God's Ravens by Hamlin Garland
CHICAGO has three winds that blow upon it. One comes from the
East, and the mind goes out to the cold gray-blue lake. One from the
North, and men think of illimitable spaces of pinelands and maple-clad
ridges which lead to the unknown deeps of the arctic woods.
But the third is the West of Southwest wind, dry, magnetic, full of
smell of unmeasured miles of growing grain in summer, or ripening
corn and wheat in autumn. When it comes in winter the air glitters
with incredible brilliancy. The snow of the country dazzles and flames
in the eyes; deep blue shadows everywhere stream like stains of ink.
Sleigh bells wrangle from early morning till late at night, and every
step is quick and alert. In the city, smoke dims its clarity, but it
But its greatest moment of domination is spring. The bitter gray
wind of the East has held unchecked rule for days, giving place to
its brother the North wind only at intervals, till some day in March
the wind of the southwest begins to blow. Then the eaves begin to
drip. Here and there a fowl (in a house that is really a prison)
begins to sang the song it sang on the farm, and toward noon its song
becomes a chant of articulate joy.
Then the poor crawl out of their reeking hovels on the South and
West sides to stand in the sun-the blessed sun-and felicitate
themselves on being alive. Windows of sickrooms are opened, the merry
small boy goes to school without his tippet, and men lay off their
long ulsters for their beaver coats. Caps give place to hats, and men
women pause to chat when they meet each other the street. The open
door is the sign of the great change of wind.
There are imaginative souls who are stirred yet deeper by this
wind-men like Robert Bloom, to whom come vague and very sweet
reminiscences of farm life when the snow is melting and the dry ground
begins to appear. To these people the wind comes from the wide
unending spaces of the prairie West. They can smell the strange
thrilling odor of newly uncovered sod and moist brown plowed lands. To
them it is like the opening door of a prison.
Robert had crawled downtown and up to his office high in the Star
block after a month's sickness. He had resolutely pulled a pad of
paper under his hand to write, but the window was open and that wind
coming in, and he could not write-he could only dream.
His brown hair fell over the thin white hand which propped his
head. His face was like ivory with dull yellowish stains in it. His
eyes did not see the mountainous roofs humped and piled into vast
masses of brick and stone, crossed and riven by streets, and swept by
masses of gray-white vapor; they saw a little valley circled by
low-wooded bluffs-his native town in Wisconsin.
As his weakness grew his ambition fell away, and his heart turned
back to nature and to the things he had known in his youth, to the
kindly people of the olden time. It did not occur to him that the
spirit of the country might have changed.
Sitting thus, he had a mighty longing come upon him to give up the
struggle, to go back to the simplest life with his wife and two boys.
Why should he tread in the mill, when every day was taking the
lifeblood out of his heart?
Slowly his longing took resolution. At last he drew his desk down,
and as the lock clicked it seemed like the shutting of a prison gate
At the elevator door he met a fellow editor. "Hello, Bloom! Didn't
know you were down today."
"I'm only trying it. I'm going to take a vacation for a while."
"That's right, man. You look like a ghost."
"He hadn't the courage to tell him he never expected to work there
again. His step on the way home was firmer than it had been for
weeks. In his white face his wife saw some subtle change.
"What is it, Robert?"
"Mate, let's give it up."
"What do you mean?"
"The struggle is too hard. I can't stand it. I'm hungry for the
country again. Let's get out of this."
"Where'll we go?"
"Back to my native town-up among the Wisconsin hills and coulees.
Go anywhere, so that we escape this pressure-it's killing me. Let's go
to Bluff Siding for a year. It will do me good-may bring me back to
life. I can do enough special work to pay our grocery bill; and the
Merrill place-so Jack tells me-is empty. We can get it for
seventy-five dollars for a year. We can pull through some way."
"Very well, Robert."
"I must have rest. All the bounce has gone out of me, Mate," he
said with sad lines in his face. "Any extra work here is out of the
question. I can only shamble around-an excuse for a man."
The wife had ceased to smile. Her strenuous cheerfulness could not
hold before his tragically drawn and bloodless face.
"I'll go wherever you think best, Robert It will be just as well
for the boys. I suppose there is a school there?"
