This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1920
Collection:
Buy it on Amazon Listen via Audible FREE Audible 30 days

obstinate. And I can’t even go off and earn my living again. Out of the habit of it. He’s driving me—- I’m afraid of what he’s driving me to. Afraid.

“That man in there, snoring in stale air, my husband? Could any ceremony make him my husband?

“No. I don’t want to hurt him. I want to love him. I can’t, when I’m thinking of Erik. Am I too honest–a funny topsy-turvy honesty–the faithfulness of unfaith? I wish I had a more compartmental mind, like men. I’m too monogamous– toward Erik!–my child Erik, who needs me.

“Is an illicit affair like a gambling debt–demands stricter honor than the legitimate debt of matrimony, because it’s not legally enforced?

“That’s nonsense! I don’t care in the least for Erik! Not for any man. I want to be let alone, in a woman world– a world without Main Street, or politicians, or business men, or men with that sudden beastly hungry look, that glistening unfrank expression that wives know—-

“If Erik were here, if he would just sit quiet and kind and talk, I could be still, I could go to sleep.

“I am so tired. If I could sleep—-“

CHAPTER XXXI

THEIR night came unheralded.

Kennicott was on a country call. It was cool but Carol huddled on the porch, rocking, meditating, rocking. The house was lonely and repellent, and though she sighed, “I ought to go in and read–so many things to read–ought to go in,” she remained. Suddenly Erik was coming, turning in, swinging open the screen door, touching her hand.

“Erik!”

“Saw your husband driving out of town. Couldn’t stand it.”

“Well—- You mustn’t stay more than five minutes.”

“Couldn’t stand not seeing you. Every day, towards evening, felt I had to see you–pictured you so clear. I’ve been good though, staying away, haven’t I!”

“And you must go on being good.”

“Why must I?”

“We better not stay here on the porch. The Howlands across the street are such window-peepers, and Mrs. Bogart—-“

She did not look at him but she could divine his tremulousness as he stumbled indoors. A moment ago the night had been coldly empty; now it was incalculable, hot, treacherous. But it is women who are the calm realists once they discard the fetishes of the premarital hunt. Carol was serene as she murmured, “Hungry? I have some little honey-colored cakes. You may have two, and then you must skip home.”

“Take me up and let me see Hugh asleep.”

“I don’t believe—-“

“Just a glimpse!”

“Well—-“

She doubtfully led the way to the hallroom-nursery. Their heads close, Erik’s curls pleasant as they touched her cheek, they looked in at the baby. Hugh was pink with slumber. He had burrowed into his pillow with such energy that it was almost smothering him. Beside it was a celluloid rhinoceros; tight in his hand a torn picture of Old King Cole.

“Shhh!” said Carol, quite automatically. She tiptoed in to pat the pillow. As she returned to Erik she had a friendly sense of his waiting for her. They smiled at each other. She did not think of Kennicott, the baby’s father. What she did think was that some one rather like Erik, an older and surer Erik, ought to be Hugh’s father. The three of them would play–incredible imaginative games.

“Carol! You’ve told me about your own room. Let me peep in at it.”

“But you mustn’t stay, not a second. We must go downstairs.”

“Yes.”

“Will you be good?”

“R-reasonably!” He was pale, large-eyed, serious.

“You’ve got to be more than reasonably good!” She felt sensible and superior; she was energetic about pushing open the door.

Kennicott had always seemed out of place there but Erik surprisingly harmonized with the spirit of the room as he stroked the books, glanced at the prints. He held out his hands. He came toward her. She was weak, betrayed to a warm softness. Her head was tilted back. Her eyes were closed. Her thoughts were formless but many-colored. She felt his kiss, diffident and reverent, on her eyelid.

Then she knew that it was impossible.

She shook herself. She sprang from him. “Please!” she said sharply.

He looked at her unyielding.

“I am fond of you,” she said. “Don’t spoil everything. Be my friend.”

“How many thousands and millions of women must have said that! And now you! And it doesn’t spoil everything. It glorifies everything.”

“Dear, I do think there’s a tiny streak of fairy in you– whatever you do with it. Perhaps I’d have loved that once. But I won’t. It’s too late. But I’ll keep a fondness for you. Impersonal–I will be impersonal! It needn’t be just a thin talky fondness. You do need me, don’t you? Only you and my son need me. I’ve wanted so to be wanted! Once I wanted love to be given to me. Now I’ll be content if I can give. . . . Almost content!

“We women, we like to do things for men. Poor men! We swoop on you when you’re defenseless and fuss over you and insist on reforming you. But it’s so pitifully deep in us. You’ll be the one thing in which I haven’t failed. Do something definite! Even if it’s just selling cottons. Sell beautiful cottons–caravans from China—-“

“Carol! Stop! You do love me!”

“I do not! It’s just—- Can’t you understand? Everything crushes in on me so, all the gaping dull people, and I look for a way out—- Please go. I can’t stand any more. Please!”

He was gone. And she was not relieved by the quiet of the house. She was empty and the house was empty and she needed him. She wanted to go on talking, to get this threshed out, to build a sane friendship. She wavered down to the living-room, looked out of the bay-window. He was not to be seen. But Mrs. Westlake was. She was walking past, and in the light from the corner arc-lamp she quickly inspected the porch, the windows. Carol dropped the curtain, stood with movement and reflection paralyzed. Automatically, without reasoning, she mumbled, “I will see him again soon and make him understand we must be friends. But—- The house is so empty. It echoes so.”

II

Kennicott had seemed nervous and absent-minded through that supper-hour, two evenings after. He prowled about the living-room, then growled:

“What the dickens have you been saying to Ma Westlake?”

Carol’s book rattled. “What do you mean?”

“I told you that Westlake and his wife were jealous of us, and here you been chumming up to them and—- From what Dave tells me, Ma Westlake has been going around town saying you told her that you hate Aunt Bessie, and that you fixed up your own room because I snore, and you said Bjornstam was too good for Bea, and then, just recent, that you were sore on the town because we don’t all go down on our knees and beg this Valborg fellow to come take supper with us. God only knows what else she says you said.”

“It’s not true, any of it! I did like Mrs. Westlake, and I’ve called on her, and apparently she’s gone and twisted everything I’ve said—-“

“Sure. Of course she would. Didn’t I tell you she would? She’s an old cat, like her pussyfooting, hand-holding husband. Lord, if I was sick, I’d rather have a faith-healer than Westlake, and she’s another slice off the same bacon. What I can’t understand though—-“

She waited, taut.

“—-is whatever possessed you to let her pump you, bright a girl as you are. I don’t care what you told her–we all get peeved sometimes and want to blow off steam, that’s natural– but if you wanted to keep it dark, why didn’t you advertise it in the Dauntless, or get a megaphone and stand on top of the hotel and holler, or do anything besides spill it to her!”

“I know. You told me. But she was so motherly. And I didn’t have any woman—- Vida ‘s become so married and proprietary.”

“Well, next time you’ll have better sense.”

He patted her head, flumped down behind his newspaper, said nothing more.

Enemies leered through the windows, stole on her from the hall. She had no one save Erik. This kind good man Kennicott–he was an elder brother. It was Erik, her fellow outcast, to whom she wanted to run for sanctuary. Through her storm she was, to the eye, sitting quietly with her fingers between the pages of a baby-blue book on home-dressmaking. But her dismay at Mrs. Westlake’s treachery had risen to active dread. What had the woman said of her and Erik? What did she know? What had she seen? Who else would join in the baying hunt? Who else had seen her with Erik? What had she to fear from the Dyers, Cy Bogart, Juanita, Aunt Bessie? What precisely had she answered to Mrs. Bogart’s questioning?

All next day she was too restless to stay home, yet as she walked the streets on fictitious errands she was afraid of every person she met. She waited for them to speak; waited with foreboding. She repeated, “I mustn’t ever see Erik again.” But the words did not register. She had no ecstatic indulgence in the sense of guilt which is, to the women of Main Street, the surest escape from blank tediousness.

At five, crumpled in a chair in the living-room, she started at the sound of the bell. Some one opened the door. She waited, uneasy. Vida Sherwin charged into the room. “Here’s the one person I can trust!” Carol rejoiced.

Vida was serious but affectionate. She bustled at Carol with, “Oh, there you are, dearie, so glad t’ find you in, sit down, want to talk to you.”

Carol sat, obedient.

Vida fussily tugged over a large chair and launched out:

“I’ve been hearing vague rumors you were interested in this Erik Valborg. I knew you couldn’t be guilty, and I’m surer than ever of it now. Here we are, as blooming as a daisy.”

“How does a respectable matron look when she feels guilty?”

Carol sounded resentful.

“Why—- Oh, it would show! Besides! I know that you, of all people, are the one that can appreciate Dr. Will.”

“What have you been hearing?”

“Nothing, really. I just heard Mrs. Bogart say she’d seen you and Valborg walking together a lot.” Vida’s chirping slackened. She looked at her nails. “But—- I suspect you do like Valborg. Oh, I don’t mean in any wrong way. But you’re young; you don’t know what an innocent liking might drift into. You always pretend to be so sophisticated and all, but you’re a baby. Just because you are so innocent, you don’t know what evil thoughts may lurk in that fellow’s brain.”

“You don’t suppose Valborg could actually think about making love to me?”

