by Sinclair Lewis
- Year Published: 1920
- Language: English
- Country of Origin: United States of America
- Source: Lewis, S. (1920). Main Street.New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
- Flesch–Kincaid Level: 8.2
- Word Count: 7,807
- Genre: Satire
- Keywords: 20th century literature, american literature, main street, satire, sinclair lewis
- ✎ Cite This
Lewis, S. (1920). Chapter 24. Main Street (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved May 30, 2023, from https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/38/main-street/505/chapter-24/
Lewis, Sinclair. "Chapter 24." Main Street. Lit2Go Edition. 1920. Web. <https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/38/main-street/505/chapter-24/>. May 30, 2023.
Sinclair Lewis, "Chapter 24," Main Street, Lit2Go Edition, (1920), accessed May 30, 2023, https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/38/main-street/505/chapter-24/.
All that midsummer month Carol was sensitive to Kennicott. She recalled a hundred grotesqueries: her comic dismay at his having chewed tobacco, the evening when she had tried to read poetry to him; matters which had seemed to vanish with no trace or sequence. Always she repeated that he had been heroically patient in his desire to join the army. She made much of her consoling affection for him in little things. She liked the homeliness of his tinkering about the house; his strength and handiness as he tightened the hinges of a shutter; his boyishness when he ran to her to be comforted because he had found rust in the barrel of his pump–gun. But at the highest he was to her another Hugh, without the glamor of Hugh's unknown future.
There was, late in June, a day of heat–lightning.
Because of the work imposed by the absence of the other doctors the Kennicotts had not moved to the lake cottage but remained in town, dusty and irritable. In the afternoon, when she went to Oleson & McGuire's (formerly Dahl & Oleson's), Carol was vexed by the assumption of the youthful clerk, recently come from the farm, that he had to be neighborly and rude. He was no more brusquely familiar than a dozen other clerks of the town, but her nerves were heat–scorched.
When she asked for codfish, for supper, he grunted, "What d'you want that darned old dry stuff for?"
"I like it!"
"Punk! Guess the doc can afford something better than that. Try some of the new wienies we got in. Swell. The Haydocks use 'em."
She exploded. "My dear young man, it is not your duty to instruct me in housekeeping, and it doesn't particularly concern me what the Haydocks condescend to approve!"
He was hurt. He hastily wrapped up the leprous fragment of fish; he gaped as she trailed out. She lamented, "I shouldn't have spoken so. He didn't mean anything. He doesn't know when he is being rude."
Her repentance was not proof against Uncle Whittier when she stopped in at his grocery for salt and a package of safety matches. Uncle Whittier, in a shirt collarless and soaked with sweat in a brown streak down his back, was whining at a clerk, "Come on now, get a hustle on and lug that pound cake up to Mis' Cass's. Some folks in this town think a storekeeper ain't got nothing to do but chase out 'phone–orders. . . . Hello, Carrie. That dress you got on looks kind of low in the neck to me. May be decent and modest—I suppose I'm old–fashioned—but I never thought much of showing the whole town a woman's bust! Hee, hee, hee! . . . Afternoon, Mrs. Hicks. Sage? Just out of it. Lemme sell you some other spices. Heh?" Uncle Whittier was nasally indignant "CERTAINLY! Got PLENTY other spices jus' good as sage for any purp'se whatever! What's the matter with—well, with allspice?" When Mrs. Hicks had gone, he raged, "Some folks don't know what they want!"
"Sweating sanctimonious bully—my husband's uncle!" thought Carol.
She crept into Dave Dyer's. Dave held up his arms with, "Don't shoot! I surrender!" She smiled, but it occurred to her that for nearly five years Dave had kept up this game of pretending that she threatened his life.
As she went dragging through the prickly–hot street she reflected that a citizen of Gopher Prairie does not have jests—he has a jest. Every cold morning for five winters Lyman Cass had remarked, "Fair to middlin' chilly—get worse before it gets better." Fifty times had Ezra Stowbody informed the public that Carol had once asked, "Shall I indorse this check on the back?" Fifty times had Sam Clark called to her, "Where'd you steal that hat?" Fifty times had the mention of Barney Cahoon, the town drayman, like a nickel in a slot produced from Kennicott the apocryphal story of Barney's directing a minister, "Come down to the depot and get your case of religious books—they're leaking!"