"Oh, yes. At any rate, they can get a year's schooling in nature."
"Well-no matter, Robert; you are the one to be considered." She
had the self-sacrfficing devotion of the average woman. She fancied
herself hopelessly his inferior.
They had dwelt so long on the crumbling edge of poverty that they
were hardened to its threat, and yet the failure of Robert's health
had been of the sort which terrifies. It was a slow but steady
sinking of vital force. It had its ups and downs, but it was a
downward trail, always downward. The time for sell-deception had
His paper paid him a meager salary, for his work was prized only
by the more thoughtful readers of the Star.
In addition to his' regular work he occasionally hazarded a story
for the juvenile magazines of the East. In this way he turned the
antics of his growing boys to account, as he often said to his wife.
He had also passed the preliminary stages of literary success by
getting a couple of stories accepted by an Eastern magazine, and he
still confidently looked forward to seeing them printed.
His wife, a sturdy, practical little body, did her part in the
bitter struggle by keeping their little home one of the most
attractive on the West Side, the North Side being altogether too high
In addition, her sorely pressed brain sought out other ways of
helping. She wrote out all her husband's stories on the typewriter,
and secretly she had tried composing others herself, the results
being queer dry little chronicles of the doings of men and women,
strung together without a touch of literary grace.
She proposed taking a large house and rerenting rooms, but Robert
would not hear to it. "As long as I can crawl about we'll leave that
In the month of preparation which followed he talked a great deal
about their venture.
"I want to get there," he said, "just when the leaves are coming
out on the trees. I want to see the cherry trees blossom on the
hillside. The popple trees always get green first."
At other times he talked about the people. "It will be a rest just
to get back among people who aren't ready to tread on your head in
order to lift themselves up. I believe a year among those kind,
unhurried people will glve me all the material I'll need for years.
I'll write a series of studies somewhat like Jefferies'-or Barrie's-
only, of course, I'll be original. I'll just take his plan Of telling
about the people I meet and their queer ways, so quaint and good."
"I'm tired of the scramble," he kept breaking out Of silence to
say. "I don't blame the boys, but it's plain to me they see that my
going will let them move up one. Mason cynically voiced the whole
thing today: 'I can say, "Sorry to see you go, Bloom," because your
going doesn't concern me. I'm not in line of succession, but some of
the other boys don't feel so. There's no divinity doth hedge an
editor; nothing but law prevents the murder of those above by those
"I don't like Mr. Mason when he talks like that," said the wife.
"Well-I don't." He didn't tell her what Mason said when Robert
talked about the good simple life of the people in Bluff Siding:
"Oh, bosh, Bloom! You'll find the struggle of the outside world
reflected in your little town. You'll find men and women just as hard
and selfish in their small way. It'll be harder to bear, because it
will all be so petty and pusillailmous."
It was a lovely day in late April when they took the train out of
the great grimy terrible city. It was eight o'clock, but the streets
were muddy and wet, a cold East wind blowing off the lake.
With clanging bell the train moved away, piercing the ragged gray
formless mob of houses and streets (through which railways always run
in a city). Men were hurrying to work, and Robert pitied them, poor
fellows, condemned to do that thing forever.
In an hour they reached the prairies, already clothed upon faintly
with green grass and tender springing wheat. The purple-brown squares
reserved for the corn looked deliciously soft and warm to the sick
man, and he longed to set his bare feet into it.
His boys were wild with delight. They had the natural love of the
earth still in them, and correspondingly cared little for the city.
They raced through the cars like colts. They saw everything. Every
blossoming plant, every budding tree, was precious to them all.
All day they rode. Toward noon they left the sunny prairie land of
northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and entered upon the hill
land of Madison and beyond. As they went North, the season was less
advanced, but spring was in the fresh wind and the warm sunshine.
As evening drew on, the hylas began to peep from the pools, and
their chorus deepened as they came on toward Bluff Siding, which
seemed very small, very squalid, and uninteresting, but Robert
pointed at the circling wine-colored wall of hills and the warm
"We're in luck to find a hotel," said Robert. "They burn down every
They were met by a middle-aged man and conducted across the road
to a hotel, which had been a roller-skating rink in other days, and
was not prepossessing. However, they were ushered into the parlor,
which resembled the sitting room of a rather ambitious village home,
and there they took seats, while the landlord consulted about rooms.
