"Well——Of course I'm not one of the bunch that seem to have the time to take and run the club, and if they prefer to have papers on literature by other ladies who have no literary training—after all, why should I complain? What am I but a city employee!"
"You're not! You're the one person that does—that does—oh, you do so much. Tell me, is there, uh——Who are the people who control the club?"
Miss Villets emphatically stamped a date in the front of "Frank on the Lower Mississippi" for a small flaxen boy, glowered at him as though she were stamping a warning on his brain, and sighed:
"I wouldn't put myself forward or criticize any one for the world, and Vida is one of my best friends, and such a splendid teacher, and there is no one in town more advanced and interested in all movements, but I must say that no matter who the president or the committees are, Vida Sherwin seems to be behind them all the time, and though she is always telling me about what she is pleased to call my 'fine work in the library,' I notice that I'm not often called on for papers, though Mrs. Lyman Cass once volunteered and told me that she thought my paper on 'The Cathedrals of England' was the most interesting paper we had, the year we took up English and French travel and architecture. But——And of course Mrs. Mott and Mrs. Warren are very important in the club, as you might expect of the wives of the superintendent of schools and the Congregational pastor, and indeed they are both very cultured, but——No, you may regard me as entirely unimportant. I'm sure what I say doesn't matter a bit!"
"You're much too modest, and I'm going to tell Vida so, and, uh, I wonder if you can give me just a teeny bit of your time and show me where the magazine files are kept?"
She had won. She was profusely escorted to a room like a grandmother's attic, where she discovered periodicals devoted to house-decoration and town-planning, with a six-year file of the National Geographic. Miss Villets blessedly left her alone. Humming, fluttering pages with delighted fingers, Carol sat cross-legged on the floor, the magazines in heaps about her.
She found pictures of New England streets: the dignity of Falmouth, the charm of Concord, Stockbridge and Farmington and Hillhouse Avenue. The fairy-book suburb of Forest Hills on Long Island. Devonshire cottages and Essex manors and a Yorkshire High Street and Port Sunlight. The Arab village of Djeddah—an intricately chased jewel-box. A town in California which had changed itself from the barren brick fronts and slatternly frame sheds of a Main Street to a way which led the eye down a vista of arcades and gardens.
Assured that she was not quite mad in her belief that a small American town might be lovely, as well as useful in buying wheat and selling plows, she sat brooding, her thin fingers playing a tattoo on her cheeks. She saw in Gopher Prairie a Georgian city hall: warm brick walls with white shutters, a fanlight, a wide hall and curving stair. She saw it the common home and inspiration not only of the town but of the country about. It should contain the court-room (she couldn't get herself to put in a jail), public library, a collection of excellent prints, rest-room and model kitchen for farmwives, theater, lecture room, free community ballroom, farm-bureau, gymnasium. Forming about it and influenced by it, as mediaeval villages gathered about the castle, she saw a new Georgian town as graceful and beloved as Annapolis or that bowery Alexandria to which Washington rode.
All this the Thanatopsis Club was to accomplish with no difficulty whatever, since its several husbands were the controllers of business and politics. She was proud of herself for this practical view.
She had taken only half an hour to change a wire-fenced potato-plot into a walled rose-garden. She hurried out to apprize Mrs. Leonard Warren, as president of the Thanatopsis, of the miracle which had been worked.
At a quarter to three Carol had left home; at half-past four she had created the Georgian town; at a quarter to five she was in the dignified poverty of the Congregational parsonage, her enthusiasm pattering upon Mrs. Leonard Warren like summer rain upon an old gray roof; at two minutes to five a town of demure courtyards and welcoming dormer windows had been erected, and at two minutes past five the entire town was as flat as Babylon.
Erect in a black William and Mary chair against gray and speckly-brown volumes of sermons and Biblical commentaries and Palestine geographies upon long pine shelves, her neat black shoes firm on a rag-rug, herself as correct and low-toned as her background, Mrs. Warren listened without comment till Carol was quite through, then answered delicately:
"Yes, I think you draw a very nice picture of what might easily come to pass—some day. I have no doubt that such villages will be found on the prairie—some day. But if I might make just the least little criticism: it seems to me that you are wrong in supposing either that the city hall would be the proper start, or that the Thanatopsis would be the right instrument. After all, it's the churches, isn't it, that are the real heart of the community. As you may possibly know, my husband is prominent in Congregational circles all through the state for his advocacy of church-union. He hopes to see all the evangelical denominations joined in one strong body, opposing Catholicism and Christian Science, and properly guiding all movements that make for morality and prohibition. Here, the combined churches could afford a splendid club-house, maybe a stucco and half-timber building with gargoyles and all sorts of pleasing decorations on it, which, it seems to me, would be lots better to impress the ordinary class of people than just a plain old-fashioned colonial house, such as you describe. And that would be the proper center for all educational and pleasurable activities, instead of letting them fall into the hands of the politicians."
"I don't suppose it will take more than thirty or forty years for the churches to get together?" Carol said innocently.
"Hardly that long even; things are moving so rapidly. So it would be a mistake to make any other plans."
Carol did not recover her zeal till two days after, when she tried Mrs. George Edwin Mott, wife of the superintendent of schools.
Mrs. Mott commented, "Personally, I am terribly busy with dressmaking and having the seamstress in the house and all, but it would be splendid to have the other members of the Thanatopsis take up the question. Except for one thing: First and foremost, we must have a new schoolbuilding. Mr. Mott says they are terribly cramped."
Carol went to view the old building. The grades and the high school were combined in a damp yellow-brick structure with the narrow windows of an antiquated jail—a hulk which expressed hatred and compulsory training. She conceded Mrs. Mott's demand so violently that for two days she dropped her own campaign. Then she built the school and city hall together, as the center of the reborn town.
She ventured to the lead-colored dwelling of Mrs. Dave Dyer. Behind the mask of winter-stripped vines and a wide porch only a foot above the ground, the cottage was so impersonal that Carol could never visualize it. Nor could she remember anything that was inside it. But Mrs. Dyer was personal enough. With Carol, Mrs. Howland, Mrs. McGanum, and Vida Sherwin she was a link between the Jolly Seventeen and the serious Thanatopsis (in contrast to Juanita Haydock, who unnecessarily boasted of being a "lowbrow" and publicly stated that she would "see herself in jail before she'd write any darned old club papers"). Mrs. Dyer was superfeminine in the kimono in which she received Carol. Her skin was fine, pale, soft, suggesting a weak voluptuousness. At afternoon-coffees she had been rude but now she addressed Carol as "dear," and insisted on being called Maud. Carol did not quite know why she was uncomfortable in this talcum-powder atmosphere, but she hastened to get into the fresh air of her plans.
Maud Dyer granted that the city hall wasn't "so very nice," yet, as Dave said, there was no use doing anything about it till they received an appropriation from the state and combined a new city hall with a national guard armory. Dave had given verdict, "What these mouthy youngsters that hang around the pool-room need is universal military training. Make men of 'em."
Mrs. Dyer removed the new schoolbuilding from the city hall:
"Oh, so Mrs. Mott has got you going on her school craze! She's been dinging at that till everybody's sick and tired. What she really wants is a big office for her dear bald-headed Gawge to sit around and look important in. Of course I admire Mrs. Mott, and I'm very fond of her, she's so brainy, even if she does try to butt in and run the Thanatopsis, but I must say we're sick of her nagging. The old building was good enough for us when we were kids! I hate these would-be women politicians, don't you?"
The first week of March had given promise of spring and stirred Carol with a thousand desires for lakes and fields and roads. The snow was gone except for filthy woolly patches under trees, the thermometer leaped in a day from wind-bitten chill to itchy warmth. As soon as Carol was convinced that even in this imprisoned North, spring could exist again, the snow came down as abruptly as a paper storm in a theater; the northwest gale flung it up in a half blizzard; and with her hope of a glorified town went hope of summer meadows.
But a week later, though the snow was everywhere in slushy heaps, the promise was unmistakable. By the invisible hints in air and sky and earth which had aroused her every year through ten thousand generations she knew that spring was coming. It was not a scorching, hard, dusty day like the treacherous intruder of a week before, but soaked with languor, softened with a milky light. Rivulets were hurrying in each alley; a calling robin appeared by magic on the crab-apple tree in the Howlands' yard. Everybody chuckled, "Looks like winter is going," and "This 'll bring the frost out of the roads—have the autos out pretty soon now—wonder what kind of bass-fishing we'll get this summer—ought to be good crops this year."
Each evening Kennicott repeated, "We better not take off our Heavy Underwear or the storm windows too soon—might be 'nother spell of cold—got to be careful 'bout catching cold—wonder if the coal will last through?"
The expanding forces of life within her choked the desire for reforming. She trotted through the house, planning the spring cleaning with Bea. When she attended her second meeting of the Thanatopsis she said nothing about remaking the town. She listened respectably to statistics on Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Scott, Hardy, Lamb, De Quincey, and Mrs. Humphry Ward, who, it seemed, constituted the writers of English Fiction and Essays.
Not till she inspected the rest-room did she again become a fanatic. She had often glanced at the store-building which had been turned into a refuge in which farmwives could wait while their husbands transacted business. She had heard Vida Sherwin and Mrs. Warren caress the virtue of the Thanatopsis in establishing the rest-room and in sharing with the city council the expense of maintaining it. But she had never entered it till this March day.
She went in impulsively; nodded at the matron, a plump worthy widow named Nodelquist, and at a couple of farm-women who were meekly rocking. The rest-room resembled a second-hand store. It was furnished with discarded patent rockers, lopsided reed chairs, a scratched pine table, a gritty straw mat, old steel engravings of milkmaids being morally amorous under willow-trees, faded chromos of roses and fish, and a kerosene stove for warming lunches. The front window was darkened by torn net curtains and by a mound of geraniums and rubber-plants.
