She doubted the convenience and, as a natural sequent, the sanctity of the monogamous and separate home which she had regarded as the basis of all decent life.
She considered her doubts vicious. She refused to remember how many of the women of the Jolly Seventeen nagged their husbands and were nagged by them.
She energetically did not whine to Kennicott. But her eyes ached; she was not the girl in breeches and a flannel shirt who had cooked over a camp-fire in the Colorado mountains five years ago. Her ambition was to get to bed at nine; her strongest emotion was resentment over rising at half-past six to care for Hugh. The back of her neck ached as she got out of bed. She was cynical about the joys of a simple laborious life. She understood why workmen and workmen's wives are not grateful to their kind employers.
At mid-morning, when she was momentarily free from the ache in her neck and back, she was glad of the reality of work. The hours were living and nimble. But she had no desire to read the eloquent little newspaper essays in praise of labor which are daily written by the white-browed journalistic prophets. She felt independent and (though she hid it) a bit surly.
In cleaning the house she pondered upon the maid's-room. It was a slant-roofed, small-windowed hole above the kitchen, oppressive in summer, frigid in winter. She saw that while she had been considering herself an unusually good mistress, she had been permitting her friends Bea and Oscarina to live in a sty. She complained to Kennicott. "What's the matter with it?" he growled, as they stood on the perilous stairs dodging up from the kitchen. She commented upon the sloping roof of unplastered boards stained in brown rings by the rain, the uneven floor, the cot and its tumbled discouraged-looking quilts, the broken rocker, the distorting mirror.
"Maybe it ain't any Hotel Radisson parlor, but still, it's so much better than anything these hired girls are accustomed to at home that they think it's fine. Seems foolish to spend money when they wouldn't appreciate it."
But that night he drawled, with the casualness of a man who wishes to be surprising and delightful, "Carrie, don't know but what we might begin to think about building a new house, one of these days. How'd you like that?"
"I'm getting to the point now where I feel we can afford one—and a corker! I'll show this burg something like a real house! We'll put one over on Sam and Harry! Make folks sit up an' take notice!"
"Yes," she said.
He did not go on.
Daily he returned to the subject of the new house, but as to time and mode he was indefinite. At first she believed. She babbled of a low stone house with lattice windows and tulip-beds, of colonial brick, of a white frame cottage with green shutters and dormer windows. To her enthusiasms he answered, "Well, ye-es, might be worth thinking about. Remember where I put my pipe?" When she pressed him he fidgeted, "I don't know; seems to me those kind of houses you speak of have been overdone."
It proved that what he wanted was a house exactly like Sam Clark's, which was exactly like every third new house in every town in the country: a square, yellow stolidity with immaculate clapboards, a broad screened porch, tidy grass-plots, and concrete walks; a house resembling the mind of a merchant who votes the party ticket straight and goes to church once a month and owns a good car.
He admitted, "Well, yes, maybe it isn't so darn artistic but——Matter of fact, though, I don't want a place just like Sam's. Maybe I would cut off that fool tower he's got, and I think probably it would look better painted a nice cream color. That yellow on Sam's house is too kind of flashy. Then there's another kind of house that's mighty nice and substantial-looking, with shingles, in a nice brown stain, instead of clapboards—seen some in Minneapolis. You're way off your base when you say I only like one kind of house!"
Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie came in one evening when Carol was sleepily advocating a rose-garden cottage.
"You've had a lot of experience with housekeeping, aunty, and don't you think," Kennicott appealed, "that it would be sensible to have a nice square house, and pay more attention to getting a crackajack furnace than to all this architecture and doodads?"
Aunt Bessie worked her lips as though they were an elastic band. "Why of course! I know how it is with young folks like you, Carrie; you want towers and bay-windows and pianos and heaven knows what all, but the thing to get is closets and a good furnace and a handy place to hang out the washing, and the rest don't matter."
Uncle Whittier dribbled a little, put his face near to Carol's, and sputtered, "Course it don't! What d'you care what folks think about the outside of your house? It's the inside you're living in. None of my business, but I must say you young folks that'd rather have cakes than potatoes get me riled."
She reached her room before she became savage. Below, dreadfully near, she could hear the broom-swish of Aunt Bessie's voice, and the mop-pounding of Uncle Whittier's grumble. She had a reasonless dread that they would intrude on her, then a fear that she would yield to Gopher Prairie's conception of duty toward an Aunt Bessie and go down-stairs to be "nice." She felt the demand for standardized behavior coming in waves from all the citizens who sat in their sitting-rooms watching her with respectable eyes, waiting, demanding, unyielding. She snarled, "Oh, all right, I'll go!" She powdered her nose, straightened her collar, and coldly marched down-stairs. The three elders ignored her. They had advanced from the new house to agreeable general fussing. Aunt Bessie was saying, in a tone like the munching of dry toast:
"I do think Mr. Stowbody ought to have had the rain-pipe fixed at our store right away. I went to see him on Tuesday morning before ten, no, it was couple minutes after ten, but anyway, it was long before noon—I know because I went right from the bank to the meat market to get some steak—my! I think it's outrageous, the prices Oleson & McGuire charge for their meat, and it isn't as if they gave you a good cut either but just any old thing, and I had time to get it, and I stopped in at Mrs. Bogart's to ask about her rheumatism——"
Carol was watching Uncle Whittier. She knew from his taut expression that he was not listening to Aunt Bessie but herding his own thoughts, and that he would interrupt her bluntly. He did:
"Will, where c'n I get an extra pair of pants for this coat and vest? D' want to pay too much."
"Well, guess Nat Hicks could make you up a pair. But if I were you, I'd drop into Ike Rifkin's—his prices are lower than the Bon Ton's."
"Humph. Got the new stove in your office yet?"
"No, been looking at some at Sam Clark's but——"
"Well, y' ought get 't in. Don't do to put off getting a stove all summer, and then have it come cold on you in the fall."
Carol smiled upon them ingratiatingly. "Do you dears mind if I slip up to bed? I'm rather tired—cleaned the upstairs today."
She retreated. She was certain that they were discussing her, and foully forgiving her. She lay awake till she heard the distant creak of a bed which indicated that Kennicott had retired. Then she felt safe.
It was Kennicott who brought up the matter of the Smails at breakfast. With no visible connection he said, "Uncle Whit is kind of clumsy, but just the same, he's a pretty wise old coot. He's certainly making good with the store."
Carol smiled, and Kennicott was pleased that she had come to her senses. "As Whit says, after all the first thing is to have the inside of a house right, and darn the people on the outside looking in!"
It seemed settled that the house was to be a sound example of the Sam Clark school.
Kennicott made much of erecting it entirely for her and the baby. He spoke of closets for her frocks, and "a comfy sewing-room." But when he drew on a leaf from an old account-book (he was a paper-saver and a string-picker) the plans for the garage, he gave much more attention to a cement floor and a work-bench and a gasoline-tank than he had to sewing-rooms.
She sat back and was afraid.
In the present rookery there were odd things—a step up from the hall to the dining-room, a picturesqueness in the shed and bedraggled lilac bush. But the new place would be smooth, standardized, fixed. It was probable, now that Kennicott was past forty, and settled, that this would be the last venture he would ever make in building. So long as she stayed in this ark, she would always have a possibility of change, but once she was in the new house, there she would sit for all the rest of her life—there she would die. Desperately she wanted to put it off, against the chance of miracles. While Kennicott was chattering about a patent swing-door for the garage she saw the swing-doors of a prison.
She never voluntarily returned to the project. Aggrieved, Kennicott stopped drawing plans, and in ten days the new house was forgotten.
Every year since their marriage Carol had longed for a trip through the East. Every year Kennicott had talked of attending the American Medical Association convention, "and then afterwards we could do the East up brown. I know New York clean through—spent pretty near a week there—but I would like to see New England and all these historic places and have some sea-food." He talked of it from February to May, and in May he invariably decided that coming confinement-cases or land-deals would prevent his "getting away from home-base for very long THIS year—and no sense going till we can do it right."
The weariness of dish-washing had increased her desire to go. She pictured herself looking at Emerson's manse, bathing in a surf of jade and ivory, wearing a trottoir and a summer fur, meeting an aristocratic Stranger. In the spring Kennicott had pathetically volunteered, "S'pose you'd like to get in a good long tour this summer, but with Gould and Mac away and so many patients depending on me, don't see how I can make it. By golly, I feel like a tightwad though, not taking you." Through all this restless July after she had tasted Bresnahan's disturbing flavor of travel and gaiety, she wanted to go, but she said nothing. They spoke of and postponed a trip to the Twin Cities. When she suggested, as though it were a tremendous joke, "I think baby and I might up and leave you, and run off to Cape Cod by ourselves!" his only reaction was "Golly, don't know but what you may almost have to do that, if we don't get in a trip next year."
Toward the end of July he proposed, "Say, the Beavers are holding a convention in Joralemon, street fair and everything. We might go down tomorrow. And I'd like to see Dr. Calibree about some business. Put in the whole day. Might help some to make up for our trip. Fine fellow, Dr. Calibree."
Joralemon was a prairie town of the size of Gopher Prairie.
Their motor was out of order, and there was no passenger-train at an early hour. They went down by freight-train, after the weighty and conversational business of leaving Hugh with Aunt Bessie. Carol was exultant over this irregular jaunting. It was the first unusual thing, except the glance of Bresnahan, that had happened since the weaning of Hugh. They rode in the caboose, the small red cupola-topped car jerked along at the end of the train. It was a roving shanty, the cabin of a land schooner, with black oilcloth seats along the side, and for desk, a pine board to be let down on hinges. Kennicott played seven-up with the conductor and two brakemen. Carol liked the blue silk kerchiefs about the brakemen's throats; she liked their welcome to her, and their air of friendly independence. Since there were no sweating passengers crammed in beside her, she reveled in the train's slowness. She was part of these lakes and tawny wheat-fields. She liked the smell of hot earth and clean grease; and the leisurely chug-a-chug, chug-a-chug of the trucks was a song of contentment in the sun.