The wife's heart sank. From the window she could see several of
the low houses, and far off just the hills which seemed to make the
town so very small, very lonely. She was not given time to shed
tears. The children clamored for food, tired and cross.
Robert went out into the office, where he sigued his name under
the close and silent scrutiny of a half dozen roughly clad men, who
sat leaning against the wall. They were merely workingmen to him, but
in Mrs. Bloom's eyes they were dangerous people.
The landlord looked at the name as Robert wrote. "Your boxes are
all here," he said.
Robert looked up at him in surprise. "What boxes?"
"Your household goods. They came in on No.9."
Robert recovered himself. He remembered this was a village where
everything that goes on-everything-is known.
The stairway rose picturesquely out of the office to the low
second story, and wp these stairs they tramped to' their tiny rooms,
which were like cells.
"Oh, Mamma, ain't it queer?" cried the boys.
"Supper is all ready," the landlord's soft, deep voice aunounced a
few moments later, and the boys responded with whoops of hunger.
They were met by the close scrutiny of every boarder as they
entered, and they heard also the muttered cornments and explanations.
"Family to take the Merrill house."
"He looks purty well fiaxed out, don't he?"
They were agreeably surprised to find everything neat and clean
and wholesome. The bread was good and the butter delicious. Their
"That butter tastes like old times," said Robert. "li's fresh. It's
They made a hearty meal, and the boys, being filled up, grew
sleepy. After they were put to bed Robert said, "Now, Mate, let's go
see the house."
They walked out arm in arm like lovers. Her sturdy form steadied
him, though he would not have acknowledged it. The red flush was not
yet gone from the west, and the hills still kept a splendid tone of
purple-black. It was very clear, the stars were out, the wind
deliciously soft. "Isn't it still?" Robert aimost whispered.
They walked on under the budding trees up the hill, till they came
at last to the small frame house set under tall maples and locust
trees, just showing a feathery fringe of foliage.
"This is our home," said Robert.
Mate leaned on the gate in silence. Frogs were peeping. The smell
of spring was in the air. There was a magnificent repose in the hour,
restful, recreating, impressive.
"Oh, it's beautiful, Robert! I know we shall like it."
"We must like it," he said.
First contact with the people disappointed Robert. In the work of
moving in he had to do with people who work at day's work, and the
fault was his more than theirs. He forgot that they did not consider
their work degrading. They resented his bossing. The drayman grew
"Look a-here, my Christian friend, if you'll go 'long in the house
and let us alone it'll be a good job. We know what we're about."
This was not pleasant, and he did not perceive the trouble. In the
same way he got foul of the carpenter and the man who plowed his
garden. Some way his tone was not right. His voice was cold and
distant. He generally found that the men knew better than he what was
to be done and how to do it; and sometimes he felt like apologizing,
but their attitude had changed till apology was impossible.
He had repelled their friendly advances because he considered them
(without meaning to do so) as workmen, and not as neighbors. They
reported, therefore, that he was cranky and rode a high horse.
"He thinks he's a little tin god on wheels," the drayman said.
"Oh, he'll get over that," said McLane. "I knew the boy's folks
years ago-tip-top folks, too. He ain't well, and that makes him a
"That's the trouble-he thinks he's an upper crust," said Jim
Cullen, the drayman.
At the end of ten days they were settled, and nothing remained to
do but plan a little garden and-get well. The boys, with their
unspoiled natures, were able to melt into the ranks of the
village-boy life at once, with no more friction than was indicated by
a couple of rough-and-tumble fights. They were sturdy fellows, like
their mother, and these fights gave them high rank.
Robert got along in a dull, smooth way with his neighbors. He was
too formal with them. He met them only at the meat shop and the post
office. They nodded genially and said, "Got settled yet?" And he
replied, "Quite comfortable, thank you." They felt his coldness.
Conversation halted when he came near and made him feel that he was
the subject of their talk. As a matter of fact, he generally was. He
was a source of great speculation with them. Some of them had gone so
far as to bet he wouldn't live a year. They all seemed grotesque to
him, so work-scarred and bent and hairy. Even the men whose names he
had known from childhood were queer to him. They seemed shy and
distant, too, not like his ideas of them.
