My Antonia by Willa Cather
Book III. Lena Lingard
How well I remember the stiff little parlour where I used to wait for Lena: the hard horsehair furniture, bought at some auction sale, the long mirror, the fashion-plates on the wall. If I sat down even for a moment, I was sure to find threads and bits of coloured silk clinging to my clothes after I went away. Lena's success puzzled me. She was so easygoing; had none of the push and self-assertiveness that get people ahead in business. She had come to Lincoln, a country girl, with no introductions except to some cousins of Mrs. Thomas who lived there, and she was already making clothes for the women of `the young married set.' Evidently she had great natural aptitude for her work. She knew, as she said, `what people looked well in.' She never tired of poring over fashion-books. Sometimes in the evening I would find her alone in her work-room, draping folds of satin on a wire figure, with a quite blissful expression of countenance. I couldn't help thinking that the years when Lena literally hadn't enough clothes to cover herself might have something to do with her untiring interest in dressing the human figure. Her clients said that Lena `had style,' and overlooked her habitual inaccuracies. She never, I discovered, finished anything by the time she had promised, and she frequently spent more money on materials than her customer had authorized. Once, when I arrived at six o'clock, Lena was ushering out a fidgety mother and her awkward, overgrown daughter. The woman detained Lena at the door to say apologetically:
`You'll try to keep it under fifty for me, won't you, Miss Lingard? You see, she's really too young to come to an expensive dressmaker, but I knew you could do more with her than anybody else.'
`Oh, that will be all right, Mrs. Herron. I think we'll manage to get a good effect,' Lena replied blandly.
I thought her manner with her customers very good, and wondered where she had learned such self-possession.
Sometimes after my morning classes were over, I used to encounter Lena downtown, in her velvet suit and a little black hat, with a veil tied smoothly over her face, looking as fresh as the spring morning. Maybe she would be carrying home a bunch of jonquils or a hyacinth plant. When we passed a candy store her footsteps would hesitate and linger. `Don't let me go in,' she would murmur. `Get me by if you can.' She was very fond of sweets, and was afraid of growing too plump.
We had delightful Sunday breakfasts together at Lena's. At the back of her long work-room was a bay-window, large enough to hold a box-couch and a reading-table. We breakfasted in this recess, after drawing the curtains that shut out the long room, with cutting-tables and wire women and sheet-draped garments on the walls. The sunlight poured in, making everything on the table shine and glitter and the flame of the alcohol lamp disappear altogether. Lena's curly black water-spaniel, Prince, breakfasted with us. He sat beside her on the couch and behaved very well until the Polish violin-teacher across the hall began to practise, when Prince would growl and sniff the air with disgust. Lena's landlord, old Colonel Raleigh, had given her the dog, and at first she was not at all pleased. She had spent too much of her life taking care of animals to have much sentiment about them. But Prince was a knowing little beast, and she grew fond of him. After breakfast I made him do his lessons; play dead dog, shake hands, stand up like a soldier. We used to put my cadet cap on his head--I had to take military drill at the university-- and give him a yard-measure to hold with his front leg. His gravity made us laugh immoderately.
Lena's talk always amused me. Antonia had never talked like the people about her. Even after she learned to speak English readily, there was always something impulsive and foreign in her speech. But Lena had picked up all the conventional expressions she heard at Mrs. Thomas's dressmaking shop. Those formal phrases, the very flower of small-town proprieties, and the flat commonplaces, nearly all hypocritical in their origin, became very funny, very engaging, when they were uttered in Lena's soft voice, with her caressing intonation and arch naivete. Nothing could be more diverting than to hear Lena, who was almost as candid as Nature, call a leg a `limb' or a house a `home.'
We used to linger a long while over our coffee in that sunny corner. Lena was never so pretty as in the morning; she wakened fresh with the world every day, and her eyes had a deeper colour then, like the blue flowers that are never so blue as when they first open. I could sit idle all through a Sunday morning and look at her. Ole Benson's behaviour was now no mystery to me.
