So Big by Edna Ferber


Selina had thought herself lucky to get the Dutch school at High Prairie, ten miles outside Chicago. Thirty dollars a month! She was to board at the house of Klaas Pool, the truck farmer. It was August Hempel who had brought it all about; or Julie, urging him. Now, at forty-five, August Hempel, the Clark Street butcher, knew every farmer and stockman for miles around, and hundreds besides scattered throughout Cook County and the State of Illinois.

To get the Dutch school for Selina Peake was a simple enough matter for him. The High Prairie district school teacher had always, heretofore, been a man. A more advantageous position presenting itself, this year's prospective teacher had withdrawn before the school term had begun. This was in September. High Prairie school did not open until the first week in November. In that region of truck farms every boy and girl over six was busy in the fields throughout the early autumn. Two years of this, and Selina would be qualified for a city grade. August Hempel indicated that he could arrange that, too, when the time came. Selina thought this shrewd red-faced butcher a wonderful man, indeed. Which he was.

At forty-seven, single-handed, he was to establish the famous Hempel Packing Company. At fifty he was the power in the yards, and there were Hempel branches in Kansas City, Omaha, Denver. At sixty you saw the name of Hempel plastered over packing sheds, factories, and canning plants all the way from Honolulu to Portland. You read:

Don't Say Ham: Say Hempel's.

Hempel products ranged incredibly from pork to pineapple; from grease to grape-juice. An indictment meant no more to Hempel, the packer, than an injunction for speeding to you. Something of his character may be gleaned from the fact that farmers who had known the butcher at forty still addressed this millionaire, at sixty, as Aug. At sixty-five he took up golf and beat his son-in-law, Michael Arnold, at it. A magnificent old pirate, sailing the perilous commercial seas of the American '90s before commissions, investigations, and inquisitive senate insisted on applying whitewash to the black flag of trade.

Selina went about her preparations in a singularly clear-headed fashion, considering her youth and inexperience. She sold one of the blue-white diamonds, and kept one. She placed her inheritance of four hundred and ninety-seven dollars, complete, in the bank. She bought stout sensible boots, two dresses, one a brown lady's-cloth which she made herself, finished with white collars and cuffs, very neat (the cuffs to be protected by black sateen sleevelets, of course, while teaching); and a wine-red cashmere (mad, but she couldn't resist it) for best.

She eagerly learned what she could of this region once known as New Holland. Its people were all truck gardeners, and as Dutch as the Netherlands from which they or their fathers had come. She heard stories of wooden shoes worn in the wet prairie fields; of a red-faced plodding Cornelius Van der Bilt living in placid ignorance of the existence of his distinguished New York patronymic connection; of sturdy, phlegmatic, industrious farmers in squat, many-windowed houses patterned after the north Holland houses of their European memories. Many of them had come from the town of Schoorl, or near it. Others from the lowlands outside Amsterdam. Selina pictured it another Sleepy Hollow, a replica of the quaint settlement in Washington Irving's delightful tale. The deserting schoolmaster had been a second Ichabod Crane, naturally; the farmer at whose house she was to live a modern Mynheer Van Tassel, pipe, chuckle, and all. She and Julie Hempel read the tale over together on an afternoon when Julie managed to evade the maternal edict. Selina, picturing mellow golden corn fields; crusty crullers, crumbling oly-koeks, toothsome wild ducks, sides of smoked beef, pumpkin pies; country dances, apple-cheeked farmer girls, felt sorry for poor Julie staying on in the dull gray commonplaceness of Chicago.

The last week in October found her on the way to High Prairie, seated beside Klaas Pool in the two-horse wagon with which he brought his garden stuff to the Chicago market. She sat perched next him on the high seat like a saucy wren beside a ruminant Holstein. So they jolted up the long Halsted road through the late October sunset. The prairie land just outside Chicago had not then been made a terrifying and epic thing of slag-heaps, smoke-stacks, and blast furnaces like a Pennell drawing. To-day it stretched away and away in the last rays of the late autumn sunlight over which the lake mist was beginning to creep like chiffon covering gold. Mile after mile of cabbage fields, jade-green against the earth. Mile after mile of red cabbage, a rich plummy Burgundy veined with black. Between these, heaps of corn were piled-up sunshine. Against the horizon an occasional patch of woods showed the last russet and bronze of oak and maple. These things Selina saw with her beauty-loving eye, and she clasped her hands in their black cotton gloves.

