She had such an outburst after each of Carol's campaigns—for better Thanatopsis programs, for Shavian plays, for more human schools—but she never betrayed herself, and always she was penitent.
Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that details could excitingly be altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was, without understanding or accepting it, a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of "constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done. After years of intimacy it was this unexpressed opposition more than the fancied loss of Kennicott's love which held Vida irritably fascinated.
But the birth of Hugh revived the transcendental emotion. She was indignant that Carol should not be utterly fulfilled in having borne Kennicott's child. She admitted that Carol seemed to have affection and immaculate care for the baby, but she began to identify herself now with Kennicott, and in this phase to feel that she had endured quite too much from Carol's instability.
She recalled certain other women who had come from the Outside and had not appreciated Gopher Prairie. She remembered the rector's wife who had been chilly to callers and who was rumored throughout the town to have said, "Re-ah-ly I cawn't endure this bucolic heartiness in the responses." The woman was positively known to have worn handkerchiefs in her bodice as padding—oh, the town had simply roared at her. Of course the rector and she were got rid of in a few months.
Then there was the mysterious woman with the dyed hair and penciled eyebrows, who wore tight English dresses, like basques, who smelled of stale musk, who flirted with the men and got them to advance money for her expenses in a lawsuit, who laughed at Vida's reading at a school-entertainment, and went off owing a hotel-bill and the three hundred dollars she had borrowed.
Vida insisted that she loved Carol, but with some satisfaction she compared her to these traducers of the town.
Vida had enjoyed Raymie Wutherspoon's singing in the Episcopal choir; she had thoroughly reviewed the weather with him at Methodist sociables and in the Bon Ton. But she did not really know him till she moved to Mrs. Gurrey's boarding-house. It was five years after her affair with Kennicott. She was thirty-nine, Raymie perhaps a year younger.
She said to him, and sincerely, "My! You can do anything, with your brains and tact and that heavenly voice. You were so good in 'The Girl from Kankakee.' You made me feel terribly stupid. If you'd gone on the stage, I believe you'd be just as good as anybody in Minneapolis. But still, I'm not sorry you stuck to business. It's such a constructive career."
"Do you really think so?" yearned Raymie, across the apple-sauce.
It was the first time that either of them had found a dependable intellectual companionship. They looked down on Willis Woodford the bank-clerk, and his anxious babycentric wife, the silent Lyman Casses, the slangy traveling man, and the rest of Mrs. Gurrey's unenlightened guests. They sat opposite, and they sat late. They were exhilarated to find that they agreed in confession of faith:
"People like Sam Clark and Harry Haydock aren't earnest about music and pictures and eloquent sermons and really refined movies, but then, on the other hand, people like Carol Kennicott put too much stress on all this art. Folks ought to appreciate lovely things, but just the same, they got to be practical and—they got to look at things in a practical way."
Smiling, passing each other the pressed-glass pickle-dish, seeing Mrs. Gurrey's linty supper-cloth irradiated by the light of intimacy, Vida and Raymie talked about Carol's rose-colored turban, Carol's sweetness, Carol's new low shoes, Carol's erroneous theory that there was no need of strict discipline in school, Carol's amiability in the Bon Ton, Carol's flow of wild ideas, which, honestly, just simply made you nervous trying to keep track of them.
About the lovely display of gents' shirts in the Bon Ton window as dressed by Raymie, about Raymie's offertory last Sunday, the fact that there weren't any of these new solos as nice as "Jerusalem the Golden," and the way Raymie stood up to Juanita Haydock when she came into the store and tried to run things and he as much as told her that she was so anxious to have folks think she was smart and bright that she said things she didn't mean, and anyway, Raymie was running the shoe-department, and if Juanita, or Harry either, didn't like the way he ran things, they could go get another man.
About Vida's new jabot which made her look thirty-two (Vida's estimate) or twenty-two (Raymie's estimate), Vida's plan to have the high-school Debating Society give a playlet, and the difficulty of keeping the younger boys well behaved on the playground when a big lubber like Cy Bogart acted up so.
About the picture post-card which Mrs. Dawson had sent to Mrs. Cass from Pasadena, showing roses growing right outdoors in February, the change in time on No. 4, the reckless way Dr. Gould always drove his auto, the reckless way almost all these people drove their autos, the fallacy of supposing that these socialists could carry on a government for as much as six months if they ever did have a chance to try out their theories, and the crazy way in which Carol jumped from subject to subject.
Vida had once beheld Raymie as a thin man with spectacles, mournful drawn-out face, and colorless stiff hair. Now she noted that his jaw was square, that his long hands moved quickly and were bleached in a refined manner, and that his trusting eyes indicated that he had "led a clean life." She began to call him "Ray," and to bounce in defense of his unselfishness and thoughtfulness every time Juanita Haydock or Rita Gould giggled about him at the Jolly Seventeen.
On a Sunday afternoon of late autumn they walked down to Lake Minniemashie. Ray said that he would like to see the ocean; it must be a grand sight; it must be much grander than a lake, even a great big lake. Vida had seen it, she stated modestly; she had seen it on a summer trip to Cape Cod.
"Have you been clear to Cape Cod? Massachusetts? I knew you'd traveled, but I never realized you'd been that far!"
Made taller and younger by his interest she poured out, "Oh my yes. It was a wonderful trip. So many points of interest through Massachusetts—historical. There's Lexington where we turned back the redcoats, and Longfellow's home at Cambridge, and Cape Cod—just everything—fishermen and whale-ships and sand-dunes and everything."
She wished that she had a little cane to carry. He broke off a willow branch.
"My, you're strong!" she said.
"No, not very. I wish there was a Y. M. C. A. here, so I could take up regular exercise. I used to think I could do pretty good acrobatics, if I had a chance."
"I'm sure you could. You're unusually lithe, for a large man."
"Oh no, not so very. But I wish we had a Y. M. It would be dandy to have lectures and everything, and I'd like to take a class in improving the memory—I believe a fellow ought to go on educating himself and improving his mind even if he is in business, don't you, Vida—I guess I'm kind of fresh to call you 'Vida'!"
"I've been calling you 'Ray' for weeks!"
He wondered why she sounded tart.
He helped her down the bank to the edge of the lake but dropped her hand abruptly, and as they sat on a willow log and he brushed her sleeve, he delicately moved over and murmured, "Oh, excuse me—accident."
She stared at the mud-browned chilly water, the floating gray reeds.
"You look so thoughtful," he said.
She threw out her hands. "I am! Will you kindly tell me what's the use of—anything! Oh, don't mind me. I'm a moody old hen. Tell me about your plan for getting a partnership in the Bon Ton. I do think you're right: Harry Haydock and that mean old Simons ought to give you one."
He hymned the old unhappy wars in which he had been Achilles and the mellifluous Nestor, yet gone his righteous ways unheeded by the cruel kings. . . . "Why, if I've told 'em once, I've told 'em a dozen times to get in a side-line of light-weight pants for gents' summer wear, and of course here they go and let a cheap kike like Rifkin beat them to it and grab the trade right off 'em, and then Harry said—you know how Harry is, maybe he don't mean to be grouchy, but he's such a sore-head——"
He gave her a hand to rise. "If you don't MIND. I think a fellow is awful if a lady goes on a walk with him and she can't trust him and he tries to flirt with her and all."
"I'm sure you're highly trustworthy!" she snapped, and she sprang up without his aid. Then, smiling excessively, "Uh—don't you think Carol sometimes fails to appreciate Dr. Will's ability?"
Ray habitually asked her about his window-trimming, the display of the new shoes, the best music for the entertainment at the Eastern Star, and (though he was recognized as a professional authority on what the town called "gents' furnishings") about his own clothes. She persuaded him not to wear the small bow ties which made him look like an elongated Sunday School scholar. Once she burst out:
"Ray, I could shake you! Do you know you're too apologetic? You always appreciate other people too much. You fuss over Carol Kennicott when she has some crazy theory that we all ought to turn anarchists or live on figs and nuts or something. And you listen when Harry Haydock tries to show off and talk about turnovers and credits and things you know lots better than he does. Look folks in the eye! Glare at 'em! Talk deep! You're the smartest man in town, if you only knew it. You ARE!"
He could not believe it. He kept coming back to her for confirmation. He practised glaring and talking deep, but he circuitously hinted to Vida that when he had tried to look Harry Haydock in the eye, Harry had inquired, "What's the matter with you, Raymie? Got a pain?" But afterward Harry had asked about Kantbeatum socks in a manner which, Ray felt, was somehow different from his former condescension.
They were sitting on the squat yellow satin settee in the boarding-house parlor. As Ray reannounced that he simply wouldn't stand it many more years if Harry didn't give him a partnership, his gesticulating hand touched Vida's shoulders.
"Oh, excuse me!" he pleaded.
"It's all right. Well, I think I must be running up to my room. Headache," she said briefly.
Ray and she had stopped in at Dyer's for a hot chocolate on their way home from the movies, that March evening. Vida speculated, "Do you know that I may not be here next year?"
