On the Divide

Reproduced from Virginia Faulkner, ed, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction1892-1912.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970, 493-504.

Near Rattlesnake Creek, on the side of a little draw, stood Canute's shanty. North,east, south, stretched the level Nebraska plain of long rust-red grass that undulatedconstantly in the wind. To the west the ground was broken and rough, and a narrow strip oftimber wound along the turbid, muddy little stream that had scarcely ambition enough tocrawl over its black bottom. If it had not been for the few stunted cottonwoods and elmsthat grew along its banks, Canute would have shot himself years ago. The Norwegians are atimber-loving people, and if there is even a turtle pond with a few plum bushes around itthey seem irresistibly drawn toward it.

As to the shanty itself, Canute had built it without aid of any kind, for when he firstsquatted along the banks of Rattlesnake Creek there was not a human being within twentymiles. It was built of logs split in halves, the chinks stopped with mud and plaster. Theroof was covered with earth and was supported by one gigantic beam curved in the shape ofa round arch. It was almost impossible that any tree had ever grown in that shape. TheNorwegians used to say that Canute had taken the log across his knee and bent it into theshape he wished. There were two rooms, or rather there was one room with a partition madeof ash saplings interwoven and bound together like big straw basket work. In one cornerthere was a cook stove, rusted and broken. In the other a bed made of unplaned planks andpoles. It was fully eight feet long, and upon it was a heap of dark bed clothing. Therewas a chair and a bench of colossal proportions. There was an ordinary kitchen cupboardwith a few cracked dirty dishes in it, and beside it on a tall box a tin washbasin. Underthe bed was a pile of pint flasks, some broken, some whole, all empty. On the wood box laya pair of shoes of almost incredible dimensions. On the wall hung a saddle, a gun, andsome ragged clothing, conspicuous among which was a suit of dark cloth, apparently new,with a paper collar carefully wrapped in a red silk handkerchief and pinned to the sleeve.Over the door hung a wolf and a badger skin, and on the door itself a brace of thirty orforty snake skins whose noisy tails rattled ominously every time it opened. The strangestthings in the shanty were the wide window sills. At first glance they looked as thoughthey had been ruthlessly hacked and mutilated with a hatchet, but on closer inspection allthe notches and holes in the wood took form and shape. There seemed to be a series ofpictures. They were, in a rough way, artistic, but the figures were heavy and labored, asthough they had been cut very slowly and with very awkward instruments. There were menplowing with little horned imps sitting on their shoulders and on their horses' heads.There were men praying with a skull hanging over their heads and little demons behind themmocking their attitudes. There were men fighting with big serpents, and skeletons dancingtogether. All about these pictures were blooming vines and foliage such as never grew inthis world, and coiled among the branches of the vines there was always the scaly body ofa serpent, and behind every flower there was a serpent's head. It was a veritable Dance ofDeath by one who had felt its sting. In the wood box lay some boards, and every inch ofthem was cut up in the same manner. Sometimes the work was very rude and careless, andlooked as though the hand of the workman had trembled. It would sometimes have been hardto distinguish the men from their evil geniuses but for one fact, the men were alwaysgrave and were either toiling or praying, while the devils were always smiling anddancing. Several of these boards had been split for kindling and it was evident that theartist did not value his work highly.

It was the first day of winter on the Divide. Canute stumbled into his shanty carryinga basket of cobs, and after filling the stove, sat down on a stool and crouched his sevenfoot frame over the fire, staring drearily out of the window at the wide gray sky. He knewby heart every individual clump of bunch grass in the miles of red shaggy prairie thatstretched before his cabin. He knew it in all the deceitful loveliness of its earlysummer, in all the bitter barrenness of its autumn. He had seen it smitten by all theplagues of Egypt. He had seen it parched by drought, and sogged by rain, beaten by hail,and swept by fire, and in the grasshopper years he had seen it eaten as bare and clean asbones that the vultures have left. After the great fires he had seen it stretch for milesand miles, black and smoking as the floor of hell.

