Part 1 out of 12
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Contact Mike Lough
To James Branch Cabell
and Joseph Hergesheimer
This is America--a town of a few thousand, in a region of
wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called "Gopher Prairie, Minnesota."
But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets
everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in
Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would
it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills.
Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford
car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal
invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What
Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the
new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the
sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing
is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.
Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture.
Sam Clark's annual hardware turnover is the envy of the four
counties which constitute God's Country. In the sensitive art
of the Rosebud Movie Palace there is a Message, and humor
Such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he
not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray
Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether
there may not be other faiths?
ON a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two
generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower
blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-
mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis
and St. Paul. Nor was she thinking of squaws and portages,
and the Yankee fur-traders whose shadows were all about her.
She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux,
the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry
instructor had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her
A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheat-lands
bellied her taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation
and moving beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the
lower road tightened to wistfulness over her quality of
suspended freedom. She lifted her arms, she leaned back against
the wind, her skirt dipped and flared, a lock blew wild. A girl
on a hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she
longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant
It is Carol Milford, fleeing for an hour from Blodgett College.
The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears
killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot;
and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire
called the American Middlewest.
Blodgett College is on the edge of Minneapolis. It is a
bulwark of sound religion. It is still combating the recent
heresies of Voltaire, Darwin, and Robert Ingersoll. Pious
families in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas send their
children thither, and Blodgett protects them from the wickedness
of the universities. But it secretes friendly girls, young
men who sing, and one lady instructress who really likes
Milton and Carlyle. So the four years which Carol spent at
Blodgett were not altogether wasted. The smallness of the
school, the fewness of rivals, permitted her to experiment with
her perilous versatility. She played tennis, gave chafing-dish
parties, took a graduate seminar in the drama, went "twosing,"
and joined half a dozen societies for the practise of the arts
or the tense stalking of a thing called General Culture.
In her class there were two or three prettier girls, but none
more eager. She was noticeable equally in the classroom grind
and at dances, though out of the three hundred students of
Blodgett, scores recited more accurately and dozens Bostoned
more smoothly. Every cell of her body was alive--thin wrists,
quince-blossom skin, ingenue eyes, black hair.
The other girls in her dormitory marveled at the slightness
of her body when they saw her in sheer negligee, or darting out
wet from a shower-bath. She seemed then but half as large as
they had supposed; a fragile child who must be cloaked with
understanding kindness. "Psychic," the girls whispered, and
"spiritual." Yet so radioactive were her nerves, so adventurous
her trust in rather vaguely conceived sweetness and light,
that she was more energetic than any of the hulking young
women who, with calves bulging in heavy-ribbed woolen stockings
beneath decorous blue serge bloomers, thuddingly galloped
across the floor of the "gym" in practise for the Blodgett
Ladies' Basket-Ball Team.
Even when she was tired her dark eyes were observant. She
did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be
casually cruel and proudly dull, but if she should ever learn
those dismaying powers, her eyes would never become sullen
or heavy or rheumily amorous.
For all her enthusiasms, for all the fondness and the
"crushes" which she inspired, Carol's acquaintances were shy
of her. When she was most ardently singing hymns or planning
deviltry she yet seemed gently aloof and critical. She was
credulous, perhaps; a born hero-worshipper; yet she did
question and examine unceasingly. Whatever she might become
she would never be static.
Her versatility ensnared her. By turns she hoped to discover
that she had an unusual voice, a talent for the piano, the
ability to act, to write, to manage organizations. Always she
was disappointed, but always she effervesced anew--over the
Student Volunteers, who intended to become missionaries, over
painting scenery for the dramatic club, over soliciting
advertisements for the college magazine.
She was on the peak that Sunday afternoon when she played
in chapel. Out of the dusk her violin took up the organ
theme, and the candle-light revealed her in a straight golden
frock, her arm arched to the bow, her lips serious. Every
man fell in love then with religion and Carol.
Throughout Senior year she anxiously related all her
experiments and partial successes to a career. Daily, on the
library steps or in the hall of the Main Building, the co-eds
talked of "What shall we do when we finish college?" Even
the girls who knew that they were going to be married
pretended to be considering important business positions; even
they who knew that they would have to work hinted about
fabulous suitors. As for Carol, she was an orphan; her only
near relative was a vanilla-flavored sister married to an
optician in St. Paul. She had used most of the money from
her father's estate. She was not in love--that is, not often,
nor ever long at a time. She would earn her living.
But how she was to earn it, how she was to conquer the
world--almost entirely for the world's own good--she did not
see. Most of the girls who were not betrothed meant to be
teachers. Of these there were two sorts: careless young
women who admitted that they intended to leave the "beastly
classroom and grubby children" the minute they had a chance
to marry; and studious, sometimes bulbous-browed and pop-
eyed maidens who at class prayer-meetings requested God to
"guide their feet along the paths of greatest usefulness."
Neither sort tempted Carol. The former seemed insincere (a
favorite word of hers at this era). The earnest virgins were,
she fancied, as likely to do harm as to do good by their
faith in the value of parsing Caesar.
At various times during Senior year Carol finally decided
upon studying law, writing motion-picture scenarios, professional
nursing, and marrying an unidentified hero.
Then she found a hobby in sociology.
The sociology instructor was new. He was married, and
therefore taboo, but he had come from Boston, he had lived
among poets and socialists and Jews and millionaire uplifters
at the University Settlement in New York, and he had a
beautiful white strong neck. He led a giggling class through the
prisons, the charity bureaus, the employment agencies of
Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trailing at the end of the line Carol
was indignant at the prodding curiosity of the others, their
manner of staring at the poor as at a Zoo. She felt herself a
great liberator. She put her hand to her mouth, her forefinger
and thumb quite painfully pinching her lower lip, and
frowned, and enjoyed being aloof.
A classmate named Stewart Snyder, a competent bulky
young man in a gray flannel shirt, a rusty black bow tie, and
the green-and-purple class cap, grumbled to her as they walked
behind the others in the muck of the South St. Paul stockyards,
"These college chumps make me tired. They're so
top-lofty. They ought to of worked on the farm, the way I
have. These workmen put it all over them."
"I just love common workmen," glowed Carol.
"Only you don't want to forget that common workmen don't
think they're common!"
"You're right! I apologize!" Carol's brows lifted in the
astonishment of emotion, in a glory of abasement. Her eyes
mothered the world. Stewart Snyder peered at her. He
rammed his large red fists into his pockets, he jerked them
out, he resolutely got rid of them by clenching his hands
behind him, and he stammered:
"I know. You get people. Most of these darn co-eds----
Say, Carol, you could do a lot for people."
"Oh--oh well--you know--sympathy and everything--if
you were--say you were a lawyer's wife. You'd understand
his clients. I'm going to be a lawyer. I admit I fall down
in sympathy sometimes. I get so dog-gone impatient with people
that can't stand the gaff. You'd be good for a fellow that was
too serious. Make him more--more--YOU know--sympathetic!"
His slightly pouting lips, his mastiff eyes, were begging her
to beg him to go on. She fled from the steam-roller of his
sentiment. She cried, "Oh, see those poor sheep--millions
and millions of them." She darted on.
Stewart was not interesting. He hadn't a shapely white
neck, and he had never lived among celebrated reformers.
She wanted, just now, to have a cell in a settlement-house, like
a nun without the bother of a black robe, and be kind, and
read Bernard Shaw, and enormously improve a horde of grateful poor.
The supplementary reading in sociology led her to a book
on village-improvement--tree-planting, town pageants, girls'
clubs. It had pictures of greens and garden-walls in France,
New England, Pennsylvania. She had picked it up carelessly,
with a slight yawn which she patted down with her finger-tips
as delicately as a cat.
She dipped into the book, lounging on her window-seat,
with her slim, lisle-stockinged legs crossed, and her knees up
under her chin. She stroked a satin pillow while she read.
About her was the clothy exuberance of a Blodgett College
room: cretonne-covered window-seat, photographs of girls, a
carbon print of the Coliseum, a chafing-dish, and a dozen
pillows embroidered or beaded or pyrographed. Shockingly
out of place was a miniature of the Dancing Bacchante. It
was the only trace of Carol in the room. She had inherited the
rest from generations of girl students.
It was as a part of all this commonplaceness that she
regarded the treatise on village-improvement. But she suddenly
stopped fidgeting. She strode into the book. She had fled
half-way through it before the three o'clock bell called her
to the class in English history.
She sighed, "That's what I'll do after college! I'll get my
hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful.
Be an inspiration. I suppose I'd better become a teacher then,
but--I won't be that kind of a teacher. I won't drone. Why
should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island?
Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the
Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the
Elsie books. I'll make 'em put in a village green, and darling
cottages, and a quaint Main Street!"
Thus she triumphed through the class, which was a
typical Blodgett contest between a dreary teacher and unwilling
children of twenty, won by the teacher because his
opponents had to answer his questions, while their treacherous
queries he could counter by demanding, "Have you looked
that up in the library? Well then, suppose you do!"
