Obscure Destinies, by Willa Cather

Neighbour Rosicky

I

When Doctor Burleigh told neighbour Rosicky he had a bad heart, Rosicky protested.

“So? No, I guess my heart was always pretty good. I got a little asthma, maybe. Just a awful short breath when I was pitchin’ hay last summer, dat’s all.”

“Well now, Rosicky, if you know more about it than I do, what did you come to me for? It’s your heart that makes you short of breath, I tell you. You’re sixty-five years old, and you’ve always worked hard, and your heart’s tired. You’ve got to be careful from now on, and you can’t do heavy work any more. You’ve got five boys at home to do it for you.”

The old farmer looked up at the Doctor with a gleam of amusement in his queer triangular-shaped eyes. His eyes were large and lively, but the lids were caught up in the middle in a curious way, so that they formed a triangle. He did not look like a sick man. His brown face was creased but not wrinkled, he had a ruddy colour in his smooth-shaven cheeks and in his lips, under his long brown moustache. His hair was thin and ragged around his ears, but very little grey. His forehead, naturally high and crossed by deep parallel lines, now ran all the way up to his pointed crown. Rosicky’s face had the habit of looking interested, — suggested a contented disposition and a reflective quality that was gay rather than grave. This gave him a certain detachment, the easy manner of an onlooker and observer.

“Well, I guess you ain’t got no pills fur a bad heart, Doctor Ed. I guess the only thing is fur me to git me a new one.”

Doctor Burleigh swung round in his desk-chair and frowned at the old farmer. “I think if I were you I’d take a little care of the old one, Rosicky.”

Rosicky shrugged. “Maybe I don’t know how. I expect you mean fur me not to drink my coffee no more.”

“I wouldn’t, in your place. But you’ll do as you choose about that. I’ve never yet been able to separate a Bohemian from his coffee or his pipe. I’ve quit trying. But the sure thing is you’ve got to cut out farm work. You can feed the stock and do chores about the barn, but you can’t do anything in the fields that makes you short of breath.”

“How about shelling corn?”

“Of course not!”

Rosicky considered with puckered brows.

“I can’t make my heart go no longer’n it wants to, can I, Doctor Ed?”

“I think it’s good for five or six years yet, maybe more, if you’ll take the strain off it. Sit around the house and help Mary. If I had a good wife like yours, I’d want to stay around the house.”

His patient chuckled. “It ain’t no place fur a man. I don’t like no old man hanging round the kitchen too much. An’ my wife, she’s a awful hard worker her own self.”

“That’s it; you can help her a little. My Lord, Rosicky, you are one of the few men I know who has a family he can get some comfort out of; happy dispositions, never quarrel among themselves, and they treat you right. I want to see you live a few years and enjoy them.”

“Oh, they’re good kids, all right,” Rosicky assented.

The Doctor wrote him a prescription and asked him how his oldest son, Rudolph, who had married in the spring, was getting on. Rudolph had struck out for himself, on rented land. “And how’s Polly? I was afraid Mary mightn’t like an American daughter-inlaw, but it seems to be working out all right.”

“Yes, she’s a fine girl. Dat widder woman bring her daughters up very nice. Polly got lots of spunk, an’ she got some style, too. Da’s nice, for young folks to have some style.” Rosicky inclined his head gallantly. His voice and his twinkly smile were an affectionate compliment to his daughter-inlaw.

“It looks like a storm, and you’d better be getting home before it comes. In town in the car?” Doctor Burleigh rose.

“No, I’m in de wagon. When you got five boys, you ain’t got much chance to ride round in de Ford. I ain’t much for cars, noway.”

“Well, it’s a good road out to your place; but I don’t want you bumping around in a wagon much. And never again on a hay-rake, remember!”

Rosicky placed the Doctor’s fee delicately behind the desk-telephone, looking the other way, as if this were an absent-minded gesture. He put on his plush cap and his corduroy jacket with a sheepskin collar, and went out.

The Doctor picked up his stethoscope and frowned at it as if he were seriously annoyed with the instrument. He wished it had been telling tales about some other man’s heart, some old man who didn’t look the Doctor in the eye so knowingly, or hold out such a warm brown hand when he said good-bye. Doctor Burleigh had been a poor boy in the country before he went away to medical school; he had known Rosicky almost ever since he could remember, and he had a deep affection for Mrs. Rosicky.

Only last winter he had had such a good breakfast at Rosicky’s, and that when he needed it. He had been out all night on a long, hard confinement case at Tom Marshall’s, — a big rich farm where there was plenty of stock and plenty of feed and a great deal of expensive farm machinery of the newest model, and no comfort whatever. The woman had too many children and too much work, and she was no manager. When the baby was born at last, and handed over to the assisting neighbour woman, and the mother was properly attended to, Burleigh refused any breakfast in that slovenly house, and drove his buggy — the snow was too deep for a car — eight miles to Anton Rosicky’s place. He didn’t know another farm-house where a man could get such a warm welcome, and such good strong coffee with rich cream. No wonder the old chap didn’t want to give up his coffee!

He had driven in just when the boys had come back from the barn and were washing up for breakfast. The long table, covered with a bright oilcloth, was set out with dishes waiting for them, and the warm kitchen was full of the smell of coffee and hot biscuit and sausage. Five big handsome boys, running from twenty to twelve, all with what Burleigh called natural good manners, — they hadn’t a bit of the painful self-consciousness he himself had to struggle with when he was a lad. One ran to put his horse away, another helped him off with his fur coat and hung it up, and Josephine, the youngest child and the only daughter, quickly set another place under her mother’s direction.

With Mary, to feed creatures was the natural expression of affection, — her chickens, the calves, her big hungry boys. It was a rare pleasure to feed a young man whom she seldom saw and of whom she was as proud as if he belonged to her. Some country housekeepers would have stopped to spread a white cloth over the oilcloth, to change the thick cups and plates for their best china, and the wooden-handled knives for plated ones. But not Mary.

“You must take us as you find us, Doctor Ed. I’d be glad to put out my good things for you if you was expected, but I’m glad to get you any way at all.”

He knew she was glad, — she threw back her head and spoke out as if she were announcing him to the whole prairie. Rosicky hadn’t said anything at all; he merely smiled his twinkling smile, put some more coal on the fire, and went into his own room to pour the Doctor a little drink in a medicine glass. When they were all seated, he watched his wife’s face from his end of the table and spoke to her in Czech. Then, with the instinct of politeness which seldom failed him, he turned to the Doctor and said slyly; “I was just tellin’ her not to ask you no questions about Mrs. Marshall till you eat some breakfast. My wife, she’s terrible fur to ask questions.”

The boys laughed, and so did Mary. She watched the Doctor devour her biscuit and sausage, too much excited to eat anything herself. She drank her coffee and sat taking in everything about her visitor. She had known him when he was a poor country boy, and was boastfully proud of his success, always saying: “What do people go to Omaha for, to see a doctor, when we got the best one in the State right here?” If Mary liked people at all, she felt physical pleasure in the sight of them, personal exultation in any good fortune that came to them. Burleigh didn’t know many women like that, but he knew she was like that.

