Part 3 out of 4
repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the
happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia.
He felt his way directly to the piano. The moment he sat down, I noticed
the nervous infirmity of which Mrs. Harling had told me. When he was
sitting, or standing still, he swayed back and forth incessantly, like a
rocking toy. At the piano, he swayed in time to the music, and when he was
not playing, his body kept up this motion, like an empty mill grinding on.
He found the pedals and tried them, ran his yellow hands up and down the
keys a few times, tinkling off scales, then turned to the company.
`She seems all right, gentlemen. Nothing happened to her since the last
time I was here. Mrs. Gardener, she always has this piano tuned up before
I come. Now gentlemen, I expect you've all got grand voices. Seems like
we might have some good old plantation songs tonight.'
The men gathered round him, as he began to play `My Old Kentucky Home.'
They sang one Negro melody after another, while the mulatto sat rocking
himself, his head thrown back, his yellow face lifted, his shrivelled
eyelids never fluttering.
He was born in the Far South, on the d'Arnault plantation, where the spirit
if not the fact of slavery persisted. When he was three weeks old, he had
an illness which left him totally blind. As soon as he was old enough to
sit up alone and toddle about, another affliction, the nervous motion of
his body, became apparent. His mother, a buxom young Negro wench who was
laundress for the d'Arnaults, concluded that her blind baby was `not right'
in his head, and she was ashamed of him. She loved him devotedly, but he
was so ugly, with his sunken eyes and his `fidgets,' that she hid him away
from people. All the dainties she brought down from the Big House were for
the blind child, and she beat and cuffed her other children whenever she
found them teasing him or trying to get his chicken-bone away from him. He
began to talk early, remembered everything he heard, and his mammy said he
`wasn't all wrong.' She named him Samson, because he was blind, but on the
plantation he was known as `yellow Martha's simple child.' He was docile
and obedient, but when he was six years old he began to run away from home,
always taking the same direction. He felt his way through the lilacs,
along the boxwood hedge, up to the south wing of the Big House, where Miss
Nellie d'Arnault practised the piano every morning. This angered his
mother more than anything else he could have done; she was so ashamed of
his ugliness that she couldn't bear to have white folks see him. Whenever
she caught him slipping away from the cabin, she whipped him unmercifully,
and told him what dreadful things old Mr. d'Arnault would do to him if he
ever found him near the Big House. But the next time Samson had a chance,
he ran away again. If Miss d'Arnault stopped practising for a moment and
went toward the window, she saw this hideous little pickaninny, dressed in
an old piece of sacking, standing in the open space between the hollyhock
rows, his body rocking automatically, his blind face lifted to the sun and
wearing an expression of idiotic rapture. Often she was tempted to tell
Martha that the child must be kept at home, but somehow the memory of his
foolish, happy face deterred her. She remembered that his sense of hearing
was nearly all he had-- though it did not occur to her that he might have
more of it than other children.
One day Samson was standing thus while Miss Nellie was playing her lesson
to her music-teacher. The windows were open. He heard them get up from the
piano, talk a little while, and then leave the room. He heard the door
close after them. He crept up to the front windows and stuck his head in:
there was no one there. He could always detect the presence of anyone in a
room. He put one foot over the window-sill and straddled it.
His mother had told him over and over how his master would give him to the
big mastiff if he ever found him `meddling.' Samson had got too near the
mastiff's kennel once, and had felt his terrible breath in his face. He
thought about that, but he pulled in his other foot.
Through the dark he found his way to the Thing, to its mouth. He touched
it softly, and it answered softly, kindly. He shivered and stood still.
Then he began to feel it all over, ran his finger-tips along the slippery
sides, embraced the carved legs, tried to get some conception of its shape
and size, of the space it occupied in primeval night. It was cold and
hard, and like nothing else in his black universe. He went back to its
mouth, began at one end of the keyboard and felt his way down into the
mellow thunder, as far as he could go. He seemed to know that it must be
done with the fingers, not with the fists or the feet. He approached this
highly artificial instrument through a mere instinct, and coupled himself
to it, as if he knew it was to piece him out and make a whole creature of
him. After he had tried over all the sounds, he began to finger out
passages from things Miss Nellie had been practising, passages that were
already his, that lay under the bone of his pinched, conical little skull,
definite as animal desires.
The door opened; Miss Nellie and her music-master stood behind it, but
blind Samson, who was so sensitive to presences, did not know they were
there. He was feeling out the pattern that lay all ready-made on the big
and little keys. When he paused for a moment, because the sound was wrong
and he wanted another, Miss Nellie spoke softly. He whirled about in a
spasm of terror, leaped forward in the dark, struck his head on the open
window, and fell screaming and bleeding to the floor. He had what his
mother called a fit. The doctor came and gave him opium.
When Samson was well again, his young mistress led him back to the piano.
Several teachers experimented with him. They found he had absolute pitch,
and a remarkable memory. As a very young child he could repeat, after a
fashion, any composition that was played for him. No matter how many wrong
notes he struck, he never lost the intention of a passage, he brought the
substance of it across by irregular and astonishing means. He wore his
teachers out. He could never learn like other people, never acquired any
finish. He was always a Negro prodigy who played barbarously and
wonderfully. As piano-playing, it was perhaps abominable, but as music it
was something real, vitalized by a sense of rhythm that was stronger than
his other physical senses--that not only filled his dark mind, but worried
his body incessantly. To hear him, to watch him, was to see a Negro
enjoying himself as only a Negro can. It was as if all the agreeable
sensations possible to creatures of flesh and blood were heaped up on those
black-and-white keys, and he were gloating over them and trickling them
through his yellow fingers.
In the middle of a crashing waltz, d'Arnault suddenly began to play softly,
and, turning to one of the men who stood behind him, whispered, `Somebody
dancing in there.' He jerked his bullet-head toward the dining-room. `I
hear little feet--girls, I spect.'
Anson Kirkpatrick mounted a chair and peeped over the transom. Springing
down, he wrenched open the doors and ran out into the dining-room. Tiny and
Lena, Antonia and Mary Dusak, were waltzing in the middle of the floor.
They separated and fled toward the kitchen, giggling.
Kirkpatrick caught Tiny by the elbows. `What's the matter with you girls?
Dancing out here by yourselves, when there's a roomful of lonesome men on
the other side of the partition! Introduce me to your friends, Tiny.'
The girls, still laughing, were trying to escape. Tiny looked alarmed.
`Mrs. Gardener wouldn't like it,' she protested. `She'd be awful mad if
you was to come out here and dance with us.'
`Mrs. Gardener's in Omaha, girl. Now, you're Lena, are you?-- and you're
Tony and you're Mary. Have I got you all straight?'
O'Reilly and the others began to pile the chairs on the tables. Johnnie
Gardener ran in from the office.
`Easy, boys, easy!' he entreated them. `You'll wake the cook, and there'll
be the devil to pay for me. She won't hear the music, but she'll be down
the minute anything's moved in the dining-room.'
`Oh, what do you care, Johnnie? Fire the cook and wire Molly to bring
another. Come along, nobody'll tell tales.'
Johnnie shook his head. `'S a fact, boys,' he said confidentially. `If I
take a drink in Black Hawk, Molly knows it in Omaha!'
His guests laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. `Oh, we'll make it all
right with Molly. Get your back up, Johnnie.'
Molly was Mrs. Gardener's name, of course. `Molly Bawn' was painted in
large blue letters on the glossy white sides of the hotel bus, and `Molly'
was engraved inside Johnnie's ring and on his watch-case-- doubtless on his
heart, too. He was an affectionate little man, and he thought his wife a
wonderful woman; he knew that without her he would hardly be more than a
clerk in some other man's hotel.
At a word from Kirkpatrick, d'Arnault spread himself out over the piano,
and began to draw the dance music out of it, while the perspiration shone
on his short wool and on his uplifted face. He looked like some glistening
African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood. Whenever the
dancers paused to change partners or to catch breath, he would boom out
softly, `Who's that goin' back on me? One of these city gentlemen, I bet!
Now, you girls, you ain't goin' to let that floor get cold?'
Antonia seemed frightened at first, and kept looking questioningly at Lena
and Tiny over Willy O'Reilly's shoulder. Tiny Soderball was trim and
slender, with lively little feet and pretty ankles--she wore her dresses
very short. She was quicker in speech, lighter in movement and manner than
the other girls. Mary Dusak was broad and brown of countenance, slightly
marked by smallpox, but handsome for all that. She had beautiful chestnut
hair, coils of it; her forehead was low and smooth, and her commanding dark
eyes regarded the world indifferently and fearlessly. She looked bold and
resourceful and unscrupulous, and she was all of these. They were handsome
girls, had the fresh colour of their country upbringing, and in their eyes
that brilliancy which is called-- by no metaphor, alas!--`the light of
D'Arnault played until his manager came and shut the piano. Before he left
us, he showed us his gold watch which struck the hours, and a topaz ring,
given him by some Russian nobleman who delighted in Negro melodies, and had
heard d'Arnault play in New Orleans. At last he tapped his way upstairs,
after bowing to everybody, docile and happy. I walked home with Antonia.
We were so excited that we dreaded to go to bed. We lingered a long while
at the Harlings' gate, whispering in the cold until the restlessness was
slowly chilled out of us.
THE HARLING CHILDREN and I were never happier, never felt more contented
and secure, than in the weeks of spring which broke that long winter. We
were out all day in the thin sunshine, helping Mrs. Harling and Tony break
the ground and plant the garden, dig around the orchard trees, tie up vines
and clip the hedges. Every morning, before I was up, I could hear Tony
singing in the garden rows. After the apple and cherry trees broke into
bloom, we ran about under them, hunting for the new nests the birds were
building, throwing clods at each other, and playing hide-and-seek with
Nina. Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer
every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not
even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether
they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting.
It must have been in June, for Mrs. Harling and Antonia were preserving
cherries, when I stopped one morning to tell them that a dancing pavilion
had come to town. I had seen two drays hauling the canvas and painted
poles up from the depot.
That afternoon three cheerful-looking Italians strolled about Black Hawk,
looking at everything, and with them was a dark, stout woman who wore a
long gold watch-chain about her neck and carried a black lace parasol.
They seemed especially interested in children and vacant lots. When I
overtook them and stopped to say a word, I found them affable and
confiding. They told me they worked in Kansas City in the winter, and in
summer they went out among the farming towns with their tent and taught
dancing. When business fell off in one place, they moved on to another.
The dancing pavilion was put up near the Danish laundry, on a vacant lot
surrounded by tall, arched cottonwood trees. It was very much like a
merry-go-round tent, with open sides and gay flags flying from the poles.
