They dined extravagantly at their hotel at night, and next morning sneaked round the corner to economize at a Childs' Restaurant. They were tired by three in the afternoon, and dozed at the motion-pictures and said they wished they were back in Gopher Prairie—and by eleven in the evening they were again so lively that they went to a Chinese restaurant that was frequented by clerks and their sweethearts on pay-days. They sat at a teak and marble table eating Eggs Fooyung, and listened to a brassy automatic piano, and were altogether cosmopolitan.
On the street they met people from home—the McGanums. They laughed, shook hands repeatedly, and exclaimed, "Well, this is quite a coincidence!" They asked when the McGanums had come down, and begged for news of the town they had left two days before. Whatever the McGanums were at home, here they stood out as so superior to all the undistinguishable strangers absurdly hurrying past that the Kennicotts held them as long as they could. The McGanums said good-by as though they were going to Tibet instead of to the station to catch No. 7 north.
They explored Minneapolis. Kennicott was conversational and technical regarding gluten and cockle-cylinders and No. I Hard, when they were shown through the gray stone hulks and new cement elevators of the largest flour-mills in the world. They looked across Loring Park and the Parade to the towers of St. Mark's and the Procathedral, and the red roofs of houses climbing Kenwood Hill. They drove about the chain of garden-circled lakes, and viewed the houses of the millers and lumbermen and real estate peers—the potentates of the expanding city. They surveyed the small eccentric bungalows with pergolas, the houses of pebbledash and tapestry brick with sleeping-porches above sun-parlors, and one vast incredible chateau fronting the Lake of the Isles. They tramped through a shining-new section of apartment-houses; not the tall bleak apartments of Eastern cities but low structures of cheerful yellow brick, in which each flat had its glass-enclosed porch with swinging couch and scarlet cushions and Russian brass bowls. Between a waste of tracks and a raw gouged hill they found poverty in staggering shanties.
They saw miles of the city which they had never known in their days of absorption in college. They were distinguished explorers, and they remarked, in great mutual esteem, "I bet Harry Haydock's never seen the City like this! Why, he'd never have sense enough to study the machinery in the mills, or go through all these outlying districts. Wonder folks in Gopher Prairie wouldn't use their legs and explore, the way we do!"
They had two meals with Carol's sister, and were bored, and felt that intimacy which beatifies married people when they suddenly admit that they equally dislike a relative of either of them.
So it was with affection but also with weariness that they approached the evening on which Carol was to see the plays at the dramatic school. Kennicott suggested not going. "So darn tired from all this walking; don't know but what we better turn in early and get rested up." It was only from duty that Carol dragged him and herself out of the warm hotel, into a stinking trolley, up the brownstone steps of the converted residence which lugubriously housed the dramatic school.
They were in a long whitewashed hall with a clumsy draw-curtain across the front. The folding chairs were filled with people who looked washed and ironed: parents of the pupils, girl students, dutiful teachers.
"Strikes me it's going to be punk. If the first play isn't good, let's beat it," said Kennicott hopefully.
"All right," she yawned. With hazy eyes she tried to read the lists of characters, which were hidden among lifeless advertisements of pianos, music-dealers, restaurants, candy.
She regarded the Schnitzler play with no vast interest. The actors moved and spoke stiffly. Just as its cynicism was beginning to rouse her village-dulled frivolity, it was over.
"Don't think a whale of a lot of that. How about taking a sneak?" petitioned Kennicott.
"Oh, let's try the next one, 'How He Lied to Her Husband.'"
The Shaw conceit amused her, and perplexed Kennicott:
"Strikes me it's darn fresh. Thought it would be racy. Don't know as I think much of a play where a husband actually claims he wants a fellow to make love to his wife. No husband ever did that! Shall we shake a leg?"
"I want to see this Yeats thing, 'Land of Heart's Desire.' I used to love it in college." She was awake now, and urgent. "I know you didn't care so much for Yeats when I read him aloud to you, but you just see if you don't adore him on the stage."
Most of the cast were as unwieldy as oak chairs marching, and the setting was an arty arrangement of batik scarfs and heavy tables, but Maire Bruin was slim as Carol, and larger-eyed, and her voice was a morning bell. In her, Carol lived, and on her lifting voice was transported from this sleepy small-town husband and all the rows of polite parents to the stilly loft of a thatched cottage where in a green dimness, beside a window caressed by linden branches, she bent over a chronicle of twilight women and the ancient gods.
"Well—gosh—nice kid played that girl—good-looker," said Kennicott. "Want to stay for the last piece? Heh?"
She shivered. She did not answer.
The curtain was again drawn aside. On the stage they saw nothing but long green curtains and a leather chair. Two young men in brown robes like furniture-covers were gesturing vacuously and droning cryptic sentences full of repetitions.
It was Carol's first hearing of Dunsany. She sympathized with the restless Kennicott as he felt in his pocket for a cigar and unhappily put it back.
Without understanding when or how, without a tangible change in the stilted intoning of the stage-puppets, she was conscious of another time and place.
Stately and aloof among vainglorious tiring-maids, a queen in robes that murmured on the marble floor, she trod the gallery of a crumbling palace. In the courtyard, elephants trumpeted, and swart men with beards dyed crimson stood with blood-stained hands folded upon their hilts, guarding the caravan from El Sharnak, the camels with Tyrian stuffs of topaz and cinnabar. Beyond the turrets of the outer wall the jungle glared and shrieked, and the sun was furious above drenched orchids. A youth came striding through the steel-bossed doors, the sword-bitten doors that were higher than ten tall men. He was in flexible mail, and under the rim of his planished morion were amorous curls. His hand was out to her; before she touched it she could feel its warmth——
"Gosh all hemlock! What the dickens is all this stuff about, Carrie?"
She was no Syrian queen. She was Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. She fell with a jolt into a whitewashed hall and sat looking at two scared girls and a young man in wrinkled tights.
Kennicott fondly rambled as they left the hall:
"What the deuce did that last spiel mean? Couldn't make head or tail of it. If that's highbrow drama, give me a cow-puncher movie, every time! Thank God, that's over, and we can get to bed. Wonder if we wouldn't make time by walking over to Nicollet to take a car? One thing I will say for that dump: they had it warm enough. Must have a big hot-air furnace, I guess. Wonder how much coal it takes to run 'em through the winter?"
In the car he affectionately patted her knee, and he was for a second the striding youth in armor; then he was Doc Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, and she was recaptured by Main Street. Never, not all her life, would she behold jungles and the tombs of kings. There were strange things in the world, they really existed; but she would never see them.
She would recreate them in plays!
She would make the dramatic association understand her aspiration. They would, surely they would——
She looked doubtfully at the impenetrable reality of yawning trolley conductor and sleepy passengers and placards advertising soap and underwear.
SHE hurried to the first meeting of the play-reading committee. Her jungle romance had faded, but she retained a religious fervor, a surge of half-formed thought about the creation of beauty by suggestion.
A Dunsany play would be too difficult for the Gopher Prairie association. She would let them compromise on Shaw—on "Androcles and the Lion," which had just been published.
The committee was composed of Carol, Vida Sherwin, Guy Pollock, Raymie Wutherspoon, and Juanita Haydock. They were exalted by the picture of themselves as being simultaneously business-like and artistic. They were entertained by Vida in the parlor of Mrs. Elisha Gurrey's boarding-house, with its steel engraving of Grant at Appomattox, its basket of stereoscopic views, and its mysterious stains on the gritty carpet.
Vida was an advocate of culture-buying and efficiency-systems. She hinted that they ought to have (as at the committee-meetings of the Thanatopsis) a "regular order of business," and "the reading of the minutes," but as there were no minutes to read, and as no one knew exactly what was the regular order of the business of being literary, they had to give up efficiency.
Carol, as chairman, said politely, "Have you any ideas about what play we'd better give first?" She waited for them to look abashed and vacant, so that she might suggest "Androcles."
Guy Pollock answered with disconcerting readiness, "I'll tell you: since we're going to try to do something artistic, and not simply fool around, I believe we ought to give something classic. How about 'The School for Scandal'?"
"Why——Don't you think that has been done a good deal?"
"Yes, perhaps it has."
Carol was ready to say, "How about Bernard Shaw?" when he treacherously went on, "How would it be then to give a Greek drama—say 'Oedipus Tyrannus'?"
"Why, I don't believe——"
Vida Sherwin intruded, "I'm sure that would be too hard for us. Now I've brought something that I think would be awfully jolly."
She held out, and Carol incredulously took, a thin gray pamphlet entitled "McGinerty's Mother-in-law." It was the sort of farce which is advertised in "school entertainment" catalogues as:
Riproaring knock-out, 5 m. 3 f., time 2 hrs., interior set, popular with churches and all high-class occasions.
Carol glanced from the scabrous object to Vida, and realized that she was not joking.
"But this is—this is—why, it's just a——Why, Vida, I thought you appreciated—well—appreciated art."
Vida snorted, "Oh. Art. Oh yes. I do like art. It's very nice. But after all, what does it matter what kind of play we give as long as we get the association started? The thing that matters is something that none of you have spoken of, that is: what are we going to do with the money, if we make any? I think it would be awfully nice if we presented the high school with a full set of Stoddard's travel-lectures!"
