The transcontinental express swung along the windings of the
Sand River Valley, and in the rear seat of the observation car a
young man sat greatly at his ease, not in the least discomfited by
the fierce sunlight which beat in upon his brown face and neck and
strong back. There was a look of relaxation and of great passivity
about his broad shoulders, which seemed almost too heavy until he
stood up and squared them. He wore a pale flannel shirt and a blue
silk necktie with loose ends. His trousers were wide and belted at
the waist, and his short sack coat hung open. His heavy shoes had
seen good service. His reddish-brown hair, like his clothes, had
a foreign cut. He had deep-set, dark blue eyes under heavy reddish
eyebrows. His face was kept clean only by close shaving, and even
the sharpest razor left a glint of yellow in the smooth brown of
his skin. His teeth and the palms of his hands were very white.
His head, which looked hard and stubborn, lay indolently in the
green cushion of the wicker chair, and as he looked out at the ripe
summer country a teasing, not unkindly smile played over his lips.
Once, as he basked thus comfortably, a quick light flashed in his
eves, curiously dilating the pupils, and his mouth became a hard,
straight line, gradually relaxing into its former smile of rather
kindly mockery. He told himself, apparently, that there was no
point in getting excited; and he seemed a master hand at taking his
ease when he could. Neither the sharp whistle of the locomotive
nor the brakeman's call disturbed him. It was not until after the
train had stopped that he rose, put on a Panama hat, took from the
rack a small valise and a flute case, and stepped deliberately to
the station platform. The baggage was already unloaded, and the
stranger presented a check for a battered sole-leather steamer
"Can you keep it here for a day or two?" he asked the agent. "I
may send for it, and I may not."
"Depends on whether you like the country, I suppose?" demanded
the agent in a challenging tone.
The agent shrugged his shoulders, looked scornfully at the
small trunk, which was marked "N.E.," and handed out a claim check
without further comment. The stranger watched him as he caught one
end of the trunk and dragged it into the express room. The agent's
manner seemed to remind him of something amusing. "Doesn't seem to
be a very big place," he remarked, looking about.
"It's big enough for us," snapped the agent, as he banged the
trunk into a corner.
That remark, apparently, was what Nils Ericson had wanted. He
chuckled quietly as he took a leather strap from his pocket and
swung his valise around his shoulder. Then he settled his Panama
securely on his head, turned up his trousers, tucked the flute case
under his arm, and started off across the fields. He gave the
town, as he would have said, a wide berth, and cut through a great
fenced pasture, emerging, when he rolled under the barbed wire at
the farther corner, upon a white dusty road which ran straight up
from the river valley to the high prairies, where the ripe wheat
stood yellow and the tin roofs and weathercocks were twinkling in
the fierce sunlight. By the time Nils had done three miles, the
sun was sinking and the farm wagons on their way home from town
came rattling by, covering him with dust and making him sneeze.
When one of the farmers pulled up and offered to give him a lift,
he clambered in willingly. The driver was a thin, grizzled old man
with a long lean neck and a foolish sort of beard, like a goat's.
"How fur ye goin'?" he asked, as he clucked to his horses and
"Do you go by the Ericson place?"
"Which Ericson?" The old man drew in his reins as if he expected
to stop again.
"Oh, the Old Lady Ericson's!" He turned and looked at Nils.
"La, me! If you're goin' out there you might a' rid out in the
automobile. That's a pity, now. The Old Lady Ericson was in town
with her auto. You might 'a' heard it snortin' anywhere about the
post-office er the butcher shop."
"Has she a motor?" asked the stranger absently.
"'Deed an' she has! She runs into town every night about this
time for her mail and meat for supper. Some folks say she's afraid
her auto won't get exercise enough, but I say that's jealousy."
"Aren't there any other motors about here?"
"Oh, yes! we have fourteen in all. But nobody else gets
around like the Old Lady Ericson. She's out, rain er shine, over
the whole county, chargin' into town and out amongst her farms, an'
up to her sons' places. Sure you ain't goin' to the wrong place?"
He craned his neck and looked at Nils' flute case with eager
curiosity. "The old woman ain't got any piany that I knows on.
Olaf, he has a grand. His wife's musical: took lessons in
"I'm going up there tomorrow," said Nils imperturbably. He
saw that the driver took him for a piano tuner.
"Oh, I see!" The old man screwed up his eyes mysteriously. He
was a little dashed by the stranger's noncommunicativeness, but he
soon broke out again.
"I'm one o' Miss Ericson's tenants. Look after one of her
places. I did own the place myself once, but I lost it a while
back, in the bad years just after the World's Fair. Just as well,
too, I say. Lets you out o' payin' taxes. The Ericsons do own
most of the county now. I remember the old preacher's favorite
text used to be, 'To them that hath shall be given.' They've spread
something wonderful--run over this here country like bindweed. But
I ain't one that begretches it to 'em. Folks is entitled to what
they kin git; and they're hustlers. Olaf, he's in the Legislature
now, and a likely man fur Congress. Listen, if that ain't the old
woman comin' now. Want I should stop her?"
Nils shook his head. He heard the deep chug-chug of a motor
vibrating steadily in the clear twilight behind them. The pale
lights of the car swam over the hill, and the old man slapped his
reins and turned clear out of the road, ducking his head at
the first of three angry snorts from behind. The motor was running
at a hot, even speed, and passed without turning an inch from its
course. The driver was a stalwart woman who sat at ease in the
front seat and drove her car bareheaded. She left a cloud of dust
and a trail of gasoline behind her. Her tenant threw back his head
"Whew! I sometimes say I'd as lief be before Mrs. Ericson
as behind her. She does beat all! Nearly seventy, and never lets
another soul touch that car. Puts it into commission herself
every morning, and keeps it tuned up by the hitch-bar all day. I
never stop work for a drink o' water that I don't hear her a-
churnin' up the road. I reckon her darter-in-laws never sets
down easy nowadays. Never know when she'll pop in. Mis' Otto,
she says to me: 'We're so afraid that thing'll blow up and do Ma
some injury yet, she's so turrible venturesome.' Says I: 'I
wouldn't stew, Mis' Otto; the old lady'll drive that car to the
funeral of every darter-in-law she's got.' That was after the old
woman had jumped a turrible bad culvert."
The stranger heard vaguely what the old man was saying.
Just now he was experiencing something very much like
homesickness, and he was wondering what had brought it about.
The mention of a name or two, perhaps; the rattle of a wagon
along a dusty road; the rank, resinous smell of sunflowers and
ironweed, which the night damp brought up from the draws and low
places; perhaps, more than all, the dancing lights of the motor
that had plunged by. He squared his shoulders with a comfortable
sense of strength.
The wagon, as it jolted westward, climbed a pretty steady
up-grade. The country, receding from the rough river valley,
swelled more and more gently, as if it had been smoothed out by
the wind. On one of the last of the rugged ridges, at the end of
a branch road, stood a grim square house with a tin roof and
double porches. Behind the house stretched a row of broken,
wind-racked poplars, and down the hill slope to the left
straggled the sheds and stables. The old man stopped his horses
where the Ericsons' road branched across a dry sand creek that
wound about the foot of the hill.
"That's the old lady's place. Want I should drive in?" "No,
thank you. I'll roll out here. Much obliged to you. Good
His passenger stepped down over the front wheel, and the old
man drove on reluctantly, looking back as if he would like to see
how the stranger would be received.
As Nils was crossing the dry creek he heard the restive
tramp of a horse coming toward him down the hill. Instantly he
flashed out of the road and stood behind a thicket of wild plum
bushes that grew in the sandy bed. Peering through the dusk, be
saw a light horse, under tight rein, descending the hill at a
sharp walk. The rider was a slender woman--barely visible
against the dark hillside--wearing an old-fashioned derby hat and
a long riding skirt. She sat lightly in the saddle, with her
chin high, and seemed to be looking into the distance. As she
passed the plum thicket her horse snuffed the air and shied. She
struck him, pulling him in sharply, with an angry exclamation,
"Blazne!" in Bohemian. Once in the main road, she let him
out into a lope, and they soon emerged upon the crest of high land,
where they moved along the skyline, silhouetted against the band
of faint colour that lingered in the west. This horse and rider,
with their free, rhythmical gallop, were the only moving things
to be seen on the face of the flat country. They seemed, in the
last sad light of evening, not to be there accidentally, but as
an inevitable detail of the landscape.
Nils watched them until they had shrunk to a mere moving
speck against the sky, then he crossed the sand creek and climbed
the hill. When he reached the gate the front of the house was
dark, but a light was shining from the side windows. The pigs
were squealing in the hog corral, and Nils could see a tall boy,
who carried two big wooden buckets, moving about among them.
Halfway between the barn and the house, the windmill wheezed
lazily. Following the path that ran around to the back porch,
Nils stopped to look through the screen door into the lamplit
kitchen. The kitchen was the largest room in the house; Nils
remembered that his older brothers used to give dances there when
he was a boy. Beside the stove stood a little girl with two
light yellow braids and a broad, flushed face, peering
anxiously into a frying pan. In the dining-room beyond, a large,
broad-shouldered woman was moving about the table. She walked
with an active, springy step. Her face was heavy and florid,
almost without wrinkles, and her hair was black at seventy. Nils
felt proud of her as he watched her deliberate activity; never a
momentary hesitation, or a movement that did not tell. He waited
until she came out into the kitchen and, brushing the child aside,
took her place at the stove. Then he tapped on the screen door
"It's nobody but Nils, Mother. I expect you weren't looking
Mrs. Ericson turned away from the stove and stood staring at
him. "Bring the lamp, Hilda, and let me look."
Nils laughed and unslung his valise. "What's the matter,
Mother? Don't you know me?"
Mrs. Ericson put down the lamp. "You must be Nils. You
don't look very different, anyway."
"Nor you, Mother. You hold your own. Don't you wear
"Only to read by. Where's your trunk, Nils?"
"Oh, I left that in town. I thought it might not be
convenient for you to have company so near threshing-time."
"Don't be foolish, Nils." Mrs. Ericson turned back to the
stove. "I don't thresh now. I hitched the wheat land onto the
next farm and have a tenant. Hilda, take some hot water up to
the company room, and go call little Eric."
