"Well, this is SO nice to have you here. We'll have some good parties—dances and everything. You'll have to join the Jolly Seventeen. We play bridge and we have a supper once a month. You play, of course?"
"N-no, I don't."
"Really? In St. Paul?"
"I've always been such a book-worm."
"We'll have to teach you. Bridge is half the fun of life." Juanita had become patronizing, and she glanced disrespectfully at Carol's golden sash, which she had previously admired.
Harry Haydock said politely, "How do you think you're going to like the old burg?"
"I'm sure I shall like it tremendously."
"Best people on earth here. Great hustlers, too. Course I've had lots of chances to go live in Minneapolis, but we like it here. Real he-town. Did you know that Percy Bresnahan came from here?"
Carol perceived that she had been weakened in the biological struggle by disclosing her lack of bridge. Roused to nervous desire to regain her position she turned on Dr. Terry Gould, the young and pool-playing competitor of her husband. Her eyes coquetted with him while she gushed:
"I'll learn bridge. But what I really love most is the outdoors. Can't we all get up a boating party, and fish, or whatever you do, and have a picnic supper afterwards?"
"Now you're talking!" Dr. Gould affirmed. He looked rather too obviously at the cream-smooth slope of her shoulder. "Like fishing? Fishing is my middle name. I'll teach you bridge. Like cards at all?"
"I used to be rather good at bezique."
She knew that bezique was a game of cards—or a game of something else. Roulette, possibly. But her lie was a triumph. Juanita's handsome, high-colored, horsey face showed doubt. Harry stroked his nose and said humbly, "Bezique? Used to be great gambling game, wasn't it?"
While others drifted to her group, Carol snatched up the conversation. She laughed and was frivolous and rather brittle. She could not distinguish their eyes. They were a blurry theater-audience before which she self-consciously enacted the comedy of being the Clever Little Bride of Doc Kennicott:
"These-here celebrated Open Spaces, that's what I'm going out for. I'll never read anything but the sporting-page again. Will converted me on our Colorado trip. There were so many mousey tourists who were afraid to get out of the motor 'bus that I decided to be Annie Oakley, the Wild Western Wampire, and I bought oh! a vociferous skirt which revealed my perfectly nice ankles to the Presbyterian glare of all the Ioway schoolma'ams, and I leaped from peak to peak like the nimble chamoys, and——You may think that Herr Doctor Kennicott is a Nimrod, but you ought to have seen me daring him to strip to his B. V. D.'s and go swimming in an icy mountain brook."
She knew that they were thinking of becoming shocked, but Juanita Haydock was admiring, at least. She swaggered on:
"I'm sure I'm going to ruin Will as a respectable practitioner——Is he a good doctor, Dr. Gould?"
Kennicott's rival gasped at this insult to professional ethics, and he took an appreciable second before he recovered his social manner. "I'll tell you, Mrs. Kennicott." He smiled at Kennicott, to imply that whatever he might say in the stress of being witty was not to count against him in the commercio-medical warfare. "There's some people in town that say the doc is a fair to middlin' diagnostician and prescription-writer, but let me whisper this to you—but for heaven's sake don't tell him I said so—don't you ever go to him for anything more serious than a pendectomy of the left ear or a strabismus of the cardiograph."
No one save Kennicott knew exactly what this meant, but they laughed, and Sam Clark's party assumed a glittering lemon-yellow color of brocade panels and champagne and tulle and crystal chandeliers and sporting duchesses. Carol saw that George Edwin Mott and the blanched Mr. and Mrs. Dawson were not yet hypnotized. They looked as though they wondered whether they ought to look as though they disapproved. She concentrated on them:
"But I know whom I wouldn't have dared to go to Colorado with! Mr. Dawson there! I'm sure he's a regular heart-breaker. When we were introduced he held my hand and squeezed it frightfully."
"Haw! Haw! Haw!" The entire company applauded. Mr. Dawson was beatified. He had been called many things—loan-shark, skinflint, tightwad, pussyfoot—but he had never before been called a flirt.
"He is wicked, isn't he, Mrs. Dawson? Don't you have to lock him up?"
"Oh no, but maybe I better," attempted Mrs. Dawson, a tint on her pallid face.
For fifteen minutes Carol kept it up. She asserted that she was going to stage a musical comedy, that she preferred cafe parfait to beefsteak, that she hoped Dr. Kennicott would never lose his ability to make love to charming women, and that she had a pair of gold stockings. They gaped for more. But she could not keep it up. She retired to a chair behind Sam Clark's bulk. The smile-wrinkles solemnly flattened out in the faces of all the other collaborators in having a party, and again they stood about hoping but not expecting to be amused.
Carol listened. She discovered that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie. Even at this affair, which brought out the young smart set, the hunting squire set, the respectable intellectual set, and the solid financial set, they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse.
Juanita Haydock talked a good deal in her rattling voice but it was invariably of personalities: the rumor that Raymie Wutherspoon was going to send for a pair of patent leather shoes with gray buttoned tops; the rheumatism of Champ Perry; the state of Guy Pollock's grippe; and the dementia of Jim Howland in painting his fence salmon-pink.
Sam Clark had been talking to Carol about motor cars, but he felt his duties as host. While he droned, his brows popped up and down. He interrupted himself, "Must stir 'em up." He worried at his wife, "Don't you think I better stir 'em up?" He shouldered into the center of the room, and cried:
"Let's have some stunts, folks."
"Yes, let's!" shrieked Juanita Haydock.
"Say, Dave, give us that stunt about the Norwegian catching a hen."
"You bet; that's a slick stunt; do that, Dave!" cheered Chet Dashaway.
Mr. Dave Dyer obliged.
All the guests moved their lips in anticipation of being called on for their own stunts.
"Ella, come on and recite 'Old Sweetheart of Mine,' for us," demanded Sam.
Miss Ella Stowbody, the spinster daughter of the Ionic bank, scratched her dry palms and blushed. "Oh, you don't want to hear that old thing again."
"Sure we do! You bet!" asserted Sam.
"My voice is in terrible shape tonight."
"Tut! Come on!"
Sam loudly explained to Carol, "Ella is our shark at elocuting. She's had professional training. She studied singing and oratory and dramatic art and shorthand for a year, in Milwaukee."
Miss Stowbody was reciting. As encore to "An Old Sweetheart of Mine," she gave a peculiarly optimistic poem regarding the value of smiles.
There were four other stunts: one Jewish, one Irish, one juvenile, and Nat Hicks's parody of Mark Antony's funeral oration.
During the winter Carol was to hear Dave Dyer's hen-catching impersonation seven times, "An Old Sweetheart of Mine" nine times, the Jewish story and the funeral oration twice; but now she was ardent and, because she did so want to be happy and simple-hearted, she was as disappointed as the others when the stunts were finished, and the party instantly sank back into coma.
They gave up trying to be festive; they began to talk naturally, as they did at their shops and homes.
The men and women divided, as they had been tending to do all evening. Carol was deserted by the men, left to a group of matrons who steadily pattered of children, sickness, and cooks—their own shop-talk. She was piqued. She remembered visions of herself as a smart married woman in a drawing-room, fencing with clever men. Her dejection was relieved by speculation as to what the men were discussing, in the corner between the piano and the phonograph. Did they rise from these housewifely personalities to a larger world of abstractions and affairs?
She made her best curtsy to Mrs. Dawson; she twittered, "I won't have my husband leaving me so soon! I'm going over and pull the wretch's ears." She rose with a jeune fille bow. She was self-absorbed and self-approving because she had attained that quality of sentimentality. She proudly dipped across the room and, to the interest and commendation of all beholders, sat on the arm of Kennicott's chair.
He was gossiping with Sam Clark, Luke Dawson, Jackson Elder of the planing-mill, Chet Dashaway, Dave Dyer, Harry Haydock, and Ezra Stowbody, president of the Ionic bank.
Ezra Stowbody was a troglodyte. He had come to Gopher Prairie in 1865. He was a distinguished bird of prey—swooping thin nose, turtle mouth, thick brows, port-wine cheeks, floss of white hair, contemptuous eyes. He was not happy in the social changes of thirty years. Three decades ago, Dr. Westlake, Julius Flickerbaugh the lawyer, Merriman Peedy the Congregational pastor and himself had been the arbiters. That was as it should be; the fine arts—medicine, law, religion, and finance—recognized as aristocratic; four Yankees democratically chatting with but ruling the Ohioans and Illini and Swedes and Germans who had ventured to follow them. But Westlake was old, almost retired; Julius Flickerbaugh had lost much of his practice to livelier attorneys; Reverend (not The Reverend) Peedy was dead; and nobody was impressed in this rotten age of automobiles by the "spanking grays" which Ezra still drove. The town was as heterogeneous as Chicago. Norwegians and Germans owned stores. The social leaders were common merchants. Selling nails was considered as sacred as banking. These upstarts—the Clarks, the Haydocks—had no dignity. They were sound and conservative in politics, but they talked about motor cars and pump-guns and heaven only knew what new-fangled fads. Mr. Stowbody felt out of place with them. But his brick house with the mansard roof was still the largest residence in town, and he held his position as squire by occasionally appearing among the younger men and reminding them by a wintry eye that without the banker none of them could carry on their vulgar businesses.