He rose slowly and crossed the room, dragging his big feet heavily as though they wereburdens to him. He looked out of the window into the hog corral and saw the pigs buryingthemselves in the straw before the shed. The leaden gray clouds were beginning to spillthemselves, and the snow-flakes were settling down over the white leprous patches offrozen earth where the hogs had gnawed even the sod away. He shuddered and began to walk,trampling heavily with his ungainly feet. He was the wreck of ten winters on the Divideand he knew what they meant. Men fear the winters of the Divide as a child fears night oras men in the North Seas fear the still dark cold of the polar twilight.

His eyes fell upon his gun, and he took it down from the wall and looked it over. Hesat down on the edge of his bed and held the barrel towards his face, letting his foreheadrest upon it, and laid his finger on the trigger. He was perfectly calm, there was neitherpassion nor despair in his face, but the thoughtful look of a man who is considering.Presently he laid down the gun, and reaching into the cupboard, drew out a pint bottle ofraw white alcohol. Lifting it to his lips, he drank greedily. He washed his face in thetin basin and combed his rough hair and shaggy blond beard. Then he stood in uncertaintybefore the suit of dark clothes that hung on the wall. For the fiftieth time he took themin his hands and tried to summon courage to put them on. He took the paper collar that waspinned to the sleeve of the coat and cautiously slipped it under his rough beard, lookingwith timid expectancy into the cracked, splashed glass that hung over the bench. With ashort laugh he threw it down on the bed, and pulling on his old black hat, he went out,striking off across the level.

It was a physical necessity for him to get away from his cabin once in a while. He hadbeen there for ten years, digging and plowing and sowing, and reaping what little the hailand the hot winds and the frosts left him to reap. Insanity and suicide are very commonthings on the Divide. They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Thosescorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood inmen's veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves. Whenever the yellow scorch creeps downover the tender inside leaves about the ear, then the coroners prepare for active duty;for the oil of the country is burned out and it does not take long for the flame to eat upthe wick. It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his ownwindmill tower, and most of the Poles after they have become too careless and discouragedto shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.

It may be that the next generation on the Divide will be very happy, but the presentone came too late in life. It is useless for men that have cut hemlocks among themountains of Sweden for forty years to try to be happy in a country as flat and gray andas naked as the sea. It is not easy for men that have spent their youths fishing in theNorthern seas to be content with following a plow, and men that have served in theAustrian army hate hard work and coarse clothing and the loneliness of the plains, andlong for marches and excitement and tavern company and pretty barmaids. After a man haspassed his fortieth birthday it is not easy for him to change the habits and conditions ofhis life. Most men bring with them to the Divide only the dregs of the lives that theyhave squandered in other lands and among other peoples.

Canute Canuteson was as mad as any of them, but his madness did not take the form ofsuicide or religion but of alcohol. He had always taken liquor when he wanted it, as allNorwegians do, but after his first year of solitary life he settled down to it steadily.He exhausted whisky after a while, and went to alcohol, because its effects were speedierand surer. He was a big man with a terrible amount of resistant force, and it took a greatdeal of alcohol even to move him. After nine years of drinking, the quantities he couldtake would seem fabulous to an ordinary drinking man. He never let it interfere with hiswork, he generally drank at night and on Sundays. Every night, as soon as his chores weredone, he began to drink. While he was able to sit up he would play on his mouth harp orhack away at his window sills with his jackknife. When the liquor went to his head hewould he down on his bed and stare out of the window until he went to sleep. He drankalone and in solitude not for pleasure or good cheer, but to forget the awful lonelinessand level of the Divide. Milton made a sad blunder when he put mountains in hell.Mountains postulate faith and aspiration. All mountain peoples are religious. It was thecities of the plains that, because of their utter lack of spirituality and the mad capriceof their vice, were cursed of God.

Alcohol is perfectly consistent in its effects upon man. Drunkenness is merely anexaggeration. A foolish man drunk becomes maudlin; a bloody man, vicious; a coarse man,vulgar. Canute was none of these, but he was morose and gloomy, and liquor took himthrough all the hells of Dante. As he lay on his giant's bed all the horrors of this worldand every other were laid bare to his chilled senses. He was a man who knew no joy, a manwho toiled in silence and bitterness. The skull and the serpent were always before him,the symbols of eternal futileness and of eternal hate.