While she was listening to Mrs. Nodelquist's account of how many thousands of farmers' wives used the rest-room every year, and how much they "appreciated the kindness of the ladies in providing them with this lovely place, and all free," she thought, "Kindness nothing! The kind-ladies' husbands get the farmers' trade. This is mere commercial accommodation. And it's horrible. It ought to be the most charming room in town, to comfort women sick of prairie kitchens. Certainly it ought to have a clear window, so that they can see the metropolitan life go by. Some day I'm going to make a better rest-room—a club-room. Why! I've already planned that as part of my Georgian town hall!"
So it chanced that she was plotting against the peace of the Thanatopsis at her third meeting (which covered Scandinavian, Russian, and Polish Literature, with remarks by Mrs. Leonard Warren on the sinful paganism of the Russian so-called church). Even before the entrance of the coffee and hot rolls Carol seized on Mrs. Champ Perry, the kind and ample-bosomed pioneer woman who gave historic dignity to the modern matrons of the Thanatopsis. She poured out her plans. Mrs. Perry nodded and stroked Carol's hand, but at the end she sighed:
"I wish I could agree with you, dearie. I'm sure you're one of the Lord's anointed (even if we don't see you at the Baptist Church as often as we'd like to)! But I'm afraid you're too tender-hearted. When Champ and I came here we teamed-it with an ox-cart from Sauk Centre to Gopher Prairie, and there was nothing here then but a stockade and a few soldiers and some log cabins. When we wanted salt pork and gunpowder, we sent out a man on horseback, and probably he was shot dead by the Injuns before he got back. We ladies—of course we were all farmers at first—we didn't expect any rest-room in those days. My, we'd have thought the one they have now was simply elegant! My house was roofed with hay and it leaked something terrible when it rained—only dry place was under a shelf.
"And when the town grew up we thought the new city hall was real fine. And I don't see any need for dance-halls. Dancing isn't what it was, anyway. We used to dance modest, and we had just as much fun as all these young folks do now with their terrible Turkey Trots and hugging and all. But if they must neglect the Lord's injunction that young girls ought to be modest, then I guess they manage pretty well at the K. P. Hall and the Oddfellows', even if some of tie lodges don't always welcome a lot of these foreigners and hired help to all their dances. And I certainly don't see any need of a farm-bureau or this domestic science demonstration you talk about. In my day the boys learned to farm by honest sweating, and every gal could cook, or her ma learned her how across her knee! Besides, ain't there a county agent at Wakamin? He comes here once a fortnight, maybe. That's enough monkeying with this scientific farming—Champ says there's nothing to it anyway.
"And as for a lecture hall—haven't we got the churches? Good deal better to listen to a good old-fashioned sermon than a lot of geography and books and things that nobody needs to know—more 'n enough heathen learning right here in the Thanatopsis. And as for trying to make a whole town in this Colonial architecture you talk about——I do love nice things; to this day I run ribbons into my petticoats, even if Champ Perry does laugh at me, the old villain! But just the same I don't believe any of us old-timers would like to see the town that we worked so hard to build being tore down to make a place that wouldn't look like nothing but some Dutch story-book and not a bit like the place we loved. And don't you think it's sweet now? All the trees and lawns? And such comfy houses, and hot-water heat and electric lights and telephones and cement walks and everything? Why, I thought everybody from the Twin Cities always said it was such a beautiful town!"
Carol forswore herself; declared that Gopher Prairie had the color of Algiers and the gaiety of Mardi Gras.
Yet the next afternoon she was pouncing on Mrs. Lyman Cass, the hook-nosed consort of the owner of the flour-mill.
Mrs. Cass's parlor belonged to the crammed-Victorian school, as Mrs. Luke Dawson's belonged to the bare-Victorian. It was furnished on two principles: First, everything must resemble something else. A rocker had a back like a lyre, a near-leather seat imitating tufted cloth, and arms like Scotch Presbyterian lions; with knobs, scrolls, shields, and spear-points on unexpected portions of the chair. The second principle of the crammed-Victorian school was that every inch of the interior must be filled with useless objects.
The walls of Mrs. Cass's parlor were plastered with "hand-painted" pictures, "buckeye" pictures, of birch-trees, news-boys, puppies, and church-steeples on Christmas Eve; with a plaque depicting the Exposition Building in Minneapolis, burnt-wood portraits of Indian chiefs of no tribe in particular, a pansy-decked poetic motto, a Yard of Roses, and the banners of the educational institutions attended by the Casses' two sons—Chicopee Falls Business College and McGillicuddy University. One small square table contained a card-receiver of painted china with a rim of wrought and gilded lead, a Family Bible, Grant's Memoirs, the latest novel by Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter, a wooden model of a Swiss chalet which was also a bank for dimes, a polished abalone shell holding one black-headed pin and one empty spool, a velvet pin-cushion in a gilded metal slipper with "Souvenir of Troy, N. Y." stamped on the toe, and an unexplained red glass dish which had warts.
Mrs. Cass's first remark was, "I must show you all my pretty things and art objects."
She piped, after Carol's appeal:
"I see. You think the New England villages and Colonial houses are so much more cunning than these Middlewestern towns. I'm glad you feel that way. You'll be interested to know I was born in Vermont."
"And don't you think we ought to try to make Gopher Prai——"
"My gracious no! We can't afford it. Taxes are much too high as it is. We ought to retrench, and not let the city council spend another cent. Uh——Don't you think that was a grand paper Mrs. Westlake read about Tolstoy? I was so glad she pointed out how all his silly socialistic ideas failed."
What Mrs. Cass said was what Kennicott said, that evening. Not in twenty years would the council propose or Gopher Prairie vote the funds for a new city hall.
Carol had avoided exposing her plans to Vida Sherwin. She was shy of the big-sister manner; Vida would either laugh at her or snatch the idea and change it to suit herself. But there was no other hope. When Vida came in to tea Carol sketched her Utopia.
Vida was soothing but decisive:
"My dear, you're all off. I would like to see it: a real gardeny place to shut out the gales. But it can't be done. What could the clubwomen accomplish?"
"Their husbands are the most important men in town. They ARE the town!"
"But the town as a separate unit is not the husband of the Thanatopsis. If you knew the trouble we had in getting the city council to spend the money and cover the pumping-station with vines! Whatever you may think of Gopher Prairie women, they're twice as progressive as the men."
"But can't the men see the ugliness?"
"They don't think it's ugly. And how can you prove it? Matter of taste. Why should they like what a Boston architect likes?"
"What they like is to sell prunes!"
"Well, why not? Anyway, the point is that you have to work from the inside, with what we have, rather than from the outside, with foreign ideas. The shell ought not to be forced on the spirit. It can't be! The bright shell has to grow out of the spirit, and express it. That means waiting. If we keep after the city council for another ten years they MAY vote the bonds for a new school."
"I refuse to believe that if they saw it the big men would be too tight-fisted to spend a few dollars each for a building—think!—dancing and lectures and plays, all done co-operatively!"
"You mention the word 'co-operative' to the merchants and they'll lynch you! The one thing they fear more than mail-order houses is that farmers' co-operative movements may get started."
"The secret trails that lead to scared pocket-books! Always, in everything! And I don't have any of the fine melodrama of fiction: the dictagraphs and speeches by torchlight. I'm merely blocked by stupidity. Oh, I know I'm a fool. I dream of Venice, and I live in Archangel and scold because the Northern seas aren't tender-colored. But at least they sha'n't keep me from loving Venice, and sometime I'll run away——All right. No more."
She flung out her hands in a gesture of renunciation.
Early May; wheat springing up in blades like grass; corn and potatoes being planted; the land humming. For two days there had been steady rain. Even in town the roads were a furrowed welter of mud, hideous to view and difficult to cross. Main Street was a black swamp from curb to curb; on residence streets the grass parking beside the walks oozed gray water. It was prickly hot, yet the town was barren under the bleak sky. Softened neither by snow nor by waving boughs the houses squatted and scowled, revealed in their unkempt harshness.
As she dragged homeward Carol looked with distaste at her clay-loaded rubbers, the smeared hem of her skirt. She passed Lyman Cass's pinnacled, dark-red, hulking house. She waded a streaky yellow pool. This morass was not her home, she insisted. Her home, and her beautiful town, existed in her mind. They had already been created. The task was done. What she really had been questing was some one to share them with her. Vida would not; Kennicott could not.
Some one to share her refuge.
Suddenly she was thinking of Guy Pollock.
She dismissed him. He was too cautious. She needed a spirit as young and unreasonable as her own. And she would never find it. Youth would never come singing. She was beaten.
Yet that same evening she had an idea which solved the rebuilding of Gopher Prairie.
Within ten minutes she was jerking the old-fashioned bell-pull of Luke Dawson. Mrs. Dawson opened the door and peered doubtfully about the edge of it. Carol kissed her cheek, and frisked into the lugubrious sitting-room.
"Well, well, you're a sight for sore eyes!" chuckled Mr. Dawson, dropping his newspaper, pushing his spectacles back on his forehead.
"You seem so excited," sighed Mrs. Dawson.
"I am! Mr. Dawson, aren't you a millionaire?"
He cocked his head, and purred, "Well, I guess if I cashed in on all my securities and farm-holdings and my interests in iron on the Mesaba and in Northern timber and cut-over lands, I could push two million dollars pretty close, and I've made every cent of it by hard work and having the sense to not go out and spend every——"
"I think I want most of it from you!"
The Dawsons glanced at each other in appreciation of the jest; and he chirped, "You're worse than Reverend Benlick! He don't hardly ever strike me for more than ten dollars—at a time!"
"I'm not joking. I mean it! Your children in the Cities are grown-up and well-to-do. You don't want to die and leave your name unknown. Why not do a big, original thing? Why not rebuild the whole town? Get a great architect, and have him plan a town that would be suitable to the prairie. Perhaps he'd create some entirely new form of architecture. Then tear down all these shambling buildings——"
Mr. Dawson had decided that she really did mean it. He wailed, "Why, that would cost at least three or four million dollars!"
