|Table of Contents|
Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
COMES DOWN SAVAGELY over a little town on the prairie. The wind that
sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that
hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer
together. The roofs, that
looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face,
and they are so much uglier than when their angles were softened by vines
the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I
couldn't see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late
afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to
me. The pale, cold light of
the winter sunset did not beautify--it was like the light of truth itself.
When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down
behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts,
then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: `This is reality, whether you like it or not.
All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living
mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is
what was underneath. This is the truth.'
It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of
I loitered on the playground after school, or went to the post-office for
the mail and lingered to hear the gossip about the cigar-stand, it would
be growing dark by the time I came home. The sun was gone; the frozen streets stretched long and blue
before me; the lights were shining pale in kitchen windows, and I could
smell the suppers cooking as I passed.
Few people were abroad, and each one of them was hurrying toward a
fire. The glowing stoves in
the houses were like magnets. When one passed an old man, one could see
nothing of his face but a red nose sticking out between a frosted beard
and a long plush cap. The young men capered along with their hands in
their pockets, and sometimes tried a slide on the icy sidewalk.
The children, in their bright hoods and comforters, never walked,
but always ran from the moment they left their door, beating their mittens
against their sides. When I got as far as the Methodist Church, I was
about halfway home. I can remember how glad I was when there happened to
be a light in the church, and the painted glass window shone out at us as
we came along the frozen street. In
the winter bleakness a hunger for colour came over people, like the
Laplander's craving for fats and sugar. Without knowing why, we used to
linger on the sidewalk outside the church when the lamps were lighted
early for choir practice or prayer-meeting, shivering and talking until
our feet were like lumps of ice. The crude reds and greens and blues of
that coloured glass held us there.
winter nights, the lights in the Harlings' windows drew me like the painted
glass. Inside that warm, roomy
house there was colour, too. After supper I used to catch up my cap, stick
my hands in my pockets, and dive through the willow hedge as if witches were
after me. Of course, if Mr. Harling was at home, if his shadow stood out on
the blind of the west room, I did not go in, but turned and walked home by
the long way, through the street, wondering what book I should read as I sat
down with the two old people.
disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted charades,
or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always dressed like a
boy. Frances taught us to dance
that winter, and she said, from the first lesson, that Antonia would make
the best dancer among us. On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the
old operas for us--'Martha,' `Norma,' `Rigoletto'--telling us the story
while she played. Every
Saturday night was like a party. The parlour, the back parlour, and the
dining-room were warm and brightly lighted, with comfortable chairs and
sofas, and gay pictures on the walls. One
always felt at ease there. Antonia brought her sewing and sat with us--she
was already beginning to make pretty clothes for herself. After the long
winter evenings on the prairie, with Ambrosch's sullen silences and her
mother's complaints, the Harlings' house seemed, as she said, `like Heaven'
to her. She was never too tired to make taffy or chocolate cookies for us.
If Sally whispered in her ear, or Charley gave her three winks, Tony would
rush into the kitchen and build a fire in the range on which she had already
cooked three meals that day.
we sat in the kitchen waiting for the cookies to bake or the taffy to cool,
Nina used to coax Antonia to tell her stories--about the calf that broke its
leg, or how Yulka saved her little turkeys from drowning in the freshet, or
about old Christmases and weddings in Bohemia. Nina interpreted the stories
about the creche fancifully, and in spite of our derision she cherished a
belief that Christ was born in Bohemia a short time before the Shimerdas
left that country. We all liked
Tony's stories. Her voice had a
peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky, and one always
heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said seemed to come
right out of her heart.
evening when we were picking out kernels for walnut taffy, Tony told us a
Harling, did you ever hear about what happened up in the Norwegian
settlement last summer, when I was threshing there? We were at Iversons',
and I was driving one of the grain-wagons.'
Harling came out and sat down among us.
`Could you throw the wheat into the bin yourself, Tony?'
She knew what heavy work it was.
ma'm, I did. I could shovel
just as fast as that fat Andern boy that drove the other wagon.
One day it was just awful hot. When we got back to the field from
dinner, we took things kind of easy. The
men put in the horses and got the machine going, and Ole Iverson was up on
the deck, cutting bands. I was
sitting against a straw-stack, trying to get some shade.
My wagon wasn't going out first, and somehow I felt the heat awful
that day. The sun was so hot like it was going to burn the world up. After a
while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it
was a tramp. His toes stuck out
of his shoes, and he hadn't shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful
red and wild, like he had some sickness. He comes right up and begins to
talk like he knows me already. He says:
`The ponds in this country is done got so low a man couldn't drownd
himself in one of 'em.'
told him nobody wanted to drownd themselves, but if we didn't have rain soon
we'd have to pump water for the cattle.
cattle," he says, "you'll all take care of your cattle! Ain't you
got no beer here?" I told
him he'd have to go to the Bohemians for beer; the Norwegians didn't have
none when they threshed. "My God!" he says, "so it's
Norwegians now, is it? I
thought this was Americy."
he goes up to the machine and yells out to Ole Iverson, "Hello,
partner, let me up there. I can
cut bands, and I'm tired of trampin'. I won't go no farther."
tried to make signs to Ole, 'cause I thought that man was crazy and might
get the machine stopped up. But Ole, he was glad to get down out of the sun
and chaff-- it gets down your neck and sticks to you something awful when
it's hot like that. So Ole
jumped down and crawled under one of the wagons for shade, and the tramp got
on the machine. He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs.
Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the
threshing machine after the wheat.
begun to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had sucked
him down, and by the time they got her stopped, he was all beat and cut to
pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out, and the
machine ain't never worked right since.'
he clear dead, Tony?' we cried.
he dead? Well, I guess so!
There, now, Nina's all upset. We won't talk about it.
Don't you cry, Nina. No
old tramp won't get you while Tony's here.'
Harling spoke up sternly. `Stop
crying, Nina, or I'll always send you upstairs when Antonia tells us about
the country. Did they never find out where he came from, Antonia?'
ma'm. He hadn't been seen nowhere except in a little town they call Conway.
He tried to get beer there, but there wasn't any saloon. Maybe he
came in on a freight, but the brakeman hadn't seen him. They couldn't find
no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket and
the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some poetry.'
poetry?' we exclaimed.
remember,' said Frances. `It
was "The Old Oaken Bucket," cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn
out. Ole Iverson brought it
into the office and showed it to me.'
wasn't that strange, Miss Frances?' Tony
asked thoughtfully. `What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer
for? In threshing time, too! It's
nice everywhere then.'
it is, Antonia,' said Mrs. Harling heartily.
`Maybe I'll go home and help you thresh next summer.
Isn't that taffy nearly ready to eat? I've been smelling it a long
was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong,
independent natures, both of them. They
knew what they liked, and were not always trying to imitate other people.
They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging
in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat
it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They
ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep
down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life,
not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I
was distinctly conscious of it. I could not imagine Antonia's living for a
week in any other house in Black Hawk than the Harlings'.
|Table of Contents|