The tow-haired child, who had been standing in mute
amazement, took up the tea-kettle and withdrew, giving Nils a
long, admiring look from the door of the kitchen stairs.
"Who's the youngster?" Nils asked, dropping down on the
bench behind the kitchen stove.
"One of your Cousin Henrik's."
"How long has Cousin Henrik been dead?"
"Six years. There are two boys. One stays with Peter and
one with Anders. Olaf is their guardeen."
There was a clatter of pails on the porch, and a tall, lanky
boy peered wonderingly in through the screen door. He had a
fair, gentle face and big grey eyes, and wisps of soft yellow
hair hung down under his cap. Nils sprang up and pulled
him into the kitchen, hugging him and slapping him on the
shoulders. "Well, if it isn't my kid! Look at the size of him!
Don't you know me, Eric?"
The boy reddened tinder his sunburn and freckles, and hung his
head. "I guess it's Nils," he said shyly.
"You're a good guesser," laughed Nils giving the lad's hand a
swing. To himself he was thinking: "That's why the little girl
looked so friendly. He's taught her to like me. He was only six
when I went away, and he's remembered for twelve years."
Eric stood fumbling with his cap and smiling. "You look just
like I thought you would," he ventured.
"Go wash your hands, Eric," called Mrs. Ericson. "I've got
cob corn for supper, Nils. You used to like it. I guess you don't
get much of that in the old country. Here's Hilda; she'll take you
up to your room. You'll want to get the dust off you before you
Mrs. Ericson went into the dining-room to lay another plate,
and the little girl came up and nodded to Nils as if to let him
know that his room was ready. He put out his hand and she took it,
with a startled glance up at his face. Little Eric dropped his
towel, threw an arm about Nils and one about Hilda, gave them a
clumsy squeeze, and then stumbled out to the porch.
During supper Nils heard exactly how much land each of his
eight grown brothers farmed, how their crops were coming on, and
how much livestock they were feeding. His mother watched him
narrowly as she talked. "You've got better looking, Nils," she
remarked abruptly, whereupon he grinned and the children giggled.
Eric, although he was eighteen and as tall as Nils, was always
accounted a child, being the last of so many sons. His face seemed
childlike, too, Nils thought, and he had the open, wandering eves
of a little boy. All the others had been men at his age.
After supper Nils went out to the front porch and sat down on
the step to smoke a pipe. Mrs. Ericson drew a rocking-chair up
near him and began to knit busily. It was one of the few Old World
customs she had kept up, for she could not bear to sit with idle
"Where's little Eric, Mother?"
"He's helping Hilda with the dishes. He does it of his own
will; I don't like a boy to be too handy about the house."
"He seems like a nice kid."
"He's very obedient."
Nils smiled a little in the dark. It was just as well to
shift the line of conversation. "What are you knitting there,
"Baby stockings. The boys keep me busy." Mrs. Ericson
chuckled and clicked her needles.
"How many grandchildren have you?"
"Only thirty-one now. Olaf lost his three. They were
sickly, like their mother."
"I supposed he had a second crop by this time!"
"His second wife has no children. She's too proud. She
tears about on horseback all the time. But she'll get caught up
with, yet. She sets herself very high, though nobody knows what
for. They were low enough Bohemians she came of. I never
thought much of Bohemians; always drinking."
Nils puffed away at his pipe in silence, and Mrs. Ericson
knitted on. In a few moments she added grimly: "She was down
here tonight, just before you came. She'd like to quarrel with
me and come between me and Olaf, but I don't give her the chance.
I suppose you'll be bringing a wife home some day."
"I don't know. I've never thought much about it."
"Well, perhaps it's best as it is," suggested Mrs. Ericson
hopefully. "You'd never be contented tied down to the land.
There was roving blood in your father's family, and it's come out
in you. I expect your own way of life suits you best." Mrs.
Ericson had dropped into a blandly agreeable tone which Nils well
remembered. It seemed to amuse him a good deal and his white
teeth flashed behind his pipe. His mother's strategies had
always diverted him, even when he was a boy--they were so flimsy
and patent, so illy proportioned to her vigor and force.
"They've been waiting to see which way I'd jump," he reflected.
He felt that Mrs. Ericson was pondering his case deeply as she
sat clicking her needles.
"I don't suppose you've ever got used to steady work," she went on
presently. "Men ain't apt to if they roam around too long. It's
a pity you didn't come back the year after the World's Fair. Your
father picked up a good bit of land cheap then, in the hard times,
and I expect maybe he'd have give you a farm. it's too bad you put
off comin' back so long, for I always thought he meant to do
something by you."
Nils laughed and shook the ashes out of his pipe. "I'd have
missed a lot if I had come back then. But I'm sorry I didn't get
back to see father."
"Well, I suppose we have to miss things at one end or the
other. Perhaps you are as well satisfied with your own doings,
now, as you'd have been with a farm," said Mrs. Ericson
"Land's a good thing to have," Nils commented, as he lit
another match and sheltered it with his hand.
His mother looked sharply at his face until the match burned
out. "Only when you stay on it!" she hastened to say.
Eric came round the house by the path just then, and Nils
rose, with a yawn. "Mother, if you don't mind, Eric and I will
take a little tramp before bedtime. It will make me sleep."
"Very well; only don't stay long. I'll sit up and wait for
you. I like to lock up myself."
Nils put his hand on Eric's shoulder, and the two tramped down
the hill and across the sand creek into the dusty highroad beyond.
Neither spoke. They swung along at an even gait, Nils puffing at
his pipe. There was no moon, and the white road and the wide
fields lay faint in the starlight. Over everything was darkness
and thick silence, and the smell of dust and sunflowers. The
brothers followed the road for a mile or more without finding a
place to sit down. Finally, Nils perched on a stile over the wire
fence, and Eric sat on the lower step.
"I began to think you never would come back, Nils," said the
"Didn't I promise you I would?"
"Yes; but people don't bother about promises they make to
babies. Did you really know you were going away for good
when you went to Chicago with the cattle that time?"
"I thought it very likely, if I could make my way."
"I don't see how you did it, Nils. Not many fellows could."
Eric rubbed his shoulder against his brother's knee.
"The hard thing was leaving home you and father. It was easy
enough, once I got beyond Chicago. Of course I got awful homesick;
used to cry myself to sleep. But I'd burned my bridges."
"You had always wanted to go, hadn't you?"
"Always. Do you still sleep in our little room? Is that
cottonwood still by the window?"
Eric nodded eagerly and smiled up at his brother in the grey
"You remember how we always said the leaves were whispering
when they rustled at night? Well, they always whispered to me
about the sea. Sometimes they said names out of the geography
books. In a high wind they had a desperate sound, like someone
trying to tear loose."
"How funny, Nils," said Eric dreamily, resting his chin on his
hand. "That tree still talks like that, and 'most always it talks
to me about you."
They sat a while longer, watching the stars. At last Eric
whispered anxiously: "Hadn't we better go back now? Mother will
get tired waiting for us." They rose and took a short cut home,
through the pasture.
The next morning Nils woke with the first flood of light that
came with dawn. The white-plastered walls of his room reflected
the glare that shone through the thin window shades, and he found
it impossible to sleep. He dressed hurriedly and slipped down the
hall and up the back stairs to the half-story room which be used to
share with his little brother. Eric, in a skimpy nightshirt, was
sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes, his pale yellow
hair standing up in tufts all over his head. When he saw Nils, he
murmured something confusedly and hustled his long legs into
his trousers. "I didn't expect you'd be up so early, Nils," he
said, as his head emerged from his blue shirt.
"Oh, you thought I was a dude, did you?" Nils gave him a
playful tap which bent the tall boy up like a clasp knife. "See
here: I must teach you to box." Nils thrust his hands into his
pockets and walked about. "You haven't changed things much up
here. Got most of my old traps, haven't you?"
He took down a bent, withered piece of sapling that hung over
the dresser. "If this isn't the stick Lou Sandberg killed himself
The boy looked up from his shoe-lacing.
"Yes; you never used to let me play with that. Just how did
he do it, Nils? You were with father when he found Lou, weren't
"Yes. Father was going off to preach somewhere, and, as we
drove along, Lou's place looked sort of forlorn, and we thought
we'd stop and cheer him up. When we found him father said he'd
been dead a couple days. He'd tied a piece of binding twine round
his neck, made a noose in each end, fixed the nooses over the ends
of a bent stick, and let the stick spring straight; strangled
"What made him kill himself such a silly way?"
The simplicity of the boy's question set Nils laughing. He
clapped little Eric on the shoulder. "What made him such a silly
as to kill himself at all, I should say!"
"Oh, well! But his hogs had the cholera, and all up and died
on him, didn't they?"
"Sure they did; but he didn't have cholera; and there were
plenty of bogs left in the world, weren't there?"
"Well, but, if they weren't his, how could they do him any
good?" Eric asked, in astonishment.
"Oh, scat! He could have had lots of fun with other people's
hogs. He was a chump, Lou Sandberg. To kill yourself for a pig--
think of that, now!" Nils laughed all the way downstairs, and
quite embarrassed little Eric, who fell to scrubbing his face and
hands at the tin basin. While he was parting his wet hair at the
kitchen looking glass, a heavy tread sounded on the stairs. The
boy dropped his comb. "Gracious, there's Mother. We must have
talked too long." He hurried out to the shed, slipped on his
overalls, and disappeared with the milking pails.
Mrs. Ericson came in, wearing a clean white apron, her black
hair shining from the application of a wet brush.
"Good morning, Mother. Can't I make the fire for you?"
"No, thank you, Nils. It's no trouble to make a cob fire, and
I like to manage the kitchen stove myself" Mrs. Ericson paused with
a shovel full of ashes in her hand. "I expect you will be wanting
to see your brothers as soon as possible. I'll take you up to
Anders' place this morning. He's threshing, and most of our boys
are over there."
"Will Olaf be there?"
Mrs. Ericson went on taking out the ashes, and spoke between
shovels. "No; Olaf's wheat is all in, put away in his new barn.
