On the Divide by Willa Cather
Near Rattlesnake Creek, on the side of a little draw stood Canute's
shanty. North, east, south, stretched the level Nebraska plain of long
rust-red grass that undulated constantly in the wind. To the west the
ground was broken and rough, and a narrow strip of timber wound along the
turbid, muddy little stream that had scarcely ambition enough to crawl
over its black bottom. If it had not been for the few stunted cottonwoods
and elms that grew along its banks, Canute would have shot himself years
ago. The Norwegians are a timber-loving people, and if there is even a
turtle pond with a few plum bushes around it they seem irresistibly drawn
As to the shanty itself, Canute had built it without aid of any kind, for
when he first squatted along the banks of Rattlesnake Creek there was not
a human being within twenty miles. It was built of logs split in halves,
the chinks stopped with mud and plaster. The roof was covered with earth
and was supported by one gigantic beam curved in the shape of a round
arch. It was almost impossible that any tree had ever grown in that shape.
The Norwegians used to say that Canute had taken the log across his knee
and bent it into the shape he wished. There were two rooms, or rather
there was one room with a partition made of ash saplings interwoven and
bound together like big straw basket work. In one corner there was a cook
stove, rusted and broken. In the other a bed made of unplaned planks and
poles. It was fully eight feet long, and upon it was a heap of dark bed
clothing. There was a chair and a bench of colossal proportions. There was
an ordinary kitchen cupboard with a few cracked dirty dishes in it, and
beside it on a tall box a tin washbasin. Under the bed was a pile of pint
flasks, some broken, some whole, all empty. On the wood box lay a pair of
shoes of almost incredible dimensions. On the wall hung a saddle, a gun,
and some ragged clothing, conspicuous among which was a suit of dark
cloth, apparently new, with a paper collar carefully wrapped in a red silk
handkerchief and pinned to the sleeve. Over the door hung a wolf and a
badger skin, and on the door itself a brace of thirty or forty snake skins
whose noisy tails rattled ominously every time it opened. The strangest
things in the shanty were the wide windowsills. At first glance they
looked as though they had been ruthlessly hacked and mutilated with a
hatchet, but on closer inspection all the notches and holes in the wood
took form and shape. There seemed to be a series of pictures. They were,
in a rough way, artistic, but the figures were heavy and labored, as
though they had been cut very slowly and with very awkward instruments.
There were men plowing with little horned imps sitting on their shoulders
and on their horses' heads. There were men praying with a skull hanging
over their heads and little demons behind them mocking their attitudes.
There were men fighting with big serpents, and skeletons dancing together.
All about these pictures were blooming vines and foliage such as never
grew in this world, and coiled among the branches of the vines there was
always the scaly body of a serpent, and behind every flower there was a
serpent's head. It was a veritable Dance of Death by one who had felt its
sting. In the wood box lay some boards, and every inch of them was cut up
in the same manner. Sometimes the work was very rude and careless, and
looked as though the hand of the workman had trembled. It would sometimes
have been hard to distinguish the men from their evil geniuses but for one
fact, the men were always grave and were either toiling or praying, while
the devils were always smiling and dancing. Several of these boards had
been split for kindling and it was evident that the artist did not value
his work highly.
It was the first day of winter on the Divide. Canute stumbled into his
shanty carrying a basket of cobs, and after filling the stove, sat down on
a stool and crouched his seven foot frame over the fire, staring drearily
out of the window at the wide gray sky. He knew by heart every individual
clump of bunch grass in the miles of red shaggy prairie that stretched
before his cabin. He knew it in all the deceitful loveliness of its early
summer, in all the bitter barrenness of its autumn. He had seen it smitten
by all the plagues of Egypt. He had seen it parched by drought, and sogged
by rain, beaten by hail, and swept by fire, and in the grasshopper years
he had seen it eaten as bare and clean as bones that the vultures have
left. After the great fires he had seen it stretch for miles and miles,
black and smoking as the floor of hell.
He rose slowly and crossed the room, dragging his big feet heavily as
though they were burdens to him. He looked out of the window into the hog
corral and saw the pigs burying themselves in the straw before the shed.
