Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament, by Willa Cather
The east-bound train was plowing through a January snow-storm; the dull dawn
was beginning to show gray, when the engine whistled a mile out of Newark. Paul
started up from the seat where he had lain curled in uneasy slumber, rubbed the
breath-misted window-glass with his hand, and peered out. The snow was
whirling in curling eddies above the white bottom-lands, and the drifts lay
already deep in the fields and along the fences, while here and there the long
dead grass and dried weed stalks protruded black above it. Lights shone from the
scattered houses, and a gang of laborers who stood beside the track waved their
Paul had slept very little, and he felt grimy and uncomfortable. He had made the
all-night journey in a day coach, partly because he was ashamed, dressed as he
was, to go into a Pullman, and partly because he was afraid of being seen there by
some Pittsburg business man, who might have noticed him in Denny & Carson's
office. When the whistle awoke him, he clutched quickly at his breast pocket,
glancing about him with an uncertain smile. But the little, clay-bespattered
Italians were still sleeping, the slatternly women across the aisle were in open
mouthed oblivion, and even the crumby, crying babies were for the nonce stilled.
Paul settled back to struggle with his impatience as best he could.
When he arrived at the Jersey City station, Paul hurried through his breakfast,
manifestly ill at ease and keeping a sharp eye about him. After he reached the
Twenty-third Street station, he consulted a cabman, and had himself driven to a
men's furnishing establishment that was just opening for the day. He spent
upward of two hours there, buying with endless reconsidering and great care.
His new street suit he put on in the fitting-room; the frock-coat and dress
clothes he had bundled into the cab with his linen. Then he drove to a hatter's
and a shoe house. His next errand was at Tiffany's, where he selected his silver
and a new scarf-pin. He would not wait to have his silver marked, he said. Lastly,
he stopped at a trunk shop on Broadway, and had his purchases packed into
various traveling bags.
It was a little after one o'clock when he drove up to the Waldorf, and after
settling with the cabman, went into the office. He registered from Washington;
said his mother and father had been abroad, and that he had come down to await
the arrival of their steamer. He told his story plausibly and had no trouble, since
he volunteered to pay for them in advance, in engaging his rooms, a sleeping
room, sitting-room and bath.
Not once, but a hundred times, Paul had planned this entry into New York. He
had gone over every detail of it with Charley Edwards, and in his scrap-book at
home there were pages of description about New York hotels, cut from the
Sunday papers. When he was shown to his sitting-room on the eighth floor, he
saw at a glance that everything was as it should be; there was but one detail in his
mental picture that the place did not realize, so he rang for the bell-boy and sent
him down for flowers. He moved about nervously until the boy returned, putting
away his new linen and fingering it delightedly as he did so. When the flowers
came, he put them hastily into water, and then tumbled into a hot bath. Presently
he came out of his white bath-room, resplendent in his new silk underwear, and
playing with the tassels of his red robe. The snow was whirling so fiercely outside
his windows that he could scarcely see across the street but within the air was
deliciously soft and fragrant. He put the violets and jonquils on the taboret
beside the couch, and threw himself down, with a long sigh, covering himself with
a Roman blanket. He was thoroughly tired; he had been in such haste, had stood
up to such a strain, covered so much ground in the last twenty-four hours, that he
wanted to think how it had all come about. Lulled by the sound of the wind, the
warm air, and the cool fragrance of the flowers, he sank into deep, drowsy
It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theatre and
concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually
determined. The rest was a mere matter of opportunity. The only thing that at all
surprised him was his own courage, for he realized well enough that he had
always been tormented by fear, a sort of apprehensive dread that, of late years,
as the meshes of the lies he had told closed about him, had been pulling the
muscles of his body tighter and tighter. Until now, he could not remember the
time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy, it
was always there—behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always
been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from
which something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things
that were not pretty to watch, he knew.
But now he had a curious sense of relief, as though he had at last thrown down
the gauntlet to the thing in the corner.
Yet it was but a day since he had been sulking in the traces; but yesterday
afternoon that he had been sent to the bank with Denny & Carson's deposits as
usual—but this time he was instructed to leave the book to be balanced. There
were above two thousand dollars in checks, and nearly a thousand in the bank
notes which he had taken from the book and quietly transferred to his pocket. At
the bank he had made out a new deposit slip. His nerves had been steady enough
to permit of his returning to the office, where he had finished his work and asked
for a full day's holiday tomorrow, Saturday, giving a perfectly reasonable pretext.
The bank-book, he knew, would not be returned before Monday or Tuesday, and
his father would be out of town for the next week. From the time he slipped the
bank-notes into his pocket until he boarded the night train for New York, he had
not known a moment's hesitation. It was not the first time Paul had steered
through treacherous waters.
How astonishingly easy it had all been; here he was, the thing done, and this time
there would be no awakening, no figure at the top of the stairs. He watched the
snow-flakes whirling by his window until he fell asleep.
When he awoke, it was three o'clock in the afternoon. He bounded up with a
start; half of one of his precious days gone already! He spent more than an hour
in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything
was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.
When he went down-stairs, Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue
toward the Park. The snow had somewhat abated, carriages and tradesmen's
wagons were hurrying to and fro in the winter twilight, boys in woollen mufflers
were shovelling off the doorsteps, the avenue stages made fine spots of color
against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole
flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow
flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow
vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece.
Willa Cather. "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament." 2002. Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, and Robert Funk. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002. 211-13. Print.
The flowers mentioned in lines 42-48 and lines 92-95 MOST likely foreshadow