The Wife From Vienna

“VEGETABLES, indeed! American,— American! Such onions, such romaine, such carrots, — huge, wretched, American! Potatoes, always potatoes! And other sweet yellow potatoes. Yet where is the Stecksalat, the cress, the endive, the Blätterkohl, the Kohl-rabi ? How can one eat a salad ? Without leeks, where is broth to come from ? Jan, you grow nothing fit to eat. A year and a half, now, I have starved in America.”

Jan Goroby smiled, and hung his mine coat on its nail behind the stove with his usual composure. The rapid flow of Polish and German was Ketta’s habitual style of conversation, and scarcely more vehement than usual.

“But there are tomatoes,” he observed. “And next year I will try the Eier Pflanzen. I see there is much sale of those. And soon there will be melons, too.”

“Melons! If they come, they will be the American kind.”

“Naturally — to sell to the Americans.” Jan’s heavy mouth drew wide in a cheerful grin. “It was a clever plan, Ketta. The farm does so well, and you know how to sell so cleverly. It is not for nothing that one lives in Vienna.”

“All, ah,” cried Ketta fretfully. “Some people are stupid. It is the mind, — the mind does it. Some people might live in Vienna a thousand years, and still have nothing but a silly soft heart to show for it.” She tossed the baby abruptly to the other shoulder. The child was weary with the long heat of an August day, and cried peevishly.

“Your uncle is quick and cunning, too. So is the aunt. I saw it while we were on the ship. Vienna had made them so, and they do very well in New York. But it is the mind, too; there is mind in your family, Ketta.”

“I wish I lived in Vienna.” The girl’s black brows drew together, and the sullen expression grew upon her pretty face. “Hear the baby cry. All day long he snarls, snarls, like a dog, — listen! No wonder. He hates America, like his mother. My aunt and uncle were fools to give up the little restaurant; plenty of money was to be made in Vienna; but no! So I was a fool, too, and I came, and I married you, Jan, my clodhopper. Why I did it I cannot remember, — I think you and my uncle must have persuaded me because none of the others on the ship could talk Polish, and because he saw your purse full of money. Perhaps I thought you would get money and we could go away again to Vienna. But however that was, we come away to the coal mines, and there is nothing but coal and dirt and stupid clodhoppers and selling melons to the Americans! No beautiful city, no pleasure; always the baby cries and cries, because he was not born in Vienna. Dirt and work and dreariness, — Jan, I hate your America! It is time to go back.”

Slowly, as he did everything, Jan lifted his bullet head from the tin basin in which he had been washing his face. Tufts of suds were in his hair, lines of sooty grime lay still about his eyes and nostrils, but his wet face smiled.

“No,” said he slowly, in English. “ Not go back. Me American. Stay American. Good place, God damn!” He returned to the basin.

Ketta stamped her foot as she sat. Jan’s English, of which he was very proud, had several times gained him the victory in a conjugal difference such as this one. Slow of speech as he was, in Polish and in German she could outwit him and out-talk him; at times she even exulted over him in the rapid and irregular French which she had learned during her three years in the little restaurant of her beloved city. (This last weapon, however, had neither point nor edge, because peasant-bred Jan understood not one word of all she said.) His English, on the contrary, was perfectly intelligible to her. A year and a half in the new country had given her quick mind and quick ear some knowledge of the language, shut herself off from it as she might; but not one word would she learn to speak. Listen she must, therefore, and answer she could not, when Jan spoke in the barbarous new tongue.

“The talk of a fool,” she cried contemptuously, speaking Polish. The head of the family chuckled, and replied in the same language, —

“You do not understand. At home I work and earn money, — and it goes to the Austrians. I work for my son, and he grows, and when he is grown, he is for the Austrians, too. Then he works, and makes their roads, and marches in their army, and hoes their beets, and grows their fruit, and sweats in their mines, and pays their taxes, — and his sons are for the Austrians, in their turn. Whatever the debt was in the beginning, it cannot be paid. There is no end to the paying: the Austrians will never say, ‘Enough.’ So the wiser men just run away from the debt altogether. Here, the Austrians are nobody. I know some of them in the mine, but they are not the kind that collected taxes and did the governing. They are just peasants, and they are not so smart as the Poles.”

