Part 2 out of 4
`He not want to come, never!' she burst out. `My mamenka make him come.
All the time she say: "America big country; much money, much land for my
boys, much husband for my girls." My papa, he cry for leave his old friends
what make music with him. He love very much the man what play the long
horn like this'-- she indicated a slide trombone. "They go to school
together and are friends from boys. But my mama, she want Ambrosch for be
rich, with many cattle.'
`Your mama,' I said angrily, `wants other people's things.'
"Your grandfather is rich," she retorted fiercely. `Why he not help my
papa? Ambrosch be rich, too, after while, and he pay back. He is very
smart boy. For Ambrosch my mama come here.'
Ambrosch was considered the important person in the family. Mrs. Shimerda
and Antonia always deferred to him, though he was often surly with them and
contemptuous toward his father. Ambrosch and his mother had everything
their own way. Though Antonia loved her father more than she did anyone
else, she stood in awe of her elder brother.
After I watched Antonia and her mother go over the hill on their miserable
horse, carrying our iron pot with them, I turned to grandmother, who had
taken up her darning, and said I hoped that snooping old woman wouldn't
come to see us any more.
Grandmother chuckled and drove her bright needle across a hole in Otto's
sock. `She's not old, Jim, though I expect she seems old to you. No, I
wouldn't mourn if she never came again. But, you see, a body never knows
what traits poverty might bring out in 'em. It makes a woman grasping to
see her children want for things. Now read me a chapter in "The Prince of
the House of David." Let's forget the Bohemians.'
We had three weeks of this mild, open weather. The cattle in the corral
ate corn almost as fast as the men could shell it for them, and we hoped
they would be ready for an early market. One morning the two big bulls,
Gladstone and Brigham Young, thought spring had come, and they began to
tease and butt at each other across the barbed wire that separated them.
Soon they got angry. They bellowed and pawed up the soft earth with their
hoofs, rolling their eyes and tossing their heads. Each withdrew to a far
corner of his own corral, and then they made for each other at a gallop.
Thud, thud, we could hear the impact of their great heads, and their
bellowing shook the pans on the kitchen shelves. Had they not been
dehorned, they would have torn each other to pieces. Pretty soon the fat
steers took it up and began butting and horning each other. Clearly, the
affair had to be stopped. We all stood by and watched admiringly while
Fuchs rode into the corral with a pitchfork and prodded the bulls again and
again, finally driving them apart.
The big storm of the winter began on my eleventh birthday, the twentieth of
January. When I went down to breakfast that morning, Jake and Otto came in
white as snow-men, beating their hands and stamping their feet. They began
to laugh boisterously when they saw me, calling:
`You've got a birthday present this time, Jim, and no mistake. They was a
full-grown blizzard ordered for you.'
All day the storm went on. The snow did not fall this time, it simply
spilled out of heaven, like thousands of featherbeds being emptied. That
afternoon the kitchen was a carpenter-shop; the men brought in their tools
and made two great wooden shovels with long handles. Neither grandmother
nor I could go out in the storm, so Jake fed the chickens and brought in a
pitiful contribution of eggs.
Next day our men had to shovel until noon to reach the barn-- and the snow
was still falling! There had not been such a storm in the ten years my
grandfather had lived in Nebraska. He said at dinner that we would not try
to reach the cattle-- they were fat enough to go without their corn for a
day or two; but tomorrow we must feed them and thaw out their water-tap so
that they could drink. We could not so much as see the corrals, but we
knew the steers were over there, huddled together under the north bank.
Our ferocious bulls, subdued enough by this time, were probably warming
each other's backs. `This'll take the bile out of 'em!' Fuchs remarked
At noon that day the hens had not been heard from. After dinner Jake and
Otto, their damp clothes now dried on them, stretched their stiff arms and
plunged again into the drifts. They made a tunnel through the snow to the
hen-house, with walls so solid that grandmother and I could walk back and
forth in it. We found the chickens asleep; perhaps they thought night had
come to stay. One old rooster was stirring about, pecking at the solid
lump of ice in their water-tin. When we flashed the lantern in their eyes,
the hens set up a great cackling and flew about clumsily, scattering
down-feathers. The mottled, pin-headed guinea-hens, always resentful of
captivity, ran screeching out into the tunnel and tried to poke their ugly,
painted faces through the snow walls. By five o'clock the chores were done
just when it was time to begin them all over again! That was a strange,
unnatural sort of day.
ON THE MORNING of the twenty-second I wakened with a start. Before I
opened my eyes, I seemed to know that something had happened. I heard
excited voices in the kitchen-- grandmother's was so shrill that I knew she
must be almost beside herself. I looked forward to any new crisis with
delight. What could it be, I wondered, as I hurried into my clothes.
Perhaps the barn had burned; perhaps the cattle had frozen to death;
perhaps a neighbour was lost in the storm.
Down in the kitchen grandfather was standing before the stove with his
hands behind him. Jake and Otto had taken off their boots and were rubbing
their woollen socks. Their clothes and boots were steaming, and they both
looked exhausted. On the bench behind the stove lay a man, covered up with
a blanket. Grandmother motioned me to the dining-room. I obeyed
reluctantly. I watched her as she came and went, carrying dishes. Her
lips were tightly compressed and she kept whispering to herself: `Oh, dear
Saviour!' `Lord, Thou knowest!'
Presently grandfather came in and spoke to me: `Jimmy, we will not have
prayers this morning, because we have a great deal to do. Old Mr. Shimerda
is dead, and his family are in great distress. Ambrosch came over here in
the middle of the night, and Jake and Otto went back with him. The boys
have had a hard night, and you must not bother them with questions. That
is Ambrosch, asleep on the bench. Come in to breakfast, boys.'
After Jake and Otto had swallowed their first cup of coffee, they began to
talk excitedly, disregarding grandmother's warning glances. I held my
tongue, but I listened with all my ears.
`No, sir,' Fuchs said in answer to a question from grandfather, `nobody
heard the gun go off. Ambrosch was out with the ox-team, trying to break a
road, and the women-folks was shut up tight in their cave. When Ambrosch
come in, it was dark and he didn't see nothing, but the oxen acted kind of
queer. One of 'em ripped around and got away from him-- bolted clean out
of the stable. His hands is blistered where the rope run through. He got
a lantern and went back and found the old man, just as we seen him.'
`Poor soul, poor soul!' grandmother groaned. `I'd like to think he never
done it. He was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble. How
could he forget himself and bring this on us!'
`I don't think he was out of his head for a minute, Mrs. Burden,' Fuchs
declared. `He done everything natural. You know he was always sort of
fixy, and fixy he was to the last. He shaved after dinner, and washed
hisself all over after the girls had done the dishes. Antonia heated the
water for him. Then he put on a clean shirt and clean socks, and after he
was dressed he kissed her and the little one and took his gun and said he
was going out to hunt rabbits. He must have gone right down to the barn
and done it then. He layed down on that bunk-bed, close to the ox stalls,
where he always slept. When we found him, everything was decent
except'--Fuchs wrinkled his brow and hesitated--'except what he couldn't
nowise foresee. His coat was hung on a peg, and his boots was under the
bed. He'd took off that silk neckcloth he always wore, and folded it
smooth and stuck his pin through it. He turned back his shirt at the neck
and rolled up his sleeves.'
`I don't see how he could do it!' grandmother kept saying.
Otto misunderstood her. `Why, ma'am, it was simple enough; he pulled the
trigger with his big toe. He layed over on his side and put the end of the
barrel in his mouth, then he drew up one foot and felt for the trigger. He
found it all right!'
`Maybe he did,' said Jake grimly. `There's something mighty queer about
`Now what do you mean, Jake?' grandmother asked sharply.
`Well, ma'm, I found Krajiek's axe under the manger, and I picks it up and
carries it over to the corpse, and I take my oath it just fit the gash in
the front of the old man's face. That there Krajiek had been sneakin'
round, pale and quiet, and when he seen me examinin' the axe, he begun
whimperin', "My God, man, don't do that!" "I reckon I'm a-goin' to look
into this," says I. Then he begun to squeal like a rat and run about
wringin' his hands. "They'll hang me!" says he. "My God, they'll hang me
Fuchs spoke up impatiently. `Krajiek's gone silly, Jake, and so have you.
The old man wouldn't have made all them preparations for Krajiek to murder
him, would he? It don't hang together. The gun was right beside him when
Ambrosch found him.'
`Krajiek could 'a' put it there, couldn't he?' Jake demanded.
Grandmother broke in excitedly: `See here, Jake Marpole, don't you go
trying to add murder to suicide. We're deep enough in trouble. Otto reads
you too many of them detective stories.'
`It will be easy to decide all that, Emmaline,' said grandfather quietly.
`If he shot himself in the way they think, the gash will be torn from the
`Just so it is, Mr. Burden,' Otto affirmed. `I seen bunches of hair and
stuff sticking to the poles and straw along the roof. They was blown up
there by gunshot, no question.'
Grandmother told grandfather she meant to go over to the Shimerdas' with
`There is nothing you can do,' he said doubtfully. `The body can't be
touched until we get the coroner here from Black Hawk, and that will be a
matter of several days, this weather.'
`Well, I can take them some victuals, anyway, and say a word of comfort to
them poor little girls. The oldest one was his darling, and was like a
right hand to him. He might have thought of her. He's left her alone in a
hard world.' She glanced distrustfully at Ambrosch, who was now eating his
breakfast at the kitchen table.
Fuchs, although he had been up in the cold nearly all night, was going to
make the long ride to Black Hawk to fetch the priest and the coroner. On
the grey gelding, our best horse, he would try to pick his way across the
country with no roads to guide him.
`Don't you worry about me, Mrs. Burden,' he said cheerfully, as he put on a
second pair of socks. `I've got a good nose for directions, and I never
did need much sleep. It's the grey I'm worried about. I'll save him what
I can, but it'll strain him, as sure as I'm telling you!'
`This is no time to be over-considerate of animals, Otto; do the best you
can for yourself. Stop at the Widow Steavens's for dinner. She's a good
woman, and she'll do well by you.'
After Fuchs rode away, I was left with Ambrosch. I saw a side of him I had
not seen before. He was deeply, even slavishly, devout. He did not say a
word all morning, but sat with his rosary in his hands, praying, now
silently, now aloud. He never looked away from his beads, nor lifted his
hands except to cross himself. Several times the poor boy fell asleep
where he sat, wakened with a start, and began to pray again.
No wagon could be got to the Shimerdas' until a road was broken, and that
would be a day's job. Grandfather came from the barn on one of our big
black horses, and Jake lifted grandmother up behind him. She wore her
black hood and was bundled up in shawls. Grandfather tucked his bushy
white beard inside his overcoat. They looked very Biblical as they set
off, I thought. Jake and Ambrosch followed them, riding the other black
and my pony, carrying bundles of clothes that we had got together for Mrs.