When his hunger was satisfied, he did, of course, have to tell them about Mrs. Marshall, and he noticed what a friendly interest the boys took in the matter.

Rudolph, the oldest one (he was still living at home then), said: “The last time I was over there, she was lifting them big heavy milk-cans, and I knew she oughtn’t to be doing it.”

“Yes, Rudolph told me about that when he come home, and I said it wasn’t right,” Mary put in warmly. “It was all right for me to do them things up to the last, for I was terrible strong, but that woman’s weakly. And do you think she’ll be able to nurse it, Ed?” She sometimes forgot to give him the title she was so proud of. “And to think of your being up all night and then not able to get a decent breakfast! I don’t know what’s the matter with such people.”

“Why, Mother,” said one of the boys, “if Doctor Ed had got breakfast there, we wouldn’t have him here. So you ought to be glad.”

“He knows I’m glad to have him, John, any time. But I’m sorry for that poor woman, how bad she’ll feel the Doctor had to go away in the cold without his breakfast.”

“I wish I’d been in practice when these were getting born.” The doctor looked down the row of close-clipped heads. “I missed some good breakfasts by not being.”

The boys began to laugh at their mother because she flushed so red, but she stood her ground and threw up her head. “I don’t care, you wouldn’t have got away from this house without breakfast. No doctor ever did. I’d have had something ready fixed that Anton could warm up for you.”

The boys laughed harder than ever, and exclaimed at her: “I’ll bet you would!” “She would, that!”

“Father, did you get breakfast for the doctor when we were born?”

“Yes, and he used to bring me my breakfast, too, mighty nice. I was always awful hungry!” Mary admitted with a guilty laugh.

While the boys were getting the Doctor’s horse, he went to the window to examine the house plants. “What do you do to your geraniums to keep them blooming all winter, Mary? I never pass this house that from the road I don’t see your windows full of flowers.”

She snapped off a dark red one, and a ruffled new green leaf, and put them in his buttonhole. “There, that looks better. You look too solemn for a young man, Ed. Why don’t you git married? I’m worried about you. Settin’ at breakfast, I looked at you real hard, and I seen you’ve got some grey hairs already.”

“Oh, yes! They’re coming. Maybe they’d come faster if I married.”

“Don’t talk so. You’ll ruin your health eating at the hotel. I could send your wife a nice loaf of nut bread, if you only had one. I don’t like to see a young man getting grey. I’ll tell you something, Ed; you make some strong black tea and keep it handy in a bowl, and every morning just brush it into your hair, an’ it’ll keep the grey from showin’ much. That’s the way I do!”

Sometimes the Doctor heard the gossipers in the drug-store wondering why Rosicky didn’t get on faster. He was industrious, and so were his boys, but they were rather free and easy, weren’t pushers, and they didn’t always show good judgment. They were comfortable, they were out of debt, but they didn’t get much ahead. Maybe, Doctor Burleigh reflected, people as generous and warm-hearted and affectionate as the Rosickys never got ahead much; maybe you couldn’t enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.

II

When Rosicky left Doctor Burleigh’s office he went into the farm-implement store to light his pipe and put on his glasses and read over the list Mary had given him. Then he went into the general merchandise place next door and stood about until the pretty girl with the plucked eyebrows, who always waited on him, was free. Those eyebrows, two thin India-ink strokes, amused him, because he remembered how they used to be. Rosicky always prolonged his shopping by a little joking; the girl knew the old fellow admired her, and she liked to chaff with him.

“Seems to me about every other week you buy ticking, Mr. Rosicky, and always the best quality,” she remarked as she measured off the heavy bolt with red stripes.

“You see, my wife is always makin’ goose-fedder pillows, an’ de thin stuff don’t hold in dem little down-fedders.”

“You must have lots of pillows at your house.”

“Sure. She makes quilts of dem, too. We sleeps easy. Now she’s makin’ a fedder quilt for my son’s wife. You know Polly, that married my Rudolph. How much my bill, Miss Pearl?”

“Eight eighty-five.”

“Chust make it nine, and put in some candy fur de women.”

“As usual. I never did see a man buy so much candy for his wife. First thing you know, she’ll be getting too fat.”

“I’d like dat. I ain’t much fur all dem slim women like what de style is now.”

“That’s one for me, I suppose, Mr. Bohunk!” Pearl sniffed and elevated her India-ink strokes.

When Rosicky went out to his wagon, it was beginning to snow, — the first snow of the season, and he was glad to see it. He rattled out of town and along the highway through a wonderfully rich stretch of country, the finest farms in the county. He admired this High Prairie, as it was called, and always liked to drive through it. His own place lay in a rougher territory, where there was some clay in the soil and it was not so productive. When he bought his land, he hadn’t the money to buy on High Prairie; so he told his boys, when they grumbled, that if their land hadn’t some clay in it, they wouldn’t own it at all. All the same, he enjoyed looking at these fine farms, as he enjoyed looking at a prize bull.

After he had gone eight miles, he came to the graveyard, which lay just at the edge of his own hay-land. There he stopped his horses and sat still on his wagon seat, looking about at the snowfall. Over yonder on the hill he could see his own house, crouching low, with the clump of orchard behind and the windmill before, and all down the gentle hill-slope the rows of pale gold cornstalks stood out against the white field. The snow was falling over the cornfield and the pasture and the hay-land, steadily, with very little wind, — a nice dry snow. The graveyard had only a light wire fence about it and was all overgrown with long red grass. The fine snow, settling into this red grass and upon the few little evergreens and the headstones, looked very pretty.

It was a nice graveyard, Rosicky reflected, sort of snug and homelike, not cramped or mournful, — a big sweep all round it. A man could lie down in the long grass and see the complete arch of the sky over him, hear the wagons go by; in summer the mowing-machine rattled right up to the wire fence. And it was so near home. Over there across the cornstalks his own roof and windmill looked so good to him that he promised himself to mind the Doctor and take care of himself. He was awful fond of his place, he admitted. He wasn’t anxious to leave it. And it was a comfort to think that he would never have to go farther than the edge of his own hayfield. The snow, falling over his barnyard and the graveyard, seemed to draw things together like. And they were all old neighbours in the graveyard, most of them friends; there was nothing to feel awkward or embarrassed about. Embarrassment was the most disagreeable feeling Rosicky knew. He didn’t often have it, — only with certain people whom he didn’t understand at all.

Well, it was a nice snowstorm; a fine sight to see the snow falling so quietly and graciously over so much open country. On his cap and shoulders, on the horses’ backs and manes, light, delicate, mysterious it fell; and with it a dry cool fragrance was released into the air. It meant rest for vegetation and men and beasts, for the ground itself; a season of long nights for sleep, leisurely breakfasts, peace by the fire. This and much more went through Rosicky’s mind, but he merely told himself that winter was coming, clucked to his horses, and drove on.

When he reached home, John, the youngest boy, ran out to put away his team for him, and he met Mary coming up from the outside cellar with her apron full of carrots. They went into the house together. On the table, covered with oilcloth figured with clusters of blue grapes, a place was set, and he smelled hot coffee-cake of some kind. Anton never lunched in town; he thought that extravagant, and anyhow he didn’t like the food. So Mary always had something ready for him when he got home.

