"Say Earl, ma says if you chew tobacco you get consumption."
"Aw rats, your old lady is a crank."
"Yuh, that's so." Pause. "But she says she knows a fella that did."
"Aw, gee whiz, didn't Doc Kennicott used to chew tobacco all the time
before he married this-here girl from the Cities? He used to spit---Gee!
Some shot! He could hit a tree ten feet off."
This was news to the girl from the Cities.
"Say, how is she?" continued Earl.
"Huh? How's who?"
"You know who I mean, smarty."
A tussle, a thumping of loose boards, silence, weary narration from Cy:
"Mrs. Kennicott? Oh, she's all right, I guess." Relief to Carol, below.
"She gimme a hunk o' cake, one time. But Ma says she's stuck-up as hell.
Ma's always talking about her. Ma says if Mrs. Kennicott thought as much
about the doc as she does about her clothes, the doc wouldn't look so
"Yuh. Juanita's always talking about her, too," from Earl. "She says
Mrs. Kennicott thinks she knows it all. Juanita says she has to laugh
till she almost busts every time she sees Mrs. Kennicott peerading along
the street with that 'take a look--I'm a swell skirt' way she's got. But
gosh, I don't pay no attention to Juanita. She's meaner 'n a crab."
"Ma was telling somebody that she heard that Mrs. Kennicott claimed she
made forty dollars a week when she was on some job in the Cities, and
Ma says she knows posolutely that she never made but eighteen a week--Ma
says that when she's lived here a while she won't go round making a fool
of herself, pulling that bighead stuff on folks that know a whole lot
more than she does. They're all laughing up their sleeves at her."
"Say, jever notice how Mrs. Kennicott fusses around the house? Other
evening when I was coming over here, she'd forgot to pull down the
curtain, and I watched her for ten minutes. Jeeze, you'd 'a' died
laughing. She was there all alone, and she must 'a' spent five minutes
getting a picture straight. It was funny as hell the way she'd stick out
her finger to straighten the picture--deedle-dee, see my tunnin' 'ittle
finger, oh my, ain't I cute, what a fine long tail my cat's got!"
"But say, Earl, she's some good-looker, just the same, and O Ignatz! the
glad rags she must of bought for her wedding. Jever notice these low-cut
dresses and these thin shimmy-shirts she wears? I had a good squint at
'em when they were out on the line with the wash. And some ankles she's
Then Carol fled.
In her innocence she had not known that the whole town could discuss
even her garments, her body. She felt that she was being dragged naked
down Main Street.
The moment it was dusk she pulled down the window-shades, all the shades
flush with the sill, but beyond them she felt moist fleering eyes.
She remembered, and tried to forget, and remembered more sharply the
vulgar detail of her husband's having observed the ancient customs
of the land by chewing tobacco. She would have preferred a prettier
vice--gambling or a mistress. For these she might have found a luxury
of forgiveness. She could not remember any fascinatingly wicked hero of
fiction who chewed tobacco. She asserted that it proved him to be a man
of the bold free West. She tried to align him with the hairy-chested
heroes of the motion-pictures. She curled on the couch a pallid softness
in the twilight, and fought herself, and lost the battle. Spitting did
not identify him with rangers riding the buttes; it merely bound him to
Gopher Prairie--to Nat Hicks the tailor and Bert Tybee the bartender.
"But he gave it up for me. Oh, what does it matter! We're all filthy in
some things. I think of myself as so superior, but I do eat and digest,
I do wash my dirty paws and scratch. I'm not a cool slim goddess on
a column. There aren't any! He gave it up for me. He stands by me,
believing that every one loves me. He's the Rock of Ages--in a storm of
meanness that's driving me mad . . . it will drive me mad."
All evening she sang Scotch ballads to Kennicott, and when she noticed
that he was chewing an unlighted cigar she smiled maternally at his
She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations
which a thousand million women, dairy wenches and mischief-making
queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will
know hereafter), "Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying him?" She
quieted the doubt--without answering it.
