My Ántonia – First Edition 1918
Six of us met to read from this classic novel of American Literature. H.L. Mencken, the acerbic critic from Baltimore, said: “I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real . . . and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.” He added, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.”
Priya, Shoba, Talitha
Nevertheless two of the readers struggled to find a coherent plot until one realised there was not meant to be a plot at all, just a series of sketches by Jim, the adult city-living lawyer, of his early childhood on the prairie in Nebraska. It is a novel of nostalgic remembrance into which enters the enigmatic Ántonia, a girl a few years older, in whom Jim invests all his romantic longing.
KumKum who chose the novel for reading was loyal in defence of its merits, and could answer all the objections others raised. She had studied this novel in one of her lit courses in West Virginia University. A matter unnoticed by other readers was the pervasive class distinctions that separated the children, and was imposed by their parents, or in Jim's case, by his grandparents. There goes egalitarian America!
KumKum listens to Zakia reading
There are astonishing descriptions of the prairie in this novel and many of its best passages are about nature. Of sex there is nothing, zilch (Ántonia has no Oomph! was Priya's verdict). But there is plenty of nostalgia to justify the epigraph of the poem taken from Virgil's Georgics, Book III: Optima dies … prima fugit (the best days are the first to flee).
KumKum, Joe, Priya
Here we are, with the new grandmother, seated in the centre:
back: Joe, Zakia, Priya sitting: KumKum, Talitha, Shoba
Full Account of the Reading of My Ántonia by Willa Cather on Sep 18, 2015
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Present: Priya, KumKum, Talitha, Shoba, Zakia, Joe
Absent: Pamela, Saras, Gopa were detained at the last minute after confirming.
Sunil (Freemason meeting), CJ (away to Mumbai on posting), Ankush (incommunicado), Kavita (declined), Thommo (away on European safari), Preeti (away to Mumbai)
The next session, on Poetry, will be held on Thursday Oct 1, by common consent.
There's a Web page which provides the plain text text of the novel:
A scholarly edition is available on the Web from the University of Nebraska:
It is also available as a free audiobook on Youtube:
Here are the DREs for My Ántonia; I hope the readers will attempt them all and provide answers, as long or as short as they please, by Sep 27, 2015.
Diligent Reader Exercises
Two easy ones:
1. Which capitalised word occurs most frequently in the novel, leaving aside names of people?
2. How many children did Ántonia have? Name them.
And two requiring a little thought, and for that reason, more interesting :
3. Jim's relationship with Ántonia: was it deep friendship, or impossible love? Whichever your answer, justify it by reasoning and quoting from the novel.
4. Consider the epigraph: Optima dies … prima fugit. Discuss one or two ways in which it is connected with the theme(s) of the novel.
Cather was buried in the Old Burying Ground, behind the Jaffrey Center Meeting House in Jaffrey, New Hampshire
To read more about her and Edith Lewis, her companion, see:
Autumn Prairie Landscape in Kansas - photo by James Nedresky
"Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass ..."
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Webster County, Nebraska
As the one who proposed the novel, she introduced it in these words:
“I selected Willa Cather's My Ántonia for KRG's 2015 reading list.
The author's name is not familiar outside the US, although she is recognised as one of the foremost female authors of the Modern American Literature. My Ántonia is given the 'Classic' tag, as well and it is prescribed reading in many college courses. It is the last of her popular prairie trilogy (O Pioneer!, and The Song of the Lark being the other two), and is her best book. Everything that she has been credited to her as an author finds its best exemplification in this novel. Almost all her novels dwell in nostalgia; away from the present, and no allusion to the future. My Ántonia is no exception to that.
Willa Cather is celebrated in her writing for the slow pace, the less complicated lives, and the battering ordinary people receive in their struggle for living. The word 'battered' occurs several times in the novel. She had a special respect for the pioneers of the American mid-west and for the immigrants who cultivated the soil.
Willa Cather had a beautiful style of writing; the words she chose in describing people and nature are remarkable. The dialogue is rooted in earthy matters, and the events are true to her recollection of her own growing up in those vast, lonely stretches of land.
