Reading 40

My Antonia

The following passage is adapted from the novel My Antonia by Willa Cather (originally published in 1918 by Willa Cather).

  1. I first heard of Antonia on
  2. what seemed to me an
  3. interminable journey
  4. across the great midland
  5. plain of North America. I
  6. was ten years old then; I
  7. had lost both my father
  8. and mother within a year,
  9. and my Virginia relatives
  10. were sending me out to my
  11. grandparents, who lived in
  12. Nebraska. I travelled in the
  13. care of a mountain boy,
  14. Jake Marpole, one of the
  15. ‘hands’ on my father’s old
  16. farm under the Blue Ridge,
  17. who was now going West to
  18. work for my grandfather.
  19. Jake’s experience of the
  20. world was not much wider
  21. than mine. He had never
  22. been in a railway train
  23. until the morning when we
  24. set out together to try our
  25. fortunes in a new world.
  26. We went all the way in
  27. day-coaches, becoming
  28. more sticky and grimy
  29. with each stage of the
  30. journey. Jake bought
  31. everything the newsboys
  32. offered him: candy,
  33. oranges, brass collar
  34. buttons, a watch-charm,
  35. and for me a ‘Life of Jesse
  36. James,’ which I remember
  37. as one of the most
  38. satisfactory books I have
  39. ever read. Beyond Chicago
  40. we were under the
  41. protection of a friendly
  42. passenger conductor, who
  43. knew all about the country
  44. to which we were going
  45. and gave us a great deal
  46. of advice in exchange for
  47. our confidence.
  48. He seemed to us an
  49. experienced and worldly
  50. man who had been almost
  51. everywhere; in his
  52. conversation he threw out
  53. lightly the names of distant
  54. states and cities. He wore
  55. the rings and pins and
  56. badges of different fraternal
  57. orders to which he belonged.
  58. Even his cuff-buttons were
  59. engraved with hieroglyphics,
  60. and he was more inscribed
  61. than an Egyptian obelisk.
  62. Once when he sat down to
  63. chat, he told us that in the
  64. immigrant car ahead there
  65. was a family from ‘across
  66. the water’ whose destination
  67. was the same as ours.
  68. ‘They can’t any of them speak
  69. English, except one little girl,
  70. and all she can say is “We
  71. go Black Hawk, Nebraska.”
  72. She’s not much older than
  73. you, twelve or thirteen,
  74. maybe, and she’s as bright
  75. as a new dollar. Don’t you
  76. want to go ahead and see
  77. her, Jimmy? She’s got pretty
  78. brown eyes, too!’
  79. This last remark made me
  80. bashful, and I shook my head
  81. and settled down to ‘Jesse
  82. James.’ Jake nodded at me
  83. approvingly and said you
  84. were likely to get diseases
  85. from foreigners.
  86. I do not remember crossing
  87. the Missouri River, or
  88. anything about the long
  89. day’s journey through
  90. Nebraska. Probably by that
  91. time I had crossed so many
  92. rivers that I was dull to
  93. them. The only thing very
  94. noticeable about Nebraska
  95. was that it was still, all
  96. day long, Nebraska.
  97. I had been sleeping, curled
  98. up in a red plush seat, for a
  99. long while when we reached
  100. Black Hawk. Jake roused me
  101. and took me by the hand.
  102. We stumbled down from
  103. the train to a wooden siding,
  104. where men were running
  105. about with lanterns. I
  106. couldn’t see any town, or
  107. even distant lights; we
  108. were surrounded by utter
  109. darkness.
  110. In the red glow from the
  111. fire-box, a group of people
  112. stood huddled together on
  113. the platform, encumbered
  114. by bundles and boxes. I
  115. knew this must be the
  116. immigrant family the
  117. conductor had told us
  118. about. Presently a man
  119. with a lantern approached
  120. them and began to talk,
  121. shouting and exclaiming. I
  122. pricked up my ears, for it
  123. was positively the first time
  124. I had ever heard a foreign
  125. tongue.
  126. Another lantern came along.
  127. A bantering voice called out:
  128. ‘Hello, are you Mr. Burden’s
  129. folks? If you are, it’s me
  130. you’re looking for. I’m Otto
  131. Fuchs. I’m Mr. Burden’s
  132. hired man, and I’m to drive
  133. you out. Hello, Jimmy, ain’t
  134. you scared to come so far
  135. west?’
  136. I looked up with interest at
  137. the new face in the lantern-
  138. light. He might have stepped
  139. out of the pages of ‘Jesse
  140. James.’ He wore a sombrero
  141. hat, with a wide leather band
  142. and a bright buckle, and the
  143. ends of his moustache were
  144. twisted up stiffly, like little
  145. horns. He looked lively and
  146. ferocious, I thought, and as
  147. if he had a history. A long
  148. scar ran across one cheek
  149. and drew the corner of his
  150. mouth up in a sinister curl.
  151. The top of his left ear was
  152. gone. Surely this was the
  153. face of a desperado.