Shimerda. I watched them go past the pond and over the hill by the drifted
cornfield. Then, for the first time, I realized that I was alone in the
I felt a considerable extension of power and authority, and was anxious to
acquit myself creditably. I carried in cobs and wood from the long cellar,
and filled both the stoves. I remembered that in the hurry and excitement
of the morning nobody had thought of the chickens, and the eggs had not
been gathered. Going out through the tunnel, I gave the hens their corn,
emptied the ice from their drinking-pan, and filled it with water. After
the cat had had his milk, I could think of nothing else to do, and I sat
down to get warm. The quiet was delightful, and the ticking clock was the
most pleasant of companions. I got `Robinson Crusoe' and tried to read,
but his life on the island seemed dull compared with ours. Presently, as I
looked with satisfaction about our comfortable sitting-room, it flashed
upon me that if Mr. Shimerda's soul were lingering about in this world at
all, it would be here, in our house, which had been more to his liking than
any other in the neighbourhood. I remembered his contented face when he
was with us on Christmas Day. If he could have lived with us, this
terrible thing would never have happened.
I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered
whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to his
own country. I thought of how far it was to Chicago, and then to Virginia,
to Baltimore--and then the great wintry ocean. No, he would not at once
set out upon that long journey. Surely, his exhausted spirit, so tired of
cold and crowding and the struggle with the ever-falling snow, was resting
now in this quiet house.
I was not frightened, but I made no noise. I did not wish to disturb him.
I went softly down to the kitchen which, tucked away so snugly underground,
always seemed to me the heart and centre of the house. There, on the bench
behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda. Outside I
could hear the wind singing over hundreds of miles of snow. It was as if I
had let the old man in out of the tormenting winter, and were sitting there
with him. I went over all that Antonia had ever told me about his life
before he came to this country; how he used to play the fiddle at weddings
and dances. I thought about the friends he had mourned to leave, the
trombone-player, the great forest full of game--belonging, as Antonia said,
to the `nobles'-- from which she and her mother used to steal wood on
moonlight nights. There was a white hart that lived in that forest, and if
anyone killed it, he would be hanged, she said. Such vivid pictures came
to me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out
from the air in which they had haunted him.
It had begun to grow dark when my household returned, and grandmother was
so tired that she went at once to bed. Jake and I got supper, and while we
were washing the dishes he told me in loud whispers about the state of
things over at the Shimerdas'. Nobody could touch the body until the
coroner came. If anyone did, something terrible would happen, apparently.
The dead man was frozen through, `just as stiff as a dressed turkey you
hang out to freeze,' Jake said. The horses and oxen would not go into the
barn until he was frozen so hard that there was no longer any smell of
blood. They were stabled there now, with the dead man, because there was
no other place to keep them. A lighted lantern was kept hanging over Mr.
Shimerda's head. Antonia and Ambrosch and the mother took turns going down
to pray beside him. The crazy boy went with them, because he did not feel
the cold. I believed he felt cold as much as anyone else, but he liked to
be thought insensible to it. He was always coveting distinction, poor
Ambrosch, Jake said, showed more human feeling than he would have supposed
him capable of, but he was chiefly concerned about getting a priest, and
about his father's soul, which he believed was in a place of torment and
would remain there until his family and the priest had prayed a great deal
for him. `As I understand it,' Jake concluded, `it will be a matter of
years to pray his soul out of Purgatory, and right now he's in torment.'
`I don't believe it,' I said stoutly. `I almost know it isn't true.' I
did not, of course, say that I believed he had been in that very kitchen
all afternoon, on his way back to his own country. Nevertheless, after I
went to bed, this idea of punishment and Purgatory came back on me
crushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered.
But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so
unhappy that he could not live any longer.
OTTO FUCHS GOT back from Black Hawk at noon the next day. He reported that
the coroner would reach the Shimerdas' sometime that afternoon, but the
missionary priest was at the other end of his parish, a hundred miles away,
and the trains were not running. Fuchs had got a few hours' sleep at the
livery barn in town, but he was afraid the grey gelding had strained
himself. Indeed, he was never the same horse afterward. That long trip
through the deep snow had taken all the endurance out of him.
Fuchs brought home with him a stranger, a young Bohemian who had taken a
homestead near Black Hawk, and who came on his only horse to help his
fellow countrymen in their trouble. That was the first time I ever saw
Anton Jelinek. He was a strapping young fellow in the early twenties then,
handsome, warm-hearted, and full of life, and he came to us like a miracle
in the midst of that grim business. I remember exactly how he strode into
our kitchen in his felt boots and long wolfskin coat, his eyes and cheeks
bright with the cold. At sight of grandmother, he snatched off his fur
cap, greeting her in a deep, rolling voice which seemed older than he.
`I want to thank you very much, Mrs. Burden, for that you are so kind to
poor strangers from my kawntree.'
He did not hesitate like a farmer boy, but looked one eagerly in the eye
when he spoke. Everything about him was warm and spontaneous. He said he
would have come to see the Shimerdas before, but he had hired out to husk
corn all the fall, and since winter began he had been going to the school
by the mill, to learn English, along with the little children. He told me
he had a nice `lady-teacher' and that he liked to go to school.
At dinner grandfather talked to Jelinek more than he usually did to
`Will they be much disappointed because we cannot get a priest?' he asked.
Jelinek looked serious.
`Yes, sir, that is very bad for them. Their father has done a great
sin'--he looked straight at grandfather. `Our Lord has said that.'
Grandfather seemed to like his frankness.
`We believe that, too, Jelinek. But we believe that Mr. Shimerda's soul
will come to its Creator as well off without a priest. We believe that
Christ is our only intercessor.'
The young man shook his head. `I know how you think. My teacher at the
school has explain. But I have seen too much. I believe in prayer for the
dead. I have seen too much.'
We asked him what he meant.
He glanced around the table. `You want I shall tell you? When I was a
little boy like this one, I begin to help the priest at the altar. I make
my first communion very young; what the Church teach seem plain to me. By
'n' by war-times come, when the Prussians fight us. We have very many
soldiers in camp near my village, and the cholera break out in that camp,
and the men die like flies. All day long our priest go about there to give
the Sacrament to dying men, and I go with him to carry the vessels with the
Holy Sacrament. Everybody that go near that camp catch the sickness but me
and the priest. But we have no sickness, we have no fear, because we carry
that blood and that body of Christ, and it preserve us.' He paused,
looking at grandfather. `That I know, Mr. Burden, for it happened to
myself. All the soldiers know, too. When we walk along the road, the old
priest and me, we meet all the time soldiers marching and officers on
horse. All those officers, when they see what I carry under the cloth,
pull up their horses and kneel down on the ground in the road until we
pass. So I feel very bad for my kawntree-man to die without the Sacrament,
and to die in a bad way for his soul, and I feel sad for his family.'
We had listened attentively. It was impossible not to admire his frank,
`I am always glad to meet a young man who thinks seriously about these
things,' said grandfather, land I would never be the one to say you were
not in God's care when you were among the soldiers.' After dinner it
was decided that young Jelinek should hook our two strong black
farm-horses to the scraper and break a road through to the Shimerdas', so
that a wagon could go when it was necessary. Fuchs, who was the only
cabinetmaker in the neighbourhood was set to work on a coffin.
Jelinek put on his long wolfskin coat, and when we admired it, he told us
that he had shot and skinned the coyotes, and the young man who `batched'
with him, Jan Bouska, who had been a fur-worker in Vienna, made the coat.
From the windmill I watched Jelinek come out of the barn with the blacks,
and work his way up the hillside toward the cornfield. Sometimes he was
completely hidden by the clouds of snow that rose about him; then he and
the horses would emerge black and shining.
Our heavy carpenter's bench had to be brought from the barn and carried
down into the kitchen. Fuchs selected boards from a pile of planks
grandfather had hauled out from town in the fall to make a new floor for
the oats-bin. When at last the lumber and tools were assembled, and the
doors were closed again and the cold draughts shut out, grandfather rode
away to meet the coroner at the Shimerdas', and Fuchs took off his coat and
settled down to work. I sat on his worktable and watched him. He did not
touch his tools at first, but figured for a long while on a piece of paper,
and measured the planks and made marks on them. While he was thus engaged,
he whistled softly to himself, or teasingly pulled at his half-ear.
Grandmother moved about quietly, so as not to disturb him. At last he
folded his ruler and turned a cheerful face to us.
`The hardest part of my job's done,' he announced. `It's the head end of
it that comes hard with me, especially when I'm out of practice. The last
time I made one of these, Mrs. Burden,' he continued, as he sorted and
tried his chisels, `was for a fellow in the Black Tiger Mine, up above
Silverton, Colorado. The mouth of that mine goes right into the face of
the cliff, and they used to put us in a bucket and run us over on a trolley
and shoot us into the shaft. The bucket travelled across a box canon three
hundred feet deep, and about a third full of water. Two Swedes had fell
out of that bucket once, and hit the water, feet down. If you'll believe
it, they went to work the next day. You can't kill a Swede. But in my
time a little Eyetalian tried the high dive, and it turned out different
with him. We was snowed in then, like we are now, and I happened to be the
only man in camp that could make a coffin for him. It's a handy thing to
know, when you knock about like I've done.'
`We'd be hard put to it now, if you didn't know, Otto,' grandmother said.
`Yes, 'm,' Fuchs admitted with modest pride. `So few folks does know how
to make a good tight box that'll turn water. I sometimes wonder if
there'll be anybody about to do it for me. However, I'm not at all
particular that way.'
All afternoon, wherever one went in the house, one could hear the panting
wheeze of the saw or the pleasant purring of the plane. They were such
cheerful noises, seeming to promise new things for living people: it was a
pity that those freshly planed pine boards were to be put underground so
soon. The lumber was hard to work because it was full of frost, and the
boards gave off a sweet smell of pine woods, as the heap of yellow shavings
grew higher and higher. I wondered why Fuchs had not stuck to
cabinet-work, he settled down to it with such ease and content. He handled
the tools as if he liked the feel of them; and when he planed, his hands
went back and forth over the boards in an eager, beneficent way as if he
were blessing them. He broke out now and then into German hymns, as if
this occupation brought back old times to him.
At four o'clock Mr. Bushy, the postmaster, with another neighbour who lived
east of us, stopped in to get warm. They were on their way to the
Shimerdas'. The news of what had happened over there had somehow got abroad
through the snow-blocked country. Grandmother gave the visitors
sugar-cakes and hot coffee. Before these callers were gone, the brother of
the Widow Steavens, who lived on the Black Hawk road, drew up at our door,
and after him came the father of the German family, our nearest neighbours
on the south. They dismounted and joined us in the dining-room. They were
all eager for any details about the suicide, and they were greatly
concerned as to where Mr. Shimerda would be buried. The nearest Catholic
cemetery was at Black Hawk, and it might be weeks before a wagon could get
so far. Besides, Mr. Bushy and grandmother were sure that a man who had
killed himself could not be buried in a Catholic graveyard. There was a
burying-ground over by the Norwegian church, west of Squaw Creek; perhaps
the Norwegians would take Mr. Shimerda in.
After our visitors rode away in single file over the hill, we returned to
the kitchen. Grandmother began to make the icing for a chocolate cake, and
Otto again filled the house with the exciting, expectant song of the plane.