To Mate they were almost caricatures. "What makes them look so-so
'way behind the times, Robert?"
"Well, I suppose they are," said Robert. "Life in these coulees
goes on rather slower than in Chicago. Then there are a great many
Welsh and Germans and Norwegians living way up the coulees, and
they're the ones you notice. They're not all so." He could be generous
toward them in general; it was in special cases where he failed to
They had been there nearly two weeks without meeting any of them
socially, and Robert was beginning to change his opinion about them.
"They let us severely alone," he was saying one night to his wife.
"It's very odd. I wonder what I'd better do, Robert. I don't know
the etiquette of these small towns. I never lived in one before, you
know. Whether I ought to call first-and, good gracious, who'll I call
on? I'm in the dark."
"So am I, to tell the truth. I haven't lived in one of these small
towns since I was a lad. I have a faint recollection that
introductions were absolutely necessary. They have an etiquette which
is as binding as that of McAilister's Four Hundred, but what it is I
"Well, we'll wait."
"The boys are perfectly at home," said Robert with a little
emphasis on boys, which was the first indication of his
disappointment. The people he had failed to reach.
There came a knock on the door that startled them both. "Come in,"
said Robert in a nervous shout.
"Land sakes! did I scare ye? Seem so, way ye yelled," said a
high-keyed nasal voice, and a tall woman came in, followed by an
equally stalwart man.
"How d'e do, Mrs. Folsom? My wife, Mr. Folsom."
Folsom's voice was lost in the bustle of getting settled, but Mrs.
Folsom's voice rose above the clamor. "I was tellin' him it was about
time we got neighborly. I never let anybody come to town a week
without callin' on 'em. It does a body a heap o' good to see a face
outside the family once in a while, specially in a new place. How do
you like up here on the hill?"
"Very much. The view is so fine."
"Yes, I s'pose it is. Still, it ain't my notion. I don't like to
climb hills well enough. Still, I've heard of people buildin' just for
the view. It's all in taste, as the old woman said that kissed the
There was an element of shrewdness and sell-analysis in Mrs.
Folsom which saved her from being grotesque. She knew she was queer
to Mrs. Bloom, but she did not resent it. She was still young in form
and face, but her teeth were gone, and, like so many of her neighbors,
she was too poor to replace them from the dentist's. She wore a decent
calico dress and a shawl and hat.
As she talked her eyes took in every article of furniture in the
room, and every little piece of fancywork and bric-a-brac. In fact,
she reproduced the pattern of one of the tidies within two days.
Folsom sat dumbly in his chair. Robert, who met him now as a
neighbor for the first time, tried to talk with him, but failed, and
turned himself gladly to Mrs. Folsom, who delighted him with her
"Oh, we're a-movin', though you wouldn't think it. This town is
filled with a lot of old skinflints. Close ain't no name for 'em. Jest
ask Folsom thar about 'em. He's been buildin' their houses for 'em.
Still, I suppose they say the same thing o' me," she added with a
touch of humor which always saved her. She used a man's phrases.
"We're always ready to tax some other feller, but we kick like mules
when the tax falls on us," she went on. "My land! the fight we've had
to git sidewalks in this town!"
"You should be mayor."
"That's what I tell Folsom. Takes a woman to clean things up.
Well, I must run along. Thought I'd jest call in and see how you all
was. Come down when ye kin."
"Thank you, I will."
After they had gone Robert turned with a smile: "Our first formal
"Oh, dear, Robert, what can I do with such people?"
"Go see 'em. I like her. She's shrewd. You'll like her, too."
"But what can I say to such people? Did you hear her say 'we
fellers' to me?"
Robert laughed. "That's nothing. She feels as much of a man, or
'feller,' as anyone. Why shouldn't she?"
"But she's so vulgar."
"I admit she isn't elegant, but I think she's a good wife and
"I wonder if they're all like that?"
"Now, Mate, we must try not to offend them. We must try to be one
But this was easier said than done. As he went down to the post
office and stood waiting for his mail like the rest, he tried to enter
into conversation witb them, but mainly they moved away from him.
William McTurg nodded at him and said, "How de do?" and McLane asked
how he liked his new place, and that was about all.
