|"Do today? How do you mean?"
"Medically. I want to understand----"
"Today? Oh, there wasn't much of anything: couple chumps with
bellyaches, and a sprained wrist, and a fool woman that thinks she wants
to kill herself because her husband doesn't like her and----Just routine
"But the unhappy woman doesn't sound routine!"
"Her? Just case of nerves. You can't do much with these marriage
"But dear, PLEASE, will you tell me about the next case that you do
think is interesting?"
"Sure. You bet. Tell you about anything that----Say that's pretty good
salmon. Get it at Howland's?"
Four days after the Jolly Seventeen debacle Vida Sherwin called and
casually blew Carol's world to pieces.
"May I come in and gossip a while?" she said, with such excess of bright
innocence that Carol was uneasy. Vida took off her furs with a bounce,
she sat down as though it were a gymnasium exercise, she flung out:
"Feel disgracefully good, this weather! Raymond Wutherspoon says if he
had my energy he'd be a grand opera singer. I always think this climate
is the finest in the world, and my friends are the dearest people in the
world, and my work is the most essential thing in the world. Probably
I fool myself. But I know one thing for certain: You're the pluckiest
little idiot in the world."
"And so you are about to flay me alive." Carol was cheerful about it.
"Am I? Perhaps. I've been wondering--I know that the third party to a
squabble is often the most to blame: the one who runs between A and B
having a beautiful time telling each of them what the other has said.
But I want you to take a big part in vitalizing Gopher Prairie and
so----Such a very unique opportunity and----Am I silly?"
"I know what you mean. I was too abrupt at the Jolly Seventeen."
"It isn't that. Matter of fact, I'm glad you told them some wholesome
truths about servants. (Though perhaps you were just a bit tactless.)
It's bigger than that. I wonder if you understand that in a secluded
community like this every newcomer is on test? People cordial to her
but watching her all the time. I remember when a Latin teacher came here
from Wellesley, they resented her broad A. Were sure it was affected. Of
course they have discussed you----"
"Have they talked about me much?"
"I always feel as though I walked around in a cloud, looking out at
others but not being seen. I feel so inconspicuous and so normal--so
normal that there's nothing about me to discuss. I can't realize that
Mr. and Mrs. Haydock must gossip about me." Carol was working up a small
passion of distaste. "And I don't like it. It makes me crawly to think
of their daring to talk over all I do and say. Pawing me over! I resent
it. I hate----"
"Wait, child! Perhaps they resent some things in you. I want you to try
and be impersonal. They'd paw over anybody who came in new. Didn't you,
with newcomers in College?"
"Well then! Will you be impersonal? I'm paying you the compliment of
supposing that you can be. I want you to be big enough to help me make
this town worth while."
"I'll be as impersonal as cold boiled potatoes. (Not that I shall ever
be able to help you 'make the town worth while.') What do they say about
me? Really. I want to know."
"Of course the illiterate ones resent your references to anything
farther away than Minneapolis. They're so suspicious--that's it,
suspicious. And some think you dress too well."
"Oh, they do, do they! Shall I dress in gunny-sacking to suit them?"
"Please! Are you going to be a baby?"
"I'll be good," sulkily.
"You certainly will, or I won't tell you one single thing. You must
understand this: I'm not asking you to change yourself. Just want you
to know what they think. You must do that, no matter how absurd their
prejudices are, if you're going to handle them. Is it your ambition to
make this a better town, or isn't it?"
"I don't know whether it is or not!"
"Why--why----Tut, tut, now, of course it is! Why, I depend on you.
You're a born reformer."
"I am not--not any more!"
"Of course you are."
"Oh, if I really could help----So they think I'm affected?"
"My lamb, they do! Now don't say they're nervy. After all, Gopher
Prairie standards are as reasonable to Gopher Prairie as Lake Shore
Drive standards are to Chicago. And there's more Gopher Prairies than
there are Chicagos. Or Londons. And----I'll tell you the whole story:
They think you're showing off when you say 'American' instead of
'Ammurrican.' They think you're too frivolous. Life's so serious to them
that they can't imagine any kind of laughter except Juanita's snortling.
Ethel Villets was sure you were patronizing her when----"
"Oh, I was not!"
"----you talked about encouraging reading; and Mrs. Elder thought you
were patronizing when you said she had 'such a pretty little car.' She
thinks it's an enormous car! And some of the merchants say you're too
flip when you talk to them in the store and----"
"Poor me, when I was trying to be friendly!"
"----every housewife in town is doubtful about your being so chummy with
your Bea. All right to be kind, but they say you act as though she were
your cousin. (Wait now! There's plenty more.) And they think you were
eccentric in furnishing this room--they think the broad couch and that
Japanese dingus are absurd. (Wait! I know they're silly.) And I guess
I've heard a dozen criticize you because you don't go to church oftener
"I can't stand it--I can't bear to realize that they've been saying all
these things while I've been going about so happily and liking them. I
wonder if you ought to have told me? It will make me self-conscious."