Her rather cheap sport ended abruptly as Vida cried, with contorted face, “What do you know about the thoughts in hearts? You just play at reforming the world. You don’t know what it means to suffer.”

There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion that he hasn’t a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble. Carol said furiously, “You think I don’t suffer? You think I’ve always had an easy—-“

“No, you don’t. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a living soul, not even Ray.” The dam of repressed imagination which Vida had builded for years, which now, with Raymie off at the wars, she was building again, gave way.

“I was–I liked Will terribly well. One time at a party–oh, before he met you, of course–but we held hands, and we were so happy. But I didn’t feel I was really suited to him. I let him go. Please don’t think I still love him! I see now that Ray was predestined to be my mate. But because I liked him, I know how sincere and pure and noble Will is, and his thoughts never straying from the path of rectitude, and—- If I gave him up to you, at least you’ve got to appreciate him! We danced together and laughed so, and I gave him up, but—- This IS my affair! I’m NOT intruding! I see the whole thing as he does, because of all I’ve told you. Maybe it’s shameless to bare my heart this way, but I do it for him– for him and you!”

Carol understood that Vida believed herself to have recited minutely and brazenly a story of intimate love; understood that, in alarm, she was trying to cover her shame as she struggled on, “Liked him in the most honorable way–simply can’t help it if I still see things through his eyes—- If I gave him up, I certainly am not beyond my rights in demanding that you take care to avoid even the appearance of evil and—-” She was weeping; an insignificant, flushed, ungracefully weeping woman.

Carol could not endure it. She ran to Vida, kissed her forehead, comforted her with a murmur of dove-like sounds, sought to reassure her with worn and hastily assembled gifts of words: “Oh, I appreciate it so much,” and “You are so fine and splendid,” and “Let me assure you there isn’t a thing to what you’ve heard,” and “Oh, indeed, I do know how sincere Will is, and as you say, so–so sincere.”

Vida believed that she had explained many deep and devious matters. She came out of her hysteria like a sparrow shaking off rain-drops. She sat up, and took advantage of her victory:

“I don’t want to rub it in, but you can see for yourself now, this is all a result of your being so discontented and not appreciating the dear good people here. And another thing: People like you and me, who want to reform things, have to be particularly careful about appearances. Think how much better you can criticize conventional customs if you yourself live up to them, scrupulously. Then people can’t say you’re attacking them to excuse your own infractions.”

To Carol was given a sudden great philosophical understanding, an explanation of half the cautious reforms in his- tory. “Yes. I’ve heard that plea. It’s a good one. It sets revolts aside to cool. It keeps strays in the flock. To word it differently: `You must live up to the popular code if you believe in it; but if you don’t believe in it, then you MUST live up to it!’ “

“I don’t think so at all,” said Vida vaguely. She began to look hurt, and Carol let her be oracular.

III

Vida had done her a service; had made all agonizing seem so fatuous that she ceased writhing and saw that her whole problem was simple as mutton: she was interested in Erik’s aspiration; interest gave her a hesitating fondness for him; and the future would take care of the event. . . . But at night, thinking in bed, she protested, “I’m not a falsely accused innocent, though! If it were some one more resolute than Erik, a fighter, an artist with bearded surly lips—- They’re only in books. Is that the real tragedy, that I never shall know tragedy, never find anything but blustery complications that turn out to be a farce?

“No one big enough or pitiful enough to sacrifice for. Tragedy in neat blouses; the eternal flame all nice and safe in a kerosene stove. Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace curtains–on Main Street!”

Aunt Bessie crept in next day, tried to pump her, tried to prime the pump by again hinting that Kennicott might have his own affairs. Carol snapped, “Whatever I may do, I’ll have you to understand that Will is only too safe!” She wished afterward that she had not been so lofty. How much would Aunt Bessie make of “Whatever I may do?”

When Kennicott came home he poked at things, and hemmed, and brought out, “Saw aunty, this afternoon. She said you weren’t very polite to her.”

Carol laughed. He looked at her in a puzzled way and fled to his newspaper.

IV

She lay sleepless. She alternately considered ways of leaving Kennicott, and remembered his virtues, pitied his bewilderment in face of the subtle corroding sicknesses which he could not dose nor cut out. Didn’t he perhaps need her more than did the book-solaced Erik? Suppose Will were to die, suddenly. Suppose she never again saw him at breakfast, silent but amiable, listening to her chatter. Suppose he never again played elephant for Hugh. Suppose—- A country call, a slippery road, his motor skidding, the edge of the road crumbling, the car turning turtle, Will pinned beneath, suffering, brought home maimed, looking at her with spaniel eyes–or waiting for her, calling for her, while she was in Chicago, knowing nothing of it. Suppose he were sued by some vicious shrieking woman for malpractice. He tried to get witnesses; Westlake spread lies; his friends doubted him; his self- confidence was so broken that it was horrible to see the indecision of the decisive man; he was convicted, handcuffed, taken on a train—-

She ran to his room. At her nervous push the door swung sharply in, struck a chair. He awoke, gasped, then in a steady voice: “What is it, dear? Anything wrong?” She darted to him, fumbled for the familiar harsh bristly cheek. How well she knew it, every seam, and hardness of bone, and roll of fat! Yet when he sighed, “This is a nice visit,” and dropped his hand on her thin-covered shoulder, she said, too cheerily, “I thought I heard you moaning. So silly of me. Good night, dear.”

V

She did not see Erik for a fortnight, save once at church and once when she went to the tailor shop to talk over the plans, contingencies, and strategy of Kennicott’s annual campaign for getting a new suit. Nat Hicks was there, and he was not so deferential as he had been. With unnecessary jauntiness he chuckled, “Some nice flannels, them samples, heh?” Needlessly he touched her arm to call attention to the fashion-plates, and humorously he glanced from her to Erik. At home she wondered if the little beast might not be suggesting himself as a rival to Erik, but that abysmal bedragglement she would not consider.

She saw Juanita Haydock slowly walking past the house– as Mrs. Westlake had once walked past.

She met Mrs. Westlake in Uncle Whittier’s store, and before that alert stare forgot her determination to be rude, and was shakily cordial.

She was sure that all the men on the street, even Guy Pollock and Sam Clark, leered at her in an interested hopeful way, as though she were a notorious divorcee. She felt as insecure as a shadowed criminal. She wished to see Erik, and wished that she had never seen him. She fancied that Kennicott was the only person in town who did not know all– know incomparably more than there was to know–about herself and Erik. She crouched in her chair as she imagined men talking of her, thick-voiced, obscene, in barber shops and the tobacco-stinking pool parlor.

Through early autumn Fern Mullins was the only person who broke the suspense. The frivolous teacher had come to accept Carol as of her own youth, and though school had begun she rushed in daily to suggest dances, welsh-rabbit parties.

Fern begged her to go as chaperon to a barn-dance in the country, on a Saturday evening. Carol could not go. The next day, the storm crashed.

CHAPTER XXXII

I

CAROL was on the back porch, tightening a bolt on the baby’s go-cart, this Sunday afternoon. Through an open window of the Bogart house she heard a screeching, heard Mrs. Bogart’s haggish voice:

. . .did too, and there’s no use your denying it no you don’t, you march yourself right straight out of the house. . .never in my life heard of such. . . never had nobody talk to me like. . .walk in the ways of sin and nastiness. . .leave your clothes here, and heaven knows that’s more than you deserve. . .any of your lip or I’ll call the policeman.”

The voice of the other interlocutor Carol did not catch, nor, though Mrs. Bogart was proclaiming that he was her confidant and present assistant, did she catch the voice of Mrs. Bogart’s God.

“Another row with Cy,” Carol inferred.

She trundled the go-cart down the back steps and tentatively wheeled it across the yard, proud of her repairs. She heard steps on the sidewalk. She saw not Cy Bogart but Fern Mullins, carrying a suit-case, hurrying up the street with her head low. The widow, standing on the porch with buttery arms akimbo, yammered after the fleeing girl:

“And don’t you dare show your face on this block again. You can send the drayman for your trunk. My house has been contaminated long enough. Why the Lord should afflict me—-“

Fern was gone. The righteous widow glared, banged into the house, came out poking at her bonnet, marched away. By this time Carol was staring in a manner not visibly to be distinguished from the window-peeping of the rest of Gopher Prairie. She saw Mrs. Bogart enter the Howland house, then the Casses’. Not till suppertime did she reach the Kennicotts. The doctor answered her ring, and greeted her, “Well, well? how’s the good neighbor?”

The good neighbor charged into the living-room, waving the most unctuous of black kid gloves and delightedly sputtering:

“You may well ask how I am! I really do wonder how I could go through the awful scenes of this day–and the impudence I took from that woman’s tongue, that ought to be cut out—-“

“Whoa! Whoa! Hold up!” roared Kennicott. “Who’s the hussy, Sister Bogart? Sit down and take it cool and tell us about it.”

“I can’t sit down, I must hurry home, but I couldn’t devote myself to my own selfish cares till I’d warned you, and heaven knows I don’t expect any thanks for trying to warn the town against her, there’s always so much evil in the world that folks simply won’t see or appreciate your trying to safeguard them—- And forcing herself in here to get in with you and Carrie, many ‘s the time I’ve seen her doing it, and, thank heaven, she was found out in time before she could do any more harm, it simply breaks my heart and prostrates me to think what she may have done already, even if some of us that understand and know about things—-“

“Whoa-up! Who are you talking about?”