"Oh, Mr. Pool!" she cried. "Mr. Pool! How beautiful it is here!"

Klaas Pool, driving his team of horses down the muddy Halsted road, was looking straight ahead, his eyes fastened seemingly on an invisible spot between the off-horse's ears. His was not the kind of brain that acts quickly, nor was his body's mechanism the sort that quickly responds to that brain's message. His eyes were china-blue in a round red face that was covered with a stubble of stiff golden hairs. His round moon of a head was set low and solidly between his great shoulders, so that as he began to turn it now, slowly, you marvelled at the process and waited fearfully to hear a creak. He was turning his head toward Selina, but keeping his gaze on the spot between his horse's ears. Evidently the head and the eyes revolved by quite distinct processes. Now he faced Selina almost directly. Then he brought his eyes around, slowly, until they focussed on her cameo-like face all alight now with her enjoyment of the scene around her; with a certain elation at this new venture into which she was entering; and with excitement such as she used to feel when the curtain rose with tantalizing deliberateness on the first act of a play which she was seeing with her father. She was well bundled up against the sharp October air in her cloak and muffler, with a shawl tucked about her knees and waist. The usual creamy pallor of her fine clear skin showed an unwonted pink, and her eyes were wide, dark, and bright. Beside this sparkling delicate girl's face Klaas Pool's heavy features seemed carved from the stuff of another clay and race. His pale blue eyes showed incomprehension.

"Beautiful?" he echoed, in puzzled interrogation. "What is beautiful?"

Selina's slim arms flashed out from the swathings of cloak, shawl, and muffler and were flung wide in a gesture that embraced the landscape on which the late afternoon sun was casting a glow peculiar to that lake region, all rose and golden and mist-shimmering.

"This! The--the cabbages."

A slow-dawning film of fun crept over the blue of Klaas Pool's stare. This film spread almost imperceptibly so that it fluted his broad nostrils, met and widened his full lips, reached and agitated his massive shoulders, tickled the round belly, so that all Klaas Pool, from his eyes to his waist, was rippling and shaking with slow, solemn, heavy Dutch mirth.

"Cabbages is beautiful!" his round pop eyes staring at her in a fixity of glee. "Cabbages is beautiful!" His silent laughter now rose and became audible in a rich throaty chortle. It was plain that laughter, with Klaas Pool, was not a thing to be lightly dismissed, once raised. "Cabbages----" he choked a little, and spluttered, overcome. Now he began to shift his gaze back to his horses and the road, by the same process of turning his head first and then his eyes, so that to Selina the mirthful tail of his right eye and his round red cheek with the golden fuzz on it gave him an incredibly roguish brownie look.

Selina laughed, too, even while she protested his laughter. "But they are!" she insisted. "They are beautiful. Like jade and Burgundy. No, like--uh--like--what's that in--like chrysoprase and porphyry. All those fields of cabbages and the corn and the beet-tops together look like Persian patches."

Which was, certainly, no way for a new school teacher to talk to a Holland truck gardener driving his team along the dirt road on his way to High Prairie. But then, Selina, remember, had read Byron at seventeen.

Klaas Pool knew nothing of chrysoprase and porphyry. Nor of Byron. Nor, for that matter, of jade and Burgundy. But he did know cabbages, both green and red. He knew cabbage from seed to sauerkraut; he knew and grew varieties from the sturdy Flat Dutch to the early Wakefield. But that they were beautiful; that they looked like jewels; that they lay like Persian patches, had never entered his head, and rightly. What has the head of a cabbage, or, for that matter, of a robust, soil-stained, toiling Dutch truck farmer to do with nonsense like chrysoprase, with jade, with Burgundy, with Persian patterns!