She pretended that she was going to the Rockies. When they reached Joralemon she was radiant with holiday-making.
Her eagerness began to lessen the moment they stopped at a red frame station exactly like the one they had just left at Gopher Prairie, and Kennicott yawned, "Right on time. Just in time for dinner at the Calibrees'. I 'phoned the doctor from G. P. that we'd be here. 'We'll catch the freight that gets in before twelve,' I told him. He said he'd meet us at the depot and take us right up to the house for dinner. Calibree is a good man, and you'll find his wife is a mighty brainy little woman, bright as a dollar. By golly, there he is."
Dr. Calibree was a squat, clean-shaven, conscientious-looking man of forty. He was curiously like his own brown-painted motor car, with eye-glasses for windshield. "Want you to meet my wife, doctor—Carrie, make you 'quainted with Dr. Calibree," said Kennicott. Calibree bowed quietly and shook her hand, but before he had finished shaking it he was concentrating upon Kennicott with, "Nice to see you, doctor. Say, don't let me forget to ask you about what you did in that exopthalmic goiter case—that Bohemian woman at Wahkeenyan."
The two men, on the front seat of the car, chanted goiters and ignored her. She did not know it. She was trying to feed her illusion of adventure by staring at unfamiliar houses . . . drab cottages, artificial stone bungalows, square painty stolidities with immaculate clapboards and broad screened porches and tidy grass-plots.
Calibree handed her over to his wife, a thick woman who called her "dearie," and asked if she was hot and, visibly searching for conversation, produced, "Let's see, you and the doctor have a Little One, haven't you?" At dinner Mrs. Calibree served the corned beef and cabbage and looked steamy, looked like the steamy leaves of cabbage. The men were oblivious of their wives as they gave the social passwords of Main Street, the orthodox opinions on weather, crops, and motor cars, then flung away restraint and gyrated in the debauch of shop-talk. Stroking his chin, drawling in the ecstasy of being erudite, Kennicott inquired, "Say, doctor, what success have you had with thyroid for treatment of pains in the legs before child-birth?"
Carol did not resent their assumption that she was too ignorant to be admitted to masculine mysteries. She was used to it. But the cabbage and Mrs. Calibree's monotonous "I don't know what we're coming to with all this difficulty getting hired girls" were gumming her eyes with drowsiness. She sought to clear them by appealing to Calibree, in a manner of exaggerated liveliness, "Doctor, have the medical societies in Minnesota ever advocated legislation for help to nursing mothers?"
Calibree slowly revolved toward her. "Uh—I've never—uh—never looked into it. I don't believe much in getting mixed up in politics." He turned squarely from her and, peering earnestly at Kennicott, resumed, "Doctor, what's been your experience with unilateral pyelonephritis? Buckburn of Baltimore advocates decapsulation and nephrotomy, but seems to me——"
Not till after two did they rise. In the lee of the stonily mature trio Carol proceeded to the street fair which added mundane gaiety to the annual rites of the United and Fraternal Order of Beavers. Beavers, human Beavers, were everywhere: thirty-second degree Beavers in gray sack suits and decent derbies, more flippant Beavers in crash summer coats and straw hats, rustic Beavers in shirt sleeves and frayed suspenders; but whatever his caste-symbols, every Beaver was distinguished by an enormous shrimp-colored ribbon lettered in silver, "Sir Knight and Brother, U. F. O. B., Annual State Convention." On the motherly shirtwaist of each of their wives was a badge "Sir Knight's Lady." The Duluth delegation had brought their famous Beaver amateur band, in Zouave costumes of green velvet jacket, blue trousers, and scarlet fez. The strange thing was that beneath their scarlet pride the Zouaves' faces remained those of American business-men, pink, smooth, eye-glassed; and as they stood playing in a circle, at the corner of Main Street and Second, as they tootled on fifes or with swelling cheeks blew into cornets, their eyes remained as owlish as though they were sitting at desks under the sign "This Is My Busy Day."
Carol had supposed that the Beavers were average citizens organized for the purposes of getting cheap life-insurance and playing poker at the lodge-rooms every second Wednesday, but she saw a large poster which proclaimed:
BEAVERS U. F. O. B.
The greatest influence for good citizenship in the country. The jolliest aggregation of red-blooded, open-handed, hustle-em-up good fellows in the world. Joralemon welcomes you to her hospitable city.
Kennicott read the poster and to Calibree admired, "Strong lodge, the Beavers. Never joined. Don't know but what I will."
Calibree adumbrated, "They're a good bunch. Good strong lodge. See that fellow there that's playing the snare drum? He's the smartest wholesale grocer in Duluth, they say. Guess it would be worth joining. Oh say, are you doing much insurance examining?"
They went on to the street fair.
Lining one block of Main Street were the "attractions"—two hot-dog stands, a lemonade and pop-corn stand, a merry-go-round, and booths in which balls might be thrown at rag dolls, if one wished to throw balls at rag dolls. The dignified delegates were shy of the booths, but country boys with brickred necks and pale-blue ties and bright-yellow shoes, who had brought sweethearts into town in somewhat dusty and listed Fords, were wolfing sandwiches, drinking strawberry pop out of bottles, and riding the revolving crimson and gold horses. They shrieked and giggled; peanut-roasters whistled; the merry-go-round pounded out monotonous music; the barkers bawled, "Here's your chance—here's your chance—come on here, boy—come on here—give that girl a good time—give her a swell time—here's your chance to win a genuwine gold watch for five cents, half a dime, the twentieth part of a dollah!" The prairie sun jabbed the unshaded street with shafts that were like poisonous thorns the tinny cornices above the brick stores were glaring; the dull breeze scattered dust on sweaty Beavers who crawled along in tight scorching new shoes, up two blocks and back, up two blocks and back, wondering what to do next, working at having a good time.
Carol's head ached as she trailed behind the unsmiling Calibrees along the block of booths. She chirruped at Kennicott, "Let's be wild! Let's ride on the merry-go-round and grab a gold ring!"
Kennicott considered it, and mumbled to Calibree, "Think you folks would like to stop and try a ride on the merry-go-round?"
Calibree considered it, and mumbled to his wife, "Think you'd like to stop and try a ride on the merry-go-round?"
Mrs. Calibree smiled in a washed-out manner, and sighed, "Oh no, I don't believe I care to much, but you folks go ahead and try it."
Calibree stated to Kennicott, "No, I don't believe we care to a whole lot, but you folks go ahead and try it."
Kennicott summarized the whole case against wildness: "Let's try it some other time, Carrie."
She gave it up. She looked at the town. She saw that in adventuring from Main Street, Gopher Prairie, to Main Street, Joralemon, she had not stirred. There were the same two-story brick groceries with lodge-signs above the awnings; the same one-story wooden millinery shop; the same fire-brick garages; the same prairie at the open end of the wide street; the same people wondering whether the levity of eating a hot-dog sandwich would break their taboos.
They reached Gopher Prairie at nine in the evening.
"You look kind of hot," said Kennicott.
"Joralemon is an enterprising town, don't you think so?" She broke. "No! I think it's an ash-heap."
He worried over it for a week. While he ground his plate with his knife as he energetically pursued fragments of bacon, he peeped at her.
"CARRIE'S all right. She's finicky, but she'll get over it. But I wish she'd hurry up about it! What she can't understand is that a fellow practising medicine in a small town like this has got to cut out the highbrow stuff, and not spend all his time going to concerts and shining his shoes. (Not but what he might be just as good at all these intellectual and art things as some other folks, if he had the time for it!)" Dr. Will Kennicott was brooding in his office, during a free moment toward the end of the summer afternoon. He hunched down in his tilted desk-chair, undid a button of his shirt, glanced at the state news in the back of the Journal of the American Medical Association, dropped the magazine, leaned back with his right thumb hooked in the arm-hole of his vest and his left thumb stroking the back of his hair.
"By golly, she's taking an awful big chance, though. You'd expect her to learn by and by that I won't be a parlor lizard. She says we try to 'make her over.' Well, she's always trying to make me over, from a perfectly good M. D. into a damn poet with a socialist necktie! She'd have a fit if she knew how many women would be willing to cuddle up to Friend Will and comfort him, if he'd give 'em the chance! There's still a few dames that think the old man isn't so darn unattractive! I'm glad I've ducked all that woman-game since I've been married but——Be switched if sometimes I don't feel tempted to shine up to some girl that has sense enough to take life as it is; some frau that doesn't want to talk Longfellow all the time, but just hold my hand and say, 'You look all in, honey. Take it easy, and don't try to talk.'
"Carrie thinks she's such a whale at analyzing folks. Giving the town the once-over. Telling us where we get off. Why, she'd simply turn up her toes and croak if she found out how much she doesn't know about the high old times a wise guy could have in this burg on the Q.T., if he wasn't faithful to his wife. But I am. At that, no matter what faults she's got, there's nobody here, no, nor in Minn'aplus either, that's as nice-looking and square and bright as Carrie. She ought to of been an artist or a writer or one of those things. But once she took a shot at living here, she ought to stick by it. Pretty——Lord yes. But cold. She simply doesn't know what passion is. She simply hasn't got an i-dea how hard it is for a full-blooded man to go on pretending to be satisfied with just being endured. It gets awful tiresome, having to feel like a criminal just because I'm normal. She's getting so she doesn't even care for my kissing her. Well——
"I guess I can weather it, same as I did earning my way through school and getting started in practise. But I wonder how long I can stand being an outsider in my own home?"
He sat up at the entrance of Mrs. Dave Dyer. She slumped into a chair and gasped with the heat. He chuckled, "Well, well, Maud, this is fine. Where's the subscription-list? What cause do I get robbed for, this trip?"