She was kindred to the Impressionist painters who worked a continent apart at the same time; quick, coloured descriptions, vivid evocations of nature in its varied light patterns, everything strikingly alive in her words!
Willa Cather was a journalist at first. She came to writing novels and stories, later, and was successful in both fields. She was awarded a Pulitzer, and other prizes in her life time, even posthumously. She lived from 1873 to 1947 and never married.”
KumKum was initially dismayed that Joe had selected the same passage as her, but Joe keeps a reserve of 4 or 5, knowing that other readers could pre-empt something he chose. At this reading his second passage of choice was was also taken, by Talitha.
Here are some quotes that indicate the relationship between Ántonia and Jim:
I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man.
You really are a part of me.
Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?
I took her hands and held them against my breast
I'll come back
Joe asked: why did Jim come back? Someone gave the trivial answer: to see Ántonia. The reason surely goes deeper. Talitha and Joe felt he was attracted to Ántonia in a deeper way than he could reconcile with his state of life.
A further question was: if he wanted her to be sweet to him why wasn't he more proactive? KumKum's answer, according to the professor who taught this book to her graduate class in USA (as one among a dozen novels for the course) was that a caste or class system separated the Bohemian immigrants from Jim and his grandparents. But wasn't America supposed to erase all those class differences, especially out in the prairie, where all, irrespective of class, faced the same hardships, asked Joe? No, said KumKum, for Jim's grandparents were relatively well-off owning land and having house-help, so they would not have countenanced Jim marrying a lower-class of person. Apart from the social difference there was the religious barrier too; Jim was a Protestant, the Shimerdas were Catholics.
Joe advanced another reason: Ántonia, being four years older (a big difference at that age particularly since girls develop faster) looked on Jim from the beginning as a kid, and never got over that attitude. Fond of him, maybe, but definitely Ántonia did not view Jim as potential spouse material. Mothering a guy is a sure way of killing romantic possibilities, said Joe; Priya seemed to agree. The grandmother of Jim was a definite obstacle, said KumKum. Talitha liked the book, but she did not acquire a consuming interest in Ántonia as a character.
Joe observed that no modern immigrant to America would go to work in agriculture, except the Mexicans who arrive in the border states to pick crops; but they are day-labourers with no ambition to own land or develop their own farm.
She read the short passage when all the hired girls go on a picnic. It's a descriptive passage of nature under the prairie sun.
Continuing the previous discussion, Joe said Ántonia's hugs were all comforting, but hardly romantic embraces. KumKum replied that Ántonia was not a romantic at all. Then why, asked Joe, did she run off to a remote place chasing a man called Donovan who had apparently swept her off her feet; wasn't this the sort of irrational, impetuous, behaviour expected of a romantic? Of Jim, Talitha said, he keeps dreaming and dreaming, and makes no headway. KumKum reiterated that Ántonia came from a very conservative background, that of a village girl in Bohemia.
Mother Shimerda visiting the Burdens in the early part of the story was the passage Talitha read with great comic effect, imitating what might have been the illiterate peasant accent of an immigrant who didn't know English. When grasping for an iron pot in the Burden kitchen, Mother Shimerda exclaims: 'You got many, Shimerdas no got.' That cracked up everyone, rendered in Talitha's imagined Bohemian accent. The sad recounting of Father Shimerda's giving up the fiddle, instead of coming off as doleful, took on a hilarious aspect as Talitha narrated it in her put-on accent: 'He never make music any more.' We laughed again to see the action of the following sentence in our mind's eye: "Ántonia and her mother go over the hill on their miserable horse, carrying our iron pot with them …"
KumKum sympathised with the Shimerdas; they were poor. Talitha said it looked as if the Shimerdas had money in their country; so why did they emigrate? Joe thought the reasons for emigration are various, and different in different periods of time. At one time lands like America were seen as a place where anyone could aspire to a middle-class life with some hard work initially. It's getting more difficult in present-day America as the middle-class gets squeezed, and only the top half percent are increasing their standard of living, the rest are stagnating. New Zealand, Canada, etc are now favoured lands for emigration from India, said Priya.
