Come Lady Death
This all happened in England a long
time ago, when that George who spoke English with a heavy German accent and
hated his sons was King. At that time there lived in London a lady who had
nothing to do but give parties. Her name was Flora, Lady Neville, and she
was a widow and very old. She lived in a great house not far from Buckingham
Palace, and she had so many servants that she could not possibly remember
all their names; indeed, there were some she had never even seen. She had
more food than she could eat, more gowns than she could ever wear; she had
wine in her cellars that no one would drink in her lifetime, and her private
vaults were filled with great works of art that she did not know she owned.
She spent the last years of her life giving parties and balls to which the
greatest lords of England—and sometimes the King himself—came, and she was
known as the wisest and wittiest woman in all London.
But in time her own parties began to
bore her, and though she invited the most famous people in the land and
hired the greatest jugglers and acrobats and dancers and magicians to
entertain them, still she found her parties duller and duller. Listening to
court gossip, which she had always loved, made her yawn. The most marvelous
music, the most exciting feats of magic put her to sleep. Watching a
beautiful young couple dance by her made her feel sad, and she hated to feel
And so, one summer afternoon she
called her closest friends around her and said to them, "More and more I
find that my parties entertain everyone but me. The secret of my long life
is that nothing has ever been dull for me. For all my life, I have been
interested in everything I saw and been anxious to see more. But I cannot
stand to be bored, and I will not go to parties at which I expect to be
bored, especially if they are my own. Therefore, to my next ball I shall
invite the one guest I am sure no one, not even myself, could possibly find
boring. My friends, the guest of honor at my next party shall be Death
A young poet thought that this was a
wonderful idea, but the rest of her friends were terrified and drew back
from her. They did not want to die, they pleaded with her. Death would come
for them when he was ready; why should she invite him before the appointed
hour, which would arrive soon enough? But Lady Neville said, "Precisely. If
Death has planned to take any of us on the night of my party, he will come
whether he is invited or not. But if none of us are to die, then I think it
would be charming to have Death among us—perhaps even to perform some little
trick if he is in a good humor. And think of being able to say that we had
been to a party with Death! All of London will envy us, all of England!"
The idea began to please her
friends, but a young lord, very new to London, suggested timidly, "Death is
so busy. Suppose he has work to do and cannot accept your invitation?"
"No one has ever refused an
invitation of mine," said Lady Neville, "not even the King." And the young
lord was not invited to her party.
She sat down then and there and
wrote out the invitation. There was some dispute among her friends as to how
they should address Death. "His Lordship Death" seemed to place him only on
the level of a viscount or a baron. "His Grace Death" met with more
acceptance, but Lady Neville said it sounded hypocritical. And to refer to
Death as "His Majesty" was to make him the equal of the King of England,
which even Lady Neville would not dare to do. It was finally decided that
all should speak of him as "His Eminence Death," which pleased nearly
Captain Compson, known both as
England's most dashing cavalry officer and most elegant rake, remarked next,
"That's all very well, but how is the invitation to reach Death? Does anyone
here know where he lives?"
"Death undoubtedly lives in London,"
said Lady Neville, "like everyone else of any importance, though he probably
goes to Deauville for the summer. Actually, Death must live fairly near my
own house. This is much the best section of London, and you could hardly
expect a person of Death's importance to live anywhere else. When I stop to
think of it, it's really rather strange that we haven't met before now, on
Most of her friends agreed with her,
but the poet, whose name was David Lorimond, cried out, "No, my lady, you
are wrong! Death lives among the poor. Death lives in the foulest, darkest
alleys of this city, in some vile, rat-ridden hovel that smells of—" He
stopped here partly because Lady Neville had indicated her displeasure, and
partly because he had never been inside such a hut or thought of wondering
what it smelled like. "Death lives among the poor," he went on, "and comes
to visit them every day, for he is their only friend."