The leaden gray clouds were beginning to spill themselves, and the snow
flakes were settling down over the white leprous patches of frozen earth
where the hogs had gnawed even the sod away. He shuddered and began to
walk, trampling heavily with his ungainly feet. He was the wreck of ten
winters on the Divide and he knew what that meant. Men fear the winters of
the Divide as a child fears night or as men in the North Seas fear the
still dark cold of the polar twilight. His eyes fell upon his gun, and he
took it down from the wall and looked it over. He sat down on the edge of
his bed and held the barrel towards his face, letting his forehead rest
upon it, and laid his finger on the trigger. He was perfectly calm, there
was neither passion nor despair in his face, but the thoughtful look of a
man who is considering. Presently he laid down the gun, and reaching into
the cupboard, drew out a pint bottle of raw white alcohol. Lifting it to
his lips, he drank greedily. He washed his face in the tin basin and
combed his rough hair and shaggy blond beard. Then he stood in uncertainty
before the suit of dark clothes that hung on the wall. For the fiftieth
time he took them in his hands and tried to summon courage to put them on.
He took the paper collar that was pinned to the sleeve of the coat and
cautiously slipped it under his rough beard, looking with timid expectancy
into the cracked, splashed glass that hung over the bench. With a short
laugh he threw it down on the bed, and pulling on his old black hat, he
went out, striking off across the level.
It was a physical necessity for him to get away from his cabin once in a
while. He had been there for ten years, digging and plowing and sowing,
and reaping what little the hail and the hot winds and the frosts left him
to reap. Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide. They
come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty
winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in
men's veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves. Whenever the yellow
scorch creeps down over the tender inside leaves about the ear, then the
coroners prepare for active duty; for the oil of the country is burned out
and it does not take long for the flame to eat up the wick. It causes no
great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill
tower, and most of the Poles after they have become too careless and
discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats
It may be that the next generation on the Divide will be very happy, but
the present one came too late in life. It is useless for men that have cut
hemlocks among the mountains of Sweden for forty years to try to be happy
in a country as flat and gray and naked as the sea. It is not easy for men
that have spent their youth fishing in the Northern seas to be content
with following a plow, and men that have served in the Austrian army hate
hard work and coarse clothing on the loneliness of the plains, and long
for marches and excitement and tavern company and pretty barmaids. After a
man has passed his fortieth birthday it is not easy for him to change the
habits and conditions of his life. Most men bring with them to the Divide
only the dregs of the lives that they have squandered in other lands and
among other peoples.
Canute Canuteson was as mad as any of them, but his madness did not take
the form of suicide or religion but of alcohol. He had always taken liquor
when he wanted it, as all Norwegians do, but after his first year of
solitary life he settled down to it steadily. He exhausted whisky after a
while, and went to alcohol, because its effects were speedier and surer.
He was a big man and with a terrible amount of resistant force, and it
took a great deal of alcohol even to move him. After nine years of
drinking, the quantities he could take would seem fabulous to an ordinary
drinking man. He never let it interfere with his work, he generally drank
at night and on Sundays. Every night, as soon as his chores were done, he
began to drink. While he was able to sit up he would play on his mouth
harp or hack away at his window sills with his jackknife. When the liquor
went to his head he would lie down on his bed and stare out of the window
until he went to sleep. He drank alone and in solitude not for pleasure or
good cheer, but to forget the awful loneliness and level of the Divide.
Milton made a sad blunder when he put mountains in hell. Mountains
postulate faith and aspiration. All mountain peoples are religious. It was
the cities of the plains that, because of their utter lack of spirituality
and the mad caprice of their vice, were cursed of God.
Alcohol is perfectly consistent in its effects upon man. Drunkenness is
merely an exaggeration. A foolish man drunk becomes maudlin; a bloody man,
vicious; a coarse man, vulgar. Canute was none of these, but he was morose
and gloomy, and liquor took him through all the hells of Dante. As he lay
on his giant's bed all the horrors of this world and every other were laid
bare to his chilled senses. He was a man who knew no joy, a man who toiled
in silence and bitterness. The skull and the serpent were always before
him, the symbols of eternal futileness and of eternal hate.