Carol moaned, "Oh, but Vida dear, do forgive me but this farce——Now what I'd like us to give is something distinguished. Say Shaw's 'Androcles.' Have any of you read it?"
"Yes. Good play," said Guy Pollock.
Then Raymie Wutherspoon astoundingly spoke up:
"So have I. I read through all the plays in the public library, so's to be ready for this meeting. And——But I don't believe you grasp the irreligious ideas in this 'Androcles,' Mrs. Kennicott. I guess the feminine mind is too innocent to understand all these immoral writers. I'm sure I don't want to criticize Bernard Shaw; I understand he is very popular with the highbrows in Minneapolis; but just the same——As far as I can make out, he's downright improper! The things he SAYS——Well, it would be a very risky thing for our young folks to see. It seems to me that a play that doesn't leave a nice taste in the mouth and that hasn't any message is nothing but—nothing but——Well, whatever it may be, it isn't art. So——Now I've found a play that is clean, and there's some awfully funny scenes in it, too. I laughed out loud, reading it. It's called 'His Mother's Heart,' and it's about a young man in college who gets in with a lot of free-thinkers and boozers and everything, but in the end his mother's influence——"
Juanita Haydock broke in with a derisive, "Oh rats, Raymie! Can the mother's influence! I say let's give something with some class to it. I bet we could get the rights to 'The Girl from Kankakee,' and that's a real show. It ran for eleven months in New York!"
"That would be lots of fun, if it wouldn't cost too much," reflected Vida.
Carol's was the only vote cast against "The Girl from Kankakee."
She disliked "The Girl from Kankakee" even more than she had expected. It narrated the success of a farm-lassie in clearing her brother of a charge of forgery. She became secretary to a New York millionaire and social counselor to his wife; and after a well-conceived speech on the discomfort of having money, she married his son.
There was also a humorous office-boy.
Carol discerned that both Juanita Haydock and Ella Stowbody wanted the lead. She let Juanita have it. Juanita kissed her and in the exuberant manner of a new star presented to the executive committee her theory, "What we want in a play is humor and pep. There's where American playwrights put it all over these darn old European glooms."
As selected by Carol and confirmed by the committee, the persons of the play were:
John Grimm, a millionaire . . . . Guy Pollock His wife. . . . . . . . . Miss Vida Sherwin His son . . . . . . . . . Dr. Harvey Dillon His business rival. . . . . . . Raymond T. Wutherspoon Friend of Mrs. Grimm . . . . . . Miss Ella Stowbody The girl from Kankakee . . . . . Mrs. Harold C. Haydock Her brother. . . . . . . . Dr. Terence Gould Her mother . . . . . . . . Mrs. David Dyer Stenographer . . . . . . . . Miss Rita Simons Office-boy . . . . . . . . Miss Myrtle Cass Maid in the Grimms' home . . . . Mrs. W. P. Kennicott Direction of Mrs. Kennicott
Among the minor lamentations was Maud Dyer's "Well of course I suppose I look old enough to be Juanita's mother, even if Juanita is eight months older than I am, but I don't know as I care to have everybody noticing it and——"
Carol pleaded, "Oh, my DEAR! You two look exactly the same age. I chose you because you have such a darling complexion, and you know with powder and a white wig, anybody looks twice her age, and I want the mother to be sweet, no matter who else is."
Ella Stowbody, the professional, perceiving that it was because of a conspiracy of jealousy that she had been given a small part, alternated between lofty amusement and Christian patience.
Carol hinted that the play would be improved by cutting, but as every actor except Vida and Guy and herself wailed at the loss of a single line, she was defeated. She told herself that, after all, a great deal could be done with direction and settings.
Sam Clark had boastfully written about the dramatic association to his schoolmate, Percy Bresnahan, president of the Velvet Motor Company of Boston. Bresnahan sent a check for a hundred dollars; Sam added twenty-five and brought the fund to Carol, fondly crying, "There! That'll give you a start for putting the thing across swell!"
She rented the second floor of the city hall for two months. All through the spring the association thrilled to its own talent in that dismal room. They cleared out the bunting, ballot-boxes, handbills, legless chairs. They attacked the stage. It was a simple-minded stage. It was raised above the floor, and it did have a movable curtain, painted with the advertisement of a druggist dead these ten years, but otherwise it might not have been recognized as a stage. There were two dressing-rooms, one for men, one for women, on either side. The dressing-room doors were also the stage-entrances, opening from the house, and many a citizen of Gopher Prairie had for his first glimpse of romance the bare shoulders of the leading woman.
There were three sets of scenery: a woodland, a Poor Interior, and a Rich Interior, the last also useful for railway stations, offices, and as a background for the Swedish Quartette from Chicago. There were three gradations of lighting: full on, half on, and entirely off.
This was the only theater in Gopher Prairie. It was known as the "op'ra house." Once, strolling companies had used it for performances of "The Two Orphans," and "Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model," and "Othello" with specialties between acts, but now the motion-pictures had ousted the gipsy drama.
Carol intended to be furiously modern in constructing the office-set, the drawing-room for Mr. Grimm, and the Humble Home near Kankakee. It was the first time that any one in Gopher Prairie had been so revolutionary as to use enclosed scenes with continuous side-walls. The rooms in the op'ra house sets had separate wing-pieces for sides, which simplified dramaturgy, as the villain could always get out of the hero's way by walking out through the wall.
The inhabitants of the Humble Home were supposed to be amiable and intelligent. Carol planned for them a simple set with warm color. She could see the beginning of the play: all dark save the high settles and the solid wooden table between them, which were to be illuminated by a ray from offstage. The high light was a polished copper pot filled with primroses. Less clearly she sketched the Grimm drawing-room as a series of cool high white arches.
As to how she was to produce these effects she had no notion.
She discovered that, despite the enthusiastic young writers, the drama was not half so native and close to the soil as motor cars and telephones. She discovered that simple arts require sophisticated training. She discovered that to produce one perfect stage-picture would be as difficult as to turn all of Gopher Prairie into a Georgian garden.
She read all she could find regarding staging, she bought paint and light wood; she borrowed furniture and drapes unscrupulously; she made Kennicott turn carpenter. She collided with the problem of lighting. Against the protest of Kennicott and Vida she mortgaged the association by sending to Minneapolis for a baby spotlight, a strip light, a dimming device, and blue and amber bulbs; and with the gloating rapture of a born painter first turned loose among colors, she spent absorbed evenings in grouping, dimming-painting with lights.
Only Kennicott, Guy, and Vida helped her. They speculated as to how flats could be lashed together to form a wall; they hung crocus-yellow curtains at the windows; they blacked the sheet-iron stove; they put on aprons and swept. The rest of the association dropped into the theater every evening, and were literary and superior. They had borrowed Carol's manuals of play-production and had become extremely stagey in vocabulary.
Juanita Haydock, Rita Simons, and Raymie Wutherspoon sat on a sawhorse, watching Carol try to get the right position for a picture on the wall in the first scene.
"I don't want to hand myself anything but I believe I'll give a swell performance in this first act," confided Juanita. "I wish Carol wasn't so bossy though. She doesn't understand clothes. I want to wear, oh, a dandy dress I have—all scarlet—and I said to her, 'When I enter wouldn't it knock their eyes out if I just stood there at the door in this straight scarlet thing?' But she wouldn't let me."
Young Rita agreed, "She's so much taken up with her old details and carpentering and everything that she can't see the picture as a whole. Now I thought it would be lovely if we had an office-scene like the one in 'Little, But Oh My!' Because I SAW that, in Duluth. But she simply wouldn't listen at all."
Juanita sighed, "I wanted to give one speech like Ethel Barrymore would, if she was in a play like this. (Harry and I heard her one time in Minneapolis—we had dandy seats, in the orchestra—I just know I could imitate her.) Carol didn't pay any attention to my suggestion. I don't want to criticize but I guess Ethel knows more about acting than Carol does!"
"Say, do you think Carol has the right dope about using a strip light behind the fireplace in the second act? I told her I thought we ought to use a bunch," offered Raymie. "And I suggested it would be lovely if we used a cyclorama outside the window in the first act, and what do you think she said? 'Yes, and it would be lovely to have Eleanora Duse play the lead,' she said, 'and aside from the fact that it's evening in the first act, you're a great technician,' she said. I must say I think she was pretty sarcastic. I've been reading up, and I know I could build a cyclorama, if she didn't want to run everything."
"Yes, and another thing, I think the entrance in the first act ought to be L. U. E., not L. 3 E.," from Juanita.
"And why does she just use plain white tormenters?"
"What's a tormenter?" blurted Rita Simons.
The savants stared at her ignorance.
Carol did not resent their criticisms, she didn't very much resent their sudden knowledge, so long as they let her make pictures. It was at rehearsals that the quarrrels broke. No one understood that rehearsals were as real engagements as bridge-games or sociables at the Episcopal Church. They gaily came in half an hour late, or they vociferously came in ten minutes early, and they were so hurt that they whispered about resigning when Carol protested. They telephoned, "I don't think I'd better come out; afraid the dampness might start my toothache," or "Guess can't make it tonight; Dave wants me to sit in on a poker game."
