Part 1 out of 3
This etext was produced anonymously.
Version 12 was corrected by Martin Robb (MartinRobb@ieee.org)
by Willa Cather
The Wild Land
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover,
anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown
away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the
cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under
a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the
tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in
overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves,
headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance
of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over
them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard,
which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain "elevator"
at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond
at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven
rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two
banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office.
The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o'clock
in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner,
were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were
all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a
few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long
caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their
wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out
of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along
the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons,
shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was
quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.
On the sidewalk in front of one of the stores sat a little Swede
boy, crying bitterly. He was about five years old. His black cloth
coat was much too big for him and made him look like a little old
man. His shrunken brown flannel dress had been washed many times
and left a long stretch of stocking between the hem of his skirt
and the tops of his clumsy, copper-toed shoes. His cap was pulled
down over his ears; his nose and his chubby cheeks were chapped and
red with cold. He cried quietly, and the few people who hurried
by did not notice him. He was afraid to stop any one, afraid to
go into the store and ask for help, so he sat wringing his long
sleeves and looking up a telegraph pole beside him, whimpering, "My
kitten, oh, my kitten! Her will fweeze!" At the top of the pole
crouched a shivering gray kitten, mewing faintly and clinging
desperately to the wood with her claws. The boy had been left
at the store while his sister went to the doctor's office, and in
her absence a dog had chased his kitten up the pole. The little
creature had never been so high before, and she was too frightened
to move. Her master was sunk in despair. He was a little country
boy, and this village was to him a very strange and perplexing
place, where people wore fine clothes and had hard hearts. He
always felt shy and awkward here, and wanted to hide behind things
for fear some one might laugh at him. Just now, he was too unhappy
to care who laughed. At last he seemed to see a ray of hope: his
sister was coming, and he got up and ran toward her in his heavy
His sister was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and
resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she
was going to do next. She wore a man's long ulster (not as if it
were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged
to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap,
tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face,
and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance,
without seeming to see anything, as if she were in trouble. She
did not notice the little boy until he pulled her by the coat.
Then she stopped short and stooped down to wipe his wet face.
"Why, Emil! I told you to stay in the store and not to come out.
What is the matter with you?"
"My kitten, sister, my kitten! A man put her out, and a dog chased
her up there." His forefinger, projecting from the sleeve of his
coat, pointed up to the wretched little creature on the pole.
"Oh, Emil! Didn't I tell you she'd get us into trouble of some
kind, if you brought her? What made you tease me so? But there,
I ought to have known better myself." She went to the foot of the
pole and held out her arms, crying, "Kitty, kitty, kitty," but the
kitten only mewed and faintly waved its tail. Alexandra turned
away decidedly. "No, she won't come down. Somebody will have to
go up after her. I saw the Linstrums' wagon in town. I'll go and
see if I can find Carl. Maybe he can do something. Only you must
stop crying, or I won't go a step. Where's your comforter? Did
you leave it in the store? Never mind. Hold still, till I put
this on you."
She unwound the brown veil from her head and tied it about his
throat. A shabby little traveling man, who was just then coming out
of the store on his way to the saloon, stopped and gazed stupidly
at the shining mass of hair she bared when she took off her veil;
two thick braids, pinned about her head in the German way, with a
fringe of reddish-yellow curls blowing out from under her cap. He
took his cigar out of his mouth and held the wet end between the
fingers of his woolen glove. "My God, girl, what a head of hair!"
he exclaimed, quite innocently and foolishly. She stabbed him with
a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip--most
unnecessary severity. It gave the little clothing drummer such a
start that he actually let his cigar fall to the sidewalk and went
off weakly in the teeth of the wind to the saloon. His hand was
still unsteady when he took his glass from the bartender. His
feeble flirtatious instincts had been crushed before, but never
so mercilessly. He felt cheap and ill-used, as if some one had
taken advantage of him. When a drummer had been knocking about in
little drab towns and crawling across the wintry country in dirty
smokingcars, was he to be blamed if, when he chanced upon a fine
human creature, he suddenly wished himself more of a man?
While the little drummer was drinking to recover his nerve, Alexandra
hurried to the drug store as the most likely place to find Carl
Linstrum. There he was, turning over a portfolio of chromo "studies"
which the druggist sold to the Hanover women who did chinapainting.
Alexandra explained her predicament, and the boy followed her to
the corner, where Emil still sat by the pole.
"I'll have to go up after her, Alexandra. I think at the depot
they have some spikes I can strap on my feet. Wait a minute." Carl
thrust his hands into his pockets, lowered his head, and darted up
the street against the north wind. He was a tall boy of fifteen,
slight and narrow-chested. When he came back with the spikes,
Alexandra asked him what he had done with his overcoat.
"I left it in the drug store. I couldn't climb in it, anyhow.
Catch me if I fall, Emil," he called back as he began his ascent.
Alexandra watched him anxiously; the cold was bitter enough on the
ground. The kitten would not budge an inch. Carl had to go to
the very top of the pole, and then had some difficulty in tearing
her from her hold. When he reached the ground, he handed the cat
to her tearful little master. "Now go into the store with her,
Emil, and get warm." He opened the door for the child. "Wait a
minute, Alexandra. Why can't I drive for you as far as our place?
It's getting colder every minute. Have you seen the doctor?"
"Yes. He is coming over to-morrow. But he says father can't
get better; can't get well." The girl's lip trembled. She looked
fixedly up the bleak street as if she were gathering her strength
to face something, as if she were trying with all her might to
grasp a situation which, no matter how painful, must be met and
dealt with somehow. The wind flapped the skirts of her heavy coat
Carl did not say anything, but she felt his sympathy. He, too, was
lonely. He was a thin, frail boy, with brooding dark eyes, very
quiet in all his movements. There was a delicate pallor in his thin
face, and his mouth was too sensitive for a boy's. The lips had
already a little curl of bitterness and skepticism. The two friends
stood for a few moments on the windy street corner, not speaking
a word, as two travelers, who have lost their way, sometimes stand
and admit their perplexity in silence. When Carl turned away he
said, "I'll see to your team." Alexandra went into the store to
have her purchases packed in the egg-boxes, and to get warm before
she set out on her long cold drive.
When she looked for Emil, she found him sitting on a step of the
staircase that led up to the clothing and carpet department. He
was playing with a little Bohemian girl, Marie Tovesky, who was
tying her handkerchief over the kitten's head for a bonnet. Marie
was a stranger in the country, having come from Omaha with her mother
to visit her uncle, Joe Tovesky. She was a dark child, with brown
curly hair, like a brunette doll's, a coaxing little red mouth, and
round, yellow-brown eyes. Every one noticed her eyes; the brown
iris had golden glints that made them look like gold-stone, or, in
softer lights, like that Colorado mineral called tiger-eye.
The country children thereabouts wore their dresses to their
shoe-tops, but this city child was dressed in what was then called
the "Kate Greenaway" manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered
full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her
poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman. She had
a white fur tippet about her neck and made no fussy objections when
Emil fingered it admiringly. Alexandra had not the heart to take
him away from so pretty a playfellow, and she let them tease the
kitten together until Joe Tovesky came in noisily and picked up
his little niece, setting her on his shoulder for every one to see.
His children were all boys, and he adored this little creature.
His cronies formed a circle about him, admiring and teasing the
little girl, who took their jokes with great good nature. They
were all delighted with her, for they seldom saw so pretty and
carefully nurtured a child. They told her that she must choose
one of them for a sweetheart, and each began pressing his suit and
offering her bribes; candy, and little pigs, and spotted calves.
She looked archly into the big, brown, mustached faces, smelling
of spirits and tobacco, then she ran her tiny forefinger delicately
over Joe's bristly chin and said, "Here is my sweetheart."
The Bohemians roared with laughter, and Marie's uncle hugged her
until she cried, "Please don't, Uncle Joe! You hurt me." Each
of Joe's friends gave her a bag of candy, and she kissed them all
around, though she did not like country candy very well. Perhaps
that was why she bethought herself of Emil. "Let me down, Uncle
Joe," she said, "I want to give some of my candy to that nice little
boy I found." She walked graciously over to Emil, followed by her
lusty admirers, who formed a new circle and teased the little boy
until he hid his face in his sister's skirts, and she had to scold
him for being such a baby.
The farm people were making preparations to start for home. The
women were checking over their groceries and pinning their big red
shawls about their heads. The men were buying tobacco and candy
with what money they had left, were showing each other new boots and
gloves and blue flannel shirts. Three big Bohemians were drinking
raw alcohol, tinctured with oil of cinnamon. This was said to
fortify one effectually against the cold, and they smacked their
lips after each pull at the flask. Their volubility drowned every
other noise in the place, and the overheated store sounded of
their spirited language as it reeked of pipe smoke, damp woolens,
Carl came in, wearing his overcoat and carrying a wooden box with
a brass handle. "Come," he said, "I've fed and watered your team,
and the wagon is ready." He carried Emil out and tucked him down
in the straw in the wagonbox. The heat had made the little boy
sleepy, but he still clung to his kitten.
"You were awful good to climb so high and get my kitten, Carl.
When I get big I'll climb and get little boys' kittens for them,"
he murmured drowsily. Before the horses were over the first hill,
Emil and his cat were both fast asleep.
Although it was only four o'clock, the winter day was fading. The
road led southwest, toward the streak of pale, watery light that
glimmered in the leaden sky. The light fell upon the two sad young
faces that were turned mutely toward it: upon the eyes of the girl,
who seemed to be looking with such anguished perplexity into the
future; upon the sombre eyes of the boy, who seemed already to be
looking into the past. The little town behind them had vanished as
if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie,
and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom. The
homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt
against the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the great
fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little
beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.
It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy's mouth had
become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make
any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve
its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its
The wagon jolted along over the frozen road. The two friends had
less to say to each other than usual, as if the cold had somehow
penetrated to their hearts.
"Did Lou and Oscar go to the Blue to cut wood to-day?" Carl asked.