"What do you mean?"
With her fragile narrow nails she smoothed the glass slab which formed the top of the round table at which they sat. She peeped through the glass at the perfume-boxes of black and gold and citron in the hollow table. She looked about at shelves of red rubber water-bottles, pale yellow sponges, wash-rags with blue borders, hair-brushes of polished cherry backs. She shook her head like a nervous medium coming out of a trance, stared at him unhappily, demanded:
"Why should I stay here? And I must make up my mind. Now. Time to renew our teaching-contracts for next year. I think I'll go teach in some other town. Everybody here is tired of me. I might as well go. Before folks come out and SAY they're tired of me. I have to decide tonight. I might as well——Oh, no matter. Come. Let's skip. It's late."
She sprang up, ignoring his wail of "Vida! Wait! Sit down! Gosh! I'm flabbergasted! Gee! Vida!" She marched out. While he was paying his check she got ahead. He ran after her, blubbering, "Vida! Wait!" In the shade of the lilacs in front of the Gougerling house he came up with her, stayed her flight by a hand on her shoulder.
"Oh, don't! Don't! What does it matter?" she begged. She was sobbing, her soft wrinkly lids soaked with tears. "Who cares for my affection or help? I might as well drift on, forgotten. O Ray, please don't hold me. Let me go. I'll just decide not to renew my contract here, and—and drift—way off——"
His hand was steady on her shoulder. She dropped her head, rubbed the back of his hand with her cheek.
They were married in June.
They took the Ole Jenson house. "It's small," said Vida, "but it's got the dearest vegetable garden, and I love having time to get near to Nature for once."
Though she became Vida Wutherspoon technically, and though she certainly had no ideals about the independence of keeping her name, she continued to be known as Vida Sherwin.
She had resigned from the school, but she kept up one class in English. She bustled about on every committee of the Thanatopsis; she was always popping into the rest-room to make Mrs. Nodelquist sweep the floor; she was appointed to the library-board to succeed Carol; she taught the Senior Girls' Class in the Episcopal Sunday School, and tried to revive the King's Daughters. She exploded into self-confidence and happiness; her draining thoughts were by marriage turned into energy. She became daily and visibly more plump, and though she chattered as eagerly, she was less obviously admiring of marital bliss, less sentimental about babies, sharper in demanding that the entire town share her reforms—the purchase of a park, the compulsory cleaning of back-yards.
She penned Harry Haydock at his desk in the Bon Ton; she interrupted his joking; she told him that it was Ray who had built up the shoe-department and men's department; she demanded that he be made a partner. Before Harry could answer she threatened that Ray and she would start a rival shop. "I'll clerk behind the counter myself, and a Certain Party is all ready to put up the money."
She rather wondered who the Certain Party was.
Ray was made a one-sixth partner.
He became a glorified floor-walker, greeting the men with new poise, no longer coyly subservient to pretty women. When he was not affectionately coercing people into buying things they did not need, he stood at the back of the store, glowing, abstracted, feeling masculine as he recalled the tempestuous surprises of love revealed by Vida.
The only remnant of Vida's identification of herself with Carol was a jealousy when she saw Kennicott and Ray together, and reflected that some people might suppose that Kennicott was his superior. She was sure that Carol thought so, and she wanted to shriek, "You needn't try to gloat! I wouldn't have your pokey old husband. He hasn't one single bit of Ray's spiritual nobility."
THE greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day. It is this which puzzles the long-shoreman about the clerk, the Londoner about the bushman. It was this which puzzled Carol in regard to the married Vida. Carol herself had the baby, a larger house to care for, all the telephone calls for Kennicott when he was away; and she read everything, while Vida was satisfied with newspaper headlines.
But after detached brown years in boarding-houses, Vida was hungry for housework, for the most pottering detail of it. She had no maid, nor wanted one. She cooked, baked, swept, washed supper-cloths, with the triumph of a chemist in a new laboratory. To her the hearth was veritably the altar. When she went shopping she hugged the cans of soup, and she bought a mop or a side of bacon as though she were preparing for a reception. She knelt beside a bean sprout and crooned, "I raised this with my own hands—I brought this new life into the world."
"I love her for being so happy," Carol brooded. "I ought to be that way. I worship the baby, but the housework——Oh, I suppose I'm fortunate; so much better off than farm-women on a new clearing, or people in a slum."
It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others.
In Carol's own twenty-four hours a day she got up, dressed the baby, had breakfast, talked to Oscarina about the day's shopping, put the baby on the porch to play, went to the butcher's to choose between steak and pork chops, bathed the baby, nailed up a shelf, had dinner, put the baby to bed for a nap, paid the iceman, read for an hour, took the baby out for a walk, called on Vida, had supper, put the baby to bed, darned socks, listened to Kennicott's yawning comment on what a fool Dr. McGanum was to try to use that cheap X-ray outfit of his on an epithelioma, repaired a frock, drowsily heard Kennicott stoke the furnace, tried to read a page of Thorstein Veblen—and the day was gone.
Except when Hugh was vigorously naughty, or whiney, or laughing, or saying "I like my chair" with thrilling maturity, she was always enfeebled by loneliness. She no longer felt superior about that misfortune. She would gladly have been converted to Vida's satisfaction in Gopher Prairie and mopping the floor.
Carol drove through an astonishing number of books from the public library and from city shops. Kennicott was at first uncomfortable over her disconcerting habit of buying them. A book was a book, and if you had several thousand of them right here in the library, free, why the dickens should you spend your good money? After worrying about it for two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas which she had caught as a librarian and from which she would never entirely recover.
The authors whom she read were most of them frightfully annoyed by the Vida Sherwins. They were young American sociologists, young English realists, Russian horrorists; Anatole France, Rolland, Nexo, Wells, Shaw, Key, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Mencken, and all the other subversive philosophers and artists whom women were consulting everywhere, in batik-curtained studios in New York, in Kansas farmhouses, San Francisco drawing-rooms, Alabama schools for negroes. From them she got the same confused desire which the million other women felt; the same determination to be class-conscious without discovering the class of which she was to be conscious.
Certainly her reading precipitated her observations of Main Street, of Gopher Prairie and of the several adjacent Gopher Prairies which she had seen on drives with Kennicott. In her fluid thought certain convictions appeared, jaggedly, a fragment of an impression at a time, while she was going to sleep, or manicuring her nails, or waiting for Kennicott.
These convictions she presented to Vida Sherwin—Vida Wutherspoon—beside a radiator, over a bowl of not very good walnuts and pecans from Uncle Whittier's grocery, on an evening when both Kennicott and Raymie had gone out of town with the other officers of the Ancient and Affiliated Order of Spartans, to inaugurate a new chapter at Wakamin. Vida had come to the house for the night. She helped in putting Hugh to bed, sputtering the while about his soft skin. Then they talked till midnight.
What Carol said that evening, what she was passionately thinking, was also emerging in the minds of women in ten thousand Gopher Prairies. Her formulations were not pat solutions but visions of a tragic futility. She did not utter them so compactly that they can be given in her words; they were roughened with "Well, you see" and "if you get what I mean" and "I don't know that I'm making myself clear." But they were definite enough, and indignant enough.
In reading popular stories and seeing plays, asserted Carol, she had found only two traditions of the American small town. The first tradition, repeated in scores of magazines every month, is that the American village remains the one sure abode of friendship, honesty, and clean sweet marriageable girls. Therefore all men who succeed in painting in Paris or in finance in New York at last become weary of smart women, return to their native towns, assert that cities are vicious, marry their childhood sweethearts and, presumably, joyously abide in those towns until death.
The other tradition is that the significant features of all villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails, and shrewd comic old men who are known as "hicks" and who ejaculate "Waal I swan." This altogether admirable tradition rules the vaudeville stage, facetious illustrators, and syndicated newspaper humor, but out of actual life it passed forty years ago. Carol's small town thinks not in hoss-swapping but in cheap motor cars, telephones, ready-made clothes, silos, alfalfa, kodaks, phonographs, leather-upholstered Morris chairs, bridge-prizes, oil-stocks, motion-pictures, land-deals, unread sets of Mark Twain, and a chaste version of national politics.
With such a small-town life a Kennicott or a Champ Perry is content, but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or in the cities.
The reason, Carol insisted, is not a whiskered rusticity. It is nothing so amusing!
It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment . . . the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.
A savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.
She had inquired as to the effect of this dominating dullness upon foreigners. She remembered the feeble exotic quality to be found in the first-generation Scandinavians; she recalled the Norwegian Fair at the Lutheran Church, to which Bea had taken her. There, in the bondestue, the replica of a Norse farm kitchen, pale women in scarlet jackets embroidered with gold thread and colored beads, in black skirts with a line of blue, green-striped aprons, and ridged caps very pretty to set off a fresh face, had served rommegrod og lefse—sweet cakes and sour milk pudding spiced with cinnamon. For the first time in Gopher Prairie Carol had found novelty. She had reveled in the mild foreignness of it.
