Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
Don Nicola is an immigrant landowner who works hard on his farm and expects his laborers to do the same. Privately, his workmen and less ambitious neighbors criticize him because he makes his wife and children get up at two o’clock in the morning to begin their daily chores.
One of his neighbors is Don Cantalicio, an easygoing creole farmer deeply in Nicola’s debt. Próspero, his son, works for Nicola and casts many lingering glances in the direction of Victoria, his employer’s pretty daughter. Early one morning, coming to breakfast with the other laborers, Próspero finds Victoria at her work and seizes the chance to kiss her. She offers little resistance to his embrace. Later, one of the boys reports that he saw the Italian’s white ox in old Cantalicio’s pasture. Próspero is forced to defend his father against a charge of thievery.
With a payment of a loan of forty-five hundred pesos about to fall due, Cantalicio begs his neighbor for a year’s extension of credit. Nicola says that he intends to foreclose on Cantalicio’s property because his son Horacio, studying in Buenos Aires, wants the land for a farm. Cantalicio is unable to pay the debt, but he refuses to give up the property. When Próspero comments that his father should have planted wheat instead of trying to pasture cattle, Cantalicio turns on his son and accuses him of becoming a gringo—a despised foreigner.
Not long afterward María, Nicola’s wife, discovers Próspero hugging her daughter. When she tells her husband, he discharges the young man. It does no good for Próspero to ask for Victoria’s hand. Nicola tells him that he is not making money for a creole son-in-law to squander.
A few days later, the customers in a nearby tavern are drinking and teasing the waitress when a call comes for the doctor to attend a sick but penniless peon. The doctor refuses to leave until some of the loiterers offer to pay his fee. Into the tavern to gossip with the manager’s wife come María and Victoria, who are shopping in town while Nicola is with his lawyer discussing the confiscation of Cantalicio’s property. Próspero also arrives, about to leave Santa Fe. He will not listen when Victoria pleads with him to stay. He quarrels again with his father, who again accuses him of taking the side of foreigners against those of good Argentineans.
Once Cantalicio loses the lawsuit he brought in an attempt to keep his property, he, too, prepares to leave the district. He complains bitterly that the immigrants are taking over all the land. When Nicola appears at the tavern to pay him the cash difference between the amount of the debt and the value of the farm, Cantalicio refuses to accept a note for a part of the settlement, even though the priest promises to see that the note is made good. The ruined Creole trusts no one, and he weeps as he declares that everyone is against him.
Two years later, many changes can be seen on the farm that Nicola took over. To make room for a new building, he plans to have the workmen chop down the ancient ombu tree, symbol of the old-time Argentine gaucho. Horacio, who settles on the farm, is explaining to his father the use of gravity in connection with a new reservoir when Victoria appears. She is listless and shows no interest in anything, not even in plans for her own room in the new house.
Old Cantalicio turns up unexpectedly. He is now working for others and driving oxen to a nearby town, and he stops to see what his old home looks like. Every change saddens him, but he reacts most strongly to the cutting down of the ombu. Nicola has no right to touch the tree, he asserts; it belongs to the land.
Victoria keeps trying to tell him something, but all she can bring herself to say is that she was in Rosario for several months. There she saw Próspero, who misses his father. She lets slip the fact that she is receiving letters from him. Horacio reports that Mr. Daples, an agent for farm machinery in Rosario, regards Cantalicio’s son as his most valued employee. The brother and sister offer to take the old man around the farm. Still resentful, he refuses and hurriedly mounts his horse.
At that moment, the automobile of the man who is building the new house chugs over the hill. That symbol of modern progress frightens Cantalicio’s horse, who bolts and throws his rider in front of the car. Refusing the aid of everyone except Victoria, the hurt man begs her to help him to the ombu; he wants to die when it falls. He curses Nicola, calling him a gringo.
Several weeks later, everything is going well on the renovated farm. Buyers are offering bonuses to get Nicola’s clean wheat as soon as the thresher arrives to harvest it. Nicola tells Horacio that the contractor wants to marry Victoria and asked for an answer before he leaves that night. The father is anxious to consult her as to her choice, but she is spending most of her time looking after Cantalicio, who lost his right arm through his accident. Some people in the household think that he will be better off in a hospital.
Overhearing their discussion, Cantalicio announces that he will leave the farm at once, on foot if they will not lend him a wagon. Victoria refuses to hear of his leaving, however. Breaking down, she insists that she needs him, for she is carrying Próspero’s child.
Mr. Daples sends Próspero to the farm to run the threshing machine. Great is María’s dismay when she again catches him embracing her daughter. When she calls for her husband to come and drive Próspero off the place once and for all, Nicola remarks on the young man’s industry and calculates that if the boy marries into the family they can get their threshing done for nothing. Even Cantalicio becomes reconciled to the gringos—at least to one of them—and lets drop the announcement of his expected grandchild. All are excited. Nicola, however, is never one to waste time, even for such a reason. He declares that Próspero can wed Victoria, but meanwhile there is the threshing to be done. Grandchild or no grandchild, work must come first.
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