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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


CLAUDE dreaded the inactivity of the winter, to which the farmer usually looks forward with pleasure. He made the Thanksgiving football game a pretext for going up to Lincoln,—went intending to stay three days and stayed ten. The first night, when he knocked at the glass door of the Erlichs’ sitting-room and took them by surprise, he thought he could never go back to the farm. Approaching the house on that clear, frosty autumn evening, crossing the lawn strewn with crackling dry leaves, he told himself that he must not hope to find things the same. But they were the same. The boys were lounging and smoking about the square table with the lamp on it, and Mrs. Erlich was at the piano, playing one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” When he knocked, Otto opened the door and called:

“A surprise for you, Mother! Guess who’s here.”

What a welcome she gave him, and how much she had to tell him! While they were all talking at once, Henry, the oldest son, came downstairs dressed for a Colonial ball, with satin breeches and stockings and a sword. His brothers began to point out the inaccuracies of his costume, telling him that he couldn’t possibly call himself a French émigré unless he wore a powdered wig. Henry took a book of memoirs from the shelf to prove to them that at the time when the French émigrés were coming to Philadelphia, powder was going out of fashion.

During this discussion, Mrs. Erlich drew Claude aside and told him in excited whispers that her cousin Wilhelmina, the singer, had at last been relieved of the invalid husband whom she had supported for so many years, and now was going to marry her accompanist, a man much younger than herself.

After the French émigré had gone off to his party, two young instructors from the University dropped in, and Mrs. Erlich introduced Claude as her “landed proprietor” who managed a big ranch out in one of the western counties. The instructors took their leave early, but Claude stayed on. What was it that made life seem so much more interesting and attractive here than elsewhere? There was nothing wonderful about this room; a lot of books, a lamp … comfortable, hard-used furniture, some people whose lives were in no way remarkable—and yet he had the sense of being in a warm and gracious atmosphere, charged with generous enthusiasms and ennobled by romantic friendships. He was glad to see the same pictures on the wall; to find the Swiss wood-cutter on the mantel, still bending under his load of faggots; to handle again the heavy brass paper-knife that in its time had cut so many interesting pages. He picked it up from the cover of a red book lying there,—one of Trevelyan’s volumes on Garibaldi, which Julius told him he must read before he was another week older.

The next afternoon Claude took Mrs. Erlich to the football game and came home with the family for dinner. He lingered on day after day, but after the first few evenings his heart was growing a little heavier all the time. The Erlich boys had so many new interests he couldn’t keep up with them; they had been going on, and he had been standing still. He wasn’t conceited enough to mind that. The thing that hurt was the feeling of being out of it, of being lost in another kind of life in which ideas played but little part. He was a stranger who walked in and sat down here; but he belonged out in the big, lonely country, where people worked hard with their backs and got tired like the horses, and were too sleepy at night to think of anything to say. If Mrs. Erlich and her Hungarian woman made lentil soup and potato dumplings and Wiener-Schnitzel for him, it only made the plain fare on the farm seem the heavier.

When the second Friday came round, he went to bid his friends good-bye and explained that he must be going home tomorrow. On leaving the house that night, he looked back at the ruddy windows and told himself that it was goodbye indeed, and not, as Mrs. Erlich had fondly said, auf wiedersehen. Coming here only made him more discontented with his lot; his frail claim on this kind of life existed no longer. He must settle down into something that was his own, take hold of it with both hands, no matter how grim it was. The next day, during his journey out through the bleak winter country, he felt that he was going deeper and deeper into reality.

Claude had not written when he would be home, but on Saturday there were always some of the neighbours in town. He rode out with one of the Yoeder boys, and from their place walked on the rest of the way. He told his mother he was glad to be back again. He sometimes felt as if it were disloyal to her for him to be so happy with Mrs. Erlich. His mother had been shut away from the world on a farm for so many years; and even before that, Vermont was no very stimulating place to grow up in, he guessed. She had not had a chance, any more than he had, at those things which make the mind more supple and keep the feeling young.

The next morning it was snowing outside, and they had a long, pleasant Sunday breakfast. Mrs. Wheeler said they wouldn’t try to go to church, as Claude must be tired. He worked about the place until noon, making the stock comfortable and looking after things that Dan had neglected in his absence. After dinner he sat down at the secretary and wrote a long letter to his friends in Lincoln. Whenever he lifted his eyes for a moment, he saw the pasture bluffs and the softly falling snow. There was something beautiful about the submissive way in which the country met winter. It made one contented,—sad, too. He sealed his letter and lay down on the couch to read the paper, but was soon asleep.

When he awoke the afternoon was already far gone. The clock on the shelf ticked loudly in the still room, the coal stove sent out a warm glow. The blooming plants in the south bow-window looked brighter and fresher than usual in the soft white light that came up from the snow. Mrs. Wheeler was reading by the west window, looking away from her book now and then to gaze off at the grey sky and the muffled fields. The creek made a winding violet chasm down through the pasture, and the trees followed it in a black thicket, curiously tufted with snow. Claude lay for some time without speaking, watching his mother’s profile against the glass, and thinking how good this soft, clinging snow-fall would be for his wheat fields.

“What are you reading, Mother?” he asked presently.

She turned her head toward him. “Nothing very new. I was just Beginning ‘Paradise Lost’ again. I haven’t read it for a long while.”

“Read aloud, won’t you? Just wherever you happen to be. I like the sound of it.”

Mrs. Wheeler always read deliberately, giving each syllable its full value. Her voice, naturally soft and rather wistful, trailed over the long measures and the threatening Biblical names, all familiar to her and full of meaning.

  • “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
  • As one great furnace flamed; yet from the flames
  • No light, but rather darkness visible
  • Served only to discover sights of woe.”
  • Her voice groped as if she were trying to realize something. The room was growing greyer as she read on through the turgid catalogue of the heathen gods, so packed with stories and pictures, so unaccountably glorious. At last the light failed, and Mrs. Wheeler closed the book.

    “That’s fine,” Claude commented from the couch. “But Milton couldn’t have got along without the wicked, could he?”

    Mrs. Wheeler looked up. “Is that a joke?” she asked slyly.

    “Oh no, not at all! It just struck me that this part is so much more interesting than the books about perfect innocence in Eden.”

    “And yet I suppose it shouldn’t be so,” Mrs. Wheeler said slowly, as if in doubt.

    Her son laughed and sat up, smoothing his rumpled hair. “The fact remains that it is, dear Mother. And if you took all the great sinners out of the Bible, you’d take out all the interesting characters, wouldn’t you?”

    “Except Christ,” she murmured.

    “Yes, except Christ. But I suppose the Jews were honest when they thought him the most dangerous kind of criminal.”

    “Are you trying to tangle me up?” his mother inquired, with both reproach and amusement in her voice.

    Claude went to the window where she was sitting, and looked out at the snowy fields, now becoming blue and desolate as the shadows deepened. “I only mean that even in the Bible the people who were merely free from blame didn’t amount to much.”

    “Ah, I see!” Mrs. Wheeler chuckled softly. “You are trying to get me back to Faith and Works. There’s where you always balked when you were a little fellow. Well, Claude, I don’t know as much about it as I did then. As I get older, I leave a good deal more to God. I believe He wants to save whatever is noble in this world, and that He knows more ways of doing it than I.” She rose like a gentle shadow and rubbed her cheek against his flannel shirt-sleeve, murmuring, “I believe He is sometimes where we would least expect to find Him,—even in proud, rebellious hearts.”

    For a moment they clung together in the pale, clear square of the west window, as the two natures in one person sometimes meet and cling in a fated hour.