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The First Willa Cather Megapack, Page 2

Willa Cather

  Lou’s haggard, unshaven face bent toward them and his blue eyes gazed at them with terrible earnestness.

  “Show us how, Lou,” said one little fellow in an awed whisper. Lou knelt down in the cave, his long, shaggy hair hung down over his face, and his voice trembled as he spoke:

  “Oh God, they call thee many long names in thy book, thy prophets; but we are only simple folk, the boys are all little and I am weak headed ever since I was born, therefore, let us call thee Father, for thy other names are hard to remember. O Father, we are so thirsty, all the world is thirsty; the creeks are all dried up, and the river is so low that the fishes die and rot in it; the corn is almost gone; the hay is light; and even the little flowers are no more beautiful. O God! our corn may yet be saved. O, give us rain! Our corn means so much to us, if it fails, all our pigs and cattle will die, and we ourselves come very near it; but if you do not send rain, O Father, and if the end is indeed come, be merciful to thy great, wicked world. They do many wrong things, but I think they forget thy word, for it is a long book to remember, and some are little and some are born weak headed, like me, and some are born very strong headed, which is near as bad. Oh, forgive them their abominations in all the world, both in Denmark and here, for the fire hurts so, O God! Amen.”

  The little boys knelt and each said a few blundering words. Outside, the sun shone brightly and the cattle nibbled at the short, dry grass, and the hot wind blew through the shriveled corn; within the cave, they knelt as many another had knelt before them, some in temples, some in prison cells, some in the caves of earth, and One, indeed, in the garden, praying for the sin of the world.

  The next day, Lou went to town, and prayed in the streets. When the people saw his emaciated frame and wild eyes, and heard his wild words, they told the sheriff to do his duty, the man must be mad. Then Lou ran away; he ran for miles, then walked and limped and stumbled on, until he reached the cave; there the boys found him in the morning. The officials hunted him for days, but he hid in the cave, and the little Danes kept his secret well. They shared their dinners with him, and prayed with him all day long. They had always liked him, but now they would have gone straight through fire for him, any one of them, they almost worshipped him. He had about him that mysticism which always appeals so quickly to children. I have always thought that bear story which the Hebrews used to tell their children very improbable. If it was true, then I have my doubts about the prophet; no one in the world will hoot at insincere and affected piety sooner than a child, but no one feels the true prophetic flame quicker, no one is more readily touched by simple goodness. A very young child can tell a sincere man better than any phrenologist.

  One morning, he told the boys that he had had another “true dream.” He was not going to die like other men, but God was going to take him to himself as he was. The end of the world was close at hand, too very close. He prayed more than usual that day, and when they sat eating their dinner in the sunshine, he suddenly sprang to his feet and stared wildly south, crying, “See, see, it is the great light! The end comes!! And they do not know it; they will keep on sinning, I must tell them, I must!”

  “No, no, Lou, they will catch you; they are looking for you, you must not go!”

  “I must go, my boys; but first let me speak once more to you. Men would not heed me, or believe me, because my head is weak, but you have always believed in me, that God has revealed his word to me, and I will pray God to take you to himself quickly, for ye are worthy. Watch and pray always, boys, watch the light over the bluffs, it is breaking, breaking, and shall grow brighter. Good bye, my boys, I must leave ye in the world yet awhile.” He kissed them all tenderly and blessed them, and started south. He walked at first, then he ran, faster and faster he went, all the while shouting at the top of his voice, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”

  The police officers heard of it, and set out to find him. They hunted the country over and even dragged the river, but they never found him again, living or dead. It is thought that he was drowned and the quicksands of the river sucked his body under. But the little Dane boys in our country firmly believe that he was translatled like Enoch of old. On stormy nights, when the great winds sweep down from the north they huddle together in their beds and fancy that in the wind they still hear that wild cry, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon.”


  “No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no, thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.”

  “But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? The very crows laugh at thee when thou art trying to play. Thy hand trembles so thou canst scarce hold the bow. Thou shalt go with me to the Blue to cut wood tomorrow. See to it thou art up early.”

  “What, on the Sabbath, Antone, when it is so cold? I get so very cold, my son, let us not go tomorrow.”