When the first Norwegians near enough to be called neighbors came, Canute
rejoiced, and planned to escape from his bosom vice. But he was not a
social man by nature and had not the power of drawing out the social side
of other people. His new neighbors rather feared him because of his great
strength and size, his silence and his lowering brows. Perhaps, too, they
knew that he was mad, mad from the eternal treachery of the plains, which
every spring stretch green and rustle with the promises of Eden, showing
long grassy lagoons full of clear water and cattle whose hoofs are stained
with wild roses. Before autumn the lagoons are dried up, and the ground is
burnt dry and hard until it blisters and cracks open.
So instead of becoming a friend and neighbor to the men that settled about
him, Canute became a mystery and a terror. They told awful stories of his
size and strength and of the alcohol he drank.
They said that one night, when he went out to see to his horses just
before he went to bed, his steps were unsteady and the rotten planks of
the floor gave way and threw him behind the feet of a fiery young
stallion. His foot was caught fast in the floor, and the nervous horse
began kicking frantically. When Canute felt the blood trickling down into
his eyes from a scalp wound in his head, he roused himself from his kingly
indifference, and with the quiet stoical courage of a drunken man leaned
forward and wound his arms about the horse's hind legs and held them
against his breast with crushing embrace. All through the darkness and
cold of the night he lay there, matching strength against strength. When
little Jim Peterson went over the next morning at four o'clock to go with
him to the Blue to cut wood, he found him so, and the horse was on its
fore knees, trembling and whinnying with fear. This is the story the
Norwegians tell of him, and if it is true it is no wonder that they feared
and hated this Holder of the Heels of Horses.
One spring there moved to the next "eighty" a family that made a great
change in Canute's life. Ole Yensen was too drunk most of the time to be
afraid of any one, and his wife Mary was too garrulous to be afraid of any
one who listened to her talk, and Lena, their pretty daughter, was not
afraid of man nor devil. So it came about that Canute went over to take
his alcohol with Ole oftener than he took it alone, After a while the
report spread that he was going to marry Yensen's daughter, and the
Norwegian girls began to tease Lena about the great bear she was going to
keep house for. No one could quite see how the affair had come about, for
Canute's tactics of courtship were somewhat peculiar. He apparently never
spoke to her at all: he would sit for hours with Mary chattering on one
side of him and Ole drinking on the other and watch Lena at her work. She
teased him, and threw flour in his face and put vinegar in his coffee, but
he took her rough jokes with silent wonder, never even smiling. He took
her to church occasionally, but the most watchful and curious people never
saw him speak to her. He would sit staring at her while she giggled and
flirted with the other men.
Next spring Mary Lee went to town to work in a steam laundry. She came
home every Sunday, and always ran across to Yensens to startle Lena with
stories of ten cent theaters, firemen's dances, and all the other esthetic
delights of metropolitan life. In a few weeks Lena's head was completely
turned, and she gave her father no rest until he let her go to town to
seek her fortune at the ironing board. From the time she came home on her
first visit she began to treat Canute with contempt. She had bought a
plush cloak and kid gloves, had her clothes made by the dress maker, and
assumed airs and graces that made the other women of the neighborhood
cordially detest her. She generally brought with her a young man from town
who waxed his mustache and wore a red necktie, and she did not even
introduce him to Canute.
The neighbors teased Canute a good deal until he knocked one of them down.
He gave no sign of suffering from her neglect except that he drank more
and avoided the other Norwegians more carefully than ever, He lay around
in his den and no one knew what he felt or thought, but little Jim
Peterson, who had seen him glowering at Lena in church one Sunday when she
was there with the town man, said that he would not give an acre of his
wheat for Lena's life or the town chap's either; and Jim's wheat was so
wondrously worthless that the statement was an exceedingly strong one.
Canute had bought a new suit of clothes that looked as nearly like the
town man as possible. They had cost him half a millet crop; for tailors
are not accustomed to fitting giants and they charge for it. He had hung
those clothes in his shanty two months ago and had never put them on,
partly from fear of ridicule, partly from discouragement, and partly
because there was something in his own soul that revolted at the
littleness of the device.
