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A Lost Lady

Willa Cather


  A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

  Title: A LOST LADY (1923)


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  A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

  Title: A LOST LADY (1923)


  ". . . . . . . . . Come, my coach!

  Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies,

  Good night, good night."

  Part One


  Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the

  Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were

  then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its

  hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere. Well known,

  that is to say, to the railroad aristocracy of that time; men who

  had to do with the railroad itself, or with one of the "land

  companies" which were its by-products. In those days it was enough

  to say of a man that he was "connected with the Burlington." There

  were the directors, the general managers, vice-presidents,

  superintendents, whose names we all knew; and their younger

  brothers or nephews were auditors, freight agents, departmental

  assistants. Everyone "connected" with the Road, even the large

  cattle- and grain-shippers, had annual passes; they and their

  families rode about over the line a great deal. There were then

  two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders

  and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers

  and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to

  invest money and to "develop our great West," as they used to tell


  When the Burlington men were travelling back and forth on business

  not very urgent, they found it agreeable to drop off the express

  and spend a night in a pleasant house where their importance was

  delicately recognized; and no house was pleasanter than that of

  Captain Daniel Forrester, at Sweet Water. Captain Forrester was

  himself a railroad man, a contractor, who had built hundreds of

  miles of road for the Burlington,--over the sage brush and cattle

  country, and on up into the Black Hills.

  The Forrester place, as every one called it, was not at all

  remarkable; the people who lived there made it seem much larger and

  finer than it was. The house stood on a low round hill, nearly a

  mile east of town; a white house with a wing, and sharp-sloping

  roofs to shed the snow. It was encircled by porches, too narrow

  for modern notions of comfort, supported by the fussy, fragile

  pillars of that time, when every honest stick of timber was

  tortured by the turning-lathe into something hideous. Stripped of

  its vines and denuded of its shrubbery, the house would probably

  have been ugly enough. It stood close into a fine cottonwood grove

  that threw sheltering arms to left and right and grew all down the

  hillside behind it. Thus placed on the hill, against its bristling

  grove, it was the first thing one saw on coming into Sweet Water by

  rail, and the last thing one saw on departing.

  To approach Captain Forrester's property, you had first to get over

  a wide, sandy creek which flowed along the eastern edge of the

  town. Crossing this by the footbridge or the ford, you entered the

  Captain's private lane bordered by Lombardy poplars, with wide

  meadows lying on either side. Just at the foot of the hill on

  which the house sat, one crossed a second creek by the stout wooden

  road-bridge. This stream traced artless loops and curves through

  the broad meadows that were half pasture land, half marsh. Any one

  but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made

  it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place

  long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to

  like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and

  joint-grass and twinkling willows along its banks. He was well off

  for those times, and he had no children. He could afford to humour

  his fancies.

  When the Captain drove friends from Omaha or Denver over from the

  station in his democrat wagon, it gratified him to hear these

  gentlemen admire his fine stock, grazing in the meadows on either

  side of his lane. And when they reached the top of the hill, it

  gratified him to see men who were older than himself leap nimbly to

  the ground and run up the front steps as Mrs. Forrester came out on

  the porch to greet them. Even the hardest and coldest of his

  friends, a certain narrow-faced Lincoln banker, became animated

  when he took her hand, tried to meet the gay challenge in her eyes

  and to reply cleverly to the droll word of greeting on her lips.

  She was always there, just outside the front door, to welcome their

  visitors, having been warned of their approach by the sound of

  hoofs and the rumble of wheels on the wooden bridge. If she

  happened to be in the kitchen, helping her Bohemian cook, she came

  out in her apron, waving a buttery iron spoon, or shook cherry-

  stained fingers at the new arrival. She never stopped to pin up a

  lock; she was attractive in dishabille, and she knew it. She had

  been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in hand

  and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome

  Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah; and the great man

  had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the

  admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs. Forrester

  chose to do was "lady-like" because she did it. They could not

  imagine her in any dress or situation in which she would not be

  charming. Captain Forrester him
self, a man of few words, told

  Judge Pommeroy that he had never seen her look more captivating

  than on the day when she was chased by the new bull in the pasture.

  She had forgotten about the bull and gone into the meadow to gather

  wild flowers. He heard her scream, and as he ran puffing down the

  hill, she was scudding along the edge of the marshes like a hare,

  beside herself with laughter, and stubbornly clinging to the

  crimson parasol that had made all the trouble.

  Mrs. Forrester was twenty-five years younger than her husband, and

  she was his second wife. He married her in California and brought

  her to Sweet Water a bride. They called the place home even then,

  when they lived there but a few months out of each year. But

  later, after the Captain's terrible fall with his horse in the

  mountains, which broke him so that he could no longer build

  railroads, he and his wife retired to the house on the hill.