She came home by the unvarying route. She knew every house–front, every street–crossing, every billboard, every tree, every dog. She knew every blackened banana–skin and empty cigarette–box in the gutters. She knew every greeting. When Jim Howland stopped and gaped at her there was no possibility that he was about to confide anything but his grudging, "Well, haryuh t'day?"
All her future life, this same red–labeled bread–crate in front of the bakery, this same thimble–shaped crack in the sidewalk a quarter of a block beyond Stowbody's granite hitching–post—
She silently handed her purchases to the silent Oscarina. She sat on the porch, rocking, fanning, twitchy with Hugh's whining.
Kennicott came home, grumbled, "What the devil is the kid yapping about?"
"I guess you can stand it ten minutes if I can stand it all day!"
He came to supper in his shirt sleeves, his vest partly open, revealing discolored suspenders.
"Why don't you put on your nice Palm Beach suit, and take off that hideous vest?" she complained.
"Too much trouble. Too hot to go up–stairs."
She realized that for perhaps a year she had not definitely looked at her husband. She regarded his table–manners. He violently chased fragments of fish about his plate with a knife and licked the knife after gobbling them. She was slightly sick. She asserted, "I'm ridiculous. What do these things matter! Don't be so simple!" But she knew that to her they did matter, these solecisms and mixed tenses of the table.
She realized that they found little to say; that, incredibly, they were like the talked–out couples whom she had pitied at restaurants.
Bresnahan would have spouted in a lively, exciting, unreliable manner.
She realized that Kennicott's clothes were seldom pressed. His coat was wrinkled; his trousers would flap at the knees when he arose. His shoes were unblacked, and they were of an elderly shapelessness. He refused to wear soft hats; cleaved to a hard derby, as a symbol of virility and prosperity; and sometimes he forgot to take it off in the house. She peeped at his cuffs. They were frayed in prickles of starched linen. She had turned them once; she clipped them every week; but when she had begged him to throw the shirt away, last Sunday morning at the crisis of the weekly bath, he had uneasily protested, "Oh, it'll wear quite a while yet."
He was shaved (by himself or more socially by Del Snafflin) only three times a week. This morning had not been one of the three times.
Yet he was vain of his new turn–down collars and sleek ties; he often spoke of the "sloppy dressing" of Dr. McGanum; and he laughed at old men who wore detachable cuffs or Gladstone collars.
Carol did not care much for the creamed codfish that evening.
She noted that his nails were jagged and ill–shaped from his habit of cutting them with a pocket–knife and despising a nail–file as effeminate and urban. That they were invariably clean, that his were the scoured fingers of the surgeon, made his stubborn untidiness the more jarring. They were wise hands, kind hands, but they were not the hands of love.
She remembered him in the days of courtship. He had tried to please her, then, had touched her by sheepishly wearing a colored band on his straw hat. Was it possible that those days of fumbling for each other were gone so completely? He had read books, to impress her; had said (she recalled it ironically) that she was to point out his every fault; had insisted once, as they sat in the secret place beneath the walls of Fort Snelling—
She shut the door on her thoughts. That was sacred ground. But it WAS a shame that—
She nervously pushed away her cake and stewed apricots.
After supper, when they had been driven in from the porch by mosquitos, when Kennicott had for the two–hundredth time in five years commented, "We must have a new screen on the porch—lets all the bugs in," they sat reading, and she noted, and detested herself for noting, and noted again his habitual awkwardness. He slumped down in one chair, his legs up on another, and he explored the recesses of his left ear with the end of his little finger—she could hear the faint smack—he kept it up—he kept it up—
He blurted, "Oh. Forgot tell you. Some of the fellows coming in to play poker this evening. Suppose we could have some crackers and cheese and beer?"
"He might have mentioned it before. Oh well, it's his house."
The poker–party straggled in: Sam Clark, Jack Elder, Dave Dyer, Jim Howland. To her they mechanically said, "'Devenin'," but to Kennicott, in a heroic male manner, "Well, well, shall we start playing? Got a hunch I'm going to lick somebody real bad." No one suggested that she join them. She told herself that it was her own fault, because she was not more friendly; but she remembered that they never asked Mrs. Sam Clark to play.
Bresnahan would have asked her.
She sat in the living–room, glancing across the hall at the men as they humped over the dining table.
They were in shirt sleeves; smoking, chewing, spitting incessantly; lowering their voices for a moment so that she did not hear what they said and afterward giggling hoarsely; using over and over the canonical phrases: "Three to dole," "I raise you a finif," "Come on now, ante up; what do you think this is, a pink tea?" The cigar–smoke was acrid and pervasive. The firmness with which the men mouthed their cigars made the lower part of their faces expressionless, heavy, unappealing. They were like politicians cynically dividing appointments.
