My antonia, p.44
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       My Antonia, p.44

           Willa Cather
 

  I

  I TOLD ANTONIA I would come back, but life intervened, and it was twentyyears before I kept my promise. I heard of her from time to time; thatshe married, very soon after I last saw her, a young Bohemian, a cousinof Anton Jelinek; that they were poor, and had a large family. Once whenI was abroad I went into Bohemia, and from Prague I sent Antonia somephotographs of her native village. Months afterward came a letter fromher, telling me the names and ages of her many children, but littleelse; signed, 'Your old friend, Antonia Cuzak.' When I met TinySoderball in Salt Lake, she told me that Antonia had not 'done verywell'; that her husband was not a man of much force, and she had hada hard life. Perhaps it was cowardice that kept me away so long. Mybusiness took me West several times every year, and it was always inthe back of my mind that I would stop in Nebraska some day and go to seeAntonia. But I kept putting it off until the next trip. I did not wantto find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course oftwenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish tolose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better thananything that can ever happen to one again.

  I owe it to Lena Lingard that I went to see Antonia at last. I was inSan Francisco two summers ago when both Lena and Tiny Soderball werein town. Tiny lives in a house of her own, and Lena's shop is in anapartment house just around the corner. It interested me, after somany years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena's accountsoccasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takescare that Tiny doesn't grow too miserly. 'If there's anything I can'tstand,' she said to me in Tiny's presence, 'it's a shabby rich woman.'Tiny smiled grimly and assured me that Lena would never be either shabbyor rich. 'And I don't want to be,' the other agreed complacently.

  Lena gave me a cheerful account of Antonia and urged me to make her avisit.

  'You really ought to go, Jim. It would be such a satisfaction to her.Never mind what Tiny says. There's nothing the matter with Cuzak. You'dlike him. He isn't a hustler, but a rough man would never have suitedTony. Tony has nice children--ten or eleven of them by this time, Iguess. I shouldn't care for a family of that size myself, but somehowit's just right for Tony. She'd love to show them to you.'

  On my way East I broke my journey at Hastings, in Nebraska, and set offwith an open buggy and a fairly good livery team to find the Cuzak farm.At a little past midday, I knew I must be nearing my destination. Setback on a swell of land at my right, I saw a wide farm-house, with a redbarn and an ash grove, and cattle-yards in front that sloped down to thehighroad. I drew up my horses and was wondering whether I should drivein here, when I heard low voices. Ahead of me, in a plum thicket besidethe road, I saw two boys bending over a dead dog. The little one, notmore than four or five, was on his knees, his hands folded, and hisclose-clipped, bare head drooping forward in deep dejection. The otherstood beside him, a hand on his shoulder, and was comforting him ina language I had not heard for a long while. When I stopped my horsesopposite them, the older boy took his brother by the hand and cametoward me. He, too, looked grave. This was evidently a sad afternoon forthem.

  'Are you Mrs. Cuzak's boys?' I asked.

  The younger one did not look up; he was submerged in his own feelings,but his brother met me with intelligent grey eyes. 'Yes, sir.'

  'Does she live up there on the hill? I am going to see her. Get in andride up with me.'

  He glanced at his reluctant little brother. 'I guess we'd better walk.But we'll open the gate for you.'

  I drove along the side-road and they followed slowly behind. When Ipulled up at the windmill, another boy, barefooted and curly-headed, ranout of the barn to tie my team for me. He was a handsome one, this chap,fair-skinned and freckled, with red cheeks and a ruddy pelt as thick asa lamb's wool, growing down on his neck in little tufts. He tied my teamwith two flourishes of his hands, and nodded when I asked him if hismother was at home. As he glanced at me, his face dimpled with a seizureof irrelevant merriment, and he shot up the windmill tower with alightness that struck me as disdainful. I knew he was peering down at meas I walked toward the house.

  Ducks and geese ran quacking across my path. White cats were sunningthemselves among yellow pumpkins on the porch steps. I looked throughthe wire screen into a big, light kitchen with a white floor. I saw along table, rows of wooden chairs against the wall, and a shining rangein one corner. Two girls were washing dishes at the sink, laughingand chattering, and a little one, in a short pinafore, sat on a stoolplaying with a rag baby. When I asked for their mother, one of the girlsdropped her towel, ran across the floor with noiseless bare feet, anddisappeared. The older one, who wore shoes and stockings, came to thedoor to admit me. She was a buxom girl with dark hair and eyes, calm andself-possessed.

  'Won't you come in? Mother will be here in a minute.'

  Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miraclehappened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and takemore courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Antonia came inand stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curlybrown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is,to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as muchand as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other. The eyesthat peered anxiously at me were--simply Antonia's eyes. I had seen noothers like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked atso many thousands of human faces. As I confronted her, the changes grewless apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there, in the fullvigour of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me,speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well.

  'My husband's not at home, sir. Can I do anything?'

  'Don't you remember me, Antonia? Have I changed so much?'

  She frowned into the slanting sunlight that made her brown hair lookredder than it was. Suddenly her eyes widened, her whole face seemed togrow broader. She caught her breath and put out two hard-worked hands.

  'Why, it's Jim! Anna, Yulka, it's Jim Burden!' She had no sooner caughtmy hands than she looked alarmed. 'What's happened? Is anybody dead?'

  I patted her arm.

  'No. I didn't come to a funeral this time. I got off the train atHastings and drove down to see you and your family.'

  She dropped my hand and began rushing about. 'Anton, Yulka, Nina, whereare you all? Run, Anna, and hunt for the boys. They're off looking forthat dog, somewhere. And call Leo. Where is that Leo!' She pulled themout of corners and came bringing them like a mother cat bringing in herkittens. 'You don't have to go right off, Jim? My oldest boy's not here.He's gone with papa to the street fair at Wilber. I won't let you go!You've got to stay and see Rudolph and our papa.' She looked at meimploringly, panting with excitement.

  While I reassured her and told her there would be plenty of time,the barefooted boys from outside were slipping into the kitchen andgathering about her.

  'Now, tell me their names, and how old they are.'

  As she told them off in turn, she made several mistakes about ages, andthey roared with laughter. When she came to my light-footed friend ofthe windmill, she said, 'This is Leo, and he's old enough to be betterthan he is.'

  He ran up to her and butted her playfully with his curly head, likea little ram, but his voice was quite desperate. 'You've forgot! Youalways forget mine. It's mean! Please tell him, mother!' He clenched hisfists in vexation and looked up at her impetuously.

  She wound her forefinger in his yellow fleece and pulled it, watchinghim. 'Well, how old are you?'

  'I'm twelve,' he panted, looking not at me but at her; 'I'm twelve yearsold, and I was born on Easter Day!'

  She nodded to me. 'It's true. He was an Easter baby.'

  The children all looked at me, as if they expected me to exhibitastonishment or delight at this information. Clearly, they were proudof each other, and of being so many. When they had all been introduced,Anna, the eldest daughter, who had met me at the door, scatteredthem gently, and came bringing a white apron which she t
ied round hermother's waist.

  'Now, mother, sit down and talk to Mr. Burden. We'll finish the dishesquietly and not disturb you.'

  Antonia looked about, quite distracted. 'Yes, child, but why don'twe take him into the parlour, now that we've got a nice parlour forcompany?'

  The daughter laughed indulgently, and took my hat from me. 'Well, you'rehere, now, mother, and if you talk here, Yulka and I can listen, too.You can show him the parlour after while.' She smiled at me, and wentback to the dishes, with her sister. The little girl with the rag dollfound a place on the bottom step of an enclosed back stairway, and satwith her toes curled up, looking out at us expectantly.

  'She's Nina, after Nina Harling,' Antonia explained. 'Ain't her eyeslike Nina's? I declare, Jim, I loved you children almost as much as Ilove my own. These children know all about you and Charley and Sally,like as if they'd grown up with you. I can't think of what I want tosay, you've got me so stirred up. And then, I've forgot my English so.I don't often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speakreal well.' She said they always spoke Bohemian at home. The littleones could not speak English at all--didn't learn it until they went toschool.

  'I can't believe it's you, sitting here, in my own kitchen. You wouldn'thave known me, would you, Jim? You've kept so young, yourself. But it'seasier for a man. I can't see how my Anton looks any older than the dayI married him. His teeth have kept so nice. I haven't got many left.But I feel just as young as I used to, and I can do as much work. Oh,we don't have to work so hard now! We've got plenty to help us, papa andme. And how many have you got, Jim?'

  When I told her I had no children, she seemed embarrassed. 'Oh, ain'tthat too bad! Maybe you could take one of my bad ones, now? That Leo;he's the worst of all.' She leaned toward me with a smile. 'And I lovehim the best,' she whispered.

  'Mother!' the two girls murmured reproachfully from the dishes.

  Antonia threw up her head and laughed. 'I can't help it. You know I do.Maybe it's because he came on Easter Day, I don't know. And he's neverout of mischief one minute!'

