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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book II: The Hired Girls
DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT I moved my books and desk upstairs, to an empty
room where I should be undisturbed, and I fell to studying in earnest. I
worked off a year's trigonometry that summer, and began Virgil alone.
Morning after morning I used to pace up and down my sunny little room,
looking off at the distant river bluffs and the roll of the blond pastures
between, scanning the `Aeneid' aloud and committing long passages to
memory. Sometimes in the
evening Mrs. Harling called to me as I passed her gate, and asked me to
come in and let her play for me. She was lonely for Charley, she said, and
liked to have a boy about. Whenever my grandparents had misgivings, and
began to wonder whether I was not too young to go off to college alone,
Mrs. Harling took up my cause vigorously.
Grandfather had such respect for her judgment that I knew he would
not go against her.
had only one holiday that summer. It was in July. I met Antonia downtown on Saturday afternoon,
and learned that she and Tiny and Lena were going to the river next day
with Anna Hansen--the elder was all in bloom now, and Anna wanted to make
to drive us down in the Marshalls' delivery wagon, and we'll take a nice
lunch and have a picnic. Just
us; nobody else. Couldn't you happen along, Jim?
It would be like old times.'
considered a moment. `Maybe I
can, if I won't be in the way.'
Sunday morning I rose early and got out of Black Hawk while the dew was
still heavy on the long meadow grasses. It was the high season for summer
flowers. The pink bee-bush stood tall along the sandy roadsides, and the
cone-flowers and rose mallow grew everywhere. Across the wire fence, in
the long grass, I saw a clump of flaming orange-coloured milkweed, rare in
that part of the state. I left the road and went around through a stretch
of pasture that was always cropped short in summer, where the gaillardia
came up year after year and matted over the ground with the deep, velvety
red that is in Bokhara carpets. The
country was empty and solitary except for the larks that Sunday morning,
and it seemed to lift itself up to me and to come very close.
river was running strong for midsummer; heavy rains to the west of us had
kept it full. I crossed the
bridge and went upstream along the wooded shore to a pleasant
dressing-room I knew among the dogwood bushes, all overgrown with wild
grapevines. I began to
undress for a swim. The girls would not be along yet.
For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for
that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean white beaches
and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings, were a sort
of No Man's Land, little newly created worlds that belonged to the Black
Hawk boys. Charley Harling and I had hunted through these woods, fished
from the fallen logs, until I knew every inch of the river shores and had
a friendly feeling for every bar and shallow.
my swim, while I was playing about indolently in the water, I heard the
sound of hoofs and wheels on the bridge. I struck downstream and shouted,
as the open spring wagon came into view on the middle span.
They stopped the horse, and the two girls in the bottom of the cart
stood up, steadying themselves by the shoulders of the two in front, so
that they could see me better. They were charming up there, huddled together in the cart and
peering down at me like curious deer when they come out of the thicket to
drink. I found bottom near the bridge and stood up, waving to them.
pretty you look!' I called.
do you!' they shouted altogether, and broke into peals of laughter. Anna
Hansen shook the reins and they drove on, while I zigzagged back to my inlet
and clambered up behind an overhanging elm. I dried myself in the sun, and
dressed slowly, reluctant to leave that green enclosure where the sunlight
flickered so bright through the grapevine leaves and the woodpecker hammered
away in the crooked elm that trailed out over the water. As I went along the
road back to the bridge, I kept picking off little pieces of scaly chalk
from the dried water gullies, and breaking them up in my hands.
I came upon the Marshalls' delivery horse, tied in the shade, the girls had
already taken their baskets and gone down the east road which wound through
the sand and scrub. I could hear them calling to each other.
The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the
bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots
were always in moisture and their tops in the sun. The blossoms were
unusually luxuriant and beautiful that summer.
followed a cattle path through the thick under-brush until I came to a slope
that fell away abruptly to the water's edge. A great chunk of the shore had
been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder
bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces.
I did not touch them. I
was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm silence about me.
There was no sound but the high, singsong buzz of wild bees and the sunny
gurgle of the water underneath. I
peeped over the edge of the bank to see the little stream that made the
noise; it flowed along perfectly clear over the sand and gravel, cut off
from the muddy main current by a long sandbar. Down there, on the lower
shelf of the bank, I saw Antonia, seated alone under the pagoda-like elders.
She looked up when she heard me, and smiled, but I saw that she had
been crying. I slid down into the soft sand beside her and asked her what
was the matter.
makes me homesick, Jimmy, this flower, this smell,' she said softly. `We
have this flower very much at home, in the old country. It always grew in
our yard and my papa had a green bench and a table under the bushes.
