Rather testy, tired of so many subtleties, he complained, "Well, I'll do what I can, but I'll have to wait till the board meets."
And "I'll do what I can," together with the secret admission "Of course you and I know what Ma Bogart is," was all Carol could get from Superintendent George Edwin Mott, Ezra Stowbody, the Reverend Mr. Zitterel or any other member of the school-board.
Afterward she wondered whether Mr. Zitterel could have been referring to herself when he observed, "There's too much license in high places in this town, though, and the wages of sin is death—or anyway, bein' fired." The holy leer with which the priest said it remained in her mind.
She was at the hotel before eight next morning. Fern longed to go to school, to face the tittering, but she was too shaky. Carol read to her all day and, by reassuring her, convinced her own self that the school-board would be just. She was less sure of it that evening when, at the motion pictures, she heard Mrs. Gougerling exclaim to Mrs. Howland, "She may be so innocent and all, and I suppose she probably is, but still, if she drank a whole bottle of whisky at that dance, the way everybody says she did, she may have forgotten she was so innocent! Hee, hee, hee!" Maud Dyer, leaning back from her seat, put in, "That's what I've said all along. I don't want to roast anybody, but have you noticed the way she looks at men?"
"When will they have me on the scaffold?" Carol speculated.
Nat Hicks stopped the Kennicotts on their way home. Carol hated him for his manner of assuming that they two had a mysterious understanding. Without quite winking he seemed to wink at her as he gurgled, "What do you folks think about this Mullins woman? I'm not strait-laced, but I tell you we got to have decent women in our schools. D' you know what I heard? They say whatever she may of done afterwards, this Mullins dame took two quarts of whisky to the dance with her, and got stewed before Cy did! Some tank, that wren! Ha, ha, ha!"
"Rats, I don't believe it," Kennicott muttered.
He got Carol away before she was able to speak.
She saw Erik passing the house, late, alone, and she stared after him, longing for the lively bitterness of the things he would say about the town. Kennicott had nothing for her but "Oh, course, ev'body likes a juicy story, but they don't intend to be mean."
She went up to bed proving to herself that the members of the school-board were superior men.
It was Tuesday afternoon before she learned that the board had met at ten in the morning and voted to "accept Miss Fern Mullins's resignation." Sam Clark telephoned the news to her. "We're not making any charges. We're just letting her resign. Would you like to drop over to the hotel and ask her to write the resignation, now we've accepted it? Glad I could get the board to put it that way. It's thanks to you."
"But can't you see that the town will take this as proof of the charges?"
"We're—not—making—no—charges—whatever!" Sam was obviously finding it hard to be patient.
Fern left town that evening.
Carol went with her to the train. The two girls elbowed through a silent lip-licking crowd. Carol tried to stare them down but in face of the impishness of the boys and the bovine gaping of the men, she was embarrassed. Fern did not glance at them. Carol felt her arm tremble, though she was tearless, listless, plodding. She squeezed Carol's hand, said something unintelligible, stumbled up into the vestibule.
Carol remembered that Miles Bjornstam had also taken a train. What would be the scene at the station when she herself took departure?
She walked up-town behind two strangers.
One of them was giggling, "See that good-looking wench that got on here? The swell kid with the small black hat? She's some charmer! I was here yesterday, before my jump to Ojibway Falls, and I heard all about her. Seems she was a teacher, but she certainly was a high-roller—O boy!—high, wide, and fancy! Her and couple of other skirts bought a whole case of whisky and went on a tear, and one night, darned if this bunch of cradle-robbers didn't get hold of some young kids, just small boys, and they all got lit up like a White Way, and went out to a roughneck dance, and they say——"
The narrator turned, saw a woman near and, not being a common person nor a coarse workman but a clever salesman and a householder, lowered his voice for the rest of the tale. During it the other man laughed hoarsely.
Carol turned off on a side-street.
She passed Cy Bogart. He was humorously narrating some achievement to a group which included Nat Hicks, Del Snafflin, Bert Tybee the bartender, and A. Tennyson O'Hearn the shyster lawyer. They were men far older than Cy but they accepted him as one of their own, and encouraged him to go on.
It was a week before she received from Fern a letter of which this was a part:
. . . & of course my family did not really believe the story but as they were sure I must have done something wrong they just lectured me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding house. The teachers' agencies must know the story, man at one almost slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another the woman in charge was beastly. Don't know what I will do. Don't seem to feel very well. May marry a fellow that's in love with me but he's so stupid that he makes me SCREAM.
Dear Mrs. Kennicott you were the only one that believed me. I guess it's a joke on me, I was such a simp, I felt quite heroic while I was driving the buggy back that night & keeping Cy away from me. I guess I expected the people in Gopher Prairie to admire me. I did use to be admired for my athletics at the U.—just five months ago.
FOR a month which was one suspended moment of doubt she saw Erik only casually, at an Eastern Star dance, at the shop, where, in the presence of Nat Hicks, they conferred with immense particularity on the significance of having one or two buttons on the cuff of Kennicott's New Suit. For the benefit of beholders they were respectably vacuous.
Thus barred from him, depressed in the thought of Fern, Carol was suddenly and for the first time convinced that she loved Erik.
She told herself a thousand inspiriting things which he would say if he had the opportunity; for them she admired him, loved him. But she was afraid to summon him. He understood, he did not come. She forgot her every doubt of him, and her discomfort in his background. Each day it seemed impossible to get through the desolation of not seeing him. Each morning, each afternoon, each evening was a compartment divided from all other units of time, distinguished by a sudden "Oh! I want to see Erik!" which was as devastating as though she had never said it before.
There were wretched periods when she could not picture him. Usually he stood out in her mind in some little moment—glancing up from his preposterous pressing-iron, or running on the beach with Dave Dyer. But sometimes he had vanished; he was only an opinion. She worried then about his appearance: Weren't his wrists too large and red? Wasn't his nose a snub, like so many Scandinavians? Was he at all the graceful thing she had fancied? When she encountered him on the street she was as much reassuring herself as rejoicing in his presence. More disturbing than being unable to visualize him was the darting remembrance of some intimate aspect: his face as they had walked to the boat together at the picnic; the ruddy light on his temples, neck-cords, flat cheeks.
On a November evening when Kennicott was in the country she answered the bell and was confused to find Erik at the door, stooped, imploring, his hands in the pockets of his topcoat. As though he had been rehearsing his speech he instantly besought:
"Saw your husband driving away. I've got to see you. I can't stand it. Come for a walk. I know! People might see us. But they won't if we hike into the country. I'll wait for you by the elevator. Take as long as you want to—oh, come quick!"
"In a few minutes," she promised.
She murmured, "I'll just talk to him for a quarter of an hour and come home." She put an her tweed coat and rubber overshoes, considering how honest and hopeless are rubbers, how clearly their chaperonage proved that she wasn't going to a lovers' tryst.
She found him in the shadow of the grain-elevator, sulkily kicking at a rail of the side-track. As she came toward him she fancied that his whole body expanded. But he said nothing, nor she; he patted her sleeve, she returned the pat, and they crossed the railroad tracks, found a road, clumped toward open country.
"Chilly night, but I like this melancholy gray," he said.
They passed a moaning clump of trees and splashed along the wet road. He tucked her hand into the side-pocket of his overcoat. She caught his thumb and, sighing, held it exactly as Hugh held hers when they went walking. She thought about Hugh. The current maid was in for the evening, but was it safe to leave the baby with her? The thought was distant and elusive.
Erik began to talk, slowly, revealingly. He made for her a picture of his work in a large tailor shop in Minneapolis: the steam and heat, and the drudgery; the men in darned vests and crumpled trousers, men who "rushed growlers of beer" and were cynical about women, who laughed at him and played jokes on him. "But I didn't mind, because I could keep away from them outside. I used to go to the Art Institute and the Walker Gallery, and tramp clear around Lake Harriet, or hike out to the Gates house and imagine it was a chateau in Italy and I lived in it. I was a marquis and collected tapestries—that was after I was wounded in Padua. The only really bad time was when a tailor named Finkelfarb found a diary I was trying to keep and he read it aloud in the shop—it was a bad fight." He laughed. "I got fined five dollars. But that's all gone now. Seems as though you stand between me and the gas stoves—the long flames with mauve edges, licking up around the irons and making that sneering sound all day—aaaaah!"
Her fingers tightened about his thumb as she perceived the hot low room, the pounding of pressing-irons, the reek of scorched cloth, and Erik among giggling gnomes. His fingertip crept through the opening of her glove and smoothed her palm. She snatched her hand away, stripped off her glove, tucked her hand back into his.
He was saying something about a "wonderful person." In her tranquillity she let the words blow by and heeded only the beating wings of his voice.
She was conscious that he was fumbling for impressive speech.
"Say, uh—Carol, I've written a poem about you."
"That's nice. Let's hear it."
"Damn it, don't be so casual about it! Can't you take me seriously?"
"My dear boy, if I took you seriously——! I don't want us to be hurt more than—more than we will be. Tell me the poem. I've never had a poem written about me!"
"It isn't really a poem. It's just some words that I love because it seems to me they catch what you are. Of course probably they won't seem so to anybody else, but——Well——
Little and tender and merry and wise With eyes that meet my eyes.
Do you get the idea the way I do?"
"Yes! I'm terribly grateful!" And she was grateful—while she impersonally noted how bad a verse it was.
She was aware of the haggard beauty in the lowering night. Monstrous tattered clouds sprawled round a forlorn moon; puddles and rocks glistened with inner light. They were passing a grove of scrub poplars, feeble by day but looming now like a menacing wall. She stopped. They heard the branches dripping, the wet leaves sullenly plumping on the soggy earth.
"Waiting—waiting—everything is waiting," she whispered. She drew her hand from his, pressed her clenched fingers against her lips. She was lost in the somberness. "I am happy—so we must go home, before we have time to become unhappy. But can't we sit on a log for a minute and just listen?"