"But you alone, just one man, have two of those millions!"
"Me? Spend all my hard-earned cash on building houses for a lot of shiftless beggars that never had the sense to save their money? Not that I've ever been mean. Mama could always have a hired girl to do the work—when we could find one. But her and I have worked our fingers to the bone and—spend it on a lot of these rascals——?"
"Please! Don't be angry! I just mean—I mean——Oh, not spend all of it, of course, but if you led off the list, and the others came in, and if they heard you talk about a more attractive town——"
"Why now, child, you've got a lot of notions. Besides what's the matter with the town? Looks good to me. I've had people that have traveled all over the world tell me time and again that Gopher Prairie is the prettiest place in the Middlewest. Good enough for anybody. Certainly good enough for Mama and me. Besides! Mama and me are planning to go out to Pasadena and buy a bungalow and live there."
She had met Miles Bjornstam on the street. For the second of welcome encounter this workman with the bandit mustache and the muddy overalls seemed nearer than any one else to the credulous youth which she was seeking to fight beside her, and she told him, as a cheerful anecdote, a little of her story.
He grunted, "I never thought I'd be agreeing with Old Man Dawson, the penny-pinching old land-thief—and a fine briber he is, too. But you got the wrong slant. You aren't one of the people—yet. You want to do something for the town. I don't! I want the town to do something for itself. We don't want old Dawson's money—not if it's a gift, with a string. We'll take it away from him, because it belongs to us. You got to get more iron and cussedness into you. Come join us cheerful bums, and some day—when we educate ourselves and quit being bums—we'll take things and run 'em straight."
He had changed from her friend to a cynical man in overalls. She could not relish the autocracy of "cheerful bums."
She forgot him as she tramped the outskirts of town.
She had replaced the city hall project by an entirely new and highly exhilarating thought of how little was done for these unpicturesque poor.
The spring of the plains is not a reluctant virgin but brazen and soon away. The mud roads of a few days ago are powdery dust and the puddles beside them have hardened into lozenges of black sleek earth like cracked patent leather.
Carol was panting as she crept to the meeting of the Thanatopsis program committee which was to decide the subject for next fall and winter.
Madam Chairman (Miss Ella Stowbody in an oyster-colored blouse) asked if there was any new business.
Carol rose. She suggested that the Thanatopsis ought to help the poor of the town. She was ever so correct and modern. She did not, she said, want charity for them, but a chance of self-help; an employment bureau, direction in washing babies and making pleasing stews, possibly a municipal fund for home-building. "What do you think of my plans, Mrs. Warren?" she concluded.
Speaking judiciously, as one related to the church by marriage, Mrs. Warren gave verdict:
"I'm sure we're all heartily in accord with Mrs. Kennicott in feeling that wherever genuine poverty is encountered, it is not only noblesse oblige but a joy to fulfil our duty to the less fortunate ones. But I must say it seems to me we should lose the whole point of the thing by not regarding it as charity. Why, that's the chief adornment of the true Christian and the church! The Bible has laid it down for our guidance. 'Faith, Hope, and CHARITY,' it says, and, 'The poor ye have with ye always,' which indicates that there never can be anything to these so-called scientific schemes for abolishing charity, never! And isn't it better so? I should hate to think of a world in which we were deprived of all the pleasure of giving. Besides, if these shiftless folks realize they're getting charity, and not something to which they have a right, they're so much more grateful."
"Besides," snorted Miss Ella Stowbody, "they've been fooling you, Mrs. Kennicott. There isn't any real poverty here. Take that Mrs. Steinhof you speak of: I send her our washing whenever there's too much for our hired girl—I must have sent her ten dollars' worth the past year alone! I'm sure Papa would never approve of a city home-building fund. Papa says these folks are fakers. Especially all these tenant farmers that pretend they have so much trouble getting seed and machinery. Papa says they simply won't pay their debts. He says he's sure he hates to foreclose mortgages, but it's the only way to make them respect the law."
"And then think of all the clothes we give these people!" said Mrs. Jackson Elder.
Carol intruded again. "Oh yes. The clothes. I was going to speak of that. Don't you think that when we give clothes to the poor, if we do give them old ones, we ought to mend them first and make them as presentable as we can? Next Christmas when the Thanatopsis makes its distribution, wouldn't it be jolly if we got together and sewed on the clothes, and trimmed hats, and made them——"
"Heavens and earth, they have more time than we have! They ought to be mighty good and grateful to get anything, no matter what shape it's in. I know I'm not going to sit and sew for that lazy Mrs. Vopni, with all I've got to do!" snapped Ella Stowbody.
They were glaring at Carol. She reflected that Mrs. Vopni, whose husband had been killed by a train, had ten children.
But Mrs. Mary Ellen Wilks was smiling. Mrs. Wilks was the proprietor of Ye Art Shoppe and Magazine and Book Store, and the reader of the small Christian Science church. She made it all clear:
"If this class of people had an understanding of Science and that we are the children of God and nothing can harm us, they wouldn't be in error and poverty."
Mrs. Jackson Elder confirmed, "Besides, it strikes me the club is already doing enough, with tree-planting and the anti-fly campaign and the responsibility for the rest-room—to say nothing of the fact that we've talked of trying to get the railroad to put in a park at the station!"
"I think so too!" said Madam Chairman. She glanced uneasily at Miss Sherwin. "But what do you think, Vida?"
Vida smiled tactfully at each of the committee, and announced, "Well, I don't believe we'd better start anything more right now. But it's been a privilege to hear Carol's dear generous ideas, hasn't it! Oh! There is one thing we must decide on at once. We must get together and oppose any move on the part of the Minneapolis clubs to elect another State Federation president from the Twin Cities. And this Mrs. Edgar Potbury they're putting forward—I know there are people who think she's a bright interesting speaker, but I regard her as very shallow. What do you say to my writing to the Lake Ojibawasha Club, telling them that if their district will support Mrs. Warren for second vice-president, we'll support their Mrs. Hagelton (and such a dear, lovely, cultivated woman, too) for president."
"Yes! We ought to show up those Minneapolis folks!" Ella Stowbody said acidly. "And oh, by the way, we must oppose this movement of Mrs. Potbury's to have the state clubs come out definitely in favor of woman suffrage. Women haven't any place in politics. They would lose all their daintiness and charm if they became involved in these horried plots and log-rolling and all this awful political stuff about scandal and personalities and so on."
All—save one—nodded. They interrupted the formal business-meeting to discuss Mrs. Edgar Potbury's husband, Mrs. Potbury's income, Mrs. Potbury's sedan, Mrs. Potbury's residence, Mrs. Potbury's oratorical style, Mrs. Potbury's mandarin evening coat, Mrs. Potbury's coiffure, and Mrs. Potbury's altogether reprehensible influence on the State Federation of Women's Clubs.
Before the program committee adjourned they took three minutes to decide which of the subjects suggested by the magazine Culture Hints, Furnishings and China, or The Bible as Literature, would be better for the coming year. There was one annoying incident. Mrs. Dr. Kennicott interfered and showed off again. She commented, "Don't you think that we already get enough of the Bible in our churches and Sunday Schools?"
Mrs. Leonard Warren, somewhat out of order but much more out of temper, cried, "Well upon my word! I didn't suppose there was any one who felt that we could get enough of the Bible! I guess if the Grand Old Book has withstood the attacks of infidels for these two thousand years it is worth our SLIGHT consideration!"
"Oh, I didn't mean——" Carol begged. Inasmuch as she did mean, it was hard to be extremely lucid. "But I wish, instead of limiting ourselves either to the Bible, or to anecdotes about the Brothers Adam's wigs, which Culture Hints seems to regard as the significant point about furniture, we could study some of the really stirring ideas that are springing up today—whether it's chemistry or anthropology or labor problems—the things that are going to mean so terribly much."
Everybody cleared her polite throat.
Madam Chairman inquired, "Is there any other discussion? Will some one make a motion to adopt the suggestion of Vida Sherwin—to take up Furnishings and China?"
It was adopted, unanimously.
"Checkmate!" murmured Carol, as she held up her hand.
Had she actually believed that she could plant a seed of liberalism in the blank wall of mediocrity? How had she fallen into the folly of trying to plant anything whatever in a wall so smooth and sun-glazed, and so satisfying to the happy sleepers within?
ONE week of authentic spring, one rare sweet week of May, one tranquil moment between the blast of winter and the charge of summer. Daily Carol walked from town into flashing country hysteric with new life.
One enchanted hour when she returned to youth and a belief in the possibility of beauty.
She had walked northward toward the upper shore of Plover Lake, taking to the railroad track, whose directness and dryness make it the natural highway for pedestrians on the plains. She stepped from tie to tie, in long strides. At each road-crossing she had to crawl over a cattle-guard of sharpened timbers. She walked the rails, balancing with arms extended, cautious heel before toe. As she lost balance her body bent over, her arms revolved wildly, and when she toppled she laughed aloud.
The thick grass beside the track, coarse and prickly with many burnings, hid canary-yellow buttercups and the mauve petals and woolly sage-green coats of the pasque flowers. The branches of the kinnikinic brush were red and smooth as lacquer on a saki bowl.
She ran down the gravelly embankment, smiled at children gathering flowers in a little basket, thrust a handful of the soft pasque flowers into the bosom of her white blouse. Fields of springing wheat drew her from the straight propriety of the railroad and she crawled through the rusty barbed-wire fence. She followed a furrow between low wheat blades and a field of rye which showed silver lights as it flowed before the wind. She found a pasture by the lake. So sprinkled was the pasture with rag-baby blossoms and the cottony herb of Indian tobacco that it spread out like a rare old Persian carpet of cream and rose and delicate green. Under her feet the rough grass made a pleasant crunching. Sweet winds blew from the sunny lake beside her, and small waves sputtered on the meadowy shore. She leaped a tiny creek bowered in pussy-willow buds. She was nearing a frivolous grove of birch and poplar and wild plum trees.