Lady Neville answered him as coldly
as she had spoken to the young lord. "He may be forced to deal with them,
David, but I hardly think that he seeks them out as companions. I am certain
that it is as difficult for him to think of the poor as individuals as it is
for me. Death is, after all, a nobleman."
There was no real argument among the
lords and ladies that Death lived in a neighborhood at least as good as
their own, but none of them seemed to know the name of Death's street, and
no one had ever seen Death's house.
"If there were a war," Captain
Compson said, "Death would be easy to find. I have seen him, you know, even
spoken to him, but he has never answered me."
"Quite proper," said Lady Neville.
"Death must always speak first. You are not a very correct person, Captain."
But she smiled at him, as all women did.
Then an idea came to her. "My
hairdresser has a sick child, I understand," she said. "He was telling me
about it yesterday, sounding most dull and hopeless. I will send for him and
give him the invitation, and he in his turn can give it to Death when he
comes to take the brat. A bit unconventional, I admit, but I see no other
"If he refuses?" asked a lord who
had just been married.
"Why should he?" asked Lady Neville.
Again it was the poet who exclaimed
amidst the general approval that this was a cruel and wicked thing to do.
But he fell silent when Lady Neville innocently asked him, "Why, David?"
So the hairdresser was sent for, and
when he stood before them, smiling nervously and twisting his hands to be in
the same room with so many great lords, Lady Neville told him the errand
that was required of him. And she was right, as she usually was, for he made
no refusal. He merely took the invitation in his hand and asked to be
He did not return for two days, but
when he did he presented himself to Lady Neville without being sent for and
handed her a small white envelope. Saying, "How very nice of you, thank you
very much," she opened it and found therein a plain calling card with
nothing on it except these words: Death will be pleased to attend Lady
"Death gave you this?" she asked the
hairdresser eagerly. "What was he like?" But the hairdresser stood still,
looking past her, and said nothing, and she, not really waiting for an
answer, called a dozen servants to her and told them to run and summon her
friends. As she paced up and down the room waiting for them, she asked
again, "What is Death like?" The hairdresser did not reply.
When her friends came they passed the little card
excitedly from hand to hand, until it had gotten quite smudged and bent from
their fingers. But they all admitted that, beyond its message, there was
nothing particularly unusual about it. It was neither hot nor cold to the
touch, and what little odor clung to it was rather pleasant. Everyone said
that it was a very familiar smell, but no one could give it a name. The poet
said that it reminded him of lilacs but not exactly.
It was Captain Compson, however, who pointed out the
one thing that no one else had noticed. "Look at the handwriting itself," he
said. "Have you ever seen anything more graceful? The letters seem as light
as birds. I think we have wasted our time speaking of Death as His This and
His That. A woman wrote this note."
Then there was an uproar and a great babble, and the
card had to be handed around again so that everyone could exclaim, "Yes, by
God!" over it. The voice of the poet rose out of the hubbub saying, "It is
very natural, when you come to think of it. After all, the French say la
mort. Lady Death. I should much prefer Death to be a woman."
"Death rides a great black horse," said Captain Compson
firmly, "and wears armor of the same color. Death is very tall, taller than
anyone. It was no woman I saw on the battlefield, striking right and left
like any soldier. Perhaps the hairdresser wrote it himself, or the
But the hairdresser refused to speak, though they
gathered around him and begged him to say who had given him the note. At
first they promised him all sorts of rewards, and later they threatened to
do terrible things to him. "Did you write this card?" he was asked, and "Who
wrote it, then? Was it a living woman? Was it really Death? Did Death say
anything to you? How did you know it was Death? Is Death a woman? Are you
trying to make fools of us all?"
Not a word from the hairdresser, not one word, and
finally Lady Neville called her servants to have him whipped and thrown into
the street. He did not look at her as they took him away, or utter a sound.