“Oxen!” interrupted Ketta tartly. “ What is the good of being a little smarter than oxen ? Ah, if you had ever been in Vienna, you might not talk so big and proud, fool!”

“In America,” he continued placidly, “ I get good wages, — so good I can rent an expensive house for my wife and my baby and me to live in. We could eat meat every day, if we chose. I load cars in the mines, but every day I watch and learn how my boss does his work. Then I belong to the Union, — yes, the Mitchell Union, — and I help say if the mine shall work or strike. One day a man says to me, ‘Who shall we make governor ? Who do you want this year ? ’ and he told me how to do it. So I went to the government, and the judge talked English to me, and I talked English to the judge, and I got a paper. And by that paper, Ketta, in a little while, — about a year from All Saints’ Day, it is, — I have the vote. Sometimes a man can get two dollars for the vote, and go right on to his work the same day. The next year, the vote comes back of itself, and maybe he can get two dollars again. So I help make the government in this America. And it is as if the government paid me taxes. Does Vienna do that?”

Politics were beyond Ketta’s comprehension, but there was other matter in his long address that touched her nearly.

“Yes, the Mitchell Union!” she cried. “A wonderful thing, — a fine thing,— for somebody. Not for Jan Goroby, though. You talk about the two dollars that you will get by a year from next All Saints’ Day: will you tell me how much you will pay your union in the whole three years ? You talk about taxes, but you give all that money away when you do not have to.”

“Not for long,” returned the husband, undismayed. “ As I was saying, I can afford an expensive house, here in America, But my wife is very smart, and one day she said, ‘Five rooms is too many for us three; we must take a boarder, or even two.’ So we took in a Lithuish man who was a miner.”

“But he’s gone. He went two weeks ago. He was lonesome, and he went to the big boarding-house. Here he talked only German, and he hated German. So it’s no use to talk about him.”

“Every day I watched to see how my boss worked, till I knew. One night the Lithuish miner and I sat talking, and he told me how he became a miner and how much better the pay was. I knew very well for myself how much less work there was, and how early a miner could go home and leave the laborers to finish for him. Then he and I went down to the post-office, and he took a pen and changed my union ticket a little where it was needed. I listened to his good advice. One day I went down to a man who sells papers, and bought a writing that says Jan Goroby has worked three years and become ‘ ex-peri-ence min-er’ and can make more money. So last week a man was hurt, and I go to the office and put my head up to their wire window and show my writing and talk. I said ‘That man will dead. Give me dead man job.’ They laugh inside there, and read my writing from the inspector, and read my union ticket, and talk English to me and to themselves, and soon one man said, ‘Alright.’ So I become miner. To-day I boss two laborers, two Dägos, who obey me in English, because they cannot understand German nor Polish. Very good; all very good. Now I am miner, and I speak English, and have plenty of friends, and I have a house and money in the bank. That is enough; that is all the union can do for me; so I shall not pay any more. I belong to the union, yes, but I do not pay; I put that money in the bank. Beside, I can work more in the field, since I come home early.”

“So now you will boast, boast,— boast!” cried Ketta, in a burst of nervous fury. “I tell you, I hate this country. It drives me wild. Go out to the field, quick, — go!”

“I will take the Little Son.” He held out his arms for the child; but as the girl sat with drooping lids, unheeding the gesture, he laid one great hand fondly on her hair. His was the huge frame of the plaindweller, toughened by centuries of labor in the fields; but the peasant mind within him came of the most restless, sanguine race in Europe. Things were going well, must go even better; and Ketta’s wild words were nothing more than “the Vienna way.” This girl with the bitter tongue was Ketta, his beauty, mother of the Little Son; and from that first meeting upon the pier at Bremerhaven his heart had lost the trick of being angry with her.

“Give him to me. He can lie in the grass; I know a shady place. He likes it.”

She handed over the child without looking up.

“How clean you keep him,” spoke the father admiringly, fingering an edge of the pink print frock between powderstained thumb and finger. “It is a good plan, this keeping children clean. I was like a pig, myself, when I was a child. Most of the American children that you see in the little wagons have not a spot anywhere; they are as clean as ours, for I looked as I came down the street yesterday.”