How could they understand her world?
Did that faint and delicate world exist? Was she a fool? She doubted her world, doubted herself, and was sick in the acid, smoke–stained air.
She slipped back into brooding upon the habituality of the house.
Kennicott was as fixed in routine as an isolated old man. At first he had amorously deceived himself into liking her experiments with food—the one medium in which she could express imagination—but now he wanted only his round of favorite dishes: steak, roast beef, boiled pig's–feet, oatmeal, baked apples. Because at some more flexible period he had advanced from oranges to grape–fruit he considered himself an epicure.
During their first autumn she had smiled over his affection for his hunting–coat, but now that the leather had come unstitched in dribbles of pale yellow thread, and tatters of canvas, smeared with dirt of the fields and grease from gun–cleaning, hung in a border of rags, she hated the thing.
Wasn't her whole life like that hunting–coat?
She knew every nick and brown spot on each piece of the set of china purchased by Kennicott's mother in 1895—discreet china with a pattern of washed–out forget–me–nots, rimmed with blurred gold: the gravy–boat, in a saucer which did not match, the solemn and evangelical covered vegetable–dishes, the two platters.
Twenty times had Kennicott sighed over the fact that Bea had broken the other platter—the medium–sized one.
Damp black iron sink, damp whitey–yellow drain–board with shreds of discolored wood which from long scrubbing were as soft as cotton thread, warped table, alarm clock, stove bravely blackened by Oscarina but an abomination in its loose doors and broken drafts and oven that never would keep an even heat.
Carol had done her best by the kitchen: painted it white, put up curtains, replaced a six–year–old calendar by a color print. She had hoped for tiling, and a kerosene range for summer cooking, but Kennicott always postponed these expenses.
She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can–opener, whose soft gray metal handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window, was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and more significant than the future of Asia was the never–settled weekly question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle or the second–best buckhorn carving–knife was better for cutting up cold chicken for Sunday supper.
She was ignored by the males till midnight. Her husband called, "Suppose we could have some eats, Carrie?" As she passed through the dining–room the men smiled on her, belly–smiles. None of them noticed her while she was serving the crackers and cheese and sardines and beer. They were determining the exact psychology of Dave Dyer in standing pat, two hours before.
When they were gone she said to Kennicott, "Your friends have the manners of a barroom. They expect me to wait on them like a servant. They're not so much interested in me as they would be in a waiter, because they don't have to tip me. Unfortunately! Well, good night."
So rarely did she nag in this petty, hot–weather fashion that he was astonished rather than angry. "Hey! Wait! What's the idea? I must say I don't get you. The boys—Barroom? Why, Perce Bresnahan was saying there isn't a finer bunch of royal good fellows anywhere than just the crowd that were here tonight!"
They stood in the lower hall. He was too shocked to go on with his duties of locking the front door and winding his watch and the clock.
"Bresnahan! I'm sick of him!" She meant nothing in particular.
"Why, Carrie, he's one of the biggest men in the country! Boston just eats out of his hand!"
"I wonder if it does? How do we know but that in Boston, among well–bred people, he may be regarded as an absolute lout? The way he calls women 'Sister,' and the way—"
"Now look here! That'll do! Of course I know you don't mean it—you're simply hot and tired, and trying to work off your peeve on me. But just the same, I won't stand your jumping on Perce. You—It's just like your attitude toward the war—so darn afraid that America will become militaristic—"
"But you are the pure patriot!"
"By God, I am!"
"Yes, I heard you talking to Sam Clark tonight about ways of avoiding the income tax!"
He had recovered enough to lock the door; he clumped up–stairs ahead of her, growling, "You don't know what you're talking about. I'm perfectly willing to pay my full tax—fact, I'm in favor of the income tax—even though I do think it's a penalty on frugality and enterprise—fact, it's an unjust, darn–fool tax. But just the same, I'll pay it. Only, I'm not idiot enough to pay more than the government makes me pay, and Sam and I were just figuring out whether all automobile expenses oughn't to be exemptions. I'll take a lot off you, Carrie, but I don't propose for one second to stand your saying I'm not patriotic. You know mighty well and good that I've tried to get away and join the army. And at the beginning of the whole fracas I said—I've said right along—that we ought to have entered the war the minute Germany invaded Belgium. You don't get me at all. You can't appreciate a man's work. You're abnormal. You've fussed so much with these fool novels and books and all this highbrow junk—You like to argue!"
