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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
THE MORNING of the twenty-second I wakened with a start. Before I opened
my eyes, I seemed to know that something had happened.
I heard excited voices in the kitchen-- grandmother's was so shrill
that I knew she must be almost beside herself.
I looked forward to any new crisis with delight. What could it be,
I wondered, as I hurried into my clothes. Perhaps the barn had burned;
perhaps the cattle had frozen to death; perhaps a neighbour was lost in
in the kitchen grandfather was standing before the stove with his hands
behind him. Jake and Otto had
taken off their boots and were rubbing their woollen socks.
Their clothes and boots were steaming, and they both looked
exhausted. On the bench behind the stove lay a man, covered up with a
blanket. Grandmother motioned me to the dining-room. I obeyed reluctantly.
I watched her as she came and went, carrying dishes. Her lips were tightly
compressed and she kept whispering to herself: `Oh, dear Saviour!'
`Lord, Thou knowest!'
grandfather came in and spoke to me:
`Jimmy, we will not have prayers this morning, because we have a
great deal to do. Old Mr. Shimerda is dead, and his family are in great
distress. Ambrosch came over here in the middle of the night, and Jake and
Otto went back with him. The
boys have had a hard night, and you must not bother them with questions.
That is Ambrosch, asleep on the bench. Come in to breakfast, boys.'
Jake and Otto had swallowed their first cup of coffee, they began to talk
excitedly, disregarding grandmother's warning glances. I held my tongue,
but I listened with all my ears.
sir,' Fuchs said in answer to a question from grandfather, `nobody heard
the gun go off. Ambrosch was
out with the ox-team, trying to break a road, and the women-folks was shut
up tight in their cave. When Ambrosch come in, it was dark and he didn't
see nothing, but the oxen acted kind of queer.
One of 'em ripped around and got away from him-- bolted clean out
of the stable. His hands is
blistered where the rope run through.
He got a lantern and went back and found the old man, just as we
soul, poor soul!' grandmother groaned.
`I'd like to think he never done it.
He was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble. How could
he forget himself and bring this on us!'
don't think he was out of his head for a minute, Mrs. Burden,' Fuchs
declared. `He done everything
natural. You know he was always
sort of fixy, and fixy he was to the last. He shaved after dinner, and washed hisself all over after the
girls had done the dishes. Antonia heated the water for him.
Then he put on a clean shirt and clean socks, and after he was
dressed he kissed her and the little one and took his gun and said he was
going out to hunt rabbits. He must have gone right down to the barn and done
it then. He layed down on that
bunk-bed, close to the ox stalls, where he always slept. When we found him,
everything was decent except'--Fuchs wrinkled his brow and
hesitated--'except what he couldn't nowise foresee. His coat was hung on a
peg, and his boots was under the bed. He'd took off that silk neckcloth he
always wore, and folded it smooth and stuck his pin through it.
He turned back his shirt at the neck and rolled up his sleeves.'
don't see how he could do it!' grandmother kept saying.
misunderstood her. `Why, ma'am,
it was simple enough; he pulled the trigger with his big toe.
He layed over on his side and put the end of the barrel in his mouth,
then he drew up one foot and felt for the trigger. He found it all right!'
he did,' said Jake grimly. `There's something mighty queer about it.'
what do you mean, Jake?' grandmother asked sharply.
ma'm, I found Krajiek's axe under the manger, and I picks it up and carries
it over to the corpse, and I take my oath it just fit the gash in the front
of the old man's face. That there Krajiek had been sneakin' round, pale and
quiet, and when he seen me examinin' the axe, he begun whimperin', "My
God, man, don't do that!" "I reckon I'm a-goin' to look into this," says I.
Then he begun to squeal like a rat and run about wringin' his hands.
"They'll hang me!" says he. "My God, they'll hang me
spoke up impatiently. `Krajiek's
gone silly, Jake, and so have you. The old man wouldn't have made all them preparations for
Krajiek to murder him, would he? It
don't hang together. The gun was right beside him when Ambrosch found him.'
could 'a' put it there, couldn't he?' Jake
broke in excitedly: `See here,
Jake Marpole, don't you go trying to add murder to suicide.
We're deep enough in trouble. Otto reads you too many of them
will be easy to decide all that, Emmaline,' said grandfather quietly. `If he
shot himself in the way they think, the gash will be torn from the inside
so it is, Mr. Burden,' Otto affirmed. `I
seen bunches of hair and stuff sticking to the poles and straw along the
roof. They was blown up there by gunshot, no question.'
Grandmother told grandfather she meant to go over to the Shimerdas'
is nothing you can do,' he said doubtfully.
`The body can't be touched until we get the coroner here from Black
Hawk, and that will be a matter of several days, this weather.'
I can take them some victuals, anyway, and say a word of comfort to them
poor little girls. The oldest
one was his darling, and was like a right hand to him.
He might have thought of her. He's left her alone in a hard world.'