As Carol defied decency by sitting down with the men, Mr. Stowbody was piping to Mr. Dawson, "Say, Luke, when was't Biggins first settled in Winnebago Township? Wa'n't it in 1879?"
"Why no 'twa'n't!" Mr. Dawson was indignant. "He come out from Vermont in 1867—no, wait, in 1868, it must have been—and took a claim on the Rum River, quite a ways above Anoka."
"He did not!" roared Mr. Stowbody. "He settled first in Blue Earth County, him and his father!"
("What's the point at issue?") Carol whispered to Kennicott.
("Whether this old duck Biggins had an English setter or a Llewellyn. They've been arguing it all evening!")
Dave Dyer interrupted to give tidings, "D' tell you that Clara Biggins was in town couple days ago? She bought a hot-water bottle—expensive one, too—two dollars and thirty cents!"
"Yaaaaaah!" snarled Mr. Stowbody. "Course. She's just like her grandad was. Never save a cent. Two dollars and twenty—thirty, was it?—two dollars and thirty cents for a hot-water bottle! Brick wrapped up in a flannel petticoat just as good, anyway!"
"How's Ella's tonsils, Mr. Stowbody?" yawned Chet Dashaway.
While Mr. Stowbody gave a somatic and psychic study of them, Carol reflected, "Are they really so terribly interested in Ella's tonsils, or even in Ella's esophagus? I wonder if I could get them away from personalities? Let's risk damnation and try."
"There hasn't been much labor trouble around here, has there, Mr. Stowbody?" she asked innocently.
"No, ma'am, thank God, we've been free from that, except maybe with hired girls and farm-hands. Trouble enough with these foreign farmers; if you don't watch these Swedes they turn socialist or populist or some fool thing on you in a minute. Of course, if they have loans you can make 'em listen to reason. I just have 'em come into the bank for a talk, and tell 'em a few things. I don't mind their being democrats, so much, but I won't stand having socialists around. But thank God, we ain't got the labor trouble they have in these cities. Even Jack Elder here gets along pretty well, in the planing-mill, don't you, Jack?"
"Yep. Sure. Don't need so many skilled workmen in my place, and it's a lot of these cranky, wage-hogging, half-baked skilled mechanics that start trouble—reading a lot of this anarchist literature and union papers and all."
"Do you approve of union labor?" Carol inquired of Mr. Elder.
"Me? I should say not! It's like this: I don't mind dealing with my men if they think they've got any grievances—though Lord knows what's come over workmen, nowadays—don't appreciate a good job. But still, if they come to me honestly, as man to man, I'll talk things over with them. But I'm not going to have any outsider, any of these walking delegates, or whatever fancy names they call themselves now—bunch of rich grafters, living on the ignorant workmen! Not going to have any of those fellows butting in and telling ME how to run MY business!"
Mr. Elder was growing more excited, more belligerent and patriotic. "I stand for freedom and constitutional rights. If any man don't like my shop, he can get up and git. Same way, if I don't like him, he gits. And that's all there is to it. I simply can't understand all these complications and hoop-te-doodles and government reports and wage-scales and God knows what all that these fellows are balling up the labor situation with, when it's all perfectly simple. They like what I pay 'em, or they get out. That's all there is to it!"
"What do you think of profit-sharing?" Carol ventured.
Mr. Elder thundered his answer, while the others nodded, solemnly and in tune, like a shop-window of flexible toys, comic mandarins and judges and ducks and clowns, set quivering by a breeze from the open door:
"All this profit-sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply poppycock. Enfeebles a workman's independence—and wastes a lot of honest profit. The half-baked thinker that isn't dry behind the ears yet, and these suffragettes and God knows what all buttinskis there are that are trying to tell a business man how to run his business, and some of these college professors are just about as bad, the whole kit and bilin' of 'em are nothing in God's world but socialism in disguise! And it's my bounden duty as a producer to resist every attack on the integrity of American industry to the last ditch. Yes—SIR!"
Mr. Elder wiped his brow.
Dave Dyer added, "Sure! You bet! What they ought to do is simply to hang every one of these agitators, and that would settle the whole thing right off. Don't you think so, doc?"
"You bet," agreed Kennicott.
The conversation was at last relieved of the plague of Carol's intrusions and they settled down to the question of whether the justice of the peace had sent that hobo drunk to jail for ten days or twelve. It was a matter not readily determined. Then Dave Dyer communicated his carefree adventures on the gipsy trail:
"Yep. I get good time out of the flivver. 'Bout a week ago I motored down to New Wurttemberg. That's forty-three——No, let's see: It's seventeen miles to Belldale, and 'bout six and three-quarters, call it seven, to Torgenquist, and it's a good nineteen miles from there to New Wurttemberg—seventeen and seven and nineteen, that makes, uh, let me see: seventeen and seven 's twenty-four, plus nineteen, well say plus twenty, that makes forty-four, well anyway, say about forty-three or -four miles from here to New Wurttemberg. We got started about seven-fifteen, prob'ly seven-twenty, because I had to stop and fill the radiator, and we ran along, just keeping up a good steady gait——"
Mr. Dyer did finally, for reasons and purposes admitted and justified, attain to New Wurttemberg.
Once—only once—the presence of the alien Carol was recognized. Chet Dashaway leaned over and said asthmatically, "Say, uh, have you been reading this serial 'Two Out' in Tingling Tales? Corking yarn! Gosh, the fellow that wrote it certainly can sling baseball slang!"
The others tried to look literary. Harry Haydock offered, "Juanita is a great hand for reading high-class stuff, like 'Mid the Magnolias' by this Sara Hetwiggin Butts, and 'Riders of Ranch Reckless.' Books. But me," he glanced about importantly, as one convinced that no other hero had ever been in so strange a plight, "I'm so darn busy I don't have much time to read."
"I never read anything I can't check against," said Sam Clark.
Thus ended the literary portion of the conversation, and for seven minutes Jackson Elder outlined reasons for believing that the pike-fishing was better on the west shore of Lake Minniemashie than on the east—though it was indeed quite true that on the east shore Nat Hicks had caught a pike altogether admirable.
The talk went on. It did go on! Their voices were monotonous, thick, emphatic. They were harshly pompous, like men in the smoking-compartments of Pullman cars. They did not bore Carol. They frightened her. She panted, "They will be cordial to me, because my man belongs to their tribe. God help me if I were an outsider!"
Smiling as changelessly as an ivory figurine she sat quiescent, avoiding thought, glancing about the living-room and hall, noting their betrayal of unimaginative commercial prosperity. Kennicott said, "Dandy interior, eh? My idea of how a place ought to be furnished. Modern." She looked polite, and observed the oiled floors, hard-wood staircase, unused fireplace with tiles which resembled brown linoleum, cut-glass vases standing upon doilies, and the barred, shut, forbidding unit bookcases that were half filled with swashbuckler novels and unread-looking sets of Dickens, Kipling, O. Henry, and Elbert Hubbard.
She perceived that even personalities were failing to hold the party. The room filled with hesitancy as with a fog. People cleared their throats, tried to choke down yawns. The men shot their cuffs and the women stuck their combs more firmly into their back hair.
Then a rattle, a daring hope in every eye, the swinging of a door, the smell of strong coffee, Dave Dyer's mewing voice in a triumphant, "The eats!" They began to chatter. They had something to do. They could escape from themselves. They fell upon the food—chicken sandwiches, maple cake, drug-store ice cream. Even when the food was gone they remained cheerful. They could go home, any time now, and go to bed!
They went, with a flutter of coats, chiffon scarfs, and good-bys.
Carol and Kennicott walked home.
"Did you like them?" he asked.
"They were terribly sweet to me."
"Uh, Carrie——You ought to be more careful about shocking folks. Talking about gold stockings, and about showing your ankles to schoolteachers and all!" More mildly: "You gave 'em a good time, but I'd watch out for that, 'f I were you. Juanita Haydock is such a damn cat. I wouldn't give her a chance to criticize me."
"My poor effort to lift up the party! Was I wrong to try to amuse them?"
"No! No! Honey, I didn't mean——You were the only up-and-coming person in the bunch. I just mean——Don't get onto legs and all that immoral stuff. Pretty conservative crowd."
She was silent, raw with the shameful thought that the attentive circle might have been criticizing her, laughing at her.
"Don't, please don't worry!" he pleaded.
"Gosh; I'm sorry I spoke about it. I just meant——But they were crazy about you. Sam said to me, 'That little lady of yours is the slickest thing that ever came to this town,' he said; and Ma Dawson—I didn't hardly know whether she'd like you or not, she's such a dried-up old bird, but she said, 'Your bride is so quick and bright, I declare, she just wakes me up.'"
Carol liked praise, the flavor and fatness of it, but she was so energetically being sorry for herself that she could not taste this commendation.
"Please! Come on! Cheer up!" His lips said it, his anxious shoulder said it, his arm about her said it, as they halted on the obscure porch of their house.
"Do you care if they think I'm flighty, Will?"
"Me? Why, I wouldn't care if the whole world thought you were this or that or anything else. You're my—well, you're my soul!"
