Skip to main content
Source File: cat.ss038.xml

The Library

by Willa Sibert Cather

From The Library, I (April 28, 1900):  12-13.
A rectangle containing a drawing of the head of a young woman entwined by a snake and an open flask from which liquid is flowing, along with the title of the story and Cather's byline using the pseudonym Henry Nicklemann.


It was a dance that was a dance, that dance at Chevalier's, and it will be long remembered in our country.

But first as to what happened in the afternoon. Denis and Signor had put the cattle in the corral and come in early to rest before the dance. The Signor was a little Mexican who had strayed up into the cattle country. What his real name was, heaven only knows, but we called him "The Signor," as if he had been Italian instead of Mexican. After they had put the horses away, they went into the feed room, which was a sort of stable salon, where old Chevalier received his friends and where his hands amused themselves on Sundays. The Signor suggested a game of cards, and placed a board across the top of a millet barrel for a table. Denis lit his pipe and began to mix the cards.

Little Harry Burns sat on the tool-box sketching. Burns was an eastern newspaper man, who had come to live in Oklahoma because of his lungs. He found a good deal that was interesting besides the air. As the game went on, he kept busily filling in his picture, which was really a picture of Denis, the Mexican being merely indicated by a few careless strokes. Burns had a decided weakness for Denis. It was his business to be interested in people, and practice had made his eye quick to pick out a man from whom unusual things might be expected. Then he admired Denis for his great physical proportions. Indeed, even with his pipe in his mouth and the fresh soil of the spring ploughing on his boots, Denis made a striking figure. He was a remarkably attractive man, that Denis, as all the girls in the neighborhood knew to their sorrow. For Denis was a ladies' man and had heady impulses that were hard to resist. What we call sentiment in cultured men is called by a coarser name in the pure animal products of nature and is a dangerous force to encounter. Burns used to say to himself that this big choleric Irishman was an erotic poet undeveloped and untamed by the processes of thought; a pure creature of emotional impulses who went about seeking rhymes and harmonies in the flesh, the original Adam. Burns wondered if he would not revel in the fervid verses of his great countryman Tom Moore—if he should ever see them. But Denis never read anything but the Sunday New York papers—a week old, always, when he got them—and he was totally untrammelled by anything of a reflective nature. So he remained merely a smiling giant, who had the knack of saying pretty things to girls. After all, he was just as happy that way, and very much more irresistible, and Harry Burns knew it, for all his theories.

Just as he was finishing his picture, Burns was startled by a loud exclamation.

"Stop pulling cards out of your sleeve, you confounded Mexican cheat!"

"You lie! You lie!" shouted the Signor, throwing a card on the table and attempting to rise. But Denis was too quick for him. He caught the back of the Mexican's greasy hand with the point of his belt knife and, regardless of the blood that trickled through his fingers, proceeded to search his sleeve.

"There, Signor, chuck a whole deck up, why don't you? Now the next time you try that game on me I'll run my knife clean through your dirty paw, and leave a mark that men will know."

"I'll kill you for this, you dog of an Irishman! Wait and see how I will kill you," snarled the Mexican, livid with rage and pain, as he shot out of the door. Denis laughed and lay down on a pile of corn.

"Better look out for that man, Denis," said little Burns, as he lit a cigarette.

"Oh, if I was looking for a man to be afraid of I wouldn't pick the Signor."

"Look out for him, all the same. They are a nasty lot, those Greasers. I've known them down in Old Mexico. They'll knife you in the dark, any one of them. It's the only country I could never feel comfortable in. Everything is dangerous—the climate, the sun, the men, and most of all the women. The very flowers are poisonous. Why does old Chevalier keep this fellow?"

"Oh, he's a good hand enough, and a first-rate man with the cattle. I don't like Greasers myself, they're all sneaks. Not many of 'em ever come up in this country, and they've always got into some sort of trouble and had to light out. The Signor has kept pretty straight around the place, though, and as long as he behaves himself he can hold his job."

"You don't think Chevalier's daughter has anything to do with his staying?"

"If I did I'd trample him like a snake!"

When the Signor left the barn he shook the blood from his wounded hand and went up to the house and straight into the sitting-room, where Severine Chevalier was shaving a tallow candle on the floor for the dance. The Signor's scowl vanished, and he approached her with an exaggerated smile.