He couldn't reach them. They suspected him. They had only the
estimate of the men who had worked for him; and, while they were
civil, they plainly didn't need him in the slightest degree, except as
a topic of conversation.
He did not improve as he had hoped to do. The spring was wet and
cold, the most rainy and depressing the valley had seen in many
years. Day after day the rain clouds sailed in over the northern hills
and deluged the flat little town with water, till the frogs sang in
every street, till the main street mired down every team that drove
The corn rotted in the earth, but the grass grew tall and
yellow-green, the trees glistened through the gray air, and the hills
were like green jewels of incalculable worth, when the sun shone, at
sweet infrequent intervals.
The cold and damp struck through into the alien's heart. It seemed
to prophesy his dark future. He sat at his desk and looked out into
the gray rain with gloomy eyes-a prisoner when he had expected to be
He had failed in his last venture. He had not gained any power-he
was reaily weaker than ever. The rain had kept him confined to the
house. The joy he had anticipated of tracing out all his boyish
pleasure haunts was cut off. He had relied, too, upon that as a
source of literary power.
He could not do much more than walk down to the post office and
back on the pleasantest days. A few people called, but he could not
talk to them, and they did not call again.
In the meanwhile his little bank account was vanishing. The boys
were strong and happy; that was his only comfort. And his wife seemed
strong, too. She had little time to get lonesome.
He grew morbid. His weakness and insecurity made him jealous of
the security and health of others.
He grew almost to hate the people as he saw them coming and going
in the mud, or heard their loud hearty voices sounding from the
street. He hated their gossip, their dull jokes. The flat little town
grew vulgar and low and desolate to him.
Every little thing which had amused him now annoyed him. The cut
of their beards worried him. Their voices jarred upon him. Every day
or two he broke forth to his wife in long tirades of abuse.
"Oh, I can't stand these people! They don't know any-thing. They
talk every rag of gossip into shreds. Taters, fish, hops; hops, fish,
and taters. They've saved and pinched and toiled till their souls are
pinched and ground away. You're right. They are caricatures. They
don't read or think about anything in which I'm interested. This life
is nerve-destroying. Talk about the health of the village life! it
destroys body and soul. It debilitates me. It will warp us both down
to the level of these people."
She tried to stop him, but he went on, a flush of fever on his
"They degrade the nature they have touched. Their squat little
town is a caricature like themselves. Everything they touch they
belittle. Here they sit while side-walks rot and teams mire in the
He raged on like one demented-bitter, accusing, rebellious. In such
a mood he could not write. In place of inspiring him, the little town
and its people seemed to undermine his power and turn his sweetness of
spirit into gall and acid. He only bowed to them now as he walked
feebly among them, and they excused it by referring to his sickness.
They eyed him each time with pitying eyes; "He's failin' fast," they
said among themselves.
One day, as he was returning from the post office, he felt blind
for a moment and put his hand to his head. The wold of vivid green
grew gray, and life rceded from him into illimitable distance. He had
one dim fading glimpse of a shaggy-bearded face looking down at him,
and felt the clutch of an iron-hard strong arm under him, and then he
lost hold even on so much consciousness.
He came back slowly, rising out of immeasurable deeps toward a
distant light which was like the mouth of a well filled with clouds
of misty vapor. Occasionally he saw a brown big hairy face floating
in over this lighted horizon, to smile kindly and go away again.
Others came with shaggy beards. He heard a cheery tenor voice which he
recognized, and then another face, a big brown smiling face; very
lovely it looked now to him-almost as lovely as his wife's, which
floated in from the other side.
"He's all right now," said the cheery tenor voice from the big
"Oh, Mr. McTurg; do you think so?"
"Ye-e-s, sir. He's all right. The fever's left him. Brace up, old
man. We need ye yit awhile." Then all was silent agam.
The well mouth cleared away its mist again, and he saw more
clearly. Part of the time he knew he was in bed staring at the
ceiling. Part of the time the well mouth remained closed in with
Gaunt old women put spoons of delicious broth to his lips, and
their toothless mouths had kindly lines about them. He heard their
high voices sounding faintly.