He was an undefined mass, as solid-seeming as rock. She found his sleeve, pinched it, cried, "I'm glad! It's sweet to be wanted! You must tolerate my frivolousness. You're all I have!"
He lifted her, carried her into the house, and with her arms about his neck she forgot Main Street.
"WE'LL steal the whole day, and go hunting. I want you to see the country round here," Kennicott announced at breakfast. "I'd take the car—want you to see how swell she runs since I put in a new piston. But we'll take a team, so we can get right out into the fields. Not many prairie chickens left now, but we might just happen to run onto a small covey."
He fussed over his hunting-kit. He pulled his hip boots out to full length and examined them for holes. He feverishly counted his shotgun shells, lecturing her on the qualities of smokeless powder. He drew the new hammerless shotgun out of its heavy tan leather case and made her peep through the barrels to see how dazzlingly free they were from rust.
The world of hunting and camping-outfits and fishing-tackle was unfamiliar to her, and in Kennicott's interest she found something creative and joyous. She examined the smooth stock, the carved hard rubber butt of the gun. The shells, with their brass caps and sleek green bodies and hieroglyphics on the wads, were cool and comfortably heavy in her hands.
Kennicott wore a brown canvas hunting-coat with vast pockets lining the inside, corduroy trousers which bulged at the wrinkles, peeled and scarred shoes, a scarecrow felt hat. In this uniform he felt virile. They clumped out to the livery buggy, they packed the kit and the box of lunch into the back, crying to each other that it was a magnificent day.
Kennicott had borrowed Jackson Elder's red and white English setter, a complacent dog with a waving tail of silver hair which flickered in the sunshine. As they started, the dog yelped, and leaped at the horses' heads, till Kennicott took him into the buggy, where he nuzzled Carol's knees and leaned out to sneer at farm mongrels.
The grays clattered out on the hard dirt road with a pleasant song of hoofs: "Ta ta ta rat! Ta ta ta rat!" It was early and fresh, the air whistling, frost bright on the golden rod. As the sun warmed the world of stubble into a welter of yellow they turned from the highroad, through the bars of a farmer's gate, into a field, slowly bumping over the uneven earth. In a hollow of the rolling prairie they lost sight even of the country road. It was warm and placid. Locusts trilled among the dry wheat-stalks, and brilliant little flies hurtled across the buggy. A buzz of content filled the air. Crows loitered and gossiped in the sky.
The dog had been let out and after a dance of excitement he settled down to a steady quartering of the field, forth and back, forth and back, his nose down.
"Pete Rustad owns this farm, and he told me he saw a small covey of chickens in the west forty, last week. Maybe we'll get some sport after all," Kennicott chuckled blissfully.
She watched the dog in suspense, breathing quickly every time he seemed to halt. She had no desire to slaughter birds, but she did desire to belong to Kennicott's world.
The dog stopped, on the point, a forepaw held up.
"By golly! He's hit a scent! Come on!" squealed Kennicott. He leaped from the buggy, twisted the reins about the whip-socket, swung her out, caught up his gun, slipped in two shells, stalked toward the rigid dog, Carol pattering after him. The setter crawled ahead, his tail quivering, his belly close to the stubble. Carol was nervous. She expected clouds of large birds to fly up instantly. Her eyes were strained with staring. But they followed the dog for a quarter of a mile, turning, doubling, crossing two low hills, kicking through a swale of weeds, crawling between the strands of a barbed-wire fence. The walking was hard on her pavement-trained feet. The earth was lumpy, the stubble prickly and lined with grass, thistles, abortive stumps of clover. She dragged and floundered.
She heard Kennicott gasp, "Look!" Three gray birds were starting up from the stubble. They were round, dumpy, like enormous bumble bees. Kennicott was sighting, moving the barrel. She was agitated. Why didn't he fire? The birds would be gone! Then a crash, another, and two birds turned somersaults in the air, plumped down.
When he showed her the birds she had no sensation of blood. These heaps of feathers were so soft and unbruised—there was about them no hint of death. She watched her conquering man tuck them into his inside pocket, and trudged with him back to the buggy.
They found no more prairie chickens that morning.
At noon they drove into her first farmyard, a private village, a white house with no porches save a low and quite dirty stoop at the back, a crimson barn with white trimmings, a glazed brick silo, an ex-carriage-shed, now the garage of a Ford, an unpainted cow-stable, a chicken-house, a pig-pen, a corn-crib, a granary, the galvanized-iron skeleton tower of a wind-mill. The dooryard was of packed yellow clay, treeless, barren of grass, littered with rusty plowshares and wheels of discarded cultivators. Hardened trampled mud, like lava, filled the pig-pen. The doors of the house were grime-rubbed, the corners and eaves were rusted with rain, and the child who stared at them from the kitchen window was smeary-faced. But beyond the barn was a clump of scarlet geraniums; the prairie breeze was sunshine in motion; the flashing metal blades of the windmill revolved with a lively hum; a horse neighed, a rooster crowed, martins flew in and out of the cow-stable.
A small spare woman with flaxen hair trotted from the house. She was twanging a Swedish patois—not in monotone, like English, but singing it, with a lyrical whine:
"Pete he say you kom pretty soon hunting, doctor. My, dot's fine you kom. Is dis de bride? Ohhhh! Ve yoost say las' night, ve hope maybe ve see her som day. My, soch a pretty lady!" Mrs. Rustad was shining with welcome. "Vell, vell! Ay hope you lak dis country! Von't you stay for dinner, doctor?"
"No, but I wonder if you wouldn't like to give us a glass of milk?" condescended Kennicott.
"Vell Ay should say Ay vill! You vait har a second and Ay run on de milk-house!" She nervously hastened to a tiny red building beside the windmill; she came back with a pitcher of milk from which Carol filled the thermos bottle.
As they drove off Carol admired, "She's the dearest thing I ever saw. And she adores you. You are the Lord of the Manor."
"Oh no," much pleased, "but still they do ask my advice about things. Bully people, these Scandinavian farmers. And prosperous, too. Helga Rustad, she's still scared of America, but her kids will be doctors and lawyers and governors of the state and any darn thing they want to."
"I wonder——" Carol was plunged back into last night's Weltschmerz. "I wonder if these farmers aren't bigger than we are? So simple and hard-working. The town lives on them. We townies are parasites, and yet we feel superior to them. Last night I heard Mr. Haydock talking about 'hicks.' Apparently he despises the farmers because they haven't reached the social heights of selling thread and buttons."
"Parasites? Us? Where'd the farmers be without the town? Who lends them money? Who—why, we supply them with everything!"
"Don't you find that some of the farmers think they pay too much for the services of the towns?"
"Oh, of course there's a lot of cranks among the farmers same as there are among any class. Listen to some of these kickers, a fellow'd think that the farmers ought to run the state and the whole shooting-match—probably if they had their way they'd fill up the legislature with a lot of farmers in manure-covered boots—yes, and they'd come tell me I was hired on a salary now, and couldn't fix my fees! That'd be fine for you, wouldn't it!"
"But why shouldn't they?"
"Why? That bunch of——Telling ME——Oh, for heaven's sake, let's quit arguing. All this discussing may be all right at a party but——Let's forget it while we're hunting."
"I know. The Wonderlust—probably it's a worse affliction than the Wanderlust. I just wonder——"
She told herself that she had everything in the world. And after each self-rebuke she stumbled again on "I just wonder——"
They ate their sandwiches by a prairie slew: long grass reaching up out of clear water, mossy bogs, red-winged black-birds, the scum a splash of gold-green. Kennicott smoked a pipe while she leaned back in the buggy and let her tired spirit be absorbed in the Nirvana of the incomparable sky.
They lurched to the highroad and awoke from their sun-soaked drowse at the sound of the clopping hoofs. They paused to look for partridges in a rim of woods, little woods, very clean and shiny and gay, silver birches and poplars with immaculate green trunks, encircling a lake of sandy bottom, a splashing seclusion demure in the welter of hot prairie.
Kennicott brought down a fat red squirrel and at dusk he had a dramatic shot at a flight of ducks whirling down from the upper air, skimming the lake, instantly vanishing.
They drove home under the sunset. Mounds of straw, and wheat-stacks like bee-hives, stood out in startling rose and gold, and the green-tufted stubble glistened. As the vast girdle of crimson darkened, the fulfilled land became autumnal in deep reds and browns. The black road before the buggy turned to a faint lavender, then was blotted to uncertain grayness. Cattle came in a long line up to the barred gates of the farmyards, and over the resting land was a dark glow.
Carol had found the dignity and greatness which had failed her in Main Street.
Till they had a maid they took noon dinner and six o'clock supper at Mrs. Gurrey's boarding-house.
Mrs. Elisha Gurrey, relict of Deacon Gurrey the dealer in hay and grain, was a pointed-nosed, simpering woman with iron-gray hair drawn so tight that it resembled a soiled handkerchief covering her head. But she was unexpectedly cheerful, and her dining-room, with its thin tablecloth on a long pine table, had the decency of clean bareness.
