IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles. From the graveyard gate one can count a dozen gayly painted farmhouses; the gilded weather-vanes on the big red barns wink at each other across the green and brown and yellow fields. The light steel windmills tremble throughout their frames and tug at their moorings, as they vibrate in the wind that often blows from one week’s end to another across that high, active, resolute stretch of country.
The Divide is now thickly populated. The rich soil yields heavy harvests; the dry, bracing climate and the smoothness of the land make labor easy for men and beasts. There are few scenes more gratifying than a spring plowing in that country, where the furrows of a single field often lie a mile in length, and the brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away from the shear, not even dimming the brightness of the metal, with a soft, deep sigh of happiness. The wheat-cutting sometimes goes on all night as well as all day, and in good seasons there are scarcely men and horses enough to do the harvesting. The grain is so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet.
There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.
One June morning a young man stood at the gate of the Norwegian graveyard, sharpening his scythe in strokes unconsciously timed to the tune he was whistling. He wore a flannel cap and duck trousers, and the sleeves of his white flannel shirt were rolled back to the elbow. When he was satisfied with the edge of his blade, he slipped the whetstone into his hip pocket and began to swing his scythe, still whistling, but softly, out of respect to the quiet folk about him. Unconscious respect, probably, for he seemed intent upon his own thoughts, and, like the Gladiator’s, they were far away. He was a splendid figure of a boy, tall and straight as a young pine tree, with a handsome head, and stormy gray eyes, deeply set under a serious brow. The space between his two front teeth, which were unusually far apart, gave him the proficiency in whistling for which he was distinguished at college. (He also played the cornet in the University band.)
When the grass required his close attention, or when he had to stoop to cut about a head-stone, he paused in his lively air, — the “Jewel” song, — taking it up where he had left it when his scythe swung free again. He was not thinking about the tired pioneers over whom his blade glittered. The old wild country, the struggle in which his sister was destined to succeed while so many men broke their hearts and died, he can scarcely remember. That is all among the dim things of childhood and has been forgotten in the brighter pattern life weaves today, in the bright facts of being captain of the track team, and holding the interstate record for the high jump, in the all-suffusing brightness of being twenty-one. Yet sometimes, in the pauses of his work, the young man frowned and looked at the ground with an intentness which suggested that even twenty-one might have its problems.
When he had been mowing the better part of an hour, he heard the rattle of a light cart on the road behind him. Supposing that it was his sister coming back from one of her farms, he kept on with his work. The cart stopped at the gate and a merry contralto voice called, “Almost through, Emil?” He dropped his scythe and went toward the fence, wiping his face and neck with his handkerchief. In the cart sat a young woman who wore driving gauntlets and a wide shade hat, trimmed with red poppies. Her face, too, was rather like a poppy, round and brown, with rich color in her cheeks and lips, and her dancing yellow-brown eyes bubbled with gayety. The wind was flapping her big hat and teasing a curl of her chestnut-colored hair. She shook her head at the tall youth.
“What time did you get over here? That’s not much of a job for an athlete. Here I’ve been to town and back. Alexandra lets you sleep late. Oh, I know! Lou’s wife was telling me about the way she spoils you. I was going to give you a lift, if you were done.” She gathered up her reins.
“But I will be, in a minute. Please wait for me, Marie,” Emil coaxed. “Alexandra sent me to mow our lot, but I’ve done half a dozen others, you see. Just wait till I finish off the Kourdnas’. By the way, they were Bohemians. Why aren’t they up in the Catholic graveyard?”
“Free-thinkers,” replied the young woman laconically.
“Lots of the Bohemian boys at the University are,” said Emil, taking up his scythe again. “What did you ever burn John Huss for, anyway? It’s made an awful row. They still jaw about it in history classes.”
“We’d do it right over again, most of us,” said the young woman hotly. “Don’t they ever teach you in your history classes that you’d all be heathen Turks if it hadn’t been for the Bohemians?”
Emil had fallen to mowing. “Oh, there’s no denying you’re a spunky little bunch, you Czechs,” he called back over his shoulder.
Marie Shabata settled herself in her seat and watched the rhythmical movement of the young man’s long arms, swinging her foot as if in time to some air that was going through her mind. The minutes passed. Emil mowed vigorously and Marie sat sunning herself and watching the long grass fall. She sat with the ease that belongs to persons of an essentially happy nature, who can find a comfortable spot almost anywhere; who are supple, and quick in adapting themselves to circumstances. After a final swish, Emil snapped the gate and sprang into the cart, holding his scythe well out over the wheel. “There,” he sighed. “I gave old man Lee a cut or so, too. Lou’s wife needn’t talk. I never see Lou’s scythe over here.”
Marie clucked to her horse. “Oh, you know Annie!” She looked at the young man’s bare arms. “How brown you’ve got since you came home. I wish I had an athlete to mow my orchard. I get wet to my knees when I go down to pick cherries.”
“You can have one, any time you want him. Better wait until after it rains.” Emil squinted off at the horizon as if he were looking for clouds.
“Will you? Oh, there’s a good boy!” She turned her head to him with a quick, bright smile. He felt it rather than saw it. Indeed, he had looked away with the purpose of not seeing it. “I’ve been up looking at Angelique’s wedding clothes,” Marie went on, “and I’m so excited I can hardly wait until Sunday. Amedee will be a handsome bridegroom. Is anybody but you going to stand up with him? Well, then it will be a handsome wedding party.” She made a droll face at Emil, who flushed. “Frank,” Marie continued, flicking her horse, “is cranky at me because I loaned his saddle to Jan Smirka, and I’m terribly afraid he won’t take me to the dance in the evening. Maybe the supper will tempt him. All Angelique’s folks are baking for it, and all Amedee’s twenty cousins. There will be barrels of beer. If once I get Frank to the supper, I’ll see that I stay for the dance. And by the way, Emil, you mustn’t dance with me but once or twice. You must dance with all the French girls. It hurts their feelings if you don’t. They think you’re proud because you’ve been away to school or something.”
Emil sniffed. “How do you know they think that?”
“Well, you didn’t dance with them much at Raoul Marcel’s party, and I could tell how they took it by the way they looked at you — and at me.”
“All right,” said Emil shortly, studying the glittering blade of his scythe.
They drove westward toward Norway Creek, and toward a big white house that stood on a hill, several miles across the fields. There were so many sheds and outbuildings grouped about it that the place looked not unlike a tiny village. A stranger, approaching it, could not help noticing the beauty and fruitfulness of the outlying fields. There was something individual about the great farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail. On either side of the road, for a mile before you reached the foot of the hill, stood tall osage orange hedges, their glossy green marking off the yellow fields. South of the hill, in a low, sheltered swale, surrounded by a mulberry hedge, was the orchard, its fruit trees knee-deep in timothy grass. Any one thereabouts would have told you that this was one of the richest farms on the Divide, and that the farmer was a woman, Alexandra Bergson.
If you go up the hill and enter Alexandra’s big house, you will find that it is curiously unfinished and uneven in comfort. One room is papered, carpeted, over-furnished; the next is almost bare. The pleasantest rooms in the house are the kitchen — where Alexandra’s three young Swedish girls chatter and cook and pickle and preserve all summer long — and the sitting-room, in which Alexandra has brought together the old homely furniture that the Bergsons used in their first log house, the family portraits, and the few things her mother brought from Sweden.
When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, in the symmetrical pasture ponds, planted with scrub willows to give shade to the cattle in fly-time. There is even a white row of beehives in the orchard, under the walnut trees. You feel that, properly, Alexandra’s house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best.
Emil reached home a little past noon, and when he went into the kitchen Alexandra was already seated at the head of the long table, having dinner with her men, as she always did unless there were visitors. He slipped into his empty place at his sister’s right. The three pretty young Swedish girls who did Alexandra’s housework were cutting pies, refilling coffeecups, placing platters of bread and meat and potatoes upon the red tablecloth, and continually getting in each other’s way between the table and the stove. To be sure they always wasted a good deal of time getting in each other’s way and giggling at each other’s mistakes. But, as Alexandra had pointedly told her sisters-inlaw, it was to hear them giggle that she kept three young things in her kitchen; the work she could do herself, if it were necessary. These girls, with their long letters from home, their finery, and their love-affairs, afforded her a great deal of entertainment, and they were company for her when Emil was away at school.
Of the youngest girl, Signa, who has a pretty figure, mottled pink cheeks, and yellow hair, Alexandra is very fond, though she keeps a sharp eye upon her. Signa is apt to be skittish at mealtime, when the men are about, and to spill the coffee or upset the cream. It is supposed that Nelse Jensen, one of the six men at the dinner-table, is courting Signa, though he has been so careful not to commit himself that no one in the house, least of all Signa, can tell just how far the matter has progressed. Nelse watches her glumly as she waits upon the table, and in the evening he sits on a bench behind the stove with his DRAGHARMONIKA, playing mournful airs and watching her as she goes about her work. When Alexandra asked Signa whether she thought Nelse was in earnest, the poor child hid her hands under her apron and murmured, “I don’t know, ma’m. But he scolds me about everything, like as if he wanted to have me!”
At Alexandra’s left sat a very old man, barefoot and wearing a long blue blouse, open at the neck. His shaggy head is scarcely whiter than it was sixteen years ago, but his little blue eyes have become pale and watery, and his ruddy face is withered, like an apple that has clung all winter to the tree. When Ivar lost his land through mismanagement a dozen years ago, Alexandra took him in, and he has been a member of her household ever since. He is too old to work in the fields, but he hitches and unhitches the work-teams and looks after the health of the stock. Sometimes of a winter evening Alexandra calls him into the sitting-room to read the Bible aloud to her, for he still reads very well. He dislikes human habitations, so Alexandra has fitted him up a room in the barn, where he is very comfortable, being near the horses and, as he says, further from temptations. No one has ever found out what his temptations are. In cold weather he sits by the kitchen fire and makes hammocks or mends harness until it is time to go to bed. Then he says his prayers at great length behind the stove, puts on his buffalo-skin coat and goes out to his room in the barn.
Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller, and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like one of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.
Alexandra did not talk much at the table, but she encouraged her men to talk, and she always listened attentively, even when they seemed to be talking foolishly.
To-day Barney Flinn, the big red-headed Irishman who had been with Alexandra for five years and who was actually her foreman, though he had no such title, was grumbling about the new silo she had put up that spring. It happened to be the first silo on the Divide, and Alexandra’s neighbors and her men were skeptical about it. “To be sure, if the thing don’t work, we’ll have plenty of feed without it, indeed,” Barney conceded.
Nelse Jensen, Signa’s gloomy suitor, had his word. “Lou, he says he wouldn’t have no silo on his place if you’d give it to him. He says the feed outen it gives the stock the bloat. He heard of somebody lost four head of horses, feedin’ ’em that stuff.”
