My Ántonia By Willa Cather Book II: The Hired Girls: Chapters I-IV

Chapter IV

'I won't have none of your weevily wheat, and I won't have none of your barley, But I'll take a measure of fine white flour, to make a cake for Charley.'

WE WERE SINGING rhymes to tease Ántonia while she was beating up one of Charley's favourite cakes in her big mixing-bowl.

It was a crisp autumn evening, just cold enough to make one glad to quit playing tag in the yard, and retreat into the kitchen. We had begun to roll popcorn balls with syrup when we heard a knock at the back door, and Tony dropped her spoon and went to open it.

A plump, fair-skinned girl was standing in the doorway. She looked demure and pretty, and made a graceful picture in her blue cashmere dress and little blue hat, with a plaid shawl drawn neatly about her shoulders and a clumsy pocket-book in her hand.

'Hello, Tony. Don't you know me?' she asked in a smooth, low voice, looking in at us archly.

Ántonia gasped and stepped back.

'Why, it's Lena! Of course I didn't know you, so dressed up!'

Lena Lingard laughed, as if this pleased her. I had not recognized her for a moment, either. I had never seen her before with a hat on her head — or with shoes and stockings on her feet, for that matter. And here she was, brushed and smoothed and dressed like a town girl, smiling at us with perfect composure.

'Hello, Jim,' she said carelessly as she walked into the kitchen and looked about her. 'I've come to town to work, too, Tony.'

'Have you, now? Well, ain't that funny!' Ántonia stood ill at ease, and didn't seem to know just what to do with her visitor.

The door was open into the dining-room, where Mrs. Harling sat crocheting and Frances was reading. Frances asked Lena to come in and join them.

'You are Lena Lingard, aren't you? I've been to see your mother, but you were off herding cattle that day. Mama, this is Chris Lingard's oldest girl.'

Mrs. Harling dropped her worsted and examined the visitor with quick, keen eyes. Lena was not at all disconcerted. She sat down in the chair Frances pointed out, carefully arranging her pocket-book and grey cotton gloves on her lap. We followed with our popcorn, but Ántonia hung back — said she had to get her cake into the oven.

'So you have come to town,' said Mrs. Harling, her eyes still fixed on Lena. 'Where are you working?'

'For Mrs. Thomas, the dressmaker. She is going to teach me to sew. She says I have quite a knack. I'm through with the farm. There ain't any end to the work on a farm, and always so much trouble happens. I'm going to be a dressmaker.'

'Well, there have to be dressmakers. It's a good trade. But I wouldn't run down the farm, if I were you,' said Mrs. Harling rather severely. 'How is your mother?'

'Oh, mother's never very well; she has too much to do. She'd get away from the farm, too, if she could. She was willing for me to come. After I learn to do sewing, I can make money and help her.'

'See that you don't forget to,' said Mrs. Harling sceptically, as she took up her crocheting again and sent the hook in and out with nimble fingers.

'No, 'm, I won't,' said Lena blandly. She took a few grains of the popcorn we pressed upon her, eating them discreetly and taking care not to get her fingers sticky.

Frances drew her chair up nearer to the visitor. 'I thought you were going to be married, Lena,' she said teasingly. 'Didn't I hear that Nick Svendsen was rushing you pretty hard?'

Lena looked up with her curiously innocent smile. 'He did go with me quite a while. But his father made a fuss about it and said he wouldn't give Nick any land if he married me, so he's going to marry Annie Iverson. I wouldn't like to be her; Nick's awful sullen, and he'll take it out on her. He ain't spoke to his father since he promised.'

Frances laughed. 'And how do you feel about it?'

'I don't want to marry Nick, or any other man,' Lena murmured. 'I've seen a good deal of married life, and I don't care for it. I want to be so I can help my mother and the children at home, and not have to ask lief of anybody.'

'That's right,' said Frances. 'And Mrs. Thomas thinks you can learn dressmaking?'

'Yes, 'm. I've always liked to sew, but I never had much to do with. Mrs. Thomas makes lovely things for all the town ladies. Did you know Mrs. Gardener is having a purple velvet made? The velvet came from Omaha. My, but it's lovely!' Lena sighed softly and stroked her cashmere folds. 'Tony knows I never did like out-of-door work,' she added.

Mrs. Harling glanced at her. 'I expect you'll learn to sew all right, Lena, if you'll only keep your head and not go gadding about to dances all the time and neglect your work, the way some country girls do.'

'Yes, 'm. Tiny Soderball is coming to town, too. She's going to work at the Boys' Home Hotel. She'll see lots of strangers,' Lena added wistfully.

'Too many, like enough,' said Mrs. Harling. 'I don't think a hotel is a good place for a girl; though I guess Mrs. Gardener keeps an eye on her waitresses.'

Lena's candid eyes, that always looked a little sleepy under their long lashes, kept straying about the cheerful rooms with naive admiration. Presently she drew on her cotton gloves. 'I guess I must be leaving,' she said irresolutely.

Frances told her to come again, whenever she was lonesome or wanted advice about anything. Lena replied that she didn't believe she would ever get lonesome in Black Hawk.

She lingered at the kitchen door and begged Ántonia to come and see her often. 'I've got a room of my own at Mrs. Thomas's, with a carpet.'

Tony shuffled uneasily in her cloth slippers. 'I'll come sometime, but Mrs. Harling don't like to have me run much,' she said evasively.

'You can do what you please when you go out, can't you?' Lena asked in a guarded whisper. 'Ain't you crazy about town, Tony? I don't care what anybody says, I'm done with the farm!' She glanced back over her shoulder toward the dining-room, where Mrs. Harling sat.

When Lena was gone, Frances asked Ántonia why she hadn't been a little more cordial to her.

'I didn't know if your mother would like her coming here,' said Ántonia, looking troubled. 'She was kind of talked about, out there.'

'Yes, I know. But mother won't hold it against her if she behaves well here. You needn't say anything about that to the children. I guess Jim has heard all that gossip?'

When I nodded, she pulled my hair and told me I knew too much, anyhow. We were good friends, Frances and I.

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