O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather

Part V. Alexandra

I

Ivar was sitting at a cobbler’s bench in the barn, mending harness by the light of a lantern and repeating to himself the 101st Psalm. It was only five o’clock of a mid-October day, but a storm had come up in the afternoon, bringing black clouds, a cold wind and torrents of rain. The old man wore his buffalo-skin coat, and occasionally stopped to warm his fingers at the lantern. Suddenly a woman burst into the shed, as if she had been blown in, accompanied by a shower of rain-drops. It was Signa, wrapped in a man’s overcoat and wearing a pair of boots over her shoes. In time of trouble Signa had come back to stay with her mistress, for she was the only one of the maids from whom Alexandra would accept much personal service. It was three months now since the news of the terrible thing that had happened in Frank Shabata’s orchard had first run like a fire over the Divide. Signa and Nelse were staying on with Alexandra until winter.

“Ivar,” Signa exclaimed as she wiped the rain from her face, “do you know where she is?”

The old man put down his cobbler’s knife. “Who, the mistress?”

“Yes. She went away about three o’clock. I happened to look out of the window and saw her going across the fields in her thin dress and sun-hat. And now this storm has come on. I thought she was going to Mrs. Hiller’s, and I telephoned as soon as the thunder stopped, but she had not been there. I’m afraid she is out somewhere and will get her death of cold.”

Ivar put on his cap and took up the lantern. “JA, JA, we will see. I will hitch the boy’s mare to the cart and go.”

Signa followed him across the wagon-shed to the horses’ stable. She was shivering with cold and excitement. “Where do you suppose she can be, Ivar?”

The old man lifted a set of single harness carefully from its peg. “How should I know?”

“But you think she is at the graveyard, don’t you?” Signa persisted. “So do I. Oh, I wish she would be more like herself! I can’t believe it’s Alexandra Bergson come to this, with no head about anything. I have to tell her when to eat and when to go to bed.”

“Patience, patience, sister,” muttered Ivar as he settled the bit in the horse’s mouth. “When the eyes of the flesh are shut, the eyes of the spirit are open. She will have a message from those who are gone, and that will bring her peace. Until then we must bear with her. You and I are the only ones who have weight with her. She trusts us.”

“How awful it’s been these last three months.” Signa held the lantern so that he could see to buckle the straps. “It don’t seem right that we must all be so miserable. Why do we all have to be punished? Seems to me like good times would never come again.”

Ivar expressed himself in a deep sigh, but said nothing. He stooped and took a sandburr from his toe.

“Ivar,” Signa asked suddenly, “will you tell me why you go barefoot? All the time I lived here in the house I wanted to ask you. Is it for a penance, or what?”

“No, sister. It is for the indulgence of the body. From my youth up I have had a strong, rebellious body, and have been subject to every kind of temptation. Even in age my temptations are prolonged. It was necessary to make some allowances; and the feet, as I understand it, are free members. There is no divine prohibition for them in the Ten Commandments. The hands, the tongue, the eyes, the heart, all the bodily desires we are commanded to subdue; but the feet are free members. I indulge them without harm to any one, even to trampling in filth when my desires are low. They are quickly cleaned again.”

Signa did not laugh. She looked thoughtful as she followed Ivar out to the wagon-shed and held the shafts up for him, while he backed in the mare and buckled the hold-backs. “You have been a good friend to the mistress, Ivar,” she murmured.

“And you, God be with you,” replied Ivar as he clambered into the cart and put the lantern under the oilcloth lap-cover. “Now for a ducking, my girl,” he said to the mare, gathering up the reins.

As they emerged from the shed, a stream of water, running off the thatch, struck the mare on the neck. She tossed her head indignantly, then struck out bravely on the soft ground, slipping back again and again as she climbed the hill to the main road. Between the rain and the darkness Ivar could see very little, so he let Emil’s mare have the rein, keeping her head in the right direction. When the ground was level, he turned her out of the dirt road upon the sod, where she was able to trot without slipping.

Before Ivar reached the graveyard, three miles from the house, the storm had spent itself, and the downpour had died into a soft, dripping rain. The sky and the land were a dark smoke color, and seemed to be coming together, like two waves. When Ivar stopped at the gate and swung out his lantern, a white figure rose from beside John Bergson’s white stone.