"No. Too wet. But I wish we could build a fire, and you could sit on my overcoat beside it. I'm a grand fire-builder! My cousin Lars and me spent a week one time in a cabin way up in the Big Woods, snowed in. The fireplace was filled with a dome of ice when we got there, but we chopped it out, and jammed the thing full of pine-boughs. Couldn't we build a fire back here in the woods and sit by it for a while?"
She pondered, half-way between yielding and refusal. Her head ached faintly. She was in abeyance. Everything, the night, his silhouette, the cautious-treading future, was as undistinguishable as though she were drifting bodiless in a Fourth Dimension. While her mind groped, the lights of a motor car swooped round a bend in the road, and they stood farther apart. "What ought I to do?" she mused. "I think——Oh, I won't be robbed! I AM good! If I'm so enslaved that I can't sit by the fire with a man and talk, then I'd better be dead!"
The lights of the thrumming car grew magically; were upon them; abruptly stopped. From behind the dimness of the windshield a voice, annoyed, sharp: "Hello there!"
She realized that it was Kennicott.
The irritation in his voice smoothed out. "Having a walk?"
They made schoolboyish sounds of assent.
"Pretty wet, isn't it? Better ride back. Jump up in front here, Valborg."
His manner of swinging open the door was a command. Carol was conscious that Erik was climbing in, that she was apparently to sit in the back, and that she had been left to open the rear door for herself. Instantly the wonder which had flamed to the gusty skies was quenched, and she was Mrs. W. P. Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, riding in a squeaking old car, and likely to be lectured by her husband.
She feared what Kennicott would say to Erik. She bent toward them. Kennicott was observing, "Going to have some rain before the night 's over, all right."
"Yes," said Erik.
"Been funny season this year, anyway. Never saw it with such a cold October and such a nice November. 'Member we had a snow way back on October ninth! But it certainly was nice up to the twenty-first, this month—as I remember it, not a flake of snow in November so far, has there been? But I shouldn't wonder if we'd be having some snow 'most any time now."
"Yes, good chance of it," said Erik.
"Wish I'd had more time to go after the ducks this fall. By golly, what do you think?" Kennicott sounded appealing. "Fellow wrote me from Man Trap Lake that he shot seven mallards and couple of canvas-back in one hour!"
"That must have been fine," said Erik.
Carol was ignored. But Kennicott was blustrously cheerful. He shouted to a farmer, as he slowed up to pass the frightened team, "There we are—schon gut!" She sat back, neglected, frozen, unheroic heroine in a drama insanely undramatic. She made a decision resolute and enduring. She would tell Kennicott——What would she tell him? She could not say that she loved Erik. DID she love him? But she would have it out. She was not sure whether it was pity for Kennicott's blindness, or irritation at his assumption that he was enough to fill any woman's life, which prompted her, but she knew that she was out of the trap, that she could be frank; and she was exhilarated with the adventure of it . . . while in front he was entertaining Erik:
"Nothing like an hour on a duck-pass to make you relish your victuals and——Gosh, this machine hasn't got the power of a fountain pen. Guess the cylinders are jam-cram-full of carbon again. Don't know but what maybe I'll have to put in another set of piston-rings."
He stopped on Main Street and clucked hospitably, "There, that'll give you just a block to walk. G' night."
Carol was in suspense. Would Erik sneak away?
He stolidly moved to the back of the car, thrust in his hand, muttered, "Good night—Carol. I'm glad we had our walk." She pressed his hand. The car was flapping on. He was hidden from her—by a corner drug store on Main Street!
Kennicott did not recognize her till he drew up before the house. Then he condescended, "Better jump out here and I'll take the boat around back. Say, see if the back door is unlocked, will you?" She unlatched the door for him. She realized that she still carried the damp glove she had stripped off for Erik. She drew it on. She stood in the center of the living-room, unmoving, in damp coat and muddy rubbers. Kennicott was as opaque as ever. Her task wouldn't be anything so lively as having to endure a scolding, but only an exasperating effort to command his attention so that he would understand the nebulous things she had to tell him, instead of interrupting her by yawning, winding the clock, and going up to bed. She heard him shoveling coal into the furnace. He came through the kitchen energetically, but before he spoke to her he did stop in the hall, did wind the clock.
He sauntered into the living-room and his glance passed from her drenched hat to her smeared rubbers. She could hear—she could hear, see, taste, smell, touch—his "Better take your coat off, Carrie; looks kind of wet." Yes, there it was:
"Well, Carrie, you better——" He chucked his own coat on a chair, stalked to her, went on with a rising tingling voice, "——you better cut it out now. I'm not going to do the out-raged husband stunt. I like you and I respect you, and I'd probably look like a boob if I tried to be dramatic. But I think it's about time for you and Valborg to call a halt before you get in Dutch, like Fern Mullins did."
"Course. I know all about it. What d' you expect in a town that's as filled with busybodies, that have plenty of time to stick their noses into other folks' business, as this is? Not that they've had the nerve to do much tattling to me, but they've hinted around a lot, and anyway, I could see for myself that you liked him. But of course I knew how cold you were, I knew you wouldn't stand it even if Valborg did try to hold your hand or kiss you, so I didn't worry. But same time, I hope you don't suppose this husky young Swede farmer is as innocent and Platonic and all that stuff as you are! Wait now, don't get sore! I'm not knocking him. He isn't a bad sort. And he's young and likes to gas about books. Course you like him. That isn't the real rub. But haven't you just seen what this town can do, once it goes and gets moral on you, like it did with Fern? You probably think that two young folks making love are alone if anybody ever is, but there's nothing in this town that you don't do in company with a whole lot of uninvited but awful interested guests. Don't you realize that if Ma Westlake and a few others got started they'd drive you up a tree, and you'd find yourself so well advertised as being in love with this Valborg fellow that you'd HAVE to be, just to spite 'em!"
"Let me sit down," was all Carol could say. She drooped on the couch, wearily, without elasticity.
He yawned, "Gimme your coat and rubbers," and while she stripped them off he twiddled his watch-chain, felt the radiator, peered at the thermometer. He shook out her wraps in the hall, hung them up with exactly his usual care. He pushed a chair near to her and sat bolt up. He looked like a physician about to give sound and undesired advice.
Before he could launch into his heavy discourse she desperately got in, "Please! I want you to know that I was going to tell you everything, tonight."
"Well, I don't suppose there's really much to tell."
"But there is. I'm fond of Erik. He appeals to something in here." She touched her breast. "And I admire him. He isn't just a 'young Swede farmer.' He's an artist——"
"Wait now! He's had a chance all evening to tell you what a whale of a fine fellow he is. Now it's my turn. I can't talk artistic, but——Carrie, do you understand my work?" He leaned forward, thick capable hands on thick sturdy thighs, mature and slow, yet beseeching. "No matter even if you are cold, I like you better than anybody in the world. One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes. You're all the things that I see in a sunset when I'm driving in from the country, the things that I like but can't make poetry of. Do you realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor. You—that 're always spieling about how scientists ought to rule the world, instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians—can't you see that I'm all the science there is here? And I can stand the cold and the bumpy roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at home to welcome me. I don't expect you to be passionate—not any more I don't—but I do expect you to appreciate my work. I bring babies into the world, and save lives, and make cranky husbands quit being mean to their wives. And then you go and moon over a Swede tailor because he can talk about how to put ruchings on a skirt! Hell of a thing for a man to fuss over!"
She flew out at him: "You make your side clear. Let me give mine. I admit all you say—except about Erik. But is it only you, and the baby, that want me to back you up, that demand things from me? They're all on me, the whole town! I can feel their hot breaths on my neck! Aunt Bessie and that horrible slavering old Uncle Whittier and Juanita and Mrs. Westlake and Mrs. Bogart and all of them. And you welcome them, you encourage them to drag me down into their cave! I won't stand it! Do you hear? Now, right now, I'm done. And it's Erik who gives me the courage. You say he just thinks about ruches (which do not usually go on skirts, by the way!). I tell you he thinks about God, the God that Mrs. Bogart covers up with greasy gingham wrappers! Erik will be a great man some day, and if I could contribute one tiny bit to his success——"
"Wait, wait, wait now! Hold up! You're assuming that your Erik will make good. As a matter of fact, at my age he'll be running a one-man tailor shop in some burg about the size of Schoenstrom."
"He will not!"
"That's what he's headed for now all right, and he's twenty-five or -six and——What's he done to make you think he'll ever be anything but a pants-presser?"
"He has sensitiveness and talent——"
"Wait now! What has he actually done in the art line? Has he done one first-class picture or—sketch, d' you call it? Or one poem, or played the piano, or anything except gas about what he's going to do?"
She looked thoughtful.
"Then it's a hundred to one shot that he never will. Way I understand it, even these fellows that do something pretty good at home and get to go to art school, there ain't more than one out of ten of 'em, maybe one out of a hundred, that ever get above grinding out a bum living—about as artistic as plumbing. And when it comes down to this tailor, why, can't you see—you that take on so about psychology—can't you see that it's just by contrast with folks like Doc McGanum or Lym Cass that this fellow seems artistic? Suppose you'd met up with him first in one of these reg'lar New York studios! You wouldn't notice him any more 'n a rabbit!"
She huddled over folded hands like a temple virgin shivering on her knees before the thin warmth of a brazier. She could not answer.
