My antonia, p.15
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       My Antonia, p.15

           Willa Cather
 

  XIV

  ON THE MORNING of the twenty-second I wakened with a start. Before Iopened my eyes, I seemed to know that something had happened. I heardexcited voices in the kitchen--grandmother's was so shrill that I knewshe must be almost beside herself. I looked forward to any new crisiswith delight. What could it be, I wondered, as I hurried into myclothes. Perhaps the barn had burned; perhaps the cattle had frozen todeath; perhaps a neighbour was lost in the storm.

  Down in the kitchen grandfather was standing before the stove withhis hands behind him. Jake and Otto had taken off their boots and wererubbing their woollen socks. Their clothes and boots were steaming, andthey both looked exhausted. On the bench behind the stove lay a man,covered up with a blanket. Grandmother motioned me to the dining-room. Iobeyed reluctantly. I watched her as she came and went, carrying dishes.Her lips were tightly compressed and she kept whispering to herself:'Oh, dear Saviour!' 'Lord, Thou knowest!'

  Presently grandfather came in and spoke to me: 'Jimmy, we will nothave prayers this morning, because we have a great deal to do. Old Mr.Shimerda is dead, and his family are in great distress. Ambrosch cameover here in the middle of the night, and Jake and Otto went back withhim. The boys have had a hard night, and you must not bother them withquestions. That is Ambrosch, asleep on the bench. Come in to breakfast,boys.'

  After Jake and Otto had swallowed their first cup of coffee, they beganto talk excitedly, disregarding grandmother's warning glances. I held mytongue, but I listened with all my ears.

  'No, sir,' Fuchs said in answer to a question from grandfather, 'nobodyheard the gun go off. Ambrosch was out with the ox-team, trying tobreak a road, and the women-folks was shut up tight in their cave. WhenAmbrosch come in, it was dark and he didn't see nothing, but theoxen acted kind of queer. One of 'em ripped around and got away fromhim--bolted clean out of the stable. His hands is blistered where therope run through. He got a lantern and went back and found the old man,just as we seen him.'

  'Poor soul, poor soul!' grandmother groaned. 'I'd like to think he neverdone it. He was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble. Howcould he forget himself and bring this on us!'

  'I don't think he was out of his head for a minute, Mrs. Burden,' Fuchsdeclared. 'He done everything natural. You know he was always sort offixy, and fixy he was to the last. He shaved after dinner, and washedhisself all over after the girls had done the dishes. Antonia heated thewater for him. Then he put on a clean shirt and clean socks, and afterhe was dressed he kissed her and the little one and took his gun andsaid he was going out to hunt rabbits. He must have gone right down tothe barn and done it then. He layed down on that bunk-bed, close tothe ox stalls, where he always slept. When we found him, everything wasdecent except'--Fuchs wrinkled his brow and hesitated--'except what hecouldn't nowise foresee. His coat was hung on a peg, and his boots wasunder the bed. He'd took off that silk neckcloth he always wore, andfolded it smooth and stuck his pin through it. He turned back his shirtat the neck and rolled up his sleeves.'

  'I don't see how he could do it!' grandmother kept saying.

  Otto misunderstood her. 'Why, ma'am, it was simple enough; he pulled thetrigger with his big toe. He layed over on his side and put the endof the barrel in his mouth, then he drew up one foot and felt for thetrigger. He found it all right!'

  'Maybe he did,' said Jake grimly. 'There's something mighty queer aboutit.'

  'Now what do you mean, Jake?' grandmother asked sharply.

  'Well, ma'm, I found Krajiek's axe under the manger, and I picks it upand carries it over to the corpse, and I take my oath it just fit thegash in the front of the old man's face. That there Krajiek had beensneakin' round, pale and quiet, and when he seen me examinin' the axe,he begun whimperin', "My God, man, don't do that!" "I reckon I'm a-goin'to look into this," says I. Then he begun to squeal like a rat and runabout wringin' his hands. "They'll hang me!" says he. "My God, they'llhang me sure!"'

  Fuchs spoke up impatiently. 'Krajiek's gone silly, Jake, and so haveyou. The old man wouldn't have made all them preparations for Krajiek tomurder him, would he? It don't hang together. The gun was right besidehim when Ambrosch found him.'

  'Krajiek could 'a' put it there, couldn't he?' Jake demanded.

  Grandmother broke in excitedly: 'See here, Jake Marpole, don't you gotrying to add murder to suicide. We're deep enough in trouble. Ottoreads you too many of them detective stories.'

  'It will be easy to decide all that, Emmaline,' said grandfatherquietly. 'If he shot himself in the way they think, the gash will betorn from the inside outward.'

  'Just so it is, Mr. Burden,' Otto affirmed. 'I seen bunches of hair andstuff sticking to the poles and straw along the roof. They was blown upthere by gunshot, no question.'

  Grandmother told grandfather she meant to go over to the Shimerdas' withhim.

  'There is nothing you can do,' he said doubtfully. 'The body can't betouched until we get the coroner here from Black Hawk, and that will bea matter of several days, this weather.'

  'Well, I can take them some victuals, anyway, and say a word of comfortto them poor little girls. The oldest one was his darling, and was likea right hand to him. He might have thought of her. He's left her alonein a hard world.' She glanced distrustfully at Ambrosch, who was noweating his breakfast at the kitchen table.