Alexandra looked down the table from one to another. “Well, the only way we can find out is to try. Lou and I have different notions about feeding stock, and that’s a good thing. It’s bad if all the members of a family think alike. They never get anywhere. Lou can learn by my mistakes and I can learn by his. Isn’t that fair, Barney?”
The Irishman laughed. He had no love for Lou, who was always uppish with him and who said that Alexandra paid her hands too much. “I’ve no thought but to give the thing an honest try, mum. ‘T would be only right, after puttin’ so much expense into it. Maybe Emil will come out an’ have a look at it wid me.” He pushed back his chair, took his hat from the nail, and marched out with Emil, who, with his university ideas, was supposed to have instigated the silo. The other hands followed them, all except old Ivar. He had been depressed throughout the meal and had paid no heed to the talk of the men, even when they mentioned cornstalk bloat, upon which he was sure to have opinions.
“Did you want to speak to me, Ivar?” Alexandra asked as she rose from the table. “Come into the sitting-room.”
The old man followed Alexandra, but when she motioned him to a chair he shook his head. She took up her workbasket and waited for him to speak. He stood looking at the carpet, his bushy head bowed, his hands clasped in front of him. Ivar’s bandy legs seemed to have grown shorter with years, and they were completely misfitted to his broad, thick body and heavy shoulders.
“Well, Ivar, what is it?” Alexandra asked after she had waited longer than usual.
Ivar had never learned to speak English and his Norwegian was quaint and grave, like the speech of the more old-fashioned people. He always addressed Alexandra in terms of the deepest respect, hoping to set a good example to the kitchen girls, whom he thought too familiar in their manners.
“Mistress,” he began faintly, without raising his eyes, “the folk have been looking coldly at me of late. You know there has been talk.”
“Talk about what, Ivar?”
“About sending me away; to the asylum.”
Alexandra put down her sewing-basket. “Nobody has come to me with such talk,” she said decidedly. “Why need you listen? You know I would never consent to such a thing.”
Ivar lifted his shaggy head and looked at her out of his little eyes. “They say that you cannot prevent it if the folk complain of me, if your brothers complain to the authorities. They say that your brothers are afraid — God forbid! — that I may do you some injury when my spells are on me. Mistress, how can any one think that? — that I could bite the hand that fed me!” The tears trickled down on the old man’s beard.
Alexandra frowned. “Ivar, I wonder at you, that you should come bothering me with such nonsense. I am still running my own house, and other people have nothing to do with either you or me. So long as I am suited with you, there is nothing to be said.”
Ivar pulled a red handkerchief out of the breast of his blouse and wiped his eyes and beard. “But I should not wish you to keep me if, as they say, it is against your interests, and if it is hard for you to get hands because I am here.”
Alexandra made an impatient gesture, but the old man put out his hand and went on earnestly:—
“Listen, mistress, it is right that you should take these things into account. You know that my spells come from God, and that I would not harm any living creature. You believe that every one should worship God in the way revealed to him. But that is not the way of this country. The way here is for all to do alike. I am despised because I do not wear shoes, because I do not cut my hair, and because I have visions. At home, in the old country, there were many like me, who had been touched by God, or who had seen things in the graveyard at night and were different afterward. We thought nothing of it, and let them alone. But here, if a man is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum. Look at Peter Kralik; when he was a boy, drinking out of a creek, he swallowed a snake, and always after that he could eat only such food as the creature liked, for when he ate anything else, it became enraged and gnawed him. When he felt it whipping about in him, he drank alcohol to stupefy it and get some ease for himself. He could work as good as any man, and his head was clear, but they locked him up for being different in his stomach. That is the way; they have built the asylum for people who are different, and they will not even let us live in the holes with the badgers. Only your great prosperity has protected me so far. If you had had ill-fortune, they would have taken me to Hastings long ago.”
As Ivar talked, his gloom lifted. Alexandra had found that she could often break his fasts and long penances by talking to him and letting him pour out the thoughts that troubled him. Sympathy always cleared his mind, and ridicule was poison to him.
“There is a great deal in what you say, Ivar. Like as not they will be wanting to take me to Hastings because I have built a silo; and then I may take you with me. But at present I need you here. Only don’t come to me again telling me what people say. Let people go on talking as they like, and we will go on living as we think best. You have been with me now for twelve years, and I have gone to you for advice oftener than I have ever gone to any one. That ought to satisfy you.”
Ivar bowed humbly. “Yes, mistress, I shall not trouble you with their talk again. And as for my feet, I have observed your wishes all these years, though you have never questioned me; washing them every night, even in winter.”
Alexandra laughed. “Oh, never mind about your feet, Ivar. We can remember when half our neighbors went barefoot in summer. I expect old Mrs. Lee would love to slip her shoes off now sometimes, if she dared. I’m glad I’m not Lou’s mother-inlaw.”
Ivar looked about mysteriously and lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “You know what they have over at Lou’s house? A great white tub, like the stone water-troughs in the old country, to wash themselves in. When you sent me over with the strawberries, they were all in town but the old woman Lee and the baby. She took me in and showed me the thing, and she told me it was impossible to wash yourself clean in it, because, in so much water, you could not make a strong suds. So when they fill it up and send her in there, she pretends, and makes a splashing noise. Then, when they are all asleep, she washes herself in a little wooden tub she keeps under her bed.”
Alexandra shook with laughter. “Poor old Mrs. Lee! They won’t let her wear nightcaps, either. Never mind; when she comes to visit me, she can do all the old things in the old way, and have as much beer as she wants. We’ll start an asylum for old-time people, Ivar.”
Ivar folded his big handkerchief carefully and thrust it back into his blouse. “This is always the way, mistress. I come to you sorrowing, and you send me away with a light heart. And will you be so good as to tell the Irishman that he is not to work the brown gelding until the sore on its shoulder is healed?”
“That I will. Now go and put Emil’s mare to the cart. I am going to drive up to the north quarter to meet the man from town who is to buy my alfalfa hay.”
Alexandra was to hear more of Ivar’s case, however. On Sunday her married brothers came to dinner. She had asked them for that day because Emil, who hated family parties, would be absent, dancing at Amedee Chevalier’s wedding, up in the French country. The table was set for company in the dining-room, where highly varnished wood and colored glass and useless pieces of china were conspicuous enough to satisfy the standards of the new prosperity. Alexandra had put herself into the hands of the Hanover furniture dealer, and he had conscientiously done his best to make her dining-room look like his display window. She said frankly that she knew nothing about such things, and she was willing to be governed by the general conviction that the more useless and utterly unusable objects were, the greater their virtue as ornament. That seemed reasonable enough. Since she liked plain things herself, it was all the more necessary to have jars and punchbowls and candlesticks in the company rooms for people who did appreciate them. Her guests liked to see about them these reassuring emblems of prosperity.
The family party was complete except for Emil, and Oscar’s wife who, in the country phrase, “was not going anywhere just now.” Oscar sat at the foot of the table and his four tow-headed little boys, aged from twelve to five, were ranged at one side. Neither Oscar nor Lou has changed much; they have simply, as Alexandra said of them long ago, grown to be more and more like themselves. Lou now looks the older of the two; his face is thin and shrewd and wrinkled about the eyes, while Oscar’s is thick and dull. For all his dullness, however, Oscar makes more money than his brother, which adds to Lou’s sharpness and uneasiness and tempts him to make a show. The trouble with Lou is that he is tricky, and his neighbors have found out that, as Ivar says, he has not a fox’s face for nothing. Politics being the natural field for such talents, he neglects his farm to attend conventions and to run for county offices.
Lou’s wife, formerly Annie Lee, has grown to look curiously like her husband. Her face has become longer, sharper, more aggressive. She wears her yellow hair in a high pompadour, and is bedecked with rings and chains and “beauty pins.” Her tight, high-heeled shoes give her an awkward walk, and she is always more or less preoccupied with her clothes. As she sat at the table, she kept telling her youngest daughter to “be careful now, and not drop anything on mother.”
The conversation at the table was all in English. Oscar’s wife, from the malaria district of Missouri, was ashamed of marrying a foreigner, and his boys do not understand a word of Swedish. Annie and Lou sometimes speak Swedish at home, but Annie is almost as much afraid of being “caught” at it as ever her mother was of being caught barefoot. Oscar still has a thick accent, but Lou speaks like anybody from Iowa.
“When I was in Hastings to attend the convention,” he was saying, “I saw the superintendent of the asylum, and I was telling him about Ivar’s symptoms. He says Ivar’s case is one of the most dangerous kind, and it’s a wonder he hasn’t done something violent before this.”
Alexandra laughed good-humoredly. “Oh, nonsense, Lou! The doctors would have us all crazy if they could. Ivar’s queer, certainly, but he has more sense than half the hands I hire.”
Lou flew at his fried chicken. “Oh, I guess the doctor knows his business, Alexandra. He was very much surprised when I told him how you’d put up with Ivar. He says he’s likely to set fire to the barn any night, or to take after you and the girls with an axe.”
Little Signa, who was waiting on the table, giggled and fled to the kitchen. Alexandra’s eyes twinkled. “That was too much for Signa, Lou. We all know that Ivar’s perfectly harmless. The girls would as soon expect me to chase them with an axe.”
Lou flushed and signaled to his wife. “All the same, the neighbors will be having a say about it before long. He may burn anybody’s barn. It’s only necessary for one property-owner in the township to make complaint, and he’ll be taken up by force. You’d better send him yourself and not have any hard feelings.”
Alexandra helped one of her little nephews to gravy. “Well, Lou, if any of the neighbors try that, I’ll have myself appointed Ivar’s guardian and take the case to court, that’s all. I am perfectly satisfied with him.”
“Pass the preserves, Lou,” said Annie in a warning tone. She had reasons for not wishing her husband to cross Alexandra too openly. “But don’t you sort of hate to have people see him around here, Alexandra?” she went on with persuasive smoothness. “He IS a disgraceful object, and you’re fixed up so nice now. It sort of makes people distant with you, when they never know when they’ll hear him scratching about. My girls are afraid as death of him, aren’t you, Milly, dear?”
Milly was fifteen, fat and jolly and pompadoured, with a creamy complexion, square white teeth, and a short upper lip. She looked like her grandmother Bergson, and had her comfortable and comfort-loving nature. She grinned at her aunt, with whom she was a great deal more at ease than she was with her mother. Alexandra winked a reply.
“Milly needn’t be afraid of Ivar. She’s an especial favorite of his. In my opinion Ivar has just as much right to his own way of dressing and thinking as we have. But I’ll see that he doesn’t bother other people. I’ll keep him at home, so don’t trouble any more about him, Lou. I’ve been wanting to ask you about your new bathtub. How does it work?”
