My antonia, p.42
My Antonia, p.42Willa Cather
ON THE FIRST OR second day of August I got a horse and cart and set outfor the high country, to visit the Widow Steavens. The wheat harvest wasover, and here and there along the horizon I could see black puffs ofsmoke from the steam threshing-machines. The old pasture land was nowbeing broken up into wheatfields and cornfields, the red grass wasdisappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing. Therewere wooden houses where the old sod dwellings used to be, and littleorchards, and big red barns; all this meant happy children, contentedwomen, and men who saw their lives coming to a fortunate issue. Thewindy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enrichedand mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had goneinto it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. Thechanges seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching thegrowth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree andsandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation ofthe land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.
When I drew up to our old windmill, the Widow Steavens came out to meetme. She was brown as an Indian woman, tall, and very strong. When I waslittle, her massive head had always seemed to me like a Roman senator's.I told her at once why I had come.
'You'll stay the night with us, Jimmy? I'll talk to you after supper. Ican take more interest when my work is off my mind. You've no prejudiceagainst hot biscuit for supper? Some have, these days.'
While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I lookedat my watch and sighed; it was three o'clock, and I knew that I must eathim at six.
After supper Mrs. Steavens and I went upstairs to the old sitting-room,while her grave, silent brother remained in the basement to read hisfarm papers. All the windows were open. The white summer moon wasshining outside, the windmill was pumping lazily in the light breeze. Myhostess put the lamp on a stand in the corner, and turned it low becauseof the heat. She sat down in her favourite rocking-chair and settleda little stool comfortably under her tired feet. 'I'm troubled withcalluses, Jim; getting old,' she sighed cheerfully. She crossed herhands in her lap and sat as if she were at a meeting of some kind.
'Now, it's about that dear Antonia you want to know? Well, you've cometo the right person. I've watched her like she'd been my own daughter.
'When she came home to do her sewing that summer before she was tobe married, she was over here about every day. They've never had asewing-machine at the Shimerdas', and she made all her things here. Itaught her hemstitching, and I helped her to cut and fit. She usedto sit there at that machine by the window, pedalling the life out ofit--she was so strong--and always singing them queer Bohemian songs,like she was the happiest thing in the world.
'"Antonia," I used to say, "don't run that machine so fast. You won'thasten the day none that way."
'Then she'd laugh and slow down for a little, but she'd soon forget andbegin to pedal and sing again. I never saw a girl work harder to go tohousekeeping right and well-prepared. Lovely table-linen the Harlingshad given her, and Lena Lingard had sent her nice things from Lincoln.We hemstitched all the tablecloths and pillow-cases, and some ofthe sheets. Old Mrs. Shimerda knit yards and yards of lace for herunderclothes. Tony told me just how she meant to have everything in herhouse. She'd even bought silver spoons and forks, and kept them in hertrunk. She was always coaxing brother to go to the post-office. Heryoung man did write her real often, from the different towns along hisrun.
'The first thing that troubled her was when he wrote that his run hadbeen changed, and they would likely have to live in Denver. "I'm acountry girl," she said, "and I doubt if I'll be able to manage so wellfor him in a city. I was counting on keeping chickens, and maybe a cow."She soon cheered up, though.
'At last she got the letter telling her when to come. She was shaken byit; she broke the seal and read it in this room. I suspected then thatshe'd begun to get faint-hearted, waiting; though she'd never let me seeit.
'Then there was a great time of packing. It was in March, if I rememberrightly, and a terrible muddy, raw spell, with the roads bad for haulingher things to town. And here let me say, Ambrosch did the right thing.He went to Black Hawk and bought her a set of plated silver in a purplevelvet box, good enough for her station. He gave her three hundreddollars in money; I saw the cheque. He'd collected her wages all thosefirst years she worked out, and it was but right. I shook him by thehand in this room. "You're behaving like a man, Ambrosch," I said, "andI'm glad to see it, son."
''Twas a cold, raw day he drove her and her three trunks into Black Hawkto take the night train for Denver--the boxes had been shipped before.He stopped the wagon here, and she ran in to tell me good-bye. She threwher arms around me and kissed me, and thanked me for all I'd done forher. She was so happy she was crying and laughing at the same time, andher red cheeks was all wet with rain.