"Yes. I'm almost sorry I let them go, it's turned so cold. But
mother frets if the wood gets low." She stopped and put her hand
to her forehead, brushing back her hair. "I don't know what is to
become of us, Carl, if father has to die. I don't dare to think
about it. I wish we could all go with him and let the grass grow
back over everything."
Carl made no reply. Just ahead of them was the Norwegian graveyard,
where the grass had, indeed, grown back over everything, shaggy and
red, hiding even the wire fence. Carl realized that he was not a
very helpful companion, but there was nothing he could say.
"Of course," Alexandra went on, steadying her voice a little, "the
boys are strong and work hard, but we've always depended so on
father that I don't see how we can go ahead. I almost feel as if
there were nothing to go ahead for."
"Does your father know?"
"Yes, I think he does. He lies and counts on his fingers all day.
I think he is trying to count up what he is leaving for us. It's
a comfort to him that my chickens are laying right on through the
cold weather and bringing in a little money. I wish we could keep
his mind off such things, but I don't have much time to be with
"I wonder if he'd like to have me bring my magic lantern over some
Alexandra turned her face toward him. "Oh, Carl! Have you got
"Yes. It's back there in the straw. Didn't you notice the box
I was carrying? I tried it all morning in the drug-store cellar,
and it worked ever so well, makes fine big pictures."
"What are they about?"
"Oh, hunting pictures in Germany, and Robinson Crusoe and funny
pictures about cannibals. I'm going to paint some slides for it
on glass, out of the Hans Andersen book."
Alexandra seemed actually cheered. There is often a good deal of
the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon. "Do
bring it over, Carl. I can hardly wait to see it, and I'm sure it
will please father. Are the pictures colored? Then I know he'll
like them. He likes the calendars I get him in town. I wish I
could get more. You must leave me here, mustn't you? It's been
nice to have company."
Carl stopped the horses and looked dubiously up at the black sky.
"It's pretty dark. Of course the horses will take you home, but
I think I'd better light your lantern, in case you should need it."
He gave her the reins and climbed back into the wagon-box, where
he crouched down and made a tent of his overcoat. After a dozen
trials he succeeded in lighting the lantern, which he placed in
front of Alexandra, half covering it with a blanket so that the
light would not shine in her eyes. "Now, wait until I find my box.
Yes, here it is. Good-night, Alexandra. Try not to worry." Carl
sprang to the ground and ran off across the fields toward the Linstrum
homestead. "Hoo, hoo-o-o-o!" he called back as he disappeared over
a ridge and dropped into a sand gully. The wind answered him like
an echo, "Hoo, hoo-o-o-o-o-o!" Alexandra drove off alone. The
rattle of her wagon was lost in the howling of the wind, but her
lantern, held firmly between her feet, made a moving point of light
along the highway, going deeper and deeper into the dark country.
On one of the ridges of that wintry waste stood the low log house
in which John Bergson was dying. The Bergson homestead was easier
to find than many another, because it overlooked Norway Creek, a
shallow, muddy stream that sometimes flowed, and sometimes stood
still, at the bottom of a winding ravine with steep, shelving sides
overgrown with brush and cottonwoods and dwarf ash. This creek
gave a sort of identity to the farms that bordered upon it. Of all
the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human
landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening. The
houses on the Divide were small and were usually tucked away
in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon
them. Most of them were built of the sod itself, and were only
the unescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint
tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The
record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on
stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may,
after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of
In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression
upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing
that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to
come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly
to man. The sick man was feeling this as he lay looking out of
the window, after the doctor had left him, on the day following
Alexandra's trip to town. There it lay outside his door, the same
land, the same lead-colored miles. He knew every ridge and draw
and gully between him and the horizon. To the south, his plowed
fields; to the east, the sod stables, the cattle corral, the
pond,--and then the grass.
Bergson went over in his mind the things that had held him back.
One winter his cattle had perished in a blizzard. The next summer
one of his plow horses broke its leg in a prairiedog hole and had
to be shot. Another summer he lost his hogs from cholera, and
a valuable stallion died from a rattlesnake bite. Time and again
his crops had failed. He had lost two children, boys, that came
between Lou and Emil, and there had been the cost of sickness and
death. Now, when he had at last struggled out of debt, he was
going to die himself. He was only forty-six, and had, of course,
counted upon more time.
Bergson had spent his first five years on the Divide getting into
debt, and the last six getting out. He had paid off his mortgages
and had ended pretty much where he began, with the land. He owned
exactly six hundred and forty acres of what stretched outside his
door; his own original homestead and timber claim, making three
hundred and twenty acres, and the half-section adjoining, the
homestead of a younger brother who had given up the fight, gone
back to Chicago to work in a fancy bakery and distinguish himself
in a Swedish athletic club. So far John had not attempted to
cultivate the second half-section, but used it for pasture land,
and one of his sons rode herd there in open weather.
John Bergson had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is
desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that
no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks
things to pieces. He had an idea that no one understood how to
farm it properly, and this he often discussed with Alexandra. Their
neighbors, certainly, knew even less about farming than he did.
Many of them had never worked on a farm until they took up their
homesteads. They had been HANDWERKERS at home; tailors, locksmiths,
joiners, cigar-makers, etc. Bergson himself had worked in a
For weeks, John Bergson had been thinking about these things. His
bed stood in the sitting-room, next to the kitchen. Through the
day, while the baking and washing and ironing were going on, the
father lay and looked up at the roof beams that he himself had
hewn, or out at the cattle in the corral. He counted the cattle
over and over. It diverted him to speculate as to how much weight
each of the steers would probably put on by spring. He often called
his daughter in to talk to her about this. Before Alexandra was
twelve years old she had begun to be a help to him, and as she grew
older he had come to depend more and more upon her resourcefulness
and good judgment. His boys were willing enough to work, but when
he talked with them they usually irritated him. It was Alexandra
who read the papers and followed the markets, and who learned by
the mistakes of their neighbors. It was Alexandra who could always
tell about what it had cost to fatten each steer, and who could
guess the weight of a hog before it went on the scales closer than
John Bergson himself. Lou and Oscar were industrious, but he could
never teach them to use their heads about their work.
Alexandra, her father often said to himself, was like her
grandfather; which was his way of saying that she was intelligent.
John Bergson's father had been a shipbuilder, a man of considerable
force and of some fortune. Late in life he married a second time,
a Stockholm woman of questionable character, much younger than he,
who goaded him into every sort of extravagance. On the shipbuilder's
part, this marriage was an infatuation, the despairing folly of
a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old. In a few years his
unprincipled wife warped the probity of a lifetime. He speculated,
lost his own fortune and funds entrusted to him by poor seafaring
men, and died disgraced, leaving his children nothing. But when all
was said, he had come up from the sea himself, had built up a proud
little business with no capital but his own skill and foresight, and
had proved himself a man. In his daughter, John Bergson recognized
the strength of will, and the simple direct way of thinking things
out, that had characterized his father in his better days. He
would much rather, of course, have seen this likeness in one of
his sons, but it was not a question of choice. As he lay there
day after day he had to accept the situation as it was, and to be
thankful that there was one among his children to whom he could
entrust the future of his family and the possibilities of his
The winter twilight was fading. The sick man heard his wife strike
a match in the kitchen, and the light of a lamp glimmered through
the cracks of the door. It seemed like a light shining far away.
He turned painfully in his bed and looked at his white hands, with
all the work gone out of them. He was ready to give up, he felt.
He did not know how it had come about, but he was quite willing to
go deep under his fields and rest, where the plow could not find
him. He was tired of making mistakes. He was content to leave the
tangle to other hands; he thought of his Alexandra's strong ones.
"DOTTER," he called feebly, "DOTTER!" He heard her quick step and
saw her tall figure appear in the doorway, with the light of the
lamp behind her. He felt her youth and strength, how easily she
moved and stooped and lifted. But he would not have had it again
if he could, not he! He knew the end too well to wish to begin
again. He knew where it all went to, what it all became.
His daughter came and lifted him up on his pillows. She called
him by an old Swedish name that she used to call him when she was
little and took his dinner to him in the shipyard.
"Tell the boys to come here, daughter. I want to speak to them."
"They are feeding the horses, father. They have just come back
from the Blue. Shall I call them?"
He sighed. "No, no. Wait until they come in. Alexandra, you will
have to do the best you can for your brothers. Everything will
come on you."
"I will do all I can, father."
"Don't let them get discouraged and go off like Uncle Otto. I want
them to keep the land."
"We will, father. We will never lose the land."
There was a sound of heavy feet in the kitchen. Alexandra went
to the door and beckoned to her brothers, two strapping boys of
seventeen and nineteen. They came in and stood at the foot of the
bed. Their father looked at them searchingly, though it was too
dark to see their faces; they were just the same boys, he told
himself, he had not been mistaken in them. The square head and
heavy shoulders belonged to Oscar, the elder. The younger boy was
quicker, but vacillating.
"Boys," said the father wearily, "I want you to keep the land
together and to be guided by your sister. I have talked to her
since I have been sick, and she knows all my wishes. I want no
quarrels among my children, and so long as there is one house there
must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes.
She will do the best she can. If she makes mistakes, she will not
make so many as I have made. When you marry, and want a house of
your own, the land will be divided fairly, according to the courts.
But for the next few years you will have it hard, and you must all
keep together. Alexandra will manage the best she can."
Oscar, who was usually the last to speak, replied because he
was the older, "Yes, father. It would be so anyway, without your
speaking. We will all work the place together."
"And you will be guided by your sister, boys, and be good brothers
to her, and good sons to your mother? That is good. And Alexandra
must not work in the fields any more. There is no necessity now.
Hire a man when you need help. She can make much more with her
eggs and butter than the wages of a man. It was one of my mistakes
that I did not find that out sooner. Try to break a little more
land every year; sod corn is good for fodder. Keep turning the
land, and always put up more hay than you need. Don't grudge your
mother a little time for plowing her garden and setting out fruit
trees, even if it comes in a busy season. She has been a good
mother to you, and she has always missed the old country."
