'It wasn't mother's fault. She would have made us comfortable if she could. But that was no life for a girl! After I began to herd and milk, I could never get the smell of the cattle off me. The few underclothes I had I kept in a cracker-box. On Saturday nights, after everybody was in bed, then I could take a bath if I wasn't too tired. I could make two trips to the windmill to carry water, and heat it in the wash-boiler on the stove. While the water was heating, I could bring in a washtub out of the cave, and take my bath in the kitchen. Then I could put on a clean night-gown and get into bed with two others, who likely hadn't had a bath unless I'd given it to them. You can't tell me anything about family life. I've had plenty to last me.'
'But it's not all like that,' I objected.
'Near enough. It's all being under somebody's thumb. What's on your mind, Jim? Are you afraid I'll want you to marry me some day?'
Then I told her I was going away.
'What makes you want to go away, Jim? Haven't I been nice to you?'
'You've been just awfully good to me, Lena,' I blurted. 'I don't think about much else. I never shall think about much else while I'm with you. I'll never settle down and grind if I stay here. You know that.'
I dropped down beside her and sat looking at the floor. I seemed to have forgotten all my reasonable explanations.
Lena drew close to me, and the little hesitation in her voice that had hurt me was not there when she spoke again.
'I oughtn't to have begun it, ought I?' she murmured. 'I oughtn't to have gone to see you that first time. But I did want to. I guess I've always been a little foolish about you. I don't know what first put it into my head, unless it was Ántonia, always telling me I mustn't be up to any of my nonsense with you. I let you alone for a long while, though, didn't I?'
She was a sweet creature to those she loved, that Lena Lingard!
At last she sent me away with her soft, slow, renunciatory kiss.
'You aren't sorry I came to see you that time?' she whispered. 'It seemed so natural. I used to think I'd like to be your first sweetheart. You were such a funny kid!'
She always kissed one as if she were sadly and wisely sending one away forever.
We said many good-byes before I left Lincoln, but she never tried to hinder me or hold me back. 'You are going, but you haven't gone yet, have you?' she used to say.
My Lincoln chapter closed abruptly. I went home to my grandparents for a few weeks, and afterward visited my relatives in Virginia until I joined Cleric in Boston. I was then nineteen years old.