"I haven't any subscription-list, Will. I want to see you professionally."
"And you a Christian Scientist? Have you given that up? What next? New Thought or Spiritualism?"
"No, I have not given it up!"
"Strikes me it's kind of a knock on the sisterhood, your coming to see a doctor!"
"No, it isn't. It's just that my faith isn't strong enough yet. So there now! And besides, you ARE kind of consoling, Will. I mean as a man, not just as a doctor. You're so strong and placid."
He sat on the edge of his desk, coatless, his vest swinging open with the thick gold line of his watch-chain across the gap, his hands in his trousers pockets, his big arms bent and easy. As she purred he cocked an interested eye. Maud Dyer was neurotic, religiocentric, faded; her emotions were moist, and her figure was unsystematic—splendid thighs and arms, with thick ankles, and a body that was bulgy in the wrong places. But her milky skin was delicious, her eyes were alive, her chestnut hair shone, and there was a tender slope from her ears to the shadowy place below her jaw.
With unusual solicitude he uttered his stock phrase, "Well, what seems to be the matter, Maud?"
"I've got such a backache all the time. I'm afraid the organic trouble that you treated me for is coming back."
"Any definite signs of it?"
"N-no, but I think you'd better examine me."
"Nope. Don't believe it's necessary, Maud. To be honest, between old friends, I think your troubles are mostly imaginary. I can't really advise you to have an examination."
She flushed, looked out of the window. He was conscious that his voice was not impersonal and even.
She turned quickly. "Will, you always say my troubles are imaginary. Why can't you be scientific? I've been reading an article about these new nerve-specialists, and they claim that lots of 'imaginary' ailments, yes, and lots of real pain, too, are what they call psychoses, and they order a change in a woman's way of living so she can get on a higher plane——"
"Wait! Wait! Whoa-up! Wait now! Don't mix up your Christian Science and your psychology! They're two entirely different fads! You'll be mixing in socialism next! You're as bad as Carrie, with your 'psychoses.' Why, Good Lord, Maud, I could talk about neuroses and psychoses and inhibitions and repressions and complexes just as well as any damn specialist, if I got paid for it, if I was in the city and had the nerve to charge the fees that those fellows do. If a specialist stung you for a hundred-dollar consultation-fee and told you to go to New York to duck Dave's nagging, you'd do it, to save the hundred dollars! But you know me—I'm your neighbor—you see me mowing the lawn—you figure I'm just a plug general practitioner. If I said, 'Go to New York,' Dave and you would laugh your heads off and say, 'Look at the airs Will is putting on. What does he think he is?'
"As a matter of fact, you're right. You have a perfectly well-developed case of repression of sex instinct, and it raises the old Ned with your body. What you need is to get away from Dave and travel, yes, and go to every dog-gone kind of New Thought and Bahai and Swami and Hooptedoodle meeting you can find. I know it, well 's you do. But how can I advise it? Dave would be up here taking my hide off. I'm willing to be family physician and priest and lawyer and plumber and wet-nurse, but I draw the line at making Dave loosen up on money. Too hard a job in weather like this! So, savvy, my dear? Believe it will rain if this heat keeps——"
"But, Will, he'd never give it to me on my say-so. He'd never let me go away. You know how Dave is: so jolly and liberal in society, and oh, just LOVES to match quarters, and such a perfect sport if he loses! But at home he pinches a nickel till the buffalo drips blood. I have to nag him for every single dollar."
"Sure, I know, but it's your fight, honey. Keep after him. He'd simply resent my butting in."
He crossed over and patted her shoulder. Outside the window, beyond the fly-screen that was opaque with dust and cottonwood lint, Main Street was hushed except for the impatient throb of a standing motor car. She took his firm hand, pressed his knuckles against her cheek.
"O Will, Dave is so mean and little and noisy—the shrimp! You're so calm. When he's cutting up at parties I see you standing back and watching him—the way a mastiff watches a terrier."
He fought for professional dignity with, "Dave 's not a bad fellow."
Lingeringly she released his hand. "Will, drop round by the house this evening and scold me. Make me be good and sensible. And I'm so lonely."
"If I did, Dave would be there, and we'd have to play cards. It's his evening off from the store."
"No. The clerk just got called to Corinth—mother sick. Dave will be in the store till midnight. Oh, come on over. There's some lovely beer on the ice, and we can sit and talk and be all cool and lazy. That wouldn't be wrong of us, WOULD it!"
"No, no, course it wouldn't be wrong. But still, oughtn't to——" He saw Carol, slim black and ivory, cool, scornful of intrigue.
"All right. But I'll be so lonely."
Her throat seemed young, above her loose blouse of muslin and machine-lace.
"Tell you, Maud: I'll drop in just for a minute, if I happen to be called down that way."
"If you'd like," demurely. "O Will, I just want comfort. I know you're all married, and my, such a proud papa, and of course now——If I could just sit near you in the dusk, and be quiet, and forget Dave! You WILL come?"
"Sure I will!"
"I'll expect you. I'll be lonely if you don't come! Good-by."
He cursed himself: "Darned fool, what 'd I promise to go for? I'll have to keep my promise, or she'll feel hurt. She's a good, decent, affectionate girl, and Dave's a cheap skate, all right. She's got more life to her than Carol has. All my fault, anyway. Why can't I be more cagey, like Calibree and McGanum and the rest of the doctors? Oh, I am, but Maud's such a demanding idiot. Deliberately bamboozling me into going up there tonight. Matter of principle: ought not to let her get away with it. I won't go. I'll call her up and tell her I won't go. Me, with Carrie at home, finest little woman in the world, and a messy-minded female like Maud Dyer—no, SIR! Though there's no need of hurting her feelings. I may just drop in for a second, to tell her I can't stay. All my fault anyway; ought never to have started in and jollied Maud along in the old days. If it's my fault, I've got no right to punish Maud. I could just drop in for a second and then pretend I had a country call and beat it. Damn nuisance, though, having to fake up excuses. Lord, why can't the women let you alone? Just because once or twice, seven hundred million years ago, you were a poor fool, why can't they let you forget it? Maud's own fault. I'll stay strictly away. Take Carrie to the movies, and forget Maud. . . . But it would be kind of hot at the movies tonight."
He fled from himself. He rammed on his hat, threw his coat over his arm, banged the door, locked it, tramped downstairs. "I won't go!" he said sturdily and, as he said it, he would have given a good deal to know whether he was going.
He was refreshed, as always, by the familiar windows and faces. It restored his soul to have Sam Clark trustingly bellow, "Better come down to the lake this evening and have a swim, doc. Ain't you going to open your cottage at all, this summer? By golly, we miss you." He noted the progress on the new garage. He had triumphed in the laying of every course of bricks; in them he had seen the growth of the town. His pride was ushered back to its throne by the respectfulness of Oley Sundquist: "Evenin', doc! The woman is a lot better. That was swell medicine you gave her." He was calmed by the mechanicalness of the tasks at home: burning the gray web of a tent-worm on the wild cherry tree, sealing with gum a cut in the right front tire of the car, sprinkling the road before the house. The hose was cool to his hands. As the bright arrows fell with a faint puttering sound, a crescent of blackness was formed in the gray dust.
Dave Dyer came along.
"Where going, Dave?"
"Down to the store. Just had supper."
"But Thursday 's your night off."
"Sure, but Pete went home. His mother 's supposed to be sick. Gosh, these clerks you get nowadays—overpay 'em and then they won't work!"
"That's tough, Dave. You'll have to work clear up till twelve, then."
"Yup. Better drop in and have a cigar, if you're downtown.
"Well, I may, at that. May have to go down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So long, Dave."
Kennicott had not yet entered the house. He was conscious that Carol was near him, that she was important, that he was afraid of her disapproval; but he was content to be alone. When he had finished sprinkling he strolled into the house, up to the baby's room, and cried to Hugh, "Story-time for the old man, eh?"
Carol was in a low chair, framed and haloed by the window behind her, an image in pale gold. The baby curled in her lap, his head on her arm, listening with gravity while she sang from Gene Field:
'Tis little Luddy-Dud in the morning— 'Tis little Luddy-Dud at night: And all day long 'Tis the same dear song Of that growing, crowing, knowing little sprite.
Kennicott was enchanted.
"Maud Dyer? I should say not!"
When the current maid bawled up-stairs, "Supper on de table!" Kennicott was upon his back, flapping his hands in the earnest effort to be a seal, thrilled by the strength with which his son kicked him. He slipped his arm about Carol's shoulder; he went down to supper rejoicing that he was cleansed of perilous stuff. While Carol was putting the baby to bed he sat on the front steps. Nat Hicks, tailor and roue, came to sit beside him. Between waves of his hand as he drove off mosquitos, Nat whispered, "Say, doc, you don't feel like imagining you're a bacheldore again, and coming out for a Time tonight, do you?"
"You know this new dressmaker, Mrs. Swiftwaite?—swell dame with blondine hair? Well, she's a pretty good goer. Me and Harry Haydock are going to take her and that fat wren that works in the Bon Ton—nice kid, too—on an auto ride tonight. Maybe we'll drive down to that farm Harry bought. We're taking some beer, and some of the smoothest rye you ever laid tongue to. I'm not predicting none, but if we don't have a picnic, I'll miss my guess."
"Go to it. No skin off my ear, Nat. Think I want to be fifth wheel in the coach?"
"No, but look here: The little Swiftwaite has a friend with her from Winona, dandy looker and some gay bird, and Harry and me thought maybe you'd like to sneak off for one evening."
"Rats now, doc, forget your everlasting dignity. You used to be a pretty good sport yourself, when you were foot-free."
It may have been the fact that Mrs. Swiftwaite's friend remained to Kennicott an ill-told rumor, it may have been Carol's voice, wistful in the pallid evening as she sang to Hugh, it may have been natural and commendable virtue, but certainly he was positive:
"Nope. I'm married for keeps. Don't pretend to be any saint. Like to get out and raise Cain and shoot a few drinks. But a fellow owes a duty——Straight now, won't you feel like a sneak when you come back to the missus after your jamboree?"
