Book III—Lena Lingard
At the University I had the good fortune to come immediately under the influence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric had arrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I, to begin his work as head of the Latin Department. He came West at the suggestion of his physicians, his health having been enfeebled by a long illness in Italy. When I took my entrance examinations he was my examiner, and my course was arranged under his supervision.
I did not go home for my first summer vacation, but stayed in Lincoln, working off a year’s Greek, which had been my only condition on entering the Freshman class. Cleric’s doctor advised against his going back to New England, and except for a few weeks in Colorado, he, too, was in Lincoln all that summer. We played tennis, read, and took long walks together. I shall always look back on that time of mental awakening as one of the happiest in my life. Gaston Cleric introduced me to the world of ideas; when one first enters that world everything else fades for a time, and all that went before is as if it had not been. Yet I found curious survivals; some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new.
In those days there were many serious young men among the students who had come up to the University from the farms and the little towns scattered over the thinly settled State. Some of those boys came straight from the cornfields with only a summer’s wages in their pockets, hung on through the four years, shabby and underfed, and completed the course by really heroic self-sacrifice. Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavor, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before.
Our personal life was as free as that of our instructors. There were no college dormitories; we lived where we could and as we could. I took rooms with an old couple, early settlers in Lincoln, who had married off their children and now lived quietly in their house at the edge of town, near the open country. The house was inconveniently situated for students, and on that account I got two rooms for the price of one. My bedroom, originally a linen closet, was unheated and was barely large enough to contain my cot bed, but it enabled me to call the other room my study. The dresser, and the great walnut wardrobe which held all my clothes, even my hats and shoes, I had pushed out of the way, and I considered them non-existent, as children eliminate incongruous objects when they are playing house. I worked at a commodious green-topped table placed directly in front of the west window which looked out over the prairie. In the corner at my right were all my books, in shelves I had made and painted myself. On the blank wall at my left the dark, old-fashioned wall-paper was covered by a large map of ancient Rome, the work of some German scholar. Cleric had ordered it for me when he was sending for books from abroad. Over the bookcase hung a photograph of the Tragic Theater at Pompeii, which he had given me from his collection.
When I sat at work I half faced a deep, upholstered chair which stood at the end of my table, its high back against the wall. I had bought it with great care. My instructor sometimes looked in upon me when he was out for an evening tramp, and I noticed that he was more likely to linger and become talkative if I had a comfortable chair for him to sit in, and if he found a bottle of Bénédictine and plenty of the kind of cigarettes he liked, at his elbow. He was, I had discovered, parsimonious about small expenditures—a trait absolutely inconsistent with his general character. Sometimes when he came he was silent and moody, and after a few sarcastic remarks went away again, to tramp the streets of Lincoln, which were almost as quiet and oppressively domestic as those of Black Hawk. Again, he would sit until nearly midnight, talking about Latin and English poetry, or telling me about his long stay in Italy.
I can give no idea of the peculiar charm and vividness of his talk. In a crowd he was nearly always silent. Even for his classroom he had no platitudes, no stock of professorial anecdotes. When he was tired his lectures were clouded, obscure, elliptical; but when he was interested they were wonderful. I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missed being a great poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication. How often I have seen him draw his dark brows together, fix his eyes upon some object on the wall or a figure in the carpet, and then flash into the lamplight the very image that was in his brain. He could bring the drama of antique life before one out of the shadows—white figures against blue backgrounds. I shall never forget his face as it looked one night when he told me about the solitary day he spent among the sea temples at Paestum: the soft wind blowing through the roofless columns, the birds flying low over the flowering marsh grasses, the changing lights on the silver, cloud-hung mountains. He had willfully stayed the short summer night there, wrapped in his coat and rug, watching the constellations on their path down the sky until “the bride of old Tithonus” rose out of the sea, and the mountains stood sharp in the dawn. It was there he caught the fever which held him back on the eve of his departure for Greece and of which he lay ill so long in Naples. He was still, indeed, doing penance for it.
I remember vividly another evening, when something led us to talk of Dante’s veneration for Virgil. Cleric went through canto after canto of the “Commedia,” repeating the discourse between Dante and his “sweet teacher,” while his cigarette burned itself out unheeded between his long fingers. I can hear him now, speaking the lines of the poet Statius, who spoke for Dante: “I was famous on earth with the name which endures longest and honors most. The seeds of my ardor were the sparks from that divine flame whereby more than a thousand have kindled; I speak of the Æneid, mother to me and nurse to me in poetry.”
Although I admired scholarship so much in Cleric, I was not deceived about myself; I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it. While I was in the very act of yearning toward the new forms that Cleric brought up before me, my mind plunged away from me, and I suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified now, like the image of the plough against the sun. They were all I had for an answer to the new appeal. I begrudged the room that Jake and Otto and Russian Peter took up in my memory, which I wanted to crowd with other things. But whenever my consciousness was quickened, all those early friends were quickened within it, and in some strange way they accompanied me through all my new experiences. They were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how.
One March evening in my Sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after supper. There had been a warm thaw all day, with mushy yards and little streams of dark water gurgling cheerfully into the streets out of old snow-banks. My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver chains—like the lamp engraved upon the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men. It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and light my wick in answer. I did so regretfully, and the dim objects in the room emerged from the shadows and took their place about me with the helpfulness which custom breeds.
I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the Georgics where tomorrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. “Optima dies … prima fugit.” I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. “Primus ego in patriam mecum … deducam Musas”; “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”
Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Æneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.”