The poplar foliage had the downiness of a Corot arbor; the green and silver trunks were as candid as the birches, as slender and lustrous as the limbs of a Pierrot. The cloudy white blossoms of the plum trees filled the grove with a springtime mistiness which gave an illusion of distance.
She ran into the wood, crying out for joy of freedom regained after winter. Choke-cherry blossoms lured her from the outer sun-warmed spaces to depths of green stillness, where a submarine light came through the young leaves. She walked pensively along an abandoned road. She found a moccasin-flower beside a lichen-covered log. At the end of the road she saw the open acres—dipping rolling fields bright with wheat.
"I believe! The woodland gods still live! And out there, the great land. It's beautiful as the mountains. What do I care for Thanatopsises?"
She came out on the prairie, spacious under an arch of boldly cut clouds. Small pools glittered. Above a marsh red-winged blackbirds chased a crow in a swift melodrama of the air. On a hill was silhouetted a man following a drag. His horse bent its neck and plodded, content.
A path took her to the Corinth road, leading back to town. Dandelions glowed in patches amidst the wild grass by the way. A stream golloped through a concrete culvert beneath the road. She trudged in healthy weariness.
A man in a bumping Ford rattled up beside her, hailed, "Give you a lift, Mrs. Kennicott?"
"Thank you. It's awfully good of you, but I'm enjoying the walk."
"Great day, by golly. I seen some wheat that must of been five inches high. Well, so long."
She hadn't the dimmest notion who he was, but his greeting warmed her. This countryman gave her a companionship which she had never (whether by her fault or theirs or neither) been able to find in the matrons and commercial lords of the town.
Half a mile from town, in a hollow between hazelnut bushes and a brook, she discovered a gipsy encampment: a covered wagon, a tent, a bunch of pegged-out horses. A broad-shouldered man was squatted on his heels, holding a frying-pan over a camp-fire. He looked toward her. He was Miles Bjornstam.
"Well, well, what you doing out here?" he roared. "Come have a hunk o' bacon. Pete! Hey, Pete!"
A tousled person came from behind the covered wagon.
"Pete, here's the one honest-to-God lady in my bum town. Come on, crawl in and set a couple minutes, Mrs. Kennicott. I'm hiking off for all summer."
The Red Swede staggered up, rubbed his cramped knees, lumbered to the wire fence, held the strands apart for her. She unconsciously smiled at him as she went through. Her skirt caught on a barb; he carefully freed it.
Beside this man in blue flannel shirt, baggy khaki trousers, uneven suspenders, and vile felt hat, she was small and exquisite.
The surly Pete set out an upturned bucket for her. She lounged on it, her elbows on her knees. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"Just starting off for the summer, horse-trading." Bjornstam chuckled. His red mustache caught the sun. "Regular hoboes and public benefactors we are. Take a hike like this every once in a while. Sharks on horses. Buy 'em from farmers and sell 'em to others. We're honest—frequently. Great time. Camp along the road. I was wishing I had a chance to say good-by to you before I ducked out but——Say, you better come along with us."
"I'd like to."
"While you're playing mumblety-peg with Mrs. Lym Cass, Pete and me will be rambling across Dakota, through the Bad Lands, into the butte country, and when fall comes, we'll be crossing over a pass of the Big Horn Mountains, maybe, and camp in a snow-storm, quarter of a mile right straight up above a lake. Then in the morning we'll lie snug in our blankets and look up through the pines at an eagle. How'd it strike you? Heh? Eagle soaring and soaring all day—big wide sky——"
"Don't! Or I will go with you, and I'm afraid there might be some slight scandal. Perhaps some day I'll do it. Good-by."
Her hand disappeared in his blackened leather glove. From the turn in the road she waved at him. She walked on more soberly now, and she was lonely.
But the wheat and grass were sleek velvet under the sunset; the prairie clouds were tawny gold; and she swung happily into Main Street.
Through the first days of June she drove with Kennicott on his calls. She identified him with the virile land; she admired him as she saw with what respect the farmers obeyed him. She was out in the early chill, after a hasty cup of coffee, reaching open country as the fresh sun came up in that unspoiled world. Meadow larks called from the tops of thin split fence-posts. The wild roses smelled clean.
As they returned in late afternoon the low sun was a solemnity of radial bands, like a heavenly fan of beaten gold; the limitless circle of the grain was a green sea rimmed with fog, and the willow wind-breaks were palmy isles.
Before July the close heat blanketed them. The tortured earth cracked. Farmers panted through corn-fields behind cultivators and the sweating flanks of horses. While she waited for Kennicott in the car, before a farmhouse, the seat burned her fingers and her head ached with the glare on fenders and hood.
A black thunder-shower was followed by a dust storm which turned the sky yellow with the hint of a coming tornado. Impalpable black dust far-borne from Dakota covered the inner sills of the closed windows.
The July heat was ever more stifling. They crawled along Main Street by day; they found it hard to sleep at night. They brought mattresses down to the living-room, and thrashed and turned by the open window. Ten times a night they talked of going out to soak themselves with the hose and wade through the dew, but they were too listless to take the trouble. On cool evenings, when they tried to go walking, the gnats appeared in swarms which peppered their faces and caught in their throats.
She wanted the Northern pines, the Eastern sea, but Kennicott declared that it would be "kind of hard to get away, just NOW." The Health and Improvement Committee of the Thanatopsis asked her to take part in the anti-fly campaign, and she toiled about town persuading householders to use the fly-traps furnished by the club, or giving out money prizes to fly-swatting children. She was loyal enough but not ardent, and without ever quite intending to, she began to neglect the task as heat sucked at her strength.
Kennicott and she motored North and spent a week with his mother—that is, Carol spent it with his mother, while he fished for bass.
The great event was their purchase of a summer cottage, down on Lake Minniemashie.
Perhaps the most amiable feature of life in Gopher Prairie was the summer cottages. They were merely two-room shanties, with a seepage of broken-down chairs, peeling veneered tables, chromos pasted on wooden walls, and inefficient kerosene stoves. They were so thin-walled and so close together that you could—and did—hear a baby being spanked in the fifth cottage off. But they were set among elms and lindens on a bluff which looked across the lake to fields of ripened wheat sloping up to green woods.
Here the matrons forgot social jealousies, and sat gossiping in gingham; or, in old bathing-suits, surrounded by hysterical children, they paddled for hours. Carol joined them; she ducked shrieking small boys, and helped babies construct sand-basins for unfortunate minnows. She liked Juanita Haydock and Maud Dyer when she helped them make picnic-supper for the men, who came motoring out from town each evening. She was easier and more natural with them. In the debate as to whether there should be veal loaf or poached egg on hash, she had no chance to be heretical and oversensitive.
They danced sometimes, in the evening; they had a minstrel show, with Kennicott surprisingly good as end-man; always they were encircled by children wise in the lore of woodchucks and gophers and rafts and willow whistles.
If they could have continued this normal barbaric life Carol would have been the most enthusiastic citizen of Gopher Prairie. She was relieved to be assured that she did not want bookish conversation alone; that she did not expect the town to become a Bohemia. She was content now. She did not criticize.
But in September, when the year was at its richest, custom dictated that it was time to return to town; to remove the children from the waste occupation of learning the earth, and send them back to lessons about the number of potatoes which (in a delightful world untroubled by commission-houses or shortages in freight-cars) William sold to John. The women who had cheerfully gone bathing all summer looked doubtful when Carol begged, "Let's keep up an outdoor life this winter, let's slide and skate." Their hearts shut again till spring, and the nine months of cliques and radiators and dainty refreshments began all over.
Carol had started a salon.
Since Kennicott, Vida Sherwin, and Guy Pollock were her only lions, and since Kennicott would have preferred Sam Clark to all the poets and radicals in the entire world, her private and self-defensive clique did not get beyond one evening dinner for Vida and Guy, on her first wedding anniversary; and that dinner did not get beyond a controversy regarding Raymie Wutherspoon's yearnings.
Guy Pollock was the gentlest person she had found here. He spoke of her new jade and cream frock naturally, not jocosely; he held her chair for her as they sat down to dinner; and he did not, like Kennicott, interrupt her to shout, "Oh say, speaking of that, I heard a good story today." But Guy was incurably hermit. He sat late and talked hard, and did not come again.
Then she met Champ Perry in the post-office—and decided that in the history of the pioneers was the panacea for Gopher Prairie, for all of America. We have lost their sturdiness, she told herself. We must restore the last of the veterans to power and follow them on the backward path to the integrity of Lincoln, to the gaiety of settlers dancing in a saw-mill.
She read in the records of the Minnesota Territorial Pioneers that only sixty years ago, not so far back as the birth of her own father, four cabins had composed Gopher Prairie. The log stockade which Mrs. Champ Perry was to find when she trekked in was built afterward by the soldiers as a defense against the Sioux. The four cabins were inhabited by Maine Yankees who had come up the Mississippi to St. Paul and driven north over virgin prairie into virgin woods. They ground their own corn; the men-folks shot ducks and pigeons and prairie chickens; the new breakings yielded the turnip-like rutabagas, which they ate raw and boiled and baked and raw again. For treat they had wild plums and crab-apples and tiny wild strawberries.
Grasshoppers came darkening the sky, and in an hour ate the farmwife's garden and the farmer's coat. Precious horses painfully brought from Illinois, were drowned in bogs or stampeded by the fear of blizzards. Snow blew through the chinks of new-made cabins, and Eastern children, with flowery muslin dresses, shivered all winter and in summer were red and black with mosquito bites. Indians were everywhere; they camped in dooryards, stalked into kitchens to demand doughnuts, came with rifles across their backs into schoolhouses and begged to see the pictures in the geographies. Packs of timber-wolves treed the children; and the settlers found dens of rattle-snakes, killed fifty, a hundred, in a day.