"Me? My moral in life is, 'What they don't know won't hurt 'em none.' The way to handle wives, like the fellow says, is to catch 'em early, treat 'em rough, and tell 'em nothing!"
"Well, that's your business, I suppose. But I can't get away with it. Besides that—way I figure it, this illicit love-making is the one game that you always lose at. If you do lose, you feel foolish; and if you win, as soon as you find out how little it is that you've been scheming for, why then you lose worse than ever. Nature stinging us, as usual. But at that, I guess a lot of wives in this burg would be surprised if they knew everything that goes on behind their backs, eh, Nattie?"
"WOULD they! Say, boy! If the good wives knew what some of the boys get away with when they go down to the Cities, why, they'd throw a fit! Sure you won't come, doc? Think of getting all cooled off by a good long drive, and then the lov-e-ly Swiftwaite's white hand mixing you a good stiff highball!"
"Nope. Nope. Sorry. Guess I won't," grumbled Kennicott.
He was glad that Nat showed signs of going. But he was restless. He heard Carol on the stairs. "Come have a seat—have the whole earth!" he shouted jovially.
She did not answer his joviality. She sat on the porch, rocked silently, then sighed, "So many mosquitos out here. You haven't had the screen fixed."
As though he was testing her he said quietly, "Head aching again?"
"Oh, not much, but——This maid is SO slow to learn. I have to show her everything. I had to clean most of the silver myself. And Hugh was so bad all afternoon. He whined so. Poor soul, he was hot, but he did wear me out."
"Uh——You usually want to get out. Like to walk down to the lake shore? (The girl can stay home.) Or go to the movies? Come on, let's go to the movies! Or shall we jump in the car and run out to Sam's, for a swim?"
"If you don't mind, dear, I'm afraid I'm rather tired."
"Why don't you sleep down-stairs tonight, on the couch? Be cooler. I'm going to bring down my mattress. Come on! Keep the old man company. Can't tell—I might get scared of burglars. Lettin' little fellow like me stay all alone by himself!"
"It's sweet of you to think of it, but I like my own room so much. But you go ahead and do it, dear. Why don't you sleep on the couch, instead of putting your mattress on the floor? Well I believe I'll run in and read for just a second—want to look at the last Vogue—and then perhaps I'll go by-by. Unless you want me, dear? Of course if there's anything you really WANT me for?"
"No. No. . . . Matter of fact, I really ought to run down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So you skip in and——May drop in at the drug store. If I'm not home when you get sleepy, don't wait up for me."
He kissed her, rambled off, nodded to Jim Howland, stopped indifferently to speak to Mrs. Terry Gould. But his heart was racing, his stomach was constricted. He walked more slowly. He reached Dave Dyer's yard. He glanced in. On the porch, sheltered by a wild-grape vine, was the figure of a woman in white. He heard the swing-couch creak as she sat up abruptly, peered, then leaned back and pretended to relax.
"Be nice to have some cool beer. Just drop in for a second," he insisted, as he opened the Dyer gate.
Mrs. Bogart was calling upon Carol, protected by Aunt Bessie Smail.
"Have you heard about this awful woman that's supposed to have come here to do dressmaking—a Mrs. Swiftwaite—awful peroxide blonde?" moaned Mrs. Bogart. "They say there's some of the awfullest goings-on at her house—mere boys and old gray-headed rips sneaking in there evenings and drinking licker and every kind of goings-on. We women can't never realize the carnal thoughts in the hearts of men. I tell you, even though I been acquainted with Will Kennicott almost since he was a mere boy, seems like, I wouldn't trust even him! Who knows what designin' women might tempt him! Especially a doctor, with women rushin' in to see him at his office and all! You know I never hint around, but haven't you felt that——"
Carol was furious. "I don't pretend that Will has no faults. But one thing I do know: He's as simple-hearted about what you call 'goings-on' as a babe. And if he ever were such a sad dog as to look at another woman, I certainly hope he'd have spirit enough to do the tempting, and not be coaxed into it, as in your depressing picture!"
"Why, what a wicked thing to say, Carrie!" from Aunt Bessie.
"No, I mean it! Oh, of course, I don't mean it! But——I know every thought in his head so well that he couldn't hide anything even if he wanted to. Now this morning——He was out late, last night; he had to go see Mrs. Perry, who is ailing, and then fix a man's hand, and this morning he was so quiet and thoughtful at breakfast and——" She leaned forward, breathed dramatically to the two perched harpies, "What do you suppose he was thinking of?"
"What?" trembled Mrs. Bogart.
"Whether the grass needs cutting, probably! There, there! Don't mind my naughtiness. I have some fresh-made raisin cookies for you."
CAROL'S liveliest interest was in her walks with the baby. Hugh wanted to know what the box-elder tree said, and what the Ford garage said, and what the big cloud said, and she told him, with a feeling that she was not in the least making up stories, but discovering the souls of things. They had an especial fondness for the hitching-post in front of the mill. It was a brown post, stout and agreeable; the smooth leg of it held the sunlight, while its neck, grooved by hitching-straps, tickled one's fingers. Carol had never been awake to the earth except as a show of changing color and great satisfying masses; she had lived in people and in ideas about having ideas; but Hugh's questions made her attentive to the comedies of sparrows, robins, blue jays, yellowhammers; she regained her pleasure in the arching flight of swallows, and added to it a solicitude about their nests and family squabbles.
She forgot her seasons of boredom. She said to Hugh, "We're two fat disreputable old minstrels roaming round the world," and he echoed her, "Roamin' round—roamin' round."
The high adventure, the secret place to which they both fled joyously, was the house of Miles and Bea and Olaf Bjornstam.
Kennicott steadily disapproved of the Bjornstams. He protested, "What do you want to talk to that crank for?" He hinted that a former "Swede hired girl" was low company for the son of Dr. Will Kennicott. She did not explain. She did not quite understand it herself; did not know that in the Bjornstams she found her friends, her club, her sympathy and her ration of blessed cynicism. For a time the gossip of Juanita Haydock and the Jolly Seventeen had been a refuge from the droning of Aunt Bessie, but the relief had not continued. The young matrons made her nervous. They talked so loud, always so loud. They filled a room with clashing cackle; their jests and gags they repeated nine times over. Unconsciously, she had discarded the Jolly Seventeen, Guy Pollock, Vida, and every one save Mrs. Dr. Westlake and the friends whom she did not clearly know as friends—the Bjornstams.
To Hugh, the Red Swede was the most heroic and powerful person in the world. With unrestrained adoration he trotted after while Miles fed the cows, chased his one pig—an animal of lax and migratory instincts—or dramatically slaughtered a chicken. And to Hugh, Olaf was lord among mortal men, less stalwart than the old monarch, King Miles, but more understanding of the relations and values of things, of small sticks, lone playing-cards, and irretrievably injured hoops.
Carol saw, though she did not admit, that Olaf was not only more beautiful than her own dark child, but more gracious. Olaf was a Norse chieftain: straight, sunny-haired, large-limbed, resplendently amiable to his subjects. Hugh was a vulgarian; a bustling business man. It was Hugh that bounced and said "Let's play"; Olaf that opened luminous blue eyes and agreed "All right," in condescending gentleness. If Hugh batted him—and Hugh did bat him—Olaf was unafraid but shocked. In magnificent solitude he marched toward the house, while Hugh bewailed his sin and the overclouding of august favor.
The two friends played with an imperial chariot which Miles had made out of a starch-box and four red spools; together they stuck switches into a mouse-hole, with vast satisfaction though entirely without known results.
Bea, the chubby and humming Bea, impartially gave cookies and scoldings to both children, and if Carol refused a cup of coffee and a wafer of buttered knackebrod, she was desolated.
Miles had done well with his dairy. He had six cows, two hundred chickens, a cream separator, a Ford truck. In the spring he had built a two-room addition to his shack. That illustrious building was to Hugh a carnival. Uncle Miles did the most spectacular, unexpected things: ran up the ladder; stood on the ridge-pole, waving a hammer and singing something about "To arms, my citizens"; nailed shingles faster than Aunt Bessie could iron handkerchiefs; and lifted a two-by-six with Hugh riding on one end and Olaf on the other. Uncle Miles's most ecstatic trick was to make figures not on paper but right on a new pine board, with the broadest softest pencil in the world. There was a thing worth seeing!
The tools! In his office Father had tools fascinating in their shininess and curious shapes, but they were sharp, they were something called sterized, and they distinctly were not for boys to touch. In fact it was a good dodge to volunteer "I must not touch," when you looked at the tools on the glass shelves in Father's office. But Uncle Miles, who was a person altogether superior to Father, let you handle all his kit except the saws. There was a hammer with a silver head; there was a metal thing like a big L; there was a magic instrument, very precious, made out of costly red wood and gold, with a tube which contained a drop—no, it wasn't a drop, it was a nothing, which lived in the water, but the nothing LOOKED like a drop, and it ran in a frightened way up and down the tube, no matter how cautiously you tilted the magic instrument. And there were nails, very different and clever—big valiant spikes, middle-sized ones which were not very interesting, and shingle-nails much jollier than the fussed-up fairies in the yellow book.
While he had worked on the addition Miles had talked frankly to Carol. He admitted now that so long as he stayed in Gopher Prairie he would remain a pariah. Bea's Lutheran friends were as much offended by his agnostic gibes as the merchants by his radicalism. "And I can't seem to keep my mouth shut. I think I'm being a baa-lamb, and not springing any theories wilder than 'c-a-t spells cat,' but when folks have gone, I re'lize I've been stepping on their pet religious corns. Oh, the mill foreman keeps dropping in, and that Danish shoemaker, and one fellow from Elder's factory, and a few Svenskas, but you know Bea: big good-hearted wench like her wants a lot of folks around—likes to fuss over 'em—never satisfied unless she tiring herself out making coffee for somebody.