Annie came to the fore to give Lou time to recover himself. “Oh, it works something grand! I can’t keep him out of it. He washes himself all over three times a week now, and uses all the hot water. I think it’s weakening to stay in as long as he does. You ought to have one, Alexandra.”
“I’m thinking of it. I might have one put in the barn for Ivar, if it will ease people’s minds. But before I get a bathtub, I’m going to get a piano for Milly.”
Oscar, at the end of the table, looked up from his plate. “What does Milly want of a pianny? What’s the matter with her organ? She can make some use of that, and play in church.”
Annie looked flustered. She had begged Alexandra not to say anything about this plan before Oscar, who was apt to be jealous of what his sister did for Lou’s children. Alexandra did not get on with Oscar’s wife at all. “Milly can play in church just the same, and she’ll still play on the organ. But practising on it so much spoils her touch. Her teacher says so,” Annie brought out with spirit.
Oscar rolled his eyes. “Well, Milly must have got on pretty good if she’s got past the organ. I know plenty of grown folks that ain’t,” he said bluntly.
Annie threw up her chin. “She has got on good, and she’s going to play for her commencement when she graduates in town next year.”
“Yes,” said Alexandra firmly, “I think Milly deserves a piano. All the girls around here have been taking lessons for years, but Milly is the only one of them who can ever play anything when you ask her. I’ll tell you when I first thought I would like to give you a piano, Milly, and that was when you learned that book of old Swedish songs that your grandfather used to sing. He had a sweet tenor voice, and when he was a young man he loved to sing. I can remember hearing him singing with the sailors down in the shipyard, when I was no bigger than Stella here,” pointing to Annie’s younger daughter.
Milly and Stella both looked through the door into the sitting-room, where a crayon portrait of John Bergson hung on the wall. Alexandra had had it made from a little photograph, taken for his friends just before he left Sweden; a slender man of thirty-five, with soft hair curling about his high forehead, a drooping mustache, and wondering, sad eyes that looked forward into the distance, as if they already beheld the New World.
After dinner Lou and Oscar went to the orchard to pick cherries — they had neither of them had the patience to grow an orchard of their own — and Annie went down to gossip with Alexandra’s kitchen girls while they washed the dishes. She could always find out more about Alexandra’s domestic economy from the prattling maids than from Alexandra herself, and what she discovered she used to her own advantage with Lou. On the Divide, farmers’ daughters no longer went out into service, so Alexandra got her girls from Sweden, by paying their fare over. They stayed with her until they married, and were replaced by sisters or cousins from the old country.
Alexandra took her three nieces into the flower garden. She was fond of the little girls, especially of Milly, who came to spend a week with her aunt now and then, and read aloud to her from the old books about the house, or listened to stories about the early days on the Divide. While they were walking among the flower beds, a buggy drove up the hill and stopped in front of the gate. A man got out and stood talking to the driver. The little girls were delighted at the advent of a stranger, some one from very far away, they knew by his clothes, his gloves, and the sharp, pointed cut of his dark beard. The girls fell behind their aunt and peeped out at him from among the castor beans. The stranger came up to the gate and stood holding his hat in his hand, smiling, while Alexandra advanced slowly to meet him. As she approached he spoke in a low, pleasant voice.
“Don’t you know me, Alexandra? I would have known you, anywhere.”
Alexandra shaded her eyes with her hand. Suddenly she took a quick step forward. “Can it be!” she exclaimed with feeling; “can it be that it is Carl Linstrum? Why, Carl, it is!” She threw out both her hands and caught his across the gate. “Sadie, Milly, run tell your father and Uncle Oscar that our old friend Carl Linstrum is here. Be quick! Why, Carl, how did it happen? I can’t believe this!” Alexandra shook the tears from her eyes and laughed.
The stranger nodded to his driver, dropped his suitcase inside the fence, and opened the gate. “Then you are glad to see me, and you can put me up overnight? I couldn’t go through this country without stopping off to have a look at you. How little you have changed! Do you know, I was sure it would be like that. You simply couldn’t be different. How fine you are!” He stepped back and looked at her admiringly.
Alexandra blushed and laughed again. “But you yourself, Carl — with that beard — how could I have known you? You went away a little boy.” She reached for his suitcase and when he intercepted her she threw up her hands. “You see, I give myself away. I have only women come to visit me, and I do not know how to behave. Where is your trunk?”
“It’s in Hanover. I can stay only a few days. I am on my way to the coast.”
They started up the path. “A few days? After all these years!” Alexandra shook her finger at him. “See this, you have walked into a trap. You do not get away so easy.” She put her hand affectionately on his shoulder. “You owe me a visit for the sake of old times. Why must you go to the coast at all?”
“Oh, I must! I am a fortune hunter. From Seattle I go on to Alaska.”
“Alaska?” She looked at him in astonishment. “Are you going to paint the Indians?”
“Paint?” the young man frowned. “Oh! I’m not a painter, Alexandra. I’m an engraver. I have nothing to do with painting.”
“But on my parlor wall I have the paintings — ”
He interrupted nervously. “Oh, water-color sketches — done for amusement. I sent them to remind you of me, not because they were good. What a wonderful place you have made of this, Alexandra.” He turned and looked back at the wide, map-like prospect of field and hedge and pasture. “I would never have believed it could be done. I’m disappointed in my own eye, in my imagination.”
At this moment Lou and Oscar came up the hill from the orchard. They did not quicken their pace when they saw Carl; indeed, they did not openly look in his direction. They advanced distrustfully, and as if they wished the distance were longer.
Alexandra beckoned to them. “They think I am trying to fool them. Come, boys, it’s Carl Linstrum, our old Carl!”
Lou gave the visitor a quick, sidelong glance and thrust out his hand. “Glad to see you.”
Oscar followed with “How d’ do.” Carl could not tell whether their offishness came from unfriendliness or from embarrassment. He and Alexandra led the way to the porch.
“Carl,” Alexandra explained, “is on his way to Seattle. He is going to Alaska.”
Oscar studied the visitor’s yellow shoes. “Got business there?” he asked.
Carl laughed. “Yes, very pressing business. I’m going there to get rich. Engraving’s a very interesting profession, but a man never makes any money at it. So I’m going to try the goldfields.”
Alexandra felt that this was a tactful speech, and Lou looked up with some interest. “Ever done anything in that line before?”
“No, but I’m going to join a friend of mine who went out from New York and has done well. He has offered to break me in.”
“Turrible cold winters, there, I hear,” remarked Oscar. “I thought people went up there in the spring.”
“They do. But my friend is going to spend the winter in Seattle and I am to stay with him there and learn something about prospecting before we start north next year.”
Lou looked skeptical. “Let’s see, how long have you been away from here?”
“Sixteen years. You ought to remember that, Lou, for you were married just after we went away.”
“Going to stay with us some time?” Oscar asked.
“A few days, if Alexandra can keep me.”
“I expect you’ll be wanting to see your old place,” Lou observed more cordially. “You won’t hardly know it. But there’s a few chunks of your old sod house left. Alexandra wouldn’t never let Frank Shabata plough over it.”
Annie Lee, who, ever since the visitor was announced, had been touching up her hair and settling her lace and wishing she had worn another dress, now emerged with her three daughters and introduced them. She was greatly impressed by Carl’s urban appearance, and in her excitement talked very loud and threw her head about. “And you ain’t married yet? At your age, now! Think of that! You’ll have to wait for Milly. Yes, we’ve got a boy, too. The youngest. He’s at home with his grandma. You must come over to see mother and hear Milly play. She’s the musician of the family. She does pyrography, too. That’s burnt wood, you know. You wouldn’t believe what she can do with her poker. Yes, she goes to school in town, and she is the youngest in her class by two years.”
Milly looked uncomfortable and Carl took her hand again. He liked her creamy skin and happy, innocent eyes, and he could see that her mother’s way of talking distressed her. “I’m sure she’s a clever little girl,” he murmured, looking at her thoughtfully. “Let me see — Ah, it’s your mother that she looks like, Alexandra. Mrs. Bergson must have looked just like this when she was a little girl. Does Milly run about over the country as you and Alexandra used to, Annie?”
Milly’s mother protested. “Oh, my, no! Things has changed since we was girls. Milly has it very different. We are going to rent the place and move into town as soon as the girls are old enough to go out into company. A good many are doing that here now. Lou is going into business.”
Lou grinned. “That’s what she says. You better go get your things on. Ivar’s hitching up,” he added, turning to Annie.
Young farmers seldom address their wives by name. It is always “you,” or “she.”
Having got his wife out of the way, Lou sat down on the step and began to whittle. “Well, what do folks in New York think of William Jennings Bryan?” Lou began to bluster, as he always did when he talked politics. “We gave Wall Street a scare in ninety-six, all right, and we’re fixing another to hand them. Silver wasn’t the only issue,” he nodded mysteriously. “There’s a good many things got to be changed. The West is going to make itself heard.”
Carl laughed. “But, surely, it did do that, if nothing else.”
Lou’s thin face reddened up to the roots of his bristly hair. “Oh, we’ve only begun. We’re waking up to a sense of our responsibilities, out here, and we ain’t afraid, neither. You fellows back there must be a tame lot. If you had any nerve you’d get together and march down to Wall Street and blow it up. Dynamite it, I mean,” with a threatening nod.
He was so much in earnest that Carl scarcely knew how to answer him. “That would be a waste of powder. The same business would go on in another street. The street doesn’t matter. But what have you fellows out here got to kick about? You have the only safe place there is. Morgan himself couldn’t touch you. One only has to drive through this country to see that you’re all as rich as barons.”
“We have a good deal more to say than we had when we were poor,” said Lou threateningly. “We’re getting on to a whole lot of things.”
As Ivar drove a double carriage up to the gate, Annie came out in a hat that looked like the model of a battleship. Carl rose and took her down to the carriage, while Lou lingered for a word with his sister.
“What do you suppose he’s come for?” he asked, jerking his head toward the gate.
“Why, to pay us a visit. I’ve been begging him to for years.”
Oscar looked at Alexandra. “He didn’t let you know he was coming?”
“No. Why should he? I told him to come at any time.”
Lou shrugged his shoulders. “He doesn’t seem to have done much for himself. Wandering around this way!”
Oscar spoke solemnly, as from the depths of a cavern. “He never was much account.”
Alexandra left them and hurried down to the gate where Annie was rattling on to Carl about her new dining-room furniture. “You must bring Mr. Linstrum over real soon, only be sure to telephone me first,” she called back, as Carl helped her into the carriage. Old Ivar, his white head bare, stood holding the horses. Lou came down the path and climbed into the front seat, took up the reins, and drove off without saying anything further to any one. Oscar picked up his youngest boy and trudged off down the road, the other three trotting after him. Carl, holding the gate open for Alexandra, began to laugh. “Up and coming on the Divide, eh, Alexandra?” he cried gayly.