Kennicott rose quickly, sat on the couch, took both her hands. "Suppose he fails—as he will! Suppose he goes back to tailoring, and you're his wife. Is that going to be this artistic life you've been thinking about? He's in some bum shack, pressing pants all day, or stooped over sewing, and having to be polite to any grouch that blows in and jams a dirty stinking old suit in his face and says, 'Here you, fix this, and be blame quick about it.' He won't even have enough savvy to get him a big shop. He'll pike along doing his own work—unless you, his wife, go help him, go help him in the shop, and stand over a table all day, pushing a big heavy iron. Your complexion will look fine after about fifteen years of baking that way, won't it! And you'll be humped over like an old hag. And probably you'll live in one room back of the shop. And then at night—oh, you'll have your artist—sure! He'll come in stinking of gasoline, and cranky from hard work, and hinting around that if it hadn't been for you, he'd of gone East and been a great artist. Sure! And you'll be entertaining his relatives——Talk about Uncle Whit! You'll be having some old Axel Axelberg coming in with manure on his boots and sitting down to supper in his socks and yelling at you, 'Hurry up now, you vimmin make me sick!' Yes, and you'll have a squalling brat every year, tugging at you while you press clothes, and you won't love 'em like you do Hugh up-stairs, all downy and asleep——"
"Please! Not any more!"
Her face was on his knee.
He bent to kiss her neck. "I don't want to be unfair. I guess love is a great thing, all right. But think it would stand much of that kind of stuff? Oh, honey, am I so bad? Can't you like me at all? I've—I've been so fond of you!"
She snatched up his hand, she kissed it. Presently she sobbed, "I won't ever see him again. I can't, now. The hot living-room behind the tailor shop——I don't love him enough for that. And you are——Even if I were sure of him, sure he was the real thing, I don't think I could actually leave you. This marriage, it weaves people together. It's not easy to break, even when it ought to be broken."
"And do you want to break it?"
He lifted her, carried her up-stairs, laid her on her bed, turned to the door.
"Come kiss me," she whimpered.
He kissed her lightly and slipped away. For an hour she heard him moving about his room, lighting a cigar, drumming with his knuckles on a chair. She felt that he was a bulwark between her and the darkness that grew thicker as the delayed storm came down in sleet.
He was cheery and more casual than ever at breakfast. All day she tried to devise a way of giving Erik up. Telephone? The village central would unquestionably "listen in." A letter? It might be found. Go to see him? Impossible. That evening Kennicott gave her, without comment, an envelope. The letter was signed "E. V."
I know I can't do anything but make trouble for you, I think. I am going to Minneapolis tonight and from there as soon as I can either to New York or Chicago. I will do as big things as I can. I—I can't write I love you too much—God keep you.
Until she heard the whistle which told her that the Minneapolis train was leaving town, she kept herself from thinking, from moving. Then it was all over. She had no plan nor desire for anything.
When she caught Kennicott looking at her over his newspaper she fled to his arms, thrusting the paper aside, and for the first time in years they were lovers. But she knew that she still had no plan in life, save always to go along the same streets, past the same people, to the same shops.
A week after Erik's going the maid startled her by announcing, "There's a Mr. Valborg down-stairs say he vant to see you."
She was conscious of the maid's interested stare, angry at this shattering of the calm in which she had hidden. She crept down, peeped into the living-room. It was not Erik Valborg who stood there; it was a small, gray-bearded, yellow-faced man in mucky boots, canvas jacket, and red mittens. He glowered at her with shrewd red eyes.
"You de doc's wife?"
"I'm Adolph Valborg, from up by Jefferson. I'm Erik's father."
"Oh!" He was a monkey-faced little man, and not gentle.
"What you done wit' my son?"
"I don't think I understand you."
"I t'ink you're going to understand before I get t'rough! Where is he?"
"Why, really——I presume that he's in Minneapolis."
"You presume!" He looked through her with a contemptuousness such as she could not have imagined. Only an insane contortion of spelling could portray his lyric whine, his mangled consonants. He clamored, "Presume! Dot's a fine word! I don't want no fine words and I don't want no more lies! I want to know what you KNOW!"
"See here, Mr. Valborg, you may stop this bullying right now. I'm not one of your farmwomen. I don't know where your son is, and there's no reason why I should know." Her defiance ran out in face of his immense flaxen stolidity. He raised his fist, worked up his anger with the gesture, and sneered:
"You dirty city women wit' your fine ways and fine dresses! A father come here trying to save his boy from wickedness, and you call him a bully! By God, I don't have to take nothin' off you nor your husband! I ain't one of your hired men. For one time a woman like you is going to hear de trut' about what you are, and no fine city words to it, needer."
"Really, Mr. Valborg——"
"What you done wit' him? Heh? I'll yoost tell you what you done! He was a good boy, even if he was a damn fool. I want him back on de farm. He don't make enough money tailoring. And I can't get me no hired man! I want to take him back on de farm. And you butt in and fool wit' him and make love wit' him, and get him to run away!"
"You are lying! It's not true that——It's not true, and if it were, you would have no right to speak like this."
"Don't talk foolish. I know. Ain't I heard from a fellow dot live right here in town how you been acting wit' de boy? I know what you done! Walking wit' him in de country! Hiding in de woods wit' him! Yes and I guess you talk about religion in de woods! Sure! Women like you—you're worse dan street-walkers! Rich women like you, wit' fine husbands and no decent work to do—and me, look at my hands, look how I work, look at those hands! But you, oh God no, you mustn't work, you're too fine to do decent work. You got to play wit' young fellows, younger as you are, laughing and rolling around and acting like de animals! You let my son alone, d' you hear?" He was shaking his fist in her face. She could smell the manure and sweat. "It ain't no use talkin' to women like you. Get no trut' out of you. But next time I go by your husband!"
He was marching into the hall. Carol flung herself on him, her clenching hand on his hayseed-dusty shoulder. "You horrible old man, you've always tried to turn Erik into a slave, to fatten your pocketbook! You've sneered at him, and overworked him, and probably you've succeeded in preventing his ever rising above your muck-heap! And now because you can't drag him back, you come here to vent——Go tell my husband, go tell him, and don't blame me when he kills you, when my husband kills you—he will kill you——"
The man grunted, looked at her impassively, said one word, and walked out.
She heard the word very plainly.
She did not quite reach the couch. Her knees gave way, she pitched forward. She heard her mind saying, "You haven't fainted. This is ridiculous. You're simply dramatizing yourself. Get up." But she could not move. When Kennicott arrived she was lying on the couch. His step quickened. "What's happened, Carrie? You haven't got a bit of blood in your face."
She clutched his arm. "You've got to be sweet to me, and kind! I'm going to California—mountains, sea. Please don't argue about it, because I'm going."
Quietly, "All right. We'll go. You and I. Leave the kid here with Aunt Bessie."
"Well yes, just as soon as we can get away. Now don't talk any more. Just imagine you've already started." He smoothed her hair, and not till after supper did he continue: "I meant it about California. But I think we better wait three weeks or so, till I get hold of some young fellow released from the medical corps to take my practice. And if people are gossiping, you don't want to give them a chance by running away. Can you stand it and face 'em for three weeks or so?"
"Yes," she said emptily.
People covertly stared at her on the street. Aunt Bessie tried to catechize her about Erik's disappearance, and it was Kennicott who silenced the woman with a savage, "Say, are you hinting that Carrie had anything to do with that fellow's beating it? Then let me tell you, and you can go right out and tell the whole bloomin' town, that Carrie and I took Val—took Erik riding, and he asked me about getting a better job in Minneapolis, and I advised him to go to it. . . . Getting much sugar in at the store now?"
Guy Pollock crossed the street to be pleasant apropos of California and new novels. Vida Sherwin dragged her to the Jolly Seventeen. There, with every one rigidly listening, Maud Dyer shot at Carol, "I hear Erik has left town."
Carol was amiable. "Yes, so I hear. In fact, he called me up—told me he had been offered a lovely job in the city. So sorry he's gone. He would have been valuable if we'd tried to start the dramatic association again. Still, I wouldn't be here for the association myself, because Will is all in from work, and I'm thinking of taking him to California. Juanita—you know the Coast so well—tell me: would you start in at Los Angeles or San Francisco, and what are the best hotels?"
The Jolly Seventeen looked disappointed, but the Jolly Seventeen liked to give advice, the Jolly Seventeen liked to mention the expensive hotels at which they had stayed. (A meal counted as a stay.) Before they could question her again Carol escorted in with drum and fife the topic of Raymie Wutherspoon. Vida had news from her husband. He had been gassed in the trenches, had been in a hospital for two weeks, had been promoted to major, was learning French.
She left Hugh with Aunt Bessie.
But for Kennicott she would have taken him. She hoped that in some miraculous way yet unrevealed she might find it possible to remain in California. She did not want to see Gopher Prairie again.
The Smails were to occupy the Kennicott house, and quite the hardest thing to endure in the month of waiting was the series of conferences between Kennicott and Uncle Whittier in regard to heating the garage and having the furnace flues cleaned.
Did Carol, Kennicott inquired, wish to stop in Minneapolis to buy new clothes?
"No! I want to get as far away as I can as soon as I can. Let's wait till Los Angeles."
"Sure, sure! Just as you like. Cheer up! We're going to have a large wide time, and everything 'll be different when we come back."
Dusk on a snowy December afternoon. The sleeper which would connect at Kansas City with the California train rolled out of St. Paul with a chick-a-chick, chick-a-chick, chick-a-chick as it crossed the other tracks. It bumped through the factory belt, gained speed. Carol could see nothing but gray fields, which had closed in on her all the way from Gopher Prairie. Ahead was darkness.
"For an hour, in Minneapolis, I must have been near Erik. He's still there, somewhere. He'll be gone when I come back. I'll never know where he has gone."
As Kennicott switched on the seat-light she turned drearily to the illustrations in a motion-picture magazine.
THEY journeyed for three and a half months. They saw the Grand Canyon, the adobe walls of Sante Fe and, in a drive from El Paso into Mexico, their first foreign land. They jogged from San Diego and La Jolla to Los Angeles, Pasadena, Riverside, through towns with bell-towered missions and orange-groves; they viewed Monterey and San Francisco and a forest of sequoias. They bathed in the surf and climbed foothills and danced, they saw a polo game and the making of motion-pictures, they sent one hundred and seventeen souvenir post-cards to Gopher Prairie, and once, on a dune by a foggy sea when she was walking alone, Carol found an artist, and he looked up at her and said, "Too damned wet to paint; sit down and talk," and so for ten minutes she lived in a romantic novel.
