BOOK III: Winter Memories
Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in
which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the
fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have
gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is
exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run
shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put
to it to find frost-bitten cabbage-stalks. At night the coyotes
roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields
are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the
sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgerows and trees are scarcely
perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken
on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk
in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country,
and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could
easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and
fruitfulness were extinct forever.
Alexandra has settled back into her old routine. There are weekly
letters from Emil. Lou and Oscar she has not seen since Carl
went away. To avoid awkward encounters in the presence of curious
spectators, she has stopped going to the Norwegian Church and drives
up to the Reform Church at Hanover, or goes with Marie Shabata to
the Catholic Church, locally known as "the French Church." She has
not told Marie about Carl, or her differences with her brothers.
She was never very communicative about her own affairs, and when
she came to the point, an instinct told her that about such things
she and Marie would not understand one another.
Old Mrs. Lee had been afraid that family misunderstandings might
deprive her of her yearly visit to Alexandra. But on the first day
of December Alexandra telephoned Annie that to-morrow she would
send Ivar over for her mother, and the next day the old lady arrived
with her bundles. For twelve years Mrs. Lee had always entered
Alexandra's sitting-room with the same exclamation, "Now we be yust-a
like old times!" She enjoyed the liberty Alexandra gave her, and
hearing her own language about her all day long. Here she could
wear her nightcap and sleep with all her windows shut, listen
to Ivar reading the Bible, and here she could run about among the
stables in a pair of Emil's old boots. Though she was bent almost
double, she was as spry as a gopher. Her face was as brown as if
it had been varnished, and as full of wrinkles as a washerwoman's
hands. She had three jolly old teeth left in the front of her
mouth, and when she grinned she looked very knowing, as if when
you found out how to take it, life wasn't half bad. While she and
Alexandra patched and pieced and quilted, she talked incessantly
about stories she read in a Swedish family paper, telling the plots
in great detail; or about her life on a dairy farm in Gottland
when she was a girl. Sometimes she forgot which were the printed
stories and which were the real stories, it all seemed so far away.
She loved to take a little brandy, with hot water and sugar, before
she went to bed, and Alexandra always had it ready for her. "It
sends good dreams," she would say with a twinkle in her eye.
When Mrs. Lee had been with Alexandra for a week, Marie Shabata
telephoned one morning to say that Frank had gone to town for the
day, and she would like them to come over for coffee in the afternoon.
Mrs. Lee hurried to wash out and iron her new cross-stitched apron,
which she had finished only the night before; a checked gingham
apron worked with a design ten inches broad across the bottom;
a hunting scene, with fir trees and a stag and dogs and huntsmen.
Mrs. Lee was firm with herself at dinner, and refused a second
helping of apple dumplings. "I ta-ank I save up," she said with
At two o'clock in the afternoon Alexandra's cart drove up to the
Shabatas' gate, and Marie saw Mrs. Lee's red shawl come bobbing up
the path. She ran to the door and pulled the old woman into the
house with a hug, helping her to take off her wraps while Alexandra
blanketed the horse outside. Mrs. Lee had put on her best black
satine dress--she abominated woolen stuffs, even in winter--and
a crocheted collar, fastened with a big pale gold pin, containing
faded daguerreotypes of her father and mother. She had not worn
her apron for fear of rumpling it, and now she shook it out and
tied it round her waist with a conscious air. Marie drew back and
threw up her hands, exclaiming, "Oh, what a beauty! I've never
seen this one before, have I, Mrs. Lee?"
The old woman giggled and ducked her head. "No, yust las' night I
ma-ake. See dis tread; verra strong, no wa-ash out, no fade. My
sister send from Sveden. I yust-a ta-ank you like dis."
Marie ran to the door again. "Come in, Alexandra. I have been
looking at Mrs. Lee's apron. Do stop on your way home and show it
to Mrs. Hiller. She's crazy about cross-stitch."
While Alexandra removed her hat and veil, Mrs. Lee went out to the
kitchen and settled herself in a wooden rocking-chair by the stove,
looking with great interest at the table, set for three, with a white
cloth, and a pot of pink geraniums in the middle. "My, a-an't you
gotta fine plants; such-a much flower. How you keep from freeze?"
She pointed to the window-shelves, full of blooming fuchsias and
"I keep the fire all night, Mrs. Lee, and when it's very cold I put
them all on the table, in the middle of the room. Other nights I
only put newspapers behind them. Frank laughs at me for fussing,
but when they don't bloom he says, 'What's the matter with the
darned things?'-- What do you hear from Carl, Alexandra?"