One pleasant thing about this time was that everybody talked more than
usual. I had never heard the postmaster say anything but `Only papers,
to-day,' or, `I've got a sackful of mail for ye,' until this afternoon.
Grandmother always talked, dear woman: to herself or to the Lord, if there
was no one else to listen; but grandfather was naturally taciturn, and Jake
and Otto were often so tired after supper that I used to feel as if I were
surrounded by a wall of silence. Now everyone seemed eager to talk. That
afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and
about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying
men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most
men were game, and went without a grudge.
The postmaster, going home, stopped to say that grandfather would bring the
coroner back with him to spend the night. The officers of the Norwegian
church, he told us, had held a meeting and decided that the Norwegian
graveyard could not extend its hospitality to Mr. Shimerda.
Grandmother was indignant. `If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr.
Bushy, we'll have to have an American graveyard that will be more
liberal-minded. I'll get right after Josiah to start one in the spring. If
anything was to happen to me, I don't want the Norwegians holding
inquisitions over me to see whether I'm good enough to be laid amongst
Soon grandfather returned, bringing with him Anton Jelinek, and that
important person, the coroner. He was a mild, flurried old man, a Civil
War veteran, with one sleeve hanging empty. He seemed to find this case
very perplexing, and said if it had not been for grandfather he would have
sworn out a warrant against Krajiek. `The way he acted, and the way his
axe fit the wound, was enough to convict any man.'
Although it was perfectly clear that Mr. Shimerda had killed himself, Jake
and the coroner thought something ought to be done to Krajiek because he
behaved like a guilty man. He was badly frightened, certainly, and perhaps
he even felt some stirrings of remorse for his indifference to the old
man's misery and loneliness.
At supper the men ate like vikings, and the chocolate cake, which I had
hoped would linger on until tomorrow in a mutilated condition, disappeared
on the second round. They talked excitedly about where they should bury
Mr. Shimerda; I gathered that the neighbours were all disturbed and shocked
about something. It developed that Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch wanted the
old man buried on the southwest corner of their own land; indeed, under the
very stake that marked the corner. Grandfather had explained to Ambrosch
that some day, when the country was put under fence and the roads were
confined to section lines, two roads would cross exactly on that corner.
But Ambrosch only said, `It makes no matter.'
Grandfather asked Jelinek whether in the old country there was some
superstition to the effect that a suicide must be buried at the
Jelinek said he didn't know; he seemed to remember hearing there had once
been such a custom in Bohemia. `Mrs. Shimerda is made up her mind,' he
added. `I try to persuade her, and say it looks bad for her to all the
neighbours; but she say so it must be. "There I will bury him, if I dig
the grave myself," she say. I have to promise her I help Ambrosch make the
Grandfather smoothed his beard and looked judicial. `I don't know whose
wish should decide the matter, if not hers. But if she thinks she will
live to see the people of this country ride over that old man's head, she
MR. SHIMERDA LAY DEAD in the barn four days, and on the fifth they buried
him. All day Friday Jelinek was off with Ambrosch digging the grave,
chopping out the frozen earth with old axes. On Saturday we breakfasted
before daylight and got into the wagon with the coffin. Jake and Jelinek
went ahead on horseback to cut the body loose from the pool of blood in
which it was frozen fast to the ground.
When grandmother and I went into the Shimerdas' house, we found the
womenfolk alone; Ambrosch and Marek were at the barn. Mrs. Shimerda sat
crouching by the stove, Antonia was washing dishes. When she saw me, she
ran out of her dark corner and threw her arms around me. `Oh, Jimmy,' she
sobbed, `what you tink for my lovely papa!' It seemed to me that I could
feel her heart breaking as she clung to me.
Mrs. Shimerda, sitting on the stump by the stove, kept looking over her
shoulder toward the door while the neighbours were arriving. They came on
horseback, all except the postmaster, who brought his family in a wagon
over the only broken wagon-trail. The Widow Steavens rode up from her farm
eight miles down the Black Hawk road. The cold drove the women into the
cave-house, and it was soon crowded. A fine, sleety snow was beginning to
fall, and everyone was afraid of another storm and anxious to have the
burial over with.
Grandfather and Jelinek came to tell Mrs. Shimerda that it was time to
start. After bundling her mother up in clothes the neighbours had brought,
Antonia put on an old cape from our house and the rabbit-skin hat her
father had made for her. Four men carried Mr. Shimerda's box up the hill;
Krajiek slunk along behind them. The coffin was too wide for the door, so
it was put down on the slope outside. I slipped out from the cave and
looked at Mr. Shimerda. He was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up.
His body was draped in a black shawl, and his head was bandaged in white
muslin, like a mummy's; one of his long, shapely hands lay out on the black
cloth; that was all one could see of him.
Mrs. Shimerda came out and placed an open prayer-book against the body,
making the sign of the cross on the bandaged head with her fingers.
Ambrosch knelt down and made the same gesture, and after him Antonia and
Marek. Yulka hung back. Her mother pushed her forward, and kept saying
something to her over and over. Yulka knelt down, shut her eyes, and put
out her hand a little way, but she drew it back and began to cry wildly.
She was afraid to touch the bandage. Mrs. Shimerda caught her by the
shoulders and pushed her toward the coffin, but grandmother interfered.
`No, Mrs. Shimerda,' she said firmly, `I won't stand by and see that child
frightened into spasms. She is too little to understand what you want of
her. Let her alone.'
At a look from grandfather, Fuchs and Jelinek placed the lid on the box,
and began to nail it down over Mr. Shimerda. I was afraid to look at
Antonia. She put her arms round Yulka and held the little girl close to
The coffin was put into the wagon. We drove slowly away, against the fine,
icy snow which cut our faces like a sand-blast. When we reached the grave,
it looked a very little spot in that snow-covered waste. The men took the
coffin to the edge of the hole and lowered it with ropes. We stood about
watching them, and the powdery snow lay without melting on the caps and
shoulders of the men and the shawls of the women. Jelinek spoke in a
persuasive tone to Mrs. Shimerda, and then turned to grandfather.
`She says, Mr. Burden, she is very glad if you can make some prayer for him
here in English, for the neighbours to understand.'
Grandmother looked anxiously at grandfather. He took off his hat, and the
other men did likewise. I thought his prayer remarkable. I still remember
it. He began, `Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the
sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee.'
He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to
a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart. He recalled the
promises to the widow and the fatherless, and asked God to smooth the way
before this widow and her children, and to `incline the hearts of men to
deal justly with her.' In closing, he said we were leaving Mr. Shimerda at
`Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat.'
All the time he was praying, grandmother watched him through the black
fingers of her glove, and when he said `Amen,' I thought she looked
satisfied with him. She turned to Otto and whispered, `Can't you start a
hymn, Fuchs? It would seem less heathenish.'
Fuchs glanced about to see if there was general approval of her suggestion,
then began, `Jesus, Lover of my Soul,' and all the men and women took it up
after him. Whenever I have heard the hymn since, it has made me remember
that white waste and the little group of people; and the bluish air, full
of fine, eddying snow, like long veils flying:
`While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass
had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the
prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran
about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr.
Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and
an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda
never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a
little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a
little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was
never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or
the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers
flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all
that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim
superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and
still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the
error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along
which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver
passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.
WHEN SPRING CAME, AFTER that hard winter, one could not get enough of the
nimble air. Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter
was over. There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch
in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only--spring
itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it
everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in
the warm, high wind--rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and
playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If
I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known
that it was spring.
Everywhere now there was the smell of burning grass. Our neighbours burned
off their pasture before the new grass made a start, so that the fresh
growth would not be mixed with the dead stand of last year. Those light,
swift fires, running about the country, seemed a part of the same kindling
that was in the air.
The Shimerdas were in their new log house by then. The neighbours had
helped them to build it in March. It stood directly in front of their old
cave, which they used as a cellar. The family were now fairly equipped to
begin their struggle with the soil. They had four comfortable rooms to
live in, a new windmill--bought on credit--a chicken-house and poultry.
Mrs. Shimerda had paid grandfather ten dollars for a milk cow, and was to
give him fifteen more as soon as they harvested their first crop.
When I rode up to the Shimerdas' one bright windy afternoon in April, Yulka
ran out to meet me. It was to her, now, that I gave reading lessons;
Antonia was busy with other things. I tied my pony and went into the
kitchen where Mrs. Shimerda was baking bread, chewing poppy seeds as she
worked. By this time she could speak enough English to ask me a great many
questions about what our men were doing in the fields. She seemed to think
that my elders withheld helpful information, and that from me she might get
valuable secrets. On this occasion she asked me very craftily when
grandfather expected to begin planting corn. I told her, adding that he
thought we should have a dry spring and that the corn would not be held
back by too much rain, as it had been last year.
She gave me a shrewd glance. `He not Jesus,' she blustered; `he not know
about the wet and the dry.
I did not answer her; what was the use? As I sat waiting for the hour when
Ambrosch and Antonia would return from the fields, I watched Mrs. Shimerda
at her work. She took from the oven a coffee-cake which she wanted to keep
warm for supper, and wrapped it in a quilt stuffed with feathers. I have
seen her put even a roast goose in this quilt to keep it hot. When the
neighbours were there building the new house, they saw her do this, and the
story got abroad that the Shimerdas kept their food in their featherbeds.
When the sun was dropping low, Antonia came up the big south draw with her
team. How much older she had grown in eight months! She had come to us a
child, and now she was a tall, strong young girl, although her fifteenth
birthday had just slipped by. I ran out and met her as she brought her
horses up to the windmill to water them. She wore the boots her father had
so thoughtfully taken off before he shot himself, and his old fur cap. Her
outgrown cotton dress switched about her calves, over the boot-tops. She
kept her sleeves rolled up all day, and her arms and throat were burned as
brown as a sailor's. Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like
the bole of a tree out of the turf. One sees that draught-horse neck among
the peasant women in all old countries.
She greeted me gaily, and began at once to tell me how much ploughing she
had done that day. Ambrosch, she said, was on the north quarter, breaking
sod with the oxen.
`Jim, you ask Jake how much he ploughed to-day. I don't want that Jake get
more done in one day than me. I want we have very much corn this fall.'
While the horses drew in the water, and nosed each other, and then drank
again, Antonia sat down on the windmill step and rested her head on her
`You see the big prairie fire from your place last night? I hope your
grandpa ain't lose no stacks?'
`No, we didn't. I came to ask you something, Tony. Grandmother wants to
know if you can't go to the term of school that begins next week over at
the sod schoolhouse. She says there's a good teacher, and you'd learn a
Antonia stood up, lifting and dropping her shoulders as if they were stiff.
`I ain't got time to learn. I can work like mans now. My mother can't
say no more how Ambrosch do all and nobody to help him. I can work as much
as him. School is all right for little boys. I help make this land one
She clucked to her team and started for the barn. I walked beside her,
feeling vexed. Was she going to grow up boastful like her mother, I
wondered? Before we reached the stable, I felt something tense in her
silence, and glancing up I saw that she was crying. She turned her face
from me and looked off at the red streak of dying light, over the dark
I climbed up into the loft and threw down the hay for her, while she
unharnessed her team. We walked slowly back toward the house. Ambrosch
had come in from the north quarter, and was watering his oxen at the tank.
