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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
THE AUTUMN COLOUR was growing pale on the grass and cornfields, things
went badly with our friends the Russians.
Peter told his troubles to Mr. Shimerda:
he was unable to meet a note which fell due on the first of
November; had to pay an exorbitant bonus on renewing it, and to give a
mortgage on his pigs and horses and even his milk cow. His creditor was
Wick Cutter, the merciless Black Hawk money-lender, a man of evil name
throughout the county, of whom I shall have more to say later. Peter could
give no very clear account of his transactions with Cutter. He only knew
that he had first borrowed two hundred dollars, then another hundred, then
fifty--that each time a bonus was added to the principal, and the debt
grew faster than any crop he planted. Now everything was plastered with
after Peter renewed his note, Pavel strained himself lifting timbers for a
new barn, and fell over among the shavings with such a gush of blood from
the lungs that his fellow workmen thought he would die on the spot. They
hauled him home and put him into his bed, and there he lay, very ill
indeed. Misfortune seemed to
settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its
wings there, warning human beings away. The Russians had such bad luck
that people were afraid of them and liked to put them out of mind.
afternoon Antonia and her father came over to our house to get buttermilk,
and lingered, as they usually did, until the sun was low.
just as they were leaving, Russian Peter drove up. Pavel was very
bad, he said, and wanted to talk to Mr. Shimerda and his daughter; he had
come to fetch them. When
Antonia and her father got into the wagon, I entreated grandmother to let
me go with them: I would
gladly go without my supper, I would sleep in the Shimerdas' barn and run
home in the morning. My plan must have seemed very foolish to her, but she
was often large-minded about humouring the desires of other people. She
asked Peter to wait a moment, and when she came back from the kitchen she
brought a bag of sandwiches and doughnuts for us.
Shimerda and Peter were on the front seat; Antonia and I sat in the straw
behind and ate our lunch as we bumped along. After the sun sank, a cold
wind sprang up and moaned over the prairie. If this turn in the weather
had come sooner, I should not have got away. We burrowed down in the straw
and curled up close together, watching the angry red die out of the west
and the stars begin to shine in the clear, windy sky.
Peter kept sighing and groaning. Tony whispered to me that he was
afraid Pavel would never get well. We
lay still and did not talk. Up
there the stars grew magnificently bright. Though we had come from such
different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky
superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is
and what is not to be. Perhaps Russian Peter, come from farther away than
any of us, had brought from his land, too, some such belief.
little house on the hillside was so much the colour of the night that we
could not see it as we came up the draw. The ruddy windows guided us--the
light from the kitchen stove, for there was no lamp burning.
We entered softly. The man in the wide bed seemed to be asleep. Tony and I sat down on the bench by the wall and leaned our arms on the table in front of us. The firelight flickered on the hewn logs that supported the thatch overhead. Pavel made a rasping sound when he breathed, and he kept moaning. We waited. The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others. They made me think of defeated armies, retreating; or of ghosts who were trying desperately to get in for shelter, and then went moaning on. Presently, in one of those sobbing intervals between the blasts, the coyotes tuned up with their whining howl; one, two, three, then all together--to tell us that winter was coming. This sound brought an answer from the bed-- a long complaining cry--as if Pavel were having bad dreams or were waking to some old misery. Peter listened, but did not stir. He was sitting on the floor by the kitchen stove. The coyotes broke out again; yap, yap, yap--then the high whine. Pavel called for something and struggled up on his elbow.
is scared of the wolves,' Antonia whispered to me. `In his country there are
very many, and they eat men and women.' We slid closer together along the
could not take my eyes off the man in the bed. His shirt was hanging open,
and his emaciated chest, covered with yellow bristle, rose and fell
horribly. He began to cough. Peter
shuffled to his feet, caught up the teakettle and mixed him some hot water
and whiskey. The sharp smell of spirits went through the room.
snatched the cup and drank, then made Peter give him the bottle and slipped
it under his pillow, grinning disagreeably, as if he had outwitted someone.
His eyes followed Peter about the room with a contemptuous,
unfriendly expression. It seemed to me that he despised him for being so
simple and docile.
Pavel began to talk to Mr. Shimerda, scarcely above a whisper.