Silencing her friends with a wave of her hand, Lady
Neville said, "The ball will take place two weeks from tonight. Let Death
come as Death pleases, whether as man or woman or strange, sexless
creature." She smiled calmly. Death may well be a woman," she said. "I am
less certain of Death's form than I was, but I am also less frightened of
Death. I am too old to be afraid of anything that can use a quill pen to
write me a letter. Go home now, and as you make your preparations for the
ball see that you speak of it to your servants, that they may spread the
news all over London. Let it be known that on this one night no one in the
world will die, for Death will be dancing at Lady Neville's ball."
· · · · ·
For the next two weeks Lady Neville's great house shook and groaned and
creaked like an old tree in a gale as the servants hammered and scrubbed,
polished and painted, making ready for the ball. Lady Neville had always
been very proud of her house, but as the ball drew near she began to be
afraid that it would not be nearly grand enough for Death, who was surely
accustomed to visiting in the homes of richer, mightier people than herself.
Fearing the scorn of Death, she worked night and day supervising her
servants' preparations. Curtains and carpets had to be cleaned, goldwork and
silverware polished until they gleamed by themselves in the dark. The grand
staircase that rushed down into the ballroom like a waterfall was washed and
rubbed so often that it was almost impossible to walk on it without
slipping. As for the ballroom itself, it took thirty-two servants working at
once to clean it properly, not counting those who were polishing the glass
chandelier that was taller than a man and the fourteen smaller lamps. And
when they were done she made them do it all over, not because she saw any
dust or dirt anywhere, but because she was sure that Death would.
As for herself, she chose her finest gown and saw to
its laundering personally. She called in another hairdresser and had him put
up her hair in the style of an earlier time, wanting to show Death that she
was a woman who enjoyed her age and did not find it necessary to ape the
young and beautiful. All the day of the ball she sat before her mirror, not
making herself up much beyond the normal touches of rouge and eye shadow and
fine rice powder, but staring at the lean old face she had been born with,
wondering how it would appear to Death. Her steward asked her to approve his
wine selection, but she sent him away and stayed at her mirror until it was
time to dress and go downstairs to meet her guests.
Everyone arrived early. When she looked out of a
window, Lady Neville saw that the driveway of her home was choked with
carriages and fine horses. "It all looks like a great funeral procession,"
she said. The footman cried the names of her guests to the echoing ballroom.
"Captain Henry Compson, His Majesty's Household Cavalry! Mr. David Lorimond!
Lord and Lady Torrance!" (They were the youngest couple there, having been
married only three months before.) "Sir Roger Harbison! The Contessa della
Candini!" Lady Neville permitted them all to kiss her hand and made them
She had engaged the finest musicians she could find to
play for the dancing, but though they began to play at her signal not one
couple stepped out on the floor, nor did one young lord approach her to
request the honor of the first dance, as was proper. They milled together,
shining and murmuring, their eyes fixed on the ballroom door. Every time
they heard a carriage clatter up the driveway they seemed to flinch a little
and draw closer together; every time the footman announced the arrival of
another guest, they all sighed softly and swayed a little on their feet with
"Why did they come to my party if they were afraid?"
Lady Neville muttered scornfully to herself. "I am not afraid of meeting
Death. I ask only that Death may be impressed by the magnificence of my
house and the flavor of my wines. I will die sooner than anyone here, but I
am not afraid."
Certain that Death would not arrive until midnight, she
moved among her guests, attempting to calm them, not with her words, which
she knew they would not hear, but with the tone of her voice, as if they
were so many frightened horses. But little by little, she herself was
infected by their nervousness: whenever she sat down she stood up again
immediately, she tasted a dozen glasses of wine without finishing any of
them, and she glanced constantly at her jeweled watch, at first wanting to
hurry the midnight along and end the waiting, later scratching at the watch
face with her forefinger, as if she would push away the night and drag the
sun backward into the sky. When midnight came, she was standing with the
rest of them, breathing through her mouth, shifting from foot to foot,
listening for the sound of carriage wheels turning in gravel.