Shoba read a piece Talitha suggested on the hired girls from the farm going off to a dance. Jim gets a chance to take Ántonia out, and applies to her mouth a goodnight kiss of such intensity that Ántonia threatens to report it to his grandmother. The subsequent conversation brings out the emotional dynamic between Jim and Ántonia:
I'm just awful proud of you. You won't go and get mixed up with the Swedes, will you?'
'I don't care anything about any of them but you,' I said. 'And you'll always treat me like a kid, suppose.'
She laughed and threw her arms around me. 'I expect I will, but you're a kid I'm awful fond of, anyhow!
This treating of him as a kid was the root cause of why Jim could never make out with Ántonia and get further into the love angle with her. How he longed in his dreams to be kissing Ántonia – but it used to be Lena Lingard instead who crowded his dreams.
KumKum remarked that Ántonia lost her childhood by having to look after so many of her younger siblings. Her mamenka was quite incompetent as a mother, as Zakia said, and Ántonia had to take her place.
The talk changed to class distinctions in the abstract, which KumKum had already alluded to. Priya thought it was something the Intelligent Reader could infer. Not the Diligent Reader, asked Joe, jokingly? The romantic feeling toward Ántonia is all one-sided, all on the part of Jim. Joe then suggested that that neither class consciousness, nor societal pressure, would have deterred Jim from courting and marrying Ántonia. He showed enough independence by going off to the dances in spite of his grandmother's disapproval.
Priya was satisfied that the novel depicted characters as human and believable with all their faults. Even Joe was reconciled ultimately to the ending. To recall a line from the blog post for Tess of the d'Urbervilles: “Don't we all want love to triumph!” But art and love combine most often to end in a tragic outcome.
Her passage was horrific: a bride traveling in a sleigh is thrown to the wolves by the sleighman in order to escape from an attack in the snowy wastes of Russia. The two men in charge are then ostracised by their community for their callous act. Their escape is to emigrate, and run away from the burden of their past, Talitha said.
Priya characterised the passage as a scene in which the author has used a dioramic technique to imprint the horror of being eaten by wolves. She said the human instinct is to save your own skin, and therefore the sleighmen sacrificed the bride to save themselves.
Talitha mentioned in this context the increasing trespass by wild animals (panthers, leopards, tigers, etc) into the populated areas of Coonoor (Talitha has a house there) because forest cover is being depleted. Where will the gaur go?
The novel starts with a night ride in a wagon when Jim, ten years old, lies at the back on a buffalo hide and watches the starlit sky, “the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it.” Thus begins a series of childhood sketches detailing the time Jim was sent to join his grandparents in Nebraska after his parents both died. A girl from Bohemia, a region of the present-day Czech republic, Ántonia, a few years older becomes his companion in exploring the prairie and experiencing the hard life on a farm in the pioneer mid-west days.
He teaches her English, she works the equal of any man at the farm and supports her family as the most intelligent and hardworking and capable of her family. More than Ambrosch, her elder brother, she is the man in the family. Yet, she is innocent, free of wiles, eager to learn and make friends; her beauty is hinted at but not described in seductive terms. The early part of the book is about farming, life on the prairie, and the circle of young children of the families who live not far from each other. The next is about teenage and growing up, and taking on jobs in households to earn money. The final section is the growing apart of Jim from his prairie childhood, becoming a college student and then a lawyer, and finally coming back after twenty years to Nebraska to see Ántonia, who has never left his mind entirely. She is married with umpteen children, he has yet to marry. The visit is a welcome back by the entire family of the Cuzaks, and Jim goes back a wise and sad man, but still happy that that Ántonia and he mean so much to each other. Optima dies … prima fugit. Their early days, and their magical childhood on the prairie, have fled.
Joe chose the passage where Jim takes leave of Lena Lingard, leaving the town of Lincoln where he had been studying at the University of Nebraska:
Lena is the one who makes good and exploits the stitch-craft she learned when she worked in houses. She has become a successful independent businesswoman in dressmaking, and demonstrates a sense of style. She disavows marriage:
“I’m not going to marry anybody. Didn’t you know that?”
“It’s all being under somebody’s thumb.”