In the line of unsmiling, methodically chewing guests, like horses at a manger, Carol came to distinguish one countenance: the pale, long, spectacled face and sandy pompadour hair of Mr. Raymond P. Wutherspoon, known as "Raymie," professional bachelor, manager and one half the sales-force in the shoe-department of the Bon Ton Store.
"You will enjoy Gopher Prairie very much, Mrs. Kennicott," petitioned Raymie. His eyes were like those of a dog waiting to be let in out of the cold. He passed the stewed apricots effusively. "There are a great many bright cultured people here. Mrs. Wilks, the Christian Science reader, is a very bright woman—though I am not a Scientist myself, in fact I sing in the Episcopal choir. And Miss Sherwin of the high school—she is such a pleasing, bright girl—I was fitting her to a pair of tan gaiters yesterday, I declare, it really was a pleasure."
"Gimme the butter, Carrie," was Kennicott's comment. She defied him by encouraging Raymie:
"Do you have amateur dramatics and so on here?"
"Oh yes! The town's just full of talent. The Knights of Pythias put on a dandy minstrel show last year."
"It's nice you're so enthusiastic."
"Oh, do you really think so? Lots of folks jolly me for trying to get up shows and so on. I tell them they have more artistic gifts than they know. Just yesterday I was saying to Harry Haydock: if he would read poetry, like Longfellow, or if he would join the band—I get so much pleasure out of playing the cornet, and our band-leader, Del Snafflin, is such a good musician, I often say he ought to give up his barbering and become a professional musician, he could play the clarinet in Minneapolis or New York or anywhere, but—but I couldn't get Harry to see it at all and—I hear you and the doctor went out hunting yesterday. Lovely country, isn't it. And did you make some calls? The mercantile life isn't inspiring like medicine. It must be wonderful to see how patients trust you, doctor."
"Huh. It's me that's got to do all the trusting. Be damn sight more wonderful 'f they'd pay their bills," grumbled Kennicott and, to Carol, he whispered something which sounded like "gentleman hen."
But Raymie's pale eyes were watering at her. She helped him with, "So you like to read poetry?"
"Oh yes, so much—though to tell the truth, I don't get much time for reading, we're always so busy at the store and——But we had the dandiest professional reciter at the Pythian Sisters sociable last winter."
Carol thought she heard a grunt from the traveling salesman at the end of the table, and Kennicott's jerking elbow was a grunt embodied. She persisted:
"Do you get to see many plays, Mr. Wutherspoon?"
He shone at her like a dim blue March moon, and sighed, "No, but I do love the movies. I'm a real fan. One trouble with books is that they're not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you're wasting your time on. What I like in books is a wholesome, really improving story, and sometimes——Why, once I started a novel by this fellow Balzac that you read about, and it told how a lady wasn't living with her husband, I mean she wasn't his wife. It went into details, disgustingly! And the English was real poor. I spoke to the library about it, and they took it off the shelves. I'm not narrow, but I must say I don't see any use in this deliberately dragging in immorality! Life itself is so full of temptations that in literature one wants only that which is pure and uplifting."
"What's the name of that Balzac yarn? Where can I get hold of it?" giggled the traveling salesman.
Raymie ignored him. "But the movies, they are mostly clean, and their humor——Don't you think that the most essential quality for a person to have is a sense of humor?"
"I don't know. I really haven't much," said Carol.
He shook his finger at her. "Now, now, you're too modest. I'm sure we can all see that you have a perfectly corking sense of humor. Besides, Dr. Kennicott wouldn't marry a lady that didn't have. We all know how he loves his fun!"
"You bet. I'm a jokey old bird. Come on, Carrie; let's beat it," remarked Kennicott.
Raymie implored, "And what is your chief artistic interest, Mrs. Kennicott?"
"Oh——" Aware that the traveling salesman had murmured, "Dentistry," she desperately hazarded, "Architecture."
"That's a real nice art. I've always said—when Haydock & Simons were finishing the new front on the Bon Ton building, the old man came to me, you know, Harry's father, 'D. H.,' I always call him, and he asked me how I liked it, and I said to him, 'Look here, D. H.,' I said—you see, he was going to leave the front plain, and I said to him, 'It's all very well to have modern lighting and a big display-space,' I said, 'but when you get that in, you want to have some architecture, too,' I said, and he laughed and said he guessed maybe I was right, and so he had 'em put on a cornice."
"Tin!" observed the traveling salesman.
Raymie bared his teeth like a belligerent mouse. "Well, what if it is tin? That's not my fault. I told D. H. to make it polished granite. You make me tired!"
"Leave us go! Come on, Carrie, leave us go!" from Kennicott.
Raymie waylaid them in the hall and secretly informed Carol that she musn't mind the traveling salesman's coarseness—he belonged to the hwa pollwa.
Kennicott chuckled, "Well, child, how about it? Do you prefer an artistic guy like Raymie to stupid boobs like Sam Clark and me?"
"My dear! Let's go home, and play pinochle, and laugh, and be foolish, and slip up to bed, and sleep without dreaming. It's beautiful to be just a solid citizeness!"
From the Gopher Prairie Weekly Dauntless:
One of the most charming affairs of the season was held Tuesday evening at the handsome new residence of Sam and Mrs. Clark when many of our most prominent citizens gathered to greet the lovely new bride of our popular local physician, Dr. Will Kennicott. All present spoke of the many charms of the bride, formerly Miss Carol Milford of St. Paul. Games and stunts were the order of the day, with merry talk and conversation. At a late hour dainty refreshments were served, and the party broke up with many expressions of pleasure at the pleasant affair. Among those present were Mesdames Kennicott, Elder——
* * * * *
Dr. Will Kennicott, for the past several years one of our most popular and skilful physicians and surgeons, gave the town a delightful surprise when he returned from an extended honeymoon tour in Colorado this week with his charming bride, nee Miss Carol Milford of St. Paul, whose family are socially prominent in Minneapolis and Mankato. Mrs. Kennicott is a lady of manifold charms, not only of striking charm of appearance but is also a distinguished graduate of a school in the East and has for the past year been prominently connected in an important position of responsibility with the St. Paul Public Library, in which city Dr. "Will" had the good fortune to meet her. The city of Gopher Prairie welcomes her to our midst and prophesies for her many happy years in the energetic city of the twin lakes and the future. The Dr. and Mrs. Kennicott will reside for the present at the Doctor's home on Poplar Street which his charming mother has been keeping for him who has now returned to her own home at Lac-qui-Meurt leaving a host of friends who regret her absence and hope to see her soon with us again.
She knew that if she was ever to effect any of the "reforms" which she had pictured, she must have a starting-place. What confused her during the three or four months after her marriage was not lack of perception that she must be definite, but sheer careless happiness of her first home.
In the pride of being a housewife she loved every detail—the brocade armchair with the weak back, even the brass water-cock on the hot-water reservoir, when she had become familiar with it by trying to scour it to brilliance.
She found a maid—plump radiant Bea Sorenson from Scandia Crossing. Bea was droll in her attempt to be at once a respectful servant and a bosom friend. They laughed together over the fact that the stove did not draw, over the slipperiness of fish in the pan.
Like a child playing Grandma in a trailing skirt, Carol paraded uptown for her marketing, crying greetings to housewives along the way. Everybody bowed to her, strangers and all, and made her feel that they wanted her, that she belonged here. In city shops she was merely A Customer—a hat, a voice to bore a harassed clerk. Here she was Mrs. Doc Kennicott, and her preferences in grape-fruit and manners were known and remembered and worth discussing . . . even if they weren't worth fulfilling.
Shopping was a delight of brisk conferences. The very merchants whose droning she found the dullest at the two or three parties which were given to welcome her were the pleasantest confidants of all when they had something to talk about—lemons or cotton voile or floor-oil. With that skip-jack Dave Dyer, the druggist, she conducted a long mock-quarrel. She pretended that he cheated her in the price of magazines and candy; he pretended she was a detective from the Twin Cities. He hid behind the prescription-counter, and when she stamped her foot he came out wailing, "Honest, I haven't done nothing crooked today—not yet."
She never recalled her first impression of Main Street; never had precisely the same despair at its ugliness. By the end of two shopping-tours everything had changed proportions. As she never entered it, the Minniemashie House ceased to exist for her. Clark's Hardware Store, Dyer's Drug Store, the groceries of Ole Jenson and Frederick Ludelmeyer and Howland & Gould, the meat markets, the notions shop—they expanded, and hid all other structures. When she entered Mr. Ludelmeyer's store and he wheezed, "Goot mornin', Mrs. Kennicott. Vell, dis iss a fine day," she did not notice the dustiness of the shelves nor the stupidity of the girl clerk; and she did not remember the mute colloquy with him on her first view of Main Street.
She could not find half the kinds of food she wanted, but that made shopping more of an adventure. When she did contrive to get sweetbreads at Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market the triumph was so vast that she buzzed with excitement and admired the strong wise butcher, Mr. Dahl.
She appreciated the homely ease of village life. She liked the old men, farmers, G.A.R. veterans, who when they gossiped sometimes squatted on their heels on the sidewalk, like resting Indians, and reflectively spat over the curb.
She found beauty in the children.