"Come, Severine. I've cut my hand; tie it up for me, like the sweet one that you are."

"How came you to cut your hand on the day of the dance? And how on the back, too? I believe you did it on purpose."

"And so I did, to have you tie it up for me. I would cut myself all over for that." And as Severine bent over to twist the bandage he kissed her on the check.

"Begone, you sneak; you can tie up your own cuts, if that's the way you treat me."

"Dios mio! that is treating you very well, my sweet. If that is not good what is there in this world that is? I saw that hulking Irishman kiss you last night, and you seemed to like it well enough."

"That depends on the person, Monsieur Signor," said Severine, tartly, as she slid over the tallow shavings. But she blushed hotly, all the same.

"See here, Severine, you have played with both of us long enough. If you kiss him again I will kill you. I like to kill the things I love, do you understand?"

"Merci, monsieur! I compliment you. You have great tact. You know how to coax a sweetheart. You know all about love-making."

"You baby! women have gone mad after me before now. You see how I love you, and it does not move you. That is because you are a baby and do not know how to love. A girl who doesn't know how to love is stupid, tasteless, like—like so much water. Baby!"

The girl's eyes were hot with anger as she drew herself up and faced him.

"You fool! you think you know all about love, and yet you cannot see that I am in love all the time, that I burn up with love, that I am tortured by it, that my pillows are hot with it all night, and my hands are wet with it in the day. You fool! But it is not with you, Monsieur Signor, grace a Dieu, it is not with you."

The swarthy little Signor looked at her admiringly a moment, and then spoke in a low voice that whistled in the air like a knife—

"Is it the Irishman? It is the Irishman!"

"Yes, stupid beast, it is. But that is my own affair."

Frightened at her own rashness, she fell to shaving the candle with trembling hands, while the Mexican watched her with a smile that showed all his white teeth. Severine had time to repent her rashness, and a sickening fear of the consequences arose within her.

"You'll keep that to yourself, Signor? You won't tell father?"

"That is my affair, Mademoiselle."

She dropped the wax and touched his arm.

"Play fair, Signor, and keep it, please."

"It is I who make terms now, Mademoiselle. Well, yes, I will keep it, and I will ask a very little price for my silence. You must come out and kiss me to-night when I ask you."

"Yes, yes, I will if you will only keep your word."

He caught her in his slender, sinewy arms.

"You said once!" she cried, in angry protest, as she broke away from him.

"This was only to show you how, my sweet," he laughed.

As he left the room he looked back over his shoulder and saw that she was still rubbing her lips with her hand, and all the way up stairs to his own room he laughed, and when he packed his belongings away in his canvas saddle bags he was still smiling. When he had finished and strapped his bags he stood looking about him. He heard a snatch of an old French song through the window and saw Severine working out in her flower bed.

He hesitated a moment, then shook his head and patted his bandaged hand. "Ah, love is sweet, but sweeter is revenge. It is the saying of my people."

And now for the dance at Chevalier's, which was a dance, indeed. It was the last before the hot season came on and everybody was there—all the French for miles around. Some came in road wagons, some in buggies, some on horseback, and not a few on foot. Girls with pretty faces and rough hands, and men in creaking boots, with broad throats tanned by the sun, reeking with violent perfumes and the odors of the soil.

At nine o'clock the dance began, the dance that was to have lasted all night. Harry Burns played an old bass viol, and Alplosen de Mar played the organ, but the chief musician was the old Bohemian, Peter Sadelack, who played the violin. Peter had seen better days, and had played in a theatre in Prague until he had paralysis and was discharged because his bowing was uncertain. Then in some way, God knows how, he and his slatternly wife and countless progeny had crossed the ocean and drifted out into the cattle country. The three of them made right merry music, though the two violinists were considerably the more skilful, and poor Alplosen quite lost her breath in keeping up with them. Waltzes, quadrilles and polkas they played until the perspiration streamed down their faces, and for the square dances little Burns "called off." Occasionally he got down and took a waltz himself, giving some young Frenchman his instrument. All those Frenchmen could play a fiddle from the time they were old enough to hold one. But dancing was bad for his lungs, and with the exception of Severine and Marie Generaux there were very few girls he cared to dance with. It was more amusing to saw away on the squeaky old bass viol and watch those gleeful young Frenchmen sieze a girl and whirl her away with a dexterity and grace really quite remarkable, considering the crowd and the roughness of the floor, and the affectionate positions in which they insisted upon holding their partners. They were not of pure French blood, of course; most of them had been crossed and recrossed with Canadians and Indians, and they spoke a vile patois which no Christian man could understand. Almost the only traces they retained of their original nationality were their names, and their old French songs, and their grace in the dance. Deep down in the heart of every one of them, uncrushed by labor, undulled by enforced abstinence, there was a mad, insatiable love of pleasure that continually warred with the blood of dull submission they drew from their red squaw ancestors. To-night it broke out like a devouring flame, it flashed in dark eyes and glowed in red cheeks. Ah, that old hot, imperious blood of the Latins! It is never quite lost. These women had long since forgotten the wit of their mother land, they were dull of mind and slow of tongue; but in the eyes, on the lips, in the temperament was the old, ineffaceable stamp. The Latin blood was there.

