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?"
"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?"
"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!"
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?"
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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