When they went back to the kitchen the boys sat down silently at
the table. Throughout the meal they looked down at their plates
and did not lift their red eyes. They did not eat much, although
they had been working in the cold all day, and there was a rabbit
stewed in gravy for supper, and prune pies.
John Bergson had married beneath him, but he had married a good
housewife. Mrs. Bergson was a fair-skinned, corpulent woman, heavy
and placid like her son, Oscar, but there was something comfortable
about her; perhaps it was her own love of comfort. For eleven years
she had worthily striven to maintain some semblance of household
order amid conditions that made order very difficult. Habit
was very strong with Mrs. Bergson, and her unremitting efforts to
repeat the routine of her old life among new surroundings had done
a great deal to keep the family from disintegrating morally and
getting careless in their ways. The Bergsons had a log house, for
instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.
She missed the fish diet of her own country, and twice every summer
she sent the boys to the river, twenty miles to the southward, to
fish for channel cat. When the children were little she used to
load them all into the wagon, the baby in its crib, and go fishing
Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert
island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden,
and find something to preserve. Preserving was almost a mania with
Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of
Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild
creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid
ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon
peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She
had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could
not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and
murmuring, "What a pity!" When there was nothing more to preserve,
she began to pickle. The amount of sugar she used in these processes
was sometimes a serious drain upon the family resources. She was
a good mother, but she was glad when her children were old enough
not to be in her way in the kitchen. She had never quite forgiven
John Bergson for bringing her to the end of the earth; but, now
that she was there, she wanted to be let alone to reconstruct her
old life in so far as that was possible. She could still take some
comfort in the world if she had bacon in the cave, glass jars on
the shelves, and sheets in the press. She disapproved of all her
neighbors because of their slovenly housekeeping, and the women
thought her very proud. Once when Mrs. Bergson, on her way to
Norway Creek, stopped to see old Mrs. Lee, the old woman hid in
the haymow "for fear Mis' Bergson would catch her barefoot."
One Sunday afternoon in July, six months after John Bergson's death,
Carl was sitting in the doorway of the Linstrum kitchen, dreaming
over an illustrated paper, when he heard the rattle of a wagon along
the hill road. Looking up he recognized the Bergsons' team, with
two seats in the wagon, which meant they were off for a pleasure
excursion. Oscar and Lou, on the front seat, wore their cloth hats
and coats, never worn except on Sundays, and Emil, on the second
seat with Alexandra, sat proudly in his new trousers, made from a
pair of his father's, and a pink-striped shirt, with a wide ruffled
collar. Oscar stopped the horses and waved to Carl, who caught up
his hat and ran through the melon patch to join them.
"Want to go with us?" Lou called. "We're going to Crazy Ivar's to
buy a hammock."
"Sure." Carl ran up panting, and clambering over the wheel sat
down beside Emil. "I've always wanted to see Ivar's pond. They
say it's the biggest in all the country. Aren't you afraid to go
to Ivar's in that new shirt, Emil? He might want it and take it
right off your back."
Emil grinned. "I'd be awful scared to go," he admitted, "if you
big boys weren't along to take care of me. Did you ever hear him
howl, Carl? People say sometimes he runs about the country howling
at night because he is afraid the Lord will destroy him. Mother
thinks he must have done something awful wicked."
Lou looked back and winked at Carl. "What would you do, Emil, if
you was out on the prairie by yourself and seen him coming?"
Emil stared. "Maybe I could hide in a badger-hole," he suggested
"But suppose there wasn't any badger-hole," Lou persisted. "Would
"No, I'd be too scared to run," Emil admitted mournfully, twisting
his fingers. "I guess I'd sit right down on the ground and say my
The big boys laughed, and Oscar brandished his whip over the broad
backs of the horses.
"He wouldn't hurt you, Emil," said Carl persuasively. "He came
to doctor our mare when she ate green corn and swelled up most as
big as the water-tank. He petted her just like you do your cats.
I couldn't understand much he said, for he don't talk any English,
but he kept patting her and groaning as if he had the pain himself,
and saying, 'There now, sister, that's easier, that's better!'"
Lou and Oscar laughed, and Emil giggled delightedly and looked up
at his sister.
"I don't think he knows anything at all about doctoring," said
Oscar scornfully. "They say when horses have distemper he takes
the medicine himself, and then prays over the horses."
Alexandra spoke up. "That's what the Crows said, but he cured
their horses, all the same. Some days his mind is cloudy, like.
But if you can get him on a clear day, you can learn a great deal
from him. He understands animals. Didn't I see him take the horn
off the Berquist's cow when she had torn it loose and went crazy?
She was tearing all over the place, knocking herself against things.
And at last she ran out on the roof of the old dugout and her legs
went through and there she stuck, bellowing. Ivar came running
with his white bag, and the moment he got to her she was quiet and
let him saw her horn off and daub the place with tar."
Emil had been watching his sister, his face reflecting the sufferings
of the cow. "And then didn't it hurt her any more?" he asked.
Alexandra patted him. "No, not any more. And in two days they
could use her milk again."
The road to Ivar's homestead was a very poor one. He had settled
in the rough country across the county line, where no one lived but
some Russians,--half a dozen families who dwelt together in one long
house, divided off like barracks. Ivar had explained his choice
by saying that the fewer neighbors he had, the fewer temptations.
Nevertheless, when one considered that his chief business was
horsedoctoring, it seemed rather short-sighted of him to live in the
most inaccessible place he could find. The Bergson wagon lurched
along over the rough hummocks and grass banks, followed the bottom
of winding draws, or skirted the margin of wide lagoons, where the
golden coreopsis grew up out of the clear water and the wild ducks
rose with a whirr of wings.
Lou looked after them helplessly. "I wish I'd brought my gun,
anyway, Alexandra," he said fretfully. "I could have hidden it
under the straw in the bottom of the wagon."
"Then we'd have had to lie to Ivar. Besides, they say he can smell
dead birds. And if he knew, we wouldn't get anything out of him,
not even a hammock. I want to talk to him, and he won't talk sense
if he's angry. It makes him foolish."
Lou sniffed. "Whoever heard of him talking sense, anyhow! I'd
rather have ducks for supper than Crazy Ivar's tongue."
Emil was alarmed. "Oh, but, Lou, you don't want to make him mad!
He might howl!"
They all laughed again, and Oscar urged the horses up the crumbling
side of a clay bank. They had left the lagoons and the red grass
behind them. In Crazy Ivar's country the grass was short and gray,
the draws deeper than they were in the Bergsons' neighborhood,
and the land was all broken up into hillocks and clay ridges. The
wild flowers disappeared, and only in the bottom of the draws and
gullies grew a few of the very toughest and hardiest: shoestring,
and ironweed, and snow-on-the-mountain.
"Look, look, Emil, there's Ivar's big pond!" Alexandra pointed to
a shining sheet of water that lay at the bottom of a shallow draw.
At one end of the pond was an earthen dam, planted with green willow
bushes, and above it a door and a single window were set into the
hillside. You would not have seen them at all but for the reflection
of the sunlight upon the four panes of window-glass. And that was
all you saw. Not a shed, not a corral, not a well, not even a path
broken in the curly grass. But for the piece of rusty stovepipe
sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof
of Ivar's dwelling without dreaming that you were near a human
habitation. Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank,
without defiling the face of nature any more than the coyote that
had lived there before him had done.
When the Bergsons drove over the hill, Ivar was sitting in the
doorway of his house, reading the Norwegian Bible. He was a queerly
shaped old man, with a thick, powerful body set on short bow-legs.
His shaggy white hair, falling in a thick mane about his ruddy
cheeks, made him look older than he was. He was barefoot, but
he wore a clean shirt of unbleached cotton, open at the neck. He
always put on a clean shirt when Sunday morning came round, though
he never went to church. He had a peculiar religion of his own
and could not get on with any of the denominations. Often he did
not see anybody from one week's end to another. He kept a calendar,
and every morning he checked off a day, so that he was never in
any doubt as to which day of the week it was. Ivar hired himself
out in threshing and corn-husking time, and he doctored sick animals
when he was sent for. When he was at home, he made hammocks out
of twine and committed chapters of the Bible to memory.
Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself.
He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the
bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown
into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of
the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses
than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would
be Mrs. Badger. He best expressed his preference for his wild
homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If
one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough
land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight;
if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of
the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one
understood what Ivar meant.
On this Sunday afternoon his face shone with happiness. He closed
the book on his knee, keeping the place with his horny finger, and
He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills;
They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench
The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon which
he hath planted;
Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees
are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for
Before he opened his Bible again, Ivar heard the Bergsons' wagon
approaching, and he sprang up and ran toward it.
"No guns, no guns!" he shouted, waving his arms distractedly.
"No, Ivar, no guns," Alexandra called reassuringly.
He dropped his arms and went up to the wagon, smiling amiably and
looking at them out of his pale blue eyes.
"We want to buy a hammock, if you have one," Alexandra explained,
"and my little brother, here, wants to see your big pond, where so
many birds come."
Ivar smiled foolishly, and began rubbing the horses' noses and
feeling about their mouths behind the bits. "Not many birds just
now. A few ducks this morning; and some snipe come to drink. But
there was a crane last week. She spent one night and came back the
next evening. I don't know why. It is not her season, of course.
Many of them go over in the fall. Then the pond is full of strange
voices every night."
Alexandra translated for Carl, who looked thoughtful. "Ask him,
Alexandra, if it is true that a sea gull came here once. I have
She had some difficulty in making the old man understand.
He looked puzzled at first, then smote his hands together as he
remembered. "Oh, yes, yes! A big white bird with long wings and
pink feet. My! what a voice she had! She came in the afternoon
and kept flying about the pond and screaming until dark. She was
in trouble of some sort, but I could not understand her. She was
going over to the other ocean, maybe, and did not know how far it
was. She was afraid of never getting there. She was more mournful
than our birds here; she cried in the night. She saw the light
from my window and darted up to it. Maybe she thought my house
was a boat, she was such a wild thing. Next morning, when the sun
rose, I went out to take her food, but she flew up into the sky
and went on her way." Ivar ran his fingers through his thick hair.
