Obscure Destinies

By Willa Cather

Neighbour Rosicky I

Neighbour Rosicky

I

 

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When Doctor Burleigh told neighbour Rosicky he had a bad heart, Rosicky protested.

"So? No, I guess my heart was always pretty good. I got a little asthma, maybe. Just a awful short breath when I was pitchin` hay last summer, dat`s all."

"Well now, Rosicky, if you know more about it than I do, what did you come to me for? It`s your heart that makes you short of breath, I tell you. You`re sixty-five years old, and you`ve always worked hard, and your heart`s tired. You`ve got to be careful from now on, and you can`t do heavy work any more. You`ve got five boys at home to do it for you."

The old farmer looked up at the Doctor with a gleam of amusement in his queer triangular-shaped eyes. His eyes were large and lively, but the lids were caught up in the middle in a curious way, so that they formed a triangle. He did not look like a sick man. His brown face was creased but not wrinkled, he had a ruddy colour in his smooth-shaven cheeks and in his lips, under his long brown moustache. His hair was thin and ragged around his ears, but very little grey. His forehead, naturally high and crossed by deep parallel lines, now ran all the way up to his pointed crown. Rosicky`s face had the habit of looking interested,--suggested a contented disposition and a reflective quality that was gay rather than grave. This gave him a certain detachment, the easy manner of an onlooker and observer.

"Well, I guess you ain`t got no pills fur a bad heart, Doctor Ed. I guess the only thing is fur me to git me a new one."

Doctor Burleigh swung round in his desk-chair and frowned at the old farmer. "I think if I were you I`d take a little care of the old one, Rosicky."

Rosicky shrugged. "Maybe I don`t know how. I expect you mean fur me not to drink my coffee no more."

"I wouldn`t, in your place. But you`ll do as you choose about that. I`ve never yet been able to separate a Bohemian from his coffee or his pipe. I`ve quit trying. But the sure thing is you`ve got to cut out farm work. You can feed the stock and do chores about the barn, but you can`t do anything in the fields that makes you short of breath."

"How about shelling corn?"

"Of course not!"

Rosicky considered with puckered brows.

"I can`t make my heart go no longer`n it wants to, can I, Doctor Ed?"

"I think it`s good for five or six years yet, maybe more, if you`ll take the strain off it. Sit around the house and help Mary. If I had a good wife like yours, I`d want to stay around the house."

His patient chuckled. "It ain`t no place fur a man. I don`t like no old man hanging round the kitchen too much. An` my wife, she`s a awful hard worker her own self."

"That`s it; you can help her a little. My Lord, Rosicky, you are one of the few men I know who has a family he can get some comfort out of; happy dispositions, never quarrel among themselves, and they treat you right. I want to see you live a few years and enjoy them."

"Oh, they`re good kids, all right," Rosicky assented.

The Doctor wrote him a prescription and asked him how his oldest son, Rudolph, who had married in the spring, was getting on. Rudolph had struck out for himself, on rented land. "And how`s Polly? I was afraid Mary mightn`t like an American daughter-in- law, but it seems to be working out all right."

"Yes, she`s a fine girl. Dat widder woman bring her daughters up very nice. Polly got lots of spunk, an` she got some style, too. Da`s nice, for young folks to have some style." Rosicky inclined his head gallantly. His voice and his twinkly smile were an affectionate compliment to his daughter-in-law.

"It looks like a storm, and you`d better be getting home before it comes. In town in the car?" Doctor Burleigh rose.

"No, I`m in de wagon. When you got five boys, you ain`t got much chance to ride round in de Ford. I ain`t much for cars, noway."

"Well, it`s a good road out to your place; but I don`t want you bumping around in a wagon much. And never again on a hay-rake, remember!"

Rosicky placed the Doctor`s fee delicately behind the desk- telephone, looking the other way, as if this were an absent-minded gesture. He put on his plush cap and his corduroy jacket with a sheepskin collar, and went out.

The Doctor picked up his stethoscope and frowned at it as if he were seriously annoyed with the instrument. He wished it had been telling tales about some other man`s heart, some old man who didn`t look the Doctor in the eye so knowingly, or hold out such a warm brown hand when he said good-bye. Doctor Burleigh had been a poor boy in the country before he went away to medical school; he had known Rosicky almost ever since he could remember, and he had a deep affection for Mrs. Rosicky.

Only last winter he had had such a good breakfast at Rosicky`s, and that when he needed it. He had been out all night on a long, hard confinement case at Tom Marshall`s,--a big rich farm where there was plenty of stock and plenty of feed and a great deal of expensive farm machinery of the newest model, and no comfort whatever. The woman had too many children and too much work, and she was no manager. When the baby was born at last, and handed over to the assisting neighbour woman, and the mother was properly attended to, Burleigh refused any breakfast in that slovenly house, and drove his buggy--the snow was too deep for a car--eight miles to Anton Rosicky`s place. He didn`t know another farm-house where a man could get such a warm welcome, and such good strong coffee with rich cream. No wonder the old chap didn`t want to give up his coffee!