  “Yes, tomorrow, thou lazy old man. Do not I cut wood upon the Sabbath? Care I how cold it is? Wood thou shalt cut, and haul it too, and as for the fiddle, I tell thee I will sell it yet.” Antone pulled his ragged cap down over his low heavy brow, and went out. The old man drew his stool up nearer the fire, and sat stroking his violin with trembling fingers and muttering, “Not while I live, not while I live.”

  Five years ago they had come here, Peter Sadelack, and his wife, and oldest son Antone, and countless smaller Sadelacks, here to southwestern Nebraska, and had taken up a homestead. Antone was the acknowledged master of the premises, and people said he was a likely youth, and would do well. That he was mean and untrustworthy every one knew, but that made little difference. His corn was better tended than any in the county, and his wheat always yielded more than other men’s.

  Of Peter no one knew much, nor had any one a good word to say for him. He drank whenever he could get out of Antone’s sight long enough to pawn his hat or coat for whisky. Indeed there were but two things he would not pawn, his pipe and his violin. He was a lazy, absentminded old fellow, who liked to fiddle better than to plow, though Antone surely got work enough out of them all, for that matter. In the house of which Antone was master there was no one, from the little boy three years old, to the old man of sixty, who did not earn his bread. Still people said that Peter was worthless, and was a great drag on Antone, his son, who never drank, and was a much better man than his father had ever been. Peter did not care what people said. He did not like the country, nor the people, least of all he liked the plowing. He was very homesick for Bohemia. Long ago, only eight years ago by the calendar, but it seemed eight centuries to Peter, he had been a second violinist in the great theatre at Prague. He had gone into the theatre very young, and had been there all his life, until he had a stroke of paralysis, which made his arm so weak that his bowing was uncertain. Then they told him he could go. Those were great days at the theatre. He had plenty to drink then, and wore a dress coat every evening, and there were always parties after the play. He could play in those days, ay, that he could! He could never read the notes well, so he did not play first; but his touch, he had a touch indeed, so Herr Mikilsdoff, who led the orchestra, had said. Sometimes now Peter thought he could plow better if he could only bow as he used to. He had seen all the lovely women in the world there, all the great singers and the great players. He was in the orchestra when Rachel played, and he heard Liszt play when the Countess d’Agoult sat in the stage box and threw the master white lillies. Once, a French woman came and played for weeks, he did not remember her name now. He did not remember her face very well either, for it changed so, it was never twice the same. But the beauty of it, and the great hunger men felt at the sight of it, that he remembered. Most of all he remembered her voice. He did not know French, and could not understand a word she said, but it seemed to him that she must be talking the music of Chopin. And her voice, he thought he should know that in the other world. The last night she played a play in which a man touched her arm, and she stabbed him. As Peter sat among the smoking gas jets down below the footl
ights with his fiddle on his knee, and looked up at her, he thought he would like to die, too, if he could touch her arm once, and have her stab him so. Peter went home to his wife very drunk that night. Even in those days he was a foolish fellow, who cared for nothing but music and pretty faces.

  It was all different now. He had nothing to drink and little to eat, and here, there was nothing but sun, and grass, and sky. He had forgotten almost everything, but some things he remembered well enough. He loved his violin and the holy Mary, and above all else he feared the Evil One, and his son Antone.

  The fire was low, and it grew cold. Still Peter sat by the fire remembering. He dared not throw more cobs on the fire; Antone would be angry. He did not want to cut wood tomorrow, it would be Sunday, and he wanted to go to mass. Antone might let him do that. He held his violin under his wrinkled chin, his white hair fell over it, and he began to play “Ave Maria.” His hand shook more than ever before, and at last refused to work the bow at all. He sat stupefied for awhile, then arose, and taking his violin with him, stole out into the old sod stable. He took Antone’s shotgun down from its peg, and loaded it by the moonlight which streamed in through the door. He sat down on the dirt floor, and leaned back against the dirt wall. He heard the wolves howling in the distance, and the night wind screaming as it swept over the snow. Near him he heard the regular breathing of the horses in the dark. He put his crucifix above his heart, and folding his hands said brokenly all the Latin he had ever known, “Pater noster, qui in cœlum est.” Then he raised his head and sighed, “Not one kreutzer will Antone pay them to pray for my soul, not one kreutzer, he is so careful of his money, is Antone; he does not waste it in drink, he is a better man than I, but hard sometimes; he works the girls too hard; women were not made to work so; but he shall not sell thee, my fiddle, I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us; we have seen it all together, and we will forget it together, the French woman and all.” He held his fiddle under his chin a moment, where it had lain so often, then put it across his knee and broke it through the middle. He pulled off his old boot, held the gun between his knees with the muzzle against his forehead, and pressed the trigger with his toe.