But she saw these Scandinavian women zealously exchanging their spiced puddings and red jackets for fried pork chops and congealed white blouses, trading the ancient Christmas hymns of the fjords for "She's My Jazzland Cutie," being Americanized into uniformity, and in less than a generation losing in the grayness whatever pleasant new customs they might have added to the life of the town. Their sons finished the process. In ready-made clothes and ready-made high-school phrases they sank into propriety, and the sound American customs had absorbed without one trace of pollution another alien invasion.
And along with these foreigners, she felt herself being ironed into glossy mediocrity, and she rebelled, in fear.
The respectability of the Gopher Prairies, said Carol, is reinforced by vows of poverty and chastity in the matter of knowledge. Except for half a dozen in each town the citizens are proud of that achievement of ignorance which it is so easy to come by. To be "intellectual" or "artistic" or, in their own word, to be "highbrow," is to be priggish and of dubious virtue.
Large experiments in politics and in co-operative distribution, ventures requiring knowledge, courage, and imagination, do originate in the West and Middlewest, but they are not of the towns, they are of the farmers. If these heresies are supported by the townsmen it is only by occasional teachers doctors, lawyers, the labor unions, and workmen like Miles Bjornstam, who are punished by being mocked as "cranks," as "half-baked parlor socialists." The editor and the rector preach at them. The cloud of serene ignorance submerges them in unhappiness and futility.
Here Vida observed, "Yes—well——Do you know, I've always thought that Ray would have made a wonderful rector. He has what I call an essentially religious soul. My! He'd have read the service beautifully! I suppose it's too late now, but as I tell him, he can also serve the world by selling shoes and——I wonder if we oughtn't to have family-prayers?"
Doubtless all small towns, in all countries, in all ages, Carol admitted, have a tendency to be not only dull but mean, bitter, infested with curiosity. In France or Tibet quite as much as in Wyoming or Indiana these timidities are inherent in isolation.
But a village in a country which is taking pains to become altogether standardized and pure, which aspires to succeed Victorian England as the chief mediocrity of the world, is no longer merely provincial, no longer downy and restful in its leaf-shadowed ignorance. It is a force seeking to dominate the earth, to drain the hills and sea of color, to set Dante at boosting Gopher Prairie, and to dress the high gods in Klassy Kollege Klothes. Sure of itself, it bullies other civilizations, as a traveling salesman in a brown derby conquers the wisdom of China and tacks advertisements of cigarettes over arches for centuries dedicate to the sayings of Confucius.
Such a society functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors. But it is not satisfied until the entire world also admits that the end and joyous purpose of living is to ride in flivvers, to make advertising-pictures of dollar watches, and in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage but of the convenience of safety razors.
And such a society, such a nation, is determined by the Gopher Prairies. The greatest manufacturer is but a busier Sam Clark, and all the rotund senators and presidents are village lawyers and bankers grown nine feet tall.
Though a Gopher Prairie regards itself as a part of the Great World, compares itself to Rome and Vienna, it will not acquire the scientific spirit, the international mind, which would make it great. It picks at information which will visibly procure money or social distinction. Its conception of a community ideal is not the grand manner, the noble aspiration, the fine aristocratic pride, but cheap labor for the kitchen and rapid increase in the price of land. It plays at cards on greasy oil-cloth in a shanty, and does not know that prophets are walking and talking on the terrace.
If all the provincials were as kindly as Champ Perry and Sam Clark there would be no reason for desiring the town to seek great traditions. It is the Harry Haydocks, the Dave Dyers, the Jackson Elders, small busy men crushingly powerful in their common purpose, viewing themselves as men of the world but keeping themselves men of the cash-register and the comic film, who make the town a sterile oligarchy.
She had sought to be definite in analyzing the surface ugliness of the Gopher Prairies. She asserted that it is a matter of universal similarity; of flimsiness of construction, so that the towns resemble frontier camps; of neglect of natural advantages, so that the hills are covered with brush, the lakes shut off by railroads, and the creeks lined with dumping-grounds; of depressing sobriety of color; rectangularity of buildings; and excessive breadth and straightness of the gashed streets, so that there is no escape from gales and from sight of the grim sweep of land, nor any windings to coax the loiterer along, while the breadth which would be majestic in an avenue of palaces makes the low shabby shops creeping down the typical Main Street the more mean by comparison.
The universal similarity—that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety. Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always, west of Pittsburg, and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick. The shops show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers of sections three thousand miles apart have the same "syndicated features"; the boy in Arkansas displays just such a flamboyant ready-made suit as is found on just such a boy in Delaware, both of them iterate the same slang phrases from the same sporting-pages, and if one of them is in college and the other is a barber, no one may surmise which is which.
If Kennicott were snatched from Gopher Prairie and instantly conveyed to a town leagues away, he would not realize it. He would go down apparently the same Main Street (almost certainly it would be called Main Street); in the same drug store he would see the same young man serving the same ice-cream soda to the same young woman with the same magazines and phonograph records under her arm. Not till he had climbed to his office and found another sign on the door, another Dr. Kennicott inside, would he understand that something curious had presumably happened.
Finally, behind all her comments, Carol saw the fact that the prairie towns no more exist to serve the farmers who are their reason of existence than do the great capitals; they exist to fatten on the farmers, to provide for the townsmen large motors and social preferment; and, unlike the capitals, they do not give to the district in return for usury a stately and permanent center, but only this ragged camp. It is a "parasitic Greek civilization"—minus the civilization.
"There we are then," said Carol. "The remedy? Is there any? Criticism, perhaps, for the beginning of the beginning. Oh, there's nothing that attacks the Tribal God Mediocrity that doesn't help a little . . . and probably there's nothing that helps very much. Perhaps some day the farmers will build and own their market-towns. (Think of the club they could have!) But I'm afraid I haven't any 'reform program.' Not any more! The trouble is spiritual, and no League or Party can enact a preference for gardens rather than dumping-grounds. . . . There's my confession. WELL?"
"In other words, all you want is perfection?"
"Yes! Why not?"
"How you hate this place! How can you expect to do anything with it if you haven't any sympathy?"
"But I have! And affection. Or else I wouldn't fume so. I've learned that Gopher Prairie isn't just an eruption on the prairie, as I thought first, but as large as New York. In New York I wouldn't know more than forty or fifty people, and I know that many here. Go on! Say what you're thinking."
"Well, my dear, if I DID take all your notions seriously, it would be pretty discouraging. Imagine how a person would feel, after working hard for years and helping to build up a nice town, to have you airily flit in and simply say 'Rotten!' Think that's fair?"
"Why not? It must be just as discouraging for the Gopher Prairieite to see Venice and make comparisons."
"It would not! I imagine gondolas are kind of nice to ride in, but we've got better bath-rooms! But——My dear, you're not the only person in this town who has done some thinking for herself, although (pardon my rudeness) I'm afraid you think so. I'll admit we lack some things. Maybe our theater isn't as good as shows in Paris. All right! I don't want to see any foreign culture suddenly forced on us—whether it's street-planning or table-manners or crazy communistic ideas."
Vida sketched what she termed "practical things that will make a happier and prettier town, but that do belong to our life, that actually are being done." Of the Thanatopsis Club she spoke; of the rest-room, the fight against mosquitos, the campaign for more gardens and shade-trees and sewers—matters not fantastic and nebulous and distant, but immediate and sure.
Carol's answer was fantastic and nebulous enough:
"Yes. . . . Yes. . . . I know. They're good. But if I could put through all those reforms at once, I'd still want startling, exotic things. Life is comfortable and clean enough here already. And so secure. What it needs is to be less secure, more eager. The civic improvements which I'd like the Thanatopsis to advocate are Strindberg plays, and classic dancers—exquisite legs beneath tulle—and (I can see him so clearly!) a thick, black-bearded, cynical Frenchman who would sit about and drink and sing opera and tell bawdy stories and laugh at our proprieties and quote Rabelais and not be ashamed to kiss my hand!"
"Huh! Not sure about the rest of it but I guess that's what you and all the other discontented young women really want: some stranger kissing your hand!" At Carol's gasp, the old squirrel-like Vida darted out and cried, "Oh, my dear, don't take that too seriously. I just meant——"
"I know. You just meant it. Go on. Be good for my soul. Isn't it funny: here we all are—me trying to be good for Gopher Prairie's soul, and Gopher Prairie trying to be good for my soul. What are my other sins?"
"Oh, there's plenty of them. Possibly some day we shall have your fat cynical Frenchman (horrible, sneering, tobacco-stained object, ruining his brains and his digestion with vile liquor!) but, thank heaven, for a while we'll manage to keep busy with our lawns and pavements! You see, these things really are coming! The Thanatopsis is getting somewhere. And you——" Her tone italicized the words—"to my great disappointment, are doing less, not more, than the people you laugh at! Sam Clark, on the school-board, is working for better school ventilation. Ella Stowbody (whose elocuting you always think is so absurd) has persuaded the railroad to share the expense of a parked space at the station, to do away with that vacant lot.
