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The Home Monthly

by Willa Cather.

From The Home Monthly, VI (October 1896):  12-13; 22-23.

The Count of Crow's Nest

[Read the first installment]


HAROLD BUCHANAN accompanied the Count next evening, and his impressions of Mademoiselle Helena De Koch were only intensified. She sang floridly and with that peculiar confidence which always seems to attend uncertain execution. She had a peculiar trick of just seeming to catch a note by the skirts and then falling back from it, just touching it, as it were, but totally unable to sustain it. More than that, her very unconsciousness of this showed that she had absolutely no musical sense. Buchanan was inclined to think that, next to her coarse disappreciation of her father, her singing was rather the worst feature about her. To sing badly and not to have perception enough to know it was such a bad index of one's mental and aesthetic constitution.

After the concert they went up on the stage to see her, and she came forward to meet them, accompanied by the tenor, and greeted them graciously, bearing her blushing honors quite as thick upon her as if she had sung well.

"It was nice of you to come. Did you catch my eye?"

"I am still glowing with the pleasure of thinking I did so, but I was afraid perhaps it was only a delusion. One so often goes about puffed up over favors that were meant for the fellow back of him."

"O, I hoped mine were more intelligible than that. But now you shall be rewarded for your patience. Tony and I are going to have a little supper down at Kingsley's, and you must come, just us, you know. Papa may come to chaperone us, if it is not too late for him."

The Count hastily excused himself, and indeed he must have been very dense to have accepted such a hostile invitation, even from his own daughter. But Buchanan had already bowed his acceptance, and felt that it was too late to retreat. Reluctantly he accompanied Mademoiselle and the silent tenor, and saw the Count depart alone. And yet, he reflected, this merciful intervention would relieve him from the awkward necessity of discussing the concert with his friend.

When they were seated at Kingsley's and had given their orders, it struck him that Mademoiselle had some purpose in bringing him, for it soon became obvious that the tenor's charms were of that nature which one usually prefers to enjoy alone. What this might be, however, did not at once appear. She discussed current music and light opera in quite an amiable and disinterested manner, and for a time contented herself with this.

"You are a journalist, I believe, Mr. Buchanan?"

"Scarcely, yet. That is one of the many things I would like to be."

"You are a Chicago man, at any rate?" inquired the tenor.

"Well, one of the queer things about Chicago is that no one is really a native. I have lived here a good deal, off and on. My father used to be in business here before I went East to school. Just at present I want to get into something, and I think that lightning is about as likely to strike one here as any where."

"More likely! Chicago is the place for young talent. I have found so. They want new blood and new ideas. Success comes sooner and more directly here than elsewhere in your profession as in my own. I would rather sing to a Chicago audience than any other, and I think I have been before most of the best ones in this country." When the taciturn gentleman spoke at all it was of one all-important theme. Indeed, do tenors ever talk of anything else? Art et moi; l'art, c'est moi!

"O, Tony here takes things too seriously. 'Life is a play-thing, life is a toy!' You have sung that often enough to believe it a little by this time. By the way, Mr. Buchanan, have you been down to hear the thread-bare Robin Hood? O, no, I never go; there are no light operas worth hearing except those of the Viennese. Think of that odious waltz song, ta, ta, ta-ta-te, ta; ta-ta-te, ta, ta, ta!"

Buchanan looked apprehensively about at the other supper parties in the room, and wished she would not sing so loud. But she went merrily on.

"I can endure everything American except American music, and the less said of it the better. By the way, don't you think I have taken to your language rather kindly? Of course I learned English when I was a child, but I had to learn American after arriving, and I assure you that is quite another language."

"I was just thinking that you were quite wonderful in that respect. I should never know you were not one of us; you have all the sermo familiaris even to our local touches."

"O yes, I went at your slang as conscientiously as if it were grammar. That is the characteristic part of a language, anyway."

When their order arrived, the drift of the talk changed.

"You see a good deal of papa, Mr. Buchanan?"

"Not half so much as I want to."

"I am glad you like him; he is very lonely and has those antiquated class notions about mixing up with people."

"I have always felt that and have been a little bit backward. I don't want to seem to intrude."

"O, you need never be afraid of that; he likes you immensely. We've heard lots about you, haven't we, Tony?"

"Most enthusiastic and flattering accounts," responded that gentleman, looking up a moment from his lobster.

