The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part I - Chapter XVII

THE summer flew by. Thea was glad when Ray Kennedy had a Sunday in town and could take her driving. Out among the sand hills she could forget the "new room" which was the scene of wearing and fruitless labor. Dr. Archie was away from home a good deal that year. He had put all his money into mines above Colorado Springs, and he hoped for great returns from them.

In the fall of that year, Mr. Kronborg decided that Thea ought to show more interest in church work. He put it to her frankly, one night at supper, before the whole family. "How can I insist on the other girls in the congregation being active in the work, when one of my own daughters manifests so little interest?"

"But I sing every Sunday morning, and I have to give up one night a week to choir practice," Thea declared rebelliously, pushing back her plate with an angry determination to eat nothing more.

"One night a week is not enough for the pastor's daughter," her father replied. "You won't do anything in the sewing society, and you won't take part in the Christian Endeavor or the Band of Hope. Very well, you must make it up in other ways. I want some one to play the organ and lead the singing at prayer-meeting this winter. Deacon Potter told me some time ago that he thought there would be more interest in our prayer-meetings if we had the organ. Miss Meyers don't feel that she can play on Wednesday nights. And there ought to be somebody to start the hymns. Mrs. Potter is getting old, and she always starts them too high. It won't take much of your time, and it will keep people from talking."

This argument conquered Thea, though she left the table sullenly. The fear of the tongue, that terror of little towns, is usually felt more keenly by the minister's family than by other households. Whenever the Kronborgs wanted to do a anything, even to buy a new carpet, they had to take counsel together as to whether people would talk. Mrs. Kronborg had her own conviction that people talked when they felt like it, and said what they chose, no matter how the minister's family conducted themselves. But she did not impart these dangerous ideas to her children. Thea was still under the belief that public opinion could be placated; that if you clucked often enough, the hens would mistake you for one of themselves.

Mrs. Kronborg did not have any particular zest for prayer-meetings, and she stayed at home whenever she had a valid excuse. Thor was too old to furnish such an excuse now, so every Wednesday night, unless one of the children was sick, she trudged off with Thea, behind Mr. Kronborg. At first Thea was terribly bored. But she got used to prayer-meeting, got even to feel a mournful interest in it.

The exercises were always pretty much the same. After the first hymn her father read a passage from the Bible, usually a Psalm. Then there was another hymn, and then her father commented upon the passage he had read and, as he said, "applied the Word to our necessities." After a third hymn, the meeting was declared open, and the old men and women took turns at praying and talking. Mrs. Kronborg never spoke in meeting. She told people firmly that she had been brought up to keep silent and let the men talk, but she gave respectful attention to the others, sitting with her hands folded in her lap.

The prayer-meeting audience was always small. The young and energetic members of the congregation came only one or twice a year, "to keep people from talking." The usual Wednesday night gathering was made up of old women, with perhaps six or eight old men, and a few sickly girls who had not much interest in life; two of them, indeed, were already preparing to die. Thea accepted the mournfulness of the prayer-meetings as a kind of spiritual discipline, like funerals. She always read late after she went home and felt a stronger wish than usual to live and to be happy.

The meetings were conducted in the Sunday-School room, where there were wooden chairs instead of pews; an old map of Palestine hung on the wall, and the bracket lamps gave out only a dim light. The old women sat motionless as Indians in their shawls and bonnets; some of them wore long black mourning veils. The old men drooped in their chairs. Every back, every face, every head said "resignation." Often there were long silences, when you could hear nothing but the crackling of the soft coal in the stove and the muffled cough of one of the sick girls.

There was one nice old lady,—tall, erect, self-respecting, with a delicate white face and a soft voice. She never whined, and what she said was always cheerful, though she spoke so nervously that Thea knew she dreaded getting up, and that she made a real sacrifice to, as she said, "testify to the goodness of her Saviour." She was the mother of the girl who coughed, and Thea used to wonder how she explained things to herself. There was, indeed, only one woman who talked because she was, as Mr. Kronborg said, "tonguey." The others were somehow impressive. They told about the sweet thoughts that came to them while they were at their work; how, amid their household tasks, they were suddenly lifted by the sense of a divine Presence. Sometimes they told of their first conversion, of how in their youth that higher Power had made itself known to them. Old Mr. Carsen, the carpenter, who gave his services as janitor to the church, used often to tell how, when he was a young man and a scoffer, bent on the destruction of both body and soul, his Saviour had come to him in the Michigan woods and had stood, it seemed to him, beside the tree he was felling; and how he dropped his axe and knelt in prayer "to Him who died for us upon the tree." Thea always wanted to ask him more about it; about his mysterious wickedness, and about the vision.