Her only struggle was in coaxing Kennicott not to spend all his time with the tourists from the ten thousand other Gopher Prairies. In winter, California is full of people from Iowa and Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, who, having traveled thousands of miles from their familiar villages, hasten to secure an illusion of not having left them. They hunt for people from their own states to stand between them and the shame of naked mountains; they talk steadily, in Pullmans, on hotel porches, at cafeterias and motion-picture shows, about the motors and crops and county politics back home. Kennicott discussed land-prices with them, he went into the merits of the several sorts of motor cars with them, he was intimate with train porters, and he insisted on seeing the Luke Dawsons at their flimsy bungalow in Pasadena, where Luke sat and yearned to go back and make some more money. But Kennicott gave promise of learning to play. He shouted in the pool at the Coronado, and he spoke of (though he did nothing more radical than speak of) buying evening-clothes. Carol was touched by his efforts to enjoy picture galleries, and the dogged way in which he accumulated dates and dimensions when they followed monkish guides through missions.
She felt strong. Whenever she was restless she dodged her thoughts by the familiar vagabond fallacy of running away from them, of moving on to a new place, and thus she persuaded herself that she was tranquil. In March she willingly agreed with Kennicott that it was time to go home. She was longing for Hugh.
They left Monterey on April first, on a day of high blue skies and poppies and a summer sea.
As the train struck in among the hills she resolved, "I'm going to love the fine Will Kennicott quality that there is in Gopher Prairie. The nobility of good sense. It will be sweet to see Vida and Guy and the Clarks. And I'm going to see my baby! All the words he'll be able to say now! It's a new start. Everything will be different!"
Thus on April first, among dappled hills and the bronze of scrub oaks, while Kennicott seesawed on his toes and chuckled, "Wonder what Hugh'll say when he sees us?"
Three days later they reached Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm.
No one knew that they were coming; no one met them; and because of the icy roads, the only conveyance at the station was the hotel 'bus, which they missed while Kennicott was giving his trunk-check to the station agent—the only person to welcome them. Carol waited for him in the station, among huddled German women with shawls and umbrellas, and ragged-bearded farmers in corduroy coats; peasants mute as oxen, in a room thick with the steam of wet coats, the reek of the red-hot stove, the stench of sawdust boxes which served as cuspidors. The afternoon light was as reluctant as a winter dawn.
"This is a useful market-center, an interesting pioneer post, but it is not a home for me," meditated the stranger Carol.
Kennicott suggested, "I'd 'phone for a flivver but it'd take quite a while for it to get here. Let's walk."
They stepped uncomfortably from the safety of the plank platform and, balancing on their toes, taking cautious strides, ventured along the road. The sleety rain was turning to snow. The air was stealthily cold. Beneath an inch of water was a layer of ice, so that as they wavered with their suit-cases they slid and almost fell. The wet snow drenched their gloves; the water underfoot splashed their itching ankles. They scuffled inch by inch for three blocks. In front of Harry Haydock's Kennicott sighed:
"We better stop in here and 'phone for a machine."
She followed him like a wet kitten.
The Haydocks saw them laboring up the slippery concrete walk, up the perilous front steps, and came to the door chanting:
"Well, well, well, back again, eh? Say, this is fine! Have a fine trip? My, you look like a rose, Carol. How did you like the coast, doc? Well, well, well! Where-all did you go?"
But as Kennicott began to proclaim the list of places achieved, Harry interrupted with an account of how much he himself had seen, two years ago. When Kennicott boasted, "We went through the mission at Santa Barbara," Harry broke in, "Yeh, that's an interesting old mission. Say, I'll never forget that hotel there, doc. It was swell. Why, the rooms were made just like these old monasteries. Juanita and I went from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. You folks go to San Luis Obispo?"
"Well you ought to gone to San Luis Obispo. And then we went from there to a ranch, least they called it a ranch——"
Kennicott got in only one considerable narrative, which began:
"Say, I never knew—did you, Harry?—that in the Chicago district the Kutz Kar sells as well as the Overland? I never thought much of the Kutz. But I met a gentleman on the train—it was when we were pulling out of Albuquerque, and I was sitting on the back platform of the observation car, and this man was next to me and he asked me for a light, and we got to talking, and come to find out, he came from Aurora, and when he found out I came from Minnesota he asked me if I knew Dr. Clemworth of Red Wing, and of course, while I've never met him, I've heard of Clemworth lots of times, and seems he's this man's brother! Quite a coincidence! Well, we got to talking, and we called the porter—that was a pretty good porter on that car—and we had a couple bottles of ginger ale, and I happened to mention the Kutz Kar, and this man—seems he's driven a lot of different kinds of cars—he's got a Franklin now—and he said that he'd tried the Kutz and liked it first-rate. Well, when we got into a station—I don't remember the name of it—Carrie, what the deuce was the name of that first stop we made the other side of Albuquerque?—well, anyway, I guess we must have stopped there to take on water, and this man and I got out to stretch our legs, and darned if there wasn't a Kutz drawn right up at the depot platform, and he pointed out something I'd never noticed, and I was glad to learn about it: seems that the gear lever in the Kutz is an inch longer——"
Even this chronicle of voyages Harry interrupted, with remarks on the advantages of the ball-gear-shift.
Kennicott gave up hope of adequate credit for being a traveled man, and telephoned to a garage for a Ford taxicab, while Juanita kissed Carol and made sure of being the first to tell the latest, which included seven distinct and proven scandals about Mrs. Swiftwaite, and one considerable doubt as to the chastity of Cy Bogart.
They saw the Ford sedan making its way over the water-lined ice, through the snow-storm, like a tug-boat in a fog. The driver stopped at a corner. The car skidded, it turned about with comic reluctance, crashed into a tree, and stood tilted on a broken wheel.
The Kennicotts refused Harry Haydock's not too urgent offer to take them home in his car "if I can manage to get it out of the garage—terrible day—stayed home from the store—but if you say so, I'll take a shot at it." Carol gurgled, "No, I think we'd better walk; probably make better time, and I'm just crazy to see my baby." With their suit-cases they waddled on. Their coats were soaked through.
Carol had forgotten her facile hopes. She looked about with impersonal eyes. But Kennicott, through rain-blurred lashes, caught the glory that was Back Home.
She noted bare tree-trunks, black branches, the spongy brown earth between patches of decayed snow on the lawns. The vacant lots were full of tall dead weeds. Stripped of summer leaves the houses were hopeless—temporary shelters.
Kennicott chuckled, "By golly, look down there! Jack Elder must have painted his garage. And look! Martin Mahoney has put up a new fence around his chicken yard. Say, that's a good fence, eh? Chicken-tight and dog-tight. That's certainly a dandy fence. Wonder how much it cost a yard? Yes, sir, they been building right along, even in winter. Got more enterprise than these Californians. Pretty good to be home, eh?"
She noted that all winter long the citizens had been throwing garbage into their back yards, to be cleaned up in spring. The recent thaw had disclosed heaps of ashes, dog-bones, torn bedding, clotted paint-cans, all half covered by the icy pools which filled the hollows of the yards. The refuse had stained the water to vile colors of waste: thin red, sour yellow, streaky brown.
Kennicott chuckled, "Look over there on Main Street! They got the feed store all fixed up, and a new sign on it, black and gold. That'll improve the appearance of the block a lot."
She noted that the few people whom they passed wore their raggedest coats for the evil day. They were scarecrows in a shanty town. . . . "To think," she marveled, "of coming two thousand miles, past mountains and cities, to get off here, and to plan to stay here! What conceivable reason for choosing this particular place?"
She noted a figure in a rusty coat and a cloth cap.
Kennicott chuckled, "Look who's coming! It's Sam Clark! Gosh, all rigged out for the weather."
The two men shook hands a dozen times and, in the Western fashion, bumbled, "Well, well, well, well, you old hell-hound, you old devil, how are you, anyway? You old horse-thief, maybe it ain't good to see you again!" While Sam nodded at her over Kennicott's shoulder, she was embarrassed.
"Perhaps I should never have gone away. I'm out of practise in lying. I wish they would get it over! Just a block more and—my baby!"
They were home. She brushed past the welcoming Aunt Bessie and knelt by Hugh. As he stammered, "O mummy, mummy, don't go away! Stay with me, mummy!" she cried, "No, I'll never leave you again!"
He volunteered, "That's daddy."
"By golly, he knows us just as if we'd never been away!" said Kennicott. "You don't find any of these California kids as bright as he is, at his age!"
When the trunk came they piled about Hugh the bewhiskered little wooden men fitting one inside another, the miniature junk, and the Oriental drum, from San Francisco Chinatown; the blocks carved by the old Frenchman in San Diego; the lariat from San Antonio.
"Will you forgive mummy for going away? Will you?" she whispered.
Absorbed in Hugh, asking a hundred questions about him—had he had any colds? did he still dawdle over his oatmeal? what about unfortunate morning incidents? she viewed Aunt Bessie only as a source of information, and was able to ignore her hint, pointed by a coyly shaken finger, "Now that you've had such a fine long trip and spent so much money and all, I hope you're going to settle down and be satisfied and not——"
"Does he like carrots yet?" replied Carol.
She was cheerful as the snow began to conceal the slatternly yards. She assured herself that the streets of New York and Chicago were as ugly as Gopher Prairie in such weather; she dismissed the thought, "But they do have charming interiors for refuge." She sang as she energetically looked over Hugh's clothes.
The afternoon grew old and dark. Aunt Bessie went home. Carol took the baby into her own room. The maid came in complaining, "I can't get no extra milk to make chipped beef for supper." Hugh was sleepy, and he had been spoiled by Aunt Bessie. Even to a returned mother, his whining and his trick of seven times snatching her silver brush were fatiguing. As a background, behind the noises of Hugh and the kitchen, the house reeked with a colorless stillness.
