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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
HARLING CHILDREN and I were never happier, never felt more contented and
secure, than in the weeks of spring which broke that long winter. We were
out all day in the thin sunshine, helping Mrs. Harling and Tony break the
ground and plant the garden, dig around the orchard trees, tie up vines
and clip the hedges. Every
morning, before I was up, I could hear Tony singing in the garden rows.
After the apple and cherry trees broke into bloom, we ran about
under them, hunting for the new nests the birds were building, throwing
clods at each other, and playing hide-and-seek with Nina. Yet the summer
which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and
girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of
country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is
what their elders are always forgetting.
must have been in June, for Mrs. Harling and Antonia were preserving
cherries, when I stopped one morning to tell them that a dancing pavilion
had come to town. I had seen two drays hauling the canvas and painted
poles up from the depot.
afternoon three cheerful-looking Italians strolled about Black Hawk,
looking at everything, and with them was a dark, stout woman who wore a
long gold watch-chain about her neck and carried a black lace parasol.
They seemed especially interested in children and vacant lots.
When I overtook them and stopped to say a word, I found them
affable and confiding. They told me they worked in Kansas City in the
winter, and in summer they went out among the farming towns with their
tent and taught dancing. When business fell off in one place, they moved
on to another.
dancing pavilion was put up near the Danish laundry, on a vacant lot
surrounded by tall, arched cottonwood trees. It was very much like a
merry-go-round tent, with open sides and gay flags flying from the poles.
Before the week was over, all the ambitious mothers were sending their
children to the afternoon dancing class. At three o'clock one met little
girls in white dresses and little boys in the round-collared shirts of the
time, hurrying along the sidewalk on their way to the tent. Mrs. Vanni
received them at the entrance, always dressed in lavender with a great deal
of black lace, her important watch-chain lying on her bosom.
She wore her hair on the top of her head, built up in a black tower,
with red coral combs. When she smiled, she showed two rows of strong,
crooked yellow teeth. She taught the little children herself, and her
husband, the harpist, taught the older ones.
the mothers brought their fancywork and sat on the shady side of the tent
during the lesson. The popcorn
man wheeled his glass wagon under the big cottonwood by the door, and
lounged in the sun, sure of a good trade when the dancing was over.
Mr. Jensen, the Danish laundryman, used to bring a chair from his
porch and sit out in the grass plot. Some
ragged little boys from the depot sold pop and iced lemonade under a white
umbrella at the corner, and made faces at the spruce youngsters who came to
dance. That vacant lot soon became the most cheerful place in town. Even on
the hottest afternoons the cottonwoods made a rustling shade, and the air
smelled of popcorn and melted butter, and Bouncing Bets wilting in the sun.
Those hardy flowers had run away from the laundryman's garden, and
the grass in the middle of the lot was pink with them.
Vannis kept exemplary order, and closed every evening at the hour suggested
by the city council. When Mrs.
Vanni gave the signal, and the harp struck up `Home, Sweet Home,' all Black
Hawk knew it was ten o'clock. You could set your watch by that tune as
confidently as by the roundhouse whistle.
last there was something to do in those long, empty summer evenings, when
the married people sat like images on their front porches, and the boys and
girls tramped and tramped the board sidewalks-- northward to the edge of the
open prairie, south to the depot, then back again to the post-office, the
ice-cream parlour, the butcher shop. Now there was a place where the girls
could wear their new dresses, and where one could laugh aloud without being
reproved by the ensuing silence. That
silence seemed to ooze out of the ground, to hang under the foliage of the
black maple trees with the bats and shadows. Now it was broken by lighthearted sounds. First the deep
purring of Mr. Vanni's harp came in silvery ripples through the blackness of
the dusty-smelling night; then the violins fell in--one of them was almost
like a flute. They called so
archly, so seductively, that our feet hurried toward the tent of themselves.
Why hadn't we had a tent before?
became popular now, just as roller skating had been the summer before.
The Progressive Euchre Club arranged with the Vannis for the
exclusive use of the floor on Tuesday and Friday nights. At other times
anyone could dance who paid his money and was orderly; the railroad men, the
roundhouse mechanics, the delivery boys, the iceman, the farm-hands who
lived near enough to ride into town after their day's work was over.
never missed a Saturday night dance. The tent was open until midnight then. The country boys came in from farms eight and ten miles away,
and all the country girls were on the floor--Antonia and Lena and Tiny, and
the Danish laundry girls and their friends. I was not the only boy who found
these dances gayer than the others. The young men who belonged to the
Progressive Euchre Club used to drop in late and risk a tiff with their
sweethearts and general condemnation for a waltz with `the hired girls.'
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