Carl had changed, Alexandra felt, much less than one might have expected. He had not become a trim, self-satisfied city man. There was still something homely and wayward and definitely personal about him. Even his clothes, his Norfolk coat and his very high collars, were a little unconventional. He seemed to shrink into himself as he used to do; to hold himself away from things, as if he were afraid of being hurt. In short, he was more self-conscious than a man of thirty-five is expected to be. He looked older than his years and not very strong. His black hair, which still hung in a triangle over his pale forehead, was thin at the crown, and there were fine, relentless lines about his eyes. His back, with its high, sharp shoulders, looked like the back of an over-worked German professor off on his holiday. His face was intelligent, sensitive, unhappy.
That evening after supper, Carl and Alexandra were sitting by the clump of castor beans in the middle of the flower garden. The gravel paths glittered in the moonlight, and below them the fields lay white and still.
“Do you know, Alexandra,” he was saying, “I’ve been thinking how strangely things work out. I’ve been away engraving other men’s pictures, and you’ve stayed at home and made your own.” He pointed with his cigar toward the sleeping landscape. “How in the world have you done it? How have your neighbors done it?”
“We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still. As for me, you remember when I began to buy land. For years after that I was always squeezing and borrowing until I was ashamed to show my face in the banks. And then, all at once, men began to come to me offering to lend me money — and I didn’t need it! Then I went ahead and built this house. I really built it for Emil. I want you to see Emil, Carl. He is so different from the rest of us!”
“Oh, you’ll see! I’m sure it was to have sons like Emil, and to give them a chance, that father left the old country. It’s curious, too; on the outside Emil is just like an American boy, — he graduated from the State University in June, you know, — but underneath he is more Swedish than any of us. Sometimes he is so like father that he frightens me; he is so violent in his feelings like that.”
“Is he going to farm here with you?”
“He shall do whatever he wants to,” Alexandra declared warmly. “He is going to have a chance, a whole chance; that’s what I’ve worked for. Sometimes he talks about studying law, and sometimes, just lately, he’s been talking about going out into the sand hills and taking up more land. He has his sad times, like father. But I hope he won’t do that. We have land enough, at last!” Alexandra laughed.
“How about Lou and Oscar? They’ve done well, haven’t they?”
“Yes, very well; but they are different, and now that they have farms of their own I do not see so much of them. We divided the land equally when Lou married. They have their own way of doing things, and they do not altogether like my way, I am afraid. Perhaps they think me too independent. But I have had to think for myself a good many years and am not likely to change. On the whole, though, we take as much comfort in each other as most brothers and sisters do. And I am very fond of Lou’s oldest daughter.”
“I think I liked the old Lou and Oscar better, and they probably feel the same about me. I even, if you can keep a secret,” — Carl leaned forward and touched her arm, smiling, — “I even think I liked the old country better. This is all very splendid in its way, but there was something about this country when it was a wild old beast that has haunted me all these years. Now, when I come back to all this milk and honey, I feel like the old German song, ‘Wo bist du, wo bist du, mein geliebtest Land?’ — Do you ever feel like that, I wonder?”
“Yes, sometimes, when I think about father and mother and those who are gone; so many of our old neighbors.” Alexandra paused and looked up thoughtfully at the stars. “We can remember the graveyard when it was wild prairie, Carl, and now — ”
“And now the old story has begun to write itself over there,” said Carl softly. “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”
“Oh, yes! The young people, they live so hard. And yet I sometimes envy them. There is my little neighbor, now; the people who bought your old place. I wouldn’t have sold it to any one else, but I was always fond of that girl. You must remember her, little Marie Tovesky, from Omaha, who used to visit here? When she was eighteen she ran away from the convent school and got married, crazy child! She came out here a bride, with her father and husband. He had nothing, and the old man was willing to buy them a place and set them up. Your farm took her fancy, and I was glad to have her so near me. I’ve never been sorry, either. I even try to get along with Frank on her account.”
“Is Frank her husband?”
“Yes. He’s one of these wild fellows. Most Bohemians are good-natured, but Frank thinks we don’t appreciate him here, I guess. He’s jealous about everything, his farm and his horses and his pretty wife. Everybody likes her, just the same as when she was little. Sometimes I go up to the Catholic church with Emil, and it’s funny to see Marie standing there laughing and shaking hands with people, looking so excited and gay, with Frank sulking behind her as if he could eat everybody alive. Frank’s not a bad neighbor, but to get on with him you’ve got to make a fuss over him and act as if you thought he was a very important person all the time, and different from other people. I find it hard to keep that up from one year’s end to another.”
“I shouldn’t think you’d be very successful at that kind of thing, Alexandra.” Carl seemed to find the idea amusing.
“Well,” said Alexandra firmly, “I do the best I can, on Marie’s account. She has it hard enough, anyway. She’s too young and pretty for this sort of life. We’re all ever so much older and slower. But she’s the kind that won’t be downed easily. She’ll work all day and go to a Bohemian wedding and dance all night, and drive the hay wagon for a cross man next morning. I could stay by a job, but I never had the go in me that she has, when I was going my best. I’ll have to take you over to see her tomorrow.”
Carl dropped the end of his cigar softly among the castor beans and sighed. “Yes, I suppose I must see the old place. I’m cowardly about things that remind me of myself. It took courage to come at all, Alexandra. I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t wanted to see you very, very much.”
Alexandra looked at him with her calm, deliberate eyes. “Why do you dread things like that, Carl?” she asked earnestly. “Why are you dissatisfied with yourself?”
Her visitor winced. “How direct you are, Alexandra! Just like you used to be. Do I give myself away so quickly? Well, you see, for one thing, there’s nothing to look forward to in my profession. Wood-engraving is the only thing I care about, and that had gone out before I began. Everything’s cheap metal work nowadays, touching up miserable photographs, forcing up poor drawings, and spoiling good ones. I’m absolutely sick of it all.” Carl frowned. “Alexandra, all the way out from New York I’ve been planning how I could deceive you and make you think me a very enviable fellow, and here I am telling you the truth the first night. I waste a lot of time pretending to people, and the joke of it is, I don’t think I ever deceive any one. There are too many of my kind; people know us on sight.”
Carl paused. Alexandra pushed her hair back from her brow with a puzzled, thoughtful gesture. “You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve got nothing to show for it all.”
“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”
Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”
Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”
“I wonder why you feel like that?” Carl mused.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I am like Carrie Jensen, the sister of one of my hired men. She had never been out of the cornfields, and a few years ago she got despondent and said life was just the same thing over and over, and she didn’t see the use of it. After she had tried to kill herself once or twice, her folks got worried and sent her over to Iowa to visit some relations. Ever since she’s come back she’s been perfectly cheerful, and she says she’s contented to live and work in a world that’s so big and interesting. She said that anything as big as the bridges over the Platte and the Missouri reconciled her. And it’s what goes on in the world that reconciles me.”
Alexandra did not find time to go to her neighbor’s the next day, nor the next. It was a busy season on the farm, with the corn-plowing going on, and even Emil was in the field with a team and cultivator. Carl went about over the farms with Alexandra in the morning, and in the afternoon and evening they found a great deal to talk about. Emil, for all his track practice, did not stand up under farmwork very well, and by night he was too tired to talk or even to practise on his cornet.
On Wednesday morning Carl got up before it was light, and stole downstairs and out of the kitchen door just as old Ivar was making his morning ablutions at the pump. Carl nodded to him and hurried up the draw, past the garden, and into the pasture where the milking cows used to be kept.
The dawn in the east looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world. The color was reflected in the globules of dew that sheathed the short gray pasture grass. Carl walked rapidly until he came to the crest of the second hill, where the Bergson pasture joined the one that had belonged to his father. There he sat down and waited for the sun to rise. It was just there that he and Alexandra used to do their milking together, he on his side of the fence, she on hers. He could remember exactly how she looked when she came over the close-cropped grass, her skirts pinned up, her head bare, a bright tin pail in either hand, and the milky light of the early morning all about her. Even as a boy he used to feel, when he saw her coming with her free step, her upright head and calm shoulders, that she looked as if she had walked straight out of the morning itself. Since then, when he had happened to see the sun come up in the country or on the water, he had often remembered the young Swedish girl and her milking pails.
Carl sat musing until the sun leaped above the prairie, and in the grass about him all the small creatures of day began to tune their tiny instruments. Birds and insects without number began to chirp, to twitter, to snap and whistle, to make all manner of fresh shrill noises. The pasture was flooded with light; every clump of ironweed and snow-on-the-mountain threw a long shadow, and the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in.
He crossed the fence into the pasture that was now the Shabatas’ and continued his walk toward the pond. He had not gone far, however, when he discovered that he was not the only person abroad. In the draw below, his gun in his hands, was Emil, advancing cautiously, with a young woman beside him. They were moving softly, keeping close together, and Carl knew that they expected to find ducks on the pond. At the moment when they came in sight of the bright spot of water, he heard a whirr of wings and the ducks shot up into the air. There was a sharp crack from the gun, and five of the birds fell to the ground. Emil and his companion laughed delightedly, and Emil ran to pick them up. When he came back, dangling the ducks by their feet, Marie held her apron and he dropped them into it. As she stood looking down at them, her face changed. She took up one of the birds, a rumpled ball of feathers with the blood dripping slowly from its mouth, and looked at the live color that still burned on its plumage.
As she let it fall, she cried in distress, “Oh, Emil, why did you?”
“I like that!” the boy exclaimed indignantly. “Why, Marie, you asked me to come yourself.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” she said tearfully, “but I didn’t think. I hate to see them when they are first shot. They were having such a good time, and we’ve spoiled it all for them.”
Emil gave a rather sore laugh. “I should say we had! I’m not going hunting with you any more. You’re as bad as Ivar. Here, let me take them.” He snatched the ducks out of her apron.
“Don’t be cross, Emil. Only — Ivar’s right about wild things. They’re too happy to kill. You can tell just how they felt when they flew up. They were scared, but they didn’t really think anything could hurt them. No, we won’t do that any more.”
“All right,” Emil assented. “I’m sorry I made you feel bad.” As he looked down into her tearful eyes, there was a curious, sharp young bitterness in his own.
Carl watched them as they moved slowly down the draw. They had not seen him at all. He had not overheard much of their dialogue, but he felt the import of it. It made him, somehow, unreasonably mournful to find two young things abroad in the pasture in the early morning. He decided that he needed his breakfast.
At dinner that day Alexandra said she thought they must really manage to go over to the Shabatas’ that afternoon. “It’s not often I let three days go by without seeing Marie. She will think I have forsaken her, now that my old friend has come back.”