"I wonder the same thing. Only answer I can get is the old saw about
knowledge being power. And some day you'll see how absorbing it is to
have power, even here; to control the town----Oh, I'm a crank. But I do
like to see things moving."
"It hurts. It makes these people seem so beastly and treacherous, when
I've been perfectly natural with them. But let's have it all. What did
they say about my Chinese house-warming party?"
"Go on. Or I'll make up worse things than anything you can tell me."
"They did enjoy it. But I guess some of them felt you were showing
off--pretending that your husband is richer than he is."
"I can't----Their meanness of mind is beyond any horrors I could
imagine. They really thought that I----And you want to 'reform' people
like that when dynamite is so cheap? Who dared to say that? The rich or
"Fairly well assorted."
"Can't they at least understand me well enough to see that though I
might be affected and culturine, at least I simply couldn't commit that
other kind of vulgarity? If they must know, you may tell them, with my
compliments, that Will makes about four thousand a year, and the party
cost half of what they probably thought it did. Chinese things are not
very expensive, and I made my own costume----"
"Stop it! Stop beating me! I know all that. What they meant was: they
felt you were starting dangerous competition by giving a party such as
most people here can't afford. Four thousand is a pretty big income for
"I never thought of starting competition. Will you believe that it was
in all love and friendliness that I tried to give them the gayest party
I could? It was foolish; it was childish and noisy. But I did mean it so
"I know, of course. And it certainly is unfair of them to make fun of
your having that Chinese food--chow men, was it?--and to laugh about
your wearing those pretty trousers----"
Carol sprang up, whimpering, "Oh, they didn't do that! They didn't poke
fun at my feast, that I ordered so carefully for them! And my little
Chinese costume that I was so happy making--I made it secretly, to
surprise them. And they've been ridiculing it, all this while!"
She was huddled on the couch.
Vida was stroking her hair, muttering, "I shouldn't----"
Shrouded in shame, Carol did not know when Vida slipped away. The
clock's bell, at half past five, aroused her. "I must get hold of myself
before Will comes. I hope he never knows what a fool his wife is. . . .
Frozen, sneering, horrible hearts."
Like a very small, very lonely girl she trudged up-stairs, slow step by
step, her feet dragging, her hand on the rail. It was not her husband
to whom she wanted to run for protection--it was her father, her smiling
understanding father, dead these twelve years.
Kennicott was yawning, stretched in the largest chair, between the
radiator and a small kerosene stove.
Cautiously, "Will dear, I wonder if the people here don't criticize me
sometimes? They must. I mean: if they ever do, you mustn't let it bother
"Criticize you? Lord, I should say not. They all keep telling me you're
the swellest girl they ever saw."
"Well, I've just fancied----The merchants probably think I'm too fussy
about shopping. I'm afraid I bore Mr. Dashaway and Mr. Howland and Mr.
"I can tell you how that is. I didn't want to speak of it but since
you've brought it up: Chet Dashaway probably resents the fact that you
got this new furniture down in the Cities instead of here. I didn't want
to raise any objection at the time but----After all, I make my money
here and they naturally expect me to spend it here."
"If Mr. Dashaway will kindly tell me how any civilized person can
furnish a room out of the mortuary pieces that he calls----" She
remembered. She said meekly, "But I understand."
"And Howland and Ludelmeyer----Oh, you've probably handed 'em a few
roasts for the bum stocks they carry, when you just meant to jolly 'em.
But rats, what do we care! This is an independent town, not like these
Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live
up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always
busy criticizing. Everybody's free here to do what he wants to." He said
it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned
her breath of fury into a yawn.
"By the way, Carrie, while we're talking of this: Of course I like
to keep independent, and I don't believe in this business of binding
yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really
want to, but same time: I'd be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or
Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr.
Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of 'em the same way. I don't
see why I should be paying out my good money for groceries and having
them pass it on to Terry Gould!"
"I've gone to Howland & Gould because they're better, and cleaner."
"I know. I don't mean cut them out entirely. Course Jenson is
tricky--give you short weight--and Ludelmeyer is a shiftless old Dutch
hog. But same time, I mean let's keep the trade in the family whenever
it is convenient, see how I mean?"
"Well, guess it's about time to turn in."
He yawned, went out to look at the thermometer, slammed the door, patted
her head, unbuttoned his waistcoat, yawned, wound the clock, went down
to look at the furnace, yawned, and clumped up-stairs to bed, casually
scratching his thick woolen undershirt.
Till he bawled, "Aren't you ever coming up to bed?" she sat unmoving.
