I TOLD ANTONIA I would come back, but life intervened, and it was twenty years before I kept my promise. I heard of her from time to time; that she married, very soon after I last saw her, a young Bohemian, a cousin of Anton Jelinek; that they were poor, and had a large family. Once when I was abroad I went into Bohemia, and from Prague I sent Antonia some photographs of her native village. Months afterward came a letter from her, telling me the names and ages of her many children, but little else; signed, `Your old friend, Antonia Cuzak.' When I met Tiny Soderball in Salt Lake, she told me that Antonia had not `done very well'; that her husband was not a man of much force, and she had had a hard life. Perhaps it was cowardice that kept me away so long. My business took me West several times every year, and it was always in the back of my mind that I would stop in Nebraska some day and go to see Antonia. But I kept putting it off until the next trip. I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.
I owe it to Lena Lingard that I went to see Antonia at last. I was in San Francisco two summers ago when both Lena and Tiny Soderball were in town. Tiny lives in a house of her own, and Lena's shop is in an apartment house just around the corner. It interested me, after so many years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena's accounts occasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny doesn't grow too miserly. `If there's anything I can't stand,' she said to me in Tiny's presence, `it's a shabby rich woman.' Tiny smiled grimly and assured me that Lena would never be either shabby or rich. `And I don't want to be,' the other agreed complacently.
Lena gave me a cheerful account of Antonia and urged me to make her a visit.
`You really ought to go, Jim. It would be such a satisfaction to her. Never mind what Tiny says. There's nothing the matter with Cuzak. You'd like him. He isn't a hustler, but a rough man would never have suited Tony. Tony has nice children--ten or eleven of them by this time, I guess. I shouldn't care for a family of that size myself, but somehow it's just right for Tony. She'd love to show them to you.'
On my way East I broke my journey at Hastings, in Nebraska, and set off with an open buggy and a fairly good livery team to find the Cuzak farm. At a little past midday, I knew I must be nearing my destination. Set back on a swell of land at my right, I saw a wide farm-house, with a red barn and an ash grove, and cattle-yards in front that sloped down to the highroad. I drew up my horses and was wondering whether I should drive in here, when I heard low voices. Ahead of me, in a plum thicket beside the road, I saw two boys bending over a dead dog. The little one, not more than four or five, was on his knees, his hands folded, and his close-clipped, bare head drooping forward in deep dejection. The other stood beside him, a hand on his shoulder, and was comforting him in a language I had not heard for a long while. When I stopped my horses opposite them, the older boy took his brother by the hand and came toward me. He, too, looked grave. This was evidently a sad afternoon for them.
`Are you Mrs. Cuzak's boys?' I asked.
The younger one did not look up; he was submerged in his own feelings, but his brother met me with intelligent grey eyes. `Yes, sir.'
`Does she live up there on the hill? I am going to see her. Get in and ride up with me.'
He glanced at his reluctant little brother. `I guess we'd better walk. But we'll open the gate for you.'
I drove along the side-road and they followed slowly behind. When I pulled up at the windmill, another boy, barefooted and curly-headed, ran out of the barn to tie my team for me. He was a handsome one, this chap, fair-skinned and freckled, with red cheeks and a ruddy pelt as thick as a lamb's wool, growing down on his neck in little tufts. He tied my team with two flourishes of his hands, and nodded when I asked him if his mother was at home. As he glanced at me, his face dimpled with a seizure of irrelevant merriment, and he shot up the windmill tower with a lightness that struck me as disdainful. I knew he was peering down at me as I walked toward the house.
Ducks and geese ran quacking across my path. White cats were sunning themselves among yellow pumpkins on the porch steps. I looked through the wire screen into a big, light kitchen with a white floor. I saw a long table, rows of wooden chairs against the wall, and a shining range in one corner. Two girls were washing dishes at the sink, laughing and chattering, and a little one, in a short pinafore, sat on a stool playing with a rag baby. When I asked for their mother, one of the girls dropped her towel, ran across the floor with noiseless bare feet, and disappeared. The older one, who wore shoes and stockings, came to the door to admit me. She was a buxom girl with dark hair and eyes, calm and self-possessed.
`Won't you come in? Mother will be here in a minute.'
Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Antonia came in and stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other. The eyes that peered anxiously at me were--simply Antonia's eyes. I had seen no others like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked at so many thousands of human faces. As I confronted her, the changes grew less apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there, in the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well.
`My husband's not at home, sir. Can I do anything?'
`Don't you remember me, Antonia? Have I changed so much?'
She frowned into the slanting sunlight that made her brown hair look redder than it was. Suddenly her eyes widened, her whole face seemed to grow broader. She caught her breath and put out two hard-worked hands.