The old man sprang to the ground and shuffled toward the gate calling, “Mistress, mistress!”

Alexandra hurried to meet him and put her hand on his shoulder. “TYST! Ivar. There’s nothing to be worried about. I’m sorry if I’ve scared you all. I didn’t notice the storm till it was on me, and I couldn’t walk against it. I’m glad you’ve come. I am so tired I didn’t know how I’d ever get home.”

Ivar swung the lantern up so that it shone in her face. “GUD! You are enough to frighten us, mistress. You look like a drowned woman. How could you do such a thing!”

Groaning and mumbling he led her out of the gate and helped her into the cart, wrapping her in the dry blankets on which he had been sitting.

Alexandra smiled at his solicitude. “Not much use in that, Ivar. You will only shut the wet in. I don’t feel so cold now; but I’m heavy and numb. I’m glad you came.”

Ivar turned the mare and urged her into a sliding trot. Her feet sent back a continual spatter of mud.

Alexandra spoke to the old man as they jogged along through the sullen gray twilight of the storm. “Ivar, I think it has done me good to get cold clear through like this, once. I don’t believe I shall suffer so much any more. When you get so near the dead, they seem more real than the living. Worldly thoughts leave one. Ever since Emil died, I’ve suffered so when it rained. Now that I’ve been out in it with him, I shan’t dread it. After you once get cold clear through, the feeling of the rain on you is sweet. It seems to bring back feelings you had when you were a baby. It carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can’t see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and aren’t afraid of them. Maybe it’s like that with the dead. If they feel anything at all, it’s the old things, before they were born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does when they are little.”

“Mistress,” said Ivar reproachfully, “those are bad thoughts. The dead are in Paradise.”

Then he hung his head, for he did not believe that Emil was in Paradise.

When they got home, Signa had a fire burning in the sitting-room stove. She undressed Alexandra and gave her a hot footbath, while Ivar made ginger tea in the kitchen. When Alexandra was in bed, wrapped in hot blankets, Ivar came in with his tea and saw that she drank it. Signa asked permission to sleep on the slat lounge outside her door. Alexandra endured their attentions patiently, but she was glad when they put out the lamp and left her. As she lay alone in the dark, it occurred to her for the first time that perhaps she was actually tired of life. All the physical operations of life seemed difficult and painful. She longed to be free from her own body, which ached and was so heavy. And longing itself was heavy: she yearned to be free of that.

As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain. When he laid her down on her bed again, she opened her eyes, and, for the first time in her life, she saw him, saw him clearly, though the room was dark, and his face was covered. He was standing in the doorway of her room. His white cloak was thrown over his face, and his head was bent a little forward. His shoulders seemed as strong as the foundations of the world. His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming, like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the arm of the mightiest of all lovers. She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her. That, she told herself, was very well. Then she went to sleep.

Alexandra wakened in the morning with nothing worse than a hard cold and a stiff shoulder. She kept her bed for several days, and it was during that time that she formed a resolution to go to Lincoln to see Frank Shabata. Ever since she last saw him in the courtroom, Frank’s haggard face and wild eyes had haunted her. The trial had lasted only three days. Frank had given himself up to the police in Omaha and pleaded guilty of killing without malice and without premeditation. The gun was, of course, against him, and the judge had given him the full sentence, — ten years. He had now been in the State Penitentiary for a month.

Frank was the only one, Alexandra told herself, for whom anything could be done. He had been less in the wrong than any of them, and he was paying the heaviest penalty. She often felt that she herself had been more to blame than poor Frank. From the time the Shabatas had first moved to the neighboring farm, she had omitted no opportunity of throwing Marie and Emil together. Because she knew Frank was surly about doing little things to help his wife, she was always sending Emil over to spade or plant or carpenter for Marie. She was glad to have Emil see as much as possible of an intelligent, city-bred girl like their neighbor; she noticed that it improved his manners. She knew that Emil was fond of Marie, but it had never occurred to her that Emil’s feeling might be different from her own. She wondered at herself now, but she had never thought of danger in that direction. If Marie had been unmarried, — oh, yes! Then she would have kept her eyes open. But the mere fact that she was Shabata’s wife, for Alexandra, settled everything. That she was beautiful, impulsive, barely two years older than Emil, these facts had had no weight with Alexandra. Emil was a good boy, and only bad boys ran after married women.

