A MAN stood on the street corner staring at a notice pasted on the door of a bank that had failed. He was tall and powerfully built and his head was set squarely on his broad shoulders. He had on an old soiled summer suit and a mud bespattered overcoat. His pantaloons were tucked into his boots, and an old stiff hat was jammed on the back of his head. He kept his hands in his pockets and whistled softly as he read the notice. He had not lost any money in the bank, he had never had a cent in a bank in his life and he seldom had money in his pocket. He owed money for the clothes he had on, and for those he had worn out years ago. He owed money to every man he had ever done business with, except the police. That was one comfort, a fellow might owe every one else, but the "cops" and the patrol were free luxuries. He would never pay any one a cent while he could help it, not he. He would take his living off the world till he was through with it, then he would take a town lot two by six over in Wyuka, on trust too. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets and walked off whistling.
SHE was a tall, lank brown woman, dressed in deep mourning, and she stood in a marble-cutter's shop looking for a tombstone for her lord who was not.
"I want something plain, plain and neat," she said in a harsh metallic voice as she ran her rusty black glove over a stone beside her. The marble dealer tried in vain to influence her selection, for he had known and liked the dead man. But she suspected that he wanted to impose on her, and let him know in decided language that she had read up thoroughly in the matter of tombstones and knew what she wanted. She finally selected the ugliest one in the shop and began beating the dealer down in the price. She had evidently gone shopping for tombstones often and had learned all the technical terms, such as "plinth" and "base." She used them very freely and was evidently not a little proud of her knowledge. When she saw that the dealer had lowered his price for the last time, she opened a stiff black pocketbook, which was of real leather, as its disagreeable odor left no doubt, and gave him the number of the lot in the cemetery. Then she repeated in a loud, high voice the text she wished cut upon it.
"'I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of the wicked.' It was his favorite scripture text." And clearing her throat violently she went across the street to buy muffin rings. The marble dealer turned with a sigh to the ugly mass of stone that was to cover the grave of a man he had always honored, and wondered if doorkeeping paid.
HE is one of the many Italian proprietors of one of the many fruit stands of the city. He is one of the most striking examples of phenomenal ugliness to be found anywhere. He is humpbacked, his legs are crooked, his face is dark and wrinkled, the corners of his mouth are drawn in a perpetual grin, and, from under his burly brow, rolls one watery eye. He speaks seldom, as his English vocabulary does not extend beyond the price of peanuts and bananas. He was sitting on his tall stool with his legs wrapped tightly about it. With one hand he kept time to the musee band that was droning away up the street, while the long dirty fingers of the other clutched his cob pipe, and his one eye was fixed upon the street with a vacant stare. Night and day he smokes and watches the street with that same expression. Sometimes the cold drives him inside of his little glass case of a shop, and the frost covers the glass so thickly that nothing of him is visible except that one eye, which stares out at the street through a clear spot where he has melted away the frost, with that same look, half idiotic, half devilish. One often wonders what he is thinking about, beer or the Bay of Naples?
HE was a young fellow, stalwart and handsome too, if he did wear a striped suit. He sat in the warden's office in the penitentiary nervously watching the door. He was biting his lips to keep them steady and his hands were clinched tightly upon his knees. Presently a woman entered, his wife, who had come all the way from Sioux county to see him, carrying in her arms his first baby that he had never seen. He started forward, looking hungrily into her face, then his eyes fell upon the bundle she held in her arms. He started to touch it when the blood rushed to his face and he sank helplessly back into his chair. She sat down beside him and began to unwrap the baby, talking gently to the man. The baby was asleep and as he looked down into its face the color left his own. He felt its hands and cheek as though he were half afraid to touch it. Then he pointed to its closed eyes and for the first time he spoke.
"What color are they?" he said huskily.
The woman wakened the baby gently and the little fellow blinked his big eyes that were so like his father's. The man took him on his knee and sat looking down at him with his teeth set on his lower lip. The baby suddenly noticed the big black and white stripes on his papa's coat and began laughing and crowing and stroking them with his little fingers. The man caught the baby closer to his breast and laid his head upon his son's and sobbed aloud.
SHE was a poor Swede workwoman, who, because she was sick and out of work and had nothing better to do, was talking to me. She said she had a sailor sweetheart in Sweden who was lost near the North cape in the long polar night. From herself, her talk drifted to the midnight sun, which she had seen, and finally to the few Swedish books she had read. The one she grew most enthusiastic over Frithiof's Saga and it's heroine Engborg .
"I like Engborg so much," she said, her homely face flushing and her coarse, red hands flushing, "she were so good and truly and she love him so much."
Yet they tell us romance is dead in the world. Not quite, I think. Even if it dies out altogether from the withered hearts of the pedantic gentlemen who write essays on "the romantic school," and teach the romance language, it will live in the hearts of the people. The maid who admits my lady's admirer every evening believes in romance, and she has a great reverence for the man as she takes his hat, because she believes he is the victim of a great passion, whereas God knows my lady has no awe of him. The dressmaker who makes my lady's wedding dress believes in love, and handles the white lace as though it were sacred, whereas my lady thinks only of its price per yard. It is almost pitiful, this great reverence the common people have for love; their faith is so strong, their belief so complete that perhaps they are the only ones of us who ever really experience it after all. No, romance is not dead yet, we may be realists and materialists, but our tailors and coachmen are always romanticists and idealists.