She had suspected that her married friends exaggerated their passion for children. But in her work in the library, children had become individuals to her, citizens of the State with their own rights and their own senses of humor. In the library she had not had much time to give them, but now she knew the luxury of stopping, gravely asking Bessie Clark whether her doll had yet recovered from its rheumatism, and agreeing with Oscar Martinsen that it would be Good Fun to go trapping "mushrats."
She touched the thought, "It would be sweet to have a baby of my own. I do want one. Tiny——No! Not yet! There's so much to do. And I'm still tired from the job. It's in my bones."
She rested at home. She listened to the village noises common to all the world, jungle or prairie; sounds simple and charged with magic—dogs barking, chickens making a gurgling sound of content, children at play, a man beating a rug, wind in the cottonwood trees, a locust fiddling, a footstep on the walk, jaunty voices of Bea and a grocer's boy in the kitchen, a clinking anvil, a piano—not too near.
Twice a week, at least, she drove into the country with Kennicott, to hunt ducks in lakes enameled with sunset, or to call on patients who looked up to her as the squire's lady and thanked her for toys and magazines. Evenings she went with her husband to the motion pictures and was boisterously greeted by every other couple; or, till it became too cold, they sat on the porch, bawling to passers-by in motors, or to neighbors who were raking the leaves. The dust became golden in the low sun; the street was filled with the fragrance of burning leaves.
But she hazily wanted some one to whom she could say what she thought.
On a slow afternoon when she fidgeted over sewing and wished that the telephone would ring, Bea announced Miss Vida Sherwin.
Despite Vida Sherwin's lively blue eyes, if you had looked at her in detail you would have found her face slightly lined, and not so much sallow as with the bloom rubbed off; you would have found her chest flat, and her fingers rough from needle and chalk and penholder; her blouses and plain cloth skirts undistinguished; and her hat worn too far back, betraying a dry forehead. But you never did look at Vida Sherwin in detail. You couldn't. Her electric activity veiled her. She was as energetic as a chipmunk. Her fingers fluttered; her sympathy came out in spurts; she sat on the edge of a chair in eagerness to be near her auditor, to send her enthusiasms and optimism across.
She rushed into the room pouring out: "I'm afraid you'll think the teachers have been shabby in not coming near you, but we wanted to give you a chance to get settled. I am Vida Sherwin, and I try to teach French and English and a few other things in the high school."
"I've been hoping to know the teachers. You see, I was a librarian——"
"Oh, you needn't tell me. I know all about you! Awful how much I know—this gossipy village. We need you so much here. It's a dear loyal town (and isn't loyalty the finest thing in the world!) but it's a rough diamond, and we need you for the polishing, and we're ever so humble——" She stopped for breath and finished her compliment with a smile.
"If I COULD help you in any way——Would I be committing the unpardonable sin if I whispered that I think Gopher Prairie is a tiny bit ugly?"
"Of course it's ugly. Dreadfully! Though I'm probably the only person in town to whom you could safely say that. (Except perhaps Guy Pollock the lawyer—have you met him?—oh, you MUST!—he's simply a darling—intelligence and culture and so gentle.) But I don't care so much about the ugliness. That will change. It's the spirit that gives me hope. It's sound. Wholesome. But afraid. It needs live creatures like you to awaken it. I shall slave-drive you!"
"Splendid. What shall I do? I've been wondering if it would be possible to have a good architect come here to lecture."
"Ye-es, but don't you think it would be better to work with existing agencies? Perhaps it will sound slow to you, but I was thinking——It would be lovely if we could get you to teach Sunday School."
Carol had the empty expression of one who finds that she has been affectionately bowing to a complete stranger. "Oh yes. But I'm afraid I wouldn't be much good at that. My religion is so foggy."
"I know. So is mine. I don't care a bit for dogma. Though I do stick firmly to the belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and the leadership of Jesus. As you do, of course."
Carol looked respectable and thought about having tea.
"And that's all you need teach in Sunday School. It's the personal influence. Then there's the library-board. You'd be so useful on that. And of course there's our women's study club—the Thanatopsis Club."
"Are they doing anything? Or do they read papers made out of the Encyclopedia?"
Miss Sherwin shrugged. "Perhaps. But still, they are so earnest. They will respond to your fresher interest. And the Thanatopsis does do a good social work—they've made the city plant ever so many trees, and they run the rest-room for farmers' wives. And they do take such an interest in refinement and culture. So—in fact, so very unique."
Carol was disappointed—by nothing very tangible. She said politely, "I'll think them all over. I must have a while to look around first."
Miss Sherwin darted to her, smoothed her hair, peered at her. "Oh, my dear, don't you suppose I know? These first tender days of marriage—they're sacred to me. Home, and children that need you, and depend on you to keep them alive, and turn to you with their wrinkly little smiles. And the hearth and——" She hid her face from Carol as she made an activity of patting the cushion of her chair, but she went on with her former briskness:
"I mean, you must help us when you're ready. . . . I'm afraid you'll think I'm conservative. I am! So much to conserve. All this treasure of American ideals. Sturdiness and democracy and opportunity. Maybe not at Palm Beach. But, thank heaven, we're free from such social distinctions in Gopher Prairie. I have only one good quality—overwhelming belief in the brains and hearts of our nation, our state, our town. It's so strong that sometimes I do have a tiny effect on the haughty ten-thousandaires. I shake 'em up and make 'em believe in ideals—yes, in themselves. But I get into a rut of teaching. I need young critical things like you to punch me up. Tell me, what are you reading?"
"I've been re-reading 'The Damnation of Theron Ware.' Do you know it?"
"Yes. It was clever. But hard. Man wanted to tear down, not build up. Cynical. Oh, I do hope I'm not a sentimentalist. But I can't see any use in this high-art stuff that doesn't encourage us day-laborers to plod on."
Ensued a fifteen-minute argument about the oldest topic in the world: It's art but is it pretty? Carol tried to be eloquent regarding honesty of observation. Miss Sherwin stood out for sweetness and a cautious use of the uncomfortable properties of light. At the end Carol cried:
"I don't care how much we disagree. It's a relief to have somebody talk something besides crops. Let's make Gopher Prairie rock to its foundations: let's have afternoon tea instead of afternoon coffee."
The delighted Bea helped her bring out the ancestral folding sewing-table, whose yellow and black top was scarred with dotted lines from a dressmaker's tracing-wheel, and to set it with an embroidered lunch-cloth, and the mauve-glazed Japanese tea-set which she had brought from St. Paul. Miss Sherwin confided her latest scheme—moral motion pictures for country districts, with light from a portable dynamo hitched to a Ford engine. Bea was twice called to fill the hot-water pitcher and to make cinnamon toast.
When Kennicott came home at five he tried to be courtly, as befits the husband of one who has afternoon tea. Carol suggested that Miss Sherwin stay for supper, and that Kennicott invite Guy Pollock, the much-praised lawyer, the poetic bachelor.
Yes, Pollock could come. Yes, he was over the grippe which had prevented his going to Sam Clark's party.
Carol regretted her impulse. The man would be an opinionated politician, heavily jocular about The Bride. But at the entrance of Guy Pollock she discovered a personality. Pollock was a man of perhaps thirty-eight, slender, still, deferential. His voice was low. "It was very good of you to want me," he said, and he offered no humorous remarks, and did not ask her if she didn't think Gopher Prairie was "the livest little burg in the state."
She fancied that his even grayness might reveal a thousand tints of lavender and blue and silver.
At supper he hinted his love for Sir Thomas Browne, Thoreau, Agnes Repplier, Arthur Symons, Claude Washburn, Charles Flandrau. He presented his idols diffidently, but he expanded in Carol's bookishness, in Miss Sherwin's voluminous praise, in Kennicott's tolerance of any one who amused his wife.
Carol wondered why Guy Pollock went on digging at routine law-cases; why he remained in Gopher Prairie. She had no one whom she could ask. Neither Kennicott nor Vida Sherwin would understand that there might be reasons why a Pollock should not remain in Gopher Prairie. She enjoyed the faint mystery. She felt triumphant and rather literary. She already had a Group. It would be only a while now before she provided the town with fanlights and a knowledge of Galsworthy. She was doing things! As she served the emergency dessert of cocoanut and sliced oranges, she cried to Pollock, "Don't you think we ought to get up a dramatic club?"
WHEN the first dubious November snow had filtered down, shading with white the bare clods in the plowed fields, when the first small fire had been started in the furnace, which is the shrine of a Gopher Prairie home, Carol began to make the house her own. She dismissed the parlor furniture—the golden oak table with brass knobs, the moldy brocade chairs, the picture of "The Doctor." She went to Minneapolis, to scamper through department stores and small Tenth Street shops devoted to ceramics and high thought. She had to ship her treasures, but she wanted to bring them back in her arms.
Carpenters had torn out the partition between front parlor and back parlor, thrown it into a long room on which she lavished yellow and deep blue; a Japanese obi with an intricacy of gold thread on stiff ultramarine tissue, which she hung as a panel against the maize wall; a couch with pillows of sapphire velvet and gold bands; chairs which, in Gopher Prairie, seemed flippant. She hid the sacred family phonograph in the dining-room, and replaced its stand with a square cabinet on which was a squat blue jar between yellow candles.
Kennicott decided against a fireplace. "We'll have a new house in a couple of years, anyway."