We have thought about suggesting something, Mr. Buchanan, that might be immensely to your advantage. You are a young literary man, waiting to make a hit like all the rest of us. Now let me tell you something; if you can work papa, your fame is ready made for you."

"Well, if I could find any fame of that variety, I would be willing to pay pretty dearly for it. I had about decided that the virgin article was not lying about in very extensive deposits."

"Well, it is, just in chunks, inside of that box you saw the other night. He has hundreds of papers there that would turn the court history of Europe for the last century upside down. I know whereof I speak. His friends have urged him to publish them for the last twenty years, and I—but, of course, men never listen to their daughters. Of course he wouldn't care to edit them himself, his everlasting name, you know. But you are a practical literary man and know what fin de siècle taste demands, and if you could sort of combine forces, I have an idea it would be a great thing for both of you."

"But," protested Buchanan, "your father assured me those documents were of a wholly private nature."

"Of course they are. That's the sort of history that goes now-a-days. It's the sort of thing that sells and that people read, 'something spicy,' they call it. You could edit them with historical notes to give tone to the thing, you know. Of course you would have to overcome innumerable scruples on papa's part. Go at it in the name of art and history and all that. He is unyielding in his notions about such things, but if there is any living man who can do it, you are the man!" She had quite forgotten now the calm indifference of her first method of attack; her lips were set and her eyes biting keen. Buchanan could not help noticing how she leaned forward and how tightly she held her fork. Evidently this plan was not a new one. There was a purpose in those hard eyes that could not be new. He shifted his position slightly.

"I would rather you would leave me and my interests out of the question, Miss De Koch, though don't think I don't appreciate your kindness in thinking of me. If there is anything in the papers themselves to justify their publication, why does your father object to it?"

"O, he considers people's feelings,—much they've ever considered ours! Of course it would make big scandals all over Europe, and no end of a fuss. There would be answers, denials, refutations; the national museums would be ransacked for counter-proofs. That one book would bring out a dozen. Just think of it, a grand wholesale exposé of all the courts of Europe, hailing from image-breaking Chicago! It's your chance of fame, young man, and as for money, we'd all be throwing it at the birdies in six months."

She had dropped the pass word of the conspiracy. Buchanan began to feel less at sea.

"Of course there would be grave considerations attending the publication of such matter."

"Not a bit of it. This is an age of disillusionment. William Tell was a myth, Josephine only a Creole coquette, and Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare at all. This generation wants to get at the bottom of things. Now it's not the man who can invent a romance, but the man who can explode one who holds the winning card," she touched him lightly on the shoulder.

"It's a good deal as you say, undoubtedly. But I doubt the dignity, or even the decency of it."

She put her glass down impatiently. "That all may be, but when we are in Rome we must be either Romans or provincials. You must give the people what they want. Really, now, don't you like to get a tip on those old figurehead guys yourself, just to get even with them by shaking them off their pedestals a little? They were all very common clay like the rest of us."

Buchanan leaned back in his chair and decided to gain time and measure, if he could, the depth of the conspiracy sprung upon him. Mademoiselle was aglow with excitement, and even her gentleman-in-waiting had forgotten his supper, and his mild eyes were flashing with the first animation he had displayed.

"Well," he said, amused in spite of himself, "I have often thought I should like to get behind the scenes in history and see how all the great effects were really produced. How the tragic buskin is worn to make men look taller than they are, by what wires the angels are carried up to their apotheosis, and where the unfortunates go when they disappear through the trap. It would be a satisfaction to know just how often simpletons are cast for heroic parts, and great men for trivial ones, how often Hamlet and the grave digger ought to change places. I have even thought I would like to go into the dressing room, and see just how the conventional historic puppets were made up; see the real head under the powdered wig and the real cheek under the rouge. And yet I am not anxious to be wholly disillusioned. If Cæsar without his toga would not be Cæsar, I would rather stay down in the orchestra chairs. I don't care to read a history of Napoleon written by his valet."

"Come, you know all this is moonshine. Nobody believes those things now-a-days. The more you take the Illustration showing two men and a woman in evening clothes seated at a dining table.SHE HAD DROPPED THE PASS WORD OF THE CONSPIRACY. BUCHANAN BEGAN TO FEEL LESS AT SEA. halo from those fellows, the more popular you make them. A new scandal about Napoleon gives him a new lease of life. It revives the interest. Who would ever know anything about Rosseau, if it wasn't for his 'Confessions'? That keeps him popular; even my hair-dresser reads it."