OVER the high altar of the pro-cathedral of Saint Theresa hangs a crucifix. The figure of Christ is emaciated and his face is drawn and bloody as the coarser artists of the renaissance loved to paint it, and crushed down over his brow is the crown of thorns. There is some thing very significant about those crowns of the Christ. When the church was very young and her faith was pure, she painted Christ only as a god of tenderness and crowned him with a halo of light. When she was strong and ambitious and desired to subdue men through their sympathies, she painted him with a crown of thorns across his brow. Years after men crowned him again, this time with laurel, as they crown a genius. Today he needs no crown save the glory of his own brow, and of his eyes into whose compassionate depths a tired world has looked for nineteen centuries and found comfort. The same glorious compassion that shone there long ago, when the world who had waited for its God for so long, waited until the lamp was gone out and its breast was cold and it was weary, took him to its heart and said "you shall be my God, not only because you are great or because you are heaven born, but because I love you."
A bank that had failed: Many banks failed in the Panic of 1893; three failed in Lincoln that year. The largest and most serious failure was that of the Capital National Bank, on the southwest corner of 11th and O Streets, on January 21, 1893. Its president was Charles W. Mosher, the cashier Richard C. Outcalt; both were prominent in Lincoln society. Historian Albert Watkins said it was one of several "wrecked through embezzlements and other frauds of their officers" (329) and that the Capital Bank's failure "caused great disaster and inexpressible suffering" (330). Depositors eventually recovered only about twenty-two cents on the dollar. The public was outraged when Mosher eventually pled guilty and was let off with five years in the penitentiary (History of Nebraska, 1913; v. 3).
Wyuka: Wyuka cemetery, then just outside of town at 35th and O Streets, is the Nebraska state cemetery and was Lincoln's main cemetery for Protestants; Calvary cemetery, across O Street, is the Roman Catholic cemetery. Wyuka was laid out as a park, with a small lake, and was a favorite picnic ground.
Marble-cutter's shop: The 1893 Lincoln city directory lists six marble and granite dealers. Kimball Bros., at 1135 M Street, would have been familiar to Cather as she walked along 11th Street to the university. The Lincoln Marble works, at 2023 O Street, and the State Granite and Marble, at 2015 O Street, were closest to Wyuka cemetery.
I would rather be a door keeper . . .: Psalm 84:10 reads, "For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness."
Italian proprietor . . . fruit stand: Of the eleven fruit stands listed in the 1893 Lincoln city directory, six were owned by men with Italian surnames. The most likely here, in view of the proximity to the Wonderland Musee on south 10th street between M and N streets, would be the stands of Cataleno & Palmisano at 148 N. 10th St, or that of E. Gammatti at 1000 N.
musee band: The Wonderland Musee, 213-215 South 10th Street, was an amusement arcade and dance hall in Lincoln for many years. Cather commented several times in her early columns upon the execrable playing of the band at the Wonderland Musee in Lincoln.
Bay of Naples: The blue waters and hills of the Bay of Naples in southern Italy made it one of the most famous beauty spots in the world.
Warden Allan D. Beemer: Allan D. Beemer (1842-after 1904) was born in Pennsylvania, and served four years with the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War. He came to West Point, Nebraska, in 1868, engaging in real estate and livestock, as well as serving as sheriff of Cumming County for six years. In 1886 he founded the town of Beemer and its bank. He served as warden of the Nebraska State Penitentiary from 1893-95, and again in 1902-1904. He was preceded by James P. Mallon (1893) and D. H. Hopkins (1892). The Nebraska report in the 1895 Report of the Conference of Charities and Correction noted that the prison had made steady progress in the improvement of conditions under Warden Beemer.
Beemer married Belle Akerley in 1873.
penitentiary: The Nebraska State Penitentiary was then south of Lincoln. Alexandra Bergson visits the penitentiary in O Pioneers! It is possible Cather had visited it herself, given these and other references, but no record has been found of her doing so.
Sioux County: This was a large and sparsely populated county in northwestern Nebraska.
North cape: The North Cape (Nordkapp), on the north coast of Norway, is generally considered the northernmost point in Europe. It is known especially for the spectacular cliffs rising over 1000 feet from the sea on the island of Magero.
Frithiof's saga: Swedish poet Esaias Tegner (1782-1846) published his series of twenty-four romantic poems, based on ancient Icelandic sagas, in parts between 1820 and 1825. It was praised by Goethe and translated into English and most of the other European languages, and was the first Swedish literary work to gain wide popularity outside of Sweden. The poems concern the exploits of the hero, Frithiof the Bold, and his love for the princess Ingeborg; their courage and faithfulness at last reunite them. Longfellow was one of the poets who translated parts of the saga into English.
Engborg: The heroine of Tegner's epic poem, Frithiof's Saga (1820-25), Ingeborg is forced by her brothers to marry an elderly king, despite her love for the warrior Frithiof. She remains faithful when Frithiof is sent on seemingly impossible missions, and when he appears in disguise before her. The lovers are at last united after the king dies.
Pro-cathedral of St. Theresa: The church of St. Theresa, on the northeast corner of 13th and M Streets, was the only Catholic church in Lincoln when it became the pro-cathedral of the diocese of Lincoln (which then included all of Nebraska south of the Platte River) when it was organized in 1887. The first bishop, the Rev. Thomas Bonacum (1847-1911), enlarged and redecorated the church at a cost of $18,000 soon after he came to Lincoln in 1887.
coarser artists of the renaissance: Cather may have been thinking of some of the artists of the Northern Renaissance, such as Matthias Gruenvald, whose small Cruxifiction (c. 1510), in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., depicts a bloody and emaciated body, as do some of the cruxifictions of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Van Eyck, as well as the Lamentations of Rogier van der Weyden (1450, in Brussels; 1465, in the National Gallery in London) and Quentin Massys (1508-11, Antwerp Cathedral).
You shall be my God . . .: This may be Cather's own saying—possibly a turning around of Jeremiah 7:23, where the prophet, speaking for God, says to the backsliding Hebrews, "But this thing I commanded them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people."