BOOK V: The White Mulberry Tree
Late in the afternoon of a brilliant October day, Alexandra Bergson,
dressed in a black suit and traveling-hat, alighted at the Burlington
depot in Lincoln. She drove to the Lindell Hotel, where she had
stayed two years ago when she came up for Emil's Commencement. In
spite of her usual air of sureness and self-possession, Alexandra
felt ill at ease in hotels, and she was glad, when she went to the
clerk's desk to register, that there were not many people in the
lobby. She had her supper early, wearing her hat and black jacket
down to the dining-room and carrying her handbag. After supper
she went out for a walk.
It was growing dark when she reached the university campus. She
did not go into the grounds, but walked slowly up and down the
stone walk outside the long iron fence, looking through at the young
men who were running from one building to another, at the lights
shining from the armory and the library. A squad of cadets were
going through their drill behind the armory, and the commands of
their young officer rang out at regular intervals, so sharp and
quick that Alexandra could not understand them. Two stalwart girls
came down the library steps and out through one of the iron gates.
As they passed her, Alexandra was pleased to hear them speaking
Bohemian to each other. Every few moments a boy would come running
down the flagged walk and dash out into the street as if he were
rushing to announce some wonder to the world. Alexandra felt a
great tenderness for them all. She wished one of them would stop
and speak to her. She wished she could ask them whether they had
As she lingered by the south gate she actually did encounter one
of the boys. He had on his drill cap and was swinging his books
at the end of a long strap. It was dark by this time; he did not
see her and ran against her. He snatched off his cap and stood
bareheaded and panting. "I'm awfully sorry," he said in a bright,
clear voice, with a rising inflection, as if he expected her to
"Oh, it was my fault!" said Alexandra eagerly. "Are you an old
student here, may I ask?"
"No, ma'am. I'm a Freshie, just off the farm. Cherry County.
Were you hunting somebody?"
"No, thank you. That is--" Alexandra wanted to detain him. "That
is, I would like to find some of my brother's friends. He graduated
two years ago."
"Then you'd have to try the Seniors, wouldn't you? Let's see; I
don't know any of them yet, but there'll be sure to be some of them
around the library. That red building, right there," he pointed.
"Thank you, I'll try there," said Alexandra lingeringly.
"Oh, that's all right! Good-night." The lad clapped his cap on
his head and ran straight down Eleventh Street. Alexandra looked
after him wistfully.
She walked back to her hotel unreasonably comforted. "What a nice
voice that boy had, and how polite he was. I know Emil was always
like that to women." And again, after she had undressed and was
standing in her nightgown, brushing her long, heavy hair by the
electric light, she remembered him and said to herself, "I don't
think I ever heard a nicer voice than that boy had. I hope he
will get on well here. Cherry County; that's where the hay is so
fine, and the coyotes can scratch down to water."
At nine o'clock the next morning Alexandra presented herself
at the warden's office in the State Penitentiary. The warden was
a German, a ruddy, cheerful-looking man who had formerly been a
harness-maker. Alexandra had a letter to him from the German banker
in Hanover. As he glanced at the letter, Mr. Schwartz put away
"That big Bohemian, is it? Sure, he's gettin' along fine," said
Mr. Schwartz cheerfully.
"I am glad to hear that. I was afraid he might be quarrelsome and
get himself into more trouble. Mr. Schwartz, if you have time, I
would like to tell you a little about Frank Shabata, and why I am
interested in him."
The warden listened genially while she told him briefly something
of Frank's history and character, but he did not seem to find
anything unusual in her account.
"Sure, I'll keep an eye on him. We'll take care of him all right,"
he said, rising. "You can talk to him here, while I go to see to
things in the kitchen. I'll have him sent in. He ought to be done
washing out his cell by this time. We have to keep 'em clean, you
The warden paused at the door, speaking back over his shoulder to
a pale young man in convicts' clothes who was seated at a desk in
the corner, writing in a big ledger.
"Bertie, when 1037 is brought in, you just step out and give this
lady a chance to talk."
The young man bowed his head and bent over his ledger again.
When Mr. Schwartz disappeared, Alexandra thrust her black-edged
handkerchief nervously into her handbag. Coming out on the streetcar
she had not had the least dread of meeting Frank. But since she
had been here the sounds and smells in the corridor, the look of the
men in convicts' clothes who passed the glass door of the warden's
office, affected her unpleasantly.
The warden's clock ticked, the young convict's pen scratched
busily in the big book, and his sharp shoulders were shaken every
few seconds by a loose cough which he tried to smother. It was easy
to see that he was a sick man. Alexandra looked at him timidly,
but he did not once raise his eyes. He wore a white shirt under
his striped jacket, a high collar, and a necktie, very carefully
tied. His hands were thin and white and well cared for, and he had
a seal ring on his little finger. When he heard steps approaching
in the corridor, he rose, blotted his book, put his pen in the rack,
and left the room without raising his eyes. Through the door he
opened a guard came in, bringing Frank Shabata.
"You the lady that wanted to talk to 1037? Here he is. Be on your
good behavior, now. He can set down, lady," seeing that Alexandra
remained standing. "Push that white button when you're through
with him, and I'll come."
The guard went out and Alexandra and Frank were left alone.
Alexandra tried not to see his hideous clothes. She tried to look
straight into his face, which she could scarcely believe was his.
It was already bleached to a chalky gray. His lips were colorless,
his fine teeth looked yellowish. He glanced at Alexandra sullenly,
blinked as if he had come from a dark place, and one eyebrow twitched
continually. She felt at once that this interview was a terrible
ordeal to him. His shaved head, showing the conformation of his
skull, gave him a criminal look which he had not had during the
Alexandra held out her hand. "Frank," she said, her eyes filling
suddenly, "I hope you'll let me be friendly with you. I understand
how you did it. I don't feel hard toward you. They were more to
blame than you."