Before the week was over, all the ambitious mothers were sending their
children to the afternoon dancing class. At three o'clock one met little
girls in white dresses and little boys in the round-collared shirts of the
time, hurrying along the sidewalk on their way to the tent. Mrs. Vanni
received them at the entrance, always dressed in lavender with a great deal
of black lace, her important watch-chain lying on her bosom. She wore her
hair on the top of her head, built up in a black tower, with red coral
combs. When she smiled, she showed two rows of strong, crooked yellow
teeth. She taught the little children herself, and her husband, the
harpist, taught the older ones.
Often the mothers brought their fancywork and sat on the shady side of the
tent during the lesson. The popcorn man wheeled his glass wagon under the
big cottonwood by the door, and lounged in the sun, sure of a good trade
when the dancing was over. Mr. Jensen, the Danish laundryman, used to
bring a chair from his porch and sit out in the grass plot. Some ragged
little boys from the depot sold pop and iced lemonade under a white
umbrella at the corner, and made faces at the spruce youngsters who came to
dance. That vacant lot soon became the most cheerful place in town. Even
on the hottest afternoons the cottonwoods made a rustling shade, and the
air smelled of popcorn and melted butter, and Bouncing Bets wilting in the
sun. Those hardy flowers had run away from the laundryman's garden, and
the grass in the middle of the lot was pink with them.
The Vannis kept exemplary order, and closed every evening at the hour
suggested by the city council. When Mrs. Vanni gave the signal, and the
harp struck up `Home, Sweet Home,' all Black Hawk knew it was ten o'clock.
You could set your watch by that tune as confidently as by the roundhouse
At last there was something to do in those long, empty summer evenings,
when the married people sat like images on their front porches, and the
boys and girls tramped and tramped the board sidewalks-- northward to the
edge of the open prairie, south to the depot, then back again to the
post-office, the ice-cream parlour, the butcher shop. Now there was a
place where the girls could wear their new dresses, and where one could
laugh aloud without being reproved by the ensuing silence. That silence
seemed to ooze out of the ground, to hang under the foliage of the black
maple trees with the bats and shadows. Now it was broken by lighthearted
sounds. First the deep purring of Mr. Vanni's harp came in silvery ripples
through the blackness of the dusty-smelling night; then the violins fell
in--one of them was almost like a flute. They called so archly, so
seductively, that our feet hurried toward the tent of themselves. Why
hadn't we had a tent before?
Dancing became popular now, just as roller skating had been the summer
before. The Progressive Euchre Club arranged with the Vannis for the
exclusive use of the floor on Tuesday and Friday nights. At other times
anyone could dance who paid his money and was orderly; the railroad men,
the roundhouse mechanics, the delivery boys, the iceman, the farm-hands who
lived near enough to ride into town after their day's work was over.
I never missed a Saturday night dance. The tent was open until midnight
then. The country boys came in from farms eight and ten miles away, and
all the country girls were on the floor--Antonia and Lena and Tiny, and the
Danish laundry girls and their friends. I was not the only boy who found
these dances gayer than the others. The young men who belonged to the
Progressive Euchre Club used to drop in late and risk a tiff with their
sweethearts and general condemnation for a waltz with `the hired girls.'
THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt
the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town
to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle
out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family
to go to school.
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little
schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they
made such sacrifices and who have had `advantages,' never seem to me, when
I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls,
who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from
poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia,
been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an
old country to a new.
I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black
Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something
unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a
race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they
got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive
carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black
That was before the day of high-school athletics. Girls who had to walk
more than half a mile to school were pitied. There was not a tennis-court
in the town; physical exercise was thought rather inelegant for the
daughters of well-to-do families. Some of the high-school girls were jolly
and pretty, but they stayed indoors in winter because of the cold, and in
summer because of the heat. When one danced with them, their bodies never
moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing--not
to be disturbed. I remember those girls merely as faces in the schoolroom,
gay and rosy, or listless and dull, cut off below the shoulders, like
cherubs, by the ink-smeared tops of the high desks that were surely put
there to make us round-shouldered and hollow-chested.
The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, unenquiring belief
that they were `refined,' and that the country girls, who `worked out,'
were not. The American farmers in our county were quite as hard-pressed as
their neighbours from other countries. All alike had come to Nebraska with
little capital and no knowledge of the soil they must subdue. All had
borrowed money on their land. But no matter in what straits the
Pennsylvanian or Virginian found himself, he would not let his daughters go
out into service. Unless his girls could teach a country school, they sat
at home in poverty.
The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers,
because they had had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to
help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no
alternative but to go into service. Some of them, after they came to town,
remained as serious and as discreet in behaviour as they had been when they
ploughed and herded on their father's farm. Others, like the three
Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But
every one of them did what she had set out to do, and sent home those
hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for
ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten.
One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our
county were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of
debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbours--usually of like
nationality-- and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are
to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children
are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.
I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid.
If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a clergyman,
and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it
matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English.
There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation,
much less the personal distinction, of Antonia's father. Yet people saw no
difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all
I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into
their own, and I have. To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant
can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to
the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian
girls are now the mistresses.
The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living
in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and
hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow
would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's
bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with
her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short
skirt and striped stockings.
The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their
beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious
mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons.
The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk
Our young man of position was like the son of a royal house; the boy who
swept out his office or drove his delivery wagon might frolic with the
jolly country girls, but he himself must sit all evening in a plush parlour
where conversation dragged so perceptibly that the father often came in and
made blundering efforts to warm up the atmosphere. On his way home from
his dull call, he would perhaps meet Tony and Lena, coming along the
sidewalk whispering to each other, or the three Bohemian Marys in their
long plush coats and caps, comporting themselves with a dignity that only
made their eventful histories the more piquant. If he went to the hotel to
see a travelling man on business, there was Tiny, arching her shoulders at
him like a kitten. If he went into the laundry to get his collars, there
were the four Danish girls, smiling up from their ironing-boards, with
their white throats and their pink cheeks.
The three Marys were the heroines of a cycle of scandalous stories, which
the old men were fond of relating as they sat about the cigar-stand in the
drugstore. Mary Dusak had been housekeeper for a bachelor rancher from
Boston, and after several years in his service she was forced to retire
from the world for a short time. Later she came back to town to take the
place of her friend, Mary Svoboda, who was similarly embarrassed. The
three Marys were considered as dangerous as high explosives to have about
the kitchen, yet they were such good cooks and such admirable housekeepers
that they never had to look for a place.
The Vannis' tent brought the town boys and the country girls together on
neutral ground. Sylvester Lovett, who was cashier in his father's bank,
always found his way to the tent on Saturday night. He took all the dances
Lena Lingard would give him, and even grew bold enough to walk home with
her. If his sisters or their friends happened to be among the onlookers on
`popular nights,' Sylvester stood back in the shadow under the cottonwood
trees, smoking and watching Lena with a harassed expression. Several times
I stumbled upon him there in the dark, and I felt rather sorry for him. He
reminded me of Ole Benson, who used to sit on the drawside and watch Lena
herd her cattle. Later in the summer, when Lena went home for a week to
visit her mother, I heard from Antonia that young Lovett drove all the way
out there to see her, and took her buggy-riding. In my ingenuousness I
hoped that Sylvester would marry Lena, and thus give all the country girls
a better position in the town.
Sylvester dallied about Lena until he began to make mistakes in his work;
had to stay at the bank until after dark to make his books balance. He was
daft about her, and everyone knew it. To escape from his predicament he
ran away with a widow six years older than himself, who owned a
half-section. This remedy worked, apparently. He never looked at Lena
again, nor lifted his eyes as he ceremoniously tipped his hat when he
happened to meet her on the sidewalk.
So that was what they were like, I thought, these white-handed,
high-collared clerks and bookkeepers! I used to glare at young Lovett from
a distance and only wished I had some way of showing my contempt for him.
IT WAS AT THE Vannis' tent that Antonia was discovered. Hitherto she had
been looked upon more as a ward of the Harlings than as one of the `hired
girls.' She had lived in their house and yard and garden; her thoughts
never seemed to stray outside that little kingdom. But after the tent came
to town she began to go about with Tiny and Lena and their friends. The
Vannis often said that Antonia was the best dancer of them all. I
sometimes heard murmurs in the crowd outside the pavilion that Mrs. Harling
would soon have her hands full with that girl. The young men began to joke
with each other about `the Harlings' Tony' as they did about `the
Marshalls' Anna' or `the Gardeners' Tiny.'
Antonia talked and thought of nothing but the tent. She hummed the dance
tunes all day. When supper was late, she hurried with her dishes, dropped
and smashed them in her excitement. At the first call of the music, she
became irresponsible. If she hadn't time to dress, she merely flung off
her apron and shot out of the kitchen door. Sometimes I went with her; the
moment the lighted tent came into view she would break into a run, like a
boy. There were always partners waiting for her; she began to dance before
she got her breath.
Antonia's success at the tent had its consequences. The iceman lingered
too long now, when he came into the covered porch to fill the refrigerator.
The delivery boys hung about the kitchen when they brought the groceries.
Young farmers who were in town for Saturday came tramping through the yard
to the back door to engage dances, or to invite Tony to parties and
picnics. Lena and Norwegian Anna dropped in to help her with her work, so
that she could get away early. The boys who brought her home after the
dances sometimes laughed at the back gate and wakened Mr. Harling from his
first sleep. A crisis was inevitable.
One Saturday night Mr. Harling had gone down to the cellar for beer. As he
came up the stairs in the dark, he heard scuffling on the back porch, and
then the sound of a vigorous slap. He looked out through the side door in
time to see a pair of long legs vaulting over the picket fence. Antonia
was standing there, angry and excited. Young Harry Paine, who was to marry
his employer's daughter on Monday, had come to the tent with a crowd of
friends and danced all evening. Afterward, he begged Antonia to let him
walk home with her. She said she supposed he was a nice young man, as he
was one of Miss Frances's friends, and she didn't mind. On the back porch
he tried to kiss her, and when she protested-- because he was going to be
married on Monday--he caught her and kissed her until she got one hand free
and slapped him.
Mr. Harling put his beer-bottles down on the table. `This is what I've
been expecting, Antonia. You've been going with girls who have a
reputation for being free and easy, and now you've got the same reputation.
I won't have this and that fellow tramping about my back yard all the
time. This is the end of it, tonight. It stops, short. You can quit
going to these dances, or you can hunt another place. Think it over.'
The next morning when Mrs. Harling and Frances tried to reason with
Antonia, they found her agitated but determined. `Stop going to the tent?'
she panted. `I wouldn't think of it for a minute! My own father couldn't
make me stop! Mr. Harling ain't my boss outside my work. I won't give up
my friends, either. The boys I go with are nice fellows. I thought Mr.
Paine was all right, too, because he used to come here. I guess I gave him
a red face for his wedding, all right!' she blazed out indignantly.