Kennicott had taken her north to Lac-qui-Meurt, in the Big Woods. It was
the entrance to a Chippewa Indian reservation, a sandy settlement among
Norway pines on the shore of a huge snow-glaring lake. She had her first
sight of his mother, except the glimpse at the wedding. Mrs. Kennicott
had a hushed and delicate breeding which dignified her woodeny
over-scrubbed cottage with its worn hard cushions in heavy rockers.
She had never lost the child's miraculous power of wonder. She asked
questions about books and cities. She murmured:
"Will is a dear hard-working boy but he's inclined to be too serious,
and you've taught him how to play. Last night I heard you both laughing
about the old Indian basket-seller, and I just lay in bed and enjoyed
Carol forgot her misery-hunting in this solidarity of family life.
She could depend upon them; she was not battling alone. Watching Mrs.
Kennicott flit about the kitchen she was better able to translate
Kennicott himself. He was matter-of-fact, yes, and incurably mature. He
didn't really play; he let Carol play with him. But he had his mother's
genius for trusting, her disdain for prying, her sure integrity.
From the two days at Lac-qui-Meurt Carol drew confidence in herself,
and she returned to Gopher Prairie in a throbbing calm like those golden
drugged seconds when, because he is for an instant free from pain, a
sick man revels in living.
A bright hard winter day, the wind shrill, black and silver clouds
booming across the sky, everything in panicky motion during the brief
light. They struggled against the surf of wind, through deep snow.
Kennicott was cheerful. He hailed Loren Wheeler, "Behave yourself while
I been away?" The editor bellowed, "B' gosh you stayed so long that
all your patients have got well!" and importantly took notes for the
Dauntless about their journey. Jackson Elder cried, "Hey, folks! How's
tricks up North?" Mrs. McGanum waved to them from her porch.
"They're glad to see us. We mean something here. These people are
satisfied. Why can't I be? But can I sit back all my life and be
satisfied with 'Hey, folks'? They want shouts on Main Street, and I want
violins in a paneled room. Why----?"
Vida Sherwin ran in after school a dozen times. She was tactful,
torrentially anecdotal. She had scuttled about town and plucked
compliments: Mrs. Dr. Westlake had pronounced Carol a "very sweet,
bright, cultured young woman," and Brad Bemis, the tinsmith at Clark's
Hardware Store, had declared that she was "easy to work for and awful
easy to look at."
But Carol could not yet take her in. She resented this outsider's
knowledge of her shame. Vida was not too long tolerant. She hinted,
"You're a great brooder, child. Buck up now. The town's quit criticizing
you, almost entirely. Come with me to the Thanatopsis Club. They
have some of the BEST papers, and current-events discussions--SO
In Vida's demands Carol felt a compulsion, but she was too listless to
It was Bea Sorenson who was really her confidante.
However charitable toward the Lower Classes she may have thought
herself, Carol had been reared to assume that servants belong to
a distinct and inferior species. But she discovered that Bea was
extraordinarily like girls she had loved in college, and as a companion
altogether superior to the young matrons of the Jolly Seventeen. Daily
they became more frankly two girls playing at housework. Bea artlessly
considered Carol the most beautiful and accomplished lady in the
country; she was always shrieking, "My, dot's a swell hat!" or, "Ay
t'ink all dese ladies yoost die when dey see how elegant you do your
hair!" But it was not the humbleness of a servant, nor the hypocrisy of
a slave; it was the admiration of Freshman for Junior.
They made out the day's menus together. Though they began with
propriety, Carol sitting by the kitchen table and Bea at the sink or
blacking the stove, the conference was likely to end with both of them
by the table, while Bea gurgled over the ice-man's attempt to kiss her,
or Carol admitted, "Everybody knows that the doctor is lots more clever
than Dr. McGanum." When Carol came in from marketing, Bea plunged into
the hall to take off her coat, rub her frostied hands, and ask, "Vos
dere lots of folks up-town today?"