He got six thousand bushel this year. He's going to town today to
get men to finish roofing his barn."
"So Olaf is building a new barn?" Nils asked absently.
"Biggest one in the county, and almost done. You'll likely be
here for the barn-raising. He's going to have a supper and a dance
as soon as everybody's done threshing. Says it keeps the voters in
good humour. I tell him that's all nonsense; but Olaf has a head
"Does Olaf farm all Cousin Henrik's land?"
Mrs. Ericson frowned as she blew into the faint smoke curling up
about the cobs. "Yes; he holds it in trust for the children, Hilda
and her brothers. He keeps strict account of everything he raises
on it, and puts the proceeds out at compound interest for them."
Nils smiled as he watched the little flames shoot up. The
door of the back stairs opened, and Hilda emerged, her arms behind
her, buttoning up her long gingham apron as she came. He nodded to
her gaily, and she twinkled at him out of her little blue eyes, set
far apart over her wide cheekbones.
"There, Hilda, you grind the coffee--and just put in an extra
handful; I expect your Cousin Nils likes his strong," said Mrs.
Ericson, as she went out to the shed.
Nils turned to look at the little girl, who gripped the coffee
grinder between her knees and ground so hard that her two braids
bobbed and her face flushed under its broad spattering of
freckles. He noticed on her middle finger something that had not
been there last night, and that had evidently been put on for
company: a tiny gold ring with a clumsily set garnet stone. As her
hand went round and round he touched the ring with the tip of his
Hilda glanced toward the shed door through which Mrs. Ericson
had disappeared. "My Cousin Clara gave me that," she whispered
bashfully. "She's Cousin Olaf's wife."
Mrs. Olaf Ericson--Clara Vavrika, as many people still called
her--was moving restlessly about her big bare house that morning.
Her husband had left for the county town before his wife was out of
bed--her lateness in rising was one of the many things the Ericson
family had against her. Clara seldom came downstairs before eight
o'clock, and this morning she was even later, for she had dressed
with unusual care. She put on, however, only a tightfitting black
dress, which people thereabouts thought very plain. She was a
tall, dark woman of thirty, with a rather sallow complexion and a
touch of dull salmon red in her cheeks, where the blood seemed to
burn under her brown skin. Her hair, parted evenly above her low
forehead, was so black that there were distinctly blue lights in
it. Her black eyebrows were delicate half-moons and her lashes
were long and heavy. Her eyes slanted a little, as if she had a
strain of Tartar or gypsy blood, and were sometimes full of fiery
determination and sometimes dull and opaque. Her expression was
never altogether amiable; was often, indeed, distinctly sullen, or,
when she was animated, sarcastic. She was most attractive in
profile, for then one saw to advantage her small, well-shaped head
and delicate ears, and felt at once that here was a very positive,
if not an altogether pleasing, personality.
The entire management of Mrs. Olaf's household devolved upon
her aunt, Johanna Vavrika, a superstitious, doting woman of fifty.
When Clara was a little girl her mother died, and Johanna's life
had been spent in ungrudging service to her niece. Clara,
like many self-willed and discontented persons, was really very
apt, without knowing it, to do as other people told her, and to let
her destiny be decided for her by intelligences much below her own.
It was her Aunt Johanna who had humoured and spoiled her in her
girlhood, who had got her off to Chicago to study piano, and who
had finally persuaded her to marry Olaf Ericson as the best match
she would be likely to make in that part of the country. Johanna
Vavrika had been deeply scarred by smallpox in the old country.
She was short and fat, homely and jolly and sentimental. She was
so broad, and took such short steps when she walked, that her
brother, Joe Vavrika, always called her his duck. She adored her
niece because of her talent, because of her good looks and
masterful ways, but most of all because of her selfishness.
Clara's marriage with Olaf Ericson was Johanna's particular
triumph. She was inordinately proud of Olaf's position, and she
found a sufficiently exciting career in managing Clara's house, in
keeping it above the criticism of the Ericsons, in pampering Olaf
to keep him from finding fault with his wife, and in concealing
from every one Clara's domestic infelicities. While Clara slept of
a morning, Johanna Vavrika was bustling about, seeing that Olaf and
the men had their breakfast, and that the cleaning or the butter-
making or the washing was properly begun by the two girls in the
kitchen. Then, at about eight o'clock, she would take Clara's
coffee up to her, and chat with her while she drank it, telling her
what was going on in the house. Old Mrs. Ericson frequently said
that her daughter-in-law would not know what day of the week it was
if Johanna did not tell her every morning. Mrs. Ericson despised
and pitied Johanna, but did not wholly dislike her. The one thing
she hated in her daughter-in-law above everything else was the way
in which Clara could come it over people. It enraged her that the
affairs of her son's big, barnlike house went on as well as they
did, and she used to feel that in this world we have to wait
overlong to see the guilty punished. "Suppose Johanna Vavrika died
or got sick?" the old lady used to say to Olaf. "Your wife
wouldn't know where to look for her own dish-cloth." Olaf
only shrugged his shoulders. The fact remained that Johanna did
not die, and, although Mrs. Ericson often told her she was
looking poorly, she was never ill. She seldom left the house,
and she slept in a little room off the kitchen. No Ericson, by
night or day, could come prying about there to find fault without
her knowing it. Her one weakness was that she was an incurable
talker, and she sometimes made trouble without meaning to.
This morning Clara was tying a wine-coloured ribbon about
her throat when Johanna appeared with her coffee. After putting
the tray on a sewing table, she began to make Clara's bed,
chattering the while in Bohemian.
"Well, Olaf got off early, and the girls are baking. I'm
going down presently to make some poppy-seed bread for Olaf. He
asked for prune preserves at breakfast, and I told him I was out
of them, and to bring some prunes and honey and cloves from
Clara poured her coffee. "Ugh! I don't see how men can eat
so much sweet stuff. In the morning, too!"
Her aunt chuckled knowingly. "Bait a bear with honey, as we
say in the old country."
"Was he cross?" her niece asked indifferently.
"Olaf? Oh, no! He was in fine spirits. He's never cross if
you know how to take him. I never knew a man to make so little
fuss about bills. I gave him a list of things to get a yard
long, and he didn't say a word; just folded it up and put it in
"I can well believe he didn't say a word," Clara remarked
with a shrug. "Some day he'll forget how to talk."
"Oh, but they say he's a grand speaker in the Legislature.
He knows when to keep quiet. That's why he's got such influence
in politics. The people have confidence in him." Johanna beat up
a pillow and held it under her fat chin while she slipped on the
case. Her niece laughed.
"Maybe we could make people believe we were wise, Aunty, if
we held our tongues. Why did you tell Mrs. Ericson that Norman
threw me again last Saturday and turned my foot? She's been
talking to Olaf."
Johanna fell into great confusion. "Oh, but, my precious,
the old lady asked for you, and she's always so angry if I can't
give an excuse. Anyhow, she needn't talk; she's always tearing
up something with that motor of hers."
When her aunt clattered down to the kitchen, Clara went to
dust the parlour. Since there was not much there to dust, this did
not take very long. Olaf had built the house new for her before
their marriage, but her interest in furnishing it had been short-
lived. It went, indeed, little beyond a bathtub and her piano.
They had disagreed about almost even, other article of furniture,
and Clara had said she would rather have her house empty than full
of things she didn't want. The house was set in a hillside, and
the west windows of the parlour looked out above the kitchen yard
thirty feet below. The east windows opened directly into the front
yard. At one of the latter, Clara, while she was dusting, heard a
low whistle. She did not turn at once, but listened intently as
she drew her cloth slowly along the round of a chair. Yes, there
I dreamt that I dwelt in ma-a-arble halls.
She turned and saw Nils Ericson laughing in the sunlight, his
hat in his hand, just outside the window. As she crossed the room
he leaned against the wire screen. "Aren't you at all surprised to
see me, Clara Vavrika?"
"No; I was expecting to see you. Mother Ericson telephoned
Olaf last night that you were here."
Nils squinted and gave a long whistle. "Telephoned? That must
have been while Eric and I were out walking. Isn't she
enterprising? Lift this screen, won't you?"
Clara lifted the screen, and Nils swung his leg across the
window-sill. As he stepped into the room she said: "You didn't
think you were going to get ahead of your mother, did you?"
He threw his hat on the piano. "Oh, I do sometimes. You see,
I'm ahead of her now. I'm supposed to be in Anders' wheat-field.
But, as we were leaving, Mother ran her car into a soft place
beside the road and sank up to the hubs. While they were going for
the horses to pull her out, I cut away behind the stacks and
escaped." Nils chuckled. Clara's dull eyes lit up as she looked
at him admiringly.
"You've got them guessing already. 1 don't know what your
mother said to Olaf over the telephone, but be came back looking as
if he'd seen a ghost, and he didn't go to bed until a dreadful
hour--ten o'clock, I should think. He sat out on the porch in the
dark like a graven image. It had been one of his talkative days,
too." They both laughed, easily and lightly, like people who have
laughed a great deal together; but they remained standing.
"Anders and Otto and Peter looked as if they had seen ghosts,
too, over in the threshing field. What's the matter with them
Clara gave him a quick, searching look. "Well, for one thing,
they've always been afraid you have the other will."
Nils looked interested. "The other will?"
"Yes. A later one. They knew your father made another, but
they never knew what he did with it. They almost tore the old
house to pieces looking for it. They always suspected that he
carried on a clandestine correspondence with you, for the one thing
he would do was to get his own mail himself. So they thought he
might have sent the new will to you for safekeeping. The old one,
leaving everything to your mother, was made long before you went
away, and it's understood among them that it cuts you out--that she
will leave all the property to the others. Your father made the
second will to prevent that. I've been hoping you had it. It
would be such fun to spring it on them." Clara laughed mirthfully,
a thing she did not often do now.
Nils shook his head reprovingly. "Come, now, you're malicious."
"No, I'm not. But I'd like something to happen to stir them
all up, just for once. There never was such a family for having
nothing ever happen to them but dinner and threshing. I'd almost
be willing to die, just to have a funeral. You wouldn't
stand it for three weeks."
