Willa Cather > One of Ours > Book One: On Lovely Creek. III.
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Willa Cather (1873–1947).  One of Ours.  1922.

Book One: On Lovely Creek

III
THE CIRCUS was on Saturday. The next morning Claude was standing at his dresser, shaving. His beard was already strong, a shade darker than his hair and not so red as his skin. His eyebrows and long lashes were a pale corn-colour—made his blue eyes seem lighter than they were, and, he thought, gave a look of shyness and weakness to the upper part of his face. He was exactly the sort of looking boy he didn’t want to be. He especially hated his head,—so big that he had trouble in buying his hats, and uncompromisingly square in shape; a perfect block-head. His name was another source of humiliation. Claude: it was a “chump” name, like Elmer and Roy; a hayseed name trying to be fine. In country schools there was always a red-headed, warty-handed, runny-nosed little boy who was called Claude. His good physique he took for granted; smooth, muscular arms and legs, and strong shoulders, a farmer boy might be supposed to have. Unfortunately he had none of his father’s physical repose, and his strength often asserted itself inharmoniously. The storms that went on in his mind sometimes made him rise, or sit down, or lift something, more violently than there was any apparent reason for his doing.   1
  The household slept late on Sunday morning; even Mahailey did not get up until seven. The general signal for breakfast was the smell of doughnuts frying. This morning Ralph rolled out of bed at the last minute and callously put on his clean underwear without taking a bath. This cost him not one regret, though he took time to polish his new ox-blood shoes tenderly with a pocket handkerchief. He reached the table when all the others were half through breakfast, and made his peace by genially asking his mother if she didn’t want him to drive her to church in the car.   2
  “I’d like to go if I can get the work done in time,” she said, doubtfully glancing at the clock.   3
  “Can’t Mahailey tend to things for you this morning?”   4
  Mrs. Wheeler hesitated. “Everything but the separator, she can. But she can’t fit all the parts together. It’s a good deal of work, you know.”   5
  “Now, Mother,” said Ralph good-humouredly, as he emptied the syrup pitcher over his cakes, “you’re prejudiced. Nobody ever thinks of skimming milk now-a-days. Every up-to-date farmer uses a separator.”   6
  Mrs. Wheeler’s pale eyes twinkled. “Mahailey and I will never be quite up-to-date, Ralph. We’re old-fashioned, and I don’t know but you’d better let us be. I could see the advantage of a separator if we milked half-a-dozen cows. It’s a very ingenious machine. But it’s a great deal more work to scald it and fit it together than it was to take care of the milk in the old way.”   7
  “It won’t be when you get used to it,” Ralph assured her. He was the chief mechanic of the Wheeler farm, and when the farm implements and the automobiles did not give him enough to do, he went to town and bought machines for the house. As soon as Mahailey got used to a washing-machine or a churn, Ralph, to keep up with the bristling march of invention, brought home a still newer one. The mechanical dish-washer she had never been able to use, and patent flat-irons and oil-stoves drove her wild.   8
  Claude told his mother to go upstairs and dress; he would scald the separator while Ralph got the car ready. He was still working at it when his brother came in from the garage to wash his hands.   9
  “You really oughtn’t to load mother up with things like this, Ralph,” he exclaimed fretfully. “Did you ever try washing this damned thing yourself?”  10
  “Of course I have. If Mrs. Dawson can manage it, I should think mother could.”  11
  “Mrs. Dawson is a younger woman. Anyhow, there’s no point in trying to make machinists of Mahailey and mother.”  12
  Ralph lifted his eyebrows to excuse Claude’s bluntness. “See here,” he said persuasively, “don’t you go encouraging her into thinking she can’t change her ways. Mother’s entitled to all the labour-saving devices we can get her.”  13
  Claude rattled the thirty-odd graduated metal funnels which he was trying to fit together in their proper sequence. “Well, if this is labour-saving——”  14
  The younger boy giggled and ran upstairs for his panama hat. He never quarrelled. Mrs. Wheeler sometimes said it was wonderful, how much Ralph would take from Claude.  15
  After Ralph and his mother had gone off in the car, Mr. Wheeler drove to see his German neighbour, Gus Yoeder, who had just bought a blooded bull. Dan and Jerry were pitching horseshoes down behind the barn. Claude told Mahailey he was going to the cellar to put up the swinging shelf she had been wanting, so that the rats couldn’t get at her vegetables.  16
  “Thank you, Mr. Claude. I don’t know what does make the rats so bad. The cats catches one most every day, too.”  17
  “I guess they come up from the barn. I’ve got a nice wide board down at the garage for your shelf.”  18