· · · · ·
When the clock began to strike midnight, everyone, even Lady Neville and the
brave Captain Compson, gave one startled little cry and then was silent
again, listening to the tolling of the clock. The smaller clocks upstairs
began to chime. Lady Neville's ears hurt. She caught sight of herself in the
ballroom mirror, one gray face turned up toward the ceiling as if she were
gasping for air, and she thought, "Death will be a woman, a hideous, filthy
old crone as tall and strong as a man. And the most terrible thing of all
will be that she will have my face." All the clocks stopped striking, and
Lady Neville closed her eyes.
She opened them again only when she heard the
whispering around her take on a different tone, one in which fear was fused
with relief and a certain chagrin. For no new carriage stood in the
driveway. Death had not come.
The noise grew slowly louder; here and there people
were beginning to laugh. Near her, Lady Neville heard young Lord Torrance
say to his wife, "There, my darling, I told you there was nothing to be
afraid of. It was all a joke."
"I am ruined," Lady Neville thought. The laughter was
increasing; it pounded against her ears in strokes, like the chiming of the
clocks. "I wanted to give a ball so grand that those who were not invited
would be shamed in front of the whole city, and this is my reward. I am
ruined, and I deserve it."
Turning to the poet Lorimond, she said, "Dance with me,
David." She signaled to the musicians, who at once began to play. When
Lorimond hesitated, she said, "Dance with me now. You will not have another
chance. I shall never give a party again."
Lorimond bowed and led her out onto the dance floor.
The guests parted for them, and the laughter died down for a moment, but
Lady Neville knew that it would soon begin again. "Well, let them laugh,"
she thought. "I did not fear Death when they were all trembling. Why should
I fear their laughter?" But she could feel a stinging at the thin lids of
her eyes, and she closed them once more as she began to dance with Lorimond.
And then, quite suddenly, all the carriage horses
outside the house whinnied loudly, just once, as the guests had cried out at
midnight. There were a great many horses, and their one salute was so loud
that everyone in the room became instantly silent. They heard the heavy
steps of the footman as he went to open the door, and they shivered as if
they felt the cold breeze that drifted into the house. Then they heard a
light voice saying, "Am I late? Oh, I am so sorry. The horses were tired,"
and before the footman could reenter to announce her, a lovely young girl in
a white dress stepped gracefully into the ballroom doorway and stood there
She could not have been more than nineteen. Her hair
was yellow, and she wore it long. It fell thickly upon her bare shoulders
that gleamed warmly through it, two limestone islands rising out of a dark
golden sea. Her face was wide at the forehead and cheekbones, and narrow at
the chin, and her skin was so clear that many of the ladies there—Lady
Neville among them—touched their own faces wonderingly, and instantly drew
their hands away as though their own skin had rasped their fingers. Her
mouth was pale, where the mouths of the other women were red and orange and
even purple. Her eyebrows, thicker and straighter than was fashionable, met
over dark, calm eyes that were set so deep in her young face and were so
black, so uncompromisingly black, that the middleaged wife of a middleaged
lord murmured, "Touch of the gypsy there, I think!"
"Or something worse," suggested her husband's mistress.
"Be silent!" Lady Neville spoke louder than she had
intended, and the girl turned to look at her. She smiled, and Lady Neville
tried to smile back, but her mouth seemed very stiff. "Welcome," she said.
"Welcome, my lady Death."
A sigh rustled among the lords and ladies as the girl
took the old woman's hand and curtsied to her, sinking and rising in one
motion, like a wave. "You are Lady Neville," she said. "Thank you so much
for inviting me." Her accent was as faint and as almost familiar as her
"Please excuse me for being late," she said earnestly.
"I had to come from a long way off, and my horses are so tired."
"The groom will rub them down," Lady Neville said, "and
feed them if you wish."
