Willa Sibert Cather.

Youth and the Bright Medusa online

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"We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?"










The author wishes to thank _McClure's Magazine_, _The Century
Magazine_ and _Harper's Magazine_ for their courtesy in permitting
the re-publication of three stories in this collection.

The last four stories in the volume, _Paul's Case_, _A Wagner Matinée_,
_The Sculptor's Funeral_, "_A Death in the Desert_," are re-printed from
the author's first book of stories, entitled "The Troll Garden,"
published in 1905.

Coming, Aphrodite!


Don Hedger had lived for four years on the top floor of an old house on
the south side of Washington Square, and nobody had ever disturbed him.
He occupied one big room with no outside exposure except on the north,
where he had built in a many-paned studio window that looked upon a court
and upon the roofs and walls of other buildings. His room was very
cheerless, since he never got a ray of direct sunlight; the south corners
were always in shadow. In one of the corners was a clothes closet, built
against the partition, in another a wide divan, serving as a seat by day
and a bed by night. In the front corner, the one farther from the window,
was a sink, and a table with two gas burners where he sometimes cooked
his food. There, too, in the perpetual dusk, was the dog's bed, and often
a bone or two for his comfort.

The dog was a Boston bull terrier, and Hedger explained his surly
disposition by the fact that he had been bred to the point where it told
on his nerves. His name was Caesar III, and he had taken prizes at very
exclusive dog shows. When he and his master went out to prowl about
University Place or to promenade along West Street, Caesar III was
invariably fresh and shining. His pink skin showed through his mottled
coat, which glistened as if it had just been rubbed with olive oil, and
he wore a brass-studded collar, bought at the smartest saddler's. Hedger,
as often as not, was hunched up in an old striped blanket coat, with a
shapeless felt hat pulled over his bushy hair, wearing black shoes that
had become grey, or brown ones that had become black, and he never put on
gloves unless the day was biting cold.

Early in May, Hedger learned that he was to have a new neighbour in the
rear apartment - two rooms, one large and one small, that faced the west.
His studio was shut off from the larger of these rooms by double doors,
which, though they were fairly tight, left him a good deal at the mercy
of the occupant. The rooms had been leased, long before he came there, by
a trained nurse who considered herself knowing in old furniture. She went
to auction sales and bought up mahogany and dirty brass and stored it
away here, where she meant to live when she retired from nursing.
Meanwhile, she sub-let her rooms, with their precious furniture, to young
people who came to New York to "write" or to "paint" - who proposed to
live by the sweat of the brow rather than of the hand, and who desired
artistic surroundings.

When Hedger first moved in, these rooms were occupied by a young man who
tried to write plays, - and who kept on trying until a week ago, when the
nurse had put him out for unpaid rent.

A few days after the playwright left, Hedger heard an ominous murmur of
voices through the bolted double doors: the lady-like intonation of the
nurse - doubtless exhibiting her treasures - and another voice, also a
woman's, but very different; young, fresh, unguarded, confident. All the
same, it would be very annoying to have a woman in there. The only
bath-room on the floor was at the top of the stairs in the front hall,
and he would always be running into her as he came or went from his bath.
He would have to be more careful to see that Caesar didn't leave bones
about the hall, too; and she might object when he cooked steak and onions
on his gas burner.

As soon as the talking ceased and the women left, he forgot them. He was
absorbed in a study of paradise fish at the Aquarium, staring out at
people through the glass and green water of their tank. It was a highly
gratifying idea; the incommunicability of one stratum of animal life with
another, - though Hedger pretended it was only an experiment in unusual
lighting. When he heard trunks knocking against the sides of the narrow
hall, then he realized that she was moving in at once. Toward noon,
groans and deep gasps and the creaking of ropes, made him aware that a
piano was arriving. After the tramp of the movers died away down the
stairs, somebody touched off a few scales and chords on the instrument,
and then there was peace. Presently he heard her lock her door and go
down the hall humming something; going out to lunch, probably. He stuck
his brushes in a can of turpentine and put on his hat, not stopping to
wash his hands. Caesar was smelling along the crack under the bolted
doors; his bony tail stuck out hard as a hickory withe, and the hair was
standing up about his elegant collar.