Yet it was a buoyant life. Carol read enviously in the admirable Minnesota chronicles called "Old Rail Fence Corners" the reminiscence of Mrs. Mahlon Black, who settled in Stillwater in 1848:
"There was nothing to parade over in those days. We took it as it came and had happy lives. . . . We would all gather together and in about two minutes would be having a good time—playing cards or dancing. . . . We used to waltz and dance contra dances. None of these new jigs and not wear any clothes to speak of. We covered our hides in those days; no tight skirts like now. You could take three or four steps inside our skirts and then not reach the edge. One of the boys would fiddle a while and then some one would spell him and he could get a dance. Sometimes they would dance and fiddle too."
She reflected that if she could not have ballrooms of gray and rose and crystal, she wanted to be swinging across a puncheon-floor with a dancing fiddler. This smug in-between town, which had exchanged "Money Musk" for phonographs grinding out ragtime, it was neither the heroic old nor the sophisticated new. Couldn't she somehow, some yet unimagined how, turn it back to simplicity?
She herself knew two of the pioneers: the Perrys. Champ Perry was the buyer at the grain-elevator. He weighed wagons of wheat on a rough platform-scale, in the cracks of which the kernels sprouted every spring. Between times he napped in the dusty peace of his office.
She called on the Perrys at their rooms above Howland & Gould's grocery.
When they were already old they had lost the money, which they had invested in an elevator. They had given up their beloved yellow brick house and moved into these rooms over a store, which were the Gopher Prairie equivalent of a flat. A broad stairway led from the street to the upper hall, along which were the doors of a lawyer's office, a dentist's, a photographer's "studio," the lodge-rooms of the Affiliated Order of Spartans and, at the back, the Perrys' apartment.
They received her (their first caller in a month) with aged fluttering tenderness. Mrs. Perry confided, "My, it's a shame we got to entertain you in such a cramped place. And there ain't any water except that ole iron sink outside in the hall, but still, as I say to Champ, beggars can't be choosers. 'Sides, the brick house was too big for me to sweep, and it was way out, and it's nice to be living down here among folks. Yes, we're glad to be here. But——Some day, maybe we can have a house of our own again. We're saving up——Oh, dear, if we could have our own home! But these rooms are real nice, ain't they!"
As old people will, the world over, they had moved as much as possible of their familiar furniture into this small space. Carol had none of the superiority she felt toward Mrs. Lyman Cass's plutocratic parlor. She was at home here. She noted with tenderness all the makeshifts: the darned chair-arms, the patent rocker covered with sleazy cretonne, the pasted strips of paper mending the birch-bark napkin-rings labeled "Papa" and "Mama."
She hinted of her new enthusiasm. To find one of the "young folks" who took them seriously, heartened the Perrys, and she easily drew from them the principles by which Gopher Prairie should be born again—should again become amusing to live in.
This was their philosophy complete . . . in the era of aeroplanes and syndicalism:
The Baptist Church (and, somewhat less, the Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches) is the perfect, the divinely ordained standard in music, oratory, philanthropy, and ethics. "We don't need all this new-fangled science, or this terrible Higher Criticism that's ruining our young men in colleges. What we need is to get back to the true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have it preached to us."
The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs.
All socialists ought to be hanged.
"Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals in his novels, and folks say he's made prett' near a million dollars out of 'em."
People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked.
Europeans are still wickeder.
It doesn't hurt any to drink a glass of beer on a warm day, but anybody who touches wine is headed straight for hell.
Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be.
Nobody needs drug-store ice cream; pie is good enough for anybody.
The farmers want too much for their wheat.
The owners of the elevator-company expect too much for the salaries they pay.
There would be no more trouble or discontent in the world if everybody worked as hard as Pa did when he cleared our first farm.
Carol's hero-worship dwindled to polite nodding, and the nodding dwindled to a desire to escape, and she went home with a headache.
Next day she saw Miles Bjornstam on the street.
"Just back from Montana. Great summer. Pumped my lungs chuck-full of Rocky Mountain air. Now for another whirl at sassing the bosses of Gopher Prairie." She smiled at him, and the Perrys faded, the pioneers faded, till they were but daguerreotypes in a black walnut cupboard.
SHE tried, more from loyalty than from desire, to call upon the Perrys on a November evening when Kennicott was away. They were not at home.
Like a child who has no one to play with she loitered through the dark hall. She saw a light under an office door. She knocked. To the person who opened she murmured, "Do you happen to know where the Perrys are?" She realized that it was Guy Pollock.
"I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Kennicott, but I don't know. Won't you come in and wait for them?"
"W-why——" she observed, as she reflected that in Gopher Prairie it is not decent to call on a man; as she decided that no, really, she wouldn't go in; and as she went in.
"I didn't know your office was up here."
"Yes, office, town-house, and chateau in Picardy. But you can't see the chateau and town-house (next to the Duke of Sutherland's). They're beyond that inner door. They are a cot and a wash-stand and my other suit and the blue crepe tie you said you liked."
"You remember my saying that?"
"Of course. I always shall. Please try this chair."
She glanced about the rusty office—gaunt stove, shelves of tan law-books, desk-chair filled with newspapers so long sat upon that they were in holes and smudged to grayness. There were only two things which suggested Guy Pollock. On the green felt of the table-desk, between legal blanks and a clotted inkwell, was a cloissone vase. On a swing shelf was a row of books unfamiliar to Gopher Prairie: Mosher editions of the poets, black and red German novels, a Charles Lamb in crushed levant.
Guy did not sit down. He quartered the office, a grayhound on the scent; a grayhound with glasses tilted forward on his thin nose, and a silky indecisive brown mustache. He had a golf jacket of jersey, worn through at the creases in the sleeves. She noted that he did not apologize for it, as Kennicott would have done.
He made conversation: "I didn't know you were a bosom friend of the Perrys. Champ is the salt of the earth but somehow I can't imagine him joining you in symbolic dancing, or making improvements on the Diesel engine."
"No. He's a dear soul, bless him, but he belongs in the National Museum, along with General Grant's sword, and I'm——Oh, I suppose I'm seeking for a gospel that will evangelize Gopher Prairie."
"Really? Evangelize it to what?"
"To anything that's definite. Seriousness or frivolousness or both. I wouldn't care whether it was a laboratory or a carnival. But it's merely safe. Tell me, Mr. Pollock, what is the matter with Gopher Prairie?"
"Is anything the matter with it? Isn't there perhaps something the matter with you and me? (May I join you in the honor of having something the matter?)"
"(Yes, thanks.) No, I think it's the town."
"Because they enjoy skating more than biology?"
"But I'm not only more interested in biology than the Jolly Seventeen, but also in skating! I'll skate with them, or slide, or throw snowballs, just as gladly as talk with you."
("Yes!) But they want to stay home and embroider."
"Perhaps. I'm not defending the town. It's merely——I'm a confirmed doubter of myself. (Probably I'm conceited about my lack of conceit!) Anyway, Gopher Prairie isn't particularly bad. It's like all villages in all countries. Most places that have lost the smell of earth but not yet acquired the smell of patchouli—or of factory-smoke—are just as suspicious and righteous. I wonder if the small town isn't, with some lovely exceptions, a social appendix? Some day these dull market-towns may be as obsolete as monasteries. I can imagine the farmer and his local store-manager going by monorail, at the end of the day, into a city more charming than any William Morris Utopia—music, a university, clubs for loafers like me. (Lord, how I'd like to have a real club!)"
She asked impulsively, "You, why do you stay here?"
"I have the Village Virus."
"It sounds dangerous."
"It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it's extraordinarily like the hook-worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You'll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have had a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I'm a perfect example. But I sha'n't pester you with my dolors."
"You won't. And do sit down, so I can see you."
He dropped into the shrieking desk-chair. He looked squarely at her; she was conscious of the pupils of his eyes; of the fact that he was a man, and lonely. They were embarrassed. They elaborately glanced away, and were relieved as he went on:
"The diagnosis of my Village Virus is simple enough. I was born in an Ohio town about the same size as Gopher Prairie, and much less friendly. It'd had more generations in which to form an oligarchy of respectability. Here, a stranger is taken in if he is correct, if he likes hunting and motoring and God and our Senator. There, we didn't take in even our own till we had contemptuously got used to them. It was a red-brick Ohio town, and the trees made it damp, and it smelled of rotten apples. The country wasn't like our lakes and prairie. There were small stuffy corn-fields and brick-yards and greasy oil-wells.
"I went to a denominational college and learned that since dictating the Bible, and hiring a perfect race of ministers to explain it, God has never done much but creep around and try to catch us disobeying it. From college I went to New York, to the Columbia Law School. And for four years I lived. Oh, I won't rhapsodize about New York. It was dirty and noisy and breathless and ghastly expensive. But compared with the moldy academy in which I had been smothered——! I went to symphonies twice a week. I saw Irving and Terry and Duse and Bernhardt, from the top gallery. I walked in Gramercy Park. And I read, oh, everything.
"Through a cousin I learned that Julius Flickerbaugh was sick and needed a partner. I came here. Julius got well. He didn't like my way of loafing five hours and then doing my work (really not so badly) in one. We parted.
"When I first came here I swore I'd 'keep up my interests.' Very lofty! I read Browning, and went to Minneapolis for the theaters. I thought I was 'keeping up.' But I guess the Village Virus had me already. I was reading four copies of cheap fiction-magazines to one poem. I'd put off the Minneapolis trips till I simply had to go there on a lot of legal matters.