She decorated only one room. The rest, Kennicott hinted, she'd better leave till he "made a ten-strike."
The brown cube of a house stirred and awakened; it seemed to be in motion; it welcomed her back from shopping; it lost its mildewed repression.
The supreme verdict was Kennicott's "Well, by golly, I was afraid the new junk wouldn't be so comfortable, but I must say this divan, or whatever you call it, is a lot better than that bumpy old sofa we had, and when I look around——Well, it's worth all it cost, I guess."
Every one in town took an interest in the refurnishing. The carpenters and painters who did not actually assist crossed the lawn to peer through the windows and exclaim, "Fine! Looks swell!" Dave Dyer at the drug store, Harry Haydock and Raymie Wutherspoon at the Bon Ton, repeated daily, "How's the good work coming? I hear the house is getting to be real classy."
Even Mrs. Bogart.
Mrs. Bogart lived across the alley from the rear of Carol's house. She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.
Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, damp, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in every large chicken-yard a number of old and indignant hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.
Carol had noted that Mrs. Bogart from her side window kept an eye upon the house. The Kennicotts and Mrs. Bogart did not move in the same sets—which meant precisely the same in Gopher Prairie as it did on Fifth Avenue or in Mayfair. But the good widow came calling.
She wheezed in, sighed, gave Carol a pulpy hand, sighed, glanced sharply at the revelation of ankles as Carol crossed her legs, sighed, inspected the new blue chairs, smiled with a coy sighing sound, and gave voice:
"I've wanted to call on you so long, dearie, you know we're neighbors, but I thought I'd wait till you got settled, you must run in and see me, how much did that big chair cost?"
"Sev——Sakes alive! Well, I suppose it's all right for them that can afford it, though I do sometimes think——Of course as our pastor said once, at Baptist Church——By the way, we haven't seen you there yet, and of course your husband was raised up a Baptist, and I do hope he won't drift away from the fold, of course we all know there isn't anything, not cleverness or gifts of gold or anything, that can make up for humility and the inward grace and they can say what they want to about the P. E. church, but of course there's no church that has more history or has stayed by the true principles of Christianity better than the Baptist Church and——In what church were you raised, Mrs. Kennicott?"
"W-why, I went to Congregational, as a girl in Mankato, but my college was Universalist."
"Well——But of course as the Bible says, is it the Bible, at least I know I have heard it in church and everybody admits it, it's proper for the little bride to take her husband's vessel of faith, so we all hope we shall see you at the Baptist Church and——As I was saying, of course I agree with Reverend Zitterel in thinking that the great trouble with this nation today is lack of spiritual faith—so few going to church, and people automobiling on Sunday and heaven knows what all. But still I do think that one trouble is this terrible waste of money, people feeling that they've got to have bath-tubs and telephones in their houses——I heard you were selling the old furniture cheap."
"Well—of course you know your own mind, but I can't help thinking, when Will's ma was down here keeping house for him—SHE used to run in to SEE me, real OFTEN!—it was good enough furniture for her. But there, there, I mustn't croak, I just wanted to let you know that when you find you can't depend on a lot of these gadding young folks like the Haydocks and the Dyers—and heaven only knows how much money Juanita Haydock blows in in a year—why then you may be glad to know that slow old Aunty Bogart is always right there, and heaven knows——" A portentous sigh. "—I HOPE you and your husband won't have any of the troubles, with sickness and quarreling and wasting money and all that so many of these young couples do have and——But I must be running along now, dearie. It's been such a pleasure and——Just run in and see me any time. I hope Will is well? I thought he looked a wee mite peaked."
It was twenty minutes later when Mrs. Bogart finally oozed out of the front door. Carol ran back into the living-room and jerked open the windows. "That woman has left damp finger-prints in the air," she said.
Carol was extravagant, but at least she did not try to clear herself of blame by going about whimpering, "I know I'm terribly extravagant but I don't seem to be able to help it."
Kennicott had never thought of giving her an allowance. His mother had never had one! As a wage-earning spinster Carol had asserted to her fellow librarians that when she was married, she was going to have an allowance and be business-like and modern. But it was too much trouble to explain to Kennicott's kindly stubbornness that she was a practical housekeeper as well as a flighty playmate. She bought a budget-plan account book and made her budgets as exact as budgets are likely to be when they lack budgets.
For the first month it was a honeymoon jest to beg prettily, to confess, "I haven't a cent in the house, dear," and to be told, "You're an extravagant little rabbit." But the budget book made her realize how inexact were her finances. She became self-conscious; occasionally she was indignant that she should always have to petition him for the money with which to buy his food. She caught herself criticizing his belief that, since his joke about trying to keep her out of the poorhouse had once been accepted as admirable humor, it should continue to be his daily bon mot. It was a nuisance to have to run down the street after him because she had forgotten to ask him for money at breakfast.
But she couldn't "hurt his feelings," she reflected. He liked the lordliness of giving largess.
She tried to reduce the frequency of begging by opening accounts and having the bills sent to him. She had found that staple groceries, sugar, flour, could be most cheaply purchased at Axel Egge's rustic general store. She said sweetly to Axel:
"I think I'd better open a charge account here."
"I don't do no business except for cash," grunted Axel.
She flared, "Do you know who I am?"
"Yuh, sure, I know. The doc is good for it. But that's yoost a rule I made. I make low prices. I do business for cash."
She stared at his red impassive face, and her fingers had the undignified desire to slap him, but her reason agreed with him. "You're quite right. You shouldn't break your rule for me."
Her rage had not been lost. It had been transferred to her husband. She wanted ten pounds of sugar in a hurry, but she had no money. She ran up the stairs to Kennicott's office. On the door was a sign advertising a headache cure and stating, "The doctor is out, back at——" Naturally, the blank space was not filled out. She stamped her foot. She ran down to the drug store—the doctor's club.
As she entered she heard Mrs. Dyer demanding, "Dave, I've got to have some money."
Carol saw that her husband was there, and two other men, all listening in amusement.
Dave Dyer snapped, "How much do you want? Dollar be enough?"
"No, it won't! I've got to get some underclothes for the kids."
"Why, good Lord, they got enough now to fill the closet so I couldn't find my hunting boots, last time I wanted them."
"I don't care. They're all in rags. You got to give me ten dollars——"
Carol perceived that Mrs. Dyer was accustomed to this indignity. She perceived that the men, particularly Dave, regarded it as an excellent jest. She waited—she knew what would come—it did. Dave yelped, "Where's that ten dollars I gave you last year?" and he looked to the other men to laugh. They laughed.
Cold and still, Carol walked up to Kennicott and commanded, "I want to see you upstairs."
"Why—something the matter?"
He clumped after her, up the stairs, into his barren office. Before he could get out a query she stated:
"Yesterday, in front of a saloon, I heard a German farm-wife beg her husband for a quarter, to get a toy for the baby—and he refused. Just now I've heard Mrs. Dyer going through the same humiliation. And I—I'm in the same position! I have to beg you for money. Daily! I have just been informed that I couldn't have any sugar because I hadn't the money to pay for it!"
"Who said that? By God, I'll kill any——"
"Tut. It wasn't his fault. It was yours. And mine. I now humbly beg you to give me the money with which to buy meals for you to eat. And hereafter to remember it. The next time, I sha'n't beg. I shall simply starve. Do you understand? I can't go on being a slave——"
Her defiance, her enjoyment of the role, ran out. She was sobbing against his overcoat, "How can you shame me so?" and he was blubbering, "Dog-gone it, I meant to give you some, and I forgot it. I swear I won't again. By golly I won't!"
He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly . . . sometimes.
Daily she determined, "But I must have a stated amount—be business-like. System. I must do something about it." And daily she didn't do anything about it.
Mrs. Bogart had, by the simpering viciousness of her comments on the new furniture, stirred Carol to economy. She spoke judiciously to Bea about left-overs. She read the cookbook again and, like a child with a picture-book, she studied the diagram of the beef which gallantly continues to browse though it is divided into cuts.
But she was a deliberate and joyous spendthrift in her preparations for her first party, the housewarming. She made lists on every envelope and laundry-slip in her desk. She sent orders to Minneapolis "fancy grocers." She pinned patterns and sewed. She was irritated when Kennicott was jocular about "these frightful big doings that are going on." She regarded the affair as an attack on Gopher Prairie's timidity in pleasure. "I'll make 'em lively, if nothing else. I'll make 'em stop regarding parties as committee-meetings."
Kennicott usually considered himself the master of the house. At his desire, she went hunting, which was his symbol of happiness, and she ordered porridge for breakfast, which was his symbol of morality. But when he came home on the afternoon before the housewarming he found himself a slave, an intruder, a blunderer. Carol wailed, "Fix the furnace so you won't have to touch it after supper. And for heaven's sake take that horrible old door-mat off the porch. And put on your nice brown and white shirt. Why did you come home so late? Would you mind hurrying? Here it is almost suppertime, and those fiends are just as likely as not to come at seven instead of eight. PLEASE hurry!"
