As we walked through the apple orchard, grown up in tall bluegrass, Ántonia kept stopping to tell me about one tree and another. 'I love them as if they were people,' she said, rubbing her hand over the bark. 'There wasn't a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, and used to carry water for them, too — after we'd been working in the fields all day. Anton, he was a city man, and he used to get discouraged. But I couldn't feel so tired that I wouldn't fret about these trees when there was a dry time. They were on my mind like children. Many a night after he was asleep I've got up and come out and carried water to the poor things. And now, you see, we have the good of them. My man worked in the orange groves in Florida, and he knows all about grafting. There ain't one of our neighbours has an orchard that bears like ours.'
In the middle of the orchard we came upon a grape arbour, with seats built along the sides and a warped plank table. The three children were waiting for us there. They looked up at me bashfully and made some request of their mother.
'They want me to tell you how the teacher has the school picnic here every year. These don't go to school yet, so they think it's all like the picnic.'
After I had admired the arbour sufficiently, the youngsters ran away to an open place where there was a rough jungle of French pinks, and squatted down among them, crawling about and measuring with a string.
'Jan wants to bury his dog there,' Ántonia explained. 'I had to tell him he could. He's kind of like Nina Harling; you remember how hard she used to take little things? He has funny notions, like her.'
We sat down and watched them. Ántonia leaned her elbows on the table. There was the deepest peace in that orchard. It was surrounded by a triple enclosure; the wire fence, then the hedge of thorny locusts, then the mulberry hedge which kept out the hot winds of summer and held fast to the protecting snows of winter. The hedges were so tall that we could see nothing but the blue sky above them, neither the barn roof nor the windmill. The afternoon sun poured down on us through the drying grape leaves. The orchard seemed full of sun, like a cup, and we could smell the ripe apples on the trees. The crabs hung on the branches as thick as beads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them. Some hens and ducks had crept through the hedge and were pecking at the fallen apples. The drakes were handsome fellows, with pinkish grey bodies, their heads and necks covered with iridescent green feathers which grew close and full, changing to blue like a peacock's neck. Ántonia said they always reminded her of soldiers — some uniform she had seen in the old country, when she was a child.
'Are there any quail left now?' I asked. I reminded her how she used to go hunting with me the last summer before we moved to town. 'You weren't a bad shot, Tony. Do you remember how you used to want to run away and go for ducks with Charley Harling and me?'
'I know, but I'm afraid to look at a gun now.' She picked up one of the drakes and ruffled his green capote with her fingers. 'Ever since I've had children, I don't like to kill anything. It makes me kind of faint to wring an old goose's neck. Ain't that strange, Jim?'
'I don't know. The young Queen of Italy said the same thing once, to a friend of mine. She used to be a great huntswoman, but now she feels as you do, and only shoots clay pigeons.'
'Then I'm sure she's a good mother,' Ántonia said warmly.
She told me how she and her husband had come out to this new country when the farm-land was cheap and could be had on easy payments. The first ten years were a hard struggle. Her husband knew very little about farming and often grew discouraged. 'We'd never have got through if I hadn't been so strong. I've always had good health, thank God, and I was able to help him in the fields until right up to the time before my babies came. Our children were good about taking care of each other. Martha, the one you saw when she was a baby, was such a help to me, and she trained Anna to be just like her. My Martha's married now, and has a baby of her own. Think of that, Jim!
'No, I never got down-hearted. Anton's a good man, and I loved my children and always believed they would turn out well. I belong on a farm. I'm never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn't know what was the matter with me? I've never had them out here. And I don't mind work a bit, if I don't have to put up with sadness.' She leaned her chin on her hand and looked down through the orchard, where the sunlight was growing more and more golden.
'You ought never to have gone to town, Tony,' I said, wondering at her.
She turned to me eagerly.
'Oh, I'm glad I went! I'd never have known anything about cooking or housekeeping if I hadn't. I learned nice ways at the Harlings', and I've been able to bring my children up so much better. Don't you think they are pretty well-behaved for country children? If it hadn't been for what Mrs. Harling taught me, I expect I'd have brought them up like wild rabbits. No, I'm glad I had a chance to learn; but I'm thankful none of my daughters will ever have to work out. The trouble with me was, Jim, I never could believe harm of anybody I loved.'
While we were talking, Ántonia assured me that she could keep me for the night. 'We've plenty of room. Two of the boys sleep in the haymow till cold weather comes, but there's no need for it. Leo always begs to sleep there, and Ambrosch goes along to look after him.'
I told her I would like to sleep in the haymow, with the boys.
'You can do just as you want to. The chest is full of clean blankets, put away for winter. Now I must go, or my girls will be doing all the work, and I want to cook your supper myself.'
As we went toward the house, we met Ambrosch and Anton, starting off with their milking-pails to hunt the cows. I joined them, and Leo accompanied us at some distance, running ahead and starting up at us out of clumps of ironweed, calling, 'I'm a jack rabbit,' or, 'I'm a big bull-snake.'
I walked between the two older boys — straight, well-made fellows, with good heads and clear eyes. They talked about their school and the new teacher, told me about the crops and the harvest, and how many steers they would feed that winter. They were easy and confidential with me, as if I were an old friend of the family — and not too old. I felt like a boy in their company, and all manner of forgotten interests revived in me. It seemed, after all, so natural to be walking along a barbed-wire fence beside the sunset, toward a red pond, and to see my shadow moving along at my right, over the close-cropped grass.
'Has mother shown you the pictures you sent her from the old country?' Ambrosch asked. 'We've had them framed and they're hung up in the parlour. She was so glad to get them. I don't believe I ever saw her so pleased about anything.' There was a note of simple gratitude in his voice that made me wish I had given more occasion for it.
I put my hand on his shoulder. 'Your mother, you know, was very much loved by all of us. She was a beautiful girl.'
'Oh, we know!' They both spoke together; seemed a little surprised that I should think it necessary to mention this. 'Everybody liked her, didn't they? The Harlings and your grandmother, and all the town people.'
'Sometimes,' I ventured, 'it doesn't occur to boys that their mother was ever young and pretty.'
'Oh, we know!' they said again, warmly. 'She's not very old now,' Ambrosch added. 'Not much older than you.'
'Well,' I said, 'if you weren't nice to her, I think I'd take a club and go for the whole lot of you. I couldn't stand it if you boys were inconsiderate, or thought of her as if she were just somebody who looked after you. You see I was very much in love with your mother once, and I know there's nobody like her.'
The boys laughed and seemed pleased and embarrassed.
'She never told us that,' said Anton. 'But she's always talked lots about you, and about what good times you used to have. She has a picture of you that she cut out of the Chicago paper once, and Leo says he recognized you when you drove up to the windmill. You can't tell about Leo, though; sometimes he likes to be smart.'