`You'll have to do one thing or the other, Antonia,' Mrs. Harling told her
decidedly. `I can't go back on what Mr. Harling has said. This is his
`Then I'll just leave, Mrs. Harling. Lena's been wanting me to get a place
closer to her for a long while. Mary Svoboda's going away from the
Cutters' to work at the hotel, and I can have her place.'
Mrs. Harling rose from her chair. `Antonia, if you go to the Cutters' to
work, you cannot come back to this house again. You know what that man is.
It will be the ruin of you.'
Tony snatched up the teakettle and began to pour boiling water over the
glasses, laughing excitedly. `Oh, I can take care of myself! I'm a lot
stronger than Cutter is. They pay four dollars there, and there's no
children. The work's nothing; I can have every evening, and be out a lot
in the afternoons.'
`I thought you liked children. Tony, what's come over you?'
`I don't know, something has.' Antonia tossed her head and set her jaw.
`A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there
won't be any tent next year. I guess I want to have my fling, like the
Mrs. Harling gave a short, harsh laugh. `If you go to work for the
Cutters, you're likely to have a fling that you won't get up from in a
Frances said, when she told grandmother and me about this scene, that every
pan and plate and cup on the shelves trembled when her mother walked out of
the kitchen. Mrs. Harling declared bitterly that she wished she had never
let herself get fond of Antonia.
WICK CUTTER WAS the money-lender who had fleeced poor Russian Peter. When
a farmer once got into the habit of going to Cutter, it was like gambling
or the lottery; in an hour of discouragement he went back.
Cutter's first name was Wycliffe, and he liked to talk about his pious
bringing-up. He contributed regularly to the Protestant churches, `for
sentiment's sake,' as he said with a flourish of the hand. He came from a
town in Iowa where there were a great many Swedes, and could speak a little
Swedish, which gave him a great advantage with the early Scandinavian
In every frontier settlement there are men who have come there to escape
restraint. Cutter was one of the `fast set' of Black Hawk business men.
He was an inveterate gambler, though a poor loser. When we saw a light
burning in his office late at night, we knew that a game of poker was going
on. Cutter boasted that he never drank anything stronger than sherry, and
he said he got his start in life by saving the money that other young men
spent for cigars. He was full of moral maxims for boys. When he came to
our house on business, he quoted `Poor Richard's Almanack' to me, and told
me he was delighted to find a town boy who could milk a cow. He was
particularly affable to grandmother, and whenever they met he would begin
at once to talk about `the good old times' and simple living. I detested
his pink, bald head, and his yellow whiskers, always soft and glistening.
It was said he brushed them every night, as a woman does her hair. His
white teeth looked factory-made. His skin was red and rough, as if from
perpetual sunburn; he often went away to hot springs to take mud baths. He
was notoriously dissolute with women. Two Swedish girls who had lived in
his house were the worse for the experience. One of them he had taken to
Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He
still visited her.
Cutter lived in a state of perpetual warfare with his wife, and yet,
apparently, they never thought of separating. They dwelt in a fussy,
scroll-work house, painted white and buried in thick evergreens, with a
fussy white fence and barn. Cutter thought he knew a great deal about
horses, and usually had a colt which he was training for the track. On
Sunday mornings one could see him out at the fair grounds, speeding around
the race-course in his trotting-buggy, wearing yellow gloves and a
black-and-white-check travelling cap, his whiskers blowing back in the
breeze. If there were any boys about, Cutter would offer one of them a
quarter to hold the stop-watch, and then drive off, saying he had no change
and would `fix it up next time.' No one could cut his lawn or wash his
buggy to suit him. He was so fastidious and prim about his place that a
boy would go to a good deal of trouble to throw a dead cat into his back
yard, or to dump a sackful of tin cans in his alley. It was a peculiar
combination of old-maidishness and licentiousness that made Cutter seem so
He had certainly met his match when he married Mrs. Cutter. She was a
terrifying-looking person; almost a giantess in height, raw-boned, with
iron-grey hair, a face always flushed, and prominent, hysterical eyes.
When she meant to be entertaining and agreeable, she nodded her head
incessantly and snapped her eyes at one. Her teeth were long and curved,
like a horse's; people said babies always cried if she smiled at them. Her
face had a kind of fascination for me: it was the very colour and shape of
anger. There was a gleam of something akin to insanity in her full,
intense eyes. She was formal in manner, and made calls in rustling,
steel-grey brocades and a tall bonnet with bristling aigrettes.
Mrs. Cutter painted china so assiduously that even her wash-bowls and
pitchers, and her husband's shaving-mug, were covered with violets and
lilies. Once, when Cutter was exhibiting some of his wife's china to a
caller, he dropped a piece. Mrs. Cutter put her handkerchief to her lips
as if she were going to faint and said grandly: `Mr. Cutter, you have
broken all the Commandments--spare the finger-bowls!'
They quarrelled from the moment Cutter came into the house until they went
to bed at night, and their hired girls reported these scenes to the town at
large. Mrs. Cutter had several times cut paragraphs about unfaithful
husbands out of the newspapers and mailed them to Cutter in a disguised
handwriting. Cutter would come home at noon, find the mutilated journal in
the paper-rack, and triumphantly fit the clipping into the space from which
it had been cut. Those two could quarrel all morning about whether he
ought to put on his heavy or his light underwear, and all evening about
whether he had taken cold or not.
The Cutters had major as well as minor subjects for dispute. The chief of
these was the question of inheritance: Mrs. Cutter told her husband it was
plainly his fault they had no children. He insisted that Mrs. Cutter had
purposely remained childless, with the determination to outlive him and to
share his property with her `people,' whom he detested. To this she would
reply that unless he changed his mode of life, she would certainly outlive
him. After listening to her insinuations about his physical soundness,
Cutter would resume his dumb-bell practice for a month, or rise daily at
the hour when his wife most liked to sleep, dress noisily, and drive out to
the track with his trotting-horse.
Once when they had quarrelled about household expenses, Mrs. Cutter put on
her brocade and went among their friends soliciting orders for painted
china, saying that Mr. Cutter had compelled her `to live by her brush.'
Cutter wasn't shamed as she had expected; he was delighted!
Cutter often threatened to chop down the cedar trees which half-buried the
house. His wife declared she would leave him if she were stripped of the I
privacy' which she felt these trees afforded her. That was his
opportunity, surely; but he never cut down the trees. The Cutters seemed
to find their relations to each other interesting and stimulating, and
certainly the rest of us found them so. Wick Cutter was different from any
other rascal I have ever known, but I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the
world; sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly
fed--easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed.
AFTER ANTONIA WENT TO live with the Cutters, she seemed to care about
nothing but picnics and parties and having a good time. When she was not
going to a dance, she sewed until midnight. Her new clothes were the
subject of caustic comment. Under Lena's direction she copied Mrs.
Gardener's new party dress and Mrs. Smith's street costume so ingeniously
in cheap materials that those ladies were greatly annoyed, and Mrs. Cutter,
who was jealous of them, was secretly pleased.
Tony wore gloves now, and high-heeled shoes and feathered bonnets, and she
went downtown nearly every afternoon with Tiny and Lena and the Marshalls'
Norwegian Anna. We high-school boys used to linger on the playground at
the afternoon recess to watch them as they came tripping down the hill
along the board sidewalk, two and two. They were growing prettier every
day, but as they passed us, I used to think with pride that Antonia, like
Snow-White in the fairy tale, was still `fairest of them all.'
Being a senior now, I got away from school early. Sometimes I overtook the
girls downtown and coaxed them into the ice-cream parlour, where they would
sit chattering and laughing, telling me all the news from the country.
I remember how angry Tiny Soderball made me one afternoon. She declared
she had heard grandmother was going to make a Baptist preacher of me. `I
guess you'll have to stop dancing and wear a white necktie then. Won't he
look funny, girls?'
Lena laughed. `You'll have to hurry up, Jim. If you're going to be a
preacher, I want you to marry me. You must promise to marry us all, and
then baptize the babies.'
Norwegian Anna, always dignified, looked at her reprovingly.
`Baptists don't believe in christening babies, do they, Jim?'
I told her I didn't know what they believed, and didn't care, and that I
certainly wasn't going to be a preacher.
`That's too bad,' Tiny simpered. She was in a teasing mood. `You'd make
such a good one. You're so studious. Maybe you'd like to be a professor.
You used to teach Tony, didn't you?'
Antonia broke in. `I've set my heart on Jim being a doctor. You'd be good
with sick people, Jim. Your grandmother's trained you up so nice. My papa
always said you were an awful smart boy.'
I said I was going to be whatever I pleased. `Won't you be surprised, Miss
Tiny, if I turn out to be a regular devil of a fellow?'
They laughed until a glance from Norwegian Anna checked them; the
high-school principal had just come into the front part of the shop to buy
bread for supper. Anna knew the whisper was going about that I was a sly
one. People said there must be something queer about a boy who showed no
interest in girls of his own age, but who could be lively enough when he
was with Tony and Lena or the three Marys.
The enthusiasm for the dance, which the Vannis had kindled, did not at once
die out. After the tent left town, the Euchre Club became the Owl Club,
and gave dances in the Masonic Hall once a week. I was invited to join,
but declined. I was moody and restless that winter, and tired of the
people I saw every day. Charley Harling was already at Annapolis, while I
was still sitting in Black Hawk, answering to my name at roll-call every
morning, rising from my desk at the sound of a bell and marching out like
the grammar-school children. Mrs. Harling was a little cool toward me,
because I continued to champion Antonia. What was there for me to do after
supper? Usually I had learned next day's lessons by the time I left the
school building, and I couldn't sit still and read forever.
In the evening I used to prowl about, hunting for diversion. There lay the
familiar streets, frozen with snow or liquid with mud. They led to the
houses of good people who were putting the babies to bed, or simply sitting
still before the parlour stove, digesting their supper. Black Hawk had two
saloons. One of them was admitted, even by the church people, to be as
respectable as a saloon could be. Handsome Anton Jelinek, who had rented
his homestead and come to town, was the proprietor. In his saloon there
were long tables where the Bohemian and German farmers could eat the
lunches they brought from home while they drank their beer. Jelinek kept
rye bread on hand and smoked fish and strong imported cheeses to please the
foreign palate. I liked to drop into his bar-room and listen to the talk.
But one day he overtook me on the street and clapped me on the shoulder.
`Jim,' he said, `I am good friends with you and I always like to see you.
But you know how the church people think about saloons. Your grandpa has
always treated me fine, and I don't like to have you come into my place,
because I know he don't like it, and it puts me in bad with him.'
So I was shut out of that.
One could hang about the drugstore; and listen to the old men who sat there
every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to
the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for
sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the
talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot, of course; I often went
down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the
disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha
or Denver, `where there was some life.' He was sure to bring out his
pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and
nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces.