"He got to Dawson before the river froze, and now I suppose I won't
hear any more until spring. Before he left California he sent me
a box of orange flowers, but they didn't keep very well. I have
brought a bunch of Emil's letters for you." Alexandra came out
from the sitting-room and pinched Marie's cheek playfully. "You
don't look as if the weather ever froze you up. Never have colds,
do you? That's a good girl. She had dark red cheeks like this
when she was a little girl, Mrs. Lee. She looked like some queer
foreign kind of a doll. I've never forgot the first time I saw
you in Mieklejohn's store, Marie, the time father was lying sick.
Carl and I were talking about that before he went away."
"I remember, and Emil had his kitten along. When are you going to
send Emil's Christmas box?"
"It ought to have gone before this. I'll have to send it by mail
now, to get it there in time."
Marie pulled a dark purple silk necktie from her workbasket. "I
knit this for him. It's a good color, don't you think? Will you
please put it in with your things and tell him it's from me, to
wear when he goes serenading."
Alexandra laughed. "I don't believe he goes serenading much. He
says in one letter that the Mexican ladies are said to be very
beautiful, but that don't seem to me very warm praise."
Marie tossed her head. "Emil can't fool me. If he's bought a
guitar, he goes serenading. Who wouldn't, with all those Spanish
girls dropping flowers down from their windows! I'd sing to them
every night, wouldn't you, Mrs. Lee?"
The old lady chuckled. Her eyes lit up as Marie bent down and
opened the oven door. A delicious hot fragrance blew out into the
tidy kitchen. "My, somet'ing smell good!" She turned to Alexandra
with a wink, her three yellow teeth making a brave show, "I ta-ank
dat stop my yaw from ache no more!" she said contentedly.
Marie took out a pan of delicate little rolls, stuffed with stewed
apricots, and began to dust them over with powdered sugar. "I hope
you'll like these, Mrs. Lee; Alexandra does. The Bohemians always
like them with their coffee. But if you don't, I have a coffee-cake
with nuts and poppy seeds. Alexandra, will you get the cream jug?
I put it in the window to keep cool."
"The Bohemians," said Alexandra, as they drew up to the table,
"certainly know how to make more kinds of bread than any other
people in the world. Old Mrs. Hiller told me once at the church
supper that she could make seven kinds of fancy bread, but Marie
could make a dozen."
Mrs. Lee held up one of the apricot rolls between her brown thumb
and forefinger and weighed it critically. "Yust like-a fedders,"
she pronounced with satisfaction. "My, a-an't dis nice!" she
exclaimed as she stirred her coffee. "I yust ta-ake a liddle yelly
now, too, I ta-ank."
Alexandra and Marie laughed at her forehandedness, and fell to
talking of their own affairs. "I was afraid you had a cold when
I talked to you over the telephone the other night, Marie. What
was the matter, had you been crying?"
"Maybe I had," Marie smiled guiltily. "Frank was out late that
night. Don't you get lonely sometimes in the winter, when everybody
has gone away?"
"I thought it was something like that. If I hadn't had company,
I'd have run over to see for myself. If you get down-hearted, what
will become of the rest of us?" Alexandra asked.
"I don't, very often. There's Mrs. Lee without any coffee!"
Later, when Mrs. Lee declared that her powers were spent, Marie
and Alexandra went upstairs to look for some crochet patterns the
old lady wanted to borrow. "Better put on your coat, Alexandra.
It's cold up there, and I have no idea where those patterns are. I
may have to look through my old trunks." Marie caught up a shawl
and opened the stair door, running up the steps ahead of her guest.
"While I go through the bureau drawers, you might look in those
hat-boxes on the closet-shelf, over where Frank's clothes hang.
There are a lot of odds and ends in them."
She began tossing over the contents of the drawers, and Alexandra
went into the clothes-closet. Presently she came back, holding a
slender elastic yellow stick in her hand.
"What in the world is this, Marie? You don't mean to tell me Frank
ever carried such a thing?"
Marie blinked at it with astonishment and sat down on the floor.
"Where did you find it? I didn't know he had kept it. I haven't
seen it for years."
"It really is a cane, then?"
"Yes. One he brought from the old country. He used to carry it
when I first knew him. Isn't it foolish? Poor Frank!"
Alexandra twirled the stick in her fingers and laughed. "He must
have looked funny!"
Marie was thoughtful. "No, he didn't, really. It didn't seem out
of place. He used to be awfully gay like that when he was a young
man. I guess people always get what's hardest for them, Alexandra."
Marie gathered the shawl closer about her and still looked hard at
the cane. "Frank would be all right in the right place," she said
reflectively. "He ought to have a different kind of wife, for one
thing. Do you know, Alexandra, I could pick out exactly the right
sort of woman for Frank--now. The trouble is you almost have
to marry a man before you can find out the sort of wife he needs;
and usually it's exactly the sort you are not. Then what are you
going to do about it?" she asked candidly.
