Home  »  One of Ours  »  VI

Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book One: On Lovely Creek


THREE months later, on a grey December day, Claude was seated in the passenger coach of an accommodation freight train, going home for the holidays. He had a pile of books on the seat beside him and was reading, when the train stopped with a jerk that sent the volumes tumbling to the floor. He picked them up and looked at his watch. It was noon. The freight would lie here for an hour or more, until the east-bound passenger went by. Claude left the car and walked slowly up the platform toward the station. A bundle of little spruce trees had been flung off near the freight office, and sent a smell of Christmas into the cold air. A few drays stood about, the horses blanketed. The steam from the locomotive made a spreading, deep-violet stain as it curled up against the grey sky.

Claude went into a restaurant across the street and ordered an oyster stew. The proprietress, a plump little German woman with a frizzed bang, always remembered him from trip to trip. While he was eating his oysters she told him that she had just finished roasting a chicken with sweet potatoes, and if he liked he could have the first brown cut off the breast before the train-men came in for dinner. Asking her to bring it along, he waited, sitting on a stool, his boots on the lead-pipe foot-rest, his elbows on the shiny brown counter, staring at a pyramid of tough looking bun-sandwiches under a glass globe.

“I been lookin’ for you every day,” said Mrs. Voigt when she brought his plate. “I put plenty good gravy on dem sweet pertaters, ja.”

“Thank you. You must be popular with your boarders.”

She giggled. “Ja, all de train men is friends mit me. Sometimes dey bring me a liddle Schweizerkase from one of dem big saloons in Omaha what de Cherman beobles batronize. I ain’t got no boys mein own self, so I got to fix up liddle tings for dem boys, eh?”

She stood nursing her stumpy hands under her apron, watching every mouthful he ate so eagerly that she might have been tasting it herself. The train crew trooped in, shouting to her and asking what there was for dinner, and she ran about like an excited little hen, chuckling and cackling. Claude wondered whether working-men were as nice as that to old women the world over. He didn’t believe so. He liked to think that such geniality was common only in what he broadly called “the West.” He bought a big cigar, and strolled up and down the platform, enjoying the fresh air until the passenger whistled in.

After his freight train got under steam he did not open his books again, but sat looking out at the grey homesteads as they unrolled before him, with their stripped, dry cornfields, and the great ploughed stretches where the winter wheat was asleep. A starry sprinkling of snow lay like hoar-frost along the crumbly ridges between the furrows.

Claude believed he knew almost every farm between Frankfort and Lincoln, he had made the journey so often, on fast trains and slow. He went home for all the holidays, and had been again and again called back on various pretexts; when his mother was sick, when Ralph overturned the car and broke his shoulder, when his father was kicked by a vicious stallion. It was not a Wheeler custom to employ a nurse; if any one in the household was ill, it was understood that some member of the family would act in that capacity.

Claude was reflecting upon the fact that he had never gone home before in such good spirits. Two fortunate things had happened to him since he went over this road three months ago.

As soon as he reached Lincoln in September, he had matriculated at the State University for special work in European History. The year before he had heard the head of the department lecture for some charity, and resolved that even if he were not allowed to change his college, he would manage to study under that man. The course Claude selected was one upon which a student could put as much time as he chose. It was based upon the reading of historical sources, and the Professor was notoriously greedy for full notebooks. Claude’s were of the fullest. He worked early and late at the University Library, often got his supper in town and went back to read until closing hour. For the first time he was studying a subject which seemed to him vital, which had to do with events and ideas, instead of with lexicons and grammars. How often he had wished for Ernest during the lectures! He could see Ernest drinking them up, agreeing or dissenting in his independent way. The class was very large, and the Professor spoke without notes,—he talked rapidly, as if he were addressing his equals, with none of the coaxing persuasiveness to which Temple students were accustomed. His lectures were condensed like a legal brief, but there was a kind of dry fervour in his voice, and when he occasionally interrupted his exposition with purely personal comment, it seemed valuable and important.

Claude usually came out from these lectures with the feeling that the world was full of stimulating things, and that one was fortunate to be alive and to be able to find out about them. His reading that autumn actually made the future look brighter to him; seemed to promise him something. One of his chief difficulties had always been that he could not make himself believe in the importance of making money or spending it. If that were all, then life was not worth the trouble.

The second good thing that had befallen him was that he had got to know some people he liked. This came about accidentally, after a football game between the Temple eleven and the State University team—merely a practice game for the latter. Claude was playing half-back with the Temple. Toward the close of the first quarter, he followed his interference safely around the right end, dodged a tackle which threatened to end the play, and broke loose for a ninety yard run down the field for a touchdown. He brought his eleven off with a good showing. The State men congratulated him warmly, and their coach went so far as to hint that if he ever wanted to make a change, there would be a place for him on the University team.

Claude had a proud moment, but even while Coach Ballinger was talking to him, the Temple students rushed howling from the grandstand, and Annabelle Chapin, ridiculous in a sport suit of her own construction, bedecked with the Temple colours and blowing a child’s horn, positively threw herself upon his neck. He disengaged himself, not very gently, and stalked grimly away to the dressing shed.… What was the use, if you were always with the wrong crowd?