At the gate he turned again, facing the door, the six-months’-old infant balanced carefully across his arms as a man would carry a keg of powder.

“Cook supper early, Ketta. Afterwards we will go up to the town and buy a coat for Little Son. A white coat! ”

The girl watched him swing away down the street, with the stupid, leaden, tireless swing of the Emperor’s army. When he was out of sight, she bowed her face in her hands.

“A white coat! An American white coat! Holy Mother, what a heart-breaking country!”

As the six o’clock whistles blew, Jan Goroby came back from his vegetable garden, a cabbage in one hand, the baby asleep upon his shoulder. A thundercloud had piled up in the west, and its shadow darkened the rooms of the little house; but there was light enough to see that Ketta sat where he had left her. She did not move. He drew the door close behind him to shut out the scurrying storm wind.

The low room was darker than ever, with the strange yellow dusk of an afternoon shower. He laid the sleeping child and the cabbage side by side on the kitchen table before he spoke.

“Ketta! Wake up.”

“I was not asleep. I was thinking.” She lifted brilliant, angry eyes to his face. “Ah, you may say what you like! I cannot stand it! I must go back!”

“But I don’t want to go back,” echoed

Jan, in amazement. “I told you today.”

“Who wants you to go? I will go by myself.”

Gust upon gust smote the low walls of the dwelling. The hot yellow gloom paled to gray, deepened, and paled again, as the swollen clouds first broke, and then withheld their deluge for a greater effort. A long lull; then the doubled fury of wind and rain. Still Jan did not speak.

Ketta eyed him from her low seat. She had formed no idea of what he would do or say when the truth came home to him. Yet it was strangest of all to have him do nothing, say nothing. In the dimness his bulk towered before her, very near, huge, angular, menacing. He swayed sometimes, but again stood motionless. Once his arms twisted upward, then fell; he shook his great shock head, — but all in the same silence. For the first time in her life, Ketta knew fear of her husband.

“You go back, — without me ?” The great fellow used an absurdly small, weak voice.

“To Vienna.”

Then the endless, threatening pause, the swaying figure in the dark, — the writhing arms, the hard breaths, — the rush of the rain. There came a yellow flash from without, and lit up the man’s face; she knew the look, — a great patient beast, impatient at last of pain. That his hurt was half sorrow, and not anger only, seemed to lay some new weight on her bitter heart.

“You go back?”

The repetition held a threat. The next flash showed the heavy arm upraised with a light sledge ready to strike. Ketta raised her forehead for the hammer.

“Beat me if you like. I do not care if you kill me. I do not care. Anything would be better than to live here.”

Jan hurled the sledge from him. A fury of weeping fell upon him; on hands and knees at her side he beat his face on the floor, torn with sobs; he snatched at the rounds of her chair, the hem of her dress; over and over he cried her name.

“I could not kill you! I could not hurt you! Ketta, Ketta!”

“Kill me if you like. If not, give me some money for the steamer and let me go.”

“No, no, I cannot kill you. I have never killed any one; naturally I could not kill you, Ketta.”

“To-day is Thursday. There is a steamer on Saturday, — the very same I came on. The butcher over by the railroad sells the tickets, and I saw a paper, a printed sign, in his shop. The Königin sails Saturday, at New York. I know that is a good ship, so I will go on that one. You have money enough.”

“You shall have the money,” promised Jan, at length. Strangely enough, Ketta almost hated him for his generosity.

“You will leave”— He spoke in a broken whisper. “At least you will — give me — the Little Son ? ”

This time the fury was Ketta’s. She snatched the child from the table, folded him to her body with one arm, and stood at bay. Curses, pleas, entreaties, promises, abuse, in Polish or German as the first word determined, poured from her in a ceaseless flood.

“But I cannot let him go. He is all I have, when you are gone. Give me Little Son. Give me the child, — show me some mercy, Ketta.”

“Mercy, indeed!” cried the exasperated mother. “To go away and leave my baby an American, — to leave my lamb alone! What would the Blessed Virgin and the saints think of such a mother as that, do you suppose ? No, my baby, my precious one! Mercy, you call it! You don’t deserve a child, Jan Goroby.”