Hedger encouraged him. "Come along, Caesar. You'll soon get used to a new

In the hall stood an enormous trunk, behind the ladder that led to the
roof, just opposite Hedger's door. The dog flew at it with a growl of
hurt amazement. They went down three flights of stairs and out into the
brilliant May afternoon.

Behind the Square, Hedger and his dog descended into a basement oyster
house where there were no tablecloths on the tables and no handles on the
coffee cups, and the floor was covered with sawdust, and Caesar was
always welcome, - not that he needed any such precautionary flooring. All
the carpets of Persia would have been safe for him. Hedger ordered steak
and onions absentmindedly, not realizing why he had an apprehension that
this dish might be less readily at hand hereafter. While he ate, Caesar
sat beside his chair, gravely disturbing the sawdust with his tail.

After lunch Hedger strolled about the Square for the dog's health and
watched the stages pull out; - that was almost the very last summer of the
old horse stages on Fifth Avenue. The fountain had but lately begun
operations for the season and was throwing up a mist of rainbow water
which now and then blew south and sprayed a bunch of Italian babies that
were being supported on the outer rim by older, very little older,
brothers and sisters. Plump robins were hopping about on the soil; the
grass was newly cut and blindingly green. Looking up the Avenue through
the Arch, one could see the young poplars with their bright, sticky
leaves, and the Brevoort glistening in its spring coat of paint, and
shining horses and carriages, - occasionally an automobile, misshapen and
sullen, like an ugly threat in a stream of things that were bright and
beautiful and alive.

While Caesar and his master were standing by the fountain, a girl
approached them, crossing the Square. Hedger noticed her because she wore
a lavender cloth suit and carried in her arms a big bunch of fresh
lilacs. He saw that she was young and handsome, - beautiful, in fact, with
a splendid figure and good action. She, too, paused by the fountain and
looked back through the Arch up the Avenue. She smiled rather
patronizingly as she looked, and at the same time seemed delighted. Her
slowly curving upper lip and half-closed eyes seemed to say: "You're gay,
you're exciting, you are quite the right sort of thing; but you're none
too fine for me!"

In the moment she tarried, Caesar stealthily approached her and sniffed
at the hem of her lavender skirt, then, when she went south like an
arrow, he ran back to his master and lifted a face full of emotion and
alarm, his lower lip twitching under his sharp white teeth and his hazel
eyes pointed with a very definite discovery. He stood thus, motionless,
while Hedger watched the lavender girl go up the steps and through the
door of the house in which he lived.

"You're right, my boy, it's she! She might be worse looking, you know."

When they mounted to the studio, the new lodger's door, at the back of
the hall, was a little ajar, and Hedger caught the warm perfume of lilacs
just brought in out of the sun. He was used to the musty smell of the old
hall carpet. (The nurse-lessee had once knocked at his studio door and
complained that Caesar must be somewhat responsible for the particular
flavour of that mustiness, and Hedger had never spoken to her since.) He
was used to the old smell, and he preferred it to that of the lilacs, and
so did his companion, whose nose was so much more discriminating. Hedger
shut his door vehemently, and fell to work.

Most young men who dwell in obscure studios in New York have had a
beginning, come out of something, have somewhere a home town, a family, a
paternal roof. But Don Hedger had no such background. He was a foundling,
and had grown up in a school for homeless boys, where book-learning was a
negligible part of the curriculum. When he was sixteen, a Catholic priest
took him to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to keep house for him. The priest
did something to fill in the large gaps in the boy's education, - taught
him to like "Don Quixote" and "The Golden Legend," and encouraged him to
mess with paints and crayons in his room up under the slope of the
mansard. When Don wanted to go to New York to study at the Art League,
the priest got him a night job as packer in one of the big department
stores. Since then, Hedger had taken care of himself; that was his only
responsibility. He was singularly unencumbered; had no family duties, no
social ties, no obligations toward any one but his landlord. Since he
travelled light, he had travelled rather far. He had got over a good deal
of the earth's surface, in spite of the fact that he never in his life
had more than three hundred dollars ahead at any one time, and he had
already outlived a succession of convictions and revelations about his