  He grew old there,--and even she, alas! grew older.


  But we will begin this story with a summer morning long ago, when

  Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was a town

  of which great things were expected. That morning she was standing

  in the deep bay-window of her parlour, arranging old-fashioned

  blush roses in a glass bowl. Glancing up, she saw a group of

  little boys coming along the driveway, barefoot, with fishing-poles

  and lunch-baskets. She knew most of them; there was Niel Herbert,

  Judge Pommeroy's nephew, a handsome boy of twelve whom she liked;

  and polite George Adams, son of a gentleman rancher from Lowell,

  Massachusetts. The others were just little boys from the town; the

  butcher's red-headed son, the leading grocer's fat brown twins, Ed

  Elliott (whose flirtatious old father kept a shoe store and was the

  Don Juan of the lower world of Sweet Water), and the two sons of

  the German tailor,--pale, freckled lads with ragged clothes and

  ragged rust-coloured hair, from whom she sometimes bought game or

  catfish when they appeared silent and spook-like at her kitchen

  door and thinly asked if she would "care for any fish this


  As the boys came up the hill she saw them hesitate and consult

  together. "You ask her, Niel."

  "You'd better, George. She goes to your house all the time, and

  she barely knows me to speak to."

  As they paused before the three steps which led up to the front

  porch, Mrs. Forrester came to the door and nodded graciously, one

  of the pink roses in her hand.

  "Good-morning, boys. Off for a picnic?"

  George Adams stepped forward and solemnly took off his big straw

  hat. "Good-morning, Mrs. Forrester. Please may we fish and wade

  down in the marsh and have our lunch in the grove?"

  "Certainly. You have a lovely day. How long has school been out?

  Don't you miss it? I'm sure Niel does. Judge Pommeroy tells me

  he's very studious."

  The boys laughed, and Niel looked unhappy.

  "Run along, and be sure you don't leave the gate into the pasture

  open. Mr. Forrester hates to have the cattle get in on his blue


  The boys went quietly round the house to the gate into the grove,

  then ran shouting down the grassy slopes under the tall trees.

  Mrs. Forrester watched them from the kitchen window until they

  disappeared behind the roll of the hill. She turned to her

  Bohemian cook.

  "Mary, when you are baking this morning, put in a pan of cookies

  for those boys. I'll take them down when they are having their


  The round hill on which the Forrester house stood sloped gently

  down to the bridge in front, and gently down through the grove

  behind. But east of the house, where the grove ended, it broke

  steeply from high grassy banks, like bluffs, to the marsh below.

  It was thither the boys were bound.

  When lunch time came they had done none of the things they meant to

  do. They had behaved like wild creatures all morning; shouting

  from the breezy bluffs, dashing down into the silvery marsh through

  the dewy cobwebs that glistened on the tall weeds, swishing among

  the pale tan cattails, wading in the sandy creek bed, chasing a

  striped water snake from the old willow stump where he was sunning

  himself, cutting sling-shot crotches, throwing themselves on their

  stomachs to drink at the cool spring that flowed out from under a

  bank into a thatch of dark watercress. Only the two German boys,

  Rheinhold and Adolph Blum, withdrew to a still pool where the creek

  was dammed by a reclining tree trunk, and, in spite of all the

  noise and splashing about them, managed to catch a few suckers.

  The wild roses were wide open and brilliant, the blue-eyed grass

  was in purple flower, and the silvery milkweed was just coming on.

  Birds and butterflies darted everywhere. All at once the breeze

  died, the air grew very hot, the marsh steamed, and the birds

  disappeared. The boys found they were tired; their shirts stuck to

  their bodies and their hair to their foreheads. They left the

  sweltering marsh-meadows for the grove, lay down on the clean grass

  under the grateful shade of the tall cottonwoods, and spread out

  their lunch. The Blum boys never brought anything but rye bread

  and hunks of dry cheese,--their companions wouldn't have touched it

  on any account. But Thaddeus Grimes, the butcher's red-headed son,

  was the only one impolite enough to show his scorn. "You live on

  wienies to home, why don't you never bring none?" he bawled.

  "Hush," said Niel Herbert. He pointed to a white figure coming

  rapidly down through the grove, under the flickering leaf shadows,--

  Mrs. Forrester, bareheaded, a basket on her arm, her blue-black

  hair shining in the sun. It was not until years afterward that she

  began to wear veils and sun hats, though her complexion was never

  one of her beauties. Her cheeks were pale and rather thin,

  slightly freckled in summer.