The history instructor was a retired minister. He was
sarcastic today. He begged of sporting young Mr. Charley
Holmberg, "Now Charles, would it interrupt your undoubtedly
fascinating pursuit of that malevolent fly if I were to ask you
to tell us that you do not know anything about King John?"
He spent three delightful minutes in assuring himself of the
fact that no one exactly remembered the date of Magna Charta.
Carol did not hear him. She was completing the roof of a
half-timbered town hall. She had found one man in the
prairie village who did not appreciate her picture of winding
streets and arcades, but she had assembled the town council
and dramatically defeated him.
Though she was Minnesota-born Carol was not an intimate
of the prairie villages. Her father, the smiling and shabby,
the learned and teasingly kind, had come from Massachusetts,
and through all her childhood he had been a judge in Mankato,
which is not a prairie town, but in its garden-sheltered streets
and aisles of elms is white and green New England reborn.
Mankato lies between cliffs and the Minnesota River, hard by
Traverse des Sioux, where the first settlers made treaties with
the Indians, and the cattle-rustlers once came galloping before
As she climbed along the banks of the dark river Carol
listened to its fables about the wide land of yellow waters and
bleached buffalo bones to the West; the Southern levees and
singing darkies and palm trees toward which it was forever
mysteriously gliding; and she heard again the startled bells
and thick puffing of high-stacked river steamers wrecked on
sand-reefs sixty years ago. Along the decks she saw missionaries,
gamblers in tall pot hats, and Dakota chiefs with scarlet
blankets. . . . Far off whistles at night, round the river bend,
plunking paddles reechoed by the pines, and a glow on black
Carol's family were self-sufficient in their inventive life,
with Christmas a rite full of surprises and tenderness, and
"dressing-up parties" spontaneous and joyously absurd. The
beasts in the Milford hearth-mythology were not the obscene
Night Animals who jump out of closets and eat little girls, but
beneficent and bright-eyed creatures--the tam htab, who is
woolly and blue and lives in the bathroom, and runs rapidly to
warm small feet; the ferruginous oil stove, who purrs and
knows stories; and the skitamarigg, who will play with children
before breakfast if they spring out of bed and close the
window at the very first line of the song about puellas which
father sings while shaving.
Judge Milford's pedagogical scheme was to let the children
read whatever they pleased, and in his brown library Carol
absorbed Balzac and Rabelais and Thoreau and Max Muller.
He gravely taught them the letters on the backs of the encyclopedias,
and when polite visitors asked about the mental progress
of the "little ones," they were horrified to hear the
children earnestly repeating A-And, And-Aus, Aus-Bis, Bis-Cal,
Carol's mother died when she was nine. Her father retired
from the judiciary when she was eleven, and took the family
to Minneapolis. There he died, two years after. Her sister, a
busy proper advisory soul, older than herself, had become a
stranger to her even when they lived in the same house.
From those early brown and silver days and from her
independence of relatives Carol retained a willingness to be
different from brisk efficient book-ignoring people; an instinct
to observe and wonder at their bustle even when she was
taking part in it. But, she felt approvingly, as she discovered
her career of town-planning, she was now roused to being brisk
and efficient herself.
In a month Carol's ambition had clouded. Her hesitancy
about becoming a teacher had returned. She was not, she
worried, strong enough to endure the routine, and she could
not picture herself standing before grinning children and
pretending to be wise and decisive. But the desire for the creation
of a beautiful town remained. When she encountered an item
about small-town women's clubs or a photograph of a straggling
Main Street, she was homesick for it, she felt robbed of
It was the advice of the professor of English which led her
to study professional library-work in a Chicago school. Her
imagination carved and colored the new plan. She saw herself
persuading children to read charming fairy tales, helping young
men to find books on mechanics, being ever so courteous to
old men who were hunting for newspapers--the light of the
library, an authority on books, invited to dinners with poets
and explorers, reading a paper to an association of distinguished
The last faculty reception before commencement. In
five days they would be in the cyclone of final examinations.
The house of the president had been massed with palms
suggestive of polite undertaking parlors, and in the library, a
ten-foot room with a globe and the portraits of Whittier and
Martha Washington, the student orchestra was playing
"Carmen" and "Madame Butterfly." Carol was dizzy with
music and the emotions of parting. She saw the palms as a
jungle, the pink-shaded electric globes as an opaline haze, and
the eye-glassed faculty as Olympians. She was melancholy at
sight of the mousey girls with whom she had "always intended
to get acquainted," and the half dozen young men who were
ready to fall in love with her.
But it was Stewart Snyder whom she encouraged. He was
so much manlier than the others; he was an even warm brown,
like his new ready-made suit with its padded shoulders. She
sat with him, and with two cups of coffee and a chicken patty,
upon a pile of presidential overshoes in the coat-closet under
the stairs, and as the thin music seeped in, Stewart
"I can't stand it, this breaking up after four years! The
happiest years of life."
She believed it. "Oh, I know! To think that in just a few
days we'll be parting, and we'll never see some of the bunch
"Carol, you got to listen to me! You always duck when I
try to talk seriously to you, but you got to listen to me.
I'm going to be a big lawyer, maybe a judge, and I need you,
and I'd protect you----"
His arm slid behind her shoulders. The insinuating music
drained her independence. She said mournfully, "Would you
take care of me?" She touched his hand. It was warm,
"You bet I would! We'd have, Lord, we'd have bully
times in Yankton, where I'm going to settle----"
"But I want to do something with life."
"What's better than making a comfy home and bringing up
some cute kids and knowing nice homey people?"
It was the immemorial male reply to the restless woman.
Thus to the young Sappho spake the melon-venders; thus the
captains to Zenobia; and in the damp cave over gnawed bones
the hairy suitor thus protested to the woman advocate of
matriarchy. In the dialect of Blodgett College but with the
voice of Sappho was Carol's answer:
"Of course. I know. I suppose that's so. Honestly, I do
love children. But there's lots of women that can do housework,
but I--well, if you HAVE got a college education, you
ought to use it for the world."
"I know, but you can use it just as well in the home. And
gee, Carol, just think of a bunch of us going out on an auto
picnic, some nice spring evening."
"And sleigh-riding in winter, and going fishing----"
Blarrrrrrr! The orchestra had crashed into the "Soldiers'
Chorus"; and she was protesting, "No! No! You're a dear,
but I want to do things. I don't understand myself but I want--
everything in the world! Maybe I can't sing or write, but I
know I can be an influence in library work. Just suppose I
encouraged some boy and he became a great artist! I will!
I will do it! Stewart dear, I can't settle down to nothing but
Two minutes later--two hectic minutes--they were disturbed
by an embarrassed couple also seeking the idyllic seclusion of
After graduation she never saw Stewart Snyder again. She
wrote to him once a week--for one month.
A year Carol spent in Chicago. Her study of library-
cataloguing, recording, books of reference, was easy and not too
somniferous. She reveled in the Art Institute, in symphonies
and violin recitals and chamber music, in the theater and
classic dancing. She almost gave up library work to become one
of the young women who dance in cheese-cloth in the moonlight.
She was taken to a certified Studio Party, with beer, cigarettes.
bobbed hair, and a Russian Jewess who sang the Internationale.
It cannot be reported that Carol had anything significant
to say to the Bohemians. She was awkward with them, and
felt ignorant, and she was shocked by the free manners which
she had for years desired. But she heard and remembered
discussions of Freud, Romain Rolland, syndicalism, the
Confederation Generale du Travail, feminism vs. haremism,
Chinese lyrics, nationalization of mines, Christian Science, and
fishing in Ontario.
She went home, and that was the beginning and end of her
The second cousin of Carol's sister's husband lived in
Winnetka, and once invited her out to Sunday dinner. She walked
back through Wilmette and Evanston, discovered new forms of
suburban architecture, and remembered her desire to recreate
villages. She decided that she would give up library work and,
by a miracle whose nature was not very clearly revealed to
her, turn a prairie town into Georgian houses and Japanese
The next day in library class she had to read a theme on the
use of the Cumulative Index, and she was taken so seriously
in the discussion that she put off her career of town-planning--
and in the autumn she was in the public library of St. Paul.
Carol was not unhappy and she was not exhilarated, in the
St. Paul Library. She slowly confessed that she was not visibly
affecting lives. She did, at first, put into her contact with the
patrons a willingness which should have moved worlds. But
so few of these stolid worlds wanted to be moved. When she
was in charge of the magazine room the readers did not ask
for suggestions about elevated essays. They grunted, "Wanta
find the Leather Goods Gazette for last February." When she
was giving out books the principal query was, "Can you tell me
of a good, light, exciting love story to read? My husband's
going away for a week."
She was fond of the other librarians; proud of their
aspirations. And by the chance of propinquity she read scores of
books unnatural to her gay white littleness: volumes of
anthropology with ditches of foot-notes filled with heaps of
small dusty type, Parisian imagistes, Hindu recipes for curry,
voyages to the Solomon Isles, theosophy with modern American
improvements, treatises upon success in the real-estate business.
She took walks, and was sensible about shoes and diet. And
never did she feel that she was living.
She went to dances and suppers at the houses of college
acquaintances. Sometimes she one-stepped demurely;
sometimes, in dread of life's slipping past, she turned into a
bacchanal, her tender eyes excited, her throat tense, as she slid
down the room.