"Oh, no," the girl answered quickly. "Tell him not to
go near the horses, please. They are not really horses, and they are very
She accepted a glass of wine from a servant and drank
it slowly, sighing softly and contentedly. "What good wine," she said. "And
what a beautiful house you have."
"Thank you," said Lady Neville. Without turning, she
could feel every woman in the room envying her, sensing it as she could
always sense the approach of rain.
"I wish I lived here," Death said in her low, sweet
voice. "I will, one day."
Then, seeing Lady Neville become as still as if she had
turned to ice, she put her hand on the old woman's arm and said, "Oh, I'm
sorry, I'm so sorry. I am so cruel, but I never mean to be. Please forgive
me, Lady Neville. I am not used to company, and I do such stupid things.
Please forgive me."
Her hand felt as light and warm on Lady Neville's arm
as the hand of any other young girl, and her eyes were so appealing that
Lady Neville replied, "You have said nothing wrong. While you are my guest,
my house is yours."
"Thank you," said Death, and she smiled so radiantly
that the musicians began to play quite by themselves, with no sign from Lady
Neville. She would have stopped them, but Death said, "Oh, what lovely
music! Let them play, please."
So the musicians played a gavotte, and Death, unabashed
by eyes that stared at her in greedy terror, sang softly to herself without
words, lifted her white gown slightly with both hands, and made hesitant
little patting steps with her small feet. "I have not danced in so long,"
she said wistfully. "I'm quite sure I've forgotten how."
She was shy; she would not look up
to embarrass the young lords, not one of whom stepped forward to dance with
her. Lady Neville felt a flood of shame and sympathy, emotions she thought
had withered in her years ago. "Is she to be humiliated at my own ball?" she
thought angrily. "It is because she is Death; if she were the ugliest,
foulest hag in all the world they would clamor to dance with her, because
they are gentlemen and they know what is expected of them. But no gentleman
will dance with Death, no matter how beautiful she is." She glanced sideways
at David Lorimond. His face was flushed, and his hands were clasped so
tightly as he stared at Death that his fingers were like glass, but when
Lady Neville touched his arm he did not turn, and when she hissed, "David!"
he pretended not to hear her.
Then Captain Compson, gray-haired and handsome in his
uniform, stepped out of the crowd and bowed gracefully before Death. "If I
may have the honor," he said.
"Captain Compson," said Death, smiling. She put her arm
in his. "I was hoping you would ask me."
This brought a frown from the older women, who did not
consider it a proper thing to say, but for that Death cared not a rap.
Captain Compson led her to the center of the floor, and there they danced.
Death was curiously graceless at first—she was too anxious to please her
partner, and she seemed to have no notion of rhythm. The Captain himself
moved with the mixture of dignity and humor that Lady Neville had never seen
in another man, but when he looked at her over Death's shoulder, she saw
something that no one else appeared to notice: that his face and eyes were
immobile with fear, and that, though he offered Death his hand with easy
gallantry, he flinched slightly when she took it. And yet he danced as well
as Lady Neville had ever seen him.
"Ah, that's what comes of having a reputation to
maintain," she thought. "Captain Compson too must do what is expected of
him. I hope someone else will dance with her soon."
But no one did. Little by little, other couples
overcame their fear and slipped hurriedly out on the floor when Death was
looking the other way, but nobody sought to relieve Captain Compson of his
beautiful partner. They danced every dance together. In time, some of the
men present began to look at her with more appreciation than terror, but
when she returned their glances and smiled at them, they clung to their
partners as if a cold wind were threatening to blow them away.
One of the few who stared at her frankly and with
pleasure was young Lord Torrance, who usually danced only with his wife.
Another was the poet Lorimond. Dancing with Lady Neville, he remarked to
her, "If she is Death, what do these frightened fools think they are? If she
is ugliness, what must they be? I hate their fear. It is obscene."