"Once she kidnapped me and drug me to the Methodist Church. I goes in, pious as Widow Bogart, and sits still and never cracks a smile while the preacher is favoring us with his misinformation on evolution. But afterwards, when the old stalwarts were pumphandling everybody at the door and calling 'em 'Brother' and 'Sister,' they let me sail right by with nary a clinch. They figure I'm the town badman. Always will be, I guess. It'll have to be Olaf who goes on. 'And sometimes——Blamed if I don't feel like coming out and saying, 'I've been conservative. Nothing to it. Now I'm going to start something in these rotten one-horse lumber-camps west of town.' But Bea's got me hypnotized. Lord, Mrs. Kennicott, do you re'lize what a jolly, square, faithful woman she is? And I love Olaf——Oh well, I won't go and get sentimental on you.
"Course I've had thoughts of pulling up stakes and going West. Maybe if they didn't know it beforehand, they wouldn't find out I'd ever been guilty of trying to think for myself. But—oh, I've worked hard, and built up this dairy business, and I hate to start all over again, and move Bea and the kid into another one-room shack. That's how they get us! Encourage us to be thrifty and own our own houses, and then, by golly, they've got us; they know we won't dare risk everything by committing lez—what is it? lez majesty?—I mean they know we won't be hinting around that if we had a co-operative bank, we could get along without Stowbody. Well——As long as I can sit and play pinochle with Bea, and tell whoppers to Olaf about his daddy's adventures in the woods, and how he snared a wapaloosie and knew Paul Bunyan, why, I don't mind being a bum. It's just for them that I mind. Say! Say! Don't whisper a word to Bea, but when I get this addition done, I'm going to buy her a phonograph!"
While she was busy with the activities her work-hungry muscles found—washing, ironing, mending, baking, dusting, preserving, plucking a chicken, painting the sink; tasks which, because she was Miles's full partner, were exciting and creative—Bea listened to the phonograph records with rapture like that of cattle in a warm stable. The addition gave her a kitchen with a bedroom above. The original one-room shack was now a living-room, with the phonograph, a genuine leather-upholstered golden-oak rocker, and a picture of Governor John Johnson.
In late July Carol went to the Bjornstams' desirous of a chance to express her opinion of Beavers and Calibrees and Joralemons. She found Olaf abed, restless from a slight fever, and Bea flushed and dizzy but trying to keep up her work. She lured Miles aside and worried:
"They don't look at all well. What's the matter?"
"Their stomachs are out of whack. I wanted to call in Doc Kennicott, but Bea thinks the doc doesn't like us—she thinks maybe he's sore because you come down here. But I'm getting worried."
"I'm going to call the doctor at once."
She yearned over Olaf. His lambent eyes were stupid, he moaned, he rubbed his forehead.
"Have they been eating something that's been bad for them?" she fluttered to Miles.
"Might be bum water. I'll tell you: We used to get our water at Oscar Eklund's place, over across the street, but Oscar kept dinging at me, and hinting I was a tightwad not to dig a well of my own. One time he said, 'Sure, you socialists are great on divvying up other folks' money—and water!' I knew if he kept it up there'd be a fuss, and I ain't safe to have around, once a fuss starts; I'm likely to forget myself and let loose with a punch in the snoot. I offered to pay Oscar but he refused—he'd rather have the chance to kid me. So I starts getting water down at Mrs. Fageros's, in the hollow there, and I don't believe it's real good. Figuring to dig my own well this fall."
One scarlet word was before Carol's eyes while she listened. She fled to Kennicott's office. He gravely heard her out; nodded, said, "Be right over."
He examined Bea and Olaf. He shook his head. "Yes. Looks to me like typhoid."
"Golly, I've seen typhoid in lumber-camps," groaned Miles, all the strength dripping out of him. "Have they got it very bad?"
"Oh, we'll take good care of them," said Kennicott, and for the first time in their acquaintance he smiled on Miles and clapped his shoulder.
"Won't you need a nurse?" demanded Carol.
"Why——" To Miles, Kennicott hinted, "Couldn't you get Bea's cousin, Tina?"
"She's down at the old folks', in the country."
"Then let me do it!" Carol insisted. "They need some one to cook for them, and isn't it good to give them sponge baths, in typhoid?"
"Yes. All right." Kennicott was automatic; he was the official, the physician. "I guess probably it would be hard to get a nurse here in town just now. Mrs. Stiver is busy with an obstetrical case, and that town nurse of yours is off on vacation, ain't she? All right, Bjornstam can spell you at night."
All week, from eight each morning till midnight, Carol fed them, bathed them, smoothed sheets, took temperatures. Miles refused to let her cook. Terrified, pallid, noiseless in stocking feet, he did the kitchen work and the sweeping, his big red hands awkwardly careful. Kennicott came in three times a day, unchangingly tender and hopeful in the sick-room, evenly polite to Miles.
Carol understood how great was her love for her friends. It bore her through; it made her arm steady and tireless to bathe them. What exhausted her was the sight of Bea and Olaf turned into flaccid invalids, uncomfortably flushed after taking food, begging for the healing of sleep at night.
During the second week Olaf's powerful legs were flabby. Spots of a viciously delicate pink came out on his chest and back. His cheeks sank. He looked frightened. His tongue was brown and revolting. His confident voice dwindled to a bewildered murmur, ceaseless and racking.
Bea had stayed on her feet too long at the beginning. The moment Kennicott had ordered her to bed she had begun to collapse. One early evening she startled them by screaming, in an intense abdominal pain, and within half an hour she was in a delirium. Till dawn Carol was with her, and not all of Bea's groping through the blackness of half-delirious pain was so pitiful to Carol as the way in which Miles silently peered into the room from the top of the narrow stairs. Carol slept three hours next morning, and ran back. Bea was altogether delirious but she muttered nothing save, "Olaf—ve have such a good time——"
At ten, while Carol was preparing an ice-bag in the kitchen, Miles answered a knock. At the front door she saw Vida Sherwin, Maud Dyer, and Mrs. Zitterel, wife of the Baptist pastor. They were carrying grapes, and women's-magazines, magazines with high-colored pictures and optimistic fiction.
"We just heard your wife was sick. We've come to see if there isn't something we can do," chirruped Vida.
Miles looked steadily at the three women. "You're too late. You can't do nothing now. Bea's always kind of hoped that you folks would come see her. She wanted to have a chance and be friends. She used to sit waiting for somebody to knock. I've seen her sitting here, waiting. Now——Oh, you ain't worth God-damning." He shut the door.
All day Carol watched Olaf's strength oozing. He was emaciated. His ribs were grim clear lines, his skin was clammy, his pulse was feeble but terrifyingly rapid. It beat—beat—beat in a drum-roll of death. Late that afternoon he sobbed, and died.
Bea did not know it. She was delirious. Next morning, when she went, she did not know that Olaf would no longer swing his lath sword on the door-step, no longer rule his subjects of the cattle-yard; that Miles's son would not go East to college.
Miles, Carol, Kennicott were silent. They washed the bodies together, their eyes veiled.
"Go home now and sleep. You're pretty tired. I can't ever pay you back for what you done," Miles whispered to Carol.
"Yes. But I'll be back here tomorrow. Go with you to the funeral," she said laboriously.
When the time for the funeral came, Carol was in bed, collapsed. She assumed that neighbors would go. They had not told her that word of Miles's rebuff to Vida had spread through town, a cyclonic fury.
It was only by chance that, leaning on her elbow in bed, she glanced through the window and saw the funeral of Bea and Olaf. There was no music, no carriages. There was only Miles Bjornstam, in his black wedding-suit, walking quite alone, head down, behind the shabby hearse that bore the bodies of his wife and baby.
An hour after, Hugh came into her room crying, and when she said as cheerily as she could, "What is it, dear?" he besought, "Mummy, I want to go play with Olaf."
That afternoon Juanita Haydock dropped in to brighten Carol. She said, "Too bad about this Bea that was your hired girl. But I don't waste any sympathy on that man of hers. Everybody says he drank too much, and treated his family awful, and that's how they got sick."
A LETTER from Raymie Wutherspoon, in France, said that he had been sent to the front, been slightly wounded, been made a captain. From Vida's pride Carol sought to draw a stimulant to rouse her from depression.
Miles had sold his dairy. He had several thousand dollars. To Carol he said good-by with a mumbled word, a harsh hand-shake, "Going to buy a farm in northern Alberta—far off from folks as I can get." He turned sharply away, but he did not walk with his former spring. His shoulders seemed old.
It was said that before he went he cursed the town. There was talk of arresting him, of riding him on a rail. It was rumored that at the station old Champ Perry rebuked him, "You better not come back here. We've got respect for your dead, but we haven't got any for a blasphemer and a traitor that won't do anything for his country and only bought one Liberty Bond."
Some of the people who had been at the station declared that Miles made some dreadful seditious retort: something about loving German workmen more than American bankers; but others asserted that he couldn't find one word with which to answer the veteran; that he merely sneaked up on the platform of the train. He must have felt guilty, everybody agreed, for as the train left town, a farmer saw him standing in the vestibule and looking out.
His house—with the addition which he had built four months ago—was very near the track on which his train passed.
When Carol went there, for the last time, she found Olaf's chariot with its red spool wheels standing in the sunny corner beside the stable. She wondered if a quick eye could have noticed it from a train.
That day and that week she went reluctantly to Red Cross work; she stitched and packed silently, while Vida read the war bulletins. And she said nothing at all when Kennicott commented, "From what Champ says, I guess Bjornstam was a bad egg, after all. In spite of Bea, don't know but what the citizens' committee ought to have forced him to be patriotic—let on like they could send him to jail if he didn't volunteer and come through for bonds and the Y. M. C. A. They've worked that stunt fine with all these German farmers."