It ended, a quarter of an hour later, in his calling her a "neurotic" before he turned away and pretended to sleep.
For the first time they had failed to make peace.
"There are two races of people, only two, and they live side by side. His calls mine 'neurotic'; mine calls his 'stupid.' We'll never understand each other, never; and it's madness for us to debate—to lie together in a hot bed in a creepy room—enemies, yoked."
It clarified in her the longing for a place of her own.
"While it's so hot, I think I'll sleep in the spare room," she said next day.
"Not a bad idea." He was cheerful and kindly.
The room was filled with a lumbering double bed and a cheap pine bureau. She stored the bed in the attic; replaced it by a cot which, with a denim cover, made a couch by day; put in a dressing–table, a rocker transformed by a cretonne cover; had Miles Bjornstam build book–shelves.
Kennicott slowly understood that she meant to keep up her seclusion. In his queries, "Changing the whole room?" "Putting your books in there?" she caught his dismay. But it was so easy, once her door was closed, to shut out his worry. That hurt her—the ease of forgetting him.
Aunt Bessie Smail sleuthed out this anarchy. She yammered, "Why, Carrie, you ain't going to sleep all alone by yourself? I don't believe in that. Married folks should have the same room, of course! Don't go getting silly notions. No telling what a thing like that might lead to. Suppose I up and told your Uncle Whit that I wanted a room of my own!"
Carol spoke of recipes for corn–pudding.
But from Mrs. Dr. Westlake she drew encouragement. She had made an afternoon call on Mrs. Westlake. She was for the first time invited up–stairs, and found the suave old woman sewing in a white and mahogany room with a small bed.
"Oh, do you have your own royal apartments, and the doctor his?" Carol hinted.
"Indeed I do! The doctor says it's bad enough to have to stand my temper at meals. Do—" Mrs. Westlake looked at her sharply. "Why, don't you do the same thing?"
"I've been thinking about it." Carol laughed in an embarrassed way. "Then you wouldn't regard me as a complete hussy if I wanted to be by myself now and then?"
"Why, child, every woman ought to get off by herself and turn over her thoughts—about children, and God, and how bad her complexion is, and the way men don't really understand her, and how much work she finds to do in the house, and how much patience it takes to endure some things in a man's love."
"Yes!" Carol said it in a gasp, her hands twisted together. She wanted to confess not only her hatred for the Aunt Bessies but her covert irritation toward those she best loved: her alienation from Kennicott, her disappointment in Guy Pollock, her uneasiness in the presence of Vida. She had enough self–control to confine herself to, "Yes. Men! The dear blundering souls, we do have to get off and laugh at them."
"Of course we do. Not that you have to laugh at Dr. Kennicott so much, but MY man, heavens, now there's a rare old bird! Reading story–books when he ought to be tending to business! 'Marcus Westlake,' I say to him, 'you're a romantic old fool.' And does he get angry? He does not! He chuckles and says, 'Yes, my beloved, folks do say that married people grow to resemble each other!' Drat him!" Mrs. Westlake laughed comfortably.
After such a disclosure what could Carol do but return the courtesy by remarking that as for Kennicott, he wasn't romantic enough—the darling. Before she left she had babbled to Mrs. Westlake her dislike for Aunt Bessie, the fact that Kennicott's income was now more than five thousand a year, her view of the reason why Vida had married Raymie (which included some thoroughly insincere praise of Raymie's "kind heart"), her opinion of the library–board, just what Kennicott had said about Mrs. Carthal's diabetes, and what Kennicott thought of the several surgeons in the Cities.
She went home soothed by confession, inspirited by finding a new friend.
The tragicomedy of the "domestic situation."
Oscarina went back home to help on the farm, and Carol had a succession of maids, with gaps between. The lack of servants was becoming one of the most cramping problems of the prairie town. Increasingly the farmers' daughters rebelled against village dullness, and against the unchanged attitude of the Juanitas toward "hired girls." They went off to city kitchens, or to city shops and factories, that they might be free and even human after hours.
The Jolly Seventeen were delighted at Carol's desertion by the loyal Oscarina. They reminded her that she had said, "I don't have any trouble with maids; see how Oscarina stays on."