For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another
malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials
requesting a transfer. He wanted to get back to Wyoming where he could go
trout-fishing on Sundays. He used to say `there was nothing in life for
him but trout streams, ever since he'd lost his twins.'
These were the distractions I had to choose from. There were no other
lights burning downtown after nine o'clock. On starlight nights I used to
pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping
houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches.
They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with
spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all
their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them
managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of
evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and
cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of
existence was like living under a tyranny. People's speech, their voices,
their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste,
every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those
houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to
make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the
dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the
only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all.
On Tuesday nights the Owl Club danced; then there was a little stir in the
streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight.
But the next night all was dark again.
After I refused to join `the Owls,' as they were called, I made a bold
resolve to go to the Saturday night dances at Firemen's Hall. I knew it
would be useless to acquaint my elders with any such plan. Grandfather
didn't approve of dancing, anyway; he would only say that if I wanted to
dance I could go to the Masonic Hall, among `the people we knew.' It was
just my point that I saw altogether too much of the people we knew.
My bedroom was on the ground floor, and as I studied there, I had a stove
in it. I used to retire to my room early on Saturday night, change my
shirt and collar and put on my Sunday coat. I waited until all was quiet
and the old people were asleep, then raised my window, climbed out, and
went softly through the yard. The first time I deceived my grandparents I
felt rather shabby, perhaps even the second time, but I soon ceased to
think about it.
The dance at the Firemen's Hall was the one thing I looked forward to all
the week. There I met the same people I used to see at the Vannis' tent.
Sometimes there were Bohemians from Wilber, or German boys who came down on
the afternoon freight from Bismarck. Tony and Lena and Tiny were always
there, and the three Bohemian Marys, and the Danish laundry girls.
The four Danish girls lived with the laundryman and his wife in their house
behind the laundry, with a big garden where the clothes were hung out to
dry. The laundryman was a kind, wise old fellow, who paid his girls well,
looked out for them, and gave them a good home. He told me once that his
own daughter died just as she was getting old enough to help her mother,
and that he had been `trying to make up for it ever since.' On summer
afternoons he used to sit for hours on the sidewalk in front of his
laundry, his newspaper lying on his knee, watching his girls through the
big open window while they ironed and talked in Danish. The clouds of
white dust that blew up the street, the gusts of hot wind that withered his
vegetable garden, never disturbed his calm. His droll expression seemed to
say that he had found the secret of contentment. Morning and evening he
drove about in his spring wagon, distributing freshly ironed clothes, and
collecting bags of linen that cried out for his suds and sunny
drying-lines. His girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did
standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces,
their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest
wild roses, their gold hair moist with the steam or the heat and curling in
little damp spirals about their ears. They had not learned much English,
and were not so ambitious as Tony or Lena; but they were kind, simple girls
and they were always happy. When one danced with them, one smelled their
clean, freshly ironed clothes that had been put away with rosemary leaves
from Mr. Jensen's garden.
There were never girls enough to go round at those dances, but everyone
wanted a turn with Tony and Lena.
Lena moved without exertion, rather indolently, and her hand often accented
the rhythm softly on her partner's shoulder. She smiled if one spoke to
her, but seldom answered. The music seemed to put her into a soft, waking
dream, and her violet-coloured eyes looked sleepily and confidingly at one
from under her long lashes. When she sighed she exhaled a heavy perfume of
sachet powder. To dance `Home, Sweet Home,' with Lena was like coming in
with the tide. She danced every dance like a waltz, and it was always the
same waltz-- the waltz of coming home to something, of inevitable, fated
return. After a while one got restless under it, as one does under the
heat of a soft, sultry summer day.
When you spun out into the floor with Tony, you didn't return to anything.
You set out every time upon a new adventure. I liked to schottische with
her; she had so much spring and variety, and was always putting in new
steps and slides. She taught me to dance against and around the
hard-and-fast beat of the music. If, instead of going to the end of the
railroad, old Mr. Shimerda had stayed in New York and picked up a living
with his fiddle, how different Antonia's life might have been!
Antonia often went to the dances with Larry Donovan, a passenger conductor
who was a kind of professional ladies' man, as we said. I remember how
admiringly all the boys looked at her the night she first wore her
velveteen dress, made like Mrs. Gardener's black velvet. She was lovely to
see, with her eyes shining, and her lips always a little parted when she
danced. That constant, dark colour in her cheeks never changed.
One evening when Donovan was out on his run, Antonia came to the hall with
Norwegian Anna and her young man, and that night I took her home. When we
were in the Cutters' yard, sheltered by the evergreens, I told her she must
kiss me good night.
`Why, sure, Jim.' A moment later she drew her face away and whispered
indignantly, `Why, Jim! You know you ain't right to kiss me like that.
I'll tell your grandmother on you!'
`Lena Lingard lets me kiss her,' I retorted, `and I'm not half as fond of
her as I am of you.'
`Lena does?' Tony gasped. `If she's up to any of her nonsense with you,
I'll scratch her eyes out!' She took my arm again and we walked out of the
gate and up and down the sidewalk. `Now, don't you go and be a fool like
some of these town boys. You're not going to sit around here and whittle
store-boxes and tell stories all your life. You are going away to school
and make something of yourself. I'm just awful proud of you. You won't go
and get mixed up with the Swedes, will you?'
`I don't care anything about any of them but you,' I said. `And you'll
always treat me like a kid, suppose.'
She laughed and threw her arms around me. `I expect I will, but you're a
kid I'm awful fond of, anyhow! You can like me all you want to, but if I
see you hanging round with Lena much, I'll go to your grandmother, as sure
as your name's Jim Burden! Lena's all right, only--well, you know yourself
she's soft that way. She can't help it. It's natural to her.'
If she was proud of me, I was so proud of her that I carried my head high
as I emerged from the dark cedars and shut the Cutters' gate softly behind
me. Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she
was, oh, she was still my Antonia! I looked with contempt at the dark,
silent little houses about me as I walked home, and thought of the stupid
young men who were asleep in some of them. I knew where the real women
were, though I was only a boy; and I would not be afraid of them, either!
I hated to enter the still house when I went home from the dances, and it
was long before I could get to sleep. Toward morning I used to have
pleasant dreams: sometimes Tony and I were out in the country, sliding
down straw-stacks as we used to do; climbing up the yellow mountains over
and over, and slipping down the smooth sides into soft piles of chaff.
One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was
in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them.
Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a
curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a
kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to
me with a soft sigh and said, `Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as
much as I like.'
I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I
I NOTICED ONE AFTERNOON that grandmother had been crying. Her feet seemed
to drag as she moved about the house, and I got up from the table where I
was studying and went to her, asking if she didn't feel well, and if I
couldn't help her with her work.
`No, thank you, Jim. I'm troubled, but I guess I'm well enough. Getting a
little rusty in the bones, maybe,' she added bitterly.
I stood hesitating. `What are you fretting about, grandmother? Has
grandfather lost any money?'
`No, it ain't money. I wish it was. But I've heard things. You must 'a'
known it would come back to me sometime.' She dropped into a chair, and,
covering her face with her apron, began to cry. `Jim,' she said, `I was
never one that claimed old folks could bring up their grandchildren. But
it came about so; there wasn't any other way for you, it seemed like.'
I put my arms around her. I couldn't bear to see her cry.
`What is it, grandmother? Is it the Firemen's dances?'
`I'm sorry I sneaked off like that. But there's nothing wrong about the
dances, and I haven't done anything wrong. I like all those country girls,
and I like to dance with them. That's all there is to it.'
`But it ain't right to deceive us, son, and it brings blame on us. People
say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain't just to us.'
`I don't care what they say about me, but if it hurts you, that settles it.
I won't go to the Firemen's Hall again.'
I kept my promise, of course, but I found the spring months dull enough. I
sat at home with the old people in the evenings now, reading Latin that was
not in our high-school course. I had made up my mind to do a lot of
college requirement work in the summer, and to enter the freshman class at
the university without conditions in the fall. I wanted to get away as
soon as possible.
Disapprobation hurt me, I found--even that of people whom I did not admire.
As the spring came on, I grew more and more lonely, and fell back on the
telegrapher and the cigar-maker and his canaries for companionship. I
remember I took a melancholy pleasure in hanging a May-basket for Nina
Harling that spring. I bought the flowers from an old German woman who
always had more window plants than anyone else, and spent an afternoon
trimming a little workbasket. When dusk came on, and the new moon hung in
the sky, I went quietly to the Harlings' front door with my offering, rang
the bell, and then ran away as was the custom. Through the willow hedge I
could hear Nina's cries of delight, and I felt comforted.
On those warm, soft spring evenings I often lingered downtown to walk home
with Frances, and talked to her about my plans and about the reading I was
doing. One evening she said she thought Mrs. Harling was not seriously
offended with me.
`Mama is as broad-minded as mothers ever are, I guess. But you know she
was hurt about Antonia, and she can't understand why you like to be with
Tiny and Lena better than with the girls of your own set.'
`Can you?' I asked bluntly.
Frances laughed. `Yes, I think I can. You knew them in the country, and
you like to take sides. In some ways you're older than boys of your age.
It will be all right with mama after you pass your college examinations and
she sees you're in earnest.'
`If you were a boy,' I persisted, `you wouldn't belong to the Owl Club,
either. You'd be just like me.'
She shook her head. `I would and I wouldn't. I expect I know the country
girls better than you do. You always put a kind of glamour over them. The
trouble with you, Jim, is that you're romantic. Mama's going to your
Commencement. She asked me the other day if I knew what your oration is to
be about. She wants you to do well.'
I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things
I had lately discovered. Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the
Commencement exercises, and I looked at her most of the time while I made
my speech. Her keen, intelligent eyes never left my face. Afterward she
came back to the dressing-room where we stood, with our diplomas in our
hands, walked up to me, and said heartily: `You surprised me, Jim. I
didn't believe you could do as well as that. You didn't get that speech
out of books.' Among my graduation presents there was a silk umbrella from
Mrs. Harling, with my name on the handle.
I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist
Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the
arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June
foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me--Lena and Tony
and Anna Hansen.
`Oh, Jim, it was splendid!' Tony was breathing hard, as she always did
when her feelings outran her language. `There ain't a lawyer in Black Hawk
could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to
him. He won't tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself,
didn't he, girls?'
Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, `What made you so solemn? I
thought you were scared. I was sure you'd forget.'
Anna spoke wistfully.
`It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your
mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go
to school, you know.'
`Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim'--Antonia
took hold of my coat lapels--'there was something in your speech that made
me think so about my papa!'
`I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony,' I said. `I
dedicated it to him.'
She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.