"You sneer so easily. I'm sorry, but I do think there's something essentially cheap in your attitude. Especially about religion.
"If you must know, you're not a sound reformer at all. You're an impossibilist. And you give up too easily. You gave up on the new city hall, the anti-fly campaign, club papers, the library-board, the dramatic association—just because we didn't graduate into Ibsen the very first thing. You want perfection all at once. Do you know what the finest thing you've done is—aside from bringing Hugh into the world? It was the help you gave Dr. Will during baby-welfare week. You didn't demand that each baby be a philosopher and artist before you weighed him, as you do with the rest of us.
"And now I'm afraid perhaps I'll hurt you. We're going to have a new schoolbuilding in this town—in just a few years—and we'll have it without one bit of help or interest from you!
"Professor Mott and I and some others have been dinging away at the moneyed men for years. We didn't call on you because you would never stand the pound-pound-pounding year after year without one bit of encouragement. And we've won! I've got the promise of everybody who counts that just as soon as war-conditions permit, they'll vote the bonds for the schoolhouse. And we'll have a wonderful building—lovely brown brick, with big windows, and agricultural and manual-training departments. When we get it, that'll be my answer to all your theories!"
"I'm glad. And I'm ashamed I haven't had any part in getting it. But——Please don't think I'm unsympathetic if I ask one question: Will the teachers in the hygienic new building go on informing the children that Persia is a yellow spot on the map, and 'Caesar' the title of a book of grammatical puzzles?"
Vida was indignant; Carol was apologetic; they talked for another hour, the eternal Mary and Martha—an immoralist Mary and a reformist Martha. It was Vida who conquered.
The fact that she had been left out of the campaign for the new schoolbuilding disconcerted Carol. She laid her dreams of perfection aside. When Vida asked her to take charge of a group of Camp Fire Girls, she obeyed, and had definite pleasure out of the Indian dances and ritual and costumes. She went more regularly to the Thanatopsis. With Vida as lieutenant and unofficial commander she campaigned for a village nurse to attend poor families, raised the fund herself, saw to it that the nurse was young and strong and amiable and intelligent.
Yet all the while she beheld the burly cynical Frenchman and the diaphanous dancers as clearly as the child sees its air-born playmates; she relished the Camp Fire Girls not because, in Vida's words, "this Scout training will help so much to make them Good Wives," but because she hoped that the Sioux dances would bring subversive color into their dinginess.
She helped Ella Stowbody to set out plants in the tiny triangular park at the railroad station; she squatted in the dirt, with a small curved trowel and the most decorous of gardening gauntlets; she talked to Ella about the public-spiritedness of fuchsias and cannas; and she felt that she was scrubbing a temple deserted by the gods and empty even of incense and the sound of chanting. Passengers looking from trains saw her as a village woman of fading prettiness, incorruptible virtue, and no abnormalities; the baggageman heard her say, "Oh yes, I do think it will be a good example for the children"; and all the while she saw herself running garlanded through the streets of Babylon.
Planting led her to botanizing. She never got much farther than recognizing the tiger lily and the wild rose, but she rediscovered Hugh. "What does the buttercup say, mummy?" he cried, his hand full of straggly grasses, his cheek gilded with pollen. She knelt to embrace him; she affirmed that he made life more than full; she was altogether reconciled . . . for an hour.
But she awoke at night to hovering death. She crept away from the hump of bedding that was Kennicott; tiptoed into the bathroom and, by the mirror in the door of the medicine-cabinet, examined her pallid face.
Wasn't she growing visibly older in ratio as Vida grew plumper and younger? Wasn't her nose sharper? Wasn't her neck granulated? She stared and choked. She was only thirty. But the five years since her marriage—had they not gone by as hastily and stupidly as though she had been under ether; would time not slink past till death? She pounded her fist on the cool enameled rim of the bathtub and raged mutely against the indifferent gods:
"I don't care! I won't endure it! They lie so—Vida and Will and Aunt Bessie—they tell me I ought to be satisfied with Hugh and a good home and planting seven nasturtiums in a station garden! I am I! When I die the world will be annihilated, as far as I'm concerned. I am I! I'm not content to leave the sea and the ivory towers to others. I want them for me! Damn Vida! Damn all of them! Do they think they can make me believe that a display of potatoes at Howland & Gould's is enough beauty and strangeness?"
WHEN America entered the Great European War, Vida sent Raymie off to an officers' training-camp—less than a year after her wedding. Raymie was diligent and rather strong. He came out a first lieutenant of infantry, and was one of the earliest sent abroad.
Carol grew definitely afraid of Vida as Vida transferred the passion which had been released in marriage to the cause of the war; as she lost all tolerance. When Carol was touched by the desire for heroism in Raymie and tried tactfully to express it, Vida made her feel like an impertinent child.
By enlistment and draft, the sons of Lyman Cass, Nat Hicks, Sam Clark joined the army. But most of the soldiers were the sons of German and Swedish farmers unknown to Carol. Dr. Terry Gould and Dr. McGanum became captains in the medical corps, and were stationed at camps in Iowa and Georgia. They were the only officers, besides Raymie, from the Gopher Prairie district. Kennicott wanted to go with them, but the several doctors of the town forgot medical rivalry and, meeting in council, decided that he would do better to wait and keep the town well till he should be needed. Kennicott was forty-two now; the only youngish doctor left in a radius of eighteen miles. Old Dr. Westlake, who loved comfort like a cat, protestingly rolled out at night for country calls, and hunted through his collar-box for his G. A. R. button.
Carol did not quite know what she thought about Kennicott's going. Certainly she was no Spartan wife. She knew that he wanted to go; she knew that this longing was always in him, behind his unchanged trudging and remarks about the weather. She felt for him an admiring affection—and she was sorry that she had nothing more than affection.
Cy Bogart was the spectacular warrior of the town. Cy was no longer the weedy boy who had sat in the loft speculating about Carol's egotism and the mysteries of generation. He was nineteen now, tall, broad, busy, the "town sport," famous for his ability to drink beer, to shake dice, to tell undesirable stories, and, from his post in front of Dyer's drug store, to embarrass the girls by "jollying" them as they passed. His face was at once peach-bloomed and pimply.
Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn't get the Widow Bogart's permission to enlist, he'd run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he "hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he'd die happy." Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pochbauer for being a "damn hyphenated German." . . . This was the younger Pochbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war.
Everywhere Carol heard that the war was going to bring a basic change in psychology, to purify and uplift everything from marital relations to national politics, and she tried to exult in it. Only she did not find it. She saw the women who made bandages for the Red Cross giving up bridge, and laughing at having to do without sugar, but over the surgical-dressings they did not speak of God and the souls of men, but of Miles Bjornstam's impudence, of Terry Gould's scandalous carryings-on with a farmer's daughter four years ago, of cooking cabbage, and of altering blouses. Their references to the war touched atrocities only. She herself was punctual, and efficient at making dressings, but she could not, like Mrs. Lyman Cass and Mrs. Bogart, fill the dressings with hate for enemies.
When she protested to Vida, "The young do the work while these old ones sit around and interrupt us and gag with hate because they're too feeble to do anything but hate," then Vida turned on her:
"If you can't be reverent, at least don't be so pert and opinionated, now when men and women are dying. Some of us—we have given up so much, and we're glad to. At least we expect that you others sha'n't try to be witty at our expense."
There was weeping.
Carol did desire to see the Prussian autocracy defeated; she did persuade herself that there were no autocracies save that of Prussia; she did thrill to motion-pictures of troops embarking in New York; and she was uncomfortable when she met Miles Bjornstam on the street and he croaked:
"How's tricks? Things going fine with me; got two new cows. Well, have you become a patriot? Eh? Sure, they'll bring democracy—the democracy of death. Yes, sure, in every war since the Garden of Eden the workmen have gone out to fight each other for perfectly good reasons—handed to them by their bosses. Now me, I'm wise. I'm so wise that I know I don't know anything about the war."
It was not a thought of the war that remained with her after Miles's declamation but a perception that she and Vida and all of the good-intentioners who wanted to "do something for the common people" were insignificant, because the "common people" were able to do things for themselves, and highly likely to, as soon as they learned the fact. The conception of millions of workmen like Miles taking control frightened her, and she scuttled rapidly away from the thought of a time when she might no longer retain the position of Lady Bountiful to the Bjornstams and Beas and Oscarinas whom she loved—and patronized.
It was in June, two months after America's entrance into the war, that the momentous event happened—the visit of the great Percy Bresnahan, the millionaire president of the Velvet Motor Car Company of Boston, the one native son who was always to be mentioned to strangers.