Sometimes the old people would ask for prayers for their absent children. Sometimes they asked their brothers and sisters in Christ to pray that they might be stronger against temptations. One of the sick girls used to ask them to pray that she might have more faith in the times of depression that came to her, "when all the way before seemed dark." She repeated that husky phrase so often, that Thea always remembered it.

One old woman, who never missed a Wednesday night, and who nearly always took part in the meeting, came all the way up from the depot settlement. She always wore a black crocheted "fascinator" over her thin white hair, and she made long, tremulous prayers, full of railroad terminology. She had six sons in the service of different railroads, and she always prayed "for the boys on the road, who know not at what moment they may be cut off. When, in Thy divine wisdom, their hour is upon them, may they, O our Heavenly Father, see only white lights along the road to Eternity." She used to speak, too, of "the engines that race with death"; and though she looked so old and little when she was on her knees, and her voice was so shaky, her prayers had a thrill of speed and danger in them; they made one think of the deep black canyons, the slender trestles, the pounding trains. Thea liked to look at her sunken eyes that seemed full of wisdom, at her black thread gloves, much too long in the fingers and so meekly folded one over the other. Her face was brown, and worn away as rocks are worn by water. There are many ways of describing that color of age, but in reality it is not like parchment, or like any of the things it is said to be like. That brownness and that texture of skin are found only in the faces of old human creatures, who have worked hard and who have always been poor.

One bitterly cold night in December the prayer-meeting seemed to Thea longer than usual. The prayers and the talks went on and on. It was as if the old people were afraid to go out into the cold, or were stupefied by the hot air of the room. She had left a book at home that she was impatient to get back to. At last the Doxology was sung, but the old people lingered about the stove to greet each other, and Thea took her mother's arm and hurried out to the frozen sidewalk, before her father could get away. The wind was whistling up the street and whipping the naked cottonwood trees against the telegraph poles and the sides of the houses. Thin snow clouds were flying overhead, so that the sky looked gray, with a dull phosphorescence. The icy streets and the shingle roofs of the houses were gray, too. All along the street, shutters banged or windows rattled, or gates wobbled, held by their latch but shaking on loose hinges. There was not a cat or a dog in Moonstone that night that was not given a warm shelter; the cats under the kitchen stove, the dogs in barns or coal-sheds. When Thea and her mother reached home, their mufflers were covered with ice, where their breath had frozen. They hurried into the house and made a dash for the parlor and the hard-coal burner, behind which Gunner was sitting on a stool, reading his Jules Verne book. The door stood open into the dining-room, which was heated from the parlor. Mr. Kronborg always had a lunch when he came home from prayer-meeting, and his pumpkin pie and milk were set out on the dining-table. Mrs. Kronborg said she thought she felt hungry, too, and asked Thea if she did n't want something to eat.

"No, I 'm not hungry, mother. I guess I 'll go upstairs."

"I expect you 've got some book up there," said Mrs. Kronborg, bringing out another pie. "You 'd better bring it down here and read. Nobody 'll disturb you, and it 's terrible cold up in that loft."

Thea was always assured that no one would disturb her if she read downstairs, but the boys talked when they came in, and her father fairly delivered discourses after he had been renewed by half a pie and a pitcher of milk.

"I don't mind the cold. I 'll take a hot brick up for my feet. I put one in the stove before I left, if one of the boys has n't stolen it. Good-night, mother." Thea got her brick and lantern, and dashed upstairs through the windy loft. She undressed at top speed and got into bed with her brick. She put a pair of white knitted gloves on her hands, and pinned over her head a piece of soft flannel that had been one of Thor's long petticoats when he was a baby. Thus equipped, she was ready for business. She took from her table a thick paper-backed volume, one of the "line" of paper novels the druggist kept to sell to traveling men. She had bought it, only yesterday, because the first sentence interested her very much, and because she saw, as she glanced over the pages, the magical names of two Russian cities. The book was a poor translation of "Anna Karenina." Thea opened it at a mark, and fixed her eyes intently upon the small print. The hymns, the sick girl, the resigned black figures were forgotten. It was the night of the ball in Moscow.

Thea would have been astonished if she could have known how, years afterward, when she had need of them, those old faces were to come back to her, long after they were hidden away under the earth; that they would seem to her then as full of meaning, as mysteriously marked by Destiny, as the people who danced the mazurka under the elegant Korsunsky.


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