The most animated, and by far the most beautiful among them was Severine Chevalier. At those dances little attempt was made at evening dress, but Severine was in white, with her gown cut low, showing the curves of her neck and shoulders. For she was different from the other French girls, she had more taste and more ambition, and more money. She had been sent two years to a convent school in Toronto, and when she came back the other girls could never quite get used to her ways, though they admired and envied her from afar. She could speak the French of France, could Severine, and sometimes when it was dull and too rainy to gallop across the prairies after the cattle, or to town for the mail, and when there was nothing better to do, she used to read books. She talked with little Burns about books sometimes. But, on the whole, she preferred her pony, and the wild flowers, and the wind and the sun, and romping with her boys. She was a very human young woman, and not wise enough to disguise or to affect anything. She knew what the good things of life were, and was quite frank about them. To-night she seemed glowing with some unspoken joy, and many a French lad felt his heart thump faster as he clutched her hand with an iron grasp and guided her over the rough floor and among the swaying couples; many a lad cast timid glances at old Jean Chevalier as he sat complacently by his brandy bottle, proudly watching his daughter. For old Chevalier was a king in the cattle country, and they knew that none might aspire to his daughter's hand who had not wider acres and more cattle than any of them possessed.

And for every glance that Severine drew from the men, Denis drew a sigh from the women. Though he was only Jean Chevalier's herdman, and an Irishman at that, Denis was the lion of the French dances. He danced hard, and drank hard, and made love hardest of all. But to-night he was chary of his favors, and when he could not dance with Severine he was careless of his other partners. After a long waltz he took Severine out to the windmill in the grove. It was refreshingly cool out there, the moonlight was clear and pale, and the tall lombard poplars were rustling their cool leaves. The moon was just up and was still reflected in the long lagoon on the eastern horizon. Denis put his arms about the girl and drew her up to him. The Signor saw them so, as he slipped down to the barn to saddle his horse, and he whispered to himself, "It is high time." But what the great Irishman whispered in her ear, the Signor never knew.

As Denis led her back to the house, he felt a dizzy sensation of tenderness and awe come over him, such as he had sometimes felt when he was riding alone across the moonlit lagoons under the eyes of countless stars, or when he was driving his cattle out in the purple lights of springtide dawns.

As they entered the house, the Mexican slipped in behind them and tried to edge his way through the crowd unseen. But Marie Generaux caught him by the arm.

"This is our dance, Signor, come along."

"Make it the next, my girl," he whispered, and escaped upstairs into his own room.

His saddlebags were already on his horse, but in his chest there lay one article which belonged to him, a pint whisky flask. He took it out and unscrewed the top, and smelt it, and held it up to the light, shaking it gently and gazing on it with real affection in his narrow, snaky eyes. For it was not ordinary liquor. An old, withered Negro from the gold coast of Guinea had told him how to make it, down in Mexico. He himself had gathered rank, noxious plants and poured their distilled juices into that whisky, and had killed the little lizards that sun themselves on the crumbling stones of the old ruined missions, and dried their bodies and boiled them in the contents of that flask. For five years that bright liquor had lain sparkling in his chest, waiting for such a time as this.

When the Signor went downstairs a quadrille was just over, and the room was echoing with loud laughter. He beckoned Severine into a corner, and whispered with a meaning glance:

"Send your Irishman up stairs to me. I must see him. And save the next dance for me. There he is. Hurry."