For two weeks there were rumors. Sam Clark cried to Kennicott, "Say, I hear Perce Bresnahan is coming! By golly it'll be great to see the old scout, eh?" Finally the Dauntless printed, on the front page with a No. 1 head, a letter from Bresnahan to Jackson Elder:
Well, Jack, I find I can make it. I'm to go to Washington as a dollar a year man for the government, in the aviation motor section, and tell them how much I don't know about carburetors. But before I start in being a hero I want to shoot out and catch me a big black bass and cuss out you and Sam Clark and Harry Haydock and Will Kennicott and the rest of you pirates. I'll land in G. P. on June 7, on No. 7 from Mpls. Shake a day-day. Tell Bert Tybee to save me a glass of beer.
All members of the social, financial, scientific, literary, and sporting sets were at No. 7 to meet Bresnahan; Mrs. Lyman Cass was beside Del Snafflin the barber, and Juanita Haydock almost cordial to Miss Villets the librarian. Carol saw Bresnahan laughing down at them from the train vestibule—big, immaculate, overjawed, with the eye of an executive. In the voice of the professional Good Fellow he bellowed, "Howdy, folks!" As she was introduced to him (not he to her) Bresnahan looked into her eyes, and his hand-shake was warm, unhurried.
He declined the offers of motors; he walked off, his arm about the shoulder of Nat Hicks the sporting tailor, with the elegant Harry Haydock carrying one of his enormous pale leather bags, Del Snafflin the other, Jack Elder bearing an overcoat, and Julius Flickerbaugh the fishing-tackle. Carol noted that though Bresnahan wore spats and a stick, no small boy jeered. She decided, "I must have Will get a double-breasted blue coat and a wing collar and a dotted bow-tie like his."
That evening, when Kennicott was trimming the grass along the walk with sheep-shears, Bresnahan rolled up, alone. He was now in corduroy trousers, khaki shirt open at the throat, a white boating hat, and marvelous canvas-and-leather shoes "On the job there, old Will! Say, my Lord, this is living, to come back and get into a regular man-sized pair of pants. They can talk all they want to about the city, but my idea of a good time is to loaf around and see you boys and catch a gamey bass!"
He hustled up the walk and blared at Carol, "Where's that little fellow? I hear you've got one fine big he-boy that you're holding out on me!"
"He's gone to bed," rather briefly.
"I know. And rules are rules, these days. Kids get routed through the shop like a motor. But look here, sister; I'm one great hand at busting rules. Come on now, let Uncle Perce have a look at him. Please now, sister?"
He put his arm about her waist; it was a large, strong, sophisticated arm, and very agreeable; he grinned at her with a devastating knowingness, while Kennicott glowed inanely. She flushed; she was alarmed by the ease with which the big-city man invaded her guarded personality. She was glad, in retreat, to scamper ahead of the two men up-stairs to the hall-room in which Hugh slept. All the way Kennicott muttered, "Well, well, say, gee whittakers but it's good to have you back, certainly is good to see you!"
Hugh lay on his stomach, making an earnest business of sleeping. He burrowed his eyes in the dwarf blue pillow to escape the electric light, then sat up abruptly, small and frail in his woolly nightdrawers, his floss of brown hair wild, the pillow clutched to his breast. He wailed. He stared at the stranger, in a manner of patient dismissal. He explained confidentially to Carol, "Daddy wouldn't let it be morning yet. What does the pillow say?"
Bresnahan dropped his arm caressingly on Carol's shoulder; he pronounced, "My Lord, you're a lucky girl to have a fine young husk like that. I figure Will knew what he was doing when he persuaded you to take a chance on an old bum like him! They tell me you come from St. Paul. We're going to get you to come to Boston some day." He leaned over the bed. "Young man, you're the slickest sight I've seen this side of Boston. With your permission, may we present you with a slight token of our regard and appreciation of your long service?"
He held out a red rubber Pierrot. Hugh remarked, "Gimme it," hid it under the bedclothes, and stared at Bresnahan as though he had never seen the man before.
For once Carol permitted herself the spiritual luxury of not asking "Why, Hugh dear, what do you say when some one gives you a present?" The great man was apparently waiting. They stood in inane suspense till Bresnahan led them out, rumbling, "How about planning a fishing-trip, Will?"
He remained for half an hour. Always he told Carol what a charming person she was; always he looked at her knowingly.
"Yes. He probably would make a woman fall in love with him. But it wouldn't last a week. I'd get tired of his confounded buoyancy. His hypocrisy. He's a spiritual bully. He makes me rude to him in self-defense. Oh yes, he is glad to be here. He does like us. He's so good an actor that he convinces his own self. . . . I'd HATE him in Boston. He'd have all the obvious big-city things. Limousines. Discreet evening-clothes. Order a clever dinner at a smart restaurant. Drawing-room decorated by the best firm—but the pictures giving him away. I'd rather talk to Guy Pollock in his dusty office. . . . How I lie! His arm coaxed my shoulder and his eyes dared me not to admire him. I'd be afraid of him. I hate him! . . . Oh, the inconceivable egotistic imagination of women! All this stew of analysis about a man, a good, decent, friendly, efficient man, because he was kind to me, as Will's wife!"
The Kennicotts, the Elders, the Clarks, and Bresnahan went fishing at Red Squaw Lake. They drove forty miles to the lake in Elder's new Cadillac. There was much laughter and bustle at the start, much storing of lunch-baskets and jointed poles, much inquiry as to whether it would really bother Carol to sit with her feet up on a roll of shawls. When they were ready to go Mrs. Clark lamented, "Oh, Sam, I forgot my magazine," and Bresnahan bullied, "Come on now, if you women think you're going to be literary, you can't go with us tough guys!" Every one laughed a great deal, and as they drove on Mrs. Clark explained that though probably she would not have read it, still, she might have wanted to, while the other girls had a nap in the afternoon, and she was right in the middle of a serial—it was an awfully exciting story—it seems that this girl was a Turkish dancer (only she was really the daughter of an American lady and a Russian prince) and men kept running after her, just disgustingly, but she remained pure, and there was a scene——
While the men floated on the lake, casting for black bass, the women prepared lunch and yawned. Carol was a little resentful of the manner in which the men assumed that they did not care to fish. "I don't want to go with them, but I would like the privilege of refusing."
The lunch was long and pleasant. It was a background for the talk of the great man come home, hints of cities and large imperative affairs and famous people, jocosely modest admissions that, yes, their friend Perce was doing about as well as most of these "Boston swells that think so much of themselves because they come from rich old families and went to college and everything. Believe me, it's us new business men that are running Beantown today, and not a lot of fussy old bucks snoozing in their clubs!"
Carol realized that he was not one of the sons of Gopher Prairie who, if they do not actually starve in the East, are invariably spoken of as "highly successful"; and she found behind his too incessant flattery a genuine affection for his mates. It was in the matter of the war that he most favored and thrilled them. Dropping his voice while they bent nearer (there was no one within two miles to overhear), he disclosed the fact that in both Boston and Washington he'd been getting a lot of inside stuff on the war—right straight from headquarters—he was in touch with some men—couldn't name them but they were darn high up in both the War and State Departments—and he would say—only for Pete's sake they mustn't breathe one word of this; it was strictly on the Q.T. and not generally known outside of Washington—but just between ourselves—and they could take this for gospel—Spain had finally decided to join the Entente allies in the Grand Scrap. Yes, sir, there'd be two million fully equipped Spanish soldiers fighting with us in France in one month now. Some surprise for Germany, all right!
"How about the prospects for revolution in Germany?" reverently asked Kennicott.
The authority grunted, "Nothing to it. The one thing you can bet on is that no matter what happens to the German people, win or lose, they'll stick by the Kaiser till hell freezes over. I got that absolutely straight, from a fellow who's on the inside of the inside in Washington. No, sir! I don't pretend to know much about international affairs but one thing you can put down as settled is that Germany will be a Hohenzollern empire for the next forty years. At that, I don't know as it's so bad. The Kaiser and the Junkers keep a firm hand on a lot of these red agitators who'd be worse than a king if they could get control."
"I'm terribly interested in this uprising that overthrew the Czar in Russia," suggested Carol. She had finally been conquered by the man's wizard knowledge of affairs.
Kennicott apologized for her: "Carrie's nuts about this Russian revolution. Is there much to it, Perce?"
"There is not!" Bresnahan said flatly. "I can speak by the book there. Carol, honey, I'm surprised to find you talking like a New York Russian Jew, or one of these long-hairs! I can tell you, only you don't need to let every one in on it, this is confidential, I got it from a man who's close to the State Department, but as a matter of fact the Czar will be back in power before the end of the year. You read a lot about his retiring and about his being killed, but I know he's got a big army back of him, and he'll show these damn agitators, lazy beggars hunting for a soft berth bossing the poor goats that fall for 'em, he'll show 'em where they get off!"
Carol was sorry to hear that the Czar was coming back, but she said nothing. The others had looked vacant at the mention of a country so far away as Russia. Now they edged in and asked Bresnahan what he thought about the Packard car, investments in Texas oil-wells, the comparative merits of young men born in Minnesota and in Massachusetts, the question of prohibition, the future cost of motor tires, and wasn't it true that American aviators put it all over these Frenchmen?