“She’s talking about Fern Mullins,” Carol put in, not pleasantly.

“Huh?”

Kennicott was incredulous.

“I certainly am!” flourished Mrs. Bogart, “and good and thankful you may be that I found her out in time, before she could get YOU into something, Carol, because even if you are my neighbor and Will’s wife and a cultured lady, let me tell you right now, Carol Kennicott, that you ain’t always as respectful to–you ain’t as reverent–you don’t stick by the good old ways like they was laid down for us by God in the Bible, and while of course there ain’t a bit of harm in having a good laugh, and I know there ain’t any real wickedness in you, yet just the same you don’t fear God and hate the transgressors of his commandments like you ought to, and you may be thankful I found out this serpent I nourished in my bosom –and oh yes! oh yes indeed! my lady must have two eggs every morning for breakfast, and eggs sixty cents a dozen, and wa’n’t satisfied with one, like most folks–what did she care how much they cost or if a person couldn’t make hardly nothing on her board and room, in fact I just took her in out of charity and I might have known from the kind of stockings and clothes that she sneaked into my house in her trunk—-“

Before they got her story she had five more minutes of obscene wallowing. The gutter comedy turned into high tragedy, with Nemesis in black kid gloves. The actual story was simple, depressing, and unimportant. As to details Mrs. Bogart was indefinite, and angry that she should be questioned.

Fern Mullins and Cy had, the evening before, driven alone to a barn-dance in the country. (Carol brought out the admission that Fern had tried to get a chaperon.) At the dance Cy had kissed Fern–she confessed that. Cy had obtained a pint of whisky; he said that he didn’t remember where he had got it; Mrs. Bogart implied that Fern had given it to him; Fern herself insisted that he had stolen it from a farmer’s overcoat– which, Mrs. Bogart raged, was obviously a lie. He had become soggily drunk. Fern had driven him home; deposited him, retching and wabbling, on the Bogart porch.

Never before had her boy been drunk, shrieked Mrs. Bogart. When Kennicott grunted, she owned, “Well, maybe once or twice I’ve smelled licker on his breath.” She also, with an air of being only too scrupulously exact, granted that sometimes he did not come home till morning. But he couldn’t ever have been drunk, for he always had the best excuses: the other boys had tempted him to go down the lake spearing pickerel by torchlight, or he had been out in a “machine that ran out of gas.” Anyway, never before had her boy fallen into the hands of a “designing woman.”

“What do you suppose Miss Mullins could design to do with him?” insisted Carol.

Mrs. Bogart was puzzled, gave it up, went on. This morning, when she had faced both of them, Cy had manfully confessed that all of the blame was on Fern, because the teacher–his own teacher–had dared him to take a drink. Fern had tried to deny it.

“Then,” gabbled Mrs. Bogart, “then that woman had the impudence to say to me, `What purpose could I have in wanting the filthy pup to get drunk?’ That’s just what she called him–pup. `I’ll have no such nasty language in my house,’ I says, `and you pretending and pulling the wool over people’s eyes and making them think you’re educated and fit to be a teacher and look out for young people’s morals–you’re worse ‘n any street-walker!’ I says. I let her have it good. I wa’n’t going to flinch from my bounden duty and let her think that decent folks had to stand for her vile talk. `Purpose?’ I says, `Purpose? I’ll tell you what purpose you had! Ain’t I seen you making up to everything in pants that’d waste time and pay attention to your impert’nence? Ain’t I seen you showing off your legs with them short skirts of yours, trying to make out like you was so girlish and la-de-da, running along the street?’ “

Carol was very sick at this version of Fern’s eager youth, but she was sicker as Mrs. Bogart hinted that no one could tell what had happened between Fern and Cy before the drive home. Without exactly describing the scene, by her power of lustful imagination the woman suggested dark country places apart from the lanterns and rude fiddling and banging dance-steps in the barn, then madness and harsh hateful conquest. Carol was too sick to interrupt. It was Kennicott who cried, “Oh, for God’s sake quit it! You haven’t any idea what happened. You haven’t given us a single proof yet that Fern is anything but a rattle-brained youngster.”

“I haven’t, eh? Well, what do you say to this? I come straight out and I says to her, `Did you or did you not taste the whisky Cy had?’ and she says, `I think I did take one sip– Cy made me,’ she said. She owned up to that much, so you can imagine—-“

“Does that prove her a prostitute?” asked Carol.

“Carrie! Don’t you never use a word like that again!” wailed the outraged Puritan.

“Well, does it prove her to be a bad woman, that she took a taste of whisky? I’ve done it myself!”

“That’s different. Not that I approve your doing it. What do the Scriptures tell us? `Strong drink is a mocker’! But that’s entirely different from a teacher drinking with one of her own pupils.”

“Yes, it does sound bad. Fern was silly, undoubtedly. But as a matter of fact she’s only a year or two older than Cy and probably a good many years younger in experience of vice.”

“That’s–not–true! She is plenty old enough to corrupt him!

“The job of corrupting Cy was done by your sinless town, five years ago!”

Mrs. Bogart did not rage in return. Suddenly she was hopeless. Her head drooped. She patted her black kid gloves, picked at a thread of her faded brown skirt, and sighed, “He’s a good boy, and awful affectionate if you treat him right. Some thinks he’s terrible wild, but that’s because he’s young. And he’s so brave and truthful–why, he was one of the first in town that wanted to enlist for the war, and I had to speak real sharp to him to keep him from running away. I didn’t want him to get into no bad influences round these camps– and then,” Mrs. Bogart rose from her pitifulness, recovered her pace, “then I go and bring into my own house a woman that’s worse, when all’s said and done, than any bad woman he could have met. You say this Mullins woman is too young and inexperienced to corrupt Cy. Well then, she’s too young and inexperienced to teach him, too, one or t’other, you can’t have your cake and eat it! So it don’t make no difference which reason they fire her for, and that’s practically almost what I said to the school-board.”

“Have you been telling this story to the members of the school-board?”

“I certainly have! Every one of ’em! And their wives I says to them, ` ‘Tain’t my affair to decide what you should or should not do with your teachers,’ I says, `and I ain’t presuming to dictate in any way, shape, manner, or form. I just want to know,’ I says, `whether you’re going to go on record as keeping here in our schools, among a lot of innocent boys and girls, a woman that drinks, smokes, curses, uses bad language, and does such dreadful things as I wouldn’t lay tongue to but you know what I mean,’ I says, `and if so, I’ll just see to it that the town learns about it.’ And that’s what I told Professor Mott, too, being superintendent–and he’s a righteous man, not going autoing on the Sabbath like the school-board members. And the professor as much as admitted he was suspicious of the Mullins woman himself.”

II

Kennicott was less shocked and much less frightened than Carol, and more articulate in his description of Mrs. Bogart, when she had gone.

Maud Dyer telephoned to Carol and, after a rather improbable question about cooking lima beans with bacon, de- manded, “Have you heard the scandal about this Miss Mullins and Cy Bogart?”

“I’m sure it’s a lie.”

“Oh, probably is.” Maud’s manner indicated that the falsity of the story was an insignificant flaw in its general delightfulness.

Carol crept to her room, sat with hands curled tight together as she listened to a plague of voices. She could hear the town yelping with it, every soul of them, gleeful at new details, panting to win importance by having details of their own to add. How well they would make up for what they had been afraid to do by imagining it in another! They who had not been entirely afraid (but merely careful and sneaky), all the barber-shop roues and millinery-parlor mondaines, how archly they were giggling (this second–she could hear them at it); with what self-commendation they were cackling their suavest wit: “You can’t tell ME she ain’t a gay bird; I’m wise!”

And not one man in town to carry out their pioneer tradition of superb and contemptuous cursing, not one to verify the myth that their “rough chivalry” and “rugged virtues” were more generous than the petty scandal-picking of older lands, not one dramatic frontiersman to thunder, with fantastic and fictional oaths, “What are you hinting at? What are you snickering at? What facts have you? What are these unheard- of sins you condemn so much–and like so well?”

No one to say it. Not Kennicott nor Guy Pollock nor Champ Perry.

Erik? Possibly. He would sputter uneasy protest.

She suddenly wondered what subterranean connection her interest in Erik had with this affair. Wasn’t it because they had been prevented by her caste from bounding on her own trail that they were howling at Fern?

III

Before supper she found, by half a dozen telephone calls, that Fern had fled to the Minniemashie House. She hastened there, trying not to be self-conscious about the people who looked at her on the street. The clerk said indifferently that he “guessed” Miss Mullins was up in Room 37, and left Carol to find the way. She hunted along the stale-smelling corridors with their wallpaper of cerise daisies and poison-green rosettes, streaked in white spots from spilled water, their frayed red and yellow matting, and rows of pine doors painted a sickly blue. She could not find the number. In the darkness at the end of a corridor she had to feel the aluminum figures on the door-panels. She was startled once by a man’s voice: “Yep? Whadyuh want?” and fled. When she reached the right door she stood listening. She made out a long sobbing. There was no answer till her third knock; then an alarmed “Who is it? Go away!”

Her hatred of the town turned resolute as she pushed open the door.