Antonia took my hand. `Sometime you will tell me all those nice things you
learn at the school, won't you, Jimmy?' she asked with a sudden rush of
feeling in her voice. `My father, he went much to school. He know a great
deal; how to make the fine cloth like what you not got here. He play horn
and violin, and he read so many books that the priests in Bohemie come to
talk to him. You won't forget my father, Jim?' `No,' I said, `I will never
Mrs. Shimerda asked me to stay for supper. After Ambrosch and Antonia had
washed the field dust from their hands and faces at the wash-basin by the
kitchen door, we sat down at the oilcloth-covered table. Mrs. Shimerda
ladled meal mush out of an iron pot and poured milk on it. After the mush
we had fresh bread and sorghum molasses, and coffee with the cake that had
been kept warm in the feathers. Antonia and Ambrosch were talking in
Bohemian; disputing about which of them had done more ploughing that day.
Mrs. Shimerda egged them on, chuckling while she gobbled her food.
Presently Ambrosch said sullenly in English: `You take them ox tomorrow
and try the sod plough. Then you not be so smart.'
His sister laughed. `Don't be mad. I know it's awful hard work for break
sod. I milk the cow for you tomorrow, if you want.'
Mrs. Shimerda turned quickly to me. `That cow not give so much milk like
what your grandpa say. If he make talk about fifteen dollars, I send him
back the cow.'
`He doesn't talk about the fifteen dollars,' I exclaimed indignantly. `He
doesn't find fault with people.'
`He say I break his saw when we build, and I never,' grumbled Ambrosch.
I knew he had broken the saw, and then hid it and lied about it. I began
to wish I had not stayed for supper. Everything was disagreeable to me.
Antonia ate so noisily now, like a man, and she yawned often at the table
and kept stretching her arms over her head, as if they ached. Grandmother
had said, `Heavy field work'll spoil that girl. She'll lose all her nice
ways and get rough ones.' She had lost them already.
After supper I rode home through the sad, soft spring twilight. Since
winter I had seen very little of Antonia. She was out in the fields from
sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her where she was ploughing,
she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her
plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making
me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me. On Sundays she
helped her mother make garden or sewed all day. Grandfather was pleased
with Antonia. When we complained of her, he only smiled and said, `She
will help some fellow get ahead in the world.'
Nowadays Tony could talk of nothing but the prices of things, or how much
she could lift and endure. She was too proud of her strength. I knew,
too, that Ambrosch put upon her some chores a girl ought not to do, and
that the farm-hands around the country joked in a nasty way about it.
Whenever I saw her come up the furrow, shouting to her beasts, sunburned,
sweaty, her dress open at the neck, and her throat and chest
dust-plastered, I used to think of the tone in which poor Mr. Shimerda, who
could say so little, yet managed to say so much when he exclaimed, `My
AFTER I BEGAN TO go to the country school, I saw less of the Bohemians. We
were sixteen pupils at the sod schoolhouse, and we all came on horseback
and brought our dinner. My schoolmates were none of them very interesting,
but I somehow felt that, by Taking comrades of them, I was getting even
with Antonia for her indifference. Since the father's death, Ambrosch was
more than ever the head of the house, and he seemed to direct the feelings
as well as the fortunes of his womenfolk. Antonia often quoted his
opinions to me, and she let me see that she admired him, while she thought
of me only as a little boy. Before the spring was over, there was a
distinct coldness between us and the Shimerdas. It came about in this way.
One Sunday I rode over there with Jake to get a horse-collar which Ambrosch
had borrowed from him and had not returned. It was a beautiful blue
morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along
the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year's dried sunflower stalks,
were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow
breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode
slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence.
We found the Shimerdas working just as if it were a week-day. Marek was
cleaning out the stable, and Antonia and her mother were making garden, off
across the pond in the draw-head. Ambrosch was up on the windmill tower,
oiling the wheel. He came down, not very cordially. When Jake asked for
the collar, he grunted and scratched his head. The collar belonged to
grandfather, of course, and Jake, feeling responsible for it, flared up.
`Now, don't you say you haven't got it, Ambrosch, because I know you have,
and if you ain't a-going to look for it, I will.'
Ambrosch shrugged his shoulders and sauntered down the hill toward the
stable. I could see that it was one of his mean days. Presently he
returned, carrying a collar that had been badly used-- trampled in the dirt
and gnawed by rats until the hair was sticking out of it.
`This what you want?' he asked surlily.
Jake jumped off his horse. I saw a wave of red come up under the rough
stubble on his face. `That ain't the piece of harness I loaned you,
Ambrosch; or, if it is, you've used it shameful. I ain't a-going to carry
such a looking thing back to Mr. Burden.'
Ambrosch dropped the collar on the ground. `All right,' he said coolly,
took up his oil-can, and began to climb the mill. Jake caught him by the
belt of his trousers and yanked him back. Ambrosch's feet had scarcely
touched the ground when he lunged out with a vicious kick at Jake's
stomach. Fortunately, Jake was in such a position that he could dodge it.
This was not the sort of thing country boys did when they played at
fisticuffs, and Jake was furious. He landed Ambrosch a blow on the
head--it sounded like the crack of an axe on a cow-pumpkin. Ambrosch
dropped over, stunned.
We heard squeals, and looking up saw Antonia and her mother coming on the
run. They did not take the path around the pond, but plunged through the
muddy water, without even lifting their skirts. They came on, screaming
and clawing the air. By this time Ambrosch had come to his senses and was
sputtering with nosebleed.
Jake sprang into his saddle. `Let's get out of this, Jim,' he called.
Mrs. Shimerda threw her hands over her head and clutched as if she were
going to pull down lightning. `Law, law!' she shrieked after us. `Law for
knock my Ambrosch down!'
`I never like you no more, Jake and Jim Burden,' Antonia panted. `No
friends any more!'
Jake stopped and turned his horse for a second. `Well, you're a damned
ungrateful lot, the whole pack of you,' he shouted back. `I guess the
Burdens can get along without you. You've been a sight of trouble to them,
We rode away, feeling so outraged that the fine morning was spoiled for us.
I hadn't a word to say, and poor Jake was white as paper and trembling all
over. It made him sick to get so angry.
`They ain't the same, Jimmy,' he kept saying in a hurt tone. `These
foreigners ain't the same. You can't trust 'em to be fair. It's dirty to
kick a feller. You heard how the women turned on you-- and after all we
went through on account of 'em last winter! They ain't to be trusted. I
don't want to see you get too thick with any of 'em.'
`I'll never be friends with them again, Jake,' I declared hotly. `I
believe they are all like Krajiek and Ambrosch underneath.'
Grandfather heard our story with a twinkle in his eye. He advised Jake to
ride to town tomorrow, go to a justice of the peace, tell him he had
knocked young Shimerda down, and pay his fine. Then if Mrs. Shimerda was
inclined to make trouble-- her son was still under age--she would be
forestalled. Jake said he might as well take the wagon and haul to market
the pig he had been fattening. On Monday, about an hour after Jake had
started, we saw Mrs. Shimerda and her Ambrosch proudly driving by, looking
neither to the right nor left. As they rattled out of sight down the Black
Hawk road, grandfather chuckled, saying he had rather expected she would
follow the matter up.
Jake paid his fine with a ten-dollar bill grandfather had given him for
that purpose. But when the Shimerdas found that Jake sold his pig in town
that day, Ambrosch worked it out in his shrewd head that Jake had to sell
his pig to pay his fine. This theory afforded the Shimerdas great
satisfaction, apparently. For weeks afterward, whenever Jake and I met
Antonia on her way to the post-office, or going along the road with her
work-team, she would clap her hands and call to us in a spiteful, crowing
`Jake-y, Jake-y, sell the pig and pay the slap!'
Otto pretended not to be surprised at Antonia's behaviour. He only lifted
his brows and said, `You can't tell me anything new about a Czech; I'm an
Grandfather was never a party to what Jake called our feud with the
Shimerdas. Ambrosch and Antonia always greeted him respectfully, and he
asked them about their affairs and gave them advice as usual. He thought
the future looked hopeful for them. Ambrosch was a far-seeing fellow; he
soon realized that his oxen were too heavy for any work except breaking
sod, and he succeeded in selling them to a newly arrived German. With the
money he bought another team of horses, which grandfather selected for him.
Marek was strong, and Ambrosch worked him hard; but he could never teach
him to cultivate corn, I remember. The one idea that had ever got through
poor Marek's thick head was that all exertion was meritorious. He always
bore down on the handles of the cultivator and drove the blades so deep
into the earth that the horses were soon exhausted.
In June, Ambrosch went to work at Mr. Bushy's for a week, and took Marek
with him at full wages. Mrs. Shimerda then drove the second cultivator;
she and Antonia worked in the fields all day and did the chores at night.
While the two women were running the place alone, one of the new horses got
colic and gave them a terrible fright.
Antonia had gone down to the barn one night to see that all was well before
she went to bed, and she noticed that one of the roans was swollen about
the middle and stood with its head hanging. She mounted another horse,
without waiting to saddle him, and hammered on our door just as we were
going to bed. Grandfather answered her knock. He did not send one of his
men, but rode back with her himself, taking a syringe and an old piece of
carpet he kept for hot applications when our horses were sick. He found
Mrs. Shimerda sitting by the horse with her lantern, groaning and wringing
her hands. It took but a few moments to release the gases pent up in the
poor beast, and the two women heard the rush of wind and saw the roan
visibly diminish in girth.
`If I lose that horse, Mr. Burden,' Antonia exclaimed, `I never stay here
till Ambrosch come home! I go drown myself in the pond before morning.'
When Ambrosch came back from Mr. Bushy's, we learned that he had given
Marek's wages to the priest at Black Hawk, for Masses for their father's
soul. Grandmother thought Antonia needed shoes more than Mr. Shimerda
needed prayers, but grandfather said tolerantly, `If he can spare six
dollars, pinched as he is, it shows he believes what he professes.'
It was grandfather who brought about a reconciliation with the Shimerdas.
One morning he told us that the small grain was coming on so well, he
thought he would begin to cut his wheat on the first of July. He would
need more men, and if it were agreeable to everyone he would engage
Ambrosch for the reaping and threshing, as the Shimerdas had no small grain
of their own.
`I think, Emmaline,' he concluded, `I will ask Antonia to come over and
help you in the kitchen. She will be glad to earn something, and it will
be a good time to end misunderstandings. I may as well ride over this
morning and make arrangements. Do you want to go with me, Jim?' His tone
told me that he had already decided for me.
After breakfast we set off together. When Mrs. Shimerda saw us coming, she
ran from her door down into the draw behind the stable, as if she did not
want to meet us. Grandfather smiled to himself while he tied his horse,
and we followed her.