"I have many strange birds stop with me here. They come from very
far away and are great company. I hope you boys never shoot wild
Lou and Oscar grinned, and Ivar shook his bushy head. "Yes, I know
boys are thoughtless. But these wild things are God's birds. He
watches over them and counts them, as we do our cattle; Christ says
so in the New Testament."
"Now, Ivar," Lou asked, "may we water our horses at your pond and
give them some feed? It's a bad road to your place."
"Yes, yes, it is." The old man scrambled about and began to loose
the tugs. "A bad road, eh, girls? And the bay with a colt at
Oscar brushed the old man aside. "We'll take care of the horses,
Ivar. You'll be finding some disease on them. Alexandra wants to
see your hammocks."
Ivar led Alexandra and Emil to his little cave house. He had but
one room, neatly plastered and whitewashed, and there was a wooden
floor. There was a kitchen stove, a table covered with oilcloth,
two chairs, a clock, a calendar, a few books on the window-shelf;
nothing more. But the place was as clean as a cupboard.
"But where do you sleep, Ivar?" Emil asked, looking about.
Ivar unslung a hammock from a hook on the wall; in it was rolled
a buffalo robe. "There, my son. A hammock is a good bed, and in
winter I wrap up in this skin. Where I go to work, the beds are
not half so easy as this."
By this time Emil had lost all his timidity. He thought a cave a
very superior kind of house. There was something pleasantly unusual
about it and about Ivar. "Do the birds know you will be kind to
them, Ivar? Is that why so many come?" he asked.
Ivar sat down on the floor and tucked his feet under him. "See,
little brother, they have come from a long way, and they are very
tired. From up there where they are flying, our country looks dark
and flat. They must have water to drink and to bathe in before
they can go on with their journey. They look this way and that,
and far below them they see something shining, like a piece of glass
set in the dark earth. That is my pond. They come to it and are
not disturbed. Maybe I sprinkle a little corn. They tell the other
birds, and next year more come this way. They have their roads up
there, as we have down here."
Emil rubbed his knees thoughtfully. "And is that true, Ivar, about
the head ducks falling back when they are tired, and the hind ones
taking their place?"
"Yes. The point of the wedge gets the worst of it; they cut the
wind. They can only stand it there a little while--half an hour,
maybe. Then they fall back and the wedge splits a little, while
the rear ones come up the middle to the front. Then it closes up
and they fly on, with a new edge. They are always changing like
that, up in the air. Never any confusion; just like soldiers who
have been drilled."
Alexandra had selected her hammock by the time the boys came up
from the pond. They would not come in, but sat in the shade of
the bank outside while Alexandra and Ivar talked about the birds
and about his housekeeping, and why he never ate meat, fresh or
Alexandra was sitting on one of the wooden chairs, her arms resting
on the table. Ivar was sitting on the floor at her feet. "Ivar,"
she said suddenly, beginning to trace the pattern on the oilcloth
with her forefinger, "I came to-day more because I wanted to talk
to you than because I wanted to buy a hammock."
"Yes?" The old man scraped his bare feet on the plank floor.
"We have a big bunch of hogs, Ivar. I wouldn't sell in the spring,
when everybody advised me to, and now so many people are losing
their hogs that I am frightened. What can be done?"
Ivar's little eyes began to shine. They lost their vagueness.
"You feed them swill and such stuff? Of course! And sour milk?
Oh, yes! And keep them in a stinking pen? I tell you, sister,
the hogs of this country are put upon! They become unclean, like
the hogs in the Bible. If you kept your chickens like that, what
would happen? You have a little sorghum patch, maybe? Put a fence
around it, and turn the hogs in. Build a shed to give them shade,
a thatch on poles. Let the boys haul water to them in barrels,
clean water, and plenty. Get them off the old stinking ground, and
do not let them go back there until winter. Give them only grain
and clean feed, such as you would give horses or cattle. Hogs do
not like to be filthy."
The boys outside the door had been listening. Lou nudged his
brother. "Come, the horses are done eating. Let's hitch up and
get out of here. He'll fill her full of notions. She'll be for
having the pigs sleep with us, next."
Oscar grunted and got up. Carl, who could not understand what Ivar
said, saw that the two boys were displeased. They did not mind
hard work, but they hated experiments and could never see the use
of taking pains. Even Lou, who was more elastic than his older
brother, disliked to do anything different from their neighbors.
He felt that it made them conspicuous and gave people a chance to
talk about them.
Once they were on the homeward road, the boys forgot their ill-humor
and joked about Ivar and his birds. Alexandra did not propose any
reforms in the care of the pigs, and they hoped she had forgotten
Ivar's talk. They agreed that he was crazier than ever, and would
never be able to prove up on his land because he worked it so little.
Alexandra privately resolved that she would have a talk with Ivar
about this and stir him up. The boys persuaded Carl to stay for
supper and go swimming in the pasture pond after dark.
That evening, after she had washed the supper dishes, Alexandra
sat down on the kitchen doorstep, while her mother was mixing the
bread. It was a still, deep-breathing summer night, full of the
smell of the hay fields. Sounds of laughter and splashing came
up from the pasture, and when the moon rose rapidly above the bare
rim of the prairie, the pond glittered like polished metal, and
she could see the flash of white bodies as the boys ran about the
edge, or jumped into the water. Alexandra watched the shimmering
pool dreamily, but eventually her eyes went back to the sorghum
patch south of the barn, where she was planning to make her new
For the first three years after John Bergson's death, the affairs
of his family prospered. Then came the hard times that brought
every one on the Divide to the brink of despair; three years of
drouth and failure, the last struggle of a wild soil against the
encroaching plowshare. The first of these fruitless summers the
Bergson boys bore courageously. The failure of the corn crop made
labor cheap. Lou and Oscar hired two men and put in bigger crops
than ever before. They lost everything they spent. The whole
country was discouraged. Farmers who were already in debt had to
give up their land. A few foreclosures demoralized the county.
The settlers sat about on the wooden sidewalks in the little town
and told each other that the country was never meant for men to live
in; the thing to do was to get back to Iowa, to Illinois, to any
place that had been proved habitable. The Bergson boys, certainly,
would have been happier with their uncle Otto, in the bakery shop
in Chicago. Like most of their neighbors, they were meant to follow
in paths already marked out for them, not to break trails in a new
country. A steady job, a few holidays, nothing to think about, and
they would have been very happy. It was no fault of theirs that
they had been dragged into the wilderness when they were little
boys. A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy
the idea of things more than the things themselves.
The second of these barren summers was passing. One September
afternoon Alexandra had gone over to the garden across the draw to
dig sweet potatoes--they had been thriving upon the weather that
was fatal to everything else. But when Carl Linstrum came up the
garden rows to find her, she was not working. She was standing
lost in thought, leaning upon her pitchfork, her sunbonnet lying
beside her on the ground. The dry garden patch smelled of drying
vines and was strewn with yellow seed-cucumbers and pumpkins and
citrons. At one end, next the rhubarb, grew feathery asparagus,
with red berries. Down the middle of the garden was a row of
gooseberry and currant bushes. A few tough zenias and marigolds
and a row of scarlet sage bore witness to the buckets of water
that Mrs. Bergson had carried there after sundown, against the
prohibition of her sons. Carl came quietly and slowly up the garden
path, looking intently at Alexandra. She did not hear him. She was
standing perfectly still, with that serious ease so characteristic
of her. Her thick, reddish braids, twisted about her head, fairly
burned in the sunlight. The air was cool enough to make the warm
sun pleasant on one's back and shoulders, and so clear that the
eye could follow a hawk up and up, into the blazing blue depths of
the sky. Even Carl, never a very cheerful boy, and considerably
darkened by these last two bitter years, loved the country on days
like this, felt something strong and young and wild come out of
it, that laughed at care.
"Alexandra," he said as he approached her, "I want to talk to you.
Let's sit down by the gooseberry bushes." He picked up her sack
of potatoes and they crossed the garden. "Boys gone to town?" he
asked as he sank down on the warm, sun-baked earth. "Well, we have
made up our minds at last, Alexandra. We are really going away."
She looked at him as if she were a little frightened. "Really,
Carl? Is it settled?"
"Yes, father has heard from St. Louis, and they will give him back
his old job in the cigar factory. He must be there by the first
of November. They are taking on new men then. We will sell the
place for whatever we can get, and auction the stock. We haven't
enough to ship. I am going to learn engraving with a German engraver
there, and then try to get work in Chicago."
Alexandra's hands dropped in her lap. Her eyes became dreamy and
filled with tears.
Carl's sensitive lower lip trembled. He scratched in the soft earth
beside him with a stick. "That's all I hate about it, Alexandra,"
he said slowly. "You've stood by us through so much and helped
father out so many times, and now it seems as if we were running
off and leaving you to face the worst of it. But it isn't as if
we could really ever be of any help to you. We are only one more
drag, one more thing you look out for and feel responsible for.
Father was never meant for a farmer, you know that. And I hate
it. We'd only get in deeper and deeper."
"Yes, yes, Carl, I know. You are wasting your life here. You are
able to do much better things. You are nearly nineteen now, and
I wouldn't have you stay. I've always hoped you would get away.
But I can't help feeling scared when I think how I will miss
you--more than you will ever know." She brushed the tears from her
cheeks, not trying to hide them.
"But, Alexandra," he said sadly and wistfully, "I've never been
any real help to you, beyond sometimes trying to keep the boys in
a good humor."
Alexandra smiled and shook her head. "Oh, it's not that. Nothing
like that. It's by understanding me, and the boys, and mother,
that you've helped me. I expect that is the only way one person
ever really can help another. I think you are about the only one
that ever helped me. Somehow it will take more courage to bear
your going than everything that has happened before."