When, after a month of labor, as many as nine-elevenths of the cast were often present at a rehearsal; when most of them had learned their parts and some of them spoke like human beings, Carol had a new shock in the realization that Guy Pollock and herself were very bad actors, and that Raymie Wutherspoon was a surprisingly good one. For all her visions she could not control her voice, and she was bored by the fiftieth repetition of her few lines as maid. Guy pulled his soft mustache, looked self-conscious, and turned Mr. Grimm into a limp dummy. But Raymie, as the villain, had no repressions. The tilt of his head was full of character; his drawl was admirably vicious.
There was an evening when Carol hoped she was going to make a play; a rehearsal during which Guy stopped looking abashed.
From that evening the play declined.
They were weary. "We know our parts well enough now; what's the use of getting sick of them?" they complained. They began to skylark; to play with the sacred lights; to giggle when Carol was trying to make the sentimental Myrtle Cass into a humorous office-boy; to act everything but "The Girl from Kankakee." After loafing through his proper part Dr. Terry Gould had great applause for his burlesque of "Hamlet." Even Raymie lost his simple faith, and tried to show that he could do a vaudeville shuffle.
Carol turned on the company. "See here, I want this nonsense to stop. We've simply got to get down to work."
Juanita Haydock led the mutiny: "Look here, Carol, don't be so bossy. After all, we're doing this play principally for the fun of it, and if we have fun out of a lot of monkey-shines, why then——"
"You said one time that folks in G. P. didn't get enough fun out of life. And now we are having a circus, you want us to stop!"
Carol answered slowly: "I wonder if I can explain what I mean? It's the difference between looking at the comic page and looking at Manet. I want fun out of this, of course. Only——I don't think it would be less fun, but more, to produce as perfect a play as we can." She was curiously exalted; her voice was strained; she stared not at the company but at the grotesques scrawled on the backs of wing-pieces by forgotten stage-hands. "I wonder if you can understand the 'fun' of making a beautiful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness!"
The company glanced doubtfully at one another. In Gopher Prairie it is not good form to be holy except at a church, between ten-thirty and twelve on Sunday.
"But if we want to do it, we've got to work; we must have self-discipline."
They were at once amused and embarrassed. They did not want to affront this mad woman. They backed off and tried to rehearse. Carol did not hear Juanita, in front, protesting to Maud Dyer, "If she calls it fun and holiness to sweat over her darned old play—well, I don't!"
Carol attended the only professional play which came to Gopher Prairie that spring. It was a "tent show, presenting snappy new dramas under canvas." The hard-working actors doubled in brass, and took tickets; and between acts sang about the moon in June, and sold Dr. Wintergreen's Surefire Tonic for Ills of the Heart, Lungs, Kidneys, and Bowels. They presented "Sunbonnet Nell: A Dramatic Comedy of the Ozarks," with J. Witherbee Boothby wringing the soul by his resonant "Yuh ain't done right by mah little gal, Mr. City Man, but yer a-goin' to find that back in these-yere hills there's honest folks and good shots!"
The audience, on planks beneath the patched tent, admired Mr. Boothby's beard and long rifle; stamped their feet in the dust at the spectacle of his heroism; shouted when the comedian aped the City Lady's use of a lorgnon by looking through a doughnut stuck on a fork; wept visibly over Mr. Boothby's Little Gal Nell, who was also Mr. Boothby's legal wife Pearl, and when the curtain went down, listened respectfully to Mr. Boothby's lecture on Dr. Wintergreen's Tonic as a cure for tape-worms, which he illustrated by horrible pallid objects curled in bottles of yellowing alcohol.
Carol shook her head. "Juanita is right. I'm a fool. Holiness of the drama! Bernard Shaw! The only trouble with 'The Girl from Kankakee' is that it's too subtle for Gopher Prairie!"
She sought faith in spacious banal phrases, taken from books: "the instinctive nobility of simple souls," "need only the opportunity, to appreciate fine things," and "sturdy exponents of democracy." But these optimisms did not sound so loud as the laughter of the audience at the funny-man's line, "Yes, by heckelum, I'm a smart fella." She wanted to give up the play, the dramatic association, the town. As she came out of the tent and walked with Kennicott down the dusty spring street, she peered at this straggling wooden village and felt that she could not possibly stay here through all of tomorrow.
It was Miles Bjornstam who gave her strength—he and the fact that every seat for "The Girl from Kankakee" had been sold.
Bjornstam was "keeping company" with Bea. Every night he was sitting on the back steps. Once when Carol appeared he grumbled, "Hope you're going to give this burg one good show. If you don't, reckon nobody ever will."
It was the great night; it was the night of the play. The two dressing-rooms were swirling with actors, panting, twitchy pale. Del Snafflin the barber, who was as much a professional as Ella, having once gone on in a mob scene at a stock-company performance in Minneapolis, was making them up, and showing his scorn for amateurs with, "Stand still! For the love o' Mike, how do you expect me to get your eyelids dark if you keep a-wigglin'?" The actors were beseeching, "Hey, Del, put some red in my nostrils—you put some in Rita's—gee, you didn't hardly do anything to my face."
They were enormously theatric. They examined Del's makeup box, they sniffed the scent of grease-paint, every minute they ran out to peep through the hole in the curtain, they came back to inspect their wigs and costumes, they read on the whitewashed walls of the dressing-rooms the pencil inscriptions: "The Flora Flanders Comedy Company," and "This is a bum theater," and felt that they were companions of these vanished troupers.
Carol, smart in maid's uniform, coaxed the temporary stage-hands to finish setting the first act, wailed at Kennicott, the electrician, "Now for heaven's sake remember the change in cue for the ambers in Act Two," slipped out to ask Dave Dyer, the ticket-taker, if he could get some more chairs, warned the frightened Myrtle Cass to be sure to upset the waste-basket when John Grimm called, "Here you, Reddy."
Del Snafflin's orchestra of piano, violin, and cornet began to tune up and every one behind the magic line of the proscenic arch was frightened into paralysis. Carol wavered to the hole in the curtain. There were so many people out there, staring so hard——
In the second row she saw Miles Bjornstam, not with Bea but alone. He really wanted to see the play! It was a good omen. Who could tell? Perhaps this evening would convert Gopher Prairie to conscious beauty.
She darted into the women's dressing-room, roused Maud Dyer from her fainting panic, pushed her to the wings, and ordered the curtain up.
It rose doubtfully, it staggered and trembled, but it did get up without catching—this time. Then she realized that Kennicott had forgotten to turn off the houselights. Some one out front was giggling.
She galloped round to the left wing, herself pulled the switch, looked so ferociously at Kennicott that he quaked, and fled back.
Mrs. Dyer was creeping out on the half-darkened stage. The play was begun.
And with that instant Carol realized that it was a bad play abominably acted.
Encouraging them with lying smiles, she watched her work go to pieces. The settings seemed flimsy, the lighting commonplace. She watched Guy Pollock stammer and twist his mustache when he should have been a bullying magnate; Vida Sherwin, as Grimm's timid wife, chatter at the audience as though they were her class in high-school English; Juanita, in the leading role, defy Mr. Grimm as though she were repeating a list of things she had to buy at the grocery this morning; Ella Stowbody remark "I'd like a cup of tea" as though she were reciting "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight"; and Dr. Gould, making love to Rita Simons, squeak, "My—my—you—are—a—won'erful—girl."
Myrtle Cass, as the office-boy, was so much pleased by the applause of her relatives, then so much agitated by the remarks of Cy Bogart, in the back row, in reference to her wearing trousers, that she could hardly be got off the stage. Only Raymie was so unsociable as to devote himself entirely to acting.
That she was right in her opinion of the play Carol was certain when Miles Bjornstam went out after the first act, and did not come back.
Between the second and third acts she called the company together, and supplicated, "I want to know something, before we have a chance to separate. Whether we're doing well or badly tonight, it is a beginning. But will we take it as merely a beginning? How many of you will pledge yourselves to start in with me, right away, tomorrow, and plan for another play, to be given in September?"
They stared at her; they nodded at Juanita's protest: "I think one's enough for a while. It's going elegant tonight, but another play——Seems to me it'll be time enough to talk about that next fall. Carol! I hope you don't mean to hint and suggest we're not doing fine tonight? I'm sure the applause shows the audience think it's just dandy!"
Then Carol knew how completely she had failed.
As the audience seeped out she heard B. J. Gougerling the banker say to Howland the grocer, "Well, I think the folks did splendid; just as good as professionals. But I don't care much for these plays. What I like is a good movie, with auto accidents and hold-ups, and some git to it, and not all this talky-talk."
Then Carol knew how certain she was to fail again.
She wearily did not blame them, company nor audience. Herself she blamed for trying to carve intaglios in good wholesome jack-pine.
"It's the worst defeat of all. I'm beaten. By Main Street. 'I must go on.' But I can't!"
She was not vastly encouraged by the Gopher Prairie Dauntless:
. . . would be impossible to distinguish among the actors when all gave such fine account of themselves in difficult roles of this well-known New York stage play. Guy Pollock as the old millionaire could not have been bettered for his fine impersonation of the gruff old millionaire; Mrs. Harry Haydock as the young lady from the West who so easily showed the New York four-flushers where they got off was a vision of loveliness and with fine stage presence. Miss Vida Sherwin the ever popular teacher in our high school pleased as Mrs. Grimm, Dr. Gould was well suited in the role of young lover—girls you better look out, remember the doc is a bachelor. The local Four Hundred also report that he is a great hand at shaking the light fantastic tootsies in the dance. As the stenographer Rita Simons was pretty as a picture, and Miss Ella Stowbody's long and intensive study of the drama and kindred arts in Eastern schools was seen in the fine finish of her part.
