The Bohemian Girl by Willa Cather
The transcontinental express swung along the windings of the Sand River
Valley, and in the rear seat of the observation car a young man sat
greatly at his ease, not in the least discomfited by the fierce sunlight
which beat in upon his brown face and neck and strong back. There was a
look of relaxation and of great passivity about his broad shoulders, which
seemed almost too heavy until he stood up and squared them. He wore a pale
flannel shirt and a blue silk necktie with loose ends. His trousers were
wide and belted at the waist, and his short sack coat hung open. His heavy
shoes had seen good service. His reddish-brown hair, like his clothes, had
a foreign cut. He had deep-set, dark blue eyes under heavy reddish
eyebrows. His face was kept clean only by close shaving, and even the
sharpest razor left a glint of yellow in the smooth brown of his skin. His
teeth and the palms of his hands were very white. His head, which looked
hard and stubborn, lay indolently in the green cushion of the wicker
chair, and as he looked out at the ripe summer country a teasing, not
unkindly smile played over his lips. Once, as he basked thus comfortably,
a quick light flashed in his eyes, curiously dilating the pupils, and his
mouth became a hard, straight line, gradually relaxing into its former
smile of rather kindly mockery. He told himself, apparently, that there
was no point in getting excited; and he seemed a master hand at taking his
ease when he could. Neither the sharp whistle of the locomotive nor the
brakeman's call disturbed him. It was not until after the train had
stopped that he rose, put on a Panama hat, took from the rack a small
valise and a flute case, and stepped deliberately to the station platform.
The baggage was already unloaded, and the stranger presented a check for a
battered sole-leather steamer trunk.
"Can you keep it here for a day or two?" he asked the agent. "I may send
for it, and I may not."
"Depends on whether you like the country, I suppose?" demanded the agent
in a challenging tone.
The agent shrugged his shoulders, looked scornfully at the small trunk,
which was marked "N.E.," and handed out a claim check without further
comment. The stranger watched him as he caught one end of the trunk and
dragged it into the express room. The agent's manner seemed to remind him
of something amusing. "Doesn't seem to be a very big place," he remarked,
"It's big enough for us," snapped the agent, as he banged the trunk into a
That remark, apparently, was what Nils Ericson had wanted. He chuckled
quietly as he took a leather strap from his pocket and swung his valise
around his shoulder. Then he settled his Panama securely on his head,
turned up his trousers, tucked the flute case under his arm, and started
off across the fields. He gave the town, as he would have said, a wide
berth, and cut through a great fenced pasture, emerging, when he rolled
under the barbed wire at the farther corner, upon a white dusty road which
ran straight up from the river valley to the high prairies, where the ripe
wheat stood yellow and the tin roofs and weathercocks were twinkling in
the fierce sunlight. By the time Nils had done three miles, the sun was
sinking and the farm wagons on their way home from town came rattling by,
covering him with dust and making him sneeze. When one of the farmers
pulled up and offered to give him a lift, he clambered in willingly. The
driver was a thin, grizzled old man with a long lean neck and a foolish
sort of beard, like a goat's. "How fur ye goin'?" he asked, as he clucked
to his horses and started off.
"Do you go by the Ericson place?"
"Which Ericson?" The old man drew in his reins as if he expected to stop
"Oh, the Old Lady Ericson's!" He turned and looked at Nils. "La, me! If
you're goin' out there you might a' rid out in the automobile. That's a
pity, now. The Old Lady Ericson was in town with her auto. You might 'a'
heard it snortin' anywhere about the post-office er the butcher shop."
"Has she a motor?" asked the stranger absently.
"'Deed an' she has! She runs into town every night about this time for her
mail and meat for supper. Some folks say she's afraid her auto won't get
exercise enough, but I say that's jealousy."
"Aren't there any other motors about here?"
"Oh, yes! we have fourteen in all. But nobody else gets around like the
Old Lady Ericson. She's out, rain er shine, over the whole county,
chargin' into town and out amongst her farms, an' up to her sons' places.
Sure you ain't goin' to the wrong place?" He craned his neck and looked at
Nils' flute case with eager curiosity. "The old woman ain't got any piany
that I knows on. Olaf, he has a grand. His wife's musical: took lessons in
"I'm going up there tomorrow," said Nils imperturbably. He saw that the
driver took him for a piano tuner.
"Oh, I see!" The old man screwed up his eyes mysteriously. He was a little
dashed by the stranger's noncommunicativeness, but he soon broke out
"I'm one o' Miss Ericson's tenants. Look after one of her places. I did
own the place myself once, but I lost it a while back, in the bad years
just after the World's Fair. Just as well, too, I say. Lets you out o'
payin' taxes. The Ericsons do own most of the county now. I remember the
old preacher's favorite text used to be, 'To them that hath shall be
given.' They've spread something wonderful—run over this here
country like bindweed. But I ain't one that begretches it to 'em. Folks is
entitled to what they kin git; and they're hustlers. Olaf, he's in the
Legislature now, and a likely man fur Congress. Listen, if that ain't the
old woman comin' now. Want I should stop her?"
Nils shook his head. He heard the deep chug-chug of a motor vibrating
steadily in the clear twilight behind them. The pale lights of the car
swam over the hill, and the old man slapped his reins and turned clear out
of the road, ducking his head at the first of three angry snorts from
behind. The motor was running at a hot, even speed, and passed without
turning an inch from its course. The driver was a stalwart woman who sat
at ease in the front seat and drove her car bareheaded. She left a cloud
of dust and a trail of gasoline behind her. Her tenant threw back his head
"Whew! I sometimes say I'd as lief be before Mrs. Ericson as behind
her. She does beat all! Nearly seventy, and never lets another soul touch
that car. Puts it into commission herself every morning, and keeps it
tuned up by the hitch-bar all day. I never stop work for a drink o' water
that I don't hear her a-churnin' up the road. I reckon her darter-in-laws
never sets down easy nowadays. Never know when she'll pop in. Mis' Otto,
she says to me: 'We're so afraid that thing'll blow up and do Ma some
injury yet, she's so turrible venturesome.' Says I: 'I wouldn't stew, Mis'
Otto; the old lady'll drive that car to the funeral of every darter-in-law
she's got.' That was after the old woman had jumped a turrible bad
The stranger heard vaguely what the old man was saying. Just now he was
experiencing something very much like homesickness, and he was wondering
what had brought it about. The mention of a name or two, perhaps; the
rattle of a wagon along a dusty road; the rank, resinous smell of
sunflowers and ironweed, which the night damp brought up from the draws
and low places; perhaps, more than all, the dancing lights of the motor
that had plunged by. He squared his shoulders with a comfortable sense of
The wagon, as it jolted westward, climbed a pretty steady up-grade. The
country, receding from the rough river valley, swelled more and more
gently, as if it had been smoothed out by the wind. On one of the last of
the rugged ridges, at the end of a branch road, stood a grim square house
with a tin roof and double porches. Behind the house stretched a row of
broken, wind-racked poplars, and down the hill slope to the left straggled
the sheds and stables. The old man stopped his horses where the Ericsons'
road branched across a dry sand creek that wound about the foot of the
"That's the old lady's place. Want I should drive in?" "No, thank you.
I'll roll out here. Much obliged to you. Good night."
His passenger stepped down over the front wheel, and the old man drove on
reluctantly, looking back as if he would like to see how the stranger
would be received.
As Nils was crossing the dry creek he heard the restive tramp of a horse
coming toward him down the hill. Instantly he flashed out of the road and
stood behind a thicket of wild plum bushes that grew in the sandy bed.
Peering through the dusk, he saw a light horse, under tight rein,
descending the hill at a sharp walk. The rider was a slender woman—barely
visible against the dark hillside—wearing an old-fashioned derby hat
and a long riding skirt. She sat lightly in the saddle, with her chin
high, and seemed to be looking into the distance. As she passed the plum
thicket her horse snuffed the air and shied. She struck him, pulling him
in sharply, with an angry exclamation, "Blazne!" in Bohemian. Once
in the main road, she let him out into a lope, and they soon emerged upon
the crest of high land, where they moved along the skyline, silhouetted
against the band of faint colour that lingered in the west. This horse and
rider, with their free, rhythmical gallop, were the only moving things to
be seen on the face of the flat country. They seemed, in the last sad
light of evening, not to be there accidentally, but as an inevitable
detail of the landscape.
Nils watched them until they had shrunk to a mere moving speck against the
sky, then he crossed the sand creek and climbed the hill. When he reached
the gate the front of the house was dark, but a light was shining from the
side windows. The pigs were squealing in the hog corral, and Nils could
see a tall boy, who carried two big wooden buckets, moving about among
them. Halfway between the barn and the house, the windmill wheezed lazily.
Following the path that ran around to the back porch, Nils stopped to look
through the screen door into the lamplit kitchen. The kitchen was the
largest room in the house; Nils remembered that his older brothers used to
give dances there when he was a boy. Beside the stove stood a little girl
with two light yellow braids and a broad, flushed face, peering anxiously
into a frying pan. In the dining-room beyond, a large, broad-shouldered
woman was moving about the table. She walked with an active, springy step.
Her face was heavy and florid, almost without wrinkles, and her hair was
black at seventy. Nils felt proud of her as he watched her deliberate
activity; never a momentary hesitation, or a movement that did not tell.
He waited until she came out into the kitchen and, brushing the child
aside, took her place at the stove. Then he tapped on the screen door and
"It's nobody but Nils, Mother. I expect you weren't looking for me."
Mrs. Ericson turned away from the stove and stood staring at him. "Bring
the lamp, Hilda, and let me look."
Nils laughed and unslung his valise. "What's the matter, Mother? Don't you
Mrs. Ericson put down the lamp. "You must be Nils. You don't look very
"Nor you, Mother. You hold your own. Don't you wear glasses yet?"
"Only to read by. Where's your trunk, Nils?"
"Oh, I left that in town. I thought it might not be convenient for you to
have company so near threshing-time."
"Don't be foolish, Nils." Mrs. Ericson turned back to the stove. "I don't
thresh now. I hitched the wheat land onto the next farm and have a tenant.