From the window she heard Kennicott greeting the Widow Bogart as he had always done, always, every snowy evening: "Guess this 'll keep up all night." She waited. There they were, the furnace sounds, unalterable, eternal: removing ashes, shoveling coal.
Yes. She was back home! Nothing had changed. She had never been away. California? Had she seen it? Had she for one minute left this scraping sound of the small shovel in the ash-pit of the furnace? But Kennicott preposterously supposed that she had. Never had she been quite so far from going away as now when he believed she had just come back. She felt oozing through the walls the spirit of small houses and righteous people. At that instant she knew that in running away she had merely hidden her doubts behind the officious stir of travel.
"Dear God, don't let me begin agonizing again!" she sobbed. Hugh wept with her.
"Wait for mummy a second!" She hastened down to the cellar, to Kennicott.
He was standing before the furnace. However inadequate the rest of the house, he had seen to it that the fundamental cellar should be large and clean, the square pillars whitewashed, and the bins for coal and potatoes and trunks convenient. A glow from the drafts fell on the smooth gray cement floor at his feet. He was whistling tenderly, staring at the furnace with eyes which saw the black-domed monster as a symbol of home and of the beloved routine to which he had returned—his gipsying decently accomplished, his duty of viewing "sights" and "curios" performed with thoroughness. Unconscious of her, he stooped and peered in at the blue flames among the coals. He closed the door briskly, and made a whirling gesture with his right hand, out of pure bliss.
He saw her. "Why, hello, old lady! Pretty darn good to be back, eh?"
"Yes," she lied, while she quaked, "Not now. I can't face the job of explaining now. He's been so good. He trusts me. And I'm going to break his heart!"
She smiled at him. She tidied his sacred cellar by throwing an empty bluing bottle into the trash bin. She mourned, "It's only the baby that holds me. If Hugh died——" She fled upstairs in panic and made sure that nothing had happened to Hugh in these four minutes.
She saw a pencil-mark on a window-sill. She had made it on a September day when she had been planning a picnic for Fern Mullins and Erik. Fern and she had been hysterical with nonsense, had invented mad parties for all the coming winter. She glanced across the alley at the room which Fern had occupied. A rag of a gray curtain masked the still window.
She tried to think of some one to whom she wanted to telephone. There was no one.
The Sam Clarks called that evening and encouraged her to describe the missions. A dozen times they told her how glad they were to have her back.
"It is good to be wanted," she thought. "It will drug me. But——Oh, is all life, always, an unresolved But?"
SHE tried to be content, which was a contradiction in terms. She fanatically cleaned house all April. She knitted a sweater for Hugh. She was diligent at Red Cross work. She was silent when Vida raved that though America hated war as much as ever, we must invade Germany and wipe out every man, because it was now proven that there was no soldier in the German army who was not crucifying prisoners and cutting off babies' hands.
Carol was volunteer nurse when Mrs. Champ Perry suddenly died of pneumonia.
In her funeral procession were the eleven people left out of the Grand Army and the Territorial Pioneers, old men and women, very old and weak, who a few decades ago had been boys and girls of the frontier, riding broncos through the rank windy grass of this prairie. They hobbled behind a band made up of business men and high-school boys, who straggled along without uniforms or ranks or leader, trying to play Chopin's Funeral March—a shabby group of neighbors with grave eyes, stumbling through the slush under a solemnity of faltering music.
Champ was broken. His rheumatism was worse. The rooms over the store were silent. He could not do his work as buyer at the elevator. Farmers coming in with sled-loads of wheat complained that Champ could not read the scale, that he seemed always to be watching some one back in the darkness of the bins. He was seen slipping through alleys, talking to himself, trying to avoid observation, creeping at last to the cemetery. Once Carol followed him and found the coarse, tobacco-stained, unimaginative old man lying on the snow of the grave, his thick arms spread out across the raw mound as if to protect her from the cold, her whom he had carefully covered up every night for sixty years, who was alone there now, uncared for.
The elevator company, Ezra Stowbody president, let him go. The company, Ezra explained to Carol, had no funds for giving pensions.
She tried to have him appointed to the postmastership, which, since all the work was done by assistants, was the one sinecure in town, the one reward for political purity. But it proved that Mr. Bert Tybee, the former bartender, desired the postmastership.
At her solicitation Lyman Cass gave Champ a warm berth as night watchman. Small boys played a good many tricks on Champ when he fell asleep at the mill.
She had vicarious happiness in the return of Major Raymond Wutherspoon. He was well, but still weak from having been gassed; he had been discharged and he came home as the first of the war veterans. It was rumored that he surprised Vida by coming unannounced, that Vida fainted when she saw him, and for a night and day would not share him with the town. When Carol saw them Vida was hazy about everything except Raymie, and never went so far from him that she could not slip her hand under his. Without understanding why Carol was troubled by this intensity. And Raymie—surely this was not Raymie, but a sterner brother of his, this man with the tight blouse, the shoulder emblems, the trim legs in boots. His face seemed different, his lips more tight. He was not Raymie; he was Major Wutherspoon; and Kennicott and Carol were grateful when he divulged that Paris wasn't half as pretty as Minneapolis, that all of the American soldiers had been distinguished by their morality when on leave. Kennicott was respectful as he inquired whether the Germans had good aeroplanes, and what a salient was, and a cootie, and Going West.
In a week Major Wutherspoon was made full manager of the Bon Ton. Harry Haydock was going to devote himself to the half-dozen branch stores which he was establishing at crossroads hamlets. Harry would be the town's rich man in the coming generation, and Major Wutherspoon would rise with him, and Vida was jubilant, though she was regretful at having to give up most of her Red Cross work. Ray still needed nursing, she explained.
When Carol saw him with his uniform off, in a pepper-and salt suit and a new gray felt hat, she was disappointed. He was not Major Wutherspoon; he was Raymie.
For a month small boys followed him down the street, and everybody called him Major, but that was presently shortened to Maje, and the small boys did not look up from their marbles as he went by.
The town was booming, as a result of the war price of wheat.
The wheat money did not remain in the pockets of the farmers; the towns existed to take care of all that. Iowa farmers were selling their land at four hundred dollars an acre and coming into Minnesota. But whoever bought or sold or mortgaged, the townsmen invited themselves to the feast—millers, real-estate men, lawyers, merchants, and Dr. Will Kennicott. They bought land at a hundred and fifty, sold it next day at a hundred and seventy, and bought again. In three months Kennicott made seven thousand dollars, which was rather more than four times as much as society paid him for healing the sick.
In early summer began a "campaign of boosting." The Commercial Club decided that Gopher Prairie was not only a wheat-center but also the perfect site for factories, summer cottages, and state institutions. In charge of the campaign was Mr. James Blausser, who had recently come to town to speculate in land. Mr. Blausser was known as a Hustler. He liked to be called Honest Jim. He was a bulky, gauche, noisy, humorous man, with narrow eyes, a rustic complexion, large red hands, and brilliant clothes. He was attentive to all women. He was the first man in town who had not been sensitive enough to feel Carol's aloofness. He put his arm about her shoulder while he condescended to Kennicott, "Nice lil wifey, I'll say, doc," and when she answered, not warmly, "Thank you very much for the imprimatur," he blew on her neck, and did not know that he had been insulted.
He was a layer-on of hands. He never came to the house without trying to paw her. He touched her arm, let his fist brush her side. She hated the man, and she was afraid of him. She wondered if he had heard of Erik, and was taking advantage. She spoke ill of him at home and in public places, but Kennicott and the other powers insisted, "Maybe he is kind of a roughneck, but you got to hand it to him; he's got more git-up-and-git than any fellow that ever hit this burg. And he's pretty cute, too. Hear what he said to old Ezra? Chucked him in the ribs and said, 'Say, boy, what do you want to go to Denver for? Wait 'll I get time and I'll move the mountains here. Any mountain will be tickled to death to locate here once we get the White Way in!'"
The town welcomed Mr. Blausser as fully as Carol snubbed him. He was the guest of honor at the Commercial Club Banquet at the Minniemashie House, an occasion for menus printed in gold (but injudiciously proof-read), for free cigars, soft damp slabs of Lake Superior whitefish served as fillet of sole, drenched cigar-ashes gradually filling the saucers of coffee cups, and oratorical references to Pep, Punch, Go, Vigor, Enterprise, Red Blood, He-Men, Fair Women, God's Country, James J. Hill, the Blue Sky, the Green Fields, the Bountiful Harvest, Increasing Population, Fair Return on Investments, Alien Agitators Who Threaten the Security of Our Institutions, the Hearthstone the Foundation of the State, Senator Knute Nelson, One Hundred Per Cent. Americanism, and Pointing with Pride.
Harry Haydock, as chairman, introduced Honest Jim Blausser. "And I am proud to say, my fellow citizens, that in his brief stay here Mr. Blausser has become my warm personal friend as well as my fellow booster, and I advise you all to very carefully attend to the hints of a man who knows how to achieve."
Mr. Blausser reared up like an elephant with a camel's neck—red faced, red eyed, heavy fisted, slightly belching—a born leader, divinely intended to be a congressman but deflected to the more lucrative honors of real-estate. He smiled on his warm personal friends and fellow boosters, and boomed:
"I certainly was astonished in the streets of our lovely little city, the other day. I met the meanest kind of critter that God ever made—meaner than the horned toad or the Texas lallapaluza! (Laughter.) And do you know what the animile was? He was a knocker! (Laughter and applause.)
"I want to tell you good people, and it's just as sure as God made little apples, the thing that distinguishes our American commonwealth from the pikers and tin-horns in other countries is our Punch. You take a genuwine, honest-to-God homo Americanibus and there ain't anything he's afraid to tackle. Snap and speed are his middle name! He'll put her across if he has to ride from hell to breakfast, and believe me, I'm mighty good and sorry for the boob that's so unlucky as to get in his way, because that poor slob is going to wonder where he was at when Old Mr. Cyclone hit town! (Laughter.)