This was the welcome upon which Carol depended.
Through her weeks of cowering there was no change in her surface life.
No one save Vida was aware of her agonizing. On her most despairing
days she chatted to women on the street, in stores. But without
the protection of Kennicott's presence she did not go to the Jolly
Seventeen; she delivered herself to the judgment of the town only when
she went shopping and on the ritualistic occasions of formal afternoon
calls, when Mrs. Lyman Cass or Mrs. George Edwin Mott, with clean gloves
and minute handkerchiefs and sealskin card-cases and countenances of
frozen approbation, sat on the edges of chairs and inquired, "Do you
find Gopher Prairie pleasing?" When they spent evenings of social
profit-and-loss at the Haydocks' or the Dyers' she hid behind Kennicott,
playing the simple bride.
Now she was unprotected. Kennicott had taken a patient to Rochester
for an operation. He would be away for two or three days. She had not
minded; she would loosen the matrimonial tension and be a fanciful girl
for a time. But now that he was gone the house was listeningly empty.
Bea was out this afternoon--presumably drinking coffee and talking about
"fellows" with her cousin Tina. It was the day for the monthly supper
and evening-bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, but Carol dared not go.
She sat alone.
THE house was haunted, long before evening. Shadows slipped down the
walls and waited behind every chair.
Did that door move?
No. She wouldn't go to the Jolly Seventeen. She hadn't energy enough to
caper before them, to smile blandly at Juanita's rudeness. Not today.
But she did want a party. Now! If some one would come in this afternoon,
some one who liked her--Vida or Mrs. Sam Clark or old Mrs. Champ Perry
or gentle Mrs. Dr. Westlake. Or Guy Pollock! She'd telephone----
No. That wouldn't be it. They must come of themselves.
Perhaps they would.
She'd have tea ready, anyway. If they came--splendid. If not--what did
she care? She wasn't going to yield to the village and let down; she was
going to keep up a belief in the rite of tea, to which she had always
looked forward as the symbol of a leisurely fine existence. And it would
be just as much fun, even if it was so babyish, to have tea by herself
and pretend that she was entertaining clever men. It would!
She turned the shining thought into action. She bustled to the kitchen,
stoked the wood-range, sang Schumann while she boiled the kettle, warmed
up raisin cookies on a newspaper spread on the rack in the oven. She
scampered up-stairs to bring down her filmiest tea-cloth. She arranged
a silver tray. She proudly carried it into the living-room and set it on
the long cherrywood table, pushing aside a hoop of embroidery, a volume
of Conrad from the library, copies of the Saturday Evening Post, the
Literary Digest, and Kennicott's National Geographic Magazine.
She moved the tray back and forth and regarded the effect. She shook
her head. She busily unfolded the sewing-table set it in the bay-window,
patted the tea-cloth to smoothness, moved the tray. "Some time I'll have
a mahogany tea-table," she said happily.
She had brought in two cups, two plates. For herself, a straight chair,
but for the guest the big wing-chair, which she pantingly tugged to the
She had finished all the preparations she could think of. She sat and
waited. She listened for the door-bell, the telephone. Her eagerness was
stilled. Her hands drooped.
Surely Vida Sherwin would hear the summons.
She glanced through the bay-window. Snow was sifting over the ridge
of the Howland house like sprays of water from a hose. The wide
yards across the street were gray with moving eddies. The black trees
shivered. The roadway was gashed with ruts of ice.
She looked at the extra cup and plate. She looked at the wing-chair. It
was so empty.
The tea was cold in the pot. With wearily dipping fingertip she tested
it. Yes. Quite cold. She couldn't wait any longer.
The cup across from her was icily clean, glisteningly empty.
Simply absurd to wait. She poured her own cup of tea. She sat and stared
at it. What was it she was going to do now? Oh yes; how idiotic; take a
lump of sugar.
She didn't want the beastly tea.
She was springing up. She was on the couch, sobbing.
She was thinking more sharply than she had for weeks.