The one window was small and strongly barred; she could not escape that way. A sudden rush gained the inner room, and she bolted herself in.

The dark storm blurred insensibly into the seasonable blackness of night. She crouched upon the bed, supperless, frightened, angry, listening for a rush against the door. There came no sound. The long night through, she dozed and wakened watchfully, but Jan gave no sign.

The happenings of the next morning were vague and indistinct, like dreams that come when the sleeper’s head aches. Jan dressed himself in his Sunday clothes and sat in the house until half-past eight, silent, doing nothing, carrying his savings pass-book in one hand. When he came back from the bank, Ketta’s little tin trunk was locked; it only remained for him to shoulder it and set out.

“Where are your good clothes ? Those are the old ones.”

“They are where I choose to keep them. Shall I disgrace myself with American clothes, in Vienna ? I am not a fool; these will do until I can get more.”

“You had better wear the American hat, at least,” urged poor Jan wearily. “It is handsomer than that one.”

The American hat was a particularly splendid creation, having lace, ostrich tips, flowers of several colors, and a moderate allowance of velvet ribbon, superimposed upon a broad foundation of white straw. Ketta possessed it through Jan’s extravagance; and secretly she admired it as much as he did.

“Very well, then,” she returned haughtily. “ I will wear it, since I have no better. My poor Vienna cap is not fit to show my aunt and uncle, now that they are growing rich.” This change effected, she turned her back upon the little drab house and strode away without one look. Jan followed with the tin trunk.

The eleven o’clock express for New York stopped only at Batesborough, the county town. Ketta with the baby and the steamship ticket, and Jan with the tin trunk, traveled the intervening six miles by electric cars. Everywhere, Ketta took the lead, and Jan paid.

One could find the railway station easily enough, but one could not buy tickets except in English. Here Jan stepped forward and carried matters with a high hand.

“Going New York. And to come again back. How much?”

“Six-fifty,” said the man behind the wires.

“I take um. Nur eins.” He counted out the money and received the return ticket.

To Ketta, superb in the American hat, though somewhat cramped and constrained in the “Vienna clothes” of her girlhood, Jan presented the double ticket. She looked at it curiously while he explained.

“Half of it will take you to New York. Keep the other piece safe; it will take you from New York back here, if ever you want to come. No, no, I suppose not. But it is a wide world. One can never tell. The Little Son — he travels without a ticket.”

“You throw away your money. You ought to be more careful, and save.”

“What for?” asked poor Jan, with a choking throat.

Ketta was nonplussed, and did not answer. Foremost among her confusion of wishes, hopes, regrets, stood an idea that Batesborough was a hateful place and the New York train far too long in coming.

“Go over the ferry and go straight to your uncle’s house,” advised Jan. “You have it written down, and the people will tell you where to find it. Here is money, a hundred dollars. Hide it now and do not tell any one. Your uncle will change it into Austrian money for you. Come! There is your railroad train.”

They hurried down the long platform. “Hide your two tickets, also,” Jan advised, breathless, apparently, from the short dash. “In here, — so.”

Ketta clambered into the car alone. The seat nearest the door was fortunately vacant, and she deposited the baby there. Going out upon the platform again, she received her tin trunk and Jan’s last bit of advice, in spite of the brakeman and the dozen or so of passengers who dodged and scrambled between.

“Take care of the Little Son; be good to him. I want him to go to school. Do not let the Austrians get him for the army. And now, keep well!”

The blue-clad brakeman laid threatening hands upon the tin ark. Ketta drew it up and retreated the width of the platform. Jan also fell back. Hitherto, he had spoken in Polish, and very low. Now he raised his voice and cried out solemnly in English, —

“You come back, mebby; some day, some day. I go home. I wait there that house. I wait for you. So long.”

The exigencies of American travel drove the girl within. She sat by the window, with the baby on her lap and her feet propped up on the trunk; outside, drawn up with military stiffness, his eyes fastened upon her, a slow tear working down his cheek, stood poor Jan. There was a long, long minute before the train moved. Then the bell rang and the cars felt a preliminary jolt; Ketta smiled a brilliant, if somewhat forced, greeting to the world at large; and they were off on their travels. The Little Son appeared perfectly indifferent about both of his parents.