  As she approached, George Adams, who had a particular mother, rose,

  and Niel followed his example.

  "Here are some hot cookies for your lunch, boys." She took the

  napkin off the basket. "Did you catch anything?"

  "We didn't fish much. Just ran about," said George.

  "I know! You were wading and things." She had a nice way of

  talking to boys, light and confidential. "I wade down there myself

  sometimes, when I go down to get flowers. I can't resist it. I

  pull off my stockings and pick up my skirts, and in I go!" She

  thrust out a white shoe and shook it.

  "But you can swim, can't you, Mrs. Forrester," said George. "Most

  women can't."

  "Oh yes, they can! In California everybody swims. But the Sweet

  Water doesn't tempt me,--mud and water snakes and blood-suckers--

  Ugh!" she shivered, laughing.

  "We seen a water snake this morning and chased him. A whopper!"

  Thad Grimes put in.

  "Why didn't you kill him? Next time I go wading he'll bite my

  toes! Now, go on with your lunch. George can leave the basket
/>   with Mary as you go out." She left them, and they watched her

  white figure drifting along the edge of the grove as she stopped

  here and there to examine the raspberry vines by the fence.

  "These are good cookies, all right," said one of the giggly brown

  Weaver twins. The German boys munched in silence. They were all

  rather pleased that Mrs. Forrester had come down to them herself,

  instead of sending Mary. Even rough little Thad Grimes, with his

  red thatch and catfish mouth--the characteristic feature of all the

  Grimes brood--knew that Mrs. Forrester was a very special kind of

  person. George and Niel were already old enough to see for

  themselves that she was different from the other townswomen, and to

  reflect upon what it was that made her so. The Blum brothers

  regarded her humbly from under their pale, chewed-off hair, as one

  of the rich and great of the world. They realized, more than their

  companions, that such a fortunate and privileged class was an

  axiomatic fact in the social order.

  The boys had finished their lunch and were lying on the grass

  talking about how Judge Pommeroy's water spaniel, Fanny, had been

  poisoned, and who had certainly done it, when they had a second


  "Shut up, boys, there he comes now. That's Poison Ivy," said one

  of the Weaver twins. "Shut up, we don't want old Roger poisoned."

  A well-grown boy of eighteen or nineteen, dressed in a shabby

  corduroy hunting suit, with a gun and gamebag, had climbed up from

  the marsh and was coming down the grove between the rows of trees.

  He walked with a rude, arrogant stride, kicking at the twigs, and

  carried himself with unnatural erectness, as if he had a steel rod

  down his back. There was something defiant and suspicious about

  the way he held his head. He came up to the group and addressed

  them in a superior, patronizing tone.

  "Hullo, kids. What are YOU doing here?"

  "Picnic," said Ed Elliott.

  "I thought girls went on picnics. Did you bring teacher along?

  Ain't you kids old enough to hunt yet?"

  George Adams looked at him scornfully. "Of course we are. I got a

  22 Remington for my last birthday. But we know better than to

  bring guns over here. You better hide yours, Mr. Ivy, or Mrs.

  Forrester will come down and tell you to get out."

  "She can't see us from the house. And anyhow, she can't say

  anything to me. I'm just as good as she is."

  To this the boys made no reply. Such an assertion was absurd even

  to fish-mouthed Thad; his father's business depended upon some

  people being better than others, and ordering better cuts of meat

  in consequence. If everybody ate round steak like Ivy Peters'

  family, there would be nothing in the butcher's trade.

  The visitor had put his gun and gamebag behind a tree, however, and

  stood stiffly upright, surveying the group out of his narrow beady

  eyes and making them all uncomfortable. George and Niel hated to

  look at Ivy,--and yet his face had a kind of fascination for them.

  It was red, and the flesh looked hard, as if it were swollen from

  bee-stings, or from an encounter with poison ivy. This nickname,

  however, was given him because it was well known that he had "made

  away" with several other dogs before he had poisoned the Judge's

  friendly water spaniel. The boys said he took a dislike to a dog

  and couldn't rest until he made an end of him.

  Ivy's red skin was flecked with tiny freckles, like rust spots, and

  in each of his hard cheeks there was a curly indentation, like a

  knot in a tree-bole,--two permanent dimples which did anything but

  soften his countenance. His eyes were very small, and an absence

  of eyelashes gave his pupils the fixed, unblinking hardness of a

  snake's or a lizard's. His hands had the same swollen look as his

  face, were deeply creased across the back and knuckles, as if the

  skin were stretched too tight. He was an ugly fellow, Ivy Peters,