  The cellar was cemented, cool and dry, with deep closets for canned fruit and flour and groceries, bins for coal and cobs, and a dark-room full of photographer’s apparatus. Claude took his place at the carpenter’s bench under one of the square windows. Mysterious objects stood about him in the grey twilight; electric batteries, old bicycles and typewriters, a machine for making cement fence-posts, a vulcanizer, a stereopticon with a broken lens. The mechanical toys Ralph could not operate successfully, as well as those he had got tired of, were stored away here. If they were left in the barn, Mr. Wheeler saw them too often, and sometimes, when they happened to be in his way, he made sarcastic comments. Claude had begged his mother to let him pile this lumber into a wagon and dump it into some washout hole along the creek; but Mrs. Wheeler said he must not think of such a thing; it would hurt Ralph’s feelings. Nearly every time Claude went into the cellar, he made a desperate resolve to clear the place out some day, reflecting bitterly that the money this wreckage cost would have put a boy through college decently.  19
  While Claude was planing off the board he meant to suspend from the joists, Mahailey left her work and came down to watch him. She made some pretence of hunting for pickled onions, then seated herself upon a cracker box; close at hand there was a plush “spring-rocker” with one arm gone, but it wouldn’t have been her idea of good manners to sit there. Her eyes had a kind of sleepy contentment in them as she followed Claude’s motions. She watched him as if he were a baby playing. Her hands lay comfortably in her lap.  20
  “Mr. Ernest ain’t been over for a long time. He ain’t mad about nothin’, is he?”  21
  “Oh, no! He’s awful busy this summer. I saw him in town yesterday. We went to the circus together.”  22
  Mahailey smiled and nodded. “That’s nice. I’m glad for you two boys to have a good time. Mr. Ernest’s a nice boy; I always liked him first rate. He’s a little feller, though. He ain’t big like you, is he? I guess he ain’t as tall as Mr. Ralph, even.”  23
  “Not quite,” said Claude between strokes. “He’s strong, though, and gets through a lot of work.”  24
  “Oh, I know! I know he is. I know he works hard. All them foreigners works hard, don’t they, Mr. Claude? I reckon he liked the circus. Maybe they don’t have circuses like our’n, over where he come from.”  25
  Claude began to tell her about the clown elephant and the trained dogs, and she sat listening to him with her pleased, foolish smile; there was something wise and far-seeing about her smile, too.  26
  Mahailey had come to them long ago, when Claude was only a few months old. She had been brought West by a shiftless Virginia family which went to pieces and scattered under the rigours of pioneer farm-life. When the mother of the family died, there was nowhere for Mahailey to go, and Mrs. Wheeler took her in. Mahailey had no one to take care of her, and Mrs. Wheeler had no one to help her with the work; it had turned out very well.  27
  Mahailey had had a hard life in her young days, married to a savage mountaineer who often abused her and never provided for her. She could remember times when she sat in the cabin, beside an empty meal-barrel and a cold iron pot, waiting for “him” to bring home a squirrel he had shot or a chicken he had stolen. Too often he brought nothing but a jug of mountain whiskey and a pair of brutal fists. She thought herself well off now, never to have to beg for food or go off into the woods to gather firing, to be sure of a warm bed and shoes and decent clothes. Mahailey was one of eighteen children; most of them grew up lawless or half-witted, and two of her brothers, like her husband, ended their lives in jail. She had never been sent to school, and could not read or write. Claude, when he was a little boy, tried to teach her to read, but what she learned one night she had forgotten by the next. She could count, and tell the time of day by the clock, and she was very proud of knowing the alphabet and of being able to spell out letters on the flour sacks and coffee packages. “That’s a big A.” she would murmur, “and that there’s a little a.”  28
  Mahailey was shrewd in her estimate of people, and Claude thought her judgment sound in a good many things. He knew she sensed all the shades of personal feeling, the accords and antipathies in the household, as keenly as he did, and he would have hated to lose her good opinion. She consulted him in all her little difficulties. If the leg of the kitchen table got wobbly, she knew he would put in new screws for her. When she broke a handle off her rolling pin, he put on another, and he fitted a haft to her favourite butcher-knife after every one else said it must be thrown away. These objects, after they had been mended, acquired a new value in her eyes, and she liked to work with them. When Claude helped her lift or carry anything, he never avoided touching her,—this she felt deeply. She suspected that Ralph was a little ashamed of her, and would prefer to have some brisk young thing about the kitchen.  29
  On days like this, when other people were not about, Mahailey liked to talk to Claude about the things they did together when he was little; the Sundays when they used to wander along the creek, hunting for wild grapes and watching the red squirrels; or trailed across the high pastures to a wild-plum thicket at the north end of the Wheeler farm. Claude could remember warm spring days when the plum bushes were all in blossom and Mahailey used to lie down under them and sing to herself, as if the honey-heavy sweetness made her drowsy; songs without words, for the most part, though he recalled one mountain dirge which said over and over, “And they laid Jesse James in his grave.”  30

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