After he was settled in his chair, stirring his coffee in a big cup, Mary took out of the oven a pan of kolache stuffed with apricots, examined them anxiously to see whether they had got too dry, put them beside his plate, and then sat down opposite him.

Rosicky asked her in Czech if she wasn’t going to have any coffee.

She replied in English, as being somehow the right language for transacting business: “Now what did Doctor Ed say, Anton? You tell me just what.”

“He said I was to tell you some compliments, but I forgot ’em.” Rosicky’s eyes twinkled.

“About you, I mean. What did he say about your asthma?”

“He says I ain’t got no asthma.” Rosicky took one of the little rolls in his broad brown fingers. The thickened nail of his right thumb told the story of his past.

“Well, what is the matter? And don’t try to put me off.”

“He don’t say nothing much, only I’m a little older, and my heart ain’t so good like it used to be.”

Mary started and brushed her hair back from her temples with both hands as if she were a little out of her mind. From the way she glared, she might have been in a rage with him.

“He says there’s something the matter with your heart? Doctor Ed says so?”

“Now don’t yell at me like I was a hog in de garden, Mary. You know I always did like to hear a woman talk soft. He didn’t say anything de matter wid my heart, only it ain’t so young like it used to be, an’ he tell me not to pitch hay or run de corn-sheller.”

Mary wanted to jump up, but she sat still. She admired the way he never under any circumstances raised his voice or spoke roughly. He was city-bred, and she was country-bred; she often said she wanted her boys to have their papa’s nice ways.

“You never have no pain there, do you? It’s your breathing and your stomach that’s been wrong. I wouldn’t believe nobody but Doctor Ed about it. I guess I’ll go see him myself. Didn’t he give you no advice?”

“Chust to take it easy like, an’ stay round de house dis winter. I guess you got some carpenter work for me to do. I kin make some new shelves for you, and I want dis long time to build a closet in de boys’ room and make dem two little fellers keep dere clo’es hung up.”

Rosicky drank his coffee from time to time, while he considered. His moustache was of the soft long variety and came down over his mouth like the teeth of a buggy-rake over a bundle of hay. Each time he put down his cup, he ran his blue handkerchief over his lips. When he took a drink of water, he managed very neatly with the back of his hand.

Mary sat watching him intently, trying to find any change in his face. It is hard to see anyone who has become like your own body to you. Yes, his hair had got thin, and his high forehead had deep lines running from left to right. But his neck, always clean shaved except in the busiest seasons, was not loose or baggy. It was burned a dark reddish brown, and there were deep creases in it, but it looked firm and full of blood. His cheeks had a good colour. On either side of his mouth there was a half-moon down the length of his cheek, not wrinkles, but two lines that had come there from his habitual expression. He was shorter and broader than when she married him; his back had grown broad and curved, a good deal like the shell of an old turtle, and his arms and legs were short.

He was fifteen years older than Mary, but she had hardly ever thought about it before. He was her man, and the kind of man she liked. She was rough, and he was gentle, — city-bred, as she always said. They had been shipmates on a rough voyage and had stood by each other in trying times. Life had gone well with them because, at bottom, they had the same ideas about life. They agreed, without discussion, as to what was most important and what was secondary. They didn’t often exchange opinions, even in Czech, — it was as if they had thought the same thought together. A good deal had to be sacrificed and thrown overboard in a hard life like theirs, and they had never disagreed as to the things that could go. It had been a hard life, and a soft life, too. There wasn’t anything brutal in the short, broad-backed man with the three-cornered eyes and the forehead that went on to the top of his skull. He was a city man, a gentle man, and though he had married a rough farm girl, he had never touched her without gentleness.

They had been at one accord not to hurry through life, not to be always skimping and saving. They saw their neighbours buy more land and feed more stock than they did, without discontent. Once when the creamery agent came to the Rosickys to persuade them to sell him their cream, he told them how much money the Fasslers, their nearest neighbours, had made on their cream last year.

“Yes,” said Mary, “and look at them Fassler children! Pale, pinched little things, they look like skimmed milk. I’d rather put some colour into my children’s faces than put money into the bank.”

The agent shrugged and turned to Anton.

“I guess we’ll do like she says,” said Rosicky.

III

Mary very soon got into town to see Doctor Ed, and then she had a talk with her boys and set a guard over Rosicky. Even John, the youngest, had his father on his mind. If Rosicky went to throw hay down from the loft, one of the boys ran up the ladder and took the fork from him. He sometimes complained that though he was getting to be an old man, he wasn’t an old woman yet.

That winter he stayed in the house in the afternoons and carpentered, or sat in the chair between the window full of plants and the wooden bench where the two pails of drinking-water stood. This spot was called “Father’s corner,” though it was not a corner at all. He had a shelf there, where he kept his Bohemian papers and his pipes and tobacco, and his shears and needles and thread and tailor’s thimble. Having been a tailor in his youth, he couldn’t bear to see a woman patching at his clothes, or at the boys’. He liked tailoring, and always patched all the overalls and jackets and work shirts. Occasionally he made over a pair of pants one of the older boys had outgrown, for the little fellow.

While he sewed, he let his mind run back over his life. He had a good deal to remember, really; life in three countries. The only part of his youth he didn’t like to remember was the two years he had spent in London, in Cheapside, working for a German tailor who was wretchedly poor. Those days, when he was nearly always hungry, when his clothes were dropping off him for dirt, and the sound of a strange language kept him in continual bewilderment, had left a sore spot in his mind that wouldn’t bear touching.

He was twenty when he landed at Castle Garden in New York, and he had a protector who got him work in a tailor shop in Vesey Street, down near the Washington Market. He looked upon that part of his life as very happy. He became a good workman, he was industrious, and his wages were increased from time to time. He minded his own business and envied nobody’s good fortune. He went to night school and learned to read English. He often did overtime work and was well paid for it, but somehow he never saved anything. He couldn’t refuse a loan to a friend, and he was self-indulgent. He liked a good dinner, and a little went for beer, a little for tobacco; a good deal went to the girls. He often stood through an opera on Saturday nights; he could get standing-room for a dollar. Those were the great days of opera in New York, and it gave a fellow something to think about for the rest of the week. Rosicky had a quick ear, and a childish love of all the stage splendour; the scenery, the costumes, the ballet. He usually went with a chum, and after the performance they had beer and maybe some oysters somewhere. It was a fine life; for the first five years or so it satisfied him completely. He was never hungry or cold or dirty, and everything amused him: a fire, a dog fight, a parade, a storm, a ferry ride. He thought New York the finest, richest, friendliest city in the world.

Moreover, he had what he called a happy home life. Very near the tailor shop was a small furniture-factory, where an old Austrian, Loeffler, employed a few skilled men and made unusual furniture, most of it to order, for the rich German housewives up-town. The top floor of Loeffler’s five-storey factory was a loft, where he kept his choice lumber and stored the odd pieces of furniture left on his hands. One of the young workmen he employed was a Czech, and he and Rosicky became fast friends. They persuaded Loeffler to let them have a sleeping-room in one corner of the loft. They bought good beds and bedding and had their pick of the furniture kept up there. The loft was low-pitched, but light and airy, full of windows, and good-smelling by reason of the fine lumber put up there to season. Old Loeffler used to go down to the docks and buy wood from South America and the East from the sea captains. The young men were as foolish about their house as a bridal pair. Zichec, the young cabinet-maker, devised every sort of convenience, and Rosicky kept their clothes in order. At night and on Sundays, when the quiver of machinery underneath was still, it was the quietest place in the world, and on summer nights all the sea winds blew in. Zichec often practised on his flute in the evening. They were both fond of music and went to the opera together. Rosicky thought he wanted to live like that for ever.

