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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


THE ERLICH family loved anniversaries, birthdays, occasions. That spring Mrs. Erlich’s first cousin, Wilhelmina Schroeder-Schatz, who sang with the Chicago Opera Company, came to Lincoln as soloist for the May Festival. As the date of her engagement approached, her relatives began planning to entertain her. The Matinée Musical was to give a formal reception for the singer, so the Erlichs decided upon a dinner. Each member of the family invited one guest, and they had great difficulty in deciding which of their friends would be most appreciative of the honour. There were to be more men than women, because Mrs. Erlich remembered that cousin Wilhelmina had never been partial to the society of her own sex.

One evening when her sons were revising their list, Mrs. Erlich reminded them that she had not as yet named her guest. “For me,” she said with decision, “you may put down Claude Wheeler.”

This announcement was met with groans and laughter.

“You don’t mean it, Mother,” the oldest son protested. “Poor old Claude wouldn’t know what it was all about,—and one stick can spoil a dinner party.”

Mrs. Erlich shook her finger at him with conviction. “You will see; your cousin Wilhelmina will be more interested in that boy than in any of the others!”

Julius thought if she were not too strongly opposed she might still yield her point. “For one thing, Mother, Claude hasn’t any dinner clothes,” he murmured.

She nodded to him. “That has been attended to, Herr Julius. He is having some made. When I sounded him, he told me he could easily afford it.”

The boys said if things had gone as far as that, they supposed they would have to make the best of it, and the eldest wrote down “Claude Wheeler” with a flourish.

If the Erlich boys were apprehensive, their anxiety was nothing to Claude’s. He was to take Mrs. Erlich to Madame Schroeder-Schatz’s recital, and on the evening of the concert, when he appeared at the door, the boys dragged him in to look him over. Otto turned on all the lights, and Mrs. Erlich, in her new black lace over white satin, fluttered into the parlour to see what figure her escort cut.

Claude pulled off his overcoat as he was bid, arid presented himself in the sooty blackness of fresh broadcloth. Mrs. Erlich’s eyes swept his long black legs, his smooth shoulders, and lastly his square red head, affectionately inclined toward her. She laughed and clapped her hands.

“Now all the girls will turn round in their seats to look, and wonder where I got him!”

Claude began to bestow her belongings in his overcoat pockets; opera glasses in one, fan in another. She put a lorgnette into her little bag, along with her powder-box, handkerchief and smelling salts,—there was even a little silver box of peppermint drops, in case she might begin to cough. She drew on her long gloves, arranged a lace scarf over her hair, and at last was ready to have the evening cloak which Claude held wound about her. When she reached up and took his arm, bowing to her sons, they laughed and liked Claude better. His steady, protecting air was a frame for the gay little picture she made.

The dinner party came off the next evening. The guest of honour, Madame Wilhelmina Schroeder-Schatz, was some years younger than her cousin, Augusta Erlich. She was short, stalwart, with an enormous chest, a fine head, and a commanding presence. Her great contralto voice, which she used without much discretion, was a really superb organ and gave people a pleasure as substantial as food and drink. At dinner she sat on the right of the oldest son. Claude, beside Mrs. Erlich at the other end of the table, watched attentively the lady attired in green velvet and blazing rhinestones.

After dinner, as Madame Schroeder-Schatz swept out of the dining room, she dropped her cousin’s arm and stopped before Claude, who stood at attention behind his chair.

“If Cousin Augusta can spare you, we must have a little talk together. We have been very far separated,” she said.

She led Claude to one of the window seats in the living-room, at once complained of a draft, and sent him to hunt for her green scarf. He brought it and carefully put it about her shoulders; but after a few moments, she threw it off with a slightly annoyed air, as if she had never wanted it. Claude with solicitude reminded her about the draft.

“Draft?” she said lifting her chin, “there is no draft here.”

She asked Claude where he lived, how much land his father owned, what crops they raised, and about their poultry and dairy. When she was a child she had lived on a farm in Bavaria, and she seemed to know a good deal about farming and live-stock. She was disapproving when Claude told her they rented half their land to other farmers. “If I were a young man, I would begin to acquire land, and I would not stop until I had a whole county,” she declared. She said that when she met new people, she liked to find out the way they made their living; her own way was a hard one.

Later in the evening Madame Schroeder-Schatz graciously consented to sing for her cousins. When she sat down to the piano, she beckoned Claude and asked him to turn for her. He shook his head, smiling ruefully.

“I’m sorry I’m so stupid, but I don’t know one note from another.”

She tapped his sleeve. “Well, never mind. I may want the piano moved yet; you could do that for me, eh?”

When Madame Schroeder-Schatz was in Mrs. Erlich’s bedroom, powdering her nose before she put on her wraps, she remarked, “What a pity, Augusta, that you have not a daughter now, to marry to Claude Melnotte. He would make you a perfect son-in-law.”

“Ah, if I only had!” sighed Mrs. Erlich.

“Or,” continued Madame Schroeder-Schatz, energetically pulling on her large carriage shoes, “if you were but a few years younger, it might not yet be too late. Oh, don’t be a fool, Augusta! Such things have happened, and will happen again. However, better a widow than to be tied to a sick man—like a stone about my neck! What a husband to go home to! and I a woman in full vigour. Das ist ein Kreuz ich trage!” She smote her bosom, on the left side.

Having put on first a velvet coat, then a fur mantle, Madame Schroeder-Schatz moved like a galleon out into the living room and kissed all her cousins, and Claude Wheeler, good-night.