When the first Norwegians near enough to be called neighbors came, Canute rejoiced, andplanned to escape from his bosom vice. But he was not a social man by nature and had notthe power of drawing out the social side of other people. His new neighbors rather fearedhim because of his great strength and size, his silence and his lowering brows. Perhaps,too, they knew that he was mad, mad from the eternal treachery of the plains, which everyspring stretch green and rustle with the promises of Eden, showing long grassy lagoonsfull of clear water and cattle whose hoofs are stained with wild roses. Before autumn thelagoons are dried up, and the ground is burnt dry and hard until it blisters and cracksopen.

So instead of becoming a friend and neighbor to the men that settled about him, Canutebecame a mystery and a terror. They told awful stories of his size and strength and of thealcohol he drank. They said that one night, when he went out to see to his horses justbefore he went to bed, his steps were unsteady and the rotten planks of the floor gave wayand threw him behind the feet of a fiery young stallion. His foot was caught fast in thefloor, and the nervous horse began kicking frantically. When Canute felt the bloodtrickling down into his eyes from a scalp wound in his head, he roused himself from hiskingly indifference, and with the quiet stoical courage of a drunken man leaned forwardand wound his arms about the horse's hind legs and held them against his breast withcrushing embrace. All through the darkness and cold of the night he lay there, matchingstrength against strength. When little Jim Peterson went over the next morning at fouro'clock to go with him to the Blue to cut wood, he found him so, and the horse was on itsforeknees, trembling and whinnying with fear. This is the story the Norwegians tell ofhim, and if it is true it is no wonder that they feared and hated this Holder of the Heelsof Horses.

One spring there moved to the next "eighty" a family that made a great changein Canute's life. Ole Yensen was too drunk most of the time to be afraid of any one, andhis wife Mary was too garrulous to be afraid of any one who listened to her talk, andLena, their pretty daughter, was not afraid of man nor devil. So it came about that Canutewent over to take his alcohol with Ole oftener than he took it alone. After a while thereport spread that he was going to marry Yensen's daughter, and the Norwegian girls beganto tease Lena about the great bear she was going to keep house for. No one could quite seehow the affair had come about, for Canute's tactics of courtship were somewhat peculiar.He apparently never spoke to her at all: he would sit for hours with Mary chattering onone side of him and Ole drinking on the other and watch Lena at her work. She teased him,and threw flour in his face and put vinegar in his coffee, but he took her rough jokeswith silent wonder, never even smiling. He took her to church occasionally, but the mostwatchful and curious people never saw him speak to her. He would sit staring at her whileshe giggled and flirted with the other men.

Next spring Mary Lee went to town to work in a steam laundry. She came home everySunday, and always ran across to Yensens to startle Lena with stories of ten centtheatres, firemen's dances, and all the other esthetic delights of metropolitan life. In afew weeks Lena's head was completely turned, and she gave her father no rest until he lether go to town to seek her fortune at the ironing board. From the time she came home onher first visit she began to treat Canute with contempt. She had bought a plush cloak andkid gloves, had her clothes made by the dressmaker, and assumed airs and graces that madethe other women of the neighborhood cordially detest her. She generally brought with her ayoung man from town who waxed his mustache and wore a red necktie, and she did not evenintroduce him to Canute.

The neighbors teased Canute a good deal until he knocked one of them down. He gave nosign of suffering from her neglect except that he drank more and avoided the otherNorwegians more carefully than ever. He lay around in his den and no one knew what he feltor thought, but little Jim Peterson, who had seen him glowering at Lena in church oneSunday when she was there with the town man, said that he would not give an acre of hiswheat for Lena's life or the town chap's either; and Jim's wheat was so wondrouslyworthless that the statement was an exceedingly strong one.

Canute had bought a new suit of clothes that looked as nearly like the town man's aspossible. They had cost him half a millet crop; for tailors are not accustomed to fittinggiants and they charge for it. He had hung those clothes in his shanty two months ago andhad never put them on, partly from fear of ridicule, partly from discouragement, andpartly because there was something in his own soul that revolted at the littleness of thedevice.