But as the years passed, all alike, he began to get a little restless. When spring came round, he would begin to feel fretted, and he got to drinking. He was likely to drink too much of a Saturday night. On Sunday he was languid and heavy, getting over his spree. On Monday he plunged into work again. So he never had time to figure out what ailed him, though he knew something did. When the grass turned green in Park Place, and the lilac hedge at the back of Trinity churchyard put out its blossoms, he was tormented by a longing to run away. That was why he drank too much; to get a temporary illusion of freedom and wide horizons.

Rosicky, the old Rosicky, could remember as if it were yesterday the day when the young Rosicky found out what was the matter with him. It was on a Fourth of July afternoon, and he was sitting in Park Place in the sun. The lower part of New York was empty. Wall Street, Liberty Street, Broadway, all empty. So much stone and asphalt with nothing going on, so many empty windows. The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like the fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea.

On that very day he began to think seriously about the articles he had read in the Bohemian papers, describing prosperous Czech farming communities in the West. He believed he would like to go out there as a farm hand; it was hardly possible that he could ever have land of his own. His people had always been workmen; his father and grandfather had worked in shops. His mother’s parents had lived in the country, but they rented their farm and had a hard time to get along. Nobody in his family had ever owned any land, — that belonged to a different station of life altogether. Anton’s mother died when he was little, and he was sent into the country to her parents. He stayed with them until he was twelve, and formed those ties with the earth and the farm animals and growing things which are never made at all unless they are made early. After his grandfather died, he went back to live with his father and stepmother, but she was very hard on him, and his father helped him to get passage to London.

After that Fourth of July day in Park Place, the desire to return to the country never left him. To work on another man’s farm would be all he asked; to see the sun rise and set and to plant things and watch them grow. He was a very simple man. He was like a tree that has not many roots, but one tap-root that goes down deep. He subscribed for a Bohemian paper printed in Chicago, then for one printed in Omaha. His mind got farther and farther west. He began to save a little money to buy his liberty. When he was thirty-five, there was a great meeting in New York of Bohemian athletic societies, and Rosicky left the tailor shop and went home with the Omaha delegates to try his fortune in another part of the world.

IV

Perhaps the fact that his own youth was well over before he began to have a family was one reason why Rosicky was so fond of his boys. He had almost a grandfather’s indulgence for them. He had never had to worry about any of them — except, just now, a little about Rudolph.

On Saturday night the boys always piled into the Ford, took little Josephine, and went to town to the moving-picture show. One Saturday morning they were talking at the breakfast table about starting early that evening, so that they would have an hour or so to see the Christmas things in the stores before the show began. Rosicky looked down the table.

“I hope you boys ain’t disappointed, but I want you to let me have de car tonight. Maybe some of you can go in with de neighbours.”

Their faces fell. They worked hard all week, and they were still like children. A new jack-knife or a box of candy pleased the older ones as much as the little fellow.

“If you and Mother are going to town,” Frank said, “maybe you could take a couple of us along with you, anyway.”

“No, I want to take de car down to Rudolph’s, and let him an’ Polly go in to de show. She don’t git into town enough, an’ I’m afraid she’s gettin’ lonesome, an’ he can’t afford no car yet.”

That settled it. The boys were a good deal dashed. Their father took another piece of apple-cake and went on: “Maybe next Saturday night de two little fellers can go along wid dem.”

“Oh, is Rudolph going to have the car every Saturday night?”

Rosicky did not reply at once; then he began to speak seriously: “Listen, boys; Polly ain’t lookin’ so good. I don’t like to see nobody lookin’ sad. It comes hard fur a town girl to be a farmer’s wife. I don’t want no trouble to start in Rudolph’s family. When it starts, it ain’t so easy to stop. An American girl don’t git used to our ways all at once. I like to tell Polly she and Rudolph can have the car every Saturday night till after New Year’s, if it’s all right with you boys.”

“Sure it’s all right, Papa,” Mary cut in. “And it’s good you thought about that. Town girls is used to more than country girls. I lay awake nights, scared she’ll make Rudolph discontented with the farm.”

The boys put as good a face on it as they could. They surely looked forward to their Saturday nights in town. That evening Rosicky drove the car the half-mile down to Rudolph’s new, bare little house.

Polly was in a short-sleeved gingham dress, clearing away the supper dishes. She was a trim, slim little thing, with blue eyes and shingled yellow hair, and her eyebrows were reduced to a mere brush-stroke, like Miss Pearl’s.

“Good evening, Mr. Rosicky. Rudolph’s at the barn, I guess.” She never called him father, or Mary mother. She was sensitive about having married a foreigner. She never in the world would have done it if Rudolph hadn’t been such a handsome, persuasive fellow and such a gallant lover. He had graduated in her class in the high school in town, and their friendship began in the ninth grade.

Rosicky went in, though he wasn’t exactly asked. “My boys ain’t goin’ to town tonight, an’ I brought de car over fur you two to go in to de picture show.”

Polly, carrying dishes to the sink, looked over her shoulder at him. “Thank you. But I’m late with my work tonight, and pretty tired. Maybe Rudolph would like to go in with you.”

“Oh, I don’t go to de shows! I’m too old-fashioned. You won’t feel so tired after you ride in de air a ways. It’s a nice clear night, an’ it ain’t cold. You go an’ fix yourself up, Polly, an’ I’ll wash de dishes an’ leave everything nice fur you.”

Polly blushed and tossed her bob. “I couldn’t let you do that, Mr. Rosicky. I wouldn’t think of it.”

Rosicky said nothing. He found a bib apron on a nail behind the kitchen door. He slipped it over his head and then took Polly by her two elbows and pushed her gently toward the door of her own room. “I washed up de kitchen many times for my wife, when de babies was sick or somethin’. You go an’ make yourself look nice. I like you to look prettier’n any of dem town girls when you go in. De young folks must have some fun, an’ I’m goin’ to look out fur you, Polly.”

That kind, reassuring grip on her elbows, the old man’s funny bright eyes, made Polly want to drop her head on his shoulder for a second. She restrained herself, but she lingered in his grasp at the door of her room, murmuring tearfully: “You always lived in the city when you were young, didn’t you? Don’t you ever get lonesome out here?”

As she turned round to him, her hand fell naturally into his, and he stood holding it and smiling into her face with his peculiar, knowing, indulgent smile without a shadow of reproach in it. “Dem big cities is all right fur de rich, but dey is terrible hard fur de poor.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d like to take a chance. You lived in New York, didn’t you?”

“An’ London. Da’s bigger still. I learned my trade dere. Here’s Rudolph comin’, you better hurry.”

“Will you tell me about London some time?”

