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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk.
All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up
country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every
case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for
the younger children of the family to go to school.
girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little
schooling themselves. But the
younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who
have had `advantages,' never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as
interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up
the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers
and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made
observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black
Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something
unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a
race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they
got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive
carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black
was before the day of high-school athletics. Girls who had to walk more than
half a mile to school were pitied. There was not a tennis-court in the town;
physical exercise was thought rather inelegant for the daughters of
well-to-do families. Some of the high-school girls were jolly and pretty,
but they stayed indoors in winter because of the cold, and in summer because
of the heat. When one danced with them, their bodies never moved inside
their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing--not to be
disturbed. I remember those girls merely as faces in the schoolroom, gay and
rosy, or listless and dull, cut off below the shoulders, like cherubs, by
the ink-smeared tops of the high desks that were surely put there to make us
round-shouldered and hollow-chested.
daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, unenquiring belief that
they were `refined,' and that the country girls, who `worked out,' were not.
The American farmers in our county were quite as hard-pressed as
their neighbours from other countries. All alike had come to Nebraska with
little capital and no knowledge of the soil they must subdue.
All had borrowed money on their land. But no matter in what straits
the Pennsylvanian or Virginian found himself, he would not let his daughters
go out into service. Unless his girls could teach a country school, they sat
at home in poverty.
Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers, because
they had had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to help in the
struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go
into service. Some of them,
after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behaviour as
they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father's farm.
Others, like the three Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years
of youth they had lost. But
every one of them did what she had set out to do, and sent home those
hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs
and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten.
result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county
were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of debt, the
daughters married the sons of neighbours--usually of like nationality-- and
the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big
farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the
children of the town women they used to serve.
thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I
told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a clergyman, and
much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly.
What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't
speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or
cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia's father.
Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they
were all Bohemians, all `hired girls.'
always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into
their own, and I have. To-day
the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell
provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that
first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the
Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a
brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and
hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would
look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's bank,
and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her
slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and
country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty
shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers
need have felt no alarm. They
mistook the mettle of their sons. The
respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.
young man of position was like the son of a royal house; the boy who swept
out his office or drove his delivery wagon might frolic with the jolly
country girls, but he himself must sit all evening in a plush parlour where
conversation dragged so perceptibly that the father often came in and made
blundering efforts to warm up the atmosphere. On his way home from his dull
call, he would perhaps meet Tony and Lena, coming along the sidewalk
whispering to each other, or the three Bohemian Marys in their long plush
coats and caps, comporting themselves with a dignity that only made their
eventful histories the more piquant. If he went to the hotel to see a
travelling man on business, there was Tiny, arching her shoulders at him
like a kitten. If he went into the laundry to get his collars, there were
the four Danish girls, smiling up from their ironing-boards, with their
white throats and their pink cheeks.
three Marys were the heroines of a cycle of scandalous stories, which the
old men were fond of relating as they sat about the cigar-stand in the
drugstore. Mary Dusak had been
housekeeper for a bachelor rancher from Boston, and after several years in
his service she was forced to retire from the world for a short time. Later
she came back to town to take the place of her friend, Mary Svoboda, who was
similarly embarrassed. The
three Marys were considered as dangerous as high explosives to have about
the kitchen, yet they were such good cooks and such admirable housekeepers
that they never had to look for a place.
Vannis' tent brought the town boys and the country girls together on neutral
ground. Sylvester Lovett, who
was cashier in his father's bank, always found his way to the tent on
Saturday night. He took all the dances Lena Lingard would give him, and even
grew bold enough to walk home with her.
If his sisters or their friends happened to be among the onlookers on
`popular nights,' Sylvester stood back in the shadow under the cottonwood
trees, smoking and watching Lena with a harassed expression. Several times I
stumbled upon him there in the dark, and I felt rather sorry for him.
He reminded me of Ole Benson, who used to sit on the drawside and
watch Lena herd her cattle. Later in the summer, when Lena went home for a
week to visit her mother, I heard from Antonia that young Lovett drove all
the way out there to see her, and took her buggy-riding. In my ingenuousness
I hoped that Sylvester would marry Lena, and thus give all the country girls
a better position in the town.
dallied about Lena until he began to make mistakes in his work; had to stay
at the bank until after dark to make his books balance. He was daft about
her, and everyone knew it. To
escape from his predicament he ran away with a widow six years older than
himself, who owned a half-section. This remedy worked, apparently.
He never looked at Lena again, nor lifted his eyes as he
ceremoniously tipped his hat when he happened to meet her on the sidewalk.
that was what they were like, I thought, these white-handed, high-collared
clerks and bookkeepers! I used
to glare at young Lovett from a distance and only wished I had some way of
showing my contempt for him.
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