Now, Alexandra could in a measure realize that Marie was, after all, Marie; not merely a “married woman.” Sometimes, when Alexandra thought of her, it was with an aching tenderness. The moment she had reached them in the orchard that morning, everything was clear to her. There was something about those two lying in the grass, something in the way Marie had settled her cheek on Emil’s shoulder, that told her everything. She wondered then how they could have helped loving each other; how she could have helped knowing that they must. Emil’s cold, frowning face, the girl’s content — Alexandra had felt awe of them, even in the first shock of her grief.

The idleness of those days in bed, the relaxation of body which attended them, enabled Alexandra to think more calmly than she had done since Emil’s death. She and Frank, she told herself, were left out of that group of friends who had been overwhelmed by disaster. She must certainly see Frank Shabata. Even in the courtroom her heart had grieved for him. He was in a strange country, he had no kinsmen or friends, and in a moment he had ruined his life. Being what he was, she felt, Frank could not have acted otherwise. She could understand his behavior more easily than she could understand Marie’s. Yes, she must go to Lincoln to see Frank Shabata.

The day after Emil’s funeral, Alexandra had written to Carl Linstrum; a single page of notepaper, a bare statement of what had happened. She was not a woman who could write much about such a thing, and about her own feelings she could never write very freely. She knew that Carl was away from post-offices, prospecting somewhere in the interior. Before he started he had written her where he expected to go, but her ideas about Alaska were vague. As the weeks went by and she heard nothing from him, it seemed to Alexandra that her heart grew hard against Carl. She began to wonder whether she would not do better to finish her life alone. What was left of life seemed unimportant.

II

Late in the afternoon of a brilliant October day, Alexandra Bergson, dressed in a black suit and traveling-hat, alighted at the Burlington depot in Lincoln. She drove to the Lindell Hotel, where she had stayed two years ago when she came up for Emil’s Commencement. In spite of her usual air of sureness and self-possession, Alexandra felt ill at ease in hotels, and she was glad, when she went to the clerk’s desk to register, that there were not many people in the lobby. She had her supper early, wearing her hat and black jacket down to the dining-room and carrying her handbag. After supper she went out for a walk.

It was growing dark when she reached the university campus. She did not go into the grounds, but walked slowly up and down the stone walk outside the long iron fence, looking through at the young men who were running from one building to another, at the lights shining from the armory and the library. A squad of cadets were going through their drill behind the armory, and the commands of their young officer rang out at regular intervals, so sharp and quick that Alexandra could not understand them. Two stalwart girls came down the library steps and out through one of the iron gates. As they passed her, Alexandra was pleased to hear them speaking Bohemian to each other. Every few moments a boy would come running down the flagged walk and dash out into the street as if he were rushing to announce some wonder to the world. Alexandra felt a great tenderness for them all. She wished one of them would stop and speak to her. She wished she could ask them whether they had known Emil.

As she lingered by the south gate she actually did encounter one of the boys. He had on his drill cap and was swinging his books at the end of a long strap. It was dark by this time; he did not see her and ran against her. He snatched off his cap and stood bareheaded and panting. “I’m awfully sorry,” he said in a bright, clear voice, with a rising inflection, as if he expected her to say something.

“Oh, it was my fault!” said Alexandra eagerly. “Are you an old student here, may I ask?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a Freshie, just off the farm. Cherry County. Were you hunting somebody?”

“No, thank you. That is — ” Alexandra wanted to detain him. “That is, I would like to find some of my brother’s friends. He graduated two years ago.”

“Then you’d have to try the Seniors, wouldn’t you? Let’s see; I don’t know any of them yet, but there’ll be sure to be some of them around the library. That red building, right there,” he pointed.

“Thank you, I’ll try there,” said Alexandra lingeringly.

“Oh, that’s all right! Good-night.” The lad clapped his cap on his head and ran straight down Eleventh Street. Alexandra looked after him wistfully.