Yesterday she had seen Fern Mullins in boots and tweed skirt and canary-yellow sweater, fleet and self-possessed. Now she lay across the bed, in crumpled lavender cotton and shabby pumps, very feminine, utterly cowed. She lifted her head in stupid terror. Her hair was in tousled strings and her face was sallow, creased. Her eyes were a blur from weeping.

“I didn’t! I didn’t!” was all she would say at first, and she repeated it while Carol kissed her cheek, stroked her hair, bathed her forehead. She rested then, while Carol looked about the room–the welcome to strangers, the sanctuary of hospitable Main Street, the lucrative property of Kennicott’s friend, Jackson Elder. It smelled of old linen and decaying carpet and ancient tobacco smoke. The bed was rickety, with a thin knotty mattress; the sand-colored walls were scratched and gouged; in every corner, under everything, were fluffy dust and cigar ashes; on the tilted wash-stand was a nicked and squatty pitcher; the only chair was a grim straight object of spotty varnish; but there was an altogether splendid gilt and rose cuspidor.

She did not try to draw out Fern’s story; Fern insisted on telling it.

She had gone to the party, not quite liking Cy but willing to endure him for the sake of dancing, of escaping from Mrs. Bogart’s flow of moral comments, of relaxing after the first strained weeks of teaching. Cy “promised to be good.” He was, on the way out. There were a few workmen from Gopher Prairie at the dance, with many young farm-people. Half a dozen squatters from a degenerate colony in a brush-hidden hollow, planters of potatoes, suspected thieves, came in noisily drunk. They all pounded the floor of the barn in old-fashioned square dances, swinging their partners, skipping, laughing, under the incantations of Del Snafflin the barber, who fiddled and called the figures. Cy had two drinks from pocket-flasks. Fern saw him fumbling among the overcoats piled on the feedbox at the far end of the barn; soon after she heard a farmer declaring that some one had stolen his bottle. She taxed Cy with the theft; he chuckled, “Oh, it’s just a joke; I’m going to give it back.” He demanded that she take a drink. Unless she did, he wouldn’t return the bottle.

“I just brushed my lips with it, and gave it back to him,” moaned Fern. She sat up, glared at Carol. “Did you ever take a drink?”

“I have. A few. I’d love to have one right now! This contact with righteousness has about done me up!”

Fern could laugh then. “So would I! I don’t suppose I’ve had five drinks in my life, but if I meet just one more Bogart and Son—- Well, I didn’t really touch that bottle–horrible raw whisky–though I’d have loved some wine. I felt so jolly. The barn was almost like a stage scene–the high rafters, and the dark stalls, and tin lanterns swinging, and a silage-cutter up at the end like some mysterious kind of machine. And I’d been having lots of fun dancing with the nicest young farmer, so strong and nice, and awfully intelligent. But I got uneasy when I saw how Cy was. So I doubt if I touched two drops of the beastly stuff. Do you suppose God is punishing me for even wanting wine?”

“My dear, Mrs. Bogart’s god may be–Main Street’s god. But all the courageous intelligent people are fighting him. . . though he slay us.”

Fern danced again with the young farmer; she forgot Cy while she was talking with a girl who had taken the University agricultural course. Cy could not have returned the bottle; he came staggering toward her–taking time to make himself offensive to every girl on the way and to dance a jig. She insisted on their returning. Cy went with her, chuckling and jigging. He kissed her, outside the door. . . . “And to think I used to think it was interesting to have men kiss you at a dance!”. . . She ignored the kiss, in the need of getting him home before he started a fight. A farmer helped her harness the buggy, while Cy snored in the seat. He awoke before they set out; all the way home he alternately slept and tried to make love to her.

“I’m almost as strong as he is. I managed to keep him away while I drove–such a rickety buggy. I didn’t feel like a girl; I felt like a scrubwoman–no, I guess I was too scared to have any feelings at all. It was terribly dark. I got home, somehow. But it was hard, the time I had to get out, and it was quite muddy, to read a sign-post–I lit matches that I took from Cy’s coat pocket, and he followed me–he fell off the buggy step into the mud, and got up and tried to make love to me, and—- I was scared. But I hit him. Quite hard. And got in, and so he ran after the buggy, crying like a baby, and I let him in again, and right away again he was trying—- But no matter. I got him home. Up on the porch. Mrs. Bogart was waiting up. . . .

“You know, it was funny; all the time she was–oh, talking to me–and Cy was being terribly sick–I just kept thinking, `I’ve still got to drive the buggy down to the livery stable. I wonder if the livery man will be awake?’ But I got through somehow. I took the buggy down to the stable, and got to my room. I locked my door, but Mrs. Bogart kept saying things, outside the door. Stood out there saying things about me, dreadful things, and rattling the knob. And all the while I could hear Cy in the back yard-being sick. I don’t think I’ll ever marry any man. And then today—-

“She drove me right out of the house. She wouldn’t listen to me, all morning. Just to Cy. I suppose he’s over his headache now. Even at breakfast he thought the whole thing was a grand joke. I suppose right this minute he’s going around town boasting about his `conquest.’ You understand– oh, DON’T you understand? I DID keep him away! But I don’t see how I can face my school. They say country towns are fine for bringing up boys in, but—- I can’t believe this is me, lying here and saying this. I don’t BELIEVE what happened last night.

“Oh. This was curious: When I took off my dress last night–it was a darling dress, I loved it so, but of course the mud had spoiled it. I cried over it and—- No matter. But my white silk stockings were all torn, and the strange thing is, I don’t know whether I caught my legs in the briers when I got out to look at the sign-post, or whether Cy scratched me when I was fighting him off.”

IV

Sam Clark was president of the school-board. When Carol told him Fern’s story Sam looked sympathetic and neighborly, and Mrs. Clark sat by cooing, “Oh, isn’t that too bad.” Carol was interrupted only when Mrs. Clark begged, “Dear, don’t speak so bitter about `pious’ people. There’s lots of sincere practising Christians that are real tolerant. Like the Champ Perrys.”

“Yes. I know. Unfortunately there are enough kindly people in the churches to keep them going.”

When Carol had finished, Mrs. Clark breathed, “Poor girl; I don’t doubt her story a bit,” and Sam rumbled, “Yuh, sure. Miss Mullins is young and reckless, but everybody in town, except Ma Bogart, knows what Cy is. But Miss Mullins was a fool to go with him.”

“But not wicked enough to pay for it with disgrace?”

“N-no, but—-” Sam avoided verdicts, clung to the entrancing horrors of the story. “Ma Bogart cussed her out all morning, did she? Jumped her neck, eh? Ma certainly is one hell-cat.”

“Yes, you know how she is; so vicious.”

“Oh no, her best style ain’t her viciousness. What she pulls in our store is to come in smiling with Christian Fortitude and keep a clerk busy for one hour while she picks out half a dozen fourpenny nails. I remember one time—-“

“Sam!” Carol was uneasy. “You’ll fight for Fern, won’t you? When Mrs. Bogart came to see you did she make definite charges?”

“Well, yes, you might say she did.”

“But the school-board won’t act on them?”

“Guess we’ll more or less have to.”

“But you’ll exonerate Fern?”

“I’ll do what I can for the girl personally, but you know what the board is. There’s Reverend Zitterel; Sister Bogart about half runs his church, so of course he’ll take her say-so; and Ezra Stowbody, as a banker he has to be all hell for morality and purity. Might ‘s well admit it, Carrie; I’m afraid there’ll be a majority of the board against her. Not that any of us would believe a word Cy said, not if he swore it on a stack of Bibles, but Still, after all this gossip, Miss Mullins wouldn’t hardly be the party to chaperon our basket-ball team when it went out of town to play other high schools, would she!”

“Perhaps not, but couldn’t some one else?”

“Why, that’s one of the things she was hired for.” Sam sounded stubborn.

“Do you realize that this isn’t just a matter of a job, and hiring and firing; that it’s actually sending a splendid girl out with a beastly stain on her, giving all the other Bogarts in the world a chance at her? That’s what will happen if you discharge her.”

Sam moved uncomfortably, looked at his wife, scratched his head, sighed, said nothing.

“Won’t you fight for her on the board? If you lose, won’t you, and whoever agrees with you, make a minority report?”

“No reports made in a case like this. Our rule is to just decide the thing and announce the final decision, whether it’s unanimous or not.”

“Rules! Against a girl’s future! Dear God! Rules of a school-board! Sam! Won’t you stand by Fern, and threaten to resign from the board if they try to discharge her?”

Rather testy, tired of so many subtleties, he complained, “Well, I’ll do what I can, but I’ll have to wait till the board meets.”

And “I’ll do what I can,” together with the secret admission “Of course you and I know what Ma Bogart is,” was all Carol could get from Superintendent George Edwin Mott, Ezra Stowbody, the Reverend Mr. Zitterel or any other member of the school-board.

Afterward she wondered whether Mr. Zitterel could have been referring to herself when he observed, “There’s too much license in high places in this town, though, and the wages of sin is death–or anyway, bein’ fired.” The holy leer with which the priest said it remained in her mind.

She was at the hotel before eight next morning. Fern longed to go to school, to face the tittering, but she was too shaky. Carol read to her all day and, by reassuring her, convinced her own self that the school-board would be just. She was less sure of it that evening when, at the motion pictures, she heard Mrs. Gougerling exclaim to Mrs. Howland, “She may be so innocent and all, and I suppose she probably is, but still, if she drank a whole bottle of whisky at that dance, the way everybody says she did, she may have forgotten she was so innocent! Hee, hee, hee!” Maud Dyer, leaning back from her seat, put in, “That’s what I’ve said all along. I don’t want to roast anybody, but have you noticed the way she looks at men?”