  I was thinking, as I watched her, how little it mattered--about herteeth, for instance. I know so many women who have kept all the thingsthat she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else wasgone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life. Her skin, so brown andhardened, had not that look of flabbiness, as if the sap beneath it hadbeen secretly drawn away.

  While we were talking, the little boy whom they called Jan came in andsat down on the step beside Nina, under the hood of the stairway. Hewore a funny long gingham apron, like a smock, over his trousers, andhis hair was clipped so short that his head looked white and naked. Hewatched us out of his big, sorrowful grey eyes.

  'He wants to tell you about the dog, mother. They found it dead,' Annasaid, as she passed us on her way to the cupboard.

  Antonia beckoned the boy to her. He stood by her chair, leaning hiselbows on her knees and twisting her apron strings in his slenderfingers, while he told her his story softly in Bohemian, and the tearsbrimmed over and hung on his long lashes. His mother listened, spokesoothingly to him and in a whisper promised him something that made himgive her a quick, teary smile. He slipped away and whispered his secretto Nina, sitting close to her and talking behind his hand.

  When Anna finished her work and had washed her hands, she came and stoodbehind her mother's chair. 'Why don't we show Mr. Burden our new fruitcave?' she asked.

  We started off across the yard with the children at our heels. The boyswere standing by the windmill, talking about the dog; some of them ranahead to open the cellar door. When we descended, they all came downafter us, and seemed quite as proud of the cave as the girls were.

  Ambrosch, the thoughtful-looking one who had directed me down by theplum bushes, called my attention to the stout brick walls and the cementfloor. 'Yes, it is a good way from the house,' he admitted. 'But, yousee, in winter there are nearly always some of us around to come out andget things.'

  Anna and Yulka showed me three small barrels; one full of dill pickles,one full of chopped pickles, and one full of pickled watermelon rinds.

  'You wouldn't believe, Jim, what it takes to feed them all!' theirmother exclaimed. 'You ought to see the bread we bake on Wednesdays andSaturdays! It's no wonder their poor papa can't get rich, he has to buyso much sugar for us to preserve with. We have our own wheat ground forflour--but then there's that much less to sell.'

  Nina and Jan, and a little girl named Lucie, kept shyly pointing out tome the shelves of glass jars. They said nothing, but, glancing at me,traced on the glass with their finger-tips the outline of the cherriesand strawberries and crabapples within, trying by a blissful expressionof countenance to give me some idea of their deliciousness.

  'Show him the spiced plums, mother. Americans don't have those,' saidone of the older boys. 'Mother uses them to make kolaches,' he added.

  Leo, in a low voice, tossed off some scornful remark in Bohemian.

  I turned to him. 'You think I don't know what kolaches are, eh? You'remistaken, young man. I've eaten your mother's kolaches long before thatEaster Day when you were born.'

  'Always too fresh, Leo,' Ambrosch remarked with a shrug.

  Leo dived behind his mother and grinned out at me.

  We turned to leave the cave; Antonia and I went up the stairs first,and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they allcame running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and goldheads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosionof life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for amoment.

  The boys escorted us to the front of the house, which I hadn't yet seen;in farm-houses, somehow, life comes and goes by the back door. Theroof was so steep that the eaves were not much above the forest of tallhollyhocks, now brown and in seed. Through July, Antonia said, thehouse was buried in them; the Bohemians, I remembered, always plantedhollyhocks. The front yard was enclosed by a thorny locust hedge, andat the gate grew two silvery, moth-like trees of the mimosa family. Fromhere one looked down over the cattle-yards, with their two long ponds,and over a wide stretch of stubble which they told me was a ryefield insummer.

  At some distance behind the house were an ash grove and two orchards: acherry orchard, with gooseberry and currant bushes between the rows,and an apple orchard, sheltered by a high hedge from the hot winds. Theolder children turned back when we reached the hedge, but Jan and Ninaand Lucie crept through it by a hole known only to themselves and hidunder the low-branching mulberry bushes.

  As we walked through the apple orchard, grown up in tall bluegrass,Antonia kept stopping to tell me about one tree and another. 'I lovethem as if they were people,' she said, rubbing her hand over the bark.'There wasn't a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, andused to carry water for them, too--after we'd been working in the fieldsall day. Anton, he was a city man, and he used to get discouraged. But Icouldn't feel so tired that I wouldn't fret about these trees when therewas a dry time. They were on my mind like children. Many a night afterhe was asleep I've got up and come out and carried water to the poorthings. And now, you see, we have the good of them. My man worked in theorange groves in Florida, and he knows all about grafting. There ain'tone of our neighbours has an orchard that bears like ours.'