Hilda, take some hot water up to the company room, and go call little
The tow-haired child, who had been standing in mute amazement, took up the
tea-kettle and withdrew, giving Nils a long, admiring look from the door
of the kitchen stairs.
"Who's the youngster?" Nils asked, dropping down on the bench behind the
"One of your Cousin Henrik's."
"How long has Cousin Henrik been dead?"
"Six years. There are two boys. One stays with Peter and one with Anders.
Olaf is their guardeen."
There was a clatter of pails on the porch, and a tall, lanky boy peered
wonderingly in through the screen door. He had a fair, gentle face and big
grey eyes, and wisps of soft yellow hair hung down under his cap. Nils
sprang up and pulled him into the kitchen, hugging him and slapping him on
the shoulders. "Well, if it isn't my kid! Look at the size of him! Don't
you know me, Eric?"
The boy reddened tinder his sunburn and freckles, and hung his head. "I
guess it's Nils," he said shyly.
"You're a good guesser," laughed Nils giving the lad's hand a swing. To
himself he was thinking: "That's why the little girl looked so friendly.
He's taught her to like me. He was only six when I went away, and he's
remembered for twelve years."
Eric stood fumbling with his cap and smiling. "You look just like I
thought you would," he ventured.
"Go wash your hands, Eric," called Mrs. Ericson. "I've got cob corn for
supper, Nils. You used to like it. I guess you don't get much of that in
the old country. Here's Hilda; she'll take you up to your room. You'll
want to get the dust off you before you eat."
Mrs. Ericson went into the dining-room to lay another plate, and the
little girl came up and nodded to Nils as if to let him know that his room
was ready. He put out his hand and she took it, with a startled glance up
at his face. Little Eric dropped his towel, threw an arm about Nils and
one about Hilda, gave them a clumsy squeeze, and then stumbled out to the
During supper Nils heard exactly how much land each of his eight grown
brothers farmed, how their crops were coming on, and how much livestock
they were feeding. His mother watched him narrowly as she talked. "You've
got better looking, Nils," she remarked abruptly, whereupon he grinned and
the children giggled. Eric, although he was eighteen and as tall as Nils,
was always accounted a child, being the last of so many sons. His face
seemed childlike, too, Nils thought, and he had the open, wandering eyes
of a little boy. All the others had been men at his age.
After supper Nils went out to the front porch and sat down on the step to
smoke a pipe. Mrs. Ericson drew a rocking-chair up near him and began to
knit busily. It was one of the few Old World customs she had kept up, for
she could not bear to sit with idle hands.
"Where's little Eric, Mother?"
"He's helping Hilda with the dishes. He does it of his own will; I don't
like a boy to be too handy about the house."
"He seems like a nice kid."
"He's very obedient."
Nils smiled a little in the dark. It was just as well to shift the line of
conversation. "What are you knitting there, Mother?"
"Baby stockings. The boys keep me busy." Mrs. Ericson chuckled and clicked
"How many grandchildren have you?"
"Only thirty-one now. Olaf lost his three. They were sickly, like their
"I supposed he had a second crop by this time!"
"His second wife has no children. She's too proud. She tears about on
horseback all the time. But she'll get caught up with, yet. She sets
herself very high, though nobody knows what for. They were low enough
Bohemians she came of. I never thought much of Bohemians; always
Nils puffed away at his pipe in silence, and Mrs. Ericson knitted on. In a
few moments she added grimly: "She was down here tonight, just before you
came. She'd like to quarrel with me and come between me and Olaf, but I
don't give her the chance. I suppose you'll be bringing a wife home some
"I don't know. I've never thought much about it."
"Well, perhaps it's best as it is," suggested Mrs. Ericson hopefully.
"You'd never be contented tied down to the land. There was roving blood in
your father's family, and it's come out in you. I expect your own way of
life suits you best." Mrs. Ericson had dropped into a blandly agreeable
tone which Nils well remembered. It seemed to amuse him a good deal and
his white teeth flashed behind his pipe. His mother's strategies had
always diverted him, even when he was a boy—they were so flimsy and
patent, so illy proportioned to her vigor and force. "They've been waiting
to see which way I'd jump," he reflected. He felt that Mrs. Ericson was
pondering his case deeply as she sat clicking her needles.
"I don't suppose you've ever got used to steady work," she went on
presently. "Men ain't apt to if they roam around too long. It's a pity you
didn't come back the year after the World's Fair. Your father picked up a
good bit of land cheap then, in the hard times, and I expect maybe he'd
have give you a farm, it's too bad you put off comin' back so long, for I
always thought he meant to do something by you."
Nils laughed and shook the ashes out of his pipe. "I'd have missed a lot
if I had come back then. But I'm sorry I didn't get back to see father."
"Well, I suppose we have to miss things at one end or the other. Perhaps
you are as well satisfied with your own doings, now, as you'd have been
with a farm," said Mrs. Ericson reassuringly.
"Land's a good thing to have," Nils commented, as he lit another match and
sheltered it with his hand.
His mother looked sharply at his face until the match burned out. "Only
when you stay on it!" she hastened to say.
Eric came round the house by the path just then, and Nils rose, with a
yawn. "Mother, if you don't mind, Eric and I will take a little tramp
before bedtime. It will make me sleep."
"Very well; only don't stay long. I'll sit up and wait for you. I like to
lock up myself."
Nils put his hand on Eric's shoulder, and the two tramped down the hill
and across the sand creek into the dusty highroad beyond. Neither spoke.
They swung along at an even gait, Nils puffing at his pipe. There was no
moon, and the white road and the wide fields lay faint in the starlight.
Over everything was darkness and thick silence, and the smell of dust and
sunflowers. The brothers followed the road for a mile or more without
finding a place to sit down. Finally, Nils perched on a stile over the
wire fence, and Eric sat on the lower step.
"I began to think you never would come back, Nils," said the boy softly.
"Didn't I promise you I would?"
"Yes; but people don't bother about promises they make to babies. Did you
really know you were going away for good when you went to Chicago with the
cattle that time?"
"I thought it very likely, if I could make my way."
"I don't see how you did it, Nils. Not many fellows could." Eric rubbed
his shoulder against his brother's knee.
"The hard thing was leaving home you and father. It was easy enough, once
I got beyond Chicago. Of course I got awful homesick; used to cry myself
to sleep. But I'd burned my bridges."
"You had always wanted to go, hadn't you?"
"Always. Do you still sleep in our little room? Is that cottonwood still
by the window?"
Eric nodded eagerly and smiled up at his brother in the grey darkness.
"You remember how we always said the leaves were whispering when they
rustled at night? Well, they always whispered to me about the sea.
Sometimes they said names out of the geography books. In a high wind they
had a desperate sound, like someone trying to tear loose."
"How funny, Nils," said Eric dreamily, resting his chin on his hand. "That
tree still talks like that, and 'most always it talks to me about you."
They sat a while longer, watching the stars. At last Eric whispered
anxiously: "Hadn't we better go back now? Mother will get tired waiting
for us." They rose and took a short cut home, through the pasture.
The next morning Nils woke with the first flood of light that came with
dawn. The white-plastered walls of his room reflected the glare that shone
through the thin window shades, and he found it impossible to sleep. He
dressed hurriedly and slipped down the hall and up the back stairs to the
half-story room which he used to share with his little brother. Eric, in a
skimpy nightshirt, was sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes,
his pale yellow hair standing up in tufts all over his head. When he saw
Nils, he murmured something confusedly and hustled his long legs into his
trousers. "I didn't expect you'd be up so early, Nils," he said, as his
head emerged from his blue shirt.
"Oh, you thought I was a dude, did you?" Nils gave him a playful tap which
bent the tall boy up like a clasp knife. "See here: I must teach you to
box." Nils thrust his hands into his pockets and walked about. "You
haven't changed things much up here. Got most of my old traps, haven't
He took down a bent, withered piece of sapling that hung over the dresser.
"If this isn't the stick Lou Sandberg killed himself with!"
The boy looked up from his shoe-lacing.
"Yes; you never used to let me play with that. Just how did he do it,
Nils? You were with father when he found Lou, weren't you?"
"Yes. Father was going off to preach somewhere, and, as we drove along,
Lou's place looked sort of forlorn, and we thought we'd stop and cheer him
up. When we found him father said he'd been dead a couple days. He'd tied
a piece of binding twine round his neck, made a noose in each end, fixed
the nooses over the ends of a bent stick, and let the stick spring
straight; strangled himself."
"What made him kill himself such a silly way?"
The simplicity of the boy's question set Nils laughing. He clapped little
Eric on the shoulder. "What made him such a silly as to kill himself at
all, I should say!"
"Oh, well! But his hogs had the cholera, and all up and died on him,
"Sure they did; but he didn't have cholera; and there were plenty of hogs
left in the world, weren't there?"
"Well, but, if they weren't his, how could they do him any good?" Eric
asked, in astonishment.
"Oh, scat! He could have had lots of fun with other people's hogs. He was
a chump, Lou Sandberg. To kill yourself for a pig—think of that,
now!" Nils laughed all the way downstairs, and quite embarrassed little
Eric, who fell to scrubbing his face and hands at the tin basin. While he
was parting his wet hair at the kitchen looking glass, a heavy tread
sounded on the stairs. The boy dropped his comb. "Gracious, there's
Mother. We must have talked too long." He hurried out to the shed, slipped
on his overalls, and disappeared with the milking pails.
Mrs. Ericson came in, wearing a clean white apron, her black hair shining
from the application of a wet brush.
"Good morning, Mother. Can't I make the fire for you?"
"No, thank you, Nils. It's no trouble to make a cob fire, and I like to
manage the kitchen stove myself" Mrs. Ericson paused with a shovel full of
ashes in her hand. "I expect you will be wanting to see your brothers as
soon as possible. I'll take you up to Anders' place this morning. He's
threshing, and most of our boys are over there."
"Will Olaf be there?"
