All this time he had been talking on, embroidering his assertion that he "didn't expect any credit." She was reflecting that he was a rustic, that she hated him, that she had been insane to marry him, that she had married him only because she was tired of work, that she must get her long gloves cleaned, that she would never do anything more for him, and that she mustn't forget his hominy for breakfast. She was roused to attention by his storming:
"I'm a fool to think about a new house. By the time I get it built you'll probably have succeeded in your plan to get me completely in Dutch with every friend and every patient I've got."
She sat up with a bounce. She said coldly, "Thank you very much for revealing your real opinion of me. If that's the way you feel, if I'm such a hindrance to you, I can't stay under this roof another minute. And I am perfectly well able to earn my own living. I will go at once, and you may get a divorce at your pleasure! What you want is a nice sweet cow of a woman who will enjoy having your dear friends talk about the weather and spit on the floor!"
"Tut! Don't be a fool!"
"You will very soon find out whether I'm a fool or not! I mean it! Do you think I'd stay here one second after I found out that I was injuring you? At least I have enough sense of justice not to do that."
"Please stop flying off at tangents, Carrie. This——"
"Tangents? TANGENTS! Let me tell you——"
"——isn't a theater-play; it's a serious effort to have us get together on fundamentals. We've both been cranky, and said a lot of things we didn't mean. I wish we were a couple o' bloomin' poets and just talked about roses and moonshine, but we're human. All right. Let's cut out jabbing at each other. Let's admit we both do fool things. See here: You KNOW you feel superior to folks. You're not as bad as I say, but you're not as good as you say—not by a long shot! What's the reason you're so superior? Why can't you take folks as they are?"
Her preparations for stalking out of the Doll's House were not yet visible. She mused:
"I think perhaps it's my childhood." She halted. When she went on her voice had an artificial sound, her words the bookish quality of emotional meditation. "My father was the tenderest man in the world, but he did feel superior to ordinary people. Well, he was! And the Minnesota Valley——I used to sit there on the cliffs above Mankato for hours at a time, my chin in my hand, looking way down the valley, wanting to write poems. The shiny tilted roofs below me, and the river, and beyond it the level fields in the mist, and the rim of palisades across——It held my thoughts in. I LIVED, in the valley. But the prairie—all my thoughts go flying off into the big space. Do you think it might be that?"
"Um, well, maybe, but——Carrie, you always talk so much about getting all you can out of life, and not letting the years slip by, and here you deliberately go and deprive yourself of a lot of real good home pleasure by not enjoying people unless they wear frock coats and trot out——"
("Morning clothes. Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean t' interrupt you.")
"——to a lot of tea-parties. Take Jack Elder. You think Jack hasn't got any ideas about anything but manufacturing and the tariff on lumber. But do you know that Jack is nutty about music? He'll put a grand-opera record on the phonograph and sit and listen to it and close his eyes——Or you take Lym Cass. Ever realize what a well-informed man he is?"
"But IS he? Gopher Prairie calls anybody 'well-informed' who's been through the State Capitol and heard about Gladstone."
"Now I'm telling you! Lym reads a lot—solid stuff—history. Or take Mart Mahoney, the garageman. He's got a lot of Perry prints of famous pictures in his office. Or old Bingham Playfair, that died here 'bout a year ago—lived seven miles out. He was a captain in the Civil War, and knew General Sherman, and they say he was a miner in Nevada right alongside of Mark Twain. You'll find these characters in all these small towns, and a pile of savvy in every single one of them, if you just dig for it."
"I know. And I do love them. Especially people like Champ Perry. But I can't be so very enthusiastic over the smug cits like Jack Elder."
"Then I'm a smug cit, too, whatever that is."
"No, you're a scientist. Oh, I will try and get the music out of Mr. Elder. Only, why can't he let it COME out, instead of being ashamed of it, and always talking about hunting dogs? But I will try. Is it all right now?"
"Sure. But there's one other thing. You might give me some attention, too!"
"That's unjust! You have everything I am!"
"No, I haven't. You think you respect me—you always hand out some spiel about my being so 'useful.' But you never think of me as having ambitions, just as much as you have——"
"Perhaps not. I think of you as being perfectly satisfied."
"Well, I'm not, not by a long shot! I don't want to be a plug general practitioner all my life, like Westlake, and die in harness because I can't get out of it, and have 'em say, 'He was a good fellow, but he couldn't save a cent.' Not that I care a whoop what they say, after I've kicked in and can't hear 'em, but I want to put enough money away so you and I can be independent some day, and not have to work unless I feel like it, and I want to have a good house—by golly, I'll have as good a house as anybody in THIS town!—and if we want to travel and see your Tormina or whatever it is, why we can do it, with enough money in our jeans so we won't have to take anything off anybody, or fret about our old age. You never worry about what might happen if we got sick and didn't have a good fat wad salted away, do you!"
"I don't suppose I do."
"Well then, I have to do it for you. And if you think for one moment I want to be stuck in this burg all my life, and not have a chance to travel and see the different points of interest and all that, then you simply don't get me. I want to have a squint at the world, much's you do. Only, I'm practical about it. First place, I'm going to make the money—I'm investing in good safe farmlands. Do you understand why now?"
"Will you try and see if you can't think of me as something more than just a dollar-chasing roughneck?"
"Oh, my dear, I haven't been just! I AM difficile. And I won't call on the Dillons! And if Dr. Dillon is working for Westlake and McGanum, I hate him!"
THAT December she was in love with her husband.
She romanticized herself not as a great reformer but as the wife of a country physician. The realities of the doctor's household were colored by her pride.
Late at night, a step on the wooden porch, heard through her confusion of sleep; the storm-door opened; fumbling over the inner door-panels; the buzz of the electric bell. Kennicott muttering "Gol darn it," but patiently creeping out of bed, remembering to draw the covers up to keep her warm, feeling for slippers and bathrobe, clumping down-stairs.
From below, half-heard in her drowsiness, a colloquy in the pidgin-German of the farmers who have forgotten the Old Country language without learning the new:
"Hello, Barney, wass willst du?"
"Morgen, doctor. Die Frau ist ja awful sick. All night she been having an awful pain in de belly."
"How long she been this way? Wie lang, eh?"
"I dunno, maybe two days."
"Why didn't you come for me yesterday, instead of waking me up out of a sound sleep? Here it is two o'clock! So spat—warum, eh?"
"Nun aber, I know it, but she got soch a lot vorse last evening. I t'ought maybe all de time it go avay, but it got a lot vorse."
"Vell ja, I t'ink she got fever."
"Which side is the pain on?"
"Das Schmertz—die Weh—which side is it on? Here?"
"So. Right here it is."
"Any rigidity there?"
"Is it rigid—stiff—I mean, does the belly feel hard to the fingers?"
"I dunno. She ain't said yet."
"What she been eating?"
"Vell, I t'ink about vot ve alwis eat, maybe corn beef and cabbage and sausage, und so weiter. Doc, sie weint immer, all the time she holler like hell. I vish you come."
"Well, all right, but you call me earlier, next time. Look here, Barney, you better install a 'phone—telephone haben. Some of you Dutchmen will be dying one of these days before you can fetch the doctor."
The door closing. Barney's wagon—the wheels silent in the snow, but the wagon-body rattling. Kennicott clicking the receiver-hook to rouse the night telephone-operator, giving a number, waiting, cursing mildly, waiting again, and at last growling, "Hello, Gus, this is the doctor. Say, uh, send me up a team. Guess snow's too thick for a machine. Going eight miles south. All right. Huh? The hell I will! Don't you go back to sleep. Huh? Well, that's all right now, you didn't wait so very darn long. All right, Gus; shoot her along. By!"
His step on the stairs; his quiet moving about the frigid room while he dressed; his abstracted and meaningless cough. She was supposed to be asleep; she was too exquisitely drowsy to break the charm by speaking. On a slip of paper laid on the bureau—she could hear the pencil grinding against the marble slab—he wrote his destination. He went out, hungry, chilly, unprotesting; and she, before she fell asleep again, loved him for his sturdiness, and saw the drama of his riding by night to the frightened household on the distant farm; pictured children standing at a window, waiting for him. He suddenly had in her eyes the heroism of a wireless operator on a ship in a collision; of an explorer, fever-clawed, deserted by his bearers, but going on—jungle—going——
At six, when the light faltered in as through ground glass and bleakly identified the chairs as gray rectangles, she heard his step on the porch; heard him at the furnace: the rattle of shaking the grate, the slow grinding removal of ashes, the shovel thrust into the coal-bin, the abrupt clatter of the coal as it flew into the fire-box, the fussy regulation of drafts—the daily sounds of a Gopher Prairie life, now first appealing to her as something brave and enduring, many-colored and free. She visioned the fire-box: flames turned to lemon and metallic gold as the coal-dust sifted over them; thin twisty flutters of purple, ghost flames which gave no light, slipping up between the dark banked coals.
It was luxurious in bed, and the house would be warm for her when she rose, she reflected. What a worthless cat she was! What were her aspirations beside his capability?