Lena sends Jim away with a soft, slow, renunciatory kiss. What a lovely term for the sending away of Jim with a graceful closure!
Zakia ascribed charm to this girl, Lena. Joe called her a liberated woman, for whom dependence on men for a livelihood didn't count. Priya said Lena had the talent to make it on her own.
Talitha cited another passage describing Ántonia:
She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
Someone said that though Ántonia was a true earth mother in breeding so many children, she was not matronly. She didn't have 'Oomph!' said Priya; the author describes her as a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. We have to take it on Jim's authority when he tells the Cuzak children, 'Your mother, you know, was very much loved by all of us. She was a beautiful girl.'
Joe laughed and recreated the scene of Jim returning to look up Ántonia, and seeing children, coming out of the woodwork at the farm – two emerging from the plum thicket, one out of the barn, one curly-haired one wriggling into her mother's lap, a little girl with a rag-doll, another fellow comes down from the windmill, etc.
Shoba threw light on the phrase 'throw the baby out with the bathwater.' One of the claims is that in mediaeval times people shared scarce bathwater and by the time that the baby was bathed the water was so murky that the baby was in danger of being thrown out unseen:
But this origin of the phrase is labelled complete twaddle at the reference above.
KumKum mentioned that Ántonia was loved in every house she worked.
Talitha, making a wry face, said the novel was good writing and all that, but there seemed to be something lacking to pull it all together. Joe agreed that he kept reading and reading for 150 pages and was still looking for something to form a story. He realised later that the book could be seen as a series of vignettes of a childhood fondly remembered, for the major part. There is no story line or plot. Only toward the last third of the book does it pick up. Kya, yaar, masala kahan hai? was the question that kept recurring in his mind.
To emphasise her point, Talitha mentioned that in Remains of the Day Ishiguro could have made the motor ride by Stevens the butler truly interesting. As Joe remarked in that blog post:
It [the novel] also fails to provide the kind of lyrical language in which Thomas Hardy could clothe his novels when describing much the same countryside through which Stevens travels in his Ford.
One of the remarkable things that fell out of this session was that Joe and Talitha, normally at odds in their judgment of novels, were largely in agreement about My Ántonia. This was Zakia's verdict and everyone laughed.
Willa Cather birthplace marker in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
1. Talitha had a grandchild named Ruth Elizabeth Mathew, born in Baltimore on Sep 20, 2015. She brought us all kaju katli to celebrate the occasion.
2. Priya has moved into her new house in Mundamveli, from Fort Kochi 'where all good people live.'
p. 205 Jim meets Ántonia after 20 years (914 words)
'I thought you'd come, Jim. I heard you were at Mrs. Steavens's last night. I've been looking for you all day.'
She was thinner than I had ever seen her, and looked as Mrs. Steavens said, 'worked down,' but there was a new kind of strength in the gravity of her face, and her colour still gave her that look of deep-seated health and ardour. Still? Why, it flashed across me that though so much had happened in her life and in mine, she was barely twenty-four years old.
Ántonia stuck her fork in the ground, and instinctively we walked toward that unploughed patch at the crossing of the roads as the fittest place to talk to each other. We sat down outside the sagging wire fence that shut Mr. Shimerda's plot off from the rest of the world. The tall red grass had never been cut there. It had died down in winter and come up again in the spring until it was as thick and shrubby as some tropical garden-grass. I found myself telling her everything: why I had decided to study law and to go into the law office of one of my mother's relatives in New York City; about Gaston Cleric's death from pneumonia last winter, and the difference it had made in my life. She wanted to know about my friends, and my way of living, and my dearest hopes.
'Of course it means you are going away from us for good,' she said with a sigh. 'But that don't mean I'll lose you. Look at my papa here; he's been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him.'
She asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. 'I'd always be miserable in a city. I'd die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody's put into this world for something, and I know what I've got to do. I'm going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had. I'm going to take care of that girl, Jim.'
I told her I knew she would. 'Do you know, Ántonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.'
She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, 'How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've disappointed you so? Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I'm so glad we had each other when we were little. I can't wait till my little girl's old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You'll always remember me when you think about old times, won't you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.'
As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.
