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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book V: Cuzak's Boys

Chapter II

 

WHEN I AWOKE IN THE morning, long bands of sunshine were coming in at the window and reaching back under the eaves where the two boys lay.  Leo was wide awake and was tickling his brother's leg with a dried cone-flower he had pulled out of the hay.  Ambrosch kicked at him and turned over. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep.  Leo lay on his back, elevated one foot, and began exercising his toes. He picked up dried flowers with his toes and brandished them in the belt of sunlight.  After he had amused himself thus for some time, he rose on one elbow and began to look at me, cautiously, then critically, blinking his eyes in the light. His expression was droll; it dismissed me lightly. `This old fellow is no different from other people. He doesn't know my secret.'  He seemed conscious of possessing a keener power of enjoyment than other people; his quick recognitions made him frantically impatient of deliberate judgments. He always knew what he wanted without thinking.

 

After dressing in the hay, I washed my face in cold water at the windmill. Breakfast was ready when I entered the kitchen, and Yulka was baking griddle-cakes. The three older boys set off for the fields early. Leo and Yulka were to drive to town to meet their father, who would return from Wilber on the noon train.

 

`We'll only have a lunch at noon,' Antonia said, and cook the geese for supper, when our papa will be here. I wish my Martha could come down to see you.  They have a Ford car now, and she don't seem so far away from me as she used to. But her husband's crazy about his farm and about having everything just right, and they almost never get away except on Sundays.  He's a handsome boy, and he'll be rich some day.  Everything he takes hold of turns out well. When they bring that baby in here, and unwrap him, he looks like a little prince; Martha takes care of him so beautiful. I'm reconciled to her being away from me now, but at first I cried like I was putting her into her coffin.'

   

We were alone in the kitchen, except for Anna, who was pouring cream into the churn.  She looked up at me.  `Yes, she did. We were just ashamed of mother.  She went round crying, when Martha was so happy, and the rest of us were all glad. Joe certainly was patient with you, mother.'

 

Antonia nodded and smiled at herself.  `I know it was silly, but I couldn't help it.  I wanted her right here. She'd never been away from me a night since she was born. If Anton had made trouble about her when she was a baby, or wanted me to leave her with my mother, I wouldn't have married him. I couldn't. But he always loved her like she was his own.'

 

`I didn't even know Martha wasn't my full sister until after she was engaged to Joe,' Anna told me.

 

Toward the middle of the afternoon, the wagon drove in, with the father and the eldest son.  I was smoking in the orchard, and as I went out to meet them, Antonia came running down from the house and hugged the two men as if they had been away for months.

 

`Papa,' interested me, from my first glimpse of him. He was shorter than his older sons; a crumpled little man, with run-over boot-heels, and he carried one shoulder higher than the other.  But he moved very quickly, and there was an air of jaunty liveliness about him. He had a strong, ruddy colour, thick black hair, a little grizzled, a curly moustache, and red lips.  His smile showed the strong teeth of which his wife was so proud, and as he saw me his lively, quizzical eyes told me that he knew all about me. He looked like a humorous philosopher who had hitched up one shoulder under the burdens of life, and gone on his way having a good time when he could.  He advanced to meet me and gave me a hard hand, burned red on the back and heavily coated with hair. He wore his Sunday clothes, very thick and hot for the weather, an unstarched white shirt, and a blue necktie with big white dots, like a little boy's, tied in a flowing bow. Cuzak began at once to talk about his holiday--from politeness he spoke in English.

 

`Mama, I wish you had see the lady dance on the slack-wire in the street at night.  They throw a bright light on her and she float through the air something beautiful, like a bird! They have a dancing bear, like in the old country, and two-three merry-go-around, and people in balloons, and what you call the big wheel, Rudolph?'

 

`A Ferris wheel,' Rudolph entered the conversation in a deep baritone voice. He was six foot two, and had a chest like a young blacksmith. `We went to the big dance in the hall behind the saloon last night, mother, and I danced with all the girls, and so did father. I never saw so many pretty girls.  It was a Bohunk crowd, for sure. We didn't hear a word of English on the street, except from the show people, did we, papa?'

 

Cuzak nodded.  `And very many send word to you, Antonia. You will excuse'--turning to me--`if I tell her.'  While we walked toward the house he related incidents and delivered messages in the tongue he spoke fluently, and I dropped a little behind, curious to know what their relations had become--or remained. The two seemed to be on terms of easy friendliness, touched with humour.  Clearly, she was the impulse, and he the corrective. As they went up the hill he kept glancing at her sidewise, to see whether she got his point, or how she received it. I noticed later that he always looked at people sidewise, as a work-horse does at its yokemate.  Even when he sat opposite me in the kitchen, talking, he would turn his head a little toward the clock or the stove and look at me from the side, but with frankness and good nature.  This trick did not suggest duplicity or secretiveness, but merely long habit, as with the horse.