After the men had gone back to work, Alexandra put on a white dress and her sun-hat, and she and Carl set forth across the fields. “You see we have kept up the old path, Carl. It has been so nice for me to feel that there was a friend at the other end of it again.”
Carl smiled a little ruefully. “All the same, I hope it hasn’t been QUITE the same.”
Alexandra looked at him with surprise. “Why, no, of course not. Not the same. She could not very well take your place, if that’s what you mean. I’m friendly with all my neighbors, I hope. But Marie is really a companion, some one I can talk to quite frankly. You wouldn’t want me to be more lonely than I have been, would you?”
Carl laughed and pushed back the triangular lock of hair with the edge of his hat. “Of course I don’t. I ought to be thankful that this path hasn’t been worn by — well, by friends with more pressing errands than your little Bohemian is likely to have.” He paused to give Alexandra his hand as she stepped over the stile. “Are you the least bit disappointed in our coming together again?” he asked abruptly. “Is it the way you hoped it would be?”
Alexandra smiled at this. “Only better. When I’ve thought about your coming, I’ve sometimes been a little afraid of it. You have lived where things move so fast, and everything is slow here; the people slowest of all. Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows. How you hated cows!” She shook her head and laughed to herself.
“I didn’t when we milked together. I walked up to the pasture corners this morning. I wonder whether I shall ever be able to tell you all that I was thinking about up there. It’s a strange thing, Alexandra; I find it easy to be frank with you about everything under the sun except — yourself!”
“You are afraid of hurting my feelings, perhaps.” Alexandra looked at him thoughtfully.
“No, I’m afraid of giving you a shock. You’ve seen yourself for so long in the dull minds of the people about you, that if I were to tell you how you seem to me, it would startle you. But you must see that you astonish me. You must feel when people admire you.”
Alexandra blushed and laughed with some confusion. “I felt that you were pleased with me, if you mean that.”
“And you’ve felt when other people were pleased with you?” he insisted.
“Well, sometimes. The men in town, at the banks and the county offices, seem glad to see me. I think, myself, it is more pleasant to do business with people who are clean and healthy-looking,” she admitted blandly.
Carl gave a little chuckle as he opened the Shabatas’ gate for her. “Oh, do you?” he asked dryly.
There was no sign of life about the Shabatas’ house except a big yellow cat, sunning itself on the kitchen doorstep.
Alexandra took the path that led to the orchard. “She often sits there and sews. I didn’t telephone her we were coming, because I didn’t want her to go to work and bake cake and freeze ice-cream. She’ll always make a party if you give her the least excuse. Do you recognize the apple trees, Carl?”
Linstrum looked about him. “I wish I had a dollar for every bucket of water I’ve carried for those trees. Poor father, he was an easy man, but he was perfectly merciless when it came to watering the orchard.”
“That’s one thing I like about Germans; they make an orchard grow if they can’t make anything else. I’m so glad these trees belong to some one who takes comfort in them. When I rented this place, the tenants never kept the orchard up, and Emil and I used to come over and take care of it ourselves. It needs mowing now. There she is, down in the corner. Maria-a-a!” she called.
A recumbent figure started up from the grass and came running toward them through the flickering screen of light and shade.
“Look at her! Isn’t she like a little brown rabbit?” Alexandra laughed.
Maria ran up panting and threw her arms about Alexandra. “Oh, I had begun to think you were not coming at all, maybe. I knew you were so busy. Yes, Emil told me about Mr. Linstrum being here. Won’t you come up to the house?”
“Why not sit down there in your corner? Carl wants to see the orchard. He kept all these trees alive for years, watering them with his own back.”
Marie turned to Carl. “Then I’m thankful to you, Mr. Linstrum. We’d never have bought the place if it hadn’t been for this orchard, and then I wouldn’t have had Alexandra, either.” She gave Alexandra’s arm a little squeeze as she walked beside her. “How nice your dress smells, Alexandra; you put rosemary leaves in your chest, like I told you.”
She led them to the northwest corner of the orchard, sheltered on one side by a thick mulberry hedge and bordered on the other by a wheatfield, just beginning to yellow. In this corner the ground dipped a little, and the blue-grass, which the weeds had driven out in the upper part of the orchard, grew thick and luxuriant. Wild roses were flaming in the tufts of bunchgrass along the fence. Under a white mulberry tree there was an old wagon-seat. Beside it lay a book and a workbasket.
“You must have the seat, Alexandra. The grass would stain your dress,” the hostess insisted. She dropped down on the ground at Alexandra’s side and tucked her feet under her. Carl sat at a little distance from the two women, his back to the wheatfield, and watched them. Alexandra took off her shade-hat and threw it on the ground. Marie picked it up and played with the white ribbons, twisting them about her brown fingers as she talked. They made a pretty picture in the strong sunlight, the leafy pattern surrounding them like a net; the Swedish woman so white and gold, kindly and amused, but armored in calm, and the alert brown one, her full lips parted, points of yellow light dancing in her eyes as she laughed and chattered. Carl had never forgotten little Marie Tovesky’s eyes, and he was glad to have an opportunity to study them. The brown iris, he found, was curiously slashed with yellow, the color of sunflower honey, or of old amber. In each eye one of these streaks must have been larger than the others, for the effect was that of two dancing points of light, two little yellow bubbles, such as rise in a glass of champagne. Sometimes they seemed like the sparks from a forge. She seemed so easily excited, to kindle with a fierce little flame if one but breathed upon her. “What a waste,” Carl reflected. “She ought to be doing all that for a sweetheart. How awkwardly things come about!”
It was not very long before Marie sprang up out of the grass again. “Wait a moment. I want to show you something.” She ran away and disappeared behind the low-growing apple trees.
“What a charming creature,” Carl murmured. “I don’t wonder that her husband is jealous. But can’t she walk? does she always run?”
Alexandra nodded. “Always. I don’t see many people, but I don’t believe there are many like her, anywhere.”
Marie came back with a branch she had broken from an apricot tree, laden with pale yellow, pink-cheeked fruit. She dropped it beside Carl. “Did you plant those, too? They are such beautiful little trees.”
Carl fingered the blue-green leaves, porous like blotting-paper and shaped like birch leaves, hung on waxen red stems. “Yes, I think I did. Are these the circus trees, Alexandra?”
“Shall I tell her about them?” Alexandra asked. “Sit down like a good girl, Marie, and don’t ruin my poor hat, and I’ll tell you a story. A long time ago, when Carl and I were, say, sixteen and twelve, a circus came to Hanover and we went to town in our wagon, with Lou and Oscar, to see the parade. We hadn’t money enough to go to the circus. We followed the parade out to the circus grounds and hung around until the show began and the crowd went inside the tent. Then Lou was afraid we looked foolish standing outside in the pasture, so we went back to Hanover feeling very sad. There was a man in the streets selling apricots, and we had never seen any before. He had driven down from somewhere up in the French country, and he was selling them twenty-five cents a peck. We had a little money our fathers had given us for candy, and I bought two pecks and Carl bought one. They cheered us a good deal, and we saved all the seeds and planted them. Up to the time Carl went away, they hadn’t borne at all.”
“And now he’s come back to eat them,” cried Marie, nodding at Carl. “That IS a good story. I can remember you a little, Mr. Linstrum. I used to see you in Hanover sometimes, when Uncle Joe took me to town. I remember you because you were always buying pencils and tubes of paint at the drug store. Once, when my uncle left me at the store, you drew a lot of little birds and flowers for me on a piece of wrapping-paper. I kept them for a long while. I thought you were very romantic because you could draw and had such black eyes.”
Carl smiled. “Yes, I remember that time. Your uncle bought you some kind of a mechanical toy, a Turkish lady sitting on an ottoman and smoking a hookah, wasn’t it? And she turned her head backwards and forwards.”
“Oh, yes! Wasn’t she splendid! I knew well enough I ought not to tell Uncle Joe I wanted it, for he had just come back from the saloon and was feeling good. You remember how he laughed? She tickled him, too. But when we got home, my aunt scolded him for buying toys when she needed so many things. We wound our lady up every night, and when she began to move her head my aunt used to laugh as hard as any of us. It was a music-box, you know, and the Turkish lady played a tune while she smoked. That was how she made you feel so jolly. As I remember her, she was lovely, and had a gold crescent on her turban.”
Half an hour later, as they were leaving the house, Carl and Alexandra were met in the path by a strapping fellow in overalls and a blue shirt. He was breathing hard, as if he had been running, and was muttering to himself.
Marie ran forward, and, taking him by the arm, gave him a little push toward her guests. “Frank, this is Mr. Linstrum.”
Frank took off his broad straw hat and nodded to Alexandra. When he spoke to Carl, he showed a fine set of white teeth. He was burned a dull red down to his neckband, and there was a heavy three-days’ stubble on his face. Even in his agitation he was handsome, but he looked a rash and violent man.
Barely saluting the callers, he turned at once to his wife and began, in an outraged tone, “I have to leave my team to drive the old woman Hiller’s hogs out-a my wheat. I go to take dat old woman to de court if she ain’t careful, I tell you!”
His wife spoke soothingly. “But, Frank, she has only her lame boy to help her. She does the best she can.”
Alexandra looked at the excited man and offered a suggestion. “Why don’t you go over there some afternoon and hog-tight her fences? You’d save time for yourself in the end.”
Frank’s neck stiffened. “Not-a-much, I won’t. I keep my hogs home. Other peoples can do like me. See? If that Louis can mend shoes, he can mend fence.”
“Maybe,” said Alexandra placidly; “but I’ve found it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences. Good-bye, Marie. Come to see me soon.”
Alexandra walked firmly down the path and Carl followed her.
Frank went into the house and threw himself on the sofa, his face to the wall, his clenched fist on his hip. Marie, having seen her guests off, came in and put her hand coaxingly on his shoulder.
“Poor Frank! You’ve run until you’ve made your head ache, now haven’t you? Let me make you some coffee.”
“What else am I to do?” he cried hotly in Bohemian. “Am I to let any old woman’s hogs root up my wheat? Is that what I work myself to death for?”
“Don’t worry about it, Frank. I’ll speak to Mrs. Hiller again. But, really, she almost cried last time they got out, she was so sorry.”
Frank bounced over on his other side. “That’s it; you always side with them against me. They all know it. Anybody here feels free to borrow the mower and break it, or turn their hogs in on me. They know you won’t care!”
Marie hurried away to make his coffee. When she came back, he was fast asleep. She sat down and looked at him for a long while, very thoughtfully. When the kitchen clock struck six she went out to get supper, closing the door gently behind her. She was always sorry for Frank when he worked himself into one of these rages, and she was sorry to have him rough and quarrelsome with his neighbors. She was perfectly aware that the neighbors had a good deal to put up with, and that they bore with Frank for her sake.