. . . to no one is greater credit to be given than to Mrs. Will Kennicott on whose capable shoulders fell the burden of directing.
"So kindly," Carol mused, "so well meant, so neighborly—and so confoundedly untrue. Is it really my failure, or theirs?"
She sought to be sensible; she elaborately explained to herself that it was hysterical to condemn Gopher Prairie because it did not foam over the drama. Its justification was in its service as a market-town for farmers. How bravely and generously it did its work, forwarding the bread of the world, feeding and healing the farmers!
Then, on the corner below her husband's office, she heard a farmer holding forth:
"Sure. Course I was beaten. The shipper and the grocers here wouldn't pay us a decent price for our potatoes, even though folks in the cities were howling for 'em. So we says, well, we'll get a truck and ship 'em right down to Minneapolis. But the commission merchants there were in cahoots with the local shipper here; they said they wouldn't pay us a cent more than he would, not even if they was nearer to the market. Well, we found we could get higher prices in Chicago, but when we tried to get freight cars to ship there, the railroads wouldn't let us have 'em—even though they had cars standing empty right here in the yards. There you got it—good market, and these towns keeping us from it. Gus, that's the way these towns work all the time. They pay what they want to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes. Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant farmers. The Dauntless lies to us about the Nonpartisan League, the lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over bad years, and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we were a bunch of hoboes. Man, I'd like to burn this town!"
Kennicott observed, "There's that old crank Wes Brannigan shooting off his mouth again. Gosh, but he loves to hear himself talk! They ought to run that fellow out of town!"
She felt old and detached through high-school commencement week, which is the fete of youth in Gopher Prairie; through baccalaureate sermon, senior Parade, junior entertainment, commencement address by an Iowa clergyman who asserted that he believed in the virtue of virtuousness, and the procession of Decoration Day, when the few Civil War veterans followed Champ Perry, in his rusty forage-cap, along the spring-powdered road to the cemetery. She met Guy; she found that she had nothing to say to him. Her head ached in an aimless way. When Kennicott rejoiced, "We'll have a great time this summer; move down to the lake early and wear old clothes and act natural," she smiled, but her smile creaked.
In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, talked about nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from them.
She was startled to find that she was using the word "escape."
Then, for three years which passed like one curt paragraph, she ceased to find anything interesting save the Bjornstams and her baby.
IN three years of exile from herself Carol had certain experiences chronicled as important by the Dauntless, or discussed by the Jolly Seventeen, but the event unchronicled, undiscussed, and supremely controlling, was her slow admission of longing to find her own people.
Bea and Miles Bjornstam were married in June, a month after "The Girl from Kankakee." Miles had turned respectable. He had renounced his criticisms of state and society; he had given up roving as horse-trader, and wearing red mackinaws in lumber-camps; he had gone to work as engineer in Jackson Elder's planing-mill; he was to be seen upon the streets endeavoring to be neighborly with suspicious men whom he had taunted for years.
Carol was the patroness and manager of the wedding. Juanita Haydock mocked, "You're a chump to let a good hired girl like Bea go. Besides! How do you know it's a good thing, her marrying a sassy bum like this awful Red Swede person? Get wise! Chase the man off with a mop, and hold onto your Svenska while the holding's good. Huh? Me go to their Scandahoofian wedding? Not a chance!"
The other matrons echoed Juanita. Carol was dismayed by the casualness of their cruelty, but she persisted. Miles had exclaimed to her, "Jack Elder says maybe he'll come to the wedding! Gee, it would be nice to have Bea meet the Boss as a reg'lar married lady. Some day I'll be so well off that Bea can play with Mrs. Elder—and you! Watch us!"
There was an uneasy knot of only nine guests at the service in the unpainted Lutheran Church—Carol, Kennicott, Guy Pollock, and the Champ Perrys, all brought by Carol; Bea's frightened rustic parents, her cousin Tina, and Pete, Miles's ex-partner in horse-trading, a surly, hairy man who had bought a black suit and come twelve hundred miles from Spokane for the event.
Miles continuously glanced back at the church door. Jackson Elder did not appear. The door did not once open after the awkward entrance of the first guests. Miles's hand closed on Bea's arm.
He had, with Carol's help, made his shanty over into a cottage with white curtains and a canary and a chintz chair.
Carol coaxed the powerful matrons to call on Bea. They half scoffed, half promised to go.
Bea's successor was the oldish, broad, silent Oscarina, who was suspicious of her frivolous mistress for a month, so that Juanita Haydock was able to crow, "There, smarty, I told you you'd run into the Domestic Problem!" But Oscarina adopted Carol as a daughter, and with her as faithful to the kitchen as Bea had been, there was nothing changed in Carol's life.
She was unexpectedly appointed to the town library-board by Ole Jenson, the new mayor. The other members were Dr. Westlake, Lyman Cass, Julius Flickerbaugh the attorney, Guy Pollock, and Martin Mahoney, former livery-stable keeper and now owner of a garage. She was delighted. She went to the first meeting rather condescendingly, regarding herself as the only one besides Guy who knew anything about books or library methods. She was planning to revolutionize the whole system.
Her condescension was ruined and her humility wholesomely increased when she found the board, in the shabby room on the second floor of the house which had been converted into the library, not discussing the weather and longing to play checkers, but talking about books. She discovered that amiable old Dr. Westlake read everything in verse and "light fiction"; that Lyman Cass, the veal-faced, bristly-bearded owner of the mill, had tramped through Gibbon, Hume, Grote, Prescott, and the other thick historians; that he could repeat pages from them—and did. When Dr. Westlake whispered to her, "Yes, Lym is a very well-informed man, but he's modest about it," she felt uninformed and immodest, and scolded at herself that she had missed the human potentialities in this vast Gopher Prairie. When Dr. Westlake quoted the "Paradiso," "Don Quixote," "Wilhelm Meister," and the Koran, she reflected that no one she knew, not even her father, had read all four.
She came diffidently to the second meeting of the board. She did not plan to revolutionize anything. She hoped that the wise elders might be so tolerant as to listen to her suggestions about changing the shelving of the juveniles.
Yet after four sessions of the library-board she was where she had been before the first session. She had found that for all their pride in being reading men, Westlake and Cass and even Guy had no conception of making the library familiar to the whole town. They used it, they passed resolutions about it, and they left it as dead as Moses. Only the Henty books and the Elsie books and the latest optimisms by moral female novelists and virile clergymen were in general demand, and the board themselves were interested only in old, stilted volumes. They had no tenderness for the noisiness of youth discovering great literature.
If she was egotistic about her tiny learning, they were at least as much so regarding theirs. And for all their talk of the need of additional library-tax none of them was willing to risk censure by battling for it, though they now had so small a fund that, after paying for rent, heat, light, and Miss Villets's salary, they had only a hundred dollars a year for the purchase of books.
The Incident of the Seventeen Cents killed her none too enduring interest.
She had come to the board-meeting singing with a plan. She had made a list of thirty European novels of the past ten years, with twenty important books on psychology, education, and economics which the library lacked. She had made Kennicott promise to give fifteen dollars. If each of the board would contribute the same, they could have the books.
Lym Cass looked alarmed, scratched himself, and protested, "I think it would be a bad precedent for the board-members to contribute money—uh—not that I mind, but it wouldn't be fair—establish precedent. Gracious! They don't pay us a cent for our services! Certainly can't expect us to pay for the privilege of serving!"
Only Guy looked sympathetic, and he stroked the pine table and said nothing.
The rest of the meeting they gave to a bellicose investigation of the fact that there was seventeen cents less than there should be in the Fund. Miss Villets was summoned; she spent half an hour in explosively defending herself; the seventeen cents were gnawed over, penny by penny; and Carol, glancing at the carefully inscribed list which had been so lovely and exciting an hour before, was silent, and sorry for Miss Villets, and sorrier for herself.
She was reasonably regular in attendance till her two years were up and Vida Sherwin was appointed to the board in her place, but she did not try to be revolutionary. In the plodding course of her life there was nothing changed, and nothing new.
Kennicott made an excellent land-deal, but as he told her none of the details, she was not greatly exalted or agitated. What did agitate her was his announcement, half whispered and half blurted, half tender and half coldly medical, that they "ought to have a baby, now they could afford it." They had so long agreed that "perhaps it would be just as well not to have any children for a while yet," that childlessness had come to be natural. Now, she feared and longed and did not know; she hesitatingly assented, and wished that she had not assented.
As there appeared no change in their drowsy relations, she forgot all about it, and life was planless.
Idling on the porch of their summer cottage at the lake, on afternoons when Kennicott was in town, when the water was glazed and the whole air languid, she pictured a hundred escapes: Fifth Avenue in a snow-storm, with limousines, golden shops, a cathedral spire. A reed hut on fantastic piles above the mud of a jungle river. A suite in Paris, immense high grave rooms, with lambrequins and a balcony. The Enchanted Mesa. An ancient stone mill in Maryland, at the turn of the road, between rocky brook and abrupt hills. An upland moor of sheep and flitting cool sunlight. A clanging dock where steel cranes unloaded steamers from Buenos Ayres and Tsing-tao. A Munich concert-hall, and a famous 'cellist playing—playing to her.