Mrs. Ericson went on taking out the ashes, and spoke between shovels. "No;
Olaf's wheat is all in, put away in his new barn. He got six thousand
bushel this year. He's going to town today to get men to finish roofing
"So Olaf is building a new barn?" Nils asked absently.
"Biggest one in the county, and almost done. You'll likely be here for the
barn-raising. He's going to have a supper and a dance as soon as
everybody's done threshing. Says it keeps the voters in good humour. I
tell him that's all nonsense; but Olaf has a head for politics."
"Does Olaf farm all Cousin Henrik's land?"
Mrs. Ericson frowned as she blew into the faint smoke curling up about the
cobs. "Yes; he holds it in trust for the children, Hilda and her brothers.
He keeps strict account of everything he raises on it, and puts the
proceeds out at compound interest for them."
Nils smiled as he watched the little flames shoot up. The door of the back
stairs opened, and Hilda emerged, her arms behind her, buttoning up her
long gingham apron as she came. He nodded to her gaily, and she twinkled
at him out of her little blue eyes, set far apart over her wide
"There, Hilda, you grind the coffee—and just put in an extra
handful; I expect your Cousin Nils likes his strong," said Mrs. Ericson,
as she went out to the shed.
Nils turned to look at the little girl, who gripped the coffee grinder
between her knees and ground so hard that her two braids bobbed and her
face flushed under its broad spattering of freckles. He noticed on her
middle finger something that had not been there last night, and that had
evidently been put on for company: a tiny gold ring with a clumsily set
garnet stone. As her hand went round and round he touched the ring with
the tip of his finger, smiling.
Hilda glanced toward the shed door through which Mrs. Ericson had
disappeared. "My Cousin Clara gave me that," she whispered bashfully.
"She's Cousin Olaf's wife."
Mrs. Olaf Ericson—Clara Vavrika, as many people still called her—was
moving restlessly about her big bare house that morning. Her husband had
left for the county town before his wife was out of bed—her lateness
in rising was one of the many things the Ericson family had against her.
Clara seldom came downstairs before eight o'clock, and this morning she
was even later, for she had dressed with unusual care. She put on,
however, only a tight-fitting black dress, which people thereabouts
thought very plain. She was a tall, dark woman of thirty, with a rather
sallow complexion and a touch of dull salmon red in her cheeks, where the
blood seemed to burn under her brown skin. Her hair, parted evenly above
her low forehead, was so black that there were distinctly blue lights in
it. Her black eyebrows were delicate half-moons and her lashes were long
and heavy. Her eyes slanted a little, as if she had a strain of Tartar or
gypsy blood, and were sometimes full of fiery determination and sometimes
dull and opaque. Her expression was never altogether amiable; was often,
indeed, distinctly sullen, or, when she was animated, sarcastic. She was
most attractive in profile, for then one saw to advantage her small,
well-shaped head and delicate ears, and felt at once that here was a very
positive, if not an altogether pleasing, personality.
The entire management of Mrs. Olaf's household devolved upon her aunt,
Johanna Vavrika, a superstitious, doting woman of fifty. When Clara was a
little girl her mother died, and Johanna's life had been spent in
ungrudging service to her niece. Clara, like many self-willed and
discontented persons, was really very apt, without knowing it, to do as
other people told her, and to let her destiny be decided for her by
intelligences much below her own. It was her Aunt Johanna who had humoured
and spoiled her in her girlhood, who had got her off to Chicago to study
piano, and who had finally persuaded her to marry Olaf Ericson as the best
match she would be likely to make in that part of the country. Johanna
Vavrika had been deeply scarred by smallpox in the old country. She was
short and fat, homely and jolly and sentimental. She was so broad, and
took such short steps when she walked, that her brother, Joe Vavrika,
always called her his duck. She adored her niece because of her talent,
because of her good looks and masterful ways, but most of all because of
Clara's marriage with Olaf Ericson was Johanna's particular triumph. She
was inordinately proud of Olaf's position, and she found a sufficiently
exciting career in managing Clara's house, in keeping it above the
criticism of the Ericsons, in pampering Olaf to keep him from finding
fault with his wife, and in concealing from every one Clara's domestic
infelicities. While Clara slept of a morning, Johanna Vavrika was bustling
about, seeing that Olaf and the men had their breakfast, and that the
cleaning or the butter-making or the washing was properly begun by the two
girls in the kitchen. Then, at about eight o'clock, she would take Clara's
coffee up to her, and chat with her while she drank it, telling her what
was going on in the house. Old Mrs. Ericson frequently said that her
daughter-in-law would not know what day of the week it was if Johanna did
not tell her every morning. Mrs. Ericson despised and pitied Johanna, but
did not wholly dislike her. The one thing she hated in her daughter-in-law
above everything else was the way in which Clara could come it over
people. It enraged her that the affairs of her son's big, barnlike house
went on as well as they did, and she used to feel that in this world we
have to wait overlong to see the guilty punished. "Suppose Johanna Vavrika
died or got sick?" the old lady used to say to Olaf. "Your wife wouldn't
know where to look for her own dish-cloth." Olaf only shrugged his
shoulders. The fact remained that Johanna did not die, and, although Mrs.
Ericson often told her she was looking poorly, she was never ill. She
seldom left the house, and she slept in a little room off the kitchen. No
Ericson, by night or day, could come prying about there to find fault
without her knowing it. Her one weakness was that she was an incurable
talker, and she sometimes made trouble without meaning to.
This morning Clara was tying a wine-coloured ribbon about her throat when
Johanna appeared with her coffee. After putting the tray on a sewing
table, she began to make Clara's bed, chattering the while in Bohemian.
"Well, Olaf got off early, and the girls are baking. I'm going down
presently to make some poppy-seed bread for Olaf. He asked for prune
preserves at breakfast, and I told him I was out of them, and to bring
some prunes and honey and cloves from town."
Clara poured her coffee. "Ugh! I don't see how men can eat so much sweet
stuff. In the morning, too!"
Her aunt chuckled knowingly. "Bait a bear with honey, as we say in the old
"Was he cross?" her niece asked indifferently.
"Olaf? Oh, no! He was in fine spirits. He's never cross if you know how to
take him. I never knew a man to make so little fuss about bills. I gave
him a list of things to get a yard long, and he didn't say a word; just
folded it up and put it in his pocket."
"I can well believe he didn't say a word," Clara remarked with a shrug.
"Some day he'll forget how to talk."
"Oh, but they say he's a grand speaker in the Legislature. He knows when
to keep quiet. That's why he's got such influence in politics. The people
have confidence in him." Johanna beat up a pillow and held it under her
fat chin while she slipped on the case. Her niece laughed.
"Maybe we could make people believe we were wise, Aunty, if we held our
tongues. Why did you tell Mrs. Ericson that Norman threw me again last
Saturday and turned my foot? She's been talking to Olaf."
Johanna fell into great confusion. "Oh, but, my precious, the old lady
asked for you, and she's always so angry if I can't give an excuse.
Anyhow, she needn't talk; she's always tearing up something with that
motor of hers."
When her aunt clattered down to the kitchen, Clara went to dust the
parlour. Since there was not much there to dust, this did not take very
long. Olaf had built the house new for her before their marriage, but her
interest in furnishing it had been short-lived. It went, indeed, little
beyond a bathtub and her piano. They had disagreed about almost every
other article of furniture, and Clara had said she would rather have her
house empty than full of things she didn't want. The house was set in a
hillside, and the west windows of the parlour looked out above the kitchen
yard thirty feet below. The east windows opened directly into the front
yard. At one of the latter, Clara, while she was dusting, heard a low
whistle. She did not turn at once, but listened intently as she drew her
cloth slowly along the round of a chair. Yes, there it was:
I dreamt that I dwelt in ma-a-arble halls.
She turned and saw Nils Ericson laughing in the sunlight, his hat in his
hand, just outside the window. As she crossed the room he leaned against
the wire screen. "Aren't you at all surprised to see me, Clara Vavrika?"
"No; I was expecting to see you. Mother Ericson telephoned Olaf last night
that you were here."
Nils squinted and gave a long whistle. "Telephoned? That must have been
while Eric and I were out walking. Isn't she enterprising? Lift this
screen, won't you?"
Clara lifted the screen, and Nils swung his leg across the window-sill. As
he stepped into the room she said: "You didn't think you were going to get
ahead of your mother, did you?"
He threw his hat on the piano. "Oh, I do sometimes. You see, I'm ahead of
her now. I'm supposed to be in Anders' wheat-field. But, as we were
leaving, Mother ran her car into a soft place beside the road and sank up
to the hubs. While they were going for the horses to pull her out, I cut
away behind the stacks and escaped." Nils chuckled. Clara's dull eyes lit
up as she looked at him admiringly.
"You've got them guessing already. I don't know what your mother said to
Olaf over the telephone, but be came back looking as if he'd seen a ghost,
and he didn't go to bed until a dreadful hour—ten o'clock, I should
think. He sat out on the porch in the dark like a graven image. It had
been one of his talkative days, too." They both laughed, easily and
lightly, like people who have laughed a great deal together; but they
"Anders and Otto and Peter looked as if they had seen ghosts, too, over in
the threshing field. What's the matter with them all?"
Clara gave him a quick, searching look. "Well, for one thing, they've
always been afraid you have the other will."
Nils looked interested. "The other will?"
"Yes. A later one. They knew your father made another, but they never knew
what he did with it. They almost tore the old house to pieces looking for
it. They always suspected that he carried on a clandestine correspondence
with you, for the one thing he would do was to get his own mail himself.
So they thought he might have sent the new will to you for safekeeping.
The old one, leaving everything to your mother, was made long before you
went away, and it's understood among them that it cuts you out—that
she will leave all the property to the others. Your father made the second
will to prevent that. I've been hoping you had it. It would be such fun to
spring it on them." Clara laughed mirthfully, a thing she did not often do
Nils shook his head reprovingly. "Come, now, you're malicious."
"No, I'm not. But I'd like something to happen to stir them all up, just
for once. There never was such a family for having nothing ever happen to
them but dinner and threshing. I'd almost be willing to die, just to have
a funeral. You wouldn't stand it for three weeks."