Nils bent over the piano and began pecking at the keys with
the finger of one hand. "I wouldn't? My dear young lady, how do
you know what I can stand? You wouldn't wait to find out."
Clara flushed darkly and frowned. "I didn't believe you would
ever come back--" she said defiantly.
"Eric believed I would, and he was only a baby when I went
away. However, all's well that ends well, and I haven't come back
to be a skeleton at the feast. We mustn't quarrel. Mother mill be
here with a search warrant pretty soon." He swung round and faced
her, thrusting his hands into his coat pockets. "Come, you ought
to be glad to see me, if you want something to happen. I'm
something, even without a will. We can have a little fun, can't
we? I think we can!"
She echoed him, "I think we can!" They both laughed and their
eyes sparkled. Clara Vavrika looked ten years younger than when
she had put the velvet ribbon about her throat that morning.
"You know, I'm so tickled to see mother," Nils went on. "I
didn't know I was so proud of her. A regular pile driver. How
about little pigtails, down at the house? Is Olaf doing the square
thing by those children?"
Clara frowned pensively. "Olaf has to do something that looks
like the square thing, now that he's a public man!" She glanced
drolly at Nils. "But he makes a good commission out of it. On
Sundays they all get together here and figure. He lets Peter and
Anders put in big bills for the keep of the two boys, and he pays
them out of the estate. They are always having what they call
accountings. Olaf gets something out of it, too. I don't know
just how they do it, but it's entirely a family matter, as they
say. And when the Ericsons say that--" Clara lifted her eyebrows.
Just then the angry honk-honk of an approaching motor
sounded from down the road. Their eyes met and they began to
laugh. They laughed as children do when they can not contain
themselves, and can not explain the cause of their mirth to grown
people, but share it perfectly together. When Clara Vavrika sat
down at the piano after he was gone, she felt that she had laughed
away a dozen years. She practised as if the house were burning
over her head.
When Nils greeted his mother and climbed into the front seat
of the motor beside her, Mrs. Ericson looked grim, but she
made no comment upon his truancy until she had turned her car and
was retracing her revolutions along the road that ran by Olaf's big
pasture. Then she remarked dryly:
"If I were you I wouldn't see too much of Olaf's wife while
you are here. She's the kind of woman who can't see much of men
without getting herself talked about. She was a good deal talked
about before he married her."
"Hasn't Olaf tamed her?" Nils asked indifferently.
Mrs. Ericson shrugged her massive shoulders. "Olaf don't seem
to have much luck, when it comes to wives. The first one was meek
enough, but she was always ailing. And this one has her own way.
He says if he quarreled with her she'd go back to her father, and
then he'd lose the Bohemian vote. There are a great many Bohunks
in this district. But when you find a man under his wife's thumb
you can always be sure there's a soft spot in him somewhere."
Nils thought of his own father, and smiled. "She brought him
a good deal of money, didn't she, besides the Bohemian vote?"
Mrs. Ericson sniffed. "Well, she has a fair half section in
her own name, but I can't see as that does Olaf much good. She
will have a good deal of property some day, if old Vavrika don't
marry again. But I don't consider a saloonkeeper's money as good
as other people's money,"
Nils laughed outright. "Come, Mother, don't let your
prejudices carry you that far. Money's money. Old Vavrika's a
mighty decent sort of saloonkeeper. Nothing rowdy about him."
Mrs. Ericson spoke up angrily. "Oh, I know you always stood
up for them! But hanging around there when you were a boy never
did you any good, Nils, nor any of the other boys who went there.
There weren't so many after her when she married Olaf, let me tell
you. She knew enough to grab her chance."
Nils settled back in his seat. "Of course I liked to go
there, Mother, and you were always cross about it. You never took
the trouble to find out that it was the one jolly house in this
country for a boy to go to. All the rest of you were working
yourselves to death, and the houses were mostly a mess, full
of babies and washing and flies. oh, it was all right--I understand
that; but you are young only once, and I happened to be young then.
Now, Vavrika's was always jolly. He played the violin, and I used
to take my flute, and Clara played the piano, and Johanna used to
sing Bohemian songs. She always had a big supper for us--herrings
and pickles and poppy-seed bread, and lots of cake and preserves.
Old Joe had been in the army in the old country, and he could tell
lots of good stories. I can see him cutting bread, at the head of
the table, now. I don't know what I'd have done when I was a kid
if it hadn't been for the Vavrikas, really."
"And all the time he was taking money that other people had
worked hard in the fields for," Mrs. Ericson observed.
"So do the circuses, Mother, and they're a good thing. People
ought to get fun for some of their money. Even father liked old
"Your father," Mrs. Ericson said grimly, "liked everybody."
As they crossed the sand creek and turned into her own place,
Mrs. Ericson observed, "There's Olaf's buggy. He's stopped on his
way from town." Nils shook himself and prepared to greet his
brother, who was waiting on the porch.
Olaf was a big, heavy Norwegian, slow of speech and movement.
His head was large and square, like a block of wood. When Nils, at
a distance, tried to remember what his brother looked like, he
could recall only his heavy head, high forehead, large nostrils,
and pale blue eyes, set far apart. Olaf's features were
rudimentary: the thing one noticed was the face itself, wide and
flat and pale; devoid of any expression, betraying his fifty years
as little as it betrayed anything else, and powerful by reason of
its very stolidness. When Olaf shook hands with Nils he looked at
him from under his light eyebrows, but Nils felt that no one could
ever say what that pale look might mean. The one thing he had
always felt in Olaf was a heavy stubbornness, like the unyielding
stickiness of wet loam against the plow. He had always found Olaf
the most difficult of his brothers.
"How do you do, Nils? Expect to stay with us long?"
"Oh, I may stay forever," Nils answered gaily. "I like this
country better than I used to."
"There's been some work put into it since you left," Olaf remarked.
"Exactly. I think it's about ready to live in now--and I'm
about ready to settle down." Nils saw his brother lower his big
head ("Exactly like a bull," he thought.) "Mother's been persuading
me to slow down now, and go in for farming," he went on lightly.
Olaf made a deep sound in his throat. "Farming ain't learned
in a day," he brought out, still looking at the ground.
"Oh, I know! But I pick things up quickly." Nils had not meant
to antagonize his brother, and he did not know now why he was doing
it. "Of course," he went on, "I shouldn't expect to make a big
success, as you fellows have done. But then, I'm not ambitious.
I won't want much. A little land, and some cattle, maybe."
Olaf still stared at the ground, his head down. He wanted to
ask Nils what he had been doing all these years, that he didn't
have a business somewhere he couldn't afford to leave; why he
hadn't more pride than to come back with only a little sole-leather
trunk to show for himself, and to present himself as the only
failure in the family. He did not ask one of these questions, but
he made them all felt distinctly.
"Humph!" Nils thought. "No wonder the man never talks, when
he can butt his ideas into you like that without ever saying a
word. I suppose he uses that kind of smokeless powder on his wife
all the time. But I guess she has her innings." He chuckled, and
Olaf looked up. "Never mind me, Olaf. I laugh without knowing
why, like little Eric. He's another cheerful dog."
"Eric," said Olaf slowly, "is a spoiled kid. He's just let
his mother's best cow go dry because he don't milk her right. I
was hoping you'd take him away somewhere and put him into business.
If he don't do any good among strangers, he never will." This was
a long speech for Olaf, and as he finished it he climbed into his
Nils shrugged his shoulders. "Same old tricks," he
thought. "Hits from behind you every time. What a whale of a
man!" He turned and went round to the kitchen, where his mother
was scolding little Eric for letting the gasoline get low.
Joe Vavrika's saloon was not in the county seat, where Olaf
and Mrs. Ericson did their trading, but in a cheerfuller place, a
little Bohemian settlement which lay at the other end of the
county, ten level miles north of Olaf's farm. Clara rode up to see
her father almost every day. Vavrika's house was, so to speak, in
the back yard of his saloon. The garden between the two buildings
was inclosed by a high board fence as tight as a partition, and in
summer Joe kept beer tables and wooden benches among the gooseberry
bushes under his little cherry tree. At one of these tables Nils
Ericson was seated in the late afternoon, three days after his
return home. Joe had gone in to serve a customer, and Nils was
lounging on his elbows, looking rather mournfully into his half-
emptied pitcher, when he heard a laugh across the little garden.
Clara, in her riding habit, was standing at the back door of the
house, under the grapevine trellis that old Joe had grown there
long ago. Nils rose.
"Come out and keep your father and me company. We've been
gossiping all afternoon. Nobody to bother us but the flies."
She shook her head. "No, I never come out here any more. Olaf
doesn't like it. I must live up to my position, you know."
"You mean to tell me you never come out and chat with the boys, as
you used to? He has tamed you! Who keeps up these
"I come out on Sundays, when father is alone, and read the
Bohemian papers to him. But I am never here when the bar is open.
What have you two been doing?"
"Talking, as I told you. I've been telling him about my
travels. I find I can't talk much at home, not even to Eric."
Clara reached up and poked with her riding-whip at a white
moth that was fluttering in the sunlight among the vine leaves. "I
suppose you will never tell me about all those things."
"Where can I tell them? Not in Olaf's house, certainly.
What's the matter with our talking here?" He pointed persuasively
with his hat to the bushes and the green table, where the flies
were singing lazily above the empty beer glasses.
Clara shook her head weakly. "No, it wouldn't do. Besides,
I am going now."
"I'm on Eric's mare. Would you be angry if I overtook you?"
Clara looked back and laughed. "You might try and see. I can
leave you if I don't want you. Eric's mare can't keep up with
Nils went into the bar and attempted to pay his score. Big
Joe, six feet four, with curly yellow hair and mustache, clapped
him on the shoulder. "Not a Goddamn a your money go in my drawer,
you hear? Only next time you bring your flute, te-te-te-te-te-ty."
Joe wagged his fingers in imitation of the flute player's position.
"My Clara, she come all-a-time Sundays an' play for me. She not
like to play at Ericson's place." He shook his yellow curls and
laughed. "Not a Goddamn a fun at Ericson's. You come a Sunday.
You like-a fun. No forget de flute." Joe talked very rapidly and
always tumbled over his English. He seldom spoke it to his
customers, and had never learned much.