Unfortunately for Goroby, Saturday is a half holiday at the mines. Going out from his desolate, echoing house into the glare of the summer morning, he longed to hide himself from the light. His work in the cool, windy darkness, the smell of his lamp, the smoke of powder, the thousandfold noises of work underground, pleased him; his hurt grew duller as he gave a lesson in English to his two “Dägos.” But at one o’clock, work was over. He slunk through the streets, reflecting that Ketta’s ship had sailed at twelve.

Friday afternoon, when he had sat alone, wearing his best clothes on a working day and learning the weight of every idle, empty hour, had taught him a lesson. Company of some sort he must have; Saturday must be enlivened in some fashion. Human companionship, however, would make demands that he could not meet. He dropped into a convenient saloon on his way, and provided himself with that truly American drink, a fifty-cent quart of whiskey.

The first swallow of this refreshment was so little alluring that he hesitated long before lifting the bottle for a second. He washed the soot from his face, then drew more water, stripped off his shirt, and bathed. This done, he eyed the comforter once more, but found its charms grow less in retrospect. His hoe stood behind the door, and the instinct of a thousand peasant generations awoke at the touch. One works in the daylight, — the night is good enough for drinking. Jan went out to his vegetable field.

Sunset came, but darkness lagged behind; it was late when he returned to the expensive house. He was hungry and tired, but there was nothing to eat in drawers or cupboard. The kitchen fire had gone out on Friday. He split some kindlings on the doorstep, and broke some lumps of coal with the hammer that had threatened Ketta; a cabbage that lay on the table and some meal from a bag were presently stewing together in an iron pot.

The unshaded lamp threw sharp-edged shadows on the walls and floor. Jan applied himself to the bottle again, but the first sip discouraged him anew; the stuff was nauseous to a hungry man. As the fire grew hotter, the stuffy little kitchen reached an unbearable temperature; he took the lamp and went into the bedroom to wait for supper.

He had not entered the room since Ketta packed her trunk there. Now the lamp wavered in his hand so that he was forced to set it on the floor. For on the nails around the room hung a woman’s garments, — Ketta’s purple dress, Ketta’s blue lawn, Ketta’s Easter Sunday dress with the brown satin ribbons, a sun-bonnet that she wore when she sold vegetables up in the town, — two shirtwaists, — two gingham aprons. Ketta’s American clothes, that he had given her, that he had been so proud to see her wear! She had disdained them in the hour of her freedom. She had cast them off, with him, — with all that belonged to the hated new country. She would take nothing with her that might remind her of the things she loathed.

A rush of bitter pain overwhelmed him. He threw himself on his knees by the wall, burying face and hands in the purple skirt. He groaned, sobbed, prayed to it; he bit the insensate stuff between his great teeth, then, weeping, kissed the marks and begged Ketta’s forgiveness; he cursed her name with a man’s passion; he wailed for her with a lonely grief like that of a little boy. Then the door opened, and Ketta came in.

Bareheaded and panting, her shawl dragging behind her, she stood on the threshold; he did not turn.

“Jan!” She threw herself beside him, beseeching hands upraised. “Oh, Jan, Jan, Jan! Ketta is only a fool, after all. I could not do it. I ran off the ship. Beat me — beat me, — but only forgive thy fool!”

With a wordless cry, he turned and snatched her in his arms. Her pinioned hands struggled to reach his neck, but could not. They swayed together dizzily, both sobbing.

“Beat me!” cried Ketta again. “I deserve it, let us have it over. Perhaps I should have behaved better if you had done it before.”

“No, no. Where should I get strength to hurt you?” Jan held her off to look at the flushed, tear-stained face, then crushed her close again. “So small, so weak, — no, no.”

“My father used to beat my mother,” Ketta argued. “With a long stick. He said it did her good.”

“It is not the American fashion, I have heard,” responded the master, with a grand air. Thereat, Ketta hid her face, and laughed a little, and mingled kisses with her tangled words and sobs.

“Here is the money.” She drew a tightly rolled handkerchief from her dress, and threw it chinking on the floor. “That is the hundred dollars, the Austrian money that my uncle got. You see, I did not tell him I was running off; I said you were so rich that you had given it to me to go back and visit my brother till the winter. And I said the trunk was full of splendid American clothes, all so good I could not waste any on the ship.”