She was as unreasonable as an amateur leading woman on a first night, and he was reduced to humility. When she came down to supper, when she stood in the doorway, he gasped. She was in a silver sheath, the calyx of a lily, her piled hair like black glass; she had the fragility and costliness of a Viennese goblet; and her eyes were intense. He was stirred to rise from the table and to hold the chair for her; and all through supper he ate his bread dry because he felt that she would think him common if he said "Will you hand me the butter?"
She had reached the calmness of not caring whether her guests liked the party or not, and a state of satisfied suspense in regard to Bea's technique in serving, before Kennicott cried from the bay-window in the living-room, "Here comes somebody!" and Mr. and Mrs. Luke Dawson faltered in, at a quarter to eight. Then in a shy avalanche arrived the entire aristocracy of Gopher Prairie: all persons engaged in a profession, or earning more than twenty-five hundred dollars a year, or possessed of grandparents born in America.
Even while they were removing their overshoes they were peeping at the new decorations. Carol saw Dave Dyer secretively turn over the gold pillows to find a price-tag, and heard Mr. Julius Flickerbaugh, the attorney, gasp, "Well, I'll be switched," as he viewed the vermilion print hanging against the Japanese obi. She was amused. But her high spirits slackened as she beheld them form in dress parade, in a long, silent, uneasy circle clear round the living-room. She felt that she had been magically whisked back to her first party, at Sam Clark's.
"Have I got to lift them, like so many pigs of iron? I don't know that I can make them happy, but I'll make them hectic."
A silver flame in the darkling circle, she whirled around, drew them with her smile, and sang, "I want my party to be noisy and undignified! This is the christening of my house, and I want you to help me have a bad influence on it, so that it will be a giddy house. For me, won't you all join in an old-fashioned square dance? And Mr. Dyer will call."
She had a record on the phonograph; Dave Dyer was capering in the center of the floor, loose-jointed, lean, small, rusty headed, pointed of nose, clapping his hands and shouting, "Swing y' pardners—alamun lef!"
Even the millionaire Dawsons and Ezra Stowbody and "Professor" George Edwin Mott danced, looking only slightly foolish; and by rushing about the room and being coy and coaxing to all persons over forty-five, Carol got them into a waltz and a Virginia Reel. But when she left them to disenjoy themselves in their own way Harry Haydock put a one-step record on the phonograph, the younger people took the floor, and all the elders sneaked back to their chairs, with crystallized smiles which meant, "Don't believe I'll try this one myself, but I do enjoy watching the youngsters dance."
Half of them were silent; half resumed the discussions of that afternoon in the store. Ezra Stowbody hunted for something to say, hid a yawn, and offered to Lyman Cass, the owner of the flour-mill, "How d' you folks like the new furnace, Lym? Huh? So."
"Oh, let them alone. Don't pester them. They must like it, or they wouldn't do it." Carol warned herself. But they gazed at her so expectantly when she flickered past that she was reconvinced that in their debauches of respectability they had lost the power of play as well as the power of impersonal thought. Even the dancers were gradually crushed by the invisible force of fifty perfectly pure and well-behaved and negative minds; and they sat down, two by two. In twenty minutes the party was again elevated to the decorum of a prayer-meeting.
"We're going to do something exciting," Carol exclaimed to her new confidante, Vida Sherwin. She saw that in the growing quiet her voice had carried across the room. Nat Hicks, Ella Stowbody, and Dave Dyer were abstracted, fingers and lips slightly moving. She knew with a cold certainty that Dave was rehearsing his "stunt" about the Norwegian catching the hen, Ella running over the first lines of "An Old Sweetheart of Mine," and Nat thinking of his popular parody on Mark Antony's oration.
"But I will not have anybody use the word 'stunt' in my house," she whispered to Miss Sherwin.
"That's good. I tell you: why not have Raymond Wutherspoon sing?"
"Raymie? Why, my dear, he's the most sentimental yearner in town!"
"See here, child! Your opinions on house-decorating are sound, but your opinions of people are rotten! Raymie does wag his tail. But the poor dear——Longing for what he calls 'self-expression' and no training in anything except selling shoes. But he can sing. And some day when he gets away from Harry Haydock's patronage and ridicule, he'll do something fine."
Carol apologized for her superciliousness. She urged Raymie, and warned the planners of "stunts," "We all want you to sing, Mr. Wutherspoon. You're the only famous actor I'm going to let appear on the stage tonight."
While Raymie blushed and admitted, "Oh, they don't want to hear me," he was clearing his throat, pulling his clean handkerchief farther out of his breast pocket, and thrusting his fingers between the buttons of his vest.
In her affection for Raymie's defender, in her desire to "discover artistic talent," Carol prepared to be delighted by the recital.
Raymie sang "Fly as a Bird," "Thou Art My Dove," and "When the Little Swallow Leaves Its Tiny Nest," all in a reasonably bad offertory tenor.
Carol was shuddering with the vicarious shame which sensitive people feel when they listen to an "elocutionist" being humorous, or to a precocious child publicly doing badly what no child should do at all. She wanted to laugh at the gratified importance in Raymie's half-shut eyes; she wanted to weep over the meek ambitiousness which clouded like an aura his pale face, flap ears, and sandy pompadour. She tried to look admiring, for the benefit of Miss Sherwin, that trusting admirer of all that was or conceivably could be the good, the true, and the beautiful.
At the end of the third ornithological lyric Miss Sherwin roused from her attitude of inspired vision and breathed to Carol, "My! That was sweet! Of course Raymond hasn't an unusually good voice, but don't you think he puts such a lot of feeling into it?"
Carol lied blackly and magnificently, but without originality: "Oh yes, I do think he has so much FEELING!"
She saw that after the strain of listening in a cultured manner the audience had collapsed; had given up their last hope of being amused. She cried, "Now we're going to play an idiotic game which I learned in Chicago. You will have to take off your shoes, for a starter! After that you will probably break your knees and shoulder-blades."
Much attention and incredulity. A few eyebrows indicating a verdict that Doc Kennicott's bride was noisy and improper.
"I shall choose the most vicious, like Juanita Haydock and myself, as the shepherds. The rest of you are wolves. Your shoes are the sheep. The wolves go out into the hall. The shepherds scatter the sheep through this room, then turn off all the lights, and the wolves crawl in from the hall and in the darkness they try to get the shoes away from the shepherds—who are permitted to do anything except bite and use black-jacks. The wolves chuck the captured shoes out into the hall. No one excused! Come on! Shoes off!"
Every one looked at every one else and waited for every one else to begin.
Carol kicked off her silver slippers, and ignored the universal glance at her arches. The embarrassed but loyal Vida Sherwin unbuttoned her high black shoes. Ezra Stowbody cackled, "Well, you're a terror to old folks. You're like the gals I used to go horseback-riding with, back in the sixties. Ain't much accustomed to attending parties barefoot, but here goes!" With a whoop and a gallant jerk Ezra snatched off his elastic-sided Congress shoes.
The others giggled and followed.
When the sheep had been penned up, in the darkness the timorous wolves crept into the living-room, squealing, halting, thrown out of their habit of stolidity by the strangeness of advancing through nothingness toward a waiting foe, a mysterious foe which expanded and grew more menacing. The wolves peered to make out landmarks, they touched gliding arms which did not seem to be attached to a body, they quivered with a rapture of fear. Reality had vanished. A yelping squabble suddenly rose, then Juanita Haydock's high titter, and Guy Pollock's astonished, "Ouch! Quit! You're scalping me!"
Mrs. Luke Dawson galloped backward on stiff hands and knees into the safety of the lighted hallway, moaning, "I declare, I nev' was so upset in my life!" But the propriety was shaken out of her, and she delightedly continued to ejaculate "Nev' in my LIFE" as she saw the living-room door opened by invisible hands and shoes hurling through it, as she heard from the darkness beyond the door a squawling, a bumping, a resolute "Here's a lot of shoes. Come on, you wolves. Ow! Y' would, would you!"
When Carol abruptly turned on the lights in the embattled living-room, half of the company were sitting back against the walls, where they had craftily remained throughout the engagement, but in the middle of the floor Kennicott was wrestling with Harry Haydock—their collars torn off, their hair in their eyes; and the owlish Mr. Julius Flickerbaugh was retreating from Juanita Haydock, and gulping with unaccustomed laughter. Guy Pollock's discreet brown scarf hung down his back. Young Rita Simons's net blouse had lost two buttons, and betrayed more of her delicious plump shoulder than was regarded as pure in Gopher Prairie. Whether by shock, disgust, joy of combat, or physical activity, all the party were freed from their years of social decorum. George Edwin Mott giggled; Luke Dawson twisted his beard; Mrs. Clark insisted, "I did too, Sam—I got a shoe—I never knew I could fight so terrible!"
Carol was certain that she was a great reformer.
She mercifully had combs, mirrors, brushes, needle and thread ready. She permitted them to restore the divine decency of buttons.
The grinning Bea brought down-stairs a pile of soft thick sheets of paper with designs of lotos blossoms, dragons, apes, in cobalt and crimson and gray, and patterns of purple birds flying among sea-green trees in the valleys of Nowhere.
"These," Carol announced, "are real Chinese masquerade costumes. I got them from an importing shop in Minneapolis. You are to put them on over your clothes, and please forget that you are Minnesotans, and turn into mandarins and coolies and—and samurai (isn't it?), and anything else you can think of."