Nils swung himself into the saddle and trotted to the west of
the village, where the houses and gardens scattered into prairie
land and the road turned south. Far ahead of him, in the declining
light, he saw Clara Vavrika's slender figure, loitering on
horseback. He touched his mare with the whip, and shot along the
white, level road, under the reddening sky. When he overtook
Olaf's wife he saw that she had been crying. "What's the matter,
Clara Vavrika?" he asked kindly.
"Oh, I get blue sometimes. It was awfully jolly living there
with father. I wonder why I ever went away."
Nils spoke in a low, kind tone that he sometimes used with women:
"That's what I've been wondering these many years. You were the
last girl in the country I'd have picked for a wife for Olaf. What
made you do it, Clara?"
"I suppose I really did it to oblige the neighbours"--Clara
tossed her head. "People were beginning to wonder."
"Yes--why I didn't get married. I suppose I didn't like to
keep them in suspense. I've discovered that most girls marry out
of consideration for the neighbourhood."
Nils bent his head toward her and his white teeth flashed.
"I'd have gambled that one girl I knew would say, 'Let the
neighbourhood be damned.'"
Clara shook her head mournfully. "You see, they have it on
you, Nils; that is, if you're a woman. They say you're beginning
to go off. That's what makes us get married: we can't stand the
Nils looked sidewise at her. He had never seen her head droop
before. Resignation was the last thing he would have expected of
her. "In your case, there wasn't something else?"
"I mean, you didn't do it to spite somebody? Somebody who
didn't come back?"
Clara drew herself up. "Oh, I never thought you'd come back.
Not after I stopped writing to you, at least. That was all
over, long before I married Olaf."
"It never occurred to you, then, that the meanest thing you
could do to me was to marry Olaf?"
Clara laughed. "No; I didn't know you were so fond of Olaf."
Nils smoothed his horse's mane with his glove. "You know,
Clara Vavrika, you are never going to stick it out. You'll cut
away some day, and I've been thinking you might as well cut away
Clara threw up her chin. "Oh, you don't know me as well as
you think. I won't cut away. Sometimes, when I'm with father, I
feel like it. But I can hold out as long as the Ericsons can.
They've never got the best of me yet, and one can live, so long as
one isn't beaten. If I go back to father, it's all up with Olaf in
politics. He knows that, and he never goes much beyond
sulking. I've as much wit as the Ericsons. I'll never leave them
unless I can show them a thing or two."
"You mean unless you can come it over them?"
"Yes--unless I go away with a man who is cleverer than they
are, and who has more money."
Nils whistled. "Dear me, you are demanding a good deal. The
Ericsons, take the lot of them, are a bunch to beat. But I should
think the excitement of tormenting them would have worn off by this
"It has, I'm afraid," Clara admitted mournfully.
"Then why don't you cut away? There are more amusing games
than this in the world. When I came home I thought it might amuse
me to bully a few quarter sections out of the Ericsons; but I've
almost decided I can get more fun for my money somewhere else."
Clara took in her breath sharply. "Ah, you have got the other
will! That was why you came home!"
"No, it wasn't. I came home to see how you were getting on
Clara struck her horse with the whip, and in a bound she was
far ahead of him. Nils dropped one word, "Damn!" and whipped after
her; but she leaned forward in her saddle and fairly cut the wind.
Her long riding skirt rippled in the still air behind her. The sun
was just sinking behind the stubble in a vast, clear sky, and the
shadows drew across the fields so rapidly that Nils could scarcely
keep in sight the dark figure on the road. When he overtook her he
caught her horse by the bridle. Norman reared, and Nils was
frightened for her; but Clara kept her seat.
"Let me go, Nils Ericson!" she cried. "I hate you more than
any of them. You were created to torture me, the whole tribe of
you--to make me suffer in every possible way."
She struck her horse again and galloped away from him. Nils
set his teeth and looked thoughtful. He rode slowly home along the
deserted road, watching the stars come out in the clear violet sky.
They flashed softly into the limpid heavens, like jewels let fall
into clear water. They were a reproach, he felt, to a sordid
world. As he turned across the sand creek, he looked up at
the North Star and smiled, as if there were an understanding
between them. His mother scolded him for being late for supper.
On Sunday afternoon Joe Vavrika, in his shirt sleeves arid
carpet slippers, was sitting in his garden, smoking a long-tasseled
porcelain pipe with a hunting scene painted on the bowl. Clara sat
under the cherry tree, reading aloud to him from the, weekly
Bohemian papers. She had worn a white muslin dress under her
riding habit, and the leaves of the cherry tree threw a pattern of
sharp shadows over her skirt. The black cat was dozing in the
sunlight at her feet, and Joe's dachshund was scratching a hole
under the scarlet geraniums and dreaming of badgers. Joe was
filling his pipe for the third time since dinner, when he heard a
knocking on the fence. He broke into a loud guffaw and unlatched
the little door that led into the street. He did not call Nils by
name, but caught him by the hand and dragged him in. Clara
stiffened and the colour deepened under her dark skin. Nils, too,
felt a little awkward. He had not seen her since the night when
she rode away from him and left him alone on the level road between
the fields. Joe dragged him to the wooden bench beside the green
"You bring de flute," he cried, tapping the leather case under
Nils' arm. "Ah, das-a good' Now we have some liddle fun like old
times. I got somet'ing good for you." Joe shook his finger at
Nils and winked his blue eye, a bright clear eye, full of fire,
though the tiny bloodvessels on the ball were always a little
distended. "I got somet'ing for you from"--he paused and waved his
hand-- "Hongarie. You know Hongarie? You wait!" He pushed Nils
down on the bench, and went through the back door of his saloon.
Nils looked at Clara, who sat frigidly with her white skirts
drawn tight about her. "He didn't tell you he had asked me to
come, did he? He wanted a party and proceeded to arrange it.
Isn't he fun? Don't be cross; let's give him a good time."
Clara smiled and shook out her skirt. "Isn't that like
Father? And he has sat here so meekly all day. Well, I won't
pout. I'm glad you came. He doesn't have very many good times now
any more. There are so few of his kind left. The second
generation are a tame lot."
Joe came back with a flask in one hand and three wine glasses
caught by the stems between the fingers of the other. These he
placed on the table with an air of ceremony, and, going behind
Nils, held the flask between him and the sun, squinting into it
admiringly. "You know dis, Tokai? A great friend of mine, he
bring dis to me, a present out of Hongarie. You know how much it
cost, dis wine? Chust so much what it weigh in gold. Nobody but
de nobles drink him in Bohemie. Many, many years I save him up,
dis Tokai." Joe whipped out his official corkscrew and delicately
removed the cork. "De old man die what bring him to me, an' dis
wine he lay on his belly in my cellar an' sleep. An' now,"
carefully pouring out the heavy yellow wine, "an' now he wake up;
and maybe he wake us up, too!" He carried one of the glasses to
his daughter and presented it with great gallantry.
Clara shook her head, but, seeing her father's disappointment,
relented. "You taste it first. I don't want so much."
Joe sampled it with a beatific expression, and turned to Nils.
"You drink him slow, dis wine. He very soft, but he go down hot.
After a second glass Nils declared that he couldn't take any
more without getting sleepy. "Now get your fiddle, Vavrika," he
said as he opened his flute case.
But Joe settled back in his wooden rocker and wagged his big
carpet slipper. "No-no-no-no-no-no-no! No play fiddle now any
more: too much ache in de finger," waving them, "all-a-time
rheumatic. You play de flute, te-tety-tetety-te. Bohemie songs."
"I've forgotten all the Bohemian songs I used to play with you
and Johanna. But here's one that will make Clara pout. You
remember how her eyes used to snap when we called her the Bohemian
Girl?" Nils lifted his flute and began "When Other Lips and Other
Hearts," and Joe hummed the air in a husky baritone, waving
his carpet slipper. "Oh-h-h, das-a fine music," he cried, clapping
his hands as Nils finished. "Now 'Marble Halls, Marble Halls'!
Clara, you sing him."
Clara smiled and leaned back in her chair, beginning softly:
I dreamt that I dwelt in ma-a-arble halls,
With vassals and serfs at my knee,"
and Joe hummed like a big bumblebee.
"There's one more you always played," Clara said quietly, "I
remember that best." She locked her hands over her knee and began
"The Heart Bowed Down," and sang it through without groping for the
words. She was singing with a good deal of warmth when she came to
the end of the old song:
"For memory is the only friend
That grief can call its own."
Joe flashed out his red silk handkerchief and blew his nose,
shaking his head. "No-no-no-no-no-no-no! Too sad, too sad! I not
like-a dat. Play quick somet'ing gay now."
Nils put his lips to the instrument, and Joe lay back in his
chair, laughing and singing, "Oh, Evelina, Sweet Evelina!" Clara
laughed, too. Long ago, when she and Nils went to high school, the
model student of their class was a very homely girl in thick
spectacles. Her name was Evelina Oleson; she had a long, swinging
walk which somehow suggested the measure of that song, and they
used mercilessly to sing it at her.
"Dat ugly Oleson girl, she teach in de school," Joe gasped,
"an' she still walks chust like dat, yup-a, yup-a, yup-a, chust
like a camel she go! Now, Nils, we have some more li'l drink. Oh,
yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes! Dis time you haf to drink, and
Clara she haf to, so she show she not jealous. So, we all drink to
your girl. You not tell her name, eh? No-no-no, I no make you
tell. She pretty, eh? She make good sweetheart? I bet!" Joe
winked and lifted his glass. "How soon you get married?"
Nils screwed up his eyes. "That I don't know. When she says."
Joe threw out his chest. "Das-a way boys talks. No way for
mans. Mans say, 'You come to de church, an' get a hurry on you.'
Das-a way mans talks."
"Maybe Nils hasn't got enough to keep a wife," put in Clara
ironically. "How about that, Nils?" she asked him frankly, as if
she wanted to know.
Nils looked at her coolly, raising one eyebrow. "oh, I can
keep her, all right."
"The way she wants to be kept?"
"With my wife, I'll decide that," replied Nils calmly. "I'll
give her what's good for her."