  In the middle of the orchard we came upon a grape arbour, with seatsbuilt along the sides and a warped plank table. The three childrenwere waiting for us there. They looked up at me bashfully and made somerequest of their mother.

  'They want me to tell you how the teacher has the school picnic hereevery year. These don't go to school yet, so they think it's all likethe picnic.'

  After I had admired the arbour sufficiently, the youngsters ran awayto an open place where there was a rough jungle of French pinks, andsquatted down among them, crawling about and measuring with a string.

  'Jan wants to bury his dog there,' Antonia explained. 'I had to tell himhe could. He's kind of like Nina Harling; you remember how
hard she usedto take little things? He has funny notions, like her.'

  We sat down and watched them. Antonia leaned her elbows on the table.There was the deepest peace in that orchard. It was surrounded by atriple enclosure; the wire fence, then the hedge of thorny locusts, thenthe mulberry hedge which kept out the hot winds of summer and held fastto the protecting snows of winter. The hedges were so tall that we couldsee nothing but the blue sky above them, neither the barn roof nor thewindmill. The afternoon sun poured down on us through the drying grapeleaves. The orchard seemed full of sun, like a cup, and we could smellthe ripe apples on the trees. The crabs hung on the branches as thick asbeads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them.Some hens and ducks had crept through the hedge and were pecking atthe fallen apples. The drakes were handsome fellows, with pinkish greybodies, their heads and necks covered with iridescent green featherswhich grew close and full, changing to blue like a peacock's neck.Antonia said they always reminded her of soldiers--some uniform she hadseen in the old country, when she was a child.

  'Are there any quail left now?' I asked. I reminded her how she used togo hunting with me the last summer before we moved to town. 'You weren'ta bad shot, Tony. Do you remember how you used to want to run away andgo for ducks with Charley Harling and me?'

  'I know, but I'm afraid to look at a gun now.' She picked up one of thedrakes and ruffled his green capote with her fingers. 'Ever since I'vehad children, I don't like to kill anything. It makes me kind of faintto wring an old goose's neck. Ain't that strange, Jim?'

  'I don't know. The young Queen of Italy said the same thing once, to afriend of mine. She used to be a great huntswoman, but now she feels asyou do, and only shoots clay pigeons.'

  'Then I'm sure she's a good mother,' Antonia said warmly.

  She told me how she and her husband had come out to this new countrywhen the farm-land was cheap and could be had on easy payments. Thefirst ten years were a hard struggle. Her husband knew very little aboutfarming and often grew discouraged. 'We'd never have got through if Ihadn't been so strong. I've always had good health, thank God, and Iwas able to help him in the fields until right up to the time beforemy babies came. Our children were good about taking care of each other.Martha, the one you saw when she was a baby, was such a help to me, andshe trained Anna to be just like her. My Martha's married now, and has ababy of her own. Think of that, Jim!

  'No, I never got down-hearted. Anton's a good man, and I loved mychildren and always believed they would turn out well. I belong on afarm. I'm never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You rememberwhat sad spells I used to have, when I didn't know what was the matterwith me? I've never had them out here. And I don't mind work a bit, if Idon't have to put up with sadness.' She leaned her chin on her hand andlooked down through the orchard, where the sunlight was growing more andmore golden.

  'You ought never to have gone to town, Tony,' I said, wondering at her.

  She turned to me eagerly.

  'Oh, I'm glad I went! I'd never have known anything about cooking orhousekeeping if I hadn't. I learned nice ways at the Harlings', and I'vebeen able to bring my children up so much better. Don't you think theyare pretty well-behaved for country children? If it hadn't been forwhat Mrs. Harling taught me, I expect I'd have brought them up like wildrabbits. No, I'm glad I had a chance to learn; but I'm thankful none ofmy daughters will ever have to work out. The trouble with me was, Jim, Inever could believe harm of anybody I loved.'

  While we were talking, Antonia assured me that she could keep me for thenight. 'We've plenty of room. Two of the boys sleep in the haymow tillcold weather comes, but there's no need for it. Leo always begs to sleepthere, and Ambrosch goes along to look after him.'

  I told her I would like to sleep in the haymow, with the boys.

  'You can do just as you want to. The chest is full of clean blankets,put away for winter. Now I must go, or my girls will be doing all thework, and I want to cook your supper myself.'