Marie’s father, Albert Tovesky, was one of the more intelligent Bohemians who came West in the early seventies. He settled in Omaha and became a leader and adviser among his people there. Marie was his youngest child, by a second wife, and was the apple of his eye. She was barely sixteen, and was in the graduating class of the Omaha High School, when Frank Shabata arrived from the old country and set all the Bohemian girls in a flutter. He was easily the buck of the beer-gardens, and on Sunday he was a sight to see, with his silk hat and tucked shirt and blue frock-coat, wearing gloves and carrying a little wisp of a yellow cane. He was tall and fair, with splendid teeth and close-cropped yellow curls, and he wore a slightly disdainful expression, proper for a young man with high connections, whose mother had a big farm in the Elbe valley. There was often an interesting discontent in his blue eyes, and every Bohemian girl he met imagined herself the cause of that unsatisfied expression. He had a way of drawing out his cambric handkerchief slowly, by one corner, from his breast-pocket, that was melancholy and romantic in the extreme. He took a little flight with each of the more eligible Bohemian girls, but it was when he was with little Marie Tovesky that he drew his handkerchief out most slowly, and, after he had lit a fresh cigar, dropped the match most despairingly. Any one could see, with half an eye, that his proud heart was bleeding for somebody.
One Sunday, late in the summer after Marie’s graduation, she met Frank at a Bohemian picnic down the river and went rowing with him all the afternoon. When she got home that evening she went straight to her father’s room and told him that she was engaged to Shabata. Old Tovesky was having a comfortable pipe before he went to bed. When he heard his daughter’s announcement, he first prudently corked his beer bottle and then leaped to his feet and had a turn of temper. He characterized Frank Shabata by a Bohemian expression which is the equivalent of stuffed shirt.
“Why don’t he go to work like the rest of us did? His farm in the Elbe valley, indeed! Ain’t he got plenty brothers and sisters? It’s his mother’s farm, and why don’t he stay at home and help her? Haven’t I seen his mother out in the morning at five o’clock with her ladle and her big bucket on wheels, putting liquid manure on the cabbages? Don’t I know the look of old Eva Shabata’s hands? Like an old horse’s hoofs they are — and this fellow wearing gloves and rings! Engaged, indeed! You aren’t fit to be out of school, and that’s what’s the matter with you. I will send you off to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, and they will teach you some sense, I guess!”
Accordingly, the very next week, Albert Tovesky took his daughter, pale and tearful, down the river to the convent. But the way to make Frank want anything was to tell him he couldn’t have it. He managed to have an interview with Marie before she went away, and whereas he had been only half in love with her before, he now persuaded himself that he would not stop at anything. Marie took with her to the convent, under the canvas lining of her trunk, the results of a laborious and satisfying morning on Frank’s part; no less than a dozen photographs of himself, taken in a dozen different love-lorn attitudes. There was a little round photograph for her watch-case, photographs for her wall and dresser, and even long narrow ones to be used as bookmarks. More than once the handsome gentleman was torn to pieces before the French class by an indignant nun.
Marie pined in the convent for a year, until her eighteenth birthday was passed. Then she met Frank Shabata in the Union Station in St. Louis and ran away with him. Old Tovesky forgave his daughter because there was nothing else to do, and bought her a farm in the country that she had loved so well as a child. Since then her story had been a part of the history of the Divide. She and Frank had been living there for five years when Carl Linstrum came back to pay his long deferred visit to Alexandra. Frank had, on the whole, done better than one might have expected. He had flung himself at the soil with savage energy. Once a year he went to Hastings or to Omaha, on a spree. He stayed away for a week or two, and then came home and worked like a demon. He did work; if he felt sorry for himself, that was his own affair.
On the evening of the day of Alexandra’s call at the Shabatas’, a heavy rain set in. Frank sat up until a late hour reading the Sunday newspapers. One of the Goulds was getting a divorce, and Frank took it as a personal affront. In printing the story of the young man’s marital troubles, the knowing editor gave a sufficiently colored account of his career, stating the amount of his income and the manner in which he was supposed to spend it. Frank read English slowly, and the more he read about this divorce case, the angrier he grew. At last he threw down the page with a snort. He turned to his farm-hand who was reading the other half of the paper.
“By God! if I have that young feller in de hayfield once, I show him someting. Listen here what he do wit his money.” And Frank began the catalogue of the young man’s reputed extravagances.
Marie sighed. She thought it hard that the Goulds, for whom she had nothing but good will, should make her so much trouble. She hated to see the Sunday newspapers come into the house. Frank was always reading about the doings of rich people and feeling outraged. He had an inexhaustible stock of stories about their crimes and follies, how they bribed the courts and shot down their butlers with impunity whenever they chose. Frank and Lou Bergson had very similar ideas, and they were two of the political agitators of the county.
The next morning broke clear and brilliant, but Frank said the ground was too wet to plough, so he took the cart and drove over to Sainte–Agnes to spend the day at Moses Marcel’s saloon. After he was gone, Marie went out to the back porch to begin her butter-making. A brisk wind had come up and was driving puffy white clouds across the sky. The orchard was sparkling and rippling in the sun. Marie stood looking toward it wistfully, her hand on the lid of the churn, when she heard a sharp ring in the air, the merry sound of the whetstone on the scythe. That invitation decided her. She ran into the house, put on a short skirt and a pair of her husband’s boots, caught up a tin pail and started for the orchard. Emil had already begun work and was mowing vigorously. When he saw her coming, he stopped and wiped his brow. His yellow canvas leggings and khaki trousers were splashed to the knees.
“Don’t let me disturb you, Emil. I’m going to pick cherries. Isn’t everything beautiful after the rain? Oh, but I’m glad to get this place mowed! When I heard it raining in the night, I thought maybe you would come and do it for me today. The wind wakened me. Didn’t it blow dreadfully? Just smell the wild roses! They are always so spicy after a rain. We never had so many of them in here before. I suppose it’s the wet season. Will you have to cut them, too?”
“If I cut the grass, I will,” Emil said teasingly. “What’s the matter with you? What makes you so flighty?”
“Am I flighty? I suppose that’s the wet season, too, then. It’s exciting to see everything growing so fast, — and to get the grass cut! Please leave the roses till last, if you must cut them. Oh, I don’t mean all of them, I mean that low place down by my tree, where there are so many. Aren’t you splashed! Look at the spider-webs all over the grass. Good-bye. I’ll call you if I see a snake.”
She tripped away and Emil stood looking after her. In a few moments he heard the cherries dropping smartly into the pail, and he began to swing his scythe with that long, even stroke that few American boys ever learn. Marie picked cherries and sang softly to herself, stripping one glittering branch after another, shivering when she caught a shower of raindrops on her neck and hair. And Emil mowed his way slowly down toward the cherry trees.
That summer the rains had been so many and opportune that it was almost more than Shabata and his man could do to keep up with the corn; the orchard was a neglected wilderness. All sorts of weeds and herbs and flowers had grown up there; splotches of wild larkspur, pale green-and-white spikes of hoarhound, plantations of wild cotton, tangles of foxtail and wild wheat. South of the apricot trees, cornering on the wheatfield, was Frank’s alfalfa, where myriads of white and yellow butterflies were always fluttering above the purple blossoms. When Emil reached the lower corner by the hedge, Marie was sitting under her white mulberry tree, the pailful of cherries beside her, looking off at the gentle, tireless swelling of the wheat.
“Emil,” she said suddenly — he was mowing quietly about under the tree so as not to disturb her — “what religion did the Swedes have away back, before they were Christians?”
Emil paused and straightened his back. “I don’t know. About like the Germans’, wasn’t it?”
Marie went on as if she had not heard him. “The Bohemians, you know, were tree worshipers before the missionaries came. Father says the people in the mountains still do queer things, sometimes, — they believe that trees bring good or bad luck.”
Emil looked superior. “Do they? Well, which are the lucky trees? I’d like to know.”
“I don’t know all of them, but I know lindens are. The old people in the mountains plant lindens to purify the forest, and to do away with the spells that come from the old trees they say have lasted from heathen times. I’m a good Catholic, but I think I could get along with caring for trees, if I hadn’t anything else.”
“That’s a poor saying,” said Emil, stooping over to wipe his hands in the wet grass.
“Why is it? If I feel that way, I feel that way. I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do. I feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.”
Emil had nothing to say to this. He reached up among the branches and began to pick the sweet, insipid fruit, — long ivory-colored berries, tipped with faint pink, like white coral, that fall to the ground unheeded all summer through. He dropped a handful into her lap.
“Do you like Mr. Linstrum?” Marie asked suddenly.
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“Oh, ever so much; only he seems kind of staid and school-teachery. But, of course, he is older than Frank, even. I’m sure I don’t want to live to be more than thirty, do you? Do you think Alexandra likes him very much?”
“I suppose so. They were old friends.”
“Oh, Emil, you know what I mean!” Marie tossed her head impatiently. “Does she really care about him? When she used to tell me about him, I always wondered whether she wasn’t a little in love with him.”
“Who, Alexandra?” Emil laughed and thrust his hands into his trousers pockets. “Alexandra’s never been in love, you crazy!” He laughed again. “She wouldn’t know how to go about it. The idea!”
Marie shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, you don’t know Alexandra as well as you think you do! If you had any eyes, you would see that she is very fond of him. It would serve you all right if she walked off with Carl. I like him because he appreciates her more than you do.”
Emil frowned. “What are you talking about, Marie? Alexandra’s all right. She and I have always been good friends. What more do you want? I like to talk to Carl about New York and what a fellow can do there.”
“Oh, Emil! Surely you are not thinking of going off there?”
“Why not? I must go somewhere, mustn’t I?” The young man took up his scythe and leaned on it. “Would you rather I went off in the sand hills and lived like Ivar?”
Marie’s face fell under his brooding gaze. She looked down at his wet leggings. “I’m sure Alexandra hopes you will stay on here,” she murmured.
“Then Alexandra will be disappointed,” the young man said roughly. “What do I want to hang around here for? Alexandra can run the farm all right, without me. I don’t want to stand around and look on. I want to be doing something on my own account.”
“That’s so,” Marie sighed. “There are so many, many things you can do. Almost anything you choose.”
“And there are so many, many things I can’t do.” Emil echoed her tone sarcastically. “Sometimes I don’t want to do anything at all, and sometimes I want to pull the four corners of the Divide together,” — he threw out his arm and brought it back with a jerk, — “so, like a table-cloth. I get tired of seeing men and horses going up and down, up and down.”
Marie looked up at his defiant figure and her face clouded. “I wish you weren’t so restless, and didn’t get so worked up over things,” she said sadly.