Though he was now but twenty-six years old, he had twice been on the
verge of becoming a marketable product; once through some studies of New
York streets he did for a magazine, and once through a collection of
pastels he brought home from New Mexico, which Remington, then at the
height of his popularity, happened to see, and generously tried to push.
But on both occasions Hedger decided that this was something he didn't
wish to carry further, - simply the old thing over again and got
nowhere, - so he took enquiring dealers experiments in a "later manner,"
that made them put him out of the shop. When he ran short of money, he
could always get any amount of commercial work; he was an expert
draughtsman and worked with lightning speed. The rest of his time he
spent in groping his way from one kind of painting into another, or
travelling about without luggage, like a tramp, and he was chiefly
occupied with getting rid of ideas he had once thought very fine.

Hedger's circumstances, since he had moved to Washington Square, were
affluent compared to anything he had ever known before. He was now able
to pay advance rent and turn the key on his studio when he went away for
four months at a stretch. It didn't occur to him to wish to be richer
than this. To be sure, he did without a great many things other people
think necessary, but he didn't miss them, because he had never had them.
He belonged to no clubs, visited no houses, had no studio friends, and he
ate his dinner alone in some decent little restaurant, even on Christmas
and New Year's. For days together he talked to nobody but his dog and the
janitress and the lame oysterman.

After he shut the door and settled down to his paradise fish on that
first Tuesday in May, Hedger forgot all about his new neighbour. When the
light failed, he took Caesar out for a walk. On the way home he did his
marketing on West Houston Street, with a one-eyed Italian woman who
always cheated him. After he had cooked his beans and scallopini, and
drunk half a bottle of Chianti, he put his dishes in the sink and went up
on the roof to smoke. He was the only person in the house who ever went
to the roof, and he had a secret understanding with the janitress about
it. He was to have "the privilege of the roof," as she said, if he opened
the heavy trapdoor on sunny days to air out the upper hall, and was
watchful to close it when rain threatened. Mrs. Foley was fat and dirty
and hated to climb stairs, - besides, the roof was reached by a
perpendicular iron ladder, definitely inaccessible to a woman of her
bulk, and the iron door at the top of it was too heavy for any but
Hedger's strong arm to lift. Hedger was not above medium height, but he
practised with weights and dumb-bells, and in the shoulders he was as
strong as a gorilla.

So Hedger had the roof to himself. He and Caesar often slept up there on
hot nights, rolled in blankets he had brought home from Arizona. He
mounted with Caesar under his left arm. The dog had never learned to
climb a perpendicular ladder, and never did he feel so much his master's
greatness and his own dependence upon him, as when he crept under his arm
for this perilous ascent. Up there was even gravel to scratch in, and a
dog could do whatever he liked, so long as he did not bark. It was a kind
of Heaven, which no one was strong enough to reach but his great,
paint-smelling master.

On this blue May night there was a slender, girlish looking young moon in
the west, playing with a whole company of silver stars. Now and then one
of them darted away from the group and shot off into the gauzy blue with
a soft little trail of light, like laughter. Hedger and his dog were
delighted when a star did this. They were quite lost in watching the
glittering game, when they were suddenly diverted by a sound, - not
from the stars, though it was music. It was not the Prologue to
Pagliacci, which rose ever and anon on hot evenings from an Italian
tenement on Thompson Street, with the gasps of the corpulent baritone who
got behind it; nor was it the hurdy-gurdy man, who often played at the
corner in the balmy twilight. No, this was a woman's voice, singing the
tempestuous, over-lapping phrases of Signor Puccini, then comparatively
new in the world, but already so popular that even Hedger recognized his
unmistakable gusts of breath. He looked about over the roofs; all was
blue and still, with the well-built chimneys that were never used now
standing up dark and mournful. He moved softly toward the yellow
quadrangle where the gas from the hall shone up through the half-lifted
trapdoor. Oh yes! It came up through the hole like a strong draught, a
big, beautiful voice, and it sounded rather like a professional's. A
piano had arrived in the morning, Hedger remembered. This might be a very
great nuisance. It would be pleasant enough to listen to, if you could
turn it on and off as you wished; but you couldn't. Caesar, with the gas
light shining on his collar and his ugly but sensitive face, panted and
looked up for information. Hedger put down a reassuring hand.

