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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
SATURDAY AMBROSCH drove up to the back gate, and Antonia jumped down from
the wagon and ran into our kitchen just as she used to do. She was wearing
shoes and stockings, and was breathless and excited. She gave me a playful
shake by the shoulders. `You
ain't forget about me, Jim?'
kissed her. `God bless you,
child! Now you've come, you
must try to do right and be a credit to us.'
looked eagerly about the house and admired everything. `Maybe I be the
kind of girl you like better; now I come to town,' she suggested
good it was to have Antonia near us again; to see her every day and almost
every night! Her greatest
fault, Mrs. Harling found, was that she so often stopped her work and fell
to playing with the children. She
would race about the orchard with us, or take sides in our hay-fights in
the barn, or be the old bear that came down from the mountain and carried
off Nina. Tony learned English so quickly that by the time school began
she could speak as well as any of us.
was jealous of Tony's admiration for Charley Harling. Because he was always
first in his classes at school, and could mend the water-pipes or the
doorbell and take the clock to pieces, she seemed to think him a sort of
prince. Nothing that Charley wanted was too much trouble for her. She loved
to put up lunches for him when he went hunting, to mend his ball-gloves and
sew buttons on his shooting-coat, baked the kind of nut-cake he liked, and
fed his setter dog when he was away on trips with his father. Antonia had made herself cloth working-slippers out of Mr.
Harling's old coats, and in these she went padding about after Charley,
fairly panting with eagerness to please him.
to Charley, I think she loved Nina best.
Nina was only six, and she was rather more complex than the other
children. She was fanciful, had all sorts of unspoken preferences, and was
easily offended. At the
slightest disappointment or displeasure, her velvety brown eyes filled with
tears, and she would lift her chin and walk silently away. If we ran after
her and tried to appease her, it did no good. She walked on unmollified.
I used to think that no eyes in the world could grow so large or hold
so many tears as Nina's. Mrs. Harling and Antonia invariably took her part.
We were never given a chance to explain.
The charge was simply: `You have made Nina cry.
Now, Jimmy can go home, and Sally must get her arithmetic.'
I liked Nina, too; she was so quaint and unexpected, and her eyes
were lovely; but I often wanted to shake her.
had jolly evenings at the Harlings' when the father was away. If he was at
home, the children had to go to bed early, or they came over to my house to
play. Mr. Harling not only
demanded a quiet house, he demanded all his wife's attention. He used to
take her away to their room in the west ell, and talk over his business with
her all evening. Though we did not realize it then, Mrs. Harling was our
audience when we played, and we always looked to her for suggestions.
Nothing flattered one like her quick laugh.
Harling had a desk in his bedroom, and his own easy-chair by the window, in
which no one else ever sat. On the nights when he was at home, I could see
his shadow on the blind, and it seemed to me an arrogant shadow. Mrs.
Harling paid no heed to anyone else if he was there. Before he went to bed
she always got him a lunch of smoked salmon or anchovies and beer.
He kept an alcohol lamp in his room, and a French coffee-pot, and his
wife made coffee for him at any hour of the night he happened to want it.
Most Black Hawk fathers had no personal habits outside their domestic
ones; they paid the bills, pushed the baby-carriage after office hours,
moved the sprinkler about over the lawn, and took the family driving on
Sunday. Mr. Harling, therefore, seemed to me autocratic and imperial
in his ways. He walked, talked, put on his gloves, shook hands, like a man
who felt that he had power. He
was not tall, but he carried his head so haughtily that he looked a
commanding figure, and there was something daring and challenging in his
eyes. I used to imagine that the ,nobles' of whom Antonia was always talking
probably looked very much like Christian Harling, wore caped overcoats like
his, and just such a glittering diamond upon the little finger.
when the father was at home, the Harling house was never quiet. Mrs. Harling
and Nina and Antonia made as much noise as a houseful of children, and there
was usually somebody at the piano. Julia
was the only one who was held down to regular hours of practising, but they
all played. When Frances came home at noon, she played until dinner was
ready. When Sally got back from school, she sat down in her hat and coat and
drummed the plantation melodies that Negro minstrel troupes brought to town.
Even Nina played the Swedish Wedding March.
Harling had studied the piano under a good teacher, and somehow she managed
to practise every day. I soon learned that if I were sent over on an errand
and found Mrs. Harling at the piano, I must sit down and wait quietly until
she turned to me. I can see her
at this moment: her short, square person planted firmly on the stool, her
little fat hands moving quickly and neatly over the keys, her eyes fixed on
the music with intelligent concentration.
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