“When will they have me on the scaffold?” Carol speculated.

Nat Hicks stopped the Kennicotts on their way home. Carol hated him for his manner of assuming that they two had a mysterious understanding. Without quite winking he seemed to wink at her as he gurgled, “What do you folks think about this Mullins woman? I’m not strait-laced, but I tell you we got to have decent women in our schools. D’ you know what I heard? They say whatever she may of done afterwards, this Mullins dame took two quarts of whisky to the dance with her, and got stewed before Cy did! Some tank, that wren! Ha, ha. ha!”

“Rats, I don’t believe it,” Kennicott muttered.

He got Carol away before she was able to speak.

She saw Erik passing the house, late, alone, and she stared after him, longing for the lively bitterness of the things he would say about the town. Kennicott had nothing for her but “Oh, course, ev’body likes a juicy story, but they don’t intend to be mean.”

She went up to bed proving to herself that the members of the school-board were superior men.

It was Tuesday afternoon before she learned that the board had met at ten in the morning and voted to “accept Miss Fern Mullins’s resignation.” Sam Clark telephoned the news to her. “We’re not making any charges. We’re just letting her resign. Would you like to drop over to the hotel and ask her to write the resignation, now we’ve accepted it? Glad I could get the board to put it that way. It’s thanks to you.”

“But can’t you see that the town will take this as proof of the charges?”

“We’re–not–making–no–charges–whatever!” Sam was obviously finding it hard to be patient.

Fern left town that evening.

Carol went with her to the train. The two girls elbowed through a silent lip-licking crowd. Carol tried to stare them down but in face of the impishness of the boys and the bovine gaping of the men, she was embarrassed. Fern did not glance at them. Carol felt her arm tremble, though she was tearless, listless, plodding. She squeezed Carol’s hand, said something unintelligible, stumbled up into the vestibule.

Carol remembered that Miles Bjornstam had also taken a train. What would be the scene at the station when she herself took departure?

She walked up-town behind two strangers.

One of them was giggling, “See that good-looking wench that got on here? The swell kid with the small black hat? She’s some charmer! I was here yesterday, before my jump to Ojibway Falls, and I heard all about her. Seems she was a teacher, but she certainly was a high-roller–O boy!–high, wide, and fancy! Her and couple of other skirts bought a whole case of whisky and went on a tear, and one night, darned if this bunch of cradle-robbers didn’t get hold of some young kids, just small boys, and they all got lit up like a White Way, and went out to a roughneck dance, and they say—-“

The narrator turned, saw a woman near and, not being a common person nor a coarse workman but a clever salesman and a householder, lowered his voice for the rest of the tale. During it the other man laughed hoarsely.

Carol turned off on a side-street.

She passed Cy Bogart. He was humorously narrating some achievement to a group which included Nat Hicks, Del Snafflin, Bert Tybee the bartender, and A. Tennyson O’Hearn the shyster lawyer. They were men far older than Cy but they accepted him as one of their own, and encouraged him to go on.

It was a week before she received from Fern a letter of which this was a part:

. . .& of course my family did not really believe the story but as they were sure I must have done something wrong they just lectured me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding house. The teachers’ agencies must know the story, man at one almost slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another the woman in charge was beastly. Don’t know what I will do. Don’t seem to feel very well. May marry a fellow that’s in love with me but he’s so stupid that he makes me SCREAM.

Dear Mrs. Kennicott you were the only one that believed me. I guess it’s a joke on me, I was such a simp, I felt quite heroic while I was driving the buggy back that night & keeping Cy away from me. I guess I expected the people in Gopher Prairie to admire me. I did use to be admired for my athletics at the U.–just five months ago.

CHAPTER XXXIII

FOR a month which was one suspended moment of doubt she saw Erik only casually, at an Eastern Star dance, at the shop, where, in the presence of Nat Hicks, they conferred with immense particularity on the significance of having one or two buttons on the cuff of Kennicott’s New Suit. For the benefit of beholders they were respectably vacuous.

Thus barred from him, depressed in the thought of Fern, Carol was suddenly and for the first time convinced that she loved Erik.

She told herself a thousand inspiriting things which he would say if he had the opportunity; for them she admired him, loved him. But she was afraid to summon him. He understood, he did not come. She forgot her every doubt of him, and her discomfort in his background. Each day it seemed impossible to get through the desolation of not seeing him. Each morning, each afternoon, each evening was a compartment divided from all other units of time, distinguished by a sudden “Oh! I want to see Erik!” which was as devastating as though she had never said it before.

There were wretched periods when she could not picture him. Usually he stood out in her mind in some little moment– glancing up from his preposterous pressing-iron, or running on the beach with Dave Dyer. But sometimes he had vanished; he was only an opinion. She worried then about his appearance: Weren’t his wrists too large and red? Wasn’t his nose a snub, like so many Scandinavians? Was he at all the graceful thing she had fancied? When she encountered him on the street she was as much reassuring herself as rejoicing in his presence. More disturbing than being unable to visualize him was the darting remembrance of some intimate aspect: his face as they had walked to the boat together at the picnic; the ruddy light on his temples, neck-cords, flat cheeks.

On a November evening when Kennicott was in the country she answered the bell and was confused to find Erik at the door, stooped, imploring, his hands in the pockets of his topcoat. As though he had been rehearsing his speech he instantly besought:

“Saw your husband driving away. I’ve got to see you. I can’t stand it. Come for a walk. I know! People might see us. But they won’t if we hike into the country. I’ll wait for you by the elevator. Take as long as you want to–oh, come quick!”

“In a few minutes,” she promised.

She murmured, “I’ll just talk to him for a quarter of an hour and come home.” She put an her tweed coat and rubber overshoes, considering how honest and hopeless are rubbers, how clearly their chaperonage proved that she wasn’t going to a lovers’ tryst.

She found him in the shadow of the grain-elevator, sulkily kicking at a rail of the side-track. As she came toward him she fancied that his whole body expanded. But he said nothing, nor she; he patted her sleeve, she returned the pat, and they crossed the railroad tracks, found a road, clumped toward open country.

“Chilly night, but I like this melancholy gray,” he said.

“Yes.”

They passed a moaning clump of trees and splashed along the wet road. He tucked her hand into the side-pocket of his overcoat. She caught his thumb and, sighing, held it exactly as Hugh held hers when they went walking. She thought about Hugh. The current maid was in for the evening, but was it safe to leave the baby with her? The thought was distant and elusive.

Erik began to talk, slowly, revealingly. He made for her a picture of his work in a large tailor shop in Minneapolis: the steam and heat, and the drudgery; the men in darned vests and crumpled trousers, men who “rushed growlers of beer” and were cynical about women, who laughed at him and played jokes on him. “But I didn’t mind, because I could keep away from them outside. I used to go to the Art Institute and the Walker Gallery, and tramp clear around Lake Harriet, or hike out to the Gates house and imagine it was a chateau in Italy and I lived in it. I was a marquis and collected tapestries– that was after I was wounded in Padua. The only really bad time was when a tailor named Finkelfarb found a diary I was trying to keep and he read it aloud in the shop–it was a bad fight.” He laughed. “I got fined five dollars. But that’s all gone now. Seems as though you stand between me and the gas stoves–the long flames with mauve edges, licking up around the irons and making that sneering sound all day– aaaaah!”

Her fingers tightened about his thumb as she perceived the hot low room, the pounding of pressing-irons, the reek of scorched cloth, and Erik among giggling gnomes. His fingertip crept through the opening of her glove and smoothed her palm. She snatched her hand away, stripped off her glove, tucked her hand back into his.

He was saying something about a “wonderful person.” In her tranquillity she let the words blow by and heeded only the beating wings of his voice.

She was conscious that he was fumbling for impressive speech.

“Say, uh–Carol, I’ve written a poem about you.”

“That’s nice. Let’s hear it.”

“Damn it, don’t be so casual about it! Can’t you take me seriously?”

“My dear boy, if I took you seriously—-! I don’t want us to be hurt more than–more than we will be. Tell me the poem. I’ve never had a poem written about me!”

“It isn’t really a poem. It’s just some words that I love because it seems to me they catch what you are. Of course probably they won’t seem so to anybody else, but—- Well—-

Little and tender and merry and wise With eyes that meet my eyes.

Do you get the idea the way I do?”

“Yes! I’m terribly grateful!” And she was grateful– while she impersonally noted how bad a verse it was.

She was aware of the haggard beauty in the lowering night. Monstrous tattered clouds sprawled round a forlorn moon; puddles and rocks glistened with inner light. They were passing a grove of scrub poplars, feeble by day but looming now like a menacing wall. She stopped. They heard the branches dripping, the wet leaves sullenly plumping on the soggy earth.

“Waiting–waiting–everything is waiting,” she whispered. She drew her hand from his, pressed her clenched fingers against her lips. She was lost in the somberness. “I am happy–so we must go home, before we have time to become unhappy. But can’t we sit on a log for a minute and just listen?”