Behind the barn we came upon a funny sight. The cow had evidently been
grazing somewhere in the draw. Mrs. Shimerda had run to the animal, pulled
up the lariat pin, and, when we came upon her, she was trying to hide the
cow in an old cave in the bank. As the hole was narrow and dark, the cow
held back, and the old woman was slapping and pushing at her hind quarters,
trying to spank her into the drawside.
Grandfather ignored her singular occupation and greeted her politely.
`Good morning, Mrs. Shimerda. Can you tell me where I will find Ambrosch?
`He with the sod corn.' She pointed toward the north, still standing in
front of the cow as if she hoped to conceal it.
`His sod corn will be good for fodder this winter,' said grandfather
encouragingly. `And where is Antonia?'
`She go with.' Mrs. Shimerda kept wiggling her bare feet about nervously
in the dust.
`Very well. I will ride up there. I want them to come over and help me
cut my oats and wheat next month. I will pay them wages. Good morning.
By the way, Mrs. Shimerda,' he said as he turned up the path, `I think we
may as well call it square about the cow.'
She started and clutched the rope tighter. Seeing that she did not
understand, grandfather turned back. `You need not pay me anything more;
no more money. The cow is yours.'
`Pay no more, keep cow?' she asked in a bewildered tone, her narrow eyes
snapping at us in the sunlight.
`Exactly. Pay no more, keep cow.' He nodded.
Mrs. Shimerda dropped the rope, ran after us, and, crouching down beside
grandfather, she took his hand and kissed it. I doubt if he had ever been
so much embarrassed before. I was a little startled, too. Somehow, that
seemed to bring the Old World very close.
We rode away laughing, and grandfather said: `I expect she thought we had
come to take the cow away for certain, Jim. I wonder if she wouldn't have
scratched a little if we'd laid hold of that lariat rope!'
Our neighbours seemed glad to make peace with us. The next Sunday Mrs.
Shimerda came over and brought Jake a pair of socks she had knitted. She
presented them with an air of great magnanimity, saying, `Now you not come
any more for knock my Ambrosch down?'
Jake laughed sheepishly. `I don't want to have no trouble with Ambrosch.
If he'll let me alone, I'll let him alone.'
`If he slap you, we ain't got no pig for pay the fine,' she said
Jake was not at all disconcerted. `Have the last word ma'm,' he said
cheerfully. `It's a lady's privilege.'
JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of
Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we
could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a
faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered
stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri
to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a
thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were
ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far
apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a
clear, meditative eye like my grandfather's to foresee that they would
enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas' cornfields, or
Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields; that their yield would be one of
the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all
the activities of men, in peace or war.
The burning sun of those few weeks, with occasional rains at night, secured
the corn. After the milky ears were once formed, we had little to fear
from dry weather. The men were working so hard in the wheatfields that
they did not notice the heat--though I was kept busy carrying water for
them--and grandmother and Antonia had so much to do in the kitchen that
they could not have told whether one day was hotter than another. Each
morning, while the dew was still on the grass, Antonia went with me up to
the garden to get early vegetables for dinner. Grandmother made her wear a
sunbonnet, but as soon as we reached the garden she threw it on the grass
and let her hair fly in the breeze. I remember how, as we bent over the
pea-vines, beads of perspiration used to gather on her upper lip like a
`Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house!' she used to sing
joyfully. `I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I
like to be like a man.' She would toss her head and ask me to feel the
muscles swell in her brown arm.
We were glad to have her in the house. She was so gay and responsive that
one did not mind her heavy, running step, or her clattery way with pans.
Grandmother was in high spirits during the weeks that Antonia worked for
All the nights were close and hot during that harvest season. The
harvesters slept in the hayloft because it was cooler there than in the
house. I used to lie in my bed by the open window, watching the heat
lightning play softly along the horizon, or looking up at the gaunt frame
of the windmill against the blue night sky. One night there was a
beautiful electric storm, though not enough rain fell to damage the cut
grain. The men went down to the barn immediately after supper, and when
the dishes were washed, Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of
the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic,
like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags
across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a
moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the
west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep
blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the
sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city,
doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned
faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the
clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could
hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.
Grandmother came to the door and said it was late, and we would get wet out
`In a minute we come,' Antonia called back to her. `I like your
grandmother, and all things here,' she sighed. `I wish my papa live to see
this summer. I wish no winter ever come again.'
`It will be summer a long while yet,' I reassured her. `Why aren't you
always nice like this, Tony?'
`Why, just like this; like yourself. Why do you all the time try to be
She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. `If I
live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But
they will be hard for us.'
The Hired Girls
I HAD BEEN LIVING with my grandfather for nearly three years when he
decided to move to Black Hawk. He and grandmother were getting old for the
heavy work of a farm, and as I was now thirteen they thought I ought to be
going to school. Accordingly our homestead was rented to `that good woman,
the Widow Steavens,' and her bachelor brother, and we bought Preacher
White's house, at the north end of Black Hawk. This was the first town
house one passed driving in from the farm, a landmark which told country
people their long ride was over.
We were to move to Black Hawk in March, and as soon as grandfather had
fixed the date he let Jake and Otto know of his intention. Otto said he
would not be likely to find another place that suited him so well; that he
was tired of farming and thought he would go back to what he called the
`wild West.' Jake Marpole, lured by Otto's stories of adventure, decided to
go with him. We did our best to dissuade Jake. He was so handicapped by
illiteracy and by his trusting disposition that he would be an easy prey to
sharpers. Grandmother begged him to stay among kindly, Christian people,
where he was known; but there was no reasoning with him. He wanted to be a
prospector. He thought a silver mine was waiting for him in Colorado.
Jake and Otto served us to the last. They moved us into town, put down the
carpets in our new house, made shelves and cupboards for grandmother's
kitchen, and seemed loath to leave us. But at last they went, without
warning. Those two fellows had been faithful to us through sun and storm,
had given us things that cannot be bought in any market in the world. With
me they had been like older brothers; had restrained their speech and
manners out of care for me, and given me so much good comradeship. Now
they got on the westbound train one morning, in their Sunday clothes, with
their oilcloth valises--and I never saw them again. Months afterward we
got a card from Otto, saying that Jake had been down with mountain fever,
but now they were both working in the Yankee Girl Mine, and were doing
well. I wrote to them at that address, but my letter was returned to me,
`Unclaimed.' After that we never heard from them.
Black Hawk, the new world in which we had come to live, was a clean,
well-planted little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards
about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing
along the wooden sidewalks. In the centre of the town there were two rows
of new brick `store' buildings, a brick schoolhouse, the court-house, and
four white churches. Our own house looked down over the town, and from our
upstairs windows we could see the winding line of the river bluffs, two
miles south of us. That river was to be my compensation for the lost
freedom of the farming country.
We came to Black Hawk in March, and by the end of April we felt like town
people. Grandfather was a deacon in the new Baptist Church, grandmother
was busy with church suppers and missionary societies, and I was quite
another boy, or thought I was. Suddenly put down among boys of my own age,
I found I had a great deal to learn. Before the spring term of school was
over, I could fight, play `keeps,' tease the little girls, and use
forbidden words as well as any boy in my class. I was restrained from
utter savagery only by the fact that Mrs. Harling, our nearest neighbour,
kept an eye on me, and if my behaviour went beyond certain bounds I was not
permitted to come into her yard or to play with her jolly children.
We saw more of our country neighbours now than when we lived on the farm.
Our house was a convenient stopping-place for them. We had a big barn
where the farmers could put up their teams, and their womenfolk more often
accompanied them, now that they could stay with us for dinner, and rest and
set their bonnets right before they went shopping. The more our house was
like a country hotel, the better I liked it. I was glad, when I came home
from school at noon, to see a farm-wagon standing in the back yard, and I
was always ready to run downtown to get beefsteak or baker's bread for
unexpected company. All through that first spring and summer I kept hoping
that Ambrosch would bring Antonia and Yulka to see our new house. I wanted
to show them our red plush furniture, and the trumpet-blowing cherubs the
German paperhanger had put on our parlour ceiling.
When Ambrosch came to town, however, he came alone, and though he put his
horses in our barn, he would never stay for dinner, or tell us anything
about his mother and sisters. If we ran out and questioned him as he was
slipping through the yard, he would merely work his shoulders about in his
coat and say, `They all right, I guess.'
Mrs. Steavens, who now lived on our farm, grew as fond of Antonia as we had
been, and always brought us news of her. All through the wheat season, she
told us, Ambrosch hired his sister out like a man, and she went from farm
to farm, binding sheaves or working with the threshers. The farmers liked
her and were kind to her; said they would rather have her for a hand than
Ambrosch. When fall came she was to husk corn for the neighbours until
Christmas, as she had done the year before; but grandmother saved her from
this by getting her a place to work with our neighbours, the Harlings.
GRANDMOTHER OFTEN SAID THAT if she had to live in town, she thanked God she
lived next the Harlings. They had been farming people, like ourselves, and
their place was like a little farm, with a big barn and a garden, and an
orchard and grazing lots--even a windmill. The Harlings were Norwegians,
and Mrs. Harling had lived in Christiania until she was ten years old. Her
husband was born in Minnesota. He was a grain merchant and cattle-buyer,
and was generally considered the most enterprising business man in our
county. He controlled a line of grain elevators in the little towns along
the railroad to the west of us, and was away from home a great deal. In
his absence his wife was the head of the household.
Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house.
Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the
moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright,
twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick
to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul. How well I remember
her laugh; it had in it the same sudden recognition that flashed into her
eyes, was a burst of humour, short and intelligent. Her rapid footsteps
shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and indifference wherever
she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory about anything. Her
enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes, asserted themselves in all
the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was interesting, never dreary,
at the Harlings'. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and
house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that
spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge
that separated our place from hers.
Three of the Harling children were near me in age. Charley, the only son--
they had lost an older boy--was sixteen; Julia, who was known as the
musical one, was fourteen when I was; and Sally, the tomboy with short
hair, was a year younger. She was nearly as strong as I, and uncannily
clever at all boys' sports. Sally was a wild thing, with sunburned yellow
hair, bobbed about her ears, and a brown skin, for she never wore a hat.
She raced all over town on one roller skate, often cheated at `keeps,' but
was such a quick shot one couldn't catch her at it.
The grown-up daughter, Frances, was a very important person in our world.
She was her father's chief clerk, and virtually managed his Black Hawk
office during his frequent absences. Because of her unusual business
ability, he was stern and exacting with her. He paid her a good salary,
but she had few holidays and never got away from her responsibilities.
Even on Sundays she went to the office to open the mail and read the
markets. With Charley, who was not interested in business, but was already
preparing for Annapolis, Mr. Harling was very indulgent; bought him guns
and tools and electric batteries, and never asked what he did with them.
Frances was dark, like her father, and quite as tall. In winter she wore a
sealskin coat and cap, and she and Mr. Harling used to walk home together
in the evening, talking about grain-cars and cattle, like two men.