Between incumbencies of Finn maids from the North Woods, Germans from the prairies, occasional Swedes and Norwegians and Icelanders, Carol did her own work—and endured Aunt Bessie's skittering in to tell her how to dampen a broom for fluffy dust, how to sugar doughnuts, how to stuff a goose. Carol was deft, and won shy praise from Kennicott, but as her shoulder blades began to sting, she wondered how many millions of women had lied to themselves during the death–rimmed years through which they had pretended to enjoy the puerile methods persisting in housework.
She doubted the convenience and, as a natural sequent, the sanctity of the monogamous and separate home which she had regarded as the basis of all decent life.
She considered her doubts vicious. She refused to remember how many of the women of the Jolly Seventeen nagged their husbands and were nagged by them.
She energetically did not whine to Kennicott. But her eyes ached; she was not the girl in breeches and a flannel shirt who had cooked over a camp–fire in the Colorado mountains five years ago. Her ambition was to get to bed at nine; her strongest emotion was resentment over rising at half–past six to care for Hugh. The back of her neck ached as she got out of bed. She was cynical about the joys of a simple laborious life. She understood why workmen and workmen's wives are not grateful to their kind employers.
At mid–morning, when she was momentarily free from the ache in her neck and back, she was glad of the reality of work. The hours were living and nimble. But she had no desire to read the eloquent little newspaper essays in praise of labor which are daily written by the white–browed journalistic prophets. She felt independent and (though she hid it) a bit surly.
In cleaning the house she pondered upon the maid's–room. It was a slant–roofed, small–windowed hole above the kitchen, oppressive in summer, frigid in winter. She saw that while she had been considering herself an unusually good mistress, she had been permitting her friends Bea and Oscarina to live in a sty. She complained to Kennicott. "What's the matter with it?" he growled, as they stood on the perilous stairs dodging up from the kitchen. She commented upon the sloping roof of unplastered boards stained in brown rings by the rain, the uneven floor, the cot and its tumbled discouraged–looking quilts, the broken rocker, the distorting mirror.
"Maybe it ain't any Hotel Radisson parlor, but still, it's so much better than anything these hired girls are accustomed to at home that they think it's fine. Seems foolish to spend money when they wouldn't appreciate it."
But that night he drawled, with the casualness of a man who wishes to be surprising and delightful, "Carrie, don't know but what we might begin to think about building a new house, one of these days. How'd you like that?"
"I'm getting to the point now where I feel we can afford one—and a corker! I'll show this burg something like a real house! We'll put one over on Sam and Harry! Make folks sit up an' take notice!"
"Yes," she said.
He did not go on.
Daily he returned to the subject of the new house, but as to time and mode he was indefinite. At first she believed. She babbled of a low stone house with lattice windows and tulip–beds, of colonial brick, of a white frame cottage with green shutters and dormer windows. To her enthusiasms he answered, "Well, ye–es, might be worth thinking about. Remember where I put my pipe?" When she pressed him he fidgeted, "I don't know; seems to me those kind of houses you speak of have been overdone."
It proved that what he wanted was a house exactly like Sam Clark's, which was exactly like every third new house in every town in the country: a square, yellow stolidity with immaculate clapboards, a broad screened porch, tidy grass–plots, and concrete walks; a house resembling the mind of a merchant who votes the party ticket straight and goes to church once a month and owns a good car.
He admitted, "Well, yes, maybe it isn't so darn artistic but—Matter of fact, though, I don't want a place just like Sam's. Maybe I would cut off that fool tower he's got, and I think probably it would look better painted a nice cream color. That yellow on Sam's house is too kind of flashy. Then there's another kind of house that's mighty nice and substantial–looking, with shingles, in a nice brown stain, instead of clapboards—seen some in Minneapolis. You're way off your base when you say I only like one kind of house!"
Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie came in one evening when Carol was sleepily advocating a rose–garden cottage.
"You've had a lot of experience with housekeeping, aunty, and don't you think," Kennicott appealed, "that it would be sensible to have a nice square house, and pay more attention to getting a crackajack furnace than to all this architecture and doodads?"
Aunt Bessie worked her lips as though they were an elastic band. "Why of course! I know how it is with young folks like you, Carrie; you want towers and bay–windows and pianos and heaven knows what all, but the thing to get is closets and a good furnace and a handy place to hang out the washing, and the rest don't matter."
Uncle Whittier dribbled a little, put his face near to Carol's, and sputtered, "Course it don't! What d'you care what folks think about the outside of your house? It's the inside you're living in. None of my business, but I must say you young folks that'd rather have cakes than potatoes get me riled."
