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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book II: The Hired Girls

Chapter V

 

AFTER LENA CAME To Black Hawk, I often met her downtown, where she would be matching sewing silk or buying `findings' for Mrs. Thomas. If I happened to walk home with her, she told me all about the dresses she was helping to make, or about what she saw and heard when she was with Tiny Soderball at the hotel on Saturday nights.

 

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The Boys' Home was the best hotel on our branch of the Burlington, and all the commercial travellers in that territory tried to get into Black Hawk for Sunday.  They used to assemble in the parlour after supper on Saturday nights.  Marshall Field's man, Anson Kirkpatrick, played the piano and sang all the latest sentimental songs. After Tiny had helped the cook wash the dishes, she and Lena sat on the other side of the double doors between the parlour and the dining-room, listening to the music and giggling at the jokes and stories. Lena often said she hoped I would be a travelling man when I grew up. They had a gay life of it; nothing to do but ride about on trains all day and go to theatres when they were in big cities. Behind the hotel there was an old store building, where the salesmen opened their big trunks and spread out their samples on the counters. The Black Hawk merchants went to look at these things and order goods, and Mrs. Thomas, though she was I retail trade,' was permitted to see them and to `get ideas.'  They were all generous, these travelling men; they gave Tiny Soderball handkerchiefs and gloves and ribbons and striped stockings, and so many bottles of perfume and cakes of scented soap that she bestowed some of them on Lena.

 

One afternoon in the week before Christmas, I came upon Lena and her funny, square-headed little brother Chris, standing before the drugstore, gazing in at the wax dolls and blocks and Noah's Arks arranged in the frosty show window.  The boy had come to town with a neighbour to do his Christmas shopping, for he had money of his own this year. He was only twelve, but that winter he had got the job of sweeping out the Norwegian church and making the fire in it every Sunday morning. A cold job it must have been, too!

   

We went into Duckford's dry-goods store, and Chris unwrapped all his presents and showed them to me something for each of the six younger than himself, even a rubber pig for the baby. Lena had given him one of Tiny Soderball's bottles of perfume for his mother, and he thought he would get some handkerchiefs to go with it.  They were cheap, and he hadn't much money left. We found a tableful of handkerchiefs spread out for view at Duckford's. Chris wanted those with initial letters in the corner, because he had never seen any before. He studied them seriously, while Lena looked over his shoulder, telling him she thought the red letters would hold their colour best. He seemed so perplexed that I thought perhaps he hadn't enough money, after all.  Presently he said gravely:

 

`Sister, you know mother's name is Berthe.  I don't know if I ought to get B for Berthe, or M for Mother.'

 

Lena patted his bristly head.  `I'd get the B, Chrissy. It will please her for you to think about her name. Nobody ever calls her by it now.'

 

That satisfied him.  His face cleared at once, and he took three reds and three blues.  When the neighbour came in to say that it was time to start, Lena wound Chris's comforter about his neck and turned up his jacket collar--he had no overcoat-- and we watched him climb into the wagon and start on his long, cold drive.  As we walked together up the windy street, Lena wiped her eyes with the back of her woollen glove. `I get awful homesick for them, all the same,' she murmured, as if she were answering some remembered reproach.

 

 


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