We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately enough to guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at my book, the fervor of his voice stirred through the quantities on the page before me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New England coast about which he had so often told me was Cleric’s patria. Before I had got far with my reading I was disturbed by a knock. I hurried to the door and when I opened it saw a woman standing in the dark hall.
“I expect you hardly know me, Jim.”
The voice seemed familiar, but I did not recognize her until she stepped into the light of my doorway and I beheld—Lena Lingard! She was so quietly conventionalized by city clothes that I might have passed her on the street without seeing her. Her black suit fitted her figure smoothly, and a black lace hat, with pale-blue forget-me-nots, sat demurely on her yellow hair.
I led her toward Cleric’s chair, the only comfortable one I had, questioning her confusedly.
She was not disconcerted by my embarrassment. She looked about her with the naïve curiosity I remembered so well. “You are quite comfortable here, are n’t you? I live in Lincoln now, too, Jim. I’m in business for myself. I have a dressmaking shop in the Raleigh Block, out on O Street. I’ve made a real good start.”
“But, Lena, when did you come?”
“Oh, I’ve been here all winter. Did n’t your grandmother ever write you? I’ve thought about looking you up lots of times. But we’ve all heard what a studious young man you’ve got to be, and I felt bashful. I did n’t know whether you’d be glad to see me.” She laughed her mellow, easy laugh, that was either very artless or very comprehending, one never quite knew which. “You seem the same, though,—except you’re a young man, now, of course. Do you think I’ve changed?”
“Maybe you’re prettier—though you were always pretty enough. Perhaps it’s your clothes that make a difference.”
“You like my new suit? I have to dress pretty well in my business.” She took off her jacket and sat more at ease in her blouse, of some soft, flimsy silk. She was already at home in my place, had slipped quietly into it, as she did into everything. She told me her business was going well, and she had saved a little money.
“This summer I’m going to build the house for mother I’ve talked about so long. I won’t be able to pay up on it at first, but I want her to have it before she is too old to enjoy it. Next summer I’ll take her down new furniture and carpets, so she’ll have something to look forward to all winter.”
I watched Lena sitting there so smooth and sunny and well cared-for, and thought of how she used to run barefoot over the prairie until after the snow began to fly, and how Crazy Mary chased her round and round the cornfields. It seemed to me wonderful that she should have got on so well in the world. Certainly she had no one but herself to thank for it.
“You must feel proud of yourself, Lena,” I said heartily. “Look at me; I’ve never earned a dollar, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to.”
“Tony says you’re going to be richer than Mr. Harling some day. She’s always bragging about you, you know.”
“Tell me, how is Tony?”
“She’s fine. She works for Mrs. Gardener at the hotel now. She’s housekeeper. Mrs. Gardener’s health is n’t what it was, and she can’t see after everything like she used to. She has great confidence in Tony. Tony’s made it up with the Harlings, too. Little Nina is so fond of her that Mrs. Harling kind of overlooked things.”
“Is she still going with Larry Donovan?”
“Oh, that’s on, worse than ever! I guess they’re engaged. Tony talks about him like he was president of the railroad. Everybody laughs about it, because she was never a girl to be soft. She won’t hear a word against him. She’s so sort of innocent.”
I said I did n’t like Larry, and never would.
Lena’s face dimpled. “Some of us could tell her things, but it would n’t do any good. She’d always believe him. That’s Ántonia’s failing, you know; if she once likes people, she won’t hear anything against them.”
“I think I’d better go home and look after Ántonia,” I said.
“I think you had.” Lena looked up at me in frank amusement. “It’s a good thing the Harlings are friendly with her again. Larry’s afraid of them. They ship so much grain, they have influence with the railroad people. What are you studying?” She leaned her elbows on the table and drew my book toward her. I caught a faint odor of violet sachet. “So that’s Latin, is it? It looks hard. You do go to the theater sometimes, though, for I’ve seen you there. Don’t you just love a good play, Jim? I can’t stay at home in the evening if there’s one in town. I’d be willing to work like a slave, it seems to me, to live in a place where there are theaters.”
“Let’s go to a show together sometime. You are going to let me come to see you, are n’t you?”
“Would you like to? I’d be ever so pleased. I’m never busy after six o’clock, and I let my sewing girls go at half-past five. I board, to save time, but sometimes I cook a chop for myself, and I’d be glad to cook one for you. Well,”—she began to put on her white gloves,—“it’s been awful good to see you, Jim.”
“You need n’t hurry, need you? You’ve hardly told me anything yet.”
“We can talk when you come to see me. I expect you don’t often have lady visitors. The old woman downstairs did n’t want to let me come up very much. I told her I was from your home town, and had promised your grandmother to come and see you. How surprised Mrs. Burden would be!” Lena laughed softly as she rose.
When I caught up my hat she shook her head. “No, I don’t want you to go with me. I’m to meet some Swedes at the drug-store. You would n’t care for them. I wanted to see your room so I could write Tony all about it, but I must tell her how I left you right here with your books. She’s always so afraid some one will run off with you!” Lena slipped her silk sleeves into the jacket I held for her, smoothed it over her person, and buttoned it slowly. I walked with her to the door. “Come and see me sometimes when you’re lonesome. But maybe you have all the friends you want. Have you?” She turned her soft cheek to me. “Have you?” she whispered teasingly in my ear. In a moment I watched her fade down the dusky stairway.
When I turned back to my room the place seemed much pleasanter than before. Lena had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight. How I loved to hear her laugh again! It was so soft and unexcited and appreciative—gave a favorable interpretation to everything. When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughing—the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish.
As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: Optima dies … prima fugit.