The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part I - Chapter XX

ON Monday morning, the day after Ray Kennedy's funeral, Dr. Archie called at Mr. Kronborg's study, a little room behind the church. Mr. Kronborg did not write out his sermons, but spoke from notes jotted upon small pieces of cardboard in a kind of shorthand of his own. As sermons go, they were not worse than most. His conventional rhetoric pleased the majority of his congregation, and Mr. Kronborg was generally regarded as a model preacher. He did not smoke, he never touched spirits. His indulgence in the pleasures of the table was an endearing bond between him and the women of his congregation. He ate enormously, with a zest which seemed incongruous with his spare frame.

This morning the doctor found him opening his mail and reading a pile of advertising circulars with deep attention.

"Good-morning, Mr. Kronborg," said Dr. Archie, sitting down. "I came to see you on business. Poor Kennedy asked me to look after his affairs for him. Like most railroad men he spent his wages, except for a few investments in mines which don't look to me very promising. But his life was insured for six hundred dollars in Thea's favor."

Mr. Kronborg wound his feet about the standard of his desk-chair. "I assure you, doctor, this is a complete surprise to me."

"Well, it 's not very surprising to me," Dr. Archie went on. "He talked to me about it the day he was hurt. He said he wanted the money to be used in a particular way, and in no other." Dr. Archie paused meaningly.

Mr. Kronborg fidgeted. "I am sure Thea would observe his wishes in every respect."

"No doubt; but he wanted me to see that you agreed to his plan. It seems that for some time Thea has wanted to go away to study music. It was Kennedy's wish that she should take this money and go to Chicago this winter. He felt that it would be an advantage to her in a business way: that even if she came back here to teach, it would give her more authority and make her position here more comfortable."

Mr. Kronborg looked a little startled. "She is very young," he hesitated; "she is barely seventeen. Chicago is a long way from home. We would have to consider. I think, Dr. Archie, we had better consult Mrs. Kronborg."

"I think I can bring Mrs. Kronborg around, if I have your consent. I 've always found her pretty level-headed. I have several old classmates practicing in Chicago. One is a throat specialist. He has a good deal to do with singers. He probably knows the best piano teachers and could recommend a boarding-house where music students stay. I think Thea needs to get among a lot of young people who are clever like herself. Here she has no companions but old fellows like me. It 's not a natural life for a young girl. She 'll either get warped, or wither up before her time. If it will make you and Mrs. Kronborg feel any easier, I 'll be glad to take Thea to Chicago and see that she gets started right. This throat man I speak of is a big fellow in his line, and if I can get him interested, he may be able to put her in the way of a good many things. At any rate, he 'll know the right teachers. Of course, six hundred dollars won't take her very far, but even half the winter there would be a great advantage. I think Kennedy sized the situation up exactly."

"Perhaps; I don't doubt it. You are very kind, Dr. Archie." Mr. Kronborg was ornamenting his desk-blotter with hieroglyphics. "I should think Denver might be better. There we could watch over her. She is very young."

Dr. Archie rose. "Kennedy did n't mention Denver. He said Chicago, repeatedly. Under the circumstances, it seems to me we ought to try to carry out his wishes exactly, if Thea is willing."

"Certainly, certainly. Thea is conscientious. She would not waste her opportunities." Mr. Kronborg paused. "If Thea were your own daughter, doctor, would you consent to such a plan, at her present age?"

"I most certainly should. In fact, if she were my daughter, I 'd have sent her away before this. She 's a most unusual child, and she 's only wasting herself here. At her age she ought to be learning, not teaching. She 'll never learn so quickly and easily as she will right now."

"Well, doctor, you had better talk it over with Mrs. Kronborg. I make it a point to defer to her wishes in such matters. She understands all her children perfectly. I may say that she has all a mother's insight, and more."

Dr. Archie smiled. "Yes, and then some. I feel quite confident about Mrs. Kronborg. We usually agree. Good-morning."

Dr. Archie stepped out into the hot sunshine and walked rapidly toward his office, with a determined look on his face. He found his waiting-room full of patients, and it was one o'clock before he had dismissed the last one. Then he shut his door and took a drink before going over to the hotel for his lunch. He smiled as he locked his cupboard. "I feel almost as gay as if I were going to get away for a winter myself," he thought.

