My Mortal Enemy

Free My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

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Authors: Willa Cather
fat old book, with yellow pages, bound in tooled leather, and on the flyleaf, in faint violet ink, was an inscription, “To Myra Driscoll from Oswald,” dated 1876.
    My friend lay still, with her eyes closed, and occasionally one of those anachronistic tears gathered on her lashes and fell on the pillow, making a little grey spot. Often she took the verse out of my mouth and finished it herself.
    “Look for a little short one, about the flower that grows on the suicide’s grave,
die Armesünderblum’
, the poor-sinner’s-flower. Oh, that’s the flower for me, Nellie;
die Arme—sünder—blum’!
” She drew the word out until it was a poem in itself.
    “Come, dear,” she said presently, when I put down the book, “you don’t really like this new verse that’s going round, ugly lines about ugly people and common feelings—you don’t really?”
    When I reminded her that she liked Walt Whitman, she chuckled slyly. “Does that save me? Can I get into your new Parnassus on that dirty old man? I suppose I ought to be glad of any sort of ticket at my age! I like naughty rhymes, when they don’t try to be pompous. I like the kind bad boys write on fences. My uncle had a rare collection of such rhymes in his head that he’d picked off fences and out-buildings. I wish I’d taken them down; I might become a poet of note! My uncle was a very unusual man. Did they ever tell you much about him at home? Yes, he had violent prejudices; but that’s rather good to remember in these days when so few people have any real passions, either of love orhate. He would help a friend, no matter what it cost him, and over and over again he risked ruining himself to crush an enemy. But he never did ruin himself. Men who hate like that usually have the fist-power to back it up, you’ll notice. He gave me fair warning, and then he kept his word. I knew he would; we were enough alike for that. He left his money wisely; part of it went to establish a home for aged and destitute women in Chicago, where it was needed.”
    While we were talking about this institution and some of the refugees it sheltered, Myra said suddenly: “I wonder if you know about a clause concerning me in that foundation? It states that at any time the founder’s niece, Myra Driscoll Henshawe, is to be received into the institution, kept without charge, and paid an allowance of ten dollars a week for pocket money until the time of her death. How like the old Satan that was! Be sure when he dictated that provision to his lawyer, he thought to himself: ‘She’d roll herself into the river first, the brach!’ And then he probably thought better of me, and maybe died with some decent feeling for me in his heart. We were very proud of each other, and if he’d lived till now, I’d go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me.We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton.”
    It had grown quite dusk while we talked. When I rose and turned on one of the shrouded lights, Mrs. Henshawe looked up at me and smiled drolly. “We’ve had a fine afternoon, and Biddy forgetting her ails. How the great poets do shine on, Nellie! Into all the dark corners of the world. They have no night.”
    They shone for her, certainly. Miss Stirling, “a nice young person from the library,” as Myra called her, ran in occasionally with new books, but Myra’s eyes tired quickly, and she used to shut a new book and lie back and repeat the old ones she knew by heart, the long declamations from
Richard II
or
King John.
As I passed her door I would hear her murmuring at the very bottom of her rich Irish voice:
    Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lan-cas-ter
 …

   FOUR   
    O ne afternoon when

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