Frank jerked a dirty blue handkerchief from his trousers pocket.
He had begun to cry. He turned away from Alexandra. "I never
did mean to do not'ing to dat woman," he muttered. "I never mean
to do not'ing to dat boy. I ain't had not'ing ag'in' dat boy. I
always like dat boy fine. An' then I find him--" He stopped. The
feeling went out of his face and eyes. He dropped into a chair
and sat looking stolidly at the floor, his hands hanging loosely
between his knees, the handkerchief lying across his striped leg.
He seemed to have stirred up in his mind a disgust that had paralyzed
"I haven't come up here to blame you, Frank. I think they were
more to blame than you." Alexandra, too, felt benumbed.
Frank looked up suddenly and stared out of the office window. "I
guess dat place all go to hell what I work so hard on," he said
with a slow, bitter smile. "I not care a damn." He stopped and
rubbed the palm of his hand over the light bristles on his head
with annoyance. "I no can t'ink without my hair," he complained.
"I forget English. We not talk here, except swear."
Alexandra was bewildered. Frank seemed to have undergone a change
of personality. There was scarcely anything by which she could
recognize her handsome Bohemian neighbor. He seemed, somehow, not
altogether human. She did not know what to say to him.
"You do not feel hard to me, Frank?" she asked at last.
Frank clenched his fist and broke out in excitement. "I not feel
hard at no woman. I tell you I not that kind-a man. I never hit
my wife. No, never I hurt her when she devil me something awful!"
He struck his fist down on the warden's desk so hard that he
afterward stroked it absently. A pale pink crept over his neck and
face. "Two, t'ree years I know dat woman don' care no more 'bout
me, Alexandra Bergson. I know she after some other man. I know
her, oo-oo! An' I ain't never hurt her. I never would-a done
dat, if I ain't had dat gun along. I don' know what in hell make
me take dat gun. She always say I ain't no man to carry gun. If
she been in dat house, where she ought-a been-- But das a foolish
Frank rubbed his head and stopped suddenly, as he had stopped
before. Alexandra felt that there was something strange in the way
he chilled off, as if something came up in him that extinguished
his power of feeling or thinking.
"Yes, Frank," she said kindly. "I know you never meant to hurt
Frank smiled at her queerly. His eyes filled slowly with tears.
"You know, I most forgit dat woman's name. She ain't got no name
for me no more. I never hate my wife, but dat woman what make me
do dat-- Honest to God, but I hate her! I no man to fight. I
don' want to kill no boy and no woman. I not care how many men
she take under dat tree. I no care for not'ing but dat fine boy
I kill, Alexandra Bergson. I guess I go crazy sure 'nough."
Alexandra remembered the little yellow cane she had found in Frank's
clothes-closet. She thought of how he had come to this country a
gay young fellow, so attractive that the prettiest Bohemian girl
in Omaha had run away with him. It seemed unreasonable that life
should have landed him in such a place as this. She blamed Marie
bitterly. And why, with her happy, affectionate nature, should
she have brought destruction and sorrow to all who had loved her,
even to poor old Joe Tovesky, the uncle who used to carry her about
so proudly when she was a little girl? That was the strangest thing
of all. Was there, then, something wrong in being warm-hearted
and impulsive like that? Alexandra hated to think so. But there
was Emil, in the Norwegian graveyard at home, and here was Frank
Shabata. Alexandra rose and took him by the hand.
"Frank Shabata, I am never going to stop trying until I get you
pardoned. I'll never give the Governor any peace. I know I can
get you out of this place."
Frank looked at her distrustfully, but he gathered confidence from
her face. "Alexandra," he said earnestly, "if I git out-a here,
I not trouble dis country no more. I go back where I come from;
see my mother."
Alexandra tried to withdraw her hand, but Frank held on to it
nervously. He put out his finger and absently touched a button
on her black jacket. "Alexandra," he said in a low tone, looking
steadily at the button, "you ain' t'ink I use dat girl awful bad
"No, Frank. We won't talk about that," Alexandra said, pressing
his hand. "I can't help Emil now, so I'm going to do what I can
for you. You know I don't go away from home often, and I came up
here on purpose to tell you this."
The warden at the glass door looked in inquiringly. Alexandra
nodded, and he came in and touched the white button on his desk.
The guard appeared, and with a sinking heart Alexandra saw Frank
led away down the corridor. After a few words with Mr. Schwartz,
she left the prison and made her way to the street-car. She had
refused with horror the warden's cordial invitation to "go through
the institution." As the car lurched over its uneven roadbed, back
toward Lincoln, Alexandra thought of how she and Frank had been
wrecked by the same storm and of how, although she could come out
into the sunlight, she had not much more left in her life than
he. She remembered some lines from a poem she had liked in her
Henceforth the world will only be A wider prison-house to me,--
and sighed. A disgust of life weighed upon her heart; some such
feeling as had twice frozen Frank Shabata's features while they
talked together. She wished she were back on the Divide.
When Alexandra entered her hotel, the clerk held up one finger
and beckoned to her. As she approached his desk, he handed her a
telegram. Alexandra took the yellow envelope and looked at it in
perplexity, then stepped into the elevator without opening it. As
she walked down the corridor toward her room, she reflected that
she was, in a manner, immune from evil tidings. On reaching her
room she locked the door, and sitting down on a chair by the dresser,
opened the telegram. It was from Hanover, and it read:--
Arrived Hanover last night. Shall wait here until you come. Please
hurry. Carl Linstrum.
Alexandra put her head down on the dresser and burst into tears.