`There was never any harm in Ole,' she said once. `People needn't have troubled themselves. He just liked to come over and sit on the drawside and forget about his bad luck. I liked to have him. Any company's welcome when you're off with cattle all the time.'
`But wasn't he always glum?' I asked. `People said he never talked at all.'
`Sure he talked, in Norwegian. He'd been a sailor on an English boat and had seen lots of queer places. He had wonderful tattoos. We used to sit and look at them for hours; there wasn't much to look at out there. He was like a picture book. He had a ship and a strawberry girl on one arm, and on the other a girl standing before a little house, with a fence and gate and all, waiting for her sweetheart. Farther up his arm, her sailor had come back and was kissing her. "The Sailor's Return," he called it.'
I admitted it was no wonder Ole liked to look at a pretty girl once in a while, with such a fright at home.
`You know,' Lena said confidentially, `he married Mary because he thought she was strong-minded and would keep him straight. He never could keep straight on shore. The last time he landed in Liverpool he'd been out on a two years' voyage. He was paid off one morning, and by the next he hadn't a cent left, and his watch and compass were gone. He'd got with some women, and they'd taken everything. He worked his way to this country on a little passenger boat. Mary was a stewardess, and she tried to convert him on the way over. He thought she was just the one to keep him steady. Poor Ole! He used to bring me candy from town, hidden in his feed-bag. He couldn't refuse anything to a girl. He'd have given away his tattoos long ago, if he could. He's one of the people I'm sorriest for.'
If I happened to spend an evening with Lena and stayed late, the Polish violin-teacher across the hall used to come out and watch me descend the stairs, muttering so threateningly that it would have been easy to fall into a quarrel with him. Lena had told him once that she liked to hear him practise, so he always left his door open, and watched who came and went.
There was a coolness between the Pole and Lena's landlord on her account. Old Colonel Raleigh had come to Lincoln from Kentucky and invested an inherited fortune in real estate, at the time of inflated prices. Now he sat day after day in his office in the Raleigh Block, trying to discover where his money had gone and how he could get some of it back. He was a widower, and found very little congenial companionship in this casual Western city. Lena's good looks and gentle manners appealed to him. He said her voice reminded him of Southern voices, and he found as many opportunities of hearing it as possible. He painted and papered her rooms for her that spring, and put in a porcelain bathtub in place of the tin one that had satisfied the former tenant. While these repairs were being made, the old gentleman often dropped in to consult Lena's preferences. She told me with amusement how Ordinsky, the Pole, had presented himself at her door one evening, and said that if the landlord was annoying her by his attentions, he would promptly put a stop to it.
`I don't exactly know what to do about him,' she said, shaking her head, `he's so sort of wild all the time. I wouldn't like to have him say anything rough to that nice old man. The colonel is long-winded, but then I expect he's lonesome. I don't think he cares much for Ordinsky, either. He said once that if I had any complaints to make of my neighbours, I mustn't hesitate.'
One Saturday evening when I was having supper with Lena, we heard a knock at her parlour door, and there stood the Pole, coatless, in a dress shirt and collar. Prince dropped on his paws and began to growl like a mastiff, while the visitor apologized, saying that he could not possibly come in thus attired, but he begged Lena to lend him some safety pins.
`Oh, you'll have to come in, Mr. Ordinsky, and let me see what's the matter.' She closed the door behind him. `Jim, won't you make Prince behave?'
I rapped Prince on the nose, while Ordinsky explained that he had not had his dress clothes on for a long time, and tonight, when he was going to play for a concert, his waistcoat had split down the back. He thought he could pin it together until he got it to a tailor.
Lena took him by the elbow and turned him round. She laughed when she saw the long gap in the satin. `You could never pin that, Mr. Ordinsky. You've kept it folded too long, and the goods is all gone along the crease. Take it off. I can put a new piece of lining-silk in there for you in ten minutes.' She disappeared into her work-room with the vest, leaving me to confront the Pole, who stood against the door like a wooden figure. He folded his arms and glared at me with his excitable, slanting brown eyes. His head was the shape of a chocolate drop, and was covered with dry, straw-coloured hair that fuzzed up about his pointed crown. He had never done more than mutter at me as I passed him, and I was surprised when he now addressed me. `Miss Lingard,' he said haughtily, `is a young woman for whom I have the utmost, the utmost respect.'