"A few years ago I was talking to a patent lawyer from Chicago, and I realized that——I'd always felt so superior to people like Julius Flickerbaugh, but I saw that I was as provincial and behind-the-times as Julius. (Worse! Julius plows through the Literary Digest and the Outlook faithfully, while I'm turning over pages of a book by Charles Flandrau that I already know by heart.)
"I decided to leave here. Stern resolution. Grasp the world. Then I found that the Village Virus had me, absolute: I didn't want to face new streets and younger men—real competition. It was too easy to go on making out conveyances and arguing ditching cases. So——That's all of the biography of a living dead man, except the diverting last chapter, the lies about my having been 'a tower of strength and legal wisdom' which some day a preacher will spin over my lean dry body."
He looked down at his table-desk, fingering the starry enameled vase.
She could not comment. She pictured herself running across the room to pat his hair. She saw that his lips were firm, under his soft faded mustache. She sat still and maundered, "I know. The Village Virus. Perhaps it will get me. Some day I'm going——Oh, no matter. At least, I am making you talk! Usually you have to be polite to my garrulousness, but now I'm sitting at your feet."
"It would be rather nice to have you literally sitting at my feet, by a fire."
"Would you have a fireplace for me?"
"Naturally! Please don't snub me now! Let the old man rave. How old are you, Carol?"
"Twenty-six! I was just leaving New York, at twenty-six. I heard Patti sing, at twenty-six. And now I'm forty-seven. I feel like a child, yet I'm old enough to be your father. So it's decently paternal to imagine you curled at my feet. . . . Of course I hope it isn't, but we'll reflect the morals of Gopher Prairie by officially announcing that it is! . . . These standards that you and I live up to! There's one thing that's the matter with Gopher Prairie, at least with the ruling-class (there is a ruling-class, despite all our professions of democracy). And the penalty we tribal rulers pay is that our subjects watch us every minute. We can't get wholesomely drunk and relax. We have to be so correct about sex morals, and inconspicuous clothes, and doing our commercial trickery only in the traditional ways, that none of us can live up to it, and we become horribly hypocritical. Unavoidably. The widow-robbing deacon of fiction can't help being hypocritical. The widows themselves demand it! They admire his unctuousness. And look at me. Suppose I did dare to make love to—some exquisite married woman. I wouldn't admit it to myself. I giggle with the most revolting salaciousness over La Vie Parisienne, when I get hold of one in Chicago, yet I shouldn't even try to hold your hand. I'm broken. It's the historical Anglo-Saxon way of making life miserable. . . . Oh, my dear, I haven't talked to anybody about myself and all our selves for years."
"Guy! Can't we do something with the town? Really?"
"No, we can't!" He disposed of it like a judge ruling out an improper objection; returned to matters less uncomfortably energetic: "Curious. Most troubles are unnecessary. We have Nature beaten; we can make her grow wheat; we can keep warm when she sends blizzards. So we raise the devil just for pleasure—wars, politics, race-hatreds, labor-disputes. Here in Gopher Prairie we've cleared the fields, and become soft, so we make ourselves unhappy artificially, at great expense and exertion: Methodists disliking Episcopalians, the man with the Hudson laughing at the man with the flivver. The worst is the commercial hatred—the grocer feeling that any man who doesn't deal with him is robbing him. What hurts me is that it applies to lawyers and doctors (and decidedly to their wives!) as much as to grocers. The doctors—you know about that—how your husband and Westlake and Gould dislike one another."
"No! I won't admit it!"
"Oh, maybe once or twice, when Will has positively known of a case where Doctor—where one of the others has continued to call on patients longer than necessary, he has laughed about it, but——"
He still grinned.
"No, REALLY! And when you say the wives of the doctors share these jealousies——Mrs. McGanum and I haven't any particular crush on each other; she's so stolid. But her mother, Mrs. Westlake—nobody could be sweeter."
"Yes, I'm sure she's very bland. But I wouldn't tell her my heart's secrets if I were you, my dear. I insist that there's only one professional-man's wife in this town who doesn't plot, and that is you, you blessed, credulous outsider!"
"I won't be cajoled! I won't believe that medicine, the priesthood of healing, can be turned into a penny-picking business."
"See here: Hasn't Kennicott ever hinted to you that you'd better be nice to some old woman because she tells her friends which doctor to call in? But I oughtn't to——"
She remembered certain remarks which Kennicott had offered regarding the Widow Bogart. She flinched, looked at Guy beseechingly.
He sprang up, strode to her with a nervous step, smoothed her hand. She wondered if she ought to be offended by his caress. Then she wondered if he liked her hat, the new Oriental turban of rose and silver brocade.
He dropped her hand. His elbow brushed her shoulder. He flitted over to the desk-chair, his thin back stooped. He picked up the cloisonne vase. Across it he peered at her with such loneliness that she was startled. But his eyes faded into impersonality as he talked of the jealousies of Gopher Prairie. He stopped himself with a sharp, "Good Lord, Carol, you're not a jury. You are within your legal rights in refusing to be subjected to this summing-up. I'm a tedious old fool analyzing the obvious, while you're the spirit of rebellion. Tell me your side. What is Gopher Prairie to you?"
"Can I help?"
"How could you?"
"I don't know. Perhaps by listening. I haven't done that tonight. But normally——Can't I be the confidant of the old French plays, the tiring-maid with the mirror and the loyal ears?"
"Oh, what is there to confide? The people are savorless and proud of it. And even if I liked you tremendously, I couldn't talk to you without twenty old hexes watching, whispering."
"But you will come talk to me, once in a while?"
"I'm not sure that I shall. I'm trying to develop my own large capacity for dullness and contentment. I've failed at every positive thing I've tried. I'd better 'settle down,' as they call it, and be satisfied to be—nothing."
"Don't be cynical. It hurts me, in you. It's like blood on the wing of a humming-bird."
"I'm not a humming-bird. I'm a hawk; a tiny leashed hawk, pecked to death by these large, white, flabby, wormy hens. But I am grateful to you for confirming me in the faith. And I'm going home!"
"Please stay and have some coffee with me."
"I'd like to. But they've succeeded in terrorizing me. I'm afraid of what people might say."
"I'm not afraid of that. I'm only afraid of what you might say!" He stalked to her; took her unresponsive hand. "Carol! You have been happy here tonight? (Yes. I'm begging!)"
She squeezed his hand quickly, then snatched hers away. She had but little of the curiosity of the flirt, and none of the intrigante's joy in furtiveness. If she was the naive girl, Guy Pollock was the clumsy boy. He raced about the office; he rammed his fists into his pockets. He stammered, "I—I—I——Oh, the devil! Why do I awaken from smooth dustiness to this jagged rawness? I'll make I'm going to trot down the hall and bring in the Dillons, and we'll all have coffee or something."
"Yes. Really quite a decent young pair—Harvey Dillon and his wife. He's a dentist, just come to town. They live in a room behind his office, same as I do here. They don't know much of anybody——"
"I've heard of them. And I've never thought to call. I'm horribly ashamed. Do bring them——"
She stopped, for no very clear reason, but his expression said, her faltering admitted, that they wished they had never mentioned the Dillons. With spurious enthusiasm he said, "Splendid! I will." From the door he glanced at her, curled in the peeled leather chair. He slipped out, came back with Dr. and Mrs. Dillon.
The four of them drank rather bad coffee which Pollock made on a kerosene burner. They laughed, and spoke of Minneapolis, and were tremendously tactful; and Carol started for home, through the November wind.
SHE was marching home.
"No. I couldn't fall in love with him. I like him, very much. But he's too much of a recluse. Could I kiss him? No! No! Guy Pollock at twenty-six I could have kissed him then, maybe, even if I were married to some one else, and probably I'd have been glib in persuading myself that 'it wasn't really wrong.'
"The amazing thing is that I'm not more amazed at myself. I, the virtuous young matron. Am I to be trusted? If the Prince Charming came——
"A Gopher Prairie housewife, married a year, and yearning for a 'Prince Charming' like a bachfisch of sixteen! They say that marriage is a magic change. But I'm not changed. But——
"No! I wouldn't want to fall in love, even if the Prince did come. I wouldn't want to hurt Will. I am fond of Will. I am! He doesn't stir me, not any longer. But I depend on him. He is home and children.
"I wonder when we will begin to have children? I do want them.
"I wonder whether I remembered to tell Bea to have hominy tomorrow, instead of oatmeal? She will have gone to bed by now. Perhaps I'll be up early enough——
"Ever so fond of Will. I wouldn't hurt him, even if I had to lose the mad love. If the Prince came I'd look once at him, and run. Darn fast! Oh, Carol, you are not heroic nor fine. You are the immutable vulgar young female.
"But I'm not the faithless wife who enjoys confiding that she's 'misunderstood.' Oh, I'm not, I'm not!
"At least I didn't whisper to Guy about Will's faults and his blindness to my remarkable soul. I didn't! Matter of fact, Will probably understands me perfectly! If only—if he would just back me up in rousing the town.
"How many, how incredibly many wives there must be who tingle over the first Guy Pollock who smiles at them. No! I will not be one of that herd of yearners! The coy virgin brides. Yet probably if the Prince were young and dared to face life——
"I'm not half as well oriented as that Mrs. Dillon. So obviously adoring her dentist! And seeing Guy only as an eccentric fogy.
"They weren't silk, Mrs. Dillon's stockings. They were lisle. Her legs are nice and slim. But no nicer than mine. I hate cotton tops on silk stockings. . . . Are my ankles getting fat? I will NOT have fat ankles!
"No. I am fond of Will. His work—one farmer he pulls through diphtheria is worth all my yammering for a castle in Spain. A castle with baths.
"This hat is so tight. I must stretch it. Guy liked it.
"There's the house. I'm awfully chilly. Time to get out the fur coat. I wonder if I'll ever have a beaver coat? Nutria is NOT the same thing! Beaver-glossy. Like to run my fingers over it. Guy's mustache like beaver. How utterly absurd!