One scene had a persistent witchery:
She stood on a terrace overlooking a boulevard by the warm sea. She was certain, though she had no reason for it, that the place was Mentone. Along the drive below her swept barouches, with a mechanical tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, and great cars with polished black hoods and engines quiet as the sigh of an old man. In them were women erect, slender, enameled, and expressionless as marionettes, their small hands upon parasols, their unchanging eyes always forward, ignoring the men beside them, tall men with gray hair and distinguished faces. Beyond the drive were painted sea and painted sands, and blue and yellow pavilions. Nothing moved except the gliding carriages, and the people were small and wooden, spots in a picture drenched with gold and hard bright blues. There was no sound of sea or winds; no softness of whispers nor of falling petals; nothing but yellow and cobalt and staring light, and the never-changing tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot——
She startled. She whimpered. It was the rapid ticking of the clock which had hypnotized her into hearing the steady hoofs. No aching color of the sea and pride of supercilious people, but the reality of a round-bellied nickel alarm-clock on a shelf against a fuzzy unplaned pine wall, with a stiff gray wash-rag hanging above it and a kerosene-stove standing below.
A thousand dreams governed by the fiction she had read, drawn from the pictures she had envied, absorbed her drowsy lake afternoons, but always in the midst of them Kennicott came out from town, drew on khaki trousers which were plastered with dry fish-scales, asked, "Enjoying yourself?" and did not listen to her answer.
And nothing was changed, and there was no reason to believe that there ever would be change.
At the lake cottage she missed the passing of the trains. She realized that in town she had depended upon them for assurance that there remained a world beyond.
The railroad was more than a means of transportation to Gopher Prairie. It was a new god; a monster of steel limbs, oak ribs, flesh of gravel, and a stupendous hunger for freight; a deity created by man that he might keep himself respectful to Property, as elsewhere he had elevated and served as tribal gods the mines, cotton-mills, motor-factories, colleges, army.
The East remembered generations when there had been no railroad, and had no awe of it; but here the railroads had been before time was. The towns had been staked out on barren prairie as convenient points for future train-halts; and back in 1860 and 1870 there had been much profit, much opportunity to found aristocratic families, in the possession of advance knowledge as to where the towns would arise.
If a town was in disfavor, the railroad could ignore it, cut it off from commerce, slay it. To Gopher Prairie the tracks were eternal verities, and boards of railroad directors an omnipotence. The smallest boy or the most secluded grandam could tell you whether No. 32 had a hot-box last Tuesday, whether No. 7 was going to put on an extra day-coach; and the name of the president of the road was familiar to every breakfast table.
Even in this new era of motors the citizens went down to the station to see the trains go through. It was their romance; their only mystery besides mass at the Catholic Church; and from the trains came lords of the outer world—traveling salesmen with piping on their waistcoats, and visiting cousins from Milwaukee.
Gopher Prairie had once been a "division-point." The roundhouse and repair-shops were gone, but two conductors still retained residence, and they were persons of distinction, men who traveled and talked to strangers, who wore uniforms with brass buttons, and knew all about these crooked games of con-men. They were a special caste, neither above nor below the Haydocks, but apart, artists and adventurers.
The night telegraph-operator at the railroad station was the most melodramatic figure in town: awake at three in the morning, alone in a room hectic with clatter of the telegraph key. All night he "talked" to operators twenty, fifty, a hundred miles away. It was always to be expected that he would be held up by robbers. He never was, but round him was a suggestion of masked faces at the window, revolvers, cords binding him to a chair, his struggle to crawl to the key before he fainted.
During blizzards everything about the railroad was melodramatic. There were days when the town was completely shut off, when they had no mail, no express, no fresh meat, no newspapers. At last the rotary snow-plow came through, bucking the drifts, sending up a geyser, and the way to the Outside was open again. The brakemen, in mufflers and fur caps, running along the tops of ice-coated freight-cars; the engineers scratching frost from the cab windows and looking out, inscrutable, self-contained, pilots of the prairie sea—they were heroism, they were to Carol the daring of the quest in a world of groceries and sermons.
To the small boys the railroad was a familiar playground. They climbed the iron ladders on the sides of the box-cars; built fires behind piles of old ties; waved to favorite brakemen. But to Carol it was magic.
She was motoring with Kennicott, the car lumping through darkness, the lights showing mud-puddles and ragged weeds by the road. A train coming! A rapid chuck-a-chuck, chuck-a-chuck, chuck-a-chuck. It was hurling past—the Pacific Flyer, an arrow of golden flame. Light from the fire-box splashed the under side of the trailing smoke. Instantly the vision was gone; Carol was back in the long darkness; and Kennicott was giving his version of that fire and wonder: "No. 19. Must be 'bout ten minutes late."
In town, she listened from bed to the express whistling in the cut a mile north. Uuuuuuu!—faint, nervous, distrait, horn of the free night riders journeying to the tall towns where were laughter and banners and the sound of bells—Uuuuu! Uuuuu!—the world going by—Uuuuuuu!—fainter, more wistful, gone.
Down here there were no trains. The stillness was very great. The prairie encircled the lake, lay round her, raw, dusty, thick. Only the train could cut it. Some day she would take a train; and that would be a great taking.
She turned to the Chautauqua as she had turned to the dramatic association, to the library-board.
Besides the permanent Mother Chautauqua, in New York, there are, all over these States, commercial Chautauqua companies which send out to every smallest town troupes of lecturers and "entertainers" to give a week of culture under canvas. Living in Minneapolis, Carol had never encountered the ambulant Chautauqua, and the announcement of its coming to Gopher Prairie gave her hope that others might be doing the vague things which she had attempted. She pictured a condensed university course brought to the people. Mornings when she came in from the lake with Kennicott she saw placards in every shop-window, and strung on a cord across Main Street, a line of pennants alternately worded "The Boland Chautauqua COMING!" and "A solid week of inspiration and enjoyment!" But she was disappointed when she saw the program. It did not seem to be a tabloid university; it did not seem to be any kind of a university; it seemed to be a combination of vaudeville performance Y. M. C. A. lecture, and the graduation exercises of an elocution class.
She took her doubt to Kennicott. He insisted, "Well, maybe it won't be so awful darn intellectual, the way you and I might like it, but it's a whole lot better than nothing." Vida Sherwin added, "They have some splendid speakers. If the people don't carry off so much actual information, they do get a lot of new ideas, and that's what counts."
During the Chautauqua Carol attended three evening meetings, two afternoon meetings, and one in the morning. She was impressed by the audience: the sallow women in skirts and blouses, eager to be made to think, the men in vests and shirt-sleeves, eager to be allowed to laugh, and the wriggling children, eager to sneak away. She liked the plain benches, the portable stage under its red marquee, the great tent over all, shadowy above strings of incandescent bulbs at night and by day casting an amber radiance on the patient crowd. The scent of dust and trampled grass and sun-baked wood gave her an illusion of Syrian caravans; she forgot the speakers while she listened to noises outside the tent: two farmers talking hoarsely, a wagon creaking down Main Street, the crow of a rooster. She was content. But it was the contentment of the lost hunter stopping to rest.
For from the Chautauqua itself she got nothing but wind and chaff and heavy laughter, the laughter of yokels at old jokes, a mirthless and primitive sound like the cries of beasts on a farm.
These were the several instructors in the condensed university's seven-day course:
Nine lecturers, four of them ex-ministers, and one an ex-congressman, all of them delivering "inspirational addresses." The only facts or opinions which Carol derived from them were: Lincoln was a celebrated president of the United States, but in his youth extremely poor. James J. Hill was the best-known railroad-man of the West, and in his youth extremely poor. Honesty and courtesy in business are preferable to boorishness and exposed trickery, but this is not to be taken personally, since all persons in Gopher Prairie are known to be honest and courteous. London is a large city. A distinguished statesman once taught Sunday School.
Four "entertainers" who told Jewish stories, Irish stories, German stories, Chinese stories, and Tennessee mountaineer stories, most of which Carol had heard.
A "lady elocutionist" who recited Kipling and imitated children.
A lecturer with motion-pictures of an Andean exploration; excellent pictures and a halting narrative.
Three brass-bands, a company of six opera-singers, a Hawaiian sextette, and four youths who played saxophones and guitars disguised as wash-boards. The most applauded pieces were those, such as the "Lucia" inevitability, which the audience had heard most often.
The local superintendent, who remained through the week while the other enlighteners went to other Chautauquas for their daily performances. The superintendent was a bookish, underfed man who worked hard at rousing artificial enthusiasm, at trying to make the audience cheer by dividing them into competitive squads and telling them that they were intelligent and made splendid communal noises. He gave most of the morning lectures, droning with equal unhappy facility about poetry, the Holy Land, and the injustice to employers in any system of profit-sharing.
The final item was a man who neither lectured, inspired, nor entertained; a plain little man with his hands in his pockets. All the other speakers had confessed, "I cannot keep from telling the citizens of your beautiful city that none of the talent on this circuit have found a more charming spot or more enterprising and hospitable people." But the little man suggested that the architecture of Gopher Prairie was haphazard, and that it was sottish to let the lake-front be monopolized by the cinder-heaped wall of the railroad embankment. Afterward the audience grumbled, "Maybe that guy's got the right dope, but what's the use of looking on the dark side of things all the time? New ideas are first-rate, but not all this criticism. Enough trouble in life without looking for it!"