She reached her room before she became savage. Below, dreadfully near, she could hear the broom–swish of Aunt Bessie's voice, and the mop–pounding of Uncle Whittier's grumble. She had a reasonless dread that they would intrude on her, then a fear that she would yield to Gopher Prairie's conception of duty toward an Aunt Bessie and go down–stairs to be "nice." She felt the demand for standardized behavior coming in waves from all the citizens who sat in their sitting–rooms watching her with respectable eyes, waiting, demanding, unyielding. She snarled, "Oh, all right, I'll go!" She powdered her nose, straightened her collar, and coldly marched down–stairs. The three elders ignored her. They had advanced from the new house to agreeable general fussing. Aunt Bessie was saying, in a tone like the munching of dry toast:
"I do think Mr. Stowbody ought to have had the rain–pipe fixed at our store right away. I went to see him on Tuesday morning before ten, no, it was couple minutes after ten, but anyway, it was long before noon—I know because I went right from the bank to the meat market to get some steak—my! I think it's outrageous, the prices Oleson & McGuire charge for their meat, and it isn't as if they gave you a good cut either but just any old thing, and I had time to get it, and I stopped in at Mrs. Bogart's to ask about her rheumatism—"
Carol was watching Uncle Whittier. She knew from his taut expression that he was not listening to Aunt Bessie but herding his own thoughts, and that he would interrupt her bluntly. He did:
"Will, where c'n I get an extra pair of pants for this coat and vest? D' want to pay too much."
"Well, guess Nat Hicks could make you up a pair. But if I were you, I'd drop into Ike Rifkin's—his prices are lower than the Bon Ton's."
"Humph. Got the new stove in your office yet?"
"No, been looking at some at Sam Clark's but—"
"Well, y' ought get 't in. Don't do to put off getting a stove all summer, and then have it come cold on you in the fall."
Carol smiled upon them ingratiatingly. "Do you dears mind if I slip up to bed? I'm rather tired—cleaned the upstairs today."
She retreated. She was certain that they were discussing her, and foully forgiving her. She lay awake till she heard the distant creak of a bed which indicated that Kennicott had retired. Then she felt safe.
It was Kennicott who brought up the matter of the Smails at breakfast. With no visible connection he said, "Uncle Whit is kind of clumsy, but just the same, he's a pretty wise old coot. He's certainly making good with the store."
Carol smiled, and Kennicott was pleased that she had come to her senses. "As Whit says, after all the first thing is to have the inside of a house right, and darn the people on the outside looking in!"
It seemed settled that the house was to be a sound example of the Sam Clark school.
Kennicott made much of erecting it entirely for her and the baby. He spoke of closets for her frocks, and "a comfy sewing–room." But when he drew on a leaf from an old account–book (he was a paper–saver and a string–picker) the plans for the garage, he gave much more attention to a cement floor and a work–bench and a gasoline–tank than he had to sewing–rooms.
She sat back and was afraid.
In the present rookery there were odd things—a step up from the hall to the dining–room, a picturesqueness in the shed and bedraggled lilac bush. But the new place would be smooth, standardized, fixed. It was probable, now that Kennicott was past forty, and settled, that this would be the last venture he would ever make in building. So long as she stayed in this ark, she would always have a possibility of change, but once she was in the new house, there she would sit for all the rest of her life—there she would die. Desperately she wanted to put it off, against the chance of miracles. While Kennicott was chattering about a patent swing–door for the garage she saw the swing–doors of a prison.
She never voluntarily returned to the project. Aggrieved, Kennicott stopped drawing plans, and in ten days the new house was forgotten.
Every year since their marriage Carol had longed for a trip through the East. Every year Kennicott had talked of attending the American Medical Association convention, "and then afterwards we could do the East up brown. I know New York clean through—spent pretty near a week there—but I would like to see New England and all these historic places and have some sea–food." He talked of it from February to May, and in May he invariably decided that coming confinement–cases or land–deals would prevent his "getting away from home–base for very long THIS year—and no sense going till we can do it right."
The weariness of dish–washing had increased her desire to go. She pictured herself looking at Emerson's manse, bathing in a surf of jade and ivory, wearing a trottoir and a summer fur, meeting an aristocratic Stranger. In the spring Kennicott had pathetically volunteered, "S'pose you'd like to get in a good long tour this summer, but with Gould and Mac away and so many patients depending on me, don't see how I can make it. By golly, I feel like a tightwad though, not taking you." Through all this restless July after she had tasted Bresnahan's disturbing flavor of travel and gaiety, she wanted to go, but she said nothing. They spoke of and postponed a trip to the Twin Cities. When she suggested, as though it were a tremendous joke, "I think baby and I might up and leave you, and run off to Cape Cod by ourselves!" his only reaction was "Golly, don't know but what you may almost have to do that, if we don't get in a trip next year."