During her three years of library work several men showed
diligent interest in her--the treasurer of a fur-manufacturing
firm, a teacher, a newspaper reporter, and a petty railroad
official. None of them made her more than pause in thought.
For months no male emerged from the mass. Then, at the
Marburys', she met Dr. Will Kennicott.
IT was a frail and blue and lonely Carol who trotted to the
flat of the Johnson Marburys for Sunday evening supper. Mrs.
Marbury was a neighbor and friend of Carol's sister; Mr.
Marbury a traveling representative of an insurance company. They
made a specialty of sandwich-salad-coffee lap suppers, and they
regarded Carol as their literary and artistic representative.
She was the one who could be depended upon to appreciate the
Caruso phonograph record, and the Chinese lantern which Mr.
Marbury had brought back as his present from San Francisco.
Carol found the Marburys admiring and therefore admirable.
This September Sunday evening she wore a net frock with a
pale pink lining. A nap had soothed away the faint lines of
tiredness beside her eyes. She was young, naive, stimulated
by the coolness. She flung her coat at the chair in the hall of
the flat, and exploded into the green-plush living-room. The
familiar group were trying to be conversational. She saw Mr.
Marbury, a woman teacher of gymnastics in a high school, a
chief clerk from the Great Northern Railway offices, a young
lawyer. But there was also a stranger, a thick tall man of
thirty-six or -seven, with stolid brown hair, lips used to giving
orders, eyes which followed everything good-naturedly, and
clothes which you could never quite remember.
Mr. Marbury boomed, "Carol, come over here and meet
Doc Kennicott--Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie. He
does all our insurance-examining up in that neck of the woods,
and they do say he's some doctor!"
As she edged toward the stranger and murmured nothing in
particular, Carol remembered that Gopher Prairie was a
Minnesota wheat-prairie town of something over three thousand
"Pleased to meet you," stated Dr. Kennicott. His hand
was strong; the palm soft, but the back weathered, showing
golden hairs against firm red skin.
He looked at her as though she was an agreeable discovery.
She tugged her hand free and fluttered, "I must go out to the
kitchen and help Mrs. Marbury." She did not speak to him
again till, after she had heated the rolls and passed the
paper napkins, Mr. Marbury captured her with a loud, "Oh,
quit fussing now. Come over here and sit down and tell us
how's tricks." He herded her to a sofa with Dr. Kennicott,
who was rather vague about the eyes, rather drooping of bulky
shoulder, as though he was wondering what he was expected to
do next. As their host left them, Kennicott awoke:
"Marbury tells me you're a high mogul in the public library.
I was surprised. Didn't hardly think you were old enough
I thought you were a girl, still in college maybe."
"Oh, I'm dreadfully old. I expect to take to a lip-stick, and
to find a gray hair any morning now."
"Huh! You must be frightfully old--prob'ly too old to be
my granddaughter, I guess!"
Thus in the Vale of Arcady nymph and satyr beguiled the
hours; precisely thus, and not in honeyed pentameters,
discoursed Elaine and the worn Sir Launcelot in the pleached alley.
"How do you like your work?" asked the doctor.
"It's pleasant, but sometimes I feel shut off from things--
the steel stacks, and the everlasting cards smeared all over with
red rubber stamps."
"Don't you get sick of the city?"
"St. Paul? Why, don't you like it? I don't know of any
lovelier view than when you stand on Summit Avenue and
look across Lower Town to the Mississippi cliffs and the upland
"I know but---- Of course I've spent nine years around
the Twin Cities--took my B.A. and M.D. over at the U., and
had my internship in a hospital in Minneapolis, but still, oh
well, you don't get to know folks here, way you do up home.
I feel I've got something to say about running Gopher Prairie,
but you take it in a big city of two-three hundred thousand,
and I'm just one flea on the dog's back. And then I like
country driving, and the hunting in the fall. Do you know
Gopher Prairie at all?"
"No, but I hear it's a very nice town."
"Nice? Say honestly---- Of course I may be prejudiced,
but I've seen an awful lot of towns--one time I went to
Atlantic City for the American Medical Association meeting,
and I spent practically a week in New York! But I never saw
a town that had such up-and-coming people as Gopher Prairie.
Bresnahan--you know--the famous auto manufacturer--he
comes from Gopher Prairie. Born and brought up there!
And it's a darn pretty town. Lots of fine maples and box-
elders, and there's two of the dandiest lakes you ever saw,
right near town! And we've got seven miles of cement walks
already, and building more every day! Course a lot of these
towns still put up with plank walks, but not for us, you
(Why was she thinking of Stewart Snyder?)
"Gopher Prairie is going to have a great future. Some of the
best dairy and wheat land in the state right near there--some
of it selling right now at one-fifty an acre, and I bet it will
go up to two and a quarter in ten years!"
"Is---- Do you like your profession?"
"Nothing like it. Keeps you out, and yet you have a
chance to loaf in the office for a change."
"I don't mean that way. I mean--it's such an opportunity
Dr. Kennicott launched into a heavy, "Oh, these Dutch
farmers don't want sympathy. All they need is a bath and a
good dose of salts."
Carol must have flinched, for instantly he was urging, "What
I mean is--I don't want you to think I'm one of these old
salts-and-quinine peddlers, but I mean: so many of my
patients are husky farmers that I suppose I get kind of case-
"It seems to me that a doctor could transform a whole
community, if he wanted to--if he saw it. He's usually the
only man in the neighborhood who has any scientific training,
"Yes, that's so, but I guess most of us get rusty. We land
in a rut of obstetrics and typhoid and busted legs. What we
need is women like you to jump on us. It'd be you that would
transform the town."
"No, I couldn't. Too flighty. I did used to think about
doing just that, curiously enough, but I seem to have drifted
away from the idea. Oh, I'm a fine one to be lecturing
"No! You're just the one. You have ideas without having
lost feminine charm. Say! Don't you think there's a lot
of these women that go out for all these movements and so on
After his remarks upon suffrage he abruptly questioned her
about herself. His kindliness and the firmness of his
personality enveloped her and she accepted him as one who had
a right to know what she thought and wore and ate and read.
He was positive. He had grown from a sketched-in stranger
to a friend, whose gossip was important news. She noticed the
healthy solidity of his chest. His nose, which had seemed
irregular and large, was suddenly virile.
She was jarred out of this serious sweetness when Marbury
bounced over to them and with horrible publicity yammered,
"Say, what do you two think you're doing? Telling fortunes
or making love? Let me warn you that the doc is a frisky
bacheldore, Carol. Come on now, folks, shake a leg. Let's
have some stunts or a dance or something."
She did not have another word with Dr. Kennicott until their
"Been a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Milford. May
I see you some time when I come down again? I'm here quite
often--taking patients to hospitals for majors, and so on."
"What's your address?"
"You can ask Mr. Marbury next time you come down--if
you really want to know!"
"Want to know? Say, you wait!"
Of the love-making of Carol and Will Kennicott there is
nothing to be told which may not be heard on every summer
evening, on every shadowy block.
They were biology and mystery; their speech was slang
phrases and flares of poetry; their silences were contentment,
or shaky crises when his arm took her shoulder. All the
beauty of youth, first discovered when it is passing--and all
the commonplaceness of a well-to-do unmarried man encountering
a pretty girl at the time when she is slightly weary of
her employment and sees no glory ahead nor any man she
is glad to serve.
They liked each other honestly--they were both honest.
She was disappointed by his devotion to making money, but
she was sure that he did not lie to patients, and that he did
keep up with the medical magazines. What aroused her to
something more than liking was his boyishness when they went
They walked from St. Paul down the river to Mendota,
Kennicott more elastic-seeming in a cap and a soft crepe shirt,
Carol youthful in a tam-o'-shanter of mole velvet, a blue serge
suit with an absurdly and agreeably broad turn-down linen
collar, and frivolous ankles above athletic shoes. The High
Bridge crosses the Mississippi, mounting from low banks to a
palisade of cliffs. Far down beneath it on the St. Paul side,
upon mud flats, is a wild settlement of chicken-infested gardens
and shanties patched together from discarded sign-boards,
sheets of corrugated iron, and planks fished out of the river.
Carol leaned over the rail of the bridge to look down at this
Yang-tse village; in delicious imaginary fear she shrieked that
she was dizzy with the height; and it was an extremely human
satisfaction to have a strong male snatch her back to safety,
instead of having a logical woman teacher or librarian sniff,
"Well, if you're scared, why don't you get away from the rail,
From the cliffs across the river Carol and Kennicott looked
back at St. Paul on its hills; an imperial sweep from the dome
of the cathedral to the dome of the state capitol.
The river road led past rocky field slopes, deep glens, woods
flamboyant now with September, to Mendota, white walls and
a spire among trees beneath a hill, old-world in its placid ease.
And for this fresh land, the place is ancient. Here is the bold
stone house which General Sibley, the king of fur-traders, built
in 1835, with plaster of river mud, and ropes of twisted grass
for laths. It has an air of centuries. In its solid rooms Carol
and Kennicott found prints from other days which the house
had seen--tail-coats of robin's-egg blue, clumsy Red River carts
laden with luxurious furs, whiskered Union soldiers in slant
forage caps and rattling sabers.