Alexandra confessed she didn't know. "However," she added, "it
seems to me that you get along with Frank about as well as any
woman I've ever seen or heard of could."
Marie shook her head, pursing her lips and blowing her warm breath
softly out into the frosty air. "No; I was spoiled at home. I
like my own way, and I have a quick tongue. When Frank brags, I
say sharp things, and he never forgets. He goes over and over it
in his mind; I can feel him. Then I'm too giddy. Frank's wife
ought to be timid, and she ought not to care about another living
thing in the world but just Frank! I didn't, when I married him,
but I suppose I was too young to stay like that." Marie sighed.
Alexandra had never heard Marie speak so frankly about her husband
before, and she felt that it was wiser not to encourage her. No
good, she reasoned, ever came from talking about such things, and
while Marie was thinking aloud, Alexandra had been steadily searching
the hat-boxes. "Aren't these the patterns, Maria?"
Maria sprang up from the floor. "Sure enough, we were looking
for patterns, weren't we? I'd forgot about everything but Frank's
other wife. I'll put that away."
She poked the cane behind Frank's Sunday clothes, and though she
laughed, Alexandra saw there were tears in her eyes.
When they went back to the kitchen, the snow had begun to fall,
and Marie's visitors thought they must be getting home. She went
out to the cart with them, and tucked the robes about old Mrs.
Lee while Alexandra took the blanket off her horse. As they drove
away, Marie turned and went slowly back to the house. She took up
the package of letters Alexandra had brought, but she did not read
them. She turned them over and looked at the foreign stamps, and
then sat watching the flying snow while the dusk deepened in the
kitchen and the stove sent out a red glow.
Marie knew perfectly well that Emil's letters were written more for
her than for Alexandra. They were not the sort of letters that a
young man writes to his sister. They were both more personal and
more painstaking; full of descriptions of the gay life in the old
Mexican capital in the days when the strong hand of Porfirio Diaz
was still strong. He told about bull-fights and cock-fights,
churches and fiestas, the flower-markets and the fountains, the
music and dancing, the people of all nations he met in the Italian
restaurants on San Francisco Street. In short, they were the kind
of letters a young man writes to a woman when he wishes himself
and his life to seem interesting to her, when he wishes to enlist
her imagination in his behalf.
Marie, when she was alone or when she sat sewing in the evening,
often thought about what it must be like down there where Emil was;
where there were flowers and street bands everywhere, and carriages
rattling up and down, and where there was a little blind boot-black
in front of the cathedral who could play any tune you asked for
by dropping the lids of blacking-boxes on the stone steps. When
everything is done and over for one at twenty-three, it is pleasant
to let the mind wander forth and follow a young adventurer who has
life before him. "And if it had not been for me," she thought,
"Frank might still be free like that, and having a good time making
people admire him. Poor Frank, getting married wasn't very good
for him either. I'm afraid I do set people against him, as he says.
I seem, somehow, to give him away all the time. Perhaps he would
try to be agreeable to people again, if I were not around. It
seems as if I always make him just as bad as he can be."
Later in the winter, Alexandra looked back upon that afternoon as
the last satisfactory visit she had had with Marie. After that
day the younger woman seemed to shrink more and more into herself.
When she was with Alexandra she was not spontaneous and frank
as she used to be. She seemed to be brooding over something, and
holding something back. The weather had a good deal to do with
their seeing less of each other than usual. There had not been
such snowstorms in twenty years, and the path across the fields was
drifted deep from Christmas until March. When the two neighbors
went to see each other, they had to go round by the wagon-road,
which was twice as far. They telephoned each other almost every
night, though in January there was a stretch of three weeks when
the wires were down, and when the postman did not come at all.
Marie often ran in to see her nearest neighbor, old Mrs. Hiller,
who was crippled with rheumatism and had only her son, the lame
shoemaker, to take care of her; and she went to the French Church,
whatever the weather. She was a sincerely devout girl. She prayed
for herself and for Frank, and for Emil, among the temptations of
that gay, corrupt old city. She found more comfort in the Church
that winter than ever before. It seemed to come closer to her,
and to fill an emptiness that ached in her heart. She tried to
be patient with her husband. He and his hired man usually played
California Jack in the evening. Marie sat sewing or crocheting and
tried to take a friendly interest in the game, but she was always
thinking about the wide fields outside, where the snow was drifting
over the fences; and about the orchard, where the snow was falling
and packing, crust over crust. When she went out into the dark
kitchen to fix her plants for the night, she used to stand by the
window and look out at the white fields, or watch the currents of
snow whirling over the orchard. She seemed to feel the weight of
all the snow that lay down there. The branches had become so hard
that they wounded your hand if you but tried to break a twig. And
yet, down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the
secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one's heart;
and the spring would come again! Oh, it would come again!