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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book III: Lena Lingard
MARCH EVENING in my sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after
supper. There had been a warm
thaw all day, with mushy yards and little streams of dark water gurgling
cheerfully into the streets out of old snow-banks. My window was open, and
the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the
prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a
lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of
the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver
chains--like the lamp engraved upon the title-page of old Latin texts,
which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men.
It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and light my wick in
answer. I did so regretfully,
and the dim objects in the room emerged from the shadows and took their
place about me with the helpfulness which custom breeds.
propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the `Georgics'
where tomorrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection
that, in the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee. 'Optima
dies ... prima fugit.' I
turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class
that morning. 'Primus ego in patriam mecum ... deducam Musas'; `for I
shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.' Cleric
had explained to us that `patria' here meant, not a nation or even a
province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet
was born. This was not a
boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring
the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not
to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little I country'; to
his father's fields, `sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees
with broken tops.'
said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered
that passage. After he had
faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the `Aeneid' unfinished, and had
decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should
be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone
back to the perfect utterance of the `Georgics,' where the pen was fitted to
the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself,
with the thankfulness of a good man, `I was the first to bring the Muse into
left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing
of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately enough to
guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at my book,
the fervour of his voice stirred through the quantities on the page before
me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New England coast
about which he had so often told me was Cleric's patria. Before I had got
far with my reading, I was disturbed by a knock. I hurried to the door and
when I opened it saw a woman standing in the dark hall.
expect you hardly know me, Jim.'
voice seemed familiar, but I did not recognize her until she stepped into
the light of my doorway and I beheld--Lena Lingard! She was so quietly
conventionalized by city clothes that I might have passed her on the street
without seeing her. Her black suit fitted her figure smoothly, and a black
lace hat, with pale-blue forget-me-nots, sat demurely on her yellow hair.
led her toward Cleric's chair, the only comfortable one I had, questioning
was not disconcerted by my embarrassment. She looked about her with the
naive curiosity I remembered so well. `You are quite comfortable here, aren't you? I live in
Lincoln now, too, Jim. I'm in
business for myself. I have a dressmaking shop in the Raleigh Block, out on
O Street. I've made a real good start.'
Lena, when did you come?'
I've been here all winter. Didn't
your grandmother ever write you? I've
thought about looking you up lots of times. But we've all heard what a
studious young man you've got to be, and I felt bashful.
I didn't know whether you'd be glad to see me.' She laughed her
mellow, easy laugh, that was either very artless or very comprehending, one
never quite knew which. `You
seem the same, though--except you're a young man, now, of course. Do you
think I've changed?'
you're prettier--though you were always pretty enough. Perhaps it's your
clothes that make a difference.'
like my new suit? I have to
dress pretty well in my business.'
took off her jacket and sat more at ease in her blouse, of some soft, flimsy
silk. She was already at home
in my place, had slipped quietly into it, as she did into everything. She
told me her business was going well, and she had saved a little money.
summer I'm going to build the house for mother I've talked about so long.
I won't be able to pay up on it at first, but I want her to have it
before she is too old to enjoy it. Next summer I'll take her down new
furniture and carpets, so she'll have something to look forward to all
watched Lena sitting there so smooth and sunny and well-cared-for, and
thought of how she used to run barefoot over the prairie until after the
snow began to fly, and how Crazy Mary chased her round and round the
cornfields. It seemed to me wonderful that she should have got on so well in
the world. Certainly she had no one but herself to thank for it.
must feel proud of yourself, Lena,' I said heartily. `Look at me; I've never
earned a dollar, and I don't know that I'll ever be able to.'
says you're going to be richer than Mr. Harling some day. She's always
bragging about you, you know.'
me, how IS Tony?'
fine. She works for Mrs.
Gardener at the hotel now. She's housekeeper.
Mrs. Gardener's health isn't what it was, and she can't see after
everything like she used to. She has great confidence in Tony.
Tony's made it up with the Harlings, too.
Little Nina is so fond of her that Mrs. Harling kind of overlooked
she still going with Larry Donovan?'
that's on, worse than ever! I guess they're engaged. Tony talks about him like he was
president of the railroad. Everybody laughs about it, because she was never
a girl to be soft. She won't hear a word against him. She's so sort of innocent.'
said I didn't like Larry, and never would.
face dimpled. `Some of us could
tell her things, but it wouldn't do any good.
She'd always believe him. That's Antonia's failing, you know; if she
once likes people, she won't hear anything against them.'
think I'd better go home and look after Antonia,' I said.
think you had.' Lena looked up
at me in frank amusement. `It's a good thing the Harlings are friendly with
her again. Larry's afraid of them. They ship so much grain, they have influence with the
railroad people. What are you
studying?' She leaned her elbows on the table and drew my book toward her. I
caught a faint odour of violet sachet.
`So that's Latin, is it? It looks hard.
You do go to the theatre sometimes, though, for I've seen you there.
Don't you just love a good play, Jim? I can't stay at home in the
evening if there's one in town. I'd be willing to work like a slave, it
seems to me, to live in a place where there are theatres.'
go to a show together sometime. You are going to let me come to see you, aren't you?'
you like to? I'd be ever so
pleased. I'm never busy after
six o'clock, and I let my sewing girls go at half-past five. I board, to
save time, but sometimes I cook a chop for myself, and I'd be glad to cook
one for you. Well'--she began
to put on her white gloves--'it's been awful good to see you, Jim.'
needn't hurry, need you? You've
hardly told me anything yet.'
can talk when you come to see me. I expect you don't often have lady visitors.
The old woman downstairs didn't want to let me come up very much.
I told her I was from your home town, and had promised your
grandmother to come and see you. How surprised Mrs. Burden would be!'
Lena laughed softly as she rose.
I caught up my hat, she shook her head. `No, I don't want you to go with me.
I'm to meet some Swedes at the drugstore.
You wouldn't care for them. I wanted to see your room so I could
write Tony all about it, but I must tell her how I left you right here with
your books. She's always so afraid someone will run off with you!' Lena
slipped her silk sleeves into the jacket I held for her, smoothed it over
her person, and buttoned it slowly. I walked with her to the door.
`Come and see me sometimes when you're lonesome.
But maybe you have all the friends you want. Have you?'
She turned her soft cheek to me.
`Have you?' she whispered teasingly in my ear.
In a moment I watched her fade down the dusky stairway.
I turned back to my room the place seemed much pleasanter than before. Lena
had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight. How I loved to hear
her laugh again! It was so soft
and unexcited and appreciative gave a favourable interpretation to
everything. When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughing--the Danish
laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys.
Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had
never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of
Virgil. If there were no girls
like them in the world, there would be no poetry.
I understood that clearly, for the first time.
This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as
if it might suddenly vanish.
I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the
harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual
experience. It floated before
me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line:
'Optima dies ... prima fugit.'
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