She awoke again as he dropped into bed.
"Seems just a few minutes ago that you started out!"
"I've been away four hours. I've operated a woman for appendicitis, in a Dutch kitchen. Came awful close to losing her, too, but I pulled her through all right. Close squeak. Barney says he shot ten rabbits last Sunday."
He was instantly asleep—one hour of rest before he had to be up and ready for the farmers who came in early. She marveled that in what was to her but a night-blurred moment, he should have been in a distant place, have taken charge of a strange house, have slashed a woman, saved a life.
What wonder he detested the lazy Westlake and McGanum! How could the easy Guy Pollock understand this skill and endurance?
Then Kennicott was grumbling, "Seven-fifteen! Aren't you ever going to get up for breakfast?" and he was not a hero-scientist but a rather irritable and commonplace man who needed a shave. They had coffee, griddle-cakes, and sausages, and talked about Mrs. McGanum's atrocious alligator-hide belt. Night witchery and morning disillusion were alike forgotten in the march of realities and days.
Familiar to the doctor's wife was the man with an injured leg, driven in from the country on a Sunday afternoon and brought to the house. He sat in a rocker in the back of a lumber-wagon, his face pale from the anguish of the jolting. His leg was thrust out before him, resting on a starch-box and covered with a leather-bound horse-blanket. His drab courageous wife drove the wagon, and she helped Kennicott support him as he hobbled up the steps, into the house.
"Fellow cut his leg with an ax—pretty bad gash—Halvor Nelson, nine miles out," Kennicott observed.
Carol fluttered at the back of the room, childishly excited when she was sent to fetch towels and a basin of water. Kennicott lifted the farmer into a chair and chuckled, "There we are, Halvor! We'll have you out fixing fences and drinking aquavit in a month." The farmwife sat on the couch, expressionless, bulky in a man's dogskin coat and unplumbed layers of jackets. The flowery silk handkerchief which she had worn over her head now hung about her seamed neck. Her white wool gloves lay in her lap.
Kennicott drew from the injured leg the thick red "German sock," the innumerous other socks of gray and white wool, then the spiral bandage. The leg was of an unwholesome dead white, with the black hairs feeble and thin and flattened, and the scar a puckered line of crimson. Surely, Carol shuddered, this was not human flesh, the rosy shining tissue of the amorous poets.
Kennicott examined the scar, smiled at Halvor and his wife, chanted, "Fine, b' gosh! Couldn't be better!"
The Nelsons looked deprecating. The farmer nodded a cue to his wife and she mourned:
"Vell, how much ve going to owe you, doctor?"
"I guess it'll be——Let's see: one drive out and two calls. I guess it'll be about eleven dollars in all, Lena."
"I dunno ve can pay you yoost a little w'ile, doctor."
Kennicott lumbered over to her, patted her shoulder, roared, "Why, Lord love you, sister, I won't worry if I never get it! You pay me next fall, when you get your crop. . . . Carrie! Suppose you or Bea could shake up a cup of coffee and some cold lamb for the Nelsons? They got a long cold drive ahead."
He had been gone since morning; her eyes ached with reading; Vida Sherwin could not come to tea. She wandered through the house, empty as the bleary street without. The problem of "Will the doctor be home in time for supper, or shall I sit down without him?" was important in the household. Six was the rigid, the canonical supper-hour, but at half-past six he had not come. Much speculation with Bea: Had the obstetrical case taken longer than he had expected? Had he been called somewhere else? Was the snow much heavier out in the country, so that he should have taken a buggy, or even a cutter, instead of the car? Here in town it had melted a lot, but still——
A honking, a shout, the motor engine raced before it was shut off.
She hurried to the window. The car was a monster at rest after furious adventures. The headlights blazed on the clots of ice in the road so that the tiniest lumps gave mountainous shadows, and the taillight cast a circle of ruby on the snow behind. Kennicott was opening the door, crying, "Here we are, old girl! Got stuck couple times, but we made it, by golly, we made it, and here we be! Come on! Food! Eatin's!"
She rushed to him, patted his fur coat, the long hairs smooth but chilly to her fingers. She joyously summoned Bea, "All right! He's here! We'll sit right down!"
There were, to inform the doctor's wife of his successes no clapping audiences nor book-reviews nor honorary degrees. But there was a letter written by a German farmer recently moved from Minnesota to Saskatchewan:
Dear sor, as you haf bin treading mee for a fue Weaks dis Somer and seen wat is rong wit mee so in Regarding to dat i wont to tank you. the Doctor heir say wat shot bee rong wit mee and day give mee som Madsin but it diten halp mee like wat you dit. Now day glaim dat i Woten Neet aney Madsin ad all wat you tink?
Well i haven ben tacking aney ting for about one & 1/2 Mont but i dont get better so i like to heir Wat you tink about it i feel like dis Disconfebil feeling around the Stomac after eating and dat Pain around Heard and down the arm and about 3 to 3 1/2 Hour after Eating i feel weeak like and dissy and a dull Hadig. Now you gust lett mee know Wat you tink about mee, i do Wat you say.
She encountered Guy Pollock at the drug store. He looked at her as though he had a right to; he spoke softly. "I haven't see you, the last few days."
"No. I've been out in the country with Will several times. He's so——Do you know that people like you and me can never understand people like him? We're a pair of hypercritical loafers, you and I, while he quietly goes and does things."
She nodded and smiled and was very busy about purchasing boric acid. He stared after her, and slipped away.
When she found that he was gone she was slightly disconcerted.
She could—at times—agree with Kennicott that the shaving-and-corsets familiarity of married life was not dreary vulgarity but a wholesome frankness; that artificial reticences might merely be irritating. She was not much disturbed when for hours he sat about the living-room in his honest socks. But she would not listen to his theory that "all this romance stuff is simply moonshine—elegant when you're courting, but no use busting yourself keeping it up all your life."
She thought of surprises, games, to vary the days. She knitted an astounding purple scarf, which she hid under his supper plate. (When he discovered it he looked embarrassed, and gasped, "Is today an anniversary or something? Gosh, I'd forgotten it!")
Once she filled a thermos bottle with hot coffee a corn-flakes box with cookies just baked by Bea, and bustled to his office at three in the afternoon. She hid her bundles in the hall and peeped in.
The office was shabby. Kennicott had inherited it from a medical predecessor, and changed it only by adding a white enameled operating-table, a sterilizer, a Roentgen-ray apparatus, and a small portable typewriter. It was a suite of two rooms: a waiting-room with straight chairs, shaky pine table, and those coverless and unknown magazines which are found only in the offices of dentists and doctors. The room beyond, looking on Main Street, was business-office, consulting-room, operating-room, and, in an alcove, bacteriological and chemical laboratory. The wooden floors of both rooms were bare; the furniture was brown and scaly.
Waiting for the doctor were two women, as still as though they were paralyzed, and a man in a railroad brakeman's uniform, holding his bandaged right hand with his tanned left. They stared at Carol. She sat modestly in a stiff chair, feeling frivolous and out of place.
Kennicott appeared at the inner door, ushering out a bleached man with a trickle of wan beard, and consoling him, "All right, Dad. Be careful about the sugar, and mind the diet I gave you. Gut the prescription filled, and come in and see me next week. Say, uh, better, uh, better not drink too much beer. All right, Dad."
His voice was artificially hearty. He looked absently at Carol. He was a medical machine now, not a domestic machine. "What is it, Carrie?" he droned.
"No hurry. Just wanted to say hello."
Self-pity because he did not divine that this was a surprise party rendered her sad and interesting to herself, and she had the pleasure of the martyrs in saying bravely to him, "It's nothing special. If you're busy long I'll trot home."
While she waited she ceased to pity and began to mock herself. For the first time she observed the waiting-room. Oh yes, the doctor's family had to have obi panels and a wide couch and an electric percolator, but any hole was good enough for sick tired common people who were nothing but the one means and excuse for the doctor's existing! No. She couldn't blame Kennicott. He was satisfied by the shabby chairs. He put up with them as his patients did. It was her neglected province—she who had been going about talking of rebuilding the whole town!
When the patients were gone she brought in her bundles.
"What's those?" wondered Kennicott.
"Turn your back! Look out of the window!"
He obeyed—not very much bored. When she cried "Now!" a feast of cookies and small hard candies and hot coffee was spread on the roll-top desk in the inner room.
His broad face lightened. "That's a new one on me! Never was more surprised in my life! And, by golly, I believe I am hungry. Say, this is fine."
When the first exhilaration of the surprise had declined she demanded, "Will! I'm going to refurnish your waiting-room!"
"What's the matter with it? It's all right."
"It is not! It's hideous. We can afford to give your patients a better place. And it would be good business." She felt tremendously politic.
"Rats! I don't worry about the business. You look here now: As I told you——Just because I like to tuck a few dollars away, I'll be switched if I'll stand for your thinking I'm nothing but a dollar-chasing——"
"Stop it! Quick! I'm not hurting your feelings! I'm not criticizing! I'm the adoring least one of thy harem. I just mean——"
Two days later, with pictures, wicker chairs, a rug, she had made the waiting-room habitable; and Kennicott admitted, "Does look a lot better. Never thought much about it. Guess I need being bullied."