Lena was at home just at this time. Work was slack in the laundry and Mary had not beenwell, so Lena stayed at home, glad enough to get an opportunity to torment Canute oncemore.

She was washing in the side kitchen, singing loudly as she worked. Mary was on herknees, blacking the stove and scolding violently about the young man who was coming outfrom town that night. The young man had committed the fatal error of laughing at Mary'sceaseless babble and had never been forgiven.

"He is no good, and you will come to a bad end by running with him! I do not seewhy a daughter of mine should act so. I do not see why the Lord should visit such apunishment upon me as to give me such a daughter. There are plenty of good men you canmarry."

Lena tossed her head and answered curtly, "I don't happen to want to marry any manright away, and so long as Dick dresses nice and has plenty of money to spend, there is noharm in my going with him."

"Money to spend? Yes, and that is all he does with it I'll be bound. You think itvery fine now, but you will change your tune when you have been married five years and seeyour children running naked and your cupboard empty. Did Anne Hermanson come to any goodend by marrying a town man?"

"I don't know anything about Anne Hermanson, but I know any of the laundry girlswould have Dick quick enough if they could get him."

"Yes, and a nice lot of store clothes huzzies you are too. Now there is Canutesonwho has an 'eighty' proved up and fifty head of cattle and—"

"And hair that ain't been cut since he was a baby, and a big dirty beard, and hewears overalls on Sundays, and drinks like a pig. Besides he will keep. I can have all thefun I want, and when I am old and ugly like you he can have me and take care of me. TheLord knows there ain't nobody else going to marry him."

Canute drew his hand back from the latch as though it were red hot. He was not the kindof man to make a good eavesdropper, and he wished he had knocked sooner. He pulled himselftogether and struck the door like a battering ram. Mary jumped and opened it with ascreech.

"God! Canute, how you scared us! I thought it was crazy Lou—he has beentearing around the neighborhood trying to convert folks. I am afraid as death of him. Heought to be sent off, I think. He is just as liable as not to kill us all, or burn thebarn, or poison the dogs. He has been worrying even the poor minister to death, and helaid up with the rheumatism, too! Did you notice that he was too sick to preach lastSunday? But don't stand there in the cold—come in. Yensen isn't here, but he justwent over to Sorenson's for the mail; he won't be gone long. Walk right in the other roomand sit down."

Canute followed her, looking steadily in front of him and not noticing Lena as hepassed her. But Lena's vanity would not allow him to pass unmolested. She took the wetsheet she was wringing out and cracked him across the face with it, and ran giggling tothe other side of the room. The blow stung his cheeks and the soapy water flew in hiseyes, and he involuntarily began rubbing them with his hands. Lena giggled with delight athis discomfiture, and the wrath in Canute's face grew blacker than ever. A big manhumiliated is vastly more undignified than a little one. He forgot the sting of his facein the bitter consciousness that he had made a fool of himself. He stumbled blindly intothe living room, knocking his head against the door jamb because he forgot to stoop. Hedropped into a chair behind the stove, thrusting his big feet back helplessly on eitherside of him.

Ole was a long time in coming, and Canute sat there, still and silent, with his handsclenched on his knees, and the skin of his face seemed to have shriveled up into littlewrinkles that trembled when he lowered his brows. His life had been one long lethargy ofsolitude and alcohol, but now he was awakening, and it was as when the dumb stagnant heatof summer breaks out into thunder.

When Ole came staggering in, heavy with liquor, Canute rose at once.

"Yensen," he said quietly, "I have come to see if you will let me marryyour daughter today."

"Today!" gasped Ole.

"Yes, I will not wait until tomorrow. I am tired of living alone."

Ole braced his staggering knees against the bedstead, and stammered eloquently:"Do you think I will marry my daughter to a drunkard? a man who drinks raw alcohol? aman who sleeps with rattlesnakes? Get out of my house or I will kick you out for yourimpudence." And Ole began looking anxiously for his feet.

