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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesO Pioneers! - PART V - Alexandra - Chapter 1
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O Pioneers! - PART V - Alexandra - Chapter 1 Post by :haydnellen Category :Long Stories Author :Willa Cather Date :March 2011 Read :570

Click below to download : O Pioneers! - PART V - Alexandra - Chapter 1 (Format : PDF)

O Pioneers! - PART V - Alexandra - Chapter 1

Ivar was sitting at a cobbler's bench in the barn, mending harness
by the light of a lantern and repeating to himself the 101st Psalm.
It was only five o'clock of a mid-October day, but a storm had
come up in the afternoon, bringing black clouds, a cold wind and
torrents of rain. The old man wore his buffalo-skin coat, and
occasionally stopped to warm his fingers at the lantern. Suddenly
a woman burst into the shed, as if she had been blown in, accompanied by
a shower of rain-drops. It was Signa, wrapped in a man's overcoat
and wearing a pair of boots over her shoes. In time of trouble
Signa had come back to stay with her mistress, for she was the only
one of the maids from whom Alexandra would accept much personal
service. It was three months now since the news of the terrible
thing that had happened in Frank Shabata's orchard had first run
like a fire over the Divide. Signa and Nelse were staying on with
Alexandra until winter.

"Ivar," Signa exclaimed as she wiped the rain from her face, "do
you know where she is?"

The old man put down his cobbler's knife. "Who, the mistress?"

"Yes. She went away about three o'clock. I happened to look out
of the window and saw her going across the fields in her thin dress
and sun-hat. And now this storm has come on. I thought she was
going to Mrs. Hiller's, and I telephoned as soon as the thunder
stopped, but she had not been there. I'm afraid she is out somewhere
and will get her death of cold."

Ivar put on his cap and took up the lantern. "JA, JA, we will see.
I will hitch the boy's mare to the cart and go."

Signa followed him across the wagon-shed to the horses' stable.
She was shivering with cold and excitement. "Where do you suppose
she can be, Ivar?"

The old man lifted a set of single harness carefully from its peg.
"How should I know?"

"But you think she is at the graveyard, don't you?" Signa persisted.
"So do I. Oh, I wish she would be more like herself! I can't
believe it's Alexandra Bergson come to this, with no head about
anything. I have to tell her when to eat and when to go to bed."

"Patience, patience, sister," muttered Ivar as he settled the bit
in the horse's mouth. "When the eyes of the flesh are shut, the
eyes of the spirit are open. She will have a message from those
who are gone, and that will bring her peace. Until then we must
bear with her. You and I are the only ones who have weight with
her. She trusts us."

"How awful it's been these last three months." Signa held the
lantern so that he could see to buckle the straps. "It don't seem
right that we must all be so miserable. Why do we all have to be
punished? Seems to me like good times would never come again."

Ivar expressed himself in a deep sigh, but said nothing. He stooped
and took a sandburr from his toe.

"Ivar," Signa asked suddenly, "will you tell me why you go barefoot?
All the time I lived here in the house I wanted to ask you. Is it
for a penance, or what?"

"No, sister. It is for the indulgence of the body. From my youth
up I have had a strong, rebellious body, and have been subject to
every kind of temptation. Even in age my temptations are prolonged.
It was necessary to make some allowances; and the feet, as I
understand it, are free members. There is no divine prohibition
for them in the Ten Commandments. The hands, the tongue, the eyes,
the heart, all the bodily desires we are commanded to subdue; but
the feet are free members. I indulge them without harm to any
one, even to trampling in filth when my desires are low. They are
quickly cleaned again."

Signa did not laugh. She looked thoughtful as she followed Ivar out
to the wagon-shed and held the shafts up for him, while he backed
in the mare and buckled the hold-backs. "You have been a good
friend to the mistress, Ivar," she murmured.

"And you, God be with you," replied Ivar as he clambered into the
cart and put the lantern under the oilcloth lap-cover. "Now for
a ducking, my girl," he said to the mare, gathering up the reins.

As they emerged from the shed, a stream of water, running off the
thatch, struck the mare on the neck. She tossed her head indignantly,
then struck out bravely on the soft ground, slipping back again and
again as she climbed the hill to the main road. Between the rain
and the darkness Ivar could see very little, so he let Emil's mare
have the rein, keeping her head in the right direction. When the
ground was level, he turned her out of the dirt road upon the sod,
where she was able to trot without slipping.

Before Ivar reached the graveyard, three miles from the house,
the storm had spent itself, and the downpour had died into a soft,
dripping rain. The sky and the land were a dark smoke color, and
seemed to be coming together, like two waves. When Ivar stopped
at the gate and swung out his lantern, a white figure rose from
beside John Bergson's white stone.

The old man sprang to the ground and shuffled toward the gate
calling, "Mistress, mistress!"

Alexandra hurried to meet him and put her hand on his shoulder.
"TYST! Ivar. There's nothing to be worried about. I'm sorry if
I've scared you all. I didn't notice the storm till it was on me,
and I couldn't walk against it. I'm glad you've come. I am so
tired I didn't know how I'd ever get home."

Ivar swung the lantern up so that it shone in her face. "GUD!
You are enough to frighten us, mistress. You look like a drowned
woman. How could you do such a thing!"

Groaning and mumbling he led her out of the gate and helped her
into the cart, wrapping her in the dry blankets on which he had
been sitting.

Alexandra smiled at his solicitude. "Not much use in that, Ivar.
You will only shut the wet in. I don't feel so cold now; but I'm
heavy and numb. I'm glad you came."

Ivar turned the mare and urged her into a sliding trot. Her feet
sent back a continual spatter of mud.