They were glad to find that he agreed with them on every point.
As she heard Bresnahan announce, "We're perfectly willing to talk to any committee the men may choose, but we're not going to stand for some outside agitator butting in and telling us how we're going to run our plant!" Carol remembered that Jackson Elder (now meekly receiving New Ideas) had said the same thing in the same words.
While Sam Clark was digging up from his memory a long and immensely detailed story of the crushing things he had said to a Pullman porter, named George, Bresnahan hugged his knees and rocked and watched Carol. She wondered if he did not understand the laboriousness of the smile with which she listened to Kennicott's account of the "good one he had on Carrie," that marital, coyly improper, ten-times-told tale of how she had forgotten to attend to Hugh because she was "all het up pounding the box"—which may be translated as "eagerly playing the piano." She was certain that Bresnahan saw through her when she pretended not to hear Kennicott's invitation to join a game of cribbage. She feared the comments he might make; she was irritated by her fear.
She was equally irritated, when the motor returned through Gopher Prairie, to find that she was proud of sharing in Bresnahan's kudos as people waved, and Juanita Haydock leaned from a window. She said to herself, "As though I cared whether I'm seen with this fat phonograph!" and simultaneously, "Everybody has noticed how much Will and I are playing with Mr. Bresnahan."
The town was full of his stories, his friendliness, his memory for names, his clothes, his trout-flies, his generosity. He had given a hundred dollars to Father Klubok the priest, and a hundred to the Reverend Mr. Zitterel the Baptist minister, for Americanization work.
At the Bon Ton, Carol heard Nat Hicks the tailor exulting:
"Old Perce certainly pulled a good one on this fellow Bjornstam that always is shooting off his mouth. He's supposed to of settled down since he got married, but Lord, those fellows that think they know it all, they never change. Well, the Red Swede got the grand razz handed to him, all right. He had the nerve to breeze up to Perce, at Dave Dyer's, and he said, he said to Perce, 'I've always wanted to look at a man that was so useful that folks would pay him a million dollars for existing,' and Perce gave him the once-over and come right back, 'Have, eh?' he says. 'Well,' he says, 'I've been looking for a man so useful sweeping floors that I could pay him four dollars a day. Want the job, my friend?' Ha, ha, ha! Say, you know how lippy Bjornstam is? Well for once he didn't have a thing to say. He tried to get fresh, and tell what a rotten town this is, and Perce come right back at him, 'If you don't like this country, you better get out of it and go back to Germany, where you belong!' Say, maybe us fellows didn't give Bjornstam the horse-laugh though! Oh, Perce is the white-haired boy in this burg, all rightee!"
Bresnahan had borrowed Jackson Elder's motor; he stopped at the Kennicotts'; he bawled at Carol, rocking with Hugh on the porch, "Better come for a ride."
She wanted to snub him. "Thanks so much, but I'm being maternal."
"Bring him along! Bring him along!" Bresnahan was out of the seat, stalking up the sidewalk, and the rest of her protests and dignities were feeble.
She did not bring Hugh along.
Bresnahan was silent for a mile, in words, But he looked at her as though he meant her to know that he understood everything she thought.
She observed how deep was his chest.
"Lovely fields over there," he said.
"You really like them? There's no profit in them."
He chuckled. "Sister, you can't get away with it. I'm onto you. You consider me a big bluff. Well, maybe I am. But so are you, my dear—and pretty enough so that I'd try to make love to you, if I weren't afraid you'd slap me."
"Mr. Bresnahan, do you talk that way to your wife's friends? And do you call them 'sister'?"
"As a matter of fact, I do! And I make 'em like it. Score two!" But his chuckle was not so rotund, and he was very attentive to the ammeter.
In a moment he was cautiously attacking: "That's a wonderful boy, Will Kennicott. Great work these country practitioners are doing. The other day, in Washington, I was talking to a big scientific shark, a professor in Johns Hopkins medical school, and he was saying that no one has ever sufficiently appreciated the general practitioner and the sympathy and help he gives folks. These crack specialists, the young scientific fellows, they're so cocksure and so wrapped up in their laboratories that they miss the human element. Except in the case of a few freak diseases that no respectable human being would waste his time having, it's the old doc that keeps a community well, mind and body. And strikes me that Will is one of the steadiest and clearest-headed counter practitioners I've ever met. Eh?"
"I'm sure he is. He's a servant of reality."
"Come again? Um. Yes. All of that, whatever that is. . . . Say, child, you don't care a whole lot for Gopher Prairie, if I'm not mistaken."
"There's where you're missing a big chance. There's nothing to these cities. Believe me, I KNOW! This is a good town, as they go. You're lucky to be here. I wish I could shy on!"
"Very well, why don't you?"
"Huh? Why—Lord—can't get away fr——"
"You don't have to stay. I do! So I want to change it. Do you know that men like you, prominent men, do quite a reasonable amount of harm by insisting that your native towns and native states are perfect? It's you who encourage the denizens not to change. They quote you, and go on believing that they live in paradise, and——" She clenched her fist. "The incredible dullness of it!"
"Suppose you were right. Even so, don't you think you waste a lot of thundering on one poor scared little town? Kind of mean!"
"I tell you it's dull. DULL!"
"The folks don't find it dull. These couples like the Haydocks have a high old time; dances and cards——"
"They don't. They're bored. Almost every one here is. Vacuousness and bad manners and spiteful gossip—that's what I hate."
"Those things—course they're here. So are they in Boston! And every place else! Why, the faults you find in this town are simply human nature, and never will be changed."
"Perhaps. But in a Boston all the good Carols (I'll admit I have no faults) can find one another and play. But here—I'm alone, in a stale pool—except as it's stirred by the great Mr. Bresnahan!"
"My Lord, to hear you tell it, a fellow 'd think that all the denizens, as you impolitely call 'em, are so confoundedly unhappy that it's a wonder they don't all up and commit suicide. But they seem to struggle along somehow!"
"They don't know what they miss. And anybody can endure anything. Look at men in mines and in prisons."
He drew up on the south shore of Lake Minniemashie. He glanced across the reeds reflected on the water, the quiver of wavelets like crumpled tinfoil, the distant shores patched with dark woods, silvery oats and deep yellow wheat. He patted her hand. "Sis——Carol, you're a darling girl, but you're difficult. Know what I think?"
"Humph. Maybe you do, but——My humble (not too humble!) opinion is that you like to be different. You like to think you're peculiar. Why, if you knew how many tens of thousands of women, especially in New York, say just what you do, you'd lose all the fun of thinking you're a lone genius and you'd be on the band-wagon whooping it up for Gopher Prairie and a good decent family life. There's always about a million young women just out of college who want to teach their grandmothers how to suck eggs."
"How proud you are of that homely rustic metaphor! You use it at 'banquets' and directors' meetings, and boast of your climb from a humble homestead."
"Huh! You may have my number. I'm not telling. But look here: You're so prejudiced against Gopher Prairie that you overshoot the mark; you antagonize those who might be inclined to agree with you in some particulars but——Great guns, the town can't be all wrong!"
"No, it isn't. But it could be. Let me tell you a fable. Imagine a cavewoman complaining to her mate. She doesn't like one single thing; she hates the damp cave, the rats running over her bare legs, the stiff skin garments, the eating of half-raw meat, her husband's bushy face, the constant battles, and the worship of the spirits who will hoodoo her unless she gives the priests her best claw necklace. Her man protests, 'But it can't all be wrong!' and he thinks he has reduced her to absurdity. Now you assume that a world which produces a Percy Bresnahan and a Velvet Motor Company must be civilized. It is? Aren't we only about half-way along in barbarism? I suggest Mrs. Bogart as a test. And we'll continue in barbarism just as long as people as nearly intelligent as you continue to defend things as they are because they are."
"You're a fair spieler, child. But, by golly, I'd like to see you try to design a new manifold, or run a factory and keep a lot of your fellow reds from Czech-slovenski-magyar-godknowswheria on the job! You'd drop your theories so darn quick! I'm not any defender of things as they are. Sure. They're rotten. Only I'm sensible."
He preached his gospel: love of outdoors, Playing the Game, loyalty to friends. She had the neophyte's shock of discovery that, outside of tracts, conservatives do not tremble and find no answer when an iconoclast turns on them, but retort with agility and confusing statistics.
He was so much the man, the worker, the friend, that she liked him when she most tried to stand out against him; he was so much the successful executive that she did not want him to despise her. His manner of sneering at what he called "parlor socialists" (though the phrase was not overwhelmingly new) had a power which made her wish to placate his company of well-fed, speed-loving administrators. When he demanded, "Would you like to associate with nothing but a lot of turkey-necked, horn-spectacled nuts that have adenoids and need a hair-cut, and that spend all their time kicking about 'conditions' and never do a lick of work?" she said, "No, but just the same——" When he asserted, "Even if your cavewoman was right in knocking the whole works, I bet some red-blooded Regular Fellow, some real He-man, found her a nice dry cave, and not any whining criticizing radical," she wriggled her head feebly, between a nod and a shake.
His large hands, sensual lips, easy voice supported his self-confidence. He made her feel young and soft—as Kennicott had once made her feel. She had nothing to say when he bent his powerful head and experimented, "My dear, I'm sorry I'm going away from this town. You'd be a darling child to play with. You ARE pretty! Some day in Boston I'll show you how we buy a lunch. Well, hang it, got to be starting back."
The only answer to his gospel of beef which she could find, when she was home, was a wail of "But just the same——"
She did not see him again before he departed for Washington.
His eyes remained. His glances at her lips and hair and shoulders had revealed to her that she was not a wife-and-mother alone, but a girl; that there still were men in the world, as there had been in college days.
That admiration led her to study Kennicott, to tear at the shroud of intimacy, to perceive the strangeness of the most familiar.
ALL that midsummer month Carol was sensitive to Kennicott. She recalled a hundred grotesqueries: her comic dismay at his having chewed tobacco, the evening when she had tried to read poetry to him; matters which had seemed to vanish with no trace or sequence. Always she repeated that he had been heroically patient in his desire to join the army. She made much of her consoling affection for him in little things. She liked the homeliness of his tinkering about the house; his strength and handiness as he tightened the hinges of a shutter; his boyishness when he ran to her to be comforted because he had found rust in the barrel of his pump-gun. But at the highest he was to her another Hugh, without the glamor of Hugh's unknown future.
There was, late in June, a day of heat-lightning.
Because of the work imposed by the absence of the other doctors the Kennicotts had not moved to the lake cottage but remained in town, dusty and irritable. In the afternoon, when she went to Oleson & McGuire's (formerly Dahl & Oleson's), Carol was vexed by the assumption of the youthful clerk, recently come from the farm, that he had to be neighborly and rude. He was no more brusquely familiar than a dozen other clerks of the town, but her nerves were heat-scorched.
When she asked for codfish, for supper, he grunted, "What d'you want that darned old dry stuff for?"
"I like it!"
"Punk! Guess the doc can afford something better than that. Try some of the new wienies we got in. Swell. The Haydocks use 'em."
She exploded. "My dear young man, it is not your duty to instruct me in housekeeping, and it doesn't particularly concern me what the Haydocks condescend to approve!"
He was hurt. He hastily wrapped up the leprous fragment of fish; he gaped as she trailed out. She lamented, "I shouldn't have spoken so. He didn't mean anything. He doesn't know when he is being rude."
Her repentance was not proof against Uncle Whittier when she stopped in at his grocery for salt and a package of safety matches. Uncle Whittier, in a shirt collarless and soaked with sweat in a brown streak down his back, was whining at a clerk, "Come on now, get a hustle on and lug that pound cake up to Mis' Cass's. Some folks in this town think a storekeeper ain't got nothing to do but chase out 'phone-orders. . . . Hello, Carrie. That dress you got on looks kind of low in the neck to me. May be decent and modest—I suppose I'm old-fashioned—but I never thought much of showing the whole town a woman's bust! Hee, hee, hee! . . . Afternoon, Mrs. Hicks. Sage? Just out of it. Lemme sell you some other spices. Heh?" Uncle Whittier was nasally indignant "CERTAINLY! Got PLENTY other spices jus' good as sage for any purp'se whatever! What's the matter with—well, with allspice?" When Mrs. Hicks had gone, he raged, "Some folks don't know what they want!"
"Sweating sanctimonious bully—my husband's uncle!" thought Carol.
She crept into Dave Dyer's. Dave held up his arms with, "Don't shoot! I surrender!" She smiled, but it occurred to her that for nearly five years Dave had kept up this game of pretending that she threatened his life.
As she went dragging through the prickly-hot street she reflected that a citizen of Gopher Prairie does not have jests—he has a jest. Every cold morning for five winters Lyman Cass had remarked, "Fair to middlin' chilly—get worse before it gets better." Fifty times had Ezra Stowbody informed the public that Carol had once asked, "Shall I indorse this check on the back?" Fifty times had Sam Clark called to her, "Where'd you steal that hat?" Fifty times had the mention of Barney Cahoon, the town drayman, like a nickel in a slot produced from Kennicott the apocryphal story of Barney's directing a minister, "Come down to the depot and get your case of religious books—they're leaking!"
She came home by the unvarying route. She knew every house-front, every street-crossing, every billboard, every tree, every dog. She knew every blackened banana-skin and empty cigarette-box in the gutters. She knew every greeting. When Jim Howland stopped and gaped at her there was no possibility that he was about to confide anything but his grudging, "Well, haryuh t'day?"
All her future life, this same red-labeled bread-crate in front of the bakery, this same thimble-shaped crack in the sidewalk a quarter of a block beyond Stowbody's granite hitching-post——
She silently handed her purchases to the silent Oscarina. She sat on the porch, rocking, fanning, twitchy with Hugh's whining.
Kennicott came home, grumbled, "What the devil is the kid yapping about?"
"I guess you can stand it ten minutes if I can stand it all day!"
He came to supper in his shirt sleeves, his vest partly open, revealing discolored suspenders.
"Why don't you put on your nice Palm Beach suit, and take off that hideous vest?" she complained.
"Too much trouble. Too hot to go up-stairs."
She realized that for perhaps a year she had not definitely looked at her husband. She regarded his table-manners. He violently chased fragments of fish about his plate with a knife and licked the knife after gobbling them. She was slightly sick. She asserted, "I'm ridiculous. What do these things matter! Don't be so simple!" But she knew that to her they did matter, these solecisms and mixed tenses of the table.
She realized that they found little to say; that, incredibly, they were like the talked-out couples whom she had pitied at restaurants.
Bresnahan would have spouted in a lively, exciting, unreliable manner.
She realized that Kennicott's clothes were seldom pressed. His coat was wrinkled; his trousers would flap at the knees when he arose. His shoes were unblacked, and they were of an elderly shapelessness. He refused to wear soft hats; cleaved to a hard derby, as a symbol of virility and prosperity; and sometimes he forgot to take it off in the house. She peeped at his cuffs. They were frayed in prickles of starched linen. She had turned them once; she clipped them every week; but when she had begged him to throw the shirt away, last Sunday morning at the crisis of the weekly bath, he had uneasily protested, "Oh, it'll wear quite a while yet."
He was shaved (by himself or more socially by Del Snafflin) only three times a week. This morning had not been one of the three times.
Yet he was vain of his new turn-down collars and sleek ties; he often spoke of the "sloppy dressing" of Dr. McGanum; and he laughed at old men who wore detachable cuffs or Gladstone collars.
Carol did not care much for the creamed codfish that evening.
She noted that his nails were jagged and ill-shaped from his habit of cutting them with a pocket-knife and despising a nail-file as effeminate and urban. That they were invariably clean, that his were the scoured fingers of the surgeon, made his stubborn untidiness the more jarring. They were wise hands, kind hands, but they were not the hands of love.
She remembered him in the days of courtship. He had tried to please her, then, had touched her by sheepishly wearing a colored band on his straw hat. Was it possible that those days of fumbling for each other were gone so completely? He had read books, to impress her; had said (she recalled it ironically) that she was to point out his every fault; had insisted once, as they sat in the secret place beneath the walls of Fort Snelling——
She shut the door on her thoughts. That was sacred ground. But it WAS a shame that——
She nervously pushed away her cake and stewed apricots.
After supper, when they had been driven in from the porch by mosquitos, when Kennicott had for the two-hundredth time in five years commented, "We must have a new screen on the porch—lets all the bugs in," they sat reading, and she noted, and detested herself for noting, and noted again his habitual awkwardness. He slumped down in one chair, his legs up on another, and he explored the recesses of his left ear with the end of his little finger—she could hear the faint smack—he kept it up—he kept it up——
He blurted, "Oh. Forgot tell you. Some of the fellows coming in to play poker this evening. Suppose we could have some crackers and cheese and beer?"
"He might have mentioned it before. Oh well, it's his house."
The poker-party straggled in: Sam Clark, Jack Elder, Dave Dyer, Jim Howland. To her they mechanically said, "'Devenin'," but to Kennicott, in a heroic male manner, "Well, well, shall we start playing? Got a hunch I'm going to lick somebody real bad." No one suggested that she join them. She told herself that it was her own fault, because she was not more friendly; but she remembered that they never asked Mrs. Sam Clark to play.
Bresnahan would have asked her.
She sat in the living-room, glancing across the hall at the men as they humped over the dining table.
They were in shirt sleeves; smoking, chewing, spitting incessantly; lowering their voices for a moment so that she did not hear what they said and afterward giggling hoarsely; using over and over the canonical phrases: "Three to dole," "I raise you a finif," "Come on now, ante up; what do you think this is, a pink tea?" The cigar-smoke was acrid and pervasive. The firmness with which the men mouthed their cigars made the lower part of their faces expressionless, heavy, unappealing. They were like politicians cynically dividing appointments.