“Maybe. Only I ain’t no talker, Polly. Run an’ dress yourself up.”

The bedroom door closed behind her, and Rudolph came in from the outside, looking anxious. He had seen the car and was sorry any of his family should come just then. Supper hadn’t been a very pleasant occasion. Halting in the doorway, he saw his father in a kitchen apron, carrying dishes to the sink. He flushed crimson and something flashed in his eye. Rosicky held up a warning finger.

“I brought de car over fur you an’ Polly to go to de picture show, an’ I made her let me finish here so you won’t be late. You go put on a clean shirt, quick!”

“But don’t the boys want the car, Father?”

“Not tonight dey don’t.” Rosicky fumbled under his apron and found his pants pocket. He took out a silver dollar and said in a hurried whisper: “You go an’ buy dat girl some ice cream an’ candy tonight, like you was courtin’. She’s awful good friends wid me.”

Rudolph was very short of cash, but he took the money as if it hurt him. There had been a crop failure all over the county. He had more than once been sorry he’d married this year.

In a few minutes the young people came out, looking clean and a little stiff. Rosicky hurried them off, and then he took his own time with the dishes. He scoured the pots and pans and put away the milk and swept the kitchen. He put some coal in the stove and shut off the draughts, so the place would be warm for them when they got home late at night. Then he sat down and had a pipe and listened to the clock tick.

Generally speaking, marrying an American girl was certainly a risk. A Czech should marry a Czech. It was lucky that Polly was the daughter of a poor widow woman; Rudolph was proud, and if she had a prosperous family to throw up at him, they could never make it go. Polly was one of four sisters, and they all worked; one was book-keeper in the bank, one taught music, and Polly and her younger sister had been clerks, like Miss Pearl. All four of them were musical, had pretty voices, and sang in the Methodist choir, which the eldest sister directed.

Polly missed the sociability of a store position. She missed the choir, and the company of her sisters. She didn’t dislike housework, but she disliked so much of it. Rosicky was a little anxious about this pair. He was afraid Polly would grow so discontented that Rudy would quit the farm and take a factory job in Omaha. He had worked for a winter up there, two years ago, to get money to marry on. He had done very well, and they would always take him back at the stockyards. But to Rosicky that meant the end of everything for his son. To be a landless man was to be a wage-earner, a slave, all your life; to have nothing, to be nothing.

Rosicky thought he would come over and do a little carpentering for Polly after the New Year. He guessed she needed jollying. Rudolph was a serious sort of chap, serious in love and serious about his work.

Rosicky shook out his pipe and walked home across the fields. Ahead of him the lamplight shone from his kitchen windows. Suppose he were still in a tailor shop on Vesey Street, with a bunch of pale, narrow-chested sons working on machines, all coming home tired and sullen to eat supper in a kitchen that was a parlour also; with another crowded, angry family quarrelling just across the dumb-waiter shaft, and squeaking pulleys at the windows where dirty washings hung on dirty lines above a court full of old brooms and mops and ash-cans . . . .

He stopped by the windmill to look up at the frosty winter stars and draw a long breath before he went inside. That kitchen with the shining windows was dear to him; but the sleeping fields and bright stars and the noble darkness were dearer still.

V

On the day before Christmas the weather set in very cold; no snow, but a bitter, biting wind that whistled and sang over the flat land and lashed one’s face like fine wires. There was baking going on in the Rosicky kitchen all day, and Rosicky sat inside, making over a coat that Albert had outgrown into an overcoat for John. Mary had a big red geranium in bloom for Christmas, and a row of Jerusalem cherry trees, full of berries. It was the first year she had ever grown these; Doctor Ed brought her the seeds from Omaha when he went to some medical convention. They reminded Rosicky of plants he had seen in England; and all afternoon, as he stitched, he sat thinking about those two years in London, which his mind usually shrank from even after all this while.

He was a lad of eighteen when he dropped down into London, with no money and no connexions except the address of a cousin who was supposed to be working at a confectioner’s. When he went to the pastry shop, however, he found that the cousin had gone to America. Anton tramped the streets for several days, sleeping in doorways and on the Embankment, until he was in utter despair. He knew no English, and the sound of the strange language all about him confused him. By chance he met a poor German tailor who had learned his trade in Vienna, and could speak a little Czech. This tailor, Lifschnitz, kept a repair shop in a Cheapside basement, underneath a cobbler. He didn’t much need an apprentice, but he was sorry for the boy and took him in for no wages but his keep and what he could pick up. The pickings were supposed to be coppers given you when you took work home to a customer. But most of the customers called for their clothes themselves, and the coppers that came Anton’s way were very few. He had, however, a place to sleep. The tailor’s family lived upstairs in three rooms; a kitchen, a bedroom, where Lifschnitz and his wife and five children slept, and a living-room. Two corners of this living-room were curtained off for lodgers; in one Rosicky slept on an old horsehair sofa, with a feather quilt to wrap himself in. The other corner was rented to a wretched, dirty boy, who was studying the violin. He actually practised there. Rosicky was dirty, too. There was no way to be anything else. Mrs. Lifschnitz got the water she cooked and washed with from a pump in a brick court, four flights down. There were bugs in the place, and multitudes of fleas, though the poor woman did the best she could. Rosicky knew she often went empty to give another potato or a spoonful of dripping to the two hungry, sad-eyed boys who lodged with her. He used to think he would never get out of there, never get a clean shirt to his back again. What would he do, he wondered, when his clothes actually dropped to pieces and the worn cloth wouldn’t hold patches any longer?

It was still early when the old farmer put aside his sewing and his recollections. The sky had been a dark grey all day, with not a gleam of sun, and the light failed at four o’clock. He went to shave and change his shirt while the turkey was roasting. Rudolph and Polly were coming over for supper.

After supper they sat round in the kitchen, and the younger boys were saying how sorry they were it hadn’t snowed. Everybody was sorry. They wanted a deep snow that would lie long and keep the wheat warm, and leave the ground soaked when it melted.

“Yes, sir!” Rudolph broke out fiercely; “if we have another dry year like last year, there’s going to be hard times in this country.”

Rosicky filled his pipe. “You boys don’t know what hard times is. You don’t owe nobody, you got plenty to eat an’ keep warm, an’ plenty water to keep clean. When you got them, you can’t have it very hard.”

Rudolph frowned, opened and shut his big right hand, and dropped it clenched upon his knee. “I’ve got to have a good deal more than that, Father, or I’ll quit this farming gamble. I can always make good wages railroading, or at the packing house, and be sure of my money.”

“Maybe so,” his father answered dryly.

Mary, who had just come in from the pantry and was wiping her hands on the roller towel, thought Rudy and his father were getting too serious. She brought her darning-basket and sat down in the middle of the group.

“I ain’t much afraid of hard times, Rudy,” she said heartily. “We’ve had a plenty, but we’ve always come through. Your father wouldn’t never take nothing very hard, not even hard times. I got a mind to tell you a story on him. Maybe you boys can’t hardly remember the year we had that terrible hot wind, that burned everything up on the Fourth of July? All the corn an’ the gardens. An’ that was in the days when we didn’t have alfalfa yet, — I guess it wasn’t invented.