"Now, Mis' Bloom, jest let Mis' Folsom an' me attend to things out
here. We'll get supper for the boys, an' you jest go an' lay down.
We'll take care of him. Don't worry. Bell's a good hand with sick."
Then the light came again, and he heard a robin singing, and a
catbird squalled softly, pitifully. He could see the ceiling again. He
lay on his back, with his hands on his breast. He felt as if he had
been dead. He seemed to feel his body as if it were an alien thing.
"How are you, sir?" called the laughing, thrillingly hearty voice
of William McTurg.
He tried to turn his head, but it wouldn't move. He tried to speak,
but his dry throat made no noise.
The big man bent over him. "Want 'o change place a little?"
He closed his eyes in answer.
A giant arm ran deftly under his shoulders and turned him as if he
were an infant, and a new part of the good old world burst on his
sight. The sunshine streamed in the windows through a waving screen
of lilac leaves and fell upon the carpet in a priceless flood of
There sat William McTurg smiling at him. He had no coat on and no
hat, and his bushy thick hair rose up from his forehead like thick
marsh grass. He looked to be the embodiment of sunshine and health.
Sun and air were in his brown face, and the perfect health of a fine
animal was in his huge limbs. He looked at Robert with a smile that
brought a strange feeling into his throat. It made him try to speak;
at last he whispered.
The great figure bent closer: "What is it?"
William laughed a low chuckle. "Don't bother about thanks. Would
you like some water?"
A tall figure joined William, awkwardiy.
"How is he, Bm?"
"He's awake today."
"That's good. Anything I can do?"
"No, I guess not. An he needs is somethin' to eat."
"I jest brought a chicken up, an' some jell an' things the women
sent. I'll stay with him till twelve, then Folsom will come in."
Thereafter he lay hearing the robins laugh and the orioles whistle,
and then the frogs and katydids at night. These men with greasy vests
and unkempt beards came in every day. They bathed him, and helped him
to and from the bed. They helped to dress him and move him to the
window, where he could look out on the blessed green of the grass.
O God, it was so beautiful! It was a lover's joy only to live, to
look into these radiant vistas again. A catbird was singing in the
currant hedge. A robin was hopping across the lawn. The voices of the
children sounded soft and jocund across the road. And the
surshine-"Beloved Christ, Thy sunshine falling upon my feet!" His
soul ached with the joy of it, and when his wife came in she found
him sobbing like a child.
They seemed never to weary in his service. They lifted him about
and talked to him in loud and hearty voices which roused him like
fresh winds from free spaces.
He heard the women busy with things in the kitchen. He often saw
them loaded with things to eat passing his window, and often his wife
came in and knelt down at his bed.
"Oh, Robert, they're so good! They feed us like Gods ravens."
One day, as he sat at the window fully dressed for the fourth of
fifth time, William McTurg came up the walk.
"Well, Robert, how are ye today?"
"First-rate, William," he smiled. "I believe I can walk out a
little if you'll help me."
"All right, sir."
And he went forth leaning on William's arm, a piteous wraith of a
On every side the golden June sunshine fell, filling the valley
from purple brim to purple brim. Down over the hill to the west the
light poured, tangled and glowing in the plum and cherry trees,
leaving the glistening grass spraying through the elms and flinging
streamers of pink across the shaven green slopes where the cattle
On every side he saw kindly faces and heard hearty voices: "Good
day, Robert. Glad to see you out again." It thrilled him to hear them
call him by his first name.
His heart swelled till he could hardly breathe. The passion of
living came back upon him, shaking, uplifting him. His pallid lips
moved. His face was turned to the sky.
"O God, let me live! It is so beautiful! O God, give me strength
again! Keep me in the light of the sun! Let me see the green grass
come and go!"
He turned to William with trembling lips, trying to speak:
"Oh, I understand you now. I know you all now."
But William did not understand him.
"There! there!" he said soothingly. "I guess you're gettin' tired."
He led Robert back and put him to bed.
"I'd know but we was a little brash about goin' out," William said
to him as Robert lay there smiling up at him.
"Oh, I'm all right now," the sick man said.
"Matie," the alien cried, when William had gone, "we knew our
neighbors now, don't we? We never can hate or ridicule them again."
"Yes, Robert. They never will be caricatures again-to me."