My Mortal Enemy


Willa Cather

Copyright 1926

Paperback, 85 pages, $8.95
Reissue published by Vintage Books
Publication date: November 1, 1990
ISBN: 0679731792

"Field at Arles" by Vincent van Gogh

Review by Anthony V. Toscano

A high iron fence surrounds John Driscoll's mansion made of stone. A light snow falls and powders the bare branches of still, dark apple trees. Ten acres of parkland in southern Illinois turn cold and inward for the winter months of a year that begs Victoria toward the death of her century. The great house hibernates and awaits a decision from its center. In an upstairs room Lydia shoves several toilet articles and some linen into a travelling bag, tosses the package through an open window, aims for a young man stationed on the frozen ground below. She leaves the room and escapes John Driscoll's house by a back door. Outside she follows a circle of slippery flagstone that leads her to friends who gather beyond the front gate.

The women sit in sleighs; the men stand holding the horses. They wait in silence and watch their breath leave white shadows under moonlight. Lydia begins to think her friend, still inside the house, has weakened and will remain there to live with her great uncle, John Driscoll, a coarse, uneducated man, but a man with a fortune to give. The group of young people and horses are startled as the front door swings open. In the spray of yellow light they see her silhouette. Myra Driscoll moves quick toward the gate. She holds her head high. One of the young men lifts her into a sleigh, and they are off to a neighboring town, to a town that draws Myra past the certainty of one future and into the mystery of another.

Horses pull them through the night and snow, carry them on their mission, take them to meet the man Myra loves, the man she will join, a man John Driscoll despises.

Myra and Oswald marry by civil authority and in the presence of Oswald's parents and Myra's friends. She becomes Myra Henshawe, and he becomes her romance with independence. The two lovers board the Chicago express, which comes through at two in the morning. John Driscoll awakens and vows to keep a promise; Myra's name will not be mentioned in his will.

Cather's book begins elsewhere, but this nighttime scene of snow and certain destiny, of young hearts and quick departure, is where the story starts and its passion is born.

Nellie Birdseye, Lydia's niece, is our narrator. She talks to us first from a time some twenty years after Myra's sleigh ride. Nellie is fifteen, and Myra forty-five, when the Henshawes come to visit.

All her life Nellie has known this lady as a legend. Nellie tells us that "[Myra] and her runaway marriage were the theme of the most interesting...stories that were told in our family.... She had been a brilliant and attractive figure..., and her life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous."

Young Nellie is impressed. Impressed to awkward silence by Myra's intelligent voice, by her clever way of leading a conversation, by her deep-set grey eyes and by her manner of holding her head high. Myra Henshawe remembers all the old stories and all the sleeping jokes. She laughs a great deal, but her laugh sounds an angry note, a note Nellie will later come to understand as prelude to a melody of bitterness and regret. The Henshawes remain in Illinois to visit for three days. When they leave they make plans for Nellie and her Aunt Lydia to follow them later to New York for the coming Christmas holidays.

She is a New York City of train stations, hansom cabs and harbor ferries. Of gentlemen swinging walking sticks, of a Madison Square lined with small shops and well groomed shrubbery. Her music is the splash of fountains; her flame a soft violet shimmer cast by street lamps.

The Henshawe's apartment is on the second floor of an old brownstone. High ceilings, deep fire-places, wide doors, tall windows. Velvet curtains, plum-colored, a lining of rich cream. Myra talks to young lovers, companions who come to seek her advice and listen for her wisdom. Myra chatters. Myra counsels. Myra enlightens. Oswald stands by the fire, drinking a whiskey and soda, still waiting for their story to reveal itself.

During the week between Christmas and New Year's Day the Henshawes give Lydia and Nellie the tour. "It was the season of calls and visits...." Together they dine with friends in very large rooms, the walls hung with paintings, the women sitting two-and-two, the men drinking coffee and smoking fat black cigars. Nellie and Myra stroll through Central Park, enjoy tea at the Casino, watch a sunset lay its light on crusted snow.

They enjoy the company of a dying poet. They welcome the new year while listening to the Casta Diva aria.

The artful life of intellect and cultured tastes. The life love promised Myra on the night she passed through an iron gate in southern Illinois. A life that might have convinced Nellie Birdseye that Myra had kept her heart even as she lost her uncle's fortune. A rich life, a dream, a legend Nellie almost believes, until she overhears an argument on a winter's afternoon.

"How dare you lie to me, Oswald?" Nellie stands in the apartment's entry hall and listens as Myra's voice rises in anger. "I tell you, I will know the truth about this key..."

"My dear," answers Oswald, "you'd have a hard time getting through that door."

Nellie coughs and knocks to signal her arrival. Eventually the Henshawes hear her and beg her to enter. The tour is all but over. Myra will not join the two of them for lunch. Oswald alone will accompany Nellie to the theatre, there to watch Sarah Bernhardt's performance of Hamlet. Oswald, Nellie tells us, looks "tired and troubled."

We move ten years forward. Nellie Birdseye now lives in a sprawling West Coast city, and by chance she again meets the Henshawes. They are living in the same apartment-hotel, one "wretchedly built and already falling to pieces." Myra is ill and miserable. Oswald's hair is thin and white; his shoulders are stooped. His career is finished, his money all but gone.

Nellie visits Myra often, but no longer hears her laughter. Instead Myra complains. Myra laments. Myra grieves. Oswald stands by her bedside, settles the pillows under her, and listens as their story finally reveals itself.

"No, my poor Oswald, you'll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew! It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away. We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I'd still have my circle; I'd have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!"

Certain critics make much noise to describe this book as pessimistic. Cather became negative, they tell us. By 1926, these critics declare, Cather's beloved Nebraska frontier had passed its day of greatness, had become obscured, afflicted and corrupted by drought, depression and greed.

Myra Henshawe is a difficult and unattractive character, they say. Bitter and proud, selfish and sorry. I don't agree with these reviewers. I think Myra simply wanted more, much more than Victoria's century allowed a passionate and articulate woman.

John Driscoll's iron gate owned little strength when compared to the meaner force of convention. The one seeks to entrap, while the other suffocates. Still, you will read _My Mortal Enemy_ in your own way, by your own wits and sensitivities. I think we all move ourselves into, and pull ourselves out of, whatever we read. You will come to understand Myra according to how she touches you.

This is a short book that tells a long story. Eighty-five pages, not counting the introduction by Marcus Klein. You might wish to consider reading Mr. Klein's introduction, by the way, only after you've read the book, if at all. He writes well, and he offers fair enough analysis, but he tells you how the story ends, and I have not. I'm not sure I see an end to Myra's tale, at least not the same one you might read.

Anthony V. Toscano

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