She reverted to her resolution to change the town--awaken it, prod it,
"reform" it. What if they were wolves instead of lambs? They'd eat her
all the sooner if she was meek to them. Fight or be eaten. It was easier
to change the town completely than to conciliate it! She could not take
their point of view; it was a negative thing; an intellectual squalor;
a swamp of prejudices and fears. She would have to make them take hers.
She was not a Vincent de Paul, to govern and mold a people. What of
that? The tiniest change in their distrust of beauty would be the
beginning of the end; a seed to sprout and some day with thickening
roots to crack their wall of mediocrity. If she could not, as she
desired, do a great thing nobly and with laughter, yet she need not be
content with village nothingness. She would plant one seed in the blank
Was she just? Was it merely a blank wall, this town which to three
thousand and more people was the center of the universe? Hadn't she,
returning from Lac-qui-Meurt, felt the heartiness of their greetings?
No. The ten thousand Gopher Prairies had no monopoly of greetings and
friendly hands. Sam Clark was no more loyal than girl librarians she
knew in St. Paul, the people she had met in Chicago. And those others
had so much that Gopher Prairie complacently lacked--the world of gaiety
and adventure, of music and the integrity of bronze, of remembered
mists from tropic isles and Paris nights and the walls of Bagdad, of
industrial justice and a God who spake not in doggerel hymns.
One seed. Which seed it was did not matter. All knowledge and freedom
were one. But she had delayed so long in finding that seed. Could she
do something with this Thanatopsis Club? Or should she make her house
so charming that it would be an influence? She'd make Kennicott like
poetry. That was it, for a beginning! She conceived so clear a picture
of their bending over large fair pages by the fire (in a non-existent
fireplace) that the spectral presences slipped away. Doors no longer
moved; curtains were not creeping shadows but lovely dark masses in the
dusk; and when Bea came home Carol was singing at the piano which she
had not touched for many days.
Their supper was the feast of two girls. Carol was in the dining-room,
in a frock of black satin edged with gold, and Bea, in blue gingham and
an apron, dined in the kitchen; but the door was open between, and
Carol was inquiring, "Did you see any ducks in Dahl's window?" and Bea
chanting, "No, ma'am. Say, ve have a svell time, dis afternoon. Tina she
have coffee and knackebrod, and her fella vos dere, and ve yoost laughed
and laughed, and her fella say he vos president and he going to make
me queen of Finland, and Ay stick a fedder in may hair and say Ay bane
going to go to var--oh, ve vos so foolish and ve LAUGH so!"
When Carol sat at the piano again she did not think of her husband but
of the book-drugged hermit, Guy Pollock. She wished that Pollock would
"If a girl really kissed him, he'd creep out of his den and be human. If
Will were as literate as Guy, or Guy were as executive as Will, I think
I could endure even Gopher Prairie. It's so hard to mother Will. I
could be maternal with Guy. Is that what I want, something to mother, a
man or a baby or a town? I WILL have a baby. Some day. But to have him
isolated here all his receptive years----
"And so to bed.
"Have I found my real level in Bea and kitchen-gossip?
"Oh, I do miss you, Will. But it will be pleasant to turn over in bed as
often as I want to, without worrying about waking you up.
"Am I really this settled thing called a 'married woman'? I feel
so unmarried tonight. So free. To think that there was once a Mrs.
Kennicott who let herself worry over a town called Gopher Prairie when
there was a whole world outside it!
"Of course Will is going to like poetry."
A black February day. Clouds hewn of ponderous timber weighing down
on the earth; an irresolute dropping of snow specks upon the trampled
wastes. Gloom but no veiling of angularity. The lines of roofs and
sidewalks sharp and inescapable.
The second day of Kennicott's absence.
