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  • 1920
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loaf?” merrily shrieked Dave Dyer. He had some admirable stories about the tricks the town youngsters had played on Valborg. They had dropped a decaying perch into his pocket. They had pinned on his back a sign, “I’m the prize boob, kick me.”

Glad of any laughter, Carol joined the frolic, and surprised them by crying, “Dave, I do think you’re the dearest thing since you got your hair cut!” That was an excellent sally. Everybody applauded. Kennicott looked proud.

She decided that sometime she really must go out of her way to pass Hicks’s shop and see this freak.

II

She was at Sunday morning service at the Baptist Church, in a solemn row with her husband, Hugh, Uncle Whittier, Aunt Bessie.

Despite Aunt Bessie’s nagging the Kennicotts rarely attended church. The doctor asserted, “Sure, religion is a fine influence–got to have it to keep the lower classes in order– fact, it’s the only thing that appeals to a lot of those fellows and makes ’em respect the rights of property. And I guess this theology is O.K.; lot of wise old coots figured it all out, and they knew more about it than we do.” He believed in the Christian religion, and never thought about it, he believed in the church, and seldom went near it; he was shocked by Carol’s lack of faith, and wasn’t quite sure what was the nature of the faith that she lacked.

Carol herself was an uneasy and dodging agnostic.

When she ventured to Sunday School and heard the teachers droning that the genealogy of Shamsherai was a valuable ethical problem for children to think about; when she experimented with Wednesday prayer-meeting and listened to store-keeping elders giving their unvarying weekly testimony in primitive erotic symbols and such gory Chaldean phrases as “washed in the blood of the lamb” and “a vengeful God”; when Mrs. Bogart boasted that through his boyhood she had made Cy confess nightly upon the basis of the Ten Commandments; then Carol was dismayed to find the Christian religion, in America, in the twentieth century, as abnormal as Zoroastrianism–without the splendor. But when she went to church suppers and felt the friendliness, saw the gaiety with which the sisters served cold ham and scalloped potatoes; when Mrs. Champ Perry cried to her, on an afternoon call, “My dear, if you just knew how happy it makes you to come into abiding grace,” then Carol found the humanness behind the sanguinary and alien theology. Always she perceived that the churches–Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, all of them–which had seemed so unimportant to the judge’s home in her childhood, so isolated from the city struggle in St. Paul, were still, in Gopher Prairie, the strongest of the forces compelling respectability.

This August Sunday she had been tempted by the announcement that the Reverend Edmund Zitterel would preach on the topic “America, Face Your Problems!” With the great war, workmen in every nation showing a desire to control industries, Russia hinting a leftward revolution against Kerensky, woman suffrage coming, there seemed to be plenty of problems for the Reverend Mr. Zitterel to call on America to face. Carol gathered her family and trotted off behind Uncle Whittier.

The congregation faced the heat with informality. Men with highly plastered hair, so painfully shaved that their faces looked sore, removed their coats, sighed, and unbuttoned two buttons of their uncreased Sunday vests. Large-bosomed, white-bloused, hot-necked, spectacled matrons–the Mothers in Israel, pioneers and friends of Mrs. Champ Perry–waved their palm-leaf fans in a steady rhythm. Abashed boys slunk into the rear pews and giggled, while milky little girls, up front with their mothers, self-consciously kept from turning around.

The church was half barn and half Gopher Prairie parlor. The streaky brown wallpaper was broken in its dismal sweep only by framed texts, “Come unto Me” and “The Lord is My Shepherd,” by a list of hymns, and by a crimson and green diagram, staggeringly drawn upon hemp-colored paper, indicating the alarming ease with which a young man may descend from Palaces of Pleasure and the House of Pride to Eternal Damnation. But the varnished oak pews and the new red carpet and the three large chairs on the platform, behind the bare reading-stand, were all of a rocking-chair comfort.

Carol was civic and neighborly and commendable today. She beamed and bowed. She trolled out with the others the hymn:

How pleasant ’tis on Sabbath morn To gather in the church
And there I’ll have no carnal thoughts, Nor sin shall me besmirch.

With a rustle of starched linen skirts and stiff shirt-fronts, the congregation sat down, and gave heed to the Reverend Mr. Zitterel. The priest was a thin, swart, intense young man with a bang. He wore a black sack suit and a lilac tie. He smote the enormous Bible on the reading-stand, vociferated, “Come, let us reason together,” delivered a prayer informing Almighty God of the news of the past week, and began to reason.

It proved that the only problems which America had to face were Mormonism and Prohibition:

“Don’t let any of these self-conceited fellows that are always trying to stir up trouble deceive you with the belief that there’s anything to all these smart-aleck movements to let the unions and the Farmers’ Nonpartisan League kill all our initiative and enterprise by fixing wages and prices. There isn’t any movement that amounts to a whoop without it’s got a moral background. And let me tell you that while folks are fussing about what they call `economics’ and `socialism’ and `science’ and a lot of things that are nothing in the world but a disguise for atheism, the Old Satan is busy spreading his secret net and tentacles out there in Utah, under his guise of Joe Smith or Brigham Young or whoever their leaders happen to be today, it doesn’t make any difference, and they’re making game of the Old Bible that has led this American people through its manifold trials and tribulations to its firm position as the fulfilment of the prophecies and the recognized leader of all nations. `Sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies the footstool of my feet,’ said the Lord of Hosts, Acts II, the thirty-fourth verse–and let me tell you right now, you got to get up a good deal earlier in the morning than you get up even when you’re going fishing, if you want to be smarter than the Lord, who has shown us the straight and narrow way, and he that passeth therefrom is in eternal peril and, to return to this vital and terrible subject of Mormonism–and as I say, it is terrible to realize how little attention is given to this evil right here in our midst and on our very doorstep, as it were–it’s a shame and a disgrace that the Congress of these United States spends all its time talking about inconsequential financial matters that ought to be left to the Treasury Department, as I understand it, instead of arising in their might and passing a law that any one admitting he is a Mormon shall simply be deported and as it were kicked out of this free country in which we haven’t got any room for polygamy and the tyrannies of Satan.

“And, to digress for a moment, especially as there are more of them in this state than there are Mormons, though you never can tell what will happen with this vain generation of young girls, that think more about wearing silk stockings than about minding their mothers and learning to bake a good loaf of bread, and many of them listening to these sneaking Mormon missionaries–and I actually heard one of them talking right out on a street-corner in Duluth, a few years ago, and the officers of the law not protesting–but still, as they are a smaller but more immediate problem, let me stop for just a moment to pay my respects to these Seventh-Day Adventists. Not that they are immoral, I don’t mean, but when a body of men go on insisting that Saturday is the Sabbath, after Christ himself has clearly indicated the new dispensation, then I think the legislature ought to step in—-“

At this point Carol awoke.

She got through three more minutes by studying the face of a girl in the pew across: a sensitive unhappy girl whose longing poured out with intimidating self-revelation as she worshiped Mr. Zitterel. Carol wondered who the girl was. She had seen her at church suppers. She considered how many of the three thousand people in the town she did not know; to how many of them the Thanatopsis and the Jolly Seventeen were icy social peaks; how many of them might be toiling through boredom thicker than her own–with greater courage.

She examined her nails. She read two hymns. She got some satisfaction out of rubbing an itching knuckle. She pillowed on her shoulder the head of the baby who, after killing time in the same manner as his mother, was so fortunate as to fall asleep. She read the introduction, title-page, and acknowledgment of copyrights, in the hymnal. She tried to evolve a philosophy which would explain why Kennicott could never tie his scarf so that it would reach the top of the gap in his turn-down collar.

There were no other diversions to be found in the pew. She glanced back at the congregation. She thought that it would be amiable to bow to Mrs. Champ Perry.

Her slow turning head stopped, galvanized.

Across the aisle, two rows back, was a strange young man who shone among the cud-chewing citizens like a visitant from the sun-amber curls, low forehead, fine nose, chin smooth but not raw from Sabbath shaving. His lips startled her. The lips of men in Gopher Prairie are flat in the face, straight and grudging. The stranger’s mouth was arched, the upper lip short. He wore a brown jersey coat, a delft-blue bow, a white silk shirt, white flannel trousers. He suggested the ocean beach, a tennis court, anything but the sun-blistered utility of Main Street.

A visitor from Minneapolis, here for business? No. He wasn’t a business man. He was a poet. Keats was in his face, and Shelley, and Arthur Upson, whom she had once seen in Minneapolis. He was at once too sensitive and too sophisticated to touch business as she knew it in Gopher Prairie.

With restrained amusement he was analyzing the noisy Mr. Zitterel. Carol was ashamed to have this spy from the Great World hear the pastor’s maundering. She felt responsible for the town. She resented his gaping at their private rites. She flushed, turned away. But she continued to feel his presence.

How could she meet him? She must! For an hour of talk. He was all that she was hungry for. She could not let him get away without a word–and she would have to. She pictured, and ridiculed, herself as walking up to him and remarking, “I am sick with the Village Virus. Will you please tell me what people are saying and playing in New York?” She pictured, and groaned over, the expression of Kennicott if she should say, “Why wouldn’t it be reasonable for you, my soul, to ask that complete stranger in the brown jersey coat to come to supper tonight?”