“Well, that very day your father was out cultivatin’ corn, and I was here in the kitchen makin’ plum preserves. We had bushels of plums that year. I noticed it was terrible hot, but it’s always hot in the kitchen when you’re preservin’, an’ I was too busy with my plums to mind. Anton come in from the field about three o’clock, an’ I asked him what was the matter.

“‘Nothin’,’ he says, ‘but it’s pretty hot, an’ I think I won’t work no more today.’ He stood round for a few minutes, an’ then he says: ‘Ain’t you near through? I want you should git up a nice supper for us tonight. It’s Fourth of July.’

“I told him to git along, that I was right in the middle of preservin’, but the plums would taste good on hot biscuit. ‘I’m goin’ to have fried chicken, too,’ he says, and he went off an’ killed a couple. You three oldest boys was little fellers, playin’ round outside, real hot an’ sweaty, an’ your father took you to the horse tank down by the windmill an’ took off your clothes an’ put you in. Them two box-elder trees was little then, but they made shade over the tank. Then he took off all his own clothes, an’ got in with you. While he was playin’ in the water with you, the Methodist preacher drove into our place to say how all the neighbours was goin’ to meet at the schoolhouse that night, to pray for rain. He drove right to the windmill, of course, and there was your father and you three with no clothes on. I was in the kitchen door, an’ I had to laugh, for the preacher acted like he ain’t never seen a naked man before. He surely was embarrassed, an’ your father couldn’t git to his clothes; they was all hangin’ up on the windmill to let the sweat dry out of ’em. So he laid in the tank where he was, an’ put one of you boys on top of him to cover him up a little, an’ talked to the preacher.

“When you got through playin’ in the water, he put clean clothes on you and a clean shirt on himself, an’ by that time I’d begun to get supper. He says: ‘It’s too hot in here to eat comfortable. Let’s have a picnic in the orchard. We’ll eat our supper behind the mulberry hedge, under them linden trees.’

“So he carried our supper down, an’ a bottle of my wild-grape wine, an’ everything tasted good, I can tell you. The wind got cooler as the sun was goin’ down, and it turned out pleasant, only I noticed how the leaves was curled up on the linden trees. That made me think, an’ I asked your father if that hot wind all day hadn’t been terrible hard on the gardens an’ the corn.

“‘Corn,’ he says, ‘there ain’t no corn.’

“‘What you talkin’ about?’ I said. ‘Ain’t we got forty acres?’

“‘We ain’t got an ear,’ he says, ‘nor nobody else ain’t got none. All the corn in this country was cooked by three o’clock today, like you’d roasted it in an oven.’

“‘You mean you won’t get no crop at all?’ I asked him. I couldn’t believe it, after he’d worked so hard.

“‘No crop this year,’ he says. ‘That’s why we’re havin’ a picnic. We might as well enjoy what we got.’

“An’ that’s how your father behaved, when all the neighbours was so discouraged they couldn’t look you in the face. An’ we enjoyed ourselves that year, poor as we was, an’ our neighbours wasn’t a bit better off for bein’ miserable. Some of ’em grieved till they got poor digestions and couldn’t relish what they did have.”

The younger boys said they thought their father had the best of it. But Rudolf was thinking that, all the same, the neighbours had managed to get ahead more, in the fifteen years since that time. There must be something wrong about his father’s way of doing things. He wished he knew what was going on in the back of Polly’s mind. He knew she liked his father, but he knew, too, that she was afraid of something. When his mother sent over coffee-cake or prune tarts or a loaf of fresh bread, Polly seemed to regard them with a certain suspicion. When she observed to him that his brothers had nice manners, her tone implied that it was remarkable they should have. With his mother she was stiff and on her guard. Mary’s hearty frankness and gusts of good humour irritated her. Polly was afraid of being unusual or conspicuous in any way, of being “ordinary,” as she said!

When Mary had finished her story, Rosicky laid aside his pipe.

“You boys like me to tell you about some of dem hard times I been through in London? Warmly encouraged, he sat rubbing his forehead along the deep creases. It was bothersome to tell a long story in English (he nearly always talked to the boys in Czech), but he wanted Polly to hear this one.

“Well, you know about dat tailor shop I worked in in London? I had one Christmas dere I ain’t never forgot. Times was awful bad before Christmas; de boss ain’t got much work, an’ have it awful hard to pay his rent. It ain’t so much fun, bein’ poor in a big city like London, I’ll say! All de windows is full of good t’ings to eat, an’ all de pushcarts in de streets is full, an’ you smell ’em all de time, an’ you ain’t got no money, — not a damn bit. I didn’t mind de cold so much, though I didn’t have no overcoat, chust a short jacket I’d outgrowed so it wouldn’t meet on me, an’ my hands was chapped raw. But I always had a good appetite, like you all know, an’ de sight of dem pork pies in de windows was awful fur me!

“Day before Christmas was terrible foggy dat year, an’ dat fog gits into your bones and makes you all damp like. Mrs. Lifschnitz didn’t give us nothin’ but a little bread an’ drippin’ for supper, because she was savin’ to try for to give us a good dinner on Christmas Day. After supper de boss say I can go an’ enjoy myself, so I went into de streets to listen to de Christmas singers. Dey sing old songs an’ make very nice music, an’ I run round after dem a good ways, till I got awful hungry. I t’ink maybe if I go home, I can sleep till morning an’ forgit my belly.

“I went into my corner real quiet, and roll up in my fedder quilt. But I ain’t got my head down, till I smell somet’ing good. Seem like it git stronger an’ stronger, an’ I can’t git to sleep noway. I can’t understand dat smell. Dere was a gas light in a hall across de court, dat always shine in at my window a little. I got up an’ look round. I got a little wooden box in my corner fur a stool, ‘cause I ain’t got no chair. I picks up dat box, and under it dere is a roast goose on a platter! I can’t believe my eyes. I carry it to de window where de light comes in, an’ touch it and smell it to find out, an’ den I taste it to be sure. I say, I will eat chust one little bite of dat goose, so I can go to sleep, and tomorrow I won’t eat none at all. But I tell you, boys, when I stop, one half of dat goose was gone!”

The narrator bowed his head, and the boys shouted. But little Josephine slipped behind his chair and kissed him on the neck beneath his ear.

“Poor little Papa, I don’t want him to be hungry!”

“Da’s long ago, child. I ain’t never been hungry since I had your mudder to cook fur me.”

“Go on and tell us the rest, please,” said Polly.

“Well, when I come to realize what I done, of course, I felt terrible. I felt better in de stomach, but very bad in de heart. I set on my bed wid dat platter on my knees, an’ it all come to me; how hard dat poor woman save to buy dat goose, and how she get some neighbour to cook it dat got more fire, an’ how she put it in my corner to keep it away from dem hungry children. Dey was a old carpet hung up to shut my corner off, an’ de children wasn’t allowed to go in dere. An’ I know she put it in my corner because she trust me more’n she did de violin boy. I can’t stand it to face her after I spoil de Christmas. So I put on my shoes and go out into de city. I tell myself I better throw myself in de river; but I guess I ain’t dat kind of a boy.