In summer, when they were in bloom, he used to sit there with his
friend that played the trombone. When I was little I used to go down there
to hear them talk-- beautiful talk, like what I never hear in this country.'
did they talk about?' I asked
sighed and shook her head. `Oh,
I don't know! About music, and
the woods, and about God, and when they were young.' She turned to me
suddenly and looked into my eyes. `You think, Jimmy, that maybe my father's
spirit can go back to those old places?'
told her about the feeling of her father's presence I had on that winter day
when my grandparents had gone over to see his dead body and I was left alone
in the house. I said I felt sure then that he was on his way back to his own
country, and that even now, when I passed his grave, I always thought of him
as being among the woods and fields that were so dear to him.
had the most trusting, responsive eyes in the world; love and credulousness
seemed to look out of them with open faces.
didn't you ever tell me that before? It
makes me feel more sure for him.' After
a while she said: `You know,
Jim, my father was different from my mother.
He did not have to marry my mother, and all his brothers quarrelled
with him because he did. I used to hear the old people at home whisper about
it. They said he could have paid my mother money, and not married her. But
he was older than she was, and he was too kind to treat her like that. He
lived in his mother's house, and she was a poor girl come in to do the work.
After my father married her, my grandmother never let my mother come
into her house again. When I
went to my grandmother's funeral was the only time I was ever in my
grandmother's house. Don't that seem strange?'
she talked, I lay back in the hot sand and looked up at the blue sky between
the flat bouquets of elder. I could hear the bees humming and singing, but they stayed up
in the sun above the flowers and did not come down into the shadow of the
leaves. Antonia seemed to me that day exactly like the little girl who used
to come to our house with Mr. Shimerda.
day, Tony, I am going over to your country, and I am going to the little
town where you lived. Do you remember all about it?'
she said earnestly, `if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I
could find my way all over that little town; and along the river to the next
town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths
through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you.
I ain't never forgot my own country.'
was a crackling in the branches above us, and Lena Lingard peered down over
the edge of the bank.
lazy things!' she cried. `All
this elder, and you two lying there! Didn't you hear us calling you?' Almost as flushed as she had
been in my dream, she leaned over the edge of the bank and began to demolish
our flowery pagoda. I had never seen her so energetic; she was panting with
zeal, and the perspiration stood in drops on her short, yielding upper lip.
I sprang to my feet and ran up the bank.
was noon now, and so hot that the dogwoods and scrub-oaks began to turn up
the silvery underside of their leaves, and all the foliage looked soft and
wilted. I carried the
lunch-basket to the top of one of the chalk bluffs, where even on the
calmest days there was always a breeze. The flat-topped, twisted little oaks
threw light shadows on the grass. Below
us we could see the windings of the river, and Black Hawk, grouped among its
trees, and, beyond, the rolling country, swelling gently until it met the
sky. We could recognize familiar farm-houses and windmills. Each of the
girls pointed out to me the direction in which her father's farm lay, and
told me how many acres were in wheat that year and how many in corn.
old folks,' said Tiny Soderball, `have put in twenty acres of rye. They get
it ground at the mill, and it makes nice bread. It seems like my mother
ain't been so homesick, ever since father's raised rye flour for her.'
must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, `coming out here and
having to do everything different. My mother had always lived in town.
She says she started behind in farm-work, and never has caught up.'
a new country's hard on the old ones, sometimes,' said Anna thoughtfully.
`My grandmother's getting feeble now, and her mind wanders.
She's forgot about this country, and thinks she's at home in Norway.
She keeps asking mother to take her down to the waterside and the
fish market. She craves fish all the time.
Whenever I go home I take her canned salmon and mackerel.'
it's hot!' Lena yawned.
She was supine under a little oak, resting after the fury of her
elder-hunting, and had taken off the high-heeled slippers she had been silly
enough to wear. `Come here, Jim. You
never got the sand out of your hair.' She began to draw her fingers slowly
through my hair.
pushed her away. `You'll never
get it out like that,' she said sharply.
She gave my head a rough touzling and finished me off with something
like a box on the ear. `Lena, you oughtn't to try to wear those slippers any
more. They're too small for your feet.
You'd better give them to me for Yulka.'
right,' said Lena good-naturedly, tucking her white stockings under her
skirt. `You get all Yulka's
things, don't you? I wish father didn't have such bad luck with his farm
machinery; then I could buy more things for my sisters.