She was convinced that she was gloriously content in her career as doctor's-wife.
She tried to free herself from the speculation and disillusionment which had been twitching at her; sought to dismiss all the opinionation of an insurgent era. She wanted to shine upon the veal-faced bristly-bearded Lyman Cass as much as upon Miles Bjornstam or Guy Pollock. She gave a reception for the Thanatopsis Club. But her real acquiring of merit was in calling upon that Mrs. Bogart whose gossipy good opinion was so valuable to a doctor.
Though the Bogart house was next door she had entered it but three times. Now she put on her new moleskin cap, which made her face small and innocent, she rubbed off the traces of a lip-stick—and fled across the alley before her admirable resolution should sneak away.
The age of houses, like the age of men, has small relation to their years. The dull-green cottage of the good Widow Bogart was twenty years old, but it had the antiquity of Cheops, and the smell of mummy-dust. Its neatness rebuked the street. The two stones by the path were painted yellow; the outhouse was so overmodestly masked with vines and lattice that it was not concealed at all; the last iron dog remaining in Gopher Prairie stood among whitewashed conch-shells upon the lawn. The hallway was dismayingly scrubbed; the kitchen was an exercise in mathematics, with problems worked out in equidistant chairs.
The parlor was kept for visitors. Carol suggested, "Let's sit in the kitchen. Please don't trouble to light the parlor stove."
"No trouble at all! My gracious, and you coming so seldom and all, and the kitchen is a perfect sight, I try to keep it clean, but Cy will track mud all over it, I've spoken to him about it a hundred times if I've spoken once, no, you sit right there, dearie, and I'll make a fire, no trouble at all, practically no trouble at all."
Mrs. Bogart groaned, rubbed her joints, and repeatedly dusted her hands while she made the fire, and when Carol tried to help she lamented, "Oh, it doesn't matter; guess I ain't good for much but toil and workin' anyway; seems as though that's what a lot of folks think."
The parlor was distinguished by an expanse of rag carpet from which, as they entered, Mrs. Bogart hastily picked one sad dead fly. In the center of the carpet was a rug depicting a red Newfoundland dog, reclining in a green and yellow daisy field and labeled "Our Friend." The parlor organ, tall and thin, was adorned with a mirror partly circular, partly square, and partly diamond-shaped, and with brackets holding a pot of geraniums, a mouth-organ, and a copy of "The Oldtime Hymnal." On the center table was a Sears-Roebuck mail-order catalogue, a silver frame with photographs of the Baptist Church and of an elderly clergyman, and an aluminum tray containing a rattlesnake's rattle and a broken spectacle-lens.
Mrs. Bogart spoke of the eloquence of the Reverend Mr. Zitterel, the coldness of cold days, the price of poplar wood, Dave Dyer's new hair-cut, and Cy Bogart's essential piety. "As I said to his Sunday School teacher, Cy may be a little wild, but that's because he's got so much better brains than a lot of these boys, and this farmer that claims he caught Cy stealing 'beggies, is a liar, and I ought to have the law on him."
Mrs. Bogart went thoroughly into the rumor that the girl waiter at Billy's Lunch was not all she might be—or, rather, was quite all she might be.
"My lands, what can you expect when everybody knows what her mother was? And if these traveling salesmen would let her alone she would be all right, though I certainly don't believe she ought to be allowed to think she can pull the wool over our eyes. The sooner she's sent to the school for incorrigible girls down at Sauk Centre, the better for all and——Won't you just have a cup of coffee, Carol dearie, I'm sure you won't mind old Aunty Bogart calling you by your first name when you think how long I've known Will, and I was such a friend of his dear lovely mother when she lived here and—was that fur cap expensive? But——Don't you think it's awful, the way folks talk in this town?"
Mrs. Bogart hitched her chair nearer. Her large face, with its disturbing collection of moles and lone black hairs, wrinkled cunningly. She showed her decayed teeth in a reproving smile, and in the confidential voice of one who scents stale bedroom scandal she breathed:
"I just don't see how folks can talk and act like they do. You don't know the things that go on under cover. This town—why it's only the religious training I've given Cy that's kept him so innocent of—things. Just the other day——I never pay no attention to stories, but I heard it mighty good and straight that Harry Haydock is carrying on with a girl that clerks in a store down in Minneapolis, and poor Juanita not knowing anything about it—though maybe it's the judgment of God, because before she married Harry she acted up with more than one boy——Well, I don't like to say it, and maybe I ain't up-to-date, like Cy says, but I always believed a lady shouldn't even give names to all sorts of dreadful things, but just the same I know there was at least one case where Juanita and a boy—well, they were just dreadful. And—and——Then there's that Ole Jenson the grocer, that thinks he's so plaguey smart, and I know he made up to a farmer's wife and——And this awful man Bjornstam that does chores, and Nat Hicks and——"
There was, it seemed, no person in town who was not living a life of shame except Mrs. Bogart, and naturally she resented it.
She knew. She had always happened to be there. Once, she whispered, she was going by when an indiscreet window-shade had been left up a couple of inches. Once she had noticed a man and woman holding hands, and right at a Methodist sociable!
"Another thing——Heaven knows I never want to start trouble, but I can't help what I see from my back steps, and I notice your hired girl Bea carrying on with the grocery boys and all——"
"Mrs. Bogart! I'd trust Bea as I would myself!"
"Oh, dearie, you don't understand me! I'm sure she's a good girl. I mean she's green, and I hope that none of these horrid young men that there are around town will get her into trouble! It's their parents' fault, letting them run wild and hear evil things. If I had my way there wouldn't be none of them, not boys nor girls neither, allowed to know anything about—about things till they was married. It's terrible the bald way that some folks talk. It just shows and gives away what awful thoughts they got inside them, and there's nothing can cure them except coming right to God and kneeling down like I do at prayer-meeting every Wednesday evening, and saying, 'O God, I would be a miserable sinner except for thy grace.'
"I'd make every last one of these brats go to Sunday School and learn to think about nice things 'stead of about cigarettes and goings-on—and these dances they have at the lodges are the worst thing that ever happened to this town, lot of young men squeezing girls and finding out——Oh, it's dreadful. I've told the mayor he ought to put a stop to them and——There was one boy in this town, I don't want to be suspicious or uncharitable but——"
It was half an hour before Carol escaped.
She stopped on her own porch and thought viciously:
"If that woman is on the side of the angels, then I have no choice; I must be on the side of the devil. But—isn't she like me? She too wants to 'reform the town'! She too criticizes everybody! She too thinks the men are vulgar and limited! AM I LIKE HER? This is ghastly!"
That evening she did not merely consent to play cribbage with Kennicott; she urged him to play; and she worked up a hectic interest in land-deals and Sam Clark.
In courtship days Kennicott had shown her a photograph of Nels Erdstrom's baby and log cabin, but she had never seen the Erdstroms. They had become merely "patients of the doctor." Kennicott telephoned her on a mid-December afternoon, "Want to throw your coat on and drive out to Erdstrom's with me? Fairly warm. Nels got the jaundice."
"Oh yes!" She hastened to put on woolen stockings, high boots, sweater, muffler, cap, mittens.
The snow was too thick and the ruts frozen too hard for the motor. They drove out in a clumsy high carriage. Tucked over them was a blue woolen cover, prickly to her wrists, and outside of it a buffalo robe, humble and moth-eaten now, used ever since the bison herds had streaked the prairie a few miles to the west.
The scattered houses between which they passed in town were small and desolate in contrast to the expanse of huge snowy yards and wide street. They crossed the railroad tracks, and instantly were in the farm country. The big piebald horses snorted clouds of steam, and started to trot. The carriage squeaked in rhythm. Kennicott drove with clucks of "There boy, take it easy!" He was thinking. He paid no attention to Carol. Yet it was he who commented, "Pretty nice, over there," as they approached an oak-grove where shifty winter sunlight quivered in the hollow between two snow-drifts.
They drove from the natural prairie to a cleared district which twenty years ago had been forest. The country seemed to stretch unchanging to the North Pole: low hill, brush-scraggly bottom, reedy creek, muskrat mound, fields with frozen brown clods thrust up through the snow.
Her ears and nose were pinched; her breath frosted her collar; her fingers ached.
"Getting colder," she said.
That was all their conversation for three miles. Yet she was happy.
They reached Nels Erdstrom's at four, and with a throb she recognized the courageous venture which had lured her to Gopher Prairie: the cleared fields, furrows among stumps, a log cabin chinked with mud and roofed with dry hay. But Nels had prospered. He used the log cabin as a barn; and a new house reared up, a proud, unwise, Gopher Prairie house, the more naked and ungraceful in its glossy white paint and pink trimmings. Every tree had been cut down. The house was so unsheltered, so battered by the wind, so bleakly thrust out into the harsh clearing, that Carol shivered. But they were welcomed warmly enough in the kitchen, with its crisp new plaster, its black and nickel range, its cream separator in a corner.