"Of course it is something to have immortality among hair-dressers."

"It's very much better than having none at all, and being on the shelf all around. You are a young man with your mark to make, and you've got to meet the world on its own ground and give it what it wants, or it'll have none of you. If you take the people's money, you ought to cater to their tastes, that's fair enough. You cannot afford to be an old fogy, you have too much future. You see where it has put papa. Do you want to be stranded in Crow's Nest all your life, say fifty years of it? Chances to take the world by the horns do not occur every day; if you let them go by, you have a good long time for reflection, a lifetime, generally. One chance for one man, you know."

"I know that only too well, but I can't see that this is in any sense my chance. It's wholly your father's affair."

"Make it yours. Let's get to something definite; don't let him put you off with high sounding words; they aren't in the modern vocabulary and don't mean anything. Now you'll take up this matter? There is only one man in a thousand I would speak to openly in this way, but I have every faith in your ability. When things become definite, if papa is elusive about the business features of it, you and I can arrange that together."

Buchanan crumpled his napkin and threw it on the table.

"I am sorry, but I am afraid that you have misplaced your confidence; that is, you have expected too much of me. I am not an enterprising man, or a very practical one; if I were I would already have some legitimate occupation. I seem to be rather another case of the round block versus the square hole, and decidedly I can't fit into this. I could never propose such a thing to your father. If he ever speaks to me on the subject I will be frank enough, I promise you, but further than that I cannot pledge myself. Moreover, I doubt my own ability to either gauge the popular taste or fill its demands."

Mademoiselle's amiability at once disappeared, and she took no pains to conceal the fact that she considered him both ungracious and ungrateful, though she vented her displeasure principally upon her dusky minion, the tenor, who was struggling with her rubbers. From the dogged look on his face, Buchanan imagined that that silent gentleman would one day avenge the tyrannies of his apprenticeship. Feeling very much as though he had obtained a supper under false pretenses, he said good night.

As he lit his cigar in the street, and faced the cold wet wind that blew in from the lake, he muttered to himself, "Of all mercenary creatures! it's loathsome enough in a man, but in a woman—bah, it's positively reptilian! I don't believe she has a drop of the old man's blood in her body."


Some way his very aversion to the daughter drew Buchanan's sympathies more than ever to the Count. He found himself in the evening instinctively pausing at the Count's door, and when he went out to hear music or to see a play he felt more at ease when the Count was with him. He was of that temperament which quickly learns to depend on others. During their talks and rambles about the theatres he learned a good deal of the Count's history. Not directly, as the old gentleman seldom talked about himself, but in scrappy fragments that he mentally sorted and expanded into a biography. He learned how Paul had been born in the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg, where his father had superintended the education of the Czar Nicholas' sons. He had been considered rather dull socially in his youth, and had been kept in the background in a military school at Leipsic, while his two elder brothers spent his substance and amassed colossal debts in a manner that demonstrated their social talents to the world. After a good deal of reckless living, William had been killed in a duel about some vague diplomatic matter, and Nicholas by some accident at the races. When Paul at last came in to his shorn and parceled patrimony, he did something that established all the charges of imbecility that had been made against him; he sold the Koch estates and paid the Koch debts, the first time they had been paid in three centuries. By such an unheard of proceeding he at once lost caste in the diplomatic circles of the continent. To part with his family estates, to sell the home of the Counts De Koch to pay tradespeople and laborers, it was really more than well conducted society could be expected to condone. So Paul drifted to America, not until after the death of his wife, though of his wife he never spoke except formally. When he considered the daughter, Buchanan could not wonder at his reticence.

The man's quiet charm, his distinctive fineness of life and thought meant a great deal to a young man like Buchanan. They helped him to keep his standards and his tastes clean at a despondent age when that is sometimes difficult to do. It was certainly a strange thing to find this instinctive autocrat, this type of an effete nobility in that city of all cities, in Chicago, where the Present and the Practical are apotheosized and paid divine honors. But, then, what can one not find in Chicago? He never stepped, without feeling the contrast, from the hurried world of barter and trade into the quiet of that little room where memories and souvenirs of other times and another world were kept hidden, as, in the days of their far captivity in the city of Baal, the Jews kept the sacred vessels of their pillaged temple.