She found no inspiration but she did find a dependable kindness in Mrs. Westlake, and at last she yielded to the old woman's receptivity and had relief in sobbing the story of Bea.
Guy Pollock she often met on the street, but he was merely a pleasant voice which said things about Charles Lamb and sunsets.
Her most positive experience was the revelation of Mrs. Flickerbaugh, the tall, thin, twitchy wife of the attorney. Carol encountered her at the drug store.
"Walking?" snapped Mrs. Flickerbaugh.
"Humph. Guess you're the only female in this town that retains the use of her legs. Come home and have a cup o' tea with me."
Because she had nothing else to do, Carol went. But she was uncomfortable in the presence of the amused stares which Mrs. Flickerbaugh's raiment drew. Today, in reeking early August, she wore a man's cap, a skinny fur like a dead cat, a necklace of imitation pearls, a scabrous satin blouse, and a thick cloth skirt hiked up in front.
"Come in. Sit down. Stick the baby in that rocker. Hope you don't mind the house looking like a rat's nest. You don't like this town. Neither do I," said Mrs. Flickerbaugh.
"Course you don't!"
"Well then, I don't! But I'm sure that some day I'll find some solution. Probably I'm a hexagonal peg. Solution: find the hexagonal hole." Carol was very brisk.
"How do you know you ever will find it?"
"There's Mrs. Westlake. She's naturally a big-city woman—she ought to have a lovely old house in Philadelphia or Boston—but she escapes by being absorbed in reading."
"You be satisfied to never do anything but read?"
"No, but Heavens, one can't go on hating a town always!"
"Why not? I can! I've hated it for thirty-two years. I'll die here—and I'll hate it till I die. I ought to have been a business woman. I had a good deal of talent for tending to figures. All gone now. Some folks think I'm crazy. Guess I am. Sit and grouch. Go to church and sing hymns. Folks think I'm religious. Tut! Trying to forget washing and ironing and mending socks. Want an office of my own, and sell things. Julius never hear of it. Too late."
Carol sat on the gritty couch, and sank into fear. Could this drabness of life keep up forever, then? Would she some day so despise herself and her neighbors that she too would walk Main Street an old skinny eccentric woman in a mangy cat's-fur? As she crept home she felt that the trap had finally closed. She went into the house, a frail small woman, still winsome but hopeless of eye as she staggered with the weight of the drowsy boy in her arms.
She sat alone on the porch, that evening. It seemed that Kennicott had to make a professional call on Mrs. Dave Dyer.
Under the stilly boughs and the black gauze of dusk the street was meshed in silence. There was but the hum of motor tires crunching the road, the creak of a rocker on the Howlands' porch, the slap of a hand attacking a mosquito, a heat-weary conversation starting and dying, the precise rhythm of crickets, the thud of moths against the screen—sounds that were a distilled silence. It was a street beyond the end of the world, beyond the boundaries of hope. Though she should sit here forever, no brave procession, no one who was interesting, would be coming by. It was tediousness made tangible, a street builded of lassitude and of futility.
Myrtle Cass appeared, with Cy Bogart. She giggled and bounced when Cy tickled her ear in village love. They strolled with the half-dancing gait of lovers, kicking their feet out sideways or shuffling a dragging jig, and the concrete walk sounded to the broken two-four rhythm. Their voices had a dusky turbulence. Suddenly, to the woman rocking on the porch of the doctor's house, the night came alive, and she felt that everywhere in the darkness panted an ardent quest which she was missing as she sank back to wait for——There must be something.
IT WAS at a supper of the Jolly Seventeen in August that Carol heard of "Elizabeth," from Mrs. Dave Dyer.
Carol was fond of Maud Dyer, because she had been particularly agreeable lately; had obviously repented of the nervous distaste which she had once shown. Maud patted her hand when they met, and asked about Hugh.
Kennicott said that he was "kind of sorry for the girl, some ways; she's too darn emotional, but still, Dave is sort of mean to her." He was polite to poor Maud when they all went down to the cottages for a swim. Carol was proud of that sympathy in him, and now she took pains to sit with their new friend.
Mrs. Dyer was bubbling, "Oh, have you folks heard about this young fellow that's just come to town that the boys call 'Elizabeth'? He's working in Nat Hicks's tailor shop. I bet he doesn't make eighteen a week, but my! isn't he the perfect lady though! He talks so refined, and oh, the lugs he puts on—belted coat, and pique collar with a gold pin, and socks to match his necktie, and honest—you won't believe this, but I got it straight—this fellow, you know he's staying at Mrs. Gurrey's punk old boarding-house, and they say he asked Mrs. Gurrey if he ought to put on a dress-suit for supper! Imagine! Can you beat that? And him nothing but a Swede tailor—Erik Valborg his name is. But he used to be in a tailor shop in Minneapolis (they do say he's a smart needle-pusher, at that) and he tries to let on that he's a regular city fellow. They say he tries to make people think he's a poet—carries books around and pretends to read 'em. Myrtle Cass says she met him at a dance, and he was mooning around all over the place, and he asked her did she like flowers and poetry and music and everything; he spieled like he was a regular United States Senator; and Myrtle—she's a devil, that girl, ha! ha!—she kidded him along, and got him going, and honest, what d'you think he said? He said he didn't find any intellectual companionship in this town. Can you BEAT it? Imagine! And him a Swede tailor! My! And they say he's the most awful mollycoddle—looks just like a girl. The boys call him 'Elizabeth,' and they stop him and ask about the books he lets on to have read, and he goes and tells them, and they take it all in and jolly him terribly, and he never gets onto the fact they're kidding him. Oh, I think it's just TOO funny!"
The Jolly Seventeen laughed, and Carol laughed with them. Mrs. Jack Elder added that this Erik Valborg had confided to Mrs. Gurrey that he would "love to design clothes for women." Imagine! Mrs. Harvey Dillon had had a glimpse of him, but honestly, she'd thought he was awfully handsome. This was instantly controverted by Mrs. B. J. Gougerling, wife of the banker. Mrs. Gougerling had had, she reported, a good look at this Valborg fellow. She and B. J. had been motoring, and passed "Elizabeth" out by McGruder's Bridge. He was wearing the awfullest clothes, with the waist pinched in like a girl's. He was sitting on a rock doing nothing, but when he heard the Gougerling car coming he snatched a book out of his pocket, and as they went by he pretended to be reading it, to show off. And he wasn't really good-looking—just kind of soft, as B. J. had pointed out.
When the husbands came they joined in the expose. "My name is Elizabeth. I'm the celebrated musical tailor. The skirts fall for me by the thou. Do I get some more veal loaf?" merrily shrieked Dave Dyer. He had some admirable stories about the tricks the town youngsters had played on Valborg. They had dropped a decaying perch into his pocket. They had pinned on his back a sign, "I'm the prize boob, kick me."
Glad of any laughter, Carol joined the frolic, and surprised them by crying, "Dave, I do think you're the dearest thing since you got your hair cut!" That was an excellent sally. Everybody applauded. Kennicott looked proud.
She decided that sometime she really must go out of her way to pass Hicks's shop and see this freak.
She was at Sunday morning service at the Baptist Church, in a solemn row with her husband, Hugh, Uncle Whittier, Aunt Bessie.
Despite Aunt Bessie's nagging the Kennicotts rarely attended church. The doctor asserted, "Sure, religion is a fine influence—got to have it to keep the lower classes in order—fact, it's the only thing that appeals to a lot of those fellows and makes 'em respect the rights of property. And I guess this theology is O.K.; lot of wise old coots figured it all out, and they knew more about it than we do." He believed in the Christian religion, and never thought about it, he believed in the church, and seldom went near it; he was shocked by Carol's lack of faith, and wasn't quite sure what was the nature of the faith that she lacked.
Carol herself was an uneasy and dodging agnostic.
When she ventured to Sunday School and heard the teachers droning that the genealogy of Shamsherai was a valuable ethical problem for children to think about; when she experimented with Wednesday prayer-meeting and listened to store-keeping elders giving their unvarying weekly testimony in primitive erotic symbols and such gory Chaldean phrases as "washed in the blood of the lamb" and "a vengeful God"; when Mrs. Bogart boasted that through his boyhood she had made Cy confess nightly upon the basis of the Ten Commandments; then Carol was dismayed to find the Christian religion, in America, in the twentieth century, as abnormal as Zoroastrianism—without the splendor. But when she went to church suppers and felt the friendliness, saw the gaiety with which the sisters served cold ham and scalloped potatoes; when Mrs. Champ Perry cried to her, on an afternoon call, "My dear, if you just knew how happy it makes you to come into abiding grace," then Carol found the humanness behind the sanguinary and alien theology. Always she perceived that the churches—Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, all of them—which had seemed so unimportant to the judge's home in her childhood, so isolated from the city struggle in St. Paul, were still, in Gopher Prairie, the strongest of the forces compelling respectability.
This August Sunday she had been tempted by the announcement that the Reverend Edmund Zitterel would preach on the topic "America, Face Your Problems!" With the great war, workmen in every nation showing a desire to control industries, Russia hinting a leftward revolution against Kerensky, woman suffrage coming, there seemed to be plenty of problems for the Reverend Mr. Zitterel to call on America to face. Carol gathered her family and trotted off behind Uncle Whittier.
The congregation faced the heat with informality. Men with highly plastered hair, so painfully shaved that their faces looked sore, removed their coats, sighed, and unbuttoned two buttons of their uncreased Sunday vests. Large-bosomed, white-bloused, hot-necked, spectacled matrons—the Mothers in Israel, pioneers and friends of Mrs. Champ Perry—waved their palm-leaf fans in a steady rhythm. Abashed boys slunk into the rear pews and giggled, while milky little girls, up front with their mothers, self-consciously kept from turning around.