Sometimes she came over to see grandfather after supper, and her visits
flattered him. More than once they put their wits together to rescue some
unfortunate farmer from the clutches of Wick Cutter, the Black Hawk
money-lender. Grandfather said Frances Harling was as good a judge of
credits as any banker in the county. The two or three men who had tried to
take advantage of her in a deal acquired celebrity by their defeat. She
knew every farmer for miles about: how much land he had under cultivation,
how many cattle he was feeding, what his liabilities were. Her interest in
these people was more than a business interest. She carried them all in
her mind as if they were characters in a book or a play.
When Frances drove out into the country on business, she would go miles out
of her way to call on some of the old people, or to see the women who
seldom got to town. She was quick at understanding the grandmothers who
spoke no English, and the most reticent and distrustful of them would tell
her their story without realizing they were doing so. She went to country
funerals and weddings in all weathers. A farmer's daughter who was to be
married could count on a wedding present from Frances Harling.
In August the Harlings' Danish cook had to leave them. Grandmother
entreated them to try Antonia. She cornered Ambrosch the next time he came
to town, and pointed out to him that any connection with Christian Harling
would strengthen his credit and be of advantage to him. One Sunday Mrs.
Harling took the long ride out to the Shimerdas' with Frances. She said
she wanted to see `what the girl came from' and to have a clear
understanding with her mother. I was in our yard when they came driving
home, just before sunset. They laughed and waved to me as they passed, and
I could see they were in great good humour. After supper, when grandfather
set off to church, grandmother and I took my short cut through the willow
hedge and went over to hear about the visit to the Shimerdas'.
We found Mrs. Harling with Charley and Sally on the front porch, resting
after her hard drive. Julia was in the hammock-- she was fond of
repose--and Frances was at the piano, playing without a light and talking
to her mother through the open window.
Mrs. Harling laughed when she saw us coming. `I expect you left your
dishes on the table tonight, Mrs. Burden,' she called. Frances shut the
piano and came out to join us.
They had liked Antonia from their first glimpse of her; felt they knew
exactly what kind of girl she was. As for Mrs. Shimerda, they found her
very amusing. Mrs. Harling chuckled whenever she spoke of her. `I expect
I am more at home with that sort of bird than you are, Mrs. Burden.
They're a pair, Ambrosch and that old woman!'
They had had a long argument with Ambrosch about Antonia's allowance for
clothes and pocket-money. It was his plan that every cent of his sister's
wages should be paid over to him each month, and he would provide her with
such clothing as he thought necessary. When Mrs. Harling told him firmly
that she would keep fifty dollars a year for Antonia's own use, he declared
they wanted to take his sister to town and dress her up and make a fool of
her. Mrs. Harling gave us a lively account of Ambrosch's behaviour
throughout the interview; how he kept jumping up and putting on his cap as
if he were through with the whole business, and how his mother tweaked his
coat-tail and prompted him in Bohemian. Mrs. Harling finally agreed to pay
three dollars a week for Antonia's services--good wages in those days--and
to keep her in shoes. There had been hot dispute about the shoes, Mrs.
Shimerda finally saying persuasively that she would send Mrs. Harling three
fat geese every year to `make even.' Ambrosch was to bring his sister to
town next Saturday.
`She'll be awkward and rough at first, like enough,' grandmother said
anxiously, `but unless she's been spoiled by the hard life she's led, she
has it in her to be a real helpful girl.'
Mrs. Harling laughed her quick, decided laugh. `Oh, I'm not worrying, Mrs.
Burden! I can bring something out of that girl. She's barely seventeen,
not too old to learn new ways. She's good-looking, too!' she added warmly.
Frances turned to grandmother. `Oh, yes, Mrs. Burden, you didn't tell us
that! She was working in the garden when we got there, barefoot and
ragged. But she has such fine brown legs and arms, and splendid colour in
her cheeks--like those big dark red plums.'
We were pleased at this praise. Grandmother spoke feelingly. `When she
first came to this country, Frances, and had that genteel old man to watch
over her, she was as pretty a girl as ever I saw. But, dear me, what a
life she's led, out in the fields with those rough threshers! Things would
have been very different with poor Antonia if her father had lived.'
The Harlings begged us to tell them about Mr. Shimerda's death and the big
snowstorm. By the time we saw grandfather coming home from church, we had
told them pretty much all we knew of the Shimerdas.
`The girl will be happy here, and she'll forget those things,' said Mrs.
Harling confidently, as we rose to take our leave.
ON SATURDAY AMBROSCH drove up to the back gate, and Antonia jumped down
from the wagon and ran into our kitchen just as she used to do. She was
wearing shoes and stockings, and was breathless and excited. She gave me a
playful shake by the shoulders. `You ain't forget about me, Jim?'
Grandmother kissed her. `God bless you, child! Now you've come, you must
try to do right and be a credit to us.'
Antonia looked eagerly about the house and admired everything. `Maybe I be
the kind of girl you like better; now I come to town,' she suggested
How good it was to have Antonia near us again; to see her every day and
almost every night! Her greatest fault, Mrs. Harling found, was that she
so often stopped her work and fell to playing with the children. She would
race about the orchard with us, or take sides in our hay-fights in the
barn, or be the old bear that came down from the mountain and carried off
Nina. Tony learned English so quickly that by the time school began she
could speak as well as any of us.
I was jealous of Tony's admiration for Charley Harling. Because he was
always first in his classes at school, and could mend the water-pipes or
the doorbell and take the clock to pieces, she seemed to think him a sort
of prince. Nothing that Charley wanted was too much trouble for her. She
loved to put up lunches for him when he went hunting, to mend his
ball-gloves and sew buttons on his shooting-coat, baked the kind of
nut-cake he liked, and fed his setter dog when he was away on trips with
his father. Antonia had made herself cloth working-slippers out of Mr.
Harling's old coats, and in these she went padding about after Charley,
fairly panting with eagerness to please him.
Next to Charley, I think she loved Nina best. Nina was only six, and she
was rather more complex than the other children. She was fanciful, had all
sorts of unspoken preferences, and was easily offended. At the slightest
disappointment or displeasure, her velvety brown eyes filled with tears,
and she would lift her chin and walk silently away. If we ran after her
and tried to appease her, it did no good. She walked on unmollified. I
used to think that no eyes in the world could grow so large or hold so many
tears as Nina's. Mrs. Harling and Antonia invariably took her part. We
were never given a chance to explain. The charge was simply: `You have
made Nina cry. Now, Jimmy can go home, and Sally must get her arithmetic.'
I liked Nina, too; she was so quaint and unexpected, and her eyes were
lovely; but I often wanted to shake her.
We had jolly evenings at the Harlings' when the father was away. If he was
at home, the children had to go to bed early, or they came over to my house
to play. Mr. Harling not only demanded a quiet house, he demanded all his
wife's attention. He used to take her away to their room in the west ell,
and talk over his business with her all evening. Though we did not realize
it then, Mrs. Harling was our audience when we played, and we always looked
to her for suggestions. Nothing flattered one like her quick laugh.
Mr. Harling had a desk in his bedroom, and his own easy-chair by the
window, in which no one else ever sat. On the nights when he was at home,
I could see his shadow on the blind, and it seemed to me an arrogant
shadow. Mrs. Harling paid no heed to anyone else if he was there. Before
he went to bed she always got him a lunch of smoked salmon or anchovies and
beer. He kept an alcohol lamp in his room, and a French coffee-pot, and
his wife made coffee for him at any hour of the night he happened to want
Most Black Hawk fathers had no personal habits outside their domestic ones;
they paid the bills, pushed the baby-carriage after office hours, moved the
sprinkler about over the lawn, and took the family driving on Sunday. Mr.
Harling, therefore, seemed to me autocratic and imperial in his ways. He
walked, talked, put on his gloves, shook hands, like a man who felt that he
had power. He was not tall, but he carried his head so haughtily that he
looked a commanding figure, and there was something daring and challenging
in his eyes. I used to imagine that the ,nobles' of whom Antonia was
always talking probably looked very much like Christian Harling, wore caped
overcoats like his, and just such a glittering diamond upon the little
Except when the father was at home, the Harling house was never quiet.
Mrs. Harling and Nina and Antonia made as much noise as a houseful of
children, and there was usually somebody at the piano. Julia was the only
one who was held down to regular hours of practising, but they all played.
When Frances came home at noon, she played until dinner was ready. When
Sally got back from school, she sat down in her hat and coat and drummed
the plantation melodies that Negro minstrel troupes brought to town. Even
Nina played the Swedish Wedding March.
Mrs. Harling had studied the piano under a good teacher, and somehow she
managed to practise every day. I soon learned that if I were sent over on
an errand and found Mrs. Harling at the piano, I must sit down and wait
quietly until she turned to me. I can see her at this moment: her short,
square person planted firmly on the stool, her little fat hands moving
quickly and neatly over the keys, her eyes fixed on the music with
`I won't have none of your weevily wheat,
and I won't have none of your
But I'll take a measure of fine white
flour, to make a cake
WE WERE SINGING rhymes to tease Antonia while she was beating up one of
Charley's favourite cakes in her big mixing-bowl.
It was a crisp autumn evening, just cold enough to make one glad to quit
playing tag in the yard, and retreat into the kitchen. We had begun to
roll popcorn balls with syrup when we heard a knock at the back door, and
Tony dropped her spoon and went to open it.
A plump, fair-skinned girl was standing in the doorway. She looked demure
and pretty, and made a graceful picture in her blue cashmere dress and
little blue hat, with a plaid shawl drawn neatly about her shoulders and a
clumsy pocket-book in her hand.
`Hello, Tony. Don't you know me?' she asked in a smooth, low voice,
looking in at us archly.
Antonia gasped and stepped back.
`Why, it's Lena! Of course I didn't know you, so dressed up!'
Lena Lingard laughed, as if this pleased her. I had not recognized her for
a moment, either. I had never seen her before with a hat on her head--or
with shoes and stockings on her feet, for that matter. And here she was,
brushed and smoothed and dressed like a town girl, smiling at us with
`Hello, Jim,' she said carelessly as she walked into the kitchen and looked
about her. `I've come to town to work, too, Tony.'
`Have you, now? Well, ain't that funny" Antonia stood ill at ease, and
didn't seem to know just what to do with her visitor.
The door was open into the dining-room, where Mrs. Harling sat crocheting
and Frances was reading. Frances asked Lena to come in and join them.
`You are Lena Lingard, aren't you? I've been to see your mother, but you
were off herding cattle that day. Mama, this is Chris Lingard's oldest
Mrs. Harling dropped her worsted and examined the visitor with quick, keen
eyes. Lena was not at all disconcerted. She sat down in the chair Frances
pointed out, carefully arranging her pocket-book and grey cotton gloves on
her lap. We followed with our popcorn, but Antonia hung back-- said she
had to get her cake into the oven.
`So you have come to town,' said Mrs. Harling, her eyes still fixed on
Lena. `Where are you working?'
`For Mrs. Thomas, the dressmaker. She is going to teach me to sew. She
says I have quite a knack. I'm through with the farm. There ain't any end
to the work on a farm, and always so much trouble happens. I'm going to be
`Well, there have to be dressmakers. It's a good trade. But I wouldn't
run down the farm, if I were you,' said Mrs. Harling rather severely. `How
is your mother?'
