visits were long, and she looked forward to them. I was, of course, not in her room when he was there, but if he met me in the corridor he stopped to speak to me, and once he walked down the street with me talking of her. He was a young man, with a fresh face and pleasant eyes, and he was deeply interested in Myra. “She’s a most unusual woman, Mrs. Henshawe,” he said when he was walking down the street beside me.

Then he added, smiling quite boyishly: “I wonder whether some of the saints of the early Church weren’t a good deal like her. She’s not at all modern in her make-up, is she?”

During those days and nights when she talked so little, one felt that Myra’s mind was busy all the while — that it was even abnormally active, and occasionally one got a clue to what occupied it. One night when I was giving her her codeine she asked me a question.

“Why is it, do you suppose, Nellie, that candles are in themselves religious? Not when they are covered by shades, of course — I mean the flame of a candle. Is it because the Church began in the catacombs, perhaps?”

At another time, when she had been lying like a marble figure for a long while, she said in a gentle, reasonable voice:

“Ah, Father Fay, that isn’t the reason! Religion is different from everything else; BECAUSE IN RELIGION SEEKING IS FINDING.”

She accented the word “seeking” very strongly, very deeply. She seemed to say that in other searchings it might be the object of the quest that brought satisfaction, or it might be something incidental that one got on the way; but in religion, desire was fulfilment, it was the seeking itself that rewarded.

One of those nights of watching stands out in my memory as embracing them all, as being the burden and telling the tale of them all. Myra had had a very bad day, so both Oswald and I were sitting up with her. After midnight she was quiet. The candles were burning as usual, one in her alcove. From my chair by the open window I could see her bed. She had been motionless for more than an hour, lying on her back, her eyes closed. I thought she was asleep. The city outside was as still as the room in which we sat. The sick woman began to talk to herself, scarcely above a whisper, but with perfect distinctness; a voice that was hardly more than a soft, passionate breath. I seemed to hear a soul talking.

“I could bear to suffer . . . so many have suffered. But why must it be like this? I have not deserved it. I have been true in friendship; I have faithfully nursed others in sickness. . . . Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”

Oswald was sitting on the sofa, his face shaded by his hand. I looked at him in affright, but he did not move or shudder. I felt my hands grow cold and my forehead grow moist with dread. I had never heard a human voice utter such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for. As I sat on through the night, after Oswald had gone to catch a few hours of sleep, I grew calmer; I began to understand a little what she meant, to sense how it was with her. Violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves . . . against themselves and all their idolatries.

VI

On the following day Mrs. Henshawe asked to be given the Sacrament. After she had taken it she seemed easier in mind and body. In the afternoon she told Henshawe to go to his office and begged me to leave her and let her sleep. The nurse we had sent away that day at her urgent request. She wanted to be cared for by one of the nursing Sisters from the convent from now on, and Father Fay was to bring one tomorrow.

I went to my room, meaning to go back to her in an hour, but once on my bed I slept without waking. It was dark when I heard Henshawe knocking on my door and calling to me. As I opened it, he said in a despairing tone: “She’s gone, Nellie, she’s gone!”

I thought he meant she had died. I hurried after him down the corridor and into her room. It was empty. He pointed to her empty bed. “Don’t you see? She has gone, God knows where!”

“But how could she? A woman so ill? She must be somewhere in the building.”

“I’ve been all over the house. You don’t know her, Nellie. She can do anything she wills. Look at this.”

On the desk lay a sheet of note paper scribbled in lead pencil: Dear Oswald: My hour has come. Don’t follow me. I wish to be alone. Nellie knows where there is money for masses. That was all. There was no signature.

We hurried to the police station. The chief sent a messenger out to the men on the beat to warn them to be on the watch for a distraught woman who had wandered out in delirium. Then we went to Father Fay. “The Church has been on her mind for a long while,” said Henshawe. “It is one of her delusions that I separated her from the Church. I never meant to.”