The church was half barn and half Gopher Prairie parlor. The streaky brown wallpaper was broken in its dismal sweep only by framed texts, "Come unto Me" and "The Lord is My Shepherd," by a list of hymns, and by a crimson and green diagram, staggeringly drawn upon hemp-colored paper, indicating the alarming ease with which a young man may descend from Palaces of Pleasure and the House of Pride to Eternal Damnation. But the varnished oak pews and the new red carpet and the three large chairs on the platform, behind the bare reading-stand, were all of a rocking-chair comfort.
Carol was civic and neighborly and commendable today. She beamed and bowed. She trolled out with the others the hymn:
How pleasant 'tis on Sabbath morn To gather in the church And there I'll have no carnal thoughts, Nor sin shall me besmirch.
With a rustle of starched linen skirts and stiff shirt-fronts, the congregation sat down, and gave heed to the Reverend Mr. Zitterel. The priest was a thin, swart, intense young man with a bang. He wore a black sack suit and a lilac tie. He smote the enormous Bible on the reading-stand, vociferated, "Come, let us reason together," delivered a prayer informing Almighty God of the news of the past week, and began to reason.
It proved that the only problems which America had to face were Mormonism and Prohibition:
"Don't let any of these self-conceited fellows that are always trying to stir up trouble deceive you with the belief that there's anything to all these smart-aleck movements to let the unions and the Farmers' Nonpartisan League kill all our initiative and enterprise by fixing wages and prices. There isn't any movement that amounts to a whoop without it's got a moral background. And let me tell you that while folks are fussing about what they call 'economics' and 'socialism' and 'science' and a lot of things that are nothing in the world but a disguise for atheism, the Old Satan is busy spreading his secret net and tentacles out there in Utah, under his guise of Joe Smith or Brigham Young or whoever their leaders happen to be today, it doesn't make any difference, and they're making game of the Old Bible that has led this American people through its manifold trials and tribulations to its firm position as the fulfilment of the prophecies and the recognized leader of all nations. 'Sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies the footstool of my feet,' said the Lord of Hosts, Acts II, the thirty-fourth verse—and let me tell you right now, you got to get up a good deal earlier in the morning than you get up even when you're going fishing, if you want to be smarter than the Lord, who has shown us the straight and narrow way, and he that passeth therefrom is in eternal peril and, to return to this vital and terrible subject of Mormonism—and as I say, it is terrible to realize how little attention is given to this evil right here in our midst and on our very doorstep, as it were—it's a shame and a disgrace that the Congress of these United States spends all its time talking about inconsequential financial matters that ought to be left to the Treasury Department, as I understand it, instead of arising in their might and passing a law that any one admitting he is a Mormon shall simply be deported and as it were kicked out of this free country in which we haven't got any room for polygamy and the tyrannies of Satan.
"And, to digress for a moment, especially as there are more of them in this state than there are Mormons, though you never can tell what will happen with this vain generation of young girls, that think more about wearing silk stockings than about minding their mothers and learning to bake a good loaf of bread, and many of them listening to these sneaking Mormon missionaries—and I actually heard one of them talking right out on a street-corner in Duluth, a few years ago, and the officers of the law not protesting—but still, as they are a smaller but more immediate problem, let me stop for just a moment to pay my respects to these Seventh-Day Adventists. Not that they are immoral, I don't mean, but when a body of men go on insisting that Saturday is the Sabbath, after Christ himself has clearly indicated the new dispensation, then I think the legislature ought to step in——"
At this point Carol awoke.
She got through three more minutes by studying the face of a girl in the pew across: a sensitive unhappy girl whose longing poured out with intimidating self-revelation as she worshiped Mr. Zitterel. Carol wondered who the girl was. She had seen her at church suppers. She considered how many of the three thousand people in the town she did not know; to how many of them the Thanatopsis and the Jolly Seventeen were icy social peaks; how many of them might be toiling through boredom thicker than her own—with greater courage.
She examined her nails. She read two hymns. She got some satisfaction out of rubbing an itching knuckle. She pillowed on her shoulder the head of the baby who, after killing time in the same manner as his mother, was so fortunate as to fall asleep. She read the introduction, title-page, and acknowledgment of copyrights, in the hymnal. She tried to evolve a philosophy which would explain why Kennicott could never tie his scarf so that it would reach the top of the gap in his turn-down collar.
There were no other diversions to be found in the pew. She glanced back at the congregation. She thought that it would be amiable to bow to Mrs. Champ Perry.
Her slow turning head stopped, galvanized.
Across the aisle, two rows back, was a strange young man who shone among the cud-chewing citizens like a visitant from the sun-amber curls, low forehead, fine nose, chin smooth but not raw from Sabbath shaving. His lips startled her. The lips of men in Gopher Prairie are flat in the face, straight and grudging. The stranger's mouth was arched, the upper lip short. He wore a brown jersey coat, a delft-blue bow, a white silk shirt, white flannel trousers. He suggested the ocean beach, a tennis court, anything but the sun-blistered utility of Main Street.
A visitor from Minneapolis, here for business? No. He wasn't a business man. He was a poet. Keats was in his face, and Shelley, and Arthur Upson, whom she had once seen in Minneapolis. He was at once too sensitive and too sophisticated to touch business as she knew it in Gopher Prairie.
With restrained amusement he was analyzing the noisy Mr. Zitterel. Carol was ashamed to have this spy from the Great World hear the pastor's maundering. She felt responsible for the town. She resented his gaping at their private rites. She flushed, turned away. But she continued to feel his presence.
How could she meet him? She must! For an hour of talk. He was all that she was hungry for. She could not let him get away without a word—and she would have to. She pictured, and ridiculed, herself as walking up to him and remarking, "I am sick with the Village Virus. Will you please tell me what people are saying and playing in New York?" She pictured, and groaned over, the expression of Kennicott if she should say, "Why wouldn't it be reasonable for you, my soul, to ask that complete stranger in the brown jersey coat to come to supper tonight?"
She brooded, not looking back. She warned herself that she was probably exaggerating; that no young man could have all these exalted qualities. Wasn't he too obviously smart, too glossy-new? Like a movie actor. Probably he was a traveling salesman who sang tenor and fancied himself in imitations of Newport clothes and spoke of "the swellest business proposition that ever came down the pike." In a panic she peered at him. No! This was no hustling salesman, this boy with the curving Grecian lips and the serious eyes.
She rose after the service, carefully taking Kennicott's arm and smiling at him in a mute assertion that she was devoted to him no matter what happened. She followed the Mystery's soft brown jersey shoulders out of the church.
Fatty Hicks, the shrill and puffy son of Nat, flapped his hand at the beautiful stranger and jeered, "How's the kid? All dolled up like a plush horse today, ain't we!"
Carol was exceeding sick. Her herald from the outside was Erik Valborg, "Elizabeth." Apprentice tailor! Gasoline and hot goose! Mending dirty jackets! Respectfully holding a tape-measure about a paunch!
And yet, she insisted, this boy was also himself.
They had Sunday dinner with the Smails, in a dining-room which centered about a fruit and flower piece and a crayon-enlargement of Uncle Whittier. Carol did not heed Aunt Bessie's fussing in regard to Mrs. Robert B. Schminke's bead necklace and Whittier's error in putting on the striped pants, day like this. She did not taste the shreds of roast pork. She said vacuously:
"Uh—Will, I wonder if that young man in the white flannel trousers, at church this morning, was this Valborg person that they're all talking about?"
"Yump. That's him. Wasn't that the darndest get-up he had on!" Kennicott scratched at a white smear on his hard gray sleeve.
"It wasn't so bad. I wonder where he comes from? He seems to have lived in cities a good deal. Is he from the East?"
"The East? Him? Why, he comes from a farm right up north here, just this side of Jefferson. I know his father slightly—Adolph Valborg—typical cranky old Swede farmer."
"Oh, really?" blandly.
"Believe he has lived in Minneapolis for quite some time, though. Learned his trade there. And I will say he's bright, some ways. Reads a lot. Pollock says he takes more books out of the library than anybody else in town. Huh! He's kind of like you in that!"
The Smails and Kennicott laughed very much at this sly jest. Uncle Whittier seized the conversation. "That fellow that's working for Hicks? Milksop, that's what he is. Makes me tired to see a young fellow that ought to be in the war, or anyway out in the fields earning his living honest, like I done when I was young, doing a woman's work and then come out and dress up like a show-actor! Why, when I was his age——"
Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible.
Kennicott said judiciously, "Oh, I don't want to be unjust to him. I believe he took his physical examination for military service. Got varicose veins—not bad, but enough to disqualify him. Though I will say he doesn't look like a fellow that would be so awful darn crazy to poke his bayonet into a Hun's guts."
"Well, he don't. Looks soft to me. And they say he told Del Snafflin, when he was getting a hair-cut on Saturday, that he wished he could play the piano."
"Isn't it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town like this," said Carol innocently.
Kennicott was suspicious, but Aunt Bessie, serving the floating island pudding, agreed, "Yes, it is wonderful. Folks can get away with all sorts of meannesses and sins in these terrible cities, but they can't here. I was noticing this tailor fellow this morning, and when Mrs. Riggs offered to share her hymn-book with him, he shook his head, and all the while we was singing he just stood there like a bump on a log and never opened his mouth. Everybody says he's got an idea that he's got so much better manners and all than what the rest of us have, but if that's what he calls good manners, I want to know!"
Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a tablecloth might be gorgeous.
"Fool! Neurotic impossibilist! Telling yourself orchard fairy-tales—at thirty. . . . Dear Lord, am I really THIRTY? That boy can't be more than twenty-five."
She went calling.
Boarding with the Widow Bogart was Fern Mullins, a girl of twenty-two who was to be teacher of English, French, and gymnastics in the high school this coming session. Fern Mullins had come to town early, for the six-weeks normal course for country teachers. Carol had noticed her on the street, had heard almost as much about her as about Erik Valborg. She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. "She looks like an absolute totty," said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the Juanita Haydocks, enviously.