Carl looked at the ground. "You see, we've all depended so on you,"
he said, "even father. He makes me laugh. When anything comes up
he always says, 'I wonder what the Bergsons are going to do about
that? I guess I'll go and ask her.' I'll never forget that time,
when we first came here, and our horse had the colic, and I ran
over to your place--your father was away, and you came home with me
and showed father how to let the wind out of the horse. You were
only a little girl then, but you knew ever so much more about farm
work than poor father. You remember how homesick I used to get,
and what long talks we used to have coming from school? We've
someway always felt alike about things."
"Yes, that's it; we've liked the same things and we've liked them
together, without anybody else knowing. And we've had good times,
hunting for Christmas trees and going for ducks and making our plum
wine together every year. We've never either of us had any other
close friend. And now--" Alexandra wiped her eyes with the corner
of her apron, "and now I must remember that you are going where
you will have many friends, and will find the work you were meant
to do. But you'll write to me, Carl? That will mean a great deal
to me here."
"I'll write as long as I live," cried the boy impetuously. "And
I'll be working for you as much as for myself, Alexandra. I want
to do something you'll like and be proud of. I'm a fool here, but
I know I can do something!" He sat up and frowned at the red grass.
Alexandra sighed. "How discouraged the boys will be when they
hear. They always come home from town discouraged, anyway. So
many people are trying to leave the country, and they talk to our
boys and make them low-spirited. I'm afraid they are beginning to
feel hard toward me because I won't listen to any talk about going.
Sometimes I feel like I'm getting tired of standing up for this
"I won't tell the boys yet, if you'd rather not."
"Oh, I'll tell them myself, to-night, when they come home. They'll
be talking wild, anyway, and no good comes of keeping bad news.
It's all harder on them than it is on me. Lou wants to get married,
poor boy, and he can't until times are better. See, there goes the
sun, Carl. I must be getting back. Mother will want her potatoes.
It's chilly already, the moment the light goes."
Alexandra rose and looked about. A golden afterglow throbbed in
the west, but the country already looked empty and mournful. A dark
moving mass came over the western hill, the Lee boy was bringing in
the herd from the other half-section. Emil ran from the windmill
to open the corral gate. From the log house, on the little rise
across the draw, the smoke was curling. The cattle lowed and
bellowed. In the sky the pale half-moon was slowly silvering.
Alexandra and Carl walked together down the potato rows. "I have
to keep telling myself what is going to happen," she said softly.
"Since you have been here, ten years now, I have never really been
lonely. But I can remember what it was like before. Now I shall
have nobody but Emil. But he is my boy, and he is tender-hearted."
That night, when the boys were called to supper, they sat down
moodily. They had worn their coats to town, but they ate in their
striped shirts and suspenders. They were grown men now, and, as
Alexandra said, for the last few years they had been growing more
and more like themselves. Lou was still the slighter of the two,
the quicker and more intelligent, but apt to go off at half-cock.
He had a lively blue eye, a thin, fair skin (always burned red to
the neckband of his shirt in summer), stiff, yellow hair that would
not lie down on his head, and a bristly little yellow mustache,
of which he was very proud. Oscar could not grow a mustache; his
pale face was as bare as an egg, and his white eyebrows gave it an
empty look. He was a man of powerful body and unusual endurance;
the sort of man you could attach to a corn-sheller as you would
an engine. He would turn it all day, without hurrying, without
slowing down. But he was as indolent of mind as he was unsparing
of his body. His love of routine amounted to a vice. He worked
like an insect, always doing the same thing over in the same way,
regardless of whether it was best or no. He felt that there was
a sovereign virtue in mere bodily toil, and he rather liked to
do things in the hardest way. If a field had once been in corn,
he couldn't bear to put it into wheat. He liked to begin his
corn-planting at the same time every year, whether the season were
backward or forward. He seemed to feel that by his own irreproachable
regularity he would clear himself of blame and reprove the weather.
When the wheat crop failed, he threshed the straw at a dead loss
to demonstrate how little grain there was, and thus prove his case
Lou, on the other hand, was fussy and flighty; always planned to
get through two days' work in one, and often got only the least
important things done. He liked to keep the place up, but he never
got round to doing odd jobs until he had to neglect more pressing
work to attend to them. In the middle of the wheat harvest, when
the grain was over-ripe and every hand was needed, he would stop
to mend fences or to patch the harness; then dash down to the
field and overwork and be laid up in bed for a week. The two boys
balanced each other, and they pulled well together. They had been
good friends since they were children. One seldom went anywhere,
even to town, without the other.
To-night, after they sat down to supper, Oscar kept looking at Lou
as if he expected him to say something, and Lou blinked his eyes
and frowned at his plate. It was Alexandra herself who at last
opened the discussion.
"The Linstrums," she said calmly, as she put another plate of hot
biscuit on the table, "are going back to St. Louis. The old man
is going to work in the cigar factory again."
At this Lou plunged in. "You see, Alexandra, everybody who can
crawl out is going away. There's no use of us trying to stick it
out, just to be stubborn. There's something in knowing when to
"Where do you want to go, Lou?"
"Any place where things will grow," said Oscar grimly.
Lou reached for a potato. "Chris Arnson has traded his half-section
for a place down on the river."
"Who did he trade with?"
"Charley Fuller, in town."
"Fuller the real estate man? You see, Lou, that Fuller has a head
on him. He's buying and trading for every bit of land he can get
up here. It'll make him a rich man, some day."
"He's rich now, that's why he can take a chance."
"Why can't we? We'll live longer than he will. Some day the land
itself will be worth more than all we can ever raise on it."
Lou laughed. "It could be worth that, and still not be worth
much. Why, Alexandra, you don't know what you're talking about.
Our place wouldn't bring now what it would six years ago. The
fellows that settled up here just made a mistake. Now they're
beginning to see this high land wasn't never meant to grow nothing
on, and everybody who ain't fixed to graze cattle is trying to
crawl out. It's too high to farm up here. All the Americans are
skinning out. That man Percy Adams, north of town, told me that
he was going to let Fuller take his land and stuff for four hundred
dollars and a ticket to Chicago."
"There's Fuller again!" Alexandra exclaimed. "I wish that man
would take me for a partner. He's feathering his nest! If only
poor people could learn a little from rich people! But all these
fellows who are running off are bad farmers, like poor Mr. Linstrum.
They couldn't get ahead even in good years, and they all got into
debt while father was getting out. I think we ought to hold on as
long as we can on father's account. He was so set on keeping this
land. He must have seen harder times than this, here. How was it
in the early days, mother?"
Mrs. Bergson was weeping quietly. These family discussions always
depressed her, and made her remember all that she had been torn
away from. "I don't see why the boys are always taking on about
going away," she said, wiping her eyes. "I don't want to move
again; out to some raw place, maybe, where we'd be worse off than
we are here, and all to do over again. I won't move! If the rest
of you go, I will ask some of the neighbors to take me in, and stay
and be buried by father. I'm not going to leave him by himself
on the prairie, for cattle to run over." She began to cry more
The boys looked angry. Alexandra put a soothing hand on her mother's
shoulder. "There's no question of that, mother. You don't have
to go if you don't want to. A third of the place belongs to you
by American law, and we can't sell without your consent. We only
want you to advise us. How did it use to be when you and father
first came? Was it really as bad as this, or not?"
"Oh, worse! Much worse," moaned Mrs. Bergson. "Drouth, chince-bugs,
hail, everything! My garden all cut to pieces like sauerkraut. No
grapes on the creek, no nothing. The people all lived just like
Oscar got up and tramped out of the kitchen. Lou followed him.
They felt that Alexandra had taken an unfair advantage in turning
their mother loose on them. The next morning they were silent and
reserved. They did not offer to take the women to church, but went
down to the barn immediately after breakfast and stayed there all
day. When Carl Linstrum came over in the afternoon, Alexandra
winked to him and pointed toward the barn. He understood her and
went down to play cards with the boys. They believed that a very
wicked thing to do on Sunday, and it relieved their feelings.
Alexandra stayed in the house. On Sunday afternoon Mrs. Bergson
always took a nap, and Alexandra read. During the week she read
only the newspaper, but on Sunday, and in the long evenings of
winter, she read a good deal; read a few things over a great many
times. She knew long portions of the "Frithjof Saga" by heart,
and, like most Swedes who read at all, she was fond of Longfellow's
verse,--the ballads and the "Golden Legend" and "The Spanish Student."
To-day she sat in the wooden rocking-chair with the Swedish Bible
open on her knees, but she was not reading. She was looking
thoughtfully away at the point where the upland road disappeared
over the rim of the prairie. Her body was in an attitude of perfect
repose, such as it was apt to take when she was thinking earnestly.
Her mind was slow, truthful, steadfast. She had not the least
spark of cleverness.
All afternoon the sitting-room was full of quiet and sunlight.
Emil was making rabbit traps in the kitchen shed. The hens were
clucking and scratching brown holes in the flower beds, and the
wind was teasing the prince's feather by the door.
That evening Carl came in with the boys to supper.
"Emil," said Alexandra, when they were all seated at the table,
"how would you like to go traveling? Because I am going to take
a trip, and you can go with me if you want to."
The boys looked up in amazement; they were always afraid of
Alexandra's schemes. Carl was interested.
"I've been thinking, boys," she went on, "that maybe I am too set
against making a change. I'm going to take Brigham and the buckboard
to-morrow and drive down to the river country and spend a few days
looking over what they've got down there. If I find anything good,
you boys can go down and make a trade."
"Nobody down there will trade for anything up here," said Oscar
"That's just what I want to find out. Maybe they are just as
discontented down there as we are up here. Things away from home
often look better than they are. You know what your Hans Andersen
book says, Carl, about the Swedes liking to buy Danish bread and
the Danes liking to buy Swedish bread, because people always think
the bread of another country is better than their own. Anyway,
I've heard so much about the river farms, I won't be satisfied till
I've seen for myself."