Clara made a wry face. "You'll give her the strap, I expect,
like old Peter Oleson gave his wife."
"When she needs it," said Nils lazily, locking his hands
behind his head and squinting up through the leaves of the cherry
tree. "Do you remember the time I squeezed the cherries all over
your clean dress, and Aunt Johanna boxed my ears for me? My
gracious, weren't you mad! You had both hands full of cherries,
and I squeezed 'em and made the juice fly all over you. I liked to
have fun with you; you'd get so mad."
"We did have fun, didn't we? None of the other kids ever
had so much fun. We knew how to play."
Nils dropped his elbows on the table and looked steadily
across at her. "I've played with lots of girls since, but I
haven't found one who was such good fun."
Clara laughed. The late afternoon sun was shining full in her
face, and deep in the back of her eyes there shone something fiery,
like the yellow drops of Tokai in the brown glass bottle. "Can you
still play, or are you only pretending?"
"I can play better than I used to, and harder."
"Don't you ever work, then?" She had not intended to say it.
It slipped out because she was confused enough to say just the
"I work between times." Nils' steady gaze still beat upon her.
"Don't you worry about my working, Mrs. Ericson. You're getting
like all the rest of them." He reached his brown, warm hand across
the table and dropped it on Clara's, which was cold as an
icicle. "Last call for play, Mrs. Ericson!" Clara shivered, and
suddenly her hands and cheeks grew warm. Her fingers lingered in
his a moment, and they looked at each other earnestly. Joe Vavrika
had put the mouth of the bottle to his lips and was swallowing the
last drops of the Tokai, standing. The sun, just about to sink
behind his shop, glistened on the bright glass, on his flushed face
and curly yellow hair. "Look," Clara whispered, "that's the way I
want to grow old."
On the day of Olaf Ericson's barn-raising, his wife, for once
in a way, rose early. Johanna Vavrika had been baking cakes and
frying and boiling and spicing meats for a week beforehand, but it
was not until the day before the party was to take place that Clara
showed any interest in it. Then she was seized with one of her
fitful spasms of energy, and took the wagon and little Eric and
spent the day on Plum Creek, gathering vines and swamp goldenrod
to decorate the barn.
By four o'clock in the afternoon buggies and wagons began to
arrive at the big unpainted building in front of Olaf's house.
When Nils and his mother came at five, there were more than fifty
people in the barn, and a great drove of children. On the ground
floor stood six long tables, set with the crockery of seven
flourishing Ericson families, lent for the occasion. In the middle
of each table was a big yellow pumpkin, hollowed out and filled
with woodbine. In one corner of the barn, behind a pile of green-
and-white striped watermelons, was a circle of chairs for the old
people; the younger guests sat on bushel measures or barbed-wire
spools, and the children tumbled about in the haymow. The box
stalls Clara had converted into booths. The framework was hidden
by goldenrod and sheaves of wheat, and the partitions were covered
'With wild grapevines full of fruit. At one of these Johanna
Vavrika watched over her cooked meats, enough to provision an army;
and at the next her kitchen girls had ranged the ice-cream
freezers, and Clara was already cutting pies and cakes
against the hour of serving. At the third stall, little Hilda, in
a bright pink lawn dress, dispensed lemonade throughout the
afternoon. Olaf, as a public man, had thought it inadvisable
to serve beer in his barn; but Joe Vavrika had come over with two
demijohns concealed in his buggy, and after his arrival the wagon
shed was much frequented by the men.
"Hasn't Cousin Clara fixed things lovely?" little Hilda
whispered, when Nils went up to her stall and asked for lemonade.
Nils leaned against the booth, talking to the excited little
girl and watching the people. The barn faced the west, and the
sun, pouring in at the big doors, filled the whole interior with a
golden light, through which filtered fine particles of dust from
the haymow, where the children were romping. There was a great
chattering from the stall where Johanna Vavrika exhibited to the
admiring women her platters heaped with fried chicken, her roasts
of beef, boiled tongues, and baked hams with cloves stuck in the
crisp brown fat and garnished with tansy and parsley. The older
women, having assured themselves that there were twenty kinds of
cake, not counting cookies, and three dozen fat pies, repaired to
the corner behind the pile of watermelons, put on their white
aprons, and fell to their knitting and fancywork. They were a fine
company of old women, and a Dutch painter would have loved to find
them there together, where the sun made bright patches on the floor
and sent long, quivering shafts of gold through the dusky shade up
among the rafters. There were fat, rosy old women who looked hot
in their best black dresses; spare, alert old women with brown,
dark-veined hands; and several of almost heroic frame, not less
massive than old Mrs. Ericson herself. Few of them wore glasses,
and old Mrs. Svendsen, a Danish woman, who was quite bald, wore the
only cap among them. Mrs. Oleson, who had twelve big
grandchildren, could still show two braids of yellow hair as thick
as her own wrists. Among all these grandmothers there were more
brown heads than white. They all had a pleased, prosperous air, as
if they were more than satisfied with themselves and with life.
Nils, leaning against Hilda's lemonade stand, watched them
as they sat chattering in four languages, their fingers never
lagging behind their tongues.
"Look at them over there," he whispered, detaining Clara as
she passed him. "Aren't they the Old Guard? I've just counted
thirty hands. I guess they've wrung many a chicken's neck and
warmed many a boy's jacket for him in their time."
In reality he fell into amazement when he thought of the
Herculean labours those fifteen pairs of hands had performed: of
the cows they had milked, the butter they had made, the gardens
they had planted, the children and grandchildren they had tended,
the brooms they had worn out, the mountains of food they had
cooked. It made him dizzy. Clara Vavrika smiled a hard,
enigmatical smile at him and walked rapidly away. Nils' eyes
followed her white figure as she went toward the house. He
watched her walking alone in the sunlight, looked at her slender,
defiant shoulders and her little hard-set head with its coils of
blue-black hair. "No," he reflected; "she'd never be like them,
not if she lived here a hundred years. She'd only grow more
bitter. You can't tame a wild thing; you can only chain it.
People aren't all alike. I mustn't lose my nerve." He gave
Hilda's pigtail a parting tweak and set out after Clara. "Where
to?" he asked, as he came upon her in the kitchen.
"I'm going to the cellar for preserves."
"Let me go with you. I never get a moment alone with you.
Why do you keep out of my way?"
Clara laughed. "I don't usually get in anybody's way."
Nils followed her down the stairs and to the far corner of
the cellar, where a basement window let in a stream of light.
From a swinging shelf Clara selected several glass jars, each
labeled in Johanna's careful hand. Nils took up a brown flask.
"What's this? It looks good."
"It is. It's some French brandy father gave me when I was
married. Would you like some? Have you a corkscrew? I'll get
When she brought them, Nils took them from her and put them
down on the window-sill. "Clara Vavrika, do you remember how
crazy I used to be about you?"
Clara shrugged her shoulders. "Boys are always crazy
about somebody or another. I dare say some silly has been crazy
about Evelina Oleson. You got over it in a hurry."
"Because I didn't come back, you mean? I had to get on, you
know, and it was hard sledding at first. Then I heard you'd
"And then you stayed away from a broken heart," Clara laughed.
"And then I began to think about you more than I had since I
first went away. I began to wonder if you were really as you had
seemed to me when I was a boy. I thought I'd like to see. I've
had lots of girls, but no one ever pulled me the same way. The
more I thought about you, the more I remembered how it used to be--
like hearing a wild tune you can't resist, calling you out at
night. It had been a long while since anything had pulled me out
of my boots, and I wondered whether anything ever could again."
Nils thrust his hands into his coat pockets and squared his
shoulders, as his mother sometimes squared hers, as Olaf, in a
clumsier manner, squared his. "So I thought I'd come back and see.
Of course the family have tried to do me, and I rather thought I'd
bring out father's will and make a fuss. But they can have their
old land; they've put enough sweat into it." He took the flask and
filled the two glasses carefully to the brim. "I've found out what
I want from the Ericsons. Drink skoal, Clara." He lifted
his glass, and Clara took hers with downcast eyes. "Look at me,
Clara Vavrika. Skoal!"
She raised her burning eyes and answered fiercely: "Skoal!"
The barn supper began at six o'clock and lasted for two
hilarious hours. Yense Nelson had made a wager that he could eat
two whole fried chickens, and he did. Eli Swanson stowed away two
whole custard pies, and Nick Hermanson ate a chocolate layer cake
to the last crumb. There was even a cooky contest among the
children, and one thin, slablike Bohemian boy consumed sixteen and
won the prize, a gingerbread pig which Johanna Vavrika had
carefully decorated with red candies and burnt sugar. Fritz
Sweiheart, the German carpenter, won in the pickle contest, but he
disappeared soon after supper and was not seen for the rest of the
evening. Joe Vavrika said that Fritz could have managed the
pickles all right, but he had sampled the demijohn in his buggy too
often before sitting down to the table.
While the supper was being cleared away the two fiddlers began
to tune up for the dance. Clara was to accompany them on her old
upright piano, which had been brought down from her father's. By
this time Nils had renewed old acquaintances. Since his interview
with Clara in the cellar, he had been busy telling all the old
women how young they looked, and all the young ones how pretty they
were, and assuring the men that they had here the best farmland in
the world. He had made himself so agreeable that old Mrs.
Ericson's friends began to come up to her and tell how lucky she
was to get her smart son back again, and please to get him to play
his flute. Joe Vavrika, who could still play very well when he
forgot that he had rheumatism, caught up a fiddle from Johnny
Oleson and played a crazy Bohemian dance tune that set the wheels
going. When he dropped the bow every one was ready to dance.
Olaf, in a frock coat and a solemn made-up necktie, led the grand
march with his mother. Clara had kept well out of that
by sticking to the piano. She played the march with a pompous
solemnity which greatly amused the prodigal son, who went over and
stood behind her.
"Oh, aren't you rubbing it into them, Clara Vavrika? And
aren't you lucky to have me here, or all your wit would be thrown
"I'm used to being witty for myself. It saves my life."