"Now, frien's, there's some folks so yellow and small and so few in the pod that they go to work and claim that those of us that have the big vision are off our trolleys. They say we can't make Gopher Prairie, God bless her! just as big as Minneapolis or St. Paul or Duluth. But lemme tell you right here and now that there ain't a town under the blue canopy of heaven that's got a better chance to take a running jump and go scooting right up into the two-hundred-thousand class than little old G. P.! And if there's anybody that's got such cold kismets that he's afraid to tag after Jim Blausser on the Big Going Up, then we don't want him here! Way I figger it, you folks are just patriotic enough so that you ain't going to stand for any guy sneering and knocking his own town, no matter how much of a smart Aleck he is—and just on the side I want to add that this Farmers' Nonpartisan League and the whole bunch of socialists are right in the same category, or, as the fellow says, in the same scategory, meaning This Way Out, Exit, Beat It While the Going's Good, This Means You, for all knockers of prosperity and the rights of property!
"Fellow citizens, there's a lot of folks, even right here in this fair state, fairest and richest of all the glorious union, that stand up on their hind legs and claim that the East and Europe put it all over the golden Northwestland. Now let me nail that lie right here and now. 'Ah-ha,' says they, 'so Jim Blausser is claiming that Gopher Prairie is as good a place to live in as London and Rome and—and all the rest of the Big Burgs, is he? How does the poor fish know?' says they. Well I'll tell you how I know! I've seen 'em! I've done Europe from soup to nuts! They can't spring that stuff on Jim Blausser and get away with it! And let me tell you that the only live thing in Europe is our boys that are fighting there now! London—I spent three days, sixteen straight hours a day, giving London the once-over, and let me tell you that it's nothing but a bunch of fog and out-of-date buildings that no live American burg would stand for one minute. You may not believe it, but there ain't one first-class skyscraper in the whole works. And the same thing goes for that crowd of crabs and snobs Down East, and next time you hear some zob from Yahooville-on-the-Hudson chewing the rag and bulling and trying to get your goat, you tell him that no two-fisted enterprising Westerner would have New York for a gift!
"Now the point of this is: I'm not only insisting that Gopher Prairie is going to be Minnesota's pride, the brightest ray in the glory of the North Star State, but also and furthermore that it is right now, and still more shall be, as good a place to live in, and love in, and bring up the Little Ones in, and it's got as much refinement and culture, as any burg on the whole bloomin' expanse of God's Green Footstool, and that goes, get me, that goes!"
Half an hour later Chairman Haydock moved a vote of thanks to Mr. Blausser.
The boosters' campaign was on.
The town sought that efficient and modern variety of fame which is known as "publicity." The band was reorganized, and provided by the Commercial Club with uniforms of purple and gold. The amateur baseball-team hired a semi-professional pitcher from Des Moines, and made a schedule of games with every town for fifty miles about. The citizens accompanied it as "rooters," in a special car, with banners lettered "Watch Gopher Prairie Grow," and with the band playing "Smile, Smile, Smile." Whether the team won or lost the Dauntless loyally shrieked, "Boost, Boys, and Boost Together—Put Gopher Prairie on the Map—Brilliant Record of Our Matchless Team."
Then, glory of glories, the town put in a White Way. White Ways were in fashion in the Middlewest. They were composed of ornamented posts with clusters of high-powered electric lights along two or three blocks on Main Street. The Dauntless confessed: "White Way Is Installed—Town Lit Up Like Broadway—Speech by Hon. James Blausser—Come On You Twin Cities—Our Hat Is In the Ring."
The Commercial Club issued a booklet prepared by a great and expensive literary person from a Minneapolis advertising agency, a red-headed young man who smoked cigarettes in a long amber holder. Carol read the booklet with a certain wonder. She learned that Plover and Minniemashie Lakes were world-famed for their beauteous wooded shores and gamey pike and bass not to be equalled elsewhere in the entire country; that the residences of Gopher Prairie were models of dignity, comfort, and culture, with lawns and gardens known far and wide; that the Gopher Prairie schools and public library, in its neat and commodious building, were celebrated throughout the state; that the Gopher Prairie mills made the best flour in the country; that the surrounding farm lands were renowned, where'er men ate bread and butter, for their incomparable No. 1 Hard Wheat and Holstein-Friesian cattle; and that the stores in Gopher Prairie compared favorably with Minneapolis and Chicago in their abundance of luxuries and necessities and the ever-courteous attention of the skilled clerks. She learned, in brief, that this was the one Logical Location for factories and wholesale houses.
"THERE'S where I want to go; to that model town Gopher Prairie," said Carol.
Kennicott was triumphant when the Commercial Club did capture one small shy factory which planned to make wooden automobile-wheels, but when Carol saw the promoter she could not feel that his coming much mattered—and a year after, when he failed, she could not be very sorrowful.
Retired farmers were moving into town. The price of lots had increased a third. But Carol could discover no more pictures nor interesting food nor gracious voices nor amusing conversation nor questing minds. She could, she asserted, endure a shabby but modest town; the town shabby and egomaniac she could not endure. She could nurse Champ Perry, and warm to the neighborliness of Sam Clark, but she could not sit applauding Honest Jim Blausser. Kennicott had begged her, in courtship days, to convert the town to beauty. If it was now as beautiful as Mr. Blausser and the Dauntless said, then her work was over, and she could go.
KENNICOTT was not so inhumanly patient that he could continue to forgive Carol's heresies, to woo her as he had on the venture to California. She tried to be inconspicuous, but she was betrayed by her failure to glow over the boosting. Kennicott believed in it; demanded that she say patriotic things about the White Way and the new factory. He snorted, "By golly, I've done all I could, and now I expect you to play the game. Here you been complaining for years about us being so poky, and now when Blausser comes along and does stir up excitement and beautify the town like you've always wanted somebody to, why, you say he's a roughneck, and you won't jump on the band-wagon."
Once, when Kennicott announced at noon-dinner, "What do you know about this! They say there's a chance we may get another factory—cream-separator works!" he added, "You might try to look interested, even if you ain't!" The baby was frightened by the Jovian roar; ran wailing to hide his face in Carol's lap; and Kennicott had to make himself humble and court both mother and child. The dim injustice of not being understood even by his son left him irritable. He felt injured.
An event which did not directly touch them brought down his wrath.
In the early autumn, news came from Wakamin that the sheriff had forbidden an organizer for the National Nonpartisan League to speak anywhere in the county. The organizer had defied the sheriff, and announced that in a few days he would address a farmers' political meeting. That night, the news ran, a mob of a hundred business men led by the sheriff—the tame village street and the smug village faces ruddled by the light of bobbing lanterns, the mob flowing between the squatty rows of shops—had taken the organizer from his hotel, ridden him on a fence-rail, put him on a freight train, and warned him not to return.
The story was threshed out in Dave Dyer's drug store, with Sam Clark, Kennicott, and Carol present.
"That's the way to treat those fellows—only they ought to have lynched him!" declared Sam, and Kennicott and Dave Dyer joined in a proud "You bet!"
Carol walked out hastily, Kennicott observing her.
Through supper-time she knew that he was bubbling and would soon boil over. When the baby was abed, and they sat composedly in canvas chairs on the porch, he experimented; "I had a hunch you thought Sam was kind of hard on that fellow they kicked out of Wakamin."
"Wasn't Sam rather needlessly heroic?"
"All these organizers, yes, and a whole lot of the German and Squarehead farmers themselves, they're seditious as the devil—disloyal, non-patriotic, pro-German pacifists, that's what they are!"
"Did this organizer say anything pro-German?"
"Not on your life! They didn't give him a chance!" His laugh was stagey.
"So the whole thing was illegal—and led by the sheriff! Precisely how do you expect these aliens to obey your law if the officer of the law teaches them to break it? Is it a new kind of logic?"
"Maybe it wasn't exactly regular, but what's the odds? They knew this fellow would try to stir up trouble. Whenever it comes right down to a question of defending Americanism and our constitutional rights, it's justifiable to set aside ordinary procedure."
"What editorial did he get that from?" she wondered, as she protested, "See here, my beloved, why can't you Tories declare war honestly? You don't oppose this organizer because you think he's seditious but because you're afraid that the farmers he is organizing will deprive you townsmen of the money you make out of mortgages and wheat and shops. Of course, since we're at war with Germany, anything that any one of us doesn't like is 'pro-German,' whether it's business competition or bad music. If we were fighting England, you'd call the radicals 'pro-English.' When this war is over, I suppose you'll be calling them 'red anarchists.' What an eternal art it is—such a glittery delightful art—finding hard names for our opponents! How we do sanctify our efforts to keep them from getting the holy dollars we want for ourselves! The churches have always done it, and the political orators—and I suppose I do it when I call Mrs. Bogart a 'Puritan' and Mr. Stowbody a 'capitalist.' But you business men are going to beat all the rest of us at it, with your simple-hearted, energetic, pompous——"
She got so far only because Kennicott was slow in shaking off respect for her. Now he bayed:
"That'll be about all from you! I've stood for your sneering at this town, and saying how ugly and dull it is. I've stood for your refusing to appreciate good fellows like Sam. I've even stood for your ridiculing our Watch Gopher Prairie Grow campaign. But one thing I'm not going to stand: I'm not going to stand my own wife being seditious. You can camouflage all you want to, but you know darn well that these radicals, as you call 'em, are opposed to the war, and let me tell you right here and now, and you and all these long-haired men and short-haired women can beef all you want to, but we're going to take these fellows, and if they ain't patriotic, we're going to make them be patriotic. And—Lord knows I never thought I'd have to say this to my own wife—but if you go defending these fellows, then the same thing applies to you! Next thing, I suppose you'll be yapping about free speech. Free speech! There's too much free speech and free gas and free beer and free love and all the rest of your damned mouthy freedom, and if I had my way I'd make you folks live up to the established rules of decency even if I had to take you——"
"Will!" She was not timorous now. "Am I pro-German if I fail to throb to Honest Jim Blausser, too? Let's have my whole duty as a wife!"