Mrs. Erdstrom begged her to sit in the parlor, where there was a phonograph and an oak and leather davenport, the prairie farmer's proofs of social progress, but she dropped down by the kitchen stove and insisted, "Please don't mind me." When Mrs. Erdstrom had followed the doctor out of the room Carol glanced in a friendly way at the grained pine cupboard, the framed Lutheran Konfirmations Attest, the traces of fried eggs and sausages on the dining table against the wall, and a jewel among calendars, presenting not only a lithographic young woman with cherry lips, and a Swedish advertisement of Axel Egge's grocery, but also a thermometer and a match-holder.
She saw that a boy of four or five was staring at her from the hall, a boy in gingham shirt and faded corduroy trousers, but large-eyed, firm-mouthed, wide-browed. He vanished, then peeped in again, biting his knuckles, turning his shoulder toward her in shyness.
Didn't she remember—what was it?—Kennicott sitting beside her at Fort Snelling, urging, "See how scared that baby is. Needs some woman like you."
Magic had fluttered about her then—magic of sunset and cool air and the curiosity of lovers. She held out her hands as much to that sanctity as to the boy.
He edged into the room, doubtfully sucking his thumb.
"Hello," she said. "What's your name?"
"Hee, hee, hee!"
"You're quite right. I agree with you. Silly people like me always ask children their names."
"Hee, hee, hee!"
"Come here and I'll tell you the story of—well, I don't know what it will be about, but it will have a slim heroine and a Prince Charming."
He stood stoically while she spun nonsense. His giggling ceased. She was winning him. Then the telephone bell—two long rings, one short.
Mrs. Erdstrom galloped into the room, shrieked into the transmitter, "Vell? Yes, yes, dis is Erdstrom's place! Heh? Oh, you vant de doctor?"
Kennicott appeared, growled into the telephone:
"Well, what do you want? Oh, hello Dave; what do you want? Which Morgenroth's? Adolph's? All right. Amputation? Yuh, I see. Say, Dave, get Gus to harness up and take my surgical kit down there—and have him take some chloroform. I'll go straight down from here. May not get home tonight. You can get me at Adolph's. Huh? No, Carrie can give the anesthetic, I guess. G'-by. Huh? No; tell me about that tomorrow—too damn many people always listening in on this farmers' line."
He turned to Carol. "Adolph Morgenroth, farmer ten miles southwest of town, got his arm crushed-fixing his cow-shed and a post caved in on him—smashed him up pretty bad—may have to amputate, Dave Dyer says. Afraid we'll have to go right from here. Darn sorry to drag you clear down there with me——"
"Please do. Don't mind me a bit."
"Think you could give the anesthetic? Usually have my driver do it."
"If you'll tell me how."
"All right. Say, did you hear me putting one over on these goats that are always rubbering in on party-wires? I hope they heard me! Well. . . . Now, Bessie, don't you worry about Nels. He's getting along all right. Tomorrow you or one of the neighbors drive in and get this prescription filled at Dyer's. Give him a teaspoonful every four hours. Good-by. Hel-lo! Here's the little fellow! My Lord, Bessie, it ain't possible this is the fellow that used to be so sickly? Why, say, he's a great big strapping Svenska now—going to be bigger 'n his daddy!"
Kennicott's bluffness made the child squirm with a delight which Carol could not evoke. It was a humble wife who followed the busy doctor out to the carriage, and her ambition was not to play Rachmaninoff better, nor to build town halls, but to chuckle at babies.
The sunset was merely a flush of rose on a dome of silver, with oak twigs and thin poplar branches against it, but a silo on the horizon changed from a red tank to a tower of violet misted over with gray. The purple road vanished, and without lights, in the darkness of a world destroyed, they swayed on—toward nothing.
It was a bumpy cold way to the Morgenroth farm, and she was asleep when they arrived.
Here was no glaring new house with a proud phonograph, but a low whitewashed kitchen smelling of cream and cabbage. Adolph Morgenroth was lying on a couch in the rarely used dining-room. His heavy work-scarred wife was shaking her hands in anxiety.
Carol felt that Kennicott would do something magnificent and startling. But he was casual. He greeted the man, "Well, well, Adolph, have to fix you up, eh?" Quietly, to the wife, "Hat die drug store my schwartze bag hier geschickt? So—schon. Wie viel Uhr ist 's? Sieben? Nun, lassen uns ein wenig supper zuerst haben. Got any of that good beer left—giebt 's noch Bier?"
He had supped in four minutes. His coat off, his sleeves rolled up, he was scrubbing his hands in a tin basin in the sink, using the bar of yellow kitchen soap.
Carol had not dared to look into the farther room while she labored over the supper of beer, rye bread, moist cornbeef and cabbage, set on the kitchen table. The man in there was groaning. In her one glance she had seen that his blue flannel shirt was open at a corded tobacco-brown neck, the hollows of which were sprinkled with thin black and gray hairs. He was covered with a sheet, like a corpse, and outside the sheet was his right arm, wrapped in towels stained with blood.
But Kennicott strode into the other room gaily, and she followed him. With surprising delicacy in his large fingers he unwrapped the towels and revealed an arm which, below the elbow, was a mass of blood and raw flesh. The man bellowed. The room grew thick about her; she was very seasick; she fled to a chair in the kitchen. Through the haze of nausea she heard Kennicott grumbling, "Afraid it will have to come off, Adolph. What did you do? Fall on a reaper blade? We'll fix it right up. Carrie! CAROL!"
She couldn't—she couldn't get up. Then she was up, her knees like water, her stomach revolving a thousand times a second, her eyes filmed, her ears full of roaring. She couldn't reach the dining-room. She was going to faint. Then she was in the dining-room, leaning against the wall, trying to smile, flushing hot and cold along her chest and sides, while Kennicott mumbled, "Say, help Mrs. Morgenroth and me carry him in on the kitchen table. No, first go out and shove those two tables together, and put a blanket on them and a clean sheet."
It was salvation to push the heavy tables, to scrub them, to be exact in placing the sheet. Her head cleared; she was able to look calmly in at her husband and the farmwife while they undressed the wailing man, got him into a clean nightgown, and washed his arm. Kennicott came to lay out his instruments. She realized that, with no hospital facilities, yet with no worry about it, her husband—HER HUSBAND—was going to perform a surgical operation, that miraculous boldness of which one read in stories about famous surgeons.
She helped them to move Adolph into the kitchen. The man was in such a funk that he would not use his legs. He was heavy, and smelled of sweat and the stable. But she put her arm about his waist, her sleek head by his chest; she tugged at him; she clicked her tongue in imitation of Kennicott's cheerful noises.
When Adolph was on the table Kennicott laid a hemispheric steel and cotton frame on his face; suggested to Carol, "Now you sit here at his head and keep the ether dripping—about this fast, see? I'll watch his breathing. Look who's here! Real anesthetist! Ochsner hasn't got a better one! Class, eh? . . . Now, now, Adolph, take it easy. This won't hurt you a bit. Put you all nice and asleep and it won't hurt a bit. Schweig' mal! Bald schlaft man grat wie ein Kind. So! So! Bald geht's besser!"
As she let the ether drip, nervously trying to keep the rhythm that Kennicott had indicated, Carol stared at her husband with the abandon of hero-worship.
He shook his head. "Bad light—bad light. Here, Mrs. Morgenroth, you stand right here and hold this lamp. Hier, und dieses—dieses lamp halten—so!"
By that streaky glimmer he worked, swiftly, at ease. The room was still. Carol tried to look at him, yet not look at the seeping blood, the crimson slash, the vicious scalpel. The ether fumes were sweet, choking. Her head seemed to be floating away from her body. Her arm was feeble.
It was not the blood but the grating of the surgical saw on the living bone that broke her, and she knew that she had been fighting off nausea, that she was beaten. She was lost in dizziness. She heard Kennicott's voice—
"Sick? Trot outdoors couple minutes. Adolph will stay under now."
She was fumbling at a door-knob which whirled in insulting circles; she was on the stoop, gasping, forcing air into her chest, her head clearing. As she returned she caught the scene as a whole: the cavernous kitchen, two milk-cans a leaden patch by the wall, hams dangling from a beam, bats of light at the stove door, and in the center, illuminated by a small glass lamp held by a frightened stout woman, Dr. Kennicott bending over a body which was humped under a sheet—the surgeon, his bare arms daubed with blood, his hands, in pale-yellow rubber gloves, loosening the tourniquet, his face without emotion save when he threw up his head and clucked at the farmwife, "Hold that light steady just a second more—noch blos esn wenig."
"He speaks a vulgar, common, incorrect German of life and death and birth and the soil. I read the French and German of sentimental lovers and Christmas garlands. And I thought that it was I who had the culture!" she worshiped as she returned to her place.
After a time he snapped, "That's enough. Don't give him any more ether." He was concentrated on tying an artery. His gruffness seemed heroic to her.
