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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book II: The Hired Girls

Chapter I

 

I HAD BEEN LIVING with my grandfather for nearly three years when he decided to move to Black Hawk.  He and grandmother were getting old for the heavy work of a farm, and as I was now thirteen they thought I ought to be going to school. Accordingly our homestead was rented to `that good woman, the Widow Steavens,' and her bachelor brother, and we bought Preacher White's house, at the north end of Black Hawk. This was the first town house one passed driving in from the farm, a landmark which told country people their long ride was over.

 

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We were to move to Black Hawk in March, and as soon as grandfather had fixed the date he let Jake and Otto know of his intention. Otto said he would not be likely to find another place that suited him so well; that he was tired of farming and thought he would go back to what he called the `wild West.' Jake Marpole, lured by Otto's stories of adventure, decided to go with him.  We did our best to dissuade Jake. He was so handicapped by illiteracy and by his trusting disposition that he would be an easy prey to sharpers. Grandmother begged him to stay among kindly, Christian people, where he was known; but there was no reasoning with him. He wanted to be a prospector.  He thought a silver mine was waiting for him in Colorado.

 

Jake and Otto served us to the last.  They moved us into town, put down the carpets in our new house, made shelves and cupboards for grandmother's kitchen, and seemed loath to leave us. But at last they went, without warning.  Those two fellows had been faithful to us through sun and storm, had given us things that cannot be bought in any market in the world. With me they had been like older brothers; had restrained their speech and manners out of care for me, and given me so much good comradeship.  Now they got on the westbound train one morning, in their Sunday clothes, with their oilcloth valises--and I never saw them again.  Months afterward we got a card from Otto, saying that Jake had been down with mountain fever, but now they were both working in the Yankee Girl Mine, and were doing well. I wrote to them at that address, but my letter was returned to me, `Unclaimed.' After that we never heard from them.

   

Black Hawk, the new world in which we had come to live, was a clean, well-planted little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the wooden sidewalks. In the centre of the town there were two rows of new brick `store' buildings, a brick schoolhouse, the court-house, and four white churches.  Our own house looked down over the town, and from our upstairs windows we could see the winding line of the river bluffs, two miles south of us. That river was to be my compensation for the lost freedom of the farming country.

 

We came to Black Hawk in March, and by the end of April we felt like town people.  Grandfather was a deacon in the new Baptist Church, grandmother was busy with church suppers and missionary societies, and I was quite another boy, or thought I was.  Suddenly put down among boys of my own age, I found I had a great deal to learn. Before the spring term of school was over, I could fight, play `keeps,' tease the little girls, and use forbidden words as well as any boy in my class. I was restrained from utter savagery only by the fact that Mrs. Harling, our nearest neighbour, kept an eye on me, and if my behaviour went beyond certain bounds I was not permitted to come into her yard or to play with her jolly children.

 

We saw more of our country neighbours now than when we lived on the farm. Our house was a convenient stopping-place for them.  We had a big barn where the farmers could put up their teams, and their womenfolk more often accompanied them, now that they could stay with us for dinner, and rest and set their bonnets right before they went shopping. The more our house was like a country hotel, the better I liked it. I was glad, when I came home from school at noon, to see a farm-wagon standing in the back yard, and I was always ready to run downtown to get beefsteak or baker's bread for unexpected company. All through that first spring and summer I kept hoping that Ambrosch would bring Antonia and Yulka to see our new house. I wanted to show them our red plush furniture, and the trumpet-blowing cherubs the German paperhanger had put on our parlour ceiling.

 

When Ambrosch came to town, however, he came alone, and though he put his horses in our barn, he would never stay for dinner, or tell us anything about his mother and sisters.  If we ran out and questioned him as he was slipping through the yard, he would merely work his shoulders about in his coat and say, `They all right, I guess.'

 

Mrs. Steavens, who now lived on our farm, grew as fond of Antonia as we had been, and always brought us news of her.  All through the wheat season, she told us, Ambrosch hired his sister out like a man, and she went from farm to farm, binding sheaves or working with the threshers. The farmers liked her and were kind to her; said they would rather have her for a hand than Ambrosch.  When fall came she was to husk corn for the neighbours until Christmas, as she had done the year before; but grandmother saved her from this by getting her a place to work with our neighbours, the Harlings.

 

 


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