It suggested to them a common American past, and it was
memorable because they had discovered it together. They
talked more trustingly, more personally, as they trudged on.
They crossed the Minnesota River in a rowboat ferry. They
climbed the hill to the round stone tower of Fort Snelling.
They saw the junction of the Mississippi and the Minnesota,
and recalled the men who had come here eighty years ago--
Maine lumbermen, York traders, soldiers from the Maryland
"It's a good country, and I'm proud of it. Let's make it all
that those old boys dreamed about," the unsentimental Kennicott
was moved to vow.
"Come on. Come to Gopher Prairie. Show us. Make the
town--well--make it artistic. It's mighty pretty, but I'll
admit we aren't any too darn artistic. Probably the lumber-
yard isn't as scrumptious as all these Greek temples. But go
to it! Make us change!"
"I would like to. Some day!"
"Now! You'd love Gopher Prairie. We've been doing a
lot with lawns and gardening the past few years, and it's so
homey--the big trees and---- And the best people on earth.
And keen. I bet Luke Dawson----"
Carol but half listened to the names. She could not fancy
their ever becoming important to her.
"I bet Luke Dawson has got more money than most of the
swells on Summit Avenue; and Miss Sherwin in the high school
is a regular wonder--reads Latin like I do English; and Sam
Clark, the hardware man, he's a corker--not a better man in the
state to go hunting with; and if you want culture, besides Vida
Sherwin there's Reverend Warren, the Congregational preacher,
and Professor Mott, the superintendent of schools, and Guy
Pollock, the lawyer--they say he writes regular poetry and--
and Raymie Wutherspoon, he's not such an awful boob when
you get to KNOW him, and he sings swell. And---- And
there's plenty of others. Lym Cass. Only of course none of
them have your finesse, you might call it. But they don't make
'em any more appreciative and so on. Come on! We're
ready for you to boss us!"
They sat on the bank below the parapet of the old fort,
hidden from observation. He circled her shoulder with his
arm. Relaxed after the walk, a chill nipping her throat,
conscious of his warmth and power, she leaned gratefully against him.
"You know I'm in love with you, Carol!"
She did not answer, but she touched the back of his hand
with an exploring finger.
"You say I'm so darn materialistic. How can I help it,
unless I have you to stir me up?"
She did not answer. She could not think.
"You say a doctor could cure a town the way he does a
person. Well, you cure the town of whatever ails it, if
anything does, and I'll be your surgical kit."
She did not follow his words, only the burring resoluteness
She was shocked, thrilled, as he kissed her cheek and cried,
"There's no use saying things and saying things and saying
things. Don't my arms talk to you--now?"
"Oh, please, please!" She wondered if she ought to be
angry, but it was a drifting thought, and she discovered that
she was crying.
Then they were sitting six inches apart, pretending that they
had never been nearer, while she tried to be impersonal:
"I would like to--would like to see Gopher Prairie."
"Trust me! Here she is! Brought some snapshots down
to show you."
Her cheek near his sleeve, she studied a dozen village
pictures. They were streaky; she saw only trees, shrubbery, a
porch indistinct in leafy shadows. But she exclaimed over the
lakes: dark water reflecting wooded bluffs, a flight of ducks, a
fisherman in shirt sleeves and a wide straw hat, holding up a
string of croppies. One winter picture of the edge of Plover
Lake had the air of an etching: lustrous slide of ice, snow in
the crevices of a boggy bank, the mound of a muskrat house,
reeds in thin black lines, arches of frosty grasses. It was an
impression of cool clear vigor.
"How'd it be to skate there for a couple of hours, or go
zinging along on a fast ice-boat, and skip back home for coffee
and some hot wienies?" he demanded.
"It might be--fun."
"But here's the picture. Here's where you come in."
A photograph of a forest clearing: pathetic new furrows
straggling among stumps, a clumsy log cabin chinked with
mud and roofed with hay. In front of it a sagging woman with
tight-drawn hair, and a baby bedraggled, smeary, glorious-
"Those are the kind of folks I practise among, good share
of the time. Nels Erdstrom, fine clean young Svenska. He'll
have a corking farm in ten years, but now---- I operated his
wife on a kitchen table, with my driver giving the anesthetic.
Look at that scared baby! Needs some woman with hands
like yours. Waiting for you! Just look at that baby's eyes,
look how he's begging----"
"Don't! They hurt me. Oh, it would be sweet to help
As his arms moved toward her she answered all her doubts
with "Sweet, so sweet."
UNDER the rolling clouds of the prairie a moving mass of
steel. An irritable clank and rattle beneath a prolonged roar.
The sharp scent of oranges cutting the soggy smell of
unbathed people and ancient baggage.
Towns as planless as a scattering of pasteboard boxes on an
attic floor. The stretch of faded gold stubble broken only by
clumps of willows encircling white houses and red barns.
No. 7, the way train, grumbling through Minnesota,
imperceptibly climbing the giant tableland that slopes in a
thousand-mile rise from hot Mississippi bottoms to the Rockies.
It is September, hot, very dusty.
There is no smug Pullman attached to the train, and the
day coaches of the East are replaced by free chair cars, with
each seat cut into two adjustable plush chairs, the head-rests
covered with doubtful linen towels. Halfway down the car is
a semi-partition of carved oak columns, but the aisle is of
bare, splintery, grease-blackened wood. There is no porter,
no pillows, no provision for beds, but all today and all tonight
they will ride in this long steel box-farmers with perpetually
tired wives and children who seem all to be of the same age;
workmen going to new jobs; traveling salesmen with derbies
and freshly shined shoes.
They are parched and cramped, the lines of their hands filled
with grime; they go to sleep curled in distorted attitudes, heads
against the window-panes or propped on rolled coats on seat-
arms, and legs thrust into the aisle. They do not read;
apparently they do not think. They wait. An early-wrinkled,
young-old mother, moving as though her joints were dry, opens
a suit-case in which are seen creased blouses, a pair of slippers
worn through at the toes, a bottle of patent medicine, a tin
cup, a paper-covered book about dreams which the news-
butcher has coaxed her into buying. She brings out a graham
cracker which she feeds to a baby lying flat on a seat and
wailing hopelessly. Most of the crumbs drop on the red plush
of the seat, and the woman sighs and tries to brush them
away, but they leap up impishly and fall back on the plush.
A soiled man and woman munch sandwiches and throw the
crusts on the floor. A large brick-colored Norwegian takes off
his shoes, grunts in relief, and props his feet in their thick
gray socks against the seat in front of him.
An old woman whose toothless mouth shuts like a mud-
turtle's, and whose hair is not so much white as yellow like
moldy linen, with bands of pink skull apparent between the
tresses, anxiously lifts her bag, opens it, peers in, closes it, puts
it under the seat, and hastily picks it up and opens it and hides
it all over again. The bag is full of treasures and of memories:
a leather buckle, an ancient band-concert program, scraps
of ribbon, lace, satin. In the aisle beside her is an extremely
indignant parrakeet in a cage.
Two facing seats, overflowing with a Slovene iron-miner's
family, are littered with shoes, dolls, whisky bottles, bundles
wrapped in newspapers, a sewing bag. The oldest boy takes
a mouth-organ out of his coat pocket, wipes the tobacco
crumbs off, and plays "Marching through Georgia" till every
head in the car begins to ache.
The news-butcher comes through selling chocolate bars and
lemon drops. A girl-child ceaselessly trots down to the water-
cooler and back to her seat. The stiff paper envelope which
she uses for cup drips in the aisle as she goes, and on each trip
she stumbles over the feet of a carpenter, who grunts, "Ouch!
The dust-caked doors are open, and from the smoking-car
drifts back a visible blue line of stinging tobacco smoke, and
with it a crackle of laughter over the story which the young
man in the bright blue suit and lavender tie and light yellow
shoes has just told to the squat man in garage overalls.
The smell grows constantly thicker, more stale.
To each of the passengers his seat was his temporary home,
and most of the passengers were slatternly housekeepers. But
one seat looked clean and deceptively cool. In it were an
obviously prosperous man and a black-haired, fine-skinned girl
whose pumps rested on an immaculate horsehide bag.
They were Dr. Will Kennicott and his bride, Carol.
They had been married at the end of a year of conversational
courtship, and they were on their way to Gopher Prairie
after a wedding journey in the Colorado mountains.
The hordes of the way-train were not altogether new to
Carol. She had seen them on trips from St. Paul to Chicago.
But now that they had become her own people, to bathe and
encourage and adorn, she had an acute and uncomfortable
interest in them. They distressed her. They were so stolid.
She had always maintained that there is no American peasantry,
and she sought now to defend her faith by seeing imagination
and enterprise in the young Swedish farmers, and in a
traveling man working over his order-blanks. But the older
people, Yankees as well as Norwegians, Germans, Finns,
Canucks, had settled into submission to poverty. They were
peasants, she groaned.