Nils bent over the piano and began pecking at the keys with the finger of
one hand. "I wouldn't? My dear young lady, how do you know what I can
stand? You wouldn't wait to find out."
Clara flushed darkly and frowned. "I didn't believe you would ever come
back—" she said defiantly.
"Eric believed I would, and he was only a baby when I went away. However,
all's well that ends well, and I haven't come back to be a skeleton at the
feast. We mustn't quarrel. Mother will be here with a search warrant
pretty soon." He swung round and faced her, thrusting his hands into his
coat pockets. "Come, you ought to be glad to see me, if you want something
to happen. I'm something, even without a will. We can have a little fun,
can't we? I think we can!"
She echoed him, "I think we can!" They both laughed and their eyes
sparkled. Clara Vavrika looked ten years younger than when she had put the
velvet ribbon about her throat that morning.
"You know, I'm so tickled to see mother," Nils went on. "I didn't know I
was so proud of her. A regular pile driver. How about little pigtails,
down at the house? Is Olaf doing the square thing by those children?"
Clara frowned pensively. "Olaf has to do something that looks like the
square thing, now that he's a public man!" She glanced drolly at Nils.
"But he makes a good commission out of it. On Sundays they all get
together here and figure. He lets Peter and Anders put in big bills for
the keep of the two boys, and he pays them out of the estate. They are
always having what they call accountings. Olaf gets something out of it,
too. I don't know just how they do it, but it's entirely a family matter,
as they say. And when the Ericsons say that—" Clara lifted her
Just then the angry honk-honk of an approaching motor sounded from
down the road. Their eyes met and they began to laugh. They laughed as
children do when they can not contain themselves, and can not explain the
cause of their mirth to grown people, but share it perfectly together.
When Clara Vavrika sat down at the piano after he was gone, she felt that
she had laughed away a dozen years. She practised as if the house were
burning over her head.
When Nils greeted his mother and climbed into the front seat of the motor
beside her, Mrs. Ericson looked grim, but she made no comment upon his
truancy until she had turned her car and was retracing her revolutions
along the road that ran by Olaf's big pasture. Then she remarked dryly:
"If I were you I wouldn't see too much of Olaf's wife while you are here.
She's the kind of woman who can't see much of men without getting herself
talked about. She was a good deal talked about before he married her."
"Hasn't Olaf tamed her?" Nils asked indifferently.
Mrs. Ericson shrugged her massive shoulders. "Olaf don't seem to have much
luck, when it comes to wives. The first one was meek enough, but she was
always ailing. And this one has her own way. He says if he quarreled with
her she'd go back to her father, and then he'd lose the Bohemian vote.
There are a great many Bohunks in this district. But when you find a man
under his wife's thumb you can always be sure there's a soft spot in him
Nils thought of his own father, and smiled. "She brought him a good deal
of money, didn't she, besides the Bohemian vote?"
Mrs. Ericson sniffed. "Well, she has a fair half section in her own name,
but I can't see as that does Olaf much good. She will have a good deal of
property some day, if old Vavrika don't marry again. But I don't consider
a saloonkeeper's money as good as other people's money."
Nils laughed outright. "Come, Mother, don't let your prejudices carry you
that far. Money's money. Old Vavrika's a mighty decent sort of
saloonkeeper. Nothing rowdy about him."
Mrs. Ericson spoke up angrily. "Oh, I know you always stood up for them!
But hanging around there when you were a boy never did you any good, Nils,
nor any of the other boys who went there. There weren't so many after her
when she married Olaf, let me tell you. She knew enough to grab her
Nils settled back in his seat. "Of course I liked to go there, Mother, and
you were always cross about it. You never took the trouble to find out
that it was the one jolly house in this country for a boy to go to. All
the rest of you were working yourselves to death, and the houses were
mostly a mess, full of babies and washing and flies. Oh, it was all right—I
understand that; but you are young only once, and I happened to be young
then. Now, Vavrika's was always jolly. He played the violin, and I used to
take my flute, and Clara played the piano, and Johanna used to sing
Bohemian songs. She always had a big supper for us—herrings and
pickles and poppy-seed bread, and lots of cake and preserves. Old Joe had
been in the army in the old country, and he could tell lots of good
stories. I can see him cutting bread, at the head of the table, now. I
don't know what I'd have done when I was a kid if it hadn't been for the
"And all the time he was taking money that other people had worked hard in
the fields for," Mrs. Ericson observed.
"So do the circuses, Mother, and they're a good thing. People ought to get
fun for some of their money. Even father liked old Joe."
"Your father," Mrs. Ericson said grimly, "liked everybody."
As they crossed the sand creek and turned into her own place, Mrs. Ericson
observed, "There's Olaf's buggy. He's stopped on his way from town." Nils
shook himself and prepared to greet his brother, who was waiting on the
Olaf was a big, heavy Norwegian, slow of speech and movement. His head was
large and square, like a block of wood. When Nils, at a distance, tried to
remember what his brother looked like, he could recall only his heavy
head, high forehead, large nostrils, and pale blue eyes, set far apart.
Olaf's features were rudimentary: the thing one noticed was the face
itself, wide and flat and pale; devoid of any expression, betraying his
fifty years as little as it betrayed anything else, and powerful by reason
of its very stolidness. When Olaf shook hands with Nils he looked at him
from under his light eyebrows, but Nils felt that no one could ever say
what that pale look might mean. The one thing he had always felt in Olaf
was a heavy stubbornness, like the unyielding stickiness of wet loam
against the plow. He had always found Olaf the most difficult of his
"How do you do, Nils? Expect to stay with us long?"
"Oh, I may stay forever," Nils answered gaily. "I like this country better
than I used to."
"There's been some work put into it since you left," Olaf remarked.
"Exactly. I think it's about ready to live in now—and I'm about
ready to settle down." Nils saw his brother lower his big head ("Exactly
like a bull," he thought.) "Mother's been persuading me to slow down now,
and go in for farming," he went on lightly.
Olaf made a deep sound in his throat. "Farming ain't learned in a day," he
brought out, still looking at the ground.
"Oh, I know! But I pick things up quickly." Nils had not meant to
antagonize his brother, and he did not know now why he was doing it. "Of
course," he went on, "I shouldn't expect to make a big success, as you
fellows have done. But then, I'm not ambitious. I won't want much. A
little land, and some cattle, maybe."
Olaf still stared at the ground, his head down. He wanted to ask Nils what
he had been doing all these years, that he didn't have a business
somewhere he couldn't afford to leave; why he hadn't more pride than to
come back with only a little sole-leather trunk to show for himself, and
to present himself as the only failure in the family. He did not ask one
of these questions, but he made them all felt distinctly.
"Humph!" Nils thought. "No wonder the man never talks, when he can butt
his ideas into you like that without ever saying a word. I suppose he uses
that kind of smokeless powder on his wife all the time. But I guess she
has her innings." He chuckled, and Olaf looked up. "Never mind me, Olaf. I
laugh without knowing why, like little Eric. He's another cheerful dog."
"Eric," said Olaf slowly, "is a spoiled kid. He's just let his mother's
best cow go dry because he don't milk her right. I was hoping you'd take
him away somewhere and put him into business. If he don't do any good
among strangers, he never will." This was a long speech for Olaf, and as
he finished it he climbed into his buggy.
Nils shrugged his shoulders. "Same old tricks," he thought. "Hits from
behind you every time. What a whale of a man!" He turned and went round to
the kitchen, where his mother was scolding little Eric for letting the
gasoline get low.
Joe Vavrika's saloon was not in the county seat, where Olaf and Mrs.
Ericson did their trading, but in a cheerfuller place, a little Bohemian
settlement which lay at the other end of the county, ten level miles north
of Olaf's farm. Clara rode up to see her father almost every day.
Vavrika's house was, so to speak, in the back yard of his saloon. The
garden between the two buildings was inclosed by a high board fence as
tight as a partition, and in summer Joe kept beer tables and wooden
benches among the gooseberry bushes under his little cherry tree. At one
of these tables Nils Ericson was seated in the late afternoon, three days
after his return home. Joe had gone in to serve a customer, and Nils was
lounging on his elbows, looking rather mournfully into his half-emptied
pitcher, when he heard a laugh across the little garden. Clara, in her
riding habit, was standing at the back door of the house, under the
grapevine trellis that old Joe had grown there long ago. Nils rose.
"Come out and keep your father and me company. We've been gossiping all
afternoon. Nobody to bother us but the flies."
She shook her head. "No, I never come out here any more. Olaf doesn't like
it. I must live up to my position, you know."
"You mean to tell me you never come out and chat with the boys, as you
used to? He has tamed you! Who keeps up these flower-beds?"
"I come out on Sundays, when father is alone, and read the Bohemian papers
to him. But I am never here when the bar is open. What have you two been
"Talking, as I told you. I've been telling him about my travels. I find I
can't talk much at home, not even to Eric."
Clara reached up and poked with her riding-whip at a white moth that was
fluttering in the sunlight among the vine leaves. "I suppose you will
never tell me about all those things."
"Where can I tell them? Not in Olaf's house, certainly. What's the matter
with our talking here?" He pointed persuasively with his hat to the bushes
and the green table, where the flies were singing lazily above the empty
Clara shook her head weakly. "No, it wouldn't do. Besides, I am going
"I'm on Eric's mare. Would you be angry if I overtook you?"
Clara looked back and laughed. "You might try and see. I can leave you if
I don't want you. Eric's mare can't keep up with Norman."
Nils went into the bar and attempted to pay his score. Big Joe, six feet
four, with curly yellow hair and mustache, clapped him on the shoulder.
"Not a Goddamn a your money go in my drawer, you hear? Only next time you
bring your flute, te-te-te-te-te-ty." Joe wagged his fingers in imitation
of the flute player's position.
"My Clara, she come all-a-time Sundays an' play for me. She not like to
play at Ericson's place." He shook his yellow curls and laughed. "Not a
Goddamn a fun at Ericson's. You come a Sunday. You like-a fun. No forget
de flute." Joe talked very rapidly and always tumbled over his English. He
seldom spoke it to his customers, and had never learned much.