Lou fidgeted. "Look out! Don't agree to anything. Don't let them
Lou was apt to be fooled himself. He had not yet learned to keep
away from the shell-game wagons that followed the circus.
After supper Lou put on a necktie and went across the fields to
court Annie Lee, and Carl and Oscar sat down to a game of checkers,
while Alexandra read "The Swiss Family Robinson" aloud to her mother
and Emil. It was not long before the two boys at the table neglected
their game to listen. They were all big children together, and they
found the adventures of the family in the tree house so absorbing
that they gave them their undivided attention.
Alexandra and Emil spent five days down among the river farms,
driving up and down the valley. Alexandra talked to the men about
their crops and to the women about their poultry. She spent a
whole day with one young farmer who had been away at school, and
who was experimenting with a new kind of clover hay. She learned
a great deal. As they drove along, she and Emil talked and planned.
At last, on the sixth day, Alexandra turned Brigham's head northward
and left the river behind.
"There's nothing in it for us down there, Emil. There are a few
fine farms, but they are owned by the rich men in town, and couldn't
be bought. Most of the land is rough and hilly. They can always
scrape along down there, but they can never do anything big. Down
there they have a little certainty, but up with us there is a big
chance. We must have faith in the high land, Emil. I want to hold
on harder than ever, and when you're a man you'll thank me." She
urged Brigham forward.
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide,
Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his
sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy
about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land
emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward
it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and
strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until
her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great,
free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than
it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country
begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
Alexandra reached home in the afternoon. That evening she held
a family council and told her brothers all that she had seen and
"I want you boys to go down yourselves and look it over. Nothing
will convince you like seeing with your own eyes. The river land
was settled before this, and so they are a few years ahead of us,
and have learned more about farming. The land sells for three
times as much as this, but in five years we will double it. The
rich men down there own all the best land, and they are buying
all they can get. The thing to do is to sell our cattle and what
little old corn we have, and buy the Linstrum place. Then the next
thing to do is to take out two loans on our half-sections, and buy
Peter Crow's place; raise every dollar we can, and buy every acre
"Mortgage the homestead again?" Lou cried. He sprang up and began
to wind the clock furiously. "I won't slave to pay off another
mortgage. I'll never do it. You'd just as soon kill us all,
Alexandra, to carry out some scheme!"
Oscar rubbed his high, pale forehead. "How do you propose to pay
off your mortgages?"
Alexandra looked from one to the other and bit her lip. They had
never seen her so nervous. "See here," she brought out at last.
"We borrow the money for six years. Well, with the money we buy
a half-section from Linstrum and a half from Crow, and a quarter
from Struble, maybe. That will give us upwards of fourteen hundred
acres, won't it? You won't have to pay off your mortgages for six
years. By that time, any of this land will be worth thirty dollars
an acre--it will be worth fifty, but we'll say thirty; then you
can sell a garden patch anywhere, and pay off a debt of sixteen
hundred dollars. It's not the principal I'm worried about, it's
the interest and taxes. We'll have to strain to meet the payments.
But as sure as we are sitting here to-night, we can sit down here
ten years from now independent landowners, not struggling farmers
any longer. The chance that father was always looking for has
Lou was pacing the floor. "But how do you KNOW that land is going
to go up enough to pay the mortgages and--"
"And make us rich besides?" Alexandra put in firmly. "I can't
explain that, Lou. You'll have to take my word for it. I KNOW,
that's all. When you drive about over the country you can feel it
Oscar had been sitting with his head lowered, his hands hanging
between his knees. "But we can't work so much land," he said
dully, as if he were talking to himself. "We can't even try. It
would just lie there and we'd work ourselves to death." He sighed,
and laid his calloused fist on the table.
Alexandra's eyes filled with tears. She put her hand on his
shoulder. "You poor boy, you won't have to work it. The men in
town who are buying up other people's land don't try to farm it.
They are the men to watch, in a new country. Let's try to do
like the shrewd ones, and not like these stupid fellows. I don't
want you boys always to have to work like this. I want you to be
independent, and Emil to go to school."
Lou held his head as if it were splitting. "Everybody will say we
are crazy. It must be crazy, or everybody would be doing it."
"If they were, we wouldn't have much chance. No, Lou, I was talking
about that with the smart young man who is raising the new kind
of clover. He says the right thing is usually just what everybody
don't do. Why are we better fixed than any of our neighbors? Because
father had more brains. Our people were better people than these
in the old country. We OUGHT to do more than they do, and see
further ahead. Yes, mother, I'm going to clear the table now."
Alexandra rose. The boys went to the stable to see to the stock,
and they were gone a long while. When they came back Lou played on
his DRAGHARMONIKA and Oscar sat figuring at his father's secretary
all evening. They said nothing more about Alexandra's project,
but she felt sure now that they would consent to it. Just before
bedtime Oscar went out for a pail of water. When he did not come
back, Alexandra threw a shawl over her head and ran down the path
to the windmill. She found him sitting there with his head in his
hands, and she sat down beside him.
"Don't do anything you don't want to do, Oscar," she whispered.
She waited a moment, but he did not stir. "I won't say any more
about it, if you'd rather not. What makes you so discouraged?"
"I dread signing my name to them pieces of paper," he said slowly.
"All the time I was a boy we had a mortgage hanging over us."
"Then don't sign one. I don't want you to, if you feel that way."
Oscar shook his head. "No, I can see there's a chance that way.
I've thought a good while there might be. We're in so deep now, we
might as well go deeper. But it's hard work pulling out of debt.
Like pulling a threshingmachine out of the mud; breaks your back.
Me and Lou's worked hard, and I can't see it's got us ahead much."
"Nobody knows about that as well as I do, Oscar. That's why I want
to try an easier way. I don't want you to have to grub for every
"Yes, I know what you mean. Maybe it'll come out right. But signing
papers is signing papers. There ain't no maybe about that." He
took his pail and trudged up the path to the house.
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against
the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so
keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch
them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered
march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations
of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them,
she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new
consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it.
Even her talk with the boys had not taken away the feeling that had
overwhelmed her when she drove back to the Divide that afternoon.
She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The
chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the
sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down
there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little
wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long
shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.
IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies
beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams
across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would
not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat
of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished
forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast
checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and
dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads,
which always run at right angles. From the graveyard gate one can
count a dozen gayly painted farmhouses; the gilded weather-vanes
on the big red barns wink at each other across the green and brown
and yellow fields. The light steel windmills tremble throughout
their frames and tug at their moorings, as they vibrate in the wind
that often blows from one week's end to another across that high,
active, resolute stretch of country.
The Divide is now thickly populated. The rich soil yields heavy
harvests; the dry, bracing climate and the smoothness of the land
make labor easy for men and beasts. There are few scenes more
gratifying than a spring plowing in that country, where the furrows
of a single field often lie a mile in length, and the brown earth,
with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and
fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away
from the shear, not even dimming the brightness of the metal, with
a soft, deep sigh of happiness. The wheatcutting sometimes goes
on all night as well as all day, and in good seasons there are
scarcely men and horses enough to do the harvesting. The grain is
so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet.
There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face
of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the
season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it
seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are
curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath
of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant
quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.
One June morning a young man stood at the gate of the Norwegian
graveyard, sharpening his scythe in strokes unconsciously timed to
the tune he was whistling. He wore a flannel cap and duck trousers,
and the sleeves of his white flannel shirt were rolled back to
the elbow. When he was satisfied with the edge of his blade, he
slipped the whetstone into his hip pocket and began to swing his
scythe, still whistling, but softly, out of respect to the quiet
folk about him. Unconscious respect, probably, for he seemed
intent upon his own thoughts, and, like the Gladiator's, they were
far away. He was a splendid figure of a boy, tall and straight
as a young pine tree, with a handsome head, and stormy gray eyes,
deeply set under a serious brow. The space between his two front
teeth, which were unusually far apart, gave him the proficiency
in whistling for which he was distinguished at college. (He also
played the cornet in the University band.)
When the grass required his close attention, or when he had to
stoop to cut about a head-stone, he paused in his lively air,--the
"Jewel" song,--taking it up where he had left it when his scythe
swung free again. He was not thinking about the tired pioneers
over whom his blade glittered. The old wild country, the struggle
in which his sister was destined to succeed while so many men broke
their hearts and died, he can scarcely remember. That is all among
the dim things of childhood and has been forgotten in the brighter
pattern life weaves to-day, in the bright facts of being captain
of the track team, and holding the interstate record for the high
jump, in the all-suffusing brightness of being twenty-one. Yet
sometimes, in the pauses of his work, the young man frowned and
looked at the ground with an intentness which suggested that even
twenty-one might have its problems.
When he had been mowing the better part of an hour, he heard the
rattle of a light cart on the road behind him. Supposing that it
was his sister coming back from one of her farms, he kept on with
his work. The cart stopped at the gate and a merry contralto voice
called, "Almost through, Emil?" He dropped his scythe and went
toward the fence, wiping his face and neck with his handkerchief.
In the cart sat a young woman who wore driving gauntlets and a wide
shade hat, trimmed with red poppies. Her face, too, was rather
like a poppy, round and brown, with rich color in her cheeks and
lips, and her dancing yellow-brown eyes bubbled with gayety. The
wind was flapping her big hat and teasing a curl of her chestnut-colored
hair. She shook her head at the tall youth.
"What time did you get over here? That's not much of a job for
an athlete. Here I've been to town and back. Alexandra lets you
sleep late. Oh, I know! Lou's wife was telling me about the way
she spoils you. I was going to give you a lift, if you were done."
She gathered up her reins.
"But I will be, in a minute. Please wait for me, Marie," Emil
coaxed. "Alexandra sent me to mow our lot, but I've done half a
dozen others, you see. Just wait till I finish off the Kourdnas'.
By the way, they were Bohemians. Why aren't they up in the Catholic
"Free-thinkers," replied the young woman laconically.
"Lots of the Bohemian boys at the University are," said Emil, taking
up his scythe again. "What did you ever burn John Huss for, anyway?