I'm going to get Mary a new coat this fall, if the sulky plough's
never paid for!'
asked her why she didn't wait until after Christmas, when coats would be
cheaper. `What do you think of
poor me?' she added; `with six at home, younger than I am?
And they all think I'm rich, because when I go back to the country
I'm dressed so fine!' She shrugged her shoulders.
`But, you know, my weakness is playthings. I like to buy them
playthings better than what they need.'
know how that is,' said Anna. `When we first came here, and I was little, we were too poor
to buy toys. I never got over
the loss of a doll somebody gave me before we left Norway. A boy on the boat
broke her and I still hate him for it.'
guess after you got here you had plenty of live dolls to nurse, like me!'
Lena remarked cynically.
the babies came along pretty fast, to be sure.
But I never minded. I was fond of them all.
The youngest one, that we didn't any of us want, is the one we love
sighed. `Oh, the babies are all
right; if only they don't come in winter.
Ours nearly always did. I
don't see how mother stood it. I tell you what, girls'--she sat up with
sudden energy--'I'm going to get my mother out of that old sod house where
she's lived so many years. The men will never do it.
Johnnie, that's my oldest brother, he's wanting to get married now,
and build a house for his girl instead of his mother. Mrs. Thomas says she
thinks I can move to some other town pretty soon, and go into business for
myself. If I don't get into
business, I'll maybe marry a rich gambler.'
would be a poor way to get on,' said Anna sarcastically. `I wish I could
teach school, like Selma Kronn. Just think! She'll be the first Scandinavian girl to get a
position in the high school. We ought to be proud of her.'
was a studious girl, who had not much tolerance for giddy things like Tiny
and Lena; but they always spoke of her with admiration.
moved about restlessly, fanning herself with her straw hat. `If I was smart
like her, I'd be at my books day and night. But she was born smart--and look
how her father's trained her! He was something high up in the old country.'
was my mother's father,' murmured Lena, `but that's all the good it does us!
My father's father was smart, too, but he was wild. He married a
Lapp. I guess that's what's the matter with me; they say Lapp blood
real Lapp, Lena?' I exclaimed.
`The kind that wear skins?'
don't know if she wore skins, but she was a Lapps all right, and his folks
felt dreadful about it. He was
sent up North on some government job he had, and fell in with her. He would
I thought Lapland women were fat and ugly, and had squint eyes, like
Chinese?' I objected.
don't know, maybe. There must
be something mighty taking about the Lapp girls, though; mother says the
Norwegians up North are always afraid their boys will run after them.'
the afternoon, when the heat was less oppressive, we had a lively game of
`Pussy Wants a Corner,' on the flat bluff-top, with the little trees for
bases. Lena was Pussy so often
that she finally said she wouldn't play any more. We threw ourselves down on
the grass, out of breath.
Antonia said dreamily, `I want you to tell the girls about how the Spanish
first came here, like you and Charley Harling used to talk about. I've tried
to tell them, but I leave out so much.'
sat under a little oak, Tony resting against the trunk and the other girls
leaning against her and each other, and listened to the little I was able to
tell them about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden Cities. At
school we were taught that he had not got so far north as Nebraska, but had
given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas. But Charley Harling
and I had a strong belief that he had been along this very river.
A farmer in the county north of ours, when he was breaking sod, had
turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a Spanish
inscription on the blade. He lent these relics to Mr. Harling, who brought
them home with him. Charley and I scoured them, and they were on exhibition
in the Harling office all summer. Father Kelly, the priest, had found the name of the Spanish
maker on the sword and an abbreviation that stood for the city of Cordova.
that I saw with my own eyes,' Antonia put in triumphantly. `So Jim and
Charley were right, and the teachers were wrong!'
girls began to wonder among themselves.
Why had the Spaniards come so far?
What must this country have been like, then? Why had Coronado never
gone back to Spain, to his riches and his castles and his king?
I couldn't tell them. I only knew the schoolbooks said he `died in
the wilderness, of a broken heart.'
than him has done that,' said Antonia sadly, and the girls murmured assent.
sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly
grass about us was on fire now. The
bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the
stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the
willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness.
In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in
the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each
other. The long fingers of the
sun touched their foreheads.
we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid,
gold-washed sky. Just as the
lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a
great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to
our feet, straining our eyes toward it.
In a moment we realized what it was.
On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field.
The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by
the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained
within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black
against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on
while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and
dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were
dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to
its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
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