Death and the Captain danced past them at that moment,
and they heard him say to her, "But if that was truly you that I saw in the
battle, how can you have changed so? How can you have become so lovely?"
Death's laughter was gay and soft. "I thought that
among so many beautiful people it might be better to be beautiful. I was
afraid of frightening everyone and spoiling the party."
"They all thought she would be ugly," said Lorimond to
Lady Neville. "I—I knew she would be beautiful."
"Then why have you not danced with her?" Lady Neville
asked him. "Are you also afraid?"
"No, oh, no," the poet answered quickly and
passionately. "I will ask her to dance very soon. I only want to look at her
a little longer."
· · · · ·
The musicians played on and on. The dancing wore away the night as slowly as
falling water wears down a cliff. It seemed to Lady Neville that no night
had ever endured longer, and yet she was neither tired nor bored. She danced
with every man there, except with Lord Torrance, who was dancing with his
wife as if they had just met that night, and, of course, with Captain
Compson. Once he lifted his hand and touched Death's golden hair very
lightly. He was a striking man still, a fit partner for so beautiful a girl,
but Lady Neville looked at his face each time she passed him and realized
that he was older than anyone knew.
Death herself seemed younger than the youngest there.
No woman at the ball danced better than she now, though it was hard for Lady
Neville to remember at what point her awkwardness had given way to the
liquid sweetness of her movements. She smiled and called to everyone who
caught her eye—and she knew them all by name; she sang constantly, making up
words to the dance tunes, nonsense words, sounds without meaning, and yet
everyone strained to hear her soft voice without knowing why. And when,
during a waltz, she caught up the trailing end of her gown to give her more
freedom as she danced, she seemed to Lady Neville to move like a little
sailing boat over a still evening sea.
Lady Neville heard Lady Torrance arguing angrily with
the Contessa della Candini. "I don't care if she is Death, she's no older
than I am, she can't be!"
"Nonsense," said the Contessa, who could not afford to
be generous to any other woman. "She is twenty-eight, thirty, if she is an
hour. And that dress, that bridal gown she wears—really!"
"Vile," said the woman who had come to the ball as
Captain Compson's freely acknowledged mistress. "Tasteless. But one should
know better than to expect taste from Death, I suppose." Lady Torrance
looked as if she were going to cry.
"They are jealous of Death," Lady Neville said to
herself. "How strange. I am not jealous of her, not in the least. And I do
not fear her at all." She was very proud of herself.
Then, as unbiddenly as they had begun to play, the
musicians stopped. They began to put away their instruments. In the sudden
shrill silence, Death pulled away from Captain Compson and ran to look out
of one of the tall windows, pushing the curtains apart with both hands.
"Look!" she said, with her back turned to them. "Come and look. The night is
The summer sky was still dark, and the eastern horizon
was only a shade lighter than the rest of the sky, but the stars had
vanished and the trees near the house were gradually becoming distinct.
Death pressed her face against the window and said, so softly that the other
guests could barely hear her, "I must go now."
"No," Lady Neville said, and was not immediately aware
that she had spoken. "You must stay a while longer. The ball was in your
honor. Please stay."
Death held out both hands to her, and Lady Neville came
and took them in her own. "I've had a wonderful time," she said gently. "You
cannot possibly imagine how it feels to be actually invited to such a ball
as this, because you have given them and gone to them all your life. One is
like another to you, but for me it is different. Do you understand me?" Lady
Neville nodded silently. "I will remember this night forever," Death said.
"Stay," Captain Compson said. "Stay just a little
longer." He put his hand on Death's shoulder, and she smiled and leaned her
cheek against it. "Dear Captain Compson," she said. "My first real gallant.
Aren't you tired of me yet?"
"Never," he said. "Please stay."
"Stay," said Lorimond, and he too seemed about to touch
her. "Stay. I want to talk to you. I want to look at you. I will dance with
you if you stay."