`Oh, mother's never very well; she has too much to do. She'd get away from
the farm, too, if she could. She was willing for me to come. After I
learn to do sewing, I can make money and help her.'
`See that you don't forget to,' said Mrs. Harling sceptically, as she took
up her crocheting again and sent the hook in and out with nimble fingers.
`No, 'm, I won't,' said Lena blandly. She took a few grains of the popcorn
we pressed upon her, eating them discreetly and taking care not to get her
Frances drew her chair up nearer to the visitor. `I thought you were going
to be married, Lena,' she said teasingly. `Didn't I hear that Nick
Svendsen was rushing you pretty hard?'
Lena looked up with her curiously innocent smile. `He did go with me quite
a while. But his father made a fuss about it and said he wouldn't give
Nick any land if he married me, so he's going to marry Annie Iverson. I
wouldn't like to be her; Nick's awful sullen, and he'll take it out on her.
He ain't spoke to his father since he promised.'
Frances laughed. `And how do you feel about it?'
`I don't want to marry Nick, or any other man,' Lena murmured. `I've seen
a good deal of married life, and I don't care for it. I want to be so I
can help my mother and the children at home, and not have to ask lief of
`That's right,' said Frances. `And Mrs. Thomas thinks you can learn
`Yes, 'm. I've always liked to sew, but I never had much to do with. Mrs.
Thomas makes lovely things for all the town ladies. Did you know Mrs.
Gardener is having a purple velvet made? The velvet came from Omaha. My,
but it's lovely!' Lena sighed softly and stroked her cashmere folds. `Tony
knows I never did like out-of-door work,' she added.
Mrs. Harling glanced at her. `I expect you'll learn to sew all right,
Lena, if you'll only keep your head and not go gadding about to dances all
the time and neglect your work, the way some country girls do.'
`Yes, 'm. Tiny Soderball is coming to town, too. She's going to work at
the Boys' Home Hotel. She'll see lots of strangers,' Lena added wistfully.
`Too many, like enough,' said Mrs. Harling. `I don't think a hotel is a
good place for a girl; though I guess Mrs. Gardener keeps an eye on her
Lena's candid eyes, that always looked a little sleepy under their long
lashes, kept straying about the cheerful rooms with naive admiration.
Presently she drew on her cotton gloves. `I guess I must be leaving,' she
Frances told her to come again, whenever she was lonesome or wanted advice
about anything. Lena replied that she didn't believe she would ever get
lonesome in Black Hawk.
She lingered at the kitchen door and begged Antonia to come and see her
often. `I've got a room of my own at Mrs. Thomas's, with a carpet.'
Tony shuffled uneasily in her cloth slippers. `I'll come sometime, but
Mrs. Harling don't like to have me run much,' she said evasively.
`You can do what you please when you go out, can't you?' Lena asked in a
guarded whisper. `Ain't you crazy about town, Tony? I don't care what
anybody says, I'm done with the farm!' She glanced back over her shoulder
toward the dining-room, where Mrs. Harling sat.
When Lena was gone, Frances asked Antonia why she hadn't been a little more
cordial to her.
`I didn't know if your mother would like her coming here,' said Antonia,
looking troubled. `She was kind of talked about, out there.'
`Yes, I know. But mother won't hold it against her if she behaves well
here. You needn't say anything about that to the children. I guess Jim
has heard all that gossip?'
When I nodded, she pulled my hair and told me I knew too much, anyhow. We
were good friends, Frances and I.
I ran home to tell grandmother that Lena Lingard had come to town. We were
glad of it, for she had a hard life on the farm.
Lena lived in the Norwegian settlement west of Squaw Creek, and she used to
herd her father's cattle in the open country between his place and the
Shimerdas'. Whenever we rode over in that direction we saw her out among
her cattle, bareheaded and barefooted, scantily dressed in tattered
clothing, always knitting as she watched her herd. Before I knew Lena, I
thought of her as something wild, that always lived on the prairie, because
I had never seen her under a roof. Her yellow hair was burned to a ruddy
thatch on her head; but her legs and arms, curiously enough, in spite of
constant exposure to the sun, kept a miraculous whiteness which somehow
made her seem more undressed than other girls who went scantily clad. The
first time I stopped to talk to her, I was astonished at her soft voice and
easy, gentle ways. The girls out there usually got rough and mannish after
they went to herding. But Lena asked Jake and me to get off our horses and
stay awhile, and behaved exactly as if she were in a house and were
accustomed to having visitors. She was not embarrassed by her ragged
clothes, and treated us as if we were old acquaintances. Even then I
noticed the unusual colour of her eyes-- a shade of deep violet--and their
soft, confiding expression.
Chris Lingard was not a very successful farmer, and he had a large family.
Lena was always knitting stockings for little brothers and sisters, and
even the Norwegian women, who disapproved of her, admitted that she was a
good daughter to her mother. As Tony said, she had been talked about. She
was accused of making Ole Benson lose the little sense he had-- and that at
an age when she should still have been in pinafores.
Ole lived in a leaky dugout somewhere at the edge of the settlement. He
was fat and lazy and discouraged, and bad luck had become a habit with him.
After he had had every other kind of misfortune, his wife, `Crazy Mary,'
tried to set a neighbour's barn on fire, and was sent to the asylum at
Lincoln. She was kept there for a few months, then escaped and walked all
the way home, nearly two hundred miles, travelling by night and hiding in
barns and haystacks by day. When she got back to the Norwegian settlement,
her poor feet were as hard as hoofs. She promised to be good, and was
allowed to stay at home--though everyone realized she was as crazy as ever,
and she still ran about barefooted through the snow, telling her domestic
troubles to her neighbours.
Not long after Mary came back from the asylum, I heard a young Dane, who
was helping us to thresh, tell Jake and Otto that Chris Lingard's oldest
girl had put Ole Benson out of his head, until he had no more sense than
his crazy wife. When Ole was cultivating his corn that summer, he used to
get discouraged in the field, tie up his team, and wander off to wherever
Lena Lingard was herding. There he would sit down on the drawside and help
her watch her cattle. All the settlement was talking about it. The
Norwegian preacher's wife went to Lena and told her she ought not to allow
this; she begged Lena to come to church on Sundays. Lena said she hadn't a
dress in the world any less ragged than the one on her back. Then the
minister's wife went through her old trunks and found some things she had
worn before her marriage.
The next Sunday Lena appeared at church, a little late, with her hair done
up neatly on her head, like a young woman, wearing shoes and stockings, and
the new dress, which she had made over for herself very becomingly. The
congregation stared at her. Until that morning no one--unless it were
Ole--had realized how pretty she was, or that she was growing up. The
swelling lines of her figure had been hidden under the shapeless rags she
wore in the fields. After the last hymn had been sung, and the
congregation was dismissed, Ole slipped out to the hitch-bar and lifted
Lena on her horse. That, in itself, was shocking; a married man was not
expected to do such things. But it was nothing to the scene that followed.
Crazy Mary darted out from the group of women at the church door, and ran
down the road after Lena, shouting horrible threats.
`Look out, you Lena Lingard, look out! I'll come over with a corn-knife
one day and trim some of that shape off you. Then you won't sail round so
fine, making eyes at the men!...'
The Norwegian women didn't know where to look. They were formal
housewives, most of them, with a severe sense of decorum. But Lena Lingard
only laughed her lazy, good-natured laugh and rode on, gazing back over her
shoulder at Ole's infuriated wife.
The time came, however, when Lena didn't laugh. More than once Crazy Mary
chased her across the prairie and round and round the Shimerdas' cornfield.
Lena never told her father; perhaps she was ashamed; perhaps she was more
afraid of his anger than of the corn-knife. I was at the Shimerdas' one
afternoon when Lena came bounding through the red grass as fast as her
white legs could carry her. She ran straight into the house and hid in
Antonia's feather-bed. Mary was not far behind: she came right up to the
door and made us feel how sharp her blade was, showing us very graphically
just what she meant to do to Lena. Mrs. Shimerda, leaning out of the
window, enjoyed the situation keenly, and was sorry when Antonia sent Mary
away, mollified by an apronful of bottle-tomatoes. Lena came out from
Tony's room behind the kitchen, very pink from the heat of the feathers,
but otherwise calm. She begged Antonia and me to go with her, and help get
her cattle together; they were scattered and might be gorging themselves in
`Maybe you lose a steer and learn not to make somethings with your eyes at
married men,' Mrs. Shimerda told her hectoringly.
Lena only smiled her sleepy smile. `I never made anything to him with my
eyes. I can't help it if he hangs around, and I can't order him off. It
ain't my prairie.'
AFTER LENA CAME To Black Hawk, I often met her downtown, where she would be
matching sewing silk or buying `findings' for Mrs. Thomas. If I happened
to walk home with her, she told me all about the dresses she was helping to
make, or about what she saw and heard when she was with Tiny Soderball at
the hotel on Saturday nights.
The Boys' Home was the best hotel on our branch of the Burlington, and all
the commercial travellers in that territory tried to get into Black Hawk
for Sunday. They used to assemble in the parlour after supper on Saturday
nights. Marshall Field's man, Anson Kirkpatrick, played the piano and sang
all the latest sentimental songs. After Tiny had helped the cook wash the
dishes, she and Lena sat on the other side of the double doors between the
parlour and the dining-room, listening to the music and giggling at the
jokes and stories. Lena often said she hoped I would be a travelling man
when I grew up. They had a gay life of it; nothing to do but ride about on
trains all day and go to theatres when they were in big cities. Behind the
hotel there was an old store building, where the salesmen opened their big
trunks and spread out their samples on the counters. The Black Hawk
merchants went to look at these things and order goods, and Mrs. Thomas,
though she was I retail trade,' was permitted to see them and to `get
ideas.' They were all generous, these travelling men; they gave Tiny
Soderball handkerchiefs and gloves and ribbons and striped stockings, and
so many bottles of perfume and cakes of scented soap that she bestowed some
of them on Lena.
One afternoon in the week before Christmas, I came upon Lena and her funny,
square-headed little brother Chris, standing before the drugstore, gazing
in at the wax dolls and blocks and Noah's Arks arranged in the frosty show
window. The boy had come to town with a neighbour to do his Christmas
shopping, for he had money of his own this year. He was only twelve, but
that winter he had got the job of sweeping out the Norwegian church and
making the fire in it every Sunday morning. A cold job it must have been,
We went into Duckford's dry-goods store, and Chris unwrapped all his
presents and showed them to me something for each of the six younger than
himself, even a rubber pig for the baby. Lena had given him one of Tiny
Soderball's bottles of perfume for his mother, and he thought he would get
some handkerchiefs to go with it. They were cheap, and he hadn't much
money left. We found a tableful of handkerchiefs spread out for view at
Duckford's. Chris wanted those with initial letters in the corner, because
he had never seen any before. He studied them seriously, while Lena looked
over his shoulder, telling him she thought the red letters would hold their
colour best. He seemed so perplexed that I thought perhaps he hadn't
enough money, after all. Presently he said gravely:
`Sister, you know mother's name is Berthe. I don't know if I ought to get
B for Berthe, or M for Mother.'