We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory.
'I'll come back,' I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness.
'Perhaps you will'—I felt rather than saw her smile. 'But even if you don't, you're here, like my father. So I won't be lonesome.'
As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.
p. 155 The hired girls go on a picnic (284 words)
We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.
Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
The Shimerdas Ch XIII p. 58 Mother Shimerda visits the Burdens (575 words)
One morning, during this interval of fine weather, Ántonia and her mother rode over on one of their shaggy old horses to pay us a visit. It was the first time Mrs. Shimerda had been to our house, and she ran about examining our carpets and curtains and furniture, all the while commenting upon them to her daughter in an envious, complaining tone. In the kitchen she caught up an iron pot that stood on the back of the stove and said: 'You got many, Shimerdas no got.' I thought it weak-minded of grandmother to give the pot to her.
After dinner, when she was helping to wash the dishes, she said, tossing her head: 'You got many things for cook. If I got all things like you, I make much better.'
She was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her. I was so annoyed that I felt coldly even toward Ántonia and listened unsympathetically when she told me her father was not well.
'My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music. He don't like this kawntree.'
'People who don't like this country ought to stay at home,' I said severely. 'We don't make them come here.'
'He not want to come, never!' she burst out. 'My mamenka make him come. All the time she say: "America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls." My papa, he cry for leave his old friends what make music with him. He love very much the man what play the long horn like this'—she indicated a slide trombone. "They go to school together and are friends from boys. But my mama, she want Ambrosch for be rich, with many cattle."'
'Your mama,' I said angrily, 'wants other people's things.'
"Your grandfather is rich," she retorted fiercely. 'Why he not help my papa? Ambrosch be rich, too, after while, and he pay back. He is very smart boy. For Ambrosch my mama come here.'
Ambrosch was considered the important person in the family. Mrs. Shimerda and Ántonia always deferred to him, though he was often surly with them and contemptuous toward his father. Ambrosch and his mother had everything their own way. Though Ántonia loved her father more than she did anyone else, she stood in awe of her elder brother.
After I watched Ántonia and her mother go over the hill on their miserable horse, carrying our iron pot with them, I turned to grandmother, who had taken up her darning, and said I hoped that snooping old woman wouldn't come to see us any more.
Grandmother chuckled and drove her bright needle across a hole in Otto's sock. 'She's not old, Jim, though I expect she seems old to you. No, I wouldn't mourn if she never came again. But, you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em. It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things. Now read me a chapter in "The Prince of the House of David." Let's forget the Bohemians.'
The Hired Girls Ch XII p. 142 Ántonia goes to the dance (647 words)
Ántonia often went to the dances with Larry Donovan, a passenger conductor who was a kind of professional ladies' man, as we said. I remember how admiringly all the boys looked at her the night she first wore her velveteen dress, made like Mrs. Gardener's black velvet. She was lovely to see, with her eyes shining, and her lips always a little parted when she danced. That constant, dark colour in her cheeks never changed.
One evening when Donovan was out on his run, Ántonia came to the hall with Norwegian Anna and her young man, and that night I took her home. When we were in the Cutters' yard, sheltered by the evergreens, I told her she must kiss me good night.
'Why, sure, Jim.' A moment later she drew her face away and whispered indignantly, 'Why, Jim! You know you ain't right to kiss me like that. I'll tell your grandmother on you!'
'Lena Lingard lets me kiss her,' I retorted, 'and I'm not half as fond of her as I am of you.'
'Lena does?' Tony gasped. 'If she's up to any of her nonsense with you, I'll scratch her eyes out!' She took my arm again and we walked out of the gate and up and down the sidewalk. 'Now, don't you go and be a fool like some of these town boys. You're not going to sit around here and whittle store-boxes and tell stories all your life. You are going away to school and make something of yourself. I'm just awful proud of you. You won't go and get mixed up with the Swedes, will you?'
'I don't care anything about any of them but you,' I said. 'And you'll always treat me like a kid, suppose.'
She laughed and threw her arms around me. 'I expect I will, but you're a kid I'm awful fond of, anyhow! You can like me all you want to, but if I see you hanging round with Lena much, I'll go to your grandmother, as sure as your name's Jim Burden! Lena's all right, only—well, you know yourself she's soft that way. She can't help it. It's natural to her.'