Nils swung himself into the saddle and trotted to the west of the village,
where the houses and gardens scattered into prairie land and the road
turned south. Far ahead of him, in the declining light, he saw Clara
Vavrika's slender figure, loitering on horseback. He touched his mare with
the whip, and shot along the white, level road, under the reddening sky.
When he overtook Olaf's wife he saw that she had been crying. "What's the
matter, Clara Vavrika?" he asked kindly.
"Oh, I get blue sometimes. It was awfully jolly living there with father.
I wonder why I ever went away."
Nils spoke in a low, kind tone that he sometimes used with women: "That's
what I've been wondering these many years. You were the last girl in the
country I'd have picked for a wife for Olaf. What made you do it, Clara?"
"I suppose I really did it to oblige the neighbours"—Clara tossed
her head. "People were beginning to wonder."
"Yes—why I didn't get married. I suppose I didn't like to keep them
in suspense. I've discovered that most girls marry out of consideration
for the neighbourhood."
Nils bent his head toward her and his white teeth flashed. "I'd have
gambled that one girl I knew would say, 'Let the neighbourhood be
Clara shook her head mournfully. "You see, they have it on you, Nils; that
is, if you're a woman. They say you're beginning to go off. That's what
makes us get married: we can't stand the laugh."
Nils looked sidewise at her. He had never seen her head droop before.
Resignation was the last thing he would have expected of her. "In your
case, there wasn't something else?"
"I mean, you didn't do it to spite somebody? Somebody who didn't come
Clara drew herself up. "Oh, I never thought you'd come back. Not after I
stopped writing to you, at least. That was all over, long before I
"It never occurred to you, then, that the meanest thing you could do to me
was to marry Olaf?"
Clara laughed. "No; I didn't know you were so fond of Olaf."
Nils smoothed his horse's mane with his glove. "You know, Clara Vavrika,
you are never going to stick it out. You'll cut away some day, and I've
been thinking you might as well cut away with me."
Clara threw up her chin. "Oh, you don't know me as well as you think. I
won't cut away. Sometimes, when I'm with father, I feel like it. But I can
hold out as long as the Ericsons can. They've never got the best of me
yet, and one can live, so long as one isn't beaten. If I go back to
father, it's all up with Olaf in politics. He knows that, and he never
goes much beyond sulking. I've as much wit as the Ericsons. I'll never
leave them unless I can show them a thing or two."
"You mean unless you can come it over them?"
"Yes—unless I go away with a man who is cleverer than they are, and
who has more money."
Nils whistled. "Dear me, you are demanding a good deal. The Ericsons, take
the lot of them, are a bunch to beat. But I should think the excitement of
tormenting them would have worn off by this time."
"It has, I'm afraid," Clara admitted mournfully.
"Then why don't you cut away? There are more amusing games than this in
the world. When I came home I thought it might amuse me to bully a few
quarter sections out of the Ericsons; but I've almost decided I can get
more fun for my money somewhere else."
Clara took in her breath sharply. "Ah, you have got the other will! That
was why you came home!"
"No, it wasn't. I came home to see how you were getting on with Olaf."
Clara struck her horse with the whip, and in a bound she was far ahead of
him. Nils dropped one word, "Damn!" and whipped after her; but she leaned
forward in her saddle and fairly cut the wind. Her long riding skirt
rippled in the still air behind her. The sun was just sinking behind the
stubble in a vast, clear sky, and the shadows drew across the fields so
rapidly that Nils could scarcely keep in sight the dark figure on the
road. When he overtook her he caught her horse by the bridle. Norman
reared, and Nils was frightened for her; but Clara kept her seat.
"Let me go, Nils Ericson!" she cried. "I hate you more than any of them.
You were created to torture me, the whole tribe of you—to make me
suffer in every possible way."
She struck her horse again and galloped away from him. Nils set his teeth
and looked thoughtful. He rode slowly home along the deserted road,
watching the stars come out in the clear violet sky.
They flashed softly into the limpid heavens, like jewels let fall into
clear water. They were a reproach, he felt, to a sordid world. As he
turned across the sand creek, he looked up at the North Star and smiled,
as if there were an understanding between them. His mother scolded him for
being late for supper.
On Sunday afternoon Joe Vavrika, in his shirt sleeves and carpet slippers,
was sitting in his garden, smoking a long-tasseled porcelain pipe with a
hunting scene painted on the bowl. Clara sat under the cherry tree,
reading aloud to him from the weekly Bohemian papers. She had worn a white
muslin dress under her riding habit, and the leaves of the cherry tree
threw a pattern of sharp shadows over her skirt. The black cat was dozing
in the sunlight at her feet, and Joe's dachshund was scratching a hole
under the scarlet geraniums and dreaming of badgers. Joe was filling his
pipe for the third time since dinner, when he heard a knocking on the
fence. He broke into a loud guffaw and unlatched the little door that led
into the street. He did not call Nils by name, but caught him by the hand
and dragged him in. Clara stiffened and the colour deepened under her dark
skin. Nils, too, felt a little awkward. He had not seen her since the
night when she rode away from him and left him alone on the level road
between the fields. Joe dragged him to the wooden bench beside the green
"You bring de flute," he cried, tapping the leather case under Nils' arm.
"Ah, das-a good' Now we have some liddle fun like old times. I got
somet'ing good for you." Joe shook his finger at Nils and winked his blue
eye, a bright clear eye, full of fire, though the tiny bloodvessels on the
ball were always a little distended. "I got somet'ing for you from"—he
paused and waved his hand—"Hongarie. You know Hongarie? You wait!"
He pushed Nils down on the bench, and went through the back door of his
Nils looked at Clara, who sat frigidly with her white skirts drawn tight
about her. "He didn't tell you he had asked me to come, did he? He wanted
a party and proceeded to arrange it. Isn't he fun? Don't be cross; let's
give him a good time."
Clara smiled and shook out her skirt. "Isn't that like Father? And he has
sat here so meekly all day. Well, I won't pout. I'm glad you came. He
doesn't have very many good times now any more. There are so few of his
kind left. The second generation are a tame lot."
Joe came back with a flask in one hand and three wine glasses caught by
the stems between the fingers of the other. These he placed on the table
with an air of ceremony, and, going behind Nils, held the flask between
him and the sun, squinting into it admiringly. "You know dis, Tokai? A
great friend of mine, he bring dis to me, a present out of Hongarie. You
know how much it cost, dis wine? Chust so much what it weigh in gold.
Nobody but de nobles drink him in Bohemie. Many, many years I save him up,
dis Tokai." Joe whipped out his official corkscrew and delicately removed
the cork. "De old man die what bring him to me, an' dis wine he lay on his
belly in my cellar an' sleep. An' now," carefully pouring out the heavy
yellow wine, "an' now he wake up; and maybe he wake us up, too!" He
carried one of the glasses to his daughter and presented it with great
Clara shook her head, but, seeing her father's disappointment, relented.
"You taste it first. I don't want so much."
Joe sampled it with a beatific expression, and turned to Nils. "You drink
him slow, dis wine. He very soft, but he go down hot. You see!"
After a second glass Nils declared that he couldn't take any more without
getting sleepy. "Now get your fiddle, Vavrika," he said as he opened his
But Joe settled back in his wooden rocker and wagged his big carpet
slipper. "No-no-no-no-no-no-no! No play fiddle now any more: too much ache
in de finger," waving them, "all-a-time rheumatic. You play de flute,
te-tety-tetety-te. Bohemie songs."
"I've forgotten all the Bohemian songs I used to play with you and
Johanna. But here's one that will make Clara pout. You remember how her
eyes used to snap when we called her the Bohemian Girl?" Nils lifted his
flute and began "When Other Lips and Other Hearts," and Joe hummed the air
in a husky baritone, waving his carpet slipper. "Oh-h-h, das-a fine
music," he cried, clapping his hands as Nils finished. "Now 'Marble Halls,
Marble Halls'! Clara, you sing him."
Clara smiled and leaned back in her chair, beginning softly:
"I dreamt that I dwelt in ma-a-arble halls,
With vassals and serfs at my knee,"
and Joe hummed like a big bumblebee.
"There's one more you always played," Clara said quietly, "I remember that
best." She locked her hands over her knee and began "The Heart Bowed
Down," and sang it through without groping for the words. She was singing
with a good deal of warmth when she came to the end of the old song:
"For memory is the only friend
That grief can call its own."
Joe flashed out his red silk handkerchief and blew his nose, shaking his
head. "No-no-no-no-no-no-no! Too sad, too sad! I not like-a dat. Play
quick somet'ing gay now."
Nils put his lips to the instrument, and Joe lay back in his chair,
laughing and singing, "Oh, Evelina, Sweet Evelina!" Clara laughed, too.
Long ago, when she and Nils went to high school, the model student of
their class was a very homely girl in thick spectacles. Her name was
Evelina Oleson; she had a long, swinging walk which somehow suggested the
measure of that song, and they used mercilessly to sing it at her.
"Dat ugly Oleson girl, she teach in de school," Joe gasped, "an' she still
walks chust like dat, yup-a, yup-a, yup-a, chust like a camel she go! Now,
Nils, we have some more li'l drink. Oh, yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes!
Dis time you haf to drink, and Clara she haf to, so she show she not
jealous. So, we all drink to your girl. You not tell her name, eh?
No-no-no, I no make you tell. She pretty, eh? She make good sweetheart? I
bet!" Joe winked and lifted his glass. "How soon you get married?"
Nils screwed up his eyes. "That I don't know. When she says."
Joe threw out his chest. "Das-a way boys talks. No way for mans. Mans say,
'You come to de church, an' get a hurry on you.' Das-a way mans talks."
"Maybe Nils hasn't got enough to keep a wife," put in Clara ironically.
"How about that, Nils?" she asked him frankly, as if she wanted to know.
Nils looked at her coolly, raising one eyebrow. "Oh, I can keep her, all
"The way she wants to be kept?"
"With my wife, I'll decide that," replied Nils calmly. "I'll give her
what's good for her."