"Isn't there any way of waking them up? What would
happen if they understood scientific agriculture?" she begged
of Kennicott, her hand groping for his.
It had been a transforming honeymoon. She had been
frightened to discover how tumultuous a feeling could be
roused in her. Will had been lordly--stalwart, jolly, impressively
competent in making camp, tender and understanding
through the hours when they had lain side by side in a tent
pitched among pines high up on a lonely mountain spur.
His hand swallowed hers as he started from thoughts of
the practise to which he was returning. "These people? Wake
'em up? What for? They're happy."
"But they're so provincial. No, that isn't what I mean.
They're--oh, so sunk in the mud."
"Look here, Carrie. You want to get over your city idea
that because a man's pants aren't pressed, he's a fool. These
farmers are mighty keen and up-and-coming."
"I know! That's what hurts. Life seems so hard for them
--these lonely farms and this gritty train."
"Oh, they don't mind it. Besides, things are changing.
The auto, the telephone, rural free delivery; they're bringing
the farmers in closer touch with the town. Takes time, you
know, to change a wilderness like this was fifty years ago.
But already, why, they can hop into the Ford or the Overland
and get in to the movies on Saturday evening quicker than you
could get down to 'em by trolley in St. Paul."
"But if it's these towns we've been passing that the farmers
run to for relief from their bleakness Can't you understand?
Just LOOK at them!"
Kennicott was amazed. Ever since childhood he had seen
these towns from trains on this same line. He grumbled,
"Why, what's the matter with 'em? Good hustling burgs. It
would astonish you to know how much wheat and rye and
corn and potatoes they ship in a year."
"But they're so ugly."
"I'll admit they aren't comfy like Gopher Prairie. But
give 'em time."
"What's the use of giving them time unless some one has
desire and training enough to plan them? Hundreds of factories
trying to make attractive motor cars, but these towns--
left to chance. No! That can't be true. It must have taken
genius to make them so scrawny!"
"Oh, they're not so bad," was all he answered. He
pretended that his hand was the cat and hers the mouse. For
the first time she tolerated him rather than encouraged him.
She was staring out at Schoenstrom, a hamlet of perhaps a
hundred and fifty inhabitants, at which the train was stopping.
A bearded German and his pucker-mouthed wife tugged their
enormous imitation-leather satchel from under a seat and
waddled out. The station agent hoisted a dead calf aboard the
baggage-car. There were no other visible activities in
Schoenstrom. In the quiet of the halt, Carol could hear a horse
kicking his stall, a carpenter shingling a roof.
The business-center of Schoenstrom took up one side of one
block, facing the railroad. It was a row of one-story shops
covered with galvanized iron, or with clapboards painted red
and bilious yellow. The buildings were as ill-assorted, as
temporary-looking, as a mining-camp street in the motion-pictures.
The railroad station was a one-room frame box, a mirey cattle-
pen on one side and a crimson wheat-elevator on the other.
The elevator, with its cupola on the ridge of a shingled roof,
resembled a broad-shouldered man with a small, vicious,
pointed head. The only habitable structures to be seen were
the florid red-brick Catholic church and rectory at the end of
Carol picked at Kennicott's sleeve. "You wouldn't call this
a not-so-bad town, would you?"
"These Dutch burgs ARE kind of slow. Still, at that----
See that fellow coming out of the general store there, getting
into the big car? I met him once. He owns about half the
town, besides the store. Rauskukle, his name is. He owns a
lot of mortgages, and he gambles in farm-lands. Good nut on
him, that fellow. Why, they say he's worth three or four
hundred thousand dollars! Got a dandy great big yellow
brick house with tiled walks and a garden and everything, other
end of town--can't see it from here--I've gone past it when
I've driven through here. Yes sir!"
"Then, if he has all that, there's no excuse whatever for this
place! If his three hundred thousand went back into the town,
where it belongs, they could burn up these shacks, and build
a dream-village, a jewel! Why do the farmers and the town-
people let the Baron keep it?"
"I must say I don't quite get you sometimes, Carrie. Let
him? They can't help themselves! He's a dumm old Dutchman,
and probably the priest can twist him around his finger,
but when it comes to picking good farming land, he's a regular
"I see. He's their symbol of beauty. The town erects him,
instead of erecting buildings."
"Honestly, don't know what you're driving at. You're kind
of played out, after this long trip. You'll feel better when you
get home and have a good bath, and put on the blue negligee.
That's some vampire costume, you witch!"
He squeezed her arm, looked at her knowingly.
They moved on from the desert stillness of the Schoenstrom
station. The train creaked, banged, swayed. The air was
nauseatingly thick. Kennicott turned her face from the window,
rested her head on his shoulder. She was coaxed from
her unhappy mood. But she came out of it unwillingly, and
when Kennicott was satisfied that he had corrected all her
worries and had opened a magazine of saffron detective stories,
she sat upright.
Here--she meditated--is the newest empire of the world;
the Northern Middlewest; a land of dairy herds and exquisite
lakes, of new automobiles and tar-paper shanties and silos likes
red towers, of clumsy speech and a hope that is boundless. An
empire which feeds a quarter of the world--yet its work is
merely begun. They are pioneers, these sweaty wayfarers, for
all their telephones and bank-accounts and automatic pianos
and co-operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs
is a pioneer land. What is its future? she wondered. A
future of cities and factory smut where now are loping empty
fields? Homes universal and secure? Or placid chateaux
ringed with sullen huts? Youth free to find knowledge and
laughter? Willingness to sift the sanctified lies? Or creamy-
skinned fat women, smeared with grease and chalk, gorgeous in
the skins of beasts and the bloody feathers of slain birds,
playing bridge with puffy pink-nailed jeweled fingers, women who
after much expenditure of labor and bad temper still grotesquely
resemble their own flatulent lap-dogs? The ancient stale
inequalities, or something different in history, unlike the
tedious maturity of other empires? What future and what
Carol's head ached with the riddle.
She saw the prairie, flat in giant patches or rolling in long
hummocks. The width and bigness of it, which had expanded
her spirit an hour ago, began to frighten her. It spread out
so; it went on so uncontrollably; she could never know it.
Kennicott was closeted in his detective story. With the loneliness
which comes most depressingly in the midst of many
people she tried to forget problems, to look at the prairie
The grass beside the railroad had been burnt over; it was
a smudge prickly with charred stalks of weeds. Beyond the
undeviating barbed-wire fences were clumps of golden rod.
Only this thin hedge shut them off from the plains-shorn
wheat-lands of autumn, a hundred acres to a field, prickly and
gray near-by but in the blurred distance like tawny velvet
stretched over dipping hillocks. The long rows of wheat-
shocks marched like soldiers in worn yellow tabards. The
newly plowed fields were black banners fallen on the distant
slope. It was a martial immensity, vigorous, a little harsh,
unsoftened by kindly gardens.
The expanse was relieved by clumps of oaks with patches
of short wild grass; and every mile or two was a chain of
cobalt slews, with the flicker of blackbirds' wings across
All this working land was turned into exuberance by the
light. The sunshine was dizzy on open stubble; shadows from
immense cumulus clouds were forever sliding across low
mounds; and the sky was wider and loftier and more resolutely
blue than the sky of cities. . .she declared.
"It's a glorious country; a land to be big in," she crooned.
Then Kennicott startled her by chuckling, "D' you realize
the town after the next is Gopher Prairie? Home!"
That one word--home--it terrified her. Had she really
bound herself to live, inescapably, in this town called Gopher
Prairie? And this thick man beside her, who dared to define
her future, he was a stranger! She turned in her seat, stared
at him. Who was he? Why was he sitting with her? He
wasn't of her kind! His neck was heavy; his speech was
heavy; he was twelve or thirteen years older than she; and
about him was none of the magic of shared adventures and
eagerness. She could not believe that she had ever slept
in his arms. That was one of the dreams which you had but
did not officially admit.
She told herself how good he was, how dependable and
understanding. She touched his ear, smoothed the plane of his
solid jaw, and, turning away again, concentrated upon liking
his town. It wouldn't be like these barren settlements. It
couldn't be! Why, it had three thousand population. That
was a great many people. There would be six hundred houses
or more. And---- The lakes near it would be so lovely.
She'd seen them in the photographs. They had looked
charming. . .hadn't they?
As the train left Wahkeenyan she began nervously to watch
for the lakes--the entrance to all her future life. But when
she discovered them, to the left of the track, her only
impression of them was that they resembled the photographs.
A mile from Gopher Prairie the track mounts a curving low
ridge, and she could see the town as a whole. With a passionate
jerk she pushed up the window, looked out, the arched fingers
of her left hand trembling on the sill, her right hand at her
And she saw that Gopher Prairie was merely an enlargement
of all the hamlets which they had been passing. Only to the
eyes of a Kennicott was it exceptional. The huddled low
wooden houses broke the plains scarcely more than would a
hazel thicket. The fields swept up to it, past it. It was
unprotected and unprotecting; there was no dignity in it nor
any hope of greatness. Only the tall red grain-elevator and a
few tinny church-steeples rose from the mass. It was a
frontier camp. It was not a place to live in, not possibly,
The people--they'd be as drab as their houses, as flat as
their fields. She couldn't stay here. She would have to
wrench loose from this man, and flee.