He was grumbling, "The whole thing's right in line with the criticism you've always been making. Might have known you'd oppose any decent constructive work for the town or for——"
"You're right. All I've done has been in line. I don't belong to Gopher Prairie. That isn't meant as a condemnation of Gopher Prairie, and it may be a condemnation of me. All right! I don't care! I don't belong here, and I'm going. I'm not asking permission any more. I'm simply going."
He grunted. "Do you mind telling me, if it isn't too much trouble, how long you're going for?"
"I don't know. Perhaps for a year. Perhaps for a lifetime."
"I see. Well, of course, I'll be tickled to death to sell out my practise and go anywhere you say. Would you like to have me go with you to Paris and study art, maybe, and wear velveteen pants and a woman's bonnet, and live on spaghetti?"
"No, I think we can save you that trouble. You don't quite understand. I am going—I really am—and alone! I've got to find out what my work is——"
"Work? Work? Sure! That's the whole trouble with you! You haven't got enough work to do. If you had five kids and no hired girl, and had to help with the chores and separate the cream, like these farmers' wives, then you wouldn't be so discontented."
"I know. That's what most men—and women—like you WOULD say. That's how they would explain all I am and all I want. And I shouldn't argue with them. These business men, from their crushing labors of sitting in an office seven hours a day, would calmly recommend that I have a dozen children. As it happens, I've done that sort of thing. There've been a good many times when we hadn't a maid, and I did all the housework, and cared for Hugh, and went to Red Cross, and did it all very efficiently. I'm a good cook and a good sweeper, and you don't dare say I'm not!"
"But was I more happy when I was drudging? I was not. I was just bedraggled and unhappy. It's work—but not my work. I could run an office or a library, or nurse and teach children. But solitary dish-washing isn't enough to satisfy me—or many other women. We're going to chuck it. We're going to wash 'em by machinery, and come out and play with you men in the offices and clubs and politics you've cleverly kept for yourselves! Oh, we're hopeless, we dissatisfied women! Then why do you want to have us about the place, to fret you? So it's for your sake that I'm going!"
"Of course a little thing like Hugh makes no difference!"
"Yes, all the difference. That's why I'm going to take him with me."
"Suppose I refuse?"
Forlornly, "Uh——Carrie, what the devil is it you want, anyway?"
"Oh, conversation! No, it's much more than that. I think it's a greatness of life—a refusal to be content with even the healthiest mud."
"Don't you know that nobody ever solved a problem by running away from it?"
"Perhaps. Only I choose to make my own definition of 'running away' I don't call——Do you realize how big a world there is beyond this Gopher Prairie where you'd keep me all my life? It may be that some day I'll come back, but not till I can bring something more than I have now. And even if I am cowardly and run away—all right, call it cowardly, call me anything you want to! I've been ruled too long by fear of being called things. I'm going away to be quiet and think. I'm—I'm going! I have a right to my own life."
"So have I to mine!"
"I have a right to my life—and you're it, you're my life! You've made yourself so. I'm damned if I'll agree to all your freak notions, but I will say I've got to depend on you. Never thought of that complication, did you, in this 'off to Bohemia, and express yourself, and free love, and live your own life' stuff!"
"You have a right to me if you can keep me. Can you?"
He moved uneasily.
For a month they discussed it. They hurt each other very much, and sometimes they were close to weeping, and invariably he used banal phrases about her duties and she used phrases quite as banal about freedom, and through it all, her discovery that she really could get away from Main Street was as sweet as the discovery of love. Kennicott never consented definitely. At most he agreed to a public theory that she was "going to take a short trip and see what the East was like in wartime."
She set out for Washington in October—just before the war ended.
She had determined on Washington because it was less intimidating than the obvious New York, because she hoped to find streets in which Hugh could play, and because in the stress of war-work, with its demand for thousands of temporary clerks, she could be initiated into the world of offices.
Hugh was to go with her, despite the wails and rather extensive comments of Aunt Bessie.
She wondered if she might not encounter Erik in the East but it was a chance thought, soon forgotten.
The last thing she saw on the station platform was Kennicott, faithfully waving his hand, his face so full of uncomprehending loneliness that he could not smile but only twitch up his lips. She waved to him as long as she could, and when he was lost she wanted to leap from the vestibule and run back to him. She thought of a hundred tendernesses she had neglected.
She had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb.
She sighed, "I couldn't do this if it weren't for Will's kindness, his giving me money." But a second after: "I wonder how many women would always stay home if they had the money?"
Hugh complained, "Notice me, mummy!" He was beside her on the red plush seat of the day-coach; a boy of three and a half. "I'm tired of playing train. Let's play something else. Let's go see Auntie Bogart."
"Oh, NO! Do you really like Mrs. Bogart?"
"Yes. She gives me cookies and she tells me about the Dear Lord. You never tell me about the Dear Lord. Why don't you tell me about the Dear Lord? Auntie Bogart says I'm going to be a preacher. Can I be a preacher? Can I preach about the Dear Lord?"
"Oh, please wait till my generation has stopped rebelling before yours starts in!"
"What's a generation?"
"It's a ray in the illumination of the spirit."
"That's foolish." He was a serious and literal person, and rather humorless. She kissed his frown, and marveled:
"I am running away from my husband, after liking a Swedish ne'er-do-well and expressing immoral opinions, just as in a romantic story. And my own son reproves me because I haven't given him religious instruction. But the story doesn't go right. I'm neither groaning nor being dramatically saved. I keep on running away, and I enjoy it. I'm mad with joy over it. Gopher Prairie is lost back there in the dust and stubble, and I look forward——"
She continued it to Hugh: "Darling, do you know what mother and you are going to find beyond the blue horizon rim?"
"We're going to find elephants with golden howdahs from which peep young maharanees with necklaces of rubies, and a dawn sea colored like the breast of a dove, and a white and green house filled with books and silver tea-sets."
"Cookies? Oh, most decidedly cookies. We've had enough of bread and porridge. We'd get sick on too many cookies, but ever so much sicker on no cookies at all."
"It is, O male Kennicott!"
"Huh!" said Kennicott II, and went to sleep on her shoulder.
The theory of the Dauntless regarding Carol's absence:
Mrs. Will Kennicott and son Hugh left on No. 24 on Saturday last for a stay of some months in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and Washington. Mrs. Kennicott confided to Ye Scribe that she will be connected with one of the multifarious war activities now centering in the Nation's Capital for a brief period before returning. Her countless friends who appreciate her splendid labors with the local Red Cross realize how valuable she will be to any war board with which she chooses to become connected. Gopher Prairie thus adds another shining star to its service flag and without wishing to knock any neighboring communities, we would like to know any town of anywheres near our size in the state that has such a sterling war record. Another reason why you'd better Watch Gopher Prairie Grow.
* * *
Mr. and Mrs. David Dyer, Mrs. Dyer's sister, Mrs. Jennie Dayborn of Jackrabbit, and Dr. Will Kennicott drove to Minniemashie on Tuesday for a delightful picnic.
SHE found employment in the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. Though the armistice with Germany was signed a few weeks after her coming to Washington, the work of the bureau continued. She filed correspondence all day; then she dictated answers to letters of inquiry. It was an endurance of monotonous details, yet she asserted that she had found "real work."
Disillusions she did have. She discovered that in the afternoon, office routine stretches to the grave. She discovered that an office is as full of cliques and scandals as a Gopher Prairie She discovered that most of the women in the government bureaus lived unhealthfully, dining on snatches in their crammed apartments. But she also discovered that business women may have friendships and enmities as frankly as men and may revel in a bliss which no housewife attains—a free Sunday. It did not appear that the Great World needed her inspiration, but she felt that her letters, her contact with the anxieties of men and women all over the country, were a part of vast affairs, not confined to Main Street and a kitchen but linked with Paris, Bangkok, Madrid.
She perceived that she could do office work without losing any of the putative feminine virtue of domesticity; that cooking and cleaning, when divested of the fussing of an Aunt Bessie, take but a tenth of the time which, in a Gopher Prairie, it is but decent to devote to them.
Not to have to apologize for her thoughts to the Jolly Seventeen, not to have to report to Kennicott at the end of the day all that she had done or might do, was a relief which made up for the office weariness. She felt that she was no longer one-half of a marriage but the whole of a human being.
Washington gave her all the graciousness in which she had had faith: white columns seen across leafy parks, spacious avenues, twisty alleys. Daily she passed a dark square house with a hint of magnolias and a courtyard behind it, and a tall curtained second-story window through which a woman was always peering. The woman was mystery, romance, a story which told itself differently every day; now she was a murderess, now the neglected wife of an ambassador. It was mystery which Carol had most lacked in Gopher Prairie, where every house was open to view, where every person was but too easy to meet, where there were no secret gates opening upon moors over which one might walk by moss-deadened paths to strange high adventures in an ancient garden.
As she flitted up Sixteenth Street after a Kreisler recital, given late in the afternoon for the government clerks, as the lamps kindled in spheres of soft fire, as the breeze flowed into the street, fresh as prairie winds and kindlier, as she glanced up the elm alley of Massachusetts Avenue, as she was rested by the integrity of the Scottish Rite Temple, she loved the city as she loved no one save Hugh. She encountered negro shanties turned into studios, with orange curtains and pots of mignonette; marble houses on New Hampshire Avenue, with butlers and limousines; and men who looked like fictional explorers and aviators. Her days were swift, and she knew that in her folly of running away she had found the courage to be wise.
She had a dispiriting first month of hunting lodgings in the crowded city. She had to roost in a hall-room in a moldy mansion conducted by an indignant decayed gentlewoman, and leave Hugh to the care of a doubtful nurse. But later she made a home.