Clara made a wry face. "You'll give her the strap, I expect, like old
Peter Oleson gave his wife."
"When she needs it," said Nils lazily, locking his hands behind his head
and squinting up through the leaves of the cherry tree. "Do you remember
the time I squeezed the cherries all over your clean dress, and Aunt
Johanna boxed my ears for me? My gracious, weren't you mad! You had both
hands full of cherries, and I squeezed 'em and made the juice fly all over
you. I liked to have fun with you; you'd get so mad."
"We did have fun, didn't we? None of the other kids ever had so
much fun. We knew how to play."
Nils dropped his elbows on the table and looked steadily across at her.
"I've played with lots of girls since, but I haven't found one who was
such good fun."
Clara laughed. The late afternoon sun was shining full in her face, and
deep in the back of her eyes there shone something fiery, like the yellow
drops of Tokai in the brown glass bottle. "Can you still play, or are you
"I can play better than I used to, and harder."
"Don't you ever work, then?" She had not intended to say it. It slipped
out because she was confused enough to say just the wrong thing.
"I work between times." Nils' steady gaze still beat upon her. "Don't you
worry about my working, Mrs. Ericson. You're getting like all the rest of
them." He reached his brown, warm hand across the table and dropped it on
Clara's, which was cold as an icicle. "Last call for play, Mrs. Ericson!"
Clara shivered, and suddenly her hands and cheeks grew warm. Her fingers
lingered in his a moment, and they looked at each other earnestly. Joe
Vavrika had put the mouth of the bottle to his lips and was swallowing the
last drops of the Tokai, standing. The sun, just about to sink behind his
shop, glistened on the bright glass, on his flushed face and curly yellow
hair. "Look," Clara whispered, "that's the way I want to grow old."
On the day of Olaf Ericson's barn-raising, his wife, for once in a way,
rose early. Johanna Vavrika had been baking cakes and frying and boiling
and spicing meats for a week beforehand, but it was not until the day
before the party was to take place that Clara showed any interest in it.
Then she was seized with one of her fitful spasms of energy, and took the
wagon and little Eric and spent the day on Plum Creek, gathering vines and
swamp goldenrod to decorate the barn.
By four o'clock in the afternoon buggies and wagons began to arrive at the
big unpainted building in front of Olaf's house. When Nils and his mother
came at five, there were more than fifty people in the barn, and a great
drove of children. On the ground floor stood six long tables, set with the
crockery of seven flourishing Ericson families, lent for the occasion. In
the middle of each table was a big yellow pumpkin, hollowed out and filled
with woodbine. In one corner of the barn, behind a pile of green-and-white
striped watermelons, was a circle of chairs for the old people; the
younger guests sat on bushel measures or barbed-wire spools, and the
children tumbled about in the haymow. The box stalls Clara had converted
into booths. The framework was hidden by goldenrod and sheaves of wheat,
and the partitions were covered 'With wild grapevines full of fruit. At
one of these Johanna Vavrika watched over her cooked meats, enough to
provision an army; and at the next her kitchen girls had ranged the
ice-cream freezers, and Clara was already cutting pies and cakes against
the hour of serving. At the third stall, little Hilda, in a bright pink
lawn dress, dispensed lemonade throughout the afternoon. Olaf, as a public
man, had thought it inadvisable to serve beer in his barn; but Joe Vavrika
had come over with two demijohns concealed in his buggy, and after his
arrival the wagon shed was much frequented by the men.
"Hasn't Cousin Clara fixed things lovely?" little Hilda whispered, when
Nils went up to her stall and asked for lemonade.
Nils leaned against the booth, talking to the excited little girl and
watching the people. The barn faced the west, and the sun, pouring in at
the big doors, filled the whole interior with a golden light, through
which filtered fine particles of dust from the haymow, where the children
were romping. There was a great chattering from the stall where Johanna
Vavrika exhibited to the admiring women her platters heaped with fried
chicken, her roasts of beef, boiled tongues, and baked hams with cloves
stuck in the crisp brown fat and garnished with tansy and parsley. The
older women, having assured themselves that there were twenty kinds of
cake, not counting cookies, and three dozen fat pies, repaired to the
corner behind the pile of watermelons, put on their white aprons, and fell
to their knitting and fancywork. They were a fine company of old women,
and a Dutch painter would have loved to find them there together, where
the sun made bright patches on the floor and sent long, quivering shafts
of gold through the dusky shade up among the rafters. There were fat, rosy
old women who looked hot in their best black dresses; spare, alert old
women with brown, dark-veined hands; and several of almost heroic frame,
not less massive than old Mrs. Ericson herself. Few of them wore glasses,
and old Mrs. Svendsen, a Danish woman, who was quite bald, wore the only
cap among them. Mrs. Oleson, who had twelve big grandchildren, could still
show two braids of yellow hair as thick as her own wrists. Among all these
grandmothers there were more brown heads than white. They all had a
pleased, prosperous air, as if they were more than satisfied with
themselves and with life. Nils, leaning against Hilda's lemonade stand,
watched them as they sat chattering in four languages, their fingers never
lagging behind their tongues.
"Look at them over there," he whispered, detaining Clara as she passed
him. "Aren't they the Old Guard? I've just counted thirty hands. I guess
they've wrung many a chicken's neck and warmed many a boy's jacket for him
in their time."
In reality he fell into amazement when he thought of the Herculean labours
those fifteen pairs of hands had performed: of the cows they had milked,
the butter they had made, the gardens they had planted, the children and
grandchildren they had tended, the brooms they had worn out, the mountains
of food they had cooked. It made him dizzy. Clara Vavrika smiled a hard,
enigmatical smile at him and walked rapidly away. Nils' eyes followed her
white figure as she went toward the house. He watched her walking alone in
the sunlight, looked at her slender, defiant shoulders and her little
hard-set head with its coils of blue-black hair. "No," he reflected;
"she'd never be like them, not if she lived here a hundred years. She'd
only grow more bitter. You can't tame a wild thing; you can only chain it.
People aren't all alike. I mustn't lose my nerve." He gave Hilda's pigtail
a parting tweak and set out after Clara. "Where to?" he asked, as he came
upon her in the kitchen.
"I'm going to the cellar for preserves."
"Let me go with you. I never get a moment alone with you. Why do you keep
out of my way?"
Clara laughed. "I don't usually get in anybody's way."
Nils followed her down the stairs and to the far corner of the cellar,
where a basement window let in a stream of light. From a swinging shelf
Clara selected several glass jars, each labeled in Johanna's careful hand.
Nils took up a brown flask. "What's this? It looks good."
"It is. It's some French brandy father gave me when I was married. Would
you like some? Have you a corkscrew? I'll get glasses."
When she brought them, Nils took them from her and put them down on the
window-sill. "Clara Vavrika, do you remember how crazy I used to be about
Clara shrugged her shoulders. "Boys are always crazy about somebody or
another. I dare say some silly has been crazy about Evelina Oleson. You
got over it in a hurry."
"Because I didn't come back, you mean? I had to get on, you know, and it
was hard sledding at first. Then I heard you'd married Olaf."
"And then you stayed away from a broken heart," Clara laughed.
"And then I began to think about you more than I had since I first went
away. I began to wonder if you were really as you had seemed to me when I
was a boy. I thought I'd like to see. I've had lots of girls, but no one
ever pulled me the same way. The more I thought about you, the more I
remembered how it used to be—like hearing a wild tune you can't
resist, calling you out at night. It had been a long while since anything
had pulled me out of my boots, and I wondered whether anything ever could
again." Nils thrust his hands into his coat pockets and squared his
shoulders, as his mother sometimes squared hers, as Olaf, in a clumsier
manner, squared his. "So I thought I'd come back and see. Of course the
family have tried to do me, and I rather thought I'd bring out father's
will and make a fuss. But they can have their old land; they've put enough
sweat into it." He took the flask and filled the two glasses carefully to
the brim. "I've found out what I want from the Ericsons. Drink skoal,
Clara." He lifted his glass, and Clara took hers with downcast eyes. "Look
at me, Clara Vavrika. Skoal!"
She raised her burning eyes and answered fiercely: "Skoal!"
The barn supper began at six o'clock and lasted for two hilarious hours.
Yense Nelson had made a wager that he could eat two whole fried chickens,
and he did. Eli Swanson stowed away two whole custard pies, and Nick
Hermanson ate a chocolate layer cake to the last crumb. There was even a
cooky contest among the children, and one thin, slablike Bohemian boy
consumed sixteen and won the prize, a gingerbread pig which Johanna
Vavrika had carefully decorated with red candies and burnt sugar. Fritz
Sweiheart, the German carpenter, won in the pickle contest, but he
disappeared soon after supper and was not seen for the rest of the
evening. Joe Vavrika said that Fritz could have managed the pickles all
right, but he had sampled the demijohn in his buggy too often before
sitting down to the table.
While the supper was being cleared away the two fiddlers began to tune up
for the dance. Clara was to accompany them on her old upright piano, which
had been brought down from her father's. By this time Nils had renewed old
acquaintances. Since his interview with Clara in the cellar, he had been
busy telling all the old women how young they looked, and all the young
ones how pretty they were, and assuring the men that they had here the
best farmland in the world. He had made himself so agreeable that old Mrs.
Ericson's friends began to come up to her and tell how lucky she was to
get her smart son back again, and please to get him to play his flute. Joe
Vavrika, who could still play very well when he forgot that he had
rheumatism, caught up a fiddle from Johnny Oleson and played a crazy
Bohemian dance tune that set the wheels going. When he dropped the bow
every one was ready to dance.
Olaf, in a frock coat and a solemn made-up necktie, led the grand march
with his mother. Clara had kept well out of that by sticking to the
piano. She played the march with a pompous solemnity which greatly amused
the prodigal son, who went over and stood behind her.
"Oh, aren't you rubbing it into them, Clara Vavrika? And aren't you lucky
to have me here, or all your wit would be thrown away."
"I'm used to being witty for myself. It saves my life."
