My antonia, p.39
My Antonia, p.39Willa Cather
HOW WELL I REMEMBER the stiff little parlour where I used to wait forLena: the hard horsehair furniture, bought at some auction sale, thelong mirror, the fashion-plates on the wall. If I sat down even for amoment, I was sure to find threads and bits of coloured silk clingingto my clothes after I went away. Lena's success puzzled me. She was soeasygoing; had none of the push and self-assertiveness that get peopleahead in business. She had come to Lincoln, a country girl, with nointroductions except to some cousins of Mrs. Thomas who lived there, andshe was already making clothes for the women of 'the young married set.'Evidently she had great natural aptitude for her work. She knew, asshe said, 'what people looked well in.' She never tired of poring overfashion-books. Sometimes in the evening I would find her alone inher work-room, draping folds of satin on a wire figure, with a quiteblissful expression of countenance. I couldn't help thinking that theyears when Lena literally hadn't enough clothes to cover herself mighthave something to do with her untiring interest in dressing the humanfigure. Her clients said that Lena 'had style,' and overlooked herhabitual inaccuracies. She never, I discovered, finished anything by thetime she had promised, and she frequently spent more money on materialsthan her customer had authorized. Once, when I arrived at six o'clock,Lena was ushering out a fidgety mother and her awkward, overgrowndaughter. The woman detained Lena at the door to say apologetically:
'You'll try to keep it under fifty for me, won't you, Miss Lingard? Yousee, she's really too young to come to an expensive dressmaker, but Iknew you could do more with her than anybody else.'
'Oh, that will be all right, Mrs. Herron. I think we'll manage to get agood effect,' Lena replied blandly.
I thought her manner with her customers very good, and wondered whereshe had learned such self-possession.
Sometimes after my morning classes were over, I used to encounter Lenadowntown, in her velvet suit and a little black hat, with a veil tiedsmoothly over her face, looking as fresh as the spring morning. Maybeshe would be carrying home a bunch of jonquils or a hyacinth plant. Whenwe passed a candy store her footsteps would hesitate and linger. 'Don'tlet me go in,' she would murmur. 'Get me by if you can.' She was veryfond of sweets, and was afraid of growing too plump.
We had delightful Sunday breakfasts together at Lena's. At the back ofher long work-room was a bay-window, large enough to hold a box-couchand a reading-table. We breakfasted in this recess, after drawing thecurtains that shut out the long room, with cutting-tables and wire womenand sheet-draped garments on the walls. The sunlight poured in, makingeverything on the table shine and glitter and the flame of the alcohollamp disappear altogether. Lena's curly black water-spaniel, Prince,breakfasted with us. He sat beside her on the couch and behaved verywell until the Polish violin-teacher across the hall began to practise,when Prince would growl and sniff the air with disgust. Lena's landlord,old Colonel Raleigh, had given her the dog, and at first she was not atall pleased. She had spent too much of her life taking care of animalsto have much sentiment about them. But Prince was a knowing littlebeast, and she grew fond of him. After breakfast I made him do hislessons; play dead dog, shake hands, stand up like a soldier. We usedto put my cadet cap on his head--I had to take military drill at theuniversity--and give him a yard-measure to hold with his front leg. Hisgravity made us laugh immoderately.
Lena's talk always amused me. Antonia had never talked like the peopleabout her. Even after she learned to speak English readily, there wasalways something impulsive and foreign in her speech. But Lena hadpicked up all the conventional expressions she heard at Mrs. Thomas'sdressmaking shop. Those formal phrases, the very flower of small-townproprieties, and the flat commonplaces, nearly all hypocritical in theirorigin, became very funny, very engaging, when they were uttered inLena's soft voice, with her caressing intonation and arch naivete.Nothing could be more diverting than to hear Lena, who was almost ascandid as Nature, call a leg a 'limb' or a house a 'home.'
We used to linger a long while over our coffee in that sunny corner.Lena was never so pretty as in the morning; she wakened fresh with theworld every day, and her eyes had a deeper colour then, like the blueflowers that are never so blue as when they first open. I could sit idleall through a Sunday morning and look at her. Ole Benson's behaviour wasnow no mystery to me.