Julius Erlich, who played quarter on the State team, took him aside and said affably: “Come home to supper with me tonight, Wheeler, and meet my mother. Come along with us and dress in the Armory. You have your clothes in your suitcase, haven’t you?”

“They’re hardly clothes to go visiting in,” Claude replied doubtfully.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter! We’re all boys at home. Mother wouldn’t mind if you came in your track things.”

Claude consented before he had time to frighten himself by imagining difficulties. The Erlich boy often sat next him in the history class, and they had several times talked together. Hitherto Claude had felt that he “couldn’t make Erlich out,” but this afternoon, while they dressed after their shower, they became good friends, all in a few minutes. Claude was perhaps less tied-up in mind and body than usual. He was so astonished at finding himself on easy, confidential terms with Erlich that he scarcely gave a thought to his second-day shirt and his collar with a broken edge,—wretched economies he had been trained to observe.

They had not walked more than two blocks from the Armory when Julius turned in at a rambling wooden house with an unfenced, terraced lawn. He led Claude around to the wing, and through a glass door into a big room that was all windows on three sides, above the wainscoting. The room was full of boys and young men, seated on long divans or perched on the arms of easy chairs, and they were all talking at once. On one of the couches a young man in a smoking jacket lay reading as composedly as if he were alone.

“Five of these are my brothers,” said his host, “and the rest are friends.”

The company recognized Claude and included him in their talk about the game. When the visitors had gone, Julius introduced his brothers. They were all nice boys, Claude thought, and had easy, agreeable manners. The three older ones were in business, but they too had been to the game that afternoon. Claude had never before seen brothers who were so outspoken and frank with one another. To him they were very cordial; the one who was lying down came forward to shake hands, keeping the place in his book with his finger.

On a table in the middle of the room were pipes and boxes of tobacco, cigars in a glass jar, and a big Chinese bowl full of cigarettes. This provisionment seemed the more remarkable to Claude because at home he had to smoke in the cowshed. The number of books astonished him almost as much; the wainscoting all around the room was built up in open bookcases, stuffed with volumes fat and thin, and they all looked interesting and hard-used. One of the brothers had been to a party the night before, and on coming home had put his dress-tie about the neck of a little plaster bust of Byron that stood on the mantel. This head, with the tie at a rakish angle, drew Claude’s attention more than anything else in the room, and for some reason instantly made him wish he lived there.

Julius brought in his mother, and when they went to supper Claude was seated beside her at one end of the long table. Mrs. Erlich seemed to him very young to be the head of such a family. Her hair was still brown, and she wore it drawn over her ears and twisted in two little horns, like the ladies in old daguerreotypes. Her face, too, suggested a daguerreotype; there was something old-fashioned and picturesque about it. Her skin had the soft whiteness of white flowers that have been drenched by rain. She talked with quick gestures, and her decided little nod was quaint and very personal. Her hazel-coloured eyes peered expectantly over her nose-glasses, always watching to see things turn out wonderfully well; always looking for some good German fairy in the cupboard or the cake-box, or in the steaming vapor of wash-day.

The boys were discussing an engagement that had just been announced, and Mrs. Erlich began to tell Claude a long story about how this brilliant young man had come to Lincoln and met this beautiful young girl, who was already engaged to a cold and academic youth, and how after many heart-burnings the beautiful girl had broken with the wrong man and become betrothed to the right one, and now they were so happy,—and every one, she asked Claude to believe, was equally happy! In the middle of her narrative Julius reminded her smilingly that since Claude didn’t know these people, he would hardly be interested in their romance, but she merely looked at him over her nose-glasses and said, “And is that so, Herr Julius!” One could see that she was a match for them.

The conversation went racing from one thing to another. The brothers began to argue hotly about a new girl who was visiting in town; whether she was pretty, how pretty she was, whether she was naïve. To Claude this was like talk in a play. He had never heard a living person discussed and analysed thus before. He had never heard a family talk so much, or with anything like so much zest. Here there was none of the poisonous reticence he had always associated with family gatherings, nor the awkwardness of people sitting with their hands in their lap, facing each other, each one guarding his secret or his suspicion, while he hunted for a safe subject to talk about. Their fertility of phrase, too, astonished him; how could people find so much to say about one girl? To be sure, a good deal of it sounded far-fetched to him, but he sadly admitted that in such matters he was no judge.

When they went back to the living room Julius began to pick out airs on his guitar, and the bearded brother sat down to read. Otto, the youngest, seeing a group of students passing the house, ran out on to the lawn and called them in,—two boys, and a girl with red cheeks and a fur stole. Claude had made for a corner, and was perfectly content to be an on-looker, but Mrs. Erlich soon came and seated herself beside him. When the doors into the parlour were opened, she noticed his eyes straying to an engraving of Napoleon which hung over the piano, and made him go and look at it. She told him it was a rare engraving, and she showed him a portrait of her great-grandfather, who was an officer in Napoleon’s army. To explain how this came about was a long story.