Her first acquaintances were the members of the Tincomb Methodist Church, a vast red-brick tabernacle. Vida Sherwin had given her a letter to an earnest woman with eye-glasses, plaid silk waist, and a belief in Bible Classes, who introduced her to the Pastor and the Nicer Members of Tincomb. Carol recognized in Washington as she had in California a transplanted and guarded Main Street. Two-thirds of the church-members had come from Gopher Prairies. The church was their society and their standard; they went to Sunday service, Sunday School, Christian Endeavor, missionary lectures, church suppers, precisely as they had at home; they agreed that ambassadors and flippant newspapermen and infidel scientists of the bureaus were equally wicked and to be avoided; and by cleaving to Tincomb Church they kept their ideals from all contamination.
They welcomed Carol, asked about her husband, gave her advice regarding colic in babies, passed her the gingerbread and scalloped potatoes at church suppers, and in general made her very unhappy and lonely, so that she wondered if she might not enlist in the militant suffrage organization and be allowed to go to jail.
Always she was to perceive in Washington (as doubtless she would have perceived in New York or London) a thick streak of Main Street. The cautious dullness of a Gopher Prairie appeared in boarding-houses where ladylike bureau-clerks gossiped to polite young army officers about the movies; a thousand Sam Clarks and a few Widow Bogarts were to be identified in the Sunday motor procession, in theater parties, and at the dinners of State Societies, to which the emigres from Texas or Michigan surged that they might confirm themselves in the faith that their several Gopher Prairies were notoriously "a whole lot peppier and chummier than this stuck-up East."
But she found a Washington which did not cleave to Main Street.
Guy Pollock wrote to a cousin, a temporary army captain, a confiding and buoyant lad who took Carol to tea-dances, and laughed, as she had always wanted some one to laugh, about nothing in particular. The captain introduced her to the secretary of a congressman, a cynical young widow with many acquaintances in the navy. Through her Carol met commanders and majors, newspapermen, chemists and geographers and fiscal experts from the bureaus, and a teacher who was a familiar of the militant suffrage headquarters. The teacher took her to headquarters. Carol never became a prominent suffragist. Indeed her only recognized position was as an able addresser of envelopes. But she was casually adopted by this family of friendly women who, when they were not being mobbed or arrested, took dancing lessons or went picnicking up the Chesapeake Canal or talked about the politics of the American Federation of Labor.
With the congressman's secretary and the teacher Carol leased a small flat. Here she found home, her own place and her own people. She had, though it absorbed most of her salary, an excellent nurse for Hugh. She herself put him to bed and played with him on holidays. There were walks with him, there were motionless evenings of reading, but chiefly Washington was associated with people, scores of them, sitting about the flat, talking, talking, talking, not always wisely but always excitedly. It was not at all the "artist's studio" of which, because of its persistence in fiction, she had dreamed. Most of them were in offices all day, and thought more in card-catalogues or statistics than in mass and color. But they played, very simply, and they saw no reason why anything which exists cannot also be acknowledged.
She was sometimes shocked quite as she had shocked Gopher Prairie by these girls with their cigarettes and elfish knowledge. When they were most eager about soviets or canoeing, she listened, longed to have some special learning which would distinguish her, and sighed that her adventure had come so late. Kennicott and Main Street had drained her self-reliance; the presence of Hugh made her feel temporary. Some day—oh, she'd have to take him back to open fields and the right to climb about hay-lofts.
But the fact that she could never be eminent among these scoffing enthusiasts did not keep her from being proud of them, from defending them in imaginary conversations with Kennicott, who grunted (she could hear his voice), "They're simply a bunch of wild impractical theorists sittin' round chewing the rag," and "I haven't got the time to chase after a lot of these fool fads; I'm too busy putting aside a stake for our old age."
Most of the men who came to the flat, whether they were army officers or radicals who hated the army, had the easy gentleness, the acceptance of women without embarrassed banter, for which she had longed in Gopher Prairie. Yet they seemed to be as efficient as the Sam Clarks. She concluded that it was because they were of secure reputation, not hemmed in by the fire of provincial jealousies. Kennicott had asserted that the villager's lack of courtesy is due to his poverty. "We're no millionaire dudes," he boasted. Yet these army and navy men, these bureau experts, and organizers of multitudinous leagues, were cheerful on three or four thousand a year, while Kennicott had, outside of his land speculations, six thousand or more, and Sam had eight.
Nor could she upon inquiry learn that many of this reckless race died in the poorhouse. That institution is reserved for men like Kennicott who, after devoting fifty years to "putting aside a stake," incontinently invest the stake in spurious oil-stocks.
She was encouraged to believe that she had not been abnormal in viewing Gopher Prairie as unduly tedious and slatternly. She found the same faith not only in girls escaped from domesticity but also in demure old ladies who, tragically deprived of esteemed husbands and huge old houses, yet managed to make a very comfortable thing of it by living in small flats and having time to read.
But she also learned that by comparison Gopher Prairie was a model of daring color, clever planning, and frenzied intellectuality. From her teacher-housemate she had a sardonic description of a Middlewestern railroad-division town, of the same size as Gopher Prairie but devoid of lawns and trees, a town where the tracks sprawled along the cinder-scabbed Main Street, and the railroad shops, dripping soot from eaves and doorway, rolled out smoke in greasy coils.
Other towns she came to know by anecdote: a prairie village where the wind blew all day long, and the mud was two feet thick in spring, and in summer the flying sand scarred new-painted houses and dust covered the few flowers set out in pots. New England mill-towns with the hands living in rows of cottages like blocks of lava. A rich farming-center in New Jersey, off the railroad, furiously pious, ruled by old men, unbelievably ignorant old men, sitting about the grocery talking of James G. Blaine. A Southern town, full of the magnolias and white columns which Carol had accepted as proof of romance, but hating the negroes, obsequious to the Old Families. A Western mining-settlement like a tumor. A booming semi-city with parks and clever architects, visited by famous pianists and unctuous lecturers, but irritable from a struggle between union labor and the manufacturers' association, so that in even the gayest of the new houses there was a ceaseless and intimidating heresy-hunt.
The chart which plots Carol's progress is not easy to read. The lines are broken and uncertain of direction; often instead of rising they sink in wavering scrawls; and the colors are watery blue and pink and the dim gray of rubbed pencil marks. A few lines are traceable.
Unhappy women are given to protecting their sensitiveness by cynical gossip, by whining, by high-church and new-thought religions, or by a fog of vagueness. Carol had hidden in none of these refuges from reality, but she, who was tender and merry, had been made timorous by Gopher Prairie. Even her flight had been but the temporary courage of panic. The thing she gained in Washington was not information about office-systems and labor unions but renewed courage, that amiable contempt called poise. Her glimpse of tasks involving millions of people and a score of nations reduced Main Street from bloated importance to its actual pettiness. She could never again be quite so awed by the power with which she herself had endowed the Vidas and Blaussers and Bogarts.
From her work and from her association with women who had organized suffrage associations in hostile cities, or had defended political prisoners, she caught something of an impersonal attitude; saw that she had been as touchily personal as Maud Dyer.
And why, she began to ask, did she rage at individuals? Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them. They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.
SHE had lived in Washington for a year. She was tired of the office. It was tolerable, far more tolerable than housework, but it was not adventurous.
She was having tea and cinnamon toast, alone at a small round table on the balcony of Rauscher's Confiserie. Four debutantes clattered in. She had felt young and dissipated, had thought rather well of her black and leaf-green suit, but as she watched them, thin of ankle, soft under the chin, seventeen or eighteen at most, smoking cigarettes with the correct ennui and talking of "bedroom farces" and their desire to "run up to New York and see something racy," she became old and rustic and plain, and desirous of retreating from these hard brilliant children to a life easier and more sympathetic. When they flickered out and one child gave orders to a chauffeur, Carol was not a defiant philosopher but a faded government clerk from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.
She started dejectedly up Connecticut Avenue. She stopped, her heart stopped. Coming toward her were Harry and Juanita Haydock. She ran to them, she kissed Juanita, while Harry confided, "Hadn't expected to come to Washington—had to go to New York for some buying—didn't have your address along—just got in this morning—wondered how in the world we could get hold of you."
She was definitely sorry to hear that they were to leave at nine that evening, and she clung to them as long as she could. She took them to St. Mark's for dinner. Stooped, her elbows on the table, she heard with excitement that "Cy Bogart had the 'flu, but of course he was too gol-darn mean to die of it."
"Will wrote me that Mr. Blausser has gone away. How did he get on?"
"Fine! Fine! Great loss to the town. There was a real public-spirited fellow, all right!"
She discovered that she now had no opinions whatever about Mr. Blausser, and she said sympathetically, "Will you keep up the town-boosting campaign?"
Harry fumbled, "Well, we've dropped it just temporarily, but—sure you bet! Say, did the doc write you about the luck B. J. Gougerling had hunting ducks down in Texas?"
When the news had been told and their enthusiasm had slackened she looked about and was proud to be able to point out a senator, to explain the cleverness of the canopied garden. She fancied that a man with dinner-coat and waxed mustache glanced superciliously at Harry's highly form-fitting bright-brown suit and Juanita's tan silk frock, which was doubtful at the seams. She glared back, defending her own, daring the world not to appreciate them.
Then, waving to them, she lost them down the long train shed. She stood reading the list of stations: Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Chicago. Beyond Chicago——? She saw the lakes and stubble fields, heard the rhythm of insects and the creak of a buggy, was greeted by Sam Clark's "Well, well, how's the little lady?"
Nobody in Washington cared enough for her to fret about her sins as Sam did.
But that night they had at the flat a man just back from Finland.
She was on the Powhatan roof with the captain. At a table, somewhat vociferously buying improbable "soft drinks" for two fluffy girls, was a man with a large familiar back.