He was telling a long story, and as he went on, Antonia took my hand
under the table and held it tight. She leaned forward and strained her ears
to hear him. He grew more and more excited, and kept pointing all around his
bed, as if there were things there and he wanted Mr. Shimerda to see them.
wolves, Jimmy,' Antonia whispered. `It's
awful, what he says!'
sick man raged and shook his fist. He seemed to be cursing people who had wronged him.
Mr. Shimerda caught him by the shoulders, but could hardly hold him
in bed. At last he was shut off by a coughing fit which fairly choked him.
He pulled a cloth from under his pillow and held it to his mouth. Quickly it
was covered with bright red spots--I thought I had never seen any blood so
bright. When he lay down and
turned his face to the wall, all the rage had gone out of him. He lay
patiently fighting for breath, like a child with croup. Antonia's father
uncovered one of his long bony legs and rubbed it rhythmically.
From our bench we could see what a hollow case his body was.
His spine and shoulder-blades stood out like the bones under the hide
of a dead steer left in the fields. That sharp backbone must have hurt him
when he lay on it.
relief came to all of us. Whatever it was, the worst was over. Mr. Shimerda signed to us that Pavel was asleep. Without a
word Peter got up and lit his lantern.
He was going out to get his team to drive us home. Mr. Shimerda went with him. We sat and watched the long bowed
back under the blue sheet, scarcely daring to breathe.
the way home, when we were lying in the straw, under the jolting and
rattling Antonia told me as much of the story as she could. What she did not
tell me then, she told later; we talked of nothing else for days afterward.
Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to
be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over
to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and
six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.
the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents
of the bride. The dinner lasted
all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night.
There was much dancing and drinking. At
midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The
groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked
her under the blankets. He
sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the
front seat. Pavel drove. The
party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's
sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for
merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.
wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the
first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good
food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and
with quickening repetitions. The
wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear
on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party.
The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but
there were hundreds of them.
happened to the hindmost sledge: the
driver lost control-- he was probably very drunk--the horses left the road,
the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants
rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them.
The shrieks that followed made everybody sober.
The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best
team and his sledge was lightest-- all the others carried from six to a
driver lost control. The
screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men
and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves.
It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who
were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost.
The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat
still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks
went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them
length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back.
`There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.
the wolves?' Pavel asked.
Enough for all of us.'
reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the
other side. In that moment on
the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow.
Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned,
with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the
girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late.
The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the
road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him,
wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.
were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of
six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing.
Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter
saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses
went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the
harness, and overturned the sledge.
the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon
the familiar road. `They still
come?' he asked Peter.
his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter
the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge.
He called to the groom that they must lighten-- and pointed to the
bride. The young man cursed him
and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away.
In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of
the sledge and threw the girl after him.
He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened
afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing.
The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke
into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before--the bell of
the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.
and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since.
They were run out of their village. Pavel's own mother would not look
at him. They went away to
strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were
always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves.
Wherever they went, the story followed them. It took them five years
to save money enough to come to America. They worked in Chicago, Des Moines,
Fort Wayne, but they were always unfortunate.
When Pavel's health grew so bad, they decided to try farming.
died a few days after he unburdened his mind to Mr. Shimerda, and was buried
in the Norwegian graveyard. Peter sold off everything, and left the country--went to be
cook in a railway construction camp where gangs of Russians were employed.
his sale we bought Peter's wheelbarrow and some of his harness. During the
auction he went about with his head down, and never lifted his eyes.
He seemed not to care about anything.
The Black Hawk money-lender who held mortgages on Peter's livestock
was there, and he bought in the sale notes at about fifty cents on the
dollar. Everyone said Peter kissed the cow before she was led away by her
new owner. I did not see him do it, but this I know:
after all his furniture and his cookstove and pots and pans had been
hauled off by the purchasers, when his house was stripped and bare, he sat
down on the floor with his clasp-knife and ate all the melons that he had
put away for winter. When Mr. Shimerda and Krajiek drove up in their wagon
to take Peter to the train, they found him with a dripping beard, surrounded
by heaps of melon rinds.
loss of his two friends had a depressing effect upon old Mr. Shimerda.
When he was out hunting, he used to go into the empty log house and
sit there, brooding. This cabin
was his hermitage until the winter snows penned him in his cave. For Antonia
and me, the story of the wedding party was never at an end.
We did not tell Pavel's secret to anyone, but guarded it
jealously--as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago,
and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar
pleasure. At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge
drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like
Nebraska and something like Virginia.
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