  As we went toward the house, we met Ambrosch and Anton, starting offwith their milking-pails to hunt the cows. I joined them, and Leoaccompanied us at some distance, running ahead and starting up at usout of clumps of ironweed, calling, 'I'm a jack rabbit,' or, 'I'm a bigbull-snake.'

  I walked between the two older boys--straight, well-made fellows, withgood heads and clear eyes. They talked about their school and the newteacher, told me about the crops and the harvest, and how many steersthey would feed that winter. They were easy and confidential with me,as if I were an old friend of the family--and not too old. I felt likea boy in their company, and all manner of forgotten interests revived inme. It seemed, after all, so natural to be walking along a barbed-wirefence beside the sunset, toward a red pond, and to see my shadow movingalong at my right, over the close-cropped grass.

  'Has mother shown you the pictures you sent her from the old country?'Ambrosch asked. 'We've had them framed and they're hung up in theparlour. She was so glad to get them. I don't believe I ever saw herso pleased about anything.' There was a note of simple gratitude in hisvoice that made me wish I had given more occasion for it.

  I put my hand on his shoulder. 'Your mother, you know, was very muchloved by all of us. She was a beautiful girl.'

  'Oh, we know!' They both spoke together; seemed a little surprisedthat I should think it necessary to mention this. 'Everybody likedher, didn't they? The Harlings and your grandmother, and all the townpeople.'

  'Sometimes,' I ventured, 'it doesn't occur to boys that their mother wasever young and pretty.'

  'Oh, we know!' they said again, warmly. 'She's not very old now,'Ambrosch added. 'Not much older than you.'

  'Well,' I said, 'if you weren't nice to her, I think I'd take a cluband go for the whole lot of you. I couldn't stand it if you boys wereinconsiderate, or thought of her as if she were just somebody who lookedafter you. You see I was very much in love with your mother once, and Iknow there's nobody like her.'

  The boys laughed and seemed pleased and embarrassed.

  'She never told us that,' said Anton. 'But she's always talked lotsabout you, and about what good times you used to have. She has a pictureof you that she cut out of the Chicago paper once, and Leo says herecognized you when you drove up to the windmill. You can't tell aboutLeo, though; sometimes he likes to be smart.'

  We brought the cows home to the corner nearest the barn, and the boysmilked them while night came on. Everything was as it should be: thestrong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue andgold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails,the grunts and squeals of the pigs fighting over their supper. I beganto feel the loneliness of the farm-boy at evening, when the chores seemeverlastingly the same, and the world so far away.

  What a tableful we were at supper: two long rows of restless heads inthe lamplight, and so many eyes fastened excitedly upon Antonia as shesat at the head of the table, filling the plates and starting the disheson their way. The children were seated according to a system; a littleone next an older one, who was to watch over his behaviour and to seethat he got his food. Anna and Yulka left their chairs from time to timeto bring fresh plates of kolaches and pitchers of milk.

  After supper we went into the parlour, so that Yulka and Leo could playfor me. Antonia went first, carrying the lamp. There were not nearlychairs enough to go round, so the younger children sat down on thebare floor. Little Lucie whispered to me that they were going to havea parlour carpet if they got ninety cents for their wheat. Leo, witha good deal of fussing, got out his violin. It was old Mr. Shimerda'sinstrument, which Antonia had always kept, and it was too big for him.But he played very well for a self-taught boy. Poor Yulka's efforts werenot so successful. While they were playing, little Nina got up from hercorner, came out into the middle of the floor, and began to do a prettylittle dance on the boards with her bare feet. No one paid the leastattention to her, and when she was through she stole back and sat downby her brother.

  Antonia spoke to Le
o in Bohemian. He frowned and wrinkled up his face.He seemed to be trying to pout, but his attempt only brought out dimplesin unusual places. After twisting and screwing the keys, he played someBohemian airs, without the organ to hold him back, and that went better.The boy was so restless that I had not had a chance to look at hisface before. My first impression was right; he really was faun-like. Hehadn't much head behind his ears, and his tawny fleece grew down thickto the back of his neck. His eyes were not frank and wide apart likethose of the other boys, but were deep-set, gold-green in colour, andseemed sensitive to the light. His mother said he got hurt oftener thanall the others put together. He was always trying to ride the coltsbefore they were broken, teasing the turkey gobbler, seeing just howmuch red the bull would stand for, or how sharp the new axe was.