'"You're surely handsome enough for any man," I said, looking her over.
'She laughed kind of flighty like, and whispered, "Good-bye, dearhouse!" and then ran out to the wagon. I expect she meant that for youand your grandmother, as much as for me, so I'm particular to tell you.This house had always been a refuge to her.
'Well, in a few days we had a letter saying she got to Denver safe, andhe was there to meet her. They were to be married in a few days. He wastrying to get his promotion before he married, she said. I didn't likethat, but I said nothing. The next week Yulka got a postal card, sayingshe was "well and happy." After that we heard nothing. A month went by,and old Mrs. Shimerda began to get fretful. Ambrosch was as sulky withme as if I'd picked out the man and arranged the match.
'One night brother William came in and said that on his way back fromthe fields he had passed a livery team from town, driving fast out thewest road. There was a trunk on the front seat with the driver, andanother behind. In the back seat there was a woman all bundled up;but for all her veils, he thought 'twas Antonia Shimerda, or AntoniaDonovan, as her name ought now to be.
'The next morning I got brother to drive me over. I can walk still, butmy feet ain't what they used to be, and I try to save myself. The linesoutside the Shimerdas' house was full of washing, though it was themiddle of the week. As we got nearer, I saw a sight that made myheart sink--all those underclothes we'd put so much work on, out thereswinging in the wind. Yulka came bringing a dishpanful of wrung clothes,but she darted back into the house like she was loath to see us. WhenI went in, Antonia was standing over the tubs, just finishing up a bigwashing. Mrs. Shimerda was going about her work, talking and scoldingto herself. She didn't so much as raise her eyes. Tony wiped her hand onher apron and held it out to me, looking at me steady but mournful. WhenI took her in my arms she drew away. "Don't, Mrs. Steavens," she says,"you'll make me cry, and I don't want to."
'I whispered and asked her to come out-of-doors with me. I knew shecouldn't talk free before her mother. She went out with me, bareheaded,and we walked up toward the garden.
'"I'm not married, Mrs. Steavens," she says to me very quiet andnatural-like, "and I ought to be."
'"Oh, my child," says I, "what's happened to you? Don't be afraid totell me!"
'She sat down on the drawside, out of sight of the house. "He's run awayfrom me," she said. "I don't know if he ever meant to marry me."
'"You mean he's thrown up his job and quit the country?" says I.
'"He didn't have any job. He'd been fired; blacklisted for knocking downfares. I didn't know. I thought he hadn't been treated right. He wassick when I got there. He'd just come out of the hospital. He lived withme till my money gave out, and afterward I found he hadn't really beenhunting work at all. Then he just didn't come back. One nice fellow atthe station told me, when I kept going to look for him, to give it up.He said he was afraid Larry'd gone bad and wouldn't come back any more.I guess he's gone to Old Mexico. The conductors get rich down there,collecting half-fares off the natives and robbing the company. He wasalways talking about fellows who had got ahead that way."
'Jimmy, I sat right down on that bank beside her and made lament.I cried like a young thing. I couldn't help it. I was just aboutheart-broke. It was one of them lovely warm May days, and the wind wasblowing and the colts jumping around in the pastures; but I felt bowedwith despair. My Antonia, that had so much good in her, had come homedisgraced. And that Lena Lingard, that was always a bad one, say whatyou will, had turned out so well, and was coming home here every summerin her silks and her satins, and doing so much for her mother. I givecredit where credit is due, but you know well enough, Jim Burden, thereis a great difference in the principles of those two girls. And here itwas the good one that had come to grief! I was poor comfort to her. Imarvelled at her calm. As we went back to the house, she stopped to feelof her clothes to see if they was drying well, and seemed to take pridein their whiteness--she said she'd been living in a brick block, whereshe didn't have proper conveniences to wash them.