`So have I,' I said coldly.
He paid no heed to my remark, but began to do rapid finger-exercises on his shirt-sleeves, as he stood with tightly folded arms.
`Kindness of heart,' he went on, staring at the ceiling, `sentiment, are not understood in a place like this. The noblest qualities are ridiculed. Grinning college boys, ignorant and conceited, what do they know of delicacy!'
I controlled my features and tried to speak seriously.
`If you mean me, Mr. Ordinsky, I have known Miss Lingard a long time, and I think I appreciate her kindness. We come from the same town, and we grew up together.'
His gaze travelled slowly down from the ceiling and rested on me. `Am I to understand that you have this young woman's interests at heart? That you do not wish to compromise her?'
`That's a word we don't use much here, Mr. Ordinsky. A girl who makes her own living can ask a college boy to supper without being talked about. We take some things for granted.'
`Then I have misjudged you, and I ask your pardon'--he bowed gravely. `Miss Lingard,' he went on, `is an absolutely trustful heart. She has not learned the hard lessons of life. As for you and me, noblesse oblige'--he watched me narrowly.
Lena returned with the vest. `Come in and let us look at you as you go out, Mr. Ordinsky. I've never seen you in your dress suit,' she said as she opened the door for him.
A few moments later he reappeared with his violin-case a heavy muffler about his neck and thick woollen gloves on his bony hands. Lena spoke encouragingly to him, and he went off with such an important professional air that we fell to laughing as soon as we had shut the door. `Poor fellow,' Lena said indulgently, `he takes everything so hard.'
After that Ordinsky was friendly to me, and behaved as if there were some deep understanding between us. He wrote a furious article, attacking the musical taste of the town, and asked me to do him a great service by taking it to the editor of the morning paper. If the editor refused to print it, I was to tell him that he would be answerable to Ordinsky `in person.' He declared that he would never retract one word, and that he was quite prepared to lose all his pupils. In spite of the fact that nobody ever mentioned his article to him after it appeared--full of typographical errors which he thought intentional-- he got a certain satisfaction from believing that the citizens of Lincoln had meekly accepted the epithet `coarse barbarians.' `You see how it is,' he said to me, `where there is no chivalry, there is no amour-propre.' When I met him on his rounds now, I thought he carried his head more disdainfully than ever, and strode up the steps of front porches and rang doorbells with more assurance. He told Lena he would never forget how I had stood by him when he was `under fire.'
All this time, of course, I was drifting. Lena had broken up my serious mood. I wasn't interested in my classes. I played with Lena and Prince, I played with the Pole, I went buggy-riding with the old colonel, who had taken a fancy to me and used to talk to me about Lena and the `great beauties' he had known in his youth. We were all three in love with Lena.
Before the first of June, Gaston Cleric was offered an instructorship at Harvard College, and accepted it. He suggested that I should follow him in the fall, and complete my course at Harvard. He had found out about Lena--not from me-- and he talked to me seriously.
`You won't do anything here now. You should either quit school and go to work, or change your college and begin again in earnest. You won't recover yourself while you are playing about with this handsome Norwegian. Yes, I've seen her with you at the theatre. She's very pretty, and perfectly irresponsible, I should judge.'
Cleric wrote my grandfather that he would like to take me East with him. To my astonishment, grandfather replied that I might go if I wished. I was both glad and sorry on the day when the letter came. I stayed in my room all evening and thought things over. I even tried to persuade myself that I was standing in Lena's way-- it is so necessary to be a little noble!--and that if she had not me to play with, she would probably marry and secure her future.