The horses clopped down the heavy country road. Now and again the bulk beside Selina was agitated silently, as before. And from between the golden fuzz of stubble beard she would hear, "Cabbages! Cabbages is ----" But she did not feel offended. She could not have been offended at anything to-day. For in spite of her recent tragedy, her nineteen years, her loneliness, the terrifying thought of this new home to which she was going, among strangers, she was conscious of a warm little thrill of elation, of excitement--of adventure! That was it. "The whole thing's just a grand adventure," Simeon Peake had said. Selina gave a little bounce of anticipation. She was doing a revolutionary and daring thing; a thing that the Vermont and now, fortunately, inaccessible Peakes would have regarded with horror. For equipment she had youth, curiosity, a steel-strong frame; one brown lady's-cloth, one wine-red cashmere; four hundred and ninety-seven dollars; and a gay, adventuresome spirit that was never to die, though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps, painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

So now, as they bumped and jolted along the road Selina thought herself lucky, though she was a little terrified. She turned her gaze from the flat prairie land to the silent figure beside her. Hers was a lively, volatile nature, and his uncommunicativeness made her vaguely uncomfortable. Yet there was nothing glum about his face. Upon it there even lingered, in the corners of his eyes and about his mouth, faint shadows of merriment.

Klaas Pool was a school director. She was to live at his house. Perhaps she should not have said that about the cabbages. So now she drew herself up primly and tried to appear the school teacher, and succeeded in looking as severe as a white pansy.

"Ahem!" (or nearly that). "You have three children, haven't you, Mr. Pool? They'll all be my pupils?"

Klaas Pool ruminated on this. He concentrated so that a slight frown marred the serenity of his brow. In this double question of hers, an attempt to give the conversation a dignified turn, she had apparently created some difficulty for her host. He was trying to shake his head two ways at the same time. This gave it a rotary motion. Selina saw, with amazement, that he was attempting to nod negation and confirmation at once.

"You mean you haven't--or they're not?--or----?"

"I have got three children. All will not be your pupils." There was something final, unshakable in his delivery of this.

"Dear me! Why not? Which ones won't?"

This fusillade proved fatal. It served permanently to check the slight trickle of conversation which had begun to issue from his lips. They jogged on for perhaps a matter of three miles, in silence. Selina told herself then, sternly, that she must not laugh. Having told herself this, sternly, she began to laugh because she could not help it; a gay little sound that flew out like the whir of a bird's wing on the crisp autumnal sunset air. And suddenly this light sound was joined by a slow rumbling that swelled and bubbled a good deal in the manner of the rich glubby sounds that issue from a kettle that has been simmering for a long time. So they laughed together, these two; the rather scared young thing who was trying to be prim, and the dull, unimaginative truck farmer because this alert, great-eyed, slim white creature perched birdlike on the wagon seat beside him had tickled his slow humour-sense.

Selina felt suddenly friendly and happy. "Do tell me which ones will and which won't."

"Geertje goes to school. Jozina goes to school. Roelf works by the farm."

"How old is Roelf?" She was being school teacherly again.

"Roelf is twelve."

"Twelve! And no longer at school! But why not!"

"Roelf he works by the farm."

"Doesn't Roelf like school?"

"But sure."

"Don't you think he ought to go to school?"

"But sure."

Having begun, she could not go back. "Doesn't your wife want Roelf to go to school any more?"

"Maartje? But sure."

She gathered herself together; hurled herself behind the next question. "Then why doesn't he go to school, for pity's sake!"

Klaas Pool's pale blue eyes were fixed on the spot between the horse's ears. His face was serene, placid, patient.

"Roelf he works by the farm."

Selina subsided, beaten.

She wondered about Roelf. Would he be a furtive, slinking boy, like Smike? Geertje and Jozina. Geertje--Gertrude, of course. Jozina? Josephine. Maartje?--m-m-m-m--Martha, probably. At any rate, it was going to be interesting. It was going to be wonderful! Suppose she had gone to Vermont and become a dried apple!

Dusk was coming on. The lake mist came drifting across the prairie and hung, a pearly haze, over the frost-nipped stubble and the leafless trees. It caught the last light in the sky, and held it, giving to fields, trees, black earth, to the man seated stolidly beside the girl, and to the face of the girl herself an opalescent glow very wonderful to see. Selina, seeing it, opened her lips to exclaim again; and then, remembering, closed them. She had learned her first lesson in High Prairie.