She peeped at him. She was at once helpless before his
mature fixity, and touched by his excitement as he sent his
magazine skittering along the aisle, stooped for their bags, came
up with flushed face, and gloated, "Here we are!"
She smiled loyally, and looked away. The train was entering
town. The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red
mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery
boxes, or new bungalows with concrete foundations imitating
Now the train was passing the elevator, the grim storage-
tanks for oil, a creamery, a lumber-yard, a stock-yard muddy
and trampled and stinking. Now they were stopping at a
squat red frame station, the platform crowded with unshaven
farmers and with loafers--unadventurous people with dead
eyes. She was here. She could not go on. It was the end--
the end of the world. She sat with closed eyes, longing to
push past Kennicott, hide somewhere in the train, flee on
toward the Pacific.
Something large arose in her soul and commanded, "Stop
it! Stop being a whining baby!" She stood up quickly; she
said, "Isn't it wonderful to be here at last!"
He trusted her so. She would make herself like the place.
And she was going to do tremendous things----
She followed Kennicott and the bobbing ends of the two bags
which he carried. They were held back by the slow line of
disembarking passengers. She reminded herself that she was
actually at the dramatic moment of the bride's home-coming.
She ought to feel exalted. She felt nothing at all except
irritation at their slow progress toward the door.
Kennicott stooped to peer through the windows. He shyly
"Look! Look! There's a bunch come down to welcome us!
Sam Clark and the missus and Dave Dyer and Jack Elder,
and, yes sir, Harry Haydock and Juanita, and a whole crowd!
I guess they see us now. Yuh, yuh sure, they see us! See 'em
She obediently bent her head to look out at them. She had
hold of herself. She was ready to love them. But she was
embarrassed by the heartiness of the cheering group. From
the vestibule she waved to them, but she clung a second to the
sleeve of the brakeman who helped her down before she had
the courage to dive into the cataract of hand-shaking people,
people whom she could not tell apart. She had the impression
that all the men had coarse voices, large damp hands, tooth-
brush mustaches, bald spots, and Masonic watch-charms.
She knew that they were welcoming her. Their hands, their
smiles, their shouts, their affectionate eyes overcame her. She
stammered, "Thank you, oh, thank you!"
One of the men was clamoring at Kennicott, "I brought my
machine down to take you home, doc."
"Fine business, Sam!" cried Kennicott; and, to Carol,
"Let's jump in. That big Paige over there. Some boat, too,
believe me! Sam can show speed to any of these Marmons
Only when she was in the motor car did she distinguish the
three people who were to accompany them. The owner, now
at the wheel, was the essence of decent self-satisfaction; a
baldish, largish, level-eyed man, rugged of neck but sleek and
round of face--face like the back of a spoon bowl. He was
chuckling at her, "Have you got us all straight yet?"
"Course she has! Trust Carrie to get things straight and
get 'em darn quick! I bet she could tell you every date in
history!" boasted her husband.
But the man looked at her reassuringly and with a certainty
that he was a person whom she could trust she confessed,
"As a matter of fact I haven't got anybody straight."
"Course you haven't, child. Well, I'm Sam Clark, dealer
in hardware, sporting goods, cream separators, and almost any
kind of heavy junk you can think of. You can call me Sam--
anyway, I'm going to call you Carrie, seein' 's you've been
and gone and married this poor fish of a bum medic that we
keep round here." Carol smiled lavishly, and wished that she
called people by their given names more easily. "The fat
cranky lady back there beside you, who is pretending that she
can't hear me giving her away, is Mrs. Sam'l Clark; and this
hungry-looking squirt up here beside me is Dave Dyer, who
keeps his drug store running by not filling your hubby's
prescriptions right--fact you might say he's the guy that put the
`shun' in `prescription.' So! Well, leave us take the bonny
bride home. Say, doc, I'll sell you the Candersen place for
three thousand plunks. Better be thinking about building a
new home for Carrie. Prettiest Frau in G. P., if you asks me!"
Contentedly Sam Clark drove off, in the heavy traffic of
three Fords and the Mirmiemashie House Free 'Bus.
"I shall like Mr. Clark. . .I CAN'T call him `Sam'!
They're all so friendly." She glanced at the houses; tried
not to see what she saw; gave way in: "Why do these stories
lie so? They always make the bride's home-coming a bower
of roses. Complete trust in noble spouse. Lies about
marriage. I'm NOT changed. And this town--O my God! I
can't go through with it. This junk-heap!"
Her husband bent over her. "You look like you were in
a brown study. Scared? I don't expect you to think Gopher
Prairie is a paradise, after St. Paul. I don't expect you to be
crazy about it, at first. But you'll come to like it so much--
life's so free here and best people on earth."
She whispered to him (while Mrs. Clark considerately
turned away), "I love you for understanding. I'm just--I'm
beastly over-sensitive. Too many books. It's my lack of
shoulder-muscles and sense. Give me time, dear."
"You bet! All the time you want!"
She laid the back of his hand against her cheek, snuggled
near him. She was ready for her new home.
Kennicott had told her that, with his widowed mother as
housekeeper, he had occupied an old house, "but nice and
roomy, and well-heated, best furnace I could find on the
market." His mother had left Carol her love, and gone back
It would be wonderful, she exulted, not to have to live in
Other People's Houses, but to make her own shrine. She
held his hand tightly and stared ahead as the car swung
round a corner and stopped in the street before a prosaic
frame house in a small parched lawn.
A concrete sidewalk with a "parking" of grass and mud.
A square smug brown house, rather damp. A narrow concrete
walk up to it. Sickly yellow leaves in a windrow with dried
wings of box-elder seeds and snags of wool from the cotton-
woods. A screened porch with pillars of thin painted pine
surmounted by scrolls and brackets and bumps of jigsawed
wood. No shrubbery to shut off the public gaze. A lugubrious
bay-window to the right of the porch. Window curtains
of starched cheap lace revealing a pink marble table with a
conch shell and a Family Bible.
"You'll find it old-fashioned--what do you call it?--Mid-
Victorian. I left it as is, so you could make any changes you
felt were necessary." Kennicott sounded doubtful for the
first time since he had come back to his own.
"It's a real home!" She was moved by his humility. She
gaily motioned good-by to the Clarks. He unlocked the door--
he was leaving the choice of a maid to her, and there was
no one in the house. She jiggled while he turned the key,
and scampered in. . . . It was next day before either
of them remembered that in their honeymoon camp they had
planned that he should carry her over the sill.
In hallway and front parlor she was conscious of dinginess
and lugubriousness and airlessness, but she insisted, "I'll make
it all jolly." As she followed Kennicott and the bags up to
their bedroom she quavered to herself the song of the fat
little-gods of the hearth:
I have my own home,
To do what I please with,
To do what I please with,
My den for me and my mate and my cubs,
She was close in her husband's arms; she clung to him;
whatever of strangeness and slowness and insularity she might
find in him, none of that mattered so long as she could slip
her hands beneath his coat, run her fingers over the warm
smoothness of the satin back of his waistcoat, seem almost to
creep into his body, find in him strength, find in the courage
and kindness of her man a shelter from the perplexing world.
"Sweet, so sweet," she whispered.
"THE Clarks have invited some folks to their house to meet
us, tonight," said Kennicott, as he unpacked his suit-case.
"Oh, that is nice of them!"
"You bet. I told you you'd like 'em. Squarest people on
earth. Uh, Carrie---- Would you mind if I sneaked down to
the office for an hour, just to see how things are?"
"Why, no. Of course not. I know you're keen to get back
"Sure you don't mind?"
"Not a bit. Out of my way. Let me unpack."
But the advocate of freedom in marriage was as much
disappointed as a drooping bride at the alacrity with which he
took that freedom and escaped to the world of men's affairs.
She gazed about their bedroom, and its full dismalness crawled
over her: the awkward knuckly L-shape of it; the black walnut
bed with apples and spotty pears carved on the headboard; the
imitation maple bureau, with pink-daubed scent-bottles and a
petticoated pin-cushion on a marble slab uncomfortably like a
gravestone; the plain pine washstand and the garlanded water-
pitcher and bowl. The scent was of horsehair and plush and
"How could people ever live with things like this?" she
shuddered. She saw the furniture as a circle of elderly judges,
condemning her to death by smothering. The tottering brocade
chair squeaked, "Choke her--choke her--smother her."
The old linen smelled of the tomb. She was alone in this
house, this strange still house, among the shadows of dead
thoughts and haunting repressions. "I hate it! I hate it!"
she panted. "Why did I ever----"
She remembered that Kennicott's mother had brought these
family relics from the old home in Lac-qui-Meurt. "Stop it!
They're perfectly comfortable things. They're--comfortable.
Besides---- Oh, they're horrible! We'll change them, right away."