Lena was at home just at this time. Work was slack in the laundry and Mary
had not been well, so Lena stayed at home, glad enough to get an
opportunity to torment Canute once more.
She was washing in the side kitchen, singing loudly as she worked. Mary
was on her knees, blacking the stove and scolding violently about the
young man who was coming out from town that night. The young man had
committed the fatal error of laughing at Mary's ceaseless babble and had
never been forgiven.
"He is no good, and you will come to a bad end by running with him! I do
not see why a daughter of mine should act so. I do not see why the Lord
should visit such a punishment upon me as to give me such a daughter.
There are plenty of good men you can marry."
Lena tossed her head and answered curtly, "I don't happen to want to marry
any man right away, and so long as Dick dresses nice and has plenty of
money to spend, there is no harm in my going with him."
"Money to spend? Yes, and that is all he does with it I'll be bound. You
think it very fine now, but you will change your tune when you have been
married five years and see your children running naked and your cupboard
empty. Did Anne Hermanson come to any good end by marrying a town man?"
"I don't know anything about Anne Hermanson, but I know any of the laundry
girls would have Dick quick enough if they could get him."
"Yes, and a nice lot of store clothes huzzies you are too. Now there is
Canuteson who has an 'eighty' proved up and fifty head of cattle and—"
"And hair that ain't been cut since he was a baby, and a big dirty beard,
and he wears overalls on Sundays, and drinks like a pig. Besides he will
keep. I can have all the fun I want, and when I am old and ugly like you
he can have me and take care of me. The Lord knows there ain't nobody else
going to marry him."
Canute drew his hand back from the latch as though it were red hot. He was
not the kind of man to make a good eavesdropper, and he wished he had
knocked sooner. He pulled himself together and struck the door like a
battering ram. Mary jumped and opened it with a screech.
"God! Canute, how you scared us! I thought it was crazy Lou—he has
been tearing around the neighborhood trying to convert folks. I am afraid
as death of him. He ought to be sent off, I think. He is just as liable as
not to kill us all, or burn the barn, or poison the dogs. He has been
worrying even the poor minister to death, and he laid up with the
rheumatism, too! Did you notice that he was too sick to preach last
Sunday? But don't stand there in the cold, come in. Yensen isn't here, but
he just went over to Sorenson's for the mail; he won't be gone long. Walk
right in the other room and sit down."
Canute followed her, looking steadily in front of him and not noticing
Lena as he passed her. But Lena's vanity would not allow him to pass
unmolested. She took the wet sheet she was wringing out and cracked him
across the face with it, and ran giggling to the other side of the room.
The blow stung his cheeks and the soapy water flew in his eyes, and he
involuntarily began rubbing them with his hands. Lena giggled with delight
at his discomfiture, and the wrath in Canute's face grew blacker than
ever. A big man humiliated is vastly more undignified than a little one.
He forgot the sting of his face in the bitter consciousness that he had
made a fool of himself He stumbled blindly into the living room, knocking
his head against the door jamb because he forgot to stoop. He dropped into
a chair behind the stove, thrusting his big feet back helplessly on either
side of him.
Ole was a long time in coming, and Canute sat there, still and silent,
with his hands clenched on his knees, and the skin of his face seemed to
have shriveled up into little wrinkles that trembled when he lowered his
brows. His life had been one long lethargy of solitude and alcohol, but
now he was awakening, and it was as when the dumb stagnant heat of summer
breaks out into thunder.
When Ole came staggering in, heavy with liquor, Canute rose at once.
"Yensen," he said quietly, "I have come to see if you will let me marry
your daughter today."
"Today!" gasped Ole.
"Yes, I will not wait until tomorrow. I am tired of living alone."
Ole braced his staggering knees against the bedstead, and stammered
eloquently: "Do you think I will marry my daughter to a drunkard? a man
who drinks raw alcohol? a man who sleeps with rattle snakes? Get out of my
house or I will kick you out for your impudence." And Ole began looking
anxiously for his feet.
Canute answered not a word, but he put on his hat and went out into the
kitchen. He went up to Lena and said without looking at her, "Get your
things on and come with me!"
The tones of his voice startled her, and she said angrily, dropping the
soap, "Are you drunk?"
"If you do not come with me, I will take you—you had better come,"
said Canute quietly.
She lifted a sheet to strike him, but he caught her arm roughly and
wrenched the sheet from her. He turned to the wall and took down a hood
and shawl that hung there, and began wrapping her up. Lena scratched and
fought like a wild thing. Ole stood in the door, cursing, and Mary howled
and screeched at the top of her voice. As for Canute, he lifted the girl
in his arms and went out of the house. She kicked and struggled, but the
helpless wailing of Mary and Ole soon died away in the distance, and her
face was held down tightly on Canute's shoulder so that she could not see
whither he was taking her. She was conscious only of the north wind
whistling in her ears, and of rapid steady motion and of a great breast
that heaved beneath her in quick, irregular breaths. The harder she
struggled the tighter those iron arms that had held the heels of horses
crushed about her, until she felt as if they would crush the breath from
her, and lay still with fear. Canute was striding across the level fields
at a pace at which man never went before, drawing the stinging north winds
into his lungs in great gulps. He walked with his eyes half closed and
looking straight in front of him, only lowering them when he bent his head
to blow away the snow flakes that settled on her hair. So it was that
Canute took her to his home, even as his bearded barbarian ancestors took
the fair frivolous women of the South in their hairy arms and bore them
down to their war ships. For ever and anon the soul becomes weary of the
conventions that are not of it, and with a single stroke shatters the
civilized lies with which it is unable to cope, and the strong arm reaches
out and takes by force what it cannot win by cunning.
When Canute reached his shanty he placed the girl upon a chair, where she
sat sobbing. He stayed only a few minutes. He filled the stove with wood
and lit the lamp, drank a huge swallow of alcohol and put the bottle in
his pocket. He paused a moment, staring heavily at the weeping girl, then
he went off and locked the door and disappeared in the gathering gloom of
Wrapped in flannels and soaked with turpentine, the little Norwegian
preacher sat reading his Bible, when he heard a thundering knock at his
door, and Canute entered, covered with snow and his beard frozen fast to
"Come in, Canute, you must be frozen," said the little man, shoving a
chair towards his visitor.
Canute remained standing with his hat on and said quietly, "I want you to
come over to my house tonight to marry me to Lena Yensen."
"Have you got a license, Canute?"
"No, I don't want a license. I want to be married."
"But I can't marry you without a license, man, it would not be legal."
A dangerous light came in the big Norwegian's eye. "I want you to come
over to my house to marry me to Lena Yensen."
"No, I can't, it would kill an ox to go out in a storm like this, and my
rheumatism is bad tonight."
"Then if you will not go I must take you," said Canute with a sigh.
He took down the preacher's bearskin coat and bade him put it on while he
hitched up his buggy. He went out and closed the door softly after him.
Presently he returned and found the frightened minister crouching before
the fire with his coat lying beside him. Canute helped him put it on and
gently wrapped his head in his big muffler. Then he picked him up and
carried him out and placed him in his buggy. As he tucked the buffalo
robes around him he said: "Your horse is old, he might flounder or lose
his way in this storm. I will lead him."
The minister took the reins feebly in his hands and sat shivering with the
cold. Sometimes when there was a lull in the wind, he could see the horse
struggling through the snow with the man plodding steadily beside him.
Again the blowing snow would hide them from him altogether. He had no idea
where they were or what direction they were going. He felt as though he
were being whirled away in the heart of the storm, and he said all the
prayers he knew. But at last the long four miles were over, and Canute set
him down in the snow while he unlocked the door. He saw the bride sitting
by the fire with her eyes red and swollen as though she had been weeping.
Canute placed a huge chair for him, and said roughly,—
Lena began to cry and moan afresh, begging the minister to take her home.
He looked helplessly at Canute. Canute said simply,
"If you are warm now, you can marry us."
"My daughter, do you take this step of your own free will?" asked the
minister in a trembling voice.