SHE had tripped into the meadow to teach the lambs a pretty educational
dance and found that the lambs were wolves. There was no way out between
their pressing gray shoulders. She was surrounded by fangs and sneering
She could not go on enduring the hidden derision. She wanted to flee.
She wanted to hide in the generous indifference of cities. She practised
saying to Kennicott, "Think perhaps I'll run down to St. Paul for a few
days." But she could not trust herself to say it carelessly; could not
abide his certain questioning.
Reform the town? All she wanted was to be tolerated!
She could not look directly at people. She flushed and winced before
citizens who a week ago had been amusing objects of study, and in their
good-mornings she heard a cruel sniggering.
She encountered Juanita Haydock at Ole Jenson's grocery. She besought,
"Oh, how do you do! Heavens, what beautiful celery that is!"
"Yes, doesn't it look fresh. Harry simply has to have his celery on
Sunday, drat the man!"
Carol hastened out of the shop exulting, "She didn't make fun of me. . . .
In a week she had recovered from consciousness of insecurity, of shame
and whispering notoriety, but she kept her habit of avoiding people. She
walked the streets with her head down. When she spied Mrs. McGanum or
Mrs. Dyer ahead she crossed over with an elaborate pretense of looking
at a billboard. Always she was acting, for the benefit of every one she
saw--and for the benefit of the ambushed leering eyes which she did not
She perceived that Vida Sherwin had told the truth. Whether she entered
a store, or swept the back porch, or stood at the bay-window in the
living-room, the village peeped at her. Once she had swung along the
street triumphant in making a home. Now she glanced at each house, and
felt, when she was safely home, that she had won past a thousand
enemies armed with ridicule. She told herself that her sensitiveness
was preposterous, but daily she was thrown into panic. She saw curtains
slide back into innocent smoothness. Old women who had been entering
their houses slipped out again to stare at her--in the wintry quiet she
could hear them tiptoeing on their porches. When she had for a blessed
hour forgotten the searchlight, when she was scampering through a chill
dusk, happy in yellow windows against gray night, her heart checked
as she realized that a head covered with a shawl was thrust up over a
snow-tipped bush to watch her.
She admitted that she was taking herself too seriously; that villagers
gape at every one. She became placid, and thought well of her
philosophy. But next morning she had a shock of shame as she entered
Ludelmeyer's. The grocer, his clerk, and neurotic Mrs. Dave Dyer had been
giggling about something. They halted, looked embarrassed, babbled about
onions. Carol felt guilty. That evening when Kennicott took her to call
on the crochety Lyman Casses, their hosts seemed flustered at their
arrival. Kennicott jovially hooted, "What makes you so hang-dog, Lym?"
The Casses tittered feebly.
Except Dave Dyer, Sam Clark, and Raymie Wutherspoon, there were no
merchants of whose welcome Carol was certain. She knew that she read
mockery into greetings but she could not control her suspicion, could
not rise from her psychic collapse. She alternately raged and flinched
at the superiority of the merchants. They did not know that they
were being rude, but they meant to have it understood that they were
prosperous and "not scared of no doctor's wife." They often said, "One
man's as good as another--and a darn sight better." This motto, however,
they did not commend to farmer customers who had had crop failures. The
Yankee merchants were crabbed; and Ole Jenson, Ludelmeyer, and Gus Dahl,
from the "Old Country," wished to be taken for Yankees. James Madison
Howland, born in New Hampshire, and Ole Jenson, born in Sweden, both
proved that they were free American citizens by grunting, "I don't
know whether I got any or not," or "Well, you can't expect me to get it
delivered by noon."
It was good form for the customers to fight back. Juanita Haydock
cheerfully jabbered, "You have it there by twelve or I'll snatch that
fresh delivery-boy bald-headed." But Carol had never been able to play
the game of friendly rudeness; and now she was certain that she never
would learn it. She formed the cowardly habit of going to Axel Egge's.
Axel was not respectable and rude. He was still a foreigner, and he
expected to remain one. His manner was heavy and uninterrogative. His
establishment was more fantastic than any cross-roads store. No one save
Axel himself could find anything. A part of the assortment of children's
stockings was under a blanket on a shelf, a part in a tin ginger-snap
box, the rest heaped like a nest of black-cotton snakes upon a
flour-barrel which was surrounded by brooms, Norwegian Bibles, dried
cod for ludfisk, boxes of apricots, and a pair and a half of lumbermen's
rubber-footed boots. The place was crowded with Scandinavian farmwives,
standing aloof in shawls and ancient fawn-colored leg o' mutton jackets,
awaiting the return of their lords. They spoke Norwegian or Swedish, and
looked at Carol uncomprehendingly. They were a relief to her--they were
not whispering that she was a poseur.
But what she told herself was that Axel Egge's was "so picturesque and
It was in the matter of clothes that she was most self-conscious.