As she talked to Claude, Mrs. Erlich discovered that his eyes were not really pale, but only looked so because of his light lashes. They could say a great deal when they looked squarely into hers, and she liked what they said. She soon found out that he was discontented; how he hated the Temple school, and why his mother wished him to go there.

When the three who had been called in from the sidewalk took their leave, Claude rose also. They were evidently familiars of the house, and their careless exit, with a gay “Good-night, everybody!” gave him no practical suggestion as to what he ought to say or how he was to get out. Julius made things more difficult by telling him to sit down, as it wasn’t time to go yet. But Mrs. Erlich said it was time; he would have a long ride out to Temple Place.

It was really very easy. She walked to the door with him and gave him his hat, patting his arm in a final way. “You will come often to see us. We are going to be friends.” Her forehead, with its neat curtains of brown hair, came something below Claude’s chin, and she peered up at him with that quaintly hopeful expression, as if—as if even he might turn out wonderfully well! Certainly, nobody had ever looked at him like that before.

“It’s been lovely,” he murmured to her, quite without embarrassment, and in happy unconsciousness he turned the knob and passed out through the glass door.

While the freight train was puffing slowly across the winter country, leaving a black trail suspended in the still air, Claude went over that experience minutely in his mind, as if he feared to lose something of it on approaching home. He could remember exactly how Mrs. Erlich and the boys had looked to him on that first night, could repeat almost word for word the conversation which had been so novel to him. Then he had supposed the Erlichs were rich people, but he found out afterwards that they were poor. The father was dead, and all the boys had to work, even those who were still in school. They merely knew how to live, he discovered, and spent their money on themselves, instead of on machines to do the work and machines to entertain people. Machines, Claude decided, could not make pleasure, whatever else they could do. They could not make agreeable people, either. In so far as he could see, the latter were made by judicious indulgence in almost everything he had been taught to shun.

Since that first visit, he had gone to the Erlichs’, not as often as he wished, certainly, but as often as he dared. Some of the University boys seemed to drop in there whenever they felt like it, were almost members of the family; but they were better looking than he, and better company. To be sure, long Baumgartner was an intimate of the house, and he was a gawky boy with big red hands and patched shoes; but he could at least speak German to the mother, and he played the piano, and seemed to know a great deal about music.

Claude didn’t wish to be a bore. Sometimes in the evening, when he left the Library to smoke a cigar, he walked slowly past the Erlichs’ house, looking at the lighted windows of the sitting-room and wondering what was going on inside. Before he went there to call, he racked his brain for things to talk about. If there had been a football game, or a good play at the theatre, that helped, of course.

Almost without realizing what be was doing, he tried to think things out and to justify his opinions to himself, so that he would have something to say when the Erlich boys questioned him. He had grown up with the conviction that it was beneath his dignity to explain himself, just as it was to dress carefully, or to be caught taking pains about anything. Ernest was the only person he knew who tried to state clearly just why he believed this or that; and people at home thought him very conceited and foreign. It wasn’t American to explain yourself; you didn’t have to! On the farm you said you would or you wouldn’t; that Roosevelt was all right, or that he was crazy. You weren’t supposed to say more unless you were a stump speaker,—if you tried to say more, it was because you liked to hear yourself talk. Since you never said anything, you didn’t form the habit of thinking. If you got too much bored, you went to town and bought something new.

But all the people he met at the Erlichs’ talked. If they asked him about a play or a book and he said it was “no good,” they at once demanded why. The Erlichs thought him a clam, but Claude sometimes thought himself amazing. Could it really be he, who was airing his opinions in this indelicate manner? He caught himself using words that had never crossed his lips before, that in his mind were associated only with the printed page. When he suddenly realized that he was using a word for the first time, and probably mispronouncing it, he would become as much confused as if he were trying to pass a lead dollar, would blush and stammer and let some one finish his sentence for him.

Claude couldn’t resist occasionally dropping in at the Erlichs’ in the afternoon; then the boys were away, and he could have Mrs. Erlich to himself for half-an-hour. When she talked to him she taught him so much about life. He loved to hear her sing sentimental German sons as she worked; “Spinn, spinn, du Tochter mein.” He didn’t know why, but he simply adored it! Every time he went away from her lie felt happy and full of kindness, and thought about beech woods and walled towns, or about Carl Schurz and the Romantic revolution.

He had been to see Mrs. Erlich just before starting home for the holidays, and found her making German Christmas cakes. She took him into the kitchen and explained the almost holy traditions that governed this complicated cookery. Her excitement and seriousness as she beat and stirred were very pretty, Claude thought. She told off on her fingers the many ingredients, but he believed there were things she did not name: the fragrance of old friendships, the glow of early memories, belief in wonder-working rhymes and songs. Surely these were fine things to put into little cakes! After Claude left her, he did something a Wheeler didn’t do; he went down to O street and sent her a box of the reddest roses he could find. In his pocket was the little note she had written to thank him.