I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the
sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my
heartstrings like that one.
THE DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT I moved my books and desk upstairs, to an empty
room where I should be undisturbed, and I fell to studying in earnest. I
worked off a year's trigonometry that summer, and began Virgil alone.
Morning after morning I used to pace up and down my sunny little room,
looking off at the distant river bluffs and the roll of the blond pastures
between, scanning the `Aeneid' aloud and committing long passages to
memory. Sometimes in the evening Mrs. Harling called to me as I passed her
gate, and asked me to come in and let her play for me. She was lonely for
Charley, she said, and liked to have a boy about. Whenever my grandparents
had misgivings, and began to wonder whether I was not too young to go off
to college alone, Mrs. Harling took up my cause vigorously. Grandfather
had such respect for her judgment that I knew he would not go against her.
I had only one holiday that summer. It was in July. I met Antonia
downtown on Saturday afternoon, and learned that she and Tiny and Lena were
going to the river next day with Anna Hansen--the elder was all in bloom
now, and Anna wanted to make elderblow wine.
`Anna's to drive us down in the Marshalls' delivery wagon, and we'll take a
nice lunch and have a picnic. Just us; nobody else. Couldn't you happen
along, Jim? It would be like old times.'
I considered a moment. `Maybe I can, if I won't be in the way.'
On Sunday morning I rose early and got out of Black Hawk while the dew was
still heavy on the long meadow grasses. It was the high season for summer
flowers. The pink bee-bush stood tall along the sandy roadsides, and the
cone-flowers and rose mallow grew everywhere. Across the wire fence, in
the long grass, I saw a clump of flaming orange-coloured milkweed, rare in
that part of the state. I left the road and went around through a stretch
of pasture that was always cropped short in summer, where the gaillardia
came up year after year and matted over the ground with the deep, velvety
red that is in Bokhara carpets. The country was empty and solitary except
for the larks that Sunday morning, and it seemed to lift itself up to me
and to come very close.
The river was running strong for midsummer; heavy rains to the west of us
had kept it full. I crossed the bridge and went upstream along the wooded
shore to a pleasant dressing-room I knew among the dogwood bushes, all
overgrown with wild grapevines. I began to undress for a swim. The girls
would not be along yet. For the first time it occurred to me that I should
be homesick for that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean
white beaches and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings,
were a sort of No Man's Land, little newly created worlds that belonged to
the Black Hawk boys. Charley Harling and I had hunted through these woods,
fished from the fallen logs, until I knew every inch of the river shores
and had a friendly feeling for every bar and shallow.
After my swim, while I was playing about indolently in the water, I heard
the sound of hoofs and wheels on the bridge. I struck downstream and
shouted, as the open spring wagon came into view on the middle span. They
stopped the horse, and the two girls in the bottom of the cart stood up,
steadying themselves by the shoulders of the two in front, so that they
could see me better. They were charming up there, huddled together in the
cart and peering down at me like curious deer when they come out of the
thicket to drink. I found bottom near the bridge and stood up, waving to
`How pretty you look!' I called.
`So do you!' they shouted altogether, and broke into peals of laughter.
Anna Hansen shook the reins and they drove on, while I zigzagged back to my
inlet and clambered up behind an overhanging elm. I dried myself in the
sun, and dressed slowly, reluctant to leave that green enclosure where the
sunlight flickered so bright through the grapevine leaves and the
woodpecker hammered away in the crooked elm that trailed out over the
water. As I went along the road back to the bridge, I kept picking off
little pieces of scaly chalk from the dried water gullies, and breaking
them up in my hands.
When I came upon the Marshalls' delivery horse, tied in the shade, the
girls had already taken their baskets and gone down the east road which
wound through the sand and scrub. I could hear them calling to each other.
The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the
bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots
were always in moisture and their tops in the sun. The blossoms were
unusually luxuriant and beautiful that summer.
I followed a cattle path through the thick under-brush until I came to a
slope that fell away abruptly to the water's edge. A great chunk of the
shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked
by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces. I did not
touch them. I was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm
silence about me. There was no sound but the high, singsong buzz of wild
bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath. I peeped over the edge
of the bank to see the little stream that made the noise; it flowed along
perfectly clear over the sand and gravel, cut off from the muddy main
current by a long sandbar. Down there, on the lower shelf of the bank, I
saw Antonia, seated alone under the pagoda-like elders. She looked up when
she heard me, and smiled, but I saw that she had been crying. I slid down
into the soft sand beside her and asked her what was the matter.
`It makes me homesick, Jimmy, this flower, this smell,' she said softly.
`We have this flower very much at home, in the old country. It always grew
in our yard and my papa had a green bench and a table under the bushes. In
summer, when they were in bloom, he used to sit there with his friend that
played the trombone. When I was little I used to go down there to hear
them talk-- beautiful talk, like what I never hear in this country.'
`What did they talk about?' I asked her.
She sighed and shook her head. `Oh, I don't know! About music, and the
woods, and about God, and when they were young.' She turned to me suddenly
and looked into my eyes. `You think, Jimmy, that maybe my father's spirit
can go back to those old places?'
I told her about the feeling of her father's presence I had on that winter
day when my grandparents had gone over to see his dead body and I was left
alone in the house. I said I felt sure then that he was on his way back to
his own country, and that even now, when I passed his grave, I always
thought of him as being among the woods and fields that were so dear to
Antonia had the most trusting, responsive eyes in the world; love and
credulousness seemed to look out of them with open faces.
`Why didn't you ever tell me that before? It makes me feel more sure for
him.' After a while she said: `You know, Jim, my father was different
from my mother. He did not have to marry my mother, and all his brothers
quarrelled with him because he did. I used to hear the old people at home
whisper about it. They said he could have paid my mother money, and not
married her. But he was older than she was, and he was too kind to treat
her like that. He lived in his mother's house, and she was a poor girl
come in to do the work. After my father married her, my grandmother never
let my mother come into her house again. When I went to my grandmother's
funeral was the only time I was ever in my grandmother's house. Don't that
While she talked, I lay back in the hot sand and looked up at the blue sky
between the flat bouquets of elder. I could hear the bees humming and
singing, but they stayed up in the sun above the flowers and did not come
down into the shadow of the leaves. Antonia seemed to me that day exactly
like the little girl who used to come to our house with Mr. Shimerda.
`Some day, Tony, I am going over to your country, and I am going to the
little town where you lived. Do you remember all about it?'
`Jim,' she said earnestly, `if I was put down there in the middle of the
night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river
to the next town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the
little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip
you. I ain't never forgot my own country.'
There was a crackling in the branches above us, and Lena Lingard peered
down over the edge of the bank.
`You lazy things!' she cried. `All this elder, and you two lying there!
Didn't you hear us calling you?' Almost as flushed as she had been in my
dream, she leaned over the edge of the bank and began to demolish our
flowery pagoda. I had never seen her so energetic; she was panting with
zeal, and the perspiration stood in drops on her short, yielding upper lip.
I sprang to my feet and ran up the bank.
It was noon now, and so hot that the dogwoods and scrub-oaks began to turn
up the silvery underside of their leaves, and all the foliage looked soft
and wilted. I carried the lunch-basket to the top of one of the chalk
bluffs, where even on the calmest days there was always a breeze. The
flat-topped, twisted little oaks threw light shadows on the grass. Below
us we could see the windings of the river, and Black Hawk, grouped among
its trees, and, beyond, the rolling country, swelling gently until it met
the sky. We could recognize familiar farm-houses and windmills. Each of
the girls pointed out to me the direction in which her father's farm lay,
and told me how many acres were in wheat that year and how many in corn.
`My old folks,' said Tiny Soderball, `have put in twenty acres of rye.
They get it ground at the mill, and it makes nice bread. It seems like my
mother ain't been so homesick, ever since father's raised rye flour for
`It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, `coming out here
and having to do everything different. My mother had always lived in town.
She says she started behind in farm-work, and never has caught up.'
`Yes, a new country's hard on the old ones, sometimes,' said Anna
thoughtfully. `My grandmother's getting feeble now, and her mind wanders.
She's forgot about this country, and thinks she's at home in Norway. She
keeps asking mother to take her down to the waterside and the fish market.
She craves fish all the time. Whenever I go home I take her canned salmon
`Mercy, it's hot!' Lena yawned. She was supine under a little oak,
resting after the fury of her elder-hunting, and had taken off the
high-heeled slippers she had been silly enough to wear. `Come here, Jim.
You never got the sand out of your hair.' She began to draw her fingers
slowly through my hair.
Antonia pushed her away. `You'll never get it out like that,' she said
sharply. She gave my head a rough touzling and finished me off with
something like a box on the ear. `Lena, you oughtn't to try to wear those
slippers any more. They're too small for your feet. You'd better give
them to me for Yulka.'
`All right,' said Lena good-naturedly, tucking her white stockings under
her skirt. `You get all Yulka's things, don't you? I wish father didn't
have such bad luck with his farm machinery; then I could buy more things
for my sisters. I'm going to get Mary a new coat this fall, if the sulky
plough's never paid for!'
Tiny asked her why she didn't wait until after Christmas, when coats would
be cheaper. `What do you think of poor me?' she added; `with six at home,
younger than I am? And they all think I'm rich, because when I go back to
the country I'm dressed so fine!' She shrugged her shoulders. `But, you
know, my weakness is playthings. I like to buy them playthings better than
what they need.'
`I know how that is,' said Anna. `When we first came here, and I was
little, we were too poor to buy toys. I never got over the loss of a doll
somebody gave me before we left Norway. A boy on the boat broke her and I
still hate him for it.'
`I guess after you got here you had plenty of live dolls to nurse, like
me!' Lena remarked cynically.
`Yes, the babies came along pretty fast, to be sure. But I never minded.
I was fond of them all. The youngest one, that we didn't any of us want,
is the one we love best now.'
Lena sighed. `Oh, the babies are all right; if only they don't come in
winter. Ours nearly always did. I don't see how mother stood it. I tell
you what, girls'--she sat up with sudden energy--'I'm going to get my
mother out of that old sod house where she's lived so many years. The men
will never do it. Johnnie, that's my oldest brother, he's wanting to get
married now, and build a house for his girl instead of his mother. Mrs.
Thomas says she thinks I can move to some other town pretty soon, and go
into business for myself. If I don't get into business, I'll maybe marry a
`That would be a poor way to get on,' said Anna sarcastically. `I wish I
could teach school, like Selma Kronn. Just think! She'll be the first
Scandinavian girl to get a position in the high school. We ought to be
proud of her.'
Selma was a studious girl, who had not much tolerance for giddy things like
Tiny and Lena; but they always spoke of her with admiration.
Tiny moved about restlessly, fanning herself with her straw hat. `If I was
smart like her, I'd be at my books day and night. But she was born
smart--and look how her father's trained her! He was something high up in
the old country.'