  Fuchs, although he had been up in the cold nearly all night, was goingto make the long ride to Black Hawk to fetch the priest and the coroner.On the grey gelding, our best horse, he would try to pick his way acrossthe country with no roads to guide him.

  'Don't you worry about me, Mrs. Burden,' he said cheerfully, as he puton a second pair of socks. 'I've got a good nose for directions, and Inever did need much sleep. It's the grey I'm worried about. I'll savehim what I can, but it'll strain him, as sure as I'm telling you!'

  'This is no time to be over-considerate of animals, Otto; do the bestyou can for yourself. Stop at the Widow Steavens's for dinner. She's agood woman, and she'll do well by you.'

  After Fuchs rode away, I was left with Ambrosch. I saw a side of him Ihad not seen before. He was deeply, even slavishly, devout. He did notsay a word all morning, but sat with his rosary in his hands, praying,now silently, now aloud. He never looked away from his beads, nor liftedhis hands except to cross himself. Several times the poor boy fellasleep where he sat, wakened with a start, and began to pray again.

  No wagon could be got to the Shimerdas' until a road was broken, andthat would be a day's job. Grandfather came from the barn on one of ourbig black horses, and Jake lifted grandmother up behind him. She woreher black hood and was bundled up in shawls. Grandfather tucked hisbushy white beard inside his overcoat. They looked very Biblical as theyset off, I thought. Jake and Ambrosch followed them, riding the otherblack and my pony, carrying bundles of clothes that we had got togetherfor Mrs. Shimerda. I watched them go past the pond and over the hill bythe drifted cornfield. Then, for the first time, I realized that I wasalone in the house.

  I felt a considerable extension of power and authority, and was anxiousto acquit myself creditably. I carried in cobs and wood from the longcellar, and filled both the stoves. I remembered that in the hurry andexcitement of the morning nobody had thought of the chickens, and theeggs had not been gathered. Going out through the tunnel, I gave thehens their corn, emptied the ice from their drinking-pan, and filledit with water. After the cat had had his milk, I could think of nothingelse to do, and I sat down to get warm. The quiet was delightful, andthe ticking clock was the most pleasant of companions. I got 'RobinsonCrusoe' and tried to read, but his life on the island seemed dullcompared with ours. Presently, as I looked with satisfaction about ourcomfortable sitting-room, it flashed upon me that if Mr. Shimerda'ssoul were lingering about in this world at all, it would be here, inour house, which had been more to his liking than any other in theneighbourhood. I remembered his contented face when he was with us onChristmas Day. If he could have lived with us, this terrible thing wouldnever have happened.


  I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wonderedwhether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back tohis own country. I thought of how far it was to Chicago, and then toVirginia, to Baltimore--and then the great wintry ocean. No, he wouldnot at once set out upon that long journey. Surely, his exhaustedspirit, so tired of cold and crowding and the struggle with theever-falling snow, was resting now in this quiet house.

  I was not frightened, but I made no noise. I did not wish to disturbhim. I went softly down to the kitchen which, tucked away so snuglyunderground, always seemed to me the heart and centre of the house.There, on the bench behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr.Shimerda. Outside I could hear the wind singing over hundreds of milesof snow. It was as if I had let the old man in out of the tormentingwinter, and were sitting there with him. I went over all that Antoniahad ever told me about his life before he came to this country; howhe used to play the fiddle at weddings and dances. I thought about thefriends he had mourned to leave, the trombone-player, the great forestfull of game--belonging, as Antonia said, to the 'nobles'--from whichshe and her mother used to steal wood on moonlight nights. There was awhite hart that lived in that forest, and if anyone killed it, he wouldbe hanged, she said. Such vivid pictures came to me that they might havebeen Mr. Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out from the air in whichthey had haunted him.

  It had begun to grow dark when my household returned, and grandmotherwas so tired that she went at once to bed. Jake and I got supper, andwhile we were washing the dishes he told me in loud whispers about thestate of things over at the Shimerdas'. Nobody could touch the bodyuntil the coroner came. If anyone did, something terrible would happen,apparently. The dead man was frozen through, 'just as stiff as a dressedturkey you hang out to freeze,' Jake said. The horses and oxen would notgo into the barn until he was frozen so hard that there was no longerany smell of blood. They were stabled there now, with the dead man,because there was no other place to keep them. A lighted lantern waskept hanging over Mr. Shimerda's head. Antonia and Ambrosch and themother took turns going down to pray beside him. The crazy boy went withthem, because he did not feel the cold. I believed he felt cold as muchas anyone else, but he liked to be thought insensible to it. He wasalways coveting distinction, poor Marek!

  Ambrosch, Jake said, showed more human feeling than he would havesupposed him capable of, but he was chiefly concerned about getting apriest, and about his father's soul, which he believed was in a placeof torment and would remain there until his family and the priest hadprayed a great deal for him. 'As I understand it,' Jake concluded, 'itwill be a matter of years to pray his soul out of Purgatory, and rightnow he's in torment.'

  'I don't believe it,' I said stoutly. 'I almost know it isn't true.' Idid not, of course, say that I believed he had been in that very kitchenall afternoon, on his way back to his own country. Nevertheless, afterI went to bed, this idea of punishment and Purgatory came back on mecrushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered.But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been sounhappy that he could not live any longer.

 
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