Reluctantly she approached Denis, blushing furiously as she accosted him.

"Go upstairs and see the Signor, please, Denis."

"What can he want with me?"

"I don't know. I wish you'd go, though."

"Well, Signor, what is it?" he asked as he reached the top of the stairs.

"I must tell you something. Take a drink to brace you, and then I'll talk. It will not be pleasant news."

Denis laughed and drank, never noticing how the hand that held out the glass to him was shaking.

"I can't say much for your whisky," he remarked, as he set down the empty glass.

The Mexican came up to him, his eyes glittering with suppressed excitement.

"I want to tell you that we have both been fools. That French girl has played with us both. We have let her cuff us about like schoolboys, and coax us with sugar like children. To-day she promised to marry me, to-night she promises to marry you. We are decidedly fools, my friend."

"You liar! You say that again—"

"Tut, tut, my friend, not so fast. You are a big man, and I am a little one. I cannot fight you. I try to do you a service, and you abuse me. That is not unusual. But you wait here by the window through the next dance and watch the windmill, and if I don't prove what I say, then you may kill me at your pleasure. Is not that fair enough?"

"Prove it, prove it!" said Denis from a dry throat.

In a moment he was alone, and stood watching out of the window, scarcely knowing why he was there. "It's all a lie; I felt the truth in her," he kept saying to himself while he waited. The music struck up down stairs, the squeak of the cracked organ and the screech of the violins, and with it the sound of the heavy feet. His first impulse was to go down and join them, but he waited. In a few minutes, perhaps two, perhaps three, before the waltz was half over, he saw the Signor stroll down towards the windmill. Beside him was Severine. They went straight to that moonlit bit of ground under the poplars, the spot where twenty minutes before he had been seized and mastered and borne away by that floodtide of tenderness which we can know but once in our lives, and then seek, hunger for all the rest of our sunless days. There, in that spot, which even to his careless mind was holy ground, he saw Severine stop and lift her little flower-like face to another man's. Long, long he held her. God knows how long it must have seemed to the man who watched and held his breath until his veins seemed bursting. Then they were gone, and only the quivering poplar leaves cast their shadows over that moonlit spot.

He felt a deadly sickness come over him. He caught the flask on the table and drank again. Presently the door opened, and the Signor entered. He should have been gone indeed, but he could not resist one more long look at the man who sat limply on the bed, with his face buried in his hands.

"I am glad you take it patiently; it is better," he remarked, soothingly.

Then over the big Irishman, who sat with his head bowed and his eyes darkened and the hand of death already heavy upon him, there came a flood of remembrances and of remorse.

"Yes," he groaned. "I can be patient. I can take torture with my mouth shut—women have taught me how." Then suddenly starting to his feet he shouted, "Begone, you Satan, or I'll strangle ye!"

When Denis stumbled down stairs his face was burning, but not with anger. Severine had been hunting for him and came up to him eagerly. "I've been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been so long? Let's dance this; it's the one you like."

He followed her passively. Even his resentment was half dead. He felt an awful sense of weakness and isolation; he wanted to touch something warm and living. In a few minutes something would happen—something. He caught her roughly, half loving her, half loathing her, and weak, trembling, with his head on fire and his breast bursting with pain, he began to dance. Over and over again the fiddles scraped their trite measures, while Severine wondered why the hand that gripped hers grew so cold. He lost the time and then swayed back and forth. A sharp cry of alarm rang from the end of the room, and little Burns bounded from the table, and reached him just as he fell.

"What is it, Denis, my boy, what is it?"

Severine knelt on the other side, still holding one of his hands.

The man's face was drawn in horrible agony, his blue eyes were distended and shot with blood, his hair hung wet over his face, and his lips were dashed with froth. He gasped heavily from his laboring breast.

"Poison—they—she and the—Mexican—they have done me.—Damn—damn—women!"

He struck at Severine, but she caught his hand and kissed it.

But all the protestations, all the words of love, imperious as a whirlwind, that she poured out there on her knees fell upon deaf ears. Not even those words, winged with flame, could break the silences for him. If the lips of the living could give warmth to those of the dead, death would be often robbed, and the grave cheated of its victory.

Harry Burns sprang to his feet. "It's that damned Mexican. Where is he?"

But no one answered. The Signor had been in his saddle half an hour, speeding across the plains, on the swiftest horse in the cattle country.