`So was my mother's father,' murmured Lena, `but that's all the good it
does us! My father's father was smart, too, but he was wild. He married a
Lapp. I guess that's what's the matter with me; they say Lapp blood will
`A real Lapp, Lena?' I exclaimed. `The kind that wear skins?'
`I don't know if she wore skins, but she was a Lapps all right, and his
folks felt dreadful about it. He was sent up North on some government job
he had, and fell in with her. He would marry her.'
`But I thought Lapland women were fat and ugly, and had squint eyes, like
Chinese?' I objected.
`I don't know, maybe. There must be something mighty taking about the Lapp
girls, though; mother says the Norwegians up North are always afraid their
boys will run after them.'
In the afternoon, when the heat was less oppressive, we had a lively game
of `Pussy Wants a Corner,' on the flat bluff-top, with the little trees for
bases. Lena was Pussy so often that she finally said she wouldn't play any
more. We threw ourselves down on the grass, out of breath.
`Jim,' Antonia said dreamily, `I want you to tell the girls about how the
Spanish first came here, like you and Charley Harling used to talk about.
I've tried to tell them, but I leave out so much.'
They sat under a little oak, Tony resting against the trunk and the other
girls leaning against her and each other, and listened to the little I was
able to tell them about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden
Cities. At school we were taught that he had not got so far north as
Nebraska, but had given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas.
But Charley Harling and I had a strong belief that he had been along this
very river. A farmer in the county north of ours, when he was breaking
sod, had turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a
Spanish inscription on the blade. He lent these relics to Mr. Harling, who
brought them home with him. Charley and I scoured them, and they were on
exhibition in the Harling office all summer. Father Kelly, the priest, had
found the name of the Spanish maker on the sword and an abbreviation that
stood for the city of Cordova.
`And that I saw with my own eyes,' Antonia put in triumphantly. `So Jim
and Charley were right, and the teachers were wrong!'
The girls began to wonder among themselves. Why had the Spaniards come so
far? What must this country have been like, then? Why had Coronado never
gone back to Spain, to his riches and his castles and his king? I couldn't
tell them. I only knew the schoolbooks said he `died in the wilderness, of
a broken heart.'
`More than him has done that,' said Antonia sadly, and the girls murmured
We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly
grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper.
There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the
sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow
thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to
stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off
in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each
other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.
Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going
down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk
rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure
suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining
our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland
farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking
just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it
stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the
disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red.
There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped
and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us
were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk
back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
LATE IN AUGUST the Cutters went to Omaha for a few days, leaving Antonia in
charge of the house. Since the scandal about the Swedish girl, Wick Cutter
could never get his wife to stir out of Black Hawk without him.
The day after the Cutters left, Antonia came over to see us. Grandmother
noticed that she seemed troubled and distracted. `You've got something on
your mind, Antonia,' she said anxiously.
`Yes, Mrs. Burden. I couldn't sleep much last night.' She hesitated, and
then told us how strangely Mr. Cutter had behaved before he went away. He
put all the silver in a basket and placed it under her bed, and with it a
box of papers which he told her were valuable. He made her promise that
she would not sleep away from the house, or be out late in the evening,
while he was gone. He strictly forbade her to ask any of the girls she
knew to stay with her at night. She would be perfectly safe, he said, as
he had just put a new Yale lock on the front door.
Cutter had been so insistent in regard to these details that now she felt
uncomfortable about staying there alone. She hadn't liked the way he kept
coming into the kitchen to instruct her, or the way he looked at her. `I
feel as if he is up to some of his tricks again, and is going to try to
scare me, somehow.'
Grandmother was apprehensive at once. `I don't think it's right for you to
stay there, feeling that way. I suppose it wouldn't be right for you to
leave the place alone, either, after giving your word. Maybe Jim would be
willing to go over there and sleep, and you could come here nights. I'd
feel safer, knowing you were under my own roof. I guess Jim could take
care of their silver and old usury notes as well as you could.'
Antonia turned to me eagerly. `Oh, would you, Jim? I'd make up my bed
nice and fresh for you. It's a real cool room, and the bed's right next
the window. I was afraid to leave the window open last night.'
I liked my own room, and I didn't like the Cutters' house under any
circumstances; but Tony looked so troubled that I consented to try this
arrangement. I found that I slept there as well as anywhere, and when I
got home in the morning, Tony had a good breakfast waiting for me. After
prayers she sat down at the table with us, and it was like old times in the
The third night I spent at the Cutters', I awoke suddenly with the
impression that I had heard a door open and shut. Everything was still,
however, and I must have gone to sleep again immediately.
The next thing I knew, I felt someone sit down on the edge of the bed. I
was only half awake, but I decided that he might take the Cutters' silver,
whoever he was. Perhaps if I did not move, he would find it and get out
without troubling me. I held my breath and lay absolutely still. A hand
closed softly on my shoulder, and at the same moment I felt something hairy
and cologne-scented brushing my face. If the room had suddenly been
flooded with electric light, I couldn't have seen more clearly the
detestable bearded countenance that I knew was bending over me. I caught a
handful of whiskers and pulled, shouting something. The hand that held my
shoulder was instantly at my throat. The man became insane; he stood over
me, choking me with one fist and beating me in the face with the other,
hissing and chuckling and letting out a flood of abuse.
`So this is what she's up to when I'm away, is it? Where is she, you nasty
whelp, where is she? Under the bed, are you, hussy? I know your tricks!
Wait till I get at you! I'll fix this rat you've got in here. He's
caught, all right!'
So long as Cutter had me by the throat, there was no chance for me at all.
I got hold of his thumb and bent it back, until he let go with a yell. In
a bound, I was on my feet, and easily sent him sprawling to the floor.
Then I made a dive for the open window, struck the wire screen, knocked it
out, and tumbled after it into the yard.
Suddenly I found myself running across the north end of Black Hawk in my
night-shirt, just as one sometimes finds one's self behaving in bad dreams.
When I got home, I climbed in at the kitchen window. I was covered with
blood from my nose and lip, but I was too sick to do anything about it. I
found a shawl and an overcoat on the hat-rack, lay down on the parlour
sofa, and in spite of my hurts, went to sleep.
Grandmother found me there in the morning. Her cry of fright awakened me.
Truly, I was a battered object. As she helped me to my room, I caught a
glimpse of myself in the mirror. My lip was cut and stood out like a
snout. My nose looked like a big blue plum, and one eye was swollen shut
and hideously discoloured. Grandmother said we must have the doctor at
once, but I implored her, as I had never begged for anything before, not to
send for him. I could stand anything, I told her, so long as nobody saw me
or knew what had happened to me. I entreated her not to let grandfather,
even, come into my room. She seemed to understand, though I was too faint
and miserable to go into explanations. When she took off my night-shirt,
she found such bruises on my chest and shoulders that she began to cry.
She spent the whole morning bathing and poulticing me, and rubbing me with
arnica. I heard Antonia sobbing outside my door, but I asked grandmother
to send her away. I felt that I never wanted to see her again. I hated
her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this
disgustingness. Grandmother kept saying how thankful we ought to be that I
had been there instead of Antonia. But I lay with my disfigured face to
the wall and felt no particular gratitude. My one concern was that
grandmother should keep everyone away from me. If the story once got
abroad, I would never hear the last of it. I could well imagine what the
old men down at the drugstore would do with such a theme.
While grandmother was trying to make me comfortable, grandfather went to
the depot and learned that Wick Cutter had come home on the night express
from the east, and had left again on the six o'clock train for Denver that
morning. The agent said his face was striped with court-plaster, and he
carried his left hand in a sling. He looked so used up, that the agent
asked him what had happened to him since ten o'clock the night before;
whereat Cutter began to swear at him and said he would have him discharged
That afternoon, while I was asleep, Antonia took grandmother with her, and
went over to the Cutters' to pack her trunk. They found the place locked
up, and they had to break the window to get into Antonia's bedroom. There
everything was in shocking disorder. Her clothes had been taken out of her
closet, thrown into the middle of the room, and trampled and torn. My own
garments had been treated so badly that I never saw them again; grandmother
burned them in the Cutters' kitchen range.
While Antonia was packing her trunk and putting her room in order, to leave
it, the front doorbell rang violently. There stood Mrs. Cutter-- locked
out, for she had no key to the new lock--her head trembling with rage. `I
advised her to control herself, or she would have a stroke,' grandmother
Grandmother would not let her see Antonia at all, but made her sit down in
the parlour while she related to her just what had occurred the night
before. Antonia was frightened, and was going home to stay for a while,
she told Mrs. Cutter; it would be useless to interrogate the girl, for she
knew nothing of what had happened.
Then Mrs. Cutter told her story. She and her husband had started home from
Omaha together the morning before. They had to stop over several hours at
Waymore Junction to catch the Black Hawk train. During the wait, Cutter
left her at the depot and went to the Waymore bank to attend to some
business. When he returned, he told her that he would have to stay
overnight there, but she could go on home. He bought her ticket and put
her on the train. She saw him slip a twenty-dollar bill into her handbag
with her ticket. That bill, she said, should have aroused her suspicions
at once--but did not.
The trains are never called at little junction towns; everybody knows when
they come in. Mr. Cutter showed his wife's ticket to the conductor, and
settled her in her seat before the train moved off. It was not until
nearly nightfall that she discovered she was on the express bound for
Kansas City, that her ticket was made out to that point, and that Cutter
must have planned it so. The conductor told her the Black Hawk train was
due at Waymore twelve minutes after the Kansas City train left. She saw at
once that her husband had played this trick in order to get back to Black
Hawk without her. She had no choice but to go on to Kansas City and take
the first fast train for home.
Cutter could have got home a day earlier than his wife by any one of a
dozen simpler devices; he could have left her in the Omaha hotel, and said
he was going on to Chicago for a few days. But apparently it was part of
his fun to outrage her feelings as much as possible.
`Mr. Cutter will pay for this, Mrs. Burden. He will pay!' Mrs. Cutter
avouched, nodding her horse-like head and rolling her eyes.
Grandmother said she hadn't a doubt of it.
Certainly Cutter liked to have his wife think him a devil. In some way he
depended upon the excitement He could arouse in her hysterical nature.
Perhaps he got the feeling of being a rake more from his wife's rage and
amazement than from any experiences of his own. His zest in debauchery
might wane, but never Mrs. Cutter's belief in it. The reckoning with his
wife at the end of an escapade was something he counted on--like the last
powerful liqueur after a long dinner. The one excitement he really
couldn't do without was quarrelling with Mrs. Cutter!
AT THE UNIVERSITY I had the good fortune to come immediately under the
influence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric had
arrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I, to begin his work as
head of the Latin Department. He came West at the suggestion of his
physicians, his health having been enfeebled by a long illness in Italy.