Thus the Chautauqua, as Carol saw it. After it, the town felt proud and educated.
Two weeks later the Great War smote Europe.
For a month Gopher Prairie had the delight of shuddering, then, as the war settled down to a business of trench-fighting, they forgot.
When Carol talked about the Balkans, and the possibility of a German revolution, Kennicott yawned, "Oh yes, it's a great old scrap, but it's none of our business. Folks out here are too busy growing corn to monkey with any fool war that those foreigners want to get themselves into."
It was Miles Bjornstam who said, "I can't figure it out. I'm opposed to wars, but still, seems like Germany has got to be licked because them Junkers stands in the way of progress."
She was calling on Miles and Bea, early in autumn. They had received her with cries, with dusting of chairs, and a running to fetch water for coffee. Miles stood and beamed at her. He fell often and joyously into his old irreverence about the lords of Gopher Prairie, but always—with a certain difficulty—he added something decorous and appreciative.
"Lots of people have come to see you, haven't they?" Carol hinted.
"Why, Bea's cousin Tina comes in right along, and the foreman at the mill, and——Oh, we have good times. Say, take a look at that Bea! Wouldn't you think she was a canary-bird, to listen to her, and to see that Scandahoofian tow-head of hers? But say, know what she is? She's a mother hen! Way she fusses over me—way she makes old Miles wear a necktie! Hate to spoil her by letting her hear it, but she's one pretty darn nice—nice——Hell! What do we care if none of the dirty snobs come and call? We've got each other."
Carol worried about their struggle, but she forgot it in the stress of sickness and fear. For that autumn she knew that a baby was coming, that at last life promised to be interesting in the peril of the great change.
THE baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain that she would never again be attractive; each twilight she was afraid. She did not feel exalted, but unkempt and furious. The period of daily sickness crawled into an endless time of boredom. It became difficult for her to move about, and she raged that she, who had been slim and light-footed, should have to lean on a stick, and be heartily commented upon by street gossips. She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, "Now that you're going to be a mother, dearie, you'll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down." She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.
"I could stand fighting them. I'm used to that. But this being taken in, being taken as a matter of course, I can't stand it—and I must stand it!"
She alternately detested herself for not appreciating the kindly women, and detested them for their advice: lugubrious hints as to how much she would suffer in labor, details of baby-hygiene based on long experience and total misunderstanding, superstitious cautions about the things she must eat and read and look at in prenatal care for the baby's soul, and always a pest of simpering baby-talk. Mrs. Champ Perry bustled in to lend "Ben Hur," as a preventive of future infant immorality. The Widow Bogart appeared trailing pinkish exclamations, "And how is our lovely 'ittle muzzy today! My, ain't it just like they always say: being in a Family Way does make the girlie so lovely, just like a Madonna. Tell me—" Her whisper was tinged with salaciousness—"does oo feel the dear itsy one stirring, the pledge of love? I remember with Cy, of course he was so big——"
"I do not look lovely, Mrs. Bogart. My complexion is rotten, and my hair is coming out, and I look like a potato-bag, and I think my arches are falling, and he isn't a pledge of love, and I'm afraid he WILL look like us, and I don't believe in mother-devotion, and the whole business is a confounded nuisance of a biological process," remarked Carol.
Then the baby was born, without unusual difficulty: a boy with straight back and strong legs. The first day she hated him for the tides of pain and hopeless fear he had caused; she resented his raw ugliness. After that she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed. She marveled at the perfection of the miniature hands as noisily as did Kennicott, she was overwhelmed by the trust with which the baby turned to her; passion for him grew with each unpoetic irritating thing she had to do for him.
He was named Hugh, for her father.
Hugh developed into a thin healthy child with a large head and straight delicate hair of a faint brown. He was thoughtful and casual—a Kennicott.
For two years nothing else existed. She did not, as the cynical matrons had prophesied, "give up worrying about the world and other folks' babies soon as she got one of her own to fight for." The barbarity of that willingness to sacrifice other children so that one child might have too much was impossible to her. But she would sacrifice herself. She understood consecration—she who answered Kennicott's hints about having Hugh christened: "I refuse to insult my baby and myself by asking an ignorant young man in a frock coat to sanction him, to permit me to have him! I refuse to subject him to any devil-chasing rites! If I didn't give my baby—MY BABY—enough sanctification in those nine hours of hell, then he can't get any more out of the Reverend Mr. Zitterel!"
"Well, Baptists hardly ever christen kids. I was kind of thinking more about Reverend Warren," said Kennicott.
Hugh was her reason for living, promise of accomplishment in the future, shrine of adoration—and a diverting toy. "I thought I'd be a dilettante mother, but I'm as dismayingly natural as Mrs. Bogart," she boasted.
For two—years Carol was a part of the town; as much one of Our Young Mothers as Mrs. McGanum. Her opinionation seemed dead; she had no apparent desire for escape; her brooding centered on Hugh. While she wondered at the pearl texture of his ear she exulted, "I feel like an old woman, with a skin like sandpaper, beside him, and I'm glad of it! He is perfect. He shall have everything. He sha'n't always stay here in Gopher Prairie. . . . I wonder which is really the best, Harvard or Yale or Oxford?"
The people who hemmed her in had been brilliantly reinforced by Mr. and Mrs. Whittier N. Smail—Kennicott's Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie.
The true Main Streetite defines a relative as a person to whose house you go uninvited, to stay as long as you like. If you hear that Lym Cass on his journey East has spent all his time "visiting" in Oyster Center, it does not mean that he prefers that village to the rest of New England, but that he has relatives there. It does not mean that he has written to the relatives these many years, nor that they have ever given signs of a desire to look upon him. But "you wouldn't expect a man to go and spend good money at a hotel in Boston, when his own third cousins live right in the same state, would you?"
When the Smails sold their creamery in North Dakota they visited Mr. Smail's sister, Kennicott's mother, at Lac-qui-Meurt, then plodded on to Gopher Prairie to stay with their nephew. They appeared unannounced, before the baby was born, took their welcome for granted, and immediately began to complain of the fact that their room faced north.
Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie assumed that it was their privilege as relatives to laugh at Carol, and their duty as Christians to let her know how absurd her "notions" were. They objected to the food, to Oscarina's lack of friendliness, to the wind, the rain, and the immodesty of Carol's maternity gowns. They were strong and enduring; for an hour at a time they could go on heaving questions about her father's income, about her theology, and about the reason why she had not put on her rubbers when she had gone across the street. For fussy discussion they had a rich, full genius, and their example developed in Kennicott a tendency to the same form of affectionate flaying.
If Carol was so indiscreet as to murmur that she had a small headache, instantly the two Smails and Kennicott were at it. Every five minutes, every time she sat down or rose or spoke to Oscarina, they twanged, "Is your head better now? Where does it hurt? Don't you keep hartshorn in the house? Didn't you walk too far today? Have you tried hartshorn? Don't you keep some in the house so it will be handy? Does it feel better now? How does it feel? Do your eyes hurt, too? What time do you usually get to bed? As late as THAT? Well! How does it feel now?"
In her presence Uncle Whittier snorted at Kennicott, "Carol get these headaches often? Huh? Be better for her if she didn't go gadding around to all these bridge-whist parties, and took some care of herself once in a while!"
They kept it up, commenting, questioning, commenting, questioning, till her determination broke and she bleated, "For heaven's SAKE, don't dis-CUSS it! My head 's all RIGHT!"
She listened to the Smails and Kennicott trying to determine by dialectics whether the copy of the Dauntless, which Aunt Bessie wanted to send to her sister in Alberta, ought to have two or four cents postage on it. Carol would have taken it to the drug store and weighed it, but then she was a dreamer, while they were practical people (as they frequently admitted). So they sought to evolve the postal rate from their inner consciousnesses, which, combined with entire frankness in thinking aloud, was their method of settling all problems.
The Smails did not "believe in all this nonsense" about privacy and reticence. When Carol left a letter from her sister on the table, she was astounded to hear from Uncle Whittier, "I see your sister says her husband is doing fine. You ought to go see her oftener. I asked Will and he says you don't go see her very often. My! You ought to go see her oftener!"
If Carol was writing a letter to a classmate, or planning the week's menus, she could be certain that Aunt Bessie would pop in and titter, "Now don't let me disturb you, I just wanted to see where you were, don't stop, I'm not going to stay only a second. I just wondered if you could possibly have thought that I didn't eat the onions this noon because I didn't think they were properly cooked, but that wasn't the reason at all, it wasn't because I didn't think they were well cooked, I'm sure that everything in your house is always very dainty and nice, though I do think that Oscarina is careless about some things, she doesn't appreciate the big wages you pay her, and she is so cranky, all these Swedes are so cranky, I don't really see why you have a Swede, but——But that wasn't it, I didn't eat them not because I didn't think they weren't cooked proper, it was just—I find that onions don't agree with me, it's very strange, ever since I had an attack of biliousness one time, I have found that onions, either fried onions or raw ones, and Whittier does love raw onions with vinegar and sugar on them——"
It was pure affection.