If she was proud of me, I was so proud of her that I carried my head high as I emerged from the dark cedars and shut the Cutters' gate softly behind me. Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she was, oh, she was still my Ántonia! I looked with contempt at the dark, silent little houses about me as I walked home, and thought of the stupid young men who were asleep in some of them. I knew where the real women were, though I was only a boy; and I would not be afraid of them, either!
I hated to enter the still house when I went home from the dances, and it was long before I could get to sleep. Toward morning I used to have pleasant dreams: sometimes Tony and I were out in the country, sliding down straw-stacks as we used to do; climbing up the yellow mountains over and over, and slipping down the smooth sides into soft piles of chaff.
One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, 'Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like.'
I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Ántonia, but I never did.
The Simerdas Ch VIII p. 38 The bride is fed to the wolves (915 words)
When Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.
After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night. There was much dancing and drinking. At midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked her under the blankets. He sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the front seat. Pavel drove. The party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.
The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.
Something happened to the hindmost sledge: the driver lost control—he was probably very drunk—the horses left the road, the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them. The shrieks that followed made everybody sober. The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best team and his sledge was lightest—all the others carried from six to a dozen people.
Another driver lost control. The screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves. It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost. The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them carefully.
At length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back. 'There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.
'And the wolves?' Pavel asked.
'Enough! Enough for all of us.'
Pavel reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the other side. In that moment on the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow. Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned, with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late. The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him, wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.
They were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing. Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned the sledge.
When the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon the familiar road. 'They still come?' he asked Peter.
Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten—and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before—the bell of the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.
Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since. They were run out of their village. Pavel's own mother would not look at him. They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves.
Lena Lingard Ch IV p. 185 Jim takes leave of Lena (832 words)
“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 think they’re in love with somebody.”
“The Colonel would marry you in a minute. I hope you won’t marry some old fellow; not even a rich one.”
Lena shifted her pillows and looked up at 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. Every handsome girl like you marries, of course.”
She shook her head. “Not me.”
“But why not? What makes you say that?” I persisted.
Lena laughed. “Well, it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be 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, and you’ll want a family.”
“Not me. I like to be lonesome. When I went to work for Mrs. Thomas I was nineteen years old, and I had never slept a night in my life when there weren’t three in the bed. I never had a minute to myself except when I was off with the cattle.”
Usually, when Lena referred to her life in the country at all, she dismissed it with a single remark, humorous or mildly cynical. But to-night her mind seemed to dwell on those early years. She told me she couldn’t remember a time when she was so little that she wasn’t lugging a heavy baby about, helping to wash for babies, trying to keep their little chapped hands and faces clean. She remembered home as a place where there were always too many children, a cross man, and work piling up around a sick woman.
“It wasn’t mother’s fault. She would have made us comfortable if she could. 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 I had I kept in a cracker box. On Saturday nights, after everybody was in bed, then I could take a bath if I wasn’t too tired. I could make two trips to the windmill to carry water, and heat it in the wash-boiler on the stove. While the water was heating, I could bring in a washtub out of the cave, and take my bath in the kitchen. Then I could put on a clean nightgown and get into bed with two others, who likely hadn’t had a bath unless I’d given it to them. You can’t tell me anything about family life. I’ve had plenty to last me.”
“But it’s not all like that,” I objected.
“Near enough. It’s all being under somebody’s thumb. What’s on your mind, 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 think about 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 have forgotten all my reasonable explanations. Lena drew close to me, and the little hesitation in her voice that had hurt me was not there when she spoke again.
“I oughtn’t to have begun it, ought I?” she murmured. “I oughtn’t to have gone to see you that first time. But I did want to. I guess I’ve always been a little foolish about you. I don’t know what first put it into my head, unless it was Ántonia, always telling me I mustn’t be up 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. “It seemed 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 away forever.
We said many good-byes before I left Lincoln, but she never tried to hinder me or hold me back. “You are going, but you haven’t gone yet, have you?” she used to say.