“Thank you,” he returned shortly.
She sighed despondently. “Everything I say makes you cross, don’t it? And you never used to be cross to me.”
Emil took a step nearer and stood frowning down at her bent head. He stood in an attitude of self-defense, his feet well apart, his hands clenched and drawn up at his sides, so that the cords stood out on his bare arms. “I can’t play with you like a little boy any more,” he said slowly. “That’s what you miss, Marie. You’ll have to get some other little boy to play with.” He stopped and took a deep breath. Then he went on in a low tone, so intense that it was almost threatening: “Sometimes you seem to understand perfectly, and then sometimes you pretend you don’t. You don’t help things any by pretending. It’s then that I want to pull the corners of the Divide together. If you WON’T understand, you know, I could make you!”
Marie clasped her hands and started up from her seat. She had grown very pale and her eyes were shining with excitement and distress. “But, Emil, if I understand, then all our good times are over, we can never do nice things together any more. We shall have to behave like Mr. Linstrum. And, anyhow, there’s nothing to understand!” She struck the ground with her little foot fiercely. “That won’t last. It will go away, and things will be just as they used to. I wish you were a Catholic. The Church helps people, indeed it does. I pray for you, but that’s not the same as if you prayed yourself.”
She spoke rapidly and pleadingly, looked entreatingly into his face. Emil stood defiant, gazing down at her.
“I can’t pray to have the things I want,” he said slowly, “and I won’t pray not to have them, not if I’m damned for it.”
Marie turned away, wringing her hands. “Oh, Emil, you won’t try! Then all our good times are over.”
“Yes; over. I never expect to have any more.”
Emil gripped the hand-holds of his scythe and began to mow. Marie took up her cherries and went slowly toward the house, crying bitterly.
On Sunday afternoon, a month after Carl Linstrum’s arrival, he rode with Emil up into the French country to attend a Catholic fair. He sat for most of the afternoon in the basement of the church, where the fair was held, talking to Marie Shabata, or strolled about the gravel terrace, thrown up on the hillside in front of the basement doors, where the French boys were jumping and wrestling and throwing the discus. Some of the boys were in their white baseball suits; they had just come up from a Sunday practice game down in the ballgrounds. Amedee, the newly married, Emil’s best friend, was their pitcher, renowned among the country towns for his dash and skill. Amedee was a little fellow, a year younger than Emil and much more boyish in appearance; very lithe and active and neatly made, with a clear brown and white skin, and flashing white teeth. The Sainte–Agnes boys were to play the Hastings nine in a fortnight, and Amedee’s lightning balls were the hope of his team. The little Frenchman seemed to get every ounce there was in him behind the ball as it left his hand.
“You’d have made the battery at the University for sure, ‘Medee,” Emil said as they were walking from the ball-grounds back to the church on the hill. “You’re pitching better than you did in the spring.”
Amedee grinned. “Sure! A married man don’t lose his head no more.” He slapped Emil on the back as he caught step with him. “Oh, Emil, you wanna get married right off quick! It’s the greatest thing ever!”
Emil laughed. “How am I going to get married without any girl?”
Amedee took his arm. “Pooh! There are plenty girls will have you. You wanna get some nice French girl, now. She treat you well; always be jolly. See,” — he began checking off on his fingers, — “there is Severine, and Alphosen, and Josephine, and Hectorine, and Louise, and Malvina — why, I could love any of them girls! Why don’t you get after them? Are you stuck up, Emil, or is anything the matter with you? I never did know a boy twenty-two years old before that didn’t have no girl. You wanna be a priest, maybe? Not-a for me!” Amedee swaggered. “I bring many good Catholics into this world, I hope, and that’s a way I help the Church.”
Emil looked down and patted him on the shoulder. “Now you’re windy, ‘Medee. You Frenchies like to brag.”
But Amedee had the zeal of the newly married, and he was not to be lightly shaken off. “Honest and true, Emil, don’t you want ANY girl? Maybe there’s some young lady in Lincoln, now, very grand,” — Amedee waved his hand languidly before his face to denote the fan of heartless beauty, — “and you lost your heart up there. Is that it?”
“Maybe,” said Emil.
But Amedee saw no appropriate glow in his friend’s face. “Bah!” he exclaimed in disgust. “I tell all the French girls to keep ‘way from you. You gotta rock in there,” thumping Emil on the ribs.
When they reached the terrace at the side of the church, Amedee, who was excited by his success on the ball-grounds, challenged Emil to a jumping-match, though he knew he would be beaten. They belted themselves up, and Raoul Marcel, the choir tenor and Father Duchesne’s pet, and Jean Bordelau, held the string over which they vaulted. All the French boys stood round, cheering and humping themselves up when Emil or Amedee went over the wire, as if they were helping in the lift. Emil stopped at five-feet-five, declaring that he would spoil his appetite for supper if he jumped any more.
Angelique, Amedee’s pretty bride, as blonde and fair as her name, who had come out to watch the match, tossed her head at Emil and said:—
“‘Medee could jump much higher than you if he were as tall. And anyhow, he is much more graceful. He goes over like a bird, and you have to hump yourself all up.”
“Oh, I do, do I?” Emil caught her and kissed her saucy mouth squarely, while she laughed and struggled and called, “‘Medee! ‘Medee!”
“There, you see your ‘Medee isn’t even big enough to get you away from me. I could run away with you right now and he could only sit down and cry about it. I’ll show you whether I have to hump myself!” Laughing and panting, he picked Angelique up in his arms and began running about the rectangle with her. Not until he saw Marie Shabata’s tiger eyes flashing from the gloom of the basement doorway did he hand the disheveled bride over to her husband. “There, go to your graceful; I haven’t the heart to take you away from him.”
Angelique clung to her husband and made faces at Emil over the white shoulder of Amedee’s ball-shirt. Emil was greatly amused at her air of proprietorship and at Amedee’s shameless submission to it. He was delighted with his friend’s good fortune. He liked to see and to think about Amedee’s sunny, natural, happy love.
He and Amedee had ridden and wrestled and larked together since they were lads of twelve. On Sundays and holidays they were always arm in arm. It seemed strange that now he should have to hide the thing that Amedee was so proud of, that the feeling which gave one of them such happiness should bring the other such despair. It was like that when Alexandra tested her seed-corn in the spring, he mused. From two ears that had grown side by side, the grains of one shot up joyfully into the light, projecting themselves into the future, and the grains from the other lay still in the earth and rotted; and nobody knew why.
While Emil and Carl were amusing themselves at the fair, Alexandra was at home, busy with her account-books, which had been neglected of late. She was almost through with her figures when she heard a cart drive up to the gate, and looking out of the window she saw her two older brothers. They had seemed to avoid her ever since Carl Linstrum’s arrival, four weeks ago that day, and she hurried to the door to welcome them. She saw at once that they had come with some very definite purpose. They followed her stiffly into the sitting-room. Oscar sat down, but Lou walked over to the window and remained standing, his hands behind him.
“You are by yourself?” he asked, looking toward the doorway into the parlor.
“Yes. Carl and Emil went up to the Catholic fair.”
For a few moments neither of the men spoke.
Then Lou came out sharply. “How soon does he intend to go away from here?”
“I don’t know, Lou. Not for some time, I hope.” Alexandra spoke in an even, quiet tone that often exasperated her brothers. They felt that she was trying to be superior with them.
Oscar spoke up grimly. “We thought we ought to tell you that people have begun to talk,” he said meaningly.
Alexandra looked at him. “What about?”
Oscar met her eyes blankly. “About you, keeping him here so long. It looks bad for him to be hanging on to a woman this way. People think you’re getting taken in.”
Alexandra shut her account-book firmly. “Boys,” she said seriously, “don’t let’s go on with this. We won’t come out anywhere. I can’t take advice on such a matter. I know you mean well, but you must not feel responsible for me in things of this sort. If we go on with this talk it will only make hard feeling.”
Lou whipped about from the window. “You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.”
“How am I?”
“People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.”
“Well, and what is ridiculous about that?”
Lou and Oscar exchanged outraged looks. “Alexandra! Can’t you see he’s just a tramp and he’s after your money? He wants to be taken care of, he does!”
“Well, suppose I want to take care of him? Whose business is it but my own?”
“Don’t you know he’d get hold of your property?”
“He’d get hold of what I wished to give him, certainly.”
Oscar sat up suddenly and Lou clutched at his bristly hair.
“Give him?” Lou shouted. “Our property, our homestead?”
“I don’t know about the homestead,” said Alexandra quietly. “I know you and Oscar have always expected that it would be left to your children, and I’m not sure but what you’re right. But I’ll do exactly as I please with the rest of my land, boys.”
“The rest of your land!” cried Lou, growing more excited every minute. “Didn’t all the land come out of the homestead? It was bought with money borrowed on the homestead, and Oscar and me worked ourselves to the bone paying interest on it.”
“Yes, you paid the interest. But when you married we made a division of the land, and you were satisfied. I’ve made more on my farms since I’ve been alone than when we all worked together.”
“Everything you’ve made has come out of the original land that us boys worked for, hasn’t it? The farms and all that comes out of them belongs to us as a family.”
Alexandra waved her hand impatiently. “Come now, Lou. Stick to the facts. You are talking nonsense. Go to the county clerk and ask him who owns my land, and whether my titles are good.”
Lou turned to his brother. “This is what comes of letting a woman meddle in business,” he said bitterly. “We ought to have taken things in our own hands years ago. But she liked to run things, and we humored her. We thought you had good sense, Alexandra. We never thought you’d do anything foolish.”
Alexandra rapped impatiently on her desk with her knuckles. “Listen, Lou. Don’t talk wild. You say you ought to have taken things into your own hands years ago. I suppose you mean before you left home. But how could you take hold of what wasn’t there? I’ve got most of what I have now since we divided the property; I’ve built it up myself, and it has nothing to do with you.”
Oscar spoke up solemnly. “The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible.”
“Yes, of course,” Lou broke in. “Everybody knows that. Oscar and me have always been easy-going and we’ve never made any fuss. We were willing you should hold the land and have the good of it, but you got no right to part with any of it. We worked in the fields to pay for the first land you bought, and whatever’s come out of it has got to be kept in the family.”
Oscar reinforced his brother, his mind fixed on the one point he could see. “The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.”
Alexandra looked from one to the other, her eyes full of indignation. She had been impatient before, but now she was beginning to feel angry. “And what about my work?” she asked in an unsteady voice.
Lou looked at the carpet. “Oh, now, Alexandra, you always took it pretty easy! Of course we wanted you to. You liked to manage round, and we always humored you. We realize you were a great deal of help to us. There’s no woman anywhere around that knows as much about business as you do, and we’ve always been proud of that, and thought you were pretty smart. But, of course, the real work always fell on us. Good advice is all right, but it don’t get the weeds out of the corn.”