That Sunday evening, sitting in baggy canvas lawn-chairs beside the house, the Kennicotts saw Fern laughing with Cy Bogart who, though still a junior in high school, was now a lump of a man, only two or three years younger than Fern. Cy had to go downtown for weighty matters connected with the pool-parlor. Fern drooped on the Bogart porch, her chin in her hands.
"She looks lonely," said Kennicott.
"She does, poor soul. I believe I'll go over and speak to her. I was introduced to her at Dave's but I haven't called." Carol was slipping across the lawn, a white figure in the dimness, faintly brushing the dewy grass. She was thinking of Erik and of the fact that her feet were wet, and she was casual in her greeting: "Hello! The doctor and I wondered if you were lonely."
Resentfully, "I am!"
Carol concentrated on her. "My dear, you sound so! I know how it is. I used to be tired when I was on the job—I was a librarian. What was your college? I was Blodgett."
More interestedly, "I went to the U." Fern meant the University of Minnesota.
"You must have had a splendid time. Blodgett was a bit dull."
"Where were you a librarian?" challengingly.
"St. Paul—the main library."
"Honest? Oh dear, I wish I was back in the Cities! This is my first year of teaching, and I'm scared stiff. I did have the best time in college: dramatics and basket-ball and fussing and dancing—I'm simply crazy about dancing. And here, except when I have the kids in gymnasium class, or when I'm chaperoning the basket-ball team on a trip out-of-town, I won't dare to move above a whisper. I guess they don't care much if you put any pep into teaching or not, as long as you look like a Good Influence out of school-hours—and that means never doing anything you want to. This normal course is bad enough, but the regular school will be FIERCE! If it wasn't too late to get a job in the Cities, I swear I'd resign here. I bet I won't dare to go to a single dance all winter. If I cut loose and danced the way I like to, they'd think I was a perfect hellion—poor harmless me! Oh, I oughtn't to be talking like this. Fern, you never could be cagey!"
"Don't be frightened, my dear! . . . Doesn't that sound atrociously old and kind! I'm talking to you the way Mrs. Westlake talks to me! That's having a husband and a kitchen range, I suppose. But I feel young, and I want to dance like a—like a hellion?—too. So I sympathize."
Fern made a sound of gratitude. Carol inquired, "What experience did you have with college dramatics? I tried to start a kind of Little Theater here. It was dreadful. I must tell you about it——"
Two hours later, when Kennicott came over to greet Fern and to yawn, "Look here, Carrie, don't you suppose you better be thinking about turning in? I've got a hard day tomorrow," the two were talking so intimately that they constantly interrupted each other.
As she went respectably home, convoyed by a husband, and decorously holding up her skirts, Carol rejoiced, "Everything has changed! I have two friends, Fern and——But who's the other? That's queer; I thought there was——Oh, how absurd!"
She often passed Erik Valborg on the street; the brown jersey coat became unremarkable. When she was driving with Kennicott, in early evening, she saw him on the lake shore, reading a thin book which might easily have been poetry. She noted that he was the only person in the motorized town who still took long walks.
She told herself that she was the daughter of a judge, the wife of a doctor, and that she did not care to know a capering tailor. She told herself that she was not responsive to men . . . not even to Percy Bresnahan. She told herself that a woman of thirty who heeded a boy of twenty-five was ridiculous. And on Friday, when she had convinced herself that the errand was necessary, she went to Nat Hicks's shop, bearing the not very romantic burden of a pair of her husband's trousers. Hicks was in the back room. She faced the Greek god who, in a somewhat ungodlike way, was stitching a coat on a scaley sewing-machine, in a room of smutted plaster walls.
She saw that his hands were not in keeping with a Hellenic face. They were thick, roughened with needle and hot iron and plow-handle. Even in the shop he persisted in his finery. He wore a silk shirt, a topaz scarf, thin tan shoes.
This she absorbed while she was saying curtly, "Can I get these pressed, please?"
Not rising from the sewing-machine he stuck out his hand, mumbled, "When do you want them?"
The adventure was over. She was marching out.
"What name?" he called after her.
He had risen and, despite the farcicality of Dr. Will Kennicott's bulgy trousers draped over his arm, he had the grace of a cat.
"Kennicott. Oh! Oh say, you're Mrs. Dr. Kennicott then, aren't you?"
"Yes." She stood at the door. Now that she had carried out her preposterous impulse to see what he was like, she was cold, she was as ready to detect familiarities as the virtuous Miss Ella Stowbody.
"I've heard about you. Myrtle Cass was saying you got up a dramatic club and gave a dandy play. I've always wished I had a chance to belong to a Little Theater, and give some European plays, or whimsical like Barrie, or a pageant."
He pronounced it "pagent"; he rhymed "pag" with "rag."
Carol nodded in the manner of a lady being kind to a tradesman, and one of her selves sneered, "Our Erik is indeed a lost John Keats."
He was appealing, "Do you suppose it would be possible to get up another dramatic club this coming fall?"
"Well, it might be worth thinking of." She came out of her several conflicting poses, and said sincerely, "There's a new teacher, Miss Mullins, who might have some talent. That would make three of us for a nucleus. If we could scrape up half a dozen we might give a real play with a small cast. Have you had any experience?"
"Just a bum club that some of us got up in Minneapolis when I was working there. We had one good man, an interior decorator—maybe he was kind of sis and effeminate, but he really was an artist, and we gave one dandy play. But I——Of course I've always had to work hard, and study by myself, and I'm probably sloppy, and I'd love it if I had training in rehearsing—I mean, the crankier the director was, the better I'd like it. If you didn't want to use me as an actor, I'd love to design the costumes. I'm crazy about fabrics—textures and colors and designs."
She knew that he was trying to keep her from going, trying to indicate that he was something more than a person to whom one brought trousers for pressing. He besought:
"Some day I hope I can get away from this fool repairing, when I have the money saved up. I want to go East and work for some big dressmaker, and study art drawing, and become a high-class designer. Or do you think that's a kind of fiddlin' ambition for a fellow? I was brought up on a farm. And then monkeyin' round with silks! I don't know. What do you think? Myrtle Cass says you're awfully educated."
"I am. Awfully. Tell me: Have the boys made fun of your ambition?"
She was seventy years old, and sexless, and more advisory than Vida Sherwin.
"Well, they have, at that. They've jollied me a good deal, here and Minneapolis both. They say dressmaking is ladies' work. (But I was willing to get drafted for the war! I tried to get in. But they rejected me. But I did try! ) I thought some of working up in a gents' furnishings store, and I had a chance to travel on the road for a clothing house, but somehow—I hate this tailoring, but I can't seem to get enthusiastic about salesmanship. I keep thinking about a room in gray oatmeal paper with prints in very narrow gold frames—or would it be better in white enamel paneling?—but anyway, it looks out on Fifth Avenue, and I'm designing a sumptuous——" He made it "sump-too-ous"—"robe of linden green chiffon over cloth of gold! You know—tileul. It's elegant. . . . What do you think?"
"Why not? What do you care for the opinion of city rowdies, or a lot of farm boys? But you mustn't, you really mustn't, let casual strangers like me have a chance to judge you."
"Well——You aren't a stranger, one way. Myrtle Cass—Miss Cass, should say—she's spoken about you so often. I wanted to call on you—and the doctor—but I didn't quite have the nerve. One evening I walked past your house, but you and your husband were talking on the porch, and you looked so chummy and happy I didn't dare butt in."
Maternally, "I think it's extremely nice of you to want to be trained in—in enunciation by a stage-director. Perhaps I could help you. I'm a thoroughly sound and uninspired schoolma'am by instinct; quite hopelessly mature."
"Oh, you aren't EITHER!"
She was not very successful at accepting his fervor with the air of amused woman of the world, but she sounded reasonably impersonal: "Thank you. Shall we see if we really can get up a new dramatic club? I'll tell you: Come to the house this evening, about eight. I'll ask Miss Mullins to come over, and we'll talk about it."
"He has absolutely no sense of humor. Less than Will. But hasn't he——-What is a 'sense of humor'? Isn't the thing he lacks the back-slapping jocosity that passes for humor here? Anyway——Poor lamb, coaxing me to stay and play with him! Poor lonely lamb! If he could be free from Nat Hickses, from people who say 'dandy' and 'bum,' would he develop?
"I wonder if Whitman didn't use Brooklyn back-street slang, as a boy?
"No. Not Whitman. He's Keats—sensitive to silken things. 'Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes as are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings.' Keats, here! A bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street. And Main Street laughs till it aches, giggles till the spirit doubts his own self and tries to give up the use of wings for the correct uses of a 'gents' furnishings store.' Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of cement walk. . . . I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the tombstones of John Keatses?"
Kennicott was cordial to Fern Mullins, teased her, told her he was a "great hand for running off with pretty school-teachers," and promised that if the school-board should object to her dancing, he would "bat 'em one over the head and tell 'em how lucky they were to get a girl with some go to her, for once."
But to Erik Valborg he was not cordial. He shook hands loosely, and said, "H' are yuh."
Nat Hicks was socially acceptable; he had been here for years, and owned his shop; but this person was merely Nat's workman, and the town's principle of perfect democracy was not meant to be applied indiscriminately.
The conference on a dramatic club theoretically included Kennicott, but he sat back, patting yawns, conscious of Fern's ankles, smiling amiably on the children at their sport.
Fern wanted to tell her grievances; Carol was sulky every time she thought of "The Girl from Kankakee"; it was Erik who made suggestions. He had read with astounding breadth, and astounding lack of judgment. His voice was sensitive to liquids, but he overused the word "glorious." He mispronounced a tenth of the words he had from books, but he knew it. He was insistent, but he was shy.