 

He had brought a tintype of himself and Rudolph for Antonia's collection, and several paper bags of candy for the children.  He looked a little disappointed when his wife showed him a big box of candy I had got in Denver--she hadn't let the children touch it the night before. He put his candy away in the cupboard, `for when she rains,' and glanced at the box, chuckling.  `I guess you must have hear about how my family ain't so small,' he said.

 

Cuzak sat down behind the stove and watched his womenfolk and the little children with equal amusement.  He thought they were nice, and he thought they were funny, evidently. He had been off dancing with the girls and forgetting that he was an old fellow, and now his family rather surprised him; he seemed to think it a joke that all these children should belong to him. As the younger ones slipped up to him in his retreat, he kept taking things out of his pockets; penny dolls, a wooden clown, a balloon pig that was inflated by a whistle.  He beckoned to the little boy they called Jan, whispered to him, and presented him with a paper snake, gently, so as not to startle him. Looking over the boy's head he said to me, `This one is bashful. He gets left.'

 

Cuzak had brought home with him a roll of illustrated Bohemian papers. He opened them and began to tell his wife the news, much of which seemed to relate to one person.  I heard the name Vasakova, Vasakova, repeated several times with lively interest, and presently I asked him whether he were talking about the singer, Maria Vasak.

 

`You know?  You have heard, maybe?' he asked incredulously. When I assured him that I had heard her, he pointed out her picture and told me that Vasak had broken her leg, climbing in the Austrian Alps, and would not be able to fill her engagements. He seemed delighted to find that I had heard her sing in London and in Vienna; got out his pipe and lit it to enjoy our talk the better.  She came from his part of Prague. His father used to mend her shoes for her when she was a student. Cuzak questioned me about her looks, her popularity, her voice; but he particularly wanted to know whether I had noticed her tiny feet, and whether I thought she had saved much money. She was extravagant, of course, but he hoped she wouldn't squander everything, and have nothing left when she was old. As a young man, working in Wienn, he had seen a good many artists who were old and poor, making one glass of beer last all evening, and `it was not very nice, that.'

 

When the boys came in from milking and feeding, the long table was laid, and two brown geese, stuffed with apples, were put down sizzling before Antonia.  She began to carve, and Rudolph, who sat next his mother, started the plates on their way. When everybody was served, he looked across the table at me.

 

`Have you been to Black Hawk lately, Mr. Burden? Then I wonder if you've heard about the Cutters?'

 

No, I had heard nothing at all about them.

 

`Then you must tell him, son, though it's a terrible thing to talk about at supper.  Now, all you children be quiet, Rudolph is going to tell about the murder.'

 

`Hurrah! The murder!' the children murmured, looking pleased and interested.

 

Rudolph told his story in great detail, with occasional promptings from his mother or father.

 

Wick Cutter and his wife had gone on living in the house that Antonia and I knew so well, and in the way we knew so well. They grew to be very old people.  He shrivelled up, Antonia said, until he looked like a little old yellow monkey, for his beard and his fringe of hair never changed colour. Mrs. Cutter remained flushed and wild-eyed as we had known her, but as the years passed she became afflicted with a shaking palsy which made her nervous nod continuous instead of occasional. Her hands were so uncertain that she could no longer disfigure china, poor woman!  As the couple grew older, they quarrelled more and more often about the ultimate disposition of their `property.' A new law was passed in the state, securing the surviving wife a third of her husband's estate under all conditions. Cutter was tormented by the fear that Mrs. Cutter would live longer than he, and that eventually her `people,' whom he had always hated so violently, would inherit. Their quarrels on this subject passed the boundary of the close-growing cedars, and were heard in the street by whoever wished to loiter and listen.

 

One morning, two years ago, Cutter went into the hardware store and bought a pistol, saying he was going to shoot a dog, and adding that he `thought he would take a shot at an old cat while he was about it.' (Here the children interrupted Rudolph's narrative by smothered giggles.)

 

Cutter went out behind the hardware store, put up a target, practised for an hour or so, and then went home.  At six o'clock that evening, when several men were passing the Cutter house on their way home to supper, they heard a pistol shot. They paused and were looking doubtfully at one another, when another shot came crashing through an upstairs window. They ran into the house and found Wick Cutter lying on a sofa in his upstairs bedroom, with his throat torn open, bleeding on a roll of sheets he had placed beside his head.

 

`Walk in, gentlemen,' he said weakly.  `I am alive, you see, and competent.  You are witnesses that I have survived my wife. You will find her in her own room.  Please make your examination at once, so that there will be no mistake.'

 

One of the neighbours telephoned for a doctor, while the others went into Mrs. Cutter's room.  She was lying on her bed, in her night-gown and wrapper, shot through the heart. Her husband must have come in while she was taking her afternoon nap and shot her, holding the revolver near her breast. Her night-gown was burned from the powder.