She walked back to her hotel unreasonably comforted. “What a nice voice that boy had, and how polite he was. I know Emil was always like that to women.” And again, after she had undressed and was standing in her nightgown, brushing her long, heavy hair by the electric light, she remembered him and said to herself, “I don’t think I ever heard a nicer voice than that boy had. I hope he will get on well here. Cherry County; that’s where the hay is so fine, and the coyotes can scratch down to water.”

At nine o’clock the next morning Alexandra presented herself at the warden’s office in the State Penitentiary. The warden was a German, a ruddy, cheerful-looking man who had formerly been a harness-maker. Alexandra had a letter to him from the German banker in Hanover. As he glanced at the letter, Mr. Schwartz put away his pipe.

“That big Bohemian, is it? Sure, he’s gettin’ along fine,” said Mr. Schwartz cheerfully.

“I am glad to hear that. I was afraid he might be quarrelsome and get himself into more trouble. Mr. Schwartz, if you have time, I would like to tell you a little about Frank Shabata, and why I am interested in him.”

The warden listened genially while she told him briefly something of Frank’s history and character, but he did not seem to find anything unusual in her account.

“Sure, I’ll keep an eye on him. We’ll take care of him all right,” he said, rising. “You can talk to him here, while I go to see to things in the kitchen. I’ll have him sent in. He ought to be done washing out his cell by this time. We have to keep ’em clean, you know.”

The warden paused at the door, speaking back over his shoulder to a pale young man in convicts’ clothes who was seated at a desk in the corner, writing in a big ledger.

“Bertie, when 1037 is brought in, you just step out and give this lady a chance to talk.”

The young man bowed his head and bent over his ledger again.

When Mr. Schwartz disappeared, Alexandra thrust her black-edged handkerchief nervously into her handbag. Coming out on the streetcar she had not had the least dread of meeting Frank. But since she had been here the sounds and smells in the corridor, the look of the men in convicts’ clothes who passed the glass door of the warden’s office, affected her unpleasantly.

The warden’s clock ticked, the young convict’s pen scratched busily in the big book, and his sharp shoulders were shaken every few seconds by a loose cough which he tried to smother. It was easy to see that he was a sick man. Alexandra looked at him timidly, but he did not once raise his eyes. He wore a white shirt under his striped jacket, a high collar, and a necktie, very carefully tied. His hands were thin and white and well cared for, and he had a seal ring on his little finger. When he heard steps approaching in the corridor, he rose, blotted his book, put his pen in the rack, and left the room without raising his eyes. Through the door he opened a guard came in, bringing Frank Shabata.

“You the lady that wanted to talk to 1037? Here he is. Be on your good behavior, now. He can set down, lady,” seeing that Alexandra remained standing. “Push that white button when you’re through with him, and I’ll come.”

The guard went out and Alexandra and Frank were left alone.

Alexandra tried not to see his hideous clothes. She tried to look straight into his face, which she could scarcely believe was his. It was already bleached to a chalky gray. His lips were colorless, his fine teeth looked yellowish. He glanced at Alexandra sullenly, blinked as if he had come from a dark place, and one eyebrow twitched continually. She felt at once that this interview was a terrible ordeal to him. His shaved head, showing the conformation of his skull, gave him a criminal look which he had not had during the trial.

Alexandra held out her hand. “Frank,” she said, her eyes filling suddenly, “I hope you’ll let me be friendly with you. I understand how you did it. I don’t feel hard toward you. They were more to blame than you.”

Frank jerked a dirty blue handkerchief from his trousers pocket. He had begun to cry. He turned away from Alexandra. “I never did mean to do not’ing to dat woman,” he muttered. “I never mean to do not’ing to dat boy. I ain’t had not’ing ag’in’ dat boy. I always like dat boy fine. An’ then I find him — ” He stopped. The feeling went out of his face and eyes. He dropped into a chair and sat looking stolidly at the floor, his hands hanging loosely between his knees, the handkerchief lying across his striped leg. He seemed to have stirred up in his mind a disgust that had paralyzed his faculties.

“I haven’t come up here to blame you, Frank. I think they were more to blame than you.” Alexandra, too, felt benumbed.