Lena patted his bristly head. `I'd get the B, Chrissy. It will please her
for you to think about her name. Nobody ever calls her by it now.'
That satisfied him. His face cleared at once, and he took three reds and
three blues. When the neighbour came in to say that it was time to start,
Lena wound Chris's comforter about his neck and turned up his jacket
collar--he had no overcoat-- and we watched him climb into the wagon and
start on his long, cold drive. As we walked together up the windy street,
Lena wiped her eyes with the back of her woollen glove. `I get awful
homesick for them, all the same,' she murmured, as if she were answering
some remembered reproach.
WINTER COMES DOWN SAVAGELY over a little town on the prairie. The wind
that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that
hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer
together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops,
now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when their
angles were softened by vines and shrubs.
In the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I
couldn't see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late
afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to
me. The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify--it was
like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west
and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy
roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of
bitter song, as if it said: `This is reality, whether you like it or not.
All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of
green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was
underneath. This is the truth.' It was as if we were being punished for
loving the loveliness of summer.
If I loitered on the playground after school, or went to the post-office
for the mail and lingered to hear the gossip about the cigar-stand, it
would be growing dark by the time I came home. The sun was gone; the
frozen streets stretched long and blue before me; the lights were shining
pale in kitchen windows, and I could smell the suppers cooking as I passed.
Few people were abroad, and each one of them was hurrying toward a fire.
The glowing stoves in the houses were like magnets. When one passed an old
man, one could see nothing of his face but a red nose sticking out between
a frosted beard and a long plush cap. The young men capered along with
their hands in their pockets, and sometimes tried a slide on the icy
sidewalk. The children, in their bright hoods and comforters, never
walked, but always ran from the moment they left their door, beating their
mittens against their sides. When I got as far as the Methodist Church, I
was about halfway home. I can remember how glad I was when there happened
to be a light in the church, and the painted glass window shone out at us
as we came along the frozen street. In the winter bleakness a hunger for
colour came over people, like the Laplander's craving for fats and sugar.
Without knowing why, we used to linger on the sidewalk outside the church
when the lamps were lighted early for choir practice or prayer-meeting,
shivering and talking until our feet were like lumps of ice. The crude
reds and greens and blues of that coloured glass held us there.
On winter nights, the lights in the Harlings' windows drew me like the
painted glass. Inside that warm, roomy house there was colour, too. After
supper I used to catch up my cap, stick my hands in my pockets, and dive
through the willow hedge as if witches were after me. Of course, if Mr.
Harling was at home, if his shadow stood out on the blind of the west room,
I did not go in, but turned and walked home by the long way, through the
street, wondering what book I should read as I sat down with the two old
Such disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted
charades, or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always
dressed like a boy. Frances taught us to dance that winter, and she said,
from the first lesson, that Antonia would make the best dancer among us.
On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for
us--'Martha,' `Norma,' `Rigoletto'--telling us the story while she played.
Every Saturday night was like a party. The parlour, the back parlour, and
the dining-room were warm and brightly lighted, with comfortable chairs and
sofas, and gay pictures on the walls. One always felt at ease there.
Antonia brought her sewing and sat with us--she was already beginning to
make pretty clothes for herself. After the long winter evenings on the
prairie, with Ambrosch's sullen silences and her mother's complaints, the
Harlings' house seemed, as she said, `like Heaven' to her. She was never
too tired to make taffy or chocolate cookies for us. If Sally whispered in
her ear, or Charley gave her three winks, Tony would rush into the kitchen
and build a fire in the range on which she had already cooked three meals
While we sat in the kitchen waiting for the cookies to bake or the taffy to
cool, Nina used to coax Antonia to tell her stories--about the calf that
broke its leg, or how Yulka saved her little turkeys from drowning in the
freshet, or about old Christmases and weddings in Bohemia. Nina
interpreted the stories about the creche fancifully, and in spite of our
derision she cherished a belief that Christ was born in Bohemia a short
time before the Shimerdas left that country. We all liked Tony's stories.
Her voice had a peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky,
and one always heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said
seemed to come right out of her heart.
One evening when we were picking out kernels for walnut taffy, Tony told us
a new story.
`Mrs. Harling, did you ever hear about what happened up in the Norwegian
settlement last summer, when I was threshing there? We were at Iversons',
and I was driving one of the grain-wagons.'
Mrs. Harling came out and sat down among us. `Could you throw the wheat
into the bin yourself, Tony?' She knew what heavy work it was.
`Yes, ma'm, I did. I could shovel just as fast as that fat Andern boy that
drove the other wagon. One day it was just awful hot. When we got back to
the field from dinner, we took things kind of easy. The men put in the
horses and got the machine going, and Ole Iverson was up on the deck,
cutting bands. I was sitting against a straw-stack, trying to get some
shade. My wagon wasn't going out first, and somehow I felt the heat awful
that day. The sun was so hot like it was going to burn the world up.
After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close
I see it was a tramp. His toes stuck out of his shoes, and he hadn't
shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful red and wild, like he had
some sickness. He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me
already. He says: `The ponds in this country is done got so low a man
couldn't drownd himself in one of 'em.'
`I told him nobody wanted to drownd themselves, but if we didn't have rain
soon we'd have to pump water for the cattle.
`"Oh, cattle," he says, "you'll all take care of your cattle! Ain't you
got no beer here?" I told him he'd have to go to the Bohemians for beer;
the Norwegians didn't have none when they threshed. "My God!" he says, "so
it's Norwegians now, is it? I thought this was Americy."
`Then he goes up to the machine and yells out to Ole Iverson, "Hello,
partner, let me up there. I can cut bands, and I'm tired of trampin'. I
won't go no farther."
`I tried to make signs to Ole, 'cause I thought that man was crazy and
might get the machine stopped up. But Ole, he was glad to get down out of
the sun and chaff-- it gets down your neck and sticks to you something
awful when it's hot like that. So Ole jumped down and crawled under one of
the wagons for shade, and the tramp got on the machine. He cut bands all
right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me
and jumped head-first right into the threshing machine after the wheat.
`I begun to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had
sucked him down, and by the time they got her stopped, he was all beat and
cut to pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out,
and the machine ain't never worked right since.'
`Was he clear dead, Tony?' we cried.
`Was he dead? Well, I guess so! There, now, Nina's all upset. We won't
talk about it. Don't you cry, Nina. No old tramp won't get you while
Mrs. Harling spoke up sternly. `Stop crying, Nina, or I'll always send you
upstairs when Antonia tells us about the country. Did they never find out
where he came from, Antonia?'
`Never, ma'm. He hadn't been seen nowhere except in a little town they call
Conway. He tried to get beer there, but there wasn't any saloon. Maybe he
came in on a freight, but the brakeman hadn't seen him. They couldn't find
no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket
and the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some
`Some poetry?' we exclaimed.
`I remember,' said Frances. `It was "The Old Oaken Bucket," cut out of a
newspaper and nearly worn out. Ole Iverson brought it into the office and
showed it to me.'
`Now, wasn't that strange, Miss Frances?' Tony asked thoughtfully. `What
would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? In threshing time,
too! It's nice everywhere then.'
`So it is, Antonia,' said Mrs. Harling heartily. `Maybe I'll go home and
help you thresh next summer. Isn't that taffy nearly ready to eat? I've
been smelling it a long while.'
There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had
strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked, and
were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and
animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to
prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white
beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people
and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them there
was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but
very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly
conscious of it. I could not imagine Antonia's living for a week in any
other house in Black Hawk than the Harlings'.
WINTER LIES TOO LONG in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and
shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and
men's affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice.
But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and
pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.
Through January and February I went to the river with the Harlings on clear
nights, and we skated up to the big island and made bonfires on the frozen
sand. But by March the ice was rough and choppy, and the snow on the river
bluffs was grey and mournful-looking. I was tired of school, tired of
winter clothes, of the rutted streets, of the dirty drifts and the piles of
cinders that had lain in the yards so long. There was only one break in
the dreary monotony of that month: when Blind d'Arnault, the Negro
pianist, came to town. He gave a concert at the Opera House on Monday
night, and he and his manager spent Saturday and Sunday at our comfortable
hotel. Mrs. Harling had known d'Arnault for years. She told Antonia she
had better go to see Tiny that Saturday evening, as there would certainly
be music at the Boys' Home.
Saturday night after supper I ran downtown to the hotel and slipped quietly
into the parlour. The chairs and sofas were already occupied, and the air
smelled pleasantly of cigar smoke. The parlour had once been two rooms,
and the floor was swaybacked where the partition had been cut away. The
wind from without made waves in the long carpet. A coal stove glowed at
either end of the room, and the grand piano in the middle stood open.
There was an atmosphere of unusual freedom about the house that night, for
Mrs. Gardener had gone to Omaha for a week. Johnnie had been having drinks
with the guests until he was rather absent-minded. It was Mrs. Gardener who
ran the business and looked after everything. Her husband stood at the
desk and welcomed incoming travellers. He was a popular fellow, but no
Mrs. Gardener was admittedly the best-dressed woman in Black Hawk, drove
the best horse, and had a smart trap and a little white-and-gold sleigh.
She seemed indifferent to her possessions, was not half so solicitous about
them as her friends were. She was tall, dark, severe, with something
Indian-like in the rigid immobility of her face. Her manner was cold, and
she talked little. Guests felt that they were receiving, not conferring, a
favour when they stayed at her house. Even the smartest travelling men
were flattered when Mrs. Gardener stopped to chat with them for a moment.
The patrons of the hotel were divided into two classes: those who had seen
Mrs. Gardener's diamonds, and those who had not.
When I stole into the parlour, Anson Kirkpatrick, Marshall Field's man, was
at the piano, playing airs from a musical comedy then running in Chicago.
He was a dapper little Irishman, very vain, homely as a monkey, with
friends everywhere, and a sweetheart in every port, like a sailor. I did
not know all the men who were sitting about, but I recognized a furniture
salesman from Kansas City, a drug man, and Willy O'Reilly, who travelled
for a jewellery house and sold musical instruments. The talk was all about
good and bad hotels, actors and actresses and musical prodigies. I learned
that Mrs. Gardener had gone to Omaha to hear Booth and Barrett, who were to
play there next week, and that Mary Anderson was having a great success in
`A Winter's Tale,' in London.
The door from the office opened, and Johnnie Gardener came in, directing
Blind d'Arnault--he would never consent to be led. He was a heavy, bulky
mulatto, on short legs, and he came tapping the floor in front of him with
his gold-headed cane. His yellow face was lifted in the light, with a show
of white teeth, all grinning, and his shrunken, papery eyelids lay
motionless over his blind eyes.
`Good evening, gentlemen. No ladies here? Good evening, gentlemen. We
going to have a little music? Some of you gentlemen going to play for me
this evening?' It was the soft, amiable Negro voice, like those I
remembered from early childhood, with the note of docile subservience in
it. He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the
ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been
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