"No, sir, I don't, and it is disgraceful he should force me into it! I
won't marry him."
"Then, Canute, I cannot marry you," said the minister, standing as
straight as his rheumatic limbs would let him.
"Are you ready to marry us now, sir?" said Canute, laying one iron hand on
his stooped shoulder. The little preacher was a good man, but like most
men of weak body he was a coward and had a horror of physical suffering,
although he had known so much of it. So with many qualms of conscience he
began to repeat the marriage service. Lena sat sullenly in her chair,
staring at the fire. Canute stood beside her, listening with his head bent
reverently and his hands folded on his breast. When the little man had
prayed and said amen, Canute began bundling him up again.
"I will take you home, now," he said as he carried him out and placed him
in his buggy, and started off with him through the fury of the storm,
floundering among the snow drifts that brought even the giant himself to
After she was left alone, Lena soon ceased weeping. She was not of a
particularly sensitive temperament, and had little pride beyond that of
vanity. After the first bitter anger wore itself out, she felt nothing
more than a healthy sense of humiliation and defeat. She had no
inclination to run away, for she was married now, and in her eyes that was
final and all rebellion was useless. She knew nothing about a license, but
she knew that a preacher married folks. She consoled herself by thinking
that she had always intended to marry Canute someday, anyway.
She grew tired of crying and looking into the fire, so she got up and
began to look about her. She had heard queer tales about the inside of
Canute's shanty, and her curiosity soon got the better of her rage. One of
the first things she noticed was the new black suit of clothes hanging on
the wall. She was dull, but it did not take a vain woman long to interpret
anything so decidedly flattering, and she was pleased in spite of herself.
As she looked through the cupboard, the general air of neglect and
discomfort made her pity the man who lived there.
"Poor fellow, no wonder he wants to get married to get somebody to wash up
his dishes. Batchin's pretty hard on a man."
It is easy to pity when once one's vanity has been tickled. She looked at
the windowsill and gave a little shudder and wondered if the man were
crazy. Then she sat down again and sat a long time wondering what her Dick
and Ole would do.
"It is queer Dick didn't come right over after me. He surely came, for he
would have left town before the storm began and he might just as well come
right on as go back. If he'd hurried he would have gotten here before the
preacher came. I suppose he was afraid to come, for he knew Canuteson
could pound him to jelly, the coward!" Her eyes flashed angrily.
The weary hours wore on and Lena began to grow horribly lonesome. It was
an uncanny night and this was an uncanny place to be in. She could hear
the coyotes howling hungrily a little way from the cabin, and more
terrible still were all the unknown noises of the storm. She remembered
the tales they told of the big log overhead and she was afraid of those
snaky things on the windowsills. She remembered the man who had been
killed in the draw, and she wondered what she would do if she saw crazy
Lou's white face glaring into the window. The rattling of the door became
unbearable, she thought the latch must be loose and took the lamp to look
at it. Then for the first time she saw the ugly brown snake skins whose
death rattle sounded every time the wind jarred the door.
"Canute, Canute!" she screamed in terror.
Outside the door she heard a heavy sound as of a big dog getting up and
shaking himself. The door opened and Canute stood before her, white as a
"What is it?" he asked kindly.
"I am cold," she faltered.
He went out and got an armful of wood and a basket of cobs and filled the
stove. Then he went out and lay in the snow before the door. Presently he
heard her calling again.
"What is it?" he said, sitting up.
"I'm so lonesome, I'm afraid to stay in here all alone."
"I will go over and get your mother." And he got up.
"She won't come."
"I'll bring her," said Canute grimly.
"No, no. I don't want her, she will scold all the time."
"Well, I will bring your father."
She spoke again and it seemed as though her mouth was close up to the
key-hole. She spoke lower than he had ever heard her speak before, so low
that he had to put his ear up to the lock to hear her.
"I don't want him either, Canute,—I'd rather have you."
For a moment she heard no noise at all, then something like a groan. With
a cry of fear she opened the door, and saw Canute stretched in the snow at
her feet, his face in his hands, sobbing on the doorstep.