"How many followers I have," Death said in wonder. She
stretched one hand toward Lorimond, but he drew back from her and then
flushed in shame. "A soldier and a poet. How wonderful it is to be a woman.
But why did you not speak to me earlier, both of you? Now it is too late. I
"Please stay," Lady Torrance whispered. She held on to
her husband's hand for courage. "We think you are so beautiful, both of us
"Gracious Lady Torrance," the girl said kindly. She
turned back to the window, touched it lightly, and it flew open. The cool
dawn air rushed into the ballroom, fresh with rain but already smelling
faintly of the London streets over which it had passed. They heard birdsong
and the strange, harsh nickering of Death's horses.
"Do you want me to stay?" she asked. The question was
put, not to Lady Neville, nor to Captain Compson, nor to any of her
admirers, but to the Contessa della Candini, who stood well back from them
all, hugging her flowers to herself and humming a little song of irritation.
She did not in the least want Death to stay, but she was afraid that all the
other women would think her envious of Death's beauty, and so she said,
"Yes. Of course I do."
"Ah," said Death. She was almost whispering. "And you,"
she said to another woman, "do you want me to stay? Do you want me to be one
of your friends?"
"Yes," said the woman, "because you are beautiful and a
"And you," said Death to a man, "and you," to a woman,
"and you," to another man, "do you want me to stay?" And they all answered,
"Yes, Lady Death, we do."
"Do you want me, then?" she cried at last to all of
them. "Do you want me to live among you and to be one of you, and not to be
Death anymore? Do you want me to visit your houses and come to all your
parties? Do you want me to ride horses like yours instead of mine, do you
want me to wear the kind of dresses you wear, and say the things you would
say? Would one of you marry me, and would the rest of you dance at my
wedding and bring gifts to my children? Is that what you want?"
"Yes," said Lady Neville. "Stay here, stay with me,
stay with us."
Death's voice, without becoming louder, had become
clearer and older; too old a voice, thought Lady Neville, for such a young
girl. "Be sure," said Death. "Be sure of what you want, be very sure. So all
of you want me to stay? For if one of you says to me, no, go away, then I
must leave at once and never return. Be sure. Do you all want me?"
And everyone there cried with one voice, "Yes! Yes, you
must stay with us. You are so beautiful that we cannot let you go."
"We are tired," said Captain Compson.
"We are blind," said Lorimond, adding, "especially to
"We are afraid," said Lord Torrance quietly, and his
wife took his arm and said, "Both of us."
"We are dull and stupid," said Lady Neville, "and
growing old uselessly. Stay with us, Lady Death."
And then Death smiled sweetly and radiantly and took a
step forward, and it was as though she had come down among them from a great
height. "Very well," she said. "I will stay with you. I will be Death no
more. I will be a woman."
The room was full of a deep sigh, although no one was
seen to open his mouth. No one moved, for the golden-haired girl was Death
still, and her horses still whinnied for her outside. No one could look at
her for long, although she was the most beautiful girl anyone there had ever
"There is a price to pay," she said. "There is always a
price. Some one of you must become Death in my place, for there must forever
be Death in the world. Will anyone choose? Will anyone here become Death of
his own free will? For only thus can I become a human girl."
No one spoke, no one spoke at all. But they backed
slowly away from her, like waves slipping back down a beach to the sea when
you try to catch them. The Contessa della Candini and her friends would have
crept quietly out of the door, but Death smiled at them and they stood where
they were. Captain Compson opened his mouth as though he were going to
declare himself, but he said nothing. Lady Neville did not move.
"No one," said Death. She touched a flower with her
finger, and it seemed to crouch and flex itself like a pleased cat. "No one
at all," she said. "Then I must choose, and that is just, for that is the
way that I became Death. I never wanted to be Death, and it makes me so
happy that you want me to become one of yourselves. I have searched a long
time for people who would want me. Now I have only to choose someone to
replace me and it is done. I will choose very carefully."
"Oh, we were so foolish," Lady Neville said to herself.
