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The Hesperian

by Willa Cather

From The Hesperian, 23 (March 10, 1894):  4-5.


The primitive curtain was down, the orchestra were tuning up their peices, and the chapel was full of people waiting for the exercises to begin, when she dropped in, unannounced, unexpected, smiling and bland. She swept up the aisle and her gown seemed to sweep and float wide in the same manner that her Senior robe used to. Her head was thrown back and a little to one side, and her lips were parted in a smile that was thoroughly jolly and utterly insincere and supremely delightful. It was a pleasure to be within the radius of that smile, even if one knew it was entirely heartless. Her eyes shone with the old enthusiasm and vivacity which made even those who disliked her admire her. She passed on up the aisle with that air of semi-abandon and utter sang froid which was always particularly her own, and the same little breeze which used to make the halls so dangerously draughty seemed to follow her still. As she passed along, she embraced friends and foes alike, freely and with ardor. Her caresses were a peculiar mixture of sentimentality and slanginess which is hard to define. She laughed the laugh that everyone remembered so well, even the skeletons in the museum and the meditative bust of Socrates, and though one could not tell why, it made one feel rather gay and "festive" and like old times to hear that laugh, that, like her manner, was breezy and audible, never blowy or loud. She passed on, embracing subject after subject and handling them all just as she used to handle her many friendships and other ships, with neatness, enthusiasm and dispatch. Yes, she is still the same, and one is glad of it. Probably for generations to come she will be suddenly dropping in on us, smiling and inexplicable as an animated sphynx.

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He was one of those who came back to us on Charter Day, in his own mind, at least, one of the heroes of yore days. He was tall and slender and wore his hair parted in the middle. He stood around the halls button-holing old acquaintances and showing the University to them. He exhibited the campus, buildings and faculty with an air of proprietorship and pleased condescension. He was, by the lengthy words he used, a member of the botanical seminar. He called everything by its longest and most Latin name, and the less his victim knows about botany the more confidential he becomes and the more copiously he empties forth Latin words upon him. In his early youth he was a notorious bully, and all the very little boys of the neighborhood used to be afraid to go past his home. Now he bullies mentally just as he used to physically. He loves to take rather weak minded persons and brow-beat them, argue them down, Latin them into a corner, and botany them into a shapeless mass. It is the same bully instinct a little refined. He seemed very enthusiastic about University matters, but it seemed rather boyish and miniature in a man of his age. It was not a large kind of enthusiasm, that could take in principles and beliefs, it was a petty traditionary sort of enthusiasm that was confined to a few people and incidents. He is liberal to all University enterprises, but it seems to be rather to perpetuate his own name and fame among the students. He has no particular business expect hanging around the University in order that people may ask who he is and be told what fine marks he used to get in his classes. He has ability enough, but he just seemed to quit growing when he graduated. He has never got past the blue-ribbon, sheepskin, "vos salutamus" stage. He is a University graduate, and that's all he ever will be in this world or that to come.

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She sits in the back row in the chapel, talking to a boy. She makes every effort to entertain him and seems to succeed. At last his class bell rings and he goes out. She smiles and waits patiently for the next youth who enters. So she continues until chapel time, after chapel she goes out into the hall and converses until dinner, goes home, dines, and hurries back to the scene of her duties. The afternoon she spends in chapel, until drill time. Then flees to the armory and smiles sweetly down from the gallery. The next day her routine is the same, save that she does not have to attend drill. She carries a few books, but she never opens them. Those who haunt the back row of the chapel toil not, neither do they spin. The first term she takes drill, chapel and gymnasium and a little French. The second semester her instructors tell her it will not be necessary for her to take French any more, and she is glad, for she found her work getting very heavy. The class bells ring and the classes come and go, but that bell does not trouble her bland serenity nor thrill her soul with terror. She is like the high gods who dwell at ease beyond reach of sunlight or shadow. She has nothing to hope, nothing to fear. She can flunk no flatter, profs. and instructors have lost their power over her. She has been released from an evil spell. She no longer trembles when she meets her French prof. When one skips class occasionally it is not pleasant to meet one's prof., but when life is one long delicious skip, it is different. She even feels rather superior to her French prof. now, she has got so far beyond French, she rather pities him. She is sort of Childe Roland who is beyond the power of fate.

It was at the Junior promenade. He had never danced in a large crowd before, and certainly to be initiated in that terrible struggle was an ordeal. He was young and strong and full of hope, and he was a thorough, trusting churchman or he would never have lived through it. He was scarcely inside the hall when he was introduced to a young lady and recklessly asked her for a waltz, just to hear himself do it. To his utter amazement she handed him her program and pointed to the third waltz which was vacant. With trembling hand he wrote his initials, vaguely remembering Faust's compact and wondering that the pencil did not ignite Lewis-Morrison fashion in his hand. Then he hurried off overcome by dread of the awful thing he had done. He felt sure he could not dance, he knew he could not. He looked about and saw the hundreds of people he knew who would see him make a fool of himself. His boots were new and tight and it was the first time he had ever worn a dress suit, and it seemed to him that everyone was looking at him. He pitied the girl, he wondered if he would fall down with her, he hoped not. He wandered about, the nervous dread growing worse and worse as the dances went by and the third waltz grew nearer. He longed to slip away, but every way he turned he met her eyes. He wished he was a girl, then he could go to his mamma, though at that particular dance the mammas danced more than theirdaughters. The last note of the polka died away and the orchestra began wiping their foreheads. His time had come. He went to his fate boldly, but his face was white and set, like the face of Louis when he ascended the guillotine. The music started up and the struggle began. To begin with, he had not the slightest conception of time. He had to begin counting with the first note of the orchestra and count every note which followed or he never knew which was one and which was three. It was a difficult and exacting mathematical calculation. Then he was not prepared for the bumping. He had never danced in a crowd, and he ran into every man's elbow, and ran his own into every lady. Wherever he went exclamations of anger and woe followed him. As to his partner, he pushed her, pulled her, jerked her, jammed her, lost and found her, and literally sandwiched her between couples. Occasionally he politely asked her if he had stepped on her feet, but otherwise he said very little, he was afraid of losing his count. He was conscious of very little that went on around him. He could not recognize anyone. He had read of people floating by each other in a dance, but there people did not float, they knocked each other about like nine-pin balls. He never had the slightest notion what part of the hall he was in or in what direction he was going. He simply went one way till someone knocked him another. The palms troubled him a good deal, they kept dancing about so. Beside this there was only the throb of the music, an awful headache, lights and bumping. Occasionally he found it necessary to swing his partner around. The sweat would break out on his forehead, his pallor would grow ghostlier than ever, he would tighten his grip on her hand and arm, throw himself and her violently and leave the rest to heaven.

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