Then, "But of course he HAS to see how things are at the office----"
She made a pretense of busying herself with unpacking. The
chintz-lined, silver-fitted bag which had seemed so desirable a
luxury in St. Paul was an extravagant vanity here. The daring
black chemise of frail chiffon and lace was a hussy at
which the deep-bosomed bed stiffened in disgust, and she
hurled it into a bureau drawer, hid it beneath a sensible linen
She gave up unpacking. She went to the window, with a
purely literary thought of village charm--hollyhocks and lanes
and apple-cheeked cottagers. What she saw was the side of
the Seventh-Day Adventist Church--a plain clapboard wall
of a sour liver color; the ash-pile back of the church; an
unpainted stable; and an alley in which a Ford delivery-wagon
had been stranded. This was the terraced garden below her
boudoir; this was to be her scenery for----
"I mustn't! I mustn't! I'm nervous this afternoon. Am
I sick? . . . Good Lord, I hope it isn't that! Not now!
How people lie! How these stories lie! They say the bride
is always so blushing and proud and happy when she finds that
out, but--I'd hate it! I'd be scared to death! Some day
but---- Please, dear nebulous Lord, not now! Bearded sniffy
old men sitting and demanding that we bear children. If
THEY had to bear them----! I wish they did have to! Not now!
Not till I've got hold of this job of liking the ash-pile out
there! . . . I must shut up. I'm mildly insane. I'm
going out for a walk. I'll see the town by myself. My first
view of the empire I'm going to conquer!"
She fled from the house.
She stared with seriousness at every concrete crossing, every
hitching-post, every rake for leaves; and to each house she
devoted all her speculation. What would they come to mean?
How would they look six months from now? In which of
them would she be dining? Which of these people whom she
passed, now mere arrangements of hair and clothes, would turn
into intimates, loved or dreaded, different from all the other
people in the world?
As she came into the small business-section she inspected
a broad-beamed grocer in an alpaca coat who was bending over
the apples and celery on a slanted platform in front of his
store. Would she ever talk to him? What would he say if
she stopped and stated, "I am Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. Some
day I hope to confide that a heap of extremely dubious pumpkins
as a window-display doesn't exhilarate me much."
(The grocer was Mr. Frederick F. Ludelmeyer, whose market
is at the corner of Main Street and Lincoln Avenue. In
supposing that only she was observant Carol was ignorant,
misled by the indifference of cities. She fancied that she was
slipping through the streets invisible; but when she had
passed, Mr. Ludelmeyer puffed into the store and coughed at
his clerk, "I seen a young woman, she come along the side
street. I bet she iss Doc Kennicott's new bride, good-looker,
nice legs, but she wore a hell of a plain suit, no style, I wonder
will she pay cash, I bet she goes to Howland & Gould's more
as she does here, what you done with the poster for Fluffed
When Carol had walked for thirty-two minutes she had
completely covered the town, east and west, north and south; and
she stood at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue
Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-
half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk
to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too
small to absorb her. The broad, straight, unenticing gashes
of the streets let in the grasping prairie on every side. She
realized the vastness and the emptiness of the land. The
skeleton iron windmill on the farm a few blocks away, at the
north end of Main Street, was like the ribs of a dead cow.
She thought of the coming of the Northern winter, when the
unprotected houses would crouch together in terror of storms
galloping out of that wild waste. They were so small and
weak, the little brown houses. They were shelters for sparrows,
not homes for warm laughing people.
She told herself that down the street the leaves were a
splendor. The maples were orange; the oaks a solid tint
of raspberry. And the lawns had been nursed with love. But
the thought would not hold. At best the trees resembled a
thinned woodlot. There was no park to rest the eyes. And
since not Gopher Prairie but Wakamin was the county-seat,
there was no court-house with its grounds.
She glanced through the fly-specked windows of the most
pretentious building in sight, the one place which welcomed
strangers and determined their opinion of the charm and
luxury of Gopher Prairie--the Minniemashie House. It was
a tall lean shabby structure, three stories of yellow-streaked
wood, the corners covered with sanded pine slabs purporting
to symbolize stone. In the hotel office she could see a stretch
of bare unclean floor, a line of rickety chairs with brass
cuspidors between, a writing-desk with advertisements in
mother-of-pearl letters upon the glass-covered back. The
dining-room beyond was a jungle of stained table-cloths and
She looked no more at the Minniemashie House.
A man in cuffless shirt-sleeves with pink arm-garters, wearing
a linen collar but no tie, yawned his way from Dyer's Drug
Store across to the hotel. He leaned against the wall, scratched
a while, sighed, and in a bored way gossiped with a man tilted
back in a chair. A lumber-wagon, its long green box filled
with large spools of barbed-wire fencing, creaked down the
block. A Ford, in reverse, sounded as though it were shaking
to pieces, then recovered and rattled away. In the Greek
candy-store was the whine of a peanut-roaster, and the oily
smell of nuts.
There was no other sound nor sign of life.
She wanted to run, fleeing from the encroaching prairie,
demanding the security of a great city. Her dreams of creating
a beautiful town were ludicrous. Oozing out from every
drab wall, she felt a forbidding spirit which she could never
She trailed down the street on one side, back on the other,
glancing into the cross streets. It was a private Seeing Main
Street tour. She was within ten minutes beholding not only
the heart of a place called Gopher Prairie, but ten thousand
towns from Albany to San Diego:
Dyer's Drug Store, a corner building of regular and unreal
blocks of artificial stone. Inside the store, a greasy marble
soda-fountain with an electric lamp of red and green and
curdled-yellow mosaic shade. Pawed-over heaps of tooth-
brushes and combs and packages of shaving-soap. Shelves
of soap-cartons teething-rings, garden-seeds, and patent
medicines in yellow packages-nostrums for consumption, for
"women's diseases"--notorious mixtures of opium and alco-
hol, in the very shop to which her husband sent patients for
the filling of prescriptions.
From a second-story window the sign "W. P. Kennicott,
Phys. & Surgeon," gilt on black sand.
A small wooden motion-picture theater called "The
Rosebud Movie Palace." Lithographs announcing a film called
"Fatty in Love."
Howland & Gould's Grocery. In the display window, black,
overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping.
Shelves lined with red crepe paper which was now faded and
torn and concentrically spotted. Flat against the wall of the
second story the signs of lodges--the Knights of Pythias,
the Maccabees, the Woodmen, the Masons.
Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market--a reek of blood.
A jewelry shop with tinny-looking wrist-watches for women.
In front of it, at the curb, a huge wooden clock which did not
A fly-buzzing saloon with a brilliant gold and enamel whisky
sign across the front. Other saloons down the block. From
them a stink of stale beer, and thick voices bellowing pidgin
German or trolling out dirty songs--vice gone feeble and
unenterprising and dull--the delicacy of a mining-camp minus its
vigor. In front of the saloons, farmwives sitting on the seats of
wagons, waiting for their husbands to become drunk and ready
to start home.
A tobacco shop called "The Smoke House," filled with young
men shaking dice for cigarettes. Racks of magazines, and
pictures of coy fat prostitutes in striped bathing-suits.
A clothing store with a display of "ox-blood-shade Oxfords
with bull-dog toes." Suits which looked worn and glossless
while they were still new, flabbily draped on dummies like
corpses with painted cheeks.
The Bon Ton Store--Haydock & Simons'--the largest shop
in town. The first-story front of clear glass, the plates cleverly
bound at the edges with brass. The second story of pleasant
tapestry brick. One window of excellent clothes for men,
interspersed with collars of floral pique which showed mauve
daisies on a saffron ground. Newness and an obvious notion
of neatness and service. Haydock & Simons. Haydock. She
had met a Haydock at the station; Harry Haydock; an active
person of thirty-five. He seemed great to her, now, and very
like a saint. His shop was clean!
Axel Egge's General Store, frequented by Scandinavian
farmers. In the shallow dark window-space heaps of sleazy
sateens, badly woven galateas, canvas shoes designed for
women with bulging ankles, steel and red glass buttons upon
cards with broken edges, a cottony blanket, a granite-ware
frying-pan reposing on a sun-faded crepe blouse.
Sam Clark's Hardware Store. An air of frankly metallic
enterprise. Guns and churns and barrels of nails and beautiful
shiny butcher knives.
Chester Dashaway's House Furnishing Emporium. A vista
of heavy oak rockers with leather seats, asleep in a dismal
Billy's Lunch. Thick handleless cups on the wet oilcloth-
covered counter. An odor of onions and the smoke of hot
lard. In the doorway a young man audibly sucking a toothpick.
The warehouse of the buyer of cream and potatoes. The
sour smell of a dairy.
The Ford Garage and the Buick Garage, competent one-
story brick and cement buildings opposite each other. Old
and new cars on grease-blackened concrete floors. Tire
advertisements. The roaring of a tested motor; a racket which
beat at the nerves. Surly young men in khaki union-overalls.
The most energetic and vital places in town.
A large warehouse for agricultural implements. An impressive
barricade of green and gold wheels, of shafts and sulky
seats, belonging to machinery of which Carol knew nothing--
potato-planters, manure-spreaders, silage-cutters, disk-harrows,
A feed store, its windows opaque with the dust of bran, a
patent medicine advertisement painted on its roof.
Ye Art Shoppe, Prop. Mrs. Mary Ellen Wilks, Christian
Science Library open daily free. A touching fumble at beauty.