Canute answered not a word, but he put on his hat and went out into the kitchen. Hewent up to Lena and said without looking at her, "Get your things on and come withme!"

The tone of his voice startled her, and she said angrily, dropping the soap, "Areyou drunk?"

"If you do not come with me, I will take you—you had better come," saidCanute quietly.

She lifted a sheet to strike him, but he caught her arm roughly and wrenched the sheetfrom her. He turned to the wall and took down a hood and shawl that hung there, and beganwrapping her up. Lena scratched and fought like a wild thing. Ole stood in the door,cursing, and Mary howled and screeched at the top of her voice. As for Canute, he liftedthe girl in his arms and went out of the house. She kicked and struggled, but the helplesswailing of Mary and Ole soon died away in the distance, and her face was held down tightlyon Canute's shoulder so that she could not see whither he was taking her. She wasconscious only of the north wind whistling in her ears, and of rapid steady motion and ofa great breast that heaved beneath her in quick, irregular breaths. The harder shestruggled the tighter those iron arms that had held the heels of horses crushed about her,until she felt as if they would crush the breath from her, and lay still with fear. Canutewas striding across the level fields at a pace at which man never went before, drawing thestinging north wind into his lungs in great gulps. He walked with his eyes half closed andlooking straight in front of him, only lowering them when he bent his head to blow awaythe snow-flakes that settled on her hair. So it was that Canute took her to his home, evenas his bearded barbarian ancestors took the fair frivolous women of the South in theirhairy arms and bore them down to their war ships. For ever and anon the soul becomes wearyof the conventions that are not of it, and with a single stroke shatters the civilizedlies with which it is unable to cope, and the strong arm reaches out and takes by forcewhat it cannot win by cunning.

When Canute reached his shanty he placed the girl upon a chair, where she sat sobbing.He stayed only a few minutes. He filled the stove with wood and fit the lamp, drank a hugeswallow of alcohol and put the bottle in his pocket. He paused a moment, staring heavilyat the weeping girl, then he went off and locked the door and disappeared in the gatheringgloom of the night.

Wrapped in flannels and soaked with turpentine, the little Norwegian preacher satreading his Bible, when he heard a thundering knock at his door, and Canute entered,covered with snow and with his beard frozen fast to his coat.

"Come in, Canute, you must be frozen," said the little man, shoving a chairtowards his visitor.

Canute remained standing with his hat on and said quietly, "I want you to comeover to my house tonight to marry me to Lena Yensen."

"Have you got a license, Canute?"

"No, I don't want a license. I want to be married."

"But I can't marry you without a license, man. It would not be legal."

A dangerous light came in the big Norwegian's eye. "I want you to come over to myhouse to marry me to Lena Yensen."

"No, I can't, it would kill an ox to go out in a storm like this, and myrheumatism is bad tonight."

"Then if you will not go I must take you," said Canute with a sigh. He tookdown the preacher's bearskin coat and bade him put it on while he hitched up his buggy. Hewent out and closed the door softly after him. Presently he returned and found thefrightened minister crouching before the fire with his coat lying beside him. Canutehelped him put it on and gently wrapped his head in his big muffler. Then he picked him upand carried him out and placed him in his buggy. As he tucked the buffalo robes around himhe said: "Your horse is old, he might flounder or lose his way in this storm. I willlead him."

The minister took the reins feebly in his hands and sat shivering with the cold.Sometimes when there was a lull in the wind, he could see the horse struggling through thesnow with the man plodding steadily beside him. Again the blowing snow would hide themfrom him altogether. He had no idea where they were or what direction they were going. Hefelt as though he were being whirled away in the heart of the storm, and he said all theprayers he knew. But at last the long four miles were over, and Canute set him down in thesnow while he unlocked the door. He saw the bride sitting by the fire with her eyes redand swollen as though she had been weeping. Canute placed a huge chair for him, and saidroughly,

"Warm yourself."

Lena began to cry and moan afresh, begging the minister to take her home. He lookedhelplessly at Canute. Canute said simply,

"If you are warm now, you can marry us."

"My daughter, do you take this step of your own free will?" asked theminister in a trembling voice.