"We were so foolish." But she said nothing aloud; she merely clasped her
hands and stared at the young girl, thinking vaguely that if she had had a
daughter she would have been greatly pleased if she resembled the lady
"The Contessa della Candini," said Death thoughtfully,
and that woman gave a little squeak of terror because she could not draw her
breath for a scream. But Death laughed and said, "No, that would be silly."
She said nothing more, but for a long time after that the Contessa burned
with humiliation at not having been chosen to be Death.
"Not Captain Compson," murmured Death, "because he is
too kind to become Death, and because it would be too cruel to him. He wants
to die so badly." The expression on the Captain's face did not change, but
his hands began to tremble.
"Not Lorimond," the girl continued, "because he knows
so little about life, and because I like him." The poet flushed, and turned
white, and then turned pink again. He made as if to kneel clumsily on one
knee, but instead he pulled himself erect and stood as much like Captain
Compson as he could.
"Not the Torrances," said Death, "never Lord and Lady
Torrance, for both of them care too much about another person to take any
pride in being Death." But she hesitated over Lady Torrance for a while,
staring at her out of her dark and curious eyes. "I was your age when I
became Death," she said at last. "I wonder what it will be like to be your
age again. I have been Death for so long." Lady Torrance shivered and did
And at last Death said quietly, "Lady Neville."
"I am here," Lady Neville answered.
"I think you are the only one," said Death. "I choose
you, Lady Neville."
Again Lady Neville heard every guest sigh softly, and
although her back was to them all she knew that they were sighing in relief
that neither themselves nor anyone dear to themselves had been chosen. Lady
Torrance gave a little cry of protest, but Lady Neville knew that she would
have cried out at whatever choice Death made. She heard herself say calmly,
"I am honored. But was there no one more worthy than I?"
"Not one," said Death. "There is no one quite so weary
of being human, no one who knows better how meaningless it is to be alive.
And there is no one else here with the power to treat life"—and she smiled
sweetly and cruelly—"the life of your hairdresser's child, for instance, as
the meaningless thing it is. Death has a heart, but it is forever an empty
heart, and I think, Lady Neville, that your heart is like a dry riverbed,
like a seashell. You will be very content as Death, more so than I, for I
was very young when I became Death."
She came toward Lady Neville, light and swaying, her
deep eyes wide and full of the light of the red morning sun that was
beginning to rise. The guests at the ball moved back from her, although she
did not look at them, but Lady Neville clenched her hands tightly and
watched Death come toward her with her little dancing steps. "We must kiss
each other," Death said. "That is the way I became Death."
She shook her head delightedly, so that her soft hair
swirled about her shoulders. "Quickly, quickly," she said. "Oh, I cannot
wait to be human again."
"You may not like it," Lady Neville said. She felt very
calm, though she could hear her old heart pounding in her chest and feel it
in the tops of her fingers. "You may not like it after a while," she said.
"Perhaps not." Death's smile was very close to her now.
"I will not be as beautiful as I am, and perhaps people will not love me as
much as they do now. But I will be human for a while, and at last I will
die. I have done my penance."
"What penance?" the old woman asked the beautiful girl.
"What was it you did? Why did you become Death?"
"I don't remember," said the lady Death. "And you too
will forget in time." She was smaller than Lady Neville, and so much
younger. In her white dress she might have been the daughter that Lady
Neville had never had, who would have been with her always and held her
mother's head lightly in the crook of her arm when she felt old and sad. Now
she lifted her head to kiss Lady Neville's cheek, and as she did so she
whispered in her ear, "You will still be beautiful when I am ugly. Be kind
to me then."
Behind Lady Neville the handsome gentlemen and ladies
murmured and sighed, fluttering like moths in their evening dress, in their
elegant gowns. "I promise," she said, and then she pursed her dry lips to
kiss the soft, sweet-smelling cheek of the young lady Death.