Book II - The Hired Girls
I NOTICED ONE AFTERNOON that grandmother had been crying. Her feet seemed to drag as she moved about the house, and I got up from the table where I was studying and went to her, asking if she didn't feel well, and if I couldn't help her with her work.
'No, thank you, Jim. I'm troubled, but I guess I'm well enough. Getting a little rusty in the bones, maybe,' she added bitterly.
I stood hesitating. 'What are you fretting about, grandmother? Has grandfather lost any money?'
'No, it ain't money. I wish it was. But I've heard things. You must 'a' known it would come back to me sometime.' She dropped into a chair, and, covering her face with her apron, began to cry. 'Jim,' she said, 'I was never one that claimed old folks could bring up their grandchildren. But it came about so; there wasn't any other way for you, it seemed like.'
I put my arms around her. I couldn't bear to see her cry.
'What is it, grandmother? Is it the Firemen's dances?'
'I'm sorry I sneaked off like that. But there's nothing wrong about the dances, and I haven't done anything wrong. I like all those country girls, and I like to dance with them. That's all there is to it.'
'But it ain't right to deceive us, son, and it brings blame on us. People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain't just to us.'
'I don't care what they say about me, but if it hurts you, that settles it. I won't go to the Firemen's Hall again.'
I kept my promise, of course, but I found the spring months dull enough. I sat at home with the old people in the evenings now, reading Latin that was not in our high-school course. I had made up my mind to do a lot of college requirement work in the summer, and to enter the freshman class at the university without conditions in the fall. I wanted to get away as soon as possible.
Disapprobation hurt me, I found--even that of people whom I did not admire. As the spring came on, I grew more and more lonely, and fell back on the telegrapher and the cigar-maker and his canaries for companionship. I remember I took a melancholy pleasure in hanging a May-basket for Nina Harling that spring. I bought the flowers from an old German woman who always had more window plants than anyone else, and spent an afternoon trimming a little workbasket. When dusk came on, and the new moon hung in the sky, I went quietly to the Harlings' front door with my offering, rang the bell, and then ran away as was the custom. Through the willow hedge I could hear Nina's cries of delight, and I felt comforted.
On those warm, soft spring evenings I often lingered downtown to walk home with Frances, and talked to her about my plans and about the reading I was doing. One evening she said she thought Mrs. Harling was not seriously offended with me.
'Mama is as broad-minded as mothers ever are, I guess. But you know she was hurt about Antonia, and she can't understand why you like to be with Tiny and Lena better than with the girls of your own set.'
'Can you?' I asked bluntly.
Frances laughed. 'Yes, I think I can. You knew them in the country, and you like to take sides. In some ways you're older than boys of your age. It will be all right with mama after you pass your college examinations and she sees you're in earnest.'
'If you were a boy,' I persisted, 'you wouldn't belong to the Owl Club, either. You'd be just like me.'
She shook her head. 'I would and I wouldn't. I expect I know the country girls better than you do. You always put a kind of glamour over them. The trouble with you, Jim, is that you're romantic. Mama's going to your Commencement. She asked me the other day if I knew what your oration is to be about. She wants you to do well.'
I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered. Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises, and I looked at her most of the time while I made my speech. Her keen, intelligent eyes never left my face. Afterward she came back to the dressing-room where we stood, with our diplomas in our hands, walked up to me, and said heartily: 'You surprised me, Jim. I didn't believe you could do as well as that. You didn't get that speech out of books.' Among my graduation presents there was a silk umbrella from Mrs. Harling, with my name on the handle.
I walked home from the opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me--Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.
'Oh, Jim, it was splendid!' Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. 'There ain't a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won't tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn't he, girls?'
Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, 'What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you'd forget.'
Anna spoke wistfully.
'It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.'
'Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim'--Antonia took hold of my coat lapels--'there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!'
'I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony,' I said. 'I dedicated it to him.'
She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.
I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.