  In the morning Antone found him stiff, frozen fast in a pool of blood. They could not straighten him out enough to fit a coffin, so they buried him in a pine box. Before the funeral Antone carried to town the fiddle-bow which Peter had forgotten to break. Antone was very thrifty, and a better man than his father had been.


  [I, Kakau, son of Ramenka, high priest of Phtahah in the great temple at Memphis, write this, which is an account of what I, Kakau, saw on the first day of my arrival at Memphis, and the first day of my sojourn in the home of Rui, my uncle, who was a priest of Phtahah before me.]

  As I drew near the city the sun hung hot over the valley which wound like a green thread toward the south. On either side the river lay the fields of grain, and beyond was the desert of yellow sand which stretched away to where the low line of Libian hills rose against the sky. The heat was very great, and the breeze scarce stirred the reeds which grew in the black mud down where the Nile, like a great tawny serpent, crept lazily away through the desert. Memphis stood as silent as the judgment hall of Osiris. The shops and even the temples were deserted, and no man stirred in the streets save the watchmen of the city. Early in the morning the people had arisen and washed the ashes from their faces, shaved their bodies, taken off the robes of mourning, and had gone out into the plain, for the seventy-two days of mourning were now over.

  Senefrau the first, Lord of the Light and Ruler of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, was dead and gathered unto his fathers. His body had passed into the hands of the embalmers, and lain for the allotted seventy days in niter, and had been wrapped in gums and spices and white linen and placed in a golden mummy case, and today it was to be placed in the stone sarcophagus in the white pyramid, where it was to await its soul.

  Early in the morning, when I came unto the house of my uncle, he took me in his chariot and drove out of the city into the great plain which is north of the city, where the pyramid stood. The great plain was covered with a multitude of men. There all the men of the city were gathered together, and men from all over the land of Khem. Here and there were tethered many horses and camels of those who had come from afar. The army was there, and the priesthood, and men of all ranks; slaves, and swineherds, and the princes of the people. At the head of the army stood a tall dark man in a chariot of ivory and gold, speaking with a youth who stood beside the chariot.

  “It is Kufu, the king,” said Rui, “men say that before the Nile rises again he will begin to build a pyramid, and that it will be such a one as men have never seen before, nor shall we afterwards.”

  “Who is he that stands near unto the king, and with whom the king speaks?” I asked. Then there came a cloud upon the face of Rui, the brother of my father, and he answered and said unto me:

  “He is a youth of the Shepherd people of the north, he is a builder and has worked upon the tomb. He is cunning of hand and wise of heart, and Kufu has shown him great favor, but the people like him not, for he is of the blood of strangers.”

  I spoke no more of the youth, for I saw that Rui liked him not, but my eyes were upon him continually, for I had seen no other man like unto him for beauty of face or of form.