 

The horrified neighbours rushed back to Cutter.  He opened his eyes and said distinctly, `Mrs. Cutter is quite dead, gentlemen, and I am conscious. My affairs are in order.'  Then, Rudolph said, `he let go and died.'

 

On his desk the coroner found a letter, dated at five o'clock that afternoon. It stated that he had just shot his wife; that any will she might secretly have made would be invalid, as he survived her.  He meant to shoot himself at six o'clock and would, if he had strength, fire a shot through the window in the hope that passersby might come in and see him `before life was extinct,' as he wrote.

 

`Now, would you have thought that man had such a cruel heart?' Antonia turned to me after the story was told.  `To go and do that poor woman out of any comfort she might have from his money after he was gone!'

 

`Did you ever hear of anybody else that killed himself for spite, Mr. Burden?' asked Rudolph.

 

I admitted that I hadn't. Every lawyer learns over and over how strong a motive hate can be, but in my collection of legal anecdotes I had nothing to match this one. When I asked how much the estate amounted to, Rudolph said it was a little over a hundred thousand dollars.

 

Cuzak gave me a twinkling, sidelong glance.  `The lawyers, they got a good deal of it, sure,' he said merrily.

 

A hundred thousand dollars; so that was the fortune that had been scraped together by such hard dealing, and that Cutter himself had died for in the end!

 

After supper Cuzak and I took a stroll in the orchard and sat down by the windmill to smoke.  He told me his story as if it were my business to know it.

 

His father was a shoemaker, his uncle a furrier, and he, being a younger son, was apprenticed to the latter's trade. You never got anywhere working for your relatives, he said, so when he was a journeyman he went to Vienna and worked in a big fur shop, earning good money.  But a young fellow who liked a good time didn't save anything in Vienna; there were too many pleasant ways of spending every night what he'd made in the day.  After three years there, he came to New York. He was badly advised and went to work on furs during a strike, when the factories were offering big wages.  The strikers won, and Cuzak was blacklisted.  As he had a few hundred dollars ahead, he decided to go to Florida and raise oranges. He had always thought he would like to raise oranges! The second year a hard frost killed his young grove, and he fell ill with malaria.  He came to Nebraska to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek, and to look about. When he began to look about, he saw Antonia, and she was exactly the kind of girl he had always been hunting for. They were married at once, though he had to borrow money from his cousin to buy the wedding ring.

 

`It was a pretty hard job, breaking up this place and making the first crops grow,' he said, pushing back his hat and scratching his grizzled hair.  `Sometimes I git awful sore on this place and want to quit, but my wife she always say we better stick it out.  The babies come along pretty fast, so it look like it be hard to move, anyhow. I guess she was right, all right.  We got this place clear now. We pay only twenty dollars an acre then, and I been offered a hundred. We bought another quarter ten years ago, and we got it most paid for. We got plenty boys; we can work a lot of land.  Yes, she is a good wife for a poor man.  She ain't always so strict with me, neither. Sometimes maybe I drink a little too much beer in town, and when I come home she don't say nothing.  She don't ask me no questions. We always get along fine, her and me, like at first. The children don't make trouble between us, like sometimes happens.' He lit another pipe and pulled on it contentedly.

 

I found Cuzak a most companionable fellow.  He asked me a great many questions about my trip through Bohemia, about Vienna and the Ringstrasse and the theatres.

 

`Gee! I like to go back there once, when the boys is big enough to farm the place.  Sometimes when I read the papers from the old country, I pretty near run away,' he confessed with a little laugh. `I never did think how I would be a settled man like this.'

 

He was still, as Antonia said, a city man.  He liked theatres and lighted streets and music and a game of dominoes after the day's work was over. His sociability was stronger than his acquisitive instinct. He liked to live day by day and night by night, sharing in the excitement of the crowd.--Yet his wife had managed to hold him here on a farm, in one of the loneliest countries in the world.

 

I could see the little chap, sitting here every evening by the windmill, nursing his pipe and listening to the silence; the wheeze of the pump, the grunting of the pigs, an occasional squawking when the hens were disturbed by a rat. It did rather seem to me that Cuzak had been made the instrument of Antonia's special mission.  This was a fine life, certainly, but it wasn't the kind of life he had wanted to live. I wondered whether the life that was right for one was ever right for two!

 

I asked Cuzak if he didn't find it hard to do without the gay company he had always been used to.  He knocked out his pipe against an upright, sighed, and dropped it into his pocket.

 

`At first I near go crazy with lonesomeness,' he said frankly, `but my woman is got such a warm heart.  She always make it as good for me as she could. Now it ain't so bad; I can begin to have some fun with my boys, already!'

 

As we walked toward the house, Cuzak cocked his hat jauntily over one ear and looked up at the moon.  `Gee!' he said in a hushed voice, as if he had just wakened up, `it don't seem like I am away from there twenty-six year!'

 

 


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