Afterward Thea could never remember much about that summer, or how she lived through her impatience. She was to set off with Dr. Archie on the fifteenth of October, and she gave lessons until the first of September. Then she began to get her clothes ready, and spent whole afternoons in the village dressmaker's stuffy, littered little sewing-room. Thea and her mother made a trip to Denver to buy the materials for her dresses. Ready-made clothes for girls were not to be had in those days. Miss Spencer, the dressmaker, declared that she could do handsomely by Thea if they would only let her carry out her own ideas. But Mrs. Kronborg and Thea felt that Miss Spencer's most daring productions might seem out of place in Chicago, so they restrained her with a firm hand. Tillie, who always helped Mrs. Kronborg with the family sewing, was for letting Miss Spencer challenge Chicago on Thea's person. Since Ray Kennedy's death, Thea had become more than ever one of Tillie's heroines. Tillie swore each of her friends to secrecy, and, coming home from church or leaning over the fence, told them the most touching stories about Ray's devotion, and how Thea would "never get over it."

Tillie's confidences stimulated the general discussion of Thea's venture. This discussion went on, upon front porches and in back yards, pretty much all summer. Some people approved of Thea's going to Chicago, but most people did not. There were others who changed their minds about it every day.

Tillie said she wanted Thea to have a ball dress "above all things." She bought a fashion book especially devoted to evening clothes and looked hungrily over the colored plates, picking out costumes that would be becoming to "a blonde." She wanted Thea to have all the gay clothes she herself had always longed for; clothes she often told herself she needed "to recite in."

"Tillie," Thea used to cry impatiently, "can't you see that if Miss Spencer tried to make one of those things, she 'd make me look like a circus girl? Anyhow, I don't know anybody in Chicago. I won't be going to parties."

Tillie always replied with a knowing toss of her head, "You see! You 'll be in society before you know it. There ain't many girls as accomplished as you."

On the morning of the fifteenth of October the Kronborg family, all of them but Gus, who could n't leave the store, started for the station an hour before train time. Charley had taken Thea's trunk and telescope to the depot in his delivery wagon early that morning. Thea wore her new blue serge traveling-dress, chosen for its serviceable qualities. She had done her hair up carefully, and had put a pale-blue ribbon around her throat, under a little lace collar that Mrs. Kohler had crocheted for her. As they went out of the gate, Mrs. Kronborg looked her over thoughtfully. Yes, that blue ribbon went very well with the dress, and with Thea's eyes. Thea had a rather unusual touch about such things, she reflected comfortably. Tillie always said that Thea was "so indifferent to dress," but her mother noticed that she usually put her clothes on well. She felt the more at ease about letting Thea go away from home, because she had good sense about her clothes and never tried to dress up too much. Her coloring was so individual, she was so unusually fair, that in the wrong clothes she might easily have been "conspicuous."

It was a fine morning, and the family set out from the house in good spirits. Thea was quiet and calm. She had forgotten nothing, and she clung tightly to her handbag, which held her trunk-key and all of her money that was not in an envelope pinned to her chemise. Thea walked behind the others, holding Thor by the hand, and this time she did not feel that the procession was too long. Thor was uncommunicative that morning, and would only talk about how he would rather get a sand bur in his toe every day than wear shoes and stockings. As they passed the cottonwood grove where Thea often used to bring him in his cart, she asked him who would take him for nice long walks after sister went away.

"Oh, I can walk in our yard," he replied unappreciatively. "I guess I can make a pond for my duck."

Thea leaned down and looked into his face. "But you won't forget about sister, will you?" Thor shook his head. "And won't you be glad when sister comes back and can take you over to Mrs. Kohler's to see the pigeons?"

"Yes, I 'll be glad. But I 'm going to have a pigeon my own self."

"But you have n't got any little house for one. Maybe Axel would make you a little house."

"Oh, her can live in the barn, her can," Thor drawled indifferently.

Thea laughed and squeezed his hand. She always liked his sturdy matter-of-factness. Boys ought to be like that, she thought.