One night, as he was indulging in his reprehensible habit of reading in bed, Buchanan heard a hurried knock at his door. At his bidding the Count entered. He was still in street dress, hat in hand, pale [Concluded on page 22.] The Count of Crow's Nest. [Continued from page 13.] and in evident excitement. His hair was disordered and his forehead shone with moisture. He would not sit down, but went straight up to the bed and grasped Buchanan's hand. Buchanan felt that his was trembling and cold.

"My friend," he spoke thickly, "I need you tonight, the letters…the box…it is gone."

"The box? O, yes, the steel chest, but how, where, what do you mean?"

"When I came to my rooms to-night, I opened the drawer of the chiffonier. It was a most unusual thing, it must have been instinct, those letters are the only things left to watch. They should have been in a vault, I know, but I kept delaying. When I opened the drawer they were gone."

"This is serious. What can you do?"

"I must go out at once. You have retired and I would not disturb you for any trivial matter, but this—this is the honor of my family! Great God! The descendants of those people are living in Europe to-day, living honorably and bearing great names. You hear me? Those letters must not get abroad. They would shake men's faith in God and make them curse their mothers."

Buchanan was already dressing. Suddenly he stopped short and dropped his shoe on the floor.

Who knew where you kept them? Do you suspect any one who was interested?"

The Count's voice was almost inaudible as he answered, "I think, Mr. Buchanan, we must first go to my daughter's rooms. It is with regret and shame that I drag you into this; it is terrible enough for me." He stood with his eyes downcast, like one in bitter shame. Buchanan had never noticed that he was so old a man before.

He felt that nothing could be said that would not be more than superfluous. When he finished dressing, the Count remarked, "Put on your ulster, it is cold."

They went softly downstairs and hailed a cab. During the drive the Count said nothing. Buchanan could see by the flash of the street lights as they passed them that his head was sunk on his breast. Only once he broke the silence by a sort of despairing groan. Buchanan guessed that some memory which bore immediately upon the grief of the moment had suddenly arisen before him. Perhaps it was one of those casual actions which we scatter so recklessly in our youth, and which, grown monstrous like the creature of Frankenstein, rise up to shame us in our age and spread desolation which we are powerless to check.

When they reached the house, Buchanan saw that the windows of the third floor were lighted, while the rest of the house was in darkness. It was easy to guess on which floor Mademoiselle De Koch resided. After repeated ringing, a sleepy servant maid opened the door. The Count asked no questions, but simply gave his name and passed upstairs, while the maid gathered her disheveled robes about her and stumbled down the hallway. The knock at Mademoiselle De Koch's door was greeted by a cheerful "Entrez!"

The open door revealed Mademoiselle attired in a traveling dress with a pile of letters on the desk before her, and a pen in her hand. A half packed valise lay open on the bed, and her trunks were strapped as though for sudden departure.

On seeing her visitors she gave a start of surprise, followed by a knowing glance, and then was quite at her ease. She would make a good defence, Buchanan suspected.

"Ah, it is you, cher papa, and you have brought company. Well, it is not exactly a conventional hour, but you are always welcome. I am delighted, Mr. Buchanan. Papa's chaperonage is certainly sufficient, even at three in the morning, so be seated."

The Count closed the door and met her. "Helena, you know why I have come and what you must do. There is no need of expletives."

"Not for you, perhaps, but I insist upon an explanation. What do you mean? I am at your service, as always, but I do not understand."

"This scene is disgraceful enough. I will allow you to spare yourself any explanations. I want the letters you took from my room. I will have them, so make no ado about it."

"You speak to me, sir, as though I were a chambermaid; you accuse me of taking your letters. What letters? I did not know you had correspondence so delicate now. Fie, papa! D'Albert said you were in your dotage ten years ago, but I have done you the honor to think him mistaken. Please do not altogether destroy my faith in you, I have so few illusions left at best." The sneer in that last sentence made Buchanan shiver as with a chill.

"I have not come to bandy words with you, Helena, nor to sermonize. You have never known what honor means. That is a distinction which cannot be taught. Don't try to act with me. I will take what I have come for, and leave you to your own felicitous philosophy of life, which I thank God is not mine. Give me the key of your trunk."

"Really, Your Excellency, this is quite too much. I shall do nothing of the sort. Come back to-morrow and I will do anything within reason. At present you are simply insane with anger, after the charming manner of your house."