It's made an awful row. They still jaw about it in history classes."
"We'd do it right over again, most of us," said the young woman
hotly. "Don't they ever teach you in your history classes that
you'd all be heathen Turks if it hadn't been for the Bohemians?"
Emil had fallen to mowing. "Oh, there's no denying you're a spunky
little bunch, you Czechs," he called back over his shoulder.
Marie Shabata settled herself in her seat and watched the rhythmical
movement of the young man's long arms, swinging her foot as if
in time to some air that was going through her mind. The minutes
passed. Emil mowed vigorously and Marie sat sunning herself and
watching the long grass fall. She sat with the ease that belongs
to persons of an essentially happy nature, who can find a comfortable
spot almost anywhere; who are supple, and quick in adapting themselves
to circumstances. After a final swish, Emil snapped the gate and
sprang into the cart, holding his scythe well out over the wheel.
"There," he sighed. "I gave old man Lee a cut or so, too. Lou's
wife needn't talk. I never see Lou's scythe over here."
Marie clucked to her horse. "Oh, you know Annie!" She looked at
the young man's bare arms. "How brown you've got since you came
home. I wish I had an athlete to mow my orchard. I get wet to my
knees when I go down to pick cherries."
"You can have one, any time you want him. Better wait until after
it rains." Emil squinted off at the horizon as if he were looking
"Will you? Oh, there's a good boy!" She turned her head to him
with a quick, bright smile. He felt it rather than saw it. Indeed,
he had looked away with the purpose of not seeing it. "I've been
up looking at Angelique's wedding clothes," Marie went on, "and
I'm so excited I can hardly wait until Sunday. Amedee will be
a handsome bridegroom. Is anybody but you going to stand up with
him? Well, then it will be a handsome wedding party." She made a
droll face at Emil, who flushed. "Frank," Marie continued, flicking
her horse, "is cranky at me because I loaned his saddle to Jan
Smirka, and I'm terribly afraid he won't take me to the dance in
the evening. Maybe the supper will tempt him. All Angelique's
folks are baking for it, and all Amedee's twenty cousins. There
will be barrels of beer. If once I get Frank to the supper, I'll
see that I stay for the dance. And by the way, Emil, you mustn't
dance with me but once or twice. You must dance with all the French
girls. It hurts their feelings if you don't. They think you're
proud because you've been away to school or something."
Emil sniffed. "How do you know they think that?"
"Well, you didn't dance with them much at Raoul Marcel's party, and
I could tell how they took it by the way they looked at you--and
"All right," said Emil shortly, studying the glittering blade of
They drove westward toward Norway Creek, and toward a big white
house that stood on a hill, several miles across the fields. There
were so many sheds and outbuildings grouped about it that the
place looked not unlike a tiny village. A stranger, approaching
it, could not help noticing the beauty and fruitfulness of the
outlying fields. There was something individual about the great
farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail. On either side
of the road, for a mile before you reached the foot of the hill,
stood tall osage orange hedges, their glossy green marking off
the yellow fields. South of the hill, in a low, sheltered swale,
surrounded by a mulberry hedge, was the orchard, its fruit trees
knee-deep in timothy grass. Any one thereabouts would have told
you that this was one of the richest farms on the Divide, and that
the farmer was a woman, Alexandra Bergson.
If you go up the hill and enter Alexandra's big house, you will
find that it is curiously unfinished and uneven in comfort. One
room is papered, carpeted, over-furnished; the next is almost
bare. The pleasantest rooms in the house are the kitchen--where
Alexandra's three young Swedish girls chatter and cook and pickle
and preserve all summer long--and the sitting-room, in which
Alexandra has brought together the old homely furniture that the
Bergsons used in their first log house, the family portraits, and
the few things her mother brought from Sweden.
When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel
again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great
farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, in
the symmetrical pasture ponds, planted with scrub willows to give
shade to the cattle in fly-time. There is even a white row of
beehives in the orchard, under the walnut trees. You feel that,
properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it
is in the soil that she expresses herself best.
Emil reached home a little past noon, and when he went into the
kitchen Alexandra was already seated at the head of the long table,
having dinner with her men, as she always did unless there were
visitors. He slipped into his empty place at his sister's right.
The three pretty young Swedish girls who did Alexandra's housework
were cutting pies, refilling coffeecups, placing platters of bread
and meat and potatoes upon the red tablecloth, and continually
getting in each other's way between the table and the stove. To be
sure they always wasted a good deal of time getting in each other's
way and giggling at each other's mistakes. But, as Alexandra had
pointedly told her sisters-in-law, it was to hear them giggle that
she kept three young things in her kitchen; the work she could
do herself, if it were necessary. These girls, with their long
letters from home, their finery, and their love-affairs, afforded
her a great deal of entertainment, and they were company for her
when Emil was away at school.
Of the youngest girl, Signa, who has a pretty figure, mottled pink
cheeks, and yellow hair, Alexandra is very fond, though she keeps
a sharp eye upon her. Signa is apt to be skittish at mealtime, when
the men are about, and to spill the coffee or upset the cream. It
is supposed that Nelse Jensen, one of the six men at the dinner-table,
is courting Signa, though he has been so careful not to commit
himself that no one in the house, least of all Signa, can tell
just how far the matter has progressed. Nelse watches her glumly
as she waits upon the table, and in the evening he sits on a bench
behind the stove with his DRAGHARMONIKA, playing mournful airs
and watching her as she goes about her work. When Alexandra asked
Signa whether she thought Nelse was in earnest, the poor child hid
her hands under her apron and murmured, "I don't know, ma'm. But
he scolds me about everything, like as if he wanted to have me!"
At Alexandra's left sat a very old man, barefoot and wearing a long
blue blouse, open at the neck. His shaggy head is scarcely whiter
than it was sixteen years ago, but his little blue eyes have become
pale and watery, and his ruddy face is withered, like an apple that
has clung all winter to the tree. When Ivar lost his land through
mismanagement a dozen years ago, Alexandra took him in, and he has
been a member of her household ever since. He is too old to work
in the fields, but he hitches and unhitches the work-teams and
looks after the health of the stock. Sometimes of a winter evening
Alexandra calls him into the sitting-room to read the Bible aloud
to her, for he still reads very well. He dislikes human habitations,
so Alexandra has fitted him up a room in the barn, where he is very
comfortable, being near the horses and, as he says, further from
temptations. No one has ever found out what his temptations are.
In cold weather he sits by the kitchen fire and makes hammocks
or mends harness until it is time to go to bed. Then he says his
prayers at great length behind the stove, puts on his buffalo-skin
coat and goes out to his room in the barn.
Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller,
and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than
she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and
deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears
her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that
fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like one
of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden.
Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener
on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from
her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the
skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women
ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.
Alexandra did not talk much at the table, but she encouraged her
men to talk, and she always listened attentively, even when they
seemed to be talking foolishly.
To-day Barney Flinn, the big red-headed Irishman who had been with
Alexandra for five years and who was actually her foreman, though
he had no such title, was grumbling about the new silo she had put
up that spring. It happened to be the first silo on the Divide,
and Alexandra's neighbors and her men were skeptical about it. "To
be sure, if the thing don't work, we'll have plenty of feed without
it, indeed," Barney conceded.
Nelse Jensen, Signa's gloomy suitor, had his word. "Lou, he says
he wouldn't have no silo on his place if you'd give it to him.
He says the feed outen it gives the stock the bloat. He heard of
somebody lost four head of horses, feedin' 'em that stuff."
Alexandra looked down the table from one to another. "Well,
the only way we can find out is to try. Lou and I have different
notions about feeding stock, and that's a good thing. It's bad if
all the members of a family think alike. They never get anywhere.
Lou can learn by my mistakes and I can learn by his. Isn't that
The Irishman laughed. He had no love for Lou, who was always uppish
with him and who said that Alexandra paid her hands too much. "I've
no thought but to give the thing an honest try, mum. 'T would be
only right, after puttin' so much expense into it. Maybe Emil will
come out an' have a look at it wid me." He pushed back his chair,
took his hat from the nail, and marched out with Emil, who, with
his university ideas, was supposed to have instigated the silo.
The other hands followed them, all except old Ivar. He had been
depressed throughout the meal and had paid no heed to the talk of
the men, even when they mentioned cornstalk bloat, upon which he
was sure to have opinions.
"Did you want to speak to me, Ivar?" Alexandra asked as she rose
from the table. "Come into the sitting-room."
The old man followed Alexandra, but when she motioned him to a chair
he shook his head. She took up her workbasket and waited for him
to speak. He stood looking at the carpet, his bushy head bowed,
his hands clasped in front of him. Ivar's bandy legs seemed to
have grown shorter with years, and they were completely misfitted
to his broad, thick body and heavy shoulders.
"Well, Ivar, what is it?" Alexandra asked after she had waited
longer than usual.
Ivar had never learned to speak English and his Norwegian was quaint
and grave, like the speech of the more old-fashioned people. He
always addressed Alexandra in terms of the deepest respect, hoping
to set a good example to the kitchen girls, whom he thought too
familiar in their manners.
"Mistress," he began faintly, without raising his eyes, "the folk
have been looking coldly at me of late. You know there has been
"Talk about what, Ivar?"
"About sending me away; to the asylum."
Alexandra put down her sewing-basket. "Nobody has come to me with
such talk," she said decidedly. "Why need you listen? You know
I would never consent to such a thing."
Ivar lifted his shaggy head and looked at her out of his little
eyes. "They say that you cannot prevent it if the folk complain of
me, if your brothers complain to the authorities. They say that
your brothers are afraid--God forbid!--that I may do you some
injury when my spells are on me. Mistress, how can any one think
that?--that I could bite the hand that fed me!" The tears trickled
down on the old man's beard.
Alexandra frowned. "Ivar, I wonder at you, that you should come
bothering me with such nonsense. I am still running my own house,
and other people have nothing to do with either you or me. So long
as I am suited with you, there is nothing to be said."