He had driven in just when the boys had come back from the barn and were washing up for breakfast. The long table, covered with a bright oilcloth, was set out with dishes waiting for them, and the warm kitchen was full of the smell of coffee and hot biscuit and sausage. Five big handsome boys, running from twenty to twelve, all with what Burleigh called natural good manners,--they hadn`t a bit of the painful self-consciousness he himself had to struggle with when he was a lad. One ran to put his horse away, another helped him off with his fur coat and hung it up, and Josephine, the youngest child and the only daughter, quickly set another place under her mother`s direction.

With Mary, to feed creatures was the natural expression of affection,--her chickens, the calves, her big hungry boys. It was a rare pleasure to feed a young man whom she seldom saw and of whom she was as proud as if he belonged to her. Some country housekeepers would have stopped to spread a white cloth over the oilcloth, to change the thick cups and plates for their best china, and the wooden-handled knives for plated ones. But not Mary.

"You must take us as you find us, Doctor Ed. I`d be glad to put out my good things for you if you was expected, but I`m glad to get you any way at all."

He knew she was glad,--she threw back her head and spoke out as if she were announcing him to the whole prairie. Rosicky hadn`t said anything at all; he merely smiled his twinkling smile, put some more coal on the fire, and went into his own room to pour the Doctor a little drink in a medicine glass. When they were all seated, he watched his wife`s face from his end of the table and spoke to her in Czech. Then, with the instinct of politeness which seldom failed him, he turned to the Doctor and said slyly; "I was just tellin` her not to ask you no questions about Mrs. Marshall till you eat some breakfast. My wife, she`s terrible fur to ask questions."

The boys laughed, and so did Mary. She watched the Doctor devour her biscuit and sausage, too much excited to eat anything herself. She drank her coffee and sat taking in everything about her visitor. She had known him when he was a poor country boy, and was boastfully proud of his success, always saying: "What do people go to Omaha for, to see a doctor, when we got the best one in the State right here?" If Mary liked people at all, she felt physical pleasure in the sight of them, personal exultation in any good fortune that came to them. Burleigh didn`t know many women like that, but he knew she was like that.

When his hunger was satisfied, he did, of course, have to tell them about Mrs. Marshall, and he noticed what a friendly interest the boys took in the matter.

Rudolph, the oldest one (he was still living at home then), said: "The last time I was over there, she was lifting them big heavy milk-cans, and I knew she oughtn`t to be doing it."

"Yes, Rudolph told me about that when he come home, and I said it wasn`t right," Mary put in warmly. "It was all right for me to do them things up to the last, for I was terrible strong, but that woman`s weakly. And do you think she`ll be able to nurse it, Ed?" She sometimes forgot to give him the title she was so proud of. "And to think of your being up all night and then not able to get a decent breakfast! I don`t know what`s the matter with such people."

"Why, Mother," said one of the boys, "if Doctor Ed had got breakfast there, we wouldn`t have him here. So you ought to be glad."

"He knows I`m glad to have him, John, any time. But I`m sorry for that poor woman, how bad she`ll feel the Doctor had to go away in the cold without his breakfast."

"I wish I`d been in practice when these were getting born." The doctor looked down the row of close-clipped heads. "I missed some good breakfasts by not being."

The boys began to laugh at their mother because she flushed so red, but she stood her ground and threw up her head. "I don`t care, you wouldn`t have got away from this house without breakfast. No doctor ever did. I`d have had something ready fixed that Anton could warm up for you."

The boys laughed harder than ever, and exclaimed at her: "I`ll bet you would!" "She would, that!"

"Father, did you get breakfast for the doctor when we were born?"

"Yes, and he used to bring me my breakfast, too, mighty nice. I was always awful hungry!" Mary admitted with a guilty laugh.

While the boys were getting the Doctor`s horse, he went to the window to examine the house plants. "What do you do to your geraniums to keep them blooming all winter, Mary? I never pass this house that from the road I don`t see your windows full of flowers."

She snapped off a dark red one, and a ruffled new green leaf, and put them in his buttonhole. "There, that looks better. You look too solemn for a young man, Ed. Why don`t you git married? I`m worried about you. Settin` at breakfast, I looked at you real hard, and I seen you`ve got some grey hairs already."

"Oh, yes! They`re coming. Maybe they`d come faster if I married."

"Don`t talk so. You`ll ruin your health eating at the hotel. I could send your wife a nice loaf of nut bread, if you only had one. I don`t like to see a young man getting grey. I`ll tell you something, Ed; you make some strong black tea and keep it handy in a bowl, and every morning just brush it into your hair, an` it`ll keep the grey from showin` much. That`s the way I do!"

Sometimes the Doctor heard the gossipers in the drug-store wondering why Rosicky didn`t get on faster. He was industrious, and so were his boys, but they were rather free and easy, weren`t pushers, and they didn`t always show good judgment. They were comfortable, they were out of debt, but they didn`t get much ahead. Maybe, Doctor Burleigh reflected, people as generous and warm- hearted and affectionate as the Rosickys never got ahead much; maybe you couldn`t enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.


 

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