The fiddles struck up a polka, and Nils convulsed Joe Vavrika by leading
out Evelina Oleson, the homely schoolteacher. His next partner was a very
fat Swedish girl, who, although she was an heiress, had not been asked for
the first dance, but had stood against the wall in her tight, high-heeled
shoes, nervously fingering a lace handkerchief. She was soon out of
breath, so Nils led her, pleased and panting, to her seat, and went over
to the piano, from which Clara had been watching his gallantry. "Ask Olena
Yenson," she whispered. "She waltzes beautifully."
Olena, too, was rather inconveniently plump, handsome in a smooth, heavy
way, with a fine colour and good-natured, sleepy eyes. She was redolent of
violet sachet powder, and had warm, soft, white hands, but she danced
divinely, moving as smoothly as the tide coming in. "There, that's
something like," Nils said as he released her. "You'll give me the next
waltz, won't you? Now I must go and dance with my little cousin."
Hilda was greatly excited when Nils went up to her stall and held out his
arm. Her little eyes sparkled, but she declared that she could not leave
her lemonade. Old Mrs. Ericson, who happened along at this moment, said
she would attend to that, and Hilda came out, as pink as her pink dress.
The dance was a schottische, and in a moment her yellow braids were fairly
standing on end. "Bravo!" Nils cried encouragingly. "Where did you learn
to dance so nicely?"
"My Cousin Clara taught me," the little girl panted.
Nils found Eric sitting with a group of boys who were too awkward or too
shy to dance, and told him that he must dance the next waltz with Hilda.
The boy screwed up his shoulders. "Aw, Nils, I can't dance. My feet are
too big; I look silly."
"Don't be thinking about yourself. It doesn't matter how boys look."
Nils had never spoken to him so sharply before, and Eric made haste to
scramble out of his corner and brush the straw from his coat.
Clara nodded approvingly. "Good for you, Nils. I've been trying to get
hold of him. They dance very nicely together; I sometimes play for them."
"I'm obliged to you for teaching him. There's no reason why he should grow
up to be a lout."
"He'll never be that. He's more like you than any of them. Only he hasn't
your courage." From her slanting eyes Clara shot forth one of those keen
glances, admiring and at the same time challenging, which she seldom
bestowed on any one, and which seemed to say, "Yes, I admire you, but I am
Clara was proving a much better host than Olaf, who, once the supper was
over, seemed to feel no interest in anything but the lanterns. He had
brought a locomotive headlight from town to light the revels, and he kept
skulking about as if he feared the mere light from it might set his new
barn on fire. His wife, on the contrary, was cordial to every one, was
animated and even gay. The deep salmon colour in her cheeks burned
vividly, and her eyes were full of life. She gave the piano over to the
fat Swedish heiress, pulled her father away from the corner where he sat
gossiping with his cronies, and made him dance a Bohemian dance with her.
In his youth Joe had been a famous dancer, and his daughter got him so
limbered up that every one sat around and applauded them. The old ladies
were particularly delighted, and made them go through the dance again.
From their corner where they watched and commented, the old women kept
time with their feet and hands, and whenever the fiddles struck up a new
air old Mrs. Svendsen's white cap would begin to bob.
Clara was waltzing with little Eric when Nils came up to them, brushed his
brother aside, and swung her out among the dancers. "Remember how we used
to waltz on rollers at the old skating rink in town? I suppose people
don't do that any more. We used to keep it up for hours. You know, we
never did moon around as other boys and girls did. It was dead serious
with us from the beginning. When we were most in love with each other, we
used to fight. You were always pinching people; your fingers were like
little nippers. A regular snapping turtle, you were. Lord, how you'd like
Stockholm! Sit out in the streets in front of cafes and talk all night in
summer, just like a reception—officers and ladies and funny English
people. Jolliest people in the world, the Swedes, once you get them going.
Always drinking things—champagne and stout mixed, half-and-half,
serve it out of big pitchers, and serve plenty. Slow pulse, you know; they
can stand a lot. Once they light up, they're glowworms, I can tell you."
"All the same, you don't really like gay people."
"No; I could tell that when you were looking at the old women there this
afternoon. They're the kind you really admire, after all; women like your
mother. And that's the kind you'll marry."
"Is it, Miss Wisdom? You'll see who I'll marry, and she won't have a
domestic virtue to bless herself with. She'll be a snapping turtle, and
she'll be a match for me. All the same, they're a fine bunch of old dames
over there. You admire them yourself.
"No, I don't; I detest them."
"You won't, when you look back on them from Stockholm or Budapest. Freedom
settles all that. Oh, but you're the real Bohemian Girl, Clara Vavrika!"
Nils laughed down at her sullen frown and began mockingly to sing:
"Oh, how could a poor gypsy maiden like me
Expect the proud bride of a baron to be?"
Clara clutched his shoulder. "Hush, Nils; every one is looking at you."
"I don't care. They can't gossip. It's all in the family, as the Ericsons
say when they divide up little Hilda's patrimony amongst them. Besides,
we'll give them something to talk about when we hit the trail. Lord, it
will be a godsend to them! They haven't had anything so interesting to
chatter about since the grasshopper year. It'll give them a new lease of
life. And Olaf won't lose the Bohemian vote, either. They'll have the
laugh on him so that they'll vote two apiece. They'll send him to
Congress. They'll never forget his barn party, or us. They'll always
remember us as we're dancing together now. We're making a legend. Where's
my waltz, boys?" he called as they whirled past the fiddlers.
The musicians grinned, looked at each other, hesitated, and began a new
air; and Nils sang with them, as the couples fell from a quick waltz to a
long, slow glide:
"When other lips and other hearts
Their tale of love shall tell,
In language whose excess imparts
The power they feel so well."
The old women applauded vigorously. "What a gay one he is, that Nils!" And
old Mrs. Svendsen's cap lurched dreamily from side to side to the flowing
measure of the dance.
"Of days that have as ha-a-p-py been,
And you'll remember me."
The moonlight flooded that great, silent land. The reaped fields lay
yellow in it. The straw stacks and poplar windbreaks threw sharp black
shadows. The roads were white rivers of dust. The sky was a deep,
crystalline blue, and the stars were few and faint. Everything seemed to
have succumbed, to have sunk to sleep, under the great, golden, tender,
midsummer moon. The splendour of it seemed to transcend human life and
human fate. The senses were too feeble to take it in, and every time one
looked up at the sky one felt unequal to it, as if one were sitting deaf
under the waves of a great river of melody. Near the road, Nils Ericson
was lying against a straw stack in Olaf's wheat field. His own life seemed
strange and unfamiliar to him, as if it were something he had read about,
or dreamed, and forgotten. He lay very still, watching the white road that
ran in front of him, lost itself among the fields, and then, at a
distance, reappeared over a little hill. At last, against this white band
he saw something moving rapidly, and he got up and walked to the edge of
the field. "She is passing the row of poplars now," he thought. He heard
the padded beat of hoofs along the dusty road, and as she came into sight
he stepped out and waved his arms. Then, for fear of frightening the
horse, he drew back and waited. Clara had seen him, and she came up at a
walk. Nils took the horse by the bit and stroked his neck.
"What are you doing out so late, Clara Vavrika? I went to the house, but
Johanna told me you had gone to your father's."
"Who can stay in the house on a night like this? Aren't you out yourself?"
"Ah, but that's another matter."
Nils turned the horse into the field.
"What are you doing? Where are you taking Norman?"
"Not far, but I want to talk to you tonight; I have something to say to
you. I can't talk to you at the house, with Olaf sitting there on the
porch, weighing a thousand tons."
Clara laughed. "He won't be sitting there now. He's in bed by this time,
and asleep—weighing a thousand tons."
Nils plodded on across the stubble. "Are you really going to spend the
rest of your life like this, night after night, summer after summer?
Haven't you anything better to do on a night like this than to wear
yourself and Norman out tearing across the country to your father's and
back? Besides, your father won't live forever, you know. His little place
will be shut up or sold, and then you'll have nobody but the Ericsons.
You'll have to fasten down the hatches for the winter then."
Clara moved her head restlessly. "Don't talk about that. I try never to
think of it. If I lost Father I'd lose everything, even my hold over the
"Bah! You'd lose a good deal more than that. You'd lose your race,
everything that makes you yourself. You've lost a good deal of it now."
"Of your love of life, your capacity for delight."
Clara put her hands up to her face. "I haven't, Nils Ericson, I haven't!
Say anything to me but that. I won't have it!" she declared vehemently.
Nils led the horse up to a straw stack, and turned to Clara, looking at
her intently, as he had looked at her that Sunday afternoon at Vavrika's.
"But why do you fight for that so? What good is the power to enjoy, if you
never enjoy? Your hands are cold again; what are you afraid of all the
time? Ah, you're afraid of losing it; that's what's the matter with you!
And you will, Clara Vavrika, you will! When I used to know you—listen;
you've caught a wild bird in your hand, haven't you, and felt its heart
beat so hard that you were afraid it would shatter its little body to
pieces? Well, you used to be just like that, a slender, eager thing with a
wild delight inside you. That is how I remembered you. And I come back and
find you—a bitter woman. This is a perfect ferret fight here; you
live by biting and being bitten. Can't you remember what life used to be?
Can't you remember that old delight? I've never forgotten it, or known its
like, on land or sea."
He drew the horse under the shadow of the straw stack. Clara felt him take
her foot out of the stirrup, and she slid softly down into his arms. He
kissed her slowly. He was a deliberate man, but his nerves were steel when
he wanted anything. Something flashed out from him like a knife out of a
sheath. Clara felt everything slipping away from her; she was flooded by
the summer night. He thrust his hand into his pocket, and then held it out
at arm's length. "Look," he said. The shadow of the straw stack fell sharp
across his wrist, and in the palm of his hand she saw a silver dollar
shining. "That's my pile," he muttered; "will you go with me?"
Clara nodded, and dropped her forehead on his shoulder.
Nils took a deep breath. "Will you go with me tonight?"
"Where?" she whispered softly.
"To town, to catch the midnight flyer."
Clara lifted her head and pulled herself together. "Are you crazy, Nils?
We couldn't go away like that."