Frank looked up suddenly and stared out of the office window. “I guess dat place all go to hell what I work so hard on,” he said with a slow, bitter smile. “I not care a damn.” He stopped and rubbed the palm of his hand over the light bristles on his head with annoyance. “I no can t’ink without my hair,” he complained. “I forget English. We not talk here, except swear.”

Alexandra was bewildered. Frank seemed to have undergone a change of personality. There was scarcely anything by which she could recognize her handsome Bohemian neighbor. He seemed, somehow, not altogether human. She did not know what to say to him.

“You do not feel hard to me, Frank?” she asked at last.

Frank clenched his fist and broke out in excitement. “I not feel hard at no woman. I tell you I not that kind-a man. I never hit my wife. No, never I hurt her when she devil me something awful!” He struck his fist down on the warden’s desk so hard that he afterward stroked it absently. A pale pink crept over his neck and face. “Two, t’ree years I know dat woman don’ care no more ‘bout me, Alexandra Bergson. I know she after some other man. I know her, oo-oo! An’ I ain’t never hurt her. I never would-a done dat, if I ain’t had dat gun along. I don’ know what in hell make me take dat gun. She always say I ain’t no man to carry gun. If she been in dat house, where she ought-a been — But das a foolish talk.”

Frank rubbed his head and stopped suddenly, as he had stopped before. Alexandra felt that there was something strange in the way he chilled off, as if something came up in him that extinguished his power of feeling or thinking.

“Yes, Frank,” she said kindly. “I know you never meant to hurt Marie.”

Frank smiled at her queerly. His eyes filled slowly with tears. “You know, I most forgit dat woman’s name. She ain’t got no name for me no more. I never hate my wife, but dat woman what make me do dat — Honest to God, but I hate her! I no man to fight. I don’ want to kill no boy and no woman. I not care how many men she take under dat tree. I no care for not’ing but dat fine boy I kill, Alexandra Bergson. I guess I go crazy sure ‘nough.”

Alexandra remembered the little yellow cane she had found in Frank’s clothes-closet. She thought of how he had come to this country a gay young fellow, so attractive that the prettiest Bohemian girl in Omaha had run away with him. It seemed unreasonable that life should have landed him in such a place as this. She blamed Marie bitterly. And why, with her happy, affectionate nature, should she have brought destruction and sorrow to all who had loved her, even to poor old Joe Tovesky, the uncle who used to carry her about so proudly when she was a little girl? That was the strangest thing of all. Was there, then, something wrong in being warm-hearted and impulsive like that? Alexandra hated to think so. But there was Emil, in the Norwegian graveyard at home, and here was Frank Shabata. Alexandra rose and took him by the hand.

“Frank Shabata, I am never going to stop trying until I get you pardoned. I’ll never give the Governor any peace. I know I can get you out of this place.”

Frank looked at her distrustfully, but he gathered confidence from her face. “Alexandra,” he said earnestly, “if I git out-a here, I not trouble dis country no more. I go back where I come from; see my mother.”

Alexandra tried to withdraw her hand, but Frank held on to it nervously. He put out his finger and absently touched a button on her black jacket. “Alexandra,” he said in a low tone, looking steadily at the button, “you ain’ t’ink I use dat girl awful bad before — ”

“No, Frank. We won’t talk about that,” Alexandra said, pressing his hand. “I can’t help Emil now, so I’m going to do what I can for you. You know I don’t go away from home often, and I came up here on purpose to tell you this.”

The warden at the glass door looked in inquiringly. Alexandra nodded, and he came in and touched the white button on his desk. The guard appeared, and with a sinking heart Alexandra saw Frank led away down the corridor. After a few words with Mr. Schwartz, she left the prison and made her way to the street-car. She had refused with horror the warden’s cordial invitation to “go through the institution.” As the car lurched over its uneven roadbed, back toward Lincoln, Alexandra thought of how she and Frank had been wrecked by the same storm and of how, although she could come out into the sunlight, she had not much more left in her life than he. She remembered some lines from a poem she had liked in her schooldays:—

Henceforth the world will only be

A wider prison-house to me, —

and sighed. A disgust of life weighed upon her heart; some such feeling as had twice frozen Frank Shabata’s features while they talked together. She wished she were back on the Divide.