“No. Too wet. But I wish we could build a fire, and you could sit on my overcoat beside it. I’m a grand fire-builder! My cousin Lars and me spent a week one time in a cabin way up in the Big Woods, snowed in. The fireplace was filled with a dome of ice when we got there, but we chopped it out, and jammed the thing full of pine-boughs. Couldn’t we build a fire back here in the woods and sit by it for a while?”

She pondered, half-way between yielding and refusal. Her head ached faintly. She was in abeyance. Everything, the night, his silhouette, the cautious-treading future, was as undistinguishable as though she were drifting bodiless in a Fourth Dimension. While her mind groped, the lights of a motor car swooped round a bend in the road, and they stood farther apart. “What ought I to do?” she mused. “I think—- Oh, I won’t be robbed! I AM good! If I’m so enslaved that I can’t sit by the fire with a man and talk, then I’d better be dead!”

The lights of the thrumming car grew magically; were upon them; abruptly stopped. From behind the dimness of the windshield a voice, annoyed, sharp: “Hello there!”

She realized that it was Kennicott.

The irritation in his voice smoothed out. “Having a walk?”

They made schoolboyish sounds of assent.

“Pretty wet, isn’t it? Better ride back. Jump up in front here, Valborg.”

His manner of swinging open the door was a command. Carol was conscious that Erik was climbing in, that she was apparently to sit in the back, and that she had been left to open the rear door for herself. Instantly the wonder which had flamed to the gusty skies was quenched, and she was Mrs. W. P. Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, riding in a squeaking old car, and likely to be lectured by her husband.

She feared what Kennicott would say to Erik. She bent toward them. Kennicott was observing, “Going to have some rain before the night ‘s over, all right.”

“Yes,” said Erik.

“Been funny season this year, anyway. Never saw it with such a cold October and such a nice November. ‘Member we had a snow way back on October ninth! But it certainly was nice up to the twenty-first, this month–as I remember it, not a flake of snow in November so far, has there been? But I shouldn’t wonder if we’d be having some snow ‘most any time now.”

“Yes, good chance of it,” said Erik.

“Wish I’d had more time to go after the ducks this fall. By golly, what do you think?” Kennicott sounded appealing. “Fellow wrote me from Man Trap Lake that he shot seven mallards and couple of canvas-back in one hour!”

“That must have been fine,” said Erik.

Carol was ignored. But Kennicott was blustrously cheerful. He shouted to a farmer, as he slowed up to pass the frightened team, “There we are–schon gut!” She sat back, neglected, frozen, unheroic heroine in a drama insanely undramatic. She made a decision resolute and enduring. She would tell Kennicott—- What would she tell him? She could not say that she loved Erik. DID she love him? But she would have it out. She was not sure whether it was pity for Kennicott’s blindness, or irritation at his assumption that he was enough to fill any woman’s life, which prompted her, but she knew that she was out of the trap, that she could be frank; and she was exhilarated with the adventure of it. . .while in front he was entertaining Erik:

“Nothing like an hour on a duck-pass to make you relish your victuals and—- Gosh, this machine hasn’t got the power of a fountain pen. Guess the cylinders are jam-cram-full of carbon again. Don’t know but what maybe I’ll have to put in another set of piston-rings.”

He stopped on Main Street and clucked hospitably, “There, that’ll give you just a block to walk. G’ night.”

Carol was in suspense. Would Erik sneak away?

He stolidly moved to the back of the car, thrust in his hand, muttered, “Good night–Carol. I’m glad we had our walk.” She pressed his hand. The car was flapping on. He was hidden from her–by a corner drug store on Main Street!

Kennicott did not recognize her till he drew up before the house. Then he condescended, “Better jump out here and I’ll take the boat around back. Say, see if the back door is unlocked, will you?” She unlatched the door for him. She realized that she still carried the damp glove she had stripped off for Erik. She drew it on. She stood in the center of the living-room, unmoving, in damp coat and muddy rubbers. Kennicott was as opaque as ever. Her task wouldn’t be anything so lively as having to endure a scolding, but only an exasperating effort to command his attention so that he would understand the nebulous things she had to tell him, instead of interrupting her by yawning, winding the clock, and going up to bed. She heard him shoveling coal into the furnace. He came through the kitchen energetically, but before he spoke to her he did stop in the hall, did wind the clock.

He sauntered into the living-room and his glance passed from her drenched hat to her smeared rubbers. She could hear–she could hear, see, taste, smell, touch–his “Better take your coat off, Carrie; looks kind of wet.” Yes, there it was:

“Well, Carrie, you better—-” He chucked his own coat on a chair, stalked to her, went on with a rising tingling voice, “—-you better cut it out now. I’m not going to do the out- raged husband stunt. I like you and I respect you, and I’d probably look like a boob if I tried to be dramatic. But I think it’s about time for you and Valborg to call a halt before you get in Dutch, like Fern Mullins did.”

“Do you—-“

“Course. I know all about it. What d’ you expect in a town that’s as filled with busybodies, that have plenty of time to stick their noses into other folks’ business, as this is? Not that they’ve had the nerve to do much tattling to me, but they’ve hinted around a lot, and anyway, I could see for myself that you liked him. But of course I knew how cold you were, I knew you wouldn’t stand it even if Valborg did try to hold your hand or kiss you, so I didn’t worry. But same time, I hope you don’t suppose this husky young Swede farmer is as innocent and Platonic and all that stuff as you are! Wait now, don’t get sore! I’m not knocking him. He isn’t a bad sort. And he’s young and likes to gas about books. Course you like him. That isn’t the real rub. But haven’t you just seen what this town can do, once it goes and gets moral on you, like it did with Fern? You probably think that two young folks making love are alone if anybody ever is, but there’s nothing in this town that you don’t do in company with a whole lot of uninvited but awful interested guests. Don’t you realize that if Ma Westlake and a few others got started they’d drive you up a tree, and you’d find yourself so well advertised as being in love with this Valborg fellow that you’d HAVE to be, just to spite ’em!”

“Let me sit down,” was all Carol could say. She drooped on the couch, wearily, without elasticity.

He yawned, “Gimme your coat and rubbers,” and while she stripped them off he twiddled his watch-chain, felt the radiator, peered at the thermometer. He shook out her wraps in the hall, hung them up with exactly his usual care. He pushed a chair near to her and sat bolt up. He looked like a physician about to give sound and undesired advice.

Before he could launch into his heavy discourse she desperately got in, “Please! I want you to know that I was going to tell you everything, tonight.”

“Well, I don’t suppose there’s really much to tell.”

“But there is. I’m fond of Erik. He appeals to something in here.” She touched her breast. “And I admire him. He isn’t just a `young Swede farmer.’ He’s an artist—-“

“Wait now! He’s had a chance all evening to tell you what a whale of a fine fellow he is. Now it’s my turn. I can’t talk artistic, but—- Carrie, do you understand my work?” He leaned forward, thick capable hands on thick sturdy thighs, mature and slow, yet beseeching. “No matter even if you are cold, I like you better than anybody in the world. One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes. You’re all the things that I see in a sunset when I’m driving in from the country, the things that I like but can’t make poetry of. Do you realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor. You–that ‘re always spieling about how scientists ought to rule the world, instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians–can’t you see that I’m all the science there is here? And I can stand the cold and the bumpy roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at home to welcome me. I don’t expect you to be passionate–not any more I don’t–but I do expect you to appreciate my work. I bring babies into the world, and save lives, and make cranky husbands quit being mean to their wives. And then you go and moon over a Swede tailor because he can talk about how to put ruchings on a skirt! Hell of a thing for a man to fuss over!”

She flew out at him: “You make your side clear. Let me give mine. I admit all you say–except about Erik. But is it only you, and the baby, that want me to back you up, that demand things from me? They’re all on me, the whole town! I can feel their hot breaths on my neck! Aunt Bessie and that horrible slavering old Uncle Whittier and Juanita and Mrs. Westlake and Mrs. Bogart and all of them. And you welcome them, you encourage them to drag me down into their cave! I won’t stand it! Do you hear? Now, right now, I’m done. And it’s Erik who gives me the courage. You say he just thinks about ruches (which do not usually go on skirts, by the way!). I tell you he thinks about God, the God that Mrs. Bogart covers up with greasy gingham wrappers! Erik will be a great man some day, and if I could contribute one tiny bit to his success—-“

“Wait, wait, wait now! Hold up! You’re assuming that your Erik will make good. As a matter of fact, at my age he’ll be running a one-man tailor shop in some burg about the size of Schoenstrom.”

“He will not!”

“That’s what he’s headed for now all right, and he’s twenty- five or -six and—- What’s he done to make you think he’ll ever be anything but a pants-presser?”

“He has sensitiveness and talent—-“

“Wait now! What has he actually done in the art line? Has he done one first-class picture or–sketch, d’ you call it? Or one poem, or played the piano, or anything except gas about what he’s going to do?”

She looked thoughtful.

“Then it’s a hundred to one shot that he never will. Way I understand it, even these fellows that do something pretty good at home and get to go to art school, there ain’t more than one out of ten of ’em, maybe one out of a hundred, that ever get above grinding out a bum living–about as artistic as plumbing. And when it comes down to this tailor, why, can’t you see–you that take on so about psychology–can’t you see that it’s just by contrast with folks like Doc McGanum or Lym Cass that this fellow seems artistic? Suppose you’d met up with him first in one of these reg’lar New York studios! You wouldn’t notice him any more ‘n a rabbit!”