“It was after twelve o’clock, an’ terrible cold, an’ I start out to walk about London all night. I walk along de river awhile, but dey was lots of drunks all along; men, and women too. I chust move along to keep away from de police. I git onto de Strand, an’ den over to New Oxford Street, where dere was a big German restaurant on de ground floor, wid big windows all fixed up fine, an’ I could see de people havin’ parties inside. While I was lookin’ in, two men and two ladies come out, laughin’ and talkin’ and feelin’ happy about all dey been eatin’ an’ drinkin’, and dey was speakin’ Czech, — not like de Austrians, but like de home folks talk it.

“I guess I went crazy, an’ I done what I ain’t never done before nor since. I went right up to dem gay people an’ begun to beg dem: ‘Fellow-countrymen, for God’s sake give me money enough to buy a goose!’

“Dey laugh, of course, but de ladies speak awful kind to me, an’ dey take me back into de restaurant and give me hot coffee and cakes, an’ make me tell all about how I happened to come to London, an’ what I was doin’ dere. Dey take my name and where I work down on paper, an’ both of dem ladies give me ten shillings.

“De big market at Covent Garden ain’t very far away, an’ by dat time it was open. I go dere an’ buy a big goose an’ some pork pies, an’ potatoes and onions, an’ cakes an’ oranges fur de children, — all I could carry! When I git home, everybody is still asleep. I pile all I bought on de kitchen table, an’ go in an’ lay down on my bed, an’ I ain’t waken up till I hear dat woman scream when she come out into her kitchen. My goodness, but she was surprise! She laugh an’ cry at de same time, an’ hug me and waken all de children. She ain’t stop fur no breakfast; she git de Christmas dinner ready dat morning, and we all sit down an’ eat all we can hold. I ain’t never seen dat violin boy have all he can hold before.

“Two three days after dat, de two men come to hunt me up, an’ dey ask my boss, and he give me a good report an’ tell dem I was a steady boy all right. One of dem Bohemians was very smart an’ run a Bohemian newspaper in New York, an’ de odder was a rich man, in de importing business, an’ dey been travelling togedder. Dey told me how t’ings was easier in New York, an’ offered to pay my passage when dey was goin’ home soon on a boat. My boss say to me: ‘You go. You ain’t got no chance here, an’ I like to see you git ahead, fur you always been a good boy to my woman, and fur dat fine Christmas dinner you give us all.’ An’ da’s how I got to New York.”

That night when Rudolph and Polly, arm in arm, were running home across the fields with the bitter wind at their backs, his heart leaped for joy when she said she thought they might have his family come over for supper on New Year’s Eve. “Let’s get up a nice supper, and not let your mother help at all; make her be company for once.”

“That would be lovely of you, Polly,” he said humbly. He was a very simple, modest boy, and he, too, felt vaguely that Polly and her sisters were more experienced and worldly than his people.

VI

The winter turned out badly for farmers. It was bitterly cold, and after the first light snows before Christmas there was no snow at all, — and no rain. March was as bitter as February. On those days when the wind fairly punished the country, Rosicky sat by his window. In the fall he and the boys had put in a big wheat planting, and now the seed had frozen in the ground. All that land would have to be ploughed up and planted over again, planted in corn. It had happened before, but he was younger then, and he never worried about what had to be. He was sure of himself and of Mary; he knew they could bear what they had to bear, that they would always pull through somehow. But he was not so sure about the young ones, and he felt troubled because Rudolph and Polly were having such a hard start.

Sitting beside his flowering window while the panes rattled and the wind blew in under the door, Rosicky gave himself to reflection as he had not done since those Sundays in the loft of the furniture-factory in New York, long ago. Then he was trying to find what he wanted in life for himself; now he was trying to find what he wanted for his boys, and why it was he so hungered to feel sure they would be here, working this very land, after he was gone.

They would have to work hard on the farm, and probably they would never do much more than make a living. But if he could think of them as staying here on the land, he wouldn’t have to fear any great unkindness for them. Hardships, certainly; it was a hardship to have the wheat freeze in the ground when seed was so high; and to have to sell your stock because you had no feed. But there would be other years when everything came along right, and you caught up. And what you had was your own. You didn’t have to choose between bosses and strikers, and go wrong either way. You didn’t have to do with dishonest and cruel people. They were the only things in his experience he had found terrifying and horrible; the look in the eyes of a dishonest and crafty man, of a scheming and rapacious woman.

In the country, if you had a mean neighbour, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours. But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbours was part of your life. The worst things he had come upon in his journey through the world were human, — depraved and poisonous specimens of man. To this day he could recall certain terrible faces in the London streets. There were mean people everywhere, to be sure, even in their own country town here. But they weren’t tempered, hardened, sharpened, like the treacherous people in cities who live by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-men. He had helped to bury two of his fellow-workmen in the tailoring trade, and he was distrustful of the organized industries that see one out of the world in big cities. Here, if you were sick, you had Doctor Ed to look after you; and if you died, fat Mr. Haycock, the kindest man in the world, buried you.

It seemed to Rosicky that for good, honest boys like his, the worst they could do on the farm was better than the best they would be likely to do in the city. If he’d had a mean boy, now, one who was crooked and sharp and tried to put anything over on his brothers, then town would be the place for him. But he had no such boy. As for Rudolph, the discontented one, he would give the shirt off his back to anyone who touched his heart. What Rosicky really hoped for his boys was that they could get through the world without ever knowing much about the cruelty of human beings. “Their mother and me ain’t prepared them for that,” he sometimes said to himself.

These thoughts brought him back to a grateful consideration of his own case. What an escape he had had, to be sure! He, too, in his time, had had to take money for repair work from the hand of a hungry child who let it go so wistfully; because it was money due his boss. And now, in all these years, he had never had to take a cent from anyone in bitter need, — never had to look at the face of a woman become like a wolf’s from struggle and famine. When he thought of these things, Rosicky would put on his cap and jacket and slip down to the barn and give his work-horses a little extra oats, letting them eat it out of his hand in their slobbery fashion. It was his way of expressing what he felt, and made him chuckle with pleasure.

The spring came warm, with blue skies, — but dry, dry as a bone. The boys began ploughing up the wheat-fields to plant them over in corn. Rosicky would stand at the fence corner and watch them, and the earth was so dry it blew up in clouds of brown dust that hid the horses and the sulky plough and the driver. It was a bad outlook.

The big alfalfa-field that lay between the home place and Rudolph’s came up green, but Rosicky was worried because during that open windy winter a great many Russian thistle plants had blown in there and lodged. He kept asking the boys to rake them out; he was afraid their seed would root and “take the alfalfa.” Rudolph said that was nonsense. The boys were working so hard planting corn, their father felt he couldn’t insist about the thistles, but he set great store by that big alfalfa field. It was a feed you could depend on, — and there was some deeper reason, vague, but strong. The peculiar green of that clover woke early memories in old Rosicky, went back to something in his childhood in the old world. When he was a little boy, he had played in fields of that strong blue-green colour.