When I took my entrance examinations, he was my examiner, and my course was
arranged under his supervision.
I did not go home for my first summer vacation, but stayed in Lincoln,
working off a year's Greek, which had been my only condition on entering
the freshman class. Cleric's doctor advised against his going back to New
England, and, except for a few weeks in Colorado, he, too, was in Lincoln
all that summer. We played tennis, read, and took long walks together. I
shall always look back on that time of mental awakening as one of the
happiest in my life. Gaston Cleric introduced me to the world of ideas;
when one first enters that world everything else fades for a time, and all
that went before is as if it had not been. Yet I found curious survivals;
some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new.
In those days there were many serious young men among the students who had
come up to the university from the farms and the little towns scattered
over the thinly settled state. Some of those boys came straight from the
cornfields with only a summer's wages in their pockets, hung on through the
four years, shabby and underfed, and completed the course by really heroic
self-sacrifice. Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer
school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young
men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of
expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted
its head from the prairie only a few years before.
Our personal life was as free as that of our instructors. There were no
college dormitories; we lived where we could and as we could. I took rooms
with an old couple, early settlers in Lincoln, who had married off their
children and now lived quietly in their house at the edge of town, near the
open country. The house was inconveniently situated for students, and on
that account I got two rooms for the price of one. My bedroom, originally
a linen-closet, was unheated and was barely large enough to contain my
cot-bed, but it enabled me to call the other room my study. The dresser,
and the great walnut wardrobe which held all my clothes, even my hats and
shoes, I had pushed out of the way, and I considered them non-existent, as
children eliminate incongruous objects when they are playing house. I
worked at a commodious green-topped table placed directly in front of the
west window which looked out over the prairie. In the corner at my right
were all my books, in shelves I had made and painted myself. On the blank
wall at my left the dark, old-fashioned wall-paper was covered by a large
map of ancient Rome, the work of some German scholar. Cleric had ordered
it for me when he was sending for books from abroad. Over the bookcase
hung a photograph of the Tragic Theatre at Pompeii, which he had given me
from his collection.
When I sat at work I half-faced a deep, upholstered chair which stood at
the end of my table, its high back against the wall. I had bought it with
great care. My instructor sometimes looked in upon me when he was out for
an evening tramp, and I noticed that he was more likely to linger and
become talkative if I had a comfortable chair for him to sit in, and if he
found a bottle of Benedictine and plenty of the kind of cigarettes he
liked, at his elbow. He was, I had discovered, parsimonious about small
expenditures-- a trait absolutely inconsistent with his general character.
Sometimes when he came he was silent and moody, and after a few sarcastic
remarks went away again, to tramp the streets of Lincoln, which were almost
as quiet and oppressively domestic as those of Black Hawk. Again, he would
sit until nearly midnight, talking about Latin and English poetry, or
telling me about his long stay in Italy.
I can give no idea of the peculiar charm and vividness of his talk. In a
crowd he was nearly always silent. Even for his classroom he had no
platitudes, no stock of professorial anecdotes. When he was tired, his
lectures were clouded, obscure, elliptical; but when he was interested they
were wonderful. I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missed being a great
poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were
fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal
communication. How often I have seen him draw his dark brows together, fix
his eyes upon some object on the wall or a figure in the carpet, and then
flash into the lamplight the very image that was in his brain. He could
bring the drama of antique life before one out of the shadows--white
figures against blue backgrounds. I shall never forget his face as it
looked one night when he told me about the solitary day he spent among the
sea temples at Paestum: the soft wind blowing through the roofless
columns, the birds flying low over the flowering marsh grasses, the
changing lights on the silver, cloud-hung mountains. He had wilfully
stayed the short summer night there, wrapped in his coat and rug, watching
the constellations on their path down the sky until `the bride of old
Tithonus' rose out of the sea, and the mountains stood sharp in the dawn.
It was there he caught the fever which held him back on the eve of his
departure for Greece and of which he lay ill so long in Naples. He was
still, indeed, doing penance for it.
I remember vividly another evening, when something led us to talk of
Dante's veneration for Virgil. Cleric went through canto after canto of
the `Commedia,' repeating the discourse between Dante and his `sweet
teacher,' while his cigarette burned itself out unheeded between his long
fingers. I can hear him now, speaking the lines of the poet Statius, who
spoke for Dante: `I was famous on earth with the name which endures
longest and honours most. The seeds of my ardour were the sparks from that
divine flame whereby more than a thousand have kindled; I speak of the
"Aeneid," mother to me and nurse to me in poetry.'
Although I admired scholarship so much in Cleric, I was not deceived about
myself; I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself
for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me
with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it.
While I was in the very act of yearning toward the new forms that Cleric
brought up before me, my mind plunged away from me, and I suddenly found
myself thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past.
They stood out strengthened and simplified now, like the image of the
plough against the sun. They were all I had for an answer to the new
appeal. I begrudged the room that Jake and Otto and Russian Peter took up
in my memory, which I wanted to crowd with other things. But whenever my
consciousness was quickened, all those early friends were quickened within
it, and in some strange way they accompanied me through all my new
experiences. They were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to
wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how.
ONE MARCH EVENING in my sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after
supper. There had been a warm thaw all day, with mushy yards and little
streams of dark water gurgling cheerfully into the streets out of old
snow-banks. My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me
indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky
was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher
up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a
lamp suspended by silver chains--like the lamp engraved upon the title-page
of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking
new desires in men. It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and
light my wick in answer. I did so regretfully, and the dim objects in the
room emerged from the shadows and took their place about me with the
helpfulness which custom breeds.
I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the `Georgics'
where tomorrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection
that, in the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee. 'Optima
dies ... prima fugit.' I turned back to the beginning of the third book,
which we had read in class that morning. 'Primus ego in patriam mecum ...
deducam Musas'; `for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse
into my country.' Cleric had explained to us that `patria' here meant, not
a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the
Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once
bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to
Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia
Romana, but to his own little I country'; to his father's fields, `sloping
down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.'
Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have
remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to
leave the `Aeneid' unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas,
crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive
him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance
of the `Georgics,' where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is
to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a
good man, `I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.'
We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the
wing of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately
enough to guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at
my book, the fervour of his voice stirred through the quantities on the
page before me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New
England coast about which he had so often told me was Cleric's patria.
Before I had got far with my reading, I was disturbed by a knock. I
hurried to the door and when I opened it saw a woman standing in the dark
`I expect you hardly know me, Jim.'
The voice seemed familiar, but I did not recognize her until she stepped
into the light of my doorway and I beheld--Lena Lingard! She was so
quietly conventionalized by city clothes that I might have passed her on
the street without seeing her. Her black suit fitted her figure smoothly,
and a black lace hat, with pale-blue forget-me-nots, sat demurely on her
I led her toward Cleric's chair, the only comfortable one I had,
questioning her confusedly.
She was not disconcerted by my embarrassment. She looked about her with
the naive curiosity I remembered so well. `You are quite comfortable here,
aren't you? I live in Lincoln now, too, Jim. I'm in business for myself.
I have a dressmaking shop in the Raleigh Block, out on O Street. I've made
a real good start.'
`But, Lena, when did you come?'
`Oh, I've been here all winter. Didn't your grandmother ever write you?
I've thought about looking you up lots of times. But we've all heard what
a studious young man you've got to be, and I felt bashful. I didn't know
whether you'd be glad to see me.' She laughed her mellow, easy laugh, that
was either very artless or very comprehending, one never quite knew which.
`You seem the same, though--except you're a young man, now, of course. Do
you think I've changed?'
`Maybe you're prettier--though you were always pretty enough. Perhaps it's
your clothes that make a difference.'
`You like my new suit? I have to dress pretty well in my business.'
She took off her jacket and sat more at ease in her blouse, of some soft,
flimsy silk. She was already at home in my place, had slipped quietly into
it, as she did into everything. She told me her business was going well,
and she had saved a little money.
`This summer I'm going to build the house for mother I've talked about so
long. I won't be able to pay up on it at first, but I want her to have it
before she is too old to enjoy it. Next summer I'll take her down new
furniture and carpets, so she'll have something to look forward to all
I watched Lena sitting there so smooth and sunny and well-cared-for, and
thought of how she used to run barefoot over the prairie until after the
snow began to fly, and how Crazy Mary chased her round and round the
cornfields. It seemed to me wonderful that she should have got on so well
in the world. Certainly she had no one but herself to thank for it.
`You must feel proud of yourself, Lena,' I said heartily. `Look at me;
I've never earned a dollar, and I don't know that I'll ever be able to.'
`Tony says you're going to be richer than Mr. Harling some day. She's
always bragging about you, you know.'
`Tell me, how IS Tony?'
`She's fine. She works for Mrs. Gardener at the hotel now. She's
housekeeper. Mrs. Gardener's health isn't what it was, and she can't see
after everything like she used to. She has great confidence in Tony.
Tony's made it up with the Harlings, too. Little Nina is so fond of her
that Mrs. Harling kind of overlooked things.'
`Is she still going with Larry Donovan?'
`Oh, that's on, worse than ever! I guess they're engaged. Tony talks
about him like he was president of the railroad. Everybody laughs about
it, because she was never a girl to be soft. She won't hear a word against
him. She's so sort of innocent.'
I said I didn't like Larry, and never would.
Lena's face dimpled. `Some of us could tell her things, but it wouldn't do
any good. She'd always believe him. That's Antonia's failing, you know;
if she once likes people, she won't hear anything against them.'
`I think I'd better go home and look after Antonia,' I said.
`I think you had.' Lena looked up at me in frank amusement. `It's a good
thing the Harlings are friendly with her again. Larry's afraid of them.
They ship so much grain, they have influence with the railroad people.
What are you studying?' She leaned her elbows on the table and drew my book
toward her. I caught a faint odour of violet sachet. `So that's Latin, is
it? It looks hard. You do go to the theatre sometimes, though, for I've
seen you there. Don't you just love a good play, Jim? I can't stay at
home in the evening if there's one in town. I'd be willing to work like a
slave, it seems to me, to live in a place where there are theatres.'
`Let's go to a show together sometime. You are going to let me come to see
you, aren't you?'
`Would you like to? I'd be ever so pleased. I'm never busy after six
o'clock, and I let my sewing girls go at half-past five. I board, to save
time, but sometimes I cook a chop for myself, and I'd be glad to cook one
for you. Well'--she began to put on her white gloves--'it's been awful
good to see you, Jim.'
`You needn't hurry, need you? You've hardly told me anything yet.'
`We can talk when you come to see me. I expect you don't often have lady
visitors. The old woman downstairs didn't want to let me come up very
much. I told her I was from your home town, and had promised your
grandmother to come and see you. How surprised Mrs. Burden would be!'