When they reached the depot, Mr. Kronborg paced the platform somewhat ceremoniously with his daughter. Any member of his flock would have gathered that he was giving her good counsel about meeting the temptations of the world. He did, indeed, begin to admonish her not to forget that talents come from our Heavenly Father and are to be used for his glory, but he cut his remarks short and looked at his watch. He believed that Thea was a religious girl, but when she looked at him with that intent, that passionately inquiring gaze which used to move even Wunsch, Mr. Kronborg suddenly felt his eloquence fail. Thea was like her mother, he reflected; you could n't put much sentiment across with her. As a usual thing, he liked girls to be a little more responsive. He liked them to blush at his compliments; as Mrs. Kronborg candidly said, "Father could be very soft with the girls." But this morning he was thinking that hard-headedness was a reassuring quality in a daughter who was going to Chicago alone.

Mr. Kronborg believed that big cities were places where people went to lose their identity and to be wicked. He himself, when he was a student at the Seminary—he coughed and opened his watch again. He knew, of course, that a great deal of business went on in Chicago, that there was an active Board of Trade, and that hogs and cattle were slaughtered there. But when, as a young man, he had stopped over in Chicago, he had not interested himself in the commercial activities of the city. He remembered it as a place full of cheap shows and dance halls and boys from the country who were behaving disgustingly.

Dr. Archie drove up to the station about ten minutes before the train was due. His man tied the ponies and stood holding the doctor's alligator-skin bag—very elegant, Thea thought it. Mrs. Kronborg did not burden the doctor with warnings and cautions. She said again that she hoped he could get Thea a comfortable place to stay, where they had good beds, and she hoped the landlady would be a woman who 'd had children of her own. "I don't go much on old maids looking after girls," she remarked as she took a pin out of her own hat and thrust it into Thea's blue turban. "You 'll be sure to lose your hatpins on the train, Thea. It 's better to have an extra one in case." She tucked in a little curl that had escaped from Thea's careful twist. "Don't forget to brush your dress often, and pin it up to the curtains of your berth to-night, so it won't wrinkle. If you get it wet, have a tailor press it before it draws."

She turned Thea about by the shoulders and looked her over a last time. Yes, she looked very well. She was n't pretty, exactly,—her face was too broad and her nose was too big. But she had that lovely skin, and she looked fresh and sweet. She had always been a sweet-smelling child. Her mother had always liked to kiss her, when she happened to think of it.

The train whistled in, and Mr. Kronborg carried the canvas "telescope" into the car. Thea kissed them all good-bye. Tillie cried, but she was the only one who did. They all shouted things up at the closed window of the Pullman car, from which Thea looked down at them as from a frame, her face glowing with excitement, her turban a little tilted in spite of three hatpins. She had already taken off her new gloves to save them. Mrs. Kronborg reflected that she would never see just that same picture again, and as Thea's car slid off along the rails, she wiped a tear from her eye. "She won't come back a little girl," Mrs. Kronborg said to her husband as they turned to go home. "Anyhow, she 's been a sweet one."

While the Kronborg family were trooping slowly homeward, Thea was sitting in the Pullman, her telescope in the seat beside her, her handbag tightly gripped in her fingers. Dr. Archie had gone into the smoker. He thought she might be a little tearful, and that it would be kinder to leave her alone for a while. Her eyes did fill once, when she saw the last of the sand hills and realized that she was going to leave them behind for a long while. They always made her think of Ray, too. She had had such good times with him out there.

But, of course, it was herself and her own adventure that mattered to her. If youth did not matter so much to itself, it would never have the heart to go on. Thea was surprised that she did not feel a deeper sense of loss at leaving her old life behind her. It seemed, on the contrary, as she looked out at the yellow desert speeding by, that she had left very little. Everything that was essential seemed to be right there in the car with her. She lacked nothing. She even felt more compact and confident than usual. She was all there, and something else was there, too,—in her heart, was it, or under her cheek? Anyhow, it was about her somewhere, that warm sureness, that sturdy little companion with whom she shared a secret.

When Dr. Archie came in from the smoker, she was sitting still, looking intently out of the window and smiling, her lips a little parted, her hair in a blaze of sunshine. The doctor thought she was the prettiest thing he had ever seen, and very funny, with her telescope and big handbag. She made him feel jolly, and a little mournful, too. He knew that the splendid things of life are few, after all, and so very easy to miss.


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