The fiddles struck up a polka, and Nils convulsed Joe Vavrika
by leading out Evelina Oleson, the homely schoolteacher. His next
partner was a very fat Swedish girl, who, although she was an
heiress, had not been asked for the first dance, but had stood
against the wall in her tight, high-heeled shoes, nervously
fingering a lace handkerchief. She was soon out of breath, so Nils
led her, pleased and panting, to her seat, and went over to the
piano, from which Clara had been watching his gallantry. "Ask
Olena Yenson," she whispered. "She waltzes beautifully."
Olena, too, was rather inconveniently plump, handsome in a smooth,
heavy way, with a fine colour and good-natured, sleepy eyes. She
was redolent of violet sachet powder, and had warm, soft, white
hands, but she danced divinely, moving as smoothly as the tide
coming in. "There, that's something like," Nils said as he released
her. "You'll give me the next waltz, won't you? Now I must go and
dance with my little cousin."
Hilda was greatly excited when Nils went up to her stall and
held out his arm. Her little eyes sparkled, but she declared that
she could not leave her lemonade. Old Mrs. Ericson, who happened
along at this moment, said she would attend to that, and Hilda came
out, as pink as her pink dress. The dance was a schottische, and
in a moment her yellow braids were fairly standing on end.
"Bravo!" Nils cried encouragingly. "Where did you learn to dance
"My Cousin Clara taught me," the little girl panted.
Nils found Eric sitting with a group of boys who were too
awkward or too shy to dance, and told him that he must dance the
next waltz with Hilda.
The boy screwed up his shoulders. "Aw, Nils, I can't dance.
My feet are too big; I look silly."
"Don't be thinking about yourself. It doesn't matter how boys
Nils had never spoken to him so sharply before, and Eric made
haste to scramble out of his corner and brush the straw from his
Clara nodded approvingly. "Good for you, Nils. I've been
trying to get hold of him. They dance very nicely together; I
sometimes play for them."
"I'm obliged to you for teaching him. There's no reason why he
should grow up to be a lout."
"He'll never be that. He's more like you than any of them.
Only he hasn't your courage." From her slanting eyes Clara shot
forth one of those keen glances, admiring and at the same time
challenging, which she seldom bestowed on any one, and which seemed
to say, "Yes, I admire you, but I am your equal."
Clara was proving a much better host than Olaf, who, once the
supper was over, seemed to feel no interest in anything but the
lanterns. He had brought a locomotive headlight from
town to light the revels, and he kept skulking about as if he
feared the mere light from it might set his new barn on fire.
His wife, on the contrary, was cordial to every one, was
animated and even gay. The deep salmon colour in her cheeks burned
vividly, and her eyes were full of life. She gave the piano over
to the fat Swedish heiress, pulled her father away from the corner
where he sat gossiping with his cronies, and made him dance a
Bohemian dance with her. In his youth Joe had been a famous
dancer, and his daughter got him so limbered up that every one sat
around and applauded them. The old ladies were particularly
delighted, and made them go through the dance again. From their
corner where they watched and commented, the old women kept time
with their feet and hands, and whenever the fiddles struck up a new
air old Mrs. Svendsen's white cap would begin to bob.
Clara was waltzing with little Eric when Nils came up to them,
brushed his brother aside, and swung her out among the dancers.
"Remember how we used to waltz on rollers at the old skating rink
in town? I suppose people don't do that any more. We used to keep
it up for hours. You know, we never did moon around as other boys
and girls did. It was dead serious with us from the beginning.
When we were most in love with each other, we used to fight. You
were always pinching people; your fingers were like little nippers.
A regular snapping turtle, you were. Lord, how you'd like
Stockholm! Sit out in the streets in front of cafes and talk all
night in summer. just like a reception--officers and ladies and
funny English people. Jolliest people in the world, the Swedes,
once you get them going. Always drinking things--champagne and
stout mixed, half-and-half, serve it out of big pitchers, and serve
plenty. Slow pulse, you know; they can stand a lot. Once they
light up, they're glowworms, I can tell you."
"All the same, you don't really like gay people."
"No; I could tell that when you were looking at the old women
there this afternoon. They're the kind you really admire, after
all; women like your mother. And that's the kind you'll marry."
"Is it, Miss Wisdom? You'll see who I'll marry, and she
won't have a domestic virtue to bless herself with. She'll be a
snapping turtle, and she'll be a match for me. All the same,
they're a fine bunch of old dames over there. You admire them
"No, I don't; I detest them."
"You won't, when you look back on them from Stockholm or
Budapest. Freedom settles all that. Oh, but you're the real
Bohemian Girl, Clara Vavrika!" Nils laughed down at her sullen
frown and began mockingly to sing:
"Oh, how could a poor gypsy maiden like me
Expect the proud bride of a baron to be?"
Clara clutched his shoulder. "Hush, Nils; every one is looking at
"I don't care. They can't gossip. It's all in the family, as
the Ericsons say when they divide up little Hilda's patrimony
amongst them. Besides, we'll give them something to talk about
when we hit the trail. Lord, it will be a godsend to them! They
haven't had anything so interesting to chatter about since the
grasshopper year. It'll give them a new lease of life. And Olaf
won't lose the Bohemian vote, either. They'll have the laugh on
him so that they'll vote two apiece. They'll send him to Congress.
They'll never forget his barn party, or us. They'll always
remember us as we're dancing together now. We're making a legend.
Where's my waltz, boys?" he called as they whirled past the
The musicians grinned, looked at each other, hesitated, and
began a new air; and Nils sang with them, as the couples fell from
a quick waltz to a long, slow glide:
"When other lips and other hearts
Their tale of love shall tell,
In language whose excess imparts
The power they feel so well."
The old women applauded vigorously. "What a gay one he is,
that Nils!" And old Mrs. Svendsen's cap lurched dreamily
from side to side to the flowing measure of the dance.
Of days that have as ha-a-p-py been,
And you'll remember me."
The moonlight flooded that great, silent land. The reaped
fields lay yellow in it. The straw stacks and poplar windbreaks
threw sharp black shadows. The roads were white rivers of dust.
The sky was a deep, crystalline blue, and the stars were few and
faint. Everything seemed to have succumbed, to have sunk to sleep,
under the great, golden, tender, midsummer moon. The splendour of
it seemed to transcend human life and human fate. The senses were
too feeble to take it in, and every time one looked up at the sky
one felt unequal to it, as if one were sitting deaf under the waves
of a great river of melody. Near the road, Nils Ericson was lying
against a straw stack in Olaf's wheat field. His own life seemed
strange and unfamiliar to him, as if it were something he had read
about, or dreamed, and forgotten. He lay very still, watching the
white road that ran in front of him, lost itself among the fields,
and then, at a distance, reappeared over a little hill. At last,
against this white band he saw something moving rapidly, and he got
up and walked to the edge of the field. "She is passing the row of
poplars now," he thought. He heard the padded beat of hoofs along
the dusty road, and as she came into sight he stepped out and waved
his arms. Then, for fear of frightening the horse, he drew back
and waited. Clara had seen him, and she came up at a walk. Nils
took the horse by the bit and stroked his neck.
"What are you doing out so late, Clara Vavrika? I went to the
house, but Johanna told me you had gone to your father's."
"Who can stay in the house on a night like this? Aren't you
"Ah, but that's another matter."
Nils turned the horse into the field.
"What are you doing? Where are you taking Norman?"
"Not far, but I want to talk to you tonight; I have something to
say to you. I can't talk to you at the house, with Olaf sitting
there on the porch, weighing a thousand tons."
Clara laughed. "He won't be sitting there now. He's in bed
by this time, and asleep--weighing a thousand tons."
Nils plodded on across the stubble. "Are you really going
to spend the rest of your life like this, night after night,
summer after summer? Haven't you anything better to do on a night
like this than to wear yourself and Norman out tearing across the
country to your father's and back? Besides, your father won't
live forever, you know. His little place will be shut up or
sold, and then you'll have nobody but the Ericsons. You'll have
to fasten down the hatches for the winter then."
Clara moved her head restlessly. "Don't talk about that. I
try never to think of it. If I lost Father I'd lose everything,
even my hold over the Ericsons."
"Bah! You'd lose a good deal more than that. You'd lose
your race, everything that makes you yourself. You've lost a
good deal of it now."
"Of your love of life, your capacity for delight."
Clara put her hands up to her face. "I haven't, Nils
Ericson, I haven't! Say anything to me but that. I won't have
it!" she declared vehemently.
Nils led the horse up to a straw stack, and turned to Clara,
looking at her intently, as he had looked at her that Sunday
afternoon at Vavrika's. "But why do you fight for that so? What
good is the power to enjoy, if you never enjoy? Your hands are
cold again; what are you afraid of all the time? Ah, you're
afraid of losing it; that's what's the matter with you! And you
will, Clara Vavrika, you will! When I used to know you--listen;
you've caught a wild bird in your hand, haven't you, and felt its
heart beat so hard that you were afraid it would shatter its
little body to pieces? Well, you used to be just like that, a
slender, eager thing with a wild delight inside you. That is how
I remembered you. And I come back and find you--a bitter
woman. This is a perfect ferret fight here; you live by biting
and being bitten. Can't you remember what life used to be? Can't
you remember that old delight? I've never forgotten it, or known
its like, on land or sea."
He drew the horse under the shadow of the straw stack.
Clara felt him take her foot out of the stirrup, and she slid
softly down into his arms. He kissed her slowly. He was a
deliberate man, but his nerves were steel when he wanted
anything. Something flashed out from him like a knife out of a
sheath. Clara felt everything slipping away from her; she was
flooded by the summer night. He thrust his hand into his pocket,
and then held it out at arm's length. "Look," he said. The
shadow of the straw stack fell sharp across his wrist, and in the
palm of his hand she saw a silver dollar shining. "That's my
pile," he muttered; "will you go with me?"
Clara nodded, and dropped her forehead on his shoulder.
Nils took a deep breath. "Will you go with me tonight?"
"Where?" she whispered softly.
"To town, to catch the midnight flyer."
Clara lifted her head and pulled herself together. "Are you
crazy, Nils? We couldn't go away like that."