Toward the end of July he proposed, "Say, the Beavers are holding a convention in Joralemon, street fair and everything. We might go down tomorrow. And I'd like to see Dr. Calibree about some business. Put in the whole day. Might help some to make up for our trip. Fine fellow, Dr. Calibree."
Joralemon was a prairie town of the size of Gopher Prairie.
Their motor was out of order, and there was no passenger–train at an early hour. They went down by freight–train, after the weighty and conversational business of leaving Hugh with Aunt Bessie. Carol was exultant over this irregular jaunting. It was the first unusual thing, except the glance of Bresnahan, that had happened since the weaning of Hugh. They rode in the caboose, the small red cupola–topped car jerked along at the end of the train. It was a roving shanty, the cabin of a land schooner, with black oilcloth seats along the side, and for desk, a pine board to be let down on hinges. Kennicott played seven–up with the conductor and two brakemen. Carol liked the blue silk kerchiefs about the brakemen's throats; she liked their welcome to her, and their air of friendly independence. Since there were no sweating passengers crammed in beside her, she reveled in the train's slowness. She was part of these lakes and tawny wheat–fields. She liked the smell of hot earth and clean grease; and the leisurely chug–a–chug, chug–a–chug of the trucks was a song of contentment in the sun.
She pretended that she was going to the Rockies. When they reached Joralemon she was radiant with holiday–making.
Her eagerness began to lessen the moment they stopped at a red frame station exactly like the one they had just left at Gopher Prairie, and Kennicott yawned, "Right on time. Just in time for dinner at the Calibrees'. I 'phoned the doctor from G. P. that we'd be here. 'We'll catch the freight that gets in before twelve,' I told him. He said he'd meet us at the depot and take us right up to the house for dinner. Calibree is a good man, and you'll find his wife is a mighty brainy little woman, bright as a dollar. By golly, there he is."
Dr. Calibree was a squat, clean–shaven, conscientious–looking man of forty. He was curiously like his own brown–painted motor car, with eye–glasses for windshield. "Want you to meet my wife, doctor—Carrie, make you 'quainted with Dr. Calibree," said Kennicott. Calibree bowed quietly and shook her hand, but before he had finished shaking it he was concentrating upon Kennicott with, "Nice to see you, doctor. Say, don't let me forget to ask you about what you did in that exopthalmic goiter case—that Bohemian woman at Wahkeenyan."
The two men, on the front seat of the car, chanted goiters and ignored her. She did not know it. She was trying to feed her illusion of adventure by staring at unfamiliar houses . . . drab cottages, artificial stone bungalows, square painty stolidities with immaculate clapboards and broad screened porches and tidy grass–plots.
Calibree handed her over to his wife, a thick woman who called her "dearie," and asked if she was hot and, visibly searching for conversation, produced, "Let's see, you and the doctor have a Little One, haven't you?" At dinner Mrs. Calibree served the corned beef and cabbage and looked steamy, looked like the steamy leaves of cabbage. The men were oblivious of their wives as they gave the social passwords of Main Street, the orthodox opinions on weather, crops, and motor cars, then flung away restraint and gyrated in the debauch of shop–talk. Stroking his chin, drawling in the ecstasy of being erudite, Kennicott inquired, "Say, doctor, what success have you had with thyroid for treatment of pains in the legs before child–birth?"
Carol did not resent their assumption that she was too ignorant to be admitted to masculine mysteries. She was used to it. But the cabbage and Mrs. Calibree's monotonous "I don't know what we're coming to with all this difficulty getting hired girls" were gumming her eyes with drowsiness. She sought to clear them by appealing to Calibree, in a manner of exaggerated liveliness, "Doctor, have the medical societies in Minnesota ever advocated legislation for help to nursing mothers?"