Carol was discovering that the one thing that can be more disconcerting than intelligent hatred is demanding love.
She supposed that she was being gracefully dull and standardized in the Smails' presence, but they scented the heretic, and with forward-stooping delight they sat and tried to drag out her ludicrous concepts for their amusement. They were like the Sunday-afternoon mob starting at monkeys in the Zoo, poking fingers and making faces and giggling at the resentment of the more dignified race.
With a loose-lipped, superior, village smile Uncle Whittier hinted, "What's this I hear about your thinking Gopher Prairie ought to be all tore down and rebuilt, Carrie? I don't know where folks get these new-fangled ideas. Lots of farmers in Dakota getting 'em these days. About co-operation. Think they can run stores better 'n storekeepers! Huh!"
"Whit and I didn't need no co-operation as long as we was farming!" triumphed Aunt Bessie. "Carrie, tell your old auntie now: don't you ever go to church on Sunday? You do go sometimes? But you ought to go every Sunday! When you're as old as I am, you'll learn that no matter how smart folks think they are, God knows a whole lot more than they do, and then you'll realize and be glad to go and listen to your pastor!"
In the manner of one who has just beheld a two-headed calf they repeated that they had "never HEARD such funny ideas!" They were staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word "dude" is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always pedlers or pants-makers.
"Where does she get all them the'ries?" marveled Uncle Whittier Smail; while Aunt Bessie inquired, "Do you suppose there's many folks got notions like hers? My! If there are," and her tone settled the fact that there were not, "I just don't know what the world's coming to!"
Patiently—more or less—Carol awaited the exquisite day when they would announce departure. After three weeks Uncle Whittier remarked, "We kinda like Gopher Prairie. Guess maybe we'll stay here. We'd been wondering what we'd do, now we've sold the creamery and my farms. So I had a talk with Ole Jenson about his grocery, and I guess I'll buy him out and storekeep for a while."
Carol rebelled. Kennicott soothed her: "Oh, we won't see much of them. They'll have their own house."
She resolved to be so chilly that they would stay away. But she had no talent for conscious insolence. They found a house, but Carol was never safe from their appearance with a hearty, "Thought we'd drop in this evening and keep you from being lonely. Why, you ain't had them curtains washed yet!" Invariably, whenever she was touched by the realization that it was they who were lonely, they wrecked her pitying affection by comments—questions—comments—advice.
They immediately became friendly with all of their own race, with the Luke Dawsons, the Deacon Piersons, and Mrs. Bogart; and brought them along in the evening. Aunt Bessie was a bridge over whom the older women, bearing gifts of counsel and the ignorance of experience, poured into Carol's island of reserve. Aunt Bessie urged the good Widow Bogart, "Drop in and see Carrie real often. Young folks today don't understand housekeeping like we do."
Mrs. Bogart showed herself perfectly willing to be an associate relative.
Carol was thinking up protective insults when Kennicott's mother came down to stay with Brother Whittier for two months. Carol was fond of Mrs. Kennicott. She could not carry out her insults.
She felt trapped.
She had been kidnaped by the town. She was Aunt Bessie's niece, and she was to be a mother. She was expected, she almost expected herself, to sit forever talking of babies, cooks, embroidery stitches, the price of potatoes, and the tastes of husbands in the matter of spinach.
She found a refuge in the Jolly Seventeen. She suddenly understood that they could be depended upon to laugh with her at Mrs. Bogart, and she now saw Juanita Haydock's gossip not as vulgarity but as gaiety and remarkable analysis.
Her life had changed, even before Hugh appeared. She looked forward to the next bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, and the security of whispering with her dear friends Maud Dyer and Juanita and Mrs. McGanum.
She was part of the town. Its philosophy and its feuds dominated her.
She was no longer irritated by the cooing of the matrons, nor by their opinion that diet didn't matter so long as the Little Ones had plenty of lace and moist kisses, but she concluded that in the care of babies as in politics, intelligence was superior to quotations about pansies. She liked best to talk about Hugh to Kennicott, Vida, and the Bjornstams. She was happily domestic when Kennicott sat by her on the floor, to watch baby make faces. She was delighted when Miles, speaking as one man to another, admonished Hugh, "I wouldn't stand them skirts if I was you. Come on. Join the union and strike. Make 'em give you pants."
As a parent, Kennicott was moved to establish the first child-welfare week held in Gopher Prairie. Carol helped him weigh babies and examine their throats, and she wrote out the diets for mute German and Scandinavian mothers.
The aristocracy of Gopher Prairie, even the wives of the rival doctors, took part, and for several days there was community spirit and much uplift. But this reign of love was overthrown when the prize for Best Baby was awarded not to decent parents but to Bea and Miles Bjornstam! The good matrons glared at Olaf Bjornstam, with his blue eyes, his honey-colored hair, and magnificent back, and they remarked, "Well, Mrs. Kennicott, maybe that Swede brat is as healthy as your husband says he is, but let me tell you I hate to think of the future that awaits any boy with a hired girl for a mother and an awful irreligious socialist for a pa!"
She raged, but so violent was the current of their respectability, so persistent was Aunt Bessie in running to her with their blabber, that she was embarrassed when she took Hugh to play with Olaf. She hated herself for it, but she hoped that no one saw her go into the Bjornstam shanty. She hated herself and the town's indifferent cruelty when she saw Bea's radiant devotion to both babies alike; when she saw Miles staring at them wistfully.
He had saved money, had quit Elder's planing-mill and started a dairy on a vacant lot near his shack. He was proud of his three cows and sixty chickens, and got up nights to nurse them.
"I'll be a big farmer before you can bat an eye! I tell you that young fellow Olaf is going to go East to college along with the Haydock kids. Uh——Lots of folks dropping in to chin with Bea and me now. Say! Ma Bogart come in one day! She was——I liked the old lady fine. And the mill foreman comes in right along. Oh, we got lots of friends. You bet!"
Though the town seemed to Carol to change no more than the surrounding fields, there was a constant shifting, these three years. The citizen of the prairie drifts always westward. It may be because he is the heir of ancient migrations—and it may be because he finds within his own spirit so little adventure that he is driven to seek it by changing his horizon. The towns remain unvaried, yet the individual faces alter like classes in college. The Gopher Prairie jeweler sells out, for no discernible reason, and moves on to Alberta or the state of Washington, to open a shop precisely like his former one, in a town precisely like the one he has left. There is, except among professional men and the wealthy, small permanence either of residence or occupation. A man becomes farmer, grocer, town policeman, garageman, restaurant-owner, postmaster, insurance-agent, and farmer all over again, and the community more or less patiently suffers from his lack of knowledge in each of his experiments.
Ole Jenson the grocer and Dahl the butcher moved on to South Dakota and Idaho. Luke and Mrs. Dawson picked up ten thousand acres of prairie soil, in the magic portable form of a small check book, and went to Pasadena, to a bungalow and sunshine and cafeterias. Chet Dashaway sold his furniture and undertaking business and wandered to Los Angeles, where, the Dauntless reported, "Our good friend Chester has accepted a fine position with a real-estate firm, and his wife has in the charming social circles of the Queen City of the Southwestland that same popularity which she enjoyed in our own society sets."
Rita Simons was married to Terry Gould, and rivaled Juanita Haydock as the gayest of the Young Married Set. But Juanita also acquired merit. Harry's father died, Harry became senior partner in the Bon Ton Store, and Juanita was more acidulous and shrewd and cackling than ever. She bought an evening frock, and exposed her collar-bone to the wonder of the Jolly Seventeen, and talked of moving to Minneapolis.
To defend her position against the new Mrs. Terry Gould she sought to attach Carol to her faction by giggling that "SOME folks might call Rita innocent, but I've got a hunch that she isn't half as ignorant of things as brides are supposed to be—and of course Terry isn't one-two-three as a doctor alongside of your husband."
Carol herself would gladly have followed Mr. Ole Jenson, and migrated even to another Main Street; flight from familiar tedium to new tedium would have for a time the outer look and promise of adventure. She hinted to Kennicott of the probable medical advantages of Montana and Oregon. She knew that he was satisfied with Gopher Prairie, but it gave her vicarious hope to think of going, to ask for railroad folders at the station, to trace the maps with a restless forefinger.
Yet to the casual eye she was not discontented, she was not an abnormal and distressing traitor to the faith of Main Street.
The settled citizen believes that the rebel is constantly in a stew of complaining and, hearing of a Carol Kennicott, he gasps, "What an awful person! She must be a Holy Terror to live with! Glad MY folks are satisfied with things way they are!" Actually, it was not so much as five minutes a day that Carol devoted to lonely desires. It is probable that the agitated citizen has within his circle at least one inarticulate rebel with aspirations as wayward as Carol's.
The presence of the baby had made her take Gopher Prairie and the brown house seriously, as natural places of residence. She pleased Kennicott by being friendly with the complacent maturity of Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Elder, and when she had often enough been in conference upon the Elders' new Cadillac car, or the job which the oldest Clark boy had taken in the office of the flour-mill, these topics became important, things to follow up day by day.