When Alexandra entered her hotel, the clerk held up one finger and beckoned to her. As she approached his desk, he handed her a telegram. Alexandra took the yellow envelope and looked at it in perplexity, then stepped into the elevator without opening it. As she walked down the corridor toward her room, she reflected that she was, in a manner, immune from evil tidings. On reaching her room she locked the door, and sitting down on a chair by the dresser, opened the telegram. It was from Hanover, and it read:—

Arrived Hanover last night. Shall wait here until you come.
Please hurry. CARL LINSTRUM.

Alexandra put her head down on the dresser and burst into tears.

III

The next afternoon Carl and Alexandra were walking across the fields from Mrs. Hiller’s. Alexandra had left Lincoln after midnight, and Carl had met her at the Hanover station early in the morning. After they reached home, Alexandra had gone over to Mrs. Hiller’s to leave a little present she had bought for her in the city. They stayed at the old lady’s door but a moment, and then came out to spend the rest of the afternoon in the sunny fields.

Alexandra had taken off her black traveling suit and put on a white dress; partly because she saw that her black clothes made Carl uncomfortable and partly because she felt oppressed by them herself. They seemed a little like the prison where she had worn them yesterday, and to be out of place in the open fields. Carl had changed very little. His cheeks were browner and fuller. He looked less like a tired scholar than when he went away a year ago, but no one, even now, would have taken him for a man of business. His soft, lustrous black eyes, his whimsical smile, would be less against him in the Klondike than on the Divide. There are always dreamers on the frontier.

Carl and Alexandra had been talking since morning. Her letter had never reached him. He had first learned of her misfortune from a San Francisco paper, four weeks old, which he had picked up in a saloon, and which contained a brief account of Frank Shabata’s trial. When he put down the paper, he had already made up his mind that he could reach Alexandra as quickly as a letter could; and ever since he had been on the way; day and night, by the fastest boats and trains he could catch. His steamer had been held back two days by rough weather.

As they came out of Mrs. Hiller’s garden they took up their talk again where they had left it.

“But could you come away like that, Carl, without arranging things? Could you just walk off and leave your business?” Alexandra asked.

Carl laughed. “Prudent Alexandra! You see, my dear, I happen to have an honest partner. I trust him with everything. In fact, it’s been his enterprise from the beginning, you know. I’m in it only because he took me in. I’ll have to go back in the spring. Perhaps you will want to go with me then. We haven’t turned up millions yet, but we’ve got a start that’s worth following. But this winter I’d like to spend with you. You won’t feel that we ought to wait longer, on Emil’s account, will you, Alexandra?”

Alexandra shook her head. “No, Carl; I don’t feel that way about it. And surely you needn’t mind anything Lou and Oscar say now. They are much angrier with me about Emil, now, than about you. They say it was all my fault. That I ruined him by sending him to college.”

“No, I don’t care a button for Lou or Oscar. The moment I knew you were in trouble, the moment I thought you might need me, it all looked different. You’ve always been a triumphant kind of person.” Carl hesitated, looking sidewise at her strong, full figure. “But you do need me now, Alexandra?”

She put her hand on his arm. “I needed you terribly when it happened, Carl. I cried for you at night. Then everything seemed to get hard inside of me, and I thought perhaps I should never care for you again. But when I got your telegram yesterday, then — then it was just as it used to be. You are all I have in the world, you know.”

Carl pressed her hand in silence. They were passing the Shabatas’ empty house now, but they avoided the orchard path and took one that led over by the pasture pond.

“Can you understand it, Carl?” Alexandra murmured. “I have had nobody but Ivar and Signa to talk to. Do talk to me. Can you understand it? Could you have believed that of Marie Tovesky? I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!”

Carl looked at the shining spot of water before them. “Maybe she was cut to pieces, too, Alexandra. I am sure she tried hard; they both did. That was why Emil went to Mexico, of course. And he was going away again, you tell me, though he had only been home three weeks. You remember that Sunday when I went with Emil up to the French Church fair? I thought that day there was some kind of feeling, something unusual, between them. I meant to talk to you about it. But on my way back I met Lou and Oscar and got so angry that I forgot everything else. You mustn’t be hard on them, Alexandra. Sit down here by the pond a minute. I want to tell you something.”