"That's the only way we ever will go. You can't sit on the
bank and think about it. You have to plunge. That's the way
I've always done, and it's the right way for people like you and
me. There's nothing so dangerous as sitting still. You've only
got one life, one youth, and you can let it slip through your
fingers if you want to; nothing easier. Most people do that.
You'd be better off tramping the roads with me than you are
here." Nils held back her head and looked into her eyes. "But
I'm not that kind of a tramp, Clara. You won't have to take in
sewing. I'm with a Norwegian shipping line; came over on
business with the New York offices, but now I'm going straight
back to Bergen. I expect I've got as much money as the Ericsons.
Father sent me a little to get started. They never knew about
that. There, I hadn't meant to tell you; I wanted you to come on
your own nerve."
Clara looked off across the fields. "It isn't that, Nils,
but something seems to hold me. I'm afraid to pull against it.
It comes out of the ground, I think."
"I know all about that. One has to tear loose. You're not
needed here. Your father will understand; he's made like us. As
for Olaf, Johanna will take better care of him than ever you
could. It's now or never, Clara Vavrika. My bag's at the
station; I smuggled it there yesterday."
Clara clung to him and hid her face against his shoulder.
"Not tonight," she whispered. "Sit here and talk to me tonight.
I don't want to go anywhere tonight. I may never love you like
Nils laughed through his teeth. "You can't come that on me.
That's not my way, Clara Vavrika. Eric's mare is over there
behind the stacks, and I'm off on the midnight. It's goodbye, or
off across the world with me. My carriage won't wait. I've
written a letter to Olaf, I'll mail it in town. When he reads it
he won't bother us--not if I know him. He'd rather have the
land. Besides, I could demand an investigation of his
administration of Cousin Henrik's estate, and that would be bad
for a public man. You've no clothes, I know; but you can sit up
tonight, and we can get everything on the way. Where's your old
dash, Clara Vavrika? What's become of your Bohemian blood? I used
to think you had courage enough for anything. Where's your
nerve--what are you waiting for?"
Clara drew back her head, and he saw the slumberous fire in
her eyes. "For you to say one thing, Nils Ericson."
"I never say that thing to any woman, Clara Vavrika." He
leaned back, lifted her gently from the ground, and whispered
through his teeth: "But I'll never, never let you go, not to any
man on earth but me! Do you understand me? Now, wait here."
Clara sank down on a sheaf of wheat and covered her face
with her hands. She did not know what she was going to do--
whether she would go or stay. The great, silent country seemed
to lay a spell upon her. The ground seemed to hold her as if by
roots. Her knees were soft under her. She felt as if she could
not bear separation from her old sorrows, from her old discontent.
They were dear to her, they had kept her alive, they were
a part of her. There would be nothing left of her if she were
wrenched away from them. Never could she pass beyond that skyline
against which her restlessness had beat so many times. She felt
as if her soul had built itself a nest there on that horizon at
which she looked every morning and every evening, and it was dear
to her, inexpressibly dear. She pressed her fingers against her
eyeballs to shut it out. Beside her she heard the tramping of
horses in the soft earth. Nils said nothing to her. He put his
hands under her arms and lifted her lightly to her saddle. Then
he swung himself into his own.
"We shall have to ride fast to catch the midnight train. A
last gallop, Clara Vavrika. Forward!"
There was a start, a thud of hoofs along the moonlit road, two
dark shadows going over the hill; and then the great, still land
stretched untroubled under the azure night. Two shadows had
A year after the flight of Olaf Ericson's wife, the night
train was steaming across the plains of Iowa. The conductor was
hurrying through one of the day coaches, his lantern on his arm,
when a lank, fair-haired boy sat up in one of the plush seats and
tweaked him by the coat.
"What is the next stop, please, sir?"
"Red Oak, Iowa. But you go through to Chicago, don't you?"
He looked down, and noticed that the boy's eyes were red and his
face was drawn, as if he were in trouble.
"Yes. But I was wondering whether I could get off at the
next place and get a train back to Omaha."
"Well, I suppose you could. Live in Omaha?"
"No. In the western part of the State. How soon do we get
to Red Oak?"
"Forty minutes. You'd better make up your mind, so I can
tell the baggageman to put your trunk off."
"Oh, never mind about that! I mean, I haven't got any," the
boy added, blushing.
"Run away," the conductor thought, as he slammed the coach
door behind him.
Eric Ericson crumpled down in his seat and put his brown hand
to his forehead. He had been crying, and he had had no supper, and
his head was aching violently. "Oh, what shall I do?" he thought,
as he looked dully down at his big shoes. "Nils will be ashamed of
me; I haven't got any spunk."
Ever since Nils had run away with his brother's wife, life at
home had been hard for little Eric. His mother and Olaf both
suspected him of complicity. Mrs. Ericson was harsh and
faultfinding, constantly wounding the boy's pride; and Olaf was
always setting her against him.
Joe Vavrika heard often from his daughter. Clara had always
been fond of her father, and happiness made her kinder. She wrote
him long accounts of the voyage to Bergen, and of the trip she and
Nils took through Bohemia to the little town where her father had
grown up and where she herself was born. She visited all her
kinsmen there, and sent her father news of his brother, who was a
priest; of his sister, who had married a horse-breeder--of their
big farm and their many children. These letters Joe always managed
to read to little Eric. They contained messages for Eric and
Hilda. Clara sent presents, too, which Eric never dared to take
home and which poor little Hilda never even saw, though she loved
to hear Eric tell about them when they were out getting the eggs
together. But Olaf once saw Eric coming out of Vavrika's house--
the old man had never asked the boy to come into his saloon--and
Olaf went straight to his mother and told her. That night Mrs.
Ericson came to Eric's room after he was in bed and made a terrible
scene. She could be very terrifying when she was really angry.
She forbade him ever to speak to Vavrika again, and after that
night she would not allow him to go to town alone. So it was a
long while before Eric got any more news of his brother. But old
Joe suspected what was going on, and he carried Clara's letters
about in his pocket. One Sunday he drove out to see a German
friend of his, and chanced to catch sight of Eric, sitting by the
cattle pond in the big pasture. They went together into Fritz
Oberlies' barn, and read the letters and talked things over. Eric
admitted that things were getting hard for him at home. That very
night old Joe sat down and laboriously penned a statement of the
case to his daughter.
Things got no better for Eric. His mother and Olaf felt
that, however closely he was watched, he still, as they said,
"heard." Mrs. Ericson could not admit neutrality. She had sent
Johanna Vavrika packing back to her brother's, though Olaf would
much rather have kept her than Anders' eldest daughter, whom Mrs.
Ericson installed in her place. He was not so highhanded as his
mother, and he once sulkily told her that she might better have
taught her granddaughter to cook before she sent Johanna away.
Olaf could have borne a good deal for the sake of prunes spiced
in honey, the secret of which Johanna had taken away with her.
At last two letters came to Joe Vavrika: one from Nils,
enclosing a postal order for money to pay Eric's passage to
Bergen, and one from Clara, saying that Nils had a place for Eric
in the offices of his company, that he was to live with them, and
that they were only waiting for him to come. He was to leave New
York on one of the boats of Nils' own line; the captain was one
of their friends, and Eric was to make himself known at once.
Nils' directions were so explicit that a baby could have
followed them, Eric felt. And here he was, nearing Red Oak,
Iowa, and rocking backward and forward in despair. Never had he
loved his brother so much, and never had the big world called to
him so hard. But there was a lump in his throat which would not
go down. Ever since nightfall he had been tormented by the
thought of his mother, alone in that big house that had sent
forth so many men. Her unkindness now seemed so little, and her
loneliness so great. He remembered everything she had ever done
for him: how frightened she had been when he tore his hand in the
corn-sheller, and how she wouldn't let Olaf scold him. When Nils
went away he didn't leave his mother all alone, or he would never
have gone. Eric felt sure of that.
The train whistled. The conductor came in, smiling not unkindly.
"Well, young man, what are you going to do? We stop at Red Oak in
"Yes, thank you. I'll let you know." The conductor went out,
and the boy doubled up with misery. He couldn't let his one chance
go like this. He felt for his breast pocket and crackled Nils'
letter to give him courage. He didn't want Nils to be ashamed of
him. The train stopped. Suddenly he remembered his brother's
kind, twinkling eyes, that always looked at you as if from far
away. The lump in his throat softened. "Ah, but Nils, Nils would
understand!" he thought. "That's just it about Nils; he
A lank, pale boy with a canvas telescope stumbled off the
train to the Red Oak siding, just as the conductor called, "All
The next night Mrs. Ericson was sitting alone in her wooden
rocking-chair on the front porch. Little Hilda had been sent to
bed and had cried herself to sleep. The old woman's knitting was
on her lap, but her hands lay motionless on top of it. For more
than an hour she had not moved a muscle. She simply sat, as only
the Ericsons and the mountains can sit. The house was dark, and
there was no sound but the croaking of the frogs down in the pond
of the little pasture.
Eric did not come home by the road, but across the fields,
where no one could see him. He set his telescope down softly in
the kitchen shed, and slipped noiselessly along the path to the
front porch. He sat down on the step without saying anything.
Mrs. Ericson made no sign, and the frogs croaked on. At last the
boy spoke timidly.
"I've come back, Mother."
"Very well," said Mrs. Ericson.
Eric leaned over and picked up a little stick out of the grass.
"How about the milking?" he faltered.
"That's been done, hours ago."
"Who did you get?"
"Get? I did it myself. I can milk as good as any of you."
Eric slid along the step nearer to her. "Oh, Mother, why did you?"
he asked sorrowfully. "Why didn't you get one of Otto's boys?"
"I didn't want anybody to know I was in need of a boy," said
Mrs. Ericson bitterly. She looked straight in front of her and her
mouth tightened. "I always meant to give you the home farm," she
The boy stared and slid closer. "Oh, Mother," he faltered, "I
don't care about the farm. I came back because I thought you might
be needing me, maybe." He hung his head and got no further.
"Very well," said Mrs. Ericson. Her hand went out from her
suddenly and rested on his head. Her fingers twined themselves in
his soft, pale hair. His tears splashed down on the boards;
happiness filled his heart.