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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
OFTEN SAID THAT if she had to live in town, she thanked God she lived next
the Harlings. They had been
farming people, like ourselves, and their place was like a little farm,
with a big barn and a garden, and an orchard and grazing lots--even a
windmill. The Harlings were Norwegians, and Mrs. Harling had lived in
Christiania until she was ten years old.
Her husband was born in Minnesota. He was a grain merchant and
cattle-buyer, and was generally considered the most enterprising business
man in our county. He controlled a line of grain elevators in the little
towns along the railroad to the west of us, and was away from home a great
deal. In his absence his wife was the head of the household.
Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house.
Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt
the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright,
twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin.
She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the
depths of her soul. How well I remember her laugh; it had in it the same
sudden recognition that flashed into her eyes, was a burst of humour,
short and intelligent. Her
rapid footsteps shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and
indifference wherever she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory
about anything. Her enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes,
asserted themselves in all the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was
interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings'. Preserving-time was a
prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution.
When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir
of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from
of the Harling children were near me in age.
Charley, the only son-- they had lost an older boy--was sixteen;
Julia, who was known as the musical one, was fourteen when I was; and
Sally, the tomboy with short hair, was a year younger.
She was nearly as strong as I, and uncannily clever at all boys'
sports. Sally was a wild
thing, with sunburned yellow hair, bobbed about her ears, and a brown
skin, for she never wore a hat. She raced all over town on one roller
skate, often cheated at `keeps,' but was such a quick shot one couldn't
catch her at it.
grown-up daughter, Frances, was a very important person in our world. She
was her father's chief clerk, and virtually managed his Black Hawk office
during his frequent absences. Because
of her unusual business ability, he was stern and exacting with her.
He paid her a good salary, but she had few holidays and never got
away from her responsibilities. Even on Sundays she went to the office to
open the mail and read the markets. With Charley, who was not interested
in business, but was already preparing for Annapolis, Mr. Harling was very
indulgent; bought him guns and tools and electric batteries, and never
asked what he did with them.
was dark, like her father, and quite as tall. In winter she wore a sealskin
coat and cap, and she and Mr. Harling used to walk home together in the
evening, talking about grain-cars and cattle, like two men.
Sometimes she came over to see grandfather after supper, and her
visits flattered him. More than once they put their wits together to rescue
some unfortunate farmer from the clutches of Wick Cutter, the Black Hawk
money-lender. Grandfather said Frances Harling was as good a judge of
credits as any banker in the county. The two or three men who had tried to
take advantage of her in a deal acquired celebrity by their defeat.
She knew every farmer for miles about:
how much land he had under cultivation, how many cattle he was
feeding, what his liabilities were. Her interest in these people was more
than a business interest. She carried them all in her mind as if they were
characters in a book or a play.
Frances drove out into the country on business, she would go miles out of
her way to call on some of the old people, or to see the women who seldom
got to town. She was quick at understanding the grandmothers who spoke no
English, and the most reticent and distrustful of them would tell her their
story without realizing they were doing so. She went to country funerals and
weddings in all weathers. A farmer's daughter who was to be married could
count on a wedding present from Frances Harling.
August the Harlings' Danish cook had to leave them. Grandmother entreated
them to try Antonia. She
cornered Ambrosch the next time he came to town, and pointed out to him that
any connection with Christian Harling would strengthen his credit and be of
advantage to him. One Sunday Mrs. Harling took the long ride out to the
Shimerdas' with Frances. She
said she wanted to see `what the girl came from' and to have a clear
understanding with her mother. I was in our yard when they came driving
home, just before sunset. They laughed and waved to me as they passed, and I
could see they were in great good humour.
After supper, when grandfather set off to church, grandmother and I
took my short cut through the willow hedge and went over to hear about the
visit to the Shimerdas'.
found Mrs. Harling with Charley and Sally on the front porch, resting after
her hard drive. Julia was in
the hammock-- she was fond of repose--and Frances was at the piano, playing
without a light and talking to her mother through the open window.
Harling laughed when she saw us coming.
`I expect you left your dishes on the table tonight, Mrs. Burden,'
she called. Frances shut the piano and came out to join us.
had liked Antonia from their first glimpse of her; felt they knew exactly
what kind of girl she was. As for Mrs. Shimerda, they found her very
amusing. Mrs. Harling chuckled whenever she spoke of her.
`I expect I am more at home with that sort of bird than you are, Mrs.
Burden. They're a pair, Ambrosch and that old woman!'
had had a long argument with Ambrosch about Antonia's allowance for clothes
and pocket-money. It was his plan that every cent of his sister's wages
should be paid over to him each month, and he would provide her with such
clothing as he thought necessary. When Mrs. Harling told him firmly that she
would keep fifty dollars a year for Antonia's own use, he declared they
wanted to take his sister to town and dress her up and make a fool of her.
Mrs. Harling gave us a lively account of Ambrosch's behaviour throughout the
interview; how he kept jumping up and putting on his cap as if he were
through with the whole business, and how his mother tweaked his coat-tail
and prompted him in Bohemian. Mrs. Harling finally agreed to pay three
dollars a week for Antonia's services--good wages in those days--and to keep
her in shoes. There had been
hot dispute about the shoes, Mrs. Shimerda finally saying persuasively that
she would send Mrs. Harling three fat geese every year to `make even.'
Ambrosch was to bring his sister to town next Saturday.
be awkward and rough at first, like enough,' grandmother said anxiously,
`but unless she's been spoiled by the hard life she's led, she has it in her
to be a real helpful girl.'
Harling laughed her quick, decided laugh.
`Oh, I'm not worrying, Mrs. Burden!
I can bring something out of that girl. She's barely seventeen, not
too old to learn new ways. She's good-looking, too!' she added warmly.
turned to grandmother. `Oh,
yes, Mrs. Burden, you didn't tell us that!
She was working in the garden when we got there, barefoot and ragged.
But she has such fine brown legs and arms, and splendid colour in her
cheeks--like those big dark red plums.'
were pleased at this praise. Grandmother
spoke feelingly. `When she first came to this country, Frances, and had that
genteel old man to watch over her, she was as pretty a girl as ever I saw.
But, dear me, what a life she's led, out in the fields with those
rough threshers! Things would have been very different with poor Antonia if
her father had lived.'
Harlings begged us to tell them about Mr. Shimerda's death and the big
snowstorm. By the time we saw
grandfather coming home from church, we had told them pretty much all we
knew of the Shimerdas.
girl will be happy here, and she'll forget those things,' said Mrs. Harling
confidently, as we rose to take our leave.
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