'There was never any harm in Ole,' she said once. 'People needn't havetroubled themselves. He just liked to come over and sit on the drawsideand forget about his bad luck. I liked to have him. Any company'swelcome when you're off with cattle all the time.'
'But wasn't he always glum?' I asked. 'People said he never talked atall.'
'Sure he talked, in Norwegian. He'd been a sailor on an English boat andhad seen lots of queer places. He had wonderful tattoos. We used to sitand look at them for hours; there wasn't much to look at out there. Hewas like a picture book. He had a ship and a strawberry girl on one arm,and on the other a girl standing before a little house, with a fence andgate and all, waiting for her sweetheart. Farther up his arm, her sailorhad come back and was kissing her. "The Sailor's Return," he called it.'
I admitted it was no wonder Ole liked to look at a pretty girl once in awhile, with such a fright at home.
'You know,' Lena said confidentially, 'he married Mary because hethought she was strong-minded and would keep him straight. He nevercould keep straight on shore. The last time he landed in Liverpool he'dbeen out on a two years' voyage. He was paid off one morning, and by thenext he hadn't a cent left, and his watch and compass were gone. He'dgot with some women, and they'd taken everything. He worked his way tothis country on a little passenger boat. Mary was a stewardess, and shetried to convert him on the way over. He thought she was just the one tokeep him steady. Poor Ole! He used to bring me candy from town, hiddenin his feed-bag. He couldn't refuse anything to a girl. He'd have givenaway his tattoos long ago, if he could. He's one of the people I'msorriest for.'
If I happened to spend an evening with Lena and stayed late, the Polishviolin-teacher across the hall used to come out and watch me descend thestairs, muttering so threateningly that it would have been easy to fallinto a quarrel with him. Lena had told him once that she liked to hearhim practise, so he always left his door open, and watched who came andwent.
There was a coolness between the Pole and Lena's landlord on heraccount. Old Colonel Raleigh had come to Lincoln from Kentucky andinvested an inherited fortune in real estate, at the time of inflatedprices. Now he sat day after day in his office in the Raleigh Block,trying to discover where his money had gone and how he could get some ofit back. He was a widower, and found very little congenial companionshipin this casual Western city. Lena's good looks and gentle mannersappealed to him. He said her voice reminded him of Southern voices, andhe found as many opportunities of hearing it as possible. He painted andpapered her rooms for her that spring, and put in a porcelain bathtub inplace of the tin one that had satisfied the former tenant. While theserepairs were being made, the old gentleman often dropped in to consultLena's preferences. She told me with amusement how Ordinsky, the Pole,had presented himself at her door one evening, and said that if thelandlord was annoying her by his attentions, he would promptly put astop to it.
'I don't exactly know what to do about him,' she said, shaking her head,'he's so sort of wild all the time. I wouldn't like to have him sayanything rough to that nice old man. The colonel is long-winded, butthen I expect he's lonesome. I don't think he cares much for Ordinsky,either. He said once that if I had any complaints to make of myneighbours, I mustn't hesitate.'
One Saturday evening when I was having supper with Lena, we heard aknock at her parlour door, and there stood the Pole, coatless, in adress shirt and collar. Prince dropped on his paws and began to growllike a mastiff, while the visitor apologized, saying that he couldnot possibly come in thus attired, but he begged Lena to lend him somesafety pins.
'Oh, you'll have to come in, Mr. Ordinsky, and let me see what's thematter.' She closed the door behind him. 'Jim, won't
I rapped Prince on the nose, while Ordinsky explained that he had nothad his dress clothes on for a long time, and tonight, when he was goingto play for a concert, his waistcoat had split down the back. He thoughthe could pin it together until he got it to a tailor.
Lena took him by the elbow and turned him round. She laughed when shesaw the long gap in the satin. 'You could never pin that, Mr. Ordinsky.You've kept it folded too long, and the goods is all gone along thecrease. Take it off. I can put a new piece of lining-silk in there foryou in ten minutes.' She disappeared into her work-room with the vest,leaving me to confront the Pole, who stood against the door like awooden figure. He folded his arms and glared at me with his excitable,slanting brown eyes. His head was the shape of a chocolate drop, and wascovered with dry, straw-coloured hair that fuzzed up about his pointedcrown. He had never done more than mutter at me as I passed him, andI was surprised when he now addressed me. 'Miss Lingard,' he saidhaughtily, 'is a young woman for whom I have the utmost, the utmostrespect.'