Calibree slowly revolved toward her. "Uh—I've never—uh—never looked into it. I don't believe much in getting mixed up in politics." He turned squarely from her and, peering earnestly at Kennicott, resumed, "Doctor, what's been your experience with unilateral pyelonephritis? Buckburn of Baltimore advocates decapsulation and nephrotomy, but seems to me—"
Not till after two did they rise. In the lee of the stonily mature trio Carol proceeded to the street fair which added mundane gaiety to the annual rites of the United and Fraternal Order of Beavers. Beavers, human Beavers, were everywhere: thirty–second degree Beavers in gray sack suits and decent derbies, more flippant Beavers in crash summer coats and straw hats, rustic Beavers in shirt sleeves and frayed suspenders; but whatever his caste–symbols, every Beaver was distinguished by an enormous shrimp–colored ribbon lettered in silver, "Sir Knight and Brother, U. F. O. B., Annual State Convention." On the motherly shirtwaist of each of their wives was a badge "Sir Knight's Lady." The Duluth delegation had brought their famous Beaver amateur band, in Zouave costumes of green velvet jacket, blue trousers, and scarlet fez. The strange thing was that beneath their scarlet pride the Zouaves' faces remained those of American business–men, pink, smooth, eye–glassed; and as they stood playing in a circle, at the corner of Main Street and Second, as they tootled on fifes or with swelling cheeks blew into cornets, their eyes remained as owlish as though they were sitting at desks under the sign "This Is My Busy Day."
Carol had supposed that the Beavers were average citizens organized for the purposes of getting cheap life–insurance and playing poker at the lodge–rooms every second Wednesday, but she saw a large poster which proclaimed:
U. F. O. B.
The greatest influence for good citizenship in the
country. The jolliest aggregation of red–blooded,
open–handed, hustle–em–up good fellows in the world.
Joralemon welcomes you to her hospitable city.
Kennicott read the poster and to Calibree admired, "Strong lodge, the Beavers. Never joined. Don't know but what I will."
Calibree adumbrated, "They're a good bunch. Good strong lodge. See that fellow there that's playing the snare drum? He's the smartest wholesale grocer in Duluth, they say. Guess it would be worth joining. Oh say, are you doing much insurance examining?"
They went on to the street fair.
Lining one block of Main Street were the "attractions"—two hot–dog stands, a lemonade and pop–corn stand, a merry–go–round, and booths in which balls might be thrown at rag dolls, if one wished to throw balls at rag dolls. The dignified delegates were shy of the booths, but country boys with brickred necks and pale–blue ties and bright–yellow shoes, who had brought sweethearts into town in somewhat dusty and listed Fords, were wolfing sandwiches, drinking strawberry pop out of bottles, and riding the revolving crimson and gold horses. They shrieked and giggled; peanut–roasters whistled; the merry–go–round pounded out monotonous music; the barkers bawled, "Here's your chance—here's your chance—come on here, boy—come on here—give that girl a good time—give her a swell time—here's your chance to win a genuwine gold watch for five cents, half a dime, the twentieth part of a dollah!" The prairie sun jabbed the unshaded street with shafts that were like poisonous thorns the tinny cornices above the brick stores were glaring; the dull breeze scattered dust on sweaty Beavers who crawled along in tight scorching new shoes, up two blocks and back, up two blocks and back, wondering what to do next, working at having a good time.
Carol's head ached as she trailed behind the unsmiling Calibrees along the block of booths. She chirruped at Kennicott, "Let's be wild! Let's ride on the merry–go–round and grab a gold ring!"
Kennicott considered it, and mumbled to Calibree, "Think you folks would like to stop and try a ride on the merry–go–round?"
Calibree considered it, and mumbled to his wife, "Think you'd like to stop and try a ride on the merry–go–round?"
Mrs. Calibree smiled in a washed–out manner, and sighed, "Oh no, I don't believe I care to much, but you folks go ahead and try it."
Calibree stated to Kennicott, "No, I don't believe we care to a whole lot, but you folks go ahead and try it."
Kennicott summarized the whole case against wildness: "Let's try it some other time, Carrie."
She gave it up. She looked at the town. She saw that in adventuring from Main Street, Gopher Prairie, to Main Street, Joralemon, she had not stirred. There were the same two–story brick groceries with lodge–signs above the awnings; the same one–story wooden millinery shop; the same fire–brick garages; the same prairie at the open end of the wide street; the same people wondering whether the levity of eating a hot–dog sandwich would break their taboos.
They reached Gopher Prairie at nine in the evening.
"You look kind of hot," said Kennicott.
"Joralemon is an enterprising town, don't you think so?" She broke. "No! I think it's an ash–heap."
He worried over it for a week. While he ground his plate with his knife as he energetically pursued fragments of bacon, he peeped at her.