MY ANTONIA

BOOK II
CHAPTER XIII

I NOTICED ONE AFTERNOON that grandmother had been crying. Her feet seemed to drag as she moved about the house, and I got up from the table where I was studying and went to her, asking if she didn`t feel well, and if I couldn`t help her with her work.

`No, thank you, Jim. I`m troubled, but I guess I`m well enough. Getting a little rusty in the bones, maybe,` she added bitterly.

I stood hesitating. `What are you fretting about, grandmother? Has grandfather lost any money?`

`No, it ain`t money. I wish it was. But I`ve heard things. You must `a` known it would come back to me sometime.` She dropped into a chair, and, covering her face with her apron, began to cry. `Jim,` she said, `I was never one that claimed old folks could bring up their grandchildren. But it came about so; there wasn`t any other way for you, it seemed like.`

I put my arms around her. I couldn`t bear to see her cry.

`What is it, grandmother? Is it the Firemen`s dances?`

She nodded.

`I`m sorry I sneaked off like that. But there`s nothing wrong about the dances, and I haven`t done anything wrong. I like all those country girls, and I like to dance with them. That`s all there is to it.`

`But it ain`t right to deceive us, son, and it brings blame on us. People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain`t just to us.`

`I don`t care what they say about me, but if it hurts you, that settles it. I won`t go to the Firemen`s Hall again.`

I kept my promise, of course, but I found the spring months dull enough. I sat at home with the old people in the evenings now, reading Latin that was not in our high-school course. I had made up my mind to do a lot of college requirement work in the summer, and to enter the freshman class at the university without conditions in the fall. I wanted to get away as soon as possible.

Disapprobation hurt me, I found--even that of people whom I did not admire. As the spring came on, I grew more and more lonely, and fell back on the telegrapher and the cigar-maker and his canaries for companionship. I remember I took a melancholy pleasure in hanging a May-basket for Nina Harling that spring. I bought the flowers from an old German woman who always had more window plants than anyone else, and spent an afternoon trimming a little workbasket. When dusk came on, and the new moon hung in the sky, I went quietly to the Harlings` front door with my offering, rang the bell, and then ran away as was the custom. Through the willow hedge I could hear Nina`s cries of delight, and I felt comforted.

On those warm, soft spring evenings I often lingered downtown to walk home with Frances, and talked to her about my plans and about the reading I was doing. One evening she said she thought Mrs. Harling was not seriously offended with me.

`Mama is as broad-minded as mothers ever are, I guess. But you know she was hurt about Antonia, and she can`t understand why you like to be with Tiny and Lena better than with the girls of your own set.`

`Can you?` I asked bluntly.

Frances laughed. `Yes, I think I can. You knew them in the country, and you like to take sides. In some ways you`re older than boys of your age. It will be all right with mama after you pass your college examinations and she sees you`re in earnest.`

`If you were a boy,` I persisted, `you wouldn`t belong to the Owl Club, either. You`d be just like me.`

She shook her head. `I would and I wouldn`t. I expect I know the country girls better than you do. You always put a kind of glamour over them. The trouble with you, Jim, is that you`re romantic. Mama`s going to your Commencement. She asked me the other day if I knew what your oration is to be about. She wants you to do well.`

I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered. Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises, and I looked at her most of the time while I made my speech. Her keen, intelligent eyes never left my face. Afterward she came back to the dressing-room where we stood, with our diplomas in our hands, walked up to me, and said heartily: `You surprised me, Jim. I didn`t believe you could do as well as that. You didn`t get that speech out of books.` Among my graduation presents there was a silk umbrella from Mrs. Harling, with my name on the handle.

I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me--Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.

`Oh, Jim, it was splendid!` Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. `There ain`t a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won`t tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn`t he, girls?`

Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, `What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you`d forget.`

Anna spoke wistfully.

`It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.`

`Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim`--Antonia took hold of my coat lapels--`there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!`

`I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony,` I said. `I dedicated it to him.`

She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.

I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.



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