"That's the only way we ever will go. You can't sit on the bank and think
about it. You have to plunge. That's the way I've always done, and it's
the right way for people like you and me. There's nothing so dangerous as
sitting still. You've only got one life, one youth, and you can let it
slip through your fingers if you want to; nothing easier. Most people do
that. You'd be better off tramping the roads with me than you are here."
Nils held back her head and looked into her eyes. "But I'm not that kind
of a tramp, Clara. You won't have to take in sewing. I'm with a Norwegian
shipping line; came over on business with the New York offices, but now
I'm going straight back to Bergen. I expect I've got as much money as the
Ericsons. Father sent me a little to get started. They never knew about
that. There, I hadn't meant to tell you; I wanted you to come on your own
Clara looked off across the fields. "It isn't that, Nils, but something
seems to hold me. I'm afraid to pull against it. It comes out of the
ground, I think."
"I know all about that. One has to tear loose. You're not needed here.
Your father will understand; he's made like us. As for Olaf, Johanna will
take better care of him than ever you could. It's now or never, Clara
Vavrika. My bag's at the station; I smuggled it there yesterday."
Clara clung to him and hid her face against his shoulder. "Not tonight,"
she whispered. "Sit here and talk to me tonight. I don't want to go
anywhere tonight. I may never love you like this again."
Nils laughed through his teeth. "You can't come that on me. That's not my
way, Clara Vavrika. Eric's mare is over there behind the stacks, and I'm
off on the midnight. It's goodbye, or off across the world with me. My
carriage won't wait. I've written a letter to Olaf, I'll mail it in town.
When he reads it he won't bother us—not if I know him. He'd rather
have the land. Besides, I could demand an investigation of his
administration of Cousin Henrik's estate, and that would be bad for a
public man. You've no clothes, I know; but you can sit up tonight, and we
can get everything on the way. Where's your old dash, Clara Vavrika?
What's become of your Bohemian blood? I used to think you had courage
enough for anything. Where's your nerve—what are you waiting for?"
Clara drew back her head, and he saw the slumberous fire in her eyes. "For
you to say one thing, Nils Ericson."
"I never say that thing to any woman, Clara Vavrika." He leaned back,
lifted her gently from the ground, and whispered through his teeth: "But
I'll never, never let you go, not to any man on earth but me! Do you
understand me? Now, wait here."
Clara sank down on a sheaf of wheat and covered her face with her hands.
She did not know what she was going to do—whether she would go or
stay. The great, silent country seemed to lay a spell upon her. The ground
seemed to hold her as if by roots. Her knees were soft under her. She felt
as if she could not bear separation from her old sorrows, from her old
discontent. They were dear to her, they had kept her alive, they were a
part of her. There would be nothing left of her if she were wrenched away
from them. Never could she pass beyond that skyline against which her
restlessness had beat so many times. She felt as if her soul had built
itself a nest there on that horizon at which she looked every morning and
every evening, and it was dear to her, inexpressibly dear. She pressed her
fingers against her eyeballs to shut it out. Beside her she heard the
tramping of horses in the soft earth. Nils said nothing to her. He put his
hands under her arms and lifted her lightly to her saddle. Then he swung
himself into his own.
"We shall have to ride fast to catch the midnight train. A last gallop,
Clara Vavrika. Forward!"
There was a start, a thud of hoofs along the moonlit road, two dark
shadows going over the hill; and then the great, still land stretched
untroubled under the azure night. Two shadows had passed.
A year after the flight of Olaf Ericson's wife, the night train was
steaming across the plains of Iowa. The conductor was hurrying through one
of the day coaches, his lantern on his arm, when a lank, fair-haired boy
sat up in one of the plush seats and tweaked him by the coat.
"What is the next stop, please, sir?"
"Red Oak, Iowa. But you go through to Chicago, don't you?" He looked down,
and noticed that the boy's eyes were red and his face was drawn, as if he
were in trouble.
"Yes. But I was wondering whether I could get off at the next place and
get a train back to Omaha."
"Well, I suppose you could. Live in Omaha?"
"No. In the western part of the State. How soon do we get to Red Oak?"
"Forty minutes. You'd better make up your mind, so I can tell the
baggageman to put your trunk off."
"Oh, never mind about that! I mean, I haven't got any," the boy added,
"Run away," the conductor thought, as he slammed the coach door behind
Eric Ericson crumpled down in his seat and put his brown hand to his
forehead. He had been crying, and he had had no supper, and his head was
aching violently. "Oh, what shall I do?" he thought, as he looked dully
down at his big shoes. "Nils will be ashamed of me; I haven't got any
Ever since Nils had run away with his brother's wife, life at home had
been hard for little Eric. His mother and Olaf both suspected him of
complicity. Mrs. Ericson was harsh and faultfinding, constantly wounding
the boy's pride; and Olaf was always setting her against him.
Joe Vavrika heard often from his daughter. Clara had always been fond of
her father, and happiness made her kinder. She wrote him long accounts of
the voyage to Bergen, and of the trip she and Nils took through Bohemia to
the little town where her father had grown up and where she herself was
born. She visited all her kinsmen there, and sent her father news of his
brother, who was a priest; of his sister, who had married a horse-breeder—of
their big farm and their many children. These letters Joe always managed
to read to little Eric. They contained messages for Eric and Hilda. Clara
sent presents, too, which Eric never dared to take home and which poor
little Hilda never even saw, though she loved to hear Eric tell about them
when they were out getting the eggs together. But Olaf once saw Eric
coming out of Vavrika's house—the old man had never asked the boy to
come into his saloon—and Olaf went straight to his mother and told
her. That night Mrs. Ericson came to Eric's room after he was in bed and
made a terrible scene. She could be very terrifying when she was really
angry. She forbade him ever to speak to Vavrika again, and after that
night she would not allow him to go to town alone. So it was a long while
before Eric got any more news of his brother. But old Joe suspected what
was going on, and he carried Clara's letters about in his pocket. One
Sunday he drove out to see a German friend of his, and chanced to catch
sight of Eric, sitting by the cattle pond in the big pasture. They went
together into Fritz Oberlies' barn, and read the letters and talked things
over. Eric admitted that things were getting hard for him at home. That
very night old Joe sat down and laboriously penned a statement of the case
to his daughter.
Things got no better for Eric. His mother and Olaf felt that, however
closely he was watched, he still, as they said, "heard." Mrs. Ericson
could not admit neutrality. She had sent Johanna Vavrika packing back to
her brother's, though Olaf would much rather have kept her than Anders'
eldest daughter, whom Mrs. Ericson installed in her place. He was not so
highhanded as his mother, and he once sulkily told her that she might
better have taught her granddaughter to cook before she sent Johanna away.
Olaf could have borne a good deal for the sake of prunes spiced in honey,
the secret of which Johanna had taken away with her.
At last two letters came to Joe Vavrika: one from Nils, enclosing a postal
order for money to pay Eric's passage to Bergen, and one from Clara,
saying that Nils had a place for Eric in the offices of his company, that
he was to live with them, and that they were only waiting for him to come.
He was to leave New York on one of the boats of Nils' own line; the
captain was one of their friends, and Eric was to make himself known at
Nils' directions were so explicit that a baby could have followed them,
Eric felt. And here he was, nearing Red Oak, Iowa, and rocking backward
and forward in despair. Never had he loved his brother so much, and never
had the big world called to him so hard. But there was a lump in his
throat which would not go down. Ever since nightfall he had been tormented
by the thought of his mother, alone in that big house that had sent forth
so many men. Her unkindness now seemed so little, and her loneliness so
great. He remembered everything she had ever done for him: how frightened
she had been when he tore his hand in the corn-sheller, and how she
wouldn't let Olaf scold him. When Nils went away he didn't leave his
mother all alone, or he would never have gone. Eric felt sure of that.
The train whistled. The conductor came in, smiling not unkindly. "Well,
young man, what are you going to do? We stop at Red Oak in three minutes."
"Yes, thank you. I'll let you know." The conductor went out, and the boy
doubled up with misery. He couldn't let his one chance go like this. He
felt for his breast pocket and crackled Nils' letter to give him courage.
He didn't want Nils to be ashamed of him. The train stopped. Suddenly he
remembered his brother's kind, twinkling eyes, that always looked at you
as if from far away. The lump in his throat softened. "Ah, but Nils, Nils
would understand!" he thought. "That's just it about Nils; he
A lank, pale boy with a canvas telescope stumbled off the train to the Red
Oak siding, just as the conductor called, "All aboard!"
The next night Mrs. Ericson was sitting alone in her wooden rocking-chair
on the front porch. Little Hilda had been sent to bed and had cried
herself to sleep. The old woman's knitting was on her lap, but her hands
lay motionless on top of it. For more than an hour she had not moved a
muscle. She simply sat, as only the Ericsons and the mountains can sit.
The house was dark, and there was no sound but the croaking of the frogs
down in the pond of the little pasture.
Eric did not come home by the road, but across the fields, where no one
could see him. He set his telescope down softly in the kitchen shed, and
slipped noiselessly along the path to the front porch. He sat down on the
step without saying anything. Mrs. Ericson made no sign, and the frogs
croaked on. At last the boy spoke timidly.
"I've come back, Mother."
"Very well," said Mrs. Ericson.
Eric leaned over and picked up a little stick out of the grass.
"How about the milking?" he faltered.
"That's been done, hours ago."
"Who did you get?"
"Get? I did it myself. I can milk as good as any of you."
Eric slid along the step nearer to her. "Oh, Mother, why did you?" he
asked sorrowfully. "Why didn't you get one of Otto's boys?"
"I didn't want anybody to know I was in need of a boy," said Mrs. Ericson
bitterly. She looked straight in front of her and her mouth tightened. "I
always meant to give you the home farm," she added.
The boy stared and slid closer. "Oh, Mother," he faltered, "I don't care
about the farm. I came back because I thought you might be needing me,
maybe." He hung his head and got no further.
"Very well," said Mrs. Ericson. Her hand went out from her suddenly and
rested on his head. Her fingers twined themselves in his soft, pale hair.
His tears splashed down on the boards; happiness filled his heart.