With nine-tenths of her emotion concentrated upon Hugh, she did not criticize shops, streets, acquaintances . . . this year or two. She hurried to Uncle Whittier's store for a package of corn-flakes, she abstractedly listened to Uncle Whittier's denunciation of Martin Mahoney for asserting that the wind last Tuesday had been south and not southwest, she came back along streets that held no surprises nor the startling faces of strangers. Thinking of Hugh's teething all the way, she did not reflect that this store, these drab blocks, made up all her background. She did her work, and she triumphed over winning from the Clarks at five hundred.
The most considerable event of the two years after the birth of Hugh occurred when Vida Sherwin resigned from the high school and was married. Carol was her attendant, and as the wedding was at the Episcopal Church, all the women wore new kid slippers and long white kid gloves, and looked refined.
For years Carol had been little sister to Vida, and had never in the least known to what degree Vida loved her and hated her and in curious strained ways was bound to her.
GRAY steel that seems unmoving because it spins so fast in the balanced fly-wheel, gray snow in an avenue of elms, gray dawn with the sun behind it—this was the gray of Vida Sherwin's life at thirty-six.
She was small and active and sallow; her yellow hair was faded, and looked dry; her blue silk blouses and modest lace collars and high black shoes and sailor hats were as literal and uncharming as a schoolroom desk; but her eyes determined her appearance, revealed her as a personage and a force, indicated her faith in the goodness and purpose of everything. They were blue, and they were never still; they expressed amusement, pity, enthusiasm. If she had been seen in sleep, with the wrinkles beside her eyes stilled and the creased lids hiding the radiant irises, she would have lost her potency.
She was born in a hill-smothered Wisconsin village where her father was a prosy minister; she labored through a sanctimonious college; she taught for two years in an iron-range town of blurry-faced Tatars and Montenegrins, and wastes of ore, and when she came to Gopher Prairie, its trees and the shining spaciousness of the wheat prairie made her certain that she was in paradise.
She admitted to her fellow-teachers that the schoolbuilding was slightly damp, but she insisted that the rooms were "arranged so conveniently—and then that bust of President McKinley at the head of the stairs, it's a lovely art-work, and isn't it an inspiration to have the brave, honest, martyr president to think about!" She taught French, English, and history, and the Sophomore Latin class, which dealt in matters of a metaphysical nature called Indirect Discourse and the Ablative Absolute. Each year she was reconvinced that the pupils were beginning to learn more quickly. She spent four winters in building up the Debating Society, and when the debate really was lively one Friday afternoon, and the speakers of pieces did not forget their lines, she felt rewarded.
She lived an engrossed useful life, and seemed as cool and simple as an apple. But secretly she was creeping among fears, longing, and guilt. She knew what it was, but she dared not name it. She hated even the sound of the word "sex." When she dreamed of being a woman of the harem, with great white warm limbs, she awoke to shudder, defenseless in the dusk of her room. She prayed to Jesus, always to the Son of God, offering him the terrible power of her adoration, addressing him as the eternal lover, growing passionate, exalted, large, as she contemplated his splendor. Thus she mounted to endurance and surcease.
By day, rattling about in many activities, she was able to ridicule her blazing nights of darkness. With spurious cheerfulness she announced everywhere, "I guess I'm a born spinster," and "No one will ever marry a plain schoolma'am like me," and "You men, great big noisy bothersome creatures, we women wouldn't have you round the place, dirtying up nice clean rooms, if it wasn't that you have to be petted and guided. We just ought to say 'Scat!' to all of you!"
But when a man held her close at a dance, even when "Professor" George Edwin Mott patted her hand paternally as they considered the naughtinesses of Cy Bogart, she quivered, and reflected how superior she was to have kept her virginity.
In the autumn of 1911, a year before Dr. Will Kennicott was married, Vida was his partner at a five-hundred tournament. She was thirty-four then; Kennicott about thirty-six. To her he was a superb, boyish, diverting creature; all the heroic qualities in a manly magnificent body. They had been helping the hostess to serve the Waldorf salad and coffee and gingerbread. They were in the kitchen, side by side on a bench, while the others ponderously supped in the room beyond.
Kennicott was masculine and experimental. He stroked Vida's hand, he put his arm carelessly about her shoulder.
"Don't!" she said sharply.
"You're a cunning thing," he offered, patting the back of her shoulder in an exploratory manner.
While she strained away, she longed to move nearer to him. He bent over, looked at her knowingly. She glanced down at his left hand as it touched her knee. She sprang up, started noisily and needlessly to wash the dishes. He helped her. He was too lazy to adventure further—and too used to women in his profession. She was grateful for the impersonality of his talk. It enabled her to gain control. She knew that she had skirted wild thoughts.
A month after, on a sleighing-party, under the buffalo robes in the bob-sled, he whispered, "You pretend to be a grown-up schoolteacher, but you're nothing but a kiddie." His arm was about her. She resisted.
"Don't you like the poor lonely bachelor?" he yammered in a fatuous way.
"No, I don't! You don't care for me in the least. You're just practising on me."
"You're so mean! I'm terribly fond of you."
"I'm not of you. And I'm not going to let myself be fond of you, either."
He persistently drew her toward him. She clutched his arm. Then she threw off the robe, climbed out of the sled, raced after it with Harry Haydock. At the dance which followed the sleigh-ride Kennicott was devoted to the watery prettiness of Maud Dyer, and Vida was noisily interested in getting up a Virginia Reel. Without seeming to watch Kennicott, she knew that he did not once look at her.
That was all of her first love-affair.
He gave no sign of remembering that he was "terribly fond." She waited for him; she reveled in longing, and in a sense of guilt because she longed. She told herself that she did not want part of him; unless he gave her all his devotion she would never let him touch her; and when she found that she was probably lying, she burned with scorn. She fought it out in prayer. She knelt in a pink flannel nightgown, her thin hair down her back, her forehead as full of horror as a mask of tragedy, while she identified her love for the Son of God with her love for a mortal, and wondered if any other woman had ever been so sacrilegious. She wanted to be a nun and observe perpetual adoration. She bought a rosary, but she had been so bitterly reared as a Protestant that she could not bring herself to use it.
Yet none of her intimates in the school and in the boarding-house knew of her abyss of passion. They said she was "so optimistic."
When she heard that Kennicott was to marry a girl, pretty, young, and imposingly from the Cities, Vida despaired. She congratulated Kennicott; carelessly ascertained from him the hour of marriage. At that hour, sitting in her room, Vida pictured the wedding in St. Paul. Full of an ecstasy which horrified her, she followed Kennicott and the girl who had stolen her place, followed them to the train, through the evening, the night.
She was relieved when she had worked out a belief that she wasn't really shameful, that there was a mystical relation between herself and Carol, so that she was vicariously yet veritably with Kennicott, and had the right to be.
She saw Carol during the first five minutes in Gopher Prairie. She stared at the passing motor, at Kennicott and the girl beside him. In that fog world of transference of emotion Vida had no normal jealousy but a conviction that, since through Carol she had received Kennicott's love, then Carol was a part of her, an astral self, a heightened and more beloved self. She was glad of the girl's charm, of the smooth black hair, the airy head and young shoulders. But she was suddenly angry. Carol glanced at her for a quarter-second, but looked past her, at an old roadside barn. If she had made the great sacrifice, at least she expected gratitude and recognition, Vida raged, while her conscious schoolroom mind fussily begged her to control this insanity.
During her first call half of her wanted to welcome a fellow reader of books; the other half itched to find out whether Carol knew anything about Kennicott's former interest in herself. She discovered that Carol was not aware that he had ever touched another woman's hand. Carol was an amusing, naive, curiously learned child. While Vida was most actively describing the glories of the Thanatopsis, and complimenting this librarian on her training as a worker, she was fancying that this girl was the child born of herself and Kennicott; and out of that symbolizing she had a comfort she had not known for months.
When she came home, after supper with the Kennicotts and Guy Pollock, she had a sudden and rather pleasant backsliding from devotion. She bustled into her room, she slammed her hat on the bed, and chattered, "I don't CARE! I'm a lot like her—except a few years older. I'm light and quick, too, and I can talk just as well as she can, and I'm sure——Men are such fools. I'd be ten times as sweet to make love to as that dreamy baby. And I AM as good-looking!"
But as she sat on the bed and stared at her thin thighs, defiance oozed away. She mourned:
"No. I'm not. Dear God, how we fool ourselves! I pretend I'm 'spiritual.' I pretend my legs are graceful. They aren't. They're skinny. Old-maidish. I hate it! I hate that impertinent young woman! A selfish cat, taking his love for granted. . . . No, she's adorable. . . . I don't think she ought to be so friendly with Guy Pollock."
For a year Vida loved Carol, longed to and did not pry into the details of her relations with Kennicott, enjoyed her spirit of play as expressed in childish tea-parties, and, with the mystic bond between them forgotten, was healthily vexed by Carol's assumption that she was a sociological messiah come to save Gopher Prairie. This last facet of Vida's thought was the one which, after a year, was most often turned to the light. In a testy way she brooded, "These people that want to change everything all of a sudden without doing any work, make me tired! Here I have to go and work for four years, picking out the pupils for debates, and drilling them, and nagging at them to get them to look up references, and begging them to choose their own subjects—four years, to get up a couple of good debates! And she comes rushing in, and expects in one year to change the whole town into a lollypop paradise with everybody stopping everything else to grow tulips and drink tea. And it's a comfy homey old town, too!"