Lena laughed softly as she rose.
When I caught up my hat, she shook her head. `No, I don't want you to go
with me. I'm to meet some Swedes at the drugstore. You wouldn't care for
them. I wanted to see your room so I could write Tony all about it, but I
must tell her how I left you right here with your books. She's always so
afraid someone will run off with you!' Lena slipped her silk sleeves into
the jacket I held for her, smoothed it over her person, and buttoned it
slowly. I walked with her to the door. `Come and see me sometimes when
you're lonesome. But maybe you have all the friends you want. Have you?'
She turned her soft cheek to me. `Have you?' she whispered teasingly in my
ear. In a moment I watched her fade down the dusky stairway.
When I turned back to my room the place seemed much pleasanter than before.
Lena had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight. How I loved
to hear her laugh again! It was so soft and unexcited and appreciative
gave a favourable interpretation to everything. When I closed my eyes I
could hear them all laughing--the Danish laundry girls and the three
Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as
it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the
poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there
would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This
revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might
As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the
harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual
experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and
underneath it stood the mournful line: 'Optima dies ... prima fugit.'
IN LINCOLN THE BEST part of the theatrical season came late, when the good
companies stopped off there for one-night stands, after their long runs in
New York and Chicago. That spring Lena went with me to see Joseph
Jefferson in `Rip Van Winkle,' and to a war play called `Shenandoah.' She
was inflexible about paying for her own seat; said she was in business now,
and she wouldn't have a schoolboy spending his money on her. I liked to
watch a play with Lena; everything was wonderful to her, and everything was
true. It was like going to revival meetings with someone who was always
being converted. She handed her feelings over to the actors with a kind of
fatalistic resignation. Accessories of costume and scene meant much more
to her than to me. She sat entranced through `Robin Hood' and hung upon
the lips of the contralto who sang, `Oh, Promise Me!'
Toward the end of April, the billboards, which I watched anxiously in those
days, bloomed out one morning with gleaming white posters on which two
names were impressively printed in blue Gothic letters: the name of an
actress of whom I had often heard, and the name `Camille.'
I called at the Raleigh Block for Lena on Saturday evening, and we walked
down to the theatre. The weather was warm and sultry and put us both in a
holiday humour. We arrived early, because Lena liked to watch the people
come in. There was a note on the programme, saying that the `incidental
music' would be from the opera `Traviata,' which was made from the same
story as the play. We had neither of us read the play, and we did not know
what it was about--though I seemed to remember having heard it was a piece
in which great actresses shone. `The Count of Monte Cristo,' which I had
seen James O'Neill play that winter, was by the only Alexandre Dumas I
knew. This play, I saw, was by his son, and I expected a family
resemblance. A couple of jack-rabbits, run in off the prairie, could not
have been more innocent of what awaited them than were Lena and I.
Our excitement began with the rise of the curtain, when the moody Varville,
seated before the fire, interrogated Nanine. Decidedly, there was a new
tang about this dialogue. I had never heard in the theatre lines that were
alive, that presupposed and took for granted, like those which passed
between Varville and Marguerite in the brief encounter before her friends
entered. This introduced the most brilliant, worldly, the most
enchantingly gay scene I had ever looked upon. I had never seen champagne
bottles opened on the stage before-- indeed, I had never seen them opened
anywhere. The memory of that supper makes me hungry now; the sight of it
then, when I had only a students' boarding-house dinner behind me, was
delicate torment. I seem to remember gilded chairs and tables (arranged
hurriedly by footmen in white gloves and stockings), linen of dazzling
whiteness, glittering glass, silver dishes, a great bowl of fruit, and the
reddest of roses. The room was invaded by beautiful women and dashing
young men, laughing and talking together. The men were dressed more or
less after the period in which the play was written; the women were not. I
saw no inconsistency. Their talk seemed to open to one the brilliant world
in which they lived; every sentence made one older and wiser, every
pleasantry enlarged one's horizon. One could experience excess and satiety
without the inconvenience of learning what to do with one's hands in a
drawing-room! When the characters all spoke at once and I missed some of
the phrases they flashed at each other, I was in misery. I strained my
ears and eyes to catch every exclamation.
The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though
historic. She had been a member of Daly's famous New York company, and
afterward a `star' under his direction. She was a woman who could not be
taught, it is said, though she had a crude natural force which carried with
people whose feelings were accessible and whose taste was not squeamish.
She was already old, with a ravaged countenance and a physique curiously
hard and stiff. She moved with difficulty-- I think she was lame--I seem
to remember some story about a malady of the spine. Her Armand was
disproportionately young and slight, a handsome youth, perplexed in the
extreme. But what did it matter? I believed devoutly in her power to
fascinate him, in her dazzling loveliness. I believed her young, ardent,
reckless, disillusioned, under sentence, feverish, avid of pleasure. I
wanted to cross the footlights and help the slim-waisted Armand in the
frilled shirt to convince her that there was still loyalty and devotion in
the world. Her sudden illness, when the gaiety was at its height, her
pallor, the handkerchief she crushed against her lips, the cough she
smothered under the laughter while Gaston kept playing the piano
lightly--it all wrung my heart. But not so much as her cynicism in the
long dialogue with her lover which followed. How far was I from
questioning her unbelief! While the charmingly sincere young man pleaded
with her-- accompanied by the orchestra in the old `Traviata' duet,
'misterioso, misterios' altero!'--she maintained her bitter scepticism, and
the curtain fell on her dancing recklessly with the others, after Armand
had been sent away with his flower.
Between the acts we had no time to forget. The orchestra kept sawing away
at the `Traviata' music, so joyous and sad, so thin and far-away, so
clap-trap and yet so heart-breaking. After the second act I left Lena in
tearful contemplation of the ceiling, and went out into the lobby to smoke.
As I walked about there I congratulated myself that I had not brought some
Lincoln girl who would talk during the waits about the junior dances, or
whether the cadets would camp at Plattsmouth. Lena was at least a woman,
and I was a man.
Through the scene between Marguerite and the elder Duval, Lena wept
unceasingly, and I sat helpless to prevent the closing of that chapter of
idyllic love, dreading the return of the young man whose ineffable
happiness was only to be the measure of his fall.
I suppose no woman could have been further in person, voice, and
temperament from Dumas' appealing heroine than the veteran actress who
first acquainted me with her. Her conception of the character was as heavy
and uncompromising as her diction; she bore hard on the idea and on the
consonants. At all times she was highly tragic, devoured by remorse.
Lightness of stress or behaviour was far from her. Her voice was heavy and
deep: `Ar-r-r-mond!' she would begin, as if she were summoning him to the
bar of Judgment. But the lines were enough. She had only to utter them.
They created the character in spite of her.
The heartless world which Marguerite re-entered with Varville had never
been so glittering and reckless as on the night when it gathered in
Olympe's salon for the fourth act. There were chandeliers hung from the
ceiling, I remember, many servants in livery, gaming-tables where the men
played with piles of gold, and a staircase down which the guests made their
entrance. After all the others had gathered round the card-tables and
young Duval had been warned by Prudence, Marguerite descended the staircase
with Varville; such a cloak, such a fan, such jewels--and her face! One
knew at a glance how it was with her. When Armand, with the terrible
words, `Look, all of you, I owe this woman nothing!' flung the gold and
bank-notes at the half-swooning Marguerite, Lena cowered beside me and
covered her face with her hands.
The curtain rose on the bedroom scene. By this time there wasn't a nerve
in me that hadn't been twisted. Nanine alone could have made me cry. I
loved Nanine tenderly; and Gaston, how one clung to that good fellow! The
New Year's presents were not too much; nothing could be too much now. I
wept unrestrainedly. Even the handkerchief in my breast-pocket, worn for
elegance and not at all for use, was wet through by the time that moribund
woman sank for the last time into the arms of her lover.
When we reached the door of the theatre, the streets were shining with
rain. I had prudently brought along Mrs. Harling's useful Commencement
present, and I took Lena home under its shelter. After leaving her, I
walked slowly out into the country part of the town where I lived. The
lilacs were all blooming in the yards, and the smell of them after the
rain, of the new leaves and the blossoms together, blew into my face with a
sort of bitter sweetness. I tramped through the puddles and under the
showery trees, mourning for Marguerite Gauthier as if she had died only
yesterday, sighing with the spirit of 1840, which had sighed so much, and
which had reached me only that night, across long years and several
languages, through the person of an infirm old actress. The idea is one
that no circumstances can frustrate. Wherever and whenever that piece is
put on, it is April.
HOW WELL I REMEMBER the stiff little parlour where I used to wait for Lena:
the hard horsehair furniture, bought at some auction sale, the long
mirror, the fashion-plates on the wall. If I sat down even for a moment, I
was sure to find threads and bits of coloured silk clinging to my clothes
after I went away. Lena's success puzzled me. She was so easygoing; had
none of the push and self-assertiveness that get people ahead in business.
She had come to Lincoln, a country girl, with no introductions except to
some cousins of Mrs. Thomas who lived there, and she was already making
clothes for the women of `the young married set.' Evidently she had great
natural aptitude for her work. She knew, as she said, `what people looked
well in.' She never tired of poring over fashion-books. Sometimes in the
evening I would find her alone in her work-room, draping folds of satin on
a wire figure, with a quite blissful expression of countenance. I couldn't
help thinking that the years when Lena literally hadn't enough clothes to
cover herself might have something to do with her untiring interest in
dressing the human figure. Her clients said that Lena `had style,' and
overlooked her habitual inaccuracies. She never, I discovered, finished
anything by the time she had promised, and she frequently spent more money
on materials than her customer had authorized. Once, when I arrived at six
o'clock, Lena was ushering out a fidgety mother and her awkward, overgrown
daughter. The woman detained Lena at the door to say apologetically:
`You'll try to keep it under fifty for me, won't you, Miss Lingard? You
see, she's really too young to come to an expensive dressmaker, but I knew
you could do more with her than anybody else.'
`Oh, that will be all right, Mrs. Herron. I think we'll manage to get a
good effect,' Lena replied blandly.
I thought her manner with her customers very good, and wondered where she
had learned such self-possession.
Sometimes after my morning classes were over, I used to encounter Lena
downtown, in her velvet suit and a little black hat, with a veil tied
smoothly over her face, looking as fresh as the spring morning. Maybe she
would be carrying home a bunch of jonquils or a hyacinth plant. When we
passed a candy store her footsteps would hesitate and linger. `Don't let
me go in,' she would murmur. `Get me by if you can.' She was very fond of
sweets, and was afraid of growing too plump.
We had delightful Sunday breakfasts together at Lena's. At the back of her
long work-room was a bay-window, large enough to hold a box-couch and a
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