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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa in a season of intense
heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James
Quayle Burden--Jim Burden, as we still call him in the West.
He and I are old friends--we grew up together in the same Nebraska
town--and we had much to say to each other. While the train flashed
through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and
bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the
observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay
deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of
many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one's
childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under
stimulating extremes of climate: burning
summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky,
when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong
weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the
whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron. We agreed that no
one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything
about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.
Jim Burden and I both live in New York, and are old friends, I do not see
much of him there. He is legal counsel for one of the great Western
railways, and is sometimes away from his New York office for weeks together.
That is one reason why we do not often meet.
Another is that I do not like his wife.
When Jim was still an obscure young lawyer, struggling to make his
way in New York, his career was suddenly advanced by a brilliant marriage.
Genevieve Whitney was the only daughter of a distinguished man. Her
marriage with young Burden was the subject of sharp comment at the time.
It was said she had been brutally jilted by her cousin, Rutland Whitney,
and that she married this unknown man from the West out of bravado.
She was a restless, headstrong girl, even then, who liked to astonish
her friends. Later, when I knew her, she was always doing something
unexpected. She gave one of her town houses for a Suffrage headquarters,
produced one of her own plays at the Princess Theater, was arrested for
picketing during a garment-makers' strike, etc.
I am never able to believe that she has much feeling for the causes
to which she lends her name and her fleeting interest. She is handsome,
energetic, executive, but to me she seems unimpressionable and
temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm.
Her husband's quiet tastes irritate her, I think, and she finds it
worth while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters
of advanced ideas and mediocre ability. She has her own fortune and lives
her own life. For some
reason, she wishes to remain Mrs. James Burden.
for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his naturally
romantic and ardent disposition. This
disposition, though it often made him seem very funny when he was a boy, has
been one of the strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal
passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches.
His faith in it and his knowledge of it have played an important part
in its development. He is always able to raise capital for new enterprises
in Wyoming or Montana, and has helped young men out there to do remarkable
things in mines and timber and oil. If a young man with an idea can once get
Jim Burden's attention, can manage to accompany him when he goes off into
the wilds hunting for lost parks or exploring new canyons, then the money
which means action is usually forthcoming. Jim is still able to lose himself
in those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new
people and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood
friends remember him. He never seems to me to grow older.
His fresh color and sandy hair and quick-changing blue eyes are those
of a young man, and his sympathetic, solicitous interest in women is as
youthful as it is Western and American.
that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a
central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of
us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to
mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our
childhood. To speak her name
was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in
one's brain. I had lost sight of her altogether, but Jim had found her again
after long years, had renewed a friendship that meant a great deal to him,
and out of his busy life had set apart time enough to enjoy that friendship.
His mind was full of her that day. He made me see her again, feel her
presence, revived all my old affection for her.
can't see," he said impetuously, "why you have never written
anything about Antonia."
told him I had always felt that other people--he himself, for one knew her
much better than I. I was ready, however, to make an agreement with him; I
would set down on paper all that I remembered of Antonia if he would do the
same. We might, in this way, get a picture of her.
rumpled his hair with a quick, excited gesture, which with him often
announces a new determination, and I could see that my suggestion took hold
of him. "Maybe I will,
maybe I will!" he declared. He
stared out of the window for a few moments, and when he turned to me again
his eyes had the sudden clearness that comes from something the mind itself
sees. "Of course," he said, "I should have to do it in a
direct way, and say a great deal about myself.
It's through myself that I knew and felt her, and I've had no
practice in any other form of presentation."
told him that how he knew her and felt her was exactly what I most wanted to
know about Antonia. He had had
opportunities that I, as a little girl who watched her come and go, had not.
afterward Jim Burden arrived at my apartment one stormy winter afternoon,
with a bulging legal portfolio sheltered under his fur overcoat. He brought
it into the sitting-room with him and tapped it with some pride as he stood
warming his hands.
finished it last night--the thing about Antonia," he said. "Now,
what about yours?"
had to confess that mine had not gone beyond a few straggling notes.
I didn't make any." He
drank his tea all at once and put down the cup.
"I didn't arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of
herself and myself and other people Antonia's name recalls to me.
I suppose it hasn't any form. It hasn't any title, either."
He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the
pinkish face of the portfolio the word, "Antonia."
He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it
"My Antonia." That seemed to satisfy him.
it as soon as you can," he said, rising, "but don't let it
influence your own story."
own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim's
manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.
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