'So have I,' I said coldly.
He paid no heed to my remark, but began to do rapid finger-exercises onhis shirt-sleeves, as he stood with tightly folded arms.
'Kindness of heart,' he went on, staring at the ceiling, 'sentiment,are not understood in a place like this. The noblest qualities areridiculed. Grinning college boys, ignorant and conceited, what do theyknow of delicacy!'
I controlled my features and tried to speak seriously.
'If you mean me, Mr. Ordinsky, I have known Miss Lingard a long time,and I think I appreciate her kindness. We come from the same town, andwe grew up together.'
His gaze travelled slowly down from the ceiling and rested on me. 'Am Ito understand that you have this young woman's interests at heart? Thatyou do not wish to compromise her?'
'That's a word we don't use much here, Mr. Ordinsky. A girl who makesher own living can ask a college boy to supper without being talkedabout. We take some things for granted.'
'Then I have misjudged you, and I ask your pardon'--he bowed gravely.'Miss Lingard,' he went on, 'is an absolutely trustful heart. Shehas not learned the hard lessons of life. As for you and me, noblesseoblige'--he watched me narrowly.
Lena returned with the vest. 'Come in and let us look at you as you goout, Mr. Ordinsky. I've never seen you in your dress suit,' she said asshe opened the door for him.
A few moments later he reappeared with his violin-case a heavy mufflerabout his neck and thick woollen gloves on his bony hands. Lenaspoke encouragingly to him, and he went off with such an importantprofessional air that we fell to laughing as soon as we had shut thedoor. 'Poor fellow,' Lena said indulgently, 'he takes everything sohard.'
After that Ordinsky was friendly to me, and behaved as if therewere some deep understanding between us. He wrote a furious article,attacking the musical taste of the town, and asked me to do him a greatservice by taking it to the editor of the morning paper. If the editorrefused to print it, I was to tell him that he would be answerable toOrdinsky 'in person.' He declared that he would never retract one word,and that he was quite prepared to lose all his pupils. In spite ofthe fact that nobody ever mentioned his article to him after itappeared--full of typographical errors which he thought intentional--hegot a certain satisfaction from believing that the citizens of Lincolnhad meekly accepted the epithet 'coarse barbarians.' 'You see howit is,' he said to me, 'where there is no chivalry, there is noamour-propre.' When I met him on his rounds now, I thought he carriedhis head more disdainfully than ever, and strode up the steps of frontporches and rang doorbells with more assurance. He told Lena he wouldnever forget how I had stood by him when he was 'under fire.'
All this time, of course, I was drifting. Lena had broken up my seriousmood. I wasn't interested in my classes. I played with Lena and Prince,I played with the Pole, I went buggy-riding with the old colonel, whohad taken a fancy to me and used to talk to me about Lena and the 'greatbeauties' he had known in his youth. We were all three in love withLena.
Before the first of June, Gaston Cleric was offered an instructorship atHarvard College, and accepted it. He suggested that I should follow himin the fall, and complete my course at Harvard. He had found out aboutLena--not from me--and he talked to me seriously.
'You won't do anything here now. You should either quit school and goto work, or change your college and begin again in earnest. Youwon't recover yourself while you are playing about with this handsomeNorwegian. Yes, I've seen her with you at the theatre. She's verypretty, and perfectly irresponsible, I should judge.'
Cleric wrote my grandfather that he would like to take me East with him.To my astonishment, grandfather replied that I might go if I wished. Iwas both glad and sorry on the day when the letter came. I stayed inmy room all evening and thought things over. I even tried to persuademyself that I was standing in Lena's way--it is so necessary to bea little noble!--and that if she had not me to play with, she wouldprobably marry and secure her future.
The next evening I went to call on Lena. I found her propped up on thecouch in her bay-window, with her foot in a big slipper. An awkwardlittle Russian girl whom she had taken into her work-room had dropped aflat-iron on Lena's toe. On the table beside her there was a basketof early summer flowers which the Pole had left after he heard of theaccident. He always managed to know what went on in Lena's apartment.
Lena was telling me some amusing piece of gossip about one of herclients, when I interrupted her and picked up the flower basket.
'This old chap will be proposing to you some day, Lena.'
'Oh, he has--often!' she murmured.
'What! After you've refused him?'
'He doesn't mind that. It seems to cheer him to mention the subject.Old men are like that, you know. It makes them feel important to thinkthey're in love with somebody.'
'The colonel would marry you in a minute. I hope you won't marry someold fellow; not even a rich one.' Lena shifted her pillows and looked upat me in surprise.
'Why, I'm not going to marry anybody. Didn't you know that?'
'Nonsense, Lena. That's what girls say, but you know better. Everyhandsome girl like you marries, of course.'
She shook her head. 'Not me.'
'But why not? What makes you say that?' I persisted.
'Well, it's mainly because I don't want a husband. Men are all rightfor friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky oldfathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what's sensible andwhat's foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer tobe foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.'
'But you'll be lonesome. You'll get tired of this sort of life, andyou'll want a family.'
'Not me. I like to be lonesome. When I went to work for Mrs. Thomas Iwas nineteen years old, and I had never slept a night in my life whenthere weren't three in the bed. I never had a minute to myself exceptwhen I was off with the cattle.'
Usually, when Lena referred to her life in the country at all, shedismissed it with a single remark, humorous or mildly cynical. Buttonight her mind seemed to dwell on those early years. She told me shecouldn't remember a time when she was so little that she wasn't lugginga heavy baby about, helping to wash for babies, trying to keep theirlittle chapped hands and faces clean. She remembered home as a placewhere there were always too many children, a cross man and work pilingup around a sick woman.
'It wasn't mother's fault. She would have made us comfortable if shecould. But that was no life for a girl! After I began to herd and milk,I could never get the smell of the cattle off me. The few underclothes Ihad I kept in a cracker-box. On Saturday nights, after everybody was inbed, then I could take a bath if I wasn't too tired. I could make twotrips to the windmill to carry water, and heat it in the wash-boiler onthe stove. While the water was heating, I could bring in a washtub outof the cave, and take my bath in the kitchen. Then I could put on aclean night-gown and get into bed with two others, who likely
'But it's not all like that,' I objected.
'Near enough. It's all being under somebody's thumb. What's on yourmind, Jim? Are you afraid I'll want you to marry me some day?'
Then I told her I was going away.
'What makes you want to go away, Jim? Haven't I been nice to you?'
'You've been just awfully good to me, Lena,' I blurted. 'I don't thinkabout much else. I never shall think about much else while I'm with you.I'll never settle down and grind if I stay here. You know that.'
I dropped down beside her and sat looking at the floor. I seemed to haveforgotten all my reasonable explanations.
Lena drew close to me, and the little hesitation in her voice that hadhurt me was not there when she spoke again.
'I oughtn't to have begun it, ought I?' she murmured. 'I oughtn't tohave gone to see you that first time. But I did want to. I guess I'vealways been a little foolish about you. I don't know what first put itinto my head, unless it was Antonia, always telling me I mustn't beup to any of my nonsense with you. I let you alone for a long while,though, didn't I?'
She was a sweet creature to those she loved, that Lena Lingard!
At last she sent me away with her soft, slow, renunciatory kiss.
'You aren't sorry I came to see you that time?' she whispered. 'Itseemed so natural. I used to think I'd like to be your first sweetheart.You were such a funny kid!'
She always kissed one as if she were sadly and wisely sending one awayforever.
We said many good-byes before I left Lincoln, but she never tried tohinder me or hold me back. 'You are going, but you haven't gone yet,have you?' she used to say.
My Lincoln chapter closed abruptly. I went home to my grandparents for afew weeks, and afterward visited my relatives in Virginia until I joinedCleric in Boston. I was then nineteen years old.
BOOK IV. The Pioneer Woman's Story
My Antonia by Willa Cather / Western have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on16 votes