She glanced distrustfully at Ambrosch, who was now eating his
breakfast at the kitchen table.
although he had been up in the cold nearly all night, was going to make the
long ride to Black Hawk to fetch the priest and the coroner. On the grey
gelding, our best horse, he would try to pick his way across the country
with no roads to guide him.
you worry about me, Mrs. Burden,' he said cheerfully, as he put on a second
pair of socks. `I've got a good
nose for directions, and I never did need much sleep. It's the grey I'm
worried about. I'll save him
what I can, but it'll strain him, as sure as I'm telling you!'
is no time to be over-considerate of animals, Otto; do the best you can for
yourself. Stop at the Widow
Steavens's for dinner. She's a good woman, and she'll do well by you.'
Fuchs rode away, I was left with Ambrosch. I saw a side of him I had not
seen before. He was deeply,
even slavishly, devout. He did
not say a word all morning, but sat with his rosary in his hands, praying,
now silently, now aloud. He
never looked away from his beads, nor lifted his hands except to cross
himself. Several times the poor
boy fell asleep where he sat, wakened with a start, and began to pray again.
wagon could be got to the Shimerdas' until a road was broken, and that would
be a day's job. Grandfather
came from the barn on one of our big black horses, and Jake lifted
grandmother up behind him. She wore her black hood and was bundled up in
shawls. Grandfather tucked his bushy white beard inside his overcoat. They
looked very Biblical as they set off, I thought. Jake and Ambrosch followed
them, riding the other black and my pony, carrying bundles of clothes that
we had got together for Mrs. Shimerda.
I watched them go past the pond and over the hill by the drifted
cornfield. Then, for the first
time, I realized that I was alone in the house.
felt a considerable extension of power and authority, and was anxious to
acquit myself creditably. I
carried in cobs and wood from the long cellar, and filled both the stoves. I
remembered that in the hurry and excitement of the morning nobody had
thought of the chickens, and the eggs had not been gathered. Going out
through the tunnel, I gave the hens their corn, emptied the ice from their
drinking-pan, and filled it with water. After the cat had had his milk, I
could think of nothing else to do, and I sat down to get warm. The quiet was delightful, and the ticking clock was the most
pleasant of companions. I got `Robinson Crusoe' and tried to read, but his
life on the island seemed dull compared with ours.
Presently, as I looked with satisfaction about our comfortable
sitting-room, it flashed upon me that if Mr. Shimerda's soul were lingering
about in this world at all, it would be here, in our house, which had been
more to his liking than any other in the neighbourhood. I remembered his
contented face when he was with us on Christmas Day. If he could have lived
with us, this terrible thing would never have happened.
knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered
whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to his
own country. I thought of how
far it was to Chicago, and then to Virginia, to Baltimore--and then the
great wintry ocean. No, he
would not at once set out upon that long journey.
Surely, his exhausted spirit, so tired of cold and crowding and the
struggle with the ever-falling snow, was resting now in this quiet house.
was not frightened, but I made no noise.
I did not wish to disturb him. I went softly down to the kitchen
which, tucked away so snugly underground, always seemed to me the heart and
centre of the house. There, on
the bench behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda.
Outside I could hear the wind singing over hundreds of miles of snow.
It was as if I had let the old man in out of the tormenting winter,
and were sitting there with him. I went over all that Antonia had ever told
me about his life before he came to this country; how he used to play the
fiddle at weddings and dances. I thought about the friends he had mourned to
leave, the trombone-player, the great forest full of game--belonging, as
Antonia said, to the `nobles'-- from which she and her mother used to steal
wood on moonlight nights. There was a white hart that lived in that forest,
and if anyone killed it, he would be hanged, she said.
Such vivid pictures came to me that they might have been Mr.
Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out from the air in which they had
had begun to grow dark when my household returned, and grandmother was so
tired that she went at once to bed. Jake and I got supper, and while we were
washing the dishes he told me in loud whispers about the state of things
over at the Shimerdas'. Nobody could touch the body until the coroner came.
If anyone did, something terrible would happen, apparently. The dead man was
frozen through, `just as stiff as a dressed turkey you hang out to freeze,'
Jake said. The horses and oxen
would not go into the barn until he was frozen so hard that there was no
longer any smell of blood. They
were stabled there now, with the dead man, because there was no other place
to keep them. A lighted lantern was kept hanging over Mr. Shimerda's head.
Antonia and Ambrosch and the mother took turns going down to pray beside
him. The crazy boy went with
them, because he did not feel the cold.
I believed he felt cold as much as anyone else, but he liked to be
thought insensible to it. He was always coveting distinction, poor Marek!
Jake said, showed more human feeling than he would have supposed him capable
of, but he was chiefly concerned about getting a priest, and about his
father's soul, which he believed was in a place of torment and would remain
there until his family and the priest had prayed a great deal for him. `As I
understand it,' Jake concluded, `it will be a matter of years to pray his
soul out of Purgatory, and right now he's in torment.'
don't believe it,' I said stoutly. `I almost know it isn't true.'
I did not, of course, say that I believed he had been in that very
kitchen all afternoon, on his way back to his own country.
Nevertheless, after I went to bed, this idea of punishment and
Purgatory came back on me crushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in
torment, and shuddered. But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he
had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer.
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