The young priest knew nothing. He was distressed, and offered to help us in our search, but we thought he had better stay at home on the chance that she might come to him.

When we got back to the hotel it was after eleven o’clock. Oswald said he could not stay indoors; I must be there within call, but he would go back to help the police.

After he left I began to search Mrs. Henshawe’s room. She had worn her heavy coat and her furs, though the night was warm. When I found that the pair of Austrian blankets was missing, I felt I knew where she had gone. Should I try to get Oswald at the police station? I sat down to think it over. It seemed to me that she ought to be allowed to meet the inevitable end in the way she chose. A yearning strong enough to lift that ailing body and drag it out into the world again should have its way.

At five o’clock in the morning Henshawe came back with an officer and a Negro cabman. The driver had come to the station and reported that at six last night a lady, with her arms full of wraps, had signalled him at the side door of the hotel, and told him to drive her to the boat landing. When they were nearing the landing, she said she did not mean to stop there, but wanted to go farther up the shore, giving him clear directions. They reached the cliff she had indicated. He helped her out of the cab, put her rugs under the tree for her, and she gave him a ten-dollar gold piece and dismissed him. He protested that the fare was too much, and that he was afraid of getting into trouble if he left her there. But she told him a friend was going to meet her, and that it would be all right. The lady had, he said, a very kind, coaxing way with her. When he went to the stable to put up his horse, he heard that the police were looking for a woman who was out of her head, and he was frightened. He went home and talked it over with his wife, who sent him to report at head-quarters.

The cabman drove us out to the headland, and the officer insisted upon going along. We found her wrapped in her blankets, leaning against the cedar trunk, facing the sea. Her head had fallen forward; the ebony crucifix was in her hands. She must have died peacefully and painlessly. There was every reason to believe she had lived to see the dawn. While we watched beside her, waiting for the undertaker and Father Fay to come, I told Oswald what she had said to me about longing to behold the morning break over the sea, and it comforted him.

VII

Although she had returned so ardently to the faith of her childhood, Myra Henshawe never changed the clause in her will, which requested that her body should be cremated, and her ashes buried “in some lonely and unfrequented place in the mountains, or in the sea.”

After it was all over, and her ashes sealed up in a little steel box, Henshawe called me into her room one morning, where he was packing her things, and told me he was going to Alaska.

“Oh, not to seek my fortune,” he said, smiling. “That is for young men. But the steamship company have a place for me in their office there. I have always wanted to go, and now there is nothing to hold me. This poor little box goes with me; I shall scatter her ashes somewhere in those vast waters. And this I want you to keep for remembrance.” He dropped into my hands the necklace of carved amethysts she had worn on the night I first saw her.

“And, Nellie — ” He paused before me with his arms folded, standing exactly as he stood behind Modjeska’s chair in the moonlight on that New Year’s night; standing like a statue, or a sentinel, I had said then, not knowing what it was I felt in his attitude; but now I knew it meant indestructible constancy . . . almost indestructible youth. “Nellie,” he said, “I don’t want you to remember her as she was here. Remember her as she was when you were with us on Madison Square, when she was herself, and we were happy. Yes, happier than it falls to the lot of most mortals to be. After she was stricken, her recollection of those things darkened. Life was hard for her, but it was glorious, too; she had such beautiful friendships. Of course, she was absolutely unreasonable when she was jealous. Her suspicions were sometimes — almost fantastic.” He smiled and brushed his forehead with the tips of his fingers, as if the memory of her jealousy was pleasant still, and perplexing still. “But that was just Molly Driscoll! I’d rather have been clawed by her, as she used to say, than petted by any other woman I’ve ever known. These last years it’s seemed to me that I was nursing the mother of the girl who ran away with me. Nothing ever took that girl from me. She was a wild, lovely creature, Nellie. I wish you could have seen her then.”

Several years after I said good-bye to him, Oswald Henshawe died in Alaska. I have still the string of amethysts, but they are unlucky. If I take them out of their box and wear them, I feel all evening a chill over my heart. Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30