The next evening I went to call on Lena. I found her propped up on the couch in her bay-window, with her foot in a big slipper. An awkward little Russian girl whom she had taken into her work-room had dropped a flat-iron on Lena's toe. On the table beside her there was a basket of early summer flowers which the Pole had left after he heard of the accident. He always managed to know what went on in Lena's apartment.
Lena was telling me some amusing piece of gossip about one of her clients, when I interrupted her and picked up the flower basket.
`This old chap will be proposing to you some day, Lena.'
`Oh, he has--often!' she murmured.
`What! After you've refused him?'
`He doesn't mind that. It seems to cheer him to mention the subject. Old men are like that, you know. It makes them feel important to think they're in love with somebody.'
`The colonel would marry you in a minute. I hope you won't marry some old fellow; not even a rich one.' Lena shifted her pillows and looked up at me in surprise.
`Why, I'm not going to marry anybody. Didn't you know that?'
`Nonsense, Lena. That's what girls say, but you know better. Every handsome girl like you marries, of course.'
She shook her head. `Not me.'
`But why not? What makes you say that?' I persisted.
`Well, it's mainly because I don't want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what's sensible and what's foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.'
`But you'll be lonesome. You'll get tired of this sort of life, and you'll want a family.'
`Not me. I like to be lonesome. When I went to work for Mrs. Thomas I was nineteen years old, and I had never slept a night in my life when there weren't three in the bed. I never had a minute to myself except when I was off with the cattle.'
Usually, when Lena referred to her life in the country at all, she dismissed it with a single remark, humorous or mildly cynical. But tonight her mind seemed to dwell on those early years. She told me she couldn't remember a time when she was so little that she wasn't lugging a heavy baby about, helping to wash for babies, trying to keep their little chapped hands and faces clean. She remembered home as a place where there were always too many children, a cross man and work piling up around a sick woman.
`It wasn't mother's fault. She would have made us comfortable if she could. But that was no life for a girl! After I began to herd and milk, I could never get the smell of the cattle off me. The few underclothes I had I kept in a cracker-box. On Saturday nights, after everybody was in bed, then I could take a bath if I wasn't too tired. I could make two trips to the windmill to carry water, and heat it in the wash-boiler on the stove. While the water was heating, I could bring in a washtub out of the cave, and take my bath in the kitchen. Then I could put on a clean night-gown and get into bed with two others, who likely hadn't had a bath unless I'd given it to them. You can't tell me anything about family life. I've had plenty to last me.'
`But it's not all like that,' I objected.
`Near enough. It's all being under somebody's thumb. What's on your mind, Jim? Are you afraid I'll want you to marry me some day?'
Then I told her I was going away.
`What makes you want to go away, Jim? Haven't I been nice to you?'
`You've been just awfully good to me, Lena,' I blurted. `I don't think about much else. I never shall think about much else while I'm with you. I'll never settle down and grind if I stay here. You know that.'
I dropped down beside her and sat looking at the floor. I seemed to have forgotten all my reasonable explanations.
Lena drew close to me, and the little hesitation in her voice that had hurt me was not there when she spoke again.
`I oughtn't to have begun it, ought I?' she murmured. `I oughtn't to have gone to see you that first time. But I did want to. I guess I've always been a little foolish about you. I don't know what first put it into my head, unless it was Antonia, always telling me I mustn't be up to any of my nonsense with you. I let you alone for a long while, though, didn't I?'
She was a sweet creature to those she loved, that Lena Lingard!
At last she sent me away with her soft, slow, renunciatory kiss.
`You aren't sorry I came to see you that time?' she whispered. `It seemed so natural. I used to think I'd like to be your first sweetheart. You were such a funny kid!'
She always kissed one as if she were sadly and wisely sending one away forever.
We said many good-byes before I left Lincoln, but she never tried to hinder me or hold me back. `You are going, but you haven't gone yet, have you?' she used to say.
My Lincoln chapter closed abruptly. I went home to my grandparents for a few weeks, and afterward visited my relatives in Virginia until I joined Cleric in Boston. I was then nineteen years old.