She brooded, not looking back. She warned herself that she was probably exaggerating; that no young man could have all these exalted qualities. Wasn’t he too obviously smart, too glossy-new? Like a movie actor. Probably he was a traveling salesman who sang tenor and fancied himself in imitations of Newport clothes and spoke of “the swellest business proposition that ever came down the pike.” In a panic she peered at him. No! This was no hustling salesman, this boy with the curving Grecian lips and the serious eyes.

She rose after the service, carefully taking Kennicott’s arm and smiling at him in a mute assertion that she was devoted to him no matter what happened. She followed the Mystery’s soft brown jersey shoulders out of the church.

Fatty Hicks, the shrill and puffy son of Nat, flapped his hand at the beautiful stranger and jeered, “How’s the kid? All dolled up like a plush horse today, ain’t we!”

Carol was exceeding sick. Her herald from the outside was Erik Valborg, “Elizabeth.” Apprentice tailor! Gasoline and hot goose! Mending dirty jackets! Respectfully holding a tape-measure about a paunch!

And yet, she insisted, this boy was also himself.

III

They had Sunday dinner with the Smails, in a dining-room which centered about a fruit and flower piece and a crayon- enlargement of Uncle Whittier. Carol did not heed Aunt Bessie’s fussing in regard to Mrs. Robert B. Schminke’s bead necklace and Whittier’s error in putting on the striped pants, day like this. She did not taste the shreds of roast pork. She said vacuously:

“Uh–Will, I wonder if that young man in the white flannel trousers, at church this morning, was this Valborg person that they’re all talking about?”

“Yump. That’s him. Wasn’t that the darudest get-up he had on!” Kennicott scratched at a white smear on his hard gray sleeve.

“It wasn’t so bad. I wonder where he comes from? He seems to have lived in cities a good deal. Is he from the East?”

“The East? Him? Why, he comes from a farm right up north here, just this side of Jefferson. I know his father slightly–Adolph Valborg–typical cranky old Swede farmer.”

“Oh, really?” blandly.

“Believe he has lived in Minneapolis for quite some time, though. Learned his trade there. And I will say he’s bright, some ways. Reads a lot. Pollock says he takes more books out of the library than anybody else in town. Huh! He’s kind of like you in that!”

The Smails and Kennicott laughed very much at this sly jest. Uncle Whittier seized the conversation. “That fellow that’s working for Hicks? Milksop, that’s what he is. Makes me tired to see a young fellow that ought to be in the war, or anyway out in the fields earning his living honest, like I done when I was young, doing a woman’s work and then come out and dress up like a show-actor! Why, when I was his age—-“

Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible

Kennicott said judiciously, “Oh, I don’t want to be unjust to him. I believe he took his physical examination for military service. Got varicose veins–not bad, but enough to disqualify him. Though I will say he doesn’t look like a fellow that would be so awful darn crazy to poke his bayonet into a Hun’s guts.”

“Will! PLEASE!”

“Well, he don’t. Looks soft to me. And they say he told Del Snafflin, when he was getting a hair-cut on Saturday, that he wished he could play the piano.”

“Isn’t it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town like this,” said Carol innocently.

Kennicott was suspicious, but Aunt Bessie, serving the floating island pudding, agreed, “Yes, it is wonderful. Folks can get away with all sorts of meannesses and sins in these terrible cities, but they can’t here. I was noticing this tailor fellow this morning, and when Mrs. Riggs offered to share her hymn-book with him, he shook his head, and all the while we was singing he just stood there like a bump on a log and never opened his mouth. Everybody says he’s got an idea that he’s got so much better manners and all than what the rest of us have, but if that’s what he calls good manners, I want to know!”

Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a tablecloth might be gorgeous.

Then:

“Fool! Neurotic impossibilist! Telling yourself orchard fairy-tales–at thirty. . . . Dear Lord, am I really THIRTY? That boy can’t be more than twenty-five.”

IV

She went calling.

Boarding with the Widow Bogart was Fern Mullins, a girl of twenty-two who was to be teacher of English, French, and gymnastics in the high school this coming session. Fern Mullins had come to town early, for the six-weeks normal course for country teachers. Carol had noticed her on the street, had heard almost as much about her as about Erik Valborg. She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. “She looks like an absolute totty,” said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the Juanita Haydocks, enviously.

That Sunday evening, sitting in baggy canvas lawn-chairs beside the house, the Kennicotts saw Fern laughing with Cy Bogart who, though still a junior in high school, was now a lump of a man, only two or three years younger than Fern. Cy had to go downtown for weighty matters connected with the pool-parlor. Fern drooped on the Bogart porch, her chin in her hands.

“She looks lonely,” said Kennicott.

“She does, poor soul. I believe I’ll go over and speak to her. I was introduced to her at Dave’s but I haven’t called.” Carol was slipping across the lawn, a white figure in the dimness, faintly brushing the dewy grass. She was thinking of Erik and of the fact that her feet were wet, and she was casual in her greeting: “Hello! The doctor and I wondered if you were lonely.”

Resentfully, “I am!”

Carol concentrated on her. “My dear, you sound so! I know how it is. I used to be tired when I was on the job– I was a librarian. What was your college? I was Blodgett.”

More interestedly, “I went to the U.” Fern meant the University of Minnesota.

“You must have had a splendid time. Blodgett was a bit dull.”

“Where were you a librarian?” challengingly.

“St. Paul–the main library.”

“Honest? Oh dear, I wish I was back in the Cities! This is my first year of teaching, and I’m scared stiff. I did have the best time in college: dramatics and basket-ball and fussing and dancing–I’m simply crazy about dancing. And here, except when I have the kids in gymnasium class, or when I’m chaperoning the basket-ball team on a trip out-of-town, I won’t dare to move above a whisper. I guess they don’t care much if you put any pep into teaching or not, as long as you look like a Good Influence out of school-hours–and that means never doing anything you want to. This normal course is bad enough, but the regular school will be FIERCE! If it wasn’t too late to get a job in the Cities, I swear I’d resign here. I bet I won’t dare to go to a single dance all winter. If I cut loose and danced the way I like to, they’d think I was a perfect hellion–poor harmless me! Oh, I oughtn’t to be talking like this. Fern, you never could be cagey!”

“Don’t be frightened, my dear! . . . Doesn’t that sound atrociously old and kind! I’m talking to you the way Mrs. Westlake talks to me! That’s having a husband and a kitchen range, I suppose. But I feel young, and I want to dance like a–like a hellion?–too. So I sympathize.”

Fern made a sound of gratitude. Carol inquired, “What experience did you have with college dramatics? I tried to start a kind of Little Theater here. It was dreadful. I must tell you about it—-“

Two hours later, when Kennicott came over to greet Fern and to yawn, “Look here, Carrie, don’t you suppose you better be thinking about turning in? I’ve got a hard day tomorrow,” the two were talking so intimately that they constantly interrupted each other.

As she went respectably home, convoyed by a husband, and decorously holding up her skirts, Carol rejoiced, “Everything has changed! I have two friends, Fern and—- But who’s the other? That’s queer; I thought there was—- Oh, how absurd!”

V

She often passed Erik Valborg on the street; the brown jersey coat became unremarkable. When she was driving with Kennicott, in early evening, she saw him on the lake shore, reading a thin book which might easily have been poetry. She noted that he was the only person in the motorized town who still took long walks.

She told herself that she was the daughter of a judge, the wife of a doctor, and that she did not care to know a capering tailor. She told herself that she was not responsive to men. . . not even to Percy Bresnahan. She told herself that a woman of thirty who heeded a boy of twenty-five was ridiculous. And on Friday, when she had convinced herself that the errand was necessary, she went to Nat Hicks’s shop, bearing the not very romantic burden of a pair of her husband’s trousers. Hicks was in the back room. She faced the Greek god who, in a somewhat ungodlike way, was stitching a coat on a scaley sewing-machine, in a room of smutted plaster walls.

She saw that his hands were not in keeping with a Hellenic face. They were thick, roughened with needle and hot iron and plow-handle. Even in the shop he persisted in his finery. He wore a silk shirt, a topaz scarf, thin tan shoes.

This she absorbed while she was saying curtly, “Can I get these pressed, please?”

Not rising from the sewing-machine he stuck out his hand, mumbled, “When do you want them?”

“Oh, Monday.”

The adventure was over. She was marching out.

“What name?” he called after her.

He had risen and, despite the farcicality of Dr. Will Kennicott’s bulgy trousers draped over his arm, he had the grace of a cat.

“Kennicott.”

“Kennicott. Oh! Oh say, you’re Mrs. Dr. Kennicott then, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” She stood at the door. Now that she had carried out her preposterous impulse to see what he was like, she was cold, she was as ready to detect familiarities as the virtuous Miss Ella Stowbody.

“I’ve heard about you. Myrtle Cass was saying you got up a dramatic club and gave a dandy play. I’ve always wished I had a chance to belong to a Little Theater, and give some European plays, or whimsical like Barrie, or a pageant.”

He pronounced it “pagent”; he rhymed “pag” with “rag.”

Carol nodded in the manner of a lady being kind to a tradesman, and one of her selves sneered, “Our Erik is indeed a lost John Keats.”

He was appealing, “Do you suppose it would be possible to get up another dramatic club this coming fall?”

“Well, it might be worth thinking of.” She came out of her several conflicting poses, and said sincerely, “There’s a new teacher, Miss Mullins, who might have some talent. That would make three of us for a nucleus. If we could scrape up half a dozen we might give a real play with a small cast. Have you had any experience?”

“Just a bum club that some of us got up in Minneapolis when I was working there. We had one good man, an interior decorator–maybe he was kind of sis and effeminate, but he really was an artist, and we gave one dandy play. But I—- Of course I’ve always had to work hard, and study by myself, and I’m probably sloppy, and I’d love it if I had training in rehearsing–I mean, the crankier the director was, the better I’d like it. If you didn’t want to use me as an actor, I’d love to design the costumes. I’m crazy about fabrics–textures and colors and designs.”

She knew that he was trying to keep her from going, trying to indicate that he was something more than a person to whom one brought trousers for pressing. He besought:

“Some day I hope I can get away from this fool repairing, when I have the money saved up. I want to go East and work for some big dressmaker, and study art drawing, and become a high-class designer. Or do you think that’s a kind of fiddlin’ ambition for a fellow? I was brought up on a farm. And then monkeyin’ round with silks! I don’t know. What do you think? Myrtle Cass says you’re awfully educated.”

“I am. Awfully. Tell me: Have the boys made fun of your ambition?”

She was seventy years old, and sexless, and more advisory than Vida Sherwin.

“Well, they have, at that. They’ve jollied me a good deal, here and Minneapolis both. They say dressmaking is ladies’ work. (But I was willing to get drafted for the war! I tried to get in. But they rejected me. But I did try! ) I thought some of working up in a gents’ furnishings store, and I had a chance to travel on the road for a clothing house, but somehow– I hate this tailoring, but I can’t seem to get enthusiastic about salesmanship. I keep thinking about a room in gray oatmeal paper with prints in very narrow gold frames–or would it be better in white enamel paneling?–but anyway, it looks out on Fifth Avenue, and I’m designing a sumptuous—-” He made it “sump-too-ous”–“robe of linden green chiffon over cloth of gold! You know–tileul. It’s elegant. . . . What do you think?”

“Why not? What do you care for the opinion of city rowdies, or a lot of farm boys? But you mustn’t, you really mustn’t, let casual strangers like me have a chance to judge you.”

“Well—- You aren’t a stranger, one way. Myrtle Cass –Miss Cass, should say–she’s spoken about you so often. I wanted to call on you–and the doctor–but I didn’t quite have the nerve. One evening I walked past your house, but you and your husband were talking on the porch, and you looked so chummy and happy I didn’t dare butt in.”

Maternally, “I think it’s extremely nice of you to want to be trained in–in enunciation by a stage-director. Perhaps I could help you. I’m a thoroughly sound and uninspired schoolma’am by instinct; quite hopelessly mature.”

“Oh, you aren’t EITHER!”

She was not very successful at accepting his fervor with the air of amused woman of the world, but she sounded reasonably impersonal: “Thank you. Shall we see if we really can get up a new dramatic club? I’ll tell you: Come to the house this evening, about eight. I’ll ask Miss Mullins to come over, and we’ll talk about it.”

VI

“He has absolutely no sense of humor. Less than Will. But hasn’t he—– What is a `sense of humor’? Isn’t the thing he lacks the back-slapping jocosity that passes for humor here? Anyway—- Poor lamb, coaxing me to stay and play with him! Poor lonely lamb! If he could be free from Nat Hickses, from people who say `dandy’ and `bum,’ would he develop?

“I wonder if Whitman didn’t use Brooklyn back-street slang, as a boy?

“No. Not Whitman. He’s Keats–sensitive to silken things. `Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes as are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings.’ Keats, here! A bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street. And Main Street laughs till it aches, giggles till the spirit doubts his own self and tries to give up the use of wings for the correct uses of a `gents’ furnishings store.’ Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of cement walk. . . . I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the tombstones of John Keatses?”

VII

Kennicott was cordial to Fern Mullins, teased her, told her he was a “great hand for running off with pretty school- teachers,” and promised that if the school-board should object to her dancing, he would “bat ’em one over the head and tell ’em how lucky they were to get a girl with some go to her, for once.”

But to Erik Valborg he was not cordial. He shook hands loosely, and said, “H’ are yuh.”

Nat Hicks was socially acceptable; he had been here for years, and owned his shop; but this person was merely Nat’s workman, and the town’s principle of perfect democracy was not meant to be applied indiscriminately.

The conference on a dramatic club theoretically included Kennicott, but he sat back, patting yawns, conscious of Fern’s ankles, smiling amiably on the children at their sport.

Fern wanted to tell her grievances; Carol was sulky every time she thought of “The Girl from Kankakee”; it was Erik who made suggestions. He had read with astounding breadth, and astounding lack of judgment. His voice was sensitive to liquids, but he overused the word “glorious.” He mispronounced a tenth of the words he had from books, but he knew it. He was insistent, but he was shy.

When he demanded, “I’d like to stage `Suppressed Desires,’ by Cook and Miss Glaspell,” Carol ceased to be patronizing. He was not the yearner: he was the artist, sure of his vision. “I’d make it simple. Use a big window at the back, with a cyclorama of a blue that would simply hit you in the eye, and just one tree-branch, to suggest a park below. Put the breakfast table on a dais. Let the colors be kind of arty and tea-roomy–orange chairs, and orange and blue table, and blue Japanese breakfast set, and some place, one big flat smear of black–bang! Oh. Another play I wish we could do is Tennyson Jesse’s `The Black Mask.’ I’ve never seen it but—- Glorious ending, where this woman looks at the man with his face all blown away, and she just gives one horrible scream.”

“Good God, is that your idea of a glorious ending?” bayed Kennicott.

“That sounds fierce! I do love artistic things, but not the horrible ones,” moaned Fern Mullins.

Erik was bewildered; glanced at Carol. She nodded loyally.

At the end of the conference they had decided nothing.

CHAPTER XXIX

SHE had walked up the railroad track with Hugh, this Sunday afternoon.

She saw Erik Valborg coming, in an ancient highwater suit, tramping sullenly and alone, striking at the rails with a stick. For a second she unreasoningly wanted to avoid him, but she kept on, and she serenely talked about God, whose voice, Hugh asserted, made the humming in the telegraph wires. Erik stared, straightened. They greeted each other with “Hello.”

“Hugh, say how-do-you-do to Mr. Valborg.”

“Oh, dear me, he’s got a button unbuttoned,” worried Erik, kneeling. Carol frowned, then noted the strength with which he swung the baby in the air.

“May I walk along a piece with you?”

“I’m tired. Let’s rest on those ties. Then I must be trotting back.”

They sat on a heap of discarded railroad ties, oak logs spotted with cinnamon-colored dry-rot and marked with metallic brown streaks where iron plates had rested. Hugh learned that the pile was the hiding-place of Injuns; he went gunning for them while the elders talked of uninteresting things.

The telegraph wires thrummed, thrummed, thrummed above them; the rails were glaring hard lines; the goldenrod smelled dusty. Across the track was a pasture of dwarf clover and sparse lawn cut by earthy cow-paths; beyond its placid narrow green, the rough immensity of new stubble, jagged with wheat- stacks like huge pineapples.

Erik talked of books; flamed like a recent convert to any faith. He exhibited as many titles and authors as possible, halting only to appeal, “Have you read his last book? Don’t you think he’s a terribly strong writer?”

She was dizzy. But when he insisted, “You’ve been a librarian; tell me; do I read too much fiction?” she advised him loftily, rather discursively. He had, she indicated, never studied. He had skipped from one emotion to another. Especially–she hesitated, then flung it at him–he must not guess at pronunciations; he must endure the nuisance of stopping to reach for the dictionary.

“I’m talking like a cranky teacher,” she sighed.

“No! And I will study! Read the damned dictionary right through.” He crossed his legs and bent over, clutching his ankle with both hands. “I know what you mean. I’ve been rushing from picture to picture, like a kid let loose in an art gallery for the first time. You see, it’s so awful recent that I’ve found there was a world–well, a world where beautiful things counted. I was on the farm till I was nineteen. Dad is a good farmer, but nothing else. Do you know why he first sent me off to learn tailoring? I wanted to study drawing, and he had a cousin that’d made a lot of money tailoring out in Dakota, and he said tailoring was a lot like drawing, so he sent me down to a punk hole called Curlew, to work in a tailor shop. Up to that time I’d only had three months’ schooling a year–walked to school two miles, through snow up to my knees–and Dad never would stand for my having a single book except schoolbooks.

“I never read a novel till I got `Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall’ out of the library at Curlew. I thought it was the loveliest thing in the world! Next I read `Barriers Burned Away’ and then Pope’s translation of Homer. Some combination, all right! When I went to Minneapolis, just two years ago, I guess I’d read pretty much everything in that Curlew library, but I’d never heard of Rossetti or John Sargent or Balzac or Brahms. But—- Yump, I’ll study. Look here! Shall I get out of this tailoring, this pressing and repairing?”

“I don’t see why a surgeon should spend very much time cobbling shoes.”

“But what if I find I can’t really draw and design? After fussing around in New York or Chicago, I’d feel like a fool if I had to go back to work in a gents’ furnishings store!”

“Please say `haberdashery.’ “

“Haberdashery? All right. I’ll remember.” He shrugged and spread his fingers wide.

She was humbled by his humility; she put away in her mind, to take out and worry over later, a speculation as to whether it was not she who was naive. She urged, “What if you do have to go back? Most of us do! We can’t all be artists–myself, for instance. We have to darn socks, and yet we’re not content to think of nothing but socks and darning- cotton. I’d demand all I could get–whether I finally settled down to designing frocks or building temples or pressing pants. What if you do drop back? You’ll have had the adventure. Don’t be too meek toward life! Go! You’re young, you’re unmarried. Try everything! Don’t listen to Nat Hicks and Sam Clark and be a `steady young man’–in order to help them make money. You’re still a blessed innocent. Go and play till the Good People capture you!”

“But I don’t just want to play. I want to make something beautiful. God! And I don’t know enough. Do you get it? Do you understand? Nobody else ever has! Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“And so—- But here’s what bothers me: I like fabrics; dinky things like that; little drawings and elegant words. But look over there at those fields. Big! New! Don’t it seem kind of a shame to leave this and go back to the East and Europe, and do what all those people have been doing so long? Being careful about words, when there’s millions of bushels off wheat here! Reading this fellow Pater, when I’ve helped Dad to clear fields!”

“It’s good to clear fields. But it’s not for you. It’s one of our favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds, and high mountains make high purpose. I thought that myself, when I first came to the prairie. `Big– new.’ Oh, I don’t want to deny the prairie future. It will be magnificent. But equally I’m hanged if I want to be bullied by it, go to war on behalf of Main Street, be bullied and BULLIED by the faith that the future is already here in the present, and that all of us must stay and worship wheat-stacks and insist that this is `God’s Country’–and never, of course, do anything original or gay-colored that would help to make that future! Anyway, you don’t belong here. Sam Clark and Nat Hicks, that’s what our big newness has produced. Go! Before it’s too late, as it has been for–for some of us. Young man, go East and grow up with the revolution! Then perhaps you may come back and tell Sam and Nat and me what to do with the land we’ve been clearing–if we’ll listen–if we don’t lynch you first!”

He looked at her reverently. She could hear him saying,

“I’ve always wanted to know a woman who would talk to me like that.”

Her hearing was faulty. He was saying nothing of the sort. He was saying:

“Why aren’t you happy with your husband?”

“I–you—-“

“He doesn’t care for the `blessed innocent’ part of you, does he!”

“Erik, you mustn’t—-“

“First you tell me to go and be free, and then you say that I `mustn’t’!”

“I know. But you mustn’t—- You must be more impersonal!”

He glowered at her like a downy young owl. She wasn’t sure but she thought that he muttered, “I’m damned if I will.” She considered with wholesome fear the perils of meddling with other people’s destinies, and she said timidly, “Hadn’t we better start back now?”

He mused, “You’re younger than I am. Your lips are for songs about rivers in the morning and lakes at twilight. I don’t see how anybody could ever hurt you. . . . Yes. We better go.”

He trudged beside her, his eyes averted. Hugh experimentally took his thumb. He looked down at the baby seriously. He burst out, “All right. I’ll do it. I’ll stay here one year. Save. Not spend so much money on clothes. And then I’ll go East, to art-school. Work on the side-tailor shop, dressmaker’s. I’ll learn what I’m good for: designing clothes, stage-settings, illustrating, or selling collars to fat men. All settled.” He peered at her, unsmiling.

“Can you stand it here in town for a year?”

“With you to look at?”

“Please! I mean: Don’t the people here think you’re an odd bird? (They do me, I assure you!)”

“I don’t know. I never notice much. Oh, they do kid me about not being in the army–especially the old warhorses, the old men that aren’t going themselves. And this Bogart boy. And Mr. Hicks’s son–he’s a horrible brat. But probably he’s licensed to say what he thinks about his father’s hired man!”

“He’s beastly!”

They were in town. They passed Aunt Bessie’s house. Aunt Bessie and Mrs. Bogart were at the window, and Carol saw that they were staring so intently that they answered her wave only with the stiffly raised hands of automatons. In the next block Mrs. Dr. Westlake was gaping from her porch. Carol said with an embarrassed quaver:

“I want to run in and see Mrs. Westlake. I’ll say good-by here.”

She avoided his eyes.

Mrs. Westlake was affable. Carol felt that she was expected to explain; and while she was mentally asserting that she’d be hanged if she’d explain, she was explaining:

“Hugh captured that Valborg boy up the track. They became such good friends. And I talked to him for a while. I’d heard he was eccentric, but really, I found him quite intelligent. Crude, but he reads–reads almost the way Dr. Westlake does.”

“That’s fine. Why does he stick here in town? What’s this I hear about his being interested in Myrtle Cass?”

“I don’t know. Is he? I’m sure he isn’t! He said he was quite lonely! Besides, Myrtle is a babe in arms!”

“Twenty-one if she’s a day!”

“Well—- Is the doctor going to do any hunting this fall?”

II

The need of explaining Erik dragged her back into doubting. For all his ardent reading, and his ardent life, was he anything but a small-town youth bred on an illiberal farm and in cheap tailor shops? He had rough hands. She had been attracted only by hands that were fine and suave, like those of her father. Delicate hands and resolute purpose. But this boy–powerful seamed hands and flabby will.

“It’s not appealing weakness like his, but sane strength that win animate the Gopher Prairies. Only—- Does that mean anything? Or am I echoing Vida? The world has always let `strong’ statesmen and soldiers–the men with strong voices– take control, and what have the thundering boobies done? What is `strength’?

“This classifying of people! I suppose tailors differ as much as burglars or kings.

“Erik frightened me when he turned on me. Of course he didn’t mean anything, but I mustn’t let him be so personal.

“Amazing impertinence!

“But he didn’t mean to be.

“His hands are FIRM. I wonder if sculptors don’t have thick hands, too?

“Of course if there really is anything I can do to HELP the boy—-

“Though I despise these people who interfere. He must be independent.”

III

She wasn’t altogether pleased, the week after, when Erik was independent and, without asking for her inspiration, planned the tennis tournament. It proved that he had learned to play in Minneapolis; that, next to Juanita Haydock, he had the best serve in town. Tennis was well spoken of in Gopher Prairie and almost never played. There were three courts: one belonging to Harry Haydock, one to the cottages at the lake, and one, a rough field on the outskirts, laid out by a defunct tennis association.

Erik had been seen in flannels and an imitation panama hat, playing on the abandoned court with Willis Woodford, the clerk in Stowbody’s bank. Suddenly he was going about proposing the reorganization of the tennis association, and writing names in a fifteen-cent note-book bought for the purpose at Dyer’s. When he came to Carol he was so excited over being an organizer that he did not stop to talk of himself and Aubrey Beardsley for more than ten minutes. He begged, “Will you get some of the folks to come in?” and she nodded agreeably.

He proposed an informal exhibition match to advertise the association; he suggested that Carol and himself, the Haydocks, the Woodfords, and the Dillons play doubles, and that the association be formed from the gathered enthusiasts. He had asked Harry Haydock to be tentative president. Harry, he reported, had promised, “All right. You bet. But you go ahead and arrange things, and I’ll O.K. ’em.” Erik planned that the match should be held Saturday afternoon, on the old public court at the edge of town. He was happy in being, for the first time, part of Gopher Prairie.

Through the week Carol heard how select an attendance there was to be.

Kennicott growled that he didn’t care to go.

Had he any objections to her playing with Erik?

No; sure not; she needed the exercise. Carol went to the match early. The court was in a meadow out on the New Antonia road. Only Erik was there. He was dashing about with a rake, trying to make the court somewhat less like a plowed field. He admitted that he had stage fright at the thought of the coming horde. Willis and Mrs. Woodford arrived, Willis in home-made knickers and black sneakers through at the toe; then Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon, people as harmless and grateful as the Woodfords.

Carol was embarrassed and excessively agreeable, like the bishop’s lady trying not to feel out of place at a Baptist bazaar.

They waited.

The match was scheduled for three. As spectators there assembled one youthful grocery clerk, stopping his Ford delivery wagon to stare from the seat, and one solemn small boy, tugging a smaller sister who had a careless nose.

“I wonder where the Haydocks are? They ought to show up, at least,” said Erik.

Carol smiled confidently at him, and peered down the empty road toward town. Only heat-waves and dust and dusty weeds.

At half-past three no one had come, and the grocery boy reluctantly got out, cranked his Ford, glared at them in a disillusioned manner, and rattled away. The small boy and his sister ate grass and sighed.

The players pretended to be exhilarated by practising service, but they startled at each dust-cloud from a motor car. None of the cars turned into the meadow-none till a quarter to four, when Kennicott drove in.

Carol’s heart swelled. “How loyal he is! Depend on him! He’d come, if nobody else did. Even though he doesn’t care for the game. The old darling!”

Kennicott did not alight. He called out, “Carrie! Harry Haydock ‘phoned me that they’ve decided to hold the tennis matches, or whatever you call ’em, down at the cottages at the lake, instead of here. The bunch are down there now: Haydocks and Dyers and Clarks and everybody. Harry wanted to know if I’d bring you down. I guess I can take the time– come right back after supper.”

Before Carol could sum it all up, Erik stammered, “Why, Haydock didn’t say anything to me about the change. Of course he’s the president, but—-“

Kennicott looked at him heavily, and grunted, “I don’t know a thing about it. . . . Coming, Carrie?”

“I am not! The match was to be here, and it will be here! You can tell Harry Haydock that he’s beastly rude!” She rallied the five who had been left out, who would always be left out. “Come on! We’ll toss to see which four of us play the Only and Original First Annual Tennis Tournament of Forest Hills, Del Monte, and Gopher Prairie!”

“Don’t know as I blame you,” said Kennicott. “Well have supper at home then?” He drove off.

She hated him for his composure. He had ruined her defiance. She felt much less like Susan B. Anthony as she turned to her huddled followers.

Mrs. Dillon and Willis Woodford lost the toss. The others played out the game, slowly, painfully, stumbling on the rough earth, muffing the easiest shots, watched only by the small boy and his sniveling sister. Beyond the court stretched the eternal stubble-fields. The four marionettes, awkwardly going through exercises, insignificant in the hot sweep of contemptuous land, were not heroic; their voices did not ring out in the score, but sounded apologetic; and when the game was over they glanced about as though they were waiting to be laughed at.

They walked home. Carol took Erik’s arm. Through her thin linen sleeve she could feel the crumply warmth of his familiar brown jersey coat. She observed that there were purple and red gold threads interwoven with the brown. She remembered the first time she had seen it.

Their talk was nothing but improvisations on the theme: “I never did like this Haydock. He just considers his own convenience.” Ahead of them, the Dillons and Woodfords spoke of the weather and B. J. Gougerling’s new bungalow. No one referred to their tennis tournament. At her gate Carol shook hands firmly with Erik and smiled at him.

Next morning, Sunday morning, when Carol was on the porch, the Haydocks drove up.

“We didn’t mean to be rude to you, dearie!” implored Juanita. “I wouldn’t have you think that for anything. We planned that Will and you should come down and have supper at our cottage.”

“No. I’m sure you didn’t mean to be.” Carol was super- neighborly. “But I do think you ought to apologize to poor Erik Valborg. He was terribly hurt.”

“Oh. Valborg. I don’t care so much what he thinks,” objected Harry. “He’s nothing but a conceited buttinsky. Juanita and I kind of figured he was trying to run this tennis thing too darn much anyway.”

“But you asked him to make arrangements.”

“I know, but I don’t like him. Good Lord, you couldn’t hurt his feelings! He dresses up like a chorus man–and, by golly, he looks like one!–but he’s nothing but a Swede farm boy, and these foreigners, they all got hides like a covey of rhinoceroses .”

“But he IS hurt!”

“Well—- I don’t suppose I ought to have gone off half- cocked, and not jollied him along. I’ll give him a cigar. He’ll—-“

Juanita had been licking her lips and staring at Carol. She interrupted her husband, “Yes, I do think Harry ought to fix it up with him. You LIKE him, DON’T you, Carol??”

Over and through Carol ran a frightened cautiousness. “Like him? I haven’t an I–dea. He seems to be a very decent young man. I just felt that when he’d worked so hard on the plans for the match, it was a shame not to be nice to him.”

“Maybe there’s something to that,” mumbled Harry; then, at sight of Kennicott coming round the corner tugging the red garden hose by its brass nozzle, he roared in relief, “What d’ you think you’re trying to do, doc?”

While Kennicott explained in detail all that he thought he was trying to do, while he rubbed his chin and gravely stated, “Struck me the grass was looking kind of brown in patches– didn’t know but what I’d give it a sprinkling,” and while Harry agreed that this was an excellent idea, Juanita made friendly noises and, behind the gilt screen of an affectionate smile, watched Carol’s face.

IV

She wanted to see Erik. She wanted some one to play with! There wasn’t even so dignified and sound an excuse as having Kennicott’s trousers pressed; when she inspected them, all three pairs looked discouragingly neat. She probably would not have ventured on it had she not spied Nat Hicks in the pool-parlor, being witty over bottle-pool. Erik was alone! She fluttered toward the tailor shop, dashed into its slovenly heat with the comic fastidiousness of a humming bird dipping into a dry tiger-lily. It was after she had entered that she found an excuse.

Erik was in the back room, cross-legged on a long table, sewing a vest. But he looked as though he were doing this eccentric thing to amuse himself.

“Hello. I wonder if you couldn’t plan a sports-suit for me?” she said breathlessly.

He stared at her; he protested, “No, I won’t! God! I’m not going to be a tailor with you!”

“Why, Erik!” she said, like a mildly shocked mother.

It occurred to her that she did not need a suit, and that the order might have been hard to explain to Kennicott.

He swung down from the table. “I want to show you something.” He rummaged in the roll-top desk on which Nat Hicks kept bills, buttons, calendars, buckles, thread-channeled wax, shotgun shells, samples of brocade for “fancy vests,” fishing-reels, pornographic post-cards, shreds of buckram lining. He pulled out a blurred sheet of Bristol board and anxiously gave it to her. It was a sketch for a frock. It was not well drawn; it was too finicking; the pillars in the background were grotesquely squat. But the frock had an original back, very low, with a central triangular section from the waist to a string of jet beads at the neck.

“It’s stunning. But how it would shock Mrs. Clark!”

“Yes, wouldn’t it!”

“You must let yourself go more when you’re drawing.”

“Don’t know if I can. I’ve started kind of late. But listen! What do you think I’ve done this two weeks? I’ve read almost clear through a Latin grammar, and about twenty pages of Caesar.”

“Splendid! You are lucky. You haven’t a teacher to make you artificial.”

“You’re my teacher!”

There was a dangerous edge of personality to his voice. She was offended and agitated. She turned her shoulder on him, stared through the back window, studying this typical center of a typical Main Street block, a vista hidden from casual strollers. The backs of the chief establishments in town surrounded a quadrangle neglected, dirty, and incomparably dismal. From the front, Howland & Gould’s grocery was smug enough, but attached to the rear was a lean-to of storm streaked pine lumber with a sanded tar roof–a staggering doubtful shed behind which was a heap of ashes, splintered packing-boxes, shreds of excelsior, crumpled straw-board, broken olive-bottles, rotten fruit, and utterly disintegrated vegetables: orange carrots turning black, and potatoes with ulcers. The rear of the Bon Ton Store was grim with blistered black-painted iron shutters, under them a pile of once glossy red shirt-boxes, now a pulp from recent rain.

As seen from Main Street, Oleson & McGuire’s Meat Market had a sanitary and virtuous expression with its new tile counter, fresh sawdust on the floor, and a hanging veal cut in rosettes. But she now viewed a back room with a homemade refrigerator of yellow smeared with black grease. A man in an apron spotted with dry blood was hoisting out a hard slab of meat.

Behind Billy’s Lunch, the cook, in an apron which must long ago have been white, smoked a pipe and spat at the pest of sticky flies. In the center of the block, by itself, was the stable for the three horses of the drayman, and beside it a pile of manure.

The rear of Ezra Stowbody’s bank was whitewashed, and back of it was a concrete walk and a three-foot square of grass, but the window was barred, and behind the bars she saw Willis Woodford cramped over figures in pompous books. He raised his head, jerkily rubbed his eyes, and went back to the eternity of figures.

The backs of the other shops were an impressionistic picture of dirty grays, drained browns, writhing heaps of refuse.

“Mine is a back-yard romance–with a journeyman tailor!”

She was saved from self-pity as she began to think through Erik’s mind. She turned to him with an indignant, “It’s disgusting that this is all you have to look at.”

He considered it. “Outside there? I don’t notice much. I’m learning to look inside. Not awful easy!”

“Yes. . . . I must be hurrying.”

As she walked home–without hurrying–she remembered her father saying to a serious ten-year-old Carol, “Lady, only a fool thinks he’s superior to beautiful bindings, but only a double-distilled fool reads nothing but bindings.”

She was startled by the return of her father, startled by a sudden conviction that in this flaxen boy she had found the gray reticent judge who was divine love, perfect under- standing. She debated it, furiously denied it, reaffirmed it, ridiculed it. Of one thing she was unhappily certain: there was nothing of the beloved father image in Will Kennicott.

V

She wondered why she sang so often, and why she found so many pleasant things–lamplight seen though trees on a cool evening, sunshine on brown wood, morning sparrows, black sloping roofs turned to plates of silver by moonlight. Pleasant things, small friendly things, and pleasant places–a field of goldenrod, a pasture by the creek–and suddenly a wealth of pleasant people. Vida was lenient to Carol at the surgical-dressing class; Mrs. Dave Dyer flattered her with questions about her health, baby, cook, and opinions on the war.

Mrs. Dyer seemed not to share the town’s prejudice against Erik. “He’s a nice-looking fellow; we must have him go on one of our picnics some time.” Unexpectedly, Dave Dyer also liked him. The tight-fisted little farceur had a confused reverence for anything that seemed to him refined or clever. He answered Harry Haydock’s sneers, “That’s all right now! Elizabeth may doll himself up too much, but he’s smart, and don’t you forget it! I was asking round trying to find out where this Ukraine is, and darn if he didn’t tell me. What’s the matter with his talking so polite? Hell’s bells, Harry, no harm in being polite. There’s some regular he- men that are just as polite as women, prett’ near.”

Carol found herself going about rejoicing, “How neighborly the town is!” She drew up with a dismayed “Am I falling in love with this boy? That’s ridiculous! I’m merely interested in him. I like to think of helping him to succeed.”

But as she dusted the living-room, mended a collar-band, bathed Hugh, she was picturing herself and a young artistan Apollo nameless and evasive–building a house in the Berkshires or in Virginia; exuberantly buying a chair with his first check; reading poetry together, and frequently being earnest over valuable statistics about labor; tumbling out of bed early for a Sunday walk, and chattering (where Kennicott would have yawned) over bread and butter by a lake. Hugh was in her pictures, and he adored the young artist, who made castles of chairs and rugs for him. Beyond these playtimes she saw the “things I could do for Erik”–and she admitted that Erik did partly make up the image of her altogether perfect artist.

In panic she insisted on being attentive to Kennicott, when he wanted to be left alone to read the newspaper.

VI

She needed new clothes. Kennicott had promised, “We’ll have a good trip down to the Cities in the fall, and take plenty of time for it, and you can get your new glad-rags then.” But as she examined her wardrobe she flung her ancient black velvet frock on the floor and raged, “They’re disgraceful. Everything I have is falling to pieces.”

There was a new dressmaker and milliner, a Mrs. Swiftwaite. It was said that she was not altogether an elevating influence in the way she glanced at men; that she would as soon take away a legally appropriated husband as not; that if there WAS any Mr. Swiftwaite, “it certainly was strange that nobody seemed to know anything about him!” But she had made for Rita Gould an organdy frock and hat to match universally admitted to be “too cunning for words,” and the matrons went cautiously, with darting eyes and excessive politeness, to the rooms which Mrs. Swiftwaite had taken in the old Luke Dawson house, on Floral Avenue.

With none of the spiritual preparation which normally precedes the buying of new clothes in Gopher Prairie, Carol marched into Mrs. Swiftwaite’s, and demanded, “I want to see a hat, and possibly a blouse.”

In the dingy old front parlor which she had tried to make smart with a pier glass, covers from fashion magazines, anemic French prints, Mrs. Swiftwaite moved smoothly among the dress-dummies and hat-rests, spoke smoothly as she took up a small black and red turban. “I am sure the lady will find this extremely attractive.”

“It’s dreadfully tabby and small-towny,” thought Carol, while she soothed, “I don’t believe it quite goes with me.”

“It’s the choicest thing I have, and I’m sure you’ll find it suits you beautifully. It has a great deal of chic. Please try it on,” said Mrs. Swiftwaite, more smoothly than ever.

Carol studied the woman. She was as imitative as a glass diamond. She was the more rustic in her effort to appear urban. She wore a severe high-collared blouse with a row of small black buttons, which was becoming to her low-breasted slim neatness, but her skirt was hysterically checkered, her cheeks were too highly rouged, her lips too sharply penciled. She was magnificently a specimen of the illiterate divorcee of forty made up to look thirty, clever, and alluring.

While she was trying on the hat Carol felt very condescending. She took it off, shook her head, explained with the kind smile for inferiors, “I’m afraid it won’t do, though it’s unusually nice for so small a town as this.”

“But it’s really absolutely New-Yorkish.”

“Well, it—-“

“You see, I know my New York styles. I lived in New York for years, besides almost a year in Akron!”

“You did?” Carol was polite, and edged away, and went home unhappily. She was wondering whether her own airs were as laughable as Mrs. Swiftwaite’s. She put on the eye- glasses which Kennicott had recently given to her for reading, and looked over a grocery bill. She went hastily up to her room, to her mirror. She was in a mood of self-depreciation. Accurately or not, this was the picture she saw in the mirror:

Neat rimless eye-glasses. Black hair clumsily tucked under a mauve straw hat which would have suited a spinster. Cheeks clear, bloodless. Thin nose. Gentle mouth and chin. A modest voile blouse with an edging of lace at the neck. A virginal sweetness and timorousness–no flare of gaiety, no suggestion of cities, music, quick laughter.

“I have become a small-town woman. Absolute. Typical. Modest and moral and safe. Protected from life. GENTEEL! The Village Virus–the village virtuousness. My hair–just scrambled together. What can Erik see in that wedded spinster there? He does like me! Because I’m the only woman who’s decent to him! How long before he’ll wake up to me? . . . I’ve waked up to myself. . . . Am I as old as–as old as I am?

“Not really old. Become careless. Let myself look tabby.

“I want to chuck every stitch I own. Black hair and pale cheeks–they’d go with a Spanish dancer’s costume– rose behind my ear, scarlet mantilla over one shoulder, the other bare.”

She seized the rouge sponge, daubed her cheeks, scratched at her lips with the vermilion pencil until they stung, tore open her collar. She posed with her thin arms in the attitude of the fandango. She dropped them sharply. She shook her head. “My heart doesn’t dance,” she said. She flushed as she fastened her blouse.

“At least I’m much more graceful than Fern Mullins.

Heavens! When I came here from the Cities, girls imitated me. Now I’m trying to imitate a city girl.”

CHAPTER XXX

FERN Mullins rushed into the house on a Saturday morning early in September and shrieked at Carol, “School starts next Tuesday. I’ve got to have one more spree before I’m arrested. Let’s get up a picnic down the lake for this afternoon. Won’t you come, Mrs. Kennicott, and the doctor? Cy Bogart wants to go–he’s a brat but he’s lively.”

“I don’t think the doctor can go,” sedately. “He said something about having to make a country call this afternoon. But I’d love to.”

“That’s dandy! Who can we get?”

“Mrs. Dyer might be chaperon. She’s been so nice. And maybe Dave, if he could get away from the store.”

“How about Erik Valborg? I think he’s got lots more style than these town boys. You like him all right, don’t you?”

So the picnic of Carol, Fern, Erik, Cy Bogart, and the Dyers was not only moral but inevitable.

They drove to the birch grove on the south shore of Lake Minniemashie. Dave Dyer was his most clownish self. He yelped, jigged, wore Carol’s hat, dropped an ant down Fern’s back, and when they went swimming (the women modestly changing in the car with the side curtains up, the men undressing behind the bushes, constantly repeating, “Gee, hope we don’t run into poison ivy”), Dave splashed water on them and dived to clutch his wife’s ankle. He infected the others. Erik gave an imitation of the Greek dancers he had seen in vaudeville, and when they sat down to picnic supper spread on a lap-robe on the grass, Cy climbed a tree to throw acorns at them.

But Carol could not frolic.

She had made herself young, with parted hair, sailor blouse and large blue bow, white canvas shoes and short linen skirt. Her mirror had asserted that she looked exactly as she had in college, that her throat was smooth, her collar-bone not very noticeable. But she was under restraint. When they swam she enjoyed the freshness of the water but she was irritated by Cy’s tricks, by Dave’s excessive good spirits. She admired Erik’s dance; he could never betray bad taste, as Cy did, and Dave. She waited for him to come to her. He did not come. By his joyousness he had apparently endeared himself to the Dyers. Maud watched him and, after supper, cried to him, “Come sit down beside me, bad boy!” Carol winced at his willingness to be a bad boy and come and sit, at his enjoyment of a not very stimulating game in which Maud, Dave, and Cy snatched slices of cold tongue from one another’s plates. Maud, it seemed, was slightly dizzy from the swim. She remarked publicly, “Dr. Kennicott has helped me so much by putting me on a diet,” but it was to Erik alone that she gave the complete version of her peculiarity in being so sensitive, so easily hurt by the slightest cross word, that she simply had to have nice cheery friends.

Erik was nice and cheery.

Carol assured herself, “Whatever faults I may have, I certainly couldn’t ever be jealous. I do like Maud; she’s always so pleasant. But I wonder if she isn’t just a bit fond of fishing for men’s sympathy? Playing with Erik, and her married—- Well—- But she looks at him in that languishing, swooning, mid-Victorian way. Disgusting!”

Cy Bogart lay between the roots of a big birch, smoking his pipe and teasing Fern, assuring her that a week from now, when he was again a high-school boy and she his teacher, he’d wink at her in class. Maud Dyer wanted Erik to “come down to the beach to see the darling little minnies.” Carol was left to Dave, who tried to entertain her with humorous accounts of Ella Stowbody’s fondness for chocolate peppermints. She watched Maud Dyer put her hand on Erik’s shoulder to steady herself.

“Disgusting!” she thought.

Cy Bogart covered Fern’s nervous hand with his red paw, and when she bounced with half-anger and shrieked, “Let go, I tell you!” he grinned and waved his pipe–a gangling twenty- year-old satyr.

“Disgusting!”

When Maud and Erik returned and the grouping shifted, Erik muttered at Carol, “There’s a boat on shore. Let’s skip off and have a row.”

“What will they think?” she worried. She saw Maud Dyer peer at Erik with moist possessive eyes. “Yes! Let’s!” she said.

She cried to the party, with the canonical amount of sprightliness, “Good-by, everybody. We’ll wireless you from China.”

As the rhythmic oars plopped and creaked, as she floated on an unreality of delicate gray over which the sunset was poured out thin, the irritation of Cy and Maud slipped away. Erik smiled at her proudly. She considered him–coatless, in white thin shirt. She was conscious of his male differentness, of his flat masculine sides, his thin thighs, his easy rowing. They talked of the library, of the movies. He hummed and she softly sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” A breeze shivered across the agate lake. The wrinkled water was like armor damascened and polished. The breeze flowed round the boat in a chill current. Carol drew the collar of her middy blouse over her bare throat.

“Getting cold. Afraid we’ll have to go back,” she said.

“Let’s not go back to them yet. They’ll be cutting up. Let’s keep along the shore.”

“But you enjoy the `cutting up!’ Maud and you had a beautiful time.”

“Why! We just walked on the shore and talked about fishing!”

She was relieved, and apologetic to her friend Maud. “Of course. I was joking.”

“I’ll tell you! Let’s land here and sit on the shore–that bunch of hazel-brush will shelter us from the wind–and watch the sunset. It’s like melted lead. Just a short while! We don’t want to go back and listen to them!”

“No, but—-” She said nothing while he sped ashore. The keel clashed on the stones. He stood on the forward seat, holding out his hand. They were alone, in the ripple-lapping silence. She rose slowly, slowly stepped over the water in the bottom of the old boat. She took his hand confidently. Unspeaking they sat on a bleached log, in a russet twilight which hinted of autumn. Linden leaves fluttered about them.

“I wish—- Are you cold now?” he whispered.

“A little.” She shivered. But it was not with cold.

“I wish we could curl up in the leaves there, covered all up, and lie looking out at the dark.”

“I wish we could.” As though it was comfortably understood that he did not mean to be taken seriously.

“Like what all the poets say–brown nymph and faun.”

“No. I can’t be a nymph any more. Too old—- Erik, am I old? Am I faded and small-towny?”

“Why, you’re the youngest—- Your eyes are like a girl’s. They’re so–well, I mean, like you believed everything. Even if you do teach me, I feel a thousand years older than you, instead of maybe a year younger.”

“Four or five years younger!”

“Anyway, your eyes are so innocent and your cheeks so soft—- Damn it, it makes me want to cry, somehow, you’re so defenseless; and I want to protect you and—- There’s nothing to protect you against!”

“Am I young? Am I? Honestly? Truly?” She betrayed for a moment the childish, mock-imploring tone that comes into the voice of the most serious woman when an agreeable man treats her as a girl; the childish tone and childish pursed-up lips and shy lift of the cheek.

“Yes, you are!”

“You’re dear to believe it, Will–ERIK!”

“Will you play with me? A lot?”

“Perhaps.”

“Would you really like to curl in the leaves and watch the stars swing by overhead?”

“I think it’s rather better to be sitting here!” He twined his fingers with hers. “And Erik, we must go back.”

“Why?”

“It’s somewhat late to outline all the history of social custom!”

“I know. We must. Are you glad we ran away though?”

“Yes.” She was quiet, perfectly simple. But she rose.

He circled her waist with a brusque arm. She did not resist. She did not care. He was neither a peasant tailor, a potential artist, a social complication, nor a peril. He was himself, and in him, in the personality flowing from him, she was unreasoningly content. In his nearness she caught a new view of his head; the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples. Not as coy or uneasy lovers but as companions they walked to the boat, and he lifted her up on the prow.

She began to talk intently, as he rowed: “Erik, you’ve got to work! You ought to be a personage. You’re robbed of your kingdom. Fight for it! Take one of these correspon- dence courses in drawing–they mayn’t be any good in themselves, but they’ll make you try to draw and—-“

As they reached the picnic ground she perceived that it was dark, that they had been gone for a long time.

“What will they say?” she wondered.

The others greeted them with the inevitable storm of humor and slight vexation: “Where the deuce do you think you’ve been?” “You’re a fine pair, you are!” Erik and Carol looked self-conscious; failed in their effort to be witty. All the way home Carol was embarrassed. Once Cy winked at her. That Cy, the Peeping Tom of the garage-loft, should consider her a fellow-sinner—- She was furious and frightened and exultant by turns, and in all her moods certain that Kennicott would read her adventuring in her face.

She came into the house awkwardly defiant.

Her husband, half asleep under the lamp, greeted her, “Well, well, have nice time?”

She could not answer. He looked at her. But his look did not sharpen. He began to wind his watch, yawning the old “Welllllll, guess it’s about time to turn in.”

That was all. Yet she was not glad. She was almost disappointed.

II

Mrs. Bogart called next day. She had a hen-like, crumb- pecking, diligent appearance. Her smile was too innocent. The pecking started instantly:

“Cy says you had lots of fun at the picnic yesterday. Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh yes. I raced Cy at swimming. He beat me badly. He’s so strong, isn’t he!”

“Poor boy, just crazy to get into the war, too, but—- This Erik Valborg was along, wa’n’t he?”

“Yes.”

“I think he’s an awful handsome fellow, and they say he’s smart. Do you like him?”

“He seems very polite.”

“Cy says you and him had a lovely boat-ride. My, that must have been pleasant.”

“Yes, except that I couldn’t get Mr. Valborg to say a word. I wanted to ask him about the suit Mr. Hicks is making for my husband. But he insisted on singing. Still, it was restful, floating around on the water and singing. So happy and innocent. Don’t you think it’s a shame, Mrs. Bogart, that people in this town don’t do more nice clean things like that, instead of all this horrible gossiping?”

“Yes. . . . Yes.”

Mrs. Bogart sounded vacant. Her bonnet was awry; she was incomparably dowdy. Carol stared at her, felt contemptuous, ready at last to rebel against the trap, and as the rusty goodwife fished again, “Plannin’ some more picnics?” she flung out, “I haven’t the slightest idea! Oh. Is that Hugh crying? I must run up to him.”

But up-stairs she remembered that Mrs. Bogart had seen her walking with Erik from the railroad track into town, and she was chilly with disquietude.

At the Jolly Seventeen, two days after, she was effusive to Maud Dyer, to Juanita Haydock. She fancied that every one was watching her, but she could not be sure, and in rare strong moments she did not care. She could rebel against the town’s prying now that she had something, however indistinct, for which to rebel.

In a passionate escape there must be not only a place from which to flee but a place to which to flee. She had known that she would gladly leave Gopher Prairie, leave Main Street and all that it signified, but she had had no destination. She had one now. That destination was not Erik Valborg and the love of Erik. She continued to assure herself that she wasn’t in love with him but merely “fond of him, and interested in his success.” Yet in him she had discovered both her need of youth and the fact that youth would welcome her. It was not Erik to whom she must escape, but universal and joyous youth, in class-rooms, in studios, in offices, in meetings to protest against Things in General. . . . But universal and joyous youth rather resembled Erik.

All week she thought of things she wished to say to him. High, improving things. She began to admit that she was lonely without him. Then she was afraid.

It was at the Baptist church supper, a week after the picnic, that she saw him again. She had gone with Kennicott and Aunt Bessie to the supper, which was spread on oilcloth- covered and trestle-supported tables in the church basement. Erik was helping Myrtle Cass to fill coffee cups for the wait- resses. The congregation had doffed their piety. Children tumbled under the tables, and Deacon Pierson greeted the women with a rolling, “Where’s Brother Jones, sister, where’s Brother Jones? Not going to be with us tonight? Well, you tell Sister Perry to hand you a plate, and make ’em give you enough oyster pie!”

Erik shared in the cheerfulness. He laughed with Myrtle, jogged her elbow when she was filling cups, made deep mock bows to the waitresses as they came up for coffee. Myrtle was enchanted by his humor. From the other end of the room, a matron among matrons, Carol observed Myrtle, and hated her, and caught herself at it. “To be jealous of a wooden- faced village girl!” But she kept it up. She detested Erik; gloated over his gaucheries–his “breaks,” she called them. When he was too expressive, too much like a Russian dancer, in saluting Deacon Pierson, Carol had the ecstasy of pain in seeing the deacon’s sneer. When, trying to talk to three girls at once, he dropped a cup and effeminately wailed, “Oh dear!” she sympathized with–and ached over–the insulting secret glances of the girls.

From meanly hating him she rose to compassion as she saw that his eyes begged every one to like him. She perceived how inaccurate her judgments could be. At the picnic she had fancied that Maud Dyer looked upon Erik too sentimentally, and she had snarled, “I hate these married women who cheapen themselves and feed on boys.” But at the supper Maud was one of the waitresses; she bustled with platters of cake, she was pleasant to old women; and to Erik she gave no attention at all. Indeed, when she had her own supper, she joined the Kennicotts, and how ludicrous it was to suppose that Maud was a gourmet of emotions Carol saw in the fact that she talked not to one of the town beaux but to the safe Kennicott himself!

When Carol glanced at Erik again she discovered that Mrs. Bogart had an eye on her. It was a shock to know that at last there was something which could make her afraid of Mrs. Bogart’s spying.

“What am I doing? Am I in love with Erik? Unfaithful? I? I want youth but I don’t want him–I mean, I don’t want youth– enough to break up my life. I must get out of this. Quick.”

She said to Kennicott on their way home, “Will! I want to run away for a few days. Wouldn’t you like to skip down to Chicago?”

“Still be pretty hot there. No fun in a big city till winter. What do you want to go for?”

“People! To occupy my mind. I want stimulus.”

“Stimulus?” He spoke good-naturedly. “Who’s been feeding you meat? You got that `stimulus’ out of one of these fool stories about wives that don’t know when they’re well off. Stimulus! Seriously, though, to cut out the jollying, I can’t get away.”

“Then why don’t I run off by myself?”

“Why—- ‘Tisn’t the money, you understand. But what about Hugh?”

“Leave him with Aunt Bessie. It would be just for a few days.”

“I don’t think much of this business of leaving kids around. Bad for ’em.”

“So you don’t think—-“

“I’ll tell you: I think we better stay put till after the war. Then we’ll have a dandy long trip. No, I don’t think you better plan much about going away now.”

So she was thrown at Erik.

III

She awoke at ebb-time, at three of the morning, woke sharply and fully; and sharply and coldly as her father pronouncing sentence on a cruel swindler she gave judgment:

“A pitiful and tawdry love-affair.

“No splendor, no defiance. A self-deceived little woman whispering in corners with a pretentious little man.

“No, he is not. He is fine. Aspiring. It’s not his fault. His eyes are sweet when he looks at me. Sweet, so sweet.”

She pitied herself that her romance should be pitiful; she sighed that in this colorless hour, to this austere self, it should seem tawdry.

Then, in a very great desire of rebellion and unleashing of all her hatreds, “The pettier and more tawdry it is, the more blame to Main Street. It shows how much I’ve been longing to escape. Any way out! Any humility so long as I can flee. Main Street has done this to me. I came here eager for nobilities, ready for work, and now—- Any way out.

“I came trusting them. They beat me with rods of dullness. They don’t know, they don’t understand how agonizing their complacent dullness is. Like ants and August sun on a wound.

“Tawdry! Pitiful! Carol–the clean girl that used to walk so fast!–sneaking and tittering in dark corners, being sentimental and jealous at church suppers!”

At breakfast–time her agonies were night-blurred, and persisted only as a nervous irresolution.

IV

Few of the aristocrats of the Jolly Seventeen attended the humble folk-meets of the Baptist and Methodist church suppers, where the Willis Woodfords, the Dillons, the Champ Perrys, Oleson the butcher, Brad Bemis the tinsmith, and Deacon Pierson found release from loneliness. But all of the smart set went to the lawn-festivals of the Episcopal Church, and were reprovingly polite to outsiders.

The Harry Haydocks gave the last lawn-festival of the season; a splendor of Japanese lanterns and card-tables and chicken patties and Neapolitan ice-cream. Erik was no longer entirely an outsider. He was eating his ice-cream with a group of the people most solidly “in”–the Dyers, Myrtle Cass, Guy Pollock, the Jackson Elders. The Haydocks themselves kept aloof, but the others tolerated him. He would never, Carol fancied, be one of the town pillars, because he was not orthodox in hunting and motoring and poker. But he was winning approbation by his liveliness, his gaiety–the qualities least important in him.

When the group summoned Carol she made several very well-taken points in regard to the weather

Myrtle cried to Erik, “Come on! We don’t belong with these old folks. I want to make you ‘quainted with the jolliest girl, she comes from Wakamin, she’s staying with Mary Howland.”

Carol saw him being profuse to the guest from Wakamin. She saw him confidentially strolling with Myrtle. She burst out to Mrs. Westlake, “Valborg and Myrtle seem to have quite a crush on each other.”

Mrs. Westlake glanced at her curiously before she mumbled, “Yes, don’t they.”

“I’m mad, to talk this way,” Carol worried.

She had regained a feeling of social virtue by telling Juanita Haydock “how darling her lawn looked with the Japanese lanterns” when she saw that Erik was stalking her. Though he was merely ambling about with his hands in his pockets, though he did not peep at her, she knew that he was calling her. She sidled away from Juanita. Erik hastened to her. She nodded coolly (she was proud of her coolness).

“Carol! I’ve got a wonderful chance! Don’t know but what some ways it might be better than going East to take art. Myrtle Cass says—- I dropped in to say howdy to Myrtle last evening, and had quite a long talk with her father, and he said he was hunting for a fellow to go to work in the flour mill and learn the whole business, and maybe become general manager. I know something about wheat from my farming, and I worked a couple of months in the flour mill at Curlew when I got sick of tailoring. What do you think? You said any work was artistic if it was done by an artist. And flour is so important. What do you think?”

“Wait! Wait!”

This sensitive boy would be very skilfully stamped into conformity by Lyman Cass and his sallow daughter; but did she detest the plan for this reason?” I must be honest. I mustn’t tamper with his future to please my vanity.” But she had no sure vision. She turned on him:

“How can I decide? It’s up to you. Do you want to become a person like Lym Cass, or do you want to become a person like–yes, like me! Wait! Don’t be flattering. Be honest. This is important.”

“I know. I am a person like you now! I mean, I want to rebel.”

“Yes. We’re alike,” gravely.

“Only I’m not sure I can put through my schemes. I really can’t draw much. I guess I have pretty fair taste in fabrics, but since I’ve known you I don’t like to think about fussing with dress-designing. But as a miller, I’d have the means–books, piano, travel.”

“I’m going to be frank and beastly. Don’t you realize that it isn’t just because her papa needs a bright young man in the mill that Myrtle is amiable to you? Can’t you understand what she’ll do to you when she has you, when she sends you to church and makes you become respectable?”

He glared at her. “I don’t know. I suppose so.”

“You are thoroughly unstable!”

“What if I am? Most fish out of water are! Don’t talk like Mrs. Bogart! How can I be anything but `unstable’– wandering from farm to tailor shop to books, no training, nothing but trying to make books talk to me! Probably I’ll fail. Oh, I know it; probably I’m uneven. But I’m not unstable in thinking about this job in the mill–and Myrtle. I know what I want. I want you!”

“Please, please, oh, please!”

“I do. I’m not a schoolboy any more. I want you. If I take Myrtle, it’s to forget you.”

“Please, please!”

“It’s you that are unstable! You talk at things and play at things, but you’re scared. Would I mind it if you and I went off to poverty, and I had to dig ditches? I would not! But you would. I think you would come to like me, but you won’t admit it. I wouldn’t have said this, but when you sneer at Myrtle and the mill—- If I’m not to have good sensible things like those, d’ you think I’ll be content with trying to become a damn dressmaker, after YOU? Are you fair? Are you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Do you like me? Do you?”

“Yes—- No! Please! I can’t talk any more.”

“Not here. Mrs. Haydock is looking at us.”

“No, nor anywhere. O Erik, I am fond of you, but I’m afraid.”

“What of?”

“Of Them! Of my rulers–Gopher Prairie. . . . My dear boy, we are talking very foolishly. I am a normal wife and a good mother, and you are–oh, a college freshman.”

“You do like me! I’m going to make you love me!”

She looked at him once, recklessly, and walked away with a serene gait that was a disordered flight.

Kennicott grumbled on their way home, “You and this Valborg fellow seem quite chummy.”

“Oh, we are. He’s interested in Myrtle Cass, and I was telling him how nice she is.”

In her room she marveled, “I have become a liar. I’m snarled with lies and foggy analyses and desires–I who was clear and sure.”

She hurried into Kennicott’s room, sat on the edge of his bed. He flapped a drowsy welcoming hand at her from the expanse of quilt and dented pillows.

“Will, I really think I ought to trot off to St. Paul or Chicago or some place.”

“I thought we settled all that, few nights ago! Wait till we can have a real trip.” He shook himself out of his drowsiness. “You might give me a good-night kiss.”

She did–dutifully. He held her lips against his for an intolerable time. “Don’t you like the old man any more?” he coaxed. He sat up and shyly fitted his palm about the slimness of her waist.

“Of course. I like you very much indeed.” Even to herself it sounded flat. She longed to be able to throw into her voice the facile passion of a light woman. She patted his cheek.

He sighed, “I’m sorry you’re so tired. Seems like—- But of course you aren’t very strong.”

“Yes. . . . Then you don’t think–you’re quite sure I ought to stay here in town?”

“I told you so! I certainly do!”

She crept back to her room, a small timorous figure in white.

“I can’t face Will down–demand the right. He’d be

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