"I don't know. We can't tell yet. It may not be so bad."

He stayed on the roof until all was still below, and finally descended,
with quite a new feeling about his neighbour. Her voice, like her figure,
inspired respect, - if one did not choose to call it admiration. Her door
was shut, the transom was dark; nothing remained of her but the obtrusive
trunk, unrightfully taking up room in the narrow hall.


For two days Hedger didn't see her. He was painting eight hours a day
just then, and only went out to hunt for food. He noticed that she
practised scales and exercises for about an hour in the morning; then she
locked her door, went humming down the hall, and left him in peace. He
heard her getting her coffee ready at about the same time he got his.
Earlier still, she passed his room on her way to her bath. In the evening
she sometimes sang, but on the whole she didn't bother him. When he was
working well he did not notice anything much. The morning paper lay
before his door until he reached out for his milk bottle, then he kicked
the sheet inside and it lay on the floor until evening. Sometimes
he read it and sometimes he did not. He forgot there was anything of
importance going on in the world outside of his third floor studio.
Nobody had ever taught him that he ought to be interested in other
people; in the Pittsburgh steel strike, in the Fresh Air Fund, in the
scandal about the Babies' Hospital. A grey wolf, living in a Wyoming
canyon, would hardly have been less concerned about these things than was
Don Hedger.

One morning he was coming out of the bathroom at the front end of the
hall, having just given Caesar his bath and rubbed him into a glow with a
heavy towel. Before the door, lying in wait for him, as it were, stood a
tall figure in a flowing blue silk dressing gown that fell away from her
marble arms. In her hands she carried various accessories of the bath.

"I wish," she said distinctly, standing in his way, "I wish you wouldn't
wash your dog in the tub. I never heard of such a thing! I've found his
hair in the tub, and I've smelled a doggy smell, and now I've caught you
at it. It's an outrage!"

Hedger was badly frightened. She was so tall and positive, and was fairly
blazing with beauty and anger. He stood blinking, holding on to his
sponge and dog-soap, feeling that he ought to bow very low to her. But
what he actually said was:

"Nobody has ever objected before. I always wash the tub, - and, anyhow,
he's cleaner than most people."

"Cleaner than me?" her eyebrows went up, her white arms and neck and her
fragrant person seemed to scream at him like a band of outraged nymphs.
Something flashed through his mind about a man who was turned into a dog,
or was pursued by dogs, because he unwittingly intruded upon the bath of

"No, I didn't mean that," he muttered, turning scarlet under the bluish
stubble of his muscular jaws. "But I know he's cleaner than I am."

"That I don't doubt!" Her voice sounded like a soft shivering of crystal,
and with a smile of pity she drew the folds of her voluminous blue robe
close about her and allowed the wretched man to pass. Even Caesar was
frightened; he darted like a streak down the hall, through the door and
to his own bed in the corner among the bones.

Hedger stood still in the doorway, listening to indignant sniffs and
coughs and a great swishing of water about the sides of the tub. He had
washed it; but as he had washed it with Caesar's sponge, it was quite
possible that a few bristles remained; the dog was shedding now. The
playwright had never objected, nor had the jovial illustrator who
occupied the front apartment, - but he, as he admitted, "was usually
pye-eyed, when he wasn't in Buffalo." He went home to Buffalo sometimes
to rest his nerves.

It had never occurred to Hedger that any one would mind using the tub
after Caesar; - but then, he had never seen a beautiful girl caparisoned
for the bath before. As soon as he beheld her standing there, he realized
the unfitness of it. For that matter, she ought not to step into a tub
that any other mortal had bathed in; the illustrator was sloppy and left
cigarette ends on the moulding.

All morning as he worked he was gnawed by a spiteful desire to get back
at her. It rankled that he had been so vanquished by her disdain. When he
heard her locking her door to go out for lunch, he stepped quickly into
the hall in his messy painting coat, and addressed her.