`Why, it's Jim! Anna, Yulka, it's Jim Burden!' She had no sooner caught my hands than she looked alarmed. `What's happened? Is anybody dead?'
I patted her arm.
`No. I didn't come to a funeral this time. I got off the train at Hastings and drove down to see you and your family.'
She dropped my hand and began rushing about. `Anton, Yulka, Nina, where are you all? Run, Anna, and hunt for the boys. They're off looking for that dog, somewhere. And call Leo. Where is that Leo!' She pulled them out of corners and came bringing them like a mother cat bringing in her kittens. `You don't have to go right off, Jim? My oldest boy's not here. He's gone with papa to the street fair at Wilber. I won't let you go! You've got to stay and see Rudolph and our papa.' She looked at me imploringly, panting with excitement.
While I reassured her and told her there would be plenty of time, the barefooted boys from outside were slipping into the kitchen and gathering about her.
`Now, tell me their names, and how old they are.'
As she told them off in turn, she made several mistakes about ages, and they roared with laughter. When she came to my light-footed friend of the windmill, she said, `This is Leo, and he's old enough to be better than he is.'
He ran up to her and butted her playfully with his curly head, like a little ram, but his voice was quite desperate. `You've forgot! You always forget mine. It's mean! Please tell him, mother!' He clenched his fists in vexation and looked up at her impetuously.
She wound her forefinger in his yellow fleece and pulled it, watching him. `Well, how old are you?'
`I'm twelve,' he panted, looking not at me but at her; `I'm twelve years old, and I was born on Easter Day!'
She nodded to me. `It's true. He was an Easter baby.'
The children all looked at me, as if they expected me to exhibit astonishment or delight at this information. Clearly, they were proud of each other, and of being so many. When they had all been introduced, Anna, the eldest daughter, who had met me at the door, scattered them gently, and came bringing a white apron which she tied round her mother's waist.
`Now, mother, sit down and talk to Mr. Burden. We'll finish the dishes quietly and not disturb you.'
Antonia looked about, quite distracted. `Yes, child, but why don't we take him into the parlour, now that we've got a nice parlour for company?'
The daughter laughed indulgently, and took my hat from me. `Well, you're here, now, mother, and if you talk here, Yulka and I can listen, too. You can show him the parlour after while.' She smiled at me, and went back to the dishes, with her sister. The little girl with the rag doll found a place on the bottom step of an enclosed back stairway, and sat with her toes curled up, looking out at us expectantly.
`She's Nina, after Nina Harling,' Antonia explained. `Ain't her eyes like Nina's? I declare, Jim, I loved you children almost as much as I love my own. These children know all about you and Charley and Sally, like as if they'd grown up with you. I can't think of what I want to say, you've got me so stirred up. And then, I've forgot my English so. I don't often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speak real well.' She said they always spoke Bohemian at home. The little ones could not speak English at all--didn't learn it until they went to school.
`I can't believe it's you, sitting here, in my own kitchen. You wouldn't have known me, would you, Jim? You've kept so young, yourself. But it's easier for a man. I can't see how my Anton looks any older than the day I married him. His teeth have kept so nice. I haven't got many left. But I feel just as young as I used to, and I can do as much work. Oh, we don't have to work so hard now! We've got plenty to help us, papa and me. And how many have you got, Jim?'
When I told her I had no children, she seemed embarrassed. `Oh, ain't that too bad! Maybe you could take one of my bad ones, now? That Leo; he's the worst of all.' She leaned toward me with a smile. `And I love him the best,' she whispered.
`Mother!' the two girls murmured reproachfully from the dishes.
Antonia threw up her head and laughed. `I can't help it. You know I do. Maybe it's because he came on Easter Day, I don't know. And he's never out of mischief one minute!'
I was thinking, as I watched her, how little it mattered-- about her teeth, for instance. I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life. Her skin, so brown and hardened, had not that look of flabbiness, as if the sap beneath it had been secretly drawn away.
While we were talking, the little boy whom they called Jan came in and sat down on the step beside Nina, under the hood of the stairway. He wore a funny long gingham apron, like a smock, over his trousers, and his hair was clipped so short that his head looked white and naked. He watched us out of his big, sorrowful grey eyes.
`He wants to tell you about the dog, mother. They found it dead,' Anna said, as she passed us on her way to the cupboard.
Antonia beckoned the boy to her. He stood by her chair, leaning his elbows on her knees and twisting her apron strings in his slender fingers, while he told her his story softly in Bohemian, and the tears brimmed over and hung on his long lashes. His mother listened, spoke soothingly to him and in a whisper promised him something that made him give her a quick, teary smile. He slipped away and whispered his secret to Nina, sitting close to her and talking behind his hand.
When Anna finished her work and had washed her hands, she came and stood behind her mother's chair. `Why don't we show Mr. Burden our new fruit cave?' she asked.