While they were shyly rustling the paper costumes she disappeared. Ten minutes after she gazed down from the stairs upon grotesquely ruddy Yankee heads above Oriental robes, and cried to them, "The Princess Winky Poo salutes her court!"
As they looked up she caught their suspense of admiration. They saw an airy figure in trousers and coat of green brocade edged with gold; a high gold collar under a proud chin; black hair pierced with jade pins; a languid peacock fan in an out-stretched hand; eyes uplifted to a vision of pagoda towers. When she dropped her pose and smiled down she discovered Kennicott apoplectic with domestic pride—and gray Guy Pollock staring beseechingly. For a second she saw nothing in all the pink and brown mass of their faces save the hunger of the two men.
She shook off the spell and ran down. "We're going to have a real Chinese concert. Messrs. Pollock, Kennicott, and, well, Stowbody are drummers; the rest of us sing and play the fife."
The fifes were combs with tissue paper; the drums were tabourets and the sewing-table. Loren Wheeler, editor of the Dauntless, led the orchestra, with a ruler and a totally inaccurate sense of rhythm. The music was a reminiscence of tom-toms heard at circus fortune-telling tents or at the Minnesota State Fair, but the whole company pounded and puffed and whined in a sing-song, and looked rapturous.
Before they were quite tired of the concert Carol led them in a dancing procession to the dining-room, to blue bowls of chow mein, with Lichee nuts and ginger preserved in syrup.
None of them save that city-rounder Harry Haydock had heard of any Chinese dish except chop sooey. With agreeable doubt they ventured through the bamboo shoots into the golden fried noodles of the chow mein; and Dave Dyer did a not very humorous Chinese dance with Nat Hicks; and there was hubbub and contentment.
Carol relaxed, and found that she was shockingly tired. She had carried them on her thin shoulders. She could not keep it up. She longed for her father, that artist at creating hysterical parties. She thought of smoking a cigarette, to shock them, and dismissed the obscene thought before it was quite formed. She wondered whether they could for five minutes be coaxed to talk about something besides the winter top of Knute Stamquist's Ford, and what Al Tingley had said about his mother-in-law. She sighed, "Oh, let 'em alone. I've done enough." She crossed her trousered legs, and snuggled luxuriously above her saucer of ginger; she caught Pollock's congratulatory still smile, and thought well of herself for having thrown a rose light on the pallid lawyer; repented the heretical supposition that any male save her husband existed; jumped up to find Kennicott and whisper, "Happy, my lord? . . . No, it didn't cost much!"
"Best party this town ever saw. Only——Don't cross your legs in that costume. Shows your knees too plain."
She was vexed. She resented his clumsiness. She returned to Guy Pollock and talked of Chinese religions—not that she knew anything whatever about Chinese religions, but he had read a book on the subject as, on lonely evenings in his office, he had read at least one book on every subject in the world. Guy's thin maturity was changing in her vision to flushed youth and they were roaming an island in the yellow sea of chatter when she realized that the guests were beginning that cough which indicated, in the universal instinctive language, that they desired to go home and go to bed.
While they asserted that it had been "the nicest party they'd ever seen—my! so clever and original," she smiled tremendously, shook hands, and cried many suitable things regarding children, and being sure to wrap up warmly, and Raymie's singing and Juanita Haydock's prowess at games. Then she turned wearily to Kennicott in a house filled with quiet and crumbs and shreds of Chinese costumes.
He was gurgling, "I tell you, Carrie, you certainly are a wonder, and guess you're right about waking folks up. Now you've showed 'em how, they won't go on having the same old kind of parties and stunts and everything. Here! Don't touch a thing! Done enough. Pop up to bed, and I'll clear up."
His wise surgeon's-hands stroked her shoulder, and her irritation at his clumsiness was lost in his strength.
From the Weekly Dauntless:
One of the most delightful social events of recent months was held Wednesday evening in the housewarming of Dr. and Mrs. Kennicott, who have completely redecorated their charming home on Poplar Street, and is now extremely nifty in modern color scheme. The doctor and his bride were at home to their numerous friends and a number of novelties in diversions were held, including a Chinese orchestra in original and genuine Oriental costumes, of which Ye Editor was leader. Dainty refreshments were served in true Oriental style, and one and all voted a delightful time.
The week after, the Chet Dashaways gave a party. The circle of mourners kept its place all evening, and Dave Dyer did the "stunt" of the Norwegian and the hen.
GOPHER PRAIRIE was digging in for the winter. Through late November and all December it snowed daily; the thermometer was at zero and might drop to twenty below, or thirty. Winter is not a season in the North Middlewest; it is an industry. Storm sheds were erected at every door. In every block the householders, Sam Clark, the wealthy Mr. Dawson, all save asthmatic Ezra Stowbody who extravagantly hired a boy, were seen perilously staggering up ladders, carrying storm windows and screwing them to second-story jambs. While Kennicott put up his windows Carol danced inside the bedrooms and begged him not to swallow the screws, which he held in his mouth like an extraordinary set of external false teeth.
The universal sign of winter was the town handyman—Miles Bjornstam, a tall, thick, red-mustached bachelor, opinionated atheist, general-store arguer, cynical Santa Claus. Children loved him, and he sneaked away from work to tell them improbable stories of sea-faring and horse-trading and bears. The children's parents either laughed at him or hated him. He was the one democrat in town. He called both Lyman Cass the miller and the Finn homesteader from Lost Lake by their first names. He was known as "The Red Swede," and considered slightly insane.
Bjornstam could do anything with his hands—solder a pan, weld an automobile spring, soothe a frightened filly, tinker a clock, carve a Gloucester schooner which magically went into a bottle. Now, for a week, he was commissioner general of Gopher Prairie. He was the only person besides the repairman at Sam Clark's who understood plumbing. Everybody begged him to look over the furnace and the water-pipes. He rushed from house to house till after bedtime—ten o'clock. Icicles from burst water-pipes hung along the skirt of his brown dog-skin overcoat; his plush cap, which he never took off in the house, was a pulp of ice and coal-dust; his red hands were cracked to rawness; he chewed the stub of a cigar.
But he was courtly to Carol. He stooped to examine the furnace flues; he straightened, glanced down at her, and hemmed, "Got to fix your furnace, no matter what else I do."
The poorer houses of Gopher Prairie, where the services of Miles Bjornstam were a luxury—which included the shanty of Miles Bjornstam—were banked to the lower windows with earth and manure. Along the railroad the sections of snow fence, which had been stacked all summer in romantic wooden tents occupied by roving small boys, were set up to prevent drifts from covering the track.
The farmers came into town in home-made sleighs, with bed-quilts and hay piled in the rough boxes.
Fur coats, fur caps, fur mittens, overshoes buckling almost to the knees, gray knitted scarfs ten feet long, thick woolen socks, canvas jackets lined with fluffy yellow wool like the plumage of ducklings, moccasins, red flannel wristlets for the blazing chapped wrists of boys—these protections against winter were busily dug out of moth-ball-sprinkled drawers and tar-bags in closets, and all over town small boys were squealing, "Oh, there's my mittens!" or "Look at my shoe-packs!" There is so sharp a division between the panting summer and the stinging winter of the Northern plains that they rediscovered with surprise and a feeling of heroism this armor of an Artic explorer.
Winter garments surpassed even personal gossip as the topic at parties. It was good form to ask, "Put on your heavies yet?" There were as many distinctions in wraps as in motor cars. The lesser sort appeared in yellow and black dogskin coats, but Kennicott was lordly in a long raccoon ulster and a new seal cap. When the snow was too deep for his motor he went off on country calls in a shiny, floral, steel-tipped cutter, only his ruddy nose and his cigar emerging from the fur.
Carol herself stirred Main Street by a loose coat of nutria. Her finger-tips loved the silken fur.
Her liveliest activity now was organizing outdoor sports in the motor-paralyzed town.
The automobile and bridge-whist had not only made more evident the social divisions in Gopher Prairie but they had also enfeebled the love of activity. It was so rich-looking to sit and drive—and so easy. Skiing and sliding were "stupid" and "old-fashioned." In fact, the village longed for the elegance of city recreations almost as much as the cities longed for village sports; and Gopher Prairie took as much pride in neglecting coasting as St. Paul—or New York—in going coasting. Carol did inspire a successful skating-party in mid-November. Plover Lake glistened in clear sweeps of gray-green ice, ringing to the skates. On shore the ice-tipped reeds clattered in the wind, and oak twigs with stubborn last leaves hung against a milky sky. Harry Haydock did figure-eights, and Carol was certain that she had found the perfect life. But when snow had ended the skating and she tried to get up a moonlight sliding party, the matrons hesitated to stir away from their radiators and their daily bridge-whist imitations of the city. She had to nag them. They scooted down a long hill on a bob-sled, they upset and got snow down their necks they shrieked that they would do it again immediately—and they did not do it again at all.
She badgered another group into going skiing. They shouted and threw snowballs, and informed her that it was SUCH fun, and they'd have another skiing expedition right away, and they jollily returned home and never thereafter left their manuals of bridge.