  After the concert was over, Antonia brought out a big boxful ofphotographs: she and Anton in their wedding clothes, holding hands; herbrother Ambrosch and his very fat wife, who had a farm of her own, andwho bossed her husband, I was delighted to hear; the three BohemianMarys and their large families.

  'You wouldn't believe how steady those girls have turned out,' Antoniaremarked. 'Mary Svoboda's the best butter-maker in all this country, anda fine manager. Her children will have a grand chance.'

  As Antonia turned over the pictures the young Cuzaks stood behind herchair, looking over her shoulder with interested faces. Nina and Jan,after trying to see round the taller ones, quietly brought a chair,climbed up on it, and stood close together, looking. The little boyforgot his shyness and grinned delightedly when familiar faces came intoview. In the group about Antonia I was conscious of a kind of physicalharmony. They leaned this way and that, and were not afraid to toucheach other. They contemplated the photographs with pleased recognition;looked at some admiringly, as if these characters in their mother'sgirlhood had been remarkable people. The little children, who couldnot speak English, murmured comments to each other in their rich oldlanguage.

  Antonia held out a photograph of Lena that had come from San Franciscolast Christmas. 'Does she still look like that? She hasn't been homefor six years now.' Yes, it was exactly like Lena, I told her; a comelywoman, a trifle too plump, in a hat a trifle too large, but with theold lazy eyes, and the old dimpled ingenuousness still lurking at thecorners of her mouth.

  There was a picture of Frances Harling in a befrogged riding costumethat I remembered well. 'Isn't she fine!' the girls murmured. They allassented. One could see that Frances had come down as a heroine in thefamily legend. Only Leo was unmoved.

  'And there's Mr. Harling, in his grand fur coat. He was awfully rich,wasn't he, mother?'

  'He wasn't any Rockefeller,' put in Master Leo, in a very low tone,which reminded me of the way in which Mrs. Shimerda had once said thatmy grandfather 'wasn't Jesus.' His habitual scepticism was like a directinheritance from that old woman.

  'None of your smart speeches,' said Ambrosch severely.

  Leo poked out a supple red tongue at him, but a moment later brokeinto a giggle at a tintype of two men, uncomfortably seated, with anawkward-looking boy in baggy clothes standing between them: Jake andOtto and I! We had it taken, I remembered, when we went to Black Hawk onthe first Fourth of July I spent in Nebraska. I was glad to see Jake'sgrin again, and Otto's ferocious moustaches. The young Cuzaks knew allabout them. 'He made grandfather's coffin, didn't he?' Anton asked.

  'Wasn't they good fellows, Jim?' Antonia's eyes filled. 'To this dayI'm ashamed because I quarrelled with Jake that way. I was saucy andimpertinent to him, Leo, like you are with people sometimes, and I wishsomebody had made me behave.'

  'We aren't through with you, yet,' they warned me. They produced aphotograph taken just before I went away to college: a tall youth instriped trousers and a straw hat, trying to look easy and jaunty.

  'Tell us, Mr. Burden,' said Charley, 'about the rattler you killedat the dog-town. How long was he? Sometimes mother says six feet andsometimes she says five.'

  These children seemed to be upon very much the same terms with Antoniaas the Harling children had been so many years before. They seemedto feel the same pride in her, and to look to her for stories andentertainment as we used to do.

  It was eleven o'clock when I at last took my bag and some blankets andstarted for the barn with the boys. Their mother came to the door withus, and we tarried for a moment to look out at the white slope of thecorral and the two ponds asleep in the moonlight, and the long sweep ofthe pasture under the star-sprinkled sky.

  The boys told me to choose my own place in the haymow, and I lay downbefore a big window, left open in warm weather, that looked out into thestars. Ambrosch and Leo cuddled up in a hay-cave, back under the eaves,and lay giggling and whispering. They tickled each other and tossed andtumbled in the hay; and then, all at once, as if they had been shot,they were still. There was hardly a minute between giggles and blandslumber.

  I lay awake for a long while, until the slow-moving moon passed mywindow on its way up the heavens. I was thinking about Antonia and herchildren; about Anna's solicitude for her, Ambrosch's grave affection,Leo's jealous, animal little love. That moment, when they all cametumbling out of the cave into the light, was a sight any man might havecome far to see. Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mindthat did not fade--that grew stronger with time. In my memory therewas a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts ofone's first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sidesof my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia inher black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave inthe snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work-team along the eveningsky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which werecognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken.She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had thatsomething which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breathfor a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning incommon things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her handon a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel thegoodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strongthings of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless inserving generous emotions.

  It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a richmine of life, like the founders of early races.

 
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