Alexandra spoke to the old man as they jogged along through the
sullen gray twilight of the storm. "Ivar, I think it has done me
good to get cold clear through like this, once. I don't believe
I shall suffer so much any more. When you get so near the dead,
they seem more real than the living. Worldly thoughts leave one.
Ever since Emil died, I've suffered so when it rained. Now that
I've been out in it with him, I shan't dread it. After you once
get cold clear through, the feeling of the rain on you is sweet.
It seems to bring back feelings you had when you were a baby. It
carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can't
see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and
aren't afraid of them. Maybe it's like that with the dead. If
they feel anything at all, it's the old things, before they were
born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does
when they are little."

"Mistress," said Ivar reproachfully, "those are bad thoughts. The
dead are in Paradise."

Then he hung his head, for he did not believe that Emil was in
Paradise.

When they got home, Signa had a fire burning in the sitting-room
stove. She undressed Alexandra and gave her a hot footbath, while
Ivar made ginger tea in the kitchen. When Alexandra was in bed,
wrapped in hot blankets, Ivar came in with his tea and saw that
she drank it. Signa asked permission to sleep on the slat lounge
outside her door. Alexandra endured their attentions patiently,
but she was glad when they put out the lamp and left her. As she
lay alone in the dark, it occurred to her for the first time that
perhaps she was actually tired of life. All the physical operations
of life seemed difficult and painful. She longed to be free from
her own body, which ached and was so heavy. And longing itself
was heavy: she yearned to be free of that.

As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than
for many years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted
and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her
a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms
she felt free from pain. When he laid her down on her bed again,
she opened her eyes, and, for the first time in her life, she saw
him, saw him clearly, though the room was dark, and his face was
covered. He was standing in the doorway of her room. His white
cloak was thrown over his face, and his head was bent a little
forward. His shoulders seemed as strong as the foundations of the
world. His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming,
like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the arm of the
mightiest of all lovers. She knew at last for whom it was she had
waited, and where he would carry her. That, she told herself, was
very well. Then she went to sleep.

Alexandra wakened in the morning with nothing worse than a hard cold
and a stiff shoulder. She kept her bed for several days, and it
was during that time that she formed a resolution to go to Lincoln
to see Frank Shabata. Ever since she last saw him in the courtroom,
Frank's haggard face and wild eyes had haunted her. The trial had
lasted only three days. Frank had given himself up to the police
in Omaha and pleaded guilty of killing without malice and without
premeditation. The gun was, of course, against him, and the judge
had given him the full sentence,--ten years. He had now been in
the State Penitentiary for a month.

Frank was the only one, Alexandra told herself, for whom anything
could be done. He had been less in the wrong than any of them,
and he was paying the heaviest penalty. She often felt that she
herself had been more to blame than poor Frank. From the time the
Shabatas had first moved to the neighboring farm, she had omitted
no opportunity of throwing Marie and Emil together. Because she
knew Frank was surly about doing little things to help his wife,
she was always sending Emil over to spade or plant or carpenter
for Marie. She was glad to have Emil see as much as possible of an
intelligent, city-bred girl like their neighbor; she noticed that
it improved his manners. She knew that Emil was fond of Marie, but
it had never occurred to her that Emil's feeling might be different
from her own. She wondered at herself now, but she had never
thought of danger in that direction. If Marie had been unmarried,--oh,
yes! Then she would have kept her eyes open. But the mere fact that
she was Shabata's wife, for Alexandra, settled everything. That she was
beautiful, impulsive, barely two years older than Emil, these facts had
had no weight with Alexandra. Emil was a good boy, and only bad boys
ran after married women.

Now, Alexandra could in a measure realize that Marie was, after
all, Marie; not merely a "married woman." Sometimes, when Alexandra
thought of her, it was with an aching tenderness. The moment she
had reached them in the orchard that morning, everything was clear
to her. There was something about those two lying in the grass,
something in the way Marie had settled her cheek on Emil's shoulder,
that told her everything. She wondered then how they could have
helped loving each other; how she could have helped knowing that
they must. Emil's cold, frowning face, the girl's content--Alexandra
had felt awe of them, even in the first shock of her grief.

The idleness of those days in bed, the relaxation of body which
attended them, enabled Alexandra to think more calmly than she had
done since Emil's death. She and Frank, she told herself, were left
out of that group of friends who had been overwhelmed by disaster.
She must certainly see Frank Shabata. Even in the courtroom her
heart had grieved for him. He was in a strange country, he had no
kinsmen or friends, and in a moment he had ruined his life. Being
what he was, she felt, Frank could not have acted otherwise. She
could understand his behavior more easily than she could understand
Marie's. Yes, she must go to Lincoln to see Frank Shabata.

The day after Emil's funeral, Alexandra had written to Carl Linstrum;
a single page of notepaper, a bare statement of what had happened.
She was not a woman who could write much about such a thing, and
about her own feelings she could never write very freely. She knew
that Carl was away from post-offices, prospecting somewhere in the
interior. Before he started he had written her where he expected
to go, but her ideas about Alaska were vague. As the weeks went
by and she heard nothing from him, it seemed to Alexandra that
her heart grew hard against Carl. She began to wonder whether she
would not do better to finish her life alone. What was left of
life seemed unimportant.

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When old Ivar climbed down from his loft at four o'clock the nextmorning, he came upon Emil's mare, jaded and lather-stained, herbridle broken, chewing the scattered tufts of hay outside the stabledoor. The old man was thrown into a fright at once. He put themare in her stall, threw her a measure of oats, and then set outas fast as his bow-legs could carry him on the path to the nearestneighbor."Something is wrong with that boy. Some misfortune has come uponus. He would never have used her so, in his right senses. It isnot his way
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