A one-room shanty of boards recently covered with rough
stucco. A show-window delicately rich in error: vases starting
out to imitate tree-trunks but running off into blobs of gilt--
an aluminum ash-tray labeled "Greetings from Gopher Prairie"
--a Christian Science magazine--a stamped sofa-cushion
portraying a large ribbon tied to a small poppy, the correct
skeins of embroidery-silk lying on the pillow. Inside the shop,
a glimpse of bad carbon prints of bad and famous pictures,
shelves of phonograph records and camera films, wooden toys,
and in the midst an anxious small woman sitting in a padded
A barber shop and pool room. A man in shirt sleeves,
presumably Del Snafflin the proprietor, shaving a man who had
a large Adam's apple.
Nat Hicks's Tailor Shop, on a side street off Main. A one-
story building. A fashion-plate showing human pitchforks
in garments which looked as hard as steel plate.
On another side street a raw red-brick Catholic Church with
a varnished yellow door.
The post-office--merely a partition of glass and brass
shutting off the rear of a mildewed room which must once have
been a shop. A tilted writing-shelf against a wall rubbed black
and scattered with official notices and army recruiting-posters.
The damp, yellow-brick schoolbuilding in its cindery grounds.
The State Bank, stucco masking wood.
The Farmers' National Bank. An Ionic temple of marble.
Pure, exquisite, solitary. A brass plate with "Ezra Stowbody,
A score of similar shops and establishments.
Behind them and mixed with them, the houses, meek cottages
or large, comfortable, soundly uninteresting symbols of prosperity.
In all the town not one building save the Ionic bank which
gave pleasure to Carol's eyes; not a dozen buildings which
suggested that, in the fifty years of Gopher Prairie's existence, the
citizens had realized that it was either desirable or possible to
make this, their common home, amusing or attractive.
It was not only the unsparing unapologetic ugliness and the
rigid straightness which overwhelmed her. It was the planlessness,
the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded
unpleasant colors. The street was cluttered with electric-
light poles, telephone poles, gasoline pumps for motor cars,
boxes of goods. Each man had built with the most valiant
disregard of all the others. Between a large new "block" of
two-story brick shops on one side, and the fire-brick Overland
garage on the other side, was a one-story cottage turned into
a millinery shop. The white temple of the Farmers' Bank
was elbowed back by a grocery of glaring yellow brick. One
store-building had a patchy galvanized iron cornice; the
building beside it was crowned with battlements and pyramids of
brick capped with blocks of red sandstone.
She escaped from Main Street, fled home.
She wouldn't have cared, she insisted, if the people had
been comely. She had noted a young man loafing before a
shop, one unwashed hand holding the cord of an awning; a
middle-aged man who had a way of staring at women as
though he had been married too long and too prosaically; an
old farmer, solid, wholesome, but not clean--his face like a
potato fresh from the earth. None of them had shaved for three
"If they can't build shrines, out here on the prairie, surely
there's nothing to prevent their buying safety-razors!" she
She fought herself: "I must be wrong. People do live here.
It CAN'T be as ugly as--as I know it is! I must be wrong.
But I can't do it. I can't go through with it."
She came home too seriously worried for hysteria; and when
she found Kennicott waiting for her, and exulting, "Have a
walk? Well, like the town? Great lawns and trees, eh?"
she was able to say, with a self-protective maturity new to
her, "It's very interesting."
The train which brought Carol to Gopher Prairie also
brought Miss Bea Sorenson.
Miss Bea was a stalwart, corn-colored, laughing young
woman, and she was bored by farm-work. She desired the
excitements of city-life, and the way to enjoy city-life was,
she had decided, to "go get a yob as hired girl in Gopher
Prairie." She contentedly lugged her pasteboard telescope from
the station to her cousin, Tina Malmquist, maid of all work
in the residence of Mrs. Luke Dawson.
"Vell, so you come to town," said Tina.
"Ya. Ay get a yob," said Bea.
"Vell. . . . You got a fella now?"
"Ya. Yim Yacobson."
"Vell. I'm glat to see you. How much you vant a veek?"
"There ain't nobody pay dat. Vait! Dr. Kennicott, I
t'ink he marry a girl from de Cities. Maybe she pay dat.
Vell. You go take a valk."
"Ya," said Bea.
So it chanced that Carol Kennicott and Bea Sorenson were
viewing Main Street at the same time.
Bea had never before been in a town larger than Scandia
Crossing, which has sixty-seven inhabitants.
As she marched up the street she was meditating that it
didn't hardly seem like it was possible there could be so
many folks all in one place at the same time. My! It
would take years to get acquainted with them all. And swell
people, too! A fine big gentleman in a new pink shirt with
a diamond, and not no washed-out blue denim working-shirt.
A lovely lady in a longery dress (but it must be an awful hard
dress to wash). And the stores!
Not just three of them, like there were at Scandia Crossing,
but more than four whole blocks!
The Bon Ton Store--big as four barns--my! it would
simply scare a person to go in there, with seven or eight
clerks all looking at you. And the men's suits, on figures just
like human. And Axel Egge's, like home, lots of Swedes and
Norskes in there, and a card of dandy buttons, like rubies.
A drug store with a soda fountain that was just huge, awful
long, and all lovely marble; and on it there was a great big
lamp with the biggest shade you ever saw--all different kinds
colored glass stuck together; and the soda spouts, they were
silver, and they came right out of the bottom of the lamp-
stand! Behind the fountain there were glass shelves, and
bottles of new kinds of soft drinks, that nobody ever heard of.
Suppose a fella took you THERE!
A hotel, awful high, higher than Oscar Tollefson's new red barn;
three stories, one right on top of another; you had to stick your
head back to look clear up to the top. There was a swell
traveling man in there--probably been to Chicago, lots of times.
Oh, the dandiest people to know here! There was a lady
going by, you wouldn't hardly say she was any older than Bea
herself; she wore a dandy new gray suit and black pumps.
She almost looked like she was looking over the town, too.
But you couldn't tell what she thought. Bea would like to
be that way--kind of quiet, so nobody would get fresh. Kind
A Lutheran Church. Here in the city there'd be lovely
sermons, and church twice on Sunday, EVERY Sunday!
And a movie show!
A regular theater, just for movies. With the sign "Change
of bill every evening." Pictures every evening!
There were movies in Scandia Crossing, but only once every
two weeks, and it took the Sorensons an hour to drive in--
papa was such a tightwad he wouldn't get a Ford. But here
she could put on her hat any evening, and in three minutes'
walk be to the movies, and see lovely fellows in dress-suits
and Bill Hart and everything!
How could they have so many stores? Why! There was
one just for tobacco alone, and one (a lovely one--the Art
Shoppy it was) for pictures and vases and stuff, with oh, the
dandiest vase made so it looked just like a tree trunk!
Bea stood on the corner of Main Street and Washington
Avenue. The roar of the city began to frighten her. There
were five automobuls on the street all at the same time--and
one of 'em was a great big car that must of cost two thousand
dollars--and the 'bus was starting for a train with five elegant-
dressed fellows, and a man was pasting up red bills with lovely
pictures of washing-machines on them. and the jeweler was laying
out bracelets and wrist-watches and EVERYTHING on real velvet.
What did she care if she got six dollars a week? Or two!
It was worth while working for nothing, to be allowed to stay
here. And think how it would be in the evening, all lighted
up--and not with no lamps, but with electrics! And maybe a
gentleman friend taking you to the movies and buying you a
strawberry ice cream soda!
Bea trudged back.
"Vell? You lak it?" said Tina.
"Ya. Ay lak it. Ay t'ink maybe Ay stay here," said Bea.
The recently built house of Sam Clark, in which was given
the party to welcome Carol, was one of the largest in Gopher
Prairie. It had a clean sweep of clapboards, a solid squareness,
a small tower, and a large screened porch. Inside, it was as
shiny, as hard, and as cheerful as a new oak upright piano.
Carol looked imploringly at Sam Clark as he rolled to the
door and shouted, "Welcome, little lady! The keys of the
city are yourn!"
Beyond him, in the hallway and the living-room, sitting in
a vast prim circle as though they were attending a funeral,
she saw the guests. They were WAITING so! They were waiting
for her! The determination to be all one pretty flowerlet
of appreciation leaked away. She begged of Sam, "I don't
dare face them! They expect so much. They'll swallow me
in one mouthful--glump!--like that!"
"Why, sister, they're going to love you--same as I would
if I didn't think the doc here would beat me up!"
"B-but---- I don't dare! Faces to the right of me, faces
in front of me, volley and wonder!"
She sounded hysterical to herself; she fancied that to Sam
Clark she sounded insane. But he chuckled, "Now you just
cuddle under Sam's wing, and if anybody rubbers at you too
long, I'll shoo 'em off. Here we go! Watch my smoke--
Sam'l, the ladies' delight and the bridegrooms' terror!"
His arm about her, he led her in and bawled, "Ladies and
worser halves, the bride! We won't introduce her round yet,
because she'll never get your bum names straight anyway.
Now bust up this star-chamber!"
They tittered politely, but they did not move from the social
security of their circle, and they did not cease staring.