“Maybe not, but it sometimes puts in the crop, and it sometimes keeps the fields for corn to grow in,” said Alexandra dryly. “Why, Lou, I can remember when you and Oscar wanted to sell this homestead and all the improvements to old preacher Ericson for two thousand dollars. If I’d consented, you’d have gone down to the river and scraped along on poor farms for the rest of your lives. When I put in our first field of alfalfa you both opposed me, just because I first heard about it from a young man who had been to the University. You said I was being taken in then, and all the neighbors said so. You know as well as I do that alfalfa has been the salvation of this country. You all laughed at me when I said our land here was about ready for wheat, and I had to raise three big wheat crops before the neighbors quit putting all their land in corn. Why, I remember you cried, Lou, when we put in the first big wheat-planting, and said everybody was laughing at us.”
Lou turned to Oscar. “That’s the woman of it; if she tells you to put in a crop, she thinks she’s put it in. It makes women conceited to meddle in business. I shouldn’t think you’d want to remind us how hard you were on us, Alexandra, after the way you baby Emil.”
“Hard on you? I never meant to be hard. Conditions were hard. Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn’t choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take even a vine and cut it back again and again, it grows hard, like a tree.”
Lou felt that they were wandering from the point, and that in digression Alexandra might unnerve him. He wiped his forehead with a jerk of his handkerchief. “We never doubted you, Alexandra. We never questioned anything you did. You’ve always had your own way. But you can’t expect us to sit like stumps and see you done out of the property by any loafer who happens along, and making yourself ridiculous into the bargain.”
Oscar rose. “Yes,” he broke in, “everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!”
“All that doesn’t concern anybody but Carl and me. Go to town and ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me from disposing of my own property. And I advise you to do what they tell you; for the authority you can exert by law is the only influence you will ever have over me again.” Alexandra rose. “I think I would rather not have lived to find out what I have today,” she said quietly, closing her desk.
Lou and Oscar looked at each other questioningly. There seemed to be nothing to do but to go, and they walked out.
“You can’t do business with women,” Oscar said heavily as he clambered into the cart. “But anyhow, we’ve had our say, at last.”
Lou scratched his head. “Talk of that kind might come too high, you know; but she’s apt to be sensible. You hadn’t ought to said that about her age, though, Oscar. I’m afraid that hurt her feelings; and the worst thing we can do is to make her sore at us. She’d marry him out of contrariness.”
“I only meant,” said Oscar, “that she is old enough to know better, and she is. If she was going to marry, she ought to done it long ago, and not go making a fool of herself now.”
Lou looked anxious, nevertheless. “Of course,” he reflected hopefully and inconsistently, “Alexandra ain’t much like other women-folks. Maybe it won’t make her sore. Maybe she’d as soon be forty as not!”
Emil came home at about half-past seven o’clock that evening. Old Ivar met him at the windmill and took his horse, and the young man went directly into the house. He called to his sister and she answered from her bedroom, behind the sitting-room, saying that she was lying down.
Emil went to her door.
“Can I see you for a minute?” he asked. “I want to talk to you about something before Carl comes.”
Alexandra rose quickly and came to the door. “Where is Carl?”
“Lou and Oscar met us and said they wanted to talk to him, so he rode over to Oscar’s with them. Are you coming out?” Emil asked impatiently.
“Yes, sit down. I’ll be dressed in a moment.”
Alexandra closed her door, and Emil sank down on the old slat lounge and sat with his head in his hands. When his sister came out, he looked up, not knowing whether the interval had been short or long, and he was surprised to see that the room had grown quite dark. That was just as well; it would be easier to talk if he were not under the gaze of those clear, deliberate eyes, that saw so far in some directions and were so blind in others. Alexandra, too, was glad of the dusk. Her face was swollen from crying.
Emil started up and then sat down again. “Alexandra,” he said slowly, in his deep young baritone, “I don’t want to go away to law school this fall. Let me put it off another year. I want to take a year off and look around. It’s awfully easy to rush into a profession you don’t really like, and awfully hard to get out of it. Linstrum and I have been talking about that.”
“Very well, Emil. Only don’t go off looking for land.” She came up and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been wishing you could stay with me this winter.”
“That’s just what I don’t want to do, Alexandra. I’m restless. I want to go to a new place. I want to go down to the City of Mexico to join one of the University fellows who’s at the head of an electrical plant. He wrote me he could give me a little job, enough to pay my way, and I could look around and see what I want to do. I want to go as soon as harvest is over. I guess Lou and Oscar will be sore about it.”
“I suppose they will.” Alexandra sat down on the lounge beside him. “They are very angry with me, Emil. We have had a quarrel. They will not come here again.”
Emil scarcely heard what she was saying; he did not notice the sadness of her tone. He was thinking about the reckless life he meant to live in Mexico.
“What about?” he asked absently.
“About Carl Linstrum. They are afraid I am going to marry him, and that some of my property will get away from them.”
Emil shrugged his shoulders. “What nonsense!” he murmured. “Just like them.”
Alexandra drew back. “Why nonsense, Emil?”
“Why, you’ve never thought of such a thing, have you? They always have to have something to fuss about.”
“Emil,” said his sister slowly, “you ought not to take things for granted. Do you agree with them that I have no right to change my way of living?”
Emil looked at the outline of his sister’s head in the dim light. They were sitting close together and he somehow felt that she could hear his thoughts. He was silent for a moment, and then said in an embarrassed tone, “Why, no, certainly not. You ought to do whatever you want to. I’ll always back you.”
“But it would seem a little bit ridiculous to you if I married Carl?”
Emil fidgeted. The issue seemed to him too far-fetched to warrant discussion. “Why, no. I should be surprised if you wanted to. I can’t see exactly why. But that’s none of my business. You ought to do as you please. Certainly you ought not to pay any attention to what the boys say.”
Alexandra sighed. “I had hoped you might understand, a little, why I do want to. But I suppose that’s too much to expect. I’ve had a pretty lonely life, Emil. Besides Marie, Carl is the only friend I have ever had.”
Emil was awake now; a name in her last sentence roused him. He put out his hand and took his sister’s awkwardly. “You ought to do just as you wish, and I think Carl’s a fine fellow. He and I would always get on. I don’t believe any of the things the boys say about him, honest I don’t. They are suspicious of him because he’s intelligent. You know their way. They’ve been sore at me ever since you let me go away to college. They’re always trying to catch me up. If I were you, I wouldn’t pay any attention to them. There’s nothing to get upset about. Carl’s a sensible fellow. He won’t mind them.”
“I don’t know. If they talk to him the way they did to me, I think he’ll go away.”
Emil grew more and more uneasy. “Think so? Well, Marie said it would serve us all right if you walked off with him.”
“Did she? Bless her little heart! SHE would.” Alexandra’s voice broke.
Emil began unlacing his leggings. “Why don’t you talk to her about it? There’s Carl, I hear his horse. I guess I’ll go upstairs and get my boots off. No, I don’t want any supper. We had supper at five o’clock, at the fair.”
Emil was glad to escape and get to his own room. He was a little ashamed for his sister, though he had tried not to show it. He felt that there was something indecorous in her proposal, and she did seem to him somewhat ridiculous. There was trouble enough in the world, he reflected, as he threw himself upon his bed, without people who were forty years old imagining they wanted to get married. In the darkness and silence Emil was not likely to think long about Alexandra. Every image slipped away but one. He had seen Marie in the crowd that afternoon. She sold candy at the fair. WHY had she ever run away with Frank Shabata, and how could she go on laughing and working and taking an interest in things? Why did she like so many people, and why had she seemed pleased when all the French and Bohemian boys, and the priest himself, crowded round her candy stand? Why did she care about any one but him? Why could he never, never find the thing he looked for in her playful, affectionate eyes?
Then he fell to imagining that he looked once more and found it there, and what it would be like if she loved him, — she who, as Alexandra said, could give her whole heart. In that dream he could lie for hours, as if in a trance. His spirit went out of his body and crossed the fields to Marie Shabata.
At the University dances the girls had often looked wonderingly at the tall young Swede with the fine head, leaning against the wall and frowning, his arms folded, his eyes fixed on the ceiling or the floor. All the girls were a little afraid of him. He was distinguished-looking, and not the jollying kind. They felt that he was too intense and preoccupied. There was something queer about him. Emil’s fraternity rather prided itself upon its dances, and sometimes he did his duty and danced every dance. But whether he was on the floor or brooding in a corner, he was always thinking about Marie Shabata. For two years the storm had been gathering in him.
Carl came into the sitting-room while Alexandra was lighting the lamp. She looked up at him as she adjusted the shade. His sharp shoulders stooped as if he were very tired, his face was pale, and there were bluish shadows under his dark eyes. His anger had burned itself out and left him sick and disgusted.
“You have seen Lou and Oscar?” Alexandra asked.
“Yes.” His eyes avoided hers.
Alexandra took a deep breath. “And now you are going away. I thought so.”
Carl threw himself into a chair and pushed the dark lock back from his forehead with his white, nervous hand. “What a hopeless position you are in, Alexandra!” he exclaimed feverishly. “It is your fate to be always surrounded by little men. And I am no better than the rest. I am too little to face the criticism of even such men as Lou and Oscar. Yes, I am going away; tomorrow. I cannot even ask you to give me a promise until I have something to offer you. I thought, perhaps, I could do that; but I find I can’t.”
“What good comes of offering people things they don’t need?” Alexandra asked sadly. “I don’t need money. But I have needed you for a great many years. I wonder why I have been permitted to prosper, if it is only to take my friends away from me.”
“I don’t deceive myself,” Carl said frankly. “I know that I am going away on my own account. I must make the usual effort. I must have something to show for myself. To take what you would give me, I should have to be either a very large man or a very small one, and I am only in the middle class.”
Alexandra sighed. “I have a feeling that if you go away, you will not come back. Something will happen to one of us, or to both. People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find. What I have is yours, if you care enough about me to take it.”
Carl rose and looked up at the picture of John Bergson. “But I can’t, my dear, I can’t! I will go North at once. Instead of idling about in California all winter, I shall be getting my bearings up there. I won’t waste another week. Be patient with me, Alexandra. Give me a year!”
“As you will,” said Alexandra wearily. “All at once, in a single day, I lose everything; and I do not know why. Emil, too, is going away.” Carl was still studying John Bergson’s face and Alexandra’s eyes followed his. “Yes,” she said, “if he could have seen all that would come of the task he gave me, he would have been sorry. I hope he does not see me now. I hope that he is among the old people of his blood and country, and that tidings do not reach him from the New World.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49