“Very true. Thus, — and put your head closer, poor, bad child! So. And what about the ship ?”

“Yes; it was very lucky. I got back the money for the ship ticket, too, though at first they would not give it. But the cross gray-haired young man made them give it up. Then he gave me more money of his awn, ten dollars, when I told him about the ticket to come back on the train. I did not tell him you gave me money, too, for that would do nobody any good. So here is all that money, more than we had at first.” She dropped the notes, rustling, in a little heap, but Jan did not stir nor look.

“What gray-haired man? What was he?”

“How do I know ? Some great official of steamboats, possibly. He was very cross, and sat in a great office with glass doors, and all the men feared him and tried not to catch his eye. He had no German, and he spoke French very slowly, and as if it tired him. I notice that you never can tell what languages an American will speak; there is no reason about them. So when he came out and saw me holding the baby and crying because they would not give me back the money for the ticket I did not use, he called out something very loud. Everybody kept silence, and a clerk near me whispered in German very softly: ‘Tell him the whole. He knows the capers of young wives.’ Presently I went in the glass room and told him all, — even losing my trunk.”

“What did he say to you ?”

“He did not talk much. When I told how you got the ticket for me to come back on the train, he said, ‘A good idea,’ and as I was saying how I felt, sitting on my trunk there on the ship, with the baby, and thinking that you were not there, and how I felt when I ran off just at the last minute before the ship moved, he made a noise like a growl. Still, he did not seem angry. Then he asked how I found that one office out of a whole city, and I told him about the fat blue gendarme who understood German and sent a girl to show me. At last he said, ‘You shall have your money back,’ and gave it to me out of a little trunk. Then I asked him not to tell my aunt and my uncle the truth about my running off the ship, because they had said good-by to me on the deck, and would not know. He said he would be careful not to. Then at the very last, after he had gone over on the ferry and showed me the steps of the car in which I was to sit, he gave me some good advice. He said, ‘Go home and behave yourself. Remember, a foolish, giddy wife can draw the living blood out of a man’s heart.’ That was it. After that he went away.”

“That is very true. ‘ To draw the living blood out of a man’s heart,’ — yes, that is true. I have felt it for two days. He knew that.”

“What is that dreadful smell?” cried Ketta, springing up, but still clinging to his hand. “Vaugh! Cabbage scorching! Is it your supper ? You have not eaten ? No more have I. Well, I will begin by getting you a supper. Come and bring the lamp.”

Jan followed her about her preparations, treading in her very footsteps, his eyes ever wistfully upon her. At length, he was sensible of a want, a lack; something was missing. Ketta had come back: what was it ? Suddenly he knew.

“The child?” he cried. “Where is the child, — the Little Son ?”

Ketta laughed, a long, most musical, girlish ripple. She put down the kettle of porridge to come and lay both her hands on his shoulder.

“I left him behind. He is quite safe. I left him with my American hat. Shall we go and get him? There were several reasons.”

“With your American hat ?” exclaimed the mystified father. “There were reasons?”

“I thought when you saw me you might strike without waiting. You might not think of the hat, or the baby. I thought you would be so angry, at first. I did not know you were so kind. So I put them in the butcher’s shop down at the corner of the street, — all safe and off at one side, on the clean sawdust. There is plenty of time. The shop is open late to-night; it is Saturday.”

You left him in the butcher’s shop!” Jan gasped, in breathless astonishment. “Who would have thought of that?”

“The other reason,” said Ketta, moving closer, “was a good reason, too, though you would never think of it. If you were kind, — if you forgave me, and said, ‘Stay, Ketta; you are welcome,’ — I wanted to know why. I wanted to know that it was Ketta that made me welcome. I did not want to think that it was the baby. Do you see?”

“I understand,” Jan whispered gravely. “But who would have thought of that? Ah, well, certainly the people of Vienna are very clever! You must stay, Ketta; you are welcome.”

Flushed and frightened, she slipped from his clasp, then held out her hand shyly.

“ Come; there is time while the potatoes boil. Shall we go and get the Little Son ?”