As he shaped the flap of flesh she murmured, "Oh, you ARE wonderful!"
He was surprised. "Why, this is a cinch. Now if it had been like last week——Get me some more water. Now last week I had a case with an ooze in the peritoneal cavity, and by golly if it wasn't a stomach ulcer that I hadn't suspected and——There. Say, I certainly am sleepy. Let's turn in here. Too late to drive home. And tastes to me like a storm coming."
They slept on a feather bed with their fur coats over them; in the morning they broke ice in the pitcher—the vast flowered and gilt pitcher.
Kennicott's storm had not come. When they set out it was hazy and growing warmer. After a mile she saw that he was studying a dark cloud in the north. He urged the horses to the run. But she forgot his unusual haste in wonder at the tragic landscape. The pale snow, the prickles of old stubble, and the clumps of ragged brush faded into a gray obscurity. Under the hillocks were cold shadows. The willows about a farmhouse were agitated by the rising wind, and the patches of bare wood where the bark had peeled away were white as the flesh of a leper. The snowy slews were of a harsh flatness. The whole land was cruel, and a climbing cloud of slate-edged blackness dominated the sky.
"Guess we're about in for a blizzard," speculated Kennicott "We can make Ben McGonegal's, anyway."
"Blizzard? Really? Why——But still we used to think they were fun when I was a girl. Daddy had to stay home from court, and we'd stand at the window and watch the snow."
"Not much fun on the prairie. Get lost. Freeze to death. Take no chances." He chirruped at the horses. They were flying now, the carriage rocking on the hard ruts.
The whole air suddenly crystallized into large damp flakes. The horses and the buffalo robe were covered with snow; her face was wet; the thin butt of the whip held a white ridge. The air became colder. The snowflakes were harder; they shot in level lines, clawing at her face.
She could not see a hundred feet ahead.
Kennicott was stern. He bent forward, the reins firm in his coonskin gauntlets. She was certain that he would get through. He always got through things.
Save for his presence, the world and all normal living disappeared. They were lost in the boiling snow. He leaned close to bawl, "Letting the horses have their heads. They'll get us home."
With a terrifying bump they were off the road, slanting with two wheels in the ditch, but instantly they were jerked back as the horses fled on. She gasped. She tried to, and did not, feel brave as she pulled the woolen robe up about her chin.
They were passing something like a dark wall on the right. "I know that barn!" he yelped. He pulled at the reins. Peeping from the covers she saw his teeth pinch his lower lip, saw him scowl as he slackened and sawed and jerked sharply again at the racing horses.
"Farmhouse there. Put robe around you and come on," he cried.
It was like diving into icy water to climb out of the carriage, but on the ground she smiled at him, her face little and childish and pink above the buffalo robe over her shoulders. In a swirl of flakes which scratched at their eyes like a maniac darkness, he unbuckled the harness. He turned and plodded back, a ponderous furry figure, holding the horses' bridles, Carol's hand dragging at his sleeve.
They came to the cloudy bulk of a barn whose outer wall was directly upon the road. Feeling along it, he found a gate, led them into a yard, into the barn. The interior was warm. It stunned them with its languid quiet.
He carefully drove the horses into stalls.
Her toes were coals of pain. "Let's run for the house," she said.
"Can't. Not yet. Might never find it. Might get lost ten feet away from it. Sit over in this stall, near the horses. We'll rush for the house when the blizzard lifts."
"I'm so stiff! I can't walk!"
He carried her into the stall, stripped off her overshoes and boots, stopping to blow on his purple fingers as he fumbled at her laces. He rubbed her feet, and covered her with the buffalo robe and horse-blankets from the pile on the feed-box. She was drowsy, hemmed in by the storm. She sighed:
"You're so strong and yet so skilful and not afraid of blood or storm or——"
"Used to it. Only thing that's bothered me was the chance the ether fumes might explode, last night."
"I don't understand."
"Why, Dave, the darn fool, sent me ether, instead of chloroform like I told him, and you know ether fumes are mighty inflammable, especially with that lamp right by the table. But I had to operate, of course—wound chuck-full of barnyard filth that way."
"You knew all the time that——Both you and I might have been blown up? You knew it while you were operating?"
"Sure. Didn't you? Why, what's the matter?"
KENNICOTT was heavily pleased by her Christmas presents, and he gave her a diamond bar-pin. But she could not persuade herself that he was much interested in the rites of the morning, in the tree she had decorated, the three stockings she had hung, the ribbons and gilt seals and hidden messages. He said only:
"Nice way to fix things, all right. What do you say we go down to Jack Elder's and have a game of five hundred this afternoon?"
She remembered her father's Christmas fantasies: the sacred old rag doll at the top of the tree, the score of cheap presents, the punch and carols, the roast chestnuts by the fire, and the gravity with which the judge opened the children's scrawly notes and took cognizance of demands for sled-rides, for opinions upon the existence of Santa Claus. She remembered him reading out a long indictment of himself for being a sentimentalist, against the peace and dignity of the State of Minnesota. She remembered his thin legs twinkling before their sled——
She muttered unsteadily, "Must run up and put on my shoes—slippers so cold." In the not very romantic solitude of the locked bathroom she sat on the slippery edge of the tub and wept.
Kennicott had five hobbies: medicine, land-investment, Carol, motoring, and hunting. It is not certain in what order he preferred them. Solid though his enthusiasms were in the matter of medicine—his admiration of this city surgeon, his condemnation of that for tricky ways of persuading country practitioners to bring in surgical patients, his indignation about fee-splitting, his pride in a new X-ray apparatus—none of these beatified him as did motoring.
He nursed his two-year-old Buick even in winter, when it was stored in the stable-garage behind the house. He filled the grease-cups, varnished a fender, removed from beneath the back seat the debris of gloves, copper washers, crumpled maps, dust, and greasy rags. Winter noons he wandered out and stared owlishly at the car. He became excited over a fabulous "trip we might take next summer." He galloped to the station, brought home railway maps, and traced motor-routes from Gopher Prairie to Winnipeg or Des Moines or Grand Marais, thinking aloud and expecting her to be effusive about such academic questions as "Now I wonder if we could stop at Baraboo and break the jump from La Crosse to Chicago?"
To him motoring was a faith not to be questioned, a high-church cult, with electric sparks for candles, and piston-rings possessing the sanctity of altar-vessels. His liturgy was composed of intoned and metrical road-comments: "They say there's a pretty good hike from Duluth to International Falls."
Hunting was equally a devotion, full of metaphysical concepts veiled from Carol. All winter he read sporting-catalogues, and thought about remarkable past shots: "'Member that time when I got two ducks on a long chance, just at sunset?" At least once a month he drew his favorite repeating shotgun, his "pump gun," from its wrapper of greased canton flannel; he oiled the trigger, and spent silent ecstatic moments aiming at the ceiling. Sunday mornings Carol heard him trudging up to the attic and there, an hour later, she found him turning over boots, wooden duck-decoys, lunch-boxes, or reflectively squinting at old shells, rubbing their brass caps with his sleeve and shaking his head as he thought about their uselessness.
He kept the loading-tools he had used as a boy: a capper for shot-gun shells, a mold for lead bullets. When once, in a housewifely frenzy for getting rid of things, she raged, "Why don't you give these away?" he solemnly defended them, "Well, you can't tell; they might come in handy some day."
She flushed. She wondered if he was thinking of the child they would have when, as he put it, they were "sure they could afford one."
Mysteriously aching, nebulously sad, she slipped away, half-convinced but only half-convinced that it was horrible and unnatural, this postponement of release of mother-affection, this sacrifice to her opinionation and to his cautious desire for prosperity.
"But it would be worse if he were like Sam Clark—insisted on having children," she considered; then, "If Will were the Prince, wouldn't I DEMAND his child?"
Kennicott's land-deals were both financial advancement and favorite game. Driving through the country, he noticed which farms had good crops; he heard the news about the restless farmer who was "thinking about selling out here and pulling his freight for Alberta." He asked the veterinarian about the value of different breeds of stock; he inquired of Lyman Cass whether or not Einar Gyseldson really had had a yield of forty bushels of wheat to the acre. He was always consulting Julius Flickerbaugh, who handled more real estate than law, and more law than justice. He studied township maps, and read notices of auctions.
Thus he was able to buy a quarter-section of land for one hundred and fifty dollars an acre, and to sell it in a year or two, after installing a cement floor in the barn and running water in the house, for one hundred and eighty or even two hundred.
He spoke of these details to Sam Clark . . . rather often.
In all his games, cars and guns and land, he expected Carol to take an interest. But he did not give her the facts which might have created interest. He talked only of the obvious and tedious aspects; never of his aspirations in finance, nor of the mechanical principles of motors.
This month of romance she was eager to understand his hobbies. She shivered in the garage while he spent half an hour in deciding whether to put alcohol or patent non-freezing liquid into the radiator, or to drain out the water entirely. "Or no, then I wouldn't want to take her out if it turned warm—still, of course, I could fill the radiator again—wouldn't take so awful long—just take a few pails of water—still, if it turned cold on me again before I drained it——Course there's some people that put in kerosene, but they say it rots the hose-connections and——Where did I put that lug-wrench?"