She huddled over folded hands like a temple virgin shivering on her knees before the thin warmth of a brazier. She could not answer.

Kennicott rose quickly, sat on the couch, took both her hands. “Suppose he fails–as he will! Suppose he goes back to tailoring, and you’re his wife. Is that going to be this artistic life you’ve been thinking about? He’s in some bum shack, pressing pants all day, or stooped over sewing, and having to be polite to any grouch that blows in and jams a dirty stinking old suit in his face and says, `Here you, fix this, and be blame quick about it.’ He won’t even have enough savvy to get him a big shop. He’ll pike along doing his own work–unless you, his wife, go help him, go help him in the shop, and stand over a table all day, pushing a big heavy iron. Your complexion will look fine after about fifteen years of baking that way, won’t it! And you’ll be humped over like an old hag. And probably you’ll live in one room back of the shop. And then at night–oh, you’ll have your artist– sure! He’ll come in stinking of gasoline, and cranky from hard work, and hinting around that if it hadn’t been for you, he’d of gone East and been a great artist. Sure! And you’ll be entertaining his relatives—- Talk about Uncle Whit! You’ll be having some old Axel Axelberg coming in with manure on his boots and sitting down to supper in his socks and yelling at you, `Hurry up now, you vimmin make me sick!’ Yes, and you’ll have a squalling brat every year, tugging at you while you press clothes, and you won’t love ’em like you do Hugh up-stairs, all downy and asleep—-“

“Please! Not any more!”

Her face was on his knee.

He bent to kiss her neck. “I don’t want to be unfair. I guess love is a great thing, all right. But think it would stand much of that kind of stuff? Oh, honey, am I so bad? Can’t you like me at all? I’ve–I’ve been so fond of you!”

She snatched up his hand, she kissed it. Presently she sobbed, “I won’t ever see him again. I can’t, now. The hot living-room behind the tailor shop—- I don’t love him enough for that. And you are—- Even if I were sure of him, sure he was the real thing, I don’t think I could actually leave you. This marriage, it weaves people together. It’s not easy to break, even when it ought to be broken.”

“And do you want to break it?”

“No!”

He lifted her, carried her up-stairs, laid her on her bed, turned to the door.

“Come kiss me,” she whimpered.

He kissed her lightly and slipped away. For an hour she heard him moving about his room, lighting a cigar, drumming with his knuckles on a chair. She felt that he was a bulwark between her and the darkness that grew thicker as the delayed storm came down in sleet.

II

He was cheery and more casual than ever at breakfast. All day she tried to devise a way of giving Erik up. Telephone? The village central would unquestionably “listen in.” A letter? It might be found. Go to see him? Impossible. That evening Kennicott gave her, without comment, an envelope. The letter was signed “E. V.”

I know I can’t do anything but make trouble for you, I think. I am going to Minneapolis tonight and from there as soon as I can either to New York or Chicago. I will do as big things as I can. I I can’t write I love you too much God keep you.

Until she heard the whistle which told her that the Minneapolis train was leaving town, she kept herself from thinking, from moving. Then it was all over. She had no plan nor desire for anything.

When she caught Kennicott looking at her over his newspaper she fled to his arms, thrusting the paper aside, and for the first time in years they were lovers. But she knew that she still had no plan in life, save always to go along the same streets, past the same people, to the same shops.

III

A week after Erik’s going the maid startled her by announcing, “There’s a Mr. Valborg down-stairs say he vant to see you.”

She was conscious of the maid’s interested stare, angry at this shattering of the calm in which she had hidden. She crept down, peeped into the living-room. It was not Erik Valborg who stood there; it was a small, gray-bearded, yellow- faced man in mucky boots, canvas jacket, and red mittens. He glowered at her with shrewd red eyes.

“You de doc’s wife?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Adolph Valborg, from up by Jefferson. I’m Erik’s father.”

“Oh!” He was a monkey-faced little man, and not gentle.

“What you done wit’ my son?”

“I don’t think I understand you.”

“I t’ink you’re going to understand before I get t’rough! Where is he?”

“Why, really—- I presume that he’s in Minneapolis.”

“You presume!” He looked through her with a contemptuousness such as she could not have imagined. Only an insane contortion of spelling could portray his lyric whine, his mangled consonants. He clamored, “Presume! Dot’s a fine word! I don’t want no fine words and I don’t want no more lies! I want to know what you KNOW!”

“See here, Mr. Valborg, you may stop this bullying right now. I’m not one of your farmwomen. I don’t know where your son is, and there’s no reason why I should know.” Her defiance ran out in face of his immense flaxen stolidity. He raised his fist, worked up his anger with the gesture, and sneered:

“You dirty city women wit’ your fine ways and fine dresses! A father come here trying to save his boy from wickedness, and you call him a bully! By God, I don’t have to take nothin’ off you nor your husband! I ain’t one of your hired men. For one time a woman like you is going to hear de trut’ about what you are, and no fine city words to it, needer.”

“Really, Mr. Valborg—-“

“What you done wit’ him? Heh? I’ll yoost tell you what you done! He was a good boy, even if he was a damn fool. I want him back on de farm. He don’t make enough money tailoring. And I can’t get me no hired man! I want to take him back on de farm. And you butt in and fool wit’ him and make love wit’ him, and get him to run away!”

“You are lying! It’s not true that—- It’s not true, and if it were, you would have no right to speak like this.”

“Don’t talk foolish. I know. Ain’t I heard from a fellow dot live right here in town how you been acting wit’ de boy? I know what you done! Walking wit’ him in de country! Hiding in de woods wit’ him! Yes and I guess you talk about religion in de woods! Sure! Women like you–you’re worse dan street-walkers! Rich women like you, wit’ fine husbands and no decent work to do–and me, look at my hands, look how I work, look at those hands! But you, oh God no, you mustn’t work, you’re too fine to do decent work. You got to play wit’ young fellows, younger as you are, laughing and rolling around and acting like de animals! You let my son alone, d’ you hear?” He was shaking his fist in her face. She could smell the manure and sweat. “It ain’t no use talkin’ to women like you. Get no trut’ out of you. But next time I go by your husband!”

He was marching into the hall. Carol flung herself on him, her clenching hand on his hayseed-dusty shoulder. “You horrible old man, you’ve always tried to turn Erik into a slave, to fatten your pocketbook! You’ve sneered at him, and overworked him, and probably you’ve succeeded in preventing his ever rising above your muck-heap! And now because you can’t drag him back, you come here to vent—- Go tell my husband, go tell him, and don’t blame me when he kills you, when my husband kills you–he will kill you—-“

The man grunted, looked at her impassively, said one word, and walked out.

She heard the word very plainly.

She did not quite reach the couch. Her knees gave way, she pitched forward. She heard her mind saying, “You haven’t fainted. This is ridiculous. You’re simply dramatizing yourself. Get up.” But she could not move. When Kennicott arrived she was lying on the couch. His step quickened. “What’s happened, Carrie? You haven’t got a bit of blood in your face.”

She clutched his arm. “You’ve got to be sweet to me, and kind! I’m going to California–mountains, sea. Please don’t argue about it, because I’m going.”

Quietly, “All right. We’ll go. You and I. Leave the kid here with Aunt Bessie.”

“Now!”

“Well yes, just as soon as we can get away. Now don’t talk any more. Just imagine you’ve already started.” He smoothed her hair, and not till after supper did he continue: “I meant it about California. But I think we better wait three weeks or so, till I get hold of some young fellow released from the medical corps to take my practice. And if people are gossiping, you don’t want to give them a chance by running away. Can you stand it and face ’em for three weeks or so?”

“Yes,” she said emptily.

IV

People covertly stared at her on the street. Aunt Bessie tried to catechize her about Erik’s disappearance, and it was Kennicott who silenced the woman with a savage, “Say, are you hinting that Carrie had anything to do with that fellow’s beating it? Then let me tell you, and you can go right out and tell the whole bloomin’ town, that Carrie and I took Val– took Erik riding, and he asked me about getting a better job in Minneapolis, and I advised him to go to it. . . . Getting much sugar in at the store now?”

Guy Pollock crossed the street to be pleasant apropos of California and new novels. Vida Sherwin dragged her to the Jolly Seventeen. There, with every one rigidly listening, Maud Dyer shot at Carol, “I hear Erik has left town.”

Carol was amiable. “Yes, so I hear. In fact, he called me up–told me he had been offered a lovely job in the city. So sorry he’s gone. He would have been valuable if we’d tried to start the dramatic association again. Still, I wouldn’t be here for the association myself, because Will is all in from work, and I’m thinking of taking him to California. Juanita– you know the Coast so well–tell me: would you start in at Los Angeles or San Francisco, and what are the best hotels?”

The Jolly Seventeen looked disappointed, but the Jolly Seventeen liked to give advice, the Jolly Seventeen liked to mention the expensive hotels at which they had stayed. (A meal counted as a stay.) Before they could question her again Carol escorted in with drum and fife the topic of Raymie Wutherspoon. Vida had news from her husband. He had been gassed in the trenches, had been in a hospital for two weeks, had been promoted to major, was learning French.

She left Hugh with Aunt Bessie.

But for Kennicott she would have taken him. She hoped that in some miraculous way yet unrevealed she might find it possible to remain in California. She did not want to see Gopher Prairie again.

The Smails were to occupy the Kennicott house, and quite the hardest thing to endure in the month of waiting was the series of conferences between Kennicott and Uncle Whittier in regard to heating the garage and having the furnace flues cleaned.

Did Carol, Kennicott inquired, wish to stop in Minneapolis to buy new clothes?

“No! I want to get as far away as I can as soon as I can. Let’s wait till Los Angeles.”

“Sure, sure! Just as you like. Cheer up! We’re going to have a large wide time, and everything ‘ll be different when we come back.”

VI

Dusk on a snowy December afternoon. The sleeper which would connect at Kansas City with the California train rolled out of St. Paul with a chick-a-chick, chick-a-chick, chick-a- chick as it crossed the other tracks. It bumped through the factory belt, gained speed. Carol could see nothing but gray fields, which had closed in on her all the way from Gopher Prairie. Ahead was darkness.

“For an hour, in Minneapolis, I must have been near Erik. He’s still there, somewhere. He’ll be gone when I come back. I’ll never know where he has gone.”

As Kennicott switched on the seat-light she turned drearily to the illustrations in a motion-picture magazine.

CHAPTER XXXIV

THEY journeyed for three and a half months. They saw the Grand Canyon, the adobe walls of Sante Fe and, in a drive from El Paso into Mexico, their first foreign land. They jogged from San Diego and La Jolla to Los Angeles, Pasadena, Riverside, through towns with bell-towered missions and orange- groves; they viewed Monterey and San Francisco and a forest of sequoias. They bathed in the surf and climbed foothills and danced, they saw a polo game and the making of motion-pictures, they sent one hundred and seventeen souvenir post-cards to Gopher Prairie, and once, on a dune by a foggy sea when she was walking alone, Carol found an artist, and he looked up at her and said, “Too damned wet to paint; sit down and talk,” and so for ten minutes she lived in a romantic novel.

Her only struggle was in coaxing Kennicott not to spend all his time with the tourists from the ten thousand other Gopher Prairies. In winter, California is full of people from Iowa and Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, who, having traveled thousands of miles from their familiar villages, hasten to secure an illusion of not having left them. They hunt for people from their own states to stand between them and the shame of naked mountains; they talk steadily, in Pullmans, on hotel porches, at cafeterias and motion-picture shows, about the motors and crops and county politics back home. Kennicott discussed land-prices with them, he went into the merits of the several sorts of motor cars with them, he was intimate with train porters, and he insisted on seeing the Luke Dawsons at their flimsy bungalow in Pasadena, where Luke sat and yearned to go back and make some more money. But Kennicott gave promise of learning to play. He shouted in the pool at the Coronado, and he spoke of (though he did nothing more radical than speak of) buying evening-clothes. Carol was touched by his efforts to enjoy picture galleries, and the dogged way in which he accumulated dates and dimensions when they followed monkish guides through missions.

She felt strong. Whenever she was restless she dodged her thoughts by the familiar vagabond fallacy of running away from them, of moving on to a new place, and thus she persuaded herself that she was tranquil. In March she willingly agreed with Kennicott that it was time to go home. She was longing for Hugh.

They left Monterey on April first, on a day of high blue skies and poppies and a summer sea.

As the train struck in among the hills she resolved, “I’m going to love the fine Will Kennicott quality that there is in Gopher Prairie. The nobility of good sense. It will be sweet to see Vida and Guy and the Clarks. And I’m going to see my baby! All the words he’ll be able to say now! It’s a new start. Everything will be different!”

Thus on April first, among dappled hills and the bronze of scrub oaks, while Kennicott seesawed on his toes and chuckled, “Wonder what Hugh’ll say when he sees us?”

Three days later they reached Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm.

II

No one knew that they were coming; no one met them; and because of the icy roads, the only conveyance at the station was the hotel ‘bus, which they missed while Kennicott was giving his trunk-check to the station agent–the only person to welcome them. Carol waited for him in the station, among huddled German women with shawls and umbrellas, and ragged-bearded farmers in corduroy coats; peasants mute as oxen, in a room thick with the steam of wet coats, the reek of the red-hot stove, the stench of sawdust boxes which served as cuspidors. The afternoon light was as reluctant as a winter dawn.

“This is a useful market-center, an interesting pioneer post, but it is not a home for me,” meditated the stranger Carol.

Kennicott suggested, “I’d ‘phone for a flivver but it’d take quite a while for it to get here. Let’s walk.”

They stepped uncomfortably from the safety of the plank platform and, balancing on their toes, taking cautious strides, ventured along the road. The sleety rain was turning to snow. The air was stealthily cold. Beneath an inch of water was a layer of ice, so that as they wavered with their suit-cases they slid and almost fell. The wet snow drenched their gloves; the water underfoot splashed their itching ankles. They scuffled inch by inch for three blocks. In front of Harry Haydock’s Kennicott sighed:

“We better stop in here and ‘phone for a machine.”

She followed him like a wet kitten.

The Haydocks saw them laboring up the slippery concrete walk, up the perilous front steps, and came to the door chanting:

“Well, well, well, back again, eh? Say, this is fine! Have a fine trip? My, you look like a rose, Carol. How did you like the coast, doc? Well, well, well! Where-all did you go?”

But as Kennicott began to proclaim the list of places achieved, Harry interrupted with an account of how much he himself had seen, two years ago. When Kennicott boasted, “We went through the mission at Santa Barbara,” Harry broke in, “Yeh, that’s an interesting old mission. Say, I’ll never forget that hotel there, doc. It was swell. Why, the rooms were made just like these old monasteries. Juanita and I went from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. You folks go to San Luis Obispo?”

“No, but—-“

“Well you ought to gone to San Luis Obispo. And then we went from there to a ranch, least they called it a ranch—-“

Kennicott got in only one considerable narrative, which began:

“Say, I never knew–did you, Harry?–that in the Chicago district the Kutz Kar sells as well as the Overland? I never thought much of the Kutz. But I met a gentleman on the train–it was when we were pulling out of Albuquerque, and I was sitting on the back platform of the observation car, and this man was next to me and he asked me for a light, and we got to talking, and come to find out, he came from Aurora, and when he found out I came from Minnesota he asked me if I knew Dr. Clemworth of Red Wing, and of course, while I’ve never met him, I’ve heard of Clemworth lots of times, and seems he’s this man’s brother! Quite a coincidence! Well, we got to talking, and we called the porter–that was a pretty good porter on that car–and we had a couple bottles of ginger ale, and I happened to mention the Kutz Kar, and this man–seems he’s driven a lot of different kinds of cars– he’s got a Franklin now–and he said that he’d tried the Kutz and liked it first-rate. Well, when we got into a station– I don’t remember the name of it–Carrie, what the deuce was the name of that first stop we made the other side of Albuquerque?–well, anyway, I guess we must have stopped there to take on water, and this man and I got out to stretch our legs, and darned if there wasn’t a Kutz drawn right up at the depot platform, and he pointed out something I’d never noticed, and I was glad to learn about it: seems that the gear lever in the Kutz is an inch longer—-“

Even this chronicle of voyages Harry interrupted, with remarks on the advantages of the ball-gear-shift.

Kennicott gave up hope of adequate credit for being a traveled man, and telephoned to a garage for a Ford taxicab, while Juanita kissed Carol and made sure of being the first to tell the latest, which included seven distinct and proven scandals about Mrs. Swiftwaite, and one considerable doubt as to the chastity of Cy Bogart.

They saw the Ford sedan making its way over the water- lined ice, through the snow-storm, like a tug-boat in a fog. The driver stopped at a corner. The car skidded, it turned about with comic reluctance, crashed into a tree, and stood tilted on a broken wheel.

The Kennicotts refused Harry Haydock’s not too urgent offer to take them home in his car “if I can manage to get it out of the garage–terrible day–stayed home from the store–but if you say so, I’ll take a shot at it.” Carol gurgled, “No, I think we’d better walk; probably make better time, and I’m just crazy to see my baby.” With their suit-cases they waddled on. Their coats were soaked through.

Carol had forgotten her facile hopes. She looked about with impersonal eyes. But Kennicott, through rain-blurred lashes, caught the glory that was Back Home.

She noted bare tree-trunks, black branches, the spongy brown earth between patches of decayed snow on the lawns. The vacant lots were full of tall dead weeds. Stripped of summer leaves the houses were hopeless–temporary shelters.

Kennicott chuckled, “By golly, look down there! Jack Elder must have painted his garage. And look! Martin Mahoney has put up a new fence around his chicken yard. Say, that’s a good fence, eh? Chicken-tight and dog-tight. That’s certainly a dandy fence. Wonder how much it cost a yard? Yes, sir, they been building right along, even in winter. Got more enterprise than these Californians. Pretty good to be home, eh?”

She noted that all winter long the citizens had been throwing garbage into their back yards, to be cleaned up in spring. The recent thaw had disclosed heaps of ashes, dog-bones, torn bedding, clotted paint-cans, all half covered by the icy pools which filled the hollows of the yards. The refuse had stained the water to vile colors of waste: thin red, sour yellow, streaky brown.

Kennicott chuckled, “Look over there on Main Street! They got the feed store all fixed up, and a new sign on it, black and gold. That’ll improve the appearance of the block a lot.”

She noted that the few people whom they passed wore their raggedest coats for the evil day. They were scarecrows in a

You may also like: