He fussed over his hunting-kit. He pulled his hip boots out to full length and examined them for holes. He feverishly counted his shotgun shells, lecturing her on the qualities of smokeless powder. He drew the new hammerless shotgun out of its heavy tan leather case and made her peep through the barrels to see how dazzlingly free they were from rust.
The world of hunting and camping-outfits and fishing-tackle was unfamiliar to her, and in Kennicott's interest she found something creative and joyous. She examined the smooth stock, the carved hard rubber butt of the gun. The shells, with their brass caps and sleek green bodies and hieroglyphics on the wads, were cool and comfortably heavy in her hands.
Kennicott wore a brown canvas hunting-coat with vast pockets lining the inside, corduroy trousers which bulged at the wrinkles, peeled and scarred shoes, a scarecrow felt hat. In this uniform he felt virile. They clumped out to the livery buggy, they packed the kit and the box of lunch into the back, crying to each other that it was a magnificent day.
Kennicott had borrowed Jackson Elder's red and white English setter, a complacent dog with a waving tail of silver hair which flickered in the sunshine. As they started, the dog yelped, and leaped at the horses' heads, till Kennicott took him into the buggy, where he nuzzled Carol's knees and leaned out to sneer at farm mongrels.
The grays clattered out on the hard dirt road with a pleasant song of hoofs: "Ta ta ta rat! Ta ta ta rat!" It was early and fresh, the air whistling, frost bright on the golden rod. As the sun warmed the world of stubble into a welter of yellow they turned from the highroad, through the bars of a farmer's gate, into a field, slowly bumping over the uneven earth. In a hollow of the rolling prairie they lost sight even of the country road. It was warm and placid. Locusts trilled among the dry wheat-stalks, and brilliant little flies hurtled across the buggy. A buzz of content filled the air. Crows loitered and gossiped in the sky.
The dog had been let out and after a dance of excitement he settled down to a steady quartering of the field, forth and back, forth and back, his nose down.
"Pete Rustad owns this farm, and he told me he saw a small covey of chickens in the west forty, last week. Maybe we'll get some sport after all," Kennicott chuckled blissfully.
She watched the dog in suspense, breathing quickly every time he seemed to halt. She had no desire to slaughter birds, but she did desire to belong to Kennicott's world.
The dog stopped, on the point, a forepaw held up.
"By golly! He's hit a scent! Come on!" squealed Kennicott. He leaped from the buggy, twisted the reins about the whip-socket, swung her out, caught up his gun, slipped in two shells, stalked toward the rigid dog, Carol pattering after him. The setter crawled ahead, his tail quivering, his belly close to the stubble. Carol was nervous. She expected clouds of large birds to fly up instantly. Her eyes were strained with staring. But they followed the dog for a quarter of a mile, turning, doubling, crossing two low hills, kicking through a swale of weeds, crawling between the strands of a barbed- wire fence. The walking was hard on her pavement-trained feet. The earth was lumpy, the stubble prickly and lined with grass, thistles, abortive stumps of clover. She dragged and floundered.
She heard Kennicott gasp, "Look!" Three gray birds were starting up from the stubble. They were round, dumpy, like enormous bumble bees. Kennicott was sighting, moving the barrel. She was agitated. Why didn't he fire? The birds would be gone! Then a crash, another, and two birds turned somersaults in the air, plumped down.
When he showed her the birds she had no sensation of blood. These heaps of feathers were so soft and unbruised--there was about them no hint of death. She watched her conquering man tuck them into his inside pocket, and trudged with him back to the buggy.
They found no more prairie chickens that morning.
At noon they drove into her first farmyard, a private village, a white house with no porches save a low and quite dirty stoop at the back, a crimson barn with white trimmings, a glazed brick silo, an ex-carriage-shed, now the garage of a Ford, an unpainted cow-stable, a chicken-house, a pig-pen, a corn- crib, a granary, the galvanized-iron skeleton tower of a wind- mill. The dooryard was of packed yellow clay, treeless, barren of grass, littered with rusty plowshares and wheels of discarded cultivators. Hardened trampled mud, like lava, filled the pig-pen. The doors of the house were grime-rubbed, the corners and eaves were rusted with rain, and the child who stared at them from the kitchen window was smeary-faced. But beyond the barn was a clump of scarlet geraniums; the prairie breeze was sunshine in motion; the flashing metal blades of the windmill revolved with a lively hum; a horse neighed, a rooster crowed, martins flew in and out of the cow-stable.
A small spare woman with flaxen hair trotted from the house. She was twanging a Swedish patois--not in monotone, like English, but singing it, with a lyrical whine:
"Pete he say you kom pretty soon hunting, doctor. My, dot's fine you kom. Is dis de bride? Ohhhh! Ve yoost say las' night, ve hope maybe ve see her som day. My, soch a pretty lady!" Mrs. Rustad was shining with welcome. "Vell, vell! Ay hope you lak dis country! Von't you stay for dinner, doctor?"
"No, but I wonder if you wouldn't like to give us a glass of milk?" condescended Kennicott.
"Vell Ay should say Ay vill! You vait har a second and Ay run on de milk-house!" She nervously hastened to a tiny red building beside the windmill; she came back with a pitcher of milk from which Carol filled the thermos bottle.
As they drove off Carol admired, "She's the dearest thing I ever saw. And she adores you. You are the Lord of the Manor."
"Oh no," much pleased, "but still they do ask my advice about things. Bully people, these Scandinavian farmers. And prosperous, too. Helga Rustad, she's still scared of America, but her kids will be doctors and lawyers and governors of the state and any darn thing they want to."
"I wonder----" Carol was plunged back into last night's Weltschmerz. "I wonder if these farmers aren't bigger than we are? So simple and hard-working. The town lives on them. We townies are parasites, and yet we feel superior to them. Last night I heard Mr. Haydock talking about `hicks.' Apparently he despises the farmers because they haven't reached the social heights of selling thread and buttons."
"Parasites? Us? Where'd the farmers be without the town? Who lends them money? Who--why, we supply them with everything!"
"Don't you find that some of the farmers think they pay too much for the services of the towns?"
"Oh, of course there's a lot of cranks among the farmers same as there are among any class. Listen to some of these kickers, a fellow'd think that the farmers ought to run the state and the whole shooting-match--probably if they had their way they'd fill up the legislature with a lot of farmers in manure-covered boots--yes, and they'd come tell me I was hired on a salary now, and couldn't fix my fees! That'd be fine for you, wouldn't it!"
"But why shouldn't they?"
"Why? That bunch of---- Telling ME---- Oh, for heaven's sake, let's quit arguing. All this discussing may be all right at a party but---- Let's forget it while we're hunting."
"I know. The Wonderlust--probably it's a worse affliction than the Wanderlust. I just wonder----"
She told herself that she had everything in the world. And after each self-rebuke she stumbled again on "I just wonder----"
They ate their sandwiches by a prairie slew: long grass reaching up out of clear water, mossy bogs, red-winged black- birds, the scum a splash of gold-green. Kennicott smoked a pipe while she leaned back in the buggy and let her tired spirit be absorbed in the Nirvana of the incomparable sky.
They lurched to the highroad and awoke from their sun- soaked drowse at the sound of the clopping hoofs. They paused to look for partridges in a rim of woods, little woods, very clean and shiny and gay, silver birches and poplars with immaculate green trunks, encircling a lake of sandy bottom, a splashing seclusion demure in the welter of hot prairie.
Kennicott brought down a fat red squirrel and at dusk he had a dramatic shot at a flight of ducks whirling down from the upper air, skimming the lake, instantly vanishing.
They drove home under the sunset. Mounds of straw, and wheat-stacks like bee-hives, stood out in startling rose and gold, and the green-tufted stubble glistened. As the vast girdle of crimson darkened, the fulfilled land became autumnal in deep reds and browns. The black road before the buggy turned to a faint lavender, then was blotted to uncertain grayness. Cattle came in a long line up to the barred gates of the farmyards, and over the resting land was a dark glow.
Carol had found the dignity and greatness which had failed her in Main Street.
Mrs. Elisha Gurrey, relict of Deacon Gurrey the dealer in hay and grain, was a pointed-nosed, simpering woman with iron-gray hair drawn so tight that it resembled a soiled handkerchief covering her head. But she was unexpectedly cheerful, and her dining-room, with its thin tablecloth on a long pine table, had the decency of clean bareness.
In the line of unsmiling, methodically chewing guests, like horses at a manger, Carol came to distinguish one countenance: the pale, long, spectacled face and sandy pompadour hair of Mr. Raymond P. Wutherspoon, known as "Raymie," professional bachelor, manager and one half the sales-force in the shoe-department of the Bon Ton Store.
"You will enjoy Gopher Prairie very much, Mrs. Kennicott," petitioned Raymie. His eyes were like those of a dog waiting to be let in out of the cold. He passed the stewed apricots effusively. "There are a great many bright cultured people here. Mrs. Wilks, the Christian Science reader, is a very bright woman--though I am not a Scientist myself, in fact I sing in the Episcopal choir. And Miss Sherwin of the high school--she is such a pleasing, bright girl--I was fitting her to a pair of tan gaiters yesterday, I declare, it really was a pleasure."
"Gimme the butter, Carrie," was Kennicott's comment. She defied him by encouraging Raymie:
"Do you have amateur dramatics and so on here?"
"Oh yes! The town's just full of talent. The Knights of Pythias put on a dandy minstrel show last year."
"It's nice you're so enthusiastic."
"Oh, do you really think so? Lots of folks jolly me for trying to get up shows and so on. I tell them they have more artistic gifts than they know. Just yesterday I was saying to Harry Haydock: if he would read poetry, like Longfellow, or if he would join the band--I get so much pleasure out of playing the cornet, and our band-leader, Del Snafflin, is such a good musician, I often say he ought to give up his barbering and become a professional musician, he could play the clarinet in Minneapolis or New York or anywhere, but--but I couldn't get Harry to see it at all and--I hear you and the doctor went out hunting yesterday. Lovely country, isn't it. And did you make some calls? The mercantile life isn't inspiring like medicine. It must be wonderful to see how patients trust you, doctor."
"Huh. It's me that's got to do all the trusting. Be damn sight more wonderful 'f they'd pay their bills," grumbled Kennicott and, to Carol, he whispered something which sounded like "gentleman hen."
But Raymie's pale eyes were watering at her. She helped him with, "So you like to read poetry?"
"Oh yes, so much--though to tell the truth, I don't get much time for reading, we're always so busy at the store and---- But we had the dandiest professional reciter at the Pythian Sisters sociable last winter."
Carol thought she heard a grunt from the traveling salesman at the end of the table, and Kennicott's jerking elbow was a grunt embodied. She persisted:
"Do you get to see many plays, Mr. Wutherspoon?"
He shone at her like a dim blue March moon, and sighed, "No, but I do love the movies. I'm a real fan. One trouble with books is that they're not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you're wasting your time on. What I like in books is a wholesome, really improving story, and sometimes---- Why, once I started a novel by this fellow Balzac that you read about, and it told how a lady wasn't living with her husband, I mean she wasn't his wife. It went into details, disgustingly! And the English was real poor. I spoke to the library about it, and they took it off the shelves. I'm not narrow, but I must say I don't see any use in this deliberately dragging in immorality! Life itself is so full of temptations that in literature one wants only that which is pure and uplifting."
"What's the name of that Balzac yarn? Where can I get hold of it?" giggled the traveling salesman.
Raymie ignored him. "But the movies, they are mostly clean, and their humor---- Don't you think that the most essential quality for a person to have is a sense of humor?"
"I don't know. I really haven't much," said Carol.
He shook his finger at her. "Now, now, you're too modest. I'm sure we can all see that you have a perfectly corking sense of humor. Besides, Dr. Kennicott wouldn't marry a lady that didn't have. We all know how he loves his fun!"
"You bet. I'm a jokey old bird. Come on, Carrie; let's beat it," remarked Kennicott.
Raymie implored, "And what is your chief artistic interest, Mrs. Kennicott?"
"Oh----" Aware that the traveling salesman had murmured, "Dentistry," she desperately hazarded, "Architecture."
"That's a real nice art. I've always said--when Haydock & Simons were finishing the new front on the Bon Ton building, the old man came to me, you know, Harry's father, `D. H.,' I always call him, and he asked me how I liked it, and I said to him, `Look here, D. H.,' I said--you see, he was going to leave the front plain, and I said to him, `It's all very well to have modern lighting and a big display-space,' I said, `but when you get that in, you want to have some architecture, too,' I said, and he laughed and said he guessed maybe I was right, and so he had 'em put on a cornice."
"Tin!" observed the traveling salesman.
Raymie bared his teeth like a belligerent mouse. "Well, what if it is tin? That's not my fault. I told D. H. to make it polished granite. You make me tired!"
"Leave us go! Come on, Carrie, leave us go!" from Kennicott.
Raymie waylaid them in the hall and secretly informed Carol that she musn't mind the traveling salesman's coarseness-- he belonged to the hwa pollwa.
Kennicott chuckled, "Well, child, how about it? Do you prefer an artistic guy like Raymie to stupid boobs like Sam Clark and me?"
"My dear! Let's go home, and play pinochle, and laugh, and be foolish, and slip up to bed, and sleep without dreaming. It's beautiful to be just a solid citizeness!"
From the Gopher Prairie Weekly Dauntless:
* * *
Dr. Will Kennicott, for the past several years one of our most popular and skilful physicians and surgeons, gave the town a delightful surprise when he returned from an extended honeymoon tour in Colorado this week with his charming bride. nee Miss Carol Milford of St. Paul, whose family are socially prominent in Minneapolis and Mankato. Mrs. Kennicott is a lady of manifold charms, not only of striking charm of appearance but is also a distinguished graduate of a school in the East and has for the past year been prominently connected in an important position of responsibility with the St. Paul Public Library, in which city Dr. "Will" had the good fortune to meet her. The city of Gopher Prairie welcomes her to our midst and prophesies for her many happy years m the energetic city of the twin lakes and the future. The Dr. and Mrs. Kennicott will reside for the present at the Doctor's home on Poplar Street which his charming mother has been keeping for him who has now returned to her own home at Lac-qui-Meurt leaving a host of friends who regret her absence and hope to see her soon with us again.
In the pride of being a housewife she loved every detail-- the brocade armchair with the weak back, even the brass water- cock on the hot-water reservoir, when she had become familiar with it by trying to scour it to brilliance.
She found a maid--plump radiant Bea Sorenson from Scandia Crossing. Bea was droll in her attempt to be at once a respectful servant and a bosom friend. They laughed together over the fact that the stove did not draw, over the slipperiness of fish in the pan.
Like a child playing Grandma in a trailing skirt, Carol paraded uptown for her marketing, crying greetings to housewives along the way. Everybody bowed to her, strangers and all, and made her feel that they wanted her, that she belonged here. In city shops she was merely A Customer--a hat, a voice to bore a harassed clerk. Here she was Mrs. Doc Kennicott, and her preferences in grape-fruit and manners were known and remembered and worth discussing. . . . even if they weren't worth fulfilling.
Shopping was a delight of brisk conferences. The very merchants whose droning she found the dullest at the two or three parties which were given to welcome her were the pleasantest confidants of all when they had something to talk about-- lemons or cotton voile or floor-oil. With that skip-jack Dave Dyer, the druggist, she conducted a long mock-quarrel. She pretended that he cheated her in the price of magazines and candy; he pretended she was a detective from the Twin Cities. He hid behind the prescription-counter, and when she stamped her foot he came out wailing, "Honest, I haven't done nothing crooked today--not yet."
She never recalled her first impression of Main Street; never had precisely the same despair at its ugliness. By the end of two shopping-tours everything had changed proportions. As she never entered it, the Minniemashie House ceased to exist for her. Clark's Hardware Store, Dyer's Drug Store, the groceries of Ole Jenson and Frederick Ludelmeyer and Howland & Gould, the meat markets, the notions shop--they expanded, and hid all other structures. When she entered Mr. Ludelmeyer's store and he wheezed, "Goot mornin', Mrs. Kennicott. Vell, dis iss a fine day," she did not notice the dustiness of the shelves nor the stupidity of the girl clerk; and she did not remember the mute colloquy with him on her first view of Main Street.
She could not find half the kinds of food she wanted, but that made shopping more of an adventure. When she did contrive to get sweetbreads at Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market the triumph was so vast that she buzzed with excitement and admired the strong wise butcher, Mr. Dahl.
She appreciated the homely ease of village life. She liked the old men, farmers, G.A.R. veterans, who when they gossiped sometimes squatted on their heels on the sidewalk, like resting Indians, and reflectively spat over the curb.
She found beauty in the children.
She had suspected that her married friends exaggerated their passion for children. But in her work in the library, children had become individuals to her, citizens of the State with their own rights and their own senses of humor. In the library she had not had much time to give them, but now she knew the luxury of stopping, gravely asking Bessie Clark whether her doll had yet recovered from its rheumatism, and agreeing with Oscar Martinsen that it would be Good Fun to go trapping "mushrats."
She touched the thought, "It would be sweet to have a baby of my own. I do want one. Tiny---- No! Not yet! There's so much to do. And I'm still tired from the job. It's in my bones."
She rested at home. She listened to the village noises common to all the world, jungle or prairie; sounds simple and charged with magic--dogs barking, chickens making a gurgling sound of content, children at play, a man beating a rug wind in the cottonwood trees, a locust fiddling, a footstep on the walk, jaunty voices of Bea and a grocer's boy in the kitchen, a clinking anvil, a piano--not too near.
Twice a week, at least, she drove into the country with Kennicott, to hunt ducks in lakes enameled with sunset, or to call on patients who looked up to her as the squire's lady and thanked her for toys and magazines. Evenings she went with her husband to the motion pictures and was boisterously greeted by every other couple; or, till it became too cold, they sat on the porch, bawling to passers-by in motors, or to neighbors who were raking the leaves. The dust became golden in the low sun; the street was filled with the fragrance of burning leaves.
On a slow afternoon when she fidgeted over sewing and wished that the telephone would ring, Bea announced Miss Vida Sherwin.
Despite Vida Sherwin's lively blue eyes, if you had looked at her in detail you would have found her face slightly lined, and not so much sallow as with the bloom rubbed off; you would have found her chest flat, and her fingers rough from needle and chalk and penholder; her blouses and plain cloth skirts undistinguished; and her hat worn too far back, betraying a dry forehead. But you never did look at Vida Sherwin in detail. You couldn't. Her electric activity veiled her. She was as energetic as a chipmunk. Her fingers fluttered; her sympathy came out in spurts; she sat on the edge of a chair in eagerness to be near her auditor, to send her enthusiasms and optimism across.
She rushed into the room pouring out: "I'm afraid you'll think the teachers have been shabby in not coming near you, but we wanted to give you a chance to get settled. I am Vida Sherwin, and I try to teach French and English and a few other things in the high school."
"I've been hoping to know the teachers. You see, I was a librarian----"
"Oh, you needn't tell me. I know all about you! Awful how much I know--this gossipy village. We need you so much here. It's a dear loyal town (and isn't loyalty the finest thing in the world!) but it's a rough diamond, and we need you for the polishing, and we're ever so humble----" She stopped for breath and finished her compliment with a smile.
"If I COULD help you in any way---- Would I be committing the unpardonable sin if I whispered that I think Gopher Prairie is a tiny bit ugly?"
"Of course it's ugly. Dreadfully! Though I'm probably the only person in town to whom you could safely say that. (Except perhaps Guy Pollock the lawyer--have you met him? --oh, you MUST!--he's simply a darling--intelligence and culture and so gentle.) But I don't care so much about the ugliness. That will change. It's the spirit that gives me hope. It's sound. Wholesome. But afraid. It needs live creatures like you to awaken it. I shall slave-drive you!"
"Splendid. What shall I do? I've been wondering if it would be possible to have a good architect come here to lecture."
"Ye-es, but don't you think it would be better to work with existing agencies? Perhaps it will sound slow to you, but I was thinking---- It would be lovely if we could get you to teach Sunday School."
Carol had the empty expression of one who finds that she has been affectionately bowing to a complete stranger. "Oh yes. But I'm afraid I wouldn't be much good at that. My religion is so foggy."
"I know. So is mine. I don't care a bit for dogma. Though I do stick firmly to the belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and the leadership of Jesus. As you do, of course."
Carol looked respectable and thought about having tea.
"And that's all you need teach in Sunday School. It's the personal influence. Then there's the library-board. You'd be so useful on that. And of course there's our women's study club--the Thanatopsis Club."
"Are they doing anything? Or do they read papers made out of the Encyclopedia?"
Miss Sherwin shrugged. "Perhaps. But still, they are so earnest. They will respond to your fresher interest. And the Thanatopsis does do a good social work--they've made the city plant ever so many trees, and they run the rest-room for farmers' wives. And they do take such an interest in refinement and culture. So--in fact, so very unique."
Carol was disappointed--by nothing very tangible. She said politely, "I'll think them all over. I must have a while to look around first."
Miss Sherwin darted to her, smoothed her hair, peered at her. "Oh, my dear, don't you suppose I know? These first tender days of marriage--they're sacred to me. Home, and children that need you, and depend on you to keep them alive, and turn to you with their wrinkly little smiles. And the hearth and----" She hid her face from Carol as she made an activity of patting the cushion of her chair, but she went on with her former briskness:
"I mean, you must help us when you're ready. . . . I'm afraid you'll think I'm conservative. I am! So much to conserve. All this treasure of American ideals. Sturdiness and democracy and opportunity. Maybe not at Palm Beach. But, thank heaven, we're free from such social distinctions in Gopher Prairie. I have only one good quality--overwhelming belief in the brains and hearts of our nation, our state, our town. It's so strong that sometimes I do have a tiny effect on the haughty ten-thousandaires. I shake 'em up and make 'em believe in ideals--yes, in themselves. But I get into a rut of teaching. I need young critical things like you to punch me up. Tell me, what are you reading?"
"I've been re-reading `The Damnation of Theron Ware.' Do you know it?"
"Yes. It was clever. But hard. Man wanted to tear down, not build up. Cynical. Oh, I do hope I'm not a sentimentalist. But I can't see any use in this high-art stuff that doesn't encourage us day-laborers to plod on."
Ensued a fifteen-minute argument about the oldest topic in the world: It's art but is it pretty? Carol tried to be eloquent regarding honesty of observation. Miss Sherwin stood out for sweetness and a cautious use of the uncomfortable properties of light. At the end Carol cried:
"I don't care how much we disagree. It's a relief to have somebody talk something besides crops. Let's make Gopher Prairie rock to its foundations: let's have afternoon tea instead of afternoon coffee."
The delighted Bea helped her bring out the ancestral folding sewing-table, whose yellow and black top was scarred with dotted lines from a dressmaker's tracing-wheel, and to set it with an embroidered lunch-cloth, and the mauve-glazed Japanese tea-set which she had brought from St. Paul. Miss Sherwin confided her latest scheme--moral motion pictures for country districts, with light from a portable dynamo hitched to a Ford engine. Bea was twice called to fill the hot-water pitcher and to make cinnamon toast.
When Kennicott came home at five he tried to be courtly, as befits the husband of one who has afternoon tea. Carol suggested that Miss Sherwin stay for supper, and that Kennicott invite Guy Pollock, the much-praised lawyer, the poetic bachelor.
Yes, Pollock could come. Yes, he was over the grippe which had prevented his going to Sam Clark's party.
Carol regretted her impulse. The man would be an opinionated politician, heavily jocular about The Bride. But at the entrance of Guy Pollock she discovered a personality. Pollock was a man of perhaps thirty-eight, slender, still, deferential. His voice was low. "It was very good of you to want me," he said, and he offered no humorous remarks, and did not ask her if she didn't think Gopher Prairie was "the livest little burg in the state."
She fancied that his even grayness might reveal a thousand tints of lavender and blue and silver.
At supper he hinted his love for Sir Thomas Browne, Thoreau, Agnes Repplier, Arthur Symons, Claude Washburn, Charles Flandrau. He presented his idols diffidently, but he expanded in Carol's bookishness, in Miss Sherwin's voluminous praise, in Kennicott's tolerance of any one who amused his wife.
Carol wondered why Guy Pollock went on digging at routine law-cases; why he remained in Gopher Prairie. She had no one whom she could ask. Neither Kennicott nor Vida Sherwin would understand that there might be reasons why a Pollock should not remain in Gopher Prairie. She enjoyed the faint mystery. She felt triumphant and rather literary. She already had a Group. It would be only a while now before she provided the town with fanlights and a knowledge of Galsworthy. She was doing things! As she served the emergency dessert of cocoanut and sliced oranges, she cried to Pollock, "Don't you think we ought to get up a dramatic club?"
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