It was at this point that she gave up being a motorist and retired to the house.
In their new intimacy he was more communicative about his practise; he informed her, with the invariable warning not to tell, that Mrs. Sunderquist had another baby coming, that the "hired girl at Howland's was in trouble." But when she asked technical questions he did not know how to answer; when she inquired, "Exactly what is the method of taking out the tonsils?" he yawned, "Tonsilectomy? Why you just——If there's pus, you operate. Just take 'em out. Seen the newspaper? What the devil did Bea do with it?"
She did not try again.
They had gone to the "movies." The movies were almost as vital to Kennicott and the other solid citizens of Gopher Prairie as land-speculation and guns and automobiles.
The feature film portrayed a brave young Yankee who conquered a South American republic. He turned the natives from their barbarous habits of singing and laughing to the vigorous sanity, the Pep and Punch and Go, of the North; he taught them to work in factories, to wear Klassy Kollege Klothes, and to shout, "Oh, you baby doll, watch me gather in the mazuma." He changed nature itself. A mountain which had borne nothing but lilies and cedars and loafing clouds was by his Hustle so inspirited that it broke out in long wooden sheds, and piles of iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore.
The intellectual tension induced by the master film was relieved by a livelier, more lyric and less philosophical drama: Mack Schnarken and the Bathing Suit Babes in a comedy of manners entitled "Right on the Coco." Mr. Schnarken was at various high moments a cook, a life-guard, a burlesque actor, and a sculptor. There was a hotel hallway up which policemen charged, only to be stunned by plaster busts hurled upon them from the innumerous doors. If the plot lacked lucidity, the dual motif of legs and pie was clear and sure. Bathing and modeling were equally sound occasions for legs; the wedding-scene was but an approach to the thunderous climax when Mr. Schnarken slipped a piece of custard pie into the clergyman's rear pocket.
The audience in the Rosebud Movie Palace squealed and wiped their eyes; they scrambled under the seats for overshoes, mittens, and mufflers, while the screen announced that next week Mr. Schnarken might be seen in a new, riproaring, extra-special superfeature of the Clean Comedy Corporation entitled, "Under Mollie's Bed."
"I'm glad," said Carol to Kennicott as they stooped before the northwest gale which was torturing the barren street, "that this is a moral country. We don't allow any of these beastly frank novels."
"Yump. Vice Society and Postal Department won't stand for them. The American people don't like filth."
"Yes. It's fine. I'm glad we have such dainty romances as 'Right on the Coco' instead."
"Say what in heck do you think you're trying to do? Kid me?"
He was silent. She awaited his anger. She meditated upon his gutter patois, the Boeotian dialect characteristic of Gopher Prairie. He laughed puzzlingly. When they came into the glow of the house he laughed again. He condescended:
"I've got to hand it to you. You're consistent, all right. I'd of thought that after getting this look-in at a lot of good decent farmers, you'd get over this high-art stuff, but you hang right on."
"Well——" To herself: "He takes advantage of my trying to be good."
"Tell you, Carrie: There's just three classes of people: folks that haven't got any ideas at all; and cranks that kick about everything; and Regular Guys, the fellows with sticktuitiveness, that boost and get the world's work done."
"Then I'm probably a crank." She smiled negligently.
"No. I won't admit it. You do like to talk, but at a show-down you'd prefer Sam Clark to any damn long-haired artist."
"Oh well!" mockingly. "My, we're just going to change everything, aren't we! Going to tell fellows that have been making movies for ten years how to direct 'em; and tell architects how to build towns; and make the magazines publish nothing but a lot of highbrow stories about old maids, and about wives that don't know what they want. Oh, we're a terror! . . . Come on now, Carrie; come out of it; wake up! You've got a fine nerve, kicking about a movie because it shows a few legs! Why, you're always touting these Greek dancers, or whatever they are, that don't even wear a shimmy!"
"But, dear, the trouble with that film—it wasn't that it got in so many legs, but that it giggled coyly and promised to show more of them, and then didn't keep the promise. It was Peeping Tom's idea of humor."
"I don't get you. Look here now——"
She lay awake, while he rumbled with sleep
"I must go on. My 'crank ideas;' he calls them. I thought that adoring him, watching him operate, would be enough. It isn't. Not after the first thrill.
"I don't want to hurt him. But I must go on.
"It isn't enough, to stand by while he fills an automobile radiator and chucks me bits of information.
"If I stood by and admired him long enough, I would be content. I would become a 'nice little woman.' The Village Virus. Already——I'm not reading anything. I haven't touched the piano for a week. I'm letting the days drown in worship of 'a good deal, ten plunks more per acre.' I won't! I won't succumb!
"How? I've failed at everything: the Thanatopsis, parties, pioneers, city hall, Guy and Vida. But——It doesn't MATTER! I'm not trying to 'reform the town' now. I'm not trying to organize Browning Clubs, and sit in clean white kids yearning up at lecturers with ribbony eyeglasses. I am trying to save my soul.
"Will Kennicott, asleep there, trusting me, thinking he holds me. And I'm leaving him. All of me left him when he laughed at me. It wasn't enough for him that I admired him; I must change myself and grow like him. He takes advantage. No more. It's finished. I will go on."
Her violin lay on top of the upright piano. She picked it up. Since she had last touched it the dried strings had snapped, and upon it lay a gold and crimson cigar-band.
She longed to see Guy Pollock, for the confirming of the brethren in the faith. But Kennicott's dominance was heavy upon her. She could not determine whether she was checked by fear or him, or by inertia—by dislike of the emotional labor of the "scenes" which would be involved in asserting independence. She was like the revolutionist at fifty: not afraid of death, but bored by the probability of bad steaks and bad breaths and sitting up all night on windy barricades.
The second evening after the movies she impulsively summoned Vida Sherwin and Guy to the house for pop-corn and cider. In the living-room Vida and Kennicott debated "the value of manual training in grades below the eighth," while Carol sat beside Guy at the dining table, buttering pop-corn. She was quickened by the speculation in his eyes. She murmured:
"Guy, do you want to help me?"
"My dear! How?"
"I don't know!"
"I think I want you to help me find out what has made the darkness of the women. Gray darkness and shadowy trees. We're all in it, ten million women, young married women with good prosperous husbands, and business women in linen collars, and grandmothers that gad out to teas, and wives of under-paid miners, and farmwives who really like to make butter and go to church. What is it we want—and need? Will Kennicott there would say that we need lots of children and hard work. But it isn't that. There's the same discontent in women with eight children and one more coming—always one more coming! And you find it in stenographers and wives who scrub, just as much as in girl college-graduates who wonder how they can escape their kind parents. What do we want?"
"Essentially, I think, you are like myself, Carol; you want to go back to an age of tranquillity and charming manners. You want to enthrone good taste again."
"Just good taste? Fastidious people? Oh—no! I believe all of us want the same things—we're all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro race and the Asiatic colonies, and even a few of the Respectables. It's all the same revolt, in all the classes that have waited and taken advice. I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We're tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We're tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We're tired of hearing the politicians and priests and cautious reformers (and the husbands!) coax us, 'Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just give us a bit more time and we'll produce it; trust us; we're wiser than you.' For ten thousand years they've said that. We want our Utopia NOW—and we're going to try our hands at it. All we want is—everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We shatn't get it. So we shatn't ever be content——"
She wondered why he was wincing. He broke in:
"See here, my dear, I certainly hope you don't class yourself with a lot of trouble-making labor-leaders! Democracy is all right theoretically, and I'll admit there are industrial injustices, but I'd rather have them than see the world reduced to a dead level of mediocrity. I refuse to believe that you have anything in common with a lot of laboring men rowing for bigger wages so that they can buy wretched flivvers and hideous player-pianos and——"
At this second, in Buenos Ayres, a newspaper editor broke his routine of being bored by exchanges to assert, "Any injustice is better than seeing the world reduced to a gray level of scientific dullness." At this second a clerk standing at the bar of a New York saloon stopped milling his secret fear of his nagging office-manager long enough to growl at the chauffeur beside him, "Aw, you socialists make me sick! I'm an individualist. I ain't going to be nagged by no bureaus and take orders off labor-leaders. And mean to say a hobo's as good as you and me?"
At this second Carol realized that for all Guy's love of dead elegances his timidity was as depressing to her as the bulkiness of Sam Clark. She realized that he was not a mystery, as she had excitedly believed; not a romantic messenger from the World Outside on whom she could count for escape. He belonged to Gopher Prairie, absolutely. She was snatched back from a dream of far countries, and found herself on Main Street.
He was completing his protest, "You don't want to be mixed up in all this orgy of meaningless discontent?"
She soothed him. "No, I don't. I'm not heroic. I'm scared by all the fighting that's going on in the world. I want nobility and adventure, but perhaps I want still more to curl on the hearth with some one I love."