One morning, when Rudolph had gone to town in the car, leaving a work-team idle in his barn, Rosicky went over to his son’s place, put the horses to the buggy-rake, and set about quietly raking up those thistles. He behaved with guilty caution, and rather enjoyed stealing a march on Doctor Ed, who was just then taking his first vacation in seven years of practice and was attending a clinic in Chicago. Rosicky got the thistles raked up, but did not stop to burn them. That would take some time, and his breath was pretty short, so he thought he had better get the horses back to the barn.

He got them into the barn and to their stalls, but the pain had come on so sharp in his chest that he didn’t try to take the harness off. He started for the house, bending lower with every step. The cramp in his chest was shutting him up like a jack-knife. When he reached the windmill, he swayed and caught at the ladder. He saw Polly coming down the hill, running with the swiftness of a slim greyhound. In a flash she had her shoulder under his armpit.

“Lean on me, Father, hard! Don’t be afraid. We can get to the house all right.”

Somehow they did, though Rosicky became blind with pain; he could keep on his legs, but he couldn’t steer his course. The next thing he was conscious of was lying on Polly’s bed, and Polly bending over him wringing out bath towels in hot water and putting them on his chest. She stopped only to throw coal into the stove, and she kept the tea-kettle and the black pot going. She put these hot applications on him for nearly an hour, she told him afterwards, and all that time he was drawn up stiff and blue, with the sweat pouring off him.

As the pain gradually loosed its grip, the stiffness went out of his jaws, the black circles round his eyes disappeared, and a little of his natural colour came back. When his daughter-inlaw buttoned his shirt over his chest at last, he sighed.

“Da’s fine, de way I feel now, Polly. It was a awful bad spell, an’ I was so sorry it all come on you like it did.”

Polly was flushed and excited. “Is the pain really gone? Can I leave you long enough to telephone over to your place?”

Rosicky’s eyelids fluttered. “Don’t telephone, Polly. It ain’t no use to scare my wife. It’s nice and quiet here, an’ if I ain’t too much trouble to you, just let me lay still till I feel like myself. I ain’t got no pain now. It’s nice here.”

Polly bent over him and wiped the moisture from his face. “Oh, I’m so glad it’s over!” she broke out impulsively. “It just broke my heart to see you suffer so, Father.”

Rosicky motioned her to sit down on the chair where the tea-kettle had been, and looked up at her with that lively affectionate gleam in his eyes. “You was awful good to me, I won’t never forgit dat. I hate it to be sick on you like dis. Down at de barn I say to myself, dat young girl ain’t had much experience in sickness, I don’t want to scare her, an’ maybe she’s got a baby comin’ or somet’ing.”

Polly took his hand. He was looking at her so intently and affectionately and confidingly; his eyes seemed to caress her face, to regard it with pleasure. She frowned with her funny streaks of eyebrows, and then smiled back at him.

“I guess maybe there is something of that kind going to happen. But I haven’t told anyone yet, not my mother or Rudolph. You’ll be the first to know.”

His hand pressed hers. She noticed that it was warm again. The twinkle in his yellow-brown eyes seemed to come nearer.

“I like mighty well to see dat little child, Polly,” was all he said. Then he closed his eyes and lay half-smiling. But Polly sat still, thinking hard. She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone, really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there. You saw it in his eyes, — perhaps that was why they were merry. You felt it in his hands, too. After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his warm, broad, flexible brown hand. She had never seen another in the least like it. She wondered if it wasn’t a kind of gypsy hand, it was so alive and quick and light in its communications, — very strange in a farmer. Nearly all the farmers she knew had huge lumps of fists, like mauls, or they were knotty and bony and uncomfortable-looking, with stiff fingers. But Rosicky’s was like quicksilver, flexible, muscular, about the colour of a pale cigar, with deep, deep creases across the palm. It wasn’t nervous, it wasn’t a stupid lump; it was a warm brown human hand, with some cleverness in it, a great deal of generosity, and something else which Polly could only call “gypsy-like,” — something nimble and lively and sure, in the way that animals are.

Polly remembered that hour long afterwards; it had been like an awakening to her. It seemed to her that she had never learned so much about life from anything as from old Rosicky’s hand. It brought her to herself; it communicated some direct and untranslatable message.

When she heard Rudolph coming in the car, she ran out to meet him.

“Oh, Rudy, your father’s been awful sick! He raked up those thistles he’s been worrying about, and afterwards he could hardly get to the house. He suffered so I was afraid he was going to die.”

Rudolph jumped to the ground. “Where is he now?”

“On the bed. He’s asleep. I was terribly scared, because, you know, I’m so fond of your father.” She slipped her arm through his and they went into the house. That afternoon they took Rosicky home and put him to bed, though he protested that he was quite well again.

The next morning he got up and dressed and sat down to breakfast with his family. He told Mary that his coffee tasted better than usual to him, and he warned the boys not to bear any tales to Doctor Ed when he got home. After breakfast he sat down by his window to do some patching and asked Mary to thread several needles for him before she went to feed her chickens, — her eyes were better than his, and her hands steadier. He lit his pipe and took up John’s overalls. Mary had been watching him anxiously all morning, and as she went out of the door with her bucket of scraps, she saw that he was smiling. He was thinking, indeed, about Polly, and how he might never have known what a tender heart she had if he hadn’t got sick over there. Girls nowadays didn’t wear their heart on their sleeve. But now he knew Polly would make a fine woman after the foolishness wore off. Either a woman had that sweetness at her heart or she hadn’t. You couldn’t always tell by the look of them; but if they had that, everything came out right in the end.

After he had taken a few stitches, the cramp began in his chest, like yesterday. He put his pipe cautiously down on the window-sill and bent over to ease the pull. No use, — he had better try to get to his bed if he could. He rose and groped his way across the familiar floor, which was rising and falling like the deck of a ship. At the door he fell. When Mary came in, she found him lying there, and the moment she touched him she knew that he was gone.

Doctor Ed was away when Rosicky died, and for the first few weeks after he got home he was hard driven. Every day he said to himself that he must get out to see that family that had lost their father. One soft, warm moonlight night in early summer he started for the farm. His mind was on other things, and not until his road ran by the graveyard did he realize that Rosicky wasn’t over there on the hill where the red lamplight shone, but here, in the moonlight. He stopped his car, shut off the engine, and sat there for a while.

A sudden hush had fallen on his soul. Everything here seemed strangely moving and significant, though signifying what, he did not know. Close by the wire fence stood Rosicky’s mowing-machine, where one of the boys had been cutting hay that afternoon; his own workhorses had been going up and down there. The new-cut hay perfumed all the night air. The moonlight silvered the long, billowy grass that grew over the graves and hid the fence; the few little evergreens stood out black in it, like shadows in a pool. The sky was very blue and soft, the stars rather faint because the moon was full.

For the first time it struck Doctor Ed that this was really a beautiful graveyard. He thought of city cemeteries; acres of shrubbery and heavy stone, so arranged and lonely and unlike anything in the living world. Cities of the dead, indeed; cities of the forgotten, of the “put away.” But this was open and free, this little square of long grass which the wind for ever stirred. Nothing but the sky overhead, and the many-coloured fields running on until they met that sky. The horses worked here in summer; the neighbours passed on their way to town; and over yonder, in the cornfield, Rosicky’s own cattle would be eating fodder as winter came on. Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky’s life seemed to him complete and beautiful.

New York, 1928

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