They sat down on the grass-tufted bank and Carl told her how he had seen Emil and Marie out by the pond that morning, more than a year ago, and how young and charming and full of grace they had seemed to him. “It happens like that in the world sometimes, Alexandra,” he added earnestly. “I’ve seen it before. There are women who spread ruin around them through no fault of theirs, just by being too beautiful, too full of life and love. They can’t help it. People come to them as people go to a warm fire in winter. I used to feel that in her when she was a little girl. Do you remember how all the Bohemians crowded round her in the store that day, when she gave Emil her candy? You remember those yellow sparks in her eyes?”

Alexandra sighed. “Yes. People couldn’t help loving her. Poor Frank does, even now, I think; though he’s got himself in such a tangle that for a long time his love has been bitterer than his hate. But if you saw there was anything wrong, you ought to have told me, Carl.”

Carl took her hand and smiled patiently. “My dear, it was something one felt in the air, as you feel the spring coming, or a storm in summer. I didn’t SEE anything. Simply, when I was with those two young things, I felt my blood go quicker, I felt — how shall I say it? — an acceleration of life. After I got away, it was all too delicate, too intangible, to write about.”

Alexandra looked at him mournfully. “I try to be more liberal about such things than I used to be. I try to realize that we are not all made alike. Only, why couldn’t it have been Raoul Marcel, or Jan Smirka? Why did it have to be my boy?”

“Because he was the best there was, I suppose. They were both the best you had here.”

The sun was dropping low in the west when the two friends rose and took the path again. The straw-stacks were throwing long shadows, the owls were flying home to the prairie-dog town. When they came to the corner where the pastures joined, Alexandra’s twelve young colts were galloping in a drove over the brow of the hill.

“Carl,” said Alexandra, “I should like to go up there with you in the spring. I haven’t been on the water since we crossed the ocean, when I was a little girl. After we first came out here I used to dream sometimes about the shipyard where father worked, and a little sort of inlet, full of masts.” Alexandra paused. After a moment’s thought she said, “But you would never ask me to go away for good, would you?”

“Of course not, my dearest. I think I know how you feel about this country as well as you do yourself.” Carl took her hand in both his own and pressed it tenderly.

“Yes, I still feel that way, though Emil is gone. When I was on the train this morning, and we got near Hanover, I felt something like I did when I drove back with Emil from the river that time, in the dry year. I was glad to come back to it. I’ve lived here a long time. There is great peace here, Carl, and freedom. . . . I thought when I came out of that prison, where poor Frank is, that I should never feel free again. But I do, here.” Alexandra took a deep breath and looked off into the red west.

“You belong to the land,” Carl murmured, “as you have always said. Now more than ever.”

“Yes, now more than ever. You remember what you once said about the graveyard, and the old story writing itself over? Only it is we who write it, with the best we have.”

They paused on the last ridge of the pasture, overlooking the house and the windmill and the stables that marked the site of John Bergson’s homestead. On every side the brown waves of the earth rolled away to meet the sky.

“Lou and Oscar can’t see those things,” said Alexandra suddenly. “Suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will that make? The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”

Carl looked at her wonderingly. She was still gazing into the west, and in her face there was that exalted serenity that sometimes came to her at moments of deep feeling. The level rays of the sinking sun shone in her clear eyes.

“Why are you thinking of such things now, Alexandra?”

“I had a dream before I went to Lincoln — But I will tell you about that afterward, after we are married. It will never come true, now, in the way I thought it might.” She took Carl’s arm and they walked toward the gate. “How many times we have walked this path together, Carl. How many times we will walk it again! Does it seem to you like coming back to your own place? Do you feel at peace with the world here? I think we shall be very happy. I haven’t any fears. I think when friends marry, they are safe. We don’t suffer like — those young ones.” Alexandra ended with a sigh.

They had reached the gate. Before Carl opened it, he drew Alexandra to him and kissed her softly, on her lips and on her eyes.

She leaned heavily on his shoulder. “I am tired,” she murmured. “I have been very lonely, Carl.”

They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening star. Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/o_pioneers/part5.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30