She fled from the creepy house for a walk. It was thirty below zero;
too cold to exhilarate her. In the spaces between houses the wind caught
her. It stung, it gnawed at nose and ears and aching cheeks, and she
hastened from shelter to shelter, catching her breath in the lee of a
barn, grateful for the protection of a billboard covered with ragged
posters showing layer under layer of paste-smeared green and streaky
The grove of oaks at the end of the street suggested Indians, hunting,
snow-shoes, and she struggled past the earth-banked cottages to the
open country, to a farm and a low hill corrugated with hard snow. In
her loose nutria coat, seal toque, virginal cheeks unmarked by lines of
village jealousies, she was as out of place on this dreary hillside as
a scarlet tanager on an ice-floe. She looked down on Gopher Prairie. The
snow, stretching without break from streets to devouring prairie beyond,
wiped out the town's pretense of being a shelter. The houses were black
specks on a white sheet. Her heart shivered with that still loneliness
as her body shivered with the wind.
She ran back into the huddle of streets, all the while protesting that
she wanted a city's yellow glare of shop-windows and restaurants, or the
primitive forest with hooded furs and a rifle, or a barnyard warm and
steamy, noisy with hens and cattle, certainly not these dun houses,
these yards choked with winter ash-piles, these roads of dirty snow and
clotted frozen mud. The zest of winter was gone. Three months more, till
May, the cold might drag on, with the snow ever filthier, the weakened
body less resistent. She wondered why the good citizens insisted on
adding the chill of prejudice, why they did not make the houses of their
spirits more warm and frivolous, like the wise chatterers of Stockholm
She circled the outskirts of the town and viewed the slum of "Swede
Hollow." Wherever as many as three houses are gathered there will be a
slum of at least one house. In Gopher Prairie, the Sam Clarks boasted,
"you don't get any of this poverty that you find in cities--always
plenty of work--no need of charity--man got to be blame shiftless if he
don't get ahead." But now that the summer mask of leaves and grass was
gone, Carol discovered misery and dead hope. In a shack of thin boards
covered with tar-paper she saw the washerwoman, Mrs. Steinhof, working
in gray steam. Outside, her six-year-old boy chopped wood. He had a torn
jacket, muffler of a blue like skimmed milk. His hands were covered with
red mittens through which protruded his chapped raw knuckles. He halted
to blow on them, to cry disinterestedly.
A family of recently arrived Finns were camped in an abandoned stable. A
man of eighty was picking up lumps of coal along the railroad.
She did not know what to do about it. She felt that these independent
citizens, who had been taught that they belonged to a democracy, would
resent her trying to play Lady Bountiful.
She lost her loneliness in the activity of the village industries--the
railroad-yards with a freight-train switching, the wheat-elevator,
oil-tanks, a slaughter-house with blood-marks on the snow, the creamery
with the sleds of farmers and piles of milk-cans, an unexplained stone
hut labeled "Danger--Powder Stored Here." The jolly tombstone-yard,
where a utilitarian sculptor in a red calfskin overcoat whistled as
he hammered the shiniest of granite headstones. Jackson Elder's small
planing-mill, with the smell of fresh pine shavings and the burr of
circular saws. Most important, the Gopher Prairie Flour and Milling
Company, Lyman Cass president. Its windows were blanketed with
flour-dust, but it was the most stirring spot in town. Workmen were
wheeling barrels of flour into a box-car; a farmer sitting on sacks of
wheat in a bobsled argued with the wheat-buyer; machinery within the
mill boomed and whined, water gurgled in the ice-freed mill-race.
The clatter was a relief to Carol after months of smug houses. She
wished that she could work in the mill; that she did not belong to the
caste of professional-man's-wife.
She started for home, through the small slum. Before a tar-paper shack,
at a gateless gate, a man in rough brown dogskin coat and black plush
cap with lappets was watching her. His square face was confident,
his foxy mustache was picaresque. He stood erect, his hands in his
side-pockets, his pipe puffing slowly. He was forty-five or -six,
"How do, Mrs. Kennicott," he drawled.
She recalled him--the town handyman, who had repaired their furnace at
the beginning of winter.
"Oh, how do you do," she fluttered.