He did not finish it. He picked up a handful of pop-corn, let it run through his fingers, looked at her wistfully.
With the loneliness of one who has put away a possible love Carol saw that he was a stranger. She saw that he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments. If she had let him diffidently make love to her, it was not because she cared, but because she did not care, because it did not matter.
She smiled at him with the exasperating tactfulness of a woman checking a flirtation; a smile like an airy pat on the arm. She sighed, "You're a dear to let me tell you my imaginary troubles." She bounced up, and trilled, "Shall we take the pop-corn in to them now?"
Guy looked after her desolately.
While she teased Vida and Kennicott she was repeating, "I must go on."
Miles Bjornstam, the pariah "Red Swede," had brought his circular saw and portable gasoline engine to the house, to cut the cords of poplar for the kitchen range. Kennicott had given the order; Carol knew nothing of it till she heard the ringing of the saw, and glanced out to see Bjornstam, in black leather jacket and enormous ragged purple mittens, pressing sticks against the whirling blade, and flinging the stove-lengths to one side. The red irritable motor kept up a red irritable "tip-tip-tip-tip-tip-tip." The whine of the saw rose till it simulated the shriek of a fire-alarm whistle at night, but always at the end it gave a lively metallic clang, and in the stillness she heard the flump of the cut stick falling on the pile.
She threw a motor robe over her, ran out. Bjornstam welcomed her, "Well, well, well! Here's old Miles, fresh as ever. Well say, that's all right; he ain't even begun to be cheeky yet; next summer he's going to take you out on his horse-trading trip, clear into Idaho."
"Yes, and I may go!"
"How's tricks? Crazy about the town yet?"
"No, but I probably shall be, some day."
"Don't let 'em get you. Kick 'em in the face!"
He shouted at her while he worked. The pile of stove-wood grew astonishingly. The pale bark of the poplar sticks was mottled with lichens of sage-green and dusty gray; the newly sawed ends were fresh-colored, with the agreeable roughness of a woolen muffler. To the sterile winter air the wood gave a scent of March sap.
Kennicott telephoned that he was going into the country. Bjornstam had not finished his work at noon, and she invited him to have dinner with Bea in the kitchen. She wished that she were independent enough to dine with these her guests. She considered their friendliness, she sneered at "social distinctions," she raged at her own taboos—and she continued to regard them as retainers and herself as a lady. She sat in the dining-room and listened through the door to Bjornstam's booming and Bea's giggles. She was the more absurd to herself in that, after the rite of dining alone, she could go out to the kitchen, lean against the sink, and talk to them.
They were attracted to each other; a Swedish Othello and Desdemona, more useful and amiable than their prototypes. Bjornstam told his scapes: selling horses in a Montana mining-camp, breaking a log-jam, being impertinent to a "two-fisted" millionaire lumberman. Bea gurgled "Oh my!" and kept his coffee cup filled.
He took a long time to finish the wood. He had frequently to go into the kitchen to get warm. Carol heard him confiding to Bea, "You're a darn nice Swede girl. I guess if I had a woman like you I wouldn't be such a sorehead. Gosh, your kitchen is clean; makes an old bach feel sloppy. Say, that's nice hair you got. Huh? Me fresh? Saaaay, girl, if I ever do get fresh, you'll know it. Why, I could pick you up with one finger, and hold you in the air long enough to read Robert J. Ingersoll clean through. Ingersoll? Oh, he's a religious writer. Sure. You'd like him fine."
When he drove off he waved to Bea; and Carol, lonely at the window above, was envious of their pastoral.
"And I——But I will go on."
THEY were driving down the lake to the cottages that moonlit January night, twenty of them in the bob-sled. They sang "Toy Land" and "Seeing Nelly Home"; they leaped from the low back of the sled to race over the slippery snow ruts; and when they were tired they climbed on the runners for a lift. The moon-tipped flakes kicked up by the horses settled over the revelers and dripped down their necks, but they laughed, yelped, beat their leather mittens against their chests. The harness rattled, the sleigh-bells were frantic, Jack Elder's setter sprang beside the horses, barking.
For a time Carol raced with them. The cold air gave fictive power. She felt that she could run on all night, leap twenty feet at a stride. But the excess of energy tired her, and she was glad to snuggle under the comforters which covered the hay in the sled-box.
In the midst of the babel she found enchanted quietude.
Along the road the shadows from oak-branches were inked on the snow like bars of music. Then the sled came out on the surface of Lake Minniemashie. Across the thick ice was a veritable road, a short-cut for farmers. On the glaring expanse of the lake-levels of hard crust, flashes of green ice blown clear, chains of drifts ribbed like the sea-beach—the moonlight was overwhelming. It stormed on the snow, it turned the woods ashore into crystals of fire. The night was tropical and voluptuous. In that drugged magic there was no difference between heavy heat and insinuating cold.
Carol was dream-strayed. The turbulent voices, even Guy Pollock being connotative beside her, were nothing. She repeated:
Deep on the convent-roof the snows Are sparkling to the moon.
The words and the light blurred into one vast indefinite happiness, and she believed that some great thing was coming to her. She withdrew from the clamor into a worship of incomprehensible gods. The night expanded, she was conscious of the universe, and all mysteries stooped down to her.
She was jarred out of her ecstasy as the bob-sled bumped up the steep road to the bluff where stood the cottages.
They dismounted at Jack Elder's shack. The interior walls of unpainted boards, which had been grateful in August, were forbidding in the chill. In fur coats and mufflers tied over caps they were a strange company, bears and walruses talking. Jack Elder lighted the shavings waiting in the belly of a cast-iron stove which was like an enlarged bean-pot. They piled their wraps high on a rocker, and cheered the rocker as it solemnly tipped over backward.
Mrs. Elder and Mrs. Sam Clark made coffee in an enormous blackened tin pot; Vida Sherwin and Mrs. McGanum unpacked doughnuts and gingerbread; Mrs. Dave Dyer warmed up "hot dogs"—frankfurters in rolls; Dr. Terry Gould, after announcing, "Ladies and gents, prepare to be shocked; shock line forms on the right," produced a bottle of bourbon whisky.
The others danced, muttering "Ouch!" as their frosted feet struck the pine planks. Carol had lost her dream. Harry Haydock lifted her by the waist and swung her. She laughed. The gravity of the people who stood apart and talked made her the more impatient for frolic.
Kennicott, Sam Clark, Jackson Elder, young Dr. McGanum, and James Madison Howland, teetering on their toes near the stove, conversed with the sedate pomposity of the commercialist. In details the men were unlike, yet they said the same things in the same hearty monotonous voices. You had to look at them to see which was speaking.
"Well, we made pretty good time coming up," from one—any one.
"Yump, we hit it up after we struck the good going on the lake."
"Seems kind of slow though, after driving an auto."
"Yump, it does, at that. Say, how'd you make out with that Sphinx tire you got?"
"Seems to hold out fine. Still, I don't know's I like it any better than the Roadeater Cord."
"Yump, nothing better than a Roadeater. Especially the cord. The cord's lots better than the fabric."
"Yump, you said something——Roadeater's a good tire."
"Say, how'd you come out with Pete Garsheim on his payments?"
"He's paying up pretty good. That's a nice piece of land he's got."
"Yump, that's a dandy farm."
"Yump, Pete's got a good place there."
They glided from these serious topics into the jocose insults which are the wit of Main Street. Sam Clark was particularly apt at them. "What's this wild-eyed sale of summer caps you think you're trying to pull off?" he clamored at Harry Haydock. "Did you steal 'em, or are you just overcharging us, as usual? . . . Oh say, speaking about caps, d'I ever tell you the good one I've got on Will? The doc thinks he's a pretty good driver, fact, he thinks he's almost got human intelligence, but one time he had his machine out in the rain, and the poor fish, he hadn't put on chains, and thinks I——"
Carol had heard the story rather often. She fled back to the dancers, and at Dave Dyer's masterstroke of dropping an icicle down Mrs. McGanum's back she applauded hysterically.
They sat on the floor, devouring the food. The men giggled amiably as they passed the whisky bottle, and laughed, "There's a real sport!" when Juanita Haydock took a sip. Carol tried to follow; she believed that she desired to be drunk and riotous; but the whisky choked her and as she saw Kennicott frown she handed the bottle on repentantly. Somewhat too late she remembered that she had given up domesticity and repentance.
"Let's play charades!" said Raymie Wutherspoon.
"Oh yes, do let us," said Ella Stowbody.
"That's the caper," sanctioned Harry Haydock.
They interpreted the word "making" as May and King. The crown was a red flannel mitten cocked on Sam Clark's broad pink bald head. They forgot they were respectable. They made-believe. Carol was stimulated to cry:
"Let's form a dramatic club and give a play! Shall we? It's been so much fun tonight!"
They looked affable.
"Sure," observed Sam Clark loyally.
"Oh, do let us! I think it would be lovely to present 'Romeo and Juliet'!" yearned Ella Stowbody.
"Be a whale of a lot of fun," Dr. Terry Gould granted.