"I don't wish to be exigent, Miss," - he had certain grand words that he
used upon occasion - "but if this is your trunk, it's rather in the way

"Oh, very well!" she exclaimed carelessly, dropping her keys into her
handbag. "I'll have it moved when I can get a man to do it," and she went
down the hall with her free, roving stride.

Her name, Hedger discovered from her letters, which the postman left on
the table in the lower hall, was Eden Bower.


In the closet that was built against the partition separating his room
from Miss Bower's, Hedger kept all his wearing apparel, some of it on
hooks and hangers, some of it on the floor. When he opened his closet
door now-a-days, little dust-coloured insects flew out on downy wing, and
he suspected that a brood of moths were hatching in his winter overcoat.
Mrs. Foley, the janitress, told him to bring down all his heavy clothes
and she would give them a beating and hang them in the court. The closet
was in such disorder that he shunned the encounter, but one hot afternoon
he set himself to the task. First he threw out a pile of forgotten
laundry and tied it up in a sheet. The bundle stood as high as his middle
when he had knotted the corners. Then he got his shoes and overshoes
together. When he took his overcoat from its place against the partition,
a long ray of yellow light shot across the dark enclosure, - a knot hole,
evidently, in the high wainscoating of the west room. He had never
noticed it before, and without realizing what he was doing, he stooped
and squinted through it.

Yonder, in a pool of sunlight, stood his new neighbour, wholly unclad,
doing exercises of some sort before a long gilt mirror. Hedger did not
happen to think how unpardonable it was of him to watch her. Nudity was
not improper to any one who had worked so much from the figure, and he
continued to look, simply because he had never seen a woman's body so
beautiful as this one, - positively glorious in action. As she swung her
arms and changed from one pivot of motion to another, muscular energy
seemed to flow through her from her toes to her finger-tips. The soft
flush of exercise and the gold of afternoon sun played over her flesh
together, enveloped her in a luminous mist which, as she turned and
twisted, made now an arm, now a shoulder, now a thigh, dissolve in pure
light and instantly recover its outline with the next gesture. Hedger's
fingers curved as if he were holding a crayon; mentally he was doing the
whole figure in a single running line, and the charcoal seemed to explode
in his hand at the point where the energy of each gesture was discharged
into the whirling disc of light, from a foot or shoulder, from the
up-thrust chin or the lifted breasts.

He could not have told whether he watched her for six minutes or sixteen.
When her gymnastics were over, she paused to catch up a lock of hair that
had come down, and examined with solicitude a little reddish mole that
grew under her left arm-pit. Then, with her hand on her hip, she walked
unconcernedly across the room and disappeared through the door into her

Disappeared - Don Hedger was crouching on his knees, staring at the golden
shower which poured in through the west windows, at the lake of gold
sleeping on the faded Turkish carpet. The spot was enchanted; a vision
out of Alexandria, out of the remote pagan past, had bathed itself there
in Helianthine fire.

When he crawled out of his closet, he stood blinking at the grey sheet
stuffed with laundry, not knowing what had happened to him. He felt a
little sick as he contemplated the bundle. Everything here was different;
he hated the disorder of the place, the grey prison light, his old shoes
and himself and all his slovenly habits. The black calico curtains that
ran on wires over his big window were white with dust. There were three
greasy frying pans in the sink, and the sink itself - He felt desperate.
He couldn't stand this another minute. He took up an armful of winter
clothes and ran down four flights into the basement.

"Mrs. Foley," he began, "I want my room cleaned this afternoon,
thoroughly cleaned. Can you get a woman for me right away?"

"Is it company you're having?" the fat, dirty janitress enquired. Mrs.
Foley was the widow of a useful Tammany man, and she owned real estate in
Flatbush. She was huge and soft as a feather bed. Her face and arms were
permanently coated with dust, grained like wood where the sweat had

"Yes, company. That's it."

"Well, this is a queer time of the day to be asking for a cleaning woman.
It's likely I can get you old Lizzie, if she's not drunk. I'll send Willy
round to see."

Willy, the son of fourteen, roused from the stupor and stain of his fifth
box of cigarettes by the gleam of a quarter, went out. In five minutes he

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Online LibraryWilla Sibert CatherYouth and the Bright Medusa → online text (page 1 of 16)