  After a time it came to pass that the great tumult ceased throughout the plain, and the words of men died upon their lips. Up from the shore of the sacred lake wound the funeral procession toward the tomb, and by the Lord of Truth I then thought the glory of Isis could be no grander. There were boys clad in white and wreathed with lotus flowers, and thousands of slaves clad in the skins of leopards, bearing bread and wine and oil, and carrying the images of the gods. There were maidens, bands of harpers and of musicians, and the captives which the king had taken in war leading tigers and lions of the desert. There was the sacred ark drawn by twenty white oxen, and there were many priests, and the guards of the king, and the sacred body of Senefrau, borne by carriers. After the body of the king came all the women of his household, beating their hearts, and weeping bitterly. As the train approached men fell upon their faces and prayed to Pthahah, the Great South Wall, and Kufu bowed his head. At the foot of the pyramid the train halted, and the youths clothed in white, and the priests, and those who bore the body began to ascend the pyramid, singing as they went: “Enter into thy rest, oh Pharaoh!”Enter into thy kingdom.”For the crown of the two lands was heavy,”And thy head was old,”And thou hast laid it aside forever.”Thy two arms were weak,”And the scepter was a great weight,”And thou hast put it from thee.”Enter thou into thy new reign,”Longer than the eternities.”Darkness shall be thy realm, O King,”And sleep thy minion.”The chariots of Ethiopia shall surround thee no more,”Nor the multitudes of the mighty encompass thee in battle,”For thou, being dead, art become as a god;”Good thou knowest, oh king;”And evil has been nigh unto thee,”Yet neither approach thee now,”For thou art dead, and like unto the gods.”

  They bore him down into the pyramid, and left him to sleep, and to wait. Then I saw a multitude of men gather about a great white stone that lay at the base of the tomb, and I questioned Rui concerning it, and he answered me:

  “This pyramid as thou seest opens not at the side, but from the top down. That great slab of stone is to cover the top of the tomb. See, even now the workmen spread mortar upon the top of the tomb, and fasten ropes about the great stone to lift it into place. Neith grant that they harm not the stone, for it has taken a thousand men ten years to cut and polish it and to bring it thither.”

  I saw slaves bending over the great stone, fastening about it ropes which hung from the great pulleys built upon the shafts which rose from the upper stage of the pyramid. While they did this, companies of slaves began to ascend the sides of the tomb, each company with its master. The men were all fashioned like the m
en of the north, and their strength was like ribbed steel, for these were the mightiest men in Egypt. After a time there was silence in the plain. The slaves took hold of the ropes that swung from the pulleys, and every voice was hushed. It was as still without the pyramid as it was within. At last the sound of the Sistrum broke the stillness, the master builders waved their lashes, and the two thousand slaves who were upon the pyramid set their feet firmly upon the polished stone and threw the weight of their bodies upon the ropes. Slowly, slowly, amid the creaking and groaning of the ropes, the great stone left the earth. The musicians played and the people shouted, for never before in all Egypt had so great a stone been raised. But suddenly the shouting ceased, and the music was hushed, and a stillness like the sleep of Nut fell over the plain. All the people gazed upward, and the heart of Khem grew sick as they looked. The great stone had risen halfway, the lifting ropes were firm as the pillars of heaven, but one of the ropes which held the stone in place gave way and stretched, and the great stone which was the pride of the land, was settling at one end and slipping from its fastenings. The slaves crouched upon the pyramid, the builders spoke no word, and the people turned their eyes from the stone, that they might not see it fall. As I looked up, I saw a man running rapidly along the tier of the pyramid opposite the rocking stone. I knew his face to be the face of the stranger whom I saw speaking with the king. He threw off his garments as he ran, and at the edge of the stone tier he paused for a moment, he crouched low, gathering all his strength, then suddenly straightening his body he threw back his head and shot straight forward, like an arrow shot from the bow, over eighteen cubits, and fell lightly upon his feet on the uppermost end of the stone. He stood with both hands clenched at his side, his right foot a little before his left, erect and fair as the statue of Houris, watching the farther end of the stone. For a little the stone stood still, then swung back and lay evenly as when all was well, and then the end upon which the youth stood, sank. He thrust his right foot further forward, his toes clinging to the polished stone, and clasping his hands about his waist above the hips, slowly bowed his great frame forward. The stone slab felt its master and swung slowly back, and again the end on which the youth stood was uppermost. So he stood, his dusky limbs showing clear against the white stone, his every muscle quivering, the sweat pouring from his body, swaying the great stone. The great white desert seemed to rock and sway, the sun grew hotter and stood still in heaven, the sky and the sea of faces seemed to whirl and reel, then blend into one awful face, grinning horribly. The slaves, not daring to breathe, crouched upon the tomb, the multitude stood still and gazed upward, and earth and heaven and men were as dumb as if the gods had smitten them mad with thunder. Then a great cry rang out: