IT WAS at a supper of the Jolly Seventeen in August that Carol heard of "Elizabeth," from Mrs. Dave Dyer.
Carol was fond of Maud Dyer, because she had been particularly agreeable lately; had obviously repented of the nervous distaste which she had once shown. Maud patted her hand when they met, and asked about Hugh.
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.
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."
"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.
"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."
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!"
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?"
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. 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."
"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?"
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.
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