'The next time I saw Antonia, she was out in the fields ploughing corn.All that spring and summer she did the work of a man on the farm; itseemed to be an understood thing. Ambrosch didn't get any other handto help him. Poor Marek had got violent and been sent away to aninstitution a good while back. We never even saw any of Tony's prettydresses. She didn't take them out of her trunks. She was quiet andsteady. Folks respected her industry and tried to treat her as ifnothing had happened. They talked, to be sure; but not like they wouldif she'd put on airs. She was so crushed and quiet that nobody seemed towant to humble her. She never went anywhere. All that summer she neveronce came to see me. At first I was hurt, but I got to feel that it wasbecause this house reminded her of too much. I went over there when Icould, but the times when she was in from the fields were the times whenI was busiest here. She talked about the grain and the weather as ifshe'd never had another interest, and if I went over at night she alwayslooked dead weary. She was afflicted with toothache; one tooth afteranother ulcerated, and she went about with her face swollen half thetime. She wouldn't go to Black Hawk to a dentist for fear of meetingpeople she knew. Ambrosch had got over his good spell long ago, and wasalways surly. Once I told him he ought not to let Antonia work so hardand pull herself down. He said, "If you put that in her head, you betterstay home." And after that I did.
'Antonia worked on through harvest and threshing, though she was toomodest to go out threshing for the neighbours, like when she was youngand free. I didn't see much of her until late that fall when she begunto herd Ambrosch's cattle in the open ground north of here, up towardthe big dog-town. Sometimes she used to bring them over the west hill,there, and I would run to meet her and walk north a piece with her. Shehad thirty cattle in her bunch; it had been dry, and the pasture wasshort, or she wouldn't have brought them so far.
'It was a fine open fall, and she liked to be alone. While the steersgrazed, she used to sit on them grassy banks along the draws and sunherself for hours. Sometimes I slipped up to visit with her, when shehadn't gone too far.
'"It does seem like I ought to make lace, or knit like Lena used to,"she said one day, "but if I start to work, I look around and forgetto go on. It seems such a little while ago when Jim Burden and I wasplaying all over this country. Up here I can pick out the very placeswhere my father used to stand. Sometimes I feel like I'm not going tolive very long, so I'm just enjoying every day of this fall."
'After the winter begun she wore a man's long overcoat and boots, and aman's felt hat with a wide brim. I used to watch her coming andgoing, and I could see that her steps were getting heavier. One day inDecember, the snow began to fall. Late in the afternoon I saw Antoniadriving her cattle homeward across the hill. The snow was flying roundher and she bent to face it, looking more lonesome-like to me thanusual. "Deary me," I says to myself, "the girl's stayed out too late.It'll be dark before she gets them cattle put into the corral." I seemedto sense she'd been feeling too miserable to get up and drive them.
'That very night, it happened. She got her cattle home, turned them intothe corral, and went into the house, into her room behind the kitchen,and shut the door. There, without calling to anybody, without a groan,she lay down on the bed and bore her child.
'I was lifting supper when old Mrs. Shimerda came running down thebasement stairs, out of breath and screeching:
'"Baby come, baby come!" she says. "Ambrosch much like devil!"
'Brother William is surely a patient man. He was just ready to sit downto a hot supper after a long day in the fields. Without a word he roseand went down to the barn and hooked up his team. He got us over thereas quick as it was humanly possible. I went right in, and began to dofor Antonia; but she laid there with her eyes shut and took no accountof me. The old woman got a tubful of warm water to wash the baby. Ioverlooked what she was doing and I said out loud: "Mrs. Shimerda,don't you put that strong yellow soap near that baby. You'll blister itslittle skin." I was indignant.
'"Mrs. Steavens," Antonia said from the bed, "if you'll look in the toptray of my trunk, you'll see some fine soap." That was the first wordshe spoke.
'After I'd dressed the baby, I took it out to show it to Ambrosch. Hewas muttering behind the stove and wouldn't look at it.
'"You'd better put it out in the rain-barrel," he says.
'"Now, see here, Ambrosch," says I, "there's a law in this land, don'tforget that. I stand here a witness that this baby has come into theworld sound and strong, and I intend to keep an eye on what befalls it."I pride myself I cowed him.
'Well I expect you're not much interested in babies, but Antonia's goton fine. She loved it from the first as dearly as if she'd had a ringon her finger, and was never ashamed of it. It's a year and eightmonths old now, and no baby was ever better cared-for. Antonia is anatural-born mother. I wish she could marry and raise a family, but Idon't know as there's much chance now.'
I slept that night in the room I used to have when I was a little boy,with the summer wind blowing in at the windows, bringing the smell ofthe ripe fields. I lay awake and watched the moonlight shining over thebarn and the stacks and the pond, and the windmill making its old darkshadow against the blue sky.
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