"I am, I AM fond of Will, and——Can't I ever find another word than 'fond'?
"He's home. He'll think I was out late.
"Why can't he ever remember to pull down the shades? Cy Bogart and all the beastly boys peeping in. But the poor dear, he's absent-minded about minute—minush—whatever the word is. He has so much worry and work, while I do nothing but jabber to Bea.
"I MUSTN'T forget the hominy——"
She was flying into the hall. Kennicott looked up from the Journal of the American Medical Society.
"Hello! What time did you get back?" she cried.
"About nine. You been gadding. Here it is past eleven!" Good-natured yet not quite approving.
"Did it feel neglected?"
"Well, you didn't remember to close the lower draft in the furnace."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. But I don't often forget things like that, do I?"
She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye-glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat) he kissed her amiably, and remarked:
"Nope, I must say you're fairly good about things like that. I wasn't kicking. I just meant I wouldn't want the fire to go out on us. Leave that draft open and the fire might burn up and go out on us. And the nights are beginning to get pretty cold again. Pretty cold on my drive. I put the side-curtains up, it was so chilly. But the generator is working all right now."
"Yes. It is chilly. But I feel fine after my walk."
"I went up to see the Perrys." By a definite act of will she added the truth: "They weren't in. And I saw Guy Pollock. Dropped into his office."
"Why, you haven't been sitting and chinning with him till eleven o'clock?"
"Of course there were some other people there and——Will! What do you think of Dr. Westlake?"
"I noticed him on the street today."
"Was he limping? If the poor fish would have his teeth X-rayed, I'll bet nine and a half cents he'd find an abscess there. 'Rheumatism' he calls it. Rheumatism, hell! He's behind the times. Wonder he doesn't bleed himself! Wellllllll——" A profound and serious yawn. "I hate to break up the party, but it's getting late, and a doctor never knows when he'll get routed out before morning." (She remembered that he had given this explanation, in these words, not less than thirty times in the year.) "I guess we better be trotting up to bed. I've wound the clock and looked at the furnace. Did you lock the front door when you came in?"
They trailed up-stairs, after he had turned out the lights and twice tested the front door to make sure it was fast. While they talked they were preparing for bed. Carol still sought to maintain privacy by undressing behind the screen of the closet door. Kennicott was not so reticent. Tonight, as every night, she was irritated by having to push the old plush chair out of the way before she could open the closet door. Every time she opened the door she shoved the chair. Ten times an hour. But Kennicott liked to have the chair in the room, and there was no place for it except in front of the closet.
She pushed it, felt angry, hid her anger. Kennicott was yawning, more portentously. The room smelled stale. She shrugged and became chatty:
"You were speaking of Dr. Westlake. Tell me—you've never summed him up: Is he really a good doctor?"
"Oh yes, he's a wise old coot."
("There! You see there is no medical rivalry. Not in my house!" she said triumphantly to Guy Pollock.)
She hung her silk petticoat on a closet hook, and went on, "Dr. Westlake is so gentle and scholarly——"
"Well, I don't know as I'd say he was such a whale of a scholar. I've always had a suspicion he did a good deal of four-flushing about that. He likes to have people think he keeps up his French and Greek and Lord knows what all; and he's always got an old Dago book lying around the sitting-room, but I've got a hunch he reads detective stories 'bout like the rest of us. And I don't know where he'd ever learn so dog-gone many languages anyway! He kind of lets people assume he went to Harvard or Berlin or Oxford or somewhere, but I looked him up in the medical register, and he graduated from a hick college in Pennsylvania, 'way back in 1861!"
"But this is the important thing: Is he an honest doctor?"
"How do you mean 'honest'? Depends on what you mean."
"Suppose you were sick. Would you call him in? Would you let me call him in?"
"Not if I were well enough to cuss and bite, I wouldn't! No, SIR! I wouldn't have the old fake in the house. Makes me tired, his everlasting palavering and soft-soaping. He's all right for an ordinary bellyache or holding some fool woman's hand, but I wouldn't call him in for an honest-to-God illness, not much I wouldn't, NO-sir! You know I don't do much back-biting, but same time——I'll tell you, Carrrie: I've never got over being sore at Westlake for the way he treated Mrs. Jonderquist. Nothing the matter with her, what she really needed was a rest, but Westlake kept calling on her and calling on her for weeks, almost every day, and he sent her a good big fat bill, too, you can bet! I never did forgive him for that. Nice decent hard-working people like the Jonderquists!"
In her batiste nightgown she was standing at the bureau engaged in the invariable rites of wishing that she had a real dressing-table with a triple mirror, of bending toward the streaky glass and raising her chin to inspect a pin-head mole on her throat, and finally of brushing her hair. In rhythm to the strokes she went on:
"But, Will, there isn't any of what you might call financial rivalry between you and the partners—Westlake and McGanum—is there?"
He flipped into bed with a solemn back-somersault and a ludicrous kick of his heels as he tucked his legs under the blankets. He snorted, "Lord no! I never begrudge any man a nickel he can get away from me—fairly."
"But is Westlake fair? Isn't he sly?"
"Sly is the word. He's a fox, that boy!"
She saw Guy Pollock's grin in the mirror. She flushed.
Kennicott, with his arms behind his head, was yawning:
"Yump. He's smooth, too smooth. But I bet I make prett' near as much as Westlake and McGanum both together, though I've never wanted to grab more than my just share. If anybody wants to go to the partners instead of to me, that's his business. Though I must say it makes me tired when Westlake gets hold of the Dawsons. Here Luke Dawson had been coming to me for every toeache and headache and a lot of little things that just wasted my time, and then when his grandchild was here last summer and had summer-complaint, I suppose, or something like that, probably—you know, the time you and I drove up to Lac-qui-Meurt—why, Westlake got hold of Ma Dawson, and scared her to death, and made her think the kid had appendicitis, and, by golly, if he and McGanum didn't operate, and holler their heads off about the terrible adhesions they found, and what a regular Charley and Will Mayo they were for classy surgery. They let on that if they'd waited two hours more the kid would have developed peritonitis, and God knows what all; and then they collected a nice fat hundred and fifty dollars. And probably they'd have charged three hundred, if they hadn't been afraid of me! I'm no hog, but I certainly do hate to give old Luke ten dollars' worth of advice for a dollar and a half, and then see a hundred and fifty go glimmering. And if I can't do a better 'pendectomy than either Westlake or McGanum, I'll eat my hat!"
As she crept into bed she was dazzled by Guy's blazing grin. She experimented:
"But Westlake is cleverer than his son-in-law, don't you think?"
"Yes, Westlake may be old-fashioned and all that, but he's got a certain amount of intuition, while McGanum goes into everything bull-headed, and butts his way through like a damn yahoo, and tries to argue his patients into having whatever he diagnoses them as having! About the best thing Mac can do is to stick to baby-snatching. He's just about on a par with this bone-pounding chiropractor female, Mrs. Mattie Gooch."
"Mrs. Westlake and Mrs. McGanum, though—they're nice. They've been awfully cordial to me."
"Well, no reason why they shouldn't be, is there? Oh, they're nice enough—though you can bet your bottom dollar they're both plugging for their husbands all the time, trying to get the business. And I don't know as I call it so damn cordial in Mrs. McGanum when I holler at her on the street and she nods back like she had a sore neck. Still, she's all right. It's Ma Westlake that makes the mischief, pussyfooting around all the time. But I wouldn't trust any Westlake out of the whole lot, and while Mrs. McGanum SEEMS square enough, you don't never want to forget that she's Westlake's daughter. You bet!"
"What about Dr. Gould? Don't you think he's worse than either Westlake or McGanum? He's so cheap—drinking, and playing pool, and always smoking cigars in such a cocky way——"
"That's all right now! Terry Gould is a good deal of a tin-horn sport, but he knows a lot about medicine, and don't you forget it for one second!"
She stared down Guy's grin, and asked more cheerfully, "Is he honest, too?"
"Ooooooooooo! Gosh I'm sleepy!" He burrowed beneath the bedclothes in a luxurious stretch, and came up like a diver, shaking his head, as he complained, "How's that? Who? Terry Gould honest? Don't start me laughing—I'm too nice and sleepy! I didn't say he was honest. I said he had savvy enough to find the index in 'Gray's Anatomy,' which is more than McGanum can do! But I didn't say anything about his being honest. He isn't. Terry is crooked as a dog's hind leg. He's done me more than one dirty trick. He told Mrs. Glorbach, seventeen miles out, that I wasn't up-to-date in obstetrics. Fat lot of good it did him! She came right in and told me! And Terry's lazy. He'd let a pneumonia patient choke rather than interrupt a poker game."
"Oh no. I can't believe——"
"Well now, I'm telling you!"
"Does he play much poker? Dr. Dillon told me that Dr. Gould wanted him to play——"
"Dillon told you what? Where'd you meet Dillon? He's just come to town."
"He and his wife were at Mr. Pollock's tonight."
"Say, uh, what'd you think of them? Didn't Dillon strike you as pretty light-waisted?"
"Why no. He seemed intelligent. I'm sure he's much more wide-awake than our dentist."
"Well now, the old man is a good dentist. He knows his business. And Dillon——I wouldn't cuddle up to the Dillons too close, if I were you. All right for Pollock, and that's none of our business, but we——I think I'd just give the Dillons the glad hand and pass 'em up."
"But why? He isn't a rival."
"That's—all—right!" Kennicott was aggressively awake now. "He'll work right in with Westlake and McGanum. Matter of fact, I suspect they were largely responsible for his locating here. They'll be sending him patients, and he'll send all that he can get hold of to them. I don't trust anybody that's too much hand-in-glove with Westlake. You give Dillon a shot at some fellow that's just bought a farm here and drifts into town to get his teeth looked at, and after Dillon gets through with him, you'll see him edging around to Westlake and McGanum, every time!"