Ivar pulled a red handkerchief out of the breast of his blouse and
wiped his eyes and beard. "But I should not wish you to keep me
if, as they say, it is against your interests, and if it is hard
for you to get hands because I am here."
Alexandra made an impatient gesture, but the old man put out his
hand and went on earnestly:--
"Listen, mistress, it is right that you should take these things
into account. You know that my spells come from God, and that
I would not harm any living creature. You believe that every one
should worship God in the way revealed to him. But that is not
the way of this country. The way here is for all to do alike. I
am despised because I do not wear shoes, because I do not cut my
hair, and because I have visions. At home, in the old country,
there were many like me, who had been touched by God, or who had
seen things in the graveyard at night and were different afterward.
We thought nothing of it, and let them alone. But here, if a man
is different in his feet or in his head, they put him in the asylum.
Look at Peter Kralik; when he was a boy, drinking out of a creek,
he swallowed a snake, and always after that he could eat only
such food as the creature liked, for when he ate anything else, it
became enraged and gnawed him. When he felt it whipping about in
him, he drank alcohol to stupefy it and get some ease for himself.
He could work as good as any man, and his head was clear, but they
locked him up for being different in his stomach. That is the way;
they have built the asylum for people who are different, and they
will not even let us live in the holes with the badgers. Only
your great prosperity has protected me so far. If you had had
ill-fortune, they would have taken me to Hastings long ago."
As Ivar talked, his gloom lifted. Alexandra had found that she
could often break his fasts and long penances by talking to him
and letting him pour out the thoughts that troubled him. Sympathy
always cleared his mind, and ridicule was poison to him.
"There is a great deal in what you say, Ivar. Like as not they
will be wanting to take me to Hastings because I have built a silo;
and then I may take you with me. But at present I need you here.
Only don't come to me again telling me what people say. Let people
go on talking as they like, and we will go on living as we think
best. You have been with me now for twelve years, and I have gone
to you for advice oftener than I have ever gone to any one. That
ought to satisfy you."
Ivar bowed humbly. "Yes, mistress, I shall not trouble you with
their talk again. And as for my feet, I have observed your wishes
all these years, though you have never questioned me; washing them
every night, even in winter."
Alexandra laughed. "Oh, never mind about your feet, Ivar. We can
remember when half our neighbors went barefoot in summer. I expect
old Mrs. Lee would love to slip her shoes off now sometimes, if
she dared. I'm glad I'm not Lou's mother-in-law."
Ivar looked about mysteriously and lowered his voice almost to a
whisper. "You know what they have over at Lou's house? A great
white tub, like the stone water-troughs in the old country, to wash
themselves in. When you sent me over with the strawberries, they
were all in town but the old woman Lee and the baby. She took me
in and showed me the thing, and she told me it was impossible to
wash yourself clean in it, because, in so much water, you could
not make a strong suds. So when they fill it up and send her in
there, she pretends, and makes a splashing noise. Then, when they
are all asleep, she washes herself in a little wooden tub she keeps
under her bed."
Alexandra shook with laughter. "Poor old Mrs. Lee! They won't let
her wear nightcaps, either. Never mind; when she comes to visit
me, she can do all the old things in the old way, and have as much
beer as she wants. We'll start an asylum for old-time people,
Ivar folded his big handkerchief carefully and thrust it back into
his blouse. "This is always the way, mistress. I come to you
sorrowing, and you send me away with a light heart. And will you
be so good as to tell the Irishman that he is not to work the brown
gelding until the sore on its shoulder is healed?"
"That I will. Now go and put Emil's mare to the cart. I am going
to drive up to the north quarter to meet the man from town who is
to buy my alfalfa hay."
Alexandra was to hear more of Ivar's case, however. On Sunday her
married brothers came to dinner. She had asked them for that day
because Emil, who hated family parties, would be absent, dancing
at Amedee Chevalier's wedding, up in the French country. The table
was set for company in the dining-room, where highly varnished
wood and colored glass and useless pieces of china were conspicuous
enough to satisfy the standards of the new prosperity. Alexandra
had put herself into the hands of the Hanover furniture dealer, and
he had conscientiously done his best to make her dining-room look
like his display window. She said frankly that she knew nothing
about such things, and she was willing to be governed by the general
conviction that the more useless and utterly unusable objects
were, the greater their virtue as ornament. That seemed reasonable
enough. Since she liked plain things herself, it was all the more
necessary to have jars and punchbowls and candlesticks in the company
rooms for people who did appreciate them. Her guests liked to see
about them these reassuring emblems of prosperity.
The family party was complete except for Emil, and Oscar's wife
who, in the country phrase, "was not going anywhere just now."
Oscar sat at the foot of the table and his four tow-headed little
boys, aged from twelve to five, were ranged at one side. Neither
Oscar nor Lou has changed much; they have simply, as Alexandra said
of them long ago, grown to be more and more like themselves. Lou
now looks the older of the two; his face is thin and shrewd and
wrinkled about the eyes, while Oscar's is thick and dull. For all
his dullness, however, Oscar makes more money than his brother,
which adds to Lou's sharpness and uneasiness and tempts him to
make a show. The trouble with Lou is that he is tricky, and his
neighbors have found out that, as Ivar says, he has not a fox's face
for nothing. Politics being the natural field for such talents,
he neglects his farm to attend conventions and to run for county
Lou's wife, formerly Annie Lee, has grown to look curiously like
her husband. Her face has become longer, sharper, more aggressive.
She wears her yellow hair in a high pompadour, and is bedecked with
rings and chains and "beauty pins." Her tight, high-heeled shoes
give her an awkward walk, and she is always more or less preoccupied
with her clothes. As she sat at the table, she kept telling her
youngest daughter to "be careful now, and not drop anything on
The conversation at the table was all in English. Oscar's wife,
from the malaria district of Missouri, was ashamed of marrying a
foreigner, and his boys do not understand a word of Swedish. Annie
and Lou sometimes speak Swedish at home, but Annie is almost as
much afraid of being "caught" at it as ever her mother was of being
caught barefoot. Oscar still has a thick accent, but Lou speaks
like anybody from Iowa.
"When I was in Hastings to attend the convention," he was saying,
"I saw the superintendent of the asylum, and I was telling him about
Ivar's symptoms. He says Ivar's case is one of the most dangerous
kind, and it's a wonder he hasn't done something violent before
Alexandra laughed good-humoredly. "Oh, nonsense, Lou! The doctors
would have us all crazy if they could. Ivar's queer, certainly,
but he has more sense than half the hands I hire."
Lou flew at his fried chicken. "Oh, I guess the doctor knows his
business, Alexandra. He was very much surprised when I told him
how you'd put up with Ivar. He says he's likely to set fire to the
barn any night, or to take after you and the girls with an axe."
Little Signa, who was waiting on the table, giggled and fled to
the kitchen. Alexandra's eyes twinkled. "That was too much for
Signa, Lou. We all know that Ivar's perfectly harmless. The girls
would as soon expect me to chase them with an axe."
Lou flushed and signaled to his wife. "All the same, the neighbors
will be having a say about it before long. He may burn anybody's
barn. It's only necessary for one property-owner in the township
to make complaint, and he'll be taken up by force. You'd better
send him yourself and not have any hard feelings."
Alexandra helped one of her little nephews to gravy. "Well, Lou,
if any of the neighbors try that, I'll have myself appointed Ivar's
guardian and take the case to court, that's all. I am perfectly
satisfied with him."
"Pass the preserves, Lou," said Annie in a warning tone. She had
reasons for not wishing her husband to cross Alexandra too openly.
"But don't you sort of hate to have people see him around here,
Alexandra?" she went on with persuasive smoothness. "He IS a
disgraceful object, and you're fixed up so nice now. It sort of
makes people distant with you, when they never know when they'll
hear him scratching about. My girls are afraid as death of him,
aren't you, Milly, dear?"
Milly was fifteen, fat and jolly and pompadoured, with a creamy
complexion, square white teeth, and a short upper lip. She
looked like her grandmother Bergson, and had her comfortable and
comfort-loving nature. She grinned at her aunt, with whom she was
a great deal more at ease than she was with her mother. Alexandra
winked a reply.
"Milly needn't be afraid of Ivar. She's an especial favorite of
his. In my opinion Ivar has just as much right to his own way of
dressing and thinking as we have. But I'll see that he doesn't
bother other people. I'll keep him at home, so don't trouble any
more about him, Lou. I've been wanting to ask you about your new
bathtub. How does it work?"
Annie came to the fore to give Lou time to recover himself. "Oh,
it works something grand! I can't keep him out of it. He washes
himself all over three times a week now, and uses all the hot water.
I think it's weakening to stay in as long as he does. You ought
to have one, Alexandra."
"I'm thinking of it. I might have one put in the barn for Ivar,
if it will ease people's minds. But before I get a bathtub, I'm
going to get a piano for Milly."
Oscar, at the end of the table, looked up from his plate. "What
does Milly want of a pianny? What's the matter with her organ?
She can make some use of that, and play in church."
Annie looked flustered. She had begged Alexandra not to say
anything about this plan before Oscar, who was apt to be jealous
of what his sister did for Lou's children. Alexandra did not get
on with Oscar's wife at all. "Milly can play in church just the
same, and she'll still play on the organ. But practising on it
so much spoils her touch. Her teacher says so," Annie brought out
Oscar rolled his eyes. "Well, Milly must have got on pretty good
if she's got past the organ. I know plenty of grown folks that
ain't," he said bluntly.
Annie threw up her chin. "She has got on good, and she's going to
play for her commencement when she graduates in town next year."
"Yes," said Alexandra firmly, "I think Milly deserves a piano.
All the girls around here have been taking lessons for years, but
Milly is the only one of them who can ever play anything when you
ask her. I'll tell you when I first thought I would like to give
you a piano, Milly, and that was when you learned that book of old
Swedish songs that your grandfather used to sing. He had a sweet
tenor voice, and when he was a young man he loved to sing. I can
remember hearing him singing with the sailors down in the shipyard,