How could they understand her world?
Did that faint and delicate world exist? Was she a fool? She doubted her world, doubted herself, and was sick in the acid, smoke-stained air.
She slipped back into brooding upon the habituality of the house.
Kennicott was as fixed in routine as an isolated old man. At first he had amorously deceived himself into liking her experiments with food—the one medium in which she could express imagination—but now he wanted only his round of favorite dishes: steak, roast beef, boiled pig's-feet, oatmeal, baked apples. Because at some more flexible period he had advanced from oranges to grape-fruit he considered himself an epicure.
During their first autumn she had smiled over his affection for his hunting-coat, but now that the leather had come unstitched in dribbles of pale yellow thread, and tatters of canvas, smeared with dirt of the fields and grease from gun-cleaning, hung in a border of rags, she hated the thing.
Wasn't her whole life like that hunting-coat?
She knew every nick and brown spot on each piece of the set of china purchased by Kennicott's mother in 1895—discreet china with a pattern of washed-out forget-me-nots, rimmed with blurred gold: the gravy-boat, in a saucer which did not match, the solemn and evangelical covered vegetable-dishes, the two platters.
Twenty times had Kennicott sighed over the fact that Bea had broken the other platter—the medium-sized one.
Damp black iron sink, damp whitey-yellow drain-board with shreds of discolored wood which from long scrubbing were as soft as cotton thread, warped table, alarm clock, stove bravely blackened by Oscarina but an abomination in its loose doors and broken drafts and oven that never would keep an even heat.
Carol had done her best by the kitchen: painted it white, put up curtains, replaced a six-year-old calendar by a color print. She had hoped for tiling, and a kerosene range for summer cooking, but Kennicott always postponed these expenses.
She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can-opener, whose soft gray metal handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window, was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and more significant than the future of Asia was the never-settled weekly question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle or the second-best buckhorn carving-knife was better for cutting up cold chicken for Sunday supper.
She was ignored by the males till midnight. Her husband called, "Suppose we could have some eats, Carrie?" As she passed through the dining-room the men smiled on her, belly-smiles. None of them noticed her while she was serving the crackers and cheese and sardines and beer. They were determining the exact psychology of Dave Dyer in standing pat, two hours before.
When they were gone she said to Kennicott, "Your friends have the manners of a barroom. They expect me to wait on them like a servant. They're not so much interested in me as they would be in a waiter, because they don't have to tip me. Unfortunately! Well, good night."
So rarely did she nag in this petty, hot-weather fashion that he was astonished rather than angry. "Hey! Wait! What's the idea? I must say I don't get you. The boys——Barroom? Why, Perce Bresnahan was saying there isn't a finer bunch of royal good fellows anywhere than just the crowd that were here tonight!"
They stood in the lower hall. He was too shocked to go on with his duties of locking the front door and winding his watch and the clock.
"Bresnahan! I'm sick of him!" She meant nothing in particular.
"Why, Carrie, he's one of the biggest men in the country! Boston just eats out of his hand!"
"I wonder if it does? How do we know but that in Boston, among well-bred people, he may be regarded as an absolute lout? The way he calls women 'Sister,' and the way——"
"Now look here! That'll do! Of course I know you don't mean it—you're simply hot and tired, and trying to work off your peeve on me. But just the same, I won't stand your jumping on Perce. You——It's just like your attitude toward the war—so darn afraid that America will become militaristic——"
"But you are the pure patriot!"
"By God, I am!"
"Yes, I heard you talking to Sam Clark tonight about ways of avoiding the income tax!"
He had recovered enough to lock the door; he clumped up-stairs ahead of her, growling, "You don't know what you're talking about. I'm perfectly willing to pay my full tax—fact, I'm in favor of the income tax—even though I do think it's a penalty on frugality and enterprise—fact, it's an unjust, darn-fool tax. But just the same, I'll pay it. Only, I'm not idiot enough to pay more than the government makes me pay, and Sam and I were just figuring out whether all automobile expenses oughn't to be exemptions. I'll take a lot off you, Carrie, but I don't propose for one second to stand your saying I'm not patriotic. You know mighty well and good that I've tried to get away and join the army. And at the beginning of the whole fracas I said—I've said right along—that we ought to have entered the war the minute Germany invaded Belgium. You don't get me at all. You can't appreciate a man's work. You're abnormal. You've fussed so much with these fool novels and books and all this highbrow junk——You like to argue!"
It ended, a quarter of an hour later, in his calling her a "neurotic" before he turned away and pretended to sleep.
For the first time they had failed to make peace.
"There are two races of people, only two, and they live side by side. His calls mine 'neurotic'; mine calls his 'stupid.' We'll never understand each other, never; and it's madness for us to debate—to lie together in a hot bed in a creepy room—enemies, yoked."
It clarified in her the longing for a place of her own.
"While it's so hot, I think I'll sleep in the spare room," she said next day.
"Not a bad idea." He was cheerful and kindly.
The room was filled with a lumbering double bed and a cheap pine bureau. She stored the bed in the attic; replaced it by a cot which, with a denim cover, made a couch by day; put in a dressing-table, a rocker transformed by a cretonne cover; had Miles Bjornstam build book-shelves.
Kennicott slowly understood that she meant to keep up her seclusion. In his queries, "Changing the whole room?" "Putting your books in there?" she caught his dismay. But it was so easy, once her door was closed, to shut out his worry. That hurt her—the ease of forgetting him.
Aunt Bessie Smail sleuthed out this anarchy. She yammered, "Why, Carrie, you ain't going to sleep all alone by yourself? I don't believe in that. Married folks should have the same room, of course! Don't go getting silly notions. No telling what a thing like that might lead to. Suppose I up and told your Uncle Whit that I wanted a room of my own!"
Carol spoke of recipes for corn-pudding.
But from Mrs. Dr. Westlake she drew encouragement. She had made an afternoon call on Mrs. Westlake. She was for the first time invited up-stairs, and found the suave old woman sewing in a white and mahogany room with a small bed.
"Oh, do you have your own royal apartments, and the doctor his?" Carol hinted.
"Indeed I do! The doctor says it's bad enough to have to stand my temper at meals. Do——" Mrs. Westlake looked at her sharply. "Why, don't you do the same thing?"
"I've been thinking about it." Carol laughed in an embarrassed way. "Then you wouldn't regard me as a complete hussy if I wanted to be by myself now and then?"
"Why, child, every woman ought to get off by herself and turn over her thoughts—about children, and God, and how bad her complexion is, and the way men don't really understand her, and how much work she finds to do in the house, and how much patience it takes to endure some things in a man's love."
"Yes!" Carol said it in a gasp, her hands twisted together. She wanted to confess not only her hatred for the Aunt Bessies but her covert irritation toward those she best loved: her alienation from Kennicott, her disappointment in Guy Pollock, her uneasiness in the presence of Vida. She had enough self-control to confine herself to, "Yes. Men! The dear blundering souls, we do have to get off and laugh at them."
"Of course we do. Not that you have to laugh at Dr. Kennicott so much, but MY man, heavens, now there's a rare old bird! Reading story-books when he ought to be tending to business! 'Marcus Westlake,' I say to him, 'you're a romantic old fool.' And does he get angry? He does not! He chuckles and says, 'Yes, my beloved, folks do say that married people grow to resemble each other!' Drat him!" Mrs. Westlake laughed comfortably.
After such a disclosure what could Carol do but return the courtesy by remarking that as for Kennicott, he wasn't romantic enough—the darling. Before she left she had babbled to Mrs. Westlake her dislike for Aunt Bessie, the fact that Kennicott's income was now more than five thousand a year, her view of the reason why Vida had married Raymie (which included some thoroughly insincere praise of Raymie's "kind heart"), her opinion of the library-board, just what Kennicott had said about Mrs. Carthal's diabetes, and what Kennicott thought of the several surgeons in the Cities.
She went home soothed by confession, inspirited by finding a new friend.
The tragicomedy of the "domestic situation."
Oscarina went back home to help on the farm, and Carol had a succession of maids, with gaps between. The lack of servants was becoming one of the most cramping problems of the prairie town. Increasingly the farmers' daughters rebelled against village dullness, and against the unchanged attitude of the Juanitas toward "hired girls." They went off to city kitchens, or to city shops and factories, that they might be free and even human after hours.
The Jolly Seventeen were delighted at Carol's desertion by the loyal Oscarina. They reminded her that she had said, "I don't have any trouble with maids; see how Oscarina stays on."
Between incumbencies of Finn maids from the North Woods, Germans from the prairies, occasional Swedes and Norwegians and Icelanders, Carol did her own work—and endured Aunt Bessie's skittering in to tell her how to dampen a broom for fluffy dust, how to sugar doughnuts, how to stuff a goose. Carol was deft, and won shy praise from Kennicott, but as her shoulder blades began to sting, she wondered how many millions of women had lied to themselves during the death-rimmed years through which they had pretended to enjoy the puerile methods persisting in housework.