"Then in just three minutes Mr. Buchanan will call an officer."

She started visibly, "You would not dare, pride—if nothing else—"

"I have no pride but the honor of my house. Quick, there is a law which can touch even you. Law was made for such as you."

The man of pale reflection was no more. This was the man of the iron cross who had led the charge on the field of Gravelotte.

Slowly, sullenly, she reached for her purse, and biting her lips handed him the key.

"Now, Mr. Buchanan, if you will assist me." He went quickly and deftly to the bottom of the trunk, almost without disturbing the clothing, and drew out the box, wrapped in numberless undergarments. After opening it and assuring himself as to the contents, he closed the trunk and Buchanan strapped it up.

Mademoiselle, who had returned to her seat and was making a pretense of writing, dropped her pen with a fierce exclamation.

"What is this honor you are always ranting about? Is it to leave your daughter to pick up her living as she may, to whine about beasts of managers, and go begging for fourth-rate engagements, when you might have supported her by the sale of a few scandalous letters? A fine sort of code to make all this racket about! Fine words will not conceal ugly facts."

The Count straightened himself as under a blow, "Stop! since you will drag out this whole ugly matter; you know that if you would have lived as I have had to live there would have been enough. As long as there was a picture, a vase, a jewel left, you know where they went. You took until there was no more to take. I simply have nothing but the pension. Even now my home is open to you, but I cannot keep you in yours. Will you never understand, I simply have no money! You know why I came here and why I must die here. When there was money what use did you make of it? Why is it that neither of us will ever dare to show our faces on the Continent again, that we tremble at the name of a continental newspaper? You remember that heading in Figaro? It will stare me in my grave! 'Adventuress!' Great God, it was true!"

His voice broke, and his white head sank on his breast in an attitude of abject shame and anguish. Buchanan put his hand before his eyes to shut out the sight of it. But again that rasping pitiless woman's voice broke on his ear.

"And who began it all, by selling my inheritance over my head? Was it yours to sell?"

The Count spoke quietly now and his voice was steady.

"For the moment you brought back the old shame, and I almost pitied you and myself again. Generally I simply forget it; you have exhausted my power to suffer. I never feel. Helena, there is nothing I can say to you, for we have no language in common. Words do not mean the same to us. Good night."

She sprang from her seat and stood with clenched hands. "Those papers do not belong to you. They are ancient history, and they belong to the world!"

"They are the follies of men, and they belong to God," said the Count as he closed the door. As they reached the cab he spoke heavily, "It was ungenerous of me to drag you into this, but I did not feel equal to it alone."

"I think that good friends need not explain why they need each other, even if they know themselves," said Buchanan gently.

When they were in the cab he felt as though he ought to speak of something. He was afraid that perhaps the Count had not noticed it. "Miss De Koch's trunks were packed. Is she going away?"

The Count sighed wearily and leaned back in his seat, speaking so low that Buchanan had to lean forward to catch his words above the rumble of the cab.

"Yes, I saw. It is probably an elopement—the tenor. But I am helpless. I have no money. What she said was true enough; I am no more successful as a father than I was as a nobleman. And I have been mad enough to wish that I had sons! It is a terrible thing, this degeneration of great families. You are very happy to see nothing of it here. The rot begins inside and is hidden for a time, but it demonstrates itself even physically at last. My ancestors had the frames of giants, field marshals and generals, all of them. We were all dwarfs, exhausted physically from the first, frayed ends of the strands of a great skein. Even my father was a slight man, always ill. My brothers were men of no principle, but they at least preserved the traditions. Nicholas was killed at the races, like a common jockey. In me it showed itself in my marriage. Before that the men of our house had at least chosen gentlewomen as their wives; they acknowledged the obligation. But this, even I never thought it would come to this. My mother would have starved with my father, begged in the streets, even lived at Crow's Nest, but she would never have thought of this. The possibility would never have occurred to her. I am the last of them. Helena will hardly choose a domestic career. Our little comedy is over, it is time the lights were out; the fifth act has dragged out too long. I am in haste to give back to the earth this blood I carry and free the world from it. In it is inherent failure, germinal weakness, madness, and chaos. When all sense of honor dies utterly out of an old stock, there is nothing left but annihilation. It should be buried deep, deep as they bury victims of a plague, blotted out like the forgotten dynasties of history."