When she dared to go shopping in her new checked suit with the
black-embroidered sulphur collar, she had as good as invited all of
Gopher Prairie (which interested itself in nothing so intimately as in
new clothes and the cost thereof) to investigate her. It was a smart
suit with lines unfamiliar to the dragging yellow and pink frocks of the
town. The Widow Bogart's stare, from her porch, indicated, "Well I
never saw anything like that before!" Mrs. McGanum stopped Carol at
the notions shop to hint, "My, that's a nice suit--wasn't it terribly
expensive?" The gang of boys in front of the drug store commented, "Hey,
Pudgie, play you a game of checkers on that dress." Carol could not
endure it. She drew her fur coat over the suit and hastily fastened the
buttons, while the boys snickered.
No group angered her quite so much as these staring young roues.
She had tried to convince herself that the village, with its fresh air,
its lakes for fishing and swimming, was healthier than the artificial
city. But she was sickened by glimpses of the gang of boys from fourteen
to twenty who loafed before Dyer's Drug Store, smoking cigarettes,
displaying "fancy" shoes and purple ties and coats of diamond-shaped
buttons, whistling the Hoochi-Koochi and catcalling, "Oh, you baby-doll"
at every passing girl.
She saw them playing pool in the stinking room behind Del Snafflin's
barber shop, and shaking dice in "The Smoke House," and gathered in
a snickering knot to listen to the "juicy stories" of Bert Tybee, the
bartender of the Minniemashie House. She heard them smacking moist lips
over every love-scene at the Rosebud Movie Palace. At the counter of the
Greek Confectionery Parlor, while they ate dreadful messes of decayed
bananas, acid cherries, whipped cream, and gelatinous ice-cream, they
screamed to one another, "Hey, lemme 'lone," "Quit dog-gone you, looka
what you went and done, you almost spilled my glass swater," "Like hell
I did," "Hey, gol darn your hide, don't you go sticking your coffin
nail in my i-scream," "Oh you Batty, how juh like dancing with Tillie
McGuire, last night? Some squeezing, heh, kid?"
By diligent consultation of American fiction she discovered that this
was the only virile and amusing manner in which boys could function;
that boys who were not compounded of the gutter and the mining-camp
were mollycoddles and unhappy. She had taken this for granted. She had
studied the boys pityingly, but impersonally. It had not occurred to her
that they might touch her.
Now she was aware that they knew all about her; that they were waiting
for some affectation over which they could guffaw. No schoolgirl passed
their observation-posts more flushingly than did Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. In
shame she knew that they glanced appraisingly at her snowy overshoes,
speculating about her legs. Theirs were not young eyes--there was no
youth in all the town, she agonized. They were born old, grim and old
and spying and censorious.
She cried again that their youth was senile and cruel on the day when
she overheard Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock.
Cyrus N. Bogart, son of the righteous widow who lived across the alley,
was at this time a boy of fourteen or fifteen. Carol had already seen
quite enough of Cy Bogart. On her first evening in Gopher Prairie Cy
had appeared at the head of a "charivari," banging immensely upon a
discarded automobile fender. His companions were yelping in imitation
of coyotes. Kennicott had felt rather complimented; had gone out and
distributed a dollar. But Cy was a capitalist in charivaris. He returned
with an entirely new group, and this time there were three automobile
fenders and a carnival rattle. When Kennicott again interrupted his
shaving, Cy piped, "Naw, you got to give us two dollars," and he got it.
A week later Cy rigged a tic-tac to a window of the living-room, and the
tattoo out of the darkness frightened Carol into screaming. Since
then, in four months, she had beheld Cy hanging a cat, stealing melons,
throwing tomatoes at the Kennicott house, and making ski-tracks across
the lawn, and had heard him explaining the mysteries of generation,
with great audibility and dismaying knowledge. He was, in fact, a museum
specimen of what a small town, a well-disciplined public school, a
tradition of hearty humor, and a pious mother could produce from the
material of a courageous and ingenious mind.
Carol was afraid of him. Far from protesting when he set his mongrel on
a kitten, she worked hard at not seeing him.
The Kennicott garage was a shed littered with paint-cans, tools, a
lawn-mower, and ancient wisps of hay. Above it was a loft which Cy
Bogart and Earl Haydock, young brother of Harry, used as a den, for
smoking, hiding from whippings, and planning secret societies. They
climbed to it by a ladder on the alley side of the shed.
This morning of late January, two or three weeks after Vida's
revelations, Carol had gone into the stable-garage to find a hammer.
Snow softened her step. She heard voices in the loft above her:
"Ah gee, lez--oh, lez go down the lake and swipe some mushrats out of
somebody's traps," Cy was yawning.
"And get our ears beat off!" grumbled Earl Haydock.
"Gosh, these cigarettes are dandy. 'Member when we were just kids, and
used to smoke corn-silk and hayseed?"