"No sir, I don't, and it is disgraceful he should force me into it! I won't marryhim."

"Then, Canute, I cannot marry you," said the minister, standing as straightas his rheumatic limbs would let him.

"Are you ready to marry us now, sir?" said Canute, laying one iron hand onhis stooped shoulder. The little preacher was a good man, but like most men of weak bodyhe was a coward and had a horror of physical suffering, although he had known so much ofit. So with many qualms of conscience he began to repeat the marriage service. Lena satsullenly in her chair, staring at the fire. Canute stood beside her, listening with hishead bent reverently and his hands folded on his breast. When the little man had prayedand said amen, Canute began bundling him up again.

"I will take you home, now," he said as he carried him out and placed him inhis buggy, and started off with him through the fury of the storm, floundering among thesnow drifts that brought even the giant himself to his knees.

After she was left alone, Lena soon ceased weeping. She was not of a particularlysensitive temperament, and had little pride beyond that of vanity. After the first bitteranger wore itself out, she felt nothing more than a healthy sense of humiliation anddefeat. She had no inclination to run away, for she was married now, and in her eyes thatwas final and all rebellion was useless. She knew nothing about a license, but she knewthat a preacher married folks. She consoled herself by thinking that she had alwaysintended to marry Canute someday, anyway.

She grew tired of crying and looking into the fire, so she got up and began to lookabout her. She had heard queer tales about the inside of Canute's shanty, and hercuriosity soon got the better of her rage. One of the first things she noticed was the newblack suit of clothes hanging on the wall. She was dull, but it did not take a vain womanlong to interpret anything so decidedly flattering, and she was pleased in spite ofherself. As she looked through the cupboard, the general air of neglect and discomfortmade her pity the man who lived there.

"Poor fellow, no wonder he wants to get married to get somebody to wash up hisdishes. Batchin's pretty hard on a man."

It is easy to pity when once one's vanity has been tickled. She looked at the windowsill and gave a little shudder and wondered if the man were crazy. Then she sat down againand sat a long time wondering what her Dick and Ole would do.

"It is queer Dick didn't come right over after me. He surely came, for he wouldhave left town before the storm began and he might just as well come right on as go back.If he'd hurried he would have gotten here before the preacher came. I suppose he wasafraid to come, for he knew Canuteson could pound him to jelly, the coward!" Her eyesflashed angrily.

The weary hours wore on and Lena began to grow horribly lonesome. It was an uncannynight and this was an uncanny place to be in. She could hear the coyotes howling hungrilya little way from the cabin, and more terrible still were all the unknown noises of thestorm. She remembered the tales they told of the big log overhead and she was afraid ofthose snaky things on the window sills. She remembered the man who had been killed in thedraw, and she wondered what she would do if she saw crazy Lou's white face glaring intothe window. The rattling of the door became unbearable, she thought the latch must beloose and took the lamp to look at it. Then for the first time she saw the ugly brownsnake skins whose death rattle sounded every time the wind jarred the door.

"Canute, Canute!" she screamed in terror.

Outside the door she heard a heavy sound as of a big dog getting up and shakinghimself. The door opened and Canute stood before her, white as a snow drift.

"What is it?" he asked kindly.

"I am cold," she faltered.

He went out and got an armful of wood and a basket of cobs and filled the stove. Thenhe went out and lay in the snow before the door. Presently he heard her calling again.

"What is it?" he said, sitting up.

"I’m so lonesome, I'm afraid to stay in here all alone."

"I will go over and get your mother." And he got up.

"She won't come."

"I'll bring her," said Canute grimly.

"No, no. I don't want her, she will scold all the time."

"Well, I will bring your father."

She spoke again and it seemed as though her mouth was close up to the key hole. Shespoke lower than he had ever heard her speak before, so low that he had to put his ear upto the lock to hear her.

"I don't want him either, Canute—I'd rather have you."

For a moment she heard no noise at all, then something like a groan. With a cry of fearshe opened the door, and saw Canute stretched in the snow at her feet, his face in hishands, sobbing on the door step.


First published in Overland Monthly, XXVII (January, 1896), 65-74.