Carol reached for her blouse, which hung on a chair by the bed. She draped it about her shoulders, and sat up studying Kennicott, her chin in her hands. In the gray light from the small electric bulb down the hall she could see that he was frowning.
"Will, this is—I must get this straight. Some one said to me the other day that in towns like this, even more than in cities, all the doctors hate each other, because of the money——"
"Who said that?"
"It doesn't matter."
"I'll bet a hat it was your Vida Sherwin. She's a brainy woman, but she'd be a damn sight brainier if she kept her mouth shut and didn't let so much of her brains ooze out that way."
"Will! O Will! That's horrible! Aside from the vulgarity——Some ways, Vida is my best friend. Even if she HAD said it. Which, as a matter of fact, she didn't." He reared up his thick shoulders, in absurd pink and green flannelette pajamas. He sat straight, and irritatingly snapped his fingers, and growled:
"Well, if she didn't say it, let's forget her. Doesn't make any difference who said it, anyway. The point is that you believe it. God! To think you don't understand me any better than that! Money!"
("This is the first real quarrel we've ever had," she was agonizing.)
He thrust out his long arm and snatched his wrinkly vest from a chair. He took out a cigar, a match. He tossed the vest on the floor. He lighted the cigar and puffed savagely. He broke up the match and snapped the fragments at the foot-board.
She suddenly saw the foot-board of the bed as the foot-stone of the grave of love.
The room was drab-colored and ill-ventilated—Kennicott did not "believe in opening the windows so darn wide that you heat all outdoors." The stale air seemed never to change. In the light from the hall they were two lumps of bedclothes with shoulders and tousled heads attached.
She begged, "I didn't mean to wake you up, dear. And please don't smoke. You've been smoking so much. Please go back to sleep. I'm sorry."
"Being sorry 's all right, but I'm going to tell you one or two things. This falling for anybody's say-so about medical jealousy and competition is simply part and parcel of your usual willingness to think the worst you possibly can of us poor dubs in Gopher Prairie. Trouble with women like you is, you always want to ARGUE. Can't take things the way they are. Got to argue. Well, I'm not going to argue about this in any way, shape, manner, or form. Trouble with you is, you don't make any effort to appreciate us. You're so damned superior, and think the city is such a hell of a lot finer place, and you want us to do what YOU want, all the time——"
"That's not true! It's I who make the effort. It's they—it's you—who stand back and criticize. I have to come over to the town's opinion; I have to devote myself to their interests. They can't even SEE my interests, to say nothing of adopting them. I get ever so excited about their old Lake Minniemashie and the cottages, but they simply guffaw (in that lovely friendly way you advertise so much) if I speak of wanting to see Taormina also."
"Sure, Tormina, whatever that is—some nice expensive millionaire colony, I suppose. Sure; that's the idea; champagne taste and beer income; and make sure that we never will have more than a beer income, too!"
"Are you by any chance implying that I am not economical?"
"Well, I hadn't intended to, but since you bring it up yourself, I don't mind saying the grocery bills are about twice what they ought to be."
"Yes, they probably are. I'm not economical. I can't be. Thanks to you!"
"Where d' you get that 'thanks to you'?"
"Please don't be quite so colloquial—or shall I say VULGAR?"
"I'll be as damn colloquial as I want to. How do you get that 'thanks to you'? Here about a year ago you jump me for not remembering to give you money. Well, I'm reasonable. I didn't blame you, and I SAID I was to blame. But have I ever forgotten it since—practically?"
"No. You haven't—practically! But that isn't it. I ought to have an allowance. I will, too! I must have an agreement for a regular stated amount, every month."
"Fine idea! Of course a doctor gets a regular stated amount! Sure! A thousand one month—and lucky if he makes a hundred the next."
"Very well then, a percentage. Or something else. No matter how much you vary, you can make a rough average for——"
"But what's the idea? What are you trying to get at? Mean to say I'm unreasonable? Think I'm so unreliable and tightwad that you've got to tie me down with a contract? By God, that hurts! I thought I'd been pretty generous and decent, and I took a lot of pleasure—thinks I, 'she'll be tickled when I hand her over this twenty'—or fifty, or whatever it was; and now seems you been wanting to make it a kind of alimony. Me, like a poor fool, thinking I was liberal all the while, and you——"
"Please stop pitying yourself! You're having a beautiful time feeling injured. I admit all you say. Certainly. You've given me money both freely and amiably. Quite as if I were your mistress!"
"I mean it! What was a magnificent spectacle of generosity to you was humiliation to me. You GAVE me money—gave it to your mistress, if she was complaisant, and then you——"
"(Don't interrupt me!)—then you felt you'd discharged all obligation. Well, hereafter I'll refuse your money, as a gift. Either I'm your partner, in charge of the household department of our business, with a regular budget for it, or else I'm nothing. If I'm to be a mistress, I shall choose my lovers. Oh, I hate it—I hate it—this smirking and hoping for money—and then not even spending it on jewels as a mistress has a right to, but spending it on double-boilers and socks for you! Yes indeed! You're generous! You give me a dollar, right out—the only proviso is that I must spend it on a tie for you! And you give it when and as you wish. How can I be anything but uneconomical?"
"Oh well, of course, looking at it that way——"
"I can't shop around, can't buy in large quantities, have to stick to stores where I have a charge account, good deal of the time, can't plan because I don't know how much money I can depend on. That's what I pay for your charming sentimentalities about giving so generously. You make me——"
"Wait! Wait! You know you're exaggerating. You never thought about that mistress stuff till just this minute! Matter of fact, you never have 'smirked and hoped for money.' But all the same, you may be right. You ought to run the household as a business. I'll figure out a definite plan tomorrow, and hereafter you'll be on a regular amount or percentage, with your own checking account."
"Oh, that IS decent of you!" She turned toward him, trying to be affectionate. But his eyes were pink and unlovely in the flare of the match with which he lighted his dead and malodorous cigar. His head drooped, and a ridge of flesh scattered with pale small bristles bulged out under his chin.
She sat in abeyance till he croaked:
"No. 'Tisn't especially decent. It's just fair. And God knows I want to be fair. But I expect others to be fair, too. And you're so high and mighty about people. Take Sam Clark; best soul that ever lived, honest and loyal and a damn good fellow——"
("Yes, and a good shot at ducks, don't forget that!")
("Well, and he is a good shot, too!) Sam drops around in the evening to sit and visit, and by golly just because he takes a dry smoke and rolls his cigar around in his mouth, and maybe spits a few times, you look at him as if he was a hog. Oh, you didn't know I was onto you, and I certainly hope Sam hasn't noticed it, but I never miss it."
"I have felt that way. Spitting—ugh! But I'm sorry you caught my thoughts. I tried to be nice; I tried to hide them."
"Maybe I catch a whole lot more than you think I do!"
"Yes, perhaps you do."
"And d' you know why Sam doesn't light his cigar when he's here?"
"He's so darn afraid you'll be offended if he smokes. You scare him. Every time he speaks of the weather you jump him because he ain't talking about poetry or Gertie—Goethe?—or some other highbrow junk. You've got him so leery he scarcely dares to come here."
"Oh, I AM sorry. (Though I'm sure it's you who are exaggerating now.")
"Well now, I don't know as I am! And I can tell you one thing: if you keep on you'll manage to drive away every friend I've got."
"That would be horrible of me. You KNOW I don't mean to Will, what is it about me that frightens Sam—if I do frighten him."
"Oh, you do, all right! 'Stead of putting his legs up on another chair, and unbuttoning his vest, and telling a good story or maybe kidding me about something, he sits on the edge of his chair and tries to make conversation about politics, and he doesn't even cuss, and Sam's never real comfortable unless he can cuss a little!"
"In other words, he isn't comfortable unless he can behave like a peasant in a mud hut!"
"Now that'll be about enough of that! You want to know how you scare him? First you deliberately fire some question at him that you know darn well he can't answer—any fool could see you were experimenting with him—and then you shock him by talking of mistresses or something, like you were doing just now——"
"Of course the pure Samuel never speaks of such erring ladies in his private conversations!"
"Not when there's ladies around! You can bet your life on that!"
"So the impurity lies in failing to pretend that——"
"Now we won't go into all that—eugenics or whatever damn fad you choose to call it. As I say, first you shock him, and then you become so darn flighty that nobody can follow you. Either you want to dance, or you bang the piano, or else you get moody as the devil and don't want to talk or anything else. If you must be temperamental, why can't you be that way by yourself?"
"My dear man, there's nothing I'd like better than to be by myself occasionally! To have a room of my own! I suppose you expect me to sit here and dream delicately and satisfy my 'temperamentality' while you wander in from the bathroom with lather all over your face, and shout, 'Seen my brown pants?'"
"Huh!" He did not sound impressed. He made no answer. He turned out of bed, his feet making one solid thud on the floor. He marched from the room, a grotesque figure in baggy union-pajamas. She heard him drawing a drink of water at the bathroom tap. She was furious at the contemptuousness of his exit. She snuggled down in bed, and looked away from him as he returned. He ignored her. As he flumped into bed he yawned, and casually stated:
"Well, you'll have plenty of privacy when we build a new house.
"Oh, I'll build it all right, don't you fret! But of course I don't expect any credit for it."
Now it was she who grunted "Huh!" and ignored him, and felt independent and masterful as she shot up out of bed, turned her back on him, fished a lone and petrified chocolate out of her glove-box in the top right-hand drawer of the bureau, gnawed at it, found that it had cocoanut filling, said "Damn!" wished that she had not said it, so that she might be superior to his colloquialism, and hurled the chocolate into the wastebasket, where it made an evil and mocking clatter among the debris of torn linen collars and toothpaste box. Then, in great dignity and self-dramatization, she returned to bed.