"But if we did," Carol cautioned, "it would be awfully silly to have amateur theatricals. We ought to paint our own scenery and everything, and really do something fine. There'd be a lot of hard work. Would you—would we all be punctual at rehearsals, do you suppose?"
"You bet!" "Sure." "That's the idea." "Fellow ought to be prompt at rehearsals," they all agreed.
"Then let's meet next week and form the Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association!" Carol sang.
She drove home loving these friends who raced through moonlit snow, had Bohemian parties, and were about to create beauty in the theater. Everything was solved. She would be an authentic part of the town, yet escape the coma of the Village Virus. . . . She would be free of Kennicott again, without hurting him, without his knowing.
She had triumphed.
The moon was small and high now, and unheeding.
Though they had all been certain that they longed for the privilege of attending committee meetings and rehearsals, the dramatic association as definitely formed consisted only of Kennicott, Carol, Guy Pollock, Vida Sherwin, Ella Stowbody, the Harry Haydocks, the Dave Dyers, Raymie Wutherspoon, Dr. Terry Gould, and four new candidates: flirtatious Rita Simons, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon and Myrtle Cass, an uncomely but intense girl of nineteen. Of these fifteen only seven came to the first meeting. The rest telephoned their unparalleled regrets and engagements and illnesses, and announced that they would be present at all other meetings through eternity.
Carol was made president and director.
She had added the Dillons. Despite Kennicott's apprehension the dentist and his wife had not been taken up by the Westlakes but had remained as definitely outside really smart society as Willis Woodford, who was teller, bookkeeper, and janitor in Stowbody's bank. Carol had noted Mrs. Dillon dragging past the house during a bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, looking in with pathetic lips at the splendor of the accepted. She impulsively invited the Dillons to the dramatic association meeting, and when Kennicott was brusque to them she was unusually cordial, and felt virtuous.
That self-approval balanced her disappointment at the smallness of the meeting, and her embarrassment during Raymie Wutherspoon's repetitions of "The stage needs uplifting," and "I believe that there are great lessons in some plays."
Ella Stowbody, who was a professional, having studied elocution in Milwaukee, disapproved of Carol's enthusiasm for recent plays. Miss Stowbody expressed the fundamental principle of the American drama: the only way to be artistic is to present Shakespeare. As no one listened to her she sat back and looked like Lady Macbeth.
The Little Theaters, which were to give piquancy to American drama three or four years later, were only in embryo. But of this fast coming revolt Carol had premonitions. She knew from some lost magazine article that in Dublin were innovators called The Irish Players. She knew confusedly that a man named Gordon Craig had painted scenery—or had he written plays? She felt that in the turbulence of the drama she was discovering a history more important than the commonplace chronicles which dealt with senators and their pompous puerilities. She had a sensation of familiarity; a dream of sitting in a Brussels cafe and going afterward to a tiny gay theater under a cathedral wall.
The advertisement in the Minneapolis paper leaped from the page to her eyes:
The Cosmos School of Music, Oratory, and Dramatic Art announces a program of four one-act plays by Schnitzler, Shaw, Yeats, and Lord Dunsany.
She had to be there! She begged Kennicott to "run down to the Cities" with her.
"Well, I don't know. Be fun to take in a show, but why the deuce do you want to see those darn foreign plays, given by a lot of amateurs? Why don't you wait for a regular play, later on? There's going to be some corkers coming: 'Lottie of Two-Gun Rancho,' and 'Cops and Crooks'—real Broadway stuff, with the New York casts. What's this junk you want to see? Hm. 'How He Lied to Her Husband.' That doesn't listen so bad. Sounds racy. And, uh, well, I could go to the motor show, I suppose. I'd like to see this new Hup roadster. Well——"
She never knew which attraction made him decide.
She had four days of delightful worry—over the hole in her one good silk petticoat, the loss of a string of beads from her chiffon and brown velvet frock, the catsup stain on her best georgette crepe blouse. She wailed, "I haven't a single solitary thing that's fit to be seen in," and enjoyed herself very much indeed.
Kennicott went about casually letting people know that he was "going to run down to the Cities and see some shows."
As the train plodded through the gray prairie, on a windless day with the smoke from the engine clinging to the fields in giant cotton-rolls, in a low and writhing wall which shut off the snowy fields, she did not look out of the window. She closed her eyes and hummed, and did not know that she was humming.
She was the young poet attacking fame and Paris.
In the Minneapolis station the crowd of lumberjacks, farmers, and Swedish families with innumerous children and grandparents and paper parcels, their foggy crowding and their clamor confused her. She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year and a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennicott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennicott's arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?
For a moment she wanted the secure quiet of Gopher Prairie.
In the hotel-lobby she was self-conscious. She was not used to hotels; she remembered with jealousy how often Juanita Haydock talked of the famous hotels in Chicago. She could not face the traveling salesmen, baronial in large leather chairs. She wanted people to believe that her husband and she were accustomed to luxury and chill elegance; she was faintly angry at him for the vulgar way in which, after signing the register "Dr. W. P. Kennicott & wife," he bellowed at the clerk, "Got a nice room with bath for us, old man?" She gazed about haughtily, but as she discovered that no one was interested in her she felt foolish, and ashamed of her irritation.
She asserted, "This silly lobby is too florid," and simultaneously she admired it: the onyx columns with gilt capitals, the crown-embroidered velvet curtains at the restaurant door, the silk-roped alcove where pretty girls perpetually waited for mysterious men, the two-pound boxes of candy and the variety of magazines at the news-stand. The hidden orchestra was lively. She saw a man who looked like a European diplomat, in a loose top-coat and a Homburg hat. A woman with a broadtail coat, a heavy lace veil, pearl earrings, and a close black hat entered the restaurant. "Heavens! That's the first really smart woman I've seen in a year!" Carol exulted. She felt metropolitan.
But as she followed Kennicott to the elevator the coat-check girl, a confident young woman, with cheeks powdered like lime, and a blouse low and thin and furiously crimson, inspected her, and under that supercilious glance Carol was shy again. She unconsciously waited for the bellboy to precede her into the elevator. When he snorted "Go ahead!" she was mortified. He thought she was a hayseed, she worried.
The moment she was in their room, with the bellboy safely out of the way, she looked critically at Kennicott. For the first time in months she really saw him.
His clothes were too heavy and provincial. His decent gray suit, made by Nat Hicks of Gopher Prairie, might have been of sheet iron; it had no distinction of cut, no easy grace like the diplomat's Burberry. His black shoes were blunt and not well polished. His scarf was a stupid brown. He needed a shave.
But she forgot her doubt as she realized the ingenuities of the room. She ran about, turning on the taps of the bathtub, which gushed instead of dribbling like the taps at home, snatching the new wash-rag out of its envelope of oiled paper, trying the rose-shaded light between the twin beds, pulling out the drawers of the kidney-shaped walnut desk to examine the engraved stationery, planning to write on it to every one she knew, admiring the claret-colored velvet armchair and the blue rug, testing the ice-water tap, and squealing happily when the water really did come out cold. She flung her arms about Kennicott, kissed him.
"Like it, old lady?"
"It's adorable. It's so amusing. I love you for bringing me. You really are a dear!"
He looked blankly indulgent, and yawned, and condescended, "That's a pretty slick arrangement on the radiator, so you can adjust it at any temperature you want. Must take a big furnace to run this place. Gosh, I hope Bea remembers to turn off the drafts tonight."
Under the glass cover of the dressing-table was a menu with the most enchanting dishes: breast of guinea hen De Vitresse, pommes de terre a la Russe, meringue Chantilly, gateaux Bruxelles.
"Oh, let's——I'm going to have a hot bath, and put on my new hat with the wool flowers, and let's go down and eat for hours, and we'll have a cocktail!" she chanted.
While Kennicott labored over ordering it was annoying to see him permit the waiter to be impertinent, but as the cocktail elevated her to a bridge among colored stars, as the oysters came in—not canned oysters in the Gopher Prairie fashion, but on the half-shell—she cried, "If you only knew how wonderful it is not to have had to plan this dinner, and order it at the butcher's and fuss and think about it, and then watch Bea cook it! I feel so free. And to have new kinds of food, and different patterns of dishes and linen, and not worry about whether the pudding is being spoiled! Oh, this is a great moment for me!"
They had all the experiences of provincials in a metropolis. After breakfast Carol bustled to a hair-dresser's, bought gloves and a blouse, and importantly met Kennicott in front of an optician's, in accordance with plans laid down, revised, and verified. They admired the diamonds and furs and frosty silverware and mahogany chairs and polished morocco sewing-boxes in shop-windows, and were abashed by the throngs in the department-stores, and were bullied by a clerk into buying too many shirts for Kennicott, and gaped at the "clever novelty perfumes—just in from New York." Carol got three books on the theater, and spent an exultant hour in warning herself that she could not afford this rajah-silk frock, in thinking how envious it would make Juanita Haydock, in closing her eyes, and buying it. Kennicott went from shop to shop, earnestly hunting down a felt-covered device to keep the windshield of his car clear of rain.